A Roulette Russian, aka Commie - a fragment

 A Roulette Russian,
     aka Commie
     by Sergey Magomet
     "This novel is, perhaps, the most truthful, documentary-like book of the older generation, the "superfluous people" born of the Soviet economic and political stagnation. Side by side with them we find the young revolutionary-minded enthusiasts, who survived the bloody war to emerge from it with a determination to rebuild the unjust world according to pure Lenin. At one extreme there are masters of this life, while at the crossroads of these lines are ordinary people, the "cannon fodder" for the System.
     The novel is written in a relaxed manner, frankly depicting the pains, the tears, and the hopes..." (NYRev)
     ...At five in the evening we got out into the frosty air along with a crowd of office workers pouring out through the glass doors of the Institute. We started down a narrow crooked street descending sharply to the metro and overflowed with people.
     "Well, buddy," Yankee whispered to me, "I'd say she's quite obviously aroused!"
     He took Olenka by the arm. I walked on the other side of her, and she thrust her other hand into the pocket of my jacket. She looked so happy that I found it terribly funny, I mean, that kind of a rivalry, broken out between my friend Yankee and me over her.
     In the wine bar we drank some fortified wine and ate a chocolate bar with it. I winked at Yankee as if to say: "Go ahead!" while pressing my knee up against Olenka's thigh. My desire started over. Rivalry in such things is a great turn-on. We were hot with talking about buying some wine and maybe going to Olenka's as a threesome.
     In the shop Olenka stood in the queue while Yankee and I waited at the counter.
     "Just feel it! She's just trembling with it!" said Yankee. "She can hardly contain herself!"
     "I'm glad you've cheered up," I observed. "See how easily your fears forgotten when you’re in for something new!"
     "Well, I've just decided to use your little method," he replied.
     "What little method?"
     "I've decided to fake nonchalance, and also to give the appearance of not knowing what's going on around me like you do."
     "And what's going on?"
     "You twit!.. Didn’t I warn you it’s not safe to be my friend now? Yet you didn't take any notice!" There was a genuine anxiety in Yankee's voice. "Olenka's an amazing cover for us nowЇ"
     "A cover?"
     "Haven't you noticed we're being watched all the time?"
     I turned round involuntarily, but then swore in anger. Was he pulling my leg or had he really gone mad?
     "Okay, Okay. You get the wine and I'll wait for you outside," he said suddenly and rushed out of the shop.
     Olenka got out a plastic bag and we put the bottles in it.
     The street was decorated with many red flags. Packed buses with the passengers' noses flattened up against the windows laboured up the steep slope, swaying from side to side.
     "Where's Alexander?"
     I looked up and about. Yankee wasn't outside the shop. We waited but he didn't appear. He'd run off.
     "I think he must just need to be alone," said Olenka. "Let's go, just the two of usЇ"
     I took a step, wanted to object, but the words stuck in my throat. The pavement, smoothly trampled with snow, came out with huge blobs of bloody phlegm.
     I shuddered every time, because I just couldn't get used to the fact that our route from work to the metro passed close to the emergency dentist's. I tried to suppress my persistent urge to steal a glance at another disgusting spot.
     Doctors with faces devoid of the concern you would expect from them walked out into the cold in just their white coats and had a smoke under the red cross sign. A nurse, or doctor, or some¬thing—it doesn't matter—was giggling in the midst of her colleagues, who kept grabbing her playfully by the waist or the shoulders. As she did so her vile tongue lolled from her brightly painted lips. I myself wouldn't have said no to her... Yet I stopped myself with the thought that she was actually the same kind of woman as Lora, my own wife, and realized that while I was married I dream of nothing but that my wife become a cosy housewife—in fact, not what she is... No doubt psychology gets distorted in medics?
     "Now, now," Olenka gave me a shake, "don't start looking at whores!.. Let's go, let's go, darling!" she hurried me.
     I fiddled with my matches, lit up and suddenly felt an irresistible urge to look round, as if I could feel someone staring at me unusually hard. I looked round immediately but didn't notice anything in particular. I heard that madness was infectious. Yankee had still managed to unbalance me with his raving. I thought about this and looked down involuntarily at the filthy pavement.
     "For Christ's sake let's go!" said Olenka, grimacing in annoyance.
     And then I saw Him.
     His face, that well-known face with its square-bracket moustaches appeared not far from the newsstand and was promptly lost in the crowd.
     Though perplexed I wondered for a second who it could be.
     Then I remembered.
     Good God! It was Commie of course!
     The one and only. A gymnast, a patriot and a great bloke. He was my fellow student, nicknamed Commie, who, in the fourth year when the basic difficulties of academic work had been left behind took us all by surprise and, without any obvious reason or explanation, took back his papers from the institute and disappears without trace.
     "No, wait," I muttered to Olenka feeling happy and pulling myself away from her. "I won't be a minute..."
