The Vacant Ground Of Slummy Love

Chapter IX. The Blackbird And The Yellow CuckooAfter the adventure between his wife and the railway station doorman, Gore had left home dizzily, reeling on his feet as he walked away, and determined not to come back. Without having the guts to tell him the story, Safta sent Paler to look for her husband and bring him back; the gaunt man consequently wandered about the town for two nights, looking for his former army comrade in the railway station waiting rooms, in the crowds on the platforms, in the pubs around, but it was all to no avail; he meant to tell him, as the gypsy woman had instructed him, to "stop playing the desperate fool and disgracing himself." Gore, however, seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. When asked, the porters had shrugged their shoulders, while Mr. Stircu – whom the founder had approached one evening and had told in a deeply, sad tone that he could not understand his friend any more, and that he had never thought him to be so thoughtless as to vanish like that, all of a sudden – had chased him away, waving his hand from a distance and threatening: "Get lost, you punk, or I'll sack you too…" The fright that has seized him when he had seen Gore on the threshold of the room, pale with anger and ready to break his neck, had made Mr. Stircu remember the words that he had used to silence the cuckolded husband. He had firmly believed since, that words like "punk" or phrases like "I'll sack you" had a magic power, whose mysterious force he was the only one to have discovered. He thought himself invincible every time he uttered them. Paler had stopped, taken aback, his head thrusting forward, his slim neck curved, his body arched as a bow, his knees bent. He did not expect his godfather to give him such an unfriendly welcome, after he had so often helped him cheat at cards, counting the spades his fellow players had over their shoulders, or had clearly and honestly marked the points Stircu had scored, using a pencil whose lead he had wetted in his mouth pressing it hard on the paper so that nobody could dispute the tally. "What the hell does he have against me?" – he had asked himself, while the people shoved and jostled him about on the platform – "I haven't done anything to him, God is my witness! As if I hadn't had enough of looking for that tramp, Gore, for two nights, like a police officer, on top of it all here comes this guy and shouts at me, calling me 'punk', telling me to 'get lost' and threatening that 'I'll sack you'. Big deal if he sacks me, I've come to spit rust and grind coal in my teeth since I've been working in the hell of that foundry where he and his Safta have sent me, fuck them both…" He straightened up, pulling his head back, stretching his legs and relaxing his body and he made for the entrance door, assuming the dignified pose of a man sincerely outraged by his friend's unmotivated offensive behavior. He walked away grumbling, swinging his arms and shuffling his clouted boots on the cement of the corridors, ostensibly disdainful of Stircu and his entire railway station that he wished – in a moment of uncontrolled rage, when the anger boiling inside him got the upper hand – to be burnt down by fire. Thus the city will be rid of porters, doormen and mainly the train – that hideous animal that passed by the barrier of the Regie neighborhood twice a day, shaking the huts of Salomia to the ground and startling him awake from his short, exhausted sleep, the sleep of a founder whose soul was full of soot. "That's it," he had finally made up his mind as he left for the neighborhood of Basarab, "this is the last time I'm looking for that fool! The gypsy woman will have to accept that. If not, let her hire a policeman to look for her husband. I've had enough of it. Working all day long and then spending the evenings in search of that wacko in the most disreputable parts of the city, meeting all sorts of dubious guys… that's too much for me." Back at home he told the gypsy woman the surprising scene at the railway station and tore his hair, cursing the ill-fated hour when he had made her his mistress. The time of mutual recriminations and qualms of conscience had come for the two lovers. Being convinced that Gore had run away out of despair after he had discovered their affair, the founder cried and cursed Safta using smutty words, blaming her for having mounted him in bed and forced him to cheat on his former army comrade. "Me of all people, you bitch," the culprit complained, "it was me of all people that stole his wife! And some wife, indeed! He picked me up from the gutter as you pick up a beggar, he gave me a bed to sleep in and food to eat, he treated me as his own brother, and I answered his kindness by