CAFÉ NIAGARA by gegeshandong

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									                                              CAFÉ NIAGARA

                                              Istvan Orkeny

         Mr. and Mrs. Nikolits spent but two weeks in the capitol and wanted to enjoy every minute of
their brief vacation. They sat through an opera, and though bored to tears, returned to their hotel room
in a solemn mood. Then they went to see a musical which they enjoyed thoroughly, but said afterwards,
“God, how silly.” They also saw a Soviet play, even though they had already heard it on the radio. Still,
they didn’t want to miss it- it might create a bad impression back home if they didn’t see a single Soviet
play. On the last evening of their stay, Mrs. Nicolits remembered the Café Niagara, which, recently
remodeled, was becoming the place in town.

        The receptionist at the hotel had never heard of the Niagara, which didn’t surprise the Nicolits’.
They got used to being more knowledgeable about the city than the natives, visitors though they were
from the sleepy provinces. But the café wasn’t listed in the telephone book either. Mr. Nicolits,
complaining of his stomach again, suggested that they have a light supper in the restaurant downstairs
and go to bed.

         “That we can do at home,” said Mrs. Nicolits. “And besides, didn’t the doctor tell you to relax
and have fun?” Two years before Mr. Nicolits had developed a bleeding ulcer (psychosomatic, no
doubt), and was haunted by it ever since. Sure, if one could have some real fun at this Niagara place, he
would gladly go. But since he had already made up his mind that this two-week stay was as big a fiasco
as last year’s, he wasn’t looking forward to a pleasant evening.

         “Something tells me we should just go to bed,” he said. But Mrs. Nicolits would have loved to
visit a Bohemian haunt. In her youth she studied modern dance and even performed a few times with
an amateur group (under her maiden name, which was Melitta Ruprecht). Ever since then she was crazy
about Art, especially Modern Art. Though not really sure of what she wanted to see, she refused to
accept her husband’s suggestion to stay home.

           Luckily the cabdriver had heard of the place. He took them to the other end of town, to a small,
ill-lit square; they noticed the floating reflection of the café’s neon letters on the wet pavement. Inside
there was no more neon: the quarts-colored tubes, twisting around the tall columns like cork-screws,
gave everyone a sickly, pallid look. There was no dancing, no band; even the checkroom was closed.
After finding an empty table at the other end of the room, the Nicolits’ simply threw their coats on the
back of their chairs. The others had apparently done the same. The décor was pretty dreary; ugly,
according to Mr. Nicolits, ultramodern, according to Mrs. Nicolits- walls divided into strips of blue,
green, red, and gold, and no decorations, except for some ceramics with a tulip design fastened to the
columns. Thick smoke filled the room. They sat around for a half an hour. Finally, Mr. Nicolits, who
until then had his back turned to the crowd, spoke up: “Is the waiter ever going to come?” “I don’t see
any waiters,” his wife said.

       Mr. Nicolits changed his seat. It was true; there were no waiters were to be seen anywhere.
There was a bar at the other end of the room, and a door with a red curtain hung over it- The entrance,
apparently, to the kitchen. But no one stood behind the bar, the espresso machine wasn’t working, and
not a single bottle of whiskey or liqueur was put on the mirrored shelves.

        “Some service,” said Mr. Nicolits after a while. “Here I am starving.”

        “Don’t be a fool, Sandor. We just got here”

        “I’ve been looking for the damn waiter for an hour.”

       “Well, then stop looking. They probably want start serving until later on. Must be a new thing.
Come to think of it, I did hear something about self-service cafes…”

        “Then I’ll just go and self-serve myself,” said Mr. Nicolits angrily.

        “You will do no such thing. Look around and see how calm everyone else is.”

         Mr. Nicolits had in fact noticed how patiently the others were sitting at their tables, but now it
struck him as odd that the marble tabletops weren’t covered, and that there were no place settings, not
even cups, and glasses. The guests kept their conversations down to a whisper, and while puffing away
their cigarettes, cast occasional inquisitive glances at the curtained door.

