The Controlled Echo Effect

Mircea Nedelciu | November 01, 2008
Translated by: Florin Bican

 

The Controlled Echo Effect

A thick glass tumbler, chipped around the rim, brimming with wine the colour of cooking oil, the glaring light of a desk lamp, a stack of white paper, the noise of faucets reverberating through pipes all over the building, a door left ajar, the entrance hall, a second door left ajar can be seen through the first one. In the dining area, Cornelia is chatting with one of the girls at work. A detail of her knee and, by turns, her nose and forehead alternating with a fragment of forearm fill the high narrow gap in the doorway. At times their voices send forth the odd high-pitched vowel or even a complete word, unintelligible, though, out of context. The world, then, yet a world seen through a slit of the kind just described, decomposed to non-functional, non-anatomical fragments. One of the doors is slammed shut. Now they must have moved on to some more intense gossip, no doubt, the kind that doesn’t allow too many witnesses. Extended focus on door. “You’re a mouse now, my friend,” says Artist, “grey-furred and wide-eyed with panic. You sit down behind your desk, papers spread before you, but you don’t as much as start nibbling on them by way of reading them or dealing with them. All you do is look for a hole where you can dart out of sight at short notice. Want some coffee? Let’s get us some coffee. Or is it you’re afraid it’s bad for your arteries? I tell you what – first time you tell me that kind of crap, I’ll throw you out. And here’s how: I’ll tie you up in a bundle and drop you out of the window. I’m going easy on you, since we’re on ground level. And I’m going easy on account of knowing you used to be a street dog and ended up being a mouse because they failed to round you up for the knackery. They forgot all about you at the knackery, my friend. And so you thought you’d get by. Will one sugar do?”

You were listening to him as you fought back a smile, the way you always did while closely examining one of the large-format canvases where he’d just started working.. You knew that got on his nerves. The secret of certain touches of colour would come to you all by themselves.  If you happened to tell him later when the painting was finished “I know how you did that – first a brush stroke this way, then another one that way,” he’d go ballistic, call you a spy, say it wasn’t fair. Some other times, though, no matter how cautiously you’d examine a painting in various stages of completion, there was no way you could catch him, and then he was beside himself with joy. He seemed more pleased than by any success at an exposition.

At twenty five minutes past three, though, the office door opens a chink and a pointed nose advances resolutely. This nose, with which every one in the office is well acquainted, looms in the resulting slit, “Hey, what’s this guy up to? It’s almost half past three. We gotta go home.” The glance squeezing past the ungenerous aperture of the door does not rest on the sheaves of paper already stacked away, so it’s not exactly the glance of a boss – it’s searching for something and, having found that something, it lights up with the hint of a smile:

- Comrade Griguţă, don’t leave yet, hey, I’ve got something to tell you, okay?

- Sure thing, comrade, er…

The door clicks shut, though. Now it occurs to him to tell you something, of all times. Couldn’t get round to it the whole day… The others start dressing. The women proceed to surveying their phizogs in the tiny mirrors they keep in their drawers for that reason. It’s thirty minutes past three. They greet you as they leave, with various degrees of insinuation.

- Out of favour, back in favour, the last one quips, taking off his cap and bowing down with exaggerated civility.

You take a sip of wine and screw your face up. You’re no connoisseur, and even though you know some go so far as to claim wine can be analysed as a work of art (by resorting to the bulk of aesthetic criteria established so far), you’re personally unaccustomed to the  much-praised  fruit of the vine, and  for you the first encounter turns our on the unpleasant side as a rule. You put your desk in order, fiddle with the lamp – for no apparent reason – in search of the optimum angle, and once again you focus on the yellowish wine and the none-too-elegant glass that holds it.

