Muratov returned with a thick, yellowed piece of paper on official letterhead bearing the profile of the “greatest of all men.” It read “Letter of Commendation.” Muratov thrust the document right under the Captain’s nose, holding it so close that Popov couldn’t read it.
Muratov’s wife, pale against her blue robe, looked at her husband imploringly. His mother-in-law, Maria Nikolaevna, poured tea as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
“Read it from where I hold it, please,” Muratov said. “From where I hold it.”
The Captain read it. He understood. He walked away and took his boys with him.
Muratov threw his salvation document aside.
Maria Nikolaevna set a teacup and a sandwich on a plate in front of Boris Ivanovich. Muratov loved his mother-in-law, in whom he saw traces of his wife, Natasha, although the mother was more decisive. He also saw his mother-in-law in his wife: the beginnings of plumpness, the future folds along the sides of her mouth, and a soft second chin.
Natasha picked the document up off the floor.
“What is this, Boris?”
Boris gestured toward the ceiling—they’re listening.
“Well, Natashenka, I got that certificate because in my modelling plant I fabricated the sarcophagus of the leader and teacher of all eras and peoples, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Take a look at the signature. The powers that be are eternally in my debt.”
Maria Nikolaevna smiled. Natasha placed her white hands on her even whiter neck.
“What now?” she asked meekly.
“Would you pour me another cup of tea, Maria Nikolaevna?” he asked, clinking his cup.
Natasha sat down, unable to come to her senses. Muratov embraced his wife. She picked up a pencil and some scrap paper and wrote, “You’re going to be arrested.”
“I’m going to leave in half an hour,” he wrote back. Then he ripped up the paper and set it on fire. He waited for the flames to graze his fingertips, and then threw the remains in the ashtray.
He picked up a fresh piece of paper and wrote “train station” and showed it to Natasha and Maria Nikolaevna.
“Right now,” Muratov said.
“Alone?” Natasha asked.
Then Muratov went into the closet and took out the folder that held what Captain Popov had come for. He removed a stack of illustrated pages and returned to the kitchen.
Muratov took a baking sheet from the oven, placed several pieces of paper on it, and brought a match to them. Maria Nikolaevna grabbed the match out of his hand.
“How many times have I asked you, Boris Ivanovich, to leave the household duties to me.” Maria Nikolaevna squeezed into the corridor, where she lifted up the edge of the worn linoleum. She pushed the drawings under the linoleum and then inserted the edge of the strip back under the threshold.
“He’s lost his mind, he’s lost his mind,” Natasha said. Her mother pointed at the phone—like Boris, she was convinced that they were listening. Loudly, she said, “Boris, I’m going to make you meat patties for lunch, all right?”
Twenty minutes later, Muratov left the house by the back door. He had shaved his beard but left the mustache. He went through the courtyard, which had been flooded by a storm the night before. Broken branches stuck up from an enormous puddle, which Boris trudged through, carrying a large shopping bag that held a change of linens, a sweater, his favorite little pillow, and every bit of money that there was in the house.
Sivtsev and Emelyanenko, who had been left outside the front door, sat on the bench smoking, trying to decide whether to go and get some beer.
Captain Popov came back with the necessary stamp at ten-fifteen. Natasha opened the door immediately and said that Muratov had gone to work. Popov threw a fiery glance at his goons.