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Victor Pelevin / Sigmund in a Cafe
Translated from Russian by Serge Winitzki © 1996
Sometimes hidden behind the smooth stone faces of these idols are labyrinths of cracks and hollows, inhabited by various kinds of birds.
Joseph Lavender, «Easter Island»
Last modification 8/2/97 3:34PM
He didn't remember such a cold winter in Vienna yet. Every time the door opened and a cloud of cold air flew into the cafe, he shivered a little. For a long time no new visitors came, and Sigmund fell into a light senile nap, but now the door banged again, and he raised his head to look.
Two newcomers just entered the cafe — a whiskered gentleman and a lady with a high chignon.
The lady held a long sharp umbrella in her hands.
The gentleman carried a small purse decorated by dark shiny furs, a little moist from the melted snowflakes.
They stopped at the hat rack and began undressing: the man took off his overcoat, hung it on a peg, and then tried to hang his hat on one of the long wooden knobs that jutted out of the wall above the hat rack, but missed, and the hat fell out of his hand and down on the floor. The man muttered something, lifted his hat and hung it finally on the knob; then he hurried to help her take off her furcoat. Relieved of the furcoat, the lady smiled benevolently and took her purse from him, but suddenly she grimaced in distress: the lock on the purse had been open, and some snow had fallen in. She hanged the purse on her shoulder, put the umbrella into the corner with its handle down for some reason, took her companion's hand and went with him into the main room.
— Aha, — said Sigmund softly and shook his head.
Between the wall and the bar counter, near the table where the whiskered gentleman and his companion went, was a small empty space where the barkeeper's children were playing: a boy of about eight in a bulky white sweater covered with black diamonds, and a girl still younger, in a dark dress and striped woolen pants. Their playthings, wooden bricks and a half-deflated ball, lay beside them on the floor.
The kids were unusually quiet. The boy was occupied with a pile of wooden bricks with painted sides. He was building a house of a somewhat strange shape, with an opening in the front wall. The house would collapse time and again, because the opening was too wide and the upper brick would fall in between the sides. Every time the bricks ended up strewn around the floor, the boy would sadly pick his nose with a dirty finger and then start building anew. The girl sat in front of her brother right on the floor, watching him without much interest and playing with a handful of small change — she would lay the coins out on the floor, or gather them in a small pile and shove it under herself. Soon she was bored with it, she dropped the coins, leaned aside, grabbed the nearest chair by its legs, pulled it to her and started moving it around on the floor and pushing the ball with the chair's legs. Once she pushed too hard, the ball rolled toward the boy, and his feeble construction collapsed at the very moment when he was going to mount on top of it the last brick, the sides of which showed a branch of an orange tree and a firepost. The boy lifted his head and shook his fist at her, to which she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue — she held it out for so long that one could perhaps examine it in all detail.
— Aha, — said Sigmund and looked at the whiskered man and the lady.
They already had the appetizers served to them. The gentleman was swallowing the oysters, knowingly opening their shells with a small silver knife, and was telling something to his companion, who was smiling, nodding and eating mushrooms — she would take them with a two-toothed fork one by one from the plate and scrutinize them before dipping in a thick yellow sauce. The gentleman, clinking with the bottle on the brim of his glass, poured himself some white wine, drank it and moved the soup bowl closer to himself.
The waiter brought a plate with a long fried fish. The lady looked at the fish and suddenly smacked herself on the forehead and started telling something to the gentleman. He looked at her, listened to her for a while and grimaced doubtfully, then drank another glass of wine and started carefully putting a cigarette into a conical red cigarette holder, which he held between his little finger and his ring finger.
—Aha! — said Sigmund and stared at the far corner of the room, where the hostess, the barkeeper's wife, stood with a stocky waiter.
It was dark there, or rather it was darker than in other corners, because the lightbulb under the ceiling was burnt out. The hostess was staring up with her plump hands on her hips; because of her pose and her apron with colorful zigzags she resembled an ancient vase. The waiter has already fetched a long folding ladder, which stood now beside an empty table. The hostess checked that the ladder was sturdy enough, scratched her head ponderously and said something to the waiter. He turned and went around the bar counter, then stooped behind it and was not seen for a while. After a minute, he emerged from behind the counter and showed to the hostess an elongated, shining object. She nodded energetically, and the waiter came back to her with the found flashlight in his raised hand. He wanted to give it to her, but she shook her head and pointed her finger to the floor.
There was a large square hatch in the floor beside the empty table. It was almost invisible because its lid was covered with the same parquet diamonds as the rest of the floor, and one could suspect its existence only from the double border line of thin copper which crossed the intricate parquet patterns, and from the inlaid copper ring.
The waiter meticulously pulled his pants at the knees, squatted, grabbed the ring and with one powerful tug opened the hatch. The hostess grimaced and shifted. The waiter looked at her questioningly, but she energetically nodded again, and he started climbing down. Apparently, there was a ladder beneath the floor, as he sank into the blackness of the square in short jerks, one for each invisible step. At first he held the lid himself, but as he descended lower, the hostess helped him by leaning forward and grasping the lid with her two hands, and staring intently into the dark hole where the waiter went.
