When everything in the house is upside down and all mixed up, it means only one thing: we’ve got company. It doesn’t matter how many guests there are — one or thirty-one — before their arrival, the home and hearth are squeaky clean, like the squeaky clean of a plate of leftover fried chicken legs after a dog has licked it — not a speck or a drop left behind. Grandma Rosa runs around with a dust broom, Mama with a mop. Grandpa Yankel scrubs the toilet bowls until they are blindingly white and polishes the taps until they gleam. Meanwhile, Great-Grandma Genya chases after everyone with extra brooms, mops and polishing cloths while giving each cleaner invaluable helpful hints. This running around with brooms goes on for several days until one fine morning the long-awaited guests burst into the house and, like the years of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, his Highness Mayhem takes the throne.
In the end, tablecloths got mixed up with curtains, the aquarium fish went into the three-liter pickle jar and the pickles went into the aquarium; a crooked pile of dirty dishes rose towards the clouds like the Tower of Pisa, and bits of food were on the plates, on the tablecloth, under the table, on the rug, under the rug and on the ceiling. This was our house after the warm greetings, embraces, questions-interrogations-answers, the endless “We haven’t raised our glasses to…” and “Why haven’t you tried my… it took me hours to make…” and all the rest. Let’s be honest here: our house in the morning was like a train station, or to be more exact — the cafeteria in a train station.
Something’s really bothering me, but Mama tells me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare ask!”
The thing is, these relatives say they’re coming for two days, but judging by the number of suitcases they brought, it looks like they’re moving in with us. How can I not ask?
Pickles, tomatoes and homemade sour cabbage have gotten all mixed up together in a deep salad bowl and released their juices, which are now plopping from the table edge like drops off the roof of a house. I already know that Uncle Yosya will wake up soon and demolish the contents — which he calls “what the Lord created on the eighth day.” “Frosya, you think tzimmes is a mixed fruit stew? This is real tzimmes! When you grow up, you’ll understand!”
Uncle Yosya always says that. He’s Grandma Rosa’s cousin. As he gargles with a magical potion, he unconsciously scratches his left butt cheek and then goes back to the television, where Dnestr — his favorite Odessan football team — is losing again, while he, despite everything, remains their fan, going on 35 years now. He was never as faithful to any of his previous five wives as he is to that team.
Being at home is good, but being at home is best when no one else is there. This happens rarely — it almost never happens — but there is a way around it: wake up when everyone else is still sleeping. I always get up earlier than everyone else. I wander through the halls, through the rooms, through Grandma’s closet, Grandpa’s study, and Papa’s atelier. I stick my nose in the corners, in the closets, in forbidden books. I channel surf with the remote. I try on Mama’s beads, Papa’s boots, and Grandma’s knickers.
I love to do that — try things on. One time, just once — and then return them to their lawful owner. I love new movies, new books, new people, new things, new tastes, sounds, smells — anything that will make me say: “What was that? Can I try it again? Give me one more piece, play another note, read it again…”
It’s like getting your ears boxed, or your face slapped; like a bucket of cold water, but not really painful.
“Let me touch it again, let me take another peek, let’s get to know one another, all right?”
Routine is good. Routine is the triad of whales that hold up the earth, it’s the skeleton, you see? The foundation is there, and that’s wonderful, so now think about what to put on it, what to build. Routine combined with something new — for me, that’s good reason to be happy with life, and if on top of it all you wake up before everyone else, and you greet the new day with a sense of your solitude but the knowledge that there, behind the wall, and here, behind the door, and up there on the second floor are sleeping people — annoying people who constantly ask questions, endlessly drone on, tell me what to do and won’t let me take a breath on my own — but also the people I love and feel closest to — then life seems even better.
I am standing in my bare feet — which grown-ups don’t allow — on the white tile floor in the bathroom. In front of me next to the sink are a row of little soldiers on parade: three beveled glasses, a cup, and one deep soup bowl. In each of these are dentures. A lot of dentures in the bathroom of our house in Pushcha-Voditsa means only one thing: our relatives have come to visit. I wouldn’t be me if I walked by this still life. Why should teeth be white anyway? We have to fix that. It’s good that I have watercolors – red, blue, yellow, and lots of green. And who said you’re supposed to have thirty-two teeth? Twenty sounds like plenty to me. I’ve got big plans. I brought in my paints and got a hammer… I put all the dentures in a hat. I close my eyes and pull one out. I hold it in my hands and am just about ready to make the unsuspecting owner of these dentures very happy… no, no… no need to thank me. And then, as usual, at the most interesting moment… I hear footsteps. Footsteps mean that the grown-ups have woken up and I’m not the head of the household anymore. I look in the hat where the dentures are all mixed up, like cabbage with cucumbers and tomatoes — remember Uncle Yosya’s favorite dish? And so, like a shot I shove the dentures every which way in the glasses and then run out into the garden.
In a few minutes I hear a shout from the bathroom, then a second, and then a third.
“Frosya! Frosya! What have you done now?! Where is that little shit?” Uncle Yosya and Aunt Eva shout in unison, and then Grandma Rosa, Grandpa Yankel and Great-Grandma Genya join in.
Trying on each other’s teeth brought them closer together. Just that once, just one time. Now give the dentures back to their real owners! You don’t have to thank me. There isn’t a single word of gratitude in all your shouting. But if you calm down, when you breathe evenly and go deep down — that is, when you don’t do what you usually do, which is stay on the surface, your eyes on the top layer, without breaking the eggshell and getting down to the yolk, to the very heart of things — if you stop doing that, well then, we might have something to talk about.
My big plans to refurbish the dentures have not been cancelled, just postponed. Don’t worry about me — I’m up in a tree. They can’t get me up here. A dust brush sailed by a few times, and then a broom almost hit me. A polishing cloth missed me and ended up on the top branches like the star on a New Year’s tree. The shouting, moral education, and things thrown at me would have continued for a long time if Aunt Eva hadn’t arrived. She is the sixth wife of Uncle Yosya, and a real beauty. They came together from Odessa, but she spent the first night with a friend she hadn’t seen in a long time. A girlfriend. If you believe Aunt Eva.
“Hello, my dearies! Say hello! Here I am! I made it! I found you… I didn’t get lost. I brought what I promised. I bought what you asked for! Pour me a glass! Fill up my plate! Make yourselves comfortable and give me some love. I’ve missed you!”
Her words — the familiar, standard words she always says and that I love to hear — they saved me.
Aunt Eva came to take a refresher course, and Uncle Yosya came to keep an eye on her. She is a long-legged blonde with big eyes and a pretty chest. Oh, I mean the other way around – pretty eyes and a big chest. She is 20 years younger than her husband. Uncle Yosya is short, with bandy legs, a little bit bald and a great bit overweight. “How can she sleep with him?” All the grown-ups ask that question. But always in a whisper, for some reason. If breakfast is a big bowl of homemade farmer’s cheese with sour cream and jam made of sea-buckthorn berries — that means Aunt Eva has come to stay. That’s what she does — she makes a big bowl of farmer’s cheese for everyone and then dashes off to her courses. Uncle Yosya gets very worried.
“The day will come when I wake up, and instead of Eva there will be a note on the pillow: ‘Forgive me, farewell, do not weep for me.’”
Early in the morning I’m woken up by the sound of howling. Uncle Yosya is sitting on the veranda, his shirt open, crying and drinking at the same time. “His favorite football team lost again,” I thought, and fell back asleep.
When I woke up an hour later, Aunt Eva was sitting on the veranda, smoking and crying at the same time.
“My dear, he’s not worth it!” Mama hugged Aunt Eva, and my aunt cried even harder. “One leaves, another arrives. You’re so pretty!” Mama went on.
Aunt Riva is bewildered. “Can you believe it?! If it were the other way around, it would make sense. It would be logical. But Yosya… Where is he going to go on those short little legs of his? He’s short of breath, he’s got an infected appendix, and he spouts a load of nonsense every time he opens his mouth!”
Aunt Riva is Great-Grandma Genya’s cousin. She always arrives without warning and want us to be happy to see her.
“So, you are happy to see me, eh?”
“Happy. Very happy.”
“So where is this happiness on your face? You want I should leave?” And then, without waiting for a reply, “Genya, do you hear them? They are not happy to see me.”
Aunt Riva is not an easy person. Once my parents and I stayed with her in Moscow. Every morning and every evening she counted all the spoons, forks, carafes and money. Until she retired, Aunt Riva was a math teacher. I think that’s where her habit came from.
“Frosya, you get TWO cheese pancakes (stress on “two”). Pyotr, you get THREE. Bella, you get TWO AND A HALF. Pyotr, how many spoons of tsuker?
“Aunt Riva, thanks, but I’ll help myself to sugar.”
“No, Pyotr. Let me! So how many? Bella, how many for you?”
“Aunt Riva, I drink tea without sugar.”
“Excellent!” Riva replied in a tone close to adoration.
“Aunt Riva, could you pass me the box of sugar cubes? I like to suck on them,” I say.
Thanks to me, that evening Aunt Riva had valerian drops instead of cheese pancakes. Forty drops. Exactly forty. Don’t doubt it. Aunt Riva counted out the drops herself.
A week has passed since Uncle Yosya disappeared to run after “who-do-you-think-his-next-one-is.” I wake up to voices in the yard. I look out the window. Under the tree where I usually hide from grown-ups were Yosya and Eva.
“Eva, sweetheart, I love only you!”
“Why did you go to that other woman?”
“I needed a raise.”
“In what – your qualifications?”
“In my sense of self, Eva dear, my sense of self.”
Yosya begins to cry again, laying his bald head on Eva’s large breasts while his short little legs flutter above the ground and his fat little hands wrap tightly around Aunt Eva’s tiny waist. With one hand the beautiful blonde pets her husband’s bald spot, with the other she makes him farmer’s cheese for breakfast. Being alone is hard, not being not alone is hard, too… When can a person be happy?
Eva and Yosya left for Odessa together.
In my notebook I drew their portrait: Uncle Yosya’s little legs are all tangled up with Aunt Eva’s long legs. Eva wants to run away. She struggles, but she can’t. So they stand there in place. Together.
*“Being Frosya Shneerson” is a stand-alone chapter from “An Ocean in a Three-Liter Jar” by Tasha Karlyuka. The book has recently released at Gorodets Publishing House, Moscow.
In front of me, I put a ream of white paper, a copper inkwell and a feather I snatched from my neighbour’s duck. I lit a candle and stuck it in the middle of the table. I rested my chin on my fingertips, planted my elbows on the edge of the table and leaned on them. I was completely naked. Droplets of sweat ran from the base of my neck down to my buttocks where I’d stop feeling them, others resuming the same journey from the neck down. I held my breath and waited for the Revelation.
