libris.ro

Two Head Washes

 

         by Mircea Daneliuc (Romania)

Translated by Nigel Walker & Alina-Olimpia Miron, MTTLC student

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Gelu worships me, the engineer told himself, after having pondered it for a while.

Gelu hates me, the same engineer admitted a couple of months later.

If he hadn’t taken the car, he might not have realized it. He was good with magic. Whenever you saw him in Obor Park, he could leave you deflated if you watched two or three tricks. You should see him rip that hundred in two and then put it back together. Gimme one C, he’d ask. If you had one, you’d give it. And he’d tear it in two, right there, in front of you, so that you almost felt like shitting your pants. Great stuff! He’s really got it, came from Focşani; old story, no point in going back to it…

He had arrived home in a very good mood, four grocery bags in his hands, his car had started up on the first attempt – although he hadn’t used it for three whole weeks –, his parking space was free, everything was just peachy; a great morning seemed to be ahead of him. His car: an exceptional, three-thousand-euro’s worth model; the second you inserted the key, off it would go. But why was his mind filled with worries?

Well, here’s why…Of course you’re getting screwed over; the minute you enter Dorobanţi or Galaţi Market, they skin you alive. With what you pay for five tomatoes, you can get one kilo and a quarter at Angela’s in Hurmuzachii Market – with two i’s –, 3rd district. You have to change the subway at Victoriei’s. The same goes for meat; the place to go is next to the Traffic Battalion, in Udrişte; it’s the best. I also know where you can get the best deals for oil; for bread you have to go to the Circus. And so on and so forth. You might ask me: do I actually have to tramp all over Bucharest for groceries?? Not all over Bucharest; besides, if you count what you pay for the subway tickets and buses, you still won’t pay more than the Dorobanţi price. Take a pencil and add everything up. Listen to me, it’s much more convenient.

However, Reta wanted a substantial purchase once every three months: detergent, oil, blah blah, meat, maize…In this case, you gotta go outside Bucharest, to one of those supermarkets. So you gotta take the car, because the bags are heavy as hell. Those God damn fuckers keep raising the price of gas; when you fill the car up, you can feel their hands grabbing your throat and the worst thing is: hardly does a month pass that they raise it some more!!

Now he was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. The door was closed. He was reading. He had his eyes nailed on the receipt. He could feel his entire body being seized by a surging anger. That thief of a woman had rung up two trays of chicken drumsticks, although he had taken only one. Where did she get that notion from?! He entered the kitchen to check the bags his wife had emptied: only one tray! Of course he had bought only one tray of drumsticks! What a bunch of jackasses! Of wretches! They have to get their hands on everything, to screw everyone over! You can’t stand there and check your receipt; you just pay up and walk out. Otherwise you’d surely file a complaint against her! Only at home do you actually read the God forsaken thing! What am I gonna do now? Get into the car and drive up there again? And how do I prove it? They’re gonna cuss at me, tell me I’ve gone gaga! Two hundred and eighty! He didn’t tell Reta anything. Add the gas money (you know, an engine doesn’t run on air); nobody asks how much a litre is. Why did I get it out?? Couldn’t I just take the sub?! But isn’t it normal to buy a car (don’t matter the quality) and know it’s there, on the street, its alarm on, growing old with you, able to take you places, to the doctor’s when your crumbling bones will be failing you? Last night he got it safe on the kerb; this morning the mirrors had been broken. What a country this is!

All in all, he liked Romania. When he dragged his slippers from one room to another, he loved it with every fibre of his being. Though not so much when he turned on the TV or when he had to get out of the house, but, in the morning, when peace surrounded everything, it seemed rather nice to him. It’s very likely this diffuse feeling of his had never reached higher than the cardiac sphincter, between the ribs; however, his perception of it was somewhat possessive; after all, this was his country: three bedrooms, one kitchen, one pantry and one balcony. And the opinions he exchanged with Reta; in Romanian, of course.

