You push aside the cast-iron sewer lid and force yourself out on your scraggy arms. A wild, unknown light lashes your eyes while car horns pierce your ears like shards of glass. You don’t dodge them, nor do you roll over to the side like the actors you saw in the shots you peeked at around the door of some joint that has a TV set. You were smart enough to set up a way out in advance that runs out into a hidden sidewalk near the park.
You congratulate yourself for your wisdom while you still wait for your dizziness to pass and the turret lights that throb in your brain to go out. Then you’re heading straight for the park, stumbling as a drunk. A fresh smell of young blossoms lures you even more so than a loaf of fresh-baked bread barely out of the oven.
How you’d like to eat a loaf of fresh-baked bread!
Even two loafs to make up for your indigence during hibernation. Two loafs of bread dance in front of your eyes: slit down the middle for slices of lunchmeat thick as fingers – not those see-through slices from the supermarket – to fit into their bellies. You pass your swollen tongue over your thirsty-cracked lips and you see yourself in your lust-heated imagination putting a white napkin to your neck, like a real gentleman, and preparing your cutlery, when the ensnaring image vanishes as if blown by the spring wind. You spit a few curses with what little saliva you have left in your mouth.
But the need to eat won’t go away easily, and it skewers your mind like a bolt. After a few blank munches you’re willing to lower your standards. Now you’d settle even for a days-old slice of bread. The lunchmeat slices don’t have to be so thick neither.
If you’d see even one single person in the whole park, you’d hope for a handout but the alleys are deserted and your only chance stands in that maybe the garbage-men failed to do their job today. You’re heading as quickly as your stiff legs allow you to toward the first garbage can, fearing that somebody else would outrun by. Once the hibernation season comes to an end, any competition can prove fatal. Just a single shove is enough to put you down and break those few bones you have left uninjured. Then, farewell to freedom!, and you’ll crawl like a worm to the edge of the pit, then fall into it.
Fortunately, you’re amongst the first few awoken, and you enjoy exclusively a brimful garbage can. You’re about to stick your hand up to your elbow in its green sneering mouth, but you stop in midair. You raise your head just enough to bring your nose downwind.
You feel it, too, for the first time in years. No, it’s not the damned bread and lunchmeat you’re thinking of all the time – to hell with it, if you can’t have it – it’s an intoxicating scent, diaphanous as a dewdrop, but yet so strong it reaches you. So strong that it covers your own smell, that of an old dirty homeless person.
You half close your eyes and take a deep breath. If the scent had its own music, your nostrils would vibrate to the rhythm. And maybe your lungs wouldn’t think of expelling it like a poison. The breath that gushes out through your mouth is hot, smelling inexplicably of almonds.
You realize in wonder – stunned like the air around you – that you recognize at last the hideous aroma used by the confectioner. Strange how much you disliked this smell during childhood, customary to cakes and pies, and how it got now to overwhelm you. Of course, you would eat anything if you were hungry.
You look around baffled, peering through the leafy bushes, searching for the alleged pie left-overs, and then you see her, sitting on the bench to your left. She has big black eyes, a face whiter than the cherry blossoms that cling to her hair with each puff of the wind. You cannot help but giggle like a fool. The woman seems tall to you, if you were to judge by her long legs, just as long as the neck of a swan, the floral skirt revealing just as much as decency allows. A bit too tall for you, you say to yourself, forgetting for a moment who you are. So what? She’s beautiful and tall, just what you like in a woman.
Some other kind of hunger starts gnawing your insides.
You’d like to speak to her, to show off with… What would you be showing off in front of her? The paint-sniffers you beat in winter to take their place on the warm pipes? The bread crumbs you beg for at the railway station? No, you have nothing to say to this woman, though you would surely like to see her closely. If only you could find a reason to be noticed… No, not asking her money. You may be a no-hoper, the scum of society – literally, as you live in the sewer – but you don’t want to humiliate yourself in front of her. A woman doesn’t turn her gaze to a man who’s needier than her, that much you should know. You ponder and try to find a solution, but when you see the object that shines in her perfectly manicured hands all your ideas about dignity go down the drain.
The bespoke fine-grained lighter goes on and off like a lighthouse during a storm. And you are the ship on the brink of a shipwreck that needs to find its way toward land.
