The shovels’ dull thud mixed with the steady patter of rain. The trench deepened. Squishing through mud, the three workers vanished into its depths. By now there was nothing to see from the street but sodden earflaps and peaks of caps. Black dirt shot through the air. Smaller clods rolled on the asphalt. The rift was almost half a meter long. In the ditch, the workers unearthed a length of pipe, like the belly of an antediluvian fish.
“Nice hole, huh? Go check we got what we need in the van, and don’t forget the bolts.”
Heaving himself over the side of the trench, Laurel headed for the van. The windshield sparkled under the raindrops. He yanked the door, sifted through a pile of tools, and glanced at his watch. “Time to eat, boys. It’s ten past three.”
Two heads popped out of the pit.
“Three, you said?”
“Check it out, buddy. We got carried away working. It’s getting late.”
“Forget the other stuff, then and get the lunch. Under the seat.”
Mouth watering, Laurel found the lunch packs by smell and returned with parcels under his arm. He hunkered down beside the trench.
“You got the bottle?”
“Yup. Right here.”
Nostrils flaring with anticipation, the men let out a collective sigh.
“It’ll stop soon. Don’t worry.” Basil rubbed his palms together.
The rain let up moments later. Still, their soaked jackets stuck to their backs. Gesturing impatiently, they ripped the newspaper off their food. There was a noise of tearing paper. Cracked, dirt-caked fingers grabbed.
“Where’s the onion?”
“Man, it’s hot!”
“Shut up and eat it with cheese. Goes right to your soul, doesn’t it?”
The food disappeared fast, leaving cleft chins awash with grease—minute lenticular stains giving off a faint glow.
“Go on, open that bitch up.”
Leander drew the cork with his teeth, took a swig, passed the bottle. Sinewy necks pumped like pistons.
“Now it’s raining inside, too, but fire and brimstone,” Basil laughed. “Here’s looking at you, kid!”
Occasionally a car swept past the absently chewing workers huddled on the mounded earth under a corpse-livid sky.
“Fucking life,” Leander swore, looking up. “We always get the shit end of the stick when there’s a job in this kind of weather. The fitting-names team, men with plant names. The lucky bunch is out to . . .”
“Hey, can the poetry and tell us where the damned pick hammer is. I don’t see it nowhere.”
“Aw, it’s down there, in the trench, don’t worry. No one’s gonna take it. Come on—take another swig.” Insubstantial wraiths of steam rose from clothes, lips, earth.
“Say, buddy, you think we’ll be fucking done with this in a couple of hours?”
Basil stared at his mud-caked rubber boots for a while, sighed and let loose a mighty blast of wind.
“Whaddaya say, are we gonna plug this motherfucker today or not?”
“Hard to tell, Laurel. Not even my mother-in-law’s got a big ol’ hole like that. But we might just be able to plug her by tonight.”
The wind kicked up. Oily wrappings stirred around leftover bread and cheese, bacon and onion peel.
“Anything left in the bottle?”
“A drop. There . . .”
“Here we go.” Tilting his head, Leander chugged the last of the slivovitz. “Good stuff! Only thing missing now’s one of them whores to . . .”
“Yeah right, just what you need in this downpour. A drenched whore to bang while you hold an umbrella over her head . . .”
A belch. A giggle.
“Hold on. Let me tell you a story . . .”
“Hey, guys, do your own thing. After imbibing and stuffing my face, I, for one don’t want nothing more. I’m taking a break.”
“Anyways, Laurel, here’s the thing. Just last week . . .”
“Me, if I’ve got a full belly, I don’t want nothing else. What else should I want for?”
“They say her husband ain’t up to the job, so I say to myself, it’s a waste for the poor thing to suffer neglect . . . She’s so young and all . . .”
“You guys do whatever you want.”
“Yes, Sir, whatever you say.”
“Hey, Laurel, knock the guy over the head and make him shut up.”
“So, I was saying . . . the chick had an ass on her like you never seen in your whole lousy life.”
“Whaddya mean, lousy?”
“What I said. You never seen nothing like it. Mountains of ass. It was like . . . your short dropped the minute she wriggled it. Pumped heat like a radiator. Can’t even remember how I got out of my duds . . .”
“Didn’t she keel over when she got a whiff of you?”
“So what? She was stinking herself . . .” Laurel gave a metal-mouthed grin.
“What can I say, Leander? You said it. The air’s not the same since you came into the world.”
