You are the man who sang “God Bless the Magyar” after we lost the war. I watched you sway by a bullet-pocked door, heard you testing the national anthem’s loose notes, a lost war’s afterthoughts. I hadn’t heard it since school, and then school was called off. All up and down Saint Matyas Street, wind chased your song among tattered banners and plackards and flags. Elms cast their shadows on smashed cobblestones, windowsills lined with wash. A corpse swayed against a streetlight in accompaniment, its belt buckle clinking the pole, red-checked shirt cheery against the dull sky. Its urgent clogged smell permeated the air, the sad clothes on clotheslines.
I was twenty and blond, black hair showing through at the roots. I thought I could love you, perhaps, but I wanted to know: would it last? You wiped your nose on your sleeve as you sang. You didn’t see me but, Sandor, you would have been proud: I wiped tears from my eyes as I whistled along. When you looked up I stopped, I was shy. You scanned the sills for my face but I hid in the curtain’s torn lace, my feet crushing glass and mousedust. There was nobody left to accompany you but the dead; you did not seem to mind.
These haystacks bundled with twine remind me of our bed. These men playing cards on this train, they remind me of you with your hair in your face, but then everything does. Torn clouds your tattered pantcuffs. Scarecrows by the tracks guarding dirt wear your fish-patterned shirt. My palms on the train window’s glass scratched with lovers’ initials like ours are the same size as yours in my hair, in my mouth.
You used to say if wishes were horses beggars would ride. I’ve begged, now I ride, yet I still haven’t figured that out. My pale hands in this dicey Hungarian light, my finger’s indent where my wedding band used to rest, I hope you understand about that. If I had tears left, if you had hands that could help, I’d let you wipe them away from my eyes. Sandor, if I found my voice, I’d sing along with you now.
She had needle and thread, they had fish. They had torn clothes, Margit knew how to mend. Erzsébet poked a raw chunk of fish in a fire of mattress guts, newspaper scraps. Remnants of older fires littered the steps down the Danube’s steep bank. Sandor stoked char that smoked more than burned, there was ash on his lips. One drifty eye swam behind black-framed lenses, his other eye studied her, then they switched. Margit turned away, blushed.
Erzsébet laughed out loud. “You never know if he’s looking at you or some glorified future,” she said.
Margit kept her gaze on the shore where thin ice abutted the bank. Opaque as the sky, it gave the illusion of firm. “Maybe he sees the past,” Margit said.
“So you’re a philosopher,” Erzsi said.
The river encrusted two pigeons, a stump. Waves lapped a corpse, licked its face of split teeth and raw bone. Margit swallowed against its sweetness, like ice cream left out in which the vanilla has spoiled. It seemed almost to breathe, Margit thought. She wondered how it would be if hers was the body half sunk, what if she grew gills? Her hair casually turning aquamarine, the water’s chlorine in her lungs. Under the panel of ice, there’d be no thinking of food, only the hiss of her own body’s fumes, its bubbles escaped into green. If she stayed underneath long enough, she’d forget there had been a war, even land.
“Where’d you find fish?” Margit asked. She made herself turn from the corpse, its burst checkered shirt, its red-white-green boutonniere.
“Swapped a kiss,” Erzsi said.
Margit looked at her mouth, then Sandor’s.
“Not with him, he has nothing worth trading for it,” Erzsi said.
Sandor did not take offense. He offered Margit the stick with the fish. Margit burned her lips and her tongue and the roof of her mouth but she managed swallowing it.
“Blow on it first,” Sandor said. His glasses were mended with tape. Margit had an urge to tamp its loose ends but she was too shy and her fingers were greasy with fish.
“What are you, DPs?” she asked.
Sandor grinned. “Who isn’t?” he said, “In a philosophical sense.”
“He’s back from the front,” Erzsi said. She patted his shoulder like this might excuse whatever came out of his mouth.
Sandor leaned into her touch. “I found her all rags and bones in a camp.”
Erzsébet narrowed her eyes. “I told you, don’t talk about that.”
Sandor shrugged, poked the fish. Erzsébet pulled out a strand of her hair seemingly without noticing it.
“My father died at the front,” Margit said. She couldn’t say why but she wanted a way to get close, she felt anxious and nervous for them. “He said war was inevitable, that it couldn’t be helped,” Margit said.
“Nothing helps,” Erzsi said.
Margit watched her to gauge if this was just typical after-war cynicism. “Some things can,” she replied, though she couldn’t have said what these were.
