The title of this story may seem odd - Grandma fought with us every day, her screaming has already been heard on these pages more than once, and you might think that yet another chapter about something that has apparently been discussed already would be unnecessary. But in my mind, a quarrel was more than just screaming. Screaming was the norm. A quarrel was still the exception.
Usually, Grandma and Grandpa scolded me together. Grandma would yell and call me various names, while Grandpa echoed her and added something like,
“Oh yes, of course. It goes without saying! You bet...”
After giving me a good piece of their minds, Grandma and Grandpa would announce that they weren’t talking to me; I’d go to another room, listen to their calm voices, and think angrily, “Yeah, these two are buddy-buddy!”
But after a while, the calm voices would rise, the words “gitsel” and “traitor” would be uttered, and I would realize that it was Grandpa’s turn to fall into disgrace. I would leave the room and march straight toward the screaming, knowing that Grandma needed my approval and that in exchange, she’d forgive me anything. Trashing Grandpa, Grandma would come up with ever fresher vocabulary, demonstrating in the funniest ways what a fool he was, and keep glancing at me as if to ask, “So, did I get him good?”
And even though I felt sorry for Grandpa, I couldn’t hold back a few delighted giggles. It was a bit like the sanitarium, where Lordkipanidze dispensed the whacks while we laughed at his running commentary.
Disgraced, Grandpa would put on his hat and leave. It always made me envious. He could get away from the yelling any time, and I couldn’t. And if, after he was gone, Grandma turned her attention back to me, I had to suffer through the whole thing, unable to get away. Scenes like this happened frequently, they weren’t anything special, and I would by no means consider them quarrels, which were far more serious, brewed for days, and when they did erupt, were remembered for a long time.
The quarrel I’m about to describe brewed for three days. It all started when a mouse was discovered in the apartment. Grandma was deathly afraid of mice, so when she spotted a little gray shape busily making a beeline from the corner to the fridge, she whipped her feet onto the table and let out such a scream that a pair of pigeons cooing on the window sill took off into the sky.
“Senya! A mouse! A mouse! A fucking mouse!”
“What’s going on?” Grandpa rushed in, shuffling with his slippers.
“There! Under the fridge! A mouse! A mouse!”
Such indifference cut straight to Grandma’s heart. She probably thought that Grandpa would go dashing around the kitchen screaming “A mouse! A fucking mouse!”, rush to lift up the fridge - but he didn’t even show surprise. Grandma started crying, saying that all her life, she’d been struggling to keep her head above the water, that she never got any help or sympathy, and concluded with vociferous curses.
Grandpa went to the neighbors and returned with a swollen finger, which got hit by their mousetrap as they were demonstrating how to operate it. Distracted by the pain, Grandpa forgot to bring the trap and, accused of stupidity and egotism, had to go back to get it. He hit another finger as he was loading the mousetrap with Edam cheese.
The mouse, according to Grandma, proved smarter than Grandpa; it swiped the Edam cheese even before nightfall and hid with it somewhere behind the wardrobe in the bedroom, disturbing the peace with its energetic rustling. Grandma said that she was so scared that she wouldn’t be able to sleep, and demanded that the mouse be evicted that same evening. The mousetrap was deemed useless; Grandpa called other neighbors in search of alternative approaches, and someone advised him to stuff vinegar-soaked fiberglass insulation behind the baseboards. Grandpa brought some insulation from the boiler room, got some vinegar from Grandma, pushed the beds and cupboards away, and proceeded to pack the baseboards until 1 a.m. His arms developed brown spots and started to itch, but the rustling stopped.
The moment we went to bed, the rustling in the corner resumed. Grandma hurled a slipper. The mouse stirred derisively.
“Senya! It’s scratching again! Do something!” Grandma shouted.
Although Grandpa had already gone to bed and put his dentures into a glass, he got up and pushed the cupboard aside once again. But the brazen mouse had already moved behind the dressing table and now rustled from there. Scratching his arms, Grandpa proposed setting the mousetrap again. By some miracle, he avoided hitting his finger for a third time, hooked the hammer just a thread away from the trigger, and placed the trap close to the rustling. The mouse lay low. Just in case, I loaded the little bow that shot sharpened matches and took it to bed with me. I thought that the mousetrap wouldn’t work anyway, but that the mouse would come out to get the cheese, and that’s when I’d shoot it. Staring intently into the darkness, I kept checking the sharp end of the match with my finger, drew the rubber string, and felt like a real hunter. The mouse didn’t come out. I fell asleep.
I was awakened by Grandpa’s triumphant “Aha!” Broken in half, a baby mouse lay bent under the trap’s powerful hammer.
“What did I tell you? That’s it!” Grandpa said happily and showed the mouse to Grandma.
“You sadist...” she gasped, and tears started streaming from her eyes. “What did you do, you sadist?”
“What?” Grandpa was confused.
“Why did you kill it?!”
“You asked me to!”
“What did I ask you? How could I have asked for such a thing?! I thought it would just hold it, and it broke it in half! And it’s such a small baby...” Grandma cried. “If it was a large one - well, all right, but this is a tiny baby. Sadist! I always knew you were a sadist. And you’re enjoying this! Happy that you destroyed a living thing! What if someone broke your spine?! Where are you taking it?”
“To the toilet.”
“Don’t you dare!”
“What, am I supposed to give it a funeral?” Grandpa exploded.
I almost suggested burying the mouse behind the baseboard, but then I remembered that Grandpa had stuffed insulation in there, and said nothing. Grandma mourned the death of the poor little thing all morning, but then another incident distracted her.
“Senya, when you were moving the cupboard, you didn’t see three hundred rubles, did you?” she asked with alarm.
“Are you kidding? Wouldn’t I have told you if I did?”
“Then it’s been stolen.”
