Birds and Traffic
To make the observations that follow, I made myself stop. Hobbies of fiction and documentary were put to bed. Adventure and abandon were disciplined with caution and planning. Journals were tossed away. Extremes were suppressed by a cute regard for life. But during this Om of creative forgetting, I unearthed a new thrust to my understanding.
Within my orbit, an hour by bike from home, I had found sacred ground.
“I’ve been to the secret spot,” I’d mumble to anyone who might care.
The spot was unexceptional, a few meters of Danube beach with no extraordinary characteristics. Here, I meditated with the soul winds that coiled down from the hills and prayed to the river for great days. It was no accident that this temple needed no more decoration than water’s being and movement. Plain and featureless, it was a slate to jot my thoughts huffing after me to the cove.
I dropped to my knees, praying in the silence to the sacred eternal spirit who inhabited the place. Studying the shallows more intently than ever before, I could discern many spongy blobs floating merrily along. Yes, in the midst of the umber waters, in a space transcending place, spirit and time, and where my focus and logic rested, swam aerated colonies of pooh.
I laughed aloud and said, “My heavens, it’s not the secret spot. Or the sacred spot. No, it’s the shit sacred secret spot!”
I loved the mockery it made of my temple and wryly smiled at the cosmic joke.
With my hands dug in the shingle beach, holding asanas and making the world upside down and inside out, with the earth’s energy surging into my shoulders and soaring out of my hips, I wrote an alphabet of poses in the dirty, gritty sand, home of thousands of oxygenated turds interred among the pebbles that had advertised themselves as a beach. I smarted again at the irony and stared at the river, absorbing its presence and safety, force and vulnerability, its absolutes.
I watched the fabric of the water and listened to the thoughts that bubbled from underneath the surface; soon I would set out for home with wheels as wings and join the traffic. But I knew I would return, chasing silence, exactly so I could sing.
How did I land on birds and traffic as threads with which to stitch this story together, motors to drive this report on the epoch in which we live? The connection felt temporary like a prayer, cathartic like a pilgrimage, tentative like a wish to never grow old. The link was never as obvious as picking off flying morsels during hunting season. Yet I had to acknowledge my perspective was imbued with manifest destiny, an androcentric view that so long as the birds filled the skies with their songs, our future was livable, flimsy succor that I ought to live to the end of my days. I was aghast at uncovering mortality beating in the heart of my thoughts.
I brushed it off around the time a colleague warned me about parenthood.
“Since giving birth, I can only think about death,” she said, blinking at me like a pit bull. She scratched her orange face and emphasized, “All the time.”
I was in denial then, but she was right. Coinciding with the birth of my first child, I began to see death everywhere as I completed my errands in the markets and squares of the congested, panicked city. I had zero illusions about traffic, a plague inhabiting every pocket of the earth, a mob of deathly vehicles that I suspected of the utmost malice. The prospect of death at their hands made me wary, but not enough to stop the pedals of life turning.
I would carry on until some horrible fait accomplimight snuff me out, an unknown afternoon when risk would sweep me away like a black puck. I kicked from surface to surface, held aloft by a language of balance, stays and tension. I rode free of ear buds, no sound-tracking other than my body tearing through tense suburban streets. I hurried to my refuge, the swooping bands of the Danube, its huddling trees and undulating tunnels of plants, as I repeated my tactile loop into the electric natural world.
My headquarters were within earshot of Budapest’s bleakest railway station that deals in the crudest, abject extremes of emotion, opportunity and temperature. Beyond the human cataract of the train station’s limits, and between my own adventures, I found love, comfort and shelter that convinced me to settle along the boundary of East and West. I never suspected where my uncanny preoccupation about birds and traffic would lead: to the not so far yet distant Danube. Serendipity or déjà vu, I still hadn’t grasped the weight of what I’d stumbled across on that spring afternoon by the river after twenty years of ignoring sewage.
Reality was conditioned to be more mundane.
I liked to think I played by my own rules, doing things like smuggling foodie contraband across borders or claiming an object of uncertain provenance at the weekend flea market. This act of purchase, for instance, repeated billions of times a day in malls and markets across the globe, made me happy. It made me forget about unhappiness, and by extension death. My death and the death of everyone around me. Spending money made my life relevant, and these objects were things that I could love and that lent my life meaning. Anyone who could afford to do likewise was in cahoots with the prospect of death. The weekly patrol of Budapest farmers’ markets added to the illusion that I was an individual who could make choices and express agency. I believed my unique choices improved my cool factor and made me important and immortal.
But I could no longer suppress an acute fear of death. I grappled with understanding how my position had shifted. This primordial fear had agitated to the surface and began to motivate my every action and idea. This frame of mind amplified by the baby, I became prone to hanging my head over the kitchen sink, tears dribbling down my cheeks while dinner simmered in the background. Much later, when I anticipated my next child, I steeled myself against the waves of crying. And the tears didn’t come. I would cope with whomever might drift down from the universe to live with us. I’d accepted that creation was a risky game.
I had arrived at birds and traffic while honoring a lifelong physical fitness strategy that followed a reliable pattern: strike out for a quick classic, in this case up to Újpest and over Megyeri bridge to the Danube’s back roads that culminate in the old extremities of the Ottoman Empire. These passages of asphalt, grass, sand, leaves, rock and mud would allow me to forget.
Behind me spilled a wake of horns, motors and sneers that faded as I bicycled on. My anxiety dissipated the harder I pedaled, my mind peeling open like the path before me, back to a time when I was unaware of who I was or what I was made of. The call of the birds, their very presence outside my home, reassured me about our future. A society of songs meant intelligence of a higher order, capable of defining territory and behavior, yet sharing the land and air. But make no mistake: the birds will sink before us, asphyxiating in the dust, as desiccated as leaves. Then we’ll know our time has come.
I had no idea how the end would play out. I made no extra preparation other than to make chutneys, pickles and jams as therapy. The shocking thing was that I had resolved so readily to act. Critical distance accumulated in my legs as I sucked down lungfuls of soul for breath. By riding I ditched the consumer choices and could escape the grip of a new age of Medievalism. The answer was only too apparent in the river’s mirror-green surface: we were the aliens, and our science fiction of Mars was Earth in the near future. I found it refreshing to acknowledge that death inspired everything and everyone around us and that only active forgetting would permit us to stay sane enough to communicate. I fantasized about developing the idea that death was driving commerce, how I might rebrand death, expose it to the light, make it cool again.
One summer evening, after observing a pair of herons that regularly glided across the square’s airspace, I calculated how much oomph I had left. Based on my historical average, I tallied 2,000 rides remaining in my lifetime. Barring questions of whether or not I’d jinxed myself with my thoughts of eternity, I could make at least one 50-kilometer route a week for the next 40 years, including winters, children and physical depreciation. This excluded errands and commutes and thrashing around the city.
Meanwhile I discovered the herons were opportunists. They’d learned to deplane at the city zoo at their own secret spot for tidbits of food before returning to their redoubt a rookery at the southern border of Budapest. I’d found their nests after pursuing them by bike, their nests as high as Csepel bridge that flowed with caravans of international goods circulating from Eurasia.
I trusted my observation, and I might have followed the zeitgeist: strip a premises to bricks and beams, install a bar along one wall and broad tables, offer a concise range of coffee, drinks, music, fast wi-fi: the basis for the birth of a miniature well-intentioned cloud of ideas. But one more indie bar wouldn’t save the day. No, I could chart up more watts for posterity, an aerodynamic bubble where I could question the status quo, reorganize my plans and solve whatever challenges were placed before me.
That evening my daughter joined me on the balcony; she listened to the libretto of blackbirds singing in the square and me whistling replies to their songs, the river chortling through the inevitable reverb of traffic: my spot calling me.
Ascending over the ripe elders and the singing birds, the top of the river route reaches a vantage point along a cobbled road. Pausing, you watch a woman in a canary tube-top and stonewashed mini extrude chicken guts from a plastic bag, and she drops the package for a scratched up tabby and well-attended house cat. They’ve convened in the sunlight, sprawled on a terrace pinned to the hill by a scarred limestone plinth marked DGHOB DEH 1901. The plinth is capped by an obelisk to which is affixed a crucifix. More crosses poke at the aerial mid-ground over the river of sun-tan oil and estrogen passing under the trees. Canoes and bodies yield at a pebbly beach below, and more parents and their children push upstream, their efforts interrupted by the lingering Sunday footsteps of the older woman, another cat brushing her sinewy legs. Captain Jack ignores her settled on the hot plinth ringed with dry grass and purslane, lichen spread across the hot rock. He meows at a pair of old ravers dropping down the winding stairs. The day declares itself one for billowing, princely sleeves as you depart from this fort of the southern Slavs, along its boundary fractals of cigarette butts, clandestine shits and the echo of couples, made sweet with whirls of vanilla raspberry ice cream, the clang of boat engines and the breaths of the ghost river ferry station you stumble upon later, never locating a ubiquitous public blue water pump among the valiant cries of a radiant August afternoon.
Aboard again, the return carries you to the city’s border, weaving along the bulwarks of the flood defenses, the narcotic buzz of the cicadas above and a scattering of riverine herbs growing in the mortar among the abandoned mills and grid-iron of the river’s trade. You reach the flaking iron bollards studded along a curving embankment planted with sycamore, elegant managerial villas and mossy, apple-filled gardens of the Habsburg gasworks destined to be a start-up campus, the proprietors now coders and decoders of the knowledge economy. A convoy of sound equipment has arrived beyond the muddy banks of the island, made alive by chops of rhythm guitar, rim shots and groove, and observed by a chain of sunburned river cruisers. You pause, reflecting on liters of marinara sauce and kilos of pesto and the long lazy day piloting the summer kitchen, a psycho fried on his best behavior, hot after months of cold winter rides, an exact route with variations, at home a baby growing like a winter melon, you big-chested and juiced up with biological ecstasy, chasing ducks with your bathtub jet-ski.
You’re both guest and visitor at the wet edge and periphery, nodes and flotsam carrying you back thirty years to bayou road rides inside and outside the Houston Loop, alone and cycling through the stickiness, a blue Peugeot P907, toe straps and a bold sense of your place on the dippy and cracked road into the business center of gays, artists, urban animals and crack heads, chasing after punk, sculpture, Zen and Rothko, your arm bundled in a cast clutching the silver white slick tape, air heavy with pollen and a possum’s recklessness, a raccoon’s inquisitiveness, diving into the unwelcoming corridors and bypasses of the city, stopping below glass fangs of your father’s floor and workplace, a Miró to make you feel good about corporations, the creaking of canoes stirring water.
The river a candle, the beach a stage, a rooster crows on Lupa Island and you assume poses on the baby black mollusk gravel, the world reversed between your leggy sinews and accompanied by the dip and bite of paddles, barefoot water skiing, the flight path over the Pilis and the city, revealed to be the ribbon of a plough, the chirruping of birds like grain. You gather your memories and the strength of this spot, the evening shade and a keyhole of sunlight, wishing to bring your banned-from-activities wife to the same place, what she also calls her favorite spot. She’s in agreement and you’re chiming together, you trimming yourself a porno beard and getting your cock sucked upside down in return between inhuman hours and unquestionable thirst that fits in your hip pack along with goodies to crease your eyes and pain, your ride and the old gnomes that live in its banks, brushed with gold on this marvelous autumn evening. You’re given a moment away from the lines, the lines, the lines, your mind an arrow key flicking right and down, across terroir and lacuna, everything unshaped by your free editing lens, your sandy clothes like a vanilla-scented bidon. You quarrel with birds that you would cage in your flat for your own cruel gratification, adjusting, inserting, reversing, alternating the loop and sequence and time when you christen the Sacred Spot as sculls sweep past.
