Ninety-one rather short stories
© Linor Goralik, text, 2005-2013
© Maya Vinokour, translation from Russian, 2014-2015
They sent a slouching, zitty boy, the saleslady’s nephew, up to the third floor for him. He wasn’t busy doing anything special just then, had just sat down to eat — so, he put his sandwich and the apple he was chasing it with right onto the step and ran. The entrance to the deli — which is what Kirill proudly called his setup, though it was just three shelves and a fridge — led almost underground, the boy scooted along the ground, while he stooped down and carefully walked in on long legs. It was very quiet in the deli, the boy ran into the storeroom behind the register right away, he followed: there, on a wobbly chair with a soft burgundy seat, stood Astrin, stood without moving, like he had taught her to. With his hand he stopped the boy: don’t go in, while he himself stepped over the threshold, pressed his finger sternly to his lips, and slowly squatted, trying not to rustle his pant legs. Teeny-tiny Astrin, with her enormous birdlike nose and fragile fingers white-knucking the peppy blue fabric of her uniform apron, suddenly struck him as looking like an elderly schoolgirl.
He half-closed his eyes so as not to get distracted and began to listen. He heard the far right corner, where empty packs of cigarettes were lying, and hooked his hearing onto it like a loop: now suddenly something jerked, quick-quick, in a very straight line in the direction of the safe; drew around the safe in an uneven, lurching curve; poked at the steel either out of stupidity or pro forma; softly shifted off to the side, toward the dusty rubber boots bogged down in the linoleum under a rack overloaded with junk. That's when he said to himself, impatiently, “Gotcha!” and started to carefully pull that imaginary thread, he even moved his fingers along roundly: that’s right, that’s right. At first, as always, the thing on the other end froze, frightened; then seemed to wrench back and forth, back and forth; then obeyed, reluctantly but smoothly, that’s right, that’s right, and suddenly — there it is, in the middle of the room! Astrin, unable to help herself, squealed with fright, the mental thread broke off; he snarled angrily, hurriedly jerked forward, almost fell, even hit his finger on the linoleum — but caught, caught by the tail, at the last second, a small, mean, furiously screeching maus.
Behind him, the nephew hollered with delight, Kirill, who had previously been invisible behind the rack overgrown with junk, burst out laughing, Astrin, still afraid to get off the chair, exhaled piteously. He carried the maus over to the service yard and carefully released him, but came back with a demeanor of studied severity and gloominess and demonstratively wiped the sole of his shoe against the bristly doormat. Accepted from Kirill a parcel with payment for his labor: two pounds of apples, a loaf of bread, salami — a quarter pound, sliced, chocolate-covered cookies, tasty. Went back to the third floor, to the soft, slurping rollers dripping festive white paint that was pleasant to him. At home in Makhachkala he has two daughters, both talented, they draw well, pay a special tutor. At home he wouldn’t know how to do anything like this —had once stamped his foot rhythmically at a nightmarishly enormous, lustrous cockroach, but it shot up the wall and then, at enormous speed, sank sideways behind the line of the ceiling molding.
…But on those few days when there was complete clarity, when he did not confuse his middle daughter with his younger sister or the head nurse with his first wife, the name “Sulen’ka” would suddenly begin to creep up on him, a nauseating and viscous name, long ago banished with hatred from his own and others’ memories. No matter how he turned his side toward the window, no matter how tightly and carefully he put on his well-worn blue slippers, he kept thinking about himself: “Sulen’ka, Sulenk’a,” — but now there was no one to scream at to forget, not to dare; there was no one to hit in the stomach with the edge of his palm, no one on whose foot a felicitously placed stool could be slammed in fury; there was no one left.
It had turned out to be a bad business, he was going there, as he himself thought, to seek advice, but in reality — well, why does anyone go to houses like that? To ease the soul, to cleanse oneself, to repent, to be absolved, to be bathed in all that… all that stuff. He brought with him something appropriate (something a little expensive and petty at the same time) — waffle cookies that are not waffles in the human sense, but in the German, Alpine, viscous one. And they gave him tea in a glass-holder pitted with ancestral memory, and Mashen’ka awakened (“Oh look, Mashen’ka’s hatched!”) — Mashen’ka awakened, ran into the kitchen on her unsteady, fat little legs in white tights — clever head like a little pumpkin, skin translucently bluish, eyes black with sleep. Oh, it was really an ugly business; he waits to speak, everyone already knows about this ugly business, smelling of blackmail — intelligentsia blackmail, “for everything good against everything bad,” but blackmail all the same, ordinary blackmail with money and all that. Everyone knows everything, there’s already a consensus: now he’ll start talking, repent — and be forgiven, consoled; at the end of the day, it was his right — but surely not in front of Mashen’ka?
No, a couple more minutes. Mashka, what can I get you? The nice man has tea, do you want tea? Mashen’ka wants “juice with a little stick.” Mashen’ka’s mother, glittering with the impossible, nineteenth-century part in her hair (in Moscow apartments like this one, parts never ceased to glitter, not even in the gray, lice-infested, communal years), raises her darling, aristocratic eyebrows as if to say, well would you look at her! A tall glass is placed between Mashen’ka’s two little paws, tomato juice pours in heavy glugs, then salt, then a slice of lemon, then a dash of black pepper — and a little stick of celery. Wow! Wow and another couple interjections. Mashen’ka licks the celery, Masha, go play the piano — that’s a family joke, the obligatory piano has long since stiffened, lives in the half-dead room next door, Masha plays on the black-covered keyboard with her red-and-yellow pull-apart robots. He’s never seen this piano — this pianette, this pianella — but suddenly does see it through the wall separating the dead room from the eternally living kitchen: on the lid is definitely something sentimental, but ironically so; what? He sees teacups, Soviet china in large dots that has arranged itself — as he can see — into an eternal guard. Very charming, charming and witty. Right on the saucers, and he sees the off-center teapot, and in the teacups, of course, charming, charming trash — a pinecone, a twig, a pinewood slingshot spontaneously generated in Gorky Park, a ballpoint, snallpoint, thingamabob. Mashen’ka has run off to the piano, and now he’s about ready to talk — but what is there is talk about? Ready to explain himself; he developed it, it was his scientific baby, they promised, and now — they’ve leaked it, they might as well pay him, — “But why do I still feel like such an asshole?” “Pasha, my dear, that’s just because (here the unnecessary words he came here for, came crawling, brought an offering of viscous waffle cookies)… And, certainly, you did for them… (more, more — and here, somewhere, is where he will start to mellow out). “And it’s only thanks to you that they… And you had every right… But they… But you…” “But why, why do I feel like such an asshole?” “My dear, it’s because it’s just because that’s how we all are, we’re all incapable of…” (after this something that mellows him out: we’re good people, everyone else is bad, pettings, scratchings, mutual caressings). “I don’t even know.” “Well but we do know.” They know, they know — so let them say. Five minutes, and that’s it. Oh please, let’s just start already. He’s already readied himself, sucked in his belly: “Listen, can I just vent for a second…” Mashen’ka runs in, Mashen’ka is carrying a half-empty glass, her translucent face covered in meaty juice: “Mama, I want to play a word game!” “In Russian or in English?”
And here he up and said very calmly and very, very loudly:
“Ablarblarblabarblablabla. Burbalblablablablabla. Purbulbal bow wow brawrarawrawraw. Suburbarubula. Bow wow wow rawrawrawrarawrawaburpburpuprupr bla.”
And then came a moment where it felt like something sticky, neat, wafery crunched and unglued inside his chest. He even wanted to silently open his mouth wide like the mouth of a fountain — so that “blargblurl blurburblurbluarlblarg” would pour out of there in a thick, black, even stream. Or bark out of there. Barking would be even better. He really did open his mouth wide and something did bark out of there — did it ever; and it was as if even this charming, charming, cottony kitchen of ours exploded into black, clean, cold streams that crashed into its walls. But the part blazed gently, the great-grandmother’s teaspoon clinked against the great-grandfather’s teacup, merry Mashen’ka shouted, “That’s not English! I know, I know, that’s not English!”
Oh, Pasha, Pasha, Pasha. Oh, Pasha, Pasha, Pasha. Oh, Pasha.
The run was five miles long, but at a good pace you could make it to the regimental canteen in seven minutes. But the pace were managing just now would get us there in more like fifteen. Or an hour. Or three hours. More likely than not, we would have simply fallen down in the hundred-degree heat right behind the shooting range — no one would have found us before dinner, and after dinner it would be too late. That’s on top of having to bend down to get our plate. On the edge of the plate, traces of the morning’s porridge had darkened from heat, a thin slice of cucumber had wrinkled and greyed. In the hour it had taken us to run, that bitch could have taken the plate away herself. Even with her crutch. With her crutch it’s probably like fifteen minutes to the canteen. While we were running five miles, she was sitting in the tent under the fan. We asked if her leg hurt a lot. She said, yes, a lot. We asked, if that’s the case, shouldn’t we take her to the nurse. She said, the nurse is gone and will only be back tomorrow. And thanks again for bringing her breakfast before the run. And that our wrists are pretty well chafed where the strap’s loops hit. And that her brother had to do a ten-mile paired run last year and his partner’s wrist chafed so badly that it even got infected. And that she has a little cotton, we could put it under the loops for the last two hours of the run, except we’d have to bend down and look for the cotton in her trunk. Although maybe it’s better not to put anything in there, since the heat and the sweating could make the chafed parts even more infected. But, if we want, the cotton is in the trunk. Under the cot. Next to the plate. We said, no thanks, we don’t need cotton. It’s very strange that there isn’t a single fly buzzing around the plate, we thought. In this part of the desert, she said suddenly, there aren’t any flies at all, it’s a scientific fact. She’s very interested in science, she’s going to submit a request to be transferred to the researcher corps. We said yesterday she brought her own breakfast and took the plate back herself. She said yesterday she was conducting a different experiment. We asked, what kind of experiment. She said she can’t tell us, the experiment has to be done blind. The fact that we know about the experiment alone could affect the scientific results. We said we can’t go anywhere, dinner is in two hours and we’ll take the plate and bring her some food. She said inspection is in half an hour and that a plate in the tent will get the regiment a penalty. I said I would take the plate, but that Rita is very tired and can’t go anywhere. Rita said she wasn’t tired but that during the run I had fallen and hit my knee and that it’s not a good idea to strain it again. She said she understands about the knee and that I shouldn’t strain it, and that if she is late, we should tell the commander that she went to take back the plate. Then she took a pencil and slip of paper out of a pocket in her uniform shirt and made a checkmark. We asked what that was. She said that she is recording the results of her experiments. We said we could tell it was just a newsstand receipt. She said it was none of our business and that we should go clean up our nightstands or the regiment would get a penalty. We said she’s bleeding under her cast. She said that’s none of our business either and that we should go clean up our nightstands because none of us need any trouble.
He only had one nightmare in this vein, and it went like this: he’s supposed to write an essay about Eugene Onegin, a term essay maybe, but he has totally forgotten that motherfucking cardboard mongrel language Soviet essays were supposed to be written in, forgot its words and constructions. In his dream he was positive that these words were not Russian but some blue-green language and that the woman who wrote everyone deathly love letters was shot in Chernomor.
4, 3, 2
He said that his fish gave birth to fishlets yesterday, small fry. They’re all little grey guys, except one who’s black, he said, seven all told. And he said that he wouldn’t show them to Fook and them because they’ll want to take them away. They said, there’s nothing to take away, his fish died. He said, that’s not true, she had babies, that the black one swims the fastest and in a straight line, and the others in circles. Fook said that he was going to give him а swirly. To which he said that Fook obviously wants to take away the fry and that he’s not going to show the jar with the fry to anyone. Anyway the jar is at his grandpa’s, he had taken it to his grandpa’s on the weekend, because his grandpa is the best at taking care of fry, he’s raised hundreds of them. Pavlik said to him: “Call your grandpa, get him to take a photo of the fish with his phone.” He said that he didn’t have his grandpa’s number, the contact accidentally got deleted. Fook tried to grab his phone with his fat flabby hands, but he almost managed to give Fook a hard kick in the leg. Out of all the fish bought near the subway that day, Fook’s fish died third. The man near the subway just sold them bad fishes, that’s all. Fook wouldn’t be bothering him right now if Fook’s fish had died first or even second, but he ragged on Pavlik and Saman horribly when their fish died. When Fook’s own fish died the next day he told everyone that he had fried and eaten it. And that the last, fourth fish would die now too. Now they asked him about that fish every day. Yesterday they wanted to go to his house and check, but he said that his mom doesn’t allow visitors, she’s scared of everyone except him and his dad. When he almost managed to give Fook a hard kick in the leg, Fook said that the next day he had to show the fish and fry, or else. And that he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the fry, you can barely even taste them. It’s just that the time had come to show that their former friend was a pussy-ass little shit. “No,” he said to Fook, “You’ll take my fry and they’ll die on you, like your fish.” Then Pavlik said, “You haven’t lived but you’re a dead man already,” that was a phrase they had. He himself had used it a million times before. Very slowly, on legs that weren’t his, he trudged homeward. A week ago, when they were all still friends, a man near the subway had sold them four bad fish. Or three bad ones and one good one, it was impossible to tell now. He hadn’t thought that his mom would be afraid of the fish, last summer he had brought home a beautiful beetle like an oil slick and his mom had liked looking at it. But that was last summer.
It happened every time she locked her pot-and-pan cabinet in the hallway common to the three apartments, made a wrong move and the key, instead of clicking confidently, made a sucking noise, having turned in vain. The hallway was large and cold, where the apartment itself was too hot compared to the previous one, which had been small and cold throughout. Before that she had lived in a white apartment with a totally empty kitchen and low ceilings, and before that in a narrow three-room pencilbox on the Patriarch Ponds. From there memory kept pushing her, as she stood at a slant, half-bent in front of the recalcitrant cabinet, from one interior to the next: hallways and bathrooms began to blur together, moisture-warped doors crumbled, landlords’ sideboards clinked; the same way drunken, scary old Anya had driven her crying husband from room to room at the Liskins’ dacha, silently smacking him on the head with a rolled-up Woman Worker magazine until he stumbled over his own legs and fell to the ground to beg forgiveness for some unknown sin. Memory dragged her through the oil-painted bedroom of her and Marik’s first rented craphole, where amid the landlord’s dank rugs and cheap officers’ crystal, a crazy white cat languished in unsatisfied lust. Having ingested a great deal of dander, she was chased from this stuffy bedroom into the Petersburg kitchen with the untameable water heater, and from there, head getting slapped with some scary stamped papers, to a enormous, suspicious room with a small, high, handmade chair at a similarly suspicious high table inlaid with some mother-of-pearl nautical fantasies. The windowsill was located almost at eyelevel: at first it seemed to her that she, having stumbled, had fallen on her knees before memory, but then it would become clear that this was her parents’ communal room in a long-since-demolished Stalin-era building. Before her parents, a big furniture boss lived there — back when he was still a small furniture boss and just warming up his little curved legs. Beyond the windowsill was mute night. Memory banged picturesquely on the underside of the loft, the loft yawned open at a completely impossible angle, revealing a straight-legged tin horse with a broken-off Pioneer rider among the overtaxed leather suitcases and fantastically thick black jams. In the side of this horse was a key. If one turned it, the night would be illuminated by two headlights, frightened voices would turn on in the common hallway, while Dad’s calm, firm voice sounded at first in the courtyard, then at the door, then in the neighbors’ room, where someone would begin to cry, objects would fall, things would be counted right up to morning. Through sleep on her little couch, made up of two armchairs, she saw Dad, stern and handsome — he had popped over from the neighbors’ to drink some tea, while on the other side of the wall they kept crying and counting, and her mom carefully helped him take off his boots so that their squeaking wouldn’t wake the child. In a few days their neighbors’ room became their second one, then the horse made it so the whole three-room apartment became theirs, and the pots, squeezed into the common cabinet, situated themselves comfortably on little nails she passed to her dad as he, milky-white knees shining, crawled from the table to the newspaper-covered sideboard and back. A month later she dropped the horse, tried to wind it up — the key made a grinding noise and slipped, beyond the windowsill the headlights came on, Dad was home. People walked across the new rug right in their boots, books began to fall on the floor, mom told her to face the wall and not turn around until given permission. Behind her, tin crunched and someone screamed horribly: that, evidently, was the Pioneer being broken off. Afterward, she described this horse to everyone in the orphanage (and hit those who wouldn’t to listen); the only thing that she herself still could not understand in this story was how, in the deserted apartment, the horse moved from the floor to the loft.
