Pereira had spent twelve years so far in the ghostly world of work. He had, in fact, enjoyed all those years. A lawyer by training, he came through no calculated effort of his own to specialize in the business affairs of large companies owned by families. He had begun his professional life at a firm called Steinhauer and Burden, and had been made a partner there after seven years due to his unearthly diligence, or as one of his superiors called it his amazing work ethic.
He would work eighteen- and twenty-hour days and show no sign of strain or exertion, and when he worked for twenty-four or forty-eight or sixty hours all he required was a cold shower, two cups of black coffee, and fifty push-ups, and it was as though he’d woken from a depthless, refreshing slumber. Great stamina expresses itself in different ways. Pereira never climbed Mount Everest, never wanted to see it. He liked his work at the firm, the enormous and bodiless sums of money involved. The families liked Pereira, too. He was not a fluent or excessive talker but that suggested honesty and simplicity (in fact, like most inarticulate people, Pereira was crafty and sly, although never dishonest) and this in turn earned him their confidence. The mighty of this earth, Pereira recognized, only trust those they regard as stupid. As a result, when he (shortly after his divorce) decided to leave Steinhauer and Burden and form his own practice centered on the creation of trusts and other activities in probate law, he never lacked for business. He liked his new work, and the hovering presence of these rich and populous families, the silver-haired titanlike parents and the goggle-eyed children. Pereira senior would have spat on the calm life his son had chosen to lead, or so our Pereira believed, had Pereira senior not died of a heroin overdose the summer his son graduated from high school. Luckily he had never earned any money, and Pereira suffered no financial reversal as the result of this familial death.
At a certain time one evening, Pereira looked up from his papers. He saw by his wall clock that thirteen hours had passed since his arrival, and saw through the window that night had descended. Otherwise he would have not known how long he’d been there. He felt as awake and alive as he had on opening his eyes in his cold bed that morning. A storm began as he crossed the lobby of his office building: rain started to slash through the yellow cones of streetlamplight on the sidewalk. The security guards had gone home, and a dime gleamed on their desk in the pear-colored light. The air was warm and gentle, and Pereira regretted the fact that he was wearing a suit, and thus needed his umbrella. The smell of wet pavement and wet leaves filled his nose. Pereira rushed down into the subway, sliding his umbrella closed, its seal-like black hide gleaming, just as a train screamed into place. Eternity rattled on also. And nobody noticed, just as nobody, nobody at all noticed Pereira seat himself and remove from his briefcase the novel he had been reading in slivers for weeks, a detective story. He had inherited this addiction to detective novels from his father, instead, he supposed, of his father’s addiction to heroin. This one concerned a murder, the seemingly random and aimless disembowelment of an iron-haired spinster in a rented room looking out on the glasslike and blue Adriatic. The hero was a lean middle-aged man called Andric, a policeman and war veteran. Resinous clearness, heartsore yowls of the farm dogs, interrupted by the judders and squeals of Pereira’s train home. The car doors opened, the bell sounded. Fir trees and karst. Pereira glanced (or made the error of glancing) over the top of this so-called detective novel.
Woodsmoke, thought Pereira. And then: not possible. Yet it was. Pereira knew very well that he didn’t smell like woodsmoke. There was no reason to think the woman boarding smelled like woodsmoke. Thus Pereira failed to explain the so-called woodsmoke phenomenon. He had never seen the woman before, and he rode this line every morning to and from his office. He had become familiar in a philosophical, amiable, and long-distance way with a number of passengers, including a lovely wife and her handsome husband, both dark-haired, liquid-eyed, and fair-skinned, escorting their child, who (and this was most remarkable, to Pereira) had the crumpled and ridged inscrutable face of a pig. And at such moments, thought Pereira, you should be shaking in fear for your life. When your exegetical powers flee, he said to himself (his inarticulacy was confined to his public utterances), you’ve lost your faculty for life, in the contemporary world at least. All these familiars were gone, leaving only this smoke-scented woman with red hair. Deep-colored. Her temples lightly blue. Veins or exhaustion. She wore a dark woolen dress, brown, Pereira thought, and brown boots, and a yellow silk cloth, scarflike, tied around her waist. A ribbon of the same color wound through her hair. She wore glasses. Pereira had always liked women in glasses. He too wore them and did not want to be at an eternal disadvantage in those fateful moments before falling asleep or after waking. Other so-called physical characteristics: Pereira had a high forehead, or what could be charitably called a high forehead but was in fact a despicable premature baldness, and an aggressive nose, whose scrolled nostrils whitened at moments of intense emotion. Or so his ex-wife told him, on one of the numerous occasions they slept together after they dissolved their marriage.
