I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“My pleasure,” I said, “is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.”
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
“My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.”
“Sausage, I guess.”
I got out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. “Better not drop the glass…” And just then two refined old ladies sat down at the next table. They looked like they were from our bus.
The waiter brought a small carafe, a bottle of beer and two chocolates.
“The sandwiches are all gone,” he announced with a note of false tragedy.
I paid up. I lifted the glass and put it down right away. My hands shook like an epileptic’s. The old ladies looked me over with distaste. I attempted a smile:
“Look at me with love!”
The ladies shuddered and changed tables. I heard some muffled interjections of disapproval.
To hell with them, I thought. I steadied the glass with both hands and drained it. Then I wrestled out the sweet.
I began to feel better. That deceptive feeling of bliss was setting in. I stuffed the beer in my pocket and stood up, nearly knocking over the chair. A Duralumin armchair, to be precise. The old ladies continued to scrutinize me with apprehension.
I stepped onto the square. Its walls were covered with warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.
The men were smoking by the side of the bus. The women were noisily taking their seats. The tour guide was eating an ice cream in the shade. I approached her:
“Let’s get acquainted.”
“Aurora,” she said, extending a sticky hand.
“And I am,” I said, “Borealis.”
The girl didn’t take offence.
“Everyone makes fun of my name. I’m used to it… What’s wrong with you? You’re all red!”
“I assure you, it’s only on the outside. On the inside I’m a constitutional democrat.”
“No, really, are you unwell?”
“I drink too much. Would you like a beer?”
“Why do you drink?” she asked.
What could I say?
“It’s a secret,” I said, “a little mystery…”
“So you’ve decided to work at the museum?”
“I knew it right away.”
“Do I look like the literary type?”
“Mitrofanov was seeing you off. He’s an extremely learned Pushkin scholar. Are you good friends?”
“I’m good friends,” I said, “with his bad side.”
“How do you mean?”
“You should read Gordin, Shchegolev, Tsyavlovskaya… Kern’s memoirs. and one of the popular brochures on the dangers of alcohol.”
“You know, I’ve read so much about the dangers of alcohol that I decided to give it up. reading, that is.”
“You’re impossible to talk to.”
The driver glanced in our direction. The tourists were in their seats.
Aurora finished the ice cream and wiped her fingers.
“In the summer,” she said, “the museum pays very well. Mitrofanov makes close to two hundred roubles.”
“And that’s two hundred roubles more than he’s worth.”
“Why, you’re also bitter.”
“You’d be bitter too,” I said.
The driver honked twice.
“Let’s go,” said Aurora.
The Lvov bus was stuffy. The calico seats were burning hot. The yellow curtains intensified the feeling of suffocation.
I was leafing through the pages of Alexei Vulf’s Diaries. They referred to Pushkin in a friendly and sometimes condescending manner. There it was, the closeness that spoils vision. Everyone knows that geniuses must have friends. But who’ll believe that his friend is a genius?!
I dozed off to the murmur of some unintelligible and irrelevant facts about Ryleyev’s mother…
Someone woke me when we were already in Pskov. The kremlin’s freshly plastered walls brought on a feeling of gloom. The designers had secured a grotesque Baltic-style emblem made of wrought iron above the central archway. The kremlin resembled a gigantic model.
One of the outbuildings housed the local travel bureau. Aurora filed some paperwork and we were driven to Hera, the most fashionable local restaurant.
I wavered – to top up or not? If I drank more, tomorrow it’d be even worse. I didn’t feel like eating…
I walked onto the boulevard. Low and heavy, the lindens rustled.
Long ago I realized that as soon as you give way to thinking, you remember something sad. For instance, my last conversation with my wife.
“Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least.”
“Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?”
“Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?! My only pair of boots is in the pawnshop… I can forgive anything. Poverty doesn’t scare me. Anything but betrayal!”
“What do you mean?”
“Your endless drinking. Your. I don’t even want to say it. You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being. It’s low! You speak of nobility, yet you are a cold, hard and crafty man.”
“Don’t forget that I’ve been writing stories for twenty years.”
“You want to write a great novel? Only one in a hundred million succeeds!”
“So what? In the spiritual sense a failed attempt like that is equal to the greatest of books. Morally it’s even higher, if you will, since it excludes a reward.”
“These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words. I’ve had enough. I have a child for whom I’m responsible…”
“I have a child, too.”
“Whom you ignore for months on end. We are strangers to you…”
(In conversations with women there is one painful moment. You use facts, reasoning, arguments, you appeal to logic and common sense. And then suddenly you discover that she cannot stand the very sound of your voice.)
“Intentionally,” I said, “I never did any harm…”
I sat down on a sloping bench, pulled out a pen and a piece of paper, and a minute later scribbled down: