Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk

 

‘Hold it, bastard.’

Now they’ll grab him by the arms and drag him to the Volvo. A terrible force – oppressive, but also attentive, making sure he doesn’t howl, isn’t hurt. Before they shut his mouth, he’ll manage to ask one idiotic question: ‘But why?’ Then darkness, followed by a whole different story – if there’s to be any story at all, if it isn’t straight into the furnace. He’d had other plans for this day, especially for how it should end, but these things do happen – without warning.

‘You,’ he had planned to say to the eight young people who’d enrolled in his course, ‘you are the salt of the earth, worth your weight in gold. The screenwriter is the only true auteur. Directors? Directors can sit on their hands: the actors will act, the cameraman will make sure they look good on film, and the editor will splice the film together. That’s why everyone wants to be a director.’ He’d shake his head: ‘Directors direct nothing . . . But you,’ he’d repeat, ‘are worth your weight in gold.’

First he’d intimidate them with his erudition, then he’d tell them a story in which he himself would come to look foolish, silly. He had a vast reserve of such stories and they never failed to charm. He was the master, and they were his pupils. Their business was to learn from the master, his was to elucidate the nature of cinema: what constitutes a film, and what does not. Then they’d watch a picture together.

‘Transformation,’ he’d snap his fingers. ‘It’s all about transformation. If it takes place, then . . . You understand?’

That would be enough for the first day. Then he’d go see the twins and give them his collected scripts as a present. The food would be good. Then home to Varya, his wife, and Anyuta, his daughter. They’d already be asleep. That was his plan.

 

*

 

The day began with a funny, insignificant incident. While taking the elevator down from the top floor, he glanced into the mirror that had appeared after the last renovation and found himself face-to-face with a ceremonial portrait of the Leader – in his marshal’s tunic, studded with medals – which had been pasted firmly to the opposite wall. He was about to scrape it off with a key when he saw an inscription, in blue ink, across the white tunic – ‘hang-man’, with a hyphen. There was no mistaking Anyuta’s writing. On the one hand, it was rather sad – the Gnessin school focused on music, but shouldn’t they at least teach her how to spell? On the other hand, it was touching. He scraped the hyphen off the Generalissimo, along with the marshal’s star.

The building was old and solid (a clever thought: it was now Stalinist in every respect), with only twelve apartments, so there could be no doubt as to who had put up the portrait – a tenant with the repellent name Vobly. Who else would bring that trash into the house? Certainly not Vadik, the virtuoso violinist. Not Tamara Maksimovna, the voice coach. No, it had to have been Vobly, the former KGB stooge – who else?

He ducked a bit when stepping out of the entrance. The renovation was done, but the building was still surrounded by all sorts of metal structures and scaffolding. He expected to see Vobly, who spent most of his time outside during the warmer months; Vobly’s family didn’t let him smoke inside, and, after years in the service, loitering around entrances was probably a matter of habit with him. Though in the past few weeks Vobly had been coming out with a little stool – something wrong with his spine, he said.

‘We’ve all got bad backs, from working on our feet. We didn’t have all these surveillance cameras back then. Didn’t have all these cellphones, neither.’

True enough.

‘Off to the salt mines, Andrey Georgievich?’ Vobly would ask and look at his watch. He’d nod in response and feel a momentary pang of guilt – it was noon, and he was only now leaving the house. And then he would indeed set off for work, on foot. That summer the sidewalks in their neighborhood had been widened and the roadway had been narrowed, so the streets looked odd to him. He’d make a detour, so as to pass by the French school where he’d studied: a typical five-story building, recently furnished with an extension, a glass cube – not a stylistic match, exactly, but Moscow is an eclectic town. Actually, he hadn’t spotted Vobly at the entrance. He hadn’t seen him for several days now, but that wasn’t unusual; he might be at the hospital again, for his back. Well, let him get some rest. That hang-man must have given him a good laugh.

