Vladimir Makanin

Torrent River


       After hesitating, and hesitating a long time and rather mindlessly, Ignatiev exited straight from the subway onto Kropotkin Street.

       "Ha," Marina said as she opened the door, "Just look who's here!"

       She led him down the long coil of the hall, and he felt himself turning to the left and then to the right past the kitchen. He hadn't smelled such smells for a hundred years. Marina was smiling. She whispered to Ignatiev to talk more quietly and best not to talk at all now because her neighbors in the apartment were troublemakers. But she took Ignatiev to her room without further ado-and without looking back. The heavy, sweet smells of the communal apartment trailed behind them down the hall.

       The room was large but a mess and totally neglected-this was Marina's home. She was a person who just couldn't get her own apartment, get married or even do minor repairs-a loser-engineer, in her own words. In the evenings she played the piano sluggishly. The neighbors hated her and she hated them. She was a lonely person, one of those who don't have a clear sense of things, who neglect their life and where they live and keep on dimly hoping from day to day for something to happen, for some kind of miracle and. . .who wait. Or maybe they no longer hope. And don't wait.

       Marina caught his glance. "As you see, it's still a palace."

       "I see."

       Ignatiev sat down and leaned his elbows on the table; he shook his head for some reason, then said, "I've got trouble. . . ."

       He waited for a response.


       "Or maybe it's a disaster-I don't know."

       He told the story. He told it in a few words: his wife, Ignatiev's, had started running around.

       "Ah, thatta girl, Sima!"

       Ignatiev calmly asked what was funny about that, but Marina kept laughing and even burst into giggles every so often. Apparently time had made her nervous and prone to laughter. Time had revealed her essence-Marina laughed callously and openly, without any excessive fears about whether the laughter would hurt her company. "Thatta girl, Sima, Sima dear!"

       Again Ignatiev asked, "What's so funny?"

       "It's this-that you lived, drank, hunted, played around in your youth and now this blow comes. It's your turn to suffer. . . ."

       She laughed. "Oh, yes. You must have thought that I'd feel sorry for you, that I'd lick your wounds. . . . Poor man. It seems that you're getting hit, too."

       Pretending to be serious again, Marina said she understood his situation and sympathized. Maybe she even sighed. But in fact she could hardly contain her loud nervous laughter and that was noticeable, of course. Ignatiev winced. He kept quiet: he thought he'd come to the wrong place for the wrong purpose. He remembered that when he'd gotten off the subway he hadn't in the least felt like going to see her and he'd hesitated, after all.

       "Poor man. My martyr. But it's possible, isn't it, that what we might call lovable female whims have revived in Sima. It's possible there's nothing vulgar and carnal going on."

       "It's possible."

       "There's a good chance. Some people become mad about the theater, some love art (she understood perfectly well that she was adding poison to the wound), and some just get together-but you've already sounded the alarm."

       He grinned. "Am I really an alarmist?"

       "So why did you come running to me?"

       "I didn't run, I came. I just came-I didn't have anyone to talk to."

       Marina made coffee. In the meantime Ignatiev looked around the pathetic and at the same time impertinently bare room with its peeling wallpaper. The room hadn't changed: their impulsive youth was frozen there-even the iron bed was the same, even the chunky post-war alarm clock. After he'd gotten used to things again, he wearily moved his eyes back and forth: he'd have to think hard and look very carefully before he could say what was new here. Ignatiev took big sips, balancing the cup. But Marina, who was no longer twenty but thirty-five, set her coffee aside ("I like it cold") and spoke in that ironic nervous tone again: "All the same, it's interesting how people are made. . . . You remember that I loved Kolya, the Nakhimov cadet. But Cadet Kolya went away. And all I got was peanuts."

       She gave a slight shriek. "I was still a virgin-funny, isn't it! And you were scouting around and sniffed an easy catch, didn't you? It couldn't have been simpler. I was a nice girl, a virgin for a bit too long, and you were a cock, a warrior, what could I do? You deceived me very quickly, of course, you took what you wanted and were about to disappear-I'm emphasizing 'about to'-disappear, remember?"

       "What's there to remember?" he said.

       Marina raised her voice. "No, you tell me-do you remember or not?"

       Ignatiev kept quiet. Where she had imagined a juicy drama, there had been none. But you can't explain that to a single woman in a messy room with peeling wallpaper and why did he need to explain it? She imagined a seducer, but there hadn't been a seducer either, just a snotty twenty-year-old as stupid as she was. He was a little boy running around in circles then, not knowing what he was doing, where to perch, what to grab and devour as fast as possible.

       "Do you remember?" It was as if she was presenting him or life with a claim, having been offended and passed over.

       Ignatiev remained quiet.

       "Well, I do remember. I remember everything very well. I was in a rage then; I wanted to make you come back, trap you with a woman's ruses perhaps, but my conscience bothered me. Like it or not, Simka was my friend. . . ."

       Marina smiled as she spoke: "My girlfriend. How could I do that-steal her man? Tell me, did Simka ever know anything?"

       "She didn't know."

       Marina was still smiling. Her face was full of spite. "Right now I think I should have spit on that friendship and grabbed on to you more tightly, my dear. You know why?"


       "Because it turns out you're a weakling. You only look tough. You're playing a role. Isn't that an interesting idea?"

       "Not especially."

       "Don't say that. There's something to it. It was easy for you to get the better of some virgin. And with all the others you considered expendable-well, it's easy to get the better of women you're indifferent to, isn't it?"

       Ignatiev got up, he wanted to leave. He'd come here to talk but was being forced to listen. And it served him right-he had come to the wrong place.

       Marina got up quickly too. "Come on, Seryozha. . . . Don't be offended. Forgive me, OK? I talked too much-just like a woman, right? Would you like some more coffee? Another cup?"

       "I don't want any, thanks."

       "No, you do want one. You want one. You do!"

       She moved closer. She was laughing nervously. She bumped into him suddenly, hitting part of his face and part of his jacket. She gave him a kiss.

       "Don't worry, Seryozha. I'm sure nothing serious is going on. Simka's a terrific wife."

       She repeated, "Simka's terrific. I've known her since we were kids."

       Ignatiev said goodbye and left.

       "Marina's gone wild," he thought and shook his head. "And she used to be sensitive and subtle. I wonder where all this is leading. . . ." Ignatiev walked out onto the street and stopped. He liked to suddenly stop like that and, if he could, to come up with a striking phrase in order to emphasize the uniqueness of the given moment. That's the kind of man he was; it wasn't out of habit so much as part of his nature. And even though the trouble that had hit him was his own trouble and painful, even now he couldn't refuse himself a word. He stopped. He glanced up and took in the entire dark three-floor building where Marina had become embittered and lost hope. He saw the old roof, the cornices and windows (and himself, standing there with his trouble beside her building) and he said aloud, "That's life."

       It was winter and freezing outside. An old woman wrapped up in a shawl was passing by and decided that Ignatiev was calling out to her about something in the building. Maybe it was something interesting. The old woman was hard of hearing. "Eh? What's that, sonny?" she asked anxiously. She was listening attentively, and at the same time she kept looking around to see if the trolleybus was still far away or if maybe it wouldn't pull up at all on account of the black ice. "What? What's that, sonny?" As if he were obligated to repeat it, Ignatiev said, "That's life, grandma."


       "Life, I said."

       "I can't hear you, dear."

• • •

       Among his old friends there was still Shestoperov, but Shestoperov didn't like to listen either. When you're looking for something, you can't find it, of course, and so Ignatiev stood in the middle of the wintry street and thought about whom he could go to. People change-he'd come to expect that long ago.

       He had more than enough acquaintances and friends, and while going over the list, Ignatiev hardly seemed an isolated man. There were those who were simply friends and perhaps they were sympathetic; and there were those with whom, as the saying goes, you're friends with the whole household. Ordinary people. But Ignatiev feared that a conversation with them would inevitably become difficult. It wasn't clear what should be mentioned and what kept quiet about: it would be difficult and perhaps also a burden for those who just yesterday had looked you in the face-no, in this case he really needed someone from the past, from the forgotten.