behaving like a pig, like a downright jerk! Did I say to him 'thank you, my brother, God help you?' No, I took his wife, dishonored him, made him flee his own house." Paler had cried like that the first night, too. Gore had behaved strangely the last week. The gaunt fellow had experienced, mainly on Palm Sunday, the chills of death. He had spent the whole afternoon in the hall, sitting on the bed, bent over his knees, holding his head tight in his hands, counting the steps of the other man who was walking about the house heaving deep sighs and shuffling his slippers. The man had come closer several times with the obvious intention – Paler thought – of seizing him by the hair, as the downright jerk he was certainly deserved, of pulling him up and shouting at him, spitting him in the face: "I know everything, you stack of bones, don't bother to hide it from me, as I know all about you two!" Starting, paralyzed by fear as a bug, when he felt the porter coming closer, he made the sign of the cross with his tongue inside his mouth, waiting for a single word or just gesture of his betrayed friend to fall on his knees and tell him, straightforwardly, everything that had happened. He had decided to admit he was guilty after his confession was over, and to ask Gore to kill him mercilessly, as he hadn't found any joy in life any more since the sin was committed. Luckily for both of them, or just for Safta, the porter had not tarried too long in the room. Understanding he was going away as he heard the well-known shuffle of his slippers moving away over the threshold between the hall and the living room, Paler heaved a deep sigh, equally happy that he had avoided a sound beating and unhappy that he hadn't had the chance to make his confession and unburden his soul, this moment being postponed for an indefinite future… He had been haunted the whole night by the image of the axe he himself had placed on the table in an attempt to bring about the fulfillment of his destiny. "He's going to kill me," the gaunt fellow shivered in the dark, "I'm telling you he's going to kill me! After all," he had accepted his fate with resignation, "there's no big deal if a jerk like me kicks the bucket. Fuck my luck, I have lived like a pig, I will die like a pig, the throat bleeding from the axe." However, he didn't want to die like a heathen, without a candle at his head and without confessing his sins. He had to persuade Gore that, deep in his heart, he had remained true to him. The adventure he had had with Safta had happened unwillingly, and unwittingly. As he told the story, he would have insisted on every detail of the outrage, since he was convinced that was the only way in which he could reveal the whole truth. "If I am telling you how it all happened," he meant to begin his confession, "I am not doing it to escape death. I am confessing to you for you to understand how much of it was a dream and how much was my own meanness as I want to carry into the other world, for the Last Judgment, just the burden of my own share of sins and get punished just for those sins, rightly and justly, I mean, as I sure hope there may be some justice for me in heaven." One night, not more than three weeks after Gore had found him on the desert platform, Paler was dreaming he was in the countryside, in the field, wandering about with Truda, the daughter of the herdsman, a buxom wench, stupid and lecherous. He had put an arm round her waist. He had seized him by the hair. They had both rolled about in the grass – the tempting woman's wide open eyes were staring at the sky, and the gaunt man was on top of her as she encompassed his body between her parted legs, his forehead touching the ground and his hands grabbing two tufts of grass while he was gasping for breath, his whole body contracted in the spasm of the climax. As he was thus coming in his dream, he had woken up on the edge of the bed, panting heavily; a giant white woman was sitting on his belly, jerking about and pressing her round fleshy body onto his, in the heat of the final longest and wildest convulsion. Stunned for one moment, he kept staring in the dark, wondering if he was not still daydreaming of the bawdy images in his sleep, but he soon felt under his hands, instead of the grass carpet, the rug he knew to be lying by the bed. The buxom body of the lustful wench of his dream, her hair smelling of hay, did not resemble the sweating colossus he saw in the terrible moment of the awakening. Having fully recovered his senses, he could hardly part his lips burnt by the heat of the mysterious adventure and utter shyly, almost crying: "Who was that?" There was nobody in the hall and nobody answered him. Gore was snoring in the big bedroom. Fully convinced that everything had been just