In Which Buried Gold Inspires a Long Lie
When the fog hanging in the treetops in Riverside Park made the scene resemble a Corot—silvergreen and gilded and then steel—Mina decided to go to Bucharest to search for her father’s buried gold. Her father had told her mother and her mother had told her: in the basement of the old house, under a concrete slab, hidden in a glass bottle, is the wealth I left behind. The old man had never said why, and so Mina and her brothers had been forced to decide that fear of the border guards, of what was reputed to happen in the dark wooden shacks slanted crazily against the night, had led to his decision. As to her own, it arrived fully formed like Athena. Onward, it said. Riches, it said. She was writing a dissertation on Cioran and alterity. She was collecting vintage Lucite purses. Heaps of pink dust skittered across her windowsills and she let them, she welcomed them, she thought she deserved them. She did not know how to stop thinking so. Growing up they’d eaten sour cherry soup and hot dogs, grilled garlicky midge and social tea biscuits, softened in strong smoky black tea. Now her brothers earned money, Peter at Dresdner and Marcus at Goldman, while she slunk around the stacks in Butler fingering the raised letters and bruised spines of some of the books that lived there. She had sworn off art historians. She had sworn off semioticians. She wanted to swear in pleasure—to live without thought—but she did not know how and perplexity ate up more of her time. To act sharpened her senses. Still, she postponed the flight itself to spring, giving herself time to plan and to fret and to luxuriate in the not-yet. In March she went to her parents’ former travel agent on the Grand Concourse.
“Bucharest, Romania?” Lili held a Gauloise between two narrow fingers. To Mina the smoke seemed thickened. The office browned and dingy, stacks of outdated brochures moldering on every surface.
“Yes,” said Mina.
“Through Malpensa?” Lili was also eating a plump ungainly latke out of a styrofoam container. They’d all done that regardless of the season, Hanukkah or no. Oil and onion and cream mingled with the smoke.
“If I must,” said Mina.
“Must must.” Lili flecked fried onion from her mouth. “I could get you cheaper but then you’d need to wait in Geneva for a night.”
“No thank you,” Mina said. She’d crossed her legs and settled back as if she were proctoring a senior exam.
Lili leaned across the desk. Her fallen breasts dragged along the linoleum top causing ominous creakings of which she took no notice. Mina tried without success to project herself into the ceiling. Lili spoke. “Why so formal? We don’t know each other for thirty years?”
“You’re thinking of my mother,” Mina said in a newly vibrant voice. “I myself am twenty-six.”
“So,” Lili said. “Thirty give or take.”
“Thank you,” Mina said.
“Thank me later. Thank yourself now. You need a manicure.”
“I need a new committee,” said Mina, standing and pulling her camelhair coat tightly around herself. She wanted a manicure as well. Bordeaux red. She prided herself on not being able to manage both.
How they had ended up in the Bronx, in Riverdale, had never been clear but there one day was the stucco house surrounded by azalea and rhododendron; there was Wave Hill where she had once seen a ghostly Toscanini wandering on the lawn; there was Fieldston and field hockey and the girls in tunics wacking that hard ball with their sticks. One kind of exuberance. At home another kind prevailed: vodka-fueled, hysterical, grabbing. She professed love when she did not feel love; she laughed when she did not find the occasion funny. To do otherwise was to voluntarily exile herself and that she would not, for a long time, agree to do. When her father’s heart became tachy she felt a pattering and skipping in her own; when her mother became sullen she, the daughter, felt a pall descending, and this they called health and wellness. Once at fifteen she had run away to her cousin’s on Beekman Place only to be promptly returned, held by the scruff of her neck as if she were an uncooperative puppy, and deposited on the doorstep which was that morning covered with a gleaming plate of ice.
On the plane, she swaddled herself in the Alitalia blanket and let herself remove her shoes, something she’d never before done. An unusual sense of freedom gripped her: her body, aloft, at home. For once she was remembering to breathe; for once she let herself eat and drink with abandon, and to enjoy seeing her plastic coffee cup lifted up onto the flight attendant’s tray. She’d called her brothers before leaving. They had not entered into her excitement. There might be forms to fill out, one had said. And the other: you’ve forgotten the Hungarian poet living in the house. You’ve forgotten to write to Mister Kimresz.
