She treads carefully on the uneven stones in the yard, which are still coated with morning frost. Her swollen feet are painful, even though she rubbed some alcohol on them last night and has put on thick woollen stockings. The weather seems to be turning. Dizzy from the cold air, she stops for a moment to catch her breath, pulls her right hand from her pocket, half-coiled inside a glove fraying at the fingertips, and supports herself against a dilapidated shutter. Rust and dust have been covering it ever since she closed the shop, more than twenty years ago, so that now it looks as if it is part of the wall. WINES FROM THE DAWN SLOPES: the sign in large letters used to be further down on the right, between the shutter and a step leading up to the shop. But she blocked up the shutter and removed the step—what was the point of keeping them if no one entered any more? LIQUOR STORE—what salami and sausages it used to have! What blocks of cheese! She had regulars from Strada Coriolan, Strada Sabinelor, and all the other streets in the neighborhood. They came, they saw, and they bought; exchanged a few words, perhaps drank a glass or two with a little snack. What cheeses, what sardines, what exotic delicacies she used to have!
“Really, Mrs Delcã,” one of them might say, “you’ve got an edge even on Dragomir Niculescu!”
And so she passed her youth behind a counter covered with tin plate, or running here and there among clinking glasses in response to calls from the tables.
“Vica, over here! Hey, Vica, Vicaaa . . .”
Then as now her husband lay sprawled in bed, in the room right at the back. He went into the shop only to throw out a drunk or to keep a furtive eye on whether anyone was taking liberties with her. When you were least expecting it, he would creep up behind you in a way that belied his colossal size. He came in and looked around, as he liked to do all his life, without becoming caught up in the details. The sounds of mirth were anyway so loud that no one could have heard him, but they quieted down as soon as they caught sight of him. Yes, he certainly inspired fear.
“Hey, Mr Delcã, come and have a glass with us,” a customer not yet familiar with his ways might shout.
“No, thank you,” he would reply in his thin voice. “I’m not in the habit . . .”
And he loitered glumly a while longer, as if to make the drink stick in the other’s throat, before going back to his room. He dressed up to go to a match or a film, or for a night on the town. She stayed behind in the general hubbub, to wait for suppliers, to receive a delivery, or what have you.
She was a solid woman, not like those broomsticks you find today, without a bum or tits for a man to get his hands on. Yes, she was a strong, bosomy woman who made the floorboards creak beneath her, with a plumpish white face and curly hair tied in a bow at the neck. Had she been so minded, she could have had anyone she liked—but that was not her style, she was not one of those . . . Well, there was one tall man with a thin black mustache and an evil leer, who worked at police headquarters. She can almost see him now before her, entering the shop just to buy some caviar, sturgeon, foie gras and expensive wine. He loaded his carriage and took it all off to one of their blowouts. How he looked at her: and it was Mrs. Vica this, Mrs. Vica that . . . His hand had a ring on every digit, and the one on his little finger was as big as this!
“Do you like it?” he asked her one day. “If you do, it’s yours just as it is.”
“Keep it safe,” she answered. “I’m not used to things like that. I have my husband.”
A good-looker, but what a scoundrel he must have been; you could see it from the way he rolled his eyes. He vanished as soon as the Communists took over; left behind a wife and children and a house; no one ever heard another word. They must have really bashed him around—after all, there was something fishy about all those rings. Nor was he the only one: there were loads and loads of them. But she never gave it much thought: she wasn’t like that, and anyway the work meant she was always too tired. All she heard came via Mrs. Ioaniu. A clever woman, Mrs. Ioaniu, a woman who used to have two men on the go.
“Let me tell you something, Vica,” she said one day. “A woman who’s ready to drop doesn’t make a good wife.”
Vica walks with a stoop, as if hunchbacked, her faded blue coat bulging from everything she has put on underneath. With bag in hand, she keeps her eyes on the ground and turns them neither right nor left; it could be as much as fifteen years since she has been in the center of Bucharest, and anyway there is no reason for her to go there. She has everything she needs here: savings bank and hairdresser on the corner; pharmacy and shoemaker; a telephone next to the greengrocer, where she takes a handful of coins if her neighbor Reli is out; a grill house where she often buys sausages on her way home. She puts the paper plate on an empty stall in the market, lays her bag beside it, dips a sausage in some mustard and wolfs it down. Each time she debates whether to keep one for her husband—then, forget it, she says, and in a trice she is wiping her mouth with a handkerchief; forget it, he’s fat enough already, and anyway he grabs a cheese pie for himself whenever he goes to Cismigiu.
Bent over, she passes the garden square where pensioners play chess in summer. A few crows are croaking on the greenish statue of that naked woman—what the devil was her name? Vica’s brother Ilie used to know, God rest his soul. How often he spoke it as they were passing by! Maybe it’s the Mimph—or perhaps the Nymph. From home she can find the tram stop blindfolded, telling you about every little nook and cranny on the way. Quite a few new people have moved in behind the fences, but all the older ones know her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Delcã, how are you? Good morning, Mrs. Delcã,” they call out as soon as they see her.
