Jovan brushed his teeth, had a glass of cold water, and inhaled deeply. The water tasted a bit metallic, as though it had come through rusty pipes, but maybe it was his bleeding gums. He spat out white spittle, so it wasn’t his gums. He shaved the top half of his moustache, turning what remained into a Spanish-style pencil.
It was wonderful to not smoke. After three years of freedom, he smelled the pine needles outside his window. He smelled all sorts of flowers—he closed his eyes and tried to sort them out: lilac. . . . Even in Batajnica, the woeful suburbs of Belgrade, it was possible to enjoy the spring. God may have forsaken the Balkan people but not its nature, which seemed to bloom all the more vigorously after the recent evils.
The phone rang. He picked up the receiver and immediately recognized the voice of his second cousin, Danko. “Amazing to hear from you. It’s been, what, five years since I saw you last,” he said.
“More. I’d say eight, since 1991.”
“How come you remembered me just now?”
“Well, it’s a bad news, good news kind of thing. Which do you want first?
“I haven’t had any good news in ages. I wouldn’t understand. So, give me the bad news.”
“Your uncle Dusan killed himself.”
“Mother. Really? How?”
“Hanged himself with a rope at the farmer’s market. I guess he liked the metal beams there. He’d tried once before from a crossbeam in the vineyards, but the rotten beam cracked and knocked him on the head, giving him a concussion.”
“Do you know why he did it? Did he leave a note?”
“No idea why. Maybe no external reason. This suicide bug runs in our families, doesn’t it? Like your brother killing himself four years ago. You must still be in pain over that memory?”
“He drank a bottle of brandy a day, he felt nothing and could think nothing. Who could, after so much alcohol? So if he felt nothing and thought nothing, why should I feel anything for him?
“That’s a strange thing to say.”
“Only strange things are worth saying. What do you want me to do, follow a script and weep? I went through that too, years ago, but this being in exile, cut off from home, you know, this has taught me some stoicism. But let’s not psychoanalyze now. Tell me more about Dusan.”
“It’s probably a genetic destiny in our family, so I don’t really know much except that, lately, he lived with all sorts of doves and pigeons, you know, like you used to.”
“So who’s taking care of the doves now?”
“There’s a friend of his, Milan, who’ll take care of them. He inherited them. Dusan wrote a note, donating his doves to Milan, and here comes the good news. He listed you and me as inheritors of the house in Vinogradi. What do you suggest we do?”
“Really, the house still exists? I thought the local Ustashas would have blown it up.”
“You don’t have to believe your local propaganda.”
“Well, I can’t use the house. I’m never coming back.”
“Anyway, I already found a buyer, some Italian who came over to hunt boars. You know that’s the new tourism in Papuk and Psunj, boar hunting. He’ll give us 22000 euros. So let’s split it, like brothers.”
“Sounds good, if the house is not firm enough to hang yourself from its beams. Yes, sounds good, splitting, except for the brothers part. So half and half? Eleven grand for me.”
“The house has good beams. It’s the vineyard beams that are rotten. No, ten for you, and twelve for me. A bit of commission, as I have to sell and deal with all sorts of legality. And I’ll bring you the money, in cash, next week, if that’s all right with you. So I do all this work, bring it to you, and you just get it in your hands, no tax, nothing.”
“Yes, of course it’s all right. Here I am practically starving with my family, house needs finishing, ten grand, yes.”
“Are you coming to the funeral? It’s going to be a cremation next Wednesday.”
“No, I haven’t been to Croatia in all these years. And what good would it do Dusan? He won’t know who shows up.”
“All the more reason to visit—you must be nostalgic. War shit is one thing, but your native landscape is another.”
“I’ll come after all the wars are over.”
“You might wait for a while then.”
“Or at least until NATO bombs us again.”
“You’re sure they will?”
“I listen to the BBC. Maybe ten days at the most.”
“Can you talk like that on the phone? Are you sure it’s not bugged?”
“I don’t give a shit if it is. What can they do to me? Throw me out of Serbia? I wouldn’t mind—they can send me to Sweden. But if you’re coming here, do it as soon as you can. It might be hard once the bombing begins.”
“You really believe it will happen?”
“Come here and we’ll talk. And bring some Slavonian sljiva.”
“Sure, if you bring some Sumadijska loza.”
