Nikita had one physiological quirk. He fainted often. Of course, he did so not from the sight of blood or from hearing a bad word, as various Turgenev ladies, but for no reason at all.
Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, sometimes from the strong Spring wind or from the subway station connections, which looked like spaceships. He was so awed by life. And this is how he experienced what was going on around him. That sometimes his organism couldn’t take the pressure. And turned off all by itself. This was the only way to make Nikita take pause and catch his breath, which was always baited.
Also, Nikita often had pains in various completely incongruous parts of his body. Ones which didn’t usually cause much trouble for other people. For example, his heel. Or his wrist. Or something completely ridiculous like his index finger. Pain also took him out of the daily stream, but in a milder way, leaving the picture behind clouded glass. Inside, a silence would appear, in which crickets ticked and cicadas spoke their weighty word. Nikita listened to the cicadas and looked out, smiling, into the world. As if from a distance. As if from a different type of life. And the train quietly rolled onward towards Tashikha…
Nikita came to. He felt the gaze of his country upon him, the cloudy eyes of the third class carriage. Someone’s neck was gathering fleas from a military coat, legs were stretching into the narrow passage between duffels, suitcases and rolling carts.
The country periodically tried splashing Nikita with boiling water, falling over and grasping the railings, to feed him dried fish and homemade pierogies, to smear him with a melted chocolate, make him drink vodka, leave him for a fool with a greasy hand of cards, which has naked chicks in place of queens.
The country was trying to make contact with Nikita. Become intimate with him. The country wasn’t letting him sleep, wasn’t letting him think, and wouldn’t leave him in peace.
The country yawned, snored, stank, ate, drank, climbed onto the top bunk, stepping on someone’s hand, gnawed on sunflower seeds, solved a crossword, scratched it’s balls, argued with the conductor who sat her down right near the bathroom, bumped around next to the screeching doors, was saying: “What is this station?” – “Look the guy is out again”. – “Didn’t look like he was drinking”. – “He must be a druggie”. – “They are all druggies these days, some stick it, some sniff it!” – “You should hold your tongue, mama, about the things you know nothing about, can’t you see a person’s not well…” – “Maybe call a doctor?” – “Why should I hold my tongue?! I stood in front of a lathe my whole life! Don’t try to shut me up – I’m an invalid!” – “Please keep it down, woman, the children are sleeping!” – “The children! They’ll grow up and will also sniff glue and tell the elderly to shut up!” – “Grandma, stop nagging! Let’s sing a song instead: IN THE FIELD THE TANKS WERE RRR-OOO-LLL-ING! THE SOLDIERS WERE ON THEIR LAST MARCH!..”
Nikita came to again, and stepped out for a smoke. The country was approaching station Bottom, swinging on the shocks and longingly stretching along the curving railway. Then it braked abruptly, and stopped at a streetlight.
– Hey, bro, where the heck are we?
– At bottom! – Nikita screamed back merrily and began to make his way towards the exit.
Station Bottom was damp and deserted. Only the dispatchers talked to each other
in their otherworldly tongue, and the invisible patrollers banged on the metal joints of the trains.
– Where are you going, whipper snapper? – the fat conductor’s voice was deep
and tender, and she looked like an oracle. – Are you looking to keel over again? Will I be the one to have to clean you off the tracks?
Nikita smiled at the oracle and shrugged his shoulders. It smelled like coal, rotting wood and the road. A thin drizzle tickled his face. And it was as if everything around knew some secret. Which was impossible to tell. Because there was no reason for it.
In the train car Nikita was approached by a little boy. He clutched his knee and asked with a serious voice:
— Do you have a dream? – And without waiting for him to answer: — And I do have a dream: I want to fall into the bushes and live there!
— That’s it? – asked Nikita. – That’s really all you need to be happy?
The boy became thoughtful, stuck his fist in his mouth.
— Well, I would also like a train. I would ride and ride on it. And then… I would fall into the bushes! And would live there!
— And so what’s stopping you? – Nikita leaned down, trying to capture the fleeing attention of the child.
— Socks! – blurted the boy and, having gotten bored, continued to run along.
— Warm socksies, from sheep’s wool, giving them away for fifty roubles, twice as expensive at the market! – hollered, squeezing through the car’s cavity, a woman with a large checkered bag. – Real wool here, grab ‘em, girls, you won’t regret it!
At the far end of the car the voluminous saleswoman of socks engaged in an uneven match with the train conductor, whose thick deep bass drowned out all retorts.
— How many times do I have to say this! This is not the red cross! If you want to ride – you have to pay! We’re not a monastery but the Russian! Rail! Road! What do I care about your kids! Popped out a whole mess! I’ll take you off right now. Next time – I’ll call the cops!
Nikita grabbed his backpack and also begin making his way towards the exit.
On the empty platform the boy who wanted to fall into the bushes habitually slept on the bag of socks. No bushes could be seen anywhere near. Only some sort of eyeless buildings and a country road, stretching out into the darkness. One more boy, a little older, his hands in pockets, was skeptically eyeing the creaking lamppost. The woman was watching the departing train and for some reason smiling. Nikita liked this.
The train terminal building at the Kirzhach station turned out to be hammered closed. Nikita put the checkered bag on the wet bench.
