by Alexandru Potcoavă (Romania)
Translation from Romanian by Adrian Ioniţă
Edited by Robert Fenhagen
Juliana woke first. She wandered out to the kitchen, shivering from the coolness of the July morning that entered overnight through the wide open window. With shaking shoulders, she put the coffee pot over the flame. Soon, it came to a rolling boil, and soon after that began to boil over, splashing her hands and her lace nightgown with dozens of hot tickling needles. Her skin turned bright red each place where the hot coffee landed. “OW!” She cried. She rubbed her sore skin, her hands sliding over her chest and ribs. “I never should have turned the flame so high!” she swore silently, chastising herself at the same time. She poured the coffee into her enamel cup, a gift from her grandmother— the one she got from an ulan in 1914, and continued her morning routine. Lighting up a Carpati non-filter cigarette, she reached for the Flacara Rebus magazine, and the pencil laying on top of it, blewing out a thick plume of smoke. She enjoyed this ritual of spending a few minutes thinking and organizing her thoughts. Such was the beginning of another day.
Half an hour later, she stood underneath the water in the small shower, again briskly rubbing her body—this time with her wash cloth and soap. She rubbed as if somehow she could rub the lingering pain from being briefly scalded away. She dried herself so vigorously that afterward her body resembled a newborn baby’s—all red, but very soft. Sitting on her bed to get dressed, she clasped her bra with a swift movement, pulled on a florid shirt and light linen pants and before leaving the room she glanced to the nearby bed, where her mother was sleeping. In the kitchen, a religious calendar was hanged near the stove, with all the saints forthcoming quietly their name day. The gnarled pelargonium flowers from the window box, were waiting for their daily ration of water while pinned with thumbtacks to the white frames of the kitchen cabinet, dozens of utility bills, some of them as old as thirty years, were faded by the morning sun.
Back at table she began again trying to find any unfinished crossword puzzles in the Flacara Rebus. She loved doing crosswords and was so proficient that there never seemed to be any unfinished ones. Glancing at the clock, she saw it was 7:00. It was getting late! As Medi, her puppy, navigated between the table legs sniffing out real or imagined treats, she looked up at her with her big eyes. She couldn’t help but smile and reached down to rub her behind her ears. While she idily thought about the postman delivering her new crossword magazine, the kitchen door screeched open and Adel, her mother, came in, sleepy-eyed and disheveled. After a short round through the kitchen, she sat quietly at the table with a cup of coffee, and grabbed her crossword magazine from the mixed pile scattered on the table. All the pages were solved. Nothing was left, but to wait another week until the postman will bring the next issue. Some sort of resignation and aphaty started to float in her mind when suddenly she exploded in a violent access of caugh. Juliana took a long look at her over the rim of the glasses. She felt old, but having put herself in the position of caretaker to her ailing mother, she did everything that she could. For instance, today, she and Medi, their puppy, would take her mother out to the market to shop for the few things that a pensioner such as her mother could afford.
“Mother, are you up? Soon is closing the market.”
“Yes, I know.”
Juliana wraped up the game, and exited to take her jumper dress. After a minute, she returned in the kitchen, took the nest tote bag and left again to put on her shoes. Sensing with joy the imminence of a walk outside, Medi started to scratch vigorously the exit door of the apartment. Adel prepared herself, too.
“Let me help you with the shoes.“
“Thanks. Incapable to tie my own shoelaces. Grandma used to be like that and I always hoped I won’t end up so.” The old lady’s feet were swollen from lack of almost everything nutritious.
“It’s alright Mom, well, it’s alright. It’s not that … But lets hurry” tried Juliana to make her feel easy.
