My mother answered the door by telling me that she had let out the small room—the room with all the horse things, or, if you will, the room with the wall-to-wall carpet. Only one person responded to the classified ad, she said. I thought the lodger had already moved in because my mother spoke in a whisper, and the door to the room, which was hard to close, was shut. My mother had already emptied out a good one third of the wardrobe: winter coats lay on the dining table, my father’s hats placed on top, all six of them—sacred, untouchable pieces which my mother had been avoiding for sixteen years now. Underneath the table, my mother’s old boots, the ones with the narrow instep, languished. I sank down behind the pile of coats. I didn’t even have the strength to express my shock. I rested my injured arm on my mother’s horrific sheepskin coat that smelled of cigarettes, although my father had quit smoking before he died.
Why? I asked. After I had moved in with her, my mother asked me for thirty thousand forints a month for the use of the living room sofa. It’s not about that, she said, and it was as if a lock of hair had fallen into her face, nervously brushing across the area beneath her eyes. She put on coffee, got out the cups, and took out the coffee spoons decorated with coats of arms—three of them.
The lodger was a bespectacled woman about thirty years old, with a small head and asymmetrical ears. She had already gotten a set of keys to the front door, but still, she knocked. She lifted her yellow hard-shell suitcase across the threshold while my mother, with two fingers, drew aside the door curtain. We introduced ourselves. As I held out my hand, the good one, my mother said hesitantly: My son. I felt as if she was trying to speak for me. The lodger excused herself—she was tired, she said—and pulled the suitcase into the room that opened onto the hallway, leaving the door partially open. She couldn’t close it. My mother and I remained by ourselves in our winter coats, with my father’s Stetson hats and the third cup in which the black coffee, untouched, was growing cold. I understood nothing of what was going on.
In the room with the wall-to-wall carpeting that looked onto the outside walkway, my father had, at one time, collected all of his horse “relics”—saddles, helmets, and so on. The microclimate here favored Mediterranean plants that liked humidity and sunlight. (The Japanese sago palm grew to a huge size, and the lemon tree produced lemons.) It was forbidden to step into the wall-to-wall carpeted room in street shoes.
After my father died, my mother set up the room as a kind of clothes and laundry room: she put the drying rack here, and here is where she ironed, wheezing, full of hatred. She soaked the clothes in lye, the wrinkles, the folds. Now that she had let out this room, she had to move the Japanese sago palm tree, grown to human height. We couldn’t lift it by ourselves, and my mother didn’t let the lodger help her. While we dragged the palm tree—slipping a piece of cardboard beneath the planter—out into the vestibule, the lodger pulled aside the chairs in our way, holding the living room door open. I saw that she was embarrassed because she couldn’t help, and we were doing this for her. She certainly must have noticed my arm.
We took the drying rack into my mother’s room; the boots and my father’s six hats were placed in the storage area inside the pullout sofa in the living room, where I had been sleeping ever since my accident—ever since I’d moved back. My mother put the hats into a bag, we placed a few shoots of lavender next to it, then I lowered the bed down. In the end, we pulled the palm tree over next to the sofa bed. If I tossed and turned a lot at night, the back of my hand bumped into the leaves with their prickly tips.
She was a quiet woman at least. Her name was Éva Popa, she wore trousers, and she worked in a shoe shop in the city center. My mother said that she handled foreign orders because she knew some English. Rather audaciously, given her age, she wore her hair in a buzz cut on the sides and in the back. She had a few grey hairs. She told my mother that she had worn this hairstyle ever since the abortion. (Everything had changed for her since the abortion, even her diet. It was only cigarettes that she couldn’t give up.) She didn’t listen to loud music, she had no visitors—of course, my mother asked her not to receive any. In the weeks after she moved in, she brought a few items from somewhere: a more feminine-looking dress, knee-length with a narrow cut, but, as she said, nowhere to wear it. She hung the dress on the back of the door to keep it in sight. Later books turned up, decorative pillow covers, as well as a polar fleece cloak with pockets.
She stepped out onto the walkway to smoke. If it was cold, she wrapped the cloak around herself. My mother asked me to give the lodger something to stub out her cigarettes in. I found an ID card-sized piece of aluminum in my father’s old box of junk, and I turned up the edges with pincers. The lodger thanked me; she cleaned it out carefully once a week. I was able to watch her face as she did the dishes. My mother did the same. The two temples of her eyeglasses circled the lodger’s temples like the rings of dust around some kind of planet. Saturn, I think.