“You don’t exactly smell like spring flowers yourself.”
“You reek of corpse, pal, if you really want to know. And anyway, I’m wasting my breath. You’re as familiar with chicks as I am with foreign languages.”
Having bickered a spell, they faltered and fell silent gazing at a tree that etched its solitude on the street corner. It rose against the violet afternoon sky in a thin, intricate maze of lines. A heavy truck rolled by and spattered them with a flurry of mud.
“Fucking asshole . . . Hey, give me a smoke.”
Laurel produced a crumpled, sodden pack. He lit up, cupping his hands around the cigarette, then passed the box around. They went on smoking in silence, occasionally coughing up a gob.
“It’s so fucking cold. I’m freezing my ass off . . .”
“Yeah, well, it’s back to the grind for me.” Basil rose to his feet, flicked the butt and jumped into the ditch. He got hold of the shovel and thrust it deep under the pipe with a thud followed by a crack. Then nothing.
“Boss, what are you doing down there?”
“I’ll be damned if the guy didn’t break some fucking bone. Hey! Say something, buddy!”
Smirking, Basil peered out of the ditch. Leander and Laurel gave him the eye.
“What in hell are you laughing at? We heard something go ‘crack’ down there. What was it?”
Basil winked. “Come on, get your asses down here. I’m gonna show you something swell . . .”
Leander and Laurel jumped in without asking for details. The ditch oozed water under their boots. Basil was peering at them through his eyelashes, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. In his right hand he held a tiny punctured skull, covered with mud.
“So how’d you find the bastard?”
“Ain’t he a beauty?” Basil lifted his find, turning it in his fingers. Laurel and Leander gazed at the cranium, then burst out laughing.
“How’d the bastard get there?”
“Could be your granddad, pal.”
“He broke out of the cemetery. Careful he doesn’t bite your finger off . . .”
“Let’s take him to the museum . . .”
“They might give us some brandy for it . . .”
A roar of laughter echoed from the ditch. They laughed so hard tears streamed down their faces. They had to hold their sides. The mud went on squishing gently under their feet. When they were done laughing, they wiped their tears on their sleeves and went silent, suddenly exhausted. Leander tilted his hat back, scratched his crotch through his pants and proclaimed through clenched teeth, “boys, I hereby confess I’m bursting for a leak. So, with your permission . . ..” He grinned and sat the skull on its dome. He urinated until the liquid cascaded through the eye sockets. The other two watched wordlessly, smiles askew on their faces. Leander buttoned his fly. “OK, back to work now,” he said hoarsely, “or else we’ll be here till nightfall.” They went back to work. Noises welled up and spilled rhythmically into the street. The neighborhood was quiet. People had gathered in dining rooms, among the cutlery: slippers, tiny boots, overcoats, and umbrellas drying in their stands, words kept to a minimum. Here’s your soup. The sun crept out from behind the ugly apartment blocks, golden and soggy.
“Hey, Laurel, pass the fucking hammer for Chrissake. You hear me?”
Leander unbent his back in irritation. “Where the hell are you?”
“The hammer,” Leander hollered at the top of his voice. Basil stopped working too, blew his nose in his fingers, and took in the surroundings. Raindrops were vanishing off the asphalt, quivering on the twigs, occasionally twinkling. Laurel retrieved the skull without hurry and tenderly wiped if off. It was so light . . . Alas! Previously unknown words began sprouting in his palms. They rose to his temples in a terrible rush. “Alas! Poor Yorik! I knew him . . . He hath borne me on his back a thousand times . . .”
“What the fuck are you raving about? Are you nuts?”
“Those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft . . .”
Basil and Leander exchanged long looks. “Come off it and talk like a human being, for Chrissakes. What’s come over you? You don’t mean one swig of slivovitz went to your head.”
“. . . BE YOUR GIBES NOW? YOUR GAMBOLS? YOUR SONGS?”
“Come on, Laurel, get rid of that shit and stop acting funny. What’s gotten into you?”
But for Laurel, the sounds crouched low suddenly, and he went silent. With an awkward gesture he laid the skull on the earth and closed his eyes. Could be the fucking weather. He stood and ran a tired hand over his face. He could feel the sweat drying on his temples. He spat to one side, then swiveled his head and looked at the guys. Words stuck in their throats, Basil and Leander stood still. The light wandered gently over their countenances, then moved on.
“Sansa,” © by Răzvan Petrescu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Florin Bican. All rights reserved.