© Katherine Dovlatov, 2013
© Издательство КАРО, 2020
To my wife, who was right
At noon we pulled into Luga. We stopped at the station square and the tour guide adjusted her tone from a lofty to an earthier one:
“There to the left are the facilities.”
My neighbour pricked up his ears:
“You mean the restroom?”
He had been nagging me the entire trip: “A bleaching agent, six letters? An endangered artiodactyl? An Austrian downhill skier?”
The tourists exited onto a sunlit square. The driver slammed the door shut and crouched by the radiator.
The station: a dingy yellow building with columns, a clock tower and flickering neon letters, faded by the sun…
I cut across the vestibule with its newspaper stand and massive cement urns and instinctively sought out a café.
“Through the waiter,” grumbled the woman at the counter. A bottle-opener dangled on her fallen bosom.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“My pleasure,” I said, “is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.”
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
“My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.”
“Sausage, I guess.”
I got out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. “Better not drop the glass…” And just then two refined old ladies sat down at the next table. They looked like they were from our bus.
The waiter brought a small carafe, a bottle of beer and two chocolates.
“The sandwiches are all gone,” he announced with a note of false tragedy.
I paid up. I lifted the glass and put it down right away. My hands shook like an epileptic’s. The old ladies looked me over with distaste. I attempted a smile:
“Look at me with love!”
The ladies shuddered and changed tables. I heard some muffled interjections of disapproval.
To hell with them, I thought. I steadied the glass with both hands and drained it. Then I wrestled out the sweet.
I began to feel better. That deceptive feeling of bliss was setting in. I stuffed the beer in my pocket and stood up, nearly knocking over the chair. A Duralumin armchair, to be precise. The old ladies continued to scrutinize me with apprehension.
I stepped onto the square. Its walls were covered with warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.
The men were smoking by the side of the bus. The women were noisily taking their seats. The tour guide was eating an ice cream in the shade. I approached her:
“Let’s get acquainted.”
“Aurora,” she said, extending a sticky hand.
“And I am,” I said, “Borealis.”
The girl didn’t take offence.
“Everyone makes fun of my name. I’m used to it… What’s wrong with you? You’re all red!”
“I assure you, it’s only on the outside. On the inside I’m a constitutional democrat.”
“No, really, are you unwell?”
“I drink too much. Would you like a beer?”
“Why do you drink?” she asked.
What could I say?
“It’s a secret,” I said, “a little mystery…”
“So you’ve decided to work at the museum?”
“I knew it right away.”
“Do I look like the literary type?”
“Mitrofanov was seeing you off. He’s an extremely learned Pushkin scholar. Are you good friends?”
“I’m good friends,” I said, “with his bad side.”
“How do you mean?”
“You should read Gordin, Shchegolev, Tsyavlovskaya… Kern’s memoirs. and one of the popular brochures on the dangers of alcohol.”
“You know, I’ve read so much about the dangers of alcohol that I decided to give it up. reading, that is.”
“You’re impossible to talk to.”
The driver glanced in our direction. The tourists were in their seats.
Aurora finished the ice cream and wiped her fingers.
“In the summer,” she said, “the museum pays very well. Mitrofanov makes close to two hundred roubles.”
“And that’s two hundred roubles more than he’s worth.”
“Why, you’re also bitter.”
“You’d be bitter too,” I said.
The driver honked twice.
“Let’s go,” said Aurora.
The Lvov bus was stuffy. The calico seats were burning hot. The yellow curtains intensified the feeling of suffocation.
I was leafing through the pages of Alexei Vulf’s Diaries. They referred to Pushkin in a friendly and sometimes condescending manner. There it was, the closeness that spoils vision. Everyone knows that geniuses must have friends. But who’ll believe that his friend is a genius?!
I dozed off to the murmur of some unintelligible and irrelevant facts about Ryleyev’s mother…
Someone woke me when we were already in Pskov. The kremlin’s freshly plastered walls brought on a feeling of gloom. The designers had secured a grotesque Baltic-style emblem made of wrought iron above the central archway. The kremlin resembled a gigantic model.
One of the outbuildings housed the local travel bureau. Aurora filed some paperwork and we were driven to Hera, the most fashionable local restaurant.
I wavered – to top up or not? If I drank more, tomorrow it’d be even worse. I didn’t feel like eating…
I walked onto the boulevard. Low and heavy, the lindens rustled.
