A NOVEL BY STELIAN TANASE
Translation JEAN HARRIS
I was getting depressed. My life wasn’t going anywhere. I need something, the flashing of lights, glamor, some damn thing. And here I was talking to the dead.
Charles Bukowski (Pulp/1994)
1/ GET OFF THAT BLOND, PAL !
“Naum. Ticu Naum. I’m not mobster, a police informer, a faggot, a Mason or a Jew. I’m nothing but an arrogant, drunken womanizer. I have it in for people with money and people without.” Naum made a fool of himself that way whenever he got wind of a passable dame in hailing distance. After the kitsch pickup line, he’d thrust his shnoz in the current treat’s decollate with all the delicacy of an ex-boxer, and then he’d make indecent proposals like Hey, let’s fuck.
Right. So, if we’re done with the formalities, you should know, it all happened one night. Unbearably, the phone woke Naum around 3 A.M. Shut-eyed, he groped around the night table, lifted the receiver and slammed it down without ever putting speaker to ear. “I’ll send you back where you came from,” he said loudly, obscenely and mainly for his own benefit. The—what’s-er-name?—blond heard him through her sleep, though, and started showing signs of life. They’d met the previous evening at the Moko Bar, where he’d suggested they take a walk. Then they took a crazy drive in his wreck through the burg. The girl kept applying lipstick in the chipped mirror over her seat. Naum: with his fingers between her thighs. That’s how they made it to his flop, where he boinked her like it was an emergency, beginning in the hall. They’d started petting in the elevator where she claimed that’s how she’d lost it—in a hotel lift, and that’s why it turned her on so much. The same thing always happened when she got into an elevator car. “Sometimes I come, darling, going up all those floors crowded in with the great unwashed.” In that way she evoked her first time when some guy bayonetted her beaver. You know, coochie. “Does this bother you?” She wanted to know. Nope. Thirsting for her perfumed flesh, Naum was energetically lifting her skirt to get at her legs, the space being extremely tight. Sweet dreams!
Just when he was about to come, the phone rang the first time. Distressed, he told himself something awful had happened. Why does anyone ring you at night, pal? Huh? To tell you your car was stolen, your wife’s cheating on you, the boss is gonna to fire your ass, or you got cancer. But that was neither here nor there. Ticu Naum was a pick-me-up guy, especially with a blond in the sack, so he told himself to calm down, forget it, baby! which is what he’d learned from a cool American serial, the one where detective always blasts the bad guys to smithereens.
Kidding aside, though, you couldn’t really say our Naum was clueless. IQ 160, but he tried to keep it under his hat. He didn’t do too well at that, and it gave him trouble. Numb-nuts picked him out by his eyes. At night in bed with a dame they shone like a cat’s. Pretending photophobia, he wore shades by day. Useless. They always discovered he had a brain in his head, and for that he’d get a boot in the rear. Never mind. Let his bosses have a little joy on parting. Most of the time he was outta work anyway, a respectable occupation in our century.
The truth was, he was a genuine, bona fide loser. Even failure isn’t what it used to be. He’d stay on a job two, three—OK six months. Then he’d piss off a top dog, and the guy’d fling him into the street. Beat it, mutt! Talk about images close to his heart. Luckily, it happened often, so he kept in training. He’d land on his feet. That explained how he’d remained free at an advanced age, pushing 40, but still duking it out in bars, and the fucking was OK. Otherwise, he was still dilly-dallying when he wasn’t spanking the monkey. There were days when he didn’t have cigarette money. He smoked Gauloise, a token of his time in the Foreign Legion. No need to worry about him, though. The sucker was glad to be on his own: an anarchist, bellyacher and lounge lizard.
Anyhow, just as he was staring at the blond stretched naked on the blanket and getting ready to getting for a military penetration, the telephone started ringing again. If the voice knew what a swell girl he’d picked up, he certainly wouldn’t have bothered him. Out of masculine complicity at least. The harm was done, though. He figured, if someone is treating you as an enemy, you can be sure he’ll call you and hang up in the middle of the night. Haha! Then you’re a poor chump who has to stay awake looking at the window till dawn. And you see how cool it is when the sun falls over the outskirts. Cobalt roofs, silver moon, stars white as ping-pong balls. Shadows lengthen, stretch over the whole useless deal. Whatever. Having picked up the cold ebonite, the first thing Ticu Naum heard was a clinking in the receiver. It came from a mechanical music box that played a few notes and started over, hypnotically.
