Autumn that yearas they saycame early and stayed late; it turned dark abruptly, and in the morning, fog arose from the blotchy asphalt, spreading itself among the houses. Clouds blocked off the sky, not much light could seep through; in the glimmering half-light the walls seemed to shift ever so slightly. It was autumn: time slipped by unnoticed; above the playgrounds metal-hooded jungle gym, yesterdays mist rolled and swirled. When it drizzled, the asphalt became shiny, and afterward the wind blew, the trees shook; still, the fog wouldnt lift.
The man who lived here, on the third floor of an apartment house, saw all this from his window. From his living room he could actually see everything that happened on the square below; if there was nothing else, he could watch the curling fog in the morning, before setting out for the Óbuda furniture factory where he had worked as a machine-setter for the past twenty years; and he could continue in the afternoon, on his way home from work, during the short walk from the tram stop, when he stopped at the corner grocery store.
Hello there. Hello.
He bought bread, cold cuts, milk, condiments, beer, too, occasionally, the sorts of food single men take home; inside his building, while waiting for the elevator, he said hello if somebody said hello to him first, and he kept talking if he received a reply.
Look at the damn staircase. Beg your pardon? Oh nothing, Im just annoyed. Because of all the dirt, I take it. Why else; you cant ever get used to it, can you; just think what would happen if nobody cleaned up in your furniture factory. Yeah, I can just imagine. Did you hear, were in for a long autumn. Autumn always seems to last forever, True, but isnt it too bad that its so cold already? Bad or not, we cant do anything about it. Right you are, we cant; did you happen to watch TV last night? Not really. They had a show about a country where its always cold. Interesting. It really was; not the part about how people live there, but the sort of things they imagine. How can you tell what they imagine? What do you mean how can you tell? Uh, never mind. They were saying that in that bitter cold world people believe that in the forest disembodied, ghostlike creatures creep up from under rocks and stones and trees, and they have this earthen smell and are called angels, though the people shake in their boots when they meet up with one of them. I see; well, this is my floor. So long then. Beg pardon? I said, so long. Yes, of course. Inside the apartment he put away the stuff hed bought, walked over to the window and sat there until darkness fell, not bothering to turn on the light. With the bluish TV screen flickering behind his back, he stared out the window.
From up there on the third floor, watching the square was like looking at a picture painted on wood; some of the trees were completely bare, others still held on to their leaves. Now and then a group of crows sat on a limb, or landed in the gravel below, and with their head tilted sideways picked at frozen dog turds turned white, or at shriveled clumps of leaves. A large, heavily decorated board with bore holes. Meanwhile, behind the houses, the city droned on like a badly tuned motor. (Tamás Devecseri is what it said on his door, and underneath: Third Floor, Apartment 1.)
His kitchen window opened on a closed courtyard, so he usually put his dinner on the ledge of his living room window; this way he could look out the window even while he ate. He brought in the tray with the metal handles and spread out a dish towel in his lap; he also dragged the large armchair between the electric heater and the flowers. He had three flowering plants in the apartment, two of them with long spiky leaves and a woody stemhe had no idea what they were calledand a hibiscus, which shed a leaf at night with a soft scraping sound. There was a time when he bought other flowering plants in the flower shop next to the tram stop, but they wilted and shriveled up in no time, as if wanting to crawl back into the flowerpot; no amount of watering could save them. These three flowers, however, survived; they didnt exactly thrive, but they werent going to succumb, either.
He always ate slowly, very slowly. And he made sure the crumbs stayed on the tray or the dish towel, and not only because he had to do the cleaning; he collected the remains in little piles: crumbs, crust, cucumber tips, bits of salami, and before getting up he dumped them into one of the flowerpots; he even watered them and watched his leavings being devoured by the soil.
In the morning, before leaving for work, he pressed his forehead against the cold tile wall and took his time urinating; standing over the toilet bowl, he breathed in the coffee smell of his urine.
The first little sprigs sprang up around the hibiscus plant in early November. Two days later they shot up around the other plants too, tiny notched leaves and pale green flowers, looking a lot like ordinary nettlenot as if he knew anything about plants, but vague recollections helped. Around the hibiscus, too, the thin, grass-like little plant began to grow, though it soon wasted away, and lay limp and brown, like fallen-out hair, until water washed it into the soil. But the plant with the notched leaves held its own, growing long stalks and beginning to creep toward the window. By the end of November the stalks got intertwined, becoming sturdier, thicker, their leaves as large now as a childs palm, reaching all the way up to the window handle and clinging to it, turning green the glimmers of light from outside.
During the last week of November, on a Saturday morning, tiny beads of thick rain clung to people hurrying across the square, and to rooftops and cars and tree branches, like quickly cooling molten glass.
On Sunday he could see that the little plants with the notched leaves did not only stop growingtwo of the three shoots started to turn brown. He ran downstairs; the florist was still open, so he bought sticks of plant food and stuck them in the pot, around the blackened stems. On the way back he had stopped in a bar for a shot of bitters; the small glass was already empty, but trying to get more out of it, he threw his head back and shook the glass over his mouth.
By the second half of December, only the plant sprouting around the hibiscus was doing well. Its stem also dried up and got hard, but the leaves were nice and green, as if everything was still all right. The man did something he hadnt done in some time: with the dish towel spread out in his lap, he ate in the living room, slowly, carefully, and then collected the breadcrumbs, the cucumber tips, the bits of salami, swept them into a small pile and fed them to the plant with the notched leaves, the last one to be still alive. He poured a little beer on it and watched as his leavings were soaked up by the plant.
Two days before Christmas the temperature dipped below freezing.
Hello, Mr. Devecseri, coming from work, are you. Yes, today was my last day, What do you say to this cold weather? What could I say; I dunno. Let me get that, my lobby-key is right here. Oh, thank you. You know, Mr. Devecseri, the nice thing about this weather is that we can look forward to spring. What do you mean? Well, that everything around here in the square will come alive again. You think so. Why sure, thats how its supposed to be. Thats what they say. Lets hope at any rate that well have a white holiday. Heres my elevator, I better be going. Good-bye, Mr. Devecseri. To you too.
The dry and withered brown leaves lay on the windowsill like cut-off fingernails. The broken stem of the new plant lay next to the armchair, near the electric heater.
The following morning the cold snap eased somewhat; the city breathed a sigh of relief. Gulls, flying in from the Danube, screeched over the square; gray feathers swooped down on trashcans.
It was said that in the afternoon, after things had quieted down, the front door of the apartment house opened with a thud, sounding like some great drum, and those looking out the window could see the man from the third floor standing under the bare trees, his breath like fog, like the coiling mists of yesterday, and while shaking out a checkered dish towel, he motioned with his hand in every direction, as if hed wanted to scatter seeds, to sow, though exactly what he wanted to sow, nobody could see from that far away.
The frigid weather did let up and before nightfall, with a slight rumble, the clouds gave way and snow began to fall.
Some of the residents thought they saw him even then; he stood among the trees, and while that checkered dish towel kept fluttering, time imperceptibly ran through his fingers.
Translated by Ivan Sanders