Tommy Wieringa – These Are the Names
The Thing Itself
Pontus Beg had not become the old man he’d imagined. Something was missing. A great deal, in fact, was missing. As a boy, he had for a time been in the habit of walking around his father’s yard with a pair of safety glasses on the bridge of his nose, his hands clasped behind his back – that was how he imagined the life of an old man to be. Sometimes he used a branch as a walking stick. More than anything else, he wanted to be old. Slow and deliberate, a captain calmly braving the storm. He would die a wise man.
When the glasses began leaving welts on both sides of his nose, he put them back beside the grinder in the shed and began waiting patiently for old age to come, rather than running to meet it.
He only started feeling like an old man after he developed a cold foot. He was fifty-three, still too young to truly be considered old, but the signs were becoming clear. A nerve had become pinched in his lower back. Ever since then, his left foot had gone cold. Standing on the bathroom floor in the morning he could see that his feet were two different colours. The right was ruddy, the way it should be, but the left one was pale and cold. When he pressed his fingers against it he felt almost nothing. It was as though the foot belonged to someone else. The dying starts from the feet up, Beg thought.
That was how it would be, the way to the end: he and his body, gradually growing apart.
The name is the guest of the thing itself, an old Chinese philosopher had once said, and that was the way he, Pontus Beg, found himself in relation to his body, more and more – he was the guest and his body was the thing itself. And the thing itself was now busy shaking off its guest.
The days grow shorter, life turns in upon itself. Thunderstorms at night linger long over the steppes. Beg stands at the window and watches the lightning. The flash in the distance, a web of glowing fissures in the vault of heaven. He stands on the linoleum, one foot warm and one cold, and thinks he needs to pour himself a bit of something in order to get to sleep.
The older he gets, the more sleep becomes a unreliable friend.
His flat is at the edge of town. There had once been plans for the city to expand eastward, half-hearted preparations were made for construction, but nothing came of it; his window still looks out on a proliferation of little sheds and kitchen gardens and the endless space of the steppe beyond. Maybe it’s a sign of stagnation, but as far as he’s concerned it can stay this way, he likes the view.
He takes the bottle of Kubanskaya from the freezer in the little kitchen and pours himself a shot. He is not a heavy drinker, he practices restraint, unlike almost everyone else east of the Carpathians.
Then he moves back to the window and looks without well-defined thoughts into the chute of the night.
In the bedroom, his housekeeper coughs. Once a month he lays claim to her for a night, although those words do not accurately reflect their relationship. It would be more like it to say that once a month she lets herself be claimed for a night. She determines which night that will be, always sometime shortly before her period. The timetable of her reproductive organs remains misty territory to him, something he prefers not to think about. When his day arrives, he is informed of the fact.
His housekeeper reserves her fertile days for her fiancée, a truck driver ten years her junior. He drives tractor trailers full of commodities from the People’s Republic to the capital, from where a flood of trash then inundates the country’s stores. Zita waits patiently for the day when he will propose marriage to her.
No matter what she tries, though, she simply doesn’t get pregnant; if this keeps up, she’ll remain childless. She spends a lot of time kneeling at the Benedictine chapel. Amid golden icons and plastic flowers she prays fervently for a child. In the confessional, the priest listens to the people’s secrets; when he comes down the stairs in his black habit, his hand makes the sign of the cross above her head and he blesses her and the genuflecting farmwomen with their colourful kerchiefs. She feels the cross burning on her forehead, that night the seed will blossom forth.
Dangling from the little chain around her neck, beside the golden cross, are the emblems of those saints to whom one can turn for fertility.
Women, Pontus Beg reflects, are the pack animals of faith, carrying on their backs the saints of the world.
He has never succeeded in talking Zita into looking the other way and granting him one of her fertile nights. For he is sure that it is the truck driver who is remiss, and not her. It’s the truck itself; so much sitting isn’t good for a man. It strangles your balls.
A child? Is he saying that he wants a child?
“Don’t kid yourself, Pontus,” Zita says.
He’s not serious, she thinks, and if he is, he shouldn’t be.
Beg is more appreciative of the services she performs in bed than those she renders with both feet on the ground. She is not a particularly good housekeeper. She doesn’t clean the house, she picks up after him. A jar of soft soap lasts her a year. They are long past the point where he can say anything about it – habit has locked their relation into place, nothing can change it anymore. As it is, so shall it stay. She picks up after him, and he keeps his mouth shut.
When Zita is at his place, he drinks more than usual. They sit at the table, smoking and talking. She becomes completely absorbed in the anecdotes he tells. She laughs and shudders, she is a responsive audience. Some of the stories he has told three or four times already, over the years, but she likes to listen to him talk about the life of a policeman. At the table with Zita, alcohol doesn’t make him melancholy: on the contrary, it makes him cheerful and roguish. He looks forward to his evenings with her, they are the joy of his life.
Then they go to bed. The light goes out.
When she is at his place, he has trouble falling asleep. He wonders whether perhaps he’s been alone too long, whether he can no longer get used to having another body beside him.
There’s that, and then there’s the other complication.
She maintains a lively relationship with her mother in her sleep. It’s a regular ruckus in his bed at night. First, after making love, she drifts off for an hour, sometimes two. Then it starts. Mother and daughter continue the conversation that death interrupted so rudely. Beg remembers the first time he heard Zita talking in the middle of the night. He had listened in on that half of the conversation that took place on this side of the void, without realizing that it was her mother on the other end. These were no deep, dark secrets being shared; they talked about the price of flour, the quality of eggs and the unending disgrace that empty shops imply for a woman in the mood to buy. It was like a telephone call one could overhear easily, even if all you could hear was what was said at this end.
When the tedium became too much for him, Beg woke her.
“You’re talking in your sleep,” he said.
She sat straight up in bed and said: “Pontus, you’re interrupting us! Now I’ll have to go back all over again and try to find her!”
Since then he started getting out of bed whenever the chattering became too much for him, the way it had tonight. On one warm foot and one cold, he stands at the window and gazes at the lightning over the plains.
Translated by Sam Garrett