Red Caviar Sandwiches
A barracks is done fast
and slapdash. And always for drastic action. Like a barricade, its direct
predecessor. But a barricade may fall, and then be taken down, where's
a barracks will never fall, and never be taken down, witness that heir
to the barricade, the Pushkin student dorm.
Having at some point
performed its panicky mission, become a shelter for faceless working-class
students, and cast the ones who finished out into the world of socialist
achievements and rah-rah Soviet songs, it did not fall and was not taken
down, but occupied: by the ones who never finished, by all manner of riffraff,
and by good souls. Occupied permanently and in perpetuity.
I had various acquaintances
there. From the first, second, and third denominations. Take, say, from
the third, the amazing Samson Yeseich. But about him later. Not here. Instead
I'll tell you about Aunt Dusya who took care of him. And not just about
her. First, however, let's celebrate the barracks. The Pushkin student
dorm. The barracks is an oblong two-storey structure sitting low to the
ground with two entrances along the front and two wooden staircases leading
to the second floor. It is a poorly whitewashed construction under a black
tar-paper hat inside which people walk, sit, lie down and out of which
I wouldn't be able to
determine the length of the barracks today, but we can easily establish
the width. Since the plaster walls were nothing but timber inside, the
barracks' butt-end could not have been more than twenty-four or twenty-five
feet wide; or rather, that's exactly what it was since that is the length
of a timber. So then, said feet contained the long walls of two rooms plus
the width of the corridor. Allow five feet for the latter, and that leaves
eight feet for each room. That's right! Along the length you may fit a
working-class student's bed (six-and-a-half feet) and, at the head or foot
of the bed, a nightstand in which the working-class student may keep his
Marx or his tattered little tome with the disturbing, but trivial title
Without the Bird Cherries.
On each floor, you have
a corridor five feet wide and, on either side of this corridor, opening
onto it, you have rooms stretched the length of their beds and, crammed
into these rooms, people, children and belongings.
The corridor, which
is also the kitchen, is absolutely endless, for beneath its ceiling there
are only two yellow ten-watt bulbs, sooty as oil-stoves, and in the smoke
and steam the nightmarish chiaroscuro from many different objects creates
countless screens and cul-de-sacs, and all of this corroded by the rich,
fetid, murky air.
Smoke and stench pervade,
and along the walls loom washtubs, rags on nails, twig baskets, two-handled
saws wrapped in dusty, brittle yellowed newspapers wound round with twine;
on the floor, trunks one on top of another, little padlocked cupboards
painted white, damp soapy stools and on them basins under small washstands.
There is no rule or rest from the dimly glinting buckets of water, the
trash buckets and the buckets of slops for the pig which someone's godmother
is fattening in a nearby village, from the old-fashioned camp-beds (canvas
on crosspieces), from the sleds, the vats, the barrels, the bowls, from
the shovels caked with yellow clay, the pitchforks and the rakes, for the
ground-floor tenants have vegetable patches under their windows, and some
keep rabbits or chickens. There are also children's skis, faded and flat
as boards, one ski shorter than the other for lack of means. And there
are plain boards, also of different sizes, with crooked brown nails bowed
down to their rough surfaces. There are some things - marvelous but unsuited
to the needs of barracks troglodytes - that once belonged to the ruling
class: a broken chair lined with cord on velvet upholstery, a stand for
walking-sticks, and even a settee (facing the wall) whose rounded back
in tandem with the wall makes a marvelous receptacle for storing potatoes.
A frightful corridor,
a foul labyrinth, no end to it! But even its endlessness is not beyond
reproach, for it is broken up by open doors, by the odd conversation, always
resembling a row, or by the um-pa-ra um-pa-ra-ra of an accordion, and from
one of the rooms comes the astonishing voice of a portable gramophone which
goes on valiantly playing the same popular tune from the last war on the
same dull needle (sad to say, the record cracked badly not long ago).