The beach has retreated after the first cold front. The wind chips at your pins and flows through your togs. The two starched legs of Chuck Norris Bridge rise over the silver willows, a launch for safe traffic. A stooped couple passes under the cables of the high tension power lines, a cell of rain threatening over Pomáz and Dobogókő. Recreational bikers and water-skiers are nil, only the flashing thud of arrows from a ponytailed, camouflage archer, a cormorant barking, fragments of sizzling rain, you exhaling alcohol and tar and staring into the logic of pebbles, amber and chitin and quartz, consolidating on misty raindrops.
A few days and the water comes to the Sacred Spot and floods the kilometers of its replicates, dun and drab beaches below where Slovaks have released the river from their dam. The sun beckons on this frosty gusty autumn day, a siren’s patch out there on the surface of the quick speedy tin-like water. Three EMOs pass you on your body-sized step, all that’s left of the tiny two-meter-long cove, millions of larvae, mollusks and polyps sunken now, everyone else at sports or supper. You gobble the last Jonathan from the pretty market girl who sells thick-skinned, almost wild tomatoes. A transport ticket is your carton filter to this place you imaged so differently. The neighbors have ruined our romantic probing and strolls northward along the behemoth bubbling from Germany to our pleasant warm shores, not to be mistaken for a sea but still demanding a navy, planted with saplings, suckers, nettles and tall grass, and the willow tree where you sought cover, its hollowed roots now submerged, the branches that you touched now rubbed by water, stretching out, bending and squeezing out the office world to which you become accustomed. All that banality is lost, and you become a graduated cylinder of cells, codes, thoughts, ideas, creativity and water refracting and diluting, suspending and gravity-inducing, flowing under the wonder of a canopy as sunny as the bridge you cross, oarlocks and warlocks, tough and rough, toasted and roasted, anodized and atomized, a shortcut to godliness in your pouch.
Launching home along the quietude of the river path, you alternate your rule for spotlights on the good life, by going the same way, defaulting and deflecting on the last leg of gravel after running shadow on the embankment, the soft tulip-orange sky and the backdrop of reclining, basking hills. Oddly, you’ve no kit, just a pump, praying that the “szingu” – Hungarian slang for single tube – won’t shred and will hold a half-kilometer at a time, dismounting and bending a score of times at the valve, furiously re-boarding in the fading warm dwindling blackness. You succeed in beating yourself home to the whipped anchovy butter and fried UFOs of pasta, riding gear at the stove, readying for bed and the light of your consciousness to your shape and form filled and flowing with river water, soul spirit and universe, your bumper and limit found at a turn in the river, under the hollowed out tree of cemeteries, mourning and death, the willow a seat for otters and cormorants, voles and water rats, the amphibious border and boundary, the posture and suspension of your spine glued to wheels from wrists to ass, mumbling in Swedish into your cappuccino the next morning having made your declaration syncretic, authentic, synchronized, soul spirit universe, the passing of human energies and particles, the lollipop-bummed waitress and the trembling music of drying leaves at the plaza where you recall the stunning charity of the ballet-like leaps of the city’s bridges, you following from foot to ribbon to seam to snatch and traveling across, through the yellow polluted howling tunnel to sign and witness that you are a couple united in marriage at the local Buda district office sharing a crisp sweet sour apple from the tines of your knife, a crow flying over eye, stomping upward in your green corduroy and cashmere and down like a clown and cartoon ducking and shying away from collisions and concatenation, shaking your legs of the wind and the kilos before diving and scraping your coffers to pay the red mustached painter. You’re so mad in your dreams that you piss on the floor and smoke in the house, you the cockerel defending his harem and territory, his spurred boot resting in the cold re-mortared low wall along the flat pea and lemon river, the villas and rebuilds of the gas works stretching from the green pedestrian bridge in the an elegant crescent of plane trees and poplars, the landing of mallards, a blonde on her phone on her sculpted balcony, your black bike and black corduroys that you have worn like armor hunting for value and tax-free labor and cash transactions, newly forged in your certainty and that of your scimitar Samurai steel, defending as a father and man, raising his voice to the sneaky punitive Chase Bank and Rude Willy, ungentlemanly and lousy proprietor of Vörösmarty 38, the Chandler or Chauncey in you angry with the phonies who discourteously step on your limits and toes, you of spine stretched by an angry dangling accordion case of books pedaled and lifted six blocks, you torn asunder and in half like your dead godfather, Muamar Gaddafi, your legs walking to the old patterns of the past and your arms pulling you into the future, tweaked by a reflexive Thursday midmorning in a nearly empty bath house and suspended in your tiredness, where your anger spawns and your habits collide, dragging the behemoth of the walnut bookcase with the two-meter colonel, a giant rusted rung of iron, further along the curve a bollard, a private dock downstream, the trees bright yellow in this long thirsty dry fall, crinkling leaves and gritty footsteps, receiving gifts and Székely carpets and visits from carpenters, pulling salaries from the ATM and asking your saucer-shaped wife for alcoholic pocket money, absorbing and pulling, her daughter choosing her love for a pillow, a crow and aircraft crossing the sky-horizon, the harmonies of fall and the angels and devils mostly that live in the moth-nested accordion box, ghosts of your anger dissipating, for the water cleans and scours you blank, into a crystal black silhouette on the shore, dashed in sonic and visual reflections, as you leap forward onto the cold flagstones your main notebook pressed under your bum, a paper guardian for your ego and your prostate, as unruly as a hernia-inducing coconut mattress, the cylinder of evenings, pipe and chimney yawning and about to strike out for another spot as a woman and her vizsla rest their feet in the bend where you started trespassing, gliding along the caterpillar colored suburban train at the average speed of the Budapest Transport Authority, skating through the light to the soft square, leather sun on your wife’s arched back, her hair down, pepper cracking under your boots and coins falling into your socks, dancing with Toad’s Wednesday market rooster, the split head of the painted tin tom-toms, you belting out circles of odds and evens, the chords of your heart in the river music path of your days, seven weeks to the emergent head, not a faceless combed rooster soup, your behavior and brain tunneling through her so you lustily fill given occasion, now boiling braised and golden brown.
It’s the day of the Roma ball. You’re waiting in your floral shirt in the understaffed bank, indeterminable hours, corduroys tucked into your socks, ready to ride between assignments of charity and payment, the ring of stamps and puzzled expression of the tellers, that stamp everything, that stamp the keystone of post-communist Habsburg bureaucracy, a stamp, embossing or impression, the secure click of the franking as the paper wads together, a certificate of originality insured by a toll, tax, license, fee or permit and a signature, a pair of them even better, the shuffling of portfolios between district council halls, jurisdictions and qualifications and departments, giving work to poor relatives of the politicians unable even to delete or resave but able to stamp, that stamp the modus operandi of the people, government and schools, an impression that is irrevocable and permanent unless destroyed by water or fire, or your anger that some document is missing from the pile, you as unauthenticated as a blank bank card, crows dashing across the courtyard and the ruined feet, you licking the flames of the yellow, ivory and black Rorschach cowboy in the barrel, accelerated and honored with splashes of libation and a feeling of closure, the arbor glowing in dots over the bride and groom, a contribution from your divorced chuckling neighbor and his companion, Gobbledychops or Monkeyboy, drinking anther matrimonial schnapps from your past as friend and near family to Balints and Barthas, now replaced with Dávids and Tóths, the blood of the vineyards, clutching your manbag and fanning your hair at the chrome-topped Lehel bar, brown beer continuing from yesterday’s flow of studio conversation as if you’re all deaf in a community destined to be converted into an rough luxury hostel bar, a moment of repose, diced lamb and a brace of young chickens the menu for your move from cave to light-filled cloud, emptied of cash and reason, standing with the knowledge of the future and that it will lead us to the emptiness of the erratic cruel desert where we will be man and woman fearing the scurvy of winter, citrus a dream, pomegranates dropped by drones, the lobby of the bank branch your favorite spot for reflection these days as you withdraw the last of your legacy from the old army man’s purse, inheritance and bumper allowing your utopias on a small working scale, bottom-up from roots to leaves, from cellar to eaves, your bed built by a Hungarian army lieutenant as you can hardly stand at the end of the moving days, your tired smiles coordinated exactly with the screams and tears of two years ago when you departed from the very space you have now arrived, a daughter in the hard taut shell of your wife’s stomach, the prow of a ship, fertility and womanliness embodied and cruising in the shallows and tide pools, hanging close to the nutritious coast, a jellyfish or larva.
The ivory bridge is an elaborate kiss of ball joints, spans and buttresses stained by soot and pocked by rivets, the Dopplering traffic in six lanes and the tumbling tams, the water a settled oily translucent green, just one sole river cruised ad a cold haze forsaken and abused, no bold wildness nor click of oarlocks, you waiting for your steamed pal, having shared a bottle of Szekszárdi or two, you at the wall of limestone, your friend struggling to cross the bridge to claps and then change and soak, your baby’s head between your wife’s legs, the serendipity of furniture and the uncanniness of comfort, you boss man owner, of mumbled words and somehow smartness, free from the great U of V38, now a life ring, a full circlet, straight line from your wonder, your eye and your horizon to the dome at the foot of the cliffs of Gellért Hill, returning by evening to the dome in your wife’s skin, punching and cycling like a champion under the bonny mountain.
You’ve curled around the tiers of the flea market, bought a tap and tweed, then bonded in the long room scrawled with prayers with couples as expectant as you, elbows and knees gyrating under the surface of the globe around her waist, given even to this penultimate stage to the weekend’s sex in the alcove, her waist slim and her bum fatty, your notebook resting in a jacket pocket until you’re called upon to accompany her to the hospital for a checkup mid-month, the day she’s officially due, brown patches in her knickers, anxiousness and worry written across her taut body, a day you confused with Sunday given to trawling through a Christmas market and a giant roasted ham with plums – a first and last supper with your two remaining friends smiling through the candles, teeth stained with Cabernet Franc, having spent days at home polishing lines of corrections, breaking your fingers into Legos to meet your Excel projections of income and time off, your scuttling of any declaration plans, the flat as about as Christmassy as Mecca, the sky scraping by the window and telling you not to leave the next and the now unbearable expectancy. You don’t dare pump up your road and mountain tires to drive the congestion and worry from you, don’t dare to pull away from the litany of tasks to retreat into yoga if it were not for the proximity of the windswept city park, a few breaths among its ramshackle trees, evening out, your eyesight along the canopy viewed from the sole mound of your making, sovereign and free, unlike the hospital’s birth unit, the ward chock-a-block with moaning worms, trading child-rearing yarns, false alarms and convoluted diagnoses, doctors fighting for their keys, the rattle of gurneys, and creak of wicker chairs, your morning of reflection like a kaleidoscopic gecko in your mind, shimmering with the slough of the forest, all that remains of air and leaves tingling on your brain’s skin, astride the Danube spans flexing with traffic, dotted with flags of what was once a republic, a half thousand gulls riding the drought-stricken river, gliding to the dark green shadow on the oily water, the bridge, taking off back to the mirrored middle, lines of halogens, hotels, parliament, fisherman’s bastion beating brightly pungent air and the flaps and calls of the croissants of birds, lines forgotten on your balcony not coming, just the police launch, birds aloft, faces you recognize passing with luggage on their panniers, near Christmas, the sad adieu to local geniuses of the closing good governance office at a wine bar owned by the church at the basilica, your baby their last project of any note, contractions arriving as punctually as the last glass (Kiss Gábor – Villány) is toasted and the final canapé eaten, at home making sandwiches from 1 am to 3 am and fixing coffee and tea, the pained, confused expression on her face of anguish and blood, a rickshaw to St. István Hospital and the birthing barracks, your hand grasped tightly, the hands of a momma and the crying of birds.