“Mmn. Speaking. “
“You have something to see.”
“Really? You bet. One hot chick.”
“Not there, Mr. Naum!”
“Where should I look?”
Tossing off the blanket, the blond unveiled her legs. Her stems were a wonder. Naum felt a sudden prickling in his groin. He’d already tried several times to see if the girl could touch the ceiling with her heels. He hadn’t found out yet, but there’d be more time for practice. And then BANG, the telephone, exactly when he wanted to get her legs in the air.
Resting on his elbow, he’d been staring at the roundness of her hips, thighs, knees, all caught in the pale warning lights of the crane that poured through his window. Hallelujah! The blackness between her legs appeared in all its splendor. She had a magnificent body. And after bravely deciding not to leave the MOKO bar without her, he’d taken a good few whiskeys on board in the attempt to seduce her. How many had he drunk? Only the Devil kept score: Naum, never. He went through life on faith. There was always someone to figure out how much the party cost. He wondered what this sweet blond had seen in in a drunk like him. Hey, she was just a lonely person who didn’t feel like sleeping alone in a cold, empty bed during a torrential rain. Screw that and the blues.
“So what am I supposed to see?” he asked into the telephone.
“I’ll dictate the address. Write it down.”
Naum didn’t write. He remembered.
“And who am I talking to?
BAF, conversation closed. All Naum had to do was dress: jeans from the floor, jacket from a hook in the hall. He jammed his watch cap on his head. But what did he expect to find in the genteel society of death? The voice had thrown him a bone, as if to a dog, because that’s what this poisonous tip was, more-or-less, a bone. Unless maybe the voice had reached a wrong number…Niet. The caller had mentioned his name. Naum suspected it was down to his busting ass part-time at a detective agency, Scarlat & Assoc. Besides, he occasionally demeaned himself at a rag where he wrote various stupid police stories—130 lines/2 col. The pulp paid by the piece, not cash. As recompense, he got a lunch at a greasy spoon across the street. All in all, it was a good deal for a guy like him who had to pay income-based child support. Right now, he had two jobs, like everyone else, both from hunger. Capitalism had turned him into hamburger meat. Luckily, he did about the same thing in both places—nothing much. Presence was not mandatory, and he was off the books. The trick was to hand in the goods on time. A cadaver was already too much for a person like him. A corpse is a big deal, even in Valachia, where the worst things happen. The stake had suddenly gotten a lot higher, the air more rarified. Like in poker, after 3 blinds and a pass. This was serious business, way over his head. He wondered what in hell he was doing in this story. Someone had done this to him. He didn’t know where it was coming from, but he would make it his business to find out, PDQ. For now, he was putting his money on Giugiuc Stras, boss over at the rag and Scarlat, owner of the detective agency. They both had reason to tear him away from the blond and throw him to hell, jealous bastards. Lice take them!
Dressed now, he went to embrace the blond. He would have boinked her again—once more unto the breach, peach—but in the end, he’d thought, maybe it’s better without the sex when you’re leaving the house on a rainy night to meet a corpse. Lowers your morale, and your dick. … He told himself he should have gone to sleep on the spot, but then he would have missed the tip. However it happened, it worked out for the birds. He searched his pockets for the key and closed the door softly so as not to wake the girl.
ELEVATOR OUT OF ORDER. He rolled down the stairs, eyes half-closed and stood at the foot of the stairwell facing the vacant lot in front of his apartment house. The flat block had a swell view of automobile carcasses, tires, cables, twisted iron, trash cans, three swings, a rusty kiosk, no longer in use. When he stepped out under the awning he found a fly-by-night having some fun for himself. He’d poured gas over a homeless tovarish of his, and now he was taking out a match, lighting it and throwing it over the unfortunate sleeper. Naum froze, and not from cold. The itinerant made to run. Naum tackled him. When he had the bum down, he roughed him up and gave him what for.
