The Dream of Vulpescu the Publishing Director.
And to top it all, he kept having the same strange dream almost every night, as soon as he fell asleep. He would be giving a resounding speech from a resplendent podium in a packed auditorium. The whole audience was applauding, gazing at him in admiration, and then a solemn little old man with a pince-nez, a moral authority, proclaimed his merits and bestowed on him an important award. Well, as soon as the award was placed in his hands the dream would suddenly take an unpleasant turn. First of all a titter would be heard, then a number of members of the audience would start to giggle, and finally everybody would be roaring with laughter, splitting their sides, at which point he would realise, to his horror, that the solemn occasion in his honour had been nothing but a practical joke. And the one who laughed the loudest was the moral authority. He laughed so loud that all his rotten teeth flew out of his mouth ... He would awake from the dream harrowed, confused. And then for the whole of the day he would be out of sorts. Not even when he telephoned Margo, his daughter and only child, who had moved to France, was he able to struggle free of the toils of his bad mood, so much so that the girl, alarmed by his surliness, one day asked him whether he was ill. A thought flashed through his foggy mind: Damn it all! Maybe he was suffering from some illness and it was this unknown illness that had robbed him of his peace of mind! Or could he just be getting old? Pah! He didn't want to hear about getting old! In fact it was downright strange that he had been languishing for so many days, that he had not attempted to define his indisposition. What nonsense! He needed to see a doctor, to find out what illness was eating away at him, and have it treated as a matter of urgency. He remembered an old friend, Petru Cirlan, who worked at the Hospital of the Republic. He would go to see him!
'Oho-ho! Look what a big shot has come to see me! Come in, old man, come in!' exclaimed the neurologist, a middle-aged man with wily eyes, when he saw Anatol Vulpescu open the door to his surgery.
'Your corridor is rather grimy,' observed the balding publisher sourly as the two men sat down after a long embrace.
'Not a lot we can do about that, old man. The chaos of the transition period has seeped even into the Hospital of the Republic ... But why not tell me what the problem is? I can see you're down in the dumps. What's troubling you?'
The neurologist gazed at him searchingly. On the wall hung a portrait of an old man with a moustache and a pince-nez.
'Who is that man?' asked the publisher, pointing his index finger at the portrait.
'He was a giant of nineteenth-century neurology. Do you know what killed him? A stroke! Ha, ha! But let's get back to what's been troubling you.'
'I don't even know where to begin ... For the last two weeks, I've been listless, and many of the things I used to take pleasure in now seem stale, they get on my nerves ... Do you understand what I'm saying, Petru?' rambled Anatol Vulpescu, staring all the while at the old man with the pince-nez on the wall.
'I don't understand just yet, old man. I'm going to ask you something, but please don't get annoyed: have you suffered a blow to the head? Have you had a stroke?'
'Not at all!' answered the balding publisher, indignantly.
'What about your digestive processes? Everything in order? You haven't been having diarrhoea, have you?'
'No, I do not have diarrhoea!'
'Any aches and pains? Maybe you've got a backache?'
'I don't have any pains, Petru! Quite simply, I'm sick of everything.'
'Everything, eh? Even when you go to bed with your wife? Does that make you sick, old man? Ha, ha!'
The neurologist chortled heartily.
'Yes, even that makes me sick! My wife snores like a steam engine! Please, Petru, don't make fun of me!'
'All right, old man, I was just kidding ... Look, this is what I want to say: I've got my suspicions, but first you'll have to take some tests.'
Taking the referrals, Anatol Vulpescu rose to leave.
'Just a moment, old man! I want to show you how I keep my spirits up. Do you like sports?'
'That's a great shame, old man! I, on the other hand, have a favourite toy, which I'd like to show you.'
The canny-eyed neurologist took from beneath his desk a sixteen-kilo dumbbell, which he started lifting energetically. His face turned scarlet in an instant. The sexagenarian publisher said nothing. He merely sniffed.
Back at the publishing offices, he told Silvica Zgura that he was very tired and that he would not be coming round to her place, and at home he got into a barney with his obese wife.
'What's wrong with you? Look at you, mooching around the house like a sleepwalker! Maybe you're in love!'
'I should be so lucky to fall in love and get away from your nagging, maybe then I could be free!' thundered Anatol Vulpescu, completely ignoring his wife's tearfulness.
A few days later he was back in Petru Cirlan's surgery. This time, the neurologist seemed serious, pensive: 'Still feeling down?'
'Yes, really down.'
'Yes, well, things are complicated, old man.'
'You mean, the test results are bad?' said the director of the publishing house, taking fright.
'The tests came out fine, old man. You're as sound as a bell! Even the haemoglobin level in your blood is enviable! And that's what complicates matters.'
'I don't understand.'
'If the test results are fine, if your body is healthy, and if you're still depressed, then all I can say is that you've come to the wrong address. I can't help you, because the problem is with your subconscious.'
The neurologist tapped his finger on his noggin a few times.
