A Scorcher, Some Brewskies…How Strange, How Simple

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Translated from the Russian by Timothy West.

I

In June 1989, the worst railroad disaster in Soviet history occurred in the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic near the village of Ulu-Telyak, distance marker 1699 km, when the twins “Novosibirsk—Adler” and “Adler —Novosibirsk” passed one another just as the low-lying stretch of track had become filled with natural gas, unleashing a fiery whirlwind. The passengers would see neither Adler nor Novosibirsk.

A column of smoke rose in the shape (so fascinating, physics) of a mushroom, plainly visible for miles and forming an image familiar from newspapers and television. Believing that a nuclear war had begun, the residents of Ulu-Telyak and other villages of the Iglinsky district ran from their homes and out into the forests and roads. Sophisticated weekenders jumped into their cars and fled the incandescent night.

Oddly enough, many passengers who had been thrown from the trains survived and believed the trains had been bombed. There were soldiers among them, and these behaved professionally and held the perimeter in case of further attacks. Survivors fled to the forests where they wandered, dazed and covered in burns.

Many survived and many did not. Afterwards, bodies were removed from trees as far as a kilometer away…

What else?…The driver of the excavator that had damaged the gas line was given several years.

That’s everything, more or less.

II

“Un-be-lievable!” said Eddie.

“What is it?” His mother sat down beside him.

NTV was showing a documentary marking the tenth anniversary of the Ulu-Telyak disaster, a breather from the nonstop Pushkin jubilee coverage. Archival footage showed blackened, upturned earth—you’d think you were looking at a sand quarry, but it was an ordinary Central Russian forest; the faces of relatives and friends twisted in grief, sobbing; tractors carting off scraps of iron; the strained, nearly broken voice off-camera, calculating victims: and the hundreds of dead, and the fire rising hundreds of meters, and, if you could believe it, the square kilometers strewn with corpses.

The camera crew claws its way through the godforsaken Ulu-Telyak forest—colors somehow come out differently on television today—stumbling upon this or that, showing viewers some crumpled piece of iron, right down to the scattered carriage wheels, etc., etc. The green of the forest is somehow unnaturally bright on the screen, TV-green, and the color of the iron unnaturally rusty, not because it’s on television but because it has been burning. It is horrible.

“It happened ten years ago,” an agitated reporter says, “but it might as well have been last week.”

In both of his hands are bones.

“What a nightmare. Turn it off!” his mother said. “They live for awful stuff like this.”

“Wait! I remember when this happened, they kept showing it on the news —how old was I, nine?…But I didn’t realize it was so close to us, so close to Ufa…”

“Where did you think it was?” His mother began to remember how it had been. Nineteen eighty nine. Ufa was like a beehive. Overflowing hospitals, blood donors lining up, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev flies in…

“Do you remember our old garden, how we used to get there? We’d walk half an hour from the station across all those sidings and then past the railroad administrative buildings.”

Eddie remembered. “So?”

“Remember all those twisted rail cars in the yard, one was bent back on itself like a horseshoe…”

“They were—from there?” Eddie was stunned as he recalled the thickets of overgrown branches and the darkness inside the cars, which had become unofficial public toilets, and even the detail of a label stenciled on a lone patch of paint amid the rusting iron: “MAX: 50 T.”

“Where else? They’re probably still sitting there.”

Eddie was awestruck, but it wasn’t the disaster’s scale that impressed him. It was the idea that such a thing had happened right there and not in some distant land, that he could simply take the No. 251 bus to those terrible rail cars from the television and touch them with his hand, and that the Earth, it turns out, is a tiny sphere where everything is close to everything else.

The doorbell buzzed.

“It’s for you…It’s that friend of yours…the one you were rehearsing the comedy act with.”

“Mom! His name is VLA-DI-MIR. You should learn it one of these days.”

III

To his friends, VLA-DI-MIR was known simply as Vova, although there was nothing “simple” about him except that he was simply awesome: everything contained in the words “stylish” and “progressive,” for starters. He and Eddie and the other kids were more or less what had been known in Soviet times as “golden youth.” Not the spoiled kind who had everything handed to them on a platter and who never had to use their brains. Our heroes were the sort whose material security only accentuated their already curious and creative natures.

