3rd place: The Dog Heaven by Ari Dvorak

Mrs. T learns that she is no longer local in the new age that has come. In between her and her son there is a generation gap growing.

I am a stranger in my very living room.

 I know every bit of it, I could navigate it blindfolded and never stumble upon anything unexpected. I remember how things sound and feel. I remember their smells. I could tell you about thousands of cherished moments that happened between these walls like if it was yesterday.

This is my home, and yet-

*         

“What a great meal, ma,” my son smiles, his cheeks full like a hamster and a set of eyes that are the same as mine. A whole plate of svíčková disappears in him like a ray of light inside a black hole. He’s always been naturally skinny despite his bottomless appetite. That, of course, cannot be said about the girl beside him. Exactly on the line between chubby and fat, she takes awkward little bites and tries to not look me in the eye.

“It’ll get cold if your girlfriend keeps taking so much time nibbling on it like an ant,” I say, putting a pot closer to my boy so he can get more sauce.

“It’s really good, Mrs. T,” she fake-smiles, “you’re an excellent cook. I’ll try my best to finish, though it’s quite a big portion for me.”

She absolutely hates my cooking. There’s no way a fat girl like that would not be able to finish one sole plate of my svíčková.

“So, what are you up to, ma?” my son asks, putting an extra serving on his plate like I’ve anticipated, arranging a new set of dumplings around the meat like white savoury petals, “I’ve noticed the new flowerbeds in the front. They look neat.”

“What is that?” I notice something shiny inside his mouth.

“What is what?” he looks around himself theatrically. God, he’s so bad of a liar.

“Show me your tongue,” I put my hands on my hips.

“Ma,” he sighs and sticks out his tongue. A shiny metal thing peaks at me from a tiny hole in his mouth muscle. I am utterly disgusted.

“Take that out. Now,” I point my index finger in the middle of the table.

He hesitantly looks at the spot then tries to shoot a gaze at his girl who still battles every bite of my signature meal and finally he resigns and takes the ring out. Ring. It’s more like a tiny rod with silver beads on each end. The fat girl has lots of garbage like this pierced through her eyebrows and ears, but I would’ve never expected my baby boy to come home with one of these things on.

“Ma, it’s just one piercing,” he whispers, guilty, “on a spot where nobody can see it even.”

“Not in my house,” I shake my head in disagreement, “wear whatever you want at your university campus as long as it doesn’t affect your index. But my place, my rules.”

“Okay,” he nods silently. He flips his tongue inside his mouth like if he can’t get used to not having the piercing in and with slight discomfort, he continues to devour a second serving of svíčková. “Can I have it back after dinner?”

“Maybe tomorrow when you’re leaving. If you behave,” I say resolutely.

“This is ridiculous,” I hear an almost inaudible whisper.

“Excuse me,” I turn my head to the fat girl.

“Can I have another glass of Kofola, ma?” says my son to cover for her.

“What did she just say?” I feel fury building up in me.

“She said nothing,” he shakes his head.

“Oh, never mind me, the old hag is just hearing voices,” I fume.

“Mum,” he tries to calm me down, “she didn’t say anything. Really.”

“I heard her just fine,” I stand my ground, “miss gourmet shows up at my home, despises my boring classical cuisine and thinks she can automatically tell me what to do and what not to do? Well, I have news for her; I am local here and if she won’t respect the way things are done in this house, she can as well…”

She has a name,” says the thick girl, stands up and walks angrily towards the door leaving a half-finished plate behind.

“Honey,” he shouts after her and stands up to follow but I grab his hand.

“This is not a good girl for you,” I give a well-meant motherly advice, “you’re a smart, handsome and well-mannered young man, you deserve better.”

“You don’t know the first thing about what I really am, ma,” he shouts me down, pushes my hand away and follows his girlfriend out of the door.

I am left alone in an empty living room next to a table set for three.

*

We were so provocative back then weren’t we, love?

It was early 80’s and your dad secretly planned to emigrate to the USA. He sold your two-storey family house, your sturdy grey Škoda Favorit, your cottage by the Mácha’s lake and even your winter coats because he’d heard it’s always sunny in Florida. I always found it funny that you have so much money and yet you show up on dates in an old, patched-up windbreaker and you hesitate to buy a tram ticket to get to your beat-up trailer home.

When your dad suddenly died – not at the hands of the secret police, like he feared, but because of a heart attack that could’ve been caused by that great amount of long-lasting fear of said secret police – you ended up inheriting quite a bit of what he’d saved up by skimping on basic needs. The poor man never got to America, even after so much hope he’d put into his plan. We agreed on living here and now to not repeat your father’s mistakes.

