I dream about my father.
There he is, right in front of me, sitting on a footstool, polishing my shoes. His style impresses me as he spits and polishes with such genuine sincerity. Having never had a chance to see him spitting, the word privilege seems the right term to label my feeling. We live now together because the war destroyed his home and claimed his wife, we just buried her yesterday. Neither of us fathoms how to live without her, we don't even know how to make breakfast. We don't have money either, but that makes no difference. The Inflation, like a runaway train, keeps accelerating, - the whole world is out of control.
"Good morning Dad," I moan and yawn and stretch, "I saw you spitting."
"Oh, my God," he says, "stupid old me, woke you up. I should have been more careful. But, you see, your shoe polish is dry, like gravel and makes a noise." He rattles the box, it really sounds like pebbles in a tin. "These shoes haven't been polished for months," he complains and makes a gesture which signals hopelessness. He should know well that there is no time for this sort of activity in the life of a young surgeon.
"The basic principle of shoe polishing is wrong," I mumble to tease him, "it's a reactionary, old fashioned, anti-progressive idea and hard to fit into a productive life." I know this sounds like Moscow, but this is the way most things sounded in the Spring of 1945.
"I know you are kidding," he says and walks to the sink to wash his hands. Nice old hands, no freckles, I like to look at his hands. There is a special way of washing them. Not like any old retired civil servant, he dips his hands in the water before soaping, then rubs and rinses them with the deftness of a famous surgeon in a movie. Afterwards, he places the shoes beside my bed looking at me with those deep-set dark eyes. He is like a St. Bernard dog: faithful, reliable, loving. I wish I could be like him, but at 25 I am a bachelor, a draft dodger, a wearer of dirty shoes. I need time to improve myself.
"Nice shoes, otherwise," he says "if somebody just would take the trouble of looking after them, they would last a long time." He goes to the kitchen section of the room and fills the kettle with water. "I am going to make rose-hip tea for breakfast," he announces with emphasis although rose-hip tea has been the breakfast every day for the past several weeks. We have no "ordinary" tea or coffee of any kind, not even Ersatz. Some times we don't even have bread and now, in the dream, I seem to remember that in the year of 1945 we were always hungry.
He puts the kettle on the burner, turns on the gas and puts a few dried rose-hips in two cups and when the water boils he fills the cups. We wait until the water turns rose-hip-tea-pink, and then we begin to sip the scalding liquid, pretending that we drink tea.
"Isn't this a little too sour?" I venture and cool my tongue by whistling backwards.
"A little sugar," he says, "would help. Just a pinch."
He wants me to buy sugar. Coming from a small town via the evacuation train he does not know much about inflation and city prices. He does not seem to know that the monetary system is outdated here and that the economy is based entirely on exchange of goods which takes place mostly on the streets which look like a maze of flea markets.
"You can by anything with gold, but I don't have any," I tell him. "Do you?"
"Me? Of course I do. I always carry a little gold with me. Just in case." He points to his mouth and bares his teeth. "There is a gold mine here. Three crowns and an inlay." We smile and I continue the game.
"Do you want to put some of it on the market? One gram of gold buys five pounds of brown sugar. That's the only kind around here. Maybe a pair of shoes would do it. The item to be sacrificed should equal the value of how badly you want something else. I haven't had sweets for six months. I could sell my soul for a bag of sugar."
His face turns gray and somber. "I don't like this kind of talk. There have been no cynics in this family. Your grandfather was a minister and you... you don't even go to church. And now this... selling your soul!"
"Don't take every damn thing so seriously," I retort, "Perhaps I am a cynic, perhaps I am not. Maybe I've just seen enough. Too many soulless bargains, too much goddam slaughter for my age."
"Why do you have to say goddam? Does it make you feel good? Or important? Or is this the way young surgeons are supposed to impress the world in these days?"
"You are really giving me the sermon today," I answer. My voice sounds very strange, like somebody else's, yet the sentence is familiar. Am I still dreaming? The voice comes from a barrel with all the deep echoes and I am losing my direction to reality. And the voice goes on again, it's in my head "you are really giving me the sermon today, today. But I am not as bad as you believe. I am just hungry and tired. I could give you a neat lecture on swearing. The psychology of swearing is all worked out, but there is no time left for arguments. We have to buy food. Can I sell mother's winter coat? Maybe her shoes too?"