Now and then they organized a “society event.” Don’t laugh, but imagine that, yes, the ladies wore evening dresses and the gentlemen exquisite suits. They arranged discreet musical accompaniment and discussed esoteric subjects while strolling from one end of the hall to the other. The point, really, was the vodka that everyone carried around in tall glasses, cheap by design —disgusting, in fact—and they flouted the customary pickle or cured meat zakuska even though, naturally, they could afford it. They hovered with an affected, languid refinement, forcing themselves to drink, suppressing grimaces, sipping slowly and continuously as if through a straw. It was a display of strong stomachs and strong wills. Conversation became ever more abstruse, tongues ever more befuddled, and if in one corner of the hall every utterance was in labored English, in another they were already vomiting on their evening dresses and falling down like shop mannequins (and dressed every bit as sharply).

Or they went on a picnic, uttering a rallying cry such as: “A violation of the international borders of the Russian Federation!” The border was, in fact, three hundred kilometers away, but Ufa had an international airport. They packed liquor and food, brought a blanket, rode out to the airport, and from there they walked a kilometer, creeping onto the airfield and into the adjacent woods where they rested, gesturing in code when a patrol car came into view, crawling back across the fence as evening approached… And, for some time after, the notion of “violating the border” pleasantly played on their nerves. They lived life playfully and kept a fire burning beneath it.

On this evening, cruising nocturnal Ufa with Vova (he’d snatched the keys to his father’s sweet Lada Ninety-nine), Eddie eagerly recounted what he had seen:

“…and, no joke, he’s holding bones in his hands! And he says these bones are all over the woods, even though they’ve been picking them up for ten odd years. There’s all kinds of junk sticking out of the ground, scraps of iron…”

“Where did you say this is?”

“Just an hour and a half from Ufa. We take the local going to Sim and get off…”

“You know, I suppose there’s no reason we couldn’t.”

“I’m telling you, let’s go! We’ll make an expedition of it. An excursion to the countryside. We may just find something interesting! Just think about having a picnic in a place like that. Literally over their bones! Everywhere shards of…”

“Veeeeery artistic!” Vova brayed, and as he swung the steering wheel, the tires squealed and the car abruptly turned, traffic lights be damned.

IV

Anna began her preparations on the eve of the outing. Beside her, painting her own nails in garish colors was her much older sister, who simultaneously gave advice, offered commentary and was a general pain in the neck.

“I’m borrowing your Gucci jacket,” Anna declared.

She stiffened at Anna’s boldness.

“What do you need my jacket for? It’s so hot out…”

“We’re going to the country, someplace far away! We’re having a creative picnic (her sister rolled her eyes) in the woods.”

“Why can’t you wear your own jacket?”

“Are you crazy? That thing is good for digging potatoes in and that’s it. It’s not suitable for a cultural event with decent people…”

Her sister emitted a noisy cackle:

“Aha! So the illustrious Eddie will be there! Are we getting dressed up for him?” She began to sing moronically: “Oh, my dearest Eddie-poo, oh, we’re so in love with you…But you won’t even look at me…”

The aria was abruptly ended by a pillow, followed by several slightly heavier objects, and she yelped and cackled and stupidly flapped her hands as the nail polish hadn’t yet dried, powerless to defend herself.

Sensing victory, Anna stuffed the luxuriant jacket into her little backpack.“I’m borrowing your mp3 player too.”

“What?! Are you out of your mind?” She began to speak again in her usual voice, hoarse from cigarettes. “Do I understand you? You’re going to some fucking woods with my Grundig mp3 player? Which is worth more than your life and mine put together? What planet are you living on? Princess?”

“It’s just that Eddie asked…”

“Ohh, Eddie. Well, that changes everything! The prophet speaks and we obey!” She cackled again. “Eddie asked! Would he like anything else?”

“Shut up.”

“He has you eating out of his hand…”

There was more yelping, flinging, hand-flapping until a voice cried, “Girls, quiet!!” from a distant bedroom where, at that moment, their mother’s bloodless fingers were massaging her temples.

V

There was a time when Latvian ER-2 electric engines pulled trains at all ends of the happy Soviet empire. After forty years, the old-timers had begun to tire and gasp for air, their windows blurry beneath the scars of decades—but there weren’t any others!