— Well, looks like we’re spending the night here. We’re used to it. We’ll hold each other and won’t freeze, — the sock seller Antonina Fedorovna was saying, spreading plastic bags on the bench. – Go ahead, take your shoes off, I’ll give you some socksies also, so you won’t freeze your feet off.
— Mam, I want some tea! Mam, I’m all stiff! Mam, my stomach hurts! – whined the older boy Sema.
— Stop your crying! Smile! What did I teach you? Straighten your back and smile! Tomorrow we will get lucky!
— It’s always tomorrow! Nothing will happen tomorrow!
— Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare to even think like this! And especially say it! Look, Len’ka is the youngest, but he’s hanging on like a real man!
Len’ka was sleeping peacefully, his folded hands under his cheek. He definitely didn’t doubt that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.
— I also used to be like Sevka, — said Antonina Fedorovna. – Cried because of each little thing. My head filled with all sorts of thoughts: nothing will work out, my whole life will be like this… ready to climb into the noose! And then I read in some American book that the guarantee of success – is a straight back and a smile. And now, no matter what happens, I always remember: the most important thing – is to smile and not slouch. Then you’ll get lucky!
— And how is it going? – carefully inquired Nikita. – Does it work?
— Well so far not really, — easily confided Antonina Fedorovna. – But I don’t despair. Because I know, that someday – everything will definitely change!
Tonya Kiseleva grew up in a small mining town of Halmer-U. It’s beyond Vorkuta, further north, towards the Arctic ocean, down the narrow-gauge railway which connected the mine with the rest of the world once a week.
At seventeen, she got married to a driver. On weekends he drove her around the tundra in a ramshackled truck, on which he hauled garbage during the working hours. Then Seva was born. And then the mine got closed. The people, without hope that anyone will take care of them, began making way out of the condemned settlement.
Tonya’s husband wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
“People have lost faith completely! – he was saying to his wife. – How can they be like this! Our State – is the State of workers and farmers. And who are we? We are workers. Think for yourself: how could it leave us in the hands of fate? Leave us alone in the middle of the tundra? Of course not! You will see, they’ll give us an apartment somewhere in the south, and these rats who are now fleeing will be biting their knuckles!”
Nineteen-year-old Antonina believed both her husband, and the State. And following Seva she trustingly bore them Lenya, also.
“What an idiot!” – said her former neighbors in chorus, when she was riding back to Halmer-U from the hospital in Vorkuta. But Tonya only smiled mysteriously. She knew that ahead of her there is a large apartment, with windows facing the south sea.
She rode the train back alone. The grumpy conductor, formerly an inmate, was for some reason not in a hurry to begin making his way back. Then he sharply blew the horn twice. Tonya turned around.
“Hey, mama. You know what. I mean, you should get the heck out of here. Why are you stalling? There are only two more rides left. And then it’s finished. They’re closing down the line”.
— What do you mean, they’ll close it down? – Tonya was baffled – What about us? Who will bring the bread? They can’t do this! You’re mixing this up!
The conductor also called Tonya an idiot and put the train in reverse.
And here Antonina Kiseleva began to have doubts for the first time. A week from then she, herself not really knowing why, rolled the stroller with little Lenya to the train station. And watched the noisy Kapelkin family loading their possessions. The conductor who was helping drag the boxes and bundles into the train, looked in Tonya’s direction, and angrily spit onto the permafrost. After Kapelkins’ departure, they were left in Halmer-U alone.
— I would go to my husband: let’s leave! And in return I got cursed out. He even began to beat me. Earlier – he would never, even if he was a driver. Or he would lay around all day, his face to the wall, silent. Sometimes he’d fall asleep – and would grind his teeth something awful, in this silence… I was scared…
We only ate buckwheat. There was nothing else left. I would make a bonfire in the yard and cook it. They’ve turned off the electricity, and the gas. I would cook it, put the pot next to his bed, and it was all black from the soot. And the table I had to chop up for firewood.
I would put it down there, then gather the kids together – and would go cry next to the former movie theater, where my husband and I had met. I would go there every day. I would cry a river. Sevka would begin sniffling along with me. Len’ka would wake up in his stroller – and also start screaming. So the three of us wailed together like this.
And then the last train has arrived. I was standing at the station with the kids. I just came to look at a live human being for a while. I had no thoughts of any kind, no. I grabbed onto the stroller, and stood there looking. And he was looking at me. From the head of the train. His face was all black…
And in the settlement, a whole mess of wild dogs had gathered. Whole packs of them, roaming the streets. Abandoned by their owners. I’d be walking and they would be running right behind me, almost touching me. And it was as if they were trying to look into the stroller. You’d throw something at them, they would snap at you, fall behind, but not for long.
And so I’m here, standing next to the train. And all of the sudden these dogs begin howling. I turn around and see them walking at me, all of them. I run towards the train car. The conductor jumps out, is helping me lift the stroller and keeps saying: “Well thank god, thank god….”
Cadet was drinking the expensive Italian wine again. Dry. Red. Cadet was again listening to Shubert. All that was missing was candles and a while silk blouse with a raised collar. Cadet, as was customary for a Russian nobleman, was talking about the fates of the motherland. Nikita’s knee was hurting. He was melancholy.
— Well, and where are you travelling all the time? What are you looking for? For Russia which we have lost? – Cadet was saying, as he poured the wine.
