City of Smiles
Randolf looked at himself in the mirror of the curtained booth. He smoothed back his hair, twitched the corners of his mouth, then let them droop back again. There were two other ‘students’ in the surrounding cubicles: Andras and Zsuzsa. Randolf knew they were listening through the thin material, so he kept his voice low, almost a whisper. He was uncomfortable, but Professor Jen? said that was the idea. Like confession, he’d told the class, but without the guilt. Sadness isn’t a sin. Let it out. Say it aloud, every day and you’ll know what you’re up against.
“What makes me sad,” Randolf began, “I am 45 years old. I live alone. My parents are dead. I have only a few friends. Drinking friends. I’ve never been to where they live. This morning I got a letter from my landlord saying the rent is going up. It was to cover the installation of the elevator. While I waited for the elevator today, I thought I was alone. I let out a noisy fart. I thought I heard someone giggling behind me. It was my neighbour, the pretty one who moved in on the week they installed the elevator. The last woman I dated drowned herself in the Danube. It was only last week. I met her, here, and we went to the cafe next door. I told her about myself. I told her about the school. I tried my smile out on her. She said she liked it. When we finished, she left me and went straight to Margaret Bridge. She threw herself off. This is what makes me sad.”
Randolf drew out five strips of adhesive tape and stuck them to the side of the mirror. He looked at the smile that had been assigned to him for today's event. The Roosevelt. A beamer. Randolf picked it up and tucked it into his jacket pocket. From the box in his lap, he took out a different smile, the one he had chosen. He attached the tape to the edges of the placard and then pressed it onto his face, smoothing the adhesive strips back, fixing the cardboard grin in place. He let his hands drop to his lap, leaving the smile stuck over his mouth. He stared at it, waiting for the card edges to fade, for the painted lips to become his. He waited for the smile to seep upwards, into his eyes.
The Starlet would be here soon and he knew the face he had to pull. The Starlet couldn't adjust to the temperature of Budapest, and she updated Meredith on her discomfort regularly. Someone had warned the Starlet of Siberian temperatures, so she'd insisted on wearing ankle-length black mink today, even in her hotel room. Then once they had set off in the car, she’d announced it was too hot, and she couldn’t breathe. Meredith had told the driver to stop. They had all clambered out and the Starlet had decided they would walk.
Meredith gritted her teeth and plodded in the Starlet’s wake. This wasn’t the ‘assistant’ role she’d expected. She was supposed to be the Producer’s girl, helping to wrangle the shoot. Her family had moved to America just as the Great War began, and she still spoke Hungarian at home, so she was vital for communication with the local crew they’d hired. This was supposed to be her first step towards her making pictures of her own. Now most of her time was spent baby-sitting the Starlet and the Idol. It had started as soon as the Loretta Young story broke. Dashing Idol cheats on Starlet with younger actress. Whispers of a pregnancy… suicide attempts. That had been a week before they flew here. From then on, it became Meredith’s job to keep them apart when there were no cameras, and together in the same shot when there were. Yes, she was the epicentre of a celebrity-gossip-tornado, but no matter how starry or idolised the Starlet and Idol were, it left Meredith cold. Just act, for god’s sake, make the movie. She supposed it was all experience, useful for when she had to deal with these kinds of egos in her later career.
The woman the press had dubbed the ‘Smiling Siren’ strode down the Grand Boulevard, clearly in her element. Her entourage, including Meredith, scurried after her. The Daimler cruised alongside. Locals stepped, wide-eyed, from her path.
The School of Smiles had more mirrors than anywhere Randolf had ever been, even the plushest of kavehaz. He could never fully escape his nor anyone else’s reflection. He paused to look in one at the top of the staircase. He could hear Jen? downstairs, yelling at an underling.
"What did I say? What did I fucking say? Not the Loretta Young! What do you think she’ll do if she sees that there?”
He was standing by a display case with the whole range of the school’s smiles inside. The Starlet was to choose one as a memento of her visit. Obviously, a placard bearing the cheeky grin of the woman who had stolen her husband was not a good idea. Randolf had also been very particular about the smile he had chosen. He realised that he was to meet the ‘Smiling Siren’ in the flesh, a genuine Hollywood star, and that most of his face was going to be covered. She would not know who he was. She might recognise the Roosevelt, but that's all he'd be, the echo of a president. Randolf had a better idea.