From a mile away you could smell the years on them, and therein lay their charm. The engine’s front was covered in various design excesses, stars and ungainly flourishes in steel. Inside the cars were blackened, wedged-in frames, lacquered wooden seats with handles, and thick glass cowls beneath the ceiling lamps…

It was never more than two hours to the terminus, but even this was almost too much for the old-timers, especially when they’d been stormed by hordes of weekend gardeners bearing sickles, hoes and sacks of potatoes. But on this weekday morning there were few passengers, the sun had not yet begun to burn through the murky glass windows, and the train rolled merrily along.

Our progressive little band, composed of three males and two females, had hardly set foot on the train before it was clear the mere sight of them had provoked the sensibilities of the other passengers, which wasn’t difficult given the present company of pensioner-gardeners. Vova’s friend, for example, (Anna never could recall the name of this strange character) contrived to read a glossy magazine while wearing dark sunglasses.

“Isn’t it a bit dark for reading?” A lively old man with cunning eyes interposed himself.

Not a muscle moved in the comedian’s face.

“Our friend here is blind, deaf and mute,” replied Vova with such clinical seriousness that the old man stood up and walked to another seat.

Eddie listened to the mp3 player, dimly gazing out the window at the blur of passing trees and utility poles. Sitting beside him, Anna was careful not to betray her feelings, anxious only because her jacket still carried the scent of her sister’s perfume. Still, she couldn’t keep from occasionally disturbing him.

First she speculated aloud, ostensibly to no one in particular:

“Let’s say we do find some bones. What are we going to do with them?”

Eddie’s face became thoughtful, and he removed his earphones.

“I wonder what the NTV people did with them…” was all he could say.

“Maybe they surrendered them to the authorities,” said Vova with feigned earnestness.

Eddie put his earphones on, thought for a moment and removed them again.

“If we find an entire skull, I’m going to coat it with tin and put it on my desk. It’s conceptual.”

As sometimes happens to a woman, Anna was horrified yet simultaneously felt a warm wave of elation wash over her.

The second time, she became alarmed when a fat conductress covered with Soviet war medals warned Vova that drinking beer on the train was prohibited. He had been sipping a fashionable brand whose label covered every advertising surface in town that year.

Vova stood up slowly, handing the bottle to his “blind, deaf and mute” friend. He took the conductress by the elbow and led her into the vestibule.

“Eddie! Do you know what’s going on?”

“It’s nothing. He’s going to give her a hundred rubles, she’ll walk away, and he’ll be able to finish his beer in peace. He always does this on public transportation.”

The third time (there was no point in trying to listen to music), Eddie turned off the music and announced:

“Alright, we’re approaching Ulu-Telyak. I think. You look on the right, and you look on the left: see if you can make out where the wreck happened.”

Was there a monument? How would the spot look after ten years? Anna didn’t know the answers, but she obediently stared into the dusty brush, her eyes following the power line a few meters away, now sagging, now rising again.

VI

At Ulu-Telyak the train stopped on the most remote siding of all, that is, on the second of two, where there was no platform and the company was compelled to leap from the step, landing painfully on the crushed stone.

The train departed, the accelerating engine demanding “E-e-e-e-eh?” as the panorama of Ulu-Telyak and its surroundings opened before them in all its beauty.

Anna was no psychologist, but in her bones she knew it was a matter of seconds before one of the boys would mockingly intone: “This is my village!…” Yes, indeed—it was the weird one, Vladimir’s blind-deaf-and-mute friend. What a squeaky voice! He must be putting them on…

Ahead the road fell and disappeared beyond a hill. A thundering beast of a truck from the days when the factory was named for Stalin rattled with metal canisters and other appurtenances, kicking up a cloud of dust and itself disappearing beyond the hill. Some teetering old women walked, barely, along the road’s edge. A passing car stopped and they got in. Leaning fences, roofs of houses, roofs everywhere you looked. Goat for sail. Gornaya Street #100.

“‘Sale’ with an i!” howled Vova.

“We still need to buy provisions,” Eddie reminded them.

Walking into the store on the station platform, they were astonished by the half-empty shelves, cans stacked coquettishly in a pyramid, and a yellowish kettle displayed for maximum visibility with a tag that read: “Beef fat.”

