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The Unlocked Man

 

Borderline

I was supposed to go down on Thursday, but I didn’t make it. It was already Sunday when I went to Kecskemét, and by then it was already too late. There was no time to say goodbye. Four people were standing around the body when I arrived. It was a sultry summer day, yet no one had opened the window, as if they were ashamed to acknowledge to each other the presence of the nauseating stench that only caused the tepid steam flooding into the room from the kitchen to spoil immediately.

Confused, I looked at him, thinking how the dead all look so much alike, even immediately after death – not to mention the similarity at a much later stage. Interestingly enough, I can no longer call forth the pain I felt then, or the seemingly urgent matter that caused my delay. I only recall the embarassment, the awkward shuffling behind the taciturn, shattered relatives. I stood in the same posture – hands clasped in front, with an empty gaze, as if during a ceremonious speech – as in the one time during my childhood when a yellow-faced old lady, who had suddenly died, was laid out on a bench on the platform of the Budapest metro. That was an old lady, this was an old man. Or rather it was no one, an unoccupied house, a vacant puppet: the soul has returned to its home.

There was a difference of sixty years between us. When I had last seen him alive, three weeks before this last visit, both postponed and final, he could barely speak. Interestingly, as if in parallel to his protracted and then ever-quickening disintegration, a sense of decay came to pervade the house and garden as well. The same lace doilies lay on the tables, the red kitchen stool still propped open the front door, and yet it seemed that something had changed: the discreet choreography of comings and goings was different, and so was the taste of the food, the dirt collected in the bends of the silverware, the strange odour in all the rooms. And particularly in his. He lay in an adjustable, metal-framed hospital bed, covered with a plaid blanket. I was surprised at how small his body was, his contours sharp as splinters; yet his speech was the opposite of this, lax and dissolving, as if the words were losing their outlines. He communicated through his gaze alone, his moist eyes, glittering and blue, grown huge.
— How long can you stay?
At last I understood what he was asking. I didn’t want to lean down any further, disturbed by the smell of medicine and talcum powder, by the spittle at the corners of his mouth; I did not want to see his skull glimmering through the skin of the scalp from up close.
I can’t stay – I shook my head.
He closed his eyes as if reflecting on the response. I never stayed over, always coming down in the morning and returning with the evening train. I didn’t understand why he was asking, as if he didn’t know that I had to go back.

Then, suddenly, he looked up and motioned for me to lean closer. I got up from the chair, held my ear close to his mouth. What I heard was completely impossible. At first I only discerned the rhythm of the sentence, something like “Please bless me”, but then as I looked at his face and saw his eyes, I suddenly grasped that he had really uttered what I had heard.
Please kiss me.
I stood above him, stooped over in an awkward pose, while he gripped my lower arm with a covetous, otherworldly strength. I straightened up, detached his hand from my arm, and sat back down.

With no reply, like someone who had never heard the request.

There were sixty years between us; he could have been my grandfather. And in a certain sense he was: I listened to his stories, admired his pictures, stalked his praise. Now, sitting beside him, embarrassed and horrified, I stared out of the windows. Jesus Christ, what did he want. I was twenty years old, ignorant, haughty, only half an adult. I didn’t understand what he was expecting: that he would have liked a kiss of farewell, that we were standing on the platform where in a few minutes he would be setting off; that he wasn’t asking for a kiss from a woman, not even from me, but rather from the realm of the living – in his preparation for death wishing to receive one final gift, something miraculously impossible, and as it turned out, it happened to be from me.

In the meantime, Auntie Edit came in. She patted down the pillow next to his head, pulled the blanket up higher, asked if he wanted the window opened. My little sweetie – that is what she called the old man, which even earlier had struck me as bizarre. Now, it was little short of painful – because if she, his wife, were like a mother to this tiny, diseased, ancient body, then what was I? I squirmed like someone caught doing something wrong. I knew little about their relationship, even less about separation, and much too little to suspect that she would have liked the same thing. For a very long time, they had been two people living in one body, yet now one was lying in the bed and the other was heading into the dining room to set the table and bring out the steaming tureen of soup.

We all dipped our spoons into the soup in silence. As I stared into my bowl, I immediately realized that something was very wrong. But I didn’t dare to speak – quite simply, I couldn’t. Sweat broke out on my forehead, my stomach heaved, and I tried to stir the soup so that the tiny maggots swimming around on the surface would remain trapped in the whirlpool, outside of the spoon. It didn’t work – one or two always stayed inside the spoon – and it would have been painful to fish them out with my fingers. My God.

– What’s wrong, darling, you’re not hungry?

After that, I only remember searching for the toilet cord, gazing at the encrusted yellowish streaks as I tried to puke the death out of me, puke out the scent of medicinal herbs and beef broth. I was speaking to myself as I leaned my head against the wall, no problem, it’s nothing really, only because I had to get up so early and then all the traveling.

Then, I’m standing in another washroom, in front of me is a mirror in a white frame, and I’m looking at my face in it, now fifteen years older, as I lower the towel. I’m thirty-five now, I know something about birth and death though it’s frighteningly little, at least that is what I feel now, and that is why I had to wash my face with cold water: to keep from crying.

My friend has died.

His death was long and difficult; he growing ever smaller while the child at my side became ever bigger and bigger.

Don’t describe that tiny lower body wrapped in a diaper.

He is lying there now in the other room, his lover sitting beside him – or rather, his lovers, they sit there and hold his hands, stroke his forehead. I walk back to the divan, the girl sitting on the left is crying. I sit down, I look, saying my farewells from within. The girl indicates for me to take his hand; it’s already cold, yet his armpit is still warm, his soul is nesting there, the place of its final refuge before its ultimate journey. There it is at home. And indeed, I do hold my hand there, gently, as if the figure we’re seated around were merely asleep: yet the sleeping body is uninhabited, the soul has returned to its home. We were contemporaries: it could have been me lying there, but I’m still alive, I’m alive, and I have a little boy, I have a son, a son.

