Actually, every idiot and small child knows that to obtain a new license you just have to go to a summer driver’s education course, learn some theory and do some practice driving and after a little more of this and that, and, at least after two months, you can go to ARK and take the state exam and voila, the Estonian license is in your pocket like a real, super Estonian man!
Each morning more mail arrived to Naplinski’s mailbox. Some letters were sympathetic, others less so, but what surprised Naplinski was that people had even bothered to write to him at all. When his latest book came out, which was named after its ISBN code, he hadn’t received any letters. But now his desk was covered in paper. How many times had he seen drivers far more troublesome than he pulled over by Estonia’s Finest? How many horrendous car crashes had he driven past on the country’s deadly roads? Did those drivers all get letters, too?
He considered how bad the situation in his home country was. When his friend, the recovering alcoholic travel writer Kalev Temsu, was awaiting another liver transplant, he had confided in Naplinski, “The doctors said it will probably happen in November.” “Why November?” Naplinski had asked. Temsu had told him with a straight face, “Because once the Estonian boys get loose on the slick autumn roads…”
And he didn’t need to finish his sentence, because both he and Naplinski knew what the doctor meant.
What set Naplinski apart from those Estonian boys was that he had published volumes of existential and absurd poetry and prose based on his personal life. This gave his readers the sense that they knew him, intimately, and that they had the right to perform amateur psycho-analyses based on his works. All of those other terrible drivers were just terrible drivers. But Naplinski was different. He was a world famous Estonian existentialist writer.
And now we arrive to the main point, Härra Naplinski, this learned helplessness, which in your existentialist works can always been seen and is ever apparent. Have you lived your entire life thinking that the state or your mother or your wife should do everything for you, and you only have to show up to some poetry reading somewhere with your Beatles LPs, and that’s the whole story?
This letter was actually signed with a human being’s name, but what difference did it make whose name it was? These were just thoughts plucked from the ether, sharpened into spears and tossed in the would-be Nobel Prize winner’s direction. Naplinski sighed and drank his morning espresso. He hadn’t read to vinyl for years, but the LP Generation image was hard to shake. But the letter did remind him that it had been months since he had last paid mother a visit. This seemed like a good day to do that, considering what Naplinksi had been thinking of doing.
Since Naplinski couldn’t drive on the Estonian roads anymore for fear of being tested by police officers or imaged by wannabe paparazzi with their camera phones, he decided he would have to take a taxi to Jantevere, the small village where she lived.
The road to Jantevere went through rolling fields of sheep and root vegetables, glistening, murmuring streams, forests full of big round trees. It reminded Naplinski of the place where he had grown up. Life seemed so much simpler back then. But even in a car to Jantevere, Naplinski couldn’t escape his scandal. The taxi driver had the radio tuned to the nation’s most popular talk show, and the esteemed guests on it were talking about him. He particularly disliked the tone of the older host, that tightly-clenched, slow-and-steady-as-she-goes, final word, know-it-all manner that he so detested.
“Keep on writing your wonderful existentialist works, Jaak Naplinski,” said the host, “but if you want to drive in the Republic of Estonia, then your old Soviet-era license cannot be used. And if you do not want to take the slippery road test to get your Estonian license, then perhaps it’s best to remain a pedestrian …”
The other host was less forgiving. “Breaking the law is breaking the law. And this Naplinski claims he didn’t know he couldn’t drive with an old Soviet license? Like that’s any excuse! ‘Oh, I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know murdering someone was against the law.'”
From time to time he caught the taxi driver staring at him via the rear view mirror. The driver said nothing to him, but seemed to be studying his features, as if he had seen them somewhere before. Naplinski pinched the skin between his eyes. What had happened? What had he done? He was driving a bit recklessly yes, with an expired license yes. He had even written a public apology, where he referred to himself in most disparaging terms. But he had also managed to get his passengers home safely even after his massive existential crisis in the Kükita parking lot.
The taxi at last passed the stone wall of Jantevere Manor and pulled up to the old wooden gate outside his mother’s home. He paid the driver the fee, and stepped out into the late August sunshine. Beautiful days, beautiful everything. The yellowing leaves. The fresh air. He loved his homeland so. And out of the dark corridor to the house and the cloud of flies that swarmed about the entrance to its shared “dry” toilets, Naplinski watched a small shape limp in his direction.
“Jaak,” the old woman in the headscarf croaked as she emerged into the light, squinting. “Is it really you?”
“It is, Mama,” Naplinski answered. “I’m home.”
“Jaak!” she quickened her pace. “Did you hear the news? The police stopped a neeger over in Kükita at 3 am.”
“A what?” Jaak stepped toward her. “Did you say that the police arrested a black man in Kükita?”
“Yes, it happened early Wednesday morning in Kükita. The whole village is talking about it!”
That’s strange, Jaak thought. I don’t remember seeing any black men in the Kükita parking lot at 3 am.
Then he came to a very unpleasant thought. Naplinski’s father Wladek had been a classically trained Polish Jewish pianist from Warsaw. Though he had inherited his light-colored hair from his mother, his skin was darker than most, and his facial features were recognized by all fellow Estonians as being not of this land. Which could mean only one thing. The Kükita neeger in question was Naplinski himself. Naplinski had never thought of himself as a neeger, but he could see how, in the game of retold village gossip, “foreigner” had become “neeger” along the way.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mama Naplinski.
“Nothing,” Jaak said and swallowed his angst. He looked around. “Where’s Nigol?”
“Your brother’s gone to pick mushrooms again.”
“‘Picking mushrooms,’ huh. Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, nothing, Mama. Everybody knows that Nigol is an excellent, uh, mushroom picker.” Naplinski looked around the yard once more to make sure that he didn’t see his ne’er-do-well younger brother come stumbling out from behind a bush to wheedle some more liquor money out of him. The last time Naplinski had visited, he had given Nigol a five euro bill, which he had used to buy a bottle of cheap vodka, which in turn landed him in the hospital for a week.
“Mama, there is something I came here to tell you.”
“What?” Mama Naplinski looked up at him with her ocean-colored blue eyes. She turned her head a bit so that her good ear was well positioned to hear the words.
“Something’s come up and I’ve decided to go away for a while.”
“Go away where?”
“Even farther than that, Mama.”
“Oh, I see.” Mama Naplinski looked up at her son and blinked at him. It was a look of concern and a look of puzzlement. She had never really understood Naplinski and his writing career and his strange books and his stories about somebody named Sartre and somebody named Beckett and somebody named Temsu, but had tried to love her mysterious, existentialist black-beret-wearing son all the same.
“But would you come and help me pick some of the apples in the yard? I wanted to start making some jams,” Mama Naplinski asked.
And so a disheartened Naplinski followed his ancient mother into the orchard behind the old dwelling in Jantevere. As he walked, he memorized every step so that he could revisit it for comfort and writing inspiration later, when he was already in exile. Different faces passed through his stream of consciousness. There was Napoleon, stranded on the island of Saint Helena. Then he saw those oddball Americans Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, publishers of that hilarious-yet-bizarre Muscovite online tabloid.
Finally, as he crouched down to search the ground for half-rotten apples that could be salvaged for Mama’s jam, Naplinski thought of the face of another one of his heroes, James Joyce. Joyce had lived in exile, too, Naplinski recalled, if only to hold a mirror up to his countrymen so that they could at last see themselves. The Ulysses author had also worn a milkman’s uniform when he wrote, because he believed that it reflected light better on the page.
Naplinski decided that he should do the same.