The old car
[ fiction - september 03 ]
The villagers pushed our Gypsy camp to the very outskirts of the village. Some of them complained that my dad had pilfered eggs from their hencoops, and had stolen hens and chickens as well. It was quite true he was wicked and crabby, and the whole settlement was sick and tired of us, and men shouted at him "Deuce take you!"
When he got stone drunk he played his clarinet stubbornly, and young and old around him stuffed cotton balls into their ears, and offered to buy his battered and rusty tin whistle, offering him five kilos of plum brandy for it. I doubted he'd sell the clarinet even if he were sober enough to translate "plum brandy" from Bulgarian into our Gypsy language.
After we plucked flax in the fields around the town of Pernik, Dad collected all the money the farmers paid my family. When he came home in the evening the pockets of his jacket were full to brim with ten-lev bills.  He went out, stood in the middle of the camp and turned his pockets inside out. Banknotes poured out and fell onto the ground, a great pile of honest money, which Dad kicked proudly several times, raised his head and cleared his throat. Guys and gals clustered around him clicking their tongues, but he ignored them altogether and stroked his gray moustache.
"Marko knows to cut his coat according to his cloth," he announced. "Look at me now!"
We, the kids, gaped awestruck, but if one of us stretched out his hand to pick up a five-lev bill, Dad rapidly spanked him. Unfortunately, nobody knew my Dad's spanks better than I did. He could make your head flat if he hit you and you'd better take my word for it. Or you could ask Ferdo, our neighbor, why he crawled around his tent spitting his own teeth, howling like a jackal at the full moon.
So far, so good. My father sat astride the heap of money, deep in thought, silent and formidable, and crabby. He remained perched on the bills for a whole hour, brooding, spitting on the ground, and muttering different calculations under his breath. All men watched him closely. "They'll get into a fight soon," I said to myself, full of hope.
Finally Dad heaved a deep sigh, collected the money and started for the pub. All guys followed him, a busy dark avalanche, very serious and important looking. Then they all sank into the pub together with the big heap of cash.
My brothers, Mother and I sat at the front door of our house to wait for Dad, itching all over. You could say my brothers paved a road to the sleazy pub - so many times did they go there to collect Dad. I, his youngest kid and only daughter, walked around the tumbledown building twice and rapped like a lion on the windowpane to attract his attention. My efforts fell on deaf ears. If he was out boozing with his mates, you might as well shoot at him with cannon, he wouldn't notice.
Mother abandoned the baskets she was making out of dried reeds and went to the pub to collect Dad and bring him home. When she came back she was uttering some curses under her breath looking furious, indeed.
Night fell. Mother put us all to bed, cursing in Bulgarian, which was a bad sign. How could you sleep, my friend, when five lev bills turned somersaults in your mind? Couldn't you calculate how many pieces of Turkish delight you might buy with them? One thousand and eleven! That was the reason why I couldn't drop asleep for hours and hours. In the dead of night, I heard someone knock on the door.
"Woman! Open up! Dara, open up! Quick!
Ma leapt out of bed and unbolted the door. Dad must have been leaning against it for he prostrated himself on the floor and didn't budge any more. My brothers woke up and squatted down around him, the eldest among them trying hard to bring him back to life. Ma joined them, silent and sullen. They rummaged through his pockets, which turned out to be perfectly empty. Not a single five-lev bill was in sight.
"Marko, where's the money!" Ma fumed but Dad neither heard nor saw her. The poor man just heaved a sigh and snored more vigorously than before.
"Where's the money, hey! Tell me immediately or I'll extract the brandy you drank through your nose!"
Dad hiccupped and slept on. We poured a pail of water on his head but he was unable to even cuss. It was obvious he had got completely blotto. Ma caught hold of his shoulders, lifted him and shook him as if he were our doormat and not our Dad. If by chance a five-lev bill trickled down from him she could grab at it like a flash. However, neither coins nor bills fell out of Dad's pockets. Mother started trembling, thought hard and hurled him against the wall. Perhaps the crash brought Dad back to life, so he shouted out, "Hi, kids. I bought you a car!"
After that he closed his eyes and went off to sleep.
"What! What did you buy?" Ma yelled and kicked him very hard. After that she started crying, clicked her tongue ruefully, and said, "Oh, Marko, Marko, I could have killed you, God forbid!"
"He's alive!" my brothers reassured her. "His moustache is twitching."
