The Old Lady

Rodica BretinI secured the last pipe and wiped the oil from my hands when a car careened into the garage, stopping right in the middle of it, wheels skidding. A convertible silver Porsche. I had a rough day; I felt it in my every nerve and bone – I should’ve closed up by now, but…I tossed the rag, shrugging my shoulders.

A woman stepped out of the car. She had a red fluffy ponytail and was wearing a long fur-coat and tinted butterfly glasses. Something struck me as familiar – maybe her fidgeting. I tried to recall, but she kept stomping her foot impatiently. As soon as she saw me, she started to blabber: the engine was choking, it was late, she barely made it here and…she gestured, going into tiptoes, as though she spoke using her whole body, and her unexpectedly strong voice filled the shop and made my temples buzz. The woman was used to asking and seeing her desires fulfilled before finishing her speech.

I raised the hood. The car was fine, but used up. The oil flowed like thickened blood, the metal was misty with rust and the crinkled tyre started to crack. And the Porsche was just one-year old, another two and it’ll lie in a pile of scrap iron.

The woman stranger kept blabbering. She let words fly like necklace beads that fell off the string and darted all over the place, clinking on the cement floor, stirring echoes. After a while they faded away – the woman was wandering around the garage. I heard the irregular clicking of her heels when she got around a metal sheet or stepped over puddles and rivulets of gunk. She was the restless type with no respite for her or for others. What do I care? I unscrewed one cap, then another and, into the web of cables, I found one broken, dangling like a lifeless artery.

 

The mechanic forgot about me as he stood there like a snail ensconced in its iron shell. I looked at my watch for the hundredth time. Each day held less time for me, I was dizzy struggling in a spinning sphere. Gigs at night, recordings, gym, shootings all day. The hairdressers, the massagists, the reporters (especially them), my agent on the verge of apoplexy; again the cameramen, the sound crew, the taylors, the makeup guys, my English teacher. A life, a world – dazzling, sparkling. A champagne I wanted to sip to the last drop…and now? The stadium spotlights had already been on, thousands of voices calling me, phones ringing at the hotel. And I was moving around in a squalid garage, counting my steps! I kicked an empty can and a few oil drops stained the white of my boot. What shall I do? What could take this unshaven man with dirty overalls out of his crazy languor?

A stack of boxes, a few barrels, then stairs wrapped around a massive newel post. The hall, long and narrow, reminded me of my father’s bakery. My folks: people to whom nothing ever happened, who lived and got old without anybody noticing. When did I last see them, I wonder?…With every passing year, memories grew dim about them, the house and the street. I used to send them money, sometimes a few lines: “All’s well, I’m happy.” And it was so true, too! Writing the name of that little town, forgotten amongst the polders, felt as if writing to someone dead. Or to the cemetery I lay in for sixteen years.

Doubtful, I stopped. A huge black car reclined on an oak planks dais into a bay. Its nose with its sprawling shadow onto half the wall, its windows and brass appliances that shone defiantly: Mercedes-Benz, 1936. Almost despite myself, I reached out and my fingers closed themselves over the door handle. I got in and let myself onto the nest-like leather seat. The key was in the ignition and…I froze as the car lurched and the engine howled. I felt a floating first, then a shudder that made me clench my hands onto the wheel. The brake, I thought in a flash, and I was still trying to find the pedal when I saw the wall coming fast toward me, way too fast…

 

Her voice, then the thud. When I raised my head, the Old Lady positioned herself into the wall and its back wheels were spinning idly. I didn’t know how I got there; I stumbled, icy streams pouring down my spine. The woman got off. Her glasses fell, she opened her mouth, muttered something, then started to rummage through her pockets. She looked somewhat tinier and her voice was barely audible. Finally, she took out a wad of bills that she held in her hand, not knowing what to do.

I took a deep breath. Maybe…The steps along with the heartbeats, the shoulders stuck to the wet wall, the tightening of the body and the arms that pushed, the pain that shot through me when the big weight shifted. An inch, ten…I stepped back anxiously: a little chipped paint, a broken light – is that all? I opened the car door. The engine started at once and I listened to it in silence for awhile. Even the woman stranger stood still…All of a sudden, the horn started to wail, cut short instantly. I wiped the sweat on my forehead: The Old Lady had spoken.

First, the shutters. I closed them one by one. I pulled the roll edge and the curtain slided on the rails, rattling and squeaking, snagging and dry-thumping into the slot. I lingered turning off all but one of the lights, the one above the bay -though the desire, alas, that desire… Then the gate, the lock, all the usual tasks, and still…My hands couldn’t stop shaking so I stuck them into my pockets. To no avail: I felt them throbbing inside, no matter how hard I was clenching my fists. I took them out, watched the paint stains, the black bruise on one of the fingers, the burnings and the scar. So far, they served me well, those hands. Me, her.

A rumbling, lights shining like eyes, the slamming of a car door: the woman got into her car and was trying to start the engine. But the Porsche wouldn’t budge. Inside, the stranger woman kept twisting desperately the key into the ignition. When she saw me beside her, her eyes grew larger, but I didn’t wait for her to figure it out. I jerked the car door aside and I stuck my fingers into her scintillating ponytail, pulling, tearing off.

