Part One from The New Moscow Philosophy translated by Krystyna Steiger
It’s astonishing, but from time immemorial the Russian sense of self has been under the dominion, even the yoke, of its native discourse. The Danes didn’t read their Kierkegaard for a hundred years, the French didn’t take orders from Stendhal until he turned up his toes, while in our country some school teacher from Saratov—the son of a priest—writes that for the sake of the nation’s future it would be good to learn to sleep on a bed of nails, and half the nation starts sleeping on a bed of nails. This sort of submissiveness to literary discourse is doubly astonishing because, with the exception of children and madmen, it’s clear as day to everyone that behind this very discourse lays merely the lifeless reflection of reality—a model.
And that’s only in the best case; in the worst case, people simply sit around making up all sorts of cock and bull stories, playing at life with abandon, compelling men and women who never existed to perform acts which were never performed by anyone for real, which is to say, for all intents and purposes, they lead millions of conscientious readers up the garden path, ever so seriously passing off their fabrications as olden days, even taking a stab at certain super-human prerogatives, because it happens that they write “he thought”, or “a thought crossed his mind”; but after all, just who do you have to be in order to know precisely what he thought, and precisely what thought crossed his mind?!
Indeed, sometime you’ll open a little tome and read: “In the beginning of July, at an extraordinarily hot time of day, toward evening, a young man walked out of the closet of a room he was renting from some tenants of S—- Lane into the street, and slowly, as though in a state of indecision, he proceeded in the direction of K—- Bridge….” So that’s how you read it, and you think: but after all, there never existed either the hot July, the evening into which the young man walked from his closet of a room, the closet of a room, or S—- Lane, or even the young man himself, but rather, that all of this was thought up by the writer so-and-so, in order that he might rid himself of his daydreams and earn enough for a buttered roll; well alright, let’s suppose the hot July did exist, possibly, and S—- Lane existed, and the closet of a room rented from the tenants, but there was never even a trace of any young man. And even if there had been, then he never walked out of the yard toward evening in the direction of the above-mentioned bridge, and even if he had, then it wasn’t “as though in a state of indecision” but, on the contrary, in a military step, and not out of the closet of a room, and not toward evening, and not in the beginning of July, but rather out of quarters of the Izmailovskii Regiment, early on the morning of September 30.
What’s most interesting is that under present-day standards, insights of this nature are out of the question in our country for some reason, and we believe just as unconditionally in literature as our ancestors did in the judgment day. This cultural phenomenon might be explained by arguing that ours is an evangelical literature, so to speak, but on the other hand, the following is also possible: that it happened just like it was said to have done; that in actual fact there had been a hot July, and an evening, and a young man who, precisely “as if in a state of indecision,” had set out from a yard; it happened, if not in the 60s of the last century, then in the 40s of the one before last, or under Boris Godunov, or two years ago, because a person lives for so long, and in so rich and varied a manner that there is no situation so desperately literary, or even fantastic, in which a real person hasn’t found himself at one time or another. Just as there has yet to be a fantasy that couldn’t become reality, just as there is no cause that wouldn’t produce its effects, just as there can’t exist a combination of consonants and vowels that couldn’t signify something or other in one of the human languages, so too there has yet to appear an artistic fabrication which could resonate so little with real situations and affairs that it couldn’t possibly be taken for the truth. The whole point, then, is that all of it did happen: Evgeny Onegin and Tatyana Larina, Akaky Akakyevich with his ill-fated overcoat, Captain Lebyadkin with his fantastic verse, and Odnodum, except that they bore different names, were beset by different circumstances, lived not exactly then and not exactly there, but this is after all just stuff and nonsense by comparison. What’s important is something else—namely, that in all probability literature is the root of life, so to speak, if not even life itself, only slightly shifted over, and so consequently there’s absolutely nothing surprising about the fact that in our country where life goes, literature follows, while on the other hand, where literature goes, life follows; that people in our country not only write what they live, but in part they live what they write, as well; that the spiritual authority of literature is so meaningful here, that in certain romantic instances it may occur to a completely sound-minded person that Alyosha Karamazov wouldn’t behave in such a way. And there’s positively nothing to be ashamed of, when in certain romantic instances we nod, and look back to the sacred texts of our Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Chekhov, for they are not figments of the imagination, but rather the true saints of Russian life, having existed in actual fact as exemplars—that is, having suffered and reasoned according to a model worthy of imitation, for the whole point is that all of it did happen. Just what, one wonders, is so inimitably savage about the following scene? “She cried out, though very weakly, and suddenly her whole weight sank to the floor, although she still managed to raise both hands to her head…. Blood gushed, as out of an overturned tumbler, and her body fell over backwards…. She was already dead. Her eyes bulged, as if they might pop out, and her forehead and whole face were wrinkled and distorted by a spasm…her skull was smashed to pieces, and even displaced a little to the side….” This scene has not only occurred in all of the stated details in real life many a time and oft, but it’s even been repeated yet again only just recently. It’s true, the circumstances weren’t particularly bloody: the sacrificial old lady in a dark-piebald coat of an old-fashioned fabric and cut, in a funny little fur hat with an ear-band, in a pair of felt-and-rubber boots well-known by their nickname of “farewell youth,” was just sitting on a bench at the very top of Pokrovsky Boulevard, having closed her eyes and folded her hands on her stomach—the ways of the last quarter of the twentieth century have nonetheless introduced their mitigating adjustments into the classical scene.
It seemed as though the old woman was snoozing in the sun, it having peeked out for the first time that spring; two little boys wearing knapsacks sat down next to her on their way home from school and, swinging their legs, chatted a little; two pigeons nearly touched down by her boots, but then suddenly took flight, flapping their wings in a panic; a passer-by in an astrakhan “diplomat” hat asked the old woman how to get to Solyanka Street and, getting no reply, said: “Deaf as a doorknob!” Twilight was already falling, but the old woman was still sitting on the bench, with no intention of leaving.
Her appearance on Pokrovsky Boulevard was preceded by a history of sorts, which had unfolded in the great building at the corner of Petroverigsky Lane, in Apartment 12, where that famous type of communal apartment dweller was once formed, now little by little disappearing into non-existence. He was formed intricately, and not all at once, but rather over almost exactly as much time as Apartment 12 has itself existed. The first to take up residence here was Sergey Vladimirovich Pumpiansky, a Latin teacher at Moscow Gymnasium N°6. He had a wife named Zinaida Aleksandrovna, born Sarantseva, a distant descendant of the same Elena Ivanovna Sarantseva who was the captain of the only cavalry sub-unit of its kind, namely a company of Amazons formed by Potemkin in Balaklava on the occasion of the arrival of Catherine II. Sergey Vladimirovich also had four children: Sergey, Vladimir, Georgy and Aleksandra. Sergey Sergeyevich perished way back in the imperialist war, during the summer offensive of 1917; in ‘34 Vladimir Sergeyevich got himself run over by a local train at the Mamontovka station, which is on the Yaroslavl line; Georgy Sergeyevich disappeared without a trace in November of ‘41, during the battle for Moscow, in which he took part as a member of the home-guard, while Aleksandra Sergeyevna held out until our times; if you count from the entrance hall, she occupied the very farthest room in Apartment 12, situated alongside the kitchen and the back door, where the Pumpianskys’ cook, Elizaveta, had lived until 1919. This little room was small and dark, since one of its little windows looked out onto the rear staircase, whereas the other—the one over the door—onto the kitchen, which is why at Pumpianskaya’s the light was practically always on. Nearer those days under discussion here, Aleksandra Sergeyevna was one of those cultured little old ladies with a thin face, who was very well groomed and always gave off an aura of pleasantly smelling whiteness.
