What I know about where I'm from - Glimmer Train
In the winter, the skies come down around Vršac. Low, gray clouds come in from the east, spreading over the plains until they seem to converge far off on the horizon. If you went up on the overpass for the highway to Romania (it’d been there unfinished for some years), which I often did, you could look out in all directions over the plains with this peculiar, dismal sky stretching and meeting far off, like a gray dome had been lowered over Vojvodina. If this were Russia, you might could read that metaphorically, but the truth is Serbia was never behind the Iron Curtain, so the only way to read it is as depressing.
Crows flew in small groups across the fields, settling at times to pick at the seeds turned up when the fields had been laid fallow for winter. On clearer days, I could make out the abandoned gas stations some fifteen kilometers off, just behind the border station into Romania, where the father of one of my friends used to fill up his car when there wasn’t any gas in the country. He’d empty it into tin drums and then sell it by the liter from his driveway.
It was a peculiar thing, the landscape from up there. Those fields of black, fertile soil (which gummed up on the bottoms of your shoes) never looked properly black. It was as if some of the sky had filtered down and mixed around with the earth, pulling it off color. The red-tile roofs arrayed like pricks of blood around the first foothills of the Carpathians seemed somehow less red, and the housing blocs that rose among them assumed a bleakness missing in summer, as if even in the middle of the day you might expect to see all the lights on. It really was a peculiar thing.
Winters are bitter there. Winds blow through hard and strong from all directions, and the days are cut even shorter by the clouds that flow overhead. People say they’re getting colder, but I’ve found you can’t trust these things from people. Most remember the winter just past or maybe the one before and base their judgments off that.
People burn wood at home. Sometimes when I went out mornings and the air was still, there would be a warm, fragrant fog from wood smoke that had cooled and drifted back down to lie on the street. Walking in that to the bakery for the morning bread was a pleasant thing. People would make queer shadows as they cut through the church courtyard or down by the old German houses, and lingering on corners looking at it all with hands in trouser pockets, it sometimes felt like being in a movie.
Generally, on days like that I’d walk through the center of town on Miloša Oblića boulevard, taking time to stop in somewhere for coffee when I had money, and turn off by the gas station onto the macadam road that led to my grandfather’s house on the edge of town. Sections of the facade had fallen away and you could see the red-brick skeleton and a large crack that ran down through the corner by the gate. It’d once been the station house for the railway line to Romania. They made my grandfather station master when Tito came to power, and the house came with the job, even after they moved the station clear across town. He had to ride his bike after they did that – sun, rain, or snow, summer or winter. His daughter, my Aunt Violeta, said thats what killed him so young – all the cold air. Well, that and the cigarettes.
It was quiet out that way, the stillness broken maybe by someone taking a stroll around the town reservoir or a stray dog keeping pace with me in the tall grass by the road. If it had rained recently there’d be puddles spanning the road, and I’d have to walk with the dog through the grass too. In the dim morning light, the old factories the Germans had built and then scorched when the Russians had come looked even more derelict and more imposing than in the light of day.
I’d stand in my grandfather’s yard, tramping down some of the weeds for a place to stand, and watch the fog out over the flat, fallow fields. It was entertaining to watch the way it lifted and settled, faded and thickened in a way that seemed like it was in a big hurry to be something else but being what it was, could only move in slow motion.
I’d tear off a piece of the bread, share a bit with the dog if it had come, and we’d guess at what form the fog would take next. As soon as we knew, I’d will it as hard as I could into existence. In this way it felt like I was helping.
The wind would come up, my legs would get sore, or the dog would leave, and I’d know it was time to go. Usually I’d walk to the house of my grandfather’s sister, my great-aunt Slobodanka, but I remember a few times walking the whole morning to the Romanian border and going across, just to be somewhere else for a while. A place with all different problems, all different struggles, few of which affected me, and even fewer of which I cared about. That’s where I realized how easy it is to run away from things.
The shortest way to get to my aunt’s house (really I should call it her son’s place, my uncle Slavojub, since he’s running it now) was a shortcut along the reservoir. Most people call it a lake, but I could never make my mind see it as anything other than a concrete dugout. Often there’d be old men there, retired or just unemployed (it was hard to tell), sitting on buckets or stools next to fishing lines. I guess there were fish in there since I saw them there so often. The tourism authority said it was spring fed, and people believed that. I guess no one noticed that the irrigation canal just on the other side of the fence went dry whenever they fed the reservoir. Or maybe that counts as a spring. I really don’t know.
I’d duck through a hole in the fence and cross the canal by an old railway bridge and follow the tracks through a field where the gypsies that lived there let their animals out to pick among the trash and tall paintbrush-like weeds that always had some red plastic bags caught in them. From there it was just a just a few houses down to my uncle’s.
Gypsies as neighbors, he used to say, shaking his head.