Ten minutes, half an hour, an hour, nothing happened. A stinky smell rose from my body, my ass grew tired of my sweat and my weight. I blew out the candle in despair, turned on the fan and threw myself on the bed, exhausted.
I woke up in distress with a heavy head and stiff limbs. I glanced at my papers hoping they had been filled. But of course they hadn’t – the time for miracles has passed. I staggered to the bathroom and peed standing up, watching with a meaningless attention the yellowish stream of urine. I got under the shower, eyes closed and listened to the water as it splashed and fought my dirty body. Archimedes too was naked when touched by the Revelation, but alas I didn’t have the luxury of a bathtub.
It was almost 10:00pm when I phoned my widowed neighbour, a hand on my flaccid penis. She answered in a whisper, she was sorry, she had guests. I cursed her with the crudest words. She hung up on me. I needed to let off steam; some idea might jump to mind. I walked around the house and finished my dinner, forcing myself to swallow it while imagining my hungry blood cells rushing from every part of my body to pile up in my stomach, only to find a cold piece of cheese and dry bread. I choked with laughter.
The next afternoon, I sat in my favourite corner of the coffee shop, right at the back, where I could watch the world go by for hours; the people, the waiter’s movements, how he handled customers’ orders; the ringing of the brass bracelets on his wrist, the clank of his many rings hitting the table as he put down plates. Despite his thick beard, and without tangible evidence, I suspected he was gay. I gulped a glass of water down my empty stomach, then cracked my back sensing the pain in its lower part. The night before had been stressful, I hadn’t slept at all and I had worked all night in vain. I had lots of unused cans of paints, so I piled them up against a wall and using an old brush, started painting randomly. The mixed strands of colours clashed on the wall and the place filled with the intoxicating smell of paint. Then I stood still in front of the mural, holding a paper and a pen. I let my eyes wander over the colours, hoping that an idea might pop out of my head. As if I, who had painted this, was part of a surrealist artwork that could be praised by critics and sold for a high price at auction in Europe.
I felt that thoughts eluded me, distracted by the overlapping colours, so I decided to paint the wall a single shade. White, red and blue jostle in front of me. I chose a dark green, hoping that all the African jungles would appear before me, with monkeys’ wrangles, reckless gazelles, lazy lions and dancing tribes. But the green only revealed an unfortunate mosquito stuck on the viscous paint, so I stayed there watching it die.
In the coffee shop the number of clients increased, elderly people who had missed the train of creativity, creative young men whose writings could not find a way to the mind of critics replete with classics. Others who put the word penis between each word, those in search of a haven or a public, bohemians with a nasty smell that filled the nose, and indeed me, the novelist whose three novels had no more effect than a stone thrown in a river. My back pain increased. I cursed Dan Brown for his stupid advice. The day before – as recommended in an article I’d read – I did a headstand against the door. My ears deafened and my face filled with blood. The stupid guy alleged that such a position brought on ideas, but it only made me dizzy. I fell flat on my back, humiliated like no man in his forties should be.
I avoided looking at Abderraouf my colleague, but full of his usual nosiness, he came and stuck himself to my table. We hugged each other with false enthusiasm and started chatting. As an intellectual, when talking to your counterpart, you must puff up your chest, stare faraway at nothing, keep silent for a moment like a wise Chinese man and then use a few collocations such as assimilation, identification, Africanism and Anglo-Saxonism.
Like someone who just happens to see a funny thing on Facebook, I asked him, as I stuffed my cell phone into my pocket: Have you ever run out of inspiration?
He took a long look at me and replied: Of course not! As you know, inspiration never dries out, and I publish two books a year. Are you suffering from writer’s block?
I leaned back on the bench as if avoiding a stray arrow: No… never! But a young man has asked me for a cure for this disease.
He clasped his hands and said: Hemingway and Roth both said that the only way to get rid of writer’s block is to keep on writing.
True, I answered, silencing my anger at him and at that Hemingway.
We continued talking until Abderraouf saw a young poetess entering the coffee shop. He immediately interrupted our conversation, grabbed my soft drink and rushed toward her.
I ordered a drink from the many rings waiter, drew my pen and began fighting the white paper while sipping coffee. The waiter would bring another cup as soon as mine was empty. Once I read that “legrand écrivainVoltaire” drank forty cups of coffee while writing. Today I would smash this record and end my writer’s block. At cup ten, the waiter said to me with a sceptical look: Sir, are you sure you’d like another one?
At cup fifteen, I felt numbness in my limbs that quickly spread to my entire body. The wretched table started to spin before me, my stomach contracted and I lost control of my throat, spilling out my stomach content, a yellow bile stained with black coffee, all over the table and my shirt. Each bout of vomiting was followed by an embarrassing gas explosion. It was as if my soul was hovering on the ceiling, watching the tragedy of my body. People rallied around me to help; I saw a young drunk man pull out his phone to tweet the incident, or record it as an idea for a short story focused on my abysmal state. Eventually, I caught my breath, my heart went back to beat regularly. They suggested that I went to hospital or home, but I chose to stay where I was to pick myself up. Little by little, people’s gazes shifted away from me and I was left alone at my table with an empty mind and white paper.
Then things took a dangerous turn when a giant entered the coffee shop, barely passing through the door, his head a few inches to the ceiling, accompanied by an old woman with a loud voice and a husky manly laugh. They ignored every one’s gazes, only to stop at my table. The woman sat the giant man on two seats that could barely carry his weight, pulled herself a chair facing me, ran her left hand up and down her man’s thigh and with the right one, lit a cigarette.
I cleared my throat: Who are you? I said.
I am Bint Majzoub and this is Esteban. She said in a ringing voice.
I stared at them stupidly. Bint Majzoub was a woman of medium height with a dark skin like black velvet, who although close to seventy, still retained traces of beauty. Whereas Esteban was the tallest man one could meet, with a strong built and a kind childish face. He wore sailcloth baggy pants and a fine linen shirt. His hands were large, soft and pink, and his features Latin-American, as was his name Esteban.
Bint Majzoub called the waiter in a flirting voice, ordered milk for the giant man and tea for her. She winked at him as she indecently smacked his ass, a blow he received with an unmanly joy.
Esteban gulped his cup in one shot, while Bint Majzoub sipped her tea with a loud noise.
Who are you? What do you want?
Aren’t you a writer? Don’t you know us? I’m Bint Majzoub from the novel “Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih. And this is Esteban from “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez.
I gaped, dumfounded, and pinched my thigh under the table to make sure I was not dreaming.
Hey man, don’t look so stupidly surprised. I swear on my marriage that what I say is true. Like you, I was jailed between two book covers, but with a trick I broke free from the claws of ink and paper. I travelled the world and knew many men until I met my sweetheart Esteban. He made me forget my eight husbands and my reckless adventures. He’s got something in him stronger than a stake and more powerful than… etc.
She was, as I had read about her and as I imagined her, a licentious loquacious bothersome woman. While Esteban kept gazing placidly at his hands.
I interrupted her. What do you want from me?
While wandering, I passed you by and pitied you, my dear. You are locked into the weak story of an obscure writer. You’re a character like us, a brainchild of a writer. Unfortunately, your writer is a fameless young man and no one will read your story. Get out of this prison. Outside, the world is vast; you’ll find what will make you happy, just like I found my sweetheart.
She dragged away her silent man to whom Márquez had not given a tongue and off they went, leaving me in a complete mess.
I staggered toward the mirror and saw a bald head with an angry face looking at me with dull eyes, big ugly eyes. I had never liked my face. And who said that I liked wearing that multicoloured shirt, like a tourist on the Pacific coast? I brazenly grabbed the pen that was stuck in my collar and threw it far away, swore at the man who had created me, a failure who had thought no better than to give me a Hitler moustache. That dog who made me fuck the widow’s flabby repulsive body so many times. He made me with no family and of course with no kids, alone with my writer’s block, circling around myself in a miserable closed world, between my house and the cultural coffee shop. And then came Abderraouf to snatch my soft drink and rush away, hoping to catch that girl. I smashed the mirror with my fist; not a drop of blood was spilled. I left the coffee shop like a hurricane, pinning everyone to their chairs, these idiots who didn’t know that they were all secondary characters in a bad story. No shackles after this; I’ll leave these pages searching for other worlds. I might become a Pharaoh King or a Tibetan monk or even a French teenager, I’ll satisfy all my whims and scoop up all the joys of life, and when I’m sick of it, I’ll fly over the clouds and I’ll save an unlucky soul suffering from writer’s block, igniting in his brain an idea that would save him from madness and the shame of a headstand.
Broca’s Area: is a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left, of the brain with functions linked to speech production. (Source: Wikipedia)
Sometimes strangers come visit, friends of yours, parents themselves. I don’t have any problem with that, let them come, you have every right to invite them. But as long as they do, why do they have to visit me? What do I have to do with it? They come in, hello-hello, hugs and kisses, kisses and hugs, and straight away start in with me. The lady bends down, shoves her painted face up to mine, grins like a clown with a huge mouth, strokes my cheek, exclaims: “How big you’ve gotten!”
Big? How do you mean, ‘Big’? That’s just the way I am. That’s my size. Besides, how am I supposed to respond to that? By remarking on how old she’s gotten?
And then she says, “I can remember you when you were this small.” while miming something tablet-sized with her hands.
I’m glad you remember because I sure can’t. Can’t remember myself when I was “this small” and can’t remember you either. Never saw you before until just now. Did you come to visit my parents? Go visit them, what do you want with me? I’m a busy boy. I’m playing with my backhoe and you’re in the way.
When she’s had enough, she gets up and goes back to my parents, but then her husband comes over and I have to deal with him too. Fortunately, the husband is easier, it’s a creature with only one function. He comes close and barks, “Hey, my man! Give me five, my man!”
So I give him five, hard, already well aware that he’ll then grab his hand like it really hurts. They not so sophisticated, the husbands, you can get rid of them with one high five. Throw them a bone and never see them again.
Only after they leave me alone and go sit down with my parents for some coffee and politics can I go back to peacefully playing with the backhoe’s bucket, trying to balance a red Lego piece on it.
But it isn’t always that easy, sometimes you get the difficult cases; like when they bring their kid along.
Of course they dump him in my lap. Why do they dump him in my lap? Because we enjoy playing together? No. They dump him in my lap so that I babysit him. I couldn’t care less about their kid. He’s usually smaller than I am, gazing at me with that snot face of his, and right then and there I can see there’s going to be trouble, because I’m not going to be putting up with him for too long.
“Play together.” Mom tries to get me excited.
