Next to our building was the huge construction site of the Moscow Road Engineering College (MREC); my friend and I loved going there. He went there to “investiget”, which was his peculiar way of saying the word, while I looked for various parts that could be used to invent something. We went “investigetting” quite often. In the evening, the MREC site was empty, and we could do there whatever we wanted. There was plenty of interesting stuff at the MREC, and it all belonged to us. Grandma couldn’t find me at the MREC, which is probably why she forbade me to go there. But how can you not go where you can do whatever you want and where nobody can find you?
I would have felt completely free at the MREC except for one thing. Six times a day I was supposed to take homeopathic pills, and when I was outside on our street, Grandma would bring them to me in a pillbox. If someone offered me candy, Grandma would take it, put it in her pocket, and sigh,
“He can’t have it, he has... well, a different kind of candy.” And she’d stuff a dose of homeopathic pills into my mouth.
One day, when she decided once again to feed me some Conium - which we jokingly called Fraudium - Grandma came outside but didn’t see me there.
“Sasha!” she shouted. “Sasha!”
“Sasha!!!” she screamed, and headed around the building, hoping to find me.
But it was impossible. My friend and I were at the MREC, where I sat on the roof of a three-story building and contemplated how to utilize the crankshaft that I just discovered in the attic. Hearing the call of Grandma with her pills, I panicked and dashed around the roof in terror, not knowing where to hide. Not taking the pills was as bad as going AWOL. My panic overtook my friend as well. He huddled, peeked down anxiously, and whispered,
“She won’t climb up here, will she?”
I was so terrified that I took his words literally and decided that we must hurry to meet Grandma before she actually did climb up here. My mad rush down to our courtyard took about five minutes. Meanwhile, Grandma kept circling the building with the pillbox in her outstretched hand and calling out,
“Where are you, beast?”
If this had been the countryside, an eyewitness might have thought that her goat had gone missing, but in the city...
Finally, I flew into the courtyard. Grandma was nowhere in sight, but her distant shouts suggested that she was on the other side of the building. Gasping for air, my friend caught up with me and, barely catching his breath, asked,
“Are we going to go investigetting again?”
I spat on the ground and, like a man who knows what’s going on and how it usually ends, replied weightily,
“Investigating is over.”
“Investigetting is over...” my friend repeated quietly, as if trying to grasp the terrible meaning of these words.
And then Grandma appeared from around the corner.
“Where the hell were you? Come here. Take your pills.”
My friend disappeared immediately. Grandma came up to me... And I was sweating!
I wasn’t allowed to sweat. This was an even more heinous crime that being late for the pills! Grandma explained that when a person sweats, he cools off and loses his physical immunity, while the staph senses it, multiplies, and causes sinusitis. I remembered that I wouldn’t have enough time to rot away from sinusitis because if I got sweaty, Grandma would kill me before the staph woke up. But no matter how I tried, I still broke a sweat as I was running, and now nothing could save me.
“Let’s go home,” Grandma said after I took the pills.
In the elevator, she looked at me carefully, her face fell, and she removed the red hat from my head. She reached under my collar and realized that I was sweating.
“Sweaty... Holy Mother of God, the bastard is sweaty! Oh Lord, save and protect us! Just you wait, asshole, I’ll get you good!”
We entered our apartment.
“Take everything off, quickly. The shirt! He’s sweating all over, the bastard, all over... O-oh!” she moaned, taking my shirt. “It’s soaked. Soaked! Wrap yourself in a blanket, I’ll rub you. Where were you? Tell me where!”
“Boris and I went to the MREC,” I mumbled breathlessly.
“The MREC? You little shit! How many times did I tell you not to go anywhere near the MREC?! This Boris would be fine even if you banged his head against the pavement; he can live there for all I care, but you, you rotten scum, what were you doing there? Picking up bolts again? I wish they stuffed all those bolts up your ass. Well, just you wait...”
This “just you wait” was never a good sign.
“Now listen to me carefully. If you go back to the MREC even one more time, I’ll send Grandpa over there, and he’s a well-respected man, your Grandpa. He’ll go, he’ll give ten rubles to the security guard and he’ll tell him: “If you see a little boy here, scrawny, you know, in a red hat and a gray coat... kill him. Rip out his arms and legs, and stuff some bolts up his ass.” Your Grandpa is well-respected, and the guard will do it. He will, you understand?”
I sure did.
Before sending me outside the next day, Grandma pinned two handkerchiefs to the inside of my shirt with safety pins. One on my chest, the other on my back.
