S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: “A Rough Translation,” by Norman Waksler

CATEGORY: LitJournalFictionMr. Massicot was not pleased when they tore down the old woodshop next door, even though it had been unoccupied the last four years. The woodshop stood, had stood, on a double sized lot of which it occupied about a third, the rest covered by low shrubs, tall grasses and the occasional slender tree, not exactly an English ornamental garden, but green and peaceful to the eyes.

A retired private school history teacher – American to the Civil war, Ancient to the fall of Rome, European to the fall of Napoleon – Mr. Massicot believed that what had gone before inevitably presaged what was to come, and every time a large lot was cleared in Carbury townhouses followed. And as he said to his wife, Illona, not only did this mean months of construction dust and disturbance, a minimum of four sets of neighbors where previously there had been none plus a minimum of four additional cars, but, “You never know what kind of people are going to move in.”

Tall, slump shouldered, liver spots on his bald head, Mr. Massicot had been a second string first baseman in college and still carried an athlete’s bulk, though not his athlete’s grace of movement. Illona Massicot, on the other hand, once willowy, had thinned out with age so that in her short sleeved top and summer shorts she seemed all elbows, knees and shins. They had married rather late for children, and she had continued over the years as a university librarian, which was just as well with Mr. Massicot given what teachers’ salaries were. She said, “People who can afford to buy townhouses in Carbury these days are likely to meet your standards of respectability, Alexander.”

Mr. Massicot thought Illona had been a little tart with him lately and he didn’t like it one bit. “Money is no guarantee of respectability, Illona. Look at your drunken, adulterous cousin Claudia.”

“Well,” she said. “Poor Claudia.”

Since Carbury, a comfortable college town, was a desirable alternative to its even more expensive neighbor Cambridge, Mr. Massicot had the sour satisfaction of being right about the fate of the double lot. Soon after the debris of the woodshop was carted off bulldozers cleared the shrubbery and trees, foundation digging commenced, and the irritation of  noisy construction got under way. By summer this resulted in a pair of paired townhouses with noxious green siding, senseless gables, random porches and decks – the two sets separated by a wide blacktopped driveway to garages and front doors. From their living room and his study upstairs Mr. Massicot could look straight along the drive and into the small yards behind each townhouse, so that when they all sold out and the new people moved in, he had a perfect perch from which to assess them.

Four couples, all in their late twenties to early thirties, all white, middle class, nothing wrong with that of course, yet they all annoyed Mr. Massicot to one degree or another. “What do you think of the new people?” he asked his wife.

“They seem nice enough. They mind their own business, certainly.”

“They’re completely self-involved. No sense of neighborhood at all. They don’t even talk to one another.”

“They don’t seem to be doing any harm.”

“They don’t do any good.”

“That’s —-.”

“That’s what?”

“I guess that’s true of any number of people.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t know the names of the new neighbors so after a few weeks, he named them himself:

The Lawn People, a thin, mousey pair with a baby in arms and a toddler that squawked like a hungry grackle. They seemed to spend all their time watering the lawn, mowing the lawn, edging the lawn, planting flowers, pulling up weeds, rolling balls on the lawn for the toddler, and otherwise frolicking as if they thought they were fauns and nymphs

The Boozers, a chunky woman and a big bellied man who were always on their little porch in wicker chairs drinking alone or with friends so that their white wicker table ended the night loaded with empty bottles and the porch looked like a cheap barroom.

The TV People. Mr. Massicot didn’t in fact know what these individuals looked like because all he could ever see was their shadowy forms and beyond them the continually shifting colors and shapes on their gigantic TV which, ridiculously, was on at all hours of the night and day.

But the ones who annoyed Mr. Massicot the most were The Shoppers. Another pair around thirty, he was thick legged in those multi-pocket shorts that came down below his knees, square headed with a buzz cut; she was athletically built with short cut hair and muscular calves and they always seemed to be indulging in one sort of sport or another, the two of  them on bicycles, or attaching their bikes to their SUV or tying two kayaks to the top of it, or loading it with coolers and duffle bags and driving off and disappearing for days on end.

“Don’t they work? How can they afford their mortgage?”

“Maybe they work from home, Alexander. Or even from wherever they go off to. Not everyone has to go into an office these days. It’s called computer commuting.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it. The perfect method to promote irresponsibility and laziness.”

