Love Songs in Minor Keys

 

 love songs in minor keys

 

Last week my quiet moments were spent with a book of short stories by Joe Cavano. I’m a fan of short stories. Yes, 900 page novels do it for me too. There’s such felicity in picking up a big brick of a book knowing it’s going to last a good long time. But short stories satisfy in a different way. I’ve heard them described as the literary equivalent of a Whitman’s Sampler. A variety of bite-sized pieces, each individually contained and complete.

Joseph Cavano’s clean, clear style is an excellent contrast to the complexities, the confusion, the clutter of our relationships. They have a deceptively simplistic feel, fable-like at times. The nine stories are mostly character-driven and, like Mr Cavano’s writing, the characters first appear straightforward. Stereotypical in some cases. But are any of us that simple? Full of lights and darks and contradictions, the characters come to life and stay with you beyond the stories they tell. And they love. Romantically, companionably, steadfastly, brokenly, selfishly, sufferingly. They love for the right reasons, the wrong reasons, for no reason. Like me. Probably like you. Sometimes they love only themselves. These aren’t conventional “love stories” so check any preconceived notions at the door.

If I had to choose a favorite it might be Mayflies. An artist and a storyteller and that first flush of love. True, it’s the most familiar and least shocking of the collection, but its poignancy moved me. Sunday morning I stood watching the mayflies skim the surface of the Greenbrier River. I don’t fish. I’d never really thought of them before. But this story came back to me and I was reminded of how ephemeral life is and how fleeting young love can be.

The blurb on the back of the book says it better than I ever could. A jazz pianist, the author knows very well the power of minor keys. At times exotic, often surprising, they are most powerful when combined with other more familiar sounds; which is what he has done here. The new and the familiar. The dark and the bright. Each blended in such a way as to create a most interesting music. An apt description.

Overcoming Doglessness

   puppy 2

 

On Wednesday my daughter invited a stranger to dinner. Not a complete stranger really, because in a place this small everyone’s heard of everyone else by the end of the day, but a man I’d never met. He built my father’s yawning fireplace with the millstone for a hearth. For years before he became a stone mason he had been a hunter and a trapper and his knowledge of wildlife is legendary. My daughter heard a story of how he raised a fox kit or a deer or a family of opossums or something and was intrigued. Enough to ask to interview him for a class project, because she fancies herself a journalist. She wrote out a list of questions to ask including full name, birth and death dates, age (“Is that rude, Mom?”), favorite place to be, fondest memory, and favorite color. There were other possibly more pertinent questions, but those were my favorites. I told her asking his age would not be rude, but asking his death date might.

And then he didn’t come. I made a venison pie with mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy and baby peas and the pound cake with the real whipped cream and berries and I cleaned the house. I cleaned the house! This involves shoving things under sofa cushions and scanning for cobwebs, followed by a spritz of Lysol for that cleaned-my-house scent. Tedious work. And – after all that – he did not come. “He’s a little backward” (You think?) My daughter had to go to him. I told her to go ahead and ask him his death date. So she went and asked her questions. Some of them couldn’t be answered and I can not tell you why. Witness protection program, perhaps. I can tell you his favorite color is brown. And he gave my daughter a dog. A beagle of the nonhowling variety, I’m told. Is there any such thing?

I grew up down the road from – or rather there was down the road from me, because I was there first – a beagle club. A place where they keep beagles for hunting. Beagles howl. Let me say that again. They HOWL. And they bark. They bark and they bark and two beagles together spur one another on to bark twice as much and fifty (yes, fifty) beagles howl and bark all day and all night and the sound makes you want to break things. You grind your teeth until you think they’ll break and you squeeze whatever you’re holding till you think it will break. I believe my father offered to break a baseball bat over the beagle club owner’s head.

