Yuz Aleshkovsky; Translated by Tamara Glenny

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

LET'S BEGIN at the beginning, Kolya, though I really have no idea whether this ridiculous story can have a beginning or an end at all ...
That year--1949--I was the unhappiest man on earth. Maybe in the whole solar system. Of course I was the only one who knew this, but then personal unhappiness isn't like being world famous--you don't need the recognition of all mankind for it.
So here goes. It was Monday and I was on my way over to the workshop with a bunch of veils I'd finished, when the phone rang. I fooled around with the veils to show I was still some use to society even if I was disabled--that's what those workshops are all about, anyway--and I kind of liked dripping those little black drops of India ink on the cotton net. It's peaceful; you sit, you drip, you remember the good times--drinking that great White Horse scotch with the chief of customs in Singapore, for instance.
So the phone rings, long distance. I pick it up. "Gulyaev speaking," I say cheerfully. "Alias Sidorov,alias Katzenelenbogen, von Patoff, Ekrantz, Petyan-chikov, alias Etcetera!"
"Forget the jokes, you reactionary jerk," a voice replies. I turn quietly toward the window. I won't be seeing freedom much longer, I can tell, so I'd better get a good look at it now.
"Be here in exactly one hour. There'll be a pass waiting for you. Twenty-four hours in the cooler for every minute you're late. And no faking temporary insanity this time, either. That theory of yours about the two Gauguins and a Repin disappearing from that actress's bedroom by centrifugal force from the earth's rotation won't work. It won't work! Capito, Citizen Etcetera?"
"I have to bring my things?" I ask.
"Right," says this KGB louse, after a pause. "And bring some Indian tea, grade A. I don't have time to shop. We'll brew some chifir."
The asshole slams down the receiver, and I stand there listening to the mournful beeping: beep-beep-beep, sharp little splinters piercing your heart. Then I yanked the receiver out by its roots--believe it or not, it went on beeping by itself on the floor for a whole minute. Like it was breathing its last. And why not? Our nails and beards go on growing after we die, right? Hey, Kolya, if I croak before you do--please God--you put an Era electric shaver and a pair of nail clippers in my coffin, okay?
But you know as well as I do--if we reacted to these official screwups like big executives or certain Jews, we'd both have had twenty heart attacks and strokes and colon cancers by now. I kicked the dead receiver under the couch. I have to rejoice in the momentsleft to me before I give myself up for Christ knows what--or how long. God, Kolya, I can still remember every second of those two hours it took me to get to the Lubyanka. They were some seconds--even the fractions of the seconds and the fractions of the fractions. I had to say goodbye to all those dear faces in my family album, didn't I? And I had to get a last look at those free sparrows hopping around outside the window. I wiped the poplar-blossom fluff off the Van Gogh. I decided where to stash the gold and the dough. But fuck the utility bills, if you'll excuse the expression. Academician Nesmeyanov, that great chemist, can pay for the gas and let Einstein himself pay for the electricity--that's his specialty.
After that, I got everything ready for my return to freedom--set the table for two with the cognac bottle a bit closer to my place. It crossed my mind that there'd be a few more stars on the label after I'd done my stretch. One year, one star, hey, this brandy's going to be Special, Extra Special--but even if it gets to be Napoleon I'll get out to drink it. I'll be drinking to my lifeblood with that sweet young thing in the white pinafore down there on the street, skipping out of school--she went into the bakery for something.
I didn't bother making the bed. Why waste precious minutes, like pennies stuck in a piggybank? If things go right, someday I'll have another chance to make it. Then I sat down for a moment like you're supposed to before a long trip. Only fifteen minutes since the phone call. I said a little prayer. Switched off the refrigerator. Then I saw a bedbug. You know, I was going to squash it, Kolya? Then I felt kind of sorry for it. Excuse me, I said. I'm going off to Horror Country--there won't beanyone around to bite for a while. You have my pity, you little living creature, for you were meant to live five hundred years and now you're going to kick off prematurely. No blood ration, see? So I scooped up the little sucker and carefully pushed it under my neighbor Zoya's door. That took another half a minute at least. Then I took the geranium out to the kitchen, packed my suitcase, and left the house.