He checked the Idol's smile in the mirror above the stairs and went down to join the rest of the students. Luigi had painted the Loretta Young and the Roosevelt. He’d painted the Dick Powell (no one knew who that was) and the Mona Lisa (the most difficult). Every one of them had been from a photograph. Even the Mona Lisa was from a black and white postcard Jen? had given him. They were pinned to the wall of his studio. Luigi gave a grim chuckle. His ‘studio’ was a cupboard area in his family’s small apartment. The Loretta and the Idol were his favourites. Their photos were the glossiest, it seemed to him: properly posed portraits, with each star turning on their full beam. Their eyes blazed, their smiles were sly, flirtatious. The affair, the exquisite sense of scandal that surrounded them, made those lips even more resonant. Both stars had a slight smirk, as if - even though they were in two separate photographs - they were sharing the same torrid memory. When Luigi thought of the work he’d done capturing these smiles, he beamed with pride. A loud bell made him jump, turn, then leap out the path of a tram. Do not die today. Not today. Today the Starlet was coming to sit for him.
Not a photo clipped from a fan magazine, not even one of the glossier prints his friend at the radio station had given him. Not a postcard of a painting. A genuine screen goddess, ‘the Smiling Siren’ herself, would sit before him. The photos of her husband and his mistress would fade like they’d been left in the sun. Her real lips (blood red against pale skin, like in the rare colour picture of her he’d procured), would be there for him, right there, to capture, again and again. With his brushes and pens, he would ensnare her. The star of this movie, thought the Producer, was going to be the city. He really liked it here. The Producer judged a city by its hotels, and a hotel by its kitchen. He was staying at the Astoria, and the Astoria had a superb kitchen. Eleven vast gas ranges, four salamanders, two broilers and three ventilated ovens. There were a dozen New York hotels, many of whom still used coal ovens, who could learn from the Budapest Astoria’s kitchen.
And boy, was it cheap here. He’d decided he would stay for a month or so after the production wound up. Get some rooms with his own kitchen, try to live like a local for a bit. Learn some of this crazy-ass language. Another boon: the city was a real long way from LA. It would be good for the Idol and Starlet to leave behind their distractions. Not that the Loretta Young scandal had been bad for any of them. The Idol got to be the cad he usually played on screen. The Starlet got to show another side of herself: that she could cry as well as laugh, be vulnerable as well as brassy.
It revived some flagging public interest in both their careers. And it was great promotion for the movie they were here to shoot. They could forget the affair, forget the scandal, escape the rumour mill. Look at each other. Really see each other, in the flesh, not just on a screen or in a performance. The Producer chuckled; he’d probably saved their marriage.
But the real star, here, thought the Producer, wouldn’t be a tempestuous actor. It would the verandas and statues, the domes and courtyards. The vistas, those stirring views across the Danube. He’d told the director to shoot as much on location as they could; they could dub the dialogue and Foley later. What the Producer loved was the sense of spaciousness, of liberating expanse. Yet every corner or window box or door frame crammed with detail. It would give the actors room to breathe and perform, to fall in love again, that reconnection captured on celluloid.
Oh yeah, the movie was going to be just great. A city on the brink of East and West, history dripping off every roof and balcony; the two biggest stars in the world; a story to make your blood surge and your heart roar. In his head he was already writing the blurb.
This stunt today was going to be great, too. The local press were assembling at the school. The photographer from the studio was snapping away with a small camera as they walked down the street. Locals stepped out the way, staring at the Starlet, mouths agape as she swanned past. Glamour glitters on the grim streets. The headlines wrote themselves. She was on her way to sit for a ‘smile portraitist’. She was going to be immortalised.
A School of Smiles. He’d been warned by Meredith, Hungarian herself, that the people in this part of the world were grim-faced. But hey, the Producer thought, that was okay. People should be allowed whatever face they wanted, whatever expression they naturally wore. Let their faces say what they really feel. His whole career was based around artificial swoons and laughter - in real life, just let people feel sad.
This place was crazy, though: people trained to smile! He’d thought it was a hoax, like the whole ‘Gloomy Sunday’ thing. The ‘City of Suicides’ transformed into the ‘City of Smiles’, is what the ad in the paper said. The Producer liked that. It suited the Starlet’s recent journey from sorrow to joy, from betrayal in love, to a smile reborn. The Producer had met with Jen?, the school’s founder, a few days before. “What’s your procedure, then, Professor?” He was sure Jen? wasn’t really a professor.
