His father was now his mother but he was still an epic asshole.
“He won’t even let me get a tattoo,” Josh said. “He gets his whole dick cut off and he won’t even let me get a tattoo.”
Josh hated being forced to sit here at family therapy every week, the therapist and his parents waiting for him to miraculously be okay with the fact that his asshole father was now his asshole second mother or something. What a freak show.
“Call me Goat Boy,” Josh said. “From this day forth, my name is Goat Boy. If he can change from a man to a woman, from Joe to Heidi, then I can do the same. I am officially changing my name to Goat Boy and my gender to half goat, half boy.”
“I’m not paying good money for you to mutilate your body with tattoos like all the other losers,” Heidi said.
“But you can mutilate your body and we’re supposed to be all happy for you,” Josh said.
“We’re not here to talk about tattoos, Josh.” “Goat Boy.”
“There’s no such thing. But there is such a thing as a woman born into a man’s body. We’ve been through this. You’re fourteen, not some baby,” said Heidi. She patted and stroked her long hair as she talked.
He looks stupid patting his hair like that. He stinks at this. Josh pictured Ashlee in his Spanish class, the sexy way she tugged on her ponytail when she smiled at him. Now that was how a real girl handled her hair. He felt an immediate erection rise up and gathered his coat over his lap to cover it.
“Maa-maa. Maa-maa. Goat Boy is bleating,” Josh said.
“Knock it off, Josh,” said his mother, Sue Ann. “It’s not easy for me either but you don’t see me bleating.”
“Maa-maa, I was born into a goat body and you’ll just have to accept me as I am,” Josh said. “If I have to accept him as a she-male, he has to accept me as a goat boy. Maa-maa.”
“She-male is not an acceptable way to describe Heidi, Josh,” the therapist said.
“Josh is not an acceptable way to address Goat Boy,” Josh said. “Heidi is still the same person,” the therapist said. “I’d like you to try something, Josh. Just for a minute. Turn your whole body toward Heidi and look her right in the eyes.”
Josh turned his whole body to face his father. He looked him right in the eyes and held his gaze for a full minute, forcing himself to wait before he spoke.
He felt sick at what he saw. He wasn’t used to it at all, even though his father had started dressing like a woman months before his surgeries. It was still disgusting and wrong and ugly. His father had been a regular looking man, kind of nerdy, with square glasses and a normal dad haircut. He had been a skinny guy, clean-shaven always. He said he couldn’t stand the scruffy look that so many movie stars and singers had. They look dirty with that stubble on their faces, he had said. Look at that bum, why would it be a fashion to look like a dirty bum.
Now Josh saw the strangest man when he looked at his father. Puffy face. Long straight blonde hair. Red lipstick! Eyes ringed with brown eyeliner, fluttering long eyelashes. Contact lenses instead of glasses. He didn’t know how to dress like a woman. Nothing fit him right. His blouse was all bunchy and his skirt started way high above his waist and hung below his knees, like it belonged on an old nun. To Josh, he looked like he was in a cheap Halloween costume or like he was one of those gross female impersonator guys in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade strutting down the street with big red lips and a ruffled umbrella. He was a fake woman with fake breasts and a fake vagina and nothing would change that.
There was a family story about the first time Josh saw his dad’s penis, but Josh was too young to actually remember. He had heard his mom tell the story to girlfriends cackling around the kitchen table and to tipsy aunts at family parties. His dad had been trying to teach Josh to pee in the toilet while standing up. Toddler Josh looked at his dad’s penis, pointed to it, and said one of the few words he knew, “big.” Josh wished he didn’t have a picture of that story in his mind. He would give anything to be able to take a penknife to his brain and cut it away.
Josh saw an eager look on his dad’s face, like he was waiting to hear a compliment. Like he actually thought Josh would be one molecule of okay with this. Fuck that shit.
“Hey Dad, how are you doing in there? You can come out now. Admit it was all a crazy mistake. Take off the makeup and stockings, chop off that hair, stop taking hormones because that’s a losing battle. Hate to break it to you, Dad, but you still look like a dude. Your big feet and hands—dead giveaway. What are you going to do—chop them off too? I don’t think so. Period, end of story,” Josh said.
His dad looked away, his face reddening. Josh felt his heart thumping like a drummer was flailing wildly around on his rib cage. He wanted to ask his mother if she was going to stay married to this asshole. Did she even want to be married to a woman? She didn’t sign up for this. Poor Mom.
“Can we wrap this up?” Sue Ann said. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take for one day.”
“We have ten more minutes on the clock,” Heidi said.
“Un. Fucking. Believable. He wants to get his money’s worth,” Josh said.
“Why do you let him dominate these sessions?” Heidi said to the therapist. “It’s outrageous. Everything is not about him.”
“I said I’m done, Joe,” Sue Ann said. “I mean Heidi.” It was the same voice she used to order Josh and the farm animals around. No nonsense.
Josh loved when his mom cracked. When she called him Joe. When she said “my husband.” It meant he wasn’t the only one who looked at Heidi and still saw Joe in there.
“I have my own money,” Josh said. “I’m getting a tattoo with my own money.”
In the front seat of the truck, his parents exchanged a look. It was too fast. He couldn’t tell what was going on up there.
“It’s not about the money,” Sue Ann said. “We don’t want you to do something you’ll be sorry about later in life.”
“Like you never did that.”
“Yeah, we did stupid shit, Josh,” Sue Ann said. “So we feel like that’s our job, to save you from doing stupid shit, all right? Enough. Get off it.”
Josh felt a rage so huge he wanted to pound his fists against the truck windows and break out of there like Superman, roar out into the corn fields and knock down everything in his path—barns, cows, fences, tractors—smash it all down.
“I hate you,” he cried. “You suck. I don’t know why I was even born. Do you know what kind of shit I have to endure every day of my life, having a she-male for a father? Do you know what happens to me at school every day? Anyone else would have blown their brains out by now. And all I ask is one thing. I want a fucking tattoo on my arm. And I am getting one, no matter what you say or do. If I have to go to an illegal place where they don’t ask for the stinking permission form because I’m underage, I will. And if I die from an infection because you made me go to a butcher tattoo shop, that’s fine. I’ll be better off dead anyway.”
His parents looked at each other again. They did that thing married people do, talk with their eyes. Josh hated when they did that. It wasn’t fair to send thoughts to each other instead of having to say them out loud so he could hear.
Finally Sue Ann said, “We said get off it, Josh.” But her voice wavered and Josh knew that meant his parents were weakening.
“All you care about is yourselves. You don’t even care what I go through. I have a right to my own life. I have a right to get a tattoo. It’s my body. Luke got a tattoo when he was eleven. Stevie got his first one when he was twelve and now he has like ten of them all over him. All my friends have tattoos. I’m the only one without one.” He wasn’t going to bring up Ashlee, who had a purple rose tattoo on her lower back and a pierced belly button.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Heidi said finally. She still drove like a guy, one arm draped over the top of the steering wheel.
“There is no later,” Josh said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sue Ann said.
“I’m doing it this weekend. Or else.”
“You don’t speak to us like that,” Sue Ann said. “You don’t tell us what to do and when.” But she didn’t sound like herself. She sounded like a new mom, who was not quite sure of what she was supposed to say. His normal mom was a bellower. When she yelled at you, you moved. She got lots of practice yelling at the cows, who were good at getting out of the pasture and milling around in the middle of the road. When she yelled at the pigs, they jerked around and followed her.
“I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you what I’m going to do. This weekend.”
Everything Josh had said about school was a lie. His friends were great. They said the right thing when they heard about his dad. They said they were sorry. It was like a dad dying, wasn’t it? Like what you say to a guy whose dad dies. Sorry for your loss.
Just one guy gave him a hard time. Bernardo wanted to be a film-maker and he would not shut up about making a documentary about Joe/Heidi. Every time Josh saw Bernardo coming, he ran. He was sick of hearing how important the film project was, how it would go viral, how Josh would be famous for having a tranny dad. He hated the stupid questions Bernardo kept asking. What exactly did they do with his dick after they cut it off? Does he keep it in a jar like my uncle’s kidney stones? Is he a lesbian now, because he’s still married to your mom? Bernardo said, Don’t you see, it’s like a story of America, here in lower Delaware, all these farms and shit, and there’s your dad, walking in a corn field with her long blond hair blowing in the wind, no city around him to protect him, nobody else like him.
His friends said they would lean on Bernardo to shut him up, if Josh wanted. But Josh said no. He was trying to keep a low profile. If he got in trouble at school, those fucking family therapy sessions might go on forever.
The tattoo guy was a girl. Josh didn’t expect that. She was covered with tattoos herself, her arms and legs a sea of colors and pictures. She looked like a cartoon that you wanted to read, with a story line that led you up one arm and down her back, down her leg and up her other arm.
She barely glanced at his forged permission form and didn’t even ask him for i.d. Josh could not believe his good luck. He actually thought they would throw him right out the front door and tell him to come back in a few years.
She didn’t look directly at him, but gestured for him to sit down in her chair and stood over him silently.
“I want a real big one,” he said. He pulled out a picture of a huge bull with red angry eyes and black flared nostrils. It was an intricate beautiful design, with curly plumes of smoke coming out of the bull’s nose and his legs kicking up in the air. “On my right arm. Like I want his tail to end up in my armpit and the rest of him all over my whole arm. And when I move my arm, can it look like the bull is pawing on the ground?”
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “I knew it. I knew someone would ask for something really, really hard on my first day. I might as well quit right now. I’m sorry, man.” Her face scrunched up and her eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ask for something hard,” Josh said.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. Everything I touch turns to total crap. I try so hard,” she cried.
Josh felt totally helpless. He didn’t know what to do or say to make her stop. He stood up.
“It’s okay. I don’t even need it. I can go,” Josh said.
“No. No. No,” she said. “I have to do this. I can’t keep fucking up my whole entire useless life.”
“Are you sure? I’m cool with not doing it. I swear,” Josh said. “Fake it till you make it. Fake it till you make it,” she chanted under her breath. Her hands shook as she groped for her tattoo gun. Josh turned around, reached out, and touched her hand with one finger. He was trying to settle her down, the way he laid his hands softly on the farm animals when they were scared. When it was time to inseminate the heifers, he was the one who stroked their backs to keep them calm and held the tail up in the air while his mom reached deep inside them to thread the insemination rod into the uterus and pump the bull semen in. He had the magic touch, his mom said.
The tattoo girl still didn’t look him in the eyes but she opened her palm and took his hand, breathing heavily like she was trying to catch her breath. She held on tight, like she was bobbing in choppy water and he was her lifeline.
He was so happy holding her hand. He had forgotten what happy felt like. It was like he just ate a warm, oozy brownie where the taste stayed in his mouth and filled him up everywhere. It was like waking up after a wonderful dream where a girl put her mouth right on his penis and her soft long hair fell all over his naked body. Wow.
The tattoo girl whispered, “You’re a good guy, you know that? Thanks for being so super nice to me.”
“It’s nothing. Everyone should always be nice to you all the time. Don’t even worry about it. You won’t be nervous forever. It’s only your first day,” Josh said.
“Come here, you,” she said, pulling him close. She hugged him so fiercely and for so long that he almost fainted with pleasure. She smelled so incredibly good. “Let’s try again. I think I’m ready now.” Josh smiled and sat down in her tattoo chair. He took off his shirt, hoping he didn’t smell of cows or sweat. She studied his picture, made a stencil of the bull, then wiped his arm and armpit with rubbing alcohol. The gentle way she swabbed him down and the feel of her hands on him were so wonderful that he had to stop himself from laughing out loud.
When the first stab of the needle in the tattoo gun landed under his armpit, Josh cried out in shock. It felt like the needle reached all the way to his bone, like she was stabbing him with a jagged knife, ripping him open. Was this normal? Or was he a baby who couldn’t stand a little pain?
She continued, panting a little and murmuring under her breath, like she was remembering the steps and repeating them to herself. She stabbed so hard and so fast, Josh couldn’t even find words to stop her. The pain paralyzed him. Finally his nose started gushing blood and he vomited and fainted almost at the exact same time. As he slid from the chair to the floor, he saw the air turn a gorgeous shimmering green all around him. Isn’t that amazing, there’s all this green hidden under the air, was his last thought before blacking out.
Someday he would tell his wife about the first woman who got under his skin. He would describe it all—the bull, the green cloud that enveloped him, the ink that remained under his armpit in a trail that went nowhere. How that was the moment he knew his childhood was over. He would tell his wife he was born into his manhood covered with blood and vomit and paralyzed by pain. Try having a baby claw its way out of you and then we’ll talk, she would say, laughing.
When Josh woke up in the emergency room and saw two faces looming over him, his first thought was, Who’s that lady with my mom? Then he saw Heidi reach her long, hairy arm with her big man’s hands around his mom’s shoulder and he knew. He closed his eyes again, but he could feel her there, waiting.
*This story was published in: Bull and Other Stories by Kathy Anderson, Autumn House Press, 2016.
*Copyright © 2016 by Kathy Anderson.
*Image: Alon Braier
BY A PARTIAL, PREJUDICED, AND IGNORANT HISTORIAN.
To Miss Austen, eldest daughter of the Rev. George Austen, this work is inscribed with all due respect by THE AUTHOR.
N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.
HENRY the 4th
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays, and the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, and was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
HENRY the 5th
This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed and amiable, forsaking all his dissipated companions, and never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went and fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreable woman by Shakespear’s account. In spite of all this however he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.
HENRY the 6th
I cannot say much for this Monarch’s sense. Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him and the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my spleen AGAINST, and shew my Hatred TO all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, and not to give information. This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses and misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her. It was in this reign that Joan of Arc lived and made such a ROW among the English. They should not have burnt her—but they did. There were several Battles between the Yorkists and Lancastrians, in which the former (as they ought) usually conquered. At length they were entirely overcome; The King was murdered—The Queen was sent home—and Edward the 4th ascended the Throne.
EDWARD the 4th
This Monarch was famous only for his Beauty and his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, and his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs. His Wife was Elizabeth Woodville, a Widow who, poor Woman! was afterwards confined in a Convent by that Monster of Iniquity and Avarice Henry the 7th. One of Edward’s Mistresses was Jane Shore, who has had a play written about her, but it is a tragedy and therefore not worth reading. Having performed all these noble actions, his Majesty died, and was succeeded by his son.
EDWARD the 5th
This unfortunate Prince lived so little a while that nobody had him to draw his picture. He was murdered by his Uncle’s Contrivance, whose name was Richard the 3rd.
RICHARD the 3rd
The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a YORK, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.
HENRY the 7th
This Monarch soon after his accession married the Princess Elizabeth of York, by which alliance he plainly proved that he thought his own right inferior to hers, tho’ he pretended to the contrary. By this Marriage he had two sons and two daughters, the elder of which Daughters was married to the King of Scotland and had the happiness of being grandmother to one of the first Characters in the World. But of HER, I shall have occasion to speak more at large in future. The youngest, Mary, married first the King of France and secondly the D. of Suffolk, by whom she had one daughter, afterwards the Mother of Lady Jane Grey, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman and famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting. It was in the reign of Henry the 7th that Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel before mentioned made their appearance, the former of whom was set in the stocks, took shelter in Beaulieu Abbey, and was beheaded with the Earl of Warwick, and the latter was taken into the Kings kitchen. His Majesty died and was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit was his not being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.
HENRY the 8th
It would be an affront to my Readers were I to suppose that they were not as well acquainted with the particulars of this King’s reign as I am myself. It will therefore be saving THEM the task of reading again what they have read before, and MYSELF the trouble of writing what I do not perfectly recollect, by giving only a slight sketch of the principal Events which marked his reign. Among these may be ranked Cardinal Wolsey’s telling the father Abbott of Leicester Abbey that “he was come to lay his bones among them,” the reformation in Religion and the King’s riding through the streets of London with Anna Bullen. It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, and of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn Protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the Charges against her, and the King’s Character; all of which add some confirmation, tho’ perhaps but slight ones when in comparison with those before alledged in her favour. Tho’ I do not profess giving many dates, yet as I think it proper to give some and shall of course make choice of those which it is most necessary for the Reader to know, I think it right to inform him that her letter to the King was dated on the 6th of May. The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince, were too numerous to be mentioned, (as this history I trust has fully shown;) and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for ages been established in the Kingdom. His Majesty’s 5th Wife was the Duke of Norfolk’s Neice who, tho’ universally acquitted of the crimes for which she was beheaded, has been by many people supposed to have led an abandoned life before her Marriage—of this however I have many doubts, since she was a relation of that noble Duke of Norfolk who was so warm in the Queen of Scotland’s cause, and who at last fell a victim to it. The Kings last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it. He was succeeded by his only son Edward.
EDWARD the 6th
As this prince was only nine years old at the time of his Father’s death, he was considered by many people as too young to govern, and the late King happening to be of the same opinion, his mother’s Brother the Duke of Somerset was chosen Protector of the realm during his minority. This Man was on the whole of a very amiable Character, and is somewhat of a favourite with me, tho’ I would by no means pretend to affirm that he was equal to those first of Men Robert Earl of Essex, Delamere, or Gilpin. He was beheaded, of which he might with reason have been proud, had he known that such was the death of Mary Queen of Scotland; but as it was impossible that he should be conscious of what had never happened, it does not appear that he felt particularly delighted with the manner of it. After his decease the Duke of Northumberland had the care of the King and the Kingdom, and performed his trust of both so well that the King died and the Kingdom was left to his daughter in law the Lady Jane Grey, who has been already mentioned as reading Greek. Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, and contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the scaffold, she wrote a sentence in Latin and another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her Husband accidentally passing that way.
This woman had the good luck of being advanced to the throne of England, in spite of the superior pretensions, Merit, and Beauty of her Cousins Mary Queen of Scotland and Jane Grey. Nor can I pity the Kingdom for the misfortunes they experienced during her Reign, since they fully deserved them, for having allowed her to succeed her Brother—which was a double peice of folly, since they might have foreseen that as she died without children, she would be succeeded by that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society, Elizabeth. Many were the people who fell martyrs to the protestant Religion during her reign; I suppose not fewer than a dozen. She married Philip King of Spain who in her sister’s reign was famous for building Armadas. She died without issue, and then the dreadful moment came in which the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her, and the Murderess of her Cousin succeeded to the Throne.——
It was the peculiar misfortune of this Woman to have bad Ministers—-Since wicked as she herself was, she could not have committed such extensive mischeif, had not these vile and abandoned Men connived at, and encouraged her in her Crimes. I know that it has by many people been asserted and beleived that Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the cheif offices of State were deserving, experienced, and able Ministers. But oh! how blinded such writers and such Readers must be to true Merit, to Merit despised, neglected and defamed, if they can persist in such opinions when they reflect that these men, these boasted men were such scandals to their Country and their sex as to allow and assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen years, a WOMAN who if the claims of Relationship and Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen and as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect assistance and protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death. Can any one if he reflects but for a moment on this blot, this everlasting blot upon their understanding and their Character, allow any praise to Lord Burleigh or Sir Francis Walsingham? Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only freind was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight and myself, who was abandoned by her son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached and vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death! Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; constant in her Religion; and prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that would alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened and zealous Protestants have even abused her for that steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of THEIR narrow souls and prejudiced Judgements who accuse her. She was executed in the Great Hall at Fortheringay Castle (sacred Place!) on Wednesday the 8th of February 1586—to the everlasting Reproach of Elizabeth, her Ministers, and of England in general. It may not be unnecessary before I entirely conclude my account of this ill-fated Queen, to observe that she had been accused of several crimes during the time of her reigning in Scotland, of which I now most seriously do assure my Reader that she was entirely innocent; having never been guilty of anything more than Imprudencies into which she was betrayed by the openness of her Heart, her Youth, and her Education. Having I trust by this assurance entirely done away every Suspicion and every doubt which might have arisen in the Reader’s mind, from what other Historians have written of her, I shall proceed to mention the remaining Events that marked Elizabeth’s reign. It was about this time that Sir Francis Drake the first English Navigator who sailed round the World, lived, to be the ornament of his Country and his profession. Yet great as he was, and justly celebrated as a sailor, I cannot help foreseeing that he will be equalled in this or the next Century by one who tho’ now but young, already promises to answer all the ardent and sanguine expectations of his Relations and Freinds, amongst whom I may class the amiable Lady to whom this work is dedicated, and my no less amiable self.
Though of a different profession, and shining in a different sphere of Life, yet equally conspicuous in the Character of an Earl, as Drake was in that of a Sailor, was Robert Devereux Lord Essex. This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in character to that equally unfortunate one FREDERIC DELAMERE. The simile may be carried still farther, and Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble and gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb, after having been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, and died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.
JAMES the 1st
Though this King had some faults, among which and as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him. He married Anne of Denmark, and had several Children; fortunately for him his eldest son Prince Henry died before his father or he might have experienced the evils which befell his unfortunate Brother.
As I am myself partial to the roman catholic religion, it is with infinite regret that I am obliged to blame the Behaviour of any Member of it: yet Truth being I think very excusable in an Historian, I am necessitated to say that in this reign the roman Catholics of England did not behave like Gentlemen to the protestants. Their Behaviour indeed to the Royal Family and both Houses of Parliament might justly be considered by them as very uncivil, and even Sir Henry Percy tho’ certainly the best bred man of the party, had none of that general politeness which is so universally pleasing, as his attentions were entirely confined to Lord Mounteagle.
Sir Walter Raleigh flourished in this and the preceeding reign, and is by many people held in great veneration and respect—But as he was an enemy of the noble Essex, I have nothing to say in praise of him, and must refer all those who may wish to be acquainted with the particulars of his life, to Mr Sheridan’s play of the Critic, where they will find many interesting anecdotes as well of him as of his friend Sir Christopher Hatton.—His Majesty was of that amiable disposition which inclines to Freindship, and in such points was possessed of a keener penetration in discovering Merit than many other people. I once heard an excellent Sharade on a Carpet, of which the subject I am now on reminds me, and as I think it may afford my Readers some amusement to FIND IT OUT, I shall here take the liberty of presenting it to them.
SHARADE My first is what my second was to King James the 1st, and you tread on my whole.