Fortunately, in fall, the weather is becoming chilly. It’s a sweet transition from the never-ending heat of the last four months which you’ve survived thanks to the plentiful bottles of water. A soft light was lurking behind the closed curtains, but the engineer couldn’t calm down. No, sir! Although all that anxiety was no good for him. For an illusionist to have self-possession, even if he does work for the pleasure of it, a certain balance is needed. He tried to free himself of the anger, to put everything behind him in order not to make things worse. He took his little ball out of his pocket and squeezed it for a while in order to maintain his muscle tone and nimbleness. Then the ball dropped. He hadn’t calmed down yet. He needed that peace he felt when he’d hide his pinkie ring in his palm (on Podul Izvor) only to later bring it out of his ear. If you’re agitated, it doesn’t help one bit. C’mon, Mr. Engineer, do it again, pleeeeease! All those faces evincing gratitude…He wasn’t an engineer; he had been a white-smith, he fitted double glazing, but he also had certain skills he couldn’t repress. He didn’t even ask for money; if anyone gave any, fine; if not, then that was that!

He rummaged a while through his old recordings, telling himself he could always play one if and when he wanted to. At present he didn’t feel like it; besides, it was quite early in the morning, Reta was cooking, his outer peace was at its best, his inner one so and so; he turned on the TV and sank into the soft folds of the armchair. He had videos of Monte Carlo, cassettes of tricks done on shows; if he had an assistant, he could actually do some of them; others were a bit more difficult to understand, but, anyway, you had to have a serious setup and if you don’t have any support whatsoever… Damn them! Set on pilfering and ruffianism! Dear little thing….she went crazy for a freakin’ tray of drumsticks! The news is generally negative: misdemeanours, embezzlements, weak stuff. Even the president, poor him, appeared on TV and complained he wasn’t allowed to do his job properly. He turned it off; he hated the government, it always made his blood pressure skyrocket, especially when it was obvious nothing could be done to fix things. Better not watch it. The most stupid thing: being the president…

 The kitchen door squeaked. I have to oil it. Reta popped her head in the doorway and turned his attention to something more concrete.

– What day is it today?

She was chopping something. He looked at the VCR and realized it was Saturday. Again?! Man, time does fly by, especially when you’re fifty. Scary shit. But it was just the other day….when was the Saturday of Souls? I should drop by the cemetery…God knows what’s happening there…Saturday, bath. It’s no coincidence people bathe on the sixth day, it might be a cycle or something, he told himself, opening one of the bedroom drawers to get clean underwear. The same feeling accompanied him as he got in the tub. He pondered on the week that was coming to an end; he hadn’t done anything, when could he have? The way time goes by is really terrifying. During the Communist regime – we were somewhat younger then –, if you had a VCR, you were someone, a man of importance. Nowadays, you can’t do jack with it. Maybe just check the time. With your glasses on. It’s as good as new. Nobody has fiddled with it. I wonder how much I’d get for it? But whom to sell it to? Who’d take it? Now everybody has it, only they’re all flat. I can’t believe I let that cow have my two hundred eighty drumsticks!! What an idiot!

He watched his arms float until he felt his entire body floating. When he deemed his peace of mind satisfying enough, he made the soap disappear and focused on Reta’s hair pins scattered all over the shelf. He tried to get one to levitate or even move it, but he knew it was hopeless. He had no skills for it. Nevertheless, he didn’t despair. He squeezed out whatever was left in the shampoo bottle and started to rub it on his head.

Now he was sitting in his armchair, staring at the ceiling, cap on his head. He always came down with a cold after his bath, unless he was careful and took care of his hair. Even if he had blow-dried it. Washing one’s hair often is not recommended. Only on Saturdays, once a week. It’s enough; otherwise, God knows what might happen. Reta was still working in the kitchen; he decided to visualize what she was doing. It wasn’t worth checking up. When the image cleared up, he’d flutter his fingers in a curt manner.

Suddenly – the doorbell buzz! He gave a start. Something was invading his Romania. His wife heard it from the kitchen.

– Are you waiting for someone?