Aunt Dusya lives in
the cornermost and most pitiful room. The eight linear feet abovementioned
multiplied simply by five become forty square feet, and anyone who has
occupied such a room knows that opposite the door is the window, that to
the left you sleep and rummage in your trunk, and to the right you sit
at the table and keep moths in the closet. A treadle sewing machine, if
you have one, may stand by the window; if not, you may put, say, a stool
The bedding on Aunt
Dusya's cot forms a hummock since non-seasonal things and big bunches of
torn brownish stockings, the raw material for darning heels, are stowed
under the mattress. The stockings tend to contain flakes of the epidermis
of the once-young Aunt Dusya; the stockings are all knitted, but an occasional
exhibit is of Usie or even Persian thread.
The ceiling is low,
6 feet 10 inches, but that doesn't bother anyone because people were short
and stumpy then, like the Orel peasants in Turgenev's novels. Turgenev's
stately Kaluga peasants did not settle here and were found no closer than
Grokholsky Lane, and that was miles and miles away.
So then, on the bed
there was a hummock and this caused us - me, pressing against my girifriend,
so as to die, and my girifriend, pressing against me, so as to restore
me to life, my girifriend who, unlike me, knew wide beds and how best to
use them - various (we won't go into it!) inconveniences frustrating the
ancient and inarticulate rite of embrace.
The barracks, its corridor,
Aunt Dusya... My blindingly beautiful girifriend who knew other - Oh God,
I slid down again! - much wider beds, and I, who knew trestle-beds, - Oh
God, you slid down again! - but who also knew that my blindingly beautiful
girifriend, who knew other wider beds, had come to me. Why all this together?
Why did all this couple,
combine, connect on the ground floor of a barracks, more specifically in
its right-hand rear corner, if facing the barracks from the front? - oh
God, we slid down again! - here's why. Aunt Dusya, a wheezing little old
woman, took care of my old friend, the never-married physics teacher Samson
Yeseich, who lived in the barracks across the road. But about him, as I
said, later and not here. So now, Aunt Dusya, who considered friendship
with me good for the brilliant Samson Yeseich (about which also later and
not here), and therefore respected me, had provided me with the key to
her tiny room through the kind offices of Samson Yeseich. She was in the
habit - for a little something or simply for a thank you - of giving her
key to friends of the physicist, and probably did this because the carnal
life of others excited pleasant thoughts in her.
People with good memories
cannot forget how hopeless it was in those days to find a corner in which
to consummate the unbearable half-meetings begun in bushes, in building
entrances, on park benches or in dormitories when the roommates had fallen
asleep - as if they ever did! - so that to land on Aunt Dusya's lumpy bunk,
while Aunt Dusya herself went to her employer's to tidy up or just dashed
out somewhere, was a rare and welcome piece of luck.
Now about the one for
whose sake I had gotten hold of Aunt Dusya's key.
...We trudged, lamenting
long since, up the hill, and the climb up the rough, rutted road, rich
in round flat sea stones and pebbles, on which one's feet twisted at every
turn, was a very bad idea of mine, and it seemed that she, my new girlfriend,
a Calypso-like beauty with fear in her eyes, was on the point of rebelling
and wanting to turn back, for even the pretext for our ascent to this place
had been unclear and unconvincing: either to survey the sea from on high,
or to see what the new fruit on a tangerine tree looked like.
But my companion did
not rebel, though she could have turned right around, and I waited in dread
of her indignation, waited for when her acquiescence would cease: I was
very young then but I knew that acquiescence could very easily turn to
indignation. After all, she suspected, or rather understood our secret,
or rather my intention - my clammy and intolerable hope. Of course she,
too, was involved in our tacit compact. If not for the burning climb! At
first she agreed to look at the new fruit, then she changed her mind...
We sat down under a
tangerine tree upon the baked earth, upon the dry hot clods, and my hand
began to grope its way through her softish, slightly cool, but also slightly
flushed thighs. My five-fingered touch was finding the longed-for world
locked between these stunning abutments; suddenly my wrist was creeping
along the dry hot clods of cultivated earth under the tangerine trunk,
and my fingers were squeezing in between her thighs, now loose, now locked,
and burying themselves like pups in the damp, vast - after the closeness
of her thighs - tangle of the thickets attained. And my girlfriend was
shuddering from the touch, twisting somehow and saying, "Don't, or else
I'll get a headache, a really bad one!" - and she herself went on, with
her slender, ringed fingers, squeezing whatever she liked. "Let's wait,"
she whispered, "this isn't the place. Everyone can see us, and the sun...
