Clippings From an Old Man’s Life

(Hungarian countryside, 1945)

I sit close to the bobbing, chocolate landscape of the horses’ backs, their ears little tents way up ahead. Long tails dance to the roll of haunches, one swinging just a touch faster than the other, but there are magical moments of synchrony.

My parents are sitting somewhere at the back of the wagon. We are separated by a stack of fellow travellers—all refugees from city to country. From time to time I hear my parents’ voices calling and I yell back that I’m fine.

The horses’ tails salute, smartly heralding tumbles of steaming buns.

A broad spread of goose fat on bread—a salt and pepper garden—blooms, floats, spins in my mind. I am very hungry.

Our waggoner sports a double-barrelled shotgun of a nose plugged with a nasty cold. An impeccable marksman, his projectiles never fail to miss the people slogging beside us on the soggy, autumn fields. He is a marvel.

I look down at the pedestrians; even tall men in hats and boots are below me. Some of them have little kids attached to their shoulders. We leave them behind only to catch up with wobbly strings of others. And because the road is narrow and so crowded, the wagons following us don’t have a prayer to get ahead of us; we are number one! Trucks full of soldiers spray past us, forcing people further into the mud. But trucks don’t count (in the race) because wagons belong to the motorless category.

I am hungry and happy. After bunker-hunting for a while, my mother found me just outside of Budapest, and my dad had made it back from the labour-camp in Russia where he worked as a “neutralizer” of land mines that he said looked like stocky turtles. Here we are now, all three of us, behind the two best horses in the world, making our getaway from a city of rubble, rats, and corpses, to the countryside that everybody says is full of parsnips and tomatoes and cows, and we won’t have to skip celebrating yet another one of my birthdays. I’ll be six years old.

Listening to the Blues
(Budapest, 1945–1948)

My mother sits on the edge of her bed, trembling, her pale neck extended toward the green glow of the radio, toward the voice, her eyes imploring, conjuring. Each evening the voice reels off a long list of the names of returnees. Each day the list gets shorter. She addresses my father who is leaning against the door of her room.

“Gyuri, what is going to happen? If Dénes doesn’t come home, I’ll die too. I know.” My father’s knuckles crack, he groans.

“Oh, darling, I know you love him too. Don’t you? My only brother! I am going to kill myself.”

“Magda, if I managed to come home, he’s bound to come home too. He’ll appear at the door sooner than you think. Have faith. Have faith in…God.”

After there are no more names, my mother keeps listening. She bewails the authorities’ “conspiracy of silence,” negligence and heartlessness, their criminal attitude, their anti-Semitism. After a while, she stops complaining. She listens in silence. She switches the radio off a couple of minutes after the news, takes her sleeping pills, and sleeps. The big blue carpet breathes with her in the dark.

Cool Valley
(Budapest, 1952)

We are sitting on the crest of a limestone bluff high over Cool Valley, Budapest, taking in the toy-like streetcars, trucks, the rare car. Even the huge red star atop the spire of the old monastery is a distant dot. (The military moved into the building shortly after the war.) It is the season of clear light, swirling leaves, and the death of Stalin. Allegedly, our eyrie perches over a scattering of mines and grenades still waiting. But way up here, we are in control.

Gingerly, Józsi’s fingers peel the newspaper wrapping off a small bundle of real toilet paper. It takes courage to spirit the genuine article from under your family’s behinds chafed red by years of selections torn from the People’s Voice, the only newspaper in town. We collect some dead leaves, the crisper the better, pulverize them, summon some saliva, roll our cigarettes, and light up.

Every male smokes. My father, my favourite teacher, Soviet movie stars, the old janitor who taught me how to deal with a hammer and nails, and Zoltan, of course, our only school chum who’d gotten laid so far. Or so he says.

It feels like breathing needles. In convulsive gusts, my virgin lungs hack out the murderous alien.

The others study me, glance down at the brown lump in my lap, then look away. Down at Cool Valley. They’re smoking.

Stalin smoked. Cigars.