— For Russia… — responded Nikita, like an echo.
— So you can then sit around in immigration, listening to your wife Katenka singing “The fragrant clusters of white acacia” in the living room, while writing a novel called “Dope days”?
— I’m not leaving, you know that.
— That’s too bad. There is enough oil left for eight more years in this country. And that’s it. No one is working on developing new wells since the Soviet times. What to do?
— To live.
— More precisely, to survive. And I don’t want to survive. I, for one, like tasty wine, good music, I’m reading Richter’s memoirs here…
Cadet was a sybarite and an aesthete. And this friendship would have never happened, if Cadet didn’t all of the sudden turn out to be a decent human being. Although “decent” is not the most correct word. Nikita racked his brain for a long time, before he was able to dig this archaism out of his memory’s storage; he’s only seen it in books before. Cadet was, indeed, noble.
He lived in a world which had died a hundred years ago. In a world in which there were honor, conscience, dignity. For a long time, Nikita looked at Cadet as if he was some sort of a perfect being. His words and actions did not contain this usual human rottenness: to promise – and not carry through, to mess something up, and then hide your head in the sand, leaving a note on your behind: “It wasn’t me. It was already like this”.
Once, having had too much expensive wine, Cadet disclosed to Nikita his plans of hooligan diversions against small-caliber, but highly vile bureaucrats. Then he talked about the kidnapping of ministers, a preparation of a mutiny in the army, but then suddenly he halted his speech theatrically and went to open another bottle.
On that same day Nikita noticed on his table, along with Richter’s memoirs, the memories of the aesthete-terrorist Boris Savinkov. And smiled knowingly. Although Savinkov, with his superhuman snobbery and aristocratic unavailability, was never a kindred soul for him. As opposed to Ivan Kalyayev, the man of god, who crossed himself with one hand, and held a bomb in the other. And answered in response to the Jesuit questions of the atheist Savinkov: “And what about “though shall not kill”, Vanya?” – “I cannot go, because I love”.
Here walks, across an empty autumnal amusement park, a seventeen-year-old Yasya. Her hair is dyed blue and standing upright. In her right hand there is a cheap cigarette. And on her left, on the black glove – there are two funny holes. On the index and the middle fingers. Yasya is thrilled by this. Because these holes allow her to flash “fuck” and “victory” in a very expressive way. These are her favorite gestures.
Yasya is belting “Alabama song” loudly. She’s cutting a seminar on “The Story of Peter and Fevronii”, and Nikita is cutting a test on the history of Rome. Just shortly before, Nikita tore off all of the little flags from the dancing stage, left over from some summer celebration. How he is stuffing these multicolored wet rags into the square facets of the aluminum fence, which surrounds the stage. It spells out “YASYA”.
Yasya takes the rest of the flags away from Nikita. She tries to compose the word “Love”. But there are only enough flags for “LO”. A sleepy security man appears.
— How did you get in here, punks?! I’m going to call the police! – he screams through the fence.
— “Oh, show me my way to the next whisky bar!” – screams Yasya in reply. – “We don’t understand you! We are from Chikago!”
Then they run out of the park and go to Yasya’s lecture together. It’s a lecture by the professor-postmodernist Yermolov about Sasha Sokolov. They like Yermolov, who gracefully ridicules the dumb students, they like Sasha Sokolov, whom they’ve read outloud to each other in the overfilled trams on their way to the university.
— Flags! – mischievously says Yasya, laying her head down on Nikita’s notebook and preventing him from taking notes about Sasha Sokolov.
— Flags! – from now on this means “I love”.
Sasha Sokolov moves to Canada. Yasya is not planning on moving anywhere.
She’s planning to go to the library after today’s lectures and to read the huge and dusty encyclopedic edition of “The myths of the world’s populations”. And then make out with Nikita for a long time in the men’s bathroom, where they go to smoke and recite to each other the books which they’ve just read. And then listen to Paganini through the headphones held together by scotch tape in the music-notation section and to write a letter to Nikita, who is sitting next to her and is groping around for her breast under her sweater with one hand, and with the other – is writing her a letter also, getting jealous of Paganini. And then – to ride around on trams. Or to borrow money from somebody, buy some port and to drink it in someone else’s staircase, toasting to Amenhotep the Fourth.
— And then we will get married and will move together to Mexico! We will rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde, and we will give the money to the poor farmers who grow beans and sing the tango, — says seventeen-year-old Yasya. – You will be wearing a big hat and a black mustache, and I will grow my hair out really long and will dance barefoot on the dusty road, covered in bead necklaces and multicolored skirts, and then…
And then they grew up.
A little boy came up to Nikita in the car. He grabbed Nikita by his knee and asked him earnestly:
“Do you have a dream?” And without waiting for the answer he added: “I have a dream. I want to drop down in the bushes and live there.”
“Is that it?” Nikita asked. “Is that all you need to make you happy?”
The boy put his little fist into his mouth, thinking.
“Well, also a train. I want to have a train. I’d ride it and ride it and ride it, and then I’d drop down in the bushes. And I’d live there!”
“So what’s stopping you?” Nikita bent down trying to focus the boy’s fading attention.
“The socks!” the boy muttered and ran along, having seemingly lost his interest in the subject.
