Представленный здесь роман был написан мной несколько лет назад в расчете на американского читателя. Написалось все это легко, где-то за три месяца. Книга была опубликована Writers Club Press в 2001. ISBN:0-595-18485-5. К моему удивлению, куда большим успехом она пользуется на русском Интернете. Соотечественники иногда пишут мне о моем профессоре, справшивают о прототипах. Конкретных прототипов не существует. Образы собирательны, потому и узнаются легко. Значит, мне что-то удалось. Буду рад вашим откликам.
All rights reserved by Ditrikh Lipats
Author holds the Electronic Publishing rights thereof. No part of this publication could be used or reproduced in any form without written permission of the author and Writers Club Press.
* * *
Vic-to-ri-a. A spasm of anguish ran through his body, the sky darkened in his eyes, when he recalled how he used to admire her name, how he loved her, despite everything. Oh, he had never known, he could never imagine that one day the opposite feeling to the woman that once was his beloved beautiful wife, would strike him that hard. It was his own fault. He, a representative of Russian Intelligentsia, a supporter of nonresistance to evil, a spineless worm, allowed the nightmare to grow to this unbearable point. He had to kill the man yesterday, he had to choke him, to crush the miserable villain with his own hands. No judge would ever accuse him, he knew it, the rascal was in his hands, he could have it done, he was ready to, but ...
Fyodor Andreyevich took a deep breath and shook his head driving the thoughts away.
He stood on the corner of Fifth and Washington in a small University town in Oklahoma, shivering under the wind. The wind wasn"t cold and the sun was shining softly through the haze, but it was late November, on the other side of the world, Moscow was white with snow, and he felt chilly by habit, like he always did in the beginning of winter.
On his left, behind University Park, the tower of the Administration Hall reigned the horizon. Notre Dame in Paris, and Westminster Abbey came to his mind when he saw the tower for the first time two years ago. He never dreamed about teaching at Harvard, Yale, or some other famous alma maters. It was beyond his ambitions. He would be satisfied with a position of professor of Russian Language and Literature at the modest Midwestern University, the position which she, not him, had once obtained. Thanks to him of course.
On his right he could see the downtown skyline. A remote Gothic church stood in the frame of trees that filled the blanks in the pale sky. The wind dragged dry leaves over the asphalt, and Fyodor Andreyevich listened to the noise - trying to imprint it into his memory, together with the tiny smell of the dying grass. Two years ago, captivated with the view, he asked to stop the car, got out, and took a few pictures with his camera. His daughter Natasha, his ex-wife, and the her husband, the perpetual looser, were nervously waiting for him in the car. They were in a hurry, the turn signal was on, the engine was idling. He wanted to take one more shot from a different point, but they made him quit. Victoria said that he would see many more places much better than this, and true, he did, but none of those places were of the same tranquil poetry.
The photograph, though lacking something unexplainable, turned out well. A few weeks later holding it in his hands, his feet in soft slippers, he slowly paced along the walls in his Moscow apartment. The spaces between bookshelves and cabinets were occupied with other pictures which he didn"t want to sacrifice for the sake of the new one. There wasn"t enough space even for his books. The bookcases stood even across the room dividing it into two compartments: the study, where his old lamp with a green shade stood on the desk, and the bedroom. For the bedroom, presuming to sleep alone the rest of his life, he bought a narrow bed. Later it was replaced with a sofa, which with a click of an inner spring, could be unfolded into a big cozy bed for two.
The right place for the photo eventually had been found. In the kitchen, in between two bookshelves fixed on the wall, right in front of the armchair where he used to sit tutoring high school students. The kitchen was rather large for a Moscow apartment, it served him like another room. In the middle of it stood an oval table big enough for five or six students to sit around, not disturbing each other. Every year, starting from September until the end of June, they would come here to study twice a week. In July, the boys and girls would take tough enrollment exams at the Moscow University or some other prestigious school. None of his students ever failed on the exams. It gave him the reputation of an excellent teacher. He never had a problem filling the chairs around the oval table.
He spent a few months in America and planned to visit his daughter again next year, but the Communist putsch seemed to kill all his hopes. On that unfortunate day in August, 1991, all life rolled back to the grim times of Stalin"s rule. The radio played classical music like on the days of funerals for the General Secretaries who died one after another in the beginning of the last decade. There was nothing but ballet on the TV channels. Once in a while the dances were interrupted with official reports. Listening to the broadcast of the Voice of America full of horrifying news, Fyodor Andreyevich looked at the photograph of the Gothic church and thought that he would probably never see Natasha or Victoria again. He loved Natasha, and he, despite everything, still felt attached to Victoria. He was missing them, but he didn"t want to recall Valerii, her husband. He hated the pitiful man that had become an inseparable part of his life.
Valerii had a scrawny face with a broad forehead, long bony nose, and a pointed chin covered with a thin reddish beard. He wore glasses that would magnify his eyes. Behind the glasses, his eyes seemed to be large and intelligent. With the glasses off Valerii looked pathetic, one could see that his eyes were small and dull. When Fyodor Andreyevich first met Valerii he avoided looking at his face when he had the glasses off for cleaning. Back then he admired the young man, he even brought Valerii home and introduced him to Victoria as a miraculous person, jokingly hinting to the "Miraculous Georgian" the definition which Lenin applied to Stalin after their first meeting. That was a bad omen. Though Valerii was too petty to remain in History (he nourished hopes of that kind), he succeeded ruining Fyodor Andreyevich"s life. After Victoria had left him for Valerii, Fyodor Andreyevich loved to steal a look at the man"s eyes while the thick glasses were thoroughly rubbed with a handkerchief.
Why don"t I have the rascal killed? I have to, I just have to do it, for the sake of all of us. How good it would be to have him dead, how joyful and bright life would be! Fyodor Andreyevich thought, glanced once more at the distant Church and inhaled deeply. He crossed the street and walked to the University campus. No one knew him here. Victoria gave him a tour around the grounds just once. Since then, he dreamed at least once again to stroll along the asphalt passageways and through the halls alone. Yes, it could be him, not her, teaching in these walls. Unlike her, he would never quit the job. Though she had no choice. To secure her position she had to have a Ph.D.
She had to earn it, so they moved to Illinois, where the program was available. She dreamed of going back some day, she loved the town, and the University offered free education to children of the staff, but it never happened.
Fyodor Andreyevich earned his Ph.D. from the Moscow University in 1965, when he was just 29 years old. It was the peak of his life. His dissertation about Structural Principles of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy was recognized as the best of the year. It was published as a separate book and recommended to Philology Faculties all over the Soviet Union. He became a professor of the Moscow University. Yes, that was something to be proud of.
Musing over the old times he approached the building in which Victoria taught. He visualized her standing at the entrance next to the doors of tinted glass. There was much of a women in his ex-wife. She was of large stature. For the five years or so, after their marriage, she remained a real beauty. Her perfect bosoms, looked charmingly above her flat stomach which was underlined by large gorgeous hips. Slightly rounded shoulders and full arms with smooth marble skin, hands with long slender fingers, the lines of her graceful neck and tender pink cheeks - all of that was added to her dark enigmatic eyes that looked proudly from under black curved brows which the Creator put as the last stroke of her beauty. Victoria was strikingly handsome. He never stopped noticing how men glanced at her. Those who didn"t know them could only guess what the woman had found in him, a man of less than average weight and height with silver on his temples. He seemed to be nonchalant to that. His knowledge and achievements overweighed any physical faults. She was proud of him, she was an excellent wife.
Two years ago, seeing her next to the doors of tinted glass waiting for him, he noticed with a pain in his heart that not much remained of her beauty. She became stocky and formless. To look older was alright for a University professor, but no man could she charm any more.
