/../ Incredible, I know, but he found that shirt in a used clothing shop. A real miracle. The rest of us rushed to dig through the piles. I even made a list for Mum of shirts that she should buy as soon as she sees them: Death, Cannibal Corpse, Anal Cunt, Brutal Truth, Carcass, Hypocrisy. She did not find any of these, she brought me a shirt with Michael Learns to Rock on it and pictures of three smiling guys à la Zack Morris. My rebellious nihilism notwithstanding, my heart almost broke to pieces, I felt such a surge of love for her. That didn’t mean I could ever wear that shirt, however.
So Death found an Obituary shirt in a used clothing pile and paid 50 santims for it, and still he was not happy. He seemed to be a little superstitious and felt he had bought a disaster in the shape of this shirt (that, of course, did not prevent him from wearing it all the time). So now again he said, “I told you! I told you! I always have bad luck when I wear this shirt!”
We had just been kicked off the Jelgava-Riga train. For nothing, really. We did not have tickets. Having made comments about our hair, the team of conductors kicked us out, hair flying. The train continued on, whereas we were stuck here, in Olaine.
“What are we going to do, gentlemen?”
Death looked at the train, which had already disappeared from sight. As usual, Edgars had a plan: “We could kill dogs and sell their pelts!”
He was certifiably crazy, no doubt about it. He lived nextdoor to Death. Because of his craziness and excessive love of horror movies, he got the nickname Zombie.
“Soon the locals will sell our pelts.”
We trained our eagle’s eye on the town that spread before us, overgrown with bushes. Not a single soul seemed to be around. Yet the bushes looked suspicious.
And we started walking towards the highway.
Here the Zemgale plain offered an even better view of itself, the horizon on the Jelgava side seemed even more loveable – much more loveable than the much-coveted Riga side. We were not interested in Riga, but once you got almost through the city, you got to the Burse. That was the place to be in this world. Mum told me that hippies had exchanged records there as early as the 1970s. It was in the Biķernieki Forest, which could be reached by trolley-bus No. 18. Or was it by tram? People gathered in the woods: the outcasts, the ones on the other side of the law, the ones who did not want another place, just gathered in the woods and did their thing, about which the city and the outside world had not the slightest idea.
What did they do there? For now we only knew that they exchanged cassette tapes. That was all we had to know. We needed cassette tapes. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were not enough anymore.
Sometimes, I still secretly listened to Nirvana. More often to the new cassettes, however. /../ It was music like nothing I had ever heard before. No, I had not even thought it possible that such music existed. It was a totally different world. It was good to sit here on the tarmac together with Death and Zombie on our way to another world.
“Tasser! Slag! Dickfuck! ! !”
Zombie was cussing in a pure nineties style. Another car swished elegantly by. No matter how attractively Zombie was flailing his arms, no matter how theatrical his poses, hitchhiking was a bust. Judging by the sun (nobody had a watch), this situation had lasted a quarter of an hour. Death had a dire prediction to share:
“We won’t make it to the Burse. They start at ten.”
“So maybe you should stop warming your bollocks on the tarmac and get to work? My arm is falling off.”
Though I found it hard to believe that Zombie would ever tire. Now he made himself busy plucking the tallest nettles and whipping invisible opponents with them.
Then it was my turn to try to stop someone. A public transportation van was coming. I lowered my arm, put it behind my back and turned away from the road. After all, we had no money. It was followed by a second-generation Lada; the man kept both hands firmly on the wheel and his eyes on the road while his wife was smiling and shaking her head. Yet their back seat was empty. They looked to be about the same age as my parents, who always picked up hitchhikers. Then a totally indifferent Audi or something like that drove by (I don’t really know the makes of cars, the only one I recognize is a Lada, like my Dad’s). Then came some foreign heap with a polite man inside: he pointed right with his thumb, meaning, I am turning in just a moment, otherwise I’d take you. A brief, civilized interaction. The driver of the next car waved at me in a totally mysterious way. What was that supposed to mean? Grow up, lad, don’t leave the house unless you have your own little Ford?
That’s how I kept conversing with the drivers, and this conversation possessed sustainability and development, whereas for them it was just a passing moment. I was talking to the manifold denizens of the road, having been stopped right here and now, and look, a car blinks at us and begins slowing down. Death is already turning to see where Zombie is fighting his enemies on the field, but it turns out that the car is full of plonkers just slightly older than us, definitely from Olaine; they are laughing and then step on the gas, they’d only wanted to have some fun at our expense, so now they’re gone; even they who paid us some attention will forget us in two short minutes, after three short kilometres.
“I’m fed up. They just don’t bite. You try.”
Death came over; sad about the entire world, he sniffled and pierced the space over the road with his hand. He kept reciting a mantra:
“Stop, you idiot!”
The car was long like a starship, there seemed to be no end to its gleaming side that was sliding by. Then it stopped. Must be one of the expensive cars, very shiny. Monsieur leaned out the window and asked:
“So where are you lads going?”
To Plakanciems, I thought, for some reason annoyed, but Death was all business:
“To the Burse.”
“Ha. Biržai is the other direction, lads. In Lithuania.”
“So where then?”
The driver laughed again.
“All right. We’ll take you for a ride then.”
