The Croatian original was published in Zoran Malkoč's short story collection Groblje manjih careva/Lesser Czars' Cemetery (Profil, 2010).
Back then I was still friends with Ćelentano. He wasn’t sending his boys after me. Nor was he threatening me. But there’s no doubt that even then he was completely crazy. He claimed he was a scumbag, and his opinion about the rest of the species was even worse. On top of that, he had money and he liked to spend it on proving his claim. But for some reason he loved drinking with me. That day he called me up on the phone just after noon. I stared at the cell phone thinking whether to pick it up or not when my indecision was broken by his SUV stopping in front of my bookstore.
“Where are you?”
“Ah! Working your ass off, huh?! Listen, you remember that idea I had about a cage?”
“Well, the thing’s on a roll. I got myself the first beast.”
“Well, not exactly a tiger. It’s more like a bear. But good! Tough! Hey teddy, let my partner hear that mean roar of yours!” yelled Ćeletano, and then I heard a deep mumble, not exactly the way a bear sounds. “You heard it? Good, huh? A real grizzly! You should see it charge the bars! Listen, get your ass over here, we’ll have ourselves a couple of drinks and play with our teddy, what do you say?”
“I don’t know. I’m working. And I don’t have…”
“What? A car? Isn’t Ćorkaš there yet? C’mon, don’t fuck with me! Adriano!”
I put on an “Out of Office!” sign on the door, closed the store and entered the SUV. As usual, Ćorkaš said nothing, he just turned the engine on and off we went. Driving with him was an experience of horrible silence. You looked straight in front of you and saw nothing; all you could hear was relentless silence and you had to ask yourself: “Why doesn’t this goddamn piece of shit want to talk to me?” And when you knew he’d killed someone, twice, and not in the war, the question kept popping up in your mind and soon it was the only thing you thought about.
Before he started working for Ćelentano, Ćorkaš had tried working as a taxi driver for a couple of years, but the only thing he managed to do was to become the worst taxi driver ever because no one on Earth wanted to get in his car. No one except Ćelentano, who hated driving anything but his beloved Mustang. And that thing didn’t run on roads. Mustang was, just so you know, his flying car. And that’s where I found Ćelentano when Ćorkaš finally freed me of his silence.
Mountainsides around us echoed with the thunder of Mustang’s engine. That was called “nature, peace and quiet Ćelentano’s way.” Among all those meadows and forests, on a steel pole three meters tall, Mustang was mounted, everything running, powerful, its wheels in the air. Ćelentano waved his bottle of whiskey at me from above.
“Wanna go for a ride?” he yelled.
“I’d rather not. This thing with Ćorkaš was just enough.”
“Nothing beats driving and chatting with Ćorkaš, huh? Money can’t buy that. I’ll tell you sometime why the grim face keeps silent, but now we have better things to do. Let’s go see our teddy. Got your swimming shorts? No? Take mine,” he said and threw them directly at my head. A moment later he was standing next to me, naked, then he ran into the house and came back in a blink of an eye in a different pair of shorts, then went back in again, came out again with a thirty-two pack in his hands and a third pair of swimming shorts, boxers, gave me the pack, climbed up to his flying car, took his flip-flops, which he, however, didn’t put on his feet, but once he came down, threw back up in the car. That was Ćelentano. A little man fifty or so years of age and livelier than the liveliest kid.
“There! Let’s go! We have a couple of inflatables waiting for us in the pond, so we’ll swim a little, have ourselves a drink or two, and watch our teddy. He has full six more hours to go before the end of his shift. He’s been working since noon, which means he’s here until eight. Did you know he’s a philosopher? Has a degree in philosophy and everything! Imagine, a graduated bear-philosopher!” he said and, holding his nose with his thumb and index finger, jumped in the pond. “C’mon, what are you waiting for?”
After Ćorkaš’s stern silence, Ćelentano’s hyperactivity and constant chatter seemed as if someone were hitting me over the face with wet newspapers. I jumped in the water, went down to the bottom and lay there on my stomach assuming the position of an old catfish. I didn’t feel like coming back to the surface. I went up only after I ran out of air. Above surface, nothing had changed. Ćelentano kept on babbling.
“And he’s not only a philosopher. He’s also a librarian. Senior librarian, to be more precise. Married, one child, a son, already in college,” Ćelentano spoke as if reading from a file. “In his marriage he plays the role of a wife, she’s the one who’s got the balls. During the war he left his family and ran away to live with his parents in Istria, where he also had a lover. And then, taking a side road, several to be exact, he started his slow return to the town he’d escaped from. For a while he worked in Zagreb. Then in Požega. And then, finally, with the help of some connections of his wife’s, he got himself a job in the library. But he’s not satisfied. He thinks he deserves more. Wants to release the bear inside, that’s what he told me. He hopes this experience will make that happen. At work, he’s surrounded by women, they are the ones holding him back the most, they keep on whispering, which is, truth be told, expected in a library, but that whisper is dangerous and poisoned with political games and schemes. Of course, the whole story about his bear-like nature is a bunch of bull, he’s here because of the dough. Listen, four hundred for eight hours, a librarian can’t make that much a day no matter how senior he is.”
Halfway through Ćelentano’s speech I knew whom he was talking about. True, I couldn’t see him because he retreated to the darkest corner of the cage that hung over the pond and the only part of him I could see was his fat ass and the balls sticking out between his buttocks. But I had no doubt that the hairless ass belonged to Parožić.
