Saturday Showdown

“Buddy!”

He heard someone call but decided not to react. He put his soccer bag on the bed and did a double-check. Everything was there, as usual: two towels, jersey, socks, shin guards, knee pads, boots. He laced up his track shoes and got to his feet.

“Buddy!” the voice came again from the kitchen. It was Lenka calling, a hint of panic in her voice.

He did up the zipper and called back, “Here, Lenka.”

“Come here please!”

He left the room and closed the door behind him. He’d slept in that room all his life, and his brother had slept there before marrying Lenka. He went into the kitchen and saw her.

She was standing in a faded old singlet that made her breasts bulge out indecently. Dinner was almost ready. She was cooking a hotchpotch with leeks or kale in a big enamel pot. He didn’t like the smell of it.

“Buddy, I can’t see or hear Pop. Can you go and check where he is?”

You know where he is–down at the lofts, Buddy thought, but didn’t say it. He did as he was asked.

Out on the veranda the air smelled of coming rain. In the distance was the River Sava; a little nearer he saw the other houses and the dry moat around the Baroque fortress; the railroad tracks ran behind the garden fence, and there was a pedestrian crossing nearby. His gaze passed over the garden, which suddenly seemed neglected and overgrown. And he saw Pop down at the lofts.

The old man didn’t notice him. He was trudging around the garden in his slippers and knitted cardigan, doing heaven knows what with some filthy water–cleaning out the pigeonholes or the food trays. He looked aged and bent. It was best not to disturb him, Buddy decided.

He went back to the kitchen. Lenka was cutting bacon into strips and peeling garlic.

“Pop’s down at the lofts, he’s okay.”

“Are you off now?”

“Yep. The match is at four.”

“I have to watch he doesn’t run away from the garden like last time.”

“I know,” Buddy replied. He didn’t know what else to say.

“Off you go. See you for dinner,” Lenka said, tossing the bacon into the pan.

Buddy pondered for a moment, took his bag, and left.

*

Ever thicker clouds gathered over the Sava, heralding a summer storm. The birds were darting to and fro over the river like fugitive glyphs that had left their letters, but the river greened blithely, unconcerned by the goings-on above. Buddy looked for a bench by the river that wasn’t so badly broken and sat down. He laid his bag with his wet clothes and boots beside the bench. He was wearing his spare, dry tracksuit that sported the name of his club’s sponsor. That would have drawn attention to him straight away if anyone else had been down by the river.

Slavonski Brod lay behind him, hot and empty. It was Saturday. The Locomotive Works and other factories were closed. Whoever wasn’t spending the weekend in their home village was riveted to their TV set at home. The two big Croatian teams, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, were fighting it out, just three rounds from the end of the season. Buddy wanted to know the score. Now especially that should interest him, he thought.

He looked around to see if there was anyone he could ask, but the levee along the Sava was deserted, except for some workers in the distance filling in a hole on the embankment near the fortress. The river calmed him and he was glad no one was around. He needed a little peace to think and to weigh things up.

Just half an hour earlier he’d received an offer to leave school and move to Split. It was a contract to play for the very club that the people in the apartment blocks by the Sava were watching on TV–that same club on the same hallowed turf. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that the offer had come as a surprise. But when it finally came, it set his mind in a flurry: he thought about his brothers, the house, his room, and the club. But most of all about Lenka, who stood in the kitchen in her faded singlet cooking leek stew and peering out over the veranda again and again to make sure Pop didn’t end up under the next Belgrade Express. There really was a lot to decide and to arrange, and the river flowing sluggishly before his eyes helped him see things more clearly. It made the problems seem smaller.

That afternoon he’d played in a regular match for the local team Metalac. Although he was the youngest, he played sweeper because the trainer said he had more brains than all the older players. They won 3-1, and Buddy scored two goals. In the middle of the first half he went forward for a corner. The ball came in with a lot of spin, the goalie couldn’t hold it, and Buddy was in just the right spot to rise up and head it into the box.

Afterwards his team scored again. Then the visitors narrowed the lead to 2-1. Just before the final whistle he commandeered the ball, dribbled past two opponents and went on a long sprint into the other side’s half. He ran thirty yards, perhaps more, and was surprised that no one caught up with him or brought him down. Then he took a mighty shot, keeping the ball low. It deflected off the goal post into the net, and he raised his arms in jubilation.

The man in the blue suit approached him after. Buddy had showered and come out of the change room with a towel around his neck, carrying his bulging sports bag. The man introduced himself. From Split, he said–from The Club.

