In the old days, if she stayed cooped up so for days on end she’d feel like the house would just fall down on her head. She’d do whatever it took and beat it out of there. The whole idea was to visit by turns: here today, there tomorrow. She never left empty handed neither. It was a chance to yak, find out a thing or two because, really, sticking around with that mute of a man was enough to make you flip your lid. Personally, she never had a thing to discuss with him anyhow. What can you talk about with a man in the end?
“A husband should know you from the waist down.” That’s what she’d said, remembering as if it were yesterday.
“Damn it, Vica, shut up,” her sister-in-law had broken out in a token frown. The kid can hear you …You’re an old lady by now, and you haven’t washed your mouth out yet.”
“So what if he hears me? Big deal. Let ’em hear. How much longer are you going to keep that kid hiding behind your skirts? Never you mind. I’ve seen how the better half live. I know how real ladies talk … I got along just fine in the old place. They was all loving me and thought the world of me, at Madam Ioaniu’s, for instance. The way we used to laugh!—her with Ivona too.”
Her sister-in-law wasn’t big on talking neither. You had to drag the words out with a pliers. His whole life her poor brother had to do things her way because that’s a man for you, always following after the wife. Her own man excepted. She never got her husband out of his old ways. She’d taken to heart every word out of his mouth when she was young. Oh the bitter tears she’d cry. You could knock her down with a feather, she got so thin—until her godmother, may she rest in peace, dropped by one time. That was a visit she always remembered:
“What on earth’s the matter with you, Vica? You’re thin as a rail.”
“Oh look, this and that …”
“Forget it, honey. Don’t you take on so.”
Her husband had an evil tongue in his head, and he liked to use it. As for her, she was a horse of a different color. She always took after her ma, cheerful like she was. She wished she’d been blessed with a man like that, a guy who liked to laugh…There’re men like that, but they have their own ways of handing you grief. Don’t even think there’s a single one better than the rest.
And now… now it’s getting harder and harder to leave the house, but once-a-month twice-a-month she still grabs her old leather satchel (the one she got from Madam Daniel) and stuffs it with whatever she can lay hands on at the moment. She hauls on a pile old fleeces, puts in her teeth, wraps her head in two babushkas, plunks on a stiff old beret (the one she made from an old overcoat nine years ago), knots the whole thing under her chin with a scarf and gets a move on. It’s her man says she gets her ass moving:
“Whacha think you’re doing again—getting your ass in gear?” he croaks from between the covers heaped over the quilt where he’s holed up with one of her old sweaters wrapped around his head like a rag since he can’t find the wooly cap he usually wears.
He rasps between words when he speaks. Tall and fat, he’s over two hundred pounds by now. The skin of his neck hangs down loose. He has full cheeks, though, almost ruddy, covered in white stubble, unshaved for days.
“…damned habit you’ve got. You really gotta go out roaming the streets…You’ve been dropping your snot on other people’s doorsteps all your life…”
“What’s it to ya,” she answers back.
She doesn’t even give him a look. Ready to go, bundled up as she is, she goes out to the store room and rummages around. She shuffles through odds and ends. While she’s at it, she collects a few more bits for the road: a pint of pickled peppers, onions, since she has plenty this winter, a few head of garlic, the leftover tsuica that she pours into a (smaller) cough syrup bottle. She crams it all in the satchel, on top of empty plastic bags. She doesn’t like to visit with nothing to bring. Not to mention, the way people are, any old thing might come in handy.
“What’s it to ya…” she answers back.
And she doesn’t even listen to what else he has to say. He can go on yammering till he foams at the mouth. Let him listen to himself talk. It’s not worth cash and he can shove it up his ass, as she used’ta tell Madam Ioaniu... And she’d have the old lady in stitches….
It doesn’t get to her anymore. As soon as she sees he’s getting worked up and starting to boil over, she goes out to the store room: Devil take you, you and your father along for the ride. To hell with you, she mutters under her breath.
She’s talking for her own benefit, and she keeps letting him have it as she passes from the store room into the shop. He has no idea what she’s talking about. For some time now, he’s been deaf in one ear. He only hears what suits him, so she goes on cursing till she cools down.