The red-haired woman boarded, in the unique manner homo sapiens use to board subway cars. Looking around, leaping over the short, dark and fathomless gap, inhaling. And though Pereira should not have been surprised, he was. She nodded at him, and he nodded back, and then she sat and Pereira, with surreptitious stares, continued to observe her. Her knees crossed beneath her long skirt stained with rain, rain beads on her glasses and in her eyelashes. She opened her purse and removed a white package, and from it extracted a sandwich, which she began eating without, as they say, a second thought. She still smelled like woodsmoke, but this no longer concerned Pereira, and the red-haired woman went on taking precise bites out of her sandwich and chewing them, her eyes bulging slightly. A raindrop descending from the corner of her eye towards her chin. The small incidences of mortality Pereira found charming. But thought and action, well, let’s say a gulf separates them. So Pereira kept reading about Andric the detective, currently chasing the man he believed to be the murderer through a meadow of lavender shrubs, in the darkness of the night, with mules whinnying in the next field, as though the night or the darkness were chuckling to itself. That’s when (in the midst of this muffled, this terribly muffled and literary laugh) Pereira noticed the contents of the woman’s sandwich. Raw meat. Not a unitary hunk of it. But raw meat ground and placed between two thick slices of black bread. That it was raw he could see clearly. It had the vulnerable shine of raw meat, and the woman, as she ate, dabbed at her lips with a paper napkin, on which, as it flew from her lap to her mouth, Pereira could see traces of blood. This did not disgust him. Why should it? Still, he had never simply eaten a sandwich made of raw meat, more or less bleeding, never eaten raw meat in public, so to speak, before the equally shining and vulnerable eyes of the world. The woman took another bite of her sandwich, and stroked her mouth with her napkin. Detective Andric ran several more paces in his night-shrouded lavender field as a shot rang out and then another.
Pereira (his courage stimulated by the fictional courage of the detective) at last closed his book and asked, simply asked the woman if she was in fact eating a sandwich made of raw meat. The red-haired woman swallowed. Yes, she said, but why do you ask. I was curious, said Pereira, after all it’s not every day that you see someone eating raw meat as a midnight supper, especially in a sandwich. Such things are more normally associated with haute cuisine. True, said the woman, but man doesn’t live by bread alone. She was smiling. Her lips bloody, or perhaps just flushed with her own healthy blood. My name is Pereira, Friedrich Pereira, said Pereira. Are you German, said the red-haired woman. No, I grew up here, said Pereira, and I don’t even have any German relatives, to my knowledge, my father admired Nietzsche. Words leave your mouth and that’s it, he thought. You can’t do anything about what you’ve said, and you find yourself confessing your father’s pretensions to a stranger of the subway. Well, my name is Eletke, and I, said the red-haired woman, know for a fact that I have Hungarian relatives, my mother and father and their siblings are all Hungarians. I am too. And a German might not know he’s a German, said Eletke, but with a Hungarian there’s no doubt. Hungarians are guilty until proven innocent, as my uncle always says.
