Ștefan goes to see the pups out of curiosity, driven by his love for animals. He feeds the strays on the streets of Brăila daily, sometimes gives them bites out of his own sandwich, in the evenings he watches Animal Planet, but he knows he is too busy to care for a dog. Too busy driving his taxi from dawn till night in order to pay his daughter’s rent money. His daughter lives in Bucharest, in an “overpriced studio flat”, and his daughter’s solicitor’s salary is hardly enough to pay for food or the coffee she needs to keep her going.
He works harder now than he did during the ‘80s; there is no rest and he expects none. On many occasions, with the taxi lights off, he receives a call on his mobile. Back he goes to lend a hand to the old fisherman, to help another man sort out the mess in his garage or carry the litres of wine a neighbour lugs from the country. Ștefan smiles a lot, laughs at every joke – that’s what his clients love about him. Makes him stand out from the hundreds of other taxi drivers who stand smoking cigarettes at the side of the road, most of whom are former engineers.
Before ‘90, Ștefan was flying all over the country, staying in expensive hotels and preaching the new word of God (high impact tractors and agricultural equipment). When he didn’t feel like staying the extra days in a posh hotel he’d fly home and rest. In ‘92 the factories got sold off. Even the panes of glass from factory windows were flogged for no money to the Turks or Bulgarians.
He stands in front of the wooden box, his cap to one side, drinking from a large glass of țuica – he doesn’t like țuica, doesn’t like it burning through his insides, but it’s impossible to say no. Stănescu, a banker, his friend and client, pulls the lid off the wooden box. Inside, three German Shepherd pups whine, perplexed by the light. One of the pups is sick, head down staring at its own puke. The pup’s front paws appear to be slipping. Nevertheless, Ștefan picks up a healthier one, sits down on the sofa and places the pup on his knee. The healthy pup balances well on Ștefan’s knee but it shivers from fear (can’t be from cold it’s the middle of summer). He strokes the pup’s head and plays with her ears.
“How old is she?” he asks.
“Three months,” says Stănescu. “I’ll sell her to you for two million. Come on, it’s cheap for a pure breed. You can see the mother if you want, she’s out back.”
Ștefan shakes his head, glances over to the box, to the sick pup in there, and reaches for his wallet. The banker pushes the lid over the box and slides it under the sofa. Ștefan takes the pup under his arm, goes to his car and places the pup on the passenger seat. He drives faster than usual to reach home, before nosy neighbours or clients start asking questions, runs up to the second floor and, once indoors, lets the pup loose on the floor. Fetiţa (he’s named it already) finds her bearings and begins to sniff around the shoes in the corridor.
When his wife gets in, Ștefan is in the kitchen drinking beer, Fetiţa on the kitchen table, asleep.
“What is this?”
“Don’t. I spoke to Stănescu about it. This dog is a pure breed. Look at it – it’s wonderful.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Pure German Shepherd.”
His wife sighs and sits down at the table. She works as a nurse – long, exhausting shifts. Now this.
“Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.” He drinks from his beer. “Fetiţa will learn. Will adapt.”
“Why is it on the table? On the kitchen table.”
“I wanted to watch her sleeping.”
“But you can watch me sleeping every night – is that not enough for you?”
She goes to grab Fetiţa but he pushes her arm away. “Ioana, don’t wake her up. We can eat in the living room.”
She sighs, “I guess it is a sweet thing. Hairy, though. Couldn’t you find one with no hair?”
In the living room, they tuck into a portion of sarmale (they’ve been eating from the sarmale pot for the past week, dripping cream onto the vine leaves, forking rice and meat into their mouths, dipping bread in sauce). It feels strange eating in the living room – happens only when friends come to visit and friends have mostly left now for jobs in Italy or Spain.
“I’ve been thinking,” says Ștefan, “about Ana.”
“She called today. Couldn’t get hold of you. You were too busy playing with dogs. She told me she went shopping for that blue dress, you remember…”
He tries to listen but hears only a few words – “dress”, “money”, “too big” – in one of his trips abroad, in Poland, he was his own man –
the cigarettes in the trunk of his Dacia, piled up cartons of shiny red Marlboro,
the jeans he bought in Warsaw and sold in Brăila, half the men round town wearing Lee,
the women he slept with,
the women in jeans that his wife didn’t know about. Sweaty nights in Warsaw.
“…is that right?”
