Jul/Aug 2003  •   Spotlight

The Little Boy

by Zdravka Evtimova

The skinny boy in dark blue shorts, the last one in the row, was my son. The lady from the nursery school had taken the kids to the park to play, but he sat all by himself on a bench, silent as a fish. His name was Ivan, and I, his mother, had not seen him for ten months. I was hiding behind the newspaper stand. If the kid saw me, he'd begin to cry, and I didn't want that, although I'd do anything to look at him a couple of minutes more. After that, his grandmother took him home on weekends. I saw Ivan once every three or four months, sometimes more often, but always from a distance hiding behind that battered newspaper stand.

I had a plan to make a fortune working two consecutive shifts a day in the narrow box of a crane, straining all my nerves and muscles and eating a lot to ward off diseases. As the guys, my colleagues, dug and burrowed in the valley below me, I would sleep in the box. I had made up my mind to make a fortune—1,000 levs—and then the three of us, Ivan, my mother and I, would live together. I'd have money to repair our old house. Then I could start working as a seamstress. I even could set up my own shop, and perhaps I could buy plenty of vegetables to make delicious soups for Ivan and for momma. He looked so puny on that old bench in the park.

Well, I had to go—the crane was waiting for me. There were ninety-two steps to the box of the crane. I climbed them up and down, up and down every day. There were the protective metal rings behind my back, which used to be radiantly yellow in the past, but were now covered with dust and rust. The air was sour with dampness up in the box of the crane. Its arm was constantly raised high, the ground 150 feet under me. I trudged and toiled fifteen hours a day, clutching two iron levers in my hands. I had only them to keep me company, plus a pack of cheap cigarettes in my pocket and a lot of money at the end of the month.

It was Gosho who usually waved a flag to me, and that meant I had to raise the arm of the crane. As I washed myself at the sinks in the mornings he groped me without talking, just waiting for me to bend down and splash cold water on my sleepy face. Usually, there still was mud on his hands, and he soiled my clothes. I snarled and kicked, he let go of me, and I vanished quickly down the path to the rickety bungalows. He cussed mad, shouting he knew my dirty tricks, never giving up.

I hated that bloke's guts.

"You're pretty, damn it," he usually said. "Hey, chick, better come with me. Let's go to bed. You'd better run quickly when I whistle to you. I've found a place in the forest by the ditch we dug yesterday. A little sex, the ground under your ass will be muddy and cold for sure, but you can throw your quilted coat under it. You and I had a great fun in the forest last month, so don't put on airs, chick."

I worked two consecutive shifts a day, and I reckoned that after two years I'd roll in money. My son was two and a half years old, and a lady whom I didn't know took care of him. But toiling two consecutive shifts meant I didn't think about my son. I only watched Gosho's signal flag. I had to dump the earth from the huge containers symmetrically around the ditch. We tried to make a big embankment and terraced roads for the trucks. There were about one thousand cubic feet more to excavate before we reached the copper streak.

The earth was barren, smelly and dirty with the exhaust fumes of the machines. We tore it with explosives and it soared up to the box of my crane, dead like coagulated blood. We were digging a huge ditch, an enormous gorge full of mud and red, sterile rocks. I drudged fourteen hours a day in the old crane above the world, the hills and their stunted pine trees that shook before my eyes. In order to save more money, I even cut out the cheap cigarettes. The ditch, the excavators and dredges gawked at me, and I felt dizzy, but there was lots of copper ore that we were going to suck out of the earth, and we would get rich quick. It was a deal, and I clutched the two levers thinking it was worth my while. I was one of the few lucky girls who lived in the brick bungalows that had both windows and windowpanes. The tiles on their roofs were not all broken. I had a little cooking stove and some coffee. I suspected my colleagues thought I was allowed to work two consecutive shifts because I had slept with the foreman or even with the German manager of Bosch, but it was not true. I hadn't.

I was one of the first workers who came to that site and found the mountain big and whole. There was only one twisty dirt road and a lot of blackberry bushes lining it. Then in the evenings, I saw foxes in the forest, the full moon and jaybirds above the pine-trees. At that time, I used to date a guy Mano by name. I never felt like talking about him, because after he learned I had a child, he ditched me.

After a few months of excavators and dredges, there was the ditch, the mud, and the ore, plus the battered shacks with congested chimneys and broken sinks in which we lived. The roof of my brick bungalow leaked, but I was grateful it was there, and you could cook a meal on the stove. Some of the smoke remained in the room, but it was wonderful that it was hot enough at night. We were to get our salaries on Friday. I had made up my mind to buy a little blue kiddy's car for my son—a blue "Peugeot" for little fellows like him, with pedals and steering wheel, all shining in the sun. The boy would sit behind the steering wheel on Mondays when his grandma took him home, and our neighbors would see and nod their heads.