Pereira found this remark hilarious. As a result he laughed out loud, although he had always hated his laugh, which sounded to him like a concupiscent bray, and Eletke, to his surprised delight, laughed along with him. He closed his book. The fate of Detective Andric: still undecided, amid lavender and night. Eletke closed the white paper around her sandwich. He could see her face clearly now, he thought: the harsh cheekbones and long, angular eyes, the tender, corded neck, her precise lips and white teeth. Pereira said that to be honest he was hoping she might have a drink with him. Eletke did not answer. Pereira waited. He knew that sometimes, in this unpredictable life, you have to be patient. And how do I know, said Eletke, that you’re not some murderer? If I were a murderer, said Pereira, I would not read detective novels, that would be absurd. He leaned forward and tossed her the book. Called BUDAPEST GAMBIT, even though it so far had only taken place in the Dalmatian countryside. Detective Andric was a passionate chess player and the eleven books dealing with his professional successes and failures all bore the names of chess moves, an aesthetic gesture of the author’s that Pereira, hopeless at chess, gleaned a vague and factitious awareness of from reading jacket copy. Let it be remembered of this inarticulate man that he was no great seducer. But he was not a complete failure with women, either. True, he had never engaged in any literary activity, a powerful means by which to seduce. All the same, he spoke bluntly and plainly because he had no other choice. Eletke tossed the book back to him: it spun horizontally in the air, like a discus, and landed on his knees. I’ll have a drink with you on one condition, said Eletke, that I can call you Friedrich, not Fritz. Fritz is an animal’s name, she said. She was grinning at him now, showing her white, somehow polished, teeth. Her lips narrow and sure. Pereira wondered if this was some kind of test, but he didn’t wonder long. You can certainly call me Friedrich, it’s my name, after all: what he said. What he didn’t say: somehow it’s right to condemn Fritz as an animal’s name, though he’d never noticed it before.
On the subject of bars. There were and are many in Pereira’s city, like an endless number of coffins or holds of ships or some such enclosures. Pereira liked the bar he took Eletke to because everything was the same price, beer and whiskey, and because behind the bar itself, made of ancient, cheap, varnished and re-varnished black-painted wood, there stretched a crude mural. Two armies gathered at opposite sides of a desert, one clad in armor and one clad in fur and leather rags. The knights wielded swords and the irregulars wielded sticks, chunks of flint, crude axes, as though medieval Europe had reached the outer bound of its bloodlust and was making war upon the neolithic age. A friend of the bartender, who was also the owner, had painted it, and–the bartender told Eletke–the faces of the knights and the irregulars were all the faces of mutual friends and family. There, he said, that’s my brother-in-law (a knight) and that’s my friend’s old boss (an irregular). They are modern faces, said Eletke. Pereira agreed. He’d heard this ekphrasis before, when he first began drinking there, and in his opinion it diminished the hold the picture exerted over him. Mystery: in an age of exegetes, that’s what you crave, thought Pereira, no doubt about it, and drank down the rest of his whiskey. The bartender called it American whiskey, for some reason. Is that you, said Pereira. It is, said the bartender. An irregular: his counterpart on the wall carried a spear, a shaft still with twigs sprouting from it and what appeared to be an obsidian head affixed to the tip with twine. Did you know, said Eletke, that the species homo sapiens became dominant by committing genocide against the Neanderthals? A German word, take note. The bartender said that while certain anthropologists believed this to be the case it had not been confirmed. And indeed, he went on, how could it be confirmed? All the same Pereira believed it. Perhaps it was the influence of the mural, perhaps it made sense on its own. No matter why, in fact. Two o’clock in the morning already, he thought. The rain had ended. Above the teeth of the city, the moon, white and radiant. You could see it, in fact, through the bar’s window, so low had it descended.
