Let me tell you about life in our new Russia. More to the point, let me tell you about death.
You may not believe that sometimes it is more trouble to die in my country than to live, but that is the situation. On those soul-wrenching occasions when my friends suffer losses and desire that their departed be made one with the ground before crows have time to pick the bones white, they seek my assistance. My friends imagine me to be the master of bureaucrats, and, true, often I can compel those devils into fulfilling my personal plans. But this necessitates descending into their abyss while remaining unmuddied by their touch–not an amateur’s task, or even one for those adept at time-honored methods of conniving. That is why in their mourning my friends ask me to tangle with moldy upholders of the state. My twenty-five years’ experience in the party does not go for naught.
(Of course most of us with such experience have found, in these late days, that our talents are applicable in an unexpected wealth of fields.)
Some time ago I helped my friend Yury Slavkin bury his father, who in an exuberant mood four days ago attempted to climb atop a bus while it moved down Prospekt Mir. Yury asked if I could help. “Yury Ilyich,” I assured him, “I will handle everything.”
“Will it be done as I wish?”
“It will be done.”
“Thank you, Max.”
Ah, yes, my name: Maxim Alexeich Borodin. But please, call me Max. My friends call me Max. I have many friends.
“He is to be buried or cremated?” I asked Yury.
“Which is cheaper?”
“That will be fine.”
It pleased me to hear this. Both are hard, burial is harder. The first funeral for which I provided assistance was my brother-in-law’s.
It took three days and thousands of rubles to get his corpse to the cemetery. Then the gravediggers swore that an enormous stone prevented interment. “A very large boulder, but very dark. Hard to see from here,” they told me as we stood peering down from the lip of the grave into blackness. “It can’t be moved?” I asked. One lout shook his head. The other announced that perhaps with superhuman effort the rock could be shifted a few essential centimeters. I handed them five hundred rubles–so reasonable now, so outrageous then!–and, remarkably, the boulder disappeared. “Perhaps it sank deeper into the soft ground,” they had explained, taking up their shovels and humming sorrowful dirges to themselves, in keeping with the somber mood of the ceremony.
“How much will it cost?” Yury asked that day.
“Let me settle accounts directly. We will work out these minor arrangements later.”
“You are my good friend, Max.”
The next morning I left my fine apartment off Tverskaya Street and went outside. There I met my young friend Sasha, who lives in my building. For evening deliveries, I entrust my missions to more worldly messengers, but for daytime excursions a boy will do. “How’s your mother?” I asked, giving him the twenty-dollar bill he required for his services. He wrapped it around a thick roll of candy wrappers–rubles, that is to say–and hastily shoved his wealth into his already-stuffed pocket.
“Excellent,” I said, handing him the envelope I needed him to deliver. ‘see Vladislav as always.”
He ran to the street. Sasha’s mother was once a censor at Vremya, but her position has since been eliminated. My wife, Tanya, tells me she now watches Mexican novellas and Twin Peaks on TV all day while drinking. I believe his father, who was previously in the Ministry of Defense, is at present traveling between Vienna and Berlin, offering for sale bottles of a substance he professes to be red mercury to agents of countries whose names seem little more than the excreta of a romantic imagination. Sasha has not gone to school for over a year. He is too busy learning the techniques of businessmen. His nine-millimeter Beretta is always clean and freshly oiled. Sasha tells me his young friends call him Rambo, but I prefer not to taint his soul with grandiose notions and so call him Sashenka, as I have always done.
I drove my Mercedes to First City Hospital, where Yury waited, rubbing his hands together to warm them. He stood near a row of kiosks huddled together like thieves. On the side of one kiosk a lover of Bulgakov had copied the statement of Woland: WE’ll OPEN A WOMEN’s SHOP. The proprietors sold all manner of poshlaia–that is to say, the lint that collects in society’s navel: stale candy bars, flasks of cheap perfume, astrological medallions wrought of metal resembling pewter, stuffed bears with dead eyes, flat beer, Estonian pornography, liquid soap in bottles stickered with Donald Duck labels, and stacks of blank tape. Every stall had customers queueing up to make transactions, though most walked away only with vodka or cigarettes. There were many loiterers close by who would have spent money freely, if they had money, and others, more hard-bitten, who undoubtedly wished for a torch with which to set all capitalists alight. So many ingrates fail to appreciate the buffet of opportunities history has set before them in these miraculous days. If they opened their eyes, they would see that our Russia is the land of opportunity.
After parking and locking my car I removed the windshield wipers, the side-view mirrors, and the hood ornament and stored them in the trunk, out of reach of passing hooligans. I crossed the street to meet Yury. There was no underpass; it took me many minutes before I could move safely against the flow of traffic. It seems everyone in Moscow with a car spends all day driving back and forth around the Garden Ring so that they cannot stop long enough to have their car stolen.
Flying faster than the traffic when I finally made my run, I nearly collided with an old grandmother as I reached the opposite curb. She stood before the kiosks, shouting at their proprietors. “Go sell your Snickers elsewhere!” She raised a knotted fist. “Wreckers! Malefactors!” Granny wore wrapped around her neck a length of hairy wool upon which she had pinned a portrait of Stalin. His demon eyes and cockroach whiskers are everywhere again, for the faithful never lose hope in their messiahs. I remember being taken by my parents to see the Great Father, the Generalissimo, the Administrator of Abrupt Truths in his coffin, enjoying undeserved peace. Even in my small boy’s innocence I thought it a good thing that he was there.
Be assured that I am no idolizer of an idyllic past; yet to revel in nostalgia while recalling pleasurable moments sometimes does the most rational heart good. Would that all little Stalins in our country lie so still.
Yury and I embraced. His face was gray with cold and sorrow. “I’m sorry for my lateness,” I told him. “The traffic.”
