Slow Freight

Are we poor, Dad?

Yes, Son, we’re poor. Not very. But poor enough.

Why are we poor, Dad?

I don’t know.

Become somebody took it?

Took what?

I don’t know. Tibi Kárász said we’re so poor, at our house the mice die of hunger pangs.

Tibi Kárász doesn’t know shit.

He also said I’m so scrawny, when I blink, the skin slides off my glans.

Tell Tibi Kárász I’m gonna kick his ass. And I’m gonna beat the shit out of him, because he’s dumb as an ox. Who does he think he is?

You’re gonna beat the shit out of him?

Yes. He’s a moron. My advice is, don’t even talk to him.

I don’t. He talks to me.

Well, walk off.

I do. But then he starts shouting after me.

Well, ignore him. Don’t even look at the likes of him.

I hope you do beat the shit out of him, Dad. Just make sure everybody sees. Will you beat the shit out of him, Dad?

Yes, Son.

When?

I don’t know. Let’s change the subject.

All right.

We’re not rich. But we got food on the table and clothes on your back. You go to school, don’t you?

Yes, Dad.

Your father didn’t go thieving like the others. Your father is an honest man. He got everything with the labor of his own two hands. We got a roof over our heads. Some don’t even have a roof over their heads. Right?

Right.

Besides, you’re not scrawny. I’m not scrawny neither. It’s the way we’re made. And you’re gonna have everything you need, if it kills me. You’ll see. That Tibor Kárász. Did he say anything about me?

No.

It’s not my fault things turned out this way, you know that. It doesn’t mean I’m not as good as the next guy. I provide for you, don’t I? Do you go hungry?

No, Dad.

Well, then?

Don’t cry, Dad.

I’m not crying. Just that that Kárász got on my nerves.

Are your nerves bad, Dad?

Yes.

What’s glans, Dad?

Never mind. Don’t pay heed to what a filthy-mouthed bloated pig like him says.

The young boy was wearing a threadbare brown man’s winter coat, open up front and hanging loosely from his shoulders in the back. It swept the ground so you couldn’t see the pants underneath. He was kicking up the dust with his dirty black lace-up boots and licking an ice cream cone. His father was leaning against a tree next to him, supporting an accordion with his feet. His hands were sunk inside the pockets of his blue jacket, a check shawl was wrapped around his neck, and a cap with a brim was pulled over his head. They were standing in front of a small, old-fashioned railway station, waiting for the train. His thin face unshaven, the man cast cursory glances at the child, sucking his teeth in the meantime. He had numerous ways of sucking his teeth. It mostly sounded like he was saying wheeze, though at times it was sleaze, and at others, still, it was more like pfizz, provided he sucked his teeth from the front. Sometimes he’d even swallow and say yum, or yum-yum when he wanted the boy to laugh, and in turn the boy would let out a constrained high-pitched giggle. But it was not real laughter, just pretense. At school the other children called his father the paddler, because when he walked, he moved his arms and hands as if he were paddling a boat. They also said he’s a good-for-nothing, stoking coal for the sun.

Let’s go. The train’s come.

I haven’t finished my ice cream.

Ditch it. I’ll buy you another. Ditch it, I said! And make sure nobody sees!

Why?

I told you. We gotta look like we’re poor. Not very, but still. If they ask, we’re poor. And fix your hair. No, not like that! Like this! That’s better.

Tibi Kárász said I’m so ugly, a sparrow wouldn’t eat horseshit out of my hand.

Tibi Kárász is a moron. Don’t even mention him, or I don’t know what I’ll do.

He also said . . .

And don’t use bad words.

But he said . . .

I thought I told you to stop, didn’t I? And throw that damned ice cream away, and don’t make me have to tell you again. And keep your mouth shut when we get on.

I hope you’ll beat the shit out of him, Dad. And kick him too, Dad. Promise?

Go on. Get in.