Well, get this. I leave the house, I stand at the entrance, and I can't move. I mean, my legs aren't weak, they just won't move. Why should they, when you think about it? They can't choose which way they're going. The route's been mapped out by Lieutenant Colonel Kidalla, and who wants to go anywhere when there's no choice about it. I know, Kidalla said one hour, plus twenty-four in the cooler for every minute you're late. But what the hell. No problem. My soul's as peaceful as my legs. Lieutenant Colonel Kidalla has mapped the route for my soul, too--the way, the path, the highway, it doesn't matter. You might say my destiny.
I went, in the end, but kind of without noticing it. Life had given me such a kick in the nuts, Kolya, I swear to God I couldn't tell if I existed or not. Then some old bag jumps out at me on the street. Thinks I'm giving the Karpo Marx portrait in a grocery-store window a funny look.
"I've had my eye on you," this snake says. "If you're not one of us, you should go right along and report yourself to the authorities. Maybe," this four-eyed cootie goes on, "you don't care for the way the world's changed? Then you'd better say so! Here and now! I've seen your type before--gutless know-it-alls, giving us the finger behind our backs, besmirching your enemywith impotent spit and thinking you're such big shots!"
Then this old douchebag called me "a worthless good-for-nothing." But the really terrible part, Kolya, was that she wouldn't stop. She had to know whose side I was on. So I talked through my nose like I had the clap and told her my side was where the furniture was older and softer. I was headed for the VD clinic for a Wassermann test subsequent to fornication with an attractive descendant of native remnants of capitalism. I purposely spat all over her face; it occurred to me it wouldn't be a bad idea to get busted for something ordinary like hooliganism--Article 74. But if the Cheka's after you they'll poke through every nook and cranny in the gulag, peek up the asshole of every town in the boonies if they have to. They find whoever they're looking for.
About the furniture. I pulled this dressing table here out of one of the Kiev street barricades in 1916. It's worth as much as a Volga sedan on the black market. But I haven't sold it, buddy, and I'm never going to. Marie-Antoinette in person used to sit behind it when she combed her hair.
So tell me, Kolya, what's happening to our planet? Why are they chopping the heads off queens? Why? What for? And some old bag doesn't like the way I eyeballed Karpo's picture! Don't tell me to keep cool. I'm not an epileptic. My nerves are stronger than the armature on the Stalingrad hydroelectric plant. Here's looking at you, kid. Down the hatch! Thank God you and I are normal. Just remember, the normal guys are the patient ones, the ones who carefully dismantle the barricades when all the hellish racket's over,so that not even one leg of a simple, battered old Viennese chair gets knocked off. And the abnormal ones are the other way around: those scumbags who think they know just what they want out of life. But what can they want, those guys who drag chairs out of houses onto the cobblestones? People relax on those chairs! They drag out tables as well, Kolya--the same tables our fellow human beings eat, nosh, feed, munch, gobble, in a word, nourish themselves at! And then finally they drag beds out on the muddy streets: divans and ottomans and couches and inner-spring mattresses and straw pallets, the stuff we spend a third--some of us a half, even--of our lives on, what we use for the wedding night, the deathbed, for sick people, for hurt people to weep on, for mothers to give birth on, for lovers to screw on. I tell you, they're abnormal. Plus they're always squabbling about who should be on which side of the barricades.
But that's enough about them.
I got rid of the old bag and hit the road again. Marching along in a farewell bid to freedom and liberty. Breathing in that good old carbon monoxide. Sipping at a glass of seltzer. Smoking Herzegovina Flor, just like Big Brother up there in the Kremlin, who loves it so much. Checking out the chicks. Bye! So I mosey along, not wasting a second of the time I've got left, like I said, not even a fraction of those seconds. As I got nearer the Lubyanka I started to feel like that guy on Death Row who'd been given a crust and told it's his last piece of bread on earth. This guy was a physicist--a sly old fox. He divided the crust into pieces, and the pieces into pellets, and the pellets into crumbs. The executioner's begging him to finish.