a bad dream, the founder wiped his belly with the lap of his shirt, made a big cross over his pillow and went back to bed, not before spitting thrice towards the door, clapping the tip of his tongue between his lips as if he was blowing the mouthpiece of a trumpet; he did that to chase away the desires of the flesh and the evil spirit of the night, so that they never come back and torment him again in that filthy manner. However, the lurid show happened again the next night, this time without the field and Truda, the buxom wench. Woken up and instantly realizing what was happening, he seized the colossus by the shoulders and toppled her in bed, to prevent her from running away and thus avoid recognition. Seeing that she had been discovered, the gypsy stopped his mouth with her hand and violently pulled him over her, tempting him with her wriggling body and with her lustful whispers. "Shut up, you fool, and stop fretting about; my Gore is on duty, don't worry! Don't be an idiot and don't play the listless wimp with me; you see how I'm burning, and if you go on nibbling and nipping at me like that, half-hearted and useless, I'll pull your eyes out." Nonplussed, his thoughts, ravished by the animal lust that was rising inside him, were taking hold of him, and the gaunt founder entirely abandoned himself to the smutty dream that was then just beginning in the hall that he had taken for a field in his dream: he clutched the rug under Safta's shoulders instead of the tufts of grass in his hands. As an ox pulling the plow under the weight of the yoke, relentlessly cutting deep, hidden furrows into the ground, he pushed ahead his tense neck and rammed his head between the gypsy's breasts with a youthful and strained groan; he did not forget, however, as he pawed the gypsy's flesh under his body, to mutter the name he had so dearly kept in his mind: Truda… At dawn, after they had fallen aside exhausted and appeased, Paler wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm and asked in a modest whisper: "How was it?" The founder wanted to know how and why the woman had come to his room on the first night and the following one. He was curious to learn the reasons and the preliminaries of the adventure that had taken the proportions of a huge catastrophe to him after the storm was gone and he had got rid of the elation of desire. Safta told him a simple story in a few natural words. Since he had moved to the porter's house, the gaunt guy had slept naked. Tortured by desire, the gypsy woman had on several occasions silently admired his bare body that made no secret of its lust, even when asleep. When she could no longer resist the itching sensation that the little devils inside her aroused, obsessed with the pulsating pride of his belly that lured her, the woman stole, trembling, out of the bed where she was sleeping beside her husband, under a blanket, and came to the tenant's bed to test by means of his aroused body, which seemed to be ready for love, the professional rites she had performed in her youth; these rites involved passionate revelers whom she would pin down on their chairs in a booth of a pub, only to sit then on their lap, her skirt parted, a smile on her lips, all under the discreet, condoning looks of the fiddlers around who played for the occasion an ever wilder dance that followed the rhythm of the original erotic dance their beautiful mistress herself was performing, as she hopped and pressed her body down, or wriggled it round, the shaft that finally flared its white flame into her, a flame that her body absorbed together with the grave, ultimate quiver that the hammers of the dulcimers and the bass echoed, while the string of the violins produced a sort of acute, heavenly chirping. "It's your fault," Safta had sighed, as she left Paler and went back to her bed for her husband to find her there when he came back from the railway station, "you son of a bitch, you barebones, why did you sleep naked?" Surprised by the fact that the gypsy woman put all the blame on him, though his only sin had been that he was dreaming of the herdsman's wench, and angry at the unfairness of his dark lover that threatened to become a real pain in the ass for him, the lad sat up on one elbow and shouted: "Get lost, you swine, and never come back and sit astride me, or I'll tell Gore about that!" In spite of this warning, however, and in spite of all the remorse he had had during the day, he waited for her the third night, too, burning with desire and trembling, and Safta came to his bed and he felt her dutiful and warm, silent and professional, eager to play the game once more, this time following the rhythm of her husband's bass snoring, who was sleeping exhausted after a day's hard work. Their adventure