"All I wanted, my friend, was a word alone. You're a joker, that's for sure! My wife loves to remind me about that evening. We certainly a lot of fun! How we laughed, how we laughed! Now, be honest, did you really believe that old fool? All she was supposed to do was roast the duck and see to the guests ... that's all. Then you made that joke and I got it immediately. "Right through you," he says, "I can see right through you!" Ha ha ha! Ah, yes! Oh, you joker, you! D'you want me to get down on my knees and beg? I'm just joking, joking, don't get mad. I'm just saying all this out of respect. Maybe you're still offended by what I said, old boy? Is it because of Lida? Forgive an old, foolish lecher. You have nothing to be sorry about, we'll be completely fine in the end. Eat to your heart's content! A simple affair, and who remembers this stuff, anyway? You understand, I'm old enough to be the father of either one of you. I'm just like Christopher Columbus, the first one there, that's all. I beat Lobzikov and Polyansky to it. But I'm sorry all the same. An lascivious itch, nothing more. We too had our hour of glory. But I see that you're different, you have your principles. "I can see right through you!" What was all that about? Let's be calm and understanding. Now, do you want me to get down on my knees and beg for your forgiveness? I'd only do it for you because I respect you so much. Want me to?"
But you didn't manage to figure out what all of this meant. Looking around hastily, you didn't see how Heinrich Ivanovich Graube, in his hat and with his briefcase in hand, fell to his knees on the ground. His massive physiognomy, yellowing under the ambient light, was full of the sadness of a noble plea.
For a second you entertained the wild notion that Heinrich Ivanovich was actually afraid of you.
Then you chased away your illusions. You realized just in time what sublime strategy was contained in such a lowly pose. From below, rising from the dirt, it was easier to take hold of a human soul. From below you could be easily assaulted. Falling on his knees before you gives him the advantage of being able at any time to grab you from behind your legs and topple you onto your back.
Therefore, not waiting any longer, you recoiled to the side and seeing Graube's brows arch in surprise, you smacked him in the face, but not in his brows, in his eyes. You turned around in the street. Heinrich Ivanovich was sitting on the snow, his thick briefcase lying flat in front of him. Graube was covering half of his face with one hand, but the healthy half continued looking at you.
"Wait! Don't go! You're wrong, I assure you!" he said, sniffing and howling lightly. "How could I be your rival? You're worried for nothing. You're younger than I am, make sure that you look after your health. Lida's going to show up right now, just whistle and she'll come. D'you want me to tell her that you haven't left for Yalta? She'll come running. Want me to?"
But you didn't take the bait. You forgot about the sausage you wanted to buy, ran home at full speed, and locked the door.
And that same evening Lida came to visit him. She rang twice, but no one answered. Through the mail slot a sliver of the foyer was visible, dim and littered with the dregs of second-rate housecleaning. Two legs stood there at an angle; Lida recognized them by their boots and pants. Everything else was beyond her ken.
"It's me, Lida! Open up, Nikolai Vasileevich!" Lida screamed happily through the mail slot.
To her surprise the legs she recognized did not budge. They twitched almost unnoticeably but did not approach her. Propriety dictated that she ring again, which she did.
The heat rumbled and began circulating. Downstairs on the first floor, a radio was playing.
"Nikolai Vasileevich, it's me, just me, Lida. Why are you so silent? Think I can't see you? You're standing all the way over there in the corner, and you're still wearing those same wool-blend Czechoslovakian pants. Come on, let me in for a minute."
The light went off the foyer, the thin strip of radiance extinguished. Rattled and indecisive, Lida began pacing in a circle in front of the door.
"Are you embarrassed because you promised to marry me? Please don't think that, that's not why I'm here. I don't need to get married officially, I swear to you. Why'd you turn off the light? Nikolai Vasileevich! In any case, I can still hear everything. You're standing there and breathing out. Aren't you ashamed of yourself! Maybe you heard some things about me ... well, don't listen to anyone. I haven't had anything with Lobzikov for four months now, nor with Polyansky. When you took leave I ... I couldn't stop thinking about you. I didn't even kiss anyone while you were gone, honest. Nikolai Vasileevich, if you so choose, I will be yours and yours alone for the rest of our lives. I will love you forever, just like a husband. I'll even cook dinner for you if you'd like."
She pressed her eyes then her lips against the door. Silence reigned in the apartment of Nikolai Vasileevich. But from there – through the narrow crack in the door – came a warm somewhat rotting smell.
"Oh, sweetie pie, so you didn't want to pluck the rose?" she whispered, blushing. Then she caught one last whiff of the dark crack and went back home.
You only dared to stir once she had left, stretching your tense limbs. You were hot and sweaty. What childish behavior, jumping at the sound of the bell under the hot and oppressive light! This negligence almost cost you your neck. It was good at least that you remembered just in time and froze in place as if dead, as if you weren't there at all.
