Return of the Genius

By Tomica Šćavina

Translated By Ellen Elias-Bursać

The following is an excerpt from Povratak genija/Return of the Genius (Jesenski i Turk, 2013). In Return of the Genius, Nicki Terura, a quirky popcorn vendor and marijuana dealer who lives on the Adriatic island where she was born, meets a fragile, introverted inventor whose IQ soars to 180 after being struck by lightning. Pressed by the fear that her 92-year-old grandmother could fall ill and die because of the leaking roof, Nicki agrees to a dodgy job on a yacht where the “genius” and his greedy brother are experimenting with a "happy cap," an invention that one of the greatest geniuses of all time—Nikola Tesla—was involved in. Return of the Genius was published in Croatia in 2013 and was honored with two literary prizes, Sfera and Artefakt. In 2016, the novel will be published in Dutch in the Netherlands.

1.

THE BROTHERS

My name is Niki. Niki Terura. I will try to serve-up my story in small mouthfuls, so you don't choke. I don't know whether I'll manage, Nonna says I speak quicker than I think. She is probably right but I have my reasons. I had a disjointed childhood so my neurons link in odd ways. A disjointed childhood with my parents dying when I was twelve. They were shooting up heroin that some guy from Split cut with laundry detergent. They were washed all right… washed clean. It was right here they died, on Granny's verandah in Hvar, a city on an island of the same name which, if you see it from the air, has the shape of a crocodile. This crocodile is my haven. I live in its eye.

 

Gradually you are forming an image of me, so I need to jump right in before you write me off as some sort of gorgon. I am no gorgon. I have a fetching face. At least so they say. I have brown eyes and straight, shoulder-length brown hair that I often wear up in a short ponytail. When I laugh there are dimples in my cheeks. My teeth are straight, my lips full, eyebrows dark, precisely arched. I could go on and on about my charm and you'd probably fall for it because you can't see me. But the problem is that I promised I'd write the truth and nothing but the truth. And the truth is I am fat. I am at least forty pounds overweight. I am one of those women with a pear-shaped build—sloping shoulders, fat ass. You'll remember my face, but you'll also definitely remember my ass. And then in your memory the ass will stay and the face will fade.

 

I am thirty-five. Half of those years I spent in San Pedro, California the other half in Hvar. It went something like this: my mother had me in a hospital in San Pedro where I spent the next month breaking my heroin habit and breaking with everything else she'd snorted and shot herself up with while she was pregnant. It took me a whole minute to take my first breath. I had already turned blue and they thought I was a goner when the doctor wacked me so hard on the back that I gave up on my suicidal intentions and wailed. The blow cracked something in my spine and the tenth and eleventh vertebrae grew together wrong, which means that aside from my big ass I have this lump on my back. Fortunately it just looks ugly. It doesn't hurt. Except when I sit for a long time and the muscles around it ache. And except for when a guy fingers the lump and freezes, thinking it must be gremlins bursting out of my back.

 

While I was going through cold turkey as a baby I suffered from chronic spasms, diarrhea, and breathing problems. I don't remember any of it, of course, but my mother made sure to fill me in. During those rare moments we spent together and the even rarer moments when she was clean, she'd be swept by attacks of excessive sincerity. She wanted to, like, fix our relationship, but what she'd end up doing looked more like this: I sat there and stared into space while she wept a torrent of tears and told me "what we have been through together." Together? Apparently I was always in her thoughts.

 

When you add and subtract everything, I spent two years of my life with my parents. But not at the beginning. At first they took me straight to Hvar to my Nonna and Dide (which is how they say Grandpa here) who wept bitter tears over their daughter the scum. That was one of my first words. First I said Mama, then Papa, then scum.

 

They were gone the day after my twelfth birthday. This time for good, howling darkly and puking blood. Luckily I wasn't home, but I heard about it. The city buzzed about it for years. They probably are buzzing about it still. Stories like that are handed down from generation to generation, as if knowing whose grandson hanged himself or whose daughter was carousing with Italian tourists are points of general culture. Today when I'm out and about in town I have the feeling I'm dragging something along behind me, like an empty tin can of beans local bad boys tie to the tails of cats. I have no chance of strolling down the waterfront without one of the old ladies turning as I pass and mumbling something like scum or barrel ass. Softly, of course, among themselves. My ears can't hear them, but my heart can.

 

Regardless of the wagging tongues, Hvar is my paradise. We dovetail so completely that sometimes I have the feeling we are one. The rattle of masts caresses me, the streets embrace me, the tops of the tall palms uplift me to the sky that strokes my bones. Stone. Hvar is all stone. There is no concrete here, no asphalt… The labyrinths of little streets on the slopes of the hills, the old houses with gates and lilac bushes, the broad square full of white parasols and frenzied swallows… Plenty of sun.