When he suggested they leave and go back to his apartment, Eletke assented. Pereira could not believe his luck. Such moments filled him with a thundering, cataractlike gratitude. In the taxi she leaned against him. Her scent strong, sweet, carbonic. Her hard right patella pressed against his left patella, her lips pressed against his neck. She seemed to be muttering or murmuring something to herself. And Pereira took note. He’d slipped an arm around her shoulders. Her scapulae pressed into his biceps. Her skin radiated warmth, even heat. Her dress and long hair damp with rain. She removed her lips from his neck and stopped her muttering or murmuring. What were you saying, said Pereira. Just an old family prayer for good luck, said Eletke. Is luck really so necessary at a time like this, said Pereira. Luck is always necessary, said Eletke. She didn’t elaborate. Pereira knew she was correct. Human beings don’t like to admit how dependent they are on luck or chance. They live and die by luck and chance, luck and chance save them and destroy them. They have, in fact, thought Pereira, invented the myth of free will as a camouflage for this slavery to luck and chance. But that was all he thought on the matter, because the taxi had arrived at his apartment, and he had to remove his wallet and pay. The driver, his eyes set in a strip of sun-crumpled skin, glared at him. Pereira was a generous tipper. And the problem with being a generous tipper is that in many cases your generosity only causes resentment. The reasons for this are so obvious as to require no explanation.
Laughter kept rising in Pereira’s throat, soft, sane laughter at his good fortune. He yanked off his tie without untying it. It passed over his head like a noose. Then he removed his shoes and socks, always the most awkward part of undressing with a stranger. The shoes stare up at you like accusing eyes and the socks lie there like dead, emptied, thin-skinned souls. All Eletke had to do was unbind the yellow ribbon around her waist and unbutton her dress, slide down her stockings. She climbed into Pereira’s bed and sat there, her legs crossed, leaning back on her palms. Pereira stared at her torso, the ridges of bone softly protruding: hips, ribs, clavicles. The moonlight poured over her. His own good fortune or the moon’s, Pereira could not decide. She seemed to be moving her lips once more. Pereira, naked now, joined her in his bed. Among the shadows and what have you. It would not be possible to describe what occurred next with a straight face. This is a great misfortune suffered by writers, by so-called literary writers and by writers of pornography. Not all that distant in spirit. Certain restricted observations remain possible. For example, one might observe that our Pereira, sensitive and alert, our sentinel Pereira felt the astonishing heat of Eletke’s cunt, as though she had a fever or simply possessed an abnormally high body temperature, as though her mitochondria were doing their obscure work at some devilish pace, as though the fly-by-night subatomic particles we all, human and Neanderthal alike, leaf and stone alike, consist of were hurling themselves with insensate fury and speed around their orbits. Pereira was not sure why. He was not sure, also, how he had become so drunk. The rumpled bed still carried the heavy scent of his ex-wife. Eletke’s hard thighs and calves encircled his waist, their cheeks adhered to each other with sweat, and their faces assumed the absurd and touching contortions faces assume under such circumstances, as their spiritual or metaphysical doubles, perhaps, observed the proceedings and performed all manner of secret and superhuman acts.
Eletke spoke to him in Hungarian. Or what Pereira assumed was Hungarian. If you don’t know any foreign languages, as Pereira did not, you have no idea if the language whispered and groaned into your ear is Hungarian, for example, or Finnish, for example, or Basque, for example. Although Pereira’s former mother-in-law was a Basque, and like many Basques in America she made what Pereira considered a real production out of her ethnic roots. As did his ex-wife, who had a far less serious claim on them. But since Eletke did not resemble her he deduced it was not Basque, and as she claimed to be Hungarian, he deduced she was speaking not Finnish but Hungarian. As he deduced this he suddenly stood, so to speak, at the edge of the great abyss sleep. And once you stand there everything becomes hollow and light, towering, about to fall, leaflike. He would have tumbled into sleep as well, had he not noticed that for some indistinct but troubling length of time he had been hearing the louder and louder leaden sound of bells. Not church bells or electronic bells, but bells, simple bells, he thought, like the bells fastened around the neck of a draft animal as it goes along, say, a road, at night, to alert other travelers to its presence. The sound drifted in through his open living room windows, past the trembling, dove-colored curtains. His ex-wife’s mother had made them and he’d kept them after their divorce. His wife had always disliked them. That’s Basque family life for you, thought Pereira, as Eletke leaped out of his bed and began to dress. She pulled on her stockings, one at a time. Pereira could not remember ever sleeping with a woman who wore stocking as opposed to hose or tights, and he watched her drawing them up her long, hollow-thighed legs and listening to the bells, his blood thudding mildly at his temples and the godlike tinges of intoxication returning as the bells beat on and on. What on earth could that be, said Pereira. Eletke said she had no idea, it sounded like some tiresome piece of farm equipment. She fastened her yellow belt around her waist and her yellow ribbon around her auburn hair. Goodbye, Friedrich, she said, but it was too late, Pereira had already dashed to his window and parted the white-gray curtains and chivvied up the screen. All the fly-by-night particles so obscure to Pereira: not doing much. Streetlamplight descended in weak-edged cones, and the leaves of the juvenile elm trees turned up their greyish undersides in a breeze. I’m sure it’s nothing, said Eletke. It’s clearly not nothing, said Pereira, and after he spoke four fingers and a thumb gripped his bicep and he caught Eletke’s woodsmoke scent again.