       "Ignatiev sends Shestoperov his regards," he said from the telephone booth on the corner, starting things up again with a certain affectation. In response came an immediate accusation. "Is that you, Sergei? So you've turned up at last!"

       "I'd like to drop in for a talk."

       "You've wanted to drop in and talk for a whole year."

       "Has it really been a year since we've seen each other?"

       "Maybe two. . .maybe three. . . ."

       They laughed. Unexpectedly Ignatiev felt a definite sharp pain in his heart-he'd lost his desire.

       "OK, one way or another I'll stop by any day now," Ignatiev promised. Put on the spot, he again gave his word that he would visit and then hung up.

       He went home.

       "Mama's not back yet," his son reported.

       "I know," Ignatiev answered softly, almost as if protecting his wife.

       They sat down to supper. "What about your homework?"

       "I did it."

       "Were you bored here by yourself?"

       "No. . .I played outside and then I read."

       His wife came home after midnight. She didn't want to talk.

       "What for? What did I do?" His wife hurled her purse down somewhere and took off her coat. Ignatiev couldn't help but notice that she smelled of wine.

       The boy wasn't sleeping-he must be given his due: a long time ago their son was first to sense the changes that were coming. It would have seemed almost mystical if they hadn't been so humdrum and ordinary.

       "Mom," came his voice from the darkened room.

       "What, my love?"

       "Come here and sit with me. And I want a song."

       Suddenly Sima was annoyed. "Are you a little kid? What are you-a five-year-old?"


       "Don't keep asking. Sleep!"

       One must suppose that she really was exhausted. And full of impressions. Besides, Sima probably didn't want to breathe wine and cigarettes on her son (he liked to kiss). She hesitated for only a moment and then stepped out of the bright hall into the semi-darkness and closed the door to his room. Now he had to fall asleep, hurt and sulky.

       "We'll have a little talk," Ignatiev repeated in a subdued tone. "I won't go to bed until we've talked."

       "I want to wash up." She darted for the bathroom. He was going to step forward and block her way, but she immediately pushed him back without much resistance. "Will you let me wash?"

       Behind her escaping back, the bathroom mirror flashed a patch of light and a patch of light also flashed from the bath tile. Before the door closed, Ignatiev managed to say, "But we'll still have a talk today."

       "Absolutely!" she laughed from behind the door.

       They had lived together for fifteen years and seemed to be irreversibly approaching the peak of peaceful family life in which no changes were in store-that stability which makes life normal. A little while longer and they could begin old age-so it seemed. For fifteen years his domestic wife had run home from work and wanted nothing in her busy life except her husband, her son, and the television: no wonder, then, that among other things during these years Ignatiev acquired the habit of scoffing at suffering husbands or those who were dissatisfied with family life. He didn't even quite believe the ones who were suffering.

       From the bathroom came the sound of splashing water. His wife was in there singing:


       . . .a torrent river

       bare stones scattered round. . .


       It was the same song their son had insisted on, and having refused him, perhaps she was singing it for herself now involuntarily. It was a plaintive song. But there was a trace of gaiety in Sima's voice that was barely concealed. She slipped in the tub and cried out cheerfully. She was standing under the shower attachment, but now she kept her balance and sang without falling. Her voice remade the song into something lovably cheap and carefree-a cabaret song.

       "So what is it," he asked stiffly as they drank tea, "have you started to like men? Or a little vodka?"

       "I haven't figured it out yet."

       He shrugged his shoulders. "I'd like to know."

       For the past two weeks he'd tried one way and another to take things up with her, but either the evening conversation flowed here and there yet failed to develop or else it quickly deteriorated into a shouting match which shed no light on anything and gave no help. So it went. So went their little talk from evening to evening, more rarely-from night to night. Her answers, the parts that were concrete, led to one and the same thing-at her workplace they'd formed a group that liked to have fun.

       "And what do you do?"

       "We drink and dance-oh god, whatever men and women do when they find themselves together!"

       "They do various things."

       "And so do we."

       "You didn't get enough in youth, huh?"

       Sima, who hadn't been giving straight answers, now lied. Ignatiev began to boil, and not just because women, if you listen to them, are bad liars. Sima was trying to justify herself both in words and with a flexible intonation ready to change direction.

       "What did I do so wrong? I lived and lived and lived and didn't see what was around me. I didn't know any people. I didn't know life. . . . People at the office have been going to the theater and movies after work for a long time-for amusement, but I didn't join in." She made an about-to-cry face, "And now I want to, dear. . . . What's so wrong with that?"

       If you know someone, you can sense a lie right away, it can be felt anywhere, even in the most simple words. But he merely repeated, "Right-what's so wrong if that's what you want."

       Sima went into her room. "Don't be mad. I want to sleep-I'm dead tired."

       Just like the day before and the day before that, he didn't follow her. He sat for a while and told himself that after all it was night and then went to his own room where there was a couch. During the quarrel Ignatiev had suddenly grown softer. His steps were noticeably less firm. In earlier days Ignatiev hadn't shied away from either real flirting or affairs, and even now if some crazy opportunity arose he didn't refuse himself pleasure, but in general he was a man who'd already run around enough in life and tried out enough things, and now he lived a steady, quiet life even in his external surroundings. He had a family, a son, a wife, a home, his armchair and his own cup for tea. In the realm of the ordinary and domestic he even had his own passion-a collection of art albums.

       Coming back to himself, he heard Vitka say, "Papa."

       Ignatiev stuck his head in the dark doorway and spoke in a stern whisper, "Quiet, go to sleep. . . ."

       His wife and son were sleeping now. Ignatiev was awake. He paced around the space in the apartment available to him-allotted, as it were, for his nighttime steps during the time of general sleep-this room and the kitchen. From time to time he smoked. He remembered the desire he'd had that morning to say something striking; now another such occasion presented itself. Walking past the oval mirror in the hall, he repeated it, though in a different voice. "That's life. . . ."

       Although he was embarrassed, he stared at his own reflection to see if there were any wrinkles on his face. He thought that some wrinkles should have appeared over the course of these days, if only the first traces, but there weren't any. Ignatiev knew that as a person he was completely formed-a bit vain and a bit of a poseur. He was one of those who think there are partial observers who somehow watch from the side over one's behavior and life, even if these observers aren't there. But no wrinkles had appeared yet-that was for sure. No wrinkles, no pains in his heart, not even an occasional one.

       He was thinking. If a wife starts to run around and is unfaithful, there is a certain emotion we men experience.

       If a wife is ill, we also experience a certain emotion. Thus we were conceived, thus fashioned.

       But if, for instance, a wife is unfaithful and also ill, we don't know how to respond and what sort of emotion to show. We're in a state of confusion. . . . For a moment Ignatiev was sorry that he was an ordinary man, that by virtue of his ordinariness he didn't know how to find a place for both emotions at the same time, and not only not find a place for them, he didn't even know where to start. He was sorry that God hadn't given him, Ignatiev, more than all the others. He gave what he gave and that was it.

       After he'd looked at himself long enough in the mirror, he turned out the light. He'd taken off his house slippers so that he wouldn't shuffle, and now, almost on tiptoe, he carefully went into the room where his wife slept. He went closer-to the edge of the bed. His eyes adjusted to the dark very quickly. Sima was sleeping. She had become noticeably thinner and he wanted to say something nice, perhaps unusually tender, but he couldn't find the words. He stretched out his hand to touch her but he was afraid she would wake up.

• • •

               Just the thought that his fellow workers would start feeling sorry for him or might begin whispering that their young boss's wife was running around was somehow absurd. Ignatiev was a prominent man. But it was also a burden to keep quiet. Some of the workers, even if not the better ones, had become his people, he thought, and not just during the last year. Ignatiev asked Tultsev casually, making it sound naive: was it possible that an ordinary, modest woman could suddenly undergo an abrupt change in character for some reason-an illness, for example?

