The first bad Remembrance Day was 1984, the year Frank turned seventeen and his mother, Juliska, passed away. The old men came up the front steps in their berets and dress uniforms and polished medals, and Feri, Frank’s father, met them at the door and told them to go away – “Get lost, murderers” is what he actually said – and then they were arguing over who’d fought for who and which government you should be grateful to and whether or not Feri should maybe just pack up if he really felt that way and go home to whatever fucking country he’d come from.
Those old men really knew how to swear. It was, in fact, the main reason Frank believed they’d fought in the war, down in the dirtiest trenches, in conditions so extreme everything – every moral lapse – was permitted. “Go home to whatever fucking country you came from” was actually one of the nicer things they said. Sooner or later, as Feri railed against them, the veterans would get to words like “jackass” and “selfish bastard” and then, eventually, “goddamn Nazi asshole,” which for Feri was the worst insult of all.
“Hungary was not a Nazi country!” he shouted.
“Goddamn Nazi asshole son of a bitch,” the old men said.
“The Allies spent the war shooting and bombing Hungarians and you want me to give you money for your stupid plastic flowers?” The vets glared at him. “What else do you want?” Feri said. “Maybe I should dance around and clap for you like a monkey?”
“We fought so you’d have a country like Canada to come to.”
“If you hadn’t fought I wouldn’t have needed a country like Canada to come to!” The veterans had this fidgety look, like they were still obeying some old reflex, patting their hips for service revolvers no longer there, reaching for rifles that used to hang on their shoulders. The movements made no impression on Feri. “Or,” he shouted, “if you’d fought a little harder and pushed the commies back to Moscow instead of being so friendly with Stalin you gave him half of Europe, I also wouldn’t have needed a country like Canada to come to.” At this point Feri hauled back the door as if he was inviting them inside, but really just so he could slam it that much more forcefully in their faces.
Frank watched the old men stumble out of the driveway that rainy November day. There was the lanky one he’d come to know as Lester, the barrel-chested one, Harlan, and there was of course Hank, who’d done all the swearing and finger pointing and stomping of feet. Frank took out his sketchbook and drew a cartoon of the three of them, Lester and Harlan with their arms around Hank like he was some comrade they were carrying home from battle, and the following year he went back and wrote “No. 1” beside it.
By 1985 Frank was sketching more than ever, something he did when he was nervous, watching Feri disintegrate, the house dirtier with each day since Juliska’s death, their lives unraveling. He pulled out the big black hardcover and flipped to a blank page, dreaming of getting out of Mr. Simpson’s art class with a portfolio good enough for university. He was so lost in it – drawing the changes to his father’s face – that when the doorbell rang he jerked and chiseled a line through Feri’s mouth.
Frank got up, his face already lined with the strain of getting Feri to work every morning, rolling the old man out of bed in that tiny guest room he’d taken to sleeping in after the funeral, so narrow and stuffy in there you could get loaded off the boozy fumes he exhaled. Then Frank would go to school, trying to finish grade twelve, shopping for groceries afterwards, driving to work to pick up Feri, coming home to make dinner, do lunches, laundry, then whatever homework would still fit into the day.
At night he’d get calls from Arlen Hassburger, Feri’s boss, about how he’d caught him napping in the supply cupboard, or drinking on the job, or letting the other guys on the rigging crew pick up the slack, and Frank would have to talk Arlen out of firing Feri. He’d have to beg for sympathy – after all, who wouldn’t fall apart after the death of his wife of nineteen years? – and then lie about how Feri was making “visible signs of progress.” (Frank had learned this language from the high-school counsellor who’d helped him with his own grief.) If Arlen could only give him another month of grace things would improve.
“Your father was always my go-to guy,” Arlen said. “It hurts me to see him like this. But I’ve got to hold up my end, too, you know?”
“He’ll be your go-to guy again, I promise,” said Frank.
“What about you, Frank? If things don’t work out with Feri, I could use someone like you down here. There’s always openings…”
“I don’t know,” said Frank. “My plan was to finish high school and go to university.” He stopped, realizing he’d used the word “was” instead of “is,” and wondered if it wasn’t too late to take it back, to stop whatever the word had set into motion.
“To study what?”
“I was thinking fine arts.”
“Waste of time. You’ll blow four years in university and you’ll be good for nothing but what you should have done in the first place. Take it from me – I wrote an honours thesis on Alexander Pope. Rhymed couplets, the ‘incisiveness of satire,’ all that shit! I’ve got friends who went to grad school and are serving meals while I’m making eighty-five grand a year as supervisor. Union wages. It’s good money.”
But it’s not good work, thought Frank. Thirty-five years of it. Your whole life gone. He held the phone to his ear and said he’d get Feri to work on time tomorrow.
