Blues for the Lady with Red Spots
Photo: DM Vyleta
A short story by Zoran Feric

Translated from the Croatian by Sime Dusevic

This story previously appeared in the anthology When a Man Gets Terribly Frightened (2005), edited by Boris Skvorc and published by Naklada MD and the Croatian Studies Centre of Macquarie University, Sydney.

1. The hypochondriac

In the waiting room of the AIDS section of the Dr Fran Mihaljevic Infectious Diseases Clinic on Mirogoj Street, where HIV tests are performed, a particularly ugly woman will always be found among the patients. For everyone in this anteroom of hell she represents a mystery, and the way in which she was eventually infected is in the sphere of the supernatural.

"Who'd fuck her?" asks the man seated next to me, pointing to one of those ugly wretches, as if I had an answer to that metaphysical question.

Short, with thick glasses for the far-sighted and a stooped posture, she comes under the category of female beings whose extremely large breasts join up with their protruding bellies. It's no longer ugliness, but grotesque. As if in her case her genes have decided to experiment. Her clothes behave in the same way. With ungainly combinations she supports the natural ugliness of the body: a grey skirt of crumpled cloth, gaudy white sneakers, and instead of a blouse the top part of a tracksuit. There is no doubt that this is not only a case of ugliness, but a conscious decision for it.

And now I see how that conscious decision for ugliness is explaining something to the handsome businessman next to her. I can't hear what she's saying because she speaks softly; she's probably talking about her sexual adventures to make it easier to believe in them herself.

Apart from ugly women, several categories of patients can be found in the waiting room. First, you have the anxious. Of various ages, they walk to and fro, sit for a moment on their seats before something again makes them measure the waiting room by paces. Some, the more anxious, follow the pattern of the marble tiles on the floor. I notice that they skip over the black squares and stand only on the white ones, as if playing hopscotch. And they're grown people. Secondly, you have the homosexuals. They speak to one another, swapping experiences. Thirdly, you have the emaciated. They're typically intravenous users, the quietest ones. And, lastly, you have those who have rejected their own names. The clinic's administration allows patients to be tested under a codename. And those codenames, for a short time, become their names.

The young girl next to me is called Last Summer, and her friend is Lili Marleen. I overheard them when they registered. Last Summer and Lili Marleen entertain each other by commenting on the patients. They continually snigger at someone, even at me, as I make large steps to overstep the black tiles, as if I were walking in a minefield. That probably makes them laugh. Last Summer looks directly into my eyes as if to say: "Hey, beardy, when this nightmare passes I'll blow you for twenty marks!" Lili is dressed in black. An intravenous goth who in the anteroom of death feels as if she's in a kindergarten toilet. In other words, free and spontaneous.

"I'd fuck her," reckons my neighbour, fixing his eyes on Dark Lili. I reply that I wouldn't recommend it. At least not here. I advise him to follow her reaction, and if she leaves the consulting room with a smile that means she's negative. Then she's at her cleanest. She'll certainly want to celebrate with a hit and that's when he should offer her twenty marks for a quickie in the park above the clinic.

"I'm not mad," he tells me, "above here is Mirogoj Cemetery. I never do that in a cemetery."

I explain to him that a cemetery is an excellent place because there are no people, it's relatively quiet, and the dark marble slabs get so heated by the sun that even in spring they're very comfortable. He says he has nothing against those things, but everything against cemeteries. In fact, he works in Algeria for Industrogradnja, a Croatian construction company, and Africa is full of that devil's work. He means AIDS.

Suddenly, Last Summer comes over to us looking for a light. My neighbour from Industrogradnja lights up his little Zippo for her. Both of their hands are shaking, so the flame and the cigarette need a few seconds before they meet.

"This one's not bad either," says the guy after the girl has gone outside to smoke the cigarette.
"And why are you here?" he asks me straight out. By his accent I hear that he's a Bosnian, and you can forgive them anything. A construction worker on his first encounter with AIDS. How can I explain to him that, for me, AIDS is primarily a psychological illness? Any serious hypochondriac from Manila to Brazil will confirm that. Thus I tell him that I'm here because of a druggie chick, Marina, who I recklessly touched at the wrong time. Something about that isn't clear: in my life I've slept with a lot of whores, so why do I now fear only the one I've loved?

"I knew straight away that you're not a fag!" says the guy with relief, and the path towards friendship is open. "I'm here because of my tongue," he says. "Look, my tongue is white, and my local doctor asks me where I work. I tell him in Africa and he immediately sends me to Zagreb for a test... But it's only the tongue..."