In the second year of the imperialist war, when the difficulties of daily life had only just begun, the teacher Pumpiansky was taken ill with dropsy and forced to take in lodgers. In 1915, the trolley conductor Fonderviakin moved into the room one door down and across the hall from the cook’s quarters, the former nursery, with his wife Agrafena and son Boris, a weak, sickly little fellow. The elder Fonderviakins didn’t live for very long, and some time after his parents’ demise, their son Boris brought a wife into the apartment, and, in ‘28, he brought into the world his own son, Lyov, who remains in good health to date. Lyov Borisovich Fonderviakin is a big man with a vast bald patch that looks as if it were lacquered; he’s sociable, a bachelor, being that he buried his mother and father but for some reason never settled down to married life himself, and has a slight speech impediment—he’s got a bit of a lisp, so that instead of “since,” for example, he’ll say “thinth.” Lyov Borisovich does have one amusing passion: he adores preserving foods—that is, dehydrating, salting, smoking, dry-curing, marinating—and the smells of a root cellar waft from his room.
Soon after the Fonderviakins, Artillery Ensign Ostroumov moved into Apartment 12, occupying the room next-door, along the left side of the corridor; he shot himself dead during the February revolution. In his place, the family of Nikanor Sidorov—a salesclerk at Al’shvang’s shoe shop on Kuznetsky Bridge, and a widower with two overgrown sons—settled in that room. Then the Sidorovs started to die off, marry, breed and disperse, and in the end the shoe salesman’s grand-daughter, Vera Aleksandrovna Valenchik, was left to reside in the Pumpianskys’ former bedroom with her husband, Genrikh Ivanovich Valenchik; wherever the rest of the Sidorov clan got to has been shrouded by time. Today, Vera Aleksandrovna is a forty-year-old woman—a youthful bottle-blonde, incidentally, with a bun in the oven, as they say—whereas Genrikh Ivanovich is a rather short, brawny fellow with a sharply receding hairline, and a fastidiously trimmed little moustache and sideburns; he writes verse and prose in his spare time, and knows how to prepare several dishes excellently well; in conversation, meanwhile, he jabs his partner with his elbow time and again, the way clowns do when they’re telling stupid jokes or giving away secrets.
At the very beginning of the 20s, at the time of the so-called consolidation of the Moscow gentry and bourgeoisie, they crammed as many working folk as they could into Apartment 12, leaving the Pumpiansky family only one room, the former dining room, into which they dragged so much furniture, there was barely room enough to shove your way through. The first to move into the former living room, situated on the left of the corridor and adjoining the Sidorovs’ quarters, was the large-familied handyman Popovsky, who spent his time repairing kerosene and Primus stoves; then the unmarried militiaman Konovalov, who perished during the liquidation of the gang headed by Krasavchik, the renowned Moscow crime lord; then a quiet worker for the People’s Commissariat of Communications and his wife, who suffered from epilepsy; then a political instructor for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army, Gorizontov, along with his mother and sister; then some incomprehensible fellow who was never home; and finally, right after the monetary reforms of ‘61, the young engineer Vladimir Leonidovich Golova made this room his home. For a time he led a solitary existence, then he got married, fathered two children, got divorced and moved away. Accordingly, those left to live in his room were his grass-widow Yuliya—a slight woman, dainty, indeed toy-like; his daughter Lyubov—a girl of thirteen, and his son Pyotr—a serious, sort of intellectual, chubby little tyke.
Now, about the rooms situated along the right side of the corridor. As has already been said, at the beginning of the 20s they housed the Pumpiansky family in the former dining room, neighboring on Elizaveta the cook’s closet of a room, where they did indeed live so long as they constituted a family; but with time the Pumpianskys began to disappear, and when Aleksandra Sergeyevna was left all alone in the world, they moved her into Elizaveta the cook’s closet of a room, while the inhabitants of the closet of a room, namely the family of a weaver for the Trëkhgorka Textile Mill, Semyon Timofeyevich Nachalov, were moved into the former dining room, where this weaver then took root and branched out. However, by our time the room was inhabited exclusively by his daughter-in-law, Anna Olegovna Kapitonova, and her grandson Mitya Nachalov, a bombastic ninth-grader,a sandy-haired and clever-eyed youth, neat as a pin, and a stickler for detail to the point of pedantry. Mitya’s grandfather died in ‘54, his mother divorced his father a long time ago, married a Finn and left the country, whereas his father was recruited for the construction of the Kolymskii hydroelectric plant.
The former office of the teacher Pumpiansky, just beyond the former dining room, was divided by a partition. Employees of the housing and public services department, such as sanitary technicians, supervisory technicians, electricians—solitary, unburdensome folk—always lived in the closer half, while in ‘79 the caretaker Vasily Chinarikov finally settled there, once and for all. First, he worked as the caretaker, then he fought in Afghanistan, and then he studied at the Faculty of Philosophy at Moscow University, but only made it up to his third year, then quit the university and went back to being the caretaker. By and large, Vasya Chinarikov is a strong and well-built lad, except that he’s somewhat lame; he keeps his hair short, dresses in any old thing, and has a rather coarse-looking face—vulgar, as they say—but illuminated from within, as it were, by some naughty thought.
In the farther half of the former office there lived for a long time an officer of the criminal investigation department, Kulakov, before whom the whole of Apartment 12 trembled, and it’s no wonder: somehow he managed to detain political instructor Gorizontov in a forced labor facility for a whole week because the instructor had unintentionally caused a short circuit. After Kulakov, two sisters in their declining years settled here, who led such a meek and imperceptible existence that none of the tenants knew them by name, while at almost the same time as Chinarikov, Nikita Ivanovich Belotsvetov moved in here—a man of about forty-five, and a pharmacologist by profession; his outward appearance doesn’t easily lend itself to description, because as such it’s as ordinary an appearance as can be, more collective than distinctive, though he does have an unusually big, monumental sort of head, and so essentially Nikita Ivanovich has about as much of a face proper as there is to the profile of a head of state on a coin.
What ought to be introduced now are the common areas and, in general, the topography of Apartment 12, in as far as it’s indispensable from here on. The front entrance to the apartment has two sets of double leaf doors: the outer set are painted a shabby brown color and open outwards, whereas the inner ones are upholstered in green leatherette and open inwards; there’s a dust-covered little window up above. The entrance hall is fairly spacious; when you go in, there’s an antique mirror to the left, grown dull over time and reaching nearly up to the ceiling; to the right, patched up in two places with electrical tape, is the telephone, which is on a bamboo bookcase; a tin can that once contained Spanish asparagus, now intended for cigarette butts, occupies the middle shelf, while the bottom shelf houses a telephone book, as well as a few directories and bills; the wall in the vicinity of the bookcase is covered with telephone numbers, incomprehensible notations, and names of some kind. The doors of two rooms, Belotsvetov’s and Chinarikov’s, come out onto the entrance hall, beyond which begins the corridor.