“Socks, warm socks from pure wool! Only 50 rubles a pair. You’ll pay twice as much for these at the market!” a lady with a large checkered bag was shouting as she made her way through the narrow isle of the car. “Real woolen socks. C’mon, ladies, you’re going to like them!”
When she got to the end of the car, she battled with a train conductor, a big woman, whose deep and loud voice overpowered all attempts to argue with her.
“Look, miss, I told you, this isn’t the Red Cross, okay? You want to take this train—you buy a ticket. We’re not a charity organization, this is Russian Railroads! I don’t care how many kids you have! I’m going to take you off this train right now. And if I see you here again, I’m going to call the police!”
Nikita grabbed his backpack and began to make his way to the exit, too.
On the empty platform, the boy whose dream was to drop down into the bushes was sleeping on the bag with socks, as he usually did. There were no bushes to drop into, however, only some abandoned buildings and a country road running into the dark. Another boy, a little older, hands in his pockets, was skeptically looking at a lamppost that was creaking in the wind. The woman looked at the departing train, and smiled vaguely. Nikita did not like this.
The station building was boarded up. Nikita put the checkered bag on a wet bench.
“Oh, well. We’ll just spend the night here. It’s not the first time. We’ll just hug each other to keep warm,” Antonina Fedorovna, the sock peddler, said, putting some plastic bags on the bench. “You go ahead and take your shoes off. I’ll give you some socks so you won’t catch cold.”
“Mom, I want some hot tea! Mom, I’m cold! Mom, my tummy hurts!” Seva, the older boy, sniveled.
“Stop whining, and smile. What did I tell you? Stand up straight and smile! Tomorrow is our lucky day.”
“‘Tomorrow is our lucky day.’ Nothing’s gonna happen tomorrow.”
“Don’t you dare think that! And don’t even think of saying it! Look at Lyonya: he’s the youngest, and he acts like a real man.”
Lyonya was sound asleep, his hands tucked under his cheek. He had no doubt that tomorrow would be his lucky day.
“I used to be like Seva,” Antonina Fedorovna said. “A crybaby. If anything went wrong, I’d think that nothing was going to work out for me, that I was going to be unhappy all my life. Then I read in a book by an American guy that a straight back and a smile are the keys to success. Now, whatever happens to me, I always remember to smile and keep my back straight. Then I’m going to be lucky!”
“And?” Nikita asked cautiously. “Does it work?”
“Not really,” Antonina Fedorovna admitted readily. “But I don’t lose hope. I know it’s all going to change one day.”
Antonina Fedorovna Kisileva grew up in a small coal-mining town called Halmer-U. The town was located further north from Vorkuta, close to the Arctic Ocean, and the only communication with Vorkuta was via a narrow-gauge railroad that connected the mining town with the rest of the world once a week.
At seventeen, Antonina married a truck driver. On the weekend, he drove her around the tundra in his old truck, which he used for taking garbage to the garbage dumb during the rest of the week. Then Seva was born. And then the mine was closed down. Having lost hope that anyone would care, people began to leave the doomed town.
But Antonina’s husband was not eager to leave.
“People have just lost all their faith!” he told his wife. “Unbelievable! This is a country of workers and peasants. And who are we? We’re workers. Now, look, how can our country abandon us? How can it leave us alone in the middle of the tundra? Well, it just can’t! You’ll see, they’ll give us an apartment somewhere in the south, and these rats leaving a sinking ship will regret it. Mark my words.”
At nineteen, Antonina believed her husband and her country, and after Seva she ingenuously gave birth to Lyonya.
“You’re a fool!” her former townsmen told her when she was returning to Halmer-U from the hospital in Vorkuta. But she only gave them an enigmatic smile. She knew that a big apartment with windows overlooking a southern sea was waiting for her.
She was the only passenger on the train. The sullen engineer, a former convict, hesitated to start the train. Then he gave two short, sharp whistles. Antonina turned around.
“Uh, miss? Tell you what—you better get outta here quick. What are you waitin’ for? Two more runs, and that’s it. They’re closing the road down.”
“How do you mean they’re closing it down?” Antonina asked, surprised. “What about us? How are they going to deliver bread, then? No, this can’t be true. You must be wrong.”
The engineer also called Antonina a fool and started the engine.
That was when Antonina had her first doubts. A week later, she pushed the baby-carriage with little Lyonya in it to the station, not quite knowing why she was going there. She watched the Kapelkins load their belongings onto the train. The engineer helped them put the crates and bags into the car. Then he saw Antonina and angrily spat on the permafrost. The Kapelkins left, and Antonina’s family was alone in Halmer-U.
“So I told my husband, ‘Let’s leave!’ And he just yelled at me. He even hit me. He’d never done such a thing before, never, even though he’s a truck driver. He just lay there on the bed, day in, day out, facing the wall, not saying a word. Or he’d fall asleep and start gritting his teeth like an old lady. It’s dark and silent, and he’s gritting his teeth. Gee, that was scary!
“We only had buckwheat porridge to eat. I’d make a fire in the yard and cook buckwheat porridge. They turned off the electricity and gas, too. I’d put the pot with porridge next to the bed in front of him. And the pot’s all black from the smoke. I’d used the table for firewood.