I’m sure it’s nothing, she repeated, smiling. Pereira looked down into the avenue empty of traffic and saw, to his astonished joy, that around the northwest corner of his block there crept, at lugubrious speed, a wooden cart, pulled along by a slow-footed white mule, its ears erect and its mouth lolling open in a human expression of exhaustion. Around the white mule’s throat was a reddish collar, and from this collar, Pereira realized, hung two black-looking bells, pewter or iron, crude, their surface scars bright under the moon. The bells sounded every time the mule’s hooves came back to earth. Do you see that, said Pereira. He could not believe his luck. He cherished mules, had done so his whole life. He found them indescribably affecting, their sad, knowing eyes, their modest ears, the enormous, immodest pricks sported by males, their resilience and the high comedy of their movements. To Pereira, a mule was simply more proof of his great fortune, and this mule in particular, this white mule, annealed and represented all the rushing and incomprehensible good fortune that had beset him since he rushed down into the subway. Eletke’s indifference did not bother him. He understood that to cherish a philosophical love for mules makes you seem eccentric and even mad in the eyes of many members of the species homo sapiens, membership in which Pereira also regarded as part of his tremendous good fortune. Friedrich, said Eletke. No, listen, just listen, said Pereira. A light, lithe fog sprang up from nowhere he could see, and the raw smell of water and stone blew through the air. The shod hooves of the mule struck sparks, yellow and brief, from the oddments of metal that always end up in city asphalt.
The mule’s steps slowed, his ears went limp with relief. The cart slowed, too. In back, between the high frame sides (painted crocus-yellow) Pereira observed what appeared to be a load of earth decked with straw. As the cart approached , he realized it was not earth but manure, by the sweet smell that came from it. The cartsman’s whole frame, his sloping, huge shoulders and back, like the foot of a bank column, his arms: all covered by a loose leather coat, stained with salt, dried guano on its shoulders. As though he’d been riding on his box seat a long time. He held the reins gathered in one hand, two knuckles laid open by some wound. His body swayed with every step the mule took forward, and the straw covering the dung rustled. Cart and mule and cartsman, Pereira saw, had stopped by some further unthinkable stroke of good luck in front of his building. Friedrich, said Eletke again, I really must insist that you pull yourself away from this disgusting spectacle. What spectacle, said Pereira, it’s a mule and a cart and the driver, nothing more, although I have no idea what they’re doing in this part of town. The driver, with speed that belied his sloping shoulders, spun his head and stared up at Pereira as he spoke. I think he heard me, said Pereira. For the love of god, Friedrich, why must you meddle in affairs that you don’t understand, shouted Eletke, with such genuine panic and rage in her voice that Pereira dragged himself from the magnetic sight of the mule and the driver and asked her what the fuck she was talking about. She stood before him, fully dressed, and he stood before her, fully naked. Her sweat still on his skin and his sweat on hers, and lining the walls of her cunt a generous amount of Pereira’s semen. She had insisted that he come inside of her, he tried to withdraw but she clamped her legs around him and Pereira came. Do you not understand me, Friedrich, said Eletke, do you really fail to understand the gravity of the situation? Do you not understand its impossibility?
