AN INTRODUCTION BY Jill Schoolman
“Death of the President’s Dog” is one of the more somber stories in Miljenko Jergović’s Mama Leone (beautifully translated from the Croatian by David Williams), a collection made up of both bittersweet coming of age vignettes and melancholic etchings of survival in a post-war twilight. This is the second collection of Jergović’s linked short stories that Archipelago has published in English. The first, Sarajevo Marlboro, is now in its third printing.
Here, Jergović presents the everyday ennui of a husband and wife coming to terms with her being confined to a wheelchair after a traffic accident that occurs in the wake of wartime chaos. It’s the outrageous unfairness of it all that riles the husband most: “Everyone we used to know around here is either dead or scattered someplace abroad. And then when we were on our own, the accident happened. We made it through the whole of war and then this, on a zebra crossing.”
The story seduces with the spareness of its downbeat prose and sparkles with a kind of gallows humor. The possibility that the man doesn’t love his wife anymore terrifies him “like a wet dream terrifies a bashful monk.” Jergović has such control as a storyteller that even exchanges threatening bathos, such as — You’ll find another woman, you’ll leave me here on the toilet… Right here on the toilet, huh?… Yeah, with a dirty ass — strike familiar depths — as desperate drollery in the face of oncoming, and perhaps inevitable, heartbreak.
Publisher, Archipelago Books
The Death of the President’s Dog
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THIS IS A NEW START. Like a second honeymoon, said Kosta the day Rajna came back from the hospital. He ripped out the doorstep in the entrance way, leveled out any bumps in the rooms, shifted the wardrobes so the wheelchair could reach every corner of the apartment, even get into the pantry, where once Rajna and her wheelchair were in there you couldn’t fit in anything or anyone else. She watched him as he worked and he smiled holding three nails in his mouth. He waved the hammer here and there, as if it meant something and all the merriment completely natural, that the goal of every sound and happy marriage was the woman ending up in a wheelchair after three years.
Everything will be okay, he said. There’s so much we can do now that we’d never thought of before.
At first life continued with a semblance of normality. They would wake every morning at six, he would unfold the wheelchair, lift her out of bed, and say soon you’ll be able to do this by yourself. She would wheel herself to the bathroom, him trailing a step behind. He walked with slight pangs of remorse, almost hoping he would be able to trick her, that Rajna not notice there was any difference between walking and wheeling. But in the bathroom a ritual began where nothing could be concealed. He removed her underwear, sat her on the toilet seat and waited.
Wait outside, she told him after a few days. From then on, every morning he smoked his first cigarette of the day slouched down against the closed door. It could be worse, he thought, at least she can control her bodily functions. Ten minutes later, she would shout Kosta, and he’d go in. She had never called him by his name before, she’d said darling, or used his surname, Ignjatović, but with things having changed so much, little terms of endearment when summoning the man whose help she needed to perform what she was no longer able to herself, well, that just seemed inappropriate.
Their life together reduced to one of home help, she never called him darling or Ignjatović again.
After the bathroom they went into the kitchen. Breakfast would bring a kind of calm. She was silent, and he would talk about his plans for the day. He spoke fast and loud, trying to outrun every silence. It was silence he feared more than anything in those first few months, like a nightime DJ who knows he can’t stop talking, that at the core of every silence slouches the darkness of the abyss.
Stepping out into the street, he would breathe a sigh of relief. At the newsstand in front of the Landesbank he would buy a newspaper and then head off to work. Asked about Rajna he kept his responses brief; his voice cold to the secretary, not hiding that he wished she would stop talking, and polite to the manager, to whom he gave a good dose of self-pity.
She’s brave, she’ll get through it all; I don’t know about me though. That’s what he’d say. The manager would tap him on the shoulder and walk out.
Kosta would then sit down at his desk and begin reading the paper. He read everything, from business and share market updates to the sports section, from the obituaries to the classifieds and inserts; not a scrap of news escaped him, none of it of any relevance. He read and remembered without any obvious sense or purpose, as he had done when his father was dying and he had waited in the park in front of the hospital, so the final word of the day would be one not to cause him pain, a word from the newspaper.
He didn’t work a whole lot, generally only towards the end of the day when he had finished reading the paper and the fear of going home had caught a good hold. He knew what Rajna was going to say, what he would say in reply, their movements, when they would head to the kitchen, and when they would leave the room; he knew everything that was going to happen between now and tomorrow, until the moment he again would shut the door behind him, sigh, and head to the newsstand.