The only reasonable mirror was in the hallway: when she came out of the bathroom, her gaze would catch in the mirror and she would get stuck. With the years she had grown used to looking at herself as if through a narrow slit: she had a good belly and bad thick thighs. That morning she had calculated that she’d need about an hour and a half all told, with a little leeway just in case. At five she turned on the water in the tub and spent a little while worrying about her nails: she could remove the polish now, but then they’d soften in the tub and it would be harder to paint them. She could do the bath first, and then the polish (no matter how you sliced it, you couldn’t do a full-on manicure, that would have required leaving work at three), but then it would smudge during the rest of it. She could paint them right now, sit there, nails drying, and worry about the clock’s incessant ticking. She could write him to come a half hour later. She turned off the water in the tub and started rooting through the bag of polishes. Evidently the smartest thing would be to do everything else first, and then quickly cut the nails short and apply a single layer of clear polish. That was really undesirable, but there didn’t seem to be a better option. She turned the water on again, stuck her PJs in the hamper and turned it around so its maw would face the wall. She had cleaned her place the day before. The eternal question of stockings hadn’t been decided and couldn’t be: she firmly believed that they were absolutely essential, but with her thighs they looked really iffy, even the ones with the wide thick elastic on top. On the other hand, on either side there would be the edges of the black robe, and besides, during the main event none of that would matter anyway. She dug through a drawer, drawing out by the strap a black lace garter belt whose hour had finally arrived: although the stockings were held up by silicone, she always thought that stockings look cheap without a belt. The bathwater turned out to be too hot, and she sensed that sitting there too long would give her a headache. So she pushed back washing her hair and began by shaving her mons pubis and upper thighs under running water (here the thought of his bare hand touching that bare mons unleashed a wave of anticipatory arousal she decided not to suppress, letting herself slowly float on the acute, tense feeling of expectation). Her hair had to be washed and dried because the steam had made her hairdo fall apart, and of course she had to use fast-drying product and now she couldn’t shake the disgusting feeling that if he grabbed her by the hair, strands of it would stick out stiffly above her crown — but in the dark, again, this wouldn’t matter. After the bath her skin felt tight, she began to spread a strongly-scented citrus moisturizer on her legs, but then suddenly felt embarrassed by its blatant, demanding smell, quickly toweled off her one leg and selected a different moisturizer, a vanilla one (which immediately seemed to her too girly, she got angry at herself and finished spreading it on the rest of her body, and her back, as always, turned out to be wet, the cream slid unpleasantly on the skin). About forty minutes were left — and the nails. The nails had to be done after everything, after makeup, and she very much wanted to avoid foundation, because since her youth she had been hounded by the silly notion that leaving traces of foundation on the pillow (like for example when you’re face down, and again the heat of anticipation poured over her) is shameful, although if it’s traces of eye shadow (mascara, of course, has become waterproof since those times, thank God), then for some reason it’s not shameful. Also, as always, she didn’t want to put on the corset until the last second because the lavender one (the black one seemed to her today not unlike the citrus moisturizer, no, I can’t even) was, to be honest, too small, and to wait in it for twenty minutes (if no one is late, of course) — leaving aside that it’s slightly difficult to breathe, her back would get sweaty again. For a few seconds she stood over her laid-out things: she could pull on the stockings now, attach the garter belt over the silicone (over the silicone isn’t so easy, by the way), put on the satin robe, and then, at the last second, once the intercom sounded, get herself into the corset. But then she might smudge her nails and that wouldn’t do, that wouldn’t do at all. Once in the corset, she breathed in and out for a few seconds, moved her shoulder blades around, bent down a few times so that the cold clasps would arrange themselves properly on her damp back. Here it occurred to her that she could paint her nails standing up — it’s super easy with the clear polish, and sitting in the corset is hardly a pleasure. All that was left was lipstick and shoes. She hoped very much that today was not one of those days when the lipstick, for reasons totally defying understanding, refuses to behave properly at the corners of the mouth, has to be wiped off over and over, the lips swelling, their contour growing imperceptible, and everything becoming a kind of unshakeable nightmare (about three minutes left now). The lipstick adhered itself properly, she just had to correct the always-rough edge of her upper lip with lipliner. The shoes has had been planning to wear slid off these particular stockings (she had forgotten), and the only ones that didn’t slide off looked too chunky with the robe. She took off her glasses and looked into the mirror again. The shoes looked fine. The robe and corset looked fine. The woman in the mirror, plumpish and not very young, though rather well groomed, looked fine. The intercom squawked. She went to the living room, stood for a moment, perusing the glasses, bottle, fruit, and then, carefully squatting in her high heels, raised the edges of her robe and lay down on the rug, her head almost butting up against a bed leg. The intercom squawked again, perplexed. She closed her eyes, thrust her arms out to the sides, and told herself honestly that, really, the important thing had already happened.
To Masha and Gleb
He said that he had dreamed the answer to everything. That he had dreamed the answer to all the questions, like why things in Russia are going the way they are and whatnot.
“We were sitting there at the dacha in Abramtsevo,” he said, “Like, with some friends of mine. And there are actually trees there, it’s not just a dacha, you know, a little village house. People live their own kind of life there, I mean besides the vacationers. And there’s this one little guy there — not an alkie, but like… He’s not quite a hobo, but, you know, kind of a deadbeat. He drinks a fair bit, but he’s not an alkie, and not homeless, but definitely a moocher. Not because he’s in distress, that’s just how he lives his life. That’s just how the guy is. And everyone would heckle and harass him, but indulgently, because he was constantly saying things that were horribly…not vulgar, but there’s a word for it. Raunchy, that’s it, raunchy things. He didn’t get all up on anyone, didn’t grab anyone, but there were always these gestures, or like little sweary verses, or he would shove the ladies at the guys, that’s how he was. Raunchy. And all the locals harassed him. So once we were sitting at the table in the front garden, having tea. Just us, you know, whoever we were visiting in Abramtsevo, about seven of us. He walked up and started to say whatever it is he always says, he’s a little drunk, a little filthy, but it’s not gross, it’s even funny. And we see that he keeps eyeing the food. Masha — whose house it was — says to him, why don’t you eat with us. Well, he says some kind of convoluted thank you, with all these frills and flounces, takes a bun, but he doesn’t sit down, he leans against a birch tree and eats. And he talks to us the way he always talks: “And do you sleep with your husband? And how many times? Do you have a big cock? Do you have kids? How many kids? Who’s the daddy? How about you, any kids? How about you?” Masha asks him, “How about you, any kids?” And he says, “No.” Masha: “How come?” And that’s when he starts taking off his pants. And we all feel super embarrassed, I mean, we were having such a nice chat, it was funny, and now he’s going to ruin everything in this stupid way. So he takes off his pants — and instead of a member there’s a stub. That is, a stump. Not like how a doctor would have done it, or like a castration, everything’s where it should be, it’s just the member is chopped off at the base, like it was just — thwack. But the diameter is like huge, you can tell. We’re all: “Shit, what happened?” And he’s all reluctant all of a sudden, and starts to kind of half tell this story, don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt anymore, it was a long time ago, yadda yadda, blah blah — so like, this one time I was doing the deed with some of our broads in the bushes, we got pretty loud, we were kind of wasted, we were laughing, and then their dudes showed up, they beat me up bad and then right with an axe — thwack. We’re all: “Oh man.” And here I look at him carefully, and he’s all curly-haired, bowlegged, a little drunk… And I realize that a long time ago some Russian muzhiks castrated Pan in the bushes nearby. And since then, obviously, that was it.
They were silent for a bit and then said to him, again calling him by name and patronymic, that he it was time to decide something about Sasha, that the transplant surgeons would be here in a minute, that his wife had already agreed to sign the consent form, that he had to decide something or other. He said he had no idea what they’re even talking about.
“What’s scary,” he said reluctantly, “Is when you’re serving with guys from the Caucasus and they say to you: ‘Bro, no big deal, but could you get us some water whenever.’”
She was so scared that she had to constantly tell herself: “relax your belly,” “relax your belly,” “relax your belly,” but still, when she and Mom came out of the store, her abs hurt so badly from the strain, it was like she had spent three hours at the gym the day before. Outside, in the sun, among people, she felt some relief, and the whole outing stopped seeming like such a dangerous idea. Mom had agreed to leave the house, Mom had let her buy her a new dress (because the old one, let’s be honest, had gotten pretty horrifying-looking over the past week), Mom wasn’t crying, her hand was trusting and soft, and she managed to convince herself that Mom won’t break away, won’t run off. Mom had always loved éclairs: they used to eat them from both ends at once and always jokingly fought over the tasty middle piece with their little spoons, and each time mom would boisterously admit defeat, concede. The waiter said that the éclairs were very fresh, very good. She looked at Mom questioningly, Mom nodded, and there was an enormous, joyful feeling of relief. “One, please,” she said to the waiter, and here Mom said: “I want one too,” and she, choking on her own voice, asked the waiter for two éclairs. But when the waiter put down two little plates and Mom picked up her little spoon, she carefully ate a little piece of Mom’s éclair, and Mom didn’t get annoyed, she even smiled, and everything fell into place, and she inhaled with force — dropping her head back, thirstily, until her chest hurt, because it suddenly seemed to her that she hadn’t breathed at all in the past four days. That’s how, at first, she looked at the people who approached their table and called Mom by an unfamiliar name — head back, mouth half-open, and she already knew that to exhale meant to lose everything; but when they started asking Mom if anything hurt, and when one of them tried to pick her up, and she stretched her arms toward him, she did exhale, started screaming and waving her teaspoon stupidly at those people, and one of them suddenly shielded himself with his hands, frightened, as though he was waiting for a blow with something huge and heavy. She screamed and writhed, they held her, some other woman, tears pouring, was already kissing Mom, the store salesman — goddamn gray-haired geezer, he hadn’t wanted to bring them the dress and instead kept asking why she “called that little girl Mom,” — was looking in her direction, gray lips pursed, and someone was already writing down his unintelligible but obviously disgusting words into a hard-backed notepad. Then she was led to a car, and she resisted and tried to tell them that she can’t return to the future without Mom, that she has to take Mom with her to the future, that she can’t go on otherwise. They understood and promised to help her, and she apologized for screaming and said that in the future, there are no policemen, and she just wasn’t used to it, just didn’t know the right way to behave.
Everything is Fine
Not only was the ice cream the best ice cream in the world, but also the weather was the best weather in the world, and the pebbles they found were the roundest, pebbliest, weightiest pebbles in the world, and Tima didn’t keep straining his harness, but behaved really well, and Yon’ka secretly fed him a scoop of ice cream, which Tima was absolutely in no way allowed to have, and Tima ended up all smeared with it, and Marinka guessed everything, and told on her brother to Mom and Aleksei, and Yon’ka would have certainly gotten it in a big way if it had not been the best day in the world. They had been planning this day for almost a month, Aleksei kept trying to convince her, and she would initially yield, then say, “No,” and he never argued, said: “OK, no it is,” and she would think each time that if he hadn’t been so laid back, she would never have gotten to know him in the first place, if even once during these past five months he had tried to pressure her, hurry her, push, she would never have agreed that time even to have tea with him in the hospital cafeteria. He had walked up to her when she was standing in the middle of an empty parking lot, in the hellish sun, just standing, not knowing how to go on living, and said: “I’m Aleksei, I work here, I’m a physical therapist. There’s a cafeteria, would you like some tea?” And she said, “No,” and he said, “Sorry,” and started walking back toward the hospital, and then she said, “OK, let’s go.” And when he said that they should finally spend a day off all together, really together, with the kids and Timur, she said “no” and continued to say “no,” “no,” “no,” — when he suggested not going to Izmailovo, but just coming out to a little park on Pokrovsky Boulevard, when he said that they shouldn’t eat in a café but take food with them so as not to risk it with Yon’ka’s mysterious new allergy — she would say: “No,” he would say, “Sure, ok,” and then bring by a map of the park, or tell her about the weekend weather report, or appear out of nowhere with a dusty picnic basket, put it on the balcony and explain to Marinka where things go (“forks on the left, knives on the right, like in the picture, see?”) So when he said that they should take Timur along, she, of course, said “No,” and he acquiesced and didn’t say anything for a couple of days, but then brought a wide harness with a clasp on the back for Timur. This was so barefaced it actually took her breath away, and she threw the harness at him, the clasp hit him in the ear, he clutched at it, and then calmly picked up the harness and put it not in his backpack, but into the hallway coat closet. And, of course, they took Timur with them, and he behaved himself really well, strode confidently up ahead on the wide short leash, and then, when she took his container of food out of the basket, Tima suddenly looked at her with totally clear eyes and embraced Yon’ka with a steady, robust motion, a motion as accurate as if there had never been any stroke.
The Door in the Wall
He was probably the only one who remembered that there was a door there, and definitely the only one who would come stand near it. How this would happen he didn’t really understand himself, but toward evening he would suddenly stop playing and walk for a long time along the trembling tree-lined avenues, then turn off through the bushes, guided by the smell of raspberries, gone wild and tiny but very sweet, carpeting the ground near the wall. Having found the wooden door, he would press his ear to it and stay that way for some time. He had no idea what was over there, on the other side of the door, and it would never have occurred to him to try to glance into one of the cracks, to say nothing of opening it, though of course it wasn’t locked. He, this boy, would just come here in the evenings and stand there for several minutes, listening as, on the other side, something buzzed and people of some sort walked around. Most often their voices would get closer, become intelligible for a second, he would pick out a word or two, then they would get far away again. Some became familiar, but he wouldn’t try to distinguish between them, he wasn’t interested, he just liked to stand there and listen. Sometimes a very polite male voice would penetrate from the other side, asking about the “green door.” Evidently no one would answer him, the man would talk ever louder, his voice would begin to shake, his footsteps quickened — the man, it seemed, was running back and forth along the sidewalk. Once he heard the man being loudly soothed, then someone was grappling with someone else, the man was crying, then the crying began to get further away; in the next couple of days, or maybe months he didn’t hear the man and didn’t think about it. Then this man reappeared and started to show up from time to time. He asked about the green door several evenings in a row, louder and louder, his footsteps sounded faster and faster; then evening would arrive, other voices would appear, then there would be grappling and crying, then the man would again disappear for a long while. There was nothing interesting in this — not the man, the crying, or the voices, and to the boy it was completely unclear why the man showed up there in the evenings. He never gave it any thought. The door was repainted blue some number of years or months ago, he didn’t know what for. The leprechauns who painted the door taught him to build little round musical boats out of raspberry leaves and cigarette butts and hang them in the air.
