ANTILEADER
            Vladimir Makanin


       1

       When Kurenkov got mad at someone his face darkened, his complex ion deepened, and a sort of weathered country tan settled on his fore head and cheeks. He lost weight. And it could be said that he grew small. His looks gave him away. "So what is it now?" Shurochka asked threateningly. Inspecting his tan, she added: "You mind me now, Kurenkov!"
       He shrugged his shoulders guiltily and mumbled something. He was eating, chewing. Shurochka inspected him again. (When her suspicions were unjust-and that happened occasionally as well - it was Tolik's response, affectionate and somewhat embarrassed, that calmed her down. Shurochka would say: "You mind me now, Kurenkov!" To which he, really embarrassed, would answer: "Don't you worry, Kurenkova." It was all rather sweet.)
       But this time he didn't answer. And when he had finished dinner, he went to bathe, and asked to have his back rubbed, which was also a symptom and a sign for Shurochka. To others these signs might seem trifling, but a wife knows her husband. He ran the shower in the tiny apartment bathroom, so thoroughly steaming up the place that he felt warm and good, as if he were in a steam room, but then it started dripping here and there, everywhere (Shurochka had yelled at him more than once, because it made the walls damp: "Lazybones! You could at least go to the bathhouse!"). When he had worked up a good sweat he peeked out the door, and sticking his head through the doorway, he asked Shurochka: "Rub my back, would you?" It was as if he didn't have the strength: he stood naked and thin, diminished, and he whined, plaintively begging to have his back rubbed, like a little boy who's sick and ask you to bathe him, poor weakling, if only out of pity. Shurochka busied herself with the dishes. Seeing his outthrust pate, she grumbled, but of course she rubbed his back, noting once again that not only his face but his body had darkened. He had suddenly grown swarthy.
       At this point Shurochka had little doubt that Kurenkov had taken a dislike to someone. Thinking about it, she figured out who it was: Tyurin; Vasily Tyurin had joined their crowd quite recently, about a year ago, and he already stood out. And it was true, they had taken quite a shine to him: he was cheerful, talkative, physically strong, and, moreover, he had a car. He could pick you up or drop you off.
       While the technician tinkered with the television it was Shurochka's responsibility to write down what he said and list the repairs. But catching the dark flap of carbon paper and placing it under another sheet yet again, Shurochka suddenly stood up. She went to phone; she was worried about her husband, after all, and a pretty, not to mention shapely, woman can get away with a lot, Shurochka knew this. Even the nervous customers (it was the busy time of day - close to lunch) kept quiet. It suddenly seemed to her that all these crude people were deliberately silent. She got through to him quickly. Kurenkov worked for ZHEK, the housing maintenance office, and at lunchtime was usually lounging about at home.
       "Kurenkov!" Shurochka shouted into the mouthpiece. "The parents' meeting at school - you haven't forgotten? And pay the rent. And the telephone bill! The telephone bill!"
       When Shurochka was especially worried about her husband, she loaded him down with all sorts of errands or simply scolded him at will. On those days when his face darkened it was useful to give him a lot to do.
       That evening Shurochka called the Zimins; she spoke with Anya Zimin and with Alik. "It seems my Tolya's off again," said Shurochka. But they only laughed. They didn't attach the least importance to her signs, and they loved Tolik. How could they not love him-they were childhood friends, after all! The Zimins, and also Olya Zlotova, Marinka, and Gena Skobelev now lived in the large, multistory building complexes that had replaced the old Moscow yards and courtyards in which they used to live and of which nothing remained any longer, if you discounted the friends themselves, but then, of course, they had grown up. The onetime boys and girls of those yards and courtyards - that's who they were.
       Of course Shurochka felt that there was a lot lacking in the company of her old friends. They didn't know how to converse intelligently and interestingly, they didn't know how to dress with taste - even Alik Zimin, a jazz musician, looked a little like a parrot when he dressed up. But you can't expect everything in the world from people. Shurochka found subtlety, taste, and the ability to reason in others, but then, it was really friendship that she valued in her old friends, the memory of childhood, and the fact that you could drop in to see them anytime. Hanging up the phone, Shurochka thought about them and her heart warmed: everything will work out all right.
       "How I love you, Tolik," she exclaimed to the empty room, alone with herself. ("How I love you when you're quiet, when you're calm. How I love you when you're good!" is what she meant.) Shurochka could be sentimental, sometimes positively gushing.
       To keep an eye on him, Shurochka also went with Kurenkov to purchase a present for their daughter. Heading for the department store, they walked hand in hand, but just as they started to cross the street a passenger car, braking on the snow, forced them to the sidewalk. At first they slowed down, then they stepped back, and then, a bit angry, they looked over at the driver and burst out laughing: Vasily! As always, the friendly, charming Vasily Tyurin immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road; he even drove right up onto the snow covered curb, threw open the door, and climbed out. He extended his hand to Kurenkov right away, with a smile that said: "Hi there, Tolya, let's take a break and have a smoke together." They were planning to celebrate New Year's at the Zimins', and that's what they talked about. They stood by the car. Being a favorite is no easy matter, and Vasily Tyurin may have sensed that someone was secretly storing up hostility toward him, only he didn't know who.
       Taking a drag on his cigarette, Vasily Tyurin said, with some concern in his voice:
       "We'll have a good time. I just hope there are no fights. No one'll get too drunk, will they? What do you think?" And after the foretaste of shared festivities, this was rather surprising - it was as if he were saying that you couldn't even drink on New Year's.
       Kurenkov answered him quietly and simply and spoke only for himself: I won't get drunk. To which Vasily Tyurin responded with a grin:
       "You, of course not, it goes without saying. I'm not worried as far as you're concerned, Tolik." And he smiled again and asked something or other about how things were going, but then, suddenly pensive, he said: "Maybe I won't even go to the Zimins' after all - I don't know." Once again Kurenkov answered quietly and simply: "Maybe I won't go either. We'll see what happens." Shurochka held him by the arm; as she listened to their conversation she felt a slight shiver down her back and across her shoulders.
       "No, Tolik, you have to come. What, am I going to be the only serious guy there?" And here Vasily Tyurin tried to smooth Kurenkov's feathers; if they weren't friends, weren't especially serious people - they could easily do without each other, particularly at a New Year's party. Listening to them, Shurochka even felt kind of sorry for Vasily, he was trying so hard.
       "Tolik, you've gotta come," repeated Vasily Tyurin. "We'll drink. We'll talk. I love to listen to you talk about life, Anatoly!"
       Now he was really laying it on thick; You and I, the two of us, pal, we're in it together. But maybe he always worried before a get-together and talked to everyone that way - maybe he always stopped his car and acted all buddy-buddy. Shurochka also noticed that he said Anatoly, not Tolik. Exactly why Vasily Tyurin didn't want to turn down a gathering wasn't clear (if he really had such a strong premonition!). Vasily lived with Marinka Knyazeva; they had hooked up not long ago and, obviously, he could spend New Year's at her place. The two of them could celebrate together, without any fuss at all. In fact, it was through Marinka that he'd ended up as part of their crowd.
       "Well, I'm off to the store," Shurochka said to them. Moving away, she glanced back: they were also saying their good-byes, shaking hands, and of course it was Vasily Tyurin who wanted to shake hands, he just couldn't lay off. Vasily got into the car and sped away, waving at Shurochka as he passed. He was a powerful man; when he sat behind the wheel his chest bulged against it. Her Kurenkov, looking like a runt next to Vasily, also went on his way. Shurochka followed him with her eyes - he didn't head directly toward ZHEK, where he worked as a plumber, but first turned toward the beer stand. It was a cold winter day, but their beer stand was marvelous: the beer was served heated up and there were pretzels and crackers. At the entrance to the store Shurochka glanced back again: Kurenkov was already at the stand sipping his beer.