Let's wait!" - and she went on twisting, and her knees were already irrevocably
open, but she was right, and the arid incline under the wayside tangerine
tree was wilting and dying under the sun...
Wait till Moscow? Which
one of us had to leave that day, I don't remember... Let's wait till Moscow!..
We walked to Aunt Dusya's at the end of a warm summer day past the barracks
and the mangy little vegetable patches, fenced in, or rather off from one
another with all sorts of junk. Standing in the windows of the low first
floors were people and insipid indoor plants, growing out of cans either
rusty, or once gold, now peeling.
Note: the Russian can
has always been the color of tin, and it was only the war, on top of all
its meagre miracles, that produced the gilt, black-lettered cans of saving
lunch meat. And though the war was over, and though it was already so over
that we had decided for some reason to return the Dresden art collection
to the Germans, once we had shown it to all comers, these cans still rotted
in the windows of the Pushkin student dorm, albeit wrapped here and there
in pretty white paper cut-outs, now shrivelled from the sun, mildew and
We walked to Aunt Dusya's
past buildings in the windows of which stood people who seemed not to know
me, though my acquaintances might just as easily have been standing there.
Our skillfully chosen route allowed us to avoid undesirable encounters
since, in the first place, I was with a woman and, in the second place,
a woman utterly unprecedented in this part of the world.
The first and most fitting
thing to think was that she was a spy since she was dressed and adorned
as no woman to this day has ever been dressed and adorned, save the heroine
of that universal film favorite The Girl of My Dreams. Even I, whose fingers
retained the memory of her bathing suit, wondrous for those days, heavy
to the touch, like a portiere, and phosphorescent beneath the stars of
our nighttide swim, when everything was beginning and when she kissed me
with a kiss unknown in my once and future life, well... even I, who knew
her sartorial means, was stunned by what I saw.
As I said, the war had
ended to such an extent that it was remembered as a time of hunger, but
hunger with American lunch meat, as opposed to the hunger after the war
without lunch meat.
The military fashion
(noted for battle-field chic) interspersed with American gifts (by those
who had them) had ended, and the captured finery - fabulous in refinement,
in shimmering linings, in neat seams, in lacy underthings, and in possibilities
for wearing all this even inside out if you liked - had faded. The fashion
had ended for everyone, and everyone was arrayed in their own, homemade
clothes. But not she, my girlfriend. She came to me in a fantastic guise,
in which one I no longer recall, though my girlfriend had her own, very
good reasons for such an appearance.
Wafting perfume and
mist, women came to the symbolist poet Blok. This I learned later. She
came sparkling with rings, earrings, necklaces. All this would become known
as costume jewelry and over the years they would grow used to it, through
their shame and prejudices, they would grow used to wearing it, lending
floozies as it did the air of women.
But where could it have
come from then, when it wasn't supposed to exist yet? Where did she get
it all: the strange dress, the shoes studded with golden clasps glittering
with glass beads? Where? From there, here's where: she was with the occupation
forces in the East bloc, had lived a long time in East Germany, had recently
come from there, where she worked as a staff translator and lived with
her husband, a secret service officer.
She was deathly afraid
of her spook. With his secretive way of life and omniscience, he compelled
her soul and flesh to suffer, generally relating to the latter with an
unbearable brittleness. This flesh did not seethe by the warm sea, or under
the tangerine tree for fear of being seen by some acquaintance, a junior
officer, perhaps, dispatched by the spook.
It was impossible to
arrange a meeting in Moscow either. Was impossible for a long time. But
here Aunt Dusya had given me her key, had gone out somewhere, and I was
walking with my girlfriend, a little to one side and a step ahead or, you
could say, behind, along the pathways and backways of the Pushkin student
dorm to Aunt Dusya's hovel, standing on the main street. It really tests
a man's mettle to get in the door of an overpopulated hovel right on the
main street, with a glittering woman without exciting notice.
