Dispatches

Voices

David Albahari

My friend, who writes poems and stories, tells me in the café that he finds it more and more difficult to deal with the writer inside him. “I just hate it,” he says, “when I realize that I am looking at somebody or something and thinking how good that person or that scene would be in my next story.”

I know what he is talking about; the same thing happens to me all the time. It is as if you were carrying a tiny replica of yourself on your shoulders—usually he is quiet, but sometimes he takes over and starts telling you that you are just a character in his story, like everything else around you. The worst thing is that quite often he doesn’t pay attention to what you’re doing, and babbles endlessly while you’re trying to watch a movie or listen to a writer reading from her latest novel.

I tell my friend that I understand. “But the real problem, at least for me,” I say, “is that you cannot tell anybody about it. Try telling somebody that you hear voices in your head, and you’ll see how they look at you. People who hear voices in their heads are considered crazy.”

My friend is silent for a while. “So,” he finally says, “what do you say, are we crazy?”

It is my turn to be silent. How do you answer such a question? And why is that voice inside me suddenly as quiet as a mouse? I look around as if seeking help, and our waitress comes to our table with a steaming pot of fresh coffee. I tell her that we don’t want coffee but she can still help us. Because of my accent she believes that we are newcomers to Calgary, and she smiles and nods. Does she think, I finally ask her, that we, my friend and I, are crazy? Her expression changes instantly and a flash of alarm can be seen in her eyes, but she does not stop smiling. “Don’t worry,” I say, “we are writers.”

Now she looks genuinely afraid. The smile is gone from her face. “Will that be all?” she asks and, without waiting for our answer, she walks away.

“What happened?” my friend wants to know. “What did you do to her?”

“I only told her that we’re writers.”

“What’s wrong with being a writer?”

“We’ll find out soon,” I say.

The waitress stands at the counter talking to a tall young man. From time to time both of them look in our direction. Finally the tall man nods, wipes his hands on his apron and walks toward us. He stops at our table and, leaning over us, says: “So, you guys are, like, writers?”

“Yeah,” we say, “we are.”

He waits a bit, as if processing this information, and then he says: “We don’t want no problems here, is that clear?” My friend and I exchange glances. Problems with writers? In a bar, perhaps, but in a coffee place?

It turns out that somebody else who said he was a writer wrote a bad review of the café in Fast Forward or Avenue, asserting that they serve the worst apple strudel in Calgary. “We are very proud of our apple strudel.” says the tall man, “so if you plan on writing something in a similar vein, you better not.”

We tell him that we belong to a different category of writers and that we don’t write about food, but when he asks us what we do write about, my friend and I cannot agree. My friend tells him that he is only a medium writing down the message his inner voice dictates to him, while I mention the complex world of male-female relationships.

“What happened to your inner voice?” the tall man asks me. “How come you don’t have one?”

“I do,” I say, “but it is unavailable right now. Something must be wrong with the provider.”

“This is a hot spot,” the tall man says. “Your wireless connection should be fine.”

Only now do I realize that something is written in Cyrillic letters on his red apron. I look closely, and it says in Serbian: Hero of the Socialist Kitchen. There is a huge red star below the words. I remember that apron from the eighties in Belgrade; my wife even had one. But how did he get one twenty years later, in Calgary? The tall man tells us about his girlfriend who came from Serbia to Canada with her parents in the nineties. They met here in the café, liked each other, she moved into his apartment, and for a while it looked like there was nothing else for them but happiness. She even taught him some Serbian words. “Dobar dan,” he tells me, “which means ‘have a good day.’ Zovem se Ben—‘my name is Ben’.”

“You don’t have to translate,” I tell him. “That’s my mother tongue. But what about the apron?”

Some time ago she became nostalgic and decided to go back to Serbia, and before she left, almost suddenly, she gave him the apron. “It is like your inner voice,” he tells my friend, “it speaks to me day and night. And now would you like to taste our apple strudel?”

“Hey,” says my friend, “we’re real writers—we’re not afraid of anything.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I ask him when the tall man leaves. “I didn’t know that writers are supposed to be brave.”

“That’s what my inner voice told me.”

“So, you really listen to it?”

“Don’t tell me,” he says, “that you don’t.”

The tall man approaches our table with two huge pieces of apple strudel on white plates. I’ve never seen such big pieces of apple strudel. I wonder what my inner voice would tell me about them. Perhaps it’s puzzled by those Cyrillic letters on the man’s apron. But the voice inside me suddenly says: “Hero of the socialist kitchen? It is more likely slave of the socialist kitchen. Remember your mother working in the kitchen from six in the morning until late at night?” And at that moment my mother appears behind the counter, dressed in a blouse with a floral pattern and a scarf on her head. Her fingers are covered with dough and flour, so she must be getting more strudel ready for the oven. I raise my hand to greet her; she raises hers in return, then disappears, leaving traces of the mysterious aroma of cinnamon behind her, and for the first time I think I know where that inner voice is coming from. So I am not surprised when the tall man puts the plates down on our table and says, “There you are, this strudel is just like the one your mum used to make.”

“I know,” I tell him, “my inner voice just told me.”

The tall man laughs. “You writers are funny, you know.”

“Oh, yes,” says my friend, “we are. We sure are.”

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David Albahari

David Albahari is the author of twenty published books in Serbian; six have been translated into English, including Snow Man (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005) and Leeches (Harcourt, 2011). Read more of his work at davidalbahari.com.


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