At Grandiflora

excerpt In the town square, behind "Gustav Café," there is the variety entertainment ale-house with the strange name "Bucharest Hotel" (it has room only for "women-artists"), Mr. Cocoşel's winter public house. Ancient house, rather long and low, the hotel twinkles its red eyes in the endless span of winter nights and puffs smoke on the chimneys, like a ready-to-go train. Here, the brokers temper the whirl of the wines, here the feasts are held, , which can last up to three days including the nights, are growing stronger. (After which, when they descend on the land that spins around them, because of so much travel, Alexandru's customers declare that they have travelled with the "trans-Siberian.") A mechanical piano jingles obstinately at every new coin popped inside the little box; and on several chairs aligned against the wall, four dyed-up girls are dozing monotonously and are all beating the time of the mechanical tunes in the same rhythm, with such speed as if they had been connected, through invisible wires, to the musical box. They are the artists waiting for their turn. Suddenly, the piano falls silent, and the march of the violin, of the kobza, and of the cembalo starts: the gypsies, in black-green clothes ("olive," as their head says) are bending, agile, over the smoke-blackened instruments and greet the customary clients with large smiles, revealing strong white teeth. After a few measures, the march is by all means transformed into a waltz. And again, after several measures, it changes into something unknown, a sort of bizarre and noisy introduction, a sort of jazz, if one of the women-artists, the newly come one, didn't jump from her place, from near the mechanical piano, and didn't rest on one leg, moving the other one behind, as an animal would move its vigorous tail, stretching, as for a gracious greeting, over the fiddlers' platform. The fiddlesticks hurry then to finish the introduction and the ones wielded more quickly finish before the others; and the ones that lagged behind simply interrupt the song. The woman-artist stands solidly on both feet this time, her chest forward, and starts with vigorous accent:Blé-riot got upsetIm tam…tam, tam… The audience watches her with terrible judge eyes: what has Blériot got to do with this? This is something from the old stuff crate! She smiles angelically to the wolf-gaze, which gulps her long legs, the tight waist, the two trembling breasts. ("This is a new chick, uncle Niculae!") So he had been told by the one who taught her to smile all the time, all through the programme. And she smiles obstinately to the terrible eyes glaring as if they were hoar frost beads under the moon. Finally, she still melts them, softens them; by all means, she is well-built! Applause start timidly, in the corners; two or three, and then they die out. Success is bound. With the plate in her hand, she starts for the takings. Success didn't leave her, on the contrary, it increased, for the lips, painted over their contours, make such a big red spot on the whitewashed face, as if she were holding a carnation between her teeth. Suddenly, smile, sweet eyes, carnations, disappear; a sinister mask with small evil eyes, marked with deep wrinkles, with an exaggeratedly large, crooked and red mouth, as if somebody had ripped out her tongue, sets on the smiley face. One can hear: "pig!" emphatically and proudly. Somebody had obviously been uncouth under the table. "I'm not that kind of woman, you louts!" and with an offended queen's look, she leaves quickly the table of the louts, whose worth can be seen from their outfits, seemingly looking for approval far away, at the back of the hall, where the Manaru group shrieked with laughter from the beginning of the song till now. And the smile, encouraged by the gaiety of the table wrapped in cigarette smoke, at first hesitating, flickers stronger and stronger and lightens the whitewashed mask again.During the intermezzo, that is, of the takings, the orchestra delights the audience with "national songs." It is the guitar player's turn: …All lamps have died out,only at your windowthe lamb burns like a star.But the takings are over, the chanteuse sat between Manaru and Marunţache. She chirps ostentatiously, looking proudly at her colleagues who wait for their turn, and laughs very noisily, as she started to enjoy the jokes under the table. (However, she doesn't forget to throw glances full of the most infinite disgust from now and then towards the louts' table.) And the other chanteuses succeed each other on the platform in the thicker and thicker haze. It smells of fresh