"Hey, quicker, asshole. I should have settled your hash hours ago--it's quitting time, for chrissake."
But the guy says, "The law says I can chew my last crumb. Leave me alone, goddamn it, or I'll call the public prosecutor. You got any water to go with this?"
So what could the executioner do? He brings him a mug of water. The guy pops a crumb in his mouth, rolls it around with his tongue, sucks it, smacks his lips, weeps with the pleasure of his hunger for life. The executioner's really steamed, he's bitching about missing the Spartacus v. Army hockey game and how he has guests coming over from the Irkutsk jail. But the guy's threatened not to sign his death warrant if he stops him from munching his bread and drinking his water. You know, not even Beria himself, in person, had the right to prevent a condemned man from consuming his food. He liked pretty rules, was what it was. For instance, before looking up a zek's ass, the inspector had to say, "Excuse me, Citizen or Citizeness So-and-so." Unfortunately, this rule doesn't get observed too often in our country. In practice, they only used it for Tupolev, Korolyov, and Voznesensky, the chairman of State Planning.
Anyway, the executioner waits one hour, two, four--he's threatening to shoot the guy some special way they only showed him at the continuing-education classes--he calls the authorities, but no way they'd give permission to shoot until the condemned man's eaten his last crumb and swallowed the last drop of water. Finally, he doesn't have a single crumb left. But get this, Kolya. This physicist announces, "Now I'll start on the molecules, and then the atoms." And he threatened the executioner again that he'd let the bosses know that the executioner had actually denied the existenceof matter--that he'd objectively shown himself to be a Trojan horse of subjective idealism in our model top-security jail, by demonstrating criminal doubt about the officially recognized structure of the material world. The fucking executioner turned yellow and his eyes overflowed with green pus. He said to the guy, "Let's see you gobble when there isn't an atom left, you bastard. You're as good as dead."
So the guy says, "Then, with your permission, I'll start on the electron, which is, in Lenin's own words, practically inexhaustible. You may disagree, and then let's see how the Ministry of State Security's department of theoretical physics reacts to this kind of provocation. Looks like we have an entrenched case of obscurantism here," he adds. "See how slyly it's established itself and is shooting the most committed materialists in the head!"
You better believe it, Kolya, twenty hours went by like this. Twenty hours of life from 300 grams of stale bread and a mug of water! Then--zap--they commuted the condemned man's sentence to twenty-five years and took him away to a "research institution." Alive. And why? Because you should never be in too much of a hurry for anything.
Well, there I was, like the condemned physicist, sucking on my last precious seconds like caramels, and I suddenly understood, man, I knew that my time on the outside had run out. Goodbye, Freedom Time, I said, and I'll tell you, I was shaking with fear. I was shaking because it's pretty scary crossing over into Jail Time just like that. But when I'd done it--asking for my pass at the window, walking up the steps, shaking some general's hand (he stared at me for the longesttime, I guess trying to decide which industry I was minister of), putting a smile on my face so I'd look good, knocking on the door with the yellow sign saying KIDALLA, I. I. lettered in red--when I'd done it I guess my fear just melted away. I was even a little curious--what did this red jack stand for in my deck? I go in. "Greetings," I say, "to a cool head and a warm heart!"
"Come in, come in, Citizen Etcetera. Remember I promised you twenty-four hours in the cooler for every minute's delay, faggot?"
"Sure I remember, Citizen Prosecutor for Special Cases," I say. "But I regret to inform you that you can't pull that number on me today. You told me to pick up a package of Indian tea, and the stores are closed for lunch from one till two. Hence the delay. Excusez-moi."
"What do you mean, lunch?" He was just a baby when it came to the ordinary details of living, Kolya. But what do you expect from a guy who spent his whole life interrogating, nothing but interrogations around the clock until he was due for a vacation. Guys like us count our lives by days and nights--they count theirs by vacations. Which was why I had to explain to Kidalla what "lunch break" meant, while inside I was rejoicing about grabbing a whole extra hour for myself. I'm no sucker--I brought the tea from my apartment. Then we stared at each other for the longest time. We were remembering the first time we met, long before the war, when Kidalla caught me and my buddy red-handed at the Kievsky train station.
