Tibor Tóth / PIÜ
By Péter Moesko
Translated from Hungarian by Walter Burgess and Marietta Morry
My grandpa can already walk on his own. He had been practicing for a month and a half using a walker; today was the first time he managed to walk across the whole room without it. I began rejoicing and shouted to Grandma in the kitchen to come over, quickly come over, Grandpa can walk again! Grandma did come but she was grumbling at half volume, that’s just her luck, she managed to miss my first steps and now she missed her husband’s. But then she walked over to Grandpa and they shared a smile, then Grandma stroked Grandpa’s head which, surprisingly, still has a lot of hair. That only proves that life has a lot more in store for him. It’s the senior doctor who said that, when we were standing in despair in the corridor of the hospital.
Well, this deserves a shot of schnapps, Grandpa says. Then they let me leave because I have a test the next day. I tried to advance the cassette in my Walkman but it is so cold that’s useless. I got the Walkman from my grandparents two weeks ago so that the music will help pass the time when I have to travel back and forth because of Grandpa. I even got a Boney M. cassette because according to Grandma that is what the young listen to these days. I was not familiar with them, but it’s not bad.
It’s almost seven o’clock when I get home but Mother is still occupied. Since Grandpa had his stroke, she takes on even more students to tutor, in order to have enough money for hospital expenses and medicine. I beg her not to accept any of my classmates for tutoring but, even so, there are two from my class. When it is their turn I stay for supper at Grandpa and Grandma’s. Our apartment is small and the walls are thin; I can hear everything that Mother explains to the children. It is strange that Mother is a teacher because she is not the teacher type. For example, she has never explained anything to me having to do with my homework. We talked about this once; the reason she gave was that I was smart enough to understand everything on my own. I guess that is what all parents say to their children. Except those who send their children to my mother for tutoring.
Everyone in the class found out that my grandpa was in the hospital, even though I never told anyone. I have a faint recollection that the mother of one of my classmates was a cleaner in the hospital. That’s how it must have come out. In any case, ever since then the whole class has behaved toward me as if it was me who was ill. A lot of the time they would give me their snacks and ask things like, Is everything okay at home? Even the teachers. Lately I haven’t even been called upon to explain things in class, unlike the others. So I was very happy to report to my desk mate that my grandpa was now able to walk. This week my desk mate was Vivian, so I could be sure that by recess the whole class would know about it.
It was I who taught Grandpa how to walk again. That’s what Mother later kept saying, even though she almost never came over, since she was too busy tutoring to be over at my grandparents to witness it. She only found out what I did through her daily evening conversations with Grandma. To avoid having Grandma pay for the calls, the arrangement was that Grandma would only let the phone ring once as a signal for Mother to call back. After his stay in the hospital, Grandpa declared that everyone should leave him alone and that he would walk when he felt like walking. My grandma started cawing like an old bird as usual but on this occasion, for the first time, Grandpa didn’t react and tell her to shut her trap; he only kept watching the TV and didn’t say anything. At which point Grandma gave up and went into the kitchen to cry. I stared at Grandpa angrily and waited for him to look back. He did, and asked: What are you staring at? He never talked like that before, especially not with me. I said, Nothing, because I was so surprised by his behaviour. To which he said, Well, you better not stare at anything. It occurred to me that it would be best to go home, yet I didn’t leave. Instead, I told Grandpa that if he was not willing to learn to walk, I was not willing to learn at school. I would show him the failing marks on all my homework, and I would bring them for him to look at when there was nothing good on TV. By the time I had finished my speech, my face was burning, but the only light in the room came from the TV, so no one could see it. My grandpa is not the aggressive type, but for such insolence he would have given my older brother a good whacking. This time he didn’t say anything but focussed even more on the TV screen and did not look at me again.
A couple of days later, Grandma called and asked me to come to the phone. She didn’t know if she understood right, but it seemed as if Grandpa had agreed to have the hospital-issued walker brought over to him. She said, Let’s give it a try, and I should go with her because I knew better how to talk to the authorities. So we went, but I didn’t need to say much, just handed over the paper from the senior doctor and they gave us the walker. When we took it home, Grandpa looked at it as if it were a mongrel. The simile occurred to me when I told Mother the story in the evening. That made her laugh and she asked how the idea of a mongrel occurred to me. Because, I said, when I looked at Grandpa, I could tell that the walker was the very last thing that he wanted to see, but when he examined it more closely it seemed that in secret he was happy with it.