It was a yellowish fall afternoon. In the back of the dilapidated station building there stretched a parched cornfield, and there were some houses too nearby with a wide dirt road meandering past them. A cow on a long chain was grazing off the grass that sprang up out of the dirt.

There were hardly any people waiting for the train. Seeing that he had a limp and that there was a child with him and an accordion hanging round his neck, they wanted to let him go on ahead. But he motioned to them, it’s all right, he’ll wait his turn. Then he nudged the boy, go on, he said, then he got on, too, with his crippled feet. A woman wanted to help, but he said no, let me, I’ve got plenty of practice. You know, Ma’am, he said once they were up on the platform, if I let strangers help, I might lose my grip and fall. No offense meant. The woman didn’t say anything. She placed the bag she was carrying between her feet and stared out the window. The boy was about to head for the inside of the train, but his father grabbed him by the shoulder. Won’t you come in?, he said to the woman, but she said no, I’m getting off the next stop. She’s worried that if she parts with a forint, she’ll starve to death, the boy’s father grumbled in the door.

You got tears in your eyes, Dad.

It’s dew.

There’s no dew.

Go on ahead of me.

Did you smear it with saliva, Dad?

Be quiet! Quiet, I said. Now go on inside. Besides, when we started out this morning, there was plenty of dew.

Though the car was nearly empty, the smoke was so thick, you could cut it with a knife. He slid the door open, stopped, removed his cap, and loud and clear, he said, good day, I’m István Balog. Can I play something for you? Then he squeezed his accordion together, and his fingers began moving along the keys. I’m off to the trenches in a strange land, he began tentatively, but you’re the love of my life, Rosie-Posie, went down a lot better. The boy was standing by his father’s side, gently supporting him with one hand, but he didn’t feel like singing along. Not yet. There’d be plenty of time for that later. Besides, his father said it’s all right, you don’t have to every time, if you don’t feel like it.

Do I have to sing, Dad?

No, Son, you don’t have to. Only if you feel like it.

What if I don’t feel like it?

Then you don’t have to.

What if I don’t ever feel like it?

You will. I sing, too, don’t I?

But you don’t feel like it either, Dad. You were just crying.

That’s different.

If I don’t sing along, it hasn’t got the same effect, isn’t that right, Dad?

Why do you say that?

The bearded man on our way here, he said it. The man that gave you the hundred forints.

He didn’t. He just made like he did.

We shouldn’t have sung for him, is that it, Dad.

The singing wasn’t for him, Son. It was for everybody.

There’s no telling beforehand, is there?

Telling what?

You said there’s no telling beforehand what’s inside people.

No, there’s no telling beforehand.

Now, for instance, the boy didn’t feel like singing because of this beforehand. He stood by his father’s side and felt every hair stand on end. It didn’t hurt, but he could feel it. Every evening his father wet his hair and curled it up on sticks of wood or pencil stubs, then wrapped it around, and he had to sleep like that. A black woman in a Gypsy town once said he looked like a blond angel, and every since, his father insisted on curling his hair and making him sleep with a kerchief wrapped round his head, like a woman. If Tibi Kárász ever got wind of it! He couldn’t, of course. Still, he’d know. Tibi Kárász, he knows everything. This, too, probably. Meanwhile, his father was playing and singing with a warble to his voice, swaying to and fro to the music, not looking at anyone, fixing his eyes on the baggage racks. From time to time he nudged the boy’s head with his elbow to stop standing there like an oaf and pay attention. To what? The carriage was almost empty. An old man was sitting by the window, wiping the fogged-up pane and looking out, and so was the person sitting across from him. Soon as they see us, they all stare out the window, his father always said. You’d think we were going round with the church collection box, the way they twist their necks! A young girl with long hair was reading a book, so she didn’t look at them either. On the other side of the carriage, two older boys were sitting across from each other, laughing. That’s as much as they could see of the car. His father isn’t going to sing here for long, the boy thought; he’s gonna stop in a minute, thank them for listening, and ask them for a small contribution. He’ll go round with his father’s cap, holding it up in front of the passengers. But you don’t have to do it long, his father had once told him.