And what were you supposed to have done? Let her in? Showcase to everyone the very details of your personal life? And with whom, precisely? With that same woman – and now you knew the story in full – who was assigned to you by Graube? Back then, in front of all the guests, when she evoked sweet love within you, and you were about to ... Run! Run before it's too late! Before she comes back, before she draws you to her under the guise of being your bride, obliged by her love to follow you everywhere you go. And all because you had the misfortune of groping her a mere three centimeters above the usually accepted level.
You looked out the window, disappearing behind the door jamb and not turning on the light. The path was cut off: Lida was keeping guard below. She was not about to abandon you. She paced in front of the house like a sentry.
Your feet in their overheated boots were now swollen in pain. Your hand ached, your pinky having been injured by Graube's arched brows. Worst of all was the unshakeable feeling, the repulsive, prickly feeling of your own skin. You kept wincing and shaking your head, then ferociously wiped your cheeks and forehead with the palms of your hands.
... This wretched sight hurt my eyes – they were already extremely sore. Matches seemed to have been placed between my eyelids like crosspieces, and both of my eyeballs were scratched and bloody.
To give myself a breather and to lessen as much as possible the suffering caused by my vigilance, I tried to look the other way and chose the farthest alleys and side streets for my walk – Marina Roshcha, Bolshaya Olenya near Sokolniki – but none of this helped. Wherever I went, on foot or by tram, the same angry eyes appeared before me, the same freckled fingers covered in red hair.
I knew that all of this could end rather badly. When I couldn't take it any more, I hailed a taxi and drove to the scene of the events.
My plan was to lure Lida away from her post and in so doing, right the situation. I was hoping to reduce the number of eyes which he had directed towards himself by force of imagination. But there was another impetus: I wanted to get my mind off things. I needed a third person to distract and protect me from my pursuer.
Lida was freezing in her selfless vigil under his dark windows. Although we only knew one another, so to speak, by sight, her soft spots were no secret to me. Striking up a conversation and inviting her out of the cold and into a nearby café would only take five minutes. I called myself the first name that came to mind – Hippolytus, I believe – and she agreed. Anyway, she had no other place to go.
While we were waiting for satsivi and shashliks, I paid her a few compliments to make her feel better.
"Why do you have a beard?" she asked flirtatiously. "To look tougher? It makes you look older. And anyway, beards don't suit redheads."
"What are you talking about?! A redhead, me?!" I shot back, horrified at her ability to inflict her taste on what she saw.
"Now wait a minute, you do have red hair!" said Lida, stubbornly. "With a reddish tint. You look a bit like a friend of mine..."
I saw no need to push the matter any further since it was dangerous for us all. Yet I made no effort to hide my dislike of redheads. Redheads always think that everyone's looking at them, and for that reason they're terribly high on themselves and trust no one. But in fact no one pays redheads any attention, nor do they want to have anything to do with them.
"On the other hand," Lida boasted, "they're the jealous type. And sensitive. And they understand the finer points of things."
Oh, I knew precisely where her thoughts were heading. But it was all in vain. At the same time as our lunch was being brought out, her red-haired hunk had progressed further in his destructive ingenuity. Lying in the darkness with his face pressed in his pillow, he was trying with all his might to think about nothing.
"Di di di, la la la. Di di di, la la la," he mumbled, concentrating.
Now he thought that by dumbing down his brain with obvious nonsense, he could save himself from his observers spying on him from within. Apparently it wasn't enough to get the whole world up in arms against him; no, now he had taken note of my secret investigation and elected to battle me on the crossroads of his consciousness. "Di di di, la la la," just try to break through this wall – it's a hopeless scenario. What was the meaning of this dim-witted, talentless di-di-di-la-la-la-ing?
So, spilling the cognac, I said to Lida:
"Sing, Lidochka. Sing, Lididiliya. We won't think about any redheads, no redheads. Don't pay any attention to redheads. You'll feel better right away. Eat the satsivi and shashlik. Shashlik! Shashlik! Satsivi!"
"Di di di, la la la! Uncle! Uncle! Uncle! Di di di, li di di!"
"Satsivi! Satsivi! Eat, Lidochka, some shashlik. Fatty, fatty, redheaded shashlik! Shash or shish? Lik? Lik! Lik! Satsivi!"
Yet however hard we tried, we couldn't distract each other nor fight off the tension drawing us closer to catastrophe. For that same reason Lida was bothering both him and me. Having warmed up after her third drink, she then said:
"I like you, Hippolytus. You really do look like a friend of mine. He also fed me when we were over at some friends' apartment. The only thing I ask of you is please shave the beard. I beg you, just do it for me. Get your razor and shave it off!"
Upon hearing her proposal, I could hardly breathe.
"Shut up!" I screamed at her. "Not a word more! Not a word more about such sensitive subjects! Do you hear me?!"
