Festival of the Departed

Tablet Original Fiction: Ways of remembering, long after everyone has turned out the lights

Susan Daitch
January 27, 2017
Markus Andersen
Cabramatta, Sydney, Australia.Markus Andersen
Markus Andersen
Cabramatta, Sydney, Australia.Markus Andersen

It was someone’s job to find the photographs, scan the crumbling black-and-white images into a computer, and turn them into light projections. The town and the Festival Directorate both determined that projections made more sense than the previously used life-size cardboard figures that frayed around the edges and looked like shit, even if they were laminated. Also, no photographs of the backs of these people existed. The backs of the cardboard figures were white, marked with graphological waves of joined initials in a range of alphabets, Latinate, Cyrillic, Indic, Hanzi, occasional hearts and gum spots, and, of course, there were cardboard stands inserted into the backs so the figures could remain vertical, but from the back, they looked even less human and more like window displays the shop neglected to ever put back into storage. It was someone’s job to collect all 50 of them and send the former citizens to recycling. The light projections, one member of the Directorate insisted, were improvements over the golden bricks engraved with the names of the Departed. The bricks wore out, trodden on by careless and/or irreverent feet, and also the blocks were memorials mainly, so far, initiated by another country, their neighbor, known as the instigator, the aggressor, and the city needed its form of memorialization to be recognized as its alone. The bricks were somebody else’s markers. The light projections, current residents of the city felt, belonged to them. The Festival Directorate referenced faded paintings faraway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that had been restored the same way, with digitalized light projections. Those Rothko paintings were brought back to life and exhibited once again. Why not a few citizens, too, brought back through pixels, electromagnetic waves, and a thus far more reliable and renewable energy source?

Janusz didn’t ask where the photographs (portraits of figures excised from formal settings and casual, random street scenes) had come from, and assumed they had been donated by anonymous sources. Money, property, jewelry, furniture—all kinds of thefts had taken place. This was known, but the pictures of men and women, mostly men, must have come from somewhere. It wasn’t his business, and as far as he knew, there was no list of names matching image to identity. What mattered to Janusz was putting on his suit, black hat, strips of hair attached, pre-curled, making sure his prosthetic nose would stayed adhered to his skin throughout his shift, and lastly, getting to work on time. This summer was particularly significant. The city was celebrating the 36th anniversary of its Cultural Festival of the Departed. The quarter where the Departed had once resided had been reconstructed and restored, though it was now mostly populated by citizens who made money renting out their apartments during the season. His job was to wear a costume and give people directions to concerts, art exhibits, lectures, readings, panel discussions, cooking demonstrations. He had learned his lines, practiced his accent (plosive P’s and B’s, nasal M’s and N’s, palatalized fricatives, tongue tap dancing on the roof of his mouth) and a ballet of hand gestures that, he was rehearsed, either signified a) haggling; b) how-should-I-know-do-I-look-like-a-Rothschild/Einstein/Marx; or c) there-could-be-a-moron-under-that-rock-too.

Working at the festival was a decent job. While his classmates worked in cellphone stores, manned complaint centers, or were unemployed, Janusz felt lucky to have passed the audition to be an in-place character. He had been an engineering student, but dropped out of the university, and was a good mimic, or so he had been told. When his father suggested the Festival was hiring, Janusz was reluctant, but he stood in line with other applicants, and when his name was called, he tried out for a role, standing with one hand on his hip, waving the other in the air as if possessed. He had been handed a contract on the spot.

It was very good news, and as he made his way out of the Festival offices and back to the square, he thought about how pleased his parents would be when he told them about this summer job. The streets were deserted preseason, and rarely having been in the quarter before, Janusz got lost in elbow-shaped alleys and courtyards that smelled of spoiled food, skunkweed growing between cobblestones, walls still marked by bullets from which invader or common gangster of more recent vintage, it didn’t matter. The identities of the marauders were no longer remembered or commented upon much. Gouges in stone and plaster might have been for effect; he wasn’t sure they were all real. As he made his way in the twilight, Janusz stumbled down streets that had no lights of any kind, and were so narrow that overhead balconies on opposite sides of the passage met, as if kissing. Messages could be passed here, escapes plotted, leaps made between buildings. It would be a great setting for first-person-shooter computer games. Why had no one thought of this before? Finally, Janusz found his way out.

