He gathered up the loose garbage and put it back in the bin. A scrap of carboard made room for itself among a pile of plastic cups. The scrap belonged to a crushed box of polar white labeled “Cream Truffles.”
Nick hung on to the door as the garbage truck rattled along to pick up the cardboard at No. 8. He felt Miță’s breath in warm waves on the back of his neck. Both men dangled with one foot in the air, impatient to jump off again at the next house.
They routinely grabbed and emptied the bins into the mouth of the truck. Meanwhile, their driver sat back, resting an arm on the steering wheel covered in wasp-eaten vinyl. And as the truck moved on, all three men had the same thought: Who owned these luxury villas peeking through linden branches and exotic plants with regularly washed leaves? Rarely did they see anyone walking out their front doors. The garbage truck served the neighborhood at the crack of dawn as their owners were still fast asleep. The whole street was half a mile long.
Their last stop was in front of an iron gate decorated with two panthers frozen in battle. The morning sky the color of raw egg yolk was just perking up above the home’s scarlet roof.
An hour later the truck arrived at the Glina dump and rolled through armies of people sorting garbage by hand. It drove past a huge sack of computer components, behind which one could barely see the person dragging it. Among the ragged picking the plastic, a teenage girl sprang like a grasshopper, and then an old chap in a cowboy hat gave the green light to dump the load. A July haze floated above the multicolored mountains of garbage toward a chicory-blue strip of sky.
The workday was over.
Nick headed into a Mega Image market to cool off a bit. A pretty shopgirl was fussing around some shelves. He locked eyes on her while pushing the crushed box under her nose and asked if they carried the candy.
The girl disappeared, then after a second called to him from the end of the aisle: “Here sir, come here!”
There it was among the chocolates—the same optic-white box he had picked out of the garbage, but this one was shiny and new. The shelf it sat on was labeled “Belgian Truffles.”
Nick’s ride home to the Pantelimon neighborhood seemed endless in the overcrowded van.
He found his house as he had left it. Since his mother died, he’d spent most of the time in the kitchen on a bench older than he was. He held both boxes on his knee. The one he’d just bought was as fine as the one from the garbage bin. Under “Cream Truffles,” it said “Made in Belgium.”
Nick carefully opened the lid and studied the chocolates covered in a dusty white film. The first piece stuck to his palate like a ball of dirt. He bit the next one in two to see what was inside. Then, he put another two in his mouth and only then saw a small label in Romanian: “Trufe belgiene.” He tried to picture the mouths of people who eat such delicacies.
Compared to other houses on his route, the one at No. 8 wasn’t particularly large. But its appearance—that of an old dried-out mushroom with a titled cap under which one could see the scale-like windows—commanded respect. Whoever lived there had quite fine taste.
The next morning, the truck rolled quietly up to the panther gate. There was no garbage at No. 8. There was always garbage to collect.
After a couple of days he got lucky. The bin at No. 8 was back in the street. Nick opened the lid and looked with excitement at the thin plastic bag. In it he could see computer components, a box with a pink ribbon, and various small objects. He fished out the box while Miță mocked him. On the lid was an image of four colorful little cakes, a sort of donuts covered in frosting.
The workday was shorter than usual. At 9:00 am, they entered the gate of the garbage dump Romprest.
Nick washed his hands twice, emptying the soap container. The soap had the scent of the pear drops. Lots of noise came from the lockers as many lads came back from work earlier. Someone with a trumpet voice said that people were on vacation. In July and August life was easier.
He found his trousers neatly folded just as he had left them that morning.
In his white T-shirt and with short hair and a freshly washed face, he thought he was looking like a dentist.
Half an hour later he entered a boutique market and bought a Coke. The room was filled with shelves. In the cool air of the market, Nick showed the clerk the package from No. 8. As she studied the cardboard bound with ribbon, he fixated on her sleek bra, visible under her transparent blouse with three tiny buttons.
“What did you have in here?” asked the girl.