The corridor in Apartment 12 is narrow, high ceilinged, and as dark as a crevice in a glacier. On the left it begins with a door, behind which Yuliya Golova lives with her brood, and farther down there’s a neglected wardrobe, in which there are kept various worthless articles of clothing, whetstones, assorted tools, nails, a few bound sets of the journal Red Cornfield, two old electricity meters, and a leaky copper teapot; further along the wall hangs Fonderviakin’s galvanized washtub, and situated just beyond it are the living quarters occupied by the Valenchiks—the same living quarters in which Artillery Ensign Ostroumov shot himself dead once upon a time; farther down stands Fonderviakin’s fridge, and then comes Fonderviakin’s door, at which point the corridor turns ninety degrees to the right, producing the bathroom and toilet, equipped with little windows above their respective doors, and through this stretch it empties into the kitchen. The only things situated along the right side of the corridor are the room occupied by Mitya Nachalov and his grandmother, as well as the sidewall of Aleksandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya’s room, whose other sidewall butts up against the back door.
The kitchen of Apartment 12 is festively spacious, even though there are seven kitchen tables lined up against its walls, in addition to as many shelves, and two gas stoves; to the right there’s a sink, the door to Pumpianskaya’s room and the door onto the backstairs, which became permeated ages and ages ago with the smell of something capable of producing a medley, for example, of the odors of dampness, fried onions and kerosene.
The tenants of Apartment 12 had disliked Aleksandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya since time immemorial, and always oppressed her in whatever way possible. They had no grounds whatsoever for this if, of course, you don’t consider the fact of her being a nitpicking old woman—pleased with herself, as the saying goes—and then tidy, besides, in that mechanically tidy way so abhorrent to our heart, and which we really can’t stand. Incidentally, it mustn’t be lost sight of, either, that Aleksandra Sergeyevna could arouse in her neighbors a rudimentary class hostility since, however you spin it, she was the proprietress of Apartment 12 by birth, of the whole two hundred and forty square meters of living space, and if she never emphasized this circumstance verbally, she nevertheless walked up and down the corridor, switched the lights on and off, took readings off of the electricity meter, and swept the kitchen floor in just the same way as the sole and uncontested proprietress would. In some way Aleksandra Sergeyevna even fanned the flames of dampened class hostility, in that she continued to call Kuibyshev by its pre-revolutionary name of Samara, was suspected of not acknowledging the new orthography, and once, in reference to Tsar Nikolashka with Blood on his Hands, said His Majesty. In the ‘twenties, when they were booting people out to the peripheries of life for such jokes ruthlessly, simply, and without so much as a second thought, Aleksandra Sergeyevna was as meek as a lamb—in other words, as if she didn’t even exist; in the pre-war period she was already carefully pretending to equality with the tenants of proletarian origins, while in these most recent of times she behaved, in turn, as if she were indeed the sole and uncontested proprietress. But otherwise, Aleksandra Sergeyevna was by all indications at least a tolerable old lady, even distinguishing herself somewhat favorably from the neighbors, especially in the morning, when the population of Apartment 12 loafed around disheveled, groggy and pajama clad, whereas she would appear in an austere housedress of dark broadcloth, albeit shapeless, but with lace cuffs on the sleeves and an embroidered Vologodsky collar, hair diligently combed, face lightly rouged—altogether clean in that old-womany-clean way that summons up a complex sort of tenderness. The same in conversation: she always spoke in a serene tone of voice, the way boring people read aloud; she had a classical vocabulary, ornamented with extinct words, like “pretermit,” or “no matter,” in the sense of, “No matter that Ivan Ivanovich is foolish; to make up for it he is able-bodied.”
And here’s what’s interesting: Aleksandra Sergeyevna needed only to disappear for the whole apartment to sense right away that something was missing; now, if the mirror were removed from the entrance hall, or if the door onto the backstairs were boarded up, or if the odor of fermented fruit stopped exuding from Fonderviakin’s room—that’s just how the apartment would feel: like something was missing. It wasn’t yet known that Pumpianskaya had disappeared for all eternity, but in the common areas there had already been engendered a clear sense of a lack of something vital, like electricity—of something given to a lightness of motion and a touching purity.
Aleksandra Sergeyevna disappeared on one of those days in the middle of March when the Big Dipper hangs right over your head, on a Friday, late in the evening, at about the time when the television programs are signing off for the night. That morning she’d made an appearance in the kitchen before everyone else, as usual, carrying a tea kettle with a whistle on it in one hand, and, in the other, an incredibly small aluminum saucepan, in which there was an egg rolling around. No sooner had she gotten down to preparing her old woman’s breakfast than Lyov Borisovich Fonderviakin came into the kitchen, went and stood in front of the window and lost himself in contemplation of the courtyard, tapping nervously on the window-pane with his fingernails; Mitya’s grandmother, Anna Olegovna, a strong woman with violet-colored hair, came in next, and right behind her came Pyotr Golova who, breathing noisily through his nose, climbed up onto the stool standing by the sink, and started swinging his legs. For a time no one spoke, and then Fonderviakin burst out:
“Well alright, I’ve earned some time off, but how come Dmitry’s nowhere to be seen?” he asked Anna Olegovna out of boredom. “Must be time for school.”
“I’ve allowed Mitya to skip his first two classes today,” Anna Olegovna announced, and tidied her violet ringlets.
Fonderviakin said, “You’re spoiling your grandson.”
“Spoiling is unavoidable in my position,” replied Anna Olegovna. “Without spoiling, our Soviet granny isn’t a granny anymore, but rather—I just don’t know what. All the more since Mitya’s been spending entire evenings cobbling something together. Yesterday, for example, he was up till midnight being mysteriously busy with some sort of glass bits.”
“One of my work mates,” said Fonderviakin, “had a boy who was always being mysteriously busy in the evenings too, and then it turned out he was a counterfeiter.”
“Curse that tongue of yours!” said Anna Olegovna.
“Alright, now,” Aleksandra Sergeyevna joined in, “one has earned his time off, one is a truant, but what about this one?” And with a wet finger she pointed at Petya, who, as before, was sitting on the stool, swinging his legs.
The teakettle whistled nastily, and Aleksandra Sergeyevna, having changed the cross expression on her face to an anxious one, turned off the stove.
“For the time being, this one’s enjoying a happy childhood,” explained Fonderviakin. “Although, of course, it’s a wonder he doesn’t attend some sort of pre-school. Pyotr, why don’t you attend a pre-school?”
In answer to this question Petya grew morose and pensively silent for a while, and then he started to tell about how it was uninteresting for him to go to kindergarten, where everything is done according to a routine, everything according to a schedule and you have to do what the teacher wants, and not what you want yourself.