“Mother, mother!” she cries between asanas and breaths, “You didn’t tell me it was like this!” Massaging her coccyx, baby flopped over like a foal, the sun calling out the children, a few pages of notes of what to do, her modesty still in check, the blowing heating systems, waves of contractions, you jumping up to massage her back and legs, quivering from tremors like two rabbits, curled up and kicking, moaning, and sighing and you’re turned on by her erotic naturalness, rolling figure eights on the birth ball, hair knotted high, face down and ready to expel her child, the daughter you will get to know today, her blue-black skin and eyes, a distorted head, every one of these lines between a tasks or caring moment – hours later you’ve slept through the cries for a while, she’s drugged up and you’re dead till 12.27 on Thursday, December 15, my daughter, the cord of whom I cut free, purple, quiet and pink, a little snip (episiotomy), the placenta out, dark blood and cotton balls, infusion and tears, my tears, sewing up as the rain and warmth come down.
You thought she’d make you immortal and all she did was make you feel more mortal for every night in the moonlight you dream yourself a start, an inexplicable intractable position in a hole in a ditch under a car, plummeting, trapped or digging and from there you start your journey, ticking that empty male box inside, the box of nothing and nothingness tanked up with nothing, all thoughts dropping away under steam or sweat, eight laps under the Byzantine cupola of Rudas bathhouse, eight bridges over the river spanned in riding, the emptiness that is an ideal of peace and being, your wife bending over you to blow you on Christmas day on the couch, nestling and snuggling in your nothingness, your little girl attached loyally to your red wooly fleece, the family of whom you are the center.
“Here’s Papa,” they chime when you arrive at home, beaver of goods and finance, unimpeded and solo, lover of brown yeasty beers and robust reds, conjurer of pig’s head in aspic and shepherd’s pie, the man who sees his daughter as child or pet or toy, the screams, you can point like an angry tárogató, the nobody they’ve never heard of, checking his boxes of Zen-like nothingness, emptiness, hallowedness, the objective neither departure nor arrival but planetary gravity, hijacked days of smiles, burps, and cries, your body comfort, your heartbeat steep, not the breast swollen and dripping like a limey tap, saucer and thimble to your child, stiff with cues denied and screams of anger pacified by your cradle, finishing the dregs of a 15-year assignment with your injured hand, up till dawn, welcoming her wails and howls, grabbing your anodized purple Vitus and riding at medium, all you can manage with winter’s damage, the steam curling off your shoulders, already sorrel and nettle along the path, for it’s been mild but you won’t get to the Sacred Spot on time for a last grab of beach afternoon sunlight littered with horse dung, river still and the opposite bank the tint of crushed ruby rosehips, leaving momma in the city park pushing the silver plastic pram, full of sores and complaints, wisps of tree-mottled light, your baby’s sweet demanding face imprinted on the road, your nothingness spinning like any other serious rider knowing good weather and light make nothingness, avoiding the point when you must turn back into the wind, your apple core dunked in the river, treacley like your hands, your friends descending from St Louis along the flight path above the Pilis tacky with mud, the bend of hills that begins at your bedroom and draws your eye from the two church spires of Rozsák Square to the clock tower of the New York Café onwards to the Soviet freedom statue of what is now little Russia, Orbin not Orbán, Putler not Putin, outwards to the great bend or sickle or spoon, a Kinder Egg filled with pink bud, the nothingness artificial, a numb short cut, as deadly as a new computer repaid by your ass and hands, sweat at the base of your neck and between your legs, cooling then reheated with four stocking caps, the moss-backed willows, the sun your child in a sling, your red back blinker forgotten, just moving reflective tape and the scatter of sepia leaves, a stolen kiss from the Danube’s trickling shallows, shadows of where nobody would expect you, the you who is who in this youniverse, a plank in the steam chamber or bathed in millions of flakes of sparkly skin and illuminated water in the central tub, given to your maleness and rituals with cleanliness, riding to the point of losing control, and unsteered, let go, coast and crash into nothingness, your objective, a mini-death by waking or shitting, the way home perilous like coffee headache, papa of the black togs and balcony visits.
Scull and stumps, chimes and the underbrush, mild and kinetic, thumps and stirrings, Olympic recreation, birds with monkey tails and boats with wings, an anodized broken crank for your accidental ergonomic knee pushing utility into your thighs, your feet splayed in the loose pebbles and dirty shells and tacky mud, tannic leaves in the aerobic shallows, the attrition of mating and spawning, larva, pollywogs, a strategic nest, not yet a torrent, flipping headfirst on a root, the hook and spit of shore, small harbor and sanctuary, an achievable goal on your calendar of songs, reports and poems to the middle, stretching between phrases, a chain running through your mind, the playbox and sandbox, a divided apple tucked over your fanny, belly of hirsute fat, muddy footprints and the stir of nylon, trembling dry grass, others following the pale green khaki melancholy, tranquil today at the approaching lunch hour, your spin outwards reversing inwards to the seven rooms – Monday: office, Friday: new kitchen, Sunday: summer kitchen and garage, Tuesday: bedroom, Thursday: child’s room, Wednesday: living room, Saturday: bathroom – seven rooms for seven days and the ticking exponential cycle of growth, your target for home delivery, a streak of cyan purple and black returning 48 hours later at dusk, a branch wedged in the willow roots, leaping and splashing, a metronome to your wheezy breath, bobbing and indefatigable, reflections, barks, chirps, hammering, hollow and heavy, no longer a strip of paint protecting you, but the mud of the verge and the water’s edge, your tires’ surface skimming, gliding, even with what’s unimaginable in a fortnight hence when a thaw comes, emerging from the tunnel along the suburban railway, your daughter strapped to your vest, the market bustling in front of the water polo center, sliding forward and upward against the deepening river, two boys struggling on their canoes, a forest fruit cream cake in you wife’s lap, her remarkable smile like the sun eating clouds or your daughter and her siblings to come eating you, you heading to Zolification, your in-law’s duck fried in sickly butter and the cabbage rammed with bright pink meat, garden muddy, mossy and unkempt, for untidy bonfires are now illegal in the city limits, the edge of which you brush against with your hair, resigned to seven new family members, the five goals of Messi and the wine of Bilbao, highlights among cartoons and puzzles and nursing like a band without a mixer, sleeping upside down with your daughter on her grandparent’s bed, your socks in their oily pillows and pajamas, your stomach putty and an excuse to herd the little cousins home on their rollers for one stop – Római Strand – in the washed evening sun, citrus or vinegar, an adventure for the chauffeured and pampered kids, a contrast in philosophy, the lost face of the city’s sole Moroccan bum or a gorgeous nightclub bartender’s back, one late night of assignments for the Council of Europe and another spectrum of Strut Records leaving you as buzzed as the beer boutique watching Artic rituals with eider ducks and planning Den Haag, chunky break beats on the last smoking bar, family and culture, logic made of translation, interpretation and an end to restlessness because you become the root, a tilapia farm or a zebra balloon, take your pick from the mélange, undrilled tenor guitar or a fat, talking, cheese-eating vegetarian over dynamics, your unit ascribed as free of psychological dependencies, slim pockets or wide pockets of your choice, your life resembling nothing and everything you could have imagined behind brown and black-framed grimy glasses or free of them, navigation better, glyphs worse, smooth as hips, snares and rim shots and corrupt as beautiful Jewish and Roma girls, and the tempo changes like the bucking Bolgatanga bus, nightlife, your notebook your companions in search of a reasonable tune, not elbow patches, blues of salt and wheat and Danube river water.
You’re the weird scribe writing not typing or scrolling but publicly thinking privately, for you can look into her eyes and sparkling mouth a million-and-one times and never tire, no, and even see if emerging in your baby as continuous as the water, resource of love and emotions, pure and the honesty of accepting that with no anger or shame or penalty, in bed early and home even earlier, singing together, matching notes, you cuddling in the monster’s chest, you are two distinct forms here, you the universal, the crossing of Venus and Saturn one eve hence, you’re the individual action of years and long thoughts, dreaming of pissing off the balcony, listening for song birds or watching a girl even with the hinges of the swing set, falling as much as flying, baby to bed, momma to bed, papa to bed, staggered hours and weariness, a girl blading on the padded tiles of the playground or a boy years back spinning and jumping on campus as surely he is now, whirling and turning in the same place, you emptying your pockets on your desk every day like your father, standing on your balcony of memories and faces, traveling through the simple act of stepping through the threshold three floors up.
The blue plane sways into the dry spare haze, the land washed of identifiable color, a glaring surface divided by the splitting, forking, merging river, so far winter’s runoff postponed, shoots struggling in the cracked earth, no choice of inflight magazine, Sudoku or an over-plotted novel. You’ve left the literary magazine to be printed in the buffer around Eiffel’s Eastern Station, your products only joining you if folded and tossed across a yard or child’s bedroom, your daughter’s bright jade shit polluting your fingers, her gaze and smile grown in depth, intensity, emotion and fascination, accompanied by joy, surprise, sulks, pouts and smiles, antenna, archive, registry on her face, chubby and happy at three months, sucking on finger and fists, arching on her tummy, everything already there, eggs and personality, that magic passed that was her making and her birth, now just your skills tested about how best to shape what’s there somewhere between hands-on and hands-off, growing eyelashes and learning to roll, ages from getting drunk on 150 milliliter bottles of Merlot on the aircraft, full to the gunnels after the demise of Malév, your craft one of a fleet of unmetered taxis slipping over European airspace, missing the juncture of the Rhine and the Danube, your wallet full of untruths that are digestible to the psychologist – what’s to fear when you’ve got everything to live for, a good wife, a job that makes a diff, and a child.
“Security,” said the Roma football player on a smoke break after the cellar stew, for it was your dream to drop the fakery of art and activism and rather support hearth and home, no attacks when you enter and always deference (to a fault) and good wishes, Nemo dropping below the sea on our approach, canals like game trails or slug calligraphy, blots and tides of ink, neighbors’ bank strategies and pharmacology reports tucked away, windmills and tugs beckoning trees like quills on a burnt turkey or bristles of a scalded pig, below the war neatly illustrated between nature and technology, body and mind – uploaded and interactive and quite happy like that – but not nature, constrained and regulated until we stop regulating it, just when and how to pose the question for the green light committee on credit risk, banks of light and shadow coloring the last 15 minutes of pitter-patter, our own mortality set aside over privileged Europe, greenhouses tended by robots.
