prose

To Make The Dog Laugh

Olja Savičević Ivančević
Nasmijati psa, short stories, 132 pp., AGM, Croatia 2006

Nasmijati psa (To Make the Dog Laugh) is a collection of twenty-two short stories of different genres that deal with seemingly ordinary themes such as relationships between men and women, fringe groups, growing up, love, sickness, ageing and death. Savičević tells her stories with a casual precision, with sensitivity and sometimes spite, often with surprising turns or poetic flourishes, but she is always a master of observation. Ultimately there is a lot more to these "ordinary" stories than meets the eye.

"A colourful and bold book by a daring, imaginative author. The boisterous and unbridled style, vibrant with emotion, is topped off by many a beautiful ending. You put her down, glowing, and think: Wow! That's what you call literature."
Deutschlandfunk

"The Croatian writer Olja Savičević enshrouds our senses with her captivating short stories about breast cancer, anorexia and enslavement. She does not deliberately evoke the gravity of these issues, yet they creep into our consciousness. Suddenly we lost in this mesmerising mist and cannot escape. Nor do we want to."
blond



 

 

 

 

To Make The Dog Laugh

short story by Olja Savičević Ivančević
(translated by Tatjana Jambrišak)

 

 

A junkie's table is a circumstance. If in twenty four hours you bring everything you need to the table, without taking anything away, you get a junkie's table, even if there are no drugs on it, which is likely only in theory.

Not that we, my friend Belmondo and me, are any serious junkies. We are, so to speak, almost despised both by the addicts and the clean. Wusses for some, wastrels for the others.

I've no idea how it all started; with some grass, shit, an occasional weekend Lucy, or a few New Year's white or yellow happy dust lines. Perhaps we've been students for too long; the eighth year is running out, to tell you the truth. At some point we probably got used to the grass or we've just been smoking it for too long and realized that every action, besides the needful reaction, is needless.

The needful actions include: responding to bodily functions (including somehow the monthly supply of smoke), answering to certain telephone calls, sometimes even responding to questions if we feel like having a dialogue or the person really insists. Opening doors, just because the door bell keeps ringing; getting out of the bed nest and going to an exam, just because the alarm clock goes off, are definitely excluded.

A trip to the garbage bin or the closest store is a chore for the loser who fails miserably at cards. Usually, we pin this to an unsuspecting guest. We, a pair of cunning tricksters.

Actually, these two square meters contain everything you need: a stereo and a TV- set, playing cards; then food, mostly potato chips and ketchup, at better times some pasta with tuna or tomato sauce; drinks, naturally, then tobacco and comics and a box. This weed box, or actually the box for grass and rolling papers is never a simple, plain box; I've seen some really beautiful ones: gilded and round jewelry boxes, velvet etuis, ebony chests which go clank! when shut, tin boxes with an engraved southern flag or with a buxom blonde sticker as a hard-core variety. There are many boxes with pictures of bears holding hands, those happy sentinels of a carefree childhood; more or less wise, more or less foolish.

Our shared, lacquered box, left to us by the landlady, has a small black button for winding so that it plays eine kleine nachtmusik. It was stolen from us, with eight grams of MaryJane (of the Siberian tiger, even!) and a tab of hash inside, by an immoral heathen asshole whos remained undisclosed to this day.

For the time being we're using a red leather Valentino spectacles case someone's left behind.

 

People come and go, bring news, papers, sometimes even bread (good people), coffee, pepperoni and the like. Belmondo's friend, Ana Fucking Zoraja, came the day before yesterday, smoked a joint, twirled around the kitchen in her brown boots, brown hat and her ochre skirt. Zoraja knows: brown is in.

In our kitchen Ana Fucking Zoraja utters with her lips shaded brown by Margaret Astor 56:

- Awghaaad, maaan, yooou two're deraaaanged! Daaaammit, you'll grooooow a plaaaague in yooour kiiiiitchen!

Her lips and eyebrows move synchronously. I shouldn't have smoked skunk; it's like getting high on pure PMS. And that Zoraja; lips, eyebrows, leaches, vowel hyperextension.

Yet, Bel seems alive again, takes a wrinkled lemon from the fridge, squashing our only vitamin source for this unbelievable khaki-woman's lemonade.

- Haaave yooou aaany brooown suuugar?

Liiike heeell weee dooo.

- No, sorry. Come to think about it, we've no sugar at all – I am being polite.