It was a dumb job, but it called for Comrade Cutthroat. Some little speculator's wife had been begging me to rub out her husband--for a lot of dough. I haveto admit I was screwing her, Kolya, but I didn't care for the job, although I made like I'd go along with it. Frankly, I was pretty pissed that after several acts of sexual intercourse, the only impression I'd managed to make on her was that I was a hired assassin. I wanted to punish both of them--teach her not to two-time her husband and him to keep his eyes open when he marries a dirty double-crosser. I worked out a plan and the whiskery old pussy okayed it. First my pal and I would rub out the hubby. Then we'd cut him up and send off bits of his carved-up body to his bloodthirsty rivals.
"They wanted to chew up my darling Gulyenka--so let them. It's on me!" said the widow-to-be. She sashayed off to set up her alibi at Swan Lake and promised to come up with the dough only when she was convinced her Gulyenka had been bumped off. Fine. So when the dying swan's doing her dance I sneak into the box and flash the widow a hairy hand that my partner bought for a bottle of vodka at the morgue. Boy, you could buy and sell anything in those Roaring Twenties, Kolya. So in the intermission she sneaks me a little sack with gold and five sparklers in it. I cut and run. The diamonds were as big as the ones on a general's star. Then my buddy and I had to settle what to do with our cold dead hand. He said we should leave it in Lenin's tomb with a note saying some Komsomol kids had cut it off a right-wing deviationist. But I wasn't buying it.
"Why lose the chance of doing a good deed?" I say. "Let's give it to a lion or a tiger for dinner."
We squeezed through a gap in the fence around thezoo. It was quiet as a labor camp after lights-out. We go up to the tiger's cage. The beast's in dreamland.
"Hey, kitty kitty. We brought you a present. Wake up, dinnertime! Kitty kitty!"
The animal woke up and roared. I shoved the dead hand through the bars. I can tell you, Kolya, when that big pussycat sniffed our modest little present it just purred with surprise and pleasure, thanked us with a slightly sweeter look, and then started wolfing down the useless extremity. Poor creature, locked up in a cage for life--its tummy was rumbling. Personally, I think it was just weeping with happiness. Finally it had the chance to get its teeth into the flesh of its mortal enemy and persecutor, man.
The animals in the neighboring cages smelled something and kicked up a row. Howls, roars, growls, gnashing of teeth, lashing of tails--I mean pandemonium. We beat it pronto. But our little gesture of generosity was the end of officially sanctioned private enterprise in the Soviet Union, Kolya. No kidding. That's pure historical truth, even if it's got those dumb historians baffled. It's like this. In the morning the keeper found an index finger near the cage. The tiger probably flicked it away with its tail, or maybe just didn't want to eat it on principle. The keeper was no dope. He took it straight to the head of the Cheka. Deposited the finger on Yezhov's desk. Yezhov said, "Aha!" and ran off to Stalin with it.
"Look, Joseph Vissarionovich," he says. "This is how the right-wing and Leninist bourgeoisie show their insolence. Three store managers killed Binezon, a party member--he caught them concealing profits and evadingtaxes. They killed him and fed him to the lions, tigers, panthers, and leopards a little piece at a time. Last night. This index finger's all that's left. His wife and some local party colleagues identified it. Binezon wagged it at them more than once when he caught them negotiating deals."
"Symbolic, isn't it. Comrade Binezon leaving behind an index finger, not a miserable little pinky. The enemy will never feed the party and the Central Committee to the wild beasts. We're Bolsheviks, not early Christians. The Soviet Union isn't ancient Rome. They can't have it both ways. That's the end of this New Economic Policy. Brush up on industrialization and collectivization. You've got your orders," said Stalin.