     Standing on tiptoe and trying to spot him in the crowd, I set off for the newsstand. A dense phalanx of people gave way, revealing a row of fresh evening Soviet newspapers headed by red print as it used to be on public holiday editions.
     I decided after further thought that Commie might also perhaps not recognize me straight away, and thought, why not play a trick on him? I'd go up to him and pull him by his square-bracket moustache, then gloat at his distraught expression.
     But he wasn't by the newsstand. I shrugged my shoulders in bewilderment and looked around. Maybe it wasn't him, after all?
     "I thought it spotted a friend," I said to Olenka, who had walked up to me.
     "What d'you mean, darling," she cooed, "it's just that the fresh air's gone to your head a little! Today we don't need any friends, right? Why should we? Let's go! Maybe I want to tire you out so much there'll be nothing left for your wife!"
     Olenka dragged me off to the metro, indignant at the old people and women loaded down with heavy bags who slowed us down. But no sooner had we gone thirty paces, than I was disturbed again by something like a twinge (nothing like it had happened to me before!) and forced to look round.
     And I saw him again!
     It turned out Commie was following us.
     He wasn't in any hurry and like us was going down the street with the crowd to the metro. A lot of passers-by blocked him from us, but this time I managed to get a good look at him.
     Commie was wearing a military summer hat, a cross between a panama and a wide-rimmed cloth cap—like the ones I'd seen our southern frontier guards wearing on television—faded, niether its star,  nor any insignia, a particularly unusual headpiece for a frosty February evening. Also when the crowd had thinned a little, I saw that Commie, solidly built and thick set, had squeezed himself into a long soldier's greatcoat with its straps ripped off. I guessed from his shuffling but steady gait that his footwear needed attention: beneath his faded light-blue jeans was a pair of ordinary tarpaulin boots.
     "Just look at that HIPPY!" I thought to myself.
     "Aha! So there he is!" I said, stopping Olenka. "Wait... Look at him!"
     "Does it really matter that much now?" she said feeling offended, and not even looking.
     We were standing right in the middle of the pavement; the crowd was flocking to the metro and people shoved us from all sides. I tried no to lose sight of Commie. He was already very close.
     "I just want to pull my old friend by the moustache!" I laughed.
     Then Commie shuffled off to the side. He was blocked off by some guy in an imitation fur coat. But I wasn't bothered: he ought to be about to come level with us. The guy in the imitation fur coat rammed me roughly with his shoulder, causing a crackle of static electricity, but Commie had gone.
     "What's going on?" I said in confusion and stepped forward. Commie appeared again for a moment in the crowd and I saw in surprise that he was heading quickly off in the opposite direc¬tion.
     "Oh no, I won’t let him go! I've got to give him a tug by the moustache!" I muttered stubbornly, heading after him.
     As Olenka hung on to my arm, we had to run together. We got to the red cross sign again. It wasn't easy to run as I felt a bit sick from the alcohol I'd drunk. Commie slipped round the corner and disappeared through the door of the emergency dentist's. Had he just got toothache or something? We followed him in.
     Along the sides of the zigzagging corridor a load of people were languishing in expectation in mournful groups as if they had gathered for a funeral. Our nostrils were confronted by a pungent smell of ether. We ran along the corridor, but Commie was not among the "mourners". In a branch of the corridor a door was closing and we rushed through it. The people at the sides suddenly got upset. Someone even tried to block our way, despite my assurances that we weren't patients. We managed to slip in anyway.
     "Oh so this is what you're after!" Olenka pinched me jealously.
     I was surprised too. That same dolled-up giggler, who reminded me of Lora, was bending over a man groaning in a dentist's chair. She was completing some manipulations and her patient's knees were trembling. She turned her reddening face towards us.
     "This is a medical unit!" she chuckled.
     "And we thought it was a brothel!" cried Olenka defiantly.
     The man in the chair inhaled loudly. Also flushed and agitated, he wiped away some thick saliva with his handkerchief, trained his greasy eyes on us and for some reason giggled too.
     "You should get in the queue anyway!" said the dentist laughing. Commie wasn't in the room.
     "God, you're such a womanizer!" Olenka said to me reproachfully outside.
     "He's gone, he's vanished into thin airЇ" I mumbled on mean inglessly.
     But the situation then began to develop even more absurdly.
     I walked slowly on purpose. I kept squinting around furtively. I am seeing the strange panama hat appear here and there, but every time I tried to get closer, it disappeared.
     "Oh darling!" sighed Olenka, as she fussed around behind me.
     I couldn't understand at all. I was getting more and more confused. It was getting harder to keep my bearings. I was tired and I wanted to lie down and immerse myself in some sunny open field.
     "Let's get a cab!" said Olenka firmly seizing the initiative.
     But I could see myself on the top of some green hill betweei stone pillars dotted with pagan scribblings. My arms were crossed over my chest and my eyes were shut. A wind howling over the pillars. Streams glistening at the foot of the hill.