If they don’t put anything in it, move on.

All right.

But if they start finicking inside their pocket, wait till they take it out.

How long?

Till they take the money out and hand it to you.

This morning somebody pulled out a handkerchief.

They’re not all like that.

Some people make fun.

It happens.

I’ll count to ten, and if there’s nothing . . .

That’s too long.

Then five.

That’s better. But if you see them scratching, hold out.

Scratching what?

Only the girl gave them something. She had the money in her hand and dropped it in the hat. The boy thanked her, then walked over to the boys, but they didn’t give him anything. Nor did the two old men. There was also a woman sitting up front with a sleeping child on her arm, but all she did was look intently at it to the exclusion of everything else. There was a basket of apples by her side, but she didn’t give them any of that either, whereas they usually do. Twenty forints. Not bad for a start, his father said cheerfully.

You’re cold?

No.

It’ll pick up now, you’ll see. There’ll be more people on the train now. The women are headed for the market.

Why don’t we go to the market too, Dad? There’s always lots of people at the market.

The market’s no good. It’s got enough beggars without us.

Are we beggars, Dad?

No, Son. We’re artists.

Like wandering minstrels?

That’s right, Son. But you’ll sing along now, won’t you?

Yes, Dad.

Only if you feel like it.

OK.

I’ll play something you like.

Fine.

People like to hear children sing.

Do I have a nice voice, Dad?

Yes, Son. Your teacher says you have a nice voice, and he should know.

The one who gave me chewing gum?

That’s the one.

He gave the boy chewing gum that you can swallow. It was round like candy, but he didn’t tell his father until much later, after Tibi Kárász said that the hole in his ass would stick to his mouth and he’d have to be cut apart with a knife, and then he’s gonna die.

The others at the railroad started to call Balog Balog the Cripple after a train backed up and swiped him. He should’ve had his leg amputated, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I’d rather have you cut my head off, right here, he said, and he showed them where. He was still a cheerful sort then, and for a long time afterward, too, even though his leg was badly mangled and he needed repeated surgery until it got some semblance of shape to it, but he could never work again. Even walking was a problem. He would have had to go under the knife two more times, at least, to strengthen his foot and to make the bones move, but by then he’d had enough. Every time he went under the knife he’d gnaw his pillow from the pain until he said, enough. Enough! He’s not going to get his leg back, so what’s the use? He had stopped joking by then. Just turning in bed caused him excruciating pain. Then gradually he learned to walk with his characteristic waddle, sliding-jerking-wrenching himself forward. First he had to hitch his shoulder, then twist his hip and swing his arms, and he bit his lips until they bled. Without crutches, he told his wife elatedly, who cried when she heard. Then he got pensioned off, which didn’t improve his spirits either. It’s no good, being pensioned off at the age of forty. Later his movements improved a great deal, only the sole of his foot and the foot itself burned like fire, and he got tired quickly. That’s when he came up with the accordion, because he couldn’t bear the boredom at home any more. And there were other problems, too. You find me repulsive, he asked his wife, and she said no, of course not. Besides, it’s not her fault. She’s not the one to blame.

Still, you’re not like you used to be.

How could I be? Nothing’s like it used to be. Or is it?

I'm the same as I ever was.

Why are you badgering me?

Because if you’re planning to leave me, I want to know. I’m not going to stand in your way. You’re still young.

What about the boy?

Ah. So it’s the boy that’s holding you back.

I’m sorry. But I can’t take it any more. I always had a thing about cripples. I can’t help it. It turns my stomach. I feel sorry for you. But I can’t help it. What am I supposed to do? I can’t lie down next to you. How could I? I can’t expect you to understand. I did the best I could. But I can’t.

All right.