“I’d put the pot down, grab the kids, and go cry my heart out near the old movie theater where I met my husband for the first time. Went there every day and cried and cried. And Seva cried. And Lyonya would wake up in his baby-carriage and cry, too. So we just stood there and cried, all three of us.
“And then there was the last train. I just stood at the station with the kids. I came just too see a living person. I didn’t think nothing like that, you know. Just stood there hanging on to the baby-carriage and looking at him. And he looked back at me from the cab—all black, his face was.
“See, there were lots of wild dogs in the town. Packs of them wandering the streets. The owners had left them behind. I was walking, and they were running along next to me, real close. And it seemed like they were trying to look into the baby-carriage. I kept throwing a stick or a rock at them—they’d snarl, stop for a while, and then start chasing me again.
“So I stood by the train, and then, all of a sudden, those dogs just started howling. I turned around and saw them walking toward me. The whole pack! I ran to the car. The engineer ran up to me and helped me with the baby-carriage, and he kept saying, ‘Oh, thank goodness! Oh, Lord!’
“And then he started the train up right away, so I wouldn’t change my mind.
“I stayed at his place in Vorkuta. He told me how he’d ended up in jail. Some story. See, he’s from Vologda. The county head had left the whole town to freeze. Yeah, you know, the boiler works broke down, and he pocketed the money that was for repairs. When winter came, people came to him to complain, and he’d just say, ‘Don’t worry. The situation’s under control. We’ll fix it in no time. Don’t worry.’
“So, this engineer had a daughter. Since there was no heating in her kindergarten, she got pneumonia and died. He went to the county head. As soon as he opened the door to his office, the official started saying, ‘Don’t worry,’ not even looking up. Those were the last words he said, though. Nikolay killed him with his shotgun. Shot him, and just sat there waiting for the police . . .”
“And then what?” Nikita asked Antonina Fedorovna, who fell silent for a long time. And then he noticed she was fast asleep, smiling, her back straight.
A freight train crawled past. The round sides of tank cars looked like the bellies of big animals—rhinoceroses or hippopotamuses—that were on their way somewhere in search of a better lot.
In the morning, Nikita bought the wool socks that he’d slept in from Antonina Fedorovna.
“See, Seva? What did I tell you about today being our lucky day? And you didn’t believe me,” she told her older son while she was buying bread and condensed mild in a charred kiosk. A month ago some tipsy customers had tried to smoke out a vendor who had refused to give them booze for free.
Lyonya shook hands with a bush he had found. Seva turned away and gloomily chewed some bread. Antonina Fedorovna tried to peddle some “excellent woolen socks” to the kiosk vendor.
“And then I started to go mad.” Nikita listened to the rest of the story in the evening, when the tireless Antonina Kiseleva, having walked up and down the whole town of Kirzhach and sold all of her socks, had returned to the station to wait for the next train. “I thought my husband was calling me and asking me to return, scolding me for leaving him. I could just hear his voice so clearly in my head. So I started to answer him out loud.
“‘Nikolay,’ I told him. His name was Nikolay, too. ‘I was scared for the kids, not for myself!’
“I even thought of walking all the way back, to take him away from there, or to bring him some food. Nikolay—the engineer, that is—started locking me up when he found out.
“‘You fool,’ he said, ‘your man’s a goner, but you can’t die—you’re a mother!’
“And I said, ‘I’m gonna run away all the same.’
“So a few days later he finally broke down. I mean, I was surprised myself. He sneaked into the railroad yard at night, put me in the cab beside him, and he drove the train to Halmer-U to look for my husband. I wanted to chicken out, and said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this? Maybe I should just walk? It’s not right to steal a train like this!’ But he just brushed it off.”
“Did you find him?” asked Nikita. He sat on the platform leaning against the station building, trying as hard as he could not to faint.
“I’m not sure, really. I mean, the house was empty; the doors were all wide open. The apartment had been cleaned up. He’d even cleaned off that charred pot. We looked in every house in town. Nobody had locked them up when they left. We even looked at the mine, but we didn’t find anyone. I mean, I didn’t find anyone, and Nikilay didn’t find anything—I was looking for my husband and he was looking for his dead body. Even the dogs were gone. It was so quiet that even whispering sounded spooky.
“Then we left. But you know, when I was looking for him, I had the feeling that he was looking at me. Felt it in the back of my head. I even looked around, but didn’t see anyone. I still feel like he’s staring at me. Even now . . .”
“How come your train engineer let you go off with the kids to peddle socks?”
“Aw, I just ran off. I lied about going to see my sister in Kuban—that she’d found a job for me, and that she had a house. And so I just ran away. Never had a sister, actually.”
“I guess my parents just didn’t have time for that. Pops died at the mine, and Mom died three years later.”
“I mean, how come you left your engineer?”
“Oh, him . . . Well, he was kind of falling for me. And I’d left my heart in that abandoned mining town. But I felt sorry for him. He’s a good man, really. So I ran away. When he was walking me to the train station, he started talking about his wife all of a sudden. And guess what? Her name was Antonina, too. Yup, that’s just how funny life is sometimes—two Nikolays and two Antoninas.”
“What about his wife?”