I resigned myself to her presence. After she moved into my father’s old horse-room, a few things changed. My mother no longer appeared in her torn T-shirts. She began to cook again—although, after my father’s death, she had been eating either in restaurants, or ordering something from a pizzeria. (At times she put rancid nuts in the yogurt.) I noticed that she was getting up and going to sleep earlier. In the evenings, she read the newspaper, or she sat in the newly reupholstered armchair playing Diamond Wonder on the tablet she’d gotten for her sixty-fifth birthday.
If we all were having breakfast together, my mother set the table. She took out plates, and set out the bread rolls—whole-grain and seeded for her. She put thick layers of cheese spread on them, curds, paprika cream cheese, and I saw that even Éva Popa shrank from such excess. My mother explained to her in a mild voice that since she hadn’t gotten enough mother’s milk as an infant, it was hard for her to share food with others now. After Éva Popa left for work, my mother did the washing up. She was alone in the apartment the entire day, but she said her life was full. Sometimes she met up with her girlfriends from the private school where she used to teach, but lately they only spoke by phone. I suspected that when she bent down to the phone receiver and began whispering, that she was talking about her lodger. Sometimes I heard what she was saying too. She reprehended her like the wrinkles in the clothes. Other times, she praised her.
The horseshoe remained on the lodger’s key ring. It used to be my father’s; Éva Popa liked to fidget with it when she was anxious about something. I was amazed that my mother just gave it to her like that, but I had no intention of asking the lodger to remove the horseshoe. To me, all these horsey things meant nothing more than their owner had.
The room that looked out onto the walkway could be thought of in many ways: my father’s room, the horse room, the closet, the home of the palm tree, the slipper room. Now, though, it was the home of Éva Popa. At one point I realized that in this room, on the wall-to-wall carpeting, not far from the threshold, there were two parallel streaks of dirt, starting with sharp contours and gradually tapering off, leading from the threshold to the gas heater. For a change, it was just the two of us, my mother and myself, alone in the apartment—just as it had been previously, when my father was no longer alive but before Éva Popa had appeared on the scene.
I opened the door, crouched down, and I showed my mother the stains. At first she pretended not to see what I was talking about; then, she said: They’ve been there for years. And all the while it was perfectly obvious that it was the lodger’s wheeled suitcase that had dirtied the carpet. My mother turned on her heel and disappeared into the bathroom. I understood she didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Why was she acting, I wondered, as if the cleanliness of the wall-two-wall carpeting in this room had not been, for decades, of the utmost importance? Perhaps it was then that I sensed for the first time that something had changed in my mother’s way of thinking. Everything that had been there before was still there, but somehow everything was standing at a different angle than it should have. As when an entire field of sunflowers turns away from the sun.
On the weekends, we would turn on the TV for a few hours. My mother liked the game shows, the quiz shows. She sat in the armchair, and I was on my bed—sitting above the boots and the hats. (Next to me was the vicious, yellowing palm tree.) Éva Popa crouched atop a footstool, her legs drawn beneath her, wrapped up in her fleece cloak with the pockets. She sipped tea, rosehips or pomegranate, her favorites. She takes up so little space, my mother said at one point, in an unfamiliar, trembling voice. At first, I almost thought she was talking about the tea mug.
My mother was the most educated and informed among the three of us. Many times, she yelled out the answer even before the question was fully formulated. The lodger would look at my mother appreciatively, although at the same time it seemed to me as if she also found it to be against human nature to preserve such things in one’s memory for so long. The lodger addressed my mother as Auntie Magda, whereas my mother used the formal address with her. As for me and the lodger, we both used the second person singular—I was much too lazy to figure out how much older I was than her.
When we turned off the TV, the lodger retreated to her room, which she rented for forty thousand forints a month; one time, my mother sat on the edge of my bed, and, patting one element of the upholstery pattern, said: what a silly girl this poor Éva Popa is. As if nothing were more important than for a person to be clever. I don’t know exactly what my mother was trying to say when I myself was stupid, my father was also stupid, and in her own way—eruditely, self-confidently—my mother was also stupid. I said nothing in reply. My mother picked up a palm leaf from the floor, and folding it in half, enclosed it in her own palm. It turned out that she knew many torturous details concerning the lodger’s abortion, as well, of course, about the path that had led her there. I didn’t understand when they’d had the opportunity to have these intimate conversations.
