Fiction and Drama
“This is na-a-a-a-o!”
For Anna and Maria
How did it begin? Simply, like all that which is inevitable.
July 1980, a train from Simferopol to Moscow, 2:35 PM, a packed restaurant car, tomato sauce stains on the overstarched tablecloths, someone’s forgotten box of Lviv-brand matches, cigarette ash, bottles of Narzan tinkling in their metal cupholders by the window, a fluttering curtain, hyperboloids of thick sunbeams, Olya’s forearm peeling from a sunburn, Volodya’s faded polo shirt, two poppy heads embroidered on Vitka’s jean skirt.
The fat waiter rustled his greasy notepad. “Guys, please, hurry it up. I’ve got a line of people here to last me all the way to Moscow.”
“What do you have . . .” Volodya began to ask. But he was interrupted by a sudden torrent of words spewing from the waiter’s froggy lips.
“We’re out of salad and solyanka, but we’ve got kharcho, pike perch with mashed potatoes, and steak and eggs.”
“There’s no beer?”
“There is!” The waiter clapped with a sweaty bang. “Two? Three?”
“Four.” Volodya relaxed. “And we’ll all have the steak.”
“Do you have any ice cream?” Vitka put on her dark glasses.
“No.” The waiter scribbled his pencil on the pad and walked his portly, seal-like body over to the barmaid, who was watching over the line of people waiting. “One more over here, Lyuban!”
“Maybe we don’t neeeed one? Because we’re so cooommfy!” Olya sang, lighting her last cigarette, but there was a man already walking down the aisle, chocolatey with sunburn, dressed in white pants and a blue shirt.
“Hello.” The man gave the three of them a quick smile and sat down, looking each of them in the eyes. He had no defining characteristics other than being bald, and no visible age.
“A veterinarian,” Volodya decided, taking the cigarette from Olya.
“Dynin in the flesh,” Olya thought, remembering the character from Welcome, or No Trespassing, the Klimov film.
“Some dickhead on his way back from a bachelor party at a resort,” thought Vitka, curling her beautiful lips.
The waiter was muttering something to himself when he remembered the new arrival and turned around, but before he could say anything the bald man handed him three rubles.
“Nothing for me, please.”
The waiter took the money and frowned, not understanding.
“But, um . . .”
“Nothing, nothing . . .” The stranger waved his fingers, with their devoured nails. “I’ll just sit . . . for a little while. It’s nice and comfy here.”
“But maybe . . . a drink? A beer? A glass of Psou? Some Ararat cognac?”
“Nothing, nothing. For now — nothing.”
The waiter sailed back into the kitchen.
“A veterinarian, but a fucking weird one,” Volodya thought, squinting at the stranger. “Probably some yokel from Siberia. Breaks his back all winter long without complaining, then ships off to the South in the summer to make his pockets a little lighter.”
“He left his wife back in their compartment,” Olya said to herself, grabbing the cigarette from Volodya and taking a drag. “He should’ve given us those three rubles. Volodka is blowing our last five right now. We’ll get back, nothing at home but tumbleweeds, all our elders away at the sanatorium, one week till they get back, horrible . . .”
“This guy let loose in the South and now he can’t get it back together,” Vitka thought, looking out the window. “Why do assholes like this always have so much money?”
The train crawled through the torrid Ukrainian heat.
“How is it that the summer has already been somehow so hot this year?” the bald man said, attempting to look all three of them in the eyes again. “Can it be that in the fair capital of our homeland the temperature has also reached such catastrophic heights?”
“We don’t have a clue,” Vitka said, speaking for all of them. She gave the man’s nails a squeamish look.
“Where were you vacationing?” The bald man smiled with his small, dirty teeth.
“In your mom’s pussy!” Volodya thought to himself angrily. “You know what,” he said, “we’re overheated and want to sleep. And when we want to sleep, we also want to eat, but we do not, under any circumstances, want to talk.”
Olya and Vitka responded with a satisfied chuckle.
“A siesta, you mean?” The bald man squinted ingratiatingly.
“A siesta.” Volodya put out his cigarette butt, remembering a Hemingway novel he’d started but never finished that had a similar title.
“For me it’s just the opposite,” the stranger said, bending down to the table like a doomed man drawn to the scaffold. “Whenever I get a sunburn, an incredible cheerfulness comes over me, an incredible strength rushes through my body . . .”
Just then, without warning, he broke off his sentence and froze, as if bitten by a snake. The waiter put three plates onto the table with overcooked pieces of meat, calloused sticks of potato that were supposedly fries, limp feathers of dill, green peas, and three fried eggs. The eggs, it must be said, weren’t overcooked or runny. They looked rather appetizing. From the pockets of his dirty white apron the waiter took out four bottles of cold Simferopol beer, set them down loudly, opened them, and sailed off once again.
“Thanks be to labor!” Volodya said to himself. He picked up a bottle that had already begun to sweat, a palpable feeling of relief washing over him. “He was really chewing our ears off with all that cheerfulness of his,” he thought.
Having forgotten about their neighbor, who was now silent, all three of them began to eat their food. They hadn’t eaten anything since morning and they’d been drinking in their compartment since the previous day. They had begun when the train departed and continued well into the night, finishing three bottles of Mukuzani, lacquered over with a quarter bottle of local “Russian” rotgut, all of which was severely affecting their well-being today.
Each of them ate in different ways.
Volodya poured a heap of salt and pepper onto his egg and speared it with his fork, put it into his mouth whole, and washed it down with beer; he then put three potato sticks onto his fork, stuck the fork into the tough meat, cut off a decent-size piece, placed five peas onto the meat using his knife, put the entire edifice into his mouth, crammed in a piece of white bread, and began to chew while looking out the window at the cables flashing by and thinking about what might come to pass if, suddenly, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie got together and decided to form a band.
“They would call it something weird.” He chewed with so much pleasure that tears came to his eyes. “Maybe BB. Or Rose of Blue. Or, like, Miracle No. 7.”
Vitka placed the egg onto her meat, nervously mashed it with her fork, speared a potato stick, dipped it in the yolk, put it into her mouth, cut off a piece of meat, dipped that in the yolk, put the eggy meat into her mouth, had a drink, and, while chewing, began to quickly collect disobedient peas and pass them through her lips, which were by now yellow with egg. She stared at the silver ring on the ring finger of the bald man’s left hand.
“That ring is all I need to see,” she said to herself. “I’ve had it up to here with divorcés. I wonder if he boned anyone down in Crimea. Some kind of Aunt Klava from a sanatorium cafeteria. Or, no, maybe a single mother, a fat-ass Jewish mama. He was holding her a space in line to buy cherries, then she gave it to him on the sly, on a nude beach . . .”
Olya ate calmly, cutting her meat into little pieces and washing down every bite with beer, pinching off bits of white bread and completely ignoring her side dish. Her gaze swam absentmindedly over her plate.
“I wonder if my headache will go away after this beer?” she asked herself. “I’m never gonna drink that disgusting vodka again, but Vovik seems like he’d drink anything in sight. I have to call Natashka right away. I wonder if she xeroxed the sheet music. If not, I’m not gonna return that Bartók to her, on principle. It’s impossible to get her to do anything. But then whenever she needs something, we all have to hop to it, like that one time with the ensemble . . . God, why is he looking at me like that?”
Olya stopped chewing.
The bald man stared at her with his crazy, watery, greenish-blue eyes. His face wasn’t just pale, but deeply ghoulish, as if he were bearing witness to something terrifying, contrary to his very nature.
“An overthrown face,” Olya thought, laying her knife and fork down at the edge of her plate. “Why are you . . . watching me like that?”
Vitka and Volodya also stopped eating and stared at the bald man. A grimace passed over his face. He clutched at his temples, he was blinking furiously, his whole body was shuddering.
“Forgive me . . . I . . . this . . .”
The train was going over a bridge, steel pillars flashed by with a roar, it smelled of cinder.
The stranger rubbed his pale cheeks with a furious motion, then reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a piece of paper, which he handed to Volodya in silence. It was a certificate of release from a correctional labor colony issued to one Boris Ilyich Burmistrov. Olya and Vitka stared at the paper.
“Seven years, guys, seven years. And all because of some stupid bag of citric acid,” the bald man said before taking back the paper. “Forgive me, I don’t want to disturb . . . to interfere . . . and so on. I just have one large request. A very big one.”
“D’you need money?” Volodya asked, imagining that the three rubles he’d given to the waiter had been a trick.
“Whaddya think?” Burmistrov smirked, pulling a thick leather wallet out of his pants and throwing it onto the table. “I’m made of money.”
The three of them stared silently at the wallet, from which protruded bills of various denominations.
“Money is generally . . . well . . .” The stranger waved his hand nervously. “It comes, it goes, and so on. But the request. Well . . . I dunno. First lemme tell you a story.”
“He won’t let us eat!” Volodya said to himself, looking longingly at what remained of his steak.
“Weird dude,” Vitka thought, sipping her beer.
“A criminal! How about that!” Olya gave him a distrustful look.
“It’s hard for me too. But, look — ” He spread out his hands. “Seven years have vanished into thin air, two regiments of horses have been devoured, and I’m alive!”Tweet
Burmistrov put his wallet away and rubbed his small chin.
“Well, as for the circumstances of the case, let’s leave them to the side. I’ll say just one thing: I’m a construction manager by trade and a businessman by vocation. But times are hard. Is there such a thing as honest business? Well . . . underground there is. Yes. That’s how they were able to do away with seven years of my life. It’s been two months since I was released. Our camp was forgotten by God, all the way in Kazakhstan. Ah, forgive me! Not ours any longer!” He laughed delicately. “Now it’s only theirs . . . This is how I, a man with two degrees, began to work at a brick factory. It wasn’t the only thing I did there, but I mostly just shaped bricks. Yep. A little bit later, just before I got released, I started work in a killer spot: the kitchen. But our camp, God I was sick of it, had a big problem — it was too small. Only 262 people. And none of us should have been there in the first place. We were inside for financial crimes of mild severity, so to speak. Long sentences. Calm, serious people. We didn’t rebel, didn’t take drugs, didn’t try to run away . . . And the provisions were disgusting. Yes . . . generally speaking, every day for those seven years I only ate one thing — horse meat stew. Horse soup we called it. There was a big stud farm right next to us and they sent their defective horses over and into our pots.”
He grinned and looked out the window.
“What else was in the soup?” asked Vitka.
“Millet, rice, or flour,” said Burmistrov with a smile. “The ratios changed all the time. But there was always horse in it, the main by-product, so to speak. Our daily ration. And every day our little camp would eat a whole horse. A skinny, old horse.”
“Where did they find so many horses?” asked Volodya.
“Are you kidding me? Kazakhstan is full of horses. A lot more than they have in Moscow!” Burmistrov laughed, and Olya and Vitka smiled.
“Isn’t that unhealthy — horse every day?” Volodya asked.
“No, horse meat is the healthiest. Much better than beef or pork.”
