“Will you take part in that math contest?” Nora’s mother had asked a month ago looking at Geno, one of the twin brothers.
“What for?” the boy had answered. “Does mathematics fill our stomachs? Our father should have taken me and my brother with him. We’ll clean hotel rooms. And you a Polish woman!”
“Your math teacher said you were doing well. She wants you to enter the competition.”
“She’s crazy,” the boy had said.
“Hello. Is somebody in here?” a man’s thick voice cried out.
Nora was silent and unafraid. S; she grabbed the chopper hidden behind the door of the kitchen.
“Hey! Are there people in here?”
What Nora saw in the corridor made her let drop the chopper fall to the floor. A big man dressed in a pair of denim overalls stood in her flat shouldering a the warped and ragged figure of a boy. Blood dripped onto the cement floor. The stranger’s trouser legs were blood-soaked up to the knee.
“So you’re in here,” the man said. “Where do you want me to leave this one? The second one’s outside.”
Nora pointed at the plank-bed in the kitchen where she sometimes slept. It was covered with an old shabby rug.
“He’ll mess up the bed,” the man said, non-committal. “I see it’s not very clean though, so don’t worry. Wait here. I’ll go and bring in the other one.”
The second one was Gero. His face resembled a sunflower without its seeds, the skin of his cheeks were covered everywhere with small sores as if pierced with a gimlet. “Nora,” the boy groaned, a stream of blood trickling down his mouth.
“Don’t panic,” the man said. “There’s nothing busted. His ribs are okay;, he’s bleeding at the mouth. Bit his tongue. The other one’s not okay--—that’s a fact. Show me a place where I can leave him.”
Nora entered the living room. At the time wWhen her father had still had a job he’d partitioned the room with lacquered, smoked boards on which her mother had laid various flowerpots. When her brothers were younger her mother used to arrange textbooks on them also. These days the boys threw dirty socks, smelly T-shirts all over the place; her parents’ broad bed was in the darkest part of the room.
Nora wondered where she had met the stranger before and what he’d say about the mess. There were two bunks by the wall, one above the other, in the better half of the room where the twins slept, but the shirts and shorts on the floor looked knee deep. When the man in the overalls came back carrying the boy on his shoulders, Nora took him to the half of the room behind the varnished smoked boards.
“I’m sorry to bring you in here. It’s a little untidy,” she mumbled.
“It’s piggish,” the man said. “Hey, be careful. Maybe he has some ribs busted. They beat him with iron bars.”
“Who are they?”
“Mr. Anev’s guards. They caught the kids stealing scrap iron from his warehouse.”
“Who are you?” Nora asked.
“Why? Why do you want to know?”
“You’re an attractive man,” Nora said.
“I’m one of Anev’s blokes.”
“Then you beat him too?”
The man did not look embarrassed. He peeked into her eyes--—his were as round and brown as a dog’s--—and answered flatly, “Yes, I beat both of them.”
Nora saw that hHe was tall and thin, with a volcano of bushy black tousled hair that even dirty looked beautiful. A thought crossed her mind: if she had to push him out of the room, perhaps she’d have to hit the back of his head with the chopper and then drag him down the flight of stairs. This would be a very tough task indeed.
“So why did you bring the kids here?” she asked.
The man showed no embarrassment, explaining curtly, “I’m waiting for you to pay me a lev or two for my kindness. If I had left them in the yard outside by the scrap iron, the stray dogs would have pissed on them. It was raining. And there’s flu in town. They might have died.”
“How much do you want?” Nora asked.
“A fiver,” the man answered. “Two point five levs a boy.”
Nora eyed him carefully: Yes, he was quite tall, but looked weak. She could thrash him with the chopper all right, but well, would those squirts from his gang come winding his traces? Hardly possible. Hardly indeed. After they had squashed her brothers’ backs they most probably drank beer in a sleazy pub.
“There’s something else,” the man went on. “Guys said you looked good and I could get lucky. You look good all right.”
Nora was silent. The gloomy allergic rain went on knitting its cold straight-jacketstraightjacket for the town. The windows of the other small blocks of flats irradiated their faint-hearted light; in the distance the Struma Rriver glided under the iron bridge, hurrying to fleeing to Greece as fastsoon as possible. The potted and rifted asphalt glittered at the places where the street lamps were not busted--—silver seas of asphalt-paved rain flooding the cheap neighborhood.