       Kurenkov felt more or less the way people feel when they're coming down with something. He was agitated, even anguished. He would have blown Tyurin off, to hell with him, but that was the problem, the feeling of irritation grew by itself now, ungovernable. He stood and sipped his beer and in his chest he felt a burning. Outwardly calm and controlled, however, he drank three mugs. He usually drank two. The beer didn't relieve the feeling, and, unsatisfied, he dragged himself to ZHEK, where he sat through a lengthy dressing-down from his boss- Kurenkov didn't snap at him, he was a peaceful, patient person.
       So they not only bawled him out but also forced him to work overtime- after dark he was still going from apartment to apartment on calls: it wasn't the first time they'd loaded him down with other people's work. At ZHEK he was thought of as a good-natured guy who had never quite learned to stand up for his rights.
       But work didn't alleviate the feeling either. Back home, the plumber, grown thin and dark-complexioned, roamed about his own apartment and mechanically touched the faucets. Tormented, he fretted in the kitchen for a while, then in the other room. His daughter and wife soon fell asleep, so he stuck to the kitchen, pacing it off softly and unhurriedly in his wool socks. Now and then he held his hand near his stomach: he felt the burning there. It grew stronger at night, rising almost to his heart.
       Unable to fall asleep even in the middle of the night, he went to his wife; he felt chilled from all the walking, and his wife was warm, heated by sleep and the blanket. He caressed her, but when he touched her breast again a half hour later, Shurochka blew up: "Stop it, for heaven's sake-just like a seventeen-year-old boy!" "All right, all right!" And now he spoke coarsely and roughly: Give a husband what's his, some people do. But later, still tossing and turning, he couldn't sleep and he went back to the kitchen again. He paced, smoked, and the burning in his chest bothered him even more. He heard his wife's snores; by now Shurochka had been buried into sleep as though from a cannon, while he kept feeling under his ribs, as if determining the exact location of the burning and trying to stop it. He smoked and looked out the window, where a fine snow was falling.
       The party wasn't yet in full swing when Vasily Tyurin began to get nervous: he joked awkwardly, nervously, in fact, and they started needling him and egging him on. Suddenly he began boasting about his car and his artful way with dough, and Alik Zimin, the host of the party, shouted at him (joking, of course): "Hey, windbag, what are you bragging for?" "I feel like it!" Vasily Tyurin instantly retorted, and started to make fun of Alik. But Shurochka and Kurenkov were at the other end of the table - next to Alik Zimin's wife - so they were sitting at some distance, as it were. Shurochka was no longer worried. She was even thinking: Why not call, say, the film critic Panov (now there was someone who knew how to speak tastefully and dress tastefully; suede sports jacket, corduroy trousers) and wish him a Happy New Year? It might be awkward, but then again it might be just the thing.
       Then Shurochka noticed that Kurenkov, who kept filling and refilling her glass, had somehow quickly and suddenly gotten drunk himself and was barely following what was going on, and thank God, thought Shurochka, because a drunken Tolik was usually well behaved and calm. He sat, quiet and a bit pale from drink. True, he did try to sing a song softly, but they booed and hissed him left and right, because singing songs at a New Year's party was, well, not exactly called for, and anyway it was too early - and then he quieted down altogether.
       Shurochka herself (she had decided not to phone and wish Panov a Happy New Year) said to him: Don't sing, Tolik, shut up, would you, and go call our daughter. And Kurenkov obediently traipsed off into the bedroom, where the Zimins' phone was; there he settled down, hunched over, and Shurochka could hear him dialing the numbers with an unsteady finger. He finally got through. "Gone to bed?" he asked his daughter. "Not yet." "How's your homework, did you do it?" "What homework, it's vacation!" "Mmm. S-sorry, sweetie. I've had a bit to drink and I'm already talking n-n-nonsense.'' And with that he hung up the receiver, and Shurochka was pleased that her husband was acting like a husband and that he was so obedient and that he called home at a word from her.
       Kurenkov was also pleased: although he'd had a lot to drink, he'd still talked to his daughter. He was pleased he'd managed. And the thought occurred to him, why not just leave and go home to his daughter, let them go on drinking without him, but then he felt the burning in his chest again, and hesitating, he returned to the other room, where there was a ruckus going on and where the party was still gathering force. The color television no one was watching was broadcasting the holiday variety show "Little Flame"; everyone was clinking glasses and, on seeing Kurenkov approach, they cried out:
       "Come over here, Tolik! Let's have a toast, eh, Tolik!" Full of cheer, they would have cried out to an elephant: Hey there, elephant let's drink to each other. Kurerikov still wanted to leave, but they called to him and extended their glasses toward him and made a racket. Their tipsy all-round favorite, Vasily Tyurin, shouted out of the blue, as though asking for it:
       "And if anyone has a bone to pick with me - come clean with it. Let's go out in the street and talk man to man!"
       Everyone burst out laughing, and Vasily, grinning and laughing, stood and straightened his tie over his slightly protuberant, premature stomach. Vasily's strong, bull-like face burned and glowed from drink.
       "Let's go out, then! Let's go right this minute!" Kurenkov said to him, and the inequality of the combatants caused everyone to burst out laughing with renewed force. They begged Kurenkov, who was pale and had already managed to go and get himself drunk, to sit down, to drink a cup of strong tea, and better yet - to eat a little something with fat in it. The two of them, however, Vasily Tyurin and Kurenkov, were already heading for the door, and at that moment in the "Little Flame" show Alla Pugacheva appeared on the screen in a light kerchief, smiling with her bewitching, widely spaced teeth, and began to sing. Everyone watched; everyone seemed spellbound. Only Shurochka was worried. Knowing her husband, she wanted to get up and follow him, but getting up was a problem: the champagne had sort of weighed her down to the chair, and her legs were gone. Shurochka thought about Kurenkov; he'd gotten her drunk, the snake, he'd outwitted her. She started waving her arms about, she even yelled: Forget about Pugacheva, run downstairs right away! But no one listened to Shurochka. She cried out to them once more. Legless, she couldn't stand. She could only squirm, seated, from chair to chair, closer to the window, to look out; the air was thick and they were smoking and the window was open a crack.
       Kurenkov hit Vasily as soon as they were out the door and on the street; they had gone out in suit jackets and it was freezing, and the New Year's snow crunched underfoot; there was not a soul on the street. Vasily Tyurin slipped but stayed on his feet.
       "What's got into you, Tolik?" he said, dumbfounded and still unable to take Kurenkov seriously. He thought that Tolik Kurenkov had simply had too much to drink; moreover, he was much stronger than Kurenkov - but Kurenkov already started hissing, filling with rage:
       "You, everyone's fed up with you, you worm, why don't you split and go back to your own part of town, your southwest. You can party and flash your money around there".
       "What? Is that you talking - are you completely drunk, Tolik?" Vasily took a step, he even opened his arms wide, wanting in his intoxication to embrace Kurenkov and maybe exchange kisses out there in the cold, but as he stepped closer Kurenkov punched him in the face.
       After that the fight started in earnest. Tyurin was stronger but Kurenkov more frenzied, and he fell twice but got up. Both their faces were battered, both of them breathed heavily. In his heart Tyurin still thought that of course someone or other had put Tolik up to it and fueled his irritability, and that sweet, stupid, drunken Tolik was, more likely than not, a stand-in. Tyurin had no malice. And the instant Kurenkov collapsed in the snow, Vasily Tyurin, spitting blood, said: "Next time you'll know better!" and turned away, heading for the door. At that moment Marinka Knyazeva and Gena Skobelev rushed out to reconcile them. Alik Zimin, the host of the party, was also with them, of course. Arriving too late, they were driven on by Shurochka's cries. "They're fighting! For heaven's sake, go down - they're fighting!" she yelled, sticking her head out the window.
       Tyurin began to explain, though incoherently, that he was only defending himself, that Tolik was a bastard and that they couldn't be reconciled on equal terms. Right then and there Kurenkov jumped up and in a flash flew at him through everyone standing around, and punched him in the face, punched him forcefully and insultingly, in fact. Vasily Tyurin raced to his car. He managed to jump in, slamming the door right in the face of the frenzied, indefatigable Kurenkov, who had torn after him once again. Swerving sharply and spraying snow, the car sped across the road; fortunately, Vasily's sheepskin coat and his hat were in the car, so now he drove to the sixteen-story high rise on the other side of the road, where Marinka Knyazeva lived. He had nowhere else to go in that neighborhood. Marinka, realizing that he'd gone to her place (We'll have to finish celebrating, just the two of us), dashed after the car, wrapping a scarf around her as she ran.
       So it was that Vasily Tyurin, a friendly, cheerful man, disappeared from their crowd. Everyone thought he'd taken it too hard: all kinds of things happen among close friends. Marinka Knyazeva cried a bit, but she knew that Tyurin had intended to return to his family, who lived somewhere in the southwestern part of town, in two or three weeks anyway - Marinka alone knew about this. She cried because she wanted to have him back if only for two or three weeks. But everything was settled when Vasily came by again one time for something he'd forgotten at Marinka's; they spent the night together, talked for a long time-and he left for good. Someone, Alik Zimin, it seems, phoned and invited him over, but Vasily never showed up.

       
       2

       Later it came out that when Vasily Tyurin sped off in his car and Marinka ran after him, when everyone, discussing the fight, started back upstairs to the Zimins' in order to continue the party somehow, Kurenkov didn't go with them. Actually, he did wave as if to say: I'll be there in a minute. "Let me cool off a bit," he shouted, grabbing some snow with a trembling hand and applying it to his battered lips. Even after cooling off, however, he didn't come.
       He crossed the street almost at a run. A completely empty New Year's trolley bus rolled along the street and two taxis zipped by jauntily as Kurenkov crossed the wide thoroughfare, which was dusted with snow. He ran, shivering, in a jacket and a white shirt, the collar of which was slightly soiled with blood. On the other side of the street, he came upon the intermittent trail of Marinka Knyazeva's footsteps in the snow. He followed mechanically step for step until he arrived at her doorway.
       When Marinka opened the door he pushed right in, not giving her the opportunity to shut him out, after which he rushed into the kitchen, where Tyurin was. They started throwing punches again on the spot; then they grabbed hold of each other, twisting each other's arms. The tablecloth flew to the floor, dishes fell, and Marinka Knyazeva screamed at Kurenkov, lashing out at his face: "I'm going to call the police!"
       "Call them!" snapped Kurenkov, and then attacked; he was still worked up, while Vasily was now fighting without fervor, exhausted by the noise and the shouting. For a moment they separated and stood clenching their fists, out of breath. "Throwing your money around, hub, g-get out of here!" Kurenkov spat out darkly. He seethed with such fury that Marinka was suddenly afraid; she moved aside, grew quiet, and didn't rush to the telephone.
       Tyurin finally flagged - he stepped from the kitchen into the other room, opened his suitcase, and, throwing his clothes in, snapped the lock shut. He was ready. He put on his sheepskin coat, his hat, and didn't say a word to Marinka. But he stopped at the door and, smiling crookedly, said to Kurenlkov:
       "You don't know what throwing money around is, Tolik. And I wasn't rude to anyone-someone's filled your head with a lot of ů" And he left, while Marinka Knyazeva sobbed.
       "Stop sniveling," said Kurenkov. "If I hadn't kicked him out, someone else would've."
       Having banished the favorite, Kurenkov returned; he crossed the wide road, this time stopping to let the empty trolleybus pass on its way back. His battered face ached. He could already see the cheery windows where the party continued. Leaning out the open window, Shurochka threatened him with her fist.
       For some time Kurenkov walked around guiltily - there was nothing more shameful, of course, than getting drunk and fighting on New Year's. A man of thirty isn't a boy, after all. He felt particularly guilty about Shurochka. Submissive and repentant, he only occasionally tried to say something in his own defense.
       "But, Shura," he would say softly, "how come some people get away with everything -money andů bragging. And everybody loves them and grovels."
       That was his way of explaining and justifying himself, but Shurochka quickly cornered him: And just who was groveling in front of Tyurin? What kind of nonsense are you inventing? Vasily Tyurin was loved, yes, but no one groveled. Then Kurenkov would begin to hedge: I just drank too much and I don't know how it happened. But, as usual, his prevarications drove Shurochka to even greater rage. She even hit him on the neck with her strong hand. She lashed out; he, as usual, took it and said nothing.
       "What are you, some kind of pervert?" Shurochka would say in anger, while he sat quietly opposite her. The discussion was lengthy.
       "I'd believe it if I didn't know you! After all, it's not the first time! Don't forget, I know you!" Shurochka screamed, while he held his tongue and kept on nodding his head: Yes, it's my fault.

