Early 1967 finds me at a tiny desk in a diminutive room in Moscow, Russia, working on my Ph. D. dissertation.
My desk is crammed. It is the same with the hard-as-nails sleeping couch that takes up the rest of the dark closet, two steps long and three steps wide, converted into a rental space. And I am the one who rents it.
My closet is accessed from the landlady’s room. From the shadows come odd-sounding sobs, uttered by Ksenia Mitrofanovna, 73, my landlady herself. Only a half hour earlier, belligerently drunk, she was sprawled on the floor, stretching along my desk which, of course, kept me from concentrating on my work, and so I had to drag her back to her room.
She has not had a sober moment in two days, babbling nonstop. Just as she is now:
“My kids… my babies ….all that I want for you… all the best… can’t do nothing about the head, can I….” The weeping resumes loudly.
“Got to get a refrigerator. It’s just sitting there. Lots of refrigerators. Just sitting there, that’s all.”
I surmise she has signed up in a waitlist for a refrigerator; now years later her number has come up and she should be buying it.
“The old woman, she neeeed help, and there’s no one to help ‘er,” she goes on wailing. And then suddenly she begins to snore.
There is nobody but me to feel sorry for Ksenia. Her granddaughter Natasha has gone out. Her daughter Tanya – Tatiana Pavlovna – is in the hospital. There is nobody else. But my empathy does not count. I am a tenant – a stranger.
I have been staying at her place only for a few weeks. My arrival was preceded by a series of attempts to move in together with my wife in Moscow.
This is a tale full of adventures, all miserable and some even funny. The story started six months earlier when I returned to Moscow from Siberia. For a few weeks while I was taking my entrance exams for architectural graduate school, I stayed with Aunt Shura, my mother’s sister, sleeping on the floor in her granddaughter’s room. Then I got a bed in the graduate dorm, though it turned out to be a fiction. The tiny room meant for two was taken up by another student, Tolik Hamza, and his wife, living there illegally.
My wife and I had counted on a room in the dorm. We would live there as a family, with our baby daughter, for the three years of graduate school. In the meantime, I would find a way to get a regular apartment. I still believe that if I had figured out a way to deal with the dorm’s director Alyona, this would have worked out and my life would have turned out differently. But I never developed a talent for giving bribes.
While Hamza’s wife was away, I slept on the other bed. When she returned, they moved their beds back together, and I went back to the mattress on the floor. Soon Alyona the director suspected “a violation” and took the mattress away: “No more than two people per room!” Of course I had a right to chase Hamza’s wife out, but it never occurred to me – perhaps out of sense of solidarity. To return the favor, Tolik courteously agreed to make room for cartons with my books.
I went to Aunt Shura, but two weeks later she voiced displeasure. I took the hint and refrained from further visits.
My wife Marina lived and worked where she was assigned after college – in small town of Mendeleyevo outside Moscow. Unaware of my breakup with Aunt Shura, she came to visit me on the weekend. We had to spend the night in the transit lounge at Kazan Railroad Station. The wooden benches were not the most comfortable place. And each hour or so the police chased everybody outside. Then we moved to Yaroslavl Station next door. Here the cops were more laissez-faire.
Back at the dorm, Hamza’s wife left again, and I had another two weeks on the bed at my legitimate residence.
None of this benefited my academic progress. Between one thing and another I could not work on my thesis. Moreover, my friend Dmitry and I decided to enter an architectural contest. We toiled around the clock, hoping for a big fat award.
I was not giving up on my attempts to rent a room or an apartment, however. Late evenings I went to an informal “apartment exchange” in Banny Lane, where potential renters and landlords congregated on walkways when police were not seen around.
On a rainy autumn evening, Marina and I ran into a rather good, and more importantly, cultured-looking old lady (actually, she was only about fifty-five) called Larissa Laletina. She was thin and short-ish, with a small sharp nose and generously applied lipstick. She was dressed in an old worn-out coat and a sharp-topped fur hat, and she carried a small backpack.
Laletina introduced herself as an “inventor in the area of cartoons.” Now she had to go to Tbilisi for a year – or even longer – on a matter pertaining to a patent of hers. She could not leave her apartment to strangers. “Too many items and books that I value as memory of my late husband.” She liked us, “a young couple that inspired trust.” If we paid two months in advance, she would charge us a mere fifty rubles a month. That was steep, but still looked like a stroke of luck. We went to take a look.