“Why’d’ýa set him on fire?”
“No brainer. He grabbed my shelter an’ he owes me dough.”
Naum said “ach” and handed the bum a blue bill from the National Bank of Romania. That cleaned him out.
A neighbor hove into view along with some guy who was just parking. Together they found a blanket in the guy’s trunk, a swallow of water. Koniec: THE END, Naum took off.
He lived in an outlying area. Once full of life, it had been deserted in the Twenty First Century. Various remains recalled its industrial past. It was populated now by dregs: paint huffers, gutter punks, criminals, crack whores, dope fiends, beggars. Why was he living there? The rent was exactly what he could afford. He jogged to his wreck, which was rusting under a streetlight. Someone had scrawled “wash me, baby!” on the windshield, like a line from a popular song. Hooo! The downpour was a stroke of luck: Thy will be done. He looked happily at the sky. The car would be clean as a whistle tomorrow. Besides, he knew who’d exercised his handwriting on the windshield, a neighbor from 7. He’d put a 5-inch nail under the moron’s tire tomorrow, but he was in a hurry now. He turned the key in the contact. This was his lucky night. Like a miracle, the jalopy started on the first try. He made his way through gray coop-like buildings with peeling window frames and balconies of the brink of collapse. In five minutes, he’d left the outskirts behind, the zone held by the dirt poor, the lumpen, ragged old folks incompetent after the fall of the regime. He came out of the darkness somewhere on one of the big boulevards among enchanted lights, neon bulbs, windows gleaming with plate glass—Bucharest’s glamour zone where everything stinks: all veneer, glitter, masks. He no longer believed in appearances—really? since when?—least of all in the greatest of them, God.
And then a wave of heat overwhelmed him, and for a minute he felt better. He must be recovering somehow from the nasty shock of having left Zizi. That was her name; he remembered now, though he could still see her in the sheets as her mother bore her, without a stitch. When he noticed the statue—he had no idea of whom, and there were too many of them anyhow—he headed off on a diagonal toward the Eastern Station. Vacant stands at Obor Market: a red food hall, an empty space, a falling down hut, a few small shops, an odor of fish, rotten meat, pickles and dead dog. The rain thinned out suddenly at the third intersection, and he turned the wheel to the left across from an abandoned movie house with peeling posters lifted by the wind. Sidewalks invaded by garbage, outlying apartment buildings, hostile as bunkers, extinguished streetlamps...Watched by three pimps in a pistachio limousine, a few frozen whores waited near a gas station lit up like day. A bunch of poor slobs listened to music and snorted powder at the top of the METRO steps. Naum made them out in the rearview mirror. A police vehicle appeared. Three uniforms got out. The slobs didn’t give a hoot; they all seemed well-acquainted. Naum’s clutch made a noise. For a second, they all looked at his jalopy waiting for the light. The cops and dealers gave him hard looks as if he were getting in the way of their action. In pictures the detective gets out, lets fly with his fists, and everything solves itself. Not in Naum’s world. Green light!
Naum floored it. The worn-out streets totaled his suspension, what was left of it, anyhow, after traversing Bucharest, always full of trenches and shell holes like a landscape out of World War I. He didn’t understand exactly where the house number would fall, and he had no GPS—costs too much—so he rolled beyond the tram tracks, passed a depot and a cement mixer and came out beyond a shit-yellow warehouse where he found himself with some guy’s mug plastered across his windshield. “Got a cigarette, boss?” Regretfully, he lowered the window and threw out the pack on the dash. Gauloise. He’d got them off some Russian smugglers, cut rate. No matter. He was driving passed some buildings under demolition, all splashed with graffiti, a car cemetery—heaped carcasses gleaming in the moonlight—fallen-down walls, packs of stray dogs, vacant lots with toxic waste dumps, black as death. Re-enforced concrete, cement structures, red slag: headlights blinded him from across the road. What a gyp of a night! Couldn’t get better, and now it was raining buckets again.
