It happened for the first time Monday night. It was right before the TV broadcast dedicated to Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu, in the evening after that math quiz I’d flunked again. The lights blinked out all over Gaiesti for as far as I could see. And that was far, starting with the hair salon and the photo shop across from our apartment, blanketing all the buildings on the main street in darkness, even the courthouse and Industrial High School No. 2, then the bus station and the whole neighborhood, all the way to Potop River, the river that maybe you’ve heard about on the news, the one that floods from time to time. And when it floods the waters take the houses and start to flow backward, toward the mountains. It’s a really nasty river. That’s what Daddy explained to me.
I’d just come back from a one-on-one soccer game with Mache. There was no sound—just the silence of the lights suddenly going out and the sensation of being left completely in the dark.
“Where’s the flashlight?” Daddy called after a moment.
I heard Mom haphazardly opening and closing the cabinet drawers. “I can’t find it,” she said.
“How about candles?” asked Daddy.
“We don’t keep candles in the house,” answered Mom. “They bring bad luck.”
Then Daddy asked me, “Did you have time to do your homework?”
I hadn’t. But the next day I didn’t get another bad grade because the teacher understood that the lights had gone out in our part of town. Actually, nobody had done their homework, and we didn’t talk too much about it at school. She didn’t quiz us in geography either. We were still on the lesson about the national power system. I knew very well about the hydroelectric power station at Vidraru, the one we had visited with our class. (We paid for the trip, seventy lei.) I also knew about the thermal power station at Turceni, whose chimney is taller than the towers of American TV stations, as the geography textbook told us somewhere.
After school I played soccer with Mache, Dan, Laurentiu, and Mircea on the back field, until some boys from the sixth grade showed up and kicked us out.
Then Laurentiu said, “My father says that the lights will turn off like that every night.”
“That can’t be right,” said Mircea. “Last night it was just some technical problem.” He put his hat on. He had a nice hat, red and blue, with the name of our local soccer team: C. S. Tirgoviste.
“Then why do you think this ‘technical problem’ lasted precisely from eight o’clock until midnight?” Laurentiu asked.
Right then my ear started to itch, really badly, and then it got worse.
“Just look, look at him,” said Laurentiu, pointing. “His ear is turning beet red.”
So they didn’t talk about the electrical breakdown anymore and stared at me instead. My ear swelled, and I felt my pulse in it, throbbing.
“Something bit him.”
We climbed over the school’s fence and had a spitting contest over the ditch, until Dan said, “Let’s go.”
Dan lived at the side of the city where the cornfields started. Laurentiu lived close to the railroad station. Mircea lived in a place called the Gypsy Town.
I went home and started to do my homework. I was dizzy and I felt like throwing up.
“Holy Mother of God,” Mom said to Daddy. “You’ve been smoking in the bathroom again, and the bed sheets smell. Didn’t you see them drying there? My hands ache from scrubbing them. Now the towels stink too.”
“Why don’t you dry them outside in the yard?”
“Don’t you know that last week they stole the bed sheets and pillow covers from Mrs. Popescu? You can’t leave anything in the yard. Why didn’t you ask for an apartment with a balcony?”
“Okay, I’ll smoke outside from now on. Anyway, let me show you what I’ve brought.”
Daddy pulled something from his backpack and displayed it with a flourish—an oil lamp. I’d never seen one like it before. It was silvery, with a shiny glazed mirror, a blue wick, and a tall glass chimney, like a giraffe’s neck.
“Beautiful,” said Mom. “Where did you get it?”
“From my Cousin Tase. They didn’t turn the lights off in their area last night, so they don’t really need it right now.”
“How come?” Mom frowned.
“It only happened for part of the town. It’s nothing official, of course, but I’ve heard that the mayor promised the Party that he’d cut costs sixty percent by reducing household electricity consumption. Three weeks one half of the town, then three weeks the other half.”
As they went on talking, my mind drifted back to the park. It was a warm autumn. Coming home, I was shuffling through the chestnut leaves, past the lake in the Pioneers’ Park, that place where Comrade Elena Ceausescu played when she was a child. I liked to play there too. Every Tuesday the Pioneers from the shipbuilders club that I’d joined last fall went there to practice radio guidance with a model ship sent to us by a brother club in the German Democratic Republic. They knew a lot about radio-guided ships. We wrote them a long letter with the help of the German-language club. That year I was happy to get a total of three minutes with that terrific toy ship. I sailed it to the middle of the lake and then back. I received a grade of VG—very good—in guidance.
I said, “Mom, today my ear was itching really badly, and now my chest is itching too.”
“Hush, let’s see if the lamp works. What kind of oil do we need?”
“I’ve got only one bottle,” said Daddy, “but I can get more from the bus station tomorrow. Tase is good friends with the night watchman.”
Mom took the lamp and, with the care she would use to pluck eggs from a basket, set it on the table. She slowly poured the oil, then replaced the lid, passing the wick through the slot. She lit a match. The lamp flared on right away; it gave only as much light as a weak bulb.