        From time to time a husky red-faced man in an undershirt stepped out from behind the curtain.
He glanced around the room as though looking for an acquaintance, and sure enough, after a while
pointed to someone. The person he pointed to got up and disappeared with this robust-looking man
behind the red curtain. A few minutes later the curtain was raised and the guest walked out, his face
flushed with joy. His companions didn’t interrupt their conversation when he rejoined them; apparently
they considered his brief absence quite natural. In the meantime the man in the undershirt came out
again and motioned to someone else who then walked away with him.

        “My dear Melli, where are these people going?” asked Mr. Nicolits.

        “To the toilet, where do you think?”

        “But why only when they are called?”

        I don’t know,” his wife said coolly. “And I am not going to rack my brain trying to find it out.”

        She proceeded to powder her nose and straighten her hair, without once taking her eyes off the
muscleman whose chest hair curled out of his undershirt. Another guest went in and was followed,
upon his return, by still another. “Will everyone have his chance?” Mrs. Nicolits wondered aloud. “Or
only the insiders?” She turned her chair sideways so as to be easily spotted from the other side of the
café. But then the man in the undershirt, though he did not cast a fleeting glance at her pretty blonde
bun, pointed to the table next to them. Mr. Nicolits, on the other hand, tried hard not to be noticed by
the coarse-featured man, though he could not help seeing how eagerly his neighbor jumped up from his
seat when he was called, and how rapidly he made his way to the red curtain. He seemed to be a
prominent man, not only because he wore insignia in his lapel, but because his appearance was
dignified, his bearing proud, his hair snowy-white. Forgetting his hunger, even his anxiety, Mr. Nicolits
kept staring after him. He would have loved to sneak up to the door and take a peek at the old man, but
he didn’t dare; so he just turned around in his seat and looked straight at the curtain.

        He suddenly noticed that everyone in the room was sitting this way, facing the curtain. The
guests appeared to be conversing but in reality were only exchanging short, snappy sentences, as
though anticipating a joyful and momentous event and not wanting to be caught unprepared. The
suspense was killing Mr. Nicolits- so much so that when the white-haired old man walked through the
kitchen door, he jumped up and stopped him. “Excuse me, sir, but we have been waiting here for over
an hour. Are we going to get some service here tonight?”

        “Why are you so impatient?” The old man asked, shaking his head. “You are not a reporter, are
you?”

        “No sir; I am an agronomist”

         “Then calm down.” The old man patted Mr. Nicolits good-naturedly on the back. “This is our
fourth time here, and tonight our turn came faster than ever before.”

         The old man sat down, smiling. He had a slight limp which moments before, when he hurriedly
left the room, could not yet be noticed. Mrs. Nicolits shot an angry glance at her husband. “You were
asking for that. Look at all the celebrities. Even Zoborhegyi over there is not being as difficult as you.”
The famous comic actor, whose picture was featured in all the magazines, was indeed present in the
room. Fixing his beady eyes on the curtain, he folded his arms and waited modestly, like a schoolboy.
Mr. Nicolits felt ashamed. He straightened his back like the old man, and folded his hands like
Zoborhegyi. Having followed the departing guests with his eyes, he waited anxiously for them to return.
He tried to guess from their faces what may have transpired from behind the curtain, but could learn
nothing. They left the room with their features all taut, a far-away look in their eyes, a dreamy smile,
and returned wearing the same expression; only their smile seemed somewhat forced now, as though it
was intended to mask a profound spiritual experience.

         The evening wore on. The majority of the guests had already made the trip to the kitchen and
back. Mr. Nicolits began to tremble inside; every time the man in the undershirt came out, he tried to
attract his attention. For an instance he would suddenly pick up his head, or sneeze, or resort to other
such childish ruses. The man might have noticed him; then again he might not have. Now he looked
around the room for a long time, and even played tricks on the guests. For example, he would keep
staring at a lady with a fancy hat, and just when she jumped up from her chair, he motioned to someone
at the other end of the room. Murmurs of approval ran through the Café Niagara when this happened;
the guests smiled mischievously at the joke.