“I’ve written to him,” Mina answered. She had not received a reply. She kept this fact from her brother (Marcus) who already doubted her competency in any field other than her narrowly defined own. When they met at Bemelman’s or at Augie’s she touched him with trepidation, sometimes outlining with one finger the contours of his more rugged face. There he was. He was over there.
She did not have time to see Milan. The airport was a blur of Ferragamo and Dolce and Gabbana and perfume. A cream-filled cornetto. The espresso as good as expected. And then Bucharest. In the rattletrap cab that took her to her hotel, she tried a few phrases. Good morning. How are you today? At least I’m not listed on the obituary page had been one of her father’s stock answers; hearing it again, in the cabbie’s resonant voice, made her feel as if she were falling and falling. As if she were in the back of her father’s Buick on the East River Drive or on the Hutch and sleep crusting her eyelids and the river near-black with night. But here she could not respond. She did not know what to say. When the driver asked her for an address, she answered in English, and, hoping that her soft voice would placate him, spoke too softly for him to hear.
“I cannot hear you,” he said. He wore a jaunty red tartan tam that wanted only a pom-pom for its incongruity to be complete. She admired what she called insouciance; he’d bought the hat to honor the completion of a knotty equation. No such thing as an out-of-work mathematician. He scratched away at Fermat’s and others’.
Mina named her hotel. The driver hadn’t heard of it. She batted away worry as if it were a hated rough dress. Her hands and arms involved until she regained herself; this man, she was thinking, is irremediably other. They had reached the city’s outskirts by the time he said, elated, as if he’d received a call from the academy, “I know it!” A few abrupt u-turns—had her father driven so?—brought them to the street whose name she’d mangled.
“Do not tip me,” the driver said. She decided to take his advice without question.
She woke early in the walnut bed and pushed back the white embroidered spreads. Opening the drapes and opening the shutters,leaning out onto the balcony, she felt her mother’s arms moving and her mother’s heart beating. The other city, its creams and pinks and ochres. Its cherry and plum trees somewhere hung with opening spring leaves. Washing her hair in the sink, she saw her mother’s hands moving, kneading the chamomile-scented lather in. She hung her heavy plaits onto the railing, letting them dry there in the watery cool sun. The hotel she’d chosen, against Lili’s advice, was located on a small neighborhood square far from the center. A kiosk of green metal had not yet opened and an idling scooter leaned against it, rattling. She’d rinsed her bra and a lacy camisole in the sink the night before; she felt the straps of both now, and their soft-stiffness consoled her for something the lack of which she could not name. Here are her mother’s arms moving and her mother’s torso straightening and lifting itself. They had all gathered themselves to her to hear the story of the left-behind; they had let themselves be drawn to and cocooned by its soporific refrains. Now she would mother herself. She would rescue the gold. The gold, herself, them all. Her father’s wish fulfilled. In her mind’s eye she saw her brothers running towards her and grasping jubilantly at the felt sac she knew she would bring home. Before her, on the square, the owner of the scooter—a young man in a too-new leather jacket, black straggles of hair covering his forehead—upped the kickstand and pushed off, singing. As if by magic the kiosk’s front gate slid open, revealing rusted magazine racks and gawping baskets that soon would hold the season’s first fruits. Two old women on the square’s opposite side called to one another in greetings close to chant; they wore slippers and smocked housedresses; they began, in pendulous harmony, to sweep stoops. Voices sounded sea-ish here, guttural, salt. She understood bits but missed the long looping chains of aphorism and comment and tangy-smoky ironizing. All oneiric, all plaintive, all joy. Numberless wisps merely like the curls of pipe smoke vanishing from the old men’s battered meerschaums, the old men who would populate the corners, settled in to their low chairs. So the scene struck her.
She went down to breakfast sedately as if she had herself never left. The frantic needful something that was the Americanness gone. An English couple seated next to her frowned at her frayed sandals; she let them, their accents a travesty. The waitress smelled of rosewater and coffee. The butter tasted of freshly risen cream. Mina felt the scents and taste taking her; her skin and self absorbing the newness and letting permeations, normally forbidden, lap at her. She unfolded the scrap on which she’d written the Hungarian’s address. A scrawled question mark there, in pale creamsicle-peach pencil, which she hoped meant where is it? in traveler’s Esperanto.
