by Răzvan Petrescu ( Romania)
Translation from Romanian by Manuela Cazan
Edited by Adrian Ioniţă
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It was a Thursday afternoon, around six o’clock. I had taken my dog out for a potty break, an English Setter with a black spot on its left eye and an excessive urge to pee. Usually, I don’t need to go to the loo at this time of the day, but the park is nice, the leaves fall, trees blossom, biiirds, sometimes it snows, and you find yourself not lonely, but alone – as the saying goes- in the middle of the world that keeps silent. While I was feeling at peace with nature- aimlessly contemplating with an abulic state of mind the grass grown in the creaks of the alley, (with people and the man’s best friend that leave hair everywhere ) the dog snatched a piece of paper, one of those poisoned lures plotted by dog haters or by people who just enjoy soiling venom on something. I violently pulled it out from his mouth and glanced at it.
It was I, in semi-profile, on raster paper, format 13/18, with a basketball in my hand.
I looked at the dog with expressionless eyes and gave the photo back to him.
The dog swallowed it.
A couple of days had passed, I think. I was in the heart of our capital, Bucharest, the city of my childhood that went bad, a lot of commotions, colored cars, lights, ads, telephones, beeps, ice-cream puddles, people staring at the walls of large houses, (a kind of villa with pinnacles and pagoda-type roofs, surrounded by electrified green fences behind which you could see motionless guards with impenetrable faces,) people lining up for newspapers, lottery tickets, sea shells and toilet paper, (that comes in different forms, I, for one, never use the pink, porous, extra-fine kind, unless it’s an emergency, as it tears right in the middle, and you can have a really bad surprise,) people drinking sodas, their tragic stare aimed upwards, and a few compact groups eating passively mititei… I bought four, took one bite and, as I was about to throw them into an orange garbage bin, I saw inside a photo. I do not know what made me pick it up. Actually, I do. It was me again. On glossy paper this time, a shot taken from down up, (you could see my receding hairline,) sitting next to a little bear, laughing, somewhere in the mountains.
I felt slightly embarrassed.
The lighter wouldn’t work, but when it did, I lit up the little bear behind a travel agency across the street from the Intercontinental hotel.
Friday night, my wife Ioana told me she had found two pictures of me lying in the front of her hairdresser’s cement floor, not far from the cashier’s desk. A few ladies, on their way to the hair drier had stepped on them with their stilettos, piercing through the cheek and the right eye image of the photos. I asked her what she had done with them. She answered serenely that she had offered them to the girls. As I know from experience that hairdressers don’t normally enjoy seeing pictures, particularly of me, I hoped that they had eventually thrown them away to the bin, together with their clients’ hair. Still, I was left with an awkward feeling. In the evening, I had a very strong sedative of all-saints\’-wort. The next morning, Ioana told me that the tea was not a sedative, lime was.
Maybe that is why, two hours later, in the middle of the night, I dreamed I was being photographed naked on the beach. At Mamaia.
On Monday, as I was going to the bus stop I noticed the beggar at the corner of the street (the corner has been full of beggars lately, some of them are blind) who, although I had been seeing him daily for more than five years, always failed to stimulate my charity, humility, shame, karmak (fishing tool, not karma, but who knows?) feeling of guilt or any other feelings of this sort. The truth is, as much as I can, I avoid looking at him, because he always irritates me. He’s got golden teeth – moreover, he dares to expose them when he’s begging – hair in his ears and thick lips, to say nothing of the fact that he’s quite well-dressed, his gray jacket would fit me perfectly if I were a little larger… Now, oddly enough, he was selling candles for the living and pictures of me. I asked him where he had got them, the photos, after I had bought them all. There were ten of them, eleven, to be more precise, but the last one was in such a state of wrinkling and fading, that I thought no one could recognize me in it. Besides, the snapshot was rather old, I don’t think that I was more than five years old at the time. The cadger urged me to buy that one too, telling me that his father, who is extremely old, kept telling him lately that the world was shrinking. It is shrinking right in front of our eyes, even though it was fixed on photographic paper, where you could observe the phenomenon quite well. As for where he had found the photos, he confessed to me that he found them on the street, on his way home. Although he lived in a half-demolished apartment building at the outskirts of the neighborhood, I had to make a trip there. I didn’t find any more photos, but the building was wrapped in deep sadness. Only a few hours earlier, an obese mother living on the first floor, had sat on the bed after breakfast, to get some rest. She sat directly on the top of her own two months old baby. She had forgotten about him, hadn’t noticed him or was thinking of something else. Actually, the baby was adorable and particularly very quiet, unfortunately. She sat on him with all her weight for about three minutes, sighing, as was claimed later, so there was no need for a doctor anymore. The little creature couldn’t even say psst, as it is customary in more or less similar situations. Or, if he could, it didn’t matter anyway, as he couldn’t have been heard from beneath of all those kilos of mother fat which, it is known, is not a good carrier of sound. The woman was now screaming at the maximum blast, mad with grief and she was punching herself in the nose and the side of her head. The beggar summarized his opinion (while he was uncovering his head – his head was dyed indigo) according to which, if we could set aside the atrocious pain caused by such a tragedy, we should at least admit something that is evident and commonsensical, namely, that it’s much easier to bury a baby that had been turned into gelatin by his own mother, this being for sure the human being who needed the smallest, consequently, the cheapest funeral embellishments. I didn’t argue with him, he seemed violent.
