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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Asar Eppel

RED CAVIAR SANDWICHES

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

(from The Grassy Street, Glas 18)

As you approached Ostankino Park, coming from Marina Roscha along the wide Novo-Moskovskaya Street, on your right you would soon see the Pushkin student dorm, an accumulation of stuccoed barracks. A barracks is done fast and slapdash. And always for drastic action. Like a barricade, its direct predecessor. But a barricade may fall, and then be taken down, whereas a barracks will never fall, and never be taken down, witness that heir to the barricade, the Pushkin student dorm.
Having at some point performed its panicky mission, become a shelter for faceless working-class students, and cast the ones who finished out into the world of socialist achievements and rah-rah Soviet songs, it did not fall and was not taken down, but occupied: by the ones who never finished, by all manner of riffraff, and by good souls. Occupied permanently and in perpetuity.
I had various acquaintances there. Of the first, second, and third ilk. Take, say, of the third, the amazing Samson Yeseich. But about him later. Not here. Instead I'll tell you about Aunt Dusya who took care of him. And not just about her. First, however, let's celebrate the barracks. The Pushkin student dorm.
The barracks is an oblong two-story structure crouched low to the ground with two entrances along the front and two outside wooden staircases going to the second floor. It is a barely whitewashed construction under a black tar-paper hat inside which people walk, sit, lie down, and out of which they peer.
I couldn't tell you the length of the barracks today, but we can easily establish the width. Since the plaster walls were nothing but timber inside, the barracks' butt-end could not have been more than twenty-four or twenty-five feet wide; or rather, that's exactly what it was since that is the length of a timber. Said feet contained the lengths of two rooms plus the width of the corridor. Allow five feet for the latter, and that leaves eight feet for each room. That's right! Along the length you may fit a working-class student's bed (six-and-a-half feet) and, at the head or foot of the bed, a nightstand in which the working-class student may keep his Marx or his tattered little tome with the disturbing, but trivial title Without the Bird Cherries.
On each floor, you have a corridor five feet wide and, on either side of this corridor, opening onto it, you have rooms stretched the length of their beds and, crammed into these rooms, people, children, and belongings.
The corridor, which is also the kitchen, is absolutely endless, for beneath its ceiling burn only two yellow ten-watt bulbs, sooty as oil-stoves, and in the smoke and steam the nightmarish chiaroscuro from many different objects creates countless screens and cul-de-sacs, and all of this corroded by the rich, fetid, murky air.
Smoke and stench pervade. Along the walls loom washtubs, rags on nails, twig baskets, two-handled saws wrapped in dusty, brittle yellowed newspapers wound round with twine; the floor is a sea of trunks piled one on top of another, little padlocked cupboards painted white, and damp soapy stools supporting basins under small hanging washstands. There is no rule or rest from the dimly glinting buckets of water, the trash buckets, and the buckets of slops for the pig which someone's godmother is fattening in a nearby village, from the old-fashioned camp-beds (canvas on crosspieces), from the sleds, the vats, the barrels, the bowls, from the shovels caked with yellow clay, the pitchforks and the rakes, for the ground-floor tenants have vegetable patches under their windows, and some keep rabbits or chickens. There are children's skis, faded and flat as boards, one ski shorter than the other for lack of means. And there are plain boards, also of different sizes, with crooked brown nails bowed down to their rough surfaces. There are even some things - marvelous but unsuited to the needs of barracks troglodytes - that once belonged to the ruling class: a broken chair lined with cord on velvet upholstery, a stand for walking-sticks, and a settee (facing the wall) whose rounded back in tandem with the wall makes a marvelous receptacle for storing potatoes.
A frightful corridor, a foul labyrinth, no end to it! But even its endlessness is not beyond reproach, for it is broken up by open doors, by the odd conversation, always more akin to an argument, or by the um-pa-ra um-pa-ra-ra of an accordion, and from one of the rooms comes the astonishing voice of a portable gramophone which goes on valiantly playing the same popular tune from the last war on the same dull needle (sad to say, the record cracked badly not long ago).
