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from the November/December 2003 issue

from Me and So Forth

Me and Perestroika

Now I will tell you how perestroika collapsed. To be more precise, it hasn't collapsed yet, but it definitely will due to the archaic institutions of the family and marriage, which dominate in times of real socialism. To be fair, one must add that history recalls a few cases when trivia stood in the way of great achievements. Such was the case with the emperor Peter Fedorovich, who didn't succeed in carrying out his reformist program only because, several times, in public, he reprimanded his spouse Catherine for her exuberant spirit.

All last year I had been working on a project of radical economic reform, which, in my opinion, would lead the country to the frontier of complete prosperity, and, most important, in the shortest time. This work dragged on somewhat; I expected to finish it by winter and I did finish by winter, only of another year, since after the October holidays I went on a bender. My wife, Vera Stepanovna, somehow put up with this hard drinking, because as we say, even a porcupine could see that I was carrying a superhuman load on my shoulders: both work at the plant and around the house, and, in addition, every single evening I set off for the kitchen and sat down to my revolutionary project, burning the midnight oil. The only problem was, Vera Stepanovna wouldn't let me go anywhere on Saturdays and Sundays, the time I needed relaxation most of all after my insane weekdays; she would usually stand in the doorway with a mallet for tenderizing meat and say:

"Saturday and Sunday are for being home."

In the long run, I finished my project. This year, on the night of December 3rd, I set the final period in place, put the manuscript in a folder with silk ribbons, paced the apartment embracing it, gazed my fill in the mirror to see what one of those genetically gifted Russians looked like, then hid the folder on the highest shelf. From the very start, I had decided to immure my work because I knew all too well the self-destructive consequences had I tried to push it through to my superiors, for "history recalls thousands of cases with similar consequences": take the example of our first aeronaut, Kuzma Zhemov, who was repeatedly put on the rack for his invention of "the fly-craft," though civilized descendants ought to know that the fruitful Russian mind doesn't doze off even in the filthiest of times. However, upon mature consideration, I decided nevertheless to make a précis of my project and send it to the guys in the Council of Ministers, but this was really vanity taking the upper hand in me.

Unpredictable are your ways, oh Lord: I sent the package on Monday and on Saturday got a call; a voice, very pleasant and youthful, wished me a nice Saturday and stated:

"Nikolai Ivanich will speak with you now."

Something in me broke out at once in happiness, pride, and the sensation of being a person of state. I must confess that had the fate of my project come to an end with this phone call, my vanity would have been one hundred percent satisfied. Sure, I made a face and began waving my free hand, signaling my wife to pick up the extra receiver so that she might become convinced that her husband was by no means some lousy dreamer, but a true person of state.

"Hello Alexander Ivanovich," said Nikolai Ivanich suddenly. "How are you doing, how are things?

I answered:

"As far as I know, everything's okay."

"How come I haven't heard anything about you before?" Nikolai Ivanich went on with his speech. "Where do you work: in the Academy of Sciences or at Abalkin's Institute?"

"I am," I answered, "in practical application, so to speak, and deal directly with production."

"And what is your degree, your rank?"

"No problem. I'm a driller fifth class-you've got it all here, degree and rank."

"Well then, that makes it even more interesting. So, dear Alexander Ivanovich, we need to meet and have a serious talk. We are indeed interested in your ideas, but in your memo there are some, let me call them obscure places, which demand authorial decoding. So how about meeting and having a serious talk?"

"I'm ready," I answered and made eyes at my wife, as if to say, we're the real thing, as if to say, you've spent fifteen years of your life with me, Vera Stepanovna, never once realizing who you lived with.

"Then shall we not postpone the matter?" said Nikolai Ivanich. "Let's meet today; we will be happy to send a car for you . . . "

"I'm ready," I answered.

After that, I was again connected to that pleasant, young voice, which stated:

"The car will be there in fifteen minutes, number seventeen twenty-four."

Replacing the receiver, I looked at Vera Stepanovna merrily and went to dress. But Vera Stepanovna took her mallet for tenderizing meat, stood in the doorway and said as usual:

"Saturday and Sunday are for being home!"