Grandma squirreled away all the money that Grandpa brought home, using the secret hiding places she alone knew about and often forgetting where she’d put it and how much. She’d hide the money under the fridge, under the cupboard, in the little cask held by the wooden bear from Grandpa’s china cabinet, or in the kitchen canisters. Books were stuffed with some government bonds, which is why Grandma forbade me to touch them, and if I asked for one to read, she’d shake it out first to make sure there wasn’t anything stuck inside. Once she hid a wallet with eight hundred rubles in the bag with my school shoes, and then she couldn’t find it, claiming that my Mom, who had visited the day before, was responsible for its disappearance. The wallet hung peacefully in the school’s coatroom for a week, and the attendants had no idea that a booty far more valuable than the fur lining which was once stolen off my coat was right under there noses.
Forgetting where her secret hiding places were, Grandma would find a hundred rubles where she expected to find five hundred, or pull a thousand from where she was convinced she had only put two hundred. Sometimes the caches disappeared. Then Grandma claimed that the house had been hit by thieves. In addition to Mom, she suspected all the doctors, including Galina Sergeyevna, all the friends that visited on rare occasions, but most of all Rudik, a plumber from the boiler room. Rudik had never been to our place, but Grandma swore that he had keys to all the apartments, and when there wasn’t anybody at home, he’d get in and go through everything. Grandpa tried to explain that this was impossible, but Grandma countered that she knew more about life and saw things that others did not.
“I saw them, he’s in cahoots with one of the attendants. We went out, he exchanged glances with her - and in he went. And then three of my topazes went missing. I had ten, now there’s seven, so there!”
In response to Grandpa’s question as to why Rudik didn’t take all ten, she said that he was clever and stole a bit at a time so that she wouldn’t notice. Grandma decided to move the remaining topazes, took them out of the old kettle, sewed them up in a piece of gauze, and pinned it to the inside of her mattress, saying that Rudik would never think to look there. Then she forgot about them, aired the mattress on the balcony, and when she remembered, the bag with the topazes that Grandpa had brought from India was long gone from the yard below.
Grandma blamed the disappearance of the three hundred rubles that were supposedly under the cupboard on the usual culprit - Rudik.
“We weren’t home the other day, that’s when he swiped it,” she said with conviction. “When you went to see him in the boiler room, did you notice how he looked at you? He didn’t sneer? I’m sure he did, I know. You just didn’t notice.”Yeah-yeah, he thought, keep coming here. I really took you for a ride, didn’t I? The stones and the moola, too.”
“Can’t you hear the nonsense you’re saying?” Grandpa blew up. “When are you going to stop yammering about this Rudik? Where would he get the keys?”
“Pull them out of your pocket and make a mold. And then put them back. They’re experts, they do it in a split second.”
“Hogwash! Just listening to you makes me sick!”
“Then don’t! But experience tells me I’m right and you’re a fool. You’re a stubborn jackass, you never want to see the obvious. I told you that your Gorbatov was a crook, but you wouldn’t listen. My best friend, my best friend, yeah, right... You can put the mustard plaster he prescribed for you on your ass!”
I knew the mustard plaster story. Grandpa had a friend named Gorbatov, who offered to sell Grandpa’s old car for a good price. He did, but instead of money, he brought back a stack of mustard plaster sheets. He gasped and said he had been scammed. Grandma rejoiced that she was right, Gorbatov became an enemy, and ever since then Grandpa’s reputation as a stubborn jackass was set in stone. He didn’t blow up easily, but being accused of stubbornness, combined with the reference to Gorbatov and Grandma’s inevitable “I told you so”, sent him into a rage. That three-pronged attack was too much for him.
“Looking for a mustard plaster?” Grandma inquired when Grandpa got off the couch and, without saying a word, reached for his hat. “Go ahead, car lover! Just don’t leave it on for more than ten minutes. Your ass will swell up - meaning no more enema for you!”
Grandpa banged the door shut and didn’t come back until the evening.
What happened the following day was, in my view, a true quarrel. Grandma started crying early in the morning, recalling her life which had gone awry and cursing Grandpa for it. She said that she had dreamed of a broken mirror the night before, and so, apparently, we wouldn’t have to suffer her presence much longer.
“Go to hell, you damn hypocrite!” Grandpa snarled. “This is the fifth time already that I hear about this mirror! Why don’t you come up with something new!”
“Please don’t yell, Senya dear,” Grandma asked meekly. “Why fight when the end is near? I won’t take long. I just hope I make it to the summer, burying is pricier in the winter.”
“You say that every winter!”
“And you can’t wait, can you? You ca-an’t... You want a young one. Well, don’t hold your breath, you get squat!” Grandma stuck her finger under Grandpa’s nose and got off the bed.
With that, Grandpa went grocery shopping.
“As usual!” Grandma concluded gleefully, having looked into the bag he brought back home. “Either you have no eyes or no brain! What kind of cabbage is this? It’s only good for pigs, not for a child! And, sure enough, you got three of them! And these potatoes! They’re more like peas...”
“Nina, enough for today, please...” Grandpa asked.
“I keep bugging you over and over again,” Grandma continued, ignoring his plea, “better buy less, but good stuff. But no, you do exactly the opposite! You get sweaters that are three sizes too small - but six of them! Pears as hard as a rock - but twenty pounds. That’s your life’s motto: get crap, but plenty of it!”
“Nina, that’s enough. I had heart trouble at the store, and I’m exhausted...”
“Exhausted! Drive to the grocery store - that’s all you’re good for! Would you like to hear how I’ve been hauling everything all my life - with my bad legs? How exhausted I get? I don’t take the car! Alone for forty years, without any help! I raised one child, now I’m nursing a second one - I’m ready to drop dead myself, and all you know is your concerts, your car, your fishing, and “exhausted”! I curse the day when I left Kiev! I was stupid, I thought you were a man. Now I know you’re a piece of shit, and I’ve had proof of it every day for forty years now! Lord, why do you punish me so hard?”
Grandpa, who was still wearing his coat, stuck the hat that was in his hand back on his head and started toward the door.
“What, the truth hurts?” Grandma shouted, walking behind him. “Where are you going, lover-boy?”
“For a walk...” Grandpa exhaled, opening the door.