Still, we manage, don’t we? Maybe I’ll get used to it with time. I’ll have a couple of drinks, or god knows what I’m going to do. I’ve even seen a doctor about it. I was hoping he could do something.

What did he say?

He said there’s nothing he can do. I’ll have to get used to it, or jump ship.

Is it better when I sit?

Yes. It’s only when you walk or move about.

Is it very bad?

It turns my stomach.

Fine.

What’s fine?

Nothing. I think you should go.

Go? Where?

Don’t make out like you don’t know what I’m saying.

In the end, she left. They agreed not to get a divorce, and she wouldn’t take the child with her or wax sentimental. It’ll be like you’re visiting somebody, understand? You can come whenever you like, you know that. And let’s not say any more to the boy, the rest can wait. And later, when he’s older, he can go see you whenever he wants. It’s the best I can think of. It’s not your fault. I know this may sound silly, but could you buy something for the child now and then so he’ll know he’s got himself a mother? Don’t worry, it’ll be on me. I’ll tell him you went to stay with a sick relative.

He’s bound to find out anyway.

Never mind. We’ll continue lying to him.

I may not come for a long time at first.

Don’t.

People will say I deserted you in your hour of need.

So what if you did?

Is that what you think?

Me? No.

They were standing in a dark and noisy passageway between carriages. It was cold, and the floorboards pitched gently under their feet. The boy was trembling. Let’s rest a while, his father said, pulling the boy closer, rubbing his back and shoulder. This was the only place they could stop to catch their breath; everywhere else there were too many people around. Even in the space by the train doors people were standing with sacks, bags, and cans. As they were nearing Debrecen, the train had gradually filling up with passengers.

In the dining car a group of pensioners, a little worse for drink, were having a loud time of it, singing to themselves, when Balog entered. They were glad to have him, and he began to accompany them on his accordion while the boy stood silently by. Then his father started singing my one true love, she’s up and left me, just like that, from the middle of the song, at which the group fell silent. Stop, a fat man shouted, wheezing, take it from the top! It was a long, melancholy song, and after a while the boy joined in, too, because his father kept nudging him with his elbow, good-bye, my love, good-bye. How do you know these old tunes, they asked Balog, but he just smiled. I know a great many tunes, he said. Well, then, let’s hear, they urged, we got plenty of time on our hands.

They brought him a beer, then he told them that his father had been at the front too and was wounded, that’s how he came home, wounded. From then on he played music on trains and he, a mere child, accompanied him wherever he went. Except, he always embellished the story, and the boy remembered that he never told the same story twice. Oh dear, oh my, the people said in amazement, and now it’s you and your son. Well, well. But what’s happened to your leg, if you don’t mind the intrusion, the fat man asked. My leg?, Balog sighed, it’s no big deal, I could get used to that. By this time the boy would tug at his sleeve, because he didn’t like what followed, even though he knew it was no use urging his father, because he wouldn’t stop. Once he got some drink in him, and even if he didn’t, at this point his father would launch into a confused explanation about how his foot this and his foot that, and not a word of it was true. He never said that it happened while he was working for the railroad. It was high time for the boy to move away from him. You see?, his father would say pointing at him. Poor child. He can’t even bear to hear me tell it, it upsets him so much. We had to bring him back from the threshold of death, ‘cause he hanged himself. And such a young child, the others said, aghast. What with? His mother’s stocking. That’s how much he loved her while she was alive. She died?, someone who’d just started attending to the story asked, but Balog just waved it off. I better go after the boy. Make sure he won’t do something crazy again. At other times he’d show the scars on his stomach. The boy, he’s got one of my kidneys. This is where they took it out. And I say to the doctor, take my heart, too, if he needs it, take my eyes, my brain, take whatever the boy needs! And by then he’d be crying, and the women would cry along with him, and the boy, too, was crying when he found him, mostly in the toilet or outside the carriage door, where he could be alone. Why do you say stuff like that, he shouted at his father, why must you lie? I was never sick. And your leg, it didn’t get mangled because I needed the bone from it! And Mom didn’t die. It’s a lie! You’re always lying! Leave me alone! Sometimes people would go after them to comfort them, or to give that poor unfortunate child something, and then his father would say, no thank you, we’re not beggars. Just that it feels good, having someone to tell it to. And in fact, when this happened he wouldn’t accept anything, he just wiped his eyes and the child’s face and heaved a sigh, it’s all right, it’s all right, until the child calmed down.

