Salvation at the Temporary Housing District: Part I of the Official History of Inota’s Regime Change

 

It happened once that God appeared in the temporary Inota housing district. He walked past the two factory chimneys of the power station, climbed over the gate, headed alongside the fence, and arrived in time to see the passengers of the last 8:40pm bus from Székesfehérvár get off. He wore an English wool pullover and corduroy pants. He wasn’t wearing a tie, but the stiff collar of his white shirt poked out over his billowy trench coat, reminiscent of angel wings. He didn’t pull his hat into his eyes, as was custom around here back then. Instead, he looked people straight in the eyes. They could tell right away he was a foreigner.

It was November 16, 1989, and God could once again step behind the Iron Curtain. So he did. He was curious about Hungarians, how they were doing amidst the historical changes happening around them, especially if Hungarians had claimed him as theirs. And one of his paths led him to the Park Pub in the temporary housing district. He wanted to know what the people were getting up to.

It had been a long time since God had stepped foot inside a Hungarian pub—since 1947, to be exact—so he wasn’t sure what to expect. He went up to the bar and waited. Most of the guests noticed him right away, but they didn’t approach him. A red Videoton TV crackled in the corner. Political parties had formed in the country, the whole world was changing, and the people, many for the first time in their lives, had become curious. About themselves, too. God saw that this was good, and lit a cigarette. A sweet, ethereal, calming ambrosia smell filled the room. Now everyone was paying attention. They crinkled their brown, soft packets of cigarettes in their hands, and pain grew in their hearts. They weren’t ready for anything good. They anticipated it, but they weren’t ready for it. They weren’t ready to have opinions, choices, elections, free competition, a free market, a future. And they weren’t ready for God, either. As previously mentioned, it had been a long time since they’d last seen him. And it’s apparent from their national anthem that God had historically not been very good to the Hungarians.

The bartender at the Park Pub thought, Since there’s no Unicum, the foreigner should drink vodka, or a mixed pálinka, or, since he’s in Hungary anyway, even a lousy cherry pálinka, that’s the least he can do, and he started pouring. Then, to ease the sudden tension the ambrosia had caused, he started talking to the stranger.

“Are you a 56-er?”

“A what?”

“Did you leave the country after the revolution? Or when?”

Oh, so they think I’m an immigrant, God thought, and this rather pleased him. “I had to leave a while ago, and I haven’t been back since,” he said. He took the shot. He felt the pálinka spread throughout his body, the mix of the alcohol and its aroma could not be mistaken for anything else, and it coaxed a congenial being out of him. He knew that people often made friends while drinking, that they even talked to people they didn’t know when under the influence. God didn’t know anyone here. And no one here knew God, either.

He looked around and saw Inota Somebody sitting at one of the tables in the corner. The pálinka had dulled God’s senses a bit, but something about this person was suspicious to him nonetheless. This person is troubled, God thought.

He ordered two more pálinkas and asked the man if he could sit down. And whether he’d accept a shot. Inota Somebody had a feeling that he couldn’t take one without the other, so he nodded. God sat down, and they drank the shots right away, which gave God courage to cut to the chase.

“What’s wrong, Somebody? If you can tell anyone, it’s me.”

“The Devil’s gonna take my soul, if he hasn’t already.”

Meanwhile, the din in the pub rose, the fridge rattled, the coffeemaker whistled, Berci Farkas, the only Hungarian astronaut, appeared on the TV for a moment. New guests arrived from the terrace, the neon sign above the door blinked. As it darkened, the Inota night narrowed.

“And there’s no one who can help you?” God asked Somebody.

“No one.”

“Then I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you. Just you today,” he said, and offered him an ambrosia cigarette.

Somebody calmly lit the foreign cigarette, and from behind the sweet cloud of smoke, he asked God to tell him about the last time something had badly hurt him.

“Why’s that important?” God asked, surprised.

“Because that’s the only way we can be friends. A secret for a secret. Honesty is the foundation of everything, even in this place.” Somebody looked around. “But, honest to God, when was the last time something broke your heart?”

God mused for a second. He never thought of himself as someone whose heart could be broken.

“Well, let’s see,” he said. He looked around the narrowing, temporary night, the pub, the faces enveloped in smoke, the neon, the glasses, the wavy posters on the greasy walls, the fake flower on the shelf. He looked at the hungover Eastern Bloc, how happily they drank it away. He thought he could even see himself on that grainy little Videoton TV. God wasn’t sure how much time passed like this.

Then he said, “You know, when that astronaut—not yours, but the Soviet one, the first one to come up to space—when he said he didn’t see no God up there, well, that hurt a helluva lot. My heart nearly broke in two. Yeah, that’s the right way to put it: a helluva lot,” he said, and he put out the cigarette that had burned down to his fingertips in the plastic ashtray.

Bios

Ferenc Czinki

Ferenc Czinki was born in Székesfehérvár, Hungary in 1982. Journalist, essayist, and fiction author, he publishes in national newspapers such as Magyar Narancs and Élet és Irodalom and literary journals such as Kalligram, Hévíz, and Irodalmi Szemle. His novel A pozsonyi metró (The Bratislava Metro”) was published in 2017 and his short story collection Egy kocsma város (“A Pub City”) appeared in 2014. Director and organizer of the KafkaBeat Pub Theatre in Székesfehérvár, he is also a member of the József Attila Kör Literary Society and vice-chairman of Szépírók Társasága (Belletrist Association Society). Currently, he is touring Hungary and its surrounding countries with a theatrical, musical, and literary performance called Klasszik Laszó (“Classic Lasso”).

Timea Balogh

Timea Balogh is a Hungarian-American writer and translator with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A 2017 American Literary Translators Association Travel Fellow, her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Offing, Two Lines Journal, Waxwing, Split Lip Magazine, Arkansas International, and the Wretched Strangers anthology by Boiler House Press, among others. Her debut original short story was published in Juked magazine and was nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Another story of hers is soon to appear in Passages North. She divides her time between Budapest and Las Vegas, and can be found on Twitter: @TimeaRozalia.

Copyright (c) Ferenc Czinki, 2014. English translation copyright (c) Timea Balogh, 2019.