“Corrupters of our people!” the old woman shouted, popping up behind us as she circled one of the kiosks. “Jews! Americans!”
“Go hang yourself, grandma,” the entrepreneur shouted back. “Feed your dogs!” She tottered off, hunching her shoulders and muttering.
“Will the funeral be possible?” Yury asked. “Everyone is ready to go to the cemetery, once I call.”
“You have your documents ready?”
He handed me a thick sheaf. I perused them quickly, assuring myself that he had filled in what needed filling and obtained stamps for what needed stamping. Even today, especially today, there is nothing so essential in Russia as documents; they are as precious as dollars, and some are worth even more. Had Yury required papers of a less specialized nature, I could have had my staff produce what he needed, but the documents that command the admiration of funerary bureaucrats are not the ones my company is best at turning out.
“Let us go, then, and face the hydra,” I said to Yury, and we walked toward the entrance, passing an old man being carried in on a stretcher by two thuggish bearers. Hearing a groan and a thud, we looked behind us. Possibly the attendants had glimpsed something in a kiosk that drew their attention and misstepped. Maybe they were just drunk and lost their grip on the handles. Whatever happened, the old man lay on the concrete, holding his side. They shoved his carcass back onto the stretcher and tried to calm him down.
“It happens,” they told him.
To enter First City Hospital is to suspect that one has entered a circle of Dante’s hell about which the poet neglected to write, not for the horrors’ being so indescribable but for their being so banal. In our world, one expects Satan to be nothing more than a thick-necked oaf overseeing the production of rivets in a distant oblast.
“You’ve had diphtheria shots?” I asked Yury as we walked by several small, wizened girls sitting on the floor, clutching at our trouser legs as we passed.
“This week my clinic has needles but no vaccine. Last week, no needles.”
‘don’t worry. I will arrange for you to be taken care of at my clinic.”
Hundreds of sufferers sat in the gloomy rooms, sneezing and coughing and spraying their fluids like showers of rain. Some of the afflicted held lengths of sausage, hoping to trade them for medical care. Orderlies carried sheets that were no less gray for having possibly once been washed. Hospital workers pasted up signs proclaiming that warm socks would be given out to those willing to donate blood. People who brought more personal samples in coffee jars and vodka bottles sat waiting to have them tested. Members of the formerly cultivated classes stretched out on the floor, taking their naps on the only bed to which they had access. Nothing about the facility resembled the Kremlin Hospital, certainly, which remains in service to treat our bigwigs when they fall prey to dyspeptic attack, gonorrhea, or discover after long benders that the green snake has entwined itself around them. But who is to argue with that? Without the persistent and devoted efforts of our leaders, how might the medical care of the people one day be made thrice more magnificent than it is at present?
My God! Forgive such outbursts. Rhetoric comes as easily as breathing, still.
We reached our destination. On the door of the Pathology Department was this sign, hastily scrawled in purple marker:
CORPSES AVAILABLE ONLY ON RECEIPT OF DEATH CERTIFICATE AND RESIDENCE PERMIT
We walked into the grim quarters and I confronted the young woman who lazed behind her desk, perusing an astrological guide. “I wish to see the Director regarding the approval of the burial of my friend’s father,” I told her. “Where is her office?”
“You’re in the wrong place,” she said, devoting her full attention once more to the procession of planets through her house.
“This is the Pathology Department?” She nodded, slowly, as if trying to remember. “Then where is the Director of the department?”
“I haven’t time to be bothered with your questions,” she said. Such stalling by those appointed to assist the people is easily dealt with. I drew my hand from my pocket, and a ten-dollar bill fluttered featherlike onto her desk. Her eyes moistened at the sight.
“If you could answer one question,” I said, watching as she quickly cleared the surface of her work space.
“Where may I find the Director of this department?”
“Office Forty-two,” she said. ‘down the hall and on the right. I wouldn’t be surprised if she refused to see you.”
“I’ll treasure your words,” I said, and, grasping Yury’s arm, dragged him along with me. We trod unwashed floors carpeted with dust. Lining the corridors were numberless beds upon which the stricken lay, awaiting the attentions of doctors who were busy elsewhere. Some few of the suffering heartened as they noticed us, perhaps in their delirium imagining that we were en route to relieve their misery. Most knew better and watched us walk by.
When we reached Office 42 I knocked, at the same time entering before defenders within could have a chance to lock the door against us. The Director’s secretary was nowhere to be seen. The Director of the Pathology Department, a barrel of a woman who would have resembled Beria, had Beria worn flowered dresses, sat chatting on one of her three telephones. In Russia, as in the Soviet Union–some difference!–a bureaucrat’s status can at once be gleaned by the number of telephones on the desk, and so I knew immediately that she was not as important as she wished the world to think. In my long experience, the official who rebuffed me most effectively had been a cadaverous shadow in the Ministry of Agriculture who had fourteen telephones. Fewer than half were connected, but that made no difference.
The Director was relating a series of bad jokes to her communicant. I rapped my ring against her desk so she could no longer pretend to not notice us. On the wall behind her still hung a portrait of Lenin. Inferring therefrom that she might prove difficult, I steeled myself. A rayon banner tacked up beneath the portrait proclaimed that her department had won first prize for Socialist Competition. I hesitated to wonder what the criteria might have been.
At last she finished her conversation. “Why are you here?” she asked us.
“We need you to approve a corpse for burial,” I said, handing her Yury’s documents. “The funeral is scheduled for this afternoon.”
She glanced at the documents and then dropped them onto the desk, as if their touch burned her fingers. “Impossible. If you insist on having your funeral today, it will be held without the deceased.”
“What would be the purpose in that?”
