by Călin Torsan
translated into English by Mihai Andrei Fulgescu
He was a writer, but he had never made money out of it. Moreso, he hadn’t even been capable of winning a single literature contest. So after that 2-hour walk in the park with Alice, having endured the cold and rubbish spouted by her to chase away the silence, he still hadn’t completely addressed her question: How can you say you’re a writer when no one knows about your work?
Having said that, Alice thought about a friend she had seen recently. Life had sent them on different paths, only to reunite them less than a month ago. She was a talkative chick, reeking of optimism. She was a cook for a newly opened luxury hotel. Right then she told her, smiling honestly and laughing heartily on the street, that she never felt like a true cook until the „maître d’hôtel” tasted her shrimp salad, praising her daring to insert several red watermelon cubes into the mix.
― Wanna know how I won his favour, my dear? He even confessed to me afterwards. With the fact that I used two stout ingredients. That’s how he said it: stout and fresh. But that’s all there is to this type of salad! The rest is some mozarella and some basil dressing.
She told him the story about meeting the former schoolmate, but Bob pretended he didn’t know what she was on about and chose to fool around: Shrimp and watermelon? I’m sick… Could you move away from me a bit? In the absence of some answers regarding his status as artist with no art, Alice settled for some kisses. They parted ways under a suspiciously bright moon. To those who still knew how to look at the sky, this could’ve augured something.
A few weeks later, while browsing a newspaper during his siesta, Bob had to read the bolded advert of a literature contest several times. It offered a substantial reward for a short prose with a culinary theme. A few special honorable mentions were provided by the organizers to accompany it, and they weren’t meager: one of them guaranteed entry in the mainstream writer circuit, the other was a paid creational retreat in a known mountain resort. This seemed like the perfect chance to shoot two birds with one stone: the dough and fame, as much as the respective competition had to offer. Should he succeed, he would put an end to the woman’s nagging for good. At the same time the thought occured that the relation between two people involves a certain number of closed doors, with the possibility of cold and dark rooms situated behind them.
Next morning, he sat in front of the blank pages and the mug containing strong coffee. It was a cold day, dragged on by the pale sun. The trees were bereft of leaves and birds. Autumn had arrived. Before starting the work, Bob gazed through the white-framed window for a while: passers-by were hiding in trenchcoats, shuffling from side to side inside the little town corner under his eyes. It was about to rain.
He rolled up the sleeves of his soft sweater and sat at the table. Several beginnings were deemed equally inadequate by him, so he crumpled the discarded pages and threw them in the garbage bin every time. After a few hours, when only the petrified dregs were left in the cup, he just aborted. He had no direction in his mind, so there was no point in torturing himself. He found validation of the fact that a text’s success depended a lot by how you started it. He was a writer, but he had never made money out of this, and that could’ve said something about Bob: for example, that he was enveloped by an inexplicable fear when he was laying the first words of a story.
In the evening they met at Alice’s, but they quickly disbanded. She criticized the fact that he was too silent. She would’ve liked to go out somewhere, have a drink in a nearby pub and just talk. Believe me, when I see you like this I lose all of my good mood.
He told her he was trying to put a text together and wasn’t really in the mood for other things. Texts and pretexts, she said, obviously trying to be a smartass. Every wry feature brought out by the frustration of not having her evening as planned had suddenly intensified.
― Fine, you stay with your little words. I’m going out. Maybe I’ll convince Maddy to reveal more of her recipes.
― Melon and shrimp? Bob asked.
― That’s right: melon and shrimp!
The woman stormed out the door, while Bob went home. The apartment was quiet. It was now 10 PM, so he decided not to waste any time. The Alice scene was nagging him like an irritating fly, jamming his brain while he tried to keep his thoughts together. Plus, he had that crustacean salad on his head, the work of triumphant Maddy. He felt a slight nauseating sensation, the same experienced around open displays of idiocy. Something inside his mind payed too much attention to Alice’s words; the ones used by her to reenact the key to Maddy’s success in front of her boss, trying to copy Maddy’s nasal tone: two stout ingredients, stout and fresh; and that’s it.
He shook it off, as such distractions would’ve broken his work rythm, by vaguely moving his right hand and thus dismissing the annoying fly. He went to the bookshelf packed full of books, like a housewife getting ready to stock up. He weighed in the prospects, the most promising ingredients. Maybe that cook lady was on to something. He laughed as he realized he was voicing these thoughts of some woman’s nonsense. After all, he had a similar occupation to one who would cook food. It entailed the same patience to grind life’s events, from which the onion would sometimes extract pathetic tears. It implied loneliness, without which nobody could move freely in a small kitchen; and it left the same sorrow in its wake that gives birth to vegetarians, the sorrow of mutilated flesh, dissected after the law of the cleaver and the law of morality. Naturally, characters were preferable to actual humans. Both could sell a lie to literature and gastronomy from the top of a pen or knife, sprinkling the exotic ingredient from a far away land. They could drag on forever with boring boiled potato plates or pages of pretentious cheap magazines, by simply knowing the right sauces to pour over them.
