Translated by JEAN HARRIS
„Often, he liked to stop by “The Benito,” which was what they called the joint until King Victor Emmanuele fired that scamp mascalzone Mussolini. The joint went by the name “Akim’s Dance Hall” before the war. The boss had hung out a new shingle now, though— “Shelter. Chic local. Snappy combo. Tangos&jazz. Stew&polenta-with-cheese. Kitchen you can bank on. Zigu, the Albanian maestro, will be your chef.” Out front—a vitrine with two dummies in evening gown and tux. Akim had drawn an S in a large circle on the wall outside, a sign you could use Akim’s eatery to shelter from bombs. When the sirens started howling, the boss’d put in an appearance: the honored clientele is kindly requested not to leave. Dandy. You didn’t have to beat it ’cross the street with food in your kisser. The waiters didn’t have to chase you with the check. Sharp, the boss. He had enemy aircraft advertising his dive for free. When the alarm went off, the denizens beat it to Akim’s. The wiseguy was rolling in dough. You climbed down five steps to a tunnel dimly lit by a single bulb. From there you passed into a space half as big as a tennis court—a typical hideaway, because in those days, Bucharest was a string of cellars and vaults where the traders hid their assets&whole-damn-family from foreign invasion, fires, earthquakes, epidemics, floods…Like the devil had left word for all ills to rendezvous there. The house up above wasn’t worth two bits; the deal was to have a large cellar, safe and dry—like Refec Akim’s retreat, dug in 1828 (as chiseled on the threshold) by his great uncle, Zaharia, in the days when the Russians swarmed down for a shindy with the Ottoman Turks on the Danube.
Dickey paused on the threshold of “Shelter” ten hours after the first Allied bombing of Bucharest. He was cheerful and talking to himself: you’re alive, you lucky chump, whatda you care? Your body belongs to you, and your soul belongs to the bearer. He felt pretty well finding himself among the survivors scattered around the tables. There were enough people he knew: Filip the Gasman, ladies’ tailor deluxe with his hair stinking of petrol, Rotgut with Liza—lapsed aristocrat, skin and bones, strung out on cocaine—Jean the Swell hunched over the bar, textile man, still dizzy, his elbows glued to the zinc. Oh, and there’s Ghizela. Get a blow from her, bub, and you’ll find yourself without descendants. The broad hired out to Germans, to teach them the business in bed. Slow boner, early ejaculation, treated here. She’d teach ya perversions as well—cost ya double. Not that collaboration won’t cost her. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid! Cheers! And on our stage… the drummer, Malagamba! with Bustchoppers on the guitar. If you were his friend, he’d warn you: watch out, cause I sing. You wanted a false passport, he was your man. He had the business going great. Anyone getting out of the Russians’ way ’d sell out for nuthin’—houses, land, furniture, jewelry. All the guy’d want would be to haul together some cash and disappear anywhere he could find. Plus, there’s Cati the Crow, the dame who makes made a living out of cures for baldness, bad breath and hemorrhoids—she was in a thing with an officer, even though she’s kinda over the hill. She was making the whole gang magic charms and getting ’em dizzy when she wasn’t spying for the English. So one day she tells her officer, you’ll hang from a noose, and she laughs. A major, no less, he takes a look at her tits and pours champagne right down the front of her dress.
Only Dickey had caught sight of Titi the Belly, business with sulfa&Swedishsyringes. He sat off a ways with a bunch of wiseguys. For these mobsters, your life is chump change, crap, a breath. Hey, and look at His Lordship, Mishu Banu, so proud in his aviator’s uniform. Barely back from Russia and he’s already letting the guys at his table ask him about his campaign feats. The Romanian army in retreat from Crimea, the Isthmus of Perekop, the evacuation of Sevastopol.