“It doesn’t concern me,” she said. “Correct your documents and then come back. He is not going anywhere in the meantime.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The death certificate is not filled out properly. You must have it redone.”
“Everything is in order as it should be. Read it more carefully.”
“I haven’t time,” she said. Yury appeared terribly upset, but not to the point where he would say anything unforgivable. “Why are you still standing here?”
“Let’s discuss this like two rational people. My friend’s father must have his funeral, and I am here to see that he gets it. Is it not apparent that we should work something out?”
“There is no way I can possibly help you,” she said. Then, allowing herself a moment’s distraction, she turned her glare to my winter wraps. “What business of yours enables you to afford such beautiful garments?”
“Evidently. Is that an Armani coat?” she asked, reaching across the desk and rubbing the fine camel hair. “You are a merchandiser of some sort?”
“I have access,” I told her, and her hungry look assured me that eventually I would get my way. “Enough of fashion. Time is short.”
“Isn’t everyone’s?” she asked. ‘don’t be so sharp with me. Who do you think you are? Go back to Israel and bother your own kind.”
“As a Muscovite I am already with my kind, and I request your assistance with my problem. What do you say?”
“Your wealth is driving you mad,” she told me, but already I was molding her as if she were clay. “Look, I am very busy with my work. I’ve given you more time than you deserve.”
“A little more is all I ask,” I said, and then changed the subject to one that would allow access to a broader avenue of discussion. ‘my, it’s cold in here. You must find it hard to do your work in such conditions.”
“They don’t care about us. Not anymore.” The Director glanced out her window at the enshrouding clouds. “It promises to be a hard winter, I think.”
“Very cold,” I said. “Every precaution should be taken.”
“On my salary there is nothing to be done. My husband likes to put on fat for the winter, and I can barely feed him these days. What can I do? I work for the benefit of the people.”
“I can see you are giving your life for the benefit of the people.”
Yury said nothing while I conversed with the Director; I had told him to allow me to do the talking and not intrude, and he followed my directions without question.
“Look at my coat hanging there,” she said, sneering. “Twenty years old.”
“Time for a new one.”
“Any coat would do, but the better, the warmer.”
For a meaningful moment we looked in each other’s eyes as lovers might, though certainly we were not in love. “I understand,” I said. ‘so what about getting approval for the burial? We are supposed to be at the crematorium in less than three hours, and we will still be here next year at this rate.”
“Be quiet or I cannot devote to your case the attention it needs,” she said, studying the death certificate once again. The Director shook her head as she read the words, and made tcching sounds with her tongue. “This is a most suspicious death. How did the deceased sustain the fatal injury?”
“Mr. Slavkin was attempting to board a bus, and the door closed before he could get in. He was a temperamental man. It angered him that the driver ignored his pleas. He tried to climb onto the back of the bus. When it pulled away, he lost his balance and fell beneath the wheels. Very sad.”
“I suppose alcohol was involved?”
“It might have been.”
“He’s learned his lesson,” the Director said, stamping the certificate. “Where is the burial to be?”
“Nicholas Archangel, in Reutov.”
“A lovely site. Very peaceful.” She handed me Yury’s documents and one of her own, which she speedily stamped and signed. I gave her my card, and she rubbed her fingers over the engraved words.
“Call that number tomorrow,” I told her. ‘my associates will be pleased to assist you with your needs.”
“Thank you, comrade,” she said, blushing.
“What are friends for?” I replied, and smiled. “Where should we go, then?”
“Ground level, Office Twenty-nine,” the Director said. “Present the certificate to obtain release.”
“Thank you, madam,” I said, and we took our leave. The next morning the worthy Director would call my associates, and they would see that she received a new winter coat. I made a note to myself to ask Arteim to supply her with some sausage as well, or a canned Polish ham, so her husband might more rapidly lay on his own winter padding. It is not difficult to deal with bureaucrats as long as there is something they need, and who doesn’t need something? I have plenty, so why should she not share in my bounty? In America I understand this is called trickle-down, that what falls from my chin drops into the mouths of the deserving poor, who are then all the more eager to please me in return. In Russia, perhaps we could call it communism.
Yury embraced me as we made our way to the ground floor. “You had her eating from your hand,” he said. “Thank you, Max.”
“Your father is not in the crypt yet,” I reminded him as we came to the Receiving Department. “But he’ll be there before the day is out. Here we are. Do you want to come along?”
“I’ll meet you outside. I want to remember him as he was, not as he is now.”
As Yury departed I stepped into the Receiving Department’s antechamber. A young man sat behind the desk, eyeing photos of naked women in a magazine. He was so entranced by their pink delights that even after I rapped several times against his desk he couldn’t bring himself to tear his eyes away. “Excuse me,” I said, and said again, but he was deaf to my words. Finally I dropped the documents onto the open pages of his journal, shielding him from the leer of Miss Budapest.
“Are you blinded by breasts?” I asked. ‘don’t you see me standing here before you?”
“I’m waiting for a call,” he told me. “I can’t be bothered now.”
“You have my documents, which are in order. I wish to inspect the deceased before the hearse arrives. Please take me to him.”
“I don’t see how I can.” Much has changed in our country, but something that hasn’t changed is what we call nonobtrusive Russian service. It is not precisely the same as it was; heretofore we called it nonobtrusive Soviet service. It is believed, especially by Westerners, that Russians love to be told what to do, but this is not exactly the case. In truth my countrymen love being told what to do only so that they may then try to do the opposite. Whether this is because we are so spoiled as children, and thus used to acting as badly as we can get away with, or because we secretly relish the beatings we receive once we are caught misbehaving, I cannot say. But if you want something from a Russian, as from your children, come prepared to beat or beg, depending on what you want and how badly you want it.
