BURY ME BEHIND THE BASEBOARD

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BUBETTE (PT.2)

“Come open it, I don’t know this stuff...” Grandma said, setting the box on the table.

I tentatively took the cardboard cover off the box and started pulling out the styrofoam pads. The familiar plastic, smooth and black, glistened among them. I couldn’t believe what was happening. It felt like a prank of some sort.

“Come on, open it, why are you staring at it like a bird at a snake?” Grandma hurried me and explained to Mom, “I put it away for a couple of days, or else he would have forgotten about the homework and just messed with the darn thing all the time.”

“His!” the last word flashed; I tore the pads off and put the player on the table. So after all, I would be able to think “But I’ve got a Philips!”

Mom took a cassette out of her bag, and I was thrilled that I’d be able to show her how well I could operate such complex equipment. The obedient player threw open its cassette cover demandingly, as if stretching out a hand; the smart needle quivered in its see-through window; the sound of a guitar came out of the speaker; the numbers on the meter started running one after another. Mom was very impressed!

I liked Vysotsky this time. At Boris’, I only heard a boring song about horses, and the only thing I liked was the singer’s raspy voice; it would have been great to let passers-by listen to it through the window, though I myself wasn’t interested at all. But Mom’s cassette had funny songs about a giraffe, exercise, a runner who ended up switching to boxing, and listening to them was fun. Even Grandma laughed at times.

“True! So true! “Stationary running’s bringing peace to hearts!”[3] That singer was a genius!” she said when the short cassette came to an end. “And he threw his life away so stupidly, for nothing. Marina Vlady has had such a hard time with him, enough till the end of her days. And she was a gifted actress, not a maid like some people. But she knew for whose sake she was suffering. He was a real genius, not some megalomaniac.”

“I’m no Marina Vlady, I’m not going to suffer for anybody, but I’ll do what I can to help a person,” Mom responded.

“What does it have to do with you? Nobody’s talking about you. But you could have been an actress, too. The way you performed in your graduation play! I was drowning in tears, I thought that my daughter was going places. And your first role! Everybody was saying, “You daughter will make it.” Yeah, you did make it... As a beach slut. What can you possibly do now? Model a skeleton, perhaps, that’s all. Your midget isn’t painting the dance of death by any chance?”

“What’s with your tongue, Mom? Every word is like a toad plopping out of your mouth. What did I do to you?”

“What you did is that I gave my whole life to you, thought you’d be the real thing. I took the last shirt off my back: here, sweetheart, let people admire you! All my hopes went down the tubes!”

“Then why, when people looked at me, did you say they were actually looking at you?”

“When did I say that?”

“When I was young. You also said that people used to ask you about me, “Who’s that withered old woman? Is it your mother?” You don’t remember that? I don’t know what would have happened to Marina Vlady if they drilled it into her since childhood that she was ugly.”

“I didn’t say you were ugly! I wanted you to eat better, so I’d say, “If you don’t eat, you’ll be ugly as hell.”

“You said many things... I won’t go into it in front of Sasha. Did you break my leg to make me eat better, too?”

“I didn’t break your leg! I kicked you because you were pestering me! We were going down Gorky Street,” Grandma started telling me, comically demonstrating how difficult Mom had been, “walking past store windows, with some mannequins in them. And this brat whines so that the whole street could hear, “Bu-uy! Bu-uy!” I tell her, “Sweetheart, we don’t have much money now, I can’t buy it for you. Wait till Daddy comes home, we’ll buy you a doll, and a dress, and anything you want...” - “Bu-uy!” So I kicked her on the leg. Didn’t even kick her, just pushed her to shut her up.”

“You pushed me so hard I had to have a cast.”

“Your bone wasn’t broken, it was just cracked, but you weren’t eating anything, so your bones were like matches. That’s why I forced you to eat better. I’d go hungry myself but I’d make you eat no matter what. And did you ask even once, “Mom, have you had enough to eat?” You’ve never looked at me with simple gratitude, let alone love. All you did was suck the life out of me. You came to the hospital and demanded money!”

“I didn’t demand anything. I just asked for money to buy stockings, and you went into this song and dance about how you were going to die soon, and then I’d get everything.”

“And you said you couldn’t wait for me to die!”

“No, I just said that I needed the stockings right away.”

“You could have waited, stopped running around while your mother was in the hospital. But you had your Daddy’s example in front of you; he’s a big-time lover-boy, you were afraid to be outdone, of course. You beat him! You did! He never messed around with brilliant midgets. Although who knows, they went on a tour to Omsk together with a circus, I think there were some dwarfs...”

“Grandma, why do you keep fighting? Let me talk to Mom, just for a bit. I haven’t seen her for so long...”

“God, all that effort, all those nerves - completely wasted. Lord, why are you punishing me like this: one child dead, another a prostitute...”

“Why do you keep insisting I’m a prostitute? I’ve had two men in my entire life, yet according to you, I’ve been a prostitute since fourteen or so.”