“For example, we went for a walk in the woods,” he related, with a kind of lamentable look, “and the teacher says to us, she says, ‘Nothing is allowed. Picking flowers isn’t allowed, breaking branches isn’t allowed, trampling the grass isn’t allowed either….’”
“So then what’s allowed, for goodness’ sake?” an interested Fonderviakin asked him.
“The teacher said, ‘You may only admire.’”
Fonderviakin spit symbolically and proclaimed, “They’ve over-regulated life, the sons of bitches! Why, what a people—trying to impose a resolution every time somebody sneezes: one thing isn’t allowed, another’s prohibited, this isn’t recommended, and that—don’t even think about it!”
“Nonetheless,” Anna Olegovna interrupted him, “I reckon shirking kindergarten won’t do, after all.”
“It stands to reason,” agreed Fonderviakin. “But do you remember, citizens, the fellow from Apartment 22 who kept pasting up those outrageous scraps of paper all over the building saying things like, ‘No shouting,’ ‘Don’t play with matches,’ and ‘Handshaking is abolished?’ He died, the scoundrel! Went to his sister-in-law’s in Ulan-Ude and died! Now, by the way, a regular war’s flared up in Apartment 22 over his room.”
“It’s no wonder,” said Anna Olegovna. “First of all, with life as it is these days they’d slaughter you over two square meters, and, secondly, without those very meters, it’s like not having enough air sometimes—it’s no way to live.”
“That’s for sure,” Fonderviakin agreed. “Take me, for example, I’ve got positively no place to put my sixteen jars of preserved apples—why, I’m practically sleeping on them; on the other hand, there’s Vera Valenchik walking around in her seventh month; Yulka Golova and her kids are huddled up in tiny quarters—there’s a third case. No, for all that, Apartment 22 got lucky: a man has nobly vacated his living space, a fight has broken out over it, which is interesting in any event, but there, lo and behold, somebody’ll get a few useful extra meters, which anyone would be gratified to get hold of.”
Here Fonderviakin paused deliberately, then looked humorously at Aleksandra Sergeyevna and continued, “And meanwhile some citizens, whose time for eternal rest is long overdue, persist in occupying useful meters and think it’s a matter of course!”
Aleksandra Sergeyevna didn’t take Fonderviakin’s words personally, though, since at that moment she was worried about overcooking her egg.
“Those useful meters,” said Anna Olegovna, “would come in handy for me and Mitya, too. Why, here I am with a lad who’s already fully grown, yet it’s still on and on having to share a room with an old woman.”
“For pity’s sake, Anna Olegovna, you’re hardly an old woman!” objected Fonderviakin. “You are a woman in the prime of life! Now, some citizens—yes ma’am, some citizens have positively lived too long. How are you feeling, there, Aleksandra Sergeyevna, you impossible person?”
Pumpianskaya took this question at face value, and candidly answered, “Poorly, Lyov Borisovich, poorly indeed. Frankly I’ve become so good-for-nothing, I’ve only to think of something and it aches. At times, you wouldn’t believe it, I fancy I see all sorts of nonsense.”
“You need to undergo treatment,” suggested Anna Olegovna blackly, and fixed her violet ringlets for the second time.
Upon these words Mitya Nachalov entered the kitchen, not quite awake, with a terry towel around his shoulders.
“It’s too late for me to undergo treatment,” responded Aleksandra Sergeyevna, and picked up her dishes. “I’ve gone through all of my living resources. Whenever I begin to feel unwell, I go out into the fresh air straight away—and that’s the extent of my treatment. And I am beyond taking pills. Essentially, my demise is only one bad cold away.”
At that moment, Mitya’s face assumed a thoughtful expression, as though he’d only just then awoken. And Aleksandra Sergeyevna, having talked herself out, went off to her room with her teakettle and incredibly small saucepan, which were jiggling slightly in her hands. Anna Olegovna left right behind her, taking away with her the smell of pearl-barley kasha.
“Listen, Dima, “ said Fonderviakin, “our old lady’s in a very bad way, already seeing things….”
“So what?” asked Mitya.
“So, then, it’s about time we thought about redistributing living space, because it looks as if she’ll be departing this life any minute now.”
“Her? That’ll be the day,” observed Mitya. “And chances are she’ll outlive us both. You know what they’re like, these pre-revolutionary old-timers—cast-iron constitutions!”
“No, Dmitry, the time has come to think about it, or else later—like what happened in Apartment 22—a grueling war will break out. Why should you care, you’re a bachelor through and through, but the Valenchiks are expecting a new arrival. And again, I’ve got no place to put my sixteen jars of preserved apples….”
“So then the room will go to you.”
“Whatever makes you think that?” Fonderviakin joyously asked Mitya.
“Because, Valenchik’s the jerk around here!”
“I don’t understand your idiotic language….”
“Come on, he’s a dupe! How can he not be a dupe, when his wife two-times him even while she’s pregnant?!”
“What do you mean don’t gossip, when I’ve seen it all with my own eyes! And I’m not the only one—Pumpianskaya’s spotted her with Vaska Chinarikov, too. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but Pumpianskaya will blow the whistle on them.”
“Ech, they should stick the old woman in a nursing home!”
“The three of you need to, you and…get rid of her.”
“And why the three of us?”
“You, because you’ve got sixteen jars of preserved apples, Valenchik, the dupe, because he’s expecting a new arrival, and Vaska Chinarikov, because Pumpianskaya will blow the whistle on him.”
“That’s logical,” said Fonderviakin, and grew thoughtful.
Mitya went off to the bathroom, deftly clicking his stuck out tongue in conclusion, while Fonderviakin began tapping on the windowpane with his fingernails again. After somewhat of a pause, he said, “Petka, give us a song….”
Pyotr didn’t wait for opportunity to knock twice, as the saying goes, and immediately struck up a song, beginning with the words: “The detachment walked along the shore, it had walked from afar,” and he struck it up with the most serious of airs, at that.
When he’d finished, Fonderviakin asked him, “Who taught you that?”
Pyotr said, “Life.”
After Mitya Nachalov had gone off to school, Pumpianskaya and Anna Olegovna had washed the dishes in the kitchen without speaking, Fonderviakin had telephoned some acquaintance, and Pyotr Golova had strolled aimlessly up and down the corridor a few times, a perfect silence ensued in Apartment 12. The tenants had dispersed to their own rooms and here’s who got down to what: Pyotr took a seat by the window and stared vacantly into the laneway, Fonderviakin analyzed the “Evergreen Game,” yawning into his fist from time to time, Anna Olegovna read Tales from the Don; with a velvet ribbon, Aleksandra Sergeyevna rubbed a Kuznetsovsk tea service, which Sergey Vladimirovich Pumpiansky himself had acquired way back when, from Muir and Merrilees.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon Lyuba Golova returned from school, and Mitya showed up practically right behind her. Lyuba changed into a lively little smock, fed Pyotr, got him ready for a stroll and put him out the door, and then ensconced herself in the kitchen with her Latin textbook.
“What the hell do you need that for?” Mitya asked her and pointed at the book with his finger.
Lyuba said, “Because I do!”
“In that case, you should refrain from displaying your lofty interests here—you should sit in your own room and study.”
