Kishinev, 1935

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

Galina left her desk and stood by the glass partition that separated her office from the repair shop below. In their stained coveralls, the mechanics were performing their duties. Whenever she was among them, they treated her with courteous respect, even if sometimes she got tangled up in their banter. The car repair shop was a man’s world but she needed a paycheck. A change — any change — would be welcome.

Just then, three men stumbled in from the street. They were not customers, and some of the mechanics laid down their tools and surrounded them. Two of the newcomers wore tattered clothes. They were agitated and spoke fast, shaking their heads and pointing at the third man, who stood silently to the side. His shoes were polished, his gray pants pressed and, in spite of the rather warm day, he wore a dark tweed jacket over a white shirt and a gray plaid cap pulled to one side. Galina thought he resembled a poet.

Vasili, the supervisor, waved at her to come down, then guided her away from the group and explained that the first two had found the third man walking aimlessly in Alunelu Park, behind the Topaz Factory. “Lost,” Vasili clarified.

“That’s near the Jewish Cemetery,” Galina said.

One of the two shabbily dressed men overheard her and turned. “Precisely. Not a good area. And I don’t mean the cemetery, but the park. This gentleman doesn’t speak much Romanian, and we think he is thirsty. But we didn’t have any water on us.” He looked at his buddy. “We didn’t any have water on us, did we, Gogu?”

“Why should we?” Gogu asked.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “Some people do. My last name is Poposu, but I go by Dinu. Yours is the first open business we found, and we brought this gentleman over here because, perhaps, you can speak Russian to him. Perhaps you can help.”

“We will. You did the right thing…Dinu,” Galina said.

“And reward us for performing our civic duty,” Gogu said.

Vasili looked at Galina and shrugged.

They joined the others and heard the man in the tweed jacket answer a mechanic’s question in broken Romanian, “I brother Dr. Bardu. I live here,” he said.

“Here, but where?” the mechanic insisted in Romanian.

“I brother Dr. Bardu.”

The mechanic frowned.

Gogu displayed an amused grin. He brought his hand to his temple, wiggled his fingers and whistled lightly, as if to indicate that Dr. Bardu’s brother was slow in the head.

“Don’t do that,” Dinu said.

“Are you thirsty?” Galina asked Dr. Bardu’s brother in Russian, which she spoke very well.

“I am very thirsty. Water is an essential component in the dietary regimen of any young person,” Dr. Bardu’s brother answered. He was middle-aged. His hazel eyes were dull and firmly focused on some precise point on the oil stained cement floor. Beads of perspiration covered his forehead. He had a straight nose, thick lips, and a square jaw. From under his cap, thick brown hair cascaded over the neck of his jacket.

Galina noted that his Russian was perfect. She had heard of the doctor before, but she couldn’t place him. “We’ll bring you some water and a chair, and we’ll get you settled,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Viktor Fyodorovich Bardu.”

“And where do you live?”

“I live here.”

“Don’t you know the address?”

“I went for a walk, and I want to go home. I’m thirsty. Water is important to me.”

Gogu interrupted: “My dear lady. Gentlemen. We have things to attend to, and we don’t understand your communication. As you well know, Romanians in Kishinev don’t speak Russian. We see you’re good people and we are comfortable leaving this nice man in your company. But time is money, and we need to collect our reward.”

Vasili handed him a twenty.

He took it, then hesitated, holding the money, his arm stretched out. “This is it, for all our trouble?” he said.

“This is it,” Vasili said.

Saddened by such injustice, Gogu scanned the shop and looked at the mechanics in their blue overalls. Concluding there was nothing else to be gained, he and Dinu dragged themselves out.

Someone brought Viktor a chair and a glass of water. Galina went to her office and called the three hospitals in Kishinev. She located Dr. Bardu at St. Mary General, and remembered she had heard his name mentioned when she accompanied her ailing mother there for a visit.

Vasili brought the service car around and Viktor’s face lit up. He asked to sit in the front, and Galina agreed. From the passenger seat he touched the steering wheel quickly, as if afraid it was hot, then the stick shift, and then he pointed at the different dials and indicators and mumbled to himself. He closed his eyes and inhaled the musty smell of the worn seats. When they moved, he brought his hands to his chest, clasped them together, and shook.

The hospital was on Stephan the Great Boulevard. Dr. Bardu met them at the entrance. A boy was standing with him. Dr. Bardu apologized for his brother and asked what he owed for the effort.

Galina said that nothing was owed. “Viktor Fyodorovich is such a mild man,” she added.

While she and Vasili explained how they had found him, Viktor walked around the car, stroked the roof and the bumpers and kicked the tires with unrestricted delight.

“This is my son, Paul,” Dr. Bardu introduced the boy. “He’s nine years old, on his way home from school.”