He would always move to the driver’s seat, and the driver would go out to the square or, when it was cold, he would run into the basement deli squeezed between two office buildings. If he stayed in his own seat, he would be tormented by those endless old ladies, doddering scrawny men, one of whom was named Troparion, quiet local winos. He needed that half hour, he would already start thinking about that half hour in the morning, the way alcoholics (evidently) think about their swallow, their big gulp. He felt release only during these thirty minutes a day; they were his greedy fantasy, only this fantasy was holding him up, whereas it was not he who going to see his patients, not he speaking to them in his voice, not he writing whatever it was, but some extraneous stranger surrounding his self. Half a year ago he still worried that this person would write something wrong or forget something important, and now he didn’t worry anymore but simply slept as the external person, using his voice, shooed the addled wife of a patient away from his bed; he would then wash his hands and smell the amazing, emerald colored soap in the bathroom, beautifully displayed on the highest (as far as possible from greedy hands) shelf. He himself was like a smooth, slippery, pale ball within the external person, and only the muffled sounds of the outside world, its faint, muted shuddering, could reach him through his sleep. But even so, sometimes the vile snap of a needle broken off in someone’s cramping muscle, or the smell of cucumber still clenched in the hand of an exhausted epileptic, would wake him abruptly. At such times he, himself sick with panic, incapable of understanding, in his sleepy state, what the external person had already done or not done, would begin to yell at the addled lady or to demand that the medical assistant “recheck the pressure,” and would be unable to fall asleep again until evening, it was as if a dense, knotty clot was occupying his chest. Meanwhile, the half hour of lunch break granted by the Lord was time when he could sleep with complete аbandon. In that half hour he would eat, slowly and luxuriantly, some greasy fat sandwich invented the night before and lovingly prepared that morning, then a bonbon, drink soda. Every day except Wednesday he and the driver would take their ambulance to a little courtyard on Khitrovka, jiggling over the cobblestones past the construction fence, and hide behind it for half an hour. The construction site was inactive, no one saw them, no one bothered them, and only on Wednesdays would that unpleasant dry woman be with him. He had requested her removal from himself a hundred times, and been refused a hundred times, because she was a good medical assistant but only available Wednesdays and Fridays, and would have left them for another center at the same shameful pittance. She demanded that he park the vehicle right on the boulevard, next to the tram stop, next to the church, and the understanding driver would run off to the deli so that he could switch to the driver’s seat for half an hour. Certain old women, however, would still try to ask things from underneath the window, but he would simply close his eyes or say, “Grandma, do I look like a doctor?” And tap on the steering wheel for credibility’s sake. By the time they parked on the boulevard, a timid line of old women and winos would be waiting for them, the lady assistant would hold office hours in the back, in the vehicle’s body, the winos and old women didn’t make a fuss — they knew what was up. This Wednesday he had with him whole-grain bread, a little bun with two flat halves, and inside it was mayonnaise, salad leaves, very thinly sliced tomato, Tambov ham, a tiny bit of mustard, a pickle also sliced very thin lengthwise so it wouldn’t fall out, and all this was tightly wrapped in foil to keep the shape. And Pepsi. He ate and watched a pregnant woman walking across the boulevard: drooping slightly to her left, keeping her hand on her belly — it looked like the fetus had turned over; she was pretty far along, like six months, probably, and he thought to himself that it’s sometimes easier to guess the number of months not by the belly hidden under clothes, but by the high heels: Moscow ladies wear them until, like, the seventh month. He felt surprised that such a respectable woman had walked up to the back of their vehicle, but didn’t listen closely: preggos, what can you say, saw a woman in a white coat and didn’t want to miss out. He unwrapped the roll, bit off a piece, and then the lady assistant started to bang on his window, demanded he call Kostya, said, “get ready, we’re going to move fast.” He asked what was up, the lady assistant said “I can’t really tell.” He thought with horror that now he would have to run around to the back of the ambulance and prayed to someone: “Please, just leave me these eight minutes, oh please, just leave me these eight minutes, I’m seriously dying, oh please, I’ll do anything after, just give me these eight minutes!” He asked again: “What’s the deal?” The lady assistant said again: “Let’s go, let’s go quick,” it was always like that with her, she would just give him orders and usually he was even happy about it, just not now. “Bleeding?” he asked. “Badly,” she said, “Her belly is very tight, I can’t hear the fetus, and there’s something else, I can’t tell. Let’s go, quick, come on, come on, call him, let’s go, get ready.” And this “get ready” suddenly unleashed in him a totally blind rage because it clearly said that she understood everything about him as he had been this past year, and everyone else probably also understood everything, the old women, too, and the winos. Of course he wasn’t able to get ready, even though he gave himself twenty seconds and in those twenty seconds really tasted the bonbon in his mouth, called himself “my dear,” promised himself a hot water bottle by his feet at home that evening, but that bitch kept pounding at him from the back, and he couldn’t get ready to keep living, meanwhile Kostya had already arrived and pushed him from the driver’s seat and he understood that he should really go to the back, but didn’t want to and didn’t go, just wouldn’t and didn’t and sat up front with Kostya, there was already screaming in the back, and he began to scream at Kostya (who also, most likely, understood everything, since everyone did) and Kostya swerved — decided to speed down sidestreets to avoid the gridlock, which would have reacted to their siren like a corpse to compresses, and then the car turned with a special gentleness, as if doing a dance step, and rolled onto its right-hand tires, and Kostya, open-mouthed, leaned on the wheel like on a pillow and began to turn it with his whole body, and in something like twenty seconds the vehicle crashed into the windowless grey side of a corner building. The whole time he was clambering out of the seat, and stepping across the swaying sidewalk with cottony legs, and jerking the back doors and almost hitting himself with one of them when they finally gave, it was very quiet inside the ambulance. The woman was looking at him from the cot with totally white eyes, and the lady assistant was standing there, quaking arms out, looking downward at the floor where there was just a tiny bit of blood and many large shards of rough-textured, pale cream shell. A quivering puddle of something transparent and viscous was slowly flowing into the space beneath his shoe, and in this puddle there lay an enormous, frying-pan sized, pale yolk.
A year, a whole year and change of her clutching at the dirty wall in such bewilderment when she would accidentally run into him near the trash chute; of them positioning themselves so carefully with respect to one another in the scratched-up pencil case of the elevator; of days spent in pointless haggling with himself as he straggled between kitchen and couch in the evenings (and if I go downstairs, what do I say? “It didn’t leak into your apartment, did it?” “I didn’t wake you up with the banging yesterday, did I?” “I didn’t…” — what? Well what? What?? Idiot!) — so anyway, for a whole year, a year and change, the only thing holding him back, him who had already gotten caught in this web, who already understood everything, was the teapot. Even the comical “neighbor,” neighbor-lover, hanky-panky with the wife by day, chess with the husband in the evening, so gross, so gross — even this he could deal with somehow: with a smirk directed at himself, with that humbleness that is worse than pride. But the teapot identical to his own (and like in any house of this city, of this time, identical, he had no doubt, cups, predictable spoons seen if not at his mother’s, then at his former mother-in-law’s, plates) — caused him such anguish, such a dead-end feeling of a banality accomplishing itself, that the woman he thought about from morning till night, who had been the measure of his every conceit for a year already, began to seem to him sweaty, vulgar, smelling of garbage-chute rot. And when he finally came to her house in the daytime (“I didn’t drive you insane with my drill, did I?”), sat down, received tea from a clumsy hand (white dots on red — no, not at the mother-in-law’s, at the house of the father-in-law’s mother, where they went before the wedding as a courtesy and which they departed bearing a gift— two pairs of pre-war-era men’s socks), he deliberately sat with his face to the stove, to the teapot, so that teapot would burn him like the self-torturing barb of a vision-tormented monk. He even decided to talk to her about this teapot, precisely about the teapot, said: “We have the same teapot.” She answered: “You mentioned that already” (he had never said anything of the kind). Then he wanted to talk about the cups, the socks, the elevator, but nothing seemed to work, because Vadik, a handsome chubby-cheeked ten-year-old boy, kept running in and out of the kitchen, kept dragging in half-finished models, books of some kind, magazines with diagrams and instructions and spoke so loudly and so glibly, resembled his mother and father so little in his puffy-lipped self confidence that the of a different neighbor, another one, flashed by. Every time Vadik ran in and spread out his treasures on the somewhat sticky oilcloth in front of him, the table would shake — and that seemed like the worst thing of all. She pretended to be busy with Vadik, like she was showing Vadik to the guest. He endured it silently, didn’t even open his mouth so as not to encourage this unpleasant glib child, when suddenly he heard high-pitched tones, and almost a scream, and, quivering in Vadik’s self-confident voice, cross tears. He made himself listen: “in the pit, in the pit,” at first he thought that the piglet had dug something up or fallen into something, but then understood that this was about Kuprin. “There can’t be a mistake,” his mother, already regretting everything that was transpiring, told him, “There can’t be a mistake in a book, a hundred people check each book, I’m telling you, go look again,” but the quivering self-confident little voice insisted that instead of “went” it said “wen” and then a blank and then “t,” a blank between “n” and “t,” on page three hundred twenty-seven, a blank, like the space between two words, just like between two words, “n” and “t” — and nothing between them. “Don’t argue, Vadik, don’t argue, go check again, don’t argue!” The boy ran away and started to rummage in his parents’ room noisily, sobbing, digging through something soft, moving something hard. This was unbearable to listen to, he sat, eyes lowered; the teapot, cold and empty, turned its little purple flowers away, toward the wall, and he searched for something else that might catch his eye so that he wouldn’t have to look at the woman, as she continued to listen to her son’s rummaging, moving the solitary, stupid saucer around the table. Vadik ran in, all puffy with tears, and started up again with the “n” and the “t” and the blank between them, and she said, “So you’ve lost the book, too, go look for it and don’t come back until you’ve found it,” and then shouted after the bawling Vadik, “Don’t come back without the book!” The boy ran off and there, in the parents’ room, threw something at something else, it sounded like; and all of a sudden, he noticed a tattered dark-blue volume with gold stripes on the kitchen table under a damp waffle dishtowel. She intercepted his glance, furtively grabbed the dishtowel and the Kuprin and moved them down, under the table, onto the empty stool by the radiator. “Well, talk,” she said. “Just talk already.” Here Vadik burst into the kitchen, choking down tears, and began to rush around among the kitchen cabinets, opening doors, looking under the table. Then he stood up, said he would be right back, went upstairs and on the sideboard, behind the family albums, found the same volume of the same Kuprin with the same “Pit,” and on page three hundred twenty-seven discovered a blank between “w” and “e” — “w,” then a blank, then “ent.” After thirty minutes that same woman called him from downstairs, said that she and Vad’ka are worried — where did he disappear to and was he having some kind of problem? He answered that a pipe had burst in his tub and that he couldn’t come down today. He hoped it hadn’t leaked into their apartment.
Go to sleep
But even solitude — his great love, his pure dove, in whose name he had been willing to do anything, anything, — here, in prison, was betraying him. True, only at night and only for one unpleasant second, — when he, practically sleeping upright, would turn his back to the toilet, in the dark, and realized that, out of habit, he hadn’t flushed for fear of waking his wife.
Until next time
He was watching them from his very bent, horribly uncomfortable little bench and thinking that this love of theirs for the swings had nothing in common anymore with a child’s passion for flight, and fear, and squealing, but was sheer coquetry, a playing at “being little” — plus, most likely, an opportunity to show off their legs; he was also thinking that this was exactly why the playground in front of his house — and probably all playgrounds in this city — invariably became a hot spot in the evenings. But they weren’t even trying to swing, these girls — they were just sitting on the swings, talking. The conversation was somehow nasty, he couldn’t hear anything, but he could see from their faces that it was a nasty conversation. Three of them — strapping, long-armed and strong-legged, the caricature-like school uniform with little white aprons and little white knee socks looking dubious on them — which was evidently how they wanted it — while the red-and-gold “Graduate” sashes were pulling tight across their chests. Yet he was looking not at them, but at the fourth one — small, agile, with a very pretty, but at the same time imperceptibly mean, cunning little mug. In the twilight her round eyes, lined with something blue and sparkly, looked sunken. There was something about her that was sharply, intuitively unpleasant to him. He was glad she wasn’t looking at him, and secretly hoped that she couldn’t see him at all. Over the course of this long day her three compatriots had already gotten quite rumpled, their salon hairdos disheveled, and only she remained fresh, spiffy-clean, her curls orderly, her bows plush. The others called her “Little One,” he heard them calling her “Little One,” he couldn’t make out anything else, just felt surprised that the conversation, which was obviously nasty, was proceeding so quietly and without swearing, and it suddenly occurred to him that this resembled a trial. The three large girls slowly got off their swings and surrounded Little One, she sat alone before them, hanging her head lower and lower, and at the moment when all three pulled her off the swings onto the sand, abruptly, with a single jerk, he felt that he had nothing to do with this scene, that something important and just was occurring there, something he has no right to meddle in. It took them several seconds to stop getting in each other’s way, pushing and scrambling — now one of them was kicking Little One methodically in the thigh, the second one was lashing her on the shoulder with the strap of her bag, and the third one, drawing her foot back the same distance each time, was assiduously hitting Little One between the shoulder blades with the toe of her shoe. But he kept sitting on the bench, frozen, and could neither blink nor move, and only when Little One yelled out “Daddy, Daddy!” did he jump up, grabbed her, already abandoned by everyone, crying, one cheek bloodied, picked her up from under the swings, helped her up, hugged her and began to lead her home.
He ended up squeezed between two seats. The one in front had split and turned inside out. He was squeezed in an unbearable, contorted position, but on the other hand he had ended up between two soft surfaces. During the time it took for them to get to him — seven and a half hours, with dogs, a bottle of water lowered on a rope, assurances that everything would be OK, — he was thinking about two things. Firstly, that the callous on his right pinkie hurt, meaning he could feel that pinkie, which was important. And secondly, that he had never applauded during landings, and hadn’t applauded this time, either, which was also important.
The blood was hardest to wash out from under the nails, and from the finely engraved designs in the ring, frosted over under the cold stream. And was the blood was menstrual, and the ring was from another marriage.
If, the day after the End of the World, someone was still alive, and if this someone asked him how to explain to future generations what the inhabitants of Earth had felt on that monstrous evening, and if he himself was still alive to answer this question, and if, moreover, the thought alone of future generations didn’t seem idiotic to him, he would say, “One of my sons stole my car.”
And that’s it
He couldn’t work in the knowledge that that thing was lying in one of his desk drawers, he couldn’t use the bathroom if that thing was stowed in the bathroom cabinet, he couldn’t even endure its presence in the old cupboard on the balcony, he constantly felt as though it would explode, as if it could. He couldn’t rent a safety deposit box at the bank and put that thing there, because he knew that then the ponderous metal box would reside right in his head. On the fourth day, he rented an eleven-hundred-square-foot meat locker thirty miles outside town (negative four degrees, for three years) and took that thing there. They gave him a card and a code, he opened the airtight door, clamped his eyes shut, threw that thing inside, locked the door, dashed to the stairs, but got the feeling that the thing was lying too close to the door. So he went back, opened the door again, lifted the thing, carried it over to the furthest corner of the locker and covered it with his coat. Then, on reflection, he covered it with his blazer, then his shirt, then himself.
Done and done
It was later, in heaven, that they got to talking about whether it had had any meaning, and all signs pointed to no, it hadn’t.
Ahead of Time
He came back shell shocked, but all decorated, covered in medals, an eyeful. His future wife had been a sniper, a woman with an iron hand. Over five years of shooting, her palm had turned black and shiny like a glove from the dirt, gunpowder, and sweat that had worked themselves into it; his future wife would tell guys trying to hit on her: “I’ll twist your nuts off.” She and her future husband were discharged from the hospital on the same day; he noticed her in the courtyard, she had her back to him. He saw a head wrapped in bandages and her ears, red from the spring wind above the lifted collar of her greatcoat. Afterward, she would often repeat the phrase he first addressed her with (in general, she had a good memory for phrases): “Excuse me, would you be so kind as to lend me a light?” The whole family learned that phrase by heart from her; many years later their twin sons, learning to smoke in the basement of a brand-new five-story building where their father and mother, both decorated heroes, had received an enormous subsidized apartment, used the words “Would you be so kind…” as a code phrase — let’s go smoke up; once their mother heard them and each of them got a black leathery palm to the ears.
Back then, in the courtyard of an indoor pool converted into a hospital, she turned to him, saw his bandaged head and the chilly protruding ears, and asked what tree he had kindly leant his head against. He said, “I could tell from behind that you were a lady” (this phrase would also appear in her stories, but somehow didn’t catch on). Both joined the general staff because of their wounds, both had heads injured on the left side and would embrace on their “good” sides their whole lives through. Both had degrees in philosophy, the party took up a lot of time, plus her head injury resulted in a severely damaged sense of smell, which made her cook very badly, so they preferred to eat in the party canteen, his aide bringing him takeaway boxes full of food — later, when the twins were born. He disliked the medals and decorations from peacetime — “third anniversary of the defense of this,” “fifth anniversary of the taking of that,” whereas she liked them, received them gladly and invited those who had served with her over to drink and celebrate. Some of these honors were awarded to both of them at once, some only to him or only to her. Twice in the course of their lives together he would go on a dramatic and very sudden bender, the second time he almost got into big trouble, but within two or three months he would pull himself together. After his head was injured he couldn’t hear well for a while, then his hearing came back and only severe headaches remained, and also he always slept very little; at night, to occupy himself, he would burn beautiful, regular designs into the lids of wood boxes, achieveing great mastery; they wrote about him in the paper, a handicrafts museum acquired a couple of the boxes, some mathematician wrote an article about his designs; they brought him a gray mathematical journal, he understood nothing but felt good looking at the diagrams.
He shot himself at the end of July, roughly three weeks ahead of the tenth anniversary of the battle victory at hero-city Kursk. Neat, clean-shaven, clad in uniform, she though he was sitting up very straight on his stool when she came home after the call from the police: the housekeeper had found him, but until the wife got there, no one moved the body — out of respect. In the basement where the sons would go to smoke each night and where he would descend to create his intricate boxes, they sealed everything up and rummaged around for a long time: there were suspicions that he had shot himself after committing treason; she was interrogated at length, they confiscated several unfinished boxes, which they searched for a false bottom. It was very scary, but they didn’t find anything, returned the papers and boxes, said: “The shell shock got him.” Just in case, she burned some of papers then and there, in the concrete basement, burned them up quietly early in the morning, when the smoke would have surprised no one, retained certain things to show to the twins, hid others well; gave the boxes to the handicraft museum. As for the several dozen notebooks, pocked with neatly arranged squares and circles — she spent a long time looking through them, wanted to send them to Odessa to that mathematician, maybe he could use them; but when it came time for the funeral and they brought the velvet pillow, she understood, having dumped his medals onto the bed (his were kept in a shoebox, hers in an empty pasta box), that thirty-six of them could be placed on the pillow in a perfect square; as for the thirty-seventh one, it was totally unclear where it could even go.
