Eksmo Publishers, Moscow
Actes Sud, France
Ediciones Témpora, Barcelona
Club Editor (Catalan), Barcelona
Gabo Kiado, Hungary
Atmosphere libri, Rome
Kostya comes back from the war in Chechnya just as he turns twenty. His face has been terribly distorted ever since he escaped from a burning tank at the last second. He has buried himself in his apartment. The only contact he has is with the woman next door, who asks him, every now and then, to come over and make her son behave. “I’m sorry, but you are the only one he’s afraid of.” One day his old army buddies show up. They want him to help them find Serezha, the one who rescued them all from the burning tank. Kostya is forced to take part in the life that is going on around him again. He goes to see his father, whom he has not forgiven for leaving his mother, and meets his new family. One day while he is baby-sitting his step sisters, he draws something for them. He used to be very good at drawing. In the last scene, the neighbor’s boy says to him, “You’re not frightening. That’s just your face.” So Kostya draws him a face. The boy’s mother asks, “Who’s that? I think I’ve seen that face before.” Kostya answers, “That’s me.”
by Andrei Gelasimov
translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz
All the vodka wouldn't fit in the fridge. First I tried standing them up and then I laid them on their sides, one on top of the other. The bottles stacked up like transparent fish. Then they hunkered down and stopped clinking. But ten or so just wouldn't fit.
I should have told my mother to take this refrigerator back a long time ago. It's an affront to me and the little boy next door. Every night this monster cuts in full blast and he cries on the other side of the wall. And my vodka is never all going to go in. It's too damn small.
So I had to put it on the shelf. And the windowsill. And the floor. Same old same old. One I put in the bathroom, the dirty clothes hamper. I thought, Why the hell not? Just in case.
When I was done with the vodka more or less, someone started ringing at my door. At first I didn't want to open up because it was late, but then I did anyway. It had to be Olga. Not even my mother had stopped by in half a year. We communicated by phone.
"I'm sorry to bother you again," she said. "My Nikita's acting up. Please help me out this once. I can't cope with him by myself."
"No problem," I said.
I threw on a jacket and went out. I even left my door open.
"Well then, who here doesn't want to go to bed?"
The little guy shuddered and stared at me as if I were a ghost. He actually dropped his blocks.
"Who here isn't listening to his mama?"
He was looking at me speechless. Only his eyes got as big as saucers.
"Come on, get your things," I said. "Since you don't want to listen to your mama, you're going to be living with me. You get to take one toy."
He was absolutely speechless and his mouth was open very wide.
"Which one are we going to take? The car or this guy? Who is this you have here? Superman, is it? Come on, take your Superman along."
He shifted his eyes to Olga and whispered:
"I'll go to bed. Mama, I'll go to bed all by myself right away."
"What a smart boy. You catch on quick. If anything like this happens again, I'm going to come back and take you with me for real."
Olga stopped me by the door.
"Would you like some tea? We can go into the kitchen. I just brewed some up."
"I left my door open there. It's no big deal but . . ."
Then she said, "You have to forgive me for bothering you all the time. It's just that he . . . you're the only person he's afraid of. . . . He's stopped listening to me completely."
"Makes sense. I would've been even more afraid if I were him. How old is he?"
"Five. Four years and ten months."
"I would've been even more afraid."
"Please forgive me. . . . Just don't be insulted, please."
Then we didn't say anything for a while.
"It's perfectly all right. If anything comes up, be sure to stop by. I'm going to be staying home now. I finished a job. I got all my money."
She looked at me.
"Are you going to be drinking vodka for the next three months again?"
"Where'd you get that idea? I just sit home and watch TV."
She looked at me and smiled. Not very cheerfully, I must say.
"Fine, forgive me one more time. You too be sure to stop by if anything comes up. You really wouldn't like some tea?"
At home I walked over to the mirror and stood in front of it for a long time. I looked at what had become of me.
If only Seryoga hadn't been wrong back then and hadn't left me to burn up last in the APC. But he thought I was already done for. That's why he was pulling the others out first. The ones who were still showing signs of life.
Which means I’m good only at frightening naughty kids now. Olga lucked out with me for a neighbor.
* * *
But when we first started construction trade school, they lined us all up in front of the building and the head teacher said, "You are now the face of the construction industry. Don't let your fathers down." But who was there to let down really? Our head teacher was obviously out of the loop. Instead of fathers at home we had our Uncle Ediks. In the singular, of course. But the head teacher meant all of us standing in front of him, even though it had started raining and the trees had lost nearly all their leaves. That's why he was speaking in the plural. While we stood there in front of him shivering with cold. No one had warned us that the lineup would take so long. So we had left our jackets in the workshops. And no one had taken cigarettes, naturally. But maybe he was right as far as the generalizations went. Who knows? Maybe by then each one of us had his own Uncle Edik sitting in the kitchen.