“Where do you begin?”
Jen? said the first step for his ‘sorrowful souls’ was acclimatisation. They had to get used to seeing their face with a smile on it. So they used painted placards. They stuck painted smiles to their faces to simulate a joyous expression. So, the ‘Smiling Siren’ would have her own famous smile captured, loaned out; it would spread to the real lips and faces of these poor, grim-faced people. ‘The Smiling Siren Redeemed’. This was like charity work. And the publicity for the movie, for his stars, was going to be huge. Oh yeah. He liked this city. The Starlet was ushered into the reception.
Jen? swept his arm across the room, reading from the sign above the desk. “He had the face of joy. His smile said he knew that there is no pain that cannot be overcome by energy or conscience.”He beamed and took the Starlet’s hand, kissed it and beamed more.
“The French poet, Monsieur Albert Camus, on the smile of your own President Roosevelt.”
For a moment, Randolf thought Jen? was actually going to curtsie.
“And it is Mr Roosevelt’s smile which forms a major part in the work of our student, Randolf, here.”
Randolf really did smirk beneath his mask. Jen? hadn’t noticed the swap. The Starlet began to shake hands and nod at each student. Here she was, so near, if he stretched he could touch her. Randolf was ready for his performance. He had studied the scene many times, the expressions on both stars’ faces. It was from Caboodle, only their second movie together. The Idol and the Starlet play a married couple. He thinks she is having an affair, follows her, but discovers he is mistaken. The Starlet comes home, and as she opens the door there is a close-up of the Idol’s face. All the famed charm and insouciance suddenly drop away, and there is love, genuine love for the woman who has walked through the door. Darling, I’m so glad you’re home.
The Starlet once said in an interview that it was her favourite scene. Randolf had a still of that moment from a fan magazine. He gave it to Luigi. Paint the Idol’s smile for the School. Then Randolf could wear the smile he knew the Starlet loved.
Randolf had trained, wearing the Idol’s smile. He knew how to angle his face, what to do with his eyes and forehead. The Starlet stepped in front of him, prepared for the standard handshake, and stopped. She stared at him. She reached up to his face, touched the cardboard rectangle. Her own smile blossomed across her lips, instinctively reciprocating. So glad you’re home. Luigi spends all afternoon with her and paints her smile seventeen times. Every ten minutes, she has to stop and have the muscles in her cheeks massaged. Then she drinks some coffee – later red wine - and returns to her pose. Professional. After, she, Jen?, and Luigi stand around the seventeen placards.
“These three,” she says. She looks at Luigi, stares right at him for what seems forever, but she doesn't smile at all once the sitting is over. The Starlet had been dead a week. The Producer had compressed his mourning into a single afternoon. Then he began constructing the enigma of her demise, the rumours: had the ‘City of Suicides’ claimed another young life? Had it been booze? Drugs? Had it been a Hungarian hood who’d whacked her out of insane jealousy? Meredith knew better. Within three days, the Producer was screen-testing the local extras for a body double, and it was obvious to all of them it should be her. Meredith knew the script better than anyone, knew the Starlet, too. The angle of her hip, the way she raised a glass or cigarette. Most of the shots would be wide, or from the rear it was the posture they needed.
The Idol, grieving, had flown back from LA when he heard the news. Meredith was to have nine scenes with him, the camera behind her, her pretending to be the Starlet. Most of the lines were his. Hers were being recorded separately by a voice actor. There wouldn’t be any close-ups, but she’d get a credit.
The Producer shrugged. “It’s standard procedure for when a star walks. Or croaks. Don’t think about it too much. It’s what she would have wanted. Her final film, we can’t leave it unfinished, right?” Tomorrow was to be Meredith’s first scene. When they’d finished blocking with another double standing in for the Idol, she’d ask the cab to stop off at the school. Jen? and Luigi had welcomed her with solemn embraces, then given her a box.
