by Zdravka Evtimova
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“Don’t take my clarinet, Metto, please,” Ivan said. “Do you remember when I played on it for your father? The old man’s heart wasn’t good, and his nerves were even worse. The nights gave him a nasty pain in the ribs. But I played him a song and he, well, you know what happened! He stretched himself out and limbered up. Look how battered the thing looks, Metto.”
Ivan wore a frazzled quilted coat and clutched an old clarinet in his hand. It was evident the musical instrument had been through a lot of trouble; there were scratches and cuts all over its faded surface.
“You’ve been buying on tick for months now, Ivan,” the man behind the counter said. “You haven’t paid me back a single dime.”
The two men were in a poky room, a café, a pub and a convenience store all rolled into one. Metto, its owner, sold the villagers rice, sugar and bread, which he transported from the town of Pernik in his pickup truck.
“I can’t give your wife things on credit any more. When I see her coming, I lie to her that it’s time to close the shop.”
“Listen, I’ll play free of charge at your son’s wedding,” the man in the quilted coat said, fingering the lusterless keys of the clarinet. “I’ll play for free at the weddings of all your cousins, and I’ll play for free at the funerals of all the old men in your clan. If you open a new shop or a new pub I’ll play for nothing, gratis! You’ll see. Send for me in the dead of night and I’ll waste no time. I’ll run over to your place like a rocket and I’ll start performing. I can play at a wedding and I can play at a funeral. I can play for your new pub and for your old pub. Don’t take my clarinet away. My son’s learning to play now. The boy’s got a sharp ear and strong lungs. He catches sounds from the streets and puts them in the instrument.”
“You shouldn’t drink so much, man. Why didn’t you find a job in Italy? You should’ve made money instead of blabbering on about your kid,” the tavern keeper said, reaching towards the clarinet. “My son’s young. He won’t get married soon, and if my father dies, a dozen of bad eggs like you will turn up to play at his funeral just for the free beer, you know.”
“Nobody can play like me, Metto,” the clarinetist said. “You know that.”
It was cold in the room, and the tile stove smoked. The smell of burnt logs mingled with the vapors of smoldering plastic bottles. Metto wasn’t a wastrel. He’d burn anything that he could burn to keep his shop warm. Rumors had it that he bought dead men’s clothes and put them in the stove to save firewood in winter.
“When you threw a birthday party for your son, I played for him, free of charge and your wife cried,” Ivan, the clarinetist, said. “And your father recovered after I played for him, although the doctor said the old man was just about to meet his maker. When the dentist pulled out your bad tooth, didn’t you ask me to come and play for you? You were swollen like a bagpipe, but I played for you and I killed the pain.”
“You killed the pain because we got drunk together,” Metto cut him short. “And before you were done you had sucked a bottle of my best brandy dry. Did you pay for it? No, you didn’t give me a penny to bless myself with,” the pub keeper muttered and reached out to collect the clarinet. “Look at it! It’s fit for the junk-heap. Did you use that clarinet to dig in your garden with or what?” The pub keeper shook his head in disgust. “I wonder who I can sell it to. What else can I take from you, Ivan? Your TV rattles as if all its screws are loose. You can’t even make out what you are seeing – a cow or a submarine.”
“You can take… Do you want me to give you my fridge?”
“That used to be my fridge, man. I threw it out and you went and collected it. I don’t want the damn fridge.”
“Then, take the table from our kitchen. It’s almost new. What do you say to that?” Ivan asked his voice strong with a new hope. “I’ll put boards in the kitchen. The missus and I will make do with boards. The kid’s learning to play the clarinet now. He can play at weddings and he can play in your new pub. It would be a pity to take the thing away from him. He might become a big musician. He might play at the funerals of the big shots. His mother will cry her eyes blind if she sees that he has nothing to play on.”
“I wouldn’t drink like an eel if I was that interested in my son’s dabbling with music. If I wanted my son to play at the funerals of the big shots, I wouldn’t be bone idle like you, man. In the morning, your wife came to buy milk on tick. She already owes three months salary to pay off her debts. What if her boss fired her? What if the dressmaking shop she works for went bust?”