“Go, go, tomcat-no-balls! You’ve got nowhere to go! You’ve got no friends, like normal guys do. Just that tailor - a doormat worse than any broad, and even he wouldn’t sit down to shit with you if you weren’t taking him on those fishing trips. Are you going to him? Go! He’ll screw you like that Gorbatov did!”
Grandpa lingered in the doorway and looked Grandma in the eye.
“He will, he will, you’ll see. You’re a natural for that. Who the hell needs you? Even Sasha here thinks you’re nothing...”
His face contorted, Grandpa hit Grandma in the face with his fist. Not hard, as if just to push her away.
“Well, since you don’t need me, you won’t see me anymore, bitch,” he said, and banged the door so hard that small flakes of peeling paint tumbled from the frame.
Grandma burst into tears and went into the bathroom. Her teeth were already loose, so Grandpa’s shove was enough for her gums to start bleeding. The oozing blood mixed with saliva and tears dripped from her chin in gooey pink drops. I was scared. I myself wanted to call Grandma a bitch sometimes, but I was afraid and never dared. Only once, when I suddenly had stomach cramps in the kitchen while Grandma was talking to Svetochka’s mom in another room, I thought it was worth trying. Sitting at the table, I writhed and started banging with a spoon, trying to convince myself that my stomach pain was so bad that I couldn’t even call out. I wanted Grandma to come over after a while, see the helpless condition I was in for so long because of her, and then use it as a pretext. Besides, I knew that Grandma wouldn’t do anything to me when I was sick, no matter what I called her or what I did wrong. I had to bang with the spoon for so long that I even got bored. Finally, Grandma showed up.
“What are you banging for?”
Continuing to writhe, I dropped the spoon from my allegedly limp hand, glanced at Grandma, trying to emulate that angry, dirty look that she sometimes gave me, and croaked,
“I’ll never forgive you for this, bitch.”
I expected Grandma to throw her hands up, gasp, and start fussing around me because she felt bad, but she simply asked,
“What’s with you?”
Noting with disappointment that my stomach was getting better, I explained what was going on. Grandma gave me an activated charcoal pill to chew and went back to the phone.
“He called me a bitch, how do you like that?” I heard. “I don’t know, something with his stomach, and I didn’t come over right away. But what’s the point of getting mad at him? The little fool doesn’t know what he’s saying. Looks like his stomach is fine now...”
Grandma was only half-right. I did indeed feel foolish, but precisely because I knew perfectly well that my words were contrived. I never again tried to call Grandma names deliberately, while during the flare-ups I was so scared of her that the thought of talking back didn’t even occur to me. But Grandpa had the courage to respond... Yet surprisingly, this time I felt for Grandma.
Grandma washed the blood off her face and continued to cry into the towel. I came up to her, hugged her from behind and said,
“Granny, please don’t cry. For me, okay?”
“I’m not crying, honey. I did all my crying a long time ago, this is nothing...” Grandma replied and trudged toward the bed.
I didn’t feel for Grandma strongly enough to want to hug her and call her Granny, but I decided that as long as I felt for her even just a little, I had to do it. Plus I was hoping that because of the sympathy I showed her today, she would’t be as hard on me tomorrow or the day after.
Grandma didn’t stop crying. She lay down on the bed with the towel and dabbed her tearful face with it every few seconds. Her chin occasionally twitched.
“Don’t cry, Grandma,” I asked once again.
Grandma didn’t say anything. Her eyes full of tears, she kept looking at the decoration that was hanging on the wall - a small embossed metal boat with five strings of amber hanging down from it. In addition to the amber, two little fishes also hung from the middle string.
“And why is our boat stopped and not sailing anywhere?” Grandma asked suddenly in a singsong voice, as if she was starting to read a fairy tale. “Because the nets were dropped. And only two little fishes were caught. These fishes are you and me, Sasha. Both of us were betrayed, we’re surrounded by traitors. You were betrayed by your mother, who left you for the midget. Me, I’ve been betrayed by Grandpa all my life. You think I was always like this: old, ugly, toothless? I always yelled and cried like this? No, that’s what life did to me, sweetheart. I wanted to be an actress, but Daddy said no. He said I had to work, not just swing my ass. So I became a secretary at the prosecutor’s office.”
Grandma blew her nose into the towel, looked for a dry corner, dabbed her eyes, and continued,
“And then I met your grandfather. Why did I have to go to that stadium! I was dating a guy at the time; he invited me to a soccer game and then stood me up. So I sit alone, furious. Next to me are these two guys from the Moscow Art Theater, they were on a tour. One tall and handsome, a total shit of an actor, and our “sweetheart” was there, too. He had a pretty face, no question about it, dimples on his cheeks. A nice, open smile. So I gave him my work number, and we started going out every night. He took me to his shows, I took him to Vladimir’s Hill and to the beach. Then the time comes for him to leave, and he says, “How about I marry you and take you to Moscow?” And I’m already in love with him! So I say, “Go see my parents and propose.” Stupid me, I had no idea he was marrying me on a bet. He had a broad in Moscow ten years his senior - they had a fight, and he bet that he’d find a better one in Kiev. And he did find a fool! So we got the license, showed it to my father, and off we went. Father ran the entire length of the platform after the train, shouting, “Honey, don’t go!” It’s like he knew I wouldn’t see anything but tears! I shouldn’t have left my parents, shouldn’t have left Kiev. I was stupid. Damn me for that!”
Grandma started crying again. I suddenly remembered that in the morning, I had prepared a mixture of salt and match heads, which in the heat of the argument I left on the window sill in Grandpa’s room. Grandma might calm down, go watch TV, and then things would get ugly. As her story was interrupted by a lengthy period of sobbing, I realized that I could step out, and rushed to Grandpa’s room in order to hide the illegal concoction under the china cabinet. Then I came back to the bedroom. Still crying, Grandma was already on the phone.
“...And he brought me, Vera Petrovna, to this ninety-square-foot room,” she was telling Svetochka’s mother. “We lived there for fourteen years before we got this apartment. It’s such a torture, Vera Petrovna, to live with a dumbbell! I was curious, I wanted to know everything, was interested in everything. How many times did I beg him, “Let’s go to a museum, let’s go to an exhibit.” No. He was either too busy or too tired - and I couldn’t go into a strange city alone. All I saw was his shows at the Art Theater. Actually, that was worth it, at the time the theater was at its peak, but soon even that came to an end - little Alex was born.”
