"The First and Last Punker" was first published in Croatian in Gordan Nuhanović's short story collection Gordan Liga za opstanak (Pop & Pop, 2001) and later in English in The Survival League, (Ooligan Press, Portland, OR, 2005).
Exactly at noon, I started working the first shift of my life.
“The coffee machine always has to be clean and plugged in,” my boss, Bato, warned me. Old Gaggia, as it was called, was to be turned off at 10 p.m., even if bullets were flying outside. This was a direct quote from Bato. “The machine doesn’t get turned on for anyone once it’s turned off, is that clear?”
I drank in Bato’s every word. “And if someone has a complaint about it,” he said in a raised tone so that everyone still in the café could hear, once and for all, they could just come to him, Bato Vozetic.
“And one more thing,” he remembered, lowering his voice. “If a punker comes in, you serve him whatever drink he orders, but call me on the phone immediately, is that clear?”
“Sure, Bato,” I answered, after which Bato lit his cigarette with great gusto, using the Zippo lighter on which was written: US Army. It worked during hurricanes and under water, and would spark up even if it was out of lighter fluid, because Bato’s Zippo US Army lighter had a false bottom with a secret tank.
“That’s it,” he concluded as he chugged down his Ballbuster; actually, two shots in one. I held the metal tray just the way Bato had taught me, from the bottom, resting it on the tips of all five fingers of my left hand, placed a cloth over the clean ashtrays, and by the time you could say “boo” I was strutting among the booths, taking my first orders. I felt Bato’s eyes on my back. What he wanted was a waiter as dependable as his US Army Zippo lighter—a waiter who would notify him posthaste at the first sight of a punker. He gave me three percent of the day’s earnings, an extra hand from 7 p.m. on, two free drinks during my shift, and the key to the jukebox.
“So,” he asked me as I was leaving. “You remember what I told you?”
A lot of stuff was filtering through my head at that moment.
“Punkers,” he repeated. “My number’s on the coffee machine.”
Oh, yeah, that, of course…I gave him the high five as he left the bar. He could depend on me to make that call.
My first punker contaminated the café by coming in goosestepping, wearing those big black clodhoppers. I could feel the shift in the air for almost a full minute after he settled into a booth in the back, situated his feet, crossing one leg over the knee, and lit a cigarette with one of those disgusting plastic lighters that are always getting plugged up. I was dumfounded for a moment, shifting around within my territory behind the counter. And then I realized my hands were hanging listlessly at my thighs, which was inappropriate; a waiter’s hands must always be occupied, even if the bar is empty. There are glasses in the sink to be washed. Or dirty ashtrays, or else the terrace is a mess, there’s always something. A waiter’s idle hands attract trouble, that wasn’t just Bato’s opinion; everyone who had the habit of kicking back against the coffee machine felt the same way.
“A double coffee,” requested my first punker, adding: “And a glass of regular water.”
I emptied the machine of the previous dregs and filled it with freshly ground coffee, pulled the handle, and pressed the “on” button: imagine a tired cat lounging in the sun. Just listen to the sound of the Gaggia and you get the audio version of a kitty siesta on a long-forgotten summer morning in some small border town.
As a thin stream of coffee slowly filled the punker’s cup, a chorus of “God Save the Queen” boomed from the jukebox, a song I had selected myself, along with several others, maybe because of the punker in the booth. And I hadn’t forgotten his glass of water. With one cube of ice. I approached him in the designated manner, from the right side.
“Here you are,” I said graciously, but the punker was obnoxiously clunking his dirty shitkickers to the rhythm of “God Save the Queen.”
Later, after having served punkers in similar situations, I would take pleasure in delaying that phone call. I’d tidy up the buffet, replace the ashtrays or, believe it or not, play a hand of picado. And the time would pass slowly in an endless procession of minutes rising out of the malicious steam of the Gaggia. But then all of a sudden I’d be overcome by panic. It always seemed that I had put it off too long, so in a feverish rush I’d dial Bato’s number. Of course it didn’t take me long to learn it by heart; even now, even though Bato has given up his lease, I could recite the number in my sleep. Although he’s probably changed it by now or at least has an additional number between the first two. But as a final option I could always call information and ask for Bato Vozetic’s number, address: Way of the Cross Street; suburb: “Croatian Victims,” on the other side of the tracks.