He woke up the way he had as a child following a long cry before bed — not just exhausted, with swollen ailing eyes, but also with a false sense of great feverishness. It made no sense to spend fifteen minutes covering his face with a pillow, persuading himself to cancel his first appointment — he never canceled appointments unless he was really very sick. He slid off the bed, made it to the closet on all fours and allowed himself to put on yesterday’s shirt. Having overcome, with difficulty, the wish to start down the stairs in the same way, on all fours, he stood up with two jerks and, hardly seeing the stairs through heavy, swollen lids, went downstairs from the apartment into his tiny office. Here it turned out that even last night, monstrously drunk and harrowed by crying, he had not only forced himself to go upstairs to his apartment to sleep, but also in the end put his office in order: in particular, he threw away the empty bottle and placed his notes on his first appointment on the arm of his chair. Barely any time remained before the arrival of his first patient. He felt a certain gratitude, not unmixed with disgust, toward yesterday’s nighttime self, sank into the chair, stretched out his legs, closed his eyes, drawing out the last minutes of intoxication with his own sorrow — and suddenly realized that when he was lying on the rug and bawling yesterday, he had emptied the tissue box that always sat on the table in front of the patient. He forced himself to open his eyes, picked the folder up from the armrest and hurriedly looked through his notes on R.’s last three visits. R.’s restraint was undoubtedly of a pathological nature, and R. supplanted normal expressions of emotion with long rational pontifications. But today — and this he knew for certain — today R. would finally burst into tears.
It all began with the senseless but draining fear that everyone he talked to on the phone was trying to conclude the conversation with the statement of some hyperspecialized, encyclopedic fact.
When he was still among the thick, dark waters, he received a promise from the Lord. The Lord’s promise was round, heavy, flat on both sides, and rough on the edges. At first the promise didn’t fit into his little fist, but he squeezed it and grew, grew, and the promise, finally, settled itself comfortably in his palm — as comfortably, he though, as the whole life ahead of him would settle into his palm, life with all its joys and good deeds, for which he had received his reward from the Lord as an advance. Then the night arrived when he, suddenly awake, realized he was suffocating, that his body was being pulled downward like a stone, that the smooth walls of the room were contracting and releasing, pushing him out. In his horror he curled up into a ball and shut his eyes so tightly that his head rang. He was being pushed out and pulled, pushed out and pulled somewhere, he was lying swaddled in his own fear, that deathly dullness that descends on everyone that the world, all of a sudden, starts irrevocably and furiously ridding itself of. Suddenly he realized that, in his fright, he had accidentally loosened his grip and dropped the Lord’s promise. He began to fumble around fitfully with his little hands, squirming, writhing, trying to grasp the neat, round thing in the fading darkness. He kicked the soft walls with his feet, hoping to push them aside and discover the promise in the slippery folds of the room that was closing forever. Somewhere out there these blows produced screams full of fear and anticipation. Suddenly someone grabbed his foot, turned him, pulled him and drew him out into the light. For a second everything seemed so awful to him that he forgot the lost promise and decided to die immediately, but they kept preventing him. They wanted something from him, jiggled him, slapped him, stuck their fingers in his mouth, slapped him again. He himself wanted something unbearably, something that was trying to get out of its own accord — it even seemed to him that his own body was contracting and releasing, pushing that something out of itself, and finally he erupted in an unhappy, bitter cry, which those in the room were long unable to calm.
He could spend hours lying pressed against his mother’s belly, embracing it with his arms. Even when he was put on her breast, he, no sooner sated, would crawl toward her belly again, so that his mother would joke that in sleep she still felt pregnant and could sleep only on her side or back. He made his mother tell him, day after day, the story of how he came into the world before bed — he preferred this story to any lullaby, any book, and always wished he could be told this story from the end to the beginning; however, he was completely uninterested in the moment of his conception and his mother, to her relief, didn’t have to deal with this slippery subject. She got used to always starting the story of how he, once extracted from the womb, raised a terrible cry (“I even began to cry with you, my heart was bursting with pity for you; you cried as though you had fallen in among strangers, I even thought that you hated me” — here he would hug his mother’s belly tightly, calming her, but he never told her, of course, the actual reason behind his newborn tears). He would ask: “And before that?” and listen to the story of how he struggled there, inside, as though he had changed his mind about coming out, and how the doctor had to stick his hand in there, into the belly, grab onto his leg and turn him carefully so that he would finally come out. He remembered that moment well — the hand on his ankle, the hope slipping through his fingers. “And before that?” he would ask, and his mother would say that, before that, he had begun his birth very, very gently, as in a dream, and here he would ask again: “And before that?” and his mother would say with a smile: “And before that you lived in here,” and would place her hand on her belly. In that moment the delightful and torturous feeling of loss would wash over him, and for a second it would be as though the rough roundness of the Lord’s promise touched the edges of his palm: the palm grew, but the promise always covered it completely, barely fitting — but fitting, in the end, so that, squeezing his hand shut, he was able to hide the dim light from the avid eyes of strangers. He was a convenient child — very quiet, very adult, very bright, and constantly asked his mother to give him a little brother or sister. His mother would be touched, especially when he would talk about how he would love this new child, take care of him, help raise him. His mother would say that the baby would cry at night and take away the time that they spend together now, would demand to play with his toys, but he would only look at his mother seriously and pleadingly, and she was already imagining holding the little one at her breast (a girl, of course), her son lying nearby, hugging her once-again emptied belly. And that’s how it was: she got pregnant with a girl, and her son hugged her growing belly so tightly and often that it started to get on her nerves. Then he tempered his ardor but would still come to her when she was resting or sleeping, pressed his face to her belly and thought. He thought a single thought, fixedly and attentively, repeated the same words with emphasis, and it took him an unbelievable amount of effort not to press on the belly where his sister lived with his hard protruding forehead. He thought, thought, thought, and gradually his tiny sister, who couldn’t even square her shoulders or open her huge eyes with transparent lids, which protruded, fishlike, began to think back to him. He kept reciting and reciting the same instructions, time after time, day after day, and demanded that she repeat them after him, learn them by heart, not mix anything up, and she would promise him every day not to mix anything up. Gradually she learned it all by heart, he thought to her there, in his mom’s belly: “What a good girl you are,” and “I love you so much,” and she would answer him from there, from the belly, that she loved him even more. That was how she learned to smile. When the time came and the walls of her room began to contract, and she herself, a little fish in a waterless space, began to drop down to somewhere outside, she didn’t have to struggle and tremble, causing her mother pain, because her brother had told her what would happen and how, and she had nothing to be afraid of. Everything happened exactly how he promised, and she was born very quickly and very easily. They shook her, slapped her, clapped her on the back, slapped her again, they tried to open her mouth with a tiny tongue depressor, they pressed on her chest, they squeezed her cheekbones from the sides, but she didn’t loosen her grip for a second: her toothless little mouth remained tightly shut, like she had promised her brother. She didn’t cry and didn’t start breathing, and finally they put her on the table in the living room, having dressed her in white and swaddled her, and now she really looked like a fish, a smooth fish with a little human face and shiny little wisps of black hair. His mother was sobbing in the bedroom, they asked him, didn’t he want to go and lie next to her, but he responded to this proposal neutrally. He waited until everyone had left the bedroom, got up on a chair and bent over his sister. Her little mouth, with the dried droplets of blood on its wounded little puffy lips, was half-open. He carefully stuck his finger inside, pushed it into her cheek and felt his promise — the round, flat, rough one. He carefully took it out of his sister’s mouth and placed it on his palm. It was how he imagined it, maybe even a little bigger. He clasped the promise in his fist and now no one could see it. Then he slowly bent his knees, collapsed onto the chair, awkwardly lowered his legs down, but, without climbing down onto the floor, began to cry bitterly and hysterically. Every time that he brought his little fist to his eyes, the tears poured from them more abundantly, and his piteous cries became even louder. He had had such an unbelievable, such a beautiful, such an amazing sister, the most loyal, the most reliable sister in the world — and now she was gone.
On the question of the possible incompleteness of physical reality as described by the ratio of Heisenberg uncertainties
“Everyone I’ve loved,” she said, “just didn’t seem to get that when two people begin to constantly observe, discuss, and minutely deconstruct their relationship, the relationship itself starts to change under the influence of these endless conversations; and by the way, none of it produces any answers, though it gradually brings love into a state of the most appalling disrepair.”
“Jeez,” he said, “Such pathos.”
Bring it on
When business would get really bad — which, strangely enough, did happen, though he was considered a rather important musician and normally didn’t lack for concerts — he would call Gosha, and Gosha would set up two or three performances at corporate events, where it was guaranteed that no one would recognize him. He could afford to not stretch out his performances, unlike the official ones, the pathos-filled ones in the conservatory: try as he might to hide it from himself, but with age it was getting harder for him to sit cross-legged for long periods. On the other hand, at the corporate events, with their chaos, there was always the risk of losing one of the twenty thimbles, meticulously selected over years to fit each digit. Mostly, the ones to get lost would also be the hardest to replace: the bigger ones, intended for the big toes. Fortunately, he had been smart enough at some point to buy not two, but three of those souvenir monstrosities in Prague, for future use. If worst came to worst, he even had a fourth thimble, a rather oversized copper one of uncertain provenance, from back in the day when he had just invented the halchophone and was entertaining the rapt, compliant tourists in Yalta with “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Sometimes he would use this specific thimble for his performance, and then it was not only his fingers that hummed when they hit his toes, but everything around, everything around that would hum.
He started to believe in God when he realized that after every new wave of hoarse shrieking ending in a hysterical, spit-spurting “Drop and gimme twenty!”, he could, as he exhaustedly planted his face into the sickening hash of the October paradeground, for totally inexplicable reasons, smell the dizzyingly pure fragrance of lilacs.
We can’t even imagine heights like that
All day he walked around with a mysterious air; his enigmatic hints got on everyone’s nerves so much that at the last recess Big Marina pressed him against the map closet and began to tickle him. He yelped, writhed, breathless with shrieking laughter, but didn’t crack, and after class they had to trail after him to the vacant lot. He dragged them past the bottles, paper scraps, past the broken-off mannequin arms that instantly attracted everyone’s attention, past all sorts of inappropriate trash to a ginormous rock about his own size. He said it was a meteorite.
“Imagine,” he said, “Just imagine the height this meteorite fell from! We can’t even imagine heights like that.”
He told us that according to his scientific calculations, this meteorite fell to earth literally yesterday.
“If the meteorite fell to earth yesterday, then why has it already grown into the ground?” caustically asked Big Marina, a fat strapping girl forced to live by her wits. Then he said that when a meteorite falls, time around it flows faster. A day is like a month, or maybe even a year. Or three. He said that science doesn’t yet have the most exact data.
That night he returned to the vacant lot, spread his jacket out on the ground, hugged the meteorite and lay there right up until morning. He got very cold, but those seven years were worth it.
“Lift your arm, please,” he said. Sobbing, she placed her hand on her head. “A little higher,” he said.
She quickly straightened her arm and even stretched out a scooped-out palm like a schoolgirl striving to get called on.
He slowly palpated the breast in a circular motion. The part that pained her felt totally normal to him, the nipple wasn’t misshapen, there didn’t appear to be any secretions, the pale, soft, smooth skin was cool to the touch. He shifted his fingers to the armpit and then, in circular movements, back to the nipple, constantly repeating: “Good, good,” while she sniffled, trying to inhale a small drop hanging under her nostril; finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and stretched her free left hand to the toilet paper roll, ripping off a miniscule piece, trying not to move her torso, not to hinder the exam.
“Good, good,” he said. “You can get dressed. I don’t see anything wrong. Really, nothing. You should definitely get checked, everyone should get checked regularly, but I don’t see any thickenings.”
She stuffed her squished breast willy-nilly into her bra cup, quickly unrolled another ribbon of grayish toilet paper, blew her nose thoroughly and heaved a heavy, ragged sigh. He began to wash his hands. She said to his back:
“I’m horribly ashamed. I’m so ashamed. Please forgive me, I’m horribly ashamed. I was adjusting myself and I thought… and I got so scared. What an idiot. I’m so ashamed, please forgive me.”
He remembered how the waiter began to dash from table to table after she shouted so the whole room could hear: “Is there a doctor here? Please, is there a doctor here?” You would think that the waiter would first rush over to her, instead of running among the tables bawling, “Is there a doctor? Is there a doctor?”
On the other hand, he thought, that’s stupid. That’s what a waiter is for.
Tomorrow, let’s say
“I’ve seen myself how the sky darkens and birds stop singing when the gates of the Prosecutor General’s Office open and the six-car motorcade starts to move slowly toward the Kremlin,” she said.
He looked at her — she was small, inappropriately mobile in the frozen pomp of his enormous office — and thought: wouldn’t it be great to take this dumb bitch away someplace. To some island. Quickly move all his dough out, cash it all in, buy an island and fuck off to there with this dumb bitch.
Every single day
Yesterday she had bought an espresso machine and five identical coffee cups — fat, heavy, grotesquely expensive, but she wasn’t sorry about the money. Now all the cups stood before her in a little row, each one on its own saucer, each full of espresso. She had some doubts about the milk foam, carefully whipped in a special little pitcher: the foam seemed too dense to her, but this, she decided, was better than foam that was too thin. She ruined the first cup literally in two seconds — the hand with the little pitcher faltered, and the line that was supposed to turn into the petal of a large brown flower on the white cap of foam went crooked. On the second cup she managed to create two petals out of four before the foam began to creep over the rim. On the third cup, the phone rang.
“Yes,” she said into the phone.
“Mrs. Darnton?” the phone asked.
“Yes,” she said. “This is Mrs. Darnton.” The phone was silent for a bit.
“Mrs. Darnton,” said the phone. “This is Inspector Milvers. We spoke yesterday.”
“Yes, I remember perfectly,” she said in a friendly tone.
The phone was again silent for a bit, then continued:
“And the day before.”
“And the day before,” she agreed easily, slapping her the sole of her slipper impatiently against her heel: the foam was just about to begin collapsing, and then she’d have to start all over again.
“Mrs. Darnton,” the phone said, “I’m afraid you aren’t understanding me. We have discovered a body we believe to be your husband’s. It’s imperative that you come identify it.”
“Definitely,” she said. “Definitely. I will definitely come by today.”
Of course, she won’t try to dissuade him — she’ll just say something mild, something totally insignificant, which will make him immediately stop liking the tie all by himself. But what a tie! It’s the ideal tie — expensive enough, personal enough. He knows his brother, his brother will be just ecstatic.
He decided to buy the tie when she heads to the bathroom — he himself will suggest that she stop by there in order, afterwards, to walk the gigantic museum galleries without a care. They had already spent no less than half an hour in the store, deciding who would get what. It was decided that the little silk doll, no bigger than a pinkie finger, would go to his mother, the surprisingly inexpensive glass brooch — to his sister; the notepad with coarse, “writerly” paper would make Mila would go into raptures. Before they knew it, the delicate task of acquiring souvenirs was behind them.
He approached his wife (little hands clasped at the small of her back, straight nose almost touching the glass of a tchotchke-filled case), bent toward her in almost the same pose and asked softly: “Don’t you want to go to the bathroom? I’ll wait for you by the checkout.” She tore herself away from the knickknacks, nodded, stuck her purse in his hands, and they moved toward the door leading out of the store and into the museum hall.
She had just enough time to sneak a peek at a couple of silk blouses with a Magritte print, to brush her left-hand fingers, in passing, over a lovely transparent table, to stroke a cascade of silk ties with her right hand — and, her index finger hooking that exact one, in light blue, half turned and said, “Look at that. If only your father were still alive.”
“Do you do anything special for birthdays?” she asked.
He quickly went through the possible options in his head. There wasn’t anything suitable on the menu, their café didn’t even offer birthday discounts, but sometimes Mark would spring for a “fruit bomb” with a little golden candle — especially if the revelers showed up in a big group and it looked like the bill would be a large one. But at six in the morning Mark was of course not there yet.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m afraid we don’t really have anything.”
She stuck out her lips in a sad, understanding half-smile, tucked a short strand of hair behind her ear, and carefully picked up the coffee cup by its thin, inconvenient handle. He then went to the back, dug around in his backpack and brought her a little nut-filled chocolate bar left over from his hasty breakfast on the empty train.
For no reason
“Our first fight,” she said, “happened on our way to see my mom at the hospital.”
A little tenor
He was facing the audience, but couldn’t see anyone, of course, only hot blinding light. That light and the enormous, enormous music, coming from below and flooding the stage in waves, made him suddenly start floating, almost breaking away from the floor. The sound gathering strength in his chest became unbearably full, he marveled at this fullness and luxuriated in letting the sound out — in a long, ecstatic “Aaaaaaaaaaa!” that made his own ears pop drunkenly. At that moment his mom’s hands grabbed him from behind and actually lifted him into the air, so abruptly that he bit the tip of his tongue and began to bawl heart-rendingly. The spots of the stage lights were still in his eyes, he couldn’t see anything in the backstage semidarkness, someone was laughing, his mother kept repeating: “Jesus, I am so, so sorry,” and “Misha, you should be ashamed, how could you just go out there?” and again — “Jesus, I am so, so sorry.” Through the blur of tears he could make out only Kirill guffawing, then turning serious and crossing into that light with enormous steps, his gold chainmail just twinkling dimly — like the tail of a golden fish slipping out of one’s hands, like a poisoned needle of envy and umbrage.