When the student leaves, Mother comes to my room and asks me how it went. I give her the news that Grandpa now knows how to walk by himself. She gives a tired smile, leans her head against the doorframe, and says: At last. Then she asks me to take the soup out of the fridge and warm it up while she takes a bath. That’s what she says, but she prefers to keep me company in the kitchen, and watches me passively as I put the soup on the stove. Let’s have a shandy, she says, but I confess that Grandpa had already insisted on a schnapps for me. A fine family you got, she laughs, and in the end she doesn’t drink anything either. Have you heard anything about your brother? she asks me. I shake my head, No I haven’t. Why? I say. What should I know? Oh, nothing, she says. You could give him a call tomorrow and tell him all about Grandpa
. I don’t say anything and take two bowls from the cupboard.
The next day it is not me who calls my brother, but Father who calls me. He asks me what the arrangement should be for Christmas. I tell him that I have no idea, but I guess that it will be like the year before. I’ll spend Christmas Eve with Mother, go over to Grandma’s on the 25th and, on the 26th, I’ll go to his place and my brother will come here to Mother’s. He gives a troubled sigh as if he had to organize the whole thing, even though he doesn’t have to do a thing. Okay, he will also stick to this plan. And what would you like for Christmas? Since last year I didn’t ask for anything and got an awful Nintendo game, this year I prefer to say that I would like some kind of cassette. Listen, wouldn’t you like a Walkman to go with it? When I tell him that my grandparents have already bought me one, he gets upset and says goodbye. But I call out to him in time, asking him not to hang up, and I tell him quickly what is up with Grandpa. He says, Okay.
A few days later, Dalma comes to school with her eyes red from crying and sidles up to me during recess. I suspect what it is all about even before she starts talking, as we never have been such great buddies, and she normally wouldn’t talk to me in a million years.
Now she tells me that her grandad also had a stroke and he still hasn’t regained consciousness. When she comes to the end of her story, she starts sniffling and then bursts out crying. I have no idea what I am supposed to say to this, but at the end, in order to console her, I tell her that when my grandpa was taken to the hospital he was also in bad shape: he couldn’t talk, and at first it wasn’t certain whether or not he would be able to move his right side ever again.
I do not know if Dalma is interested in this at all, because she doesn’t even look at me while I am talking to her. Then she asks me to promise her that she would be able to seek me out again in this matter. What she says sounds so ridiculous that I smile as a reflex, but manage to cover my face in time and say: Of course, no problem.
Although in theory they no longer need my help, I keep going over to Grandma’s place every afternoon. Grandma is miffed because Grandpa, in his enthusiasm, wants to shovel snow and do all sorts of things. My grandpa only grins like a small kid and winks at me in his usual way. We’ve had this routine of winking at each other ever since I was a small boy, mostly when Grandpa kidded Grandma about something, who didn’t realize that it was all a joke. Actually, Grandpa is recovering really fast, you wouldn’t be able to tell that he had had a stroke not so long ago. But in the end, he lets me take over the snow shovelling. When I finish, he unexpectedly poses the question: What do you know about your father? Not much, I say: I’ll go over to his place the day after Christmas, as usual. I guess he’s doing fine. And your brother? I guess he will, too. Grandma interrupts: That boy is good for nothing. He’s just like his father. Then she looks at me: Fortunately, you take after your mother.
On the way home on the bus, I listen to Daddy Cool while trying to think about what to tell Dalma. It is possible that she doesn’t want to ask anything, but just wants to talk to someone who knows something about the topic. She has so many girlfriends at school yet she must have some reason to talk to me. I think that next time I might tell her the whole story so that she gets an idea how the process works. When I arrive home, the sound of a conversation coming from the kitchen makes me think that Mother is tutoring again, and I head right for my room. But Mother calls out that I have a visitor. To my great surprise, Dalma is sitting at the table holding a mug of hot tea. My mother looks at me with her eyes lit up and informs me with exaggerated enthusiasm what I can see for myself: A classmate of yours has come to see you. Hi, I say to Dalma. What’s new? Mother answers for her and again says what I already know: Dalma’s grandad also has had a stroke and she would really appreciate a chat. Without thinking, I burst out: Now? Mother waves it off: Go ahead, I have assignments to correct.