He pulled himself from this vortex of ideas, and now he wasn’t reaching for the nicely bound and arranged volumes on the bookshelf anymore; instead, he was reaching for some attractive cans with delicious names and beautifully coloured labels. The cardboard or tin boxes and the glass jars were waiting quietly on their shelves. Bob watched them indecisively, trying to secretely make Alice’s friend’s words come to fruition. The first thing he grabbed was Kafka’s „The Castle”; his mind quickly envisioned a jar of olives like the ones he and she emptied during a break in Tel-Aviv, when they found themselves in the middle of a Tu B’Shevat celebration, which is the New Year for Trees. During that time, snippets of conversation and the irresistible flavours of dishes cooked with the seven species coming from Israel’s land were floating from the tables of garden restaurants, loaded with people. Wheat, rye, grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates and olives had been combined in every way possible: from salty entrees that provoked thirst, up until the sweetest cookies and cakes a tongue can imagine. The atmosphere was specific for that festive day in the beginning of February.
It was a good choice, stout and fresh, and he couldn’t fail by resorting to it. With a few fruits picked from the Czech author’s text, Bob’s text could obtain a strange and unparalleled taste. He was sure of the fact that the jury would’ve loved such nuances. Even though he had made a wise decision, he didn’t just rest on his own laurels. He had enough experience in the kitchen to realize that a successful piece of prose would need another adequate can of food. He was now searching through the books for something that could bring some pungency to the equation, a condiment that would impose its aroma. He stopped at the recipient where many thumb-long pickled cucumbers floated around, reminding him of the week he spent in Moscow as a young man. He met a jolly group of teachers with the same age midway through that visit, girls and boys set on having fun. From the very first night with them he learned how to truly drink vodka, by downing the glass right after muffling his nostrils in a fresh piece of brown bread, and then alleviating the inevitable sensation of throwing up with a pickled cucumber. „Crime and punishment”, by Dostoievski.
He thought for a while of putting some more stuff in his bag, like the woman who cannot stop herself from shopping. That’s how Alice did as well, every time he accompanied her to the supermarket. That cook lady was probably doing the same when she picked her watermelons and shrimp. Così fan tutte! He quickly calmed down. Having the two books in his hand, he sat down at the writing table convinced that he was going to manage to prepare an entirely special meal. Spreading out before him were the perfect ingredients, the warrants of a story with which he could pluck the laurel leafs reserved for the winner.
He first made himself a cup of black coffee, and the skim gathered in the form of a foam eye, foretelling that he was going to receive money. It was a good omen, like an unusually bright moon. He then opened the can of olives, taking care not to stain the sheets that waited curiously before him. The lid released a scent that reminded him of that journey, scattered through the remains of a better past. He grabbed an olive from the surface between his right pollex and index fingers – the very first paragraph from the novel:
„It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of Castle Mount, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.”
After thoroughly chewing the smoky-tasting drupe, he discarded the stone in an ash tray next to the coffee mug. The fact that he was sitting before Kafka’s words; that upon carefully reading them, they were so common and didn’t herald in any way the destiny of that well-known work, but were definitively put in that order by the famous author; these things caused him to melt in front of the book with yellowed pages. He laid these previously written lines exactly on the top fresh page. Then took a big gulp out of the stale drink.
He took a rather forced bite out of the pickle’s head, as it did not match the coffee. It spoiled the taste. He took a bite nevertheless, in order to carry on. Same way, he took the first pickle that he could grab between his fingers: the first two phrases from the book, packed nicely in one to make them stand in the reader’s eyes. He copied them right beneath the Kafka quote:
„On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.”
Reading the two pieces of texts together, Bob felt his heart racing. He initially thought he got something from the strong coffee, but immediately got convinced that God exists. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an explanation for the madness that came over him with those words from Maddy. How, likewise, there had been no logic in him approaching those very volumes that now stood atop one another, two sandwiches meticulously prepared for the rest of his life. Moreover, he was struck by the detail that both prologues had been designed with similar words, creating a similar eerie atmosphere in which one man was arriving and the other was leaving while braving a hot July; meeting eachother halfway on the bridge – where one had stopped to look in the void, and the other had hesitantly closed the gap with it, perhaps sensing the identical initial in his name and the bridge. The parallel strenghtened Bob’s faith that this was no carnival trick. He decided not to add anything of his own, assured that he was facing the perfect form.
He even went further with his artistic vision, so when he wrote the text and put it inside the envelope – signed with a ridiculous pseudonym, the Black Radish – he relinquished the inverted commas. Thus, he tried to suggest to the honorable jury that such a joining of transcriptions could only be the sign of true talent.