The light got brighter, she didn’t feel the pain at all, just an amused and guarded excitement like in childhood when you’re speeding down a hill, and everything around is so unreal, and precipitous, and smooth. The doors swung open before her gurney, those who were pushing it forward were hurriedly exchanging half-understandable phrases that were at once alarming and magical. The person running along on the gurney’s right side was holding a tablet, the white mask covering the lower half of his face sucked in and puffed out with each breath. She had already given him her age, address, marital status: without looking, he made some notes on his tablet.
“Mr. Lenter, are you interested in reincarnation, and if yes, do you have any preferences?” yelled the tablet-holder, skillfully dodging a second gurney that was speeding toward them.
“Wait, I can become anyone at all?” she asked in amazement, cupping her palm around her eyes and trying to make him out in the intensifying white glow. The gurney flew through yet another door.
“Mr. Lenter,” said the tablet-holder with some irritation, “It’s standard procedure: first we ask for preferences, and then a special committee makes the decision. Please, concentrate.”
We’re running late
“I don’t want to,” he said. “I don’t want to, what can I say. She’s going to bitch. Someone else, come on.”
“Who else is there?” she said lazily and poked him in the shoulder: top of the escalator, careful. They stepped off onto the half-empty Saturday platform.
“Wait, is that the deal?” he said. “We were all ready to go — and now it turns out we have no one to invite?”
“Such a bad scene,” she said, craning her neck to see whether their train was approaching through the tunnel. “Other people socialize, invite people, and we don’t.”
His phone rang in his pocket, the ring was drowned out by the noise of the arriving train. He took it out hastily and looked at the screen.
“Well?” she asked. “Who is it?”
“Nobody,” he said, taking her by the arm and leading her into the car. “Just the alarm.”
She decided to tell Katrina everything the next morning at breakfast. Then she decided she would tell her on Monday before sending her off to school, so the girl would have something to distract her. Then she decided not to tell her at all — just to pretend everything was OK and tell her the truth in a month or two, when there wouldn’t be any choice. That was the decision she settled on. She opened the apartment door extra slowly, holding her breath, so it wouldn’t creak, but Katrina wasn’t asleep anyway, rose from the couch to meet her, the TV remote plopped on the ground. She smiled with all her might.
“Sorry I didn’t call,” she said. “What a crappy mom! But I thought you were out somewhere.”
“No,” said Katrina, “No, I’m here.”
“Great,” she said. “Everything is great. Everything is great, can you imagine that? It was just a thickening, a cyst.”
“A cyst,” said Katrina.
“A cyst,” she said. “Just a thickening. I was so happy I just went off to the movies, if you can believe it.”
“What’d you see?” asked Katrina, squatting down for the remote but not taking her eyes off her.
She nearly growled through the bared teeth of her joyful smile.
“Some people,” she said sternly, “Are up way past their bedtime. I won’t be able to get those people out of bed tomorrow at seven-fifteen, not even by force. What do those people think about that?”
“Listen,” said Katrina. “Will you give me that skirt for tomorrow?”
“You won’t sit in the grass?” she asked with feigned distrust.
“What grass?” said Katrina dolefully, “Seven classes and a presentation.”
Then she clambered out of the skirt, stuffed it into her daughter’s hands, awkwardly pressed the girl to her — hard, with her whole body, as though she were still five or six — and quickly went to her bedroom. And while she struggled to quell the vicious shakes, lying under her icy blanket in the blind darkness that pressed on her from above, in the next room her daughter was staring at the skirt’s fringe, tied along the whole front into crooked, jerky, tangled knots, and didn’t want to understand — and already understood completely.
A wind blew out of a cloud
The girl had no papers with her, and her fingerprints weren’t in the system. She was about six, maybe seven. Clean and neat, only her hair was very tangled and her white sneakers were all covered in dirt, as though she had spent a long time wending her way through the park or had just tramped across several lawns.
“Heya,” he said, squatting down in front of the girl and smiling broadly. “I’m Peter, what’s your name?”
The girl didn’t move.
“Do you like it here?” he asked. “I actually I like this room. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I come here to rest and talk to Mr. Longears.” He nodded at the large, soft, gangly rabbit in one of the colorful children’s armchairs. The girl didn’t move.
“I think,” he said, “That I should introduce you two.”
He stretched his arm out and grabbed the rabbit, put it on his knee and waved to the girl with a floppy, fuzzy paw.
“Hi there!” said Mr. Longears in a silly voice. “My name is Mr. Longears! And what’s your name?”
The girl didn’t move.
“Let me try to guess,” he said, putting the rabbit back. “Let’s see, let’s see…” he pretended to scrutinize the girl’s face. “I bet it’s Mary!”
The girl didn’t move.
“Of course it’s not Mary!” he said. “It’s probably Kate!”
The girl didn’t move.
“Oh no, no, not Kate!” he said. “How could I be so wrong! You’re clearly a Jessie!”
The girl didn’t move. He exchanged a glance with the nurse standing by the door; she was looking at them sympathetically.
“Very, very strange!” he said. “But if it’s not Mary or Kate or Jessie, then you must have some totally amazing name! Maybe it’s Christina Clementine?”
The girl didn’t move.
“Or maybe even Margaret Eulalia!” she said. His ankles started to fall asleep, and he sat down оn the blue rug patterned with little orange parrots.
The girl didn’t move.
“Darlene Sue?” he asked. The method was clearly not working, the girl wasn’t getting into the game.
“Hippolyta Dee?” he asked, losing hope. “Annabel Lee?”
The girl started abruptly and looked at him in astonishment with enormous dark eyes.
Drop by drop
He handed her the towel, she threw it over her shoulders, passed an end first over one arm, then over the other, used the other end to blot between her thighs, got out of the tub onto the squishy rubber mat and began to towel her hair energetically.
“I thought everyone used them,” he said.
She swung her tangled damp hair back, almost catching him in the face, hung the towel on a hook, took the blue package of pads from him and, rising onto her tiptoes, carefully placed it on the highest shelf of the cabinet, putting it behind the packet of pine-scented bath salts.
“No,” she said. “Not everyone uses them. Your wife uses them. Please, go back there and buy the same kind, only with three drops inside the little circle instead of two.”
By last name
She kept sitting there and looking at those papers, at those impossible papers — decrees, awards, reports, photographs — at those papers with names that had long since become a myth bloated with black blood, at those decrees signed with the same name she had had before marriage (one letter off, that’s how it was spelled on her birth certificate, he had been furious), at those photographs where he stands among those whose faces were later erased from the turgid, populous canvases, and then among those who erased those faces from those canvases, he is always standing just right of center, in such a frightening, portentous place, and he doesn’t smile — not like in those other, familiar photographs, where he is holding her in one arm and Lenka in the other, where Grandma is laughing, standing on her tiptoes, her chin on his shoulder. It was already night, but she kept sitting there and looking at those damned papers that smelled like decay and something else, something bureaucratic and dead at once — like a bureaucracy in the beyond, that’s what. She kept sitting there and thinking — how was it possible not to understand? How could she not have understood? Suddenly she remembered Toshka: she was five years old when her little dog Toshka died, and he, so as not to upset her, said that Toshka had been appointed director of a sausage store. She did not reevaluate this fact until she was something like fifteen. It wasn’t that she was dumb, it’s just that that’s what he said, and plus, it’s just impossible, I mean. Just impossible.
He rescued her from a pickpocket, literally caught him by the hand when the man had already opened her purse. There was a loud dustup in the train car, from which they emerged victorious. Then he walked her from the subway to the store, the store turned out to be closed, and now they’ve been strolling along the same two streets and two side streets for three hours already — first in one direction, then in the other, in a loop. It’s time for her to go home, they’ve already done seven loops and decided that, OK, they’ll go for ten — and she’ll be on her way.
“Now it’s your turn,” she said.
“When I was six I killed my sister,” he said.
She burst out laughing.
“That is some nonsense!” she said coyly, drawling the words. “I told you a real secret, and look what you did.”
“Mine is real too,” he said.
She stopped (it was the end of the second side street, on the eighth loop) and said in an unexpectedly low-pitched voice:
“Alas,” he said, “Alas, no. And I’ve never told anyone anything, only you just now.”
For a while they stood on the corner of the second side street and the first street and looked at one another silently. Then she asked, almost in a whisper:
“I had to,” he said. “It’s a long and boring story, just please take my word for it.”
She turned her head sharply as though looking for a space where she might find more air.
“It’s really time for me to go,” she said.
“High time,” he said, “Plus it’s nearly raining already.”
She opened her purse for some reason. A couple of drops managed to slap against the leather of her wallet.
“Unless,” she said, “We want to get a coffee somewhere.”
“I think,” he said, “We do.”
At the next one
He had just gotten on the escalator when he realized that this was Taganskaya Station, not Tul’skaya. It was too late to start pushing his way back through the crowd, he looked at his watch and mentally cursed himself three times. By the time he got on the escalator in the other direction, he was already running, a dense crowd had come off the train that had just arrived, he maneuvered fretfully, stepped on someone’s outraged feet, but the train had already left. It was just after six, even if had been at Tul’skaya right this second, he was already guaranteed to be late. “I could just forget about it,” he thought, counting the minutes feverishly. “I could just forget it, after all, it’s so stupid — a floor lamp! He disappears for ten years without a trace, and then, presto! And what, he’s going to care if I have a floor lamp?” — But he was already being shoved into the train car, one woman smelled nauseatingly of vanilla perfume, a tinny voice said “platform on the right,” he nearly howled, made his way out, pressed his fingers hard into his eyes.
“Get it together!” he said to himself. “Just get it together!” If he went home right now, he could take a shower, calmly make sure everything in the apartment was in order, maybe shift some books around.
“Disgusting, you’re forty, saying something so disgusting!” he thought. “Shifting books around!” — But of course he’ll shift them, give the French ones more visibility. He could return to Tul’skaya and get on the Ring, he could take the orange line down and get onto the Ring. The thought of return was disgusting, he had gotten sweaty, and there was nothing in his pockets he could use to wipe his snotty nose. He wiped it with his hand, switched platforms, got onto the train. “Everything is fine,” he said to himself. “Everything is fine.” He had almost calmed down when that lady asked: “Excuse me, is this Tretyakovskaya or Turgenevskaya?” Then he squeezed the bridge of his nose with his fingers as hard as he could, but the tears still slid and slid onto his lashes, nothing helped.
To Anna K.
First it was a question of one surgery, and he almost said yes, but then they tried to broach the topic of a second and third one, about spending a year or a year and a half in recovery, that the army would be ready to cover all expenses. Then he snapped, jerked the door open and wheeled himself into the living room. No one ran after him. He looked at the crystal standing in the display case, stroked the mute piano, then rolled up to the desk, plucked at the cloth-flower appliquéd strap of his niece’s pink shirt and looked at her notebook. At the very top of the page, underlined three times, was the word “NOVEL.” The letters were gold. After that one sentence was written in blue, the second in red, the third, just then in progress, was coming out in green. All the letters were fat with a metallic sheen. Because of this it was hard to read them from there, from the side, but there wasn’t a single comma in there, that much was certain.
“What’s your novel about?”
“It’s about this girl,” said his niece, not moving her head. “She catches a little silver ball and swallows it and becomes another person.”
“Woah,” he said, looking at the fat metallic letters. “Is it going to be a long story?”
She paused to think for a second and said with annoyance, not moving her head:
“It’ll take five more markers. Don’t bother me.”
Like on air
That was when Assface (that’s what she had dubbed it at the beginning of the flight and then watched, disgusted, as it licked its fingertips to turn the pages of a magazine) — anyway, that’s when Assface grabbed her by the shoulder and began to whisper: “Don’t worry, I’ll fly the plane now,” — and suddenly shoved its fists into its armpits, like a child preparing to act like a chicken. She barely had time to move, avoiding an elbow to the eye, while Assface filled its lungs with air and began to hum in a low, rumbling tone, and its humming was actually able, for a second, to drown out both the panicked voices of the passengers, and that unpleasant sputtering, and the nearly hysterical voices of the flight attendants begging the passengers to return to their seats and fasten their belts. Assface hummed, “Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu!!!!!”, lurching its whole body rightward when the plane would begin to roll onto its left side, or tilting itself back when everyone would be thrown forward. She suddenly caught herself whimpering along with it, lowering and raising her voice, and in her horror at this fact missed the moment when the plane switched from аbrupt side-to-side heaving to modest, but rhythmic jerks forward, and then gradually evened out. Then she could unclench her fingers and unglue her eyelids. Assface was sitting in its seat with closed eyes, beads of sweat crawling down its neck. Later, at passport control, it found her, grabbed her shoulder with a sticky paw and said, stale-mouthed:
“I told you, I’m a pilot.”
“Yes,” she said, “Yes, of course. Thank you.”
“One time I saved a space ship,” said Assface. “I was far away, but I could feel everything. The malfunctioning control system. I didn’t let it take off, they would all have died, I didn’t let them. I spent three days at home after that, flat on my back.”
“Yes,” she said, “Yes, thank you very much.”
He hung up the phone and listened carefully to everything. Inside himself and outside, too. Outside (behind the curtain, near the base molding) he was scratching — evidenty tearing at the wallpaper. For as long as he could remember, wherever he would move to, he always lived near the base molding, under the window, was probably cold in winter. But that was outside, while inside everything was great: cold and empty, like inside one’s mouth after very minty gum — no, after two pieces of that gum in a row, or even after two stuck into one’s mouth at once.
He chewed on his lips for a second, lay down on the couch and just did everything he could to make his body comfortable. Listened again: cold, nice, calm. Of course, it was distracting that he was rushing around the room along the floor while howling shrilly — a little howl and then a sob, a little howl and then a sob, but he opened his eyes, inhaled — luxuriantly, so deep it hurt — exhaled, and right next to him, on the coffee table, there turned out to be cigarettes, a blue restaurant matchbook, snagged god knows where yesterday, and even an ashtray. He had already pulled the ashtray toward himself, but he ended up on the table, god knows how, and suddenly kicked the ashtray as hard as he could with his teeny foot — and the ashtray flew into the television with a crash. He jumped up in fright — and was bathed in a vile heat, felt a stinging in his chest — the ashtray fell apart into several large craggy pieces of crystal. He didn’t swear, just rejoiced that the television was in one piece, got up, went to the kitchen, got another ashtray, returned, lay down again (comfortable, nothing pressing on any part of him), placed the ashtray on his belly, turned his hearing off to the blunt banging (he was standing on his knees amid leaves of yesterday’s newspaper and hitting his head on someone’s photograph, right on the cheek — bang! Bang! — and the paper under his knees crackled, and a little stain of snot and tears spread over the stranger’s gray cheek). “Are you good?” he asked himself and answered honestly: “Yes. I’m good.” Then he took a nice big puff and enunciated assiduously, to himself, that same word — in the female medical voice, like the one on the phone, meticulously: the strange first syllable with the soft sign and the hard-to-pronounce “ts,” then the second, slightly smutty one, then the third one, smelling at once distortedly of shit, iodine, and death. That was a truly beautiful word, and he said it aloud. Then he, the small one, gave a heart-rending scream and began to rip tiny shreds of paper right out of the middle of the newspaper page. Here he couldn’t stand it anymore —barked a swear word, grabbed a slipper and wiped out the little idiot in two blows.
It’s just that the car that hit her was improbably yellow. He’d never seen such a gratingly yellow car in his life before.
“This one here is also called Lenochka!” he said, pushing the girl forward and simultaneously blocking off her path between the shelves of rice and cookies — no way for her to slip through.
The girl immediately hid her face in her daddy’s jeans — she was sturdy, chubby, looked nothing like her father.
“She’s a genius little gal,” he said, “A year and eight months, can you believe it? She sings, dances, she can count to ten!”
She kept standing there and smiling, hands clenching the cart handle — standing and smiling, waiting for him and his Lenochka to get out of her way.
“Len? Len, count for us! Come on, don’t hold out!” he pulled on the girl’s limp little braid, she murmured something incoherent and started to stamp her little foot on the ad sticker on the dry goods section’s white floor.
“A genius little gal, let me tell you,” he said, somewhat awkwardly. She kept standing there and smiling, the cart’s handle had already become wet and hot under her palms. He waved his Lenochka-free hand in the air and said: “Well, it was good to see you. You look great, as always.”
She didn’t answer, just smiled even wider. He swept his Lenochka up into his arms, sat her in his cart, pudgy legs toward him, and rolled the cart away. Then she closed her eyes, summoned her Black Angels and commanded them to tear him to pieces tonight, and to bear Lenochka to an icy mountain and turn her over to ten wolves. The Angels obediently bowed down to the ground before her; she took a packet of cookies off the shelf and began to eat them right then and there, while the Angels rolled her cart onward, toward the meat.
