BURY ME BEHIND THE BASEBOARD

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THE SALMONS

THE SALMONS

I’ll start this story by describing our apartment. We had two rooms. Right next to the hallway, behind the French doors, was Grandpa’s room. Grandpa slept there on a fold-out couch which he never folded out, because hidden inside were some old clothes and fabrics, with bunches of St. John’s wort rolled in for protection against moths. The moths were afraid of the St. John’s wort and stayed away from the couch, but instead it was home to tiny brown bugs who were only afraid of Grandpa’s hard finger and whose death was accompanied by an excruciating stink. In addition to the couch with the bugs, the room also contained a table, a sideboard, an enormous china cabinet which Grandma called the sarcophagus, a TV set, and two stools. The top of the china cabinet was all covered with Grandpa’s mementoes. Grandpa was a performer; he frequently went on concert tours to various cities, and from every city, he’d bring back some wooden bear with a cask, a bronze Mother Russia with a sword, a Never Again model obelisk, or a 390th Anniversary of the City of Tobolsk badge carved from bone. Each one of them cost Grandpa plenty of verbal abuse.

“Look at all the junk you drag into the house!” Grandma cursed on account of a painted plate, Fighting the Bull, and the epic hero Ilya Muromets carved from a small tree stump. “When your time comes, all this won’t even fit into your casket!”

“What can I do, Nina, they just give them to me...” Grandpa would reply, squeezing Ilya Muromets between a tin-plate tank from the Taman Light Armor Division and a bronze bust of a pensive Maxim Gorky.

“They give them to you, and you say no!”

“That’s rude.”

“Then take them and leave them at the hotel. Or leave them on the train, for the attendants.”

“What do you mean - leave, they’re gifts...” Grandpa resisted meekly, tenderly leaning Fighting the Bull against a musical cigarette box in the shape of a three-volume set of Lenin’s works. Fighting didn’t lean properly; it rolled away, knocking a Moldovan boy in a tall hat onto the floor, and broke into smithereens.

“Good, one piece of crap less!” Grandma approved wholeheartedly. “I would like to smash it all up, preferably on your head!”

“There’s no way to glue it together...” muttered Grandpa, picking up the shards.

While the top of the china cabinet was crowded with Grandpa’s mementoes, nobody knew for sure what was stuffed into its drawers. I opened them once or twice and found some records, skeins of yarn, dust-covered bottles of wine, and dishes. These things were never taken out of the china cabinet, thus fully justifying its nickname - the sarcophagus. There was nothing to play the records on, Grandma didn’t knit, while drinking wine and using dishes required having guests over, which we never did.

Grandma forbade me to open the cabinet and touch whatever was inside, and it did contain a few interesting knick-knacks, such as a wooden Pobeda car with a clock in place of the spare tire. She kept saying that it all belonged to someone else. She claimed some people went away and left it with her for safekeeping. Even the box of hard candy belonged to someone else - Grandma said that a certain general left it with her. I swiped the box anyway, but when I examined it closely, I saw the words Babaev Corp. Deciding that Babaev was the general’s last name, while Corp was his strange first name, I immediately put the box back. Messing with the man whose name was Corp wasn’t a good idea.

We called the second room the bedroom. It contained two enormous cupboards stuffed with God knows what, like the china cabinet, a dressing table with a dull mirror and drawers on both sides, and the huge double bed where Grandma and I slept. On Grandma’s side, there was another set of drawers, which contained my medical tests, while my side was blocked by the backs of three chairs - to stop me from falling out at night. Their seats were usually covered with my clothes: woolen vests, flannel shirts, tights. I hated the tights. Grandma wouldn’t let me take them off even at night, so I always felt their tight grip. If, by chance, I found myself in bed without them, my legs felt like they were submerged in pleasant coolness; I’d wriggle them under the blanket and pretend I was swimming.