Reluctantly I take Dalma to my room. I am not the messy kind but still don’t like her seeing where I live. Since apart from the chair by my desk, the only other place to sit is on my bed, that is where I sit and leave the chair to Dalma. But she also chooses the bed and looks around my room. She examines the posters on the wall and asks: Why do you have so many pictures of stars? I also look around and tell her that those are not stars but planets. Yes, but why are they on your wall? I shrug my shoulders and keep looking at the planets. I don’t know what is wrong with putting them up on my wall. Actually, it was damn hard to get hold of all the planets of the solar system on good quality posters. Jupiter was the most difficult because I couldn’t find an image large enough to contain not just the big red spot, but much more. And Mercury wasn’t a simple matter either, because many places sell you a manipulated image of the moon to illustrate Mercury, but I do not explain this to Dalma. I don’t think she would be interested.
I am trying to come up with something to say to her. For example, the time when Grandpa made a scene in the hospital. Not long after he had recovered somewhat and could talk again, he overheard a conversation and found out his room number. Right away he started insisting that he be moved from there to any other room because he couldn’t stay in this one, but there was no way to find out what he had against that room. His ward mates didn’t say a word and just lay there unconscious; they didn’t get visitors. For some reason he was upset about the room and kept objecting to its number. He even asked that the nurses switch his room number with the one next door.
My grandpa never liked scenes, he calls them fusses, and one of his favourite expressions has always been “What are you fussing about?” He uses it in almost any situation, and kids Grandma with it. By the time we arrived at the hospital with him, he was in such poor shape that he couldn’t say even very simple words. This upset him more and more, yet he didn’t do anything; just quietly swallowed his tears. Not so Grandma, whose constant talking became so unbearable that the nurse asked her to leave the room because the senior doctor was coming. Grandma would not budge, but Mother took her by the arm and led her out of the room, though not without a struggle. I didn’t know whether I should leave with them or stay with Grandpa, but the nurse saw my dilemma and said: You may stay. I had to leave my seat on the bed because the nurse was to put a diaper on Grandpa. I sat down on the chair beside the bed and tried to look the other way, but I turned back too soon and got a view of my Grandpa’s balls and hairy bottom. I tried to avert my gaze but for some reason, before I did that, I looked at Grandpa’s face as he stared at me, and even though I didn’t want to, the thought came to me that he looked like a helpless baby just a few months old. Then I turned to the window and waited for the nurse to finish diapering him. When I turned back, the doctor had arrived. I don’t remember much about the time he spent in the room. He said a few sentences but I had no idea if he addressed them to Grandpa, to me, or to the nurse. In effect, no one really listened to him. Grandpa, with his head down all the time, kept snuffling evenly. From time to time the doctor turned to me. Once he even asked something, but I hardly understood a word of it. To which he gave a troubled sigh and said: Okay, it’s all the same to me. Luckily, as it turned out later, Mother stopped him in the corridor and quizzed him thoroughly, so we were not completely ignorant about the situation. When Grandma returned to the room, she was at a loss and didn’t know what to say or do. For lack of anything better, she started to arrange things on the shelf by the bed, moving the apples to another spot, shaking the mineral water and wiping the cutlery. In the meantime, Grandpa glanced at me surreptitiously. He tried to wink but, since he always used his right eye, it didn’t work this time, and with the left one all he managed was a blink. Yet I smiled at him and winked back.
Dalma listens impassively, yet she is paying attention. I don’t tell her all the details. I avoid saying balls, and I try to substitute something else for diapers, but nothing comes to mind so I just say it. She sighs every now and then and says that it is a good thing that your family sticks together. I haven’t got the faintest idea why she says this, but don’t feel like talking about it and don’t press it. In the meantime, Mother knocks and then comes in carrying a tray with sandwiches. She sits with us for a while and enquires about Dalma’s grandad. Dalma’s situation is the same as ours, but her grandad was taken to Budapest for some reason and so it is not easy to visit him. In fact, it was not that simple for me either, because the hospital was a good half hour beyond the school and that added another half hour to the three quarter hour ride back home.
When Grandpa was in the hospital, it hadn’t snowed yet; in fact it had been a particularly dry November. Since Grandma was at home by herself for a whole week, Mother and I decided that she would give me a note for school so that I could spend a day at Grandma’s to help around the house. Grandma’s hips had been giving her quite a bit of trouble recently, so she could hardly manage to tend to the garden. I went outside, collected all the walnuts, raked the branches and leaves, and put them in a pile at the far end of the yard. When the yard was neat again, I asked Grandma for matches to burn the pile. She was scrubbing a scorched pot in the sink, but when I informed her about my plan, she stopped scrubbing and gave me a long look. Such a slow set of movements was not her style and it scared me for a second. At the end, all she said was that I was not allowed to tend a fire by myself. She stopped doing the dishes, dried her hands, put on shoes, and we walked together to the back of the yard. For a while she stared at the pile, and looked back toward the house, then back to the pile. She said I had to promise, really promise, not to tell Grandpa that we had a fire in the yard. I looked at Grandma without understanding, but she didn’t look at me and kept watching the window of the house which was well hidden by the two walnut trees so she couldn’t see much. After a while she stopped turning back and forth and nodded as if to herself. Then she turned to me and asked again: Do you promise? Of course, I promise. But why? Because your grandpa doesn’t like fires. At least they are forecasting snow for next week and that will cover the spot.