They sat in a café in the bowling alley near the stadium. The man in blue ordered a double espresso and asked if he could smoke. He told Buddy that The Club had had an eye on him for some time. If he came to Split he’d be able to finish school, he’d have an apartment of his own, and earn 30,000 per season. That was five or six times the normal wage, plus bonuses, Buddy calculated. And that for over four years of playing for Hajduk! Then he’d be twenty-three and could go off to Ukraine or Austria like almost all the young talents did.

The man in blue studied him to gauge if he was impressed. Then he took a draft contract out of his briefcase and gave it to him. He advised him to find a manager, someone who knew his way around in the soccer business. Buddy told him he needed to think things over, or that he’d “be in touch”–in short, something vague and non-committal.

The man in blue didn’t believe him–he lit another cigarette and eyed Buddy in disbelief. He was incredulous at him not saying yes straight away. You didn’t turn down an offer like that unless you had something better. “Have you got other offers?” the man in blue finally uttered. “They haven’t called you, have they?” he asked, and Buddy realized that he’d read the man’s thoughts well. He didn’t need to say who they were–Dinamo. “No, they haven’t. I just need to sort out a few things here.”

The sky over the river grew dark, and the water took on a grayish hue. Across the water in Bosnia the lights were going on in the apartment towers of Bosanski Brod. Buddy concluded that he should go home now. He caught sight of a middle-aged man in a tracksuit walking along the levee and trying to restrain his dog. “Excuse me,” Buddy called, “what was the final score?” “The match in Split?” the stranger asked back. “Hajduk lost 1-0.” Buddy nodded and wasn’t sure whether he was glad or disappointed.

*

Lenka took refuge in the kitchen. She wiped down the synthetic countertop that was already glistening clean. She was silent and her eyes were downcast–clearly she felt uncomfortable with the situation.

Buddy stood at the door, still in his tracksuit and with his bag in hand. His big brother Lovro was sitting at the table in his undershirt and eating. The big pot of greens was next to his plate and spoonful after spoonful disappeared into his mouth, accompanied by bread. A plate and a glass had been set at the opposite end of the table. Buddy knew they were for him, but he didn’t feel like eating now.

“Split, huh? The sea, palm trees…. I’m all right Jack.”

He knew his brother would react like this. It was certain. That’s why he hadn’t signed a deal with Mr. Blue Suit in the café that afternoon. He knew his brother would go up the wall when he heard about the contract.

At least he didn’t start yelling. He just complained–a twenty-minute tirade between mouthfuls of stew, shoving bread into his mouth with one hand and waving a threatening finger with the other. “I’m all right Jack,” “Off on his brilliant career,” “We can stay here and rot,” he ranted with his mouth full of leeks and bacon, not bothering to look up at his younger brother. In the end Lenka was sick of pretending she had work to do in the kitchen. She looked at Buddy and rolled her eyes behind her husband’s back. He didn’t reply in kind because Lovro was now staring at him angrily. Lenka went into the other room and sat down next to the old man. “Pop, do you need anything?” she asked, but he didn’t answer: his eyes were glued to the TV.

Pop was the problem. Buddy knew his brother would never simply let him go away, leaving him to look after the old man. Or rather: leaving Lenka to look after him–she was the one who did most of the looking after.

Pop wasn’t actually all that old, just sixty-seven. Other people that age had a lot more life in them. Pop forgot things, never knew the time of day, got tongue-tied, and you couldn’t let him go into town because he’d get lost. They went to see doctors, but far from encouraging them the doctors would send them away with vague diagnoses and semi-legible prescriptions that they took to the pharmacy to buy more packs of Antisklerin. How could he be sclerotic at sixty-seven?

Buddy had found out toward the end of last winter. He’d gone down to the pharmacy to pick up a new load of medicines. Behind the counter was not the pretty new assistant he was wooing, but an elderly male pharmacist with a large moustache and a pair of small glasses riding his nose. He read the documents Buddy brought and started asking about Pop: his speech, his wandering off, and how he spent the time. Then he beckoned Buddy into the laboratory at the back. There, among the test tubes, mortars, and pestles, he told his young customer: “You can do what you like, but your old man has Alzheimer’s. There’s no doubt about it–I had a case in the family myself.”

Later at the school computer lab Buddy went online and typed in Alzheimer. He didn’t know how to spell it and had to try three times. But then he found out everything: the basics, the symptoms, how the disease progressed, and why it couldn’t be cured. He turned off the computer and went home. He resolved not to say a word.

*

Lovro was finishing dinner. As he cleaned his plate with the bread he spoke again: “I know you want to go. Who wouldn’t? But first we have to agree about a few things.”

“I’ll have money. I’ll be able to help.”

“Thanks a million, but I don’t need another Mirko.”