You probably got a good idea of what our kitchen looked like back when I was talking about the teapot put in a prominent place. I can only add here that the whole apartment was basically a collection of “prominent places.” Objects whose purpose nobody knew, boxes brought in by God knows who, and packages filled with God knows what were stacked everywhere. The kitchen table was all covered with medications and some little jars. If Grandpa ate dinner with us, the jars had to huddle together tighter, and some of them, unable to withstand our company, would fall from the opposite end of the table to the floor. The tops of the cupboards were covered by rows of ripening apples, bananas, or persimmons - depending on the season. Sometimes the persimmons overripened, and then tiny flies would flit over them. The same flies always flitted over the boxes that sat near the sink and contained cheese rinds and other small scraps that Grandma saved up to feed the birds. The floor in the hallway was covered with newspapers that Grandma replaced as they wore out. She was wary of germs and poured boiling water on the cutlery, but claimed that cleaning the whole place was too much for her.

The most interesting elements of our furnishings were the two fridges. One contained food and cans that the old gitsel took on his fishing trips, while the other was stuffed with chocolates and canned fish for the doctors. Grandma would give nice chocolates and caviar to the homeopathists and professors; cheaper chocolates and fish like salmon to our regular doctors from the clinic; chocolate bars and smoked sprats to other doctors and the lab assistants that took my blood for tests.

The day I’m about to describe began with Grandma selecting the better chocolates for the homeopathist from one fridge and cursing Grandpa, who was selecting the lousier cans from the other fridge for his upcoming fishing trip. Grandpa always took the lousier cans on his trips, because the better ones could still sit for a while, whereas the lousier ones had been there forever and could go bad at any time.

“You were running around while I slaved with our daughter, now our grandson is keeling over - and you’re still running around. You were a traitor then - you’re a traitor still,” Grandma was saying while going through boxes of chocolates, many of which were warped from lengthy storage and were now only good for the regular doctors. “And your car is yellow. Yellow is the color of treason: what else could you have possibly chosen, you Judas of Tula? I told you a week ago that we had to go to the homeopathist today - yeah, right! Your wishes above all else! Well, just wait, there’s payback for everything. God willing, this will be your last fishing trip. Maybe you’ll get food poisoning from those cans of yours, looks like they’ve been sitting there since World War I.”

“But Nina, I promised Lyosha we’d go,” Grandpa said, not exactly in a guilty tone, but as if unsure that he was in his right, then paused for a second and clarified, “A whole month ago.”

The doorbell rang.

“Nina, open up, it’s Lyosha!”

Grandma wiped off the box of chocolates she had chosen for the homeopathist with the heavily-mended sleeve of her robe and went to open the door.

“I’m going to show this Lyosha, he’ll forget how to get here,” she muttered, struggling with the lock. It often slipped and needed fixing.

“Good morning, Nina Antonovna. May I?” asked Lyosha, a retiree that Grandpa had befriended back when Lyosha was still working as a tailor in a shop on the ground floor of our building.

“You may not! I don’t want sadists like you in my house! Fishermen... You’re murderers! You can’t control your desire to kill, you don’t know how to indulge it! You’re afraid to kill a man so you settle for murdering a fish! This fishing business was invented by cowards like yourselves.”

“But you’re not above eating fish!” Grandpa teased her, winking at Lyosha who had come in. He always grew bolder in Lyosha’s presence.

“Go choke on your fish! I give it to the boy, and I myself eat it only because I have a bad liver and can’t have meat. You never think about my health. If only you were giving me just some of the attention that you give to your car and your fishing, I would have been a Shirley MacLaine!”

Lyosha, who was used to scenes like this, quietly sat down on Grandpa’s couch and rested his chin on his folded spinning rod.

“I asked to have my teeth fixed ten years ago. Did you? You took me for X-rays just once. Now look at me!” She showed Grandpa the sparse, half-rotten stumps that stuck out every which way. “If something gets loose in the car, you go mess with it right away! Hope you have a crash in that car of yours!”