On the first day he noted some of the festival employees only wore jeans and commemorative T-shirts in a variety of languages. They were essentially maintenance workers, but because of his acting skills, Janusz’s specific role required his own personal costume. There were other men like himself, and also women who wore wigs and long 19th-century dresses. It seemed like the women were stuck in the wrong century, but the Festival insisted this was accurate. There was one young woman who deliberately and provocatively put her wig on backward, long hair flopping over her face. Janusz figured out where she was posted, in front of a butcher shop, and when he left for the day, he tried to pass her position, but so far she seemed to have a habit of vanishing minutes before quitting time.

For his acting talent, the Festival reminded him that he was part of a tier of performer/hosts who were paid more, and Janusz kept this in mind when the nose was a problem. The plastic encasement made his snub nose sweat, often came unglued, and made it difficult to breathe. The nostril holes, tiny afterthoughts, were not, by any means, commensurate with the size of the nose. The cosmetic paste that kept the nose in place dissolved in sweat, and once while explaining the women’s bathhouse to a pretty American tourist, it came undone and flopped to one side. Not only did she and her friends laugh at him, but sometimes, with some tourists, he felt like they already knew the answers and were testing him in some perverse way he didn’t appreciate. Later that day he threw the nose in the garbage, but somehow another nose presented itself among his things in the employee locker room located in what had been an annex used for books and scrolls before they were buried, or so he’d been told.

Among the tools of his trade, his work uniform was also a problem. The black overcoat was hot, and it bore a name embroidered on the inner collar, the name of the original owner, who in no way could still be a resident of the town. The woman in charge of costumes was committed to authenticity. When at all possible, employees who played characters wore the original clothing of the kinds of people who used to live in the city. She combed secondhand shops and flea markets with, even so many years later, remarkable results. The young citizens hired for the summer to work at the Cultural Festival of the Departed dressed like their grandparents. Actually, not in some cases, such as Janusz’s, their grandparents, but somebody’s grandparents. When offered a fake beard, Janusz said, no thanks, enough was enough, he would grow his own.

“The proper phrase is g’nug shoyn,” the costumer corrected him, letting him know she had taken the optional advanced language seminar.

Though it was hot, Janusz kept the black hat and coat on all day, standing in front of what had once been some kind of prayer house or seminary, now a performance space. He answered questions about the practices of the Departed that he’d learned in the series of required pre-season seminars. The classes had been enjoyable, and he imagined himself becoming his role. Yes, he could demonstrate how you killed an animal so it felt no pain; yes, he was born in this quarter in 1925 and had departed in 1941. His character was just a little younger than he, so it was easy to pretend these were his personal statistics. From his stand he dispensed brochures and sold souvenirs to tourists whose accents belied origins: Catalonia, Northumbria, Walloonia. Among the most popular souvenirs were wooden figures with noses not unlike his artificial proboscis, but they weren’t surefire sellers with every visitor. Early in the summer, a woman had screamed at him and held one up to his face. They were supposed to be examples of folk art, but were no longer carved locally. He thought she was angry because they were made in China. There were other examples of visitors exhibiting anger at the Festival. These were mainly Americans, as to be expected. A friend of Janusz’s who was a waiter in a local restaurant didn’t understand why smoked shrimp, imported and expensive, would not, according to one customer, have ever, ever been eaten in the quarter. The Festival Directorate advised employees to be patient at all times, to politely make a note of the complaint. The general response of the Festival to such complaints was to answer via email that they were interested in the spirit, not the letter, of the law, because these particular laws, as everyone knew, were elusive and subject to interpretation.