       Tultsev, himself a man with a heart condition, laughed. "With women anything's possible."

       "That's very profound."

       And after that Ignatiev stopped asking.

       Marina called. She was in a hurry, she'd gotten his work number on her own.

       "Ignatiev, listen carefully. Are you listening, Seryozha?" She spoke fast. "I work near Sima, only two blocks away. I dropped in at their office and first thing I met Sima in the hall. 'Oh, ah, it's been ages!' 'We're going to the theater,' she says. 'Can I go with you?' I say. In short, I got myself invited to join her group. I can tell you right now they're pretty low class. I'll spend the evening with them and keep my eye out. I'll find out what's going on, OK?"

       "Go ahead," he said indifferently.

       Marina was apologetic. "Don't be mad at me for last night-I said a lot of stupid things."

       "It's OK."

       "Don't be mad. I got carried away."


       He hung up.

       After he smoked a cigarette, he called his wife at work. No one came to the phone for a long time, then a woman with a deep voice picked it up. Presumably one of their cheery crowd.

       "Sima's collecting money for the theater right now."

       "Damn it. She's the one in charge there now, is she?"

       "She sure is."

       The woman on the phone was in an aggressive mood. "Do you have something against that? Once in a blue moon a truly cheerful person turns up in our midst and now she's being called to order. Sima's the soul of our crowd. Believe me-we're all happy that she's one of us. . . ."

       His wife took the receiver. Ignatiev asked how she felt.


       "I'm glad. When do you go to the theater again-tomorrow?"


       "And after are you planning to celebrate half the night again?"


       "With a little wine?"

       "Who sits around in the evening without wine?" Sima started to laugh and the people standing around her joined in with good-natured shouts and laughter.

• • •

               The son was watching television. Ignatiev sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and watched the movie.

       But at ten o'clock he had to go outside. The moon was shining. The snow crunched beneath his feet. Ignatiev walked around the building twice, and then two more times, and finally he saw her-a woman doctor with skis over her shoulder. She was coming out of the entrance. She lived in the next building on the ninth floor and was the doctor for their district. For a while they walked together.

       "Well?" Ignatiev asked.

       "Yes. . . . It came out positive again."

       Just like yesterday and the day before, Ignatiev didn't believe it. Or rather, as happens in times of misfortune, he completely believed and accepted it, but his words expressed doubt. "Sima's feeling well right now. She said so herself. . . ."

       "Nevertheless, it's positive."

       "But. . .but how long. . .? Will she have an operation or not?"

       "She has no more than a month to live. The cancer has metastasized from the liver to the whole organism-it makes no sense to operate."

       "Does Sima know?"

       "Of course not. I was almost in shock in the radiology lab. I'd taken her there myself. Even Sofia Semyonovna, our radiologist-and she's seen everything, you know-even she had trouble composing herself and later whispered to me in the hall that she'd almost screamed."

       "Will she be in pain?"

       "At the very end."

       The doctor left with her skis but Ignatiev stayed there with his trouble, just like yesterday and the day before. The moon was shining.

       Marina met Ignatiev outside the subway on the way to work. She took off her pretty knit mittens with the red roosters and began to blow on her hands to warm them.

       "I don't have anything good to tell you. Are you ready to hear it?"

       She blew on her hands again. "They're some group-affairs are in full swing. Everyone's having a great time. Judging by everything, Sima slept with Krasikov. . . ."

       Ignatiev recoiled.

       "Or maybe she didn't sleep with him," Marina said. "Maybe he's just showing off. Bragging. You can't tell with them. They all work together and play together. And now a guy called Novozhilov is after her."

       He kept silent.

       "I watched the way they kissed. Novozhilov held her face between both hands and cooed."

       "She didn't push him away?"

       "How can I put it?-if she did, I didn't notice."

       "But were you watching carefully?"

       "I was making an effort."

       They were both quiet for a while.

       "What are the men like?"

       "Pretty pathetic. They sit around, drink a little, and wait for one of the women to drink too much, and then in no time at all they move in on her; if she's alone someone quickly sees her home or takes her to his place in a cab. At home it's the usual binge."

       Marina touched him with her mittened hand. "What is it? Are you very hurt?"

       He made a vague grimace. It was time for work. Ignatiev was one of those people who are late only in exceptional circumstances.

       "Simka was happy to see me," Marina said in a quiet, almost mournful voice. "She was so happy. Here's the best friend I had when I was young, she said. We'll be inseparable again, she said."

       "Did you stay until the end?"

       "Yes. They were about to go after me too, but they soon gave up. And, after all, I had a job to do."

       "So you've learned how to put men in their place?"

       "You bet."

       Ignatiev lit up a cigarette. "A job," he said with newly awakened spite. "A job. . . . But you were happy to make the effort. You rushed to sniff out someone else's trouble. . . . Your own place, your room is a hovel. The wallpaper needs regluing, the ceiling should be whitewashed, things should have been repaired ages ago, but instead you go and hang around with drunks!"

       Ignatiev tossed his cigarette stub and without looking back, got on the down escalator that led to his train. He was chilled to the bone. There was frost.

• • •

               Ignatiev was hurrying. His legs were going by their own will, and it looked like he was afraid to stop now and that's why he was moving so fast. He dropped in at Vanya Korneyev's department. "Here it is." Ignatiev handed him an album. "You asked for Nesterov, I got it."

       "O gods!" Vanya Korneyev, poet, linguist, and collector of art albums, turned red then white. "How did you get it? How did you manage? O gods, that's what I. . . . It's unbelievable."

       Unable to contain himself, Vanya Korneyev grabbed hold of the album so tightly that his fingers turned white and were stiff for a long time. Just yesterday he'd been suffering while thinking and dreaming about the Nesterov album. He dreamed he had stolen the album from a neighbor on their landing. In the dream Vanya managed this by crossing a balcony. Now it seemed to be a coincidence, a dream come true. Vanya Korneyev fell into a stupor and, though a talkative and lively man, he couldn't open his mouth for some time. At last he regained speech. "I. . .I just don't know how to thank you."

       "I'll tell you." Ignatiev attempted to smile. "If you remember, you know someone at the People's Court-some aunt or granny. I need to get a quick divorce."

       "But of course, of course!" shouted the linguist and poet Vanya Korneyev in an unexpectedly ringing voice. Clearly Vanya had cheered up; he'd imagined he would have to pay a lot more. He forgot that Sima had invited him and his wife for the holidays. That she'd fed them pel'meni and given them vodka to drink. He didn't remember all the times he'd gotten drunk and gone on for ages singing boisterous songs. To this collector of art it was excusable not to ask about the reason for the divorce. He didn't remember a thing now. "Yes, of course. Yes. I have an aunt at court! She'll get you a divorce the very same day, the very hour, the very minute that you fill out your application. No, wait! She'll fill it out for you. . . ."

       "That's not necessary." Ignatiev left. For the first time he'd noticed that the collector's hands shook.

       He was hurrying.

       He called Marina at work.

       "You're crazy. . . . I share a phone with the department head. People only call at lunch time here." Apparently she was angry.

       "Not that you get so many phone calls," he countered.

       "Don't be rude."

       He began to talk. "Here's what. Now that you've undertaken to spy on my wife, do it right. Find out more. Please find out more. . . . I need details."

       He changed his tone. He remembered that you can talk this way or that way to a woman, but it's best to vary your voice, in the same way you vary your step. He began to plead, "Marina dear. . . . Please try . . . . Find out everything. . . . For me."

       Marina was abrupt. "What's to find out? I found enough the other night. And you didn't want to listen. You left."


       "They stopped celebrating about midnight. People went their separate ways, but Sima went to Novozhilov's. In a taxi. They took a bottle with them."

       "Is he single?"