He liked coming here. He saw people: the riffraff, them aborted degenerates. The old turf, man o man! He was so happy to find all of last night’s habitués. Anyhow, nearly. Missing: Lard, reduced to mush on Track 4 while waiting for the fast train from Sibiu. Used to be the guy for French perfume. Missing: Monkey Shine, decapitated on the track of Tram 6. His head caromed through a display window—perfume and toiletries, “Le Chic de Paris”—nothing left but smithereens. When the shop-keep came outside to see what had happened, the blast annihilated him. A couple of old grannies just come from the market thought it was kinda funny, the way he was writhing on the sidewalk, like a hen with her throat cut. They’d just bought a couple of fowls themselves, and they were going home to slit their throats, split ’em and boil ’em in a three liter pan. They were pulverized—if we consider the fact that when the dust had scattered, they’d disappeared from their place in front of the window. Also missing from Shelter: the Beak, bagman over at the Ministry of Finance. He’d made his money approving imports/exports. Dickey was a client of his. Missing too: Fănuţă&his wife, Vuza They kept a photo studio near the station. They were in their dark room developing film, photos of soldiers on leave. The bomb left ’em in slivers, not to mention Lucky, the womanizer, Vio the sharper and Make, the silk-stocking speculator. Also not present, a little chick, Lola the Licker, hooker from the Maria Teresa Bordel where Madame Puica the madam ran the show.
The way it happened…the bordello, on April 4th at noon, when the Liberators came: e-m-p-t-y. Clients: nix. The girls were getting a coiffeur, a manicure, visiting the doctor for skin&theClap. That’s how they escaped. They were out in the city when the bomb fell through the elevator shaft. Bits of glass blown out of the door and window frames flew to a distance three tram stops away. Downstairs from the cathouse, Madame Manda bought it while doing her laundry. Madame Puica was out walking her little dog, Tuki. That’s how a place of great and long Wallachian tradition, the “Maria Teresa” brothel, disappeared off the face of the earth. Or so some hoped, but whoring doesn’t just go away. The next day saw the windows and the doors back in their places, painted, furniture brought with the help of a regiment of soldiers, officially sent to help with “rebuilding the zone destroyed by the Anglo-American bombing.” To pay them back, the girls served those soldiers gratis for the entire month. How delighted they were! “Maria Teresa” reopened September 1. Just as well to receive the Russians.
Also absent from Shelter: Firica Barbu, panhandler. He perished after going out of the hotel where he’d rented a room to get it on with Flori the Blotter—gypsyish, a peroxide blond. The dame stated she’d left her fur upstairs. The idiot went back to get it for her, at her request. A cute little bomb sent—Hello!—on an airplane nicknamed Flo, just like the lady, squeezed the life out of Firica on the spot, right there.
It was like…zest for life revived those left standing. Glancing around, Dickey eyed that space full of shadows. Here, he felt good. Till now, he’d figured he wuz the only one who’d saved himself—while the others ate shit when the flotilla of bombardiers rose into the air at Bari&Foggia. He’d reckoned the others had their poor little brains scattered far and wide. Their guts mixed with rubble in vacant lots. Glassy eyes stuck to a broken window. Wagons tipped over crosswise in the market square.
Eh, in that instant, through the cigarette smoke, Dickey Sparrow saw her under a spotlight with red hair all spread out, and her lavender/mother-of-pearl eyes. With luscious cheeks and cyclamen lips, lifted at the corners. Walking, stuck close to a scamp with a sucked in stomach like a famished dog. Gaunt, thin as a board. Agile. They danced in the center of the dance floor under the greenish light of a single spot. Dickey guessed the secret of that tango in a minute: mobster shoes. That footwear made the guy glide, click his heels. They spun him around on the spot; they lifted him in the air. Dickey told the barman Grisha Schwartz, if you took away his shoes with them gold heel and toe caps, what’d be left? Those shoes were worth about a case of Pommery Champaign. The dame looked at him languorously. The dancer type: in brocade vest, hat pulled down over his eyes. With a satisfied smirk, glued to her cheeks. Aaaah, tangoooo! The dame slid along his thighs, chest, arms. With her tits, with her belly, sex and calves. Our Dickey—off limits.
