A Hundred Problems

Dragan Teofilović was called Zeko—bunny—not only because he loved carrots; his big eyes were capable of seeing what few people in Travnik ever noticed. Leaning against a lamp post on March 8, 1976, he couldn’t begin to imagine the turn his life was about to take. As he stared off at the florescent light that was flickering on over Twenty-ninth of November Street, a certain question troubled him: why, every March 9th for the last five years now, has his father systematically forgotten his birthday? His father, Savo Teofilović:  Captain First Class, was recognized in Travnik for the thirty square meters of tiles and ten kilos of mortar, for which he never paid back his friend—he just could not think of a way to do so!

                While the other boys who lived on his street were busy kicking a ball, and while the officers prepared for the March 8th gala at the Hall of the JNA,[1] Zeko’s gaze shifted from the streetlight and refocused on the intersection and the railway overpass.

                “If only I could make the 9th of March disappear from the calendar,” he contemplated, “life would be so much easier!”

                But this was not the only cause of his suffering. He couldn’t stand seeing empty bags of pretzels, crumpled cigarette packs, and other kinds of refuse flying out of car windows. At that moment he was watching as a fića[2] hurtled toward him at more than 60 kilometers per hour with what would surely be an unpleasant surprise. Either he would get a “What are you staring at, fag?!” or be pelted with garbage. With a honking of the horn, a hand shot out from the side flipper window and tossed an empty packet with BRONHI: THE CHIMNEY SWEEP FOR YOUR THROAT[3][NP1]  written on it.

                “Dumbass! Why are you trashing my city?!”

                He ran after the fića brandishing the packet menacingly, then, along the way, picked up some other litter and threw it into a dumpster. He was pacified, nevertheless, by the thought that the situation at this same intersection was once a lot worse.

Up until 1975, Ćiro[4] would travel over the bridge, whistling and expelling soot-laden steam. With a bit of wind, all of the laundry in the neighborhood would in no time end up black and smudgy. Zeko did not allow for this to be the case on the Teofilović’s balcony. Some days Ćiro spewed filth over the entire street, while human hands flung trash from cars!

What to do? Go down and clean the street or hurry to the balcony to put the linens safely indoors?

In the worst of times, Zeko always made the right decision.

He would drop the garbage, and bound onto the balcony to collect the bed linens and his father’s shirts, thus saving his mother from unnecessary frustration. As for the cleanliness of the intersection, that could be dealt with later.

Sometimes, the wind would catch him off guard and propel the debris into the Lašva River, which drove him absolutely mad. To him, the view of the bags in springtime, multicolored and hanging from the trees along the riverbank, was unbearable—it reminded him of the walls of the Petar Mećava barracks where his father served. So with a running start, armed with a stick, he would pummel the foliage. Seeing his ineffectiveness in extracting the bags, which were only getting shredded and more entangled by his efforts, he would become impassioned, striking again and again, until eventually the branches would break.

“If anyone saw me now,” he said to himself, “they would surely take me for a lunatic!”

If life was hard for Zeko, it still had a bright side. He had someone in whom he could confide.

 In the basement below the four-story building and the Teofilović family’s apartment, a carp—which the Captain had purchased for the Slava[5] he would discretely celebrate in December—splashed about in a discarded old bathtub.

[1] Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija: the Yugoslav People’s Army. (All notes by the translator).

[2] The iconic nickname of the Fiat 600—a widely popular car in the former Yugosalvia that was produced locally under the Zastava license from 1955-1985. Zastava produced several other Fiat derivatives, such as the Zastava 101 of the early 1970s, which was modeled after the Fiat 128. The sto jedan (101) soon acquired the nickname sto jada (“a hundred problems/miseries”) due to its poor quality.

[3] The slogan for Bronhi candies made by the Croatian food and confectionary company Kraš, was actually “Bronhi: Breathe easier” (“Bronhi: Lakše se diše”). “The chimney sweep for your throat” (“le ramoneur de la gorge”/ “Odžačar grla”) slogan was for Negro candies by the Serbian company Pionir.

[4] “Nickname of the historic steam engine train that ran through Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[5] Feast day of the family patron saint for Orthodox Serbs.