Sure, I know István Horvath. We met about a year before Eva died. That’s my wife, Eva. You knew that? Yeah, I figured you were pretty thorough.
It was the year of the blizzard, when snow covered the cars parked on the streets and even the Post Office shut down. I didn’t have to go to work for a week. So one night, I think it was Thursday, Eva says, “Mike, I only have one of the blue pills left.” This was when we still thought the chemo was doing something. When we discovered it wasn’t, she turned her head toward me on the pillow—she was so beautiful, like the day we got married—and said, “Mike, I think the Lord wants me home.” After that, she refused to take the pills. But I couldn’t throw them out. Every morning I opened the medicine cabinet, and there they were, the blue ones, the orange ones that made her throw up, the green ones that made her hair fall out, the purple ones that caused constipation. When she died, I flushed them down the toilet. But you don’t want to hear about Eva. I was talking about the day I met István Horvath.
Well, there she was saying there were no more blue pills, and how was I going to get to Walgreens? The snow was up to my armpits, and the subway wasn’t running. Then Eva said, “What about that store around the corner?” Now, we always went to Walgreens. You know the guy in Alabama who sold aspirin as that stuff you take for cholesterol? So we were always careful. We never went to the store around the corner. For one thing, the sign said Apothecary, which looked kind of foreign, and we wanted our pills one hundred percent American. For another, the front of the store was kind of dirty. You know, like nobody washed the windows.
But we had to have the blue pills. So I put on my boots and walked through the snow to the Apothecary. And I tell you, it was just around the corner, but by the time I got there I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. It was some work, walking through all that snow.
I figured the store would be closed, and I’d have to knock on the other door, the one for the apartment above the store, which had a sign on it that said Pharmacist. But the sign in the window—which was written in magic marker, can you believe it—said Open. So I walked in.
When the bell on the door rang, István stood up from behind the counter. Not that I knew his name, then. He was wearing a white coat, so I figured he was the pharmacist. “Hello,” he said, in a foreign kind of voice, like I’d expected. I figured he was probably Russian. We had a lot of Russians in the neighborhood, in those days. Nothing wrong with that. My grandfather came through Staten Island. We’re all immigrants, right? Even the Indians came from someplace else. Now Gorski, what’s that, Polish? Ernie at the Post Office, he’s Polish. Do you mind if I get some water, Sergeant Gorski? I’m not used to talking so much, since Eva died. Nowadays, you get these lawyers and doctors moving in. They like the “neighborhood atmosphere.” Then the old people can’t afford it anymore, so they go to Florida, to the retirement communities. And suddenly there’s nobody to talk to. But Eva and I had some savings, and with my pension—well, I’m not ready to leave the neighborhood yet.
So István stands up from behind the counter and says, “Hello. Today, I did not expect customers. I was setting traps for the mice. Not to hurt them, you understand. I take them outside, to the cemetery.”
Later, I told him they would come back. Mice are smart, they know their way home. But he said, “Then I will trap them again. It is pleasant in the cemetery, with the grass and trees. I will leave them bread, and perhaps they will learn to like it there.” Can you imagine? A regular mouse vacation. But that was István all over. He wouldn’t swat the flies on the walls. He’d catch them and put them outside, and half an hour later they’d get in again through the holes in the screen. So you’re not going to convince me that he murdered his wife.
Now, I have to admit I didn’t like the look of the place, when I first came in. There was dust on the shelves, and the boxes of Ace bandages looked like they’d been there a while. Toward the back there were bottles of what looked like dried leaves and flowers, with labels—in magic marker, what did you expect—saying things like Tansy, Agrimony, Rue. But the bottle of blue pills he gave me looked just like it came from Walgreens. When he handed it to me he said, “Tell her to take it always with a piece of bread, so the nausea is not so bad.” And you know, he was right.
I won’t say I stopped going to Walgreens after that, but I got to buying little things at the Apothecary. Tweezers, antacids, Vicks VapoRub. One day I noticed a chessboard on the counter. “Colonel Borodin, she left it,” he told me. He could never get his genders right. To him, everyone was a she. “She has a problem with the liver, all that vodka. But she cannot pay the bill, so she gives me this. It is beautiful, no?”