wine and of rum. Then, suddenly, the acute smell of the grilled stake fills the nostrils enticingly. The third woman-artist is singing now; she sings in French: she is the French woman of the pub:Ninon, Ninon!Ne dis pas non…And her lamenting voice spreads out towards the boyars' table like a painful reproach. Near Manaru, until yesterday, was her place. Under the wreath of her peroxided hair, the eyes seem to shed tears in the flickering light, and the wrinkles, which the sweat-melted make-up reveals flatly on the flabby face, seem to be traces of weeping. She is tragic, in the song's desperation. But she recovers at once and, like the real French woman she feels she is, she proudly tosses her head backwards. The song is different: quick and lively. The foot beats nervously the tempo; then, she starts with small measured steps back, stops stamping her shoes, comes again majestically with the hand on her temple, greeting militarily:Je suis la belle MargotIm-tam-im tam-im-tam, tam…J'y viens de ChicagoIm-tam-im tam… And her voice becomes more and more heroic in the turmoil of smells and noises under the eyes filled with shy enthusiasm of the solicitors and of the shop assistants who did not understand this slang, gibberish for them, amazed at its Gaulish bravery. There is a terrible turmoil in the contralto throat of the French woman in her forties, stranded in the humble Oltenian town. The voice started to gurgle falsely, for, as they started on the chorus, Manaru's choir didn't rush as usual to accompany her with a stentorian howl of bass, drumming their fingers on the table noisily, with knife clinking in the glasses. No. Manaru, this "gaillard," tall, slender and swarthy, merry, talkative and sociable as the most authentic inhabitant of Marseille almost turned his back on the podium, in a close tandem with the newcomer. All the people at the table seemed to listen to their jokes; Ramură alone was still watching, with fire in his eyes, the low platform, where they played now a powerful drama. But, "la belle Margot" couldn't find it in her heart to like this chubby blonde-redhead; her voice was hissing now with jealousy and defeated pride; a hesitating moment and she recovered with tenfold strength. The applause burst out from all over the place, even from the boyars' table. She didn't go to collect the money. When there was silence again, a tall yellowish old man, with a wrinkled face, got on his feet and snapped three fingers above his head. "Twenty lei and a roble!" he declared in a voice which seemed to come from an empty barrel. Laughter and incitation."Sit down uncle Niculae!"But uncle Niculae cut something with his forefinger in the air and sat sober at the table, patting with two fingers his moist and rather greenish moustache. "Waiter, where are you?"And he winked at the empty bottle smacking the corner of his lips. Then, he sang: "Mărioara… from the mountains…"Then, swallowing, as a sort of break, he started over the same sole line, trying it on different tones. The French woman leaned sadly on a chair, alone at her table. She watched with a melancholic smile, the invitations of the countless admirers, made with mute gestures, or in an idiom totally unknown to French philologists. "Que-ce-qué-les vous, ma chère?J'ai vous l'honneur, ma'm'seille!"But her eyes sparkled so intensely as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears. Ramură came to her. Her blue eyes darkened. The consolation of this inopportune fellow whom she decidedly couldn't bear, humiliated and revolted her and his clumsy respects as well as his imprecations addressed to Manaru that he was capable of neglecting "une colombe si blanche" got on her nerves. Just then, Manaru turned his eyes to them. "Venez ici tous les deux!" he immediately invited them. Ramură, frowned fleetingly: the French woman seemed to hesitate; it was in a whole other way that she would have liked to be called. "Look, he turned back, he returned to that hoopoo again!" Ramură cried triumphantly and he repeated this in French, because "la belle Margot" was confused by the word "hoopoo" (she translated it by "pie" which still brought a smile over her saddened face). He was even ready to sit again, seeing this smile, on the chair from which, following her movement, he had just stood up, but the French woman slipped sprightly away from him and stopped on Manaru's left. Ramură followed her and sat beside them. New orders could be heard. Margot didn't listen to anything Ramură told her. Her right ear was focused at Manaru's whispers and at the magpie's giggles; so focused was she, that her left ear was also