Now he came around the corner and saw them.
Hank was in front, just like last year, peering out from between his gin blossoms, pushing his face forward with every point he made, telling Feri about the war, his role in it, those of his friends Lester and Harlan, who stood to either side, agreeing with Hank’s descriptions of how they’d suffered. And all the while he rattled the box filled with change, his lapels covered up and down, not an inch to spare, with the poppies he peeled off and gave away.
Feri looked at Hank like he was a freak. Feri was drunk. “You didn’t fight for me,” he finally said when Hank stopped to take a breath, “you fought against me.”
Hank pushed his face even closer, as if he either couldn’t believe what he was hearing or had already forgotten it. “Do you know what it’s like to be trapped on some hill shaking with dysentery while mortars are raining all around you?”
Feri smirked. “Do you know what it’s like to be ten years old, stuck in some cellar, while Allied bombers are blowing up the city over your head?”
Hank looked back at Harlan and Lester as if Feri’s response was a prank, just the sort of thing old comrades would pull on their former sergeant, but they looked just as shocked and bewildered. So he turned back, head tilted the way a dog will look at humans who are doing something inexplicable. “Do you know what it’s like leaving behind your family and country to go fight for someone else’s freedom?”
“Do you know what it’s like realizing that your country has been overrun by foreign soldiers, who are replacing the last foreign soldiers, who are replacing the foreign soldiers who came before, all of them promising freedom?”
Hank put his fists on his hips, not knowing what else to do with them. “Do you have any idea what the nights were like, working on three hours sleep, covered in mud, bitten to shit by mosquitoes, waiting for the bullet that’s going to end it?”
“Do you know what it’s like for a young boy to step out of the cellar to get water, and there’s a Hungarian soldier lying on the sidewalk, his head crushed flat by a tank, and the boy realizes it’s the soldier who helped him get water yesterday?”
Hank’s face was red now, furious. “Do you know what it’s like holding your friend, some guy who’s covered you, saved your life more times than you can count, while he tries to tell you something, choking on his own blood, and you’re not even praying that he lives, you just want God to give him a chance to say what he wants to say before he dies?” He stepped forward again, looking into Feri’s face.
“Do you know what it’s like when the Allied armies finally arrive and the soldiers – Allied soldiers –,” Feri poked Hank in the chest, “come into the place you’re hiding with your mother and aunts and sister and take turns raping them in front of you?”
“You have no idea what it took for us to win that war!”
“You have no idea what suffering is!” Feri yelled back. “You shot your way through Europe then came back to Canada and didn’t have to live with what was left!”
“And all of us died so you could come out here and enjoy it too!”
“What makes you think I’m enjoying it?” shouted Feri. And then he pulled back the door and slammed it in his face.
“We’ll be back next year!” howled Hank.
“You can come back every year for all I care!” screamed Feri straight into the oak grain of the door, the words coming out in a movement so violent it jerked his head forward, teeth bared like he wanted to take a bite.
If the “No. 1” visit was unexpected, and “No. 2” a test to see if it had been real, then “Nos. 3–10” were by design. Over the years Frank would see every variant on the argument, every tactic, every cheating attempt at victory, until November 11 became for his father a kind of Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter rolled into one, the day on which he flickered briefly to life again. The veterans tried everything. They tried shame, telling Feri they were going to go to every house on the whole block, the whole neighborhood, the whole town, and let everyone know what an ungrateful bastard he was; Feri said he didn’t care what others thought, and looking at him, breathing hoarsely, flashing yellowed teeth, in that old sweater with its constellation of cigarette burns, the vets knew he wasn’t bluffing. They tried hostility, ganging up on Feri and yelling at him at once; but Feri was like some master fencer, parrying every point, patiently explaining why they were wrong, even remembering things they’d said in passing minutes ago, returning to refute each of them in turn. (This, from a father who no longer remembered to wish his son happy birthday.) They tried empathy, telling him he was right, soldiers had died on both sides, that Remembrance Day really was for soldiers all over the world; but Feri just snickered and said, “Don’t patronize me.” Did they really think he believed for one second that they’d be happy pinning poppies on the lapels of former Waffen-SS?
So the vets had to become creative.
“No. 6” took place on a weirdly sunny November 11. Feri was sitting on the front steps drinking beer, lining up the full bottles on his left, the empties on the right, and the ashtray on the step below, between his feet. He scowled when he saw the vets arrive.
Frank was up a ladder around the other side of the house, out of sight, but he could hear everything. He stopped to listen in the middle of cleaning the eavestroughs, his arms caked in muck and weeds and leaves up to the elbows.
