Archives for the month of: March, 2013

Patka Esterhazy, a rich widow and one of Dodge City’s main Krasznahorkai translators, has died.

There are several translators of Kraznahorkai from the Hungarian in Dodge City, this being a town that does things for itself. But Patka Esterhazy, reputed heiress to the so-called and much-discussed European Fortune, has, over the past two decades, easily emerged at the fore of that pack, both for the elegance of her English renderings and the sheer stamina of her working method, which often involves producing more than one version of each of the dauntingly dense works of the, according to Susan Sontag, “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville.”

I remember, for example, reading five Melancholies of Resistance last year, all Esterhazy translations, and each more precise and impeccable than the last. The only other competing Dodge City translator still in the game at this point is a beer-bellied single dad named Tom O’Brien, whose mastery over the language was called into question after his competing version of The Melancholy of Resistance emerged with the title “Under the Volcano.”

It was a scandal. Anyway, Patka Esterhazy is dead.

This leaves the question of the European Fortune, which spent the better part of the last century burrowing into the minds of Dodge City’s romantics like a miniature Mothman Prophecy.

The question of her death — from sly poisoning? Some wonder. — is inextricable from the question of the Fortune’s fate. To whom will it go?

Well, if her Will is to have any say, it may yet go to her “milquetoast descendants” but only if they “find the dregs of character in their desiccated husk collapsed honeycomb hive-minds to embalm, bury, and consecrate me themselves. No pro’s of any kind are to lay a finger on me — that includes you, Father Kokoschka. I want them to come firsthand with death. I want them to have to see it and touch it and be there with it. No delegating this time, nancies. No phoning it in. Try not to take the easy way for once, fuckwads.”

Until then, also according to the Will, the Fortune has been packed into a giant burlap sack, the kind that brings coffee beans from Brazil, and suspended by a crane arm from the courthouse over the Town Square, hanging like an anvil. We walk beneath it, staring up, waiting for manna to fall.

*****

It’s been a few days now, the body putrefying in the bed where it was found, and her milquetoast descendants have not yet found it in their hive-minds to embalm her. They bicker and snipe, and it’s unclear if they’re even looking for it in their hive-minds or not.

We all linger around the house, with its pretty yellow rose garden, as everything takes on an armpitty Faulknerian vibe. The days get hot as we wait and wait to see what’ll happen, smelling the body, hearing the bickering.

The pro’s — the whole crew from Stanstead’s Funeral Corp. and the Graveyard Shift Boys and of course the clergy — all step in, saying, “Let us take care of this, c’mon, the Fortune will just go to the town or whatever,” but things aren’t about to get that simple around here.

Rumors start up, some involving the Will (how it wasn’t signed by a real Notary or anyone official, even that was an amateur affair, so it can’t be taken at its Word) … others about Esterhazy’s long campaign of intimidation and abuse toward her milquetoast descendants (and who were they anyway? The poly-mothered kids of some alcoholic brother who died in a minor border skirmish? An adopted gaggle?). It was said she’d forced them to clean her septic tank, forced them to eat expired, unlabeled canned and jarred food from her barely-functional fridge, forced them to rub palm oil into her caving-in joints for hours on end … that she’d trapped them for long hours in rooms alone with ink, ink, ink black heart at the heart of Krasznahorkai’s literary enterprise, which, it was said, she had so deep in her possession that Krasznahorkai himself had had to call and request her permission each time he wanted to use it for another of his novels, some of which W.G. Sebald would in time compare to Gogol’s Dead Souls.

In any case: infighting, putrefaction, putrefaction, infighting, grubbing over that Fortune that hung and hung over the Town Square from the arm of a crane that would eventually, one presumed, have to return to the work it’d been previously engaged to complete.

*****

Finally, the milquetoasts found it in them. The Amateur Funeral took place on a Monday (they were afraid Sunday would ring too doctrinal).

We all came out to see it. It wasn’t in a church or a graveyard, but on the grounds of an old paint factory, where there was a partially laid-foundation that could be used as a grave site, chunks of stone and concrete piled nearby that could be hauled and kicked on top of the body to cover it.

It looked as though they’d sucked its innards out with an air mattress pump set to Deflate, though that’s just a guess. The body was slumped and looked fairly dry, at least, and parts of it looked carved in the manner of a turkey, though incompletely.