This time, though, he was in high spirits when he went to find the child, who heard his waddling steps, knocking his feet into everything, he thought in the back of the car, and sighed. Oh, there you are, Son, he hollered cheerfully as he forced himself through the sliding door, you’re going in the wrong direction, we’ve done that bit already! The child retraced his steps without a word and stopped when he reached the other end of the car, waited for his father to catch up, then let go of the door. They sent you some chocolate, his father said. Here. Take it. The boy stopped. Let’s wait a bit, all right? Let’s take a breather and you eat it. They invited us to a wedding, he said later. Would you like to go? Or are you angry?

No.

What?

I’m not angry.

You seem out of sorts.

Just tired.

There’s one more carriage before the dining car. It usually has lots of people.

Can we get off then?

Yes.

And go home?

Yes. We’ll light the stove and go to bed.

And stay home?

Yes. We’ll stay home. But if you want to, you can go play.

I don’t want to go anywhere.

Fine.

The next carriage had a group of loud, raucous schoolchildren, probably on their way to an outing. Balog and the boy could hardly push their way through them. The boy took his father’s hand and walked up front, fixing his eyes straight ahead. Thank God, his father didn’t want to play or sing, because the children would’ve made fun, and Tibi Kárász was sure to find out. He would’ve also found out about his lace-up boots, not to mention his oversize coat. He’s got a proper coat, but when he accompanies his father, he’s got to wear this coat, because they’re poor. Tibi Kárász might even be in the car for all he knew, and he’ll be hearing him in a minute: what’s up, Pauper Boy? You look like something that’s been pissed on the wall and hatched. He fixed his eyes on the floor, but he could still feel the children whispering behind his back, nudging each other, suppressing a giggle, and soon as they’re gone, screaming with laughter, he knew. The two monkeys, they’d say, two monkeys from the fair ground. He hurried through the carriage so that his father could hardly keep up. Let’s stop, he said in the back, let me catch my breath.

But still, they did not get off. Just a little bit more, his father pleaded, because the back of the car was by now crowded with people, mostly women, and that was always a good sign. Behold a little baby boy a happy babe is he, his face how bright, his heart how light, his throne his mother’s knee, they sang, and people started asking questions again, at which point the boy went on ahead to the next car, and didn’t even hear his father say, look at that child. He’s been pieced together from my body, and now this is all that’s left of me. And him. When they entered the next car they still couldn’t get off, because the passengers were already expecting them. Somebody had tipped them off, and they didn’t even have to sing; instead, Balog had to show his scars. See? See here? For two whole days he lived with my heart. This is where they took it out, and we were both hooked up to it. At other times he showed his back. The boy couldn’t breathe. This is where they inserted a tube from him into my lung, so he shouldn’t suffocate. Also, his knee. Believe it or not, he’s got my knee. He doesn’t know because I signed a paper saying I wouldn’t tell him.