Grandma blew her nose into the towel and continued,
“And you know, there are men who are not particularly smart but are practical. This one had a lazy mind for everything. There was a furniture store across the street, we could have bought decent furniture. And we did have the money! But no. He went to the neighbors and complained, “Here, I brought a wife, now we need to buy some furniture.” And they tell him, “So buy our couch.” He did, and he dragged it from the attic into our room. I start wondering why I’m itchy all over and look closer... Bedbugs! I poured boiling water on them, and some kind of poison, too, barely managed to get rid of them. And so it was our whole life: whenever crap was available, it was dumped on him! The sales people must have whistled to each other: look, here comes a sucker! Later, when we were already in this apartment, he brought furniture from Germany. You could get any kind of furniture in Moscow for rubles. But he had to spend hard currency, pay for shipping, and then it sat in some warehouse for a year until we moved in. And if only it was normal furniture; it’s sarcophagi made of oak, I’m still not used to it... Yes, that was already here, near the Airport subway station. And that room was near Gorky Street. Ninety square feet. We spent fourteen years in that prison cell. The two of us with a child - all right, but his sister kept coming from Tula to take care of things and stayed with us, also his niece, his brother... Of course it was a communal apartment! We had neighbors, the Rosalskys. This Rosalsky also worked with Senya at the theater but was a few rungs above him. They had two rooms, three hundred square feet each, for three people. When we were working out the cleaning schedule with them, they would declare, “You should clean three times as often because you have crowds of relatives visiting.” One day we’re having tea with our guests, his wife barges in without knocking, “Nina, someone from your room used the bathroom and dripped on the floor. Go and mop it up!” Nobody even had stepped out of the room! But I did go and mop it up anyway. So you see, Vera Petrovna, I was dreaming of being an actress but became a secretary, then a housewife. Quite the career, isn’t it? Just sat with this bonehead and memorized lines with him. He would still be struggling with his, and I already knew everyone else’s by heart - Chatsky, Tsar Boris, you name it. That’s how far my acting went.
And then the war started. They began bombing Moscow, his entire theater was being evacuated to Alma-Ata, but he went to Borisoglebsk to play in some short military flicks. And so he tells me, “You go to Alma-Ata with the kid, I’ll come later.” I begged him on my knees, “No, Senya, please! There’s a basement in the building, we can hide there from the bombs. I’ll wait for you, we’ll go together!” He banged his fist on the table, “I’ve made the decision, and that’s that!” Decided to be tough! Those weaklings love to assert themselves! They took us to Alma-Ata in freight cars, like cattle. And when we got there, they wouldn’t give me a place to live - I wasn’t on the staff, after all. Put us in some basement with an earthen floor, as cold as ice. I froze my ovaries there, and what have you. And then they tried to kick us out even from there, because some cleaning lady needed a place. I tell them, “Where am I supposed to go, I have a one-year-old!” “Well, they say, since you have a child, you can stay for now.” Did me a huge favor, left us in the basement! And then my little Alex got sick... Oh, what a boy he was, Vera Petrovna, what a kid! Just over a year - and he was already talking! Fair, doll-faced, huge gray-blue eyes. I loved him so much it took my breath away. And in that basement, he got diphtheria with measles and an abscess in the lung. The doctor said right away that he wasn’t going to survive. I’m drowning in tears over him, and he tells me, “Mom, don’t cry, I’m not going to die. Don’t cry.” He’s coughing, he’s suffocating - and he’s consoling me. Can you believe there are kids like that? He died the next day... I carried him to the cemetery myself and buried him myself, too. And since I no longer had a kid, they kicked me out of that basement, gave my place to the cleaning lady. I spent the night under a bed in some dorm and decided to go to Senya in Borisoglebsk.
I sold all my stuff at the market, everything that was left from Alex: leggings, sweaters. Bought a suitcase full of vodka with all this money. It was cheap in Alma-Ata, people told me to do it so that I could sell it in Borisoglebsk, trade it for food, for bread. With just a hundred and fifty rubles left, I took off. That suitcase weighed a ton, it tore up everything inside me, I started bleeding. And Senya lived in a sort of a commune in Borisoglebsk. He, his two buddies, and two sluts from somewhere were renting two rooms together. There was this Valya woman who was coming on to him, but he fended her off, as I was later told, so she hooked up with this Vitaly, and Senya was by himself. And then I traipsed over with a suitcase full of vodka, bleeding all over. Valya said that there was a good gynecologist in Borisoglebsk, she could arrange for a visit, it would cost a hundred rubles. And I only had a hundred and fifty left. The commune downed all the vodka, of course, I didn’t even have a chance to sell anything. So I go to this doctor, he checks me and asks, “Do you have any children?” And I had just buried my son!!! “Well, he says, you’ll never have children again.” I was twenty-three, Vera Petrovna, I had just buried my son, imagine hearing this! And then - I trusted him too much, and I got pregnant with this bitch, our daughter. But that was already in Moscow, after the war.