* * * *
Two days after this conversation, Jovan walked out of his house down a narrow street in a light rain. At least it had been asphalted the year before. These used to be sunflower fields there, but Milosevic had allowed peasants to sell their fields for real estate developments, and it had been pretty cheap, so Jovan had bought a plot alongside many other refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, and slowly brick-laid his house with his wife’s help. Bricks were cheap, as there was plenty of clay under the green earth, and it just had to be baked right in the kilns. He was tempted to do it alone, dig up the earth and bake it, but then he’d have to fill in the holes (or leave them for a fish pond) and it would have all taken too long, so he bought these hollowed-out bricks, the new fashion. As a child, he’d helped his father brick-lay their house, and the bricks then used to be solid, like a brick so to speak, but now air insulation in the bricks would accomplish more to keep them all warm than a solid brick would. Who knew air was that good? On the other hand, the old brick walls could take grenade hits better, and in the Balkans that mattered. Still, you could hardly find the old-style solid bricks anymore.
As the town had expanded without a plan, and many of the exiled peasants wanted as much yard as possible to maximize their plot (they gardened, and kept chickens and goats), little land remained for the streets, which were basically paths that were too narrow to bring in city buses, and so it took fifteen minutes of brisk walking to get to the first bus stop or the train station. Before being asphalted, the paths used to melt into mud during the rainy seasons, and Jovan and his children would trudge through the mud with plastic bags around their shoes. Before they started using bags, his children kept losing shoes; the mud sucked them in, and sometimes it seemed the mud would even suck his children into the earth, drown and bury them. Walking through it was quite a struggle, worse than walking through deep snow, but that too could be challenging in the winter, with snow drifts blown across from the flat fields of Vojvodina, maybe even Hungary, so that one winter their house, one of the first wind-breaks north of Belgrade, got completely buried in snow, and he’d had to shovel a tunnel out of the house to get his children to school. As he believed in education, he did this even on the worst days, having come from three generations of schoolteachers. He used to be a history teacher too, in Croatia, but in Serbia nobody needed histories anymore. If you need history, hell, we’ll make history, right here in Serbia, seemed to be the attitude. And we Serbs are so misunderstood, there’s no hope of anyone understanding us right, so why read anyone and their hateful venom? This kind of Serbian imperviousness to analyzing history annoyed Jovan so much that he concluded he wasn’t a patriot, that he resented Serbia.
Anyway, he didn’t mind walking down these paths; he could think here more than anywhere else, and it always refreshed him to see that there wasn’t a single bar in the entire town settlement. People drank at home to save money, and exiles mistrusted strangers and preferred to be home, behind double locked doors, with a growling German shepherd on the porch. Jovan despised alcoholism in general and Balkan soddenness especially, and seeing no group drunkenness in the neighbourhood, no matter what the miserable causes of that were, comforted him.
Occasionally thin lonely men, whose wives beat them if they drank too much, stood outside the few corner stores and drank their half-liter Jelen beers. It was all so wet that smoking cigarettes used to give him an illusion of being warm and dry. Today the drizzle chilled him and made him nostalgic for smoke. He looked around and sighed with satisfaction: no Serbian flags anywhere. Who says Serbs are nationalists? The fact that they did not appear to be nationalistic gave him a surge of national pride. No Cyrillic lettering in sight. These were supposed to be patriotic Serbs here, but most of them got disillusioned fast with the way the government ghettoized them, the worst jobs, recruiting their sons for the army, and so out of quiet protest there were no flags out here and most people kept their old customs and ways of talking instead of adapting Serbian ways.
On the bus, he didn’t validate his ticket out of habit, as 90 dinars would suffice for a burek, good enough for lunch. Of course, if he got 10000 euros—he still didn’t believe he would, it was preposterous!—he could afford to pay the fare. Hardly anybody paid it, and people looked more alert than they normally would be—they all needed more sleep—because they were on the lookout for the controller. Once the controller came on at the next stop, half the bus would jump out, and the other half would quickly validate their tickets, and one sucker would get stuck with the fine.
* * * *
In downtown Belgrade, Jovan leaned against the pink marble of the Hotel Moskva, next to the Fountain Square, and looked out past the red potted flowers. He wasn’t sure what the name of the flower was, but the sunshine made it as beautiful as new blood. There had been a protest here against Milosevic a few weeks before, but it hadn’t done any good.