“I wanted you to study, not to run around!”

“I wasn’t running around, but it’s true that all my life I wondered why I’m so well-educated yet nobody wants me. And I wasn’t thinking about acting, I was searching for a back that I could hide behind, from you - that’s also true. And if I now know that there’s a man who loves me, who slaves day and night for my sake, maybe that’s happiness for me. Father gave his whole life to you, and you didn’t know how to appreciate it. But I do. Is that why you’re trampling on me? And if I had my child with me, the one you’ve kept from me for over four years now, then maybe I could be completely happy.”

“Don’t get too excited, this man of yours slaves for the sake of your apartment, not for you. As for the child - you abandoned him yourself. I don’t need to keep him, but in his little heart, he knows everything. He knows who gives her blood for him, and who abandoned him for a five-foot ogre. Ask him, he’ll tell you. All right, I’ll go get you some chow. Maybe you’ll gain some weight, and your Goya will at least paint Cosette after you, so you won’t just be a maid...” Grandma gave me a wary look and left the room.

I was alone with Mom again. Once again, I was granted a few wonderful moments, and I started wriggling, knowing that today, there wouldn’t be any more moments like this. I hugged Mom as hard as I could, not sure whether to suggest playing fleas again, or to ask her to tell a story, or to listen to more Vysotsky.

“Tell me a story,” I finally decided.

“I don’t even know what to tell you. Your grandmother got me so discombobulated that all I can do is sit and blink like a chicken.”

“But why do the two of you fight all the time?”

“That’s the way we are... Fightly. Well, Uncle Tolya brought an old book, called Treasured Tales. It’s old Russian folk tales, unadapted. The language in it is exactly like your grandmother’s.”

“Really?” I laughed.

“Yes, really!” Mom was glad that she got me interested in her story. “There’s one, for example, about a priest. He hired a peasant who said his name was Wotsoff. He didn’t do much work, just stole a bunch of bread rolls, pooped into the priest’s hat, and took off. The priest went looking for him, put the hat on, ran outside, and yelled, “People, have you seen Wotsoff?!” And they say, “Yes, Father, we do see. Shit’s running off you, that’s what!”

I laughed so hard I started wheezing. My lungs would get tight sometimes from laughing too hard, like when I was sick, only not as bad, and it would go away without any ephedrine.

“So what else is there?” I asked impatiently.

“There’s one about a rooster, even funnier. So this rooster went traveling. He’s walking through the woods and runs into a fox...”

“Olya, come eat!” Grandma shouted from the kitchen.

“I’ll eat and then I’ll finish the story.”

“No, tell me now!” I clung to the weakened hug in fear. “You and Grandma will start yelling again, and we’ll never have a chance to talk.”

“Of course we will, I’m not leaving yet.”

“I know how it works! Wait, don’t go!”

“You don’t want me to die of hunger, do you?”

“Sure, eat, just tell me about the rooster first. At least briefly...”

“Well, so he runs into a fox, a wolf, a bear, and they all ask him, “Rooster, where are you going?” “I’m traveling...”

“Olya, are you coming or not? Do you expect me to beg you?!”

“I’ve got to go, or else she’ll start cursing.”

“Mom...”

“I’ll be right back.”

The hug broke up. Bubette got up and headed for the door. Thousands of invisible arms rushed to follow her but returned dolefully to my chest, unable to replace the two real ones. I knew that Mom was going to leave soon, and that I wouldn’t be able to hug her anymore. But Mom peeked out into the hallway, quickly came back to me, gave me a hug and whispered in my ear,

“Don’t be sad, honey. Uncle Tolya will get a good job soon, we’ll have plenty of rubles, and I’ll be able to take you back. We’ve wanted to do it for a long time, but right now, even the two of us have nothing to live on - so what would the three of us do? I’ll do it, I swear! Then we’ll talk, and play, and do anything you want. We’ll be together all the time, I promise. Don’t sulk, kitten. You’re not a little boy any more. I’m still here. I’ll come back to you right away.”

“So are you coming or not?” Grandma shouted again.

“I’ll be right back, I’ll eat here, next to you,” promised Bubette and left the room.

I was left alone on the couch. Of everything that Mom had whispered to me, the only important words were “I’ll come back to you, kitten”, the rest was just a continuation of the tale, a response to my pleas to talk. It couldn’t be for real. Mom couldn’t possibly take me back, happiness could not become life, and life would never have allowed happiness to make the rules. Life had its own rules, and these were the only ones I could live by, adjusting so that I could love Mom without violating anything.

“She’s coming back; tell her that you don’t care to hear silly tales about some rooster...” whispered Grandma, who had appeared in the room soon after Mom left. “She can have shit running off herself - does she think you’re a little idiot? Tell her you’re interested in technology, in science. Have some dignity, don’t stoop to this cretinism. If you have dignity, you’ll have everything: the player, the cassettes. But if you listen to cheap tales, like an overgrown nitwit, then you’ll be treated accordingly...”