By the time he’d climbed down the ladder and come around the corner, Feri had gone into the house and come out with their old Atlas, paged forward to a map of Central Europe, and began pointing to the scenes of historic battles: Stalingrad, the Don River, and finally Voronezh, where the Soviets slaughtered 100,000 soldiers from the Hungarian 2nd Army. He pointed to each place on the map, then went through the invasion of Hungary, from county to county, city to city, ending at the siege of Budapest, listing off the numbers of the dead. “If Hitler hadn’t been distracted by you bastards in the west,” Feri said, his voice slurring, “we might have been able to mount some opposition to the Soviets. And then all our cities wouldn’t have been destroyed. Women raped. Children slaughtered.”
“That’s not our fault,” Harlan said. “You picked your side.”
“We picked our side as much as Canada did,” Feri replied. “There was no choice. The only difference between your country and mine was luck – yours good, ours bad. When Regent Horthy tried to make peace with the Allies, Hitler threatened his son, then kidnapped Horthy, then replaced him with puppets.”
“Excuses, excuses,” Lester said. “The Poles resisted. The Romanians managed to switch sides. The Greeks, the Serbs…”
“We had an underground, too,” yelled Feri, “General Kiss and Bajczy…”
“That’s not all that’s been going on underground, Mr. Anti-Canada,” Hank said, speaking now as if he’d meant to speak much earlier, totally out of synch with the conversation. He reached into the rucksack he’d brought along and pulled out a photo album that he opened with the pages facing Feri. “You say you’re not happy with being forced to come here,” Hank said, sweating into the wool of his collar, “but these pictures say otherwise.” There they were: Feri and Frank sitting in a canoe in the middle of Frida Lake, mist rising off the surface, slash all around, whitecapped mountains rising on every side; Feri and Frank down by the marina getting on board the Princess Anne to go salmon fishing in Georgia Strait; Feri – alone this time – sighting his rifle on the hood of the truck, a bottle of pálinka open at his elbow; Feri – alone again – squatting on the edge of Stillwater Bluffs while a storm front opened over the sea, sheets of rain dimming the islands along the strait, an image cold and miserable and solitary.
“You’ve been following him?” It was Frank now, cutting in, stepping between Hank and Feri, who was staring at the pictures open-mouthed. “You can’t just follow people around and take pictures of them.”
“I was just getting proof,” Hank said, while Lester and Harlan turned red, and Frank realized they hadn’t agreed with what Hank had done, stalking Feri, that he’d done it alone. “Go ahead and tell the police,” Hank continued. “They’re on our side.” But despite his confidence he’d already snapped the book shut, and was backing away.
Why wasn’t Feri saying anything? Frank turned back to his father and saw that the old man was swaying on his seat, still clutching his atlas, face wet with tears. “Juliska liked going out to Stillwater,” Feri said, having such difficulty forcing out the words it was like a stage whisper. But Frank knew it wasn’t true. His mother had never gone out there. Once again the old man was reinventing the past to make it look as if he’d had some insight, some intimacy, with the woman he’d been unwilling to know.
“Maybe you should go inside,” Frank said, but he wasn’t talking about the moment anymore, what was happening with the vets, but of something more permanent, watching as Feri tried to pick up the beer bottles, which clattered and rolled down the stairs – not a single one broke – the old man stumbling through the door, gone into full retreat now, from work, from the world, from any thought of the future.
When Frank turned back only Harlan was still there, holding out a plastic poppy. “I’m sorry about Hank,” he said. “I don’t know what got into him. He’s kind of gone crazy with your father. I think…” Harlan paused, still holding out the poppy, its fuzzy petals trembling. “You see, things happened to Hank in the war. He came back from over there… Well, he came back and he’s been like this ever since.” Harlan coughed. “Lester and I try to make sure he doesn’t do anything too crazy, though we can’t always… Look, I’m not trying to make excuses, and your father is as much to blame.”
“I think you should leave,” said Frank, not taking the poppy.
“It’s not our idea to keep coming back here. It’s Hank. We come because he tells us to.” Harlan blushed, looked away, then mumbled, “Well, he’s a sergeant and we’re just privates.” Throughout it all Harlan held the poppy extended, but he and Frank were too committed to their positions either to retract or reach out for it.
Finally, Harlan just let it fall between them.