Nix! Who could that be? The garbage man? Another bunch of smart-asses. They feel like having a beer, so they decide to piss you off by ringing that damned bell. I’m not going to open. Had it been Mrs. Martha, she would have called first. I won’t open. I’m not home! Maybe it’s the postman?!…Just hope there’s nothing wrong with the car…what if they’ve flattened one of the wheels and the neighbour is ringing to let me know?

This subsequent thought made him get up from the corner he had huddled in and walk into the hall. He bent over the window sill.

He cherished that car. For months he had looked through the classifieds; it’s tough, you go for it especially if it has only 130.000 km on it…Plus the parking space which you can’t find that easily. That’s why I seldom take it out, only when I have to, otherwise you can kiss that parking space goodbye. What’s the problem? What if I don’t take it out? What’s it to you? Nobody can reproach you for anything, but you do bring people’s wickedness to the surface: broken headlights, tire rims and other dirty stuff and, let’s not forget, scratches. The second your foot steps out of the apartments you are in exile. It’s a completely different Romania out there. Glued to your house…The mirrors, at least, poof in the first 24 hours! He found them the next morning; they had been pulled out with the screwdriver and propped under the windscreen wipers. That rogue could have taken them, but probably decided against it; just to show you what a clever dick he is! The brute! If only he had pulled them out properly, but noooo! He had to crack them, like an animal! What was I to do? I put them back the way I had found them, so that idiot would see them and rejoice. He’d pass by it five times a day and five times he’d think, his heart leaping with joy: I fixed those…

The engineer’s soul writhed in pain; had he replaced them, it still would have been in vain; that guy is probably walking around with the screwdriver in his pocket. Let alone the price to have them fixed! If this ain’t Gelu’s doing, I’m a Dutchman!

Reta hated Gelu’s guts. Although Gelu hadn’t done anything to her. What annoyed her was a very nasty feeling, an ugly suspicion she’d have whenever the guy was at the door. Gelu could pester you to death.

– What’s your deal with this boy?

That was an allusion. Gelu, you see, was only twenty something…

– Why does he keep calling you outside?

– He admires me. He loves magic.

– He admires you? Can’t you see he’s a nutcase?

– C’mon… nutcase…really?

– How come he admires you so much?

And he even asks for money. He really gets on your nerves. Reta comes one day and brings him into the house. I had gleaned from the very beginning that he was off his rocker just by the way he looked at you, but I thought he worked with her, at her workplace.

– This guy doesn’t have it all together, I told her afterwards.

– He sure doesn’t. They do lock him up from time to time.  

Actually, when she wanted to, Reta could be a real bitch. She managed to be so gross, especially the look she threw at that glass of water, that the engineer didn’t dare invite the guy in again.

– I only have still water…

– It’ll do.

If you said still, that was it. Tap water.

Gelu was verbose and talked rather fast. His mind wasn’t all there. It wasn’t so bad; when he’d see the chance to nip or snatch something, his mind was dead set on it. He always had bruises all over his body. Always. Nobody knew why. He admitted to having an irrepressible weakness for fine prestidigitation. He could stare for hours on end, his mouth agape, in Obor Park as the engineer ripped one-hundred-lei bills and pulled rings out of his hair.

– Engineer, I can do it too! I swear! On my mother’s grave!

And he’d knock his cell phone against his forehead. The object would stick. Somewhat.

– But it won’t hold longer than two minutes. I’ve tried it at home too. Don’t try it at home! How do you do it? I can’t do it. They slip. America has certain interests in this area; they won’t make peace with Argentina and the Turks. They’re tapping my phone. It’s prickling my head.

The engineer watched him with the indulgence and caution one evinces when approaching simple, natural things. On the other hand, Gelu felt a great power being infused into him and became fond of the engineer. He’d talk for hours on end but his prattling disturbed the engineer. He had begun to go by his house. He’d ring him up.

– What’s the deal with you two? Mrs. Reta would ask popping up behind her husband as he, bent over the window, calling towards the Romania down below:

– Hello! Who is this?

Then she would leave him, delving into a sea of sadness and suspicion.

– Mr. Stelică, you rock, my man! I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night, God bless your soul! I felt your presence and, to top it, even global warming. Smile! Gimme fifty lei so I can get something to eat.