“While he was on trial, she was holding up okay; but after they sentenced him, she flipped. Hanged herself. He only found out a year later, because she’d written him twelve letters before that. Good letters, you know—like, everything’s fine, I’m okay, we have heating now . . . Her neighbor sent them one by one every month, until there weren’t any more. Oh, here comes our train . . .”
Here’s Jasia walking through the autumn amusement park. She’s seventeen. Her hair is dyed blue and tousled. She’s holding a cheap cigarette in her right hand. The glove on her left hand has two funny-looking holes, one for the index finger and one for the middle one. She’s ecstatic about these holes, because it’s equally easy to show the peace sign and to flip someone off. These are her two favorite gestures.
Jasia is singing the “Alabama Song” at the top of her lungs. She’s skipping the “The Story of Peter and Fevronia” seminar, and Nikita’s skipping a test on Roman history. He just tore off all the little flags on the dance stage that had been left there from some summer festival. Now he’s putting the colored wet rags into the holes of a wire-mesh fence around the stage. The flags spell out “J-A-S-I-A.”
Jasia takes the remaining flags from Nikita and tries to spell Love, but she only has enough for Lo. A sleepy guard appears.
“How’d you get in here, you truants? I’m gonna call the police!” he shouts through the fence.
“‘Oh, show me the way to the next whisky bar,’” Jasia shouts back at him in English. “We don’t understand you! We’re from Chicago!”
Then they run away from the park, and they both go to sit in Jasia’s class. This is a lecture by professor Yermolov—a postmodernism scholar—on Sasha Sokolov. They like Yermolov, who likes to make subtle jabs at dull-witted students. They also like Sasha Sokolov, and they used to read his novels to one another on their way to the university in crowded streetcars.
“Flags,” Jasia says slyly, and puts her head on Nikita’s papers, preventing him from taking notes on Sasha Sokolov.
“From now on flags will mean ‘I love you.’”
Sasha Sokolov moves to Canada. Jasia isn’t planning on moving anywhere.
She’s going to go to the library today after classes to read a huge dusty volume of The Encyclopedia of the World Mythology. And then she’s going to kiss Nikita in the men’s room, where they used to smoke and retell one another the books they had just read. Then she’s going to listen to Paganini in the scotch-taped headphones in the music store, and write a letter to Nikita, who is sitting nearby and grabbing her breast with one hand, while writing her a letter with the other, jealous of Paganini. And then—then she’s going to take streetcar rides. Or borrow money from someone, buy a bottle of port, and drink it in an apartment building hallway, offering toasts to Amenhotep IV.
“And then we’ll get married and go to Mexico! We’ll rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde and give the money to poor peasants who grow beans and dance the tango,” says Jasia. “You’ll have a big hat and black mustache. I’ll grow my hair long and we’ll dance barefoot on the dusty road, wearing colorful skirts and bead necklaces, and then . . .”
And then they grew up.
When they were nineteen, Jasia, who wrote bizarre vers libre on Chechen terrorists and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, was invited to some radical event in Moscow.
Already on the train Jasia found out that she had lost all of her papers, and she could only remember somebody else’s poetry by heart. She contemplated this mishap for a while, then she recklessly shook her red-black-and white bangs and yelled:
“I’ve got it! A little lyric poem! It’ll blow them away!”
It was a truly radical event. Characters that didn’t need to read or listen to poetry gathered at the entrance to the basement room, where the event was taking place. They felt high and radical already. Andrey Rodionov, a poet, slept arrogantly right on the asphalt. Crybaby, a punk kid, sat next to him, sadly staring down into a bottle. The bottle was empty. Rakhmaninov, a writer with gold teeth and the face of a thug, collected change in a large flat cap from passersby. Several other literary people animatedly discussed what, where, and how much they had had to drink the day before, and whom they got into fights with afterward.
The public inside was somewhat more decent-looking. Young men with hair of various lengths and girls with pierced bodies sat under a huge photograph of Saddam Hussein and a small picture of Vladimir Mayakovsky. A round-shouldered boy who looked like he had just reached the age of puberty stood by the microphone and boldly recited some poetry:
“Dude! I want to get laid!”
The audience gave him a round of warm applause. The young poet bowed and continued:
“I love you—” he gave a theatrical pause. The audience was waiting, holding their breath. “—to fuck!” He finally exhaled to the public’s great satisfaction.
Then Shura, a bald-headed poetess, approached the microphone like a somnambulist. It was clear that Shura didn’t quite know where she was: she looked around like a hunted animal. For a minute she stood on the stage shuffling her feet. The audience was silent, waiting. The she saw the microphone and her face expressed a faint touch of intelligence. With a rock-star gesture, she quickly grabbed the microphone stand, opened her mouth, and uttered:
“I’ve got problems—”
After this, Shura fell silent, as if doomed.
“With amphetamines, a bottle of vodka, pot, fifty shrooms, and two tablets of Toren,” said Shura’s ex-husband, who sat near Nikita, in a loud whisper.
“I’ve got problems—” Shura began again and looked at the crowed in despair.
A well-known gay critic quickly handed her the book that was open to the poem about problems. Shura fumbled with the book, shuddered mournfully, and tried to put her hands in her pockets. She missed, and the book fell on the floor. Suddenly, everyone realized that Shura is not going down easy.
“I’VE GOT PROBLEMS!” she yelled, putting her hands up to her head, like Munch’s painting.