Naum called himself “lucky sonofabitch”, jerked his wreck to the curb, and cut the lights by a worksite with bulldozer, tear downs, scaffolding. His parking maneuver had worked out perfectly: the car let out strange noises; rain started coming in through the roof. It was only to be expected. A greasy dealer in a bow tie had sold it to him as a Bentley (1991, 1555 HP motor, 54,059 miles). The lot was barely above the level of swap meet, the car nothing but a Skoda ’71 or a Jiguli ’84. He’d picked it because the back seat left room to spread the longest legs on the planet. No matter. He’d found the street, nearly demolished by gusting rain from the end of the world under livid clouds. Rotten weather. You wouldn’t leave a dog outside. It seemed to Naum that as far as God was concerned, you could do whatever you wanted with him. He called himself a ne’re-do-well, a blockhead, a nobody. That was Fate, but he still had to ask himself where the people were and what corner of hell exactly he’d landed in?
He was back in the outskirts next to a maidan, an abandoned zone. Bucharest is nothing but outskirts glommed together. This was once a lively neighborhood where three shifts of prolls crowded into the halls across the tracks. So it was strange to see it abandoned today. as if all those workers had flown away or disappeared under ground like zombies and were digging tunnels toward the paradise promised half a century ago. His own Da had died, not waiting for the Yankees but for the luminous Bolshevik future. And now this landscape: weeds house-high, indigo/ash, rubble, heaps of bricks, a whitewashed hut, a pole with a rag like a flag at the top and four empty apartment blocks. He divined the building’s presence from the puzzle pattern of their darkened windows. For the rest, the abyss and annihilating rain. You couldn’t see a step in front of your face. Meowing like a heart attack, a cat squirted out from under foot. The black grass stank of diesel. Drivers came here to wash their cars. A tram turned slooowly around a curve. He heard the screech of wheels on the tracks. After that, absolute silence. Still, he told himself, this must be the address.
Just then, a hideous apparition loomed, not more than a step away, head down, feet in the air, a fantastic animal, a spook, a kind of trapeze artist waiting for applause after a fatal handspring. He tried to think what it could be—a demolished statue, some idiot from an election poster, a monster from the deep? Though no one believed it, you always felt the Bucharest underground crawled with such figures, which couldn’t exist. Naum asked himself what the hell was he doing here. The blond was so sweet.
“Get down from there!” Naum tried out his super humor. “Having fun? You tied one on last night. Confess! A blond, I bet, and what with the lady and the beer…Cold beer, hot dame…not the other way ’round, pal. That it? Naum crouched down on his haunches to see if it was indeed a drunk in the final stages. It wasn’t. The thing looked more like someone invoking the spirits of the night. He felt an unpleasant thrill. Naum hadn’t believed in anything for a long time. He preferred to cross immortality stripped naked. Still he had faith in the pigeon droppings he found every day on the hood of his car parked in front of the flat block. Generally, they did not bode well.
Lights turned on at just that moment. God must have pulled the breaker. As soon they came on, Naum saw the rictus, but that must have been an hallucination. Then the whole whitish violet landscape poured in, then the realization of the mangled corpse—the head with scrawled-on cheeks like a clown’s. He felt like laughing, but no. His jaws clenched; his balls turned to glass. The streetlights that had blinded him momentarily suddenly went out. That was it. Someone was saying: Hey, Naum, alright already, show’s over, that’s it, chump. And then his heart was going, tic-tac, pit-palac, and all he could think was, I’m not alone here. The devil was spying on him through the dark, breathing his air.
“Show yourself! I’m Naum. I came as you asked me.”
Naum didn’t want to get into a twist.
A peal of laughter poured through the maidan. Where did it come from? Nowhere.
Naum still couldn’t believe he was playing in this movie. He didn’t believe in spooks or apparitions. When he thought he saw something unknown, he was to return fire with fire according to his military instruction, but he’d risked it and come unarmed. The sardonic laughter never ceased. It grew louder.