Laletina’s room was conveniently located almost in Moscow’s downtown, on the fourth floor of a huge 1930s apartment building. While she was opening the door to her room, her neighbors in the communal apartment eyed us with curiosity through their doors kept ajar. Naturally, they were not enthusiastic to see us, but I was hoping we would get along.
The room was spacious, with large windows and bookcases lining the walls. There was not much furniture: a couch, a table, three chairs, a huge wardrobe that faced the door (a few steps from it) which, together with some hanging hooks on the wall, formed a mini-foyer of sorts, and, finally, a divan in the corner between the wardrobe’s back and the wall. The place was strewn with personal items, cartons, leftover food, empty milk bottles, books and newspapers – it looked more like a dorm room than anything else.
Laletina took off her coat and went to the communal kitchen to make tea. When she came back, she suddenly offered to let us stay the night. “I can tell you don’t have a place to stay. So feel at home. We’ll have some tea with cookies, we’ll chat. If you want to rent it, you’ll bring your things tomorrow, along with the money. I’ll be leaving two days from now. And tonight you can sleep behind the wardrobe. I’ll hang a curtain for you to keep private.”
We were ecstatic. We got our things together and borrowed money wherever we could “for a few days.” I moved to Laletina’s place, and Marina went back to Mendeleyevo to wrap up her affairs.
Two days later Larisa showed up wearing a brand-new raincoat and a pair of pretty shoes and told me that her departure was delayed for mysterious reasons. Something very strange had happened to Manana, a Tbilisi relative of hers. I found especially suspicious the part that dealt with the mysterious Manana’s father. His last name was Zhukovsky, and he lived on Zhukovsky Street in the town of Zhukovsky, “with two daughters in a two-room dacha, but with a piano and a refrigerator.” The latter I found quite touching.
“Well, that’s not too bad,” Laletina reassured me, looking away in a stealthy fashion. “We can get along; you are a cultured man, and you don’t get in the way.”
I had just enough culture to get the picture. I told her that this turn of events did not suit us at all, and I was moving out tomorrow. I asked her to return the money, minus two nights. She said I could do whatever I liked, but she could not return the money, because she had already spent it.
While we were sorting things out, Marina called from a pay phone, happy to report that she had just gotten paid and was on her way. “We’ll pay our debts!” she exclaimed.
I briefed her on the latest developments, which upset her to the extent that she left the phone booth without her wallet with her salary. It’s all true: it never rains…
We rendezvoused that night in the graduate room of the Moscow School of Architecture. The deadline of our design entry was nearing, and we worked through the night. Then she went back to Mendeleyevo, and I went back to Laletina’s.
Here another surprise awaited me. The door to Laletina’s room was blocked by a new lock with combination code. The gloating neighbors crowded the hallway. They had been instructed to call the police the moment I showed up – and one of them was already busy doing just that. I tried to tell these law-abiding citizens that it was all a misunderstanding and that I was there only to retrieve my things.
All the while I was mechanically toying with the code on the lock – and suddenly I felt a miracle taking place: the lock opened. I told the instantly forlorn neighbors I had received the code from Laletina and they scattered, disappointed.
Naturally, we were not going to share a room with Laletina, and I was back on the street. For the next two or three weeks I slept in various dorms: sometimes on a row of chairs in my “legit” one, but more often I crashed at fellow graduate students’. I was too busy finishing the contest entry to worry about shelter.
And it worked: we won, and got paid handsomely.
At the post office, where I was getting my mail, I found a letter from my academic advisor Professor Meyerson. He was nervous. The deadline for the outline and detailed description of my thesis to be submitted to the Academic Council was two weeks away. It had to be approved by him beforehand. And I had not even shown him a single page yet! This could have ended in being kicked out.
“The Graduate Affairs Director has been trying to locate you,” Meyerson wrote, trying to be as polite as possible. “He is concerned that you show up only on the days your monthly stipend is paid.”
I had to attend to my academic affairs. But I could not give up on the shelter business either.
Barely had I moved my belongings into a locker at the railroad station when I ran into Boris Moskalev, a retired lieutenant colonel. Moskalev stood six foot and a half, and looked way older than his middle age. We went to see his two-bedroom apartment in a deluxe building near Riga Station, on Mir Avenue, which had been built to house Soviet secret police KGB cadres. I liked it very much.