It stayed there, on the ground, for weeks, for months, until the spring, when one of May’s downpours washed it away. Passing it every morning going out, every evening coming in, Frank would wonder about the flowers that had come and gone since the start, and all the flowers yet to come, offered across the threshold, raining on the years of Feri’s bereavement like some disintegrating bouquet. It would have been better if the old man had just taken the first poppy Hank had offered, dropped a quarter into the box they held out, thanked them for the sacrifices they’d made, then closed the door, tossed the poppy into the garbage and never seen them again. And if they’d come five months earlier, the night Juliska sat them down before dinner and told them what the doctor had said, how little time he’d given her, before that terrible scene between her and Feri on the last night, any time at all during those four months it took her to die, then maybe that’s how it would have worked out – Feri too distracted by what was happening to him (because that’s how it was, Juliska was sick, yet somehow the whole thing was happening to him) to do anything other than nod, neither really seeing them at the door, nor hearing what they were saying, nodding, nodding, nodding, absently dropping the coin into the box and then standing there holding the flower wondering what it was for. He often looked at people – especially his wife and son – like that during those four months, standing in the kitchen staring as if he couldn’t figure out how they were put together, according to what design, what aim, and it wasn’t until the vets showed up that Feri flickered back to life again, in a way he’d only ever do with them, every year on the anniversary of that first visit, summoning up that original energy, the man he’d been when he was still secure, before his wife’s death, loss of job, before the cigarettes and bad food and booze took their toll – too soured on what Juliska’s passing had done to him to notice that his son, Frank, was still there, looking in, attending to his father’s needs, and to realize that if he had noticed they might have been in it together instead of alone.
For “No. 7” Frank was in the shower, early morning, and as usual Feri came into the bathroom, too lazy to use the one upstairs, dropped his pants, sat down on the toilet and lit up a cigarette. “Smells bad, doesn’t it?” he said in Hungarian, always Hungarian when it was just the two of them, though his English, perfected from the gutter-speak of the rigging crew right up to the pseudo-formality of union meetings, was almost flawless, his accent only coming out once in a while and in the strangest of places – saying “shet” for “shit,” “kwen” for “when,” and “slot” for “slut.”
Frank said nothing. It was just awful, the combination of steam, tobacco smoke, and his father’s loose bowels, and the years had for some reason weakened rather than built up his resistance.
“I must say even I find it disgusting.” The old man shook his head, completely bewildered. “And yet I am the source of the smell.”
Frank wondered if this is what had killed his mother, not this specifically of course, but the slow accumulation of such incidents – the oncologist had told him that stress was a contributing factor with cancer – back when they still lived together in this house, when the place was clean, kept up, when he’d get home from school with the smells of his mother’s meals wafting through the place, when Feri would return from the mill having actually worked, tired but satisfied, having accomplished what was expected of him – back, in other words, when things were relatively normal for Frank, when he could still look forward to the sorts of things sixteen-year-olds looked forward to: getting his driver’s license, girls, bootlegged beers, at least a decade of odd jobs and irresponsibility before work, marriage, and kids set in – the rewards of a life kept on track.
The doorbell rang. Frank popped his head out between the curtains. “Is that the doorbell?” he asked. But instead of answering Feri wiped himself, stood up, belted his pants and pressed the toilet lever. “Watch out, I’m going to flush,” he said, knowing that flushing always cut off the cold water to the shower, though he always did it anyway.
Frank pushed himself into the corner where the scalding spray couldn’t reach, pressed shivering against the cold tiles until he knew the toilet had filled up again and the temperature gone back to normal.
By then, he could hear them shouting through the bathroom door Feri always forgot to close as he left, the heat and steam escaping with him, so that when Frank got out of the shower he was freezing. The veterans had brought along a woman, Frank’s age or so, and he crept out at the sound of her voice, barely remembering to wrap a towel around his hips.
She was beautiful, women were all beautiful, they got more beautiful the longer Frank was trapped in this house with Feri – the women, the thought of women, the possibility of women, receding from him as if Feri was a boat carrying him off to sea, even though he could still make them out, all of them, throwing confetti and lifting champagne bottles and waving from some distant pier for him to come back.
She had black ringlets down to her shoulders, a narrow face, cheekbones so high they ricocheted the sun right into his eyes, and the pinkest lips he’d ever seen without actually having lipstick on them. She was already talking to his father while Hank, Harlan, and Lester stood behind her, arms crossed, like some geriatric bodyguard.
“…moreover, if the Canadian and American soldiers hadn’t come, my grandparents would have died there, along with the six million others,” she finished.
Feri looked incredulous. “Are you kidding me?” he said to the three vets.
“Really. If not for men like these,” she indicated the vets, “I wouldn’t be alive.”
Feri pretended to gag, though it could have been a cough.
“It’s not like the soldiers of your country were doing anything about the concentration camps,” Hank said, nodding along with the point she was making. “Or I should say – they weren’t doing anything to empty the camps.”
