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the magyar


It was closing in on midnite when

the phone began its menacing jangle.

I woke with an indigant, annoyed

start and flailed my free arm

toward the ringing.

Six rings...twelve rings...thirteen now.

"...ummMMMPH!" I ummphed, reeling

in the fallen receiver as I groped groggy

in the deep deep dark.

"HUNGARIAN!

"It was...

"I SWEAR IT!

"HUNGARIAN!

"SHESAID IT! SHE CALLED ITWAS HER,

The voice on the other end was breathless

and frantic and charged with a

preternatural rush of adrenalin ---

there was a buzzing of wonder and of terror

in his voice, all at the very same time.

It was my little sib, oh dads, and I

figgered the spirits had gotten hold of him all

right (the incorporeal ones, 'natch).

The clock, ominously striking midnite,

was ringing in All Saints' Day, which

would've been her 99th birthday.

I shook the remnants of Halloween out of

my head, cracked the Genesee some

grizzly old crone had thrown to me ---

"...here! Trick-or-Treat for dads!"

---as I made the appointed rounds;

this year chaperoning a fairy tale princess

resplendent in netting and polyester lace,

and a hellish Orkin Man upon whom

the kingdom of buggies and beasties had

levied an exacting and

unmerciful insect revenge.

The fizzy suds flushed

frosty-cold down the old gullet, swooshing

around with the secreted Milky Ways and

Junior Mints and Smarties sloshing

together in my jelly belly.

These days you hadda

grab your faves outta the kiddie bags

as soon as the rounds were over ---

their inventory control systems were getting

tighter and achieving greater

accuracy as years passed, you know.

There were never any Mallo Cups anymore though.

I hadn't had one since she left, I guess.

My brother's train-wreck soliloquy came

to a screeching, violent halt. He was

hyperventilating, and I heard the click

of a Bic fire up a coffin nail.

"Grandma?? Grandma CALLED you?!?"

She had been dead for 26 years.

She was kind and rotund; as jocular

with the kiddles as she was grave with the

grownups. In her final year, she was

in the midst of the ruins of

her third marriage.

Her heart was as broken as her English.

Not a day went by without some glimmer of

her memory visiting me.

My brother, however, was two years old

when she died. He had no clear

recollection of her whatever.

That night, though, he picked up the phone

and heard the distinct rat-a-tat of

Hungarian punctuating the white noise of

phone squelch. Of course, we were fluent

only in the crudest of rude

Hungarian aphorisms and maxims,

but we were around the language enough

to know "The Magyar" when we heard it spoken.

A female voice, it was, and its urgency and

plaintive insistence in delivering a

single message over and over again paralyzed

him, mercilessly shaking his psyche.

He could not understand her words.

"...in English --- PLEASE --- in English,"

he pleaded, feeling a choking gulp

welling up in his throat, and flattening

the sides of his face with his hands where

the tears cut hot rivulets

of uncertainty and dread.

She stopped, seeming to hear him.

The squelch began undulating; softer, softer

--- retreating through the wire.

"Please, Grandma, PLEASE!!"

He had called her by name. There was

nothing but the phone and his diminishing

connection now, and he felt a wild

desperation seize him as the line noise

faded in and out.

He clenched the receiver harder and harder,

pushing it to his ear, pleading for

her to speak to him again.

But she did not, and the connection did

a slow fizzle to silence like

the final sparkler at a surprise party.

Seconds later, my brother and I were

there alone and together on the phone just

after midnite, and in our mutual silence

we thought about her,

and we thought about her memory,

and we thought about the Call.

He is haunted by her still.

Once a year on the eve of All Saints'

he puts his little gremlins to bed with

their candy bellies and their bellyaches

and he waits for the Call ---

but she has not yet returned.

Whether it was her on the phone or some

archaic switching system gone berserko,

the truth is that whatever

you choose to believe, my grandmother did

in fact appear to my brother that night.

He needed her to --- somehow he called

her, and somehow she came. The truth

is that she reached out and shook his soul,

and reclaimed a forgotten place

in his heart that was rightfully hers.

I envy him that, but I know he needs

her more than I do now.

Besides, I'm just old

enough to remember knowing her.

I can close my eyes and hear her Hungarian patter,

and the broken way she'd coo at me in

her faltering, halting English. I can smell

her freshly waxed linoleum, the aroma

mingling with the Sunday stuffed cabbage.

The Sunday paper, worn from

reading and (the juicy bits) recited aloud

to family members nonplused at those

troubled times, lined the path to the bathroom,

and I'd Silly Putty-up Beetle Bailey

while they argued that man would never

go to the moon, or while they

wept listening to a posthumous recording

of their fallen Kennedy idol on an ancient Victrola.

There she is, even when I close my

eyes on the bus bearing me away from the

tyranny of the day. I shut out the

strangers whose faces have become

familiar to me lo these many years,

and she comes to me with a newfangled

Beatle record and an embrace

I can still feel if I remember hard

enough, and Sunday dinner and kisses and

praise for Crayola scribblings,

abstract and heartfelt.

Just before my bus stop,

I reached into the recyclable blue

plastic bag full of Mallo Cups I had finally

found downtown that day after all those years,

tore into the candy

and let it all melt all

marshmallowy in my mouth as I floated,

free in an endless and timeless place.

God, it was all so good now --- it was all so good.


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2003 Arhythmiacs

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