It was wrapped partially in cellophane and partially in tin foil, and what looked like a strip of an old T-shirt covered its neck.

The milquetoasts — there were five of them here, with rumors that two or three more had stayed home, cowering in the shadows or crying in the shower — brought it to the foundation pit on a dolly, and, in front of us all, tipped it as unceremoniously as possible over the edge. It landed with a dusty thump, not the splat we’d been expecting. Looking down at it, we could see patches of makeup and lipstick rubbed nearly at random across its face under the wrapping, and a couple of barrettes jammed into its hair and a Q-tip in one ear.

Then came the sermon, or the consecration. The milquetoasts took turns reading from a Good Book they had clearly produced the night before, or that morning — it looked like a bunch of stapled-together printed pages and some notecards and napkins, and contained a combination of made-up-sounding Hungarian phrases, fortune cookie aphorisms, psychobabble, and an assortment of recent news snippets and book reviews.

Then they threw some chipped concrete and a tire on top of the body. She looked like that Witch crushed under that House.

We all nodded our heads solemnly but the milquetoasts enjoined us not to — again, too doctrinal. So we tried to just feel weird instead, to feel no way in particular, to have none of the feelings about death we were accustomed to having, or had always expected to have.

Once we’d done that, we went in a pack to the Town Square to see about the European Fortune.

When I start to get wound-up, Big Pharmakos sits me down and spoon-feeds me a little, what he calls, Shtetl Noir:

“They’d just given birth to their first baby, a beautiful, healthy boy they named Noah, duly blessed, when they decided to move from the capital to a distant, isolated corner of the provinces, hot in summer and cold in winter, where, it was believed, a certain letter of introduction that the husband and father, Jakob, had managed to procure from his advisor in the city, would help him find a job in his field, one that would afford them, at the very least, a daily means of scraping across the threshold between one day and the next.

So, with this letter in hand, Jakob moved with his wife, Leah, and the baby, to this distant, shabby little town — like a prelapsarian (if “prelapsarian” can be taken to mean “back when things were even worse”) Dodge City marooned somewhere in the far outskirts of the Pale.

Upon arrival, they parceled out their little savings — the dregs of a student stipend, a cashed bond, and the proceeds from the sale of their furniture and a rare Spinoza volume that Leah had been given by a now-defunct grandparent years earlier — in order to establish residence in a small, cloudy cottage on the edge of this parochial nowhere where circumstance had forced them to believe their fate lay waiting.

While Leah came down in her nightclothes and settled into their one chair in their drafty (or seethingly humid — Big Pharmakos hadn’t decided what season it should be) living room, suckling baby Noah and brushing his several brand new hairs, Jakob set out for his first day of work.

There were several layers of smoked cod, a whole onion which he’d eat like an apple, and two slices of toast with a small jar of apple butter, arranged quietly in his lunch bag. His gloves (he did it always by hand, as this all took place before The Age Of Wire And String) and his mask (a sober, form-fitting burlap affair) were in a leather sack he kept slung over his shoulder, the same one he’d carried during his student days in the city.

He kissed Leah and the baby, and set out into the smell of woodfires and steaming pack animal breath, stepping gingerly across jagged floes of ice marooned on the dirt road’s dirt sidewalks, or else fetid, sweaty piles of … if it was summer.

This was all before dawn. There would be, he knew, no sleeping in now that his new family life had begun in earnest. No lazing about and dreaming of the day’s openness, of long strolls in sunlight and leisurely cups of coffee and philosophical debate, as there had been in his student days. Even Leah’s rare Spinoza volume, for many years his unwavering companion, was gone, melted down in the furnace of capital.

Walking down that pre-dawn dirt lane, alongside the other working men, both young and old, he thought with a twinge of those bygone days, the feral seriousness they’d had about them that, now, had come to seem like innocent boys’ play: all those belabored, first-pounding debates of the tangled intersections of the immanent and the transcendent, the coded demonology and eschatology of Isaac Luria and Sabbatai Zevi, seemed now as harmless as supping noodle soup through a warm spoon in a paper gown in a hospital bed.