“You can’t sell my clarinet to anybody, Metto. It’s ancient. It belonged to my grandfather, you know. He played on it in Bucharest, Romania, and in Athens, Greece. Then my father played on it in Sofia for the miners and in Pernik, at Easter. I… I’ve played on it only here, in our village. Man, I tell you, whoever heard my tunes he forgot he was sick. Your own father…”
“No way. It’s no use talking. What else can I take from you?” the café owner grumbled. “You are a loafer and a shirker. I’ll nail that clarinet to the wall. Your grandfather and your father played on it. You drank it away. You know why some guys don’t know chalk from cheese? It’s because they drink. Their wives buy everything on credit, and before they are done they have spent three months of their pay!”
“Can I come here in the evenings?” Ivan asked, unbuttoning his quilted coat. “I’ll take the clarinet down, and I’ll play for a couple of minutes, no more.”
“Do I look crazy to you? You’ll scare away my clientele.”
At that point the door of the pub opened and a boy, scrawny and weak, shorter than the counter in the pub, entered and joined the men.
“Like father like son,” the pub keeper muttered. “Manno, go tell your mother I can’t sell her sugar on tick any more. Your father will leave the clarinet here and I’ll give you bread for five more days. That’s all.”
The boy was silent. His eyes sank into the floor and remained there. Then he fumbled in his pockets, produced some small change, four cracked glass balls, a sling, and a clean handkerchief.
“Uncle Metto,” the boy began. “Take all these. Are they enough to buy Dad’s clarinet back? This is the best sling in the village. And those are the hardest glass balls in the neighborhood. You can buy a bar of Milka chocolate on those nickels here. You only have to add forty-two cents and the bar of Milka will be yours.”
“No way, Manno. Go home,” the pub keeper said, scratching his head. Then he gave the boy a chocolate. “Take this, lad, and go home to your mother. There’s a nip in the air. Run or you’ll catch a very bad cold.”
The boy fingered the chocolate, added it to the cracked glass balls, the sling, and the small change, then took off his hat, hand-knitted with thick home-spun wool, added it to the rest of his possessions, and said, “Will you give me the clarinet now? Those things should be enough. And I’ll come to sweep your pub first thing in the morning. Dad can play at your son’s wedding free of charge. I mean when your son Dancho grows up. Dad can play at your father’s funeral for free… I don’t want Grandpa Boris to die, you know. I mean…I quite like him.”
“Go home, Manno,” the pub keeper said mildly.
“Let me play the clarinet for a couple of minutes,” the boy said. “Let me play, then I’ll bring our dog Rexi. I’ll give him to you and you’ll give me Dad’s clarinet.”
The pub keeper gave the boy the battered instrument which had played in Bucharest, Romania, and in Athens, Greece. It had played at all weddings and funerals in the village as well. The boy took it.
“Uncle Metto,” he said. “If your heart hurts, have no fear. It’ll stop hurting after you hear me play. I promise!”
It was cold in the pub. The freezing wind howled outside and the air in the room smelled of burned plastic, cigarette smoke and smoldering beech firewood.
Quiet sounds trickled from the old clarinet: very soft ones, like the steps of a man who had recuperated from a long illness. Like the voice of a child who had found a terrific penknife in the street. Like Athens, Greece, where the sun always shone, and like Bucharest, Romania, where it was winter now, but it was good all the same because in the houses the stoves burned and there was enough firewood; like sugar in your tea, like bean soup when you are hungry like a wolf. Like your mother’s three salaries that she had not earned yet; like the two terrific glass balls and the best sling in the village. Like the wedding of Uncle Metto’s son who’d be all grown up in twelve years. Like wedding guests who drank a glass or two and were ready to dance till their heels burned. The lad’s clarinet wouldn’t stop until the oldest grandpa jumped and danced with the young girls.
Finally the boy stopped playing and the old clarinet once again looked battered and bruised. It seemed it had never seen Athens and Bucharest. It looked as though the hands of Ivan’s father had never touched it, nor had the hands of Ivan who, to be honest, drank like a fish. Now the clarinet knew only about Ivan’s debts.
The pub-keeper was not looking at the bottles on the counter. He didn’t see the packets of sugar, and the big sacks of beans and rice. He didn’t notice the stove in which the empty plastic bottles burned.
“Boy,” the pub keeper said. “Take your clarinet and run back home. Tell your mother I’ll bring you bread for one week. It will be on me. You play fine, boy. You play just fine.”
(Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria and lives in Belgium. Her short stories have appeared in the publications of twenty-three countries. Three collections have appeared in English: Bitter Sky [SKREV Press, UK], Somebody Else [MAG Press, USA] and Miss Daniella, [SKREV Press, UK]).