“And you really ate only that for seven years?” Olya looked at his restless forehead, the freckles hidden by sunburn.
“Is that so hard to believe?” He looked into her eyes.
“It is,” she responded gravely.
“It’s hard for me too. But, look — ” He spread out his hands. “Seven years have vanished into thin air, two regiments of horses have been devoured, and I’m alive!”
“That’s so depressing — every day exactly the same!” Vitka shook her head. “Even if they made me eat this steak every day, I’d go insane!”
“Well, humans can get used to anything.” Burmistrov shook his bald head. “In the beginning, I ate everything, then I stopped being able to eat the meat, picked it out of the soup, and drank only the broth. Then I did the opposite and started to eat the meat on its own, with bread. Then I stopped caring and started eating it all, but by the end of my sentence . . . it’s hard to explain.”
He thought for a moment.
“If he isn’t lying, this is fuckin’ crazy,” Volodya said to himself. He poured some beer into his glass.
“Now he must want to gobble up everything he sees,” Vitka thought, looking at Burmistrov as if he were a strange reptile. “But he didn’t order anything! He probably had too much to eat in Crimea, the poor thing.”
“I just can’t . . . figure him out . . .” thought Olya. “He’s acting like he’s on his way back from a funeral.”
“You know, when they moved me to the kitchen,” Burmistrov continued, “I saw the whole process of how the food got cooked. Every day. It started early in the morning. They’d bring in a horse carcass from the freezer on a cart and we’d put it on three wooden blocks that were slammed together. Then the cook would call for Vasya Two-Axe. Vasya was a convict who’d once worked as a butcher in Alma-Ata, but got locked up big time. A robust man, with two axes. He would come and start cutting up the skinny, frozen carcass like a head of cabbage. This was his greatest pleasure. He cut it up like an artist, each cut came from the heart. Then he left and we dumped the meat into cauldrons, boiled it, poured in the grains . . . We boiled it for a long time, until the meat came right off the bones. And then . . . then . . . forgive me, what’s your name?”
He stared at Olya fixedly.
“Olga,” she replied calmly.
“Olga, can I ask you a favor? Only you.”
Burmistrov clutched the table with his hands, as if he were preparing to rip it off the ground.
“Can you eat for me? Here. Now.”
“What do you mean ‘for you’?”
“So that I can watch. I just want to watch.”
Olya exchanged a look with Volodya.
“I knew he was a nut,” Volodya thought, sighing emphatically.
“You know, we came here with a concrete . . .”
“I understand, I understand, I understand.” Burmistrov frowned. “I don’t want to bother you, I don’t want to do anything but watch you, that’s all I need, really. I don’t have a family, don’t have relatives, and now I don’t even have any friends, don’t have a home or a hearth.” He gestured toward the plate with his lips in a cautious way, like a dog: “that’s all I have left.”
“What? Food?” asked Vitka.
“No, no, no!” He shook his head. “Not food! Just to watch how a good person eats. How a beautiful person eats. To see how Olga eats. Yes. Now, please, I don’t want to answer any more questions . . .” He took out his wallet again, pulled out a twenty-five ruble note, and put it down on the table.
“Here we go!” Vitka thought, covering her mouth with her hand so as not to burst out laughing. “Mother of God, if we try to tell anyone in Moscow about this, no one will believe it . . .”
Olya looked at the money. “He’s seriously crazy,” she said to herself.
“What nonsense,” Volodya thought, smirking.
“I’m going back to our compartment.” Olya stood up.
Burmistrov shuddered as if he’d been hit with an electric shock.
“Olga, I’m asking you, begging you, please don’t go!”
“Thanks, but I’m already full.” Olga began to squeeze her way out from between Volodya and the table.
“I’m begging you! I’m begging you!” Burmistrov cried out.
The guests at the neighboring tables turned to look at them.
“Hold on.” Volodya grabbed her by the arm. “This is interesting.”
“Yeah, very!” She snorted.
“Please believe me Olga, this minute of you eating will be enough to last me a whole year,” Burmistrov mumbled, pressing his head against the table and looking up into her eyes. “You . . . you eat in such a remarkable way . . . it’s simply divine . . . it’s as if, it’s as if . . . I’ve got something here that . . .” He pressed his hands to his sunken chest. “Here it’s . . . it’s just that it . . . so strongly, so strongly that . . . that I don’t see anything . . .”
His voice was quivering.
“It’s hard not to feel for him,” Olya thought, “but he’s crazy.” She looked at him sideways.
The train car was silent but for the rumbling of the wheels.
“What’s the problem, then?” Volodya blurted out. “What’s the big deal if someone wants to watch you eat?”
“I don’t like it when people look at my mouth. And also, I . . .” She looked out the window. “I try to avoid crazy people.”
“I’m not a lunatic, Olga, please believe me!” Burmistrov waved his hands. “I’m a totally normal Soviet man.”
“I can tell!” she said with a chuckle.
“Maybe I could eat for you instead?” Vitka glanced at the twenty-five ruble note on the table, fluttering in the drafty train car.
“You . . . forgive me, what’s your name?”
“Vita . . . Vitochka, understand, I only experience this with certain people, please don’t be offended! Generally speaking . . . this is the first time I’ve felt it. Don’t be offended.”
“I rarely get offended. I’m more likely to offend.” Vita straightened her dark glasses. “Ol, eat that meat. Give the guy what he’s looking for.”
“I’m begging you Olga, just for a few minutes! It would be such a joy for me! This . . . this would be . . . I don’t know . . . more than joy.” Burmistrov’s voice was quivering once more.
“Now he’ll start crying again,” Olya thought. She looked at the passengers glancing furtively in their direction. “It’s Murphy’s Law. Of course they sat him here with us, and not with the two fat ladies over there . . .”
“All right, I’ll finish my food,” she said. She sat back down without looking at Burmistrov. “But put your money away.”
“Olga, I’m begging you!” He pressed his hands to his chest. “Don’t offend me. I really want you to take the money, just you, only you!”
“You can pretend that she took it,” Volodya said, reaching for the money. But Burmistrov quickly covered the bill with his palm. It was a warning, as if he were protecting a candle from the wind.
“No, no, no! I’m asking that Olga take it, only Olga! To take it out of the kindliness in her heart, to take it simply . . . as an ordinary . . . well . . . like a . . . like nothing at all!”
“Take it, Ol.” Vitka nodded. “Don’t upset the man.”
“Olga, take it, I’m begging you!”
“Take it, take it . . .” said Volodya with a frown.
Hesitating for a minute longer, Olya finally took the money and put it away into the pocket of her jeans.
“Thank you, thank you so so much!” said Burmistrov, shaking his bald head.
Olga frowned and brought her fork and knife over to the steak, but as if there were a piece of dumb metal lying on her plate.
The train rocked violently.
She gulped, stuck her fork into the meat, and cut off a piece with a decisive motion.
“Just don’t rush, I’m begging you, don’t rush!” whispered Burmistrov.
Volodya poured Olya some beer. She speared the meat with her fork, brought it to her lips, plucked it off the fork with her teeth, and began to chew slowly while looking down at the plate.
Burmistrov’s dark, sinewy body seemed to have turned to stone. Clutching the edges of the table, he stared directly at Olya’s mouth. His murky eyes rolled around and glazed over, as if this unhandsome man had been injected with a large dose of narcotics.
“And this is na . . .” His gray lip began to twist. “And this is na . . .”
Vitka and Volodya stared at him, wide-eyed with shock.
“The guy’s really getting his rocks off, huh?!” Vitka thought. “What a show . . .”
“Fuck this!” Volodya said to himself. “Just, fuck this . . .”
Olya ate, having promised herself not to look at Burmistrov even once. This worked at first. She wasn’t even in a rush to finish her food, forking up potato sticks and green peas. But Burmistrov’s babbling became even more insistent, as if there were something tearing itself out of his chest, forcing its way through his clenched teeth. His shoulders trembled and his head shivered gently.
“This is na! And this is naaaaoo! And this is naaaaoo!”
“Don’t look!” Olya ordered herself, spearing another piece of meat, cutting it off and dipping it into the viscous yolk of the cool egg.
Burmistrov moaned and shivered more and more violently as foam appeared at the corners of his bloodless lips.
“And this is naaaaoo! This is naaaaoo! And this is naaaaoo!’
Not able to stop herself, Olga looked over. She shrank back from his glazed eyes in an instant and began to choke, remembering Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, the Repin painting. Volodya held out a glass of beer.
“Don’t look, you idiot!” she said to herself angrily, taking a drink from the glass.
Through the yellow beer, Burmistrov’s blue shirt was the color of seaweed.
“And this is naaaaoo! This is naaaaoo!”
Olya felt like she was about to vomit.
“Think about the sea!” She fixed her eyes on the “seaweed” and remembered how she and Volodya had swum out onto an ichthyologists’ platform one evening and made love on its steel floor, which was still warm from the sun. Vitka stayed on the shore and cooked mussels over a bonfire with two local guys. Volodya forced Olya onto her knees and entered her from behind; Olya pressed her cheek to the smooth floor, listening to the weak nocturnal waves beat against the platform . . .
She speared the last piece of meat, rubbed it in the egg yolk, and put it in her mouth.
Burmistrov trembled and roared with such force that the restaurant car got quiet and the waiter rushed over to their table. “And this is naaaaaaoooo!”
“What’s going on?” He bent over to them with a furrowed brow.
“Everything’s . . . fine,” said Volodya, the first one to shake off his stupor.
Burmistrov went limp, his lip drooped, his face was sweaty, but he was still staring at Olya’s mouth.
“Is something the matter with you?” the waiter frowned.
“No, everything’s fine,” Volodya answered for him, “Could we . . . pay?”
“Four twenty,” the waiter declared at once.
Volodya handed him five rubles and began to rise from the table. Vitka and Olya stood up as soon as he did.
Oh yeah! Meat breeches!Tweet
Burmistrov was now hunched over and moving his wet lips soundlessly. He was dripping with sweat.
“Let me by,” Volodya said.
Burmistrov stood up like a robot and walked into the aisle. The waiter gave Volodya his change, but he refused it. He led Olya over to the exit. Vitka hurried after them, grinning and wagging her skinny hips.
Burmistrov stood there, hunched over. He looked down at the floor.
“You need to lie down,” the waiter said to him, touching his sweaty back, having finally decided that what was happening to Burmistrov was normal, that he’d just gotten caught up in a prolonged holiday binge.
“Huh?” Burmistrov raised his eyes to look at him.
“Get some rest is what I’m saying,” the waiter whispered to him. “And this evening, right before we get into Moscow, come find me for some hair of the dog.”
Burmistrov turned around and walked away.
Back in their compartment, Olga closed her eyes and dozed off.