“Something good . . .”
The clerk smiled and rested her inquiring eyes on his lips.
Another customer came into the shop. She was huge in stature, and looked down at the two. Nick had to admit that he didn’t know what was in the box. The behemoth seized the opportunity to politely interrupt:
“Until the mister here remembers what he wants, I’d like a packet of wet wipes.”
The clerk seemed deaf. The tall lady, evidently irritated, insisted:
“Miss, I asked for a packet of wet wipes! Shall I take it you didn’t hear me?”
“I heard you loud and clear, but I’m helping this gentleman now.”
In exasperation, the woman pointed to the box and replied:
“Anyway, you don’t find these things here. They are macarons.”
Nick opened his eyes wide in admiration as the behemoth suddenly warmed to him and continued:
“These are some fine French cookies you can buy at Madame Lucie. Look! It’s written right here. Now, will you give me the wet wipes?”
Nick found the candy shop with difficulty. But once inside, he took his time. Even though the Madame Lucie storekeeper did not welcome the conversation, he asked all the questions he could think of.
Next, he stopped in the first park and read everything that was written on the bag. The letters seemed to have an outstanding elegance. He touched the pink box bound with ribbon exactly like the one he found in the garbage. Through the transparent protective plastic he saw the four little cakes of different colors and a tiny booklet. With one finger Nick pushed the box out of the plastic and removed the booklet gingerly. On each page was a photo of a cookie labeled with its flavor: chocolate, vanilla, rose, coconut, lime, and basil. He carefully put the booklet in his pocket. Then, he put one cookie in his mouth without touching it with his lips. The summer sun burned from above; and the street noise buzzed in the background. He closed his eyes, fully satisfied.
He made other discoveries at the No. 8 house. It was by far the most alluring place in the world. On a spaghetti wrapping he read three lasagna recipes. A wrinkled bag gave him the address of the Fadel pastry. He spent about an hour there. The Arab had a huge appetite for talking, and first .he described how pistachios grow on trees, then he grabbed a flyer to show him the picture of a branchy tree. The small text at the bottom of the page looked like a tattoo on the glossy paper.
At Fadel, Nick ate raw pistachios for the first time in his life.
The treasure house was full of surprises, and as the time passed by, thoughts that it was inhabited raced through his mind like ants in an anthill. First, he imagined a large family living there, but then intuition told him the house was occupied by a single woman. But what kind of a person would live alone in a big house on such an expensive block? Only a singer. The idea that he could have seen her on TV excited him. Images of famous people flashed before his eyes.
Had he been able to dig through the garbage, he might have learned something about her. But couldn’t manage something like that. Nick usually got just one wrapping from either the top of a bag or its scattered spillage.
One day, he dropped a small parcel behind the fence, but then he went back to retrieve it two hours later. The house seemed sleepier and sleepier, and the street dead.
The bag looked like a trophy perched on his kitchen table. He poured out its contents with great care, watching how the strange-looking gadgets like UBS-es, plastic disks, and chip adaptors, rolled away. A small can of pâté de foie gras also fell out of the bag and rolled to a stop on the plastic tablecloth with daisies. Nick’s fingers ran over wrappers for cookies, glazed peanuts, and chocolate with chili. The last item, a ball of paper and tinfoil, caught his attention.
Nick carefully read its label. Then, in this pile of small discarded objects, a sparkling bottle of nail polish caught his eye. The owner really was a woman! He immediately had another confirmation: used cleansing wipes. The rest of the items were somewhat gender neutral: tea bags and leftovers, which Nick handled with the same interest. He also found a perfume bottle, a metal button, and a wad of paper. He gently smoothed it out and saw short meaningless words, arrows, parentheses, and dots. The print was cryptic, so he gave up. Finally, he came across a wrapping that deserved his attention: a man dressed in a denim shirt, so perfectly ironed that it had a mirror shine. He rested a hand with a leather bracelet between the buttons of the shirt. Next to the man, a long text praised the Zoppini brand. Nick relaxed on his couch and started reading.