OK, so what if he were wet to the skin? He had a vision of Zizi’s tits. He should have brought her with him. They could have screwed by night in the rain. The back seat of his junker made a romantic decor. That cool nest had a way of multiplying the excitement. The presence of death was giving him pins and needles you know where. Great.
And then the behemoth showed itself: a creature projected on the façade of the building in front of him, 30 feet away. It began at the ground floor and towered nine stories, higher than the roof. How big was it? Naum thought it was a hologram, but he couldn’t be sure. What would he have used a gun for? Just to have it, for nothing? To be like something from a comic book? He had a passion for them, drawers overflowing with titles like The Fantastic Extraterrestrial, Vampire of Vengeance and The Angels’ Halloween.
A tram went by with the same lugubrious screech. Illuminated within, the cars spread the image of the mutilated body over the maidan. It hung there upside down, traversed by a stake of unplaned wood three meters long and thick as a fist, sharpened at the upper end. Unreal. A fake. I’m going crazy, Naum thought. Being an idiot’s not enough. He pinched his own cheeks to see if weren’t somehow back in bed with the blond and dreaming of the city, the rain and the night.
No. The stake had entered the poor man’s ass and come out of his left eye, which ran down his face like egg white. Ticu Naum’s legs went awry but his knees nearly buckled. The empty tram snaked through the roundabout, halted in the empty station. The motorman opened and closed the doors. Naum gazed in the distance with a palm shading his eyes. In front of him was a lengthy flat block with laundry on a line, storage balconies with jars of pickles, old cupboards, smokestacks sticking out of kitchen windows, TV antennas. The mad laughter ceased. It no longer filled the space between heaven and earth. Naum’s ears still rang. The apparition on the wall turned to a formless paste, metamorphosed into smoke and finally disappeared. A moment later, a light drew Naum’s eyes to the one building entrance were a bulb glowed. Below the canopy, a door slammed and a shadow disappeared inside. That was the assassin, sure as shooting. He’d called Naum an hour ago. And now this test, to see how he’d deal with an invitation to a ceremonial death.
Fear, nausea, isolation: alert to danger, he expected a glowing green monster covered with scales to leap out and swallow him whole. Booogy! He’d been watching too many horror flicks. That was clear. He looked at the impaled figure. It was as real as possible. It wasn’t a nightmare or a ghost. The victim—sex: M, age: around 70. Amazingly, there was still a bit of life left in him. Reading his timepiece’s second hand, Naum bent and took the man’s pulse. He was still wearing the watch Geta had given him at the Tribunal when their divorce was over. As she’d remarked at the time, she’d no need of him or his watch. Kiss kiss.
He put his ear to the victim’s lips—the deaf one, probably, because he couldn’t really understand what the dying man whispered. It was something like “the vampire.”
“What vampire, pop? From where? Tell me, who came to kill you? Who fixed you up this way? C’mon, tell me! Give me a name.”
The same syllables came out—VAM-PIRE—and then a death rattle from 180 pounds of raw meat, bones and fat with a horrified face, eyes straining from their sockets, jaw open to the max, blood flowing from nose and mouth.
“What were you doing among the have-nots? I bet you came for a dame. At your age, are you even still fucking? Yeah? So probably the local gangstas did you dirt—defending the hood’s honor while boosting your dough. Then you must’ve squealed too loud, which woke the whole neighborhood till the home boys jumped you up on the windowsill and told you to fly over the balconies like a paper dragon. Only you didn’t float. You fell and impaled yourself. That was it. Hallelujah! Koniec, Tovarasci. Show’s over. Clear the theater.” Naum’s teeth chattered. He bowed his head in a moment of silence. Old school as he was, death still impressed him. He hadn’t learned a thing in this life. Death was a crappy business, something purely statistical, without meaning. The Grim Reaper was, nevertheless watching him. She wasn’t indifferent to this character, Naum. She had him on her list.
Though looking at the butchered corpse was a battle between disgust and fear, he noticed the corpse was a well-dressed type: 1000 euro shoes, silk tie—cardinal red with navy dots. The first-class suit must have been poured onto his body: special order. Swell fabric. Don’t be a jealous idiot, he thought, but it was his job to eyeball the tycoon’s gold Rolex, which was no help saving his life because, hey, when it’s time to kick it, nothing saves you. And meanwhile the human left overs went on stinking expensively of real Havanas and classy aftershave. Then Naum noticed some casino chips on the ground in front of the corpse.