The following day I went to a friend of mine who’s a professional photographer, showed him the pictures and, to my surprise, he wasn’t intrigued. He explained to me that this just happens sometimes and I shouldn’t worry, it was something about my astral body, yoga, and he enlarged the photos. I had just seen an Antonioni movie about a photographer who discovered a crime on a negative and, at the end, some mime artists (after a short story by Cortázar, Gossamers I think it was called, I don’t remember the name of the movie,) only in my case, nothing interesting came up, except the very poor quality of the image and an inexplicable little toy hammer. The photographer cleared his voice. “All I can tell you is that the pictures were taken with the same camera, at night, the details are barely visible. You were taken from short distance, with an additional light source. A blitz, but I couldn’t swear on it, it might have been a spotlight, too.” Then he turned off the red light in his workshop, we had a glass of wine together and he suggested to keep looking, maybe one day I could find some better ones.
I didn’t have to make any special efforts. After three weeks, I began to find them everywhere, and it was raining, too, spring had come, they were wet, covered in bird shit, (migrating birds had returned home) and, in spite of all these things, my face was still easily recognizable.
I’m a journalist. I also write short stories. Sometimes.
One day, in the subway, all of a sudden, a plump, sociable, difficult woman from the seat next to me, started talking and although I had in no way encouraged anything like that, she told me that she was a seamstress and gave me a lot of details on this beautiful profession, (maybe she wanted to initiate me in the secretes of the job, so I could become a seamster by the time I got to Dristor, where I was restlessly waiting to get off,) then, when I took out an invoice to read during the journey, she saw the picture on my ID card and for about six stops she told me the story of another poor woman, Eleonora. She asked me if I was a writer, I avoided the answer, particularly since I didn’t know it, eventually I said no, the picture was of my cousin’s, a well known athlete, (she must have seen him on TV,) hence the confusion, pity though, that Eleonora had disappeared, as far as I understood.
Until not long ago, the only picture of me made public had been taken with a large format camera in France by a friend of mine who’s a priest and worked for a religious magazine in his spare time. Behind me there was the contour of a monastery with a white flag waving on the tower on the right. Since I was standing in front of the other tower, – the intended frame being the one with the flag – I basically could not be seen. And yet this picture not only appeared with me in the forefront, but it seems that it was also a success, maybe because I was the grave digger. Since the villagers in the valley were superstitious, (half Basque,) no one had wanted to take such responsibility and they asked me. So, to be more specific, somebody had died there, an old almost volatile man, but a day before that, the grave digger had died too, and right at the moment of the click I was throwing a shovel full of dirt over him. For an amateur nécrophore, I can say that I did quite a good job. The tomb was nice and round, with Loire in the background and it had on the top a pear tree with no leaves but only one single pear.
That was my first picture I actually was fond of.
I never found out what happened to it, I didn’t even find it in the magazine’s collection.
In another month’s time, Ioana started collecting all the pictures found on the street, sticking them in very good taste in a photo album bound in red leather. Unfortunately, as she was getting the last portrait in, the babysitter showed up, (that’s how she shows up, at the last moment, the woman is from a remote village,) and Ioana pasted the photo crooked, got angry and left the room. By the way, I hate the people from the countryside who had come to our capital city to take our apartments, steal the light bulbs from the staircases, our laundry lines, the laundry, undried, our antenna couplings, the mirror in the elevator, the button from the ring bell, people chewing and spitting out sunflower seeds, everywhere, (on tramways, in the dining room, at work, in ministry offices,) with immense voluptuousness, talk backwards, wear hat with ear covers, feel the irresistible need to take off their shoes when entering any home, and stand there in their hard to forget stripe socks, produce thick clouds of dust while incessantly shake their carpets with a stick, burn leaves in the fall because this is what we ought to do -burn the leaves, no one knows what practical results such a habit has, all we know is that it is implacable, hence the cough caused by the sweet, stifling, cancer-causing smoke, call each other from the balcony, exchanging awes and monosyllables regarding the latest episode of Blood of My Blood, Cheated Women, Luisa Fernanda, Antonela, Eleonora, Little House on the Prairie, Rich People Cry, Too, while they fan the pickled cabbage, (I’m sure, bronchitis comes from the smoke, or from the dust that spreads everywhere from their gypsum icicle hanging on the ceilings,) panel their hallway walls with gypsum, only to create geometrical, villatic shapes, or get bark-like wall paper to look elegant, like in a forest, pasting it forever with crazy glue, so no one, by any means, can take it off, (unless they pull down the neighbor’s wall,) sit eternally on iron benches in front of the apartment building, so they can see who’s coming and going, plant tomatoes and onions in the little garden near the building and later throw out of the high windows empty bottles of moonshine right on top of the vegetables, (so it can all stink beyond good and evil, and at the same time bathe themselves in liters of floral water I wouldn’t use on my dog as a joke,) finally, the babysitter came and explained to my son (who besides being a very dutiful child, is also very naïve, to use an understatement) that the best thing he should do in the morning was to place the dog into the stove.