Mr. Stelică, the Mr. engineer had been long gone. A thing of the past. The fact that Gelu had begun to beg for money was beginning to irritate the engineer. Whenever the issue came up, it almost looked like he had to pay some kind of tax. He almost felt like apologizing.

– I don’t have any, Gelu! Really!

– You want me to roll over or what??? Is this Russia or what??? You’re the shit, man! You’re not like the rest of us!

In the end, the engineer would always find something to give him.

– Why are you giving him money? I saw you do it from upstairs.

– Let’s hear it! How much did I give him?

– Do you want to drive me crazy? Why do you give him money? What’s he got on you?

His financial demands weren’t frequent, but they did exist. Of course, Stelian would make sure his gesture came across as rather reluctant so Gelu wouldn’t make a habit of begging; whether it had an effect on him or not is unknown, especially as Gelu had acquired a manner of imposing ultimatums. You get worried, you return home in the evening…better to just give him the money and have him off your case.

Still, how had this shift of power occurred? The engineer felt he was being dominated. Out of veneration, he immediately added. Spontaneous and lingering admiration, just like the desire to live up to one’s ideal, to be the opposite, will drive one to exhibit frustration and resentment. You can see this in our society and artists. If I think only about the pains he had taken to keep that metal on his face and how much the poor wretch had striven to get a glass ball out of his nostril! The typical diligent apprentice. Any sort of reverence translates into the placenta of envy. Particularly considering his present mental state. What can the hospital to do him? Poor guy. On the contrary, they’re stressing him out of his wits.

At first, Stelian leaned towards compassion in regard to this fervent admirer. But when he heard him ring the doorbell and summon him in that tone of his, his anger would go sky high. And when the Mazda entered his life, everything became crystal-clear to him. My Lord, he, I mean Gelu, that look of his…it was a criminal’s gaze. Gelu gave it a once-over, but his eyes…Jesus Christ?! And then he said:

– Cool! The air’s polluted as shit and the Swedish are launching the water engine. Got a fifty?

No ‘enjoy it, man’, no ‘great car’, no ‘how much did you pay’ as people usually say. I could feel Reta’s eyes on me, watching me from high up.

– I don’t. I’ve had quite a lot of expenses.

– You’ve had expenses?

And he leaves me there like some piece of shit; doesn’t even wait for me to say anything, maybe I wanted to tell him more, he just turns around and leaves. I yell after him: heyyyyyyyyyyyyy!

– Didn’t I give you a fifty last week?

No reaction. That was a blow. I though he’d have a breakdown right there and then.

– If you want, I can give you two.

– Two? Why?

I offended him. He stopped. He was just standing there, his back turned at me.

– I only got two…look…

I didn’t have more. Honest to God. He came towards me, took it and left. No ‘thank you’, no ‘kiss my ass’. I knew that wasn’t right at all. I felt it to the bone. I’ll bet my life he returned that night with that screwdriver and sarcastically placed them on my car roof.

Right…where were we? The engineer hears the doorbell ringing, falters for a second, the wife asks if he’s waiting for someone, he says no and yet, his soul filled with doubts, bends over the window sill.

– Who is it?

Silence. Nothing under the cornice.

– Hello!

– It’s me…

Silence. Gelu takes a step back towards the kerb. From high up, Stelian can see the car top strewn with bird poop and the guy next to the mirror on the right. His right eye is closed, black and blue to the bottom of his nostrils. Traces of blood are trickling down his ear. He looks as if he has been hit by the goods train. His head thrown back, Stelian gazes at him.

– What does he want? he can hear her at the door.

– What do you want? Stelian asks him.

Hesitant, Gelu raises one hand, all the fingers astride so Stelian can count them. Dirty, dirty hand.

– Five or fifty?

The other one puts on an annoyed face as if saying: c’mon, don’t give me that shit!

– Hey, what’s the deal with this guy? What are you two up to?

No answer. The slammed door clatters in the back. The engineer feels it’s better to be on his wife’s side, so he raises his voice a little.

– Now listen here, you! What did we talk about?  