Everyone is fond of her and thinks she’s great. So she stops to chat whenever she comes across someone she knows: they all have their problems, whether it’s the liver, the bile or blood pressure. If they had all settled their unpaid bills she would be a rich woman, but no one comes up to her and says:
“Here’s twenty-five lei, Vica dear, it’ll come in handy.”
That’s the way of the world: you’re great as long as you’ve got something to give, otherwise you’re nobody; she’s lived long enough to know that, she could teach others a thing or two. The school of life, the evening classes, as she used to say to Mrs. Ioaniu—and how the old woman laughed. The school of life—what else did she ever know but work, work, work?
She hauls herself up the tram step, takes the coins from her pocket and fights her way through the packed bodies to the seats at the front.
Work, work, work: that was her life, from the age of eleven when her mother died and left her alone with a houseful of brothers to worry about. Her father went off to war, and the next summer her poor mother died of typhoid fever or typhus or whatever it was. The twins also kicked the bucket, and so did Sile, the youngest, because he no longer had anyone to suckle him. But she, Ilie, and Niculaie managed to stay alive; they were bigger and God gave them a longer life. They all lived alone in the old house in Pantelimon, near the Capra church where their mother was buried; and there was no one but her to look after the whole pack of brothers; some survived, others didn’t, some were lucky, others weren’t. A grandmother, a Greek woman who really fancied herself a lady, called from time to time. She can still see her in her silver-gray Ottoman dress, fastened right up to the neck with little buttons and bordered with lace at the sleeves. And there was a fur stole round her shoulders. It is as if she is there now in person: robust, with a large chest and waist, like all the women in their family; that is why she had such a tight corset, with stays powerful enough to take the pressure. Only Vica cannot remember her hunchback: was her grandmother really hunchbacked? Anyway, she was a fancy Greek lady, who owned a newspaper kiosk near her house on Strada Sfineii Apostoli—an interconnecting house with a glass verandah. A lady, yes, but her grandchildren could not stand her, because she had sent their own mother away to be fostered. How could she have done that? If she had brought her up along with her son and other daughter, ah! how different their poor mother’s life would have been! She herself would have gone to a boarding school and grown up a little lady; she would never have married a man from Oltenia or stood behind a counter, never have tramped the mud of Pantelimon with seven little brats clinging to her. Poor Mother! If that grandmother, the Greek woman, had not sent her away to be fostered, her life would have been different—perhaps she would not have died at thirty, a solid woman in the prime of life. Such were the things that neighbors used to say when the Greek lady came to Pantelimon to see her grandchildren. The neighbors could not bear her, nor could her grandchildren. When she told them to call her “Grandma,” the little devils would call out “Gravema” instead. Ah, may God forgive Gravema, now that she too is lying in her grave. Back home, in a closet, Vica still has a picture of her taken at the fashionable Fridrihbinder studio; she is sitting with a haughty expression on her face, fur around her neck, clad in elegant cross-laced boots with raised heels that have been polished up with castor oil. Gravema took care of herself all her life—that’s why she sent her daughter away to be fostered, so as not to have a lot of brats under her feet. She didn’t worry much about her grandchildren either; when they really needed something the poor kids ran instead to Uncle Cabbage-Washer, whose house was on the other side of the church—a large, high-walled house with wine cellars and fierce dogs. But he was a skinflint too, a skinflint and a curmudgeon: not for nothing did people call him Cabbage-Washer . . .
“Hey, move your basket, woman,” a short, broad-shouldered man bellows just an inch from her ear. “Since you got on, it’s been stopping anyone from getting to the door.”
It is a basket holding a couple of chickens with flattened crests. A peasant woman climbed on with them a couple of stops back. Vica saw her boarding at the front exit.
“Where yer want me to put it?” she asks.
She picks up the basket and drags it in among the legs of the other passengers. The chickens flap their wings as they vainly wrestle around.
“That’s what it’s like in second class: they get on with baskets, cabbage, whatever they like. Some even bring their hounds along,” the man says to another standing right in front of Vica, an old, weak-looking man with a cap on his head.
He merely gives a faint nod in reply, and the thick veins bulge beneath the soft skin of his neck.
“Put it down here,” she offers, and pushes the basket under her seat. “People get on with whatever they have,” she says to the man in a loud voice. “They’re not going to walk just because someone’s a bit put out. You get on, you pay for your ticket—what’s wrong with that?”
So there! Let everyone hear, especially those who screw up their faces and only like to travel first-class, because it smells in second class. She’s never traveled any other way since she opened the shop, and she hasn’t croaked yet. Coughs up her twenty-five cents and that’s all there is to it; people are still people whichever class you ride in. And she wouldn’t last a week if she wasn’t a bit thrifty—certainly her husband is no help at all.
She picks up her bag and carefully steps down from the tram.
From Dimineţă pierduta. © Gabriela Adamesteanu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2004 by Patrick Camiller. All rights reserved.