"Here we go again!" I exclaimed, at the same time climbing into my new Czechoslovakian boots. "Use your head: look who is summoning me, why and where to. These are matters of state! A limo is coming to take me there . . . I don't get it, what do Saturday and Sunday have to do with anything?"

"They have a lot to do with it," Vera Stepanovna explained. "Two Saturdays ago it was also a matter of state, and then you showed up at two in the morning crawling on all fours. And a car also came to take you, only it wasn't a limo but an ambulance-or, have you, Alexander Ivanovich, drunk as you were, forgotten?"

How could I forget; of course I hadn't forgotten. Two Saturdays ago I suddenly felt very depressed, because from morning on, I had been reading in the papers about the economic ruin of our country-and so, I'm sorry to say, I called a friend of mine who worked as an ambulance driver and was picked up on suspicion of having salmonella, which, supposedly, had attacked the plant where I worked. In a word, I didn't have a leg to stand on concerning Vera Stepanovna because I really had appeared at two o'clock in the morning and really was crawling on all fours.

Me and the Duelists

The world must be absolved To make life possible.-- K. Balmont

Before I get down to business, I need to make one, short digression.

I'm a writer. It's true that I'm one of those writers who, for some reason, are usually called literary men, one of those no one has heard of, one of those who are usually invited to branch libraries for readings. However, I can't help but brag that I am also sort of the odd man out among the writing brotherhood since I work day and night, and since I also have my own opinion regarding the purpose of prose: I assume that its purpose consists of interpreting notable poetry. Such an opinion damages the divine reputation of my trade and my own importance as a writer, which proves I'm right. By the way, one of my fellow writers, a certain L, an old guy, capricious and full of himself, asserts that books are smarter than their creators. If this is so, then I deprive the poets of all their privileges and make no claims about the particularity of my literary gift, which has determined my second-rate role. And one more thing: the literary reputation of Nikolai Vasilivich Gogol didn't suffer at all from the fact that Pushkin hounded him to write Dead Souls.

Of course, I fully realize the value of my creative work with respect to the literary heritage of Gogol, which is why, as a rule, I permit myself to interpret the poetic implications of mere cogs. In this case, my imagination was offended by the two verses of Konstantin Dimitry Balmont cited above as an overture. On the other hand, I was inspired by a most unheard-of story in which I was involved both as witness and, to a certain degree, role-player. This story was indeed so wild and improbable that you can't but wonder how it could have occurred in our tactful century, to our people, kind and forgetful of all evil, somewhere in our northwestern Pleasantvilles, among whining children and fluttering linen. In any case, to give the story a start, I am compelled to turn my literary rags inside out and if this should seem insufficient, even to swear on the health of my twelve-year-old son-a liar, blockhead, and F student-that everything that follows is the truth and nothing but the truth.

The starting point of this story was the invention of a special pneumatic hammer by the engineer Zavzyatov. I had known Zavzyatov only by hearsay, but never set eyes on him, though I suppose, based on his further actions, I should depict him: a man of about thirty, with a careless haircut, an absent look, restless hands, wearing ankle-length pants and a jacket with protruding lapels and frayed sleeves.

To the best of my knowledge, before he invented the notorious pneumatic hammer, Zavzyatov's acquaintances didn't think much of him, although some woman, prior to all the events that followed, said there was something of the beyond, something demonic in him; later he would sleep with her.

The other character in my story is a young man, Bukin by name, executive secretary of a certain technical journal, which is how I actually got to know him: in times long forgotten, I worked at this journal as something like an errand boy. In general, Bukin made a good impression except that both his passion for the races-a trait rare in our time and, in my opinion, reprehensible-and his sunglasses, which give him an arrogant expression, were a little confusing.

Besides these two, the others involved in the story were a woman, the editorial office of a certain Moscow newspapers, and Yazvitskij, a doctor of jurisprudence and specialist in Roman law.