In the Old Winery
(Lake Balaton, Hungary, 1954)

Bold bush, breasts like deep pockets stuffed with soft things, Aunt Manyi stands by the wooden tub. She is having a sponge bath. Her meaty leg propped up on a stool is almost as pale as the soapsuds dripping from it onto the stone floor. The whitewashed wall behind her is a thought paler. The waist-ward rush of her black hair, which for me until now was a most intricate, immutable bun, is wonderful to behold. The morning light gilds the defiant tangle below her navel.

Owner of wet dreams, I am insulted. Does she think I am sexless? Asleep? That it makes no difference? Or that it does?

She straightens her torso, lifting her damp hair free of her back. There is a blurred scimitar poised over her shoulder on the wall, a rugged scar. It is an enormous centipede.

And suddenly Aunt Manyi is beyond my reach; she belongs to it. Stippled with soap bubbles, her naked shoulder is about to brush against its long, ridged back.

(Budapest, 1954–1955)

“It’s a class project about dream interpretation, Mom.” Hopefully that would explain the mural to my mother, and I’d make sure that dreams, good or bad, invented whenever necessary, would serve as decoys.

I started inscribing the Xs and the skulls on the strip of wall next to my mattress three days after my fitfully alert mother spotted the stains on the sheets and asked my father to talk to me man to man.

For a moment my father cupped his head in his hands and a stern little smile passed over his face. “Masturbation hijacks your libido, son. You won’t do well with the girls. Don’t you want to do well? With the girls?” Thus he spoke before turning back to his texts of biochemistry.

Three nights in a row, and I was convinced that I was a helpless, hopeless outcast who would end up jumping—suicide was not unknown in the family. And that’s when I designed my undercover calendar: X—I didn’t, skull—I did.

Sweat in the moist dark. No. No! Sleep. Go to sleep. Now. Need the rest or you will flunk the science test tomorrow.

Oh, please! Oh, Agnes! Are you naked? A single ceiling separates our beds. Are you asleep? What are you wearing? Squeeze your breasts together for me, Agnes.

Oh, Emilia, tall and slender, the swirl of your hair above me. You’re a saint! Open… oh, oh.

Don’t you want to do well with the girls? Well with the girls? The girls. The skulls would nod me into midnight.

(Budapest, 1956)

Wood bounces and rolls this way and that on the cellar floor of our apartment house. Our shovels scrape against concrete, plunge under coal, as my father and I manhandle the briquettes from the back wall out to the centre of our storage locker. We drop our shovels at last and stand up to stretch our backs. The black cone of coal breathes dust at us.

I stand against the sooty wall while my father stacks the wood. Sometimes he pushes the pieces too far, but I do not complain. This is too important. Sometimes he prods me on purpose.

“Now, son, move two steps to your right. Be careful, dammit! Small steps. Press your body into the wall, please. Don’t stick your chest out!”

Fitting, bracing, realigning, cursing, we create a slice of sequestered air, a crude little closet made of chopped firewood, backed by a concrete wall.

Finally, a “door” is devised; I should be able to remove and replace three un-split stumps, without chunks of wood raining down on me, making enough noise to wake the dead. Then, under my father’s relentless eye, I rehearse: open the “door”, crawl in, stand—and the reverse. He orders me to do it once more. Twice.

Other families shovel, heap, and stack until it is time for the teenagers to test their own improvised blinds. Rumour has it that the Russians are under orders to round up the young ones and take them away.

Moth-like, my mother flutters the length of the cellar. She presses her ear to the massive fire door at the other end, then wends her way back, shaking her head—No boots yet—at each open locker door she passes. Her gesture of reassurance grows more vehement the closer she gets to us. I am glad our finicky burrowing is nearly done. My mother’s head is practically spinning free of her shoulders.

A Chink in the Wall
(Vienna, 1957)

Only sideways traffic among the metal cots and starved mattresses. Bare bulbs over bare floors. Cobwebs have colonized the roof joists. Privacy only through the civility of eyes. Terrifying toilets. Elevators out of bounds for people in the attic, the ladder-like back stairs made for elite, adolescent legs like mine. This is improvised refugee land in the attic of an old hotel. Pigeons are outraged when we push the massive skylight open to let Vienna in.