She dreams that she is in Kratovo, where the administration at the Gnessine Institute has organized a secret end-of-the-year competition, over which Pavel Kogan will be presiding; she is riding her cousin Vanya’s mountain bike down Chekhov Street with a violin case over her shoulder, making her way to the home of the elderly Fatyanovs, who breed tulips; she rides easily and freely, manipulating the obedient pedals, offering her face to the warm country breeze, the fresh country breeze, accelerating up the hill near the Gornostaevas’ dacha, then allowing herself to roll down it, past moldering, winding fences, behind which an endless pack of dogs lies in wait, nursing their torpid anger, then turning onto Marshal Zhukov Street; she sees that the entire street has been converted into a very deep trench, from fence to fence, its every inch, and that over this trench, right in the center of the street, is a monorail; it is completely straight and sparkles in the sun; “How will I get past? I’m already late!” she thinks in horror, braking sharply; sand, country sand, fine white sand is ground down by the bicycle tires, the roots of a pine tree are in the bicycle’s way, cabbage-white butterflies zoom into her eyes then fly off into the nettles, while down below, in the gloomy trench, people waiting in line for kvass fidget in the dark; the line is small, silent, and unfamiliar; Olya looks at the monorail; “Hey Miss, you’ve gotta take off your tires,” someone suggests from down below; “How can I take them off? I don’t have any tools!” she responds, beginning to grow cold; “Ask the mechanic!”; Olya raises her head and looks up; there, high up in the pine trees, high up in the orange-blue pines, lives a group of mechanics with steel claws on their feet; one comes down to her from his tree; “We each have two axes,” he says and takes out two enormous axes; they shine in the sun; the mechanic grunts and deftly hacks the tires off the bicycle wheels; “Thank you!” she says, overjoyed; “Now pay me!” says the mechanic, who reeks of vodka and sausage, blocking her path toward the monorail; “How can I pay you?”; “With cooked meat! You’re wearin’ ridin’ breeches made of meat! You’ve been growin’ ’em all summer, you lil’ dragonfly!” Olya looks down at her legs, in shorts; on her thighs are giant growths made of cooked meat; she touches them, palpating them with horror and fascination; “Stand still!” the mechanic orders and cuts off the growths with two sharp blows; “Now I’m gonna bake ’em in dough and make me some capital chow!” he shouts in Olya’s face; the meat disappears into the mechanic’s bottomless pockets; “Get outta here! Don’t dawdle! I changed the tracks!” the mechanic shouts; Olya puts the rim of her front wheel onto the monorail, pushes one foot against the ground to gain speed, and begins to ride over the bottomless, dark trench, at first with uncertainty — unsteadily — then more and more freely, accelerating as the wind whistles in her ears.
Olya woke up and wiped her wet mouth with her hand.
The train jerked again, then quietly came to a crawl. The sun had grown weaker. Their compartment was stuffy, dusty, and smelled of sausages. Volodya was sleeping on the bed across from her. Olya found her sandals and went out into the hallway. She entered the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.
“I had a dream . . . about Kratovo . . .” She tried to remember her dream. “God, three more hours of getting jostled around in here . . . Something about Kogan . . . Oh yeah! Meat breeches!”
She laughed and stroked her tanned hip. Having finished peeing, she moved her hand across her genitals, rubbed the urine collected there onto her hand, stood up, rinsed her hand, zipped up her pants, and looked at herself in the spattered mirror: a pink, Hungarian tank top with spaghetti straps, blond, shoulder-length hair, a broad face with chestnut eyes, and a hickey from Volodya above her collar bone.
“And that was my trip to Crimea,” she declared and opened the door.
Standing directly in front of the bathroom was Burmistrov.
She looked at him without surprise.
“Now he’s gonna ask for his money back,” she thought. “The crazy idiot!”
“Forgive me, please, Olga, but I wanted to talk to you . . . I really need to.”
“In the bathroom?”
“No, no, if you want, we could go over to my compartment in the seventh car . . . if . . . or . . . here . . .” he moved to the side to let her pass by.
“And if I don’t want to?” She walked out of the bathroom and gave Burmistrov a scornful look. “Of course it couldn’t end that easily!” she said to herself. “Now he won’t leave me alone . . . what a sleazeball . . .”
She pulled out the twenty-five-ruble note and quickly placed it in his shirt pocket, from which a few papers and a pair of dark glasses were sticking out.
“Take this back and let me be.”
“No . . . no please . . .” He reached into his pocket as he tried to come to his senses. “Why are you . . .”
Olya turned away from him and began to walk away, but he grabbed her by the arm.
“I’m begging you, please don’t go!”
“I’m gonna call my husband over,” she said, immediately getting angry with herself for this cowardly lie. “Now I’m married too!” she thought.
“What do you want from me?!”
“I’m begging you, I’m begging you . . .” He noticed a man in the hallway walking over to them. “I’ll just say two words, let’s go . . . well . . . over to the vestibule.”
Burmistrov didn’t scare her at all; Olga understood that this man wasn’t capable of doing anything violent or frightening, but that didn’t make him any less unbearable.
“Which vestibule do you mean exactly?” she said with a scornful smirk, nodding at the approaching man; he had a bushy mustache and striped pajamas and was carrying a transparent cellophane bag of food scraps in both hands while purring to himself. Olya attempted to avoid the bag, which was filled with chicken bones, eggshells, and apple cores, then began to walk over to the vestibule. Burmistrov hurried after her.
It was dirty and dark in the vestibule, and thunderously loud.
Leaning against the cool, muddy-green wall, Olya folded her arms over her beautiful bosom and looked at Burmistrov. He fumbled around in his breast pocket in a feverish search for the money.
“Why did you . . . I did this in all honesty . . . and you . . .”
In pulling out the bill, he accidentally hooked several other papers, which fell out onto the floor. He bent over to pick them up. A photograph landed at Olya’s feet. She lifted it up into the air with her foot, caught it in her hands, and gave it a close look: Burmistrov embracing a lean, dark-complexioned young man with close-set eyes, with the Swallow’s Nest, a castle in Crimea, in the background; the young man was wearing a sailor-striped tank top and had several tattoos on his shoulders and arms. One of them, of a snake crawling up his wrist, stood out: it was emblazoned with the name “Ira” in the same spot where it was pierced through with a sword.
“Your . . . friend?” Olya gave back the picture.
“Well, yes, yes, my friend. We saw each other in Yalta.”
“He was in jail, too?”
“Yes, but not with me. He had . . . he did . . . something else . . .”
“What’d he do? Kill Ira? Or just love her too much?”
“Ah — you want to talk about that!” Burmistrov gave her an exhausted smile. “Well, no, it has nothing to do with a person named Ira. It’s a prison tattoo. ‘I Ruin Actives.’”
“What’s an actives?”
“They’re big burgers, bad guys.”
“Olga,” he said sternly and held out the money. “Take it. Please don’t offend me.”
“Tell me what it is you need from me.” She stuck her hands into her armpits.
“I need . . .” He began to speak in a decisive manner, but immediately got down onto his knees. “I saw you in Yalta, Olga.”
“I . . . back in Yalta . . . at a seaside café . . . The Anchor. It was the first time. You were there with your husband. You were eating tomato salad and . . . hmmm . . . chicken . . . Chicken Kiev . . . You ate there two more times. And then on the beach, you ate cherries. I gave them to you.”
“Hold on,” Olya tried to remember. “On the beach . . . cherries . . . a bucket of cherries! That was you? You gave them to us? In the newspaper cone?”
“Me, me, me!” He put his bald head into his hands.
Olya remembered a strange resortgoer with an ingratiating smile who poured her yellow cherries from a bucket and mumbled something to her with a laugh.
And suddenly, at that moment, for some reason she remembered her whole dream about Kratovo: the monorail, the trench, and the mechanic with the two axes.
“God, what a vision!” she said, laughing.
This fit of laughter shook her young, slender body, but Burmistrov, still on his knees, kept staring at her with his pitiful smile.
“That was you?” she repeated after she was done laughing.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” he was nearly screaming. He rubbed his face with his fist, the twenty-five ruble note still clenched in it. “I . . . forgive me . . . Olga . . . I haven’t been able to sleep for four nights. Since Yalta.”
“You . . . because of me?”
“And you were, what? Following me?”
“No, well . . . I just found out when you were leaving. Just . . . from the landlady, where you were staying.”
“So I could see you eat again.”
Olya stared at him in silence. The door opened and a heavyset man with five bottles of beer pressed to his naked chest stepped out into the vestibule. Burmistrov did not get up off his knees. Glancing at him and Olya, the man passed by.
“Get up,” sighed Olya.
Burmistrov stood up heavily.
“What do you want from me?”
“I . . . Olga . . . please don’t misunderstand . . .”
“What do you want from me?”
He took a deep inhale of vestibule air, which smelled of creosote.
“I want us to see each other once a month and for you to eat for me.”
“And what will I get out of it?”
“One hundred rubles. Every time.”
She reflected on it.
“This won’t be in a public place,” Burmistrov muttered. “It will be in a safe, secluded spot and the food won’t be anything like . . .”
“I’ll do it,” Olya interrupted him. “Once a month. Only once a month.”
“Only once a month,” he repeated in an ecstatic whisper and, closing his eyes, leaned against the vibrating wall with total relief. “Oh, I’m so happy!”
“I’m not going to give you my address or my phone number.”
“You don’t need to, no need . . . We’ll find somewhere to meet . . . we’ll establish a time and a place . . . that’ll be better, much better. When’s a good time for you?”
“Well . . .” she said, “I’m done early on Mondays. At 1:10. Let’s meet at 1:30 . . . in front of the Pushkin Monument.”
“In front of the Pushkin Monument . . .” He echoed her words.
“Yeah . . . and do you live in Moscow?”
“I’ll be living in Golutvin. They won’t let me register in the capital.”
“That’s all, then. And please, don’t follow me to the bathroom again!” She turned and grabbed hold of the door handle.
“Wait . . . which Monday?” he asked, not yet opening his eyes.
“Which? Well . . . at the start of the month. On the first Monday of the month.”
“The first Monday of every month.”
Nodding, Olya walked out.
Volodya had woken up and was waiting for her in the compartment with a puffy face and disheveled hair. Vitka was still sleeping.
They climbed onto one of the top beds and kissed for a little while, then lay in silence.
The train was entering the Moscow suburbs.
“I forgot to take back the money,” Olya remembered, ruffling Volodya’s hair. “Once a month. So what? Let him watch. OK, enough, time to get our stuff together, we’re almost there . . .”
The dusty pillow of a sun-kissed Moscow summer tumbled down onto Olya. She spent August at her family’s dacha in Kratovo. A hammock, pine trees, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, which she was learning for an exam, an old pond, a new edition of Proust, afternoon tea with fresh cherry jam, Volodya coming to visit, which invariably ended with a hurried sex act in the old fir grove, games of badminton with their timid neighbor, a mathematician who was always covered in burs, bike rides with stupid Tamara and nervous Larissa, long evenings spent around the table at the Petrovskys’, an afternoon nap in the hammock, and a good night’s sleep in the attic on grandpa’s lumpy sofa.