“Let’s go, Lyosha,” said Grandpa, picking up the rods and the backpack from the floor.

Grandma was standing right next to him, and he brushed the backpack against her while putting it on his shoulder.

“Go ahead, push me!” Grandma wailed loudly and followed him all the way to the elevator. “Life will push you so hard you won’t know who you are! You’ll pay for my tears with your blood! I’ve been alone all my life! You’ve had all the fun while I drowned in chores! May you be cursed, you goddamn traitor!”

Slamming the door behind Grandpa, Grandma wiped her tears and said,

“That’s okay, honey, we’ll take the subway. He can stuff his help, it takes him forever anyway.”

“And what do we need a homeopathist for?” I asked.

“To keep you from croaking! Don’t ask stupid questions.”

The doorbell rang again.

“The old putz forgot something again...” Grandma muttered. “Well, just wait... Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Nina Antonovna,” the voice of the nurse named Tonya came from behind the door.

Looking like a cabbage butterfly in her white gown, Tonya came over every week to take blood from my finger for tests. Then Grandma would show these tests to the specialists in order to establish some kind of “dynamics”. The dynamics weren’t there, so Tonya had been coming for a few months now.

“Tonya, sweetheart, good to see you!” Grandma beamed, swiftly hiding the chocolates for the homeopathist under a newspaper and only then opening the door. “We’re always so happy to see you! Come on in.”

Tonya opened her special bag on the table, took out some test tubes, and rubbed my finger with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol.

“What’s with you, Nina Antonovna, looks like you’ve been crying?” she asked, blowing through a small glass tube.

“Ah, Tonya dear, with life the way it is, how can I not cry!” Grandma complained. “I hate Moscow! In my forty years here, I’ve seen nothing but grief and tears! When I lived in Kiev, I was the life of any party! And how I recited Shevchenko!

My poor, my desolated soul,

Why do your useless weep?

For whom is your pity? Alas, can’t you see?

And cannot you hear how the multitudes cry?

So go, take a good look! And meantime I’ll fly...[1]

I wanted to be an actress, but my father wouldn’t let me, so I went to work at the prosecutor’s office. And then this guy appeared - an actor from the Moscow Art Theater on tour in Kiev. Said he’d marry me, take me to Moscow. So I got all mushy, twenty-year old fool that I was! Thought I’d meet people, see the Art Theater, have a social life... Yeah, right!”

Tonya pricked my finger and started drawing blood into a capillary tube. Wiping her tears, Grandma continued,

“He stuffed me into this hundred-square-foot room, and the baby came right away... Alex was such a precious boy! When he was just a year old, he already talked! I loved him more than anything. But when the war began, this traitor forced me to evacuate. I begged him on my knees to let me stay in Moscow! But he sent me to Kazakhstan, and Alex died there of diphtheria. Then Olya was born, she was sick all the time. Whooping cough, mumps, infectious jaundice, you name it. I was running around like crazy trying to take care of her, but he - he only went on tours and to our neighbors, the Rozalskys, to push checkers around the board. It’s been like this for forty years. Now he does concerts instead of tours, goes fishing, plus all those civic engagements: a senator, for God’s sakes! And me, I’m stuck with a sick child, as always. He doesn’t care, Nina can take anything! She’s a workhorse! And if she can’t, he’ll find himself a young one. A Moscow apartment and a car will buy any one of them, never mind that he’s a seventy-year-old stinker in mended long johns.”

Tonya put my blood into several test tubes, pressed a cotton ball with iodine to my finger, and prepared to leave.

“Thank you, Tonya dearest, please forgive me for crying in front of you,” Grandma said. “But when you’re alone all your life, you want to share with somebody. Wait a second, I’d like to do something nice for you, you help us out so much.” With that, Grandma opened the precious fridge and took a tin can out of it. “Take this can of sprats, sweetheart. This isn’t much, I know that, but I really want to repay you somehow, and this is all I have.”