“Hey, teddy! Bear! No time for sleeping, hey, you gotta earn your day’s pay! C’mon, show my partner how dangerous you are! Where’s that bear’s nature of yours! C’mon!” yelled Ćelentano, but the bear didn’t move.
“Let him be, c’mon, there’s time. Or, even better, send him home. It’s not funny,” I said sullenly.
“Eh!” said Ćelentano surprised. “Am I keeping him here? The cage’s not locked, he can leave if he wants to. But if he intends to stay, then I want to see the bear’s nature! Understood! I want to see a wild bear!”
Having heard this, the bear got up and on all fours and ran towards us. But he did it clumsily, so he slipped and knocked his forehead against the bars. His body burned, skin hanging from it in rags, his face red from sun and strain, then he lay down again and watched us as if he was about to cry. Shaking his head in disappointment, Ćelentano threw a beer cap at his forehead. That seemed unnecessarily rough to me, but my partner obviously knew his way around bears because now the bear got really angry. He stood up, roared from the top of his lungs, slapped his chest, and then threatened to take a swing at us; he shook his head pretending to be biting, wildly snapping his yaws as if ripping pieces of raw flesh. Ćelentano winked at me importantly and said: “Good! Good!” This made the bear jump at the bars, belly first, and make a completely unbearable noise.
“But he doesn’t have to keep howling! Not even the real ones do it all the time.”
“Well, I’m not saying he has to do it all the time. But sometimes he has to. Right, he overdid it now, but how can you tell a bear to stop? How about we throw him a fish or too, they eat fish, right? Maybe that’ll calm him down a bit. Gimme that fishing net!” he shouted at Ćorkaš who was just collecting cigarette butts and beer caps we’d been throwing in the pond with the said fishing net. Ćelentano soon caught a huge, lazy carp, but when he tried to take it out, he ended up in water with it. He came out without the fish, with a broken cigarette in his mouth, beer in his hand and a new suggestion. “How about a ride?” he said, and at that moment the noise of Mustang’s engine seemed more attractive than anything. But that wasn’t much help either. While Ćelentano, who otherwise never slept, dozed on the passenger’s seat and shook because I was squeezing the soul out of his Mustang, I could still hear the damn bear. Ćelentano proved to me that this wasn’t just a hallucination: without opening his eyes, he mumbled “Good! Good!” from time to time.
When we got down, Parožić was waiting for us, dressed in a light suit and a blue t-shirt with crocodile’s sign on the chest. Ćelentano glanced at his watch, a huge Franck Muller, which looked as if it weighed at least a pound, and then—with an unattainable smile of self-satisfaction—pulled his hand in his pants, fondled his balls, and took out a heavy, wet bundle of money. Indifferently, he unglued a couple of bills and shoved them into Parožić’s paw.
“You did good, my philosopher! See you tomorrow?” he asked and Parožić only nodded in confusion, then mumbled something and got lost in the bushes.
“Listen, I'm gonna go too. I’ve seen the bear and I’m tired.”
“Ah, no, you can’t go! My wife’s coming.”
“What do I have to do with it?”
“Well, who’s gonna fuck her? You don’t expect me to do it? I’ll pay you four hundred, the same I paid the bear, and for what! What’s that, an hour’s work, even less? You’ll do it and that’s that. You didn’t think I called you here just to watch the bear?” he said almost angrily. And it was difficult to tell when he was being serious or when he was just teasing, especially when there was Ćorkaš standing on the side, watching me like I was guilty of every crap that had ever happened in his life.
“Fuck you, partner. That’s out of the question.”
“Well, then…” he said and winked at Ćorkaš. “You’ll have to go with our grim face again. Fuck it, partner, I have to do everything myself! Adriano!”
Ćorkaš dropped me off in front of the bookstore. I didn’t even bother getting in, but I immediately went to Liputin’s bar to wash off the bad taste of Ćelentano’s beer. The man-bear jumped at me from the alley.
“Listen, I know we’re not close or anything, but I beg you, don’t tell this to anyone! I beg you! I’m in really deep shit, loans and all, if I keep this up for a month or two, I’ll get in the clear, you understand! Just don’t tell anyone!”
“Parožić, I won’t tell anyone, there’s no one to tell. But I may write about it!”
“Write?” he said in horror.
“Write, Parožić, write! But not yet. And you just hang in. Good luck!”
But Parožić didn’t last long. Already the next day Ćelentano got himself a tiger. The tiger beat the shit out of the bear and earned the right to stay in the cage, and Parožić begged Ćelentano not to sack him and find him a different position for a smaller pay so for the next couple of day he worked as the tiger’s prey. But the tiger didn’t last long either. Every day new, meaner and meaner beasts appeared, and as Ćelentano didn’t want to increase the number of cages, the candidates had to fight for their place in this one cage. Not even a week had passed since our little get-together with the bear when he called me up again.
“Listen to this! You won't believe it! They’re gonna kill each other! What a bestiary, I’ve got everything you could possibly imagine: tigers of all kinds, lions, hyenas, caimans, anacondas, pitons, scorpions, black widows, praying mantises, even a Rex. Hey, partner, can you believe it! And they’re going at each other, a real bloodbath!” he was yelling and then his voice got lost in the deafening roar of hundreds of beasts. I hung up the phone and went down to Liputin’s. For a while I sat there on the deserted terrace waiting for a waiter. Somehow I had a feeling he wouldn’t show up. Most likely he, too, was up there at Ćelentano’s.