It was this way. Last September, Zavzyatov applied for a patent. At the same time, out of vanity, he brought an article of his own composition-in which he painted the merits of the hammer-to the editorial office of the magazine where Bukin served. The department the article landed in re-addressed the manuscript to Bukin, and the latter found it to be nonsense of the highest degree. Bukin had not yet to put the manuscript in the reject pile, when Zavzyatov made his appearance at the editorial office for a reply. His face-to-face argument with Bukin continued up to the lunch break. It was the kind of conversation that ties your insides in knots when recollected. They parted enemies enflamed with such hatred for one another that for some time they woke and fell asleep with only one thought: how to take revenge on the enemy. Recalling Bukin, Zavzyatov called him a tsarist civil servant, scoundrel, and dullard, while Bukin, recalling Zavzyatov, found tranquility only in the idea that he had probably dealt with a madman, like many he encountered at his office. Later, he went even gave orders to the doorman to no longer admit Zavzyatov.

This story could have ended in a common scandal, had it not occurred to Bukin to really take revenge on the hammer's inventor for the insulting hints he had dropped about him. If not for these hints, the idea would hardly have occurred to him, for Bukin was a forgiving and not a grudge-bearing man; but the day before, a young woman, whom he had been pursuing for a year, publicly slapped him in the face. He recalled this slap now and then, and was confronted by a terrible question: why did he put up with such defamation from scoundrels, why didn't he learn to defend himself-was he a man or yellow? In time, Bukin worked himself up over this question to such a degree that he decided to write an article entitled, "The Re-inventor of the Wheel," and place it in a newspaper where a friend of his worked, also a fan of the races. Two weeks later, the plot was carried out and the article came to light. And a week after that, Zavzyatov lay in wait for Bukin by his entrance, where the following conversation passed between them.

-Are you the one who wrote the loathsome slander about my invention? -said Zavzyatov, his eyes shifting, his right hand slowly emerging from his pocket.

-Me, said Bukin and smiled in panic.

-You acted imprudently. Have you thought about what your descendents will say of you?

Bukin held his tongue since, in his opinion, descendents here were definitely beside the point. Zavzyatov however, getting no reply, awkwardly pulled back his arm and hit Bukin in the face.

Now try to put yourself in the place of a man who, in one month, received two slaps in the face, and if you are not totally lacking in some imagination you will be exposed to the most tormenting combinations of feelings. Bukin was both embarrassed and sorry for himself, constantly tormented by a desire to avenge himself in the most unheard of way. But while he was thinking of how to do it more adroitly, Zavzyatov outstripped him in redoubling his hatred and thirst for revenge-perhaps he was really not all there.

One lovely morning, Bukin got a letter. "Merciful Sir!" ("Merciful" exactly, but not "Dear Sir!")-Zavzyatov wrote to him. "If you think we are completely even, then you are mistaken. I am mortally insulted by your dirty article. This mean, lowdown action you have committed against our native science and technology can only be washed off with blood. I challenge you to a duel. If you do not wear a skirt and are not a nincompoop, then accept. I will send my second for an answer. Zavzyatov."

"Excellent," Bukin exclaimed, having read the scribblings, and smiled unpleasantly. A duel? Excellent. Okay, a duel it shall be. Something jerked in his head from hatred of Zavzyatov and the possibility of bloodshed.

Two days later Zavzyatov's second showed up at Bukin's apartment. It was that very woman who, prior to all the events that followed, had guessed that there was something of the beyond, something demonic in Zavzyatov; her surname was Sidorova. Not stepping across the threshold, this woman demanded an answer to Zavzyatov's challenge and at once announced that should Bukin refuse the duel she would simply kill him. Having announced this, Sidorova looked him probingly in the eye. In her gaze there was such fierce strength, unusual even for a woman, that Bukin was dumbfounded. He answered that he would accept the challenge, but perturbed, spoke timidly, and so, as she left, Sidorova smiled scornfully. After that he began hating Sidorova as well.

For several days Bukin lived in a half-dead faint. On the one hand he was tormented by hate, as before, and wanted to bring it all to a head; on the other, he was annoyed that because of this nonsense he had got himself into a fix, with an ominous, old-fashioned continuation; in general, he felt as if suddenly time had imperceptibly broken down and the world had returned to burning witches, massacre of innocents, and cannibalism. This part confused Bukin very much, and he even thought of declining the duel, alluding to the fact that his enemy was a certifiable idiot. Unfortunately, he didn't decline the duel; moreover, he unexpectedly perceived a notion of salvation inherent in the ethical category, which earlier had been denominated by the expressive word "honor."