“You cannot try to see your way to clearing my path?”
“Nichevo,” he said, untranslatable but here meaning he could try, although of course it would be useless and so what would be the point? I tossed a twenty into his steamy lap.
“This way,” he said, stamping the form. He led me through a door into a much larger, colder room, where plain wooden containers rested on carts aligned in rows. Several aged attendants, whiling away their own final hours in energetic debate, seemed not at all startled by the sudden appearance of the living in their midst. “Here he is,” the young man said, and gestured to a grizzled old gasper to remove the lid of a nearby box for us. With no small effort, he did. Perhaps it would seem appropriate to use emotional phrases, but the bare facts themselves are colorful enough. Looking inside the box, I saw an elderly woman lying in peace.
“There is something not entirely right here,” I told the young man of the department.
“What is your problem? We did all for him we could.”
“A change of sex was not requested, I assure you.”
He looked at me as if I were raving mad and for an instant appeared regretful that he hadn’t chosen to arm himself before attending to me. After his initial shock passed he walked to the casket and turned his gaze within. He masterfully contained his surprise. He reexamined the death certificate, closely studying its words before making his pronouncement. “This is not Mr. Slavkin.”
“I didn’t think so, but I thought I should get confirmation. Where is Mr. Slavkin?”
The young man studied the long lines of identical boxes and threw up his hands. Confronting the ancient Bolshevik, he shouted, “How could such an error be made?”
The veteran shrugged and toyed with the armor of his medals. “Nichevo. These weeds do not grow in my garden.”
“We are looking for Number Seventy-eight. Find him at once.” The old ones and their young master started moving from casket to casket, lifting the lids and examining each inhabitant. It should go without saying that Mr. Slavkin was not uncovered until the penultimate casket was reached, twenty minutes later.
“There we are,” the young man said. I looked down, taking satisfaction, seeing Mr. Slavkin where he was supposed to be. He looked no less cheerful in death than he had in life. Knots of black thread held his head in the proper position. I motioned to the fools that they should shut him away and then waited until every nail was driven into the lid anew before leaving, to be sure that at least something would be properly done. I suppose I should have been glad that they hadn’t lost Mr. Slavkin, as my son had been lost at this very hospital ten years ago. At the time the attendants agreed that he shouldn’t have been able to get up and walk away by himself, but, they suggested, that must have been what he’d done. To this day I know not where my son ultimately wandered. Sometimes when I board the Metro’s circle line my thoughts turn to him, and I imagine that perhaps he is on the same train with me, but in a different car, a special one set aside for those compelled to forever miss their stop, those who in their absence are most sorely at hand. Nichevo.
First class or rough class, we always reach the boneyard. Yury, in his clanking Laika, drove his mother and sisters to Nicholas Archangel. His brother was sobered up and dropped off at the entrance gate by army companions. Mr. Slavkin’s trade union representative was hauled to the crematorium by his driver, whom he had been lucky or willful enough to retain. Some of the other mourners came by public bus; a few even got there in time for the funeral. In our country corpses ride in yellow hearses, and that was how Slavkin arrived. In muddier months, the color of death’s perambulator is more reminiscent of manure than of the sun, but that seems most appropriate to the earthy nature of its purpose.
I drove to the cemetery alone, trying to steer around the craters in the pavement but hitting them as regularly as I missed them. Many of our roads were last repaired by the Nazis, and aching tailbones are inevitably suffered on even the shortest trips in the best cars. In the lanes leading back to Moscow I counted dozens of old army trucks commandeering the highway as if in the wake of an invasion. Canny importers striving to ship their bounty to market sometimes purchase but more often borrow–steal is perhaps the most exact word–the trucks, reconverting them for civilian if not necessarily pacific purpose. Beneath each green tarpaulin I could without difficulty visualize a regiment’s supply of Kalashnikov rifles, rich furs plundered from eastern shores, copper pipe extracted from government facilities, shiny plastic bags bulging with heroin, all to be traded for whatever their expropriators desired. Smaller vehicles were often run off the road by these caravans of monsters, so great was their speed, but I wasn’t concerned.
As I sped along I reveled in the sights of the season, although unlike most of my countrymen I have slight fondness for nature. A birch forest stripped of leaves reminds me only of an aging colonel’s bad haircut. Windy, empty plains give my soul shivers, the squawks of ravens haunt my dreams, and a bubbling creek never affects my heart so much as my bladder. Still, there is a peace I draw from the dead dawn of the year that satisfies me beyond understanding. While our enchanted land lies slumbering beneath winter’s gray sheet, it is easier to forget how repeatedly she has been bruised and broken at the hands of our glorious and steadfast masters, whose love for her was so blinding that they could not help but rape her.
When I reached the cemetery there was already a long queue of hearses waiting to make their deposits at the crematorium. The establishment had been recently privatized, I’d discovered, and the proprietors wasted no time in putting up advertising. The sign on the encompassing fence assured potential customers that THERE IS NO BURIAL MORE DELIGHTFUL THAN IN A BRIGHT CREMATORIUM. Other signboards pictured happy families made all the happier by the efficacious disposal of their departed. I was not surprised to see a notice that cash, vouchers, and all major credit cards could be applied toward payment. As I got out of my car I breathed in a familiar smell, acrid and sweet, which overpowered the fragrant miasmas that generally perfume our air. My eyes watered, stung by greasy cinders. Black smoke erupted from the Glow of Life Columbarium’s tall chimney, smoke much heavier than the atmosphere into which it issued. Near the line of hearses was a line of mourners awaiting entry. Each time the wind shifted and the smoke settled earthward, women fainted, aspiring another’s beloved.
