by Peter Byrne
A Short Story
(Swans - August 28, 2006) He was in his thirties, running to fat, juvenile, Italian. He had a mother, a dead father, a former wife from home and a new one in Bulgaria. He was working there, well paid in hard currency, a balding prince charming among the threadbare.
The country had slunk out of the Soviet shadow before he got there. Now doubts arose about Bulgaria making it in a larger world. People were beginning to miss the guaranteed pittance they used to get from the state for -- the joke went -- pretending to work.
Not Grinka, Mario's new wife. She stood stately, breasts firm, above and too close to a squat, confused woman who was as solid as a tree trunk. This was Mario's mother whom he'd flown over for the Christmas break.
"Some Orthodox have Christmas later," said Grinka. "But for us it's like yours."
The Signora unnecessarily touched one of the cartons she'd brought with her from Italy.
"We start with raki and hot pepper caviar," said Grinka, smiling. "It's not fish eggs. We just call it that. It's red peppers, chili peppers, raw onion, garlic. It goes on kachamak, you know, like polenta."
The Signora didn't smile. She brushed the words away. She wanted Mario to be there.
"We can each do a dish for dinner. Bulgarian, Italian, Bulgarian, and so on till we stop for more raki."
Grinka had a full laugh, fair hair, widening flanks. Bulgarian beauty came early and moved on quickly thanks to leaden greasy food and bad alcohol.
The Signora wondered how her antipasto, primo and secondo courses could fit in with the foul smelling things she saw here in her new daughter-in-law's kitchen.
Mario came in. He would have the answer, she thought.
Grinka brought coffee. It was reheated, but black and the real thing, though from some harsh and cheap African bean.
Mario said something about getting to know each other. But he knew both women very well. Grinka had lived the youth of her middle-class generation under the tyrant who played at being a peasant. That he'd actually been a peasant hadn't improved his act. Under him paths were traced and you kept to them. But you ended up worse off than you started. As she grew up there was less of everything, except divorces and abortions. She'd had one of each. But she loved her country and embraced all the national myths, except the communist ones. She saw those as a translation of her life into gibberish.
Mario only knew his mother as a widow. His father had came home from his job in Switzerland and died at forty-five. He was buried in their middle-of-Italy hill town where he hadn't resided for a quarter of a century. His Swiss wages had paid for the house and land. Mario's mother had never left the village, managing on her own. She kept telling Mario his father's story, in which his death was the showstopper. The immigrant martyr had been a union man and party worker in Basel where, reshuffled, the Italians woke up to postwar politics. Her husband's was the life of a saint, and she was a zealot of his religion.
Mario smiled uneasily, a world in each hand.
The Signora, with Mario back, began displaying her treasures. She briskly removed the stiff wax paper from a big triangular piece of cheese.
Grinka gave an exaggerated hum of admiration. She reached for a table knife in order to cut and taste a piece, the better to praise it. But it was too hard to cut, stony, full of gleaming particles like mica.
"It's for grating," said Mario with a chuckle.
His mother looked grim.
Out came the bruised-red ham with its noble white fat, the sausages the village butcher had himself stuffed with meat deliberately cut coarse. The vermilion and silver packaging of the ground coffee could have been gift-wrapping in Bulgaria.
"We have good pork in Bulgaria," said Grinka.
"I'll take Mamma to the market butcher tomorrow morning. She wants meat for broth. She's brought her flour to make tortellini."
Grinka nodded with her mouth ajar. She'd put some Bulgarian chocolates out. They looked bleached, as if from last Christmas. The Signora said no. Mario took one, juggled it a moment in his palm and tossed it into his mouth.
The Signora dug into her second carton and produced a familiar brand of chocolate covered cherries.
"Oh!" said Mario. "I remember Papa always brought those when he came home at Christmas."
"Strange to bring us Italian stuff, with all that chocolate in Switzerland."
"He never liked it there," said the Signora, with finality.
"I know," said Mario, "but he stayed twenty-five years."
She shrugged her vale-of-tears shrug.
Grinka wasn't one to be left out.
"My father went to work in Russia," she said.
The Signora was interested.
"We lost touch. He married again, a Russian."
The Signora still looked interested, but uncomfortable.
"Then we heard that Stalin's people had him killed."
"Killed?" asked Mario.
He was asking for his mother's sake. He and Grinka had already been over this ground.
"Died, killed. It was all the same in those days." Grinka spoke quickly because she knew these people would never understand.
"We had Palmiro Togliatti," said the Signora.
"Ha!" said Grinka, "We had Tato."
The Signora looked surprised.
"Todor Zhivkov," explained Mario, "their, ah, president."
"Togliatti's funeral was beautiful," said the Signora.
"That swine Zhivkov wouldn't die," said Grinka. "Life was too good. Hogs never die while anything's left to eat. You have to cut their throats."
"Was he that bad?" asked Mario. He'd accepted Grinka's indiscriminate hatred for the former regime. But now he thought of the photo his mother kept on her bureau. It was of Papa on May Day in Basel wearing his black baptism and funeral suit.
"We had to go to applaud him in the rain. Otherwise the spies took our names and we lost our university place. Tato would look at us from his covered platform. You could see what he thought. 'Sheep, you're baaing sheep, with your leaky East German umbrellas.'"
"It was different with us," said Mario.
"I know that," said Grinka.
"There was Togliatti il Migliore and then the Americans came and killed him," said the Signora.
Mario frowned, but couldn't bring himself to contradict her.
Grinka looked at him.
"Your father knew about politics," the Signora said to Mario and went off to wash her hands.
Grinka was nervous and lit a cigarette.
"Shall I make the cheese banitsa, yes or no?"
"Why not?" asked Mario.
"Your mother's brought so much."
"It's Christmas," he said.
"You know, Mario, it's hard for me to understand. Here in Bulgaria all that's like a bad dream. But you never had it, and you miss it."
"Socialism was a good idea. Maybe somewhere, someday."
"And what actually happened to Togliatti?"
"Il povero, he just died. We wept. I mean my mother wept. Italy never had such a funeral."
Starting its eleventh year of free publication, Swans is rich in friends, but poor in cash. If you've enjoyed being a Swans reader, please help us out with aThank you.