It’s dark in the shop. What heat there is seeps in from the store room. They used to heat with a pot bellied stove. What good would it do now? How long since they closed the shop? Twenyfi’ years. No, more. In the shop: logs stacked along two walls, and coals on one side—why would you make a fire when you don’t have room to swing a cat. The old buffet with its doors falling off their hinges, large jars of pickled peppers, sacks of potatoes, the pans, the slosh bucket…She moves around minding her business until the old sod gets bored and shuts up. She only goes back into their room then.
Kneeling with a groan, she lays a fire in the stove with plenty of coal and leaves the little door open because he…There’s no relying on him, and when she comes back in the evening she could find the house ice cold.
“What else should I do,” she says, “stay here in bed like someone I know and look at you…As if I hadn’t had it up to here after forty years.”
Only, it’s taken her so long to answer him back, all he can do now is give her a blank look, keep his trap shut and wonder what came over her out of the blue. A saying pops into her head, meanwhile: I have a needle for your sheepskin, you bum—but she doesn’t say that out loud—what a damn bastard you’ve been…
She never cared for him, zac’ly cause of that, although when she saw him the first time she couldn’t say she didn’t like his looks.
She was standing behind the counter at the little booth where she worked in
What a sweet shop Zamfirescu had—around where the statue of Kogălniceanu is now—and Lord knows what her husband didn’t bring her from the factory! Chocolate, and all kinds of bonbons, and fondants…Zamfirescu used to give them to everyone who worked at his place, and for the holidays, and for Easter, what chocolate eggs, what big blocks of chocolate—big as that, so help me. If she could only have them now! Only, back then she got to the point when she didn’t want to see them before her eyes. She was that sick of them. That’s how people are, you see…Hey, but wasn’t Zamfirescu the gentleman, though? He got to the point of being in the queen’s en-tour-age. He was rubbing shoulders with the noblest families. Anyways, her man stayed with Zamfirescu three years. Not that he had much schooling, but he wrote real fine. You should see the signature he pulls off even now with a curl underneath, just so.
Finally, with what he’d put aside from Zamfirescu and with what Daddy had given her for a dowry, he opened the shop. When he counted the dowry money—what do you know?—Daddy goofed. Him, who if you would’ve begged him, he woundn’t’ve dug small change out of his pocket, Daddy put fifteen thou’ extra in the count. And her moron husband, the old jackass, comes to her all scared:
“What do we do?” he says. “Look, your ol’man made a mistake when he counted my money…What do we do?” says the dope. “Should we give it back to him? You take it, see, and give him…”
“Give it here,” she had to tell him then, “and don’t you breathe another word because them monies is mine. That’s all I’ll ever get out of the old miser.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Daddy, he left all he had to the children of his number two, may the cash turn to dust. Still, with the dowry and with what her man saved as long as he was with Zamfirescu, she put one bill on top of the next so’s to open the shop in
“What’s the use of bringing you more,” he said, “if you don’t ever wear them?”
Where was she supposed to wear them, if she stood behind the counter all day long? And he didn’t have a care in his head. He’d go to the cinema, to matches. He’d never miss a game if there was one going at Juventus stadium. You’d have said he owned the Venus team…Now, he only goes out in fine weather. He strolls down to
“You’re leaving me on my lonesome,” he whines.
He goes back to watching TV sitting up, propped against the pillows. They’re rerunning the film from last night again, but he’s watching it a second time anyhow… and in a changed voice but almost in the same breath he says:
“Vica, bring me a glass of water…”
“Can’t you stir yourself, devil take you? As if your momma spoon fed you, back in the country where you came from.”
Only, she puts down the satchel anyhow. She goes back into the store room, brings him a full glass and puts it in his hand. All wrapped up as she’s been for close to an hour since she got ready to go, she stays next to him and waits till he swallows so that she can put the glass back down on the table herself.
“What did you say?” he asks, and lies back down in bed yawning. “What did you say just now? You keep mumbling all the time.”
“That’s enough! Shut your face,” she snaps. She snatches up her bag and leaves, rattling the store room windows as she goes.
