Since January of this year I’ve been writing at my new novel (working title: The Ultimate Patient), a fictionalized account of my family’s history, going back three generations. So far I have written 250 double-spaced pages and I am almost finished with the first part (out of 5) of the book. The main protagonists are based on my wife’s parents and mine. Once I finish the entire novel, I will take it apart, reshape it, condense it, and put it back together again.
To get some initial feedback, comments and reviews, I have decided to post two excerpts here, in two consecutive weeks.
The first excerpt takes place in 1950 in Bucharest, on the day I was born. The second will appear next week.
The door of the maternity ward opened with a screech. Two men stepped out into the balmy air and followed the pathway across the yard in the direction of the hospital’s double gates. The older man walked a few paces in front. He wore an elegant dark overcoat, and a fedora.
“Stop in to see me as soon as you can,” he said without turning. “There isn’t much to debate, Kostea. You’d be a real fool to reject my offer. And by the way, tell Olga she can come work with us anytime, should she want to.”
“Thank you, Professor,” the young man responded. His winter coat, held with one finger over his shoulder, bounced against his white doctor’s scrubs in the animated rhythm of his steps.
Seeing them approach, the guard left his booth by the gates and stood at attention, his arm at his cap in a military-style salute. “My honors, Comrade Professor, Sir! And you, too, Comrade Doctor.” His burning cigarette fell to the ground. He squashed it under his boot and opened the personnel door to the street. The double gates were for ambulances. “Doctor Bardu,” he added with a smile addressing the younger man, “I guess congratulations are in order.”
“Not yet, Peter, not yet,” Kostea said and lingered. “They say a few more hours. I’m now going to kill time with my friends at The Garden.”
“Sure thing,” Peter said. “What’s a man to do but drink while he waits for his wife to deliver?”
“Smart ass,” Kostea said. “They’ll send somebody for me when she’s ready.”
“When I saw your missus so huge this morning,” Peter answered, “I said to myself the baby would pop out in no time. But maybe you have twins or triplets. Whatever it is, you stuffed her quite good, Doctor Bardu.”
Kostea ignored this last remark, and followed the professor into the street. Together they advanced to the corner where a government issue Pobeda car was waiting for the professor, its engine running. An electric tram crossed noisily through the intersection.
“Fucking porter,” muttered Kostea under his breath, his blue eyes still playful.
“The world’s changing,” said the professor gravely, and disappeared into the back of the Pobeda.
Kostea walked away. It wasn’t a big deal, but the professor had misunderstood him. Cursing the guard had not been a measure of criticism. To the contrary, he appreciated the spunk of the man, because it was like his own — daring, and a little unctuous.
The white-gray silhouette of the Triumphal Arch appeared in front of Kostea. About a dozen men in striped inmate clothing tilled the earth that formed an oval island around the monument. The wide boulevard that led to it, split, and passed it on both sides. Three soldiers sat quietly on the curb, watching the inmates and smoking. Their bayonetted rifles were laid next to them on the pavement. Several wooden boxes with spring flowers waited to be planted. There was no traffic of any kind, and Kostea crossed the boulevard in a diagonal. The soldiers were very young and relaxed — boys, really. They were younger than Kostea by close to a decade, and the inmates they were guarding were politicals, representing no flight risk.
The Garden was on the right, less than a hundred yards from the Triumphal Arch. A semicircular sign over a metal gate carried the name of the restaurant. The bright light that normally shone over it was out, and the rusty letters looked neglected. At first Kostea thought there might be a blackout, but the power had been on at the hospital just around the corner. He guessed that Andy, the restaurant owner, had turned the electricity off, since it was the middle of the day, and in times like these, everybody saved money. The main entrance was past the gate, but the restaurant, now closed, would open later for dinner. A long and narrow paved yard led to the back. Squeezed between the building and a tall concrete fence, and covered by a trellis loaded with the dry remnants of an old vine, the yard looked more like a tunnel. Kostea followed it, noticing tiny buds on the vine branches.
Spring was coming.
“Good news?” asked Andy as soon as Kostea showed himself through the service door. “Are you a daddy?”
“Not yet,” replied Kostea in the same tone he had used with the guard, and handed him his coat. “But how do you know about Olga, and who else is here today?”
Andy took the coat into a small vestibule and placed it on a hanger. “You’re in for a treat,” he said from there. “Marin brought sturgeons.”
“Marin’s back?” asked Kostea, with incredulity.
“Yes, he returned last night from Sulina.” Andy joined Kostea and added, “Your friends, George and Igor are also here. But tell me, how’s Olga? George said you took her this morning to the Elias Hospital.”
“That’s right. Burghele lent us his car. You know, the Professor. But let’s go in and I’ll tell everybody.”
They entered the restaurant, which was L-shaped with a long sidewall covered by a full-length mirror that gave the impression of openness. A bar counter made of dark wood was placed across a corner, but no barman was working. The only customers in the room were his friends, at a table right in the middle. A vase with several branches of delicate cherry flowers sat on the table. Each man held a bottle of beer which they raised when they saw Kostea.
“Hey,” they yelled, “here comes daddy!”
“No daddy yet,” said Kostea.
“Why not? What’s going on?” asked Igor.
“I don’t know. I guess it’s our first, and it takes longer.”
“And you left her alone?” wondered George. He had a wide face with big, round brown eyes, and a straight nose that flattened at the tip, as if it had been punched in a fight and broken. His eyes widened when he asked the question.
“Yeah, I did,” said Kostea shaking his head in mock annoyance, and dragging out his vowels. “There is nothing I can do for her right now. Nothing.”
“You could be with her,” insisted George. “It’s important.”
“Since when is it so important? And if so, when your son was born last year, did you go into the labor room with Elena?”
“They wouldn’t let me because I’m not a doctor. But you are.”
“That’s right, I’m a doctor,” said Kostea and patted the white coat on his chest. He pulled up a chair. “And I know what I’m doing.” He turned to Andy. “I’ll start with a beer, also.”
“Sure thing,” said Andy, “right away, but first finish telling us about Olga.”
Kostea grabbed George’s bottle and took a long swing. “Well,” he said, “I feel better already.”
Andy dragged a chair from another table, turned it, and sat on it backwards. He was a fat man, and his stomach pressed against the back of the chair while half of his large behind hung in the air.
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