Aunt Dusya lives in the cornermost and most pitiful room. The eight linear feet abovementioned multiplied simply by five become forty square feet, and anyone who has occupied such a room knows that opposite the door is the window, that to the left you sleep and rummage in your trunk, while to the right you sit at the table and keep moths in the closet. A treadle sewing machine, if you have one, may stand by the window; if not, you may put, say, a stool there.
The bedding on Aunt Dusya's cot forms a hummock since nonseasonal things and big bunches of torn brownish stockings, the raw material for darning heels, are stowed under the mattress. The stockings tend to contain flakes of the epidermis of the once-young Aunt Dusya; the stockings are all knitted, though an occasional exhibit is of Lisle or even Persian thread. The ceiling is low, 6 feet 10 inches, but that doesn't bother anyone because people were short and stumpy then, like the Orel peasants in Turgenev's novels. Turgenev's stately Kaluga peasants did not settle here and were found no closer than Grokholsky Lane, and that was miles and miles away.
So then, on the bed there was a hummock and this caused us - me, pressing against my girlfriend, so as to die, and my girlfriend, pressing against me, so as to restore me to life, my girlfriend who, unlike me, knew wide beds and how best to use them - various (we won't go into it!) inconveniences frustrating the ancient and inarticulate rite of embrace.
The barracks, its corridor, Aunt Dusya... My blindingly beautiful girlfriend who knew other - Oh God, I slid down again! - much wider beds, and I, who knew only trestle-beds, - Oh God, you slid down again! - but who also knew that my blindingly beautiful girlfriend, who knew other wider beds, had come to see me. Why all this together? Why did all this couple, combine, connect on the ground floor of a barracks, more specifically in its right-hand rear corner, if facing the barracks from the front? - oh God, we slid down again! - here's why.
Little, wheezing, old Aunt Dusya took care of my old friend, the never-married physics teacher Samson Yeseich, who lived in the barracks across the road. But about him, as I said, later and not here. So now, Aunt Dusya, who considered friendship with me good for the brilliant Samson Yeseich (about which also later and not here), and therefore respected me, had supplied me with the key to her tiny room through the kind offices of Samson Yeseich. She was in the habit - for a little something or simply for a word of thanks - of loaning her key to friends of the physicist, probably because the carnal life of others excited pleasant thoughts in her.
People with good memories will never forget how hopeless it was in those days to find a corner in which to consummate the unbearable half-meetings begun in bushes, in building entrances, on park benches, or in dormitories when the roommates had fallen asleep - as if they ever did! So to land on Aunt Dusya's lumpy bunk, while Aunt Dusya herself went to her employer's to tidy up or just dashed out somewhere, was a rare and welcome piece of luck. Now about the one for whose sake I had gotten hold of Aunt Dusya's key.
We trudged, lamenting long since, up the hill. The climb up the rough, rutted road, studded with round flat sea stones and pebbles, on which one's feet constantly twisted, was a very bad idea of mine, and it seemed that she, my new girlfriend, a Calypso-like beauty with fear in her eyes, was on the point of rebelling and wanting to turn back, for even the pretext for our ascent had been unclear and unconvincing: either to survey the sea from on high, or to see what the new fruit on a tangerine tree looked like.
But my companion did not rebel, though she could have turned right around, and I waited in dread for her indignation, for her acquiescence to cease: I was young then but I knew that acquiescence could easily turn to indignation. After all, she suspected, or rather understood our secret, or rather my intention - my clammy and intolerable hope. Of course she, too, was involved in our tacit compact. If not for that torrid climb! At first she agreed to look at the new fruit, then she changed her mind.