Mama would say, "Only you don't have to go making that face. Eduard Mikhailovich is helping us out. If it weren't for him, do you know where you and I might have wound up? Your father never even gave us the time of day. Not before the divorce for sure, and after it he just spat on us. Do you know where we might have wound up?"
But I didn't. And Eduard Mikhailovich wasn't Eduard Mikhailovich to me. And he sure as hell wasn't Uncle Edik. To me he was nobody. I didn't even say "him" if I wanted to tell my mother something. I just mumbled incoherently and jerked my head. But she understood. It's just every time she would say, "You don't have to go making that face."
But I remembered how she and my father and I used to go sunbathing in the summer and he would always wear these white shorts, to show off his tan, because he tanned easily and handsomely. He wore this very classy cap and shimmery multicolored glasses. He never sat with us on the blanket. He would circle around it, or stand a little ways away, or play volleyball. Or laugh with the tanned young girls. While Mama and I would hide from the sun under our umbrella.
She would tell me, "Kostya, you got my skin. You can't tan with skin like that. Too many freckles. Come on, I'll rub some cream on you. Otherwise your whole face is going to burn up."
* * *
Olga opened the door almost immediately. She probably hadn't even had time to undress little Nikita.
"Did you change your mind about the tea? Good for you. Go on into the kitchen. I'll put Nikita to bed right now."
I waited for her in the hall, and when she came back from the nursery I said I didn't want any tea.
I just needed her to show me where to nail up the mirror I had for her. I mean, just set it down. Because it was late now and Nikita had gone to bed. So it didn't make any sense to hammer a nail into the wall now, naturally. Then there were the neighbors. Although, besides me and Olga, there was just one old man on our landing. And he was deaf. But still, there was Nikita. So it would be better first thing tomorrow morning. For now I just needed to set the mirror down somewhere.
She looked at me in silence and then pointed toward the corner. Directly under the coat rack. There was already a mirror hanging on the other wall. The same kind of round mirror. But a little bigger than mine.
I straightened up.
"It was just left over from my mother. They moved a long time ago, but they left a few things behind. . . . That stupid refrigerator. It must keep your Nikita awake, I'll bet."
"No, it doesn't bother him."
Then I took a look at her vestibule and said it was time for some renovations. She smiled and replied that she couldn't afford it.
"How much would you charge?"
"I only do Euro renovations. For rich people. Double-glazed windows, dropped ceilings--all kinds of crud."
"Well, but still. How much?"
"Oh, eighty, a hundred thousand. Sometimes as much as a hundred and twenty."
"They've got plenty of dough. They have to rub each other's noses in it."
"They've got a hard life."
I smiled, too.
"Yeah, real tough."
* * *
Because I really didn't know who had stiffed who. Whether Genka had stiffed Pashka or vice-versa. Although each of them accused the other of chicanery, naturally. They took turns coming to see me in their SUVs and saying, Oh, you know I couldn't stiff him. Go on, say it. You know it's true.
And I said I knew because I couldn't tell them no. Either one. I didn't actually know the truth. Not that I wanted to. Who gave a damn about that? When you burn up in an APC with someone--after that a lot of things start looking very different. They were just lucky. Seryoga pulled them out a little sooner. First them, then this weird captain from division headquarters, after him the driver Mikhalich, then Ensign Demidov, and after everyone else, finally, me.
Maybe it was because they were lucky that they later decided to stiff each other. I don't know. Money's a terrible thing. I wouldn't like to be in their place. Not this time, at least.
If only it had been a little sooner. When Seryoga crawled into the smashed APC.
But money's money, and money's what split them up. Their partnership flushed right down the tubes, and I had to buy a little more vodka than usual a time or two.
Because they drank like horses. They would pull in from that Fryazino of theirs and drink up what I'd bought for myself. But always separately. They actually called ahead to make sure they weren't going to run into each other at my place. But I drank with them both. I didn't care who'd stiffed who. For me they would always be Pashka and Genka, the guys I burned up with. Who knew I once had a face and not this hunk of charred flesh.
Half a year after being drafted and then another whole month in Chechnya.
It was Genka who had the bright idea of getting me into Euro renovations.
"What's the big sweat?" he said to me. "Fuck, you're a carpenter. You know all that construction shit. Why don't you trick out my apartment? I can pay pretty well and then maybe you'll find some more clients."
And I did. In several towns even. True, they were always surprised when I told them on the phone that I worked alone, but later, when they met me, they weren't surprised anymore. At least they didn't ask me why the renovations took so long. The ones who were in a hurry hired other people.
So did the ones who didn't like my face.