I forget about that symptom in a flash, thinking worriedly. Through the side of my eye I notice Lili Marleen rolling with laughter. The scene is comical. The steel-bender sticks out his tongue with white spots at me, and I back off as much as I can. I don't need trouble.

The screeching voice from the speaker calls Last Summer to go to room number three. Everyone looks at each other in hesitation. Those who are here for the first time don't know about the system of codes and this syntagm, Last Summer, sounds to them like a surrealist joke. The voice from the speaker repeats: "Last Summer, Last Summer..."

Yet another ugly woman arrives on the scene. I see how she quietly moves to another chair and sits next to a skinny boy in a black bomber jacket, with a baseball cap pulled down over his forehead as if the strong light bothers him. She offers her hand to him and the young man unwillingly shakes it. And then the woman starts to speak softly. Her gestures are strange because she doesn't look at the person she's talking to, but only mumbles something in his ear while observing the people in the waiting room. Presumably her next victims. What's she doing? I ask myself while she wipes her glasses, and her tiny eyes resemble horizontal buttonholes.

A mother and her little daughter suddenly arrive in the waiting room. The girl is about eight years old. Everyone looks at them in astonishment. Are we talking about a transfusion or transmission from mother to daughter? The mother is placid, and the daughter is happy and seems healthy. I, who am experienced at waiting here, know it is not a question of one or the other, but rather a visa for America.

"And who did she fuck?" again asks my steel-bending neighbour, aroused by the entrance of such a finely dressed, exceptionally beautiful woman. As an experienced habitué of the waiting room, I explain to him that in late spring and the beginning of summer you will find many people here with children, and that they're not "those whose blood doesn't stop" - haemophiliacs - but those who are travelling to the United States.

The spots on the tongue, meanwhile, are bothering me. That's something I didn't pay attention to and now that my African steel-bender has opened my eyes, I'm concerned about my tongue. Unfortunately, there's no mirror around. I stand up as if I'm going for a little walk, the worm in my arse has grown restive, and it's that big, white people-eating worm that lives under tombstones, and which for certain types of people schemes in their arses, plotting for many years, so that their lives are at stake. I concentrate, then, on the white tiles, playing hopscotch around the waiting room, striving to forget the white worm. And in a panic I try to find a mirror.

Last Summer finally appears accompanied by the nursing sister who called her. She's still exhaling the last smoke from her nose as if it were her final breath, and with tottering steps moves towards the room with the symbolic number three. And I am, like Alice, still looking for a mirror. Finally, I find one, while Lili Marleen and the Bosnian steel-bender watch me with unabashed interest. However, the concern about my tongue conquers any shame. In truth, it's not a real mirror, but a small, darkened area of glass on the reception counter. The reflection of the light is such that you can see yourself quite well in it. I stand, then, in front of the improvised mirror, turn my back to the anxious gathering and stick out my tongue. I try to find out about the white spots. But it's not so easy. You can see the contours of the tongue, but not the details. I stick it out further and hope to God to see the details, to find the correct angle of light, but I'm also glad I can't see. I console myself: "If I can't see those damned spots, then they're probably not there." And then suddenly, through the contours of my tongue, instead of spots I see glasses. The golden frames of someone's glasses, and then the face of the nursing sister who belongs to the glasses. The face is disgusted. Because it sees the idiot with the short beard sticking his tongue out at the reception counter. Her nurse's highness is dumbfounded, but she remains quiet. I clumsily apologise and explain that I didn't stick my tongue out at her, and I kindly ask her to forgive this slip of the tongue, and that I need a mirror. And I ask whether maybe she has a pocket mirror because in the bathroom, as she knows, there is no mirror...

"Get lost!" she says and I humbly withdraw. I'm no longer even wary of the black tiles and I walk somewhat incautiously with a singular fear in my heart: the whore will make me wait till the end, after everyone, to stew on a low flame, with the people-eating worms wriggling in my backside. Until judgement day...

That only leaves me the Bosnian to use as a mirror. I approach him and ask him to check my tongue. I stick it out, poke at it with my thumb, and move it up and down, while the Algerian steel-bender expertly watches on. I no longer take any notice of Lili Marleen, who is screaming with laughter. Obviously high on grass.

"Stick it out a bit further," says the Bosnian, "I can't see it well. There's something white up the back, but then it's not just white, there's a bit of red..."

Red? I ponder. Is red good or bad?