“Look, he has a backhoe!” the kid’s dad says.
They don’t care if we want to play together or not. For the grownups, if we’re about the same age that makes us friends by default.
Man, I’d really like to get back at them for this; to dump someone in their lap, someone their own age, someone they don’t even know, like the janitor at our kindergarten. I’d bring him home and say: “I’d like to introduce you to the janitor. You’re friends now. Look, he has a key ring with lots of keys! Play together!”
But that’s not how the world works, in this world it’s the adults that drive kids crazy, not the other way around.
When they realize it’s not going to be so easy, mom steps up her efforts: “That’s not very nice!” she scolds me, “you should share, play with the backhoe together.”
She doesn’t understand that the backhoe can’t be shared. It doesn’t work like that. It’s like if I told them to share something with the janitor, like this portfolio thing they keep talking about. I have a feeling they won’t go for that either.
When that doesn’t pan out they ignore us and hope everything will work itself out alright, sit down on their high chairs by the high table, drinking coffee.
Their kid looks at me. I give him the “It was nice not to meet you” face, turn away and add another green Lego piece to the backhoe bucket. That’s when snot-boy starts crying. He starts crying and his parents are very disappointed. Why are they disappointed? Because their kid is crying? Not at all! They’re disappointed that they must get up and deal with him because I won’t do it for them.
They come over and try to soothe him. I try to focus on the backhoe but the bucket drops and the two Lego pieces fall to the floor. Now I start to scream angrily. The kid hears and screams even louder. Mom comes over, hugs me, but I won’t be appeased, let her know these aren’t just any old tears, that they ruined my entire afternoon with their friends and snot-boy.
And then they come up with the ultimate solution: Television. When parents just can’t be bothered they switch on the TV. Mom lifts me up and sets me down on the sofa. Dad presses the remote button. My tears dry up instantly. I have no problem sharing TV with snot-boy. We sit side by side, gazing at some cartoon, doesn’t matter which, we’re not picky. TV is better than a backhoe, TV is domestic bliss.
But soon enough all that goodness comes to an end, they get up and come over, in the mood to pester us.
“What’s this? You watch too much TV, one hour is quite enough!”
Like it was our idea in the first place.
And then dad switches off the TV, and we protest, although we’re a little fed up with it ourselves. The grownups make going-away noises. And then again, hugs and kisses, kisses and hugs, goodbyes and see yous, and we’ll talk, and we’ll chat, and we’ll set a time, and we’ll get together again, and come and visit us, and you come and visit us, and we’ll go for a walk over the weekend, and we’ll go somewhere for the holidays. Then I can seize the opportunity and ask for some chocolate. And mom gives me some, she always does when there’s company over. She gives some to snot-boy too. I don’t mind, as long as I have some. I wolf down the chocolate, get my sugar rush on, and that makes the whole visit worthwhile. Now I’m happy.
Thanks to Daniel Levanto
The musician Bowzinsky was walking from town to the country house of Prince Bibulov, where an evening of music and dance was to “take place,” as they say, for an engagement party. On his back was an enormous double bass in a leather case. Bowzinsky walked along a river where cool water flowed — not majestically, it must be said, but at least quite poetically.
Suddenly he had an idea: “Why don’t I take a swim?”
Without a second thought, he stripped down and submerged his body into the cool stream. It was a magnificent evening. Bowzinsky’s poetic soul began to attune itself in harmony with his surroundings, but as he swam a hundred feet or so to the side, a sweet feeling engulfed his soul when saw a beautiful young woman sitting on the steep river bank and fishing. He went still and held his breath as a flood of disparate emotions came over him: childhood memories, a painful yearning for the past, awakening love… Good Lord! Here he’d thought that he was no longer capable of love! After he’d lost faith in humanity — his dearly beloved wife ran off with his friend, Cursky the bassoon player — his heart had been filled with a feeling of emptiness. He had become a misanthrope.
“What is life?” he had asked himself many times. “What do we live for? Life is a myth… a dream… a type of ventriloquism…”
But standing before this sleeping beauty (for it was easy to see that she was asleep), he suddenly felt, against his will, something in his heart like love. He stood before her for a long while, devouring her with his eyes…
“But enough of that…” he thought, sighing deeply. “Farewell, marvelous vision! I must be off to His Grace for a ball…”
After one last look at this beauty, he was about to swim off when an idea came to him.
“I should leave her with something to remember me by!” he thought. “I’ll tie something to her line — a surprise from an ‘unknown admirer’.”
Bowzinsky soundlessly swam to the bank, picked a large bouquet of field and water flowers, tied them together with goosefoot and then fastened it to the line.
The bouquet sank down to the river bottom, taking the pretty fishing float along with it.
Reason, the laws of nature and the social standing of my hero demand that this romance end right here, but — alas! — a writer’s fate is uncompromising: due to circumstances beyond the writer’s control, the romance did not end with the bouquet. Contrary to common sense and the nature of things, the poor and undistinguished double bass player was to play an important role in the life of this high-born and wealthy beauty.
When he swam to shore, Bowzinsky got a nasty surprise: his clothes were gone. Stolen! While he was admiring the beautiful young woman, some miscreants had taken everything save his double bass and top hat.
“Curses!” Bowzinsky shouted. “Oh, humanity — a brood of vipers! I am not as distressed by the loss of my clothes (for all is vanity, including clothing), but by the thought that I must walk on naked and, as such, offend public morality!”
He sat on his instrument case and tried to think of a way out of his terrible situation.
“I certainly can’t go naked to Prince Bibulov!” he thought. “There will be ladies present! Besides, along with my trousers, the thieves stole the bow rosin that was in the pocket!”
He agonized for so long that his head ached.
“I’ve got it!” he finally thought. “There’s a little bridge in a thicket close to the riverbank… I can sit under the bridge until it’s nightfall, and then in the evening, when it’s dark, I can make my way to the nearest cottage…”
Having decided on a path of action, Bowzinsky put on his top hat, hoisted the double bass onto his back and trundled off into the thicket. Naked, with that musical instrument on his back, he looked like an ancient, mythical demigod.
And now, gentle reader, as my hero sits under the bridge and gives in to sorrow, we shall leave him for a while and see about the girl who was fishing. What happened to her? When the beauty woke up and didn’t see her fishing float on the water, she gave a tug on the line. The line pulled tight, but the hook and float didn’t rise to the surface. Bowzinsky’s bouquet must have become water-logged and weighted down.
“Either I’ve caught a big fish,” the young woman thought, “or my line has gotten caught on something.”
After tugging on the line some more, she decided that the hook was snagged.
“What a shame!” she thought. “Fish start biting towards dusk. What can I do?”
After thinking a minute, the eccentric girl threw off her diaphanous clothing and submerged her lovely body in the stream of water up to her marble shoulders. It wasn’t easy to unsnag the hook from the bouquet that the line was tangled in, but her patience and effort paid off. After a quarter of an hour the beauty, glowing and happy, came out of the water holding the hook in her hand.
But a cruel fate awaited her. The miscreants who stole Bowzinsky’s clothing took her clothes, too, leaving only her can of worms.
“What am I to do now?” she wept. “How can I go home like this? No! Never! I’d rather die! I’ll wait until it’s dark and then, under cover of darkness, I’ll get to Aunt Agafia’s and send her to my house for some clothing… And in the meantime, I’ll go and hide under the bridge.”
Crouching down, my heroine dashed along a path through tall grass to the little bridge. But when she crawled under the bridge, she saw a naked man with a theatrical mane of hair and a hairy chest. She screamed and fell into a faint.
Bowzinsky took a fright, too. At first he took the girl for a naiad.
“Are you a siren, come to seduce me?” he thought. Given his customary a high opinion of his appearance, he found the notion flattering. “If she is not a siren but a human being, then how can her strange transfiguration be explained? Why is she here, under the bridge? And what is wrong with her?”
While he was pondering these questions, the beauty came to her senses.
“Don’t kill me!” she whispered. “I’m Princess Bibulova. I beg of you! You’ll get a lot of money! I was untangling my fishing line when some thieves took my clothing, boots and all!”
“My good lady!” Bowzinsky said pleadingly. “My clothes were stolen, too. And along with my trousers, they took the bow rosin in my pocket!”
Musicians who play the double bass or the trombone are not usually very resourceful, but Bowzinsky was the pleasant exception to the rule.
“My good lady!” he said after a moment. “I see you are embarrassed by my appearance. But you must agree that I cannot leave here for the same reason that you cannot. So, here’s my thought: would you like to lie down inside my double bass case and close the lid? That would hide my appearance from your sight…”
With that, Bowzinsky took his double bass out of its case. For just a moment as he emptied the case, he wondered if this was a profanation of his sacred art, but his qualms did not linger. The beauty lay down in the case and curled up into a ball, he tightened the strap and was delighted that nature had bestowed him with such a great mind.
“Now, my good lady, you can’t see me,” he said. “You can lie there peacefully. When it is dark, I’ll carry you to your parents’ home. I can return for my double bass later.”
When twilight fell, Bowzinsky hoisted the case containing the beauty up over his shoulder and trundled toward Bibulov’s country house. His plan was this: first he’d walk to the nearest cottage and get some clothes, and then he’d walk on…
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he thought, bent under the weight of his load and kicking up dust with his bare feet. “For the noble role I’ve played in the life of the princess, Bibulov will surely reward me generously.”
“My good lady, are you comfortable?” he asked in the tone of a cavalier galant inviting a lady to dance the cadrille. “Don’t stand on ceremony. Do make yourself at home in there!”
Suddenly the gallant Bowzinsky thought that he saw two figures ahead, obscured by the darkness. He peered at them. It wasn’t an optical illusion, he was certain; there were, in fact, two figures walking along the road, and they were even carrying some bundles…
“Are those the thieves?” he thought. “They’re carrying something! It must be our clothes!”
Bowzinsky put the case on the road and ran after the figures.
“Stop!” he cried. “Stop! Seize them!”
The figures glanced behind them, and when they saw they were being chased, they took off… For a long time the princess could hear the sound of people running and shouts of “Stop!” Finally, the sounds fell silent.
With Bowzinsky caught up in the chase, the beauty would have lain there in a field by the side of the road for a long time, if not for another happy turn of fate. It so happened that at just that time and along just that road Bowzinsky’s comrades were also walking to Bibulov’s country house — Skutlovsky on flute and Grandzhestov on clarinet. When they tripped over the case they looked around in consternation and then shrugged their shoulders.
“A double bass!” Skutlovsky said. “It must be our Bowzinsky’s double bass! But why on earth is it here?”
“Something must have happened to Bowzinsky,” Grandzhestov said. “Either he got drunk or got robbed… in any case, we can’t leave it here. We’ll take it with us.”