So you see, Kolya, if I hadn't fed Binezon's hand to the tiger that night, Russian history could have gone a totally different route and private enterprise would have beaten out that dumb, bloody, Stalinist socialism. It's all my fault and I'll never forgive myself. Anyway, we hightailed it out of that zoo and picked up a couple of broads. I'd just goosed this conductress I knew and given her our tickets when I hear those fatal words "Hands up!"
I put 'em up. It was Kidalla who frisked me--he was only a lieutenant in those days. Here's what happened, Kolya. That cheap hooker the speculator's wife took some stud straight home with her after Swan Lake. Just picture her reaction: he's on top of her, she's moaning away, going to come any second--and I'll tell you, she never came easily--when wham, in walks her husband, alive and well, three hundred stark-naked pounds of him, cock standing at attention. Well, he sees a prettyamazing tableau unfolding right there on his little old bed. The boyfriend--they found out he was a jittery left-wing deviationist--hollered "Halt! Who goes there?" and pumped some hot lead into Gulyenka on the spot. He wanted to scram, of course, but no such luck. The bitch gripped him between her thighs like a vise, and wouldn't let go till she came.
Then she made him tie her up and beat her, to complete the picture. The stud did as he was told, gave the widow what she'd been asking for, and took off. She kicked up a terrible racket, and along came the Cheka. So that's how I met Kidalla. That miserable hustler Kitty gave him me and my buddy's descriptions and cooked up an incredible story about how we'd viciously raped her, poor baby, right in front of her dear husband. Then we'd blown him to bits, swiped all the valuables, raped her again, tied her up, and beat it. They really throw the book at you for that kind of rap. All the evidence was against us. Can you imagine it? Of course, I didn't know at the time what had really happened, so I testified to Kidalla that we'd doped Gulyenka with chloroform, lifted his signet ring, and made off. Of course, we'd be glad to confess to fraud, blackmail, and purchasing a dead hairy hand from the pilferers of personal property at the morgue.
"We've got a cast-iron alibi," I told Kidalla.
"I've got a blowtorch that'll melt your cast-iron alibi," Kidalla replied.
To which I riposted, "I've got a ray gun that's bigger than your blowtorch!"
For that, I got an ashtray (once used by Stolypin) on the cranium. I wiped the blood off and stuck to mystory. "We had better things to do than kill the old guy. And you want to make this a felony, but with the rape it's a political offense. What's the game?"
Just then Kogan the dentist arrived. While Gulyenka was being murdered, my pal and I were passing Kogan a little gold for his cavities. Thank the Lord that Jews have always loved to bargain! We haggled for two hours straight. And Kidalla wasn't in a position to doubt a guy who'd made false teeth for Lenin, Bukharin, Rykov, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. He's hesitating--thinking about it.
"Lay a trap for her," I suggest. "Tell her you found pubic hairs in her antique bed. They aren't Gulyenka's or mine or my buddy's, they belong to someone the agency's after for the attempted assassination of Krupskaya and Zemlyachka. And tell her if she denies it she'll be up for aiding and abetting an enemy of the people," I added.
I have to admit, Kolya, that cunt amazed me. She stuck to her story when we had the official confrontation. "They raped me, they murdered him, they stole everything!" Then, in a stroke of genius, I asked her, "Did you or did you not come during the first and second violations?"
She blushed and stammered, and said, "Yes, I did." This was taken down in evidence. Then I said, "How could you testify that the rapes lasted five minutes each and say you came both times, when according to my personal information it actually takes you at least forty-seven minutes to come? Something doesn't fit here." I demanded they conduct an experiment on Kitty and me, but she caved in before we could start and gave them the description of her stud. They picked him upthe next day, watching Raymonda at the Bolshoi. This time Kidalla got the right guy--he really had gone there to shoot Kaganovich (a great ballet fan, so they tell us). So he threw me and my pal out and didn't press charges. But the bastard said I owed him one.
After that, he hauled me in a couple of times, at the Ethiopian embassy and a diplomat's dacha in the Crimea. Both times he let me go. "Out, dear Etcetera" --he liked this best of all my aliases--"until the time comes. I'm saving you for a very important case," he said.
Translation copyright © 1986 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.