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The Final Question – Istvan Orkeny February 23, 2009

Posted by New Europe Writers in Budapest Tales, Selected Tales.
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There was a horrendous bang on my door, then it split in two and came crashing down. There was a stranger standing on the threshold.

“Rascal, you are about to die!” he screamed at me.

I was just about to put kindling on the stove but hearing this, I straightened up.

“You must have mistaken me for someone else,” I said.

“There’s no mistake,” he yelled again, though he’d forgotten to add rascal. “Your time is up!”

He reached for his back pocket to withdraw his gun, but he did it so slowly, with so much time to spare, you’d think he was stroking the back of a dog. In the meantime I stuffed the kindling in the stove and started a fire, then paced up and down my room, because before he’s shot, a man likes to take account of his life. At this point the stranger’s hand was still only half-way to his pocket; and what came next also happened with such languor you’d think you were watching a film in slow-motion.

Before I proceed, though, I’d like to make something clear. I know what people are like, and so I know that they will place what happened in the worst possible light. Accordingly, I would like to make it quite clear that the shooting took place with the usual expediency. The assassin was not slow; it was my assessment of the situation that was fast. (Fifteen times faster than the national average.) A man quick on the uptake sees more; he will even see things that would just be an indistinct blur in another person’s eye. For instance, while someone yawns, I – provided I’m in top form- will consume a three-course meal. My assassin will probably swear that he finished me off in half a minute; but thanks to my quick wit I was able to attend to various urgent matters.

Right now we’re only at the point where the assassin has finally managed to produce his gun. There’s no need to rush but I’d like to make good use of the time at my disposal What should I do? Hurl myself on the floor? Call for help? Fling something at the assassin’s head? When a shooting drags on like this, it offers the victim no end of possibilities.

While he was finicking with his gun, I dialed my physician who started complaining that the bevel wheel of his car was broken (the bevel wheel is part of the differential gear) and he had a hell of a time finding a new one. Only then did I get to put in a word edgewise.

“I haven’t got much time, Doc. I’m about to be shot. Any suggestions?”

“That depends. Do you want to die or not?”

“I think I’d rather not.”

“In that case, dodge the bullet,” the perspicacious physician advised.

“If only it were that simple,” I said. “A month from now I might suffer a stroke and end up a vegetable. The question is, should I really turn my back on a quick and easy death? Before I can make up my mind, I need to know the state of my health.”

The doctor was very understanding. He itemized my sundry organic ills, then after giving it some thought, he said, “As one human being to another, I advise you to live. But as your doctor, I urge you not to pass up such a good opportunity.”

“Thank you very much.”

“Don’t mention it.”

While I was on the phone, my assassin pointed his gun at me, then slowly, very slowly, pulled the trigger.
The bullet dragged itself across the room as sleepily as a fly in autumn. I waited, then dodged.

“How many bullets left?” I asked.

“Stop jumping around,” my assassin said, “because there are only three bullets in the barrel.”

“In short, there are two left,” I said. “That leaves me plenty of time.”

“You’re a pain in the ass,” my assassin said, chagrinned.

I quickly made a couple more phone calls. I took my leave of my loved ones and acquaintances, then called a writer friend who was thinking of buying a piece of real estate with his hard earned savings. I described the situation to him. From where I stand, I explained, value does not seem stable. Besides, the price of land is sure to go down. He thanked me for the good advice and for thinking of him, even at a time like this. I took my leave of him, too. That’s when the second bullet reached me.

I gave it a whack with Simone de Beauvoir’s Mandarins. The bullet hit the floor with a thud, then rolled under the bookcase. I looked around. A pile of unanswered letters lay on my desk. I sprang into action.

My letters were brief, but courteous. I backed out of exchanging my apartment for one in the 12th district, and gave advice to a young lady who was in love with two men at the same time. I called off a dinner engagement, a reader-writer event, and an invitation to be a godfather. It went without a hitch. But just as I was running out of time because the third bullet was heading in my direction, I found the last of the letters, which I’d been putting off answering for months, in which the League for Animal Rights from the local slaughterhouse had turned to me for advice.

“Please excuse us for inconveniencing you with our measly problems, knowing how busy you are,” it began, “but here at the slaughterhouse, we live ankle deep in blood, with the death-rattle of dying animals assaulting our ears, whereas we would like to remain true to the noble principle of the protection of animals. What do you advise?”

I don’t have time to answer because the bullet, like a bluebottle, is just an arm’s length away. And yet the question they’ve posed is not measly in the least, as they put it; it bears with universal significance, and may possibly be the most important question in the world. A pity that even now, during the last possible moment, I haven’t got a definitive answer. Still, I will see what I can do. Thanks to my quick wits, I still have a couple of seconds left. I might even come up with as many as ten solutions.

Or five.

Or three.

Or two.

Or one.

Sorry. Too late. You will have to ask somebody else.

Translated by Judith Sollosy.