Electric Guitar

Hidden in the dusk, the boy tries over and over to pick out that miserable tune on the accordion. He can't do it. Not a single note forms a harmony with its predecessor; his fingers on the buttons sometimes reach too low, then too high, and every time the bellows bleat out a jarring discord. The boy is not very musical, but he knows enough to realize that his goal - to play the simple air correctly - is becoming increasingly unattainable with every passing moment, just as the time when his father will return, and demand to be played to, is drawing inexorably nearer.

The night descends upon him like a damp cloth. The dense clusters of music printed on the sheet first begin to blend, then disappear altogether in the dark. The boy does not turn on the light since the dark brings relief; it is awful to watch one's fingers stumbling over one another in helpless confusion on the keys.

Now he can only hear them. He does not hear the awkward elusive melody, only his own fingers refusing obedience. And he knows that once again he won't be able to make his father see that it's not his fault, it's his fingers that are to blame. The more he'll explain how hard he's tried to unravel the mystery of this tune, the more entangled he'll get and the clearer it'll become that in actual fact he still doesn't know for certain what some of the symbols on the music sheets mean and that every now and then he leaves out a couple. His father will hear him out patiently, as he always does, while at the same time he'll already be pulling the belt out of his pants. And then he'll say: Go on, son, play it again.

And the boy will play it again and the tune will be even more jagged as his fingers leave sweat marks on the keys, making them slippery. And the father will listen and stroke his leather belt, and then he'll say: Son, put away the accordion.

The boy thinks about what is to come and tears well up in his eyes. The worst part is that he loves music. When he lies in bed at night, he shuts his eyes tight and imagines himself as that boy in a white tuxedo and bow tie he'd seen on television, standing center stage in a concert hall, holding a violin in his hand and taking a bow while the audience applauded enthusiastically. His reality is different: His only audience is his father, and he doesn't clap for joy.

The boy knows what is wrong, he knows why he can't find the right notes. He's under the spell of the electric guitar. It's everywhere. It's got all the right sounds and won't let his accordion have a single one of them. It's gone to his head and filled it with a white buzz that doesn't allow any rivals near. That's why his quaking tones can't flow together into a melody. They're not allowed to by the electric guitar. The one that always finds the way. He saw that on television too. He saw how it had all started. Somewhere far away, somewhere in Africa, the devil played the guitar and cast such a spell on it that nobody but its owner could play it. Everyone else was struck by a bolt. Burned to ashes. Made them be no more. And that's why guitars are so dangerous. And the electric guitar, the most powerful of them all, is the most dangerous. If you're not the right person for it, that is.

The boy thinks: If I had an electric guitar, a real one, then I could do it. He'd be the right person for it and he could play it without a miss, and his father would not take the belt out of his pants, but would open his arms and lift him up and tell him how proud he was of him and the audience would clap their hands and he would adjust his bow tie, press the violin against his white tux and leave the stage and go back to his room where the two toys would be waiting for him, the toys on which the dust settles relentlessly during the hours when he so desperately tries to find the right line over the black and white keys. And then he would put the violin away and play with them, the teddy bear on which his mother had pinned the note saying she was leaving but that she would come get him real soon, right away, and that she loved him, and the Barbie doll his little sister had left behind even though it was the one she talked to more than to anything else. And other toys, many other toys he does not have now.

The boy knows it's a fantasy. All his reveries during which the hours with the accordion pass are empty. The only thing real is the squealing box in his hands and the sheet on the music stand from which he can not make out the melody. And the electric guitar in his head. Which can play all the melodies and knows all the ways.

The boy wonders: How did his father guess the electric guitar was so dangerous? How did he know not to get him one when he asked for it? How did he know it would spew fire if it came into the hands of the boy? His father told him that this accordion was the very same one he himself had played, and his father and grandfather before him, and that there'd be no guitar in his house. He meant in his room, because they live in a room, not a house, but the boy understood anyway. And marveled. True, Father knows about music, he's forever bringing him new sheets of music and placing them on top of the ones the boy has looked at to exhaustion. But how could he also know the secret of the electric guitar, which is hidden to all and has only been revealed to the boy? Every time the boy told his friends how the electric guitar could bring back the dead and shake up the living so that not a trace of life remained in their bodies, they'd giggle and wink at one another, and then when he fell silent and turned away they whispered behind his back that he was a bit touched. Yes, he heard it quite distinctly: A bit touched. But he was never touched by anyone or anything except when his father touched him too hard, far too hard. He knew what the phrase meant: They thought he was a bit off. That there was something wrong with him. He clenched his fists and kept silent. And thought to himself: If I had an electric guitar I'd show them. They think an electric guitar's just a thing those who know how can make produce sounds. And that these sounds are no more than that: Just sounds. What do they know! They don't know that the electric guitar has a will of its own, a life of its own, and that you have to be careful around it. Very careful.