He looked down at his soiled boots. He had bought them for one euro at the flea market, as he had his purple turtleneck, black leather jacket, and blue jeans. He joked that he was a one-euro man, as each item on him cost one euro. It was quarter to two. Danko had promised he would come at two. He had no cellphone that worked abroad, Danko had said, and for that matter Jovan didn’t have a cellphone either. He’d never yet had a phone call that bore good news. The less news, the better. And why would anybody call him?
But in this case, he thought, it would be useful. Jovan sat down at a café and ordered. “A coffee!” He didn’t say please. What would be the point? If the waiter didn’t bring him anything, it would be just as fine. In fact, Jovan hated spending money.
“What kind of coffee?” asked the waiter.
“What do you mean what kind? Coffee is coffee.”
“Well, there’s macchiato, cappuccino, espresso . . .”
“Just coffee. Call it Turkish if you like.”
“There’s Turkish coffee, but there’s also Americano, which . . .”
“Give me Turkish coffee, then.” And he thought, what’s the world come to that you need to call the same thing by different names? Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian . . . despite different names and accents and folklore, aren’t we all the same? How can coffee have so many nationalities? It’s still the same damned bitter mud.
The brown coffee smudge came in a small long-handled copper vessel, which shone like gold, accompanied by a tiny cup of Lomonosov blue porcelain with golden trim. Jovan put a cube of sugar into the coffee, waited for the floating layer of coffee grains to sink, and sipped reluctantly, wondering what to think about. Pigeons jerkily drank water at the fountain, and the sun gave them a blue and purple sheen, so that you could mistake them for doves.
2:15. Danko is not here yet, Jovan realized and looked around, without taking off his leather jacket. Oh well, with how the trains work, it’s no surprise. Who knows when the train from Budapest arrives. In Tito’s time, the Poslovni vlak only took four hours between Zagreb and Belgrade, and the engineers planned to cut it to two with the first TGV train in the world. The project never materialized, and now it takes at least fourteen hours, as one had to change trains and go to a different train station, in a Nordic loop.
2:30. The pigeons are gone for some reason, but where is Danko? And my coffee is cold, and those two buskers I remember from last year are back, singing their Vojvodina depression. Kada padne prvi sneg. When the first snow falls . . .
2:50. Now that’s a little excessive─fifty minutes late. He said his train would arrive at
2:05, which means even if he were in the last coach, he should make it up to the Fountain Square 20 minutes later. And Hungarians are not all that relaxed, they wouldn’t let their trains be late for hours like the gelatinous Slovenes and Croats do. I don’t know why ‘gelatinous’ popped up in my mind. Maybe I hate the southwest Slavs. Anyways, do I really hate anyone? Is that a character flaw that I don’t nourish my hatreds?
3:00. That’s an entire hour of tardiness. Is he coming? Maybe he doesn’t know Belgrade? Maybe Danko asked for directions and some ill-intentioned bum sent him the wrong way on account of his accent?
3:01. What if I’m completely wrong and nothing good is going to happen? What if no uncle died? Why do I believe everything I hear? What if it’s a practical joke? Some bozo called to tease me? Do I have any enemies left in Daruvar? Who would hate me? Is that bad that I believe that nobody really hates me? Was I so inconsequential that nobody bothered to love or hate me—other than my wife whom I imported here, and my children who are doomed by biology to love me through a kind of desperate bribe for protection?
3:13. This crazy wind is blowing dust, I’m sneezing, and no first, second, or third cousins in sight. Well, third cousins probably. That would be five degrees of separation, and isn’t the entire continent separated by a maximum of six degrees? But whoever came up with that formula meant people knowing each other, not necessarily sharing the same fucking genes. In any case, where the hell is this second cousin? With the mixed marriages, he’s actually Croatian. I can’t even be sure of his name. Danko may be short for Danimir, basically a bad translation of Theodore.
3:45. This is horrifying. I could handle things like these when I smoked. But I never had things like these, I was never was in a position to wait for a relative stranger, or stranger relative, who would just hand over 10000 euro. Why would he do it? a) he’s executor of the will, b) he’s a good man, c) he’s a retard. Now what if there’s a d) none of the above? Well then, he’ll look at the red and pink money and say, “Fuck this Jovan. He can’t even bother to visit Croatia to claim an inheritance. I’ll buy a cottage on the Drava River just south of Hungary and fish for trout and catfish and carp, and make fantastic fish paprikash. So yes, fuck him.”