And at the same moment, I saw that he was raising his head.
You raised your head as if listening to our conversation, and you smiled. You said to yourself: "Need to shave!" And then you repeated aloud: "Need to shave! La la la! Need to shave!"
And again you smiled, the second smile during all this time.
I was trembling. I grabbed Lida by the hand and we ran out onto the street without finishing our cognac. There, without further ado, I professed my love to Lida. I told her I was mad about her, passionately in love, and didn't even want to look at anyone else. There was no one else I wanted to think about. And for that reason today she was bound to belong to me – right now, here and now!
You got up and turned on the lights. Your eyes squinted.
"But it's so cold here and there are so many people bustling about! If you really want to, let's just go back to your place. As long as you're not married, that is."
I dragged her through the streets while you were heating up water and looking for your razor and shaving brush. I only had a few minutes left. Our only recourse was to head into someone's entry stairwell. At the top landing it wasn't quite as cold, and very unlikely that we'd be seen.
And what if we were seen? What did I care? I was preoccupied with my own problems. It was I, I who shouldn't notice anyone! Before it was too late I wanted to get out of this game – this game which could only end badly – but I had no other means of salvation on hand except Lida.
I kneeled before her. One rule suddenly came to mind: "From below you could be easily assaulted. Falling on his knees before you gives him the advantage of being able at any time to grab you from behind your legs and topple you onto your back."
And that's what happened. Lida lovingly patted my bent head, and I seized her skinny legs with my arms and pinned her to the wall. I didn't want to lay her down on the tiles because then she'd catch cold.
I was not shy about my intentions – I was sufficiently forthcoming, in fact. At the end of it all, it wasn't for my benefit that I tried all this; it was because I had no alternative.
Of course it would have been better had you been here in my place. But if there was something you lacked in life it would be openness. Nevertheless, every man – even the most arrogant and secretive – is required willy-nilly to be relaxed in the embrace of a woman. Perhaps even you would not push Lida away. This might be useful and, who knows, maybe you'd even become a bit more trusting and be able to understand me better.
But you preferred another path and now, having seized your razor in your prehensile, freckled paws, you led it across your cheeks, as if you were about to bring everything into order. Knowing your pretenses, I made haste. Better, much better to leave now, to plunge into my activities, so that you too, at last, could stop paying attention to me, stop being afraid, stop disappearing and harboring vengeful plans in the depths of your soul.
Lida exhaled loudly and, closing her eyes, stroked my hair:
"Kolya, Kolenka, Nikolai Vasileevich! My redhead, o my beloved redhead!" she sang out in every note.
No jealousy overcame me. But I was still plagued by endless memories, that awkward proximity to you at that very moment when I had hoped to hide far, far away from you. I approached you at breakneck speed and there I saw your eyes, widened in rage. Back! Back! Too late. I entered your brain, your inflamed consciousness, and all your secrets which I had no desire to know now lay before me like an open book.
You jumped out of the chair. All the witnesses to your evil deed were gathered around. Aha! Caught! You waved to me, to Lida, to the whole world, with your ready blade.
"Stop! Don't you dare! What are you doing?!"
I squinted. And instantaneously, my long-lost feeling of calm returned to me. It was dark and quiet. I couldn't see you anymore. You were no longer there.
When I opened my eyes once more, Lida was putting on lipstick. She was wiggling, shaking, straightening out her dress and fur coat. A button jumped from her and fell down, step after step, down the stairs. Lida went down after it and scooped it up. Then she went down one more floor.
"Where are you off to, Lida?" I asked, more out of politeness than genuine interest. There was no reply: Lida hurried off to her post which she had abandoned a hour before. Looking out in that direction, I became convinced that she was running off in vain. There was no one for her to guard. Our mutual friend had collapsed under the table with his lathered cheeks and slit throat. As he fell, he was somehow clever enough to smash the table lamp. No light shone from his room.
I sat down on the step and waited for Lida to disappear. But in the end she did not manage to hide from my eyes. So I got up and, forsaking the rather hospitable entry stairwell, went through the city on my habitual rounds.
Everything was like it was before. The snow was falling and it was the same in-between time of the day. Two engineers – his former coworkers Lobzikov and Polyansky – were playing Chopin on the piano. Four hundred women were giving birth, just like before, to four hundred children at the same time. Vera Ivanovna was putting a eyebath on the blackened eye of Heinrich Ivanovich. An auburn-haired girl was putting on pants. A brunette was leaning over a sink, getting ready for a date with Nikolai Vasileevich, who, as usual, was running in a drunken stupor through the icy weather. Nikolai Vasileevich's body lay in a locked room. Lida, like a sentry, was walking back and forth underneath his windows.
I saw all this and couldn't but think of him. I was a bit sad.
You left and I remained. I'm not sorry about your death. I'm only sorry I can't forget you.