On that first day of his profession, putting such childish things behind as well as any man can, Jakob strangled three people: two of the town’s three bakers, and an old lady.

One by one (head still masked in burlap, hands still gloved), he dragged their bodies discreetly through the streets and into a shed that his letter of introduction had helped him secure. He stacked them neatly on shelves, making sure their arms and feet were not dangling, trying to minimize the  grotesquerie of the job as best he could, putting his city training to work. He covered the bodies with blankets and switched off the light he’d worked under, seeing then that it was already dark outside.

He trudged home weary and spent, stopping at the butcher’s for a meager cut of pork and some day-old chicken legs. This was all his hard work had amounted to.

At home, Leah boiled these in a pot with a dash of salt and part of a carrot, masking her disappointment that there wasn’t more, or better. They ate this with a few radishes and shared a bottle of milk.

Jakob’s hands were so worn out from the day’s labor he could hardly hold his fork, and he was so tired inside he could hardly feel the joy he knew the sight of his wife and baby son ought to have summoned in him. That night, after soaking his hands in a bowl of warm water sprinkled with anise seeds, he fell asleep while Leah was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and she could not rouse him.

*****

Their life continued as it had begun. Over the course of that first, lean year, Jakob strangled one hundred and eighty people, including the postmaster, the deputy mayor, eight of the town’s twelve doctors, all of its dentists, seven of its eight kosher slaughterers, nine of its thirteen schoolteachers, and all of the neighbors on their street. He even, in what had for a moment felt like a definite step forward, strangled both of the rival stranglers who’d been operating in the town far longer than he had. Neither had ever worked as hard.

All of these he stacked, all neatly, in his shed, which, to his chagrin, grew fuller by the day. Soon, he would need to invest in a new space, or else begin burying the bodies in a field or a pond, practices which his training had taught him to regard as shoddy.

He returned home each night and together he and Leah ate their crust of pork and leg of chicken, the heel of a loaf of bread or perhaps a single portion of kasha divided in two. They watched the baby grow, his face so full of hope, so full of light and life … though, Jakob couldn’t help but fear, creeped over also by a cloud of suspicion, which Jakob could not deny even for the sake of his son, a suspicion that life would not meet his expectations even if he lowered them, that life could never be for a man what it had seemed to a boy that it could, that it must, be.

Still, though, day in and day out, they persevered. Jakob came home and soaked his hands in that bowl of warm water and anise, watching the tension ebb out of the knuckles that had strangled so tirelessly all day long, and, together with his wife and child, and a new baby on the way, they prayed to the Almighty. On some nights, they believed their prayers were heard, and, if not answered, at least taken under consideration. On those nights, Jakob slept easier, flexing his hands under the sheets, gathering into them from On High the strength to wake up into a new day, set out before dawn with his lunch packed, and do it all over again.”

*****

I sit and listen as the story winds down. If my temperament were slightly other than it is, my question might have been: “How does one make a living from country strangling?”

To which Big Pharmakos’ answer might have been: “That, my boy, is the whole point. One barely can, try as one might. That’s the whole tragedy of it, the whole moral, the whole inroad into life’s cruel but persistently beating heart.”

Instead, me being me and he being he, Big Pharmakos stands up and says, “OK, time for a snack.”

And off we go.

Rattled by the discovery of my or my neighbor’s house burnt to the ground, I go to a place and seek solace in The Lime Twig.

Rattled by The Lime Twig, I tell the following story:

Rattled by the discovery of my or my neighbor’s house burnt to the ground, I go to the Golden Horn (nicknamed, in certain drinking circles, The Golden Horde), Dodge City’s premier steam room, to seek solace there.

This is where, I explain, I will decompress, sweat out the squeam.

At the front desk, my Limited Yearly (Not to Exceed 3 Visits per 2 Months) Membership Card in hand, I am met by a brouhaha.

I slip past with a flash of card, but not without catching parts of the problem: there’s been a crime, a murder or something along those lines, and here are the police, eager to investigate, as you might expect, but —

The proprietress, a real Linda Hunt type, won’t let them inside with their clothes on. “I’m sorry, folks,” she explains, a low wail now issuing through the steam room’s sealed door, “but rules is rules. My hands are tied on this.”