“Do you have any Amsterdam?” Eddie inquired, on the off chance. “It’s a kind of beer.”

“Children, the only beer we have is Shikhan.”

At this, the “children” seemed to come completely unhinged, exchanging glances of feigned, slap-happy indignation, their eyes on the verge of popping out of their sockets. A minute passed before they had mercy on the elderly shop assistant, made their purchase and left. When they had returned to the platform, Vova asked the ticklish question:

“So, which way do we go?”

It seemed none of them knew the location of the famous disaster in the woods. They knew it was outside Ulu-Telyak, and it clearly must have been somewhere along the railroad tracks (so much the better that there were only two tracks, and parallel ones at that). But how far was it? And in which direction? “It blew out most of our windows,” Eddie remembered the words of an old woman on TV who lived in the village, and this reassured him. They wouldn’t have to go far.

“We’ll know in just one minute,” Eddie suddenly promised.

For behind the train station stood a small building whose tidiness (and signs) betrayed its municipal function, and they approached and entered it. At the reception desk a lady with yellowish curls was banging away at a typewriter.

“Excuse me.” Eddie’s voice was serious. “We’re from a newspaper for young readers in Ufa, and we’re preparing material for the tenth anniversary of your railroad disaster…”

The lady fished around a desk drawer and pulled out a notary stamp.

“Where do you want it?”

“???”

“Where do you want me to stamp? Give me your travel verification document.”

“No, you don’t understand. We just wanted to ask how to get to…the place.”

The lady became visibly tense for a moment before she explained that it was several kilometers away in the direction of Ufa, where they would easily find it.

They were already outside when Eddie turned and hurried back into the building.

“Tell me something, was there a television crew here from NTV?”

“Y-y-yes…”—he could see that she had stamped their travel documents —“they filmed here.”

“What did they do with the bones? Did they give them to you?”

Her eyes revealed horror mixed with perplexity, and her eyebrows, less yellowish than her curls, crept upward.

VII

Our friends would have set off on new adventures with the sun on their cheerful faces, and all would have been well had Eddie not wandered off to the toilet in the train station at the last minute. He regretted it almost immediately, seeing things upon entering that we don’t need to describe here. And it was all covered by a layer of bleaching powder, forming strange white hills as if Eduard had come to urinate on the Moon.

“Why didn’t I go in the bushes,” he muttered, gingerly adjusting his stance and noticing some unnaturally large mosquitoes dancing beneath the ceiling.

When two others entered behind him, Eddie knew instantly that he was in trouble. Initially they didn’t notice him (he was just zipping up) and lazily continued a conversation consisting of the “f-word” and a handful of other monosyllabic interjections. It wasn’t enough that these village lads were dressed in grubby rags like auto mechanics (who knows, maybe they were), but their faces were also utterly typical. Typical the way the faces of people with Down’s syndrome look alike and the way the faces of street rats and glue-sniffers are all alike, although in a different way. And for some reason these two had very blond, almost translucent hair…Why was that?

“What are you doin’ here, faggot boy?”

“I’m not a faggot.” Eddie meant for it to sound hard and defiant, but when the words came out his voice was quavering.

Then one of them hit him in the face.

This completely undid Eduard and knocked him clean out of his orbit, since those rare encounters that he’d stumbled into with other rich boys never strayed from the sphere of verbal and manual gestures…But here they hit him immediately, and painfully.

But that isn’t what these boys had come to the lavatory to do, and one of them, having pulled it out, began to urinate directly on the floor, stirring the bleaching powder into a foam, and then, with singular contempt, directing the stream across Eddie’s legs. For a moment his brain flickered with the strangely reasonable observation that it was lucky he had worn his walking shoes that day instead of his Carnaby sandals. He was slightly delirious…

“Where’s your money, faggot?”

There was nothing to say, for Eddie understood that it was too late for a struggle, and he calmly watched the delicate dance of the mosquito, now entangled in a spider’s web.

They thumped him in the face a second time, then again, and again. I say “thumped” because it sounded as though they were repeatedly throwing a cardboard box on the floor. At first, Eddie didn’t comprehend what was happening, but when he felt fingers moving along his neck, he understood: they were taking off his ear phones. They also took the mp3 player and something from his pockets and, without saying goodbye, they departed with an air of impudent nonchalance.