Fyodor Andreyevich walked up the steps into the building. The elevator brought him to the third floor, and he found himself in a hall with walls of glass on two sides. It was quiet around and Fyodor Andreyevich held in the coughing that, maybe because of the dry air, started in his throat. He came closer to the wall on the opposite side to see the view down below. The tops of the trees were moving silently under the wind, he saw a girl with a backpack hurrying through the park and the same hazy blue sky above the remote buildings. If he could he would build a house, somewhere in the mountains, with a glass wall like this. It was his dream to live on a slope of a hill, among the pine trees. He sighed realizing that the dream would never come true. He was almost sixty, he was through with his life.
Not a sound was heard from behind the large double doors of the auditorium. Fyodor Andreyevich pulled the handle and walked in. In the dim light he could see descending rows of soft armchairs that arched around the podium down below. He sat on a chair in the upper row. Then he stood up and moved one row down closer to the center, then a bit back to the left.
Yes, that was the same seat he sat in listening to her lecture back then. Her voice was loud and strong, she pronounced words clearly and with involuntary jealousy he saw that students understood her very well. His own English pronunciation wasn"t as good.
She was talking about Maxim Gorky"s novels having no difficulties with finding the right words. He understood what she was saying well enough, but didn"t dare analyze the lecture. Years ago he often monitored her lectures sitting quietly in the corner of the room making notes. Then they would analyze it. Here it wasn"t even planned. The fluent English gave her superiority over him. In this country, she took the leadership even in teaching Russian Literature, here she talked to him in a patronizing tone and he was uneasy with that.
Over the years Victoria became more like her mother. She never tried to be in control while living with him. It was Valerii who being incapable of making decisions, made her a leader. It was not only Victoria who Valerii had changed - the miserable man had corrupted Natasha, Fyodor Andreyevich"s only daughter, his hope and love.
* * *
Victoria was one of the students at the oval table, which by then stood in the middle of a spacious room of a multi-family apartment in downtown Moscow. The room was spacious because, except for handmade bookshelves, a bed in the corner, a desk under the green lamp, and the oval table with chairs of different origins around it in the middle of the room, there wasn"t any other furniture. His other pair of shoes could be found under the bed. He couldn"t keep them in the corridor because of the drunkard who lived next door. He would come to the kitchen of his communal apartment under the suspicious looks of the housewives only to boil his tea. Having no refrigerator, he kept his groceries in a net bag that hung on the nail outside his window.
Victoria"s mother found this way of life terrible. She declared that it was shameful for a scholar to live like a displaced student. As a doctor she was highly surprised to find out that he was thirty-nine-years-old and not one women had sought him. Without embarrassment, she inquired about his private life. He answered awkwardly that a couple of his attempts of living with women had failed to develop into anything serious.
"Good," she said, and walking to the phone added on the way, "I even thought that you might be a homosexual - looks like you aren"t."
She called her husband and asked him to bring over their extra refrigerator. It was a terrible invasion into his life and he would have resisted, but there were two factors, that caused him to be obedient like a school boy. First, the man she called, her husband, was a well-known professor in the Chemistry Department of Moscow University - a quiet intelligent man with soft eyes and influential connections. The second factor was the sound of her heels over the floor. Her steps were firm and certain, they sounded as if they confirmed that this woman knew where to go, how to solve problems, what the key was to a rich, abundant and stable life. Martha Leibovna was just a few years older than he, but between her prosperity and his mode of life lay a vast chasm. Above all, was Victoria herself - a smart beautiful girl with large breasts which she rested on the oval table while writing down his words. Victoria had inherited large eyes from her Jewish mother and the soft way of talking and smooth gestures of her Russian father. Fyodor Andreyevich had never imagined the high school girls at the oval table as prospects for a possible marriage, they all were way too young, but the prejudice was instantaneously destroyed by Martha Leibovna who from the first day treated him like a family member.
That was bliss. Martha Leibovna intruded into his bachelor"s life like a queen from a fairy tale. She gave him her daughter and her protection, and he forgave her for the meticulous questions about his origin, health, income, etc. One could find the interrogation quite humiliating, but he felt all right with that. At last, someone was really interested in him.
The grip of the hand of his future father-in-law was hot and unexpectedly strong. It didn"t take them long to become good friends. Good friends they were despite everything until the death of Vasilii Petrovich.
Victoria was deeply in love with her teacher. It was her frankness that brought Martha Leibovna to his dwelling. Victoria had always been open to her mother, open to details mothers aren"t supposed to know. Consequently, Fyodor Andreyevich also never had secrets from his mother-in-law who knew as much about him as his wife did. Though Martha Leibovna conducted the relationship that was rapidly developing between them, she was never annoying. Despite her decisiveness, even boldness, in promoting what she considered right, the woman had a keen sense of tact and never invaded their privacy. Deep in his soul Fyodor Andreyevich realized that it was not only Victoria, but Victoria and her mother with whom he tied himself. He admired his mother-in-law.
They married after Victoria had finished her first year at the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages. While they were spending their honey moon in Crimea, swimming in the Black Sea, sunbathing, enjoying each other on the high bed with melodic springs, Martha Leibovna took care of their new home. Using the Power of Attorney he had left for her, she traded his room in the multi family-apartment and some other living space that belonged to her family for a very nice three room apartment in the same court yard where she resided herself. To cover the gain in the square meters she smoothened the deal with a few thousand rubles, half of which she later reimbursed from his account. Martha Leibovna also took care of the furniture and his wardrobe. She took care of everything. He felt like he was living behind a stone wall.
Fyodor Andreyevich startled in his seat when the door down below opened with a cracked sound.
"Over there, please," he heard. "You may put it on the table."
He saw a woman in a greenish dress and a pizza man with two big red bags entering the auditorium. They stopped at the table and started to unload the bags. Before the smell of pizza reached him, Fyodor Andreyevich stood up from his armchair and quietly left through the upper door.
In the hall with the walls of glass he hesitated for a moment thinking was worth it to walk by her former office where books that in the past belonged to him once stood on the shelves and a photograph of his daughter hung on the wall. By now the office belonged to someone else, as it did before Victoria"s time.
At the thought of the person who occupied the office before Victoria, he frowned and walked to the elevator. He had nothing against the teacher his ex-wife replaced, but he didn"t like the story.
Though, he vaguely knew the story. There was a Russian girl. After she had graduated from Moscow University, she married an American and moved to this town. In the Seventies she was maybe the only Russian in the whole area. She was a native speaker with a teacher"s diploma, so they offered her a position at the local University where she taught Russian Language until Victoria arrived. Victoria"s education was much better. Her two diplomas stated that she could teach Russian Literature as well. There were some complications, the girl didn"t want to give up the position to the newcomer, she tried to press some buttons, but nothing could be done.
What he disliked, was Victoria"s attitude to her predecessor. She spoke of her with hatred that started to appear in her voice when she left him for Valerii. If they were invited to a party, Victoria would always try to find out whether her rival would be there or not and if the latter was expected, Victoria would never go. During his first visit, Fyodor Andreyevich often drove around the town alone. Victoria insisted that if he should ever run into the woman, he should never show any knowledge of the story. That wasn"t necessary, where would he meet her?
Nevertheless, he saw his ex-wife"s rival once in the city library. She was there with a group of students from the local community college where she taught the same subject. Tall and a very well built woman with a nice face and reddish hair lectured the students standing at a table filled with books in Russian Language. Hadn"t he heard the names of writers and the books" titles pronounced in clear Russian, he would never have realized who she was. After the class was over the teacher walked along the book aisles passing him by. Sitting at his desk he felt a whiff of the air around her and smelled her perfume. He looked at her slender rear and thought that Victoria probably just envied her beauty. America ruined all Victoria"s attempts to lose weight. That could be a reason for hatred, but he, all the same didn"t like it at all.
He exited the building and walked to his car. That was enough. His dream to visit the University once again was fulfilled and now he was ready to leave the campus and the city as well. It was five minutes to three, he had enough time to drive along the streets of his first American town, but he felt tired of it. The visit to the University was more than enough. He passed the corner of Fifth and Washington and not even looking at the Gothic church in the frame of trees walked to his car.