I dragged her to the dais. She staggered as though she forgot walking, but didn’t resist, didn’t scream. Only when I dropped her on the tool bench she started to whimper, a jumble of pleas, sobbings, whisperings of money, so much money. I clenched her jaws – how dared she, in front of the Old Lady?…– and I choked her until she swallowed her words, heavily, as if their gushing would’ve drowned her. I was staring at her pale cheek, her strands fallen over her green eyes, hazy with dread. I opened her mouth, letting her pant and draw air into her lungs while I was rummaging through the drawer with my other hand. When she saw the scissors, she started to squirm and I had to bang her head on the table until she went limp. The pink tip of her tongue, slithering like a snake, always eluded me; after a while, I grabbed it, pulled it out, then…the snap of the metal clipping the meat, the gushing of blood, the gurgling scream of the woman, her eyes bulging – all in a flash, and there remained only the tolling of a copper bell that sounded under my forehead.

 *

 The cockroach felt the air with its antennae; it passed by the opening, started to climb the sill of the smoky window, beyond which you could see a few sycamores with frosted leaves. I looked around – a dirty wallpaper, peeled in places, the bulb dangling from the ceiling like a rotten pear, the iron bed I slept in – and the thought caught my breath in pain. Ten months, and I was still here. Sometimes sleep let me forget; but then the dawn always came…I got off the bed, put on my coveralls with cold-jerky movements – when I pulled my rubber boots on my bare feet, I shook all over – and I walked over to the sink where I twisted the faucet. A few garglings through the pipes, then the gushing water splashed me so cold that it burned my skin. A stranger looked at me from the mirror, blue stains under the eyes, withered cheeks, a web of wrinkles at the corner of each eyelid. I smoothed them out, but they sprang right back so I let my hands fall down helplessly. After all, what’s the point?

The room was at the top of the stairs and I took a first step down, reluctantly. It wasn’t day yet, and the light filtering through the skylights turned the floor into a muddy water with scattered islands poking out from the darkness: the cars. Some whole, some taken apart, without wheels or engines, some hanging from steel pillars like giant mushrooms…in the bay, the Mercedes seemed like a stalking panther; when I passed in front of it, its lights flickered green, like a glance slinking through the eyelids. I sped up my footsteps, shaking off my imaginings – it was just an old-fashioned car. Nothing more.

I turned on the light. The carburetor was still on the table and I started to dismantle it, piece by piece. I scratched off the rust stains and the gunk piled into recesses, I dripped the oil; same routine gestures, same pain in my bruised hands. All of a sudden, I saw them thin, whitish – eerie so, but no, it was the flour…I was sixteen, kneading the dough, and my father screamed at me I was too slow. But I didn’t feel the heat of the oven, the sticky dough, the white powder that crept into my nostrils, I was sixteen and was waiting for life to come and take me away some day. I raised my eyes at every squeak of the door: it was just a someone, and mother met him with a smile, straightening her stiffened back. That’s how my daddy wanted it – all out of your sweat, out of your hands – my mother standing at the counter, he baking the bread and carrying the flour bags while I was kneading dough from dawn to dusk. I only heard from him: “Be grateful to the Lord, to your parents, for your life, for the roof above your head, for your daily bread”. “Listen to him, listen to him”, my mother always whispered to me. I was shy for ten years, ashamed for being a burden to them. I knew only to be what they wanted me to be, to work in that hellish heat; until, one night, when I was lying in bed too tired to fall asleep, a thought flashed through my mind. They had brought me into this world? Who asked them to? I owed them nothing – both the two of them and Him…

That was the beginning. I grew up, the years were passing by and I learned to see, to want. And they kept saying no. Sometimes I’d wake up panting and tossing in my bed. I’d run to the window, open it and just stayed there, my shift glued to my body, shaking with tremors that were neither from cold, nor from fear. A new being formed inside me and the change always brought other thoughts and urges that I had to hide. I read somewhere about people buried alive, but what were those pit-like gaols compared to the dead world in which I was born for the second time? There were only walls and faces around me – stonier, colder still – that I wanted to scream to: I’m gonna leave, you’ll see, I’ll leave one day… But I wasn’t going anywhere and the thought of me getting old behind the counter or beside the oven was driving me crazy. I waited. Month after month, year after year. Until that Thursday…on Thursday I would deliver the buns. Ribbons on my braids, apron and bonnet stiffened from so much bleach and a full basket: The Red Riding Hood. And I’ve met so many wolves in the town where everybody knew me and where nothing ever happened. I hated Thursdays. First was this Mrs. Huygens who’d question me for an hour and give me a green candy while I was leaving; as soon as I was outside, I would spit it out, but that slimy taste stayed in my mouth long afterwards. Then there were the Troop brothers, the notaries, dropping their paperwork when I entered, stomping with small steps behind me to the kitchen and back, keeping sharp look-out and counting those few guldens a hundred times. Then Mr. Skarre, wearing immaculate white overall, a pince-nez and a goatee, pulling me along the shelves, amongst test tubes, jars and bottles, to the niche where a mirror as big as an armoire showed myself taking off apron, corset, skirt and half-slip, then only wearing my bonnet and shoes I watched him carrying that cold knob of his stethoscope over my body – “she’s too pale, Mr. Damme, the liver, must be the liver, or maybe the heart, she must come to the farmacy all the time”, and my dad would nod, yes, she’d come – then captain van Ruyter, then…