At the front of the line I saw Yury, who stood stoic amid his sobbing mother and sisters. His brother slouched against the wall, rubbing his head, as if he more deeply regretted the evening before than he did the loss of his parent. Slavkin’s friends, and in particular his trade union representative, a well-upholstered bastard whose neck was broader than the space between his ears, appeared no more disturbed by the wait than if they were queueing up to obtain tubes of Sputnik toothpaste. As I studied the gloomy masks in the midst of the party, I was startled by a familiar smile. Its appearance was not hallucinatory. I was heartened but shocked and thought it best not to rush to her at once.
“Everyone is here?” I asked Yury, brushing ash from my coat.
“Some of these people I don’t know. They must have known Father.”
“Some of them know me, I think,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. The smile lingered. A woman in a gray uniform, who looked to have eaten one too many delicious lemons, emerged from the doorway to call out the names of those newly approved to enter.
“Verlotsky. Slavkin. Osipova. Be quick about it!” she shouted. It is easier to quit smoking cigarettes than it is to quit providing nonobtrusive service.
“After the ceremony, we shall take care of final arrangements,” I told Yury. “Take your seats. I will be along shortly. Save two for me.”
“I see a friend,” I said, pointing toward Sonya’s smile. “Come to join us in mourning, I’m sure.”
He nodded and passed through the antechamber. Yury had never met her before. Except for my office employees, few of my friends had met Sonya, excepting her husband Dmitry. Before you make uninformed moral judgments, I should state firmly that he was not a friend in the closest sense, but rather a businessman with whom I had not yet found it necessary to work. Entering the building, I paused to examine a shoddy model of a new improved columbarium scheduled to be constructed in coming years. Then she and I drew together, iron to magnet.
“Come, my stalwart,” she said.
“Koshka, why are you here?” Cat, I called her, for the way she stretched and purred and nuzzled against me when she craved milk. She had her own names for me, but I don’t think it politic to relate this intimate information. It annoyed me that she had come, for on that afternoon my responsibilities to Yury outweighed all others. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted to see her.
“To pay my respects,” she said, pressing against me, thrusting a hand into my coat, standing on tiptoes to kiss me. Her tongue slid through my mouth as if she were licking butter from a knife. Before stepping back she took my lower lip between her teeth, nipping gently but effectively. “Why did you come here without me? You knew I’d want to share your grief.”
“Not my grief, the grief of a friend,” I told her, pushing away her hand. “I see you’re overcome.”
At once I regretted my brusqueness, but circumstances demanded that I be severe. Sonya looked at me with the eyes of a motherless calf, assuming correctly that I would melt like ice. The stares of others standing close by were not nearly so endearing. “Why are you so cruel to me?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said, holding her hands so that I could know her touch while preventing her from making inappropriate gestures. She smiled. Sonya has perfect white teeth; I think she has more of them than anyone in Russia. As she doffed her fur hat, her hair cascaded to her shoulders in a golden waterfall. “How lusty can you be in a crematorium?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said. As I let go of her hands, she reapplied them to my waist and even farther below.
“Not here,” I said, stepping back, almost knocking down a feeble old pensioner who’d not yet climbed the chimney. Sonya laughed and winked a green eye at me. Our affair awoke with slow-warming spring and hadn’t died with the year; it only burned hotter, as if summer came and neglected to go. Neither my wife, Tanya, nor Sonya’s husband, Dmitry, knew of our carousing, and as each week passed it became more essential, in my opinion, that our secret history remain so. “I must be with my friend now. Come with me and behave.”
“What are you doing after the funeral?”
“Going home,” I said. She unbuttoned her coat so I could take note of her short skirt and long legs. “Perhaps not immediately.”
“Perhaps not.” Sonya, dear girl, is half my age. Sometimes I fear that when my turn comes to board the yellow wagon, it will carry nothing but a dry, empty husk. Such youthful, energetic girls as Sonya are dangerous, even when they aren’t married, and can be the death of old goats such as her husband–a glorious and inspirational death, to be sure. Since she redirected her energies toward me, however, I am sorry to say he recovered almost preternatural health. They’d married when she was fresh from Moscow University and he held a mid-level position in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Now his business is business, and he does well, I gather, though possibly not as well as I. Sonya realized this at once when we met; she is an intelligent girl. Her marks at school were always high, and there were no studies at which she excelled more naturally than those relating to class structure.
“Come now,” I said. “It will not be long.”
Arm in arm, we crossed the room. The old woman in charge of the checkroom signaled that we should give her our coats but I ignored her; how could I know I would ever see them again? She eyed us as if desiring that we should be the ones whom our friends came to honor. We entered the room in which Yury’s party waited and were greeted by an attendant, a fierce young man with blue tattoos of skulls on his fingers. However appropriate his personal artwork might have been to his present position, I was certain he had been decorated during a stay in one of our nation’s commodious prisons and wondered what other masterpieces lay beneath his gray uniform. On the sleeves of his outfit were red and black designs symbolizing flame, and pinned to the front was a metal badge stamped with a similar emblem.
“Need help?” he shouted, giving us a rusty smirk. He must have devoted intense study to codes of etiquette while serving out his state-expropriated time.
“We are here to join our party,” I told him, but he remained where he stood, blocking our path. “Will you excuse us?”
“All seats taken,” he said, his Yakut accent heavy. “Ceremony soon.”
“I see our two seats from here,” I said. “Let me by, please.”
“Full up. Nichevo.” I gave him a ten, and he weakened. I gave him another and he collapsed.
Sonya and I took seats next to Yury, in the front row. No sooner did I sit down than a crack in the chair’s wood pinched my skin. Sonya held a hand over her mouth, stifling her laughter, and I shifted the tail of my coat beneath me.
A woman, appearing no less charming than the one who had allowed us entry into the facility, walked to the front of the room. “Ten minutes for final farewells,” she bellowed, her expression warm with undying affection for the people, and stomped away.