had gone on since, the days punctuated with the feelings of remorse that tortured the gaunt man, the nights spiced up with their fights and with various new figures from the vast choreographic repertoire of the former professional dancer. This lasted until the afternoon when Gore dashed into the house all of a sudden to look under the bed, in the wardrobe, behind the doors and the curtains, boiling with anger and clenching his fists, his burning eyes hidden by the thick eyebrows. "He knows it, he has learnt about it!" – a voice cried inside Paler, who felt guilty and scared, when the gypsy woman told him about what the porter had done – "We are undone, he's going to kill us!" Safta had vainly tried to persuade her lover that there was no serious cause for concern, since her husband had not yet mentioned why he had come back from the railway station. She had stubbornly upheld the version the gossips of the neighborhood had launched from the very beginning. Gore had forgotten some paper or important deed, or he had lost something on his way to work, his wallet or his tobacco case, and had come back home, full of anger as any man who lost something would do, to take some other money or to look for his tobacco bag that he had kept in a big case in the wardrobe, as a souvenir from the days when he was a conscript. The sight of his house full of chattering women from the neighborhood had made him all the more angry. However, her hopes were soon to be shattered, at a time when she was least expecting it: on the afternoon of a holiday. The silence of her husband, his sidelong glances, his few, ambiguous words that had pierced their hearts had finally persuaded her that the suspicions of the gaunt fellow were well founded. She was now certain that Gore knew everything. This could not be, of course, a reason for her to lament as her lover did, scared to death as he was. The gypsy woman was not going to lay down arms. She was waiting for the storm to begin, ready to cling to the last lifeboat available: denial. And she was going to cling to it with her hands, her teeth and all the tentacles of her soul. Nothing was easier than cry and swear on her future and on her fate, on the graves of her family and on the eternal peace of the dead that she didn't know, and hadn't seen anything. As she couldn't rule out the unpleasant eventuality of the gaunt guy's confessing their sin to the porter, Safta was ready to desperately resort to her fancy that had so often helped her invent or explain events in other people's lives: she had, she believed, quite solid and convincing arguments to persuade her husband that Paler was mad or, at best, an instrument in the hands of her enemies – the girls of the whorehouse. An honest man, the founder had resigned himself to dying. He went to sleep late on that Sunday night, firmly convinced that he was not going to see the light of the day again; all the suffering at the thought that his death was close was concentrated in one big, bright tear, forgotten in between his eyelashes like a vigil candle light that he had lit for the last journey of his soul. At dawn, he woke up in surprise, happy to find out he was still alive, that he had at least a couple of hours more to live. "He hasn't killed me," the gaunt man rejoiced, sitting on a stool in front of the furnace, his hands between his knees, "he must have felt it was not fair to kill me before he gave me the chance of a last confession. That's it: I must tell him that despite the depravation into which his wife has led me, I remained a faithful friend to him…" Evidence that he had indeed remained a faithful friend to him was the coffee he had brought to Gore's bed, together with his tobacco case. Up from the cup full of coffee went his honest soul, bruised by misfortune and tainted with all the tar of the hellish foundry, a pure and loving soul, however, and an excessively sad one, sad for everything that had happened, and that he neither had caused nor had desired. At work, he had fretted about, dazzled, tortured by doubt, but later, at night, he confidently strode back home, firmly decided to tell the porter the whole story as it had happened, with the gypsy woman and Truda, so that he could at last unburden his soul and get rid of the remorse and never feel again, round his neck, the ever tighter noose of the porter's sidelong glances and of his meaningful silences. At home, however, he had only found Safta sitting up in bed and morose as an ailing crow, who kept heaving deep, heartbreaking sighs and had covered her temples and forehead with raw potato slices kept in place by a kerchief. This was after her adventure with Stircu. "I don't know what happened to my Gore," she lied, crying sincerely, however, "I was just sitting at