Yoni shot the last rooster, damn stupid bird couldn’t even get it together to hide, just sat there crowing bloody murder: come on, come on, just shoot! Then it squawked and wheezed — on the other side of the fence, they couldn’t see it. Gai walked up, looked at the wheezing shot rooster and said that it was the last one. They listened closely: the tiny border village, evacuated to the last inhabitant, flapped with bed linen abandoned on clotheslines, buzzed with forgotten air conditioners, chickens squawked hysterically in nearly every shed — but the roosters had shut up. Then Yoni and Gai returned to the boys, to the tiny central square where the whole company with the exception of those who had gone to kill roosters lolled under palm trees, chasing the last of the dry rations with cold water from drinking fountains — wonderful, fresh, cold water that no one could get enough of after three weeks of vile, warm swill from plastic canteens — in full uniform, in the heat. Yoni and Gai also had a long drink, then lay down in the grass and started goggling at the sky.
“So is this the dream?” said Yoni. “Is it?”
“Fuck knows,” said one of the boys, “They could send us back tomorrow.”
“I’m talking about the roosters, retard,” said Yoni.
“Oh,” drawled the same boy sluggishly, “Well, sure.”
“What the fuck,” said Yoni, “You were the first to yell after every explosion, louder than the roosters even: those rooster bastards again! Those rooster bastards again! When we cross the border again, I’ll shoot them all! And now look at you lying around.”
“It’s strange that they aren’t crowing,” said Gai.
“You can make them into soup,” said Yoni, but of course no one went anywhere.
They again went through finding contacts in the address book, answering calls, and entering new contacts into the address book— she demanded it, even though he promised to put all the in numbers himself, in advance. In general now, he tried to do everything in advance. It took almost another forty minutes. During that time he went to the bathroom twice. He spent one of those two trips doubled over in front of the toilet, choking spasmodically on sour saliva. The second time he didn’t even go into the stall, but just rested his burning forehead on the cold windowpane and felt better for a second. He went back to his grandma — she was already watching TV and, accompanied by the unnatural voices of the ostentatiously decked out men and women, he surveyed the clean little room with its curtains again. Displayed on her vanity were all her favorite perfume bottles and vials — as a child, he had been allowed to play with some of them and not others. There was a nice TV here, air conditioning, a clothes closet, he had picked a good home for her, he sorely wished he could live here himself. “Envy,” he thought, ashamed, “Is a bad and unproductive feeling.” Here pain assailed him again, he bent over in half and waved his arm at his bewildered grandmother — oh, I just dropped something. When he managed to stand straight again, he walked up to his grandma, kissed her firmly on her dry, smooth forehead, then twice more, and made for the door, but then his grandma suddenly said: “One second!” He suppressed a sigh with difficulty while she scurried off somewhere. He no longer had the strength to turn around, he just stood and waited. She returned, stuck something in his hand and said, “Pashen’ka, explain to me one more time how I can get to the address book,” and he saw that he was holding the TV remote.
Here he sat on the rug right next to the door, and then lay down, hugging his knees to his chest, closed his eyes, and lay there for a spell.
The right one
Looking at her back, he said that he had caught a leprechaun and tied him to something in the yard out back. She turned around so abruptly that she almost fell: she had been squatting, fumbling around under the shoe rack. She said that she couldn’t find her lavender shoe, and he asked, “the right or the left one?”, explaining in answer to her irritated look that it’s the left one they carry around.
“Who?” she asked, and he answered:
“Leprechauns. They’re shoemakers, right, so they carry the left shoe around and cobble it.”
She started to walk quickly around the room, looking under the furniture, he followed her and watched how, each time she bent down, the protruding verterbra in her neck disappeared behind the collar of her t-shirt and then peeped out again.
“I’m afraid that he’ll get loose and escape,” he said, and here she turned and started to advance on him, forcing him to step back a little. Trying not to shout, she enunciated:
“If. This is. Another one of your. Stupid. Jokes. Please. Give. Me back. My shoe. Right now!” At that moment her cell rang.
She explained what exit to take off the highway and how best to get there, then stuck her phone into her pocket and said that Pavel would be here any minute and couldn’t he just act like a human being, just this last time. He answered that he was trying and that two minutes would be quite enough to come out into the yard.
“What for?” she asked, despairingly, and he patiently repeated:
“I caught a leprechaun. If you catch a leprechaun, you can ask for a pot of gold or for three wishes. I said no to the gold. He’s tied up in the yard. Come on, please, I don’t think we have a lot of time. I think he’s screaming there, probably at the top of his lungs, and someone is going to run over and take our wishes for himself.”
She snarled that right now she didn’t have three wishes, but only one — to find that f-ing shoe. He said that he had actually already used one wish, so there were only two left and that — nope, it hadn’t come true yet.
“But,” he said, “We could go and try to take the shoe from him, if…” and here she scread:
“Quiet! Quiet! Just be quiet!”
She jerked the suitcase zipper, took from its maw, which had spat out some white rags, a pair of sandals, pulled them on, tripped on their slender heels, swore and ran out onto the porch. He followed her and she, waving to the arriving car, poked him in the chest with a chewed-up fingernail:
“Take his damn gold and take a trip somewhere. Do you good.”
And he said,
“It’s literally two minutes, it’s just here in the yard, the leprechaun is all…” and she raced away with a wail, leaving the suitcase to Pavel’s care, and he thought: “As soon as they drive off, I’m going to the bathroom to sit on the toilet and read and smoke. Solitude in the bathroom is totally natural, much more natural than in any other space.”
The car door slammed and he quickly went to the bathroom. Here something was amiss. He forced himself to concentrate and realized that a shoe was sitting on top of the toilet tank, a bright lavender one with a slightly scuffed toe. He looked at it for a minute or two, then opened the window, aimed as best he could, and awkwardly threw the shoe out into the yard.
Thank you, really
“Then why did you agree for me to come live with you?” and Masha said:
“Because we made that deal a year ago already.”
“But a year ago,” said June, “You know… Your daughter was still…uh…”
“Yes, said Masha, “Of course. But we already made a deal. That summer she was with you guys, and this summer you’re here with us. I thought I’d be able to handle it.”
A taxi honked below. June dragged her bag out onto the porch, Masha followed and, once there, said,
“When you get to Alex, call me right away. And tell him that I’ll be calling sometime in the evening.”
June waved her fingers joyfully and blew a weightless strand of hair off her forehead; the driver started dragging her suitcase to the trunk. Masha closed the door — and the whole time the tub was filling up, she thought about how she would have to thank Alex again for taking June in, and how over the last twenty four hours, while everything was settling down and getting organized, she had already thanked him three times, and that afterward, every time, she had had to vomit.
Here’s what it’s called
“This is what ‘easement’ means?” he asked, looking at the smooth gravestone.
The realtor tried again to extract her heels from the slick, soft, dizzyingly fragrant summer dacha soil.
“Well, you know, they did say that the plot’s got an easement,” she said quickly, “But you know, on the other hand, they’re ready to cut the price just a little. If you want, I can talk to them again about the discount, maybe six percent instead of five. They know, of course, but on the other hand, he says to me, ‘It’s not like it’s a person there, with a person, sure, there’d probably be an issue, of course, but it’s a dog, maybe people will understand, and we’re ready, on our end, to give a discount.”
He turned and looked at the house again, then at the road leading down to the main part of the village, then back to the house, then sighed deeply and was immediately intoxicated by the air, by the fine sweet dust suspended in it, by his own sudden lightness, by the fact that everything had finally worked out and he’d be able to move here, live here year round, especially in winter, when instead of the inane vacationers there’d be snow everywhere and nobody around. The realtor tried to get on her tiptoes, but slid, sighed and again sank her sharp heels into the soil.
“So,” she said dolefully, “should I talk to them again about the discount?”
“No,” he said, “It’s OK, this discount is fine. It just sounds so… ‘easement.’ Amazing.”
No such thing
“Or maaaaaaybe,” she said in a mysterious voice, “She’s hiiiiiding… under the bed?!”
Here she abruptly yanked the bedspread and looked down, but Nastiukha wasn’t under the bed, either.
“Or maaaaaaybe,” she said (the Bugs Bunny alarm said five till six, in five minutes she should go to the kitchen to check the oven), “she’s hiiiiiding… behind the curtain?”
Nastiukha wasn’t behind the curtain, either: if there’s one thing her Little Bitty was great at, it was hide-and-go-seek. She closed the window — in general, Bitty wasn’t allowed to open it without permission; someone’s going to get it today.
“Or maaaaaaybe,” she said in the voice of a person visited by an ingenious thought, “Maaaaaaybe she’s sitting behind the toybox??”
Behind the toybox was the stuffed hippo that had disappeared three days before, and no one else, but a very faint giggling came from somewhere close by. Here she remembered that, oven aside, she still had to call Alyona to tell her to bring along the big salad dish. It was time to finish the game. She sat down on the edge of the bed.
“OK,” she said sadly, “I give up. Where’s my Little Bitty?”
“And we should really give this room a good once-over before they arrive,” she thought, surveying the trampled drawing pad spread out on the floor.
“Maybe my Little Bitty ran away to Africa?”
The room was very quiet, not a rustle, not a single sound.
“Maybe,” she said, “My Little Bitty has gone on a trip around the world?”
“Maybe,” she said, gradually losing her patience, “Fairies have taken my Little Bitty away?”
And here she saw on the floor, right under the windowsill, a tiny, pinkie-sized, pointy leather shoe, and screamed so loud that Nastiukha rolled out of the closet with a crash and also began to stare in deep bafflement at that little doll shoe, and then looked at her mom, and then at the fat doll Cecilia, undressed willy-nilly the night before, and then at her mom again.
On the first try
It was the very beginning of June, and the whole world was redolent with a wet, green smell.
“Come on,” said the second one pleadingly, hastily getting off the swings and rubbing her injured elbow, “Let’s pretend that that was the Initial Test Attempt, and now we’re doing everything for real.”
“No,” said the first one, getting up from the wet black ground and trying to clean her palms of slick mud, “No. Let’s pretend this was the Loyalty Testing Program, and you fizzled.”
Children were prancing around, some girl in a wheelchair kept rolling up to each one in turn and saying, “I have new shoes!” She’d rolled up to her, too, probably two or three times already, but she hadn’t heard. It seemed to her that the stuffed dolphin was shrinking — she was squeezing it so hard that it was scrunching up more and more. The playroom, as always, smelled like carpet cleaner — some convalescent child was always throwing up on it. One of the doctors had already come by, tried to take her by the hand, but she pulled her hand away and, having squeezed into a corner, burst out crying, and everyone left her alone. Her butt hurt from sitting on the floor, but she couldn’t move or open her eyes, she just clutched at the dolphin and rocked back and forth. A nurse tried to convince her to leave the playroom (which didn’t work), then left herself, then returned and tried to make her swallow a pill (which didn’t work), then left again, and then the head nurse came instead. “Margarita L’vovna,” she said sternly, squatting down, “They’ve called the chief of medicine, he’s on his way, he’ll set the committee, you have to be there. You have to be present for the setting of the committee, this isn’t OK. Come on, get up.” Then she allowed herself to be raised from the ground, and to be changed out of the blood-spattered green surgical gown into a clean white one.
Here he remembered that he had forgotten to wipe the sink dry after washing the dishes, went and wiped it. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and thought hard: no, everything was clean, everything gleamed, there was even a new deodorizer in the fridge, even the living room rug was free of cat hair. Then he showered, brushed his teeth in there, and mentally went through the contents of the bag: he doesn’t need his laptop, whereas his passport is already packed, also packed are a couple of close-up photos, they might come in handy. Spare glasses — he’s always forgetting his glasses everywhere — and a chocolate bar. His phone is in his jeans pocket, he had washed his jeans that morning, they’re clean, so is his t-shirt, another clean t-shirt is in his bag. Seems like everything. All clean, dressed, shoes on, at seven thirty-two exactly he sat down on the couch and turned on the radio. At that moment their plane was supposed to take off from Rome toward home, New York. He imagined Marta smiling at the patient flight attendant, to her right Henry Jr., mouth agape, enthralled, looking at the landing strip shifting beyond the plane window, Ginny squirming in her buckled seatbelt, working to get her feet onto the seat. He closed his eyes. If anything happens, he’s ready. Clean house. Clean clothes. Their photos in close-up. Spare glasses. Chocolate bar. If anything happens, the radio will report it. The gathering place for relatives will be, most likely, two miles from here, like in eighty-six, he had already memorized the map. Chocolate bar, glasses, clean t-shirt. When Marta and the kids flew from Paris, from her mom’s house, he had also been ready, but had fallen asleep for some reason. This time, he’ll sit there till the end, promise.
Bit by bit
Everything enraged him: the bloated, change-filled pocket slapping his thigh, something hard and sharp in there —he couldn’t put his finger on what that “something” was as he ran; the ribcage cracking open from pain — it was like at school when they would run a mile and a half in cold May around the October movie theater, along the square, and past the factory canteen with its eternal smell of kasha; finally, he was enraged at how wound up he was, at the feverish counting of minutes — six minutes till the hour, he’s practically on the square already (car, heart in his throat, come on-come on-come-on again) — he could cover the square in two minutes (or three? It always seemed like something you’d never forget) — OK, let’s say it’ll be four till six, then he’ll cross the street — it’ll be one minute till the hour, so he’s how late? Fourteen, no, twelve minutes, but if he can pass the square in two…
Here he made himself stop. “Calm down,” he told himself, doubling over and trying to get air into his burning, hollow chest, “Calm down. You’re already late — number one. It won’t be the end of the world — two. This is no state to show up in — three. Listen carefully. You will now: unbutton your coat; wipe your forehead with your sleeve; figure out what’s in that damn pocket; slow down to a walk. That’s it.”
He did just that and walked on, slowly to spite himself, and what was inside his coat pocket turned out to be not a “something,” but his keys — he was lucky they hadn’t fallen out. The square was empty, foliage hid the street, he suddenly calmed down. It was nice here. His chest stopped hurting, twice he thought he saw a squirrel. He even stopped, but couldn’t make anything out, there in the fluttering leaves. Then he looked at his watch — it was twenty-one minutes past six.
He turned around — behind him, still not so far off, he could see the entrance to the square. Then he looked ahead — foliage hid the other end of the narrow paved path, maybe the movie theater was peeping out somewhere over there, or maybe not. He walked for forty more minutes, but nothing changed, only a couple of times a squirrel actually did dive off one nearby branch onto another, and suddenly froze, its ears trembling. This was so funny that he snorted.
In another hour and a half he made a stop. He had about eight hundred rubles with him — not a lot, but not little, either, he thought with pleasure; if he didn’t live high on the hog, he’d have enough for a week at least. Of course, the nights were still cold, but he who was once a young adventurer will always know that if you take if you take off your coat and use it as a blanket, everything will be fine.
Then he went to the bedroom and kissed every one of her dresses, one after the other, but that didn’t help either.
For two voices
“Who were you thinking about just now?” she inquired, but he pretended to be looking to the side, into the dark crinkle of the windowshade. Then she raised herself up, turned his face toward her with both palms and asked again:
“Who were you thinking about just now?”
“Nobody,” he said and kissed her on the shoulder, but the shoulder slipped away, his lips swabbed the air. “No one in particular,” he said, “Just, well, about a certain voice. An abstract voice.”
“Nobody’s?” shed inquired.
“Nobody’s,” he said soothingly, “nobody’s.”
“So strange,” she said, curling into a ball, blocking him off with her knees. “So strange. No, I get it, I do, it’s just strange.”
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said, gradually starting to get angry, “I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t have told you.”
He tried to turn away, but she took him by the hand and he had to look at her again.
“Just a voice?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, “just some voice.”
Then she let him turn away. He went to the bathroom, sat down on the edge of the washing machine and thought with dismay that he really shouldn’t have told her about the voice — and he thought, too, that he of course knew that voice, moaning in his head when she arched her back and bit her finger, that voice that gives a high squeal when his thrusts get stronger and he begins to moan himself. “Of course,” he thought and flicked his nail a little against the open box of detergent, of course he knows that voice: the voice is his wife’s, the last woman he had been sleeping with in the days when his deafness hadn’t yet become absolute.
He answered the phone, heard the password and quickly gave the reply. Something clicked, then, evidently, someone on the other end tapped a coin against the phone box and began to snuffle. He lay down more comfortably, took the book out from under his back, and asked something superficial, like about the weather. The person on the other end began to speak, first expressing interest in his health, then in his general situation, then saying:
“Yesterday I saw you digging in the yard.”
“I did no such thing,” he said, trying to sound very calm.
The phone was silent, another coin tumbled down, then they said:
“I just thought it wouldn’t work later,” he said with a sigh.
“I told you so,” was the displeased response.
