ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2015 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 61, No.2 - Summer 2015
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius

The Loft

Markas Zingeris

Jokűbas Krupnikas felt he had ended up in a blind alley. In a place dusty, sealed shut, reeking of mold. Life had boxed him into a corner that to him was like a coffin, set upright. And, actually, that was how years ago, when they had run out of space in the town’s ancient cemetery, they had buried his dad, rest his soul, who had eyed the world as an anarchist, but, within his circle of friends, as a humorist, too, though he was an official candidate of the party whose chronic ailments made it gasp for air even as it clung to power. A high school principal, his talent for music and painting was never expressed, but crammed with all of his aspirations into the confines of a life that numbed his intellect and his emotions! 

The cemetery office employee shrugged her shoulders: “Your dear father will just have to squeeze in. If you prefer—on the hillside, where it’s sunny, and it won’t get flooded from the rain.” Those attending his dad’s burial couldn’t believe what they saw, when he was interred upright as though he were standing in front of his boss. And that was exactly the way, only worse—being buried alive, that Krupnikas the Younger began to feel thirty years after the death of the elder Krupnikas (his dad would’ve given him a jab in the side for aging him). 

He was from the old crop of architecture “fac” students, who once were considered young and full of promise (the “promising” ones in time succumbed to drink), back then, night after night, ravenously devouring any and every bit of the free word in cultural publications smuggled in from the West. They saw each other as geniuses, and some did have genuine talent, though most of the subjects they argued, their berets pulled down over one ear, were grasped only superficially by a generation interned by the regime on a reservation. In those days, his pals were wrapped up in themselves as they pursued something that was individual, unique. They believed that Le Corbusier—the creator of sunny architectural massifs, whose followers proliferated Vilnius’s suburbs—had done more harm to Europe than had Goering’s air force. And for decades they hung out in sidewalk cafes, mocking the old men with puffy faces who preached to them from tribunals. Fragments of a life of freedom in the West, studies, reproductions, notwithstanding their lying colors, were as essential to them as air to someone gasping for breath; they created illusions for themselves out of the air, and those illusions traced out for them the indelible lines of real life. 

If he were to change the title of a popular film comedy of that time, he would call his contemporaries Generation Y or Shurik’s Adventures. Nowadays, Krupnikas’s shuriks, grayhaired old men, plodded down the slope of their years in the Berlins, Moscows, New Yorks, Tel Avivs of the world, from time to time attempting to look around, in case they might find some grain of rationality on the road behind them. 

Behind them was a column of dust. 

Once, when he was heading to the beach at a brisk pace along a street in Tel Aviv, he had found an album of blackand- white photographs, from somewhere in Eastern Europe in the seventies. Right in the street, next to a huge trash container, among plastic cups and empty bottles, litter left by the homeless: A boy in a Pioneer’s neckerchief. A chorus, of young teachers or medical nurses. A suntanned and visibly happy couple with ice cream—Krupnikas could taste the flavor of crème brulée on his palate. The sea, but not this sea. 

He brought the album back with him, but left it at the hotel, because it wouldn’t fit in his luggage. 

* * * 

He lived with his wife, whom he called Tutë, a former medical nurse, content in her role as a homemaker, and his elderly mother. And these women had the ability to get into Krupnikas’s head and to roil his emotions, and make him feel guilty and loutish; and they practically pushed him through the door to go and make some money. And these days, my fellow colleagues, clients have the taste of Stone Age men, though an imported toilet with a powerful flush action can make a homegrown moron dance around and squeal: “I’ll be, you have to hand it to those Germans!” So, he was moonlighting and, actually, doing pretty well. But a month ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a slow degenerative condition, that turned a man, as he himself described his situation, into a piss pants; and, damn it, it was especially bad at night! On a regular weekday, he got the little lab report from a regular “preventative checkup procedure” with his little test results, and the professor, after clearing his throat, muttered: “not good!...but this form is not one of the fatal ones… we’ll have to operate in due time.” 

So much for that news, no chance that, in the remaining bits of his life, he’d flash across the world’s skies, caught in the klieg lights of American adulation, like some flying saucer from Eastern Europe! 