Moskalev claimed two military degrees – an Armor Troop Academy and a General Staff Academy – and command of foreign languages. He taught at Armor Troop Academy, too, and his bookshelf held a number of books on strategy and tactics of tank warfare, authored or co-authored by him. Some of them were in foreign languages – Polish, Romanian, Chinese, Albanian, and others. He told me he was temporarily not working for medical reasons and offered me one of the bedrooms that was accessed directly from the hall – thirty-five rubles a month. I agreed right away. Unlike Laletina, he did not ask for rent in advance – just a loan of six rubles, which I provided.
Marina went to Zaporozhye, Ukraine, to bring in our daughter who temporarily stayed there with my wife’s parents, and I moved in with Moskalev. I planned to put the room in order in time for my wife and daughter’s arrival.
At first I came with my briefcase only, my suitcases still in the locker at the station. On the second day the colonel asked for another loan, this time fourteen rubles. I was apprehensive, but I complied. We agreed that I would bring my suitcases in a couple of hours. It took us a while: I insisted on having a key to the apartment, and he used various excuses to keep it away from me. Finally we agreed that he would be waiting for me.
When I came back laden with suitcases, the door was locked. I kept ringing the bell and knocking on the door for quite some time. I could see the light in the hall through the keyhole and distinctly heard someone’s steps, but no one would open the door. It was ten p.m., then eleven. At half past midnight I took the suitcases back to the station. As I left the station, I glanced at Moskalev’s apartment: the lights were on in every room.
I ran up to the seventh floor (the elevator was in use). I kept banging on the door and slamming the doorbell. Finally, the elevator arrived. Its door opened behind my back, and the Professor of the Armor Academy and his wife stumbled out – colossally drunk. I had to help them insert the key – and then immediately slid it in my pocket.
Inside, we were met by a decent-looking girl named Zoya who turned out to be renting the other bedroom, accessible from the living room. (She had not opened the door out of fear). The landlord and his wife slept in the living room with no furniture but an armchair.
Although his wife was introduced as Elena Dmitrievna, her real name turned out to be Lida, and of course she was not his real wife, who, along with their fifteen-year-old daughter, had moved out long ago.
My first night was far from quiet. It was filled with noise and cursing. This exchange reached me as I was barely awake:
Professor: Where am I gonna sleep? Get out!
Lida: Go fuck yourself.
Professor: Move your butt!
Lida: Go fuck yourself.
Professor: You can’t say a word without fuck. (Beat.) Am I ever going to teach you cunt to stop cursing?
Lida: Go fuck yourself.
Professor: Get out of here, you fucking whore!
A thud of a body against the wall – Lida hollering – heavy footsteps in the hall – doors slammed – strange voices.
I finally woke up and realized that I was in the next Act of my Graduate Comedy drama.
While talking to Marina on the phone the same day, I slightly hinted to her that perhaps it would be premature to bring our three-year-old daughter to Moscow.
When I came back I discovered that someone had used my bed. It looked like it had been rented out during the day – the door to my room was not locked.
The next night someone attempted to break in. At the last moment Moskalev threw them out. In the morning, following Zoya’s advice – she had been renting from Moskalev for a while – I cut in a lock.
Lida reacted to this development calmly: “Boris won’t like it.” Then she added flirtatiously, “You know he has moral scruples.”
“So I noticed,” I said.
Lida herself was a sight to behold, with a huge shiner, a split lip, and a torn blouse. The professor-colonel’s soulmate worked as a saleswoman at a vegetable stand. Today was her day off.
“I wish I had not rented my place” – she had a two-room apartment of her own – “to the Georgians,” she murmured, filling the small hallway with vodka fumes. “You’d make a so much better tenant. It will be so hard for you here,” she added sympathetically. “You have to write your thesis.”
If it were not for her outside-the-barroom appearance, she did not sound like the person from the night before.
“You wouldn’t have by any chance three rubles till tomorrow,” she purred sweetly. “I’ll pay you back tomorrow when I get home from work.”
I had to turn her down.
By the time of Marina’s arrival I felt quite settled at Moskalev’s. Of course the drinking and the cursing and the fighting went on night after night, but there were creature comforts, too: a subway station next door, a market, a railroad station, a bus stop, and a grocery store at the ground floor.
Actually, it was the latter that caused all the problems. The moment Moskalev stopped by the store, he was set upon by all sorts of characters who offered to split a bottle with him. (Resisting the temptation was beyond him, not with his “system severely injured by serving Motherland in armored troops.”)
