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Tuesday
Nov112008

You and I (part 1)

The first part of one of the most original Russian short stories of the twentieth century, the work of this writer.  You can read the original here.

 

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

                                                                                                                       Genesis 32:24

 

From the very beginning this story had a strange shade.  Under the pretext of celebrating his silver anniversary, Heinrich Ivanovich Graube invited four coworkers, including you, to his apartment, whereby he insisted so vehemently that you attend that your presence almost seemed to be the focal point of the gathering.

"I will be mortally offended if you don't come," he said with emphasis.  And then his eyes fell upon you, eyes like convex lenses.  In them lurked an icy, hypnotic glint.

Understanding that you shouldn't reveal your suspicions beforehand as he would guess them and take measures against you that you couldn't have imagined – wily, cunning measures – you politely agreed.  You even congratulated Graube on his fictitious anniversary.  Why he summoned you at all was still unclear, but your heart was seized by dark premonition.   

And, indeed, hardly had you entered his apartment when all the guests sprang out of their chairs – chairs they had almost melted into waiting for your appearance.  Two of your coworkers, Lobzikov and Polyansky, winked at each other gleefully.

"Here he is!"

"Time to get started!"

These words alone betrayed treacherous designs whose traces the host, Heinrich Ivanovich, had to cover up by motioning everyone to the dinner table.  But you made no indication that you knew the meaning of the menacing phrase, "time to get started!"  It was as if this phrase, blurted out by Graube's underlings, contained nothing suspicious, nothing more than an innocent anniversary plan to eat and drink for hours.

"Let us raise our glasses!" you exclaimed loudly and with all possible mirth.  "May this celebration be just the precursor to your golden anniversary!  Hurrah!"

All glasses were raised and clinked and you, taking stock of your surroundings, dashed your vodka under the table at that propitious moment when all eyes were closed and all throats were chugging away in honor of Heinrich Ivanovich Graube and his imaginary spouse.

Yes, the wife and hostess in this group was none other than an impostor; in fact, it was probably a man in drag.  He was painstakingly scrubbed, powdered, and made up to look like a lady who had been married for twenty-five years.  And this was precisely what explained the squeamish face made by Heinrich Ivanovich when, in a public display of familial affection, he kissed her – that is to say, him – on his protruding, muscular lips.  Oh, these people would take no prisoners to entangle you in their web and do you in!  

The bottles alone must have run about 280 rubles, not to mention the roasted duck, mushrooms, and sturgeon.  They probably also purchased a nut cake for dessert, various types of cookies, fruit candy – all for an evil end – for no less than twenty-two roubles.  And what about the butter, sugar, and bread?

In total they paid no less than eight hundred for everything.  Or ten thousand, if one includes the men in women's roles (Lobzikov and Polyansky's wives were probably also impostors), the toiletries needed, as well as the perfume – although they likely had their own underwear on – and perhaps even their colored, store-rack lace purchased for full semblance just in case they had to flirt.

And bank accounts were drained of the entire massive sum of almost fifteen thousand rubles only because of you.   Counting up these expenses in your head made you somewhat proud, but at the same time you remembered that if this was indeed the estimate and such finances were being exhausted, your situation was truly dire.

The guests were eating with great ambition, clanking their knives and forks together in some cryptic code akin to Morse's alphabet.  "Time to get started!  Time to get started!"  tapped out Polyansky impatiently – Polyansky who had not been fond of you for some time now because management, acting on higher orders, had given you a raise and not him, which was, as it were, perfectly justified.  

But Lobzikov, whose friendship with Polyansky was summed up by the aphorism, "two shoes make a pair and one hand washes the other," seized a huge piece of duck with both hands and bit into the side, hinting that this display of ferocity was analogous to what would happen to you.  Learning this bit of intelligence, the guests smacked their salty lips and cheerfully knocked their knives onto their plates, chanting: "It'll happen to you!  It'll happen to you!"  Yet Heinrich Ivanovich Graube, seated at the head of the conspirators, shook his head lightly and pensively put his shot glass – in which gleamed some untouched liquid – to his mouth.  Now you knew that it was supposed to take you another half-hour before you were drunk and unable to notice anything more.