The lavatory was quiet again, and the smell of chlorine bleach saturated with urine scrubbed his brain so thoroughly that it was emptied of all extraneous thoughts.

Eddie didn’t notice how long he stood there; he was conscious that a disaster had occurred, and that was all. He was well aware of what had just been taken from him and that nothing he could do would bring it back. What would he tell Annie? What would he tell everyone else? His head was completely empty.

Outside, another train was already whipping up the air—melancholy, endless, probably a freight—and Vova entered the john, wrinkling his nose and frowning.

“Dear sir, how much longer will you be? Hey—are you alright?”

“Yeah. Fine. Let’s go.”

They made their way out of the gloomy, chlorinated cave into the sunlight, Eddie, as always, out in front. It was difficult to smile. Physically difficult.

VIII

Below and beyond the platform, a regular slapping sound emanated from a broken pump, where mosquitoes spawned in a dank pool. A driver holding an empty carboy leapt from a small diesel engine to the pump as the engine crept forward and came to a halt in a siding.

“Look! The train is driving itself!” guffawed Vova. Everything was a source of wonderment, of enthusiasm, of gaiety for them, the way it is for Western tourists. If only they knew.

But Eddie couldn’t tell them. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it again, his trembling voice threatening to give him away…What a fiasco, what a fiasco, he just had to… But no.

They chose a direction and began along the opposite set of tracks, so they would see approaching trains—they were incautious, but not unintelligent —and they set out in pursuit of a fresh “underground adventure.” The sun was now shining so brightly that they all began to envy their comrade in the dark sunglasses whom they had ridiculed that morning.

As it was impossible to walk along the tracks five abreast, the group marched in single file. Eddie, lost in his own thoughts and still not fully believing what had happened to him, strode onward toward his own Golgotha, wearing the disaster on his face.

Anna caught up with him and touched his elbow. Here it comes: “Where’s my mp3 player?”

“Eddie…Is something wrong?”

You bet it is. If you only knew… He flashed a bitter smirk. He’d have to tell her sooner or later. The question was how.

Anna strained to interpret the mournful expression on his face.

“Is it something personal?”

He shook his head ambiguously.

And Anna began to speak, her voice studiously breaking, talking about how somebody somewhere had turned out to be a scumbag, and that she had found out and now she was single, and Eduard’s brain began to soften in the heat, the glare of the rails hurt his eyes and the tar smell from the cross ties burned in his nose worse than the chlorine had. He wanted to lie down and close himself off from everything…

“And what about her?”

“Who.”

“You know…your ex. Did she cheat on you?”

“Yes.”

“Eddie, don’t let it make you sad, please! Maybe the right one …one who understands… is standing in front of you.”

And she kissed him before he realized what was happening. It was moist and so sudden that their teeth collided slightly.

Behind them, the others reacted with shouts and hoots and they too came to a halt. The three were truly enjoying themselves: they were drinking beer, and when they finished a bottle they would toss it from the embankment, producing a muffled tinkling sound. They began to sing. But Eddie was in no mood for tomfoolery. It’s probably better this way, he reasoned, without laughter or excessive talk. Let it be intimate to some, tragic for others. Anna chirped something in his ear, pressing herself close (What nasty perfume. Like chlorine!), there now—and she hugged him, putting her hand…you don’t call it a waist on a man—on his belt. Now she would discover that the mp3 player was gone. Eduard, who was still not fully conscious, shrank further into himself, every muscle crying out.

And on they went, Eddie’s Way of Sorrows marked with rail ties treated with coal tar. The sun baked. Trains passed frequently—it was the Trans-Siberian, after all—which meant that each time they had to climb down from the embankment and wait. The cars ripped past, showering gravel, and the rumble of the wheels made it impossible to hold a conversation. This, it’s true, made things simpler.

IX

An hour passed under the cloudless sky, and the enthusiasm even of those in the rear began to wane. They mostly maintained an austere silence, the beer having begun to evaporate from their suffering organisms, and the tracks stretched on from one line pole to the next.

“How do you know we haven’t already passed the…area?” The second girl was near the end of her rope, and her question (“the area”—how charmingly prissy), addressed to Eddie, went unanswered.

“I don’t know,” Vova volunteered. “It’s several kilometers from the village, so…It’s unlikely.”

