Stories 1 Winter 2012
 
Conversational Hungarian
 
by David Simms
                       
 
            Zoltán is teaching Beginning Conversational Hungarian this fall at the Pliny Recreation Center. Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7-8:30 p.m. In the room next to Nutrition Made Easy and right down the hall from Intermediate Watercolors and Group Guitar.
           
            The consensus around town is of disbelief. Who in Pliny in their right mind would want to learn Hungarian, conversational or otherwise? But apparently five do, all of them females, Zoltán’s dream come true—if only. Unfortunately for him, one is a nun who teaches algebra at Blessed Prendergast Academy; two are born-again Pliny housewives with a gleam of proselytizing in Hungarian in their eyes; and the remaining two are over-the-hill and dumpy. Zoltán, nearing 70, is no spring rooster. But, come on! He does have his standards.
 
Last year he taught a poetry writing course and, during a break one evening, invited a woman in it out for coffee afterward. A 50-ish divorcee whose cell phone played the theme from The Sopranos, she declined the invitation, wrote a poem in class after the break that rhymed “man oh man” and “bam bam,” and never showed up again. Just before Thanksgiving the spinster twins died. A few weeks earlier they had written identical limericks while sitting on opposite sides of the classroom from each other. But then they had simultaneous gall bladder operations followed by simultaneous complications and that was all they wrote. The prevailing opinion at the Pliny Diner was that poetry was somehow to blame. Memorial poems were attempted in the class but they were no great shakes.
 
You might conclude from the above that Zoltán is (i) Hungarian, (ii) a poet, and (iii) looking for a woman.
 
(i) As for being Hungarian, he’s not. He just loves the language. His name is actually Bill Palooka. Not William, just Bill. His parents, Ismail and Isma Palooka, were Albanian agnostics who fled Europe during the Second War and settled in Pliny, sponsored by the town’s only agnostic family up to then, the redheaded Liebenlooths. Ismail and Isma Palooka wanted to Americanize. They got the name Bill from a song they heard from the new musical Carousel around the time he was born. But Zoltán’s ex-wife, Lola, was Hungarian. He learned the language from her, much of it initially in their bedroom. An idea he has had for the class, except he never acts on it with a nun and two born-agains among the students, is to break the ice by mentioning that the Hungarian word nem means both “sex” and “no.” He likes the juxtaposition, even if most Plinians wouldn’t get it. After marrying Lola, he started calling himself Zoltán. Lola thought it stupid. Her own name isn’t even Hungarian, she pointed out. Rather, her parents got the name Lola from a song they heard from the new musical Damn Yankees around the time she was born.
(ii) The jury is out on whether Zoltán is truly a poet. He’s had a number of poems published, mostly ghazals, in little magazines and in zines online. But even he will concede his success might be related to his using Hungarian words as the refrains in these ancient poetic forms. Poetry editors, generally lax in their understanding of ghazals anyway, seem to find the Hungarian esoteric. The poems themselves are at best mediocre. Yet who else in Pliny has published even one poem, ghazal or not, with or without Hungarian? Or can even pronounce ghazal for that matter? 
(iii) Truly, though, Zoltán is looking for a woman. It’s been a long time since Lola bailed, years and years, he’s lost count. All he’s managed since has been a fling now and then, if you want to call it that, with older flight attendants with attitudes, from his days as a pilot for a commuter airline flying out of the Syracuse airport.
 
Once it’s clear the woman he’s looking for is not enrolled in Beginning Conversational Hungarian, Zoltán does something most Plinians would never do. He joins one of those online dating sites. Amorous After Fifty-Five. It’s a big disappointment until he comes across a woman who calls herself PassionatePennsylvaniaPoetess.
 