“Will you help me to wash them?” Nora asked. “I’m by myself. They’re heavy and I can’t lift them.”
The man looked at her flabbergasted.
“Are you crazy?” he shouted. “It’s a pigsty here and you’re a woman. Aren’t you ashamed to live in such a hole?”
“Don’t you live in a similar hole?” Nora asked him. “I’m positive your mother washes your pants. Your socks, too. If you don’t want to help, go away.”
“Listen, bimbo. I carried these wretches to your hole. They could have died. Is that clear? Give me a fiver. Now.”
“I’ve no money,” Nora declared, looking him straight in the eye. “Even if I had some I wouldn’t give you any.”
The tall, thin man bent over one of the twins who lay prostrate on the bunk, pulled at him roughly as if he were wrenching a post out of a fence, then shouldered him.
“If you have no money, I’ll bring him back to the yard of the storehouse,” the stranger said. “Is that clear? Let the dogs and bitches piss on him.”
“Take something from the apartment instead of money.” Nora pointed at the only flowerpot: the single remaining proof of her mother’s efforts to refresh the atmosphere of the flat.
“Are you crazy or what?” The tall man glared at her. “What the fuck do I want with withered nosegays?. Well. Is it true you your father went to work in Poland and married there?”
“Yes,” Nora snapped at him.
“And you take care of your brothers now?”
“Yes.” Nora bit the word to shreds.
“You’re in a fine pickle. Come on, give me a fiver.” He still had not taken Gero’s shabby body down from his shoulders. Droplets of blood dripped from the kid’s face onto the front of his overalls.
“Help me to wash them,” Nora repeated.
“You’re an insolent bitch.” Nonetheless the man obeyed: he left the bigger twin on the bottom bunk and his cull poll overgrown with the volcano hair crashed into the planks of the upper bunk. “Fuck, it’s as narrow here as in a rabbit’s warren.” His enormous shoe kicked a pile of creased clothes.
“Calm down,” Nora said. “If you kick about like this the house will collapse.” She worked her way into the man’s brown eyes, asking, “What’s your name?”
“Why are you so interested?”
“Because whenever I fall in love with somebody I write down his name. I haven’t seen you at the greasy café where I work. Take this,” she said, pushing a rag into his hand. In fact it was not a rag but a an old T-shirt that she tore into three pieces before the dog-brown eyes of the stranger. “Wipe his face,” she said again.
“My name’s Petko,” the man muttered. “And I’m not going to wipe the face of this scum-bag.”
“If you call him scum-bag once again, I’ll cut your belly with the chopper.” Nora stood up pointing at the small hatchet by means of which her mother and she cut the meat in happier days in the past. , no member of the family had resorted to it on account of the constant lack of meat Then she went to the bathroom; of course it was dry—there was a schedule according to which different neighborhoods in town had drinking water on. Now the drinking tap was dry, so sShe grabbed the 20-liter canister and after a tedious slalom dragged it to the plank-bed in the kitchen in which her brother lay, a kid good at math, wearing a torn wet jacket and trousers soiled with blood.
“It hurts, Nora,” the boy cried out. She began washing his face, then tried to take off his trousers and froze in her tracks. His left knee was swollen—black and hideous. The kid groaned quietly. “It hurts. It hurts a lot. A lot.”
“His leg’s broken,” Nora said.
“It’s not,” the man shouted. He’d already started wiping the blood on the face and chest of the second twin.
“The other one’s leg is broken. The one in the kitchen,” Nora shouted back. “Get up. Carry him to the bus-stop, then help me get him into the bus to the hospital.”
“You’re crazy!” the man yelled. “Why should I carry him?”
“You’re a human being, aren’t you?” Nora asked quietly. “His leg is broken.”
“If you go on babbling I’ll break your leg too,” the man said. “And I’ll take the small TV set.”
Spiders jumped out of his eyes catching the two halves of the room in their cobwebs. The only thing of any value they trapped was the puny black-and-white TV set Nora’s mother had had to hock months ago in order to pay the ticket to Varna and send one of her sons to a math competition.
“I’ll take the TV set and after that I’ll carry this wretch to the bus-stop. I can carry the other one as well, but I’ll take the alarm clock, this one, on the table. I’ll take…--” He did not like anything and trying to make the best of the bad bargain, added, “I’ll take the cushion in the corner. The embroidered one.”
At that moment the smaller twin, who was absolutely no good at any subject in school, swollen and black after the beating, said, spitting blood with his words, “Nora, I’m okay. Bring Geno to the hospital.”