One time I heard my mother addressing the lodger as Evita. I knew that there was something not quite right with my mother, but I didn’t have anyone to share my worries with. Ever since the accident, I could no longer spend time with all those who took how I blended in perfectly with my surroundings—meaning with them, with others—as natural.
Sometimes I caught Éva Popa’s glance: she looked down at my wounded arm, blinked once, and bit her lip. Looked down, blinked, bit her lip. If I had to grasp something with two hands, she clearly hesitated as to whether she should hurry over and help me. When my mother washed the curtains in the machine, and the cycle was over, Éva Popa volunteered to climb up the ladder, and I could just hand her the curtain. If we did the shopping together, she wouldn’t let me carry two bags. If we had to take the platters and baking pans, nested inside one another, out of the oven, we carried them together. When my mother got dizzy, and we helped her over to the chair, Éva Popa couldn’t believe that I had ever managed to carry this body, which had grown heavy, by myself. (We ended up calling emergency medical services.)
Then it turned out that Éva Popa knew about my accident. This did not feel good. My mother had distorted things a bit—I think she was ashamed—or at the very least she was silent about how, on the afternoon of the accident, I had gotten thoroughly drunk. I would have liked to have set my mother’s account straight and tell the lodger that the place of drinking bouts in my life was not, later on, occupied by the absence of drinking, but by the many untouched wineglasses left unraised to my mouth, which I monitored much more closely than the ones I had touched and raised to my mouth; and that the accident had opened my eyes just in the same way that the abortion had opened Éva Popa’s—but I was never alone with her, and there was no way for me to expand on these common points. If Éva Popa so much as stepped out of her room, my mother was already there hovering solicitously around her. She rummaged around in the kitchen cabinet, looking around for a recipe in Gastronome, the famous cookbook from the 1930s.
I had a dream at one point. My mother was peeling green beans; I was sharpening a knife on a whetstone. In the dream it might have been a Saturday or Sunday morning. We had just chased away a man with unpleasant manners who was collecting signatures for his public office bid. At one point my mother stepped behind my back, and whispered into my ear: the face of this girl is a wound. I didn’t understand what she was talking about, because the lodger’s face was smooth, unscathed, impeccable. To this my mother responded that on such innocent faces as these, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, all appear to be wounds: all of them a kind of fine, vulnerable, irregular split forming on the surface. Éva Popa, with her wound-face, was, in the meantime, smoking on the walkway, blowing out the smoke through one of the crevices that had formed after one of her violent journeys.
There was a period of a few weeks when I was tempted to approach my mother’s lodger as a woman. I didn’t see her as being beautiful, but there was something hidden in her quiet distress, like an unused weapon, that spoke to my own self-confidence. As she turned over the ashtray into the garbage pail and cleverly tamped down the cloud of ash beginning to rise, I thought. As she set down her fork on her plate, as if it were a dead person. At that time, I liked to fantasize that at night I would creep into the kitchen, step out of my slippers, and, in that wall-to-wall carpeted room, bereft of all horsey things, I would make her my own. But soon I realized that this was not a question of feelings, but of mathematics: one plus one. The unbefitting and involuntary animation of my attention. If the room on the walkway had remained empty, there would be no one to attach myself to; when the room was inhabited, the situation was suddenly completely different. I didn’t want this.
Then my mother noticed that every time Éva Popa slipped into her fleece cloak with pockets, and, with her cigarette and lighter, went outside onto the walkway, a window opened up on the second floor. An unemployed man lived there, whose mother—or so the rumors went—was a prostitute. A “lady of the night,” as my mother put it. Later on, not only did the window open, but the man himself appeared—unkempt, in an athletic shirt—in order to exchange a few words with Éva Popa. My mother piled up all kinds of frightening things about this neighbor to make sure Éva Popa would never have any desire to get to know him any better. I heard with my own ears as she claimed that the man’s mother had forced him to perform cunnilingus on her when he was a child. I don’t think the lodger knew what that was. I too had to look it up in the dictionary.
