An excerpt from the novel “A Week in the Life and Death of Grozdan” by Zvezdan Georgievski.
Friday is a café day. Each Friday, at high noon, he, Izet, and Boshko are in the café “At Kole’s” (so-called Kole’s day). The ritual is like: he goes to Gjosh’s newsstand, buys his favorite Vreme weekly, then walks to “At Kole’s” (20 minutes), orders liver and rakija, then switches to beer and – what the day will bring. And so about seven, eight years, after he lost his job, or since he is being a freelancer, as they use to call journalists without a steady job.
“’Vreme daily” hasn’t arrived yet?” – Grozdan asks.
“It has arrived, you bet.”
“So, where it is?”
“You took it.”
“You took it 20 minutes ago.”
“I didn’t, don’t make a fool out of me.”
“I have been getting four samples. The neighbor with the hat took one, Mrs. Angja the other, I – the third, and the fourth – you. Don’t you make a fool out of me.”
Without saying a word, Grozdan leaves the newsstand and he is already sitting at his table at Kole’s. He is alone. Izet and Boshko aren’t here yet. In front of him, there is the regular Friday portion of liverwurst, salad, and rakija. He cannot remember ordering them, but it isn’t what surprises him. Every Friday is the same routine, so Kole would often prepare liverwurst for Grozdan, sharska meatball for Boshko, and kebap for Izet beforehand.
There isn’t any saltshaker on the table.
“Kole, give me a salt.”
“Screw your salt. I already gave it to you 20 minutes ago”, Kole shouts from behind the bar.
“You didn’t give me anything.”
Kole sullenly approaches Grozdan’s table. “Here’s your salt” – he points at the table’s corner, where usually is the whole cruet. And here it is, for real: vinegar, pepper, and salt.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see it” – Grodzan is stuttering. Kole is carefully observing him.
“Are you OK? You look somehow pale. Would you have a coffee, a lemonade…”
“No, I’m just tired” – Grozdan is almost whispering. “Boshko and Izet aren’t here yet?”
“How do you mean, they left?”
“They left 20 minutes ago.”
Grozdan swears to himself and pulls his cell phone out.
“There is never a signal in your basement. I’m going to get out to make a call, leave the table that way.”
He is phoning Izet. The phone repeatedly and boringly is giving the calling signal, again and again… until it turns off. Grozdan is trying for a second time, then third, and one more time, and another… Nothing. He is trying to call Boshko. This time the phone is replying with a voice message: The user you are looking for has turned off their phone or is out of reach.” Fucking idiots, and after all, I’m the one who swears a lot.
Today nothing is as it should be, this crosses Grozdan’s mind while he goes to his table in the café. It’s empty, the white sheet is almost perfectly clean (of course, as perfect as it could be at Kole’s), only in the corner there is the cruet. It’s complete: vinegar, oil, pepper, and salt. Kole has his liverwurst removed, but Grozdan decides not to be angry. He knows Kole has some family problems and he is probably absent-minded.
“Kole, where is my liverwurst?”
“Say hello first, damn it”, Kole shouts from behind the bar. “Just a moment.”
“Just give it to me.”
“Just a moment, just a moment…” Kole’s voice disappears from behind the bar.
Kole, with his unbelievably slow pace, first brings him the glass of homemade rakija. (only waiters can practice to perfection such a slow pace, and if there was a World Championship for the slowest waiters, it would be the biggest competition), and at the same slow pace, he goes back to the bar. After long, disgustingly long five minutes, the salad is coming.
„Where is the liverwurst?”
“Dammit. You’ll have it in 15-20 minutes” – shouts Kole from behind his back, slowly moving away from the table.
Grozdan realizes that Kole is yet to prepare the liverwurst. He takes a deep breath and exhales. Everything is off today, he repeats to himself. In order to kill the time, he decides to play a little with the cruet, with the salt and pepper to be precise, to spill them (for Kole’s spite) on the whitest sheet in the history of this café and make circles of them. But the cruet, quite unexpectedly, is out of his reach. Or the table is bigger than it seems to Grozdan. He extends his hand to the maximum. Useless. He is a few centimeters short of the saltshaker. He gets to his feet, but the cruet somehow is getting away. He bends over the table and outstretches his hand, but the cruet is further moving away.
He feels his feet heavy and he loses the race with the cruet, but he doesn’t give up. I’m so tired. I’m so tired. Everything is off today. The white sheet turns into an unending snow valley. His feet are wet. I have to put on winter boots. His legs sink in the snow to his knees, and the cruet is more and more distant. And bigger and bigger. He now sees it as a huge mountain he has to reach. So they there are, as it should, here behind the corner, huskies, and sleds. It was precisely what he had been imagining as a child. Just like in Jack London’s novels. He gets on the sled. He takes the whip and whips the huskies with all his force, and they at full speed head toward the mountain.
“Here is your liverwurst”, Kole says in his monotonous voice.
On the table, in front of Grozdan’s confused face, suddenly shows up a portion of liverwurst. There is a salad on the right side and a glass of rakija on the left. Only the cruet is missing.
“Where is the salt?”
“Oh, I always forget the salt”, Kole mumbles and moves slowly to the table next, in order to take the cruet from there to Grozdan’s table.
“But, Izet and Boshko are not here yet?” asks Kole, almost uninterestedly.
Grozdan is sitting petrified for some time. As if he is feeling all those tam-tams from the African jungles in his head. “Excuse me?”
“Where are Izet and Boshko?”, Kole is uninterested but persistent.
“They left”, Grozdan whispers again.