       "Not at all. He was persuading Sima quite openly: 'My wife and child went to Belarus. For a month. The apartment's empty. . . .' And Sima kept on pestering him, 'Did you take the bottle?' It's disgusting to talk about. I feel like I've eaten rotten fish."

       "Oh, please. Some Mary Magdalene you are."

       "You don't understand. It was disgusting that it was so out in the open and that Simka wasn't ashamed in front of me. Not in the least. And we were friends in youth."

       "Was she drunk?"

       "Not especially."

       He was hurrying. During lunch break he took a cab and dashed home and back again and then immediately hurried off almost at a run to see Vanya Korneyev. He was in such a rush that the taxi driver quickly opened his door and yelled after him, "Hey! What about the fare?" Cursing, Ignatiev came back and paid. When he ran into Vanya Korneyev's office at last, he opened his briefcase and shook out every last art album he owned. He dumped them all on the desk. "They're for you, Vanya." So there would be no confusion, he gave a smile and added, "a present." As they fell some of the albums lost their dustjackets, but that would be easy to fix.

       Ignatiev left. "I'm in a hurry. Bye!" He didn't even manage to see whether Vanya Korneyev's hands were shaking, or his feet, or if the very sensitive Vanya was shaking all over because of this truly lavish present. . . . Hurrying, Ignatiev entered the deputy director's office (first he had to run down one flight) where he managed to be calm and as brief as possible.

       "There's no way I can go. I'm not going on the business trip."


       "My wife's ill."

       "That's very commendable," the deputy director said. "I confess it's the first time I've heard that someone's refused a trip to France for that reason. OK. We'll send Zubaryov."

• • •

               His wife, odd as it seemed, was home. She'd come home from work on time, maybe even a little early. These days it was truly strange for him to come home from work and see her. The boy was mumbling while doing his homework. Sima had just come out of his room. She was wearing a robe.

       "Vitka's having trouble solving his problems. Someone needs to help him. Why are you late?"

       "Me?" He couldn't conceal his sarcasm.

       "That wasn't a reproach. . . . Something might have happened."

       He noticed that his wife's voice had become a monotone-tired and dull. And she sounded guilty.

       "Eat supper by yourself, OK? I'm tired. I'm falling asleep on my feet."

       Ignatiev sat with Vitka and checked the homework. When Vitka had fallen asleep, Ignatiev very quietly made tea and ate some sausage and a boiled egg.

       As he walked past her room to his own, he saw (through the slightly open door) that Sima was lying on her stomach with her head buried in the pillow. He opened the door slowly and slowly walked in. He became completely calm and composed, concealing his anger the way men do. He walked up to the bed and gently asked, "What's wrong?"

       Even while softening, he felt and knew there was no way she could affect him-he had enough anger in reserve.

       "Seryozha, there's something wrong with me again. My stomach aches. I went to the doctor today. . . ."

       She didn't turn her face and her words were muffled. She lay there with her face in the pillow.

       "What did the doctor say?"

       "She said something's wrong and told me to stop in tomorrow."

       Still calm, he asked, "Are you sure the problem's your stomach and not a bit lower?"

       He saw her spine quiver.

       "That can happen. But I'm not condemning anything," Ignatiev quickly added in order to seem more mild. "All sorts of things happen in life."

       She fell asleep.

       And Ignatiev languished. He took a sleeping pill but didn't fall asleep and again paced back and forth from the kitchen to his room. Each time he turned around, he glumly cut his tedious course a little short. He felt constricted here, constricted and ill. He'd stopped looking in the mirror. After closing the door of the room as tightly as possible, he was about to listen to the transistor radio, seeking to find some distraction perhaps. But all at once he headed for his wife's room and there in a rage began to shake the sleeping woman. He shouted in a hissing whisper, "I'm putting you outside naked right now! Throwing you out!" He thought that being put outside the door was a denunciation and terrible disgrace. He was nervous. Only as a very young man had he gotten into a quarrel and fought with a woman and by now he'd forgotten how to go about it.

       "What? What is it?" She squinted in the light and raised a hand over her eyes (perhaps to protect her face from a blow).

       "What? I'll tell you what. Any idiot would know what you've been busy doing until three in the morning." He described it in one word. "You think no one knows, or have you forgotten that all men are big talkers?"

       "What do you mean?"

       While she was unintelligibly trying to vindicate herself, he was pulling her out of bed and now he pushed her towards the door. He pushed firmly, no longer unsure of himself. "I. . .we. . .we were drinking coffee," she lied, hurrying to give some sort of story, but he sent her out with a final firm thrust and left her exposed on the landing. She was wearing a night shirt that was very old and worn and it was not surprising that in several places the fabric quickly gave way, ripped apart and hung in shreds and long threads over her white body. She might have been scratched. He shut the door behind her, but less than a minute later he opened it-he remembered it was winter. She stood there with her arms crossed over her chest. He had to go out and push her back in.

       "Move," he said with a hiss.

       "I only went with one of our. . .coffee. . . ."

       "You slept around. But no more about that."

       After this scene, she nevertheless fell asleep rather quickly and normally. About fifteen or twenty minutes later Ignatiev heard her steady breathing and there was no doubt she was asleep. He didn't sleep until the morning. He paced and drank his tea.

• • •

               In the morning there was a discussion about the demolition of a two-story building that belonged to their scientific research institute.

       In order to keep the building for itself the institute had fought with the district executive committee for a year or two-even longer. As usually happens in such cases, they explained and tried to argue to the committee that the building had historical value (a true though conventional point). The evidence they obtained, though weak, nonetheless confirmed that the building's architecture was typical of the eighteenth century, and they almost established that on a journey to Moscow Prince Bagration had once spent the night in the building. Document after document was dispatched to the district executive committee, each one more assertive than the previous one.

       The committee began to waver. But the wavering ended at once when it became clear (independently of the committee and the research institute) that the spot the building now occupied was to be crossed by a new boulevard, according to the plan, quite beautiful. The dispute ended-the research institute lost the building. But having lost it, the institute did not want to lose its prestige. Therefore the purpose of this meeting was to get the institute to pass its own resolution about the demolition before the official decision from above.

       The deputy director presided. Ignatiev, who hadn't slept the night before and was yellow from cigarettes, sat next to him.

       "Comrades," the deputy director repeated, raising his voice. "Comrades! I assure you our institute is fully capable of functioning without these few rooms."

       "Twelve rooms!" someone shouted.

       "Twelve, then, but what difference does it make?"

       The meeting grew noisy.

       "And what about Bagration?" shouted someone by the window.

       "But comrades. . .first of all, there's no proof that Prince Bagration slept in the building for certain. Second, the district executive committee has promised to free up a building for us on the territory of our institute. There is a special resolution: we have a guarantee, comrades."

       He nodded to a heavy woman from the local trade union committee. She'd know what to say.

       But the first to get to the table was the loquacious heart patient Tultsev.

       "They've been repeating one thing to us for years, and now it's the opposite. What about our history, damn it? Excuse me, comrades, but I request that my dissent be recorded in the minutes."

       Applause broke out unexpectedly. Unexpectedly for Ignatiev, perhaps; he sat there vacantly and didn't move.

       "I traveled to Kulikovo field recently," Tultsev continued.

       The deputy director interrupted. "What does Kulikovo field have to do with it?"

       "What does it have to do with it! If we let you tear down Bagration's house today, tomorrow you'll. . . ."

       "How is it Bagration's house? The prince only spent one night there, and even that's not certain!"

       "Will you let me speak?"

       The meeting became agitated. "Let him speak." "Old Russia is perishing!" "Why are you shutting him up?" It was possible the old building didn't have a special value, or even a small value, but people's nerves had been touched. At least five people raised their hands, either trying to get a chance to speak or, if they didn't succeed, at least to make some noise from their place. The deputy director lost his head. He was already on the verge of regretting that he'd called the meeting before lunch and not after-clearly it's a lot harder, even in trivial matters, to convince someone who's hungry-when suddenly someone said in a quiet voice, "They're tearing it down."