Room F is for families—two to three generations. Such as my parents and me.

Room E is for single adults and couples.

Hip-hip-hurrah! I finally find a chink in the wall dividing the two rooms. But damn! It’s too late: the diaspora starts tomorrow—departure for territories far-and-wide, distant lands as ignorant of us as we are of them.

But the peephole informs my right eye that we are not too late. Behind a honeycomb of cots, the bather stands in a tiny bathtub, soaping her belly and her breasts. (The dark nipples still poke at me through half a century.) Pale suds travel down her thighs. Her flesh is light as rising air, her movements unhurried, self-indulgent, pensive, as if she were alone, not surrounded by displaced men. This is her last, her magic bath before entry into the unknown.

Is everyone else in Room E sleeping? Hell, I don’t think I would be. Wrapped in coarse, grey blankets, are they all asleep? An arm’s reach away from me a man’s strong, unshaven jaw dents his pillow. What he would see if he opened his eyes is the bald head of his next-bed neighbour.

Am I the only one looking?

The Net
(Toronto, 1958)

Hairnets are light, so light that the bar doesn’t budge when it’s dropped on the scale, so collapsible nobody notices it nestled in your shirt pocket over your heart. Gossamer, spider’s weave, miniature fishing net.

Hairnets cost a dime in the late fifties when I grunted and groaned under my adolescent years—years that heaved around me. Body-checking years.

My hair curled like crazy from the time my mother crooned Baby!—a baroque baby, I was, my very hair genes in whirls, blond ringlets singing like flowers.

“You were so gorgeous!” my mother assured me. No, not now, you poor thing, your hair as if scared straight by rulers, a few rebellious kinks giving this culture the finger. As if pimples weren’t enough.

Cowlicks were tragic. How could I tell my teachers the truth when I was late for school?

Brush cuts meant war, lice, and turpentine where I came from, so at Churchill High a net had to be called in because “DISPLACED PERSON, WE WASPS DO IT THIS WAY. Short. If long, nice and straight. Curls are taboo, stranger.”

Although they didn’t say it that way.

I loathed my DP wool as they did the weeds on their lawns. The net was my wet hair’s overnight love while I dreamt of a well-ironed day.

“My god, Yanosh! You look, my god, you look like, I don’t know—like somebody important.Distinguished is the word,” my mother said one evening after my freshly-washed hair, as it was drying, sprung free, a full uprising.

The tap and the net had to be called in. I lay in my bed, looking at the walls, the ceiling, the walls.

Apartment Hunting
(Welland, Ontario, 1978)

My wife and I split and I see myself plunge into loneliness and poverty.

And the kids?

Will they like my offerings—hikes through quiet pockets of woods, narrow stretches of beach, the little caves? Will they prefer them to hers: a rich clutch of relatives? Stability? Solid mothering?

My children pound on the doors of my heart. Hers is so much more normal, more spacious. And she still owns a key to mine.

Strategies of kidnapping tick in my brain.

On a day when the clouds look like weapons, I drag myself from house to house, tethered to gravity and a teetering resolve. If only I had the sang-froid to simply open gates, stride down dim hallways, and knock on the doors of strangers!

This apartment here. Even though right now it looks like a garage sale run amuck, it is bright and spacious. The old woman scatters monotone apologies. “Twenty-two years in this building. Can’t see much no more. My hands are a blur. Please don’t mind all the stuff around this place.” Behind her glasses, two enormous eyes. “Twenty-two years in this building. Nine of them alone. Ten? My husband… And Ronnie’s in Atlanta. I don’t know…”

The superintendent, standing behind me, snickers supportively.

I will buy a pullout couch and a grand futon for the kids. What a place! So I can still do things on my own. The windows face east, away from the road. Inspect the bathroom and I’m ready to close the deal.

Dark yellow piss grins at me from the toilet bowl. Blows me a kiss and winks.

The mad, muttering bitch! There’s the summary of her life—the hit and miss of liquids, the waste. And mine. This is a yield sign screaming STOP! Dori and Mike here? No way.