'You mean to say I'm crazy?' whispered Anatol Vulpescu, resting his chin on his hands.
'God forbid, old man! It just means that your problem comes under the heading of psychical phenomena. Your irritability has a cause that might lie outside your conscious mind.'
'A cause? But I can't find any cause.'
'There's the rub, old man. If you could find it, you could get rid of your bad mood. Maybe it's some frustration, some repressed non-fulfilment. Usually, men are wracked by sexual non-fulfilment ... Didn't you tell me that you dislike your wife's snoring? Well, maybe your soul yearns for another woman, a younger one?'
'Like hell it does! I've got a young and beautiful mistress and I'm just as sick of her now as I am of my fat wife. It's nothing to do with sexual frustration! I know it!'
'Then it might be something else, old man. But you need to understand that the cause is buried deep in your mind. You need to scour your memories, to wind back onto their bobbins the thoughts that have passed through your mind lately, the dreams that have been tormenting you.'
'Dreams that have been tormenting me? Well, there is one dream I can't get rid of,' murmured the sexagenarian publisher. He looked at the painting of the old man with a pince-nez on the wall and felt an arctic chill. All in one breath he recounted to the doctor his dream about the solemn but humiliating occasion, with the moral authority who made fun of him. The neurologist listened carefully, reflected for a few moments, and then concluded: 'It's a strange dream, old man. And it might have a connection with your affective condition.'
'I admit that the dream disturbs me, but I don't understand why'
'The cause might be hidden in some detail of the dream. Wind it back onto its bobbin, analysing every detail. Or maybe you'd like to see a psychoanalyst?'
'To hell with psychoanalysts! What you've told me is enough. Enough! Thanks for your help.'
'Don't mention it, old man. And don't forget that sport is the best medicine!' said the neurologist and, grunting, pulled the sixteen-kflo dumbbell from under the desk.
The same evening, he received a telephone call from Liviu Beschieru, a living classic of Bessarabian literature. Plaintively, he announced that he would be bringing him his new manuscript. In the past, Anatol Vulpescu would have congratulated him hypocritically, singing his praises and telling him that he could hardly wait to read the manuscript. Now, however, he found the old codger's bathos ridiculous and did not want to publish his scribblings. Now, he realised that for years and years he had been as thick as a brick, publishing texts that weren't worth a farthing. And besides, the old crock's self-assurance irked him to no end. And so he bluntly told him to shove his manuscript up his arse, slammed the phone down, and went off to sleep in his office, leaving his wife all alone in the vast bedroom.
Again the bad dream held him in its grip. He was speaking with conviction from the same sumptuous podium in the same crowded auditorium. And they all applauded him until the moment when the grave little old man with the pince-nez handed him the important award. Then disaster struck, they all burst their sides laughing, and the grave little old man, whom he looked at in perplexity, laughed the loudest of all. This time, not only did the little old man's rotten teeth fly out of his mouth, but also his skin solidified, turning into a repulsive crust ... Anatol Vulpescu awoke in the dead of night, soaked to the skin. 'There's no doubt about it, the key to my indisposition is that shitty dream!' he said to himself as he anxiously examined his rumpled mug in the bathroom mirror. And the dream also had its own key. The Devil take it! He had to wind the dream back onto its bobbin, as Cirlan the neurologist had advised. But he also needed a sharp-witted confidant. His cousin, Teodor Botan, who in the position of adviser pulled strings at the Ministry of Culture, might serve as such a confidant.
They met in a wine-cellar restaurant, where an ensemble of gypsy fiddlers was playing at full belt. The balding publisher had reserved a booth to avoid the eyes of any overly curious customers. On seeing the hollow-eyed phantom that was his cousin, the adviser from the Minsitry of Culture was astounded: 'What's up with you, my friend? I hardly recognise you!'
'Take a seat and help me analyse a dream--'
'A dream? Ha, ha ... Are you serious? I thought you'd called me here so that we could talk business--'
'Business is the last thing on my mind at the moment, Teo. I feel ill, very ill, and a doctor told me that my problem is a recurring dream. I want to tell it to you and I want us to try together to find its meaning. Maybe you'll pick up on some detail that eludes me.'
'Tolya, wouldn't you do better to buy yourself a book about dreams?'
'It's no ordinary dream. Let me tell the waiter to bring us some cognac, and you listen carefully,' croaked Anatol Vulpescu and straight away set about winding the disturbing dream back onto its bobbin. The adviser stared at him, trying in vain to disguise his bewilderment.
'So, what do you think?' asked the publisher, having returned from the oneiric dimension.
'Hmm ... It's absurd--'
'All dreams are absurd, Teo. But they can be interpreted--'
'All right, I'll try. It's a kind of mockery, I'd say--'
'Exactly! And the painful thing is that I'm being mocked in public,' sighed Anatol Vulpescu.
'It's just a dream, Tolya!'
'I feel the pain in the dream, Teo! It's just like it's happening in reality! But what details of the dream do you find relevant?'