That was a lie. It was simply not true that Lovro couldn’t do with another Mirko. Mirko was the third and eldest brother, their angel and protector. He lived in Germany and had been there for twenty years. He was doing well for himself. The house they lived in was his. He’d built it long ago, one floor for himself and the other for his parents and brothers. Everything valuable in the house was from Mirko. He’d bought them the video recorder for Christmas, their clothes for their birthdays, and the TV as a house-warming present.

That allowed them to live in modest comfort, and if all they had was his brother’s police salary they’d be paupers. Mirko’s remittances of a few hundred euros arrived sporadically, yet the money always came when it was needed. There was another side to this benefaction though, which both they and Lovro were well aware of. They looked after Pop–their father and Mirko’s father. Maybe Mirko didn’t know quite how poorly his old man was doing, but he knew he wasn’t well and kept paying his debt. His debt for not being there.

“Okay, so you don’t need another Mirko. What do you need then?”

“Two helping hands here. That’s what!”

“So what are you proposing?”

“That you take on a share of the load.”

What a put-on, Buddy thought. He wanted to tell his brother that he, Lovro, wasn’t carrying a share of the load at all. It had always been father, then Mirko, then Lenka. Buddy wanted to say this more than ever, but he held his tongue–he didn’t want to feel the policeman’s fury.

Lovro got up from the table. He lugged his fat body into the kitchen and took his plate to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. His undershirt hung down over his pot belly and flabby flanks.

It’s as if we’re not brothers at all, Buddy thought. Not like we should be, of the same blood–united in anger, love, and war.

Mirko and Lovro were much older. They lived a different life. When they’d been his age and raced along the Sava on their bikes, their mother was still alive, their father as fit as a fiddle, and the house smelt of beef soup and freshly washed linen. He was born later when Mirko already worked for Siemens and Lovro was a young policeman. But then their mother died four months after learning that neglected breast cancer had metastasized and gone to her lungs. Buddy was seven at the time–too small to now have any real memories of her. He only remembered how she looked, and maybe even that was self-delusion. When Pop became a widower he took mother’s photos off the wall and put them in a small leather trunk that only he, Buddy, opened from time to time. To get his fill of memories that weren’t really his.

These pictures showed a completely different family: a handsome young father clowning around, holidays and birthdays together, excursions to Papuk, sunbathing by the Sava in one-piece swimsuits, messing around in the garden. That whole world, conserved in silver shadows on paper, was whisked away before he reached puberty. Nothing remained of it now–only the trunk of borrowed memories.

By the time he reached puberty his mom was long dead. Aunt Ana did the housekeeping. She came on Saturdays to clean and cook. She patted him on the head and gave him a pack of Jaffa cookies. Pop went to work in the mornings, and in the evenings he’d collapse onto the couch in front of the TV and chain smoke. Before bed he’d go down to the lofts to change the birds’ hemp and water, and to stare into the night sky. Sometimes Buddy went quietly down into the garden and found his father there crying silent, dry tears.

All this time, brother Lovro would be on late shift or night shift, and when he wasn’t working nights he’d go out to the pub in his uniform and come back tipsy and stinking of beer. Buddy spent his childhood alone. He’d make himself a boiled egg in the mornings, roam the fortress and the trenches alone, and kick a ball against a wall by himself. When he came home from school he’d have lunch with his father in absolute silence and afterwards go and play soccer at the concrete playground until dusk. Even at an early age he was the best–he could out-dribble anyone, and when he took a shot the ball went exactly where he wanted it to. He realized at an early age that this was what he wanted to do in life. It was the only thing that made him free.

He’d been with Lovro all his life–they’d shared a roof, a bedroom, a dining table, and had lived out of the same wallet. Then again, Buddy wasn’t sure he’d ever had a single meaningful conversation with him. Buddy had five or six main images of his brother: Lovro sitting out on the veranda, big and obese, brushing his police boots; Lovro coming home drunk, struggling to get his boots off in the hall, and crawling under the quilt; Lovro breathing heavily at night in the other bed, his shirt on the floor stinking of cigarette smoke and his pistol in its holster smelling of oil and solvent. This picture would join the gallery too: big Lovro in his undershirt gorging himself on leek stew and announcing he wouldn’t let Buddy run away from their collective happiness.

“Now it’s your turn to take on some of the load,” he repeated.

“What does that mean? That I not go?”

“Don’t be stupid. You have to go… But Pop’s going with you.”

This hit Buddy like a ton of bricks.

Lovro put his plate on the pile of dishes, stretched, and headed for the veranda: “That’s my suggestion. You decide.”

*

Lovro lumbered back through the dining room and made for the bedroom. Hitting the sack already! Buddy thought: Since he’s stopped being a loudmouth and regular at the pub he goes to bed with the chickens. Buddy realized he was still standing by the door in his tracksuit and holding his bag of sweaty sports clothes.

