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from the August 2014 issue

Panda

“Oh well,” I said, “Then it’s probably gonna be a panda.”

“We can’t really settle on ‘probably,’” said the guy. “We need a firm commitment.”

“A panda.”

“Now you’re talking! And may I inquire why you made your choice in favor of a panda?”

“Well,” I shrugged, “I kinda like pandas.”

“I see . . . Unfortunately, that’s not sufficient reason. Convince me that you’d make a great panda—one perfectly equipped to cope with all the related responsibilities.”

“I guess I’m interested in this, and whatever I’m interested in, I kinda do well.”

“Sounds better,” the guy said, nodding. “Now could you kindly list for me three of your greatest strengths?”

“I don’t really like talking myself up. . .”

“I’m not asking you to do that.”

“Fine then . . . So, I’m kinda persistent. I also always consider things carefully before doing them. Well . . . And when I decide on something, I’m, like, gonna achieve it no matter what.”

“You read any libertarian stuff?”

I shook my head.

For a moment the guy seemed lost deep in thought. He was around forty. His expensive suit was tailored perfectly, but his clean-shaven head didn’t really suit him at all. He appeared even more tense with the fake politeness and puffy eyes—telling of sleepless nights, drinking, and, probably, kidney problems.

“All right,” he concluded. “Let’s just say you’ve passed the first interview. Now if you could just fill out this questionnaire and wait to be called into our supervisor’s office.”

I started filling out the form in the waiting room. It was a list of stupid questions I did my best to answer honestly. I answered “yes” to the question “Have you ever lied?” and having reached “What is your dream,” wrote, “It’s a secret.”

After ten minutes or so they showed me into another room. I found myself alone with a businesswoman. Conservative suit. Nice boobs—a C-cup, I’d say. Hair slicked back in a ponytail. Thick-rimmed glasses. In fact, she would have looked much more appropriate in a German porno than as boss of this place.

She scanned my application form indifferently.

“Looks like you’re a liar. Is that correct?”

“Yep,” I said, and nodded.

“And when, may I ask, did you last lie?”

“Well, like, fifteen minutes ago.”

“Excuse me?”

“I told your colleague that I’m perfectly suited for the panda position, when, in fact I’m a little afraid of heights . . .”

The woman was silent for a while. Then she asked me what had made me think of applying.

So I told her—trying not to lie.

***

Yesterday I was on a train, returning from the capital to my town. Riding third class. No sliding doors dividing the train car. Four people in my compartment. Two more huddled on the bunks across the aisle from me. The bunch I was going to spend the next several hours of my life with hardly looked inspiring. The bunk across from me was occupied by something reclining and completely wrapped in a blanket. Already perched on my bunk were a catholic nun and a particularly shabby fifty-something-looking dude. I plopped down beside them, not bothering with a hello.

Soon the shabby dude produced a chunk of grilled chicken from his sack and started chewing on it, informing the nun how good life used to be under the Soviets and how shitty he, poor soul, was faring now. Judging from the nun’s manners, she could have easily been the dude’s old lady: as soon as he got started on his chicken, she pulled out a couple of hard-boiled eggs and started hammering them on the table to break the shells. These sounds briefly awoke from its slumber whatever was sleeping on the opposite bunk. It tossed around for a while, causing its blanket to partially slide off. Turned out it was not an “it,” but a “she,” and a “she” with a reasonably nice ass, besides, somewhat revealed by a miniskirt. I couldn’t help admiring the view, even as the nun hurried to readjust the blanket.

I did not really feel like climbing onto my upper bunk to sleep, so I started contemplating how likely it was that the chicken being chewed on by by the dude could actually have produced the eggs the nun was gorging herself on. However, on that particular occasion the laws of probability escaped me. Besides, the dude was already done with his late meal and had started flapping his gums. He seemed positively hellbent on talking about his childhood years. (Obviously one of those perverts who, even when well into their adulthood, like to tell scary stories to women, hoping to bring them to tears.)

So the dude told the nun the following story. When he was in the eighth grade or so, their biology teacher was hard on their whole gang. He promised “those little pricks” the lowest grades possible that term, because they had bitten off chunks of fake wax vegetables and fruits that had just recently been sent to the school by the district authorities as learning aids. Hearing that, the “little pricks” realized that something had to be done and decided to soften their teacher’s heart with a gift. First they caught a sizeable fish, then waited for it to kick the bucket, and stuck it in an ants’ nest. In a couple of days the only thing left was a perfectly white fish skeleton perched on the anthill. They placed it in a cardboard box and even covered it with a glass lid. This was to be a specimen for the teacher to use when explaining the bone structure of fish.