We sat down under a tangerine tree on the baked earth, on the dry hot clods, and my hand began to insinuate itself between her softish, slightly cool, but also slightly flushed thighs. My five-fingered touch was discovering the longed-for world tucked between these stunning buttresses; suddenly my wrist was creeping along the dry hot clods of cultivated earth under the tangerine tree, and my fingers were squeezing in between her thighs, now relaxed, now clenched, and burying themselves like pups in the damp, vast - after the closeness of her thighs - tangle of the thickets attained. My girl was quivering, twitching, and protesting, "Don't, or else I'll get a headache, a really bad one!" Yet she went on, with her slender, ringed fingers, squeezing whatever she liked. "Let's wait," she whispered, "this isn't the place. People will see us, and the sun... Let's wait!" And she went on twitching her legs irrevocably parted, but she was right, and the arid incline under the wayside tangerine tree was wilting and dying under the sun.
Wait till Moscow? Which one of us was going away that day, I don't remember. Let's wait till Moscow!
We walked to Aunt Dusya's at the end of a warm summer day past the barracks and the mangy little vegetable patches, fenced in, or rather off from one another with all sorts of junk. Standing in the windows of the low ground floors were people and insipid indoor plants, growing out of cans either rusty, or once gold, now peeling.
Note: Russian cans have always been the color of tin, and it was only the war, on top of all its meager miracles, that produced the gilt, black-lettered cans of saving stewed pork. And though the war was over, and though it was already so over that we had somehow decided to return the Dresden art collection to the Germans, once we had shown it to all comers, these cans still rotted in the windows of the Pushkin student dorm, though some were wrapped in pretty white paper cut-outs, now shrivelled from the sun, mildew, and water.
We walked to Aunt Dusya's past low buildings in the windows of which stood people who seemed not to know me, though my acquaintances might just as easily have been standing there. Our skillfully chosen route allowed us to avoid meeting anyone since, in the first place, I was with a woman and, in the second place, a woman utterly unheard of in these parts.
People's first and most correct thought would be that she was a spy since she was dressed and adorned as no woman to this day has ever been dressed and adorned, save the heroine of that universal film favorite The Girl of My Dreams. Even I, whose fingers retained the memory of her bathing suit, wondrous for those days, heavy to the touch, like a portiere, and phosphorescent beneath the stars of our nighttide swim, when everything was beginning and when she kissed me with a kiss unknown in my once and future life, well... even I, who knew her sartorial means, was stunned by what I saw.
As I said, the war had ended to such an extent that it was remembered as a time of hunger, but hunger with stewed pork, as opposed to the hunger after the war without stewed pork. The wartime styles (noted for battle-field chic) varied with American gifts (by those who had them) had ended, and the captured finery - fabulous for its elegance, its shimmering linings, its neat seams, its lacy underthings, and the many possible ways of wearing all this even inside out if you liked - had faded. The wartime styles had ended for everyone, and everyone was arrayed in their own, homemade clothes. But not my girl. She came to me in a fantastic guise, which one I no longer recall, though she had her own, very good reasons for her appearance.
Women came to Blok wafting perfume and mist. This I learned later. She came to me sparkling with rings, earrings, necklaces. All this would become known as costume jewellery and over the years people would get used to it, despite their shame and prejudices, they would get used to wearing this stuff that made broads look like ladies.
But where could it have come from when it wasn't supposed to exist yet? Where did she get it all: the strange dress, the shoes with golden clasps glittering with glass beads? Where? Here's where: she was with the occupation forces in the East bloc, had lived a long time in East Germany, and recently come from there, where she worked as a staff translator and lived with her husband, an officer in the secret service.
She was deathly afraid of her spook. With his secretive way of life and omniscience, he compelled her soul and flesh to suffer, generally relating to the latter with an unbearable brittleness. This flesh did not seethe by the warm sea, or under the tangerine tree for fear of being seen by some acquaintance, a junior officer, say, dispatched by the spook.