As it is, people are
lolling dumbstnick in every window, old women on benches by the gates are
combing out wisps of grey hair with fine-tooth combs, old classmates may
appear, and there's the man by the shed who has been fixing his bicycle
for a year now.
A light and sunny summer
street, and behind the other shed boys are mating rabbits. Girls huddle
at a deliberate distance, but still see how the rabbit, raptly nibbling
grass beside the doe one instant, rears up on her the next, one of the
long-eared little beasts squeals, then both wiggle their noses, and instantly
resume eating. The boys continually ascertain that the rabbits are fucking.
The girls, watching from afar, know what the rabbits are doing but do not
use the word fucking. The brazen boys, wanting to get the girls' attention,
make circles with two fingers of their left hand, insert the index fingers
of their right, and slide them back and forth. The girls walk off.
Thus I lead my girlfriend
through my childhood, but she neither sees nor cares about it, she walks
beside me in silence, thinking only of how her spook may have had her shadowed.
She walks with apparent
calm but she is quite simply numb and blind with fear. Her fear. My fear
has made me monstrously sharpeyed and, when we pass from the light into
the barracks' pitch-dark corridor, I manage to discern someone's slummy
wash hanging at the far end and a man sorting maggots for bait in a tin
Some trouble with Aunt
Dusya's key... and we're in the room. I have sandwiches with me. Red caviar.
Five of them. Cheap eats in those days. And she produces wine! She produces...
wine... Never, ever would I have expected such a thing. She produces a
wine I don't know, the only wines I know (and only by hearsay) are Cahors
and "three-sevens" port, highly regarded by local experts in anything you
like, but not that.
"Wait a moment!" she
says when I, having drunk a little wine and eaten half a sandwich, begin
aquiver to embrace her, freely fondling the heavy warm folds of her soft
dress, in itself a voluptuous sensation. "Wait a moment!" she says.
"I have to run out first!"
"I have to! Or else
I am crushed. In the
Pushkin student dorm they run out, here's where: for the entire barracks
there are all of two outhouses, resembling as it were rural granaries.
Each one is high and light on account of the chinks in the walls and a
solitary dormer window. They are bleached with lime, the lime drooling
down the dingy old boards to create a unique atmosphere of slovenliness
and untouchability. The granary is divided by a wall that would have reached
the ceiling, had there been one, but above the wall is empty, and higher
still one can see the inside of the finial atop the gable roof.
On either side of the
wall - in the male and female halves – there is a platform made out of
thick boards in which a series of eight holes has been cut out. The effect
of another presence is total. First, because of the low partition; second,
because of the fact that if you stand slightly back from the platform,
the final product of the performer on the far side of the partition is
visible in the pit.
As if this weren't enough,
huge holes have been punched in the wall at different levels. Here and
there the holes have been boarded up with whatever came to hand. But only
here and there. Now I was not born in a palace, and I have visited my share
of latrines, and that one is supposed to sit, not stand on a toilet seat,
I figured out all by myself at the age of twenty-three, but I never ventured
into the Pushkin student dorm's monstrous outhouses except in dire need,
though on sultry days the stench in their simmering semidarkness grew somehow
languorous, and through the breaches in the partition one could observe
the determined squatting and listen to interesting bits of female conversation.
But that was in summer.
As we know, our people
are uncommonly careless and sloppy with regard to earth closets. It costs
our people nothing, given their disdain for basic aiming skills, to foul
the rim of the orifice, soak the floor, leave fingerprints on the wall.
The boards absorb everything, everything sticks to them, deliberate sloppiness
begets forced sloppiness, and it becomes harder and harder to position
oneself over the hole. Puddles further frustrate one's approach to the
sloping grey gutter, especially if one is in soft soles or slippers.
And now, the cold is
upon us. Everything that has been absorbed begins to freeze, form layers.