Life’s a grind, he said as the closing credits of a Partisan film played on TV.
Life is beautiful, Rajna replied, her mouth curled up in a cynical smile. He thought of a perch he caught once long ago, when he was a kid on the Danube, on a school trip when the teacher showed them how to hook fresh water fish. Fish are dead creatures, they don’t feel anything, they don’t know anything and they’re not scared, that’s what the teacher said with a smile, a perch struggling lazily on the end of his line. The smile seemed more about hooking than feeling.
He put Rajna to bed and went into the kitchen, lighting his last cigarette of the day. The water puled in the pipes, the poplars creaked below the window, somewhere in the valley there was the clang of a tram. Kosta sensed that none of it was part of his story anymore. The world, as it does before a journey, had split into two parts. The part left behind, foreign, reduced to sounds soon that would longer be heard, and the part that was opening up before him, predictable and gray, every day the same as the next.
One day you’ll leave and never come back, she said to him as he lifted her from the toilet seat into the wheelchair.
Where would I go? he sighed sulkily. After the first month he was no longer capable of being constantly chipper and polite.
You’ll find another woman, and you’ll leave me on the toilet.
Right here on the toilet, huh?
Yeah, with a dirty ass.
Stunned and speechless, he looked at Rajna, or moreover, the crown of her head. Her face and eyes were on the other side; like a toy, he only saw her from the side he had set her down.
Words are sometimes uglier than what they mean, he wanted to sound cold. Rajna had become a doll that talked.
There was a note fixed to the front door of their building: “Dear residents! As you know, on the twenty-fifth of August the heart of Osman Megdandzǐć stopped beating, he was our neighbour and longtime president of the homeowners’ association. So that our environs, stairwell, laundry room, and attic remain as clean and tidy as they were in the mandate of the sorely missed Osman, a new president needs to be elected. A meeting will be held at half-past six this evening. Please show your communal spirit and come along. Signed: Ivan Pehar, retired ensign.” Kosta read every word of the message slowly and carefully. Even though they lived next door, he had never met the sorely missed Osman, he had never taken a peek in the laundry, nor had he even been in the attic. But that’s okay, sometimes there are things a man doesn’t have to know, he thought as he headed to get the paper and went on to work.
There’s a homeowners’ association meeting at half-past six, he told Rajna as soon as he walked in the door.
And you’re going of course.
Yeah, I have to. The president of the homeowners’ association has died.
Interesting. He must have been very young if he was president, she tried to be ironic.
Well, you know, the building has to be to looked after, no one wants rats breeding and drunks pissing in the stairwell.
So you’ll be leaving me.
Yes, just for a half hour, he replied, agitated. Since she’d come back from the hospital he hadn’t spent five minutes out of the apartment. Except going to work, but surely there’s no way that counts.
Sitting on a wooden school chair, ensign Pehar was alone in the laundry at half-past six, on his knees a black diary and ancient wooden coloring pencil, one of those ones where both ends are sharpened, blue at one end and red at the other. After fifteen minutes of waiting Kosta lit a cigarette. He sat on a low three-legged stool.
That’s a milking stool, said Pehar after a long silence. Kosta gave a start and automatically turned towards the door. The ensign raised his index finger:
It’s a milking stool! You’re sitting on a milking stool.
They sat there in silence for half an hour. Kosta smoked. Pehar drew blue five-pointed stars on the tabletop. Kosta looked at the clock, Pehar put his pencil and paper down.
It’s decided then. There’s nothing else for it, you have to be the new president of the homeowners’ association. I’m the other candidate, but that won’t work — given my delicate past and all, said Pehar, sweetly stressing the word delicate as if it were a nougat praline and not a word.
So what does the president of the homeowners’ association do? Kosta asked.
Organizes and chairs the meetings. Everything else is up to us, Pehar replied collecting his notebook and pencil and offering Kosta his hand:
It was the beginning of September, kids were going back to school, beauties in bright dresses displayed their summer tans for all to see. Kosta was hurrying home from work and for the first time the thought happened upon him that he didn’t love her anymore. It terrified him like a wet dream terrifies a bashful monk. We have only one life, and he knew he’d spend his on the route between home and work, moving his wife from the bed to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to the toilet seat, and from the toilet seat back to the wheelchair… That afternoon, for the first time, Kosta sensed his own mortality and that this was how it was going to be until death.
Not knowing what to do, he called a meeting of the homeowners’ association.
