The Pillow

Costache is a clerk of consequence, only a few years away from retirement. He visits his daughters from his first marriage rather infrequently, and secretly, too. They did object to his remarriage, but then neither was his second wife too keen on his damsels. They didn't quite click together. So it goes.There were no other children, the wife's a bit on the strict side, sort of, otherwise she's hard-working and carries the burden of the whole house on her shoulders, whenever she hangs out the washing, the communal clothes-drying room fills up to the limit, there's no more room left to hang as much as a hanky. He enjoys a nice game of chess every so often, it's been his hobby for the last ten years, so it goes, he's become a true family man after his prostate operation, he doesn't drink the way he used to, either, in the evenings he watches the telly, the Missus and he interfere with a woman's business, they haven't had children, nor are they likely to have any, that would be a little too much at their age, if only they could both retire in good health, one never knows what tomorrow may bring. What else could he wish for? One Wednesday evening, immediately after her bath, as she was drying her hair in the bedroom, Maria Luiza summoned Costache and argued with him, using her eyes rather than her arms: "Costache, do something about this pillow, daddy... It's positively stinking with mildew, will you oblige by throwing it away...? I want to see it no more, please... Tomorrow, when I come home from work, let me see it no more, there's a dear-" Then she switched off the hair-drier by twisting its handle. There's a lot to be said for modern technique. That was all. They slept very well at night, although, just before he fell asleep, Costache started to wrestle with a chess game ending involving two bishops of different colors. In the morning he was the first one up, put the kettle on, made the toast, packed Maria Luiza's lunch, a husband married to a younger woman would go to incredible lengths to secure her good will or a kiss when she leaves home, went over to the window and waved her good bye, "Don't forget that I've asked you, huh...?", she called from across the road, anyone could have made everything of it, but Costache alone really knew what it was about: he was being reminded to dispose of the mildewed pillow, he had already tied a knot in his handkerchief, anyway, he had told to himself, there was nothing to it, he only lived on the first floor, didn't he, he would make no bones about it, there was nothing wrong with the pillow, to be honest, yet, if that was what Maria Luiza wanted, who was he to say nay, though down was a rare commodity these days, and it was genuine goose down, too, he was going to chuck out, what if it was slightly mildewed?, it could be sunned for a day or two, but could one really defy Maria Luiza, when she took it into her head that something had to be done?, enough of all that, what was the use of both of them getting angry, why should they get upset, they were both growing old, it wasn't worth the trouble and the whole to do for a mere pillow, he'd just chuck it out and good riddance to it. He drank his tea all the merrier for having dismissed the idea of opposition, he had herbal tea in the morning, like some general he knew of, who was born on the same day as him, and had three biscuits to go with it, he had a heart condition and had to look after himself, take it easy, he had to, if he wanted to live to be ninety-two, as he had promised to himself he would, thus inviting his colleagues' derision, it was not the first time he was making a stand for his principles, they had held him up to ridicule before, at the office, yet he'd eventually proved to them he was right, he is going to take up that wheat bran based diet as well, he is in no way prejudiced, and if there is something in it for him, well, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of it. He wrapped the pillow, how was he to leave the house carrying such a thing in full view of the people, the skip was not far, yet certain precautions were necessary, or else, neighbors might spread God knows what insidious rumors and where would one be then? Moreover, garbage collectors are a fussy bunch, they would just not collect any odd items, they do have their own regulations and bomb scares make people overcautious these days, hardly a week passes without one reading all sorts of things in the papers, and what's more, in his sister's village, all dust bins had been scrapped, so as not to be upset by animals, or at least so he supposed. He turned the key in the lock twice, tried the door handle – he liked to double check whatever he did – he climbed down the stairs to the back door and made for the dustbins neatly stood in a circle next to the mock brick wall. He lingered on in the house on purpose, until all those people he greeted every morning on his way to the bus stop had left, so that no one could see him. It was safer this way, people had become very suspicious, and he was head of Planning Department at work, no one would ever know how he had craved this position, if Păsculescu hadn't had a heart attack, bang would have gone his prospects of a decent