It was beautiful, with ebony and ivory pieces. My grandfather taught me to play chess. He said in Italy all the men would play in the park, while the women were cooking Sunday dinner. That was the way to live, he said. I sure wouldn’t mind living that way.
So István and I started to play together. Usually we played in the Apothecary, on the counter, but a couple of times I invited him over to meet Eva. That was when I found out he was Hungarian. Eva’s grandmother was Hungarian, and she knew a few words: yes, no, hello, goodbye, thank you. I think he liked to hear them. Once, he brought a plastic bag full of yellow and white flowers. “Chamomile,” he said. “It helps the stomach.” Later, he showed me where he dried things, in the basement. He had racks down there, with plants hanging from them. I know that’s not what you found. Don’t they teach you patience, at the police academy? Chamomile tea was the only thing Eva drank, the month before she died. Toward the end, when she couldn’t talk, he told her stories. About girls who lived in rivers, and hens that laid eggs covered with diamonds and rubies. They were so fancy, they were sent to the Russian Tzar. He said he had learned them from his mother. Eva loved those stories. She would smile, and then for a while she’d be able to sleep. She didn’t sleep much, in those days.
Before she died, we didn’t have a lot of friends. She hadn’t gone out for a long time, except to the hospital, and I didn’t want to invite the guys from the Post Office to the funeral. Ernie, for example, he can’t stand hallways, especially if they’re narrow. Stan doesn’t like bushes. And none of us likes going to funerals. Your father was in Vietnam? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
Our parents, they died a while back, and her brother was out in Tucson. So it was just me and István at the cemetery. He brought a bunch of Easter lilies, exactly the kind of flowers Eva would have liked.
I didn’t see him for a while after that. I felt like keeping to myself. I went to work, came home, opened a bottle of beer, and watched TV. I didn’t even answer the telephone. It was always someone trying to sell me something, like a timeshare in Florida, or asking what I thought about the mayor. And István left me alone. That’s the kind of guy he was, sensitive. Like Eva.
But one day, he knocked on the door. “Mike,” he said, after I’d let him in and asked if he wanted a beer, “I have to go to Budapest. My mother, she is dying. The doctors are not so good there. And now I think they will not put me in prison.”
See, the Berlin Wall had come down. I watched them take it down on TV. I figured, this was what we had fought for. To defeat the Commies, right? That’s what Ernie said: The day that wall came down, we won the Vietnam War. I don’t know. It didn’t feel won to me.
“The first time I tried to escape,” he told me—I was drinking beer, he was drinking chamomile tea—“they found me. I was stupid, I tried to escape on the train. I was only fifteen. The guards, they laughed and beat the soles of my feet. They sent me back to my mother and told her I would not run away any more. The second time, I was a pharmacist, finished with university. A German friend came to Budapest on vacation. His car, the back seat, it was hollow. I stayed there until we crossed the border into West Germany.”
He sat with his hands wrapped around the mug. “I wonder if I was wrong to leave my country. A pharmacist, she is useful everywhere.” He looked down into his tea. “I do not know what my mother looks like, now. When I left, her hair was brown. Perhaps it is white.”
“You can’t change the past,” I said. And you can’t. It’s the one thing you can’t do.
He asked if I would take care of the store, just check on it once in a while to make sure no one broke in and the mice didn’t eat everything. Then he gave me the key.
I didn’t see him again for a couple of months. Then one day I heard a knock on the door. It was him, even thinner than usual, like he hadn’t been eating. And standing next to him was this girl.
Of course it was her. Don’t worry, I’m getting to that. She had on this coat that looked like it came from the Salvation Army, and a cap on her head that was the color of—well, anyway, it was brown. She was ugly, then. Pale, like she hadn’t been out in the sun in years. And she had dark circles under her eyes. I mean, she looked like she’d been raised in a box.
István said, “My friend Mike!” and kissed me on both cheeks. Now, I don’t hold with men kissing, you understand. But he’d been away for a while, and they do things different in those foreign countries.