 

*

 

Yes, he had gone to the French school, the best in town. And he had done well for himself after graduating, too, enrolling at Moscow State’s Mechanics and Mathematics department, though he had no particular aptitude for mathematics. Nor was he especially good at French – nor, he sometimes felt, was he especially good at anything. But to his friends, of whom there were many, he seemed, on the contrary, to be a man of great and varied gifts.

‘You love me as a thing, not as a person.’ Stravinsky, he recalled, had said something similar after Feodor Chaliapin’s death. Maybe it hadn’t been Stravinsky, but someone had said it.

‘No, Andryusha, you’ve got it wrong – you love yourself as a thing,’ his friends would respond. ‘We just love you.’

And that would reassure him, for a time. The feelings of friends are conditional; they require periodic updates. The desire to be liked (in his case, an entirely innocent desire) is obviously a character flaw, but, for an artist, it’s simply natural. Or common, at any rate. Of course, the worst thing he had ever done, from a civic standpoint, was to join the Communist Youth. Just think, here he was, a boy with a family history of anti-Soviet activity – his parents’ apartment had been searched twice (‘raided’, the grown-ups had said). He still remembered the look of surprise on his teacher’s face: Andrey was one of the first in his class to submit an application. Foolishness, utter foolishness, and not even close to mandatory in 1987. On the other hand, he had always been totally honest with women, which is why he was on his third marriage.

He was a screenwriter now, and well enough known, although there’s really no such thing as a sufficiently appreciated artist. He used to write plays, too, before getting into film. And then, after Anyuta was born, he had gone over to television. His degree? They say mathematics is the highest achievement of human thought. He had enrolled at the department without any practical goals in mind. Frankly, it had been a concession to his parents. He had other ambitions: to put on plays, to act, to compose. Back in those days, the student theater at Moscow State, where he spent nearly every evening, was going great guns. When exams would roll around, he’d cram and pass. Seems he had some aptitude after all. And of course the university kept him out of the army.

Mathematics is nothing, really – some things are much more difficult to master: remaining sober and alert, not losing heart. Nothing he faced today could compare to what his parents had dealt with, to say nothing of his grandparents. Yes, things had gotten a bit frightening. But more dreary than frightening, no? There was certainly no point in adding to the woes of others, of those one loved not as things. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, anyway? Maybe things were better than they appeared? At any rate, one couldn’t just sit there and hate the regime. One had to work, write, teach the kid Russian, music (his wife, Varya, taught harmony). But those whom he didn’t cherish quite as much, those whose peace of mind meant less to him, got very different advice. He would tell them to flee as soon as they could:

‘A lack of imagination. Emigration is a terrible thing: a garret in Paris or, I don’t know, some apartment building in Brooklyn . . . But imagine a guard in a watchtower, imagine being dragged out of bed at six every morning – yes, a lack of imagination.’

His own imagination was in perfect working order. After lecturing others about watchtowers and guards, he’d find himself tossing and turning all night. He’d promise himself that he’d wake up the next morning full of joy and gratitude to his parents, his daughter, his wife (he believed in God less and less), and even his friends – but now, more and more often, he awoke with his heart pounding, feeling trapped. He was sure he’d get a hold of himself soon enough. In any case, his girls mustn’t be allowed to suffer. He had lived under this pressure, had dwelled with these thoughts for the past few months, until the beginning of the school year, September 1.

 

*

 

‘Andrey Georgievich, why did you leave your television job?’ asks Lydia from Krasnodar. Low forehead, bangs, a typical regional twang.

‘Anyone with a shred of decency abandoned television.’ Hadn’t she noticed, down there on the Kuban? And what did it matter where she lived? This Lydia was an active girl. What did she do before coming here?

The screenwriting students were all in their late twenties, thirties. They all had educations, professions.

‘Municipal services. Why?’

So why did he leave his job, she asks.

‘I decided I wasn’t going to join the Communist Youth again. You don’t get it? Good.’