You’re heading remotely-controlled-like toward her. A cigarette! When did you smoke your last whole cigarette, not stubs fallen near garbage cans? you wonder while images from a misty past wheel in front of your eyes. You were someone else then, a prosperous and educated man. Socoale şapte şcoale your friends mockingly called you, making an example of who-knows-who from block 54 who ended up homeless from too much education. And – good friends as they were – they were right, unless you’re a superstitious one, thinking of them dears as jinxes.
But you can’t recall ever being superstitious. Naive and wistful, yes (you still are), otherwise you wouldn’t have ever believed you could trick your fate hidden under some dirty tatters. After you studied all fields possible and covered your walls in diplomas, it was to be expected that the prospect of a pretty good job would seem less alluring even than a slug. You studied out of fondness, or maybe because you had no choice, and after tens of years of cramming you saw yourself at the end of the road, side-tracked in some dusty office, forgotten there until retirement. Or perhaps quite the contrary – you were in your glory, sent to lecture about the culture of peanut butter in development of the egalitarian principles in who knows what third-world country. The specialists praised you, the journalists would quote your bold theories, young female students fought to study with you the subject you taught with such charisma.
It doesn’t even matter whether you lived your days fumbling into obscurity, or shining into the light. For you it was only the nights… the nights spent almost invariably in the fluorescent light of the casino fluorescents. You were, allegedly, interested in casinos from an anthropological perspective, or so you told yourself every time you sat at the poker table.
Hogwash! You have an itch for money.
And you messed up big. First, you were stripped of your little honest-man earnings: house, car, few savings. Then you started to slowly shed your honor, honesty and reason like old rags. You begged from friends, you put the screw on some naive relatives, a few bluffs here and there. You made both ends meet for a while. Then you began losing game after game. Or gaining enemy after enemy, it depends how you look at it. Your swindled friends turned their backs on you, the dusty office changed its lock, the fans of your fanciful theories scattered as if chased by a plague. Also – very important to remember – your congenial poker friends had started to lose their patience in a way that sounded too much like a threat to feel safe any longer. Two broken ribs, four chipped teeth and a quite serious cranial concussion were enough for you to understand that you had only one way to keep that fucking life of yours. Becoming invisible.
Dr. Exilian Socoale had to disappear. Once and for all. So you took him prettily by his neck as you would a kitten and lowered him down in a sewer you thought was condemned. After a few minutes you got out alone and shaking. With a few more bruises on your face, chest and back, and a new identity. Those wretched people from the sewer would remember their whole lives the whacking they got from Socu’ Bondocu’.
How the hell did you end up like this, you barely get to ask yourself in a moment of lucidity, the last one that you’ve got before her eyes train on you?
You feel heat taking you over as if thousands of whips were flogging you. The hotness dazes you and seems to grow with every step you take. No, it’s not your imagination, that beautiful woman is really looking at you. She even starts to smile from the corners of her red-rouged lips; it gives you trust and courage.
“Give me a smoke, missy, God bless you”, you hear yourself saying, like a robot, the standard line.
Fuck, you shout to yourself, a woman like this you only have once in a century, and not even then. And you go up to her saying petty lines even a retarded wouldn’t fall for. Fool.
You feel like slapping yourself for those stumbling words of an old beggar. If you had a wall nearby, you would smash your head against it, to end the embarrassing moment. But you don’t, so you just stare like a cadger to the lady with the cigarette.
The woman smokes on, unabashed, as if she were all by herself in the whole park, which is somewhat true. To her you’re nothing but a bunch of old smelling rags. In fact, you only now realize, her stare passes right through you as if you were nothing but a transparent human-shaped panel.
Your shoulders sag as if some husky man was straddling them, and your head bows to the ground. What did you expect? Taking a whole pack from her purse, three cigarettes sticking out smartly their white filters – one whole, one half and the last one a quarter – then telling you while smiling ‘here you are, sir, help yourself with a cigarette’?
Somehow, she tells you the same, except for the polite term which doesn’t matter to you anyway. You stored your dignity and self-respect in a sewer you forgot the way to.
“Here’s a cigarette for you”, he hears her, this time clearly, her voice surprisingly gentle for such a beautiful woman like her. Before, all these cutie pies were in fact old hags, you remember bitterly. How much the world changes while you hibernate! Even you lost some of the courage you mustered earlier. Now, you barely dare look at her, while she proffers the half-opened cigarette pack. It’s almost like in your dreams.