I was surprised that Grandma was so forgetful. I knew the contents of the fridge perfectly well and decided to remind her what else she could repay Tonya with.

“What do you mean?!” I shouted, opening the fridge wide. “What about the salmons? And all this caviar!”

“These cans are two years old, you idiot,” Grandma cut me off. “Do you really think I could give Tonya something stale?”

“Goodbye, Nina Antonovna! Sasha, goodbye,” Tonya hurried up and left the apartment, the metal disc of sprats weighing down her gown pocket.

“I thought your Grandpa was the stupidest idiot in the world, but you managed to outdo him,” Grandma said after closing the door behind Tonya. “Why the hell did you have to open your big mouth? “Salmons...” I’ll show you such a salmon you’ll forget who you are! This salmon is for Galina Sergeyevna, and the caviar is for the professor. Get dressed, you moron, it’s time to go to the homeopathist. By the time we make it there on the subway, he’ll give up on us. May that car fall apart under your Grandpa the way my life did. Get dressed...”

Grandpa and Lyosha were sitting on the shores of the reservoir, fishing. Lyosha was watching the ring bell cast far into the water, half-listening to Grandpa who sat next to him with a pole.

“It’s so hard, Lyosha, I can’t take it any more,” Grandpa complained, keeping an eye on his thin goose-quill float. “More than once already, I thought about locking myself up in the garage, starting the engine - and to hell with it all... The only thing that stops me is that nobody’s going to take care of her. She curses me for going on those concert tours, or fishing, but I have to escape somewhere. I forced myself onto the social committee, the union board - anything just to get out of the house. Tomorrow, for example, I’m divvying up vacation packages from the union - good, one day is gone. Nobody actually attends these concerts, but I go anyway. To Rostov, to Mogilev, to Novy Oskol. You think it’s much fun? But at least there’s the hotel, peace and quiet, sometimes a nice reception. And after a few days at home, I feel my heart is about to stop. She’s eating me alive. One day it’s Desdemona, the next it’s Anna Karenina. “Why did you move me from Kiev, why did you force me to evacuate, why did you put me in the nuthouse?”

“The nuthouse?”

“She’s mentally ill, Lyosha. Thirty years ago, she became paranoid. She told some joke about Stalin in the communal kitchen, and a few days later, they came and took away our next-door neighbor, Fyodor Zilberman, a doctor. And they were asking about her too: “Who’s she, why isn’t she working if she’s so young?” The neighbors explained that she was staying home with the baby. But she panicked: “They’ll take me away, they’ll lock me up...” So she ran to Vera, our neighbor, who poured oil on the fire: “Of course they will! This one was arrested for telling a joke, that one...” She really lost it, Lyosha! I brought her a new fur coat from Yugoslavia - she cut it into pieces. She smashed a bottle of Chanel perfume. Said if they come to search our house, they’d find it and say we have foreign connections. If somebody looked at her the wrong way on the bus, she’d get off and look for a taxi cab. She’d hide our daughter under a blanket and whisper: “Honey, when they take me away, be good, listen to your Daddy.” So I was advised to put her in a hospital, and I did. There, she developed blisters from all the injections and got even worse. It’s been pure hell ever since. Now people tell me to put her in the hospital again, if only for a month. Times are different, you know: you can arrange for things with the doctors, you can visit. But I can’t do it! She’s been cursing me for thirty years for that one time, she calls me a traitor - how can I do it again? And who’s going to take care of Sasha? The boy is sick all the time, he’s making it only thanks to her.”

“What about his mother?”

“Mother! Grandma has damned her, and rightly so! He lived with her until he was four. Grandma went to their place almost every day to help. Washed his diapers, cooked. She carried the whole household. Then Olya divorced her husband, Sasha was three then, so I told her, “Olya, come live with us. Grandma loves Sasha to pieces, we’ll all live together. We can rent out your apartment, that’ll make things easier for everybody.” But she says, “No, I don’t want to be dependent on you, I can’t live with mother.” I keep pushing, tell her, “Your boy is sick, it’s going to be hard. Move in with us.” So she all but agreed, but then this midget appeared, like a curse...”

