The Romanian Riveter: THE OVERCOAT by Bogdan Munteanu, translated by Tara Skurtu and Tiberiu Neacșu

I’m standing like an idiot in front of Gigi’s house, wrapped in his new overcoat. It’s December, it’s cold, and the wind is blowing.

Bummer.

Gigi is dying and I need to get my hands on a thousand lei.

How the hell could I say no to him? He’s dying. And I don’t have the money, where am I supposed to find it? And I’m also talking to myself on the street. Enough, hush, calm down!

It’s not working. I want to let it all out, I want to forget about this stupid visit, I want to scream, scream at someone. I’ll call my wife. The phone, Laura, here we go. Fuck. Out of credit. No job, nothing. Only debts. Oh Gigi, my man, what are you doing to me?

I’ve known Gigi since we were yay high. He lived in B11, and I’d recently moved into B12. I stayed in the house for two weeks before I had the courage to go outside. I’d seen Gigi through the window; he was the biggest and fattest of all the kids our age, and he’d slap anyone if something didn’t feel right to him. One day I mustered up my courage and went out. Nobody paid any attention to me, except for this fat boy. He came straight at me. I was shivering, I didn’t know what the deal was. Was I likeable, was he sniffing me out, was he just curious? This block belongs to me and my dad, he grunted, and pushed his finger into my belly. What are you doing here? I muttered something about having just moved into the building and not having anywhere else to go. He wasn’t pleased. He scowled at me, got close and burped in my face. That was what saved me. Before moving to the city, I’d been in hundreds of competitions against the guys in my old gang, so I was able to burp anytime, anyhow. I took a step back, drew a deep breath, and unleashed the most monstrous burp of my entire life. And thus Gigi and the others were seduced. First they froze as if they’d heard a dinosaur. Then they laughed their asses off. Do it again, one more time, again – they kept asking me to do it, and they were dying with laughter every time and kept asking me for one more, one more, and we’re done! I was floating on air … Gigi immediately took me under his wing. Whoever picked a fight with me picked a fight with Gigi. All I had to do was burp whenever and however he wanted. It was an exchange that suited me perfectly. Foot- ball, tag, team leapfrog, little secrets, then later, booze, gambling, women, more secrets, but bigger – it was a friendship impossible to break.

And yet, for a time, we cut all ties. We didn’t speak to each other for years. We were both a little over thirty. What happened was this:

1: Gigi badly – really badly – fell for a girl, Loredana. I’m getting married, he said to me one day. I thought he was joking and I let out a light burp to defuse the situation. But he wasn’t joking; from his chest pocket he took out an invitation crowded with hearts, balloons and little birds. Congratulations, I’m glad, I said, and pretended I was glad.

After the wedding I saw him less and less. He was pissing me off, kept going on about how well he was and how awesome Loredana was, but not only that, because he wouldn’t have married her after only three months for nothing; Loredana this, Loredana that, and get your mind together and marry a woman like mine – he didn’t say it like his, but that’s what he meant, or at least that’s what I thought he meant. He was so in love that one day he forgot to ask me to burp – that was a first. It hurt a lot. Hurt so bad that I was incapable of saying anything at all.

2.1: On the rare occasion Gigi remembered I existed and invited me over – only to preserve appearances – to their love nest, Loredana would laugh harder at my jokes than at Gigi’s, would look me in the eyes more often than she looked at Gigi. She was awesome. Had it not been for that friendship, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second.

2.2: The third or fourth time I visited, Gigi remembered our old habits. Yo, man, burp! he shouted. I perked up at once, but then immediately slouched – there was a woman there, I didn’t want to be rude. But they both insisted – the wine had gone to their heads. I said OK and let out a common-sense burp so I wouldn’t get anyone upset. They applauded, I felt great, I took a shot of pălincă; that’s not important though – the fact is when Gigi went to the toilet, Loredana snaked her arms around me and whispered you pig, and bit my earlobe, and this made me forget about tag, team leapfrog, gambling, friendship, and all the Gigis in the world. You’re the pig, I said, and I pinched her ass, and she burst into laughter and – because Gigi had just flushed – she slapped me, and it was the best slap I ever got.

