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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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