“Midget?”

“Well, maybe not a midget, but he’s this tall, Lyosha!” Grandpa raised his hand some three feet from the ground. “An artist, damn it! Destitute, drunk - and you know where he’s from? Sochi!”

“Love is blind,” Lyosha laughed.

“I almost had a second heart attack! She says he’s got talent, but only a fool wouldn’t see that what he really wants is a Moscow residency permit! Aren’t there enough alcoholics with talent in Moscow? But trust me, Lyosha, I’d forgive everything - that he’s a midget, that he drinks, that he wants the permit, whatever! Let her deal with it if she’s such a fool! But betraying her child because of him - for that I’ll never forgive either him or her. She took Sasha to Sochi to meet him, then brought him back with pneumonia, dumped him on us and went back the same day. The midget got sick too, or went on a drinking binge, whatever.”

“Yea-ah,” Lyosha drawled disapprovingly, tightening the line with the spinning reel.

“That’s when grandma and I decided that Sasha would stay with us. A mother like that shouldn’t have a child! She came back, and that’s exactly what we told her. And you know what that bitch did? She waited until he got better, ambushed him outside, and took him away. The little sucker went with her, of course; she’s his mom, he doesn’t understand that mom has no use for him. Grandma ran around the yard, literally screaming. Horrors... The custodians said she took him to the circus. I jump in the car with grandma and go there. And right then, they’re coming out during a break. He’s suffocating, his face is swollen, his eyes teary. He’s allergic, and the circus is full of animals. Grandma saw him and nearly fainted. I put him in the car and left. He’s been with us for over four years now. And she’s with her midget. He moved in with her two years ago.”

Lyosha whistled.

“And forgot about the boy?”

“At first she cried, begged to have him back. The midget also stuck his nose into it. He wrote me a letter! You have no right... You force the child to betray his mother... That goddamn boozer will be telling me about my rights! Then things settled down somehow. Now she comes over every once in a while, fights with grandma every time, drives her crazy. Says we stole her child. Idiot! He would have croaked if he stayed with her. You have to take care of him day and night, take him to doctors, and all she thinks about is that prick and his artsy crap. He crammed the whole apartment with his “masterpieces”; mind you, I was the one who bought this apartment - for my daughter, not for his studio! And would you believe his nerve? We wanted to send Sasha on vacation before school began, so he suggested, “I have an empty house in Sochi, you can go there in the summer.” First he takes over my apartment, and then he says his house is empty! Isn’t that something?!”

“Why?” Lyosha was cutting himself some bread for a sandwich and was surprised by Grandpa’s indignation. “You should have gone!”

“To Sochi?! Sasha had two more bouts of pneumonia after that trip. Only if one wishes him dead... You don’t eat the bread heels, do you? Let me take some for the old woman, the soft parts are bad for her. Thanks. That’s when I sent him to the sanitarium. He went with grandma - she to the clinic for adults, he to the one for children. Doctors, treatments, diets. He was there for a whole month. Came home and got sick again right away. That boy is always sick. If he were healthy, maybe he would have lived with his mother, less trouble for us, but the way he is... He’d croak without us. Today, for instance, they went to the homeopathist again...”

“Good to see you!” the elderly homeopathist greeted Grandma and me.

“Please forgive us for being so late,” Grandma apologized, stepping inside. “Grandpa refused to drive us, so we had to take the subway.”

“No problem,” the doctor readily forgave us and, leaning toward me, asked, “So you are Sasha?”

“I am.”

“And why are you so skinny, Sasha?”

When people told me I was skinny, I always got mad but restrained myself and kept quiet. I would have restrained myself this time too, but as Grandma and I were leaving the house, one of the custodians quietly said to the other, “That poor woman. She’s taking the consumptive to a doctor again...”