“Just blend,” says the Chicago editor and scout, 20 languages in earshot on the livid green upholstery of the Schiphol commuter train, lakes waiting for warmth, football pitches, fluorescent boys moving like tracers, sun dropping in two glances over the cranes and turbines of the old trading port, half a kilowatt of marketing next to the funnel of the power station, your dingy bed and two planet lovers having kissed and crossed, enchanted by the sliver of new moon, you passing the table of your last lunch in Amsterdam, two Moroccans in the coffee shop reviving the dud keyboard, three Hungarian chavs reviewing the shakedown in their nylon trainers and nylon sport suits, rickshaw peddlers and you walking in circles or arcs, losing by now the closed bookshop, you pushing through the pushers, stoners, coke dealers, riffraff, lads and biznessmen quoting Bangkok, bubblegum Le Trappe and the company of pensioners on the polished walnut, the Don Yum soup bar closed with your step inwards, no din-dins, well maybe frites, it’s all legal and all hell even if you’re a bald coot with his mail-order Thai skuzz.
Your taste has changed for a second beer and cigarette, the answer to the contained melee outside, boring vice and muffin bums exciting till you see the faces, compulsion to stop, repulsion to walk away, not lope but a scurry in our step separated from your letters and files, good wishes and love in your SMS box, no raucous toasts or club anthems tonight but a bed you’re afraid to sleep in, as basic as a prison cell, in transit to Den Haag of flashing blue lights and war crimes, men apprehended from your doorstep when you thought dictators and killers were cool, because the power of human imagination and intent with your neighbors turned into vermin or laundry or just gas-passing passengers rattling their free newspapers or the crossed knees of a pretty Romanian war crimes lawyer, hair pulled tight into a pony tail, your mascara hashish, your nails painted black indigo, mist low around farmhouses and city walls, stumps all that’s left for the Holsteins and excised woods, reflecting pools flashing orange lights, pebble-sided buildings, straining cyclists, hoardings and daffodils, hens roosting in shrubbery through the drill-bit tagged window of your eyes, everything here manmade and engineered, the beat of commuters’ feet and an unfolded bicycle, chemical or mineral, a certain amount of space and lifestyle awarded in Mondrian slices on spongy ground, shaggy drinking calves, ducks grazing or a woman chewing gum in the rising sun, and you deposited at the kino surrounded by funders, editors and a coalition of the good in the city of international peace and justice, your Roma friends sitting in on the war crimes court and flashing Karadzic in his glass box the three-fingered salute, specimen and accused, listening to accounts of Oscar-winning acid attacks, extremist trials, Ethiopian HIV orphans and women police fighting domestic violence fronted by the creatives and supported by the agencies of media and government promises made and perhaps made good on, even you appearing on a panel when your issue is crystallized in Targu Lapus, failing schools failing children, the old connections of the past when Budapest was a sooty safe-haven, a refuge from the carnage and hatred of the Balkan Wars, a Hennessey nose firmly implanted in its massacres and aftermath, people swallowed whole like a bellyful of hashish, your transport in your blood, the draconian penalties at your home and destination to be feared, thus the overdose of Wastenotwantnot about as sacred or exhilarating as brushing your teeth with sand, salt or sesame, nearly blind, even with the decade-old prisms on your nose, letters no more than dots when you attempt to turn on the plasma or adjust the thermostat of your clean soulless room, you interface and facilitator to ballads of extinguishment (Djelem, djelem) or empowerment (KAL), rich smell of grain, coffee, chocolate in your satchel, bald managers sunning themselves along the rail corridor, everyone drawn to ease, engineering and efficiency, the trademarks of this lowland thinking outside its sea-hardy box, you standing at the dirty waters of the Haag’s port not far from the war crimes palace, deep sea welding or flowers under folia, your mouth your secret compartment, laughing blonde stewardesses as animated as cocaine, shiny plastic lei to buy benzene in Transylvania, your cornea flattened, inverted gloom, new trajectories to follow and complete, roaring down the runway, lift off, the catalog of participants circled like halos as we bank in the span of those last four lines, tranquilized over the barges and lighters, turbines and waterways and thriving order, evening out, body bowed between the wings, cardigans or wraps, you the scrappy maker, metamorphosing and letting go of balloons, be they rhinestone skulls or heated rice paper made by an out-moused hand, editing the argument or story over the retina, erasing machine unclassifiable, living sparely and thinly on cheese cubes and poppy buns, breaking down for the minibar late at night in the cage, reminding you or your last trip to Lisbon and what hotels are for, your distressed modern handwriting illegible in comparison to your Danish pensioner neighbor and your interior designer boyfriend in the middle, the white wine just accelerant to your colliding mind, walking in 12-year-old shoes, calendar of stress sketched out in your notepad, perfecting what you found of yourself in Ghana, willing agent of grammar and diplomats, relying on silence and patience, and a belief, more like eternal befuddlement, and fascination with our ability to live and fight together, believing that our smart phones will save us from bullets, how odd (!), like wigs and ganja or sage and scalps if you were the last person on earth with a plastic bag or cup, the eternal monologue of your Kaufland notebooks surely to crumble from the acid they’re born from, eight euro stolen floral shirts and the impunity of rogue business – fleet of 40 plus taxis and unregistered mandate for cash only, what we share in a good deal like you’re the garbage disappearing from your tray, dazed at the dream of leisure that has been extinguished with danger and peril, the constant attention to projects, as if they are you, with snapshots of nature catnapping over Bavaria, your flying tube an aphid vector on a time lapse of Wednesday afternoon, air traffic from Benelux and you can’t help emphasizing the difficulty that not even your parents can prepare you for, anxiety and death and the feeling of impending extinction or at least a very nasty world, glocal war that pits neighbor against neighbor, some people feeling, others disappearing in the force of our irrevocable change of our home, a thin padded vest and white polo, a beard and tailored jeans apt to survive as you in the turbulence of our approach from the south into the winds, the ground stripped of moisture and brown, the river you suspect to be moderate, for this is longer the rainy cold season – that’s June – a pirouette by the plane at our landing.
Shit Sacred Secret
Everything flows into your orbs like a poem, Adriatic “bora” wind waves and perhaps your favorite willow swept away, a seat of stones waiting for you, an illicit couple, a dad and his daughter’s friend hugging on the pebbles, two figures silently testing their new wooden canoe, parachutes of leaves leaping from their branches, the seeping damp of mud and a flood that’s been and gone, a woman cyclist cracking open a tin of Dreher, every ounce of your fat exuding craft beers and cannabinoids like the transport dreams of George Soros and the films you’d support with this family hedge fund, liquorice papers and a chiming phone, not yours, junky shorts and cap askew, you with a glorious moment to peddle lightly on the cracked cranks and away from the deadlines of two magazines and several reports, touching the stumps of hairs along your ventral nose, chin thick with cheese and ham, your outlet your balcony, you clinging under the falling masonry and watching the skyline accented with daylight savings and orderly sprigs of green around the veterinary campus, your memories and discoveries, the purple locust blooming and the lilac wings of competing pigeons, surely your daughter feeding and the disappointing reality that you’ll never satisfy your jealous mother who so far manages to say, “Boo!” to her grandchild, as stiff as you are diligent, you her father, her rogue, a bastard to whom she can tell “Up yours!” but that’s her hiccup as you admit it’s painful but not your philosophy, borrowing the 2,000 euro vacuum cleaner and hanging your wife’s Afghan carpets, the passing coach’s launch and clashing blades, sand draining out of your grievous mind, tanked up with criminal law procedures and the first 72 hours when you should remain mum, no flotation of life jacket, just hypothermia and the hand-chilling river as mean as a 45-year-old blond writer never finishing his shower and leaping from the fourth floor window and crashing in front of your favorite Chinese, a squall and slick paths ahead, or the dainty French painter who hung herself, the point where you can’t go on but you can, even if your left eye throbs intermittently looking down on the quiet conversation between Roma don and footman or the kids slapping their skate-decks, your daughter carried from room to room and grabbing at your chrysanthemum shirt, you done up like a corduroy clerk tapping deliverables and print shops across the city, blood sausages, lamb racks and a brace of chickens cooling in the office fridge, your help helpless, a mallard drake and his hen, more chicks to hatch, trees dressed in faint purples and whites, kayaks drawing together before a four-minute sprint, pilots moving like whirligigs, the sweet taste of mandarins, liquorice and smoke, wild catkin honey lingering in the air, you spinning against the southerly cross winds, returning through the end of river practice, dodging through jocks, skipping the kiosks of onion rings, your bike light and sleek, sprinting down the tram tracks, your left eyeball pulsing in the smog, your brain exploding under your cap, the dash home, squeezed with calipers, the slide, the avoidance of injury in the last moments, bathing later in milk and redressing from blue to skin to linens, oozing poison of hours immobile before the coming of warm rain, sleeping under a pale palm, dreaming of becoming the little girl you’ve always wanted to be, wanted to be, the dreams from which you must wake up from to escape, legs clasped together, a teenage girl kicking fiercely at the sky on the swing below, adamant daily angry exploring, your thighs in the corner behind the rustic antique wardrobe and tumbling majestically into bed, the two church spires singing Vienna or Paris… until Sunday lunch, the paths quiet, everyone dining, yours prepped, cured, basted, rubbed and set aside, spinning in your smelly togs to the Sacred Spot seeking smoothness and puncture-free transitions on your way, catarrh and connubiality, thanks Byron!, your Tahiti, huzza of fire and swans lifting off and clapping along the opposite island disturbed by the sloping bow of a burnt-orange cave and one Leatherstocking paddler, the inner America of Cooper swatting two bluebottles (Bligh and Fletcher), a biker in tights smoking his pipe and savoring his newspaper on his perch of verge, vibrant robust abundant spring care grave wave ganja hickory cherry, your rock throne tossed in the shallows, generating a wake, your bum spread in the cold sand, not far from a busy line of black ants and a bright-orange shit, your back sawn in half by a conjurer in the night, a sheen of pollen oiling the olive water the season established, overcast yet warm, precious pit stop in your short haul sprint from a talking spitting corner, three floors above your amazing weather chamber, your legs abandoned to the contour of the hills, flats and brakes, bottoms and bayous, your heart throbbing, inadvertent yet deliberate a mallard hen with leaves in her beak and her drake swimming at her flank, an unafraid oarsman scanning the river traffic and slicing across to the island’s bank, disappeared now except for the white flags of his blades, cormorants or a heron at dawn sighted from your past, Yamaha or Rolls-Royce the only intrusion or confirmation of nature, kids tossing cascades of pebbles or a misbehaving St. Bernard flowing wet green prairie in your eye now saturated, sodden, tossed on a branch like a faded t-shirt, one of yours, 30-years-old and arms cutoff and silkscreen a negative, posted there in the clutter of roots and branches, not your wardrobe, a belly so round it makes your spine hurt, carving out medallions of aged lamb and mint arugula yogurt, no glowing screen illuminating your dinner or your night, just devoting your body-clock to the moment, you here on this island with legs, gracefully whirring beyond our ken only understood by rocks or stars, your father decided to die because he fears your mother and your mother living forever because she’s jealous of you, her father and you, reconciled to doing so as he has just your boyhood face given a girl, thighs and cigarettes for thinking on the curb, ocher oxide circle painted around you to protect you from the world wars that segued into individual and collective punishment of today, splotches of light and pools of darkness, neither safe but persistent hollowing, emptying and (de)learning, removing the neutral connectedness with insidious following and spying and ruthless competition for place and resource for our modified selves, the cold spirits of war and no peace, our bodies so close, our minds so closed that we do not call it war but sell it as news, four swans, six kayaks, a launch and two buoys, green and red, newly anchored in the river, lousy technique in the last pair hurdling downstream with corkscrewing leaves and brittle catkins, the tracks of a wet do and all of Sunday’s ferry service resumed, you mixing up the anticlockwise reeling of time today, and following the logic of the ticking arms, hunting around the wild apple for shoots to transplant in the square of garden near the city dump, to be reared and grafted as Pink Ladies, Topaz or even Batyu, apples for your brewing future, your ashtray in the stump, a kid asleep, a father-like chap tiptoeing upstream, you standing in the ants onshore, your cleated shoes taped shut, your body sloppily recovering, asanas, no anaerobic anabolic white Lycra of you, but a paunch under wool and 30-year-old Patagonia Capilene, an appropriate electric-blue shroud, girls deliberating whether to turn or float back, you deciding to the Scotch-guarded sun, a pair, just stroke and bow, no cox on the sweep, your buddy’s footsteps recorded from just yesterday, and he sags when you say “I’m at the Sacred Spot,” moving under the sonic shapes of the trees – microphones ovoid and cardioid under which you travel, a sound looking for amplification, dressed in blue or cream, a buffer if you like, ages so far well, unlike the flies emitted from your year-old cured ham, hung from a coat hanger like your ideas, suspended in salt, night falling in the outdoor bar of your delay, getting home with Syrian salads made from worry, coming again to spot your breath loaded with Guinea fowl and lovage to say nothing of short choppy waves and the wiggle of squads of kayakers, you at their height, haunches planted in the wet gravel, following the path of a wet dog and an extinguished camp fire.
