"That one!" Grandma Laska blurted out, chewing the sounds, her green eyes hot like tongs. I could not believe it: she hissed and bit the words like that when she thought of Boris. She had just come back from the front door, flushed and hot. Her blood pressure had probably reached her eyebrows and that meant death was stalking her by her easy chair. Death had been stalking grandma for eighteen years, ever since I introduced her to Boris. Since then, he had been "that one" who wanted to kidnap her only treasure, her granddaughter, on account of whom Grandma Laska made her best effort to go on living. She asked her Jewish gods to keep her whole and kicking so she could take care of me.
She had lost my father, a wise thin man, and she had only me plus two old friends, inveterate smokers, with whom she drank coffee. Occasionally the two of them wept; not Grandma Laska. She drank vodka while her friends cried silent tears into their coffee cups.
"That one!" grandma repeated biting off several sounds. "I told him you were not available."
Our sons – Boris’s and mine – were already grown. Grandma was happy they were at home, but they were "that one’s sons" and when they fought she did not ask why; she knew. Staring at the air, foggy with feathers from their pillows after the fights, she snarled, "that one!"
"You won’t live with him under the same roof for a long time", she often remarked even before Boris met "the other woman." Grandma Laska was convinced he’d clear out. When it would happen, was an issue of time and patience. "If you are so rattle-brained, I can’t help you. You look at him as if he was a quiet November day, but he’ll deceive you."
I met Boris under the chestnut trees in the school yard of the professional school for electricians in Radomir where I taught English, after my graduation from the university. The prospective electricians couldn’t care less about English grammar; most of them were only interested in a learning a handful of obscene words. The present perfect tense was as remote a notion to them as tobogganing to me. Boris asked me if I had heard of a well-known local company I knew absolutely nothing about. Grandma Laska was right – I mooned about, stuffing my brain with obscure poetry or good-for-nothing novels. Boris was a physicist, a corporate manager or something, he said, but I wasn’t listening, I could hardly wait for the end of the day. We didn’t go to his room in the cheap hotel in Radomir. We didn’t even go the motel five miles away from my school. Love happened quickly. There were chestnut trees, enormous ones that shone in the afternoon. The only thing I remember was how birds nestled under Boris’s hands. On the following day after my classes and much present simple tense, chestnut trees sprouted up under his hands.
Grandma Laska said, "He’ll ruin your life, dont you see that? He’s a liar, my girl, and you are my most precious thing."
"That one" gave me the sky with swallows and winds in it, with old whispers and the vodka, which grandma Laska drank. "He’d crush you like a nut and you’re out of your mind. I can’t help you. Have children then, have children. He’ll go away for sure and the kids will remain with you."
My grandma drank her vodka carefully, for that was the medicine for her poor heart. Sometimes it pounded and thudded like the express train to Sofia, the same train that would take her to her friend, death. And yet Grandma loved my sons. "They are chestnuts and wasters like their father, but there is summer in them, too, and summer is from you", Grandma said. "One cannot be only a chestnut, a spendthrift, or a corporate manager, there has to be summer in him as well."
When Boris moved into "the other woman’s" flat – she was a physicist, too, and a colleague – Grandma Laska forbade us to mention her name. "That woman, thank God, is made of chestnuts and lies", the old woman concluded and heaved a deep sigh of relief. Even when the boys fought they did it with the summer I gave them, Grandma thought. On the other hand she held the walking stick firmly in her hand and knocked down all chestnuts from the trees, muttering under her breath that she felt sorry for me: I was twenty five and she could see how empty-headed I was. I had two wild kids who could not sit peacefully for a minute, not if their lives depended upon it.
Sometimes Boris rang me up. Those were days when chestnut trees blossomed and flocks of swallows came from the South. I thought about my classes. I had already learned that money meant the world, and I had none. I translated one more book with two million explosions and hot sex into Bulgarian. Unfortunately, I also spent every penny I earned in one week. "You should translate Bashevis Singer. He was one of us, and he’s no crap like your books", Grandma Laska muttered. "O, your kids are naughty. Look at their clothes. They cut them with pairs and pairs of scissors."