 

"Hot as hell," said Mallet, swabbing his red brow scribbled with two or three black locks of hair. "The humidity is killing me."

 

That was early this summer, the craziest summer I've ever known. We were sitting on the terrace of the café on the square, sipping coffee. I couldn't believe I was with them again after three years… the Perry brothers. They had come from San Pedro and found me here, at the other end of the earth.

 

"There's a storm brewing," said Twiglet softly, staring at the black clouds piling up slowly from the south.

 

The two of them were like Laurel and Hardy. One skinny, the other fat. Deflated and inflated. Although twins, they were completely different. Twiglet's head was in the clouds, Mallet was nailed to the floor. Twiglet was cotton batting to Mallet's sandpaper. Twiglet shaved his head; Mallet secretly teased what was left of the hair on the nape of his neck to make it look fuller.

 

"He changed his name," harrumphed Mallet, pointing to his brother. "Now his name is Alset," he added pulling a bag of peanuts from his pocket.

 

By then he had already eaten half a donut, a piece of candy, then he paused briefly after which he downed another quarter donut, then two pieces of candy, and so on, off and on, as if by eating little by little he'd trick the others into thinking he wasn't eating.

 

"I need something salty," he said as he tore open the bag of peanuts with his teeth. "Want some?"

 

He always offered food the same way. Holding it tightly.

 

"No thanks."

 

While he shook the peanuts into his hand, he worked his mouth left and right, as if swishing water. This was only one of his many tics. He also twitched his right shoulder, coughed, winked, and when he wasn't eating he'd drum nervously on his lips like a hamster secretly tucking something into its mouth.

 

"Why change your name?" I asked Twiglet.

 

"Because he's stupid," answered Mallet, stuffing the peanuts into his mouth, "stupid, stupid, stupid," he chanted while chewing, as if reciting a children's mocking rhyme.

 

Twiglet said nothing. His eyes were still fixed on the storm clouds.

 

Something had happened to him. The last time I'd seen him, three years before, he had seemed so different. He had been quiet and shy, but never absent. We talked then about astronomy, cooking and poetry, and now I could barely look at him. His clear-blue eyes chilled me. No more stars, no zing, no poetry. There was nothing familiar in those eyes.

 

"Why Alset?"

 

"Why not?" he wheezed.

 

Mallet coughed. The cough was not a tic.

 

"Damn it," Mallet choked. "Damn… Hit… Hit… me…"

 

I leaped to my feet and wacked his back with all my might. A peanut popped out of his windpipe and plunked into my coffee cup.

 

"I am going for a walk," said Twiglet in that same reedy voice that sounded as if he'd been breathing helium.

 

Mallet blotted his sweaty forehead with the napkin again and with tearful eyes watched his brother stride, calm and steady, toward the storm.

 

"Come back soon! You'll catch your death!"

 

"Where's he off to?" I asked, still shaken by the look in Twiglet's eyes.

 

"He has really snapped," panted Mallet and ran his hand over his face.

 

"Snapped?"

 

He took a deep breath, pulled a piece of candy from his pocket, and popped it into his mouth. He needed time to work on it. Meanwhile I watched him in silence.

 

Mallet was fifty-five, with a chunky neck and the face of a beaver. He wore silver-rimmed eyeglasses and an expensive black shirt, which he believed made him look more slender in the waist, though he had no waist to speak of. In short, he looked like a farmer who discovered oil in his cornfield, got rich quick, and now is ashamed to admit that he is still in love with his Eleanor, who is, actually, his combine.

 

"Where is he going?" I asked.

 

"For a swim."

 

"A swim? What's he thinking? That is the wrong way. There's no beach over there."

 

"In the storm."

 

"I don't get it."

 

"There is nothing here to get," he snarled. "It's this crazy idea of his… A lightning-bask."

 

"Lightning-bask?"

 

"From sun-basking, sunning," he said, smacking his lips, "Basking in lightning."

 

"Ah, I see..." I said, astonished.

 

"He strips naked, flings his arms wide and… “his shoulder twitched, "basks in the lightning."

 

"Basks in the lightning."

 

"Oooph. The phrase makes my hair stand on end," he said and crossed his arms to tame his shoulder. "He was struck by lightning."

 

"I see."

 

"A year ago. Ever since then he's been doing this lightning-bask thing. And ever since then he's…" he said, clearing his throat as if trying to cough out words that refused to come out, "… been a genius."

 

"What sort of genius?"

 

"The genuine article," he said, leaning closer to me, his eyes darting. "And his genius has made us rich."

 

Mallet never looked you in the eye when he talked but this was not his usual evasive gaze. It was more like paranoia.

 

"Then, you agree?"