My father keeps looking at me. "Isn't it a little too early? We just buried her yesterday." I can see him struggling with himself and I wish I wasn't such a rude bastard, but we have to survive.
SURVIVE... SURVIVE... SURVIVE, the giant echoes, like flying bats keep bouncing to overwhelm me. Echos... echos... echos everywhere. Reality is still disguised, but I feel a cool breeze now, and I am floating in a rubber dingy in the middle of the ocean, hearing now the huffing of shrimp boats with my father's voice superimposed, "sell mother's coat and shoes if you are hungry. It's all right with me."
I see him quite clearly, back in the bachelor suit. His Adam's apple gives a jolt to his white celluloid collar and the knot of his black necktie jerks up and down as he swallows. "We have to eat, I suppose," he says and walks to the window. After a silent inventory of the outside world he begins rinsing the cups and throws the soggy rose-hips in the garbage...
* * *
...I open my eyes. Still half asleep I can hear a gentle hissing. It is the sound of oxygen. The cool, clean, moist oxygen, like the sound of a leaking water-hose in the garden. And the mask. There is a mask on my nose. So smooth to touch. With a squint I can see how it gets fogged up repeatedly from the rhythm of my breath. I feel tired. Very tired, but at least my chest does not hurt any more. Oh, of course, I am in the ICU with tubes and wires attached to me.
I am alive, it appears, and almost fully awake. Or is this the dream? Where is my family? Where is my home? I don't have any idea what the date would be, but I am sure the year is 1975. My mother died 30 years ago and my father? Oh, the dear old man, they buried him 15 years ago. I wasn't there. Never saw his grave, the rulers of my country wouldn't allow me to cross the border, I am a dissident and an emigree. A no-good enemy of the people.
I want to go back to sleep; there are a number of questions to clarify and my father may know the answers. I need to slip back into the same dream. I close my eyes and my mind begins to wander. Then I board the old train, we are going home. We do not travel in ordinary space, I can tell from the gray mist outside the window where blue shadows keep flashing by, forming letters, numbers, dates. We travel in time backwards. I wish we wouldn't. How can I bear to feel and hear and see the burden of the past, witness the carnage after bombing raids, see the parents identifying their dead children in torn dusty clothes with missing hands and faces? I can't take the stories about gas chambers anymore. I need only peace. I want to find my home.
The emergency brake is just above my window. Grabbing the handle feels new, satisfying, a form of being in control. I have never pulled an emergency brake in my life, now is the time to try it. I pull the handle all the way down. The brakes begin to screech, the degree of deceleration presses me against the wooden bench (I am traveling backwards on third class) my legs get tangled and my back hurts. The jolt of stopping awakens me.
"Don't cross your legs," a nurse in a white pantsuit says, "it interferes with your circulation." She pinches my great toes, lifts my feet and uncrosses them. "There," she says and now lifts my shoulders and head together in a single skilled movement to fluff up my pillows. "Now," she asks putting me gently down, "do you want a drink?"
Do I want a drink? Not really. I don't want anything. I am not thirsty, not hungry, not happy, not sad, just hollow like a cave with petrified memories, no resonance, no music, no life in me, only echos in the cavernous emptiness around me. Do I want something? I don't really know. Do I want to live? I am not so sure. Maybe I want to go home. This is the first conscious desire since the chest pain (today? ... yesterday? ... a week ago?), and this desire rises and rushes with the force of a tidal-wave: I WANT TO GO HOME!
But where is my home? It's not that easy to tell. I close my eyes and try counting the places where I have lived. Six countries, 15 cities, two concentration camps, 52 houses. The statistics of my life are frightening. How many breakfasts? Fewer lunches, for sure. How many exams? And the illnesses, operations, the girls, the fights, the wars, the revolutions. The deaths, the births, the marriages. Homes were few, I was thrown from place to place too many times. Was this all inscribed in my genes, or in a book? It must have been written somewhere.
* * *
There is a curtain, half drawn around my bed for privacy, which is only symbolic because I am now in a different room. In the ICU I could hear people mumbling, groaning, burping, farting, breathing. Some times I heard the noise of feet rushing, the voices of panic, relatives crying. But now I am alone in a room, my heart, my pulse, my breathing monitored and the eyes of a camera staring at me from a corner. And now there is a movement of the curtain, and a rustle as the little white plastic wheels slide on metal tracks that are attached to the ceiling.