I stopped. The front of the theater was full of posters with golden letters cut-out from blue paper. A strange music was heard from the inside and it made my heart beat differently and my blood throb. I hadn’t heard anything like it and the valet boy, pumping his chest in his shining livery, checked me out brazenly. That made up my mind. I crossed the street, uncovered the basket and the air filled with the smell of warm buns. The boy faltered, then he reached out and take one bun, two…by the fourth bun he looked around suspiciously, grabbed my shoulder and pushed me in a long hallway. Neons, more posters, doors, and another gate, hammered by the booming sounds. I pushed it open and froze blinded. Thousands of lights, rays interspersing, red lightnings burning my pupils, a shower of sparks, and the scene, drowned in waves of mist while the walls and the floor were vibrating. Heat and cold, flashy colors, calling the violence of sounds that burst in rainbows, in snapshot suns. That music…I found myself welcoming it, absorbing it, my eyes on the woman that twisted and spinned in a tangle of hair, singing, living; and the crowd was alive, one soul with the woman in dress and leather boots, they were one heart or maybe…At long last, I came to myself. The scene and the hall were empty. The valet boy kept telling me something and, seeing I wasn’t registering, started to shake me.

…His features thickened and changed. He shook me and screamed at me to give him one of those damn wrenches. I started rummaging with trembling hands. The box slipped, I made to catch it but it was too heavy and the tools rolled over on the cement floor, sounding like a row of windows shattering nearby.

 

I was looking at the woman: on her knees, she was picking up the tools, letting them fall in the box as though they were burning her. She hadn’t learned to tighten a screw up brown. Her hands wouldn’t follow her. Why wouldn’t she leave already? Back then, she lay in bed for eight weeks. I watched over her during the nights when she moaned and tossed, when the fever made her jumped off the bed with lost eyes; I would feed her and clean her mess. Until one morning, when I found her sitting up in bed and looking at me in fear. I told her the Porsche was long since ready, that her clothes waited on the chair, I cleaned them and…But the woman hadn’t left. He got used to eating again, and walked leaning on walls; then there she was in the garage, wrapped in the blanket she kept stumbling upon. She didn’t touched her clothes or the silver car: she’d come down like a sleepwalker and tried to do what she saw me doing. I gave her something to wear, let her stay in that cubbyhole where she could’ve died – but, no, the Old Lady never failed – then I gave her work to do. What was I supposed to do? She wanted only to punish her; when I asked her whether to send her off, she said nothing.

The woman found the wrench, at last. She handed it over and I left; it was late and I had so much on my head: the orders, the spare parts…I worked before myself. The boss was ok and paid me well; but I dreamed of a garage of my own, cars no one else could touch, people looking only for me. And I found it. Garage, shop, home, quite new and not too expensive; then a bank willing to loan me and take everything from me for a late installment. My friends and my wife said I was hasty. What did they know? After a year, the bank got its money back and after the second I was borrowing money to the gas station nearby.

I looked around at the stuffed garage. I might’ve taken a helper. But…my thoughts and my steps led me to the Old Lady. Just like the first time…We had just moved in a week ago. During the day, Hetje did the painting and I was replacing the pipes and the woodwork; at night, she was sleeping on a mattress with the kids and I was working in the shop, in the garage filled with clunkers. I was tossing, carrying, rubbing, breaking fresh the metal jungle, when I glimpsed that big dark shape in a corner I used to pass by for so many times. I brought a lamp and I saw…no, first were the tinglings, the whisper. I turned around: no one. Just my old dusty Mercedes before me. Then whispers again, a woman’s voice, faraway, stentorian, a wail that grew inside me, stirring echoes into the empty garage until I fell down covering my ears, rolling over the floor; all in vain as the voice sounded even more peremptorily and the pain, the howl inside mingling with that from the outside. And now the relief, the droning that gave off words, meanings. She was there all the time, overbearing, reigning. The Old Lady, I muttered in a daze, yes, that was its name…I was hers ever since, just hers. I was waiting a sign, a word, and I would run, do or give anything, but she rarely summoned me; she talked a little, never of herself or her past but only of what she chose to; she granted me to serve her with the fussy disregard of a goddess, but it was enough for me…

The buzzer startled me: it’s ten already? I headed to the gate. A new day began and the Old Lady was there seeing, judging.

 *

He cut another piece of pie. Chewing peacefully, he kept looking at the same spot as the stillness of his eyes and his face resembled a sated snake. When I got up in the bed with my mind clear for the first time and wanted to ask – even I didn’t know what or whom – a horrible grumbling came out of my throat and realized it was only a bad dream…What was precious to me was gone; I wasn’t coming back to life, I was walking toward hell. And I couldn’t forget or accept my fate: the thought that I could climb onto the world stage just to fall in a bottomless chasm and that I was only left with the hate of the grubs in the mud was unbearable.