 

"Of course," I said and tossed back the last of my coffee.

 

The peanut from Mallet's windpipe bounced off the roof of my mouth.

 

"Yuck!" I spat it out onto the ground.

 

A sparrow flew in from somewhere, snatched the peanut, and winged off.

 

"Gotta go," I said, gulping down my glass of water. "Gotta clean that popcorn machine."

 

"Popcorn, ha, ha… Now that will definitely make you rich."

 

Moron. Selling popcorn is just my screen for dealing weed.

 

"But, don't worry," he winked, this time it was the tic. "If you apply yourself you'll make a decent living."

 

Apply myself. I cannot believe I am getting myself back into that rut.

 

I applied myself four years ago when I was living in San Pedro and working for Mallet's company Fond Farewell. They recorded memorial videos in which people who were dying said their farewells to their nearest and dearest. It was a job that changed me so profoundly that I couldn't recognize myself. This hard, sour misanthrope turned into a sensitive, empathetic soul who swore to herself and the universe that she would never give up on her search for the mystery of human existence, the mystery of life and death. I thought the sour misanthrope was gone for good. But, she wasn't. She was crouching over on the other side of my heart.

 

In this whole story the rut wasn't the job, but the fact that I was working for an idiot who was getting rich shamelessly off of other people's pain. The five-minute video with editing cost six thousand dollars, ten thousand with special effects. Fond Farewell was the only company making videos like this at the time and within a year it had ballooned to fifty employees who, for $1,500 a month, were filming and editing videos that had them in tears nonstop. Most didn't last longer than three months. I was the only one who stayed for three years, from the beginning to the end. I grew attached… to departing… probably because every so often I departed a little myself. In those three years I made ten fond farewells that could be shown at my funeral and sent to the people I placed on my special postmortem list should I die. I have three favorites of the ten. In one I am talking from an outer space capsule while Across the Universe by the Beatles plays in the background, in the second I am sitting on a shabby sofa while Johnny Cash sings Hurt, and in the third I am a character in a cartoon doing all sorts of silly things and planting crosses and orchids in the city park. The third was not appropriate, I know, but it is my all-time favorite.

 

Fond Farewell is great. Instead of this tipsy priest mumbling on about hope and salvation, or the class president pretending you were everybody's favorite when instead they called you Dee-Dee because you had such bad grades or Four Eyes because of your glasses, you hold your very own speech at your funeral. And besides, who could do it better than you? Who else would know whom you want to give your love to last, and whom you'd tell they are a vile piece of shit that should be wiped from the face of the earth?

 

Those are not my words. Bob McBull said them at his funeral. He is my hero. He said everything to everyone. In three minutes. Making the video freed him so completely that he died the next day. And he's not the only one. Margaret Mia Dow, a nun, was here too. In her funeral video she confessed she had been in love with the nun who shared her room with her. This was her last confession. She was sure Jesus would forgive her, and the rest she didn't care about.

 

Ours was a noble task in less than noble hands. Mallet's hands. He hired me because I was familiar with the basics of editing videos and because I am a Mensa member. When I showed him my membership card, which lists my IQ as one hundred fifty-two, his muzzle sagged and something like fear flashed in his eyes which he reined in by dubbing me Dumbo. The membership card was, of course, a fake. I found it in a wallet I picked off of some guy in a tram a few years earlier. I scanned it, tweaked it in Photoshop, and in just an hour there I was—supersmart.

 

 

 

"There you go running around like a chicken with its head cut off," muttered Nonna Mare when she saw me racing up the steps, opening the gate and tossing my bag onto the ground by the agave. "Slow down, dear girl, you'll break something," Nonna said.

 

She watched me through the window of her room from where she could see the yard, the roofs of the surrounding houses, and the steps that ran all the way down to the water's edge like a striped stone rug.

 

"Hey, Nonna, a storm's coming," I said, pulling the sheets and pillowcases off the line.

 

"Storms, storms," she shrugged, "hardly the first or last... Look after yourself, child, not the sheets."

 

Hugging the ball of fragrant white sheets, I stopped for a moment and breathed deeply. The sky was blackening, the thunder was getting closer, the sailboats in the harbor were clattering loudly, wildly, as if quarreling with the seagulls.

 

"A south wind," said Nonna.

 

"A south wind," I said.

 

There aren't many words to be exchanged with my Nonna. It's all in the glances. Gestures. Tone. That glance, gesture, and tone are always reminding me that she is the very best nonna anywhere in the world. For me she sold her vineyard. For me she flew in a plane. For me she went to America even though she didn't even know what yes and no meant. That is my nonna who, when I was seventeen, appeared at the door of the Mind Renaissance mental institution and brought me back to Hvar. If it hadn't been for her, there'd have been no me.

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