BURY ME BEHIND THE BASEBOARD

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THE SANITARIUM

THE SANITARIUM

Even though I already turned seven, Grandma decided not to sign me up for school yet. I could read, write in block letters, and count to twelve anyway, so Grandma thought that risking my life for the sake of math and cursive was unnecessary.

“You’ll go a year later,” she said. “How could a cadaver like your go to school now? They have such huge ogres running back and forth during recess that the floors shake. They’ll kill you and won’t even notice. Gain some strength first, then go.”

Grandma was right. When I did go to school a year later, I was surprised at how insightful she was. During recess, I bumped into a medium-sized ogre. The ogre didn’t even notice and kept on running, while I flew under the window sill and slumped there. My back hit the radiator, and it felt as if my breath was clinging to the radiator’s massive metal ribs. I couldn’t inhale for a few seconds, and in my horror I took the reddish grayness that thickened in front of my eyes for the shroud of death. The shroud dispersed, and instead of the Grim Reaper, I saw a teacher leaning over me.

“Enough running?” she asked kindly, lifting me to my feet. “Your grandmother was right when she asked to have you locked up in class during recess. That’s just what I’ll do.”

From then on, I sat in a locked classroom during every recess and thought about Grandma, who wanted me to gain strength before starting school. If I had gone to school when I was seven, without gaining enough strength, she’d probably still be tying flowers to that radiator, the same way families of drivers killed on the road tie flowers to mileposts. But I started school at eight, had gained enough strength, and everything worked out fine. Now I’ll tell you the story of how Grandma strengthened me.

Shortly after I turned seven, Grandpa put a white envelope in front of Grandma.

“What’s that?”

“A vacation voucher,” answered Grandpa, beaming in anticipation of approval.

“What vacation?”

“For Sasha. A sanitarium in Zheleznovodsk.”

“Are you an idiot?” Grandma inquired icily, and the anticipation of approval wilted on Grandpa’s face like parsley that has been forgotten in the fridge. “If God punishes you by making you live with a moron - tough, suffer. But, Senya dear, I’d rather hang myself than suffer you,” said Grandma, explaining to Grandpa his error. “Who’s going to look after this freak down there? Those doctors can’t even diagnose anything beyond upper respiratory infection and hemorrhoids. How can they handle a crippled child? The climate there is no good for him, they don’t have the right medications... Ah, why am I bothering? You don’t care. You just need to show off: see, Nina, I did it! I did it myself; on your knees! So go shove this voucher you know where until it expires.”

Grandpa didn’t stuff the paper anywhere, offering instead to buy another one for Grandma. The adult sanitarium was right next to the children’s, so Grandma could personally oversee my recreation, give me the right medications, and enlighten the doctors of Zheleznovodsk when it came to diagnostics. Grandma liked the idea, so another package was purchased, and the preparations began.

For starters, Grandma ordered tags with my name on them and started sewing them onto all my belongings lest the nurses and the orderlies at the sanitarium get the crazy idea of taking my tights and shirts, which had been paid for with Grandpa’s sweat and Grandma’s blood, to their stinking kids. There weren’t enough tags left for the socks, so she had to embroider my name on each one of them, letter by letter.

“Your mother doesn’t embroider for you, may she have a death shroud embroidered for her!” muttered Grandma, laying down large white stitches so that they formed the letter S. “Me, I bust my eyes sewing. Here, put it in the suitcase...”

When all the socks were done, folded into little rolls, and packed with other clothes, Grandma started gathering the medications. Among those that I can recall were six boxes of tiny homeopathic pellets that I was supposed to take every three hours; colloidal silver, albucid, and olive oil that had to be dropped into my nose twice a day in a particular order; mycoform, panzynorm, and essentiale that I took with meals; suprastin for allergies; ephedrine for the asthma component; and a jar of aloe juice with honey for general wellness. This jar didn’t fit into the plastic bag with the medications, so right before we left, Grandma put it into the bag with a boiled chicken.

We arrived at the train station thirty minutes before departure. Grandma walked first, waving the bag with the chicken, then me, and then Grandpa, who came to see us off and trudged behind us, hauling our suitcases.

“No display, nothing,” Grandma lamented. “Who the hell knows which track is ours.”

“There it is, Nina, number five,” said Grandpa, nodding in the direction of a huge screen where green lights lit up the track number for our train.

“Are you sure? Wait, let me go ask. Hold it, Sasha.”

Thinking that I was right next to her, Grandma stretched her arm back without looking and let the bag go. But I stood several steps away from her and was only able to pick it up with my sorrowful glance - the bag tumbled onto the station’s granite slabs, and a thick liquid started seeping through its canvas sides.

“That’s not the chicken,” I thought, “that’s the broken jar of aloe with honey.”

“Damn you three times over!” Grandma wailed, lifting the bag and looking inside. “Smithereens,” she summed up, and went to shake out the shards into a garbage can. A large gold-hued puddle was left behind on the floor.

“Kiss the jar goodbye,” Grandpa gave me a conspiratorial wink and beamed.

After Grandpa carried the suitcases into our two-bunk compartment, got off the train, and began admiring us through the window from the platform, Grandma moved the chicken from the ill-fated bag to the table and examined it carefully:

“Shards... I knew it... Senya, there are shards in the chicken!”

The double-paned window wouldn’t allow Grandma’s voice to reach Grandpa’s weak ears, so he didn’t get anything at all.

“Huh?” he put his hand up to his ear.

“Shards! The chicken is full of shards!”

“What?”

“The chicken is full of shards from the jar!”

“Huh?!”

“Deaf as a post! Shards in the chicken!”

“I can’t hear you!”

“Shards!!! Can’t eat it!”

Grandpa threw up his arms helplessly. Grandma, who apparently decided that she just had to explain everything about the chicken within the one minute left before departure, resorted to pantomime.

“The jar!” she shouted, locking her hands to form something rounded. “Bang! It broke!” she explained, pretending to smash this rounded thing against the window. “Shards! Shards!” In order to depict the shards, Grandma started shoving her pinched hand into the palm of the other that was stretched out.

“You’ll make it okay!” Grandpa waved her off, thinking, as it turned out later, that Grandma was afraid of a train crash. “ Break a leg!”