The principal favourites of his Majesty were Car, who was afterwards created Earl of Somerset and whose name perhaps may have some share in the above mentioned Sharade, and George Villiers afterwards Duke of Buckingham. On his Majesty’s death he was succeeded by his son Charles.
CHARLES the 1st
This amiable Monarch seems born to have suffered misfortunes equal to those of his lovely Grandmother; misfortunes which he could not deserve since he was her descendant. Never certainly were there before so many detestable Characters at one time in England as in this Period of its History; never were amiable men so scarce. The number of them throughout the whole Kingdom amounting only to FIVE, besides the inhabitants of Oxford who were always loyal to their King and faithful to his interests. The names of this noble five who never forgot the duty of the subject, or swerved from their attachment to his Majesty, were as follows—The King himself, ever stedfast in his own support—Archbishop Laud, Earl of Strafford, Viscount Faulkland and Duke of Ormond, who were scarcely less strenuous or zealous in the cause. While the VILLIANS of the time would make too long a list to be written or read; I shall therefore content myself with mentioning the leaders of the Gang. Cromwell, Fairfax, Hampden, and Pym may be considered as the original Causers of all the disturbances, Distresses, and Civil Wars in which England for many years was embroiled. In this reign as well as in that of Elizabeth, I am obliged in spite of my attachment to the Scotch, to consider them as equally guilty with the generality of the English, since they dared to think differently from their Sovereign, to forget the Adoration which as STUARTS it was their Duty to pay them, to rebel against, dethrone and imprison the unfortunate Mary; to oppose, to deceive, and to sell the no less unfortunate Charles. The Events of this Monarch’s reign are too numerous for my pen, and indeed the recital of any Events (except what I make myself) is uninteresting to me; my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to Prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself with having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter part of my scheme.—As therefore it is not my intention to give any particular account of the distresses into which this King was involved through the misconduct and Cruelty of his Parliament, I shall satisfy myself with vindicating him from the Reproach of Arbitrary and tyrannical Government with which he has often been charged. This, I feel, is not difficult to be done, for with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible and well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education—and this Argument is that he was a STUART.
Finis Saturday Nov: 26th 1791.
What, is she actually going to buy the tickets herself? This puts me to shame. Isn’t this guy looking at me, this bald-headed Russian, I mean? And this woman has her eyes fixed squarely on my face, too! Yes, and this guy puffing on a cigar, he’s looking at me now as well. They’re all looking at me. Well, all right, I know what they’re thinking. They’re a little bit contemptuous of me. No, more than that, I think they are actually sneering at me.
I don’t know why on earth she had to insist on buying the tickets… surely she must know what an awkward spot this puts me in? I am a man, a gentleman — and whoever saw a man escort a lady (a “lady” of whatever degree) to a cinema, and the lady going up to buy the tickets? Never; at any rate I’ve never seen such a thing.
My face feels hot. I’ve probably gone as red as a beetroot. Isn’t there a mirror around here? If there is one, I’ll look at myself in it. Oh! This guy is actually laughing openly at me! How dare you mock me, sir? Surely you must have seen her suddenly lunge toward the ticket window. I couldn’t stop her, how could I? Who would have expected a thing like this to happen ? Oh! I don’t think I can stand this any longer. I have an urge to turn and run out of the door. Oh, let me just stand outside on the steps for a while…
What, she still hasn’t managed to buy the tickets? It’s so crowded in here! And that’s another thing; why in Heaven’s name would she want to fight her way through such a crush to buy the tickets, when that should have been my job? Perhaps she didn’t want me to be the one who was doing the inviting?… But, in that case why did she in fact agree yesterday evening to come to the cinema with me? Yes, why did she, yesterday evening when I escorted her to her door, consent to my taking her out tonight? Surely she didn’t think that today would be her turn to take me out, did she? Humph, well, if that’s what she was thinking, the best thing for us to do is break it off completely, and have none of this “you invite me, and then I invite you” nonsense, in my opinion. Did she think I had invited her to come and see a film so that I could get a return invitation from her? Well, maybe she thought that it would be awkward for me if she let me do all the treating? So she decided that, she should buy the tickets today? To save face, perhaps? Yes, that was probably it! Women are always getting such ideas into their heads. They also get rather haughty ideas from time to time…
Now what’s going on? She still hasn’t bought the tickets. Why don’t I fight my way through this crush and buy them for her? How can I be expected to just stand here and put up with the mocking stares of all these people? I’d better go up there. She probably hasn’t managed to buy the tickets yet. What do they cost here, anyway?… Down- stairs, 6 jiao, and upstairs? I wish this idiot would get his head out of the way. I can’t see the price. It looks like 8 jiao. Oh, here she comes! She’s got the tickets at last. Strange! How come I didn’t see her buy them? Where did she buy these tickets?
Well, never mind. Let’s go in. But why is she giving me both tickets? Oh, these are circle tickets! Why did she splash out on such expensive tickets ?… I think I understand; she is showing her displeasure at my buying seats in the stalls the last time. This is even more of a slap in the face! Oh, no! I’m not standing for that. I’d rather break off our friendship. I certainly can’t accept these tickets. No, I never want to take her to the cinema again. Not only that, no more strolls, no more ice cream. Never again!… Ah, now what’s she saying?
“All the upstairs and downstairs tickets were sold out, so I had to buy fancy seats.’’
Oh, pardon me. I almost made a blunder there. Why was it that I couldn’t see that the window where they sell the ordinary seats has a sign saying “Sold out”? The crowd is dispersing, isn’t it? They must be disappointed, though I can’t imagine why this film has so much appeal. Oh, that’s right, today’s Sunday… Well, we have to go upstairs. But… she gave me both tickets. What was the meaning of that? What a narrow staircase! Not like that big wide one at the Grand Theatre. Hardly wide enough for two people to walk up side by side. Has the film started already? I can hear music. Here is the usherette. Oh, now I understand. She wanted me to be the one to hand over the tickets, to make it look as though I had bought them. That’s right! She didn’t want me to lose face in front of the usherette. Let me have a look behind, to see if any of those people who saw her buy the tickets are following us…. No, it looks like we’re the last in. What about that bald-headed Russian who was mocking me downstairs? And the woman in the skimpy qipaol? And that cocky fellow smoking the cigar? They must have failed to get hold of tickets and gone home, I suppose. Serves them right for sneering at me, doesn’t it? Now, what are our seat numbers? Seventy-four and seventy- five. I can’t tell what kind of seats those are.
Good, now we’re in, and the show hasn’t started yet. In fact, the lights are still on. Just a minute, where’s this flunky taking us? We bought circle tickets. Good Heavens! We’re in the third row. The back row of the circle! Why do we keep going round the side? Are these two seats ours? This is no good; we’re right at the very end. We’ll be squinting sideways at the screen all the time. Well, I suppose I’ll have to let her sit on the inside.
God, it’s stuffy in here! Packed out with people, too. Where did that German guy get that foul-smelling cigar? I’ve never smelled a worse cigar in my life… Now what’s she giving me?… Oh, it’s a programme. Of course. Why do I have to be so muddle-headed all the time? Why didn’t I pick one up in the foyer? But that’s funny! I don’t remember seeing her pick up a programme. Oh, it was probably when I was looking at the seat numbers…. UFA (Universum-Film AG). Of course. I knew that this film was made by UFA. The Paris Cinema often shows their films. They’re not bad, either. I wonder if she noticed? I should tell her.
“ This is another UFA films. ”
What’s the matter now? She’s just staring at me. Perhaps she doesn’t know UFA. I should explain, but I ’ d better keep my voice down.
“UFA is a leading German film maker. They turn out some excellent films. They’re my favourites. I think they’re better than anything that comes out of Hollywood.”
No reply. Just nods her head. I wonder if she thought my explanation was a bit impertinent? She probably thinks I’m implying that she’s ignorant of the cinema world and she’s nettled at that. Now she’s bent her head and is engrossed in reading the programme. What should I say to her now?…
Let me see if there’s anybody I know here. If anyone saw the two of us come in and spread the story around it would be embarrassing to say the least. But, on the other hand… embarrassing? Did I use to think like that? There’s nothing secret about what we are doing, surely? Can’t I take a girlfriend to the cinema? Am I still afraid to do that, even now? The lights have all gone out, and the film is about to start. Good, nobody will be able to see us now! Did she finish reading the programme? She was not that last; she probably read only half of it. We were a bit late getting here. Well, that was her fault. She refused to take a bus and would insist on walking along that tree-shaded path — God knows why.
These seats are too small. They ’re really uncomfortable. Has she put her arm on the armrest, on this side? Yes, she has. So I’ve only got this side to lean on. Oh, well, I’ll just have to sit sideways and relax a little. Good Lord, that’s a nice perfumy smell! It must be coming from her. I detected it on her the other day when we were sitting in the park, only not so strong. Now I remember… just after dinner she spent an awful long time upstairs, and I almost fumed with impatience, didn’t I? She must have been dressing up, and making up, or whatever. I guess she must have changed her outfit completely. Right down to her underwear. That’s enough of that… don’t be cheeky. What’s she laughing at? Oh, everybody’s laughing! Surely they didn’t all realize what I was just thinking about in my wild imagination!.. No, of course not. They were laughing at that elephant getting his trunk stuck in a crack. Not a bad cartoon!
Why did she nudge my arm with her elbow? It did feel like some kind of a nudge. Was it deliberate or accidental? If I could only see the expression on her face I’d know. Unfortunately the screen’s too dark right now and I can’t see clearly…. She doesn’t look as though anything had happened. Her eyes are fixed on the screen and she has a perfectly solemn expression on her lace. In fact she looks completely oblivious of the fact that she is sitting next to me in a cinema. Well if she had not forgotten all about me what would she have been doing? Flashing glances at me all the time. Ha! Don’t be ridiculous! What was I thinking? Oh, I found out this time! She’s really smart; without moving her head at all she swivelled her eyes and gave me a glance.
What does this mean? Clearly she was secretly thinking about me and felt that I was looking at her. She is lightly pressing her lips together, obviously trying to suppress a smile. How is she really feeling, deep down? I just can’t guess. What really is our relationship now? Have I fallen in love with her? I can’t fathom myself why I should be so happy going out with her. These past three days my mind’s been in a whirl, as we’ve been gallivanting all over Shanghai, just about. I certainly never felt so warm even towards my wife. I really feel sorry for her, but it can’t be helped; I can’t control myself. She lives in the country-side. She’s a gentle and rather pitiable creature. Right now, she’ll probably be already asleep. I wonder if she’s dreaming about me and a woman watching a film together!…
Phew, it’s hot in here! I can feel beads of sweat on my forehead. Where’s my handkerchief?… That’s strange! It’s not in my back pocket. Oh, now I remember; I spread it on a bench for her to sit on in Hongkou Park, and when we left I forgot all about it. Well. That, I’m afraid, is destined to become just a secret, faint memory. What was it she had said, sitting there on that bench and holding a willow leaf that had dropped onto her shoulder? “If only I could have known you earlier!” Didn’t she say that?… That’s right. I had said that to her once; “If only I could have known you earlier!” I don’t know why I said that then. What did it mean? Surely it wasn’t some kind of hint, was it? Ah, it’s lovely in Hongkou Park on a summer’s evening! I can almost see it now — the golden moon reflected in the pond. It really was attractive. But anyway, perhaps her meaning was that if she had known me earlier, then … earlier, meaning when? Obviously meaning before I was married…. Is that what I was hinting? How strange! The truth is probably that I was just mumbling some vague thought. I shouldn’t say such ambiguous things to an emotional young woman. Now, I’m sure she’s got the wrong impression. She must think I’m in love with her. And she’s not entirely wrong, either. I really am a little bit in love with her as a matter of fact. I really don’t understand how all this came about, and I don’t know whether I ought to come right out with it and tell her or not. For example, when we were sitting in Hongkou Park a little while ago if I had told her I loved her how would she have reacted? Burst into tears, perhaps?
…Yes, I know that when women find themselves in such situations their only response is either to sob or hang their heads in mute tragedy, as if there is nothing else they can do. Then, what ought I to have done? Comfort her? Would she have let me kiss her then, like those passionate heroines on the cinema screen? I’m afraid not… no, definitely not! The circumstances are different; for, of course, she knows that I’m married…. What’s she doing now? Seems she’s not very settled in her seat. She’s pushing her arm further along the armrest. I can even feel the warmth of her skin…. Now, she’s turning her head. Is she going to speak to me?
“What’s his name?”
Who ? Who ’ s she talking about? Someone on the screen? She probably means the fellow playing the adjutant? Who is he? I just can’t think of his name. It’s on everybody’s lips; how is it that I can’t recall it all of a sudden?… He’s a leading Russian film star, I know that much. Well.
“Do you mean the chap playing the adjutant? That’s Ivan Morodin. He’s a famous Russian film star.”
“Oh, that’s right! Ivan Morodin. I remember now. I’ve seen lots of his films. I really like him.”
What? She really likes him?… How can a Chinese woman like someone as stem and cold as Morodin? No, I don’t believe it. If it were someone like Vrontino, then perhaps! Women go for anyone who plays the part of a handsome young hero. That’s true enough? But there’s no danger from a celluloid rival. And anyway, if it’s a foreign film you can forget such a thing completely. So, you like him, do you? But how would he ever know that you like him? Look, he’s kissing another woman. Aren’t you jealous? Ha, ha…. Quelle folle!
I can feel her looking at me, but not in that sideways manner she was using just now. She has turned her head round towards me. Now what does this mean? Shall I swivel my eyes to meet her gaze?… Perhaps not. That might embarrass her. But she’s obviously smiling. Oh, yes! I can definitely feel her smiling at me. What is there about me to smile at? I wonder if she can read the funny thoughts running through my mind…. That would be quite a joke. Why don’t I just turn my head quickly and look her full in the lace? I could catch her looking at me before she has time to avert her gaze, then I could ask her what she finds so funny about me….
“What are you smiling at?”
Aha! I’ve caught her! She looks embarrassed, doesn’t she? Let’s see what she says.
“I’m smiling at you.”
What? Is that all? She’s smiling at me. I know that already — you don’t have to tell me that. What I want to know is why you are smiling at me. What is it about me that you find so funny? So I’m going to ask her another question.
“Why are you smiling at me?”
“I’m smiling at the way you’re watching the film — staring blankly at the screen with your mouth open.’’
What a strange thing to say! Staring blankly with my mouth open, indeed! I never do that, and I certainly was not doing that just now! Definitely not. Not a bit of it. Lies, all lies! Women are accomplished liars, of course. It was a clever retort, but that was definitely not the reason she was smiling at me. No, I think the real reason was that she thought it was a bit pointless just sitting there gazing at the film. For people in our situation it would be unutterably dull just to sit glued to the screen all the way through. Anyway, the reason for coming here in the first place was to take advantage of the dark, that’s all. There are lots of actions and words that require darkness. Look, she’s leaning nearer me. Now she’s let the cat out of the bag! If the seat is too far to one side to see the screen properly she should be leaning the other way, to her right. She is definitely snuggling up against my shoulder. I’ 11 lean my body up against her a little bit and see if she pulls away…. Heavens, she hasn’t budged! Did she feel me move up against her? Is she in love with me too? I suppose so; these past couple of days she hasn’t resisted any of my advances. Why don’t I dare go any further? I’m too timid now. I love her! I’ve fallen in love with her! But, how can I tell her? Can she love a man who’s already married? I’m afraid that if I told her, even hinted at it, she would run away from me. She would never see me again, not even a flicker of ordinary friendship would remain.
“Intermission”. The intermission already? That means the film’s half over. Well, that was quick! I haven’t seen any of it yet. What about some ice-cream? Yes, that would be nice; I’m really hot. But I wonder what she would like? Ice-cream? A soft drink? I’d better ask her.
“Would you like some ice-cream or a soft drink, or something?”
“No, nothing, thanks.”
Why does she have to be so polite today? The last couple of days she hasn’t been like this. Why doesn’t she want anything? Doesn’t she feel hot? Yesterday evening at the Carlton she ate two cartons of ice-cream, didn’t she? Why is she so adamant about refusing today? I find that a bit annoying.
“Two chocolate ice-creams, please.”
Surely she’s not going to refuse, now that I’ve bought them.
“No, honestly. I really don’t feel like eating ice-cream today.”
…Oh, I see. Well, if that’s the case…. She’s blushing slightly, isn’t she? I suppose I shouldn’t insist; it will only make her feel more embarrassed. Normally, she wouldn’t have refused me like this. Never. Didn’t she say that she didn’t feel like eating ice-cream today? All right, I’ll eat them. Ooh, that’s cold! I don’t think I can eat two cartons all by myself. I hope I wouldn’t upset my stomach. She’s turning round to look at something; what is it? Is she looking for someone? Or is she afraid that someone has seen us? As a matter of fact, now I hope that someone actually has seen us. It might be a good thing if they spread the story around. I’ve got chocolate all over my fingers and they’re all sticky. It’s such a nuisance not having my handkerchief. How about wiping them on my programme? Yes, and where is my programme? It was on my knee just now. It must have fallen on the floor. It’s probably got a lot of muck on it. Damn! What am I supposed to clean my hands on?
She’s passed me a handkerchief. She must have been watching me the whole time. It’s a little handkerchief, warm and moist. She must have mopped her brow with it. Well, there! I’ve wiped my fingers clean.
Hold on! I want to know what it smells like. I can pretend to be wiping my mouth; that way no one will see that I’m taking a sniff. Mmm? Very nice. This is her fragrance right enough. Perfume mixed with her perspiration. I feel an urge to lick it, to find out what it tastes like. It must be a very interesting taste, I think. I can wipe the handkerchief across my mouth from the left to the right, and as I do so I can stick my tongue out and lick it. I could even suck at it and no one would know. Wouldn’t that be nice? Ah, good! The lights have all been dimmed, and the film’s continuing. This is just the right time for me to give it a really good suck. It’s really salty here. Must be sweat, I suppose. What’s this here, the part with the pungent smell? That must be mucus and saliva. No wonder it’s so sticky. This really is a new delight. I can feel a delicious tingling sensation on the tip of my tongue. Strange, it feels as though I’m holding her naked body! I couldn’t keep this handkerchief, could I? What would she say if I suddenly put it in my pocket? Even if she didn’t say anything she would still think it was a bit improper. I couldn’t do such a base thing. I must hand it back to her. And I’d better hand it back right now.
She didn’t hold it in her hand, but stuffed it straight in her pocket. She probably sensed what I had done, because the handkerchief was wet through from my sucking it — as if I’d mopped my clothes after a summer shower. Ah, what a beautiful fragrance! A beautiful fragrance for sure! If only I could suck on her tender lips and behind her ears my whole body would start trembling. Oh, Heaven! I want to know right now how she would react if I were to reveal my secret love for her…. It would be enough if she would let me know that she would not spurn me. I don’t understand why I am so helpless in this situation. Shaoyan has had lots of love affairs, but I bet he has a different technique from mine. I wonder how he handles it when he tells a woman about his love for her and she turns him down…. If I only knew that, I would be all right. But, there again, would any woman turn him down? He is so handsome, so socially poised. In fact, he’s a real Flash Harry.
Perhaps women are unwilling to hurt people’s feelings… but however she handles the situation, even the slightest hint of a refusal will devastate me, I’m sure.
Anyway, let me think this over in more detail. What reason could she possibly have for turning me down? Isn’t she happy every time she goes out with me? Doesn’t she always strenuously oppose it every time some third person wants to go with us? Doesn’t she always disappear whenever she hears that my wife is coming to Shanghai? And when we go out to dinner, doesn’t she always insist on sitting in a private booth? Whenever I’m careless, doesn’t she just hang her head patiently? Oh, and there’s something else, too that enigmatic gaze she fixes me with from time to time. Sometimes it can last as long as one or two minutes. What does all this add up to?… So, it seems that, apart from the feet that I’m already married, she can have no reason at all to refuse me.
But, there again, it is not absolutely out of the question for a woman to fall in love with a married man. On the contrary, it happens often enough. And to look at it from another angle, if she wanted to turn me down she would have drifted away from me a long time ago. Surely she can’t be serenely unaware of the inevitability of my bothering her with such a matter! No, it’s impossible. She’s the sort of person who’s looking for a love affair, and if she were prepared to turn me down she would have been wasting her time seeking me out as a companion, now wouldn’t she? Ah, it’s a puzzle, after all. At least it’s a puzzle I can’t solve.
Now what’s happening on the screen? He’s taken his former wife’s ring off and thrown it away in front of that woman, hasn’t he? Morodin’s got a fine expression on his face. Look how anguished he looks! It must be very difficult to manage an expression like that. But, what was the story before now? I can’t really make it out. I’ve never watched a film so absent-mindedly before… Isn’t this my wedding ring? If I should throw away the ring my wife gave me right now, what would be her reaction? Would she, in fact, see me do it? And if she did, would she say anything? Right, I’ll give it a try. It’s coming off now. And now I’m holding it between my finger and thumb…. She must have seen me by now, I’m sure. What was that, a sigh? Who breathed a sigh? Is the whole of the audience sighing? Ah, they’re embracing. The heroine has finally thrown herself into the adjutant’s arms. Why isn’t she watching the screen? She’s still paying attention to me. Let me just turn and have a look at her. She’s looking at the ring I’m holding in my hand, isn’t she? What did she say?
“What are you doing?”
What am I doing? Did she really ask me that? What a barefaced question! How does she expect me to answer? Ha, ha, what does she mean? Did she mean my taking the ring off or did she mean my turning round and looking at her? Well, I’ll just give her an equivocal reply, like this:
“I’m not doing anything.”
Now she’s embarrassed, clearly uneasy. Why has she turned her lace away and hung her head? Now what are her feelings? Bight, I really have to find that out. But, if she does not tell me I will have no way of finding out. Women can keep their own secrets for ever, right until they die. But, sometimes they feel remorse.
Everybody is standing up. Oh, the film’s over. The lights have been turned on and they’re dazzling my eyes. What a crush of people! We have to go down by that staircase over there. What did she say? I didn’t catch it.
“I said, how do you feel?”
How do I feel? What does that mean? Oh, she must mean, what did I think of the film.
“Oh, very good. Yes, not bad.”