Just as Mother rises from the chair, the phone rings once. I look at my watch, it is almost nine o’clock. It alarms me a bit, but when Mother calls Grandma back, she signals to me that there is nothing wrong. I go back to my room. I remember the first evening. When visiting hours were up, the nurse asked us to let the patient have a rest. We said a reluctant goodbye to Grandpa. Since we were never in the habit of kissing, the situation was quite awkward. Even so, I kissed Grandpa on the forehead. He tried to reach for my hand but only noticed it after I had straightened up. Then I reached out my hand and let him squeeze mine in his huge paw.
Then we went downstairs to the front of the hospital and waited. Earlier in the day we had asked Laci Hentes, an old buddy of Father’s, to come and pick us up. He arrived together with his wife. Anikó tried to be tactful but twitched with curiosity, and she kept quizzing us more and more aggressively when she saw that no one wanted to give her an answer. At least tell me if he is still alive! At that point Laci slammed on the brakes, not caring about people honking their horns behind him. He turned to Anikó and gave her a long look. I couldn’t decide if he was going to shout or what. Finally after a long silence, he asked her in a normal tone: What’s the matter with you? Are you really this fucking crazy? Anikó couldn’t utter a word. So finally it was Mother who broke the silence, saying: Enough of that, everyone is still alive, that is all we know for now. Let’s just go home and be quiet. Anikó was peeved, but since no one paid any attention to her, she soon stopped sulking. When we got back to the village, we didn’t turn onto Grandma’s street, but stopped by Ica’s bar. Laci said he just wanted to pick up the two kilos of sausages he had ordered from Ica, and would gladly give us some. Mother said: In that case why don’t we all go in and have a drink of something, because my nerves are shot. Grandma didn’t object, so we went in, and strangely enough everyone started to enquire about how Grandpa was doing. I don’t know how they had heard about it, but Grandma said a few words and politely asked them to leave us alone so that we could sit at a table in peace. Mother realized too late that she had ordered a shandy for me as well, but then waved her hand and said: You should drink it slowly. Laci and Anikó drank a spritzer and Grandma ordered a Unicum. Then Anikó broke the silence and asked if Gergő had heard about it yet. To this, Grandma snorted and said: He couldn’t care less what happens to his father.
That night Mother called Father. They hadn’t talked for two years and Mother found it difficult this time as well, but she didn’t want to dump the task on me. They spoke for only a few seconds. All Mother got to say was that Grandpa had had a stroke and the line went dead. She continued on about Grandpa being in the hospital into a dead phone. Then she hung up and looked at me despondently; without a word she poured herself another drink and said: You had better go to bed. Before I went to my room I called out to Mother, casually on purpose, that to this day I had no idea why Father had had a falling out with Grandpa. Mother took her time before turning back to me and, after she’d finished her drink and carried her glass back to the kitchen, she said without looking at me: Because of the scar. Because of what scar? She did not react to this and started off toward the bathroom. I followed her: Mother, because of what scar? She turned halfway to me while taking off her skirt. There is a scar on Grandpa’s arm. Yes, I know, so what? So, because of that. I tried to pester her more but Mother was so tired that she just chased me away and said she would tell me some day, but now she has to sleep because she has to start teaching early the next morning.
I guess I am talking incoherently because Dalma asks more and more questions. She cannot follow the story but, I think out of tact, she keeps nodding sympathetically. Then she returns to this family togetherness business and how rare it is that someone should get along so well with her parents-in-law. Yes, I say, but Mother lost her parents as a child and has no siblings, so she doesn’t have much choice. Dalma says, That’s pretty rough. Finally she slowly climbs off my bed and says goodbye. When we stand at the door, she gives me a small halfway hug and says, Let’s be strong. This is so out of character for Dalma that this time I can’t hold back a laugh, but I immediately apologize and give the explanation that it is hard to be strong in such times. To this she nods: Yes, that’s true. Then she leaves.