After a while the waiter's white coat, rather dirty from cobwebs and dust, appeared again above the floor. He got out, resolutely closed the hatch and moved to the ladder, but the hostess stopped him and turned him around. She thoroughly dusted his coat, took the lightbulb from his hand, breathed on it and stroked it a few times with the palm of her hand. She moved to the ladder, put her foot on the lower step, waited until the waiter firmly held the ladder from aside, and started climbing up.
The burnt lightbulb was fitted inside a narrow glass lampshade which hung on a long string, and she didn't have to climb too high. She went five or six steps up, reached with her hand inside the lampshade and tried to turn the bulb, but it was screwed in too tightly, and the lampshade started turning with it. Then the hostess took the new bulb into her mouth, cautiously holding it with her lips, lifted her other hand and held the lampshade by its rim; this way it went much easier. She unscrewed the burnt bulb, put it into a pocket in her apron, and started fitting in the new one. The waiter's attention was riveted to the movements of her plump palms, as he was holding the ladder in his strong hands and moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue. Suddenly the light broke out of the matted lampshade, the waiter shuddered, blinked and loosened his grip for a moment. The sides of the folding ladder started to come apart; the hostess waved her hands and almost fell on the floor, but the waiter managed to hold the ladder at the last moment; with incredible speed the hostess, pale from fright, made it over the three or four steps to the parquet floor and stood weak and motionless in the calming embrace of her companion.
— Aha! Aha! — Sigmund said aloud and stared at the couple at the table.
The lady with the chignon was already having dessert: in her hand was an oblong tube with cream, and she nibbled at it from the wider side. When Sigmund looked at her, she was just about to take a larger bite: she put the tube in her mouth and pressed with her teeth, but the thick white cream broke through the thin gilded box at its rear end. The whiskered gentleman reacted instantly, and the ejected protuberance of cream fell into his hand instead of slumping onto the table-cloth. The lady broke out laughing. The gentleman brought his hand with a pile of cream to his mouth and licked it off, which made his companion laugh even more, so that she even gave up her cookie and dropped it on the plate with the remains of the fish. After licking the cream, the gentleman caught the lady's hand and gave it a heart-felt kiss, to which she took his glass of golden wine and took a few small sips. Thereafter, the gentleman lighted another cigarette: he put it into his conical red cigarette-holder, quickly inhaled a few times, and started to blow smoke rings.
He was doubtlessly a master of that complicated art. At first he blew out one large blue-grey ring with a wavy brim, then another, smaller ring, which went through the first one without touching it. He waved his hand in the air, destroyed the smoke construction and made two new rings, now of the same size, which hung one above the other in an almost perfect figure-eight. His companion looked at it with interest, perfunctorily picking at the fish head with a thin wooden stick.
Having gotten a lungful of smoke once again, the gentleman blew out two thin long spurts, one of which went through the upper ring and the other through the lower, where they touched and converged into a muddy bluish cloud. The lady applauded.
— Aha! — exclaimed Sigmund, and the gentleman turned and eyed him curiously.
Sigmund looked at the children again. It seemed that one of them fetched some new toys. Beside the bricks and the ball, they now had disheveled dolls and colored pieces of clay lying around them. The boy was still busy with the bricks, but now instead of a house he was building a long, low wall, upon which at regular intervals stood tin soldiers with high red hats. A few openings were left in the wall, each guarded by three soldiers — one outside and two inside. The wall was shaped as a semicircle, and at its center a carefully arranged podium of four bricks held the ball — which rested only on the bricks, not touching the floor. The girl was sitting with her back to her brother and absent-mindedly biting at the tail of a stuffed canary.
— Aha! — shouted Sigmund restlessly. — Aha! Aha!
Now not only the whiskered gentleman glanced at him (the gentleman and the lady were already standing at the hat rack and dressing up), but also the hostess, who was adjusting the window shades with a long stick. Sigmund looked at the hostess and then at the wall, which held a few paintings — a banal seascape with the moon and a beacon, and a huge, out-of-place avant-guarde painting, showing from above two open grand pianos, in which lay the dead Bounuel and Salvador Dali, both with strangely elongated ears.
— Aha! — shouted Sigmund with all might. — Aha! Aha!! Aha!!!
Now people from all sides looked at him, and not just looked: the hostess was approaching him with a long stick in her hand, and on the other side — the whiskered gentleman, holding his hat. The hostess frowned as usual, but the gentleman's face expressed a touching, genuine interest. The faces were getting closer until they occupied almost his entire view, and Sigmund felt ill at ease and cringed into a fluffy bundle.
— What a beautiful parrot you have here, — the whiskered gentleman said to the hostess. — What else can he say?
— Many things, — answered the hostess. — Come on, Sigmund, tell us something.
She raised her hand and put the tip of a fat finger between the rods.
— Nice boy Sigmund, — Sigmund said flirtingly, moving however along the rod to the far corner of the cage, just in case. — Clever boy Sigmund.
— Clever boy he is, — the hostess said, — but the cage is full of his shit. Not a clean spot left.
— Don't be too strict with the poor bird. It's his cage after all and not yours, — the whiskered gentleman said, preening his hair. — He has to live in it, too.
A moment later he apparently felt embarrassed about talking to a vulgar barkeeper's wife. With a stiff face he put on his hat, turned and went toward the door.