Bardejov to Belgrade
You’re leaving the downpour in the medieval gothic square of Bardejov, stern houses and their sharp roofs, the cobbles navigated on high heels by Slovak girls with fabulous bodies and smushed faces, two bronze bells like breasts before the great cathedral and its watchtower gazing over the medieval walls to the rolling forested green hills, paternally guarding the children licking ice cream like the black-frocked priest, this oriental Tennessee of fried meat and claggy dumplings, blossoming apple white and cherry red, your assignment and small crew of Serbian Roma director and cameraman leading you to the Polish border and the town of Zborov. You stand in the well-tended garden of Nun Salome and eleven Romani children given writ to learn and play cavorting and cartwheeling not in the mud of the settlement but the milestones of preschool, converting Romanes to Slovak and writing their own rules about shoes, chairs, toys and meals, the town gutted by the transition, shoe factory over, forestry unprofitable, NGO representatives standing in the wings, priestesses of a sort for the bronze people gripping to hillside beyond the bumpy track, five rows of social housing and the impromptu and improvised between, hundreds of children on chainless tricycles, whirling a bull-roarer, calling and shouting, crying and swatting, jumping down a mound of slick oily rock or crowded before the Sony camera, an informal reading club in Éva’s tiny flat, shoes off, Mikey called upon to set the scene, walking through a scripted football game, weaving through onlookers into the threshold of the house, you making sure to shake the people’s hands as you quiz some of the young boys about their desires – mechanics all – in this republic of children, and with the help of Jan the ex-tennis pro, discussing the history of the place and the resume of Albin, its only college graduate among the roundelay, the Kemenec creek littered yet flowing determinedly as a border – Topla, Bodrug, then Tísza – you at the cusp of the basin from where all its inhabitants irrigate and drink, flowing even into the Tokaj 200 kilometers downstream, but that thought abstract and far from the moment of home school and takes of Mikey, the showers having retreated and the billowing clouds returned, sun skimming the hills as you distribute some goodies (pens, postcards, coloring books, calendars) to the young actors, alpha bulibashas as big as linebackers on the main street, a Shar Pei in a pen, mothers retrieving children, everyone slowly changing to black for the wake of a 42-year-old that night, sitting in wonder in the kindergarten, knees at your ears on the changing bench, the zero class and the kindergarten separated by floors and color, the whites upstairs, no sign of course, a sour face crossing the hall leading children upward to their future of which the others have no part officially, the same pattern at the elementary school and the false friend of Madam School Director and the guild of educationalists tapping up their EU bonuses with each bronze head, today the class half empty due to the wake and burial, everyone collecting now at the modern cemetery under the blossoms of apple white pompoms and stretches of bright oilseed rape and rooting corn, tractors for the rich, tired strawberries for the poor, who you can easily leave, just there for a few hours trying to engineer or capture something for the donors who turn football pitches into tennis courts and tennis courts into football pitches, the federal machine on the make, not even bothering to rate the prim spa town girls in white Bentleys and Cayennes, but rather all the Winnetou postcards you can buy for 20 euro, Old Shatterhand or 150 years of Sunday newspapers on a DVD your slow collecting beyond the railroad stops of your antihero who you have an afternoon to search for (on Friday no good archive opens), the city museum of the burghers, little mention of the Hungarians in what is Slovakia yet pollinated with their breath and lords, the icons taken from the wooden chapels in the forests, a scary Last Judgment fading, devils licking the moth-eaten, lacquered flames of the tapestry and outside showers and ice creams, framing a shot of the robotic country officer and sitting over the day’s rushes with steak and pelenyi, laughing at city boys in a quartet of languages, a rest almost, a pause without pen, bloc notes, or phone or computer, forced to rest several measures as if you weren’t even there, driving yourself to silence, even visiting the rising waters of the Sacred Spot when you have returned to your daughter and wife, both balled up and learning flips, the pen having worked its way from your Lycra pocket, enforced stretches and contemplation then back to the inspired drudgery, half a thousand pages proofed in 24 hours of daylight, the situation so exhausting and drastic you plan the escape to Vis in the Adriatic, the reflective bay and the best restaurant in the world, not of course until the commission is touched up and topped up with your propaganda, and you’re already departing again down to Belgrade, the conversation of a young couple and your sandwiches carried to Vojvodina, exchanging the high country (Felvidék) for the new country (Újvidék), filled with tears and grievances no matter which direction you go, a sandy track, white and lilac locust, and unfinished brick, the vibrant rhythms of the Slavs intermingling with the cadence of the Hungarians to the south and north, this your axis this month, you scraping the pebbles with a trowel from the Duna’s bank, home of hobos next to your favorite unvisited pool – doable back in the old schedule of home prisoner – the white bridge booming above, the conglomerate drainage for your slowly constructed box, a quarter cubic meter of floorboards, coated with linseed, screwed together, lined and filled with a sack of mysterious dirt filling around dwarf tomatoes, basils, oreganos and thymes, on coasters for when the frost comes months hence, intense hot home solutions and the only social interruption barbequing back in utopia (Vörösmarty 38) or tossing Frisbee over a drunken picnic, your daughter bucking in the shade of the oak next to the parking lot as two backlit boys parkour on the wedge of the 1956 memorial, a day you would expect only cherries to go with your boletus asparagus pork tenderloin baby garlic and thyme dinner or the rare rhubarb secured at the crack of dawn and turned into sunrise compote, new Adidas trainers leading you to the four carriages and locomotive, what could be three trains, one for performers, one for fauna and one for hands, soon to erect the big top and cloak, your baby in an anti-sun papoose, none of your mother’s simple desperate misery in your demeanor, creating and agility of mind and spirit, no shortage at all, that you can blab about at the table or train buffet with sweet men from Vojvodina, automatically friendlier, more open and cohesive even if you say, with caveats, that Clinton (who bombed them) was a good president as you skim over the corn and grain belt, lucid green and dotted with wild poppy, crossing the hard border, your lovey-dovey compartment mates expelled – no passports – torn and decayed plastic bags like bait on trees, imperial locomotives and a man who joins your seats, smelling of naphthalene, his gran’s closet, profligate pylons and the midden of a new EU autostrada, silos, ploughs and Big Ag, the trunk line to Kikinda where your hunch believes that a bonanza of Bill memorabilia lies, all you see of its nearest closest war is one demolished house lost in its sunken garden like Monday mourners in the Zelenik cemetery, later the river bridges, reconstructed, love messages on the bulwarks pointing skyward, the bouncing castle of Petrovaradin, your compartment hurriedly filling with IDPs like a war dream, you staring backwards down the tracks to Belgrade, a black tunnel, suddenly high above the Danube, pompoms of elder, flickering leaves of young crops and subsistence gardens run by grandparents for their children, of cozy nights and nostalgic afternoons, dusky onions and shiny beans, until the scrapyards and slums of the periphery, evictions and cement, mosques remade into churches, 72 hours all the difference, a pouch of tobacco, wild apple brandy, persistent showers, you again in the metal buffet car, head hurting, your nothing box ticked in the pursuit of nothing, a man’s instinct turned inside out by modernity, the Zen of pursuit and ambush transformed into the city center rammed with pussy and products, you moving from editing suite to cinema, the smoky Majestic Café where you will plot your path among the vampires who rest at day and work at night, spilling into the streets, the slick paving stones of the pedestrian boulevard Kniz Mihalova, and the cobbled lanes tumbling toward the junction of the Danube and the Sava, sleek or ramshackle, a postwar boom pushing out the antiquarians and antiques, in its place fashion, trends, slow food, vinotekas, the throb of commerce powered by moonlighting Serbs and those clever enough to harvest the tourist dime or a hefty amount of business intrigue, the siphon from government to private contract, Byzantine rules and relations condensed on this hilly tongue where you conduct the foundation of Serbia’s first Roma film festival, weeding out the misguided partners P&E in favor of the incredibly serious L&D who will bring the right accent and flavor to the event in the once Jewish pensioner’s clubhouse, now Cinema Rex, a safe haven and harbor with a pattern of tolerance and cohesion, gestures like you folding paper airplanes for the Romani children of Makis container settlement, the toddler’s hair dyed and ears pierced, barefoot in the rain and kept alive by soup kitchens and municipal bread, the people resettled from Gazela and now Belleville, slums leveled for real estate and infrastructure development and recreated in sites beyond the reach of my neighbors, you paralyzed in aspirin and 300 cigarettes, from Electro-pop beers and Kornet Publishing’s wild apple brandy, unable to write or recount the moments of your movements navigating with three different free maps, all unreadable, sniffing at the door of the association of southeastern photographers next to an old school walk-in public advocate’s typewriter-strewn office open from 17.30 to 20.00 daily, but there is no numismatic to be found comes the reply, your treasured 1906 unapparent except for the circus lovers of Serbia fan page discovered by a curator of superstitions like a character from Eightball. It’s the Belgrade of supermarket bars and apartment bars and office bars, their names never posted or printed, always a place you want to jump and land like the foot of Branko Bridge or shoot up and die, a stairwell next to a tunnel, after your possibly Roma congress in the cultural decontaminator, willing ears listening to your stories of how you ticked, crossed, scribbled, doodled, blotted and filled your nothing box, how it ran like a square bell and told you to move on, dully and then with more vibrancy and tone till you become you are now connecting the dots of your slacker loser laboratory and refusing to let your habits hold you down or back, you can shine now and resist digging through the hotel trash for the micro-bud the maid threw away while you were having breakfast, nor do you insist that a friend find you any more, for your enjoy agility and talk and what you can remember of what you learnt and studied, gliding and confident the air is enough for you and your sense of justice, altruism and utopias will suffice better than the American or European dream imagined or legislated as you creep back to your headquarters on the warn uneven tracks, red hand, black agent of the black arts, whatever handle of imaginary who you choose as your ID, listening to your wife curl asleep or orgasm on a finger, finding yourself editing Leftist propaganda and sponsoring underdogs, not bombers, collecting polar menus and hand drills, indie till you die, the small claim holder within a quarter section and three weeks, the snakes invading the town to drink, anywhere that’s moist, unlike the rain of central Serbia determined to drive everyone from the outdoor patios and cafes, everything lush, taller, fuller, greener, and a good indicator of survival, guerilla cultivation in the verges of the rail lines, hidden like a Roma hovel beyond the clearance area, great puddles of water and ship factory gates or Serbian Hollywood, a nighttime serpentine you wish was toned with miniskirt whores, the minibar your compensation and jerking off to channel 61, a floor sander waking you, six hours or two hours of sleep and a half kilo of cheap Turkish coffee beans make rest quizzical and unnecessary, just three steak medallions with kaymak and tomato and Serbian Syrah, all you need to head and guide the roundtable, a blonde Roma director with Z-017889 freshly tatted on her arm and LBD and the nephew of Milosevic’s former Roma information minister whose acts led to all the Roma being branded traitors and removed from Kosovo to the IDP camps of Belgrade, the plump obnoxious PR specialist and over-stater dreaming of cocktail parties and complimentary gift bags for unimpressed journalists, your team of candidates, you in search of good press not poverty, criminality and premature death, the unset bones and ungrafted burns of the settlements or kids shitting outside the containers where you stand in the drizzle, never to refuse a hand but maybe sour wine, you invited inside – the cage or jar to verbalize and visualize to donors what’s going on, your head smashed against the pane of glass and a fragment of Bukowski – never trust those with too much faith or those with none – standing in your Japanese mackintosh, you a transistor of good causes like literature or minorities, with the underdogs after 20 years in your velvet prison (home office) in your golden handcuffs, you with scissors and thread tailoring the air, holding back or letting your charisma do the work, listening and crafting like your father, traveling to the bottom of the well to find out you’re fine, grabbing sunshine and the unbelievable smiles of your wife and daughter for Saturday cafes, a meeting with an Anglo-Indian photographer and her performer friend, wives that are easy to talk to and look at, filling the pram basket with Darjeeling and tight purple corduroy and later waiting to celebrate Geminis, one last book before you retire from editing and tap in these cherished fragments composed like clichés under bar light, when you opt to ride north like the Mercury outboard cruiser whirring toward the red-green-green-red maritime lights of Római beach, passed by a biker, writing on the railing like the last pink phone box or printed book, rediscovering the delight and release of a night cruise – a decade it’s been – Kádár speaking through the ether on his century birthday, your HQ just four blocks from the lies, spin and propaganda of the people’s rallies, striking blues browns and reds of the apparatchiks.