“Not near,” said the waitress. “Not far.”
“Can I walk?”
The English couple left off eating in unison and peered at her as if at a freakish specimen.
“Is bus,” the waitress said. “Good bus.”
Mina thanked her in Romanian and went to collect her jacket and handbag. She walked, following the veined map in her Blue Guide; the house fronts’ decayed sparkle, the courtyards they hid, and the shuttered windows with which they faced the streets seemed to recompose her so that her body could move as it had long ago. But not since she’d been a girl of ten. Tasting, seeing, hearing, thanking. She reprimanded herself once only and that was for the urge to break into a run.
The house had fallen. Windowpanes were missing and the front door needed scraping and painting, the knocker polishing. She’d not known how to feel in advance and so felt nothing. For now. The rock doves cooing and plumping with their luminescent candy-white breasts did not faze her. Neither did a starving Rottweiler. She rang the doorbell and heard a raucous buzzing. For good measure, she lifted and let drop the pear-shaped knocker as well. Slow steps came. She heard them pause. When they resumed the weight had shifted so that the man’s left side landed more heavily. She did not know how he would be. I am a girl, she said to herself. I am a girl. She knew that she was not a girl. But until the door opened, squeaking (yes) on its blackened bronze hinges…
Vlad Kimresz was gaunt in the truest and most literary sense. He had turned eighty the previous year and walked with difficulty. Rusks softened in Russian tea had enlivened him this morning. He had allowed himself, as fortification, spoonfuls of quince jam. Because he had never acquired furniture, not even as a sop to his long-suffering Violeta, the hallways and rooms held only those stuffs produced by and in his poems; sometimes he reached for wines or toffees that were not there or saw the walls as covered by the finest azure raw silk, but most days, as long as work came—and as long as he attended to what he still called her, by which he meant poetry—broke, opened and closed with content. He’d understood Mina’s letter. Answering would have meant losing time, a commodity he hoarded to the point of waste. The title to the house is now mine, he’d practiced saying. He’d moved in during a great stream of migration to one of the haunted abandoned houses. Mina’s mother’s heliotrope running all over the small garden’s ground.
I do not look for the gold but I sense it. So he’d said to his more famous friend, Anatoly, after the arrival of the letter. I sense it there. Like a humming.
They’d met at a still-dingy café favored by gangsters and artists.
Anatoly, having read through the letter twice, said, “An American visitor” before slumping over a chipped glass of brandy.
“A humming,” Kimresz insisted. “Like a poem, stillborn.”
Anatoly mumbled something that might have been consolatory. He’d missed another shortlist and wanted to get drunk.
They lingered together eating pickled beets and cucumbers and an oily stew of celeriac and lamb.
“The alexandrines are finished,” Anatoly said with his mouth full. That numbskull. His, Anatoly’s own alexandrines languished in the littlest of magazines, beautifully printed and rarely read. He wanted to shred them. And had once done so using his ridged crooked teeth.
Kimresz was now alone. He brushed invisible crumbs from his astrakhan vest before unlatching and opening the tall front door. Which opened inwards to frame an oblong of shimmering mercurial day.
Mina had already extended her hand, foolishly, and saw it hanging there suspended. Kimresz bowed; glancing up, he saw the moment when she began to lower her arm and he then stood again so that each would face the other directly. He’d imported into this meeting, as into all his dealings with strangers, his hatred of gesture.
“I,” Mina said.
“The pleasure is entirely mine,” said Kimresz, whose English came from a BBC course of 1963 vintage.
“I thank you,” Mina managed. He shepherded her inside without words or actions – such was the coiled power of his being. Stoic, despite his fervent love of Lax, was not the word.
He invited her to join him in drinking another cup of tea and when she inclined her head, meaning yes, perhaps, he led her to the folding card table that sat in one corner of the long dim kitchen. A torn advertising calendar on the wall read, in Hungarian and Romanian, Happy New Year from everyone to our beloved clientele; the picture showed a delft bowl of paprikash chicken, a halo of puffy steam in soot gray hovering above.
Her posture suggested a lack of comfort and she knew it. The girl gone and the woman restored, she could not quite access that grace for which she was sometimes known.