Long ago I realized that as soon as you give way to thinking, you remember something sad. For instance, my last conversation with my wife.
“Even your love of words – your crazy, unhealthy, pathological love – is fake. It’s nothing more than an attempt to justify the life you lead. And you lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements. With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least.”
“Do you honestly think he’s a good writer? Perhaps Jack London’s a good writer, too?”
“Dear God! What does Jack London have to do with this?! My only pair of boots is in the pawnshop… I can forgive anything. Poverty doesn’t scare me. Anything but betrayal!”
“What do you mean?”
“Your endless drinking. Your. I don’t even want to say it. You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being. It’s low! You speak of nobility, yet you are a cold, hard and crafty man.”
“Don’t forget that I’ve been writing stories for twenty years.”
“You want to write a great novel? Only one in a hundred million succeeds!”
“So what? In the spiritual sense a failed attempt like that is equal to the greatest of books. Morally it’s even higher, if you will, since it excludes a reward.”
“These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words. I’ve had enough. I have a child for whom I’m responsible…”
“I have a child, too.”
“Whom you ignore for months on end. We are strangers to you…”
(In conversations with women there is one painful moment. You use facts, reasoning, arguments, you appeal to logic and common sense. And then suddenly you discover that she cannot stand the very sound of your voice.)
“Intentionally,” I said, “I never did any harm…”
I sat down on a sloping bench, pulled out a pen and a piece of paper, and a minute later scribbled down:
My darling, I'm in Pushkin Hills now,
Monotony and boredom without a switch,
I wander through the grounds like a bitch,
And fear is wracking my very soul!
And so on.
My verses had somewhat preceded reality. We still had about a hundred kilometres to Pushkin Hills.
I stopped by a convenience store and bought an envelope that had Magellan’s portrait on it. And asked, for some reason:
“Do you know what Magellan has to do with anything?”
The sales clerk replied pensively:
“Maybe he died… Or got decorated…”
I licked the stamp, sealed the envelope and dropped it in the mailbox.
At six we reached the tourist centre. Before that there were hills, a river, the sweeping horizon with a jagged trim of forest. All in all, a typical Russian landscape without excess. Just those ordinary features that evoke an inexplicably bittersweet feeling.
This feeling had always seemed suspect to me. In general, I find passion towards inanimate objects irritating. (Mentally I opened a notepad.) There is something amiss in coin collectors, philatelists, inveterate travellers and lovers of cactuses and aquarium fish. The sleepy forbearance of a fisherman, the futile, unmotivated bravery of a mountain climber and the haughty confidence of the owner of a royal poodle are all alien to me.
They say that the Jews are indifferent to nature. That’s one of the grievances levelled against the Jewish nation. The Jews, supposedly, don’t have their own nature, and they’re indifferent to everyone else’s. Perhaps that’s true. It would seem that the bit of Jewish blood in me is beginning to show.
In short, I don’t like exalted spectators. And I am mistrustful of their rapture. I believe that their love of birch trees triumphs at the expense of the love of mankind. And grows as a surrogate for patriotism.
I agree, you feel love and pity for your mother more acutely if she is sick or paralysed. However, to admire her suffering, to express it aesthetically, is low.
We drove up to the tourist centre. Some idiot built it four kilometres away from the nearest water supply. Ponds, lakes, a famous river – but the centre is right under the blazing sun. Though there are rooms with showers and occasionally hot water.
We walked into the main office. There was a woman sitting there, a retired soldier’s dream. Aurora handed her the register, signed some papers and picked up food vouchers for the group. Then she whispered something to this curvy blonde who immediately shot me a glance. The look expressed a harsh, cursory interest, businesslike concern and mild alarm. She even sat up straighter. Her papers rustled with more of a snap.
“Have you met?” asked Aurora.
I stepped forward.
“I’d like to work at the Pushkin Preserve.”
“We need people…” replied the blonde.
The ellipsis at the end of this rejoinder was palpable. In other words, only good, qualified specialists are needed; random people need not apply.
“Are you familiar with the collection?” asked the blonde, and suddenly introduced herself. “Galina Alexandrovna.”
“I’ve been here two or three times.”
“That’s not enough.”
“I agree. So here I am again.”
“You need to prepare properly. Thoroughly study the guidebooks. So much in Pushkin’s life is waiting to be discovered. Certain things have changed since last year.”
“In Pushkin’s life?” I marvelled.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Aurora. “The tourists are waiting. Good luck.”