       When Shurochka said: "Straighten him out," her friends didn't understand. Shurochka even had a fit and reminded them of certain incidents in which Kurenkov had been involved, but for them these incidents didn't add up to anything. "Things happen to everyone sometimes." "Get outta here, you're nuts - what are you tyrannizing Tolik for?" Their childhood friends accorded no significance to his outbursts, which, moreover, were very rare. "A guy can't even have a drink anymore." They really thought he'd simply had a bit too much to drink; it happens, after all.
       And what's more, Alik Zimin's wife called Shurochka a pain in the neck. From time to time they all complained to one another about their husbands - wives will be wives, but enough's enough. As Alik Zimin's wife saw it, Shurochka exaggerated. "Just calm down, won't you!" she said. But Shurochka couldn't calm down, knowing from Tolik's stories how a burning dislike for someone would well up in him and how he couldn't help himself. When was it - last year or the year before-he had felt such hatred for some successful guy that he himself was frightened by his own hostility. At night in bed, he suddenly sat up and said to Shurochka:
       "Don't let me go there tomorrow, Shura. Don't let me!" And she didn't let him.
       Shurochka phoned her mother-in-law. "Mama" - that was what Shurochka called her mother-in-law - "Tolik's had another fight." "Oh Lord!"
       "Mama, he's gotten away with it once, twice - but eventually he'll wind up in jail!"
       Her mother-in-law lived outside of town. She promised to come and talk to him, but didn't, budging by her sighs, even she, his mother, thought that what had happened was the usual drunken fight; she advised Shurochka not to let him drink, especially when he had a hangover, but to herself she figured that by about age forty her son would grow out of it. No one understood Shurochka. In the television shop Shurochka sat at the reception desk, her job was considered smart and fashionable, but, well, you couldn't exactly talk to a customer. Finally the crowd dwindled. The technicians, moving off to the staff room, clacked their dominoes from the depths of the shop. Shurochka relaxed. To the left of the long reception desk three televisions stood on display (a color one in the middle - as if to say, look what good work we do!). Yesterday's hockey game was showing on all three, and the whistling was enough to make you plug your ears.
       You weren't allowed to turn them off, but it was all right to turn down the volume for a while.
       When Shurochka told him about her husband, the old technician shook his head: "Mmm, yes. You've got yourself a touchy one there."
       "No, he isn't! No!" And for the nth time Shurochka explained that Kurenkov was not proud at all, and not touchy either.
       It goes without saying that as soon as it was possible Shurochka rushed off to her lover, the film critic Panov, a cultured man about forty-five years old who once, long ago, had brought a television into the shop and immediately struck up an acquaintance. The film critic had married late and, as he himself put it, had not yet completely dissolved into his family. He frequently sent his wife and their small children off on holiday to the seashore or to his mother-in-law's in the country, and he, too, as he put it, felt as if he were on holiday whenever Shurochka came to see him. And of course Shurochka talked to him about her Kurenkov more often and in greater detail than she did to others.
       This and that happened, he had another fight, Shurochka announced, hardly saying hello, whereupon she burst into tears, to which film critic Panov responded with silence. Then he stroked his handsome, graying mustache and said: "But he's a maniac. Put him in an insane asylum." "So that's how it is!" said Shurochka, flaring up. "Straight into the insane asylum, is it?"
       The film critic sighed and said hurriedly: "Sorry."
       Their conversations didn't always get off the ground right away. They sat quietly for a bit, then Panov had a smoke and touched Shurochka affectionately; all in all he was an affectionate, kind man. But at the moment it wasn't affection Shurochka wanted, she wanted to talk, and Shurochka spoke to him firmly about the coffee - "Some coffee, I want some coffee" - and when he went to the kitchen to make it, she got into bed, as she loved to do. They'd taken to drinking coffee in bed some time ago. He brought two cups on a beautiful tray decorated with a drawing of the city of Riga, and sipping the sweet, burning-hot drink, Shura reminded him:
       "He's not some kind of nut, I mean, I wouldn't live with an idiot, you know." (She reminded him that her Tolik had a very unusual personality.)
       Film critic Panov cleared his throat ironically; however, he was unable to say or suggest anything serious this time - he only muttered commonplaces: With age, you know, everything passes. Shurochka knew this herself. She demanded that he delve into the problem and not brush it aside. Then Panov said something else to her - maybe she shouldn't carry the cross all the way to the mountain. Maybe, if Shurochka was really so afraid, she should get a divorce and marry someone else, someone her age. While she was still young, he added affectionately, and at that Shurochka got angry again and reminded him, since he was so slow to grasp it, that she didn't fear for herself but for Kurenkov; she loved Kurenkov and would hardly go and trade him in for someone else:
       "I mean, by himself he's a peaceful person. And he loves our daughter. And by the way, he loves music just like you." "Music?"
       "Yes." And for what must have been the tenth time, Shurochka told him that her Kurenkov would drink, well, for a month or two at a stretch, but that he was a good plumber, not a drunk, and not one of those profiteers who soaked the tenants for rubles.
       As usual, film critic Panov escorted Shurochka to the trolley bus; he stood and watched her leave. From the trolley bus she waved, even though people were pushing her. Panov thought about her and Tolik Kurenkov, whom he'd never seen. He thought: How wonderful dramas are in the movies and how awful in life, when they're right next door.
       At home Kurenkov had just given their daughter dinner, and now the two of them were washing the dishes together. Kurenkov was so obliging, so peaceful, that Shurochka's heart melted. The darkness had faded from his face, and he didn't seem thin - he seemed normal. Shurochka was about to say something sweet to him but changed her mind. The New Year's fight was still too fresh in her memory, strictness had to be maintained, so Shurochka said: "Kurenkov, you mind me now!"
       He nodded. He washed the dishes and nodded to her, as if to say: Don't you worry about me now, Kurenkova. And he smiled calmly.
       About three months passed, however, well, maybe four, and on a clear spring day Shurochka phoned film critic Panov from work and said that it seemed to be starting all over again: her Kurenkov was building up hostility.
       "Your life certainly isn't boring," answered Panov, already sighing in his usual manner. It was as though he, too, carried a bit other cross. Talking with her on the telephone, he didn't forget that Shurochka sometimes sat in his bed and held a cup of coffee in her naked hands.
       Panov conjectured: You know, it's quite possible that your Tolik is jealous of the newcomers in your crowd. It's possible (even subconsciously) that he's protecting his childhood friends and the memory of childhood itself - it happens sometimes, there's even a special type of psychological displacement (he didn't say illness). But Shurochka objected. Shurochka said: "No. It's true they'd been friends, you could say, since childhood, but their crowd had grown every year and Kurenkov wasn't jealous of everyone."
       Shurochka remembered the time in their youth when they went mushroom picking. Shurochka had had a fight with Anya, Alik Zimin's future wife - and Alik and Gena Skobelev reconciled the girls. Suddenly everyone gasped: Tolik had ripped open his foot on a rusty tin can in the bushes. Tolik wanted to suck out the blood but couldn't get his heel into his mouth no matter how hard he tried. Everyone was convulsed with laughter. They carefully washed his heel, after which Alik Zimin and Shurochka took turns sucking out the blood. The others didn't want to.
       The wound looked like dark, protruding lips. Tolik kept yelling that they were tickling him. He sat near a tree stump, his head slumped to one side - it lay on his right shoulder, and his long fair hair tumbled down. In those days he rarely cut his hair.