“Brandy? Lemon? Sugar? Milk?” He offered all he had as a way of forestalling what he saw as her inevitable longing to reclaim her father’s house. The tea had already been prepared. Long habit.
“Thank you,” she said. Kimresz placed a cloudy glass bottle and a sliced lemon, resting on a tulip-patterned saucer, on the table. The sugar bowl already lived there. He hoped today would not turn out to be a holiday for the ants. Cloudy. . . cloud-mind, that befogging thing, came and went and he let it, knowing that some days she would pierce the great delicate skein, sending him reeling, giving him the gift of a couplet or two or of a crown of sonnets, sere and entire. He wished for a plateful of sticky Smyrna figs.
Mina stirred sugar and squeezed lemon juice into her cup. She asked for a separate glass for her brandy and, when the Hungarian poet placed it on the table, examined its crackled rim without comment. Kimresz folded his hands before him. Docility, trained over many years of battling obdurate editors and indifferent reviewers, infused his every pore. He let his palsied hands rest now. She should see, this American visitor, his complete penury. She should claim nothing. Not her father’s house. Not the calendar. Not the mineral-scented garden, myrtle and St. John’s wort soon to be scraggly there and worn.
“You are a poet?” she said.
“I,” she said, clanking her spoon too loudly against the cup’s inner rim, “am writing my doctoral dissertation about Cioran.”
He nodded again. It was to be a battle of the wills. Hospitality, grace and life ended so abruptly and so soon.
Mina blushed in great rushes.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I know you are a highly esteemed man and I have come here with nothing.” These rhythms—where?—Lili, long ago, and her mother, trying to say a few words to Canetti, who they’d espied lumbering down Holland Park Avenue and accosted.
“Take tea,” the Hungarian said. “Take take. Biscuit?”
So the meeting and the beginning were able to start again, she glancing to the right and to the left like a trapped warbler, and he thin and still, not wavering. His tabby, Knut, slept curled in a corner with his ginger-striped tail wrapped around a back paw. She drank slowly and let knowledge of his watching her please rather than irritate. At last she finished and he leaned back in his seat as if trying to distance himself further from her. She had offended him. Or he wished for a sharper view.
“You are here for your father’s gold?”
She put the cakey biscuit down. “Yes,” she said.
“Nothing else?” Nothing.
“Come then,” he said.
She followed him down the mildewed stairs to the basement, Peter with her and Marcus. Both. There was the wobbly railing. There the missing part of the fourth step. There, in the floor, the loosened block of concrete in the shape of an abstracted wild hare. She stooped and pried the piece up and saw the glass bottle her father had always described, faintly pinked from its former job as a receptacle for Mina’s grandmother’s cherry schnapps and its painted cork. She, Mina, lifted the bottle into the air. It was empty. She held it up crosswise to the light that came from the bare bulb. Light filled the bottle and, refracted, passed gleefully onto the floor.
Kimresz held his face in his open palms and began to resemble a decrepit Munch. A silent and closed-mouthed one.
“The bottle is empty,” Mina said.
Kimresz acquiesced in this description.
“Empty,” Mina said.
“Shall we?” said the poet, stretching his head towards the first floor with some voracity. The humming he’d mentioned to Anatoly had gone. In fact he hadn’t heard it all morning. Maybe Knut. Knut? Kitty kitty? Named after Hamsen but adored, fat and the opposite of neurotic.
Reseated at the deal table, nibbling again at the anise-flavored sweet, Mina felt herself gripped by the false idea that she should accuse the old man. For where else could the gold have gone? Her father had told her mother and her mother had told her and her brothers and here she was, in the house, having dislodged the concrete slab shaped like a wild hare and having found the cherry-stained bottle. She knew on the instant that to obey such falsity was madness. Kimresz wanted only poetry and such could not be backed by any kind of bouillon.
“Do you know where the gold is?’ She asked.
“I have not,” said Kimresz, “got the slightest idea. I am very sorry for all your trouble.”