Paul greeted Galina and Vasili politely and turned to Viktor. “Uncle Viktor, what’s better, a car or a horse driven buggy?”

“A car is much better,” Viktor said.

“We have to take off,” Galina said. “Viktor Fyodorovich, it was nice meeting you.”

Viktor stepped away from the car, clicked his heels, removed his cap, took Galina’s hand and kissed it. His eyes sparkled. He then grabbed Vasili’s hand, and, overcoming Vasili’s surprised resistance, lifted it to his lips and kissed it as well.

The next morning, Konstantin Ivanovici Bogosov stopped by the garage. He was an important and wealthy customer. From his chauffer driven limousine, he produced a huge bouquet of white lilies and a glossy envelope. He greeted Vasili and asked to see Galina. The mechanics watched him climb the steps to her office two at a time.

“I am an old friend of Dr. Bardu,” he introduced himself to Galina. “What you did yesterday for his brother was nothing short of extraordinary. He would have come, but he had an emergency at the hospital. The more you know Dr. Bardu, the more you realize how dedicated he is. An idealist. I, on the other hand, am a businessman, with my feet planted solidly on the ground. I call a spade a spade and I know how to ask the difficult questions. And since I am a customer of this facility, I offered to bring you these flowers myself as a humble thank you from him, and an invitation to a small dinner party at his residence this Saturday evening. Do join us! Besides Dr. Bardu and his wife Maria, and my wife and myself, Deacon Nicolai from the Russian Church will be there, along with the Petkovs. You must have heard of Petkov, the former mayor of Kishinev.”

“Our Galina is Viktor’s sweetheart,” one of the mechanics joked as soon as Bogosov left the repair shop.

Galina turned left, then right in front of the mirror. Her body was shapely and firm. The black dress used to belong to her mother, as did the gold brooch at the V of her cleavage. She would have liked to wear something fancier, but she didn’t possess any other evening dresses. Her hair, chestnut brown and wavy, reached to her shoulders. She combed it straight down, with one silky strand curving over the left side of her forehead, giving her a slightly provocative look. The invitation was a gift, waiting to be unwrapped and cherished. Anything could happen!

At the dinner table, she sat next to Viktor. The crystal wine glasses and the silverware sparkled. The tablecloth was blindingly white. Dr. Bardu raised his glass and welcomed Galina to their house. Maria raised her glass also. Galina did not know how to react. She nodded, smiled and tried to engage Viktor. His hair had been recently cropped. She helped him arrange the napkin in his lap. Dr. Bardu exchanged a quick nod with Bogosov. Viktor ate with gusto and didn’t speak.

Paul and the Petkov children sat together at an adjoining lower table. They left the room long before the adults finished their meal.

After dinner, Dr. Bardu opened the French doors to the music room and Tamara, Bogosov’s young wife, took a seat at the piano. Deacon Nicolai joined her and the two started a well-known Russian song.

At the table, Viktor kept his gaze straight ahead. In hearing the music, the children returned, listened for a few seconds, laughed and dashed out again, this time through the open door to the balcony. Maria rolled her eyes. Galina looked around but nobody was paying attention to her. Feeling warm, she got up and followed the children outside. The chandelier from the dining room cast its light over the balcony and and a part of the rose garden. She saw the children run down the steps and around the house.

Bogosov, elegant in his white dinner jacket, appeared next to her. He offered her a cigarette and took one himself. “What a gorgeous night,” he said producing a golden lighter.

“It is beautiful, indeed.”

“I understand your husband died of a weak heart several years ago. You are so young.”

Galina stiffened and a light wind caught in her dress.

Bogosov’s monocle shone. “You met Viktor. He possesses the big heart of a person who wouldn’t hurt anybody, not even an ant.”

“He’s very gentle,” Galina said.

“Tall and good-looking.”

She didn’t respond.

“He survived an accident as a child — a terrible one. Some say it affected his cognitive skills, but I think he’s just a sensitive human being, introverted and very lonely.” Bogosov puffed on his cigarette.

The cigarette smoke turned bitter in Galina’s mouth. Suddenly, she didn’t want to hear what Bogosov had to say, yet, she didn’t want to be rude. There was an ashtray on a table nearby and she walked towards it.

Bogosov trailed behind her and continued talking. “At my suggestion and with my help, Dr. Bardu is prepared to set up a very generous trust for his brother, such that if a serious woman were to marry him, the happy couple wouldn’t have to worry about an income for the rest of their lives. Dr. Bardu and I thought that, given your circumstances, you might consider.”

Galina faced him. “Mr. Bogosov, you are a disappointment.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and went inside.

Tamara was still playing the piano and singing. It was a different world.

Galina found her purse, threw a last glance at the beautiful room and left without a word to anybody.