Jasia could bear it no longer. She crawled to the stage, picked up the book from under Shura’s boot, and began reading from it in a vicious whisper:
“I’ve got problems with articulation—”
“I’VE GOT PROBLEMS WITH ARTICULATION—” Shura echoed her languidly, entranced.
“I won’t speak, I can’t, I don’t want to, I won’t,” Jasia kept whispering.
“I WON’T SPEAK, I CAN’T, I DON’T WANT TO, I WON’T,” the bald-headed Shura repeated after her, with a faint hope that this nightmare might end soon.
In this manner they reached the end of the poem.
“Now shut your mouth, Shura, and go back to your seat,” Jasia commanded her, closing the book with a bang.
“NOW SHUT YOUR MOUTH SHURA, AND GO BACK TO YOUR SEAT,” said Shura in a metallic voice of a robot.
Jasia tugged Shura angrily by the cuff of her pants. Shura collapsed right into the arms of her ex-husband and into unconsciousness.
Several years later, Nikita came across a new book by the bald-headed poetess. The infamous poem about problems now ended with “NOW SHUT YOUR MOUTH SHURA, AND GO BACK TO YOUR SEAT.” Thus, Jasia, who’d never been published, found her way into the annals of Russian literature.
Another bald-headed poet stood by the microphone. This time it was a man. And unlike heart-breaking Shura, he was quite brutal. He spread his feet, and thrust out his belly, with a Nazi eagle emblem on his belt-buckle. The buckle divided his belly into two equal parts. The radical poet chanted grimly:
“Russia is a whore! Russia is a bitch! Russia is a fool! Russia is Minerva!”
The radical poet’s two bellies wobbled in opposite directions: when the part above the belt swayed to the right, the part under the belt moved left. The thick glasses that crowned his face, its open mouth baring two rows of teeth, were knocked askew by the poet’s patriotic pathos:
“Ah! True communists
Don’t be afraid, you’re not a coward.
Man the barricades!
I’m a looney with syphilis,
With a foggy, healthy stare.”
Jasia was sitting on the floor yawning demonstratively, covering her ears with her hands. The radical poet gave the disrespectful girl ferocious looks, his nostrils swelling, and frothed at the mouth like some sort of mythical beast:
“A birch-tree hawk with Stalinist juice sprinkles
the precedent with his rays upon on the lawn—”
Suddenly, bald-headed Shura returned from her psychedelic journey, waved her hand weakly in the general direction of the creature, and said very clearly:
“DOWN WITH THE PRECEDENT.”
Jasia applauded. The beast choked on the rest of the poem, and turned red with fury.
“I see there are people here who are unable to appreciate—”
“True art forms!” Jasia finished for him.
Rakhmaninov, the writer with gold teeth who was drinking in the back row, roared with laughter.
“YES, TRUE ART FORMS!” bellowed the radical poet, and Nikita thought that the beast was about to grab his girlfriend and gobble her down.
“But despite the attacks from philistines” (Rakhmaninov, the writer, fell on the floor and continued laughing there) “I still believe that I have allies in the audience.” Everyone gave one another suspicious looks. “I call upon you, people of free will and uneasy civic conscience” (Rakhmaninov quietly whined, sinking his teeth into a leg of the chair) “to join our Holy Death Squad Brotherhood!” The beast fell silent and thrust his fat hand out in front of him, his face glowing with divine exaltation.
All of a sudden, the door opened. The audience that had been brought to a catharsis by the speech of the Holy Death Squad Brother turned around, expecting to see the resurrected Hitler there, at the very least.
Bigfoot, dressed in a leather jacket, stood there swaying back and forth. The jacket was too small for him—the sleeves reached only to his elbows. He was covered in hair. In his hand, the abominable snowman held a glass full of vodka. The vodka was dripping onto the floor.
“It’s the ghost of Russian radical thought!” Jasia said exaltedly.
The ghost gave the noble audience a long dull look. Then he turned around abruptly, felling a coat rack, and went out. Rakhmaninov, the writer, followed him on all fours.
Somehow, an overweight old poetess wearing a gauze scarf took the stage. It was unclear who invited this broad to the “radical” poetry festival, and why. The gauze princess looked at an imaginary horizon and began in a languid voice:
“I’m afraid of dogs, I’m afraid of cats, I’m afraid of mice, I’m afraid of roaches—”
A quiet hysteria was about break out in the back row. Crybaby, the punk kid, gave a restrained sob and put his head between his knees.
“I’m afraid to breathe, I’m afraid to speak, I’m afraid to sleep, I’m afraid to think—”
“No kidding!” Rakhmaninov commented. He stood in the doorway, holding the glass of vodka he had expropriated from the ghost of Russian radical thought.
“I’m afraid of my own reflection in the mirror—” even Shura, who was traveling in other dimensions, laughed at this line.
“I’m afraid of being raped—”
“Oh, I wouldn't worry about that,” Rakhmaninov and Jasia shouted together.
“I’m afraid of being raped by Lenin and Stalin!” the poetess concluded, and prepared to read more.
Jasia ran out into the street.
