By Anamaria Ionescu
The old man was sitting on the grass, watching the muddy waters of the Danube passing by. A cargo ship was slowly rolling close to the Bulgarian shore. People were walking, talking and laughing on the alley behind him, but Valeriu couldn’t care less. He didn’t even try to look at the young man with a baseball cap approaching him.
“You’re late!” were his first spoken words of the day.
“How the hell do you know if I’m late or not? You don’t have a wristwatch and you don’t carry your phone with you.”
“I don’t need a watch. I check it before leaving home, and I know how to count time. As for the phone, only you, youngsters need it all the time. Sit down.”
“Here? Don’t you want to grab a cup of coffee? Or a beer?” the young man said pointing out to the ship turned into a restaurant nearby.
“I never go where I don’t belong. Sit down.”
Costin – that was the youngster’s name, looked at his light blue jeans, thinking they would probably get greenish stains from the grass. Well, it served him right for having nothing better to do then wear the new jeans when meeting this old bag. In the end he sat near Valeriu. Without any other words, he pulled out, from the inner pocket of his jacket, a small cotton bag and gave it to the old man. He took it and carefully checked its content.
“C’mon, old man, it’s good tobacco. I took it from my father’s stash.”
Valeriu wasn’t that old. He definitely wasn’t 70 yet. But for the 16 years old boy he seemed pretty ancient. More than once Costin wondered why on earth he was looking for his company. Clearly, he enjoyed his stories. Valeriu had been living in Giurgiu all his life. In fact, for all Costin knew, he never set foot outside the small Danubian town. But the fascination he had for Valeriu laid elsewhere. The old man never worked a day his entire life. From an early age he discovered he had the gift of speech. Of storytelling. Of deceiving, lying and cheating. And turned these abilities (and a few more) in a lifetime profession. He always found a way of getting things. For example, Costin enjoyed his stories. And, boy, the guy had some stories to tell! If you were to believe him, he knew everyone that mattered in that town. He was born in the middle of the communist era. He got to watch from a distance all the big people of the town during that regime. From big bosses in the Party to teachers, writers and actors. For some reason, they all found their way to his family one time or the other. And then Revolution came and he could watch big shots becoming dust. And new elite arising. It was all so interesting. And it came with all the obscure things they had to do to survive. They stole, they lied, they bribed, they married the right people, they got in bed with the wrong people. Sometimes they killed and got away with it. Or not. Either way, the old man seemed to know everything about everybody. Or he made it sound like he did. Costin wanted to know about things. So he paid for it with his father’s tobacco.
“So what do you want to listen to today?”
“You always want spicy stuff.”
“They are fun. And good to know. Who knows when I might need it.”
“If you are to use things I tell you in any way, you must make sure that they are real, first.”
“Well, I don’t know. I’m an old man. Sometimes I mix things in my mind”
“Yeah, sure. What’s the story for today?”
“Did I tell you about my grandmother’s death?”
Valeriu was an orphan. He and his little sister had lived in an orphanage in Bucharest. When he was six and his sister, Mara, two, they were adopted by one of the genitors working there. He was a small, thin man, always sick, always looking like he was about to pop up anytime. But he gave them a home. And a family like a small circus.
“Look, old man, if I wanted to hear about an ordinary, boring, dumb family, I would have stayed at home.”
“My dear boy, my family might be dumb. But they are far from being ordinary. Or boring. But if you don’t want the story, you may leave.”
“Would you give the tobacco back?”
“No way. You were late. And I waited for you. And it’s not my fault you don’t feel like listening.”
Costin gave it a thought. Valeriu’s family had consisted in three aunts, his father’s cousins. One crazier than the other. And ugly like hell. The leader of the pack used to be their mother, the one he referred to as “grandmother”, but she died a long time ago, when Valeriu was just a kid. And, of course, his sister, but he didn’t speak of her much. “Well, the boy thought, I’ve already given him the stuff. I might as well listen to his story. For his way of telling it, if nothing else.”
“Ok, man, fire away.”
The man pulled out a small thin sheet out of his pocket and calmly made a cigarette to test his brand new tobacco. Lit it up and had a deep smoke.