Skutlovsky hoisted the case onto his back, and the musicians continued along their way.
“What a bloody weight this is,” the flautist complained the whole way. “I wouldn’t play this hellish monstrosity for anything…Whew!”
When the musicians got to Prince Bibulov’s house, they put the case in the area set up for the orchestra and headed to the buffet.
By then the chandeliers and sconces were already being lit. The fiancé, the handsome and personable Court Counselor Lakeyvich, who worked in the Transportation Ministry, stood in the center of the hall with his hands in his pockets and chatted with Count Flassky. They were discussing music.
“Once when I was in Naples,” Lakeyvich was saying, “I personally knew a violinist who could literally perform miracles. You wouldn’t believe it! On the double bass… damned if he didn’t pull trills out of an ordinary double bass — it gave you the chills. He played Strauss waltzes!”
The Count couldn’t believe it. “Nonsense! That’s impossible!” he said.
“It’s the truth! He even played one of Liszt’s rhapsodies. I shared a hotel room with him, and once, when I had nothing better to do, he taught me how to play Liszt’s rhapsody on the double bass.”
“Liszt’s rhapsody! Humph! Surely you are joking…”
“You don’t believe me?” Lakeyvich said, laughing. “I’ll prove it to you! Let’s go to the orchestra pit!”
The fiancé and the Count went to the orchestra pit. They went up to the double bass case, quickly untied the strap, and… Oh, the horror!
As the reader gives his imagination free rein to picture how that musical discussion ended, we’ll go back to Bowzinsky… The poor musician couldn’t catch the thieves, so he returned to the spot where he left his case. But he didn’t see his precious burden. Completely at a loss, he walked up and down the road, and when he didn’t find it, he decided that he was on the wrong road.
“Oh, how horrible!” he though, clutching his head and shivering. “She suffocated in the case! I’m a murderer!”
Until midnight Bowzinsky walked along the roads, looking for his case, but finally, when he had no more strength, he went back under the bridge.
“I’ll start looking again at dawn,” he decided.
The search at daybreak produced the same result, and Bowzinsky decided the wait for nightfall under the bridge…
“I’ll find her,” he muttered, taking off his top hat and tugging at his hair. “Even if it takes me a year, I’ll find her!”
Even today, peasants who live in these parts still tell how you might see a naked man with long hair and a top hat at night by the bridge. And sometimes you might even hear the wheeze of a double bass from under the bridge.
This city — this city is so fucking expensive that I can’t bear it. And it’s so fabulous that sometimes I can’t bear it. Expensive and horrible — that would be better. To enjoy it, you need money; to have money, you need to work a lot; but when you work a lot, you don’t have the energy or time or desire to enjoy it.
The endless list of unpaid bills was like a noose around my neck. Debts to my friends and acquaintances. About ten thousand.
All of this — the debts, the fears, the fatigue — all of it has been building up for the last six months, and finally I began to think about getting free of it all — about suicide. The contemplation stage changed to the planning stage.
In the past I was always stopped by three things: my own cowardice, hope that things would get better, and my mother. But now I’m at the point where I’m alone with a storm cloud of shit hanging over me. I know that if I stay here, all that shit will rain down on me and I’ll never dig my way out. Why wait? Better to get free. The only thing left was to decide how to do it.
I read up on it. Drowning, hanging, shooting — too painful. I’m in enough pain as is it, and I don’t want to end it the same way. All that’s left are pills. Take enough, fall asleep and don’t wake up.
If you’re alive, at least once you’ve thought about having the power to end it. Don’t tell me you haven’t. I won’t believe you.
But I didn’t have the money to buy the pills, so I went to my best friend. I already owed him 6,750 shekels.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.” I wasn’t lying. This really would be the last time.
He made me a meal of rice and salad with tahina, put me in a cab, paid the driver, and sent me off.
It turned out awkward — this was the last time I’d see my best friend and I didn’t even really hug him. My taxi was holding up traffic, the cars were honking like crazy, so in the rush I didn’t even have time to say anything of substance to him.
One box of pills wasn’t enough to kill me — they must be popular with suicides so that’s why there weren’t many of them. In one box, I mean. That’s what I figured. To kill myself, I’d need four boxes. I decided it wouldn’t be right to buy all four of them in one Super-Pharm — I was afraid I’d get suspicious looks — so I decided to go to four different drug stores and buy a box in each one.
I bent down to tie my shoelaces — that happens to me a lot, my shoe laces coming untied — and when I stood up and reached for the little pouch bag that held my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I realized that it was gone. I spun around like a Hanukkah dreidel and saw an Eritrean boy, about 13 years old, running away with my bag. I ran after him. He saw me and took off like a panther. Today was not my lucky day.
I wasn’t going to catch him, and I wasn’t going to die.
The screech of brakes — still playing in my head on a loop. A crowd of onlookers, the driver in a panic, the boy screaming, and next to him — my bag, and in it my liberation, while I stood rooted to the spot.
Then: ambulance, stretcher, doctors… They drove off, and I remembered that the 200 shekels my friend gave me weren’t in my bag but in my pants pocket. I raised my arm and a cab appeared instantly.
“After that ambulance!”
They took the boy to Ichilov Hospital. Like a scared rat hiding behind the column of people, I followed them — the doctors, the stretcher and the boy.
He was playing with his phone when I went into the ward and sat on the chair next to his bed. He was already feeling better. The nurse told me he’d dislocated his arm. The boy looked up. We locked eyes and he cringed. I held out some chips, an apple and a Kinder chocolate.
“I didn’t know which you’d like.”
“I like chips,” he said, and took the packet.
We didn’t speak as he munched. His mother, a thin black woman, flew into the ward, hugged him and then something caught her eye and she shouted, “You’re doing it again!” She grabbed my bag, which had been lying on the bedside table. “You’re stealing again! I told you that I’d manage. I’ll save your sister! You hear me? She’ll live!”
And then she finally saw me and stopped talking.
I walked out of the ward without saying a word. I’d forgotten what it was like, what it was like when you wanted to live. I called my mother, told her that I loved her, and then I called my best friend and asked him out for a beer. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was ashamed, you know?
But all that disappeared really fast. Only a few days went by before that storm cloud of shit was hanging over my head again. Only this time it was even worse.
“I hate to ask, but I really need it. I promise it’s the last time.
This time I hugged him and told he was the best.
My friend suddenly said, “Tonight there’s going to be a great concert at Kuli Alma. Nina Simone’s songs. We ought to go.”
I almost burst into tears, so I quickly jumped on my bike and rode off. When I chained my bike by the Super-Pharm on Allenby Street, I saw that my shoe laces were untied — you know how that happens with me, my shoe laces come untied — and when I stood up and reached for the bag that had my cigarettes, lighter, lip gloss and 200 shekels, I saw that it was gone. He took off like a panther.
But it’s always noisy on Allenby and the kid probably didn’t hear me. Just in case I checked my pockets. There was only my phone, which rang.
“You won’t forget? Tonight. Kuli Alma. Nina Simone. At ten.”
The distance between one floor and another was months and years. Sometimes the lift was crowded. Sometimes it was empty. Another lift might pass with people going down, but everyone was trying to go up, or convince themselves that they really had ascended. I would have fits of laughter when from my place on high I saw the fraudulent indulgences in the hands of the obsessed down below. It was tragic that they did not perceive the existence of the lift in the first place. So many faces, all looking only for what pleased them. Things and people always change, but the indulgences remain the same. I watched each fight the others to make them pleased with what was pleasing him! Everybody seemed content with their own chance delusion, and fought for it. How could such people have invented Him and striven for Him? I cracked up with laughter when I noticed disciples of the bearers of fraudulent indulgences. They imagined that through their intercession they would ascend. Absurd! Utter madness!
“Part of you is still there,” said my companion who had just appeared as he pointed down below. It appeared I had crossed the forbidden zone.
“Perhaps it is you who is not here.”
He leaned against the metal wall behind him. A gaze as deep as the years was etched in his eyes.
“I have been here since before time and space.”
“They created Him and He was created, my friend. What’s with the black?”
As if only then noticing that he was dressed in black, he looked at me, his eyes thinking. He did not answer, but his eyes, to say that is hubris, malevolence.
“Didn’t I say created? It was a joke.”
The lift picked up speed. In fact, it vanished when it exceeded the speed of light. My cells were obliterated. Madness and nothingness encompassed me. Everything was calm. There was no quality of silence to silence that I might describe it.
The number 6 lit up before me. I contemplated it for a moment and burst out laughing. He was almost marked with anger, and I deliberately laughed more. “One more left.”
He came slowly towards me, fixing the essence of his being in a stare: “That will not come to pass if I am with you.”
Casual and sarcastic, I asked, “Perhaps if you kept going, you would get through?”
“How did it escape Him to leave you and those like you?”
“Many things have escaped him, my friend. Now get out of my senses.” And he went.
The lift did not move, but the number 7 suddenly appeared and the door opened. I stepped forward.
I had reached my furthest point in Heaven.
In nowhere the expanse stretches to the non-horizon. All is white, no end to the white marble and pillars, although they support nothing. White here is a process: He is so it became to be. It bears me to what I am certain is the encounter with Him.
An oval office of mythic proportions. A gigantic desk as expansive as what is behind it, vast in size and appearance, but only four books on top of it! I saw the one seated behind the desk, ensconced on His throne, and He was smiling.
Everything about Him was white too. His countenance created emotions made tangible. His actions gave rise to the attributes, but no attribute surrounded him. I drew closer, a stone’s throw or less.
“So, here at last.”
“As if you didn’t know!” I said.
“My knowledge of an action does not predetermine anyone to do it.”
I wasn’t listening, but resumed contemplating the place. I couldn’t avert my gaze from Him. Meekly, I took in his countenance. I composed myself and said, “Are those the only books here? Do you have a book about Lincoln?”
Anger marked His countenance. I continued defiantly, “He did something that You have not done. He ended human slavery.”
“Don’t test My wrath.”
“Of course,” I said sarcastically, “I’ll ask no questions so as to do no wrong.” I looked at the hands of my watch. It was working fine and I pretended to be busy with it. “This watch has been working perfectly for ten years. A skilled watchmaker made it, but he’s no longer concerned about how it runs. It just works by itself. I thought it wouldn’t work here. But in fact, time passes unconcerned.”
“You come as a supplicant. Ask and I will answer.”
“In the past you did… many things. What I want is a tiny proportion of what has been achieved. It will not change whether I ask you or not. Incredibly, the result would be the same if I entreated my pillow. I have discovered that I must act, not ask.”