Sometimes even one of the Founders made terrible mistakes. In the early days of July, which they were told to refer to as Adar, a man, completely in costume, passed Janusz on the street, talking on a phone. Phones were forbidden. Festival employees could not use phones or any hand-held devices. They needed to maintain authenticity at all times. One of the Directorate happened to be in coming out of a building at that moment, and she grabbed the man’s arm to take away his phone. He screamed at her in a language she didn’t understand, though she taught one of the advanced language seminars. Not only was the man was not employed by the Festival, but women were not supposed to touch him. Not ever. She should have known this, and among other employees it was assumed the negligence or ignorance on the woman’s part should have cost her her job, even if she was a Founding Director, but Janusz did see her again. Later in the week, she took the microphone and introduced musicians and artists to a central stage as if there had been no incident of confusion or offense.

The projections of light never challenged or questioned anyone; he could do what he wanted to them. The figures wouldn’t talk. Were they figures of light or shadow? Sometimes, as he maneuvered into his information booth, Janusz felt one way, sometimes the opposite. They were difficult to see on sunny days, even though the designers had positioned them in alleys and corners that tended to be shadowy, so the contrast would make them most visible. Sometimes all that was visible was an eye or a hand, as if burned into a stone wall. Not all the projections wore the same costume as Janusz. Some men wore what he would call normal, if slightly dated, suits, and their portraits could have been taken yesterday. Near his post, he could see a group of silent musicians and women flickering at doorways to shops. There were no pictures of children. Adults, only, looked at the camera, many smiling, with no idea a tsunami was about to hit them and everyone they knew. Tsunami was one of the words the Festival used to describe the nature of the Departed departing. A terrible wave was a force of nature, partially predictable, only partially something that could be prepared for, and was no one’s fault, so that was the terminology Janusz adopted as well.

Visitors to the Festival leaned against the figures, had their pictures taken with their arms around them, just as they had when they were cardboard. Because they were made of light, people now took pictures of themselves superimposed on the Departed. Children delighted in running through them; teenagers once in awhile made obscene gestures at the figures’ expense. Janusz was powerless to shoo them away. People could hold their phones up and click with fervor, but he secretly wished they would stay away from the projections. Though he had been an engineering student, he didn’t always believe in the numerical finiteness of the speed of light and the immateriality of the figures. Ghosts should be left alone, or they can take over, he wanted to warn the busloads from Poznan, Trieste, Salzburg, quoting the preseason lecture about dybbuks. At night, when strains of clarinet and violin could be heard in the quarter, Janusz would hear visitors say: “As if time has gone backwards.” He believed this to be true, and it filled him with a pride whose origin he struggled with, not trusting whether or not it was genuine. He had lived his entire life in the city but, prior to being hired by the Festival, had had no stake in the event that many, including his parents, believed was an ingenious a way to provide employment and put the city back on the map.

He thought it must be someone’s job to turn off the projections, so the Departed, did finally, vanish, but he never saw the figures disappear. They were on when he punched in five mornings a week and still standing next to walls, always about to enter or leave doorways, when he removed his black hat for the night and made his way home.

In August, toward the Festival’s end, he hoped to clock in some overtime and left later than usual. The last concert musician had packed up his violin; the last lecturer on ritual purity had folded her notes and checked the schedule for the next train to Berlin. The lights were still on. Janusz made his way back to the locker room, nose stuffed into a pocket when, at the corner of the newly named Square of Memory, a man made of light who had been leaning against a brick wall, shifted himself so he stood firmly on two feet and asked him for the time.

“Salo Prizrak,” the man introduced himself, but he did not extend his hand.

For some reason, Janusz responded with his real name, not the name of his character, and put his hand out as to see if it would go through the man’s chest. Salo took a step backward.

“No touching. Please. I’m not interested. For this kind of adventure, you go to Gynzberg.”