If he had to swear on his heart, even Tutë wasn’t to his taste. Simply put, years ago he, a student, who would come by all sorts of prizes and awards through sheer perspiration, was stunned by a girl whom he had met next to the ice cream cart during an especially hot May. His compliments, as he recalled, were like words straight from Prof. Freud:

"You are my Bauhaus! Even with round balconies, like the temporary capital's Milk Center building."

"How dare you! I'm no Milk Center to you. Me-I'm a pearcock [sic]."

He loved her even for the way that she, a Russian speaker, would say pearcock [sic]. she would utter this word amplifying it with emotion and a beaming face, whose eyebrows were like those of a Byzantine Madonna. Round, of sturdy bones, which was surprising to those who glorify lean bodies; but pretty, with brown eyes that emanated warmth and a generous heart, built to the specifications of her Ukrainian ancestors, descended from landowners who raised herds of horses for the armies of the Poles, Lithuanians, and Cossacks in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A broad-cheeked beauty, a soulful person, a Leo according to astrologists, in whom Jokűbas Krupnikas didn't believe, and yet—as he grew older, he had to admit—whose personality types, culled from the constellations, were as earthly as a potato in its skin.

To distance himself from the women and other psychological discomfort, he had moved up to the attic, which had been remodeled into a loft. The weather, as it were, was that of an idyllic fall, though it was December outside, and the sun, which called up countless memories of springtimes and fantastic lands he had visited, licked its broad tongue across the sheets of Whatman paper that bore imprints from the bottom of a coffee cup. Krupnikas's children, like his friends, were scattered throughout the world. sađka Garbanius, his classmate, who years ago had requested political asylum in the West, now designed villas in Mallorca and in Moscow's prestigious Rubliovka!

Another good friend from those days, Aliukas, who in Brooklyn had become Rabbi Gedalia (isn't life a circus, my friends?), had sent along his booklet on harmonious married life through a tourist visiting Vilnius. In the old days, he was crazed with Cat Stevens songs, rebelled against the regime, was attracted to Zen. He was thrice divorced. Now he had become an Orthodox Jew—and not just anywhere, but on the East Coast of the U.S.A., in the citadel of cosmopolitanism—to explain the Sacred Texts, to safeguard the Great Dogmas. One other shurik of their group, Dalinskas—Dimka, an accordionist and seducer of the gals, nowadays a graying burgher, had taken up drawing and painting, and over the e-net would lob to his pal his latest series of works: a satyr with an erection, having leapt into a corner of the picture, observes the human comedy arrayed before his eyes. Dima was a professor of statistics at Humboldt University, and mathematics had been his predilection his entire life. Whenever Krupnikas took off to Berlin, the two of them would hightail it to the variety show (about escapes across the Wall during the Cold War) or to one of the hundred and fifty museums in Berlin; they'd pour their hearts out about family, wives, kids; and once, in Dimka's office, Krupnikas had seen that famous graphic of Life, known to their entire group. It was a small, framed drawing that showed how long he had to live, and even when one could expect Adomas Dalinskas to start to get senile (drawn along the edge of the graph paper were balloons and slippers).

There, where life's curve began to drop downward, was written: Monasterium/EinesrRuhiges Selbstmord (Monastery/A Peaceful Suicide).

Sundays the gentleman professor—bald, paunchy, but with the lively eyes of young Dimka the accordionist shining through his glasses—would play on the table utensils and chat away with a brown-haired freckle-face, who reminded you of a freshly peeled carrot, at the neighborhood's Fish Restaurant.

"Seit bekannt (make your acquaintance), Jokűbas, this is Rudolfas, my son. And this, Rudi, is Jokűbas; I used to call him Jađka, he's a friend from your father's younger days."

Rudi, as a child, with a tear-stained face, scampered along the twisting corridors of his father's workplaces or, abandoned for days on end, moved around Monopoly game pieces in the apartments of his father's girlfriends, to whom Dima gave the dignified term Lebensgefahrte—Life Partners. To Dima, the greatest achievement of his adult life was not his professorship or the artistic leanings that emerged during his retirement, not the karate belts or even the world-class firms, where his years smoldered away and where he had outdone even himself, but the reestablishment of a warm paternal bond with his offspring.