“Remember the scene in The Possessed, when there’s a disgusting clique of revolutionary nedotykomkas? And there’s one guy there who sits there clipping his fingernails. Greasy hair, the table’s full of fingernail clippings, and he just sits there and mumbles something about the good of all people. Remember that part?” Jasia had a very grotesque view of the world, and everything that she read, saw, or heard, her mind transformed and rendered unrecognizable. “So those jerks were much better than the jerks of today. Those jerks make you sick, and these modern jerks make you want to vomit, vomit, and vomit!”
Jasia was furious. Nikita was afraid the event would end in a huge brawl.
“Let’s just go,” he said.
“Oh, no! There’s no way I’m leaving without reciting my little lyric poem to them!”
She clenched her fists and looked angrily at the innocent poet Andrey Rodionov, who still slept arrogantly right on the asphalt. Muddy water was gathering around his sprawled out body. Raindrops made a pattering noise on the copy of Limonka, with which someone had thoughtfully covered his face.
Jasia was the last to come on stage. Nikita mentally prepared himself for the worst.
“You think you can just slap the word cock onto any mediocre compulsive scribbling and your text will magically become a masterpiece of avant-garde art? What? What are you staring at? I’m not reciting any poetry! I’m talking to you. I’m creating radical precedents, as it were!” Jasia began, taking a deep drag on her cigarette.
“You can’t smoke here,” the well-known gay critic said meekly. But this was futile. Jasia was already gaining momentum.
The audience was dead silent.
“So, DOWN WITH PRECEDENTS! They’re not worth talking about. Now, I’m going to say a few words to those who are really trying to write poetry. The world has changed a thousand times already, and you’re still playing the dulcimer and singing like Homer did. Your language was relevant two centuries ago. It’s the twenty-first century now! Each epoch requires its own words. Speak to the world in the language it understands. And our wonderful world only speaks the language of terror and violence! The language of direct and destructive actions, not words! Do you hear me, contemporary writers and poets?! There’s no longer need for words! The most ingenious masterpiece of today’s New Art was demonstrated to the public at large on September 11, 2001! Well? Now, who’s bold enough to repeat it, huh?!”
Jasia paused to catch her breath. The audience was still silent.
“Scared, eh? Aw, don’t be. Before I wrap it up, I’m going to read you a short lyric poem of mine.”
The audience uttered a sigh of relief. The writer Rakhmaninov drank his vodka in a single gulp.
“Skull, a punk friend of mine, entertains himself by making homemade explosives. And he’s good at it. Just recently he gave me a small bomb as a gift. It’s right over there, in my yellow handbag.”
The aging gay critic leaped away from Jasia’s bag like a lithe young panther. Jasia looked at her watch.
“Those who do not wish to acquaint themselves with New Art have thirty seconds to leave the auditorium. Starting now!”
Then something totally unforeseen happened.
“I knew that they were stupid, but not that stupid . . .” the instigator of the scandal said later in her own defense.
Panic engulfed the audience. Everybody jumped off their seats and rushed to the exit, blocking it completely. The scaredy-cat poetess slowly slipped down from her chair, clutching at her chest. The ex-husband of space-case Shura ran back and forth in front of the stage, pleading with Jasia:
“Please! I beg you! I’m too young! I still have time to become famous! Don’t do it!”
A few punks from the back row stood on each other’s shoulders trying to reach a window that was located at the very top of the wall, near the ceiling. Next to them, the writer Rakhmaninov stood cynically singing “No Future.” He was the only person who was not panicking. The fat-bellied member of the Holy Black Squad Brotherhood rushed to Jasia and began twisting her arms. He probably wanted to turn the terrorist over to the authorities. For this, he was immediately beaten up by Nikita and Rakhmaninov, who came to her rescue.
The mass hysteria was cut short by the well-known literary critic Kurochkin. He came up to the bewildered Jasia, frozen in the middle of the stage, shook her hand, and said loudly:
“My congratulations! Yours was the only truly radical and avant-garde number this evening. It was quite literally a bomb!”
The poets heeded the voice of the critic and abandoned their attempts to escape. They anathematized Jasia after this incident, however, and never invited her again. The literary career of the art-terrorist ended as abruptly as it had begun.
After the event, Jasia and a few creatures from the radical bestiary went to Patriarch’s Ponds to drink some port. Nikita sat on a bench, fainting now and then. The Holy Brother’s fists had done a number on him. A mild concussion and a drop of Three Axes elevated Nikita to a state close to nirvana. So in the morning he could only remember three episodes.
Episode one. Rakhmaninov tells Jasia:
“You’re young and stupid. Mark my words—you’ll have a baby and mature. You’ll forget all this revolutionary business.”
Jasia, who hated the the word mature, her mouth full of the port she is about to swallow, snorts. Rakhmaninov wipes his face off with a sleeve. Unidentified audience applauds.
Episode two. A young girl walks past, leading a white horse. Rakhmaninov makes an angry grimace and pushes the young equestrian away. He hands the girl a glass and helps Jasia into the saddle. In the dark, Jasia rides the pale horse around Patriarch’s Ponds. The teenage equestrian quickly gets drunk and falls asleep next to Nikita.
Episode three. Rakhmaninov’s strong shoulders, asphalt that keeps shifting under him, and Jasia’s loud whisper in his ear:
“Get a grip on yourself! There’s cops right ahead of us. Try walking by yourself!”
Looks like she cheated on him with Rakhmaninov, too.