Other men would have doubted the sanity of the person speaking such words. Not our Pereira. He regarded them as just one more phenomenon. Eletke smiled at him, somehow sadly, and sat back down on the edge of his bed, now bearing the winged stain of their mingled sweat. Oh, Friedrich, said Eletke. Pereira, whom most people called Pereira, had never heard the word Friedrich repeated so many times in his life. It lent the evening a strange and operatic air. Oh, Friedrich, said Eletke, again, and covered her narrow, tense face with her narrow hands. Her glasses, which she had not yet put back on, gleamed blank with street light from Pereira’s bedside table. Pereira was about to ask her what was the matter when an unmistakably human noise, in this case the sound of a human voice leaving a human throat in a single, torn cry, filled the dim air of his bedroom. He rushed back to the window and leaned out under the lifted screen, abrading his exposed scalp.
The cartsman was standing astride his box seat and pointing upwards at Pereira with his riding crop. He shouted, again, the same word. Pereira recognized it and turned back to his bed, and asked Eletke if she were married and if so, was this her husband and if so, how had he managed to find her. He’s not my husband, said Eletke, he’s my uncle. Another shout. Pereira expected to hear any moment an answering shout, in his neighborhood people were never diffident about shouting down into the street or up from the street into a window, Pereira expected to hear a resounding order to shut up, or to shut the fuck up perhaps, and maybe even the moronic howl of a cop siren. Instead, silence. The small chords caused by the minor movements of the white mule. But nothing else. The cartsman had tucked his crop into his broad, scarred leather belt so that he could cup his hands around his enormous, blackish mouth, Pereira saw, to amplify his shouts. He called for Eletke, he called for his niece, again, and Eletke came to the window, bringing her scent of woodsmoke. They then began a conversation in what Pereira again assumed was Hungarian and of which he did not understand a word. The cartsman, still standing, opened his thick arms and exposed the salt-whitened breast of his leather coat. Eletke made a series of sharp, knifelike gestures with her small, big-knuckled hands. The cartsman took his riding crop from his belt and roared again, spittle leaping from his mouth in strands, and the crop pointing right at—it seemed—Pereira’s left eye, and Pereira knew without being able to understand that this uncle was threatening him or insulting him. Eletke seized his shoulder and trilled down her own loud answer. The white mule lowered its shy, pained gaze, like a child whose parents, spurred on by insanity or excess drinking, are having a ragged public argument. This fascinated Pereira most of all. Eletke and her uncle finished shouting at each other and she hid her eyes with her tense hands again. God of our fathers, she said again and again in what Pereira assumed was English. He stood there as the cool night breeze caressed his genitals and dried the mingled sweat on his skin. Why did you spend, thought Pereira, all these years working as a lawyer if you never learned how to anticipate and deal with situations such as this?
Eletke said she had to go down and speak with her uncle face-to-face. All this shouting, she said, had exhausted her. Pereira, still naked, assured her he would go with her, and before she could object he had put his discarded and crumpled clothes back on, without socks or underwear, and slipped a pair of leather sandals from under his bed and onto his large feet. It’s not that cold outside, he said, when Eletke stared. She didn’t say yes or no, she didn’t say anything at all, as Pereira took her arm and marched through his silent building hallway with her, the fluorescent humming above his head and the banister alive to his palm with ruts and lumps of the slabbed gray paint building management applied year after year. The building hallway as empty as the street below, not of people%97our Pereira’s neighbors did not socialize in their hallways in the middle of the night, after all%97but of the noise you might expect, plumbing noise, feet scraping floors in the separate darknesses of the apartments. And so on and so forth. Pereira stood at the street door and looked through the glass. All there: parked cars and the hardware store on the opposite side, whose sign said KEYS MADE. When he walked alongside Eletke into the street, the fog stirred by the wind tenderly brushed his bare ankles (he’d rolled up the cuffs of his pants, since he was wearing only the sandals of a classical athlete). The cartsman stared as they approached him. Still holding his crop. Braided leather, its handle gleaming dully. What can I do for you, sir, said Pereira. The cartsman did not address him, he addressed his niece, again in what Pereira assumed was Hungarian. The white, blind moon shone down from above. The mule whickered and shuffled his hooves, suffering behind his dark, liquid eyes, as noted. Like a child with two monstrous parents, who wants only to sleep but to whom sleep is denied by the screams and insane hatred of his two parents.