pension, as it goes, working in the stock room, was nothing like working in the factory proper, where you could have your card taken away if you were as little as two minutes late, whereas he was now, he almost counted as one of the board, no one would dare messing him about, but so it goes!, when your day started badly, there was nothing you could do about it, omens will be omens, and one simply had to bear this in mind, just a few steps to the dustbins and he would get rid of that disgraceful pillow, he would just leave it down there by the mock brick wall and his torment would be over, he would then leave by the other gate and good riddance, steady now, comrade Cristoveanu is hailing him, blast! bastard! he needed the chap like a hole in the head, how the hell has he managed to spot him, he had tried to avoid all encounters, play deaf, that's what he's going to do, no bloody good, these pensioners have nothing to do all day long, so they spy on their neighbors and what's more, they make a patriotic duty of such pursuits, one cannot really get away from them, why should one hear when one was called, just one more step, "Hey, Mr. Costache! Where are you hurrying like this? Can't you hear me calling… Playing deaf, are we? Why are you so nervous, you're not going to place a bomb, are you…", bastard!, serves him right to lose every single game of chess they play together, not even a draw is he going to grant him, such a spiteful looser, too, such an ambitious nincompoop, maybe vindictive as well, he knows he doesn't stand a chance to win against him, yet he's the one that keeps bothering him, won't take no for an answer, "c'mon, mate, do let's have a game… just one…" as if he couldn't go play with other nincompoops like himself, ah!, but of course, how come he hasn't realized he is under surveillance, who knows what evil he wants tot do to him, but it's obvious, he should have realized it before: that was why Angela was not granted permission to visit Bulgaria, if only they rounded up all pensioners and sent them to the country, somewhere, he's all of a sweat, already, how was he to realize all the tenants were keeping an eye on him, and now this bastard who probably wonders as to the contents of the package, "What bomb do you mean, Cristache, what's come over you…" he tries laughing about it, "I've only got some salami for my sister in the country…"I'll checkmate him in twenty moves, nay – fifteen, he's bullying people, he's got nothing better to do, he's sweating at every pore, he's laughing like an idiot, and he's stopped in his tracks, what has he to do, if only he weren't wearing a dark suit, but he's got to attend a meeting, today of all days, with the blokes at The Center, what a stroke of bad luck, oh Lord, that it should all happen today, and if he doesn't get rid of that pillow, Maria Luiza will give him a hell of a rough time, damn, why couldn't she wait till tomorrow, "It's got to be today! I know how lazy you can be… One month from now I'll still find it here imparting its foul odor to all my other things in the airing cupboard…", how could one come to terms with such people? "Hullo there, mate, now, then, what's going on with you, are you unwell? You do look somewhat pale… sunken eyes, too... Do take care of yourself, mate, do take care… Health above all… Don't you want to reap the benefits of your pension? Why don't you take it easy…?" bastard!, little does the creep know what's going on in his mind, laughing like an idiot he is, too, and giving him advice, now look who's come to give him advice, of all people! "Your parcel's not done properly, see? It is comin' all loose… You should have left them salamis whole, rather than cut them in half… There, lemme wrap them up properly for you, I'm a pro, you know…" and he reaches out to grab the parcel "Lemme give you a proper length of string… Well, I never, you've forgotten to put down the address, my oh my… roughing it, are we, mate…? Come over to my place, I'll fix it for you nice and proper…", "Hands off! Don't you dare touch me! What do you want with me, huh? You don't know what to do with yourself, I suppose, are you bored out of your mind, or what? Bothering people, you are, can't you see I'm in a hurry?" Costache suddenly yelled, what had come over him to start yelling like that?, he was shaking with anger, it hadn't happened to him in ages, giving in to anger like that, Bastard! The impudence of it all, to actually lay his hand on his parcel, he'd well deserve to be smacked for it, he looks daggers at him, that was not the end of it, check mate in ten moves, and that was guaranteed, "What's hit you, Costache, you've flipped your lid, mate, or what? Are you having a fit? What's come over you…? I was only joking, for God's sake…" but Costache had already turned his back on him and stopped listening, he walked away with small fast, nervous steps, taking no more notice of his dumb-struck neighbor, who was making the sign of the cross over and over again, although he was a member of the tenants' board and supposed not to entertain any religious beliefs, but it was he who antagonized everybody by dropping religious pamphlets into their letter-boxes, they ought to be exterminated… "The bastard!" Costache