This is a story about my thirtieth birthday that I wrote a few years later.
Copyright © 1975 by Remington Review, Inc.
As a young man I don’t think I ever once explicitly wondered what I would be doing on my 30th birthday. Which is just as well because if I had wondered I would doubtless have tried to fake it in some way, anyhow as it turned out I woke up alone in a cold rented room in Prague with the runs and on my way back from the John looked out the window at a drizzly November morning on a street lined with thin bare trees whose long-fallen leaves were still lying around half trodden into mulch on the sidewalk.
“A man with thirty years gone by,” I said aloud, quoting the Baccalaureus from Part II of Goethe’s Faust, “already is as good as dead. It would be best to kill you promptly off.” — And that in iambs! As was Mephisto’s reply, which offhand I couldn’t recall. (And didn’t have a copy with me, of course; one of the minor drawbacks of extended travel.)
The runs were a souvenir of Brno, the second largest city in Czechoslovakia, and I was alone because I had broken up with A. down in Athens several weeks before and she had gone back to the States by herself. Since then, on my way up from Greece through Eastern Europe, I had often stayed up late into the night (insomnia for the first time in years!) reading books in German by a man named Arno Schmidt, who writes with a strange mixture of energy & erudition & anomie, all spiced with clattering —:—: ?—:!!!—salvos of punctuation. His first book, I had noticed, came out when he was 34, and he once remarked that he was “almost Arno Schmidt” by the time he was 40.
“We have a saying in the movement,” said Jack Weinberg during the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley back in 1964, “that we don’t trust anybody over 30.” Weinberg turned 30 himself a few years later, and was sought out by a newspaper reporter to whom he explained why he had said that: to show that the FSM was a spontaneous creation of the students themselves, and not some kind of artificially-induced hysteria masterminded by professional Communists in their 50s. The slogan was picked up, he said, primarily by people over 30, to whom the student protest movement was a threat. Weinberg himself seemed unconcerned about turning 30, and what the reporter found him doing was quietly organizing for socialism somewhere in the suburbanized wastes of Los Angeles.
“And what am I doing for socialism on my 30th birthday? Grouching around Czechoslovakia, that’s what, looking for Dubcek signs scrawled furtively on walls and typing up articles about Greek fascism that probably won’t ever get published.” (They never were, but the S. F. Chron. picked up a few crumbs, and I later strewed the rest over “much of northern California” on the radio.)
The political situation on my 30th birthday was that Alexander Dubcek had been out of office for nearly fifteen months and the Greek junta had been in for over thirty. — — That being the way it was, I went back to bed.
“The creeping and crawling cruds,” as my little classmates back in Junior High School used to call them, (“the trots,” as the army medics always said in their constipated jargon), were still with me when I woke at eleven. But otherwise I was feeling somewhat better so I got up, dressed, packed my pack frame, took a crowded train with steamed-up windows and finally got off at a little town whose former German name had been changed to a Czech one with v marks over three of the letters.
A muddy field by the river: a lone merry-go-round, either the advance guard or the last remains of a carnival. A few children sat on wooden horses, rising and falling. A loudspeaker blared early Beatles. My mind, recalling its academic toilet training of a decade before, held everything in and searched for symbols. After crossing a bridge I asked directions again, and eventually found the church — — — and the narrow street — — and at last the old squat besooted apartment building where my relatives lived, the aunt and uncle I had never met before.
— : — ?—:!!!— (Waiting at the door.) No more drizzle now, just the uniform grey overcast of a Middle-European winter.
My father in drag! But wider and older and more settled. That is, the head settled into the neck, the neck into the shoulders. “So you did come this time!” was one of her greetings.
One flight up: a cramped apartment. Two rooms and a small kitchen. My uncle was lying in a bed in the corner of the living room, a tiny withered old man with white hair and pale white skin. “Too bad — — you didn’t come in July — — as you planned — — — I was healthy then — —” He spoke in German, very slowly, in a hoarse whisper, with long pauses every few words. “But I’m — — glad you came now — — anyway —” He held my hand and sobbed.
I explained at length, with the inevitable pangs and twangs of an intermittent conscience, why I hadn’t been able to come in July: the articles I was writing, the people I had to see, the radio programs I was recording, etc. Naturally I neglected to mention that none of my projects had turned out to amount to much, and that what I had mainly been doing was traveling around with my (then) girl friend.