Hearing that, the nun crossed herself and I walked out to get myself a beer from the train attendant. My idea was to sip on my beer in the vestibule of the train car until those clowns in my compartment finally, so to say, took off their wigs and fake noses, washed off their makeup and went to sleep. Then, I thought, I could climb onto my upper bunk, hang my head over the side a little, and watch that cute ass down below: if, of course, she let her blankets slide off again.

Having stocked up with two bottles of beer, I was cautiously making my way through the train car, avoiding the feet in stinky socks sticking out from the bunks right at face level. Finally I reached the dreamed-of vestibule. Unfortunately it was already occupied by two devils, their mugs hammered black and blue. I found myself a spot in the corner across from them and downed my first bottle almost in one go. The devils, meanwhile, regarded me in silence. Then one of them started saying something to me.

I did not really get what, because he was speaking a strange sort of language. Must be Moldovans, I thought. No, surely they are Moldovans. The question remained: what the hell did they want from me. Moreover, what did they want from me in my own country? Maybe they were looking for jobs? But what kind of jobs can Moldovans do? Digging? I don’t have anything to dig. Refurbishing apartments? Well, I don’t even have an apartment. Maybe they wanted to be my bodyguards? But I’d never hire such ugly thugs. Unless, of course, I armed them with shovels and talked everyone into believing they were immigrant workers from the Carpathians or something.

For a moment I even imagined myself sitting at the bar in some posh joint while these two hung out discreetly at a table nearby, earning their keep. Then this bigwig in leather pants strolls by me. He accidentally pushes me with his elbow, so that I spill my Becherovka on the rocks all over the bar counter. Immediately my Moldovans jump up and close in on the guy.

“Hey,” says one of them. “Dunno how to behave yourself?”

“So what?” says the guy, pretending nothing has happened.

“You tell the boss you’re sorry,” says the other Moldovan, gritting his teeth.

“Brother, you’re pushing it,” remarks the guy and half-opens his jacket, showing them a gun.

“Well,” the first Moldovan says. “You calm down and say your apologies, or else we’ll bury you.”

“I dunno what you mean . . .”

“I mean exactly what I say,” says the second Moldovan, grinding his teeth and pointing meaningfully toward the two shovel handles sticking out from under the table.

The bigwig buttons up his jacket immediately and turns toward me

“Sorry, brother, I got it wrong for a moment, you know. Whatcha having?”

“Becherovka.”

“Get my brother here a bottle of Becherovka, and put it on my tab,” the bigwig calls to the barman.

At this point one of the talkative Moldovans probably got tired of my standing there and staring at him in silence. He started talking louder.

“Man,” he said—my internal translator was helping me out—“we gonna lay you this tile floor in your kitchen, man, a tile floor you could only dream of, man . . . And we can also dig, man . . . We can dig real cheap . . .”

“Dig in my kitchen?”

“Say what?” the Moldovan looked puzzled.

I used a lighter to open my second beer and sipped on it loudly.

“You speak Ukrainian? Either of you?”

“You betcha!” The “Moldovan” nodded happily, and I began to see that his speech really resembled Ukrainian.

“We're boxers from Ternopil,” he explained.

“What the hell happened to your faces?”

“Shit,” squeaked the other “Moldovan,” who until then had been silent. “Remember, Ivanko, I told you bar crawling in the capital was no good, man. I fuckin’ told you!”

Then they started their confession to me. Their story was simple. These two devils were working their asses off, training in Ternopil, until they were invited to the tournaments in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Unfortunately, in Kyiv they had to face an unexpected blow—and a double one at that. First, they found out that their coach had signed them up not for a boxing tournament, but a kickboxing one. “No fucking way” said one of the Moldovans, his feelings hurt, and already turned to go back to the railway station. “No fucking way!” The other Moldovan disapproved of his friend’s low spirits “Stop bitching. Kickboxing is just like boxing. It’s just that you can beat the shit outta them with your legs as well!” And so the “Moldovans” went for it . . .

Afterward, they crawled into one of the local joints to wash down their bitter defeat. There, someone relieved them of their cell phones, which resulted in the “Moldovans’” thrashing half of the bar crowd and even pummeling the barman. Sadly, their phones were gone forever, and now they can’t even contact their fuckin’ trainer to tell him what’s gonna fuckin’ happen when they fuckin’ get back. They thought it would also be nice to know what kind of tournament he had signed them up for in Kharkiv.

Having told their tale, the “Moldovans” sighed simultaneously. I was also done with my beer.

“We should go find a chick. Or bump someone off,” said one of them.

“Good thing I’m not a chick,” ran through my head. “Although . . .” However, the “Moldovans” did not do anything to me. Instead one of them hit the wall of the vestibule with his fist several times as hard as he could.