He remembered deepening the hole, how the clumps of dirt emerged onto the surface enmeshed in the gossamer hairs of grass roots. A strand of this hair, cleaned of dirt, lay in a buried box, along with everything else, along with other clues of varying value: a stone shaped like a bird; a piece of wallpaper; a pair of old heavy glasses (that could be the riskiest thing of all); a flat metal lid with a rubber band inside; two teeth. He shifted the phone to his other ear and reluctantly explained the box’s coordinates: where and how to find it. He always played fair. He was asked to explain properly, and answered with irritation.
“I’m tired of standing here already,” was the equally irritated response, he sighed and explained properly. There was the rustling of a piece of paper, then someone swallowed loudly, then said, not so distinctly,
He got off the bed and walked through the hot, wilted courtyard to the kitchen, where it was even hotter; no one heard his footsteps because of the clanging, bubbling, and sizzling, he walked up and rubbed his cheek on someone’s thigh, was carefully moved aside, away from the stove, and asked:
“All packed up?”
He didn’t answer but instead moved over to the window and began to watch the girl walking toward the house, dragging a stool behind her. The girl’s hands were smeared with soil. A damp palm smelling of strawberry jam was placed on the back of his neck, and he was asked, with a nod toward the girl,
“Again you guys aren’t talking?”
He slipped out from under the heavy palm and made his way out of the kitchen.
“She’ll fall down from that stool in the booth,” came grouchily from beside the stove. “Where on earth do they get the coins is what I’d like to know.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have sold the dacha,” another voice said uncertainly.
“Doesn’t matter,” was the answer from beside the stove, “We’ll make up tomorrow on the train.”
Come on, it’s funny
They didn’t drink much, but the windows were open, and outside everything looked blue, and it smelled like something that made any old thing seem funny, and he was glad that they were all there, and loved them all. Someone was talking about how he was scared to death one time when a chick fell behind his collar — he bellowed and leapt around, strained his voice (right away they told him: “It’s not like the swallows survive!” — and again laughed until they cried). The girl Pasha had brought said that, as a child, she had been afraid of Boyarskii in the role of Matvei the cat — she would run away to the kitchen and once even tried to hide in the fridge. “There’s a penguin in there!” said Pasha abruptly, everyone cracked up, Marina groaned, “People, come on… Stop it… my belly hurts…” “That’s nothing,” he said and laughed. “Listen to this: when I was something like four, my mom sits me on her lap and goes, ‘I’m not Mom, I’m a wolf who’s turned into Mom!’ I didn’t believe her, she goes, ‘No, really! I’m a wolf who’s turned into Mom! I’m going to eat you up!’ Like five times, I’m like: ‘No, come on!’ And she’s all: ‘Yes, yes!’ — and all of a sudden I believed her. Boy, that was terror. Serious terror, for real. I believed it so hard, you know how terrifying it was? Man!” He laughed again and waved his plastic cup — but nothing happened, and he marveled how from up here, on the fifteenth floor, you could suddenly hear the plodding of the slow night trolley down in the street.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said to himself, “I know it’s not going to happen.” But there was nowhere to go: he had instigated all of this, had volunteered, and now they had already put the muzzle on him, the instruments were clinking, the interns salivating in anticipation. He was rubbing his fingers with a sponge and feeling nauseous, and then he imagined, with faint hope, that there, in the container that looked like a cat carrier, they’re just wasting each other —veins clashing, digging into each other with the ends of their arteries, the liver tearing into the atria, the heart answers with a twist of the liver’s quadrate lobe, and the liver attacks the heart’s right ventricle and, howling, suffocates it — and he’ll open the container, and inside will be nothing but scraps and blood.
May it really come to pass
He fell too early, earlier than he should have — as if the air being squeezed, compressed by the approaching bullet was pushing on the back of his head, and under this pressure he had leaned straight over to the side and fallen as planned, fallen as if cut down — but the bullet hadn’t even reached him yet! — and out of terror he stopped living for a second, because, of course, they were about to notice his trick, about to walk over to him — and with one more shot, that’s right — but then the actual dead began to fall from above, people who didn’t yet believe that they had been killed and so hit each other with their knees and dug into strangers’ necks with their nails, their trembling hands grabbing at the air, which was convulsed by the bullets. Someone sank their teeth furiously into his face, so that hot red water poured into his eyes — but he lay on his side and didn’t move, didn’t move, didn’t move, didn’t even blink, and then everything was over, the fiery crackling ceased, and they went away.
Just in case, he lay there until dark, and the dead, through whose bodies he kept breathing, quieted down, the hotness became cold, but he wiped his face only after he ended up at the top, on the ravine’s edge. For a few minutes he just stood there and furiously, raggedly inhaled the scent of bird cherry, then climbed out along the nearest pine tree, and, looking indifferently at his feet, walked to Astrakhan in a matter of minutes: a gypsy of his acquaintance had once told him that life was good in Astrakhan, and now he intended to find out.
Get to work
He got up with the alarm right at eight, took two pills and went to eat breakfast, eating not just anything, but kasha, and after showering took the trouble to smear his teeth with that whitening stuff, and swore to himself that from now on he would use it twice a day, like he was supposed to. He even arrived early to the office, and cleared out all the papers (and found lots of interesting stuff in there). And at lunch he didn’t go with rest of the herd to bitch about the shit that’s always bitched about at lunch, but took two more pills, waited a little and then forced himself to eat the cheese sandwich he had bought on the way, and called Marina, and said immediately that he was calling just because — to find out how she is and for the first time since the divorce they talked easily without any of those overtones. He forbade himself from reading stupid stuff on the internet that day, and decided to work — and worked, and didn’t take anything else, because his hands were already trembling from the codeine in the pills. Instead, he told himself that he’ll distract himself with work and ride it out — and did ride it out, and really did feel a little better, and during that time he finally called his landlady and settled the issue of the fridge: he said it was his own fault and that he’d buy a new one, which was the right thing to do. And even that night at home, he didn’t collapse on the bed immediately, but undressed properly and put on his pajamas, even though it was only seven PM, and only then collapsed. It was true that he felt bad, really bad, and it felt like his eye would fall out from the pain, and the right side of his nose hurt too as though someone had given him a love tap with a brick. “There,” he said to himself. “There, you were good all day. So what? My head still hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts. Evidently that’s not the point.” But he still made himself count to ten, get up, go to the bathroom, and there, standing with closed eyes and holding the pipe to avoid falling down, smeared his teeth with the stuff again.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and really busied himself with the doll. This doll had one face that was pudgy and smiling, between shiny pink lips, you could see two no less shiny teeth, also pink. The other face, though, was bony and very unpleasant — just about to start bawling, nose crinkled, upper lip raised, nasty snake. This face had white teeth that were somehow smudged. He gave the doll’s head a couple of hard twists — back and forth, back and forth. It quickly turned out that she was most interesting to look at not head on, but from the back: the nasty, petulant little face above the clasp of the dress, bent elbows pointing forward below that, a price tag still tied to one of them. He wanted to rip the price tag off, but Mom wouldn’t let him, said the price tag had to be cut off with scissors. He was not allowed to use the scissors by himself, it had ended badly last time, even though he really likes the scissors, scissors make things move in his belly. He has to wait until Mom and Dad leave the kitchen for Mom to cut off the tag. Then he’ll be able to give the doll a bath in the tub.
He waited and waited some more. Then he walked up to the kitchen doors. They were whispering very loudly, he stood and listened for a while. “Don’t yell!” That was the female whisper. “Don’t yell! Don’t you dare yell at me!” The male whisper responded vehemently, “I’m yelling because you’re killing him! Killing him! Why did you bring that thing here?!” “Because he’s interested in them,” answered the woman, “Because they stimulate his interest!” “Lena,” said the male whisper very calmly. “Lena, you’re killing him. He’s soft in the head, and we have to…” “Don’t you dare talk like that about our child!” the woman yelled at full volume (they often yelled like that; he felt bored, squatted down near the kitchen door and turned the doll’s head sideways, so that he could see both faces at once). Then the man also yelled at full volume: “I dare, because it’s the truth! He’s eleven years old, he needs special classes, he needs to be in a home, you aren’t giving him opportunities! You just bring him dolls!” Here he got tired of waiting, went to the bathroom, looked under the hamper, found the scissors, first carefully cut off the price tag, then drew the thin dull blade along one arm and along the other. It turned out really nice.
Family members and friends of passengers had already been asked to leave the train cars, she gave him tiny kisses all over — on his eyes, cheeks, chin, and then unexpectedly thrust her lips into his palm, while he muttered drily, “Come on, come on, I’ll be back in just a week,” and hugged her, a button on his coat sleeve catching on her hair. She walked quickly to the door, he didn’t look out the window, swallowed the lump in his throat and entered his compartment, and his neighbor, an inexpressive man in a coat identical to his, came in just after him.
They exchanged greetings, the neighbor immediately sat on his bunk and began to rustle the travel magazines graciously arranged on the table, while he decided to get ready for bed and began to dig around in his bag. There was no need to look into the flat interior pocket: it contained a packet with prescriptions, X-rays, CAT scans, all of it. He opened the small side compartment and got out some warm socks. It was stupid to drag along two track suits, but he had dragged them along because he felt unable to spend the night on the train in that new blue-and-black one, the one he’d have plenty of time to lie in, and walk around in, and lie in some more… He took out the other suit — an old brown one he wore at home, and turned to his neighbor — would it be appropriate to change in front of him?
At the moment, the neighbor had his back to him — had bent over his own bag, dug around in it and slapped an old brown track suit onto his table. A second suit followed, a blue-and-black one with its tags still on, and some warm gray socks. The embarrassed little blue wads of underpants were momentarily scattered across the shelf, then hidden once more (he suppressed the urge to pull back his own waistband and look down, he already knew exactly what he had on). The rest was obscured behind the neighbor’s back. He craned his neck as much as possible and saw the neatly folded green towel sticking out of the bag’s side compartment and the freshly purchased paperback volume of The Martian Chronicles (while they were trying to talk about something cheerful on the platform, Natasha had been picking at the price sticker — and had peeled it off, and now the sticky rectangle on the cover would definitely turn into a disgusting dirty stain).
At that point he left the compartment for the hallway and, shivering in time with the motions of the recently departed train, carefully patted himself down — arms, face, chest. But no, he was still alive.
He rubbed his temple with his fingers, she asked, what, did his head hurt? He lowered his lids affirmatively, and then she said: do you want me to kiss it — and it’ll feel all better? He stared at her in amazement. She quickly turned her gaze away, made an awkward motion with her hand — as though trying to remove what she had said from the air between them — and hastily left the elevator.
He got up off the floor, and, hating everything that breathed, went to answer the door. The threshold was immediately flooded with water, he looked at his late guest in disgust — a boy of probably fourteen or fifteen, sopping wet, wiping his face with his palm, cradling a half-dead bouquet like a baby. He even thought that it was some flower delivery boy with the wrong address, and barked with irritation:
The boy, trying to cover the disintegrating bouquet crookedly with the hem of his coat, shouted through the water’s pounding:
“I’m so sorry! I know it’s very late, I’m so sorry! I just! My train! I missed the earlier one, in short, I only got here now, I’m so sorry! I’m Mark, Mark Weiss! I came to talk to Katya, I need to talk to her! I’m her friend from back at the Tver’ school, I’m sorry! I only made the four twenty-six train! I’m sorry, I know it’s late, please!”
Then he shouted his response:
“There’s no Katya here!”
“What?” shouted the boy, and he repeated it again, almost closing the door so that the water wouldn’t lash the rug so hard:
“There’s no Katya here!”
“Katya Marchenko! Marchenko!” shouted the boy.
“The Marchenkos moved away two months ago!” he shouted. “Don’t know where to, ask at the post office!”
He slammed the door shut and bolted it fastidiously, returned to the living room, sat down on the floor near the sofa and carefully lifted the lampshade to shed a little light. The cat was breathing heavily and hoarsely, his mangy side heaving up and down, sometimes the cat would moan in a human voice and torturously curve his paw toward his belly — it hurt badly in there. The shot clearly hadn’t helped. He put his hand on the cat’s forehead, then thought that that was only making the cat feel worse, lifted his hand away and lowered the shade back down. Maybe, he thought, they should have taken the cat with them instead of selling him with the house, maybe there, in the new place, he would have kept on living and living. Or maybe, he thought, they shouldn’t have moved away at all: then Katya would have answered the door, looked at that little idiot with the bouquet in silence for a few seconds, and then she would have said: “My cat is dying, come in,” and of course, they would have sat up with the cat until morning, and sooner or later they would have kissed awkwardly, and things wouldn’t be quite so bad.
I’m not your death, I won’t eat you
The food arrived. He hastily finished his cigarette, crushed the butt in the ashtray and slid a salad crowned with a pair of dill tufts over to himself.
“Ha,” he said, “Look, the salad has ears! No, that’s not right: look, it’s a hill. Inside is a burrow. Ears are sticking out of the burrow.” He used his fork to move the dill “ears” back and forth.
At that moment, anguished and despairing, she understood that all her bravado wasn’t worth a plugged nickel: of course she would keep the baby.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I get bored of just eating, and then I go out to a restaurant that serves, like, some special cuisine.”
They were so sorrowful, so calm. Afraid of nothing, concerned with nothing. They knew how to live, how to earn their daily bread, and how to stick together. He walked up and lay down among them in the walkway between Mendeleevskaya and Novoslobodskaya — palms to cheek, knees to stomach — but then he looked closer: no, that’s not how they were lying; he put his elbow under his head, and immediately felt comfortable. They didn’t protest and didn’t chase him away — someone stuck a warm snout under the hem of his shearling coat, someone slapped their tail against his knee — and against the background of the monotonous scraping of human footsteps they fell asleep, the whole pack.
You knew, you knew
Then there was a commercial. There were two guys with chainsaws, one apparently half-naked (or wearing a light t-shirt, unclear). They spoke with special “cruel” voices, rough ones, you know, “oho, grrr!” That is, only one would speak, and the other agreed: he would said, “uh huh,” or “haaa!” The first guy would bark: “And now we’re back!” And the second one would say: “Oh yeah!” Then the first one would bark: “If you’re watching TV, you love our show!” And the second one would go “Vzzzz!” with the saw. Then the first one would bark: “And if you don’t love our show, why are you watching TV? Is someone forcing you to?”
Then he began to laugh and laughed hysterically, for a long time, tears even poured out of his eyes, and he began to cough. Then they returned, kicked him in the stomach a couple of times, someone bashed him hard on the back with the butt of a gun, but he kept on laughing, he just couldn’t stop. They gagged him and turned the little portable TV so he couldn’t see it. The commercial ended, and the news began again.
“That was crappy,” he said.
“No,” his mom answered, “It wasn’t crappy, don’t you ever say words like that to me, how dare you? It wasn’t ‘crappy,’ it was useful. You did a useful thing.”
He kicked the sofa and began furiously rubbing and slobbering his finger, which was covered in purple marker stains. She slapped his hand lightly.
“You asked me to draw you a dog, I drew you a dog, I thought you wanted me to draw you a dog,” he said tearfully.
“That’s right,” she said, “I asked you to draw me a dog, I needed a sign, you drew a very good dog, and I wrote, ‘No dogs allowed,’ and now it’s a useful dog.”
“Do you love me?” she asked, trying to arrange her heels more comfortably on the balled-up blanket.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“That’s just fine,” she said. “Just fine. The important thing is that you not worry out about it.”
“Please, just talk to me,” she said, but he didn’t even turn around, he had already been sitting there like that for twenty minutes, in his dress uniform and shoes; a stain from the melting snow was spreading out on the light, thick-pile rug, the grey end of a graveyard pine needle sticking out from under his sole.
“Sweetie,” she said, “darling, lovey, just talk to me. Let me do something for you, please. Let me get you something to eat.”
She tried to put a hand on his shoulder, on his cold, unpleasant epaulet. He didn’t even move.
“Darling, please,” she said, not knowing where to put her hand. “What happened? Please.”
“I killed a squirrel,” he said drily. She didn’t understand and asked him to say again.
“I killed a squirrel,” he said. “We gave a salute, and I shot a squirrel. I didn’t know but then I got into the car and started driving and almost ran over something right in the parking lot. I was able to brake and it was a shot squirrel.”
She tried to settle her hand in the air above his head, then stuck it in her underarm, then said:
“Sweetie…but a salute — that’s not just one person, not just you, right?”
“No, not just me,” he said drily. “That’s what I’m thinking about now.”
“Please,” she said in a brittle, plasticky voice. “Please, take the knife away,” and immediately the trembling tip touched her neck, she choked in terror, wanted to spring back, but there was a wall there, and she tried to press herself into the wall.
For a few seconds they stood there like that, him trying not to look at her, eyes darting around the unfamiliar kitchen — and she thought, suddenly, that that’s how you look for a hiding place.
“Please,” she said, trying not to move her throat, “I’ll do anything you…”
Here he screamed:
She began to fumble at her blouse collar with stiff fingers, deathly afraid of hitting the shaking knife at her throat. She managed to find the zipper tab, began to draw it downward, got approximately to the middle of her belly and released it limply.
