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from the November 2014 issue

from “Talespinner”

Holy shit, hear that roar? Yeah, that’s the bora. Who wants to go out for groceries in weather like this? And we don’t even know the forecast since the freaking radio doesn’t work. Not a crackle. We’ll have to go to the market either way, though, at least get some tomatoes, cucumbers, hunk of cheese, we’re all out again, some toilet paper would also come in handy, what with the old hag holding out on us. Might as well get some salami and a melon while you’re at it, and whatever else you want, just make sure you haggle, and look out for those women that cheat by using keys and hammers and stuff instead of weights, they’ll get you every time. Don't worry about me, I eat everything, and lots of it. I don’t get any alarm bells or warning signals when I’ve had enough, I can stuff my face and just keep on stuffing it like there’s no tomorrow. Then afterwards I get sick and realize I overate, but as long as I’m eating there’s no warning signs, that’s why I look like I do. I used to be fit, believe it or not, I was lean and mean when I was young, I was a good-looking guy. When we get back to Moscow I’ll show you, I got this photo of me and everyone from the theater institute, there’s Kim with Natasha, back when they were still together, Yulia with Chapa, Mirzin and Vetrov, and Yurka Bgashev’s there too, we were all still young and beautiful back then . . .

By the way, Yurka came to say good-bye to me the other day, it was pretty weird. I mean I don’t have the power to see into other worlds like Kim does, while he’s awake, I just see things in my dreams sometimes, but this, I’ll tell you, was something. The thing is Bgashev’s been dead a few years now and he’s been coming to see me all this time, like that, like I said, in my dreams, and we’ve talked about everything under the sun. Never thought much of it, I didn’t think it was that strange. It’s not like I started believing you could talk to the dead or anything, I just thought, Big deal, so what, I saw some dead guy in my dream. All my posthumous conversations with Yurka involved what you might call a perpendicular time flow, like two ideas or images flipping back and forth till there’s this in-between moment that triggers a dialogue in my memory. Do you remember that trick they used in that Czech movie The Phantom of Morrisville, where they took some frames with the phantom’s face and spliced them in between the takes? You’d miss it unless you had your eyes peeled, you really had to concentrate to spot it. That’s what it was like with me and Bgashev: at first I didn’t notice him, but then a while later I’d suddenly remember seeing him. In every dream I told him something like it was time he realized he was dead and gone, and he should own up to his mistakes so he doesn’t make the same ones in his next incarnation. But he’d just keep telling me stories from when he was alive, cracking his dumb jokes and ignoring whatever I said. I could never remember the stories afterwards, just that we’d had the conversation and the emotional impact it had on me, that’s what stuck with me.

Still, I probably would’ve forgotten what we actually talked about if it hadn’t been for that last conversation, which was like a culmination of our whole history, summing up all our previous talks. So in this dream we’re standing on some staircase and Bgashev comes schlepping these two crates of port, sixteen bottles of the stuff, and I get kind of irritated since we’d quit drinking port a long time ago (not the real thing of course, just some cheap fruity shit), so I start laying into him. But then it turns into this conversation so bizarre I felt weird for a long time afterwards. Plus I realized that was the last night he was coming to visit. But there’s no point telling you what the dream was about if you don’t know who Yurka Bgashev was, ’cause I mean Yurka Bgashev, man, that’s a whole saga, that’s a heroic epic, a novel, all that stuff. I would’ve written about him ages ago if I’d known how. But I can’t write anything ’cause I can’t stick to a thread, like I said I get all caught up in these detours and side streets, my storylines go shooting out in every direction, my sentences grow right over the top, and I keep forgetting where I started and which way I want to go. I can only work with a finished text, textual analysis, see, I don’t have any problem with that, that’s how I got such good results as a director, lots of times even better than Yurka, who only knew how to go at things intuitively, through his imagination, and never really understood what he was doing. He never bothered with any analysis directing a play, he’d just visualize everything right away, sets, costumes, music, lights, plus he had a great feel for form. Besides that, he had charisma. But whenever it came to more complicated texts, he’d miss things sometimes, which meant he couldn’t explain to the actors what to do and why to do it that way, unlike me, if you see what I mean. And when it started to dawn on him, he got jealous of me, stupid idiot, may he rest in peace . . .