       
       3

       "Is that Syropevtsev really so much better than everybody else?" Kurenkov asked, and blew the foam off his mug. He wanted to speak his mind.
       They were drinking beer at the stand that over the years had become their favorite place, in their opinion the best in the area and in fact the best in the entire, huge city. It was on a natural rise partially covered with decorative trees and bushes, and the stand itself was clean and tidy. There was a view to boot: down below stretched a wide, grand square where trolley buses turned around and where people, clearly visible with their string bags and briefcases, hurried back and forth. All those people, if you were to stop them for a second, would have looked like figures in a painting.
       "So is that Syropevtsev really better than everybody else? Syropevtsev here. Syropevtsev there. Butts in everywhere, when nobody asks him."
       Alik Zimin grinned. "So the guy likes to show off, so what?"
       Polishing off his mug, Gena Skobelev also smiled. "What's eating you? You're not jealous, are you?" Alik added:
       "As soon as a guy with a Zhiguli turns up, he sticks in your throat!" Faced with a remark like that, Kurenkov was at a loss: he could swear that the Zhiguli had nothing to do with it. Occasionally Kurenkov didn't like someone, true, but he was never jealous of anyone. Whatever his problems, there was none of that crap in him.
       "I'm not jealous, it's just disgusting to watch you all licking his rear end."
       They weren't offended, they laughed, and Alik Zimin thumped Kurenkov on the shoulder. Shurochka walked up from behind, approaching slowly in order to hear their conversation, if only fragments of it. Apparently, she did hear it. Shurochka told him to go on home, although she knew that he liked to stand around like this with his friends. She raised her voice: Go home! And Kurenkov went, of course, but first Shurochka made him go with her to the store - let him lug the shopping bags.
       At home he was silent, and then Shurochka asked him straight out: "So now you're after Syropevtsev, huh?" He didn't answer; Shurochka rattled the dishes around, then she sat and stared at the television. Shurochka liked to watch a movie before going to sleep. She had her favorite position: she heaved her huge breasts onto the table and propped her head up with her arm. She was a large woman, and as soon as she settled into her favorite position their small kitchen became crowded. The film was about the war.
       "Let me get by," said Kurenkov angrily, standing up and squeezing behind Shurochka to get a cup of tea.
       "And he doesn't go out with just anyone, no, he starts up with Olka Zlotova. ."
       This erupted from him suddenly (about Syropevtsev), and Shurochka bristled immediately:
       "What are you picking on him for, you blockhead? He's a handsome guy, if he feels like it, he has a good time! She's divorced, after all!"
       Kurenkov didn't reply, he bit his tongue. When the film was over, his wife went to bed. So did his daughter. But he kept thinking about the same thing, cultivating his spite, until he stopped himself: What misfortune! He lay down but didn't sleep. He hissed and turned and kept touching his fragile rib cage; the burning began in the area of the stomach, but Kurenkov knew that it would rise, day after day getting closer and closer to his heart. He moaned suddenly', as if from a toothache.
       When they were leaving the house in the morning, their neighbor Tukovsky, a wise, elderly man, seemed to want to stop them near the mailboxes. His name was Viktor Viktorovich. At one time, owing to his youthfulness, Tukovsky had served two terms in prison. Everyone knew that he had seen a lot there and that he had a sharp eye. No, at first he simply took his newspapers out of his mailbox. Greeting them in a neighborly fashion and chatting a bit with Shurochka, all of a sudden and completely out of the blue he addressed himself to Kurenkov: You're a good guy, Tolik, but I can see from your behavior (forgive me, an old man) and even in your face - you're headed for time in prison.
       "Why is that?" asked Kurenkov. Tukovsky grew embarrassed, and then (he had to answer something), grimly and somehow unwillingly, he added that you can't get around fate, even if you double your precautions.
       "Neither my mother nor my father did time - and neither will I," Kurenkov retorted, partly hurt and partly defiant, but Tukovsky only shook his head.
        And to Shurochka he commented: "Keep an eye on him, Shura."
       "It's none of your business! An old man, saying such things!" Shurochka herself snapped, though the conversation had been going along in a perfectly peaceable, neighborly tone.
       Viktor Viktorovich was certainly not about to insist. He nodded right away, as if to say: "Of course it isn't any of my business, and please, excuse me." Tukovsky hurriedly collected his newspapers and left. He went up to his fifth-floor apartment and by then may have already forgotten what he had said; after all, early morning conversations are often only a matter of passing mood. But right after the worldly-wise neighbor had jinxed them so unpleasantly, Shurochka became uneasy. She called her lover Panov and told him that she was worried and that Kurenkov was apparently building up hostility once again; then the film critic, sighing, replied: "Oh, Shurochka, your life certainly isn't boring." They arranged to meet and she went to the film critic's house. They drank very little and made love even less, after which Shurochka immediately started talking about her own, pressingly painful problem - I'm scared that my Tolik will end up in prison. What am I to do, what can be done, if ex-prisoners already take him for one of their own? I'm scared he'll end up in prison, she repeated. Her voice trembled, but Panov asked indelicately:
        "What? You mean he's never done time?" "Never!"
       "Really?" the film critic asked again, and then he and Shurochka argued. She was even hurt. If she'd told him practically her whole life story once, she'd told him a hundred times, yet he forgot her words and stories, or didn't recall them, or simply got them mixed up: apparently it wasn't conversation with Shurochka that he liked, but Shurochka herself. Shurochka accorded a lot of importance to conversation with intelligent, sensitive people and that, it could be said, was what she loved Panov for. True, he also dressed wonderfully, with taste. She couldn't resist that either.
       Shurochka reminded him again: Kurenkov is a peaceful, calm person, but sometimes (once a year, once every two years) he gets sort of jealous and suddenly starts accumulating hostility toward someone who stands out from the crowd. If someone puts on airs - he doesn't like him. If Vasily Tyurin stood out, let's say, because of his fashionable chatter, carefreeness, and a certain surplus of money, which he threw around left and right, then the engineer Syropevtsev, who'd started hanging out with their crowd, stood out even more distinctly - he was handsome. Not only that, Syropevtsev also had a car.
       "He doesn't like this one, doesn't like that one - tell me, who does he think he is?" "Ask him."
       Lighting a cigarette, the film critic said: "I think he's pathologically envious." "Ohhh, no."
       "He just knows how to hide it."
       "No, that's not true!" Shurochka got angry (at this point Panov sat down on the ottoman, smoking and dangling his legs, and Shurochka reclined on the bed). Shurochka jumped up in a rage and, gesticulating, told him about Kurenkov's lack of interest in money and clothes, about his indifference to cars. She also explained about the burning in his chest: the focal point of his accumulating hostility. And about how he lost weight and became ill.
       "But he's an antileader!" exclaimed Panov this time. "What's that? A psychopath?" "Something like that." Panov nodded. And then Panov asked whether, in childhood and in school, Kurenkov beat up the teachers' pets and the good-looking boys who were popular with the girls. Was he deliberately belligerent as a child? There is a notorious (even a bit frightening) human type of this sort, which manifests itself in early childhood. Shurochka could have said Yes! Yes! to avoid an argument, but Panov didn't have it right. Kurenkov and Shurochka grew up together on the same block. Tolik was a peaceful boy, not a troublemaker, and what was certain was that he didn't bully pretty teachers' pets. She would have noticed. Even as a little girl she was very observant.
       "Still, it's connected with his childhood." Panov stood his ground. Shurochka grew worried, she trembled; in the street she bumped into old ladies. Returning home, she said:
       "Kurenkov, you know what intelligent people say about you? You're an antileader." "Who says so?" "Whoever says, knows."
       Shurochka deliberately intimidated him with the unfamiliar word so that he'd watch himself.
       Before her meeting with Panov, Shurochka had gone to get pigs' feet to make kholodets*  for Marinka Knyazeva's birthday. She bought the feet unexpectedly quickly. She bought carrots as well. There was a lot of time left, and that's when Shurochka set off to see Panov, whose gentle conversations soothed her better than any valerian. She rushed to him as if on wings, and by the time she reached the door, she was already in tears. "I'm heartsick."
       She could feel something bad was going to happen, she complained to him - and Panov, beating around the bush, eventually said that her Tolik had probably been rotten and no good practically since childhood.
       "You're actually happy to write him off as a nut case." "Whether I'm happy to or not has nothing to do with it now. When is the birthday party?" (Shurochka was afraid that Kurenkov would come undone at the party.) "Day after tomorrow."
       Panov had been drinking a bit of cognac. Finishing off another glass, he grinned. "You're being silly, Shurochka. If he's really like that, the sooner they lock him up, the better. Its better for you. How long call you live on top of a volcano!"
       But at this Shurochka blew up.
       "Lock him up?" she said. "You certainly are quick, mister! I love him, he's my husband - have you forgotten that? Family is family, we still have our daughter to raise!" He softened, started calming her down: "What grade is your daughter in?" He was forgetful; she had told him many times.
       "What grade, what grade - sixth!"
       Panov softened, sighed, sympathized with Shurochka, and then turned on the tape recorder; he wanted to enjoy himself and listen to a little music, but unexpectedly the tape contained the very song that her Tolik liked to sing with Alik Zimin and Shurochka burst into tears. Shurochka sat down on the bed, burying her face in her hands. Panov decided that the song had moved her deeply, and started telling her how sensitive she was to music, how gentle and how feminine. His tenderness moved Shurochka even more and the tears kept flowing, but it was time to go, she'd already overstayed her visit. She dressed in haste, and while she was dressing he kissed her awkwardly. Really, he, too, had been deeply moved. After Shurochka left it turned out that she'd forgotten the pigs' feet in his refrigerator. She was already on the street when she turned back. She was out of breath.
       When he saw her again Panov suggested, as though it had just dawned on him: Why don't you have a little talk with, your Tolik, Shurochka, heart to heart. Panov reasoned this way: maybe Kurenkov doesn't feel he's a part of things. He should open himself up to Shurochka, he should confide in her.
       "What?" Shurochka asked. She didn't understand right away; she was stuffing the parcel in her bag and breathing heavily.
       But the heart-to-heart talk had to be put off, since Alik Zimin and his wife came by; Anya Zimin smelled of expensive perfume. The four of them drank vodka and whiled away the evening together - two families, that was always wonderful. At first Alik played the saxophone for them, then the guitar. Kurenkov loved to sit and listen like that, Shurochka herself adored such moments. She and Alik's wife sat arm in arm and their intoxicated husbands sat nearby. Impending misfortune was forgotten. Shurochka felt good: tomorrow the morning would come, and the sky would be crystal clear and so blue it would hurt your eyes.
       When they had seen the late-staying guests off, Shurochka, who was still in the mood, lay down and cuddled up to him. Tolik, Tolik, she said, but he turned away from her toward the wall. Nothing like this had ever happened, and Shurochka flew into a rage. You so-and-so, she shouted (in a whisper), you've had your fill on the side, have you, and now you don't have eyes for your wife? In a fit of pique, Shurochka pushed him out of bed. He went into the kitchen and smoked cigarettes till he was yellow. But Shurochka followed him: Admit it, why don't you? She shoved him in the back once more. He didn't say a word, just stood there smoking; then Shurochka started smashing dishes. She flung one teacup after another on the floor until her daughter, who had been up late memorizing a fable in her room, ran in shouting: "Mama! Mama!" "Go to bed!" And she went out, yelling something. Only then did Shurochka finally calm down, quiet down. Suppressing a sigh, she swept the broken dishes into a corner. Fortunately, her daughter fell asleep quickly. They also went to bed. They lay with their backs to each other.
       They were silent for some time, then, turning around suddenly, Shurochka whispered straight in his ear: "You watch out, don't you dare lift so much as a finger against Syropevtsev! I don't want to be married to a convict!" And Kurenkov flinched because Shurochka had read his thoughts as surely as her own. He rolled up into a ball. He said nothing. Then he began to shiver slightly. He turned to Shurochka, became talkative and affectionate, but Shurochka was no longer in the mood - why all this affection when it's time to sleep? And then she remembered Panov's advice. She grew soft, gentle, and whispered to him:
       "Tolik... tell me, tell me what you were thinking about... confide in me."
       She kissed him on the neck, stroked him tenderly, and he opened up: Yes, his chest was burning again and he was afraid of exploding, especially at the birthday party. "Ah, Tolik," whispered Shurochka, struck by how accurate her premonition had been and how valuable her lover's advice was. Panov was so smart. But how secretive Tolik turned out to be (after all, she had asked him to get by without fights, she had begged).
       "I was planning to have a steam bath tomorrow, and wanted you to rub my back."
       "Tolik!"
       "I won't touch him, I won't touch him! I promise. I'm just telling you, so you'll know."
       They were both glad, she because of his trust, he because of her readiness to understand him. They whispered endearments to each other. They talked on and on incoherently and suddenly realized they were famished - they jumped out of bed half naked and at that late hour went into the kitchen, but even there, having put the kettle on and sliced the sausage, they kept talking in bursts, interrupting each other: "I won't go to the birthday party." "Say you're sick." "Yes, that's exactly what we'll do!" "How I love you when you're good, Tolik. How I love you!" Shurochka sobbed, happy to have had a weight lifted from her shoulders, and he, also happy, replied: "What about me? I love you too."
       Marinka Knyazeva managed to send her daughter to her mother's, and without her daughter around they would be able to party freely, until all hours if they wanted to - as Marinka informed Shurochka by phone. Since Shurochka had purchased the pigs' feet, she'd take on the kholodets. She'd make the kholodets, but Marinka ought to make her wonderful cabbage pie, she was good at it. If Marinka did her best, the pie would be wonderful, and Alik Zimin's wife would come and help her set the table - as for the drinks, tile men, of course, would take care of that. Their local store might not have any vodka, in which case Syropevtsev and Olka Zlotova could drive downtown and stock up, and we'd settle with them later. Syropevtsev had a car, so, logically, they'd be the ones to go for the vodka. That way, he and Olka could take part too. Shurochka hustled about and gave advice, but her heart sank - her heart ached.
       Tolik announced he was ill first thing in the morning, despite his friends' persuasion, despite how offended Marinka was. Tolik held out well; the day, however, was long-the day was not over yet. Shurochka Kurenkova made the kholodets, distracting herself with activity, and took valerian, finishing off the whole bottle by lunchtime. By evening she was extremely edgy-Alik Zimin dropped by to plead with Tolik, but Tolik, good for him, held his ground! It helped, too, that Tolik had actually taken sick. His face darkened even more and he suddenly felt ill. He shivered. And his temperature, as if conspiring with him, jumped to 100 degrees.
       He was pleased when he found out that he had a fever. He said, as usual:
       "Don't you worry about me now, Kurenkova," and started undressing. He went to bed early. He told their daughter to eat dinner but didn't eat anything himself. ═ň lay in bed, watched a soccer game on television, but not even to the end, he was shivering too much. By that time Marinka's birthday party was in full swing. Olya Zlotova and Syropevtsev were there, and Alik Zimin with his saxophone and guitar, and Gena Skobelev, who always showed up with his somewhat squint-eyed wife. Shurochka brought over the kholodets, sat there for an hour, downed a few glasses - and went home. No, first they all called from Marinka's: Tolik, old man, we're drinking to your health, get better soon. They heard his voice, and then there was silence on the line. Shurochka immediately rushed home - what a blessing that they all lived nearby, an old, undissolved group of Moscow friends. When Shurochka ran in Kurenkov was in bed, delirious, muttering a bunch of nonsense. He talked about previous binges and flings, about some women. He was burning up.
       The crisis came that night, his fever broke, and in the morning Kurenkov lay in bed, weak, but already smiling. Shurochka didn't go to the television shop, she sat close by, feeding Tolik tea and telling him how they all drank to his health last night at Marinka Knyazeva's. He was interested in how it went and who was there. Shurochka described everything thoroughly, tastefully.
       "Yes," he sighed, "no luck for me."
       But Shurochka thought: You might not have been lucky. But she, Shurochka, was lucky for sure. And so were Syropevtsev and Olya Zlotova - all of them were, in a manner of speaking, lucky.
       But he exploded all the same, and for the first time Shurochka thought that just maybe it was true that you couldn't get around fate (it was all too sudden for her). The accumulated and, so to speak, unspent charge of anger in Kurenkov made itself known. Not a week had gone by when, still frail, he got mixed up in a fight that started on a bus, then rolled out onto the steps and turned into a street fight. Kurenkov didn't know any of them - and why he got involved wasn't clear. When he was knocked down he fell on the pavement and, while they were kicking him, grabbed some hard object that was at hand. It was just a coincidence.
       Afterward, it came out that the leg of an elegant magazine table had been lying on the pavement, dropped there or lost by someone during the commotion. In the courtroom the elegant leg, when held up, looked like a cudgel. The trial was swift and fair. Along with the other brawlers, Kurenkov was given two years, but he was to serve his sentence on the "soft" system: one year in prison, one year in exile.
       He looked lost in the courtroom: he had never fought in buses and didn't understand how this had happened to him. There weren't many people present, only friends came. Shurochka cried, almost wailed: she sat there till the end. Puffy and homely, when they were allowed to see each other, she kept on asking:
       "Tolik! Tolik! How did this happen?"
       He spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty; his head had been shaved and he gaped at her as if to say: I don't know how it came about. He, too, sobbed for a moment when they spoke of their daughter.