“Well, ever since I can remember, my grandma said she had a heart condition. Nobody believed her, because she was like a mule. Small, but heavy and strong. My father always joked about that. He said that if Hitler would have had her when he attempted to invade Russia, we would all have been speaking German by now. But she kept telling we would be the death of her one day. And she had this fancy doctor from Bucharest saying the same. More than that, once or twice a year she would spend a week in a big hospital in the capital for treatment. Anyways, when I was about 8, my aunt Gloria caused the first major family crises. She was about 25 and the most beautiful of the three. Well, beautiful is an exaggeration. She was a bit heavy, like her mother, but she had appealing curves and big tits. So nobody minded her face. Or her hair that she used to dye red and looked like a broom. Veturia, her mother, hoped that at least she would get married and have some kids. The other two, Laura and Mihaela were thin like they’d just got out of a concentration camp. Laura had a problem with her teeth. If she smiled, you’d get nightmares for a month. Mihaela would had been acceptable, but she’d found God. So she was dressed up from neck to toes in black or gray and anything remotely connected with sex would bring curses and dark premonitions from her. I used to tease her speaking out any dirty word I’d found out from the streets. My most vivid memory of her is getting stumbled in her own skirts trying to chase me with a broomstick. So, you see, Gloria was grandma’s last hope of having grandchildren.”
“Well, she had the two of you, didn’t she?”
“It was not the same. My father was not her son. I’m not even sure she loved him. But he was closer to what one might call a normal person. And he was definitely caring and obedient and she appreciated it. As for me and Mara, we were adopted. When father had told her he intended to take us over she agreed because she knew no woman would ever be interested in him. She enjoyed spending time with Mara because she was all smiling, cheerful and sweet, but she wasn’t that crazy about me.”
“Why? Because you were naughty?”
“No. Because I was going to grow up into a man, and in her opinion, all men were bastards. I have no idea if she felt that way because of her experience with men, or because, being a bit ugly herself, men didn’t really look for her. The talk of the town was that she’d pay men to sleep with her and that’s how she got the girls.”
“Jeez, that sucked! So, what did Gloria do?”
“She got married secretly.”
“Wow! But wasn’t that what Veturia wished for her?”
“Yes, but not like that. I’m not sure what her expectations for Gloria were, but they didn’t include a gypsy guy who sold merchandise brought in secretly by the sailors working on different ships. You see, back then you couldn’t find anything in shops. It had nothing to do with being poor. You could make nice money, especially if you were part of the working class. But groceries and shops were literally empty. So people living near borders that had a bit of guts would find opportunities for business, so to speak. But you had to be really careful. If they got you, you’d spend quite some time in prison. This gypsy guy Gloria had married had been to prison twice. So, Veturia had no reason to be proud of her marriage. She could not throw it into the face of the people saying that her ugly girls would have never been a catch. In fact, she was so upset; she wouldn’t have Gloria and Gigi, her husband, over for Christmas dinner. And the whole evening she complained about her heart troubling her. She had nothing to eat and had taken a lot of her heart pills. That, I think, was the very first moment the family got a little worried. And it also was the last, since she would pass away not long after St. John’s Day, in January. It was the first funeral I ever attended to.”
“You mean Veturia died because of her daughter’s marriage?”
“Well, my father came to see her one afternoon, and find her laying back on an armchair, mouth and eyes wide open and an empty box of her heart medicine in her hand. In spite of the Christmas crises, nobody saw it coming. They called the ambulance; some doctor arrived, pronounced her dead as a result of a stroke and it was the end of it from authorities’ point of view. Lucky us! Grandma was up to her neck in trafficking goods, so if someone would have looked into it, we could have been in trouble. But things broke loose with the funeral. Mihaela and Laura made it as big as they could back then. They even brought three priests from a church in Bucharest. Half of the town showed up. More out of curiosity than anything else. Veturia was always seen as a dubious extravagant character. Nobody knew exactly what she did for a living and how came that the police never looked into her business. Some people thought she was hand in hand with the secret police of the time, the Securitate, telling on people’s little secrets that she had access to. And that might as well have been the truth.”
“Nobody knows what you do for a living either.”
“The difference is nowadays people just don’t care! Anyways! We were about to get to the cemetery when Gloria showed up in her new Mercedes. Having a luxury car is a big deal as we speak. Back then it was like flying to the moon or something. She got out of the car and made sure everyone could see her fur coat and the big shiny gold jewelry she was wearing. For a couple of moments, everyone was in shock. Mihaela was the first to snap out of it. She came to her and said:
“You’re not welcome here.”
“Who are you to say? It’s my mother’s funeral. Of course, I have to be here.”
“Mother wouldn’t want you here. Like she didn’t want you for Christmas.”