“Thanks!”

“Huh?!”

The train started moving.

“There goes our meal,” Grandma said, wrapping the chicken in the paper. “It’s full of shards. The only grub left is sandwiches. Are you hungry?”

“Not yet.”

“Then let’s have some homeopathic pills.”

Grandma stepped out, buried the goosebump-covered body of the chicken in the garbage can, and upon returning, took the bag with medications out of the suitcase. To keep the pill boxes from opening, they were held together tightly by a rubber band. Grandma started taking the rubber band off, made an awkward motion, and a terrible thing happened - the boxes slipped out of her hands, and swarms of little white pellets went jumping all over the floor.

I was deathly afraid of Grandma’s cursing when I was the cause of it. It crashed upon me, I felt it with my whole body - and I wanted to cover my head with my arms and run away, as if from a natural disaster. But when the cursing was caused by Grandma’s own misstep, it was as if I watched it from a shelter. For me, it was like a wild animal in a cage, or an avalanche on TV. I wasn’t afraid, I just admired its mighty rage.

The avalanche that engulfed our compartment was huge. Its initial trigger came when Grandma dropped the bag, it was already hanging by a thread when she discovered the shards in the chicken, and now it descended in all its glory. Now those were curses! The rumbling of the train’s wheels sounded like tick-tacking by comparison! Thank God I wasn’t the one who dropped the pills!

When the ceiling light went off and the compartment filled with the bleak light of the gray-blue night lamp, Grandma put me to bed. She told me to sleep with my feet to the window to protect my head from the draft, and in order to protect my feet, she wrapped them in the extra blanket. I slept badly. Huge iron balls and wheels kept rolling toward me all night long. They banged into each other above my head with a terrible noise, I was running among them, afraid of being crushed, and I’d wake up when there was nowhere left to run. When I woke up yet again, I realized it was already morning.

Grandma was sitting at the table, peeling a boiled egg. A teaspoon was clinking in a cup of tea. Cheese sandwiches sat on a spread-out cellophane wrapper. I remembered that we were on our way to Zheleznovodsk for a summer vacation and cheered up.

“Want to go to the bathroom?” Grandma asked. “Let’s go. I’ll open the door for you. Don’t touch the handles, this place is full of germs.”

Grandma opened the bathroom door, closed it behind me, holding it lest anybody walked in, and then opened it again. She let me do the flushing myself, because the flush pedal was foot-operated, and my shoe soles weren’t afraid of germs. I really enjoyed pushing that pedal, but Grandma wouldn’t let me have nearly enough fun with it, and instead took me back to the compartment to rub my hands with a towel wetted with eau de toilette - all kinds of bums use the soap in the bathroom, and they’ve got fungus and what not on their hands. Then we sat down to breakfast.

I was eating the egg that Grandma had peeled, washing it down with tea, and I was bored. There wasn’t anything to do in the compartment, and I was tired of looking out the window. Grandma went to the attendant to return the cups. And then it was as if I was hit by lightning - the pedal!!!

I peeked into the corridor, made sure that Grandma was nowhere in sight, and headed for the bathroom. “I’ll be quick... Before she comes back...,” I thought. “There and back in no time...”

But when I reached the door that separated me from the coveted pedal, I froze in my tracks. GERMS!!! With timid reverence I examined the dull metal of the door handle - as if the word germs was inscribed on it invisibly yet ominously. So what do I do? My shirt had long sleeves. I stuck my elbow forward and, trying to use just its very tip, pushed the door handle down. The door opened. I kicked it with my foot, closing it behind me, and started pushing the pedal with abandon.

It was so much fun! The shiny lid would flap down, railroad ties flashed through the round opening, and the bathroom filled with a sonorous roar whose intensity grew slowly if I pushed the pedal smoothly; but if I kept banging on it, the sound became fragmented and resemble some kind of desperate cries. The ties would blend into an unbroken flicker, but occasionally I managed to follow one with my eyes, and it would seem as if they stopped for a brief moment. I was even able to glimpse individual rocks between them.

I would tear off pieces of toilet paper, crumple them, and throw them into the opening, pretending they were doctors who I was executing for the diseases they claimed I had.

“But wait, wait, you have the golden staph!” a doctor would plead desperately.

“Oh, the staph!” I’d reply ominously, crumpling the doctor tightly and sending him down the toilet.

“Let me go! You have maxillary sinusitis! Only I can cure it!”

“Cure? No more curing for you...”

“A-a-ah!” the doctor screamed, swooping towards the wheels of the train.

Having executed about half a roll of doctors and having drawn all imaginable pleasures from the pedal, I remembered that it was time to go back to the compartment. The bathroom door opened inward, and so pushing the handle down with an elbow worked much better for coming in than for going out. Just pressing on it wasn’t enough, I also had to pull somehow. Several times I nearly succeeded in opening the door, but at the very last moment, my wicked elbow would slip off, and the lock would snap shut again. By my calculations, Grandma was about to return at any moment. I paused for a second, focused, carefully set my elbow on top of the handle, slowly pressed it down, and the moment the latch bolt disappeared from its slot, I barged forward. The door flew open, I lost my balance and tumbled onto the floor. Flat on my back in the nastiest germs! And with Grandma standing in the doorway looking straight at me...

“You scum!!!” she screamed. “Get up right now, or I’ll trample all over you!!!”

I got up and approached Grandma, shivering from cold because the back of my shirt was wet. She grabbed me by the collar and dragged me to the compartment.

“What a scoundrel!” she muttered. “All covered with scratches! Why the hell did you go there?”

“To pee...”

“Hope that pee was your last! You should have waited for me! Nobody does any sanitizing there! There’s gut worms, and dysentery, and what have you! You’d drop dead, and no one would even figure out why! Take everything off! Hope someone breaks your arms the way you break my heart! Everything off, quick!”

When I undressed, Grandma locked the compartment door, poured eau de toilette on a towel and rubbed me from head to toe. Then she changed me into clean clothes and put the wet garments in a separate plastic bag for future washing, saying, “I’d love to see you do your own shopping, you son-of-a-bitch!” She didn’t leave the compartment again until we arrived in Zheleznovodsk.