That’s a joke. I hardly even glanced at it! Oops, be careful!… Mind how you walk. How could she miss her footing on a perfectly ordinary set of stairs. She must have done it on purpose… deliberately… so she could lean on my arm, I bet. My arm is completely round her now. Should I withdraw it? No need, we haven’t got to the bottom of the stairs yet, and she might miss her footing again.
Oh, it’s chilly outside! It’s only when you come out of the Nanjing Theatre that you feel a warm breeze. That’s an air-conditioned theatre. Now I should remove my arm from her. What time is it? Eleven-forty. But my watch is ten minutes fast, so it’s only about 11:30. Still early! I should ask her to go for a snack.
Why is she standing so much on ceremony today? Why did she so steadfastly refuse to go for a snack? She wouldn’t even let me see her home, but instead flagged down a taxi and went off by herself. I was ready to take her all the way home. Did she suddenly go off me? Probably so. Today she must have finally grown tired of me. But… but then why did she get me to promise to fetch her tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock to go to Fanwangdu Park? I don’t understand.
Our school was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the first woman awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we had endless lectures about her life: how Zoya did in school, what she read, what essays she wrote. This was supposed to inspire us, as we were told, though they didn’t explain inspire to do what exactly. But even without that explanation it was obvious — to do great deeds, what else? We Soviet children were always supposed to be ready for Heroic Deeds. Moreover, they told us all about Zoya’s heroic death, especially focusing on the torture that she was subjected to by the fascists — in great detail. They described how the Nazis pulled out her fingernails and burned her lips with a kerosene lamp, how they stripped her naked and barefoot and led her along the streets while soldiers spit at her and poured latrine slop on her, and then hanged her and desecrated her body — her left breast was cut off. For some strange reason, her feat — what exactly this young heroine did — was barely mentioned at all. She burned something down or blew something up — she was a partisan after all, and that’s what partisans did.
Once a year they took us to the museum in the village of Petrishchevo outside Moscow where she was killed. Not every school had the honor of being named after a hero — most schools didn’t have names at all — but nevertheless there were dozens of sister schools and Pioneer groups bearing the name of Kosmodemyanskaya all over the country. Delegations from provincial Russian cities and even from other Soviet republics paid regular visits to our school, and at the end of every visit we held ceremonial processions, parades, and concerts in the school auditorium. Since the number of poems, verses, speeches, songs, films and plays dedicated to Zoya by Soviet authors was endless, the program was rather packed, even though it didn’t change much from year to year.
At home my family didn’t like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. My father insisted that there weren’t and could not have been any partisans outside Moscow in 1941, that she didn’t exist, that she was a character made up by some correspondent in a front-line newspaper, Red Star probably, most likely a Jew, and publicized by the Stalinist propaganda machine for the completely obvious reasons.
“Not ‘most likely,’ but a Jew for sure, and not for the Red Star but for Pravda,” my mother would interject. “His name was Lidov and he wrote the first article with that famous photograph of the cut-off breast and the rope around her neck. But it’s not a photograph — it’s a fake, because how could they have photographed her if by the time the Red Army got there she’d already been dead and buried?”
“Don’t you see? They couldn’t have buried her because she never existed!” my father would shout back. “Instead of telling the truth about real life everyday heroism of millions of people who bore the burdens of the war with their sweat and blood and won, they make up fairy tales mixed up with the perverted fantasies of some pathetic sexual impotent! It’s pure pornography!” My mom would open her eyes wide and put her finger to her lips.
The older we got, the stranger the effect of those “memorial evenings” on us. The huge photograph of Zoya, excruciatingly beautiful, with her head thrown back, torn clothing and one breast — the remaining breast — with its pointed nipple catching your eye while the second — the one cut off — is terrifying and repulsive. Her hair splayed on the snow, her eyes closed — the image upset us 12-year-olds in some gripping, mysterious way. Something dark and hot rose from the depths of our bellies and our heads spun…
Meanwhile, on stage an older student read an excerpt from an article by Alexander Dovzhenko, her voice cracking: “Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the cold and beatings, are clenched into fists. Her bare feet have turned black from the horrible night in the freezing cold. Her lips, swollen and bitten and bloody: two hundred blows by German belts throughout the night tried to beat a confession from those tender lips, but to no avail. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t weep, she didn’t moan.”
During one of those evenings I couldn’t stand the stuffy room, the pathos and those mysterious things happening to my body, and escaped the auditorium. I don’t know how, but I found myself next to the empty gym locker room. There I ran into Sasha Zorin and Sergei Fadeyev from our class, who also ran away from the concert and were aimlessly wandering about the school. The small locker room was blocked off by a clothes rack and a tall cupboard for shoes. Without saying a word, we moved quickly to the corner by the far wall and began to feverishly examine each other’s bodies. Their hands fumbled, unhooked, lifted up, pulled down. Mine struggled with idiotic buckles and school belts until the boys helped me with them. We touched, stroked, groped, and squeezed, all without a word, trying not to look each other in the eye. I was ashamed to look them in the face, they also tried to look away, but our hands and bodies so closely pressed together knew no shame or embarrassment. We were so caught up in what we were doing that we didn’t notice the janitress standing before us: a tiny, hunchbacked old woman, with constantly rheumy, pale blue eyes.
Finally she regained her ability to speak. “What are you up to, you little wretches? Just you wait!”
She shook her wet floor cloth and drenched us in a stream of spray. The cold, filthy water instantly brought us to our senses. We jumped up and ran off in different directions.
The barrel of a German Tiger pointed straight at me. It was a terrifying machine — a huge, clumsy, disgusting tank. The personification of evil .I shuddered. “Death to the Fascist Invaders!” I shouted as loud as I could and kicked the tank’s caterpillar track. That gave me some relief. The spring that had been tightly wound in my stomach over the last few days relaxed a bit. There was no one around, and I could have even climbed up on the tank if I wanted to. That I didn’t want, instead I had a whim to look down the barrel which I wasn’t tall enough to do. There were some boulders scattered around, so I rolled one closer and climbed it up. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, Svidrigailov, was afraid that eternity was a sooty jar filled with spiders. The jar wasn’t too bad, compared to that terrifying, frigid, all-encompassing darkness.
It was drizzling even though the radio had promised dry and warm weather. An interesting choice to spend holidays — wandering alone in the rain, examining old tanks and thinking about eternity.
“Stop that smoking right away! Girl, I’m talking to you!” A fat elderly woman was trotting up to me at full speed, one hand supporting her chest while the other one extended out to me, as if she was going to yank the cigarette out of my mouth.
I retreated the way I came, climbed over the fence and hid in the woods, figuring she was unlikely to chase after me. I probably took a wrong turn, and instead of coming out in the dacha settlement, I just went deeper into the woods. After wandering around for about 20 minutes I realized that I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost — all around there were dacha villages and I’d get to people at some point, but the whole situation pissed me off. Why should I be alone again, and what was I doing in these woods?! It was all Alyona’s fault. She showed up right before the holidays. As if nothing had happened. And she asked me out to the dacha. Since she had gone to live with her father and his new family, we hadn’t seen each other for several months and didn’t even talk on the phone. She wouldn’t call me, and I didn’t know her new number.
The last we saw each other was on her birthday. Sixteen years old — that’s a big deal. She invited just about everyone: our entire old class — by then we’d both left, me to a medical vocational school, her to a fancy charter school. She invited rich kids from her new class; street toughs that made the juvie home weep; friends of friends who crashed the party. The door to the apartment was left wide open and new people streamed in, mostly in big crowds. I had hoped that Alyona and I would spend the evening by ourselves, having a heart-to-heart chat the way we used to, but she yakked non-stop with her new girlfriends, laughed at stupid jokes and then disappeared from the apartment altogether — she ran out with the juvies to ride on a motorcycle.
Since the start of the school year I hadn’t seen any of my old classmates — let alone I barely saw Alyona — and I didn’t miss them much. Out of boredom, I decided to show off a bit – in fact, it was not my intention, it just happened. They all stared at me as if I were an alien from the outer space, like they had expected me to put on a show. “You want songs? I’ve got‘em for you!” I spun out medical tales and they listened with their mouths open. Everything fell into place at that moment: they were silly little schoolchildren who’d never seen real life, and I was the experienced she-wolf who’d been there and done that. I got carried away. I talked and talked, washing down each new story with a glass of Kavkaz port wine. I talked about the morgue, hospital geriatric wards where old ladies lived for months until they died of dementia or bedsores; about the smells that stick to you constantly no matter how you try to kill them with cigarettes and alcohol; about the emergency ward of hospitals where the ambulances bring patients off the street at night — mostly drunk men who collapse in the snow and fall asleep. Oh my God, how they cry when they wake up and realize that their extremities have frozen during the night and now several fingers have to be amputated. How could they work and support their families?
Once — that night the orderlies gathered up all the bits of soap and melt it all down in a huge vat and the fumes and stench made you want to kill yourself — a couple was brought in. Both of them were drunk. She had a knife wound and his hands were burned so badly that the skin was coming off in sheets and he had burn spots on his face. Typical case — they had a fight over booze. He stabbed her with the knife and she responded by splashing him with boiling water, but he had time to cover his face with his hands. That was, of course, just an educated guess since they refused to give each other up. The guy stood by his story and wouldn’t budge: she fell and stabbed herself with the knife. He rushed to help her and knocked over a pot of boiling soup on himself. No one took care of them. They were assigned to different rooms, the nurses argued, the doctors yelled at the ambulance medics for bringing such lowlifes into the hospital, and the orderlies went off to boil more soap. That’s when we heard moans and cries. We ran up and saw a bloody trail going down the hall. We followed it to the room where we’d left the burnt boyfriend. It turned out she had crawled to him on her stomach — our Juliet couldn’t stand on her feet — and now they loved each other. They shouted in passion, moaned from their wounds, or, well, maybe it was the other way around. The orderlies dragged them away from one another, of course. We called the police.
I woke up the next morning in a closet. What happened and how I ended up spending the night in the closet I couldn’t remember. Alyona cleared the situation for me.
The night before I had become offended — no one could understand who I was mad at and what for — but I suddenly started to yell all kinds of curses at them and threatened to beat them up. I chased them all into the kitchen and threw boots from the hallway at them. I picked up a rolling pin and ran after my childhood friend, the one who had once been Tyl when we played “The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel,” but now was a scraggly freak with a shaved head who had blurted out something about Jews. Outside I’d had it out with the juvies and their protectors and then lay in the snow for a while to chill out — not on my own initiative, of course. Wet and miserable I came back to the apartment, said that I was leaving, walked inside the closet and closed the door behind me. Alyona decided to leave me alone, and later when she looked through a crack she saw that I was asleep.
We sat for a while and drank. Then I helped her clean up the mess in the apartment and went home. A few days later she moved in with her father.
Five of us had gone out to the dacha: me, Alyona, a friend from our old class, Nadya Velichko, the owner of the dacha, Vera and Yegor. We met on the train platform. Alyona had talked my ear off about Vera and especially Yegor, the kids of her father’s wife, but I’d never met them before. Vera — a tall, big-boned girl with a face as flat as a rag doll — never even glanced in my direction. Or maybe she did, but no one could see her eyes behind those dark sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. Yegor smoked, spit on the platform and then rubbed the spit with the toe of his shoe. Contrary to Alyona’s description, he looked nothing like Ivan Karamazov. There he was, a morose, gloomy guy with a strong jawline, a bull neck and shoulders so wide that they made him look shorter than he was. He didn’t say hello, just looked me over from head to toe and turned away. Delicate restless soul; a maverick, an intellectual and a philosopher —where was all that? I knew, of course, that Alyona was madly in love with him as long as she could remember, but really — how can you deceive yourself that much?!
In the commuter train Yegor hit on Velichko and ignored Alyona completely. Velichko giggled and peeped at Alyona. Vera didn’t say a word the whole trip, she just looked out the window. Every ten minutes Alyona dragged me out to the tambour to smoke, complained about Yegor and asked me to be careful with Vera. “She’s going through a really bad patch. You see, she went with her father on a field trip and started up an affair with one of his grad students. She got knocked up, and back in Moscow he dumped her. So she had to have an abortion. Her father didn’t want to get involved and was really mad at Vera. And then at the exact same time, I moved in and Yegor dropped out of school. Their mother thought that I was the bad influence and turned my father against me, and they ended up kicking me out back to my mother’s.”
Velichko’s dacha turned out to be a tiny wooden cabin that five people could fit into only lying on their sides in sleeping bags. The plan was to go for a walk in the woods, maybe rent a boat and paddle around the lake, and then in the evening make a fire on the lakeshore and roast potatoes. We brought booze, but for food we had only dry crackers and canned fish. We had a drink. Yegor blushed, Vera paled, Velichko got happy and Alyona got really sad. No one wanted to go for a walk any more. Yegor and Velichko disappeared. After them, Alyona vanished. I walked around but I didn’t find them anywhere. I returned to the cabin but there was absolutely nothing to do. Vera had her nose buried in the book and wasn’t interested in conversation. I think she hadn’t said a single word since morning. I was dying of boredom and annoyance.
“I guess I’ll go for a walk or something…” I got up. She didn’t even lift her head. I went out. The dacha village had a single street, and along it I walked. On the either side of the street were wooden houses, hawthorn shrubs, and birches — a typical village outside Moscow. Our family didn’t have a dacha.
I grew up as a city kid and never went outside the city for a picnic or to pick mushrooms. I spent the entire school year in Moscow, and in the summer we went to Lithuania or the Black Sea. The houses were no more in sight and I went through the woods. The path led me to a large meadow surrounded by a low wicker fence. Right there in front of me there were several tanks and mortars from the war.
“Hi. What are you doing sitting here all alone and sad in the rain? Are you lost?”
Two guys in their early twenties stood before me, most likely students. They looked like perfect three-A guys: A-students-athletes-activists. One was medium height, the other was taller, both with open faces, rosy cheeks, light brown hair, and smiling eyes. Normal guys — no hint of threat coming from them. It turned out that they’d been observing me since I was on the tank site, and then lost sight of me. The students volunteered to walk me back to the village. Along the way they told me that they were living at the campsite, going kayaking in the reservoir and rivers feeding into it, sometimes setting up tents and sleeping under the open sky, going fishing. Okay, so I was in the woods outside Moscow for the first time in five years and had never even been to a camp ground. The romance of hiking, freshly made fish soup, songs sung to a guitar around the campfire, on the water in rafts and kayaks, climbing mountains, chasing the mists into the taiga, and all the while being just a delightful bit anti-establishment — all this was a parallel reality to my life, something I read about in newspapers or heard about from people I didn’t know well. My parents thought this way of leisure to be utterly Soviet, therefore they didn’t approve of it, like they never approved of all things Soviet. The people who went on hikes were Soviet techie intellectuals, a social group my father couldn’t stand. He called them and their culture “educatedness.” They were, in his view, strong supporters of the regime, and that’s why he loathed them. “A simple working class guy lives a hard life. He doesn’t see anything beyond and can’t do a thing. That’s the way his parents lived, and their parents before them. I don’t have anything against them. But engineers and technical workers know better, are endowed with some grey matter — in any case they’re smart enough to get an engineering degree. But they don’t want to use their brains to think and they’re afraid of having their own opinions. Vulgar, law-abiding, conservative masses that will never give birth to anything alive… They go on hikes and then, sitting around the camp fire drinking vodka and strumming guitars, they rip into members of the Politburo, discuss how great Tarkovsky is because they’ve never seen anything else, and think that they’re heroes and intellectuals. And then they go back to work and attend Party meetings, vote “yes” and sign letters denouncing Israeli Zionism and American imperialism. Their only thought: obey the authorities always in everything and respect their bosses.” I didn’t see anything wrong with camping. I mean, if a Soviet citizen doesn’t have any chance to see the Grand Canyon or coral reefs, what’s he supposed to do? Not get off the sofa like my father as a sign of protest? And Tarkovsky I loved. Alyona and I stood in line for hours to buy tickets for a half-underground screening of one of his films at the “Vstryecha” movie house. We got there at 6 a.m. thinking that we’d be first in line, when suddenly a guy emerged from the icy fog and wrote a number on the palm of our hands with an indelible ink pen: It was like 300-something. In the end we got in to see the film, but Alyona was so frozen by the point she entered the hall, that she thawed out, and fell asleep.
On the way to the dacha one of the students fell back, and the taller one, Oleg, walked me home. I liked him. He was outgoing, good-natured, and athletic but all in good measure. Not like Yegor, being shorter he made an impression of enormous physical strength.
“Want to take a boat ride around the lake tonight?”
I froze. That summer I was turning 16. He was 23. Tall, good looking — you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your girlfriends. I hadn’t been spoiled with male attention. I mean, I had many male friends, but no one had asked me out on a date. And it would count a date if the two of you took a boat ride in the moonlight, wouldn’t it? Of course I hadn’t told him how old I was. I lied that I was in the first year of med school. He believed me — why wouldn’t he? I always looked older than I was, I had an adult face, was pretty tall, and I had big breasts. There was a long silence that Oleg took for a sign of doubt.
“If you want, we can go out to an island. The locals say that sometimes at night there’s a strange glow and weird noises there. It’s a paranormal zone.”
“Yeah, right, ‘paranormal’… The villagers just see things when they’re drunk. All of them make moonshine. My friend who has a house here told me all about it. She says that a lot of them have seen a Yeti in the woods. Can you believe it – a Yeti? We even wanted to go look for him. As a joke, I mean. I didn’t see any Yetis when I walked around.”
“A Yeti —that’s an old wife’s tale I’d guess. But at our camp site they even organized a search team that went out in the woods. They didn’t find a thing but they all came back scared. There’s something weird around here. As far as the island goes — I talked about it with some perfectly sane people and they all described pretty much the same thing. And they don’t know each other, so they couldn’t have come up with a story together. It would be interesting to take a look. But if you’re scared, we won’t go out on the island. We’ll just take a boat ride.” We agreed that he’d come for me at eight.
There was still no one home except Vera. She was stuck to her book and gave no signs of life. I decided it was best to think of her as a piece of furniture and I hadn’t started to talk to the furniture yet. Maybe when I got old, out of loneliness and senile dementia I’d start talking with a chest of drawers or a bookcase, but for now I didn’t feel the urge. Velichko’s rubber boots came in handy, and just in case I put on Yegor’s warm jacket — he had gone out lightly dressed in just a sweater. I put a bottle of wine in my bag along with some crackers and two wedges of soft cheese.
“Where is it you are going?” Vera asked, like it was alright. I was so shocked I almost choked myself with Yegor’s scarf that I also decided to borrow and was wrapping around my neck.
“Oh wow. I’ve never seen a talking stool before!”
“What?” she said, squinting at me.
“Adieu, ma jolie,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly switched to French but if I’d just cursed her to hell and back it wouldn’t have made a bigger impression on Vera. But despite that she went out after me into the yard. Oleg was waiting for me by the gate.
“And who’s that?”
I decided that she wasn’t the one to report to so I said nothing.
“Hey, where are you taking her? Listen, dude, I’m talking to you!”
“My name is Oleg. I’m a grad student at the Moscow Energy Institute, living at the campgrounds, and we’re going for a ride on the lake.”
“On the lake in this cold? Don’t even think about it! Grad students ought to sit and study and not try to charm the pants off of a minor.” She walked right up to the fence, and now they were less than a meter apart.
I grabbed him by the sleeve and started to drag him away from the fence. “Why are you even talking to her? Let’s go already!” Thank God she didn’t run after us, but she had such an expression on her face that she just might have.
“What a tough girl! For a second I thought she’d hit me. Is she your older sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to her. She’s going through a rough patch.” I decided not to set him straight. Let him think that I wasn’t here alone.
“Why would she call you a minor? How old are you anyway?”
“Come on, have you never met an older sister before? She’s six years older than me and she thinks that I’m a little girl. My mother’s sister is also six years older than her and she still treats her like a baby.”
“She’s 24? Who’d think, she’s my age. I wouldn’t say she’s older than 20.”
“I missed the bit when we decided to talk about her. Maybe she is the one you want to invite to take a spin on the lake instead of me?”
Oleg laughed and pulled me to him. I pressed my nose into the rough rubberized material of his jacket.
The village seemed to have died. We didn’t meet a single person on the way. We went through the birch grove, turned into the woods and silently walked along the path until we got to wooden planks that took us right to the water. We walked a bit along the shore until we got to a sandy beach. Oleg threw down his heavy backpack, pulled out a folded up rubber boat and started to pump it up.
When it was ready, this rubber thing looked to me like a blow-up mattress with high sides. It sure didn’t look like a boat. It was oval without a stern or bow.
“Are you sure it will hold us both?”
“It’s for a man-and-a-half, like for an adult and a child. I’m average weight – 70 kilograms. You probably weigh around 45, I’d guess.
“We round up and get 120 kilograms. The boat can hold up to 150 kilograms, so we’ve even got a margin for error. Hop in. Sit at the bottom. I get the seat. Don’t think that I’m not a gentleman. It’s just that that’s where the oarlocks are. Unless you want to row?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to row. Nor did I want to climb into the boat. Mist hung over the lake and damp cold rose from the water. The moon hid behind the clouds as the gloomy wall of woods on the shores blended with the black surface of the water, which reflected, upside down, the black, starless sky.
“Are there waves? We’ll capsize.”
“There won’t be any waves, don’t worry.”
I couldn’t bring up any other excuse, so, with a heavy sigh, I climbed into the boat and sat down on the bottom as instructed. Oleg pushed the boat into the water, moved it a bit deeper, and then jumped in himself. He quickly set up the oars, rowed powerfully a couple of times, and we sailed into the middle of the lake. The boat sunk down a bit under our weight. Water didn’t seep in — the sides were pretty high — but it still seemed to me that half my body was under water.
“Why are you squirming around? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable exactly, but you know — it’s really cold. It feels like I’m sitting bare-assed on a block of ice.”
“Yeah, the water is still very cold. The last ice has just melted. I didn’t think of that. Here, sit on the backpack.”
After manipulations with the backpack — I was afraid that we’d capsize for sure — I got more or less settled and looked around. A breeze sprang up and blew away the mist. The smooth watery surface spread out ahead as far as the eye could see. The moon, as if on command, came out from behind the clouds and shone a silver path on the water. And then everything was fine. This was exactly how I had imagined night on the lake.
The silence was broken by female voices screaming my name at the top of their lungs. First they sounded distant, and then seemed to come closer and closer. Four figures stood on the shore. And they didn’t resemble mermaids.