The boy glances at the accordion in his hands, the cold, dead object which wheezes shapeless noises. He feels like flinging it on the ground and jumping up and down on it. Possibly, just possibly that might give it some pep. But no matter what, it would never become an electric guitar. Just as he - the boy knows - will never become that boy in the white tuxedo with the bow tie, on the concert hall stage, holding a violin in his hand and bowing while the audience claps effusively. And just as his father's belt will never become his mother's tarragon cake which she used to bake every Sunday when his father still let her out of the house to buy the groceries.

Over and over the boy grapples with the same shaky tune. He can't do it, he just can't do it. The keys evade him and the boy knows he won't make it. Somewhere in the corner, in the corner of the room, in the corner of his head, in the corner of the universe, there lurks the electric guitar.

Electricity gives power to all things, it's no wonder the boy can't manage without it. There's no music any more without electric power. It's no wonder his tunes are all squashed up and his fingers stumble over each other. I need an electric guitar, thinks the boy. Or at least electricity. It gives power to things.

Worriedly, the boy listens for sounds from the stairwell. For the time being he can't hear his father's heavy footfalls, but they will come before long. The boy knows that his father is seething with a rage he can barely control, and has been for a long time. The boy feels bad about it because he knows that his father loves him, and he has some idea how disappointed his father must be when he listens time and again to the boy hopelessly chasing after the melody. The boy remembers how often his father used to take him with him when he left home, and how they'd walk along the streets for hours on end and do nothing else, and how good it felt when his father put his arm around his shoulders. Except that one day when they came home his mother and his little sister were gone, and only the teddy bear and the Barbie doll remained. And the note that Mommy would come get him real soon. But she didn't. Not then and not later, though he waited.

His father explained to him that his mother and sister had left because women had no sense of duty, and that now they'd have to cope on their own, but the boy nevertheless felt that they could have stayed on where they were and needn't have moved to another town, where his father enrolled him in a different school and where they had a different name on the door and his father called him a different name which he didn't like half as much as the one before, though he'd already forgotten what that was. Where they used to live before, the apartment was bigger and the people were nicer. They'd often ask about his mother, about where she was, and they'd send their regards. Now there were no regards and nobody so much as knew that he'd ever even had a mother.

It occurs to the boy that the melody is unable to find its way out of the accordion. No, it won't work without power. He'll have to help the tune, it can't feel well, trapped in the choking bellows, it must want out, thinks the boy. Yes, electricity; the tune can't get out without power.

The boy finds the extension cord in the cupboard where his father keeps his tools. He turns over the accordion in his hands for a long time, unable to find an appropriate socket. First he blames it on the darkness, but finally it dawns on him that he's gone about it all wrong: It's the cord that needs to be changed to match the accordion, not the other way around. Using the knife he keeps under the pillow in case the dark man returns who used to bend over him at night and breathe hot air on him until he screamed and screamed and screamed, he cuts the cord on the end which doesn't plug into the wall, and strips apart every separate wire. Then, by touch alone, he attaches the individual wires to the frame of the accordion, until he feels they are all connected to something and that his work is done.

As he pushes the plug into the wall outlet, he hears a noise on the stairs. It's his father returning. He'll stumble on every step, then he'll be ever so long inserting the key in the lock, and the key will, as always, get stuck; then he'll get the door unlocked somehow, open it, and enter. The boy knows what lies in store for him, and it paralyzes him; he forgets about the accordion, about the sheet music spread out on the stand, about the instant soup he was supposed to be stirring into boiling water this moment because his father wants to eat when he comes home.

He squeezes into the gap between the wall and the closet, where he usually keeps his accordion, and hopes it will just go away, as it sometimes does, he hopes his father won't find the strength to listen to him play, that he'll just stagger over to bed and fall asleep without even kicking his shoes off. Then all the boy will have to do is cautiously remove them for him.

His father enters the room. He mutters indistinctly into his chin. He walks into the table, kicks over a chair with a crash. The boy presses further into the cranny, such a narrow space that his father, so he hopes, won't be able to follow. Because if he does follow, then, the boy knows, it's going to be bad, then it will be unending.

Although the room is filled with darkness, the father spots the accordion on the ground. He grumbles something sharply and bends over to pick it up, but as he takes hold of it he shudders, starts shaking, throws his head back, does a little offbeat dance of an unusual rhythm, and this goes on and on. Then the accordion slips from his fingers, and when it hits the ground the bellows emit a muffled moan, while the father collapses on the floor. He drools.

The boy waits. It's an ugly sight, gross, but he's seen it before. The boy reasons that Father didn't make it to bed this time. That's happened before too; he doesn't always make it. And so he doesn't need to take his shoes off either since there's no bed linen to get dirty.