* * *
In the next small town he stopped to buy some gas. He filled his tank up, walked into the store, and picked up some corn chips and a 2 liter Doctor Pepper. It all cost him around eighteen dollars. "I need some quarters, please." He said and the clerk gave him a handful of coins for change.
Outside he stopped at the telephones, put the plastic bag on the pavement and dialed a long distance number.
"Hello." Victoria answered at the first ring. Had Valerii pick up the phone he would just hung up.
"It"s me." He said. "I"m all right."
"Where are you?" She cried. "What"s going on?"
"I"m heading for Dallas, everything is all right. Don"t worry."
He expected her to continue asking, but she didn"t. He could hear her breathing. "Everything is all right," he repeated.
"What"s going on in your head?" She asked at last and he felt that the anger that lingered in the depth of his chest had suddenly condensed into a hot ball of rage. Collecting himself, he said trying to keep calm, "I don"t want to talk about that. I don"t want to see you all, ever!"
He crushed the receiver against the cradle.
With his heart beating violently he heard a tiny ringing in his ears. He felt dizzy and squatted on the pavement.
"Are you all right?" He heard. A young couple, a girl in a yellow top and blue jeans (red toenails pocking out of sandals) and a fellow dressed like a cowboy stood next to him. "I"m all right. Thanks, nothing to worry about." He mumbled, picked up his bag, and walked wobbling on the way to his car.
He dropped on the seat, started the engine, and drove to the edge of the parking lot.
Had she been scared, had she bombarded him with questions like she always did, he would start doubting what he saw yesterday, but that "What"s going on in your head?" a dull, alien expression, pierced him like cold steel. It did happen. He should have put an end to it years ago when it started. He didn"t and now everything was ruined. That was a mistake, that was an awful mistake to stick around Victoria for all those years, since she had left him. It couldn"t bring any good. He had to learn how to live without her.
His blood knocked in his temples crushing them with each heartbeat. He lowered his seat back and leaned against it trying to calm down. Victoria"s father had once told him that all the emotions one experiences every day are caused by no more than sudden temporary changes in the chains of the amino acids of the human organism. Love, hatred, fascination, ignorance, even the sense of patriotism are no more than average chemical reactions, surges that rise and pass being obedient to the defensive reactions that buffer them seeking the initial balance.
He could live without Victoria, but Natasha, his daughter needed his fatherly love, his intelligence, his presence. Fyodor Andreyevich recalled how years ago, picking her up from the kindergarten, he would sit Natasha on a bench to put her boots on, and the girl would cry out proudly: "This is my father, look this is my father!" Fyodor Andreyevich tried not to make contact with eyes of the other kids. That was a painful topic, there were enough children in the kindergarten whose fathers had left their families or never attempted to build one. Fyodor Andreyevich couldn"t stand looking at the runny noses and liquid eyes of the kids who would come closer to examine him. They all were making stories about their fathers, but Natasha was happy to have her real one.
Until recently he had no one but his daughter to live for. About a year ago Svetlana, a girl of just nineteen years old came into his life. She was just a few years older than his daughter, and since yesterday, he hated himself for yielding to Svetlana"s desire to make a lover of him.
He ran under the green light and turned left following the sign "Dallas."
"Funny miserable man," he thought to himself, "why didn"t you die back then? You should have died. Then you wouldn"t have had to live through all those years of suffer, shame, and humiliations."
He had a chance to die. He was dying fifteen years ago, and it seemed there was no way to avoid it. They were married for less than two years when the sucking pain in his stomach became permanent. Before that he could live with it. The pain was on and off and he tried to ignore it. He loved canoe trips and skiing and he dragged Victoria with him to the rivers and woods on vacations and weekends. In the wilderness he felt better, but she wasn"t crazy about the outdoor fun. Mosquitoes in summer and frost in winter were hostile to her. She was pretty squeamish, his beautiful wife. She loved to spend her days lying on the sofa, reading or watching TV, but he felt sick in Moscow. To deflect the pain he jogged in the park, even started to lift weights, but the pain was gradually taking over, and once, when they dined at Victoria"s parents, Martha Leibovna asked.
"Do you feel all right?"
His father and mother-in-law were the last people in the world with whom he would discuss his health. They blessed him with everything he could dream of and he, by no means, wanted to upset them.
"I"m all right," he said feeling that he could hardly cheat a professional, "just didn"t sleep well," he finished awkwardly.
"He works too hard." Victoria said giving him a hug. "Do you want more salad?" she asked and he nodded, though he wasn"t hungry at all.
"He is not through yet with what he has on his plate." Martha Leibovna said and he winced his face at the thought that to be nice he would have to eat everything. His mother-in-law didn"t miss the wince. "I don"t like how you look," she said studying his face. "You have lost a lot of weight, you"re pale and your eyes are gleaming." she continued.
He felt tears streaming down his cheeks.
Since that moment he gave up to the illness.
A few days later he was diagnosed with a tumor in his stomach. On the x-ray it looked like a large pale spot. Standing next to the window the doctor held the film above his head exposing it to the heavens as if inviting the gods to see the problem. The sky was gray that day and the gods, if there were any, were ignorant. By the doctor"s eyes Fyodor Andreyevich understood that he was doomed. Surprisingly, the apprehension brought a smile to his face. He thought about things he had accomplished in his forty two years and found his life quite fulfilled.
Yet, he didn"t plan to die that early. He wanted to live, he wanted to see their child who would be born in July, but ... "Could you prescribe me something strong? A painkiller I mean." He asked, and the doctor answered,
Martha Leibovna wasn"t surprised with the diagnosis. "That"s what I thought, it is cancer." She said and then asked plainly, "Do you have a will?"
He didn"t. His savings, together with his life insurance, promised to provide for his family, but his mother-in-law didn"t want him to die. She made her husband call his brother who worked in the Moscow Communist Party Committee, and three days later Fyodor Andreyevich was placed in the Kremlin Hospital, in Kuntsevo, the place available only to high positioned party officials.
At that time he felt exhausted with the pain that although blunted with the painkiller pills prescribed by the doctor, was still there within his stomach. Exposed to his illness Fyodor Andreyevich couldn"t resist it. He felt the pain constantly and all the other troubles of the world just ceased to exist for him.
Those days he often thought about The Death of Ivan Ilyich a story by Leo Tolstoy. Once, during one of his lectures at the University, he spontaneously brought it up. Using the life of Ivan Ilyich as an archetype of the social life in the Nineteenth Century, he dedicated much time exploring the relationship of the dying man to his colleagues and his family. He drew the attention of his students to Ivan Ilyich"s desperate desire to build prosperity which a man of his rank should reach, but he completely omitted the terrible pains of the dying man, his contemplation on life and death, his questions to God. At the podium Fyodor Andreyevich even passed a joke saying, "Let"s leave the description of Ivan Ilyich"s illness to students of the Medical Department," and the audience laughed politely.
The lecture was found brilliant, and a famous magazine ordered from him an article on the social problems of Ivan Ilyich, but his own illness had struck him down. Starting the same journey through circles of hell which the hero of Leo Tolstoy once went through, Fyodor Andreyevich could think only about the agony that waited him on the way. The sufferings of the deceasing man described so clearly by the great author disturbed his imagination and he was horrified by them.
The box of painkiller pills that he brought with him to the Kremlin Hospital was carelessly discarded into the trash basket by his new doctor. Instead, a nurse appeared and he was asked to take his pants off. He didn"t even feel the prick on his skin, it was just a light slap, but almost immediately the pain was gone. Relaxing, he thought that had such a drug been administrated to Ivan Ilyich, the story of his death would have never been written by Tolstoy, and world literature would lack the masterpiece. He tried to think of this more, but found it insignificant and forgot it a moment later.