During the whole of August she never once thought about her adventure on the train and would probably have completely forgotten about it had it not been for one unexpected event. On the first Monday of September, she was performing the first part of the Sibelius concerto for her teacher Mikhail Yakovlevich, a small, round man who resembled a restless hamster. She was halfway through the piece when he interrupted her, snapping his tiny, plump fingers, as he often did.
“Nao, nao, nao. Naot like that. Too typical — naot like that!” he mumbled with the Georgian accent that often came out when his students were playing badly. “Olenka — there’s something going on with the sound here that’s nao, nao, nao. You’re not throwing yourself into the music. You’re not taking yourself in hand, darling. You must throw yourself into it, throw yourself right in, my child, and don’t just sit there on the rests. The sound is good, but there’s no meat to it. No meat to it, my golden darling! You’re sleeping on the rests. Throw yourself into it, throw yourself into it and don’t look back, that’s what I’m saying. It’s better to overdo it than not to give enough. And here . . .” He leafed through the music. “Your chords went off, rang out, rang out . . . and then you got lost on the neck! Got looost! Totally lost! Push yourself forward! Push yourself! Push yourself to the climax! If you don’t, you’ll cripple the sound, slow the tempo, and we’re left with nao tempo and nao sound, you unddeerrstand? And this is na… and this is na . . . !”
“Why is this na so familiar?” Olya began to think, looking over the violin’s tuning pegs at Mikhail Yakovlevich’s wide forehead. “And this is na . . . steak and eggs!”
At that moment, she remembered the steak and eggs, the train, and Burmistrov, and her mouth broke into a broad grin.
“Why’re you so happy?” Mikhail Yakovlevich reached both hands into his pockets to look for his cigarettes. “Summer’s over and your piece hasn’t budged . . .”
At half past one, Olya was standing in front of the Pushkin Monument with her violin case over her shoulder. She saw Burmistrov get up immediately from the crowd of people sitting on benches by the statue and walk toward her, his gait rushed and awkward. He was still skinny and bald, though he now wore a beige raincoat.
“He lost his tan awfully fast,” Olya said to herself, watching Burmistrov with great interest. It was as if he were an exotic plant who had not only managed not to wilt in the last month and a half, but also to grow, to lead his own mysterious life, to eat, to drink, to sleep, and to wear a raincoat, a turtleneck, and a new pair of suede boots.
“A construction manager . . .” She began to remember his words on the train. “Two degrees. The Tin Man has a brain, then.”
Burmistrov approached her.
“Hello, Olga,” he said, bowing his head but not offering his hand.
His face was calmer and more balanced than when she last saw him, and his greenish-blue eyes stared at her with benevolent attention.
“I thought that you were out of town back in August, and that was why you didn’t show up.”
“I wasn’t very worried.”
“I was sure that you’d show up in September.” He gave her a tense and shy smile.
“Why?” Olya laughed, playing with her hair. “Such confidence!”
“Are you . . . a musician?” He had noticed the violin case.
“Are you studying at a conservatory?”
“What do you mean ‘almost’?”
“You’re asking too many questions.”
“Forgive me . . .” He began to get restless in his usual way.
“Let’s . . . over there . . . we’ll get a cab . . .”
He walked ahead of Olya toward the boulevard.
“I wonder if he’s got a woman,” Olga thought as she studied his long, nervous stride, his gray pants, and his suede boots. “Guys like him have either had a lot of ’em or nobody.”
On the boulevard, Burmistrov caught a banana-colored Zaporozhets, helped Olya into the backseat, sat down next to the frowning driver, and then, thirty minutes later, helped Olya get out when the car stopped across the street from Avtozavodskaya Station.
“Is it far?” asked Olya, getting out of the Zaporozhets.
“Two steps from here, that building there,” he said, gesturing to it with his hand.
They walked into a nine-story apartment block and took the elevator to the sixth floor. The door to apartment number twenty-four was upholstered with cheap fabric. Burmistrov opened it and let Olya lead the way. She entered the one-room apartment, which was poorly furnished but had been carefully cleaned. In the middle of the room stood a table set for one person, covered with a white tablecloth. There was not yet any food on the table.
“Right . . . here.” Burmistrov gestured to the table and fidgeted continuously. “Come in, please . . . take your coat off.”
He helped her take off her jacket. She put the violin case on top of the refrigerator in the hallway and walked into the main room. Burmistrov quickly took off his own raincoat and ran his palms through the few hairs sprouting from his almost completely bald head.
“Olga, please, sit down.”
“May I wash my hands?”
“Yes, of course . . .”
He turned on the bathroom light and opened the door for her.
Washing her hands in the rust-streaked sink, Olya looked at herself in the mirror.
“You crazy idiot, ge-ge-get ready for the hap-p-py blade . . . He’s getting ready to cut you up with it . . . Right when the st-st-starlight is scattered and night and darkness come down onto the si-si-silent world . . . No. He won’t cut me. He’s peaceful. Peaceful like pa-papa. Or like Pa-Pa-Pavel . . . Don’t be afraid, Ole Lukøje.”
She wiped her hands off with an old washcloth, left the bathroom, and sat down at the table. Burmistrov disappeared into the kitchen and came back holding a serving dish. On the dish were pieces of cooked chicken, boiled potatoes, and pickles. He walked over to the right of Olya and began to carefully fill her plate.
“Did you cook this yourself?” asked Olya.
“No, of course not . . . I can’t really . . . cook… this . . .” He disappeared into the kitchen with the serving dish, scurried back, took a pillow off the bed, and, stood facing Olya, holding the pillow in front of him.
“Why do you need that?” She looked at the pillow.
“It’s . . . so . . . that I’m not too loud . . .” he muttered, his voice beginning to quiver. “Please . . . can . . . please . . . I’m asking you . . .”
“Do you have anything to drink?”
“You don’t need it . . . can’t have it . . .” Burmistrov pronounced harshly. “Eat, please. Please only eat.”
“That’s a new one!” Olya thought. She chose the tastiest-looking bit of chicken, cut a piece from it, and put it into her mouth.
Burmistrov’s face immediately went pale and his eyes rolled up into his head.
“And this . . . and this . . .” he mumbled pitifully.
Olya began to eat. The chicken wasn’t bad at all.
“And this is naaaaoo . . . And this is naaaaoo!” Burmistrov muttered, clutching the pillow.
“It’s probably chicken from the farmer’s market, steamed chicken . . .” Olya thought, chewing and swallowing the meat slowly. “I wonder if he rents this apartment? Or if it just belongs to his friends . . . No work’s been done on it for at least twenty years . . . and the furniture . . . ‘Hey Slavs! We stand firm-iture!’”
Burmistrov’s body was quaking uncontrollably. He was drawing in air with a whistle and roaring “this is na!” into the pillow, his gaze fixed on the pieces of meat, which were disappearing between Olya’s lips. His trembling legs gave out and he fell to his knees.
“Look around him, not at him . . .” Olya ordered herself.
There was a plastic donkey sitting on top of the old television.
“Eeyore!” She looked at Burmistrov and almost choked. “You don’t have anything to drink . . . eat slowly, you idiot . . .”
Burmistrov’s cries gained strength and became an unintelligible roar, his bald head trembling.
Olya swallowed the last piece and pushed the plate away.
Burmistrov went silent and limp and let the pillow fall from his hands. He caught his breath, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and began to wipe off his sweaty face.
“Is that all?” asked Olya.
“Yes, yes . . .” he blew his nose loudly.
She stood up from the table, walked into the hallway, and began putting on her coat.
“Just a sec . . .” Burmistrov put his hands onto the floor, attempting to get up.
He walked to the corridor, helped Olya into her jacket, and handed her the money: 125 rubles.
“You forgot to take it the first time.”
“He remembered . . .” Olya thought. She took the money and realized all at once how important she was to this sleazy, half-crazed man. “It’s like a dream . . .”
“Forgive me, Olga . . . I . . . can’t . . . I won’t be able to take you back . . .” Burmistrov muttered.
He looked pitiful.
“The metro’s right here,” Olya said, visibly relieved. She put the violin case over her shoulder.
“In a month . . . I’m begging you . . .” He looked down beneath his feet at the shabby hardwood floor.
Olya nodded silently and took her leave.
She took the elevator down, dumbly reading the vulgar graffiti on the wooden doors, walked out through the dim entryway, and set off for the metro.
It was a cloudy September day, but it wasn’t raining.
“I want a drink,” Olya said to herself and noticed a soda machine in the middle distance.
The machine was working, but there were no cups left. Olya walked into a grocery store. There was a big line in the meat section. One woman was shouting angrily. Someone pushed someone else away from the counter. A flushed, finely dressed woman emerged from the crowd, holding a string bag. Four pairs of yellow chicken legs were sticking out of it. The woman half-turned back to everyone else as she walked away and made a pronouncement: “This lady wanted poultry! You worthless trash!”
She walked out of the store triumphantly.
A fit of laughter came over Olya. She bent down and began to howl, covering her mouth with both hands and staggering around, coming to a stop in the grocer’s section; she doubled over with laughter, her violin case flew off of her shoulder, and she barely managed to catch it, now laughing so much that everyone around her in the almost empty grocer’s section went quiet. Tears streamed from her eyes. Olya leaned against a column decorated with white tiles and laughed, moaned, then shook her head.
“Someone’s got the giggles!” the canned-food seller called out to her.
Olya wiped away her tears.
“Have you got mineral water?”
“And . . . do you serve it in a glass?”
“No,” he looked at her with a smile.
Olya walked out of the market. She took the metro to Oktyabrsky Station, got on bus number thirty-three, got off near the Mineral Waters store, and went in and drank two glasses of Borjomi thirstily.
“One hundred twenty-five rubles! And he didn’t give me any bread,” she thought, walking home along Gubkina Street. “He wouldn’t let me drink either. Why? He didn’t ask me to eat more than what I did, even though there was still some food left . . . oh well. If someone’s an idiot, then that’s forever. One hundred twenty-five rubles . . . how horrible! It all began on that beach in Yalta. He was sitting next to us, just sitting there with his newspaper cap and a bucket of cherries, and he turned to me and said, ‘Help yourself.’ And I did.”
Awaiting her arrival at home were her quiet mother (her loud mathematician father was at the university where he taught); their Irish setter, named Ready; Polish perch with rice, which she immediately refused; and her endless Proust.
Olya went to her room, dialed Volodya’s number to tell him everything that had happened, but hung up the phone as soon as he answered.
“Why would I?” she asked her reflection in the mirror on the shelf. “Better no one knows.”
The following day she went to a black marketeer and bought two Pirastro strings (an A and an E) for forty rubles each and bought a blue and white French scarf for thirty-two rubles at a vintage store on Sretenka.
One month later at 2:30 PM, she was standing in front of the Pushkin Monument.
Burmistrov arrived a little late, then took her to the same apartment, and, having given her a plate of cooked pork with vegetables and roared to his heart’s content, paid her the hundred rubles.
Olya decided to begin saving up for a good violin. She put the banknote inside a volume of Proust that she’d finished. She moved the book to the upper level of her bookshelf.