I don’t know why she said that we should be strong. I never thought of myself as weak. Actually I am not all that strong either, but ever since the divorce Mother kept calling Father a coward and a weak man, so I tried to be the opposite. Yet it is possible that Dalma considers me weak. No one ever contradicted Grandpa, not because he was a domineering man; it simply never occurred to anyone to contradict him. Yet I did, and I managed to persuade him to learn to walk again. Dalma can go to hell. As if it had been me who came to school sobbing. It doesn’t matter, I will try not to think about it any more. Perhaps she only tried to encourage herself with this business of being strong.
How strong I am physically is another matter. It was very hard to hold up Grandpa in the first few days when he couldn’t at all use the right side of his body. Grandma stood on his left side and me on the right as we helped him to his walker. Usually we could only exercise for fifteen or twenty minutes because all three of us got out of breath. On Grandpa’s left arm, where the scar is, the hair hadn’t grown back and often there is sweat glistening on it. I fall asleep thinking of that spot, and in my dream I try to make a fire from dried up twigs on Grandpa’s arm, and I don’t understand how it would have been possible to keep the secret of the fire when Grandpa will see the spot anyway. This thought weighs heavily on me all night long and my heart beats crazily when I wake up in the morning.
When I arrive at Grandma’s in the afternoon, Grandpa is sleeping. Grandma tells me how she couldn’t hold Grandpa back; he went to the shed and spent the whole morning puttering there. It must have exhausted him because he does not usually sleep in the afternoon. Grandma is peeling potatoes and hands me a small pot and asks me to help so that we can eat sooner. Just to have something to talk about, I tell Grandma about my dream from the night before. She listens without saying a word and doesn’t look at me even once, not even when I finish. We discard the peels and start slicing the potatoes. I finish my portion before Grandma. I watch her quietly for a couple of minutes, then ask: Why did Father break all ties with you? Grandma keeps cutting the potatoes, shakes her head, knits her brows, and keeps repeating: Why, why? I surprise myself but manage to address her sternly: Grandma! She doesn’t seem to hear it and continues working. Then she does start to talk. Because of the scar, because of your grandfather’s scar. She doesn’t say more but gets up, takes out a casserole, and asks me to start putting down a layer of potatoes, while she adds slices of sausage and hard boiled eggs, and covers it with sour cream. What happened? Did they get into a fight? Is that how he got the scar? Or in an industrial accident? For the first time Grandma looks at me: An industrial accident? Who told you that? Well, Father. May the saints spare me, Grandma says, and for a while she mutters to herself something I can’t make out. So? No way they had a fight, she says. Can you imagine your father fighting? He wouldn’t know how to fight with anyone. Grandma sprinkles salt, pepper, and marjoram on the sour cream and I add the last layer of potatoes. Grandma takes out a grater and grates a big heap of Trappist cheese on the top. There used to be a tattoo on your grandfather’s arm. A what? Yes, a tattoo, but it wasn’t him who wanted it, it was put on his arm. Not only on his, but on many others’ arms, as well. But that was a long time ago, a really long time. He was only a couple of years older than you are now. And later on he didn’t want to have that tattoo there, so he got it removed. How did he get it removed? That I don’t know. He found a way. But why did he have it removed? Because he didn’t want to keep it. It reminded him of bad things. Awful things. One day he will tell you all about it. When? One day. After you have finished high school. That is for adults. Grandma opens the oven door and puts the casserole in. Then she claps her hands together and says: It’s done, all it needs to do is bake. But why did Father break ties with you? Grandma sighs impatiently and sits back on the stool. She starts stirring what is left of her afternoon coffee. Because a lot of people had such a tattoo. Really a lot. But they are all old, you wouldn’t know them. And when your father found out the scar was there because of the tattoo, he stopped speaking to us. But why? Because for some reason your father does not like those who have those tattoos. Ask him why he doesn’t, he wouldn’t let us in on it.
Then Grandma takes out a crossword puzzle and I wash up the few dishes that are dirty. In the meantime I hear Grandpa getting up in the room near the kitchen, and although he sees I’m here, he goes to the toilet without a word and then back to his room. Grandma finishes her coffee and hands me her cup to be washed. Then she gets a clean cup, pours the rest of the coffee from the pot into it, and puts it in the microwave. When the time is up, I am just finishing the dishwashing. Grandma puts sweetener in the cup, splashes in a bit of milk, then pushes it in my hand. Go, take it to your grandpa.