We couldn't arrange a meeting in Moscow either. Couldn't for a long time. But now Aunt Dusya had given me her key, had gone out somewhere, and I was walking with my girl, a little to one side and a step ahead or, you could say, behind, along the little paths and backways around the Pushkin student dorm to Aunt Dusya's barracks. It certainly tests a man's mettle: trying to sneak a glittering woman in the door of a teeming barracks right on the main street.
As it is, people are lolling dumbstruck in every window, old women perched on mounds of earth are combing out wisps of grey hair with fine-tooth combs, former classmates may appear, and then there's the man by the shed who has been fixing his bicycle for a year now. The summer street is light and sunny, and behind another shed boys are mating rabbits. Girls huddle at a deliberate distance, but still see how the rabbit, raptly nibbling grass beside the doe one instant, rears up on her the next, one of the long-eared little beasts squeals, then both wiggle their noses, and resume eating. The boys insist that the rabbits are fucking. The girls, watching from afar, know what the rabbits are doing but don't use the word fucking. The brazen boys, wanting the girls' attention, make circles with thumb and forefinger, then insert the other forefinger, and slide it back and forth. The girls walk off.
Thus I lead my girl through my childhood, but she neither sees nor cares, she walks beside me in silence, thinking only of how her spook may have had her shadowed.
She walks with amazing calm. She is simply numb and blind with fear. Her fear. My fear has made me monstrously sharp-eyed and, when we pass from the daylight into the barracks' pitch-dark corridor, I manage to make out someone's slummy laundry, hanging at the far end and a man sorting maggots for bait in a tin can.
Some trouble with Aunt Dusya's key... and we're in the room. I've brought sandwiches. Red caviar. Five of them. Cheap eats in those days. And she produces wine! She produces... wine... Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected such a thing. She produces a wine I don't know, the only wines I know (and those by hearsay) are Cahors and "three-sevens" port, highly regarded by local experts in anything you like, but not that.
"Wait a moment!" she says when I, having drunk a little wine and eaten half a sandwich, begin aquiver to embrace her, freely fondling the heavy warm folds of her soft dress, in itself a voluptuous sensation. "Wait a moment!" she says.
"I have to run out first!"
"Run out?"
"I have to! Or else I can't..."
I am crushed. In the Pushkin student dorm they run out, here's where: for the entire barracks there are all of two outhouses, resembling, as it were, rural granaries. Each one is high and light on account of the chinks in the walls and a lone dormer window. The outhouses are bleached with lime which drools down the dingy old boards to create a unique atmosphere of slovenliness and untouchability. Each outhouse is divided by a wall that would have reached the ceiling, had there been one, but above the wall is empty, and higher still one can see the inside of the finial atop the gable roof.
On either side of the wall - in the male and female halves - there is a platform made out of thick boards in which a series of eight holes has been cut. The effect of another presence is total. First, because of the low partition; second, because if you stand slightly back from the platform, the product of the performer on the other side of the partition is visible in the pit.
As if this weren't enough, huge holes have been punched in the wall at different levels. Here and there the holes have been boarded up with whatever came to hand. But only here and there. Now I was not born in a palace, and I have visited my share of latrines, and that one is supposed to sit, not stand on a toilet seat, I figured out all by myself at the age of twenty-three, but I never ventured into those monstrous outhouses except in dire need, though on sultry days the stench in their simmering semi-darkness grew somehow languorous, and through the breaches in the partition one could observe the determined squatting and listen to intriguing bits of female conversation. But that was in summer.
As we know, our people are uncommonly careless and sloppy with regard to earth closets. It costs our people nothing, given their disdain for basic aiming skills, to foul the rim of the orifice, soak the floor, and leave fingerprints on the wall. The boards absorb everything, everything sticks to them, deliberate sloppiness begets forced sloppiness, and it becomes harder and harder to position oneself over the hole. Puddles further frustrate one's approach to the sloping grey gutter, especially if one is in soft soles or slippers.