So, you bought a motorbike, a brand-new Dnepr M-72, and we drove all through Yugoslavia. We ate in renowned restaurants and peed in bushes along the way. We slept on the beaches under the breath-taking sky full of stars. We listened to banned radio stations, bought bracelets made of shells and smoked Russian cigarettes on rocky harbour piers. We decided to make our son there to share our world with another human being.

When we arrived back in Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, you bought a lovely little village house with a garage. We put wallpapers up, scrubbed and painted the floors and bough some nice quality furniture from our friends and family. We got married in September, the leaves were yellow and red and ochre, and they were stuck in your hair when we kissed but I resisted the urge to take them out.

Our boy looked like the spitting image of you since the first time I saw him, soaked and screaming and absolutely the most amazing, beautiful thing I have ever seen. He had my eyes though; you were right about that. He played in the garden, he played with the dog, he played with you, he climbed the trees, he fell down and he needed me to blow on his bruised knee to make the pain go away. He danced when ABBA was playing, I am the dancing queen, ma, he watched me plant the tomatoes and asked if they are going to be ripe before dinner time. They are just babies, I said, you must wait a bit. And the tomatoes got ripe and red and juicy before I knew and I took a bite and smiled and handed one to my sixteen-year-old and he said ew, ma, you passed me a rotten one and I hushed him and tossed a new one into his hands.

When you went where I can’t follow, our boy didn’t shed a tear. He just stared into nothingness while the funeral march played. But I knew that he hurt deeply. The silent gaze was a greater sign of sorrow than all tears in the world would be.

When the dog died years before however, he almost screamed. At whole the world. At me. Where has she gone, ma? Where has she gone if there’s no dog heaven? And I rubbed his back and said that of course there is a dog heaven. Dogs bark about it all the time, we just don’t understand a single ruff.

*

“What are you up to, ma?” he asks over the phone, “last time you said you were going to replace the red currant in the back with something else.”

“Goji,” I say with a bit of bitterness in my voice, “you said goji would be amazing to grow in the garden, but it withered immediately after I planted it. I will do some roses instead.”

“There’s never enough roses,” I almost see him smile.

My boy is married now. There was no wedding, just bureaucracy. Signing some papers at a city hall. Or so they told me. Maybe his pierced tattooed edgy wife just didn’t want to see my face when her chubby face kisses my son’s at the altar. And to be honest, I kind of understand if that’s the case.

“I read an article on the internet about you,” I say.

“Shit, ma, you take the world wide web by a storm” he laughs, “was it a good one?”

“It said that you are successful,” I admit.

“How do you feel about that?” he asks.

“I’m glad you’re happy, honey.”

“But?”

“I think I don’t understand it,” I let my back lean towards the living room wall.

“We could come over and have a talk about everything, ma,” he says, hope in his voice, “just say the word.”

“I will when I’m ready, baby, I will,” I ensure him and I’m not lying.

We talk for another while. About roses. About stupid goji that can’t take Czech weather. Then we say goodbye and I am alone again. Just me, a table set for one and a flashing screen of the computer he gave me for my 60th birthday.

What is even an influencer? The title says gender-non-conforming body-positive influencer duo and the only word that’s clear to me is a duo. And yes, there is two of them. My son and his fat girl, both posing on professional photoshoots in what seems to be rather female fashion. My own eyes staring at me from the screen under a thick coat of mascara. Another shot of the couple donating an absurdly huge amount of money to some foundation. Videos of them showing off their new tattoos. Here, someone says their series of LGBT+ themed content helped them a lot. Old people like me in the comments section sometimes call my son a faggot. Don’t you see he has a wife, dummy, I respond even though I hardly understand the context.

It seems like our son does things that make sense, love. I mean, they do not really make sense to me, but I guess that’s fine. I’m over being angry at the way world is changing around me. I’m done hating the stuff I don’t understand.

We were so bold back then, weren’t we? Oh, and we also felt like nobody could see what we were doing and why.

With every year, every month, week or even second, I’m losing grip on the present. I feel it slowly melt while only the illusion created by my memories survives. I may know every bit of this room. We built it together. We put up these wallpapers, we made this floor shine; and, well, the wallpapers are faded, they flake off like old bark, the floor is full of scratches and every other plank gives off a loud shriek. I slowly, bit by bit, realize I am no longer local in these new strange times full of colour and estrangement.

I clean the room a bit, then something clinks. I bend down and lift up a tiny silver thing from the corner. Ring. I smile.

*

“Let’s go,” I whisper to you today, putting on my old helmet and starting your Dnepr motorbike. She coughs a bit but then she roars like and old wise lion she is, even after the years. The service guy told me it would be a miracle if she rides again; so here we are, hallelujah. I have no idea where I am going to go or what am I going to do. But one thing’s for sure – I want to feel the wind in my hair again. Our times are gone but that’s okay. We’ve had our share.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure your old bike ruffs about the same heaven as we once did.

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