Here he began to cry. At first he just gave a little high-pitched howl, then tried to hide behind the elbow of the arm clutching the knife, then doubled over and began to sob chokingly. She scooped him up into a bundle and crumpled down to the floor with him in her arms, her side leaning uncomfortably into the the wall, sitting him down in her lap — he was skinny, light, maybe, she thought, he’s older than he looks, he might be twelve or even thirteen. He pushed his wet face into her collarbone, and she began to mutter that it was OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, no one will ever find out, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry. The terribly uncomfortable pose made her back hurt, there was a draft from the broken window, and they sat like that until they got a chill.
Talk again soon
He waved, waved again — lifting himself up on his tiptoes, smiling wide; then, unable to resist, he took a couple of steps forward, jumped up to make himself more visible, blew a playful kiss, shouted, “Call me!” Then again, louder: “Call me!” And just in case, he mimed with his finger in the air: circle, circle, pressed his fist to his ear, nodded, waved again, said “Sorry!” to the displeased guy with the taped-up TV box struggling to pass him — first on the left, then on the right, and finally pulled his wayward coat sleeve straight, turned all the way around, and quickly rolled his little neat suitcase along the platform. Sometimes he felt ashamed of these little pantomimes, but by now he didn’t give a damn, because afterward he really would feel like someone had seen him off, waved to him for a long time, would definitely call tomorrow, and he shouldn’t forget to bring home a present.
He muted the TV and trained his ears on the ceiling again. Then he couldn’t take it anymore, got up from the bed, threw the remote down on the nightstand and began to fumble around the rug with his feet, searching for his slippers. In this little basement-cum-teeny apartment (he had been renting it for a month now for mere pennies, that is for two thirds of his earnings), acoustics were in general a divine punishment, but now the problem wasn’t just the noise. But instead: he had never heard that unseen child simply walking; no, it would always run — rapidly and seemingly barefoot, that is, loudly banging on the floor with bare heels. And he was curious about another, no less strange thing: he could never hear the sound of grownups walking up there. Just the pounding of little heels.
He went out into the common hallway, where a vile, pale halogen light turned on right away, and went up to the first floor. He had been listening to the ceiling for a month now, that child (a girl — for some reason he was sure it was a girl) had come alive in his head: evidently she was plump, five years old, with thick, waist-length chestnut hair, wearing a little red dress, barefoot, runs around up there, runs around very fast, lives… lives alone? (some dim kitchen table, bottles… water in the bottles). With a paralyzed grownup? With a paralyzed grownup whose requests she hastens to fulfill at a run (the smell of illness)? He wanted, finally… well, it was unclear what he wanted — just to see, dammit, such a stupid riddle.
He jabbed at the doorbell with his finger, very briefly, and right away he could hear, behind the door, a boisterous barefoot stamping, the door swung open — he was looking down at a small, barely waist-high man with an awkward little body and an unnaturally large head: a dandyish little track suit, a nearly-finished cigarette. He managed to say that he had come to borrow some salt, he had a cold, and going to the store would… He didn’t have time to finish: the little man ran down the hall very quickly, and, grabbing a coat rack with a miniscule paw, gave himself the momentum to make a carefully calculated arc, then shouted into the kitchen: “Pudding! The neighbor wants some salt!” At once a large-headed woman with a short haircut, slightly taller than her husband, flew out of the kitchen. Her heels pounded the hardwood rhythmically, she caught her breath and, smiling, handed him salt in a faceted glass jar with a river landscape relief — he had always marveled at that type of salt in the supermarket, unable to imagine who would actually buy it, since it cost literally fifty times more than the regular kind.
He muttered thanks and whatnot and, like a fool, went back downstairs, salt in hand, to his own place. There, in his lair, he put out his palm, tilted the salt shaker, and extremely fine salt suddenly poured from under the silvery lid in a hasty stream. He was so surprised that he jerked his hand away, shaking the salt convulsively off onto the floor, then carefully wiped his palm on his pants, and then, for some reason, went and stamped his foot on the spilled salt, trying to lift his knee high, as though dealing with an ant or a darting cockroach crunching drily underfoot.
Are you crying?
Later, when they had already transferred her to death row, he was asked:
“Why did you allow your wife to socialize with this woman?”
“Because she made my wife happy.”
Something’s not right
That girl on the show had said: “Those men from the military just came, told us about my dad, and drove off. I was crying, my mom wasn’t. I climbed under the bed and just cried, and cried, and cried.” He kept thinking about that all week, he thought that it must be very nice — to lie under the bed and cry. On Sunday, that’s exactly what he did: he got under the bed and lay there, among old smells, slicks of thin colorless sand, and little clouds of cat fur, imagining that his dad went off to war and got killed. He wasn’t able to start crying, but he found a marker under the bed and used its dried-out tip to draw in the dust first himself, and then the cat; then he scribbled out the cat. If the cat had perished, he could have cried, but the cat had just run away to Africa, so he had to climb out from under the bed with nothing.
It’s not working
The made it, finally, to the fourth floor of the damn Children’s World with its damn enormous staircases and damn non-working elevator; although, Lyoshka would gallop up two stairs at a time and then run down to him, and then gallop up again; meanwhile he dragged his body up on cottony legs, getting visibly out of breath, and again swore to himself to quit smoking as soon as he survives Lyoshka’s birthday.
“Hold on, Lyosha,” he said, “Hold on.” And tried to catch his breath.
Lyoshka immediately started looking all around, examining the stupid souvenir trash in the kiosks right near the staircase, saw a plate painted with what were supposed to be scenes from the Battle of Poltava, happily gaped his mouth open and shrieked:
“Woah, lookit the plate!”
“Lyosha,” he said, “What’s the big ‘woah’? Everything’s a ‘woah.’ That train was a ‘woah,’ the staircase was a ‘woah,’ and now the plate — ‘woah.’ What’s the ‘woah’?”
The boy looked at him askance, as though he felt that he had blurted out something stupid, and said, now more quietly:
“Just — woah. I see it — woah.”
Then he, still holding on to his side, carefully looked at this red-haired stranger boy who now lived with him in the same house, buried his nose in his wife’s belly after school, had secrets of his own, probably some memory of his recent life with a totally different man, and certain expectations, probably; expectations like woah, maybe, of this new life, into which he and Marina had pulled him — and said:
“You know, Lyosha, I’m just some kind of total dumbass.” The red-haired boy even covered his mouth with his hand in surprise, then asked, comically spreading his arms:
“Dunno,” he said. “Just a dumbass — that’s all.”
Everything’s going to be great
While he was washing his hands and the nurse was saying what had to be said, she, half-lying, half-sitting in that humiliating spreadeagled position, was examining an old poster on the wall: a man in a white coat and round glasses, an ideal old doctor in an ideal fifties world, holding a pack of cigarettes out for the viewer, a long-gone brand; a jaunty white inscription on a red background pledged that “Your own personal doctor recommends these exact cigarettes!” She even managed to distract herself, but then he returned, gloves on now, arms raised, and the nurse rolled up the little cart with the instruments spread out on it, and again she felt nauseous, and she said — just to say something — in a voice that leapt up idiotically:
“That’s a clever piece of décor,” she even tried to smile, and he also smiled, carefully palpating something down there (but still without the instruments, still without them; she already couldn’t feel anything, the shot was working, but he hadn’t taken anything off the cart yet — or maybe she hadn’t noticed? Maybe they have a special skill for picking things up so she doesn’t notice?) and said, lifting a hand into which the nurse obligingly stuck something unbearably curved:
“That’s my grandpa. We’ve been doctors for four generations. Don’t worry about anything.”
The flying ridge of clouds is thinning
“Don’t get mad,” she said, “But this just won’t pan out.”
He chewed on his lip and looked at her seriously, beautifuly, and she felt another burst of tenderness toward him, and also a burst of despair.
“I didn’t think there was anything to pan out here,” he said, and she, who had heard this phrase (or nearly this one) something like eight hundred times, smiled and said:
“Well, what do you know.”
They started to walk along the cloud, and he kept chewing on his lips and making as if to scoop something up with his arms, gather it into a pile and then maybe arrange it in the correct order, but of course, nothing could be arranged.
“Let me explain,” she said, “Only you have to promise not to laugh.”
He kept looking at her in the same sullen way, and she said:
“So there’s this one song. My son was very upset — you know, back then. And he wanted to do something. And he asked them to play that song in the church, and said, ‘Now, no matter where it plays, this song will be playing for you.’”
They turned and walked along the wind, and she drew her hand along the wind, like a child draws its mittened hand across untouched snow on a railing.
“So,” he asked, “does it?”
“No,” she said.
It’s just — what if
He said that they had to talk, but neither at his house nor at hers, nor in his office, nor in the smoking area at her dead-end job, and in fact, they couldn’t talk anywhere where there were ears or even walls. It was nearly negative thirty, they ran to the twenty-four-hour pharmacy, and there, fondling a crinkling cellophane bag with a colorful canvas bath toy monster inside, he told her that she shouldn’t believe anything she hears about him in the next few days, nothing at all.
“No, I mean,” he said, standing up one of the monster’s stripy tentacles, “Believe what you want, just promise me that if it comes down to it, you’ll let me explain everything to you myself. You’ll come nad ask me, and I’ll explain everything to you myself, and then you can believe it if you want. And if I can’t explain it, then everything’s gone wrong, then believe it.”
“Jesus,” she said, “What is up?” And pulled the bag toward her, unable to stand the sight of those tentacles writhing in torment, the brittle crinkling sound, the white threads coming out at the seams, but he didn’t yield, clinging to the bag stubbornly. “Who can do what to me? What is this cloak and dagger stuff? What’s the deal?”
“They can, they can,” he said.
“Fine,” she said and jerked the bag toward herself again. “Fine, just tell me, for heaven’s sake, are you in any kind of danger? Are you under some kind of threat? Are you in some kind of trouble? What? Is something going to happen?”
Here he suddenly looked at her, as though he had only just now started to game out the possibilities. Then he stuck his finger under the ripped cellophane and scratched the monster behind the ear.
“No,” he said, “no, of course not. Of course nothing will happen.”
They had already gone far enough, but he couldn’t pick a spot, every spot was somehow not right. A couple of times Patrick bounded after a mouse or a hedgehog, but it was enough to click his tongue, and the dog, emitting a plaintive, guilty noise, would heel. They had already passed all the familiar parts of the forest. Finally, he commanded himself to stop near a rather tall pine, told the dog to sit, quickly walked eight steps away, turned, raised his rifle and shot. Afterward, rifle still in hand, he hobbled forward, moving his half-bent cottony legs with effort, and fixed his gaze on Patrick’s belly, on his red-furred tender undercoat being tousled by the wind, and everything around seemed to him like empty, fake filth. He forced himself to shift his gaze to the face — the dog’s upper lip was raised, and for the first time you could see how pale, almost white his gums were, shiny, protruding, covered in tiny, not yet evaporated bubbles of saliva, and it was because of the sight of Patrick’s gums that he crumpled and screamed. He fell to his knees and, apparently, began to roll around on the dry yellow needles, he screamed and screamed, and tears poured from him like water, the tears just gushed, and he kept screaming and screaming, folding in half, clutching his stomach with his hands, and screamed, tears spilling out of him, and even later, when he couldn’t scream at full volume anymore, he kept on crying, lying on his side, kept crying and crying. Finally, he was crying, for the first time in three weeks, for the first time since that day when he was asked to identify his wife’s body — that is, what was left of her body, scratched out by the rescue team from the pancake-flattened car. He had tried very hard to cry for a whole three weeks, he was suffocating from pain, but he couldn’t do it; he deliberately recalled their honeymoon, his long-dead parents, any and all past sorrows he could summon, pinched himself hard, twisting the skin, stabbed himself with a needle, but he was unable to cry, feeling all the while that if he didn’t cry soon, something would pop in his brain, would just pop — and that’s it, he’d drop dead.
There were plenty of people in the middle of the hall, but everyone, of course, could give a rat’s ass about those hellions, braying like two prize horses. He walked up to them and rather roughly grabbed the larger one by the elbow. She turned to him her still-grinning little mug — nose like a spoonbill, a little piercing in her eyebrow, tiny zits on her forehead. The other little pisser, the smaller one, hadn’t yet noticed the interference and, absorbed in the game, kept talking into the speaker of the red-and-blue metal pole, words dissolving in laughter, trying to outargue the dispatcher’s irritated, hoarse-voiced, barked responses. Finally, surprised at her friend’s silence, she also turned around, saw a man, his firm grip on the silver jacket sleeve, his tightened lips — and stared in fright with her little light eyes: a bony little maggot, mouth full of braces. Then he released the cautiously bucking girlish elbow.
“By the way,” he said very, very quietly, “My dad died because of people like you. He had a heart attack, just like that, in the middle of the hall, and the dispatcher didn’t answer because some retards like you had been shouting into the mic right before.”
He turned around and walked off toward the walkway, not bothering to look back. He had already done this twice or three times and never looked back. Actually, he did this every time he’d see teenagers entertaining themselves with emergency phones in stations: he would walk up, grab an elbow, say the same set of phrases, and then walk away slowly; while he walked, he would imagine that everything really had happened that way: there’s his father, lying on the marble floor; there he is, shaking his father by the shoulders, crookedly unbuttoning his loose collar; the camera zooms out and those standing in a useless circle on the platform come into view, and he himself, understanding everything already but refusing to understand, is shouting something into the red intercom — maybe “We need a doctor!” or “Call an ambulance!”, pushes the button, but the intercom doesn’t answer. He saw that picture so clearly, so easily. If only it had really been that way, he would think every time, if only it had really been just like that, and there hadn’t been the shot, or the water, or anything like that.
He didn’t hear her come in, but smelled her perfume, strong, spicy, almost vulgar, luxurious, and his lips began to throb. She had seen to it that there was no light, had even drawn the shades, and he could barely see her, approaching soundlessly — a dark patch on a dark background. He stretched out his hand, but she gripped his wrist unexpectedly firmly, the touch of the glove’s cool satin seemed provocatively unseemly to him, he strained his legs involuntarily, exhaled, surrendered to her mercy, and she began to unhurriedly stroke her gloved hand over his chest, then his belly, pitilessly going as far as his belly button and then freezing. He raised his knee impatiently, but she did not react to this request in any way, instead bending down lower, and he began to greedily inhale the fragrance of the soft, warm hemispheres of her corset-uplifted breasts. She bent down even lower, and he couldn’t resist, grabbed her thigh, tried to stick his finger under the wide lace top of the stocking and immediately got a satin palm to the mouth. The distance between his face and her breasts immediately widened, the hand caressing his belly left him. He absorbed the lesson and froze piteously, and was forgiven — he was allowed to take the tight satin glove off with his teeth, finger by finger, and greedily wrap his lips around a slim finger with its short, slightly rough nail. He moaned with pleasure when that finger began to stroke his tongue. She carefully swung a leg across him, got up on her knees, he managed to smell a different smell through the perfume, a human, fleshly one, and arched his back, trying to touch her flesh with his, but she didn’t rush to bring her body downward, kept waiting and waiting, then pressed her hands into the pillow behind his head, collapsed onto her side and rolled over toward the wall. He tried to catch his breath, found the lightswitch behind the nighttable by touch, turned on the light, she moaned pitifully and shielded herself from the light with a hand.
“What is it?” he asked. “What is it, what’s wrong, kitten?”
“This just doesn’t help,” she said. “It just doesn’t help. It was my idea, I know, I know, I’m sorry. But I don’t feel, you know, better in all this gear. I’m sorry. A tarted up old bimbo — that’s how I feel.”
There was a kind of unhealthy melodrama in the whole scene — in the tiles, in the smell, at once sterile and nauseating, in the vile absence of shadows, in the artificial light of this place itself, in the way the mustachioed man and the woman with the long, funereally serious face who had escorted him here, froze stupidly in the doorway. This all smacked of poor staging, like a cheap show whiling away its life on daytime TV, but it was impossible not to give into it: he felt his face stretching into an imperceptibly standard expression, his steps becoming ostentatiously slow, and there was even something comical poking through. This was, apparently, the only way he could endure the journey from the door to the high table, to the body covered with a sheet that seemed, in the harsh direct light, to be made of cardboard, to the moment when whoever was supposed to do so lifted the corner of this same sheet (also, incidentally, with a inappropriately dilatory gesture) off Ada’s face. He looked at his daughter, was asked what he was supposed to be asked, he answered what he was supposed to answer, he was given to understand that the identification was over and it was time to leave, but he didn’t leave. Far from it — he came closer to the table, bent over and began to look at her closely, and kept looking and looking, and couldn’t tear himself away, because it turned out that Ada had braces on her teeth, Mira had made her get braces after all, and he didn’t even know — and wouldn’t have found out until Ada came to his place for the three summer weeks allowed by the court.