A heated discussion arose about just what the site would look like after ten years: an ash heap? Might there be a new forest? But there was no chance of missing the monument. There was a monument; Eddie had seen it on TV.

They continued walking. Vova did his best to entertain the group by reenacting Yeltsin’s latest public appearance:

“Last night…at two o’clock in the morning…I re-read Pushkin…with a fresh mind…It was difficult, I tell you…not an easy read…”

Anna resolved to learn more about her new boyfriend: “And what kind of music do you listen to when you’re alone?”

A chill went up Eddie’s spine…

“Break time! Time to rest!” they shouted in the back. Below the embankment and barely visible through a stand of saplings was a pond, a glorious pond with sandy banks and rushes on the far side.

They climbed down, strewing gravel and getting sand in their shoes. They dropped their things and stretched their unencumbered arms: “Yippeeee!!!” Their plan was only briefly complicated by the fact that no one had packed swimsuits.

“I’m going in bare-assed!” yelped the other girl, who had not been unaffected by the alcohol.

“Um…There’s a man out there…”

In the middle of the pond floated a punt, and on it an elderly man in a peacoat sat fishing. (A peacoat, in this heat?) But having seen the young people, he realized his luck had run out and he was already rowing off to someplace beyond the rushes.

“Keep a lookout, I’m getting undressed!”

What a joy to cast away your clothes—pungent with sweat and dust—and with them the cares of the road, standing free, caressed by a cool breeze! Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Eddie sculpted his clothes into a pile in a manner that he believed would deflect attention from the mp3 player’s absence.

For a brief moment, Vova’s blind-deaf-and-mute friend believed himself to be the object of fierce ridicule (male readers will understand): Having undressed, he stood shifting from one foot to the other in a moment of indecision and plain awkwardness, when the naked lot of them turned toward him and roared with laughter. The boy was on the verge of passing out when one of them asked innocently, “Are you going swimming in your sunglasses?”

Their white bottoms gleaming, they all ran into the water. Afterwards they stretched out on the sand. The lazy, sun-baked chit-chat turned to the object of their expedition.

“This pond is perfect…I wonder whether the fire spread to this area.”

“Of course it did! Do you realize how massive the fire load was?”

“You don’t even know what a fire load is, smart guy.”

The other, wearing his sunglasses again, was digging in the sand.

“Where are the skeletons, where are the skeletons?”

“You won’t find many there, dummy…”

“You’re the dummy. I’m burying the beer to cool it off.”

But the lovers didn’t joke with the rest. They lay apart, arms tightly around one another; Anna cooed softly and played with Eddie’s hair; fits of passionate kisses rose and subsided.

There came a moment when the laughing ended, and the three others whispered conspiratorially for a minute before hopping up and throwing on their clothes, tripping as they pulled their pants on as if escaping a fire.

“Guys, what are you doing?”

“Stay where you are, relax!” fussed Vova. “We’re going on ahead, but you two can…take it easy here. You’ll catch up with us, we’ll walk slowly…We don’t want to interrupt…”

Eddie in his earnestness didn’t understand what was happening until Vova walked past and casually tossed a small, crumpled object toward him. It would have been difficult to recognize even if his friend had put it directly in his hand, but Eddie didn’t have to see it to know what is was. Ever faithful in his own imminent and overwhelming erotic good fortune, Vova had learned from popular magazines to always carry a condom in his pocket. The packaging was by now in tatters—he was still waiting—and the devil knows the condition of the rubber itself. And now came the festive handoff to his friend. Eddie looked at him beseechingly, and Vova winked. The gesture was hard and crass and utterly obscene. It was also, on second thought, probably meant for Anna.

 “Alright, pal, get busy.” Crassness came easily to Vova. “Ciao!” And he dashed off after the others.

Eddie lay his head back in the sand—he could shake it out afterwards. There was no turning back. The sun was causing bluish-black spots to appear in his vision, many, many spots, and he was able to make them roll across the sky when he tried.

X

Sometimes the most impossibly frigid day in memory will, in our muddled brains, surface in our consciousness during the very hottest, and Eddie, now suffering from sunstroke, suddenly recalled with great clarity one day from the beginning of November.