       Panov comforted Shurochka, he was very attentive to her, and in particular he explained that what had happened was for the best, however bitter a pill it was to swallow. Eventually it would have ended in prison anyway, so Shurochka should take into consideration the fact that a minor street fight could have been bloodier, the outcome worse. Let Kurenkov figure himself out and come to some understanding while in prison, before it was too late. He isn't stupid: he has a lot to think about. She should be glad it happened this way. He could have ended up by maiming some interesting, outstanding person - precisely the kind of people he didn't like and toward whom he accumulated hostility - would that have been better? "You mean this was meant to be?" asked Shurochka. "I didn't put it that way." "This was meant to be," Shurochka repeated with bitterness and pain, utterly incapable of coming to terms with the idea that the best place for her Tolik was in prison.
       She sent a letter to him in eastern Siberia, full of loving phrases, both the usual ones and new ones she composed, swallowing her tears. The letter ended with the most important thing, and now the most important thing was for him to return alive and well. This meant that now, there, he should finally behave cautiously. "You mind me now, Kurenkov!"

       He answered that of course it wasn't easy for him to get used to things, but people were people here, too, after all, and he was getting used to it. And so she was losing sleep and worrying for nothing, in that sense everything was all right - and he also ended the letter with the usual:
       "Don't you worry about me, Kurenkova..."
       They were not allowed a visit, so Shurochka wrote him letters and sent parcels. And of course she sent him greetings from their friends; their neighbor Tukovsky, Viktor Viktorovich, on seeing Tolik's return address, told Shurochka not to worry, those were the regulations - they'd be allowed a visit next year.

       When she and Tolik, who had been childhood sweethearts, got married, it was so simple, so natural, that it seemed to Shurochka that nothing had happened. They didn't even have a wedding party. After the registrar's office they had a drink at the Zimins', then at Gena Skobelev's. And then they went to the movies. They saw a fabulous French comedy, Shurochka laughed a lot and was happy. She loved the movies then, too. When the film was over, Shurochka said, "Well, so long," at their usual street corner. "I think you've forgotten something," he said, laughing.
       "Oy!" She suddenly remembered.
       And they both laughed loudly.