"His mother rolls in money," they'd say, clicking their tongues.

I'd be dying to be somewhere near and see them, but I'd be in the box with the two levers. I'd imagine how the kid smiled, and I'd be as happy as a lark the whole week. Well, there were no such blue little cars for kids in the nearby town. Some guys bought such baby automobiles for their children from Greece, but I had never been there and could hardly afford to travel at all. Nevertheless, I never stopped thinking about the blue Peugeot, and of how I would carry it home on my shoulders.

Well, I had to go and buy a pack of cigarettes. There were bars of French chocolate in the canteen, but they tasted salty. When it poured with rain half a year ago, the sacks of salt were torn on the shelf above the sweets. The cigarettes tasted salty, too, but I had to save money anyway. I'd make a fortune, and then I'd show them.

The guys who set the explosive devices waved their hands at me. One of them had tried to wheedle me into sleeping with him.

"If you're cold outside, we'll wait for my roommates to go to the bar in town. You'll like sex with me, I suppose," he said.

"I can't today. I work two consecutive shifts, you know. And I am dog tired in the evening," I answered. Why should you work like mad, he wanted to know? For the money, of course. I had a child. I'd pay some guy to bring me a little car from Greece, one with shining fenders and pedals and a windshield. I'd get my salary on Friday, and I didn't want anybody's money. I didn't want to borrow money either. I was strong like a horse, and I knew I'd make one thousand levs, damn it!

On Monday, we were to make a series of explosions. We had to pull down and smash two more hills. The copper vein was under them. The engineer said it was rich and there were a lot of millions of dollars in it. On Sunday, the mountain was whole under my crane; on Monday there would be the excavators. Rats, hares, jaybirds and robins would have to flee because the grass and trees would burn. I loved the scanty thin blades of grass, and I liked the pine trees, but they would be no more.

Woodcutters from three villages nearby came to hew the pines, and they said the timber was no good, but they'd use it as firewood, anyway. There'd be no forest and no mushrooms, but we didn't give a damn. We dug and burrowed for the copper streak.

The payday had to come soon.

Then it was Monday, and we put the explosive devices in deep holes. It was quite silent for a while. Then a fountain of gray earth thundered, erupting, spewing blue mud. The rocks turned into dust, the ground became sand, everything shook. My crane had been evacuated to a safer place on the hill. The sky cracked and the soil rumbled. Half of the mountain slipped and tumbled down. All my colleagues had run away. Now, panicked, they were pressing their noses against the gooey mud, shaking, scared stiff, praying not to be buried under the enormous mass of ore that was devilishly rich in copper. Damn it! A body could not stand the rumble and roar any more. I fell on my face in the soft deep ruts left by the trucks.

Somebody was crawling to me. Gosho. Splashes of mud and sharp shards of rock fell on us. He groped me. I struggled for breath, coughed, hissed and wheezed, beginning to choke. He groped me, his muddy hands touching me everywhere. He groped me nasty. Perhaps I could kill him right there on the spot, and I surely would have, but two other guys rushed to break us, and I couldn't thrash him the way I wanted.

I hated his guts, and I hated his flat, big face. It turned out the snickering idiot bet his addled-brained colleagues a bottle of cheap brandy that he'd have sex with me, everybody looking and commenting on how well he did it. They were going to drink the cheap brandy afterwards.

I watched Gosho pacing to and fro waving his signal flag. I could drop a rock on his head all right. I imagined his flat face smashed and squashed, thinking I could say it was an accident. Accidents would always happen. Well, I had a son. I had to get out of there. Otherwise, I didn't know what I might do. I thought always about the rock and about Gosho's flat greasy face. I'd better go away before I dropped that rock.

I could become a seamstress. I could sew both by hand and by machine. But it would be a pity, for I was one of the first folks that came to work on that site, and back then there were blackberry bushes and the narrow dirt road and jaybirds touching the clouds with their yellow beaks. I could have made a fortune here. I lived well—I even had a cooking stove and drank gallons of scorching coffee.

The light bulb in the corridor had gone, or somebody had stolen it. It was pitch-dark. Oh, the scumbags, who pulled that little dirty trick on me again? They'd positively set a trap in front of my room. I was going to beat it, so why not break my bones first? I rummaged through all my pockets in turn until I found a box of matches. I struck a match and froze in my tracks. There was a tiny blue Peugeot car, a Greek one, shining like mad with its chic iron bumpers. The match burnt down and scorched my fingers. I lit another one. There was a sheet of crumpled paper glued on the hood. Somebody had scribbled a short note in ugly block letters:

"Crane, don't go. Friends."