“Do you know,” said Mina, wanting to tell him of the earlier part of her morning and of her mother’s motions invading her, of how her mother’s arms had parted the curtains and opened the shutters and her mother’s body, in her own, leaned out over the little square. She stopped before she could unfold the telling. The poet had fallen asleep. Gently, she placed their used cups in the sink; gently she covered the sugar bowl; gently she found a mohair blanket wedged into the corner of a velour-covered chair and draped it around the man’s body. He stirred as if dreaming well and then quieted. Mina, wanting to thank him for his time, tried to leave a note but could not find even a pencil stub. The kitchen drawers were filled with soft tangles of thread and the occasional needle-threader. He was his own mender. She let herself out and did not stop walking on tiptoe until she’d reached the corner, where she turned and then, then only, remembered to walk on the whole foot. She wriggled a little but she for her part was not dreaming. (Kimresz saw banked clouds and sheets of light; he saw his grandmother hanging peppers on a line to dry.) Mina walked without seeing. When she reached her hotel she sat in the second floor bar and ordered a whiskey, which she nursed in awkward sips, Grand Concourse childhood surging, nowhere to put her awkward hands or elegantly shod feet, for a long time. The English couple appeared, dressed alike in the same shade of navy, and opened several maps onto the pitted table. The man seemed to wish to speak to her, the woman to despise her, and the maps to be dissolving into so many veins and arteries dancing on the dim air. She drank again. Better. No rosewater or cream now, no porous opening onto this world. I am not roses or cream. I am not gold. Make new friends but keep the old.
“Hello,” she said.
“Good morning,” the English man said. The woman nodded too vigorously.
“I’m Mina,” said Mina. Her mother, she felt, had for some time been gone.
“Tolliver,” said the man.
“Chrissa,” said the woman, and they each shook hands with her, and her hand, she noticed, was returned to her entire and safe.
“Have you got plans for the day?” Tolliver asked in a passably kind voice, making Mina hope that she did not look orphaned.
“No,” she said. She’d given herself a week, ample time for cadging or bribing. That there might be nothing to cadge had not occurred to her. And now for some reason they took her up, they asked questions about her life in New York, they invited her to visit a private museum with them and to dine with them the following evening at a restaurant painted claret red and glowing. All of which she, dawdling or carrying herself like the déclassé princess of a vanished country, did.
At home she convened a meeting with her brothers. They leaned, all three, over steaming bowls at the Oyster Bar’s counter. They’d all three run through their French fries. They’d all three raised their shoulders into a hunch.
“Minetta,” Peter said; Marcus cleared his throat and made a sound as if he would speak before curling down again over his chowder.
She had broken the news to them before they’d been seated.
“No gold,” she’d said. “No dice, no gold.”
“The Hungarian took it.” Peter’s bellicosity took the form of flat statements tinged with tamped-down gnarling. A voice like a mastiff’s. So Lili’s husband had always said.
The suppler Marcus swayed as if in prayer, hesitant, rapt. There’s no knowing came from him in a long spiral crooning.
“You three brothers and sisters?’ The waitress said. She’d paused in her bustling.
“Sister,” Peter said through clenched teeth. He hated the glossy paint on the waitress’s beauty mark. “Sister and brothers.”
“Like I thought,” said the waitress. “Shows.”
“Excuse me,” Mina whispered. “Might I have another glass of iced tea?”
“Sure honey. Three?”
Peter and Marcus said “one,” not wishing to ally themselves with such faintheartedness. They were able to steady martini glasses all the way from bar to table to mouth…they moved as if motion were meant for them. She, Mina, did not.
When the meal had ended they did not let her contribute; they batted her hand away from her wallet. She allowed them to do so. And afterwards trailed after them, calling out to their backs that she would like to walk in the park and that she would like company. Would they?
Which park? They asked. She wanted to be home, to be dusting, to be lifting the clotted dust from the floor near the baseboards with her old-fashioned mop. Riverside, she said. They said that that was too far, clients, the long lunch. When she got there the day had broken fully and she had only to lift her gaze to see the trees’ branched crowns, lifting and lifting up.
Liana Scalettar’s fiction and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Arts & Letters, Drunken Boat, Entasis, Failbetter, Gutcult, LIT, Nidus, Sentence and Washington Square; an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress was published recently in Freerange Nonfiction’s web site. Awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination, recognition by Drunken Boat’s panliterary awards and Failbetter’s tenth anniversary novella contest, a Glimmer Train prize, and the Amanda Davis scholarship of the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. She has been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and Vermont Studio Center.