May 5 2016
“When the Russian Air Force had bases here in Hungary, those were good times,” said Tarzan, a hugely fat man with long, drooping moustaches and the over-developed biceps that gained him his nickname. “You could get anything by trading in those days, schnapps for caviar, wood for vodka, diesel fuel for chocolate.”
Tarzan knows. He was a big shot back then, a man respected because he knew the Russians, had an “in” with them, could get his happy black marketer’s hands on anything that wasn’t tied down and a good deal of all that was.
“Now that communism is over and the Russians are gone, town life is poorer. There’s no restaurant here; no one can afford to eat out. There are no hotels, no pensions, there’s nothing going on. Back then, eight thousand people lived here. Now there are four thousand.” He looked sorrowful, dreary, defeated although, to me, the emotion didn’t quite reach his eyes; those remained hard, cool, calculating. “Back in the old days, I could smuggle caviar into Vienna.”
“Which he sold on the black market,” said Helmut proudly. He looked at his friend with sly complicity, for his own Viennese apartment had been Tarzan’s base.
“Very fine caviar." Tarzan nodded. "And champagne. Russian champagne. Those were the good days, all right." The days when Tarzan was the man everyone wanted to know. Those days are over; now, those same people consider Tarzan a traitor, someone who once treated with the Russian enemy.
Tarzan, his second wife Mariska, their two grubby young children, and Imre, Tarzan’s adult son from a first marriage, lived in a miniscule cinder block box of a house at the shabby end of town. There was a front yard of sticky mud, rubble and smashed toys; in one far corner, a doleful Rottweiler on a pitifully short chain passed his life in a metal barrel. The rooms inside were filled with broken sticks of furniture, and clothing rotted in corners.
It was a scene of reeking, filthy poverty, although Tarzan had a decent job as night watchman, worked shifts all over the country. While he was gone, Mariska frittered away the household money on slot machines. And because bills were left unpaid, it was Helmut, the good westerner, the loyal friend of twenty years, who helped out, handing over the cash to pay for electricity and water. He also brought huge bags of barely-used clothing, family rejects he rescued before his Austrian wife’s sharp scissors could cut them into shreds (she’d never let “parasites” profit from her husband’s hard-earned salary.) Of course, Tarzan never paid back the money, but that didn’t matter, Helmut had said earlier; Tarzan was his best friend. He took care of him.
“He does me favours.”
Helmut was pink-faced. “He introduces me to women. Attractive women.”
“That you pay for?”
He squirmed. “Well, once… once he presented me to a nice girl, and I really thought she liked me. I took her out to dinner, brought her back to my room. The next morning she told me how much I owed her. I hadn’t expected that.”
Now we sat in Tarzan’s kitchen on a hideous, upholstered “cosy corner” bench at a nearly new wood-look kitchen table — both presents from Helmut after another one of his family’s redecorating sprees. But Tarzan’s house was the sort of place where all degraded quickly: the table was already battered, rickety, sticky; from a fat-encrusted stove mere inches away, a seething pot of offal, paprika and onions sent jets of greasy sauce onto the cosy corner’s cushions.
In a strange German mixed with Russian, Hungarian, English and nonsense words, a passe-partout language Tarzan and Helmut had concocted over the years, Tarzan complained about Mariska in a sad, self-pitying way. How could he control her loose-fingered relationship with money? He never even knew if she was true to him. When he was away, she returned to her pipe-smoking mother. “The only reason I stay with her is because of the children,” he said, mournfully.
This was clearly untrue; it was a statement made to save face. In reality, Tarzan was fascinated by Mariska’s great beauty, and enslaved by her indifference. He was also a jealous man; when I offered to take Mariska’s photo, he refused, became quite cold and forbidding.
“I don’t want her to get ideas.”
Tarzan and Mariska had met when, during more successful days, he ran a little fast food stall serving sausages and other fatty meats deep-fried in pork fat. Attracted, Mariska had sashayed up and down the dirt road, up and down, back and forth, flashing him longing looks, glances full of promise. He soon abandoned his alcoholic first wife who never left her bedroom, took up with this young woman, twenty-five years his junior.
But the fast food stand was no more; caviar smuggling is finished. Mariska’s status declined, and she finds days of domestic chores and children a bore. Now she stood in the doorway of the oily kitchen, her luxuriant black hair falling to her waist, watching us. She knew no German, no Russian, no English, but watched as though, by mere observation, she could understand. She would not sit with us on the cosy corner.
“In the good old days, we went drinking with the Russian soldiers.” Tarzan smiled with sentimental pleasure,
“Hard drinkers, those Russians.” Helmut turned to me. “We’d go out to their little cabana on the edge of town, they’d fill our glasses with vodka. As soon as we finished one glass, we had to drink another. And another. There was no way we could refuse.”
“Money grew on trees back then.” Tarzan sighed, looked deeply melancholy before becoming, once again, perky. “Of course, there are still deals to be made. Good deals. If you’re clever enough.” And recounted how, as night watchman, he managed to siphon off diesel fuel from company trucks, spirit away sacks of animal feed; later, he sold all of it here in town.
“You come, see where I’m working. It's a big company. I’ll show you around. And when you need animal feed or diesel fuel, come to me. Tarzan’s the man to know.” Again he chuckled, sobered. “Still, it’s not the same. The Russians, everyone liked them. They were fun. They were good. You could trade with them. Do real business.”
Helmut wanted to show me where the Russian’s cabana stood, where so many amusing nights had been passed swilling down vodka. We drove down a dirt trail, parked. Set out, on foot, into the brackish swampland. Mosquitoes and midges swirled around us in crazed, starved frenzy; a vigorous and beautiful black snake nonchalantly crossed our path before slipping into the rushes.
Little of the cabana remained: a few rotting poles, a collapsed thatched roof. All sank slowly into moist weedy tangle.