3:46. For heaven’s sake! That woman near the piano crosses her legs better than Brigitte Bardot. Is she Serbian? Croatian? Russian? The lines of her legs are fabulous in their clarity and simplicity. I bet that’s how Picasso founded triangulism. Sure, they called it cubism, but there’s not a single fucking cube in his work. Not even a proper square. It’s all triangles. He was a dirty old man, but why was he so dirty? He was a man looking for life, the first guiding light for the armies of spermatozoa that propagate life. So how dirty is it to obey life? Not obeying life and death and rotting is even dirtier. Oh, I’m just distracting myself. Danko is still not here. Danke Deutschland. Where does the name Danko come from? Now, how much would I give to make love to this tri-angulating beauty? But why should it cost me anything? The entire inheritance. Now that would be the height of stupidity. But then why not? At this point, I would like to kill myself. Why wouldn’t I? Half of my family has ended their lives in suicide. That means they were all philosophical like the Wittgensteins. They loved suicide. Why not blow 10000 euros for one moment of fulfillment? I’m surprised I haven’t jumped off a cliff or a 20th floor balcony yet. I lean over, and I just think how wonderful it would be to smash on the pavement below. The second before hitting the ground would be ecstatic terror. Now really. . . this is all nonsense. I won’t look at her. He looked at the black piano next to her across the room of marble floors. Is it a Steinway? He couldn’t see the lettering from the glare of the sun, which bounced off a window across the street, hit the varnish, and ricocheted to the woman’s underwear, yes, definitely blue, Lomonosov blue.
3:67. I don’t want to think it’s already past four. Of course, that’s all I am thinking, other than that sensational thigh, which she still hasn’t budged. Now, how can she sit in the same pose for so long? What if she gets a vein clot, thrombosis? I would. It’s like flying trans-Atlantic. You’ve got to move as much as you can or you’ll end up crippled. No circulation, the foot swells, bacteria has enough time to multiply in one location, and voila, chop the foot off, that’s the only way out. Now how come medicine has not advanced? They still amputate.
3.68. You’d imagine, nowadays, we’d be in better shape, and not need amputations. But that’s peripheral. Where is Danko?
4:15. How she smokes! Small mouth, nearly a circle, with her swell lips. How come nobody has formed an Oism movement? Circulism? It would be so much more life-promoting than cubism. Sharp angles, sharp lines . . . but a curve forever, isn’t that what it’s all about? About, around, round? Yes, I’m founding the movement of circulism. Now why don’t I talk to her? What could I say? May I light your cigarette? It’s much worse than that. May I suck on your cigarette, just once, before I die? Is that true, I will never taste or inhale nicotine? That sounds way too final. Yes, why don’t I go to her and ask, “Madame, may I bum a cigarette from you?” It’s actually not about sex, but smoking.
4:21. This Slobodan Milosevic, plum brandy banker, why the hell did he happen? Now we have borders, and maybe Danko is in jail because it’s illegal to carry so much cash. Nearly all Milosevic’s ancestors committed suicide. Why hasn’t he? There were at least ten attempts on his life, fifty on Tito’s, a hundred on Hitler’s. Now, what bad luck, to try so many times and not succeed? This guy Kavaja, an Albanian Serb–now that’s a breed–tried to kill Tito four times and failed. And boasted of failure. And became an international celebrity for failing. What a jerk. Fake, no doubt. Just a talker. I wonder how much history we read from fake boasters.
4:22. Man, the smoke coming out of her lips! No, not out of the lips, that would be sick, but out of her oral cavity. Now that sounds too medical, and there’s nothing good about the medical issues when the oral cavity is in question. It’s a disaster zone, and this beautiful disaster zone, Masha’s mouth, yes, she must be Russian, just look at her lips, and this is after all Hotel Moskva, what glistening heaven it is.
4:25. I kind of spaced out on my last question. Danko is not here. I think I’m a fool. Or idiot. What is better? Choose the worse form. Idiot is blessed by definition. I’m cursed. Hence, I’m a fool.