So I had my daughter, went to the gynecologist again, and he told me that I would most certainly have no more children. And that bitch was sick non-stop and, of course, I guarded her with my life. At five, she had infectious jaundice. She picked up a lump of sugar in the yard and stuffed it in her mouth. And the yard was full of rats as big as she was. I yell at the top of my lungs, “Spit, Olya, spit it out!” And the bitch looks straight at me and keeps sucking on it. I pried her mouth open, took the sugar out with my fingers, but it was too late, she got sick... I traded all the money and all the food that we had for lemon juice at the market, made her drink lemon juice with glucose - tried to bring her back. And I ate nothing but hot wheat, and only her leftovers. I’d make a pot, she’d gobble it all up, and I’d wipe the pot with bread and eat it - that was my whole meal. Brought the bitch back, and paid for it... Never saw anything but hatred from her. I gave her everything, the shirt off my back, and did she ever even ask, “Mom, did you eat?” She saw me living on bread alone, she could have offered, “Mom, take half of my wheat.” Of course, I would have drunk tar before I took it away from her, but she could have offered. Never once gave me a flower for my birthday. And then she came to hate me, for her own self-centeredness. But for that, I don’t blame her, Vera Petrovna. She had her daddy’s example in front of her. He saw how I was killing myself over her, and all he knew was tours, recitals, checkers, and also strolling down Gorky Street with his friend, Gorbatov, and discussing girls’ legs. Later, this Gorbatov screwed him royally, I told you about it... Serves him right, that traitor! No, being sent to Alma-Ata wasn’t it yet. He betrayed me big time when Olya was about six. So I bring her back after the jaundice and then I myself get seriously depressed from being alone and helpless. They took me to a psychiatrist, who said that I needed to go to work. Senya says, “She works all the time: the kid, the house...” So the doctor explains, “No, she needs to work with people. In a library, in sales, anything. She’s sociable, she shouldn’t be alone!” But how could I go to work when our daughter was sick all the time?! I couldn’t have abandoned her the way she abandoned her own son! So I stayed depressed. And we had a neighbor, Verka the snitch. She had lived under the Nazi occupation, so in order to get her Moscow residency permit, she snitched on everybody. So one day she comes in, puts her feet up on the couch where Olya was sleeping, and says, “The KGB took Fyodor away yesterday, they used me as a witness.” And she herself turned him in! “So when they came for him, they were asking about you too. What are you doing, why aren’t you working if you’re so young?” And I had told a stupid joke the day before, so I got really scared and ran to Senya at the theater. He waved me off like an annoying fly, said, “No big deal.” I turned to Rosalsky’s wife. She suggested that I write to the KGB that a neighbor is trying to provoke me. I did, and I got scared out of my wits. I was shaking all over, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep... When Senya found out about it, he freaked out, took me to a psychiatrist again, a different one, who said I was paranoid. I didn’t have any paranoia, I just had a depression that flared up. I tried to explain it, but who’s going to listen to a nut! They put me in a hospital under false pretenses - said I was going to the convalescent unit but instead put me in with the disruptive patients. I started crying, they started giving me injections, like they do to the disruptives. I got all covered with blisters, cried day and night, while my roommates were saying, “That bitch; she’s afraid of being arrested so she acts like she’s crazy.” Senya would come, I’d beg him, “Take me home, I’m dying here.” He did, but it was too late - they turned me into a cripple, mentally ill. It’s this betrayal, this hospital, the fact that with my smarts and my character I became a worthless cripple - that’s what I can’t forgive him for. He’s an actor, he’s doing tours, getting applause, and I’m sick, scared, and humiliated my whole life. Meanwhile, I’ve read so many books in my life that he can’t even dream of!”
Grandma started crying again and put her face into the soaking wet towel.
“Ah, never mind, Vera Petrovna. My life is over, it’s just too bad it was wasted. If only my daughter had turned out well, at least my tears wouldn’t have been for nothing. She’s got a degree in acting, too, married straight out of college, gave birth to a sick cripple, and then found herself that alcoholic in Sochi. I kept telling her: study, be independent, but she’d rather be a crutch for that limping “genius”. I still had some hope until the midget moved in with her two years ago, but then I gave up. I now have just one worry, one joy in my life - this poor child. Why, Vera Petrovna, why does the boy have to suffer like this? What were his sins in the eyes of the Lord, this orphan with a living mother? Not a single good spot on him, sick all over. Caring for him takes all the strength I have left. Doctors, tests, the homeopathy - it’s just too much. His diet alone is such a huge chore! Cottage cheese only from the farmers’ market, no meat in his soup, meat patties only steamed and made with soaked cracker crumbs instead of bread. “Hard” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Exhausting! But carrying what’s yours doesn’t weigh you down, you know the saying? He is his mother’s son on paper only. When it comes to love - there’s nobody in the world who loves him like I do. My bond with this child is soaked in blood. When I see those little skinny feet in tights, it’s like they’re stepping on my heart. I’d kiss those sweet feet, savor them! I bathe him, Vera Petrovna, and then changing the water is too much for me, so I wash myself in that same water. The water is dirty, because you can only bathe him once every two weeks, but I don’t mind. I know that his water is like a fresh stream to my soul. I’d drink that water! I’ve never loved anybody like I love him! The little fool thinks his mother loves him more, but how can it be if she didn’t suffer with him as much as I did? Bringing a toy once a month - is that love? And I breathe him, I feel his feelings! I fall asleep and hear his wheezing in my sleep, so I give him some ephedrine. I wake up in the middle of the night to straighten up the blanket and I touch his peepee - if it’s stiff, I wake him up and hand him the potty. He tinkles on me, half-awake, but I don’t get mad, I just laugh. If I yell at him, it’s because I fear for him, and then I beat myself up for it. My fear for him is like a thread; wherever he is, I sense everything. He falls down - my heart drops like a rock. He cuts himself - I have blood gushing over my raw nerves. He runs around in the yard alone - it’s like my heart is running there, alone, neglected, stomping on the ground. A love like this is worse than punishment, it only brings pain, but what can you do if that’s the way it is? This love makes me wail, but what would be the point of living without it, Vera Petrovna? I only open my eyes in the morning for his sake. I would gladly close them forever if I didn’t know that he needs me, that I can ease his suffering... What? Your soup is burning? Go, Vera Petrovna, go! Thank you for listening to an old fool, maybe she’ll feel a bit better. My best to Svetochka, good health to both of you... Her soup is burning, yeah, right! The bitch is lying, she’s just tired of listening,” Grandma said after hanging up, and her chin convulsed belatedly one more time. “Who wants to hear about someone else’s troubles. Egotists, traitors everywhere. Only you, my sunny boy, are here with me, and I don’t really need anybody else. They can stuff their sympathy... Although you’re no different,” Grandma suddenly added with bitter contempt. “Your mother shows up, you go gaga: “Mom this, Mom that!” You’d sell out for any cheapo toy. All my tears, all my nerves and blood - you’d sell it all for the crappiest toy car! Judas! I don’t trust you either...”