“This is Ildiko,” he said, “my wife.” She’d been taking care of his mother, he explained. After his mother died, she had nowhere to go. She had no family, and there were no jobs in Budapest. If the country became Communist again, the borders would close, and she’d have no way out. Now isn’t that István all over. He marries this girl because he feels sorry for her. He might as well have invited the flies into his apartment.
The first thing I noticed, when I went to the Apothecary for some Pepto Bismol and maybe a game of chess, was the sign. It wasn’t in magic marker any more. It was one of those regular signs that other stores had, the Pizza Express and Lou’s Shoe Repair and the Vacuum Emporium. The window had been cleaned. In it were a row of combs and brushes, and some of those plastic things women put in their hair. Clips and things. Not the sorts of things Eva would ever have worn. Though toward the end, she almost always wore a turban.
Ildiko was standing behind the counter, with her hair back in one of those plastic clips. “István not here,” she said, and rang me up. She was looking a little better, like she’d gotten some sleep. But I don’t like skinny women, or ones that don’t say hello or thank you. She stared at me like I had no right to be in that store. I tell you, I knew even then that something was wrong. You don’t believe me? Well, you’re the one trying to figure out who burned down the Apothecary.
About a week later, István invited me over to play chess. He told me he’d been at a pharmacist’s convention. It had been Ildiko’s idea, like the combs and brushes. Everything was Ildiko’s idea, then.
This time there was a rack of magazines by the register: Woman’s Day, Soap Opera Digest, The National Enquirer. Those bottles of leaves and flowers that he’d dried himself—they’d been replaced on the shelves with soap and shampoo. There were jars of face cream. It was cleaner, sure, and more like Walgreens. But I didn’t like it.
Ildiko was behind the counter again, but I almost didn’t recognize her. For one thing, she’d dyed her hair. It was blond, like Marilyn Monroe, though you could still see the roots. And she was wearing bright red lipstick. Her fingernails were bright red, too. She was something to look at, all right. But I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be her husband.
István, he thought she was wonderful. “She loves America,” he told me, setting up the chess pieces. We were upstairs, in the apartment. She didn’t want him playing chess on the counter. It would make the customers think there wasn’t enough business. “She wants this to be a real American store. She thinks we should name it Drug Mart. You see, she is so clever about the window. We need a display, she says. Something to bring in the women. And her Russian is better than mine. The old men, the majors and colonels, they like her.” I bet they did. “I wish she and Eva could have met. I’m certain they would have liked each other.” I wasn’t so certain. Eva was—well, she was a lady, if you know what I mean. And Ildiko Horvath—well, I don’t want to say what she was.
At that moment we heard her laughing, and a “Da, da” coming from downstairs.
You think I’m being unfair? One night, this was about two weeks later, I was walking down the street, smoking a cigarette. Eva would never let me smoke in the apartment, and I still go outside. I don’t know why. I guess I imagine her saying, “Mike, you’re going to get that smoke all over my curtains.”
Anyway, when I passed the Apothecary, I heard her voice from the upstairs window. “Do you think I enjoy taking care of that stupid woman? Do you think I enjoy cleaning up when she cannot go to the toilet? And then I find out she doesn’t leave me a forint, not a forint!” She was shouting so loud I thought she would wake up Lou. He still lives above the Shoe Repair, though he retired last year. István answered her in Hungarian, or that’s what I figured it was. “Why you think I marry you?” I had to give her one thing, her English was getting better. “I deserve—yes, deserve, every forint of that money!”
So don’t get on your high horse to me about Ildiko Horvath. The Herald can go on about the tragic story: young wife found in a basement, burned to death. But I know what kind of woman she really was.
We started playing chess every week, me and István, and every week there was something new at the store. Boxes of Whitman’s Samplers. Marlboro Lights. Those pantyhose in eggs. Ildiko sat at the counter with her blond hair and red nails, in dresses I’d be ashamed to see on Eva.
