BETWEEN THE FLOORS
This current issue presents a text by the 2018 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Alexandar Hristov
I used to live on the last floor, but now I reside on the landing between the last and the next-to-last floor. I don't remember how long it's been. It must be a while, though, since people seem really used to me by now and pretend I don't even exist. For my part, I just sit here, look out the window, and keep mum.
I used to have a home once, with a family on the eight floor. The husband bought me with one of his first salaries as a new homeowner. I was the latest model storage heater, with four-level controls. They put me in the room of the two boys, and I'd stay awake all night and do my job diligently. I never shut off automatically, even though there were many times I felt like I was overheating; I never used up more oil than necessary.
During the first few years, everything was fine. My pump thumped joyfully and as rhythmically as a clock. The woman filled me with fuel regularly, so I never sucked in any air. Most importantly, though, she always maintained things exceptionally clean. The whole house sparkled, including myself. Whenever some blemish appeared, even if it was tiny, she would immediately drop whatever she was doing and not rest until it was wiped off and everything shined again. Once a month, she even used a screwdriver to unscrew all the handles of the cabinets, closets, and bookcases, and she wiped the small space where the handle covered the wood. She used to wipe me down every day too. At the beginning and end of each winter, she always asked the children to move me away from the wall, so she could clean the dust back there as well. I used to love these moments, dedicated to my special care. I used to look forward to them, happy that I had ended up with this family and with such a neat woman.
The boys grew up and moved out. My room remained empty, so there was no reason for me to work. I accepted this as my well-deserved rest. Meanwhile, the woman's husband died and she grew older, so she cleaned me less and less frequently, but I was happy even with the little care I got. But my quiet joy didn't last long. One of the woman's sons came by for a visit. I don't even know why he had to go into the brothers' former room. He stood there for a while, then out of nowhere, he said:
"Hey, mom, we should get rid of this stove, all it does is gather dust."
He showed the cloven hoof, then, the youngster. And his mother, instead of scolding him, instead of explaining what I'd done for him and his brother, simply agreed.
On the following Saturday, both of the lanky fellows showed up. They didn't know the first thing about how to move an oil stove. With much effort, they managed to drag me to the landing and left me there. They said they'd come back the following week with more people, but never reappeared.
Since then I've been sitting here and waiting, I don't even know for what. The woman comes by every week, wipes the dust off of me and mops the floor, but I know she's not doing it for my sake, as it's all over between us; she's doing it because she needs money so she cleans the building's hallways, stairs, and landings, and me, as part of the landscape. The roof is leaking. Whenever it rains, water drips all over me. I've started to feel the rust eating through me. At the beginning it felt itchy, then it started to hurt, and finally the pain disappeared. At night, when everything quiets down, I sometimes feel little pieces breaking off of me and falling to the ground like crumbs. I imagine they're brown-colored, though I can't see them, since rust is brown, so the crumbs must be brown too. Three different crews of contractors came to fix the roof, but none of them could do it. The fourth crew is up there now.
Here they are, coming down the iron stairs. There are three of them. They're carrying tools, hammers, sheet-metal cutters, pliers. They're dirty and seem exhausted, and their shoes leave dirty prints all over the building's blue linoleum. They go up to the woman's front door and ring the bell. They're probably going to apologize for the mess; she keeps complaining that the building now looks like a construction site.
"Ma'am, we're all done."
She's satisfied and thanks them. But they don't leave.
"Ma'am, that stove over there," one of them says, then uses his grubby hand to point at me. "You said we can take it if you have no use for it?"
She nods and they don't need to be told a second time. They gather around me like vultures. Their fingers are rough and bony. Why do they even need pliers, I wonder, with fingers such as these? They lift me, and although it's obvious I'm really heavy, they're not like those boys, and their hands don't even tremble.
They're going to carry me out. It might be for the better.
"It's so heavy, ma'am," the head contractor huffs. "It doesn't still have oil in it, does it?
"I don't know," the woman says. "I can't remember anymore. Take that ugly thing away. All it does is collect dust and cover the floor with rust, and I wore my hands ragged cleaning it."
Her words grip me with a strength that's much more powerful than the fingers of my gravediggers. The metal can no longer take it, my body can no longer take it. The rotten metal sheet covering my front part rips open like an old stitch. The wound gapes, the men drop me and I fall to the ground with a crash. The pain is great, but I can bear it, unlike the rest. Am I full, they wonder. I'll show them now. I slowly start leaking oil—turned almost black over the years, it's thick and full of sediment and soot. I concentrate my whole being, I still have a little strength left, I'm sure of it. Just a bit more effort and my pump will make one final rotation. There, I can feel my black blood starting to flow through my dried veins once again. I know my tubes have holes in them, but my pump thrusts a second time, and oil starts gushing through the holes. It spurts in all directions—into the walls, into the men's faces, into the window behind me. Black, greasy splashes. A puddle forms underneath me, their dirty feet splash and slide around in it. They don't know what to do, how to turn off the black fountains. I feel myself getting faint, I'm almost out of life juice, only a little left and... But I keep watching her, I look her straight in the eyes and see they're filled with terror, my pump makes another rotation and the oil leaks with renewed energy. I know what you're thinking, you ungrateful woman, this mess can never be cleaned up, you'll spend months mopping all I leave behind, and you'll never get it off. It's a pity I won't be here to see you suffering.
Aleksandar Hristov was born in 1986 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He holds a BA in Bulgarian Philology and an MA in Creative Writing from Sofia University. In 2017, he obtained his PhD from the Department of Bulgarian Literature at the same university. His short stories have appeared in most Bulgarian literary magazines. He has won several literary contests for prose and short fiction. His first collection of short stories, Afternoons Which..., was published in 2012. He is also a member of the editorial team of Free Poetry Society, an online magazine for literature and culture.
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