Erzsébet took a lipstick from her coat. She twisted the tube, made a pout, smeared a round O on her lips, licked the edge of her mouth, her gestures flamboyant, outsized. “You haven’t fucked anyone just so you won’t have to starve, I can tell,” Erzsi said.
Margit tried not to show she felt slapped.
“Leave her alone,” Sandor said.
Erzsébet smiled. Her lipstick gleamed reckless against her wan cheeks, her orangy hair appeared perishable in the light. “You done that lately? Fucked to eat?”
Margit hugged herself. Behind her, pigeons beat wings on the steps. Someone swept, scrubbed red stains, stacked smashed bricks. On the opposite shore, boys played soldier with limbs torn from trees. The sun almost broke through the clouds, its porous warmth miserly across her shoulders and legs. What she had done or not done: it was wartime, after all. “Fucking’s not such a big deal,” Margit said, nonchalant.
Erzsébet bit a mouthful of fish, wiped its grease on her sleeve. “For you it’s abstract because you had a choice,” Erzsi said.
Sandor flapped his cuffs. “We’ve all become philosophers from the war.”
Margit took out her needle and thread. “I’m a seamstress,” she said. “I believe in the practical use of my hands.” She was making it up as she went.
Across the water, a boy raised his stick like a gun. Bang, you’re dead. Margit shivered, tugged Sandor’s crease straight, licked the thread carefully, more slow than was necessary, threaded it.
“Careful you don’t stick him,” Erzsi said.
Margit inhaled fish and fire, the body floating in cattails and muck, Sandor’s smoky scent. She smoothed his slacks with her slick open hand. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing,” she said. She almost believed it herself.
At the Galamb Cafe they were serving stale water in porcelain cups, air on fine china plates. “I enjoy Budapest best in the rain after war,” Margit said.
“It must suit your temperament,” Sandor said.
“What do you know about it?” Margit asked.
“Sad and a little bit mean, like this city,” he said. Russian soldiers stumbled across the sidewalk, watches up to their elbows, grain alcohol stunned. “They flush toilets for washing their food,” Sandor said.
Margit hated sitting around when she could have been mending or washing or looking for bread. Small talk gave her nerves.
“When the food drains away, the bayonets come out,” Sandor said.
Damp muggy air pasted Margit’s dress to her back and her chest. A cold draft raised the hairs on her neck. “The lesson is don’t eat with with Russians,” she said.
Sandor laughed. Shadows from his glasses etched indents on his cheeks. She patted her coat for a cigarette. Two left so she offered him one.
“I don’t smoke,” Sandor said.
“Ciggies cut hunger cramps,” she replied. Behind him she saw the Parliament dome wrecked against the skyline, the church-tower clock frozen at noon or midnight. “It seems ridiculous not to smoke,” Margit said.
Sandor cupped his hands for her match. Pale light beat over his wrists. Around them, whoever had something was bartering it, chocolate bars, liquid vials. Out in the street, drunkards were singing the national anthem and pushing a powerless tram.
“The vanquished aren’t meek,” Margit said.
“They’re going to get that song wiped from their lips, you just watch,” Sandor said.
Margit blew a ring, watched faces pass busted-out windowpanes, cheekbones gaunt yet oddly lovely, like Sandor’s, she thought.
“Not you, though, with those papers you forge,” Margit said.
Sandor put his hand on her mouth. “You’re not supposed know about that.”
Margit knocked the tip from her spent cigarette, saved the butt. His hand smelled like ink and she wondered if she’d get accustomed to it. “Your girlfriend told me. Erzsébet.”
A long silence fell between them. Across the street, a lorry bumped to a halt. In the gap of its tarpaulin ribs, a man and woman were chained to a bench. The woman’s hair blew in her eyes. The man tried to wipe it away from her brow but he couldn’t, manacled like he was.
“I’m not going to sleep with you right away,” Margit said.
Sandor took off his glasses, rubbed them on his shirt. “Who said anything about that?”
Margit tapped her nails on her cup. “Because the war’s over, all the men think they can have any woman,” she said. “But I’m waiting for love.”
Sandor stood. Gypsies and children who roamed past the tables extended their palms. Waiters flapped napkins at them. Sandor scooped up a tip not his, tossed it at the nearest hand. They all knew the coins were worthless. A pengö before the war was worth half a quadrillion pengös now. Still, they grabbed.
“I guess we’re not coming back here for a while,” Margit said.
Dear Sandor, I better remember for us how it was.
You weren’t the first. That was a soldier for candles and bread. In the cellar by buckets of piss, I made myself ready for him. Then there was a boy who wrote slogans with chalk across walls, my name beside his, an arrow pierced through a heart. In an atlas stolen from school, we’d try to find countries the war hadn’t touched.