We lived quietly. My mother thought of the three of us as a family—and I saw nothing threatening in that. In the first year with Éva Popa, we got a taller pine tree than before, its branches spreading wider, because my mother thought that the lodger would spend Christmas with us. The resin from the tree ruined her gloves, and of course the trunk didn’t fit into the Christmas tree stand. (We finally set up the tree in a pot, tying it up from three sides.) Seeing that the lodger liked walnuts, my mother baked four long walnut rolls, and only two with poppy seeds. When she portioned out the aspic, she made sure to take out the gristly bones, because Éva Popa couldn’t stand anything greasy. My mother thought I didn’t know that she’d gotten her a gift as well: she hid it in the storage compartment in the sofa bed, among my father’s hats and my mother’s boots.
When the second day of Christmas came to an end with no news of the lodger, my mother became gloomy. She tried to conceal it, but I saw. She washed up, brushed her teeth, and went to bed. To my horror, sometime around midnight I heard her sobbing. At first it sounded as if she were laughing. I crept over to my mother’s door, looking in through the keyhole, just as I’d done as a child. My mother was lying on her back, half uncovered, her fingers clawing at the bedsheet. Her face was distorted, slimy with tears, facing the ceiling, as if she were showing it to someone. Her nostrils changed shape, pulsating. They narrowed and lengthened, then grew huge, like some sea creature’s. I remember how, when my mother saw me for the first time with my mangled hand, she tried to wipe her tears away without a trace, before they even reached the outer edge of her eyelid. Everything was so different back then. The palm tree, the room with the wall-to-wall carpeting, the quiz shows.
The next day, I found the Christmas package meant for Éva Popa—wrapped up in yellow tissue paper—in the kitchen garbage can. I tossed a few orange peels on top of it so that the lodger wouldn’t notice when she showed up with her rolling suitcase. I had no idea where she might have spent Christmas. We knew that ever since the abortion, she had not stayed in touch with her parents. My mother told me that she’d seen the letter in which she had “settled accounts” with them, and, without me prompting her to do so, cited a few turns of phrase from that opus. It was impossible for me to imagine anything that would induce a person to designate her own parents as “fetters” or “clumps of mud stuck to her shoes.” I said this to my mother.
I know that she was afraid that on Christmas, Éva Popa had dragged her rolling suitcase only as far as the door on the second floor where the unemployed man lived.
There’s nothing at all strange about a sixty-six-year-old woman taking in a lodger—in the end it’s more peculiar to have her son hanging around her neck, living in her apartment. That’s why it never occurred to me to warn her. I am rather inclined to break down sudden and momentous changes into fleeting and flickering events. When my mother thought things over, and called up the locksmith—a man perpetually clothed in overalls who advertised his services in all the neighborhood stairwells—all I could see was that she was calling a locksmith. When the doorbell rang, I only heard the doorbell ringing.
My mother sent Éva Popa into the living room, sat her down in front of the TV. She provided her with biscuits, the remote control, and a cup of tea. The locksmith lived in the neighboring building, and he liked to boast that he had known my father. Following my mother’s instructions, he placed newspapers on the threshold of the room on the hallway, beneath the door leaf, then he took out his wood rasp, chisel, and hammer. It turned out that he only had to slightly broaden the groove for the lock bolt. The man worked mutely in his socks. My mother unequivocally let him understand that she had no desire to discuss matters concerning my father. (Whose life had been the stables, as well as sports betting, practiced within certain rigorous self-constraints.) The locksmith donned his heavy work boots, put away the money he’d been paid, and said goodbye.
My mother cautiously gathered up the newspapers while calling out to Éva Popa. Her face reddened, she took her into the room off the hallway, stood to one side, and looked on with devotion as the lodger pushed down the handle, opened the door, and then closed it. She opened it and closed it. Everyone needs peace and quiet sometimes, mumbled my mother. It would have been good to note something in objective tones, something that would have cast a shadow upon her joy, but the only thing that came to mind is what my father used to say about the door to this room, for close to thirty years, if he was trying to close it—albeit very infrequently, when he had important phone call or when my mother left something burning on the stove. That bloody door.
