From Bad to Worse
From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764
In fifth grade, many of Roland’s old classmates went to a different school and all he wanted was to make new friends. Boci was tall, loud, and vying for attention. A natural leader, Roland thought. Staying close to him was useful, even though Tibby stuck to him like a shadow.
Boci’s first name was Luca, and his last name was Bobocel, which meant flower bud in Romanian and seemed comical in its implied delicacy given the boy’s physical stature. In class, the children chopped short his last name, and called him Boci, the accent on the first syllable.
Tibby’s first name was Tiberius, which sounded pompous, and his last name was Ogiolan. They all knew that the name was Kurdish. Besides that, Tibby was rosy and fat.
“Let’s cut class and go the abandoned house,” Boci ordered. He turned to Tibby. “Did you bring the flashlight?”
“Can I come along?” Roland asked timidly and Boci agreed.
To avoid paying the fare, the boys climbed on the rear bumper of the tram. It was forbidden, but people traveled like that often, especially at rush hour, and nobody, not even the police, did anything about it. For support, Boci grabbed the ledge of the roof, while Tibby leaned against him and held onto the lapel of Boci’s school uniform jacket. Left leg on the bumper, and right leg in the air, Roland had no choice but to hug the side of the car and reach for the doorframe. Every time the tram stopped, they got off, and then back on again in the same formation.
Roland had never done anything like this. He felt apprehensive and elated at the same time. He smiled taking the wind in his face and he trembled a little. If his mom were to find out, she would yell at him that he was crazy, and even his dad, who was supportive of Roland’s more boyish and irresponsible initiatives might give him a scolding.
Roland was quiet, obedient and a little sickly. He was a good student and consistently received the best grades — five out of five, in all subjects. The only four he had ever gotten was in Russian, which was compulsory.
As the tram approached the terminal station, the boys jumped off the bumper and ran parallel to the slowing vehicle, crossing over to the sidewalk. Beyond the station, the tracks turned to the left and split over a large area into multiple lines that led to a metal shed with rusty columns and metal siding. The tram entered the shed half-way and stopped. The driver stepped out of his partition, grabbed the heavy rope dangling by the door, and pulled down the electric trolley.
A narrow dirt lane opened past the depot, and the boys took it. They chose their steps carefully along a path marked by the footprints of those who had walked ahead of them. It had rained the day before, and the mud on both sides of the pathway reached to one’s ankles. A shallow side ditch ran along the lane, full of dirty water. Chained dogs barked behind wooden and chain link fences. Little dilapidated houses, smaller than Roland was used to see — shacks really — stood at the back of the yards, sometimes behind anemic trees and what seemed to be the remnants of summer vegetable gardens. It was early November, the sky was gray, and most trees were bare. The street was deserted.
After a few hundred yards, the houses and the dirt street disappeared. The boys crossed a field covered by musty yellowed weeds and reached a strip of cracked asphalt in front of an unfinished structure, consisting of a prominent concrete base reaching about six feet in the air and an elevated first floor surrounded by brick walls of unequal height. There was no roof. Rebar stuck out like the spines of a giant hedgehog. A cantilevered slab of concrete extended out at the level of the first floor, for what could have been intended to become a low square balcony or the building’s entrance reachable by future stone or marble steps. The stretch of asphalt ended in front of it and two wooden crates stacked one over the other formed a platform to help potential visitors gain access to the ruin.
The gap was high, and Boci climbed it first. He stepped onto the crates, threw his backpack onto the slab and grabbed the ledge. He had enough strength in his arms to pull his body upwards until his stomach reached the concrete. Then he rolled over it and stood. It wasn’t raining, but every surface was wet and his navy uniform pants and jacket were now dirty. His palms were black also. He rubbed his hands together, then brushed off his uniform as best he could, and looked down at Tibby. “C’mon up,” he ordered.
Tibby hesitated. The crates squeaked under his weight, and his palms barely reached the top of the platform.
Boci squatted and offered a hand, but Tibby shook his head. “Last time there were bricks.”
“Look around,” Boci said. “See if you find them.”
Indeed, hundreds of bricks, some cracked, were thrown against the foundation wall.
“Who moved them?” Tibby wondered, as he and Roland carried them over and aligned them to form an elevated base, then rested the first crate on top, and turned the second one on its narrow side. The whole arrangement seemed flimsy, but the gap to the concrete slab was now shorter by at least two feet.