Dear PPP, he writes in the message box, his heart beating with excitement. This is auspicious! I too am full of P’s. My surname begins with P and I live in Pliny (in New York State) and I’ve been writing poetry for years. (See “Peeper Ghazal” in last spring’s Persian Platypod zine.) Like you, I write my poems first in pencil and am romantic and lonely. I taught a poetry writing course last year and now am teaching Hungarian. I myself am of Albanian descent. I seem to have a faculty for languages and know Albanian and several Romance tongues and pidgins as well as a smatter of Papuan from the summer my parents spent as agnostic missionaries, and Hungarian. I’ve also taught Plains Indian Smoke Signals to gifted students at Blessed Prendergast Academy. It used to be called All Souls Prep but was renamed for Father Prendergast, whose remains are encased in the altar in the school’s chapel. Local believers attribute several miracles to him involving the football team coming from behind to win over superior opponents.  You are very pretty in your photo. I’m sorry about your late husband. And, yes, since you pose it in your profile, I do have all my teeth. Where can I find your poetry? Is 300 miles too far? Zoltán.
 
He tells himself not to expect a response but is hopeful. One, two, three days go by. Then, Zowie! Which, Zoltán claims, is the same in Hungarian: Zowie!
 
Yes, Zoltán, the response begins, 300 miles is too far. Why don’t you move to Pennsylvania! I like your photo too. You have quite the background. I read your “ghuzzle” online and it’s a puzzle. The indecipherable words in the refrain, are they meant to be the sounds of tree frogs? Is Father Prendergast visible in the altar, like Mother Cabrini? Is he decaying? How is the football team doing this year? If you’re not Hungarian, why is your name Zoltán? I’m glad you have all your teeth. My late husband had dentures and quite frankly I don’t ever want to see another set in a glass in my bathroom. It was the first thing I threw out. See my poem “Parsing Passion” in the August issue of Punxsutawney Pentameter. Tell me more about yourself. Priscilla.
 
Priscilla! Zoltán is enchanted. He changes her name into the Hungarian, of course, and calls her Piroska from then on. Csinos Piroska. Pretty Priscilla.
 
Their messages go back and forth. Soon they are on the phone with each other almost every night. Zoltán writes ghazal after ghazal to Piroska, reads them over the phone to her, reads them in class for their Hungarian.
 
Their phone conversations start and end like this: Szeretlek, Piroska. Szeretlek, Zoltán. I love you, Piroska. I love you, Zoltán. Piroska is learning Hungarian! They talk of meeting as soon as Zoltán’s course is finished.
 
Ah, but trouble brews. The prettier of the born-again, potentially proselytizing housewives is turned on by the ghazals and stays after class one Thursday night. She says she’s having problems with her husband, and would Zoltán like to go have a drink? He’s torn, but she’s right next to him, breathing on him. Piroska is 300 miles away and still unmet. He’ll phone her later.
 
Nem probléma, he says to the born-again housewife. They go in his car to the Pliny Tavern, park around back, enter by the rear door, sit in a booth in back. Good thing. Her husband, it turns out, is up at the bar putting the make on a buxom redhead with a loud, piercing laugh.
 
Enraged, his wife struts up to the bar, grabs Ms. Buxom by her red hair and yanks her off the stool. So much for a good thing. Zoltán knows he should make tracks but instead heads to the bar himself, intent on calming the situation. The husband kicks him in the balls. When the police arrive, both Zoltán and Ms. Buxom are writhing in pain on the floor and it’s said they started it. They are arrested, spend the night under guard in the ER at Pliny Memorial Hospital, then are taken to the jail.
 
Meanwhile, passionate Piroska decides she can’t wait until the end of Zoltán’s course to meet. When he hasn’t called yet himself, she phones him at home the night he’s arrested and leaves a voice message imploring him to come to Pennsylvania and stay with her for the weekend. Not only will they finally meet but they will have nem! Lots and lots of nem! Zoltán, however, never gets home to hear the message until it’s too late. Upset about him not calling her back, Piroska becomes Priscilla again, responds on Amorous After Fifty-Five to a swami in Williamsport who doesn’t give a hoot about poetry, and that is that. She leaves another message for Zoltán: Én ne szeret már. I don’t love you anymore. She adds in English that that’s the last Hungarian she’ll ever converse in.
 
The Recreation Department cancels the rest of Zoltán’s classes, bans him from ever teaching there again. Eyebrows are raised all over town.
 
When Zoltán and Ms. Buxom are released from jail, Zoltán pays both their fines. He learns she’s Liebe Liebenlooth, a great niece of the redheaded Liebenlooths who sponsored his parents before he was born. She calls him Bill. He goes home, listens to his messages, and despairs. Until Liebe phones and invites him over. When he arrives, she leads him to her bedroom.
 
