UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2012
Her husband had to look for a job in Spain so one day he, together with dozens of men like him, dressed in denim pants and thick padded coats, boarded a cheap bus to Madrid. Although Zina and he had fought in the evening, in the morning she gave him a little money before he left; she lied to him it was everything she had, then spoke about the debts he had left her. She had to live for a month on one hundred levs, she pointed out, and that was much less than the price of the ticket he’d paid for the bus to Madrid.
He’d left her a mountain of debts. Six friends of his knocked at the door of her apartment an hour after he left. The biggest of them, their neighbor Stoyan, declared she had to sell her fridge and her TV; he could not wait, he declared, he wanted his money back. He wouldn’t wait, not by a long chalk!
“I don’t have a penny,” Zina said. “I swear I’ve nothing.”
“No way,” Stoyan who was the heaviest among the bunch, said. “Prepare two hundred. I want it tomorrow. I’ll come.”
She had looked forward to the time she'd be alone in her apartment. She was going to have the time of her life; she'd be free from sour faces, her husband’s and her sons’, and their bitter fights over small change wouldn’t bother her any more.
It turned out Zina had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. She wondered what she’d do with her husband’s friends. She wouldn’t give them money. No way. Then another friend came declaring her husband owed them two grand, and she had to settle all accounts. It went without saying, they argued.
Her sons, too, went to look for a better life in Spain. They were like him: blabbermouths who never found decent jobs. Both were constantly broke so Zina hid all her money. She kept the banknotes stuck in old notebooks in her office. After her sons and her husband boarded the clanking bus for Cordoba, she heaved a sigh of relief.
Her bliss was short lived, though. Her neighbor Stoyan dropped by in the evening and repeated Zina’s husband owed him two hundred Euro.
“Come in a week and I’ll pay you,” Zina snapped.
It had been magnificent at home during the first week alone: the silence and the TV set took turns to entertain her and she could not get enough of it. Then suddenly the cold evenings and the winter winds annoyed her. She thought of her husband’s debts and the telephone made her feel jumpy.
Perhaps, she should ask somebody in for a chat, she thought. After a week of cleaning her house she had enough of her TV set. She bought a bottle of wine and drank half of it. Zina was a strong woman; unlike the empty gasbag, her husband, she saw no point in grumbling. She watched Stoyan, her neighbor, thinking of the two hundred bucks her husband owed him.
She had not quarreled with Stoyan, but she disliked him intensely: he and her husband used to be out boozing for hours every day. The man reminded her of the ramshackle Ford in her garage; she could never sell the boneshaker, rust and flat tires all over the place. In the evenings, Zina saw Stoyan leave the pub staggering on the way to his apartment, stray dogs trailing behind his back.
Zina had to talk to him, the sooner the better. She had calculated everything and there was no point in waiting any more.
Stoyan looked surprised when she saw Zina at the door of his flat. She stood there trying not to think of his greasy hair and soiled shirt.
"What do you want?" Stoyan asked. He didn’t even try to hitch up his pants: the saggy skin of his belly glistened like a muddy puddle in the dim light. She hated the musty smell in the narrow corridor, but she didn’t want to go back home and stare at the TV or at her sons' photographs. Their photographs on the wall seemed to try to cadge money off her.
"My husband asked me to take care of you while he's in Spain," she lied.
"What?" If he had shut up after that sharp "what" she could lived with it, but the man swore and hurled obscenities at her and Zina hated dirty words.
"I've cooked some potato soup."
"I don't want your potato soup," Stoyan said and was about to slam the door in her face. Then he remembered. “You owe me two hundred bucks,” he grunted.
Zina thought all men were the same: dirty blotches on the windowpane of her living room. Well, she could handle botches of any sort.
"I've got good plumb brandy," she said.
She had no good brandy at all; there was half a bottle of grapes swill her husband hadn’t drunk for she had hidden the booze in a box with a pair of old shoes. She’d have hidden the whole house from her husband if she’d had the chance.
"You are lying about the brandy," Stoyan said as he pushed her towards the front door, a hesitant stream of hope creeping into his voice all the same.
"It won't hurt you to come and check how it tastes," Zina said. “And my husband owes you two hundred bucks.”
She was sure he’d follow her if she descended the stairs to her apartment quickly enough before Stoyan could think things over. She would bet her life on it. He did. He trailed along after her, dragging his feet, his slippers slow and unenthusiastic. She did not like men in slippers. Zina wondered where she would bring him: not in her sitting room, no way. His smell could kill her flowers. The kitchen, yes; she'd take him to the kitchen.
She took out two old tumblers that she had tucked away in the closet. Stoyan didn't deserve a decent glass.
"Why are the glasses so small? I am not ill," the man said as he flopped down onto her couch. She had washed the bedcover two days ago, and the greasy stains on his pants made her sick.
"Give me that one," he added, his thick forefinger pointing at the only glass on the table, the one from which she had drunk milk in the morning.