“It’s too bad I can only do this once a month,” she thought as she fell asleep. “Imagine if I could do it once a week! I’d have a Schneider by junior year!”
A year passed. Olya began her third year at the Gnessin Institute; broke up with Volodya, who’d been pushed to the side by the beautiful and phlegmatic pianist Ilya; learned a Mozart concerto; played reasonably well with a quartet in a university contest; read Nabokov’s Lolita; plus tried hash and anal sex.
Her meetings with Burmistrov happened regularly on the first Monday of every month.
In December, she arrived at the monument with a fever of a hundred degrees and, dripping snot, was barely able to finish the meat ragout accompanied by Burmistrov’s moans; in April, she felt very nauseous after eating a fatty piece of sturgeon; in May, after eating quail with cranberries, she awoke with a cry: she had dreamt that Burmistrov had an enormously fat python coming out of his mouth; in July, after eating liver in sour cream, she was tormented by sharp pains in her stomach. But in August, she tanned on the beach in Koktebel, resting on Ilya’s plump chest, which was overgrown with red hair.
Olya thought of Burmistrov sometimes, usually referring to him as “Horse Soup.” She felt that he played an important role in her life, but she wasn’t sure what it was. The phrase “this is na” stayed with her, however; she used it often, mumbling it when something surprised or disappointed her.
“Well, this is na!” she would say as she stomped her foot when her fingers didn’t obey the notes as she played violin.
“This is na!” she would say, shaking her head when she saw a long line leading out of a store.
“This is naaaaa . . .” she would whisper into Ilya’s ear after he brought her to orgasm.
One day, rushing off to meet Burmistrov, she declined to go to a closed screening of From Russia With Love with Ilya.
“Have you met someone else?” asked Ilya sharply.
“Horse Soup,” she replied cheerfully.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
As with Volodya, she didn’t tell Ilya anything.
It was 1982. Brezhnev died. Ready also died, after eating rat poison. Olya started her senior year at the Institute and bought herself a violin made by the German master Schneider for 1,600 rubles, telling her poor parents that a girlfriend who’d dropped out of school and married a Georgian had given it to her. She continued to meet Burmistrov at the same apartment. She was so used to Horse Soup’s screaming that she no longer paid any attention to it, focusing only on the food in front of her.
“Not enough garnish here . . . the cauliflower is boiled and not fried in bread crumbs . . . but the meat is good . . . and the salad is fresh . . .”
Having received her money, she would go to a nearby cafeteria, ask for a glass of compote, and drink it quickly without sitting down. She wasn’t saving money anymore, instead spending it on whatever she fancied.
So passed another six months.
Then something began to happen to the food Burmistrov served her. There was no less of it, and it was still of the same high quality, but it was now presented to her in particulate form. The meat, fish, and vegetables were cut into small pieces, and all of these pieces were mixed together, as if it were a Russian salad. Olya ate without asking any questions and Horse Soup howled his habitual “this is naaaaoo!” Eventually, the food was cut up so finely that it was hard for Olya to figure out what exactly was in the fastidious mix of meat (or fish) and vegetables on the plate in front of her.
“What’s he having me eat now . . .” she thought as she studied the food with a distrustful look. But then, having tasted it, she calmed down once she realized that it was still normal food.
One day, Burmistrov’s monthly concoction of foods only took up one half of the plate he put in front of her — the other half was completely empty.
“What can he mean by this?” Olya thought, frowning. “Did he eat the other half himself?”
She picked up her fork and began to eat the mixture of turkey, salad, and boiled potatoes. This time, Burmistrov’s howling was especially protracted. His bald head quivered and his hands squeezed the pillow convulsively.
“And this is naaaaaaaaaoooo! Naaaaaaoo!” he bleated.
Having finished her food, Olya put down her fork and stood up.
“You haven’t finished yet . . .” Horse Soup muttered huskily, looking out from behind his pillow. “Finish, please . . .”
Olya looked at the empty plate.
“I have finished.”
“You haven’t touched one half of the plate.”
“I ate everything. Look. Can you not see?”
“I see better than you do!” he cried shrilly. “You didn’t touch one half of the plate! There’s food on that side too! Eat!”
Olya gave him a dumb look.
“Has he lost his mind?” she thought.
Burmistrov writhed around on the floor.
“Don’t torment me like this, Olga, please eat!”
“But there’s nothing there . . .” She smiled nervously.
“Stop tormenting me!” he cried.
She sank back into her chair.
“Eat, eat, eat!”
“He really has lost his marbles!’ Olya thought. She sighed, picked up the fork, scooped up the invisible food, and put it in her mouth.
“And this is naaaaoo! And this is naaaaaaaaoooo!” Burmistrov howled.
“I’m a mime now!” Olya said to herself and grinned. She slowly lifted the fork to her mouth, took the invisible food off it with her lips, chewed it, then swallowed.
She was enjoying this game. After a little while, she put down her fork.
“There’s still some left . . . but that’s OK . . . actually . . . why rush?” muttered Burmistrov, still moaning.
“What a pain in the ass!” Olya calmly finished the invisible food.
He paid her a hundred rubles as usual and, helping her with her coat, said: “We’re going to meet in a different apartment from now on, Olga, so next month don’t go to the Pushkin Monument. Go to Tsvetnoy Boulevard.”
“Where will we meet there?”
“Outside the market. Same day, same time.”
Olya nodded and left.
The apartment on Tsvetnoy Boulevard was much nicer than the previous one: three comfortable rooms with high ceilings, luxuriously furnished. Burmistrov entertained Olya in the living room. The table was set tastefully: silver utensils on crystal couverts de table, porcelain plates, napkins in silver rings. There was still neither bread nor water, though, and Olya’s plate was still only half-full. Burmistrov stood in front of the table holding a silvery-pink silk pillow at the ready.
“It’s like a test,” she said to herself as she glanced over at Burmistrov. She began to eat. “OK . . . meat and mushrooms . . . and he has a new suit . . . did he get rich or something?”
Horse Soup howled into the pillow.
She ate the visible food. Then the invisible food. She ate calmly, not hurrying at all.
Burmistrov didn’t say anything and blew his nose as he usually did, wiped off his sweaty face, and gave Olya her money.
“Still I don’t get it — why me?” she thought, walking to the metro. “It’s been two years . . . It’s a miracle I haven’t lost it! And it’s only me . . . So many women in Moscow . . . He’s a real sicko . . . Schizophrenic, maybe? I think there’s another name for his condition . . . I should go shopping at Passage, my tights are a catastrophe . . . It’s nice out today . . .”
Their meetings continued with business-like regularity. But every time there was less and less visible food on her plate. The invisible half expanded, and Olya diligently mimed her meals, bending down to the plate carefully so as not to drop any food, bringing it to her mouth, wiping her lips, chewing, and, finally, scraping what was left onto her fork and putting the final bite into her mouth.
On February 7, 1983, a slushy Monday, she sat down at the table as expected. Burmistrov came out of the kitchen with a serving dish. There was no food on the dish — only the silver spatula he typically used to serve Olya. Burmistrov put the serving dish down on the edge of the table and began to carefully mete out the invisible food to Olya.
“So, this is what it’s come to . . .” she thought and smiled. “I should get a bonus for my artistry.”
Burmistrov left with the serving dish and came back with his pillow.
Olya looked at the empty plate.
“And this . . . And this . . .” mumbled Burmistrov.
“In your hooouse, I spent my yooouth, its gooolden dreams . . .” Olya sang to herself, scooping emptiness from her empty plate with an empty fork.
Two more years passed duskily by. Andropov and Chernenko died. Olya’s family got a spaniel named Artaud. Her father left his post at Moscow State University. Vitka got married. Perestroika began. Olya completed her degree at the Gnessin Institute and, thanks to an advantageous connection, joined the regional philharmonic orchestra. Ilya moved away to Israel with his family. Olya had two lovers — a tall, skinny, long-haired guitarist named Oleg and a calm, thorough doctor and cosmetologist named Zhenya. Zhenya had a wife and a car. Olya made love with Oleg in his artist friend’s studio. She and Zhenya made love wherever they could — mostly in his car.
Nothing changed with Burmistrov: she ate a plate of invisible food, he roared and gave her money.
After her father’s departure from MSU, the family had almost no money, so the hundred rubles she got from Horse Soup every month were very useful. She also got ninety-six rubles a month from the orchestra.
Perestroika flew off clumsily into the night, leaving the stormy and merciless ’90s in its stead. Olya’s mother had her right breast removed, Olya’s scandalous grandmother died, finally freeing up her two-room apartment near the VDNKh, Olya had her second abortion and left the orchestra in order to become a music teacher at a school for foreign students.
Something began to happen with Burmistrov: he changed their meeting place several times, sometimes feeding her in a stand-alone office at the Hotel Metropole, sometimes in half-empty apartments that reeked of renovation in the “European” style. Burmistrov now roared without a pillow, apparently no longer worried about anyone overhearing. He drove Olya around in a Lada, then in a Honda, then in the back seat of a Jeep, as he now had a fat-necked chauffeur at his disposal. Burmistrov began to dress like a New Russian, if not an especially young one, and started shaving his head. The sum he gave Olya accumulated more and more Russian zeroes and then, like a butterfly caught in a glass, petrified into an American hundred-dollar bill.
Olya ate her invisible food with great appetite and Burmistrov howled “this is na,” writhing and spattering his expensive suit with foamy spittle.
On October 19, 1994, Olya married Alyosha, a cosmetologist and a colleague of her ex-boyfriend Zhenya. They began to remodel her grandma’s apartment, which was filthy and rundown because of the old woman’s six cats, bought new furniture, a huge television, and an Irish setter named Karo. Alyosha, a broad-shouldered redhead, loved Olya, French cinema, sports, and cars, and made good money. She left her job at the music school and wanted to have kids. That summer, the couple prepared to set off for a twenty-four-day trip around Europe organized by Alyosha’s father, a functionary in the department of foreign affairs. Olya had never been abroad before. Alyosha, on the other hand, had spent his childhood in France and was very excited to show his wife around Europe.
As she finished packing her bags, Olya remembered that she had a meeting with Burmistrov the next day.
“I won’t be there . . . I’m done chewing air . . .” she thought. “Basta, Horse Soup . . .”
They penetrated Europe’s soft body through the quiet expanse of Finland, passed through Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, witnessed the crass beauty of London, crossed the English Channel, nibbled their way across the deliciousness of France, and ended up in immaculate Switzerland.
Olya was incredibly happy right up until Geneva, where she began to feel ill. One evening, she and Alyosha were sitting at a restaurant with a view of the lake and slowly eating a huge grilled lobster, washing down the juicy snow-white meat with Fendant les Murettes from the South of Switzerland. Slightly tanned from two weeks of traveling, Alyosha was telling Olya about the problems they had with theft at his father’s dacha in Barvikha.
“The people around there have lost it — and that’s putting it mildly! You can’t leave the gate unlocked for even a minute, otherwise they fly in and take everything they can. Maybe there’s a hammock, they cut it off the trees, maybe there’re some linens, they drag those away. If there’s a shovel, they take the shovel, if there’s a barrel . . . hey, you OK?”