But the kick. Oh, the kick. It’s like he’s been neutered. Nem, he whimpers. Nem, nem, nem. She laughs, that loud, piercing laugh. If only she wouldn’t laugh.
 
Bio: David Simms lives and writes in Virginia, except when he's somewhere else. This winter he is somewhere else, cruising back and forth between Minnesota and Iowa, between prose and poetry. Unlike Zoltán, he IS of Hungarian descent. But also unlike Zoltán he doesn't speak a word of the language. He's published a novel (The Stars of Axuncanny) and a fair amount of poetry but no ghazals. A collection of short fiction is in the works.
 
 
 

       

                                                                                          

                                                                      

                                                                             A Dream Vacation

                                                                           by Adelaide B. Shaw

 

                “What are you writing?” Carl asked. "Having a wonderful time?  Wish you were here?"

  He leaned across the table to peek at the postcard his wife was writing when the electricity at the White Sands Hotel went out.  Since their arrival at the island of Mahé in the Seychelles two days earlier, this was the second time the electricity had failed.  For a brief interval, after some initial groans from a few diners, there was total silence, except for the waves sloshing rhythmically on the beach.  Then the diners regained their momentum and conversation continued.

 “So?” Carl asked.  “What did you write to your mother?  Wish you were here instead of my husband?”

Solana, one of the native girls, set a lantern on the table, dispelling the darkness for a few feet.  Gradually, as she dispensed candles and lanterns, the dark rustic dining room  changed.  The flickering lights on each table illuminated the diners' faces, making everyone look fuzzy and soft as if all the couples were in love, not just the honeymoon couple from England.  It was all illusion, Carl thought, another lie.  Like that dreamy look on Lillian’s face.  Just the result of lighting. 

Laughter erupted from one table, a deep throaty male laugh and a squeaky giggle.  Slap and tickle time again with the honeymooners.  Too public a display, Carl thought, but they appeared oblivious to their surroundings.  Lillian didn’t seem to mind; she looked in their direction and smiled.

That afternoon on the strip of white sand that gave the hotel its name, the young woman, bare-breasted and proud, had strutted past them. Lillian stretched and yawned like some pampered house cat.  She had not wanted to come on this vacation, but she seemed to be enjoying the sun and the soft breezes now that she was here. Sliding into her lounge chair she lowered the straps of her one-piece bathing suit to reveal her breasts.

"Don't be an exhibitionist, Lil,” Carl had said, frowning.  “Act your age.  You're not as...as young as you used to be."  He had reached over and yanked up her suit. He had almost said, “or as thin.”  That’s probably why Lillian was miffed tonight.  Her feelings were still hurt.  She should have shown better sense, a mature woman of 50.  They both were mature and should act it.

"Solana," Lillian called out toward the bar. "Bring me another gin and tonic."

It was her third drink, but Carl refrained from commenting. "Can you cook dinner tonight?" he asked Solana when she brought Lillian's drink.

"Yes.  Tonight we have the bottled gas.  But it will not be quick.  We have only two burners. I'm sorry."

It was a small hotel and expensive.  Typical of Lillian, she had complained about the rates.  “All these picturesque details bring up the cost,” she had said.  Just as she had when he bought their Mercedes.  “Who needs a four speaker stereo system in a car?  It’s a waste of money.”

"It's the big things, the grand gesture which gets noticed,” Carl had explained.  The White Sands, with its thatched roof of palm fronds and the dining room and lounge open on three sides to the breezes and the spectacular view, was the most charming hotel on the island.  In spite of the cost, the amenities were few.  Their room was cramped, with a double bed, a nightstand and a low dresser squeezed into an area the size of their hallway at home.  There was no radio, except in the lounge, and no television, anywhere. 

"We came for the exotic locale, not for a Club Med vacation," Carl said when Lillian had commented on the absence of a pool. 

“That's why I agreed to come,” she said.  “For the locale. I thought you just wanted to impress your colleagues and friends that you were different, more adventuresome, more daring. This place gives you another notch in your holster, one more expensive and impressive vacation or acquisition to brag about."

“Nonsense.  We both need a rest and a change of scene.’

“God knows I need a rest, but Miami would have done that.  But then, who would be impressed?” 