Dmitry hovered around Lyuba for a bit, and after a minute, he asked, “What do you think—does Pumpianskaya understand Latin?”
“I have no idea. Nikita Ivanovich understands it—that much I know for sure.”
“We’re not talking about Belotsvetov right now. Tell you what, Lyubov—do me one favor….”
Upon saying these words, Mitya’s face took on an expression that was at once subtly pensive and cruel, an expression so meaningful that Lyuba’s little eyes began to gleam, and, out of impatience, she even parted her lips a tiny bit. But Mitya didn’t have a chance to finish what he was saying: it was lunch-time, and he was just preparing to pose his request when, at almost the very same moment, the kitchen filled up with the cast of characters who’d recently appeared, plus Vasily Chinarikov, who’d returned from his caretaker’s station sometime after two o’clock, minus Pumpianskaya, who took a late lunch, à la européene, so Mitya and Lyubov went off into the corridor to finish what they were saying.
“Listen to this, Vasily,” said Fonderviakin, addressing Chinarikov, and trying not to lapse into sarcasm, “Our Pumpianskaya’s in complete decline; if not today then tomorrow she’ll be kicking the bucket. Her little room wouldn’t come in handy to you by any chance, would it?”
“Strictly speaking,” answered Chinarikov, “that would be a pantry, and not a little room at all.”
“And even if it were just a pantry,” Anna Olegovna stepped in, “hand it over anyway!”
“Do just as you choose,” said Fonderviakin, “but I, citizens, am giving you honorable notice, that I’m beginning to gather together documents with the aim of getting that little room passed down to me.”
“Where do you get the idea, that if not today, then tomorrow Pumpianskaya’s going to kick the bucket?” Chinarikov asked distractedly, and with those words he left the kitchen.
Anna Olegovna said, “And you, Lyov Borisovich, instead of talking all kinds of nonsense, you’d better work on your pronunciation—it’s sickening to listen to sometimes, as if you were mimicking somebody.”
This remark cut Fonderviakin to the quick; he hung around the kitchen a bit longer so as not to betray his resentment, after which he headed for home, slamming his door shut, with feeling.
Anna Olegovna decided to tell Pyotr off at the same time, “Since when have you been in the habit of sitting around the kitchen day in day out listening to adult conversations?!”
Pyotr crawled down off the stool and began sidling backward, in the direction of the corridor.
“No, you wait a minute! You answer me. Are you what—stuck here, like flies to honey? And another thing—why did you sprinkle magnesium carbonate in Aleksandra Sergeyevna’s tea yesterday…?”
But Pyotr was long gone; on the spot where he’d just been standing there had formed an empty space.
After lunch, Apartment 12 quieted down again. At five o’clock, Pumpianskaya went out into the kitchen and began preparing lunch for herself, which was comprised of a beetroot and potato salad dressed with mayonnaise, onion soup, and a little lamb cutlet, steamed.
While the old woman dawdled over her lunch, Mitya Nachalov called her to the phone, and she hurried to take the receiver, but whoever was at the other end of the line decided not to speak.
Sometime after six that evening, Nikita Ivanovich Belotsvetov came home from work and started to drag himself around the kitchen with such an expression of tense melancholy on his face, it was as though he were lying in wait for someone. Pumpianskaya came out of her room to fill up a little porcelain gravy boat with water, and Belotsvetov nodded to her; Fonderviakin peeped meditatively into the kitchen, twice, looking for someone to talk to, but Belotsvetov was silent, keeping an eye on his gas stove; Anna Olegovna Kapitonova proceeded toward the backstairs, and, as before, not a peep out of him. Finally, Yuliya Golova appeared in an oversized terry housecoat, in which she looked like a cocooned silkworm, and Nikita Ivanovich gave a start.
“Listen, Yuliya!” he said. “I wish you’d keep a tighter rein on your Petka, after all. Because he smeared my door handle with some kind of muck today, little devil…! I think it was mustard, or something like that.”
Yuliya smiled guiltily, not knowing how to respond, and just then Vasily Chinarikov sauntered into the kitchen in a pair of incredibly worn-out jeans and a sleeveless undershirt, revealing an Airborne Forces tattoo on his left shoulder, and his presence delivered Yuliya from cloying explanations.
“What are we kicking up a fuss about?” Chinarikov asked, and he lit a crude papirosa.
“Now here, you see, Petka Golova smeared my door handle with some kind of muck! I think it was mustard, or something like that….”
“Forget it, Nikita,” said Chinarikov. “It’s ludicrous to flare up over such trifles.”
“Why, I’m not…that is…flaring up because Petya smeared my door handle, but because he’s such an expert at playing dirty tricks.”
Yuliya seized the opportunity and stole away.
“You see, here’s the situation,” continued Belotsvetov, “I mean, it’s terrible when a person is capable of conscious villainy from a tender age.”
“Come to your senses, Nikita,” said Chinarikov, with a look of cheerful commiseration on his face. “What do you mean, ‘conscious villainy?!’ Foolishness, mischief, bad manners—that yes….”
“Well in fact, even the most savage crimes stem from foolishness, mischief and bad manners—in a word, these very trifles! And you know, it’s not so much the savage crimes that depress me, as…I mean, they depress me, of course, but not like the capacity for conscious villainy from a tender age. That’s where I sense the secret and the solution to all riddles, that’s where the seeds of evil lay ripening.”
“Now, what the hell do you need with these seeds?!”
“I’ll explain right now: you see, Vasily, I’m at the end of my rope! I’ve spent forty-five years of my life living side-by-side with villainy peaceably enough, but I can’t now, something inside me has overturned! I can’t handle looking at liver-spotted kissers anymore, can’t handle listening to cerebral-cerebella conversations on various earth shattering issues such as ‘whatever happened to elastic waistbands,’ can’t handle watching the beaten, robbed, and deceived anymore—in general I don’t intend to tolerate life’s insults anymore. And do you know how it all started…?”
Chinarikov put on an attentive face.
“So the day before yesterday I’m walking past our grocery store and I see there’s an elderly woman standing by the wall. I saw her, and you know, it was as if I’d been kicked in the gut: her bargain basement clothes looked like she’d picked them out of a garbage can, she had two different men’s boots on—imagine that, two different men’s boots, one black, the other brown!…and some unbelievable hat—to make a long story short, it was an unprecedented, almost fantastic scene for a Soviet city at the end of the nineteen-eighties! But this is still nothing by comparison; the most frightening thing about her was that to top it all off, she’d even been beaten up as well: her lower lip was scabbed over, she had a huge shiner under one eye and was covering the other one with a handkerchief, and that handkerchief—get this, dear friend of mine—is snow white. Although, it wasn’t even the vestiges of her beating that seemed most frightening to me then, but rather the fact that this woman wasn’t some utter down-and-out, not a madwoman, not some alky, but an ordinary, elderly woman, only mockingly dressed up. Her handkerchief told me that. And what’s especially worth mentioning, of course, is that no one is paying any attention to her, as if it were a matter of course for a beaten up woman to be standing in front of a grocery store, in broad daylight, not three kilometers from Red Square, wearing two different men’s boots.
