(Excerpt #13 from The Ultimate Patient)
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. This is the second part of the excerpt entitled At the Black Sea. The third and final part will be posted next Monday. Olga and Kostea are main characters in the book. Toddy is their son. Ina is Olga’s mother and Toddy’s grandmother. The year is 1957.
Sunday morning the Party coordinator surprised everyone with the announcement of an exciting special event. He had invited an illusionist and the regular daily schedule would be interrupted with an afternoon show of magic and fun. Readings about Lenin were magical also, yet variety, why not admit it, was the true spice of life.
The children were instructed to address the illusionist ‘Comrade Magician’. His real name was Jean Iamandi.
Kostea had arrived the night before, and that morning he took Toddy on a two-mile walk on the beach to the stone jetty in front of the former Eforie casino. “As Dr. Zaharia said, walking, like swimming, contributes to the harmonious development of growing boys,” he joked with Olga before they left. Unlike Olga he wasn’t worried about Dr. Zaharia’s insensitive comments. It seemed Toddy wasn’t worried either, running ahead of him like a pup, jumping over the waves, splashing and picking up polished stones to throw into the sea.
In front of the old casino they watched the local boys fishing from the huge rocks that lined the jetty. For a few coins, one of them sold Kostea a dozen shiny, black gobies strung through their gills on a line with a stick at the end.
“They taste best grilled,” the boy suggested.
Back at the camp, they found the children more animated than ever. Their beach time was over and they were going inside shouting and pushing each other, while the educators tried to split them into groups of ten. The magician’s truck was parked near the loading dock.
“He came early,” one kid yelled at Toddy, jumping up and down.
“We’re going to see his animals,” another one said.
Olga wrapped the fish in brown paper and placed them in the icebox. They usually kept milk there, butter and cheese.
“I’ll go get some more ice from the kitchen,” she said.
“I want to look at the animals,” Toddy pleaded.
“I’m coming with you,” Ina said looking at Kostea askance.
Two metal cages, a smaller one with white doves, and a larger one with one black and four white rabbits sat on the kitchen floor. One group at a time the children came through to admire the animals. The youngest kids received carrots to feed the rabbits and sunflower seeds for the birds. The cooks, who were preparing lunch, stood guard in front of the hot ovens to ensure everybody was safe.
Toddy wasn’t impressed. He had seen the circus menagerie in Bistrița and by comparison this was lame. He looked at the cages for a few seconds and told Olga he’d wait in the dining room. Ina came with him.
A man they didn’t know sat alone at a table sipping coffee. When Olga appeared, the man got up. He was slender and not very tall. His black hair was slicked back and longer behind his ears.
“Dr. Olga Bardu?” he asked.
“I was hoping to run into you. I’m Jean Iamandi.”
“Nice to meet you,” Olga answered and when they shook hands it was clear they were of the same height..
Toddy and Ina waited a few paces behind.
“Maybe you’ve heard this, Doctor, but your reputation precedes you,” Iamandi continued smiling broadly. “I live in Constanța and people there are speaking of you.”
“Oh?” Olga exclaimed.
“Yes, “he said, “as of a beautiful woman, and they’re right on.”
“I was hoping it was my professional conduct, not my looks,” Olga said modestly. In her left hand, the ice dripped on the floor.
“That too,” Iamandi responded quickly. His eyes darted from side to side and fell on Ina and Toddy. “And you must be her mother, Ina Boldur, and her son, Alexander. What a handsome family you have.”
Clearly Ina was taken aback. “Hello,” she said.
Iamandi turned his attention back to Olga. “I admire your dedication to children, and I share it with you,” he said. “That’s why I’m here early, to meet all of you. Doctor, I know just how difficult your work can be, how monotonous, week after week. You might think you’re alone in this beautiful, sunny place by the sea, but you’re not. Don’t misunderstand me, please, and don’t take this the wrong way, but if at any moment you feel like you would like to break away for a couple of hours, give me a sign. Constanța, our largest port city, has so much to offer — restaurants, parks. I’ll leave you my phone number and if you call, I’ll come and pick you up in my car.”
“You mean your truck, Mr. Iamandi,” Ina specified acridly, recovered from her surprise.