“Hey, you there! Come back right now!” Yegor shouted with his frightful deep voice.
“Is that you?” Alyona screamed with such emotion that I had to reply.
I held up my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone. “I’m here! We’re going to the island, to the paranormal zone!” An echo ricocheted over the water.
“Oleg wants to show me the paranormal zone. Go home!”
“You idiot! I know exactly what he wants to show you! Row to the shore, you moron!” Yegor cut in.
“Alyona, take them away! I’m on a date, what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Oleg had frozen with the oars suspended over the water and spun his head to look at me and then the group on the shore.
“Why aren’t you moving, Oleg? Come on, let’s go. Don’t pay attention to them.” I had to even nudge him a bit to shake him out of his stupor. But he didn’t move.
“Listen, you piece of crap, either you come back to shore right away and then I’ll let you walk away…”
“And if we don’t? If we sail on? What then?” Oleg suddenly blurted out in a higher pitch voice than he’d used before.
“Why are you even talking to them? What are you asking? Keep rowing!”
“Who is he — your boyfriend? Your brother? Is your father going to come down here, too?” Now Oleg didn’t seem so attractive any more. His features got sharp and he reminded me of a big squirrel. His glance was squirrelly, too — prickly.
“He’s no one to me! I met him today for the first time in my life. Give me the oars and I’ll row.” I tried to take the oars from Oleg but then I plopped back down on the backpack.
“If you don’t come back here right now, right this instant, I’ll find you at the campsite and you’ll be sorry you were ever born!” Yegor had walked up to the very edge of the water. For a second I had the crazy thought that he’d fling himself in the water and swim after us. It looked like Oleg had the same thought, because to be on the safe side he rowed us further away.
“You are so dead! Row back here right now!” Vera screamed hysterically and ran flat-out into the lake, spraying everyone else with a fountain of water. Alyona and Velichko grabbed her to keep her from going further.
I watched in horror as they fought with each other, up to their knees in the icy water, illuminated by the cold moonlight. Had they all lost their minds, all four of them at once?
Oleg stood up in the boat. “Get out of the water and walk back three meters from the shore! Until you get out I won’t move!”
I didn’t say anything. It was clear he’d made a decision and it was useless to argue with him. One more nutcase, up to five. Was the moon affecting them all like this? Then why was I still normal?
They got out of the water. Yegor sat on the sand, took off his wet socks, and put his sneakers on bare feet. Vera shook out the water from her boots.
“Walk back and stand,” Oleg shouted again.
When they moved back, we rowed up. A few meters from the shore Oleg stopped.
“What? Are you kidding? Row in closer.”
“I row in and they will jump at me.”
“No one’s going to touch you. They’re standing far back.”
He reluctantly drew closer to the shore, just about pushed me out of the boat and started rowing so hard that with a few strong strokes he was in the center of the lake again. He didn’t stop there. He went even farther, to where the moon was going down over the woods. I turned around and dragged myself toward shore. No one said a word to me. I didn’t speak either. Yegor and Vera went ahead, Velichko followed ten steps behind them, and Alyona and I took up the rear of the procession.
“This place is creepy and the woods are so… it feels like someone’s watching you, but when you look around, no one’s there,” Alyona said, finally.
“They’re just woods,” I said, glad to break the oppressive silence. “Where the devil were you all day? What were you doing the whole time?”
“Listen, it was strange. There are these old, overgrown tracks running through the woods, and no one remembers anymore where they went, and now they just break off. Velichko says that all kinds of mysterious stuff happens out there. She took Yegor to take a look, and I went after them.”
“That Oleg said something about that, too. What stuff happens here, exactly?”
“Oh, like watches suddenly stop and then start going backwards or there are loud voices, noises, like there’s a big crowd right next to you but there’s actually nothing around.”
“Did you hear anything or see it with your own eyes?”
She shook her head.
“None of us was wearing a watch…”
“So there was nothing there and nothing could be. The most that could happen is that someone could be raped.”
“Funny that you should say that.”
“Because it was you who went off with a complete stranger to God knows where. You don’t think that’s weird? You weren’t afraid that you’d be raped?”
“Oleg is a normal guy. No, I mean he’s a jerk, of course, as it turned out in the end, but he doesn’t look like a rapist at all.”
“But in any case, do you really think it’s okay to go off alone with a stranger?”
“While running up and threatening to drown a guy for asking me out on a date is okay? Forget it, moving right along… But why did you invite me anyway, if I’m here like the fifth wheel? I didn’t have anything to do all day.”
“No one planned on going off for long! We drank a little bit and then…” Alyona stammered and then fell silent. I waited for the story to continue, but the pause dragged on. In the end, she shook her head, like she was shaking off a thought that bothered her. “You’d laugh anyway. The thing is, it turned out stupid.”
We stood on the porch. Everyone else had already gone inside. Alyona looked at me questioningly.
“Inside, don’t pick a fight, who knows what might happen. Vera is really, really mad at you.”
“She’s mad at me, is she? Is she sick in the head? What did I do to her? For the whole day she made a show of not talking to me and then wrecked my date. I should be mad at her!”
“Don’t provoke her, okay? Promise?” She took my hand in her hand, chapped and red from the cold, and held it to her chest.
“I solemnly swear as I stand before my comrades!” I said like a good little Communist Pioneer. “Let’s go inside and warm up. I’m freaking frozen.”
Yegor and Velichko were fiddling with the stove, a terrifying looking ancient wrought-iron stove on legs. I’d only seen one in the movies, those about the war.
“They won’t be able to light it,” Alyona whispered in my ear.
It was like she was clairvoyant. Despite all their efforts, the flame didn’t want to catch and the smoke was bothering my throat. A couple of pairs of socks and pants were found in Velichko’s stuff to change out of wet clothing, and boots had been stuffed with crinkled up newspaper and placed close to the stove, just in case. Yegor didn’t give up. He continued to tinker with the stove. Now the flame didn’t die out immediately but held on for a few minutes. It was a bit warmer and almost stopped smoking. Alyona wrapped herself in a throw and fell asleep. Vera dozed next to her. Velichko left Yegor to figure out the stove by himself, dragged me into a far cubbyhole and started whispering furiously, practically smashing her moist lips into my ear.
“What a day! If I had known it would be like this, I’d never have come. I went for a walk and Yegor came after me, with Alyona right behind him. You can’t believe what happened. She made an incredible mess of that train car!”
“What train car?” I asked loudly.
“Quiet!” Velichko grabbed me by the arm. “What are you shouting for? She’ll wake up,” — nodding at the dozing Vera. “It was a regular train car, for cargo, standing in the woods on an old railroad line. When the rain started we climbed in. I had never gone in there before and was afraid. You know, I thought it would be all crapped up inside, but it wasn’t so bad — just dusty. Then suddenly Alyona barfs. I’ve never seen anything like it. She puked all over the car — the walls, the ceiling— everything! Every time it seemed like she had stopped, she’d start up again. She even fainted. I was holding her head while Yegor hovered around outside because he couldn’t stand the smell of vomit. While this was going on he drank a bottle of vodka all by himself, and he was okay, just real gloomy. It was awful.”
“Yeah, like in his regular life he is Mr. Sunshine.”
Yegor squatted in front of the stove. Red shadows fell across his face. As soon as he heard our last words, he stood up and walked over to us.
“Looks like it’s drawing. I fiddled with the damper to the chimney… but the wood is really damp. Do you have any gas oil around?”
“There’s probably a fuel can in the shed. What do you need it for?”
“We got to soak bricks in the gas oil and then use them for heat. Two bricks will last for a long time — all night. That’s what they do up north. So…” He turned to me. “Take off my jacket and I’ll go look for bricks.” I’d forgotten that I was still wearing his jacket and scarf.
He put on his jacket, slipped into Velichko’s father’s boots, and went outside.
“You hear that — heat the house with bricks?” Velichko made circles with her finger by her temple. “The whole family is like that! We barely dragged Alyona home and that nutcase goes on a tear! She says that you were taken away by a maniac. Actually, they say people here do weird stuff. Yegor didn’t want to go but she made him. Who’s going to argue with her? I tell you — I’m scared of her!
We giggled but quickly fell silent. Vera sat on the daybed with her legs tucked under her. She stared at me, her chin jutted out. For the first time I noticed how much she and Yegor looked alike.
“What a rude bitch — you think it’s funny? Like everything is just fine? You slut — you ruined the whole weekend. You followed your pussy and we had to run and save you.”
“My, what a language, and coming from a literature student! Who asked you to save me? You should have minded your own business and not stuck you nose where it didn’t belong.”
“Aren’t you brave! A regular Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya!”
Oh, she should not have dragged Kosmodemyanskaya into it. Zoya and I did not get along. Especially since that memorable evening in the sixth grade.
“That’s right: Zoya is a hero and you’re a whore.”
Vera stared at me with hatred.
“You’re the whore! And your Zoya is a hero the kind of Pavlik Morozov or the Young Guard,” – I fired back.
“In what sense?”
“In this sense: No one knows what really happened there. But all that stuff they shove down our throats in school is a load of crap. It is all fake, propaganda. Not a word of it is true!”
“Oh, how fascinating! Tell us all about it. What is true, in your opinion?
“That Zoya, if she had even existed at all, didn’t fight the Germans. She burned down villages, the houses of Russian peasants, forcing them out on the street in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Because Stalin gave a secret order to burn down all the villages and all the houses so that the Germans would freeze outside. It didn’t bother him in the least how our people would survive: old people, women and children. In Petrishchevo there weren’t even any Germans…”
“Shut up, you snake! I hate your race, you disgusting brat! You, stinking Jews, walk on our soil and poison the air with your stinking breath. We were fighting, we shed our blood on this land while you were feeding your bellies in Tashkent. And now, you worm, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you drag our heroes through the mud.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I hadn’t seen that coming. I could tell her that both my grandfathers had fought in the war from start to finish and that my grandmother had been evacuated to a defense factory in Siberia, but my tongue was caught in my throat. I was so furious that I couldn’t utter a word to prove something to her, to justify myself. I stared at the floor just so I didn’t have to look at her contorted face. A shadow went by and I was hit with a wave of cold and the smell of tobacco.
“Because of you, because of your kind —“
She suddenly began to choke on her words and there was a crash of something heavy falling on the floor. I raised my head. Yegor had knocked Vera off her feet, he was leaning over her body lying spread-eagle on the floor with his hands around her throat.
“Shut up, shut the fuck up! I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Got it? Keep your mouth shut. One more sound and I’ll choke you like a rat.”
Alyona woke up, sat up on the couch and watched them with indifference that was incomprehensible to me, as if there was nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in the scene unfolding before her. A couple of meters from her Vera writhed and kicked her feet on the floor, but she couldn’t get out of Yegor’s grip.
“Calm down and stop squirming, it’s only making it worse. Just lie there. If you get it, pound on the floor.
Vera squirmed for a moment longer and then did what he said. Yegor unclenched his fist, stood up, and yanked his sister up from the floor. They stared at each other without saying a word. Then she went and sat down again on the couch. Yegor turned to me. His gaze sent me right out of the house. To me he wouldn’t give a chance to surrender. He’ll choke me to death for sure. Velichko ran out after me.
“The last train to Moscow leaves in 15 minutes. If we run, we can make it.”
We went to bed in total silence. Alyona stayed where she was on the daybed, wrapped up in a throw. Velichko opened up the couch for her and Vera. Next to the door was a rickety child’s bed that you could lie on if you pulled your legs up and tucked yourself into a ball. A draft came in through a crack under the door and I couldn’t get warm no matter how I tried to wrap myself in the old sheepskin coat reeking of mothballs that Velichko had given me for a blanket. Yegor lay down on the floor in the bedroom.
I woke up from someone tugging at my shoulder. I struggled to open my gluey eyes. In front of me there was a white shape but I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness. “Get up, wake up,” said a female voice. It must be Alyona, or maybe Vera. Could she really have woken up in the middle of the night and wanted to go outside to have it out with me while everyone was asleep? I sat up in the bed. I had a terrible headache and my throat was dry. I stood up and wanted to go to the kitchen to drink some water, but the darkness swirled around me, my rubbery legs collapsed and I fell down on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain from the fall and just blacked out. The same voice brought me back to consciousness: “Wake up! Scream! Wake them all up!” I tried to scream but my tongue wouldn’t obey me. Her face appeared before me, but it was like my eyes were filled with sand and I couldn’t make her out. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, and there was a foggy emptiness in my head. I started to crawl and crashed into Yegor. He sat up, moaned and grabbed his head. “Alyona!” I dragged myself along the floor to the couch, got up on my knees, and saw Vera lying with her eyes closed. Velichko on the other side of her, turned to the wall.
“Vera!” I called out. She abruptly opened her eyes and suddenly let out a single-note scream. Her body went into convulsions, and then the shaking stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She opened her mouth soundlessly like a fish. But, thank God, her scream woke up Velichko, who jerked upright on the couch, her eyes wide open, and looked not at me but off to the side somewhere.
“Open the door and air out the house!” the voice said. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I used my last strength to crawl to the door. My power began to fade away and my movements became more and more sluggish. When I got to the door I reached up to the handle and turned it. Leaning on the door with all my weight, I fell out, slid down the steps and fell on the frost-covered ground.
The cold woke me up. I was shivering so much that my teeth chattered. There was still noise in my ears, like voices drifting in through cotton. I tried to get up. The voices stopped, and someone carefully and tenderly helped me to sit up. I looked around.
The five of us sat together by the fence, not far from the house: pale, unkempt, shaking from the cold but yet alive. They looked at me lovingly, even Vera.
“You were great! If you hadn’t woken up and then gotten everyone else up, we would have all died of carbon monoxide poisoning for sure,” Yegor said as he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “We ought to throw that stove into the river. Nadya, you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Don’t even think of it. My father will kill me. It’s a good stove, it’s been here working for a hundred years and everything was fine, until you started tinkering around with that damper.”
“It wasn’t me.” It was hard to speak, like I’d chewed sandpaper.
“I wasn’t me who woke you up. It was Zoya.”
“What Zoya?” they asked, bewildered.
“Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She came in, poked me and told me to wake everyone else up. I didn’t understand why. There was no smoke, no smell. But she told me to and so I did.”
They stared at me without saying a word.
“Why do you think it was Zoya?”Alyona asked me carefully.
“Who else? She was wearing one of those side caps, you know, with a red star.”
“Uh-huh,” Vera chortled. “And they say I am the crazy one.”
My hatred for Agnes led directly to our family’s appearance on Oprah. You’d say, oh, you didn’t hate her; she was just your older sister. But she was not my older sister. She looked older, but I was the elder by two years. No matter. People thought she was prettier, older, smarter. It didn’t matter that I got better grades, that I was three classes ahead of her. It didn’t matter, for example, that the Antropolis was my idea.
Everyone credited Agnes with the Antropolis, even my parents and Uncle Hayward, but I made it up one night as I read Kid’s Life with a penlight under my covers. I lifted a corner of the blanket so I could see Agnes where she sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor, braiding her long hair.
I said, “You know what’s a good idea, Agnes?” “What, Hannah?”
“If we made ant farms and sold them for twice as much money.” She wrinkled her nose, disgusted. “Ants are grody.”
Grody. That was her word, direct quote. But the next day she was telling Uncle Hayward all about it. He had arrived recently from the city to settle what he called “rambunctious nerves.” He thought the ants were a brilliant idea. He ordered the kits, which included special soil and food, a thin plastic farm, and about twenty-five Western-Harvester ants per purchase. He opened one door of our four-door garage and for days we swept and organized. He read us the directions for taking care of the ants, and even though I understood them from the get-go, Agnes had him repeat everything at least three times.
“But why do they die so fast?” she whined. She didn’t like that the ants only lived a month or so in the farms, and I admit I didn’t like it either, but while I understood this as merely a fact of life, Agnes was practically slitting her wrists over it.
“Without a queen,” Uncle Hayward said, “they just don’t live as long.” From where I stood next to the garage’s chest freezer, I sighed and scratched at my elbow. Hayward was my favorite uncle, but he could be so annoyingly patient with Agnes.
He continued, “The company that we order the ants from doesn’t permit us to order queens.”
“But why not?” Agnes continued, even though he’d already explained this earlier that week.
“Because, stupid,” I said, “they might run rampant and then cause severe ecological damage.” I was good at quoting pamphlets directly. It was a photographic trait that drove my teachers and peers nuts. “Like fire ants, for example, or killer bees in Texas.”
Hayward patted my head in a way that made me feel less smart than I sounded. “Maybe if you girls learn something from these ant-kits, you can start digging up your own ants and find a queen, yourselves.”
I liked this idea. I foresaw huge glimmering dollar signs. “Don’t order any more ants,” I told Hayward. “I’ll supply the ants from now on.”
At first, our parents were skeptical of the whole ant farm idea. Hayward argued for us.
“It’s a great summer project. The girls will learn a ton.”
Though Dad respected Hayward as a businessman, he questioned his rationality. “I don’t want ants all over my garage,” he growled.
“There are ants all over your garage. Only these ants will be in tightly-sealed cases.”
Dad shook his head.
Hayward pressed, “Don’t you want the girls to learn fiscal responsibility? Customer-service relations? Respect for God’s creatures?”
Mom said to him, “What do you care, Brett? You’re never home anyway.”
Dad sold medical equipment to hospitals all over the nation. He was making us, as Mom often said, “rich but unfulfilled.” Mom, herself, believed that parenting consisted of greeting us after school and sitting with us on the couch while she stared glassy-eyed at the television. She wanted us to benefit from the womanly genius of Oprah, the only black person Mom had ever regarded seriously, aside from a kid named Eldridge that I had met at Jolly Cheezers and had played with in the ball crawl. The whole way home from Jolly Cheezers, Mom had applauded herself for not being a racist. “I was happy you were playing with that child,” she told me. “I was ecstatic.” She glowed over dinner and told Dad the whole story, too, and he said, “Good for you, Martha, good for you” This was always the encouragement he gave her when his mind had wandered elsewhere.
But yes, there was Oprah, and Mom would talk to us about the virtues discussed on the show, and then there was Springer, and Mom would tsk-tsk and sigh and tell us how pitiable these lower class people could be (the poor things have never learned a modicum of morality. I mean, they have no time to think of such things). Despite her disgust, I don’t think Agnes bleeding from her ears on the couch would have torn Mom’s eyes away from the brutality of that television set. I also believe, at the time, that she thought Springer was a hottie. Once he had embraced a pear-shaped, middle-aged woman not unlike herself, who was weeping because her husband had cheated on her yet again. With a passionate gasp, Mom sank her fingers into my forearm. When she let go, there were long white claw marks where the blood used to be. I was hoping that these would turn into bruises so that I could tell the school counselor the next day. Maybe I would get invited to the Springer show myself. Or even better, because it would destroy my mother, Oprah would call and ask me to share my dreadful experiences with her. But within minutes my arm was back to normal.
At first, Mom gushed about how Uncle Hayward’s appearance in the house would be “absolutely grand.” I think she assumed he would take her side on all things, especially where her husband was concerned. But while Hayward doted on Agnes and me, he gave my parents little attention. “Your concerns are your concerns,” he told my mother, and when she retorted that his involvement with the Antropolis idea was “a stupid, horrible sign of how horribly immature” he always had been and still very much was, Uncle Hayward just laughed. Dad didn’t seem to mind Hayward’s presence so much, although sometimes he muttered things like, “Hayward seems more than a little off,” and “What sort of a man doesn’t enjoy beer?” These statements arrived at odd moments, like when he was shaving, or when he sitting by himself with the newspaper. They were always said to no one in particular. Mom said that Dad’s talking to himself was the surest sign of his megalomania.
The week before school ended, Agnes and I went around the hallways taping up hand-scrawled flyers advertising “The Antropolis!!!” I had come up with the name after rifling through hundreds of variations: Anttastic, Ant You Happy, Ants in Your Pants. Agnes had come up with one lousy name, “Antsville,” which Hayward feigned to like until I belted out, Antropolis! Agnes started crying. Hayward patted her back and said things like, “She wouldn’t have thought of it if you hadn’t said ‘Antsville,’” which was a total lie, and that “Those who succeed stand upon the shoulders of giants,” which made her a giant and me a total shrimp. I saw an ant glide beneath me on the cool pavement. I put my foot to it and wiped its guts into a sweeping frown. “Is it Antropolis or not?” I asked. Hayward nodded at me but also put a finger to his lips. I stomped into the house. Later, prompted by Hayward, Mom visited me in my room and told me not to be upset by his giving Agnes more attention. “She’s younger than you and more sensitive,” Mom said. But what she meant was “She’s stupider than you and more attractive.” I told Mom to stuff it and thus martyred myself out of a fried-chicken dinner. Dad snuck a piece to me later. He knew it was my favorite.
The week after school finished, we had a flurry of customers. The neighborhood mothers found Hayward handsome, and they couldn’t wait to sidle up to him, stroking the pearls that grew like pale tumors from their necks and wrists, and purr about what a “deliciously adorable thing” he’d done, helping darling Agnes and that (“What’s her name again? Oh yes, of course”) Hannah with such a “cute” project. I ignored these distractions. With every passing hour I grew more and more attached to my ants. A dollop of honey on the driveway lured a herd of them from the Bermuda Triangle of our lawn. Old Popsicle sticks worked well for the transfer into large mason jars. I stabbed holes in the top with needles, and sometimes you could see the little legs poking through. “Ew,” Agnes said, “grody.” Despite her fragile stomach, she helped me transplant the ants into their new homes. Occasionally we crushed them between our fingers, or smashed them with the Popsicle sticks, and then we would have a solemn ten seconds of silence for each little death. But for the most part, everything went smoothly.
It was in one of my ant-fueled reveries, wondering what made one ant happy and the next sluggish, that I discovered Custom Ant-farm Creation. I explained this to a boy from my class, a boy named Viktor who had ridden his bike all the way from the valley to see what we were doing.
“What does that mean?” he asked me, picking up a farm and shaking it like an etch-a-sketch.
“Don’t do that, please,” I said. “It agitates them.” “What does custom creation mean?”