He had been on drugs for a few days, sleeping most of the time. Once he was awakened by Martha Leibovna. She came to him with some man in a business suit that gave him a paper to sign. Fyodor Andreyevich obediently did what they asked and again retreated to the long and painless bliss of his sleep.
A few days later a celebrity in medical science examined the patient and without beating around the bush declared that the case was almost hopeless. If they came to him three or four months earlier, perhaps, but at the present time the chances of Fyodor Andreyevich"s survival were very small. However, the doctor recommended radical surgery.
Thanks to the skill of the famous man, unique medical equipment, and drugs that were available to patients of Kremlin Hospital, Fyodor Andreyevich didn"t die, however, during the five hour surgery, he was twice on the verge of death.
If he could only imagine what he was returning to! The difference between the healthy robust young man which he was just a few months ago and the elderly invalid he became was immense. Before the illness, Victoria and he had never thought of the twenty years that lay between their ages. She was much smarter and a more serious woman than most of her age and he felt too young for his years, so they were perfectly matched to each other. His real life had just begun, his position at the Moscow University was secure and he considered beginning work on his Academician Degree - he had the strength and desire for it - but after the surgery he woke up not only without a portion of his stomach, but also without ambitions and the pride of a young scholar. He felt weak, tired and old. By then he realized that not only two decades, but a whole life, separated him from his wife.
* * *
"I should have died, I should have died back then." He murmured hitting the steering wheel with his fist. His car flew to the South among a few others, that, testing the limits of the Highway Patrol"s tolerance constantly yielded the leadership to one another.
Fast driving soothed his gloomy mood and he thought that, after all, the second part of his life wasn"t as bad as it seemed to be. He smiled a bit recalling how they, it was a year after his surgery, spent a month at the Baltic Sea.
Every day they would walk along the surf inhaling the fresh air that smelled with iodine. It was not only a medical procedure prescribed by doctors, but also a pleasure. The sand which, in Urmala, the neat resort town, is a bit thicker then dust, was tramped by waves so hard that even bicycle tires would leave only barely visible traces on it. Every day they strolled leisurely along the green sea observing the same phenomena: the shore on the way seemed to be crammed with people who played volleyball, sunbathed, talked to each other, ate and walked. Ahead the shore had always seemed to be thronged, but reaching farther they saw that the vacationers were spread on the beach with the same density. In their vision, layers of people formed a crowd on the shore. Now, observing the past, he saw all the miseries through which he passed clearly, but he had to admit, the reminiscences became unbearable only in the recent past, when the layers of the unhappy years grew up in quantity.
* * *
At the University he was substituted with another teacher, a bright exuberant fellow who lecturing in an unusual spontaneous style, quickly conquered students" hearts. The teacher wasn"t much of a scholar, he was more of an actor, though he had enough knowledge of the subject. He would surely give the podium back to its owner, but Fyodor Andreyevich needed more time for recovery. That was just an excuse, the real reason was the character of the substitute and his unprecedented popularity. Fyodor Andreyevich still was too weak to compete with the creative, energetic teacher. It was decided that he would take one more semester off.
The decision was also based on financial aspects. Returning to lecturing at the University, Fyodor Andreyevich could count only on the same pay; his biding at home could bring much better income.
For the last years Humanitarian Faculties had become extremely popular. Being a professor of the University, Fyodor Andreyevich was forced to quit the tutoring that used to bring him such good money in the past. The University administration frowned on the teachers who tutored students whose knowledge they had to test on the enrollment exams, so he had to forget about it. Now, being not a member of the University staff, Fyodor Andreyevich felt himself free of any obligations. Choosing the status of an invalid he also gained another exceptional opportunity. At the times, employment was mandatory for all citizens of the great Soviet Union, but no one could accuse an invalid for not being employed.
Martha Leibovna took the new enterprise into her hands. A small apartment was rented in the same building, two floors upstairs. The oval table was positioned in the middle of the only room and an expensive armchair of soft leather was bought from the antique store. The armchair added much to the tutor, who, with his spectacles on (he could see well enough without them, but his mother-in-law insisted on the detail), looked like a retired academician. The walls were filled with bookshelves, a cute chalk board was ordered from the handy man that for years worked for the family, and a marble bust of Alexander Pushkin was placed next to Fyodor Andreyevich"s writing desk.
Fyodor Andreyevich found the preparations quite ridiculous, but accepted them with pleasure. His long well hidden dream to have some place where he could work undisturbed came true.
Martha Leibovna made a brief research on competitors and their prices. For the lessons of her proficient son-in-law she charged almost twice as much. That was outrageous, and Fyodor Andreyevich said that no student could afford such a pay. On that he was advised to mind his side of the business and to leave financial questions to those who understood them better. To his surprise, in a week, the seats around the oval table were filled with students of the kind he rarely taught before. They were mostly children of high rank party functionaries and celebrities, the people for whom money was not a problem. Fyodor Andreyevich once again appreciated the connections of Vasilii Petrovich, his quiet father in law.
The students had high ambitions. Two of them targeted the Institute of the International Relations, one planned to become a movie star, there were two sons of a famous journalist (excellent positions with trips abroad were guaranteed to them), and, the last student, was a girl who dreamed becoming a writer. Of course, parents of the kids knew what strings to pull and what buttons to press to have their children enrolled into the prestigious institutions. Nevertheless, the kids had to earn the best grades at the exams and Fyodor Andreyevich was paid for that.
The first year was crucial. After a few weeks of teaching he realized that his teaching materials had to be improved and systemized. An idea to write his own Russian Language Textbook came to his mind and he started working on it. The textbook had to be of an absolutely different conception, it had to make the studying much simpler. After thoughtful consideration he developed a new, structural, approach to the subject that suddenly embodied into a clear perfectly understandable system. Astounded with the simplicity of his method Fyodor Andreyevich chuckled and rubbed his hands in excitement, his eyes glittered with happiness. In his mind he visualized the new system in a shape of a transparent golden pyramid that, revolving silently, hovered in the blue yonder, exposing its internal structures of perfect forms. Nouns, adjectives, verbs, punctuation signs merging one another formed networks of logical chains, the ties of which were inevitable and essential. Wasting no time Fyodor Andreyevich worked hard putting his thoughts in writing every day. Never in his life, had he experienced such an elevation.
The result was outstanding. All his students received the highest grades at the oral Russian Language exam and Composition. The two sons of the famous journalist failed the History of USSR exam and nothing could help them, but that wasn"t his problem.
Now he could allow himself to relax. As a handicapped person he had the privilege to buy an automobile avoiding the waiting period. In the middle of the summer they bought a red, brand new Soviet replica of an Italian FIAT. The car didn"t have pedals. According to bureaucrats all handicapped people were lacking legs, so clutch and gas controls were installed on the steering wheel of the vehicle. An ugly break lever pocked up in between the seats.
The same handyman, who had always been around, rebuilt the controls into their normal positions. The yellow triangle, the indication of an invalid driver, was taken off the rear window and two weeks later Fyodor Andreyevich and Victoria departed to the Baltic Sea.
By that time Victoria had become a major student of the Foreign Language Institute. Next September with a group of very carefully selected candidates she had to fly to Great Britain to practice her English. Due to some political complications between the countries, the trip had never taken place.
Nevertheless, in general, life still treated them very well. There wasn"t a new play in the best Moscow theaters they hadn"t seen at the first performance. Thanks to connections of Martha Leibovna the doors of the clubs of Literary Workers, Composers, Journalists and Architects were always open for them. Fyodor Andreyevich maintained acquaintances with writers and actors, not of the highest ranks, but, nevertheless quite famous people.
He loved to recall how they were accepted at the Moscow House of Cinema, where the special show of the Godfather II was on the screen-space only for one day. Starting from the Beloruskaya Metro station people were hunting for an extra ticket. Walking along the street they were gradually submerging into the crowds of people who hoped at least with one eye, to see the forbidden fruit of the Western Cinematography. At the frontage of the House of Cinema the throng was so packed that they started to worry how the famous journalist, the father of the two unfortunate brothers, would see them, but the man spotted them in the crowd and waved to them with his hand. His face was familiar to everyone, people saw his TV reports almost every day. With one jest of his hand the throng broke apart and Fyodor Andreyevich and Victoria walked to him through the alive corridor followed by glances full of jealousy and respect. That was the kind of life he never dreamed of.