She picks her way slowly among the crooked stones of the courtyard glazed with a treacherous morning layer of ice. She has stabbing pains in her swollen lower legs, even though she rubbed them with lamp oil last night and put on her thick wool socks today. It looks as though the weather’ll change. She stops an instant to catch her breath. The cold air has gone to her head. She takes a gnarled hand from her pocket. The hand is swathed in a knitted glove, frayed at the tip, and she rests it on the flaking shutter of the old shop. For the past twenty years since they closed the shop, that shutter’s been covered by rust and dust, and the way it is now, you can’t tell the shutter from the wall. WINES FROM THE HILL O’DAWN used to be written in large letters below, on the right, next to it. Lower still used to be the step, which they took away when they closed the shop. They bricked in the shutter and removed the step—why keep it when no one was going to come in through the front anymore? Wines and Spirits, fully licensed. But oh what cured meats they used to have! What large, molded cheeses they had! The clientele was coming from Coriolan Street and from the Sabine’s Street, and all the streets around…The people would come, sample, buy, exchange a few words, clink a glass or two, order snacks. What cheeses, what sardines, what imports, what delicacies they stocked back then.
“Hey hey, Madam Delcă”—that’s how some customer would start—“your place beats Dragomir Niculescu’s.”
And that’s how she watched her youth fly away, tending a zinc bar sloshed in drink. Driven by cries from the tables, she’d be running here and there, dodging between clinking wine glasses and shots of ţuica.
“Hey, Missus Vica, you deaf? …Miiisus Viiica!”
As for her man, he’d stick in bed, spread eagled in the backroom, just like now. He’d only leave the room to pitch a drunk or come frowning around to check if someone put a hand on her ass. When you least expected it, there he was behind you bang all of a sudden. He’d loom in and take a gander. The way he was his whole life, he enjoyed inspecting—God forbid he should set his hand to a thing. Not that anyone could hear him coming in all that racket. And when they did see him, they’d quiet down just like that. That’s how he kept them all, in a state of fear.
“Hey, Mistah Delcă, how’s about taking a glass with us,” someone from the newer customers would shout, one that hadn’t learned his ways.
But “No thanks, I’m not accustomed,” her man’d come back in that thin voice of his.
He’d grump around for a while like he wanted to spoil those guys’ fun and make ’em choke on their drinks. He’d go into the back room after that. He’d get himself all gussied up, and he’d hit the road: going to ball games, to the movies, roving around town. And she’d be left to deal with the suppliers, with unloading goods, with all the madness that landed on her head—with everything. She had meat on her bones, not like these chippies today, scrawny, thin as a board, without no ass to speak of, nor nothing for a man to grab…Her, she had meat on her bones, solid built and zaftig. The floor boomed under her when she walked, her with her curly hair knotted in a small bun at the back, her face well-fleshed and white. If she wanted, she’d ’ve been able to do anything, but that wasn’t her way. She wasn’t one of those cheap…There was this one guy, tall with a mustache, thin and black, with a mean look too. It’s like she could see him now. He worked at the
“You like it?” he said to her once. “If you like, see, it’s yours.”
“Better you wear it yourself in good health,” she replied. “I don’t need things like that. I gotta man of my own.”
Gorgeous man, but he must have been the devil’s own son. You could see it, the way his eyes played in his head. When the Communists came, he vanished like into thin air. He left wife, house, kids. That was it. He up and went. No one heard a thing about him after that. Some people, if they’d gotten their hands on him, they’d have eaten him alive—he couldn’t have clean hands with rings like that. Not that he was the only one after her neither. There was a ton. But she didn’t have a mind for doing dirty things. She didn’t belong to that class of people, and on top of that she was worn out with work. Just as Madam Ioaniu had told her—she was an educated woman, Madam Ioaniu, and she’d had two husbands—“Vica, I’m telling ya, an overworked woman ain’t a good wife.”
Satchel in her left hand, she walks with a stoop, as if she had a hump on her back. What with everything she’s got underneath, her faded blue overcoat’s nearly bursting at the seams. That’s how she goes, head down, looking neither left or right. It’s maybe fifteen years since she’s been in the center of
She walks with a stoop. By now, she’s passed the little garden where the old timers play chess in the summer and where several crows perch cawing on the greenish statue of that naked lady. Her brother Ilie, God rest his soul, used to know her name. He’d mention it every time he passed this way. What the hell did he call her? Nyph…or was it Nynph. She could walk all the way from home to the tram stop, with a blindfold even. That’s how well she remembers it all. She could tell you every house, every pot hole, even, although beyond these fences here there’s kind of been new people moving in, but the old neighbors all know her.