We arrived in the early evening. They were waiting for us. A little yellow bus with the sign The Dubrovka Sanitarium on the windshield was parked near the exit from the train station. Quite a few kids were already on it, so I rushed to find an empty seat by the window where I could press my face against the glass and ignore everyone else. I had never met so many kids all at once, and I had a feeling that they were all looking at me strangely somehow. I calmed down only when Grandma sat down beside me, shielding me from the strangers’ eyes. Then I peeled myself away from the window, into which I was staring intently without seeing anything, and in turn began stealthily eyeing my future buddies. “One of them will be my friend...” I thought, and I was so anxious that I couldn’t really make anybody out - the faces all blended into a solid, unfamiliar blur, and I felt like I would never be able to get to know it and to become friends with it. I only noticed that the kids all looked two or three years older than me.

Then came the roll call. A stocky woman in a brown cardigan, who later turned out to be our teacher, called out our names from the list, and we were supposed to answer “here”. I prepared to answer promptly and, just in case, swallowed a few times to make sure my voice wouldn’t break because of my anxiety.

“Zavarzin.”

“Here.”

“Zhukova.”

“Here.”

“Lordkipanidze.”

“No kidding!” I thought and, forgetting my anxiety, turned around to see who would have such an unusual name. No one answered.

“Lordkipanidze!”

“Heah,” came from the very back of the bus. “Ah couldn’t heah.”

I didn’t like Lordkipanidze[1] from the start. Bad enough that he had a name like that, he also had to explain that he couldn’t hear instead of simply saying “here”. I thought it was absolutely shameless. “Some Lord!” I thought. “Kipanidze...”

“Kuranov.”

“Here”, answered a fat boy from the seat in front of me.

He was the only one my age, so I wondered again who exactly would be my friend, and looked him over more carefully - this one?

“Savelyev.”

I swallowed again. My name was called out - I had to answer!

“Here, here we are,” Grandma answered.

I didn’t even have the time to open my mouth...

I always hated Grandma’s habit of answering for me no matter what! If her friends asked me in the yard how I was doing, Grandma, without looking at me, would reply something like, “Couldn’t be better.” If a doctor asked about my age, it was Grandma who would answer; never mind that the doctor was asking me, while she was sitting at the opposite end of the office. She didn’t interrupt me, didn’t signal for me to be quiet, she simply managed to answer a second ahead of me, and I could never beat her to it.

“Why do you always have to answer for me?!” I’d ask.

“Because it takes you forever to come up with something! And people are busy.”

“All right, so I’m slower. Can’t you ever give me a chance to answer myself?”

“Be my guest, geez... Who’s stopping you?” Grandma would reply with genuine surprise, but nothing ever changed.

Each time Grandma answered for me, I would sulk and be gloomy for a few minutes. During the roll call, I pressed my face to the window again until the bus took off. Then I thought of all the exciting things that awaited me and cheered up.

Back at the station, the teacher in the brown cardigan promised that I would find it very interesting.

“We’ve got movies, and billiards, and games of all sorts,” she said, leaning amicably toward me. “We have a workshop, too. You can model with play-doh, make cutouts, glue things together. You’re going to love it, you’ll see!”

And so I pictured everyone on the bus sitting in a large, light-filled room under bright lamps, busily modeling, cutting, glueing... Myself I pictured as a cutter. I never tried modeling with play-doh and was only familiar with the expression “to roll in dough”, and I had no interest in glueing whatsoever. I thought that people only glue broken dishes together, and I mentally reserved that chore for Lordkipanidze.

When we arrived at the sanitarium, all the kids were taken to the dorms, while Grandma and I followed our teacher to see the chief medical officer. Grandma said that I wasn’t just another child who came down for a break but a poor cripple dumped by his mother on the oldsters’ backs, that I needed special attention, and that unless she talked to the chief doctor personally, the nurses would most certainly do me in. The chief doctor cordially granted Grandma’s wish to have a chat, I was told to sit and wait, and the conversation began:

“...I’ll tell you once again what he takes and in what order...” I could hear. “First the Conium... I spilled half of it, but for now, there’s enough... The old man will send it down with the train attendant, I’ll pass it on to you... Colloidal silver, albucid... olive oil for dryness, or else he’ll start picking and will bleed... this is for when it’s really bad...”

“Please don’t worry so much...”

“I’m not worried, I know what I’m talking about...”

“We have all the medications here, all the treatments. The whole medical facility...”

“...diet... Nothing fried, nothing salty... Colitis, chronic pancreatitis... I’ve been using cracker crumbs... Over two years... And she only shows up once a month, stuffs her face - and flops on the couch...”

“It’s very nice here... All kinds of games, movies, wonderful teachers...”

“He shouldn’t be glueing. Asthma. He’ll inhale it and will have an attack... Ephedrine... Chronic sinusitis...”

“Don’t worry...”

“He has a hood made of a towel in his suitcase; put it on him after a bath, and let him sleep in it... Sinusitis... Maxillary sinusitis!”

“After a bath...” I thought. “That’s right, surely they’d be bathing me here. But how? Who will be drying me off on the chairs instead of Grandma? Will there be a space heater in the bathroom?”

After bathing, Grandma would wrap me in a throw blanket and carry me on her shoulder to bed, each time taking a risky route past the sharp corner of the fridge that was stuffed with chocolates for the doctors. She would tuck me in, put her hands under the blanket as if she was handling photographic film, and then dry between my toes and place hankies under my shirt. In my sleep, I could sense that she was feeling me all night, replacing wet hankies with dry ones when I got sweaty, and wrapping the towel around my head because I kept throwing it off. “Sleep still, don’t jerk!” I’d hear her angry whisper. “If your head cools off, you’ll start rotting again.”

I couldn’t get the hang of sleeping peacefully and kicked off the towel several times each night. So Grandma sewed up a little hood from a bath towel. Held by a safety pin under my throat, the hood reliably stayed put and kept my head from cooling off.

“So who’s going to pin it?” I thought. “It can’t be the attendant who washes the floor with a mop? And did Grandma remember to bring the pin?”

“I stuck a pin in it, please make sure it holds at night. He sleeps badly, fidgets,” Grandma’s words sounded as if she was answering my thoughts.