Thanks to his mother-in-law he avoided most of the inconveniences of the Soviet life which others were doomed to meet daily. Victoria"s uncle provided his brother with a pass to the stores for chosen party officials. Vasilii Petrovich loved to shop. Once a week, on Tuesday, he would go to the special store and without standing in lines, or worrying about a shortage of groceries, he picked up the goodies that, on the next day, were delivered to them by a healthy pink-cheeked giant in blue jeans who drove a black Volga with a Government license plate. Vasilii Petrovich was not much of a gourmand. His food preferences lay mostly in different brands of cheese, so cheeses of all sorts and kinds could always be found in their refrigerator.
An opportunity to place Natasha into a privileged kindergarten was rejected. All kindergartens of that kind were too far from home. It was decided that Natasha would spend her days in the local one.
"That is much better," Fyodor Andreyevich said, "I don"t want her to grow up among the snobby spoiled brats."
Victoria bashfully suggested that they might drop in and pick up Natasha by car, but even by car the special kindergartens couldn"t be reached at a reasonable time.
The local kindergarten was just a few blocks away, and every morning Fyodor Andreyevich would walk there with his daughter holding her hand, talking to her on the way.
Starting the next year, he tutored three groups of students. Martha Leibovna had slightly rearranged the room. A new writing desk replaced his small old one, a revolving leather arm chair was bought to match it. The back of the chair and the arms were adjusted for Victoria"s comfort. From then on, his precious wife had often been present at his lessons. Martha Leibovna wanted her daughter to acquire the knowledge of her husband in full. Next year Victoria had to receive her diploma of a professional translator and it was decided that she would start working on her degree in Philology. Private tutoring proved to be a gold mine and Martha Leibovna wanted her daughter to start her own classes.
Fyodor Andreyevich liked the plan very much, he needed an assistant working on his project and no one would suite the role better than his beloved wife.
To his surprise, he found Victoria a great help to his work. She was not only a good typist, but an excellent editor as well. She would catch his thoughts instantaneously and often while he was musing on the rest of the paragraph, her restless typewriter sounded like a machine gun putting his thoughts on paper in a clear and rhythmic style.
Her exceptional memory was bringing up such good examples of grammar usage from Russian writers that in his soul he had to admit that without her the textbook would never be written.
That winter was the best in his family life. Being busy with the work and students they lived in a harmony that rarely could be found among married couples.
Than he made a mistake.
* * *
It happened at one of the family dinners that were given by Martha Leibovna every other Sunday at seven. The textbook had just been finished, but Fyodor Andreyevich and Victoria weren"t in a hurry to bring the manuscript under the critical eyes of authorities in Linguistics. Frankly, if Fyodor Andreyevich hadn"t been able to count on the support of Victoria"s powerful uncle, he wouldn"t have had any hope to see his work in print. The party functionary had only to make one call to the Academy of Sciences to clear the way.
Only Vasilii Petrovich could approach his brother with such a request. However, the quiet scholar would never undertake anything like that without the approval of his wife.
Victoria brought the topic into the conversation when stomachs were full and the dessert was served. That was the best time to discuss matters that might evoke irritation. In the past, Fyodor Andreyevich had already suggested publishing the textbook, but his mother-in-law showed no interest in the remark, so they decided to postpone serious talk to the time when the work would be completed. Now the time had come.
Pouring the aromatic tea into her mother"s china cup Victoria said, trying to sound nonchalant.
"You can congratulate us. The textbook is done."
"Good." Her father said smiling and closed his eyes enjoying the quiet family moment.
"Now you can start working on the Composition Manual, I reckon." Martha Leibovna proposed."
"Of course, we will." Fyodor Andreyevich said fervently. "We have already worked out the preliminary plans. It will be a great work, absolutely new in conception, though, I doubt that it will ever be published. The approach is absolutely nontraditional. It doesn"t go along with Lenin"s demands on literature. The Russian Language Textbook we have just finished, yes, could be published without problems."
"What do you mean published?" Martha Leibovna asked after she washed down what was in her mouth with tea.
"A work like we created can"t be hidden in the desk drawer. It would be a crime..."
"A crime? I thought you would use it."
"Yes, that"s what I mean. The textbook might be used by everyone who is studying the language. It is much better than the famous textbook of professor Rosental."
"Who is we?" Martha Leibovna stretched out her hand for another cookie. Vasilii Petrovich dozed, smiling in his armchair.
"We is Victoria and I." Fyodor Andreyevich declared triumphantly. "Your daughter, Martha Leibovna, was so helpful that I can"t omit her name on the cover."
"And I appreciate it very much." said his mother-in-law. "I only want to ask you one question." Here Martha Leibovna stopped and looked at him with the long stare of a doctor examining a patient. Fyodor Andreyevich felt awkward, but endured the scrutiny. "What is the customary fee for work of this kind?" she asked.
"Not much." Fyodor Andreyevich chuckled with relaxation. He didn"t expect the question to be that simple. "Of course, it depends on the number of copies, but anyway, we deserve to be paid much more. In America, such a work could bring millions."
"We are not in America. Give me the amount you expect to receive for your work here, in the Soviet Union."
"About five, maybe seven thousand rubles, I presume." Fyodor Andreyevich looked at his father-in-law. Vasilii Petrovich nodded slightly confirming the guess. His eyes remained closed and his pleasant smile grew a bit wider.
"Will the money make you happy?" Martha Leibovna continued.
"It is not about the money, Mom," Victoria tried timidly and Martha Leibovna cut her remark off saying almost rudely, "You haven"t been asked - let him answer."
"Actually, your daughter is right." Fyodor Andreyevich said. "The textbook will be very helpful to everyone who is preparing himself for University exams. It could even be used for regular teaching in schools if we will simplify a few things."
"You didn"t answer my question." Martha Leibovna interrupted and he felt that she was losing her temper.
"Well, yes," he murmured, wondering what made his mother-in-law that mad, "talking about money, five thousand rubles is acceptable. I"d be happy to have it." Saying that he felt like a rebel, but why on earth should he always say what his mother-in-law wanted to hear?
Martha Leibovna put her china cup aside and stood up. Stepping firmly over the floor she walked out of the dining room, leaving them both in dismay. Vasilii Andreyevich woke up and staring at his wife"s empty chair blinked with his eyes. He was about to ask what was going on when Martha Leibovna returned. She put a pack of money in front of Fyodor Andreyevich and her daughter and sat at her place.
"Here is four thousand rubles." she said. "The rest you"ll get in a couple of months. Sorry, I don"t have that much cash. This is not a present which you can deny. This is your fee for the textbook. I will even pay you more, but I want you to forget the idea publishing your work."
Fyodor Andreyevich was stunned. He was insulted by the offer; he gasped in an attempt to say something, but Martha Leibovna lifted her hand terminating the effort. She started to speak herself.
"For the last year, teaching three groups of students you my dear son-in-law made fourteen-thousand three-hundred thirty-five rubles. I already have a list of students who will start taking your classes in September. Your income will increase. It doesn"t need to be explained that by publishing the textbook, you"ll attract attention to your home tutoring. You may be compelled to pay an enormous income tax. Of course, if you insist, we may talk to Victoria"s uncle, but keep in mind that we can use his help only in exceptional situations. I know, I know," Martha Leibovna again lifted her hand seeing objection in Fyodor Andreyevich"s face, "you want publicity, you want to make a name for yourself and for my daughter. You want to prove to all the world that despite your disability, forgive me for putting it that bluntly, you still have worth. I can understand it, but confess, this is nothing but silly vanity. Think about the consequences my dear son-in-law. Hasn"t it crossed your mind that you are just giving your precious knowledge away for nothing? You said that with the help of your textbook everyone can prepare himself for the exam. Fine. Then what will students need a tutor for? Even if they use tutors, why would they come to you? Your method will be available for your competitors who charge much less. So, whose benefactor do you want to be, everyone"s, or your own family"s? Tell me."