Then I see how Last Summer floats out of the consulting room. Smiling from ear to ear. Her smile has halved her head and, beaming with joy, she stares at her results, finally sure that nothing dangerous occurred last summer and that a new summer is coming, and in all likelihood many more summers because she's healthy and young so that, according to all the rules of statistics, she's already somehow booked for those future summers. And then with her gaze she surveys all of us who are still being devoured by uncertainty, throws a pityingly superior gaze and goes over to dark Marleen to show her the printed good news. And how the good news looks I know well. When AIDS first appeared in this country, with the first infected haemophiliac, I immediately went for a test, so that I'm already an old hand when it comes to that. However, life brings pleasant surprises which we later regret, so that my first result soon became irrelevant.

2. Strange guys

Two guys who look extremely suspicious now enter the waiting room. One is shortish with a shaven head, the other tall, unbelievably skinny, with macaroni-greasy hair that falls to his elongated, bony face.

"Cut off my balls if that's not THEM!" says the African steel-bender.

The guys, meanwhile, also act suspiciously. One remains at the front door, from where he can view the whole waiting room and the entrance to the consulting room, while the other one leans his back against the glass of the reception desk so that the cobra of a nurse can't see what happens in the waiting room.

I notice that the woman beside me starts fidgeting, while the murmuring in the waiting room has died down. Even the homosexuals, traditionally the most talkative, have stopped talking. The well-dressed woman, whose girl has been running around the consulting room bringing us a newborn link to life, has called her child in a strong voice. And the girl stops playing and rushes to her mother. She hugs her leg and remains like that, watching the dangerous guy with the shaven head in front of the reception desk. Only now do I notice that the guy doesn't have any eyebrows. Or they're light and thin so that you can't see them. That's why his face looks alien.

The other guy, the one by the door, when he was sure that everyone was quiet, took another look around the waiting room and threw something black on the floor. He did it so skilfully that the thing slid along the marble tiles until it stopped close to the centre, in front of the reception desk. I notice that now all the waiting-room habitués are staring at this thing with a mixture of amazement and light horror. Those in the back rows, who can hardly see the floor, stand up from their chairs and look at what the skinny one threw. Some, you can tell, are ready to flee. They slowly look towards the window. They think it might be a bomb or some other explosive device. At once my view stops at the ugly woman's face. She is calm and smiling.

"What does she know that we don't," I ask myself while watching that blessed expression, as if it was redeeming us all.

And the guy at the desk takes something out of his back pocket.

"They're now gonna kill us like rabbits!" says the Bosnian with a dumpling in his throat. I don't take it lightly either, but I look at it as the finger of fate. If I'm negative, and the bald alien shoots me through the skull, it's called irony, and this time it goes to divine reckoning. Baldy puts the object in his mouth. Maybe he'll blow his head to bits, I think, and he'll spray all of us with his infected blood. However, with relief, I recognise it's a mouth harmonica. I take a detailed look at the black thing on the floor and see that it is some type of cap, a shabby corduroy baseball cap, turned inside out, full of grey wisps of dust. And while baldy begins a sad melody, which is reminiscent of flat-bottomed boats in the Mississippi delta, the skinny one stands in the middle, and begins a song:

Blues for the Lady with Red Spots

Carcinoma, sarcoma and melanoma
Three brothers in law
And AIDS is a full sister
With red freckles.
People and women
Healthy and infected
Here are two singers
Soul providers
With worn trousers;
Amid the smiles,
Amid the cries,
Our song
Brings pleasure.
Two singers
Virus carriers,
Vigilance pays
And small change rewards.

Meanwhile, in the waiting room, silence. No one is waving his or her wallets, we are all just staring in shock. The silence lasts for longer than a minute before the skinny one leans over to grab his cap and begins moving from man to man. He thrusts his face into theirs, sniffles, spits and coughs. Now, whenever he gets close to someone, they drop a coin into his cap from a respectable distance. The skinny guy sees he has produced the right effect, so he returns the cap to the floor. Those who have so far given nothing grab the chance and get up from their chairs or come from the far corners of the waiting room and donate a coin. So that he won't come near them.

The lads, meanwhile, continue:

Carcinoma, sarcoma and melanoma
Cancer's three brothers
And AIDS the granny
Of torments varied.
Our song
Pleases the ear
May it safeguard you
From brotherly pains
And all evils.
And for a small coin
From our hearts
We thank you.

3. The dead

In my thirteenth year, the year of the unlucky number, but lucky for childhood, when God fulfils the most intense promises of life, I noticed that I had a small cock. That realisation didn't come at once, like thunder or an explosion, but slowly, like a chronic disease. On chance occasions, when we were dressing or bathing, I saw how the pricks of my classroom friends had outgrown them. When your prick "outgrows you", that means that, in its stiff state, it has more centimetres than you are years old. By that measure some of them were ready for the first or second year of high school, while I perman

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