His countenance froze into a look of terrifying anger and He was fixed motionless before me.
A glass barrier seemed to enwrap the place. The clouds and the vast expanse were visible behind it. People floating and joyously becoming one with the clouds appeared behind it. I stared into His eyes. Inside I longed that He would know my wish to float away from Him with the others floating outside.
Hilik arrives at about 12. “Am I interrupting you?” he asks. I gesture for him to come in, but he still hesitates on the threshold. “If you’re busy working,” he says, “I’ll come back later. I don’t want to bother you or anything, I was just curious.”
I make coffee and we sit in the living room. He doesn’t drink the coffee, doesn’t even taste it, just sinks into the couch and tries to smile. “I only dropped in to see how it’s going,” he says. “The people at the publisher’s are on pins and needles, dying to read it.”
“Great,” I say, “it’s going great.”
“Terrific,” Hilik smiles, “I’m glad. Because you know, it’s nine years already. In March, I mean, it’ll be nine and you haven’t written anything since then…”
“But I have,” I say, “I write all the time. It’s just that it isn’t good enough.”
“I want you to know,” Hilik says as he holds his hands above the coffee so they can catch the steam, “that with your reputation, even not-good will sell. I swear, during Book Week, someone came up every ten minutes and asked when you’ll be publishing a new one. Ask Dubi. After almost ten years, even really-bad will sell. But if you’re not writing at all, then…”
“I’m writing,” I say, “all the time. But I don’t feel like publishing a not-good book, even if you or Dubi…”
“Of course,” Hilik interrupts me, “no one said it has to be not good. It can be good too, goodwill sells even better. Just finish a book already, for God’s sake.”
I know him. This isn’t the first time he’s come here. Soon he’ll start talking about his daughter, the paralyzed one, and then he’ll cry. He always cries in the end. “I’m almost finished,” I say, trying to head him off, “another fifty pages, tops.”
“Fifty?” Hilik repeats suspiciously. “Yes,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, “fifty tops. I just have to get the protagonist to kill someone who has it coming, in self-defense. Then he’ll sleep with the sister of the dead guy without her knowing that he’s the one who killed him. And then there are a few more pages of his thoughts as he walks on the beach in Caesarea. And a short epilogue with him in a taxi on the way back to his apartment when he hears about the Coronavirus outbreak on the radio, you know, so the reader can place the plot in a historical context.
“Fifty pages, you say,” Hilik says, clutching the handle of his mug of coffee, “fifty tops and the Coronavirus?” He pauses for a second and then hurls the mug at the wall. A black stain appears on it and begins to ooze towards the floor. “Remember what you told me last time? Twenty pages, you said, Twenty! Twenty pages and the last Gaza War. If you’re not writing, then don’t write, but for God’s sake, we’ve known each other for more than 25 years, even before my Yifat was born, so don’t lie to me.
I don’t say anything. Neither does Hilik. I see him slowly realizing what he’s done. The stain is still oozing, it’ll reach the carpet soon. “Do you have a rag?” he asks after the brief silence. “Don’t get up, just tell me where and I’ll clean it up.” I shake my head, I really don’t think I have one.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I lost control. It’s not like me. I’m just going through a bad time now. I apologize. Do you forgive me?” I nod. “Good,” Hilik says, “so I’m going now. I don’t want to disturb you… Fifty pages, you said? Great, you really are almost done. Don’t make the ending too depressing, okay? Leave a sliver of hope. People like to feel there’s still a chance.” He stops at the door and says, “I’m really sorry about the coffee. You’re not angry, right? It’s just that, my daughter, she’s in a bad way…” And he starts to cry. I put a hand on his shoulder. Exactly the same one I put a hand on last time.
“Life is cruel,” Hilik says, “a real bitch. Heartless. It grinds you down until there’s nothing left but dust. Write about that. Write something about that. Not now, in your next book.”
“I’ll send it to you as soon as I’m done,” I say before I close the door, “it won’t take much longer. I’m right at the end.”
After Hilik goes, I sit down in front of the computer and surf a few porn sites. One shows a young girl with a braid whose name is Nikki. She speaks a language I don’t understand and drinks cum from a glass that someone hands her. I close the site and open my word processor. I have a lot of ideas in my head. Too many, in fact. This time, I tell myself, I’ll do it differently. This time I’ll try to start from the end. “ ‘Let’s not talk about that now,’ Nikki whispered, covering his mouth with her soft hand, ‘Let’s not even think about it. Let’s just kiss and watch the sunset.’ The sun had almost completely sunk into the black sea, and only a single, stubborn ray of light flickered in the sky in a final, desperate effort to give the very dark world another sliver of light.”
I got another barber that comes over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays, but the rest of the time I can get along all right alone. You can see for yourself that this ain’t no New York: City and besides that, the most of the boys works all day and don’t have no leisure to drop in here and get themselves prettied up.
You’re a newcomer, ain’t you? I thought I hadn’t seen you round before. I hope you like it good enough to stay. As I say, we ain’t no New York City or Chicago, but we have pretty good times. Not as good, though, since Jim Kendall got killed. When he was alive, him and Hod Meyers used to keep this town in an uproar. I bet they was more laughin’ done here than any town its size in America.
Jim was comical, and Hod was pretty near a match for him. Since Jim’s gone, Hod tries to hold his end up just the same as ever, but it’s tough goin’ when you ain’t got nobody to kind of work with.
They used to be plenty fun in here Saturdays. This place is jampacked Saturdays, from four o’clock on. Jim and Hod would show up right after their supper round six o’clock. Jim would set himself down in that big chair, nearest the blue spittoon. Whoever had been settin’ in that chair, why they’d get up when Jim come in and at” it to him.
You’d of thought it was a reserved seat like they have sometimes in a theaytre. Hod would generally always stand or walk up and down or some Saturdays, of course, he’d be settin’ in this chair part of the time, gettin’ a haircut.
Well, Jim would set there a w’ile without opening his mouth only to spit, and then finally he’d say to me, “Whitey,”–my right name, that is, my right first name, is Dick, but everybody round here calls me Whitey– Jim would say, “Whitey, your nose looks like a rosebud tonight. You must of been drinkin’ some of your aw de cologne.”
So I’d say, “No, Jim, but you look like you’d been drinkin’ something of that kind or somethin’ worse.”
Jim would have to laugh at that, but then he’d speak up and say, “No, I ain’t had nothin’ to drink, but that ain’t sayin’ I wouldn’t like somethin’. I wouldn’t even mind if it was wood alcohol.”
Then Hod Meyers would say, “Neither would your wife.” That would set everybody to laughin’ because Jim and his wife wasn’t on very good terms. She’d of divorced him only they wasn’t no chance to get alimony and she didn’t have no way to take care of herself and the kids. She couldn’t never understand Jim. He was kind of rough, but a good fella at heart.
Him and Hod had all kinds of sport with Milt Sheppard. I don’t suppose you’ve seen Milt. Well, he’s got an Adam’s apple that looks more like a mush-melon. So I’d be shavin’ Milt and when I’d start to shave down here on his neck, Hod would holler, “Hey, Whitey, wait a minute! Before you cut into it, let’s make up a pool and see who can guess closest to the number of seeds.”
And Jim would say, “If Milt hadn’t of been so hoggish, he’d of ordered a half a cantaloupe instead of a whole one and it might not of stuck in his throat.”
All the boys would roar at this and Milt himself would force a smile, though the joke was on him. Jim certainly was a card!
There’s his shavin’ mug, setting on the shelf, right next to Charley Vail’s. “Charles M. Vail.” That’s the druggist. He comes in regular for his shave, three times a week. And Jim’s is the cup next to Charley’s. “dames H. Kendall.” Jim won’t need no shavin’ mug no more, but I’ll leave it there just the same for old time’s sake. Jim certainly was a character!
Years ago, Jim used to travel for a canned goods concern over in Carterville. They sold canned goods. Jim had the whole northern half of the State and was on the road five days out of every week. He’d drop in here Saturdays and tell his experiences for that week. It was rich.
I guess he paid more attention to playin’ jokes than makin’ sales. Finally the concern let him out and he come right home here and told everybody he’d been fired instead of sayin’ he’d resigned like most fellas would of.
It was a Saturday and the shop was full and Jim got up out of that chair and says, “Gentlemen, I got an important announcement to make. I been fired from my job.”
Well, they asked him if he was in earnest and he said he was and nobody could think of nothin’ to say till Jim finally broke the ice himself. He says, “I been sellin’ canned goods and now I’m canned goods myself.
You see, the concern he’d been workin’ for was a factory that made canned goods. Over in Carterville. And now Jim said he was canned himself. He was certainly a card!
Jim had a great trick that he used to play w’ile he was travelin’. For instance, he’d be ridin’ on a train and they’d come to some little town like, well, like, well, like, we’ll say, like Benton. Jim would look out the train window and read the signs of the stores.
For instance, they’d be a sign, “Henry Smith, Dry Goods.” Well, Jim would write down the name and the name of the town and when he got to wherever he was goin’ he’d mail back a postal card to Henry Smith at Benton and not sign no name to it, but he’d write on the card, well somethin’ like “Ask your wife about that book agent that spent the afternoon last week,” or “Ask your Missus who kept her from gettin’ lonesome the last time you was in Carterville.” And he’d sign the card, “A Friend.”
Of course, he never knew what really come of none of these jokes, but he could picture what probably happened and that was enough.
Jim didn’t work very steady after he lost his position with the Carterville people. What he did earn, coin’ odd jobs round town why he spent pretty near all of it on gin, and his family might of starved if the stores hadn’t of carried them along. Jim’s wife tried her hand at dressmakin’, but they ain’t nobody goin’ to get rich makin’ dresses in this town.
As I say, she’d of divorced Jim, only she seen that she couldn’t support herself and the kids and she was always hopin’ that some day Jim would cut out his habits and give her more than two or three dollars a week.
They was a time when she would go to whoever he was workin’ for and ask them to give her his wages, but after she done this once or twice, he beat her to it by borrowin’ most of his pay in advance. He told it all round town, how he had outfoxed his Missus. He certainly was a caution!
But he wasn’t satisfied with just outwittin’ her. He was sore the way she had acted, tryin’ to grab off his pay. And he made up his mind he’d get even. Well, he waited till Evans’s Circus was advertised to come to town. Then he told his wife and two kiddies that he was goin’ to take them to the circus. The day of the circus, he told them he would get the tickets and meet them outside the entrance to the tent.
Well, he didn’t have no intentions of bein’ there or buyin’ tickets or nothin’. He got full of gin and laid round Wright’s poolroom all day. His wife and the kids waited and waited and of course he didn’t show up. His wife didn’t have a dime with her, or nowhere else, I guess. So she finally had to tell the kids it was all off and they cried like they wasn’t never goin’ to stop.