They must’ve been near the front of the train by then, because they could hear the sound of the locomotive from up close, when Balog said they’d get off at the next stop, because by now, he’s had it, too. There was a strong wind between the cars, but they managed to reach the adjoining carriage all the same. OK, we can stop here, he said, and lowered his accordion to the floor. He took a knitted hat from his pocket and pulled it over the boy’s head. Dad, the boy said after a while, there’s somebody there. Where?, his father asked. Over there. I can see his feet. Balog took a step or two in the direction indicated by his son and spotted a young man lying at the head of the corridor. He must’ve been attacked near the door leading inside. He had on jeans and a jacket, and his shirt was torn, and his head and face were smeared with blood. Let’s get away from here, Son, he said, frightened. And don’t look. But Dad. You promised we’d get off. Let’s go back to the other car. We’ll get off there. Come on, move! Open the door! But the boy kept staring at the man on the ground, because he was sure he saw him make weak, jerky movements. Then the toilet door was flung open and two men came out. Tut-tut, said the one, what have you two been up to? He had curly black hair and long side-whiskers that reached down to the corners of his lips. Well, lookee there, added the other, they beat Mugger within an inch of his life. The second man was also dark, but not as much, and his metal teeth flashed in his mouth. Shame on you, he said to Balog, then they burst out laughing. Come with us, the curly-haired man said, we gotta talk this over. Please, Balog said, we didn’t hurt nobody. I’m a wandering musician and me and my son, we want to get off. Are you sure it wasn’t you knocked him cold, the man with the metal teeth asked, though it was in fact a threat. I’m sure, Balog said. How could I have done it with my crippled . . . Well, if it wasn’t you, who the fuck was it? Well? The Bogeyman? Meanwhile, the two of them had forced Balog into a corner. The boy stood a ways off, looking on round-eyed. Or me? Hey? Is that it?, the man with the metal teeth hollered. Go on! Let me hear you say it! Say it was me, ’cause it was me! He looked at the other man and gave an ugly belly laugh, then patted Balog on the back. Hey, he said, don’t shit your pants. He’ll come to in a minute. OK, you, he then yelled at the man on the floor, rise and shine. Then he started kicking the soles of his feet. Leave him be, the curly-haired man said. Let him get some shut-eye. Then he turned to Balog. Did you say a musician? That’s right, Balog answered, having partly recovered from his fright. And this is one of our regular routes. What about this thing, the man with the metal teeth said, pointing at Balog’s accordion, what can you play on it? Anything, Balog shot back. Just about. The two men looked at each other and shared another laugh. Good, the curly one said, in that case, come and show us what you know.

Balog tried everything he could think of so he wouldn’t have to go with them. His son’s still a child and ailing, he said, he may even have a fever, at times he’s delirious, and his mind wanders. No sweat, they said, his mind can wander all it wants. Ours wanders, too, at the yard. Then he said he was tired and showed them his scars and his crippled legs. So much the better, the curly one said, they'll think you're from the circus. So move your ass. Bewildered and scared, the boy shot pleading glances every which way, but the two men pushed them toward the inside of the car, where there was an incredible amount of smoke and noise. They were greeted with an ovation. It was evident at a glance that the men and women sitting and standing around a traveling case covered with cards and money were old friends. I got us a musician, the curly man announced. He’s got something to say, so shut up, everybody! I got nothing to say, Balog said defensively as he pulled the boy closer, trying to laugh it off. But then he figured it’d be best to do as he was told. Oh, all right, he said, because some of the company were threatening him by then. But just one. Because we’re tired. Somebody handed him a bottle of beer, telling him to drink up, and they made the boy drink, too, despite his protests. Then somebody picked him up and settled him atop a luggage rack. Are you hungry, a woman with heavily painted lips asked. Would you like a banana? Here! The boy needs clothes, not bananas. Just look at the rags he’s wearing, someone else said. Why don’t you dress him proper? Balog hemmed and hawed, he’s got proper clothes, except not for here, it’d be a pity on the train, they’d just get wrinkled and worn out. Then he began to play his accordion. Louder, some people shouted, we can’t hear! Hey, shut up, everybody! Balog started to play an old sentimental tune, and for a while they listened, but then a bald man with a neck like a bull cut in saying that’s no good, we’re not at a funeral. Ain’t you got a happier tune? Hey, give him another drink, somebody, that’ll perk him up!