I know I can never flush this toilet. Mumbling excuses to the superintendent and the tenant, I back out through the narrow door.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
(Minden, Ontario, 1979)

From the quiet river, tall, thin poplars drift all the way up the slope to the flat, dirt driveway where my red Volkswagen is parked. Its clutch is in first and the hand brake is pulled tight. I wedged stones and pieces of firewood against the tires front and back, and rolled logs up against the wheels on the downhill side. Its right-side windows gaze down at the placid water—at least whatever they can see of it through the myriads of shuddering, achingly green poplar leaves.

I know that nothing short of an earthquake could dislodge my car, but yet, at the very core of my being, in my hammering heart, I feel that I must not turn my back, that I must keep concentrating on that vehicle squatting at the top of the hill, keep hypnotizing it, lest the car roll over sideways and come crashing, bouncing down the hill to burst into flames in the tent.

The trees, the topmost branches hanging from the twilit sky, are immensely interested in me; no matter where I plant myself, they lean my way. Their roots are flimsy and deceitful. How can I sleep in that tent, the epicentre of a lethal trap?

I retreat to my parents’ cabin, go to bed in the tiny room tucked farthest away from the outside door. If my wife and the children were up here now, she’d stay in the tent, keep the kids with her, and tell me to take extra medication. I look out the tiny window at rustling birch leaves and the black spire of a cedar tree. There is no way I would be able to get through that excuse for a window in case of an emergency.

My father—more and more forgetful—often toasts bread for his late night snacks. The toaster and the hot plate are almost as far away from me as the exit door. The other two windows between my wooden cage and the kitchen are also quite small, and high. There simply wouldn’t be enough time. Flames will roast me, starting at my feet, my shoulders wedged into the smashed window, my face inches away from a smouldering birch tree.

I dress, spray myself with Off, and despite my father’s alarmed protests, go out into the whip-poor-will dark and walk till dawn in a helmet of mosquitoes.

Sticks and Stones
(Fonthill, Ontario, 2007)

Three children confront me in that tight space between houses. “Leave our stuff alone!” they shout up at me, catapulting dirt into my face with sticks. They are trying to do me harm, me—their neighbour and friend—whom they happily ran up to only yesterday. I beat a retreat and rat on these kids, ages five to seven, to their parents who are chatting with friends, sipping wine on a multi-tiered deck.

A retired teacher, in my sixty-sixth year, I felt I did not deserve such ignominy and shame. I was stunned. Hadn’t I entertained them all summer long like they had never been entertained before? We fenced with ferns, wedged walnuts into our eye sockets, aimed all kinds of objects at all kinds of targets, except at each other. The trampoline erased all borders. They pounced upon and tumbled off the neighing horse (me) that pranced into their back yard. When a masked head broke into their backyard gingerbread home they screamed and ran, were ecstatic for minutes. Weren’t my antics, stiff salute-with-goose-step or doing a snow angel in the panting grass of July, better than just a hello? They welcomed me, these nomads, as they danced from the swing set to the trampoline to the flimsy rubber pool.

When that pool sprung leaks it was removed, leaving a bald patch, and that’s where the children dug, built, destroyed, built again, bringing rocks, bricks, branches, even bones. Warriors and dolls sat in a stone-and-can room. Flowerpots offered pebbles and tired clumps of clover to a Canada goose couple hulking in the company of foot-high castles and yurts made of twigs and rags.

After school started, I’d watch these little creators, in their land of short-lived oases, from behind our kitchen window. (My wife said I shouldn’t have retired.) Then, after a while, when they weren’t around, I’d venture out there and start shifting things—just a little, not much—just enough to snag their sprinting attention. The gander was no longer fully focused on guarding his munching mate; Barbie rode a rock instead of sprawling face down in the dirt. I’d smile to myself in anticipation; they would know who the modifier was, and soon I’d delight in their noisy, quizzical faces.

Then this. The angry dirt in my eyes. I’m not playing any more.

John Barta was born in Budapest in 1941 and escaped to the West after the Hungarian revolution. His short stories and poems have appeared in various publications including the Windsor Review, the New Quarterly, Event, Hammered Out, Ten Stories High, and The Saving Bannister.