Unwillingly, she gave him the glass and produced the bottle of brandy. In fact it was a not a bottle. A huge flagon, that was what the thing was, rather dusty and filthy looking at that. It was her husband’s. Stoyan reached out across the table for it.
"Wait!" Zina said her tone of voice poisonous as if she was talking to her husband. Stoyan rose from the couch, his pants slipping down the brown pool of his naked skin. She got scared he might get angry so she hurriedly poured some brandy into his glass. Stoyan snatched at it.
"Give me an appetizer, now" he said. "You lied to me about the brandy. It's rotten."
"I don't have any appetizer," Zina snapped. She calculated that if he went on boozing like that she'd soon have to face an empty flagon. She was mad at herself; she had to hide some of the booze in advance.
"Give me something to eat," Stoyan said stretching his legs. Before she could cut a slice of bread for him, Stoyan grabbed at the loaf, tore a big chunk of it and gobbled it down. She stiffened, unable to conceal her disgust, then tore a little piece of bread and chewed at it slowly, deliberating. She had some cheese in her fridge, of course, but no, no cheese for that slob. Anyway, she could produce some appetizer after all. She opened the fridge and took out a jar of small peppers, green like snakes, so hot they could kill a whole town. She took a pepper out of the jar and pretended she was nibbling at it. Stoyan caught hold of the knife, tried to stick it into a pepper, failed, and thrust thumb and forefinger into the jar. She poured more brandy in his glass--stingy, grudging drops of bad brandy. The man snatched the flagon, filled his glass to the brim then gulped it down, watching her closely. After awhile, he bit off another chunk from the loaf, tried to chew it and choked on it.
Zina made up her mind. It was about time; she wouldn't let him swill down all her brandy. She reached out her hand and touched the spot where a patch of his brown skin gleamed: hard skin, pierced by a wiry black hairs.
"What the hell are you doing?" the man snarled, but she paid no attention to his gruff voice. The elastic of his underpants hung loose at places, torn from the cloth. Zina would not let her husband put on such lousy underpants. Not upon her life. Then a singeing thought crossed her mind; she had already lost half a flagon of brandy. That sobered her.
"I fell for you years ago," she told the man. That was a bare-faced lie and it made her uneasy. She took the glass from Stoyan and poured the rest of the dreggy brandy into her mouth. It tasted horrible. His skin, like sand paper under her fingers, felt itchy. She filled another glass for him, but did not let him have the booze all to himself. She was smarter than that. "I fell for you, and I’m glad my husband’s gone." she said.
He gaped at her, spilling some of his brandy on the floor.
"I. . . I am friends with… with your husband. . ." Stoyan mumbled.
"My husband owes you money," Zina said.
He shut up and the silence encouraged her.
"Sit down," she ordered him, not for a split second forgetting about the rusty buckle of his belt she disliked the minute she saw it. She had the feeling there was so much dust in the folds of his skin that if she threw some seeds of a weed, the weed would strike roots right then and there on his protruding belly. The man muttered a word, but Zina paid no attention.
"You'll be all right," she said, calculating it was about time she poured more brandy for him. She tried not to look at his skin. Love had always happened easily with her. It was enough not to look at his face and belly while the weeds struck roots there. She slithered up and down, up and down him and it felt all right. It almost always did.
"You are g. . . g. . .great. . ." Stoyan breathed.
She couldn't care less how great she was.
"Don't breathe in my face," she said.
The big man, his skin hard as sheet iron, tried to sit up. She stopped him and looked him in the face.
"My husband is your friend, isn't he?"
"Yes," he said.
"He's your friend and I take care of you," Zina said.
"But. . ."
She hated men who said "but."
“I hate men who say “but,” she said.
"Look here,” Stoyan said. “Maybe you don’t have to pay me back one hundred bucks," he said.
She thought she’d need a pen soon. When her husband was at home, she made a detailed list of groceries that he had to buy from the supermarket. She wanted to be sure she had a similar list for Stoyan. Perhaps at a certain point she could make him go to the supermarket for her.
“If you give me the same thing one more time,” Stoyan said, “You won’t have to pay me back anything.”
It was cold in the kitchen and her eyes examined the greasy patches on his pants.
“I’ve already paid you all my husband owes you,” she said. “Get up. Now.”
“It was great,” he mumbled.
She looked at his face, white and puffy, and she examined the floor of her kitchen that had been clean before Stoyan mucked it up.
“I paid you back all my husband owed you,” she said. “Short reckonings make long friends. Go away now.”
Zina hated men who said “but.” She disliked his skin and his smell. A thought crossed her mind.
There were so many other friends her husband owed money to.Zdravka Evtimova's latest short story collection "Carts and Other Stories" was published by Fomite Publishing, Vermont, USA, 2012.
Her short stories have been published in a number of countries in the world including USA(Massachusetts Review, New Sudden Fiction, Antioch review etc),Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, etc
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