Now deathly pale, Olya stared glassily at the piece of lobster on the end of her fork. It was as if an enormous orb had burst inside her head, leaving behind only a resounding and infinite emptiness. For the first time in her life, Olya saw the food that people ate. The sight of this food was horrifying. Worst of all was that it was so heavy, endowed with its own grievous and final weight. The lobster, which seemed to have been formed from white lead, reeked of death. In a cold sweat, Olya raised herself up on her stiff arms and vomited onto the table. It felt like she was throwing up gravestones. Alyosha paid twenty francs for les dégâts and took her back to the hotel. She vomited three times on the way. That night she got turned inside out by her illness, but Alyosha was afraid to call a doctor because of the risk of getting stuck in Geneva.
“It’s just a little bug, bunny.” He pressed ice against her temple. “We shared all our food. If something was off, then I would’ve thrown up too. Take deep breaths and think about snow, snow, snow, newly fallen Russian snow.”
Olya fell asleep toward morning, woke up at 2 PM, rubbed her heavy brow, and opened her dry lips. The nausea had passed. She wanted orange juice and toast with strawberry jam. Alyosha was asleep next to her.
“Let’s go eat, big boy,” she stood up.
“You’re OK, bunny?” he stretched. “I told you — just a little bug. But I’m surprised that there’re any bugs at all in Switzerland! You could eat off the sidewalk here!”
The kiwi lying next to the egg seemed to her to be a heavy, moss-covered rock, and the toast lay on the plate like a tombstone.Tweet
Olya took a shower and did her makeup.
“Sometimes it’s good to throw up,” Alyosha said. “It helps with wrinkles.”
Downstairs in the cool foyer, they were greeted by a glorious Swiss buffet with an abundance of fruit and seafood. Olya served herself juice, toast, an egg, and a kiwi. As usual, Alyosha filled his plate with salad and covered it with dressing.
They sat down at their favorite table on the terrace, which was covered with ferns and calla lilies.
“When the heat breaks, let’s go to Chillon Castle,” Alyosha said. “No more locking ourselves away, ’K, bunny?”
“OK.” Olya drank her juice thirstily, hit the egg with her spoon, peeled off the shell, poked it, watched the yolk run out of it with pleasure, salted it, put both yolk and trembling white onto her spoon, and brought the spoon to her mouth. Then she froze: the egg reeked of death. That same resounding emptiness rang out once more in Olya’s head. She moved her crazed eyes away from it. The kiwi lying next to the egg seemed to her to be a heavy, moss-covered rock, and the toast lay on the plate like a tombstone. Olya dropped the spoon and put her hands over her face.
“No . . .”
“Is it happening again, bunny?” Alyosha stopped his cheerful chewing.
“No, no, no . . .”
Olya stood up and walked to the elevator. Alyosha came fast on her heels.
“Could I be pregnant?” she stroked her belly as she lay on the hotel bed. “No — it’s never felt like this before.”
“You should’ve stayed in bed, bunny. Stay here. I’ll order us lunch here.”
“Don’t talk to me about lunch!” she panted.
“Have some juice.”
There was no minibar in their room, so Alyosha went downstairs and came back with a portly yellow bottle.
Juice flowed into glass. Olya brought it to her mouth and swallowed with great difficulty. It felt like drinking melted butter. She put the heavy glass onto her bedside table.
But, later, she couldn’t even bring herself to sip it. Any thought of food put her into a stupor and filled her body with a terrifying heaviness that swiftly turned to nausea.
“It’s nothing but a nervous condition,” Alyosha thought aloud. “Anorexia brought on by a sudden change of scenery. I have Relanium. I always take it for hangovers. Take two. It’ll calm you down.”
Olya took the two pills, flipped through a copy of Vogue, and dozed off. She woke up four hours later, took another shower, and got dressed.
“You know what, big boy, I just won’t eat today. Let’s go to that castle.”
They spent the evening in Montreux. Alyosha ate a sausage and potato salad and drank a glass of beer. While he ate, Olya strolled along the embankment. They got back to Geneva at midnight and went to sleep.
In the morning, Olya woke up at seven, quietly got ready, and, not waking her husband, went downstairs: she had a strong desire to eat. She walked out of the elevator and said “morning” to the waitresses in their white aprons and took a big warm plate and a fork and knife wrapped in a napkin and moved toward the food. She had barely caught sight of the fatal mounds of salad, cheese, ham, fish, and fruit before her legs buckled and her plate fell from her hands. She vomited bile onto the carpet.
Even though everything was in order with their insurance, Alyosha was still afraid to call a local doctor.
“They’ll say she has some horrible infectious disease and send her straight to the hospital,” he thought.
Instead, he found the addresses of three local psychiatrists.
“I’m not going to see a shrink.” Olya pushed away the card in Alyosha’s hand. “Get me some water.”
Alyosha handed her a glass. She could still drink water.
“When are we leaving for Italy?” she asked, sitting on the bed and leaning against the wall.
“The day after tomorrow.”
“What’s the plan for today?”
“Le Valais. A wine cellar in Vétroz.”
“Let’s go then.” She stood up decisively.
The air was cool in Serge Roh’s wine cellar. Moldy stacks of bottles under brick arches, just like in Burgundy, called forth a feeling of peace and security in Olya. But, still, she couldn’t bring herself to drink the wine. The glass of ruby-red cornalin seemed to weigh a whole ton as Olya swirled it around lethargically, a liquid nightmare that engulfed any and all safe, familiar feelings. Its thick, ominous glare made her heart stop.
Meanwhile, Alyosha drank so much that Olya had to prop him up as they walked to the train station.
That night in their hotel room, as she was giving herself to Alyosha, who was still not entirely sober, Olya fixed her gaze on the spots of light on the ceiling and tried to understand what was happening to her.
“Maybe I’m just overtired?” she thought to herself. “Or traumatized by the West? Marina Vlady wrote that Vysotsky vomited when he first went to Berlin and saw how affluent it was. ‘Who won the war, goddamnit?!’ he cried out. Or maybe we’re travelling too much . . . Or it’s an abnormal pregnancy . . . Meaning, I’m going to have a baby . . .”
Instead, two days later in Rome, Olya got her period. She was very sick. She hadn’t eaten anything in three days and lay in bed trembling, drinking only water. Alyosha called his father in Moscow, who got in touch with the Russian embassy. Soon, a somber embassy doctor was taking Olya’s weak pulse. Having examined her, he went out into the hallway to talk to her husband.
“It could be exhaustion, but it could also be depression,” he rubbed the bridge of his thick nose as he talked to Alyosha in the hotel hallway.
“What about . . . our trip?” Alyosha said thoughtfully, looking at a reproduction of one of Leonardo’s drawings in a tacky frame.
“Tell you what, friend, I’ll give your wife an injection of Seduxen with a touch of Barbital. Then let her sleep. You can start giving her Relanium and continue your trip. But, in Moscow, you must take her to a psychiatrist.”
Olya slept for fourteen hours and woke up calm and visibly well-rested. Alyosha gave her a pill. She took it. She ate nothing for breakfast and set off with her husband for some sightseeing around the city.
“Let’s just pretend I’m on a diet!” she joked.
But she was terribly tired and very hungry by the time evening rolled around.
“Order me some tea and a sandwich from room service,” she said.
Alyosha ordered for her. When the food arrived, Olya gave the cup of tea and the sliced roll, ham protruding from the cut along its side, a distrustful look.
“Could you leave me alone for a minute, big boy?”
Alyosha kissed her and walked out of the room.
“What’s going on with me?” Olya said to herself. She looked down at the food. “Please just eat!”
She walked over to the table decisively. Two steps later, though, her legs seemed to have turned to clay, but this clay, made up of viscous fear, was melting. The fatal sandwich was grinning, sticking out its dead, leaden tongue at her. Olya collapsed onto the bed and began to sob.
“How’s it going, bunny?” Alyosha came back into the room a little while later.
“Take it away . . . take it away . . .” She sobbed.
Alyosha took the food into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, ate the sandwich, washed it down with tea, and, still chewing, came back into the room.
“Just let me lie here . . .” Olya stared at the cheap white material covering the wall with her wet eyes.
Alyosha sat next to her on the bed and wiped the tears from her cheek.
“What if you tried eating with a blindfold?”
“Just let me lie here . . .” she repeated.
“I’ll go down to the square, OK?”
“Of course it would happen here, in this ugly room . . . Murphy’s law . . . What have I done to deserve this?” She touched the wall.
The feebleness that comes after tears quickly put her to sleep.
Olya dreams that she is in the hospital where her mother had her breast removed; she is walking down the hallway to her; she enters room number sixteen and sees her mother sitting on the bed and looking at herself in Olya’s grandmother’s circular hand mirror; her mother is completely naked and very cheerful; “Look what they’ve done to me, Olenka!” she says, handing her the mirror; but even without the mirror, Olya can see that both of her mother’s breasts are intact; “They’ve tricked you, Mom, they haven’t done anything,” Olya says as she palpates her mother’s right breast indignantly and feels the hard tumor still inside it; “You’re not looking at it right,” her mother says and insists she take the mirror. “Look over there!”; Olya looks at her mother’s body in the mirror and sees that she has a hideous chunk carved out of her body — her right breast and shoulder have simply vanished. “Now you need to look from this angle,” her mother says, smiling, “that way you can see the most important thing. What needs to be done.” Olya shifts her view and begins to see everything very differently, everything as it truly is; like a magnifying glass, she moves the image of her mother’s body and superimposes it over the view of Moscow through the window; she sees a neon sign that reads mixed feed. “Hurry up, they close at five,” her mother insists, “Run straight through the dump.” Olya runs through the enormous dump, the stinking waste reaching her waist, makes it out onto the street, and finds herself in front of the enormous building with the neon sign — mixed feed; Olya tries the door handle, but it’s locked; “I’m going to starve to death,” Olya thinks with horror and knocks on the door; “Why are you banging down the door, Miss! They always close at five!” a voice says nearby; Olya sees an old woman; “I’m dying of hunger,” Olya sobs; “Go to the back door and talk to the shopkeeper,” the old woman suggests; Olya slides into the darkness through the cracked door and finds herself in a huge storage room filled with all manner of objects; she walks and walks, then suddenly sees a small table in the corner; Horse Soup is sitting at the table with a can of food in his hand; he is young and handsome in a sad, solemn way; paying no attention to Olya, he opens the can of food in his hand with a knife; the can is empty, but this emptiness is also real chow; an unbelievably strong and intoxicatingly delicious smell wafts over to her; Horse Soup takes out a spoon and begins to eat from the can; “Gimme some! Gimme some!” Olya cries out, getting down onto her knees, but he doesn’t hear or see her; she tries to catch the spoon with her mouth, but it’s moving as fast as a propeller; can to mouth, can to mouth, can to mouth; Olya puts her mouth even closer and is hit very hard by the spoon, which knocks out several of her teeth.
“Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!” Alyosha was shaking her.
“What?” She raised herself up.
“You were screaming. Can I give you another pill?”
Olya sat up and wiped tears from her face. She understood everything. This feeling of understanding didn’t frighten her; on the contrary, it was soothing.
“We need to go back to Moscow, big boy.”
“What about Greece?”
“I’m really ill. I need to go back.”
“But . . . we’ll waste our tickets and have to buy new ones. Another thousand bucks.”
“Then I’ll go back alone.”
“Don’t be silly, bunny!”
“Then let’s pack and go.”
“C’mon, bunny, let’s put our heads together a lil’ more, let’s not do anything ra . . .”
“I need to go to Moscow!!!” Olya screamed.
They caught a flight that evening.
Moscow greeted them with the striking darkness of its dusty streets and its deeply familiar but also wild smells.
That night she got to sleep with a Reladorm, and the next morning she’d barely woken up when Alyosha made an announcement.
“I’m going to get the doctor, bunny.”
“I don’t need a doctor.” She stretched out her tired body.
“He’s a good neuropathologist — he’ll figure out what’s wrong. Lie down and wait for me to come back.”
Olya quickly got up, got dressed, combed her hair, had a drink of water, got some money, and left the apartment. She was dizzy, but still thinking clearly and quickly. Olya was aware of the weakness in her body, but was also experiencing the tender satisfaction of feeling a lot younger.
She hailed a taxi on Korolyov Avenue.
She remembered that Horse Soup had once stopped the car there and run into his office for something.
Getting out of the car on Myasnitskaya, she quickly found a grayish-pink building, recently remodeled, with a metal plaque polished until it looked like a mirror. On the plaque was engraved:
She went in through the door.
A security guard in a black uniform was creeping around in the large, bright entryway, and a young receptionist sat behind the desk.
“Hello, who are you here to see?” she asked with a smile.
“I’m here to see your . . . boss,” Olya said and realized that she had forgotten Horse Soup’s last name, remembering only his first: Boris.
“We have two of those,” the receptionist smiled. “Do you want to see the director or the chairman?”
“I’m here for Boris . . .” Olya began.
“Boris Ilyich?” the receptionist interrupted her. “Does he know you’re here?”
“No. It’s . . . a personal matter.”
“You’re lucky he’s in. Who shall I say is here to see him?”
“Just say it’s Olya.”
“OK,” the receptionist picked up the phone. “Marina Vasilievna, I have a visitor here for Boris Ilyich on a personal matter. Her name’s Olya . . . Yes, just Olya.”
The receptionist waited for a minute, nodding politely at Olya, then put down the phone.
“You can go up now. Second floor. Last office on your right.”
Olya climbed the marble staircase with no trouble, but in the hallway she became dizzy and had to lean against the wall for support.
“Please don’t kick me out, Horse Soup . . .”
Coming back to her senses, she made her way to Burmistrov’s waiting room.
“Head on in, Boris Ilyich is waiting for you.” His secretary opened the door.
Olya walked into the office holding her breath. Burmistrov was sitting at his desk and talking on the phone. He took a quick look at Olya, raised his index finger, and began to stand up from his chair as he finished his conversation.
“I’m telling you for the third time — they don’t need gas masks, they only need the metal things and the filters, do you understand? What? Well, tell him to stick those masks up his ass! What? What??? Vitya! Were you born yesterday or something? Just get twenty suckers, put ’em on the barge, and they’ll take it apart in a day! Throw the masks over the side. End of conversation. Goodbye.”
He slammed down the phone.
Olya was standing in the center of his office.
Burmistrov walked around his desk with a frown, moved over to Olya, and stared at her silently for a long time.
Olya’s lips and knees were shaking.
“So, were you trying to cash in your chips?” he asked her good-naturedly and slapped her across the face.
Olya fell to the floor, completely exhausted.
“How many days has it been since you last ate?”
“Four . . . Five . . .” she mumbled.
“Idiot!” He picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Polina Andreyevna? Hello. I need you today. Yes. Please get there as fast as you can, start cooking right now. We’ll see you in . . . how much time do you need? Let’s say an hour. Yes. Thank you.”
Still on the floor, Olya sat up.
“Sit over there,” Burmistrov nodded at two armchairs by a coffee table.
She stood up, walked over, and sat down.
Burmistrov sat on the edge of his desk and folded his arms across his chest.
“Where were you?”
“I was traveling with my husband.”
“You got married?”
“What was the last thing you ate?”
“I . . . don’t remember . . . lobster.”
“Tasty . . . You fuckin’ idiot. You wanna die?”
“No . . .” whispered Olya, leaning back into the armchair exhaustedly. Sweet tears began to flow down her face.
“A sow, a total sow . . .” Burmistrov shook his head.
Her successful reunion with Horse Soup filled her body, heretofore so tormented by fear and hunger, with the smooth oil of tenderness. She was no longer afraid to spill this oil.Tweet
A smug brown-haired man in a white blazer walked in without knocking.
“It’s coming up roses, Boris!”
“What the hell?” Boris grunted with a scowl.
“They’re taking thirty in cash and eighteen in bonds. And the Ukrainian piece of shit is still gonna get twenty to twenty-five from his stupid friends.”
“What about Larin?”
“What do we need Larin for? He got his piece of the pie, that’s how it goes.”
“But he’s their underwriter now.”
“What’s he gotta dick around like that for?” the man replied with a big smile, then squinted over at Olya. “There’s no reason for it. Get Malakov to knock out a new contract. We’ll get the wholesalers to sign today, why wait?”
Burmistrov bit his lip, looking down at the hardwood floor.
“You know what . . . here. I’ll go have a chat with the old man myself. In the meantime, you get started with Zhenka, got it?”
“Got it,” the man left.
Burmistrov picked up the phone.
“Oleg, hello again! We gotta talk terms. They just put a good offer in front of me. Yes. Yes, just now . . . Almost . . . No, those are Vitya’s wholesalers. Yes. Yes. Listen, let’s meet by the pipe? Yep. Fantastic! OK, I’m leaving now.”
He walked out of the office.
Sweet tears once again began streaming down Olya’s face as soon as the door shut behind him. She wept silently, leaning her head against the cool, soft leather of the armchair. Her successful reunion with Horse Soup filled her body, heretofore so tormented by fear and hunger, with the smooth oil of tenderness. She was no longer afraid to spill this oil.
“This is na . . . This is na . . .” she repeated Burmistrov’s words like a baby, smiling through her tears.
Burmistrov returned an hour later — cheerful and satisfied.
Her face puffy from crying, Olya stood up.
“Were you crying?” He glanced at her eyes.
“How wonderful!” He grinned and opened the door.
Downstairs, a big black Jeep was waiting for them with both a chauffeur and a security guard inside. Olya sat in the backseat with Burmistrov. The Jeep turned onto the Garden Ring and sped up.
“We’re headed toward Kursk Boulevard,” she realized.
Kursk was where the Stalin-era building with the highest arch in Moscow was located, the place where she had been eating invisible food for the past six months. She also knew that Sakharov, the famous academic, had lived in that building not long ago.
Burmistrov looked out through his tinted window. His smoothly shaven head, his plain features, his murky eyes, his fiddly hands — all of this was deeply familiar to her.
Olya suddenly realized that she was truly happy.
“Thank God he forgave me,” she thought, taking a deep breath. “What if he hadn’t? What would I do then? May pedestrians stumble awkwardly through horror.” She improvised this last line on the theme of the Russian birthday song.
“Oh yeah . . .” Burmistrov suddenly remembered something, took out his cell phone, and started to type in a number.
The driver made a sharp turn to overtake another car and Burmistrov’s cell phone flew out of his hand and onto the floor.
“Forgive me, Boris Ilyich,” the driver mumbled.
“I’ll fuckin’ fire you, Vasya!” Burmistrov looked down at his feet with a broad grin.
“I’ll get it.” Olya bent down happily.
This was the first time that Olya had ever seen a cell phone up close, which added ever so slightly to her general feeling of happiness. Looking under the seat, she saw it immediately. The phone had an illuminated keypad, like a nocturnal insect from a faraway tropical land that no one had discovered yet. It was lying near Burmistrov’s beautiful boots. Olya moved over to the phone and touched Horse Soup’s thin, bony ankle with quiet joy.
“Strong and intelligent,” she thought.
She suddenly heard a sound that made her think the car had driven into a dead tree. Then the dead branches started pitter-pattering over the roof.
“Fuck!” the driver said loudly.
The Jeep swerved violently. Olya sprawled forward, right next to Burmistrov’s boots.
The dry branches continued to knock into the car. Bits of glass from the windows fell inside.
The car swerved again, then came to a shrieking halt, then started to move again very slowly. Burmistrov’s boots gave Olya a violent kick.
“What’s he doing?” she thought, and started to get up.
The car was going very slowly.
Olya lifted up her head and looked around.
Ten narrow rays of sunshine pierced the car’s murky light. Dust gathered in the rays. Olya looked around, not immediately realizing that the sun was shining through ten neat little holes.
Burmistrov’s face was monstrously deformed, swollen with bubbles of blood. His hands were trembling very slightly, his legs twitched like a doll’s. The driver had five tiny holes in his neck and shoulders and had fallen onto the steering wheel, his body still shuddering. The security guard leaned against the window, one cheek gone.
The car continued crawling forward for a little while, hit a scaffold, and came to a halt.
Burmistrov’s legs were still.
Absolute silence reigned inside the car.
But something was moving.
Olya looked over.
Bits of Burmistrov’s brain were sliding down the tinted window.
Olya felt for the door handle, squeezed it, jerked the door open, and tumbled out of the Jeep.
“So flat . . .” She pressed her cheek to the calm and dusty asphalt.
And, suddenly, all around her, cars were braking, doors were slamming, and legs, legs, legs were running.
“Flat, but not familiar . . .” Olya got up onto all fours, began to stand up, and, surprising herself, sprinted off, still hunched over and covering her mouth with her hand.
She ran through an alleyway on her half-bent legs and remembered how, during her junior year, she and Lena Kopteyeva had once raced from the barberry bushes to the gate and back, and how Lenka had moaned when she fell behind.
“She looks like Tatyana Doronina . . .” Olya thought, spotting a full-figured woman carrying tightly wrapped rolls of wallpaper.
The woman looked Olya over with a gloomy gaze.
“What’s the number for the police?” Olya asked as she stopped running.
She was clutching the cell phone in her left hand and holding the purse hanging from her shoulder with her right.
“0-2?” she asked, already beginning to dial it on the phone.
But the phone could only buzz when it made any sound at all.
“What now?” Olya looked at a grayish-white cat sitting in the window.
The cat licked its paw.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go . . .” She put the phone into her purse and began to walk quickly through the alleyway, making it to Chistoprudny Boulevard in a few minutes.