“Well,” I explained, delighted to find an interested patron, “let’s say you don’t want any old ant farm. Let’s say you want one where the ants are happier than regular ants, like a sort of Ant Playground or something, or let’s say you want one where the ants are super hard workers, three times as fast or something. You can place the order with me. Within a week I’ll make your ant farm happy, or fast, or jumpy, or whatever.”
Viktor seemed to like this idea. He looked at my sister, who sat beside me at the table fiddling with a pencil and staring up at him like he was made of gold. “What about horny ants,” he said.
“Oh, Viktor,” I laughed, “don’t say that in front of Agnes.”
Agnes blushed and Viktor smiled. Then he said to me, “It’s not Victor. It’s Viktor.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t. You say it wrong. I’m Vick-TOR, and you say it ‘Vick-TER’.”
I looked confused. “What’s the difference?” “The difference,” Agnes said, “is the TOR.” My knuckles itched.
“It’s Russian,” Viktor said. “I’m a direct descendant of the Tsar.” “What Tsar?” I asked.
“What, you stupid or something?” Viktor said. Agnes giggled.
“You her older sister?” he asked her.
“She’s two years younger than me, Vick-TOR.” He whistled. “Could have fooled me.”
The thing was, I had always liked Viktor. I liked that in class he didn’t speak a lot, and that some of the other kids seemed to find him annoying. They treated him sort of the same way they treated me, as if he had a cow’s head sprouting from one shoulder. We were both skinny and pale, too. In the right light we looked translucent. I daydreamed about how our children would come out of our mansion squinting into the light, all wormy and bone-white, bitter and smart.
Agnes, of course, had pink cheeks and actual boobs. She had gotten her period a year before I’d had mine. This made her somewhat awkward in her own year, I’d noticed, but had also given her a sort of other-worldly appeal. It had been the disgrace of my life this last spring when, having discovered blood during a routine bathroom break at school, I’d had to ask my little sister for a maxi pad. She’d been friendly enough about it, but I could never shake the feeling that in the race to womanhood, I hadn’t even made the B-squad.
Boys loved Agnes, of course. A few of them, some from her class, some older, skidded their bicycles to a stop on our driveway and glanced shyly into the garage. For the next several weeks, they treated our home like the parking lot in front of Jolly Cheezers, laughing loudly and exchanging jokes and ultimately pretending not to notice Agnes when any old idiot knew they were thinking of nothing else. Agnes poured soil into the plastic farms and ignored them just as efficiently. One of those short, bratty-looking boys said, without even trying to conceal his high voice, “They can’t be sisters. Hannah’s ugly as a horse,” and then he blew such a huge snot-rocket onto the pavement that the other boys exclaimed, “Wicked!” Agnes’s head snapped toward me and she said, “They suck. Nobody likes them.” But I knew this was a lie. They were the most popular boys at school. The fact that they sought her out like so many heat-seeking missiles meant only one thing: she was the most popular girl. Over the summer, the shame, like the heat, only thickened.
After the first few weeks, the numbers of interested parties grew scarce. Uncle Hayward didn’t return the lonely mothers’ and housewives’ flirtations, so they eventually retreated back into their expensive homes. The boys on their bikes still stopped by, but having less of a people-screen to hide behind, they grew skittish like lambs and stayed for shorter and shorter periods of time. Agnes and I still spent most of our days in the garage or on the driveway. I wore bruises into my knees and palms from foraging the pavement for more ants. There were now mason jars swarming with them. I had yet to find a queen.
Even though I protested, Uncle Hayward forced us to slow production. We could search for queens, he said, but we didn’t need more ants. He also suggested we keep the ants in a shadier place. “They’ll fry like bacon,” he warned. I pinned up signs in the coolest corner of the garage. They read, in alphabetical order, “Eager Farms,” “Happy Farms,” “Hardworking Farms,” “Super Farms,” “Wonderful Farms.” Hayward asked, “What’s the difference? They’re all the same.”
I knew that was baloney. “Believe me,” I told him. “Every ant has its own personality.”
Hayward laughed and ruffled my hair. “Don’t take yourself too seriously, kiddo.”
It took all of my newfound benevolence to just grit my teeth and smile.
The good thing, at first, was that Viktor kept stopping by. One day, I showed him the Horny Ant Farm I had made (without, of course, Hayward’s knowing). When he lifted it off of my workstation and peered through the plastic walls, he only said, “Nah. There’s no humping.”
I laughed, despite feeling hurt. How was I supposed to know there should be humping? I told him, “Take it anyway. It’s a gift.”
For the first time ever, he looked straight at me. “Wow, really?
Thanks.” He tucked the farm under his arm and asked, “Where’s Agnes?” I frowned. “Who cares?” Viktor clucked his tongue and stared off into the distance. “I’m in love with her,” he said dreamily.
“You’re stupid,” I hollered at him, much louder than necessary. “She’s stupid and you’re stupider.”
Viktor frowned. “What’s your prob? You jealous? Jealous that your sister’s pretty? Jealous you’re such a rat?”
Hayward heard the yelling and came over from the yard, where he had been sunning himself and listening to the radio.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I was just leaving,” Viktor said, and shoved the ant farm at me. I took it from him, about to cry. “I don’t want your stupid farm. They aren’t Horny Ants. They’re Stupid Ants. Those are the only ants you can make, Hannah.”
He cycled away.
Hayward said, “Horny ants?”
“He hates me,” I wailed. Hayward sat down next to me and patted his knee. I perched there and wiped at my face. It was strange sitting on a grown man’s knee. I hadn’t sat on my own father’s knee in years.
“He doesn’t hate you,” Hayward said. “He probably has a crush on you. That’s how boys act.”
I shook my head. “Viktor likes Agnes,” I said. “All the boys do. He said,” I started crying again, “he said I was a rat.”
Hayward hugged me and kissed the back of my head. “Now, now. You don’t believe that, do you? It’s not true.” His breath smelled of Altoids and cigarettes.
“He likes her,” I said resolutely. Hayward let me go and I stood up. “He does. Just ask her.”
Hayward looked troubled. “She’s so young,” he said. “Not to him.”
“Maybe I should say something.” Hayward looked at me as though wanting my approval.
“Yes. Definitely. You should.”
I hoped a boy-related conversation with Uncle Hayward would humiliate Agnes. At least a little bit.
Then Agnes appeared on her bike, looping slowly around the driveway. “What’s wrong?” she called.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Let’s look for a queen.” She dismounted and let the bike crash to the pavement.
I wiped at my face and said okay. Even Hayward helped. I knelt at a small hole in the yard from where I had seen some ants emerge, and I waited. “There’s a queen down there,” I whispered. I was going to find her and capture her and make an ant-farm immortal. Viktor would read about me in the papers, when I had become a famous entomologist, and he would regret his terrible behavior. He would call me up and I would laugh. Then I would tell him – but right then I saw a long, strange, winged ant. It moved sluggishly from the small hole and into the light. My heart thudded. I put my hand gingerly over it. “I’ve got one!” I screamed. “I’ve got a queen!” Agnes was impressed. “That’s so cool,” she said, after we had transferred it to a farm. I was beaming. Uncle Hayward patted me on the back. “See?” he said. “Life’s not so bad.”
I shrugged. But right then, life did feel pretty great.
Later that night, the phone rang during dinner. Dad hated it when the phone rang. “For the love of Christopher,” he said, standing, “can’t a man enjoy his dinner without being interrupted?”
“You could turn the ringer off,” Mom suggested. She always suggested this.
“It could be Elias. ”This was always Dad’s reply. Elias was Dad’s boss. Moments later, Dad returned from the den. “That was some snotty-sounding kid for Agnes. A Victor or something?” “Viktor, Dad,” Agnes corrected.
“Aren’t you, what, ten years old?” Dad said. “What’s with the opposite-sex phone calls?”
Agnes looked embarrassed. “I dunno. He’s never called before.” She saw me glowering at her and said over a forkful of peas, “What, Hannah? I think he’s stupid.”
“Ha,” I said. “So do I. Too bad he loves you.”
Mom said, “Is this the little Russian boy from your class, Hannah? I find the Russians so fascinating.”
“He’s not a Russian, Mom. He’s a liar.”
“Hannah,” she scolded, “it’s not polite to disallow someone their cultural heritage.”
The whole time, Hayward sat there regarding Agnes with his face all scrunched up. His concern gathered when Dad handed her an index card complete with Viktor’s misspelled name and telephone number.
“Is this such a good idea?” Hayward asked the table. “She’s a ten-year-old girl. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea. If this boy is pursuing her, after all.”
I loved Hayward for saying this.
“Oh please, Hayward,” Dad boomed, “what sort of twelve-year-old boy could even recognize his dick in a line-up?”
Mom gasped. “Brett, please!” Then she peered closer at the index card. “Oh!” she gasped delightedly. “That’s a downtown number. You should call him, Agnes, and invite him over tomorrow. The poor thing doesn’t breathe a drop of fresh air in that neighborhood.”
Hayward put his hands over his face. I could tell he was on my side.
Later that night, while Dad snored in front of the television and Mom went to take one of her lengthy peach-smelling baths, I went to the garage to read comics with my penlight on the old sofa Hayward had stored in one corner. I had just been getting to a great scene where Antzilla crushes all those who have ever tried to smash her, when light from the kitchen fell in a yellow rectangle across the hood of Dad’s car. Hayward and Agnes entered, Hayward shutting the door softly behind them. I catapulted over the back of the couch with my comic book, and then sat cross-legged against the couch’s moldy spine. I shut off my penlight. For some reason, Hayward did not switch on the overhead lamp.
On the way to the couch, they bumped into things. Agnes said, “I’m sorta afraid of the dark.”
Uncle Hayward replied in no more than a whisper, “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” They sat down. I could smell the rising dust.
At first, I was impressed with what Hayward was saying. He told Agnes, “It’s not right, that boy with you. It’s just not.”
“Cause he’s in Hannah’s class?”
“Well, that, and that he wants to take advantage of you.”
I imagined that Agnes was, per usual, confused by Hayward’s remarks.
“Look,” Hayward said, “some boys are nice boys. Some are mean. That Viktor. He’s a bad seed. He does not want to be nice to you, do you see? I think he wants to be mean to you.”
“But Hannah likes him,” Agnes said. After a moment’s pause, she suggested, “Maybe she should date him.”
“Sure, sure. Hannah should date him. But you’re too lovely for those boys.” I heard, then, the sound of one body snuggling closer to the other. Then Hayward grunted as if he were lifting something. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. It took me a moment to figure out that Agnes was now seated squarely on Hayward’s lap, both of them facing away from me.
In the dark, her head appeared to be growing from out of his right shoulder.
“I want to be nice to you,” he said. “You’re always nice, Uncle Hayward.” “Do you want me to be nice to you?”
“Well, sure.” Agnes’s voice sounded tighter now, almost annoyed. Then she said, as though eager for a subject change, “Isn’t it cool that Hannah found a queen?”
Hayward’s voice was muffled, in her hair or something. “That wasn’t a queen. I didn’t want to tell her, the poor thing, but that was just a young male ant. You need to dig up a queen, you know. They look almost the same, I guess, but you’re not going to find some queen just randomly roaming around.”
“Oh,” Agnes said. “Sucky.”
“Our little secret, though, right?” Hayward whispered this. I could hear his hands groping.
The tips of my ears flushed hot. I thought about the winged ant, something that looks special, but really is not. I bit my lip to keep from bawling. I wanted to believe that Hayward was wrong, but some dark part of me knew that he was right.
A“That tickles,” Agnes said. I could see that she was squirming.
“Just be quiet for a moment. Let me be nice to you.” He shuffled around on the couch again. “The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing.”
I hated him so much. The most beautiful little girl. The most precious thing. I groped around for something, anything, to hurt him with, and what I came up with was one of my mason jars filled with about three-hundred ants. I unscrewed the jar. The lid made a rasping sound, the air escaping in one soft sigh, smelling sour like pee. Agnes said, “What was that?” but Uncle Hayward panted loudly in her ear, “I should stop. I should really stop,” and she said, sounding bored, “This is sorta weird. I want to go in now, Uncle Hayward.” I squatted behind them and turned over the jar right above the dark heavy line of his shoulders. The next second they were up on their feet, and he was screaming. The garage flooded with light. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, gaping. When my eyes adjusted, I saw Agnes standing there calmly, blinking, with part of her t-shirt pushed over the top of her right boob. Hayward was shaking himself and tearing off his shirt and begging for help.
“What’s going on here?” Dad roared.
“Hayward was being nice to me,” Agnes said, not without disgust. Ants glided from the open mason jar onto my fingers and up my arm. Dad stared, silent. Hayward wept and squirmed. Mom materialized and the sounds grew loud and sharp. Somehow Agnes and I were ushered inside. We sat on the floor of my bedroom together and said nothing. She picked an ant out of my hair and asked if I wanted to play cards. I said okay.
That was the last time we ever saw Hayward. The next day, while Mom continued to panic and make doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment for Agnes, Dad tossed out all of our ant farms. I asked if I could keep even one, the one with the winged ant, and he said “No.” Agnes tried to come to my defense. “But the ants were what saved me,” she said. But even her perfect charm failed. Dad would have none of it.
Agnes, of course, was fine. “He only kissed my neck and touched my boob,” Agnes said. I said to her, and also to Mom, “He kissed me, too.” Mom didn’t seem too worried about me. She wrote a letter to Oprah, describing how her brother had molested her littlest daughter without her even realizing it. “And under my own roof, Oprah!” One of Oprah’s representatives called a couple of weeks later and asked if they’d come on a special show, “Blind Mothers, Molested Daughters.” Mom was ecstatic. I asked if I was going to be on the show, too. She said no.
Dad and I flew to Chicago with them, anyway. We watched the show from a fancy hotel. Dad seemed embarrassed, seeing them on-screen. Mom was so excited that she couldn’t stop grinning, even when Agnes told Oprah, “Then he touched my boob and kissed my neck.”
Dad said, “Your mother looks psychotic.”
When they came back, we all went for a walk on the lake. Mom and Dad sat on a park bench and watched us from afar.
“Did you see the show?” Agnes asked. She was sullen. “Yeah.”
“Did you hear what I said about you?” I shook my head.
“Maybe they cut it. I told them you saved me. You and the ants.” “Really?”
We walked along silently, kicking at stones. “I guess it must kind of suck for you,” I said.
“Nah. One of the girls on the show I felt so sorry for. Some dude stuck his wiener in her!”
“Ick,” I said. We kind of laughed.
“I can’t believe they cut that,” she said, “what I said about you.”
I didn’t exactly trust her, but it made me kinder toward her. Even if she hadn’t told Oprah that I was her hero, she had at least admitted it to me. I would always have one-up on her for that.
We stood at the water’s edge and let it lick the tips of our sandals. “This water smells like bird poop,” I said.
“I wish I could lop these things off and toss them into the waves.” She was looking down at her breasts.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if this was all a performance or not.
We went back to the hotel and ordered cokes and chicken-strips and French fries with extra ketchup through room service. When we had successfully pigged-out, Agnes and I put on our pajamas and brushed our teeth. Mom and Dad went to the bar downstairs, saying they’d be back soon. “Don’t let anyone in here,” Mom warned. The heavy door locked squarely behind them.
Alone, we flipped through all of the channels that we weren’t supposed to watch. In the scratchy grayness of one station, the screen swarming with herds of black ants, we could hear moans, and we could see a thigh here, a breast there, slightly unfamiliar game pieces of shuddering bodies.
“Shut it off,” Agnes said. I did.
I wouldn’t mind taking orders from her sometimes. If I could be her hero, then that meant she was salvageable. It wasn’t too hard to accept surrender then. But there were times, following, when out of either anger or pity I almost admitted, Hey, I saved you for all the wrong reasons.
*This story is taken from: Favorite Monster © 2012 by Sharma Shields, Autumn House Press.
“Sonya, how could you? How can you wear those short dresses covered with pea-green dots?”
“Sonya, have you said your prayers?”
“Sonya, how can you listen to those fascists?”
“Sonya, have you read Sholem Aleichem?”
“Sonya, what are you eating? That’s not kosher!”
“Bubbe, I like peas on me, not in me.”
“How long can this go on? I can’t stand it!”
“It’s Wagner, Bach! They weren’t fascists. It’s not their fault they were born Germans and not Jews.”
“He’s writing about love and I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“But Bubbe, it tastes so good!”
I — Sonya — and my grandmother— Gittel Yakovlevna— live in a communal apartment in Odessa. I’m 15 years old, taking drum lessons but Bubbe thinks they’re piano lessons. I have unusual blonde hair and blue eyes. In my passport it says “Jewish,” but in Odessa they think I’m the illegitimate daughter of a German who lived here more than a quarter century ago.
If it weren’t for the line in my passport, the Torah my grandmother gave me on my third birthday, the endless Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelves, attendance at the synagogue and the lighting of Sabbath candles, I’d think I was German, but the way things are — I don’t think I’m German.
There’s a boy in my class who is also Jewish. I can’t stand him. He’s constantly pouring sand in my backpack, lifting up my dress and eating my fruit jellies in the cafeteria. But when they call Senya Hebe — that’s his real last name — when they call him “Heebie Hebe,” I go fight for him. I can’t fight at all, but I go anyway since Bubbe says that the war against the fascists started just like that — some blockhead called a Jew a “Hebe,” but no one noticed or everyone pretended like they didn’t notice. I don’t want a war. I want to live. I want to go to dances. And wear perfume. I want to learn to walk in high heels. And to kiss, to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
A week ago Masha Koloradova brought a quiz to class. You know the kind — a notebook with questions like: “Who is your favorite actor?” “What’s your favorite color?” “Who do you love?” She gave it to me to fill out, and one question was, “When did you have your first kiss?” I looked at the answers of the other girls, and they all wrote things like, “A long time ago!” “A year ago,” or “When I was 12.” But I hadn’t kissed anyone. Can you imagine? I hadn’t kissed anyone, and I was so ashamed! You can’t even imagine how ashamed I was. You know what’s strange about it? I don’t know how to make borscht or use the washing machine or speak English. I’m not ashamed about that. But I’ve never kissed anyone and I’m ashamed. Really ashamed.
So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I wrote “When I was 11.” So? Let them envy me. No one will ever know the truth anyway.
Bubbe says that you should only kiss the one you think you’ll spend your whole life with. “So if you think you’ll spend your whole life with Fedya, kiss him,” Bubbe said. Which Fedya she had in mind, I don’t know. In fact I don’t know anyone named Fedya, but I really want to kiss. What’s it like — kissing?
When I pray before I go to bed, I don’t recite those boring old prayers that Bubbe taught me. I just talk with God. I ask to meet the one I’ll spend my life really soon with so that I can kiss him. Even if Bubbe sees. It’s good that there’s God. Even if He doesn’t exist. But the thing is, no one knows for sure. Whoever has God will never be alone. If you have God, that means you have someone to talk to. You can even imagine that He answers you.
I don’t have friends. There are kids I hang out with. We go to the movies or to the beach in the summer. I’ve got friends that I talk about acne cream with, but I don’t have a true friend — a person I can tell everything to. I keep it all inside me. Bubbe says that I’m very anti-social. I am anti-social with some people to keep from hurting them. And with others to keep from being hurt. For now, I’ve got God, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I share my secrets with Him and only Him.
Our communal apartment has five rooms, one kitchen, three stoves, one toilet and an old shower that breaks all the time. The line for the toilet can only be compared to the line outside the shop around the corner in the morning when they deliver fresh bread. All of world literature can be found in our toilet, beginning with Hugo and ending with Dostoevsky. But our neighbors love Chekhov’s short stories most of all.
“The man didn’t write bricks like comrade Tolstoy. He wrote normal-sized little stones — you have your morning movement and are five pages better read,” Isaak Fishilevich said. He lives in the room across the hall from us. He is, by the way, a decorated veterinarian and humanist.
I have the worst luck — someone always wants to use the toilet when I do. If I go first, after five minutes someone starts knocking on the door. If I go after someone else, after someone else you could die of asphyxiation. Only Uncle Isaak, the humanist, is tactful. He holds it. He holds it in and waits. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Uncle Isaak carrying “Mein Kampf” in his string bag a while back. He bought it at the flea market. But when I went into our crapper I saw little cut-up pieces of paper in place of toilet paper. That was “Mein Kampf.” The paper was rough, but I left with a sense of duty well done and the image of dozens of little scraps floating down the sewer. In the symbolic battle, fascism lay dead on the dung pile.
Bubbe is 78 years old. She still puts on lipstick, puts combs in her hair, and buys lacy bras. Not for men! For herself. Bubbe says that she still feels like a woman thanks to her foundation garments. Men adore her. Bubbe still smokes, even today — she uses a cigarette holder. In the evenings she goes to the park to play card games and dominos with the men. She has beautiful large eyes, gray hair and a bedroom voice. People who don’t know her think that when she was young she sang arias, had affairs, and walked around in furs and jewels. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Bubbe doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Probably her best friend is God, too.
Bubbe always tells me, “Smile even when you feel bad! Better people should envy you than feel sorry for you.” I never talked about sex with Bubbe. I always thought that she didn’t even know the word. But yesterday she told me, “I won’t tell you anything about sex. When you have a husband, let him tell you and show you. And even if you know everything about sex before you meet your husband, don’t say a thing. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your husband! If you want a smart husband, you have to be a little fool.”
Bubbe is considered wise. But you ought to see her in the morning — when she’s looking for yesterday. That’s what she calls it. She flips through all her books and turns her clothes inside out searching for her pension money and glasses. Bubbe is losing her memory. One old lady from Odessa, when she saw grandmother go by, she whispered in that way that is always really loud, “Old prostitute!” and she hissed like a snake, you know? I always want to walk up to her and punch her big nose, but Bubbe stops me, turns to face her and says, “Musichka, darling, it’s not my fault that in fifty-six Lenya Utesov fell in love with my tush and not your bones.” The old snake hisses even more as we walk away with our heads proudly held high and our tushes swaying.