Then Vera Ivanovna Graube – or I should say, a man dressed up as Vera Ivanovna – turned to you and very distinctly uttered the following words:

"Why is our humble friend not eating or drinking anything?"

This sentence was pronounced with the softest of girlish voices, as if he were in fact some kind of woman.  His virtuoso squeakiness must have cost him a lot of work and contradicted his makeup as a heavyweight boxer. 

"Ah!"  he said with feeling, almost ripping his vocal cords.  "You know, I got this duck at the Vagansky market.   Think you'll find decent food in a store nowadays?"

Upon hearing this rather provocative question, the guests stopped chewing and stared at you in eager anticipation of your response.  One word of sympathy and it would all be over.  Graube's ears – the technical term is helices – were hanging over the table, jutting out like headphones on both sides of his head, and his look was sniper-like and microscopic as he went over the features of your face.  Over and above all that, you suddenly had the feeling that someone invisible and omniscient was looking on at this moment (through the window, perhaps, or from the wall, or maybe even through the wall).  This someone was looking at you and everyone else sitting upright in front of their plates, just as if they had all gathered for a group picture.

Realizing that you had to say something or have your silence be interpreted as consent, as unlawful cooperation with the fun on hand, you looked, unblinking, at Graube's sculptured profile and screamed as clearly and distinctly as you could:

"No!" you said.  "Useless, it's all useless!  It is in vain that Vera Ivanovna undervalues the products of our urban and rural trade.  Duck, chicken and even goose – and even the most exotic and rarest of fowl, turkey – all is sold in appropriate quantity in all of our shops, where you can find as much as you want!"

A sigh of disappointment and somehow, at the same time, of relief spread through the room.  Graube blushed and said in full exertion of his neural apparatus:

"Fate – is a turkey; life – is a kopeck."

He was about to add something, something certainly just as nonsensical and ambiguous when Lobzikov began hissing through his chipped tooth.  This was their sign of retreat.  The guests averted their eyes – some towards their plates, others at the tablecloth – but that all-seeing and all-knowing eye which had been watching them ironically squinted at its ill-starred agents and, as if it weren't there at all, dissolved into a yellow spot the color of the yellow wallpaper.

2 

The snow fell; it fell on my eyelashes, on my hat, making it even fluffier, and on the roofs.  One was obliged to squint one's lids, and between them appeared toy-like snow houses.  Through them the street lamps were radiant, creating the pleasant effect so incident to the northern lights.  The light sated the sky then tumbled down and melted ever so slightly.  Suddenly my field of vision gave way to blind slush, and yellow tears mixed with genuine snow flowed from my eyes – on my nose, on the lights, on the roofs covered by that same snow and so akin to thatched huts.

Every time I suddenly remembered and wiped away the next tear with a mitten, nature assured me again that more snow would fall and would fall for much longer, perhaps for all of eternity.  It was that blessed hour of the day when no one quite knew what time it was because the sky, falling in bits of snow onto the ground, might very well pass for day due to its brightness and for night for the opposite reason.  Most likely it was an early winter morning stretching into evening.   I wanted to lie down, burrow my head in the snowdrift and fall asleep.  And I wanted the snow to keep falling to block the flow of time.    

I was enraptured by the weather.  If I had been a twelve-year-old boy like Zhenya rushing down Kirov street with Gagi skates under my arm, at home I would have expected a Christmas tree swathed in golden thread and a picture book version of  Verne's In Search of the Castaways.  A certain brunette provoked a foretaste of this secret in Nikolai Vasileevich, running in a drunken stupor through the frost, fully convinced that she would welcome him with open arms in a warm and cozy room.  She would take him in as she had twice before to their mutual satisfaction, and why would – he now thought – why would he slip up the third time around?  Now the cognac was already working its magic, and the brunette had much of this same mysteriousness.

So gradually, through the snowdrifts and the walls, including the spine of Nikolai Vasileevich made translucent by a flash of electric light and bent in incline towards the brunette, a panorama unfolded before me.