Gelu, leaning against the Mazda, throws a rather obedient glance at him with his left eye. That’s not good. At all. A car left on the street, at everyone’s mercy: dogs rusting its wheels, children drawing and scratching on it, idiots satisfying their invasive desires and needs.

– I won’t have this happen again! Wait there…

He closes the window, then starts to rummage through the clothes on the peg after his wallet. Reta suddenly re-emerges; she hadn’t made herself scarce after all.

– Don’t tell me you’re giving him money again…How much are you giving him?

– It’s Saturday…I’m giving alms…Or am I not allowed to do that either?

– How much are you giving him?

– Fifty.

The woman doesn’t utter a word. She slams the door again, opens it again and goes into the smaller bedroom.

The engineer pulls the drawer and looks for envelopes. He finds the bill and pulls it out. From his wallet he takes a five. He replaces the fifty in the envelope with the five and then puts the fifty back into the drawer. He performs this magic very skilfully. Money can be given also in a civilized manner. Besides, the guy takes the envelope and has no way of knowing how much is inside. What happens when he opens it, that’s another story! This way he heads to the door.

– Where are you going? You’ve just had a bath. Put a hat or something on. Don’t come complaining that you’ve caught a cold.

She does have a point. But the idea his car might be tampered with made him unwary, with a slight tinge of generosity. He bent over the window sill again.

– Where are you?

Gelu came into sight from under the wall, blinking his healthy eye. Stelian aimed and flung the envelope.

– This is the last time!

The guy down below didn’t say a word as he was focused on the envelope – which hovered about the windows -, trying to guess where it would eventually fall. Ditto for the guy high up. Unfortunately, what followed came as a surprise to both of them: the object fluttered a few times, only to rest languidly on the bird poop gathered on the lip above the cornice. Bird poop is rather incorrect now that I think of it; pigeon poop is more like it; entire generations of pigeon poop. And waste. All they could do – alas! – was to witness this event with a passive attitude.

A moment of silence ensued: the two pairs of eyes, each on their respective sides, were looking at the envelope. From down below, you couldn’t see virtually anything. However, the envelope was very visible to the engineer, though unreachable, no matter how much he tried to hold out his hand and grab it. The distance from his floor to the envelope – exactly one floor. He looked at it resignedly; the whole thing had a dispiriting logic, falling into the category of humiliating events that summed up his life. You can’t even revolt yourself anymore; you simply accept facts. Still, that damned envelope contained a five-lei bill, the wind might take it and lay it at some idiot’s feet: here’s a five in an envelope, some other idiot dropped it…Something hard would come in handy. Something long and hard…like a stick , but he didn’t have one.

– Wait a bit, he mumbled to the guy down below and disappeared from the window.

He stopped at the pantry door and threw an irritated look at the shelves drowned in jars and tools. He couldn’t see any rod anywhere…no spear either…In the end, he grabbed the mop whose shaft was more than one-metre- long.

He also took a footstool and headed for the door. On his way out, he thought the little balcony ladder (horribly smeared by lazy painters) might be better, but how to carry it all the way down…to the sidewalk (filthy as it was and weighing a ton…) Nevermind…the footstool will do just fine.

– Where are you going? he heard her as he was slipping out the stair landing. Did you cover your head?

No, he hadn’t put a hat on, but he had already closed the door behind him. Fuck it! I won’t catch a cold…I’m not going to be long. The distance from the ground to the cornice seemed a bit shorter. After having assessed his course of action, he set the footstool down. He raised one leg. Gelu jumped up to help him and, up close, Stelian saw he was drunk. He didn’t even ask what had happened to his eye. He got up and stretched as much as he could, the mop above him, completely useless. If only there were ten more centimetres…He scraped the mop against the edge of the lip, but all he managed to do was flood himself with pigeon poop and decrepit plaster. He passed his hand through his hair. Matted crap…disgusting. Sick to death, he went down and gave Gelu (who was taller anyway) the mop. While Gelu heaved himself up in a rather questionable fashion, the engineer raised a dismayed eye to the windows. Thank God there wasn’t anyone at any of the upper or lower windows…