That one magical moment, his life was a foible, a whim, a nothing. He had met his destiny. His temples throbbed. His pulse raced under his watchband. He knew all the fresh goods just in from Kiev, Odessa and Istanbul, Dubrovnik, Salonika and Cernăuţi. Only vagabonds de lux. As for the lady, nix! He looked like an idiot, an amnesiac. Dicky, fuck his mother’s Easter, had no idea what to make of her. Where’d you come from, beautiful? From sea foam? From Champaign bubbles? From cigarette smoke? Everything he’d experienced in bordellos, pubs, bars with café chantant, in houses of assignation…in Bucharest, he knew the whole thing inside out. But he’d never seen something like this—nowhere, never. You’d go to the salt mines for something like this. You’d thieve. You’d shove in the shiv. You’d flagellate yourself. You’d go blind. His liver pained him. His soul bled. His teeth chattered. His heart fell into his boots. He stiffened, as was his stupid habit.
The woman had brazenly thrust her tits in the brunet’s shoulder blades. She held him coiled around from behind. She wrapped her arms around his neck. The purple dress, the black scarf. She whirled briefly around him. She oozed up and down with her lips glued to him. She knelt. She grasped him about the knees without ungluing herself from him for so much as a heartbeat. All the air in the cave: charged with sex. The accordion moaned; the violin tore the air. The drummer kept the rhythm down low. And there was the guitarist, Bustchoppers, rafrafraf. The woman unglued herself sloooowly; she skinned him alive, slowly, tangoooo—the way you’d chase away cigarette smoke without hurrying. Dickey felt the movement on his skin in slow mo. Aaah, Dickey, Dickey! It was as if he’d knifed her. He felt that he was suffocating. Eh, and the woman held him with that lavender trouble look. Who was the stranger staring at her so intensely? Dickey turned to see whom she was looking at and didn’t see a soul. You’re just making it up, old man, he said to himself. Dames like that don’t exist, and even if she does, she doesn’t have eyes for you. She belongs to that guy. She’s not looking at you. You’re seeing things.
Dickey felt himself gnawed by loneliness, suddenly, and it was the desolation of a leper. Oh man, he felt the boredom of his life in one fell swoop. He’d escaped with his life for nothing. When you meet a woman like that, you understand, you ain’t got nobody—you need her like air. She cures your incurable melancholy. It’s the last cure when you’ve tried ‘em all. That type of goods, you don’t find on the black market at all. You feel like surviving another day in this cesspool, exactly when destiny, your enemies, the police, the Devil have the sole of their fool bearing down on the top of your head to sink you in shit. When the lady took her gaze away, Dickey felt pain—like a rag, skinned of his soul, an eviscerated corpse. That’s it, man-o-man! the last figure of the tango, a pirouette and the final pose. Tango passion y erotismo, amigo. The lights came up. The couple bowed. They disappeared into the dark of the wings. It hurt Dickey ’till he came to his senses. The cave came alive. Dickey: still on the threshold. His old malaise: he’d stood there stiff as a board for a long time. His ears rang, his head throbbed, like once long ago when he was trapped by barking dogs. The Devil had gotten hold of his brains. Light passed through them. He himself was a shadow, nothing else, a reflection in a mirror. He kept watching the stage. The fabulous being who’d woken him from the dead had disappeared.
Now that’s a woman, he told Mishu Banu, as he came down the stairs.”
„Moartea unui dansator de tango” – TREI Publishing house, BUCURESTI, 2011
„Muerte de un bailarin de tango” – Editorial ENEIDA, MADRID, 2014 traduccion de JOAQUIN GARRIGOS
„Morte di un ballerino din tango” – ATMOSPHERE LIBRI, ROMA, 2014, traduzione di MAURO BARINDI