The Third Round

After the wars had ended in Croatia, I ran into a man I hadn’t expected to see alive in my hometown, Daruvar, in Western Slavonia: an old Serbian policeman, a convicted murderer who had killed a Croatian drunk at a village tavern two decades before the war. I had distilled the man into a minor character in a chapter of my novel, which was translated into Croatian. A young man, Stanisa, had come to my book presentation in Daruvar several years earlier and asked, You wrote about my dad, didn’t you, you put him into a book? I’d love to have a copy. I was sure Stanisa was speaking about the policeman. (Later, I figured out his father was a different cop, who had tracked me down—I was around ten—for swiping an American flag off a black Mercedes in front of our courthouse. I decorated our empty sheep stall in the backyard with the silky flag—we were too close to the center of town to be allowed to keep animals, by the new ordinance—and the cop, who had a cleft chin like Kirk Douglas, showed up, took the flag, and reprimanded me, but it was clear he wouldn’t hit me as, for example, a forester once had.)

After the murder, Badzo (nickname for Boss in Serbian) continued to be a threat, having served only a three-year sentence. He worked as a guard at the hot springs spa pool at the new hotel. The spa was two thousand years old, Aqua Balissae in the Roman Empire. As kids we often found small Roman coins in the mud in the park and near the brick factory, in the green clay. Whenever I visited Daruvar I liked to swim at midnight in the steaming water, but Badzo did his rounds, and sometimes I ducked into the water and waited for him to pass by. He walked around like a caricature of a Western cowboy, with a protruding stomach, and hands slung down wide, as though ready to draw a gun, but he was not allowed to carry a gun, though in our town that didn’t mean much.

I had heard that during the war, instead of joining the Serbian forces in the hills he stayed in town. He volunteered to join the Croatian forces, but nobody trusted him. A couple of men beat him in the park, nearly to death. That’s one version I heard. Another is that at the beginning of the war, Croatian right-wing paramilitary kept him a prisoner in a dark basement on bread and water, along with several other local Serbs, to prevent them from leaving, and his family didn’t know where he was. He may have been treated cruelly.

A friend of mine, a bass player, Skala, while in the new Croatian army uniform, had run into Badzo on the bridge over the river Toplica, and he aimed his rifle at Badzo, and said, Stoj! (Stop).

Badzo said, What, you are going to shoot me? Just like that?

Yes.

But I have nothing, no weapons, and you have, what is it? A Kalashnikov?

Nice balance of power, don’t you think? You’ve abused it all your life. Don’t move, hands up.

Please don’t shoot. What have I ever done to you?

You were an ugly sight, spoiled my field of vision. You’ve fucked around enough, it’s all over for you.

If you let me live, I will buy you beer whenever I see you in town.

Well, you’re in hiding, what if you don’t see me? A bad deal for me. I visualized this for years. This is my wish fulfilled. I want you dead.

Just give me a call, and I will come out and get you some Old Czech beer. How about a couple right now?

Okay. It is hot.

And they went to the nearest tavern at the farmers’ market and drank a few, and Badzo lived on. Afterward, he retreated into his apartment. He developed a heart murmur.

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