“Kiss yer hand, Madam Delcă, how’re you doin’? Kiss yer hand Madam Delcă, they cry when they see her coming.
They all love and e-steem her too, and as soon as she runs into anyone she stops for a chat. Each of ’em plagued with somethin’ or other: liver, gall bladder, blood pressure—you name it. If she had a penny for every time she chalked up the bill to credit, she’d be a rich woman. And look at them, not one of them comes to say, “Here ya go Missus Vica, twen’y-five lei. It might come in handy…”
That’s how it goes in this world. When you have what to give, you’re great. When you’re down and out, you’re not worth a frozen onion. She knows. With what she’s lived and learned, she could teach the others a thing or two. University of life, night school, as she used to tell Madam Ioaniu, and how the old lady laughed…School of life, because other than that, what would she have known other that that? Work and more work. Nothing other than work, work work…
She climbs heavily up the tramway stairs, digs out the coins ready in her pocket and elbows her way to the front seats through the bodies packed like sardines.
Work, work, work. That was her life from the age of eleven on when Mommy died and she was left alone with a swarm of little brothers behind her. ’Cause Dad had left for the war, and in the summer a year later Mommy came down with typhoid fever. She got typhus, or God only knows. Poor Mommy. She died on them. And Sile died too, the little one, being that he had no one to nurse him, and the twins—dead as well—but she, and Ilie, and Niculaie, they lived because they were big kids by then and their time hadn’t come. They went on living on their own in their old house in Pantelimon near the Capra church, where they buried Mommy. They were on their own, she with the swarm of brothers after her. Who lived, lived; who died, died. It was all according to their luck. You shoulda seen how their gran-ma wuz commin’ to visit. She was Greek, and she took on airs like a lady, too. It’s like she can see her now in a dress of silvergray ottoman, buttoned to the neck with tiny buttons and the lace trim at her sleeves. With a fur on her shoulders. Yes, it seems she can see her just as she was: big-and-strong, thick at the waist with big tits, like all the women in their clan. So she’d lace herself up tight in a corset. She had a real whale bone corset, just like that. Only personally, she doesn’t remember anything about a hump. Could it be that her gran-ma had a hump on her back? She was a lady, her Greek gran-ma, and she kept a newspaper kiosk next to her house. The house was built wagon-style house, with a glassed-in entry on Holy Apostles Street. She was a lady alright, but her grandchildren couldn’t stand her, because why had she put Mommy up for adoption? If she hadn’t put Mommy up for adoption, if she had raised her with her other son and daughter, hey hey, her poor mother’s life would have been way different. She would have gone to the school for young ladies. She would have been raised as a young lady, and she wouldn’t have wound up married to an Oltenian, and she wouldn’t have worked behind a counter, and she wouldn’t have drug her feet through the mud of Pantelimon with seven children hanging from her skirts. Poor Mommy! If her ma, the Greek lady, hadn’t put her up for adoption, her life would have been different altogether and maybe she wouldn’t have died at thirty-three years, giant of woman and in her prime. That’s what the women in the neighborhood said whenever her gran-ma the Greek lady would make her way to Pantelimon to see her grand kids. The neighbors couldn’t stand her, and her grand kids couldn’t stand her either, and when she asked them to call her granmama, devilish kids that they were, they called her grandminator…God rest grandminator’s soul too, eh hey, it’s been so long since she turned to dust. She keeps the old lady’s picture in a drawer even now, a photo taken at the studio of that German photographer—what was his name?—Freed-reek-beender. Grandminator stands proud and tall, with a fox fur at her neck and boots with high heels. Elegant boots, with that fancy thing in the soles to make them creak as you walked. She used to rub them with castor oil and close them with a button hook. Because grandminator took care of herself all her life—the very reason she put her own daughter up for adoption, not to have too many children at her doorstep. And that’s why she didn’t bother too much over her grand kids neither. And that’s why, poor souls, whenever they really needed anything bad, they’d run to their uncle, Wash-Cabbage, who had a house across the street from the church. He had a big house with a high fence, with wine cellars and mean dogs. A miser that one, a miser and a cheese-parer. That’s how he got to be called Wash-Cabbage…
“Hey, woman, will ya shift that basket of yours to one side? Since you got on, you been blocking the way.” A short broad-shouldered man shouts right by Vica’s ear.