Fyodor Andreyevich, who had so much to say just a moment ago, suddenly became confused. The word "benefactor" knocked his indignation down. He never thought that the word would ever refer to him. He felt a prick in his conscience. It was she - Martha Leibovna - his real benefactor. Thanks to her he was happily married, thanks to her he survived the deadly illness, it was her connections and energy that made his tutoring so profitable and, consequently, enjoyable. She had never spoken to him in such a tone before and he realized that nothing good would come of his resistance. The sum of four thousand rubles was enormous even for this mighty woman, he could tell it by the look of Vasilii Petrovich, whose face became pale and frozen when his eyes focused on the pack of money that lay next to the plate of cookies. All that his mother-in-law said lingered deep in his mind and, presently, he regretted his boyish romanticism. He, surely, deserved a good spanking.
Fyodor Andreyevich restrained himself and even forgot all the arguments that minutes ago were ready to jump off his tongue. He wanted to say something like, "Well, let"s talk about it some other time," but tears unexpectedly flooded his eyes. He reached for a napkin saying, "Excuse me, I"ll be back in a moment," and went to the bathroom.
Now, years later, he could see with bitterness that his mother-in-law wasn"t right taking away their chance. To hell with the money - the money had brought him the respect of an underground tutor and fear against tax collectors. He dreamed of the respect people pay to a well-known scholar with financial stability - a man that has nothing to be afraid of.
He missed his chance, just a year later, it became impossible for him to get back to the scientific world. New people had come to the faculty where his talent once shone so brightly. His name meant almost nothing to them. A few former colleagues regretted his early retirement.
* * *
He didn"t want to give up. A real scholar must have his works published and for the last two years not even a line of his writing appeared in print.
One of his old colleagues, who now worked for the Heritage magazine, suggested that an article on certain works of Anton Chekhov could be considered for publishing. It sounded almost like an order and together with Victoria Fyodor Andreyevich wrote a big article on three short stories of Anton Chekhov. Working on the text he felt ten years younger. At last, he again could demonstrate not only his outstanding knowledge of Chekhov"s works, but also his own keen understanding of the complex situation in the society of the late Nineteenth Century.
The article even drew some brave parallels between bureaucracy of the pre-Revolutionary Russia and the bureaucracy of the present. Fyodor Andreyevich, like a real professional, let the text lay in his drawer for a few weeks, then read the article again, made a few corrections, and found the text ready for a review.
That day he didn"t have classes. Victoria was at the University and he decided to visit a few bookstores Downtown.
He walked along the New Arbat, when a sudden rain made him duck into a spacious niche of a nearby building, right at the entrance of a big department store. The street was full of people and many of them rushed to the shelter. He could go into the store to buy film for his camera, but it was a pleasure to watch the first real storm of the year. Lightning flashed, thunderbolts boomed in the sky, the air smelled of wet dust, and water ran loudly down the drainpipes. People around were joyful, everyone was glad to see the storm which manifested the approach of summer. A company of young people greeted each thunderbolt with cheerful yells, a few girls laughed at something, and the rain was streaming down vigorously driving the stuffy air away. Cars, all wet, turned their lights on and the street glistened with blue and yellow reflections.
A man, who just a few seconds ago exited from the store, stopped in front of him and took a book from his attaché case. Fyodor Andreyevich, by habit, stole a glance at the title. Folklore Traditions of the Ancient Slavs. That was not very common reading at all. He raised his eyes to the man"s face and despite the long curly hair that merged with a bushy beard, immediately recognized his old friend Piotr with whom he used to room in the dormitory years ago. They were real buddies their first University year.
Piotr was from Ukraine. He loved to tell the story about his father, who inherited a small farm, the family lived on for almost a century. With the farm, the peasant had gotten a couple of mules and a cart. It was probably the first day in his life when he was free to do whatever he wished. His first desire was to go to the nearby town which a railroad had been laid recently. He could only imagine how a real railroad looked like. It didn"t take much time to get ready for the trip. He said that he was going to buy some salt, and before dawn, hit the road never to be back. The railroad with its smell of wooden bars and rails that were coming from Caucasus and running to Moscow, Petersburg, and even Paris, enchanted him. Black locomotives with their spinning and moving parts, clouds of steam and vigorous energy looked to him like bridled beasts, hardly like machines. All of that had fascinated him so much, that, on the same day, he had his cart and mules sold and got a job at the railway station.
The farm was burned to the ground during the revolution. Piotr"s father was killed in the battle for Stalingrad during World War II. His practicality and wittiness of a peasant remained in Piotr, who survived the hungry post-war years in an orphanage. He had the quick mind and sharp eyes of a street boy. Once, when they both strolled along a side street, somewhere in Downtown Moscow, conversing about something, Piotr suddenly squatted and crawled under the bush they were passing. In a few seconds, he was back with a five ruble note in his hand, dirt on his knees, a spider web in his hair, and a wide smile on his face,. The banknote was wet from yesterday"s rain. It laid invincible under the bush. Hundreds of people passed by that way, but it was only Piotr who didn"t miss the money.
That was his style.
From a few ways to prosper in a country where prosperity was almost a crime, Piotr had chosen a career of a writer. He dreamed of living the way the famous Sholokhov did in Vioshinskaya. While travelling as a seasonal worker, Piotr visited the village and saw how Stalin lavished the obedient novelist. Though his own stories reflected certain yet underdeveloped talent and a good knowledge of life, he didn"t pass the creative writing contest at the Moscow Literature Institute. It neither surprised, nor disappointed him. He wasn"t an active member of the Young Communist League with good references, he didn"t have impressive acquaintances, or connections, his chances to be enrolled in the prestigious institute were very weak anyway.
A month later he successfully passed the exams at the Philology Department of Moscow University and settled in the same room where Fyodor Andreyevich occupied a bed next to the window. Piotr looked at the window frame and said, "In winter you will freeze to death over there. Move here, closer to the door."
It was late august, and the poplars outside rustled merrily under the wind. Their leaves hadn"t yet turned yellow, but what the new lad had said was true. The window frame wasn"t good enough to keep the cold out in winter.
That"s how their friendship had started.
Piotr hated the poverty the students lived in. The scholarship was so small that one could hardly survive on it. Having no relatives able to support him and hating the miserable money students would make loading the freight carts, Piotr was in a constant search for better income. Eventually, he found a profitable field in books" black market, where he soon was recognized as an expert in antique additions. To maintain the reputation Piotr spent numerous hours in the University library studying the subject that had already proved to be profitable for him.
After the first year, with a scientific expedition, he went to the North of Russia to explore the archives of a monastery where some old manuscripts had been found. A month later, Fyodor Andreyevich received from him a heavy package. In the cardboard box he found a few old icons. The faces on them were black with time, almost indistinct. There was also a note. Piotr asked him to store the stuff in the baggage chamber at the Kiev railway station until the time he was back. There was nothing unusual in the request, and Fyodor Andreyevich did what his friend asked.
In September, Piotr was arrested for reselling stolen State property. The icons which he had bought at the North happened to be listed among the most valuable items missing. They were spotted by some secret agent who worked undercover as a black market dealer. Soon, investigators found how the icons came to Moscow. Piotr spent a few days in jail. He was interrogated three times and then, to the great surprise of all who had known him was transferred to the Kaschenko Psychiatric Hospital.
What he was diagnosed with remained uncertain. Certain was the fact that Piotr had avoided a court hearing and the three years of prison that threatened him. Nevertheless, he was expelled from the University. Apparently, he was also advised to leave Moscow, because in late November, he enlisted himself for Geological expedition and left for Siberia.