***

Lillian sat holding her head in her hands, her eyes hidden by dark glasses. The power had returned by morning, and Lillian was already on her third cup of hot strong black coffee.  Carl was full of bounce and raring to go. As Lillian slouched, he sucked in his already flat stomach and straightened his shoulders.  He had kept himself fit and was looking better now than when he was in his twenties.  Except for his hair.  That was going.  Maybe he should look into hair restoration when they got back.  Do it now before the balding process was too far gone.  Why shouldn’t he take care of his appearance?  Appearances counted in this life.  In his life.  Lillian didn’t share that belief, at least, not in the same way.

Carl looked beyond Lillian at the gently moving waves, twinkling in the morning sun like Christmas lights.  Lillian had avoided looking at the dazzling view.  He resisted the temptation to say, “I told you so.”  He patted her hand and decided to plunge ahead with his plans for the day. "Finish up and let's get the next bus into Victoria.  From there we'll go to the Craft Village and Plantation." 

"I'll pass," Lillian mumbled.  She continued to hold her head in her hands as if it would fall apart if she let go.  Carl thought of the barman on their first night there, how he had split open a coconut with a machete, the two even halves rocking gently on the polished wood of the bar.  He gave her hand another sympathetic pat.

***

"Guttentag," Carl said in reply to the greeting from the elderly German couple who  shared the other half of their thatched bungalow.  "Beautiful day, isn't it?" he added.

"Ya, ya," came the joint reply.

The wall separating the two rooms did nothing to block out sounds, and Carl had heard, but not understood, their conversation for the past two days.  So many Europeans spoke several languages.  They probably understood the cross words of the night before.  Lillian had climbed on her soapbox again, accusing him of showing off, of being insincere.  Did they agree with her? This was a vacation, a dream vacation, a little further away, perhaps, and different than where their friends went, but he hadn’t chosen this place to impress their friends.

Sometimes Carl thought Lillian would rather that they were poor, that he was like her father, hard working but limited in imagination.  A barber who was content to keep the small shop in a declining neighborhood, content that he made enough to feed and house his family, content that they could take a vacation in Atlantic City every summer, content to watch others leave the neighborhood and move on to bigger and better lives.  Lillian’s mother was more appreciative about what he provided than was his wife.  A life like her father’s was not for Carl Webster.   That kind of life was a strangulation.

When they reached the bungalow, Carl quickly got himself ready.  The room. although small, was decorated in good taste and was comfortable.  Lillian shrugged at his comments and stepped outside to the veranda, which was not yet in the sun, and lowered herself on the molded plastic lounge chair.  The chairs, in spite of looking like the materialization of a designer's nightmare, were surprisingly comfortable, and Carl sat next to her.  Perhaps he could join her for awhile.  He looked out across the rough lawn toward the beach that curved around the island like an S, creating a small lagoon.  Palm trees jutted out as the S curved back, growing almost to the water's edge. The palm fronds made a whispering rattle in the breeze.  A half-mile out to sea the waves broke on the reef, again and again, making Carl aware of the passing of the time and the need to catch the bus into town.

"I'm off, Lil,” he said, nudging her shoulder.  "Be back after lunch."

"Do you really want to go?"  She opened her eyes to thin slits.  "It's too hot.  There's a small secluded cove beyond the hotel.  Isn't that more appealing than running around?  Buy all your postcards and souvenirs in the hotel.  Who's to know?"

Carl sat on back down on the edge of the lounge chair, squinting at the sea, his brow furrowed in concentration.  Lillian rubbed his back and his muscles relaxed under her hand.  She sat up and leaned against him, working her fingers around to his chest.  "Let's go now to the..."

"Later.  I've got to hurry or I’ll miss that bus."  He jumped up, and, giving a wave, sprinted toward the road.

            Lillian grunted a "good-bye".

                                                                           ***

"Whatever you say," Lillian said at breakfast the following morning as Carl outlined the day's itinerary.  She nodded, her eyes half closed, and hummed one of the songs the band had played the previous evening.  She opened her eyes, but still looked distracted and hummed a little louder. 