Chestnut trees grew in my sons. Boris was in them, and I could not hate him the way Grandma Laska wanted me to. "He lives with the other woman", she never failed to remind me, but why should I have cared? Boris had given me chestnuts and the sky.
My boys wore out each a pair of trainers a month, and finished the last can of compote in March. Around this time, I began walking to school and Grandma stopped drinking her vodka. Her heart turned into an express train several times a day. And it was only because of she was still on friendly terms with death that the woman remained whole and kicking. "You are not all there", Grandma would say. "That one made you crazy!" At this point she had made up her mind that although she was old like the crags, she had to do something for me, the crazy woman who knew that money was everything, but ran like mad to the chestnut trees. Of course "that one" was never there, but her granddaughter rushed to the chestnut shadows in Radomir smiling at the sun. Why should she grin idiotically like that after the sun scorched the garden and the old car would not start? Her granddaughter was no good. No good at all.
I was happy under the chestnut trees. The birds that Boris and I had tamed together still lived there. We had tamed the wind, too, and tied it in the grass to get some sleep. "Such a woman should be nuts", Grandma said. One day she announced she had by chance found a tenant for one of the rooms in our two-room flat. All of us: the boys, Grandma and I, flocked together in the other. You could only call it a "room" if your imagination ran wild: four beds, two desks and a TV set – all of them battered, the TV set broadcasting either a yellow or blue tint according to meteorological conditions. If it rained, the screen was blue, if the sun shone, everything was yellow.
The tenant moved into the room we vacated. He was a quiet fellow, very clean indeed, Grandma said. "He wouldn’t kill a cockroach if he saw one, a meek and mild chemist who worked in the toothpaste factory not far from Radomir." "That guy is great for you", Grandma said directly. She was no good at beating about the bush. "I’ve been looking for a tenant a year now. I turned down a dozen of them, you know. This one’s good for you." The man stammered slightly and when he told me, "y-y..you are p-p-pretty", he blushed furiously up to his eyebrows. Perhaps his blood pressure had reached a point not far from Grandma’s express train to death. He gave me a ride in his old Ford truck to my school in Radomir; he repaired the faucet that had been leaking since the dawn of time. Grandma Lask
a treated him to bean soup and asked him to solve some problems in maths for my sons who took advantage of the situation and badgered him into reading them a fairy tale. So docile was he. "He’s what you need", Grandma said. "He looks at you as if you were a quiet November day."
I found nothing special about the quiet November days. I went on running to the chestnut trees by the motel, I even took Toncho (that meek and mild fellow) there, but no birds nested under his hands. He could not tie the wind in the grass and let it sleep. Toncho was grass and there was no summer in him. He was a room with four battered beds and an old TV set, which always broadcast blue movies because it rained. My sons, my grandmother and I lived in that room and it was all Toncho had.
Our daughter – Toncho’s and mine – was a tractable green-eyed tot. There surely was no summer, winter, spring or autumn in her. There was a warm, well-lit room in that child, and if there was any bird in her, it was still in its egg and had not hatched out. Toncho however, believed the girl was everything. He took my sons to pick mushrooms and autumn leaves.
"Do you see now what I meant?" Grandma asked me triumphantly. She had again started sipping her vodka just to slow down the express strain in her heart.
"That one" had stopped calling me. I no longer taught at the professional school in Radomir. We all moved into a new flat in Pernik, a town where there was not a single chestnut tree. But I went to the birches, telling myself they were chestnut trees. I believed I tied the wind in the grass, and it was summer, and I tamed birds, waiting for Boris to ring me up. I didn’t know how things with him were. "For all I know", grandma said. "He lives well with ‘the other woman’. And you are nuts, if you ask me." I was grateful for the summer, for the birds and winds Boris gave me. I hope he lives happily with her, I said to myself. I hoped like that until the day Grandma cried out "that one!" I couldn’t believe it. "I told him you were not available", Grandma Laska hissed. "Hey, where are you off to? Hey, stop it. Come back. The kids will be back from school. Your husband will be back, too! You are nuts!"
"Boris!" I ran out of the old block of flats. There was not a single birch in the neighborhood. He was walking to the bus-stop, gray like the sidewalk.
After his steps, directly through the asphalt, chestnut trees grew.
Proposal story by:
Pernik, AL – Bulgaria