On the following day, we all waited for Dad to come to his senses to tell us where the money was. We poured again water on him, placed an open bottle of brandy under his nose and prayed he might eventually come to. No way. He lay immobile like a granite monument. Suddenly, something, we thought it was a tractor at first, buzzed and droned through the grasslands advancing directly to our Gypsy camp, and smoking steadily.
Children spilled into the open space in front of the houses, inquisitive women rushed to check what trouble was brewing, old men chucked their rosaries and approached staggering, their faces alight with curiosity. A car was advancing on us spluttering and spitting gasoline in its wake.
Everybody knew whose property it was: Toto's boneshaker; and Toto was the tavern-keeper of Bloody Mary pub. He had been looking for some blockhead to sell his piece of junk to five years now.
The car looked small and rusty. It smoked like a hot meatball and its wheels wobbled as the vehicle rolled slowly and angrily on. Before it stopped moving completely, a tube in its behind went off and thundered bloodthirstily. A terrific car! The tavern-keeper got out of it and cried out, "Congratulations! Congratulations!"
"Who are you congratulating, man?" the folks asked him suspiciously. The guys started pushing and shoving to get to the front and touch the car or to kick its tyres. "Whose is this rot?"
"Marko's. He bought it from me yesterday."
Young and old froze in their tracks. Before the guys grabbed the tavern-keeper by the throat, he managed to vanish into thin air. I couldn't tell you why he hid so rapidly. I couldn't tell you either how Dad was able to sober up in the meanwhile.
He came up to the car his moustache shining like the sun, his eyes big and starry. He seemed to be treading on fifty-lev bills while in fact he walked along the dirt path in the Gypsy camp that was badly overgrown with briars and blackberries.
The crowd stopped babbling and parted to make way for Dad. The men clicked their tongues and the respectable housewives looked astounded. Ma saw that something unbelievable was happening before her very eyes. She gasped, joined Dad quickly and took his arm. Then she raised her head and strutted, big and strong like a space ship.
Dear, dear, what a pretty woman my mother was! All my brothers lined up after her in order of height and I clutched at Dad's hand, the last one in the row. After a couple of seconds we faced the automobile.
"Come on, family! Get into the car!" Dad roared.
So far so good. But the car was too small and our family was large. I was the only girl, but I had four brothers, and they all were jostling, and kicking and itching to take a seat. No one wanted to be left behind. Somehow or other, we all climbed and squeezed in. The boys made room for me down among their old shoes and soiled trouser legs, on the very bottom of the car.
I could only stare at Dad's neck and Ma's left ear. Guys and gals flocked to see us. All the folks of the camp surrounded our gorgeous vehicle.
"I'm starting it!" Dad shouted.
He pulled levers and pressed pedals. The car thundered, and rumbled, and honked and broke the ground under its tyres. Clouds of dust covered the houses; exhaust fumes hid the grasslands and the sky. It was suffocating and hot inside. Everything clanged, jangled and whirred.
Ma honked the car horn and we drove round the camp in big circles climbing out of shallow holes in the field and tumbling right down into bigger ones. The car screeched and snapped and honked. It did my heart good to be there! People watched as we turned into the road. Children and guys dashed off to look on.
"Dara, watch the road signs!" Dad whooped.
Ma rose, looking so swell! There was not a single road sign in sight, but she watched and watched her eyes brimming with tears. Wasn't she happy! Dad was on his high horse, his nose in the air, his eyes studying the road inch by inch. My four brothers sang the song "Great is the Bulgarian Soldier" and ignored me. If I screamed one of them was sure to clobber me on the neck. A thick layer of dust blocked my nose, but it tasted sweet.
Ma was smiling! I saw she had most beautiful teeth, as white as Greek cheese. Yes, I had often heard the whole camp gossip about her white Greek cheese teeth. I could see only her left cheek, but I was positive she was beaming. My heart leapt up with joy. I wanted to stay in the car my whole life and I wanted to die in it!
Suddenly something under the backseat boomed. The small car wheezed then shook and tottered. Dad gripped the steering-wheel and pressed the accelerator. The damned car turned pigheaded and ground to a halt. It wouldn't budge an inch, the nasty thing! The folks from the camp caught up with us and started crowding around the car. Dad went ballistic - now turning the key, now kicking a pedal or two. It started to be horrible.
Ma sat tractably and quietly for a while, but soon started breathing in and out through her nose and mouth at one and the same time. Finally she heaved such a deep sigh that windshield of the car fell on its own accord. The car wouldn't move on. Dad started pulling all handles in turn. It seemed they were quite flimsy for almost all of them produced a crackling sound and broke.