The door slamming, slurring voices asking for booze, the shuffling of chairs. Drivers wearing washed-out blazers came and go, rising from the tables while others took their places, shouting to be heard through the din and smoke. They came from far away and, sometimes, I watched them climbing their big trucks and fading in the distance. The roads…My world shrunk: the little room, the garage, the pub where I used to have lunch, the gas station. I was free to go – he wouldn’t have even minded. And then what? The amazement of our friends, the secret joy that the destiny struck and missed; and, mostly, the questions, the curiosity, the eagerness of knowing – never enough – the reporters rushing in to snatch my pain, the most hidden shame. What to tell them: why my engine broke down, how came I chose that garage, what if…? How to tie a forever broken thread? Wasn’t there anyone to care where I would carry my shadow – if so, why not here?

A man from the next table was looking at me. When our eyes met, he made a sign to me, once and then once more. He was eating. He didn’t see. As usual, he pulled me out from the world I’ve so painstakingly escaped and he didn’t even realize it. I was only a detail to him, while for others I was a dream. What was he dreaming of?

Somebody turned on the TV: news, commercials. Why were all the pubs alike?…Same uninterrupted buzz, same faces, same acrid smoke. And I, ten years younger, sitting alone in a corner with a bald and big-bellied man. Under the table, my bag carrying my show shoes, my lipstick and the money wrapped up in paper that I took from the drawer under the counter back home. I was a little short, being from a few weeks in Groningen and not finding anyone willing to at least listen to me. But that man said nothing, maybe…His hand let itself onto mine as if by accident. I tried to pulled it away, but his sticky fingers were like tongs. I raised my eyes from my plate: the strap of my dress slipped aside and the man was looking at my bare shoulder. Then I saw him licking his lips. All the blood came into my cheeks, I made to tear my fingers away, to shout that I didn’t need him…but I didn’t do any of those, I couldn’t say a word. I learned a long time ago that nothing comes from free in life. And I wanted it all. All. The man poured champagne. I drank, though I felt like throwing up; then, pointing at the glass-padded stage, I only asked him this: When? “Later”, he told me, pulling his chair nearer. Later meant my first album, my first breakthrough…

I flinched: the words, the trumpet solo…my hands were shaking and I felt my knees going soft. The song was only in my mind, how come I could hear it? The TV. Painfully, I managed to shake off my numbness. Then the run, the astonishment of those I was shoving aside, a curse hitting the door, my stagger on the street asphalt, the rain that hit like a slap. “Why?!”, I wanted to shout at the careless sky, at the cars flashing through the gloomy curtain of light. People were passing me by, bumping into me, and the drippings glued my overall to my body; but I just stayed there crying while a voice spilled out from the inside, my voice: “…and yes, sometimes it can be too late!”

 

On the screen, the woman was singing before a sea of heads. Her hands were soaring toward to sky, her dress was white and long and her fiery hair seemed a strange flower, while her unexpectedly strong, warm voice reduced all the pub to silence. The drivers and the waiters was looking down listening to her and when she finished, the silence broke eerily late. What was with them? I got up and out. The woman was waiting for me in the rain, her strands of hair black from the water, but she didn’t seem to be aware of it. She followed me slowly, too slowly, then she lost in the crowd.

At the garage, the Old Lady…It wasn’t possible! The engine was purring soothingly, sensuously, and the lights were on. Did she find out? She knew? Then why did she put us in danger for nothing? If the woman wakes up, if somebody asks…”No, she is just dust we step on. And who would guess from that slab of meat…” The engine shut up and I still couldn’t believe it. So, she thought this through and for months in a row…Somebody opened the gate. I jumped to my feet, my heart throbbing. A second that seemed like an eternity, then the woman passed by us with her eyes down and made to climb the stairs.

 *

I was reaching to the top shelf when I heard the tearing. What the hell, why couldn’t I have a little peace? Crouching on the box, I took the needle and the thread, stripped off to the waist and started to sow. The needle was hard to poke through, the fabric was thick with patches…The caressing of the silk and nylon on my skin, the flame of the spotlights pouring hot ashes into my soul – where did all these come from?