Yet what really disgusted Mr. Massicot  was that every day – every day they were home, that is – he saw them carrying cartons or handle bags with the logos of pricey stores from their SUV to the house, or a large delivery truck stopped at the sidewalk and men wheeled obviously heavy cartons down the driveway on a dolly, or the UPS or Fed Ex driver, or even the mailman, left a box on their front stoop.

“Look at them,” he’d say seeing the couple coming home. “Three bags and two boxes this time. How extravagant can you get?”

“Well,” Illona would say, “They’re in a new home. There are things they must need.”

“Need. Nobody needs so much stuff that they get deliveries every day. They’re just indulging themselves. They must be up to their eyeballs in debt and their credit cards must be full up.”

“We’ve always bought what we needed.”

“Yes, but wisely and with moderation. That’s why we’re enjoying a comfortable retirement.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t spend all his time disapproving of the neighbors. If Illona in retirement had her gardening, her daily walk with a woman friend, her gourmet cooking and her 18th century English novels, Mr. Massicot had his project. He greatly admired the Roman historian Sallust and the way he used his two great works – War With Catiline (a conspiracy to take over Rome), and Jugurthan War (Romans against Numidians) –  to deplore the moral and political decline of  Rome (even though Sallust himself had accumulated his wealth by oppression and extortion as  governor of a Roman province). However, Mr. Massicot had never found what he considered a satisfactory translation of  the historian, and despite his rusty Latin had set out to do one that truly captured the compressed, pithy style that made him so effective.

The project had sputtered through his last years of teaching, an unhappy and disappointing period for Mr. Massicot who knew that he failed to reach his students, all of them totally uninterested in history, disrespectful, always playing with their phones, writing nearly illiterate papers, giving incoherent oral reports, simply not caring if they flunked. It was with relief that he finally retired, taking his silver goodbye bowl and his pension and settling in to a regular schedule of translation, which he entered on a computer connected to a printer, but not to the internet.

For ideas he could have used the Loeb Library edition of Sallust with its translation on the facing page, but then it wouldn’t really be his own work, a form of cheating actually. Instead he stayed strictly with the Latin text, a classic grammar, and a giant dictionary, methodically conning definitions, conjugations, declensions, idiomatic expressions. At times he’d read over finished sections and polish a phrase or a sentence. He found himself tiring more easily than he liked, age threatening his ability to finish, but despite slow progress, these were the most satisfying hours of his present life.

When he was having difficulty with a passage, struggling to find the trenchant English to match the concise Latin, he would get up from his six drawer teacher’s desk and shuffle about the office in his slippers, touching a book on the built-in bookcase, sliding a file cabinet drawer open and closed, flipping the printed pages of what he’d so far completed, stopping to look out one window and the other, then he’d shuffle back to the desk and enter what he’d finally worked out.

This particular day, Illona out shopping somewhere, Mr. Massicot was laboring over the half sentence “quin defessis et exsanguibus qui plus posset imperium atque libertatem extorqueret.”

His first rough translation read, “but when they’d been worn out and exhausted someone more powerful would take the power away from them and also their liberty.”

Of course “worn out and exhausted” was redundant as was powerful and power, and “power” was of course really more specific than just command, more like rule or dominion in this case. And “take away” was rather a weak expression of  extorqueret. Altogether unsatisfactory.

He leaned himself out of his desk chair and made his contemplative circuit of the study, ending up at the window overlooking the townhouses, where in front of the one owned by the shoppers, he saw a white van with  the side door open and three men in blue coveralls and baseball caps, rather warms outfits for late summer, one putting a computer in though the open door, one stepping to the side to let the third, coming out of the townhouse with a CD player, get by him.

At first Mr. Massicot thought the couple was moving out, but nobody used such a small truck to move a house, and besides, the shoppers had been gone all week; he’d seen them set their kayaks on top of the SUV and load their bikes inside, so wouldn’t they be there to supervise the move? No, the likelihood was that just as he’d said, they’d overspent their credit cards and couldn’t pay what they owed, and these men were repossessing everything they were in default of.  It would be a hard lesson learned.