And there was this other shurik, Leo, a wedding musician in America, who years ago jazzed it up in a Kaunas night club. Nowadays, he lived on social welfare checks. From morning until night he'd transmit gallows humor over the worldwide net: "Have you heard this joke? If you've immigrated to the U.S. and don't have the address of Alcoholics Anonymous, Johnnie Walker will surely get you there!"

Life, it's an oddity, a show, a pun, a circus!

It's tragedy (Leo's wife became an alcoholic in the U.S.),

which at the same time is black comedy.

* * *

In the snowless fields covered with grim brushwood, the crow calls rang out; and closer by, in the residential area, dogs yapped, their barking seeming to chip away the hoarfrost on the alders. Among the hills, the ice-laden lakes lay gray. He could see from his own attic the icy edge of the one next-door, dappled and wintry as his own tufted crest. In May, they'll operate or they'll say to him, as they did once to his dad: "Too late, Mister Krupnikas, and where were you before?"

He'll be gone, but the newspaper, filled with life's events, will still get carried along the fences by the wind. He had to piss badly. He swallowed a tablet, rocked on the tips of his toes over the toilet, just as Jews pray at the Wailing Wall. But nothing came streaming out, he just felt a pain in his lower abdomen. So, why was it that he climbed up to the attic, he so proudly called a loft and a studio, to defend himself from the Human—neither Comic, nor Tragic—Kitchen, the human kitchen, when life, unembellished, is trivial and as hollow as a chicken bone. It was the end of life that he had begun to feel, contemplate, see, imagine; not like moviegoers, readers of novels and obituaries, not like criminologists or forensic medicine experts, but as his own irreversible, inevitable demise. It's here you experience a distressing sort of amazement, and the questions lining themselves up should have occurred to you, it seems, as life was dawning—or perhaps they had, but at the time, you see, among narcissists and poseurs, it was much simpler to answer them. You could croak "Nevermore," like Poe's Raven, to young female bohemians over a glass of Riesling, quote the French, Germans, and Greeks.

What's life for? Why life? What's the point of life? And Krupnikas was amazed at how simple and clear those questions were.

How is it that, sooner or later, everything that within me rushes, moves, rolls comes up against a concluding period?

These were a Generation Y fool's questions to a rabbi or a priest.

These were Job's questions to the Lord.

* * *

Today, no less, he had also reached a "round" birthday, which dissipated in the glow of Chanukah and the approaching Christmas holidays. He'd have a few drinks and dispense with the pretensions—it's just a formality, it's just the solar or lunar calendar, but at Tutë's insistence, he would be celebrating it with her relatives and with friends, if any of them showed up.

The phone rang.

A personal call? A client? He composed himself.

But unexpectedly, while he was hunched over his moonlighting jobs in his "loft," he felt the weight lift and the space open up around him. He started to see not just the buildings and the light in the fields, and in people's houses, but al-so—his eyes brightened and the crooked crease between his eyebrows became smooth—he started to feel the person. He didn't get irritated, but, instead, he felt love for this client, Nakas or whatever his name was, because now, stunned by his diagnosis, he could clearly imagine how Mister Nakas's children would wrangle in the courts over his house after his death and how his remains would decay without leaving a trace in this life, as though he were a field mouse.

"No, the moles won't dig it up. Unfortunately, the marble from China hasn't been delivered yet."

But again the cell phone rang.

He heard a voice short of breath:

"You want an anecdote?"

He saw before him, in his imagination, the full smiling lips of Dimka, that lover of life.

"Give it to me! At least you won't be asking about my health."

"Abramovičius and Chaimovičius each have a store. In this place and the other are suits for the final journey. Abramovičius sells them for ten times more than Chaimovičius. A customer says to him, "But Chaimovičius will sell it to me for less." Abramovičius says back to him: "With Chaimovičius's suit, after ten days underground, you'll be left with a bare ass."

The two of them chuckled at something that wasn't very funny, but it was funny to them that they were both laughing — and also at Abramovičius—in the anecdote! Even in the ground, people believe you should be wearing your best suit. His pals had read so many books, had lived through so many revolutions, and—in the case of Dimka and Aliukas — so many wives. Illusions and beliefs, histories and ideologies to them were just as unenduring as Chaimovičius's suit!