“The key is to have a clean mirror,” said Daddy. “We’ll have to polish it and keep it clean. When they switch over to saving energy in our cousin’s part of town and we get our lights back, I’ll have to return it.”
“Don’t ever play with the soccer ball in the house again,” Mom said, giving me a warning look, then going back to admiring the lamp.
I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My chest was flushed, and covered with a bumpy rash. I reached into my pocket and found a coin, then held it against the swellings one by one. The cool metal felt good. Then I washed my chest with cold water. Finally I splashed on some alcohol, and that seemed to help. It still itched, but not as much…but then it started up again.
“What are you doing in there?” asked Daddy.
“Look what I’ve got.”
“Yuck. That’s an ugly rash. Why don’t you go and tell your mom?”
I wandered out to show my chest to Mom, who gasped and made a tsk-ing noise. “I think it’s a kind of urticaria.”
“What’s that?” I asked, alarmed.
“An allergic rash. Auntie Neli should see you.”
She took me to see Aunt Neli, our neighbor, who was a nurse. Auntie told me I should use alcohol every time the rash came back.
That evening all the lights went out again. By eight o’clock we were already in bed, wondering what we could do to fall asleep. I thought about playing with the lamp a little bit, but Mom was watching me like a hawk. I was sleeping on the folding bed in the living room, since the sofa was broken and Daddy couldn’t find the parts to fix it.
Daddy was thrashing around in the bedroom. Then he stood up and demanded, “How am I supposed to see my Saturday-night movie?”
Daddy watched the same movie every Saturday night. It was a story about two nice brothers, Rudy and Tom, and a bad guy, Falconetti, who wanted to kill them.
“Why don’t you go to your cousin’s?” Mom suggested.
“And how do I get home after the movie in this darkness? I’d need the flashlight.”
“I told you, I don’t know where it is.”
“I can’t walk back at midnight. In Tase’s neighborhood there are a lot of sharp copper wires sticking out of the ground, from when they built all those blockhouses. They look like mousetraps. And there are so many dogs. I need that flashlight.”
“I don’t know where I put it,” said Mom.
Then I called, “Dad…”
“Don’t look for the flashlight.” A moment of silence. “I dropped it when I did an experiment like the ones we do in science class. It was broken, so I threw it out.”
“Forget about it then,” said Daddy, very calmly.
That’s how he usually talked before spanking me. The bedsprings squeaked as he sat down again in total darkness. This time he didn’t spank me, but I could hear him breathing heavily.
“It’s very hard to find a flashlight and batteries,” he said, his voice tense. “Harder than finding a lamp with oil.”
“We need our own lamp,” Mom said.
“Yeah, I know,” answered Daddy. “We also need a big TV, and a washing machine, and a telephone. I know. I made applications for everything. We’re on all the waiting lists.”
He moved away from the bed. “I think I need a smoke.”
“Don’t smoke in my bathroom,” said Mom.
He grunted. In pajamas, he went outside into the darkness. He sat on the stairs and smoked for a while. I don’t know how long, because I fell asleep.
The following day, Daddy came back from work with two electric lights. One of them was small and green, made in China. The second one was Romanian, exactly like the one I had broken.
“If you play with them, I’ll scalp you,” he said as soon as he came in.
On Saturday night he went to the other side of town, right across the road from the refrigerator factory, to watch his movie with Cousin Tase. When he got back, he told us, “I had to smash a dog over its muzzle with my umbrella. It was a small, one-eyed dog. He probably lost the other eye on those copper wires poking out of the ground.”
I thought Daddy was right. They’d left behind all kinds of construction debris after they finished the blockhouses, and since they’d started to save energy by turning the lights off every night, I’d noticed a lot of one-eyed dogs in our beautiful hometown.
The next morning Daddy took the bike and went to the market. He brought home a big iron box with glass on one side. It looked like an empty TV set.
“What’s this junk?” asked Mom.
“Some stuff,” said Daddy. He crossed himself and said, “Oh, Lord, forgive me for working on the holy day of Sunday.” Then he put the box on the kitchen table and started to work at something. For a while he didn’t notice me. Then he said, “Get out of here.”
I watched quietly while he pulled three wires out of the box, each one a different color. With a little chisel, he punched about ten little holes in the top. There was a hole in the glass, too, through which he passed a rubber tube. After that I don’t know what he did, because he kicked me out for real.
Monday evening Daddy didn’t say anything when he came home from work. He went directly to the closet, took out his box, and started to work on it. He put a sort of toothed wheel inside, perhaps from an old bike, but with lateral blades instead of teeth. He connected the wheel to a 4.5-volt battery on the outside of the box—the last one we had in the house.
“What are you going to do with this?” asked Mom.
“I’m going to solve all of your problems,” said Daddy. “Absolutely all.”
His answer sounded a little bit strange to me, but I didn’t say anything. I had no idea what was coming next.
I watched him in surprise. He thrust ten cigars—Marasesti, without filters—into the holes punched in the top of the box. Then he lit them and started to smoke, breathing deeply through the tube, smoking all ten cigars at once. Then he suddenly grew yellow and collapsed on the floor, his fists clenched, and his eyes rolled up into his head.