Two of the men came out with a flat screen TV which they slid into the van, and Mr. Massicot, losing interest was about to get back to his translation, when the third man came out of the townhouse holding a dark suit on a hanger against his body as if to demonstrate that it fit him. The taller of the other two said something to him, perhaps disapproving, because the third flung the suit into the van with what Mr. Massicot saw as an angry gesture, spun around and went back into the townhouse, emerging shortly with a small speaker under each arm, and Mr. Massicot finally understood that the men were in fact stealing all the easily moved, costly contents of the townhouse, which apparently wasn’t meant to include that suit.

He’d never seen the like, though of course he’d read about it and seen television reports. The men were remarkably businesslike: both unhurried seeming and swift, much more efficient than any moving men he’d ever encountered. Mr. Massicot wondered how they’d gained entry – he supposed one of them must also have lock picking skills. It occurred to him that he should dial 911. However, he deliberately didn’t have a phone in the study, nor was there one in the bedroom. Illona had a smart phone that she put by her bedside at night, and he himself had what they called a flip phone that was very convenient when he was out, if otherwise uninteresting. But that was downstairs as was the house phone, and he almost had the phrase he was looking for. Anyway, the shoppers shouldn’t have gone away and left their precious purchases unattended so often. Obviously the thieves hadn’t been fooled by their house lights on timers. Mr. Massicot  went back to his desk to try the phase, but it had slipped away while he let himself be distracted.

The next couple of days Mr. Massicot couldn’t help glancing out the window now and then as if expecting to see the same white van and the same thieves, perhaps at another of the townhouses. What he saw was the quiet strip of blacktop in the sun, the green yards, anywhere from one to five parked cars, the woman with the baby strapped to her chest pushing the toddler filled carriage toward the sidewalk, the mailman, normality.

But on the third day he saw the couple, their SUV with the kayaks on top, and two uniformed police officers, one talking to the pair, the other taking notes. Obviously the two had returned from their outdoor adventures and found their townhouse stripped of every electrical toy, and a suit as well, though possibly they didn’t know that yet. The athletic looking wife was the one talking, upset, gesturing with her hand as if counting off each stolen object. The square headed husband was tight lipped, his balled fists by his thighs, slowly and repeatedly shaking his head. For a moment Mr. Massicot felt a kind of non-specific discomfort, the rough equivalent to almost remembering something from an uncongenial dream. Then the couple and the police went into the townhouse, and Mr. Massicot went back to his translation.

Mid-afternoon that same day, Mr. Massicot in the kitchen after his daily nap cutting a piece of chocolate cake to go with his coffee, when Illona came into the room saying, “Oh, Alexander, what an awful thing. The Kerns’ house was broken into, all their valuable things were stolen. Their TV, stereo, everything, even their microwave oven.”

“The Kerns?”

“Terry and Amber. Our new next door neighbors.”

“Oh, yes. I saw.”

“What do you mean, you saw?”

“They were like superior moving men, except the only things they were moving were electrical.”

“You mean you saw them while they were doing it?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Did you call the police? Wait, no, you didn’t, did you?”

“It was none of my business, and I was busy.”

“But that’s totally irresponsible. How could you do that?”

“Well, there’s no law that you have to report a crime, you know. Anyway, it serves them right.”

“Serves them right for what? My god, Alexander, that’s mean. You’re mean. You’ve always been mean.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“No. No. I mean it. What you call running a tight ship is just being mean. What you call feeling irritable is just being mean. What you call always making the hard decisions is just being mean. You’re a mean old man, Alexander, and you’ve always been mean.”

“Illona, you’re just getting hysterical over nothing.”

“I’m not hysterical, and it’s not nothing. You’ll see.”

Mr. Massicot wasn’t pleased. Illona had on occasion gotten mad at him, more lately to be sure, but that was normal, husbands and wives couldn’t always agree. But this was extreme and unpleasant. As well, he was offended by the threat in her voice, but before he could make her calm her down and explain what “you’ll see” meant, she turned her back on him and left the kitchen. He refused to pursue her.

About an hour later, Mr. Massicot was in the living room reading Our Mutual Friend. Generally he read history, rarely fiction, but he made an exception for Dickens whose oeuvre he went through chronologically from Boz to Drood. Liking them for their complicated plots, rich descriptions, Dickens’s touching affection for his strange and warped characters; and of course for the historical element, which was a kind of vivid companion to Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor.