Fyodor Andreyevich hadn"t heard anything about him for many years.
Now, Piotr was standing two steps ahead of him, reading and glancing at the rain that continued to entertain the audience. Fist Fyodor Andreyevich"s move was to leave. He recalled the sleepless nights when he too expected to be arrested. It was him who collaborated with the thieves, storing the stolen icons in the baggage chamber. Though he knew nothing about the crime, at those times, that was enough to be expelled from the University.
He could easily get lost in the crowd, but he stood watching Piotr, thinking how his friend has aged over the years. Piotr felt his glance and turned around.
A moment later, shaking the wide and rigid hand of his friend, patting his shoulders, Fyodor Andreyevich felt the real joy of meeting the man again.
Piotr lived in the South outskirts of Moscow, in an apartment he bought recently. To reach it they took Metro, and then a trolley bus.
The subdivision Piotr lived in stood apart from the road. Looking at the new nine and twelve story buildings Fyodor Andreyevich said, " They are like a squadron of ships floating through the sea."
"It looks pretty," his friend said, "when you see them from afar. Wait a bit, when we come closer, you"ll see how ugly they are. It is a feature of our life. The facades of things are good enough, but the internal quality is always bad. Whatever you buy, a new Soviet made radio, or a camera, it may look like the ones they make in the West, but it would never work as well. Bolsheviks are like monkeys, they can only imitate, they are unable to create anything new. Even their ideas of happiness. It is funny, they don"t even want to recognize that such experiments had already taken place in the human history many times. Communism had never lasted for more than a few decades. The idea is as old as this world."
Fyodor Andreyevich never supported talk of that kind. He was quite satisfied with the Soviet Life. People who criticized it, were mostly irritated by some petty inconveniences. If you are not a fool, you"ll learn how to be happy with the Bolsheviks - that was his belief. He knew enough people who lived quite all right.
He, however, didn"t interrupt Piotr, and didn"t change the subject. Listening to the voice of his friend he felt like he was a student again. Piotr talked to him in the same patronizing tone he did when they both were students, but Fyodor Andreyevich didn"t mind it. It occurred to him that for the last few years, he never felt like being taught and now he found it enjoyable. Though his friend spoke about questionable things, Fyodor Andreyevich wasn"t vexed with it. Even being a first year student Piotr would never talk about something he didn"t study before. "Sorry, I"m not ready to discuss it," he would answer returning to his reading. In that he was different from many others who pretended to be experts in everything.
The white buildings, true, weren"t as nice as they looked from the distance. The ground passageway hit the asphalt road and from here it was clearly seen that the buildings were not white, but of a creamy color. Broken concrete blocks left by constructors lay in the weeds and children played among them. New grass hadn"t shown yet and the bare dirt around the buildings didn"t add beauty to the area.
Nevertheless, all the apartments had already been occupied. Music was heard from an open window. Elderly women sat on benches next to doorways, talking, enjoying the beautiful spring evening. At the wooden table men played dominos, hitting the pieces against the linoleum top. In the middle of the spacious courtyard a company of lads and girls played volleyball standing in a circle. They laughed and yelled, and Fyodor Andreyevich thought that the young people probably never thought about what Piotr just said.
They entered a doorway and took the elevator, still free from graffiti to reach the eight floor.
Piotr"s dwelling could hardly be called home. At the lack of effort to make the place comfortable Fyodor Andreyevich realized that his friend lived here alone. The apartment was sold with cheap pale wallpaper that haven"t yet been changed for something nicer. Some coats and jackets hung on the rack in the corner, there was no special place for boots, so the boots were just scattered under the coats. On the other side of the hall stood a large old fashion book case with glassed doors. The expensive antique piece of furniture was made for a place much better than this. The space all around it was filled with hand made shelves resting on bricks. As well as the book case the shelves were full of books of different sizes and colors. To his surprise, among the books, Fyodor Andreyevich saw a familiar spine of the one he had written, but he didn"t say anything.
"Do you read in English?" Fyodor Andreyevich asked seeing that many of the books had English titles. "I remember you took German at the University."
"Don"t ask me to read in English for you. I"m not sure I can pronounce most of the words right, though, yes, I read in English. What can I do if they don"t translate works I need to read. Come over here."
He opened the door inviting Fyodor Andreyevich into a living room which contained a sofa stretched along the wall, an expensive stereo set with large speakers in the corners, a cupboard, a large color TV, and a window with white clouds floated in the evening sky. There were a few oil paintings on the walls and three or four old icons among them. A stack of some other oil paintings and posters stood behind one of the speakers. Everything was in the same kind of disorder that filled Fyodor Andreyevich"s life before his marriage.
Piotr excused himself to do something in the kitchen, and Fyodor Andreyevich using the moment went from one painting to another exploring them thoroughly until he stopped at the large icon decorated with sheet gold and grains of pearl. The woman"s face, maybe of the Mother of God, looked at him with a strange stare.
"It is awesome." Fyodor Andreyevich said to Piotr, who returned to the room with a bottle of cognac, a couple of glasses and some snacks on a tray. "A real masterpiece. Must be very expensive?"
"Not at all." Piotr answered casting a brief glance to the icon. "It is Twentieth Century. Icons like this were made in quantities, it is not a rarity. I have much better ones, not on the walls, of course. Let me show you."
He put the tray on the table, opened the bottom doors of the cupboard, and took out one of the boxes. Inside, under a layer of cotton and rice-paper, there was a dark slightly arched board with an indistinct image on it. The halo around the face contained just traces of gold, but the other colors were still clean and fresh. Fyodor Andreyevich felt an unexplainable power radiating from the face that looked at him sternly. He took his eyes off.
"Who is that?" he asked
"This is the Savior." Piotr said in a low voice. "I"d like to believe that this is an original work of Theophanes the Greek, but maybe it is one of his pupils. This is a real Fourteenth Century piece, I found it in Siberia. It was brought there by Starovers, who fled to the wilderness long before the time of Peter the Great."
Fyodor Andreyevich glanced at the icon again. The face on it looked pretty plain, it was drawn in two dimensions without depth, but the wide open eyes of Christ pierced him to the soul. That felt disturbing, Fyodor Andreyevich returned the icon to Piotr who carefully packed it up and put it back in its place.
"It must brings you good money. I mean the icons." Fyodor Andreyevich said.
"So far it takes more than pays back." Piotr answered pouring the cognac into glasses. "I collect the icons. Sometimes I trade them with other collectors, but I rarely sell anything. Okay," he paused serving Fyodor Andreyevich the drink. "Let"s celebrate our reunion. It is good to be together again."
They drank and the cognac made Fyodor Andreyevich feel more comfortable in the place.
"So you didn"t give up your love for the old books and icons?" he asked with a sly smile, hinting to the story that separated them for more than twenty years.
"I didn"t." Piotr smiled back softly. "But now it is more of professional interest. I"m working on a dissertation about Russian Culture of the Thirteenth Century." He said and Fyodor Andreyevich felt a prick on his conscience. Since they met, they talked only about him, what he was doing for all those years. Though, it wasn"t his fault, he just kept answering his friend"s questions.
"Tell me about yourself. You just vanished, I wasn"t even sure you were alive or not." Fyodor Andreyevich said sitting on the sofa.
"It is quite a story. Those idiots made such records in my documents that I couldn"t even dream about getting a degree. Though, I was lucky. Just a couple of years after, my boss and I were crossing Yenisey River driving over the ice. It was spring, the ice would be gone soon, but my boss decided to get more supplies, mostly vodka, before the ice drift cut us off from the main land. On the way back we were drunk and didn"t notice a hole in the ice. We barely escaped from the car before it sank. While we were getting to the thick surface, I let my wallet with all the documents flow into the Arctic Ocean. Two months later, I received a new Passport and a Military Card clean of bad records."