Mr. Slavkin’s trade union representative waddled to the front of the room, standing before the casket and preparing himself to deliver his soul-captivating words. Holding in his hand two pieces of paper, one letter-sized and the other no more than scrap, he started reading from the former.
“Honored friends, relatives, and co-workers of the dearly departed–” He shifted glittering pig’s eyes to his bit of toilet tissue and read, “Georgi Mikhailovich Slubkin.”
‘slavkin!” many of us in the audience cried out. The representative frowned at having been interrupted and continued to read from the larger page, squinting as he rushed through the hollow phrases.
“Always he exerted persistent efforts in the firm support of his comrades. We salute and admire the spirit, discipline, and organization he unswervingly demonstrated–”
He talked as if to blow down the Kremlin; who knew how much wind he might hold? As he droned on, I studied the room. A mud-brown nylon curtain hung behind the catafalque. On either side of the casket, two plastic baskets of day-old flowers stood atop plaster columns. Posters from the 1980 Olympics and swimwear calendars from Thailand papered the other walls, and so Mischa the Olympic Bear and Bangkok bikini girls could also freely participate in all mourning rituals. Most likely the posters were hiding hammers and sickles, the lingering spoor of previous administrators. A metal pan in a rear corner of the room caught a steady drip from the ceiling.
” –unlimitedly” –splurp–’devoted” –splurp–”to our Motherland” –splurp.
Sonya’s attention also wandered. Slipping her hand into my coat pocket, she sought out and located the hole she had previously torn through the skin-soft silk. She eased her hand snakelike through the opening and rested it on my leg. I drew my coat close around me so that her movements might go undetected, aghast at her lascivious burrowings but unable to stop her without attracting attention to what others should best ignore. With subtle if not wholly funereal movements, she discovered her prize. Sonya gazed soulfully at the casket and at the representative as he huffed and puffed, revealing nothing to indicate that her thoughts were anywhere other than with the deceased. Certainly her gentle motions did not prevent me from paying any less attention to the eulogist’s poignant phrases than I might have wished.
“His turbulent waters,” he concluded, “have been forever checked by concrete. When we are asked what a worker should be, always let us warmheartedly picture in our minds the figure of Georgi Mikhailovich Stumkin!”
His victorious conclusion should have been great cause for rejoicing. But ours was a jaded cadre, and our stillness rose only to a thunderous silence, broken by the growling of stomachs. Sonya withdrew her hand, sighing sadly. When I turned harsh eyes her way, wishing to inspire within her the desire–yes, the compulsion–to repent, she smiled. I have never known Sonya to ask forgiveness for her crimes; she sleeps contentedly with guilt. Yury cursed beneath his breath as he watched the workers’ counselor depart. I patted his arm as he stood up. Walking to the casket, taking a suitable stance before it, he closed his eyes and intoned a quick, silent prayer. He lifted his head to look at us before speaking.
“Friends,” he began, but almost at the instant he started talking, the frenzied pumpings of an unseen organist drowned out his words. The musician was so fat-fingered that we could not tell if the tune was dirge or disco. Yury’s face reddened, and with the rest of us he looked around to see if the offender’s physical presence could be detected, to no avail. Raising his voice, he attempted to shout the words he had written for his father over the circus melody. It was useless; we couldn’t hear anything he said, and he gave up.
Finally, the noise stopped. Yury took a deep breath before making his long-delayed statement. Without warning, the woman attendant burst into the room, throwing open the doors as if to proclaim that the Czar had fallen. Four underlings trailed her, pushing a cart bearing the next deportee–rather, one pushed and the three others ascertained that he performed his job correctly. “Final farewells must be concluded at this time,” she said, slapping Slavkin’s box. “Others are waiting.”
“I’ve not had the chance to speak,” Yury said.
“Your time is up,” she said, and as she did Slavkin’s casket, and the cart upon which it rested, descended through the floor. “You think this is Parliament and you can talk until you are blue in the face? Be gone.”
“That devil of an organist played through his eulogy,” I said, walking over. “We asked for no music, not that you could call it that.”
“According to documents presented, standard threnodies were requested. Others are waiting. Who are you to delay them? Take your party and go.”
Had she been alone we might have worked out something between us and wheeled Slavkin back in. But her attendants were so muscular they could not have clasped their hands behind their broad backs, and I knew if Yury lost his temper and struck out (as he appeared ever more willing to do), we would not last a minute against them. Plainly a prison cabal of brigands had, upon release, evidently effected a takeover of this operation to serve their purposes; for these attendants, too, bore tattoos of penal provenance on their knobby hands and scarred faces. Such vipers could give a nasty bite. Were we to protest too loudly they would without hesitation be happy to rifle our wallets at their leisure while delivering us to our own unscheduled appointment with the oven king.
“We’d have brought our own cats to skin if we wanted noise, I can assure you,” I said. “This is quite unsatisfactory.”
“Nichevo. Do we run our business solely for your benefit?” she asked. The hidden elevator in the floor reascended, empty, and her assistants rolled the next cart into place. “Be on your way.”
“We may make final arrangements where?” I asked.
“Pick up ashes in Retrieval Room first,” she said. “Go there now.”
“Ashes?” In traditional cemetery praxis, not until several hours following the ceremony are the ashes picked up and properly deposited. “He just went down.”
‘science is invading all spheres of life,” she said. “New procedures and improved methods enable us to offer customers prompt and convenient satisfaction. I’ve wasted more than enough time on you now, so go. Go!”
Yury, Sonya, and I squeezed by the next party of mourners streaming into the room. The woman and her beasts gave the new arrivals frigid stares. “Not even the Soviets were ever so contemptuous,” Yury said, safely exploding once removed from their presence. “Is nothing improved once it undergoes privatization?”
