LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 1 - Spring 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
The Refreshment Stand, by the Sea
Translated by E. Novickas
Icchokas Meras was born in 1934 in Kelmė, Lithuania. His novels, short fiction, essays and plays have been widely published and translated into over 30 languages, including his award-winning Lygiosios trunka akimirką (Stalemate). The 2005 edition is available through amazon.com. He has been living in Israel since 1972. This story first appeared in Metmenys (Patterns) in 1978 in Lithuanian.
He stopped by the narrow little asphalt street that cut across his path and thought: Turn to the right? Turn to the left?
It really made no difference.
The road to the right wound through some trees, turned past the restaurant and ran down to the sea. There was a payphone in the restaurant and there was ice cream in the restaurant, too.
If he turned to the left, he would also eventually end up at the sea, it was just that there was no restaurant on the way, only a refreshment stand. There was a payphone hanging by the refreshment stand too, and the stand also sold ice cream – in the same kind of waffle, in the same colored paper wrappers.
There were a few nuts tossed on the ice cream, and chocolate sauce dribbled on top of the nuts.
Since it was all the same, he turned to the left. That’s why he was so comfortable in this forsaken little village by the sea.
Four days before, in the middle of the day, after arguing with his boss, he announced he was going on vacation, since he never managed to use it all up anyway, they were always calling him back early, and then his vacation went to the dogs, and there was no gratefulness nor respect, and in general all of that hubbub, all of that preposterous buffoonery, and everything in general depended solely on him, and, of course, solely at the cost of his own health.
Slamming the boss’s office door shut, he rushed home, exceeding the city speed limit, on the way preparing several good, clean words for his mother-in-law, who, even though she lived apart in the building next door, always met him in the doorway to the kitchen, her starched apron rustling, with a glass of cold juice in her hand and a lukewarm smile on her face, as if he was at fault for returning home first, instead of his wife, that is, her daughter. A dear daughter. He was dear in words only, out of politeness.
As he entered the apartment, he immediately turned towards the kitchen, but the door was closed; and he looked about in surprise.
The house was empty.
He pushed open the door to the kitchen; there was no one there, either. He would have started getting worried, but his glance fell upon the round red clock hanging on the kitchen wall. The clock showed ten minutes to twelve. It was still early.
He sighed, returned to the living room, collapsed into a soft armchair standing in front of the television and closed his eyes.
He closed his eyes and felt how quiet and peaceful it was around him.
He sat there, wrapped in that peace and dark silence, not moving a muscle or a thought, as if he had gotten lost or disappeared, and only the last chime of the black living room clock, chiming twelve times, awoke him from oblivion.
He opened his eyes. Both clock hands froze pointing at the number 12, but not for long. The long hand stirred and slowly started a new circle. His awakened thoughts started ticking, too.
In fifty-nine minutes the mother-in-law will bring the young ruler of the house home from kindergarten, and he wasn’t going to stop for a second – why? where? how? why?
Then the princess will waddle home from school, dragging a briefcase in one hand, in the other hauling a book bag. She will fix you with eyes like exploding bullets: if you don’t know any arithmetic, don’t solve the problems for me, because today you’ll have to solve everything all over again.
Then the mother-in-law will rustle in the kitchen, and the smell of twenty-seven spices will spread through the entire apartment.
At last, ringing once from below and one more time by the door, the lady will show up – with ten chain necklaces on her neck, looking twenty years younger than she really is, but in good spirits only until she steps over the threshold.
It will turn out that they need to go to the supermarket to buy one thing or another, and, of course, to drag all the empty liter bottles along and smile at that cranky store clerk, so she’d at last take them, and then drag home a full basket and, of course, six loaves of rye bread, because it’s only delivered once a week.
Returning from the supermarket, they’ll need to go get the mail. All of those receipts, bills, bank statements and letters and postcards from friends and family that you’ll need to read and answer, too. And everything else goes into the files, for every bit of paper there’s a proper place; order, order above all else, and if not – who knows what might happen.