By late December, crossing the ice crust to a hole is out of the question.
There is less and less room for maneuver. The visiting public retreats
closer and closer to the entrance door, fouling the floor higgledy-piggledy.
The walls (inside only, so far) are caked with tall ice crusts the color
of whey, rising up out of the floor like stalagmites, interspersed with
fossilized brown clumps. The hoarfrost on the boards, the yellow newspapers
frozen in the ice, the yellow crystals forming under the roof: nothing
deters our people - where else can they go? By mid-February, only by standing
in the doorway may one celebrate the call of nature in the murk of the
This circumstance decidedly
alters the daily rhythms of the Pushkin student dorm. People put off going
until dusk or after dark. By now the walls are caked even on the outside
with turbid ice crusts, by now the expanse around the walls, if not covered
with snow, becomes you can well imagine what...
But here spring arrives.
Someone, cursing wildly, is cleaning all this filth. Who, I don't know.
For half an hour after it has been hosed down the granary looks human,
but then it begins all over again, and towards evening the masturbator
Mitrokhin walks in and takes a swift chisel to the rough-hewn wall's most
promising hole. In no time at all, he is convulsing in a corner in response
to the rustling behind the partition.
To this granary then
my girlfriend is calmly proceeding. In haste and confusion, I explain the
long way round, unable to imagine how she will get there, and if she does,
how she, wafting perfume and mist, will react to the shame, how she will
manage to ford the swollen floor in her velvet slippers?
I cannot take her there,
for I simply cannot imagine how anyone could take a woman to that place,
and so become unwittingly initiated into this utterly hidden necessity,
into this apotheosis of awkwardness and discouraged dignity.
She goes. I wait. I
get it! Walking through the shantytown, humiliated by the road to Aunt
Dusya's, stunned by her forty-square-foot cubicle - I'm used to it, but
she's seeing it for the first time - by the musty humpbacked bed on which
we will..., by the table with the caviar sandwiches, red-and-white and
sparkling beside the cloudy tumbler in whose putrid water a dirty swollen
onion, now limp and splayed, has disgorged the repulsive greenish bud of
an onion leaf... seeing all this made her change her mind. She's gone.
She's just up and gone! She took her purse, didn't she! True, she left
the wine... she brought wine... It never, ever occurred to me that anyone
would bring wine on my account. She's gone! And if she's not gone, then
she's lost, and if she's not lost then somebody's picked her up: as I said,
people around here could easily think she was a spy. Just recently, loyal
and concerned citizens not far from here caught a spy, apparently American.
Or even two...
"Hey, Kalinych, you
naughty mother, why'd you block my woodpile with your bicycle? Ain't you
ever gonna be done with that thing?" the cheerful start of a friendly exchange
by the shed resounds outside the window. I startle with surprise, freeze,
steal up to the window and peek through the slit between the gauze curtain
and the peeling frame...
A rivulet of tiny ants
streams by my eye, skirting a stony tumor of oil paint on Aunt Dusya's
window frame. They stream out of one chink and disappear an inch or so
later into another... That's nothing! At this point, my eyes could make
out an amoeba... My ears could pick up ultrasound...
"Kalinych, you fuck..."
the usual sounds resound by the shed and my pounding heart stops as the
door, just behind me, opens with a jolt. I jerk round and am amazed to
see my girlfriend slip quietly into the room.
"Here I am," she says,
and I immediately fasten my sharp eyes on her velvet slippers and especially
the delicate line of her pretty dyed-black sole.
"Where can I wash my
Oh God! It will never
end! I don't know where Aunt Dusya's washstand is in the endless corridor
or which shard of soap on which of the thirty-three shelves belongs to
her or what sort of soap it is? Maybe it's the marble soap sold by weight
and boiled by the Ruzhansky soap-boiler, but out of what, about that later
and not here. What if the basin under the washstand is full and has to
be emptied?.. And if it's full, then of what?..
"Unmoeglich!" I say
in German because my girifriend speaks this language beautifully and at
the time I too could get along in it fairly well which, incidentally, is
largely what disposed me to her there, where the tangerine trees bear fruit.