“Not immediately,” I said. ‘do you wish me to handle the final details? It could be a delicate matter.”
“Please, Max,” Yury said, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m blind with anger.”
I walked with Sonya to the Retrieval Room. Passing other attendants, I saw that each man’s visible parts were heavily tattooed. One individual had a dagger engraved on his brow, its tip dripping a stream of red down his face. “Is Yury paying you well for your assistance?” Sonya asked.
“We’ll work something out,” I told her, making certain that my pockets hadn’t been picked. Even so I was glad to have come here carrying much cash, for even before seeing the staff in their full magnificence I’d ruled out the possibility of using my American Express card. Giving these reprobates my charge number would be like offering them the keys to my house or the favors of my wife, such as they are. “He is my good friend, after all.”
“No fee in advance?” she asked. I shook my head. She always evinced her avarice in forthright terms; I appreciated that. “Then your friends should love you as much as I do.”
“How sentimental,” I said. “You enchant me.”
“That’s obvious.” She wriggled in my grasp like an eel. ‘do you think they’re all former prisoners here?”
“They’re clearly rehabilitated.”
At the entrance to the Retrieval Room I reached my limit. On the door was a sign that read:
DUE TO LACK OF URNS ASHES WILL BE DELIVERED IN POLYETHYLENE BAGS
There was a problem, of course.
“You should have brought your own suitable bags,” the woman attendant told me as we freely exchanged opinions in spirited debate. She, like the other women who worked for the crematorium, was in her autumnal years and must have practiced her glower in deepest sleep. For many years in our country, druzhinas sat on guard in each apartment building to keep watchful eyes on residents’ actions with calendar precision. Druzhinas, inevitably, had been such women as this one. It pleased me to know that the brutes who ran this establishment were making sure even these redundant old biddies might happily share in the fruits of capitalism.
“This is not a market,” I told her. “Why should we come so prepared?”
“Why do you think you should have it easy?”
“You have nothing to hold the ashes?”
She ignored the twenty I threw before her, waiting until I added its twin before applying full attention to this problem. “Possibly there is something,” she said, slipping the bills into her uniform’s breast pocket. Pulling open a drawer behind her counter, she reached into its recesses and took out a type of bag used often for carrying fruit or vegetables. “Here.”
I will always love Russia, but uncountable are the times when I wish to live in any other country. “A net bag,” I noted.
“It has many openings in its sides, yes?” She stared at the bag as if she’d not noticed. “Will the ashes not fall through?”
“The larger pieces will be secure.”
‘such as a skull or hipbone?”
“You do not appreciate our initiative and persistence?”
“Not at all.”
“It is the only bag we have,” she said, taking it and replacing it in the drawer. “I haven’t time for your impudence. You can carry the ashes in your pocket for all I care.”
It shames me to admit it, but sometimes even I lose my temper dealing with the capricious whims of those who know they cannot be ignored. Sonya stopped me before I could express my feelings too openly. “Here,” she said, taking from the confines of her purse a carefully folded carrier bag from Christian Dior. “This will do, I’d think.”
A fire lit the woman’s eyes, which not even hard currency had succeeded in kindling. With slow gestures she unfolded the bag, delighting at its classic form, paying homage to its beauty as if it were a prized icon or one of the old masters in the Pushkin Museum. I endlessly marvel at the joy the simplest Western trinket continues to produce in those too long familiar with the standard goods of Homo sovieticus. “This will do the job,” she said, and stepped through the doorway to her rear. “One moment.”
A male attendant remained behind the counter. Of all the apparent ex-prisoners who presently devoted their labor to the Glow of Life Columbarium, this one appeared most sinister. His dark features bespoke a southern origin, but he was larger than the average inhabitant of those regions; his uniform strained against his bulk. He wore a veritable gallery of artistic designs. Tattooed chains encircled his wrists. Blue spiders ascended the cords of his neck. In the center of his forehead a third eye stared onto the world, its look as warm as those of the two with which he was born. He lacked the forefinger of his left hand. Though I understood that this signifies some criminal rite of passage, I thought it more likely that he or one of his compatriots might have bitten it off in a fit of anger, or hunger.
“They have thousands of bags, probably,” I said, whispering into Sonya’s ear. The attendant watched us, saying nothing. “They’ve left him here to guard them.”
“Old bags for old ashes, so what?” she said.
“They leave you without a shred of dignity.”
‘does dignity profit?” Sonya asked, smiling. “Is it scientifically measurable?”
The woman attendant returned, holding the bag by its handles. “Your ashes,” she said. Peering inside I saw a smooth layer within, several centimeters deep. Their blackish-gray color was unflecked by white. Placing a hand on the bottom I felt not even the shadow of heat. A wild idea came to me. I perceived that these ashes were not the leavings of Mr. Slavkin at all but rather those of wood fires, or papirosi, or fine old Havana cigars.
“A remarkable process,” I said to the woman. “He was still in human form not half an hour ago.”
“A new method perfected by our wonder-working staff,” she said. “The cleansing fire is followed by a deep freeze, and here he is.”
“It barely seems possible.”
“The gifts of technology,” she said, inscribing her initials on a payment slip.
“How does such a method work?”
“I am no scientist. Details are a mystery to me,” she said. “Take this to the cashier for settlement.”
Now that our country has opened itself wide to the world, some people say that in a short time we Russians will become homogenized, that our country will become indistinguishable from any other (except indisputably larger and arguably more pathetic). Such doubters underestimate the inextinguishable spirit of their fellows. Where else but Russia could you exchange the corpse of a loved one for a sack of cigar ashes while you wait? My mind reeled with questions. What could these criminals be doing with the bodies they claimed to be cremating? Dissecting them to obtain valuable organs for resale? Constructing their own Frankenstein monsters with the spare limbs? Converting the raw meat into dog food–or sausage?