       
       4
       
       Kurenkov was serving his second year more or less at liberty - about three hundred kilometers from the corrective labor colony in a small Siberian town. There, too, he was a hard, diligent worker. There, too, he was quiet. He worked in his own specialty, as a plumber, without any guard at all. He just didn't have the right to leave the town, where every week he had to check in with the police.
       They could have seen each other. It was already clear that a visit would be permitted. Even Alik Zimin was asking, with a bit of impatience in his voice:
       "Why don't you go to see him, Shura?" The parcel that his friends put together was wonderful. Gena Skobelev, Marinka Knyazeva - all of them said: "Go on, give him our greetings, visit him", but Shurochka still didn't go. She waited. The thing was that Tukovsky, who understood more about Tolik, advised her not to use her right to visit now, but later - when the need arose.
       "When will that be?" asked Shurochka.
       "You'll feel it," answered her experienced neighbor. (Panov advised the same thing, repeating that a visit wasn't for seeing each other, but in order to help. It was as if he and Tukovsky had agreed on it, although they didn't even know each other.)
       And sure enough, one time Kurenkov sent a letter that was suddenly dry and short, and Shurochka's heart began to ache in the old familiar way.
       Requesting time off immediately, and leaving her daughter in the care of Olya Zlotova, Shurochka set off on the long journey. Her heart hadn't deceived her: Tolik had grown noticeably thin and his complexion was dark. When they met, Shurochka's temples throbbed and she cried.
       Tolik lived in a barracks with a roommate, and for the three days that Shurochka was there the administration moved Teterin into someone else's room so that the Kurenkovs would feel better and more at ease - but Shurochka didn't feel better. It was true that people were people here like anywhere else, but her Tolik for some reason had ended up in horrid surroundings, where a certain Bolshakov ran the show and bullied everyone. (Having done time for robbery, Bolshakov was also waiting to be released soon.) He was the large man with great hairy hands and a fuzzy chest who met Shurochka in the barracks corridor and without a second thought said something flirtatious to her. Shurochka immediately called him a pig. She called him a pig and even shook her fist at him.
       A burglar of average ability, Bolshakov wanted to come off as a real gangster before being released, so he bossed everyone around, frightened them, and took particular pleasure in meeting out all sorts of minor punishments. He knew how to instill fear. He beat those who hadn't paid up, or were holding back the money they owed him, almost with a kind of ecstasy; he beat moochers and guys who simply wandered into the barracks to bum twenty kopecks for a beer - and in the last days before his release he really went to town. Once released (he willingly talked about this), Bolshakov intended to be a completely honest and reformed citizen. Moreover, he intended to forget the past forever. He had a good wife and intelligent, grown-up children. So these were his last days. In the Vostok, the only restaurant in town Bolshakov acted as if he owned the place. The head waitress, Larisa was his mistress.
       The restaurant turned out to be a dump and the band awful, so when they got there Shurochka, wrinkling her nose, said that she didn't dance at all - she didn't know how. But the others were having a good time, they were keyed up. Freedom and reunion with their families awaited them in the near future, and toward evening this feeling was particularly strong in the lousy little dive. They ate well and a lot, even her Kurenkov ate as he never did at home. And Bolshakov, lounging about jauntily, was enjoying life: glancing over the bottles and appetizers, he commanded his toady, Rafik:
       "Dance with Nadya, Rafik. Waitresses are people, too, and she wants to."
       Then he said to Kurenkov:
       "And you, Tolik, take care of mine - dance with her, she likes it. I feel sort of heavy on my feet today."
       Rafik went off to dance. And Kurenkov danced with Larisa, with Bolshakov's mistress, though Shurochka sensed that Tolik didn't like it. He couldn't like it, and shouldn't Shurochka know? Teterin sat at the table next to Shurochka - a balding, strong man with a steep forehead, and here he was kowtowing to Bolshakov, like a kid or a lackey. Shurochka took stock of each of them. Kurenkov finished the dance and returned, but the band played on and on, and, probably to forestall Bolshakov from sending him again, Kurenkov said:
       "I'm not going to dance anymoreů What are you playing the big gang leader for, Vyacheslav Petrovich?"
       Bolshakov gave him a lazy, displeased look, as if to say: What's it to you? Bolshakov cleared his throat, and Kurenkov (his complexion suddenly darkened) had already opened his mouth to say something venomous, but Shurochka was on the alert - she kicked him and shot him such a look that Tolik instantly shut up. That was better. All right, then. Falling silent, he drank a glass and sat peacefully, but a moment later Shurochka noticed that he was holding his stomach, soothing the burning there.
       After the restaurant, when they returned to the barracks (and as soon as they entered the room and were alone), Shurochka gave Kurenkov a talking-to: Be patient! When you get home, that's another thing, let it bum if you have to. But be patient here, because Bolshakov is no Syro- pevtsev and company. Shurochka didn't ask how and what. She already knew her husband well. Shurochka and Kurenkov lay on the hard camp bed, it was quiet and she admonished her husband, sparing neither words nor time:
       "You mind me. I know your trick, Tolik!" And, raising herself up on the pillow, she shook her strong fist at him. The next day, when Bolshakov, swaggering and drinking hard, called Kurenkov into his room to drink some wine, Shurochka was cautious: You've been invited, you have to go, no use making a face. Especially since it's close - five steps down the hall. Shurochka even insisted. Don't, she said, make him mad. Tolik - you'll stay awhile, drink a glass, and leave quietly. Shurochka put on her makeup and went with him: she wouldn't leave him alone, she hadn't come for that. They arrived. Bolshakov was already drinking and boasting, of course, and forcing Rafik to dance the lezginka, which he'd never danced in his life. Wine and vodka were almost never brought into their settlement. But here there were both. Shurochka didn't take her eyes off Kurenkov. It was as though she were coaching him: If you want to return alive, put up with it, you're not a baby, you didn't have to end up here. And, in fact, they drank a little, even sang a bit, passed the time of day.
       They were ready to take their leave when Rafik, all worked up and soaking wet from another round of the lezginka, started complaining. Life here was confining and the police watched your every move, he whined, and not only that, the local barber was hitting on his, Rafik's, favorite woman. He seemed to be speaking about Nadya, the waitress. The complaint was registered. Bolshakov, self-satisfied and well fed, decided to set things straight; he rose from his seat. And all of them rose, also ready to take the local Figaro in hand. The barber lived close by.
       Shurochka wouldn't have gone and wouldn't have let Kurenkov go - they'd been there two hours drinking wine, it was enough - but Bolshakov very peacefully, even suavely, said to all of them:
       "Well, then, friends, lets get a breath of fresh air-and we'll have a talk with Figaro while we're at it."
       They came to a neat, well-to-do little house. And, in fact, they took their time getting there; it was so lovely to breathe the astringent, pine- scented air. But as soon as they entered, Bolshakov began to beat the barber in his own home, right away for that matter, not wasting a minute-he only said hello. In shock, Shurochka grabbed Kurenkov's shoulder. They all watched the punishment in silence. They entered and stood right next to the door. That was what Bolshakov had brought them for-he liked people to see his strength. His fists were enormous.
       The barber's wife ran into the other room so she wouldn't see; covering her face with her hands, she gasped at every audible blow. When the barber crawled under the ficus, Bolshakov dragged him out, hitting him so that he wouldn't crawl in that direction anymore. Bolshakov didn't strike with his feet. He probably knew that he could kill; even with his hands he used only half his strength. Finally even Rafik begged: "That's enough, Vyacheslav Petrovich." His handsome enemy and rival was sprawled on the floor in hideous shape. "That's enough, Vyacheslav Petrovich." "Wait, I'll just give him a little poke" - and Bolshakov lightly jabbed the prone figure in the buttocks with a knife, which he had quickly and deftly extracted from his pocket. The handsome barber lay on his stomach. He clasped his head in his hands. When jabbed in the rear the barber yelped, but he didn't turn over and didn't uncover his head - one doesn't expose a vulnerable spot. The knife jabbed him once more. Again he yelped and again held his head tight. And he waited for them to get their fill of violence and of his humiliation, and leave.
       They left.
       In the barracks they all gathered at Bolshakov's once more - to continue the evening, so to speak. Shurochka was still numb with shock - she went along mechanically and mechanically sat down at the table. They sat in a circle. They drank. Becoming sentimental, Bolshakov passed around photographs sent to him from home: his youngest son, who had just gotten married, was in all of them. A young man resembling Bolshakov, smartly dressed and bowing slightly, was placing a ring on his young wife's finger. There was one photograph with champagne. One with relatives. In another picture the young couple, finally leaving the registrar's office, were getting into a car with ribbons. Kurenkov genuinely liked this one, you could see a bit of a Moscow street - the houses looked very familiar and the stand in the distance seemed to be a beer stand. Examining the photographs, they admired the young man, admired the bride, and even approved of the relatives, when Kurenkov, feeling a sudden pang of homesickness, burst out:
       "Enough, already, enough - why are you all kissing his rear end?"
       "Whose?" asked Rafik.
       "Whose, whose? That ape's." Kurenkov spate the words quietly but clearly, and in a moment of silence. Bolshakov heard, as did everyone else. Unable to restrain himself, Kurenkov left then and there, slamming the door in anger, either at himself or at the whole human race, and Shurochka, of course, rushed after him. She caught up with him in the barracks corridor: he was opening the door to his room.
       Shurochka didn't sleep the whole night. She was shaking and thoroughly alarmed; she had to leave the next day. She kissed him, and her lips trembled. Lying next to him, Shurochka alternately gave him orders and pleaded guilty:
        "Tolik, control yourself for our daughter's sake, do you hear, Tolik?"
        He promised. He said: Okay, okay. Shurochka stroked him and whispered him, then threatened. Suddenly, in the silence of the sleeping barracks, she cried out:
       "You mind me now!"
        In the morning, before her departure, Shurochka went to the authorities. She asked them to transfer Kurenkov to another barracks or another settlement, even one way out in the sticks. She wasn't foolish, she didn't snitch on anyone, she only explained that her Kurenkov was restless from being in one place, he's restless and getting nervous, a breakdown is possible. They were surprised: But what do you mean - he's so quiet, they don't come better than that. But Shurochka held her ground. Shurochka didn't know the rules here, but she knew that she was pretty and that men liked her, and that she was stylishly dressed, like a city girl. She smiled a little, even shed a tear. In short, they promised.
       But when she returned, inspired, to talk with Kurenkov and give him his last orders, a fight had already taken place in the barracks: Her peaceful Tolik and Bolshakov had exchanged knife stabs. It had been a morning encounter that had flared up momentarily and then died down; they had been walking toward each other along the barracks corridor, and Tolik struck first. You could say that they struck simultaneously. They were pulled apart. It was immediately apparent that Kurenkov had gotten off easier-he was hit in the shoulder and could still move his arm more or less freely. Bolshakov was hit in the stomach though not very deeply. They didn't really have to be dragged apart they separated on their own, fearing noise and attention. Each was sit ting in his room.
       "How could you! How could you, Tolik!" Shurochka chided him, while he sat on the bed, guilty and silent. After the outburst he immediately weakened, both physically and morally. He dolefully confessed: Yes, it happened. He muttered something to the effect that if he hadn't hit first, it would have been worse.
       Shurochka wept:
       "You promised, Tolik."
       They managed to conceal the fight. Kurenkov went off to work, and Bolshakov lay in his room, where the former medic Teterin washed the wound, bandaged it, and gave him injections of antibiotics for three or four days. Shurochka was nervous: she was leaving and wouldn't know how it all turned out. She didn't have the right to stay on, they'd already produced her exit permit for her.

       After three days in bed, supposedly with a cold, Bolshakov changed. He softened, constantly asked others to tell Kurenkov that he held nothing against him, and, in fact, never had, didn't Tolik realize this. When they told him, Kurenkov, screwing on copper faucets and rattling wrenches, spat out: Tell him he can stop shaking, I won't touch him again, what do I need a piece of garbage like that for. The whole affair sorted itself out even further. Everyone behaved quietly and cautiously, everyone wanted to go home. It was obvious that for a knife fight everyone, without exception, would have been given extra time. A feverish Bolshakov went to check in with the police by himself, unaccompanied, displaying a good deal of willpower.

       Some rumor of the fight leaked out all the same, or perhaps Shurochka's request worked; in any event, Kurenkov was soon transferred. He was sent to live in a completely impoverished little Siberian town. He was transferred without censure. It could have been a simple coincidence: a request for several qualified plumbers had come from the impoverished little town. Separated from Bolshakov and his gang, Kurenkov wrote a letter to Shurochka from the new place; he wrote that it was far better here. The place was to his liking. He wrote that the barracks were the same and the work was the same, but the place was beautiful, very tranquil. A photograph was included: Tolik had filled out, gained weight, which for Shurochka was the most important sign. The photograph confirmed it.
       All the same she wrote: "You mind me now, Kurenkov!"