That was a low blow. And in public, too. In spite of rumors and gossip, outside people never had information from inside the family until that moment. And suddenly, everything was on display. Gloria was reduced to silence. And I swear I could see a small tear at the corner of her made up eye. But only for a moment. She got out of it and sassed:
“Oh, really? But what do you think she would have felt about me paying this whole them circus from my husband’s pocket? The very man you people cannot stand the sight of!”
At that point you could literally see the rumor spreading throughout the crowd. Gigi, the gypsy paying for Veturia’s funeral was the most fascinating piece of news since Stalin’s death. I could imagine my grandma banging her head against the beautiful coffin hearing this conversation. My father could probably imagine it as well because he calmed them down. Nothing important happened till the end of it. After all the people left, Gloria decided that she’d done her duty and was about to get her round big ass in her big car and leave the dishes for her two ugly and poor sisters. But just before closing the door behind her she stopped, turned around and said:
“You know, everybody blames me and Gigi for mother’s death, but it was not me who got her ill in the first place. It was you.”
“Me?” replied my father, Mihaela and Laura at once.
“You, the family saint! You’re all God and church now, but don’t think for a minute that the sex you had on the Russian ship with the whole fucking crew and the abortion you did afterward didn’t affect her.”
What? I mean it was better than Christmas. Can you imagine? This woman, who used to beat the crap out of me just fur cursing, had gotten laid with an entire crew and then had an illegal abortion. I was a kid back then. I could hardly grasp the whole meaning of my aunt’s words, but what I clearly got was that she’d given a real blow to Mihaela. I felt like getting to her and give her a hug. But I stood still. Mihaela was red like fire and her eyes were in tears.
“I was raped…” she managed to say in a whispered voice.
Gloria burst into a noisy laughter.
“Raped, my ass! You enjoyed every minute of it. I can still remember you touching yourself and moaning, in the bed next to mine, long after that moment.”
“I had no idea of all these”, Laura said with real surprise.
“God had mercy on you, Gloria replied keeping eye contact with the other sister. He took one look at you and decided He should spare you of any sexual knowledge or desire.”
After that she got out the door, leaving a heavy trace of sweet perfume. Nobody said a word long after that. Mihaela was getting the house in order, trying hard to act like nothing had happened, while Laura and father looked at her hypnotized. It was about two hours later when the three of them sat at the dining room table, drinking some coffee.
“What was that all about?” Laura dared to ask in a low voice.
Her sister set on telling the story with her eyes and hands on the coffee mug.
“Well, I was young and ignorant. One day I was walking through the harbor. On the deck of this big ship was Vasili. He was so beautiful! The most beautiful man I’d seen until then. Or since. I literally stopped and stared at him. He noticed. Called me up on deck. He told me his name, I told him mine. He took me by the hand and introduced me to the other sailors. I couldn’t understand what they were saying or what were they laughing about. And I couldn’t care less. All I knew was that a handsome man looked at me. They gave me tea. And vodka. I’d never drunk vodka before. After the time they started touching me. And kissing me. It felt really good. Vasili was the first to do me. It was not true what she said. I didn’t have sex with all of them. After I did it with Vasili they saw the blood and understood I was a virgin. Only one other had the guts to do it as well. A short, dark-haired one. Once things were over, Vasili got me off the boat and it was over. I can’t remember for the life of me how I got home. Mom was sleeping. So were all of you. I had a shower and went to bed. I remember the pain, but no regrets whatsoever. It was three months later I realized I was pregnant. I had no one else to turn to, so I told mother. She found a doctor in Oltenita who helped. She paid him a lot of money, but that made sense. It was really risky. If something happened, he would have gone to jail. The abortion was the most horrifying thing I’d ever had to face. The pain was excruciating. I lost a lot of blood. The only thing mother said to me was: “It serves you right for being such a whore. If I ever see you with a man I’ll beat the life out of you.” From that point on I hated all the men. Not for what happened on the boat, but for that night when they got the remains of the baby out of me in the basement.”
As an 8 years old kid, I couldn’t possibly understand what she was telling. But I got the tension and suffering from her voice. Most of the time I was just teasing and annoying her. But that night I felt sorry for her. My father came to her and gave her a hug. For a while nobody said anything. But then Laura had to open her mouth:
“Well, that could have caused mother’s heart condition… “
Mihaela’s eyes filled with tears once more. But what had really surprised me was the look on my father’s face. It was the only time in his entire life when I ever saw the fury in his eyes.
“So what you say, my father spoke in a low voice, is that mother’s illness was caused by Mihaela’s stupid mistake. And not by yours.”