The phantasmagoric man struck a match and lit a cigarette. Janusz watched to see if smoke-filled lungs would expand to inhale and expel air, but all he could make out was a gray and olive-green checked vest that concealed the torso of Prizrak. Though his suit and Homburg were shabby, they were reasonably opaque.

“No smoking,” Janusz warned. This was a very strict Festival rule.

“Why not?” Salo looked at him as if Janusz had just crawled out from under a rock.

“It’s a health hazard. The visitors often come from places where smoking in public is banned because it can be secondhand, so we do the same. It makes people feel more comfortable. Also, should there be an accident, the streets are too narrow for fire trucks.”

“This place has burned before, and look, it’s back.” Salo reached around Janusz to pick a souvenir ashtray from a stand. He dropped his ashes into a ceramic dish with a violinist floating above rooftops painted inside.

“Where are you from? Coney Island Avenue? Jabotinsky Street?” Janusz asked. Addresses summoned from answers to a seminar pop quiz had little meaning to him, apart from being answers, and they didn’t actually mean much to Salo, either, but he believed Prizrak must have come from somewhere. Salo shook his head.

“I’ve almost never left the city. I’m still here, see?” Prizrak held up both his hands in the universal gesture of surrender or as if to state the obvious. “What’s with the lettering?” He jerked his head in the direction of a sign for a restaurant. The blocky typeface was meant to reflect the script used in books of the Departed. “That used to be the Kino where I saw the Marx Brothers, Nosferatu, Dr. Caligari, not to mention movies in the language you imitate when you flirt with certain girls. Speaking of which, honored guest, let me say, those short lessons your bosses made you take in how to speak like you were born here, they need to learn that idioms are never meant to be interpreted literally. ”

“I was born here, and with all due respect, I’m not your guest, Mr. Prizrak.”

“Please, Mr. J., trust me on this, those girls don’t know what you’re talking about.” He turned back to the restaurant that used to be a cinema and peered through the window. “I spent a lot of time in that theater. I wanted to be Oscar Jaffe in The Twentieth Century, to play opposite a blonde like Carole Lombard, and when anyone crossed me, I’d shout, ‘When Ira Jaffe says the iron door closes, the iron door closes,’ but all I got was a one-way ticket to a ditch.”

The Departed had gone not just to their own movies but to American movies, as well. This was logical, given the dates of their residency and departure, but the reality was jarring. The Departed had not been portrayed as people who might have recognized certain American comics of that era as being not so different from themselves. Janusz prepared to lock up his booth for the night. He wanted to ditch this Salo and get on with his evening. He tried to put on an air of expertise.

“The Iron Curtain is a thing of the past.”

Salo appeared not to hear him and ground his cigarette under his heel. He had taken his time in obeying the rules, that was certain, as if he was trying to let Janusz know the performer’s authority was tenuous at best. Also troubling to Janusz was the way Salo spoke to him—as if the apparition were stuck with the human, not the other way around, as if they’d been matched by mistake, and he began to wonder if this Prizrak’s presence was meant to be some kind of examination the Directorate had devised to test the knowledge of Festival employees in a casual moment when their guard was down.

“Would you like me to tell you about the Day of Atonement?”

“Don’t kid yourself. Every day here was a Fast Day towards the end. Zero food. This joint is one big Kaddish fest.” Salo picked up one of the wooden hook-nosed figures holding a money bag. An array was still arranged at the stand. “Hollow these out. Good for smuggling tobacco, opiates as needed, chocolate, if you can find any. Nobody searches these guys. Ever.”

“Mr. Prizrak, please. If you’re not going to buy, please replace the souvenir.”

“No, I’m not going to buy, but maybe I can sell you something. I can get you a girl for a decent price. Interested?” From the depths of his jacket Salo pulled out a bundle of deckle-edged black-and-white photographs held together with a rubber band. “I got most of my girls jobs in Buenos Aires, but let me know your preferences, and I’ll see who I can find. I told the girls they were going for teaching jobs, nursing careers, to find husbands. Some believed me. Some knew exactly where they were headed and learned Spanish quick. Nice racket while it lasted. My pockets were full of zlotys, but the girls had the last laugh, so to speak. They got out. No tsunami for them.” He pronounced the word as if he was saying tsimmes. Janusz corrected him.