“And there you go. I saw her, and my heart sank; I stood across from her, and I’m standing there, blocking pedestrian traffic. And here she turns around to face me, ‘Pumpkin-head,’ she says…no, get a load of this—barely alive herself, yet she’s calling me names….”
“By the way, she was right on the mark,” said Chinarikov, smiling. “A very fitting nickname.”
“’Pumpkin-head,’ she says, ‘lead me home, ‘cause my legs are too weak to walk.’ Naturally, I took her by the arm and started to lead her. But where to lead her—I can’t figure that out at all, because first she’s talking about the Armenian Lane, then about the Novogireyevo metro station, then about the re-unification of the Ukraine with Russia. And lo and behold, that’s when the most important thing happened: I came to hate this old bat…. Why is this the most important thing? Because in my view, it was precisely this component of hatred that brought about the profound upheaval inside me. No, you’ve got to carefully consider my position at the time: first of all, I pitied her to the extent that the only reason I didn’t cry was because crying on the street is impossible, it would be taken the wrong way; second, a sense of wounded nationalism was awakened within me, inasmuch as this old bat’s outward appearance is a sheer insult to the people; third, I was obligated to take her away to wherever it was she needed to go; fourth, I hated her—hated her for the fact of hating her, because walking alongside of her was horribly awkward, because taking her away to wherever it was she needed to go was practically impossible, and because I’d gotten pretty sick of her. I’m walking along and I say to myself, as it turns out you, old boy, are a heel! Or even better, since you’re a heel, then act like it, break the hell away from this old bat, and duck into the first gateway that comes along! And that’s just what I did, although you know, Vasya, I’m really not a heel at all.”
“Here it’s already been three days, and I can’t forget about her: her image haunts me, like some sort of ghost…! All in all, it feels like I’ve fallen good and sick, mentally. The main thing is that for three days running I’ve felt a sort of stifling tear ripening in my soul….”
“The way I see it, you really have fallen sick, Nikita.”
“Maybe I have, except this sickness is dearer to me now than any kind of practical health. I’ve now reached the boiling point and I intend to fight tooth and nail against evil of any kind!”
“That’s absurd!” said Chinarikov, lighting another papirosa. “You’re just like a little child, Nikita, my God! Good and evil exist, I would even say co-exist, on the same grounds as fire and water, heaven and earth, man and woman…. If there were no evil, there would be no struggle or movement, which is to say—life.”
“That’s all philosophy,” said Belotsvetov.
“No, Nikita, that’s not philosophy yet, but rather still your ABC’s. Here’s what philosophy is…. According to Damascene, evil is non-existence—in other words, the simple absence of good; according to Mandeville it’s an indispensable tool for the construction of the world; according to Socrates it’s happenstance, the existence of which can be explained by the fact that people haven’t got a clue about what’s good or what’s bad; according to Thomas Aquinas everything is good, and evil just its shabby component. Leibniz generally maintains that evil is simply underdeveloped good, that any measure of necessary evil is in humans not being able to fly, and birds being denied the gift of speech. Finally, I personally consider that evil, as such, doesn’t exist, that what exists, rather, is an attitude toward evil. If I’m tormented by a lack of money, fools, and ragged old bats, for example, then they’re evil, but if my position toward them is one of indifference, then they’re neither good nor evil, but rather a void. In sum, being cross with evil is absurd, but wrestling with it—that’s already a sickness. Evil is elemental, like a tsunami or an earthquake and, along the lines of everyday reasoning, it’s simply the appropriate attitude toward it that needs to be worked out, as in the case of a tsunami or an earthquake, as in the case of something elemental.”
“I can’t agree with that, and here’s the reason why: see, evil—it’s very simple, it’s so simple, Vasya, it’s a wonder nearly everyone doesn’t commit it! Why, in reality not nearly everyone commits it—not even the majority, and not even the minority, but rather an insignificant minority. That means, evil doesn’t coexist on equal terms at all with its opposites—I mean good, and the void—meaning, it’s unnatural, illicit!”
“Well, not nearly everyone’s head works that way, not even the majority’s! The majority uses their intuition, whereas two people on every hemisphere actually use their heads.”
“Well, let’s suppose that’s no argument.”
“Fine, here’s an argument for you,” Chinarikov said, energetically motioning with his head. “Irrespective of whatever percentage of people murder, steal, commit acts of violence and so on, evil continues to exist—it always did and always will, which means it’s part and parcel of human nature, which means it’s natural. If in one-and-a-half million years people have been unable to do anything about evil, regardless of their seeming preoccupation with this alone, then it means it’s natural…!”
“What are you on about, boys?” asked Fonderviakin insinuatingly, who’d gotten into the kitchen imperceptibly somehow.
“Vasily and I are keeping things secret, Lyov Borisovich, won’t you please excuse us….”
Fonderviakin looked at both of them suspiciously, wriggled his lips a little, and retreated.
Chinarikov continued, “You see, Nikita, people have devised remedies for everything—pestilence, hydrophobia, overproduction crises, droughts, locusts—and now as before, the only thing there’s no remedy for is evil.”
“What do you mean—yes there is…. Renounce your sense of self, your ego, and you’ll be as harmless as a kitten. Because the only thing fraught with evil is what emanates from the ego, from personal interests, which don’t always or necessarily make common cause with the laws of goodness. But for some reason this renunciation is impossible, even though it promises not just almost complete personal security, but even immortality as well.”
“That’s the whole point, that remedies like that are suited only to a handful—chiefly those who devise them. By and large, Christ propounded a fairly uncomplicated path for the healing of mankind, and Tolstoy, it would seem, devised a means of wrestling with evil within everyone’s grasp through the renunciation of any struggle whatsoever against this very evil—nonresistance—but see, they measured life by their own standards, and yet were themselves both one of a kind! In the meantime what’s needed is a remedy like aspirin, which would serve millions.”
“I’ve got an exciting idea on that score! You see, I suspect that the bulk of villainies attributed neither to human weaknesses, upbringing, nor circumstances of the social order, proceeds from some dark psychosis, some as yet unclassified variety of schizophrenia—in other words, that such villains are simply insane. And that’s why I propose combating them with medication. Here, you decide: is it really possible to call mentally fit the kind of person who beat up the old bat because he was in a bad mood, or who sent ten thousand soldiers to their death, essentially, only because he’d done poorly in school, or who sent his political opponent to the scaffold for preferring the Old Indian opening to the Queen’s Gambit—is such a person not mentally ill?! And the experts ask him, ‘What’s today’s date?’ ‘How many fingers have you got all together?’ And if he answers what today’s date is and how many fingers he’s got, then the experts have no concerns whatsoever about his mental health. In a word, the solution to all problems may consist in working out a suitable medication containing catecholamine, which you then pack into ampoules or tablets, for example, like acetylsalicylic acid.”
“Now that’s sounds like some kind of utopian idealism, old boy, it’s just repulsive to listen to!”
“It’s not any kind of idealism at all!” said Belotsvetov testily. “For your information, I’ve already done a little reckoning.”
“To make a long story short, professor, there are a host of teachings out there about how to make a person out of a person, yet Petka Golova smeared your door handle with some kind of muck today…. Well, speak of the devil, if it isn’t him in the flesh!”