Anyone can get used to anything. If at times I tried to imagine what the room would be like empty, with no lodger, I ended up feeling a kind of time-confusion in which I could scarcely establish the chronological order of past events. It seemed that the lodger’s abortion had occurred before my accident, as well as before my mother’s illustrious transition into retirement. Then one day, I found the lodger’s picture on a website operated by people with bad credit ratings, and I had the feeling that a sibling of mine was living in that room off the hallway, or at least someone whom I’d known since birth. There were times when my mother, sitting in front of the TV, started prattling on about the future, and in this future, there was always the figure of Éva Popa. Even if it was only her talking about how the sound of her coughing—not organically based—filtered out from her room. For a long time, I didn’t even notice that my mother, in these fantasies of hers, did not make too much mention of me, her own son.
I took a day off from work. In the morning, I meandered along the banks of the Danube. I bought a barometer for my mother. In the afternoon, I strolled over to the shoe store where Éva Popa worked, because I wanted to buy a pair of flexible-soled shoes, and I was hoping for a discount. It was hard to find the shop, as the building was being reconstructed, and gray industrial sacks were hanging down over the shop sign.
Before I stepped into the shop, I saw, through the window, that my mother was there. I took a step backward, involuntarily, taking cover behind a car. I saw my mother sitting on the shoe bench, sweating. She cleaned off the tips of her fingers: she licked them and wiped them dry meticulously with a handkerchief. There was a confectioners’ bag resting in her lap, filled with either sweet or savory treats. From time to time she looked up at Éva Popa, who was standing behind the counter, listening to the complaints of a customer gesticulating with a burgundy shoe with a detached sole. I saw something then in my mother’s gaze which I’d never seen before: if she’d known that I was watching her she would have controlled her features rigorously. I understood that in the morning, when I stepped out of the door, she hurried to get dressed, and, equipped with newspapers and baked goods from the confectioners’, headed straight to the shoe shop. She then hung around waiting there the entire day, crouching on the bench covered in gray industrial velvet, waiting for the shoe store saleswoman who’d had an abortion to talk to her. My mother’s enemy was every shoe with a detached sole.
I turned on my heels and went home. When, in the late afternoon, my mother arrived, I said nothing. She didn’t understand what my problem was. She made scrambled eggs—two thirds with sausage, one third with stuffed pepper—and by the time the lodger got home, she’d already set the table. We ate dinner in silence. Ever since Éva Popa turned up on the scene, the mealtime servings almost spontaneously divided up into proportions of one third against two thirds. The celery root in the soup divided into two along these proportions, and on the frosting of the last piece of chocolate Easter cake, the fault line was carved in this way as well.
I washed up, then presented Éva Popa with the English-language manual for the barometer. I asked her to please translate it, because I was having trouble figuring out the settings. It wasn’t her that I wanted to embarrass, but my mother. My mother put on her glasses, prowling behind the lodger’s back, spying into the booklet, her face anxious. When Éva Popa opened her mouth to admit that she didn’t know any English, my mother cut her off. She snatched the manual from her hands, ripped it into pieces, and threw it into the trash can in rage. The lodger turned her head in fright, then stood up and trudged back to her room. At this, my mother leaned onto the table, palms down—her knuckles were white—bending close into me, as if she wanted to see if I’d been drinking. She said: Don’t you ever dare spit into my soup again. My mother had never said anything like that before.
At times, my mother’s girlfriends still made an appearance: the second cousin who’d had an ileostomy, coworkers from the private school. They crooned hit songs together, looked at photographs, and never, even by accident, noticed my injured hand. After excitedly watching a few rounds of Diamond Wonder, standing behind my mother’s back, they got over their astonishment. While this was going on, Éva Popa kept peeking out of her room; I sat around in the kitchen. I made coffee, straightened up the pantry, leafed through my mother’s newspapers.
I heard as my mother tried to change the topic of conversation to her lodger. Sometimes she asked me to inquire as to where Éva Popa had put the artificial sweetener, because then she could start talking about her change of lifestyle, the abortion, the website for people with bad credit. Other times, she tried to lure Éva Popa out of her room with some kind of fabricated motive. Sometimes my mother came into the kitchen, rummaged around in the cutlery drawer, stood on top of the wobbly stool, as if she were looking for something that she’d last seen in Éva Popa’s hand. Her maneuvers were in vain. When there was a guest in the house, Éva Popa wouldn’t even stick her nose out from the slipper room.