And she disappeared – young, wholesome, full of life. Tomorrow I will hear her pure girlish voice in one of the museum’s rooms:
“. Just think, comrades!. ‘I love you so truly, so tenderly…’ – Pushkin contrasted this inspired hymn to selflessness with the mores of the serf-owning world.”
“Not in Pushkin’s life,” the blonde said irritably, “but in the layout of the collection. For instance, they took down the portrait of Hannibal.”
“Some busybody insisted it wasn’t Hannibal. The medals, you see, don’t match. Supposedly, it’s General Zakomelsky.”
“So who is it really?”
“Really it’s Zakomelsky.”
“Then why is he black?”
“He fought with the Asians in the south. It’s hot there, so he got a tan. Plus the paints get darker with age.”
“So they were right to take it down?”
“Oh, what’s the difference – Hannibal or Zakomelsky?… The tourists came to see Hannibal. They paid money. What in hell do they need Zakomelsky for?! And so our director hung up Hannibal. I mean Zakomelsky masquerading as Hannibal. And some character didn’t like it. Excuse me, are you married?”
Galina Alexandrovna uttered this phrase suddenly – and shyly, I’d add.
“Divorced,” I said. “Why?”
“Our girls are interested.”
“They’re not here now. The accountant, the methodologist, the tour guides…”
“And why are they interested in me?”
“They’re not interested in you. They’re interested in everyone. There are a lot of single girls here. The guys left. Who do our girls get to see? The tourists? And what about the tourists? It’s good if they stay a week. The ones from Leningrad stop overnight. Or just for the weekend. How long will you be here?”
“Till autumn. If all goes well.”
“Where are you staying? Would you like me to call the hotel? We have two of them, a good one and a bad one. Which do you prefer?”
“That,” I told her, “requires some thought.”
“The good one’s expensive,” explained Galina.
“All right,” I said, “I’ve no money anyway.”
She immediately dialled somewhere and pleaded with someone for a long time. Finally the matter was settled. Somewhere someone wrote down my name.
“I’ll take you there.”
It had been a while since I’d been the object of such intense female concern. It would prove to be even more insistent in the future, escalating into pressure.
At first I attributed it to my tarnished individuality. Later I discovered just how acute the shortage of males in these parts was. A bow-legged local tractor driver with the tresses of a train-station floozie was always surrounded by pushy pink-cheeked admirers.
“I’m dying for a beer!” he’d whine.
And the girls ran for beer…
Galina locked the door of the main office. We proceeded through the woods towards the settlement.
“Do you love Pushkin?” she asked me unexpectedly.
Something in me winced, but I replied:
“I love. The Bronze Horseman, his prose…”
“And what about the poems?”
“His later poems I love very much.”
“And what about the earlier ones?”
“The earlier ones too,” I surrendered.
“Everything here lives and breathes Pushkin,” continued Galina. “Literally every twig, every blade of grass. You can’t help but expect him to come out from around the corner… The top hat, the cloak, that familiar profile.”
Meanwhile, it was Lenya Guryanov, a former college snitch, who appeared from around the corner.
“Boris, you giant dildo,” he bellowed, “is it really you?!”
I replied with surprising amiability. Yet another lowlife had caught me unawares. I’m always too slow to gather my thoughts.
“I knew you’d come,” Guryanov went on.
Later I was told this story. There was a big booze-up at the beginning of the season. Someone’s wedding or birthday. One of the guests was a local KGB officer. My name came up in conversation. One of our mutual friends said:
“He’s in Tallinn.”
“No, he’s been in Leningrad at least a year.”
“I heard he was in Riga, staying at Krasilnikov’s.”
More and more versions followed. The KGB agent stayed focused on the braised duck. Then he lifted his head and stated brusquely:
“There’s intel that he’s getting ready for Pushkin Hills…”
“I’m late,” said Guryanov, as if I was keeping him.
He turned to Galina:
“You’re looking good. Don’t tell me, did you get new teeth?”
His pockets bulged heavily.
“You little prick!” blurted Galina. And the next minute:
“It’s a good thing Pushkin isn’t here to see this.”
“Yes,” I said, “it’s not a bad thing.”
The first floor of the Friendship Hotel was home to three establishments: a general store, a hairdresser’s and the restaurant The Seashore. I should, I thought, invite Galina to dinner for all her help. But my funds were appallingly low. One grand gesture could end in catastrophe.