Feri turned to Frank, who stood there in the towel dripping wet, then rolled his eyes at his son’s lack of social graces – even as he was still wearing one of the three sets of clothes the veterans had seen him in year after year – then turned back to the visitors. “Very nice. So if I agree with this young lady, then I might as well thank you all for fighting Hitler. If I say who cares, then it proves I was a Nazi.” Feri crossed his arms and tapped his temple. “Here is what I say to you – what is your name, Elena? –” she nodded and Feri continued, “the Red Army did more to free the Jews than the British and American armies put together. So maybe you should send a thank you to Russia.”
“It was the great Anglo-American alliance that won the war,” yelled Hank.“It was the triumph of conservative principles over socialism!”
“Ha!” yelled Feri. “You remember nothing. The Red Army did most of the fighting and most of the dying.” He lifted a thumb. “Their leader was a communist. The Americans came second,” he said, lifting his index finger. “Roosevelt was a very liberal president, maybe the most liberal in American history. And the British third,” he said, lifting his middle finger. “They didn’t do as much fighting or dying as the other two.” He shrugged. “And Churchill was the only true conservative among the three.” He dropped his fingers and chuckled. “One communist, one liberal. It was actually the socialists who defeated Hitler.” Here Feri laughed out loud, not because he cared who’d defeated Hitler, or who was or wasn’t a socialist, but because he was just so happy to destroy the veterans’ argument and see the look of hatred on their faces.
It looked like Hank was going to start jumping up and down in rage.
“He has a point,” Elena said, though she was looking at Frank as she said it.
“He has no goddamned point,” said Hank, who then stopped for a minute to think about what the point was. “The Brits fought hard,” he finally said, unable to come up with anything more concrete, but Elena cut in, saving him from the lapse.
“Yes, but Stalin and Roosevelt were both to the left, politically. Not to the same degree of course. But, I mean, if Roosevelt was running for president today, with his policies, the Republicans would call him a socialist.”
“Those people don’t even know what socialism is!” said Feri.
“That’s not the point!” yelled Hank, responding to Elena, not Feri.
“I’ll tell you the point,” said Feri, getting into the old man’s face. “The point is you stopped the Nazis from killing people, then you let Stalin kill twice as many.” He pulled the door back shaking his head. “No plastic flower for me this year, no thanks, no thank you,” he said, and slammed it in their faces. Through the crack Frank caught a last glimpse of Elena looking his way, and for a moment thought of putting his hand out to catch the door and find out if what he saw in her eyes was attraction or pity.
Frank was still drawing her picture months later, even though he’d tracked down her name, Elena Prager, and phone number, which he was building up to call. Sometimes while Frank was drawing, Feri would enter the room and come up from behind and place his hand on Frank’s shoulder and just stand there like that, breathing hard, with the rattle in his throat growing louder and louder as his daily dosage of cigarettes increased. “She was a pretty girl. Maybe she’ll come back next year!” The old man laughed. But when Frank didn’t laugh along with him, Feri lowered his voice, “Maybe I’ll be dead by next year.” Frank just kept working on the picture, ignoring him. The old man coughed, not too long, not like in the morning when he couldn’t stop, standing by the sink as if he was going to heave up his lungs, but just once or twice, as a reminder. Frank looked up at him, put down his pencil, and asked Feri if he’d like a beer. Or wine. Or pálinka. “As much as you like,” Frank said, angry now, pushing out of the chair, moving into the kitchen with his father stumbling behind him, locating the old man’s stash, always shifting but never so well hidden Frank couldn’t find it sooner or later, pouring the booze into a shot glass, holding it out for Feri, who just stood there pretending nonchalance, as if he could say no, as if he could resist. Then Frank remembered his promise and shook his head, angrier now with the hopelessness of it all, and in the last second, just as Feri was reaching for it, he turned and dumped it into the sink.
“You’ll never call her,” Feri snarled. “Never, never.”
By “No. 8,” Feri was three-quarters rotted, breathing in rasps, too tired now for the effort of hiding his drinking or maintaining his dignity, to do anything other than sit in his chair with the crossword puzzles his brother sent every week from Hungary, back issues of old Füles magazine bought at flea markets, relics from the communist era printed on cheap newspaper stock, black and white, though every issue had pictures of naked women posing seductively in the middle of the darks. If Feri somehow managed to finish one, which was rare, he always made sure to rip it up and throw the scraps into the garbage in front of Frank, something he’d been doing for fifteen years, as if no time had gone by since his son was ten. It was the demonstration of superiority that mattered, not the naked ladies, because God knows there were always enough unfinished crosswords lying around the house, sometimes for years. Nonetheless, Feri would stand there, tearing them up page by page, smirking at Frank, who no longer had any idea what his father could be thinking, lost in another empty ritual, another idiosyncrasy the old man clung to – like his feud with the veterans, or his constant demands that Frank drive him out to the places he claimed Juliska had loved, or the way he always said, “Guten morgen, mein herr” when he entered the kitchen for the coffee and eggs Frank made; or “salt, bitte schön,” once they’d sat to eat; or “tostada, por favor,” when he needed another slice of toast – always the same, every morning, year after year.
