The only Gypsy you had ever met said don’t call us Roma, only people who feel sorry for us call us that. Gypsies are free people who live how they want. Then laughing she said: Roma is a word for guilty white people. Then, no longer smiling: White people feel guilty because they think everyone wants to be like them.
Though you still didn’t know what a Gypsy was. Not really. Though you had some idea of course. You had had your pocket picked in Prague. You still remember the face, brown skin dark eyes (but in America lots of people have brown skin and dark eyes, so how were you, an American, to know the difference?). You had smiled at him after you’d all bumped with the starting of the train. Only checked for your wallet later, after they’d all gotten off.
But you still remember the face. A sudden grimace and pain had met your smile after you had all bumped. This wasn’t so strange; everyone in Prague met you with a grimace and some pain you didn’t understand.
You already thought you liked Hungarians better. Not so many grimaces, not the unfathomable pain. An old woman had set herself up grandly at the other end of your courtyard here. And then you too, following her example, at the other end. Hers was far grander. A recliner and a rainbow umbrella. You saw her on your first day holding a young woman’s hand, leaning close, you hoped she told fortunes. You wanted yours told, badly.
You’d left many times like that. Apropos of nothing, like a thief in the night. Just gone. But that last time it felt different. You thought for the first time you were perhaps sick, mentally ill.
So far a cat has been your best friend. He had said hello before, he always said hello, though stressfully, fretfully. Then he came through the bars in the window. You left some butter (you wished you’d had some tuna) on the sill and you went away. You didn’t want to pressure him. He licked the butter and left while you waited in the other room.
Then the old lady with the grand terrace with the recliner and the rainbow umbrella came to you at your own new small terrace.
It had been a glorious day, or two or three, at least two, you couldn’t remember, in Budapest. Some sort of spring cleaning. A license, you supposed (though you were too shy to ask anyone, someone you didn’t know) from the city to get rid of anything you didn’t want. Spring cleaning. It was mid April. And quite glorious, all this junk piled in the street. It reminded you of something you had read. Some tribe that took everything from their huts every spring and burned it all in a pile. Then started anew.
You respected the city (you had respected everything Hungarian before you’d even gotten there) for leaving the junk out, for at least two days or three, for whoever wanted to pick through and find something. A fine day for Gypsies! you thought with some amusement. People went about the city with cars pulling trailers, finding treasures. At first you were too shy. I don’t know the customs, you thought. Maybe only Gypsies are allowed to take stuff, and besides my little apartment off the Gypsy courtyard is fully furnished-overly furnished-and you didn’t know how long you’d be there.
Then you saw a broom. They had given you a mop but not a broom. You needed one, it was true. And then you noticed that everyone was taking things, not just those with brown skin and dark eyes (though lots of people in America have brown skin and dark eyes, so how were you, an American, to know a Gypsy?) and this filled you with respect and warmth. Yes I may take something, you thought and you were elated, floating down the street with your broom, with its old bent half-gone bristles, that you knew would fall out the first time you used it.
That was the beginning. There were old chairs, some beautiful, but you didn’t need those. Then you thought of a terrace! You had admired the old lady’s, with its rainbow umbrella and reclining chair. And certainly you shouldn’t bring out the tourist apartment furniture, it might get rained on or stolen (people were always coming in and out of that courtyard) and it would be disrespectful even. So, yes! you found a soft old chair, though not a recliner, and looked for an umbrella, as the old woman certainly knew how to build a terrace in that Gypsy courtyard! And maybe just an old table… but you wondered…. There were people lingering, some digging (these ones you knew were Gypsies, almost for sure) near this pile with the old table. Other Gypsies nearby had things gathered to them. Perhaps they rightfully owned all of it!? Everything in the street may be rightfully theirs! You were always one to respect proprieties….
But you were almost sure, nearly sure, that there was a distinction. People lingering near piles or digging as opposed to people with things gathered to themselves. There was a distinction, you were almost sure of it. So you took a chance, and nervously took hold of a table, by the leg, and waited a moment. You weren’t just going to run off with it. It was a small dirty table, just right for a little terrace, opposite the old woman with the grand terrace. You walked away slowly, whistling, waiting to be followed, chased, you rehearsed in your head an apology. “Bow-cha-shon mey. Shoy-nosh.” Would someone still want to fight with you? Even with an apology, said correctly in the native tongue? Well, if they didn’t take a polite apology that wasn’t your fault, you could fight, you supposed….
But that didn’t happen. And then you were sitting at your little terrace, quite a comfortable little chair it was and the old woman approached you. You hoped she would tell your fortune.
She didn’t speak English, and you used your Hungarian phrases. You were proud of how quickly you had learned them. “Shoy-nosh. Beh-say-lick chak ed-ya kiss mad-ya-rool. Ah-meh-ree-kah-ee vod-yok.” But she kept talking Hungarian though you knew you had said it right. You wished you remembered how to say “I don’t understand,” it was in your notebook, you almost remembered. But maybe it didn’t matter. She would talk anyway.
She gave you Christian pamphlets. You wanted to think they were elaborate advertisements for her fortune telling. But they weren’t. You knew as soon as she gave them to you. She knew the word “God” in English. It’s true you were disappointed.
She went away and brought you some food. Then she opened her mouth to show you that she had no teeth. This, too, filled you with warmth and respect. Certainly you worried about your own teeth.
Of course you wondered if the food might be poisoned, so you looked at her eyes. No no innocent eyes. Of course you can’t know for sure, but you were hungry, (so she read my mind after all! you thought, and you thought this was funny, because you were always hungry) and you can’t go around insulting people who bring you food by not eating it. And you would know, you thought, if it was poisoned, you would just know, and if not, what really matters?
She went away. You said “Keh-sa-nom keh-sa-nom ser-voos” and really it was very tasty.
When you were done the cat came back, the one who had been your best friend. He was always flitting around, never peaceful and still. Though he always said hello, that was enough, though a bit stressfully it’s true. You wished he was a peaceful cat and would sit in your lap. That would be better for you both. He must be young, you thought, and you thought again about your age and your teeth.
And you wished you still had a piece left for him. And you thought about how you had up and left everything once again. Erased everything. But now it didn’t feel so bad. Maybe I’m not mentally ill, you thought. The old lady had said I was good. I had understood that much. And the cat had said it too.
William K Hugel dropped out of college seventeen years ago to dedicate himself to writing, drinking, dancing and all other forms of degradation that lead to good fiction. Among his proudest accomplishments are the play DEMONS, which recently had a reading at The Hive Theatre in NYC; his novella Napoleon: The Boy who Found a War, which was shortlisted for the Faulkner/Wisdom award as a novel-in- progress; and a collection of self-published, handmade original fairy tales, which he wrote after experiencing the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. The first of these, “Beautiful Wild Rose Girl” was awarded a Gold Medal by Children’s Literary Classics International Book Awards.