Aunt Neli, who had a driving license, took her car from the garage and drove Daddy to the emergency room. She and Mom had to carry him to the car, after they had slapped him in the face and tried to make him wake up by waving alcohol under his nose. He looked like a possum playing dead. I held the door open.
The ride wasn’t long. When you’re in a car, everything is close in Gaiesti.
In the emergency room, while waiting, Daddy realized where we were. Aunt Neli spoke with the doctor, so Daddy’s turn came sooner. The doctor said right away, “Well, it’s clear, intoxication by nicotine. Do you smoke a lot?”
“About forty a day,” said Daddy with a shrug.
“I see,” said the doctor. “How about three months ago?”
“I don’t think three months ago I was smoking more that twenty a day.”
“Where do you work?”
Daddy took several deep breaths. “In the electrical section of the Chimia factory.”
“Okay,” said the doctor. “It’s not serious, but you need to drink a lot of milk tonight, and slow down with the smoking, please.”
“Doctor,” Mom said suddenly, “I don’t know what’s going on with him. Now he’s made himself a hookah.”
But the doctor wasn’t paying attention to them anymore. He was staring at me.
“Since when has this child had these symptoms?”
He crossed the room to examine me. I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that the spots had appeared again. On my face, on my neck, everywhere. Everything was so itchy.
The doctor touched my cheek. He had warm fingers, and his touch made the itching worse than ever.
“I think it’s an allergy, maybe due to stress,” he said. “I think his body responds like this under stress.”
He pulled my eyelids. Then he whispered, “Yes.”
“Christ,” said Daddy. “Don’t tell me he’s one of those fragile creatures.”
“I’ll write him a prescription. I’m not sure when he’ll get over it. This is something he could have all his life. He needs something to soothe his skin.”
As we trooped out of the emergency room, I peeked back and saw the doctor slap Aunt Neli’s behind. She laughed. Then she drove all of us home. By the light of a candle, Daddy had a glass of milk, and we all went to bed.
Next day, Mom went to the pharmacy and brought back my medicine. Which was a good thing, because my skin was really itchy all that week. The medicine was damn good, better than the alcohol or the cold coin, better than anything I’d ever had. Every time the rash came back I could rub it on my skin and I wouldn’t feel the itching anymore.
Wednesday afternoon Daddy came from his work and, as usual, went directly to the closet. He rummaged around angrily.
“Where’s my smoke amplifier?” he yelled.
“I won’t let you smoke ten cigars at once, you animal,” Mom told him.
“Where did you put it?” Daddy stood with his hands on his hips, his eyes wide.
“I won’t let you do it again.”
“I’ll kill you!”
“You’d rather kill yourself! Don’t you remember what the doctor said?”
“It’s not a hookah.”
“Then what is it?”
“I can’t tell you right now. Where did you put it?”
“In the basement.”
After a minute Daddy returned with his box, stomped into the kitchen, told us to get out, and locked the door. We could hear the chisel and the hammer until almost midnight, even in complete darkness. At some point I woke up and felt the itch again, this time over my knees. I dabbed on some medicine with cotton wool. When the itch went away, I fell back to sleep.
This is what Daddy did all week long. He worked every evening in the kitchen with the door locked, sometimes by the light of the lamp.
Saturday night Mom asked him, “Aren’t you going to your cousin’s to see your Falconetti movie?”
“We don’t need that anymore,” said Daddy, and his eyes sketched a smile. “Don’t ask. You’ll see why.” He got his box.
“Oh, no, don’t you bring that hookah in the bedroom,” said Mom, glaring at the ten cigars on the top of the box.
“Get out of my way,” said Daddy.
“You will not smoke here.” Mom stood with her arms crossed.
“That’s right. The smoke gets sucked into this rubber interceptor and then goes outside through this hose. The hose is three meters long, so it won’t send the smoke to Neli’s balcony. Go ahead and aim it toward Mrs. Popescu’s balcony. She’s a witch, she can take it.”
Mom did everything she was told.
Daddy sat on the floor on a pillow, like a sultan. He connected the TV set’s electrical cord to the hookah’s plug. Only then did I notice that the hookah had a plug. With a proud gesture, he pressed a button on the box. A strange humming came from inside as the toothed wheel started to whir in a smooth rotation. Daddy started to smoke through another hose, all ten cigars at once. He looked like he was playing a Scottish bagpipe. After a few seconds, a small red light blinked on.
Catching his breath, Daddy said, “Turn on the TV.”
I did. And the picture came to life. The image was smaller than usual, but we could see it very well. Daddy’s favorite movie had just started. We watched for a couple of minutes, and the whole time Daddy had to smoke from the machine. That contraption was now our new electric plug.
“Isn’t this bad for your health?” Mom asked dubiously.
“No way,” said Daddy. “I am now using a chemical filter that reduces the level of nicotine about thirty times. I have tested it in the lab at work. Not even the Americans can do better than that.”
We kept watching the movie. After a while, Daddy said, “That Falconetti really has guts.”
I looked out the window. The same deep darkness stretched out as far as ever. But in this part of the town, if only at our window, the pale blue light of a TV set was shining.