       The voice was quiet, especially as it repeated, "Hey, they're tearing it down. . . ."

       The man speaking sat by a window-he'd looked out by chance and noticed it. Not having expected such a thing, he called out quietly and afterwards everyone moved, some quickly, some slowly, into a huddle at the window. Ignatiev went there too. He looked over the heads of co-workers: not only had they demolished the building, they'd already hauled away half of it-more than half. The building looked like a broken tooth. A piece of the roof and the single window left on the second floor incomprehensibly held on to something. But an enormous steel ball was swinging again, gathering momentum for perhaps the last blow. And a bulldozer already stood by.

       Ignatiev left. At that very moment he walked quietly away. His eyes slid over the backs of the heads of his co-workers who stood glued to the windows (they'd yet to discuss and pass the resolution) and he went outside. Now for the first time, it seems, Ignatiev thought about the torrent river. The thought came as if prompted. "Life is a torrent river. Its current carries things away and everything comes down to that." At the same time Ignatiev was thinking about the fact that he had rather cleverly and opportunely gotten away from that talkfest. He also thought, and this was logical too, that after a sleepless night it would be nice to have a glass of strong hot tea. Only then did he snap.



       "Eight days," they admonished him. "Eight whole days."

       Ignatiev couldn't understand at all why it was eight. He had counted the days.

       At last it hit him. They had counted working days and excluded Saturday and Sunday because for them that was what mattered most. They had come from work. The deputy director and along with him the fat woman from the trade union committee and the spirited heart patient Tultsev, whom they had grabbed for the purpose of personal contact. . . .

       The three of them came to pay a visit. Sima opened the door, greeted them calmly, and pointed to the left. "He's there, in his room. . . . Go and admire him!" And now they were admiring.

       "Oh yes," said the deputy director. "A sorry picture."

       "A battle scene," Tultsev added.

       Only the fat woman from the trade union committee found the correct tone right away (as she always did).

       "Seryozha, we're not going to bother you, we won't ask questions. We know that something happened to you and that for eight days now you've been. . .drinking."

       She had trouble speaking this last word but she overcame it. When one person overcomes a difficulty, others feel they've overcome it too. Now they all seemed to speak at once. Ignatiev heard them and watched as if in a state of drowsiness, but he couldn't see himself: unshaven for days, with matted hair and red eyes, he was sprawled out on his couch in rumpled clothes. The deputy director spoke angrily. He gestured. "No, no, we need to bring a mirror here-a bigger one. Let him take a look, let him see himself!"

       Tultsev, with his bad heart, took a seat at the very edge of the couch, inclined his head towards Ignatiev, and whispered, "You have a great family. A wonderful wife. An excellent job where everything's going well. Tell me what's wrong, I'm your friend."

       Ignatiev began to grumble. "A man can't even have a drink."

       "What!" said the deputy director.

       When he saw himself, Ignatiev let out a loud and guilty sigh.

       Sima came in. "Don't treat him with kid gloves-be tough," she said with a stern look.

       "We are," Tultsev said.

       "He drinks, he lies about, he doesn't want to do a single little thing," she continued. "He doesn't even want to spend time with our child. And he hasn't gone shopping once."

       Tultsev shook his head. "Seryozha, why are you behaving so badly?"

       They were all quiet.

       It was time to finish. The deputy director spoke. "I'm not going to explain anything more-you're not a little kid. One last thing-if you don't go back to work you'll be dismissed."

       They left. After seeing them off, Sima went into the kitchen where she began rattling dishes.

       Suddenly Tultsev returned. Even though they were alone, he whispered in his ear. "Go ahead and drink, Seryozha, drink if you can't stop cold. Go on and drink but you have to go to work tomorrow. Understand?"

       Tultsev was in a hurry. He wanted to be there by himself, but he also wanted to catch up to the others.

       "Seryozha," he whispered. "For God's sake, he's prepared the papers. Eight days of absenteeism-the devil knows what that's worth! You'll go to work, right?"

       "I'll go," Ignatiev agreed.

       "That's tomorrow, Seryozha, tomorrow. And throw that away." He kicked one of the bottles under the couch where it quickly clanged against the others. "Drink when you're at someone else's place, drink in a restaurant, but don't drink at home. . . . If you don't have any money, I'll lend you some."

       In almost a prayerful whisper he added, "Go. Do you hear me, Seryozha? Tomorrow."

       And he ran off.

       Ignatiev got up. It was hard for him to put one foot in front of the other, and it seemed like he was going somewhere very far away, but he'd only reached the bathroom. He grabbed the electric razor. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and dully stared at a corner of the mirror. He shaved. He'd always thought that this is the way the day begins-this is the way life begins. In movies he'd seen hundreds of such scenes which could be called a new beginning or, say, a turning point. He threw off his rumpled pants. He filled the bathtub, then changed his mind and just stood under the shower. Back in his room he didn't really try but he did think about picking up. He pulled out one of the bottles that was close, somehow dug out a second, but then he lost his strength and lay down on the bed.

       "Sima," he cried.


       She came right away. She'd heard him shave, of course.

       "I'm going to work tomorrow," he announced.

       She started to cry. "Really?"

       She smoothed out his hair. It was a spontaneous and sincere gesture.

       "Seryozha. . . . You forgave me. So why are you drinking?"

       She cried. "All right. I did do all those things. I sinned. It was like in a fog. But it passed, it passed, Seryozha. I repented, but if you want I'll ask again. Forgive me. . . ."

       She sat beside him on the very edge where Tultsev had sat.

       "That you drank-I understand; that you wanted to forget-I understand, but it's enough now, enough my dear, my love."

       With a sweep of her palm she brushed the tears from her dear cheeks.

       "Look at me, Seryozha, don't turn away. I want to see your eyes. . . ."

       She embraced him and turned her head to him so that he could look straight at her. She called this looking into the soul. He looked into her eyes and saw how thin her arms had become, how small her shoulders were-she was shriveling day by day and there were no days off.

       "You're so thin," he mumbled.

       "Well, of course. I have to keep to the diet. It's temporary. You know that. And besides it's fashionable to be thin these days. Don't you want your wife to look elegant?"

       She stood up. "See how slender I've become. A bit more and I'll look exactly like I looked as a young girl."

       She sat down beside him again.

       "Forget it. Forget everything. I don't need that group of friends any more-no theater, no drinking."

       She covered him. She tucked in the blanket.

       "Sleep. And don't think about anything. We'll be all right again. I believe that. . . ."

       Her voice even rang slightly. "I believe that, do you hear me? We'll be all right again. Just like before."

       At the door she looked back and smiled. "I'll make you coffee in the morning, OK?"

• • •

               At work he was overcome with sleepiness and it would be an exaggeration to say that Ignatiev sat-he could hardly stay on the chair. Allowing for exaggeration, however, he held out until lunch, and noted that if he could sit and sleep it would be easier for him to live at work than in an empty apartment. Because he could think less. Even at work, to be sure, he counted the days and glanced cursorily-the way people glance into other people's windows-at those future evenings marked by loss when he would be left alone with his son. That window wasn't someone else's-it was his. This thought slid by and dissolved in that future time. It vanished.

       After lunch he fell asleep sitting up, but as it turned out he was being watched over even then. Tultsev came running over to him at the right moment. The spirited heart patient shook him. . . .

       "Seryozha. . .I have news for you. Gumyrin was pushed upstairs and suddenly-bang!-it turns out he doesn't have enough seniority. But how cunning he was-he misled the whole personnel department!"

       He nudged Ignatiev.

       "Don't sleep, damn it!" He whispered, "Thatta guy. Hold on."

       Ignatiev raised his eyes and saw the deputy director standing in the doorway. The deputy director was looking in on Ignatiev's department and while doing so explaining something about production to someone, but if he really was explaining something he must have been watching closely at the same time, because Tultsev, while apparently talking about something important, was holding onto Ignatiev and keeping him from falling asleep or falling off his chair.