Men still look adoringly at my grandmother, but I’m not pretty. When she hears me say I’m not pretty, she tells me I’m stupid. “Not only am I not pretty, I’m stupid, too. I’ve got the whole package!” I tell her. Then Bubbe takes me by the hand over to the mirror. “Look at my big nose,” she says. I look and see that her nose is big. “Look at my eyes,” she tells me. I look and see that the left is bigger than the right one, or the right is smaller than the left. “Look at my lips.” I look and see that they are thin and wrinkled. Grandmother seats me in a chair and smiles, and then she begins to walk around the room. You should see her walk! She’s a goddess! She sits on the edge of a chair and lights a cigarette. Her fingers, her neck, an untidy hair across her face… Oh, gods! I don’t see her big nose, or notice that her eyes are different, or see her thin lips. Sometimes I think she isn’t getting old, she’s just maturing. She’s maturing beautifully. “A person is beautiful on the outside when they aren’t rotting on the inside,” Bubbe says. “You’re like wine — you get better with age. But I’m like meat — I spoil the older I get,” I tell her.
It was autumn. It was raining. Yellow leaves stuck to my boots and didn’t want to let them go. I was sad, really sad for the first time. Like when it’s empty inside and you want to howl. I both wanted to hide and for someone to hug me without asking any questions. I wanted to be silent and scream at the same time. I headed for the sea. I got to the shore. I took off my boots and began to walk along the sand. I got a razor out of my pocket (I took it from home, special), took off my coat, and rolled up the sleeves of my chiffon blouse. Veins. My green veins. You could see them so easily. In a movie once I saw a razor gliding beautifully through veins. Like a knife through soft butter. I lowered the razor. One more centimeter and it would slide through butter.
The neighbor’s boy ran into our courtyard and rang the doorbell to our apartment. Our bright room, Bubbe putting on lipstick. “Do you know what happened? Did you see what your Sonya did,” Dima asked. “Gittel! Gittel! Did you see? Did you see Sonya? We warned you, didn’t we? We told you she could get up to anything,” our neighbor said. All our neighbors ran into our room and asked Bubbe the same questions, but no one dared to say what happened. They were afraid. Bubbe got up, walked up to the window and saw me. Sonya! Her Sonya! Holding a bouquet of yellow flowers with a shaved head. She started to laugh so hard that she could only say, “Well, maybe now my Sonya will start to wear a hat.”
That was the first debilitating depression. The first time I left home. With a razor. The first time I brought Bubbe flowers for no reason. The first time a razor came so close to my veins. Like in a movie.
But I’m afraid of pain.
I want to live. I want to go to dances. I want to wear perfume. I want to learn how to walk in heels. And to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted to do to myself. Only He and I knew about it. Later I was so ashamed before Him and Bubbe. And the stray dog Velvet, who I feed. If I didn’t feed her she might die. When winter came, I felt fine.
I love winter. In winter everything’s more straight-forward. Women don’t bare their legs and shoulders. Men don’t have to look at naked women’s bodies or shout vulgar things after high heels. All that’s left are eyes — sad, playful, varied — and desires, all cloaked by garments and God, who lives inside everyone. I love a lot of clothing on me and chicken is more expensive in the winter, so we don’t buy it often. And that’s good! In the summer chicken is cheaper, and Bubbe can’t cook anything but chicken and chicken cutlets. It’s chicken morning, noon and night. That poor, poor bird. And poor, poor Sonya. The bird and I are unhappy for the same reason: because I eat it.
Yesterday my favorite ballet troupe came to Odessa. Bubbe doesn’t like them. She says that before they go on stage they take or sniff something. But I sat in the upper balcony and wept, and then laughed, and then wept again. I want to live my life on stage to that music, with those people, in that dance. But I have to go to synagogue. Today is Friday and almost the Sabbath.
Bubbe sat like usual with her cigarette holder and barely smiled. My hair had grown out to a buzz-cut, and for some reason everyone thought that I’d had lice and had my head shaved. That’s why parents didn’t let their children get close to me. Bubbe thought this was hysterical. Lately only two things made her laugh: Mikhail Katsman’s courtship and my buzz-cut.
I love to go to synagogue. And I love to go to church, too. And to mosques.
But those people who call themselves the servants of God…
They act as if God Himself personally offered His friendship them, and even His protection to some people. Their crossword puzzles in cassocks. Their faces on the television. Their bank accounts. Their memorized, empty words that they try to fill other people’s ears and souls with. In vain. Sometimes I turn into a fly and buzz into their rooms when they’re alone. With my little paws I close their ears so that they don’t hear; I close their eyes so that they do not see. Shameful. I’m ashamed of them. And I go back to sinners. I feel better with them. I think it’s because God doesn’t live on their tongues. He is hidden deep down, so that they can cherish Him.
Yesterday Senya Hebe didn’t come to school. The teacher said he was sick. I sent him a bouquet of flowers. I always send flowers to people when they’re sick. No one has ever sent me flowers. But that’s just because I’m never sick.
A week ago Bubbe’s admirer came over — Uncle Misha, or rather Mikhail Katsman. He called me over quietly, so that Bubbe wouldn’t hear. “Sonya, what does your grandmother dream of?” Uncle Misha asked. I thought about it. She doesn’t really care much for Uncle Misha — she’s still head-over-heels in love with Utesov — so I said: “She’s dreams of a black typewriter.”
That very day the doorbell rang. It was a box — not for us but for Bubbe. A gift from Mikhail Katsman. She was puzzled and so I had to tell her everything.
Bubbe? What is it, Bubbe?
She shouted. There was a row. For the nth time she reminded me that I was cheeky, snotty and would go far. And when I left the room and she thought I couldn’t hear her, she burst out laughing.
Bubbe wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a writer. The problem is, Bubbe says, that with the way I look now, only the circus school would take me. And even then we’d have to bribe my way in. Not long ago Uncle Misha sent Bubbe tulips. Where did he get them in the winter? Mikhail Katsman has a job in the government, and he’s 80 years old. He has always dreamed of being repatriated to Israel and living on the shores of the Red Sea with my grandmother.
I think Bubbe is falling in love. Yesterday she bought herself a new bra with roses on it and Guerlain perfume. She even went on a diet. And that old hag Musichka painted under our windows: “Gittel is a tramp.” Uncle Misha spent half a day scrubbing off the inscription. Bubbe sat by the window and watched him as he sent air kisses into our window. To her.
Humph. Either spring is in the air or I’ll have to go to synagogue and arrange with the Rabbi for a wedding soon.
Now Bubbe is Katsman. Gittel Yakovlevna Katsman. Tomorrow the newlyweds are going on their honeymoon to Israel. And Uncle Misha is prepared to put up with chicken morning, noon, and night.
And then for some reason flowers have been delivered to our room lately. Well, not to us, but to me. And on little cards there is something about love. I don’t know what love is yet. I don’t understand what he’s writing. It’s Senya Hebe who’s writing. I wrote about it in a letter to Bubbe in Israel. “What can I say, Sonya? If you take that last name on top of your personality, you’re sure to go far. And when you become a writer, you won’t have to worry about thinking up a pen name,” Bubbe replied.
Bubbe and Uncle Misha kiss all day long — so that means what they have is for eternity. Meanwhile, Senya and I like to sit on the shore of the Black Sea and get close to eternity. Yesterday I wrote my first short story about my favorite old lady, and Senya really liked it. Basically Senya likes everything about me. The only thing is that I can’t cook. Or rather, I can, but like Bubbe: it’s chicken morning, noon, and night.
Mother says that when I start talking I never know when to stop. But I tell her the only time I get a chance is when she ain’t around, so I have to make the most of it. I guess the fact is neither one of us would be welcome in a Quaker meeting, but as I tell Mother, what did God give us tongues for if He didn’t want we should use them? Only she says He didn’t give them to us to say the same thing over and over again, like I do, and repeat myself. But I say:
“Well, Mother,” I say, “when people is like you and I and been married fifty years, do you expect everything I say will be something you ain’t heard me say before? But it may be new to others, as they ain’t nobody else lived with me as long as you have.”
So she says:
“You can bet they ain’t, as they couldn’t nobody else stand you that long.”
“Well,” I tell her, “you look pretty healthy.”
“Maybe I do,” she will say, “but I looked even healthier before I married you.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
Yes, sir, we was married just fifty years ago the seventeenth day of last December and my daughter and son-in-law was over from Trenton to help us celebrate the Golden Wedding. My son-in-law is John H. Kramer, the real estate man. He made $12,000 one year and is pretty well thought of around Trenton; a good, steady, hard worker. The Rotarians was after him a long time to join, but he kept telling them his home was his club. But Edie finally made him join. That’s my daughter.
Well, anyway, they come over to help us celebrate the Golden Wedding and it was pretty crimpy weather and the furnace don’t seem to heat up no more like it used to and Mother made the remark that she hoped this winter wouldn’t be as cold as the last, referring to the winter previous. So Edie said if she was us, and nothing to keep us home, she certainly wouldn’t spend no more winters up here and why didn’t we just shut off the water and close up the house and go down to Tampa, Florida? You know we was there four winters ago and staid five weeks, but it cost us over three hundred and fifty dollars for hotel bill alone. So Mother said we wasn’t going no place to be robbed. So my son-in-law spoke up and said that Tampa wasn’t the only place in the South, and besides we didn’t have to stop at no high price hotel but could rent us a couple rooms and board out somewheres, and he had heard that St. Petersburg, Florida, was the spot and if we said the word he would write down there and make inquiries.
Well, to make a long story short, we decided to do it and Edie said it would be our Golden Honeymoon and for a present my son-in-law paid the difference between a section and a compartment so as we could have a compartment and have more privatecy. In a compartment you have an upper and lower berth just like the regular sleeper, but it is a shut in room by itself and got a wash bowl. The car we went in was all compartments and no regular berths at all. It was all compartments.
We went to Trenton the night before and staid at my daughter and son-in-law and we left Trenton the next afternoon at 3.23 P.M.
This was the twelfth day of January. Mother set facing the front of the train, as it makes her giddy to ride backwards. I set facing her, which does not affect me. We reached North Philadelphia at 4.03 P.M. and we reached West Philadelphia at 4.14, but did not go into Broad Street. We reached Baltimore at 6.30 and Washington, D.C., at 7.25. Our train laid over in Washington two hours till another train come along to pick us up and I got out and strolled up the platform and into the Union Station. When I come back, our car had been switched on to another track, but I remembered the name of it, the La Belle, as I had once visited my aunt out in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, where there was a lake of that name, so I had no difficulty in getting located. But Mother had nearly fretted herself sick for fear I would be left.
“Well,” I said, “I would of followed you on the next train.”
“You could of,” said Mother, and she pointed out that she had the money.
“Well,” I said, “we are in Washington and I could of borrowed from the United States Treasury. I would of pretended I was an Englishman.”
Mother caught the point and laughed heartily.
Our train pulled out of Washington at 9.40 P.M. and Mother and I turned in early, I taking the upper. During the night we passed through the green fields of old Virginia, though it was too dark to tell if they was green or what color. When we got up in the morning, we was at Fayetteville, North Carolina. We had breakfast in the dining car and after breakfast I got in conversation with the man in the next compartment to ours. He was from Lebanon, New Hampshire, and a man about eighty years of age. His wife was with him, and two unmarried daughters and I made the remark that I should think the four of them would be crowded in one compartment, but he said they had made the trip every winter for fifteen years and knowed how to keep out of each other’s way. He said they was bound for Tarpon Springs.
We reached Charleston, South Carolina, at 12.50 P.M. and arrived at Savannah, Georgia, at 4.20. We reached Jacksonville, Florida, at 8.45 P.M. and had an hour and a quarter to lay over there, but Mother made a fuss about me getting off the train, so we had the darky make up our berths and retired before we left Jacksonville. I didn’t sleep good as the train done a lot of hemming and hawing, and Mother never sleeps good on a train as she says she is always worrying that I will fall out. She says she would rather have the upper herself, as then she would not have to worry about me, but I tell her I can’t take the risk of having it get out that I allowed my wife to sleep in an upper berth. It would make talk.
We was up in the morning in time to see our friends from New Hampshire get off at Tarpon Springs, which we reached at 6.53 A.M.
Several of our fellow passengers got off at Clearwater and some at Belleair, where the train backs right up to the door of the mammoth hotel. Belleair is the winter headquarters for the golf dudes and everybody that got off there had their bag of sticks, as many as ten and twelve in a bag. Women and all. When I was a young man we called it shinny and only needed one club to play with and about one game of it would of been a-plenty for some of these dudes, the way we played it.
The train pulled into St. Petersburg at 8.20 and when we got off the train you would think they was a riot, what with all the darkies barking for the different hotels.
I said to Mother, I said:
“It is a good thing we have got a place picked out to go to and don’t have to choose a hotel, as it would be hard to choose amongst them if every one of them is the best.”
We found a jitney and I give him the address of the room my son-in-law had got for us and soon we was there and introduced ourselves to the lady that owns the house, a young widow about forty-eight years of age. She showed us our room, which was light and airy with a comfortable bed and bureau and washstand. It was twelve dollars a week, but the location was good, only three blocks from Williams Park.
St. Pete is what folks calls the town, though they also call it the Sunshine City, as they claim they’s no other place in the country where they’s fewer days when Old Sol don’t smile down on Mother Earth, and one of the newspapers gives away all their copies free every day when the sun don’t shine. They claim to of only give them away some sixty-odd times in the last eleven years. Another nickname they have got for the town is “the Poor Man’s Palm Beach,” but I guess they’s men that comes there that could borrow as much from the bank as some of the Willie boys over to the other Palm Beach.
During our stay we paid a visit to the Lewis Tent City, which is the headquarters for the Tin Can Tourists. But maybe you ain’t heard about them. Well, they are an organization that takes their vacation trips by auto and carries everything with them. That is, they bring along their tents to sleep in and cook in and they don’t patronize no hotels or cafeterias, but they have got to be bona fide auto campers or they can’t belong to the organization.
They tell me they’s over 200,000 members to it and they call themselves the Tin Canners on account of most of their food being put up in tin cans. One couple we seen in the Tent City was a couple from Brady, Texas, named Mr. and Mrs. Pence, which the old man is over eighty years of age and they had come in their auto all the way from home, a distance of 1,641 miles. They took five weeks for the trip, Mr. Pence driving the entire distance.
The Tin Canners hails from every State in the Union and in the summer time they visit places like New England and the Great Lakes region, but in the winter the most of them comes to Florida and scatters all over the State. While we was down there, they was a national convention of them at Gainesville, Florida, and they elected a Fredonia, New York, man as their president. His title is Royal Tin Can Opener of the World. They have got a song wrote up which everybody has got to learn it before they are a member:
“The tin can forever! Hurrah, boys! Hurrah!
Up with the tin can! Down with the foe!
We will rally round the campfire, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting, ‘We auto camp forever!'”
That is something like it. And the members has also got to have a tin can fastened on to the front of their machine.
I asked Mother how she would like to travel around that way and she said:
“Fine, but not with an old rattle brain like you driving.”
“Well,” I said, “I am eight years younger than this Mr. Pence who drove here from Texas.”
“Yes,” she said, “but he is old enough to not be skittish.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
Well, one of the first things we done in St. Petersburg was to go to the Chamber of Commerce and register our names and where we was from as they’s great rivalry amongst the different States in regards to the number of their citizens visiting in town and of course our little State don’t stand much of a show, but still every little bit helps, as the fella says. All and all, the man told us, they was eleven thousand names registered, Ohio leading with some fifteen hundred-odd and New York State next with twelve hundred. Then come Michigan, Pennsylvania and so on down, with one man each from Cuba and Nevada.
The first night we was there, they was a meeting of the New York-New Jersey Society at the Congregational Church and a man from Ogdensburg, New York State, made the talk. His subject was Rainbow Chasing. He is a Rotarian and a very convicting speaker, though I forget his name.
Our first business, of course, was to find a place to eat and after trying several places we run on to a cafeteria on Central Avenue that suited us up and down. We eat pretty near all our meals there and it averaged about two dollars per day for the two of us, but the food was well cooked and everything nice and clean. A man don’t mind paying the price if things is clean and well cooked.
On the third day of February, which is Mother’s birthday, we spread ourselves and eat supper at the Poinsettia Hotel and they charged us seventy-five cents for a sirloin steak that wasn’t hardly big enough for one.
I said to Mother: “Well,” I said, “I guess it’s a good thing every day ain’t your birthday or we would be in the poorhouse.”
“No,” says Mother, “because if every day was my birthday, I would be old enough by this time to of been in my grave long ago.”
You can’t get ahead of Mother.
In the hotel they had a card-room where they was several men and ladies playing five hundred and this new fangled whist bridge. We also seen a place where they was dancing, so I asked Mother would she like to trip tne light fantastic toe and she said no, she was too old to squirm like you have got to do now days. We watched some of the young folks at it awhile till Mother got disgusted and said we would have to see a good movie to take the taste out of our mouth. Mother is a great movie heroyne and we go twice a week here at home.
But I want to tell you about the Park. The second day we was there we visited the Park, which is a good deal like the one in Tampa, only bigger, and they’s more fun goes on here every day than you could shake a stick at. In the middle they’s a big bandstand and chairs for the folks to set and listen to the concerts, which they give you music for all tastes, from Dixie up to classical pieces like Hearts and Flowers.
Then all around they’s places marked off for different sports and games–chess and checkers and dominoes for folks that enjoys those kind of games, and roque and horse-shoes for the nimbler ones. I used to pitch a pretty fair shoe myself, but ain’t done much of it in the last twenty years.
Well, anyway, we bought a membership ticket in the club which costs one dollar for the season, and they tell me that up to a couple years ago it was fifty cents, but they had to raise it to keep out the riffraff.
Well, Mother and I put in a great day watching the pitchers and she wanted I should get in the game, but I told her I was all out of practice and would make a fool of myself, though I seen several men pitching who I guess I could take their measure without no practice. However, they was some good pitchers, too, and one boy from Akron, Ohio, who could certainly throw a pretty shoe. They told me it looked like he would win them championship of the United States in the February tournament. We come away a few days before they held that and I never did hear if he win. I forget his name, but he was a clean cut young fella and he has got a brother in Cleveland that’s a Rotarian.
Well, we just stood around and watched the different games for two or three days and finally I set down in a checker game with a man named Weaver from Danville, Illinois. He was a pretty fair checker player, but he wasn’t no match for me, and I hope that don’t sound like bragging. But I always could hold my own on a checker-board and the folks around here will tell you the same thing. I played with this Weaver pretty near all morning for two or three mornings and he beat me one game and the only other time it looked like he had a chance, the noon whistle blowed and we had to quit and go to dinner.
While I was playing checkers, Mother would set and listen to the band, as she loves music, classical or no matter what kind, but anyway she was setting there one day and between selections the woman next to her opened up a conversation. She was a woman about Mother’s own age, seventy or seventy-one, and finally she asked Mother’s name and Mother told her her name and where she was from and Mother asked her the same question, and who do you think the woman was?
Well, sir, it was the wife of Frank M. Hartsell, the man who was engaged to Mother till I stepped in and cut him out, fifty-two years ago!
You can imagine Mother’s surprise! And Mrs. Hartsell was surprised, too, when Mother told her she had once been friends with her husband, though Mother didn’t say how close friends they had been, or that Mother and I was the cause of Hartsell going out West. But that’s what we was. Hartsell left his town a month after the engagement was broke off and ain’t never been back since. He had went out to Michigan and become a veterinary, and that is where he had settled down, in Hillsdale, Michigan, and finally married his wife.
Well, Mother screwed up her courage to ask if Frank was still living and Mrs. Hartsell took her over to where they was pitching horse-shoes and there was old Frank, waiting his turn. And he knowed Mother as soon as he seen her, though it was over fifty years. He said he knowed her by her eyes.
“Why, it’s Lucy Frost!” he says, and he throwed down his shoes and quit the game.
Then they come over and hunted me up and I will confess I wouldn’t of knowed him. Him and I is the same age to the month, but he seems to show it more, some way. He is balder for one thing. And his beard is all white, where mine has still got a streak of brown in it. The very first thing I said to him, I said:
“Well, Frank, that beard of yours makes me feel like I was back north. It looks like a regular blizzard.”
“Well,” he said, “I guess yourn would be just as white if you had it dry cleaned.”
But Mother wouldn’t stand that.
“Is that so!” she said to Frank. “Well, Chancy ain’t had no tobacco in his mouth for over ten years!”
And I ain’t!
Well, I excused myself from the checker game and it was pretty close to noon, so we decided to all have dinner together and they was nothing for it only we must try their cafeteria on Third Avenue. It was a little more expensive than ours and not near as good, I thought. I and Mother had about the same dinner we had been having every day and our bill was $1.10. Frank’s check was $1.20 for he and his wife. The same meal wouldn’t of cost them more than a dollar at our place.
After dinner we made them come up to our house and we all set in the parlor, which the young woman had give us the use of to entertain company. We begun talking over old times and Mother said she was a-scared Mrs. Hartsell would find it tiresome listening to we three talk over old times, but as it turned out they wasn’t much chance for nobody else to talk with Mrs. Hartsell in the company. I have heard lots of women that could go it, but Hartsell’s wife takes the cake of all the women I ever seen. She told us the family history of everybody in the State of Michigan and bragged for a half hour about her son, who she said is in the drug business in Grand Rapids, and a Rotarian.
When I and Hartsell could get a word in edgeways we joked one another back and forth and I chafed him about being a horse doctor.
“Well, Frank,” I said, ” you look pretty prosperous, so I suppose they’s been plenty of glanders around Hillsdale.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve managed to make more than a fair living. But I’ve worked pretty hard.”
“Yes,” I said, “and I suppose you get called out all hours of the night to attend births and so on.”
Mother made me shut up.
Well, I thought they wouldn’t never go home and I and Mother was in misery trying to keep awake, as the both of us generally always takes a nap after dinner. Finally they went, after we had made an engagement to meet them in the Park the next morning, and Mrs. Hartsell also invited us to come to their place the next night and play five hundred. But she had forgot that they was a meeting of the Michigan Society that evening, so it was not till two evenings later that we had our first card game.
Hartsell and his wife lived in a house on Third Avenue North and had a private setting room besides their bedroom. Mrs. Hartsell couldn’t quit talking about their private setting room like it was something wonderful. We played cards with them, with Mother and Hartsell partners against his wife and I. Mrs. Hartsell is a miserable card player and we certainly got the worst of it.
After the game she brought out a dish of oranges and we had to pretend it was just what we wanted, though oranges down there is like a young man’s whiskers; you enjoy them at first, but they get to be a pesky nuisance.