“If you get sweaty again, the shirt will stay dry, and the hankies - I’ll pull them out just like that,” she explained. “And then I’ll strangle you with them if you get sweaty. Got it?”
“And one more thing. Remember what I told you about the MREC? If you go there with this Boris again - you’ve been warned. If he invites you, say no. Have some spine, tell him firmly, “Grandma won’t allow it.” The spineless end their days in prison, remember it and tell him, too. Will you remember?”
Boris, the one who could safely be banged against the pavement, was waiting for me just outside.
“Let’s go,” he said.
“To the MREC.”
“Boris, where are you going?” Grandma’s voice suddenly came from the balcony.
“To the gazebo!” he replied.
“Boris dear, please don’t take him to the MREC, okay? I have a paper from the doctor that says I’m mentally ill. I can kill, and I’ll get away with it. Keep that in mind if you go to the MREC, okay?”
“Yeah...” answered Boris.
“Listen, does she really have a paper like that?” he asked me after Grandma left the balcony.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go?”
“Come on, let’s go! How is she going to find out?” I egged myself on, convinced that I wouldn’t get sweaty and wouldn’t give myself away to Grandma. “We’ll be quick. We’ll just investigate a bit and be back in no time.”
When we reached the huge iron gate whose rusted surface sported the four cherished letters, MREC, crudely painted in white oil paint, I froze. “He’s a well-respected man, your Grandpa... He’ll go...”, I heard Grandma’s voice in my head.
“You know, let’s do the kindergarten instead,” I suggested to Boris.
The kindergarten, adjacent to the MREC and separated from it by a fence with a hole in it, was the second most interesting place for us.
It was empty in the evening, and we considered it ours, too. There, we could play any games we wanted; we could sit in the little wooden houses or climb onto their steep roofs; we could have a campfire and bake potatoes that we brought from home without having to worry that some passer-by might destroy our fire and take away our matches. The matches and the potatoes lay hidden in one of the little houses since our last visit, so it was already clear what we’d do in the kindergarten that evening.
Our bliss was interrupted by “the big boys”. That’s what we called the guys from the circus school, who were about five years older than us, and who also considered the kindergarten their own. Sadly, they were partially correct. They could shoo us out, but we couldn’t shoo them. For example, they could smash Boris’s head against the pavement just like that. The only thing we could do was to yell something nasty, but only after putting a respectable distance between us and them so that they wouldn’t hear it. Boris called them stupid idiots, and I cursed them with heavens, God, and the earth. Then we’d flee, thinking, “We showed them, didn’t we! Don’t mess with us!”
So when “the big boys” showed up at the kindergarten this time, I remembered that just the day before I had cursed one of them from my balcony pretty good, and therefore the best thing to do would be to scram. The boys were approaching from the direction of the gate, so the only place to scram to was the MREC. I already mentioned that there was a hole in the fence, and now we took advantage of it. I remember thinking, “Well, the guard may or may not catch us, but these guys would certainly rip our arms out and would apply potatoes instead of bolts. But the main thing is not to get sweaty!”
And so we left the guys far behind. We were at the MREC construction site. Boris ran ahead, while I spotted a broken guitar lying around and picked it up. It occurred to me that if I climbed up on the fence, I could tease the custodians from the other building really good. Trying not to move too fast to avoid sweating, I climbed onto the fence and, brandishing the guitar, yelled “Yo-yo-yo!” at the custodians, then made a face, threw the guitar to their feet and, making a mental note that I still wasn’t sweaty, jumped back from the fence...
The ground parted under me, blanketing my legs in coolness, and a gooey mass closed around my waist. I realized that I had sunk into something. Turned out it was a pit filled with cement mixture. It also turned out that it was already up to my chest rather than my waist, and that I couldn’t get out. My first thought was to swim, but then I remembered that I couldn’t swim. My second thought was to call for help. Boris was already far away, but even if he were at home, he would still have heard my chilling screams. He ran up to me and carefully, with a mixture of interest and horror, examined my head and shoulders that looked like they were sticking out of the ground, and my hands that flopped frantically over the cement.
“Hey, what’s the matter, are you... really?” he finally inquired.
“Really...” I wheezed, desperately gasping for air.
“And now what? Maybe I should pull you, like, out?” Boris finally came up with something useful, but then he immediately sank up to his knees himself.
“See what you did?” he sighed. “Now they’ll give me a hard time at home...”
He got out. He tried to shake off his pants - to no avail.
“See this mess!” he said, continuing to shake himself off, but then he noticed that the cement was getting close to my neck and paused. “You know, I’d better pull you out,” he decided finally, and went to look for a pole.