“What do you mean?” Laura asked too promptly not to be defensive.
“Oh, so you conveniently forgot. How it was they called you on the street? Laura the Beast?”
“Oh, c’mon, it was just a nickname!”
“Why did they call you that?”
“Because I didn’t let them bully me for my look. Neither of you knows how it feels to be the joke of the town. I do. One day I had enough of it. That was all.”
“Was it? That homeless boy who really got to you. I always wondered what was that he told you that got the devil out of you. I remember it all like it was yesterday. Your mother called my father. She had a big problem and she needed her brother to help her. One of her daughters had beaten 11 years old to his death. Father woke me up and we came where your mother told us: on a field outside the town. You were there, all covered in blood. He was laying at your feet. I think he didn’t have one bone left unbroken in his body. Me and my father dogged a hole in the ground, put the body in it and covered it back. We got back home, but dad felt very sick. Because of the stress and the effort, his heart gave out. He was dead by the next morning.”
“Jesus, woman!” Mihaela said putting her hand on her mouth.
“Give me break, she answered, spitting through her irregular teeth. At least you had your memories. You can think of a man that looked at you and saw a woman. I was always the freak. Even my family can’t bear to look at my face. “
“That’s no excuse. You’re not the only one that couldn’t find affection. But you can’t go out killing people with bare hands because you’re impossible to be loved.”
Laura looked at my father with a funny look and a strange smile on her face.
“Well, you know everything about being unlovable, don’t you?”
“Go ahead, hit! It’s your turn, isn’t it?”
“Oh, so you’re all man now, aren’t you? Not like all those years ago when you fell in love with the high school principal. Not only that a kid with spots all over his face was attracted by a teacher, but it so happened that the teacher was a 45 years old man. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, our dear cousin is attracted to men. The only problem is that he’s so insignificant that they don’t even notice him. The principal even made fun of mother when he told her. But she still had to pay him to keep quiet. And take you out of school. That’s why you’re nothing but a genitor. And it was the mother’s money that made possible for you to adopt these two.”
“Yes. And I still think that it was the best way your mother had ever spend her money.”
It was something in his calm voice and cool attitude that made me love him more than ever before.
Costin remained silent for a while.
“Wow, he said finally. So nobody was innocent in your family.”
“There’s no such thing like an innocent human being.”
“And which one of them was to be blamed for her death?”
“Well, do you remember I told you my father was quite feeble and sick all the time? He had some sort of vitamins brought from abroad. He had those white pills in a plastic tube with him all the time. I have no idea if they really helped, but father took them now and then. My grandmother’s pills were also brought from outside the country. France, I think. They came in a plastic tube as well, but they were colored, half yellow, half red, looking like small candies. Mara was very often around grandma. She made the old woman feel better because she was such a merry and good child. One day my father and I came to pick her up from grandmother’s house. He and Vetruia got into a fight, God knows what about. Mara noticed that father was very sad. She wanted everyone to be happy around her. And she thought dad would cheer up if he had some of the candies that made grandma feel so good.”
“Remember she was only 4. Reality looks a lot simpler through a child’s eyes. I don’t really know what happened after we left, but the next morning, father came to make peace with grandma. And found her dead.”
“Yeah. After the funeral, when he cleaned the house, dad found some pills that looked very much like his, spread in all the hidden corners of the room, but didn’t put two and two together until he found Veturia’s medication in his pocket.”
“Man, this is quite a story!”
“So, was it spicy enough for you?”
“Sure was. But I cannot figure out how did Mara get into her head the idea that switching pills would make you father joyful.”
The old man laughed.
“What? asked Costin intrigued. What am I missing?”
“Me and Mara we were orphanage kids. That kind of place either makes you a small villain – that was me, or a very good and disciplined child. And that was Mara. Back then she would ask permission to play with her own toys. She wouldn’t have done something like that without an approval.”
“Approval? But who would have…? Oh, my God, it was you! You told her to do it, you old bastard!”
“I was only 8, remember? I was just a boy who thought that his grandmother was treating him and his father horribly just because they were men. I simply hated the old bag.”
Valeriu’s story really got to Costin. So much so, that he gathered a few guys in his class and shared it with them. He wasn’t as good as the old man in telling, but he made quite an impression. Except for Andrei, the Math genius, who shrugged his shoulders and said:
“You’re a complete idiot if you think a vitamin pill could have caused the old woman’s death! You paid with 500 grams of your father’s tobacco for a complicated story about a simple stroke!”