Refugee in Riverside
“Your great-grandfather was a tram driver. Professionally, he stayed on the rails, but at home he went off them once a month. This was down to his homemade slivovitz, which, for your information, is an infernal brandy made by fermenting plums.”
Ten-year-old Stephen rolled his eyes at his brother Will, who shook his head. Always the same joke about the rails, always the hellish slivovitz. Still in their pajamas, they were seated on the sagging couch in their grandfather’s living room on the morning of December 27. The lights on the tree were off; the room was chilly and full of shadows. At twelve, Will understood that the old man felt some compulsion to tell them the story of his life. He was willing to sit through it because he knew that his mother, for whom he would do anything, worried about her father. It was after their grandmother’s death that she insisted they spend two days of Christmas week in their grandfather’s drafty Victorian house. The boys went, Stephen stoically, Will under protest. Both would have preferred to be at home with their own beds, bathroom, presents, and friends.
By now, listening to their Djed’s story was a seasonal ritual, like productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. This was their third year. The old man was settled in his recliner with a mug of tea with honey. The boys sat still on the couch, doing their duty while their parents were upstairs sleeping — or pretending to.
“The alcohol made Otac crazy angry. Majka insisted that he was only blowing off steam, letting out all his dissatisfactions and disappointments, the bad memories from the war. He was usually a gentle man, my Otac. It was only when things went badly that he got into the slivovitz. Something went badly every month. But it wasn’t so bad because by the time he came after us, the brandy spoiled his aim and his balance and, anyway, he soon passed out. All the same, I promised myself never to drive a tram or drink fermented plums. You understand? I was ambitious for another life, boys, a better one. I studied hard, as I expect you two do. I won a scholarship to the university. Zagreb University was founded in 1699, long before the United States, a fine old school, the top one in the country. As I’d always been interested in how things worked, especially radios, I decided to study electrical engineering. It was a new field back then and for that very reason a smart choice.”
The old man cleared his throat and sipped the tea that had gone cold, like the house.
“When the war started, I was in my last year, only months from my degree. But my parents said I should get out of Croatia or I’d be drafted. ‘War is terrible. Come back when it’s over,’ said Otac. ‘Yes. Go to America,” Majka said bravely, trying to hide her sadness. ‘I have a cousin there,’ she said. ‘First name Petar, last name Horvat. He lives in a town called Riverton in some place called Tennessee. You find him, he’ll help,’ she said, then burst into tears. I pray you never see your mother weep as mine did.
“I had little money when I landed in New York and my English wasn’t good, though my passport was. A man in a uniform looked at it then hard at me, and said “Welcome.” I was so nervous and such a greenhorn, I thought because he wore that uniform he could tell me how to get to Riverton. So, I asked. He made me repeat my question three times. My pronunciation wasn’t perfect, the way it is now. He laughed and said, ‘Oh, Riverside.’ Then he pointed down the concourse toward a long desk with a crowd of people around it. It was the airport’s tourist bureau. I picked up my cardboard old-world suitcase and took my place at the end of a line of middle-aged travelers with luggage that had wheels, exasperated parents wrangling whining children, and excited people my own age in blue jeans with enormous backpacks.
“The longer I waited in that line the more confused I became and the more anxious. My head filled up with doubts and questions. Was it Riverton or Riverside I was to go to? America is so much bigger than Croatia. The airport itself stretched out in every direction and seemed to me as vast as all of Zagreb. Would I be able to find the cousin who knew nothing of me? And even if I found my way to Petar Horvat, would he welcome me? He could have changed his name or moved elsewhere. In my nervousness I completely forgot about Tennessee. Your grandfather was a real mess that day, boys.”
Stephen turned toward his brother and giggled. Will smiled at his brother and held a finger to his lips.
“When it was finally my turn, I asked the woman behind the counter how I could get to Riverton, then I said, no, to Riverside. She was impatient. ‘Which is it?’ she demanded. Remembering the man who checked my passport, I said it was Riverside. She made me say it again, slowly. ‘Which Riverside?’ she asked. I was shaken. ‘There’s more than one?’ Boys, do you know that forty-six states have a Riverside in them? It’s the most common name for a town in the whole of America. As I’d forgotten all about Tennessee and had to say something, I asked what the biggest Riverside was. The woman tapped her busy colleague on the shoulder, whispered in his ear, got a reply, turned back to me and said, ‘The one in California.’ And so, I spent almost the last of my money on a bus ticket to Riverside, California. It took days and days. America, I thought, it’s almost all highway. Everybody wants to be somewhere else.”
By now, Stephen was squirming and Will couldn’t resist the urge to move things along.
“When did you hear about the tornado, Grandpa?”
The old man frowned. “That was the year after I got my job.”
“And it really destroyed all of Riverton, the one in Tennessee?”
“If I’d had better pronunciation and a clearer memory, I might have been there, among the dead.”
“So Riverside was the wrong place but turned out to be the right one?”
“Yes. Bourns had set up its headquarters here. They hired me because business was taking off and they were desperate for electrical engineers, even one with poor English and no degree.”
“And your boss’s secretary was Grandma?” Stephen chimed in.
“And you invented two new transformers. Big sellers. And they promoted you.”
“Then you and Grandma got married and had Mommy.”
“And Mom met Dad and they had us.”
“And here we all are!” shouted Stephen, jumping off the couch.
Hungry for breakfast, Will also got to his feet. “Just think. What if you’d remembered Riverton and Tennessee!”
Peeved that the boys pre-empted his story, the old refugee raised a finger spoke sternly.
“There’s a lesson for you. In this world things happen in three ways.”
“What are they?” asked Will, trying to sound interested as he yanked his exasperated brother back toward the couch.
“Some things happen by choice — like your mother. Some happen by necessity — like leaving Croatia. But most things happen by chance.”
“Yes. In fact, you could say that my career, my marrying Grandma, your mother getting born, her marrying your father, and the both of you all come from a mix-up. But nobody likes hearing that. They want their lives to be meaningful, the result of their choices. So they call chance fate.” Here the old man pointed at the lightless tree. “Or, if they’re religious, they call it God’s plan. So, be humble.”
“Be humble and hope to be lucky like me.”
“Can we have breakfast now?” Stephen begged.
“Just one more thing — don’t interrupt your elders.”
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