My wife and my son, visiting. She wears a beige knit suit and a timid smile. The boy, though he has a clip-on tie, is a disaster from the waist down. His Levis are frayed at the bottom, shoes dirty (or rather never cleaned), laces untied. Like any other youngster today. It's a messy world.
"Your shoe laces," I say.
"Shhh..." my wife warns and sits beside me. I smell her perfume, touch her hand, feel the familiar silkiness of her fingertips and look at her face. Her eyes are red, she must have cried before she came. "How are you?" she asks.
Christopher, sitting on the floor and chewing a raspberry smelling gum, ties his shoelaces and wipes his shoes with a Kleenex. I didn't see him spitting but probably he did, it's in the family. He stands up, throws the Kleenex in the waste basket and flops in a chair.
"Dad," he says, "I'm gonna have a soccer ball for my birthday." He blows a pink bubble and pops it. Bubble gum! Nobody chewed gum in our family until he started it. "I'll be a top soccer player, you know why? I'm half Hungarian, half Scottish and half Irish. The best stuff for soccer."
Life throbs everywhere in the room. The eyes of my wife are smiling. My frozen soul begins to thaw. "Sure, playing soccer is a good idea," I say, "you will be a great soccer player."
"Thanks," he says, "I knew you'd say that. Soccer is our blood." He blows another bubble, bigger than the first one, pops it, works it back into his mouth and turns to me. "Dad?"
"Chris, I think Daddy is tired," my wife tells him softly.
"Wait," he says, "just a sec... Dad? When are you gonna come home?"
"I don't really know," I tell him because I have no idea, but my wife answers for me. "The doctor said two or three weeks, if everything goes well."
"Jeepers. I thought it would be sooner." He scratches at the mosquito bites on his tanned arms, hugging himself with both hands. "I wanna play soccer with you."
"Playing soccer is months away, we cannot rush things," my wife tries to explain.
Chris folds his arms and pouts, "shit," he whispers, "I can't wait that long."
"Don't pout and use bad words," I warn him. My effort to improve him does not sound very convincing.
"Dad will be very weak for a while," my wife explains. "He will have to walk very slowly before he can learn to run."
"I'll walk with him and he can help with my paper route," he says and turns to me, "okay, Dad?"
"Paper route?" I inquire, because this is news to me.
"Yup," he says, "I'll start next week. The guy with the Journal van will give me a chance. I'll be the only nine-year-old with a paper route."
The nurse tiptoes in and suggests that the little boy, perhaps, should leave now. My wife can stay for two more minutes. Our son follows the nurse and looks back from the door. His eyes are dark, burning, faithful like the eyes of my father. He makes a full turn and a Stan Laurel face before vanishing.
When we are alone, my wife kisses me. Avoiding effort I embrace her. She buries her face in my chest, beside the electrodes then sits up straight. There is no need to pretend, her composure crumbles, a flood of tears begins to run down her cheeks.
"I hope you come home. We need you so much."
It's awful hard to talk. I want to go home, of course, their need for me helps to formulate that I want to live. "I'll make it," I say stroking her hand. "Give me a few months and we'll turn the world upside down."
"I hope so," she says, "you always say this when you are confident and strong." She dries her face, puts on a little make-up and surrenders herself to the nurse who wants her to go.
* * *
I am alone, thinking about my son. What a strong and strange little guy. The electrodes on my chest must have impressed him but he didn't say a word. Once, weeks ago, we discussed electrodes and he called them electric toads. I will allow myself a little laugh if I can with the electric toads sitting all over me, on my chest, on my arms and on my legs. The toads were silent today, nothing alarming, not like in the ICU where the red lights above my bed were often flashing and beeps kept signaling that something was wrong. I call this phase in my mind "the silence of the toads" which tells me that I have at least a 50-50 chance. If I live, I'll do all the great things in life as if nothing had happened. The best days are probably still ahead and we just might turn this world upside down. Or right side up, whichever. We just need the chance and a little more time, because this whole ball game was too short, like ending it at the beginning of the third quarter. Even thinking makes me tired now. I will close my eyes and go back to the same dream. I have a few more questions to ask and only my father knows the answers.
back to the Short Story Page.Going Home, 4 April 1997