She opened the box and took out a smile. The lips of the Starlet, painted on a card rectangle. The smile was lustrous, blood red, glossy. Meredith laid it face down on her palm, then, dipping her head, pushed it against her mouth. Staring at herself in the mirror, she let the card edges melt away. The Starlet began to seep out, beyond the lips, radiating from the smile. Meredith watched. Her own lips copied it, underneath. The smile spread to her eyes. She dropped the placard back in the box.
Published in Issue#1, May 2018
One Loses at Gambling, Too
An excerpt from the memoir book My First Two Hundred Years by Pál Királyhegyi
Translation – Paul Olchváry
At gambling you can lose, too. Homesickness is strong even without a home. No distance is too great, it’s just a question of money.
Though Detroit was foreign to us, we each found work all the same, on the day of our arrival no less. Not that Karcsi actually had a relative thereor, rather, there used to be one but he had moved to Cincinnati, which is the American city with the loveliest name, not as though that did us much good at the moment.
Once again I became a busboy, now with real experience, while Karcsi got a job as a host at a classy restaurant, where he used two fingers to point guests to the tables they should sit at. In English the term for this position was in fact “captain,” though they do not belong to the army. Karcsi was tall, handsome, and elegant, and indeed the boss even commented that he’d been born for the job. We didn’t dispute it. Between the two of us we earned forty dollars a week, which was a pretty penny back then. Naturally food was on the house.
I tried hard to keep my job, while Karcsi kept his with no effort at all. But neither one of us cared about the joy of work. We didn’t care about anything. By then a terrible affliction had planted its seed and taken root in us, unnoticedan affliction called homesickness. Not exactly for a home, since the home, under Hungary’s head of state at the time, Miklós Horthy, was not the sort it was possible to yearn for. It even occurred to me that perhaps I would be arrested were I to go home, because back in New Brunswick I’d undertaken sharp attacks against Horthy and his regime, and I knew that every issue of that paper was available in Budapest, at the National Széchényi Library. But I couldn’t even care about this any more.
We wanted to be in Budapest again, no matter what it took. Maybe it’s not even homesickness, this feeling that besets you. It ambushed us after we’d read a Budapest newspaper. We wanted to see Rákóczi Boulevard and other places once again: Hársfa Street, where I’d been born, and the bench I’d carved into back in school. Maybe it’s not even homesickness, but that you merely want to meet and shake hands with your bygone self. We were suffering. We wanted to get home! To kiss my father’s hand for just two weeks, to be humbly obedient to him, which I’d never managed to do in my real childhood. This sort of thing needs to be made up for. I felt I must see those who’d stayed behindthe trees, the buildings, the people.
It seems I can’t bear this America, I thought. It is a country for people stronger, smarter, more talented than me.
Karcsi and I talked about this nonstop after work, and sometimes we went out to the train station, aimlessly so, only to look at the departing trains.
We needed a thousand dollars. That would be enough for both of us to go home and live well on, and return. It wasn’t an unattainable sum. In three or four years we could scrape it together. With iron will. With iron nerves.
Around 3 am, when Karcsi would come home, I was usually long asleep. This particular morning Karcsi woke me up.
“How much money do you have?”
“I have seven.”
I sat up in bed. Karcsi looked nervous and deathly pale.
“What’s wrong, my dear Karcsi?”
“Nothing. Those damn waiters are driving me crazy.”
“All day long they tell stories about that gambling den they go to religiously after work. It’s open day and night. Some of them win, some of them lose. Last night, Jack, one of the waiters, won two thousand dollars. That’s what everyone was talking about. He did it in a half-hour. He began with thirty dollars. At the moment we have ten dollars between us, and it doesn’t matter at all if we hang onto it or squander it. Let’s go. We can be there in a couple of minutes, and if we’re in luck we can go home to Budapest.”
I dressed in a matter of moments, and off we went without a word. I don’t know why they call such places ‘dens’. We went in. We had to go through lots of little doors until finally we reached a room where a man of around forty, with a rough exterior, stood in front of a footstool. He had us stand up on this footstool and then deftly rifled through our pockets in the blink of an eye. He even lifted our hats, looking for weapons. We had none. Next we clambered up a decaying staircase. Dim lights filtered through the walls as unseen individuals followed our every move from behind tiny peepholes. Finally, as if by an incantation, a little iron door opened before us. The door closed by itself, and we were inside the gaming room.