Bato threw out my first punker more gently than he did the others, probably so as not to discourage me right at the beginning. He didn’t even cuff him, he just grabbed him by the collar of his leather jacket and yanked him along the stairs toward a little piece of clear sky. With his free hand he maintained balance as they slid along the tiles, slick with condensed steam from the Gaggia. The part of the job I got three percent for I took care of right away and in the proper manner: first, I rinsed out the punker’s undrunk cup of coffee, then replaced his ashtray, and most important, smoothed out the seat fabric his punker butt had defiled during the last half hour. As I sauntered over to the booth, there was no sign whatsoever that a punker had been there just moments before. Nothing but a thin stripe of smoke suspended around the halogen light.
Bato ejected the punkers in a lackadaisical manner. Frontal assault to the liver, but a blunt blow, as though he were performing some stultifyingly boring activity which had long ago lost its attraction. Bato’s face resembled a mother’s breast. Without a hint of anger. It was a weird kind of calm in light of the actions that were to follow, and sometimes it even seemed as though he were going to rest his head on the punker’s shoulder. Bato Vozetic’s fist usually gyrated in the air for a moment before centering in to the smallest centimeter on the punker’s nose, usually from the left, since Bato was a righthander. As the punker writhed around on the floor, Bato would raise his leg back in an expression of disgust and go for his kidneys. But the punkers were always coming back to the café. The one knocked out the night before would show up again the next morning, with spots of dried blood on his lips, naturally. Their orders never changed—a double coffee and a glass of ordinary water.
“With ice, if ya got it…”
“Sure, one or two cubes?”
Their throats must be dry as hell, I figured as I plunked in the two cubes.
Bato rented from one guy, Labud, who sublet from another guy who never came around, which made things a little murky: consider what to do if all of a sudden the real owner, who was never around, was standing at the bar. Who would you serve first? Some would blurt out immediately: the real owner first! But wait just a minute! Isn’t Bato the one who’s paying me three percent of the daily profits? I was sure of one thing, though: The guy Bato rented from, Labud, the one who sublet from the guy who never came around, he was the one who got served last. The end.
You wouldn’t think so, but the punker population is fairly small, the old ones disappear and there are fewer and fewer young ones to fill the empty space. So since Bato was always throwing out the same punkers, he started having doubts about himself, his skills. Always the same facial bones, the same system of defense… he felt like he was losing his confidence, and when I’d report the appearance of a punker in the place, it would take him longer and longer to intervene, even though they still got on his last nerve.
His lease with Labud was running out soon.
“Hello, Vozetic residence,” said Bato’s wife.
“I’m the waiter, I need Bato, it’s an emergency…”
“Just a moment,” she answered in a pleasant tone.
“Hello, this is Bato…”
I told him: “I’ve got a punker here!”
“What does he look like?” He wanted me to describe him.
“Listen,” he said after hearing my description of the punker in the booth: “That’s my son!
It was like the phone wires were crackling.
He went punk not long ago—he added. “—But that doesn’t matter. I’ll be right there. And then he showed up. Approached the counter, ordered a Ballbuster, first a double, two in one, and then a repeat.
“From tomorrow on, Labud’s your boss,” he said.
I asked him what was going to happen to him.
He was going back to work for the forest service: pulling corpses out of the woods. That’s what he’d done his entire life, he enjoyed it, it relaxed him. No punkers, just him, Bato Vozetic, and the forest.
He placed his palms on the counter. If one were to judge by his powerful hands, crisscrossed by a vigorous web of blue veins, then one would say it was the Croatian Forest Association’s lucky day!
He paid for his Ballbusters and lumbered over to throw out his last punker. I knew he wasn’t performing some historical act here, just a routine job he felt compelled to do until his lease ran out.
No matter how exhausted they are after last call, totally alone and confronted with the emptiness of the café, waiters are always thinking about their phlebitis and their spines, which are under constant pressure from the unnatural posture leaning over the counter. They spill their guts to the coffee machine because, among all the disinterested inventory, only it seems to have a soul.
“So, old Gaggia,” I said. “You know I had only the best of intentions…-
Actually, coffee machines sort of stutter at times and it takes them awhile to spit out what they have to say.
That’s when the shadows of ousted punkers start to glide along the booths, chains clanking, the heavy buckles on their jackets flashing threateningly in the direction of my barren tabernacle.
“At one point in their careers” old Gaggia confessed. “There was a real danger that waiters would start holding conversations with their coffee machines.”