         The moment finally arrived; the summoner pointed at their table. They both jumped up, but the
man in the undershirt, while motioning to Melli with his left hand, gestured toward Mr. Nicolits with his
right, as though wanting to hit him on the head from afar. The woman hurried away, and Mr. Nicolits
sank back in his chair, staring after his wife with wide-open eyes.
         He couldn’t remain seated for long. When his patience gave out completely, he rose, but the
questioning looks from all around brought him to his senses, and he sat down again. At last the curtain
parted and Melli appeared. He had no time to ask questions because the man in the undershirt, at long
last, pointed to him with his fleshy fingers. He could not see, though, that his wife’s eyes had a strange
glow, her face was flushed, and there was something forced and unnatural about her walk, as when a
drunk tries to prove that he can walk perfectly straight. When the two of them were face to face, she
tried not to look at him.

         The man in the undershirt nodded his head and drew the curtain. From up close his face
seemed gentler. His narrow forehead and flattened, prize-fighter nose with its prominent nostrils could
not be said to be handsome; still they suggested a certain warmth, an animal-like docility. Behind the
curtain there was a swinging door which he politely opened for Mr. Nicolits. “This way if you please.”

         Having passed through a tiled hallway, Mr. Nicolits reached the kitchen which was unusually
clean and neat. True, the oven wasn’t on and the pots and pans on the shelves appeared unused. A
skillet hanging on the wall shone as brightly as the full moon. Cooks and kitchen boys were nowhere to
be seen, the three men Mr. Nicolits did see looked like anything but kitchen boys. One had a truncheon
in his hand, the other had a bamboo cane, while the third stood empty-handed and without uttering a
word slapped the entering Mr. Nicolits in the face. He got hell for it. “Somogyi, are you crazy?” snapped
the man in the undershirt. “How can you attack someone like that?” And to make amends for this
unpleasantness, he addressed Mr. Nicolits even more courteously. “Overeagerness,” he complained;
“that’s all one sees: overeagerness. What might be your wish, sir? Would you care to undress perhaps?”
Mr. Nicolits just stood there, looking at the four men. He was neither scared nor surprised, since he
always had the feeling no, he knew- that something like this was going to happen to him one day. He’d
better get it over with, he figured, but he had trouble forming his words.

        “I would rather not, if you don’t mind.”

        “Mind? Of course not,” said the man in the undershirt with a friendly smile. “I can see that you
are from out of town. Would you care to be abused verbally as well?”

        “I’ll leave it up to you”

         The man in the undershirt stepped aside. “Go to it, boys.” He said. “And no goofing off.” The
three attendants, who were obviously afraid of the man in the undershirt, proceeded to beat Mr.
Nicolits furiously. They didn’t rush but work efficiently, beating him as one beats red-hot iron rapidly,
before it cools. Once in a while they would let out a shout. “So you don’t like the cotton quota, eh?”
yelled the one who was using the bamboo cane. The third, who had no implement to hit with and was
in charge of slapping only, heaped rather general abuses on Mr. Nicolits. “Take this, you louse! And
that, you creep! And that, you swine!” he shouted every time he took a swing at him.

        The summoner didn’t take part in the beating. He waited with his arms folded, and only when a
small space opened up did he kick Mr. Nicolits in the rear with the sole of his shoe. One could see he
didn’t have to do it, but wanted nevertheless to set a good example to his attendants who, having got
down to business with such sudden enthusiasm before, now stopped just as abruptly. All three of them
stepped back, and the one with the truncheon lit his cigarette which until then hung limply from the
corner of his mouth. Mr. Nicolits, though he got a headache and his knees were shaking a little, was
none the worse for wear. In fact he felt rather light and free, as one does after a fatiguing but pleasant
hike, or after a good rubdown. His anxiety, which was secretly tormenting him all this time, seemed
suddenly to disappear. All the same, he didn’t dare move until the man in the undershirt smiled and
opened the door for him.

        “This way, sir, if you please.”

        Mr. Nicolits took a few steps, then stopped. He didn’t know whether it was customary on such
occasions to leave a tip. Ever so carefully, he placed a ten-forint bill in the edge of the table. The man
with the truncheon acknowledged the money with a deep bow and put it in his pocket. Mr. Nicolits
passed through the hall and was back in the café. His eyes shone brightly and his shallow face reddened
with excitement. He tried to move briskly, like a soldier, because he suspected he was limping a little.
After he sat down next to his wife, he wet his lips with an air of satisfaction.

       They stayed for another fifteen minutes. Then they went back to the hotel, and the next day
returned to their out-of-the-way hometown in the godforsaken provinces.

								
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