What could I do? I might suggest to my contacts in the security ministries that they should come asking questions–and they would come, and ask, and afterward slip the replies they received into their wallets to buy food for themselves or their families. I could direct my workers in more specialized fields to deliver a stern message to the proprietors–and would then be certain to receive an equally harsh response. Perhaps I should relate the plain facts to fellow businessmen–only to discover that my vicious rumors regarded one of their promising investments.
No, better to leave it be and trust that in time the crematorium keepers would suffer at the hands of the free market. It’s hard to deny that in this instance my sensibility outweighed my sentiment, but do not think me a heartless bastard. Had my late father, say, been switched for fireplace sweepings, I might have taken one of those aformentioned approaches–or maybe not; for would he have done the same for me? Nichevo.
Russia is sometimes the land of too much opportunity.
I examined the bill the woman handed me. The total cost was in dollars. You’ll not find rubles tainting the premises of privatized establishments, excepting in those stores and restaurants where their use is required by law. “Three thousand eight hundred?”
“A fair figure,” she said. “For ceremony, use of facilities, threnodies, use of crematorium and attendant services, preparation of ash, and crypt enclosure. Do you know we take all major credit cards?”
“That’s good to know,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Thank you.” She grimaced, as if confusing the expression with a smile. “Be mindful of us for all your future needs.”
Sonya and I paid the cashier. After ringing up the sale on her machine, she checked the addition on her abacus. Concluding our transaction, we walked outside. Yury and his family waited for us, standing in twilight, facing the wind. “Everything is settled?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I said, passing the bag to him as if it were a folded flag. He held it with utmost care, never looking inside. His weeping began anew, but he soon caught himself and dammed his tears. I clasped his shoulder.
“Thank you again, Max.”
“We must be going,” I said. “Anytime you need help, I will do what I can.”
We watched Yury and his family walk down the pathway to make their deposit. They had bottles of vodka with which to toast Slavkin’s soul as it set off on its final journey. The bottles clinked together in the bag Yury’s mother carried, sounding as sleigh bells.
“How did you get here?” I asked Sonya.
“Hired driver,” she said. “A militiaman in our neighborhood happy to provide services in his spare time.”
“As long as I pay him,” she said. “Perhaps I can get a ride back with you?”
We walked to the parking lot, arm in arm. There were as many hearses as before, and as many mourners. The black smoke clouded the air as it had earlier. The scent still choked; the falling flakes were as greasy. “Who do you think the smoke comes from?” Sonya asked, holding her scarf over her nose and mouth.
“Competitors?” I said; someone was burning, no question. “Who knows?”
It was good to see my car where I’d left it, and better to see it untouched. I was surprised that the proprietors hadn’t yet begun stealing their clients’ cars. After I replaced the detachable elements, we climbed in and drove away. Not far from the entrance a group of small boys, as yet untattooed, hurled mudballs at the windshields of cars stopped at the light. After effectively blinding the drivers the little bastards dashed up, waving filthy sponges, shouting, “Need clean?” I avoided them by not bothering to stop, instead pulling quickly onto the main highway that leads back to Moscow and falling into line with the great trucks of contraband.
Sonya unbuttoned her coat. Reaching down and opening her purse, she extracted a cassette player. “What would you like to hear?” No radio stays long in a Moscow car, and I’d had none installed. I hate listening to music while driving, but what did my koshka care?
‘such tired old drunken protests,” she said, laughing. ‘soviets bad, people good, drinking best of all. Who cares? Here is a much better selection.” She dredged up several tapes. ‘madonna. Nirvana. Vanilla Ice.”
“It’s all the same to me.”
Though the light was fading quickly in the car now that the sun had set, I saw her spread her legs. The briefest glimpse of her sheltered gate shook me, as she knew it would. I turned my eyes toward the road, toward the city. In early evening, from beyond the Outer Ring, the rosy glow in the sky above Moscow can make the neurasthenic fear that our great metropolis has been stormed and set aflame, but this will never be the case; we are uninvadable from without. Moscow’s residents burned down the city so that Napoleon could loot only cinders; at the height of his power they stopped Hitler in his tracks. But the most dangerous invasions are from within, and as the citizens once prostrated themselves before Stalin so they now give fealty to Madonna. Tomorrow, who knows? Who could imagine that one day our future would be as unpredictable as our past?
My koshka inserted a tape into the player. Baleful caterwauling reverberated through the car. At least Sonya is no partisan of disco, which presently is heard in more places, more often, than the unforgettable speeches of our unlamented leaders were ever heard. The naive might well believe that the noble heart of Russia throbs solely to the beat of disco in these transmutative days. Capitalism is a marvelous system, but when it comes to its contemporary artistic fruits I stand fast on the side of the Black Hundred.
“Energetic American music,” Sonya said, slapping out primitive rhythms against her knees with her hands, singing along with her favored tribesmen. “Ahnee naa yah.” At first I foolishly believed that nya was one of the words chanted by the lunatics as they made bestial love to their instruments, but that could not be–Americans never say no, even when that’s what they mean.
‘sonya, turn it down, it’s like needles in my head. What is it?”
“‘smells Like Teen Spirit,”” she said. She caressed herself between her legs and placed her fingers at my nose, so I might be mollified by her scent. ‘smells like me.” Taking my right hand off the wheel, she guided it gently into her lap. My nimble digits pushed aside her Italian lingerie and, seafaring, sank into her briny wetness. ‘devil.”
Yes, that. “Angel,” I replied. That, too.
©1996 by Jack Womack. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.