“Why are you stirring him up against me?” said Mom disapprovingly as she entered the room with a plate of cottage cheese. “Why are you trying to bribe him? He was listening, his eyes lit up. How could he say he didn’t care? Why are you doing this? You’re such a jesuit!”

“Nobody’s bribing him! He doesn’t need a mother who shows up once a month and then polishes off what was bought for him! May you choke on that cottage cheese! Even a she-wolf doesn’t take food from her son!”

“Thank you, Mom, I’m full...” Mom said, putting the plate with cottage cheese on the table.

“Oh, look, aren’t we proud! Jeanne d’Arc with spots, whooptee-do! And if you’re so proud, why do you live like a common-law maid in your own apartment? I know why - you’re afraid that if you get married, he’ll kick you out, swap the apartment for two smaller ones, and get himself someone younger, with more meat on her bones. And that’s exactly what he’ll do! He already has someone in mind, I saw it!”

“Who did you see?”

“You’ll find out when he brings her in.”

“Grandma, my nose is stuffed up,” I said, pulling Grandma’s hand. “Give me some drops or something.”

“When you’re alone - no husband, no kids, nobody cares about you - then you’ll understand what it’s been like for me to struggle alone all my life. I gave up everything! I pulled my guts out - here, eat up! And not a hint of sympathy! Grabbed it like you were all entitled to it!”

“I don’t know about a husband, but don’t deny me my child! Even though he lives with you, even though you brainwash him - he’s still mine!”

“You don’t have a child! You abandoned him! You’ve got the midget, so look after him! This is my child, I earned him with my suffering!”

“Why do you think your suffering permits you to act like this?!”

“What, bitch?! What does my suffering do?!” yelled Grandma and grabbed the wooden fox terrier from the top of the china cabinet.

I lurched toward her and, crying in terror, tried to shield Mom. This had happened once before, and I couldn’t remember anything more horrifying. Fear blurred my vision. All I could see was the sharp corner of its base, and all I wanted was for the heavy wooden dog to stay put.

“Grandma, don’t! Don’t!”

“Get lost, creep, out of my way!”

“You’re crazy, what are you doing?!” Mom yelled, running from Grandma to the other side of the table. “Put that dog down!”

“I will, don’t worry,” Grandma said disdainfully, placing the fox terrier back in it’s place and dusting it with her sleeve. “It was given to your father, I won’t mess it up on such a whore. You’re not even a whore, you’re not a woman at all. May your organs be thrown to the dogs for having the gall to produce a child.”

“Why do you hate me so much?” asked Mom, tears running down her cheeks. “Why are you trampling me in front of my son? You took everything away! My things, my son - and now you want to take away his love, too? Sasha, honey!” Mom suddenly grabbed my coat off the rack. “Come with me! Come, I’m taking you back...”

“Leave that coat alone, bitch, you didn’t pay for it!” yelled Grandma and swung the fox terrier again. “Don’t even go anywhere near him!”

Mom flinched back.

“Ha!” I said and looked at Grandma. “I wouldn’t have gone with her anyway. I’d rather live with you. I like it better here.”

“You took everything! Everything!” Mom burst into tears loudly, dropped my coat, and grabbed her jacket.

“That’s right, get the hell out of here!” Grandma kept saying while Mom was dressing. “And don’t even think about coming here again. Go lick your midget’s sweaty balls while he still puts up with you! It won’t be for long!”

Mom opened the door and, crying loudly, rushed down the stairs. Grandma kicked the balcony door open, grabbed a pot that sat under the table, and, yelling, “Here, Olya dear, you were hungry!” emptied it out onto the street. “I got her good!” she reported, closing the balcony.

“Did you hit her?”

“Yep, now she’s shaking noodles off her shoulder.”

I laughed. The feast was over, it was back to life. I couldn’t love my Bubette any more. I could only love my secret treasures, while happiness had to be ignored.

“What’s this crap she left here?” Grandma asked, looking at the couch.

“It’s... fleas,” I answered nervously.

“Fleas?! Give them to me!”

Grandma snatched the plate and the discs and headed out of the room.

“Give them back to me! Where are you taking them?! Give them back to me!”

“Fleas! I buy medication for fifty rubles apiece, and she brings fleas! Hope she has fleas jumping all over her body until her dying day!”

Grandma brought the fleas to the kitchen and opened the garbage chute.

“Don’t!” I screamed, grabbing her hands. “Don’t, leave them alone! They’re a gift from Mom!”

“Mom?! I give you my life as a gift; I can buy a hundred of these fleas and break them all against your head! Hands off!”

“Don’t! Please! They’re from Mom...”

The discs clattered against the bottom of the receptacle, the plate jingled. The lid growled on its rusty hinges and closed shut.

“What have you done?!” I screamed, choking with tears, and ran to the bedroom, to my bed. “What have you done?!”

“Why are you crying over this worthless crap?! Be a man! You’ve got the cassette player, it’s a tad more expensive! If you keep bawling, I’ll take it back, you won’t see it again!”