       Satisfied to some extent, the deputy director withdrew. In any case he didn't run in and in general didn't say a word to Ignatiev-he understood that it was his first day back.

       "Good job!" Tultsev whispered a bit louder and gave Ignatiev's elbow a friendly squeeze.

       He left.

       And only now at the very end of the working day was Ignatiev's drowsiness interrupted. A phone call from Vanya Korneyev. Ignatiev's telephone was on the desk, thank God-no need to take a step, just extend your arm.



       "Listen carefully. The lady from the People's Court is completely in our hands. Utterly and completely. But to be entirely certain, we need a little more time. By the way, do you think you could get a Picasso album?"

       Ignatiev could barely hear a thing: he didn't understand what the talk was about. He even thought he might have become deaf.



       Vanya Korneyev, poet, linguist and collector, was polite, no doubt about that. But he was also aggressive. Being gifted, he'd understood the first time, of course, that his fellow collector Ignatiev wouldn't go out and get him albums, but would give away his own in a time of real crisis. One collector not only understands another, he sympathizes with him. Among Ignatiev's albums there had to be a Picasso (Vanya Korneyev knew this); Ignatiev would not have spared or skimped-probably the album had fallen, had slipped off the shelf and was lying somewhere. Dust was no place for an album. No matter what his trouble was or what sort of jam he was in, why didn't Ignatiev look behind his own bookcase? Vanya Korneyev didn't say all this point-blank-that would be impolite and even tactless. He just repeated, "Picasso. I really need Picasso."

       "OK, Picasso," Ignatiev uttered weakly, putting down the receiver. More precisely, he dropped it. He didn't understand what the conversation was about-he'd had a hard first day.

• • •

               In the evening when she saw him in his former intoxicated condition, completely unchanged, Sima turned nasty.

       "Go out and have a good time, drink, cheat on me with other women-take your revenge, if that's what you want, but don't ruin your life!"

       Who knows, she thought, maybe he is getting revenge.

       "You've no right to ruin your health. You're the breadwinner-don't forget that! Don't think about yourself, think about your child!"

       And starting the next morning, pressed by her inability to make sense of things and a mysterious calculation of their mutual grievances, Sima went into action. She didn't want to wait for what was coming and really wasn't able to now. (It was characteristic of her-the thinner Sima became the more decisive were her words and the more resolute her actions, even in the most minor matters. It was easy for her to keep the strictest diet now. She lived by the hour-hour by hour, minute by minute, she took her medicine.) She was transformed literally overnight into a person with a will, and it was completely in character with her new personality that Sima announced in the morning she was getting a divorce.

       "Neither I nor my son need someone like you."

       Sima was standing in the middle of the room and Ignatiev was sprawled out on the small couch.

       "Did you hear what I said?"

       It seemed she'd asked him a question and only then did she leave, but Ignatiev, lost in thought, had become bogged down in the difference between them: whereas in his turn he'd prepared a divorce behind her back and on the sly, Sima had played an open hand. She had risen to a higher level.

       In the evening (somehow he'd sat through another day of work) Sima took the following step, more judicial in nature than just: she forbade Ignatiev to enter her room without knocking and unless it was on business-that's how she put it. And not to enter their son's room on any pretext-estranged means estranged.

       "I repeat-don't you dare go into Vitka's room. Alcoholism traumatizes children, you know that."

       She added. "And don't drink at home. Drink wherever you want, as long as it's outside, even just around the corner."

       Ignatiev, it must be said, didn't become reconciled right away to the expulsion, though he didn't understand that himself. From time to time he would go up to her room (knocking on the door), shift from one foot to the other at the entrance, then mumble and try to ask some question. In general, he behaved rather stupidly and sometimes they would bump into each other in the kitchen.

       "How are you feeling?" he'd ask hoarsely, turning his face away so as not to breathe on her. Or: "It's nice outside. Maybe I can take a walk with Vitka?"

       Sima spoke sharply. "Go to your corner."

       And added, "No leniency until you give up drinking. And even if you give it up completely, I won't believe it right away. Give it a year. . . ."

       "You've got an iron will," he wheezed.

       "What did you think?"

       Later in the evening Sima came to his room (she knocked at the door). She walked over to the bookcase with the airy step of a slight person, without looking to see if he was lying facing her or with his face to the wall.

       "I need the Picasso."

       It was part of her nature now to speak openly and toughly.

       "I've been at Korneyev's. He promised to help me with the divorce and he asked for the Picasso album. Where is it?"

       Ignatiev, who couldn't feel anything right now, was sprawled out as usual. An hour earlier he'd switched from lying on his right side to lying on his left side. He had gone to his old friend Shestoperov's for a drink after work and from there he'd gone home and settled down on the couch. Now he forced open his eyes and saw his wife, who was standing on her tiptoes and looking behind the bookcase. He wasn't surprised. There was no reason to be: he and Sima had lived together for so long and had so thoroughly twined together during these fifteen years that as soon as her turn and time came his wife had approached the divorce in the same way as he had done. She also wanted to circle the mountain and not crawl through. She'd appealed to the same Vanya Korneyev and in perhaps the same words had made her request and pressured him to act.

       After she found the album, Sima wiped off the cobwebs and carried it away, balancing it between her thin arms.

       There was a note of ironic victory in her voice. "Sleep, dear, sleep. I just came in on business."

       Her little ruses were amazing: not the usual female ruses but those of a wife, albeit a divorcing wife. Almost every day Sima would slip him newspaper stories about people struggling against alcoholism and normal insobriety as well. She left the newspapers and especially books in the kitchen next to the stove where in the morning Ignatiev would brew his tea and have a slight hangover. Like everyone who has suddenly acquired a strong will, Sima lost her earlier sensitivity; her mind dried up, as it were, having become so single-minded and inflexible. She'd leave a book, say, on the table open precisely to a page where a little story with a moral would be. Sima preferred one with an illustration showing the dissolution of a family-a hairy alky, completely wild, would be shaking his fists while his poor frightened little children huddled in the corners.

• • •

               "Ignatiev sends Shestoperov his regards," he said to his old friend at roughly the same hour in the early evening (after work). He sprang up on the threshold of the apartment-the musty and cluttered apartment of a bachelor. In truth he didn't see the apartment. After making his greeting he headed straight to the musty kitchen. Ignatiev didn't hurry, nor did he linger. He took a bottle from his briefcase and within a minute or two had washed out a small crystal glass for himself.

       The solitary and sad Shestoperov almost immediately started in on his favorite subject.

       "Yes, my friend. Women are a mystery."

       The quiet Shestoperov reflected aloud. "I've thought a lot, I've studied them. . . . I'm an expert on women now, no doubt about that. . . ."

       Ignatiev drank. He felt comfortable drinking here. Shestoperov sat across from him. His words flowed softly and smoothly, like the flow of a nearby stream which you can ignore completely and not even hear.

       "But if a woman's legs curve in slightly, you can expect anything from her. Especially if she's going on forty. In general such women can no longer be aroused and therefore they're insidious."

       "Well, yeah," Ignatiev broke in inopportunely, "of course, if her legs are crooked."

       "But there's another rule to keep in mind, my friend: if she has voluptuous hips she's weak-willed and has a sweet tooth by nature. She's not able to resist. Such women can usually be had roughly."

       Having plunged into a state of intoxication, Ignatiev half slept. He would look out the window, then occasionally cast a glance at his friend and look at him. People change. At one time Shestoperov had been gregarious and bold, but he'd had a bad marriage, something that became clear almost immediately-within half a year or even less his wife ran off with a geologist. She never gave a thought to returning. She didn't even think of leaving a note for him with some kind words. Shestoperov was shattered. The poor guy couldn't understand why it happened. He decided he'd have to study women seriously. And for ten years now he'd been occupied with his theories.

       "I'm leaving," Ignatiev said and got up. He moved toward the door and his old friend, who'd pretty much flipped out from this bachelor life, saw him to the elevator.