The No. 8 garbage became the event of the day. There he found Crabbie’s ginger beer cans, lingerie labels, and funny little boxes with mysterious inscriptions. Thus he learned of the existence of Lindt chocolate and the Queen Airette ice cream. His explorations also taught him that margarine is carcinogenic and that cheese creams have a buttery taste. He started wearing bracelets and nice clothes, the expense of which ate up his salary. A flyer advertising a bicycle chain made him wander through sports stores even though he had no money left. Questions, though, didn’t cost anything.
After studying each and every one of the bike models—and exasperating clerks with his inquiries—he found an old beat-up bike in a pile of junk around the house and polished and repaired it to look like new. He then quit taking the van and started biking diligently back and forth to work, stirring onlookers’ astonishment as it splattered along:
“Look at Nick! What a mug! Like a journalist!”
No. 8 was more than his library. When he stood holding his breath in front of it, he felt as if a world of adventure waited for him. It was there he found excitement and reward for his solitary soul.
He was the only one who knew about the relationship he’d built up between himself and the stranger from No. 8. Mornings, he was dying to get there. Sometimes it felt to him like a pair of warm, caring eyes watched over him from the house.
One Saturday he was rambling through the city when he suddenly decided to visit the enigmatic No. 8.
The street was empty and all was quiet in the front yard. The bush next to the bin looked painted. Nick tiptoed up the alley as if the concrete was freshly poured.
There was no name under the black bell button. His finger caressed the bell. He’d barely touched it, but the bell rang and he froze. If she opened the door he would say that he had the wrong the address. An icy chill ran through his spine, reminding him why he’d come. He planned to tell her everything: he would thank her for the truffles, share his opinion about the almond bar, and ask where she’d bought those small candies he couldn’t find anywhere in the city.
After several long seconds, he stepped closer to the window. Through the blinds, he saw a desk with an open laptop and a pair of blue jeans hanging on a chair. The beer bottle displayed the label that imprinted itself in his mind. There was nothing else to do but leave. But it seemed so unfair to go without seeing her. In a moment of illumination, he took out his key and scraped his name and phone number on the wall. For one or two steps he was happy. Halfway to the gate, the heat of regret hit the back of his head. He went back and scratched off the writing, creating a dent in the wall. Mortified, he bolted out unconcerned about witnesses.
Over the next few days he collected clothing labels. Some were for men. Of course, she was seeing someone. A man with bracelets. A gentleman in a suit. A brother. Most likely, her younger brother.
He was busy with the T-shirt labels all week. He just browsed at Stradivarius, Pull & Bear, and New Yorker, but at H&M he bought a shirt. Such an important acquisition had to be seen. Who would appreciate it better than her? Excited, he flew to the treasure house.
For the first five minutes, he casually strolled the sidewalk across the street. Then he returned to the front of the house, but he detected no sound coming from inside. He pretended to talk on the phone, keeping an eye on the windows lined with blinds.
While performing this charade, hot waves rose up from his feet to his knees. The No. 8 door opened and someone appeared in the doorway. His strong exhale pushed flickering bumble bees into his nostrils. He first saw the jeans; then, the suitcases pushed out one by one. A short girl who looked very much like a high schooler, her hair in a topknot like a shaving brush, came out. His eyes opened wide. So, the mistress of the fancy wrappings was a topknot girl! For a moment he was disappointed. Yet, as she approached the alley, he felt the sharp pain of imminent separation.
When she opened the gate, he jumped up to help her.
“No need, I’m just pushing them to the car,” said the girl. A cab was parked a couple of feet down. The driver started the engine and backed up to get her. On the sidewalk, Nick was devastated watching the luggage placed in the trunk, glimpsing the driver’s sandals as he got into the car, and the back of the girl’s head as the car speeded away. Smaller and smaller, the car looked like a tulip bloom when it reached the gate with the fighting panthers.
