To Rolan Bykov
BURY ME BEHIND THE BASEBOARD
Translated from the Russian
by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson
My name is Sasha Savelyev. I’m in second grade and I live with my grandparents. My mother abandoned me for a blood-sucking midget and hung me around Grandma’s neck like a god-awful heavy cross. I’ve been hanging there since I was four.
I’m going to begin my story with the bathing episode, and rest assured that it will be interesting. With Grandma, bathing was a major undertaking, as you’re about to find out.
It all started rather peacefully. The bathtub gurgled as it was filling up with water in which a plastic thermometer was floating. While bathing, its red bar was supposed to be at exactly 99.5 degrees. I’m not sure why. I heard that this temperature is ideal for a particular kind of tropical seaweed to reproduce, but I didn’t look much like seaweed and had no intention of reproducing. A reflective space heater was placed in the bathroom; Grandpa was supposed to remove it when Grandma signaled with a clap. There were also two chairs covered with towels. One was intended for Grandma, the other... Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the bathtub is filling up, and I’m anticipating a “fun” procedure.
“Sasha, to the bathroom!’ Grandma calls out.
“Coming!” I reply cheerfully, taking off my 100-percent-wool leggings on my way, but then I get stuck in them and fall down.
“What, your legs aren’t holding you up?!”
I try to get up, but the pants get caught on something, so I fall down again.
“Are you torturing me on purpose, you goddamn bastard?!”
“I’m not torturing you!”
“Your mother once told me: “I’ll have my way with him”. So keep in mind, I meant all of you, I’ll have my way with all of you. Got it?!”
I had only a vague idea of what “having her way” meant and I decided for some reason that Grandma was going to drown me in the bathtub. With this thought, I ran to Grandpa. He laughed when he heard my theory, but I still asked him to be on alert. After that, I calmed down and headed for the bathroom, assured that if Grandma tried to drown me, Grandpa would barge in with a meat hammer - for some reason I thought he would barge in with that particular hammer - and would take care of Grandma. Then he’d call my Mom, she’d come over and have her way with Grandma. While all these thoughts were churning in my head, Grandma was giving Grandpa his final instructions concerning the space heater. It had to be removed the moment she clapped.
So now everything is in place, Grandpa has his instructions spelled out, and I am lying in the water whose temperature is exactly 99.5 degrees, while Grandma sits next to me and soaps up the sponge. Blobs of froth fly around and disappear in the thick haze. It’s hot in the bathroom.
“All right, give me your neck.”
I flinched - if she tries to strangle me, Grandpa probably won’t hear it. But no, she’s just washing it...
You’re probably wondering why I wasn’t bathing by myself. You see, a bastard like me can’t do anything by himself. The bastard’s mother abandoned him, while the bastard keeps rotting away, so bathing might make all his bastardly ailments even worse. That’s what Grandma explained to me, soaping up the leg that I stuck out of the water.
“And why is the water so hot?”
“Two degrees above the body temperature, so that you don’t cool off.”
“I thought, the seaweed...”
“Right, that’s what you are! Green, skinny... This isn’t a leg, this is a string. Put it in the water before it gets cold. Give me the other one... Now the arms. Higher, higher, have they withered away or something? Stand up, I’ll wash your peepee.”
“Relax, you’ll have no use for it anyway. Turn around, I’ll rub your back.”
I turned around and leaned my forehead against the tiles.
“Don’t touch the tiles! They’re cold, your sinusitis will act up.”
“I’m so hot”.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be”.
“Why is it supposed to be like this only for me and no one else?” - I posed this question to Grandma quite often.
“Because no one else rots like you do. Look, you already stink, can’t you tell?”
So now I’m clean, time to get out. With a sigh of relief I realize that today Grandma is not going to drown me, and I make my way out of the bathtub. Now you’re going to find out what the second chair was for - it was for me to stand on. I wasn’t supposed to stand on the floor because a cold draft was blowing from under the door, craftily circumventing an old rolled-up blanket that was placed in its way, and my feet might get cold. I was balancing on the chair trying not to fall, while Grandma was drying me off. First my head. Then she’d wrap a towel around it right away lest my wet hair cool off. Then she’d dry off everything else, and I’d get dressed.
As I was putting on my tights - dark blue, pure wool, expensive and impossible to find in stores - I smelled something burning. One leg only reached my ankle. Sadly, the most valuable part, the part that covers the foot, had nearly finished burning on the space heater.
“You smelly, stinky bastard! (I thought I heard Grandma’s teeth clank). Your mother doesn’t buy you anything! I’m the one who hauls in everything, on my bad legs! Put it on, I’ll wrap a towel around your foot!”
I pulled the tights all the way up and raised my foot, whose toes stuck out of the burned-out tights, and handed it to Grandma. She started wrapping a waffle weave towel around it, as if it was a foot wrapper, and I, for lack of anything else to do, began examining myself in the mirror. It was so hot in the bathroom that I became red-skinned like an Indian. The towel on my head and the froth on my nose made the likeness even more convincing. I got distracted studying the Indian and forgot that Grandma and I were performing a circus-like stunt on a wobbly chair, lost my balance, and tumbled into the bathtub.
Meanwhile, Grandpa was watching soccer on TV. What’s that? His bad ears registered a strange sound coming from the bathroom.
“Time to remove the heater!” he decided, and ran into the bathroom.
He ran fast, and in his hurry grabbed the heater by its hot part. He had to let go. The heater traced an arc and fell into Grandma’s lap. Thinking that Grandpa heard a splash, rushed to save me, and had his way with Grandma in the most unfortunate manner, I wanted to explain everything, but the elements were already raging in the bathroom.
“You freaking gitsel1, you goddamn Nazi!’ screamed Grandma, menacingly brandishing the space heater in one hand and slapping her smoldering skirt with the other. - ’May you be cursed by the heavens, God, the earth, birds, fishes, men, the ocean, and the air!” That was Grandma’s favorite curse. “Hope you see nothing but trouble in your life! Nothing but divine retribution!”
Then came a combination of several words whose meaning I discovered only when I met Dima Chugunov, a fifth-grader.
“Get out, you bastard!”
Another word combination, now directed at me.
“May you be damned...”
Now the favorite curse.
“May you end your days in prison...”
The word combination.
“Hope you rot alive in the hospital! Hope your liver, kidneys, brain, and heart all shrivel! Hope the golden staph guzzles you up!”
The word combination.
“Take everything off, I’ll dry you off again!!!”
An incredible word combination!
I absolutely loved this word, but for a long time I had no idea what it meant. Later Grandma told me that in Ukraine, gitsel was the word for dog catchers who used long hooks to catch stray dogs out on the streets (Author’s note).↩