- No problem, I'll go! – I hear a certain enthusiasm in my lethargic roomie's voice - the only skinny male to dig a hole in the sofa with his own ass - and I can't believe he's taking his jacket, putting on shoes and going out. He's going out. After twenty whole days. I'm sure he'd jump down the staircase in two leaps, if he didn't know my all-seeing third eye was following him.

So, here he comes back, in record time – Turbinado sugar, unrefined, in his hand. So, there is money. Interesting.

- Whose Boxer is that under the stairs?

 

It happened, let's repeat, the day before yesterday. Ana Fucking Zoraja drank up the quick lemonade with Turbinado unrefined sugar, picked up her brown bag and vanished:

- Juuust for a daaay, pleeease, maaan, until thaaat weeetch laaandlaaady leeeaves!

She left her Boxer bitch, Rio, with us. For twenty four hours. A dog wees (and poos) three times in twenty four hours. That means going out in the freezing cold three times. Three times. To think that she, Ana Fuckin' Zoraja, hasn't returned yet ... She's been gone for two and a half days, 3 x 2,5=7,5 ... meaning, seven and a half times ... How's that? How come? Hmm ... the freezing cold outside. Waiting until the bitch does her needful action, runs a wild circle around the block, dragging my already bluish body; a body unaccustomed to recreation; grannies with kids shouting that you should go to another park to walk the dog and, naturally, picking up all the animal's droppings. And dog food? You cook meat and rice and the green stuff 'cause this dog doesn't like Pedigree Pal, imagine that. Meat, rice and veggies, we might as well have a healthy dinner! Above our own standard.

 

Of course I spurned Bel at first; she's his friend, after all. Pleeease. I did not agree to babysit the dog, he did:

- Sure, babe, no worries, heh-heh-heh. We'll take care of her, heh-heh-heh.

 

Men are pathetic. Pleeease. Idiot.

 

And then we made a deal: he'd scrub the kitchen and I'd take Rio out every other time.

The kitchen's spotless, that is true. Only several cups with hardened coffee grounds have piled up in the sink. Rio is in the corner, salivating over the floor tiles. The sad-eyed Rio. The abandoned mutt. One would've expected Zoraja to have a more modern puppy, a Mops or something ...

- How can a breed be in fashion? That's bad, this season's hype is, dunno, a Pinch Dog or whatever. Afghan Hounds're not in, neither are Croatian Sheepdogs, but Dachshunds have stormed the city retro style! – I'm watching my room-mate who's opening the red Valentino case and taking out some rolling papers.

- Boxers've been out of fashion ... for years. Yeah, you're right, this bitch's not young. Those, whatsthename, Irish Setters and Cocker Spaniels used to be popular.

- When's the last time you've been out? Primary school? Those went out along with piaggio vespa scooters, the old models, and white pants and colored sneakers. Are you aware how long this's been out of fashion?

- Since before the cell phones.

- Since before the cell phones.

- Since before rave and hip-hop.

- Since before rave and ecstasy. And hip-hop.

- We were young. Children, actually.

- Kids.

- Before the war.

- Yup.

 

He's cutting shit. Crumbling Mary. Removing tobacco. Seasoning. Tutti-frutti.

- What if young Zoraja doesn't return, we'd have to take the dog out like this every day, three times? – Now he's thinking.

Young Zoraja? He makes me sick.

- 'Fess up you wanna bed her. In half an hour you showed more activity than in the last month!

- What else, when you don't wanna!? Not for years.

I inhale smoke. Forget it. I change the subject:

- Maybe we can teach the bitch to play cards?!

- Just you joke. A dog can do anything. Štulić had a laughing dog; there's that song, when the dog introduces him to a girl in the park.

- Wrong. Štulić had a smiling dog, Fante's little dog laughed.

- What?

- John Fante, you ignorant plug!

- Silly! I read one book every year and remember everything in detail. You're overdoing it. Why d'you read when you don't remember anything?

- I do. Some things I remember. This, for example. The story of a little smiling dog. Mentioned often, never written.

Bel was rolling the second joint, not caring much for some unwritten story. His hands shook a bit, but he was working hard as a bee. Industrious and dedicated. I've never learnt to roll. A parasite, me.

- Let's give Rio a smoke, maybe then she'd really smile?!

- Let the dog alone, we'll take a little walk now, the two of us ... She'd only cry over us. Look how sad the poor thing looks. Look at her eyes!