In the evening, when the clock that heralded the upcoming nightly news appeared on the TV screen, Grandma, who had calmed down long ago, said,
“Nine o’clock. I wonder where that old fart is? It’s about time to wrap up the party.”
Grandma picked up the phone that sat on the floor near the couch and dialed a number.
“Good evening, Lyosha,” she said into the phone. “Can I talk to him for a second... Not there? So when did he leave?... What do you mean he wasn’t there? Not today... And didn’t call either?... No, nothing. If you hear from him, just tell him to call me.”
“So where is he?” Grandma said with alarm when the news was over. “Let me call one more time. He’s got to be there, where else? He’s just getting him to say he isn’t... Lyosha, this is Nina again, Senya’s wife. Is he really not there, or is he just getting you to say that? He’s not, and he hasn’t been? Well, apologies once again...”
When the late night movie was over, Grandma became seriously alarmed.
“He’s got nowhere to spend the night, no one to go to, so where is he?” she muttered to herself. “Is he sitting in the garage, the old fool?”
Grandma looked out the window. The metal doors of the garage were dimly lit by a street light.
“He’s gotta be there, where else?” Grandma said, stepping away from the window. “I’ll go get him.”
Grandma put on her coat, wrapped a kerchief around her head, and went outside.
“Oh my God!” she wailed when she came back. “The garage is locked! So where is he?! Holy Mother of God, have mercy on me! It’s past eleven, and the old guy is missing! What a heartless sadist - no phone call, no warning! Lord, what’s with him? Where is he?! Sasha, sweetheart!” Grandma turned to me. “Why don’t you call that Lyosha one more time? He’s got to be there, where else? Call and tell him Grandma’s worried and is asking Grandpa to come back. He won’t talk to me, but when he hears your voice, he’ll pick up. Tell him, “Grandpa, dear, please come back, we’re waiting for you.” Tell him Grandma’s crying. Ask him nicely, he’ll listen to you, he’ll come back. Tell him, “Please come back for me, I love you, I can’t live without you.” Tell him, “We can’t sleep without you.” Call, sweetheart, I’ll dial for you...”
Grandpa was at Lyosha’s.
“So you told her I’m not here and haven’t been?” Grandpa clarified, taking a drag on a clumsily bent cigarette.
“I did, I did,” Lyosha assured him. “I don’t know where you are, I didn’t speak to you, I haven’t seen you all week.”
“Did she buy it?”
“Senya, how many times? Please calm down. I told her twice that you weren’t here. If she calls for a third time, we won’t even answer the phone. It’s eleven thirty, I might have gone to bed.”
“Forgive me, Lyosha, I should probably...” Grandpa started fidgeting on his chair.
“Sit,” Lyosha assured him once again. “You’ll spend the night, as we agreed. You’ll sleep on the couch, for two nights if you have to. But Senya... No more than that, I can’t, I’m sorry. I’m used to being alone, it’s hard for me to have someone in the apartment. I can’t sleep.”
“Oh no, just until tomorrow,” Grandpa waved his hands and dropped ashes on his pants. “Let her think that I can leave her. That I have a place to go to, not just you.” Grandpa sighed deeply. “But actually, Lyosha, I have nowhere to go... And I have no home. I keep finding all these concerts, festivals, judging panels - just to get out. Now I’m off to Iraq, to Soviet Cinema Week. Do I really need this at seventy? She thinks I’m after prestige or something, but it’s because I have nowhere to put my head down. The same story for forty years, and there’s no way out.” Tears appeared in Grandpa’s eyes. “I don’t have the guts to kill myself, so I started smoking again - maybe that’ll work somehow. I can’t take it anymore, I can’t breathe! I’m dragging my life out like I’m waiting out the rain. I can’t! I don’t want to...” Grandpa suddenly burst into tears, like a child, covering his face with his hands.
“That’s okay...” Lyosha patted him on the shoulder reassuringly.
“I don’t want to! I go to bed at night - and thank God another day is over. I wake up in the morning - gotta live again. And it’s been like this for a long, long time, Lyosha. I can’t... But when I’m gone, who’s going to feed them?” said Grandpa, taking his hand away from his face. The tears that momentarily covered his face disappeared into his wrinkles, and one could only tell that Grandpa had been crying by his wet palm and his red, moist, and swollen eyelids, which Grandpa closed for a second, as if wanting to wring them out. “She hasn’t worked a day in her life, she has no idea where money comes from. I’ve been working all my life supporting her. And all my life I’ve been wrong, bad... At first I thought I’d learn to live with it, then I realized - no way, but what could I do? Send her back to Kiev? Then Alex was born, all those thoughts had to be set aside. Whether we’re a couple or not - we have a child, gotta go on living. So I resigned myself to the thought that that’s the way it was going to be. Then the war broke out. Alex died, Olya was born. So I just kept on living, even seemed to get used to it. But after I brought her back from the hospital in 1950 - that was it, my life was over. Bitching and complaining from morning till night. The only thing left is to run! I thought about it. A guy whose wife was also making life miserable for him told me, “It will only get worse. While she’s still young, leave her everything and run for your life!” I told him, “How can I? She gave me two children. She’s buried one, the other is sickly, she can’t work - how can I leave her?!” So I stayed, and I’ve suffered to this day. That guy did leave his wife, and a year later he had a stroke. Conked out at forty-eight, that’s right. Looks like there is a God, after all.”
“I don’t know...” Lyosha said pensively, taking a chocolate candy from a bowl and pushing the bowl toward Grandpa. “Maybe there is, but He’s not doing things right. Why do the two of you have to suffer? Other people live normal lives.”