"Unmoeglich, weil ich
weiss nicht wo ist der Aunt Dusya's washstand und Seife!" I play the fool,
and she, smiling, takes a sparkling perfume bottle from her bag, then some
cotton wool and neatly wipes her fingers with the multitude of magnificent
rings, among them a thick band binding her to her spook - not the custom
then and also a surprising thing.
She went to the window,
glanced through the slit to one side of the curtain, then turned around,
undid her dress, took it off, then took off some other mysterious underthings,
then took off everything else, and for the first time I saw a woman who
had undressed for me.
"Now you take everything
off!" said this miracle when I went up to her, embraced her and dazedly
pressed myself into this unbearably various nakedness so unlike my own
"Wait a moment! Stop!
Metal inhibits love!" And she began to remove the sparkling objects from
her neck, from her wrists, from her fingers, from her ears and put them
on the oil-cloth-covered table where there soon accrued a small heap of
watches, earrings, bracelets, rings - one suddenly rolled under the bed,
and beside her exquisite legs I, like the young Actaeon, found the gossamer
ring in the desolation under the bed, and as I pulled my head out, I saw,
still on my hands and my knees, that the exquisite legs had been tucked
up out of my way - taken off the floor: she had sat down on the humpbacked
bed, and then lain down. I quietly placed the ring on the oil-cloth. The
ring clung trustingly to the others, and I just as trustingly entered the
land where they kiss strangers sweetly, caress them, enchant them and yet
sob, clinging to these strangers, - the land of ripening tangerines and
dry hot earth, the land of two, along whose damp sandy shores the wanderer
Odysseus bends his firm steps towards Calypso languishing in the thickets
of her tangled hair.
This was free love.
All my former conquests, hurried, prehensile, greedy and pitiful, were
quasi-love compared with what happened in the land of the tangerine sun.
Outside it was getting dark, in the room it was twilight, and this dusk
increasingly isolated the land I had entered over and again, always to
the sound of muffled laughter, muffled sobs, muffled words, and where I
suddenly sensed moist lips humbly kissing my regal hand...
This was a meeting of
two people who, for different reasons, dearly needed each other then. A
woman, who needed me, and I, who needed this woman most in the world. A
meeting without shame, or rather, outside shame, celebrating with our muffled
sobs our triumph over the foul surround and over the hero of these out-of-the-way
places, the spook; a meeting melding experience of vast Pomeranian
beds with the entertaining erotica of Russian suburbs, slaking Mitrokhin's
unbearable reverie and sanctifying the ancient gesture made by the brazen
boys in front of the girls at the rabbits' wedding.
The weary tangerine
sun was already sinking when we heard a polite little cough outside the
"Your landlady! She's
been sitting there a long time, I think!" We issued out, leaving behind
two whole sandwiches and one almost whole one as well as half a bottle
of wine in thanks, and saw Aunt Dusya herself, sitting by the door on a
sack of bran in the now empty corridor. Aunt Dusya was dozing, grunting
softly in a light sleep.
I touched her padded
jacket, I had to return the key. She jumped up, grinned slyly and uttered
a striking, almost 18th-century maxim:
"Love is by nature inherent
On the eveninged
street, my girifriend and I quickly went our separate ways because she
might run into undesirable acquaintances at the tram stop, she said, scraping
off a fleck of red caviar that had stuck to her teeth.
I walked away from the
Pushkin student dorm and, by the last barracks, ran into Nasibullin, a
shy and very modest Tatar boy who went willingly to a secret service college
"Good evening to you!"
he said politely because he always so wanted to associate his cultivation,
assiduously earned thanks to society's concern, with my own, innate cultivation
and, by way of continuing this association, asked shyly:
"Been to the Dresden
"Go, don't miss it!"
And so as to pique my interest, he glanced down the dusky alleys, looked
terribly embarrassed and said: "Lots of bare bodies!"
© Translated by
Asar Eppel, Grass
Street, Third Wave Publishers, Moscow-Paris-New York, 1994