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from the August 2010 issue

Oh, Those Chubby Genes

Three homeless citizens were sitting on Budapest’s Liberty Square, watching television.

By the corner of the American Embassy, policemen with automatics were shuffling in place, as always, blowing into the plastic coffee cups held up to their lips and looking at the sky, the Good Lord’s grainy, melancholy TV monitor. The phenomenon was first spotted at 9:30 by Corporal Henrietta Kis who, for reasons of her own this time, glanced into the bomb-surveillance mirror and was glad to see that her eye was healing nicely, the one she’d bumped into the ceiling lamp of her sleeping quarters just two night before. Why not the ceiling lamp?; at least, that’s the story she told the others, that she’d knocked into the lamp at her quarters on her way to the lavatory, and why not, considering that her business would brook no delay. No one would’ve believed the truth anyway. One eyelid nipped up, she studied the minuscule, medium-red jelly and was pleased that the unsightliness had been absorbed, and the little that remained, why, she could have painted it there herself on a discoing Saturday afternoon, though to be sure, just one made-up eye is always just a bit suspicious. In short, she was satisfied and would have continued looking at herself, but her satisfying discovery was literally dwarfed by something else she saw.

Without informing her comrades-in-arm with a loud shriek, the young lady, medium height, short legs, turned on her heels and took out a cigarette, just the fourth that day, thanks to a cut lip. She blew out the match, then discretely pinched her arm, but without producing the hoped-for result. She quietly drew a couple of deep breaths, then in a low whisper proceeded to ask her two equally quiet colleagues whether they didn’t happen to see something out of the ordinary over yonder? Though pale from the cold and engaged in sipping their by now lukewarm coffee, their dropped jaws were a dead give-away. Yeh, shit, they’d seen it too, except they thought . . . in short, that they’re not seeing what they’re seeing, that the snow had dazed their eyes. However, as things stand, it’s no daze they’re in, but a predicament.

They cocked their automatics and dropped to one knee, just as they had been trained to do.

“Let’s hope they’re just one of them advertising gizmos,” one of the soldiers offered. “For instance, a hot-air balloon. They blow ‘em up, then they drink Nescafé, or whatever. Instant chicken soup.”

“Neh, they’d ‘a needed permission for that, ‘cause that’s aerial activity,” the other soldier countered. Their knees were freezing; besides, they looked ridiculous in that quiet morning, in the falling snow, especially since the three individuals over yonder—discounting the strangeness of the phenomenon, of course—were peacefully sitting on the bench in front of the Soviet war memorial.

The next few moments were taken up with linguistic problems, like what is it they’re seeing, and how could they describe it officially? Then the discoverer, Corporal Henrietta Kis, was given her orders to call headquarters over the radio.

“Homeless,” she announced.  “Three homeless individuals.”

“So what, pumpkin,” a vexed-yet-liquid voice answered, “Soooooo?

“Except, I beg to report, they’re the size of the embassy, more or less. Or the what’s-it-called, the National Bank . . . Sitting down, anyway . . . Yes, sitting down! You won’t believe this, but there’s this incredibly huge bench. It grew there, and it’s like totally proportionate to their size . . .”

Henrietta Kis would have gone on, if only headquarters had not cut her short, because the duty officer wanted a certain Louie on the line.

“You let her hit the bottle again,” a voice thundered into the ear of that certain Louie.

“I beg to report, we did nothing of the sort, Sir, and them whatchamacallits, they’re really here,” that certain Louie went on, “and we request our orders or precautionary measures. But if you ask me, you should dispatch a commando unit.”

At this point, something very nasty came over the radio, and headquarters cut off the transmission. One wonders why, when “commando unit,” is such a soft winter word, like hot-roasted chestnuts or hornets’ nests. Or jingle bells.

“Headquarters said we’re drunk,” Certain Louis announced coldly, and stood up. “But they didn’t fucking give us our orders. Like checking their IDs. Or whose jurisdiction this thing falls under.”

Meanwhile, the embassy windows filled up with well-groomed men with intelligent eyes and golden women who perched their blonde, red, and brunette offspring on the windowsills. Flashbulbs flashed and palm-size cameras clicked. Then, as if on a signal, they disappeared, and all the blinds came down.

Later, when the sirens started blaring in the side streets, the three of them jerked up their heads, not that they were particularly surprised. They just pulled the can closer to their feet, and one of them, the younger of the two men, began pointing, possibly at the nearby Parliament, possibly at the flashing police cars. In the end, the three of them remained seated and lit up a cigarette in the falling snow. They seemed to be conferring about something, but even though Liberty Square was wrapped in silence, it was impossible to hear just what. There was nothing but silence, and the smoke of cheap cigarettes.

By the afternoon, the eyes of the entire civilized world were trained on Budapest, the television stations took possession of the rooftops, and with a sizeable entourage in tow, the Minister of the Interior came on the scene, where he was briefed that except for the unusual incident, no unusual incident had occurred, and there was only one slight mishap—when asked for proof of identity, one of the suspects dropped his ID and because of its weight, which was in proportion to the size of the said suspect, it made an ugly dent in a Mitsubishi Pajero, but it wasn’t an embassy car, thank God.

The advisability of negotiations and the urgency of removing the three individuals from the public square, but without creating a disturbance, came from a joint statement by the Hungarian Prime Minister and President Clinton. The news had reached the former in the town of Hajdúhadháza just as he was taking off, while the latter heard about it in Washington, where only a quick and sagacious assessment of the situation and their legendary sangfroid could keep their surprise in check.