I kept quiet.
We walked up to the barrier, behind which sat the administrator. Galina introduced me. The woman extended a chunky key with the number 231.
“And tomorrow you can find a room,” said Galina. “Perhaps in the settlement» Or in Voronich, but it’s expensive» Or you can look in one of the nearby villages: Savkino, Gaiki»”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been a great help.”
“So, I’ll be going then.”
The words ended with a barely audible question mark: “So, I’ll be going then?”
“Shall I walk you home?”
“I live in the housing development,” the young woman responded mysteriously.
And then – distinctly and clearly, very distinctly and very clearly:
“There’s no need to walk me^ And don’t get any ideas, I’m not that type…”
She gave the administrator a proud nod and strutted away.
I climbed to the second floor and opened the door. The bed was neatly made. The loudspeaker sputtered intermittently. The hangers swung on the crossbar of an open built-in closet.
In this room, in this narrow dinghy, I was setting sail for the distant shores of my independent bachelor life.
I showered, washing away the ticklish residue of Galina’s attentions, the sticky coating of a crammed bus, the lamina of many days of drinking.
My mood improved noticeably. A cold shower worked like a loud scream.
I dried myself, put on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and lit a cigarette.
Footsteps shuffled down the hall. Somewhere music was playing. Trucks and countless mopeds caused a ruckus outside the window.
I lay on top of the duvet and opened a little grey volume by Victor Likhonosov. I decided it was time to find out exactly what this village prose was, to arm myself with a sort of guide…
While reading, I fell asleep. When I woke up it was two in the morning. The shadowy light of summer dawn filled the room. You could already count the leaves of the rubber plant on the window sill.
I decided to think things through calmly, to try and get rid of the feeling of catastrophe and deadlock.
Life spread out before me as an immeasurable minefield and I was at its centre. It was time to divide this field into lots and get down to business. To break the chain of dramatic events, to analyse the feeling of failure, to examine each aspect in isolation.
A man has been writing stories for twenty years. He is convinced that he picked up the pen for a reason. People he trusts are ready to attest to this.
You are not being published. You are not welcomed into their circles, into their band of bandits. But is that really what you dreamt of when you mumbled your first lines?
You want justice? Relax, that fruit doesn’t grow here. A few shining truths were supposed to change the world for the better, but what really happened?
You have a dozen readers and you should pray to God for fewer…
You don’t make any money – now that’s not good. Money is freedom, space, caprice. Money makes poverty bearable.
You must learn to make money without being a hypocrite. Go work as a stevedore and do your writing at night. Mandelstam said that people will preserve what they need. So write.
You have some ability – you might not have. Write. Create a masterpiece. Give your reader a revelation. One single living person. That’s the goal of a lifetime.
And what if you don’t succeed? Well, you’ve said it yourself – morally, a failed attempt is even more noble, if only because it is unrewarded.
Write, since you picked up the pen, and bear this burden. The heavier it is, the easier…
You are weighed down by debts? Name someone who hasn’t been! Don’t let it upset you. After all, it’s the only bond that really connects you to other people.
Looking around, do you see ruins? That was to be expected. He who lives in the world of words does not get along with things.
You envy anyone who calls himself a writer, anyone who can present a legal document with proof of that fact.
But let’s look at what your contemporaries have written. You’ve stumbled on the following in the writer Volin’s work:
“It became comprehensibly clear to me…”
And on the same page:
“With incomprehensible clarity Kim felt…”
A word is turned upside down. Its contents fall out. Or rather, it turns out it didn’t have any. Words piled intangibly, like the shadow of an empty bottle.
But that’s not the point! I’m so tired of your constant manipulation!
Life is impossible. You must either live or write. Either the word or business. But the word is your business. And you detest all Business with a capital B. It is surrounded by empty, dead space. It destroys everything that interferes with your business. It destroys hopes, dreams and memories. It is ruled by contemptible, incontrovertible and unequivocal materialism.
And again – that’s not the point!
What have you done to your wife? She was trusting, flirtatious and fun-loving. You made her jealous, suspicious and neurotic. Her persistent response: “What do you mean by that?” is a monument to your cunning…
Your outrageousness borders on the extraordinary. Do you remember when you came home around four o’clock in the morning and began undoing your shoelaces? Your wife woke up and groaned:
“Dear God, where are you off to at this hour?!”