All right, all right, I’ll stick to the facts. That day, I went over to play chess. She wasn’t at the counter. István was there instead, with a liquor bottle open beside him. I’d never seen him drink anything stronger than chamomile tea. “Come join me, friend Mike,” he said, and poured some into a glass. It was called—now, what was it? Pálinka. Peach brandy, though it didn’t taste much like peaches. It burned my throat going down.
Yeah, I guess it could account for the smell. So the firemen noticed that, did they?
“We’ve been friends for a long time, no?” he said, and I nodded. I guess he was as close to a friend as I had. “I can tell you, things are not well.” His speech was slurred, and it was hard figuring out what he was saying, with that accent. He was drunk of course, and I figured I was in for the whole story. That’s what guys do when they’re drunk, they tell you the whole story. And then they cry in their beer. Waste of good beer, if you ask me. But he got up from the counter and said, “Come, I will show you. She said she will shop for dresses at Filene’s, and then she will watch a movie. She said I should not expect her until evening.”
He was swaying from side to side, like one of those toys that kids punch, and they don’t fall down. But he managed to unlock the door to the basement. I followed him down the stairs.
When he switched on the light, I saw that the racks of drying plants were gone. Instead—how can I describe it? Eva liked movies where people wore costumes. You know, Dr. Zhivago. In those movies, rich people always have tables with things on them, like statues. That basement was full of tables and chairs, and on them were statues, of women dancing, and all kinds of dogs. There were pieces of lace, just lying on the tables. Silver teapots and trays, piles of teaspoons. Glass bowls and vases, dark red and that yellow color, what do they call it? Amber. The legs of the tables were carved so they had feet, and the backs of the chairs were inlaid. You know, where they use a different wood to make designs, like birds or flowers. Stan does it as a hobby, but I’ve never seen him do anything like that. On one table there was a box filled with jewelry, rings and necklaces and what looked like a crown. The kind Miss America wears. On another there was a collection of eggs, and I knew what those were. Eva took me to the museum once, to see those eggs. Fabergé, they call them. The most expensive eggs in the world. The whole room looked like it belonged in Las Vegas.
“What the hell?” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“My country is poor now,” said István. “Many people sell what belonged to their parents or grandparents. And Ildiko knows people who will carry these things across the border. I don’t know how, she does not tell me. Mike, how can she know such people?”
“What the hell is she going to do with all this?” I couldn’t stop staring. I picked up the crown. It was heavier than I’d expected.
“She sells to Americans. First she sold only a few pieces, then with the money she bought more, and now she sells the treasures of my country.” He held out his hands, as though he didn’t know what to say. “She tells me, this is America, land of opportunity. I have been here so long, I should be rich by now. But this is not the worst. No—”
Above us, I heard the store bell ring.
“I must go see the customer,” he said, “or Ildiko will be angry.” He swayed up the stairs, leaving me in the basement.
I looked around me. All that stuff in the light of one bare bulb, shining off the carved wood, the polished silver. It was like being in Aladdin’s cave.
Then I heard something. Don’t ask me to describe it to you. It came from the back of the basement, behind the tables. Where the light didn’t exactly reach. I heard it again.
You think it was Ildiko Horvath? You mean, you think he knocked her on the head, hid her in the basement, then took me down to see what she’d been doing? What kind of fool would do a thing like that? No offense, Gorski, but I don’t know how you made sergeant. Sure, he might have been too drunk to care. But that’s not what happened. I told you she’d gone to the movies. I saw her come home myself, around six o’clock.
