The town in which I grew up, Daruvar, was divided along many lines: believers and non-believers, communists and anti-communists, Serbs and Croats (and Czechs), but these were all superficial divisions. The really deep and substantial one was between alcoholics and non-alcoholics. I was informed early on that I belonged to the non-alcoholic camp. My father, mother, and siblings — none of them drank. It was a little different with my uncles, one of whom fell off a barn after drinking plum brandy and broke his neck, and another who kept a vineyard and was always flushfaced, quiet, and jovial, selling suits in the centre store. Into my late teens, I didn’t drink at all, and I avoided some of my friends who did. They got together, drank beer and brandy, and passed out. Others went to village fairs, got drunk, ended up in fistfights, and had sex with village girls in haystacks.
Most were amateur drunks; a friend of mine, a few years older than me, informed me that alcoholism was a disease, first defined as such by the United States in 1956, coincidentally my birth year. Previously, alcoholism was a phenomenon, now it was a disease. Pop (my friend) explained to me that there were all sorts of alcoholics, such as rakijasi (brandy drinkers), pivasi (beer drunks) and, worst of all, vinasi (winos). Something in wine hooked these people incurably. I said, I don’t know any winos. Oh, you can recognize them easily, said Pop. They dehydrate, so when you see a man drink several glasses of water in the morning, you might look for the correlation of wine in the evening and water in the morning. Nobody needs to drink water in the morning except alcoholics, he claimed.
However, winos were not all that bad, it turned out. Namely, when I needed to visit Belgrade to take a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) so I could apply to American colleges, I said to Pop, I can’t afford a hotel in Belgrade. Do you know where I could crash for the night before my test? No problem, Pop replied. I know a wino who has a little house in Zemun just outside Belgrade, with excellent bus links to the centre. How do I get in touch with him? Should I go to the post office and call him? Oh no, he’s always home. I’ll give you the address. Just go there, bang on the door — he’s hard of hearing — and say you are Pop’s friend, and give him a one-litre bottle of red wine. You’ll be his best friend right away. And you can sleep over. Now, maybe he’ll be in a good phase, maybe not. His father is an officer, so he’s protected, but still, now and then the police, who hate winos like him, come over and slap him. For a while they came every morning and woke him up by slapping his face and kicking him. His father probably sent them to do that.
I followed Pop’s instructions. It was a snowy and windy day in February. I came to a triangular square, found the little house with two shattered windows, and banged on the door. Misho opened the door, tall, dishevelled, with somewhat purple undersides to his eyes. I introduced myself, and he laughed, Josip, like Byeli. You must be Croatian, he said, as though everybody loves Byeli in Serbia and nobody would name children after him. Oh, and what do I see, a bottle of red. Yes, I replied, Plavac from Peljesac, Zinfandel from the Peljesac Peninsula. Pop says I can spend the night here. I have to take tests at the American Embassy tomorrow. At the American Embassy! Misho replied. By all means.
We sat down and lit a petroleum lamp. I haven’t paid for the electricity in a year, so the city cut me off, he explained. The petrol fumes and smoke drifted, while he popped open the bottle and drank straight from it for a long while, finishing half. Good, now we can talk, he said. If you’re tired, you can go right to bed. Use that down cover.
I shivered as the snow blew through the windows into the room and the wind whistled cheap melodies over the shards of glass. Misho walked to the cupboard, yanked a glass door open, and took out a handgun. Do you want to check it out? he asked. No, I’m fine here, I said. It’s really cold; I don’t want to leave the bed. It’s an interesting gadget, he said. My grandfather had an argument one day with my grandma. She was in bed just where you are, in the same bed, at midnight, like now; it’s midnight, isn’t it? We haven’t changed the furniture here since World War One. And he shot her. Yes, my friend, he killed my sweet grandma right there, with three bullets.
He sobbed, and threw the handgun to the floor. He drank more wine, the snow blew through the cracked windows, and I shivered. Would you like a sip? Misho asked. We need more wine, this is such damn good Croatian wine. No, thank you, I replied. Somehow, at that point I passed out and slept.
I woke up at dawn, found Misho asleep in the armchair, covered with a large green officer’s overcoat, with a couple of shoulder stripes, probably his grandfather’s from World War One, and I walked out into the biting wind, stepped onto the bus, and soon I was at the American Embassy. The administrators all smiled, displaying their enviably white teeth, and gave me a B2 pencil, to shade the ovals of the correct answers. They all drank water and I eyed them suspiciously.
Excerpted from TUMBLEWEED. Copyright © Josip Novakovich 2017. Published by Esplanade Books / Vehicule Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.