It was an enormous space with lots of tables that looked rather like billiard tables, covered as they were by green baize, except that they were much larger than needed for billiards and there was no sign of any cues. Someone was throwing dice at every table, each one of which was surrounded by a thick crowd. There was no sitting down.
Four men sitting on tall ladders were watching over the games.
A great deal of money was lying about on the tables, along with stacks of silver dollars. There were no chips. The players were talking in specialized jargon that might as well have been Chinese. We didn’t understand a word. “We’ve got seven and eleven.” “Hard four.” “Come home to daddy.” We heard magic words such as these.
I went over to one of the tables and observed the others.
The tables bore numbers and squares, and it was on them that the money was placed. I put our ten dollars on a number near us. If we blow it, may it happen fast. The dealer asked me something I didn’t understand, so I just gave an airy nod. A bit of time passed, but no one raked money toward us. Well, it seems we’ve lost our ten dollars. No problem.
The other players around me were much more interesting than the game itself. Instead of winning I was watching them.
Elegant, silver-haired gentlemen looked on, trembling, as their last five-dollar bills swam away. Stalwart, ragged, pale men in tattered shoes lost without batting an eyelid only to pull thousands more from their pockets. Faces were red, hands were trembling, and the air was thick from cigarette smoke and sweat. There wasn’t much talking. Everyone stared fixedly at the rolling of the dice, as if gone mad. Only the croupier, with his rake, was bored of it all. The whole scene reminded me of the jail.
Wait, what was going on? It was as if Karcsi had gasped behind me. I turned, and saw his face twist up, his eyes bulge, and sweat pour down in streams from under his hat, only without him noticing. He just kept staring at the table, then groaned, hoarsely:
“Take it out.”
Following Karcsi’s gaze, I saw a vast amount of money on the table. I understood what he was getting at. Slowly, conspicuously, so everyone would see if I were making a mistake, I reached toward the money. I was prepared for the croupier to strike my hand, but he didn’t even bat an eye. By now I had the money. It sank in that our money had multiplied so smartly and nicely because I’d let it sit. I didn’t dare count the winnings, but simply looking at it was enough to tell me it must be a nice tidy sum, since a good number of twenties and tens were crawling among all those greenbacks.
I immediately put more money on the winning number. I lost it. Now I put twice as much down. I won. Then I lost. What was this? Again I won. Now I threw down a hundred-dollar bill there, were it was supposed to go, because I’d won. And then, after a good many more rounds, I heard Karcsi’s voice from behind me:
“Have you gone mad? Stop it right now!”
“Yes, I’ve gone mad,” I said, and immediately threw two hundred dollars somewhere.
I won. Karcsi then dragged me away from the table, and we left. The magic door closed behind us. In the cold air out on the street I began coming to my senses. We counted our cash. Nine-hundred and ninety-seven dollars and zero cents. Now this was Europe. Budapest. Hársfa Street. Rákóczi Boulevard and whatever we wished. Akácfa Street too.
No, I wouldn’t send a telegram. I wouldn’t even write. My mother would open the door and would collapse into my arms. “Why, you’ve come back, my son?”
Life is so beautiful!
We danced on the street, in the Detroit cold, hugging each other and hollering with joy. We waved the cash, we smelled it. So it was true, after all: money doesn’t have a smell. What an invention! And the police don’t let you gamble. Nonsense.
Close to the building we lived in we saw two men coming toward us. Karcsi was aglow.
“Hey, maybe we know them. I’ll die if I can’t tell someone what happened to us.”
The two men came closer. They stopped in front of us. All at once the barrel of a revolver was pointed between my eyes, and I heard the quick command: “Stick ’em up, boys.”
I raised my hands. Slowly. Let him shoot if he wants. In a well-practiced movement one of the robbers reached into my pocket, precisely the one containing Budapest, and shoveled it out in one fell swoop. All of it.
We went homewithout the money. Karcsi flung himself on his bed and wept. For me, it had yet to sink in. We’ve been robbed, I kept saying to myself so I’d understand.
Dawn was breaking. It was time to rise and get to work. There was no reason to cry; we weren’t wild animals. A police complaint? Hopeless. They’d never find them, anyway. I didn’t even know what the robbers looked like. I didn’t remember their faces. Only that the ears behind the revolver were surprisingly large. Not that it matters. After all, if I think about it, we really lost only ten dollars.
Published in Issue#1, May 2018