mutters, he's furious, all right, ignoble plebeians, keeping watch on their neighbors around the clock, one hardly gets any peace, one has to account for every step one takes, for every word one says, one has to explain oneself, justify oneself, now what sort of a life is this, huh? the bastard!, one cannot even take the garbage out anymore, for one is waylaid by prowlers, oops, grab, gotcha!, they get you by the throat in no time, come, explain yourself, it's a good thing he's managed to catch an empty trolleybus, there, such a relief to sit by the window, he mops the sweat off his brow and face, not many people on the trolleybus, his ears are ringing, here's a brilliant idea – just leave the parcel behind when he gets off the trolleybus, pretend he's forgotten it, piece of cake, why didn't he think of it from the very beginning?, he's laughing now, he's in high spirits, he has recovered, he's already made a plan, how could one fail to feel happy when blessed with a life-saving idea?, no one knows him on the trolleybus, one feels protected in the middle of strangers, it would be even better on a crowded bus, all one has to do is ride on, one doesn't even have to hold on for balance, the crowd around is holding one up, one can't fall, one just closes one one's eyes and thinks of whatever one wishes until one gets off at the terminal, he's taken out last evening's paper and started to read a poem on bottle-banks, he glances out of the window, how quickly time passes when one is certain of success, that's the way, easy does it, he furtively pushes the parcel against the window pane, looks around apprehensively, there's no one taking notice of him, he jumps from his place and rushes to the back-door to get off, lucky thing he's got rid of the parcel, but he hardly sets foot on the ground that he's hailed, "Hello, there, Mister, you've forgotten your parcel on the trolleybus…", and he instinctively opens his hands to receive the parcel with the pillow a man throws at him, "Here, Mister, you've left it behind… Lucky thing I was watching… You owe me a beer…", and the fellow is grinning with his smoke-stained teeth, proud to have done one good turn, while Costache, speechless for the moment, and mutely imploring God's vilest retribution for his benefactor, is laboriously stammering out, yes, of course a good turn, if there ever was one, why didn't such a fellow happen around when he had his brief-case snatched, money, documents and all, his wife's new set of gold teeth included, no decent folks around on that occasion, oh no, not one, it had to be now, when he could have done without anyone's help, "Thank you," he barely manages to mumble, while a little old lady is blissfully nodding, "There is decent folks left in the world, son," he looks around, what is he to do with the parcel? damned pillow! what a stupid idea taking the bloody thing with him! it would have been better to shred it and dump it down the chute, he's not far from his office, he could just discard it discretely round the corner of that block over there, next to the food shop, damn! Tough luck, just look at that suspicious Militia man watching him, they've already found him, it's obvious they've been in communication, that bastard of a neighbor has probably alerted the authorities already, told them he wanted to get rid of a moldy pillow, but of course, they must know all over the city he wants to get rid of a moldy pillow, they've radioed all patrols with them modern devices they've got, well, well, no way he can leave the pillow at the street corner, what if they detect him by satellite? What a mean look the fruit vendor gives him, time was when they greeted each other, but he'll fix him alright, never fear."Sah!", comes the sudden greeting of the porter who's come out in front of the gate, pretending to sweep, the bastard!, playing the domesticated man in front of him, sprinkling water in front of his broom, as if they didn't all know he is a patented drunk, and a vicious one, at that, many was the time he wanted to have the fellow kicked out of his job, but where were they to find a worthier replacement anyway? now what was he to do about that pillow? he's all come out in a sweat again, his eyes are all blood-shot, he's irritable in the extreme, how ever is he going to enter the premises with this whale of a parcel, when he is among the staff who insisted that no parcels whatsoever should be brought into or taken out of the premises, what will people say, what if one from the board of directors happens to see him? "Are you feeling unwell?" the porter unctuously asks him, and he is standing stock still, as if frozen, without saying a word, what is he to do? there are moments in life when one does wish for a heart attack – the easiest way out of trouble, don't you know… "Traian, my boy, I'm leaving this here parcel with documents in your trust. When I leave, will you remind me to take it with me to the Center?" "But of course, Master Costache, you just leave it here, no problem… No one will ever touch them papers if they're all that important, I promise…" and he starts grinning meaningfully, the bastard! No way he could have fallen for the document hoax, now even this illiterate bastard