After the first bottle, the characters remembered that Moskalev lived right upstairs and felt like paying a visit. But there was no food in the house. And so, instead of leaving, they felt like giving their host a solid thrashing. While the phone was still working, I would call the police, whom the guests feared enough to take off. Then the phone got turned off, but I still would pick up the receiver and pretend I was calling the police. At first it worked, but then they figured me out: after all, most of them were regulars. For some reason, they spared me – at least they never beat me up.
My wife could not stand the apartment from the start. When she first came, she carelessly left her fur coat outside the room in the hall. In the morning, the coat was still there, but someone had picked its pockets. Oddly, there had been no party the night before – which meant, no strangers. I raised the issue the next night, and Lida and Moskalev feigned ignorance. I offered a “compromise,” after a fashion: I’ll take the money out of the rent. “Just four-fifty less, and that’s it.”
The colonel seemed to agree, but Lida who had already had a few on her way home was indignant: “Boris, what’s wrong with you? This is an outrage! There was three rubles at the most!”
Marina did not like it that the bathroom door did not have a lock, either. Moskalev’s “wife,” a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, would march in unceremoniously while my wife was taking a bath. Then she would settle on the corner of the bathtub and, provided she was sober, engage in lengthy conversations on the meaning of life.
Eventually, we got along. I made good use of this time: I straightened out my affairs at school, I prepared the plan for my thesis, and I had Meyerson approve it.
In the meantime, I made friends with my neighbor Zoya, who was a fellow student from out of town taking courses by correspondence. She told me that Moskalev’s real wife was suing him for divorce and the apartment. His days at the apartment were numbered, and so were mine.
At the apartment exchange, I ran into a meek and quiet old lady called Ksenia Mitrofanovna. She lived in easternmost Cherkizovo neighborhood, which was not easily accessed: 15 to 20 minutes by streetcar from Sokolniki subway station. It was a small place: a room and a closet, which I was renting. The apartment was barely enough for Ksenia, her daughter and her granddaughter – but a tenant? What do you need with a lousy thirty rubles, with such inconveniences?
It turned out later they were saving for her granddaughter Natasha’s eighteenth birthday party. Natasha’s father, a geologist in Tyumen, Siberia, had sent the money for the purpose – and it had been already spent. Hence, they got a tenant.
I brought my things and settled down. I was told that previously the closet had been occupied by Grandma Ksenia herself, who now moved to the kitchen. Ksenia worked as a night watchperson and rested in the daytime on the couch or Natasha’s cot, while her daughter Tatiana was at work and her granddaughter was at school.
Of course the tiny dark closet could not compare with Moskalev’s room. And moving in my wife was out of the question, to say nothing of our daughter. But it was quiet, without drunken fights, and I could hope that this was an intermediate solution, until something better turned up.
We got along. As a rule I spent weekdays in the library and came to my closet late. I felt peaceful and comfortable. I was not worried about having to pay the thirty-ruble rent in advance. I could finally get around to my urgent business: making up an application for a patent. This was my Inventor Period.
According to Ksenia, her son-in-law had an important job in Tyumen. “Three years he’s been there. They gave him a huuuge apartment – three rooms. Tanya went to visit.”
“Why don’t you move there,” I asked, “instead of crowding here in one room?”
“Who’d wanna do that?”
“How’s that?” I knew what this was about, but I wanted to hear it from her.
“You lose Moscow registration that way.”
“So?” I egged her on.
“Can’t it get back. Me, I don’t really need it. This is for Natasha.”
“What does she need it for?”
“She’ll meet a cultured person. An educated one. In the country, it’s nothing but drunks.”
A week after I moved in, they started preparations for the birthday celebration. The main thing was to get enough food and drink. First came the booze in the form of a few cases of vodka. Then the chasers: pickles, pickled tomatoes, sauerkraut, and marinated mushrooms. Everything was purchased in untold amounts, which took its toll on storage space. I had to shrink my living arrangements. Then came the hors d’oeuvres, stored on the balcony, which was also used for the cakes and pies and pierogis baked by Grandma Ksenia. Interestingly, all of this cost a lot more than my rent could bring in.
On the day of the birthday celebration, the room was turned into a banquet hall, which meant pushing aside most of the furniture and moving the rest to the neighbors’. The tiny kitchen table combined with sawhorses and a few boards served as a table the size of the room. Other boards were placed on the chairs, making quite comfortable benches.