“Will do, don’t worry.”

With that, Grandma and the chief doctor parted ways. Grandma, who said goodbye to me with surprising ease, headed to the sanitarium for adults, which was across the road, while the chief doctor picked up my suitcase and took me to the dorm.

On the way, I took a good look around, trying to size up the new place. The sanitarium building was large and white. There were fluorescent lamps in the hallway, their light reflected in the gleaming yellow-and-green linoleum on the floor. It smelled of bleach. In the middle, the hallway widened into a large space that contained an enormous ficus with yellowed and dusty leaves, two couches on casters, four armchairs, also on casters, and a black-and-white TV which, as it later turned out, could only receive Channel One. At the end of the corridor was the playroom, or the end room, as the chief doctor cryptically referred to it. It contained board games, toy blocks, and other junk.

My dorm room had four beds in it. Zavarzin and Kuranov were my roommates. They had long ago settled in and were playing chess when the chief doctor introduced me and said,

“You get to know each other, and I’ll go find you a fourth roommate. It’s taking so long today for some reason.”

I had no idea how to get to know the others because I had never done it before, and I found myself in the company of kids my age for the first time ever. Without much thinking, I came up to Kuranov, slapped him on the shoulder the way I thought real buddies would do, and said,

“Let’s be friends.”

Then I offered to be friends with Zavarzin in exactly the same manner.

Both Kuranov and Zavarzin agreed to be friends with me. Kuranov’s first name was Igor, and Zavarzin’s Andrey. Igor was my age, while Andrey was a year older. But Andrey lisped and stammered, so the age difference wasn’t noticeable at all. I waited until my new friends finished their game, and then we went to investigate the sanitarium.

It was very close to bed time. The late hour produced a somber mood and restrained voices. The locked doors of the billiard room, the movie room, and the workshop had a certain air of solemnity about them. It seemed that each of them hid a treasure trove of delights which we were destined to lay our hands on tomorrow, but by no means today. Yet I wasn’t ready to give up on this day either. I wanted to stretch it out, to wander around in the hope of encountering some new happenings, but deep in my heart I knew that whatever could possibly happen today had already happened, and that there was nothing left to do but sleep.

When we returned to our room, we saw the fourth roommate. With tears in his eyes, he was begging the teacher to transfer him,

“But whah do ah have to be in the room wit them!” he screamed. “Ah want to be wit Medvedev, wit Korotkov! They arr mah friends! Wot am ah going to do wit these - sit on a pohtty?! Move mah bed, ah’m not staying heah anyway!”

Lordkipanidze became our fourth roommate. He was thirteen, and he wanted to be in a room with kids his age, but all four beds there were taken. In order to transfer him, the free bed from our room would have to be moved to the one where Lordkipanidze wanted to be, and the teacher wouldn’t agree to this rearrangement.

The noise attracted the chief doctor.

“What’s going on?”

The teacher explained. The doctor calmed Lordkipanidze down, assuring him that she would transfer him within a couple of days. Then she walked over to me and said,

“Lordkipanidze we can handle, but this Savelyev - I don’t know what to do with him, Tamara Grigoryevna. His grandmother talked to me, and said that he’s so sick all around that he can’t do much of anything. Told me to make sure he doesn’t run, and gave me handkerchiefs with safety pins. “Pin them up under his shirt, she said, and change them if he gets sweaty.” I’m not his pooch to trail after him! She handed me a whole bag of medications. The nurse in charge will lose her mind, there’s six boxes of homeopathic stuff alone.”

“Sasha,” the teacher asked me, “if you’re so sick, why did you come here to give us all this trouble? You should have stayed home, or checked into a hospital. This is a sanitarium, after all, not an emergency room. If something happens to you, your grandmother will drive us all to an early grave. What are we going to do with you? Lock you up in the room?”

“Why?” the doctor replied. “His grandmother said she’d visit every evening, let her baby him. I’ll prescribe treatments for the whole day, and in the evening, he’ll be with his grandmother.”

“And during the day?”

“Lunch and the quiet hour.”

I was almost in tears as I bid farewell to the dream of a fun-filled summer vacation, and thought that on the way back, I would definitely execute the chief doctor and the teacher in the train’s bathroom. I even started thinking which one to execute first, but then suddenly the teacher consoled me,

“All right, don’t get upset. Everybody likes it here. We’ll think of something for you, too.”

And even though the doctor gave her a doubtful look, the thrill of hope regained made me forgive both of them immediately. But that wasn’t the end of it.

After wishing us all good night, the chief doctor turned around to flip the light switch, but then she accidentally glanced at me one more time and froze, as if she caught sight of something terrifying.

“And where is your hood?” she asked with alarm.

“What hood?”

“Your grandmother said you must sleep in a hood.”

Now that was too much to take!

“Only after a bath...”

“Put it on, put it on! She told me that you should sleep in it.”

“After a bath!”

“Enough talking, just put it on! Where is it? In your suitcase?”

The doctor opened my suitcase and immediately found the hood, which was right on top, as if it was the most indispensable item. It, too, had a tag with my name on it.

“Sit up a bit!”

“After a bath!”

With Kuranov, Zavarzin, and Lordkipanidze all laughing merrily, the chief doctor deftly set the hood on my head and pinned it under my throat on the first attempt, which was something even Grandma couldn’t pull off.

“That’s it, now sleep. And don’t even think about taking it off! I’ll come and check during the night,” she promised, turned the lights off, and left the room along with the teacher.

That was how my first day at the sanitarium ended.

From that moment on and until I went home, my life turned into a kaleidoscope of events that cannot possibly be described in sequence or in detail. So much happened during my month-long vacation! It was the most exhilarating time of my life, and nothing could mar it - not the thick hood, not Grandma, not Lordkipanidze, not even the three-liter enema that they gave me for no good reason right before I left.

I tried billiards and ping-pong. There were movies every other day, and that was a real discovery for me, because Grandma never let me go to a movie theater, claiming that one could easily catch the flu there. At night, we took a long time going to sleep, we made each other giggle, and the stillness of the night that forced us to restrain ourselves turned the simplest tricks into the most hilarious wisecracks. And once I even got to eat real pan-fried meat patties with potatoes! Later it turned out that they were meant for Kuranov and that I got them by mistake instead of the boiled fish that my diet prescribed, but I had already eaten them and then, proud that I had real meat patties like everyone else, and not just steamed ones made with cracker crumbs, I cast my eyes triumphantly around the dining hall.