           

            It was red wine that time, dark, almost black. The Maitre had conjured it out of his forgotten personal reserves, and in appreciation of his gesture, Fatache had instantly started a lengthy  conversation on true quality in such wine, sampling it, displaying expertise akin to a sommelier’s and thus causing the Maitre (still standing at abject attention) to be awed by such knowledge, however inaccurate. You were anyway still shell shocked to have been asked by “comrade Fatache” to join him at his table, and made irregular attempts to contribute your opinion, in support of his own, of course. Triescu was also in constant agreement with Fatache, acting inexperienced as far as wines were concerned and asking prize questions on cue. Ten minutes into the conversation, the Maitre had politely apologised, giving them to understand he had lots of work waiting for him (indeed, he went on to parade the premises for the next half hour or so, scrutinizing the waiters, signalling them discreetly or shooting them glances fraught with abuse), then left. Fatache continued on the topic of wine for a while (you and Triescu were all ears through all of it, signalling agreement and interposing the odd exclamation of enchantment). Then he then moved on to his trips abroad, women, Jews, gossip. From time to time you’d comply with the request to contribute some joke and exulted, with due modesty, of course, whenever Fatache condescended to burst into poorly timed peals of  laughter.

 

All these things ought to be put into writing, and already the lamp seems to be tilted at an inefficient angle. Your skin itches for no apparent reason. The door the girls closed in secrecy gets on your nerves, and the wine is irritatingly unpalatable.

-When d’you think you could take a couple of days off, not from your holidays—just so, on the quiet, to nip over with me to the Apuseni mountains? Or wont missus’ let you?

- Can’t, just now, but I sure will.

                        - Wait till you see the photos I took there… Didn’t I tell you, I bought me a log house out there. Got it for three thousand. It’s not exactly in the village, so the owners moved out of it. They have no use for it anymore, they were just happy to find a crazy asshole who’d pay the three thousand.

                        You watch him tidying the dirty wooden coffee table, setting the two cups, the ashtray, the cigarettes, switching off a light, then switching on another one. “Guy’s a maniac,” you tell yourself and you try imagining him out there in the log house, clay floor an’ al. You picture him patiently going about the business of lighting the fire. You admire him, actually, for his permanent ritual contact with matter. And all the time you can see his face glowing with the kind of joy you can’t access.

                        -I’m having them developed. The negatives will be ready tomorrow, and I’ll start working on them. Got some real fine paper, Hungarian, excellent contrast. Or let me better tell you about the meal I had yesterday. D’you want to hear about the meal I had yesterday?

-Nope.

-Come on, you, pickled mouse, you, let me tell you about it… It was a genuine feast.

You were finding it harder and harder to get a word in, ask him a question, get him, so to speak, to talk about the things that worried you.

The office door had finally swung open again (you were alone, smoking, and it was already twenty to four) to make room for that ridiculous nose (all the more ridiculous since it was attached to the boss), then for the rest of Bencu, complete with that impish smirk, apt to rearrange itself into an intransigent mask at any moment.

-Comrade Griguţă, he’d started as he eased himself onto a chair while signalling to you to resume your sitting position—at the office you are Griguţă or comrade Griguţă, you used to be Grig for the girls, in you bachelor days, in your ID you’re Gregor Vranca, back in your student days you were Pope Gregory, while at home Cornelia still calls you Grig—now here’s why I asked you to hang on for a bit. You weren’t in a hurry, were you?

-Nah…

-Now then… you happened to be with Fatache from the ministry back in Sibiu, when he got drunk, you know, when he did what he did and you had to pay, you and Triescu, right?

-Well, yes, I was, but…

-Now, please don’t get me wrong, what I’d like from you – Triescu has already obliged – is to write me a few pages telling the whole thing ‘zackly like it happened.

-Wha’?!

-Y’know… I mean don’t get me wrong, like I said, you’re a reliable person, we gotta… all by ourselves, like… know what I mean? How shall I put it… that type of guys who… through the connections they have or give the impression they have, you know… it’s value, man. What if he’s at the ministry and we’re here? ‘zackly like it happened an’ don’t write no inventions or stuff… know what I mean?

-Well yes, but…

                         -I know, I know… you don’t have to worry. No one will know. Look, you don’t even have to sign it. You write it all like it happened an’ that’s that. Will you? Griguţă? Will you, m’friend?