I don’t know if anyone noticed what my mother was going through. For surely I was the only person to observe the alarming details, and I didn’t dare draw any deductions. The girlfriends from the private school were on the wrong trail. They seemed to think the danger lay in the lodger getting out of hand—she was getting impudent, cheating my mother out of her property. Sometimes they plied her with cautionary tales: in one of the horror stories, the subletter had a baby, and couldn’t be evicted as she was now protected by law. One of the girlfriends counseled my mother to lock up her jewels, the other to prepare her last will and testament. When that happened, my mother quickly showed them the door and retired, fretting and fuming, to her room. Sometimes I had to accompany them as far as the elevator.
When the lodger wasn’t in the apartment, I never crossed the threshold of the room off the hallway, and—until the last moment—I presumed the same of my mother. Many times, I came to realize, when I thought of my mother’s apartment—the apartment where I had grown up, and where my father’s sudden death had been caused by a quick-acting intestinal infection he’d caught from a six-year-old stallion—I found myself involuntarily snipping off that protrusion from the remaining spaces in the apartment which my mother, as of late, had been designating solely as “Éva Popa’s nook.” Sometimes I knocked at the lodger’s door, and we exchanged a few words on the topics of laundry, my mother’s cooking, or when the next day off from work would be. I took care, when I went out to do the shopping, to ask her if she needed anything. Éva Popa always acted as if the question surprised her, and she jotted down her modest wishes on a scrap of paper in a splintery, boyish hand. If she was in need of tampons or antifungal remedies, she wasn’t bashful, and wrote that down too. Once she asked me if I wanted to have a seat in her room, because just then she was listening to music. She wiped off one of the earphones of her headset on her T-shirt with a strange, impudent movement, and offered it to me. A foolish song, more appropriate for an eleven-year-old, rang out from the earbud, a song which in no way fit in with her abortion. At that time, I found nothing in her position that attracted me. And that was the only time she behaved with me in a free and easy manner.
I found the shopping receipts that had been fished out of the trash in my mother’s pillowcase during the big housecleaning before Easter. I should have done something then, but I was still held back by my previous drinking binges, my earlier weaknesses, and so, in fright, I stuffed the receipts back into the pillow cover. I had no intention of keeping a close watch on my mother; I was afraid of her secrets. Although I did wonder if she was charging Éva Popa lower rent for a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and a door that could be properly shut than she was for a pullout sofa onto which the prickly leaves of a yellowing palm tree fell every night.
We were cooking. The lodger’s eyes filled with tears, as she was peeling onions. My mother told her in vain to splash some water in her mouth: Evita! Éva Popa took off her glasses, then blinked until the tears subsided. I was washing off a bunch of parsley, cutting the string tied around the stalks, then chopping it up on the cutting board with a knife; I sat down at the kitchen table without looking down beneath my bottom. How could I have known that Éva Popa had placed her eyeglasses exactly on that chair?
The cup of the one who never looks either forward or backward will never be filled. I was invited to a wedding in the countryside. One of my friends—an old drinking buddy—was getting married to someone with whom he had worked, from dawn till dusk, in the same nine-square-meter office. Two people of equal rank had found each other. My mother was afraid that I would drink. Of course, in the presence of Éva Popa she didn’t say anything, but when I left, she embraced me, grabbed my shoulder, and knowingly whispered into my ear: make sure you don’t eat too much.
I felt good at the wedding. The poultry dishes and the stuffed tomato were delicious. I danced with the mother of the bridegroom, as well as with a rather tubby stranger whose name I never quite caught. I was amazed at how my friend’s wife pronounced her r’s with a soft, French-like intonation. When I was offered a drink, I fibbed that I was taking medicine. A subject of some distasteful banter was a case that had occurred some years previous in this dead-end village near Kaposvár—an eight-year-old boy had poisoned his grandparents—but out of politeness, I laughed along with the others. Around midnight, a distant acquaintance offered to drive me home.
It was two thirty in the morning, but the light was on in the kitchen, the steam trickled down the glass of the kitchen door. My mother and her lodger were awake, playing cards. They sat at the kitchen table, with the oven on so that Éva Popa would not get cold. On the kitchen tile floor, by my mother’s foot, I saw an empty liquor bottle; ready at hand was an overflowing ashtray. In shock, I realized she was smoking again. Her cigarette rolled out of the groove in the ashtray and burned a pea-sized spot on the surface of the table deprived of its tablecloth.