     "You drunken bum," whispered Olenka gently as she got me carefully into the taxi to take us to her place. "Bibirevo!" she barked efficiently at the driver.
     "Where the hell is that?" he said in surprise. "In Moscow?"
     We finally got to Olenka's. While I was taking off my jacke and shoes in the hall, Olenka's parents peeped discreetly out of their bedroom. A man had come to see their daughter. I said hallo. Olenki hissed at them sternly and they obediently disappeared.
     "You've got them round your little finger!" I said.
     She led me to her room and brought wine glasses, fried chicken apples, sweets, cigarettes and an ash tray. Basically she made a fuss over me. Meanwhile I picked up the phone and rang Lora's parents' place in Sokolniki. I didn't even try to phone home, for I knew almost for certain that Lora wasn't there.
     Her younger sister Zhanna answered.
     "Hi sis!" I said. "How's school?"
     "It's bad, bro, bad!" she whispered plaintively. "And you're my only hope. You must go to the school. Otherwise they'll phone mum or dad at work!"
     "No, no, I can't do that," I protested. "Why should I go to your school? Who do you think I am?"
     "You take care of me! That’s why. In school I'll say you're my older brother and that you're bringing me up. Please, be a darling I beg you. Help me! I don't want my parents to hear about this.'
     "And what've you let yourself in for there?"
     "I can't talk about it over the phone! I'll tell you later... okay?"
     "Okay, I'll think about it."
     "You deserve a big kiss!"
     "Yeah, yeah!" I shouted at her. "But no funny business!"
     "As you wish," she laughed.
     "Is Lora there, by the way?" I inquired.
     "No," Zhanna jabbered on chirpily, "this afternoon she was going to take dad's car to go to that... to Valery's for some groceries. But then, it seems, she changed her mind..."
     "Yes," I mumbled, "I know..."
     In fact I didn't know anything about it.
     I often heard about this new acquaintance of Lora's—Valery— at Sokolniki: he had already begun to be considered as family, without even having been there. For some time he had been providing us with various goods. This warm relationship, Lora said, could be explained by the peculiar cir¬cumstances of their acquaintance. She had bundled him into the car when he, after drinking and getting into a fight in some seedy joint, had been beaten up and was being chased. Ostensibly, she rescued him. After that Valery didn't want to seem ungrateful and turned out to be an extremely useful person to knowЇ
     ''What’re we going to do?" I asked Olenka, putting the phone down.
     "Whatever you like!"
     "I might want to do anything..."
     "Well, I know what men like most of all!"
     "Let's drink some more wine first," I suggested, trying not to look at her happy face. "Will we be disturbed?" I meant her parents.
     Olenka went over to the casette recorder and put on a tape.
     "We have a very strict agreement about that," she said to calm me. "I also have a right to my own private life! I am an adult! While there's music playing they won't come in for anything!"
     We emptied our glasses and I poured some more straight away.
     "To concentrate the mind," I explained.
     "I know," Olenka agreed hastily.
     In five minutes she was completely drunk and laughing like a child. Just looking at her made me burst out laughing too.
     "What a shame you're married!" she exclaimed.
     "I think that myself sometimes," I confessed. "Me and my wife don't understand each other."
     This wasn't quite what I wanted to say, but she was very pleased.
     "You know I thought as much. She doesn't suit you, right? Is that it?"
     "Well, maybe I don't suit herЇ"
     "Why not? I could give you lots of reasons. My premature balding for instance. It's upsetting to go bald at twenty-five, you know. I've tried rubbing on all sorts of shit but nothing does any good! My hair doesn't want to grow and that's the end of it!.. And I don't think she likes bald men very muchЇ"
     "You call that baldness?" exclaimed Olenka. "That's brains, brains! It's just a wise forehead!.. Oh darling, darling!" she mumbled as she fell before me on her knees. "I want to be exciting for you!" She leaned towards me and while she did what "men like most of all", I looked at my jeans; Igor Evgenyevich had given them to me. He had hardly worn them at all, they'd just got slightly frayed at the stitches and my father-in-law did not like this. They were slightly too big but in winter you could wear long Johns underneath themЇ
     Olenka fell back feebly at the carpet, then tried to get up but couldn't. She kept on murmuring something about the art of love. I lifted her up and sat her on the bed. She wanted us to drink more. She broke a glass. I picked up the pieces but didn't notice that I'd cut my finger. Then I saw blood and bandaged it with my handkerchief. Olenka muttered about specific positions and how unhappy she was. I noticed with surprise that she was crying. She shouldn't have had so much to drink.
     Before she passed out I helped her get undressed and lay her on the bed very carefully. At that moment the door began to open slowly. Realizing what was going on I managed to jump up and turn the tape over. The music began again and the door immediately banged shut.
     Then I hurriedly got dressed in the corridor. Olenka's parents also crept carefully out of their room to have a look. I said "goodbye" in as sober a voice as possible and left. The music was still playing...
translated by S.M. and R.G.

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