“What have you done?!” I cried. “How could you?! Never... You’re a bitch... Bitch! Bitch!”

The next day, I was sitting on the bed, examining a plastic disc that I found by chance near the garbage chute. I was home alone, and I could stare at it all I wanted. I felt like crying for some reason, so to make myself sad, I decided to do something that I had always thought was silly.

“And your present - she threw it out, you know,” I complained to the disc. The sound of my voice in the empty room felt so plaintive that tears started running in no time. “Where are you now? How long will I have to wait for you?...” I was saying, and with every word, more drops rolled out of my eyes.

The doorbell rang suddenly. I shuddered. Grandma warned me that if the bell rang when I was alone, I should keep quiet and sit still, because Rudik wanted to rob our apartment and was just waiting till there was nobody home but me. So now he was here and wanted me to open up! I huddled nervously. My eyes started itching from the tears that had instantly dried up, but I was afraid to raise my hand to rub them. It was quiet. Maybe that was it? Another ring came. Then another, and then the ringing became loud and persistent, stirring me all up inside. My heart fell. I thought that if I sat still and did nothing, Rudik would break down the door with his persistent ringing and reach the frozen me even faster. Paralyzed with fear, I got up and sneaked into the hallway. The doorbell exploded over my head. Rudik didn’t believe I wasn’t home! He knew I was alone!

“Who’s there?” I asked in a shaky voice, expecting to hear Rudik’s grunting bass and to rush away, screaming.

“It’s me,” I heard the voice of my Bubette. “Open up, quick!”

“Mom?!”

I opened the door without hesitating. Bubette came in and, without even giving me a hug, hastily took my coat off the hook.

“Quick, get your stuff, you’re coming with me.”

“Where?”

“To my place. For good. I’m taking you back.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll stay with me for good. Put your coat on.”

I don’t know why, but I immediately believed it. This was a crime. An unspeakable crime, but, perhaps because of the fear that I had just experienced, I wasn’t thinking about what exactly Mom and I were doing, and all I felt was euphoria. Mindless euphoria that made me want to kick something with my foot.

“Quick, quick, Grandma went shopping, she’ll be back soon. What are you taking with you?”

“Here!” I pointed to my box, which I had already pulled from behind the nightstand and where I had put the flea that stuck to my sweaty palm.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Put your scarf on, it’s snowing hard! Where is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Look for it, fast.”

Feeling like a burglar who frantically dashes around the house just as the owners are about to return, I rushed to look for my scarf. I couldn’t find it.

“Okay, take mine. Wrap it tightly, you do have a cold. Let’s go.”

Mom and I slammed the door shut and got on the elevator.

“We made it! We made it!” the thought pulsated in my head as we went outside and, shielding our faces with collars from the thick, cold snow, headed for the subway.

“We made it!” I rejoiced when Mom gave me some coins that poured out of the change machine in the subway.

“We made it...” I thought wearily when we walked into her apartment.

One might think I would have been rejoicing and wriggling, having obtained so many wonderful minutes for my use - or just the opposite, settling down unhurriedly, knowing that now I’d be able to talk to Mom all I wanted. But I just climbed into an armchair and no longer cared about anything. It felt like time had stopped, and I was in a strange place where nothing existed beyond my outstretched arm. Here’s the armchair, here’s the wall, from which a big-eyed blotch cut out from black paper is staring at me with surprise - and there isn’t anything else. Oh, and now here’s Mom... She’s smiling, but it’s a strange smile, as if she’s apologizing for bringing me into such a limited world. Only now did it dawn on me what exactly the two of us had done. We didn’t just leave home without permission. We broke something, without which it would probably be impossible to live. How am I going to eat, sleep, where will I go for a walk? I no longer have my train set, my little cars, the MREC, Boris... I do have the box with treasures, it’s in my coat pocket, but why bother opening it if Mom is sitting next to me? And where’s Grandma now? Will she be gone, too?

I got off the armchair and huddled up to Mom to reward myself for all those losses with the happiness whose moments I didn’t need to count any more - but to my horror, I felt that happiness was gone, too. I ran away from life but it stayed inside me, and it wouldn’t let happiness take its place. But happiness no longer had its old place either. The invisible arms yearned to hug Mom and never let her go, they yearned to find peace because all that waiting was fulfilled once and for all - and they couldn’t, knowing that for some reason, they didn’t have the right to do it just yet. I thought with alarm that everything had to be put back in its place quickly, but I realized that then this right would be gone for good. I felt hot. I put my face into Mom’s shoulder and closed my eyes. Red spots started flashing in the dark.

“Uh-oh, you’re running a fever,” said Mom, taking me into her arms and lowering me into warm water.

I started swimming. Black birds were racing across the red sky above me. Their wings were shapeless, like rags. I dived and started descending along a vertical white wall...

Mom put a blanket over me as I lay in bed and left the room, closing the door, when Tolya entered the apartment.