If I’d told you about him, which I did not, I don’t think you would have been unkind. It would have been hard to excuse jealousy of the dead.
That was the year they sent the first boys to the front. Everyone trying to save us from bullets and bombs with more bullets and bombs, Alma said. She said it was irony that fell from the sky, all that generously meted death. It was difficult mourning just one boy with everyone mourning along.
But you’d probably already killed by then.
Your ironical uniform, the sarcastic smile of the crease in your uniform’s slacks. The sly, knowing blood on your shirt, your torn epaulet’s winking eye.
Then we were suddenly half-dressed in your room with its window’s iron bars. You told me about your mother who put up preserves the day she got taken away. Your father the printer who had principles so they broke both his hands. The six-story window in prison left open on purpose for him. But I wasn’t listening well, swooney with your printer’s ink smell, already telling myself what I’d save up for now. Hoarding how you kissed my eyes.
“Make me believe this is worth it,” I said. I was very dramatic back then, with my hand to my brow, all serious, moony-eyed.
Jesus, Sandor, make me stop. Instead let me tell how rain etches the train window’s glass. How it’s raining again in this town, its sky’s wet bruise spun from low dirty clouds. The first people here gathered fruits, hunted mammoths, reindeer. They swallowed horse flesh, drank mare’s milk. Now women haul twigs tied with twine across damp plundered fields, a slow recitation of picking through hoofprint-caked mud. The washroom’s tap leaks, its drip burns my cold fingertips.
I used to assume certitude. Alma in her robe, father at his desk. I was the daughter playing somewhere in the house, in the yard, sometimes too far, but the chestnut vendor brought me back. Our supper was coffee that year, lumps of sugar dissolving to brown the same shade as the city at dusk. My father’s slicked hair was Budapest’s color back then. The three of us stood in the street, he chewed his charcoal pills. “History’s ruined my stomach,” he said. I could see he was telling the truth, the proof was his tongue and black teeth. My bicycle, tipped on its side in the gutter, was red. My father kept wiping his eyes. Cold wind blew through my dress, already faded though he only brought it the previous month, its seams loose, its bow lost. “Cheap like everything else,” Alma said, her hair stirred by wind, not bothering to comb it away from her face. I studied her shoes, scuffed and wet. Seeing her out of the house made me anxious and tired. Sweat stains spread under her arms though she must have been cold and embarrassed in only her robe, exposed to whoever might pass. She fingered its hem as if it might turn to ash, her bare arms goosefleshed. Rain pelted her uncovered head. Her breath came in ragged white puffs. She said, “Don’t leave me here with the child,” words like stones, bitten lipped. She took a step back, ankles weak, on the verge of a slip.
I looked up at our window opened out so the war might fly in. I said, “Are we going to die?”
Sandor, we did die.
What happened once? It had the look of nothing. A storm, a light rain, the war came. My father left for the front, he said when I come back, he meant if.
In the city the woman who I had become wiped marzipan glaze from her mouth. She picked her teeth with her nails while you practiced your forgeries, already inventing your fate.
My hands that touch the train’s glass: I’m just like my mother now, tired of my feet and my hands, my own cheap sentiment.
So here is my hand where my wedding band also leaves its white mark. I never did feel safe wearing it. My thin shift with its cigarette burn in its lap from when we both fell asleep after love, then you woke me up, said, “You were on fire but I put you out.”
I’ve been moving toward you or away since back then, my hands held in front of my face as if trying to hold back the wind, scraps of newspapers blowing by fast.
PEN Center USA invites you to join them for an ensemble reading celebrating the release of Les Plesko’s novel No Stopping Train. The event will feature readings from Janet Fitch, David Francis, Samantha Dunn, Joshua John Miller, Julianne Cohen, and Mary Rakow.
October 19, 2014 @ 6 – 8 PM
Charles E. Young Salon
LES PLESKO (1954-2013) was the author of the critically-acclaimed debut novel The Last Bongo Sunset, which was translated into Dutch and German. His other novels included Who I Was and Slow Lie Detector and his stories appeared in Zyzzyva, Pear Noir!, Columbia Review and The Newer York. No Stopping Train, a powerful, swirling novel of memory and violence set during the Hungarian Revolution, is his final work. He was the recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing where he taught for close to twenty years. Please visit pleskoism.wordpress.com to view the memories posted by friends and students as well as speeches from his memorial gathering at Beyond Baroque.