Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

 

One day Cupcake stopped showing up altogether. For the last few months they’d seen him less and less often on his favourite bench, and when he did turn up, he behaved himself. Finally he disappeared entirely. Had the neighbourhood thugs beaten him up? No, they hadn’t, or at least nobody had run into him on the street with a black eye or a broken nose, not for months now. The neighbourhood started getting used to the idea that Cupcake had settled down, that he was sitting at home with his Mattie the Fatty and sobering up. It was the logical end to their whole culinary romance, and besides, nobody had seen an obituary. Good old Cupcake was sitting at home, drying out, and was no doubt ashamed to show his face outside after all he had said to the girls over the years.

He surely wants us to forget about him, we thought to ourselves. Mercifully we had even already blocked out one or other of his features, some trill in his intonation, some specific tang of his unwashed aroma, this or that wild hairstyle that would appear on his head on windier days. We sensed these absences most keenly in the ‘before Mattie’ column, and the more Cupcake was gone, the harder it was for us to imagine that he had even existed before her.

When Mattie started working at the supermarket, she wasn’t too sure what people should call her or how she should introduce herself. She was a mastodonic Serbian woman, she didn’t like standing in the kitchen behind the deli case, because the space was too tight for her, instead she was always smoking cigarettes at the back door, winding her long bleached-blonde hair around a finger and sometimes even giving the local kids bruised cupcakes that were still fine to eat but unsellable due to their sorry appearance. In return, the little brats stubbornly refused to call her Auntie Mattie, as she had introduced herself, and instead shouted ‘Mattie the Fatty!’ every morning as they passed by on the street, on their way to some fictitiously functioning and even more fictitiously prestigious local school, and she with her ever-present cigarette in one hand, on her way from the subway to the supermarket.

 

Mattie and Cupcake were among the local characters, they loved hanging around outside, gawking and being gawked at, each of them at their favorite spots – the benches on the square or the back door of the supermarket. In fact, of the thirty people who worked at the corrugated-iron store which had somehow survived from the 70s and which had suddenly turned out to be practically swanky, only the Serb ever poked her nose outside. The others stayed in their departments, stashing things under the counter and rarely uttering so much as a ‘good morning’ to the overly polite clients in this slightly parvenue neighborhood. They looked down on Izgrev and likely on its wealthy residents as well, they swore at the teenagers’ strange haircuts, grew indignant at the perfect Bulgarian spoken by the Russian and Vietnamese ladies from the embassies, and looked to reduce their contact with them to a minimum.

Not that Cupcake was one of these clients, but he was somehow even more repulsive to them. Weather permitting, he would sit on his bench around the clock with his plastic bottle of draught brandy in one hand, his head slightly cocked to one side, in those same ‘shit-stained’ – as the saleswomen and stock boys put it – pants, with his hair grown out to no length in particular, staticky and creased every which way, which made it look even dirtier. So Cupcake would sit on his bench and drink his booze, but the most annoying thing was whenever some young girl cut through the square, he would start screaming at her. When school got out and the girls were walking home, he would launch into two straight hours of uninterrupted wolf howls: ‘Hey there, cupcake, hey, little creampuff, come over here, why dontcha sit by me, sweet little meringue, stop a second, my little chocolate éclair, sit with me a while, sugar’ and so on. By the time I moved into the neighborhood, nobody remembered his name or what his job had been before he had parked himself once and for all on that bench by the playground.

Cupcake’s daily life passed by utterly uneventfully – the bench, the booze, the shit-stained pants, the constant shouting at the girls, a beating now and then, when he irked one of the neighbourhood thugs’ girlfriends, but the next day he would be back in his usual spot, slightly beaten up, but always at his post. He never went hoarse, because his voice had long since lost all superfluous timbral embellishments, he was left with only the raw thread of screeching, like a parrot who throughout its entire twenty-year life repeats the same dirty word over and over in unceasing euphoria.

 

One day Mattie the Fatty saw Cupcake, who had strayed from his regular route. Where their meeting had taken place, how exactly the sparks flew we don’t know, but Cupcake started eating Cesar salads and stuffed grape leaves out of square plastic deli boxes, and he would even leave his post sometimes to keep the Serbian woman company in her ever more frequent smoke breaks by the back door. She, for her part, started gussying herself up, as she put it – she was just now substituting Serbian schminka with ‘make-up’ in her vocabulary, but from the gang of kids who were eternally kicking a ball around the parking lot behind the supermarket she’d also learned a few choice Bulgarian phrases. She started slimming down, which did not go unnoticed by the neighborhood squaws.

Cupcake grew neater by the day – first, one tail of his shirt turned up surprisingly tucked into those fearsome pants, then the other; one day he was spotted with his hair combed, afterwards a new pair of jeans even appeared, and it’s not that he wasn’t drinking, but now he kept his balance, he almost didn’t stagger and he even gave up on hollering at the school girls. In the evenings Mattie the Fatty would take him by the arm and lead him home somewhere, and with every passing day Cupcake leaned a little less heavily on her huge, pastry-pink elbow. By day, he would sit on his usual bench and stuff himself with culinary wonders from the supermarket. By night, it was said that he even sometimes made it into the shower. On other days he would straight up disappear and afterwards we would see him, say, with a new haircut.