Illona, for her part, was presently going through Richardson’s Clarissa, 1500 pages, a million words, some infinite number of volumes. As a rule, they sat together there on matching wing chairs across the faded blue Tabirz rug, every now and then one reading a  passage aloud for the other’s enjoyment, but Mr. Massicot noted that the volume Illona had reached was absent from the little drum table beside her chair. She’d probably taken herself off in her huff and retreated with the book to the bedroom. She’d get over it, she always did, especially when she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, if he was so mean why had she married him and stayed with him all these years. Surely she’d understood all along that he only wanted to see things done right.

The doorbell surprised him. He couldn’t imagine who would be stopping by unannounced at this hour; friends always called first, and the days when a paperboy rang to collect and be tipped were long gone. He hoped it wasn’t some religious fanatic; he wasn’t in the mood although at other times he never minded twitting them for a few minutes before they gave up and went away. He looked up at the ceiling in the direction of the bedroom, waited another while, but when the doorbell rang again, he bookmarked his page and set the book on the drum table beside his chair.

Through the sidelight he saw a uniformed police officer, someone obviously a veteran of the force, tall with a pot belly, grey sideburns below his cap, and glasses sitting on a pointed, investigatory nose. He had a small notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. “Blast!” said Mr. Massicot, then opened the door. “Good afternoon, officer. Though it’s nearly evening isn’t it?”

“Are you Alexander Massicot?”

“Yes. Yes I am. What can I do for you, officer?”

“It’s about the robbery next door, Mr. Massicot. Your wife called the station and said you’d seen it while it was taking place. Can you tell me exactly what you saw?” He clicked the ball point pen and raised his notebook ready to write.

For a minute Mr. Massicot could hardly breathe, as though the weight of his wife’s betrayal was crushing his lungs. He put a hand against the door jamb to steady himself, at the same time trying to look as if he was being casual. The officer was staring at him with that particular, just waiting non-expression that all policemen must have learned as part of their academy training. Finally Mr. Massicot was able to speak. “I’m afraid my wife exaggerates, officer. I might have seen someone leaving. A white van pulling out of the driveway,”

“Your wife said you saw individuals taking electronics out of the building.” Flat voiced, un-accusatory, factual, hard as a police baton to the chest.

“I don’t know where she got that idea, officer. Perhaps she confused what the neighbors said with what I said later. A white van. Leaving the driveway. That’s what I saw. I didn’t even know there was robbery.”

“I see. You didn’t happen to catch the plate number, did you?”

Mr. Massicot shook his head. “It might have been a Massachusetts plate. I think.”

“You mean to say that’s all you can tell me?”

“That’s all I know.”

The officer lowered his head a little and stared at Mr. Massicot. He frowned. “I see. Well then.” He unclicked the ball point. “I guess that’s it. Thanks for your help.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. But I could only tell you what I saw.”

“Uh huh. Well. Have a good day now.”

“You too.”

Mr. Massicot was almost dizzy with indignation and disbelief at Illona’s disloyalty. When he turned to go upstairs and confront her, the hallway going past the living room and dining room along to the kitchen had the gray porous look of an underground tunnel he’d seen years ago in the Roman Coliseum, an illusion that passed when he started up the stairs, slowly as always given the chronic ache in his knees and ankles.

Illona was on the bed, propped up against two pillows, her rolling reading tray across her lap with the Richardson tome aslant on the ledge at the bottom. Mr. Massicot said, “How could you do that to me?”

Illona took off her reading glasses and just turned her head to look at him. “Do what, Alexander?”

“Do what, Illona! Call the police and put me on the spot like that. I just had a police officer here interrogating me. It was very unpleasant.”

“Well, you did see the robbery, didn’t you? Did you tell the officer what you saw?”

“Yes, I told him, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that wives don’t betray their husbands. They don’t make trouble for them. It’s criminal.”

Illona laughed. “Well, as Al Jolson, I think it was, used to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ From now on, any time you do something untoward, Alexander, I’m going to do my best to thwart you. Any time you say something gratuitously mean, I’m going to set you straight. Whatever it takes. You brought this on yourself, so just be warned and watch your step because I’ll be watching you.”

Mr. Massicot stood there immobilized and breathless. That his wife would conspire with the police was bad enough, but that she would be overtly planning to fight him at every turn was something for which he was completely unprepared. This just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. There was simply no precedent for it.