taken in. Hence, Ramură had to repeat three or four times the same words. Still, he didn't give up; he insisted obstinately in his proposals:"Ne dis pas non, Ninon…" The French woman, amused, seemed to consent. But, when he was precipitating to establish, then, the duration and the terms, she stepped aside in horror: "Mais qu'est-ce que j'ai dit, moi? C'est toujours non…""Vous avez consenti…""Je n'y faisais pas attention."Ramură was foaming. He, who had the irresistible don Juan's reputation, was completely compromised in front of the table companions, as this cocotte answered his whispers too loudly. The refusal of the chanteuse, and a quadragenerian one to boot, really made him angry. And it was he who was known as not letting a single woman-artist come to Alexandru Cocoşel's winter pub without him passing by her later on. And it was also rumoured that he didn't ever pay either, a unique privilege in this small town, since there is a café-chantant in it. He heard this and seemed not to dislike it at all. On the contrary.He was twisting the corner of his red moustache savagely; nevertheless, on his anger-contracted face, he always kept a smile for those present and accompanied it often by a meaningful eye-blink, without noticing that the latter didn't pay attention to him, caught in the whirl of noisy laughter around Manaru and the hoopoo. After a while, even Margot turned her back almost completely on him and seemed to be directly involved in the general amusement. Manaru however, perhaps out of carelessness or for better placing his elbow on the table, turned his sturdy bent back, too. This gesture utterly irritated the French woman. She came back to Ramură, without colour in her cheek, and gave an offended smile, which widened her lips up to the yellow ear lobe, like those of a fresh corpse. "Ah, dis-moi que'q'chose. Why shut up?"Ramură's mouth widened up to his ears, too, and it seemed that if there was more room, it would have spread further. The haggling didn't take long. The negotiations were empowered by squeezing one of her knees between his knees and by a clasp of the arm, a little above the elbow. The pub started to empty. At the louts' table, a violent controversy arose between waiters and customers on the number of orders, the price and the quality of the servings. Mr. Niculae, who sat by himself, as usual, all through the night, wanted to leave. "Aha, Mr. Niculae, you have taken the tablecloth with you."Mr. Niculae looked backwards with blurry eyes and then starred at the interpellator in a frowning manner:"I haven't left for good, he shouted out and loud, agitating his forefinger in the air, then, suddenly raising it towards the ceiling, he assured: "twenty lei and a roble!" Then, he hummed shortly:"Mărioara from the mountains…"And he started pacing on short uneven distances, in different directions, but in such a way that the last direction was straight in the door that seemed to suck him in, like a dark hole. Cold gusts of wind crept windingly at the back of the latecomers. "Let's go," Ramură whispered in the French woman's ear, anxious and trembling like jelly, as he usually behaved in front of women, in decisive moments. But she refused to leave so soon. When the place will be closed, then yes! Then, all the girls are leaving. Now, the owner himself would get upset.Ramură waited for a while, and then became even more insistent. She had to give in, throwing a last glance in Manaru's nape. If he wants it like that!But right then Manaru turned. He looked amazed at Ramură, then he looked down at the French woman. "Margot," he cried…"You were here, near me, you beauty in decline," he said, stroking her on the soft white goitre…"Do you know miss Blériot?... Let me introduce you, my dears…"Ramură was laughing idiotically and pulled the French woman surreptitiously by the clothes. But Margot suddenly shook like an angry turkey. "Fiche-moi la paix!" And, because, out of spite, he pinched her a little too hard, she burst into a series of French-Romanian curses, among which she didn't forget to slip some features from Ramură's portrait, as she saw him now, with anger-bulging eyes. Her impressions, in front of this portrait that was thus being reconstituted piece by piece, were so awful that Ramură blushed and then went pale. Her anger culminated in suburb persiflage for the lout women ("puisque j'ai entendu que vous êtes'ci une sorte de don Juan") who could have given in to such a blood pudding…And she spat with so much disgust that Ramură felt how the drops jump from the floor to his cheek. A formidable laughter started at the table. Only Manaru