3: A whole month hadn’t even passed, and Loredana became insistent and hysterical, and she kept terrorising me with I love you pig, if you don’t come here I’ll tell him everything and you’ll see what happens then. I started avoiding her, but it was too late. Gigi called me and shouted you piece of garbage, you lover-boy, how could you, man, how could you, and so on. Loredana had gone rogue and she’d even told him about the earlobe, and what happened next was pretty clear. I reacted as innocently and naturally as I could – What, Gigi, my man, have you gone mad? Shut up or I’ll come over and stab you, he shouted between gasps. And from that day on I didn’t exist to him. I shut up and regretted that I’d hurt my friend. He didn’t come to stab me, but he got divorced immediately – I was expecting that, he’d been the impulsive type since he was a boy.

We made peace some five years later, when I invited him to my wedding to Laura, with whom I’d fallen in love just because she was awesome. I froze when Gigi showed up – I wasn’t expecting him to come. We both pretended we’d forgotten what had happened. He’d married another woman, Sanda, got into business, made a lot of money – he bluntly told me all of this while having a cigarette in front of the church. After that he wished me, even more bluntly, congratulations. I awkwardly said thank you, and, ummm, I’m very glad you came, but I kept thinking of asking him if Sanda was as awesome as Loredana – a stupid thought that made me feel more and more pathetic. After we finished our cigarettes, Gigi slapped me so hard that every guest at the wedding just froze, and then he said, OK, it’s done, I’m over it. Now burp! I gave a grunt in front of the church. Loudly. My jaw hurt, but that wasn’t the reason for my tears.

After the wedding we began to meet on a weekly basis. We played backgammon, talked dirty and laughed. We ate and drank like jerks, always with Gigi’s money. Gigi was rich, I was poor. Gigi was high and mighty, I was small fry. Gigi was an XXL, I was a poor L.

Now Gigi was dying, and I was sound as a bell, and just as poor. I’d known for two months that he was in bad, bad shape, they’d discharged him from the hospital, they weren’t able to do anything for him any more. I visited him so often that his imminent death became a casual thing. My legs didn’t even shake when I saw him. He’d lost about forty kilograms, he looked terrible. Frog-like eyes, popped out of their orbits, sunken cheeks, a pile of bones almost piercing his skin. In his last week he didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed, he was just lying there, his only concern appeared to be the morphine dose. The moment I stepped into his room I started chattering, I couldn’t stand the silence, it seemed like every moment of silence sucked a bit of life out of Gigi, I was rambling on and on about childhood, do you remember when, what about that time when, I was gesturing, making faces, and when I let out a burp, seemingly by mistake, he smiled too, but ghostily. And just like that a half-hour had passed, alright, homie, I’ll let you sleep, your eyes are shutting, he begged no, I can stay awake, look, and he kept his eyes wide open just to show me he wasn’t asleep. He touched me with his skeletal hand, I felt pity for him – I didn’t want that, I didn’t want him to blackmail me and I was lying to him, my boss is going to scold me for being late to work, what, didn’t I tell you I found a job at a newspaper, come on, Gigi, I told you. We were laughing, I touched the blanket in which he was wrapped, but carefully, I didn’t want to feel his bones. I snuck out of the room and forgot about him at once. I had my own problems, they’d laid me off right after he got sick, I couldn’t find a job, we were having a hard time, we were living off Laura’s money, little as it was, in short, it was bad. Gigi was dying, I knew he could solve my problems in the blink of an eye, but I didn’t dare ask for money precisely because he was dying. The only debt I could pay was that of being a good friend. I paid him visits, I told him stories, I left. I didn’t even have to entice him, he knew he was dying. It’s done, he rattled. It’ll be done before Christmas.

*

I want to cry, I want to scream, I want Laura to calm me down, I want to forget about this visit. And look, I don’t have any credit left. I begin to walk, damn, this cold is annoying me. I get to the bus stop. I light a cigarette, I need to try to calm myself down, to rewind, maybe things will come together.