And now, the cold is upon us. Everything that has been absorbed begins to freeze and form layers. By late December, crossing the ice crust to a hole is out of the question. There is less and less room for maneuver. The visiting public retreats closer and closer to the door, fouling the floor higgledy-piggledy. The walls (inside only, so far) are caked with tall ice crusts the color of whey, rising up out of the floor like stalagmites, interspersed with fossilized brown clumps. The hoarfrost on the boards, the yellow newspapers frozen in the ice, the yellow crystals forming under the roof: nothing deters our people - where else can they go? By mid-February, only by standing in the doorway may one celebrate the call of nature in the murk of the fossil world.
This circumstance decidedly alters the daily rhythms of the Pushkin student dorm. People put off going until dusk or after dark. By now the walls are caked even on the outside with turbid ice crusts, by now the expanse around the walls, if not covered with snow, is you can well imagine what.
But here spring arrives. Someone, cursing wildly, is cleaning out all this muck. Who, I don't know. For half an hour after it has been hosed down the granary looks human, then it begins all over again, and towards evening masturbator Mitrokhin walks in and takes a swift chisel to the rough-hewn wall's most promising hole. In no time at all, he is convulsing in a corner in response to the rustling behind the partition.
To this granary then my girl is calmly proceeding. In haste and confusion, I explain the long way round, unable to imagine how she will get there, and if she does, how she, wafting perfume and mist, will react to the shame, how she will ford the swollen floor in her velvet slippers?
I cannot take her there, for I simply cannot imagine how anyone could take a woman to that place, and so become unwittingly initiated into this utterly secret necessity, into this apotheosis of awkwardness and discouraged dignity.
She goes. I wait. I get it! Walking through the settlement, humiliated by the road to Aunt Dusya's, stunned by her forty-square-foot burrow - I'm used to it, but she's seeing it for the first time - by the musty humpbacked bed on which we will, by the table with the caviar sandwiches, red-and-white and sparkling beside the cloudy tumbler in whose putrid water a dirty swollen onion, now limp and splayed, has disgorged the repulsive greenish bud of an onion leaf... seeing all this made her change her mind. She's gone. She's just up and gone! She took her purse, didn't she! True, she left the wine... she brought wine... It never, ever occurred to me that anyone would bring wine on my account. She's gone! And if she's not gone, then she's lost, and if she's not lost then somebody's picked her up: as I said, the neighbors might easily think she was a spy. Only recently, loyal and concerned citizens not far from here caught a spy, apparently American. Or even two.
"Hey, Kalinych, you mother, why'd you block my woodpile with your bicycle? Ain't you ever gonna be done with that thing?" the cheerful start of a friendly exchange by the shed can be heard outside the window. I startle, freeze, steal up to the window, and peek through the slit between the gauze curtain and the peeling wood.
A rivulet of tiny ants streams by my eye, skirting a stony tumor of oil paint on Aunt Dusya's window frame. They stream out of one chink and disappear an inch or so later into another. That's nothing! At this point, my eyes could make out an amoeba. My ears could pick up ultrasound.
"Kalinych, you fuck..." the usual sounds from the vicinity of the shed and then my pounding heart stops as the door, just behind me, opens with a jolt. I jerk round and am amazed to see my girl slip quietly into the room.
"Here I am," she says, and I fasten my sharp eyes on her velvet slippers, especially the delicate line of her pretty dyed-black sole.
"Where can I wash my hands?"
Oh God! It will never end! I don't know where Aunt Dusya's washstand is in the endless corridor or which shard of soap on which of the thirty-three shelves belongs to her or what sort of soap it is. Maybe it's the marble soap sold by weight and boiled by the Ruzhansky soap-boiler, but out of what, about that later and not here. What if the basin under the washstand is full and has to be emptied? And if it's full, then of what?