Your hand slaps at the mosquitos and your breaths chase the motes of poplar cotton from the bank onto the reflective shallows and the pan of the Danube, serpentine and the divots of its pebble beach filled with down or scale, B-negative blood type and an easy pace here saving your from a frenzy of bugs, hair swept and sweat over your bald gulf, no peninsula, just a few reefs on your forehead, your vitality slowed, legs and heart weakened – tobacco and smoke maybe – by your clients and hours and the copyediting which you wish to cease, so you have time for your wife’s generosity, allowing you to cum on her ass on the Pentecost and order Broadway pizza, engaging again at Lilliput, a pyramid of rings, a singing snail, a vetoed octopus organ or bagpipe, a lazy strike, a glug and a node of ripples on the water, math or music, the aviary at its climax, the last rowers pulling home, be be ba’ babibabibabo, like you soon, your gut your writing table, Tupac staring up at you from your shirt, your chard growing four miles hence next to the road, pissing on the fire ring and the traveling editor, maybe the ash of humans or nucleotides, you maybe the last generation to drink these waters translucent to two feet, no the Secret Spot’s uncovered, no secret room for bleachers and bath salt highs, teenage strip parties or a mid-aged man arriving with his new girlfriend dismounting from the side car, cruising at transitions under the red stormy pinky orange ruby sunset, the footbridge your stop and the shelter closed and the streets full of camps and crabs, a sunset that a red-faced drunk would stare at, you taking the right staircase to avoid the schnapps vomit snaking down the left, your usual route down, writing press releases and video clips until you revisit utopia, opposite the press center, the electric mincer bleating like a lamb, parking places like poker, the beards, the stances, the piggybacks, and the void of paint, you saying no to too dark navy linen and yes to soft brown suede shoes a size too small because suede gives and stretches, tiny shoes for dancing, wingtips without dots, Turkish linen khakis and mustard top, forgiving yet fresh, the bike ride a slow steady beat of an older man honoring his father on his birthday, the kind of pace that can last all day, utopia undergoing renovation, hall scraped of graffiti and dust and mold, doors punched into the lower flats from the courtyard, ceiling scraped to its beams and patterned brickwork, an in-heat Lily gone missing, the mincer grinding and you throttling up your liver and blood with five tins of beer, the merguez spicy and wetting your appetite, your daughter overloaded at her nieces, mother worrying over her as she should, your dad calling you at your instruction to brief you about the turmoil of your own mother’s mind and emotions, given license in her new retirement to destroy everyone and everything, including sleep, as if she was two mothers handling eight children into the park, five kilos of garden-beaten aromatic strawberries tumbling into the pot at home, at your kitchen station your wife and you returning to the press releases and Costel’s well-dressed authority, rough stitched velvet arm patches and brown wingtips, cavalier, astute and master of carrot and stick, chairing meetings in your mind’s dreams, the snores of your gluttony, a leather satchel of tools, the strawberry foam flooding the cooker, “Sari” white wine, your afternoon’s medicine after fighting communication fires, every half hour a new set of signals, acid smoke calmed with Ph. paper, and two days later you’re lost on the flying bus to Brussels, hound’s-tooth linen and your Barney’s shirt, chatting with a young journo, forgetting boys’ night out, giving up the transversals of the river bridges, again the sun tagging your back, groggy with blonde beer, ahead of you, 24 hours of policy lobbying as you take in a flash of a new building you recognize from Kőbánya (the quarry) and your calls to the press starts, your old role as prisoner no longer an option, walking with your out-of-breath in-laws to a surprise birthday celebration, the toll of your vices unapparent, traveling among the Bs without a limp or high blood pressure, the burnt orange moon waxing at 4.10 am over the Gellért Hill and the cranes, no matter the weather pointed in the prevailing wind’s direction, by 5.10 the sun opposite rising as if it were the moon, dancing Venus only 48 hours from a centennial event crossing between us and the sun as if that would give us more humanity or reunite us with nature, not our gadgets sandwiched in traffic digesting Belgian pop and somehow remembering how to knot a tie in the land of bubble-gum beer, joining the drizzling eighth floor of the Crowne Plaza rising above the deliberately signless Metro and the hostile stares of Belgians and immigrants, your eyes dropped into the multiple interpretation channels of the Eurocrats as the figures, data, points, subsets, and findings are rolled out by the bankers and commissioners, panelists and moderators, departing over foggy hills and misty factories at Charleroi with the lobbyists and bouncing outsiders, a few days to go AWOL, sit on a Buda terrace that seems to transport you to Istanbul, playing a game of pickup basketball after three decades with young punks in Városmajor park, the mass grave of besieged, retreating Germans, your oldest friend D. entertaining you, a wall off which to bounce humor balls, walking in the roof and planning his future, you settled now, black agent black bag black master black arts, lay ups and alley-oops, faked out and winded your reality that day, hoops never your game but rather manipulating the innards of a till at your first annual visit to the riverside pool, two beers, fry bread and just 25 minutes of laps, an afternoon in the flat alone, mamas out comparing notes from motherhood – like BO between the tits – with a giant ambitious Roma working pro bono as you sing Sorrow Tears and Blood and improvise along in your homemade light soup of accordion basses, reminded of what it was like to be unmarried and alone, re-navigating and reenacting your intellectual products, you free of crap tattoos and mobs so far, at the market at eight sharp for rhubarb and boletus, stopping in the second repeat of morning rounds to Buda to recall the quarry rock transporter’s limbo, dragging upstream like a bore wave, you skating above the matt pea green water, your belly pushing apart the buttons on all your coolest slim shirts, you an overweight calorie of mushed peas and potato, a pork chop sold as lamb dressed with mint sauce and a bushel of beet tops, the cruise ships Swiss Jewel, Johann Straus and Da Vinci quivered together at their Pest moorings, unlikely bedfellows but apt for Europhiles, you waiting for two drops of sink water to dry on your left lens, the rag and bone man having ravaged your junk strewn neighborhood and left a shit parked outside your gate, blots of St. Medard lightening and your improper gobbling of ganache bonbons, lost on pastis and rain, reversing the route and testing out a different spot for its nothingness, your aroma deep and intense, an old man’s spunk, a mock paddle steamer churning beyond the waterlogged willows, the beat of the dragon boat and pebbles thrown afar, a light Monday digesting pork medallions and anise, your hat’s visor soaked, unable to touch your toes, coxless and coxswain pairs, warblers and thrushes tuning across the beaches and woods, the stride of oars, France v. England in Donetsk your private interval to rethink your trial from Rawhide Creek to the Danube, it’s forgotten crafts and people of whom you know nothing, drinking and swimming in its melancholy waters but not living from its depths, as if you would gloss over the meaning of life or your funny pained smile rewritten with the charm of your wife and daughter’s joy, papi papa dada tata daddy mama, mama wriggling like a naughty doll, you stroking from mole to mole her small child’s back, months of orgasm and question – is she with child again? – since she feels bloated, baby too irritable from inoculations and too many visitors on Sunday, both your shoes taped shut and exercise tedious when you could eat and booze instead, the diagonal flight of the morning heron joined by a pair, a winged spectator or an un-water-worthy red vintage cruiser, marmite toast your accelerant less than midway along the river always with a name and that does not seek to re-inter, rebury, rehabilitate or re-erect, ground bricks and glass and dumped DIY secretly pushed over the bank along which you churn, age sapping your legs of their strength and stamina, the hills like the river itself, unattainable gliding backward and puffing upward, limited by your range faded by smokes and booze which you tug to revisit but a few beers and nostalgic shots later and you’re a goner, the unimaginable, you weed left at home, severely missing the day of quietude in which you once dwelled, angered or disappointed that you do nothing but surf and read indefatigably between hairy blindfolded amateurs and hip hop comix, your boggling folder of writing unmined, unsorted, too confusing anyway, a year or so of giving all your creator juice and oomph to the Romas, none the smarter, none the richer, but as blond as ever, the impetus and block to visit the library as perpetual and persistent as ever, a luxury among your responsibilities like a stolen coffee and the minor-key moments and movements of your concertinas and accordions, the Friday flight to the pool or grabbing your best friend of 30-odd years and taking him upriver to show him your church, closed of course on June 15 – your daughter’s half-year anniversary – by high water rain and melt and you sit instead while he complains with two frosty glasses of Dreher, chips, cigarettes, dripping and bread, everything you need for worship of another kind, the weekenders retreating across the river on an electric launch to Lupa Island and the raised concrete and glass Bauhaus houses, not your luck or destination, following your friend’s thick calves until you take over the route and forget to mention to him this is why you like this city, for this alone, turning your eyes to the sunset over the low green western hills, nature’s Feng shui and the martial art of good riding, compass and monastery moving together, heart and soul, your diesel breath, the first hours of your vacation crashed into the smelly teddy bear pillow, by morning under the Citadella at the old skanky rent-boy pickup spot after breakfast with your girls, the square repaved with a fountain and swirling steel seats, everyone gathering in the morning sun.