But my greatest joy was the workshop, where I spent all my time between the countless medical treatments, and where I couldn’t make anything properly because of those treatments. I tried pyrography, carving a wooden mask, and even - despite Grandma’s ban - glueing together a model plane. Actually, the glueing was done by others, but the teacher entrusted me with separating all the parts from their plastic holders, and so I felt like a full-fledged participant. We were allowed to take anything we wanted from the big cabinets, and that’s what I liked most of all. Sometimes I’d grab some box without looking and ask the teacher, “May I?” - and then put it back after hearing, “Of course you may!” All I needed was yet another assurance that I really could take anything I wanted.

The most wonderful creation in the workshop was a fortress built of play-doh bricks by older kids from the group just before us. Rectangular merlons rose in neat circles on the tops of the towers. Tiny crossbows armed with sharpened matches stuck out from arrow slits carved through the walls. The gate was shielded by a grill woven from strips of thin tinplate, and a cleverly constructed drawbridge led over a moat that was painted in navy-blue watercolor on a cardboard base. You could lift the drawbridge by turning a wire handle with thread wound around it.

Play-doh knights the size of a finger hid behind the fortress walls. Their backs and chests were protected by armor made from aluminum foil, their helmets were decorated with painted pillow feathers, and their weaponry included little tinplate swords, spears made from pen nibs, and the sole catapult which, judging by the stretched rubber band and a play-doh projectile, was functional and ready for battle.

I was so taken by the fortress that I was afraid even to touch it, and all I wanted was to have one of my own. After receiving two boxes of play-doh and a sheet of cardboard for the base, I set out to make the bricks. I think I spend half of the entire month making them but only managed to build a low, five-brick-high wall along one side of the cardboard. I made the grill for the gate, put it up against the wall, and admired my creation. It felt really cool to own a fortress! I was also able to make a wire handle for the drawbridge, found two pen nibs for the knights’ spears, and rolled up three projectiles for the future catapult. That was the end of the construction project - I had no time for anything else because of the endless treatments.

There wasn’t a single office in the medical building that I didn’t visit! They subjected me to electrophoresis and shone a quartz lamp into my throat; they applied mineral mud to my nose and made me do exercises in the gym. I went to massages and paraffin therapy, inhalations and mineral baths. The treatments took up all the time before lunch, and after the quiet hour, Grandma would come over to see me...

Grandma came over every day. She would bring a round plastic basket with handles, which contained clean cherries and apricots or apples that had been washed with soap and individually wrapped in sheets of toilet paper. Grandma was very afraid of germs, and soapy water wasn’t enough for her, and so in addition to that, she poured boiling water from the kettle on the apricots and the apples. This produced brown spots on their skins, and Grandma explained to me each time that it was the boiling water rather than spoilage that caused it.

“Just eat, don’t look,” she’d say when I picked at a brown burn on the flesh of an apricot. “I’d rather eat dirt than give you something that’s not fresh. How’s your stool?”

I had long been aware that stool wasn’t furniture, but I couldn’t understand why Grandma was so concerned about this stool. At home, she wouldn’t even let me flush the toilet until I showed her what was happening in there. I couldn’t show her anything at the sanitarium, so I had to provide detailed descriptions. Grandma didn’t like my descriptions. She’d complain about chronic colitis, give me a dozen apricots to eat, and ask about the treatments.

“Warming your little nose is good,” she’d say approvingly of the mineral mud. “And quartz on your glands is good, too. And electrophoresis for the bronchi. This doctor is okay, not the idiot I first thought she was. But what’s the point of all these treatments when there’s the golden staph... All three of you shared that midget’s bed in Sochi, that’s where you caught it. Did you finish the apricots? Have some cherries.”

I’d eat the cherries, listen to Grandma, put the stones in her fist so as not to litter, and try to figure out if I’d still have time to play after she left. The traditional games like duck duck goose that the teacher taught us to play weren’t a big loss for me, but instead of hearing about glands, I could be shooting small rocks at tanks slapped together from sand, or launching play-doh submersibles into the fish pond, or making little skeletons out of wire, you name it...

But the most interesting game at the sanitarium was invented by the older kids. They would draw money on paper, make handguns out of play-doh, and then, sucking on cigarettes rolled from graph paper, they’d rob each other every five minutes. I also drew some bills for myself, made them stick out of my pocket conspicuously, and slowly paraded in front of the most brazen of the robbers, expecting to have a gun stuck in my back at any moment. But no such luck... At least two robberies took place right before my eyes, soI felt that the kids were ignoring me. Then they told me that nobody could care less about the money that I drew, so nobody would rob me. I went to the workshop, made myself a gun from green play-doh, rolled some paper cigarettes, and lay in wait in the stairwell that led to the attic. Holding my gun at the ready, I played with the paper cigarette in my mouth and pretended I was a detective watching the robbers. Then I heard footsteps. It was Lordkipanidze.

“Whot ah you doin’ heah?” he asked, surprised.

“Step back!” I yelled and pointed the gun at him.

“Ah, you’ve ghot play-doh!” beamed Lordkipanidze. “Let me haf it, the workshop is out.”

Lordkipanidze took the gun out of my hands, squished it, and went away. That was the end of me playing detective.

For me, Lordkipanidze was actually a pain in the neck. He was a big jokester and kept pulling off all kinds of tricks at our expense. He grew to enjoy it so much that he even changed his mind about moving in with Medvedev and Korotkov. He’d come up to Zavarzin, for example, and say,

“And now, Andrey Aleksandrovich Zavahrzin will seih the wohrd capricorn or receif five whacks.”

Naturally, Zavarzin, for whom the r sound was a stumbling block, would get his five whacks, while Igor and I laughed our heads off.

We laughed at Lordkipanidze’s tricks not because we wanted to please him, but because they actually were funny. Only those who were on the receiving end of a trick didn’t feel like laughing. But Lordkipanidze targeted everybody, one by one, so while one of us was suffering, the rest were having fun.