In the evening, from eight to twelve, with all the homework done and all of the hundred questions answered or not answered – the television: how everything stays in the family, and where the Onedin Line boat turned, and how a certain Rockford got it in the eye, and how those twins – a blonde and a brunette – Huck/Puck – pressed some pervert against the wall, and how horrible it is in basements – English style, and, of course, how someone deceived the electorate, and another the government, and what will happen tomorrow, and when there will be peace at last, if not war, and where a strike started that day, or continued, or maybe ended, but none of it is imported anymore, it’s all our own production.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the Huck/Puck episode’s most interesting idiotic fist fight, the door will squeak pitifully as it opens and the oldest soldier, neither dead nor alive, will slink into the room, up since five in the morning and, of course, having accordingly done her duty in the army kitchen.
Later, when the children are already asleep, when all the lights have been turned off, when a bug will buzz, beating its wings against the bedroom window’s screen, he will lie there for a long time yet with his eyes open, next to his mother-in-law’s daughter, who has fallen silent, not sleeping yet either; he will touch her body, and she’ll press his hand hard with long fingers, and he’ll think, or maybe she will think, too, that it’s an animal attraction, a biological instinct, a pleasure to sweeten the day, or a family duty.
He looked at the black clock – twenty-seven minutes were left – and immediately made up his mind.
He tore the a double piece of paper from the arithmetic notebook, found a black pencil in the bathroom that the mother-in-law used to draw eyebrows on herself before dinner, and wrote across it in dark letters:
“I’ve gone on a business trip.”
He weighed the sheet down with a massive crystal ashtray. He took a flat bottle of whiskey from the bar. From the refrigerator, he took two loaves of bread and a piece of cheese. Out of the kitchen cabinet under the window he took several cans – meat, fish, pickles and, of course, coffee.
After looking around to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, and not remembering anything else useful or essential, he threw everything into a large green backpack, buttoned it up and carried it to the door.
Then he went into the bedroom and took a pillow, blanket, and two sheets from the cabinet. He saw a transistor radio right there in the bedroom. He took it. From the bathroom he took a kit with his shaving items, and, returning to the bedroom, swept several books with colorful covers into his arms.
And he left.
That was how he arrived at this forsaken village by the sea, and it was only when he stopped the car by the tiny house that he remembered he hadn’t called his friend and asked if his room in the village was free.
He went up to the cottage and knocked on the door, but no one answered. Then he stuck his hand behind the shutter, found the key there and settled into the cottage in the village.
True, after carrying in his belongings, he also drove to a store nearby and bought a case of beer.
That was how he lived for four days in the village by the sea, although he didn’t count the days; getting up when he wanted, drinking beer when he wanted, washing up or not washing up, shaving or not shaving, reading if he wanted to or listening to the radio, going out for a walk or sitting at home when he wanted, and likewise with everything else – if he wanted and when he wanted, or if he didn’t, then not at all.
Now he wanted ice cream and he also wanted to call his friend, and it wasn’t important which road he went down, to the left or to the right. And because it wasn’t important, he turned to the left, where the refreshment stand was.
He walked without hurrying, looking around to the sides, enjoying everything he came across, the way he had yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before the day before yesterday.
He liked it that the houses were thrown about in a random fashion.
He liked it that there were no streets, only the village’s little asphalt roads without sidewalks.
He liked the crooked trees and the thorny bushes frequently hiding the houses behind them from sight.
He liked it that the tanned, long-legged thing who sold coffee and ice cream at the stand, the thing with gray cat’s eyes, didn’t attract him at all.
He felt three tokens in his pocket and started looking for more, since the telephone ate them like mad, but he didn’t find any and immediately laughed at himself, because even two tokens were more than enough. He wanted to say just two words to his friend: I’m happy.
It was empty at the refreshment stand. It was a weekday and already after dinner, when people rarely started off for the beach. He was surprised to see a little old Fiat roll in from the direction of the sea.
The little Fiat stopped by the stand just as he stepped under the awning.
The stand was small, just a booth really, but despite that, the roomy awning that extended from it was a comfortable place to sit, since a breeze blew through it and the sun didn’t fry you.
Three people arrived in the car, and all three got out.
The man, probably the father, was fifty plus some, the woman younger, just nearing middle age; the mother probably, since the third was a young woman – twenty-three or four maybe.
She was the only one who had been swimming.
The parents were outfitted in full parade clothes, while she had wet hair that clumped into strands, with a wet swimsuit, on top of which she had thrown a thin, dark shirt and nothing more; the buttons weren’t buttoned and that shirt was too short, barely covering the lower part of her swimsuit.
And nothing special, it seemed, or maybe it was her glance.
He looked at her, and looked at her again.
She did the same.