                        -Guess I could, but…

            -Look, that’s how we gonna go about it… You go home, think the whole thing over, but careful, like, please. Y’know how. Remember how it all came about, hey, and write it all down. Two or three pages, not more, huh?

            He had lowered his voice to a whisper, almost, though there was no one else in the office and maybe not in the other offices either. He’d leant forward, far over the desk, towards you. You were trying to keep your cigarette away from him, like you didn’t want to bother him with the smoke while he, though a non-smoker, wasn’t bothered at all, and finally you’d consented.

            -But… it’s just between us, huh? No one should find out, he’d added as he was shaking your hand, and then he had let you go.

            He was staying on. Had a job to finish. Probably so as to avoid leaving together with you.

            Out in the street, the air after the rain had cheered you up, but not for long, and not for the rest of the day, by any means. Under the circumstances, you were not exactly in the mood to give the air you breathed too much consideration. You suddenly got it into your head to give Artist a call, consequently. You didn’t know whether he’d be home or not. He’d left for the Apuseni mountains some days before, but you felt like talking to someone for a spell. You wanted to hear his whispered considerations – unrealistic, funny. After he’d answered the phone and you’d started for his place, you pondered on how you’d simply ask him: “A smaller boss is asking you to do shit to a bigger boss. What are you supposed to do in such a case?” and afterwards you’d enjoy listening to his aberrations. But as it happened, you still had to wait for the opportunity to arise.

            “-The missus has this colleague – girl’s been married for some round number of years, they’re… whaddja call ‘em?... nouveau riche, and they thought they’d have a reception for the occasion. Fancy that – a reception! Lousy assholes… And the missus says “Change into your suit. We’re going to a reception.” I’d been riding the train for the whole day and as a rule I hit the roof when I hear the word “suit,” but at the mention of “a reception” I couldn’t help laughing and off I go. I had ten-hours-on-a-train’s worth of hunger, if you know what it feels like. If you want some more coffee, there’s the pot…

            The new painting he was working on looked like an agglomeration of misshapen tiny houses, some street at the outskirts or some quarter undergoing demolition. All sorts of geometrical daubs of colour were huddled together around a white square of sorts occupying the centre and coming forth as an open window timidly crossed at the bottom by two blossoming twigs. Off frame. Artist was talking, fussing, laughing to himself. How could you catch his attention now, ask him a question and get him to focus on the moral implication of your acts? Get him to discourse in a scholarly manner on your boss, Bencu, head of department in the most sensitive institution of the ministry, and express an opinion, in his style, on the “two, three pages” you were supposed to be writing concerning Fatache, Bencu’s opposite number at ministry level?

 

It’s true, though. Fatache got drunk as a skunk, was swearing at the waiters, wanted to pick a fight with some workers drinking at a neighbouring table, wanted to show one an’ all just how big he was, shoving his ministry ID in their faces, you and Triescu were trying your best to calm him down and were getting suddenly sick of “bigwig Fatache,” but from here to the mean stab in the back that Bencu was urging you to give him, there was still some way to go. Granted, after the argument with the waiters, a steep cheque had landed on their table. They’d all seemed to have forgotten that the wine had been brought by the Maitre on a complimentary basis. Fatache was no longer compos mentis. The Maitre had vanished into thin air, you’d had to foot the whole bill together with Triescu, which did not mean at all that Fatache had forced you to pay for his drinks.

 

The door opens again, wider this time, and Cornelia’s friend enters to say good bye.

            -How you doing, Grig? she asks and you shrug your shoulders with a guilty smile, yet there’s no way for her to know how the guilt came to be in your smile, so she doesn’t even notice. Working again? You’ll wind up becoming a philosopher, honey, she goes on, and you’re laughing, reticently this time, like one who’s already become a philosopher and has to confess accomplishment, willy-nilly.