Sweat ran down Tibby’s forehead. As he climbed, he held onto Roland for stability, then stopped on the upper crate to breathe and then he pushed himself upwards while Boci leaned forward and pulled him up by the scruff of his uniform. As he stretched over the concrete, Tibby’s white shirt came out of his pants, revealing a flabby belly.
Roland climbed up next. He didn’t need any help, but he scraped his palm on a sharp edge, from his pinkie all the way to the band of his wristwatch. He bandaged the cut with his handkerchief to stop the bleeding.
The boys left their backpacks on the plank and checked the perimeter of the main floor, touching the walls, kicking debris with their shoes, and peeking into the surrounding field through cutouts meant to become windows. Weeds that had grown during the summer in the mortar between the bricks, had died and turned a pale, whitish color, bent or fallen and submerged like worms in pools of rainwater.
In a corner, a stair tower leading to the missing second floor ended in midair. Tibby rushed up the steps as high as he could, yelling at the top of his lungs as if to compensate for his earlier embarrassment. There was no handrail to hold on and he pretended to lose his balance and flapped his arms like a person trying to walk on a balance beam. Then he turned and spat as far as he could over the wall.
“I need the flashlight. We’re going to the basement,” Boci announced.
Tibby came down, brought his backpack and took out the flashlight. “I brought this as well,” he said and offered Boci a knife with an elaborately carved wooden handle and a long, sheathed blade. “Just in case.”
Boci looked at it for a long time. “Just in case, what?” he eventually asked. “I didn’t say you should bring a knife. Put it back where it came from, and don’t show it to anybody.”
Disappointed, Tibby complied.
Roland didn’t say anything. He had asked them to take him along, not knowing what to expect or what was expected of him. He wanted to please. This place was odd, in a good and in a bad way. They were here for some purpose — he didn’t know which and the cut on his hand was painful. He undid the handkerchief, licked off the blood, and tied it back on. No way could he hide it at home, and he’d have to invent an explanation.
A light drizzle started to fall.
On the other side of the steps that Tibby had just climbed, was a second set leading to the level below. Boci took them, and the boys followed him into the darkness that enveloped them gradually as they advanced.
“Watch for bats,” Tibby said.
Boci switched on the flashlight. The ceiling seemed oppressively low. There were no windows and the air smelled of urine. A puddle stretched on the floor and, as they walked, moisture splashed under their feet.
“This isn’t an abandoned building, as you might think,” Boci told Roland. “This place was bombed. I heard it was built to serve as an Armory for the Germans during the war, and that’s why it’s on the outskirts. Last time we were here, Tibby and I discovered a hatch in the basement floor.” Boci shone his light to the far end of the room. “Over there. See?”
Where the light fell, the floor was dry and covered by dust. Footprints led in every direction. Like a monster, a massive armchair with torn upholstery and exposed metal springs threw a large shadow onto the wall.
“I don’t see anything,” Roland said.
“Of course not.” Boci seemed pleased. “You have to know where to look.”
They came closer, Boci illuminated the floor near the armchair and Roland noticed a square trap door, maybe four by four, covered with dirt, and two rusted hinges on one side.
“It was under the armchair,” Tibby said. “I pushed it aside.”
“Yes, you’re so strong,” Boci said ironically. Then he added, “We pushed it together.”
Tibby ignored him. “We don’t think people know about this hatch. Last time we were here, we didn’t have a flashlight and we used matches, which wasn’t optimum. If we manage to open the hatch today, who knows what we will find.”
“Old military documents,” Boci guessed. “Money, gold, even weapons.”
“If you want a gun, tell me, because I can get you a gun,” Tibby said.
“Shut up,” Boci said, and moved the beam of the flashlight back and forth across the floor. “There was a crowbar right here.”
“Looking for something?” a voice reverberated through the basement as if coming from a tunnel.
Roland saw a slender man with a flare in one hand and a crowbar in the other advancing cautiously. His hair was long and matted, and even in the darkness it was obvious that his clothes were wrinkled and dirty, as if he had slept in them in the street. Behind him, four more silhouettes moved like crayfish, the last one on the steps leading upstairs.
Surprised, Boci whispered, “Bucktooth.”
“Yes. You thought you’d never see me again, ha, little Luca?”
It took Roland a moment to remember that Boci’s first name was Luca, and he reckoned that if the two knew each other, it couldn’t be bad.