 It was a tune he recognized from the previous evening. "Would you like to…?" Carl had asked, gesturing toward the dance floor. He had led her in an easy shuffle, swaying lightly like the surrounding palm trees.  For a few minutes they had slipped into a private pocket of space. It had been years since they had gone dancing.  Lillian was relaxed in his arms, and the dance steps came back to him effortlessly.  All old songs about moon and June and broken hearts.  Funny to come half way around the world only to hear the same music his parents had played. Silly, romantic mush.

He returned his attention to the timetables and brochures.  "We'll fly to the island of Pralin and from there take the ferry to La Digue.  The schedules are perfect."

"Don't forget to take pictures of everything for our friends, the famous coco-de-mer palm trees and the giant tortoises."  Lillian reached over and picked up several brochures.  "And we mustn’t forget the ox carts and the thatched huts and the fishing boats."  One by one she tossed them back at Carl.

"What's the matter with you?" Carl asked, reaching to retrieve the ones that fell on the floor.

"Nothing.  Let's go."

                                                                           ***

Lillian jumped out of the Moke, the open sided car they had rented at the Pralin airport.  It looked like a cross between a golf cart and a dune buggy.  She ran across the white sand, discarding her clothes as she went.  First, her wrap-around skirt, then her blouse.  She stood at the water's edge in her panties and bra, and, with a wave at Carl, she removed her bra, tossing it toward him, and ran into the sea.

 Carl ran after her, gathering up her clothes.  "Come out of the water and put your clothes on,” he shouted.

"There's no one here.  Anyway, it's the custom."

“We’ll miss the ferry for La Digue.”

Squaring her shoulders, Lillian rose from the water.  She thrust her breasts forward, strutting like a model on a runway, and sat on the sand. 

“Stop putting on that sunscreen.  Let’s go.” Carl stood over her casting a tall shadow.

She held up the bottle of lotion to him, "Do you want to help?  There are a lot of places  I can’t reach.”  When he didn't answer, she snatched her hand back and quickly began dressing.  “To think you once made love to me in the coat room of the Chez Marie Lounge.  You’ve probably forgotten the incident.”

No, he hadn’t forgotten.  It was a fancy supper club where they both worked during college.  "Someone will see us," Lillian had squealed as he began unbuttoning her blouse.

"Everyone is watching the show," Carl had said, gently guiding her behind the racks of mink and vicuna coats.  They both could have lost their jobs.

"You used to have fun, Carl," Lillian said.  "You used to be spontaneous, and we did things we both enjoyed and wanted to do. Now, everything is like a chore, a job you have to complete."  She began walking toward the road.  "You do something only if it'll impress others, your bosses, our neighbors, the garbage man.  I've been just as bad.  I've kept score on all the games we've played, and accepted all the winnings, but I'm not playing anymore."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Carl said.  "Of course we have fun together." 

"No, we don't.  Just think about it, Carl.  Can you honestly say you're having fun now?  I thought we could spend time alone without being tourists.  I thought yesterday you would come to the cove with me, but souvenir shopping for your friends was more important."

Before Carl could protest further, Lillian turned away and marched off down the road.  "You take the Moke.  I'll wait at that guesthouse we passed.  Go to La Digue.  Get your proof that you're an adventurous well traveled person."

                                                                           ***

A white egret, looking for crumbs, pecked its way across the floor of the lounge at the Indian Ocean Fishing Club.  Lillian, the only other occupant in the room, sat sipping a gin and tonic.  Carl entered the lounge slowly and quietly and sat next to her, the cushions giving off a soft squishing sound.

"Only two hours to La Digue and back?" she asked without looking at him.

"I didn't take the ferry.  I've been sitting on a beach thinking.  What did you mean when you said you're not playing anymore?"

"I'm through pretending that all is well, when it's not.  Everything you do is not for us, but for someone else."

            "That's not true," Carl said.  "Everything I do is for us."

"The material us.  Not the emotional us.  Can't we just enjoy each other the way we used to, without plans, without schedules for a little while?  I agreed to this trip because I thought it would be a chance for us to change.  We need to talk and look at our life, not these tourist attractions."

The egret pecked around their feet.  They paused in their discussion and watched it move into the empty dining room.

            "Has life been so miserable?" Carl asked after the egret was out of sight.