There were other idiosyncrasies, of course, and far more malevolent. All of Frank’s girlfriends had commented on how Feri would sit around talking about how he was too old and tired to help with cooking or cleaning up, but the minute the food was on the table he was there instantly, fast as teleportation – it didn’t matter if he’d been in the next room, on the toilet, in the garden – and then complaining loudly for everyone else to hurry up so he could eat. He was too old and sick to get up from the couch for the TV remote control, five feet away, yelling to Frank to get it for him, but when it came to driving to the liquor store for another week of booze he was good to go, keys in hand, shoes on, no help necessary. But what really bothered them was the way he stood and stared, never making clear what the stare implied – Monica described it as a leer, Judy as a glare, Vera as a form of psychological blindness – except that there was a kind of violence to it, as if Feri knew exactly who and what they were.
“Don’t leave,” Frank always said when the girls suddenly sat up, checked their watches, and said they needed to go, though he always said it low, under his breath, not wanting to beg. He was tempted to add that Feri wasn’t going to live much longer, if they could just be patient, but he decided this might jinx it, his father’s death, and the old man would somehow recover, his lungs turning pink and elastic, and he’d live to be a hundred.
The girls always smiled. “You’re a great guy, Frank, but I can’t sit around like this.” They made it sound like they were waiting for something else – to move in together, get married, have kids – but Frank knew exactly what it really was: that even if Feri died tomorrow it would have taken too long. They’d seen Frank come home from a dead-end day with the riggers, driving Feri to visit doctors the old man never listened to, refusing to quit drinking or smoking or eating sandwiches slathered with chicken drippings, and all of them knew that every week Frank would peel the sheets off his father’s bed, stained yellow with the nicotine the old man excreted in his sleep. Worst of all, they’d witnessed the pride that kept Feri from admitting how much he owed Frank, which would have meant admitting how hard Frank worked for him, which would have meant admitting his absolute lack of gratitude, all of which was impossible since Feri was never wrong in anything he thought or did. He deserved it all, automatically.
No, it was easier to belittle Frank, Feri sitting with his crossword, asking his son’s advice: “What is a four-letter word for the Greek goddess of victory?”
“Nike,” Frank would say.
“Nike? That must be another of those goddamn Anglicisms.” Feri stared at the page. “Nikusz! That’s what it must be.” He turned back to the crossword. “Wait a minute, that’s six letters – too many.”
“N-I-K-E. Four letters,” said Frank.
Feri smirked. “It’s a Hungarian crossword puzzle. I wonder what it is in the original Greek. Must be closer.”
“Maybe it’s Nike in Hungarian, too,” said Frank, but Feri just snorted. “What?” continued Frank, coming from the kitchen carrying the long knife he’d been using to cut up a chicken, “you think just because it’s English it can’t be right?”
“Hungarian and Greek are European languages. They’re closer.”
“English is a European language.”
“No it’s not. Ask the English if they consider themselves part of Europe. Go ahead – see what answer you get.”
“It’s Nike,” said Frank. “Why can’t you just admit it?”
Feri looked at him in total silence, which was the closest Frank ever got to winning an argument – the old man saying nothing, not having a comeback but refusing to concede. And in the background, some girl or other, there only for the two weeks Frank ever managed to have any girlfriend, would sit in quiet witness, sometimes shaking her head, unable to understand why Frank stayed.
“I promised I would,” he would say later, after Feri had been put to bed.
“Your mother couldn’t have expected you to put up with this,” she’d answer.
She hadn’t, Frank thought. She’d lain in that bed, a shawl over her bald head, and listened to Feri weep and go on about how he’d look after Frank when she was gone, how he’d make sure their son went to school, studied hard, avoided the pitfall of getting an easy job in town rather than a university degree. Then she’d leaned up on her elbow and motioned to Frank.
“Promise me you’ll leave,” she’d hissed, whispering into Frank’s ear with the last of her strength. “He has no idea how far he’ll sink. Run away. Promise me!”