4:26. I pretend to be a thinker, but the fact is I’m a sore non-smoker.
4:27. Alcoholics have it better. They may abstain from booze for thirty years, yet they are still alcoholics. I haven’t smoked for three years, and I’m already a non-smoker. Fuck it. It’s not fair. I should smoke.
4:28:37. Why am I here? What can I think about it? A lot. But why? Why is always in front of every thought. It’s Spanish grammar. The thought is always preceded by a question mark. Why figure out only in the end that you are asking? If you are asking, don’t you know you are shitting asking? Why isn’t ‘shitting’ a preferred adverb to fucking? Nobody understands ‘shitting asking’, but ‘fucking asking’ sounds natural.
??? I don’t know what shitty time this is.
4:something. Where the shit is this imaginary Second Cousin?
4:30. Well, properly speaking, it’s only been two and a half hours since the date with the deliverer of the proceeds of death, my second cousin. We are shameless vultures, devouring our own bloody relatives.
4:31. I don’t know. I don’t know. Why don’t I at least think?
4:32. Her thighs are glistening and tanned. From the Adriatic coast? Maybe she’s Croatian or Russian vacationing in Croatia. Holy Smoke. I will ask her. I will. In French, German, Russian, Serbian. What else do I speak. Croatian. What a joke. Is that a dialect, language. I affirm, it’s not even a dialect. It’s some kind of artificial merging of Serbian and dialects, a fraud.
4:32. Why is so much packed in this moment? Yes, lots is lost in this minute. I will kill this Danko. Do I have a gun? I am a night watchman for a Swedish security firm and I don’t even have a fucking gun. What kind of Serb am I?
4:33. I admit it. Time is passing. It’s all about passing and none about retention. Where is time now? Is the present moment a miniscule, 0 seconds? We don’t exist in time but between time, a nothing sandwiched in dual infinities.
4:38. I don’t know why it took me so long to think of this: I am getting nothing. Some guy got hold of my number and teased me, playing my greed note. Greed is a note on the scale of emotions that can be played. Maybe all emotions can be used, but greed foremost.
5:05. It’s a pretty number, 505.
5:06. Holy smoke. How can I just wait? What a fool I am. At least if I had something to do, but how could I concentrate on anything now? I could always think of the money. The only way to be distracted is to smoke. I haven’t smoked in ages, maybe just this one time. It will be functional. It will kill time. So what if it kills me slowly. But I can’t take this time. Thinking about time is already killing me, and it’s not killing time. But if I run across the street to the kiosk, I might miss Danko, and he might think that I have already given up. If if.
5:07. Maybe I should ask that tall waiter to bring me a pack? But he would charge ten times more. Oh, I’ll ask this man to sell me one for ten dinars. For ten dinars you could get 3, I think.
“Izvinite, can I please buy a cigarette off of you?”
“Why would you buy it? You can have one.”
“God bless you!”
I don’t believe in God, but then I should thank him somehow, and just the basic thank you didn’t seem to be emphatic enough. “But, you know, one may not be enough, I’m waiting and waiting for . . .”
“Here, have two of them then.”
The young man struck a match and lit Jovan’s cigarette. Jovan inhaled deep. Heaven. How could I live without it?
“What kind of cigarette is it?” Jovan asked.
“But that’s from Rovinj, in Croatia. How did it get here? Can’t we roll our own tobacco?”
“Some things don’t change.”
* * * *
The young man walked away, and Jovan inhaled again. The warm smoke spread, filled his lungs, and suddenly he felt clear-headed. The cloud of months of rainy weather and wars and rumours of wars and death camps lifted, and now he could think. Danko was bringing the money and was delayed at the border near Subotica, Jovan surmised. Maybe the cops discovered Danko had that much cash and stole it from him. Maybe he passed through and will tell me that the border police confiscated the money but let him go generously as he didn’t know that it was a crime to carry more than what the fuck is the sum, 3000 euros, in cash? God, what chance do I have of getting this money? Either the cops will steal the money, or Danko will lie that the money was stolen, or he simply won’t show up, or maybe he was turned away at the border and he will have enough time to think of it, and will conclude that he likes himself better than me, that he could buy a vineyard of Riesling in the hills outside of Daruvar with 10000 euros.