It was decided to set up the duel traditionally. Zavzyatov spent two days in the Historical Library and wrote down everything concerning the rules and ceremony from the Durasovskij codex. Later, Bukin met Sidorova twice. The first meeting was held at in the Yaroslavsky station by the ticket windows; there they discussed the question of how to fight, that is, to the death or to first blood. It was decided to fight to first blood. At another meeting they chose weapons. The issue turned out to be complicated: pistols were not available anywhere, a knife fight was sickening to both, and neither one of them knew how to fence. Finally, bows and arrows were chosen as dueling instruments. They settled on bows, first of all, because in the Locomotive sports club Sidorova had acquaintances who were archers, and second, because they were told it was impossible to inflict a mortal wound using target bows at the standard distance. True, there still was the danger that an arrow might strike someone in the head, but the duelists didn't take this danger seriously, rightly assuming that, after all, this was a duel, and not a drunken brawl.

When all the details of the duel had been specified, Bukin undertook a search for a second. I don't know what got into him, but he showed up at my place. I heard him out, not believing my ears, inquired several times whether he was playing me for a fool and, in the end, told him to go to hell. Bukin said he was kidding, and we laughed and drank a little brandy, which I kept hidden from my wife in a soldier's flask on the highest shelf.

By that time I was seriously perplexed by the two lines from Balmont, which precede this narration. A story was hatching from them. Its soul had already pecked through, but there wasn't any body to it, and I took advantage of Bukin's joke, which, it seemed to me, had the body I needed. I intended to start writing, but no matter how hard I tried, nothing came. I had my doubts about coming up with even a poor story; more than likely I wouldn't be able to write anything, for the body turned out to be too heavy. But just then, Bukin dropped in on me again. He was almost feverish. I asked him what had happened and he confessed that yesterday he had not lied, that the duel would most likely take place and the sides were now trying to solve the following problem: if the matter resulted in a serious injury to one of the opponents, then how should the other be protected from as little as a fine and as much as a prison sentence? This problem turned out to be so difficult that the enemies were about to appeal for legal assistance. However, they came to their senses in time and, in the end, Sidorova, who generally had lots of useful acquaintances, brought the duelists and the lawyer Yazvitskij together.

They all gathered at his dacha. During the conversation, he behaved arrogantly, but provided useful advice. He advised purchasing a quarter-liter bottle of vodka in advance and, in case of serious injury, liquoring up the victim and then coolly depositing him at the nearest clinic; there, they should explain the injury as the result of an unfortunate accident: the injured party had had one too many, gone for a walk, stumbled and impaled himself on a snag. In conclusion, Yazvitskij sprung a surprise-he offered his services in the capacity of Bukin's second.

They agreed to combat in Sokolniki Park. According to Sidorova, there was a secluded place a little off the Deer Ponds. The duel was set for Saturday, October 30th.

The rivals, one may suppose, spent the several days preceding this fateful date in relentless thought about death and were, all in all, in the unpleasantly anxious state that people with suspicious minds experience when they await a medical verdict. On the last night, Zavzyatov probably paced the floor until dawn, tousled his hair and continuously checked his hands to see if they shook. And Bukin may have decided to flip through his expensive books one last time, but he accidentally dozed off.

On the morning of October 30th, the duel participants met at the Oil Passage streetcar stop. While walking to the place, silence hung heavily on every one. Only Yazvitskij, without rhyme or reason, started telling a story of how Pushkin once bathed in these places; however, a minute later he checked himself and fell silent.

Snow had lain there for two weeks. It started to melt, but, unexpectedly, cold struck, and the remaining snow lay like a glittering glassy crust, cheerfully crunching underfoot. Still, in many trees the leaves remained green and snow stuck to the crowns here and there, producing an unpleasant impression.