And of course Frank had promised, knowing it would never keep, that there would always be that other father – now disappeared completely into the wreck Feri had become, killed off in fact by the suicidal indulgences the old man permitted himself – the one who’d taken Frank fly fishing as a kid; and hunting and skiing and swimming at night, laughing as they jumped into the water off a log boom at Mowat Bay; who’d gone over to Harold Bosco’s house when he complained that Frank had been trespassing on his property, running through his strawberry patch on the way to school, and set him straight in no uncertain terms; and who most importantly had seen to it that when he took sixteen-year-old Frank back to Hungary the kid had the freedom and license to get laid, something Juliska would never have permitted. None of these things had ever been presented to Frank as a debt to be repaid, and he himself didn’t see it that way, only that looking after this terrible old prick was his last chance at communing with the dead, with that long-departed father who would have loved Frank looking after him.
Besides, he thought, holding his mother’s dying hand, it was easy for her to ask for this promise now, passing off the responsibility for something she should have done years ago, if the security of being with Feri hadn’t been less scary for her than the thought of going it alone.
When November 11 came around again Feri was at the door before Frank could react. The old man responded to the doorbell like he’d been waiting for it, shuffling along the carpet with the kind of speed he only ever used for dinner, or if too much time had gone by between shots of brandy. Frank buried his head in his hands, expecting another battle, voices yelling, drowning each other out, but it was quiet, so quiet that after a minute he lifted his head and saw that the scene had changed.
It was the veterans, as usual, but Lester was missing, and in his place were two young men, cadets, carrying clipboards and maps and handling the money and poppies.
“Where’s my friend, Lester?” Feri asked, looking around as if he was truly bewildered by the vet’s absence, as if they really had been friends.
“Lenny?” Hank rubbed the back of his head and looked at Harlan and the cadets.
“Lester’s dead,” Harlan said.
In that moment of silence, Frank thought of Juliska, and what she might have said to all this, standing at the door telling Feri to stop teasing the old men, get back inside, mow the lawn, put up a shelf, re-roof the garage, all the chores Feri had hated but which ultimately kept him functioning, off to work, away from the bottle, alive. “You’ll all be dead one day,” Juliska would have said, “and replaced by other old men keeping to their wars.” She’d have glided over to run a hand down the fuzzy faces of the cadets, all the while looking at Frank, “And enlisting boys like these to do your dirty work.”
Feri looked at Frank, and then in the direction his son was gazing, his own face draining of color as if he could see Juliska too. Then he turned to Hank: “See what you’ve done to my son! Do you see? It’s the same thing you people did to me! It broke Juliska’s heart, having to come out to Canada, to this place. I’ve never told you about that, have I? Back in Hungary she taught literature. Do you realize what coming to a country like this – where you can’t do the one thing you were born for – does to a person?”
Frank rolled his eyes. Feri had been delighted to tell Juliska there was no point in looking for work, that he was making more than enough to keep her at home doing laundry, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, in what Juliska would, at the end, refer to in broken English as her “pushed-underwater life.” But she’d done it, drowning her days, and the only time she complained was at the end, trying to keep Frank from doing the same.
“You did it to yourselves,” yelled Hank, “you and your Nazi government.”
“We weren’t Nazis!”
Frank turned and walked away from the door. By the time he’d reached the kitchen, the argument was in full swing.
Feri lived another two years. By then he was attached to an oxygen canister, wheeling it along behind himself, covered in stickers that said “danger” and even one showing a huge skull and crossbones. Frank thought of it as his father’s pirate flag cruising the high seas of the Uptown Mall, Hendricks Liquor, the Hollinger Hill Tobacconist Shop, and, of course, that last November 11 the old man would ever see, “No. 10” on the list, when he hobbled in sight of old Hank, who was more befuddled than ever, standing outside the liquor store in full military regalia, mechanically jingling a set of bells while three or four cadets stood around in camouflage and black berets handing out poppies. “I guess I’ll see you at home later,” said Feri, shuffling over, aggressive as always. Hank stopped jingling for a second as if he wanted to say something in return, but then a wave of blankness passed over his face and his hand resumed the side-to-side motion with the bells.
Feri looked at Frank, but it wasn’t with the usual mix of rage and arrogance – that sort of listen-and-learn widening of the eyes Frank remembered from every November 11 – but a kind of withdrawal, even fear, as if Feri was asking for help. “I’m Feri Kovacs,” he said, turning back to Hank. “Your enemy.”
The cadets stopped what they were doing and closed in, not yet alarmed but wanting to know what was going on. Hank’s arm continued jingling the bells as if it were detached from him, some cartoon arm he could unscrew and leave hanging in space still doing its job while the rest of him turned to the cadets, uncertain, waiting for instructions.
“My brother stayed in Hungary,” Feri said, verging on desperate. Some of the people coming out of the liquor store stopped, a small crowd forming. “I told you about him,” Feri continued. “It was what the communists did to family who remained behind after someone got out. They made them suffer. Bad jobs. No promotions. Terrible places to live. The guilt was supposed to discourage people from trying to escape. My brother used to write me letters about how bad his life was, blaming me.”