Eletke answered her uncle. The mule gestured with its ears. Pereira said, again, what can I do for you, sir. He wanted to help this stranger, who did not speak English, who spoke only, Pereira assumed, Hungarian. The desire came from Pereira’s regular, wood-like constitution, which bore up well under strain and even at times sang under strain, as wood does. But in this world your singing will never be appreciated, and the cartsman, instead of speaking to Pereira or his niece in Hungarian, pulled up on the reins, with a swift, cruel movement of his abraded hand, and the mule cried out as the bit cut into his blackish lip. The cart creaked and stopped moving. The cartsman, beneath his leather coat: his shoulders and back inflated and deflated with his coarse-edged breathing. Sir, said Pereira. And then a tremendous pain blinded him.
He saw, when the haze dissipated, though the horns and leaves of fog still floated near his ankles, the cartsman muttering at him and holding a dark linear object in his left hand. The crop. Pereira noted now that it was made of the same worked leather as the reins and halter. Blood slowly flowed down Pereira’s right cheek. It warmed his skin. Drops of it clung to the head of the crop, and drops of it clung to the handle. And our Pereira, true and pure son of the lower bourgeoisie that he was, knew how to respond. Eletke shouted at her uncle. Her voice climbing higher and higher as Pereira swung himself up on the cart edge and seized several bull-like folds of her uncle’s leather coat in his free fist and pulled the man from his box seat onto the pavement. Pereira was, let it be noted, a bald man and a man who wore glasses, and he had out of scrupulosity avoided fistfights whenever possible over the course of his short life, but none of this means that when a true son of the lower bourgeoisie is confronted with the inevitable, he will fail to respond to the inevitable.
With every blow Pereira landed—after the first his glasses flew from his nose, like a crude manmade bird—both the uncle and Eletke cried out. Pereira struck the uncle in the jaw, and the uncle’s jaw seemed to him like a stone, immersed somehow in river water. Eletke shouted that he must stop, he must. Pereira struck the uncle under the ribs, and even the shield of adipose tissue covering the uncle’s torso felt like it was made of some alloy or some thick sheath of cement. The uncle bellowed, all the same, so Pereira believed he was doing some damage. Then the uncle drove his boot into Pereira’s ankle and Pereira fell and the uncle pinned him to the cold curb with one hand and with the other groped for his riding crop, which Pereira heard writhing around between the man’s fingers like a serpent or perhaps even the tail of a cat. He had the crop in his fist as Pereira struggled against his grip, its dull handle upwards, the moon gleaming on its tip, white, blind, and bent, when Eletke leaned over his hand. Pereira watched her open her mouth, watched her teeth shine, watched her teeth dive into and divide her uncle’s weathered skin—but resignedly! as if Eletke had lived through this wretched and excessive moment before—and bright blood, looking black in the white light, begin to stream down the uncle’s bared wrist. His grip loosened, Pereira’s pulse no longer throbbed like the sea in his temples and he, with all the knowledge and expertise proper to a true son of the lower orders of the bourgeoisie, drove his bare heel (the sandal slipped off as he raised his leg and night touched the sole of his foot) into the side of uncle’s head, and the uncle stumbled backwards and raised his arms as a conductor might raise them at the end of conducting, perhaps, the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, also known as Die Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart, or the Holy Thanksgiving song of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode. A piece of music Pereira had, despite his generalized misgivings about Beethoven, always loved, as he loved the entire quartet. Only it was night, and Beethoven is the supreme daylight artist. Only the uncle was Hungarian, so perhaps he would not have conducted a German as his first choice. Then again, thought Pereira, as he watched the uncle stumble back toward the cart, perhaps he might have, the cultural dependency of the Hungarians on the Germans or at least the Austrians is a historical fact. These ambiguous but far from incorrect thoughts ended: the uncle completed his fall and the side of his stonelike head struck the cart’s black, black axletree with a dull ringing sound, iron and tympanic. He slid the last distance to the asphalt. How little separates the living and the dying. Four inches, maybe less. His mud- or manure-caked boot-heels beat the asphalt. Quiet. Except for Pereira’s breathing, Eletke’s clotted breathing, and the even, reverential breathing of the mule.