has come to call his bluff. Who knows what crimes he has committed in his youth, or else he wouldn't have wound up working as a porter, but be at the top of the ladder instead, he'd had an awfully good start before ending up here a year ago, he did see his record, what if this crazy porter unwraps the parcel and comes across the pillow? he'll be the laughing stock of them all, no way he can leave the parcel with him, he'll take it inside, "I've got some samples too in there.. Better take them with me and leave them in the secretary's office…" he's half way to the store room already, parcel and all, now where is he to hide it? if only no one would see him, he's late as it is, all because of this parcel, what is he going to say if anyone makes any inquiries, if only he wouldn't run into the boss, they must be all crazy, just look at these blokes, laughing their silly heads off, as if they've never seen a man carrying a parcel, sons of bitches, "Good morning, comrade Costache…", "Good morning to you," he mumbles, burying his head between his shoulders, to hell with them all, he's trying to avoid the stares of the people around him, he feels like every one is watching him, phew!, what a relief he's finally made it into his office, no one in there, too, he'll go for the riskiest combination in this Sunday's football pools, he dumps his briefcase onto a chair, shoves his parcel on top of a filing cabinet, takes off his jacket in a fluster, mops up his sweat, and wants to lock up the damned pillow somewhere, whatever has come over Luiza to decide on having it removed today of all days, as if she couldn't take it to their relatives in the country, they could easily find someone who could use it. bastards! let him smoke a cigarette first, he's bound to come up with some working solution in the long run, what a bother, should he set fire to the thing? na, that'll be foolish! how is he supposed to do such a thing in here, the smoke would alert every one in no time, no, that's out of the question, he can't set it on fire, no way, is he crazy or what? Let him have a glass of water first, calm down, a moment of calm, that's it, it is better to lock up the pillow somewhere, no way he can leave it in full view, what if some bigwig comes and sets eyes on it? would they believe him he only wants to get rid of the pillow? "Ah, come off it comrade, we know better…", and so, one has to think of a solution, it's a hell of a life, don't you know! What good are children, anyway, they wouldn't even bother to call once in a blue moon, "Hello, Dad, how you doing?", the only time they call is when they're hard-pressed, he could have easily passed the pillow on them, and good riddance, but all they're good for is asking money of him, he simply has to calm down, no one cares for his life, poor Maria Luiza, he's smiling, she's not a bad sort, his woman isn't, but she does tend to overdo it sometimes, when she gets something into her head, there's no stopping her, he now takes the keys out of his drawer, which is the one he needs? his hands are shaking, right, this is the one, he unlocks the cabinet, it's a good thing Simionescu doesn't keep all of his files in it, he's got enough of them to bury himself under, and just as he is on the point of shoving in the parcel, five men and one woman burst into the office like a bunch of merry terrorists, causing the windows to rattle with their mirth, "Long live uncle Costache!", "Many happy returns, Master Costache!" "What are you hiding in there, mate? If you've brought something to drink, out with it, what are you waiting for?…" "That's the way, Didina, come, give our host a kiss. …Hurrah! Let him pile up the goodies on the table!" Costache looks like he's been clobbered on the head, parcel clasped to his chest, he's gently slid onto a chair in a daze, his eyes rolling in his head, what do these people want of him?" "Come on, mate, why are you looking at us like this? It is saint Constantine's day today, your patron saint, remember? Now, out with what you've brought us…" "You must have booze in there, for us to drink your health… We've made the finals, hurrah!" while he is clutching the parcel to his heart, the boys almost tear up the Sports Gazette, beside themselves with excitement, "Here, that's your paper, so that you won't accuse us of nicking it…" Lord, Costache starts imploring an inexistent heaven that is totally inefficient for him, "why have these fellows happened to come in at this exact moment? they could have done it earlier, or later, one minute later just, or half a minute, or even five seconds, just giving him enough time to lock the door, and then come what may, "Hey, Costache, why are you gasping like that? You are not at the dentist's… Now, what have you got in that parcel? tell us quick, before we arrest you, got it?" they're in stitches while Costache is about to fall off the chair. the bastards, "It's a pillow…" he whispers, as his head drops to one side, "The bloke's passing out… Give him some water from that bottle there…", he's treated to a few resuscitating slaps, "What came over the fellow? Could it be he's had something to drink in the morning? Let's test his breath, see if he doesn't smell of brandy…", after he's