“I did everything just as you told me,” Mom reported to him anxiously. “Mother went shopping, so I took him away.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s in bed, he’s really sick. It’s snowing hard, and he already had a cold... Tolya, what did I do?! Mother will destroy me!”

“He’ll live with us, we decided that yesterday. There will be screaming, lots of it, but you must stay firm. The kid has been hurt enough. You’re his mother. Why should he live with crazy old geezers?”

“She’ll take him back again. She’ll come here, and I’ll give in. It was just made-up excuses that we have no money, that until we’re officially married... But I’m terrified of her! Only now do I realize how much! As I was taking him away, I felt like I was stealing. Like it’s not my child but somebody else’s possession that I’m forbidden to even touch. She’ll come here and I won’t be able to stand up to her. She’ll do anything she wants to me... Tolya, please stay home for at least the first few days! Stick close to me!”

“Not only will I stay home, I think I should be the one who talks to them. They have power over you, but I will tell them exactly what we had decided. They don’t care that we’re getting married, fine, but now at least I have the right to speak up. Does a mere boyfriend have the right to tell the parents that their grandchild is no longer living with them?”

“But I don’t feel like I have any rights either! It’s as if I committed a crime and now I await retribution. They’ll crush me again! Tear him from me like the last time, shove me in the chest - and that’s it. And I won’t even say a word, I’ll just swallow my tears...”

“Think again and tell me just one thing: have you firmly decided to take him back for good and fight for him, or is it just wait and see? If you haven’t, better take him back right now.”

“He’s really sick, how can I do that?”

“So you haven’t decided... Then there’s nothing to discuss. You’ll give him back when he gets well, and that’s that. But soon he’ll be saying that he doesn’t love his Mom not just to Grandma, but to your face, too.”

“What?”

“You heard me. He all but said it yesterday...”

I descended deeper and deeper. The smooth white wall stretched as far as the eye could see, and I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything. Where is it? It must be here... No, nothing again. Now I will never ever find that door! What’s that? I heard the phone ring somewhere above. I hurried upward, surfaced under the red sky, and heard the ringing right next to me. But the black birds flapped their wings noisily, brushing them against my eyes, making it hard to figure out where I was. I blinked. The frightened birds flew away, the red sky shattered, and I saw a door. But that’s not the right door... The right one was supposed to be in the white wall, while this wall is light blue, with a long-tentacled black blotch on it. But now I hear Mom’s voice... She says she decided firmly... A male voice replies that he’ll talk then. Who’s that? Rudik? The ringing stops. Rudik says, “Good evening, Semyon Mikhailovich.” So Grandpa let him in? And where’s Mom? What did Grandma do to her? The image of the door dissipates into the red sky. The black birds return. “He’ll stay with us, that’s final,” Rudik’s voice comes through the noise from the wings, and I dive again in search of the door that I need so badly...

“Good evening, Semyon Mikhailovich,” Tolya was saying into the phone. “Yes, Olya took him. He’ll stay with us, that’s final. Well, that’s what Olya and I decided... No, not like hoodlums, but because it was the only way. What other way? I don’t know either... Which medications? Sasha’s medications... Well, Olya didn’t know about them... Homeopathic? Right now? Is it absolutely necessary? Fine. See you soon.”

“Where are you going?”

“Your father asked me to come pick up some homeopathic pills. Got one episode of yelling over the phone, now for another one in person - and I hope that’ll be it for today. Actually, he was rather calm. Maybe I’ll talk to him one on one and explain everything. When Sasha wakes up, warn him about me. He probably still thinks that I’m evil and that I picked him up by the head that time rather than by his shoulders.”

Mom closed the door behind Tolya, took a jar of ointment out of the nightstand, and started rubbing it into my back.

In the pink depths filled with the light from the red sky, I was feeling around the smooth white wall with my hand. The water heated up, and it was too hot to swim. I felt like I wasn’t going to last very long. The wall stretched forward, up, and down forever, and I knew I wasn’t going to find anything.

“Perhaps the door might open anywhere?” I thought, and shouted,

“Mom! Open up!”

Gurgling came out of my mouth instead of a loud voice, and red bubbles went floating up. I started coughing, but continued to shout anyway.

“Open up!” I shouted, banging on the wall with my fists and my entire body. “I want to live with you! I only love you! Only you! Open up!”

The door opened... A round tunnel appeared in the wall in front of me, and I swam along it, zigzagging through countless turns. I turned one more time and froze in horror. An enormous black octopus hung motionless in the dark red dusk. It held a candle in each tentacle and slowly drew circles in front of itself, staring right at me with its angry yellow eyes. The octopus didn’t attack me, but the silent circling of the candles was scarier than any assault. There was a threat in it, a threat that was impossible to hide from, like sorcery. And maybe it was sorcery? I turned around and started swimming back to the door as fast as I could. The octopus rushed after me. The tunnel turned downward, like a deep well, and the wax from the candles started dripping right on my back. I bent backwards from the excruciating burning but was able to swim out of the tunnel, then I grabbed the door handle and pulled, trying to close it. Then I saw Grandma swimming over. She stuck her hand in her pocket, and something long started snaking toward me.