The father does not move for a long time. The boy contemplates his next step. Usually, his father groans after a while, murmurs, yells. But nothing this time. Nothing. He lies motionless, still. The boy begins to realize it's different this time. And he doesn't know what to do.

At last he creeps out of his hiding place, unplugs the cord and puts it away, back into the cupboard. His father is always telling him to put things away; if you don't, you get covered with grime and dust, you need to put things away, be neat and tidy, scrub the dirt and dust off your body. And he scrubs the dust off the boy's body for a long, long time until the boy shivers under the spray of cold water since all the warm water has long been used up, and then his father picks him up and carries him to bed and draws his hand over his eyelids so that they close and then the boy can feel his father looking at him for a long, long time, and the boy knows that his father wishes him a good night and sweet dreams, and no dark man or hot breath on his cheek.

The boy looks at his father for a long, long time, but still the father does not budge. The boy thinks. He can't stay like this forever, he thinks. Finally he takes the keys out of his father's breast pocket. Although it sometimes takes his father a long time to locate the lock, he is always quick to put the keys carefully away. Always. The boy had already tried to open the door when he was home alone, to open the door and go to Africa to get the guitar, but he never once could find the keys. And the windows were so high up he got dizzy when he looked through them, there was a bottomless abyss beneath them.

The boy stands on the staircase and hesitates. His heart sinks because it is very dark already, and even if it were daylight, he does not know the way. There's not a single way he knows, because his father always accompanies him whenever he needs to go out, to go to school. But the boy knows he has no choice. There's only one option: He must find his mother. He'll ask on the corner if somebody knows her. He remembers her name, he's repeated it to himself over and over since she left, leaving behind that note. Somebody's bound to know her. If not on this corner, then on the next one or on the one after that; there is always at least one more corner. Sooner or later he'll find her. He knows: He must. He must find his mother. She'll know what to do next, she'll explain what happened. And maybe, just maybe she'll let him talk her into buying him an electric guitar.

Translated by Tamara Soban

It's a good thing

A man comes home from work, comes home a little early and finds his wife in bed. With his best friend, it goes without saying. Wow, you're really going at it, aren't you! What do I do now? What is it you're supposed to do exactly when something like this happens? he asks them, he's unprepared and all. Of course, right away it comes to him, in the closet under the shirts, wrapped in an old undershirt, he's got some kind of gun or something. When the army went south, they were cheap, so he decided to get himself a bit of a supply for a rainy day, like everybody did that had a chance to.

The two of them are no help, sullen and tucked together under the sheet with the delicate little flowers like they are. He doesn't know the answer either. Why is it modern life has to be so convoluted? he thinks. He takes the gun out of the closet, like that, to make it clear what it is you have to figure with if you flout wedlock and go lying under single sheet. The wife says, stop showing off, you won't do it, you don't have it in you, you're not that kind of macho. Oh, I'm not? the guy asks, Oh, I'm not? The friend takes him a lot more seriously, he can tell the red blotches on his face are not just summer sun. Oh, I'm not? the man screams, his friend's fear having given him just in time the courage he badly needs, Oh, I'm not?

He gets a good grip on the gun and sticks it under his friend's chin first and then under his own. The beads of sweat trickling down his friend's face drip onto the pistol, and the man doesn't like that at all, there's less and less dignity to the scene. Which is why he keeps moving the pistol from under the other's chin to under his own, back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster. All right, he shouts at his wife, you tell us which one you love more, you decide which one I pop. She says to him two more times that he's really not the kind of man he's pretending to be. Each time her voice is a little softer, and then she asks him nice to please put away the gun. Or she's calling the cops.

You call them, just you call them! the man tells her. Before you hang up, we'll all be dead and by the time they arrive the house'll be burning too. He doesn't mean it, it's just a threat, it's show, to terrify them and to get some of his confidence back. So what do people do when this happens to them? he asks himself again. How's he supposed to know, nobody goes around talking about these things. Whatever, violence doesn't seem to be in order, by nature he's the quiet sort, besides he did see that, despite everything, just like always, dinner is waiting for him in the kitchen, yes, a nicely roasted bird in the oven reminds him that his woman isn't as bad as current conditions suggest.

He could have sworn the damn thing went off by itself somewhere half-way between his own neck and his friend's. And the bullet? Straight into the TV. First there's a terrible bang and then dead silence. Not even the wife screams, the way you'd expect her to, no, they're all listening to see what happens now, who'll be the first to come hammering on the door. But nothing happens. Just more dead silence. As if nobody heard.