table with him a couple of minutes ago, and there he stands up, all of a sudden, takes his cap and says: 'I'll just go into the wide world, Safta, I can't stand it any more.' And he went away." Paler opened his eyes wide, stunned for a moment as he was sitting on his chair, then he struck his chest with his both fists and fell on the floor by the threshold, between the hall and the big bedroom, limp and whining like a professional mourner on Good Friday in the graveyard. "Of course he left, poor soul, when he found out about our vile sin! Safta, you wretched bitch, so good at dancing and lovemaking, may your breasts go dry as tinder and be used as footwear for the dead, you ruined our lives, mine and Gore's, you whore! Gore, my brother, you went into the wide world, 'coz you didn't have the heart to kill me! You left me in your home with this charcoal wife of yours, may she rot and become a feast for the crows." The heart of the gypsy woman was being put to a terrible test. For a moment she had thought it would have been better to confess her affair with Stircu to the gaunt man, straightforwardly and unhesitatingly. By this confession she would have easily persuaded him that all his worrying himself sick had been utterly useless, as useless were his laments now, since Gore had never suspected him and had not gone into the wide world on his account; she might even thus make him an accomplice of hers, together with the godfather, against the cuckolded husband. They had to persuade the latter at all costs that the whole story with the doorman at the railway station had been an illusion, a bad joke if not an utter lie, a simple, shameless lie that the two sisters, the whores, the scorn of the whole neighborhood, her sworn enemies, had invented. The plan was, indeed, a good one. It had been tested several times before, in similar circumstances, on some of her stupid lovers. However, the gypsy woman did not trust men in general, and Stircu in particular. The latter was a serious man, who was never ready to meddle in other people's affairs. He had gallantly and convincingly warned her before, dignified and dressed up as he was in his cloth uniform: "Listen to me, Safta, now that I have wedded you and you are somehow my kin, we can make love without restriction, there is no dispute about that; we can have it off as best we can and as much as we like since we all live but once, and we must make the most of it; however, I want you to keep this in mind, you bitch: if somehow that dickhead Gore finds something about it, don't you dare involve me in this, you whore; because if you drag my name through the mud, I'll deny any misconduct, I'll swear I haven't had anything to do with you! And this is because there is a difference between shagging you, whom I have known since you were, how shall I put it? – an artist, and mixing up with that son of a bitch of husband of yours and being caught red-handed by him; I won't let that happen as I am somebody down there at the station, and after all I gave that lousy loser a job, so that he can make a living." And if she was not sure of the support of the godfather, the former singer ran the risk of seeing her whole scheme fail. If the railway station doorman thought of himself as a serious guy, Paler behaved, on the contrary, quite childishly, so childishly that he was very likely to get mad, like a fool, if he heard that his beloved mistress had one more lover, as if – the woman philosophized – one lost something if in the money box, where they collected the hot guineas of true love, someone else would introduce, every now and then, when they could and as best they could, some lousy copper coin. For the first time in her life, Safta felt she hated men. She had finally become convinced that as far as women were concerned, all men behaved like pigs. They only took advantage of the women, and they were despicable cowards, or they were downright lunatics like Gore, or disgusting wimps like the founder. It was the gaunt guy that stirred a feeling of revulsion in her. This wailing, sniveling fellow went on striking his chest with his fists and lamenting that he had cheated on his benefactor and chased him away, out of his own house, from his own table, from under his own roof, from his own bed, from his own wife. The gypsy woman looked at him scornfully for a moment and wondered, remembering the itching sensation in her flesh during the memorable, tantalizing nights she had spent in the lad's arms, how came that such a remarkable stud behaved like a miserable cur. Driven to despair by Paler's unending lamentations, she snatched off her kerchief with the potato slices, jumped out of bed and started walking about the house, crying in her turn and tearing her gown and lamenting her