       "Stay a while longer," Shestoperov said.

       "I can't. I have to be home by ten."

       "Is your wife waiting?" Shestoperov asked, sadly and enviously swallowing the lump in his throat.

       Ignatiev didn't answer.

       He got home by ten and waited by the entrance. Then he started to walk around the building. It was snowing. He didn't wait long-the doctor, wearing a sweater, skis on her shoulders, was coming towards him.

       Because he valued someone else's time, Ignatiev began questioning her right away.

       "Sima's walking. She hasn't stopped working. She doesn't really complain."

       There was always a note of hope in his voice, even if slight, but there was no hope.

       "Yes, yes," the doctor nodded, "it's a familiar stage, a very familiar stage. It's a sign that the end is near."

       They had been standing in the cold for several minutes.

       "But she doesn't have pains."

       "She does-though not very strong ones yet. She complained to me yesterday. I gave her some pills with opium; she doesn't know about the opium, of course."

       "Luckily," the doctor added, "insofar as one can talk about luck in such a case, your wife has a strong will."

       The doctor glanced at her skis, which were dusted with snow. And Ignatiev had to be the first one to say that there was frost and she was only wearing a sweater and besides she had the skis to carry.

       "Thank you."

       "Don't mention it." The doctor sighed. "It's absolutely essential to look after one's health-we're all hanging by a thread."

       She tightened her boots and moved off on her skis with a quick and energetic stride, waving the poles and swinging her stout body.

• • •

               On Saturday Marina showed up early in the morning. Ignatiev heard the two women having tea in the kitchen. Apparently they had been seeing and calling each other recently. Even more-they'd become friends again. They were drinking tea and cooing.

       "As a rule, girlfriends are friends for a while. But girlfriends from youth are friends forever."

       "In the end, we're together again. It's like a law, isn't it, Marina dear?"

       "Sima, how about the movies tonight?"

       In the flood of emotions there in the kitchen they probably kissed each other.

       When Ignatiev crawled into the kitchen to gulp down his tea, Marina greeted him coldly. She turned her face to the tea cup, indicating that the cup of tea was more interesting than this living person. And both of the women stopped talking, a sign that they'd already judged him and his behavior and found him guilty, of course, and that now he was banned.

       "But I'm. . .I'm also a friend from youth," Ignatiev said somewhat stupidly and irrelevantly.

       They didn't answer.

       He went to his room and they set about doing the laundry. At first they were talking back and forth but then spasmodic throbs of water were heard from the bathroom and the washing machine started rattling. Ignatiev had the Saturday blahs, and he'd have to keep hearing the racket and shouts of their joint labor (for some reason joyful) if he didn't get up and close the door more tightly.

       He grabbed his briefcase (with the bottle inside) and set out for Shestoperov's-to the musty kitchen where the bachelor who studied women in depth sat as usual in complete solitude. He seemed to be reading.

       Happily closing his book, Shestoperov quickly took up his subject again. His greenish eyes were moist.

       "If a woman has a lot of birthmarks scattered around her neck and face, as a rule, she's cold. She needs to be taken by force. She should be surprised-don't you agree?"


       "And here's another fine point-that type of woman is most excitable not after sundown like the others but in the morning. . . ."

       The wife who had left Shestoperov and left so noticeable a scar in his psyche had given birth long ago to two children. She had lived and she had fought with variable success for a place to live, a salary, nice clothes and her own small place under our hot sun. Probably she had no idea what her former gregarious husband had turned into.

       "You never saw her again?"


       "Your wife. Your former wife."

       "Five years ago, she wrote me a letter," Shestoperov recalled. "I want to see you again, she said, just to blab and chat about life, she said. I refused. I know what type she is. For me she's a stage that's passed. What do you think?"

       Ignatiev was thinking that solitude awaited him too-a different kind, or let's suppose precisely the same kind, but even if exact coincidences don't occur, still it wasn't clear where fate would drag him or where he would drag himself and how it would end. And he also thought-don't be in such a hurry to laugh at people.

       "The most important features of a woman are her breasts, her ass and her knees, don't you agree? Nothing says so much about her complexes and inhibitions as her ass. . . ."

       From the time his wife left, Shestoperov had gone without a single woman. He hadn't even tried to meet one-being a theoretician, he had been preparing. He was as pure and sinless as an angel. Ignatiev tuned out. He drank quietly, undisturbed, and stared out the window. It was snowing.

• • •

               At home he fell into bed right away, but the two women, who were finished with the washing by this time, were now cleaning the apartment. They were working eagerly and in high spirits. Sima was dusting and Marina followed her around with the vacuum cleaner.

       "Do you remember when we travelled to Uglich? They crammed us into a room with some snoring old auntie. . . ."

       "She was groaning."

       "Groaning? She was dying in her sleep! She said so herself-I die three times a night, girls!"

       They both came to a stop in the hall. Gaunt Sima and beside her the large Marina. Having stopped their work for a moment, they were laughing happily and radiating joy from the past, which had suddenly come back to life-a past not only of trips and friendship and Uglich and a snoring old woman, but youth.

       "Oh! Maybe you should vacuum his room at the same time." Sima opened his door a little.

       "Do I have to?"

       "Yes. He drags dirt all over. Into the kitchen, into the hall."

       Sima nudged her girlfriend lightly. "Don't be shy. He sopped up too much and he's sleeping. As soon as I get divorced, I'll exchange the apartment for a new one. Let him drink in isolation."

       "He'll become a real drunk."

       "He's not a real drunk already? I swear, Marina, I might be able to endure it and go on with him but he's destroying Vitka."

       Peevishly, Sima added, "Don't worry about him. He's become completely spineless. Some kind of do-gooder will hook on to him."

       Sima went off to clean the stove. Marina, pushing the door, went into Ignatiev's room with the vacuum cleaner. There was really no reason to be embarrassed or shy. He was in a drunken stupor. Marina turned on the vacuum-noise wouldn't bother the sleeper. She could have overturned the bookcase or broken the big mirror. Suddenly (after the ecstatic memories of Uglich, part of her was languishing) Marina impetuously sat down on the couch and, looking into the sleeper's face, thought, "But I loved only you." That wasn't the truth at all and she knew that herself, but right now it was nice to think so. After her affair with Ignatiev, she had led the bitter life of a lonely woman. Different things had happened. Long ago she had lost her youthful sentimentality.

       Suddenly an idea popped into her head and startled her. In near panic Marina turned off the vacuum and rushed out of the room.

       "I can't," she confessed to Sima. "I feel awkward there somehow. . . ."


       "Awkward. You better go clean his room yourself and I'll clean the stove. I can't look at drunks."

       Sima waved her arm.

       "Oh to hell with him. Let him sprawl in dirt. It's better if we do the kitchen."

• • •

               Ignatiev woke up after Sima looked in the door and shouted, "Hey!"

       He opened his eyes.

       "Hey! I'd like to inform you, Ignatiev, that the day of our divorce has been set."

       She stood there gaunt and determined.

       "When?" he wheezed sleepily.

       "In a month. The eleventh. . . . I hope you won't be stubborn-refuse to show up, delay things, and in general make a fool of yourself."

       He thought and said, "I won't."

       "That's a good boy."

       She shouted into the kitchen.

       "Marina! Make him some coffee for his complaisance. He's so sweet today we can baby him a little."

       Sluggish, still not quite awake, Ignatiev got up with difficulty and shuffled into the kitchen. They gave him a small cup of steaming coffee.

       His wife pushed the sugar bowl toward him and as he followed the motion he watched her thin, matchlike hands-earlier she'd promised that she would soon be as elegant as in her youth. That had passed now and she'd become as elegant as a child. She scarcely weighed more than a child. Apparently he was staring at his wife too intently. Marina caught his glance.

       And with a slightly strange-timid and yet fawning-tone suddenly appearing in her voice she asked, "Sima, who is it who's treating you? Who's your doctor?"