“Don’t hit so hard, Ivanko,” the other guy said ruefully. “Or you’ll break through the wall and punch someone in the ass.”

The one hitting froze for a moment, confused. Possibly, he realized that there really was a restroom on the other side of the wall. Then suddenly his attention shifted to me—or rather to my empty beer bottle.

“Wanna see me break that bottle on the head?” he inquired.

Being unsure of the identity of the head in question, I started protesting energetically. The “Moldovans” calmed down a bit and for some reason grew eager to know if I had a “chick” at home. I said I did not. This must have caused the “Moldovans” to sympathize with me about the eternal sorrow and shitty nature of our existence, because they hooked their arms through both of mine and dragged me to their train car, confiding happily that they had some vodka down there. I was trying to resist, although—quite predictably—in vain.

A few minutes later we were in their train car. However, there was an unpleasant surprise waiting for the “Moldovans”: on top of the bunk that had their booze hidden in its luggage niche, was perched a woman of substantial volume.

“Ma’am, you need to, please, get up and get off,” one of the “Moldovans” told her frankly.

“Ma’am” opened her eyes, saw the two jerks leaning over her and proclaimed in a booming voice:

“You get away from me, or I will call the police immediately!”

“Ma’am, but you really need to get up, please,” whined the other “Moldovan.”

“I’m old and I’m not getting up!” the “ma’am” summed up.

“To hell with her,” the first “Moldovan” hissed into the other one’s ear. “Let that old bitch lie there . . . I’ll lift the bunk up slightly and you pull the bag out . . .”

“Moldovan” does what “Moldovan” says.

After the “ma’am” had closed her eyes again, the hissing one tiptoed to the bunk she slept on, placed his hands carefully on top of the bunk that served as her sleeping surface, and braced himself like a weightlifter before the lift.

“Push!” signaled the other fellow.

A moment later the “ma’am,” squeaking and making a crunching sound, was sandwiched between the wall and the fake leather surface of the bunk. Now she resembled the patty in a hamburger bun. Meanwhile, the other “Moldovan” reached into the luggage niche and pulled out a bag. The “ma’am” was put back in place.

“Help me some―” she started saying, but the weightlifting “Moldovan” glanced at her in a way that made her shut up instantly.

“Fuckin’ shit!” The second “Moldovan” looked upset.

“Fuckin’ shit what?” the other one asked.

“The wrong bag . . . The vodka’s in the other one.”

The “ma’am” crunched and squeaked again, but this time remained silent. Finally, the “Moldovans” did get out the right bag, where, crammed among the boxing gloves, there really were two cheap bottles of crappy vodka. Three is the magic number, and so the “Moldovans” crunched the “ma’am” against the wall one last time—to place the bag back under the bunk. Then they dragged me into the vestibule.

“Drink!”

“The whole thing!”

“In one go!”

Both of them were giving me a look that made me understand: if I didn’t drink, I was done for. So I took the bottle, opened it, took a deep breath, like I’m really going to drink it, you know, and . . . smashed it on the floor in front of the “Moldovans.” That’s it! I shoot out into the open space beyond the vestibule, slam the door into the train car open, and run—run blindly, maneuvering to avoid the stinky socks, run, realizing that I am a couple of seconds ahead, because it’s not so easy to unfreeze after seeing some son of a bitch smash your bottle of booze right in front of you. I get through a couple of cars and stumble into a vestibule, and realize that there are no more cars, that the cars are over—I’ve run out of them, just like one runs out of bullets. For a moment I stand and look at the rails disappearing into the darkness. Then I look back and see through the open doors the indignant “Moldovans” crashing into the car. They look scary, even with shovels missing.

“They’ll bury me,” I tell myself and pull the handle of the last door leading into nowhere. I pull it and see that—hell knows why—the door is open. I slam it open all the way out, look back again and . . . jump . . .

***

I came to my senses in that puffy-eyed guy’s office.

He was telling me something about their company, praising it up and down, finishing, however, in a more solemn key:

“In these times of global financial crisis we do not happen to have an extensive number of open positions. Still, there are some we can offer you. Currently, we are looking for an ant, a swordfish, a cocker spaniel, and a panda. You will have to choose from these options . . . “

After a recently overheard coversation on a train I was not too eager about the prospect of becoming an ant or a fish. As for cocker spaniels, I hate them, because they pee on everything which looks even remotely upright to them . . .

In view of this, by the time you read these lines I will be sitting somewhere in the Himalayas, really high up, chewing slowly on bamboo shoots . . .

                                                                                                             2010—2011

Kharkiv

© Панда. Sashko Ushkalov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Iryna Shuvalova. All rights reserved.

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