They walked for about twenty minutes. Bukin was definitely frightened, but Zavzyatov, who was dragging along the bottle of vodka and the bows, all wrapped in newspaper, seemed oblivious to danger. Moreover, he looked around, casting glances in all directions with such a sinister calm that it seemed he would do something hideous right then.

The clearing Sidorova had talked about turned out to be indeed a solitary spot. Unstirring pines stood around and Bukin thought there was something eternal about them, something self-burdening, as often happens in life, in particular when you think about death.

When they came to the place, everyone but Yazvitskij lit up smokes. Meanwhile, with the precision of a judge, Yazvitskij surveyed the bows and the four arrows whose tips he had personally sharpened to a shuddering keenness. Then he measured off twenty-five meters between the barriers, set the opponents on their spots and, pausing a bit, gave them the signal to commence.

They shot eleven times, since neither Zavzyatov nor Bukin had ever held a bow in his hands and could in no way hit the target. On the eleventh try, an arrow, let off by Bukin, hit Zavzyatov in the eye-the worst of what could have happened did happen. However, the arrow stuck in the eyeball and didn't penetrate the skull. Zavzyatov didn't even lose consciousness, although an unbelievably stormy, albeit small, fountain of blood gushed from beneath the arrow onto snow mixed with green and yellow leaves. The arrow was extracted and Sidorova began to pour hydrogen peroxide directly on the spot where until recently Zavzyatov had had an eye; a very large bubbling, a rosy carnation, hissed on the wound, and the bleeding gradually stopped. After that, Zavzyatov was unable to catch his breath for about ten minutes and when he did, the first thing he asked for was vodka. They poured two glasses for Zavzyatov, one after another; a third was given to Bukin, who was hysterical.

But what reality had occurred at the duel was so repulsive and horrible that I definitely couldn't write about it in my story. Besides, the reality contradicted Balmont's idea and so I came up with a different ending. Arriving at the spot, the duelists thought that the weather was too cold to shoot, and, out of fear, Bukin, suggested they drink a bit. The offer was accepted. They had one-they thought it little; they had another-they thought it little; and then, of course, Sidorova was sent to the store for another round, and, in short, they went on a bender. After that they began to sort out their relationships. First of all, they agreed that the idea of a duel was, of course, idiotic; second of all, they tried to puzzle out how they had gotten to such insanity; and, finally, each participant expressed his personal view on things. Based on these monologues of self-justification, I outlined a prosaic interpretation of Balmont's lines about how the whole world must be absolved to make life possible.

And so my story would end with a drunken, but instructive conversation. Let Sidorova say that in her opinion, humanity exists mainly to tyrannize its most perfect representatives, that is, geniuses. Let her point to the example of Tsiolkovskij, father of modern space-science, or Torvato Tasso, whose total usefulness equals the total usefulness of two human generations, and let her also add that it is simply good fortune to meet on your life path a genius such as Zavzyatov, who should be worshipped.

Then Bukin will join in. He will talk about how in the long run people become neurasthenic if they don't learn to defend themselves decisively. Bukin will ardently denounce people who forgive easily and continuously and at best are capable of insulting when insulted, because it leads to the dying of personality. As for geniuses, he will mention that, whether they are geniuses or not is still up in the air. When Yazvitskij's turn comes, he'll start to justify his insanity by stating that today's life is devoid of sensations and is dull as the buzz of mosquitoes; he will also state that from time to time he craves something out of this world, i.e. vinegar with pepper, so that you are in a state of fever, otherwise you brains will be scrambled or you'll think you lived your life in vain. Zavzyatov will declare, at last, that the science and technology of his Motherland are holy things and for the sake of their glory, he is, in fact, ready to duel everyday.

At the very end of the story, I added a phrase about how everyone went home, pleased and intoxicated. Then I sighed and put a period to it. After that, I reread what I had written and it was so superb intellectually that it even scared me.

Hey, I yelled to my wife, who was busy in the kitchen at this time-if this is not the best of today's literature, then I don't understand anything. Do you hear? When L reads this story, he will commit suicide. He will say it's impossible to be my contemporary. Good lord-my wife answered from the kitchen-where will this all end?

Be so kind as to tell me, what's a guy to do?

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