“I don’t know.” He feels the top of his head, the tender flesh exposed by thinning hair. “I’ve been thinking about Ana and where she is in life, her salary – the same as a cleaner’s. The girl has no savings. Spends her life dealing with rich criminals.” He tries to fork something off his plate, but his plate’s empty except for dabs of sauce. “I think we should buy her a flat in Bucharest, for some kind of stability you know? Not in the centre, God no, but Rahova, somewhere like that, not too rough.”
“How much is your father’s land worth?”
Ștefan looks at his wife. “It’s worth a bottle of țuica and a clip round the ear.” He cleans the plate with bread. “You know, we can’t afford it, even if I were to work twenty-four hours a day. Even if I asked the priest for a loan.”
“Let’s sell this place,” says his wife, and he’s glad he didn’t have to say it.
He crosses the Danube on the ferry on his weekly trip to help the old fisherman. There’s a wind about – the summer’s over.
During work, Petru, the old fisherman, likes to talk. It’s hard to understand exactly what he’s talking about. When Petru finishes work, he goes home, in Smârdan, and sits in the chair in his garden. He has no wife, kids or animals.
“Do you know Crina? Crina Bărlădeanu? Crina – she wears a green coat…”
“No, I don’t know her,” says Ștefan.
“You should go see her, son,” says the old fisherman, lifting one end of the net full of carp.
“Why?” asks Ștefan, lifting the other end, trying to push the damn net into the boot of his car.
“You should go see her… wears a green coat…”
“I know,” says Ștefan, wiping the sweat off his moustache. “You’ve said that. But why?”
“She’s selling her house – it’s not much, not for you townsfolk, but it’s something. It’s something to have a roof over your head – I don’t know where you’ll be sleeping once you sell your home, on the streets, where, I don’t know.”
Ștefan gets in his car and drives two minutes to the fisherman’s house. He stares at it and feels a sadness in his heart at the bent roof, the crumbling walls, the half-missing porch. He thinks this is a house no one has torn down yet. At the side of the house there is a small room – the fridge room. He leaves the fish in there. But fish or no fish, he has forgotten to ask where the old woman lives.
Fetiţa is well behaved (the neighbours haven’t complained and the furniture is still in one piece). He picks her up and hugs her close. Lets her lick his face. She is a beautiful dog with a coat so fine it looks like it never needs washing. Her ears are antennas to the world, her eyes a way of fixing on to it and not letting go. Soon, he thinks, you’ll have your own garden, you’ll have the river close-by. He lets her go back on the floor, to sniff his legs. She’s growing all right, her head mostly. Her legs are still quite short, which makes him wonder whether Fetiţa is pure breed as was said. Stănescu is, after all, a banker – born to lie. In the kitchen, he finds a chicken leg from the night before, turns it round, doesn’t fancy it and gives it to Fetiţa. He has palpitations, can’t stay in one place – it’s so cheap!
When his wife comes in, he dashes to meet her at the door, takes her coat and shoes off and leads her to the kitchen.
“Sit down,” he says but doesn’t wait for her to sit, “I found a house.”
“In Smârdan. I spoke to an old lady who told me she’s moving in with her son and she’s selling her house.”
“Smârdan! You need to cross the river every time you want to go there.”
“It’s not perfect, but listen. The price is unbelievable. One hundred million. It has five rooms.”
His wife readjusts her hair band. “One hundred million.”
“You can’t buy a toilet in Bucharest for that price. We need to buy this house. We can modernise it, in time.”
His wife sighs, “We don’t have a choice do we?”
The next day, they go to see the house. On the ferry, Ioana doesn’t see the beauty of the light reflecting off the water. She sees the dirty water splashing on deck, the mud underfoot. In Smârdan, the first thing Ioana notices is the run-down bar, with its broken window and doorless entrance, and exclaims, “Câcat! Look at that place!” She very rarely uses the word “câcat”. Smârdan has one street – the one leaving it. The rest is an attempt to dodge carts, stray dogs and potholes and Ioana greets every bump with a groan; every shudder makes her bones rattle.
“Here it is!” exclaims Ștefan as the car pulls into a stretch of mud.
Ioana goes to the back of the house to the so-called garden, marches up and down in disgust on the mounds of earth and pitiful spots of grass. When inside she eyes up the kitchen, which is too small with no space for a table. Next to the kitchen is the bedroom with space enough for a bed. She is thankful there is an indoor toilet and the taps work but she hates the wasted room at the side of the house – with all the old crap the old woman left in there – everything her husband had collected over the years, irons, radios, fishing rods, useless old crap. Ioana glares at Ștefan, who is rummaging through the useless old crap.