“See, traitor, you forgot your scarf,” said Grandma. “I brought it. And I’ll strangle you with it...”

I screamed, darted back into the tunnel, and shut the door. Grandma rang the bell.

“Who’s that?” I asked, in Mom’s voice for some reason.

“It’s me, bitch!” answered Grandma.

“What do you want?”

“Open up, now!”

I frantically swam back along the tunnel and suddenly surfaced. The black birds were racing around me, and through the noise of their wings, I could hear Grandma’s voice,

“Look what you did, bitch! Stole him away... Oooh! Oooh, look what you did to him! Halfway across Moscow in a blizzard... He’s sick as a dog, how can you get him up now! Sasha! Sasha, sweetheart... What did you rub on him?! What did you rub on his back, bitch?! May they smear tiger balm on your liver! It’s got salicylate, he’s allergic to it! Damn you! May you be damned by anyone who sees you! By every bush you pass, every rock! Where’s his coat? Where’s his coat? Your father is waiting in the car!”

The black birds gathered in dense flocks and rushed me. I fought back, but they were grabbing me by the arms and neck with their beaks, kept turning me over, and spoke in Grandma’s voice,

“Raise up a bit, honey. Raise up, Grandpa’s waiting for us. Put your hand in the sleeve. Help me out, bitch, don’t you see he can’t even move! Look what you did to him! May you twist in pain for that, you scum! Help me out, I said, can’t you hear?!”

All at once, the black birds rushed at my head, blanketing my face. I grabbed at my eyes, tore open the shroud of noisy wings, and saw Grandma. She was pulling a knitted helmet over my head. Mom was buttoning up my coat and weeping.

“Sasha, sweetheart, can you walk?” Grandma asked. “We just need to get downstairs, Grandpa will drive us in his nice car. Look what that bitch did to you... Why did you follow her, silly?”

The hat went over my eyes, but the birds pulled it off and began circling above my head again. I dived and decided to hide from them in the tunnel.

“You will help me carry him down; don’t you see he can’t walk!” I heard Grandma’s voice as I swam deeper into the hot, pink water. “And you’ll never see him again, bitch! Your midget will get back from his little trip, and the two of you can produce all the freaks you want for yourselves, but you’re not getting anywhere near this child ever again! Take his other arm, bitch, off we go! What?! What did you just say?! You know what I’m going to do to you?..”

“Help! Somebody, please!” Mom’s voice broke through from somewhere.

“Are you scared? You should be! You thought all I could do was yell? I’ll smash your head with this lamp! I’m mentally ill, I’ll be acquitted. And my conscience will be clear: I gave birth to you, I’ll nail your coffin. Get lost! I’ll carry him myself. I have the strength to handle his skin and bones, and there’s enough left deal with you, scum.”

I swam up to the tunnel’s opening and wanted to hide inside, but then I sensed that something was grabbing me under the armpits. I turned around. It was the octopus.

“Call the elevator, my hands are busy,” said the octopus in Grandma’s voice and, wrapping its tentacles around my chest, started dragging me away from the wall.

Resistance was futile. The mouth of the tunnel that offered an escape flew away from me, dwindling to a mere dot, and suddenly flashed like a bright red glow against the gray wall. The wall opened up into two panels, releasing a flood of yellow light, and further down I saw myself in Grandma’s arms, wearing my coat and helmet. A mirror... The elevator...

“Hang in there, kitten, we’ll be home soon,” Grandma whispered into my ear, then turned around and said, “And remember: don’t you dare call or come over any more. You have no child! Don’t think that he needs you just because he went with you. I know how he feels about you. He’ll tell you himself, just wait till he gets better... What are you doing, bitch?!” Grandma suddenly screamed.

The panels closed, hiding the mirror and the yellow light, and the octopus began twisting me every which way in the dark. The glowing red light danced in front of my eyes and then disappeared, making me realize that I was completely at the mercy of the tentacles that kept pulling at me.

“Let go! Let go, I’ll kill you!” Grandma screamed from somewhere in the dark.

“Go ahead, kill me, I’ve got nothing to lose!”

The octopus’ grip suddenly eased up, and I felt like I was flying.

“He fell! Oh God, he fell!” I heard distant screams. “What are you doing? Look what happened to your child! Stop pushing your mother in the chest, are you nuts?! You bitch! Oh, you’re so strong! All nut cases are strong! The kid! The kid is on the floor! You withered piece of scum... May your arm wither away! So you’ve beaten back a sick old woman, bitch? Well, I’m coming back with your father! Just try not opening the door! We’ll bring the police and break it down! Pick up your child, he’s lying on the cold stone...”

Mom took me in her arms and carried me into the apartment. She put me down on the bed, took off my coat and hat, and put a blanket over me. Left alone in the quiet darkness, I fell asleep.

