The Almsmonger's Lover

excerpt They'd dozed off. The devilish furnace of the sun was blazing fiercely. They were positively stewing as through the shadow cast by their soles two Gypsy women walked by, bent under the burden of a galvanized bucket with a chunk of ice protruding from it. "Ice-cold beer guys, ice-cold beer guys ice-cold beer," they were quacking through their noses, with the sleep-shattering elation of radio announcers. As he was shaking himself awake, his head collided with Dorina's shoulder. Propped up on his elbows, he rubbed both hands over his sweating face. The devilish furnace had caused his ear cups to run over with hot perspiration. Dorina hailed to the Gypsies to turn back. "Hey, there! You with the ice-cold beer!" "Yes, guys, ice-cold beer! Sold by the kihlo!" "Come again?" she asked drowsily as she searched for her purse in her canvas bag. "By the kihlo, young lady, twenty five lei a bottle." "By the kihlo, say that again…" "By the kihlo by the kihlo by the kihlo…" the Gypsy kept repeating for as long as it took Dorina to pay her with a hundred lei note from a fist-sized wad of like notes, could have easily been ten thousand, by the kihlo by the kihlo, she went on as she counted the change and retrieved two green bottles out of the bucket, before merging into the crowd of frivolous naked bodies; now it only took one Gypsy to carry the bucket in which only the ice chunk had been left. "By the kihlo…" Dorina reiterated with the thrill of nostalgia in her voice. "Hei, Mite, d'you still remember dom' Séver?" "You bet…" "Mom would send me over to that joint of his every Sunday. I was thirteen going on fourteen, and the moment he'd see me walking into his place next to the tram line, he'd start hollerin', 'one kihlo spicy mince for Ma'm'selle Dorina, one kihlo one kihlo one kihlo', an' that's how he went on till he weighed the lot, an' there I stood blushing by the counter, almost fainting with embarrassment as he kept mouthing that awful double entendre over and over again, as if on purpose. And as I walked out into the street, I would hear the bunch seated on the kerb along the tramway line mentioning Vatala's kihlo in their turn, and whatever couldn't be bought on the market or was hard to come by in those days, would be gloriously ascribed to Vatala's kihlo, and Vatala, can you still remember, was rotting away on her feet, back in her yard. My Mom had instructed me to keep my distance – don't go anywhere near that Gypsy, keep away from that Jew, and sure enough, that's what they were, and there were also the Bulgarian vegetable vendors to reckon with, the hordes of Moldavians were yet to come, we were the only Greeks in the neighbourhood, and had to keep our standards an' all… still she'd send me over to dom' Séver every single Sunday… "You were a blameless maid of tender years," Mite found himself waxing poetic in spite of himself. "And so was I, come to think of it… It's all gone now. I could cry, I could." They were smoking and passing from one to the other that bottle of beer sold on the black market for two times and a half the price inscribed on its label. The second bottle was kept cool in the water, buried in the sandbank beneath the concrete ledge. The afternoon appeared to be unfolding along the perfect lines of absolute content. It was years since he'd forgotten the taste of beer. Last time he could vaguely remember drinking two pints was in Valea Dracilor, together with Celestin and his boss, and he realized with amazement that he was none the worse for wear and tear after so many winters and summers surviving on water and green tea, with the odd cup of coffee thrown in for good measure every three or four weeks, at his mother's place… his next remark came out more like a toast: "Ice-cold, indeed. Going straight into the chambers of one's soul, an' no doubt about it… Them Roma guys are sho' 'nuff enterprising, peddlin' beer an' all. At this rate, they'll be delivering steaks to the strand before you know it, and then we'll be really livin' it up, don't you know… Still, back in the days you've been talkin' of, they weren't all that enterprising, not enterprising at all, come to think of it. So you've been goin' on 'bout them Gypsies and Jews. Dom' Sever was neither, though, nor was he Bulgarian." "That's exactly what he was – a Gypsy, an' no mistake about it." "How come? He was white as a dolphin an' used to shave his scalp." "Still, everyone knew Vatala was his mother. I have it on good authority from my Mom – she kept well informed on such matters. Vatala had more kids spread all over the city than she could keep track of – one of them had even made into the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Mom told me. The whole lot had issued forth out of her kihlo, an' that's why everyone kept mentioning it like that." "Now you're not going to tell me that even that brute, Atanasie Grigeanu, that mountain of a stone mason, who would haul concrete crosses along the street on his back like nothing, and was an all-time regular down at dom' Sever's…" "Nah, the guy was Jewish, not that you'd've ever come to the idea. He'd studied Belle Artes in Paris and Germany – even if he'd been reduced to hauling concrete on his back, you can take my word for it. A hard-working lot they were, too. Same as Regman the tailor, Valentin's dad, you know, the boxer, who out of his tailor's business alone could have built the whole neighbourhood all over again, an' you know the story with the income assessment committee, don't you…" "What about that tiny shoeblack, what'd they call 'im, whom dom' Sever kept kickin' out of his joint like he was a puppy or something…?" "That'd be ole' man Spermenzan, the father of Spermenzan the burglar," Dorina recalled, as if she'd been keeping official records for them all. "The Spermenzans were Gypsies, all right. The Colivars were Gypsies on the mother side only, the father came from Oltenia. The Cocârlaţi brothers of Chicago are Gypsy Jews, the whole lot of them." "And what about domnu' Ion, the hermaphrodite?" "The guy was a Bulgarian Jew." Mite's hand sprang to cover his mouth in surprise. "Well, I never... then what about us, Cafans, Dorina? Where does this leave us?" "You were Greek Jews. Mom told me so first time I took up with your brother." "Which one of them?" "Costel, of course… I did say 'first time', didn't I? And, oh, was Mom glad! You were the only ones with some Greek blood in the whole neighbourhood." "Now, were we?" "Mom said so. Said you were all descendants of Poni, a German Jew, and Cafanu, half Oltenian Jew, half Greek." "Your mom was even crazier than you are." "I told you, didn't I? She'd be burrowing into the ancestry of every clan in the neighbourhood, she'd been granted political asylum here after being locked up and tortured by the capitalist government of Greece, when she had me, she'd already become quite fluent in Romanian… in the end, both the Greek and the local communists forgot all about her, but she did stick to her old practice – to know everything about everybody. She seemed to care where everyone came from, while the only thing I, poor soul, cared about was that Costel was married to someone else." "You're something else, Dorinel, baby, you are… so let's drink this good beer to the memory of all your dead Greek ancestors, huh?" Something else indeed, Mite pondered. A woman who always knew what she wanted. Still does, too, despite all those heart-breaking blows she's received, no big deal after all, by the look of it. A thing to marvel at altogether. He did remember that at some point Costel would have gladly ditched her, but could no longer bring himself to, the idiot. Dorina would have made something out of him in the long run, though at the time her mind was distilling very strange brews, to be sure, whatever you told her, she'd swear by it, just like that, and still saw herself as a blameless maid of tender years, no matter what. But she changed overnight, and Gina had come to the end of her tether and was giving hell to Costel, and Costel asked him to get the woman off his hands, and at the end of the day, he can't really remember how, it was Nicu who ended up with her, though she was, by the time, beyond needing anyone or anything. She'd shot from rags to riches fit to give you the conniptions. And all with just these two hands of hers and her mind mastering the four operations of arithmetic. Nemira, 1994

by Radu Aldulescu (b. 1954)