Bistrița, 1955

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

The night train huffed and puffed as they crossed the mountains. Virgil was alone in the corridor. He had not visited his parents in years. He remembered his parents’ apartment in Bistrița: the quaint kitchen, the big room where they ate their meals, the bedroom and Viktor’s room, narrow and always dark, connecting the main room and the kitchen. Virgil’s thirtieth birthday was coming up and he looked forward to celebrating it with the people he loved: Dalia, his wife, Andy, his four-year-old son, his parents, maybe some of their friends, and yes, Uncle Viktor.

Dalia had sent Andy ahead of time to Bistrița to spend the summer with his grandparents.

Virgil pushed down the window and the wind hit him in the face. He closed it back quickly. The air smelled of moisture and soot. Dalia came out of the compartment. He took out his cigarettes. They smoked. When they went back inside, Dalia rested her head on his shoulder and slept. Had it not been for Andy, they wouldn’t have gone to Bistrița. Life as a doctor in Bucharest kept him busy.

Sasha, his father, was also a doctor. In preparation for their visit, he had two metal beds brought home from the hospital and he tried to place them in the big room, on opposite sides of the dining room table.

Andy’s cot was there too, and Marie, Virgil’s mother objected. “Andy goes to sleep at 8 every night. No exceptions. Viktor stays in his room with his chess problems. Let’s move Andy’s cot to our bedroom. This way Virgil can see friends and have as much fun as he wants. And at night, he can snore like a locomotive.”

*

On Sunday after their arrival, Magda and Liviu Magda Vieru invited them all to lunch, to celebrate Virgil’s birthday. Liviu Vieru was the administrator at the new collective farm outside Bistrița. He had built his new house on a piece of land adjoining the farm’s management offices. In exchange for small favors, the farm hands helped him with errands and chores. It was the least they could do for a person of Liviu’s stature. The farmland extended from his house to the woods on one side and to the river on the other side.

They all went, except Sasha who had to go to the hospital and promised to join the party as soon as his work was finished.

The table, set on the porch, looked festive and Liviu was in an excellent mood. “I’m glad you are here, my friend,” he told Virgil.

They kissed on both cheeks.

“I’m glad to be here,” Virgil said feeling manipulative. His relationship with Liviu was one of convenience. Four years before, Virgil had treated Liviu’s simple urethritis. Since then, Liviu had become Virgil’s aging parents’ friend and protector. In that way, life was fair.

“I have something I kept for just such an occasion,” Liviu said. “Two ten-liter demijohns of select white Murfatlar wine that I got in exchange for two piglets. The piglets were worth more, but this is good stuff, made for export. Nowadays you need to know people — a real network. Think of it. Murfatlar Winery is in Dobruja, more than 500 kilometers away as the crow flies, but we’re trading. And then I have some homemade palinca, a gift from a local farmer who owes me.”

Virgil wanted to try the hard stuff right away. “Great,” he said. “My throat needs some liquid.”

“Drinks coming right up.” Liviu plopped the palinca bottle on the table, aligned the shot glasses and poured. The liquid was golden. “Happy birthday!”

The two men swallowed their drinks in one gulp. Dalia and Marie smelled and sipped the drink, wiggled their noses, shook their heads and placed the almost full shot glasses back on the table.

“Too strong,” Marie said.

“It makes you come alive,” Virgil said.

“That’s why I love this man,” Liviu said pointing at Virgil.

Liviu’s wife, Magda brought a few appetizers to go with the drinks and asked the ladies to follow her to the sewing room. She wanted to show them the new curtains she was making.

Uncle Viktor looked at the appetizers — dry salami, Feta cheese, stuffed mushrooms, spring onions and smoked sprats — but didn’t seem to like any of them. He sat at a corner of the table and grabbed a slice of white bread.

It must be nice to have a new house, Virgil thought. He wanted one for himself, or at least a larger apartment. Clearly, Liviu had money, and he knew the right people for permits. Building a house had to be easier in a small town like Bistrița. Doctors were salaried, and all medical services were free to the patients, but he had to hustle. When it came to top-notch professionals like himself, the patients ‘expressed their gratitude.’ They had to. Poor people, and there were many of them, offered what they could. It was not unusual for Virgil’s doorbell to ring at home while he was at work, for Dalia to answer, and for this or that patient or patient’s relative to timidly leave ‘a little something for Mister Doctor’: a tote with several flapping carps, a couple of cackling chickens or geese, legs tied together, or a carton of eggs with straw from the henhouse still glued to the shells. Given the food shortages in the stores, such tokens of appreciation were well received. Payment in kind was tolerated by the regime, while cash was frowned upon. More important, though, were the contacts — the network that Liviu had mentioned. They opened doors and addressed many needs: get approved for a phone, receive a passport, obtain a larger apartment, or secure a few meters of the best English camelhair for a winter overcoat.

“Uncle Viktor,” Liviu said. “Don’t you want to eat anything?”

“No, no,” Viktor said. “Bread is good food.”

Liviu looked at Virgil, and Virgil winked.

As the host, Liviu seemed bothered that only the two of them were drinking and eating, while ignoring the older man. “Uncle Viktor, what do you occupy yourself with?” he asked.

“Now I eat,” Viktor said.

“No, not here, at home.”

“Oh.” Viktor looked away towards the fields and frowned. “Study chess. Game 13 between Botvinnik and second best. Botvinnik is champion. World championship last summer,” he said loudly, his speech chopped like the sound of a sledgehammer.

Liviu’s eyebrows went up and he turned to Virgil. “Is he a good chess player?” he asked in a whisper.