His new class: two Nastyas, two Olyas, a pair of ordinary-looking young men (these, he knew, would soon fall away, just stop showing up), Lydia, and, finally, the main source of danger – Rachel, a clever, toothy brunette. It was a two-year course, and commercial, so he had to accept all applicants. There were only two kinds of students he feared: the mad and the clever. So here was one such student: big eyes and large crooked teeth. You could see her upper gums when she smiled. She wouldn’t be able to write a screenplay for the life of her. Not a lick of imagination. Her head was full of French postmodernists, Derrida and Deleuze. She’d drive him crazy with her endless comments. But still – Rachel, born in 1987: someone had dared to give their daughter that Old Testament name back in ’87.

And now it was up to him to teach them the craft of screenwriting. Yes, yes, my dears – the craft. The romantic era, which had lasted nearly two hundred years, was now over. Gone were the days when artists had sat at the heads of tables, surrounded by aristocrats – all these dinners where Richard Wagner had hobnobbed with King Ludwig II. If you harbor any illusions about inspiration, about divine afflatus, get rid of them straightaway. In the years of his youth, when he was lucky enough to spend time with – he pronounces the name of a famous pianist, a friend of his parents (Rachel nods, the rest give no sign of recognition) – he was instructed to be quiet around the genius, not to make a peep, as if the man were terminally ill. God forbid he should bring up the last concert, or – worse yet – the next concert, or even talk of music. But now, with these young fellows, some of whom are genuine masters, like his neighbor Vadik (he mentions his surname), things are different. You ask: how did it go? Did people show up? And he just mumbles: went fine. Or says: played as well as I could, now let’s go tie one on.

The students grow quiet. Lydia jots something down in her notebook. His phone vibrates in his pocket. Let’s have a look – no, he doesn’t recognize the number – and he moves on to the fact that the visual arts, cinematography first and foremost, are increasingly displacing literature and music. He doesn’t know why, exactly – maybe it’s a lack of imagination? But these days he himself prefers to listen to music with pictures, video. And so, dear colleagues, the ability to write for the screen, to make movies, is a useful thing – although, with the situation being what it is, he has to warn them that their prospects are not at all rosy. If they wanted a recipe for quick success, well, they were out of luck. There were no recipes for success, quick or otherwise:

‘No one will shoot films based on our screenplays. From now on, we’ll have to work like architects: our boldest, grandest constructions will exist only on paper – in magazines and in printed volumes. They’ll never make it to the screen.’

A knock at the door. One of the young women from the office.

‘You’re wanted in Human Resources.’

Doesn’t she see he’s in the middle of class?

He has to fill out a registration form, list all the foreign countries he’s visited in the last ten years.

‘Can’t I just put down “all of them”?’

‘What do you mean, “all of them”?’

He begins listing countries: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark . . . He feels awkward in front of the students.

‘Stop by Human Resources,’ the young woman interrupts. ‘No later than Tuesday. Bring your passport.’

He follows her out into the corridor: what’s this about?

‘Your file was requested.’

Why was she whispering? They had a file on him? Why hadn’t he been told?

‘We have files on everyone.’

So who had requested it? Had they requested all the files – or just his?

She shrugs her shoulders: what’s the point in asking? Then, with a look of sympathy:

‘Maybe you wrote something? Said something? Give it some thought.’

What could he have written? His heart pauses, then gives a strong jolt. Again and again – a pause, then a jolt. He knows his heart won’t stop, that these are just so-called extrasystoles, nothing serious, but it still doesn’t feel good. He takes a few breaths, walks back into the classroom: well, time for a movie?

Motes of dust in the projector beam, the white screen, semi-darkness; one doesn’t watch serious films on the TV screen. He would show them Iosseliani’s Falling Leaves and then explain the picture’s structure. He tells them what to look for: the family photos, the clatter of billiard balls, the out-of-tune piano in the director’s office, the close-ups (infrequent), the Russian words coming from the radio, the fact that almost every event happens twice, has its reflection, like when you close a notebook and the fresh ink leaves its trace on the facing page.