       "Oh. . . . She's said to be a smart doctor. Experienced."

       "Yes. And she pays a lot of attention to me."

       As he was returning to his doghouse, Ignatiev once again heard Marina's quiet voice-that somewhat strange intonation still there.

       "Sima, how about some redecoration?"


       "Right. The apartment will sparkle like new."

       "I'm weak right now, Marina. I can't pull things around."

       "I'll help you."

• • •

               A short while later Sima had an attack. Ignatiev was sleeping and didn't hear her, all the more because Sima moaned so quietly. She knew how to hold things in.

       "Mmm," she murmured through clenched teeth, pressing her hands to her stomach.

       "Should I call the doctor?" Marina asked.

       "It's not necessary. Zagoruiko said I'd have attacks from time to time. And then they'll pass."

       "Can I get you anything?"

       "Pills. Over there on the shelf. And water."


       "Thanks. See that Vitka goes to sleep on time, OK? I'm going to bed, I'm dizzy. . . ."

       Sima groaned and then the groans gradually stopped. She fell asleep. Vitka went to bed. Marina had checked his homework and at eleven sharp ordered him to lie down, which he did at once, being an obedient boy.

       Everyone slept. Marina walked around the apartment. She touched the walls, looking for places where the wallpaper was worn. It was a good apartment. Taking her time, Marina cleaned up the entrance hall, wiping off the footprints and remnants of wet snow that Vitka had brought in from the street that day.

       Next she went into Ignatiev's room. He was sleeping. Marina picked up the broom and carefully swept out the rubbish and also took the empty bottles out to the hall and hid them in the cupboard. She'd noticed bread crumbs on Ignatiev's bed and scattered little pieces of dried-up cheese which were now like stones. She turned the sleeping Ignatiev over to his other side and brushed all the crumbs away. As she turned him her hands grabbed the sleeping man firmly and roughly, the way one grabs an easy catch. Her hands were confident and he slept soundly.

• • •

               In the morning Marina came over with rolls of wallpaper. She relentlessly began peeling away the old paper, which came off easily, as if it had awaited a woman's hand, so cheerfully did it crackle. Marina had rolled up the sleeves of her jacket and her solid white arms flashed and dashed here and there. While he brewed his tea, Ignatiev recalled Marina's tiny room-as neglected as some hovel where nothing had been fixed or changed for a hundred years. But instead of laughing at her, he just cleared his throat unpleasantly. He'd had a headache since the morning. Besides that he'd been bothered by a quiet but obsessive desire to look at the family photos. He walked all around but couldn't remember at all where the photos were kept and his concentration was disturbed by the ripping of the old wallpaper and the animated voices and bustle of the women.

       Sima decided he must be looking for alcohol.

       "There isn't any. Don't bother looking."

       "Any what?"

       "Any of what you're looking for."

       He decided they really must not be there then. He began to hurry.

       "Well. . .I'm leaving."

       "Go, go," Marina shot back. "It's almost eleven. Your colleagues are already lining up in full force outside the store."

       The women laughed.

       When he was dressed, Sima came up to him and handed him some money.

       "Buy another bottle."


       "You'll need it."

       "But why?"

       "I'm telling you-you'll need it." They both started laughing again.

       When Ignatiev came back, though, the reason for the additional bottle was clear. Marina had brought three workers over. The "bosses," that is, Sima, Vitka, and Marina, were covering the furniture with old newspapers and the workers were whitewashing the ceilings with the help of some sort of spraying device. Two workers were standing on a ladder treating the ceiling while the third took care of the bucket with the solution: he was pumping in the chemicals, bustling about and carrying the bucket to the ladder. When the cleaning was over the workers repaired the dented parquet floor in all the conspicuous places. They were hot. They undressed to the waist-muscular young men of twenty or so. They worked adroitly and heartily. Whistling little ditties. The bright sun burst through the frosty window and it was uplifting just to watch young men so full of life. Nearby, his wife walked around helping them. She looked frail and frightening.

       "You're so handy!" Sima told them.

       "In such good shape!" said Marina.

       Marina wanted to dream a little. Or else she was simply carried away by enthusiasm.

       "The piano goes here. That's right, right over here. I adore music. I love to play in the evening."

       She lifted her arms. Her voice rang.

       "It's nice to begin with a little sonata. Something quiet. And not to rush through it. Tam-tam-tam-tam. And you can't hear the neighbors or the airplanes."

       Sima smiled.

       "You're a nutcase, Marina. A real nut. You and your piano!"

       Marina was the spirit behind everything. It was as if she reigned over them all-energetic, alive, keeping up with everything around her; as she went from room to room she blossomed and suddenly looked better.

       "Boys! Patch this crack better."

       "We don't have any parquet."

       "I saved a few blocks for you. Do a good job, boys! A good job!"

       The workers finished up and left, still whistling their ditties. Vitka and the women sat down to eat supper. Ignatiev went out.

• • •

               "A woman's soul is most complex when she's between thirty and thirty-five, don't you think? She already knows too much about life but still can't forgive and forget the way that forty-year-olds can."

       "What?" Ignatiev asked him to repeat, but he wasn't really listening.

       Ignatiev remembered the old joke about men who drink and talk about women. At one time it seemed funny. Just like in that ancient joke (while he was getting drunk something tugged at him to remember it), there was the same division of labor between himself and Shestoperov -one was drinking, the other going on about women. . .like in paradise. Ignatiev noticed for the first time that the theoretician wasn't drinking: he could have noticed that earlier.

       Ignatiev poured him a drink.

       "No, thanks." Shestoperov responded quickly and pushed the glass away.


       "Why should I drink? Vodka ages a man. It does away with a man quicker than anything."

       They were silent.

       And then Shestoperov explained in a somewhat confessional tone, such as people use to explain things that matter most.

       "I don't have the right to become old prematurely. . . . Some day I'll go on a business trip-maybe some young woman there will make a play for me and what will I do then? No, I don't have the right to drink now. . . ."

       He went on, "Some young Siberians are waiting for me or maybe some girls from the Urals. Maybe some young French or Italian women. So I can't squander myself on vodka, can I?"

• • •

               It was quite late when Ignatiev got home. Marina, who had worked so splendidly that day, had gone home, and Sima and the boy were sleeping. It was quiet. "It's after midnight," Ignatiev thought and, still drunk, couldn't bring himself to turn on the light.

       He stood rocking slightly in the dark hall.

       Unable to get his bearings, or simply having forgotten, he snuck into Sima's room. He'd taken off his shoes and could sneak in with little noise. He went closer. The moon was shining and he saw his wife's face and her small body beneath the sheet, as small as a child's. "She'll chase me out," Ignatiev realized and stumbled away. The moon helped -he bumped into a chair only once.

       He made his way to the kitchen and, feeling thirsty, put the tea kettle on the burner. He turned on the light. He was searching for the tea when the photos turned up by themselves-they were lying right there among some old letters, as always.

       "At last," beamed Ignatiev.

       He lit up as a child lights up when he finds a lost toy. He was happy.

       "I found them after all! Good for me!"

       There weren't many photos of his wife. He began to pick them out and arrange them chronologically.

       First Sima the student. . . .

       No, first the schoolgirl with the small braids-there she is. Now the student. Now come the photos (the beginning of their acquaintance) where they are together-Sima is smiling and he, Ignatiev, is making a terrible face. . . . Now Sima has grown up. Oh, how quickly she grew up and reached her present age. There were about fifteen photos altogether. Ignatiev counted again-fourteen. Spread out on the table one after another in an uneven row, from afar they might have resembled a stream. The stream reminded him of a river, the rapid waters of a river which for fifteen minutes or so carried his wife's life past him and then away.

       A bit drunk, Ignatiev smacked his palm down on the photos spread out on the table. They had not vanished and he had found them (good job!) after all.

       "You're with me. . . . You're all here."

       Now we're inseparable, he thought. He cheered up.

Translated from the Russian by Mary Ann Szporluk