“You’re right, you’re right, it’s too early,” you mumbled, undressed quickly and lay down.
Oh, what more is there to say?
Morning. Footsteps muffled by the crimson runner. Abrupt sputtering of the loudspeaker. The splash of water next door. Trucks outside. The startling call of a rooster somewhere in the distance.
In my childhood the sound of summer was marked by the whistling of steam engines. Country dachas… The smell of burnt coal and hot sand… Table tennis under the trees. The taut and clear snap of the ball. Dancing on the veranda (your older cousin trusted you to wind the gramophone). Gleb Romanov. Ruzhena Sikora. “This song for two soldi, this song for two pennies…”, ‘I Daydreamt of You in Bucharest…’
The beach burnt by the sun. The rugged sedge. Long bathing trunks and elastic marks on your calves. Sand in your shoes.
Someone knocked on the door:
“That must be a mistake,” I said.
“Are you Alikhanov?”
I was shown to the housekeeper’s room. I picked up the receiver.
“Were you sleeping?” asked Galina.
I protested emphatically.
I noticed that people respond to this question with excessive fervour. Ask a person, “Do you go on benders?” and he will calmly say, “No.” Or, perhaps, agree readily. But ask, “Were you sleeping?” and the majority will be upset as if insulted. As if they were implicated in a crime.
“I’ve made arrangements for a room.”
“Well, thank you.”
“It’s in a village called Sosnovo. Five minutes away from the tourist centre. And it has a private entrance.”
“Although the landlord drinks…”
“Yet another bonus.”
“Remember his name – Sorokin. Mikhail Ivanych… Walk through the tourist centre, along the ravine. You’ll be able to see the village from the hill. Fourth house. Or maybe the fifth. I’m sure you’ll find it. There’s a dump next to it.”
“Thank you, darling.”
Her tone changed abruptly.
“Darling?! You’re killing me. Darling. Honestly. So, he’s found himself a darling.”
Later on, I’d often be astonished by Galina’s sudden transformations. Lively involvement, kindness and sincerity gave way to shrill inflections of offended virtue. Her normal voice was replaced by a piercing provincial dialect.
“And don’t get any ideas!”
“Ideas – never. And once again – thank you…”
I headed to the tourist centre. This time it was full of people. Colourful automobiles were parked all around. Tourists in sun hats ambled in groups and on their own. A line had formed by the newspaper kiosk. The clatter of crockery and the screeching of metallic stools came through the wide-open windows of the cafeteria. A few well-fed mutts romped around in the middle of it all.
A picture of Pushkin greeted me everywhere I looked. Even near the mysterious little brick booth with the “Inflammable!” sign. The similarity was confined to the sideburns. Their amplitude varied indiscriminately. I noticed long ago that our artists favour certain objects that place no restriction on the scale or the imagination. At the top of the list are Karl Marx’s beard and Lenin’s forehead.
The loudspeaker was on at full volume:
“Attention! You are listening to the Pushkin Hills tourist-centre broadcasting station. Here is today’s schedule of activities…”
I walked into the main office. Galina was beset by tourists. She motioned me to wait.
I picked up the brochure Pearl of the Crimea from the shelf and took out my cigarettes.
After collecting some paperwork, the tour guides would leave. The tourists ran after them to the buses. Several “stray” families wanted to join a group. They were being looked after by a tall, slender girl.
A man in a Tyrolean hat approached me timidly.
“My apologies, may I ask you a question?”
“Is that the expanse?”
“What do you mean?”
“I am asking you, is that the expanse?” The Tyrolean dragged me to an open window.
“In what sense?”
“In the most obvious. I would like to know whether that is the expanse or not? If it isn’t the expanse, just say so.”
“I don’t understand.”
The man turned slightly red and began to explain, hurriedly:
“I had a postcard… I am a cartophilist…”
“A cartophilist. I collect postcards. Philos – love, cartos…”
“OK, got it.”
“I own a colour postcard titled The Pskov Expanse. And now that I’m here I want to know – is that the expanse?”
“I don’t see why not,” I said.
The man walked away, beaming.
The rush hour was over and the centre emptied.
“Each summer there’s a larger influx of tourists,” explained Galina.
And then, raising her voice slightly: “The prophecy came true: ‘The sacred path will not be overgrown…’!”
No, I think not. How could it get overgrown, the poor thing, being trampled by squadrons of tourists?.
“Mornings here are a total clusterfuck,” said Galina.