Ensign Pehar turned up with a bottle of slivovitz and two glass shot glasses. He poured one for himself, took a little sip, and then poured one for Kosta. They sat in the laundry until it got dark outside, drank slivovitz, and waited around killing time. They exchanged a few general observations about stairwell hygiene and the security situation in the building. Pehar raised his index finger and said: Our strategy has to be…and then let his hand fall dismissively, not knowing how to finish.
My wife is an invalid, said Kosta.
I didn’t know. In that case I wouldn’t have saddled you with this.
It’s okay. At least I get to be president of something. A couple of hours here and there…
You work. She must be on her own all day.
I can’t do anything about that. I don’t have anyone to keep her company. Neither a hare nor a hound, as we say. Everyone we used to know around here is either dead or scattered someplace abroad. And then when we were on our own, the accident happened. On a zebra crossing, the light was green, not that it mattered. We made it through the whole of the war and then this, on a zebra crossing.
I’ve got something for you, Pehar whispered confidentially. Kosta looked at him, downed his slivovitz, and said he had to go.
The next day the ensign brought the dog over. He was four weeks old, lost his balance when he walked, and whined nonstop.
We’ll call him Željko, said Rajna… But that’s a person’s name… There isn’t anyone here to complain. He can be Željko.
The first few days the dog pissed all over the apartment and took dumps in the most unusual places. Kosta cleaned and wiped up after him, and Rajna thought it was all too funny, like the three of them were in a sitcom where every mishap and misfortune just made people laugh, contented. The first month Željko was a little bigger than a fattish cat, the second he looked like a regular dog with disproportionately huge paws, the third he was already so big that when he tried to sit in Rajna’s lap he tipped the wheelchair over. He kept growing even after he looked like an average-sized Saint Bernard, and after nine months he looked more like a calf in disguise as a dog.
He had a bovine nature too. Hopelessly devoted to Rajna and Kosta, he was scared of everything else: dogs, cats, children, people. He scampered away like they were aliens, aliens who might be stronger than you, or smarter as well, but you weren’t sure, and who might turn you into a pumpkin, a mouse, or something even more terrible, as an experiment. Kosta took him for long walks in the park and called out after him — hiding in a bush, under a car or a bench — because some little munchkin had scared him to death again, opening his arms to hug him, burbling doggie, doggie.
Željko seemed to have completely changed his masters’ lives. Kosta stopped reading the paper from cover to cover, he’d leave it on his desk and do other stuff, like flick through dog food brochures, buy Željko rubber bones, cabbage or carrot-shaped toys, or a red collar with his name on it… Rajna learned how to arrange things in the house so she could reach Željko’s food, and the dog would follow her around everywhere she went. She’d wheel around the apartment the whole day, talk to the dog, try to explain things you couldn’t say to people, and he looked at her the very way you expect people to look at you, but the way only dogs do: straight in the eye, with endless trust and a hope that nothing is lost and that all is well and that everything will stay the way it is, because time has stopped and the days are no longer flying by, and nothing is evanescent or perishable. With Željko’s help Rajna learnt how to get from her wheelchair onto the armchair and back. He’d sit firm in place, she’d grab a tight hold of his head and perform a manoeuvre she couldn’t explain to Kosta, and which, so she believed, she had learned from the dog — and presto she was in the armchair. The grip didn’t work when she tried it using Kosta’s arms. He offered that she grab hold of his head, but that didn’t work either. They laughed until they cried and were happy for the first time. Željko brought the rubber cabbage over and dropped it down in front of them, his contribution to the fun.
My life has completely changed since Željko has been with us, said Kosta raising his glass of slivovitz.
Bless his good mother, we have to look after our president, said ensign Pehar clinking glasses with Kosta. The president has to have his bodyguard. Only I don’t know who’s looking after who, we him or he us. One day Rajna was telling me about when a cockroach scooted past, and Željko took off under the table!
They had homeowners’ association meetings every Tuesday, fortified by a few short ones and a little cheese. Pehar would pedantically put notices up, but no one else ever came, so he and Kosta completely forgot they had any neighbors. Pehar insisted on spending at least five minutes talking about “building infrastructure,” a pedantry that amused Kosta no end, but he accepted the game all the same. Later they’d chat about anything and everything, mostly about life, which for both he and Pehar had taken some strange turns. The ensign’s wife had died in childbirth in 1958. Seventeen years later, his son, a high school senior, put a bullet in his temple from Pehar’s service pistol. Left on his own, Pehar had spent his life between home and the barracks, until five years ago, as soon as the election results were out, he was pensioned-off, or moreover, hounded out of the army because he didn’t fit within the “new organizational structure.”