‘Georgian girls all have those little mustaches,’ one of the Olyas says with a sigh.

Let’s not laugh at Olya. Any other impressions? He, for instance, finds that Falling Leaves never fails to restore his sense of harmony, never fails to reconcile him with reality. By the way, Iosseliani had also spent several years studying mathematics before he made films.

So what’s it about? Almost nothing happens: a minor industrial incident. But it’s inscribed in an eternal context – by the scenes of peasants, by the photographs, by the tolling of the bell at the end. From his point of view, the film is about the forging of an individual character, about dignity.

‘Would you say it’s about rootedness?’

Yes, thank you, Rachel. As for the name, he himself doesn’t really understand it: leaves don’t fall in August.

‘The vegetative cycle of grapes. First the berries ripen, then the shoots dry up, and then the leaves fall. The plant is preparing for winter.’

That’s it. Rachel is a botanist, in the truest sense of the word: she has a degree in biology. Scientific knowledge can come in handy for anyone, but for an artist it’s an invaluable source of metaphor.

‘An anti-Russian film, through and through,’ lovely Lydia suddenly declares.

He smiles:

‘Perhaps anti-Soviet?’

She furrows her little forehead:

‘Same thing, no difference.’ He disagrees. There is a difference.

‘Andrey Georgievich, what are your feelings about the current government? Yes, our government,’ Lydia asks in the manner of someone who has the right to know, looking straight into his eyes.

He remembers the conversation with the young woman from the office. Should he make a joke? Why did he have to show them Falling Leaves? He responds firmly:

‘My feelings aren’t good. We’ll leave it at that.’

Rachel claps her hands a few times: she’s the only one to applaud.

‘I’ve given you your assignments.’

He and Rachel walk to the metro station together. Until recently, she had been working at a school. Then her job became unbearable – for obvious reasons.

‘I’m so glad we have you for a teacher, Andrey Georgievich. You’re not only a wonderfully talented person, you’re also very brave. And you can’t have one without the other, wouldn’t you say?’ She shakes his hand as they part.

Once he’s on the train, he remembers the phone call. It turns out he’s missed six calls, from the same unknown number. He reaches the Sparrow Hills station, steps out onto the platform. ‘Connection cannot be established.’ Strange. He’s paid his bill. Problems with the network? He tries again – same thing. Back into the train, to the Southwestern station.

 

*

 

He always visits the twins, his good friends, alone. Tonight he expects to see them, Ada and Glasha – short for Adelaide and Aglaya (that’s what a love for Dostoevsky does to people) – and their husbands, Alexander and Alexey, whom he still has a hard time telling apart. Both men are cheerful, slightly boring engineers – you don’t meet many engineers anymore. Their children, already in their teens, will be there too. And maybe three or four other couples.

Ada is the elder sister, born ten minutes before Glasha.

‘What’s it like, having an exact copy of yourself?’

‘We’re used to it,’ they say, ‘what’s it like not having one?’

And they live side by side, on the sixteenth floor – two apartments with a shared balcony. He had known them at Moscow State. They studied chemistry but, like him, preferred the theater. ‘We had a lot of fun, didn’t we, Andryusha?’ Memories: everyone smoked back then, and the sisters always smelled of cigarettes – their hair, their dresses. What fun it was. They sewed all the costumes themselves, and built all the sets. Twins can always find roles to play: for example, Ada and Glasha put on a very funny production of The Canterville Ghost. But for them the theater remained just that, playtime. It never turned into a profession. Good thing he never got involved with them romantically. Well, there was that one time. With Glasha. Just a momentary fling, many years ago.

The only guests so far are a married couple, whose names he can never remember. Where, he asks, are such and such? ‘Moved to Georgia.’ Is that right? He hadn’t heard.