“You haven’t eaten, Buddy,” Lenka said. “I’ll warm up dinner for you.” He didn’t like the sight and smell of the food, but he knew it was best to fall in line.

He sat down at the table and began to eat. The greens and potatoes were warm, and now he started to enjoy the meal. He felt it give him back his strength. Just then he felt like a child that needed a mom.

“See, it’s good for you,” Lenka smiled, gathering up Lovro’s fork and spoon from the table. Lenka was the best person in the house and the only one who stood to lose when he left. Yet she had no need to say a single word.

“What do you think about it?” Buddy finally spoke.

“You don’t have to take him with you,” Lenka replied. “I’ll take care of him.”

“This is different, Lenka. It’s about much more than that.”

“Like what?”

“Other stuff–family stuff.”

“You mean it’s not my business too?”

“Oh, Lenka, for God’s sake!”

He got up from the table, took the dishes into the kitchen, and offered to help with the washing up. She declined. He took the plastic bag out of the trash can, pressed down the trash, and tied it at the top so it could be thrown into the hopper.

Lovro will always be a policeman, he thought. He’ll always live in his brother’s house and always be ill-tempered. Lovro will never drive an SUV, visit Florence, or have an apartment with a view of the sea.

That’s why Lovro wanted him to take the old man. Lovro wanted Buddy to do something the hard way–he wasn’t to have it all easy in life.

“What have you got in mind?” Lenka asked.

“Nothing, it doesn’t matter,” he replied. It didn’t enter his mind to tell Lenka what he was thinking. She knew anyway.

“Will you manage?” she asked.

“There’s always a way.”

“But what will Pop say?”

“Soon he won’t care anymore.”

“Do you think it’s that bad?”

“I don’t just think so, Lenka–I know.”

She was silent for a moment longer as she washed the plates with a kitchen pad. Then she turned to him: “Pop’s in there. Go and talk to him.”

Buddy went into the living room where his father was still sitting in front of the TV. He was watching a quiz with musical intermezzos, the volume turned down–it looked like the singers were emitting strange, quivering yawns. He sat down next to his father and put his hand on his knee.

“Well then?”

The old man looked at him for just an instant before gazing back at the program.

“Shall we go, you and me?” Buddy asked and held his father’s hand. But he didn’t expect an answer.

Bios

Jurica Pavičić

Jurica Pavičić was born in 1965 in Split, where he completed elementary and secondary school. He graduated in history and world literature from the University of Zagreb. Since 1990, he has lived permanently in Split, working as a film critic and columnist for various newspapers and magazines. In 1992, he received the “Vladimir Vuković” award for film criticism. Since 1994, he has written a weekly column entitled “Vijesti iz Liliputa” (News from Liliput), dissecting society, politics, and culture in wartime and postwar Croatia. The texts from this series were awarded the “Marija Jurić-Zagorka” prize of the national journalists’ association in 1996; he also received the special “Veselko Tenžera” award for his contribution to journalism in 2002 and Slobodna Dalmacija‘s “Miljenko Smoje” award in 2007.

Pavičić made his literary debut in 1997 with a social thriller, Ovce od gipsa (Plaster Sheep), which was ultimately adapted into the award-winning film Svjedoci (Witnesses), directed by Vinko Brešan. His second novel, Nedjeljni prijatelj (Sunday Friend), was published in 2000, and his short stories have appeared in various literary journals. In 2000, his play entitled Trovačica (The Poisoner) was produced by the Croatian National Theatre in Split, having won the “Držić” national drama award in the previous year. He published his collected texts from the “Vijesti iz Liliputa” series in book form. The same year saw the publication of a monograph on Croatian postmodernist fantasy literature. His third novel, Minuta 88, was published in 2002. The novel was shortlisted for the Jutarnji list award for the best fiction work of the year. His fourth novel, Kuća njene majke (Her Mother’s House), was published in 2005 in the newspaper Jutarnji list. His fifth novel, Crvenkapica (Little Red Riding Hood), a contemporary version of Charles Perrault’s fable, appeared in 2006. Pavičić’s latest work of fiction is a collection of short stories entitled Patrola na cesti (Highway Patrol). His short stories and essays have been translated into English, German, Italian, and Bulgarian.

Will Firth

Will Firth was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991, he has been living in Berlin, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. His translations include works by Ognjen Spahić and Robert Perišić (from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) as well as Luan Starova and Petre M. Andreevski (from Macedonian). See www.willfirth.de.

Patrola na cesti. Copyright (c) Jurica Pavičić, 2008. English translation copyright (c) Will Firth, 2012.