'Hmm ... I can't really find any relevant details, except perhaps one. What's important is who in the audience is the first to laugh, because it's that unnatural, isolated initial titter that blows all the solemnity sky high,' said the adviser, happy at having so quickly identified a lead for the so-called analysis.
'An interesting observation, except that in the dream I can't see the pig who's the first to laugh. What a pity! Might this be the key to the dream?'
'I can't see any other,' said the adviser, knocking back his cognac.
'Well, it might be, but I think the main element of the dream is the old man with the pince-nez, who laughs like an idiot. He's very suspect, that old man, don't you think?'
'I don't know, Tolya. I wasn't the one who dreamed about him. Maybe he is suspect--'
'You mean to say you don't find his perfidy blatant?'
'I don't know whether the old man is more perfidious than the one in the audience who's the first to laugh--' The adviser seemed downcast.
'To hell with whoever laughs first! Tell me what you think about the old crock with the pince-nez!'
'I don't know what to say, Tolya--'
'I see I'm just talking to myself here! That's enough, I'm leaving,' said the balding publisher, losing his temper.
He called the waiter, paid the bill, and left the restaurant with rapid strides. He was irritated at having wasted his time with a good-for-nothing. What nonsense! He would do better to talk to his friend Petru Cirlan again--there was a man's man!
He telephoned the neurologist as soon as he got back home. At the other end of the line, a nurse picked up the receiver.
'I'd like to talk to Mr Cirlan!'
'Petru Vasilevich isn't here any more--' said the nurse in a voice that was colourless.
'When will I be able to get hold of him?'
'You won't be able to get hold of him any more, sir. Petru Vasilevich is dead.'
"What? Aren't you ashamed of cracking tasteless jokes like that, miss?' said Anatol Vulpescu, losing patience.
'I'm very serious, sir! I'm sorry you don't understand that. Petru Vasilievich is deceased. The funeral will be at eleven o'clock tomorrow morning.'
The colourless voice had become harsh, grating on his ears.
"Wait a moment, miss! Just how did Mr Cirlan die?' stammered the publisher in amazement.
'A patient found him dead. Lying on the floor in his surgery. Next to a heavy dumbbell. A case of over-exertion. Goodbye!' the nurse informed him telegraphically, bringing the conversation to an end.
Anatol Vulpescu slowly sank into an armchair. His blank gaze was fixed on the mirror, from which an exhausted old man gazed back at him. The neurologist's demise was a flagrant injustice, an aberration. Why did such a hale young man have to die, such an unusually accommodating man? What was more, there was something diabolical about the sudden death of the only man who had genuinely helped him in this difficult period. He sat like that in the armchair, with a lump in his throat, looking dazedly into the mirror, until his wife lost patience and summoned him to the dinner table.
'Leave me in peace, woman!' yelled the balding publisher. After a while, he fell asleep, exhausted, still in the armchair. Then he was speaking before the same vast auditorium. He knew that they would all listen insatiably until the moment when the grave little old man, the moral authority, handed him the award. And that was just what happened. He knew that the whole audience would neigh with laughter, and that the little old man would laugh the loudest of all. And that was just what happened. He knew that the grave little old man's rotten teeth would fly out of his mouth, that his skin would be transformed into a hideous crust, and that was just what happened. But the dream did not break off at this point, and Anatol Vulpescu had no idea what would happen next. All of a sudden the little old man's crust exploded, scattering in thousands of tiny pieces. The dull bang caused the unfortunate recipient of the award to close his eyes, and when he opened them, in the place where the little old man had been standing he saw a young man wearing red jeans, with a folder clutched under his arm, who was laughing heartily.
'Fuck the whole lot of you!' shouted Anatol Vulpescu, shattering the nocturnal tranquillity in which the house was submerged and jumping up from the armchair as if scalded. After long days of sadness, the balding publisher felt for the first time immense relief He had suddenly been rid of a heavy burden. The scales had fallen from his eyes. The cause of his suffering was the slippery individual who had insulted him once at the publishing house and then again at the library. That impertinent young man who wanted to publish his stupid novel with Latin Script had been the cause of his bad blood lately. How had he not seen from the very start the origin of the evil that had enveloped him?
Fuck them! Anatol Vulpescu felt saved, reinvigorated, happy. In an instant he had realised how little a man needs in order to be happy. He now knew what had been eating him for the last few weeks and the knowledge released him from the devouring disquiet just as the late Petru Cirlan had supposed it would. Naturally, he would have to go to the neurologist's funeral. And there was one more thing he had to do. He would have to apologise to all the people he had offended because of that poorly brought-up snot-nosed kid. The people he had offended had become dear to him once more. It was simply incredible that such a nondescript, cheeky individual had turned his life upside down. It was not out of the question that he might have been put up to it by enemies of the Latin Script Publishing House. Regardless of whom had been guiding him, the scoundrel would have to be punished in exemplary fashion for the humiliation that he, a leading man of culture, had endured for so many days!
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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