‘Of course, you’re too busy . . .’ Is Glasha mocking him? Doesn’t seem so. The usual topics of conversation: the end of summer, parents ailing and – in more detail – being difficult, the relative merits of home care providers from the former republics of the USSR. He has nothing to contribute on that last topic: his parents aren’t yet in need of nurses.

‘Andryusha, you’re out of focus today.’ The sisters want him to stop snacking and tell them a story. He’s ruining his appetite. They have a pheasant in the oven. He should tell them about his new crop of lady screenwriters.

He runs through the events of the day in his mind. Fairly frightening, really: the sudden request for his file, the question about the government. And the silence – not a wary silence, but a hollow, dead silence – that met his response. Then the lonely applause, the isolated claps – they didn’t help at all. It would have been better had the group argued with him, shouted. In previous years, such things had at least led to screaming matches.

‘Same as always: two Tanyas, two Manyas, two silent sons-in-law, one aggressive idiot – but also one kindred soul.’ There’s nothing to laugh about, but he feels he should strike a more cheerful tone: ‘So I’m feeding them my favorite ideas, one after the other, steering clear of politics, and then, suddenly, she pipes up,’ he remembers beautiful Lydia. ‘You know the sort, a nasty little guttersnipe – thin lips, small mouth.’

His audience exchange glances: Andryusha is surprisingly observant. To be honest, he doesn’t remember what Lydia’s mouth actually looked like. He brings his narrative to a close by mentioning Human Resources and the office, then thinks to himself: every story, no matter how simple, requires a climax and a denouement. Now, having finished, he waits to be comforted and consoled, to hear them say that there’s nothing to worry about, that they have check-ups at their institutions and businesses too, that it’s just a formality, that everything’s planned out now, including check-ups, nothing to be afraid of, these aren’t the bad old days. But no one says a word.

‘Things are what they are.’ One has to end on the proper note. ‘If you’ve decided to stay, you’ve got to be ready for anything.’

The talk takes off on its circuitous route again, getting tangled, shifting to the past, then to children. After some time the wine is gone and the pheasant’s bones are picked clean, and he’s thinking out loud about our mistaken notion of ​​justice – the notion that justice is ever-present and always wins:

‘Nothing can banish this childish delusion. In the end, they’ll come for us, and all we’ll be able to ask is: “But why?” I myself am spoiled. For instance, I never got lower marks than I deserved. I did well at school, though I was really a C-student at best.’

‘With me it’s the opposite,’ Alexey breaks in.

Alexey has a different notion of justice. If you were given more than you deserve – how can you call that justice? He has a more modest claim. And now Alexey, who hadn’t uttered a word all night, relates how last spring he and his friends went down to the courthouse to protest the latest wave of political arrests – to stand outside and protest, since they weren’t allowed into the building.

‘We stood out there for an hour or two, shouting this and that, but, more than anything, just shifting our feet. It was cold, and I had to go relieve myself. Then I came back and stood some more. I lost track of my friends. There were a few hundred people by then. Then I see buses blocking the road on both sides. We hear an announcement: “Citizens, do not interfere with the movement of traffic.” But we’re all on the sidewalk. Then the police show up – with shields, helmets – and start grabbing people out of the crowd, one by one. They target the people doing the shouting, and anyone with a distinctive feature – a poster, a bright hat, a red beard. I don’t really mind being thrown onto the bus – so they’ll take me to the station, check my passport, then let me go – but I’m not especially eager. So I just stand there and watch. And they keep saying: “Citizens, please clear the road.” By now anyone close to the road is getting swept up. The buses are almost full, but they aren’t going anywhere – and I sense nature’s calling again. It turns out I’m not the only one. I hear two intelligent-looking middle-aged women say: last time they kept us in there for two hours, stewing, but we had our plastic bottles – you can cut off the tops and . . . They laugh: you fellows have it easy – you don’t even need to cut off the tops. That’s when I took off. I didn’t like the idea of ​​urinating on a bus. And I didn’t particularly want to see women pissing in bottles, either.’

‘And that’s all?’