You stared into the early morning canopy, alone for once, no talkers, no resistance trainers, few walkers, few dogs at first, your feet planted in the sand, motioning through your warm-up routine, webs of traffic weaving towards the southern bridges, your spot tranquil, no sign of spit or soap, gathering strength and velocity, bulked up and top heavy like a bull, unintimidated, unafraid. You’d repeat it, tune it, push away your comfort until the workout becomes routine, even mandatory. You can’t ride every day.
That summer I repeatedly spotted a young man reading with his dog for company under the trees stationed between the playground and the hill. He piqued my imagination, settled on a blanket, the contents of his backpack scattered around his patch near the drizzling sprinkler, a tap for dogs. I never approached him for I would never dare intrude in this private act but I passed him during my morning sessions, skipping from Muscle Beach to Windsprint Hill.
What was this bookworm reading? How annoying! He wasn’t like the other vagabonds to be found at dawn, the spillover from the nearby beer gardens and hedonism of the summer or the more permanent adults who lived in the perimeter of the park. I never got close enough to spot either what he was reading or in what language. I liked the mystery.
A Norwegian kid from the nearby embassy? Present all summer long, every day weather permitting? Did he camp there? Just sometimes under the big fat romantic moon with the howling homeless for fun? Was it a bet? Was he attending a remedial summer school? Or was it much more comfortable and edifying, jogging over at dawn from the affluent Zugló flank, with sandwiches and a thermos of coffee made by his mum, illuminated with the spirit of autodidacts? Why did he park himself between the two valves opened to slake the thirst of dogs and lawns? Did he write too? Or want to? That might be part of it. Anyway, it seemed like an education, at least a leap of faith and learning, so far disconnected from confusion or dismay. He appeared like a classic protagonist, a great lad with huge problems, floppy hair, deadly sharp eyes, a penchant for reading, not just one hour, or one day, but weeks on end, sitting cross-legged, attended by a long-haired dachshund cute enough to be pussy bait. Was he enough for any over-told story about a slightly disaffected but entitled suburban kid? Was he instilling himself with the exploits of some of the same heroes who also deceived me into thinking literature was the shit? Was that me some 25 years ago not realizing he was being monitored by his very self?
Should I warn him?
It was interesting to ponder. How many books could a kid read in a summer? Real books, I mean, not the curriculum of tired old hits dolled out like methadone. The unreported, the untold, the banned, the obscure, the absurd, the oddballs and the iconoclasts who are the mainstay of a boy’s advance from nothing to everything, and which he may reverse or obliterate if he so chooses? How I envied him, that he was not bound to the paycheck grindstone and had such liberty to disconnect and read across the spectrum. Was city park really a wonderfully pure summer library? It seemed a fantastic and noble thing to do, something I admired and something I would have done myself. But dare I disturb this private moment of such noble purpose? Was this his Sacred Spot, as bruised with shit as mine upriver on the Danube?
The kid vanished with the unexpected monsoon triggered by Saint Medard’s Day, a heavenly deluge for a June and July of rains that kept the city cool and countryside abundant. I maintained my distance but the boy didn’t reappear during my morning rounds to the monkey bars, a cast of resistance trainers, the constantly talking entrepreneur couple and their baby, the kick-boxers and security guards, the cross-fit soldiers and kettle-bellers and me with my mixed routine of yoga and calisthenics that didn’t resemble anything but my own private ritual under the canopy of trees. Muscle beach was quiet in the mornings, just the grunts of middle-aged men (in Lycra), alone, in pairs or triplets, the occasional passing pedestrian or dog skirting along the rugged city park now threatened with an upgrade as a consequence of being centralized by the prime minister and gifted to the city as a museum quarter.
The traffic throbbed as I conducted my exercises from dawn to rush hour, the park boxed in by 16 lanes of traffic and the start of an artery running east into the rising sun in Miskolc, from where a prong of roads attacked the Tatras, Carpathians or Transylvania itself. Fresh arrivals here would find no such diversity of alpine, forest and meadow creatures could be coaxed from this shoebox of green, nor could the conditions and habitat to sustain them, but the morning session staring at the stainless steel bars embedded in creosoted posts was a respite from the intrusions of phone and inbox, family and chores, something lending labor to the days of sitting like a lump in the office and at home. Free of the pollution of headphones, but soaked up the few sounds of this little corner of sand and canopy that was my pad for muscle building – sand brushed from hands, spit and grunts, the fundamentals of good agony.
I would bow away, drink at the tap that was a waterhole for runners, dogs and homeless, then cross a grove of locust, rebound up and down the park’s sole peak, a fragile attempt at a burial mound or even a pyramid, wind-sprinting like I was getting ready for a match, for I adopted poses from yoga, tae kwon do and capoeira with a real intent, preparing for the day to fight my oldest friend who I wanted to sock in the face for his unconcerned arrogance and the lecherous looks he gave my wife as my way of taking a swipe at life and my position in its milieu. Anger motivated me, a male, and knowing that he would be hard to defeat and even harder to knock out, my strength was compressed in those rapid movements, swaying down the hill, then backing up right to the top, 112 swift steps to a crown of four linden trees. Everything distilled there, with the crows and pigeons for love in the sky, my eye-line raising to the park canopy’s summit, dashing up the hill to the height of the trees, timing runs between packs of dogs and a stream of bikers throbbing by the rundown Olaf Palme exhibition hall in the near distance. Lists, appointments and responsibilities dissolved in the effort and the world seemed that much simpler after jogging twenty laps. To my dismay, maintaining a happy demeanor took even more energy than anger as I concentrated on this regime’s ability to squeeze it from my glands and crush it from my bones, so at least the frame of my being would stand a chance against my desk, agent of death and dystopia.
My willingness to take risks, and succeed because of it, had dwindled for fear of my imminent death in the droning traffic to join the souls of birds rustling in the undergrowth of our lives. It didn’t matter whether I was squatting in a tro-tro along the winding roads of Ghana, guiding a drunken Dacia along bouncing Transylvanian forest roads or swimming the azure sea between Dalmatian rocks, I ought not to join my friend with a keen sense of death by misadventure and cross the Danube at Göd, timing everything to coincide with the passing of an approaching river cruiser, the circulating cold of a cramp and the real threat of three lungfuls of water, all it takes to send you down.
But as my daughter incrementally filled in her personality and frame, making great leaps in physical and cognitive development, I regained my sense of vigor. As if to prove that everything was exceptional, I tugged my family from one extremity of the Habsburg Empire, making a ragged bow with Budapest as its knot this summer, following a landscape of rivers and passes to their natural borders of sea and mountains, some 3000 kilometers over three weeks, to the point where I realized everything I had struggled to note in detail had been a mistake, over-described when it was simple: air, mountains, clouds, pastures, sea, rivers and light. It made an enchanting mixture of relative peace in exceptionally troubled times, 25 years after the cessation of hostilities of the Cold War, 70 years after the Holocaust, 100 years since the dawn of the First World War, one long continuum of misjudged borders and fight for vanishing resources that began in the scrabble for colonial power, trimming our ambitions and numbers, surging around us in a spiral of destruction from sub-Sahara across the Middle East to the gates of Ukraine, boomerangs of Jihad sent from Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Our basin served as a refuge now, laced with tributaries with multiple names like the Drina, Rab, Sava, Tísza, Lapus and Körös. Naturally a flashpoint, too, its warriors were resting from turmoil before they stirring their loins again and declaring what was theirs on countless trading streets of villages, towns and cities clinging to the red sand and black clay of this enormous fertile patchwork of peoples, orchards and crops, the tipping point that turns shared jokes into hatred once we elect to kill our neighbors, push their corpses from their shoes and leave the indignity for the flies and vultures.
Still, it’s your adopted home and you’re free to leave anytime, departure no more than a four-block, five-minute walk to the train station. Twenty-one years to the day after arriving you will escort your wife and daughter into the belly of an airliner and a bird’s vulnerable journey through the pandemic back to America where you started, a snail’s trail of Huguenot ancestors from the Carolinas crawling to the Sand Hills of Niobrara, the anomic of prairie and another throw of the boomerang, the winged wheels of Mercury, messenger son of dormant rivers and seas, caught in the mid-Atlantic gyre, on the Trieste line.
My own arrogance billowed with the sense of achievement that I had left books and literature, stories and writing, but I was still at it, made fresh and alive by the cursor moving across the screen. I was being a hypocrite with my rooted in goodie two shoes employed father behavior. It was nothing of the sort as I avoided my potent love, carefully reading from time to time, for I still loved the rogues when I could find them, alive in the visages of my friends or conjured in the pages of literature’s bad boys who I had more and more of an inclination to challenge and fight.
By now of course my wife was getting sick of my antics, the red eyes and the hoppy breath, the proclivities to managed destruction, the fart of opening bottles and the click of the lighter. Her tolerance and her technique, that it was my decision what I chose to do, were imploding. I counted to her and it meant something that my mind was being visibly hollowed to a shell by my passions, my memory emptied of the near past like a great pool of forgetting, so many precise irregular fiery movements of body and soul that have dissolved away but remain recorded in the inky smoke of innumerable notebooks, the thrills of the Danube Basin, travels into its cul-de-sacs where the village idiot holds a mirror to your spirit.
All she had to do was mention it in an uncanny tone that reminded me of the past and I was spun in the opposite direction, more resolutely drinking and smoking my way to supposed bliss or misery, until I shook the regressive curve and got it together with a return to the rewarding rhythms of keeping it together, monkeying on the bars in the park, finding joy in blue sour cream and thousands of plums, cutting upriver to the monsoon-swamped secret spot or watching a friend courageously swim and steer the Surány to Göd branch on a mild summer afternoon, a risk I am unlikely to take, the shallows of that great surging river are enough, missing the rope swing, eating cauldrons of chicken paprikas and lecsó, bringing together a squadron of children.
But was it a simulacrum, a lacuna through which to collect and sell in the market of digital memories, constructing collective events and current affairs, as if things might be actually much worse or much better than they appear.