Balog couldn’t really play the accordion. He only knew the movements he’d learned from his father, and the songs to go with them; he never tried anything new, nor had there been any need. Now he was in a bind, but he did his best to hold the rhythm steady when the others joined in, except he made a poor show of it, and after a while the people stopped singing and said, old man, you’re just no good. Get your ass out of here, you’re not worth shit. You’re a mound of shaking jelly, the curly man added, not a musician. Hey, somebody, give him something. I don’t want him saying we’re misers. No, no, don’t, Balog said, trying to calm them, I couldn’t entertain you, so don’t pay me. Who cares, the man with the metal teeth said, time is money, what do you say, boys? Have you got change for a thousand, somebody put in, at which there was laughter and guffaws all around. How did you come to be such a pitiful reject, a thin, asthmatic man asked, what happened to you? Why don’t you walk properly? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier on you, at which there was another round of laughter. Isn’t that band heavy, they asked, then they took the accordion from around his neck and started pulling and tugging at it, as if it were a piece of string, each man according to his strength. They vied to outdo each other, pulling at it high above their heads, or in the back, up front, then somebody had an idea, hey, you, he said to Balog, I know why you push them buttons. It helps to pull this thing apart, a remark that was immediately followed by another round of laughter. And he even gets paid for it. It’s highway robbery! OK, here’s your money, and good riddance. Where’s the boy? Has anybody seen the boy?

They pulled the boy off the luggage rack, and proceeded to admire him. What nice big teeth, somebody said. Have you got them all? Yes, said the boy. And look at those muscles! The bull-neck felt his arms and laughed. That’s what I call muscles of steel! Have you got your weenie too? The boy nodded and smiled as those big men passed him around, then somebody picked him up. I’ll carry him, he said, just don’t piss on my clothes, you hear? The boy laughed, and he didn’t even seek his father’s face, because he felt so good, so very good. The man with the bull’s neck told him to grab on to his hair, but he didn’t have a single strand, and the boy leaned his cheek against his bald head, flung his arms around his neck, and laughed and laughed and laughed. All right, everybody, the man with the curly hair shouted, that’s enough! Leave them be! Shumi, take that thing after the old man. See our guests to the door and make sure they don’t come back. Want another drink, old man? No? Have it your way.

They led the boy up front, followed by his father. They’d grabbed hold of him under the arm, so he didn’t have to walk. The man in the back brought his accordion. Then in the front of the car the man who’d been carrying him took the boy from around his neck. Well, he said, here we are. Put it there, he said, and he offered the boy a hand the size of a shovel, whereupon the boy slammed his own into it. Good show, Son! First class! Then he flung open the train door. The boy felt a light push and heard somebody say, there you go, and he went flying through the air with his father behind him. The accordion landed a ways off. The train proceeded on its way.

Thank God we’re small and thin, his father said once he’d managed to sit up. And also, that the weeds are so thick here. Are you hurt? No, said the boy, who’d gotten to his feet by then and was toeing the grass with his boot as if nothing had happened. He was even smiling. His father was panting heavily. Fuck them, he said, then heaped curses on them right and left, those filthy, rotten, flea-eating bastards, look what they’ve done to us. It boggles the mind. It’s incredible. I hope they don’t think they can get away with this. The vermin. A child and a cripple. And what are you laughing at?

Nothing.

You’re not laughing for no reason. Are you laughing at me?

They threw us out like a cat to do his shitting.

That’s some joke. We could’ve broken our necks. Come here. Let me take a look at you.

I’m fine.

Come here, I said. You might have  hurt yourself inside.

Where?

I gotta feel. If it hurts, tell me.

OK.

And wipe that smile off your face.