Finished with Zavarzin, Lordkipanidze would approach the fat Kuranov and announce,

“Soh, fatso, now ah’m goin’ to punch you. It’s dusk, soh ah’ll punch you from dusk till dohn. Then ah’ll rest a bit, and goh from dohn to dusk. You haf to lose some weit, right? Or else you’d haf to wear a seven-boned cogset.”

After this introduction, Lordkipanidze would give Kuranov a series of boxing punches to the stomach, and although they were largely for show and not very hard, Kuranov would double over and tumble onto the bed, more out of fear than from pain.

“Dead!” Lordkipanidze would proclaim. “It is mah sad dewty to announce the untimely departure of our best punching bahg, Igor Kuranov.”

I was friends with Kuranov and felt for him, but I couldn’t help laughing at Lordkipanidze’s tricks! And I was envious that Lordkipanidze could make us laugh, that he could come up with “a seven-boned corset” and I couldn’t. My envy grew into admiration, and admiration in turn changed to fear: finished with Kuranov, Lordkipanidze would turn his attention to me.

He’d grab me by the legs and, saying, “Gonna let goh, gonna let goh!” would spin me in the air. Lordkipanidze was older and stronger; in his hands, I felt like a pair of empty tights, and waited forlornly for the trick to be over. After a couple of minutes, Lordkipanidze would put me down on the floor, and I’d immediately collapse, because it felt like the floor was swinging in front of me. Everyone laughed. Then Lordkipanidze would ask,

“Soh, Scratched Nose, whot do you say?”

The nickname Scratched Nose originated during the quiet hour, when Lordkipanidze asked me to close my eyes. I did, and he pinched my nose with serrated tweezers and dragged them. This left long scratches on both sides of my nose, giving rise to the nickname that amused everyone to no end.

“Soh, whot do you say, Scratched Nose?”

“What do you want me to say?” I’d ask, finally getting up on my feet.

“Am ah strong?”

“You are.”

“Feel it...”

Lordkipanidze would bend his arm at the elbow and flex, and I would feel it reverentially.

“And now, apohlogize!”

With that, Lordkipanidze would give me a “plum” - that is, peg my nose with his fingers. I would raise my arms to my nose without thinking, and then I would also get “jingle bells”. Jingle bells was the most unpleasant trick of all. It was similar to the plum, except that instead of the nose, the peg was applied to a body part that I had completely ignored before the sanitarium, and only noticed that Grandma washed it with particular care when she bathed me. Lordkipanidze did jingle bells to me so many times that afterwards in the bathroom, the moment Grandma’s hand would get near it with a sponge, I’d bend down automatically and yell, “Careful!”

But Lordkipanidze’s most creative invention was the money. The older kids lost interest in playing robbers, so they no longer needed the fixifoxes they had drawn. Lordkipanidze got hold of them, and in his hands, they acquired not a make-believe value but a real one: you could use the fixifoxes to buy your way out of the whacks, the jingle bells, or anything else.

“Soh, fatso, now ah’m goin’ to punch you,” Lordkipanidze would say to Kuranov. “Ah’m goin’ to punch you unless you pay me five fixifoxes.”

Kuranov would pay, and Lordkipanidze would leave him alone.

Of course, in order to pay, you had to earn those fixifoxes first. About three times a day, Lordkipanidze would approach us with a little bag that contained three tightly rolled pieces of paper, and announce a raffle. We’d draw and get something - five fixifoxes, or ten, or a paper saying “five whacks” or “ten plums”. Most of the papers in the bag came with whacks. There were other ways to earn money. Once in the large hall, Lordkipanidze suggested that Igor and I fight and said that the winner would get fifty fixifoxes. I couldn’t understand why we had to fight if we were friends, but Igor forced me onto the floor, hit my head on the ficus pot, and started strangling me. Lordkipanidze pronounced him the winner and handed him the fixifoxes that he earned.

The value of the fixifoxes was indisputable. If, after the morning raffle, ten or fifteen were rustling in your pocket, you didn’t have to worry too much about the rest of the day; if twenty or thirty were rustling, you could feel like a king and relax until the evening. I never had much luck with the raffles, so I soon began to trade what Grandma brought me for the fixifoxes. For the apricots wrapped in toilet paper, Lordkipanidze paid five fixifoxes apiece.

Unfortunately, you couldn’t use the fixifoxes to buy off the nurses, who were spoiling my vacation far more than Lordkipanidze ever did. There were four of them, and we could never figure out exactly how their shifts alternated. Only one of them was nice. Her name was Katya, and we all loved her.

“Today is Katya’s day!” someone would announce, and it was received as good news.

When it was her shift, we could watch TV longer than usual, whisper quietly at night, or even giggle. If we were having too much fun, Katya would approach the door to our room and say, “Quiet!” That was all she did, because, as I said before, she was nice. The other nurses were mean.

The most important feature of the dorm rooms was that they were separated by glass walls. This made the entire sanitarium see-through, and the nurse could watch everybody without leaving her desk. At night, we could see the distant glow of the desk lamp through the dim greenish glass, and we knew that the moment we’d laugh or have some kind of altercation - she’d immediately barge in... “Who doesn’t feel like sleeping?!” a mean nurse would ask, and even though everyone pretended they were asleep, she’d pull one of us out of bed and kick him out into the hallway. This punishment was the mildest. Lordkipanidze was once told to stand in the girls’ room, while I was taken to the medical office for attempting to get some bread from the dining hall at night. Even in broad daylight, that place was the scariest in the whole sanitarium, but when I saw it at night, I nearly fainted.

“So, Savelyev, you’re not sleepy?” asked the nurse, and her voice echoed loudly in the white-tiled space. “Well, just wait. Sit down...”

The nurse opened the sterilizer and drew out a shiny metal box; I could hear the metallic clinking of the needles inside.

“I’ll just fill up a couple of tubes from your vein, you’ll fall asleep in no time. Go ahead, roll up your sleeve...”

I can’t remember what I was saying as I shook with fear, how I begged for forgiveness, but in the end she didn’t take my blood. She pulled me by the hair a bit, and then took me back to our room; I sighed deeply and immediately fell asleep. I didn’t try to sneak into the dining hall ever again.