Well, it seems, w’ile they was cryin’, Doc Stair come along and he asked what was the matter, but Mrs. Kendall was stubborn and wouldn’t tell him, but the kids told him and he insisted on takin’ them and their mother in the show. Jim found this out afterwards and it was one reason why he had it in for Doc Stair.
Doc Stair come here about a year and a half ago. He’s a mighty handsome young fella and his clothes always look like he has them made to order. He goes to Detroit two or three times a year and w’ile he’s there must have a tailor take his measure and then make him a suit to order. They cost pretty near twice as much, but they fit a whole lot better than if you just bought them in a store.
For a w’ile everybody was wonderin’ why a young doctor like Doc Stair should come to a town like this where we already got old Doc Gamble and Doc Foote that’s both been here for years and all the practice in town was always divided between the two of them.
Then they was a story got round that Doc Stair’s gal had thronged him over, a gal up in the Northern Peninsula somewhere, and the reason he come here was to hide himself away and forget it. He said himself that he thought they wasn’t nothin’ like general practice in a place like ours to fit a man to be a good all round doctor. And that’s why he’d came.
Anyways, it wasn’t long before he was makin’ enough to live on, though they tell me that he never dunned nobody for what they owed him, and the folks here certainly has got the owin’ habit, even in my business. If I had all that was comin’ to me for just shaves alone, I could go to Carterville and put up at the Mercer for a week and see a different picture every night. For instance, they’s old George Purdy–but I guess I shouldn’t ought to be gossipin’.
Well, last year, our coroner died, died of the flu. Ken Beatty, that was his name. He was the coroner. So they had to choose another man to be coroner in his place and they picked Doc Stair. He laughed at first and said he didn’t want it, but they made him take it. It ain’t no job that anybody would fight for and what a man makes out of it in a year would just about buy seeds for their garden. Doc’s the kind, though, that can’t say no to nothin’ if you keep at him long enough.
But I was goin’ to tell you about a poor boy we got here in town-Paul Dickson. He fell out of a tree when he was about ten years old. Lit on his head and it done somethin’ to him and he ain’t never been right. No harm in him, but just silly. Jim Kendall used to call him cuckoo; that’s a name Jim had for anybody that was off their head, only he called people’s head their bean. That was another of his gags, callin’ head bean and callin’ crazy people cuckoo. Only poor Paul ain’t crazy, but just silly.
You can imagine that Jim used to have all kinds of fun with Paul. He’d send him to the White Front Garage for a left-handed monkey wrench. Of course they ain’t no such thing as a left-handed monkey wrench.
And once we had a kind of a fair here and they was a baseball game between the fats and the leans and before the game started Jim called Paul over and sent him way down to Schrader’s hardware store to get a key for the pitcher’s box.
They wasn’t nothin’ in the way of gags that Jim couldn’t think up, when he put his mind to it.
Poor Paul was always kind of suspicious of people, maybe on account of how Jim had kept foolin’ him. Paul wouldn’t have much to do with anybody only his own mother and Doc Stair and a girl here in town named Julie Gregg. That is, she ain’t a girl no more, but pretty near thirty or over.
When Doc first come to town, Paul seemed to feel like here was a real friend and he hung round Doc’s office most of the w’ile; the only time he wasn’t there was when he’d go home to eat or sleep or when he seen Julie Gregg coin’ her shoppin’.
When he looked out Doc’s window and seen her, he’d run downstairs and join her and tag along with her to the different stores. The poor boy was crazy about Julie and she always treated him mighty nice and made him feel like he was welcome, though of course it wasn’t nothin’ but pity on her side.
Doc done all he could to improve Paul’s mind and he told me once that he really thought the boy was getting better, that they was times when he was as bright and sensible as anybody else.
But I was goin’ to tell you about Julie Gregg. Old man Gregg was in the lumber business, but got to drinkin’ and lost the most of his money and when he died, he didn’t leave nothin’ but the house and just enough insurance for the girl to skimp along on.
Her mother was a kind of a half invalid and didn’t hardly ever leave the house. Julie wanted to sell the place and move somewhere else after the old man died, but the mother said she was born here and would die here. It was tough on Julie as the young people round this town–well, she’s too good for them.
She’d been away to school and Chicago and New York and different places and they ain’t no subject she can’t talk on, where you take the rest of the young folks here and you mention anything to them outside of Gloria Swanson or Tommy Meighan and they think you’re delirious. Did you see Gloria in Wages of Virtue? You missed somethin’!
Well, Doc Stair hadn’t been here more than a week when he came in one day to get shaved and I recognized who he was, as he had been pointed out to me, so I told him about my old lady. She’s been ailin’ for a couple years and either Doc Gamble or Doc Foote, neither one, seemed to be helpin’ her. So he said he would come out and see her, but if she was able to get out herself, it would be better to bring her to his office where he could make a completer examination.
So I took her to his office and w’ile I was waitin’ for her in the reception room, in come Julie Gregg. When somebody comes in Doc Stair’s office, they’s a bell that rings in his inside office so he can tell they’s somebody to see him.
So he left my old lady inside and come out to the front office and that’s the first time him and Julie met and I guess it was what they call love at first sight. But it wasn’t fifty-fifty. This young fella was the slickest lookin’ fella she’d ever seen in this town and she went wild over him. To him she was just a young lady that wanted to see the doctor.
She’d came on about the same business I had. Her mother had been doctorin’ for years with Doc Gamble and Doc Foote and with” out no results. So she’d heard they was a new doc in town and decided to give him a try. He promised to call and see her mother that same day.
I said a minute ago that it was love at first sight on her part. I’m not only judgin’ by how she acted afterwards but how she looked at him that first day in his office. I ain’t no mind reader, but it was wrote all over her face that she was gone.
Now Jim Kendall, besides bein’ a jokesmith and a pretty good drinker, well Jim was quite a lady-killer. I guess he run pretty wild durin’ the time he was on the road for them Carterville people, and besides that, he’d had a couple little affairs of the heart right here in town. As I say, his wife would have divorced him, only she couldn’t.
But Jim was like the majority of men, and women, too, I guess. He wanted what he couldn’t get. He wanted Julie Gregg and worked his head off tryin’ to land her. Only he’d of said bean instead of head.
Well, Jim’s habits and his jokes didn’t appeal to Julie and of course he was a married man, so he didn’t have no more chance than, well, than a rabbit. That’s an expression of Jim’s himself. When somebody didn’t have no chance to get elected or somethin’, Jim would always say they didn’t have no more chance than a rabbit.
He didn’t make no bones about how he felt. Right in here, more than once, in front of the whole crowd, he said he was stuck on Julie and anybody that could get her for him was welcome to his house and his wife and kids included. But she wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with him; wouldn’t even speak to him on the street. He finally seen he wasn’t gettin’ nowheres with his usual line so he decided to try the rough stuff. He went right up to her house one evenin’ and when she opened the door he forced his way in and grabbed her. But she broke loose and before he could stop her, she run in the next room and locked the door and phoned to Joe Barnes. Joe’s the marshal. Jim could hear who she was phonin’ to and he beat it before Joe got there.
Joe was an old friend of Julie’s pa. Joe went to Jim the next day and told him what would happen if he ever done it again.
I don’t know how the news of this little affair leaked out. Chances is that Joe Barnes told his wife and she told somebody else’s wife and they told their husband. Anyways, it did leak out and Hod Meyers had the nerve to kid Jim about it, right here in this shop. Jim didn’t deny nothin’ and kind of laughed it off and said for us all to wait; that lots of people had tried to make a monkey out of him, but he always got even.
Meanw’ile everybody in town was wise to Julie’s bein’ wild mad over the Doc. I don’t suppose she had any idea how her face changed when him and her was together; of course she couldn’t of, or she’d of kept away from him. And she didn’t know that we was all noticin’ how many times she made excuses to go up to his office or pass it on the other side of the street and look up in his window to see if he was there. I felt sorry for her and so did most other people.
Hod Meyers kept rubbin’ it into Jim about how the Doc had cut him out. Jim didn’t pay no attention to the kiddie’ and you could see he was plannin’ one of his jokes.
One trick Jim had was the knack of changin’ his voice. He could make you think he was a girl talkie’ and he could mimic any man’s voice. To show you how good he was along this line, I’ll tell you the joke he played on me once.
You know, in most towns of any size, when a man is dead and needs a shave, why the barber that shaves him soaks him five dollars for the job; that is, he don’t soak him, but whoever ordered the shave. I just charge three dollars because personally I don’t mind much shavin’ a dead person. They lay a whole lot stiller than live customers. The only thing is that you don’t feel like talkie’ to them and you get kind of lonesome.
Well, about the coldest day we ever had here, two years ago last winter, the phone rung at the house w’ile I was home to dinner and I answered the phone and it was a woman’s voice and she said she was Mrs. John Scott and her husband was dead and would I come out and shave him.
Old John had always been a good customer of mine. But they live seven miles out in the country, on the Streeter road. Still I didn’t see how I could say no.
So I said I would be there, but would have to come in a jitney and it might cost three or four dollars besides the price of the shave. So she, or the voice, it said that was all right, so I got Frank Abbott to drive me out to the place and when I got there, who should open the door but old John himself! He wasn’t no more dead than, well, than a rabbit.
It didn’t take no private detective to figure out who had played me this little joke. Nobody could of thought it up but Jim Kendall. He certainly was a card!
I tell you this incident just to show you how he could disguise his voice and make you believe it was somebody else talkie’. I’d of swore it was Mrs. Scott had called me. Anyways, some woman.
Well, Jim waited till he had Doc Stair’s voice down pat; then he went after revenge.
He called Julie up on a night when he knew Doc was over in Carterville. She never questioned but what it was Doc’s voice. Jim said he must see her that night; he couldn’t wait no longer to tell her somethin’. She was all excited and told him to come to the house. But he said he was expectin’ an important long distance call and wouldn’t she please forget her manners for once and come to his office. He said they couldn’t nothin’ hurt her and nobody would see her and he just must talk to her a little w’ile. Well, poor Julie fell for it.
Doc always keeps a night light in his office, so it looked to Julie like they was somebody there.
Meanw’ile Jim Kendall had went to Wright’s poolroom, where they was a whole gang amusin’ themselves. The most of them had drank plenty of gin, and they was a rough bunch even when sober. They was always strong for Jim’s jokes and when he told them to come with him and see some fun they give up their card games and pool games and followed along.
Doc’s office is on the second floor. Right outside his door they’s a flight of stairs leadin’ to the floor above. Jim and his gang hid in the dark behind these stairs.