No, what I saw were cages. Cages stacked on top of each other, in the darkness. Now, I’m going to tell you what was in those cages. But I want you to remember, I’d been drinking that pálinka. I was probably drunk. Would a sober man have seen a goat with the head of a boy, maybe fifteen, sixteen? Or a girl, but only about three feet tall, and covered with scales? She had gills on the sides of her neck, just like a fish. There wasn’t enough room in the cage for her to stand, so she sat there, rocking back and forth like a monkey at the zoo. There was a cage full of snakes, except they had wings, a bunch of them on some of the bigger ones. There wasn’t room to fly, but they beat the air with their wings, and hissed at me. There was a hen with only one leg, not on one side as though the other had been chopped off, but right in the middle. When I looked in that cage, I realized where all those Fabergé eggs had come from. Then the goat boy bleated—that was the sound I’d heard—and something in a cage I’d thought was empty, except for what looked like a rubber poncho on the floor, opened its eyes. Its hell of a lot of eyes, all different colors, blue and gray and green. I turned and ran out of that basement, up the stairs and past the counter where István was ringing up a customer. He looked up, startled, as I ran past him and out the door. I didn’t stop until I was across the street and smoking a cigarette. I stood there, across the street from the store, until it got dark, smoking most of a pack, not wanting to go home to the empty apartment, not wanting to return to the Apothecary. I think István realized why I had run out of there, because after that customer left, he went upstairs to the apartment and sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. Yeah, he went down again once, but then he went back to the kitchen. A couple more customers came by, but he didn’t answer the bell.
That’s how I saw when Ildiko came home, right around six o’clock as I said. She went upstairs and said something to him. When he didn’t answer she threw her coat down on the chair, and her purse on top of it. Then she turned on the stove and started cooking dinner.
Now what you want to know is, how did the store burn down, with her body in the basement? I’ll tell you what I’m going to swear to in court. I’m going to swear that I saw Ildiko Horvath go down to the store and open the basement door, then go down to the basement. You can see the door through the store window. And I’ll swear that I saw István fall asleep on the kitchen table, spilling the bottle of pálinka. Remember, the stove was on. It was a small kitchen—easy enough for some of the pálinka to spill on the flames. That would explain why the firemen smelled peaches. You don’t think I could see that far? Check my army record. I was a sniper in Vietnam. My vision’s still better than twenty-twenty.
Oh, but I wasn’t drunk by then. I’d been standing out there about an hour. I’d had plenty of fresh air. All right, so Ildiko had a bruise on her head. Maybe she got that trying to escape the fire. It spread so fast, I barely got István out. Someone should talk to the mayor about these old buildings.
I thought you would find the cages. Of course they were empty. You don’t think I actually saw those things? István probably kept the cages for catching raccoons.
But I’m going to tell you something, Sergeant. Off the record. You don’t have one of those wires, do you? I’ve watched cop shows on TV. That’s why I wanted to meet here, instead of at the station. István Horvath, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Those things—I don’t know what they were, but I think he cared about them. Remember the stories he told Eva. I think that’s what he really meant, when he talked about the treasures of his country. I mentioned how he let the mice out in the cemetery? Once, when I was sitting there by Eva’s grave, I saw her. The scaled girl. She was sitting on the grass by the pond, and sort of humming. And once I saw the biggest bat I’ve ever seen. Two feet across, it must have been, like a black kite. I don’t even want to talk about its eyes. But it was getting dark, so I could have been mistaken.
What if, off the record now, István did start that fire? First, he would have set those things free. Some things shouldn’t be in cages. You can understand that, right? You’re Polish, your people are from the old country. And Ildiko Horvath? Like I said, István wouldn’t hurt a fly. But she wasn’t a fly, more like a spider in her web, or a cat waiting for the mouse to come out of its hole. What if, when she went down to the basement, István followed her, with the bottle of pálinka in his hand? What if he showed her the empty cages, then poured what was left in the pálinka bottle over those pieces of lace, and told her he would burn the things in the basement before he’d let her sell them? And then he lit a match. I figure she would fly at him with those red nails of hers. If he hit her with the bottle, well, that’s self-defense. It wouldn’t be his fault that the fire spread so quickly. But hey, I’m just telling a story. There are no windows in the basement. If something happened down there, I wouldn’t have seen it, even if I wanted to. Anyway, I tell you, whatever she got, she deserved. And I think Eva would agree.
But that’s between you and me. István’s not talking. I told him, this is America. We have rights in this country. So I’m your only witness. As far as I’m concerned, the fire was an accident. And I’m not going to say different, not if I have to swear on the Bible, so help me God.
Spread the word!