But the worst nights were when two of the mean nurses were on duty together. After hearing yet another creak, they’d come into the room, stand in the doorway, and start discussing what they’d do to whom.

“So, Savelyev, off to the hallway or to the girls’ room? I don’t think they’ve seen him yet.”

“It’s just as well! Why should they look at this walking skeleton, he’ll just scare them. Better send Kuranov. And Savelyev - I’ll take blood from his vein.”

“Forget it, I tried it last night - he almost shitted himself. Who wants to clean up after him... You’re smiling, Zavarzin? What’s so funny? Well, let’s go laugh together. Get up, I know you’re awake. You’re about to have lots of fun.”

And Zavarzin would receive two injections at the medical office.

We regarded the nurses as our sworn enemies and expressed our hatred any way we could. Lordkipanidze wrote a song, The Four of Us in Our Dorm Room, which, to the tune of The Internationale, professed readiness to fight them to the end, while I decided to form an insurgent group. Not being able to rely on Kuranov and Zavarzin, who would have been difficult to manage, I gathered around me the youngest kids - a girl and two boys - and told them that we were an underground organization from then on, that we would commit covert acts of sabotage against the nurses, and that I would be in charge.

For starters, I ordered my saboteurs to memorize the song The Four of Us in Our Dorm Room. The saboteurs returned the sheet with the lyrics on it still folded because, as it turned out, they didn’t know how to read. This discovery gave me pause, as I had already developed a secret code that we were supposed to use for our clandestine correspondence. Letters of the alphabet were assigned specific numbers, and using a chart, one could tell which number concealed which letter. Alas, in order to figure out what the letters themselves meant, the saboteurs would have needed both the chart and an ABC. This brought the activities of the insurgent group to an end, but I got a taste of what it’s like being in charge and how much fun it is.

As for Lordkipanidze, Kuranov and I tried to get even with him in a more effective way. We wouldn’t have dared to do anything to him personally, of course, but he had a girlfriend in Dorm 6, so we decided to have her pay for all the jingle bells and all the fixifoxes.

Lordkipanidze’s friend was about twelve. Her name was Olya. She was very pale, spoke in a quiet voice, and wore a dark-blue dress with little yellow flowers. There was sadness in her big gray eyes. Olya loved her grandfather, but he couldn’t visit her very often. Every thirty minutes, Olya would approach a teacher, a nurse, or one of the kids, raise her huge, lemur-like eyes, and ask longingly,

“Do you think my Grandpa is coming today?”

At first, people replied with sympathy. Then with reserve. After a week, the whole sanitarium was sick of her. If in the morning a teacher told her that Grandpa was going to be here at any moment, while in the afternoon, a nurse assured her that he was coming any day now, Olya thought it her duty to track both of them down after dinner and say reproachingly,

“See... The day is over, and he didn’t come. He may never come to see me again. He’s so busy. I thought he was coming yesterday, and you promised so, too... but it rained so hard. You see, he won’t come if it rains. His driver might think that the road is too slippery... Do you think it’s going to rain tomorrow?”

“No, it won’t”. Katya the nice nurse would reply, rolling her eyes, as if she had a toothache.

“And if it won’t, why wouldn’t he come then?”

Olya’s grandfather visited her just a few times. He didn’t bring either cherries or apricots. He’d just sit down with her on a bench, hug her, and stroke her hair. Olya squinted blissfully, while the teacher and the nurse enjoyed a short break.

The only one who wasn’t irritated with Olya was Lordkipanidze. He played ping pong with her, sat down next to her to watch TV, assured her that Grandpa was coming soon, and constantly tried to make her laugh, to no avail. Olya responded to all his jokes with a sigh and a quiet reproach,

“Please...”

In our eyes, their friendship belonged to the serious, incomprehensible, and impenetrable arena of adult life. We felt that there was some kind of mystery behind it, and it was precisely thanks to this mystery that we could get even with Lordkipanidze by somehow hurting Olya. After much deliberation, Igor and I decided to stick some grasshoppers into her bed.

In the evening, while everyone was watching TV, we sneaked into Dorm 6 and placed five or six grasshoppers under Olya’s blanket. After bedtime, we heard terrible screams, and the next morning, Lordkipanidze took us there to apologize. He led us by our twisted ears, and even though we apologized profusely, it didn’t save us from particularly resonant jingle bells that evening, and neither did the forty fixifoxes that I received the night before for four pounds of Grandma’s apples.

On the last full day of our term, the teacher gathered us in the hall and said that we were going into town to buy souvenirs. She took out a list of names and went on to hand a ruble to everyone on the list. I had never held real money before, and so the ruble that the teacher handed me, putting a thick checkmark next to my name, felt like a promise of unimaginable bliss. I carefully folded it in two, placed it in my shirt pocket, and then checked on it every five minutes.

In the store, it turned out that a ruble wasn’t enough for bliss. The souvenirs cost more. Other kids had their own money; they used it and bought anything they wanted. Igor bought a brass goat, Zavarzin a nice clay feeding cup, Lordkipanidze a real barometer. Was I really going back to Moscow empty-handed?! I examined all the displays and found the only souvenir that cost ninety kopecks: a plastic Tsar Bell on a stand inscribed Treasures of the Moscow Kremlin. I happily exchanged my ruble for it, received ten kopecks in change, and left the store very pleased. At home, Grandma said that only an imbecile like Grandpa would bring a Moscow souvenir from Zheleznovodsk.

Having bought our souvenirs, we walked around the city until lunch. There was cotton candy for sale everywhere, so the kids who still had some money left were gobbling it up with abandon. I used my ten kopecks to buy a teeny-tiny pinch and ate it slowly, for everyone to see. During the quiet hour, the chief doctor came into our room.

“Kuranov, were you eating cotton candy with the other kids?”

“No,” replied Igor, who spent all his money on the goat and now admired it, turning it this way and that.

“And you, Savelyev?”

“I did!” I replied proudly.

“Put your clothes on and come with me.”

Turned out, cotton candy was a terrible poison, and now they had to give me an enormous enema at the medical office! Lordkipanidze was already sitting in front of the door; muted groans were coming from behind it.