            Cornelia joins in the general mirth. Her friend is susceptible of having been ever so funny. Or have they been plotting the joke together? Who knows? You stand and ceremoniously peck her cheek goodbye – this girl you went to college with, yet to whom you are momentarily unable to attach a name. You see her to the door with Cornelia, return to your desk, take another sip of the white wine, remember that in the afternoon, in Artist’s flat, instead of listening to him and taking that jump into imponderability you had promised yourself on your way there, you were staring at the painting behind him.

            “-And the honourable lady had found in some moron magazine or at some of my illustrious artist-companions’ an idea of an evening dress in simultaneous and monumental agreement with both her inanity and her figure. Seldom before had I seen anything scruffier, so my mood soared instantly, and I homed in on the foie gras. Fancy that, you, office rat, you – what’s a boy’s remedy for ten years of marriage? Foie gras’s the answer, mon cher. Truth to tell, she’d have looked great with a foie gras necklace thrown in for good measure. Should have given her the tip. O but you ought to have seen all the other guests how they’d raise their left pinkies on taking hold of the cutlery in order to sample the said foie gras. It was a wonder to behold. Wait, I’ve got here a tape of Jacques Brel, lemme play it for you, to hear the dude singing: “Les bourgeois/ C’est comme les cochons,/ Plus ça devient vieux,/ Plus ça devient  bête!” And the conversation… what should I say? They’re not even worth ridiculing. You just gotta see them. Where the hell do they hide all these “qualities” of theirs when they’re younger, I wonder?

            Now the cassette recorder was playing a French song in the background and you could see Artist, his cynical philosopher’s face, following the lyrics and laughing to himself, all gone bonkers, saying:

            “-And O, my dear, at the feast were present the gods themselves. Cash was there, Apartment (decorated to kill and accompanied by Vila, who’d donned a swimming-pool necklace for the occasion), Automobile, Resident-of-the-capital, Passport, Trips-and-relatives-abroad, as well as other lesser Gods. Without being noticed, they’d join the guests’ exalted talk, and the mere mortals were bowing down to them incessantly.

            “-And what title have you thought of for this one?” you finally asked, interrupting Artist’s monologue and pointing to the painting behind him.

            -Erm… that one? I’ll call it “ Echo Street,” that’s what the street is called. It’s  somewhere at the outskirts, scheduled for demolition, I’d say.

            Now you’re trying again to concentrate in front of the still blank sheet of paper.

            How should the text turn out in order to be useless for Bencu? How could it be turned into a boomerang? And to what extent could that ‘zackly like it happened you were so insistently asked for be carried out on paper? Could it be that there lies the possibility of its becoming a boomerang? How could you, while writing the text, retain maximum anonymity? How could you start? How could you end up, in order to show clearly you’re not playing Bencu’s game but simply writing to avoid unpleasant circumstances? But what if you didn’t write a thing and went to work tomorrow all serene (“Can’t do that sort of thing, comrade Bencu.”). What then? He’d smile at you in a chummy way (“That’s OK, comrade Griguţă.”), but there are departments of your enterprise spread all over the country and in just a few days your help would be needed for four or five months in Baia Mare or Oradea or Cluj. Cornelia would make one of her scenes (“sure, that’s typical you, a wimp, if ever I saw one”), and many other unpleasant moments would follow and pile up. Yet are such excuses sufficient to do a mean job? After all, any act can be justified by petty excuses. Bencu himself gave you the proof. Triescu, in his turn, would be ready to give you another at the drop of a hat. He’s not playing the hero. But does history (even the history of a marriage or of an enterprise) truly need heroes? Granted, heroes do require certain conditions in order to emerge. What’s daily heroism supposed to mean, and what does it lead to? And, at the end of the day, do you have the appearance of a hero? You, with Cornelia’s scenes, with the mortgage to pay, with your fear of not being sent too far? C’mon, now… And even if you weren’t bothered with any of those things, you did promise you’d write “two, three pages.” Would you be morally justified in going back on your promise? Write, Griguţă, and cut the drama. Really, you think that if you’re an economist you know what makes the world tick? After all, even Artist, after you finally got round to telling him the story, said you should write.