Suddenly, I was again under the rain of light and stares that burned; I snatched the mic and shouted for everyone to hear that I was alive but untouchable, then I felt their breathing, their eagerness. Between us, the stage, a narrow barrier, that seemed a waterfront beyond which weltered the floods of the dead-ringer shadow-faces. I raised my arm: the half-shade screamed, finding its tongue. But I held in my fist the bag that kept the drips together and the tumult changed into a hum. Walk, twirl, my voice, the roll of the drum, the guitar, the drum again. A dangerous dance on the rope above the abyss. I liked it – I knew I was the best. Thousands of eyes, thousands of hearts that beat for me, the last chord, the dizzying burst of the applause following me with its echo to my cabin that was flooded with flowers. I smiled and the woman in the mirror curved her lips in malice. It was our turn to choose: the agent, the song, the town, the men…On the table, a stack of letters and packages. I opened one – a diamond bracelet and a few lines from a honcho. I turned to the one in the mirror and both laughed. I’ll go, I’ll promise him everything and give him nothing. I too was now able to say ‘later’. And they jostled to suck up to me, to humiliate themselves. For a glance, a gesture, a word – I had something for everyone!…A little more lipstick and eye-shadow. I was ready. I took my coat, wrapping it around me like a robe as I walked. Outside, the police fought to keep the crowd at bay, but few teenagers managed to get through just to become speechless, panting in front of me. One handed me a pen and I scribbled something on the photos they were bashfully holding out for me. Then the lightnings of the flashes, the endless white limo and the door opened to my plush den. I let myself onto the soft pillows – finally alone – then the car was cutting through the sea of bodies…On the boulevard, the glowing snakes of the shop windows broken at times by the panels that showed my album. On her knees, the planner with its pages rustling, stopping at the last entry. The gala dinner had started, I had no time to stop at the hotel. “Horn Palace”, I said, rummaging through the closet under the seat, and the car turned left. Quick: the blouse, the boots, the pants – I flayed them and hurled them off me. Quick: the necklace, what dress shall I wear, what…Then I saw him. Actually, his eyes, sickened by desire, locked on the rearview mirror and to my barely seen nakedness. I got mad at first, then a thought made me snort. So many would’ve given anything to be in his place! I was clasping my bra when a violent brake threw me on the floor and a truck dashed around us, hooting its honk; then the driver turned his head, but it was not fear in his eyes, but rage…

Somebody was watching me. I hunched up, covering my breasts with my arms. Was I imagining things? I got up slowly, searching, lurking. I knew it wasn’t him, he would’ve passed by me heedless or showed me the metal chips and the paint on the floor. It was Sunday, the entrance gate was closed, nobody came. But the back door gave a long squeak; I put on my clothes in no time, I picked out a crossbar, then rushed to the stairs.

I almost knocked him down; a tall boy, wearing a uniform too loose for him. The new mailman. He was restless, shifting his weight, not daring to raise his eyes; hadn’t he seen enough? The lump in my neck, my eyelids blinking rapidly, trying to stop the…no! I won’t cry! So much pain, so much despair, built up day by day, drop by drop. Why did they flare up now? I didn’t want it, not in front of this kid that stared with the cruelty of a ravening small human being. A cockroach, a disgusting creature protected by its shell of carelessness. How did he manage to stir inside me so much loathing and disgust? I thought my soul was dead but, lo and behold, it can still be hurt!

The boy braced up. He took a step closer just to flinch and recoil before the shape that popped up between us.

 

He finished his rummaging and handed me the letter triumphantly as though he just pulled out a rabbit from a hat. Anything else? No, he blushed, his eyes slided sideways, maybe tomorrow…I locked the door after he left and turned to the woman: she was scrubbing the floor and her long drenched braids hid her face. What did that snot see? Nothing in that being, dressed in grey overalls, reminded of the one who got off the Porsche or who was on the stage. And there were no other traces: I burned her clothes and the silver car was torn apart and thrown into about five landfills. The Old Lady knew what she was talking, the woman was dead. It was only me and her here.

The letter was from Hetje, she still wrote to me despite the fact that I never replied. To whom? Hetje: a name handwritten in sharp slanted letters and…Her fingers rubbing ceaselessly her nightgown. She was dizzy, blinking, and only when I struck her the second time she raised her hands to defend herself. But those blue eyes didn’t have enough fear in them so my hand fell again and again on the waxy cheek, on the mouth scrunched up by crying…Sell the Old Lady? Poor Hetje…

The flame bite first the corner of the white rectangle, then spread up. I put the lighter back in the drawer, then I looked at the shriveling paper, melting in big, black flakes. It crumbled, a dust that everything got lost with – Hetje, the children, memories and anger – dust that I kicked away with my foot. The Old Lady was silent.

 *

I installed the nickel disk, then the screws. The man nodded, the glass and the metal shone. He took his hand out of his pocket; but there were no keys in it. When our eyes met for the first time – there was something in his, something that…- I didn’t move when the bill wiped my temple, my cheek and started to slide along one of my braids…Money. The mechanic wouldn’t give me any, but I had some in a bank somewhere. I didn’t wanted it, what was I supposed to do with it when…The man in grey thought otherwise. The fancy suit, the purple tie, the opal ring – a lawyer? Stock broker? The bill descended, I felt it on my skin and still didn’t flinched away; because that man came from the world that was mine too, saw the woman in me. And him?!

The fingers with trimmed nails crumpled up the paper and shoved it into the slit of the overalls. The gesture had nothing obscene in it. Neither the smile when he got into the car and let me staring until the engine noise snapped me out of it. Not far, the Mercedes slept with its lights out, pointing its huge nose toward me.

I took out the paper, smoothed it out absent-mindedly. The man in grey left – he’ll be back again. He or some other.

 

I stopped reluctantly on the last step, my hand on the railing. The words of the Old Lady nurtured my doubts, my fear: the rest we toil to built around us was in danger, and she whispered to me to have no fear, no care…It never failed; what if it was wrong, though?!