‘That’s all. I just took off. The end of my career as a protester.’

‘Andrey is a typical professor.’ For some reason Glasha speaks of him in the third person. ‘He doesn’t like it when anyone talks longer than he does.’

She was right. He had to take the conversation into his own hands:

‘What it comes down to, I feel, is lack of imagination. Of course, when you imagine the hardships of emigration . . . I can stay with . . .’ He names a mutual friend, who’s been living in Brussels for ages. ‘He has a huge apartment. Or with . . .’ He names another of their acquaintances. ‘He’s got a big house in Houston. He’ll go off to work each morning, then come back in the evening – and what have you created? Any headway with Hollywood? You open the refrigerator, and he frowns. “Andryusha, maybe you should look for an easier job, just for the time being?” What, delivering pizza? Trimming bushes? Sweeping the street? “Don’t get the wrong idea, no one’s trying to force you out. Great, now you’re upset . . .” Your children start pushing you farther and farther away, the threat of alcoholism, depression. We can imagine that, sure – but how about a guard screaming “On your feet!” at six in the morning? How about sewing mittens in the shop? The stench of unwashed bodies, playing by prison rules, keeping your head down. Should I go on? Fearing for your life every minute of the day. Not enough heat, food, air. It’s not just a matter of “thinking about the children” – we should think about ourselves. Inertia is a terrible thing. Do you know the story of Kissinger’s family? They stayed on in Bavaria till the very last minute. They very nearly left it too late. Well, we’re no smarter than Kissinger, I assure you.’

‘Houston . . .’ Ada says thoughtfully. ‘Andryusha, did you know we got an apartment in Vilnius?’

‘When did that happen?’

‘After Alexey’s crusade to the courthouse. We sold our dacha.’

Vilnius, they reason, can’t save them from everything. But with an Israeli passport . . . Oh, they have Israeli passports too? Only Glasha and Alexander, for now. He didn’t know Alexander was Jewish. Just a quarter – his grandmother – but the one that counts, on his mother’s side.

‘Looks like you’ll have to mind the shop on your own, Andryusha . . .’ Pause.

Glasha recites a line from Pushkin:

‘The feast continues. The chairman remains, deep in thought.’

Cruel. But appropriate. Ada aims an expressive glance at her sister:

‘It’s just in case things go off the rails. We might not even need it.’ The rest of the guests are already drinking tea and cognac, eating chocolates.

It’s stuffy. He rises from the table, goes into the next room, and walks up to the window. A warm Moscow evening. The lights are on all across town. Ada opens the door to the balcony: after dark, the view’s even better. It’s not the center, of course, but they like the neighborhood. ‘And if you lean out and look over there . . .’ Ada slides the glass open.

‘No, don’t do that,’ he retreats into the hallway. He’s developed a fear of heights.

‘Afraid the balcony will collapse?’

‘I’m afraid to look down. You succumb to the temptation for a second, and . . .’ Ada beckons her sister.

‘Listen, Andryusha, we’re worried about you. You’ve always exceeded the bounds of any given situation. But you also knew when to drop the theatrics and to get ready for exams.’

Yes, there was a time . . . He puts on his shoes. He’ll feel better if he takes a walk. Would they mind if he left without saying goodbye to everyone?

‘You know what . . . I don’t think I can walk after all. Girls, would you call me a taxi?’

They walk him to the door and give him two kisses, each on one cheek:

‘Our weakness is our strength.’

‘And there’s no end to our weakness.’ They smile, wave.

Under different circumstances, their kisses would have been very pleasant – the girls are so beautiful, so familiar – but today they have no effect. Neither the twins nor the wine have managed to cheer him up, much less intoxicate him. He hardly even touched the wine.

 

*

 

‘Up your mother’s . . .’ The driver hits the brakes, rousing him from an uncomfortable slumber. ‘You see what that bastard did? These,’ he inserts another insult, ‘think they own the road. Did you get a look at the license plate? EKX97. You know what that means?’