My entire self-restraint was already spent when I refrained from responding to the “consumptive” with one of Grandma’s word combinations, so there wasn’t any left for the homeopathist.

“And why do you have such big ears?” I asked resentfully and pointed a finger at the doctor’s ears, which did indeed make him look like an aged Jumbo.

The doctor gulped.

“Don’t pay any attention to him, Aron Moiseevich!” Grandma said, alarmed. “He’s sick in the head. Apologize right now!”

“If he’s sick, then there’s no reason to apologize,” the homeopathist laughed. “He’ll apologize when we mend him. Let’s go into the office.”

The office walls were covered with antique clocks, and trying to show that I was impressed, I said deferentially,

“Yeah... There’s plenty here to steal.”

Then I saw a whole lot of icons in the next room and exclaimed with delight,

“Wow! There’s even more over there!”

“He’s an idiot, what can you do,” Grandma assured the doctor, who had gulped once again.

“You really gave me the shaft,” she said when we got outside. “Now he’s convinced that we’re raising a thief. Salmons... Steal... Spontaneous to the point of idiocy! He sure does have plenty to steal, though. Fifty rubles a visit. Crook! But you ought to think before you open your big mouth.”

Grandma often explained to me what one ought to say and when. Taught me that speech is silver, but silence is golden; that there are white lies, and that sometimes it’s better to lie; and that you always have to be courteous, even if you don’t feel like it. She was a strict adherent to the white lies rule. If she was late, she’d say that she took the wrong bus or was held back by a ticket controller; if she was asked where Grandpa went on a concert tour, she’d say he wasn’t touring but had gone fishing, lest people think he makes a lot of money, become jealous, and jinx him. And she was invariably courteous.

“All the best to you, Zinaida Vasilyevna,” she’d smile to an acquaintance before saying goodbye. “I wish you the best of health. Health is the main thing, the rest will come with it. Give my best to Vanechka. He’s in which year of college?”

“Second,” Zinaida Vasilyevna would melt in a smile.

“He’s such a smart boy, he’ll go far. Good health to him, too - and straight A’s.”

“That bitch grabbed a three-room apartment at the co-op, may she have no luck ever again,” Grandma would say after we were at a safe distance. “And her idiot grandson - she squeezed him into the Diplomatic Academy. People like her get everything. Unlike your putz of a grandfather. He’s been on that committee for ten years, and all he got was that one sanitarium package. Says it wouldn’t be right, blah-blah-blah...”

Following the rules of white lies and mandatory courtesy, Grandma would sometimes forget that speech is silver but silence is golden, and blurt out a “salmon” on par with my own. As we were leaving the homeopathist’s place, I listened to her admonitions concerning my spontaneity and remembered how a few days earlier, we went to a clinic for an injection of cocarboxylase. Before we left, Grandma - please excuse this detail of such a delicate nature - gave me a suppository. I don’t know why she gave them to me. I hope it wasn’t just to be able to tell from the oily stains how many times I sat down on which chair. These suppositories had one terrible effect that happened to reveal itself in the hall in front of the injection room, where some eight people sat waiting for their turn.

“Pooooo...,” the sound suddenly came out of me, and everybody started smiling. I froze in embarrassment. The “pooo” changed its pitch and, continuing to vary it, went on for quite a while. People laughed.

“What are you laughing at, morons?!” Grandma shouted. “The boy has a suppository up his bum! It makes this sound when it comes out. Not funny!”

Those who sat in front of the injection room begged to differ, some laughing so hard they started to slide off their chairs. What can I say, in terms of spontaneity Grandma was quite a match for me!

Trying to decide whether to tell her that or not, I walked with her to the subway along the Moskva River and looked to the other side, where I could see the rides in Gorky Park. I’d long been dying to get into the park, but that’ll be the subject of my next story...



[1] From the translation by John Weir.

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