The gala was attended by twenty-five guests, including Marina (who had visited me a few times and won the landlady’s approval) and a few of my schoolmates (invited to bring up the men’s contingent). Among the others, five were Natasha’s schoolfriends, and six came from her mother Tatiana’s office, headed by her supervisor and his wife. The rest were invited from next door.
As usual, we started by toasting and imbibing – lightly. That is, we were mostly drinking vodka out of seven-ounce glasses. Then came the dancing, which meant taking apart the bench and move the table closer to the couch. We danced the tango, fox trot, and waltz to the record player.
“You watch, Natasha,” Grandma murmured, pointing at Marina; “you watch how them learned ones dance.”
One of my friends picked up a guitar and sang a few popular songs, with others singing along. Then came more toasting and drinking. And then, “heated up,” the guests really moved to cut a rug, which was something fast and rowdy, combining Ukrainian and Georgian dancing. This was accompanied by more toasting, without rhyme or reason, heeded by few. That segued into more drinking as the guests started falling into groups. Some settled on the couch and sang; others danced more.
In the chaos everything forgot about hot food, to say nothing of dessert, since Grandma Ksenia, who was in charge of the above, became smashed after a few glasses, just as the “ethnic” dancing started.
I don’t know exactly how the fight started. I stepped out on the landing to take some fresh air. I went back in when I heard the sound of the shattered mirror in the hall.
What happened was what I had least expected. Even by Russian standards we had more than enough booze. Twenty bottles of vodka alone, plus brandy and port. It took its toll. What seemed in the beginning like a well-behaved crowd transformed into a raging mob. A fellow worker of Tatiana’s attacked a neighbor with a chair. Others tried to break them apart, but another guest banged him on the back of the head with the guitar. The victim’s wife grabbed the offender by his hair.
The rest was hard to see through a wall of cigarette smoke, or hear against the background of the record playing at full volume and everybody yelling at the same time. The schoolgirls tried to sneak out of the room. An old neighbor grabbed a chair to hit someone and missed, with the chair landing on the record player. En route the chair caught the chandelier, and the food on the table became covered with fine dust of broken glass. This damage made the room quieter and darker. My friends managed to drag Natasha’s frightened girlfriends outside.
At the same time Tatiana sat in the corner, watching the scene with horror, her face increasingly pale. Eventually, she had to be laid out on the couch, and someone called the ambulance. It turned out she was having a heart attack…
A week passed. The apartment was still a disaster site. Grandma Ksenia turned out to be a chronic alcoholic. Left without her daughter’s supervision, she was constantly “sampling” little stashes of vodka hidden all over the house, and gradually got out of control. Natasha and I found some of the stashes and took them to the neighbors’.
Right now, she has awakened and has been cursing nonstop. I’m trying to focus on my work. It is Sunday, and I need to get ready for tomorrow’s meeting with an expert from the Invention Committee.
Yet Ksenia is getting worse. Now she is addressing me in an almost sober voice: “You educated ones… you can’t give a break to an old woman… Why don’t you say something, eh?” She breaks into weeping. “Tanya, my baby, my darling baby doll – “
Now she changes tack. “I’m an utter drunk, this is what I am,” she declares in a steady voice. “But if we had any kinda order in the house – ”
Suddenly, a crash and a horrifying holler. Turns out she had got up from the couch and, aiming to stay upright, grabbed the curtain, which collapsed on the floor with the curtain rod.
As I try to get Grandma from under the curtain, I realize her head is bleeding. Afraid for her, I head for the kitchen. There is no refrigerator and no ice, but I find a rag and put it in cold water. Just as I am to wring it, Grandma Ksenia emerges behind me, her head bleeding profusely.
“You got what you wanted, you bastard!” With these mysterious words – what kind of nightmare was she having – Ksenia collapses again, this time through the open door on the concrete landing floor.
The neighbors rush out for the noise. I push them aside to behold a gruesome tableau. En route to the floor, Ksenia must have hit the metal banister, too, and her face is smashed. Her grey tousled hair is splattered with blood, which forms a puddle next to her head.
The momentary silence is broken by Grandma opening her dulled eyes, which circle the landing, as if looking for someone. Then, in a barely audible, yet clear voice, she declares: “The Jew killed me,” and goes unconscious.
Translated, from Russian, by David Gurevich.
First published in the Ducts magazine, Winter 2007 issue