Feri stood waiting, wondering why Hank wasn’t fighting back. It was as if his words were nothing but sound for the old vet, rising and falling, glimmering for a moment like some firework at the top of its arc, then fading as if it had never been there.
Hank stopped jingling the bell again. “Feri Kovacs,” he said, speaking as if there was a hair on his tongue. “Fuckin’ bastard…” His voice trailed off.
“That’s right,” said Feri, smiling with relief. “Fuckin’ bastard. That’s right.”
Hank jingled the bell a few more times, then his eyes brightened, a phrase occurred to him and he spoke it: “Canada is your home.”
“Canada is my prison!” said Feri, his tone light, relaxed, slipping into the old argument like a pair of slippers. “Canada is the place you forced me to live in. The place filled with my dead wife. The place I keep coming back to whenever I visit Hungary and realize I don’t belong there anymore, the country went on without me, when you people forced me out you forced me out forever!” The phrases were so easy, streaming out of Feri, and Hank seemed pleased by them too, smiling so wide his eyes crinkled at the edges, and he jingled the bell in time with Feri’s syllables so perfectly Frank thought the crowd was going to start clapping along. But one of the cadets stepped in.
“Better leave him alone,” he said, straight and simple.
“Who are you?” asked Feri, and Frank knew that if this had happened twelve years ago, when Feri was still in his prime, the answer wouldn’t have mattered.
“That’s irrelevant,” the cadet said.
“Dysentery means you shit yourself,” interrupted Hank, sounding a flurry of jingles on the word “shit,” and smiling like he’d pulled off a complicated riff.
Everyone stopped, looked at Hank, and for a moment Frank thought Feri was going to walk over and put his arms around the old vet, fold him into an embrace, but instead Feri just looked down, saying nothing. And so it was up to Frank once again, whispering to his father that maybe it was time to go, Hank watching them walk back to the car like he had no idea what country he’d just wandered into, the nature of the enemy he faced, standing there like some fresh-faced recruit at the moment of the landing in Normandy. Feri, gazing back at him, looked much the same.
When they got home, Feri moved silently into his chair and picked one of his unfinished crosswords off the pile. But he didn’t read it, just sat there staring over top of the page mumbling about the time that had come and gone, his days wasting away, what little remained. The old man’s voice rose and he began speaking in fits, between the fitting and removal of the oxygen mask. It was all nonsense, stories that hadn’t happened, a past invented on the spot, romantic excursions with Juliska she’d never for one second entertained, not even in the most wistful of daydreams, and Frank would never know – speaking to the ambulance driver hours later – whether this fake history was just lack of oxygen in Feri’s brain, or something the old man had come to believe.
“We – your mother and me – had a picnic once on Stillwater Bluffs,” the old man said, the words exiting him like a breeze pushed through a pinhole. “You wouldn’t believe the color of the ocean that day… like hammered gold.” He coughed and whispered, “She loved me so much.” He looked at Frank. “You, too.”
Frank nodded, holding back his response. It was like swallowing a cactus.
“Night after night I sat with you and worked on the math, remember? When Juliska left the room I always had chocolate for us. I made it fun, didn’t I?”
“Chocolate…” Frank said, his voice trailing off. “Math.” But he couldn’t quite bring himself to say, “I remember that.”
“That time we all went out…” Feri said.
“We went out cutting wood,” Frank broke in. He couldn’t take it anymore. “Do you remember?” Feri’s eyes softened. Here was something real. “It was winter. We still had the truck.” Feri nodded. They’d been out cutting down snags, sawing the wood into rounds, splitting those into quarters, stacking them back in the truck. They were on the edge of Cranberry Lake, in the brush off a side road on A-branch, keeping the cold away with the heat of work, the two of them so quiet they could hear the snowflakes touching down, in a hush that seemed, that one time, like an arrival, an understanding.
“I brought along some of your favorite beer that day,” said Feri. “Do you remember? That beef jerky you loved. And afterwards we stopped by the Beach Gardens and ate steak… Wow, what a day that was!”
Frank closed his eyes, shaking, wanting to strangle the old man.
When he opened them again Feri was looking at him sadly, some word playing about his lips – what was it? “I’m sorry?” “Thank you?” “Goodbye?” – trying to become sound, but Feri couldn’t quite make it, and after a while he put down the crossword, got up, rattling the canister behind him as he went into the bathroom for one last cigarette and a shot of pálinka. Frank sat for a moment, then picked up the crossword his father had dropped on the floor, finished years ago but for that four-letter word still blank after the rest had been filled in, as if the name for victory was also the name for defeat.
—From CNQ 96, (Summer 2016)