“I don’t care about other people,” Grandpa interrupted, his face showing hurt for a moment. “Suffer or not, I lived to be seventy. Maybe I didn’t live well, but it’s still better than croaking at forty-eight. And I always knew that my wife was faithful. And I myself never once cheated on her. Ah, Lyosha, what’s there to talk about! Good wife, bad wife - it’s been forty years, that’s the wife God gave me. I go on a tour and right away I start thinking, how is she doing alone, what’s going on with her. I get to the hotel and call her, find out that she’s fine, and I sleep well. We are one now, and we have one life to live between us. It’s hard, it’s a torture of a life, but it’s the only one we have, and there can be no other. But it’s really hard with her, Lyosha. She curses me, for example, for not having her teeth done. I tried to take her to the dentist maybe twenty times, made the appointments, but she’s into those goddamn omens! It’s always the wrong day, or the wrong doctor, the new moon, the full moon... I sometimes wonder if she does it on purpose, so that later she can torture me. She comes up with something stupid and then yells and insists on doing it her way. I give her money - she hides it all over the apartment so that it’s impossible to find. If I myself put it in a certain place, she’ll take it out and move it. I went grocery shopping today. “Don’t take this bag, take that one.” - “Why that one, Nina?” - “The strap on this one will break.” - “Why should it break, I always use it.” - “No, this one’s bad, take the other one.” I know it’s stupid, and yet I do what she wants because I feel sorry for her. Maybe I’m weak and I failed to assert myself, but why would I assert myself with her if she’s mentally ill? She doesn’t understand that what she demands is foolish, she really thinks it’s the right thing. And she’s the first to suffer if something goes wrong. A normal person wouldn’t be as upset about losing an arm as she gets about Sasha peeing into the wrong cup for tests. I always have to adapt and agree with everything. I don’t know why I haven’t gone bonkers myself. I do lose it sometimes, like today, but then I blame myself and feel really bad.”
“So you feel like it’s all your fault?!”
“Not today!” Grandpa corrected himself. “There’s a limit to everything. I’ll go back tomorrow, but for now, let her think that I left for good. It’s not often that she does what she did today. Actually, ever since Sasha came to live with us, she calmed down a bit. Oh, and when Olya got married, that was something! “You bought her the apartment! You made a sexual psychopath out of her! You want her to be worthless for her whole life, like I’ve been!” And Olya was twenty-seven at the time, not exactly a schoolgirl. And for the whole year, until Sasha was born, it was just horrible. I cursed myself over that apartment, but it’s not something you can take back. Then Sasha came along, she started going there to help out - it looked like she had come back to her senses. But then she’d get into fights - either with Olya or with her husband, and each time she’d come back in tears. And after she’s done crying, she gets on my case. Whatever she didn’t express to them, it all came down on my head. I’m not proud of it, but when they got divorced, I sighed with relief. But just as I caught my breath - it hadn’t even been a year - this Tolya appeared, the midget. Just when I had talked Olya into moving in with us - it was like she hit us with a ton of bricks! The old woman lost it. She just lay there for a week staring into space. She nearly stopped eating altogether, looked gaunt, her hands shook. I was offered a good movie role around that time - I had to say no, I couldn’t leave her alone. And just when it looked like she’s shaken it off, Olya went to Sochi with Sasha. She cursed so hard I thought we were both headed for the nuthouse, me first. Lord, forgive me for saying this, but what saved us was that Sasha came back sick. Olya left him with us, and it was as if Grandma suddenly came alive. She started taking care of him, even forgot about the midget. “Sasha sweetheart, Senya dear...” - that’s all we heard from her. Then, with time, she went back to her usual self, but not as bad as before. Sasha was sick all the time, he needed constant care, and he still does. She loves him to pieces. I don’t know where she would have been without him. And Olya can’t look after him anyway, which is why we didn’t give him back to her. She went to that Sochi almost every month. After she graduated, she had offers from theaters, from movie directors - and she dropped everything. She did just one role, a couple of scenes, and spent the rest of her time saving that “genius” from alcohol. Fine, so she went there - but how could she abandon the kid?! I hate that midget! And he could at least have kept a low profile, but no - not only did he move into the apartment that I bought, he meddles in our relationship! He wrote me a letter that made me shake all over as I read it. Let me read it to you. I carry it with me, God forbid Grandma lays her eyes on it...”
Grandpa pulled a large, worn wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket, opened the zippered section, and took out a twice-folded sheet of paper frayed at the creases.
“He wrote it two years ago when he moved here,” Grandpa explained and started reading hastily, as if he wanted to relieve his eyes of the unpleasant lines as soon as he could. “Dear Semyon Mikhailovich, I’m writing this letter because I want to help Olya and Sasha. I may be naive to think that a letter can help anything, but I’m still hopeful. A tense atmosphere in the house that destroys the child’s soul, the hounding of his own mother in front of his eyes - all this can only result in great harm to his personality. He was put in a situation where he is forced to betray his mother whether he likes it or not, where he constantly witnesses horrifying scenes like the one three years ago outside the circus, for which I cannot forgive you, even though I’m sure you think that I have no right to forgive you or not to forgive you. How could you forcefully tear a child from his crying mother? How could you raise your hand against your own daughter?”
Grandpa stopped, took his eyes off the sheet and met Lyosha’s inquiring glance.