It takes years for a new bike to come together. Being a parent, it’s hard to justify bikes at thousands of dollars a whack, so there has to be another way, slow installments of liquidity that can be sold as a health investment as you consistently pilot the street-friendly Vitus in a holding pattern around the city bridge loops. The vintage frame is in mint condition, from a California boutique builder, it seduces you on E-bay during the American recession and you outbid everyone since you’re doing fine in the income stakes. You pay about the right amount, less than factory at the time, and the 1997 frame is yours. You don’t pay too much attention once it arrives, just add it to your luggage count and tickle it overseas with you, except that the bike box does disappear in London for a day, the frozen Goshen County steaks packed alongside arriving late but edible. You hang it on the clothes hooks in your home office and the glimmering blue art of CNC, tubing and welds gathers dust like a ham. You don’t have enough disposable money for fancy individual parts for a build. The sky’s the limit with a game like that and you’d never compromise on the price or brand, But in truth you’re an overweight Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra) who is prone to snapping cranks, destroying hubs and bottom brackets and capable of decapitating seat posts and crunching wheels into eights, and who should know better than to go for racing parts. So you bide your time circulating around the city’s extremities until you get a small and unexpected bonus from your nightmare boss. You hunt online for a local bike with great parts that can be swapped without too many mismatches in tubing sizes and compatibility. You find a magnesium Merida, raced some, and you’ve no qualms about getting rid of the day-glow factory frame that you might turn into BMX one day. You don’t ride it further than your garage where you store it, hoping everything, especially the nice forks, are going to transfer to the blue frame hiding under your clothes on the wall. Later you fetch a few tools and parts, thinking you’re going to swap the parts between the frames yourself. You’ve even got a card preloaded with funny money that you can use to pick up pedals and a mismatched seat post (1.125 inches) but not loaded enough for a bike stand. But it doesn’t happen quite that way. You’re not measuring cables and tubes with your calipers, wishing every component into place. No, you’ve got the ass-kicking Vitus to ride. Plus, you travel with your family the entire summer. Yet by the last trimester of the year you’ve squirreled enough away to pay for the build.
The mechanics at Defekt aren’t skilled or careful enough for this bike, you think, so you drop it, upon your bachelor bike-nut neighbor’s advice, at BikePont. The mechanic is friendly in his shoe-sized shop, was a racer he says, and that kind of matters as an indicator of reliability and precision and what you expect. It’s not expensive in the end and you pick up the blue bike with white highlights on a Saturday market morning. You park it in your studio and just stare at it in wonder. But you’re at pains not to climb on. Once you’re aboard and riding a city loop that afternoon, it’s like traveling in pre-carbon, pre-titanium time, the low swooping geometry up front and the wheel’s right under your ass. You kick south and then come at Gellért Hill from behind, breaking in this dirt rocket that climbs like a goat and drops like an eagle. The next day you make the traditional loop to the Sacred Spot. And a week later you’re finally kicking on the fire roads of the Buda hills, realizing what a bitch is mountain biking.
A decade ago your joints would take it but by now they’re fed up and you’re even walking the rock gardens (so not to scratch your new mint frame), fearing a face-plant or gouged leg. So many unpleasant memories lurk up in the hills, ones where you are both thrilled and afraid, where once you circulated every few days and did battle with squadrons of paragliders and infantry of wild boars, where you sweated and puffed and sent yourself in circles, navigating by dead reckoning through the forested hills, chasing the man within, bashing at roots and ledges, eating up track, whistling around the corners, flying over the city a short drop below. The new blue tubes and white cables alert you to your new bike underfoot, bombproof forks and tight brakes as you drive forward, expertly paced because you’ve been here so many times before, rebounding up five 20-minute sections of slope, thrashing out the last of your high before you rip back into town, feeling tough and energized, full of wind and elemental, a blue streak separating you from oblivion, each ride a reenactment of your childhood fun, navigating far out of your neighborhood to the ruts of the giant hill down which you will crash, coming home ragged and bloody, and no choice but to tell where you have been and that you’ve been naughty, expecting a total ban on biking and grounded from any movement.
You don’t need your parents to punish you anymore. Your knees will do it for you. After the virgin dirt devil ride, you’re hobbled for the week, amazed by the lower and upper body strength required to lug yourself up those hills to get to the sweet single-track. How did you ever do it before, letting it rip so unabashedly on adventures in what was a preview of what’s marketed today as cross-country or simply gravel? Now your legs are bashed up for the week; you’re disabled and parked, wondering what you ever saw in the bumps. It’s so disconcerting and you feel so betrayed by your body, you give it another go. After all, you paid plenty of money and spend lots of time putting together the match, salvaging a top of the range component group of the right vintage to fit the retro boutique frame, and each new ride would make it cost less. You go up twice, heading out laughing either because of inclemency or perfect timing, three hours spent chasing loops, some sense of strength, agility, skill and guts returning. The memories don’t appear so strong or so ill-willing on these two visits, one a sketchy session of mud, slick rock gardens, fog and mist and being overdressed, the other a push to see what the bike was capable of, and finding the right place to kick up the tail and leap a few logs, as if finally admitting the peace and power in this act, routine, habit and cause.
By now the dreams of doing good have faded into the selfishness of the holiday season, staying close to home and meeting only a select few. The bike rides grow colder and windier and the bird song is less loquacious and sparse. The canopy is washed together like blurred writing. Circumstances like comfort are hard to break.
Six layers and a scarf tucked around your waist aren’t enough for the sun and cold in February when you move again. Your battery’s low when you depart, but your inclination is good. You’ve got two apples to keep you going. You debate cutting it short. But the sun keeps shining and your legs keep churning up along the river. You’re got to make a choice. Add in the extra kilos now or never. You chop them in, skittering through the mud and grass on the Vitus, skinny and fast even if your blood feels like plastic. You mash up the cobbles at the top of your loop to the golden crucifix knit on Szentendre’s hills, suspended at the height of cupolas and belfries that make this a strongly orthodox town among the canopy of the river plain. Hugging the medieval allies and braking heavily, you find your last resort, Lulu café, is closed. No ice cream and espresso for you. You roll onward, heading back, taking one last look, already flagging, an apple only good for another 30 minutes of riding before you bonk, zipping past the sewage plant and the paint-gun range and picking back up your tracks through the mud and bumps. You’re soaring in neutral space, black and purple and chrome darting along the river path, the slim boundary that is public between the houses, retreats, boat clubs and the alternately pebbly and muddy stretches of bank and beach, energy enough for bunny hops over the cracks, stomping home through the industrial estates and ranks of blocks, spared much traffic, a nervous spring of birdsong running over your wet ears and soaked back, now frozen and cold at the very point where pelvis knots with spine. You beg for the most direct of returns, cutting through Angyalföld and nosing back into your neighborhood and the arrival at your gate, the quick ride up in the lift and the immediate change into another set of clothes, out of the frozen wet skin imprinted and salted with the whole winter season’s rides, tossed on the radiator as you come back to life, later plunging into the bath and rubbing your joints with rosemary cream. The next week is agony, inflammation being the key word as you attempt to restore heat and flexibility into the knot between your legs and arms. The Rudas baths on Wednesday do nothing to restore your health, indeed, you’re out for the rest of the week, crippled and unable to bear sitting at the office. The experience reminds you of your fragility and vulnerability, and that two thousand bike rides are achievable, but only if you pace yourself till you are called to dismount and go home, your holiday on earth extinguished and over, and willing to go, slipping away, knowing you had smiled.
Out of shape and I can just make the groove of forest paths high above the Danube, refreshing viewpoints with flashes of vibrant green and the abandon of frosty, empty single track.
“We’re not sure about mountain biking anymore,” complain feet, hips and knees.
Yet I’ve warmed to the new addition to the quiver and tumbled over its bars, rising laughing and happy, exactly at the moment I perceive the depths of the ruts and wonder if indeed an endo isn’t on the menu. I’ve braved a dark forest descent, eyes blown out and hands aching as I pick my way down, spotlighting the trees magnified by the darkness, enjoying the adversity of cold, mist, damp, fog, slippery roots, low visibility and shapes of dogs and walkers who emerge from the soup accompanied by a stirring of base instincts and the mantra to survive the ride home. That buck onto the mud and grass is enough to send me into hibernation until the sun returns to lift the mercury over ten degrees, and I can burn a flab of cheeses, breads and Haribos again.
I ride in clusters, one ride after another, quickly in succession on the quick blue bike later that winter. My objective, no less than the Shit Sacred Secret Spot, is just a few park benches in length at this time of year, the river flowing healthily with the winter’s precipitous black rains. By the time of a second afternoon arrival, the woodpeckers are beating their war drums, digging for grubs warmed by the late winter sun. The two willows stilled rooted to the bank, however precariously, sit like paramount chiefs, ruling over the nothingness other than the play of light on the surface of trees, land and water. At first I don’t notice, I’m panting and shaking the effort out of your legs. I smile when I realize the joke embedded in the roots of one of the willow. There, wedged in the roots of one willow, is a cross.
For all my talk of holy, it’s odd to see it so patently acknowledged. I examine the ornament more closely. Brushed concrete, fluted at its tips, bashed at its base, the cross appears to belong to a crypt of headstone, for its bottom is fractured and broken, discarded to the current, combed from the shore and recovered, set in the roots by hands or water, as if to tell everyone what I already know this patch of mud, trees, light, pebbles and nothingness to be, sacred as any other patch of nothingness.
I pick up the frequency of visits to monitor the spontaneous development. The cross, detached, discombobulated, decapitated, has been repositioned higher up in the willow, as if the plebiscite isn’t quite sure what to do at this natural chapel. The tree emerges from the gravel like a wreath of hands and suspended in the branches is the cross, far from invulnerable, nesting until the inevitable combination of alpine runoff and summer rains will lift it away and plunge it back into the river, tumbling in mud and gravel to another congregation.
I can recall the days when the quest to this inner refuge first started. I probed northward out of Budapest’s seventh district on a bead-blasted Specialized M2 brought from home. No one had seen any bicycle like it in the Hungary of 1994. I passed the public pools, threaded before housing estates, opened up a route through suburbs. Once I looked through a green gate to glance at a beautiful young woman splashing herself with water from a garden hose, and I remember thinking how I wouldn’t mind an angel like that as her smile and form joined the mental imprint of the ride.
It took me years to realize whom I had seen for an instant that afternoon. During that time the Specialized cracked, beat up by my abandon for tricks and flight. By serendipity or purpose that girl glanced for a moment became your wife, your well and river, and you will return to the garden laden with fruit behind the green gate. She, who acknowledges you as head of household and whom you regard as a superb co-pilot and mate, cautions you to balance extremism and a tendency to ride bold loops corkscrewing over the city. Your life is saddled between my legs: an Armstrong-era Trek for the hills, a pair of Swiss Moors for city errands, a silver Giant sacrificed to an ex, the new favorite, the scavenged purple Vitus, along with all the lovely lonely miles of turns, drops, jumps, starts, sprints, crashes, air, tricks, landings, shredding, berms, collisions, and tours of emotional and physical expression they provide for you, plus 12-20 kilos, inside the Iron Curtain, traveling a vein, a sea, an island, a basin, a canal, your effort as rewarding and challenging as lost instinct, a rebellion against the obese and the sitters.
There in her garden you will rest at weekends, your children running free and wild.
Today, you stay put, pick 18 buckets of four varieties of cherry for homemade liquor, recharge on Hungarian meatloaf and macaroni (fasírt and ordás tészta) and stuffed peppers, the river a site for mosquitos and last night’s fry-up down by the pebbles with four under-eights and six adults. But the purpose of this alert is not just about sun, alcohol, cherries or a three-day course of antibiotics and the melting, listing, out of kilter feeling of bowels and showers, halos of low blood pressure and swollen limbs during the dog hours in the attic, recovering to stand with the electricity and cherry angels, noting the infinitesimal erosion of song above our heads, so slight that we will not notice till it’s gone forever and us with it.