Pontus Beg had not become the old man he’d imagined. Something was missing—a great deal, in fact. As a boy, he had for a time been in the habit of walking around his father’s yard with a pair of safety glasses on the bridge of his nose, his hands clasped behind his back—that was how he imagined the life of an old man to be. Sometimes he used a branch for a walking stick. More than anything else, he had wanted to be old. Slow and deliberate, a captain calmly braving the storm. To die a wise man.
When the glasses started leaving welts on both sides of his nose, he put them back beside the grinder in the shed and began waiting patiently for old age to come, instead of running out to meet it.
He had only started feeling like an old man after he developed a cold foot. He was fifty-three, still too young to really be considered old, but he could see the writing on the wall. A nerve had become pinched in his lower back. Ever since, then, his left foot had gone cold. Standing on the bathroom floor in the morning, he could see that his feet were different colours. The right one was ruddy — the way it should be — but the left one was pale and cold. When he pressed his fingers against it, he felt almost nothing. It was as though the foot belonged to someone else. The dying starts from the feet up, Beg thought.
That was how it would be, the way to the end: he and his body, growing apart gradually.
The name is the guest of the thing itself, an old Chinese philosopher had said, and that, more and more, was the way he, Pontus Beg, found himself in relation to his body — he was the guest, and it was the thing itself. And the thing itself was now busy shaking off its guest.
The days grow shorter; life turns in upon itself. Thunderstorms at night linger for a long time over the steppes. Beg stands at the window and watches. There is a flash in the distance, and a web of glowing fissures in the vault of heaven. He stands on the linoleum, one foot warm and one foot cold, and thinks he needs to pour himself a bit of something in order to get to sleep.
The older he gets, the more sleep becomes a unreliable friend.
His apartment is at the edge of town. There had once been plans for the city to expand eastward: half-hearted preparations had even been made, but nothing came of it. His window still looks out on a proliferation of little sheds and kitchen gardens and the endless space of the steppe beyond. Maybe it’s a sign of stagnation, but, as far as he’s concerned, things can stay this way; he likes the view.
In the kitchen, he takes the bottle of Kubanskaya from the freezer and pours himself a shot. He is not a heavy drinker; he practises restraint, unlike almost everyone else east of the Carpathians.
Then he moves back to the window and looks, with thoughts indistinct, into the chute of the night.
He hears his housekeeper coughing in the bedroom. Once a month he lays claim to her for a night, although the phrase doesn’t accurately reflect their relationship. It would be more like it to say that, once a month, she lets herself be claimed for a night. She determines which night that will be, always sometime shortly before her period. The manual to her reproductive system remains misty territory to him — something he’d rather not think about. When his day arrives, he hears about it.
Her fertile days, the housekeeper reserves for her fiancée, a truck driver ten years her junior. He pilots tractor trailers full of commodities from the People’s Republic to the capital, from whence a flood of trash inundates the country’s stores. Zita waits patiently for the day when he will propose to her.
No matter how hard she tries, though, she simply doesn’t get pregnant; if this keeps up, she’ll be childless forever. She spends a lot of time on her knees at the Benedictine chapel. Amid golden icons and plastic flowers, she prays fervently for a child. In the confessional, the priest listens to the people’s secrets; when he comes down the stairs in his black habit, his hand carves out the sign of the cross above her head, and he blesses her and the genuflecting farmwomen in their colourful kerchiefs. She feels the cross burning on her forehead; that night, the seed will blossom forth.
Dangling from the little chain around her neck, beside the golden cross, are the emblems of those saints to whom one can turn for fecundity.
Women, Pontus Beg reflects, are the pack animals of faith, carrying the world’s sanctity on their backs.
He has never been able to talk Zita into turning a blind eye and granting him one of those fertile nights. For he is sure that it is the truck driver who is remiss, not her. It’s the truck; so much sitting isn’t good for a man. It strangles your balls.
A child? Is he trying to say that he wants a child?
‘Don’t kid yourself, Pontus,’ Zita says.
He’s not serious, she thinks. And if he is, he shouldn’t be.
Beg is more appreciative of the services she performs in bed than those she renders with both feet on the floor. She is not a particularly good housekeeper. She doesn’t actually clean the house; she picks up after him. A jar of soft soap lasts her a year. They are long past the point where he can say anything about it. Habit has locked their relationship into place; nothing can change it anymore. As it is, so shall it remain. She picks up after him, and he keeps his mouth shut.
When Zita stays over,he drinks more than usual. They sit at the table, smoking and talking. She becomes completely absorbed in the anecdotes he tells her. She laughs and shudders — she is a responsive audience. Some of the stories he has told her three or four times already, over the years, but she enjoys hearing him talk about the policeman’s life. At the table with Zita, alcohol doesn’t make him melancholy: on the contrary, it makes him cheerful and roguish. He looks forward to his evenings with her — they are the high point of his existence.
Then they go to bed. The light goes out.
When she is at his place, he often lies awake. He wonders whether perhaps he’s been alone too long, whether it’s impossible to get used to having another body beside him.
There’s that, and then there’s that other problem.
Zita maintains a lively relationship with her mother, in her sleep. His bed at night sounds like a henhouse. First, after making love, she sleeps for an hour, sometimes two. Then it starts. Then mother and daughter resume the conversation that death interrupted so rudely. Beg remembers the first time he heard her talking at night. He had listened in on that half of the conversation that came from this side of the void, without realising that it was her mother on the other end. These were no deep, dark secrets being shared; they talked about the price of flour, the freshness of eggs, and the unending disgrace that empty shops imply for a woman in the mood to buy. It was like a telephone call one could overhear easily, even if all you heard was what was being said at this end.
When it all became too tedious, Beg woke her.
‘You’re talking in your sleep,’ he said.
She sat straight up in bed and said: ‘Pontus, you’re interrupting us! Now I’ll have to go back all over again and try to find her!’
Since then he had started getting out of bed whenever the chattering grew too much for him, the way it had tonight. On one warm foot and one cold, he stands at the window and gazes at the lightning out on the plains.