       Shurochka also wrote him that Galya, their daughter, had grown up and that she'd have her first decision to make when she finished eighth grade-maybe she'd go through tenth grade, or maybe she'd go to vocational school in the evenings. And if she were going to work, why not in the same television shop as Shurochka; the work wasn't bad, it was clean. The letter became endless. Shurochka wrote about their friends as well, who sent their greetings and were waiting for him to come back, it wouldn't be long now. Of course she wrote about Alik Zimin, too, who'd just had his second son. She wrote about Gena Skobelev and even about Marinka Knyazeva, who had a new, wellheeled lover.
       Shurochka didn't write about other things: about how ugly she'd become. A plump woman with a neat, clear face, Shurochka was not a beauty; she was one of those nice-looking women who suddenly grow old at thirty-four or thirty-five, sometimes for inexplicable reasons. Maybe her troubles were showing. Somehow losing her playful appearance all at once, Shurochka both lost her looks and gained too much weight. I've let myself slide, she thought, passing the mirror in the foyer. The affair with Panov was over too. It could be said that they'd parted company. Shurochka often cried.
       Panov wanted to see her less and less, and lately he kept claiming that he was very busy, although Shurochka knew that his wife and children were away and that there wouldn't be a more convenient or better time to talk about Tolik's last letter. And wasn't it the intelligent human being in Panov that she valued above all? In the final analysis, she was used to talking things over with him - there was no one else. After several stubborn calls from her, the film critic agreed to talk, but only sitting on a bench somewhere in one of the little parks. And it was spring; the benches had only just dried off after the thaw and the rains. The benches still reminded one of snow. Panov listened to Shurochka unwillingly, he read the letter without interest, only skimming the lines. He said:
       "He has his own destiny." And he added: "You're worrying and suffering over him in vain, Shura."
       They didn't manage a heart-to-heart talk. Shurochka didn't get anything off her chest and she felt ill, but there was no one else to go to. With her friends, Alik Zimin and Marinka Knyazeva and the rest, communication was too routine and humdrum, and anyway they didn't know how to carry on an insightful conversation. They didn't know how to analyze the psychology of a given action. They would invite her over, tell her to "forget about it," and pull out a bottle of vodka. At best, Marinka would go to the movies with Shurochka. Shurochka could do that by herself. She didn't need Marinka for that. A lot of people weren't exactly averse to pursuing Shurochka and tried to pry their way into her friendship, but then she loved who she loved. She was used to his graying mustache, to his voice-however, things with Panov were at an end, that was the upshot, and in bitterness Shurochka thought: Why not get together with, say, the journalist Terekhov - he, too, is cultured and, it seems, intelligent. Lately, bringing his Elektronika television back and forth, Terekhov had smiled insinuatingly at Shurochka; in his eyes there was that perfectly clear, familiar... And he wasn't the only one, there were others, all different. Work in the shop not only gave her the opportunity to meet cultured people, but to choose among them. But would it be the same with Terekhov? The idea of change itself bothered Shurochka. It isn't easy to step off the beaten track. She was even more bothered by the change in herself having lost her looks, she had lost her previous self-assurance. That intelligent Terekhov would see her once or twice and that would be the end of it.
       "I'm going. It's too hot to sit," said Shurochka, offended, taking the letter from his hands and rising from the bench.
       Panov agreed:
       "Yes, it's sultry. It's a hot spring."

       Without any reason and, as they say, out of the blue, Shurochka burst out sobbing at the birthday party of Gena Skobelev's wife. Her childhood friends jumped up and comforted her - one pressed valerian on her, another said: Swig half a glass of vodka. They didn't like it when one of their own cried. They would have scratched the festivities, but she said firmly: No, no, we'll continue. The party continued, but now they drank to Tolik, to his return, to Shurochka, as though the birthday were hers and not Gena Skobelev's wife's. The oranges, piled in a pyramid, lost their gloss. And the songs they sang, when Alik Zimin started playing his saxophone, were sad. They sang about how they pined, longed, and waited for their beloved, and so on.
       It's possible that the tears at the birthday party were a kind of premonition, because - what was it - three days or so later she received a letter from Tolik and she didn't like the sound of it. The letter was very short and dry. Shurochka immediately sent a reply in which, after many affectionate words, she included their usual exchange in large letters: "You mind me now, Kurenkov!" It was a tearful shout across the distance, a plea.

       
       5

       The premonition continued to torment her: at night Shurochka would awake with a stitch in her heart or fling herself headlong from the bed for no apparent reason. There was no one to talk to. During the day in the shop she was so lonely she could have cried. She stood at the reception desk - after lunch the customers were a dull, uninteresting lot, or else troublemakers. On the three large television screens, the color set in the middle, they were showing a dolphin being trained and were explaining that this dolphin could already understand people. The dolphin jumped through a hoop. And since the three televisions were next to one another, it looked as if three dolphins (in the middle a whitish-blue one) were jumping through the hoops in perfect unison. It seemed that three dolphins at once could already understand people.
       Shurochka wrote down the repairs from the technicians words. She wrote out receipt after receipt. People came. People brought TVs. Shurochka felt her gorge rising and realized that she couldn't stand it any longer. Finding a moment, she left, causing disgruntlement on the other side of the counter that would soon turn into shouts. Let them shout a bit, Shurochka decided.
       Shurochka went to see the senior technician: she asked him to let her go. She burst into tears, told him about her premonition, and asked him to give her time off to visit her husband.
       "But you just went there not long ago. Do you really want to spend all that money-there and back-it's so far."
       The technician grumbled, but he agreed:
       "Go on, then."