Put yourself in his shoes, Jovan thought, maybe shoes worn on the outer edges, with swollen ankles from spraining in various potholes. Why would he bring me the money?
And so Jovan smoked and then bought a pack of cigarette from the Hotel Balkan across the street. At the Balkan, cigarettes weren’t all that overpriced, and Jovan smoked Drina, named after his favorite river, favorite because he loved Ivo Andric. At 5:30 he thought, why am I here, still waiting? He has my address, and if he comes ten hours later, he can find me at home. He can afford to pay for a cab ride. I am done. Okay, just one more minute. Oh wait, is that him? Jovan saw a man about his age with a French beret, a leather jacket, a yellow moustache and yellow fingers, and a briefcase. Danko? Yes, Danko!
The two men hugged briefly and vigorously.
Danko said, “You haven’t changed much, other than that you don’t have that much hair on top.”
“Oh, hair loss is nothing new,” Jovan replied. “All I was going to lose, I already did in Daruvar.”
“Well, now you’ll have enough money to buy Rogaine if you want to regrow your hair.”
“I don’t believe in that crap, plus I am fine like this. I don’t have to worry about combing and if I’m cold, I wear a hat.”
“And you still smoke the same way!”
“To tell you the truth, I just started smoking again while waiting for you. I don’t actually smoke. This is just an exception. After a while I wasn’t sure you were coming. And you are smoking too.”
“The trains were so late, and the borders make me nervous, so I started again. This is my first smoke in six months.”
“Holy Smoke! Maybe our inheritance is not so much money as it is smoke. Our suicidal relative left us a smoking habit. But I swear, this is it, I’m not going to smoke anymore.
“How do you know? This is classic positive conditioning. You don’t smoke, and you get no money. Then you smoke, and you get 10000 euros. This will leave a good impression of smoking on you. You’re cursed now!’
“And if you don’t give me the money, you think I won’t smoke?”
“So where do you want me to hand you the money? It’s all in twenties, five-hundred crisp fucking notes.”
“I don’t know. Just imagine how much money has changed hands in this hotel over the years? Millions and millions in all sorts of currencies. Can you imagine how many politicians and murderers have met here and handled cash?”
“Mostly dollars, I imagine.”
The two men walked past the piano, past where the cross-legged beauty sat no more, down the marble stairs, into a men’s room stall, where they counted out the money for a long while and farted sonorously when done.
* * * *
Months have passed since the meeting in which Jovan received 10000 euros, and he has spent all of it—productively—adding a room to his house, building a fish-pond and a dove-cot, and paying for his daughter’s wedding. Nevertheless, when he thinks of the inheritance, he usually mutters, the only thing I got from my dead uncle was a smoking habit. He rolls his own cigarettes, as the commercial ones are too expensive, and smokes them like that, like a German student, and the smoke bites him and tastes acidic and stinging, and Jovan swears, Jebem ti otadjbinu, Fuck the fatherland! and smokes more.
Just today, Danko called him on the phone after the news of Milosevic’s arrest, “I can’t quit,” he said, “can you?”
“No. I managed to quit for a day, but then when NATO bombed us, and they were hitting pretty close, as Batajnica has the largest military airport in the country, I bought a pack and smoked.”
“How is Serbia now?”
“I’ve lost all sense of nationalism. I don’t care for Serbia. NATO can bomb it again for all I care. So how do you make a living over there?”
“With the inherited money, I bought the junk yard on the western hill outside of Daruvar, so now I am a scrap-metal dealer, smashed cars, old Dalit factory machine parts. Nobody needs that old machinery, so it’s all iron, steel, lead, aluminum, copper.”
“Good for you. At least you are helping clean up a dismantled place. All our factories are gone, and we used to be a nation of proud workers.”
“Oh, we used to be young, and when you’re young, everything is good.”
“I miss the nature in our hometown. The trees in the park must all be bigger now. I would love to see the trees again.”
“Come back then.”
“I am often there in my thoughts. Whenever I smoke, I think of Daruvar. Smoke is the flavour of my memories.”
“You sound nostalgic.”
“Yes, positively sappy. And so I smoke. This burning sensation in me just keeps going and going. I enjoy feeling that I am ashes going to ashes.”
From HERITAGE OF SMOKE. Used with permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2016 by Josip Novakovich.