She knows what he’s going on about: a wicker basket loaded with two shrilling hens, their crests hanging limp. A peasant woman got on with them two stops back. As for Vica, she’d noticed the woman when she came in by the exit door.
“So where do you want me to put it, then, huh?” the country woman comes back. She gives the basket a tug and starts dragging it past the legs of the people around. The hens flap their wings and jerk their bound legs.
“That’s second class travel for you—climbing on with baskets, with cabbage, and whatnot …Some people even bring their dogs.” The man who complained turns to address a scrawny old man in a cap. The old guy, who’s sitting across from Vica, just nods his head. Only the hard veins in his neck thicken under the soft skin.
“You lay that basket here next to me,” Vica starts. She tucks the basket between the legs of her seat. “People hike on with what they got. They aren’t supposed to walk just because some other people are making a fuss…Let ’em get on as long as they pays their ticket. Why shouldn’t they?” Vica lets the man who complained have a strong answer back.
Hah! Let them all hear, including the ones who turn up their noses and only feel comfortable travelling first class cause they figure second class stinks. As for her, she’s only travelled second class since the shop closed, and it didn’t kill her neither. She pays a quarter ’v a leu and rides second class. They is people there too, in both classes, here and there. If she wasn’t thrifty, she wouldn’t have got along for a week with what her man brought home. She picks up her satchel and gets down from the tram in a gingerly way.
The air smells of damp. It’s the end of winter although people with shopping bags in their hands are still pulling sledges with slumped children over a thin crust of filthy snow. In a forest of cranes—unmortared buildings, heaps of debris covered with covered with tar paper, locked sheds, made of wood. She pants and walks slower than usual. She’s afraid of tripping on some of the wires those bastards left all over the place last fall. She can hardly wait to get where she’s going. Her hinges haven’t been up to even a trip like this for a good while now. It’s tough, getting old, and she’s hungry on top of that, even though she drank a big mug of tea and dunked bread in it before setting out. She don’t start nothing on an empty stomach, come what may. She gets queasy and kind of faint otherwise. She’s good for nothing all day after that.
She could bet you… she’d set her hand on fire…. her sister-in-law hasn’t even started cooking yet. That one was a slowpoke all her life. You could pee your pants waiting for her to do any little thing. She complains out of nothing about every jot and tittle. Before they moved here she’d go on about their being cooped up, that you didn’t have anyplace to move around. Now: the place is too far away. It takes forever to get anywhere by bus…If only the shoe were on the other foot. If only her sister-in-law had lived like her, forty years in that shack, heating with coals, worrying about replacing the bottled gas—let her talk after that! For herself, when she gets to their place, it’s like going to heaven, and she’s been telling them so for three years since they moved. Her sister-in- goes on anyway, murmuring against fate.
All those times her sister-in-law complained that the windows didn’t close properly, or the door wasn’t on its hinges right or everything was too far away…
“You should just shut up,” Vica shouted, finally. “Shut your trap. It’s heaven on earth here, no less. You shouldn’t make God angry.”
And it worked out like that too, see. Truer words was never spoken because that accident happened to Ilie, and he died, rest his soul, not even a year after that. Only then did her sister-in-law learn what hardship was. That’s when she got to see for herself what it was like to take matters in her own hands and get by on her own. Poor Ilie, rest his soul, he didn’t disobey that woman once in his whole life, to the point where she was holding onto all the money in the house. It got so bad, her brother had to slip Vica a twen’y-five on the sly as she left:
“Here ya go, Vica, for the tram fare next time you come visit us,” he’d say from the door.
Her sister-in-law can’t twist Ilie’s son Gelu around her finger the same way, though. That’s a helluva lad. Takes after her, takes after her people. He snaps at her for every little thing, and she’s afraid of rubbing him the wrong way all the time: “Gelu, sweetheart, it’s like this, it’s like that, blah blah blah.” Gelu doesn’t have a care in the world. All the time with his nose in his papers…set the table, clear the table…If she had had children of her own, she’d have shown them what the hell was what. Better that she did have them. Who knows how they might’ve turned out. Kids today don’t have no fear. Or respect neither.