He was a simple man. He used to say he wasn’t smart enough to be much more, but I don’t know. I think unlike most people he never learned to strive. I don’t think the only smart people are the ones that strive for things. He was better than anyone I’ve ever known at being happy. That takes a certain kind of intelligence.
My favorite was when I’d catch him just going in from feeding the chickens and his pig at the family’s farm. I’d call out to him from down the road, and he’d wait for me, holding his bicycle out from his body so he could pull me into a hug.
How are you? he’d say.
Good, I’d say.
Good. That’s important, he’d say. I always liked to hear him say that.
We’d go sit in the kitchen where it was warm from the stove. Sometimes my great aunt would have fresh pita for us, and we’d eat it hot out of the oven with mugs of jogurt, if they had it. Usually though, we wouldn’t have pita (the cheese for it was expensive), but rather the bread I’d bought with boiled eggs from their chickens, dried meat from last winter’s pig, and water from the tap. When my great-uncle was drinking a lot, we’d have glasses of plum brandy – to get the system going, as he’d say. We stopped that after he had his heart attack.
My uncle always found things to talk about. I’d ask him if he’d had any work (he had a truck), and he’d tell me what he’d driven where and for whom. Sometimes he wouldn’t have any work for a while, and we’d talk about selling his truck. We’d pretend that he’d sell it for heaps of money – thousands and thousands of Euros – and we’d daydream about how we’d spend it.
He’d pay for my cousin’s school, send his sister to Greece for a vacation, give some money to his neighbor to pay off his son’s medical bills, and he’d buy two pigs and double seed all the land at the farm. That’s what he would do, saying these things in a clear, concentrated voice as if these weren’t really his daydreams, rather just regular dreams. It’s funny, as much as I daydreamed back then, I can’t remember what it was that I used to tell my uncle. Maybe I didn’t say anything at all, embarrassed a little by how selfish were my dreams. He wouldn’t have cared. I know he wouldn’t have. I just really can’t remember.
We’d talk about the news when it came on and the weather. He’d tell me stories, stories from Yugoslavia, but they were never the sad stories I’d heard. They were my uncle’s stories, and Yugoslavia was just a backdrop that had fit, but everything was just as good even though the background wasn’t there anymore. I can’t remember happier times than those.
On days when it was raining and I didn’t go out for the morning bread, I’d lay in bed with a sweater and stare at the gray skies out the window. The light came in as Vermeer would have like it – soft, even fans playing on the walls, rounding off corners, and making things seem soft and indistinct. I’d read or sometimes nap, sleeping with my hood pulled up and my hands tucked under my arms (I grew tired of arguing with my landlord about the heating.)
It was on one of those days – I can’t remember when exactly – that I remember waking up from one of those naps feeling rested and well, but with my eyes burning. I went into the bathroom to wash them, and in a rare moment found it filled with light. There was a break in the clouds right where the sun was setting, and it came marvelous and gold into the bathroom. I splashed water on my face and then stood with the water dripping off, turning my face in the mirror.
It was there feeling the brilliance of a sunset of my face, that I realized that the skies came down and got into people too. They seeped into the corners of your eyes, worked into the wrinkles in your skin and burned. Burned in a way that no amount of rubbing or crying or shouting brings out, like the way you come to feel after regular, continued lack of sleep. It was because of those skies that people looked older, grayer than their years. It was the skies that made you attend a christening with great joy, but just underneath a type of dread. It was because of the skies that I watched my friends age, ten, fifteen, twenty years in that instant, the tenuous instant, that they saw, in their own way, what I saw from the overpass. It was hope that they lost, that I lost.
I don’t daydream anymore. Instead, my mind wanders in memories. Memories of my uncle, my friends, my old life, but one I have found my self coming back to more than any of the others – walking into it unwittingly like some phantom – is of waiting for the early bus to Belgrade one morning. They’d cut the early buses, so it was never actually coming, but I hadn’t seen a new schedule. There wasn’t a soul about, not even the yellow dog that hung around there. I sat quietly with my hat pulled low and my hands deep in my jacket pockets thinking: it’ll come. It’s probably just late.
After a little while, the blind drunk who begged at the entrance to the graveyards near my house came and sat down on the bench near me. I remember thinking to say good morning, but I didn’t. He sat on the end of the bench, not doing anything really, just twitching his fingers and putting his hands in and out of his pockets. I watched him for some time, staying silent and staring unabashedly at his blank, roaming eyes, his dirty coat, his cracked nails and split fingers. At some point, sitting there and staring at him I realized he was grinning – a small grin nearly buried behind his whiskers, but there, tangible, present in that empty morning. And by that grin I find myself guilty of betrayal.
My uncle writes to me sometimes, mostly the same thing in different words. Thanks for sending money and words that mean to say I did the right thing, the only sensible thing, but I wish I had never left, wish I had never had to leave. I see myself now in casual glimpses into mirrors in good restaurants or in my home, and I look healthy and good, better than I have ever looked, but I feel cheap and insincere, like Judas – a pocket full of coins and an empty field.