“Bucktooth, leave us alone if you don’t want any trouble. You hear me?” Boci said, sounding concerned rather than threatening. His flashlight threw a white circle on the floor between them.
The newcomer stopped. “Listen to him,” he responded as he half turned to his men. “The son of my best friend during the war. I loved him like my own, and I fed and protected him. Haven’t seen him in ages, and this is how he greets me. You’re a grown man now, little Luca. Strong, aren’t you? What’s the matter? Don’t you love me anymore? I didn’t betray your daddy when I went to the slammer, no matter what people said. And now that we meet again, instead of rejoicing, you prove there’s no gratitude in the world. No generosity. Tell me, how’s daddy?”
“None of your business,” Boci said, the beam of the flashlight shaking visibly.
Tibby took a step towards Boci, unclear if to offer protection or hide behind him.
“None of my business, I see,” repeated Bucktooth thoughtfully. “And who’s this?” he asked, pointing his flare at Tibby. “Fatty the bodyguard? Hey, guys,” he yelled at his men. “Should we be concerned about Fatty?”
His reward was a peel of sardonic laughter coming from the four corners of the basement.
“Tell you what,” said Bucktooth. “Generous people still exist in the world, and I’m one of them. We won’t harm you. We’ll let you get away this time, but you have to say hello to your father for me, and, before you leave, once outside, you give me your valuables. All of them. This is my territory, little Luca. You crossed it, and I have to charge you.”
They left the basement one after the other, watching each other with suspicion, first the man who had waited on the steps, followed by Boci, Tibby and Roland, then the other three men, and finally Bucktooth. In the daylight, which was blinding at first in spite of the drizzle, Roland saw that the men who surrounded them were adults, two of them perhaps as old as forty. They were the type of people his mom had told him many times to avoid, mean and filthy. He was dirty himself, and scared.
“Give me the flashlight,” Bucktooth ordered Boci. As he spoke, his upper lip cracked in the shape of a V, revealing a set of straight teeth and a long, wilted scar that ran from the tip of his nose to his jaw.
Boci glanced at Tibby, as if asking for consent, but Tibby avoided his friend’s eyes, and Boci stepped forward and handed the flashlight to Bucktooth.
“Good,” Bucktooth said. “Pass me your jackets, all three of you.”
The boys complied, and Bucktooth’s men checked the jacket pockets and linings, didn’t find anything of value, and threw them in a pile on the concrete.
“Now show me your pants’ pockets. Turn them inside out, and no gimmicks. And unbutton your shirts at the neck. I want everything you have on you, necklaces, rings, money, everything.”
Again, the boys did as they were told, and except for Roland who had a few coins, they had nothing.
“What happened here?” Bucktooth asked Roland pointing at his wrapped wrist.
“I cut myself.”
“Let me see.” He grabbed Roland’s hand, ripped the bloody handkerchief away, but didn’t look at the cut. “Aha,” he said. “A Swiss watch. Give it to me right away.”
“It is a present, please,” Roland pleaded. He had received it from Aunt Galina on his fourteenth birthday.
“Do I look like I care?” Bucktooth laughed. He unbuckled the wristband, while Roland cringed.
“Check the backpacks,” Bucktooth ordered his men.
They emptied the contents next to the pile of jackets — nothing but manuals, notebooks, pencils and erasers, and the knife with the carved handle.
One of the men grabbed it. “This dagger is mine,” he announced looking up and unsheathing it.
“You can’t have it,” said Tibby.
“No shit,” the man said with incredulity, and the blade gleamed in his hand.
“You know what? Come and get it.”
Tibby took one step forward, and another man caught him from behind in a double nelson.
The man with the knife faced him. “Fatty, maybe this will help change your mind,” he said and punched Tibby hard in the stomach.
Tibby’s legs gave in, but the man who had him in the lock kept him upright.
The other man punched again. “Are you turning mellow on me, you bastard! Stand up!”
Bucktooth moved. “Remember, no traces.”
Roland looked away.
When Tibby was finally released, he collapsed on the ground, crawled to the wall and threw up.
A murder of crows cawed and flew over the building.
Bucktooth’s scar was red now. “Listen, kids,” he said pointing at the pile of overturned backpacks and uniform jackets. “Collect your junk and get out of here before I make you clean Fatty’s barf. Little Luca, you’re causing me to feel melancholy. Shit, boy, you have this effect on people.”