They confer amongst themselves, then come back to the desk, purchase Guest Passes, receive their towels and combination locks, and file in through the locker room.

*****

Disrobed, all those cops (a coed crew, if you were wondering) are in there in the steam now, as am I and a few old folks and whoever else was in there before, some more visible than others depending on how deep they’ve gone — this place is known for its corners, some of which go back a long way.

There is a certain encompassing rankness, maybe more than sweat alone would account for, but no definite sign of a body or blood or any other trappings of what they say happened.

I would say that the cops don’t seem particularly concerned about their investigation, but, to tell the truth, without their uniforms, I can’t altogether say which ones the cops are.

There is, though, a definite air in the place, and I don’t just mean steam.

Everyone’s checking each other out, the thin propriety of these places peeled right away, circling, some folks more feral about it than others.

Then things go the way of things, without much prelude, and soon it’s a fully-fledged thing; arms and legs shoot out from a central conjoined mass, breathing through its pores, and there’s wine, drumming, snakes, midgets, 70’s body hair standards — a classical tableau straight out of that weird Caligula with the Clockwork Orange guy.

I’m somewhere in it, buffeted, with one eye out for the dead body that supposedly set this all in motion, though I can tell that this way of thinking may be one reason why I am said by some to be stuck in the past.

The Ottoman mosaics that adorn the floors and benches are cracking into sand, and tiles are crashing down from the ceiling. The steam apparatus sputters and fills the room with boiling but not quite boiled water. Scalded hides react with a virulence that feeds the virulence already afoot.

I see how this could go on and on.

But then the cops show up.

They’re standing in the doorway with Linda Hunt, fully-clothed, some with flashlights and some with clipboards.

“Okay folks,” they say. “Party’s over. We got a call. There’s about to be consequences.”

The mass tries to disconjoin at this news, presumably to scatter, but it’s stuck tight. Someone’s gonna have to do some prying.

The cops are stepping among us now, trying to keep their faces from polarizing into disgust and fascination.

*****

When they’ve finished prying everyone apart (it wasn’t pretty), they line us up for questioning against the wall in the locker room. It’s cold in that distinct facing-the-walk-back-to-your-car-with-wet-hair locker room way.

When it’s my turn, a cop with a clipboard takes me aside and asks me to look over what he’s written. “Please be gentle but serious with your criticism,” he says. “I’m just starting out here, so please just try to help me grow.”

He looks around to see if anyone else is listening, then, satisfied, continues, “I feel like I have all these ideas, you know, things come to me that seem so cool, so good, and I always think like it’ll be so easy to just write them down,” he’s blushing now, “but then, when I get down to do it, just me and the pen and paper, or on my laptop, it all scatters, goes so I can’t see it anymore.” He catches his breath. “And then it’s like I can’t focus. I don’t know, it’s like one minute I have all these ideas and I’m so excited to write, and then the next minute all I want to do is check email and read Pitchfork.”

“Anyway,” he goes on, “I don’t want to just lay this whole trip on you, I mean, I know you have your own shit to work on and you’re probably … but, if you’d just look over my report here, I’d really appreciate it.”

So I look over his report. It’s mostly standard issue police copy, itemizing the crimes that were committed. The only curious thing is that, each time it comes up, instead of “steam room” he’s written “peat bog.”

The locker room is empty now, it’s just the two of us and his clipboard. I nod to him encouragingly. “I think this looks good, man. You just have to trust your vision. That’s all there is to it. Really, you just have to write things as you see them, and the rest will take care of itself.”

In the course of reading, I’ve run my hands all over the clipboard. Most of the paper, wet from the nature of the investigation, has pulped off.

I look and see that I’m now wearing a sort of papier-mache glove on one hand, and see that he’s wearing one too. Between us, we’re wearing most of the report — just a few strands, right under the clip, remain stuck to the clipboard.

“Just keep at it man,” I say, “really,” and turn to leave, wondering if I’ll be permitted to.

He doesn’t say or do anything. Outside, the whole place is shut down, wrapped in CRIME SCENE tape, but there are no people anywhere. Crossing the parking lot, I look at my paper-gloved hand again, and wonder if I’ll see that cop around town, and if he’ll recognize me by it, that is, if I haven’t washed it off by then and he doesn’t recognize me some other way.