Actually, my first dog was a beagle. But that was long before the beagle club came to our road. There was a sign on the way into town that said “Beagles for Sale” except it looked like “Bagels 4 Sale” instead. Fresh bagels would have been fairly exotic around here back then and my mother couldn’t resist the temptation. We went in for bagels one day and came out with a dog. This may or may not be true but it’s the way I like to remember it. It’s a good story.  I don’t remember much about that dog. His name was Peanut, he had sharp little teeth, and yes – he surely did howl. My cousin that lives next door to me on this road grew up next door to me on the other road. Directly across from the beagle club. I was on the phone with her when my daughter came through the door with this dog, grinning. I said I thought I had a new puppy and my cousin asked what kind. You can imagine the response “beagle” elicited.

 This is how I’ve come to have a puppy snoring at my feet. I can go back to Hungary and ask “Beszél angolul?” “Do you speak English?” with my head held high. I may still be a stupid American but I’m no longer a dogless bitch.

PostScript

 

Two things about the post office robbery.

1.  Someone (Amanda) had the delightful reaction of “Dogless bitch!” upon reading. It’s my new favorite curse.

2. A thousand forints is about five bucks.

Budapest Story (with dogs)

 

Presidential Palace 

 So I took my postcards to the post office near the hotel, which is in the castle district. Very old, quiet, beautiful… NICE. I went to the window and said “Hello. How are you? Do you speak English?”, all in Hungarian. Smiling hopefully. The woman looked at me like I’d just kicked her dog and “Nem. Nem.” shook her head. I think I offended her. But I wanted to send my postcards and I’d forgotten how to ask for stamps in Hungarian because, really, how much Hungarian could I possibly be expected to remember? I’m just a silly American. I tried handing her the cards. It’s obvious what I needed. She grunted. Grunted! I looked under the desk, thinking I had somehow inadvertently kicked her dog. Hungarians are all about dogs, by the way. They’re out walking with their dogs everywhere. A good many aren’t on leashes. They’re part of the populace, just out going about their business. Sometimes I thought the dogs were leading the people. But this woman had left her dog at home. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. It’s possible. She told me “seven thirty” and I, interpreting this as the price, passed her a two thousand forint bill. Smiling. Smiling. (See how I’m smiling? I’m a stupid American, it’s true, but I’m a friendly stupid American. Take pity. I’m smiling.) She pushed some coins at me and a pile of stamps, then got up and walked away.

Crap. What the hell am I supposed to do with all these stamps? There’s twice as many stamps as postcards and they’re all going to different places: US, UK, Ireland, Italy… And how do I get them mailed? There’s no box to put them in and this woman has made it clear she wants no part of my distastefulness.

I turned to the little desk and sorted them, then just started licking and sticking. They’ll either get there or they won’t. All the while something was churning in the back of my mind though: She gave me the wrong change. I turned back and there she was, ignoring me from a distance of three feet. One full step brought me to the counter. “I gave you two thousand” in English and without a smile. She said nothing. The woman with no English reached under her desk blotter and pulled out a thousand forint bill. She knew exactly what she’d done. She didn’t have to recount the change even. She knew she’d shorted me and by how much! I put my money in my purse with my postcards and walked out. Stupid American! Well, I guess I showed her!

Except I hadn’t mailed my cards and later, when I tried to pay at the market, the thousand forint bill turned out to be fake.

Excuse Me…

 

Danube 4 

In Magyar the word for “excuse me” sounds like dontchaknow, but with a Hungarian accent. Although I’m told my Hungarian accent sounds French, which worried me some because my French is atrocious. Still, when in Hungary it’s helpful to know some Hungarian. And so I had all these wonderfully useful phrases saved on the love of my life, my ipod touch. A Hungarian dictionary, Hungarian flashcards (body parts, beverages, computers, you know – the important stuff) (email is Magyar for email, incidentally), a currency conversion app to simultaneously show forints, euros, pounds, and dollars, a koi pond app (for meditation in case I was stressed by feelings of inferiority standing next to gorgeous young Hungarian porn stars), the name and address of the hotel to show the taxi driver at the airport… In short, I was prepared. Armed with an ipod, ready to travel to distant lands and live like a native. And then the ipod broke. One minute I was mouthing along with my Let’s Learn Hungarian podcasts while playing a frenzied game of Ms Pac-Man (also relaxing in times of stress) and the next I was listening to Killing Me Softly. My ipod was busted. Useless. It could only play music. I blame Ryanair, but that’s another story. This is the story of how I survived in Budapest sans ipod. It was not easy.