Well, tulle come up to Doc’s door and rung the bell and they was nothin’ coin’. She rung it again and she rung it seven or eight times. Then she tried the door and found it locked. Then Jim made some kind of a noise and she heard it and waited a minute, and then she says, “Is that you, Ralph?” Ralph is Doc’s first name.
They was no answer and it must of came to her all of a sudden that she’d been bunked. She pretty near fell downstairs and the whole gang after her. They chased her all the way home, hollerin’, “Is that you, Ralph?” and “Oh, Ralphie, dear, is that you?” Jim says he couldn’t holler it himself, as he was laughin’ too hard.
Poor Julie! She didn’t show up here on Main Street for a long, long time afterward.
And of course Jim and his gang told everybody in town, everybody but Doc Stair. They was scared to tell him, and he might of never knowed only for Paul Dickson. The poor cuckoo, as Jim called him, he was here in the shop one night when Jim was still gloatin’ yet over what he’d done to Julie. And Paul took in as much of it as he could understand and he run to Doc with the story.
It’s a cinch Doc went up in the air and swore he’d make Jim suffer. But it was a kind of a delicate thing, because if it got out that he had beat Jim up, Julie was bound to hear of it and then she’d know that Doc knew and of course knowin’ that he knew would make it worse for her than ever. He was goin’ to do somethin’, but it took a lot of figurin’.
Well, it was a couple days later when Jim was here in the shop again, and so was the cuckoo. Jim was goin’ duck-shootin’ the next day and had come in lookin’ for Hod Meyers to go with him. I happened to know that Hod had went over to Carterville and wouldn’t be home till the end of the week. So Jim said he hated to go alone and he guessed he would call it off. Then poor Paul spoke up and said if Jim would take him he would go along. Jim thought a w’ile and then he said, well, he guessed a half-wit was better than nothin’.
I suppose he was plottin’ to get Paul out in the boat and play some joke on him, like pushin’ him in the water. Anyways, he said Paul could go. He asked him had he ever shot a duck and Paul said no, he’d never even had a gun in his hands. So Jim said he could set in the boat and watch him and if he behaved himself, he might lend him his gun for a couple of shots. They made a date to meet in the mornin’ and that’s the last I seen of Jim alive.
Next mornin’, I hadn’t been open more than ten minutes when Doc Stair come in. He looked kind of nervous. He asked me had I seen Paul Dickson. I said no, but I knew where he was, out duckshootin’ with Jim Kendall. So Doc says that’s what he had heard, and he couldn’t understand it because Paul had told him he wouldn’t never have no more to do with Jim as long as he lived.
He said Paul had told him about the joke Jim had played on Julie. He said Paul had asked him what he thought of the joke and the Doc told him that anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live. I said it had been a kind of a raw thing, but Jim just couldn’t resist no kind of a joke, no matter how raw. I said I thought he was all right at heart, but just bubblin’ over with mischief. Doc turned and walked out.
At noon he got a phone call from old John Scott. The lake where Jim and Paul had went shootin’ is on John’s place. Paul had came runnin’ up to the house a few minutes before and said they’d been an accident. Jim had shot a few ducks and then give the gun to Paul and told him to try his luck. Paul hadn’t never handled a gun and he was nervous. He was shakin’ so hard that he couldn’t control the gun. He let fire and Jim sunk back in the boat, dead.
Doc Stair, bein’ the coroner, jumped in Frank Abbott’s flivver and rushed out to Scott’s farm. Paul and old John was down on the shore of the lake. Paul had rowed the boat to shore, but they’d left the body in it, waiting for Doc to come.
Doc examined the body and said they might as well fetch it back to town. They was no use leavin’ it there or callin’ a jury, as it was a plain case of accidental shootin’.
Personally I wouldn’t never leave a person shoot a gun in the same boat I was in unless I was sure they knew somethin’ about guns. Jim was a sucker to leave a new beginner have his gun, let alone a half-wit. It probably served Jim right, what he got. But still we miss him round here. He certainly was a card! Comb it wet or dry?
From outside there came a soft knock at the door: once. Pause. And again—a bit louder and bonier: twice.
Sutulin, without rising from his bed, extended—as was his wont—a foot toward the knock, threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled. The door swung open. On the threshold, head grazing the lintel, stood a tall, gray man the color of the dusk seeping in at the window.
Before Sutulin could set his feet on the floor the visitor stepped inside, wedged the door quietly back into its frame, and jabbing first one wall, then another, with a briefcase dangling from an apishly long arm, said, “Yes: a matchbox.”
“Your room, I say: it’s a matchbox. How many square feet?”
“Eighty-six and a bit.”
“Precisely. May I?”
And before Sutulin could open his mouth, the visitor sat down on the edge of the bed and hurriedly unbuckled his bulging briefcase. Lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he went on. “I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. You want the electric-light switch? No, don’t bother: I’ll only be a minute. So then: we have discovered—this is a secret now—an agent for biggerizing rooms. Well, won’t you try it?”
The stranger’s hand popped out of the briefcase and proffered Sutulin a narrow dark tube, not unlike a tube of paint, with a tightly screwed cap and a leaden seal. Sutulin fidgeted bewilderedly with the slippery tube and, though it was nearly dark in the room, made out on the label the clearly printed word: quadraturin. When he raised his eyes, they came up against the fixed, unblinking stare of his interlocutor.
“So then, you’ll take it? The price? Goodness, it’s gratis. Just for advertising. Now if you’ll”—the guest began quickly leafing through a sort of ledger he had produced from the same brief-case—“just sign this book (a short testimonial, so to say). A pencil? Have mine. Where? Here: column three. That’s it.”
His ledger clapped shut, the guest straightened up, wheeled around, stepped to the door… and a minute later Sutulin, having snapped on the light, was considering with puzzledly raised eyebrows the clearly embossed letters: quadraturin.
On closer inspection it turned out that this zinc packet was tightly fitted—as is often done by the makers of patented agents— with a thin transparent paper whose ends were expertly glued together. Sutulin removed the paper sheath from the Quadraturin, unfurled the rolled-up text, which showed through the paper’s transparent gloss, and read:
Dissolve one teaspoon of the quadraturin essence in one cup of water. Wet a piece of cotton wool or simply a clean rag with the solution; apply this to those of the room’s internal walls designated for proliferspansion. This mixture leaves no stains, will not damage wallpaper, and even contributes—incidentally—to the extermination of bedbugs.
Thus far Sutulin had been only puzzled. Now his puzzlement was gradually overtaken by another feeling, strong and disturbing. He stood up and tried to pace from corner to corner, but the corners of this living cage were too close together: a walk amounted to almost nothing but turns, from toe to heel and back again. Sutulin stopped short, sat down, and closing his eyes, gave himself up to thoughts, which began: Why not…? What if…? Suppose…? To his left, not three feet away from his ear, someone was driving an iron spike into the wall. The hammer kept slipping, banging, and aiming, it seemed, at Sutulin’s head. Rubbing his temples, he opened his eyes: the black tube lay in the middle of the narrow table, which had managed somehow to insinuate itself between the bed, the windowsill, and the wall. Sutulin tore away the leaden seal, and the cap spun off in a spiral. From out of the round aperture came a bitterish gingery smell. The smell made his nostrils flare pleasantly.
“Hmm … Let’s try it. Although …”
And, having removed his jacket, the possessor of Quadraturin proceeded to the experiment. Stool up against door, bed into middle of room, table on top of bed. Nudging across the floor a saucer of transparent liquid, its glassy surface gleaming with a slightly yellowish tinge, Sutulin crawled along after it, systematically dipping a handkerchief wound around a pencil into the Quadraturin and daubing the floorboards and patterned wallpaper. The room really was, as that man today had said, a matchbox. But Sutulin worked slowly and carefully, trying not to miss a single corner. This was rather difficult since the liquid really did evaporate in an instant or was absorbed (he couldn’t tell which) without leaving even the slightest film; there was only its smell, increasingly pungent and spicy, making his head spin, confounding his fingers, and causing his knees, pinned to the floor, to tremble slightly. When he had finished with the floorboards and the bottom of the walls, Sutulin rose to his strangely weak and heavy feet and continued to work standing up. Now and then he had to add a little more of the essence. The tube was gradually emptying. It was already night outside. In the kitchen, to the right, a bolt came crashing down. The apartment was readying for bed. Trying not to make any noise, the experimenter, clutching the last of the essence, climbed up onto the bed and from the bed up onto the tottering table: only the ceiling remained to be Quadraturinized. But just then someone banged on the wall with his fist. “What’s going on? People are trying to sleep, but he’s …”
Turning around at the sound, Sutulin fumbled: the slippery tube spurted out of his hand and landed on the floor. Balancing carefully, Sutulin got down with his already drying brush, but it was too late. The tube was empty, and the rapidly fading spot around it smelled stupefyingly sweet. Grasping at the wall in his exhaustion (to fresh sounds of discontent from the left), he summoned his last bit of strength, put the furniture back where it belonged, and without undressing, fell into bed. A black sleep instantly descended on him from above: both tube and man were empty.
Two voices began in a whisper. Then by degrees of sonority— from piano to mf, from mf to fff—they cut into Sutulin’s sleep.
“Outrageous. I don’t want any new tenants popping out from under that skirt of yours… Put up with all that racket?!”
“Can’t just dump it in the garbage…”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You were told: no dogs, no cats, no children…” At which point there ensued such fff that Sutulin was ripped once and for all from his sleep; unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion, he reached—as was his wont— for the edge of the table on which stood the clock. Then it began. His hand groped for a long time, grappling air: there was no clock and no table. Sutulin opened his eyes at once. In an instant he was sitting up, looking dazedly around the room. The table that usually stood right here, at the head of the bed, had moved off into the middle of a faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room.
Everything was the same: the skimpy, threadbare rug that had trailed after the table somewhere up ahead of him, and the pho-tographs, and the stool, and the yellow patterns on the wallpaper. But they were all strangely spread out inside the expanded room cube.
“Quadraturin,” thought Sutulin, “is terrific!”
And he immediately set about rearranging the furniture to fit the new space. But nothing worked: the abbreviated rug, when moved back beside the bed, exposed worn, bare floorboards; the table and the stool, pushed by habit against the head of the bed, had disencumbered an empty corner latticed with cobwebs and littered with shreds and tatters, once artfully masked by the corner’s own crowdedness and the shadow of the table. With a triumphant but slightly frightened smile, Sutulin went all around his new, practically squared square, scrutinizing every detail. He noted with displeasure that the room had grown more in some places than in others: an external corner, the angle of which was now obtuse, had made the wall askew; Quadraturin, apparently, did not work as well on internal corners; carefully as Sutulin had applied the essence, the experiment had produced somewhat uneven results.