"So congratulations! You should know that on your birthday half of mankind sits down at the table. Jađka, your little fella, was still walking around under the table, when I left Lithuania. Don't you have a grandson yet?"

"Last fall, I was in Tel Aviv to visit Danas. He had just gotten married. But they're already expecting a child."

Krupnikas didn't have either money or a great spiritual legacy to leave his son; and so in Israel the young man rushed wholeheartedly into the Kabbalah and Judaism, similarly to Aliukas in Brooklyn. Danas chose Israel, arriving from the freethinking Krupnikas family and, striving to be an exemplary converted Jew, talked into it by a rabbi, got married.

"It's the pendulum of our life, Jađka, to and fro, to and fro. And how do you like my drawings?"

To him, the drawings seemed lascivious in an outmoded way. He wriggled out of a forthright critique:

"You, Dimka, have all sorts of talents. That's why your wife left you!"

"Ha, ha, ha," his pal laughed in a small screechy voice, as white-faced, overweight, brown-haired men sometimes laugh (though Dalinskas had been walking around for some time now with a naked head and graying temples). "In a word, my son has successfully defended his doctoral dissertation; forgive me, there's no way I can get out of it, tomorrow's the party. As they say in Yiddish, byz hundert und cvancig—may you live to be a hundred and twenty. And Sađka—didn't he call you? Imagine, he was on his way to your birthday, and they took him off the train in Minsk. He didn't have a transit visa. He just had time to call to ask me if I was going, and his batteries went dead. Whatever the story,he also sends his congratulations. Does Leo write you? When I was in Queens last time"—he began to talk in a whisper— "in his hallway, I stepped on a syringe; in the stairwell, on a rat. Jokűbas, all we have left is a statistical life."

"Dima! To hell with statistics."

"In India, I hear, in these situations you go into a monastery. After a year's time, you come back to your kids and you catnap in the corner of the kitchen, until you kick the bucket."

"This recipe's not for me, Dima."

"But, Jađka, facts!"

"Let the facts go die."

Dimka sighed.

"My apartment in Berlin, Jokűbas, is your apartment; in our youth, you were something else to me." And his voice recovered, "My old woman neighbor told me that after the war a French major had lived there and would bring up women more beautiful than Marlene Dietrich. German missies after the war would do it with you for a sandwich."

"I wouldn't take it, if they did it with you for a sandwich. Actually, do you have a life"—he got flustered, searching for the word and then remembered Lebensgefahrte—"partner?"

"Klara, a writer. We have an intellectual relationship. Merkel Schmerkel, Grass Schmass. But I can't stand it when women come charging in to dust and rearrange books and papers. Everything gets confused for me, and life's hours pass in vain. And the other one, Marion, she's a kindergarten teacher for special-needs kids. With this one, we go at it like rabbits! In the summer, we all pedal our bikes to the lakes. On different days of the week, of course. I have three bikes in the cellar. It's good for the heart."

"You're already healthy as an ox!"

"Those like me collapse all of a sudden," reported Dima from the battlefront of his life. "Klara has her suspicions. She says, 'So, Adomas, who is it that rides around on the orange bike?'"

Tutë was calling him downstairs. He as yet, almost a month after those tests, had not said anything to her. It was still not that time to open up about the state of his health; he could never find the right moment because of work and because of fear, and because he knew that he'd need to use subtle language you don't carry around with you in your pocket. All in all, will they find time before death to be together?

"It was nice to hear from you, Adomas. Say hello to Rudolfas."

"Give Tutë a kiss, Jokűbas! Tell her, it's a kiss from the pal of your youth, Dimka the accordionist."

* * *

He imagined sađka Garbanius in custody in Minsk, again finding himself, as in his young days, when he was ordered in by some KGB major, beneath Dzerzhinsky's portrait.

He also imagined Dimka Dalinskas in old age, his chest hair gray, in diapers, with sagging breasts, turned into an old woman, sitting on a high government bed and in a screeching voice begging the nurse for more morphine to numb the pain. He saw, too, Leo's inebriated wife Valë in Queens, watching a TV serial, a rat in her slipper.