It was snowing.  A fat woman was brushing her teeth.  Another fat woman was cleaning a fish.  A third was cooking some meat.  Two engineers seated together at a piano were playing Chopin with all four hands.  In maternity wards, four hundred women were simultaneously giving birth. 

An old woman was dying.

A ten-kopeck coin fell under the bed.  Father, laughing, said: "Oh, Kolya, Kolya."  Nikolai Vasileevich raced through the freezing weather.  A brunette was rinsing herself off in a bathtub before a date.  An auburn-haired woman was putting on pants.  Three miles away her lover, also somehow Nikolai Vasileevich, crawled with his suitcase in his hand through an apartment spattered in blood.  

An old woman was dying – but not that one, another.

Oh my heavens, what were they doing, what were they up to!  Cooking oatmeal.  Firing a rifle, but missing.  Unscrewing a nut and crying.  Zhenya warmed his cheeks with his Gagi skates under his arm.  Windows were smashed to smithereens.  An auburn-haired woman was putting on pants.  A porter spat with loathing and said: "Here they are!  They've arrived!"

In a bathtub, prior to a date, he raced with his suitcase.  He unscrewed his cheeks from the rifle, and gave birth to the old woman, laughing:  "Here they are!  They've arrived!"  The brunette was dying.  Nikolai Vasileevich was dying.  Zhenya was dying and was born.  The auburn-haired woman was playing Chopin.  But another auburn-haired woman – about seventeen or so – was nevertheless putting on pants.

Sense and logic were embedded in the synchronicity of all these actions, each of which made no sense on its own.  They did not know who else was participating.  What is more, they didn't know what purpose the details in the picture could possibly have, the picture I created while looking at them.  They had no idea that every step they took was fixed and subject, at any given moment, to meticulous examination.

Admittedly, someone experienced a gnaw of conscience.  But sensing continually that I was watching them, staring at them, not averting my piercing and vigilant gaze for a second – this they could not imagine.  Perhaps they acted rather naturally in their mistaken ways, but they were myopic to a substantial degree.

Suddenly my eye slammed against an obstacle and stumbled backwards as if pushed.  It was a person whom one couldn't help but notice.  On the empty, snow-covered street he was drawing attention to himself by constantly looking every which way.  Even entering the apartment, surrounded by wine and hors-d'oeuvres, showing his gratitude to his hospitable host, he was still behaving like a criminal about to be caught and convicted.

No one threatened him, and I deemed it sound and sensible that he began to feel a premonition of my presence.  He probably caught sight of my piercing gaze and writhed beneath it, unaware that it contained a snag.  Yes, there was a snag to allotting power to people to whom that power did not belong.  He must have thought that someone was following him for personal reasons, and this person was I, while he must have thought it was they, and all of this amused me to no end.  I concentrated on him; I captured his brilliant plan in the colored blur of my pupil.  He was like a bacillum beneath a microscope, and I was examining him in every last cruel detail.  

He had red hair; his face was very white, gentle, impenetrable by the sun's rays; its only features were faded freckles which, however, also covered his hands, merging into phalanges and a dark thick rash.  He was dressed rather fashionably, in a freshly pressed suit, in a new necktie and clean socks, which given his age and bachelorhood indicated a certain hidden pride if not a fondness for women.

This last supposition, however, soon ceased to be of any import.  He did not react to any of the women sitting around the table, taking them to be men.  The exception was the librarian Lida, who was sitting on his right.  He knew her from the Ministry, where he would often sit in the library reading the journal Kunststoffe as well as detective novels in translation, and might have hoped that she was in fact none other than the librarian Lida and not an imaginary agent.

Lida was also a girl prone to daydreams, and couldn't resist anyone's advances due to her youth and kindness.  Two years ago she and Heinrich Ivanovich had had a brief affair and now, out of compassion, he had invited her to this family celebration.  She drank a lot in silence and with no interest in what was going on.

This did not escape the attention of my ward.  Having poured out a second glass of wine under the table, he turned to Lida and said for everyone to hear:

"Lida, I love you!"

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