Mattie the Fatty grew prettier, never mind that she was enormous and not particularly young, and the kids would run after her singing the wedding march, but she didn’t say anything and kept on bringing them the beaten-up cupcakes that couldn’t be sold, she just stopped smoking between her thumb and her pointer finger with that bitterness of hers, now she would simply watch the world around the backdoor of the store, barely inhaling, with a refined, TV-worthy gesture. What with all of that, no one was surprised when Cupcake disappeared altogether, abandoning his bench and putting a stop to his strolls to the moonshine booth at the market. We would have erased him from our memories entirely, would have written him off as officially recovered and forgotten all about him if we hadn’t seen him on the news one night. It was June, muggy, a storm was just beginning, the neighbours were propping open the windows to let the gusty wind in along with the raindrops, dust and fluff from the poplar trees, letting it rage through their homes for a few minutes to cool them down, they brought their little tables, deck chairs and tomcats in from the balconies, and at exactly a few minutes to eight, when the warning rumbles changed into a true deluge, they closed the balcony doors and turned on their TVs.

So-and-so’s body had been discovered in the Suhodol Dump, they said, the man had three perfectly normal names and, besides a missing toe on one foot, he seems to have died a natural death. Nobody would’ve paid attention to such a report, especially not in this neighbourhood, where doors were left unlocked and kids hung around outside until the retirees began to gripe about the late-night racket. So-and-so’s body could not have been a part of our reality, if it weren’t for the passport picture (or perhaps mug shot) of Cupcake from his most drunken period staring out at us from the news. The time of death was put at approximately a month ago, but the precise cause could not be discerned from the body’s external appearance, it had been discovered a week ago, but the police ran up against quite a few difficulties in identifying it. The individual in question, Mr So-and-So, had no living relatives, he lived alone, was unemployed, and got by on loans. The intelligent sergeant on the screen opened his mouth to say something more, but was rudely interrupted by the following report on road rage, an ominous series of parallel cuts of bent up guardrails, highway patrol men with thick voices, even thicker accents, and plenty of tragic consequences.

It took about a week to untangle the story around his death. First, it got around that a large, bleached-blonde woman had been seen tossing a huge black trash bag with suspicious contents into the dumpster behind supermarket X in the neighbourhood very early on the morning of May 1. The garbage from this region was in principle baled, but due to corruption schemes that have yet to be clarified, on certain nights it was illegally transported to the supposedly closed dump in Suhodol. The case of so-and-so’s body marked the beginning of yet another investigation into the siphoning of money from who-knows-what EU program which would later lead to precisely zero results, or more precisely, to the dump in Suhodol in the form of a well-shredded folder of letters, complaints, reports and who knows what else.

 

And what became of Cupcake in the end? Cupcake, who already almost died from drink once or twice, his overloaded organism had given up on life and only the doctors’ pummeling dragged him back into this world. Cupcake, who adores sweets, of course, but was told that if he kept on drinking or if he so much as touched something sweet, he would die, ‘you understand, you worthless piece of trash, next time we’re not going to save you!’ the last young and frowning doctor had said at the last ER, where he had ended up recently, dying of shame that he would have to lose the first of what perhaps would be most of his toes, as if he’d lost yet another battle. He arrives at the hospital hanging his head (the doctors hate, they downright despise people who systematically destroy themselves). Cupcake leaves, limping out of the hospital and keeps right on doing what he had decided to do – drinking and not touching anything sweet. Then he meets Mattie and even cuts down on his drinking. With Mattie, the game is clear – he wants someone to take care of him, she wants citizenship, they’re already practically married; besides that, he adores her, all pink and plentiful, a mountain of strawberry cream, whipped frosting, caramel folds, the lemony scent of her skin, other places with a whiff of rum, melon and mascarpone, they love food, they devote themselves to it, they had both gone to cooking schools, at night they often lie next to each other helplessly, he likes Mattie and tries to get back on his feet, but one night he gives in to temptation.

She had long since told him how to get into the supermarket, because she doesn’t always sleep at his place, and he gets hungry as a ravenous wolf sometimes, and there was so much good food there which will be thrown out if it isn’t sold, it’s a crying shame. He enters the deli trembling and his path is blocked by a huge tray of petits fours. Potatoes, I’ll just take some potatoes, he tells the tray, he’s drunk, he’s making excuses, he’s begging and pleading, but the tray doesn’t want to hear it, the drizzled lines of chocolate pull him in like an octopuses’ tentacles, the scent of cream drives him wild, the tray grows before his eyes, so what if I just take a macaroon or two? Everybody does. Nothing will happen from three or four, five won’t do any harm, six have never killed anyone… Cupcake keeps counting and polishes off the tray, discovers the jiggling pattie-pans of crème brûlée, two little chocolate cakes take him back to the days when he was a head chef, and a good deal heavier at that. I was a real man, Cupcake murmurs, as he sets upon the tiramisu, his head is spinning from the alcohol, but not so badly as to miss the donuts, he decides to open up a little bottle of liqueur to wash down the baklava, as he finishes off the Sachertorte he switches to vodka, and somewhere amidst the éclairs, sobbing softly, he loses consciousness. His last thought is: ‘In the morning, my Mattie the Fatty will have to lie that she fainted on top of the bakery case, my sweetest Mattie will have to lie because of me, she’ll have all sorts of troubles because of me, the poor thing,’ and his eyes close in a sweet tenderness, even with slight pride, because now they would see that he was not at all a worthless piece of trash.

 

Photo by Mr.T

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