As the crane’s basket was being raised, you could hear the snow falling flake by freezing flake.

“What the fuck did you fucking eat that made you so big?” the psychologist who also happened to be a first lieutenant asked, possibly for the sake of alliteration.

“Biscuits and Malta rolls.”

“What else?”

“And also, the wine. It was a present,” the three added unwillingly.

“What do you mean a present? A present from whom and why?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant asked.

They couldn’t say exactly, the homeless persons replied. Basically, it was four little guys that brought it in the morning. Pigeons. At first glance, anyway. They were wearing eagle anoraks, well-cut aviator jackets, white shoelaces. But they didn’t start a fight or anything by way of aggression, they just gave them the wine, brother to brother like, an absolutely free present! In a can, and pink, almost to the bottom. And impeccably semi-sweet.

“And then the genes just kicked into gear, is that it?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant grunted sarcastically. “They started sprouting. Those chubby genes. Is that what you’re saying?”

“So it would seem,” the homeless individuals replied, not that they’re gene experts or anything. They were just sipping the rosé, savoring the bouquet, when what happened happened, and they started growing. Or the country began shrinking. Not that it matters, it’s just delirium, it’ll pass.

“Well, it sure as fuck better,” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant said. “Can you stand up?”

“Hilda can,” they said, whereupon one of them, the woman wearing a skiing outfit, unsteadily tottered to her feet. It was a moment filled with tension, and the skin on the cheeks of the sharpshooters hidden behind the cover of the surrounding rooftops grew taut—grew taut, then relaxed. The middle-aged woman gave a drunken hiccough. Basically the size of the National Bank, possibly a hair’s breadth taller, she flung her arms around the can, leaned her cheek against it, and began singing, “Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars, let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars . . .” She even attempted a step or two as accompaniment, but then fell back with a thud. This made the three of them scream with laughter for quite some time, their drunken mouse voices squeaking and weaving in and out among the boughs of the rustling trees as they shook off their white flakes of snow. Her comrades slapped her on the back and planted awkward kisses on her ski cap. In gratitude, the woman passed the can around. She drank from it too, smacking her lips, then set it down on her lap and clasped it to her bosom. The can’s got to stay, they said, or they can forget the negotiations, plus the clearing-out of the square.

Around three p.m. one of the two men announced that he’s got to answer the call of nature, and they either get the popular geneticist Endre Czeizel on the scene to reverse his genes, or else let him go to the back of the television building to pee.

“That’ll be the day,” the officials who’d been following the events over the radio frowned. “Why not Kossuth Square, while he’s at it,” one of them commented, the sweat trickling down his forehead at the very thought.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s helicopter touched ground, but after a brief but constructive exchange of views, he thought better of his original plan to ignore the danger and with the help of a crane and a safety helmet, shake hands with the oversize citizens.

Not much before sunset, the homeless individual who went by the name of Hilda informed the Undersecretary of State in charge of the negotiations that if they won’t let Berci answer The Call, she’s gonna rip the Soviet war memorial out by the roots, and let’s just hope she won’t get the sudden urge to fling it at anybody. Or drop it on top of the television building, God forbid the eventuality. It’s their choice.

All the while, the three of them were drinking steadily, if with some slight bitterness, handsomely depleting the contents of the can, so despite the considerable risk, action had clearly to be taken before the suspects got drunk out of their skulls. By the time night fell, with the assistance of American experts, the crisis staff had lighted on a concrete plan of action.

“Is it really that urgent for Berci?” the psychologist who was also a first lieutenant shouted into the loudspeaker.

“Very,” came a subdued, wind-beaten voice from above.

“Oh, dear, dear,” an advisor said encouragingly. “In that case we will take hold of him and collectively proceed to an out-of-the-way place,” he continued, then patiently, first in Hungarian then in English, he explained the plan of action. After some hesitation and doubtfulness on their part, the three individuals appeared willing to walk slowly, commodiously (the Devil ain’t chasin’ us), and with adequate police protection, watching where they were stepping, to their appointed quarters at People’s Stadium.

“We can discuss the details once we get there, friends.”

On the six o’clock evening news the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Interior announced that the Plenary Action Committee meeting that was called together after the ascertainment and inquiry into the facts of the case decided in favor of the Peoples’ Stadium and its auxiliary institutions because it proved to be the only venue where the minimum required conditions for the detained individuals and the police charged with keeping the peace could be guaranteed, to wit, hot tea and water canons. She is further pleased to report to the public at large that everything went according to plan and without a hitch or unforeseen complications, except when they reached the Eastern Railway Station, the female detainee insisted on taking the train to the aqua park in Hajdúszoboszló, but after yet another exchange of views, she quickly changed her mind.

Hastily edited and inadequately lit, the TV footage still made it clear that the three sensations of the day were pretty much frightened by all the to-do around them. They trundled silently on in the heavy snowfall along the deserted streets barred to traffic. Their opal-colored plastic bags and the can were carried along behind them by four fire engines with blaring sirens.

The night passed calmly, with rest. In their sleep, nobody can ascertain the exact time but it was toward dawn, they suddenly knuckled under like wet rags. The bulk was gone as quickly as it had come, or else the country got bigger; be that as it may, the three individuals in question woke up groggy, trying their morning-after tongues, and were confused by the police alert and the silent police cars with frost on their windshields. And ever since, they’ve been sitting, huddled together inside the start circle, the same size as you or I.

From A bufti genek [Heroes Square]. Copyright Lajos Parti Nagy. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.

Read more from the August 2010 issue
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