We played cards again the next night at our place with the same partners and I and Mrs. Hartsell was beat again. Mother and Hartsell was full of compliments for each other on what a good team they made, but the both of them knowed well enough where the secret of their success laid. I guess all and all we must of played ten different evenings and they was only one night when Mrs. Hartsell and I come out ahead. And that one night wasn’t no fault of hern.
When we had been down there about two weeks, we spent one evening as their guest in the Congregational Church, at a social give by the Michigan Society. A talk was made by a man named Bitting of Detroit, Michigan, on How I was Cured of Story Telling. He is a big man in the Rotarians and give a witty talk.
A woman named Mrs. Oxford rendered some selections which Mrs. Hartsell said was grand opera music, but whatever they was my daughter Edie could of give her cards and spades and not made such a hullaballoo about it neither.
Then they was a ventriloquist from Grand Rapids and a young woman about forty-five years of age that mimicked different kinds of birds. I whispered to Mother that they all sounded like a chicken, but she nudged me to shut up.
After the show we stopped in a drug store and I set up the refreshments and it was pretty close to ten o’clock before we finally turned in. Mother and I would of preferred tending the movies, but Mother said we mustn’t offend Mrs. Hartsell, though I asked her had we came to Florida to enjoy ourselves or to just not offend an old chatter-box from Michigan.
I felt sorry for Hartsell one morning. The women folks both had an engagement down to the chiropodist’s and I run across Hartsell in the Park and he foolishly offered to play me checkers.
It was him that suggested it, not me, and I guess he repented himself before we had played one game. But he was too stubborn to give up and set there while I beat him game after game and the worst part of it was that a crowd of folks had got in the habit of watching me play and there they all was, hooking on, and finally they seen what a fool Frank was making of himself, and they began to chafe him and pass remarks. Like one of them said:
“Who ever told you you was a checker player!”
“You might maybe be good for tiddle-de-winks, but not checkers!
I almost felt like letting him beat me a couple games. But the crowd would of knowed it was a put up job.
Well, the women folks joined us in the Park and I wasn’t going to mention our little game, but Hartsell told about it himself and admitted he wasn’t no match for me.
“Well,” said Mrs. Hartsell, “checkers ain’t much of a game anyway, is it?” She said: “It’s more of a children’s game, ain’t it? At least, I know my boy’s children used to play it a good deal.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “It’s a children’s game the way your husband plays it, too.”
Mother wanted to smooth things over, so she said:
“Maybe they’s other games where Frank can beat you.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hartsell, “and I bet he could beat you pitching horse-shoes.”
“Well,” I said, “I would give him a chance to try, only I ain’t pitched a shoe in over sixteen years.”
“Well,” said Hartsell, “I ain’t played checkers in twenty years.”
“You ain’t never played it,” I said.
“Anyway,” says Frank, “Lucy and I is your master at five hundred.”
Well, I could of told him why that was, but had decency enough to hold my tongue.
It had got so now that he wanted to play cards every night and when I or Mother wanted to go to a movie, any one of us would have to pretend we had a headache and then trust to goodness that they wouldn’t see us sneak into the theater. I don’t mind playing cards when my partner keeps their mind on the game, but you take a woman like Hartsell’s wife and how can they play cards when they have got to stop every couple seconds and brag about their son in Grand Rapids?
Well, the New York-New Jersey Society announced that they was goin’ to give a social evening too and I said to Mother, I said:
“Well, that is one evening when we will have an excuse not to play five hundred.”
“Yes,” she said, “but we will have to ask Frank and his wife to go to the social with us as they asked us to go to the Michigan social.”
“Well,” I said, “I had rather stay home than drag that chatterbox everywheres we go.”
So Mother said:
“You are getting too cranky. Maybe she does talk a little too much but she is good hearted. And Frank is always good company.”
So I said:
“I suppose if he is such good company you wished you had of married him.”
Mother laughed and said I sounded like I was jealous. Jealous of a cow doctor!
Anyway we had to drag them along to the social and I will say that we give them a much better entertainment than they had given us.
Judge Lane of Paterson made a fine talk on business conditions and a Mrs. Newell of Westfield imitated birds, only you could really tell what they was the way she done it. Two young women from Red Bank sung a choral selection and we clapped them back and they gave us Home to Our Mountains and Mother and Mrs. Hartsell both had tears in their eyes. And Hartsell, too.
Well, some way or another the chairman got wind that I was there and asked me to make a talk and I wasn’t even going to get up, but Mother made me, so I got up and said:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “I didn’t expect to be called on for a speech on an occasion like this or no other occasion as I do not set myself up as a speech maker, so will have to do the best I can, which I often say is the best anybody can do.”
Then I told them the story about Pat and the motorcycle, using the brogue, and it seemed to tickle them and I told them one or two other stories, hut altogether I wasn’t on my feet more than twenty or twenty-five minutes and you ought to of heard the clapping and hollering when I set down. Even Mrs. Hartsell admitted that I am quite a speechifier and said if I ever went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, her son would make me talk to the Rotarians.
When it was over, Hartsell wanted we should go to their house and play cards, but his wife reminded him that it was after 9.30 P.M., rather a late hour to start a card game, but he had went crazy on the subject of cards, probably because he didn’t have to play partners with his wife. Anyway, we got rid of them and went home to bed.
It was the next morning, when we met over to the Park, that Mrs. Hartsell made the remark that she wasn’t getting no exercise so I suggested that why didn’t she take part in the roque game.
She said she had not played a game of roque in twenty years, but if Mother would play she would play. Well, at first Mother wouldn’t hear of it, but finally consented, more to please Mrs. Hartsell than anything else.
Well, they had a game with a Mrs. Ryan from Eagle, Nebraska, and a young Mrs. Morse from Rutland, Vermont, who Mother had met down to the chiropodist’s. Well, Mother couldn’t hit a flea and they all laughed at her and I couldn’t help from laughing at her myself and finally she quit and said her back was too lame to stoop over. So they got another lady and kept on playing and soon Mrs. Hartsell was the one everybody was laughing at, as she had a long shot to hit the black ball, and as she made the effort her teeth fell out on to the court. I never seen a woman so flustered in my life. And I never heard so much laughing, only Mrs. Hartsell didn’t join in and she was madder than a hornet and wouldn’t play no more, so the game broke up.
Mrs. Hartsell went home without speaking to nobody, but Hartsell stayed around and finally he said to me, he said:
“Well, I played you checkers the other day and you beat me bad and now what do you say if you and me play a game of horseshoes?”
I told him I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years, but Mother said:
“Go ahead and play. You used to be good at it and maybe it will come back to you.”
Well, to make a long story short, I give in. I oughtn’t to of never tried it, as I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years, and I only done it to humor Hartsell.
Before we started, Mother patted me on the back and told me to do my best, so we started in and I seen right off that I was in for it, as I hadn’t pitched a shoe in sixteen years and didn’t have my distance. And besides, the plating had wore off the shoes so that they was points right where they stuck into my thumb and I hadn’t throwed more than two or three times when my thumb was raw and it pretty near killed me to hang on to the shoe, let alone pitch it.
Well, Hartsell throws the awkwardest shoe I ever seen pitched and to see him pitch you wouldn’t think he would ever come nowheres near, but he is also the luckiest pitcher I ever seen and he made some pitches where the shoe lit five and six feet short and then schoonered up and was a ringer. They’s no use trying to beat that kind of luck.
They was a pretty fair size crowd watching us and four or five other ladies besides Mother, and it seems like, when Hartsell pitches, he has got to chew and it kept the ladies on the anxious seat as he don’t seem to care which way he is facing when he leaves go.
You would think a man as old as him would of learnt more manners.
Well, to make a long story short, I was just beginning to get my distance when I had to give up on account of my thumb, which I showed it to Hartsell and he seen I couldn’t go on, as it was raw and bleeding. Even if I could of stood it to go on myself, Mother wouldn’t of allowed it after she seen my thumb. So anyway I quit and Hartsell said the score was nineteen to six, but I don’t know what it was. Or don’t care, neither.
Well, Mother and I went home and I said I hoped we was through with the Hartsells as I was sick and tired of them, but it seemed like she had promised we would go over to their house that evening for another game of their everlasting cards.
Well, my thumb was giving me considerable pain and I felt kind of out of sorts and I guess maybe I forgot myself, but anyway, when we was about through playing Hartsell made the remark that he wouldn’t never lose a game of cards if he could always have Mother for a partner.
So I said:
“Well, you had a chance fifty years ago to always have her for a partner, but you wasn’t man enough to keep her.”
I was sorry the minute I had said it and Hartsell didn’t know what to say and for once his wife couldn’t say nothing. Mother tried to smooth things over by making the remark that I must of had something stronger than tea or I wouldn’t talk so silly. But Mrs. Hartsell had froze up like an iceberg and hardly said good night to us and I bet her and Frank put in a pleasant hour after we was gone.
As we was leaving, Mother said to him: “Never mind Charley’s nonsense, Frank. He is just mad because you beat him all hollow pitching horseshoes and playing cards.”
She said that to make up for my slip, but at the same time she certainly riled me. I tried to keep ahold of myself, but as soon as we was out of the house she had to open up the subject and begun to scold me for the break I had made.
Well, I wasn’t in no mood to be scolded. So I said:
“I guess he is such a wonderful pitcher and card player that you wished you had married him.”
“Well,” she said, “at least he ain’t a baby to give up pitching because his thumb has got a few scratches.”
“And how about you,” I said, “making a fool of yourself on the roque court and then pretemiding your back is lame and you can’t play no more!”
“Yes,” she said, “but when you hurt your thumb I didn’t laugh at you, and why did you laugh at me when I sprained my back?”
“Who could help from laughing!” I said.
“Well,” she said, “Frank Hartsell didn’t laugh.”
“Well,” I said, “why didn’t you marry him?”
“Well,” said Mother, “I almost wished I had!”
“And I wished so, too!” I said.
“I’ll remember that!” said Mother, and that’s the last word she said to me for two days.
We seen the Hartsells the next day in the Park and I was willing to apologize, but they just nodded to us. And a couple days later we heard they had left for Orlando, where they have got relatives.
I wished they had went there in the first place.
Mother and I made it up setting on a bench.
“Listen, Charley,” she said. “This is our Golden Honeymoon and we don’t want the whole thing spoilt with a silly old quarrel.”
“Well,” I said, “did you mean that about wishing you had married Hartsell?”
“Of course not,” she said, “that is, if you didn’t mean that you wished I had, too.” So I said:
“I was just tired and all wrought up. I thank God you chose me instead of him as they’s no other woman in the world who I could of lived with all these years.”
“How about Mrs. Hartsell?” says Mother.
“Good gracious!” I said. “Imagine being married to a woman that plays five hundred like she does and drops her teeth on the roque court!”
“Well,” said Mother, “it wouldn’t be no worse than being married to a man that expectorates towards ladies and is such a fool in a checker game.”
So I put my arm around her shoulder and she stroked my hand and I guess we got kind of spoony.
They was two days left of our stay in St. Petersburg and the next to the last day Mother introduced me to a Mrs. Kendall from Kingston, Rhode Island, who she had met at the chiropodist’s.
Mrs. Kendall made us acquainted with her husband, who is in the grocery business. They have got two sons and five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. One of their sons lives in Providence and is way up in the Elks as well as a Rotarian.
We found them very congenial people and we played cards with them the last two nights we was there. They was both experts and I only wished we had met them sooner instead of running into the Hartsells. But the Kendalls will be there again next winter and we will see more of them, that is, if we decide to make the trip again.
We left the Sunshine City on the eleventh day of February, at 11 A.M. This give us a day trip through Florida and we seen all the country we had passed through at night on the way down.
We reached Jacksonville at 7 P.M. and pulled out of there at 8.10 P.M. We reached Fayetteville, North Carolina, at nine o’clock the following morning, and reached Washington, D. C., at 6.30 P.M., laying over there half an hour.
We reached Trenton at 11.01 P.M. and had wired ahead to my daughter and son-in-law and they met us at the train and we went to their house and they put us up for the night. John would of made us stay up all night, telling about our trip, but Edie said we must be tired and made us go to bed. That’s my daughter.
The next day we took our train for home and arrived safe and sound, having been gone just one month and a day.
Here comes Mother, so I guess I better shut up.
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction, came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic; he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention—but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window; they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly-noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid an imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window; “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.
The week after was one off the busiest weeks of their lives. Even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where…
Constantia lay like a statue, her hands by her sides, her feet just overlapping each other, the sheet up to her chin. She stared at the ceiling.
“Do you think father would mind if we gave his top-hat to the porter?”
“The porter?” snapped Josephine. “Why ever the porter? What a very extraordinary idea!”
“Because,” said Constantia slowly, “he must often have to go to funerals. And I noticed at—at the cemetery that he only had a bowler.” She paused. “I thought then how very much he’d appreciate a top-hat. We ought to give him a present, too. He was always very nice to father.”
“But,” cried Josephine, flouncing on her pillow and staring across the dark at Constantia, “father’s head!” And suddenly, for one awful moment, she nearly giggled. Not, of course, that she felt in the least like giggling. It must have been habit. Years ago, when they had stayed awake at night talking, their beds had simply heaved. And now the porter’s head, disappearing, popped out, like a candle, under father’s hat… The giggle mounted, mounted; she clenched her hands; she fought it down; she frowned fiercely at the dark and said “Remember” terribly sternly.
“We can decide to-morrow,” she said.
Constantia had noticed nothing; she sighed.
“Do you think we ought to have our dressing-gowns dyed as well?”
“Black?” almost shrieked Josephine.
“Well, what else?” said Constantia. “I was thinking—it doesn’t seem quite sincere, in a way, to wear black out off doors and when we’re fully dressed, and then when we’re at home—”
“But nobody sees us,” said Josephine. She gave the bedclothes such a twitch that both her feet became uncovered, and she had to creep up the pillows to get them well under again.
“Kate does,” said Constantia. “And the postman very well might.”
Josephine thought of her dark-red slippers, which matched her dressing-gown, and of Constantia’s favourite indefinite green ones which went with hers. Black! Two black dressing-gowns and two pairs of black woolly slippers, creeping off to the bathroom like black cats.
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary,” said she.
Silence. Then Constantia said, “We shall have to post the papers with the notice in them to-morrow to catch the Ceylon mail… How many letters have we had up till now?”
Josephine had replied to them all, and twenty-three times when she came to “We miss our dear father so much” she had broken down and had to use her handkerchief, and on some of them even to soak up a very light-blue tear with an edge of blotting-paper. Strange! She couldn’t have put it on—but twenty-three times. Even now, though, when she said over to herself sadly “We miss our dear father so much,” she could have cried if she’d wanted to.
“Have you got enough stamps?” came from Constantia.
“Oh, how can I tell?” said Josephine crossly. “What’s the good of asking me that now?”
“I was just wondering,” said Constantia mildly.
Silence again. There came e a little rustle, a scurry, a hop.
“A mouse,” said Constantia.
“It can’t be a mouse because there aren’t any crumbs,” said Josephine.
“But it doesn’t know there aren’t,” said Constantia.
A spasm of pity squeezed her heart. Poor little thing! She wished she’d left a tiny piece of biscuit on the dressing-table. It was awful to think of it not finding anything. What would it do?
“I can’t think how they manage to live at all,” she said slowly.
“Who?” demanded Josephine.
And Constantia said more loudly than she meant to, “Mice.”
Josephine was furious. “Oh, what nonsense, Con!” she said. “What have mice got to do with it? You’re asleep.”
“I don’t think I am,” said C Constantia. She shut her eyes to make sure. She was.
Josephine arched her spine, pulled up her knees, folded her arms so that her fists came under her ears, and pressed her cheek hard against the pillow.
Another thing which complicated matters was they had Nurse Andrews staying on with them that week. It was their own fault; they had asked her. It was Josephine’s idea. On the morning—well, on the last morning, when the doctor had gone, Josephine had said to Constantia, “Don’t you think it would be rather nice if we asked Nurse Andrews to stay on for a week as our guest?”
“Very nice,” said Constantia.
“I thought,” went on Josephine quickly, “I should just say this afternoon, after I’ve paid her, ‘My sister and I would be very pleased, after all you’ve done for us, Nurse Andrews, if you would stay on for a week as our guest.’ I’d have to put that in about being our guest in case—”
“Oh, but she could hardly expect to be paid!” cried Constantia.
“One never knows,” said Josephine sagely.
Nurse Andrews had, of course, jumped at the idea. But it was a bother. It meant they had to have regular sit-down meals at the proper times, whereas if they’d been alone they could just have asked Kate if she wouldn’t have minded bringing them a tray wherever they were. And meal-times now that the strain was over were rather a trial.
Nurse Andrews was simply fearful about butter. Really they couldn’t help feeling that about butter, at least, she took advantage of their kindness. And she had that maddening habit of asking for just an inch more of bread to finish what she had on her plate, and then, at the last mouthful, absent-mindedly—of course it wasn’t absent-mindedly—taking another helping. Josephine got very red when this happened, and she fastened her small, bead-like eyes on the tablecloth as if she saw a minute strange insect creeping through the web of it. But Constantia’s long, pale face lengthened and set, and she gazed away— away— far over the desert, to where that line of camels unwound like a thread of wool…
“When I was with Lady Tukes,” said Nurse Andrews, “she had such a dainty little contrayvance for the buttah. It was a silvah Cupid balanced on the—on the bordah of a glass dish, holding a tayny fork. And when you wanted some buttah you simply pressed his foot and he bent down and speared you a piece. It was quite a gayme.”
Josephine could hardly bear that. But “I think those things are very extravagant” was all she said.
“But whey?” asked Nurse Andrews, beaming through her eyeglasses. “No one, surely, would take more buttah than one wanted—would one?”
“Ring, Con,” cried Josephine. She couldn’t trust herself to reply.
And proud young Kate, the enchanted princess, came in to see what the old tabbies wanted now. She snatched away their plates of mock something or other and slapped down a white, terrified blancmange.
“Jam, please, Kate,” said Josephine kindly.
Kate knelt and burst open the sideboard, lifted the lid of the jam-pot, saw it was empty, put it on the table, and stalked off.
“I’m afraid,” said Nurse Andrews a moment later, “there isn’t any.”
“Oh, what a bother!” said Josephine. She bit her lip. “What had we better do?”
Constantia looked dubious. “We can’t disturb Kate again,” she said softly.
Nurse Andrews waited, smiling at them both. Her eyes wandered, spying at everything behind her eyeglasses. Constantia in despair went back to her camels. Josephine frowned heavily—concentrated. If it hadn’t been for this idiotic woman she and Con would, of course, have eaten their blancmange without. Suddenly the idea came.
“I know,” she said. “Marmalade. There’s some marmalade in the sideboard. Get it, Con.”
“I hope,” laughed Nurse Andrews—and her laugh was like a spoon tinkling against a medicine-glass—”I hope it’s not very bittah marmalayde.”
But, after all, it was not long now, and then she’d be gone for good. And there was no getting over the fact that she had been very kind to father. She had nursed him day and night at the end. Indeed, both Constantia and Josephine felt privately she had rather overdone the not leaving him at the very last. For when they had gone in to say good-bye Nurse Andrews had sat beside his bed the whole time, holding his wrist and pretending to look at her watch. It couldn’t have been necessary. It was so tactless, too. Supposing father had wanted to say something—something private to them. Not that he had. Oh, far from it! He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then… went out.
It had made it very awkward for them when Mr. Farolles, of St. John’s, called the same afternoon.
“The end was quite peaceful, I trust?” were the first words he said as he glided towards them through the dark drawing-room.
“Quite,” said Josephine faintly. They both hung their heads. Both of them felt certain that eye wasn’t at all a peaceful eye.
“Won’t you sit down?” said Josephine.
“Thank you, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles gratefully. He folded his coat-tails and began to lower himself into father’s arm-chair, but just as he touched it he almost sprang up and slid into the next chair instead.
He coughed. Josephine clasped her hands; Constantia looked vague.
“I want you to feel, Miss Pinner,” said Mr. Farolles, “and you, Miss Constantia, that I’m trying to be helpful. I want to be helpful to you both, if you will let me. These are the times,” said Mr. Farolles, very simply and earnestly, “when God means us to be helpful to one another.”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Farolles,” said Josephine and Constantia.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Farolles gently. He drew his kid gloves through his fingers and leaned forward. “And if either of you would like a little Communion, either or both of you, here and now, you have only to tell me. A little Communion is often very help—a great comfort,” he added tenderly.
But the idea of a little Communion terrified them. What! In the drawing-room by themselves—with no—no altar or anything! The piano would be much too high, thought Constantia, and Mr. Farolles could not possibly lean over it with the chalice. And Kate would be sure to come bursting in and interrupt them, thought Josephine. And supposing the bell rang in the middle? It might be somebody important—about their mourning. Would they get up reverently and go out, or would they have to wait… in torture?
“Perhaps you will send round a note by your good Kate if you would care for it later,” said Mr. Farolles.
“Oh yes, thank you very m much!” they both said.
Mr. Farolles got up and took his black straw hat from the round table.
“And about the funeral,” he said softly. “I may arrange that—as your dear father’s old friend and yours, Miss Pinner—and Miss Constantia?”
Josephine and Constantia got up too.
“I should like it to be quite simple,” said Josephine firmly, “and not too expensive. At the same time, I should like—”
“A good one that will last,” thought dreamy Constantia, as if Josephine were buying a nightgown. But, of course, Josephine didn’t say that. “One suitable to our father’s position.” She was very nervous.
“I’ll run round to our good friend Mr. Knight,” said Mr. Farolles soothingly. “I will ask him to come and see you. I am sure you will find him very helpful indeed.”
Well, at any rate, all that part of it was over, though neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. “Buried. You two girls had me buried!” She had his stick thumping. Oh, what would they say? What possible excuse could they make? It sounded such an appallingly heartless thing to do. Such a wicked advantage to take of a person because he happened to be helpless at the moment. The other people seemed to treat it all as a matter of course. They were strangers; they couldn’t be expected to understand that father was the very last person for such a thing to happen to. No, the entire blame for it all would fall on her and Constantia. And the expense, she thought, stepping into the tight-buttoned cab. When she had to show him the bills. What would he say then?