Then the wife softly says, And here I thought we were finally going to get to know our neighbors, and laughs out loud. The friend starts looking around and the man understands why he's fidgeting and he tells him to get dressed, what if the cops do come, he can't go meeting the cops bare-ass like this, not to worry, with the wife they can finish some other time. The friend nods, begins pulling his pants on, he asks the man if he knows how much he's shaking. I guess I really am, the man thinks to himself, the way I am I couldn't even hit myself, even if I wanted to, and anyway what am I doing with a gun, that isn't me. And he carefully wraps it back in his undershirt, still he puts it in front of him on the table, just so it's clear to everyone who the boss is. His mouth is dry, he feels that a beer would go nice, he steps into the kitchen, goes to the fridge, but there's no beer.

The man asks his wife where the hell all his supply went to. The friend coughs and says could he maybe forgive him, the day was hot an everything, what're you going to do, and besides you know how when it comes to drink I have a hard time stopping once I start. To make up for it, he says, if they go across the street, it'll be his treat. The wife says she wants to come too and so the three of them go and have a round, and then another.

When they've had quite a few and it's time to lock up and the waitress is pulling the chairs out from under their behinds, the man says to his friend, So, take my wife, OK, and I'm sorry I frightened you, forgive me my selfishness, I hope you'll be very happy together, and if you ever have any extra money, you'll buy me a new TV and we'll be even. He knows he sounds a little teary-eyed, but so what if he does, he thinks to himself, it's straight from the heart.

And his friend says, No, you take her home with you, she's yours after all, but hit me first. Go ahead, hit me, break my nose and tell me I'm a bastard. And if that's not good enough, you know where I live, I can bet you my wife doesn't keep her legs locked together all these afternoons. And the wife says, even before the friend finishes because it looks like there's a real man to man talk starting to happen, the wife says, Don't fight over me, I don't deserve either of you, I should probably throw myself under a train or something, but life has its beautiful moments too and I'd hate to miss any of them, I've missed too many already, you understand, don't you?

It's true, says the man, actually we've got a bird in the oven at home, that sort of thing is easy to heat up, why don't we all go to our place, I haven't eaten all day. Me neither, me neither, the other two agree, and they cajole one more round out of the waitress and then they go home to the bird. So you're not going to kick the shit out of me? the friend asks as they're gnawing on the last little bones, as they're pitching them over their shoulders onto the shards, as the sharp edges pleasantly mellow and the sight of the TV's pulverized maw seems homier and homier. The man waves him off, it's not even worth mentioning, are we friends or are we friends?

Then I guess I'll be going home, the friend says, is it late or what, my wife'll be worried, I'm the reliable sort, you can set your clock. You can't drive a car drunk like you are, the man scolds him, you're sleeping here, life is too precious, you can't be toying with it like that. You're right, says the friend, you're right, where do I sleep? Sorry, he excuses himself, don't take it the wrong way, I didn't mean it like that.

The man is silent, he looks at his wife. She's silent too. How long has this been going on anyway? the man asks. The wife is still silent. You don't really want to know, right? she finally says. Anyway, you know that life really is a kind of operetta. Why should we dissemble, what we all keep striving for is to not have it end before we've even noticed. In order that somehow - You know what I mean - somehow.

I don't understand, the friend says, what is this crap you're talking about, do the two of you always talk like this. Forgive me, I'm very tired, I'll sleep right here. And he lies down on the couch in the living room and right away he's snoring.

Wife, the man says, your chicken gets better every time, but did I really deserve this? Look at him, he didn't even take his shoes off. That's the kind of guy I catch you with? Excuse me, the wife says, he's your friend, you brought him into the house, you should have been choosier. Me, sad to say, I don't have a lot of opportunities to meet men. My life, you know, is not exactly the way I imagined it would be. And what should I do, you want me to cry over it in secret? You know how it is, we all do what we can. And, forgive me, I'm a little tired too, it's been a hard day. Why don't we go to bed? You've got to go to work again tomorrow, remember?

And so they go into the bedroom and lie down and just like every night the two of them hold hands. The man looks at the sheets and says: these little flowers, I don't like them, this we're gonna have to change. The wife murmurs something indistinct, strokes his hand, and falls asleep just like that, tired from the long day, but the man keeps looking at the ceiling for a long time yet and in his mouth he can feel the salty taste of the nicely roasted chicken skin and he thinks that maybe he paid too much for the gun and that maybe he can find somebody who would take it in exchange for a really good TV. Tomorrow, he thinks, he'll ask his friend if he knows somebody. There must be somebody who could use something like that, what with the times more unreliable every day. It's a good thing the guy down there snoring on his couch who didn't even take his shoes off is his friend, he thinks, as sleep overtakes him. Somebody else he might really have shot and then everything would have been a lot weightier than he would have wanted and then there would have been no turning back. It's a good thing.

Translated by Tom Ložar