“I just had a tiny bit...” I uttered meekly.

“Yeah, a tiny bit,” the doctor said mockingly, seating me on a chair. “You get bowel obstruction, and I get to hire lawyers to keep your grandma off my back? Thanks, but no thanks!”

Medvedev came out of the medical office and cautiously hurried to the bathroom. Lordkipanidze reluctantly went in to take his place. Next, my turn came.

Lying on the cold oilcloth couch, I huffed from being painfully blown up with water and thought that Grandma was right when she said, “You wanna be like everyone else? And if everyone goes and hangs themselves?” That cotton candy cost me dearly!

Even though the Zheleznovodsk vacation was the most exhilarating event of my seven-year-long life, the memories it left weren’t particularly happy; for a long time, they were the subject of many games and fantasies that I’d like to talk about in conclusion.

I had always known that I was the sickest of the sick and the worst of the worst, but on occasion I’d allow myself to think that it was exactly the other way around - that I was the best and the strongest, and that if given a chance, I’d show them all. Nobody gave me a chance, though, so I’d take one myself in the games that I played when I was home alone, or in the fantasies that I had just before going to sleep.

The first game was born even before the sanitarium, when Grandma pointed her finger at the TV that was showing junior motorcycle races, and gushed:

“Now those are kids!”

I had already heard this before in connection with the children’s choir, the young scientists, and the children’s dancing troupe, and each time it made me really mad.

“I’ll beat them!” I declared, despite the fact that even when it came to my little Butterfly bicycle, I only rode it with training wheels and only around the apartment.

Obviously, I didn’t really think I could beat the motorcyclists, but I was really itching to say that I would, and to hear back, “Of course you will!”

“You?!” Grandma responded with bewildered disdain. “Just look at yourself! They’re huge hulks, they ride motorbikes; they’d knock you down with one spit, you little shit!”

I didn’t say anything but thought up the following game: when Grandma gave me a plate with round slices of banana, I’d pretend they were the motorcyclists.

“We’re all hulks, we ride motorbikes, we’ll knock you down with one spit!” I would say for the first slice, imagining that it was the biggest and the baddest of the motorcyclists.

“Just try it!” I’d reply, and eat him up with relish.

“O-oh! He ate our baddest!” wailed the remaining slices-cum-motorcyclists, and the next biggest and baddest would step out of the crowd to the plate’s rim. Eating rank-and-file motorcyclists was no fun.

“I’m the baddest now!” the second motorcyclist would say. “I’ll knock you down!”

In the end, there would be one last slice left on the plate, and this one would turn out to be the biggest and the baddest of them all. He usually threatened to knock me down the longest, begged for mercy the longest, and I’d eat him with particular relish.

A similar game was the massacre of doctors, whom I not only executed in the train’s bathroom but also threw off the balcony after molding them from play-doh. The Dubrovka Sanitarium made my games far more elaborate. While I was there, I took things as they were, without thinking whether I liked them or not, and I would forget about the most unpleasant ones, like blood from a vein or the scraped nose, the moment they became recent past. But at home I remembered everything...

Left home alone, I’d stuff my pockets with old batteries from a transistor radio, put on the paratrooper’s beret that Grandpa received after a concert on a military base, take the large wooden letter opener, and barge into the bedroom, pretending it was the sanitarium. Imaginary paratroopers were behind me. They were all my age, and they obeyed my every word. Zavarzin and Kuranov were among them.

“Attack!” I’d yell, and the shouting paratroopers would seize our section of the sanitarium.

“It’s him!” screamed the nurses, fleeing in horror. “Savelyev with paratroopers!!!”

I’d pull the batteries out of my pockets and hurl them one after another under the cupboard, the dressing table, and Grandma’s bed. They were hand grenades. Ka-boom! Ka-boom! The dining hall exploded, the nurses’ desk blew apart, the medical office shattered into pieces. Ka-boom! Ka-boom! Boiled fish flew through the hallway, the glass that separated the dorm rooms crumbled and fell, spilled syringes and needles clanked on the floor. Trampling them with their boots, the paratroopers would ask what to do next.

“Get them!” I’d yell, pointing at the imaginary backs of the fleeing nurses.

“No, please! We’ll be good!” the nurses pleaded.

The kindly Katya begged for mercy with the rest of them. But instead of horror, there was hope in her eyes. She knew I wouldn’t touch her.

“Let this one go. She should take shelter in the end room,” I would order, and the paratroopers would hide Katya from the bullets behind boxes with toy blocks. “As for these, tie them up!”

The paratroopers would tie up the arms and legs of the mean nurses and lay them down in a row between the broken ficus and the smashed TV, which would never receive Channel One again.

“Well?” I would ask sternly, tickling the nurses under the chin with the tip of my knife. “Do you see now who you’re dealing with? Just don’t shit yourselves, who wants to clean up after you...”

As for Lordkipanidze, I would usually take care of him just before falling sleep. I’d picture him doing jingle bells to me, and I’d press my palm with a finger. This meant that I pressed a button on the imaginary remote. Hatches would open in the shining linoleum floor, and huge cobras with ruby-red eyes and peaked military caps would crawl out, hissing and writhing. I saw a picture of cap-wearing cobras in the newspaper. One was named Pentagon, the other NATO. I liked their aggressive looks, and in my fantasies, they became my best friends and protectors. Hissing and snarling with their terrifying jaws, they’d coil around Lordkipanidze, look at me devotedly with their red eyes, and wait for just one word from me to strangle him or bite him to death. But then Olya, in her dark-blue dress with little flowers, would run into the room and quietly say,

“Sasha, please...”

I would pause, then press another button on the remote, and the cobras would crawl back into their hatches, rustling disappointedly. Lordkipanidze would fall on his knees, while I would point at Olya nonchalantly and say,

“Thank her - or they’d be chomping on you from dusk till dawn...”

These fantasies would get me so agitated that I couldn’t go to sleep, continuing to rake up old grudges and imagining colorful scenes of retribution that usually ended in pleas for mercy and a charitable pardon. I had these fantasies for a very long time. Grandma took me to the sanitarium three years in a row.



[1] A fairly common Georgian surname, hence the accent (Translators’ note).

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