In the kitchen, I sat in a chair. A ring of lead weighed down on my forehead – I slept ever so little from a while – and the wall in front of me – with its smoky paint and the watery stain under the window – trembled. Just like the night when I felt something was missing – maybe the children’s voices – and I cried “Hetje”, but only the silence of the rooms and the slamming of the doors that I opened one at a time answered. In the bedroom, the word written on the mirror. I was looking at the closet with the doors gaping toward the row of empty hangers, the drawers scattered on the floor. Hetje left. A silent discontent grew in me; like when I didn’t find some tool on the shelves. And the children? In their room just an old toy, forgotten in a corner. I stayed on the threshold – the bald doll looked at me with a half-closed eye as if it winked at me – then it dawned on me with an unexpected relief. I was alone with the Old Lady.

And now, the woman. I pounded the dirty plates, sweeping them aside. There was no room for a third one. Hetje left. And the woman will leave, even if…The last thought found me standing. The hallway, the footsteps quickened by the blood throbbing, the door with the cracked panel. I entered, listening for awhile to the breathing that came from the dark.

When the light spilled onto the rusted cage of the bed, over the white back, I gave a start. The woman slept with her face buried into the pillow, an arm dangling to the floor. The blanket was bundled down to her waist. I looked at her hair that resembled rivulets of congealed blood, at her breast crushed under the weight of the ribs. Around the grey dull walls and floor, the vulnerable naked body burned my eyes. And I couldn’t, didn’t want to…I just stayed there until night became pale and I closed the door in silence when I left.

 *

A low voice entwined aroundthe grumbling of the engine that I could recognize anywhere. He was in the bay, forehead down toward the car, and the Mercedes answered him – answered him?! – no, scolding him with disdain and malice. No, they were only imaginings, I was here for a long time and the madness of the mechanic got to me unawares.

What would that black car mean to him? It gave him strength, and weakness too; he didn’t see or hear anything around him…A harsh voice brought me back. I stood there with the tools in my hands, looking at them and he barked at me to get to work. I crawled under a car, but not before seeing the eyes that weren’t frozen anymore, the vein that throbbed in his temple; the mechanic saw me. It was since that day when the new mailman, or maybe before?…the thought took my breath away. To break his shell, enter his world, poison it, steal his dreams…take him everything, just like he did to me! I stifled under the open belly of the car and, throwing the wrench, I got out, caked with dust and grease.

The droning of the diesel engine turned into asthmatic puffs, a grinding of brakes and the truck stopped short near the ramp. The men climbing down from the cabin, the large doors pulled aside, the driver that followed him with a sheaf of papers – all were the same as always. Only that today will be different.

I licked my lips, got my fingers through my hair, then let the zipper down – not much, just enough…I swallowed hard and wiped my hands with a dirty rag: I was nervous just like on my first concert. The men were unloading quickly. They saw me just when I was next to them and one of them whistled and the other put the crate back, still puzzled. I passed by, swinging my hips, straight, head high. It was starting again.

 

Heavy, cloddish, the laughter stuck into my throat. The skin on my cheeks felt like a tight mask, but the driver was tapping my shoulder and I had to laugh so that I would get the helping hand. “All’s well”, I told him, clenching my fists and grinding my teeth, and he looked suprised – “damn well”.

Those two down under the glass cabin couldn’t get around to finish the unloading. Crate after crate after crate. What took them so long? Unless…And then I saw her: she had her elbows on the side of the truck and her chin resting on her hands. The woman, always her. Inside, the blond guy pleaded with her. That boy haven’t learn waiting…The crate pushed between them, his fingers touching hers, then the woman turned around and walked away. She lingered, bearing her burden like a sacrament.

She seemed taller and her body swayed, no, slided, as though walking in a dream. The metalwork up to the ceiling hid her from me for awhile, then she reappeared where the morrocan guy was watching. Where he was, the hallway narrowed down to half its width, but she didn’t falter. She passed by unabashed, letting him watch her hips that rowed through the air; what were the point of talking? Her body, her female scent spoke for her. I turned my head so I won’t see or know.

When I looked again, the woman had put the crate on the floor and was slowly straightening up. She didn’t hurry even when she heard something behind – she could not not hearing it! – the footsteps of the morrocan guy, the other guy. Only after they grabbed her waist she leaned her head back and, shoved and pushed, she let herself rolled back into the pile of cardboards and wood chips, the men tumbling down on her. From among the crates and the arched backs a pearled arm shot through, hair burning – then all was gone and I felt weak as if I was in the path of a steamroller that headed toward me, inexorably, dizzying. When will it crush me? And how?

 *

The beads of cream under my cheeks, the soft skin stretching. Yesterday, I washed miles of dusty metal sheets, I scraped off the rust until my hands flayed and I crawled for hours on the cement floor, scrubbed for the hundredth time. But it wasn’t enough for him, and even today, Sunday, I was woken up by the knockings that came from the garage. I had to climb down, to suffer his stare and say even before words come out: “until noon you’ll be dead tired, maybe this way you won’t have…”

I blew over the mirror, cleared its blurry shine with the back of my hand. A little lipstick, a few make-up brushes, the powder that hid dark circles and wrinkles. It had been so easy! A new face, a glimpse through the eyelids, a bared breast just so. The men came and paid, that was their role, with that crumpled bills, then I’d buy mascara, perfumes – to attract others…and he knew. I saw him flinch and something grew and smouldered inside me. Joy? Wait? The poison spilled drop by drop was to change everything – in a year, in a lifetime. To me, time was plenty.