misfortune of having loved, and so much worked in her life, without having had the satisfaction of being loved by a man such as she had always dreamt of. Frightened by her unexpected fit of despair, the lad completely forgot about his trouble and his tears. Safta had the talent of crying in an original and convincing manner. In her lamentations, she combined, quite meaningfully, fragments of all the sad songs she could remember from her past glorious career, and she put her sorrow into verse – singing about the unhappiness of a lonely blackbird, the only important difference between the bird the anonymous poet had sung about and the bird of the madhouse being that, while the former had "a little brother, a yellow cuckoo", the latter was alone in the whole world. A foolish and sentimental guy, Paler was deeply moved and easily persuaded that it was his duty to play the role of the yellow cuckoo in the difficult situation they were in and left, hungry as he was, and after having spent thirteen hours in the fuming hell of melted metal, to look for the lost guy and bring him back to the nest of the blackbird, still hot and testy from her nocturnal temptations. He wandered about for a while to no avail, however, and came back home after the reprimand he got from the railway station doorman, which was to him one more proof that Gore had gone into the wide world because of him. The gaunt guy was sure, though Safta contradicted him, that the porter had told the godfather why and because of whom he had left his house and fortune. Moreover, he had no doubt that Mr. Stircu, a serious man as he was, had felt indignant at the way in which he had treated his benefactor, who had picked him up from the street and given him a shelter in his house, which explained the way he had reacted, calling him "punk" and threatening to sack him as the jerk he was clearly deserved, all in a loud voice, so that everybody could hear. Feeling guilty, and having long resigned himself to silently suffer the consequences of his disgraceful behavior, Paler was surprised that the doorman had not slapped him over the face, to teach him a lesson so that he never slept again naked, exposing the temptations of his body as he dreamt of Truda in the field. When he got home at dawn, he let Safta know that he had looked for Gore for the last time and, without waiting for her answer, he jumped in bed with his clothes on and fell asleep. After an hour he jumped to his feet, awoken by the alarm clock, and informed his mistress, before leaving for the foundry, about the second decision he had made, a much more serious one; he did it fully aware of the solemnity of the moment, while he was yawning noisily. "It's not fair for him to leave his home and for me to stay here. I am the one who has to leave so that he may come back. I'll stay until Saturday to get my wages and pay my debts, and then I'll be gone…" Under the renewed threat of being left alone, the woman promptly burst into tears again, but this time the gaunt guy was not moved. "I'm leaving, bitch, I'm leaving for good, do you get it?" On his way to the workshop and after he got there, he told his comrades and friends that he was missing his native village and his relatives. "I'm not staying any more. There is no difference between living here, in the city or there, in the countryside. Yes, there is one: here I spit charcoal, while there I sing and wander about." But at noon, in front of the foundry's gate, when he had lost all hope of seeing him again, he came across Gore. Lean, unshaven, and with a haggard look in his eyes, the porter was waiting for him; he caught him by the hand and, without saying a word, took him to the bridge next to the railway station. Seized by a strange feeling of fear and confusion and with a similar haggard look in his eyes because of the nights he had spent awake, Paler followed him like a shadow, tottering on his feet, walking behind the man who had been lost and found, in the street that was fool of people, of wagons of sparrows and of honey locusts. The Vacant Ground of Slummy Love (1932) by George Mihail Zamfirescu (1898-1939) is a street-level, almost cinematographic panorama (that would be resumed by Eugen Barbu in The Pit two decades later) of a Bucharest neighborhood, Basarab, inhabited by modest working-class anti-heroes like Sillitoe's or Chekhov's, involved in soapy dramas and kinky – though innocuous – habitudes. Zamfirescu, who lived in a modest house without electricity on the outskirts of Bucharest, quit his newspaper job to finish the book, though "it might have been a lot easier for me to earn the few tens of thousands lei writing two or three encomiastic articles about some idiot turned government minister."

by G. M. Zamfirescu (1898-1939)