Gelu did have a few extra centimetres, but could not reach the edge of the cornice either. He was chattering like a magpie, the mop in the air,  fucking off, as America would say, the point where the envelope rested bearing no importance whatsoever to him. He just wanted to be useful and thus he was teetering uselessly. What followed was Gelu falling on his back with inconsequential consequences because this friendly exercise resulted in an ungodly imbalance. Stelian left him to lie like that for a while, his eyes set on that chaos of gestures, then, aggravated, pulled the footstool from under his legs and wiped it with his sleeve. Clodded. His wife. Another argument… He went furiously inside, mop and footstool in his hands.

Upstairs, he vengefully grabbed the wallet from his pocket and looked for a clone of the five bill. Unfortunately, he didn’t find any, so he had to take the fifty. He stormed down the stairs, hopelessly slamming the door behind him.

– Where are you going? he heard her mumbling somewhere inside the house.

He stopped on the sidewalk, panting and beckoned Gelu to approach him.

– Come here!

Gelu was still looking at the envelope, feverishly listing several other possible retrieval procedures in his head.

– Take it! Keep outta my sight! You hear me?!

To Gelu, this alternative wasn’t a dignity issue.

– Please, don’t even think about it…Under no circumstances will I…this is like Space Odyssey, what the fuck…

– Take it and fuck off. If you don’t take it now, you’ll never see it again. Are you gonna take it or not?!

Of course. Gelu held out his hand. What else was there to do? And the engineer vanished into his apartment. Actually, it was his own tone of voice that had intimidated him; he had yelled at the guy. That wasn’t a good sign; anything could happen now. When he heard the doorbell again, he crawled towards the window like a convict.

– Yes…

– I want to wish you the best of luck.

– You too…

– I’m already on it.

Reta appeared in the doorway to watch him, after she had found him crouched in the armchair. She held her tongue and disapprovingly retired to her bedroom where, at least, he was out of her sight.

The engineer knocked back an Aspacardin. I’m the one to blame. I saw him envy me and I encouraged him. You indulge yourself. The second you let someone hold you in high esteem, you’re fucked! He passed his hand through his hair and felt several foreign bodies which, strange enough, seemed to calm him down a bit. Nevertheless, a five and a fifty gone! Poof! Just like that! And the envelope is still outside…Maybe the wind took it. Suddenly worried, he opened the window. It was still there: dead, immovable.

Nightfall was coming on quickly. On TV – the same commercials as ever. He could hardly take his eyes off it. I can’t just leave it there, who knows…it might fly away and I won’t find it tomorrow. He was still obsessing about the envelope. Five lei isn’t that much, but it’s stupid to just lose it like that…I better recover it now, while there’s still light outside! He went out on the balcony, the ladder on his shoulder.

– Again?! Where are you going? Put a hat on your head! he heard her yelling from the bedroom.

Doesn’t matter now. He added the mop to his collection as he walked by it.

Outside, a bunch of children were playing ball among the cars. He smiled at them (God forbid he should provoke them). When they saw him get on the ladder, mop in hand, probably to wash the façade (of course; nothing unusual there), they stopped ramming car doors. Yes, the ladder did have the extra centimetres he had needed. After another ration of sediments had landed on his head, he managed to get the envelope. That leap stirred even his astonishment. He caught it in the air; didn’t even have to throw it on the ground. I still have my reflexes, he told himself while fervently rubbing that putrid stuff off his head, in order not to bring that filthiness into the house.

– What’s your deal with this boy? What are you two up to?

This woman really had no respect for him anymore.

However, the quarter of an hour that followed found him in the bathroom (again), kneeling next to the tub showering the nape of his neck. He squeezed the shampoo bottle as hard as he could, but nothing much came out of it. Besides, he didn’t need that much shampoo. He didn’t let this minor incident get to him; instead, he rested his eyes on the bottom of the tub where a grey layer had formed. Then he dried his hair. Washing your hair that often….it’s not healthy, it’s not recommended.

And that instant a sneeze seized him.

He found himself looking scared in the mirror. No idea why.

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