The father and mother also fixed their gaze on him; then he said to the long-legged thing with cat’s eyes:
He waited for the clerk to give him the ice cream, although he could have opened the freezer and taken it himself; but she, flashing a greenish glance at him, didn’t hurry to give him the ice cream, and he leaned with his right hand on a chair standing next to him, so he’d be more comfortable waiting, or maybe it was on purpose, without realizing it himself. All three of them saw his wedding ring, and both parents no longer looked at him, but rather at the daughter. Why was she still looking at him?
But she looked.
She went up to the counter and asked for ice cream, and got it before him, then she returned to the little table and started eating the ice cream, and said something to her parents, who, getting into the car, drove off somewhere.
She had her hair cut like a boy’s, and the hair on her spine and neck had already grown out and stuck out in little bristles; he said to himself, but I like long hair and fuzz on the neck.
“Your ice cream,” the clerk said to him, but he didn’t hear her.
He’s already middle-aged, she thought, and married, and gray, and probably has a pack of kids, why am I looking at him, I don’t know, I like tall, slender men, and he’s short and stocky; we’re probably the same height.
The clerk stuck the ice cream into his palm; without hurrying he tore off the colored paper wrapper, carefully bit off a nut covered with chocolate, felt the refreshing cold with his lips and turned his hot face toward the sea, from where the evening freshness already blew. The beach was empty, not a single person about, and he regretted he hadn’t brought his swimsuit.
She looked at him, making his way from the counter towards a picnic table, opposite which a little cloud of sand spun, and smiled to herself. If I had met him at the beach, she thought, I would have gone into the water when he did, and come out when he did. And I would have swum in the same direction he did, and it would have felt nice, although I don’t know why.
So he sat by his table, and she by hers, and then, when their eyes met, he got up and went in the direction of the beach, and she followed behind him, and the clerk, not having anything else to do, watched them without understanding anything, only her eyes changed color – first they were gray, then they would glisten green.
He went down to the beach without hurrying, in the middle of the road, and she caught up with him and passed him, and was the first to stop by the water.
They looked at the rocks, a black chain of rocks, stretching towards the sea in black bridges, slippery bridges, overgrown with seaweed; you’d go along them with your arms spread like wings and jump from rock to rock, because there were a lot of those black rocks thrown about farther off in the sea – little black islands in the sallow green plain – small and round and dark – singed by the sun, and she thought: What’s hiding underneath the burnt crust of those rocks?
I’d go up to her now, he thought, and take off that black shirt and see all of her, since you can’t see her under that wide, loose shirt, even though it waves and flaps from the wind, but it covers her shoulders, chest, arms and stomach anyway, only the legs sticking out, the tanned thighs pressed one to another, suddenly narrowing right down to the round knee caps.
I’ll take off my shirt, she said to herself, I want him to see me as I am, it’s not important that my breasts are small and childish, I’m always embarrassed about them, as if it was my fault they didn’t grow and didn’t fill out, that they stayed girlish, even though I myself am a woman now, but I can show them to him, they’re busting out of my suit, as if they were growing and stiffening. And she threw off her shirt and stepped into the sea and swam off, wanting him to jump into the water and swim too. Why is he still waiting? Why doesn’t he take off his clothes, geez, there’s no one here but the two of us.
She swam off to a little island and pressed her cheek up against it, and her dark hair blended with the black rocks, only her face and neck shone in the light of the sun’s oblique rays. Now she looked at him, not taking her eyes off him, waiting, and when he still didn’t get his resolve up, she unbuttoned the top part of her swimsuit and threw it, standing on tiptoe, far away, past the island.
And still she looked at him.
And he looked at her.
Two white round spots shimmered on her body, and he liked looking at those spots, and, freeing himself of his clothes, he stepped into the water naked, unashamed, even though she looked at him the whole time, not taking her eyes off of him, her cheek pressed against the little island again, looking at him with her head tilted to the side.
He swam off, cutting the green, smooth water with wide strokes, his tongue and throat felt the salty bitter taste of the water, and, with the pupils of his eyes dilating when he opened them up under water, he saw the sea bottom like a canvas painted with fine waves of sand, scattered with shells, like nuts.
They quietly emerged on the shore and stopped, facing one another.
If there was music playing now, she thought, I would press myself up against him, we really are the same height, and my right shoulder would lean on his left shoulder, and the left on his right, I would touch his neck with my neck, my breasts would lean on his chest so hard that they would flatten out entirely, the skin of my stomach would press up against his skin, and he would feel all of me, like I would, since our lips would meet, too.
