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By Zdravka Evtimova
Winter was wild this year.
The sky was full of snow and wind, the trees in front of the café looked like stubbly old men in the white air; it was cold in the narrow room overlooking the Struma River that flowed tired, grumbling to the rocks and the empty plastic bottles floating in the water. Petko slept by her side, bent double, his skin whiter than the stubbly trees against the January sky. She lived in the café, in the backroom overlooking the Struma River; in fact she lived almost in the river like the guys who serviced the big truck, which collected the garbage in the Main Street. They drank her coffee, their unshaved dark faces turned to her, their black eyes pushing under her old blue apron.
"I'll buy you a silver ring," the shortest of them often said, but Viah knew he didn't have money, none of the three guys had money; yet they looked at her as if they could buy her the white sky, the blocks of flats, the small park covered with dirty snow, and clacked-out wrecks parked along the asphalt road. She had rented the café and had named it 'Viah Café' after her. It was the favorite haunt of the men who collected the garbage, of the guys from the slate quarry and the ones from the slaughterhouse. They all brought their smells with them - slaughtered animals, explosives and gunpowder, occasionally garbage-- and they brought their eyes, too.
She always had someone: the strongest one, the one who had slaughtered most animals, otherwise that man simply wasn't invited to the backroom that was her home by the Struma River. Now he who slaughtered the most barren cows and most swine, slept by her side with his white skin that sparkled quietly by her brown body. He held her in his dreams as he slept, scared she might run away. That man's name was Gogo, but the guys called him Blood, for after he had several glasses of brandy he smashed everything and everyone that came his way. His nose had been broken several times and the guys who happened to quarrel with him during his drunken sprees quickly left Viah Cafe for good. In the evenings he looked at Viah as if he could buy her the Struma River from its source; and if she didn't invite him to the backroom where she lived behind the coffee machine, the cups and the glasses, he would waylay her at the threshold, drunk and mad.
In the weekdays, he stopped her in the café to sniff her blue apron, "You smell sweet," he said, but that could hardly be true since cigarette smoke crept up to the ceiling and the room was thick with suspicious odors of boots, wet coats and what not. The men watched him smell the collar of her apron and didn't dare to utter a sound, just bent over the glasses of their cheap brandy, their eyes buying Viah every drop of the Struma River-- from its source to the Aegean Sea. Whenever Gogo showed up in the café, were it at noon, at daybreak, at 2 AM, Viah went right away to that cold bed in the backroom, which was full of vodka and big demijohns of brandy. Once Blood entered the narrow room he became quiet and tractable like Sami, the scraggy pooch Viah adopted out of pity for his broken hind leg. She didn't get angry on account of Blood's shirt that smelled of slaughtered lambs and of all the freezing women who washed the floors of the slaughterhouse with cold water.
Neither did she waste time in untying the laces of his shoes, enormous like boats. She led him right to the low chest of drawers where she kept the boxes of waffles, then she kissed him till she left him perfectly mousy and powerless in his unbelievably white skin.
"I'll buy you a gold bracelet" he whispered choking, wheezing, but Viah knew he was broke. Blood gave her all his money and she bought cheap brandy for the men who drank it in the café.
Viah preferred not to think of the bad brandy while she listened to his happy voice that lied to her he'd buy her a gold bracelet. He could still speak and therefore he had strength left. Actually, Gogo was an exceptionally strong man and even the slaughterhouse could not drain his brawn, so she again led him to the low chest of drawers. Everything in that room belonged to him including the said chest of drawers on which she loved him until nothing but obedient pearly skin remained from the man: happy skin that smiled at her with all its pores. Even at noon when the men who collected the garbage ordered French fries and fried chicken livers, Gogo waited for her in the backroom, glowing like an ember; she came in and stayed until he forgot his native Bulgarian language and his skin could no longer love her.
Several times the chicken livers turned into coals in the pan, and the whole café appeared to have suffered a chicken arson attack. The dustmen learned to take chicken livers out of the fridge, then fried and ate them underdone as they listened to the sounds coming from Viah's backroom.
"Come with me to Italy," Gogo asked her once. He would gladly leave his translucent skin on the chest of drawers with hers, but he had made arrangements to go to Calabria, Italy: there were so many olive trees there; you picked olives all day and the Italians, who were frog-eaters as he had heard, paid you handsomely. But how could he go to Calabria when Viah waited for him in the café, Viah, who was never tired, who gave him peace and quiet? He had stopped drinking since she took him for the first time on top of the chest of drawers that held the vodka bottles. He didn't get into fights any more for if he got slashed he would have to go to the hospital to have his wounds patched up, and that would mean he'd lose a precious day without her.
"Won't you start for Italy?" She asked him day in day out. "You'll miss the season of olives."
He simply could not go; glowing like embers, she was like food for him. He'd be starving without her. Viah looked thoughtfully at his white skin, at his face that was a most ordinary stubbly face.
She had watched another white face before his, an almost beardless face of another man, who slept at exactly the same place in the bed by the wall. Strange, Viah was afraid of walls, of closed elevators, that stopped in between floors, so men always slept next to the wall.
"You have to leave for Calabria tomorrow," she urged Gogo admiring his beautiful skin. He woke up, said to her 'come on' and she came on making what he wanted then she repeated, "You have to leave for Italy tomorrow."
While making love she thought of the brandy in the big demijohns. Or she rather thought of an old man she knew. The old man was the beardless guy's father; the brandy belonged to the beardless guy, and the old man brought it for Viah to sell in the café.