The (King of Crappy, Ryanair) plane landed at Ferihegy International at dark o’clock (broken ipod – no clock) and, after traveling twenty-four hours in the same clothes and with red, puffy eyes and smudgy mascara (broken ipod), I was forced to stand next to gorgeous “just eighteen” Hungarian porn stars to wait for my luggage with no meditative virtual koi pond (broken – you know). The torture went on and on because my bag was not on that carousel. Only after every other bag had been collected did I look up and see my little black suitcase going round and round on the next baggage carousel over. And then we were alone in the airport. Just me, my little suitcase, and a broken ipod. So I did what I always do when I’m not sure what to do. I found a sober looking person and latched onto them until they helped me. I said the word that sounds like dontchaknow and followed it up with “Do you speak English?”

This tactic landed me three men with little English. I think this is a good place to note that all Hungarians are attractive. It’s a fact. I don’t know who they were or if they worked there or what. They oozed mafia. But they carried my luggage and set me inside a posh taxi with a driver who had even less English. There was jazz on the radio and the city glittered in the dark and I thought: Well this could be worse. Driving eighty miles an hour through Pest it looks swank and European and you feel sexy just being there. But then, half a block beyond you can see the crumbling remains of desperation and it’s hard to tell which is the façade. We crossed the Danube, climbed the cobbled streets of the Castle District of Buda, and Hungary felt more accessible to me. Here was an older history I could read in the architecture and possibly grasp. I was comforted and forgot my ipod.

In the absence of the not quite memorized phrases that were locked away on my (whisper it) ipod, I relied heavily on the dontchaknow word everywhere I went. In retrospect I could have started those halting conversations with the half dozen greetings I knew, but I tend to be apologetic with strangers. I’m sorry. Pardon. Excuse me. It’s a sickness. Hungarians do not suffer from being overly polite though and they gave me looks. They were rude. They didn’t smile. Then late one night I was alone on the Pest side. I’d taken the bus to Deak (inconveniently pronounced Dack) easily enough, but figuring out which bus to take back wasn’t so simple. Scanning the posted bus schedule for the sixth time it was as indecipherable as the first. All that was going through my mind was: eleven o’clock… eleven o’clock… eleven o’clock…. The buses were going to stop at eleven and I’d be stuck with a mighty big river between me and that sumptuous hotel room. The very next bus that stopped, I got on. I hesitated there on the step and addressed the driver with “dontchaknow…” He never looked my way. The bus was moving and I was on it.

With an inward Crap Crap Crap I grabbed the pole in both hands and tried to look casual. I meant to get on this bus. Obviously. Now if I could just figure out where it was going. It had to go back across the river. This was the most reasonable possibility, Deak being the furthermost stop on the Pest side, right? Right? The x-ray vision wasn’t working to see the map in my purse, so I took a quick glance around the bus. Looking for a sober person who might speak English. Instead I spotted transit police. My complete freak-out would have to wait. The transit police notoriously fine tourists for invented violations. And there I stood without a ticket. Looking down, I saw my hands gripped the pole on either side of the ticket validation box. I stifled a laugh.

We did in fact cross that famed river, the Danube, though it looked less romantic from inside the bus of silent panic. We crossed downriver from my cushy hotel room. Far downriver. It got darker and the street names sounded more and more Soviet. I was sure we’d taken a hard right at Warsaw. One panicky jump off, two more buses, the clacking hum of a tram, sixteen dontchaknows, and a ten minute walk in the dark, brought me back to the hotel.

Several days of “dontchaknow” being mostly answered by contemptuous looks and I started to question my memory. Kicking off tired shoes, I wondered. Was dontchaknow actually the obnoxious word for “leave me alone”? The one I’d been told to use only in extreme situations? The one the Pixie loves to say? Or was it the word her small sister had danced gleefully around the house repeating? “Help! Thief!” I fell to the bed giggling and my dreams were filled with the clack and hum of a tram carrying me into the night.

I missed my ipod.