He is four years old. I crouch down in front of him to hear what he has to say. For some reason, he calls the homeless “unlocked people.” Every morning, when we walk through the underpass at Blaha Lujza tér, he looks at the wheezing, tormented, reeking bodies on the flattened sheets of cardboard. I can see that it pains him, that he feels something is wrong, although the sight is a regular part of his life – so much so that we usually stop in the morning to chat with Robi, the one who scavenges in the rubbish binds near our house.

– Why unlocked? I asked.

Hordes of people are making their way through the underpass; I squat in front of him as they nearly sweep us away. He thinks for a while.

Because they don’t have a lock – he answers.

I understand. I stand back up and we go on. They have no lock, nothing which could be locked up, they don’t even have a door; consequently, not even a house into which this non-existent door could lead. I’m not sure that this is how my son understands it, but he doesn’t want to discuss it anymore; the lock is now on his mouth. My little sweetie.

Every morning we meet Robi; around eight o’clock he is busily working by the skip. Robi is in a wheelchair; he maneuvers himself towards the container’s edge, then when he is close enough, lunges forward, pushing up the lid and clambering up with his two sinewy arms, right up out of the wheelchair. Robi, put bluntly, has no legs. His shoulders are colossally broad; with the upper half of one arm he clings to the side of the skip, with the other, he forages through it. Whatever he finds, he flings out onto the ground, then later on rummages through the pile with his cane to see if there is anything useful in it. He hangs on to the container’s rim for a minute or two, and then, exhausted, thuds back into the wheelchair, his arm shaking. At times, when he raises himself, the stumps where his legs once were flash out. The back of his trousers is stained; clearly he cannot always clamber down in time. Once in the summer, when the caretaker had washed out the skips and they were drying with their lids open, I took out the cat litter. The wheel chair was there, but I didn’t see Robi. As I leaned in, I suddenly recoiled from the moist vaporous stench. Robi was standing there inside, or rather he would have been standing if he had had something to stand on. In other words, he was completely inside the container, leafing through old issues of Playboy. I nearly dumped the litter right onto his head. Frightened, I asked him what he was doing there, while he, in the most natural of voices and without even looking up, answered that he was reading.

Can you get out? – I asked. He looked up at me with such scorn that I turned red: he had no way of knowing, but what was racing through my head at that moment was that I should snap a picture, as quickly as possible. Legless man in Dumpster. This could be a nice place to settle down, he added, as he rummaged through more newspapers. I pictured it: a dumpster with a lock.

This happened during the summer; now it is chilly autumn, the sidewalks covered with leaves. I look at the wheels of the wheelchair; since yesterday, something has changed. Robi has tied scraps of hot-pink and neon-green shoelace to the spokes, which melt into colourful streaks as he rolls himself around. It must have been a lot of work, but it was worth the effort. My son really likes it; he waves to Robi for a long time. I greet him as well, and in the meantime I keep thinking about his face, about his colouring: how much it reminds me of someone. Or of something. Yes, that’s it – the face of the old man, dead; his yellow skull. Robi’s face is a death mask: before long, he will be dead, certainly before winter sets in.

On Friday, I have to travel to Kecskemét. I haven’t been there for years, not even once since the Old Man died. And yet, on the train, I feel that I’m going to see him. The landscape is autumnal; crows circle, fog hovers over the empty fields. And as I watch the changing browns and greys, the thick smoke swirling forth from somewhere, I’m thinking about where the border lies: is there a border between life and non-life, between life and death; is there one single definitive zone – I think about the living and the dead, about how I have really learned nothing, only growing older across the years; and what happened to that haughtiness of mine, what remained in its place, what is there that has remained unchanged, so that even now I would refuse to kiss the one setting off on the journey.

On the way back, I miss the afternoon train, and have to wait hours for the next. I stroll in the park next to the station, then sit down on a bench in the playground. A father – he looks cold, most likely divorced and now only a “Sunday dad” – is watching his son, dressed in a tracksuit, who tirelessly heaps sand onto the slide. From time to time, the father curtly instructs the child not to do this, but the son – he could be the same age as my own – takes no notice. The man turns away, lights a cigarette which he cups with his frozen hands. I’m cold.

The child grows bored with the slide game and climbs into a coloured tube meant for smaller children than himself. He lingers there for a bit and then comes out, a used tampon dangling from his hand. He gives it to his father. Irritated, the man flings it away, and they head back home.

I go into the tiled waiting room of the station. Outside, it’s dark and cold, the train won’t be coming anytime soon. I sit down on a bench, at least it’s warm, and look at the announcements. A homeless man on crutches staggers in and stumbles over to the white-painted rubbish bin in the corner: for a long time, he gapes at it.

On one side of the rubbish bin is an inscription, stenciled in fresh blue paint. This is Europe now, please do not litter. The homeless man undoes his zipper and begins to piss into the bin, then moves a bit off to one side. Wobbling, he lies down on a bench in the corner, curls up and falls asleep.

I’m still freezing, time is crawling past at a snail’s pace and I don’t feel like reading. I’m tired. I grow envious of the man’s pose, and stretch out on the bench, putting my bag under my head. I begin to doze off, put my hands under my armpits – there it’s the warmest. We are both lying there for about ten minutes when a railway employee comes in, a nylon bag in his hand. He looks around thoroughly and then switches off the fluorescent light.

Because, it seems, there is no one here.

 

Translated by Ottilie Mulzet, 2006

Welcome , today is Monday, 2019-05-20