"No, but it's worrisome.  Everything we do has become mechanical and calculated and on a schedule.  Even our lovemaking.   What happened to romance and fun?  What happened to Chez Marie?”

"We’re not young anymore, Lillian. We have responsibilities now.  What do you want me to do?  Ravage you on the beach, like some lusty kid?"

"Yes.  I do."

Carl stood up and paced across the lounge, then sat down heavily.  "Be serious, Lil.  What is the problem?"

"Conformity and appearances and losing what's important.  Remember the pony?  Remember how you told Mr. Farley that we couldn’t go to his house party even though it was expected.  It was Molly’s birthday and you had promised her a ride on a pony?”

 “So?’

“So, family came first then," she said, "not what other people thought or expected."  She emptied the contents of Carl’s canvas bag on the glass table and began tearing up the schedules and brochures.  "You’re always so absorbed in things:  acquiring things, doing things. Lately, you haven’t noticed anything that hasn’t been connected with work or with gaining prestige or some sort of step up. You never see me, what’s worrying me, what I want or need.”

"That’s not true.  I have noticed something.  You've been moody.  Hormonal, I thought.  You know, menopause and all of that."

"Is that what you think this is?"

"I don’t know.  I thought you were happy, that we were happy."  Carl poked his finger into the pile of torn papers.  Just bits of scrap now.  Was this how their marriage would end?  As scrap?  Lillian was exaggerating everything.  She didn’t understand life in the business world.

“Let’s stay here tonight,” she said. “Let’s walk along the beach.  Have a swim.  Eat dinner.  Get drunk.  Make love.  Perhaps on the beach.  Do everything.  Do nothing.  But don't plan it.  Don't think about impressing or pleasing anyone except each other.  Can you do that for one night, forget the games and be ourselves?"

Carl leaned forward in his chair.  “We’re not…”  He had already said they weren’t young, but Lillian didn’t care.  She wanted them to be.

"You go back to the White Sands Hotel if you want to," she said.  "I'm staying here and going for another swim."  Lillian left the lounge and walked towards the sea, removing her clothes as she walked.

"Wait."  Carl caught up with her as she removed her bra. 

"Don't say it, Carl.  I'm being an exhibitionist.  It's vulgar and crass.  It's not at all like me.  I don't like the me that I’ve become.  I can't go back to our regulated life."  

"We can't be the way we were twenty-five years ago."

"I don't expect that.  What I hoped for is a return to caring for each other, a return to caring what we think, not what anyone else thinks.” She stood before Carl, her bare flesh still glistening from the earlier application of sunscreen. The silence between them was broken only by the lapping waves. “I guess I hoped for too much.  You don’t even see that there is a problem.” 

 She picked up her clothes and moved away from him. She walked slowly with her head down, her feet shuffling in the sand.  For an instant Carl thought she looked old.  He shook his head to dispel the image.  Lillian wasn’t old, but he had a sudden choking fear of both of them getting old. He sighed, sounding like the wind swishing through a single palm tree, muffled and a little sad. 

Bands of orange and pink and various shades of red and purple expanded upward into a darkening sky.  The colors were repeated in the ocean, each wave swelling with a reflection of the sunset.  He was held to the spot by images of Lillian and himself growing old and by the sunset.  So quickly changing and so temporary.  All that beauty and only he and Lillian on the beach to see it.  But she wasn’t seeing it; she was headed toward the lounge with her back to the ocean.

“Hey, Lil! “ He ran to her and took her hand, pulling her down to sit on the sand.  “My God, Lil! Look at that sky.”  His breathing was fast, as if he had raced a mile.  He didn’t know why he was doing this, but he had to watch this sunset, and he had to watch it with Lillian.  If he didn’t they would both grow old with something missing.  He didn’t know what they would do about tomorrow or the next week or the next year.  He didn’t know if Lil were being foolish or if he were.

"What do you want to do?" Lillian asked.

Carl shifted his body in the sand, closing the gap between them and placed a hand on Lillian's hand.  "For now, watch the sunset.  Then we'll see."

 

 Bio: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Millbrook, NY with her husband.  She has three children and six grandchildren.  She writes short stories and Japanese style poetry and has been published in a number of journals. Her award winning collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at ww.modernenglishtankapress.com. Examples of her poetry may be seen at www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com