“Ahoy! Bonehead Ivanych! You got a visitor!”
He winked and added:
“It’s the cops for the alimony.”
A crimson muzzle, generously adorned with blue eyes, appeared momentarily.
“Whatsa… Who?. You about the gun?”
“I was told you have a room to let.”
The expression on Mikhail Ivanych’s face betrayed deep confusion. I would later discover that this was his normal reaction to any question, however harmless.
“A room?. Whatsa. Why?”
“I work at the Preserve. I’d like to rent a room. Temporarily. Till autumn. Do you have a spare room?”
“The house is Ma’s. In her name. And Ma’s in Pskov. Her feet swolled up.”
“So you don’t have a room?”
“Jews had it last year. I got no complaints, the people had class… No furniture polish, no cologne… Just red, white and beer. Me personally, I respect the Jews.”
“They put Christ on the cross,” interjected Tolik.
“That was ages ago!” yelled Mikhail Ivanych.
“Long before the Revolution.”
“The room,” I said. “Is it for rent or not?”
“Show the man,” commanded Tolik, zipping his fly.
The three of us walked down a village street. A woman was standing by a fence, wearing a man’s jacket with the Order of the Red Star pinned to the lapel.
“Zin, lend me a fiver,” belted out Mikhail Ivanych.
The woman waved him away.
“Wine’ll be the death of you. Have ya heard, they got a new decree out? To string up every wino with cable!”
“Where?!” Mikhail Ivanych guffawed. “They’ll run outta metal. Our entire metalworks will go bust…”
And he added:
“You old tart. Just wait, you’ll come to me for wood. I work at the forestry. I’m a Friendshipist!”
“What?” I didn’t understand.
“I got a power saw. one from the ‘Friendship’ line. Whack – and there’s a tenner in my pocket.”
“Friendshipist,” grumbled the woman. “Your only friend’s the big swill. See you don’t drink yourself into the box…”
“It’s not that easy,” said Mikhail Ivanych almost regretfully.
This was a broad-shouldered, well-built man. Even tatty, filthy clothes could not truly disfigure him. A weathered face, large, protruding collarbones under an open shirt, a steady, confident stride. I couldn’t help but admire him.
M ikhail Ivanych’s house made a horrifying impression. A sloping antenna shone black against the white clouds. Sections of the roof had caved in, revealing dark, uneven beams. The walls were carelessly covered in plywood. The cracked window panes were held together with newspaper. Filthy oakum poked out from the countless gaps.
The stench of rotten food hung in the owner’s room. Over the table I noticed a coloured portrait of General Mao, torn from a magazine. Next to him beamed Gagarin. Pieces of noodles were swimming in the sink with dark circles of chipped enamel. The wall clock was silent: an old pressing iron, used as weight on the main wheel, rested on the floor.
Two heraldic-looking cats – one charcoal-black, the other pinkish-white – sauntered haughtily about the table, weaving past the plates. The owner shooed them away with a felt boot that came to hand. Glass smashed. The cats fled into a dark corner with a piercing howl.
The room next door was even more disgusting. The middle of the ceiling sagged dangerously low. Two metal beds were hidden under tattered clothes and putrid sheepskins. The surfaces were covered with cigarette butts and eggshells.
To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. If only I could have simply said: “I’m afraid this won’t work…” But it appears I am genteel after all. And so I said something lyrical:
“The windows face south?”
“The very, very south,” Tolik affirmed.
Through the window I saw a dilapidated bathhouse.
“The main thing,” I said, “is that there’s a private entrance.”
“The entrance is private,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych, “only it’s nailed shut.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said.
“Ein Moment” said the owner, took a few steps back, and charged the door.
“What’s the rent?”
“What do you mean, nothing?” I asked.
“Just that. Bring six bottles of poison and the space is yours.”
“Can we agree on something a little more specific? Say twenty roubles? Would that suit you?”
The owner fell to thought:
“How much is that?”
“I just said – twenty roubles.”
“And converted to brew? At rouble four apiece?”
“Nineteen bottles of ‘Fortified Rosé’. A pack of ‘Belomor’ smokes. Two boxes of matches,” spat out Tolik.
“And two roubles for moving expenses,” concluded Mikhail Ivanych.
I took out the money.
“Do you care to examine the toilet?”
“Another time,” I said. “Then we’ve agreed? Where do you keep the key?”
“There’s no key,” said Mikhail Ivanych. “It got lost. Don’t go, we’ll make a run.”
“I’ve got some business at the tourist centre. Next time…”
“As you wish. I’ll stop by the centre this evening. I gotta give Lizka a kick in the butt.”
“Who’s Lizka?” I asked.
“She’s my woman. Wife, I mean. Works as a housekeeper at the centre. We be broken up.”
“So then why are you going to beat her?”
“Whatsa? Hanging her’s too good, but a mess to get into. They wanted to take away my gun, something about me threatening to shoot ’er. I thought you were here about the gun.”
“A waste of ammo,” threw in Tolik.
“You don’t say,” agreed Mikhail Ivanych. “I can snuff ’er with my bare hands, if need be. Last winter I bump into her, this and that, it’s all friendly, and she screams: ‘Oh, Misha, dearest, I don’t want to, let me go…’ Major Jafarov summons me in and says, ‘Your name?’ And I say, ‘Dick on a stick.’
“I got me fifteen days in the clink, without smokes, without nothing. Like I give a shit. Just kicking back. Lizka wrote to the prosecutor, something about puttin’ me away or I’ll kill ’er… But what’s the point in that?”
“You won’t hear the end of it,” agreed Tolik. And added:
“Let’s get going! Or they’ll close the shop.”
And the friends set off for the housing development, resilient, repulsive and aggressive, like weeds.
I stayed in the library till closing.