Pyotr walked into the kitchen carrying an empty frying pan, and after meeting Belotsvetov’s edifying look, he recoiled toward Fonderviakin’s table.
“Pyotr,” Belotsvetov appealed to him, “why are you making a nuisance of yourself? Why did you mess up my door handle?!”
Pyotr said nothing.
“Are you being spoken to or not?!” said Chinarikov, backing Belotsvetov up with a hilarious expression on his face instead of the ferocious one he had intended, albeit in a paternal sense.
“And did you see me messing it up?” asked Pyotr unhurriedly. “Have you got any witnesses?”
“What a stinker!” said Chinarikov in outrage. “Hasn’t learned a single letter of the alphabet yet, but he already knows all the basic legal ploys!”
Upon these words Aleksandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya joined the company and, owing to her old-agedness, made the announcement of no interest to anyone that no more than forty minutes ago she’d been called to the phone, but supposedly there was no one on the line. Right after her, Genrikh Valenchik turned up in the kitchen, and then Fonderviakin came in, so Belotsvetov led Chinarikov off to his room to finish talking, in which connection Chinarikov continued the argument without waiting for the more favorable setting.
“What, in essence, is all the philosophy in the world worth,” he said,” if it’s unable to answer the simplest of questions: why it is that back in some Stuttgart or other you can’t get it smack in the puss just because, whereas over here it’s a free for all…!”
A short time after Chinarikov’s voice had died out at the far end of the corridor, and immediately after Pumpianskaya had left for her own room, Genrikh Valenchik assumed an expression of confidentiality—that is, he puffed himself out conspiratorially somehow—and said, “I’ve got accurate information that says any time now, our old lady will be kicking the bucket. I propose we conduct a meeting on the theme of who the freed-up living space will be going to.”
“It’ll be going to me,” said Fonderviakin, “I can alert you to that without any meetings.”
“Well then, we’ll just go ahead and examine your pretensions to the dwelling right now, collectively! Or do you oppose yourself to public opinion? Bear in mind, that we will not tolerate such unbridled individualism—that I tell you in all honesty!”
Valenchik looked at Fonderviakin sternly and went off to assemble the tenants. Five minutes later the entire population of Apartment 12 had packed themselves into the kitchen, with the exception of Pumpianskaya, Chinarikov and Belotsvetov, who had more important things on their minds.
“Here’s our way—the Soviet way!” said Anna Olegovna Kapitonova with a gleam in her eye. “Happinesses, grief, and problems—everything is decided hand in hand! Just like it was during the Olympics….”
And everybody recalled how, indeed, during the Moscow Olympics, Apartment 12 pulled together to put the kibosh on a major scandal, which had flared up after Fonderviakin’s washtub tumbled down onto Yuliya Golova’s head.
“Come on, Comrades, without the lyricism,” asked Valenchik. “Let’s get closer to the matter at hand, Comrades. A room in the apartment may be freeing up tomorrow, and we’ve had no communiqué as yet.
“In which connection, this is what the communiqué should say,” Yuliya Golova joined in. “We’re required to come to an agreement right now, as to which of us has the indisputable right to an augmentation of square metreage.”
“We’ve got more right than anybody,” decided Lyuba immediately. “Because there are three of us living together, and what’s more we’ve got a mother who’s single.”
“The more so because I’m heterosexual,” added Pyotr.
“Seems you’re a bit too literate,” Fonderviakin said to him.
“No, Comrades, this approach is wrong, quantitative somehow,” said Anna Olegovna, and proudly shook her violet ringlets. “Let’s look at the qualitative side of the affair: here my Dmitry is already a young man, and it’s still on and on having to share a room with an old woman….”
At this point Anna Olegovna looked angrily at Fonderviakin and concluded just in case, “And don’t you even mention your preserved apples, Lyov Borisovich!”
“Of course, we ought to let our conscience decide,” said Vera Valenchik. “Preserved apples—that’s funny, but I’m giving birth soon and that, Comrades, is not funny.”
“Right!” Mitya spoke up. “Only let’s dispense with the demagoguery! Because now they’ve dragged some kind of conscience into it….”
Further development of the negotiations can be painlessly omitted, inasmuch as nothing else that was fundamentally new or meaningful was said, and in general the meeting yielded no decision whatsoever. The only outcome, which emerged independently of the will of its participants, consisted in it becoming clear to all of them, that even if Aleksandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya was perfectly healthy, she was obliged to die by morning.
Sometime after ten that evening, the people dispersed to their own rooms, and the apartment settled down. For a time, the drone of television sets could still be heard, and then even that ended. The time for things had arrived.
Apartment 12 was not yet asleep, however, but rather only just preparing to turn in. Yuliya Golova was sitting at her dressing table, getting herself ready for bed, Lyubov was making up the beds while, slowly and abhorrently, Pyotr undressed. At the Valenchiks’ it was like this: having placed a newspaper over her face, Vera was already lying in bed, whereas Genrikh Ivanovich, bent very low over the dining table, scribbled audibly over a paper with his pen. Fonderviakin sat in front of the turned-off television, cutting rubber lid liners for his jars out of a bathmat. Chinarikov was reading selected speeches of Cicerone in his room, while Belotsvetov—The Pharmacology Bulletin in his own. Anna Olegovna was rustling something unpleasantly behind the antique Chinese screen with which she partitioned herself off from Mitya at night, while Mitya messed around at his table, being mysteriously busy again with some sort of glass bits, components, and multicolored wiring. As for Aleksandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya, she was just sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, for boredom’s sake recalling one evening long ago: it was either nineteen-twelve or ‘thirteen—before the war, she was still young, her father, mother, and brothers were still alive; the whole family had gathered in the dining room for tea; it was late in the evening, the dining room was flooded with an even green light, because an electric bulb had been set into the chandelier of aquamarine glass; the grandfather clock, presented to her father for some jubilee celebration in honor of his pedagogical activities, ticked grandly; now and then silver teaspoons clinked in Kuznetsovsk teacups, beyond the window the wind howled; Sergey and Vladimir were playing mahjong, while Georgy read Teffi out loud, holding in his left hand a candlestick in the shape of a scooped out eggshell, on a semi-transparent stearin stub, and choking with laughter after every ten words…. Good Lord, what a marvelous and darling recollection!
At about half past ten, Fonderviakin telephoned someone; a little later Mitya Nachalov made a bit of noise in the corridor, then Belotsvetov shuffled through in the direction of the toilet, but no sooner had he turned to the right than he was dumbfounded, because the following scene unfolded before his very eyes: in the middle of the dark kitchen, in the pale parallelogram formed by the light from the street and the window, sat Pyotr Golova on a chamber pot, holding an unfolded newspaper up in front of him. Actually, there wasn’t anything so very astonishing about this scene—most likely, Pyotr was simply imitating our masculine practice of doing these two things at the same time, but for some reason Belotsvetov was flabbergasted nonetheless.
“Petka, are you alright?” he asked in an unsteady voice.
“Not too bad,” said Pyotr, gazing calmly at Belotsvetov from behind the newspaper, and then becoming absorbed, as it were, in his reading again.