Ma made great effort to put up with that, but very soon her patience was exhausted and she opened her mouth to pass on some useful advice.
"Marko, you drunken mule! They sold you junk again!"
Dad heard her words and blushed furiously his cheeks as red-hot as a burning cooker. I had the feeling they'd start bleeding any minute now. Ma saw that, too, but went on pecking at him.
"I wish you kicked the bucket, old drinker! You frittered away all our money on a heap of rust! We'll croak hungry like frogs in winter!"
Dad hit the steering wheel with his fist. It gave out a screech and fell off onto the front seat. Ma spoke even louder, "If only you croaked, I could live through it, but kids will die, too, you drunken mule!"
As Dad sat on the driver's seat he turned back and started slugging my brothers on their heads. This time I was lucky for I had crept in between their shoes and soiled trouser legs, but it turned out I wasn't so lucky after all since I was trampled underfoot. Ma pushed the door and grumbled she wanted to open it immediately.
The poor thing broke loose and came off with a clank. It fell on the ground complete with its hinges and lock. My brothers could wait no longer. They all jumped through the hole and instantly merged into the background hiding behind the backs of relatives and friends. I remained on the bottom of the car sticking to it like Scotch tape. If Dad grabbed hold of me he'd positively break my head.
"Marko, get out of the car!" Ma shouted. "Drunken mule!"
The folks flocked together around us and snickered. Ma squeezed out of the car and sat by the front left tyre. I couldn't see if she was crying; I only heard her sob twice. She sobbed very quietly and very sadly. Dad started beating the hood with his fists as I wriggled my way right down under the front seat. I lay there saying to myself, if Dad set fire to the car I'd die here like a fried fish under this rusty seat. Yes, I might have died, but suddenly Ma faced the folks and said only two words, "Shut up!"
This made their blood run cold.
They shut up.
"It was my Marko who bought a car in the whole camp!"
"He bought a heap of rust, Ma'am!" Ferdo shouted back and many people sniggered.
"What you've just said is not worth even a speck from that heap of rust. When I see you in a car I'll cut my own head!" Ma cried out.
She was so enraged that her face blushed scarlet. When she seized Ferdo by the throat, and shook him, his mouth banged shut. I loved her so much for that. I forgave her for what she'd done to me in the past and at present, too: she had often pulled me by the ear.
People were looking at her and Dad was looking, too. She, the old darling, took Dad's arm again and said, "Good for you, Marko! I'm proud you bought that car! I lived long enough to take a seat in my own automobile!"
Dad's eyes gleamed. His stroked his moustache again and his face lit up. I loved him so much although occasionally he had pulled me by the ear, too.
"Marko, go and find the tavern-keeper!" Ma ordered.
Dad scowled, knitted his brows and roared, "Tavern-keeper, where you! I'll kill you!" Then he grabbed the door of the car, which had fallen off, and dashed off to the town cussing in Bulgarian. Other guys rushed after him breaking off branches and cudgels from the trees and picking up stones along the way.
I leapt out of the car and ran to the other children. If only I caught a glimpse of the little tavern-keepers, I'd give them a piece of my mind! I'd teach all the tavern-keeper's relatives to respect an honest family!
We all ran like blizzard to the pub. The guys found neither the tavern-keeper, nor his wife or the little tavern-keepers there. The door was locked and bolted. Dad was said to have gunpowder in his head instead of brains, but so far I had doubted that. At that time I was sure it was the honest truth.
He didn't hesitate for a second, raised his hand and all the other men followed him. They surrounded the pub and pushed, and kicked, and shoved, and rammed it. The ramshackle building looked hopeless well enough, so it produced a couple of creaks and groans and collapsed. The men didn't waste time and started searching for bottles of brandy in between the fallen bricks.
The tavern-keeper made himself scarce and no one ever saw him in the village again. I didn't know if he had died or was still having a hard time somewhere in the world. There was no pub in that street any more.
It was Ma who struck oil in the long run. Dad refused to enter any pub no matter how thirsty he was. He preferred to drink peacefully at home where nobody tried to sell him anything. It was much easier for Ma to drag him from the kitchen table to his bed than to wrench him away from the pub and then carry him on her shoulders to our house.
Perhaps that was why Ma looked much younger these days.
Even before we bought the car the whole camp thought that only my mom among us has such even, pearl-like teeth, as white as Greek cheese. Her cheeks looked smooth and happy, she ran the house more energetically than ever and she even stroked my hair from time to time.