The apartment was beginning to stir. Out in the corridor, occupants shuffled to and fro. The bathroom door kept banging. Sutulin walked up to the threshold and turned the key to the right. Then, hands clasped behind his back, he tried pacing from corner to corner: it worked. Sutulin laughed with joy. How about that! At last! But then he thought: they may hear my footsteps— through the walls—on the right, on the left, at the back. For a minute he stood stock-still. Then he quickly bent down—his temples had suddenly begun to ache with yesterday’s sharp thin pain—and, having removed his boots, gave himself up to the pleasure of a stroll, moving soundlessly about in only his socks.
“May I come in?”
The voice of the landlady. He was on the point of going to the door and unlocking it when he suddenly remembered: he mustn’t. “I’m getting dressed. Wait a minute. I’ll be right out.”
“It’s all very well, but it complicates things. Say I lock the door and take the key with me. What about the keyhole? And then there’s the window: I’ll have to get curtains. Today.” The pain in his temples had become thinner and more nagging. Sutulin gathered up his papers in haste. It was time to go to the office. He dressed. Pushed the pain under his cap. And listened at the door: no one there. He quickly opened it. Quickly slipped out. Quickly turned the key. Now.
Waiting patiently in the entrance hall was the landlady.
“I wanted to talk to you about that girl, what’s her name. Can you believe it, she’s submitted an application to the House Committee saying she’s—”
“I’ve heard. Go on.”
“It’s nothing to you. No one’s going to take your eighty-six square feet away. But put yourself in my—”
“I’m in a hurry,” he nodded, put on his cap, and flew down the stairs.
On his way home from the office, Sutulin paused in front of the window of a furniture dealer: the long curve of a couch, an extendable round table… it would be nice—but how could he carry them in past the eyes and the questions? They would guess, they couldn’t help but guess…
He had to limit himself to the purchase of a yard of canary-yellow material (he did, after all, need a curtain). He didn’t stop by the cafe: he had no appetite. He needed to get home—it would be easier there: he could reflect, look around, and make adjustments at leisure. Having unlocked the door to his room, Sutulin gazed about to see if anyone was looking: they weren’t. He walked in. Then he switched on the light and stood there for a long time, his arms spread flat against the wall, his heart beating wildly: this he had not expected—not at all.
The Quadraturin was still working. during the eight or nine hours Sutulin had been out, it had pushed the walls at least another seven feet apart; the floorboards, stretched by invisible rods, rang out at his first step—like organ pipes. The entire room, distended and monstrously misshapen, was beginning to frighten and torment him. Without taking off his coat, Sutulin sat down on the stool and surveyed his spacious and at the same time oppressive coffin-shaped living box, trying to understand what had caused this unexpected effect. Then he remembered: he hadn’t done the ceiling—the essence had run out. His living box was spreading only sideways, without rising even an inch upward.
“Stop. I have to stop this Quadraturinizing thing. Or I’ll…” He pressed his palms to his temples and listened: the corrosive pain, lodged under his skull since morning, was still drilling away. Though the windows in the house opposite were dark, Sutulin took cover behind the yellow length of curtain. His head would not stop aching. He quietly undressed, snapped out the light, and got into bed. At first he slept, then he was awoken by a feeling of awkwardness. Wrapping the covers more tightly about him, Sutulin again dropped off, and once more an unpleasant sense of mooringlessness interfered with his sleep. He raised himself up on one palm and felt all around him with his free hand: the wall was gone. He struck a match. Um-hmm: he blew out the flame and hugged his knees till his elbows cracked. “It’s growing, damn it, it’s still growing.” Clenching his teeth, Sutulin crawled out of bed and, trying not to make any noise, gently edged first the front legs, then the back legs of the bed toward the receding wall. He felt a little shivery. Without turning the light on again, he went to look for his coat on that nail in the corner so as to wrap himself up more warmly. But there was no hook on the wall where it had been yesterday, and he had to feel around for several seconds before his hands chanced upon fur. twice more during a night that was long and as nagging as the pain in his temples, Sutulin pressed his head and knees to the wall as he was falling asleep and, when he awoke, fiddled about with the legs of the bed again. In doing this—mechanically, meekly, lifelessly—he tried, though it was still dark outside, not to open his eyes: it was better that way.
Toward dusk the next evening, having served out his day, Sutulin was approaching the door to his room: he did not quicken his step and, upon entering, felt neither consternation nor horror. When the dim, sixteen-candle-power bulb lit up somewhere in the distance beneath the long low vault, its yellow rays struggling to reach the dark, ever-receding corners of the vast and dead, yet empty barrack, which only recently, before Quadraturin, had been a cramped but cozy, warm, and lived-in cubbyhole, he walked resignedly toward the yellow square of the window, now diminished by perspective; he tried to count his steps. From there, from a bed squeezed pitifully and fearfully in the corner by the window, he stared dully and wearily through deep-boring pain at the swaying shadows nestled against the floorboards, and at the smooth low overhang of the ceiling. “So, something forces its way out of a tube and can’t stop squaring: a square squared, a square of squares squared. I’ve got to think faster than it: if I don’t outthink it, it will outgrow me and…” And suddenly someone was hammering on the door, “Citizen Sutulin, are you in there?”
From the same faraway place came the muffled and barely audible voice of the landlady. “He’s in there. Must be asleep.”
Sutulin broke into a sweat: “What if I don’t get there in time, and they go ahead and…” And, trying not to make a sound (let them think he was asleep), he slowly made his way through the darkness to the door. There.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, open up! Why’s the door locked? Remeasuring Commission. We’ll remeasure and leave.”
Sutulin stood with his ear pressed to the door. Through the thin panel he could hear the clump of heavy boots. Figures were being mentioned, and room numbers.
“This room next. Open up!”
With one hand Sutulin gripped the knob of the electric-light switch and tried to twist it, as one might twist the head of a bird: the switch spattered light, then crackled, spun feebly around, and drooped down. Again someone hammered on the door: “Well!”
Sutulin turned the key to the left. A broad black shape squeezed itself into the doorway.
“Turn on the light.”
“It’s burned out.”
Clutching at the door handle with his left hand and the bundle of wire with his right, he tried to hide the extended space from view. The black mass took a step back.
“Who’s got a match? Give me that box. We’ll have a look anyway. Do things right.”
Suddenly the landlady began whining, “Oh, what is there to look at? Eighty-six square feet for the eighty-sixth time. Measuring the room won’t make it any bigger. He’s a quiet man, home from a long day at the office—and you won’t let him rest: have to measure and remeasure. Whereas other people, who have no right to the space, but—”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the black mass muttered and, rocking from boot to boot, gently and even almost affectionately drew the door to the light. Sutulin was left alone on wobbling, cottony legs in the middle of the four-cornered, inexorably growing, and proliferating darkness.
He waited until their steps had died away, then quickly dressed and went out. They’d be back, to remeasure or check they hadn’t under-measured or whatever. He could finish thinking better here—from crossroad to crossroad. Toward night a wind came up: it rattled the bare frozen branches on the trees, shook the shadows loose, droned in the wires, and beat against walls, as if trying to knock them down. Hiding the needlelike pain in his temples from the wind’s buffets, Sutulin went on, now diving into the shadows, now plunging into the lamplight. Suddenly, through the wind’s rough thrusts, something softly and tenderly brushed against his elbow. He turned around. Beneath feathers batting against a black brim, a familiar face with provocatively half-closed eyes. And barely audible through the moaning air: “You know you know me. And you look right past me. You ought to bow. That’s it.”
Her slight figure, tossed back by the wind, perched on tenacious stiletto heels, was all insubordination and readiness for battle .
Sutulin tipped his hat. “But you were supposed to be going away. And you’re still here? Then something must have prevented—”
And he felt a chamois finger touch his chest then dart back into the muff. He sought out the narrow pupils of her eyes beneath the dancing black feathers, and it seemed that one more look, one more touch, one more shock to his hot temples, and it would all come unthought, undone, and fall away. Meanwhile she, her face nearing his, said, “Let’s go to your place. Like last time. Remember?”
With that, everything stopped.
She sought out the arm that had been pulled back and clung to it with tenacious chamois fingers.
“My place… Isn’t fit.” He looked away, having again with-drawn both his arms and the pupils of his eyes.
“You mean to say it’s cramped. My god, how silly you are. The more cramped it is…” The wind tore away the end of her phrase. Sutulin did not reply. “Or, perhaps you don’t …”
When he reached the turning, he looked back: the woman was still standing there, pressing her muff to her bosom, like a shield; her narrow shoulders were shivering with cold; the wind cynically flicked her skirt and lifted up the lapels of her coat.
“Tomorrow. Everything tomorrow. But now…” And, quickening his pace, Sutulin turned resolutely back.
“Right now: while everyone’s asleep. Collect my things (only the necessaries) and go. Run away. Leave the door wide open: let them. Why should I be the only one? Why not let them?”
The apartment was indeed sleepy and dark. Sutulin walked down the corridor, straight and to the right, opened the door with resolve, and as always, wanted to turn the light switch, but it spun feebly in his fingers, reminding him that the circuit had been broken. This was an annoying obstacle. But it couldn’t be helped. Sutulin rummaged in his pockets and found a box of matches: it was almost empty. Good for three or four flares— that’s all. He would have to husband both light and time. When he reached the coat pegs, he struck the first match: light crept in yellow radiuses through the black air. Sutulin purposely, overcoming temptation, concentrated on the illuminated scrap of wall and the coats and jackets hanging from hooks. He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading. He knew and did not look around. The match smoldered in his left hand, his right pulled things off hooks and flung them on the floor. He needed another flare; looking at the floor, he started toward the corner—if it was still a corner and if it was still there—where, by his calculations, the bed should have fetched up, but he accidentally held the flame under his breath—and again the black wilderness closed in. One last match remained: he struck it over and over: it would not light. One more time—and its crackling head fell off and slipped through his fingers. Then, having turned around, afraid to go any farther into the depths, he started back toward the bundle he had abandoned under the hooks. But he had made the turn, apparently, inexactly. He walked—heel to toe, heel to toe—holding his fingers out in front of him, and found nothing: neither the bundle, nor the hooks, nor even the walls. “I’ll get there in the end. I must get there.” His body was sticky with cold and sweat. His legs wobbled oddly. He squatted down, palms on the floorboards: “I shouldn’t have come back. Now here I am alone, nowhere to turn.” And suddenly it struck him: “I’m waiting here, but it’s growing, I’m waiting, but it’s…”
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
An Unexpected Bender
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.