Dammit, I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind all day, ever since this wind started to blow. Here I am talking about this and that but all I’m thinking about is him. Weird, I don’t know why . . . Years ago we started out together at GITIS, the theater institute in Moscow, studying directing. I already had an electrical engineering degree from Novosibirsk State Tech and Yurka had just gotten kicked out of MKhAT, where he was studying stage design. He was there with this guy named Sheyntses, this smart Jewish guy who got a job doing set design for a theater in Moscow after he graduated, and Bgashev spent the rest of his life holding a grudge since he was just scraping by out in the sticks. It was his own fault, though, he could’ve made it big if he’d been able to stay on the wagon. I kept telling him he drank too much, in fact I even predicted he’d be dead by thirty-three if he didn’t quit. It’s written on your forehead, I told him. But when you’re twenty-two you think you’re immortal. Later of course it turns out you’re not only not immortal but you don’t even have that long to live, which is what I realized again in that dream, on the staircase, so I started yelling at him: You cashed out a long time ago, what’re you bugging me for! It’s not my fault you dropped dead at thirty-three! There I was, screaming at him and telling him off ’cause he still didn’t get it, he’d been six feet under for years and all he wanted to do was keep boozing. I can still see him as the young, good-looking guy he used to be in the old days when we were extras together: full head of hair, wearing his sharp black suit and those cool glasses he had that changed color all on their own, the ones he lost later when he almost drowned in the Tomi river. You’re dead! You fucked up your whole life! You cashed out, so what the hell are you doing here with all that goddam port? And he just smiles and says: What do you mean, cashed out? Matter of fact, I just got offered a job in—And he says some town I don’t remember, you know, one of those Russian towns that ends in es-kay: Bryansk, Smolensk, Omsk, Khrynsk, Mrynsk, Drynsk—one of those kinds of names. They asked me to come be artistic director of the local theater there! he says, and I suddenly get it: I’m in a dream.

It was like all of a sudden a gear shifted and I moved to another level in the dream, and I realized the town Bgashev was talking about was a place I’d been to before, at two critical points in my life. I even directed a play there, some Russian classic or other. It’s just a sleepy little town and the only way to get there is one of those tiny, wheezy old PAZ buses—doesn’t matter where you get on, could be Komsomolsk, Moscow, Irkutsk, Vladivostok—and you ride that bus through a blizzard so thick you can’t see a thing. When you come out the other side, you’re there. Whole place covered in snow, not too much wind, and everything feels all right. Not brilliant, just all right, ’cause you feel like everything has sort of already happened here . . . I don’t want to make any assumptions about what kind of town it is, but one thing’s for sure: it’s not from our world, it’s somewhere out there, if you know what I mean . . . I’m not sure quite how to . . . There’s this song, you might know it, the lyrics are by Rozhdestvensky, it’s about this town, silent as a dream, dust up to your chest, the place where we left our childhood behind, where fairy tales still exist, where a warm wind whips through the streets and the pine trees grow to the sky, where winter treads softly through the snowdrifts, there’s about five verses and they give a pretty exact description of the town. I remember when I was there I really clicked with the actors, the production went really well, there just wasn’t much of an audience since there aren’t a lot of people out there. The town was made up of all these old two-story buildings, the theater was made of wood, so it was warm and cozy, and the audiences were excited about the performance and the actors hung on the director’s every word. The lights blaze, the music plays, the sets are in place, the stage revolves, and the audience goes wild on opening night, they just keep clapping and clapping, won’t let the actors leave the stage. Afterwards there’s a modest reception and the actors beg me to stay, I can do any play I want, but I say no, I can’t, you know I can’t, if I stay now, I’ll never leave! Yes, they nod, we know . . . So I get back on the PAZ and ride back home through the blizzard, only where is home, anyway?

It happened to me twice, I went and directed plays there twice, but both times I came back! Little by little it’s coming back to me, the names of the manager and the actors, but before it fully dawns on me what town it actually is, I scream at Bgashev: Fuck you, how could you be artistic director anywhere? You fucked up your life! You, the healthiest guy I ever met! You can’t do anything now! You cashed out, you’re history! To which he responds—using one of the best lines I’ve ever heard in my life: Since when is that a reason to turn down a job? And suddenly I understood: yes, of course . . . finally it hit me, I got the answer I’d been waiting for all along, loud and clear. So I helped him carry one of the crates of port down the stairs, to the first floor of one of those typical Soviet hotels, made out of concrete, like the old Minsk, you know the one, with a little café in the corner, glass walls, people sipping coffee and smoking, and I notice one of them is the manager of the theater from that town, and the actors and the bus driver are in there too, the bus is waiting in the street outside and it’s starting to snow. And one more detail I just don’t get—my mom and my brother are sitting there too, even though they’re still alive, bless their souls, so I don’t know what they’re doing there. So Bgashev and I pass the bottles around to everyone, and the driver reaches out for one and I say: You can’t drink, you’re driving! And he says: Ever seen a traffic light or a cop anywhere around here? Well, no, I guess I haven’t . . . So that’s what I dreamed the other night and that was the last time Yurka came to me in a dream. My guess is he’s been reincarnated somewhere. Probably born again to some good woman, only, numbskull that I am, I forgot what date I had the dream, which for an old astrologer like me is inexcusable, here I’ve gone and failed like those Yakut hunters who freeze to death out in the taiga on account of some stupid mistake, despite all their experience. But still, I’m pretty sure whoever gave birth to him, the woman must be enormously happy, since having a son like Bgashev is like bringing a demigod into the world.