The three ladies, Adel, Juliana and Medi, started their trip to the vegetable market. Medi led the way out of the apartment, pulling her leash tight. Drawn with open arms between the dog and the old lady, Juliana was trying to keep the crew together. Swinging on Adel’s bony hand the empty nest tote bag was the only unfazed partaker of this picture. Once arrived at the vegetables market hall, they bought potatoes, onions and banana peppers. In the deserted cheese and diary section, after a short flirtation episode between Medi and another fox-terrier, finally they decided to go home. After eight in the morning, it was almost impossible to find eggs, not mentioning chicken legs or other leftovers. Taking a shortcut through 6th of March Boulevard, they saw in the front of the tobacco store something that was going on beside the usual depressing shopping and disappointment. Not even cigarettes? This time it was Juliana’s turn to speed up the crew. They never went through shortage of cigarettes. The black market was flooded with cigarettes smuggled out directly from the conveyor belts of the factory. The packs made their route to the table of the bussinestzars and racketeers, camouflaged under the fake bellies of the workers leaving the second shift. So, what was this unusual troop gathered at the entrance of the tobacco store? Aproaching the store, Juliana saw two militia cars parked behind the crowd and heard a guy yelling in a bullhorn:
“Comrades! Please. It’s a misunderstanding. This is not a butcher shop. I mean it is, but how can I say it … We are making a movie, we are filming, comrades.
“Mom, wait for me on the other side. I go to see what’s for sale there”
The old lady wrapped several times the leather belt on her hand while Medi was pulling her nervously towards the grass verge from the side of the pavement. The bitch bend her rear feet, lowered her back and went away with satisfying her natural needs, imune to the human madness around. Juliana hurried forward and crept into the crowd. She could not believe her eyes. The shop’s window, once filled with empty packs of cigarettes, flat spray bottles, plastic hair combs and sun burned trinkets, was filled with glorious smoked sausage rolls, juicy and succulent hams, salami, prosciutto and huge golden cheese wheels. Were hanging there, basking in natural colors, while resting in wicker baskets, the window was adorned with bottles of wines and port, even a monumental 27 liter bottle of genuine French champagne. It was no illusion, no trompe l’oeil or dusty faux finished papier-maches. It was the real deal. Even the rudimentary shriveled shop sign was replaced with a shinny gold leafed signage bearing the name of an interbelic owner. Everybody was puzzled. Then, after a short silence, the frenzied crowd started to shout again, desperately claiming the goods in the window. The guy with the bullhorn made himself heard, this time with the consistent help of the militia, who started pushing people away.
“Comrades,” tried the director. “How can this happen to me? There is a mistake… You would not even wish this salami. It is no good. We are making a movie, we are filming, comrades!” He held up a salami roll as if it meant nothing, and more than one stomach began grumbling. As the people reacted like Pavlov’s dogs, Medi sniffed a pensioner’s shoes. Foot smell was much more interesting than salami, at least for Medi. “This is not a butcher shop” went on the guy “You know that. It is but a scene for my movie. We are casting a movie dedicated to Paul Celan’s life. Celan. Can’t we get along, comrades? Shame. Celan…”
“Alright, alright, but after the movie, what do we get?” shouted a young man.
“Salaam, salaam, salami!” screamed another man, both mocking the actors, and reminding the crowd of the delicious treat just in front of them.
“Salam, Salam, Salami!!!” Responded the chorus of the crowd.
“Comrades. I swear … I’m sorry… Unfortunately … you know, this is inventory, we borrowed them, nobody can touch … ”
“To hell with you intellectuals. Men of honor?” exploded an old pensioner, throwing disgusted his beret in the window. “It’s OK, comrade militian, I’m leaving, don’t hit me no more…” Fearing a clash , some people start moving sideways and Juliana was pushed out of the crowd. “Well, what was it? said Adel and handed over the leash. Having unwrapped it from her elderly hand—red marks left as if she had been bound for a while. “What is happening?” yelled her to Juliana. As if awakened from a trance, Juliana looked back at her mother, sighed, and began leading them out of the suddenly dangerous market place, dragging behind a reluctant Medi. “I wish I had known what it was all about” complained her mother.
“Just the good old days. You will see it on TV. Let’s go home”