"Unmoeglich!" I say because my girl speaks German beautifully and at the time I too could get along in this language fairly well which, incidentally, is largely what drew me to her there, where the tangerine trees bear fruit.
"Unmoeglich, weil ich weiss nicht wo ist der Aunt Dusya's washstand und Seife!" I play the fool, and she, smiling, takes a sparkling perfume bottle from her bag, then some cotton wool and neatly wipes her fingers with the many magnificent rings, among them a thick band binding her to her spook - not the custom then and also a surprising thing.
She went to the window, glanced through the slit to one side of the curtain, then turned around, undid her dress, took it off, then took off some other mysterious underthings, then took off everything else, and for the first time I saw a woman who had undressed for me.
"Now you take everything off!" said this miracle when I went up to her, embraced her and dazedly pressed myself into this unbearably various nakedness so unlike my own uniformity.
"Wait a moment! Stop! Metal inhibits love!" And she began to remove the sparkling objects from her neck, from her wrists, from her fingers, from her ears, and put them on the oil-cloth-covered table where there soon accrued a small heap of watches, earrings, bracelets, rings - one rolled away under the bed. By her exquisite legs I, like the young Actaeon, found the gossamer ring in the desolation under the bed, and as I pulled my head out, I saw, still on my hands and my knees, that the exquisite legs had been tucked up out of my way - taken off the floor: she had sat down on the humpbacked bed, and then lain down. I quietly placed the ring on the oil-cloth. The ring clung trustingly to the others, and I just as trustingly entered the land where they kiss strangers sweetly, caress them, enchant them and yet sob, clinging to these strangers, - the land of ripening tangerines and dry hot earth, the land of two, along whose damp sandy shores the wanderer Odysseus bends his firm steps towards Calypso languishing in the tangled thickets of her hair.
This was free love. All my previous conquests, hurried, prehensile, greedy and pitiful, were under-love compared with what happened in the land of the tangerine sun. Outside it was getting dark, in the room it was twilight, and this dusk increasingly isolated the land I had entered over and again, always to the sound of muffled laughter, muffled sobs, muffled words, and where I suddenly sensed moist lips humbly kissing my regal hand.
This was a meeting of two people who, for different reasons, dearly needed each other. A woman, who needed me, and I, who needed this woman most in the world. A meeting without shame, or rather, outside shame, celebrating with muffled sobs our triumph over the foul surround and over the hero of these out-of-the-way places, the spook; a meeting joining experience of vast Pomeranian beds with the entertaining erotica of Russian suburbs, slaking Mitrokhin's unbearable reverie, and sanctifying the ancient gesture made by the brazen boys in front of the girls at the rabbits' wedding.
The weary tangerine sun was already sinking when we heard a polite little cough outside the door.
"Your landlady! She's been sitting there a long time, I think!"
We issued forth, leaving behind two whole sandwiches and one almost whole, plus half a bottle of wine in thanks, and found Aunt Dusya slumped on a sack of bran in the now empty corridor. Aunt Dusya was dozing, and softly grunting.
I touched her padded jacket, I had to return the key. She jumped up, grinned slyly, and surprised us with this phrase worthy of Sumarokov:
"Love is by nature inherent in people!"
On the eveninged street, my girl and I quickly went our separate ways because she might run into undesirable acquaintances at the tram stop, she said, scraping a fleck of red caviar off her teeth.
I walked away from the Pushkin student dorm and, by the last barracks, ran into Nasibullin, a shy and very modest Tatar boy who enrolled voluntarily in a secret service college after school.
"Good evening!" he said politely because he always strove to associate his cultivation, assiduously earned thanks to society's concern, with my own innate cultivation, and, by way of continuing this association, asked shyly:
"Been to the Dresden show yet?"
"Na-a-ah!"
"Go, don't miss it!" And so as to pique my interest, he glanced down the dusky alleys, looked terribly embarrassed and said: "Lots of bare bodies!"