       That evening Shurochka dropped in to see her experienced neighbor Tukovsky, Viktor Viktorovich, who had once done time himself. He lived two floors below. Shurochka simply dropped in, out of weakness, and it turned out to be a good thing, though she had expected nothing good at the end of such a miserable day. Gray-haired Tukovsky and his wife, also gray-haired, were warm and friendly toward Shurochka, and they turned out to be fairly cultured. They gave her tea and cookies and she sat with them the whole evening, sometimes crying, sometimes ardently talking about Tolik. For the first time in a very long while, she talked herself out.
       She kept coming back to her premonition: her heart never deceived her - she was certain that Tolik was in trouble now, and that was why she wanted to go. She'd already gotten her things together.
       "Have another cup of tea, Shura dear," said Tukovsky's wife, tenderly looking after her.
       Having listened to the very end, Tukovsky became glum.
       "It's doesn't matter so much that he's quarreling with someone again, what's important is who it is."
       "Yes, yes," Shurochka agreed.
       "It's important he doesn't get himself into really bad trouble."
       Tokovsky explained: It's even surprising, you know, that with such a peculiar personality he's somehow managed to stay alive and unharmed there among all those gangsters, goons, and strongmen. After all, life there isn't like being free. It's simpler there. As soon as he crosses the real thing-it's curtains. He's just been lucky up to now. These Bolshakovs and Rafiks she'd talked about were just raraff; they were, you see, just ordinary jerks - braggarts, not dangerous. Tukovsky lit a cigarette.
       When his wife went out for a minute to make a fresh pot of tea, Tukovsky said quietly, as if to a daughter:
       "You poor thing, Shurochka. I'm afraid he won't come back alive."
       He spoke as if looking into a crystal ball. And he asked:
       "How much longer has he got there?"
       "Four months and ten days."
       He whistled: Whew, that long, eh?
       To her daughter, Shurochka said: I'm going to visit your father, is there anything you want me to tell him? And her daughter, just like the last time, blushed and didn't say anything. She had shot up this year and become gangly. She already understood everything. Still blushing, she quickly went to her room; the second year had almost gone by and she was still embarrassed about her father, the convict.
       Shurochka managed to arrange the papers for the trip quickly, but since she'd used up her holiday, they gave her ten days with no pay. Eight days on the road - there and back. And two days there.
       Tukovsky was not mistaken: during those two days Shurochka saw her Tolik for the last time.
       The remote town would have been more aptly termed a settlement. The barracks, however, were like barracks anywhere, divided up into little rooms, and beyond the partition, just like the last time Shurochka visited, someone was making noise and swearing now and then. The beds were also arranged in exactly the same way, and even the gray blanket with two stripes running across it seemed to be a carbon copy of those ╬leg's blankets - so that the only thing that could surprise her was Kurenkov's isolation. It did indeed surprise her. Her Tolik lived alone, while everyone else lived two, in some cases even three, to a room. When Shurochka, pointing to the second bed, asked where his roommate was, Kurenkov sat silently, then he grumbled, muttering something indistinct, and only when Shurochka pressed him did he admit:
       "Yes, well, there you have it. He didn't want to live with me."
       "Why not ?"
       "I don't know."
       Kurenkov was depressed, and of course his face was thin and dark, and of course Shurochka knew everything in advance. Experience is like habit. Shurochka didn't waste any time. Telling Tolik that she was going to take a look at the store, she quickly went outside. There she looked around. She had to ask and, having found out, she had to walk up the street and ask again - and there she was. She was offered a seat. She was given a cup of good tea and asked how the weather was back in Moscow. Everything was quite pleasant, except the main thing: the local authorities hadn't had time to take a close look at Kurenkov, and they didn't understand Shurochka. That is, they didn't understand her at all.
       "He's quiet," they said, "he's a quiet one, yours is. Why transfer him somewhere?"
       The second administrator, who sat to the left, was very young, sensitive. He offered her tea and told her not to worry. There was nothing to fear. With a smile he added: If only all of them were like yours. Right, thought Shurochka, the quiet type. Right, she thought, if they were all like that. She returned to the barracks not the least bit reassured. Her heart ached because in the barracks something unseen was already moving in on her Tolik. Something was going on in the barracks. Shurochka could feel it through the walls.
       Tolik himself kept silent. No, he said, nothing in particular. Yes, he'd argued with someone. Yes, the same old story, what difference does it make to you who it is?
       During her last visit the confrontation also developed gradually, but at least outwardly the people around could be seen and understood. Here he was alone. Moreover, people in the barracks avoided him. It was as if he'd already been marked by something - or someone. It wasn't only that something was being planned or plotted against Kurenkov - it had already been decided, so that even walking up to him or having a smoke with him was taboo. He had been isolated - quarantined. And when Kurenkov walked along the corridor, with or without Shurochka, anyone coming toward him looked past him, as if Tolik didn't exist at all. Shurochka saw all this herself. No one said hello. No one even nodded.
       So they quite literally spent the whole day together, just the two of them. They went out for a walk several times. Then they sat in his room again
       "Tolik," asked Shurochka, "I know you, I understand, tell me about it, what it is and how it happened."
       She asked again:
       "Tolik, it's not the first time, you know."
       He only brushed her off, as if to say: It's a long story, and there's no point in telling it. Silent for a while, Shurochka herself started talking. She suddenly livened up. She told him about their friends, about how they had gotten together not long ago at the Skobelevs'. She told him about things she'd bought and the money she'd spent and told him about their daughter, who had a young man now, they go to the movies, the girl is growing up, next thing you know, you and I will be grandparents. "I've gotten so ugly this year, Tolik, that I look the part of a grandmother," and at that Shurochka, as women know how to do, suddenly asked him again tenderly:
       "Tolik, tell me. . ."
       But Kurenkov said nothing.
        She tried tears, swearing, she tried pressure; he finally cried out:
       "Lay off!"
       "I'm leaving tomorrow," she said. (Both a reminder and a last bit of pressure.)
        He didn't reply.
       "Tomorrow, Tolik. ."
       But he said:
       "Let's go to the movies."
       The club was located in a small gray barracks. There weren't many people; the audience consisted mainly of boys who were kicking a soccer ball around at sunset. Sticking his head out, the projectionist yelled: "Hey, people, flock on in to see the show!" "Go flock yourself!" someone yelled back, but then the fifteen or twenty people who had lazily gathered wandered in to see the film, Kurenkov and Shurochka among them. The hall turned out to be dreadful (there was no comparison, of course, with their local theater, or even with the one in the Siberian town where Kurenkov had been before), and Shurochka suddenly felt very sad. Shurochka thought: How can Tolik live here?
       Though she loved the movies, Shurochka was able to lose herself only toward the middle of the film. The father in it went sailing on a yacht, then set off to have a look at his plantation, where he unexpectedly recognized his own child, who had been born out of wedlock; at one time he hadn't loved the child, but now he fell in love with it - Shurochka even cried a bit. Shurochka couldn't tear her eyes away from the screen, and she would have been even more deeply moved if she hadn't been prevented. Some girl sitting behind them was munching on seeds, spitting out the shells deliberately, it seemed, down Shurochka's collar. The hall was almost empty. She could have sat somewhere else with her seeds. "You're not in a barn!" Shurochka remarked to the girl, but the girl, sitting with her young man, snapped back at her. The young man laughed. The spitting stopped, but a little later, in the midst of the music and during the most lyrical scene, oblivion apparently descended on the girl, and the shells started flying onto Shurochka's head and shoulders and down her collar once again. Shurochka got mad. Kurenkov got doubly mad; lurching back abruptly, he grabbed the young man by his collar: "Why don't you explain to your girlfriend there that I'm going to spit on her so hard it'll take her a year to dry out!" He half-hissed, half-wheezed the words, and Shurochka didn't recognize his voice. Shurochka grew quiet. Her Tolik, so well mannered, had become coarse. Meanwhile the usher, an old woman, blew some kind of whistle. The lights went on. A policeman appeared. The girl and the young man unwillingly moved to the almost empty left side of the hall. The lights were turned off and the projectionist ran the film from the beginning so that nobody would miss the plot; Shurochka glanced over at them once or twice - the girl was again spitting shells, but into the emptiness; there was no one in front of her, and in the beam of the projector sunflower-seed shells flew in an endless fountain. Nevertheless, Shurochka left the hall fairly satisfied and relaxed: she loved the movies.
       "Tolik," she said, "it wasn't a bad picture. Why are you so quiet?"
       He said: Yes, it wasn't bad. He agreed too quickly, somehow. They walked silently in step. In the past Tolik used to love to discuss films.
       They returned to the barracks; the official, uncomfortable room could not cheer anyone up, but they drank a bottle of good wine that Shurochka had brought, turned out the light, and went to bed. They went to bed early. They wanted to be together; they lay next to each other a long, long time. But then suddenly Shurochka was seized by fear. "Tolik, is the door locked?" "It's locked." Beyond the partitions (on either side of the room) you could hear noise, voices. Someone was roaming down the barracks corridor, you could hear the squeak of boots, and Shurochka, stricken with fear, thought faintheartedly now and then that it must be that unknown person walking. The one who was so terrifying that people not only didn't want to help her Tolik but were even scared to come up to him, to say hello, for fear of angering him. She tried to imagine his face. She thought that this man must live at the end of the corridor opposite the sink, in the room with the unpainted door and the number seven on it; she wanted to know at least one thing. "Tolik, what does he look like?" she asked suddenly, but Kurenkov didn't answer. He softly touched her lips with his hand and said: "Ssshh, now." He lit a cigarette.
       "Tolik, I'm chilly."
       "There's some left here. Shall we finish it off?" Groping in the dark, he deftly poured out the wine. Carefully finding each other's hands, they clinked glasses. He smoked a little more. He stroked Shurochka's temples gently and she, silently, started recalling people - their faces. The ones she'd seen in passing when they were walking to the sink with towels slung around their neck. And in her memory they kept walking and walking, just like in the movies, while Shurochka watched: the faces weren't clear. Shurochka fell asleep to glimpses of these faces and the swaying of the towels as they walked.
       She awoke for no reason. She opened her eyes - it was dark and gloomy (she didn't understand right away where she was, but Tolik was nearby, Tolik wasn't sleeping. Peeling faint, she whispered: "Let's take a walk Tolik, let's go out."
       "What do you mean, take a walk?" he asked. "It's nighttime."
       "So what?" she whispered tenderly. "When we were young we used to take walks at night."
       They started to dress. It wasn't too cold. Actually, thought Shurochka, I have to leave tomorrow, we don't have much time, and taking a walk means being together. She wanted Tolik to feel good. The forest began almost immediately beyond the houses. There were no streetlights - the dark little street and rows of tiny houses with fences could barely be made out in the moonlight. Shurochka once again started talking about their friends, who remembered him and were waiting for him back home, but Kurenkov remained so quiet that Shurochka even got angry.
       "Why are you so sluggish?" she said.
       Her voice softened:
       "Pull yourself together, Tolik. Only three or four months - and you'll be home. You'll have a beer with the guys at the stand!"
       He nodded: Yes, of course, only four months.
       They walked and walked, and Shurochka felt her legs getting tired. At the edge of the forest they turned back, and once again, in a glade surrounded by dark bushes, they saw a little house. A window was brightly lit, and behind the curtain someone was playing the accordion. They went toward the house. Tolik warned her that the people here meant business, they were tough, they had no use for the cons settled here and kept Berdan rifles in their homes, supposedly for hunting. "Oh Lord!" Shurochka exclaimed. "You can't blame them," said Kurenkov. But the night was quiet, and he himself went up quite close to the house. He leaned on the fence, listening to the melancholy Ó˝cordion. Shurochka pressed up against him. Kurenkov lit a cigarette. But at that moment the sky cleared, the moon hung like an orange and suddenly, sensing them, a dog started barking. The moon had awakened it: it barked frantically and ferociously. The playing stopped, and then whoever had dropped the accordion came out and croaked in a rough voice, so unlike the sad melody: "Who's there?" A long silence hung in the air, and only the leaves rustled. It turned chilly. Kurenkov and Shurochka walked on without answering.
       When they reached the barracks Shurochka felt her exhaustion retreat along with her sleepiness. She was glad. She started joking, and Ós soon as they lay down she was already snuggling up to him. "Tolik, I don't want to sleep a wink!" She decided: Let him have a good time, it wasn't every night she was here. Shurochka tried so hard and got so excited that they both went to sleep thoroughly exhausted.

       When Kurenkov went out to buy bread Shurochka became pensive. She suddenly got up and swiftly searched his living quarters. The search was simple as pie and of course she soon found the knife, wrapped in a rag. She gasped. She looked at the gray rag and didn't know what to do. She wanted to throw it away immediately but thought: What if they come to get him, if there's no way out, and he starts searching the whole room, searching and rushing about. Don't make it worse. She was a woman, what did she know. Wrapping the knife in the rag, she put it back in its place. She sat crying, and when Kurenkov returned with the bread he said:
       "Now, now, stop it. What's gotten into you?"
       Having cried, Shurochka once again grew pensive. She started begging him. She didn't once raise her voice:
       "Tolik, I beg of you, don't get involved with him - get out of it, give in, you're not a little boy, Tolik..."
       "All right. I'll try," he promised.
       And half an hour later he asked:
       "I, well, I managed to get us a steam bath. Will you rub my back?"
       Shurochka's heart skipped a beat - she burst into tears again. Of course, Tolik, she said, of course. There was just enough time. It was lunchtime, and in the evening Shurochka had to get on the bus that would bump her along endlessly toward the train.
       Tolik had made arrangements for the steam bath in a private house, they paid one ruble for the whole thing. Shurochka praised it - whatever you said, it was a separate bath, and inexpensive. Shurochka also praised the old woman who heated up her own bath for them for her cleanliness. Instead of one ruble Shurochka gave her two, and then the old woman left. The bathhouse was indeed tidy and smelled of the forgotten aroma of conifer mingled with birch. Shurochka felt happy and a certain playfulness overtook her, the kind that comes after long, despondent thought. When they undressed she joked: You don't have tattoos, do you, Tolik? He hadn't gone and tattooed any gorgeous women on his buttocks, had he? I'm going to check and see right now. And Shurochka turned to look at him. Already undressed, he was sitting apathetically on the bench.
       "Tolya."
        He didn't budge, he seemed to continue thinking deeply.
       "Tolya. .
       Shurochka's heart sank. He was so very very thin, he'd never been that way. His face was dark. And his body was dark. Shurochka sensed that she wouldn't see him again. She sensed it even then.
       "Oh, Tolya, my poor, poor Tolya" she lamented, and burst out crying. Such was this moment in the bath: scrawny, all small and tiny, he sat on the bench, and not far off stood Shurochka, tears streaming, her body corpulent and white. She had always been large, now she was fat; in tears, she threw herself at him, trying, it seemed, to warm him, to enclose him and protect him with her large white body. The steam was thick. It grew hot. But Kurenkov just sat there as though frozen stiff. He sat there without stirring, and pressed his knees together, as if he were shy. He kept his thin hands on his lap.
       Shurochka washed him; he was like a pensive child, and she helped him as she would a child, she rubbed his back and washed his hair twice. Then she washed herself. When they left, Shurochka took out her comb and combed his hair. The wind blew his hair, drying it. The wind wasn't very strong. His hair became silky, he walked next to her all clean and upright. He was smiling now.
       He ran into the barracks alone, grabbed Shurochkas things, and went to see her off. They headed for the bus immediately because less than half an hour remained.

       1983
       Translated from Russian by Lamey Gambrell.

* A meat or fish aspic. -Trans.