had his temples and his nape thoroughly massaged he begins to feel better, he's smiling, "It is brandy all right, told you so…", someone wants to remove the parcel from his arms in order to unbutton his shirt, "Stop it, don't, don't you dare touch me! Has anyone asked any favors of you?" the people around do not quite understand why Costache's so shaken, "what pillow do you mean, mate?" he can hardly summon his voice, "I've brought me a pillow." "Why don't you say so, mate, come, tell us where you've bought it from, 'cause I need about half a dozen of them myself… Is it down or synthetic?" "Down…" the answer comes feebly. "You don't say so, if you only knew how long I've been hunting for real down pillows. Where have you bought it at?" He starts telling such lies as he has never ever told before, they're going to believe him, the bastards! Why shouldn't they believe him, after all, he seldom lies, if ever, it is not in his habit to lie, but one would do anything when one's cornered, this moment will pass, his whole day is ruined, his life's falling apart, and he has stacks of forms to fill in, he'll have to work at home, so it goes, now he's too excited and too tired to do any work at the office, he'll take some of it home, one works better when one's head iss clear.They've started chatting, and forgot all about Costache's pillow, and he's arranged some business at the Center, he, of all people, who never resorts to such tricks, the way Zaharia does, pretending he goes to the ministry as early as eleven, and then running his personal errands, phew, such a relief, he's free at last, the porter is missing from his post, good, he won't have any explanations to give, the porter's place is momentarily taken by a cleaning woman employed at his recommendation, "And how are you, Vica?" "Doing my duty, comrade Costache… working, all the way through… And when your lady wants to do some cleaning, just give me a ring, or let me know through Neluţu…" "All right, all right…" he says, quickening his step, just what he needs, someone to overhear this exchange, he's got on the trolleybus again, but he has given up the idea of abandoning the parcel on the seat, such a shame, too, he's not a terrorist, is he? he'll take it nice an' easy to the left luggage office and forget all about it, he's read something like that in a detective story, a body chopped up into pieces, ugh!, if Maria Luiza just knew, he runs into his chum Biju, they start chatting, go for a beer, he could really do with a beer after all this hustle and bustle, it's a hell of a life, damn, he's running late, quick, home it's a good thing Maria Luiza is not there yet, he's all alone in the flat, so good to be home, no one to see what one's doing, nor what one is thinking, he is blissfully smiling, at last, he's got rid of all them buggers, the bastards!, what a wonderful day this would have been but for the pillow, it's a good thing, though, it has all ended up like this and he's got back home before becoming the laughing stock of the entire world, he will tear the pillow to shreds and chuck it down the chute, plenty of time left, and he also has a hen to pluck before Maria Luiza comes, but anyway she said she would drop in on Niculescu's Salvina on the way home after work, it's a good thing he's not jealous, another man would have started imagining things in his place, what sort of a friendship is this, they spend most days together, chat-chat-chat, his woman's quite a wench and hot as fire, all men lust after her, to be sure, well, you cannot hide youth, try as you may, can you?, but Maria Luiza is a choice tidbit, too he's got hold of the pillow and is now preparing to rip it open with a kitchen knife, damn pillow, its time's finally up, the doorbell is ringing, that cannot be Maria Luiza already, it's too early, might be the postman coming for subscriptions, he's not bothered at all, pillow still in his hand, he opens the door just a crack, ah, isn't it good to be home, the chain's in its place, bandits can't just go in as they please, he had the kitchen window barred just to be on the safe side in case any one climbs to the rooftop and then down to his flat, no, it is not the postman, "Maria Luiza…" "Costache, what's happened to you? Why has your face turned white all of the sudden?… Darling, are you unwell? Oh, God, hold on, Costache! Help, oh, help, anybody!…" She is trying in vain to support him, Costache has collapsed, he is past worries now, he is blissfully smiling, yes, why hasn't this idea come to him from the very beginning, his wife's shouting for help, neighbors are rushing, sprinkling him with water, Marinţan from the ground-floor is here too, struggling to carry him to bed, but Costache is happy, he alone and the readers know the story of this damn pillow, it ruined a day of his life, yes, now it's all very simple, he's in bed now, "could this be a heart attack…" "Call an ambulance… He ought to be seen by a doctor…" it is no heart attack, Costache is smiling in his sleep, neither is it a stroke, he's having them on, the whole lot, he has swallowed the pillow in one big gulp, just like that, if such things be possible, for fear of his wife. English version by Florin BICAN

by Bedros Horasangian