laughed a little frowningly and at a loss, not knowing if he should keep on laughing or get angry.Then, something completely unexpected happened. Ramură, red as beet, suddenly raised his chubby hand at the French woman; Manaru stopped it in its fall and both of them looked daggers at each other – although only for a moment – very intensely and disturbingly.But Ramură was the first to lighten up. "What can I do," he grinned, and the white teeth appeared, small, like a mouse's, from behind the plump lips. "You are tougher…You are so popular, that it disarms me…"But suddenly he grew pale, for Manaru's eyes regained that horrible steel-like lustre. It was like the quick glimmer of two blades that come into collision. Then, Ramură hurried to get out. Manaru emptied three glasses at one go, as he did when he was really irritated and struck his fist on the table."Let's call it a day," he cried savagely. "I remain with these French women," he declared then, stroking them both under the chin, and looking at them, in turn, with a broad drunken smile. "We are going all three of us… we'll put on an act…"And he struck his fist again on the table, so hard that the bottles and glasses quaked.Only later did he recover from his anger, alone in the whole place, with each of them on one knee. He lifted each of them with one hand, like two parcels, and started towards the back door, while the girls were giggling with fear and admiration under the grip of the rock-solid arms. After a few steps he stopped."No!" he cried at the top of his voice, halting his harsh glance on the copper-coloured humpbacked figure of Mr. Alexandru Cocoşel, who appeared, tiny, in the doorstep, like a red dog with human face… "Not here! … At my place, in my marital bed…"And he burst into a terrible laughter before this bizarre idea. And the girls, stuck to his chest, looked at each other, laughing fleetingly, then became serious again and turned their back at each other scornfully. They got out. Behind them, Alexandru Cocoşel lifted up his hump and rubbed his freckled hands. In the red weary light of the light bulbs, his red hair seemed to be on fire. He squeezed through the tables, in comparison to which he was only a head taller, and started yelling at the servants again:"Quicker, the day is breaking!"Then, he headed towards the "teller machine" swinging sideways his head that appeared from his hump like from a box.In the thick dust rows started by the brooms, and in the chill of the air that dashed in through the wide open doors, Mr. Alexandru did his calculations whisperingly. His head kept swinging, automatically, like a bizarre toy, unusually big. The girls left Manaru's place the next day, a little before lunch time, in sight of everybody. Manaru took them right to the bedroom, and lay with them in the two marital beds, joined together in the middle of the room. All night long there was a sinister orgy, with screams and savage shrieks, which woke the servants, brought them frightened to the anteroom, and made them watch heavy with sleep and confused. Then, one discovered a corner of the curtain and the eye searched in the bright light inside. They took turns then, to watch at the sneaky corner, and as they watched, the hazy eye of each of them was suddenly covered with a glossy lustre. They started to push and jostle one another. Their eyes became frantic, their daring hands struggled greedily and sharp like hooks on the maid, who could barely protect her chest and muffle the giggles, making her run away along the hall, followed closely by the stableman's breath. Then, in the silence of the night, the slam of a distant door resounded strongly, which drove Marin, the servant boy sent from the vineyard, crazy. It made him clasp tightly in his arms Ilinca, the cook, a gypsy woman, three-quarter silver-haired, pulling her from the window where she had remained gaping and mumbling strange words with her gums, crossing herself. But in a short while, the four of them were again on the watch. One of the women-artists discovered the prying eye, lustrous, piercing the corner of the curtain, as if it was its devouring sheen that pierced the glass pane. She was so frightened and screamed so loudly that suddenly the troop of servants started running along the square hall, the old woman behind them. Inside, the uneven clatter of hoofs came like a material noise and the girls shuddered, creeping frightened under Manaru's armpits. He, however, laughed terribly of this incident; he saw the carriage leaving on time at daybreak for Dealul Verdei and his heart filled with happiness. 1926

by Gib Mihăescu (1894-1935)