Salo explained that he got into the flesh market because he had debts, then he stayed too long at the Festival. With that word, he gestured to the area of the square. He described a kind of buying and selling for which there was no embargo, and when food became scarce, he traded girls for bread, sometimes not even much of a loaf, maybe a slice. He gestured a handful, a cup of coffee until there was no more grain, no more ersatz coffee, and the girls who were left got rounded up never to be seen again.

Janusz thumbed through the photographs. Some had once been folded into pleats and survived in cracked format only; hard to make out the faces of those. One of them might have been a light projection a few blocks away. What can you do with a woman made of light? Salo couldn’t possibly make good on his offer. Janusz handed the pictures back. Everything the man described sounded like an anti-festival. Janusz was certain he was being tested.

“What about Zionist Clubs? I can sing you some songs.” He began to sing, but Salo put his hands over his ears and grimaced.

“I went on some of those picnics. No good came of any of it, but I picked up a couple of disgruntled young ladies who went to work for me.”

“I can recite tales of fools trying to travel from Chelm to Warsaw. They never get there, as you know.” Janusz curled a strip of hair around a finger, a gesture he believed was particularly authentic, and prepared to give his speech. Salo looked around the square, clearly not interested in anything he had to say. Janusz turned silent.

“How can this be a job? Standing around all day answering questions. Who pays you to do this?”

“The Festival, of course.”

Salo looked incredulous, and Janusz grew suspicious. The man had been putting small stones in his pockets so that they bulged with them. What would he do with these pieces of rock? Ram them down his throat? Janusz swayed back and forth on his feet, summoning to mind the few boxing pointers his father had given him at the neighborhood gym.

“Frankly, Mr. Prizrak, I’m finding your story hard to believe. The Festival doesn’t have any characters remotely like you. We have no criminals here.”

“If I’m here, there can be no Festival, and I’m here all the time. No one even turns off the juice after sundown on Friday.”

“That’s our biggest night.” Janusz shoved tight fists into his pockets. “The only thing authentic about you is buying and selling. It’s all about what you can squeeze or cheat out of someone who has nothing left, isn’t it?” Janusz grew angry. He was good at his job, and he didn’t appreciate being challenged. Salo laughed at him, then Janusz had had enough. Hat falling to the ground, he grabbed Salo by the throat and pressed his hands against the man’s neck. Salo quickly bent down, grabbed a hook-nosed figurine and brought it down on Janusz’s cheek. The nose was sharp. Janusz felt blood pour from his face as the nose hacked over and over, blood spilling onto his costume, which would now have to be specially cleaned. The cleaning was expensive, not paid for by the Festival, and his mother would be furious. The coat had come with stiff reddish-brown stains that no amount of cleaning could remove, and now his own blood was added to these brittle patches. He felt his opponent wipe his hands on Janusz’s lapels and pick his scattered photographs up from the cobblestones. A breeze blew them across the square, and Salo floated after them; even weighted down by the stones in his pockets, his feet barely touched the ground. The stones would give the apparition weight, stability—perhaps that’s what they’d been for, after all.

Janusz lay on the street surrounded by his souvenirs, but he felt the city, with all its alleys and violin players, chants and genizahs, movie theaters and bath houses, all roll up like a giant carpet, hoisted onto a golem’s back and ferried east, but in the passage he was shaken out of it, a flea looking for a circus. He put his bloodied rubber nose on the top shelf of his locker. The quarter was silent. Dinner would be waiting for him at home. The lights were still on, but the figures, he noticed, had departed. In the morning, someone’s wrath at the error would be a terrible thing to witness.

Susan Daitch is the author of five novels—L.C., The Colorist, Paper Conspiracies, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir andWhite Lead—and one collection of stories, Storytown.