In a word, Apartment 12 was not yet asleep, but the time for things had arrived. God knows whither and whence a little draft flitted across the floor, a few square centimeters of wallpaper, which had come loose in the spot where the neglected wardrobe stood, started to breathe, and in the vicinity of the bookcase something whispered of its own accord; after that the water pipes joined in, which had begun to “ventriloquize” in muted tones but then suddenly hushed up, as if someone had cut them short; some bits of lime sprinkled down somewhere, something squeaked—something unrecognizable, secret; in the kitchen a floor-board creaked on its own initiative. At this point Genrikh Valenchik came out of his room, and things lay low for a time. Valenchik stuck a papirosa in his mouth, walked up and down the corridor a few times, stood over by Fonderviakin’s washtub for a bit and then returned to his place, shutting the door with a deafening slam. And again it was deserted, and again it was the time for things, though not in full swing for the time being, as though things were in the know, as the saying goes, that Pumpianskaya had not yet checked, as was her custom, whether the lights had all been switched off.
At a quarter to eleven, a dreadful woman’s scream resounded in the corridor: the scream was wild—zoological somehow—of the kind which the vocal chords are most likely capable of producing only in those rare instances when a person confronts something too horrible, on the peripheries of what it is possible to perceive. The apartment was revived at once: movements and voices were heard from behind doors, and in the moment that followed, the tenants spilled out of their rooms wearing whatever they’d been able to grab. Halfway down the corridor, in a housecoat with only one button done up, from under which could be seen a crookedly hanging chintz night-shirt, in curlers and gilded Indian slippers, stood Yuliya Golova, riveted to the spot; her face had grayed, her eyes bulged wide open, her mouth trembled.
“What are you bawling your head off for?!” asked Fonderviakin spitefully.
In answer, Yuliya only half lifted her arm in the direction of the front door.
“What the heck happened?!” implored Genrikh Valenchik. “Can you explain it to us in plain language?!”
“There…” began Yuliya, lifting her hand decisively in the direction of the front door. “There was a man’s ghost standing there just now….”
Regardless of the fact that at these words everybody’s heart skipped a beat, as the saying goes, none of the tenants believed Yuliya. Needless to say, it would’ve been surprising if anyone had believed her, and it was incomparably more surprising still that no one at all believed her, inasmuch as ghosts are the secret passion of our literature, which therefore embeds them in the most poignant situations, and we’re nothing if not a literary people, who even give less credence to life than we do to novels and stories. In the end, the situation in which Yuliya Golova found herself constituted nothing more than an everyday variation of the situation in which one allegedly fictional character found himself a hundred and twenty years ago.
“‘…and by the way, do you believe in ghosts?’
‘What kind of ghosts?’
‘In commonplace ghosts, what kind indeed!’
‘And do you believe in them?’
‘Yes and no, I suppose, pour vous plaire…that is, it’s not that I don’t….’
‘Do they appear to you or something’
‘…Marfa Petrovna deigns to visit,’ he said, twisting his lips into some strange smile.
How do you mean, deigns to visit?’
‘Why, she’s already come three times….’
‘While you were awake?’
‘Quite so. All three times I was awake. She’ll come, talk for about a minute and go out the door, always out the door. It seems I can almost hear it.’
‘Just what does she say to you, when she comes?’
‘Her? Just imagine, the most insignificant rubbish—it really makes you wonder about a person—why, it even makes me angry….’”
“You imagined it,” uttered Anna Olegovna soothingly, who’d come out still looking quite decent—in other words hair kempt, and clad in a dressing gown. “You only imagined it, Yuliya. Don’t drink strong tea before bed; drink an infusion of valerian root, or else Tazepam. It just ‘magics’ away those otherworldly….”
“A fine load of advice that is, too,” observed Belotsvetov, who was dressed, anything but casually, in slacks, a shirt and tie.
“We’ve lived to see the day!” said Vera Valenchik. “Now we’ve got ghosts in the apartment! Not enough cockroaches, so let’s have ghosts now! No—when, oh when will they finally tear this multistory fleabag the hell down and accommodate the people in comfortable housing with some modern conveniences?!”
“I suggest we refer this question to President Reagan,” said Genrikh, who was in a fishnet t-shirt and black sateen shorts. “And you, Penelope,” this was to Vera now, “off to bed with you, chop-chop; take a look at what an erotic sight you are—this isn’t a cabaret, after all…!”
Indeed, Vera Valenchik had jumped out barefoot and wearing only a nightgown.
“I don’t get it,” said Mitya Nachalov, screwing up his eyes scornfully somehow. “How do the Americans figure in this?”
“Because,” replied Genrikh, “thanks to the Washingtonian administration we’re forced to give up the shirt off our backs for an arms race, instead of building comfortable housing!”
“A battle between two worlds,” confirmed Fonderviakin with a significant look, standing not far from his washtub, a striped sheet wrapped around him. “By hook or by crook American imperialism is itching to get us. But I’ll say this: if for the sake of peace on the planet we’ll have to co-exist with ghosts somehow, I’ve got nothing against it.”
With a taunting look on his face Chinarikov asked him, “And what do you think, Lyov Borisovich: are there not, in the Soviet department of the CIA, those responsible for potatoes? I mean those special agents of imperialism who are responsible for ensuring constant disruptions in the supply of potatoes in our stores?”
“Yes, there are!” answered Fonderviakin, knitting his brows, and he made for his room.
“So, in any case, what’s the consensus on this incident with the ghost?” asked Genrikh Valenchik, not addressing any person in particular, and he pulled his hands up into his armpits expressively.
“And what sort of consensus can there be here…” said Belotsvetov. “It’s not like we can call in the ‘Center for Pest and Ghost Control.’ As your Vera correctly observed, it’s not cockroaches, after all.”
“Here’s your consensus,” added Anna Olegovna. “Strong tea shouldn’t be drunk before bed!”
Right after these words there resounded the voice of Pumpianskaya, who had appeared at the far end of the corridor in her eternal housedress of broadcloth and lace.
“For goodness sake,” she said, “the clock says almost midnight, and you’re having a full-fledged demonstration here! Has anything happened?”
“There has,” answered Mitya. “A ghost appeared. It’s an outright Scottish castle, and not an apartment….”
And everyone began to disperse.
Nothing else interesting happened that evening, only Pumpianskaya set out around midnight to check that all the lights were out, and that the door in the entrance hall was locked up good and tight.
And the next morning she disappeared.
Next story: Big River by Libbie Chellew
First published in St. Petersburg Review
Editor: Elizabeth L. Hodges
Mission: Speaking the same language through literature: St. Petersburg Review is an annual independent journal of contemporary literature that seeks to support global connections and affinities through publishing quality fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama from writers of all countries.
Vyacheslav Pyetsukh is one of Russia's most published contemporary authors. The recurring themes of his work are the nature of literary creation and the extent to which literature has formed the Russian character. As a "national thinker" and intellectual he has been compared to Vladimir S. Soloviev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His novel The New Moscow Philosophy, from which this story has been excerpted, will be published in Krystyna Steiger's English translation by Twisted Spoon Press in Prague.