“-Mr Mouse, you write a letter for the guy asking you to do the deed, and you start like this: ‘Fuck you!’ ending on a similar note with ‘Sincerely up yours.’ An excellent phrase for such cases, it seems to me. Downright beautiful, stylistically exquisite.”

-And what about Cornelia?...

-Right, I’d almost forgotten her. You make two copies - one  addressed to her directly if you get my meaning.

For him it was a simple enough problem, and he’d started rinsing the coffee cups. Then he set them on their rims to drain and went back to working on his canvas.

-Truth to tell, I’ve been asking myself why the Town Hall called it “Echo Street” of all things. And I haven’t got a clue. I’ll be damned if I do. But I’d say that, in spite of myself, I keep thinking of one and the same thing. Have a careful look at the way colours succeed each other from the centre towards the outside.

-Sure, you said. Still, that’s nothing but a fade out, an effect stopping at the frame. You’ll give the thing a frame, right?

At this point he really hit the roof and yelled at you:

-Yeah, sure I’ll give it a frame. I’ll give it a frame, and have it exhibited, and there’ll finally come some asshole to buy it and hang it in his dining room and eat foie gras or French fries under it. That good enough for you?

-I guess, you replied. Got some other music?

He didn’t, so you went on listening to Jacques Brel.

Cornelia is banging things in the bathroom. You sense her crossing to the bedroom, switching on the lights. You’d like her to say something. And probably reading your mind, she opens the door and asks you:

-You coming to bed?

-Not yet. I’ll stay up for a while. Good night.

-Good night.

That’ll do. People are in great need of information. At all times, of all kinds.

-Living efficiently means living on adequate information, Artist went on some ten minutes later when he cooled off a bit and started quoting from the classics of cybernetics. All the tragedies of the old world started out of lack of adequate information, come to think of it. If he’d only gotten that priest guy’s letter on time, Romeo wouldn’t have killed himself before Juliet came to. The tragedy would have concluded with a happy ending. But in that case, would Shakespeare’s text have had the same kind of value?

You were surprised. You’d never seen Artist trying to justify himself in any way.

In principle, that kind of tragedy wouldn’t be possible today. A phone call, a telegram, an hour’s journey by plane – everything can be solved.

Be that as it may, you don’t know where Fatache could be. Looks like he’s out of town. There’s no way you can communicate with him before tomorrow morning, and even if there were, is alerting him a solution for you?

-And who’s to decide which information is adequate for me and which isn’t, he’d say and he went back to pacing his studio, switching on a light, switching off another.

In the end you’d said goodbye to him and left.

Now the whole block is quiet, nor does any noise reach you from the street. Unchallenged, the night is ruling everywhere. You take another swallow of wine and suddenly, as if pierced by its sour flavour, you give a start. The story with that girl – Bencu didn’t seem to know anything about it. Had he known, he would have enjoined you not to forget to mention it.

 

Soon after midnight, after you’d managed to take Fatache to his room with a great deal of struggle, and you returned to your room down the same corridor. You heard a scream. You came out of your room immediately. There was Fatache with a girl in her twenties trying to escape his embrace. He was telling her: “D’you know who I am, slut?” You had to lock him in his room and take the key. The girl said you were to call the cops: that was attempted rape she’d been through. Only, when Triescu suggested she call herself from reception, the girl gave up and asked you for a cigarette. So it was only after she left that you asked yourselves what on earth she was doing at one o’clock all alone in the hotel corridor.

 

At any rate the episode had filled you with such nausea that you had driven it completely out of your mind. Could that have been the reason Triescu hadn’t mentioned it either? Or was it this omission he was using as a means of trying to communicate with you. Was that omission, then, truly adequate for Fatache? And all these things considered, what extra reason would they provide for you to feel justified to write?

 

Still, what is the night going to bring on the blank sheet before you?

 

 

The phone rings at six thirty and your hand automatically lifts the receiver and puts it to your ear. Your ear does not expect any additional information. “It is six hours and thirty minutes,” the operator says. Sometimes she throws in good morning” in the beginning or at the end. Other times she doesn’t have time. Does this make adequate information?

 

 

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