Roland’s mother took him to the neighborhood polyclinic first thing in the morning. “You need a tetanus shot,” she said.
Patients filled the small waiting room and spilled outside onto the sidewalk. Roland took his place in line, while his mother went around the building and knocked at the service door. She knew Dr. Rarinka, a woman her own age who ran the place. She had come prepared — the money was in a white envelope in the purse she kept pressed to her side like a small briefcase.
“Why, you didn’t have to do this,” Dr. Rarinka said, and, without checking the contents, let the envelope drop in the side drawer of her brown desk. She called the nurse and asked her to bring the boy in and sterilize a syringe. After she administered the shot, the nurse cleaned the cut with iodine and applied a fresh bandage.
“Don’t get it wet if you can,” the nurse said.
“He’ll need a note for his school,” the mother said.
Dr. Rarinka sat at her desk, took a sheet of paper with her letterhead on it, and started writing. She stopped. “Tell me how this happen?” she asked looking at Roland.
“I fell,” he mumbled.
“When and where?”
“Yesterday afternoon, after school, in Tibby’s backyard.”
“Who’s Tibby?” Dr. Rarinka asked.
“Tiberius Ogiolan, one of his new classmates,” the mother came to the rescue.
“They were playing. You know how boys are, pushing and shoving, and he slipped and fell on an old spade or shovel, he doesn’t even know exactly which. He cut himself, and broke his wristwatch in the process, an expensive one, a Doxa. Came home dirty and full of blood he had tried to stop with his handkerchief.”
At the bus stop, his mother gave Roland a hug and parted the hair on his head with her fingers. “Look at you, eager to run back to your friends, with your hand wrapped in gauze like an injured bunny rabbit.” She paused and added smiling, “Aunt Galina will be very upset that you broke the watch. It was a memento from her dear husband who died many years ago. You do know what a memento is, don’t you, honey?”
“Where have you been?” Tibby asked Roland during the first recess in school.
Roland showed him his bandaged hand. “Where’s Boci?” he asked.
“I have now idea. I thought you and him went somewhere together.”
“No,” Roland said.
“I have something for both of you,” Tibby whispered. “Come with me.”
Tibby grabbed his backpack, and, remembering the knife, Roland didn’t ask any more questions. They walked silently to the boys’ bathroom.
“Go inside and come get me when nobody else is in there. But look in every stall and make absolutely sure.”
In front of the sinks, two older boys were smoking and admiring themselves in the mirror. The stalls were empty, the air warm and stinky. Roland walked to a urinal and pretended to use it.
“You didn’t see anything little pisser,” hissed one of the smokers.
The buzzer indicating the end of recess startled them.
“Lets’ go,” said the other smoker and threw his cigarette on the floor towards Roland. They turned on all the water faucets before leaving.
Roland squashed the cigarette with his shoe, turned the water off, and walked into the corridor. Glued to the wall, Tibby was waiting.
They went back inside and Tibby pushed Roland into the first stall. “You’re sure nobody else’s in here?”
“Lock the door. Hold my backpack.”
The space was narrow, and Roland squeezed in between the toilet bowl and the wall. There was no bowl cover.
“Let me sit down,” said Tibby. “Don’t want to drop anything in there.”
Tibby”s face was red and sweaty. Roland inched further towards the back wall and placed the backpack in Tibby’s lap, who stuck his hands inside, felt around and pulled out an item wrapped in a dark oilcloth. He gave it to Roland. It was heavy. Tibby lowered the backpack to the other side of the bowl, took the package back, and slowly removed the oilcloth.
“What’s this?” Roland asked.
“Can’t you see? A real pistol.”
Roland grabbed it. It was cold and oily. It fit his hand, very steady. He had never seen a pistol in his life, let alone held one. “Where did you get it?”
“My father. If he finds out, he’ll kill me.”
“What do you want to do with it?”
“I’ll give it to Boci when he goes back to see Bucktooth.”
“Do you want Boci to shoot him?
“No, just scare the shit out of the bastard.” Tibby took the pistol from Roland and placed it on the oilcloth. He didn’t seem nervous any longer. “Let me tell you something, my friend. Si vis pacem, para bellum.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Roland said.
“If you seek peace, prepare for war,” Tibby translated.
He might have said more, but the door to the bathroom opened and they heard steps and the voice of their homeroom teacher.