Pereira looked at the uncle, lying there in the ashen shadow of the cart. As though someone had hurled him to earth. More of his brightish, blackish blood leaked out from the wound the axletree had inflicted, turning a shade of near-green where it passed through the streetlamplight and then reverting to black, never once, Pereira noted, seeming red. Such is asinine human nature. I think we need to call the police, said Pereira. Oh, Friedrich, don’t be absurd, said Eletke, as though she were some kind of heroine in some kind of German extravaganza, which Pereira, again, thought was odd for a Hungarian or perhaps not so odd. Absurd, she repeated, and the mule, for the first time, cried out. Come help me, said Eletke. Pereira failed to understand what she meant. So he observed in the way someone crippled by circumstances, his one foot bare and cold and his head bare, his fists aching in torment and bruises blooming on his throat, will observe. Eletke scurried up to the prone body of her uncle, lying in the cart’s shadow, and hefted his wrist. She sighed. The holy one, blessed be he, said Eletke, but she didn’t say it English or in Hungarian, so Pereira did not understand and did not even fail to understand, it was simply beyond him, and he gave up his attempts and went to Eletke’s aid. Friedrich, said Eletke, please lift him up, take his arm. Pereira did. One of the uncle’s arms, heavy as a sack of grain—or so our Pereira imagined, never having lifted a sack of grain or any other rural and weighty object until this very night—draped over his shoulders. The other draped over Eletke’s. Under these circumstances, they lifted the uncle’s body up into the moonlight. Pereira could feel, against his ribs, the lethargic expansion and contraction of the uncle’s lungs, and even hear a bit of his whistling breath. Friedrich, we must get him indoors, said Eletke. What about the mule, said Pereira. Do not concern yourself with the mule, said Eletke.
The rank cruelty and injustice of this made Pereira drop his side of the uncle, who went on breathing and whistling, as Eletke cried out. Pereira walked up to the white mule and stroked its long face, its leathery nose, and looked into its meek eyes. Go ahead, the mule seemed to say with its mulish and innocent glance. What is the matter with you, Friedrich, can’t you understand anything, shouted Eletke as Pereira communed with the mule, a mule is a mule, nothing more. We can make use of your sofa, I believe, said Eletke, and I assure you in the morning my uncle will thank you for your hospitality and leave. Pereira sighed. He saw the weightiness of this argument, though he knew it would prove to be false. That’s the trouble with arguments. All the same he dragged his side, the right side, of her uncle back up into the moonlight, and they carried him to Pereira’s building door, the uncle’s steel bootcaps grating against the cement. Even a spark. A day or two, at most, said Eletke, and in any case Friedrich you can clearly see that you are the guilty party here. That’s the trouble with guilt and with innocence, eventually they whistle through the air and pierce your skin with their barbed heads. At random, thought our Pereira. Eletke’s uncle groaned and spat, and his sputum smeared itself all over the nipple of a fire hydrant. That’s the trouble with uncles. For a few days at most, said Eletke, or perhaps a week. If the mule cries out once, only once, thought our Pereira, I can turn my back. Turn my back on what? On the uncle, on Eletke, on what all he didn’t know. On consciousness and mere phenomena, on this swampy and clouded being in favor of white and pure beasts of burden. We all have backs, thought Pereira, so why don’t we turn them, it’s a human universal. At this point the dead sound of the collar bells rose. The night, it seemed, laughed to itself. And our Pereira? Continued to exist.
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