“I just pushed her away, Lyosha. Didn’t hit her, just pushed. So that she’d know that you don’t mess with me. I decided that he was going to stay with us, and that was that. And what was it with picking him up outside in secret, taking him away? And to a circus, of all places, where he nearly suffocated from allergies? I pushed her away and told her that she shouldn’t dare even to think about him. She has the midget, she can think about him. But look what else he writes: “I now understand why Sasha says to his mother, “Mom, I say on purpose that I don’t love you, just so Grandma doesn’t get mad, but I love you very much!” I hope you’re not going to pass this on to Nina Antonovna, and spare Sasha her wrath. You can think whatever you want about your daughter, you can even hold a low opinion of her. It’s unfortunate, but it’s your business. Although it hurts me and I don’t understand it - Olya is a uniquely precious person, pure, courageous, gifted, noble-minded. Whatever you have against her concerns you alone, but taking a child away from his mother and taking a mother away from her son is unthinkable and criminal. I don’t know whether you’re aware that Olya carries your portrait in her locket. If not, then please finally understand what you are doing to your daughter and to her bittersweet love for you and her son. And one more thing. Please don’t think that my own personal interest is somehow involved here. It may be hard for you to believe, and it’s nearly impossible for me to convince you, that my relationship with Olya is based not on my desire to obtain a Moscow residency permit but on mutual affection - or love, if you will. And I’m still not in a hurry to formalize our relationship, which is something you again interpret in a strictly negative way, accusing me of carefree cohabitation and denying me the right to participate in family matters, as if I were a stranger or, worse yet, a scoundrel. Please understand that however painful it might sound, the most important thing for Olya is to be independent from the two of you. Nina Antonovna’s influence, which demeans the person and the woman in her, could not have been without consequences. It is deeply rooted in her, and since you chastise her for professional inadequacy, please understand that it stems from a general inadequacy, which is Nina Antonovna’s fault and, indirectly, yours. Olya is afraid to take a single independent step, and even though this gives you another argument against me, I am convinced that her trips to Sochi were probably worth the two or three roles that she declined - and which I am sure she will play some day - because those trips gave her a taste of freedom for the first time ever. One can only be self-reliant if one enjoys full financial independence, which, to the best of my knowledge, Olya has never had, begging you for money until the age of twenty-six, and then giving you everything that she and her husband were earning to cover household needs, which Nina Antonovna allegedly understood best. Even the winter coat that Olya bought with the money from her very first role is still hanging in Nina Antonovna’s closet. When we started our relationship, it put an end to all help from you, but any talk of independence is laughable. For three years, Olya managed to get by on odd jobs, living hand to mouth, sometimes literally denying herself the last morsel of food in order to buy a toy for the son that was taken away from her. How long can she last like this? The artist’s profession is not too reliable in terms of providing for a family, but I promised Olya and I promise you that I will do my utmost, and that the moment I’m able to support her and her son - forgive me, but I am convinced that sooner or later Sasha must come back to live with his mother - we will get properly married. I’m not looking for a way out, but I am forced to put a steady financial standing ahead of formalizing my union with Olya because your influence is still strong, and even though Olya flatly denies it, I cannot help noticing the doubts concerning the purity of my intentions that occasionally rise in her heart. It looks like I’ll have to prove not just to you that it’s not the residency permit that I’m after. Whether it takes a year or two, I will be a proper husband to your daughter and, I’m hoping, a father to her son. My current unsettled situation deprives me of a voice, of the right to demand anything, but I hope that the status of a spouse will bestow such rights on me, and then - please don’t think I’m impudent - I will be asking you for what Olya doesn’t dare to ask, namely, to let Sasha live with us, to return him to his mother. I put my trust in your decency and I do believe that the issue can be resolved peacefully, in a reasonable and sensible way. If Sasha is indeed very sick, and if his illnesses are neither a deep neurosis caused by his grandmother or - which is also possible - just a figment of her imagination, then we will find doctors, we will find medications, and we will take care of him with no less dedication than you and Nina Antonovna do. Respectfully yours, Anatoly Bryantsev.” “Respectfully yours, damn it...” Grandpa summed up. “So how do you like this?”
“Well... uh...” Lyosha demurred, not knowing what reaction Grandpa was expecting.
“I nearly lost it when I read it! It’s not even arrogance, it’s hooliganism! This lousy drunk gets hold of my apartment and now he’s going to have demands! He’s going to ask for Sasha... Nobody would let him anywhere near Sasha! And how about this two-faced little brat: “I say I don’t love you so that Grandma doesn’t get mad, but I love you very much...” I’ll be sure to tell Grandma, she should know what an ungrateful scum he is. He loves his mom, geez... Idiot! His grandmother sacrifices her whole life for him, pays with her blood, while his mom leaves him for a boozer. She needs independence, yeah, right! Soon she won’t be just hungry, she won’t have any grub at all!”
“And he’s still not making any money?”
“How much can he possibly make? At first it looked like at least he wasn’t drinking, but now, Grandma says, he’s boozing again. I don’t know, I don’t see them. He painted for some clubs, some amateur plays. It’s peanuts, just enough for a bottle. The idiot woman should drop him like a hot potato before it’s too late. Or else he’ll make her another child, who’s going to want her then? He’ll take care of Sasha, yeah... He’ll do him in and then say it didn’t work. He’ll slip something funny into his food, too.”
“Oh, come on,” Lyosha shook his head. “Why would he do that?”
“What do you mean, why?! Just think of it. When we croak, everything goes to Sasha and that idiot woman. And if Sasha is gone, she gets everything. Meaning, he does. Sasha is like a thorn in his side, all he dreams about is his demise. Oh well, as long as we’re around, he won’t get anywhere near him! Father my foot... I am his father! And Grandma is his mother! He’s got nobody but us. I’d like to adopt him, so that they won’t get him even through the courts. He should even have my patronymic.”
The shrill sound of the phone in the still night startled Grandpa.
“Her again,” said Lyosha. “Nobody else calls here.”
“Pick it up...”
“Pick it up, who knows...”
“But we agreed.”
“Pick it up. Maybe she’s not feeling well...”
“No big deal, she’ll get over it.”
“Are you crazy?! Pick it up, I’m telling you!”
Lyosha stayed put. The phone kept jangling. Grandpa was agitated.
“Lyosha, pick it up, are you teasing me?”
“I’m not picking it up! You’re spineless. Didn’t you want to teach her a lesson? I’m going to unplug it, she can listen to the signal all she wants.”
Lyosha got up and reached for the phone jack.
“Don’t you dare!” Grandpa shouted, waving his hand desperately, and picked up the phone.
“Hello...” he exhaled. “Yes... It’s me... No... Soon... Tell her: soon... That was Sasha,” he explained after hanging up, and his eyes filled with tears. “He said, “Grandpa, come back, we can’t sleep without you.” What am I doing, an old fool? How can I leave them?”
“So are you going home?”
“Yes, home,” Grandpa replied and grabbed his coat hastily. “Good night, Lyosha. Thank you.”
He stopped in the doorway, as if remembering something, and asked in a conspiratorial voice,
“You had those chocolates on the table. Let me have a couple for the old woman.”