“You see this?” He holds up a black phone, a Communist relic. “I haven’t seen one of these in twenty years!”
They move with the help of friends, making several journeys with furniture, books, cooking utensils. Once they move they find to their delight that the village neighbours are friendlier than their town counterparts, willing to not only help them move in but to start working on the roof or the floor or the garden. Fetiţa is in her element in the chaos, barking and snapping at the countless people entering and leaving. She is aggressive when she has to be. If a stranger dares reach over the gate, Fetiţa pulls on her chain and leaps. Man, woman or child, doesn’t matter. Her strong bark alerts Ștefan and his wife. Fetiţa has developed a love for barking, though, and several times Ștefan’s found himself standing outside dumbfounded, nothing unusual in sight. But it’s not so bad – he gets to stretch his limbs and stare out at the Danube and think how lucky he is to have two working hands and a brain.
One of Ștefan’s favourite things is to drive into the woods, or the nearby hills of Măcin, and leave the car somewhere. There he stops, no matter what the weather, blustery, ferocious, warm; stops and smokes his cigar. He buys a cigar every now and then and stores them for such an occasion.
“Where have you been, you stink of smoke,” says his wife, turning her head away from a kiss. “I told you not to smoke those things.”
“Have you heard from Ana at all?” he asks, smoothing his moustache.
“Nothing. She must be busy moving her things.”
“You think she’s happy?”
“Of course she’s happy! What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know,” says Ștefan. “Kids these days. They don’t say whether they’re happy or not.”
On one side, the blocks of flats of Brăila. On the other side, the poor houses of Smârdan. From the boat, Ștefan can see both sides. But he prefers neither. Instead, he is drawn to water, the way waves purify his thoughts. He rubs his hands together, glances at the bucket. Nothing. Soon it will be too cold for fishing.
The porch is stuck. He’s been working on it for days, trying to sandpaper the wood, the decrepit old wood that has outgrown its use. It’s dark, no light inside. The ground, cracks beneath his feet. Ștefan notices Fetiţa, lying on her side. She’s resting, tired from all the barking as we all are, sometimes, tired of all the barking. Soon, Fetiţa will have the back garden to run around in.
Ștefan sees her chest not moving, not going the way it should be, not rising, not falling, not following the laws, not doing what you learn from when you’re a baby – to observe whether an animal has life. He gets closer to her, removes his cap; it drops to the ground. Somewhere. It’s cold. Maybe she’s frozen to death. Maybe she’s swallowed her tongue. Closer, bends over to see. There she is. Fetiţa without breath. Digs his nails into his fingers. Touches her stomach, her chest. Her back. He strokes the perfect hair on her back. Her head – scratches her head and her ears the way she likes it the way she liked it – this is what they learn in science, to look at things in terms of flesh and bone and blood.
Found some slices of pork to chew on. Chew the damn meat. Through the window, Fetiţa on her side. The black river beyond. The pork is off, his tongue stiff. A chewy, tasteless, pointless bit of pork. Under his ribs, the stabbing pain there. What do you do with a dead dog? Where do you put it?
Maybe his daughter will ring to fill up the silence. Maybe she will thank him. Ha, maybe he won the lottery and flushed the ticket down the toilet.
The bare kitchen window. Net curtains in the wash.
He watches a chat show. Does appearance matter? Change. Two perfect Americans discuss their imperfect relationship. Change. Lions stretch and yawn. Change. Car crash news – the faces of the stubbly presenter and the failed model presenter show nothing – three young men dead. Ștefan hits mute, prefers to stare at the cars flipped over on the road, in the snow, the policeman next to the cars giving an interview, probably saying very little but enough to keep the gossip going – the young men were drunk, the brakes stopped working, they didn’t see the expensive foreign (stolen) car coming towards them at a hundred and forty kilometres an hour.
Where is Ioana? She’ll come and find the dead dog. She’ll ask what happened but she won’t cry. She wasn’t attached to Fetiţa. Didn’t really care whether Fetiţa was here or drowning in the Danube.
Stands in the kitchen. Moonlight reflects off the window. It is late or very early. Ioana hasn’t come home, hasn’t called either (his mobile, blank), doesn‘t see this as home. Fetiţa, outside. Why death, why not life?
He takes logs from the garden, two green, four brown. Carries them in a basket to the front. Lays the logs on the ground. Fetiţa, in his arms – drops her down. From the room on the side, brings some of the old man’s hoarded treasure, including several issues of Scînteia, the Communist Party favourite. Lays it near Fetiţa. Takes the matches out of his pocket. Lights up first time.