The overcoat, Gigi had said weakly, and made a sign to his wife to get it. I had been confused. What overcoat? What’s the catch? Sanda brought the coat and put it in my arms, it’s new, he doesn’t need it anymore, she whispered, what’s he going to do with it? And then him: Does it fit? Try it on. I made a gesture, oh, no, it’s not necessary, but in fact I was thrilled, it was a good moment for a present. And really, what could Gigi have done with it? He gave it to me. I would have done the same thing. I tried on the overcoat, it was big on me, I’d known that from the beginning. He is, or, you know, was, an XXL, me – an L at best. But still, it was a good gift. I said thank you, I smiled, wanted to make a joke, I have to put on some weight (God, what a stupid joke), I’ll be back tomorrow or the day after, and I made a sign to Sanda to put my old coat in a bag. I was about to turn left towards the door, take care, Gigi. And I heard him rattling again: twenty million, that’s what I paid for it. Hugo Boss. I froze. Why was he saying this to me? What’s the price got to do with anything? You take the price tags off presents. You don’t make someone feel bad and indebted. And then he dropped the bomb: I’ll leave it at ten. Brand new.

A steal.

What?

Ten what?

What steal?

Was he selling it to me!?

I looked helplessly at Sanda, maybe she could contradict him, maybe she could confirm this was just a sinister joke, people make this sort of joke when they’re dying, something, she had to say something! And there she was, not saying anything, she’d stuffed my old coat in the bag, and she looked at me like an idiot. And she smiled. My legs were shaking like the time I found out Gigi was dying. I was standing in the middle of the room, dumbfounded and ridiculous, with the Hugo Boss on me, I was sweating hard and I couldn’t look Gigi in the eye. I was imagining myself withdrawing a thousand lei in small bills, fives, tens, and throwing the money in the air I could see how the money would fall over Gigi and cover his skeletal body, how he’d rise happily from the pile of money and start counting it, and how I’d announce, burping triumphantly, every hundred. But I didn’t have that kind of money. Gigi was dying, and, because he was dying, I had to indulge him. No comment! Ummm, I’ll get the money to you, ummm, next time, I mumbled, and I left, wearing that stupid overcoat. On the street I realised I’d forgotten the bag with my old coat. They hadn’t said anything, Gigi or Sanda. They saw the coat and what did they think about? What a steal. Or maybe that I was disturbed.

Nothing came together in that cold. Only stupid things were going through my mind. Gigi loved money, I knew that. He loved me too, sure. Let’s play some backgammon. Let’s. Let’s drink. Let’s. Let me tell you a secret. Tell me. Burp! Boajahjgfoifdx. One more time! Gmanpsosaea. I too loved money, but I didn’t know how to make it. Maybe that’s why I loved Gigi. I started to do the math, how many times we’d gone out together, how much money he’d spent on pork chops and duck and turkey and beef and whisky, and other things we’d stuffed ourselves with and drunk. I came to the conclusion I owed him ten overcoats, not one, and I felt bad because everything I had to offer wasn’t measurable in his currency. Nonsense. I’d get my hands on a thousand lei and that was that.

*

It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m at Gigi’s funeral. My autumn coat and two sweaters are no match for this cold. I’m waiting for the priest to start making the sign of the cross, maybe then I’ll thaw out a bit. But the priest just prolongs the service and gets on my nerves. I look to my left. My wife should be there, but she got sick. Nothing bad, it’ll pass. I look to my right. Loredana is crying. She leans into me, and that livens me up a little.

Oh, the overcoat. I sold it. For five hundred, I don’t know how to negotiate. Half of the money went to medicine for Laura and the funeral wreath, I drank the rest when I heard Gigi died. I burped an entire day in bars, but it didn’t have the same charm.

By Bogdan Munteanu

Translated by Tara Skurtu and Tiberiu Neacșu

Read The Romanian Riveter in its entirety here.


Bogdan Munteanu has published three short story collections, the most recent being Ai uitat să râzi (2016). He also organises cultural events and campaigns and helped coordinate Scriitorii sunt pe Facebook (‘The writers are on Facebook’), which won the award for best PR/marketing campaign at Romania’s 2014 Book Industry Gala.


Tara Skurtu is a Boston-based poet, teacher, and translator currently living in Romania. Tara is a two-time Fulbright grantee, and she has received two Academy of American Poets prizes and a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Poetry.


Tiberiu Neacșu is a Romanian poet, author of two full collections, and a translator of American poetry, including the work of Peg Boyers, Frank Bidart, and Lloyd Schwartz. His poems are published and translated internationally and have most recently appeared in The Shallow Ends.

Category: September 2020 – The Romanian RiveterTranslations

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