“He’s retarded, as you know very well,” Virgil said.

Viktor stopped chewing. “I heard.”

“I was joking.” Virgil gave an embarrassed laughter. “Have a drink with us, Uncle Viktor.”

Viktor shook his head. “No drink, no drink,” he responded and kept looking away.

By the time the ladies returned, half the palinca was gone.

“We’ll have lunch in an hour,” Magda said. “Sasha should be here by then.”

“We have a surprise for the children,” Liviu said.

Lily perked up. “What, Daddy?”

“You know the new tractor we bought for the farm?” Liviu said to his older daughter. “Kids, we’ll give you a ride. I asked Mathias from the stables to drive it for you, all the way to the orchard.”

“We won’t fit,” Lilly said.

“Yes, you will. Mathias will hitch the low wagon, and the three of you will ride in it, siting on the floor. You’ll hold Nettie.”

“Is it dangerous?” Dalia asked.

“No, and you’re welcome to go with the children.”

“You can ride in the tractor,” Liviu said.

“I want to go,” Viktor said.

“Sorry, Uncle Viktor, there is no room on the tractor for more than the driver and one adult,” Liviu said.

Viktor stood. “I’m interested in tractor. Very strong.”

“Too bad, Uncle Viktor,” Virgil said.

“Want to go!”

“And I want to meet Botvinnik.” Virgil rolled his eyes. “Liviu must have a chess game somewhere here. Wouldn’t you love to play some chess, Uncle Viktor?”

“Why? Because I’m retarded?”

“Nobody says you’re retarded,” Marie said. “And we’ll ask Comrade Vieru to arrange for you to ride in the tractor some other time.”

“That’s not a problem, Uncle Viktor,” Liviu said as accommodating as possible. “You can come back for a ride tomorrow.”

“I want now,” said Viktor.

“Uncle Viktor, sit down,” Virgil said. “Don’t be silly.”

Victor sat at the table and chewed his bread.

They heard the dum-dum of the tractor. Dalia and the children went around the house to the roadway.

Virgil poured another round for himself and Liviu.

Suddenly Viktor stood up again and approached Virgil, “You insulted me. I’m leaving and not coming back.”

“Good-bye,” Virgil said.

For a second Viktor seemed disoriented. “You won’t see me again,” he repeated.

“Good.”

“I’ll go to the river, throw myself in the water and drown.”

“Have at it,” said Virgil.

“Virgil,” Marie said.

Viktor left the porch in a determined stride and disappeared behind the house. The sound of the tractor was dying down.

“What happened?” Magda looked after Viktor.

“Nothing. A temper tantrum,” Virgil said.

“Run after him,” Marie said.

“No, Mom, let him go. Nothing will happen to him.”

“He’s your father’s brother.”

“He’s an idiot,” Virgil said. “He’s always been a burden to you and to father.”

“Let’s eat,” Magda said. “It will help us all settle down and hopefully Sasha will be here soon.”

“Sasha will run into Viktor, if Viktor follows the road,” Marie said after a while.

“There is a walking path, though, that’s not parallel to the road. If Sasha comes by car, he’ll miss him,” Liviu said.

“Why would Viktor walk into town?” asked Magda.

“To go home,” Marie said.

“To go to the river,” Virgil said, and laughed nervously. “He said he wanted to kill himself.”

“That’s not a laughing matter,” Marie said.

Silence fell over the table and they heard the tractor roaring behind the house. Andy ran onto the porch, followed by Lily carrying Nettie in her arms. Dalia came last.

“How was it?” Liviu asked.

“Great,” Lily said. “We asked Mathias to drive us all the way to the forest, but when we got to the orchard, he turned back.”

“Well, let’s sit down and eat,” Magda said. “Children, you too.”

“Did you see Viktor, by any chance?” Marie asked.

“No,” Dalia said. “Where is he?”

“He got upset,” Marie said. “And he left.”

“Enough of that,” Virgil said, and threw his knife and fork onto his plate. “It’s my birthday, you know!”

Marie rolled her eyes.

“How do you like the wine?” Liviu asked.

“The wine is fine,” Virgil said.

Sasha arrived in time for dessert, driven by Niculai, the ambulance driver. The sun was already behind the house and a full shadow extended over the porch. Niculai followed Sasha, his uniform cap in his hands.

“Finally,” Marie said.

“Lots of work at the hospital?” Liviu asked.

“Quite a lot,” Sasha said. He didn’t notice his brother’s absence.

“Sasha, Viktor got upset at Virgil and left.” Marie said

Sasha took off his glasses. “What happened?” When she told him, he paled. “How could you?” he turned to Virgil. “Of the two, you’re the bigger idiot.”

Virgil puffed, but didn’t say anything.

“We need to find him,” Sasha said. “I don’t believe you’ve wasted all this time. Comrade Vieru, call the police. Have them go to the river and comb the entire area. Let’s look around the farm, and in the fields. Grab Mathias.”

“I’ll go look,” Andy said.

“No, Andy, it’s time for your nap,” Dalia said and checked her watch. “You and I — let’s go home. Sasha, do you think Niculai could give us a lift?”

“Niculai? That’s a good idea,” Sasha said. “And you look for Viktor from the road.”

At the apartment, Dalia found Viktor in his room staring at his chessboard. Relieved, she asked him if he wanted an omelet.

“Yes,” Viktor said happily, looking at her with his brown, innocent eyes. “Eggs good for a big men. They have protein.”

“So you aren’t upset?”

“No,” said Viktor.

Dalia called Vieru’s house and the search was called off. That afternoon, Virgil drank too much, and the next day he experienced a monumental headache.

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.