Zombie was running out of the field, all covered with green stuff like some demented Lear and received an admonishment before getting into the car:
“Shake it off.”
The car glided more quietly than a Lada, and beautiful hair cascaded over the shoulders of the other front seat passenger; its brilliance hurt the eyes when hit by the sun, whereas in the shade they took on a romantically blood-red tinge: a metalhead was sitting next to the owner! But no, I looked in the mirror and met the eyes of a girl. Her father stepped on the gas and I pressed my nose to the window to resume my conversation with the road. See, there’s the plonkers’ car, they are sitting there quietly, each looking in a different direction, they are bored without us, and see, I whizz by them flipping a secret bird at them. Then we overtake the mysterious waver, and he is just as serious as before. And after that it’s the turning gentleman, so why hasn’t he turned? And finally here’s the elderly couple, the woman is turning her head this way and that, then she sees me and again shakes her head with a smile, no, no.
“So what are the young lads going to do in Riga?”
That of course was a question asked by our kindly driver. Each one of us kept silent, expecting someone else to reply.
He asked again. Death and Zombie answered at the same time. Death said:
“We’ll go shopping.”
But Zombie said:
“We’ll count pensioners.”
No one was inclined to mention the Burse; for some reason it seemed too vulnerable in this car whose interior smelled of Wunder-Baum and leather.
“Ha, ha, funny lads you are.”
There is of course the rule that hitchhikers have to keep up a conversation with the nice driver. So that the deal is to the advantage of both parties. I was about to say something about the nice weather or such, but he was not going to let go.
“Who are you?”
An existential question. Really – who are we? It was Zombie who slowly answered:
He did it in a voice that suggested that he is really cracking up.
“No, I mean, who are you, like you all have this hair, are you from some group or something?”
We just shrugged: whatever.
“You’re not those crazy metalheads, are you?”
Duh, what can we say, man… We kinda are, you know? Hey, guys, say something.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
Death had decided to stop trying to wriggle out of this.
The owner even turned down his music; it was the most classical of classical music, plus it was mixed in a terrible potpourri. He turned it down and turned to us, whaat?
“What does that mean?”
“To translate: it’s the dead body of a man-eater.”
“You think I don’t know English?”
And he turned up his Beethoven that had been adulterated with an oompah rhythm. A minute later he asked again:
“You think I don’t understand English?”
“Then why are you saying this?”
“What do you mean you don’t? Your exact words.”
“I am sorry.”
The man kept on steering. As much as you really need to steer down the Jelgava highway.
“I, for one, like good music. Do you know of such a thing? Do you know what we are listening to?”
Beethoven’s Fifth had somehow transformed into Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. But I kept my mouth shut.
I wonder if that girl next to him, probably his daughter, was still looking into the mirror with her girl’s eyes? I didn’t look.
“And why don’t you like good music?”
Death had apparently resolved not to say a word, he had even turned off his gaze, he was perfect at that. Zombie gave it a try:
“Just feel like something interesting.”
The owner of the car just stepped on the gas again. I felt like glancing at the speedometer, so as not to miss the adventure and later be able to tell everyone how we were just flying down the highway like crazy, but I didn’t dare, because then I would probably glance into the mirror and there I would probably meet the girl’s eyes. So I turned back to the road. There was a fox, run over.
“And why don’t you look normal? You know why? I will tell you why.”
The captain was all whipped-up.
“You simply don’t want to be normal. You think it’s stupid. You think you are smarter than anyone.”
He could no longer contain himself. And we were still far away from Riga.
“Now you got into my car, and you saw that it was a really nice one. Did that earn me any respect? No!”
Now I was really horrified. Because he was saying exactly what I was thinking at the moment.
“It is all the same to you if a person has achieved something. You are thinking: so what if this chap is living well, he’s probably a thief or has sold out. But no, you don’t even think about that. It’s all the same to you.”
I felt very uncomfortable with this monologue.
“This world is not good enough for you. Like you are something special. To live a normal life, to try for something – you think it’s stupid! Let these nincompoops drive you around, let them treat you to a beer! Whereas we must study cannibals.”
He carefully changed lanes to the right one, and then stopped the car by the side of the road.
We looked out the window. That most assuredly was not Riga. It was just a side of the road. The most noteworthy object here was bushes. We must have taken our time.
“What exactly did you not get from what I said?”
We got out of the car. Did I hear Death saying thank you? That would be exactly like him. The car took off. Zombie was laughing his head off, as if something great had happened. But Death summed it up:
“I told you, it’s that shirt! Now we’ll be late for the Burse.”
I stared at the road again, what else could I do? There was the Lada, then the Audi, then the Ford, whose driver once again waved at us mysteriously, perhaps even in a familiar way now, as if we were acquainted, but maybe he had already forgotten about us, because the wave was exactly the same. The polite one, the one who said he was turning, was nowhere to be seen. He must have turned. People were honest then and remembered what they had set out to do. Even the plonkers who must be here any second, surely had not forgotten my bird.
By Janis Jonevs
Translated from the Latvian by Ieva Lešinska
Janis Jonevs was one of 4 EUPL winners who were guests of the first Euro Stars event on 17 April 2015 in Europe House in London.
Thank you to the European Union Prize for Literature for allowing us to republish this translation.