“Our Father — with a knife!” Short sharp cries, at irregular intervals. “Like being stabbed — — with a knife — — with a knife — — between the ribs — over and over — Our Father — who Art in Heaven — Why do You do this to me? — You know I never — I never — —”
“He keeps insisting he never did anything wrong,” said my aunt. “And that’s the truth, he was always very kind to everyone.” She propped him up slightly on his pillows, and that seemed to ease the pain.
“The nights are the worst,” she said. “It’s been six weeks this time, day and night. I would have written and told you about it, but I was afraid you wouldn’t come if you knew, and he’s been so anxious to meet you. He’s had nothing else to look forward to for such a long time.”
My own problem of course seemed trivial by comparison, but after holding on as long as I could, I finally asked: “Where…?” Downstairs, she told me, then out the back door and to the left.
Weathered but well-scrubbed, much cleaner than those I had used as a boy on camping trips on the banks of the Mississippi, a wooden outhouse stood in one corner of the dingy yard behind the building. Most people in Czechoslovakia had flush toilets, as far as I knew, but the lives of my aunt and uncle seemed in this respect to have been one long camping trip. My diarrhea was still living up to its etymology; “the act of flowing through” is the meaning of the Greek root, and to this day the German word for it is der Durchfall. literally “the falling through.” (On the newspaper squares: mostly want ads, all in Czech.)
Smiling beatifically, the old man hardly seemed to notice when I re-entered the room. He was talking softly, in a smooth flow, about the walks he intended to take with me: around the marketplace, through the center of town, down to the river and along the banks, up the steep path to the bluff overlooking the whole valley, along the North Ridge Trail and the West Ridge Trail, back by way of the local 14th century castle. My aunt said he had been talking this way ever since my letter arrived, saying I was coming. “That path up to the bluff is very steep,” she reminded him. “You haven’t been up there for years.” “Tomorrow!” he insisted. “Tomorrow we’ll go—” He moaned. His pains again.
“Until a few weeks ago you took walks twice a day,” she added hurriedly. “Morning and afternoon, do you remember, how you walked around the square with your colleagues?” He nodded and began to sob.
The doorbell. It was the doctor, a kindly middle-aged man (middle between them and me; need I mention I had ceased feeling elderly?) with rimless glasses. To my surprise, he spoke Czech with my uncle. Switched to German for me, though, since my Czech vocabulary consists of three words which I confuse with the same three in Serbo-Croatian.
German also to my aunt — — ?? — (Always N.B. who speaks which language to whom in this kind of place.)
Wisps of steam, puffs of smoke: two cups of hot coffee and the doctor’s pipe. (My aunt out shopping, my uncle’s frail body in a slumber, like a burnt twig turned to white ash but still twig-shaped, pending the next breath of wind.) “I come by every day, to see if there’s anything I can do, but I’m pretty helpless…”
Symptoms, indications, contraindications. “Nothing much even eases the pain, any more, besides an occasional hour’s sleep.” / — — (I forget what I said to that. What does one say to such a thing, anyhow?)
“He’s perfectly healthy, in a certain — idiotically abstract — sense. We’ve had him examined by every conceivable specialist: nothing.” / “??”
“mmmm…, psychosomatic, yes, to be sure. But of course that’s not the same as imaginary. He really is in pain. I don’t think I’ve ever had a patient who seemed so much to be looking up at me out of the seventh circle of hell. But this isn’t an organic disease, it’s a condition that developed slowly out of — what do I know?—” He shrugged, puffed, sipped, spread out his hands in a helpless gesture. “—out of the relationship between these two people, perhaps. Out of their isolation, the hardships after the war, the death of their only child. Perhaps also from feelings of guilt or whatever. It’s hard to say.”
“The relationship, you say…?” / “He was always very dependent on her. And I suppose she was always dependent on his being dependent on her, if you see what I mean.” / I saw what he meant, but not why it should come back in the form of pains between the ribs, of all things.
“You’ve heard of the ‘three-month colic?’ No? Well look it up in your Doctor Spock. It’s an ailment over-protected infants sometimes get. They have these inexplicable stomach pains every afternoon, from about the age of three weeks to three months — inexplicable but somehow connected to the behavior of the mother. Well, your uncle has sort of an ‘eighty-two-year colic.’ Though of course it’s not a colic at all…” He trailed off, sounding suddenly old.
“Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not trying to blame this on your aunt. She’s been through more than her share of hard times, and she didn’t ask to be in this situation any more than he did. And she is very good at caring for him. She rarely sleeps. It’s amazing how older people can go without sleep if they have to. She’s over seventy herself.”
“How long will this go on, do you think?” / “I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. But what he’s got isn’t something you can die of. Sooner or later he’ll die of exhaustion, I suppose.”
“And then? What will become of her?” / The doctor shook his head but said nothing.
“Weh…wieder…Rippen…” My uncle woke up, complaining hoarsely in German. The doctor spoke to him in Czech, at length, very gently.
My aunt came back with her few groceries. The doctor stayed and seemed determined to get her talking about other things. He told political jokes: “Do you know why there isn’t any pork in the butcher shops? Because all the swine are in the government.”
After the doctor left I tried to keep her talking politics. I asked her about Dubcek. / “Yes, that was a good interval,” she said. “Even the Czechs began to come to life a little. But now they’re back in their old rut, just like before. I’ve lived all my life among these Czechs, I know what they’re like. They’ll never amount to much.”
My uncle was sleeping again. “But your own husband is a Czech,” I said. / “True. My family never understood why I married a Czech. And his family never understood why he married a German. They never had much to do with us, the relatives on either side.”
I had no way of knowing, of course, what had persuaded these two to get married in the first place (this was true of most married people I knew; marriage was something I hadn’t gotten into in my first 30 years, and I regarded it with fear and suspicion), but in any case a modicum of mutual tolerance must have been involved — and this the surrounding society had systematically set out to punish. I wondered how she reconciled her love for her husband with her dislike for the Czechs, but I didn’t have to wait long to find out. / “He was never one of your typical lazy Czechs,” she said. “He got ahead in the world, and in the census he registered as a German, it was perfectly legal. He was Director then. Of the power plant. And he speaks perfect German, he still does, even now.”
I had noticed that. Even his most desperate outcries of pain were in German, even his tortured recitations of the Lord’s Prayer that never got past the first line. / And do you speak Czech?” I asked. / “I understand Czech,” she said, “but I don’t speak it, I refuse. After the way they treated us at the end of the war? — no, no, not for me!”
To me it seemed rather obvious that the Czechs might think unkindly of a fellow Czech who had posed as a German during the occupation, but I guess she didn’t see it that way. She had stopped talking and was apparently waiting to be asked what they had done. So I asked. / “They took our furniture away. And our apartment. We were lucky at the time to get this one, shabby as it is, without even any running water except half a flight down, on the landing. And they wouldn’t even let us leave the country. The rest of the Germans they threw out, but when we wanted to leave they didn’t let us.” Evidently her husband had lost his job at the end of the war, though she only mentioned that obliquely. I gathered he was eventually re-hired in some subordinate capacity.
She kept on talking, and eventually got around to their daughter. “That was our real misfortune, that she died. She was twenty-three. If only she had lived, everything would have been much better for us. We would have had a family, we would have been respected, she would have taken care of us, made decisions, gotten things organized…”
The daughter’s picture was on the table — my cousin. A bland, indecisive-looking face, I thought, but possibly she was already sick when the picture was taken. Be that as it may, I couldn’t reconcile the daughter’s face with the mother’s expectations.
When my uncle woke up he had his pains again, but then they subsided and he wanted to hear about my travels. / “Yes, he’s always enjoyed hearing about people’s travels,” my aunt interjected. “And reading about them. Travel books were always his favorites.” / Somehow I thought that remark might bring on a new round of pains, so I quickly pulled a chair up to the bed and started talking about:
Icelandic hot springs and greenhouse bananas; Norwegian coastal steamers and the sheer walls of island-mountains slicing out of the sea into the eerily indefatigable soft orange light of the midnight sun; Danish farmhouses and flat fields and long-haired adolescents hitch-hiking to visit their grandmothers; a long train ride through Germany with everyone hanging out the windows into a heat wave watching the flat farmland grow bulges and the bulges sprout peaks; and so on through the Alps on an Austrian postal bus that took us over a border pass and down a smooth endlessly unwinding road into Yugoslavia.