“I need something to drink,” she said to herself. She saw a street vendor, walked over, and bought a plastic bottle of Coca-Cola, beginning to twist off the red cap as she walked. Pink foam rose up from under the cap. Olya stopped to look at the foam and felt the fatal heaviness that had been slumbering inside of her for the past few days begin to rise up from her stomach and into her esophagus like mercury. Olya vomited bile. Dropping the bottle, she made her way to a bench and sat down.
“He’s dead,” she said, and the whole world shrank.
She could see everything in the world. Everything was heavy and everything was dead. No one in this wretched, leaden world could help her. To whom could she turn? In a daze, she went through friends and relatives, doctors and pets, businessmen and street magicians: but none of them, none of them, had any food. Nobody on earth could feed Olya. Not even God? Olya didn’t believe in God and had never understood religious people.
And suddenly she remembered the apartment where Horse Soup fed her invisible food.
“There’s food there!” Olya whispered in a hoarse voice. “There . . . of course! There and only there!”
She stood up, walked to the metro station, hailed a taxi, and, in a daze, was driven to the building with the highest arch in Moscow. She went up in the elevator and found the apartment and rang the doorbell. A short, elderly woman with a calm, sweet face opened the door.
“Hello! The food’s been ready for a long time.”
Polina Andreyevna cooked the food, but always left before the eating process began. Olya entered the spacious foyer.
“And where is Boris Ilyich?” Polina Andreyevna walked into the kitchen.
“He’s . . . currently . . .” Olya looked into the dining room.
She saw the old familiar table set for one.
“I’ve been waiting! Waiting!” Polina Andreyevna said loudly from the kitchen. “I thought he’d canceled! But then he would have called, right?”
Olya went over to the kitchen. A dry emptiness was ringing out inside her head. Her heart beat hungrily and heavily. Polina Andreyevna put something away in the refrigerator, shut it, and noticed Olya standing in the doorway.
Olya walked in silently, moving her eyes hungrily from side to side.
“Are you looking for something?” asked Polina Andreyevna.
“Where’s the food?”
Polina Andreyevna looked at her with an uncomprehending smile.
“Uhh . . . We have apples and kefir in the fridge. Shall I wash an apple for you?”
Olya looked at her spitefully. Polina Andreyevna went quiet and stopped smiling.
Olya noticed something on the kitchen table with a dish towel over it. She removed the dish towel. Under it was the porcelain dish from which Horse Soup served invisible food. Now, however, there was only emptiness.
Olya looked into the refrigerator. She saw apples, a lemon, two packets of margarine, and an open bottle of kefir. The only thing in the freezer was ice.
Olya began to open cupboards and rifle through drawers.
But her food was nowhere to be found.
She was overwhelmed by fear. Her face turned green and she froze in the middle of the kitchen.
Polina Andreyevna slowly moved into the corner of the room.
Olya examined the electric stove. There were three empty pots, with a frying pan next to them. In the frying pan was a can with no label.
Olya picked up the can. It was heavy, slightly larger than an average can.
Olya’s heart beat heavily and a gruff, inarticulate moan escaped from her lips. Her whole body now shivering, Olya began to search for a can opener. But she couldn’t find one anywhere. Then, putting the can onto the table, she pulled out the largest knife from the wooden knife block. It was as heavy as a hammer and as sharp as a razor. Olya picked it up with both of her hands clutched its comfortable black handle. She tried to suppress her trembling as she drew back and plunged the knife into the can.
The heavy knife sliced through the tin like paper.
The Tin Man’s mouth was filled with liquid shit.Tweet
“You didn’t know!” Olya grinned wickedly and stared back at Polina Andreyevna, who had been struck dumb. She kept pressing down on the knife.
Olya had never before opened a can this way. Jerking the knife a couple of times and jaggedly cutting the tin, she trembled and stamped her foot with impatience. She pushed the knife in the other direction in an attempt to make a bigger hole. She was using her left hand to clutch the edge of the can, but it slipped off and collided with the knife. Blood flowed onto the table and the can. Olya paid no attention to the blood, looking instead at the slowly expanding slit she’d made. It looked like the Tin Man’s mouth.
“Trying to hide it . . . bitch . . .”
The tin lips spread slowly apart.
The Tin Man’s mouth was filled with liquid shit.
Olya’s hair stood on end: the can was filled with eggplant spread.
“No!” she smiled and looked at Polina Andreyevna. “No, this . . . no . . .”
Polina Andreyevna looked at her with quiet horror.
Olya exhaled, noticed how bloody her hand was, pulled another dish towel off the hook, and wrapped it around her hand. On the towel there was a hedgehog carrying a mushroom. She left the apartment.
She descended the chill staircase.
The cell phone rang gently in her purse. Olya took it out, looked at it, pressed the red button with a picture of a telephone on it, and pressed it to her ear.
“Borya?” someone said through the phone.
Spreading open her dry lips, Olya made an indefinable guttural sound.
“OK, so I got sixteen guys and they estimated, well, they guessed that they’d take it apart within the day. But, here’s why I’m calling: we threw the masks into the water and they won’t fucking sink! You see the problem, six thousand masks . . . This could be bad, it’s the Moscow River, the water cops could come and, well . . . I can’t even get the car to the docks ’cause of these huge mountains of trash! Bor’, you gotta just get in touch with Samsonov so that he can drive a couple of those shit-suckers out to us, we’ll throw the masks to the bank of the river, and the shit-suckers’ll, well, suck ’em up with their pipes, right out of the water, and then . . .”
Olya dropped the phone down the building’s garbage chute.
Outside, the sun had gone behind the clouds and an occasional drop of drizzle fell down onto the city.
Olya wandered aimlessly, squeezing her left hand with her right. The dead world flowed around her and parted heavily and indifferently before her. She made it to Paveletskaya Station, saw the tram tracks spattered with rain beneath her feet, and froze.
It was pleasant to look at the steel bars of the tram tracks. They calmed her down. They were calming. They flowed, flowed, and flowed. They were cold and heavy. They were in no rush. They moved properly and steadily, one always parallel to the next. They were like a ski run laid down by good, kind people, honest and reliable people, brave and attentive, who knew how to have a good laugh, knew many, oh so many! proper and heroic stories, who knew many physical and chemical formulas, who knew many, oh so many! wonderful songs to play on the guitar, songs about geologists and climbers, about beautiful and inaccessible alpine peaks, peaks covered over in snow, white snow, sparkling snow, snow that never melts, cold snow, kind snow, eternal snow.
Olya walked along the tram tracks toward the center of the city. Her legs moved of their own accord, taking her deeper and deeper into the rain-washed metropolis.
The rain stopped and the timid sun peeked out from behind the clouds.
Olya slowly made her way to Novy Arbat Avenue, bought ice cream, looked at it, threw it into the trash, turned, walked past the Shchukin Institute, and turned down a lane.
Suddenly, something blankly familiar drew her gaze. She saw a red-brick café, recently built. In the window sat the man in a white blazer Olya had seen in Burmistrov’s office.
Two other men were sitting at the table with White Jacket: a tall, broad-shouldered, blond man and a skinny man with close-set eyes. Olya recognized the second man right away: Simferopol–Moscow, the vestibule, Burmistrov on his knees, the picture lying at Olya’s feet. A tattoo on his wrist.
“IRA . . .” pronounced Olya.
The three of them were eating and chatting.
Olya walked into the café. The bartender gave her an indifferent look as he poured a beer.
The café was filled with cigarette smoke and ugly people. There were many open places to sit. The table where White Jacket and IRA were sitting was in the corner. Olya sat at an uncleared table nearby, her back turned to them.
The blondie stood up and left.
White Jacket finished his beer and lit up. IRA was chewing.
“With the first one, everything’s cool, so don’t resend anything. Got it? But you should resend the second one, the white one.”
“Yeah, I get that, but why the fuck . . .”
“Stop wasting time, we don’t have much of it.”
“Right when they get it, right away.”
“That’s right, motherfucker.”
They stopped talking. The blondie came back not long after, wiping his wet hands with a napkin.
“I always take a dump after I do business.”
“That’s just fuckin’ natural law . . .” IRA chewed. “I took a shit this morning. Hey, didn’t he have a dacha too?”
“Yeah. In Malakhovka,” replied White Jacket. “But I don’t remember the address. And anyway it wasn’t that . . . I guess it was all right. The house wasn’t great, but it was on a good piece of land.”
“Find the address.”
“It’s not goin’ anywhere.”
“OK, let’s have a little drink then . . .”
The carafe made a glugging sound as they poured the vodka.
“Here’s to Boris the Sucker havin’ somethin’ to drink and someone to fuck on the other side!”
“Mhmm . . .”
They drank and began to eat.
Olya looked at the dirty, sauce-covered butter knife next to her hand. Touched its rounded edge. Then opened her purse, rummaged through it, pulled out a pair of nail clippers, stood up, walked over to White Jacket, who was still chewing, and with all her remaining strength stabbed him in the neck with the clippers.
“Ow!” cried the man, as if he’d been stung by a bee, and grabbed the clippers buried in his neck with both hands.
The blond man jumped up like lightning, knocking down his chair in the process. He leaped over to Olya, brought his hands to his chest like a kangaroo and, with terrifying force, kicked her in her left side. Nobody had ever injured Olya like that. She flew back, hit the wall, and slid down to the floor. IRA stood up, a pistol suddenly in his hand.
“Ow! Ow! O-w-w!” White Jacket cried, getting up from the table.
Everyone in the café was silent, staring dumbly at the events unfolding in front of them.
Olya didn’t lose consciousness from the brutal kick, but found herself unable to breathe. Her heart throbbed. Leaning against the wall, she touched the left side of her torso. She felt a terrible and unexpected depression where her ribs seemed to have cracked. Shaking and hiccupping, Olya attempted to inhale even a drOp, even a drOp, even a drOOOOOOOOOOp of air, but the air wouldn’t come in-in-into her mouth and it was like an abortion
like an abortion
and a drO
they’re pink they’re red
they’re burning and pEEErfect
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“grandma, when will my boobs grow?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“the little hedgehog carries the mushroom.”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“don’t fuckin’ pull it, it’ll knock out the glue!”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“Olya, what’s going on with this sonatina?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“the bitch was with him!”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“but Rudik showed Anka some stupid things.”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“Should we bathe Olenka on the terrace, Nadya?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“to the wall, assholes!”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“Natashka’s cat gave birth to five kittens.”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“Give back the jump rope, Ol!”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“i won’t do it anymore, Mommy.”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“i won’t anymore, Mommy.”
“DID THEY ANESTHETIZE SLAVINA?”
“i won’t, Mommy.”
The blondie held up White Blazer, who was moaning because of the clippers sticking out of his neck. The bartender put a napkin to his busted lip. Two men in athletic clothing were chewing something or another, standing by the wall with their hands in the air. A beer bottle rolled across the floor. IRA shifted the pistol to his left hand and pulled a fluted awl out of its leather sheath. Walked over to Olya. Kneeled down precipitously. The awl went into Olya’s heart.
But she couldn’t feel anything anymore.
— Translated from the Russian by Max Lawton