I don’t believe in God, but I’m sure he’s been punishing me for some thirty years or more. When Anda died, I knew that’s what he was doing, and I told him, go on then, do your work, and I’ll do mine, but I won’t believe in you. And when one day I didn’t have a son anymore either, I told him, okay then, now you’ve taken everything from me, but I’m not giving you anything, you do your work, but you’re not getting even an empty shell from me. And that’s how things stand to this day, he’s punishing me because I don’t believe in anything to do with him, and I’m alive and I’ve still never asked myself why I’m alive, said Pehar, completely at ease, as if he was giving his report before taps.
Maybe that’s how one manages to live, thought Kosta, reconciled with both his own and Pehar’s story.
Željko was almost two when Rajna suddenly got it into her head that the dog needed to learn something. She tried for days. But when she’d say shake hands, he’d try to jump into her lap, four legs and all. When she’d say bring the ball, he’d lick her on the nose, and on the command on your mat, he’d wag his tail and think he was going to get a biscuit. The dog doesn’t know anything, she said to Pehar that Tuesday when he came by to collect Kosta for their meeting.
Of course he doesn’t when no one’s taught him, Pehar replied, clicking his heels, creasing his forehead, and transforming himself into a soldier from a socialist film journal.
Željko, play dead! he thundered.
Željko put his tail between his legs and his head down and began, as if ashamed and not knowing what to do with himself, to turn in a circle in the middle of the room.
Željko, play dead! he yelled again, pushing the dog to the floor. The dog looked at him confused, and was then even more confused when Pehar gently patted him, turned to Rajna, and in a somewhat more restrained command, as if addressing a sergeant in front of a regular soldier, said:
Rajna handed him a dog biscuit in the shape of a bone and Pehar gave it to Željko, who was already beside himself with surprise.
That night they skipped the homeowners’ association meeting, but Željko had learnt the first thing in his life: to play dead and get a biscuit for it.
Rajna and Kosta repeated the Željko, play dead! game over and over.
The dog quickly understood that the game gave his masters incredible pleasure. Later, whenever he sensed Rajna was sad or that Kosta had come home from work a bit uptight, he’d lie down of his accord and play dead. He knew it would cheer them up.
It was a Sunday, a week before Christmas, when Rajna’s condition deteriorated. The nausea started in her stomach, spread through her body and settled in her thoughts and head.
Everything’s messed up, she said just before her head slumped over.
Kosta ran to the telephone, the dog paced around the room, out of sorts and whining. The ambulance was there in ten minutes.
In the morning, Kosta was there standing in front of a hospital room holding a plastic bag full of oranges. They didn’t let him see Rajna. She’s sleeping now, said the nurse.
How long’s she been asleep, Kosta asked. The nurse didn’t answer him.
The doctor was tall and blond. Like a German in a Partisan film. Except he had sad eyes, and neither Germans nor doctors have sad eyes.
An aneurysm, he said.
No. Your wife’s not asleep.
The doctor shook his head and lowered his gaze.
Yes, she’s still alive.
On the way home he didn’t know what to do with the oranges. He had to dump them somewhere because he thought someone, some angel, might be betrayed if he should simply carry them in over the threshold. The oranges.
He went into the post office, people were busy filling in their payment forms, he put the bag down on the counter and walked out. He didn’t have to run, Kosta was already invisible to them all.
He sat in the armchair and smoked. Night fell, and the things in the room disappeared one after the other, but Kosta didn’t turn the light on. At the other end of the room sat Željko, watching him. One needs to believe in God, thought Kosta. I’ll tell Pehar that tomorrow. He has to believe because he knows God exists. I can’t because I don’t know that. The cigarette had burned down between his fingers. He tried to pull himself together and decide what to do. To turn on the television, turn on the light, go to the kitchen, to the bathroom, wherever, to give Pehar a call, take Željko to the park, to do something, anything… Everything he thought of dissolved before his eyes. He looked at the glow of the cigarette, which had already completely burned down. He stubbed the butt out and started to cry. He knew the telephone would ring any minute now. No one had to tell him that.
Željko came over in near silence, as if every strip of parquet felt the pain of his footsteps, and then at Kosta’s feet he collapsed like a dead dog. He looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye, expectantly awaiting a smile. At that moment nothing in the world was more important than his smile.