“Well, just you wait, bitch,” Grandma was saying from outside the door to Mom’s apartment. “Your father went to get an axe, we’ll smash the door. And then I’ll split your head open with that axe! Better open up yourself! Your father knows people in the police, in the prosecutor’s office. Your midget will be evicted within twenty-four hours, don’t think you’ll have time to register him. You’ll have to give up the kid through a court order if you don’t want to do it peacefully. Your father has already applied for adoption. And you will lose your parental rights. Your father said that he’d even give up his car if he has to, turn it over to the right person. Why are you so quiet? Do you hear what I’m saying? Open up... So you’re quiet now, slut? I know you can hear me. Well, listen carefully. I won’t go to court. I’ll make it even worse for you. My curses are deadly, you’ll see nothing but grief if I put a curse on you. God saw what you did to me, he’ll help me. You’ll crawl over on your knees to beg for forgiveness, but it’ll be too late.” Grandma put her lips to the keyhole. “Open up, bitch, or I’ll put a deadly curse on you. You’ll have bruises from kicking yourself for being so hard-headed! Open up, or the curse is on!”

Mom sat motionless on the bed where I was sleeping, her head in her hands.

“Open up, Olya, don’t be mean to me. You’ll have to deal with his health anyway, and I’ve got all the tests, all the papers. Without them, no physician will take him on. I won’t hold a grudge against you, I’ll take back everything I said, let him live with you. But if we have such a cross to bear, let’s do it together! You don’t have any money, but your father has a good pension, plus he’s still working. He’s about to get paid for some concerts. You’ll have everything: money, groceries, any clothes he needs. All you’ve got here is this coat, the rest is at my place. What is he going to wear here? I have his textbooks, his toys. Let’s do it nicely. If you’re nice to me, I’ll help you for as long as I’m standing. And if you’re an asshole, you’ll be swimming alone. Ah, may you drown if you’re such a bitch!.. Olya, open up, I’ll just check on him. I won’t take him, he’s too sick anyway. Plus your father has left already, he didn’t wait for me. It’s true. Told me to go to hell and went home. Open up, honey, you can’t leave the kid without care for this long. I’ll call Galina Sergeyevna, his doctor. She’ll come do the cupping. Do you really wish the worst for your own child? What a bitch, you’d rather have your child rot than let your mother in! So having it your way is more important than your son? Open up! Open... up... Oooh! A-a-a-ah...” Grandma slid down the door to the floor. “You got me. You got me, bitch, my head hurts. A-ah... I can’t see anything. That’s how you get a stroke. Where’s my nitroglycerine?.. Gone! No nitroglycerine! Oh... I’m dying! I need a doctor... Call an ambulance... A stroke! Oh... Give me some nitroglycerine... You bitch, how can you let your mother croak at your door?... I can’t see anything... The doctor... Your mother is expiring, come out and say goodbye to her... What an asshole I raised, leaving her mother at the door like a dog. God will punish you for that! You’ll come crawling to your son in your old age, and he won’t even let you in. That’s the way he is! He told me how he feels about you. Yeah, when you come over, he’s all hugs and kisses, but the moment you step out the door, he’s ready to trash you. He should stay with you, I don’t need that sneaky traitor in my house. Just let me in to check on him so that I can breathe easily. Why should I be a sinner before the Lord because of you? God, why are you punishing me?” Grandma started crying. “Why did you grant me enough kindness for three people? Why are you sending me such torment for the kindness that you yourself granted? I gave my whole life to my daughter! She had jaundice, so I gave away the last clothes off my back to treat her with lemons. When she needed a dress for her graduation, I sold my coat and wore rags for two winters. Yes, I yelled at her, but only out of desperation! Have mercy on your mother, sweetheart, don’t break her heart with feeling guilty for your child. See how he’s coughing now! And I have his medication with me! I’ll just give it to him and go home. He’ll sleep fine, and I’ll go to sleep with a clear conscience. Go to sleep and never wake up, no matter... Olya dear, let me in; am I supposed to keep bawling here at the door? You enjoy my tears, don’t you? You want to pay me back? Well, forgive me. Your mother is sick, do you want to condemn her for that? Condemning is easy, but you should try to forgive. Show that you have some magnanimity. Are you afraid that I’ll start yelling again? I won’t... If you forgive me, I’ll know that I’m not worthy to raise my voice at you. I’ll kiss your feet for such benevolence! Your door is so filthy... I’ll wash it with my tears. I’ll mop the whole doorstep with my lips if I know that my dear daughter lives here, the one who forgave her mother for all her sins. Open the door, prove that you’re not a doormat, that you’re a magnanimous woman at heart. I’ll know that the child is worthy of such a mother, I’ll leave in peace. Open up! Well, you will remain a tramp... Do you hear me? At least answer me! You don’t want to hear anything, bitch! Olya, sweetheart... Open the door! I don’t have any medication with me, but at least I’ll be next to him, put my hand on his sweet forehead. You can keep him, but at least let me be next to him! Why did you lock my heart away from me?! Open up, bitch, don’t murder me! May you be damned! May you see nothing but despair in your life! May they all betray you, leave you to live your life alone! Open the door! Let me see him...” Grandma started banging at the door with her feet. “Closed, may they close you off with a tombstone! Damn you! Damn you now and forever! I writhe like a snake to get you to open this door because you caught my heart in it! I don’t need your forgiveness, bitch, but understand my pain! Understand that I’d rather have died in infancy than having lived my whole life without love. All my life, I gave myself to others hoping to earn some! I loved like crazy, but they avoided me like the plague, spat on me! You, your father, your poor cripple of a son. Alex, my sweetheart, he loved me, but he left this life a tiny baby. What does a tiny baby know about love? But the love you get I never had in my life! Do you think I can’t see which one of us he loves? If only once he looked at me the way he looks at you. If only once he hugged me the way he hugs you. No, it’s not in the cards for me! But how can I live like this when I myself love him to pieces! He calls me Granny - and something inside me weeps with joy. The pill I give him eases his chest, he glances at me with relief - and I’m happy to take this as love. Well, it’s something, it’s the best I’ll ever get anyway. Can’t you see that I’m trying to quell my life-long hunger with a few crumbs just before the end! But you’re taking from me even these stale bits! Damn you for that! Olya... sweetheart! Let him live with me! I’ll die, you’ll get him anyway. In the meantime, you can come see him all you want. I’ll yell - never mind me. I’ll curse you - well, give your crazy mother some slack while she’s still around. She’ll be gone soon, don’t push her into the grave before her time. He’s my last love, I can’t breathe without him. I’m ugly in love, but whatever I am, let me live a bit longer. Let me have a bit more air. Let him glance at me with relief one more time, maybe he’ll call me Granny once again... Open up. Let me see him...”