He heard the women gabbing away on the first floor. He, stuck in Lithuania and in life, had reached sixty! He was not, after all, just Nakas's walls, nor some other sketched designs from which the sun was already receding, leaving behind the darkening coffee stains; he was not even just Tutë's longstanding spouse, Jokűbas Krupnikas. He was all of the above, but with a darkness, too, that did not come streaming out of a world where optimistic architects unroll a clear bright day for us.

Somewhere, he had read published predictions for the New Year that, after a million years, the Y chromosome would disappear from the human genome, and there would be no more mankind and, after that, the entire planet would be without life. If mankind were to become extinct, he would be most sad not for the Taj Mahals, built to suit a beauty's fancy, not for the pyramids or Parthenons, or the Eiffel Tower—but for the fact that, in the entire Universe for all time, love itself would be extinguished. In the postwar kitchen, beneath his palms, he felt the oilcloth that got sticky on summer days; and he saw a young woman, still merely a girl, liberated from stutthof, the smile of her shining eyes enticing you to live, strive, embrace something that your grasp won't contain, but that will be like the midsummer sea, friendly and playful; as the smell of honey from the whitish flowers of the coarse seashore grasses wafted over him, Krupnikas could even feel how the soles of his feet sizzled and—on the shadowy side of the dunes—cooled in the morning sand. He got a deeper sense of life not from the rolls of Whatman paper, not even from the dreams of his green youth, but from episodes that recurred nights and days, when your heart for no reason begins to pound, fearful that shadows from beyond have reached you and that your destiny has burned away like the stingy December sunlight on the windows of your studio. It's then you come to realize that you live, when you collect all of yourself from all times into your fist, like some trickling sand. Maybe he had done all right, when, unlike the lonely Dalinskas who emigrated in the eighties, he hadn't set off in hot pursuit of Berlin's young ladies, having left his son who-knows-where, and, filled up with beer, he hadn't sat at a sidewalk cafe hollering, Welche Arsche, Mein Gott! (My God, those asses!); and there was one pretty girl, with a small worn-out face, who had turned around to them to say in a half whisper: "The room is deluxe, the service — first class! A hundred Euros." (Dimka had trudged off with her, while Jokűbas, abashedly believing that there is something in this world you can count on, that spouses play by the rules, even here with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, had hoofed it back to the hotel with the strange name Alter Adler—The Old Eagle.) Maybe he had done all right, when he had married Tutë for love; so what if it's a word that's often used by people who lack talent; and so what if nowadays he's lonely even when he's with her, but, regardless, not like Dalinskas in Berlin, whose relationships sprout as quickly as an onion in a jar. So what if the beauty from his youth snored at night? He, after all, had been delirious that there was a Tutë in this world when he got married! This cancelled out the other days, when the family was like a business trying to avoid bankruptcy, and you wanted to take off to some Copacabana somewhere under an assumed name to think up other illusions and, in pursuit of the greater Beauty of Life, to forget even Tutë—as you recharged your emotions and

your blood began to flow faster.

* * *

And Tutë was calling him again to light the garlands he had strung outside around the windows, to bring in the pots of delicate foliage plants from the terrace for the night, and to uncork the champagne. There might be quite a few more people, from far and near, who over the years had accumulated in his life, calling him and dropping in. He climbed downstairs, put his arms around his wife toiling in the kitchen and kissed her plucked eyebrow. He then kissed his mother, whose wrinkles were as dry as the desert. She pecked at the shot glass of Russian vodka in front of her— lately the two women would have a drink in the morning and in the evening for "the heart." He quickly left the kitchen, so the women wouldn't have the chance to draw him into conversation and to dispel the thoughts he held inside.

He lit the lights and stepped twenty paces back from the house. All that'll remain of the entire house will be just dust. The word dust to the architect was a sweet one. Dust is eternal, out of it buildings rise again. He loved this house and the unenduring lives that passed through it, he heard his mother in the kitchen begin to sing a song of old Kaunas in a voice that clattered like aluminum plates in barracks or prisons, and Tutë broke into laughter.

Could this be all there is? A lot or a little?

Translated from the Lithuanian