Stairs squeaking, footsteps. I moistened the tip of the pencil – the black halfmoon under an eyebrow came out askew and blurry. The footsteps were getting closer to the door. They always stopped there, then passed on by and…a thump. I turned around, shifting my gaze from the man in the mirror to his twin, frozen on the door threshold.

 

The honk sounded like a lashing: The Old Lady. Shall I get down, shall I…Only when the trumpet sound was heard again, I realized I haven’t moved. And again the sharp sounds, scratching at my temples. For eight years I ran to its first call, lived only for her, in every thought, every moment. For what? I kicked the door closed and the screams of the horn stayed outside, hitting the panel like a beak of steel.

The woman was still holding the pencil and the streak streched and got to the chin, her slimy braids dangled, her lips too thick, her cheeks too red…and the clown face, smeared in a hurry, reminded me of the woman stranger in the fur coat – haughty, perfect, untouchable.

I took one step, then another, toward this body of a dirty statue. So was the woman when she didn’t smile or stir for others. When she didn’t search for stares and touches, amongst stretched hands and doubtful grins; when she didn’t toss in a tangle of meat, on the floor or in hidden corners, among the crates that rocked and came tumbling down…

I shook her one more time just like a rag. The woman went limp, closing her eyes; she only quivered when she felt the coldness of the drips, then I opened the faucet and the stream hit her cheek like a fist. I made her bend over, touch her lips and forehead to the water – the sink was full. I sank her head under the greasy mirror, a second, two, ten, the wheezing melted into a gurgling, bubbles that grew, then burst, snapping with mute screams; I pulled her up from her braids to take one breath of air, yes, like that, sip it, swallow while you can, now enough, and again the popping of the bubble dance – only it was just a hum now.

The braids were floating like a red foam and the memory came suddenly when I didn’t think something could come up anymore. Hetje. The enameled bowl, the warm body sticking to mine…the woman got up coughing and spitting the cloudy water and her breasts were still swinging. I found myself crushing them. She whimpered in amazement, but I forgot about her: I could only see the golden curls of the other woman, her freckles on the shoulders, on her arms; I could hear her laughter, it was like that once, before the children, before the…I grabbed the woman that was not Hetje by the neck and while her hands squirmed into the pile of mascara jars, a thought came into my mind that, down below, the Old Lady kept wondering in vain…

*

I struggled to wake up. Next to me, the man was sleeping curled up with fists clenching; I wanted to cover myself up first, then I shrugged. The window pane seemed a fishbowl filled up with tar: no shadows, no shimmerings. On the wall, a black moving kernel: I looked for a while, fascinated, to the beetle that kept falling and slipping, then climbing again, relentless, toward the window sill – could it be the same? On the floor, glass shards, streaks of powder and mascara, boxes floating in the pool under the sink. I lowered one foot, then the second and stepped over the man’s coat, over the tattered blanket which I attempted to stop him or at least delayed him with. For the man that had me – the frozen laughter on his face, our bodies entwined with frenzy and, each time, the feeling of unfulfillment, of something lacking, leaving me ever so tired, ever so anxious… and he just hurtling me back with nothing pure inside me but still alive – I was like the garbage we were rolling in.

I got out, wandering the hallways and the stairs until I found myself in the garage, smelling the odour of gas and fresh paint. I walked amongst those barely-formed shapes in the dark when a vivid, blinding brightness came on: the Mercedes. What now?, I asked in a lost voice, and the headlights blinked. The pray was chased and caught, then the black claw bore down on it again. But the iron panther wasn’t sated… When the hood started to rise, almost grand, I looked into the deepness of the darkened throat: why not?

My feet kept slipping over the ice-cold metal, but I leaped on my hands and I was inside in a flash. A web of cables, chrome housings and pipes, cold, lifeless. I started to make room for myself. Toiling, pushing – an arm under the box to the right, my ankle caught in the wires: why didn’t it, why… – clenching my teeth, entering the car innards, deeper and deeper. My cheeks were hot, I was panting and sweating, but the strain and the struggle were carried in silence. At long last, I couldn’t bear it anymore: a hoary hollowed scream rived off my throat and I stood still. It was her turn.

A terrible booming, then the dark swallowed everything: engine, body and fear – the hood fell back down or… A rod poked my ribs, some jags etched into my flesh. One by one, the inform objects around me heated up, started to vibrate, grating, swirling, screaming. Just a bit more I had to endure though the air and the iron burned, my head kept banging on the walls of the shuddering casket, long talons flailing my spine – yes, it wouldn’t be long now… All of a sudden, a trap door went under me and I rolled on a smooth glossy gully, toward a bottomless pit.