They were still wet.
He stretched out his hand and started gathering water from her body, drop by drop, touching her only with the tips of his fingers.
He gathered the drops from her eyelashes, touched her cheeks, then dried her chin, his fingers pressed together against it, the water ran down her chin, down his fingers, and then gathered in his palms, and when his palms filled up, he crouched down and poured the water into the dry sand, and the sand soaked up the water, leaving only two dark spots.
He didn’t touch her lips.
He gathered the drops from her neck, from her shoulders, then slid down her arms, and she stretched them out so it would be easier for him; her fingers were long and looked funny, the red nails suspended in the air, curved upward, hanging onto the air and fearing to touch him, as if they feared losing balance.
She really did fear losing her balance, because then, when he touched her chest with his finger tips, she hooked onto his shoulders with her nails and came closer to him, fearing she would fall; then his palms slid down her back, wiping it, down to her waist and pulled her still closer, until he felt her shoulders, until her small breasts flattened on his chest.
Probably music played, because she lay her neck next to his neck, her thighs next to his thighs, and wanted to lie down on the sand, not here, not on the very edge, but farther, where the sand was dry; she wanted to lie down and feel the sand, warmed during the day by the sun, with her back, and to feel him – to feel all of him with all of her body, and that he would slowly rock on her, and she wouldn’t move, and he would keep rocking for a long time, endlessly, until she moaned, and then he would rock some more, because she might moan a second time.
She felt the dry, warm sand on her back and stretched out full length, even stretched her arms out on the sand, and turned her head to the side, seeing nothing, with her eyes closed; and he for the first time touched his lips to hers and rocked slowly, the way she wanted, the same way he had gathered the drops, drop by drop, and she moaned, and he still touched her lips with his, and her breasts were completely flat, and he still rocked, and she moaned a second time and immediately another time, the third; and the third moan was similar to a cry, she had never cried out like that before, and she awoke as if awaking from sleep, and he did, too.
Because it was already late.
It was dark already, a long time ago, apparently the sun had managed to go down, and the dark fell suddenly, as if from the sky, from on high.
Three times, not all at once, but at brief intervals, the old Fiat’s horn blared.
They were still sitting under the shelter by their table. Raising their heads, they looked at one another, and then looked around.
It really was dark already, the window to the stand was closed and on the shutters, crosswise, was a rusty iron bolt; who knows when the clerk had left, leaving them alone. Probably a long time ago, since the gray cat eyes, shining in the dark, were nowhere to be seen.
Silence and peace surrounded the world, and in that silence there was only one sound – the little Fiat’s horn, and it blared one more time; it blared pathetically, although its blinding lights were not turned towards them, but towards the leaning fence on the other side of the road.
She got up and went over to the car. Someone opened the rear door for her. The mother, probably. But she slammed that door shut and went up to the front, the one behind the wheel, and waited for the father to move to the next seat, and got into the car, but didn’t move it from the spot.
He came out from under the shelter, went a few steps and stopped by the car, in the middle of the street.
He looked at her, sitting behind the wheel, through the back window of the car, but he didn’t see her because it was dark.
She probably wanted to see him, too, because a bright light suddenly lit him up, the light that shines at the back.
He wanted to help her move out of the spot and, looking around, stepped backwards until he stopped across from the only street light.
Then she turned off her light, and the little old Fiat moved forward, and she saw him in the mirror, but he didn’t see her again.
The automobile, its left turn signal flashing, turned onto the highway and disappeared, leaving a cloud of burned fuel, and he inhaled that scent with his nostrils.
He turned around and went down the winding little country road to the second little road, and then down that to the little village cottage.
He walked somewhat bent over, remembering suddenly that he hadn’t called his friend after all, since the three tokens jingled in his pants pocket.
Without turning on the lights, content with the pale rays of the yard light falling through the dusty window glass, he gathered his belongings, threw them into the car, locked the cottage door and stuck the key behind the shutter.
With his head down and his back bent even more, remembering for no reason at all that he was already completely gray, even though he wasn’t all that old, he started up the car and left for home.
Later, turning on his left turn signal as he turned onto the highway, he stopped and turned on his rear light. The little village road was empty.
Translated from the Lithuanian by E. Novickas