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Issue number nine




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Portrait of a Man by Istvan Orkeny

To say my life couldn't be better would be an exaggeration, but I have no reason to complain. When I got out they hired me on the spot as a guard at a storage yard, and although the pay is nothing the work is light. All I have to do is watch 5,000 containers of sulfuric acid and several hundred two-hectoliter iron barrels of industrial alcohol, which are kept behind barbed wire. My job is to make sure none of it is stolen, which is good business when you prevent others from stealing while you walk off with the stuff yourself. Unfortunately I don't go for such things, especially since I've been released on amnesty. Consequently I had to look for an extra something on the side, which was difficult considering my state of mind. My case produced its share of disappointment and I swore never to trust anyone again. I would do everything alone and starve if I must, but rely solely on myself.

However, luck was with me from the first step. I read an ad and I went to the Timar Street Immunology Institute. "Do you want to give blood?" they asked, "Yes, blood," I said. I have not only become one of their regulars but can safely say our relationship has become more fruitful with each year.

I couldn't furnish you with precise figures, though I keep accounts, because once my notebook got soaked in my pocket. Anyway, allowing for a narrow margin of error, between 1951 and now I have sold approximately 68 liters of blood to the Institute. As it is known, during this time there have been significant fluctuations in price. At first they paid 30 forints per deciliter, which under those days' circumstances was not an insignificant amount. That's when I bought this hat and these socks, garters and whatnot. Later, when they recruited volunteers, they cut the price to 25 forints, which of course resulted in the disadvantage that regular, reliable donors deserted the clinic. Then, as it is known, on the first of January, 1956, they upped the price of blood to 50 forints, and this tariff is still in effect today.

I wouldn't like to use the phrase "it was a good trick for me to do," because I continued giving blood even during the 25-forint times without a word of complaint because of my nature, being what it is. I think by then they grew fond of me, because a young doctor came and asked if I'd consider switching to bone marrow. I inquired if the bone marrow would exclude the blood but he assured me it wouldn't, and the bone marrow would mean a little extra income, something I badly needed. I do not like shabbily dressed people, and my undergarments were in a sorry state. I found out that they needed bone marrow because the radioactive infections contracted during modern physics research attack the bone marrow and the only hope of a cure lies in transplants.

As far as I was concerned, I got a pretty good deal out of it. They give you a shot--all you feel is a little sting in your chest--and with the same needle they pierced your bone with they extract the marrow right then. They draw off 5 cubic centimeters at a time, for which they pay you 150 forints. Strictly speaking, this is not a whole lot, but I didn't grumble; I was getting the money for nothing, so to speak because, after all, the marrow cells regenerate completely in a matter of three to four months.

I was pleased with my success and I did not dream my career at the Institute would continue to flourish. But it did! Three years ago the same doctor to whom I'm grateful for letting me into the marrow deal approached me again. Thanks to him I was among the first ones to be given blood infected with isotopes. I can safely say that here too I stood my ground. In a scientific institute like this, however, though it's understandable, they didn't have the common sense enough to weed out cheats and people without a steady income who in their impudence often resort to shameless tricks.

This is what happened with the isotope-infected blood. As it is known, when they conduct this test they draw off 20 cubic centimeters of blood, infect it with isotopes, and inject it right back into the bloodstream. The price is 150 forints. But this is not all. An hour later they measure the effect with some sort of counter and at the same time as a check, immediately draw off another 5 cubic centimeters for which they pay 50 forints. It is very sad but the truth is, for I can't keep it quiet, that there are persons, and not few of them, that'll take the 150 forints and never show up at the Institute again. Many experiments have been ruined on account of them. I am not bringing this up to crown myself with the laurels of honesty, believe me...

If I take all this into consideration and add up the year's earnings I can't say the total will be astronomical. It's true, I have neglected to mention certain minor remunerations which are not considerable in themselves but which help to boost my humble budget. For instance, each time, even when I give just blood, I am given a snack consisting of bread, a piece of cheese, a tin of pork liver pate, two cup cakes and a bottled soft drink. I also get reimbursed for my traveling expenses: two valid tickets for the tram. My state of health is good. It is also significant that I have no unhealthy habits, I don't even smoke. I am not put out by the heat. I never wear a hat. Summer and winter, I wash in cold water. I like walking, I enjoy the open air, the evening crowds, the colorful shop windows. I also like the rain and the quiet snowfall.

I am lucky also that by nature I am optimistic but not because I am looking at the future through rose-colored glasses. In other words just as I wouldn't cheat others, I wouldn't swindle myself, neither in a positive nor in a negative way. If I can go on donating blood and marrow simultaneously for a few more years, and I don't see why not, then I am not worried about providing for essentials. I have achieved all this on my own. I have asked no one for help, and so I am protected from the disappointments of the past.

(translated by Ella Veres)

Istvan Orkeny (1912-1979) is one of the most popular Hungarian writers of the 20th century. His first volume of short stories, Ocean Dance, appeared in 1941. During the war, while serving on the Russian Front, Orkeny was taken prisoner and sent to a camp near Moscow. There he wrote the play, "Voronej," the sociography of "People of the Camps," and a series of biographical pieces, "Those Who Remember." After the war, Orkeny’s written works appeared in quick succession. His use of the absurd and grotesque brought him fame, especially with his plays "Cat's Play," "Pisti In the Blood Bath," "The Toth Family," and the collection of miniatures, One Minute Short Short Stories.

Ella Veres is a Transylvanian writer/performer/multimedia artist currently residing on the East Coast of the United States.

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story copyright by author 2003 all rights reserved
translation copyright by translator 2003 all rights reserved