The boy burst out laughing, his two mouse-teeth glistening with saliva. There was saliva in the corner of his mouth, too, and he said it tickles when his father touches him, which wasn’t true, it’s just that he couldn’t help laughing at the whole thing, the bald man throwing them off the train. Maybe they’ll come and get them and then they’ll laugh at the whole thing together, the curly-haired man and the man with the metal teeth, and the bald man will pick him up again and bark at him to leave his hair alone, which he hasn’t got. You’re a rascal, his father said to him, and began tickling him in earnest, then picked him up in his arm and said, no harm done. Later he got to his feet and looked around. Just as I figured, he said. We’re near Apafa. Just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Freight trains pass by here all the time. They slow way down. We’ll hoist ourselves on one, all right? All right?, he asked again, because the boy, who was staring into space with traces of laughter still on his face, did not answer him. Then he said, all right. Like the last time, his father went on, but only if it slows way down. I’ll tell you when, and not before. Later he picked up his accordion, but his face was sad as he brought it over to his son. It’s got a lot of problemswith it, he complained, it’ll need fixing. It’s broken. Then he turned it around, tried it, then set it down with a sigh.

For a while neither spoke. Then the boy stood up and went to the rails to have a look, but there was no freight train approaching. Then a regular train came, passing them with a speedy clatter, then again nothing, for a long while. Then a freight train came, but it was as fast as the passenger train. Sit down, his father said, and stop fretting. And stop walking along the tracks. I know this stretch. It’ll come. Sometimes they back up all the way to here.

Am I strong, Dad?

What a question.

They said I’ve got good muscle. Is this muscle?

Yes.

Then I could jump on the train, too? The fast train?

Nobody can jump on the fast train. Their hand would get ripped off.

Not even you?

Not even me.

Because you’re as weak as a breeze?

Is that what they said on the train?

They also said you’re like putty.

They don’t know what they’re talking about.

The bald man, he’s strong, though, isn’t he?

Yes.

But you’re weak.

What if I am?

The boy made no answer, but there was sadness in his eyes, and he sat down in the dry grass, like his father. Then another train passed, but it was headed in the opposite direction. It was followed by two more. Then nothing.

Dad.

What?

You’re not going to beat the shit out of Tibi Kárász.

Why do you say that?

Because you’re weak.

No I’m not.

Yes you are. And he’s gonna smear you into the wall like snot.

Is that what he said?

Yes. And you’ll just grin like a hare at a bunch of wild apples.

Come over here.

No.

I’m not gonna hurt you, I just can’t hear clear what you learned on that train. Your mother would be proud of you if she knew, he added with ill humor. Tibi Kárász. Did he say anything about your mother?

Yes.

What?

A low rumble could be heard, like the approach of a train. Balog got to his feet, and then the boy, it’s slow, his father said, as far as I can tell. It might suit us. Come, let’s get ready. Then he quickly grabbed the boy and pressed him close, but the boy wrenched himself free. The train’s coming, he said with a happy shout. Wait, his father yelled, don’t run! If it’s too fast, we’ll wait for the next train, you hear? Fine, the boy yelled back, but all his attention was pinned on the train. Flatcars, his father said when the freight train pulled up. It might do. Just don’t go too close. Wait for me. Wait till it slows way down.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the boy as he climbed the pebbled railway bed, agile as a lizard, his father thought. He shuffled and wriggled after him as fast as he could, panting and still shouting, wait!, then he saw the boy grab a step, oh, God, he’s hanging in midair!, but the next moment he heaved himself up. I’m coming, his father shouted, sit down and don’t move. He managed to grab hold of a step at the further end of the wagon, that’s good, he thought, once I got hold of it, it’s mine. The train was pulling him along, but that was all right, and as for the boy, he was running along the platform toward him, sit down, he shouted, I’ve almost made it. Then he felt a laced-up boot kick his face, then another, two blinding-white explosions. He let go of the iron. He couldn’t bear it any more. There was no reason why he should.

From Lassú teher(Slow Freight), Magvető Kiadó, Budapest, second edition, 1998. Copyright Sándor Tar. By arrangement with the estate of Sándor Tar. Translation copyright Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.