He monitored No. 8 with unease the entire week. Its garbage bin in the front yard remained untouched. How long could a vacation be? Miță knew for sure that after a week any person would be back.
Where on earth could one have longer vacation? Only a lunatic or someone who had nothing to do at home.
He remembered the back of the girl’s head as the cab drove away.
Summer days passed, and the garbage bin baked in the hot sun until one day in October when they found it at the gate. Miță didn’t bother to jump off. This was Nick’s most anticipated garbage. As soon as he removed the lid he had a hunch that she might be home. Inside he saw some cardboard, and on top of that some carelessly thrown potato peelings.
“She had fries, poor girl,” said Miță. “What else could she have since she just got back?”
Someone turned on a light and an imposing man came out. The stiff collar of his robe looked royal.
After a loud “Good morning” and their two voices answering in unison “Yes, sir,” the man told them that there was another plastic bag and pointed with his chin to a bag filled with debris and cables. Nick rushed to get it as the man continued with a pleasant voice:
“I’d like to ask you to stop making so much noise! Could you get the bin quietly?”
Up to the next house, nobody said a word. Then Miță mumbled to himself:
“Damn! What a rat! Do you imagine the dough he has to have to buy that house?”
The car rolled away, leaving behind the street dotted with the puddles of the fall.
During Christmas, the city was covered in snow, and no car made it to Pantelimon. For a couple of days he stayed home, happy that the roads were buried in snow. In his kitchen the stove was crackling and the windows were steamy.
Nick carefully spread the glue on the ribbon so as not to mess it up. He mounted it on the wall, where it shone like a white fang. Underneath, he proudly stuck a band on which he’d written in ink “Sweetshop Armand. The End.” That was the last piece in a large collage covering the entire northern wall of the kitchen.
He took two steps back to admire his masterpiece, standing next to a window that framed the image of the sluggish winter fog. Closing the curtains he reduced the light in the room a little bit. Now, the wall had some polish of prestige. Nick licked his lips and surveyed his trophies. In the center, the oval Madam Lucie logo, cropped to perfection, was shining between macaron wrappers, the ribbon, and the neatly handwritten inscription “Soft and Flavored. 7 of July.” Next, the lasagna logo, a chocolate-bar wrapper, and various brands of toothpaste. On the row below, he glued empty fish cans and labels of strong drinks, but the pièce de résistance was the flyer from Fadel, with the pistachio tree in the light of warmer countries.
The wall was covered in wrappings that had brought happiness into his summer. The labels, each one a remnant of something beautiful, played a part. On small, evenly cut paper notes he had written his fleeting thoughts. The words spilled out of pleasing aromas and tastes. His sentences recorded the astonishment of his first date. From the writings with letters rounded with a pen, he recalled an anonymous sigh he wasn’t entirely sure he had heard. Some he had to write five or six times, crumpling up the paper in disappointment, altering and shortening the text until he caught the best expression of his thought, precisely as explorers would do. The old wall of the kitchen was more than just an exhibit of cardboards; to him it was a map on which he’d drawn the most adventurous of roads. The wrappings with exotic names held the lessons of a summer that had evaporated under the torrid sun.
The sight of an Uzo label startled him. The voice of the woman who left in a cab was still meandering through his waxy tympani. His eyes went from the candies to bracelets and men in stretched shirts, finally focusing on the Madame Lucie macarons. For a moment he saw in their filling the topknot of the girl who’d taught him about the delicacies of life. On the kitchen wall he’d created a history of that summer—memories of a relationship and the apprenticeship of a treasure hunter.
Nick reviewed his spoils from Armand Sweetshop up to the cream truffles cardboard with the note “the best,” which occupied the title position.
He sat on the couch still perusing the map of his discoveries, ignoring the snow that had already covered the yard and the roofs around it. He felt like a student on the last day of school before summer vacation—knowing that for him, only freedom lay ahead.
(România Literară, 31/20