“That was your lucky night, pal. You wound up with a stake up your bung.”
No reply. The victim looked to have been a banker, a gentleman, a swell business man. And what else? Naum wondered. “Nothing, anymore, and anyhow he still bought it. He’s cold now with shit in his pants and blood in his mouth. Someone did him the honor of not letting him die in his bed or in the middle of a blow job at Pussy&Cash, home of the best fish-smackers in the city. They’ll say he died of a heart attack, given the trajectory of the stake.”
As long as he stayed in the area, Naum felt the killer’s presence. It was there all the time—the assassin’s breath and shadow—from the moment he got out of his car. An eyelash of light spread over the maidan. Rain, endless rain. A leaf torn from a diction pad was attached to the cadaver. Someone had scrawled W with a ballpoint pen. Naum met the glassy eyes in the corpse’s crumpled face. He felt like laughing. The murdered man still looked like a clown with lips and cheeks painted red. Naum began looking for I.D. , nevertheless, and found a wallet fallen in the mud. Not wanting to dirty himself, he lifted it with a handkerchief. And then he read: Eftimie Gogu.
“Oh, man, how come I didn’t recognize you” Naum groaned. The guy was filthy rich, up to his neck in mega business, Secu agent under the communists, a retired general, and Naum had seen him once before. Respectfully, he arranged Gogu’s suit, closed a button. It seemed right to say, “You’re cold, poor thing. What’s it like to die split on a stake? An unforgettable experience, no? I knew it. Gets to you sooner than whisky on the rocks
“General, sir, you’re stinking rich, a real big shot. You inspire fear. You’ve got everyone in your pocket, but, bad luck, you set out for hell on your lonesome. That’s the pits. No dames, no bodyguards, no dough. What’s the good? It’s called futility, General. Who did you piss off so badly? Go ahead, say it. Someone hates you to death if they’ve done this to you. C’mon tell me. How’s it in hell? Cool?”
A flock of birds whisked down from somewhere, floated over Naum’s shoulders, over the General’s stake, and settled in the air, flapping their wings. Menace. In the air. A hazard of several minutes. Long enough for the birds to let out a legion of sharp cries. Then the birds took over their prize, which they disputed with a gang of dogs that had been circling the corpse. Naum decided to beat it.
He. turned on his heel and dialed Emergency, 112. The dispatcher must have had wax in her ears. Maybe she could only hear sweet nothings. Naum had a second-rate phone that would have worked as a salt cellar, bought second hand, almost for free—like everything else he owned: his car, his jeans, even his ideas, if he were honest, and he often figured he must be a second-hand person himself, but meanwhile he was repeating his message a thousand times. The woman on the other end of the line was afraid he was pulling a stunt. Plenty of drunks called her at night and kept her on the line, and now Naum had called in this business of a guy impaled like in the days of Vlad Tsepesh.
“Hey, gorgeous, I bet you’re blond and too delicate for a tough job like this.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I have two kids.”
“And how’s the menopause working out for you?” Naum had a tendency to make bad jokes when standing around in the rain like a piece of shit. he risked never getting out of his present hell if the dame wouldn’t send a police squad. It wasn’t raining in that building where she was answering the phone. He asked her to notify Commissioner Arsene.
“Yeah,” she said, “and what else d’ya want?’ BAF: another phone slammed in his ear.
So he took the harmonica out of his back pocket. A conservative, he’d been wearing the same mangy Levis in all weathers, and he’d had the harmonica for fuckingever. His granfa, Vica Naum, had brought it back from Stalingrad. He’d got it off a German soldier who died of frostbite in the snow. Having surrendered, Vica wound up beyond the Urals. He still had the slide harmonica with him when he got back home, and though he never told Naum what he’d been through in Siberia, he taught Ticu to blow in it on summer evenings in front of the gates when he went out to play on the bench till late at night.