And once again I was surprised by the unexpected turn of her language.
Galina introduced me to the office instructor, Lyudmila. I would secretly admire her smooth legs till the end of the season. Luda had an even and friendly temperament. This was explained by the existence of a fiancé. She hadn’t been marred by a constant readiness to make an angry rebuff. For now her fiancé was in jail…
Shortly after, an unattractive woman of about thirty appeared: the methodologist. Her name was Marianna Petrovna. Marianna had a neglected face without defects and an imperceptibly bad figure.
I explained my reason for being there. With a sceptical smile, she invited me to follow her to the office.
“Do you love Pushkin?”
I felt a muffled irritation.
At this rate, I thought, it won’t be long before I don’t.
“And may I ask you why?”
I caught her ironic glance. Evidently the love of Pushkin was the most widely circulated currency in these parts. What if I were a counterfeiter, God forbid?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why do you love Pushkin?”
“Let’s stop this idiotic test,” I burst out. “I graduated from school. And from university.” (Here I exaggerated a bit; I was expelled in my third year.) “I’ve read a few books. In short, I have a basic understanding… Besides, I’m only seeking a job as a tour guide…”
Luckily, my snap response went unnoticed. As I later learnt, basic rudeness was easier to get away with here than feigned aplomb.
“And nevertheless?” Marianna waited for an answer. What’s more, she waited for a specific answer she had been expecting.
“OK,” I said, “I’ll give it a try. Here we go. Pushkin is our belated Renaissance. Like Goethe was for Weimar. They took upon themselves what the West had mastered in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Pushkin found a way to express social themes in the form of tragedy, a characteristic of the Renaissance. He and Goethe lived, if you will, in several eras. Werther is a tribute to sentimentalism. Prisoner of the Caucasus is a typically Byronesque work. But Faust, for instance – that’s already Elizabethan and the Little Tragedies naturally continue one of the Renaissance genres. The same with Pushkin’s lyricism. And if it’s dark, then it isn’t dark in the spirit of
Byron but more in the spirit of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I feel. Am I explaining myself clearly?”
“What has Goethe got to do with anything?” asked Marianna. “And the same goes for the Renaissance!”
“Nothing!” I finally exploded. “Goethe has absolutely nothing to do with this! And ‘Renaissance’ was the name of Don Quixote’s horse. And it too has nothing to do with this! And evidently I have nothing to do with this either!”
“Please calm down,” whispered Marianna. “You’re a bundle of nerves… I only asked, ‘Why do you love Pushkin?’”
“To love publicly is obscene!” I yelled. “There is a special term for it in sexual pathology!”
With a shaking hand she extended me a glass of water. I pushed it away.
“Have you loved anyone? Ever?!”
I shouldn’t have said it. Now she’ll break down and start screaming: “I am thirty-four years old and I am single!”
“Pushkin is our pride and joy!” managed Marianna. “He is not only a great poet, he is also Russia’s great citizen…”
Apparently this was the prepared answer to her idiotic question.
And that’s it? I thought.
“Do look at the guidelines. Also, here is a list of books. They are available in the reading room. And report to Galina Alexandrovna that the interview went well.”
I felt embarrassed.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sorry I lost my temper.”
I rolled up the brochure and put it in my pocket.
“Be careful with it – we only have three copies.”
I took the papers out and attempted to smooth them with my hands.
“And one more thing,” Marianna lowered her voice. “You asked about love…”
“It was you who asked about love.”
“No, it was you who asked about love. As I understand, you are interested in whether I am married? Well, I am!”
“You have robbed me of my last hope,” I said as I was leaving.
In the hallway Galina introduced me to Natella, another guide. And another unexpected burst of interest:
“You’ll be working here?”
“Do you have cigarettes?”
We stepped onto the porch.
Natella had come from Moscow at the urge of romantic, or rather reckless ideas. A physicist by education, she worked as a schoolteacher. She decided to spend her three-month holiday here. And regretted coming. The Preserve was total pandemonium. The tour guides and methodologists were nuts. The tourists were ignorant pigs. And everyone was crazy about Pushkin. Crazy about their love for Pushkin. Crazy about their love for their love. The only decent person was Markov…
“Who is Markov?”
“Much obliged. But I’m afraid that in that department I myself am an expert.”
“Then let’s knock some back one day! Right here in the lap of nature.”
“I see you are a dangerous man.”
“How do you mean?”