“Jean. Please call me Jean.” Iamandi smiled broadly. “My truck is very comfortable. Doctor, you will see. But I understand your husband is waiting, and your ice is making a puddle at your feet. Go now, and promise you’ll think about it. All right?”
“We’ll see,” Olga said.
“Like hell you will,” Ina mumbled as soon as they left the dining room. “I didn’t like him at all, and how did he know my name?”
“He’s a magician,” Olga replied.
“You kept talking to him.”
“I was being polite.”
“I liked him,” Toddy said.
After lunch, while the children were napping, Kostea ran into Iamandi in the dining room. They introduced themselves to each other and spoke for a few minuets.
“I was going to the beach,” Kostea said.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Iamandi asked. “I have about an hour to kill.”
Outside they ran into Dr. Zaharia who had just ended his swim. Dripping wet, he shook hands with the two men. Kostea dropped his shorts and his checkered shirt on the sand.
Iamandi made a face. “I don’t have my swimming trunks.”
“Then let’s go for a short walk,” Dr. Zaharia suggested.
Iamandi nodded, took off his shoes and his socks and folded up the hem of his pants to below his knees.
“If we go this way, we’ll have a nice surprise,” Dr. Zaharia said, starting in the opposite direction than Kostea had followed that morning.
“The nudists?” Kostea asked.
“It’s actually like a spa,” Kostea explained, not clear for whose benefit. “The mud from the sound is believed to have medicinal benefits, and people cover their bodies in it and lay naked on the beach. They say it helps with rheumatoid arthritis and the like. I’ll give it to you, it looks strange.”
“I would say it looks sexy,” Iamandi said.
“Nanu, how long has it been since you’ve seen your wife?” Kostea asked.
The men laughed.
“It’s not that,” Dr. Zaharia said.
“Then what is it?”
“I just like beautiful bodies, female bodies, that is. Kostea, I’m sure you understand.”
Kostea nodded. The two of them had been on a first name basis since weeks before.
“Who doesn’t?” Iamandi asked.
“Comrade Iamandi, I see naked bodies all the time,” Kostea said. “Being a doctor, it is part of the job.”
“Call me Jean,” Iamandi said.
“Jean,” Kostea said.
“I’m a doctor, too,” Dr. Zaharia said. “I look at the patients’ bodies I examine at the clinic and the women on the beach very differently. Here they keep it respectable as well: they have a section for men, and one for women separated by a tall fence, and then there is another section for couples. But there is no gate check or restricted entry, and anybody can pass by.”
“I don’t think we should gawk,” Kostea said.
“Why waste the opportunity to look at beautiful naked women?” Iamandi grinned and took off his shirt. His chest was milk white.
They noticed the first naked couple and kept walking trying not to stare in an obvious way. The woman was on her stomach. She was young. If she previously had had mud on her body, she must have washed it off in the sea. As they walked by, she half raised herself on her elbows. The skin on her buttocks and breasts was whiter than the rest, obviously from sunbathing in a bikini. Strangely, the man waved. His elbows and knees were covered in mud.
They reached the men’s section. Most were serious and preoccupied to smear the mud on their wrists, elbows, hips and knees, forming large brownish-grey stripes on their bodies. Huddled together, they wanted to be done and get out. They looked past each other and didn’t talk. One guy read a newspaper, and in a far corner, two naked men played ball.
In the next section, there were about a dozen women, completely covered in mud, standing with their arms apart, faces raised to the sun, waiting for the mud to dry
“It’s uncanny,” Kostea whispered. “They’re naked, and yet they seem fully dressed.”
“It’s more interesting this way,” Dr. Zaharia said. “Coy and lascivious at the same time. Look at the black color of the wet mud. One can hardly say where the mud ends and the pubic hair begins.”
“The mud is their magic veil,” Iamandi said. “Notice how the sea changes when the light skips on it. That’s how our life is — an illusion. In our society today, you don’t know who the people you deal with are. They’re all in some sort of disguise.”
“Spoken like a true illusionist.” Kostea stopped and picked up a broken shell.
“For example, my dear Kostea, sometimes it’s difficult to find out where a certain person was actually born.”
Iamandi was a lightweight. Kostea could have easily smacked him, just once, in the face, yet causing a commotion in such a conspicuous place would have been ill advised. He swallowed his surprise and his anger and threw the shell fragment back in the sea.