Why should he know? He asks the driver to turn down the radio just a bit – Russian rap, not the worst thing these days, but a little too loud. Now he tries dialing that number again. This time a mechanical voice tells him to enter a personal password. Password? What password?

‘Those little gadgets,’ the driver pokes a finger at the phone. ‘They use those to keep tabs on everyone. Where you are, what you’re talking about. You can shut if off and pull out the battery – but it makes no difference. That’s special technology for ya. They’ve got us all on a leash.’

He should have sat in the back. What was that about license plates? The driver tells him about what happened the previous week, at his mother-in-law’s funeral. Some guy pulled up at the crematorium, alone, in a Ford minivan, with an EKX plate, and went up to two of the fellows on duty. These fellows helped the guy unload two coffins. The three of them bring the coffins inside, then the guy comes out, turns the van around, and drives off.

‘Who was in the coffins?’ He tries to keep his voice steady.

‘Who the hell knows? Maybe two poor bastards like you and me.’

He isn’t well – breathing rapidly, heart pounding, vision blurring. How do the windows work? He lowers the glass all the way down, exposing his face to a stream of cold air. Without asking permission, he turns a dial on the radio – raises the volume. He no longer hears the driver – any rap, and crap is better than stories about some crematorium.  He reads the English inscription: ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.’ And he repeats the phrase to the beat of the music. Are they closer in the mirror or in real life? Read the goddamned manual. Where are they closer? It makes no sense. Objects in mirror . . . What does that mean? – What? No, he isn’t going to puke. One-way street? Just stop the car, he’ll get out here. He needs to get home, but he can hardly walk, trembling all over. He reaches the corner of his street, almost at a run. He can see it now, the entrance. Another fifty, sixty steps and he’s home. But on the sidewalk, next to the entrance – a dark Volvo he’s never seen before. The lights are off but the engine is running. And two long shadows beside it. The license plate. What were those letters? The plate is caked with mud, as if on purpose. No, it’s just the one shadow, not two. He grips the keys in his pocket – he can use them as a weapon, or throw them at a window, cause a scene. Run? He can’t even feel his legs. Here you are, Kissinger. Another step or two and he’ll hear: ‘Hold it, bastard.’ Then a terrible force will grab him by the shoulder.

A lighter snaps in the shadow’s hands and sends up a little flame. My god, Vobly.

Vobly recognizes him too:

‘Time for some shut-eye, Andrey Georgievich?’

He rushes toward the door and gets a blow to the head. The scaffolding. He had forgotten to duck. He squats on his haunches, presses his hand to his forehead. No blood. He catches his breath. Vobly leans over him, tries to help – no, no need, everything’s fine. Everything really is fine, except for the pain in his head.

‘A whack for scaredy-cats’ – that’s what they used to call it at school. He should put something cold on it. He enters the elevator, leans his forehead against the mirror, and stands there for half a minute. Then he presses the button. By the time he reaches his floor, the pain is gone. He steps back from the mirror and examines himself. He hasn’t gotten a whack like that in a long time. ‘A whack for scaredy-cats’ – he’s forgotten French, forgotten math, but nonsense like that is still lodged in his mind.

He walks into his apartment, making as little noise as possible. First he looks into his bedroom, then he checks on Anyuta. Both his girls are fast asleep, as he had expected. Was it Goebbels who ended up poisoning his own daughters? He goes to the kitchen and stands by the window, gazing down at the dark empty sidewalk. Then he walks into the bathroom, gets soap, a brush, and a bucket of water, and heads to the elevator, where he scrubs the mustachioed bastard’s face off the wall. He tosses the scraps down the garbage chute, returns to marvel at the clean, wet wall of the elevator, then examines his reflection once more. So you’re back in good standing, are you?

 

Image © NYRB 

 

‘Objects in Mirror’ is included in the collection Rock, Paper, Scissors, published by the New York Review of Books.

The Nature of Man
Confessions of a White Vampire