Mom stood by the door. She put her hand on the lock and started opening up.

“Nina Antonovna, why are you putting on such a performance here?” Tolya’s voice came. “Sasha is staying with us, that’s final, and Semyon Mikhailovich is waiting for you at home. What are you doing to us? Luring me out like a little boy, asking him to smash the door... You should go home, you’re not on stage here. We’ve had enough of Anna Karenina for today.”

“You’re in cahoots! In cahoots with the traitor! I knew he’d betray me all the way! I sensed it! Damn you all! May you be damned till the end of time for what you did to me! May you enjoy all the love in the world and then lose it the way you took mine away! May your every day be like today was for me! Damn you! Forever! Damn you...”

Still yelling and crying, Grandma took the elevator down. Tolya came in.

...I woke up in the middle of the night, saw that I was lying in a dark room, and felt my hair being stroked. It was Mom. I knew it right away - Grandma couldn’t stroke so nicely. I also knew that while I was asleep, my dreams had come true. I was sure I was going to stay with Mom for good and that I would never go back to Grandma. Could it be true that I would now go to sleep knowing that Mom was next to me, and that I would see her next to me again when I woke up? Could it be true that happiness was becoming life? No, something was still missing. Life was still inside me, and happiness didn’t yet dare to take its place.

“Mom,” I asked, “were you mad at me when I said that I wanted to live with Grandma?”

“Of course not! I knew you said it for my sake, to stop us from fighting.”

“I didn’t say it for your sake. I said it because you would leave and I would stay. Forgive me... Oh, and also forgive me for laughing when Grandma poured the pot over you. I didn’t think it was funny, but I laughed. Will you forgive me for that?”

And seeing that she did forgive me, I started apologizing for everything. I recalled how I laughed at Grandma’s expressions and how I mocked certain moments from the fights; I cried and asked for forgiveness. I didn’t think I was terribly guilty, I knew that Mom wasn’t mad at me and that she didn’t even understand what I was talking about, but I still cried and asked for forgiveness because it was the only way to let happiness replace life. And it did arrive. The invisible arms hugged Mom once and for all, and I realized that life with Grandma had become the past. But what if, now that happiness is life, everything will come to an end? What if I don’t get better?

Through the window, the street light cast a white-blue reflection onto the ceiling, and the shadow of the frame formed a black cross on it. A cross! A cemetery!

“Mom!” I huddled up to her anxiously. “Promise me one thing. Promise me that if I die suddenly, you’ll bury me behind the baseboard at home.”

“Huh?”

“Bury me behind the baseboard in your room. I want to be able to see you all the time. I’m afraid of the cemetery! Do you promise?”

But Mom didn’t answer and just held me tight, crying. Outside, it was snowing.

Snow was falling on the crosses of the old cemetery. The diggers shoveled earth in their practiced motions, and it was surprising to see that the pit, which looked so deep, was filling up so quickly. Mom cried, Grandpa cried, I huddled up to Mom nervously: we were burying Grandma.


[1] Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), a legendary Russian singer-songwriter. Married the French actress Marina Vlady (Translators’ note).

[2] Soviet pop hits (Translators’ note).

[3] From the translation by Andrey Kneller.

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