“I don’t know. They left 20 minutes ago. Before I came.”
Kole is now carefully looking at Grozdan.
“Are you all right? You seem somehow pale. Would you like coffee, lemonade…”
“No, I’m tired only”, Grozdan is almost whispering.
“I’m gonna go to the toilet to wash up myself a little bit”-Grozdan is stuttering, “and leave the table that way.”
“Go, go…”- indifferently replies Kole, slowly moving away, going towards the bar.
Grozdan intentionally leaves the toilet door ajar. In the mirror above the washbasin, he can see what’s happening at his table. Would Kole take his liverwurst portion again or hide his salt? Is this kinda mockery of his complaints all these years? Simply, he is a rational person and wants to have control over things.
He lets the water run from the faucet and literally puts his head beneath it. The water pours on his neck and the top of his head. After that, using both hands, he cups water as much as possible and splashes his face. He takes the little soap and rubs his hands long enough, and subsequently, just as long, he rubs his face and closes his eyes. As if he is going to clear his confusing thoughts. He rinses himself. He opens the eyes. He looks at the mirror and he is astounded. From the mirror, his table can be seen, and at it, three men are sitting. Boshko, Izet and him – Grozdan. In front of each of them, there is a portion of food: sharska meatball, kebab, and liverwurst.
There is a glass of white wine in front of Izet, beer in front of Boshko, and rakija in front of him. It seems to him that his double is looking exactly at him. Their eyes meet through the mirror.
Grozdan closes his eyes. He feels unbelievable dizziness and exhaustion. He supports himself with his hands on the washbasin. He cannot move his hands, nor his legs. Pull yourself together, pull yourself together. He slowly opens his eyes, and from the corner of his eye peeks at the mirror: Boshko and Izet are sitting at the table, portions of sharska and kebab in front of them. In front of the empty chair where he had been sitting at, he can see his liverwurst portion partially eaten.
Everything is gonna be OK, everything is gonna be OK. You are very tired, everything will go back to normal, he repeats to himself. He slowly turns to the table and, pretending there is nothing off, waddles to the chair and sits. Fortunately, Izet and Boshko are ardently discussing some matter from quantum physics and the possibility of the existence of parallel worlds, therefore they barely notice his appearance.
“You are here?”, Grozdan himself is surprised by his question.
“Yes, we arrived, what about you?”, Boshko wants to be sarcastic.
“I have been phoning both of you. I couldn’t get a hold of you”, Grozdan continues.
“Yea, imagine, all of a sudden, my screen display got cracked, and the phone died. I feel like I’m killing myself. Half of my life is inside”, Boshko joyfully says, as if announcing he has won the lottery prize.
“I forgot mine at home, but it’s OK: it’s easier to live this way”, Izet says.
All of a sudden, Grozdan spots the latest issue of “Vreme” weekly on the table, used as a pad for the cruet.
“Whose is ‘Vreme’?”, he asks.
“How do you mean, whose?, you have brought it”, Izet replies. “You are very forgetful.”
Grozdan pretends he doesn’t care and takes a mouthful of the liverwurst.
“Is Buba still on a trip?”, Boshko asks.
Yes, Buba. I wish he was here. His dear wife. She has gone to a seminar in a city in Middle Europe, some city with unpronounceable name. It’s not Goethebourg, it’s not in Sweden, but it was something like that.
“Now you bring misteresses home”, Boshko continues.
“Do you want me to rent you the apartment for an hour?”, Grozdan replies.
“After Buba is back, you will be my guests at my summer home in Dobar Dol. You are invited, Izet, as well, along with Mersiha. Maria will make a pie.
At that moment, at first glance accidentally, Grozdan glances at the half-open toilet door. And he gets astounded. He sees himself looking in the mirror. Their looks meet each other through the mirror. All of the sudden, he jumps out of the chair, the same way as Boshko does when he gets cramps in the muscle below the left knee, and storms out through the door. He only menages to shout: “I have to go. Tell Kole to put it on my tab.”
Grozdan runs with all his strength, out of breath. He runs into passers-by, but he overlooks that. Some child from across the street points at him, and his mother takes him aside. Grozdan keeps running. He feels a rush of blood in his head, and his vision blurs. As far as possible, as far as possible. Where are the goddamn huskies and the goddamn sleds? And he runs towards his apartment.
He gets out and loses his strength after 20 minutes of running, just in front of Gjosh’s newsstand. He stops and barely takes a breath.
“You will take ‘Vreme daily’” as if Gjosh’s voice is heard from a distance.
“I already took”, he says between two breaths.
“You didn’t”, Gjosh says. “It’s been only 20 minutes since you arrived. The neighbor with the hat took one sample, Mrs. Angja another, and I saved this for you.”
Grozdan grabs the newspaper and without saying a word, striding, approaches the entrance of his apartment.
“Hey, how about paying 50 denars, ha?” he hears Gjosh from behind his back and imagines him discontentedly waving his hand away. This image cheers him up, even in the elevator that ascends for an infinitely long time to the sixth floor.
He would unlock the door, send Buba an e-mail, lay on the sofa and everything would be fine. He unlocks the door and lays on the white terry sheet on the sofa. He is too weak to open the newspaper. He feels the chill penetrating his bones. His feet are wet. His legs are heavy, as if in a snow to the knees. And finally, he blacks out. The last thing he sees is the newspaper falling out of his hands fluttering in the winter wind, slowly landing toward the sea of laminate on the floor. Somewhere, in the distance, far away, the barking of huskies pulling a sled is being heard. Too far away.
Translated by Simeon Jankov