Ufa was up to its knees in wintry filth and, quickly assuming the color of the slush it was joining, the light snow that day could do nothing to cover it and, indeed, wasn’t even trying. Cars moved through the streets like missiles through clouds of wet, sulfurous ash.

Vova was throwing an all-night party to celebrate his birthday and, whereas everyone urged him to find a “party flat” (rent one, that is, which was already within his means that autumn), he resisted and proposed a more “conceptual spot”—the monument to the defenders of the Soviet homeland in the park behind Ufa’s Palace of Culture, sort of a marble nook hidden behind a stand of spruce trees. In all fairness, visually it was very cool. Three massive, thoroughly rusted bayonets protruded from the marble, on which none of the inscription remained.

That night, Eduard got drunker than he’d ever been in his life…Odd that it happened to such a worldly (speaking generally, now) fellow. Or was the true culprit the hellish cold and the crappy, drizzling rain? While cursing Vova, creativity and conceptuality altogether, in the end the party-goers managed to get warm (someone had thought to bring dry wood). Eddie drank too much, then he pathetically chased some girl around, suffering for hours until she brutally rejected him. Affronted by the world, he left the party to stumble teary-eyed around the sleeping park.

And then, when he had become irredeemably lost, Eddie was completely undone by his fear. It’s all physics, as they say, and little wonder when you eventually succumb to sudden attacks of wild terror. All at once Eduard remembered that the park lay on the site of an old military cemetery; his mother had told him: When all this was under construction, the Palace of Culture in particular, there were bones lying all up and down the street, crunching under the wheels of cars, and on the bus you listened silently with everyone else, and grandmothers would cross themselves…

Now the sound of bones crunching under wheels hung in his ears, it grew into a thunderous clamor, it tore at his eardrums; no longer in his right mind, Eddie writhed in the wet November bushes, not knowing where to go, convinced that his friends had abandoned the other place and imagining those terrible bayonets sticking out of the marble like mangled pitchforks in the hands of some god.

Of course Eddie’s friends found him, covered in mud like a pig, and he had barely recovered from his hangover when he made the switch to pneumonia. That’s how exhausted and frozen he’d been. Then he was freezing, now he was baking like never before in his life, but he was also struggling to grasp: who am I? what am I? and why do they make railroad tracks so long?

Afterwards, he and Anna took another dip to rinse off the sand. They had no towels and they struggled awkwardly to pull their clothes on over their damp bodies. When they had climbed up the embankment to the tracks, their friends were not in sight and the trail had grown cold. It didn’t matter. Eddie’s nerves had burned out, and in his chest there remained a painful repose.

They walked slowly, Anna—as if on wings—speaking incessantly, Eddie catching a phrase here and there. There’s a new department store in Ufa that’s supposed to open in autumn, which is sure to be a good place to meet and hang out. And they’re going to spend time there together. Right. Autumn. Together. Ironic smile.

Around them, there began to appear a strange landscape. It was a new-growth forest in which a number of enormous columns protruded from the ground, having dried and become stone-gray since their deaths God knows how long ago—oak tree sorcerers standing here and there so that it resembled a cave with stalactites rising from the floor…Or is it stalagmites? I can’t remember.

It seemed Anna had finally said all she could, and she now felt a bit insulted.

“Take out the mp3 player, then, let’s listen to something. You’ll have one earphone and I’ll have the other…”

Well. What now.

“Wait, there’s a train coming. There’s no point in listening until it passes.”

A freight train was indeed approaching, and it began to whistle at them to get off the tracks.

It seemed this was the only way. There wouldn’t be others.

They climbed down from the tracks, and a thought caused Eddie to suddenly brighten. What do you know! It’s only the electric engines that honk, and the diesels whistle. That’s how to tell them apart at a distance, at least, and at night. It’s strange, but this bit of trivia intrigued him.

“Eddie, can we move away a little farther? This is a bit too close…”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

Eduard squinted as he took Anna’s elbow more firmly, and more lightly.

And the sun shone, burning so hot that the tar smell from the railroad ties was almost unbearable, and that the water in the new pond (ten years old) with sandy banks and rushes rose rapidly into the greedy sky, yet on a polished, overheated granite surface not far from there, where you could have made an omelet and where Vova was making the other girl, it was no sweat.

 ✖

This story has been drawn from the December issue of The American Reader, on newsstands now.