A gust of wind urges a few scraps whirling around your feet. Hers are small, dollish, with blood-red ballerina flats, beating the rhythm of a mute song. Tam-di-ram-dum-di. Yours are bare, but the thick layer of filth covering them gives the false impression that you’re wearing shoes. You carry no song with you, only bits of memories you have no use for. Chemical formulas, equations… and other relics from the time of ‘Socoale şapte şcoale’. You have no family or friends anymore to carry them in your thoughts, like her.
A flock of dry leaves covers your fancied shoes, tickling your toes that have livid nails. You looked at them thoughtfully. Just now you felt it is spring, barely out of the sewer, and not even a quarter of a breath ago you felt the summer heat on your very skin.
You stare suspiciously at the red filters which have something written on. In your good days you could’ve deciphered the brand, realizing that the beautiful woman threw pearls before swine. For you all cigarettes are alike: a luxury you would barely dare to dream of. Instead, you met before with that exotic spicy scent. No, not just now, but a long while ago, when you were doctor Exilian Socoale, an academic, doctor in Law Science, political scientist, sociologist, historian, literary critic, and remarkable chemist.
“Will you take it already?”
The warm kind smile disappears like magic, cast out by the unpleasant crescendo of her voice. The young lady fidgets on the wooden bench, blackened by rain, and throws frightened looks around. She looks like she’s ready to bolt or cry for help, depending on how you decide to react to her urging. With women like that you can never be sure so, for your own sake, you take the cigarette and move away on tiptoe.
The park garbage can is still your best friend. You scraped up from its insides a hearty lunch: three-quarter of a tuna sandwich, a few figs, the tip of a banana – and a little booze that was left on the bottom of a plastic bottle. The label said currant syrup, but the color and taste made you think otherwise, something home-made, most likely from toothpaste and rubbing alcohol. Doesn’t matter. The list of ingredients doesn’t fall into the category of your daily concerns, much less today when your new green plastic friend made you a surprise. A whole matchbox, though quite old and wet, probably suffused with the content of the plastic bottle you just found.
Now you can calmly light your cigarette, and you do so after you make sure that nothing edible is left in the green belly of the garbage can. Squeezed between two dirty fingers, the red filter wavers, right in front of your mouth.
First smoke is bitter and so crisp that you feel it speeding like a steam engine through your respiratory tract. You cough, a dry and short sound, not covering your mouth, then you spit it out with some regret for the pleasant sweetness that briefly caresses your lips.
You draw in another puff, rolling it around your mouth, just like you used to do in your childhood with that scarce drop of Eucharist. It has a vague taste of watered-down booze and verdigris fillings. If wine is Jesus’ blood, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that cigarette smoke is the blood of the Holy Ghost. You take in the idea with a dull smile at the corner of your mouth while the smoke that never got to roll down your neck seeps out through the toothless opening. The moment of religious illumination passes like any disease cured by ignoring it.
Now you can enjoy in peace and quiet your own two cigarettes. And that’s exactly what you’d do if you didn’t know that earlier they were only one, and now, strangely, they seem like three. And they move away as if your greedy maw would frighten them. Or maws, because they are more than one.
Several pairs of hands hurl crazily over your faces. They touch, hit and tear out blindingly. They engulf, push, spin and throw you around like a claw.
You fall down.
On your knees, on your fours, head down. You wriggle on the cold ground, you and the dry leaves, and the useless leftovers from the garbage can. Your eyes shut and open automatically, like the eyes of your sister’s dolls when you were children, your hands clenched spasmodically around the only object you hold between the fingers – a red-filter cigarette, half-smoked.
You kick your legs a couple of times before you settle down in the most uncomfortable position. Your neck is twisted sideways, your body is contorted, and your back is bared. But it feels better this way, it seems, and you don’t feel pain anymore.
Slowly, a page from yesterday’s newspaper, carried by the wind from who knows where, lands on your beaten body. You can’t see the letters, but the message plunges deeply into your skin, through your skin, under your skin and, taking the path of the blood, walks around inside your body as if in some deserted house.
The homeless wipeout goes on!
The body of a homeless man was found yesterday in the Youth Park in the capit…
The news freezes short. Gentle snowflakes sway outside in a silent snowfall.
Translated from the Romanian by Dan BUTUZA