…the darkness thinned to grey. I was lying next to a riddled tree trunk, wisps of steam floating off it. There were other tree trunks behind. Slow, far-away knockings were heard and I flinched, touching the yellow bark: it was mirror-smooth, though hot and stained with grease. Something fluttered behind the trees – it seemed, absurdly, a giant wing – then the wind arose just out of the blue. Mutterings, whistlings and clinks sounded ever so slightly. They were coming from above or from below? Where was I? Had I died? Could this be the world beyond?

I jumped to my feet, and the pain flowed inside me like a thaw. I lived, feeling each burn, the crushed flesh, even the blood, the sludge that dried up wrapping me up in a tight crinkled attire. I ran through the metal posts – only shadows, the shimmerings and the heavy smell of gas couldn’t be real – hitting everything in my way. A step, a heart beat, the swishing of my feet on the steel; galleries, chimneys with no ends to be seen, the hall when the shuddering of the floor turned into regular shaking. Back? Forward? I didn’t get to choose – a blast slammed me to the wall and a huge cylinder passed by me, stirring up clouds of dust. I broke into a laughter that only sounded in my still empty mind: I was inside the engine.

I submerged again into the maze whose sounds fused into one voice: someone whispered the same words, but I didn’t want to answer, I sneaked through the wires, crawling under the hooting pipes, spitting bluish mud. Late, so very late, I stopped to watch the wisps of steam that rose to the sky or broke in napped strips. Her voice again, but now I covered my ears with my hands. Why was she in such a hurry?! We had plenty of time, both of us. An eternity.

 


Translated into English by Dan BUTUZA

Despre Rodica BRETIN

Rodica BRETIN a scris 25 articole în Revista de suspans.

Rodica Bretin s-a născut în 1958, la Braşov. Este membră a Uniunii Scriitorilor din România şi a Fantasia Art Association din Cornwall (Marea Britanie). A publicat zece volume personale de beletristică: „Efect Holografic“ (1985); „Şoimul Alb“ (1987); „Uriaşul cel Bun“ (1989); „Drumul fără Sfârşit“ (1991); „Cel care Vine din Urmă“ (1993); „Lumea lui Hind“ (1998); „Omul de Nisip“ (2000); „Fecioara de Fier“ (2002; 2006; 2014); „Cetatea fără trecut“ (2015); „Fortăreaţa“ (2016). În 1996 a primit „Premiul pentru cea mai bună proză străină“ la Festivalul Internaţional al Artei Fantastice de la Annecy (Franţa), pentru nuvela „Negura“. În 2001 a primit „Premiul Volaverunt“ (Premiul pentru proză fantastică) la Festivalul din Valencia (Spania), pentru nuvela „Conquistadorul“. În 2005 a primit „Premiul pentru cel mai bun roman străin“ al Fantasia Art Association, pentru romanul „Fecioara de Fier“, publicat în serial de revista „The Historian“ din Truro (Cornwall – Marea Britanie). În publicistica istorică dedicată frontierelor cunoaşterii i-au apărut volumele: „Dosarele Imposibilului“ (2003); „Tunelul Timpului“ (2003); „Poarta Vrăjitoarelor“ (2004; 2015); „Poltergeist – atacatori invizibili“ (2005); „Misterul Lumilor Paralele“ (2006); „Naufragiaţi în Timp“ (2006); „Călătorii în timp şi lumi paralele“ (2015); „Războinicii Nordului“ (2015); „Cronicile Imposibilului“ (2015); „Ecouri din tenebre“ (2016). A realizat, în colaborare cu scriitorul Dan Apostol, seria „Antares“ – patru antologii dedicate literaturii fantastice şi culturii enciclopedice (vechi civilizaţii, fenomene neelucidate, cryptozoologie); a realizat şi tradus antologiile de literatură clasică fantastică „Cronici din lumi interzise“ (2003) şi „Vânătorii Lumii de Dincolo“ (2006). A tradus, din limbile engleză şi franceză, patru romane: „Dale Cooper“ de S. Frost, „Amantul doamnei Chatterley“ de D. H. Lawrence, „Leul uriaş“ de J. H. Rosny-Aîne (în colaborare) şi „În umbra ghilotinei“ de O. LeBaron. Realismul-fantastic, gen în care s-a specializat Rodica Bretin propune construcţii literare logice şi coerente, ducând la rezolvări ce ies din aşa-numita „normalitate“. Departe de a fi o eludare a problemelor contemporane stringente, alunecarea spre fantastic devine un exerciţiu ofensiv, mereu actual prin universalitatea mesajelor şi valorilor pe care le promovează. În toate cărţile sale Rodica Bretin reuşeşte să surprindă unul dintre crezurile dintotdeauna ale umanismului: „importantă nu este victoria, ci curajul de a lupta“. Fie că demască o impersonare a Răului ce posedă trupuri şi manipulează conştiinţe, o instituţie sau o grupare malefică ce încearcă să controleze destine, fie că descoperă fiinţe venite din alte lumi, fascinante şi terifiante, personajele autoarei demonstrează cititorului un adevăr imuabil: în infinitatea universului nostru şi a celor nedescoperite încă, există lucruri, fiinţe, fenomene pe care chiar dacă nu le putem înţelege, ni le putem imagina...

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