Actually, as long as the weather’s like this, I might as well tell you his whole story, assuming you’re interested, that is. If you’re not, I won’t be upset, my time is your time, that was the deal from the start, neither of us owes the other anything. On the other hand, it’s an entertaining story, and instructive, especially for people in our situation, waiting for the trump card to be drawn, the thirteenth Arcanum, if you know what I mean, people who are prone to see it as an ill omen. Me in this tiny cubicle in a street sweepers’ communal apartment, and you traveling to places where nobody is waiting for you, what does it all mean? It can only mean it’s the end of the world, the end of the old world for sure. Let’s just hope it’s only our personal world that’s coming to an end and that those guys flying the planes up there don’t go nuclear on us . . . Besides, there must be some reason for the two of us ending up in this place, even if you aren’t exactly enthused about the dolmens, or all the local sects—the Anastasians, the Hare Krishnas, the followers of Pyatibrat—who knows, maybe Yurka Bgashev’s story will turn out to be the reason you came out here. The gods sometimes work in mysterious ways, so let’s try and figure things out with this story of a man who had countless chances to stare death in the face and learn from it. At least a dozen chances he had to figure out how to change his fate, but no, that wasn’t enough for a guy as monumentally thick-headed as that fool Yurka Bgashev, may God forgive him. And us too.

Go right ahead, slice some more tomatoes and what’s left of the onion, might as well finish it all off and clear out the fridge. The old hag’s been bitching again that we’re taking up two shelves instead of one, dammit . . . So let’s rewind forty-five years, back to 1960, when the Ryazan Drama Theater was on tour and made a stop in the little backwater town of Achinsk. Being a Czech you can’t imagine what kind of distance we’re talking about, so let me give you an idea: Achinsk is about as far away as Irkutsk, which means it takes four days. Well, and there was an actress in this company who was getting on in years, she’d already been named a Meritorious Actress of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and had two kids who were nearly grown up. At the time, she was in the middle of a divorce and had shacked up with a young actor in the company. Tolya Bgashev was his name, a tiny little bald guy who used to play comic roles, kind of like Louis de Funès. And this one night in Achinsk they were putting on a play and he had a long break since his first entrance came at the start of act one and then he wasn’t on again till the end of act two, so he thought he’d pop out to the grocery store for some bread. He didn’t even bother to take off his costume, a sort of folksy Russian outfit, and went dashing across the square, your typical Soviet small town setup—town hall, Party headquarters, theater, statue of someone or other—and goes into the store. Literally just to get a loaf of bread, ten kopecks. And as he’s walking out the door, he bumps into a local drunk, who starts babbling, Brother, please, can you buy me a bottle, or something along those lines. Bgashev says: Sorry, all I had was the ten kopecks for the bread. But the drunk won’t let him go, so our comic, our Louis de Funès Tolya Bgashev, takes the loaf of bread and knocks him over the head with it: Lay off, dummy. Sort of playful like, if you know what I mean, just taps him on the head. I mean, how hard can you hit a guy with a loaf of bread anyway? The drunk lets go, Bgashev runs back to the theater just in time to go on again, and has no idea what happened after that.

So the drunk staggers around a while after he gets hit with the bread, then loses his balance and falls on his back. When he lands, his neck comes down on one of those sharp metal things they sometimes have at the entrance to public buildings for scraping dirt off your shoes. And the thing chops off his head. As if that weren’t bad enough, just then, as fate would have it, the first secretary of the local Communist Party decided to step to the window of his office and have a cigarette, presumably pondering on the welfare of the masses and the role of the Communist Party with reference to Achinsk. In other words, this important man saw the whole thing: he saw the strangely dressed stranger hit a man over the head with something and run away, then he saw the other man stagger, stagger, stagger, fall over, and lose his head. At which point the Party official picked up the phone and called the local chief of police. Tolya Bgashev was of course busted after the show and charged with causing bodily harm resulting in death, since that was how the star witness and Party first secretary rolled into one characterized it, and nobody else could characterize it any other way. Tolya Bgashev got eight years! Three days later the Ryazan Theater left Achinsk. Minus the comic, obviously.

From Vrač © 2013 by Martin Ryšavý. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Julia Sherwood and Alex Zucker. All rights reserved.

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