It was quite difficult, but they managed to stuff it in by working together. When I got home, I felt an unusual smell of something burning, fortunately my son explained, he came to me running and told me that the dog had been in the stove for an hour and wasn’t barking any more.
I forgot to tell you that, besides the Setter, they had also torched Dante, the 1932 edition, edited by Ramiro Ortiz and printed on grained wove paper, as the fire wasn’t going high enough.
Since I couldn’t beat up the babysitter, not even theoretically, as she was a head taller than me, I spanked the child, although my abject, perfidious, Freudian wish was to place him on top of the Divine Comedy. Even so, that would have been useless. The fire had died out.
I only recovered the skeleton of the dog and buried it among the tomatoes. I didn’t even fire the babysitter, for the obvious reason that, besides her paralyzing hips she also had connections to the Ministry of Culture. Connections that justify all her initiatives. On the other hand, when we have guests, she wears very tight dresses. Which creates a very pleasant environment, especially when she bows to set down the tray. Besides, the murmured sway of her nursing breast that seems to have appeared right out of our stormy history, often helps sublimate those intimate feelings, changing the nice atmosphere into a solemn one. Ethnographic.
After more than five months from the latest incident I started asking around, discretely, at magazines, notary pubic offices, art studios, all kinds of publishing houses and bars if anyone knew how my pictures got to be on the streets. The only answer I got was a shrug that was so telling that I could have drawn it.
Instead, I think it was a Thursday, I caught the babysitter drawing moustaches on one of my best photos, where I’m wearing a pilot cap, that was recently found in Piaţa Amzei. At the same time, annoyed that it kept skipping the rails, Ioana took down with a pair of pliers the little electric train offered with all my love to my touching child for Christmas. He was sitting at the table, calmly braking nuts open with his forehead. I felt I was growing old, so I got dressed and went out. The weather got colder. As I stopped by a gutter for a moment, I found another picture. Here I had been taken eating chips at a wedding.
I started writing again.
Shortly, the publishing houses began returning my manuscripts together with more pictures of me, slightly retouched, pictures that I had never sent to them.
I grew suspicious, started looking carefully where I stepped, for fear not to get another picture stuck to my soles. In November, I inadvertently stepped on an old woman’s bunion. She fell in a bundle, with a sad look on her face. By now I was walking mainly by the walls, with my collar up. I became known on the blocks. And I knew all their coiled wires in the pavement, the depth of their bumps, their secrets, their piles of debris, tins, used paper, chips deceivingly sprinkled on the sidewalks, their bushes. Once, a little boy gave me a photo that seemed just taken out of the lab, saying it looked like me. Of course it looked like me, since it was me, but to this day I still can’t understand why I slapped the little boy.
After nine months that got more and more gloomy, we ended up getting a divorce. In court, Ioana declared that she just couldn’t stand seeing my face all the time, day and night, wherever she went, like a permanent campaign poster, she’d had enough, couldn’t take seeing my pictures scattered all over the town anymore, or, you know, the neighbors, relatives bringing the photos and then staying for lunch, eating everything, vicious cousins, (look, dear, how good he looks in these one,) passers-by, mailmen, garbage men (who were always asking for money for the funeral of a colleague who disappeared in a work accident, usually minced by the garbage grinder,) traveling photographers, some policeman with a vague look on the face, Albanians, homeless people, firemen, a panicked Santa Clause on the intercom who had got the wrong season, the sector mayor, feverish teenage girls looking for an idol and even athletic anonymous men with nylon stockings on their heads. She had collected about two thousand pictures, some of them pretty good. They all had one thing in common, they had been taken at night, as my friend had suspected, the only difference was in the quality of the paper and the opening of the diaphragm. The woman judge looked at them for more than four hours, chose four and then smiled to me.
Ioana got the apartment, the baby, the babysitter and alimony.
I eventually I found a studio in Drumul Taberei, with a view to the fields, with cracked BCA walls that I completely covered in photos. Some are glued with poxipol, others are stuck with tacks, nailed in or recessed in the wall. Unfortunately, none of them is in color.
Very rarely now, I still go out in the evening to look for them.
(from Într‑o după‑amiază de vineri, Asociaţia Scriitorilor din Bucureşti & Editura Cartea Românească)
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