Iamandi pulled a rabbit out of his hat. He turned a stick into a tie, and a bunch of silk handkerchiefs into a cane. Pigeons flew out of the sleeve of his velvet and silk jacket. He performed card tricks and lay stiff like a board on the backs of two chairs placed five feet apart. For the grand finale, he stopped in front of Dr. Zaharia. “I need a large bill. Comrade Zaharia, being a doctor, you must have a lot of money on you.”
Dr. Zaharia shrugged, proudly fished a bill out of his wallet and gave it to the magician. Iamandi took it and returned to his place in front of the audience. “I’ll defy gravity and make this bill float in the air for you. Feel free to come forward and look at it closely, pass your hands below and above it to make sure it’s not somehow supported or hanging from an invisible string, but please don’t touch it. And watch it carefully because you know how people are when it comes to money. Somebody might try to steal it. Therefore, and just to be sure, I’ll sign it first.”
He flattened the bill, placed it on the seat of a chair and signed it with a gold pen. Then he pulled at the bill’s two ends with his thumbs and index fingers and raised it in front of his chest. He closed his eyes, mumbled something indistinguishable and slowly released it. The bill floated.
The children shrieked.
Iamandi stepped back, looked at the Bardus, and then moved in their direction. He came very close.
The Party coordinator clapped. Emboldened by that sound, the children rushed towards the floating bill. They shoved each other, jumped, laughed, and moved their hands through the air slow and fast. Not to be outdone, the adults in the room got to their feet and mingled among the children. Suddenly the bill vanished.
Iamandi sent everyone back. “Hmm,” he frowned. “Just as I feared. Children don’t know the value of money, so I guess that whoever took the bill must be an adult. And the person would need a place to hide it in a hurry. Something… let’s say…like a purse. Ladies, how many of you have purses? Bring them to me, please.”
Except for Olga and one of the teachers, none of the women had their purses with them. The magician checked the teacher’s purse first. He opened it and turned it to the audience. “Nothing here,” he said. Then he opened Olga’s and retrieved the bill with his signature on it.
The audience clapped.
“How did you do this? I didn’t even come close to the money,” Olga protested. “I sat on my chair the entire time.”
Iamandi bowed. “Of course you did, dear, and the money just floated to you. Sometimes, life is mischievous this way.”
The audience clapped one more time and the Party coordinator got up. “We thank you, Comrade Magician,” he said. “What a wonderful world you have revealed to us! Of course, we understand this was entertainment, not to be confused with the teachings of the Party that enable us to define the unambiguous reality of our new life. Children, get ready for dinner. Comrade Magician, our staff would be honored to have you as our guest tonight. I think a table is set for the occasion on our beautiful terrace by the sea.”
Iamandi accepted the invitation. Most of the staff joined in after getting the children to bed. Kostea had given the gobies to the cook. Iamandi thought the occasion required a drink. “Gobies without beer are like a magician without a top hat,” he proclaimed. Since there was no alcohol on the premises, he volunteered to drive into Eforie and buy some. One of the teachers mentioned that the stores were closed on Sunday. He replied that he knew a few restaurant administrators who would not hesitate to oblige. The Party coordinator volunteered to accompany him on his errand.
As soon as they returned, the cooks brought out the food. There was plenty and by comparison, the dozen grilled gobies on a platter looked like a tease. “Had I known about the party, I would have bought more,” Kostea apologized. Ina grabbed two fish and put them on her dinner plate. “One for me, and one for Toddy,” she explained and rushed him to their room. It was high time for the young boy to go to bed. Iamandi opened the beer case and started passing bottles around. Everybody was in a good mood.
Suddenly Iamandi stood up, his slicked hair now ruffled by the breeze that blew from the beach. “My friends, I have one last surprise for the Bardus,” he said. “At my command, someone will appear out of the mist of time. Someone they know and love, and who loves them. Someone they might have thought dead.” His hair and forehead glistened unnaturally in the light of the electric bulb. He reached in his pocket, took out a black, round object that looked like a grenade and threw it towards the kitchen. Thick smoke rose following a small explosion — a smoke bomb!
The wind blew the smoke aside and a silhouette with a fedora appeared in the doorway.
“Nicola!” Kostea yelled.
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