The old man nodded occasionally, and made appropriate comments to assure me he was still listening. / I talked of cevapcici and such edibles, then went down the Adriatic coast in some detail; and mentioned meeting Czech tourists with wads of unconvertible currency and their whole journey’s gas in big jerry cans in the backs of their cars. Eventually I got around to describing a hot dusty bus trip into the interior of Yugoslavia, with stops for beer and roast lamb, and our arrival at a place called Mostar, a long narrow valley town that used to be the capital of Herzegovina and probably still would be if Herzegovina hadn’t been merged with Bosnia in 1878.
“Mostar!” exclaimed my uncle, making a motion as if to prop himself up on one elbow. “I know the place, I was there myself, in the army, back in 1909.” / “The army…?” / He assured me that he did indeed mean THE army, and in two or three breaths, but without any great strain, he got out the entire name: “The Royal — and Imperial — Army of the — Austro-Hungarian Empire!” And then, more emotional:
“The Old Danube Monarchy! And our dear old Franz Joseph! He was still on his throne then, you know. We were serving… under his command. So to speak.” He choked back a sob.
The passing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 hadn’t caused any widespread consternation among the Czechs, as far as I had ever heard, but for my uncle the old empire had apparently managed, in the intervening half century, to shed all connotations other than youth, travel, excitement… and the aura of kindly old white-bearded Franz Joseph.
“We voyaged by sea…” my uncle whispered, and his lips moved further, forming the beginnings of more words. But either he didn’t know what to say next, or the memories came too fast, or he was too tired to get them formulated, “…on the sea…” was all that eventually came out. Perhaps his only memories of the Adriatic were of sweating in the hold of an Austrian troop ship; and perhaps the officers and subalterns and sergeants in the service of Franz Joseph weren’t always as polite to slack-shouldered Czech recruits as the aged emperor himself presumably would have been.
“We traveled by train,” announced my uncle after a long pause. / His wife smiled indulgently. “But you just said by sea, darling.” / He gestured vaguely, and decades of stale resentments seemed to pass back and forth between them. “By sea, of course.” But Mostar happens not to be on the sea. So we got off the ship and took a train.” / “Ah.”
“A three days’ march it used to be, in the old days, before the railroad. Did you see the railroad? A marvel of engineering! Tunnels… bridges… There are cliffs rising up on both sides, you see, and… and…” / I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the Austrians’ old narrow-gage single-track railway line up to Mostar was dismantled some years ago, and that only fragments of a trackless roadbed are still visible in some places down in the canyon far below the highway. Nor that my most vivid memory of Mostar itself was a gleaming new bus station with modern shops and a long shaded patio. So I talked about the town’s thirty mosques and the old pointed bridge and the stone houses all shoved together up and down both sides of the river.
“Yes… yes… the pointed bridge,…” he said, and mumbled something about an old Turkish caserne across the road from his barracks. And about hundreds of girls working in a tobacco factory he passed on his way to town. That was the extent of his memories, evidently — but I don’t imagine I’d do much better if I were lying racked with pain in the year 2021 trying to recall what Phouc Vinh was like. Or Xuan Loc or any of those places I was stationed as a sweltering young soldier.
“Mostar?” said his wife. “That’s where you caught malaria, isn’t it? They stuck you in a hospital, and then sent you home.” / “That’s true,” he said, and a while later his pains resumed. He moaned, shrieked, gasped for breath. “Like daggers! Like a knife — — between the ribs — —
Certain similarities between my uncle and me kept seeping up into my mind. I too was a devotee of travel books and long walks in the hills, I too had been “director” of something, I too had served in an occupying army. What had he been doing, I wondered, on his 30th birthday? That would have been in 1917, in the World War; perhaps he was back in the army if they had cured his malaria. I wondered if he, at age 30, had to any extent foreseen what was awaiting him: a depression, annexation by the Nazis, his decision to register as a German, another war, disgrace, isolation, the death of a daughter, a painful senility.
After a while I couldn’t understand what he was saying any more, and I thought he must have finally reverted to his native Czech. But when I listened carefully I realized he was still crying out in German, very softly, with long tortured pauses: “— — Eighty — — two — — — years — — are enough! — “