The beardless guy picked either olives or something else in Spain. In the evening he often called her on her mobile and assured her he'd make enough money to buy her a dress with a collar of gold; he told her he counted the days that separated him from her and her narrow room. He was the brandy man. The guys who collected the garbage, the men from the slaughterhouse and the workers from the slate quarry respected him for Viah Café belonged to him as well. His father brewed brandy, allegedly out of plums, but what plums could anyone brag about, for God's sake, when the trees in his orchard had withered long time ago and the very same Gypsies who collected the garbage had hewn trees and bushes, chopped them into splinters and burnt them to warm their houses?
The old man put various sorts of stuff into the brandy, simmered it gently for hours, mixed sloes, haws and damsons, and perhaps he cursed it a lot, for his concoction tasted like death. The geezer moved quietly like a grass snake: he crawled up and down the hills of Barren Ridge for miles and miles to find a damson tree. The sun had baked his skin, winds from Greece scorched him and rains from Macedonia drenched him. He dragged an enormous sack into which he thrust wild pears, damsons, rose hips for his brandy thinking how he'd bring it to Viah. He came early in the day, twice a week, silent like soot, and she recognized him by the smell of wild fruits and berries. She liked that smell. Men smelled, but if they were real men she could come to terms with them.
She said she liked the old man's rubber boots, although she paid almost no attention to his brown woolen jacket in which he regularly dressed himself up for her. Viah didn't mind that he had tried to kill the odor of rotten pairs of boots by pouring a bucketful of cheap eau-de-Cologne over his face and hands.
All the times, she kissed him gently. She did not leave him alone until his thin face appeared golden with happiness; in fact, his face glowed white on account of his toothy smile. Most of the old man's teeth were still in his mouth, yet he had lost a few on different occasions. If he can smile, he can hold on a minute, Viah thought and kissed him ignoring his brand new shirt and his woolen jacket he had put on especially for her. At that time, she did not think about the enormous demijohns of brandy he made out of cornels, haws, damsons and what not. She admired him. She did not let the old man sleep to his heart's content next to the wall, though she truly respected him. He did so well for his age.
Almost every time, she gently took him out of the narrow room and asked him to get into his old
bone-shaker, with which he arrived at her place. There the old man slept, his head propped against the rusty steering wheel, his woolen jacket thrown over his shoulders to keep him warm. Viah always wrapped him up, left a bottle of wild brandy for him and thrust a loaf of bread and two nickel coins into his paper bag.
Then the place next to wall in her bed was free for Gogo.
"You had to leave for Calabria, yes you have to. There are heaps of olives to pick there. The biggest olives in the world grow in Calabria. Go there quick, or other guys will pluck them all."
"You come with me and I'll start packing right away," Gogo said.
"Come off it," Viah answered absent-mindedly, thinking of Radomir, the smooth-faced beardless guy. He was the only son of the old man who made the wild fruit brandy.
Radomir was soon to return from Spain, and he had built Viah Café. He called her in the dead of night to tell her that the raindrops were as big as walnuts in Spain, the winds reached his bowels and drove him crazy, in general, he said, it felt nasty in Spain because Viah was not there. The Spanish women were so short and squat. Night in, night out, Radomir told Viah he felt she was close to him, and he spent the money he had earned on telephone bills. Viah listened to what he was going to do to her when he came back and smiled at the demijohns. He said he was fed up with the rain and the Spanish olives he had to pick. He asked her if his father brought her wild berry brandy twice a week, as they had agreed, and wanted to know whether the jerks from the slaughterhouse annoyed her.
"Everything is OK," Viah answered. "Yes, yes."
She was waiting for him. She had even bought a new pillowcase for his pillow, which waited for him, too. He had to stay a little more in Spain, though: with the Spanish women who were not short and squat at all.
All the electrons in the air gathered in Radomir's voice and cried out that Viah was the greatest Spanish woman he knew, the tallest and the prettiest Spanish woman, although she was Bulgarian by birth. The girls he happened to meet in Spain were fools. Then he promised miserably he'd endure one more week in the Spanish rain, buried in foul olives, thinking of his new and clean pillowcase. Viah and he could paint the town red when he came back, Radomir said, but most probably they wouldn't do that; for when he was drunk, he couldn't feel her, the touch of her skin. All right, all right, Viah answered him as she served the unshaven garbage collectors their brandies and sensed their eyes on her blouse. They looked at her as if they could buy her the Struma River, the whole town with the expensive shoe shops, although they didn't have a cent in their pockets. Stay in Spain one week more, she thought to herself.
"You have to leave for Italy," she told Gogo softly. He had gathered himself up within an hour and asked her to come on again, and she was about to, but then she suddenly thought she could not accommodate both Spain and Italy on the same clean pillowcase. She was sure that the season of the olives could not go on for ever, she could not tell the old man every time that on the following Thursday they'd get into his bone-shaker and spend the night on Barren Ridge under stars as tiny as moths.
She loved Radomir, she loved Gogo and she loved the old wild brandy man.
Sometimes she thought she should leave the café and say good bye to the guys who collected the garbage. She could rent another café, a little warm hole, far away from the Struma River, from the bearded snowy willows, the dark eyes that she liked better than any brandy under the sun. She'd sure find another cheap backwoods café. Maybe the whole country was a warm, cheap café; maybe she, too, was the only warm café for men who were to leave for Spain to pick olives or make houses for the Spanish women.
She knew she should go away but she loved Radomir, she loved Gogo, and she loved the old wild brandy man so much.
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Document last modified on: 12/09/2006