Nora saw a shadow in his sly green eyes; all his cunning had evaporated and it was a sad thing, but she did not say anything.
“This is our grandpa’s alarm clock,” the boy said, spitting blood on the carpet that once was a Persian rug and now was so worn it had no nationality whatsoever.
After a while Nora and the stranger walked in a single file to the front of the block, under the rain in the tight screw-press of April; the tall man in the blue overalls carrying on his back the boy with the limp squashed leg. Nora padded after him trying to protect her brother from the downpour with an umbrella.
“Guys say you are pregnant withby Gozo, the owner of the Greasy Café,” the stranger muttered to the rain. “Listen,” he went on,. “g Give me the key to the front door of your flat. Leave the brat in the hospital. Then I’ll take the TV set.”
Nora did not answer.
“Give me the key!” the stranger repeated, bending like a woman in childbirth. The boy’s groans dissolved in the rain and mixed with the wet noise of their steps. When she did not respond again, the tall man left the boy on the ground.
Nora bent down, clutching at her brother’s coat to lift him. The boy was heavy. Although his body was small she could hardly carry it along the sidewalk.
“It hurts! It hurts!” the boy moaned. “Nora, give him the key. Let him take the TV. Please!”
The stranger’s overalls were dripping, his trouser legs too short. Sodden, they stuck to his skin.
“You didn’t give me a fiver,” he reminded her.
Nora lifted the boy on her shoulders and tried to make the first step. Her foot slid, she staggered but managed to keep her balance then took another step. The kid’s leg hit the curb, his sick voice pleaded, “Nora, please, give him the TV. Give it to him! Give it to him!”
Nora straightened up. Very slowly, step-by-step, she walked on to the bus stop that had thawed in the rain, its silhouette resembling a mysterious, unattainable galaxy. Suddenly the man caught up with her, grabbed the boy and without saying a world shouldered him as easily as is if he were shoveling sand into a ditch.
“You’re a beast,” the man said.
“I won’t give you the TV set,” Nora snarled. “I’ll not give you a fiver. Remember. I’ll meet you somewhere and I’ll beat you black and blue by the end of the week. Today is Wednesday. By Sunday you won’t be happy and kicking.”
The tall man didn’t say anything. He spat, but the rain quickly brushed his spittle from the sidewalk. Then he held the boy with one hand, ordered him to shut up and spat again. His right hand sank into the pocket of his overalls wet like a soldier’s shoe in the deluge, rummaged around in it for a while, found nothing, then tried another pocket. Finally he extracted a five-lev bill folded four times over and waved it in the dark.
“I’ll give you a fiver if you sleep with me,” he said lifting the money to Nora’s nose. “I won’t take your TV and I’m giving you a fiver at that. I must be crazy.”
“You aren’t crazy,” Nora said. “I’m pretty and you’re not blind.”
“Give him the TV, Nora. Please. Tell him to walk faster,” the boy moaned. “It hurts a lot. It hurts.”
“I’ve wanted to get laid for two months now,” the tall man mumbled to the rain and to the kid who was groaning on his back.
“You’ll help me to clean my place,” Nora said, pushing his shoulder. “We’ll clean my place and you’ll get laid.”
A car passed by, its tires cutting the moist lane of the speedway, throwing waterfalls of chilling rain over the three of them. But Nora was not scared. She was sopping wet. She knew that at 10:30 p.m. her mother would come back home from work. Perhaps she already had. Then she must have seen the other twin on the plank- bed, the blood on the now colorless Persian rug, the dirty marks of the stranger’s enormous shoes.
“Where do you live?” Nora turned to the man who had already reached the bus- stop. “You can’t come to my place after the doctor examines Geno in the hospital. My mother returns home from Sofia.”
“I thought we could do it at your place…--” the man began.
“You are no good at thinking,” Nora said.
“Nora, it hurts! It hurts very much!” her brother shouted deafening the thunderbolt that the black pack of the clouds dumped on them. “It hurts so much.”
“I haven’t touched a woman for two months,” the tall man mumbled, his right hand let go of the boy reaching out to Nora’s wet turtleneck sweater.
“No,” she cut him short. “You still haven’t brought him to the hospital. Give me the fiver,” she said, hiding the wet bill in her coat pocket. “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay,” she whispered to her brother. “We’ll catch the bus and you’ll be okay.”