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from the March 2018 issue

Working Name: Person

In this short story by Hungarian author Edina Szvoren, a young writer’s troubled relationship with her parents is told through the everyday objects their struggles imbue with weight and new meaning.

My face today is Gothic. I twirl a turquoise bracelet around my fingers. My Brigitte Bardot glasses, their lenses translucent, create the effect of swollen cheekbones. The grease spots on them are weeks old, months. When I wipe them off, my head aches from their absence. My gray incisors are a pile of roof tiles. I turn from the café mirror and, scissoring my legs, lift the empty chair opposite me, again and again, until I wear out. I put up my feet. A waiter sizes me up from behind a raised shoulder. There are amorphous white spots on my nails. You could, or should, tell the future from them. Take the ring finger, for example: my son’s life. (He won a recitation contest with an Ágnes Nemes Nagy poem.) The index finger is my literary career, and the middle one is the school principal who is sweet on me. I look up. Here comes Mother and her burning bones, like someone battered daily. But, in fact, she’s only proud.

A tall woman, exuding the smell of pomade, she sits down. Like one with sea legs, she can only lean, not bend over. Her hair quivers in strong but flexible curlicues as she shakes her head in disapproval. She props her bag against the chair leg; its long shoulder straps remain upright, stiff in the air, imperiously, for several minutes. Her shoes, as is her way, form part of the Mercedes logo under the table. The shoes are a gift from Papa. The Indian bag: a gift from Papa. Her gold-plated eyeglass chain: a gift from Papa. My mother and I have met in cafés ever since Papa disowned me for one of my writings.

A hard-breasted case officer for the National Health, she carried me in her womb for nine months. Now she pulls out her yellow plastic case, sixteen years old, a cloverleaf pattern embossed on its lower left corner. She offers me her open palm with a selection of pens. Her skin glows hot, but her promo pens are cold. (Back in the day, thermometers would freeze in her armpits.) She’s got a political pen, one with cholesterol, and a Jehovah’s Witnesses. I pick one out and tighten my upper lip over my teeth. My mother slides the lottery ticket over to me and taps on Papa’s numbers with a bent index finger. Her bones are like the steel inserts in work boots. Seventeen and eleven. I’ve been taking part in this nonsense for sixteen years now. I only get paid if it’s a winner. So I take Mother’s pen (cholesterol) and mark my X’s in the second square, far from Papa’s. Twenty-six and twenty-eight. Me, I have no regular numbers. Papa always goes first, then me, and my mother last, since she’s happy with one sole X. I look at the lotto ticket, and swing my legs. The plastic tips on my laces clack together. Papa’s scratchy two X’s protrude from the box; my mother’s looks like a twirled mustache. Your grandson, I say. Just to get us talking. (My parents know more about the Qahatika Indians than about my son.) He’s won a recitation contest; it’s on YouTube. My mother holds her waist erect like a first violinist in the orchestra. Her response: Like you at that age. Well, of course, at that age I was building trains on the bed out of father’s size 10 shoes, stuffing them full of plush rabbits and dogs, the passengers. If I can’t remember the trains, I can’t be the same person (working name).

Mother, whose regular number is eighty, signals for the check and leaves. She pays even if we win. It would never occur to me to push the matter. I’m perfectly satisfied that we’ve managed, over sixteen years, two three-number winners and six pairs, perhaps seven. My mother, out of the blue, slides an official bank envelope over to my cup, her stare a windowsill, polished to a mirror finish. Last week we hit a Pick Three. You can finally have your teeth done, she remarks, every inch a moral creature. (I like to avoid mentioning the fact that light-year is her favorite word.) She swings her Indian bag up over her shoulder and goes, always moving toward something better, more expansive, like undersea methane bubbles breaking out of ice-prison.

Today my face is Gothic, my calves Romanesque. I push my sunglasses up onto my brow and take a look in the envelope. I riffle through the banknotes. Must be more than nine hundred thousand forints. I pull my lips taut over my teeth, and make a little pucker. The waiters whisper behind a shield of nickel trays. My purse sits in the middle of the round marble table, its zipper teeth broken off in spots. Its mouth has a twisted—human—smile. The drinks menu has a crumple in it, the trace of my mother’s hand. Her will presses the shapes of ancient ferns into stone. 

"Munkanéven ember" © Edina Szvoren. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Jim Tucker. All rights reserved.

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