"What a story!" Fyodor Andreyevich exclaimed. "Drowning, you didn"t forget to get rid of the documents?"
"I never stopped thinking how to get rid of them. That was my chance. The same year I passed exams to the History Faculty in Novosibirsk. Now I"m a post graduate student in Moscow University working on my Ph.D."
"What do you do for a living? Do you have a job?"
"Well, I do many things."
To avoid asking how his friend made money to buy expensive books, icons, and oil paintings, Fyodor Andreyevich asked,
"Why did they draw the sculls under the cross there?" He pointed to the icon with the crucified Christ."
"That"s a good question." Piotr smiled. Those sculls are of Adam and Eve. Saint Augustin once stated: "As in Adam we all die, even so in Christ we shall all be alive." Actually, it was said even before him by Apostle Paul, but in the iconography this theme appeared after the time when the doctrine of original sin was invented by Saint Augustin."
"I never studied the History of Religion. Do you need the stuff for your thesis?"
"In some point, yes, but I do it mostly for myself."
"You what, believe in God?" Fyodor Andreyevich asked in a horse voice as if forcing the words to come out.
"Are you surprised?" Piotr laughed loudly exposing his yellow teeth. "Don"t you believe in God?" He looked in Fyodor Andreyevich"s eyes with mockery and laughed even more.
"I don"t know what to believe." Fyodor Andreyevich shrugged his shoulders. "One of my students thinks that Jesus Christ was an alien from an outer world," he tried to joke, but the joke went off pretty clumsy. Piotr seemed not to notice it.
"You are a scholar." Piotr said regaining his normal tone. "You study Literature which is always following ideas that appear in society. To me Literature is a kind of spiritual incarnation of what came to philosophers" minds. Writers just dramatize and develop the thoughts. To understand Homer or Virgil one has to understand their world, traditions, and morals implied by their gods. You will never understand Petrarca without visualizing the Hell he pictured for himself. Gogol and Dostoyevsky might be understood on an amateur level without knowledge of Orthodox Christianity, but to write articles on their works, a scholar must know what they had been taught by their parents and priests. They were believers, so should you to understand them well."
"Don"t tell me they taught you that in the Novosibirsk University."
"They didn"t. They taught me in the best Soviet traditions, trying to convince me that all the past was just a preparation stage for upcoming Communism."
"So you became an Orthodox Christian?"
"No. Though, I used to be."
"Then to whom do you refer yourself?"
"To neither church in particular. However, I"m more of a Protestant."
"A-ha," Fyodor Andreyevich nodded trying to recall in what points Protestantism is different from the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He had vague understanding of the things and hurried to change the subject."
"The picture, over there, in the corner, what is it?" He pointed with his glass to an oil painting in blue and dark green, almost metallic colors. There was some bold man with Asian features on it. The man was old, his eyes were shrewd. He played some music on a bamboo pipe. Behind him there was a kind of dry lake with a remnant of water gleaming in the darkness. A few weird people were dancing next to the water. Above them, the Moon was shining all around with a pale steady light.
"This is Confucius. Pretty strange, isn"t it. The painting is done by my friend Anton, a very young fellow, he is not yet twenty, but pretty smart. He is still under the influence of the artists he respects, like Vrubel, and Bosch, of course. I buy his works mostly for ideas. Let me show you something else."
With a pleasant intoxication in his head, Fyodor Andreyevich followed Piotr to the pile of paintings in the corner. There, sipping his cognac, he looked at unusual pictures, listened to his friend"s voice, and felt like he parted with Piotr just yesterday.
It was about eleven when they walked back to the trolley bus stop through the field of grass. The sky was clear and stars shone dimly. The huge nine and twelve story buildings, looked like ships, floating through the night. Guitar chords and singing were heard from somewhere. Obviously, the same company of lads and girls that earlier played volleyball had drifted to the field to finish the long day with flirting under the stars.
"How good is the night." Fyodor Andreyevich said.
"Yes," Piotr replied. "In spring, even the Soviet life looks better. But all of this is coming to an end, thank God."
"What do you mean, the Apocalypses?" Fyodor Andreyevich chuckled.
"Sort of, for Bolsheviks for sure."
"Come on, what are you talking about? The Bolsheviks will remain in power forever." Fyodor Andreyevich said. "Looks like they are as strong as never before."
"That is just a façade of a colossus on the legs of clay. All of it will collapse pretty soon. In seven, maybe in twelve years you won"t recognize the country."
Fyodor Andreyevich looked along the road in hope to see the coming trolley bus, but saw nothing but the moving lights of a few cars.
"What makes you think like that?" He asked with irritation. Suddenly he felt cold and eerie in the middle of the field.
"Their invasion into Afghanistan, first of all."
"But this is just a restricted contingent of troops, nothing major, just a presence to support the Government."
"That"s how the Vietnam War had started. But there is a big difference between the United States and us. They could afford the war, our idiots can"t."
"I don"t think so," Fyodor Andreyevich said authoritatively though he hardly ever thought about it. "They would never start it without considering all the pros and conts. They are not enemies to themselves."
"They are, fortunately." Piotr said without any regret. "It is all very similar to the times when the Great Rome was coming to its end. They too lived merrily not even noticing that they were doomed."
"What do you mean? What is the parallel?"
"The power of Rome was in its Army. Barbarians became so common in the Roman life that, gradually, all the unpleasant jobs, including military service were given up to them. Even slaves were encouraged to join the army, which was absolutely impossible before. Of course it led to a break in discipline and corruption. There was no more power to guard the borders or to control remote regions."
"What you are saying is impressive, but it can"t refer to our Army. I"m not a military man, but it must be in good shape if they sent it abroad."
"My neighbor, next door, received a casket with his son in it from Afghanistan. I hadn"t known his son for long, just saw him a few times, but now I see his father every day. He comes around, just to visit. He is a retired officer himself. You have to talk to him about the Soviet Army."
"Let"s hope it will soon be over." Fyodor Andreyevich said hoping that they would find something else to discuss.
"No, it won"t." Piotr chuckled. "The war is a real Klondike for all the military personal. It is mostly soldiers who are killed in action. Think about their commanders who get promotions to higher ranks much faster than in the time of peace. Their pay in Afghanistan doubles and triples, which makes their families financially secure. Not only the officers, even cooks, who are serving the generals, are making good money from the war and receive military rewards. They all are interested in extending the war as long as possible."
"Oh no!" Fyodor Andreyevich exclaimed as if in pain. "How can you be so cynical?" He wanted to say that the restricted contingent of Soviet troops are defending the interests of their country in Afghanistan, but he didn"t. He didn"t believe in that himself. "What you are saying is inhumane." He blurted out instead.
"Inhumane?" Piotr too raised his voice. "When were the Bolsheviks human, tell me? Were they human shooting all the Romanovs their doctor and dog, or were they human dispatching the best Russian peasantry to die behind the Polar Circle, or when they were throwing armless people, not soldiers, so called volunteers, under tracks of German tanks? Which of the two sacrifices were more human, tell me, the twenty million which perished in the war, or the other twenty million who were shot, imprisoned, and exiled like enemies of the regime during Stalin time?"
"I don"t know. It"s hard to argue with you. I"m not prepared." Fyodor Andreyevich sighed looking at the approaching trolley bus. He could tell Piotr good bye and depart, but something made him stay.
They both watched in silence as the doors were shut. The trolley bus pulled off.
"You sound like those Sovietologists on Western radios." Fyodor Andreyevich said. "I never take them seriously. I always feel that they, not being able to see it from the inside, just can"t be right. What you are talking about is totally different from what I see."
"Ah, old chap, what you see in Moscow is not only the façade of a huge devastated country, it is a myth which you have chosen to believe in. The Sovietologists who tell you the truth, are not fools at all, they have much more information about our life than all our newspapers together could provide."
"Listen," a sudden idea came to Fyodor Andreyevich"s mind. "If you think so differently, could you do me a favor?"