She heard him absolutely roaring. “And do you expect me to pay for this gimcrack excursion of yours?”
“Oh,” groaned poor Josephine aloud, “we shouldn’t have done it, Con!”
And Constantia, pale as a lemon in all that blackness, said in a frightened whisper, “Done what, Jug?”
“Let them bu-bury father like that,” said Josephine, breaking down and crying into her new, queer-smelling mourning handkerchief.
“But what else could we have done?” asked Constantia wonderingly. “We couldn’t have kept him, Jug—we couldn’t have kept him unburied. At any rate, not in a flat that size.”
Josephine blew her nose; the cab was dreadfully stuffy.
“I don’t know,” she said forlornly. “It is all so dreadful. I feel we ought to have tried to, just for a time at least. To make perfectly sure. One thing’s certain”—and her tears sprang out again—”father will never forgive us for this—never!”
Father would never forgive them. That was what they felt more than ever when, two mornings later, they went into his room to go through his things. They had discussed it quite calmly. It was even down on Josephine’s list of things to be done. “Go through father’s things and settle about them.” But that was a very different matter from saying after breakfast:
“Well, are you ready, Con?”
“Yes, Jug—when you are.”
“Then I think we’d better get it over.”
It was dark in the hall. It had been a rule for years never to disturb father in the morning, whatever happened. And now they were going to open the door without knocking even… Constantia’s eyes were enormous at the idea; Josephine felt weak in the knees.
“You—you go first,” she g gasped, pushing Constantia.
But Constantia said, as she always had said on those occasions, “No, Jug, that’s not fair. You’re the eldest.”
Josephine was just going to say—what at other times she wouldn’t have owned to for the world—what she kept for her very last weapon, “But you’re the tallest,” when they noticed that the kitchen door was open, and there stood Kate…
“Very stiff,” said Josephine, grasping the door handle and doing her best to turn it. As if anything ever deceived Kate!
It couldn’t be helped. That girl was… Then the door was shut behind them, but—but they weren’t in father’s room at all. They might have suddenly walked through the wall by mistake into a different flat altogether. Was the door just behind them? They were too frightened to look. Josephine knew that if it was it was holding itself tight shut; Constantia felt that, like the doors in dreams, it hadn’t any handle at all. It was the coldness which made it so awful. Or the whiteness—which? Everything was covered. The blinds were down, a cloth hung over the mirror, a sheet hid the bed; a huge fan of white paper filled the fireplace. Constantia timidly put out her hand; she almost expected a snowflake to fall. Josephine felt a queer tingling in her nose, as if her nose was freezing. Then a cab klop-klopped over the cobbles below, and the quiet seemed to shake into little pieces.
“I had better pull up a blind,” said Josephine bravely.
“Yes, it might be a good idea,” whispered Constantia.
They only gave the blind a touch, but it flew up and the cord flew after, rolling round the blind-stick, and the little tassel tapped as if trying to get free. That was too much for Constantia.
“Don’t you think—don’t you think we might put it off for another day?” she whispered.
“Why?” snapped Josephine, feeling, as usual, much better now that she knew for certain that Constantia was terrified. “It’s got to be done. But I do wish you wouldn’t whisper, Con.”
“I didn’t know I was whispering,” whispered Constantia.
“And why do you keep staring at the bed?” said Josephine, raising her voice almost defiantly. “There’s nothing on the bed.”
“Oh, Jug, don’t say so!” said poor Connie. “At any rate, not so loudly.”
Josephine felt herself that she had gone too far. She took a wide swerve over to the chest of drawers, put out her hand, but quickly drew it back again.
“Connie!” she gasped, and she wheeled round and leaned with her back against the chest of drawers.
Josephine could only glare. She had the most extraordinary feeling that she had just escaped something simply awful. But how could she explain to Constantia that father was in the chest of drawers? He was in the top drawer with his handkerchiefs and neckties, or in the next with his shirts and pyjamas, or in the lowest of all with his suits. He was watching there, hidden away—just behind the door-handle—ready to spring.
She pulled a funny old-fashioned face at Constantia, just as she used to in the old days when she was going to cry.
“I can’t open,” she nearly wailed.
“No, don’t, Jug,” whispered Constantia earnestly. “It’s much better not to. Don’t let’s open anything. At any rate, not for a long time.”
“But—but it seems so weak,” said Josephine, breaking down.
“But why not be weak for once, Jug?” argued Constantia, whispering quite fiercely. “If it is weak.” And her pale stare flew from the locked writing-table—so safe—to the huge glittering wardrobe, and she began to breathe in a queer, panting away. “Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug? It’s quite excusable. Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.”
And then she did one of those amazingly bold things that she’d done bout twice before in their lives: she marched over to the wardrobe, turned the key, and took it out of the lock. Took it out of the lock and held it up to Josephine, showing Josephine by her extraordinary smile that she knew what she’d done—she’d risked deliberately father being in there among his overcoats.
If the huge wardrobe had lurched forward, had crashed down on Constantia, Josephine wouldn’t have been surprised. On the contrary, she would have thought it the only suitable thing to happen. But nothing happened. Only the room seemed quieter than ever, and the bigger flakes of cold air fell on Josephine’s shoulders and knees. She began to shiver.
“Come, Jug,” said Constantia, still with that awful callous smile, and Josephine followed just as she had that last time, when Constantia had pushed Benny into t the round pond.
But the strain told on them when they were back in the dining-room. They sat down, very shaky, and looked at each other.
“I don’t feel I can settle to anything,” said Josephine, “until I’ve had something. Do you think we could ask Kate for two cups of hot water?”
“I really don’t see why we shouldn’t,” said Constantia carefully. She was quite normal again. “I won’t ring. I’ll go to the kitchen door and ask her.”
“Yes, do,” said Josephine, sinking down into a chair. “Tell her, just two cups, Con, nothing else—on a tray.”
“She needn’t even put the jug on, need she?” said Constantia, as though Kate might very well complain if the jug had been there.
“Oh no, certainly not! The jug’s not at all necessary. She can pour it direct out of the kettle,” cried Josephine, feeling that would be a labour-saving indeed.
Their cold lips quivered at the greenish brims. Josephine curved her small red hands round the cup; Constantia sat up and blew on the wavy steam, making it flutter from one side to the other.
“Speaking of Benny,” said Josephine.
And though Benny hadn’t been mentioned Constantia immediately looked as though he had.
“He’ll expect us to send him something of father’s, of course. But it’s so difficult to know what to send to Ceylon.”
“You mean things get unstuck so on the voyage,” murmured Constantia.
“No, lost,” said Josephine sharply. “You know there’s no post. Only runners.”
Both paused to watch a black man in white linen drawers running through the pale fields for dear life, with a large brown-paper parcel in his hands. Josephine’s black man was tiny; he scurried along glistening like an ant. But there was something blind and tireless about Constantia’s tall, thin fellow, which made him, she decided, a very unpleasant person indeed… On the veranda, dressed all in white and wearing a cork helmet, stood Benny. His right hand shook up and down, as father’s did when he was impatient. And behind him, not in the least interested, sat Hilda, the unknown sister-in-law. She swung in a cane rocker and flicked over the leaves of the “Tatler.”
“I think his watch would be the most suitable present,” said Josephine.
Constantia looked up; she seemed surprised.
“Oh, would you trust a gold watch to a native?”
“But of course, I’d disguise it,” said Josephine. “No one would know it was a watch.” She liked the idea of having to make a parcel such a curious shape that no one could possibly guess what it was. She even thought for a moment of hiding the watch in a narrow cardboard corset-box that she’d kept by her for a long time, waiting for it to come in for something. It was such beautiful, firm cardboard. But, no, it wouldn’t be appropriate for this occasion. It had letter ring on it: “Medium Women’s 28. Extra Firm Busks.” It would be almost too much of a surprise for Benny to open that and find father’s watch inside.
“And of course it isn’t as though it would be going—ticking, I mean,” said Constantia, who was still thinking of the native love of jewellery. “At least,” she added, “it would be very strange if after all that time it was.”
Josephine made no reply. She had flown off on one of her tangents. She had suddenly thought of Cyril. Wasn’t it more usual for the only grandson to have the watch? And then dear Cyril was so appreciative, and a gold watch meant so much to a young man. Benny, in all probability, had quite got out of the habit of watches; men so seldom wore waistcoats in those hot climates. Whereas Cyril in London wore them from year’s end to year’s end. And it would be so nice for her and Constantia, when he came to tea, to know it was there. “I see you’ve got on grandfather’s watch, Cyril.” It would be somehow so satisfactory.
Dear boy! What a blow his sweet, sympathetic little note had been! Of course they quite understood; but it was most unfortunate. “It would have been such a point, having him,” said Josephine.
“And he would have enjoyed it so,” said Constantia, not thinking what she was saying. However, as soon as he got back he was coming to tea with his aunties. Cyril to tea was one of their rare treats.
“Now, Cyril, you mustn’t be frightened of our cakes. Your Auntie Con and I bought them at Buszard’s this morning. We know what a man’s appetite is. So don’t be ashamed of making a good tea.”
Josephine cut recklessly into the rich dark cake that stood for her winter gloves or the soling and heeling of Constantia’s only respectable shoes. But Cyril was most unmanlike in appetite.
“I say, Aunt Josephine, I simply can’t. I’ve only just had lunch, you know.”
“Oh, Cyril, that can’t be true! It’s after four,” cried Josephine. Constantia sat with her knife poised over the chocolate-roll.
“It is, all the same,” said Cyril. “I had to meet a man at Victoria, and he kept me hanging about till… there was only time to get lunch and to come on here. And he gave me— phew”—Cyril put his hand to his forehead—”a terrific blow-out,” he said.
It was disappointing—to-day of all days. But still he couldn’t be expected to know. “But you’ll have a meringue, won’t you, Cyril?” said Aunt Josephine. “These meringues were bought specially for you.
Your dear father was so fond of them. We were sure you are, too.”
“I am, Aunt Josephine,” cried Cyril ardently. “Do you mind if I take half to begin with?” “Not at all, dear boy; but we mustn’t let you off with that.”
“Is your dear father still so fond of meringues?” asked Auntie Con gently. She winced faintly as she broke through the shell of hers. “Well, I don’t quite know, Auntie Con,” said Cyril breezily.
At that they both looked up.
“Don’t know?” almost snapped Josephine. “Don’t know a thing like that about your own father, Cyril?”
“Surely,” said Auntie Con softly.
Cyril tried to laugh it off. “Oh, well,” he said, “it’s such a long time since—” He faltered. He stopped. Their faces were too much for him.
“Even so,” said Josephine.
And Auntie Con looked.
Cyril put down his teacup. “Wait a bit,” he cried. “Wait a bit, Aunt Josephine. What am I thinking of?”
He looked up. They were beginning to brighten. Cyril slapped his knee.
“Of course,” he said, “it was meringues. How could I have forgotten? Yes, Aunt Josephine, you’re perfectly right. Father’s most frightfully keen on meringues.”
They didn’t only beam. Aunt Josephine went scarlet with pleasure; Auntie Con gave a deep, deep sigh.
“And now, Cyril, you must come and see father,” said Josephine. “He knows you were coming to-day.”
“Right,” said Cyril, very firmly and heartily. He got up from his chair; suddenly he glanced at the clock.
“I say, Auntie Con, isn’t y your clock a bit slow? I’ve got to meet a man at—at Paddington just after five. I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay very long with grandfather.”
“Oh, he won’t expect you to stay very long!” said Aunt Josephine.
Constantia was still gazing at the clock. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was fast or slow. It was one or the other, she felt almost certain of that. At any rate, it had been.
Cyril still lingered. “Aren’t you coming along, Auntie Con?”
“Of course,” said Josephine, “we shall all go. Come on, Con.”
They knocked at the door, and Cyril followed his aunts into grandfather’s hot, sweetish room.
“Come on,” said Grandfather Pinner. “Don’t hang about. What is it? What’ve you been up to?”
He was sitting in front of a roaring fire, clasping his stick. He had a thick rug over his knees. On his lap there lay a beautiful pale yellow silk handkerchief.
“It’s Cyril, father,” said Josephine shyly. And she took Cyril’s hand and led him forward.
“Good afternoon, grandfather,” said Cyril, trying to take his hand out of Aunt Josephine’s. Grandfather Pinner shot his eyes at Cyril in the way he was famous for. Where was Auntie Con? She stood on the other side of Aunt Josephine; her long arms hung down in front of her; her hands were clasped. She never took her eyes off grandfather.
“Well,” said Grandfather Pinner, beginning to thump, “what have you got to tell me?”
What had he, what had he got to tell him? Cyril felt himself smiling like a perfect imbecile. The room was stifling, too.
But Aunt Josephine came to his rescue. She cried brightly, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues, father dear.”
“Eh?” said Grandfather Pinner, curving his hand like a purple meringue-shell over one ear.
Josephine repeated, “Cyril says his father is still very fond of meringues.”
“Can’t hear,” said old Colonel Pinner. And he waved Josephine away with his stick, then pointed with his stick to Cyril. “Tell me what she’s trying to say,” he said.
(My God!) “Must I?” said Cyril, blushing and staring at Aunt Josephine.
“Do, dear,” she smiled. “It will please him so much.”
“Come on, out with it!” cried Colonel Pinner testily, beginning to thump again.
And Cyril leaned forward and yelled, “Father’s still very fond of meringues.”
At that Grandfather Pinner jumped as though he had been shot.
“Don’t shout!” he cried. “What’s the matter with the boy? Meringues! What about ’em?”
“Oh, Aunt Josephine, must we go on?” groaned Cyril desperately.
“It’s quite all right, dear boy,” said Aunt Josephine, as though he and she were at the dentist’s together. “He’ll understand in a minute.” And she whispered to Cyril, “He’s getting a bit deaf, you know.” Then she leaned forward and really bawled at Grandfather Pinner, “Cyril only wanted to tell you, father dear, that his father is still very fond of meringues.”
Colonel Pinner heard that time, heard and brooded, looking Cyril up and down.
“What an esstrordinary thing!” said old Grandfather Pinner. “What an esstrordinary thing to come all this way here to tell me!”
And Cyril felt it was.
“Yes, I shall send Cyril the watch,” said Josephine.
“That would be very nice,” said Constantia. “I seem to remember last time he came there was some little trouble about the time.”
They were interrupted by Kate bursting through the door in her usual fashion, as though she had discovered some secret panel in the wall.
“Fried or boiled?” asked the bold voice.
Fried or boiled? Josephine and Constantia were quite bewildered for the moment. They could hardly take it in.
“Fried or boiled what, Kate?” asked Josephine, trying to begin to concentrate.
Kate gave a loud sniff. “Fish.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so immediately?” Josephine reproached her gently. “How could you expect us to understand, Kate? There are a great many things in this world you know, which are fried or boiled.” And after such a display of courage she said quite brightly to Constantia, “Which do you prefer, Con?”
“I think it might be nice to have it fried,” said Constantia. “On the other hand, of course, boiled fish is very nice. I think I prefer both equally well… Unless you… In that case—”
“I shall fry it,” said Kate, and she bounced back, leaving their door open and slamming the door of her kitchen.
Josephine gazed at Constantia; she raised her pale eyebrows until they rippled away into her pale hair. She got up. She said in a very lofty, imposing way, “Do you mind following me into the drawing-room, Constantia? I’ve got something of great importance to discuss with you.”
For it was always to the drawing-room they retired when they wanted to talk over Kate.
Josephine closed the door meaningly. “Sit down, Constantia,” she said, still very grand. She might have been receiving Constantia for the first time. And Con looked round vaguely for a chair, as though she felt indeed quite a stranger.
“Now the question is,” said Josephine, bending forward, “whether we shall keep her or not.”
“That is the question,” agreed Constantia.
“And this time,” said Josephine firmly, “we must come to a definite decision.”
Constantia looked for a moment as though she might begin going over all the other times, but she pulled herself together and said, “Yes, Jug.”
“You see, Con,” explained d Josephine, “everything is so changed now.” Constantia looked up quickly. “I mean,” went on Josephine, “we’re not dependent on Kate as we were.” And she blushed faintly. “There’s not father to cook for.”
“That is perfectly true,” agreed Constantia. “Father certainly doesn’t want any cooking now, whatever else—”
Josephine broke in sharply, “You’re not sleepy, are you, Con?”
“Sleepy, Jug?” Constantia was wide-eyed.
“Well, concentrate more,” said Josephine sharply, and she returned to the subject. “What it comes to is, if we did”—and this she barely breathed, glancing at the door—”give Kate notice”—she raised her voice again—”we could manage our own food.”
“Why not?” cried Constantia. She couldn’t help smiling. The idea was so exciting. She clasped her hands. “What should we live on, Jug?”
“Oh, eggs in various forms!” said Jug, lofty again. “And, besides, there are all the cooked foods.”
“But I’ve always heard,” said Constantia, “they are considered so very expensive.”
“Not if one buys them in moderation,” said Josephine. But she tore herself away from this fascinating bypath and dragged Constantia after her.
“What we’ve got to decide now, however, is whether we really do trust Kate or not.”
Constantia leaned back. Her flat little laugh flew from her lips.
“Isn’t it curious, Jug,” said she, “that just on this one subject I’ve never been able to quite make up my mind?”
She never had. The whole difficulty was to prove anything. How did one prove things, how could one? Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face. Mightn’t she very well have been in pain? Wasn’t it impossible, at any rate, to ask Kate if she was making a face at her? If Kate answered “No”—and, of course, she would say “No”—what a position! How undignified! Then again Constantia suspected, she was almost certain that Kate went to her chest of drawers when she and Josephine were out, not to take things but to spy. Many times she had come back to find her amethyst cross in the most unlikely places, under her lace ties or on top of her evening Bertha. More than once she had laid a trap for Kate. She had arranged things in a special order and then called Josephine to witness.
“You see, Jug?”
“Now we shall be able to tell.”
But, oh dear, when she did go to look, she was as far off from a proof as ever! If anything was displaced, it might so very well have happened as she closed the drawer; a jolt might have done it so easily.
“You come, Jug, and decide. I really can’t. It’s too difficult.”
But after a pause and a long glare Josephine would sigh, “Now you’ve put the doubt into my mind, Con, I’m sure I can’t tell myself.”
“Well, we can’t postpone it again,” said Josephine. “If we postpone it this time—”
But at that moment in the street below a barrel-organ struck up. Josephine and Constantia sprang to their feet together.
“Run, Con,” said Josephine. “Run quickly. There’s sixpence on the—”
Then they remembered. It didn’t matter. They would never have to stop the organ-grinder again. Never again would she and Constantia be told to make that monkey take his noise somewhere else. Never would sound that loud, strange bellow when father thought they were not hurrying enough. The organ-grinder might play there all day and the stick would not thump.
“It never will thump ag gain,
It never will thump again,
played the barrel-organ.
What was Constantia thinking? She had such a strange smile; she looked different. She couldn’t be going to cry.
“Jug, Jug,” said Constantia softly, pressing her hands together. “Do you know what day it is? It’s Saturday. It’s a week to-day, a whole week.”
“A week since father died,
A week since father dieed,”
cried the barrel-organ. And Josephine, too, forgot to be practical and sensible; she smiled faintly, strangely. On the Indian carpet there fell a square of sunlight, pale red; it came and went and came—and stayed, deepened—until it shone almost golden.
“The sun’s out,” said Josephine, as though it really mattered.
A perfect fountain of bubbling notes shook from the barrel-organ, round, bright notes, carelessly scattered.
Constantia lifted her big, cold hands as if to catch them, and then her hands fell again. She walked over to the mantelpiece to her favourite Buddha. And the stone and gilt image, whose smile always gave her such a queer feeling, almost a pain and yet a pleasant pain, seemed to-day to be more than smiling. He knew something; he had a secret. “I know something that you don’t know,” said her Buddha. Oh, what was it, what could it be? And yet she had always felt there was… something.
The sunlight pressed through the windows, thieved its way in, flashed its light over the furniture and the photographs. Josephine watched it. When it came to mother’s photograph, the enlargement over the piano, it lingered as though puzzled to find so little remained of mother, except the earrings shaped like tiny pagodas and a black feather boa. Why did the photographs of dead people always fade so? wondered Josephine. As soon as a person was dead their photograph died too. But, of course, this one of mother was very old. It was thirty-five years old. Josephine remembered standing on a chair and pointing out that feather boa to Constantia and telling her that it was a snake that had killed their mother in Ceylon… Would everything have been different if mother hadn’t died? She didn’t see why. Aunt Florence had lived with them until they had left school, and they had moved three times and had their yearly holiday and… and there’d been changes of servants, of course.
Some little sparrows, young sparrows they sounded, chirped on the window-ledge. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” But Josephine felt they were not sparrows, not on the window-ledge. It was inside her, that queer little crying noise. “Yeep—eyeep—yeep.” Ah, what was it crying, so weak and forlorn?
If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody for them to marry. There had been father’s Anglo-Indian friends before he quarrelled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody had ever followed Constantia and her. Oh yes, there had been one year at Eastbourne a mysterious man at their boarding-house who had put a note on the jug of hot water outside their bedroom door! But by the time Connie had found it the steam had made the writing too faint to read; they couldn’t even make out to which of them it was addressed. And he had left next day. And that was all. The rest had been looking after father, and at the same time keeping out of father’s way. But now? But now? The thieving sun touched Josephine gently. She lifted her face. She was drawn over to the window by gentle beams…
Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha, wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like longing. She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had leered at her and she hadn’t minded. She remembered too how, whenever they were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. It was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?
She turned away from the Buddha with one of her vague gestures. She went over to where Josephine was standing. She wanted to say something to Josephine, something frightfully important, about—about the future and what…
“Don’t you think perhaps—” she began.
But Josephine interrupted her. “I was wondering if now—” she murmured. They stopped; they waited for each other.
“Go on, Con,” said Josephine.
“No, no, Jug; after you,” said Constantia.
“No, say what you were going to say. You began,” said Josephine.
“I… I’d rather hear what you were going to say first,” said Constantia.
“Don’t be absurd, Con.”
A pause. Then Constantia said faintly, “I can’t say what I was going to say, Jug, because I’ve forgotten what it was… that I was going to say.”
Josephine was silent for a moment. She stared at a big cloud where the sun had been. Then she replied shortly, “I’ve forgotten too.”