- Zoraja told me that once Rio looked her straight in the eyes and said: ma-ma. Figure this: ma-ma! Straight in her eyes! You don't believe it, because you've never had a dog. Remember how your cactus croaked because you'd forgotten to water it. You cactus dried up, silly! Had you taught him how to talk, he'd have asked for water and you'd be happy ever after!

- Let's go, Rio, let the gentleman have his fun! Get stoned well, counselor! And don't forget to water the fungi between your toes, that's the only thing you've ever grown! Perhaps they'd call you ma-ma!

- Bad frame of mind. Totally. You're degenerating mentally. I'm worried.

- Fuck off.

- Bad!

 

The fresh air dazed me more than the smoke. The bitch wagged its tail and dragged me behind her. I dangled unhappily at the leash. Is this the eighth or the eighth and a half time we've taken her out? How can that be? And a half?! What's with the other half? Math has nothing to do with the mind. Especially mine.

 

I am running and running after Rio through the pine trees, smashing against their soft ribs, without pain, until this dizzy slalom finally throws me on the warm and dry ground. Thud! It's winter, the ground is sprinkled with tiny pine needles, warm and dry and comfortable, comfortable under my face ...

 

I remember as I ... a long time ago. How could I've forgotten this? This moist tingling of the snout on my ear and cheek.

That dog, mine, our dog, the only one I've ever had, lived in the country with my mom's oldest sister.

- He's the strongest - my cousins said. - He is half wolf.

But he wasn't half wolf, just a good mutt, a large mongrel. An encounter with a badger took away one of his hind legs, and when we were leaving the village, my mom, dad, sister and me, he'd run after our old car for miles. On three legs through three villages. In the third village he'd stop and head back; there were some vicious dogs there. Village dogs attack in packs. Dogs belong to their villages!

At the beginning of the war my aunt died and people stopped coming to the village; it was too dangerous. Soldiers came, and the house, from which we'd watch large cotton snowflakes in some happier winters, was left behind just a pile of ash, covered in snow.

The poor mutt got wild. I've never understood how dogs get crazy. How much loneliness, how many lashes, hunger, bites, fear does it take to drive a dog mad? My uncle heard that the dog was slaughtering sheep. I picture it, the three-legged cur, a bear, sneaking among the sheep. Half wolf! No snarling, no noise; its incisors clasp around the grazing sheep. The sheep never flinches, never bleats until it topples down as a bloody ball of fleece while the dog guzzles its intestines. Still, I don't think that's ever happened in this way. The dog must've stormed the flock like a rabid beast, snarling, biting all around, legs, throats, and the sheep bleated and bleated and ran in circles, because a sheep never leaves its flock. It doesn't know how. Carnage, it must've been a real carnage, not a fight for survival, the food chain law and all that. One day my uncle sneaked into the village and shot the dog ...

 

How could I've forgotten? That moist tingling of a snout on my ear and cheek. Rio nuzzles me. Looking at me like a dog. Worried or just playful? Her hair is smooth under my palms, her body quiet, satisfied.

- Y'know, Rio, oh, well, you don't know anything, little puppy, that cactus didn't die because I forgot about it, but because I watered it every day. And if that Fucking Zoraja doesn't come, I'll take you in. Don't you worry about anything: you, me and that stoned ass! An ideal family!

The bitch looked me straight in the eyes. Straight in the eyes! Eh, don't. I'm not your ma-ma. Rio licked my forehead, wagged the tail and pulled the leash.

 

Belmondo was hurrying towards us; so funny being so tall and slim, wearing a much too large a jacket.

- Fuck almighty, where've you been? I thought something'd happened, and here, you two've been getting friendly. What d'ya know: you and the dog. You're full of surprises - I'd not be shocked if one day you'd have a baby, the way you set off!

- You've no idea! I've already had a dog, you know. And once I kept sheep and ...

- Hahaha, right, kept sheep ... and your past a secret. Though, from this side you do look a bit like a Li'l Bo Peep! A bit more blush and - a genuine one!

- A hillbilly, that's what you are!

- Me, a hillbilly? Ha-ha-ha, and who minded the sheep?! Aw, common, Li'l Bo, I'll make you some coffee. Zoraja called, asked us to mind Rio for a few more days, her landlady's not gone yet ...

- Did she say pleeease, 'cos, if she didn't - we're not doing it!

 

Bel laughs, puts his arm around my neck. We are going home. Arm under arm. Four feet. After them four paws. You wag your tail, I wag mine. So does the dog.

 

 

Translated by: Tatjana Jambrišak

 

 

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