He dragged me the way guerilla fighters drag each other out of swamps in the movies. I desperately hung on to the board that he held out to me, and after a couple of minutes we were already trudging towards home. When we rolled ourselves over the kindergarten fence - we were so shocked that we didn’t even use the hole! - we bumped into those same big boys. They were finishing off our potatoes and were having a lively discussion about where those potatoes came from. Seeing us, they laughed their heads off, naturally, but I couldn’t care less. Grandma awaited me.
We made it to our courtyard. The cement that stuck to me probably weighed over twenty pounds, so I walked like an astronaut on some very big planet, like Jupiter. Boris had a little less cement on him; he was an astronaut on Saturn.
The custodians sat outside the doorway. These women were delighted by our appearance.
“Wow!” they shouted. “Just look at these dirty pigs!”
“And who’s this one, I can’t make him out!”
“This one’s the Savelyev idiot, and the other is Nechaev from number 21.”
I already knew why I was an idiot. The golden staph sat in my brain. It ate my brain and crapped into it. The custodians knew it, too; Grandma told them. Say, she’s looking for me with the homeopathic pills, and she asks a custodian,
“You haven’t seen my idiot, by any chance?”
“Why, he’s not an idiot... He seems fairly smart.”
“He only seems that way! The staph ate up his brain a long time ago.”
“Excuse me, but what’s that?”
“It’s a horrible germ.”
“Poor boy! Is it curable?”
“In normal people, yes. But he can’t have either antibiotics or sulfa drugs.”
“But it looks like he’s grown lately...”
“Maybe, but when I undress him in the bathroom, it makes me sick: nothing but bones.”
“And on top of that, he’s an idiot, too?”
“A total idiot!” Grandma exclaims with deep conviction, her heart overflowing with pride for her grandson: no one has one like him!
So when the Savelyev idiot finally made it home and pressed the doorbell with his shaking hand, it turned out that Grandma had gone out somewhere. I didn’t have the keys, of course - you can’t trust idiots with keys - so I had to go to Boris’s place. His mom helped me undress. It took us five minutes to remove my coat, and the pants took about the same. While I was taking my shoes off, they made a drawn-out squelching sound. My mittens, which were attached with elastic, dangled heavily from the sleeves - they were also full of cement. Even the handkerchiefs pinned by Grandma were covered with cement. I got into the bathtub and cleaned myself. They gave me Boris’s shirt and Boris’s tights. But Boris was bigger than me by half, while his tights were too large even for him. Oh well, I tied them up under my armpits, and he and I went to play. So we sit and play. And gobble up bananas. The doorbell rings. His mom goes to open the door.
“Vika, is the bastard here?”
I shivered and cringed inside the tights.
“Vika, where is he? I was told he was coming over here.”
“Don’t worry, Nina Antonovna. We’ll clean everything up. I gave him Boris’s tights. They’re playing.”
“Get him over here.”
“Nina, don’t let him anywhere near me, or I’ll kill him!” came Grandpa’s voice.
“Go, you gitsel, go away!”
Grandma located me, wrapped the tights around her hand, and dragged me home.
“All right, sweetheart, come with me. We’re going to the MREC. You like going to the MREC, don’t you? So that’s where we’re going. To the security guard. Want to see the guard? Give me a minute... You know their guard? Grandpa already talked to him. And now I’m taking you to see him. He’ll drown you in that cement, you asshole. Oh, you dirtbag, you messed up the whole coat! Hope someone messes up your soul like this! Your shoes - all over! And your pants! Didn’t I tell you not to go anywhere near there? Didn’t I? And you went with that hulk again? Everything’s dirty... Hope this cement pours out of your nose and ears! Hope it plugs your eyes shut forever! You should know that you’ll end your days in prison. You are criminally inclined! Setting fires, going to construction sites... And on top of that, you asshole have no willpower. You don’t want to study, you only want to stuff yourself with good things, play outside, and watch TV. I’ll show you how to play outside! You’ll be grounded for a month! You keep wanting to prove that you’re like everybody else. But you’re not! If you do crawl outside, you must take a quiet walk, sit down and read... Well, we’ll see if you’re able to join the young pioneers! I’ll go to your school principal and tell him how you torture me.”
“Nina, just don’t let him anywhere near me, I’ll kill him!” Grandpa joined in again.
“Go ahead, kill him! This asshole has no reason to live, he only ruins it for others. Too bad he didn’t drown in that cement, that would’ve been a relief for all of us!”
“Just don’t let him near me!’
“Yep,” I thought to myself, “it would be better to stay away from the MREC for a week or two.”