They looked up at me, then kept on playing. I don’t even think they greeted me. Double Solitaire? I asked, growing angry. They didn’t answer. The spittle glistened on my mother’s gaping mouth; Éva Popa sat, legs thrust carelessly apart, her head thrown back. They were both smashed. Then, I noticed on the lodger the clothing that had been neglected for so long, and I saw, on her foot, one of my mother’s boots with the narrow instep. It had been carefully polished. I noticed that in the living room the storage compartment beneath the pullout sofa had been opened, its contents unpacked, strewn all over the carpet. My mother’s boots, tubes of shoe cream, stained cleaning rags, dried and stiffened, lay everywhere. I slammed my overnight bag onto the table in between the cards, the glasses and the ashtray. I believe at that moment I was thinking I’d had enough, but I realized too late: this wasn’t my thought, but my mother’s. You’re making an idiot of yourself, I said to her, forcing myself to emulate my father’s perpetually levelheaded mannerisms. (If he was excited or nervous about something, he would furrow his eyebrows in the opposite direction they were growing.)
My mother struggled to her feet, and, tottering a little, headed toward me. As I began to back away, the heel of my shoe got caught on the living room threshold, and for a moment I lost my balance. At first I thought my mother wanted to assist me, but instead of offering a helping hand, she gave me a gentle thrust in the chest. I fell into the storage compartment of the pullout sofa, bumping my head, and for a few seconds all strength deserted me. My mother maneuvered her foot beneath my calf, hoisting my leg into the storage compartment; I was unable to summon any resistance. My mother then quickly closed the sofa bed shut and said something to Éva Popa which I couldn’t understand, although, taken one by one, the words were familiar.
I don’t know what my mother and her lodger could have been piling on top of the sofa bed; in any event, for at least half an hour they kept walking back and forth, carrying and carrying all kinds of heavy objects. They weren’t talking too much. In the rhythm of their steps there was a kind of simple, prosaic graciousness. The storage compartment in the sofa bed was filled with the penetrating scent of lavender: it appeared that the plastic bags containing my father’s hats were not required for the big celebration. When I sneezed a few times—I too was frightened—my mother and her lodger came to a standstill: for a short while, the pacing back and forth stopped. I worked out that if I could manage to shift the plastic bags to the other end of the storage compartment, closer to my feet, then I could position myself more comfortably. I gathered my strength, and I wriggled and squirmed until I had attained success. I left only one plastic bag as a pillow, beneath my head. I then tried to remove the hat so it wouldn’t make a crackling sound every time I moved my head, but the space was too narrow for me to bend my arm beneath my head. I grew tired, and I think I fell asleep.
During the day, it was quiet. As my mother kept going to the shoe shop, the sounds became divided up into morning and afternoon sounds. At the beginning, I used my wristwatch for light. Later on I stopped, because there was nothing to see. Sometimes, my mother cooked chicken paprikash—I recognized the aroma—or she made phone calls concerning the group of people with bad credit. On the lateral side of the pullout sofa, by the joints in the wood, I noticed a long crack which, on cloudless days, cast a long, milky white streak onto my trouser leg. If I stirred, the streak of light wandered up to my knee or my groin. Once, I realized my hands were touching a few dried palm leaves in one of the corners of the bed linen storage—I wasn’t really hungry, though, just stunned.
At around five p.m., my mother and the lodger arrived with rustling packages. So much noise, I thought. They unpacked, I heard the water running in the bathroom, then, conversing quietly, they had dinner. Sometimes they left the radio on, and I felt that it was on purpose: they wanted me to have some kind of amusement. One time, I listened with surprise: they were studying English. It was hard for their mouths to adapt to the pronunciation, and so they laughed a lot at their own clumsiness. I thought perhaps they were planning a trip somewhere. Later on, there was mention of Prague. On the weekends, if they sat in front of the TV, they didn’t just watch the tried and trusted quiz shows, but—in complete opposition to my mother’s taste—they watched romance series. They drank a bit too, but only in moderation—not like the night of my drinking pal’s wedding, when the boots with the narrow instep ended up on Éva Popa’s feet. If I was absolutely certain that I was alone in the apartment, I plucked the bedsprings of the pullout sofa once or twice, my movements decisive.
© Edina Szvoren. Translation © 2023 by Ottilie Mulzet, with support from the European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) under the Creative Europe programme. All rights reserved.