Vladimir Makanin     

KLYUCHARYOV AND ALIMUSHKIN*

       ONE DAY A MAN NOTICED THAT THE LUCKIER HE BECAME IN life the worse things got for another man. He noticed it quite by chance and to his own surprise. And it bothered him. He wasn't so unfeeling as to go celebrate his own good fortune when right next door he could hear somebody crying his heart out. But that's how it turned out, or very nearly. And he couldn't redo or change anything, because not everything can be redone or changed. Then he began to get used to it.
       
       But finally once he couldn't contain himself and went up to the other man and said, "I'm lucky, and you're unlucky…It's depressing me. It's interfering with my life."
       
       The unlucky man didn't understand. And didn't believe it.
       
       "Bull!" he answered. "Things happen and they're not connected to each other. Sure, I've had some rotten luck, but you've got nothing to do with it."
       
       "But still, it bugs me."
       
       "Nonsense. Don't think about it. Relax. Get on with life."
       
       The lucky man left and went on with his life. Still, he worried a bit, because things got worse for the other man, while he kept getting luckier. The sun was always shining his way, women smiled at him, when new bosses came along they turned out to be nice guys, and there was peace and harmony at home.
       
       That's when he started an imaginary conversation with God.
       
       "It's not fair," he said. "Good fortune comes to one person at somebody else's expense."
       
       "Why is that unfair?" God asked.
       "Because it's cruel."
       God thought and thought again then sighed, "There not enough good fortune."
       "Not enough?"
       "Well, yeah… Just you try to cover up eight people with one blanket. Will any one of them get much of that blanket?
       Then God flew off. God just disappeared and didn't give an answer, or rather he gave the kind of answer that doesn't mean anything. As if he'd laughed it off.
       And then the man stopped thinking about it. After all, how long can you keep thinking about the same thing? In the end it wears you down. That's essentially the whole story. But in this case the details are important… Klyucharov was a scientist at a research lab, a mathematician, it seems - yes, exactly - a mathematician. His family was an ordinary one. And their apartment was the usual kind. And life, all in all, was quite average: an alternation of light and dark areas led to a certain middle ground summed up by the words "ordinary life".
       Klyucharov stood out from this "ordinariness" perhaps by his somewhat affected way of joking. On the way home from work one day he found a wallet with a tidy little sum of rubles in it lying on a path in the snow. He immediately said to himself, "Congratulations! This makes me think life's worth living."
       All smiles, Klyucharov then and there wrote the usual kind of notice. Such and such wallet found, person missing it should come claim it … He ended with his address at the bottom, then fastened the notice to a nail on a bulletin board at the nearest building. It was winter, and in order to write the notice and hang it up, he had to set his briefcase down on the snow. The flimsy little sheet suspended from the nail fluttered in the wind but hung on snugly. The fact that neither that day nor the next did anyone respond came as no surprise, but what was really surprising instead took place the next day, when Klyucharov's department supervisor - a constantly grumbling and obstructive administrator who had clearly never wished him well - suddenly proposed placing an article by Klyucharov in a prestigious scientific journal. Not only that, but the supervisor didn't even hint around at coauthorship. That's why Klyucharov, as soon as he walked in the door, told his wife, "I'm on a roll of good luck."
       But Klyucharov's wife was a quiet and modest woman who was reticent and even fearful about luck, no matter what kind it might be. She worried, for instance, when no one showed up for the wallet.
       A little later that evening Klyucharov's wife announced that she had some news. She'd forgotten about it, but just now she remembered.
       "Aha!" Klyucharov laughed. "Your friend called?"
       "Yes."
       "Who says I'm not quick!"
       His joke was directed at a certain woman who had once worked with his wife. They had become friends, and by sheer inertia she remained friend ever now. By now it had been a long time since they had worked together, and his wife hadn't seen her for a while. But the two women called each other from time to time. They talked about their children or about shopping. Now the phone calls were becoming less frequent. In time this remnant of the women's friendship would quickly dwindle away and die, but for now it was still alive, twisted into a telephone cord.
       His wife fell silent: it annoyed her that the friendship was fading to nothing and that her husband was already poking fun at their long talks on the telephone.
       To soften his remark, Klyucharov asked again, "So, what is the news?"
       And then his wife said that Alimushkin was having some problems at work. And that in general Alimushkin was "burning out," as they say…
       "Alimushkin?" Klyucharov for the life of him couldn't remember who this was. He just shrugged his shoulders. Klyucharov knew how his wife, conscientious to a fault, was always ready to take up someone's case, whoever it might be. But then he remembered the man. He'd seen him twice. "Alimushkin - is that guy who was so bright and witty?"
       "That's the one, " his wife said. And she immediately added that maybe Klyucharov could drop by to see him at home, pay a visit. Look. She'd specially jotted down his address. His wife's voice was completely serious. Even touching. He automatically took the piece of paper with the address, but couldn't suppress a snort. Women are really something! Only they could think up something like this. To go and see some guy you hardly know and say, "Hey, friend, I hear you're… burning out?"
       "But what's the point of me going to see him? We've met all of twice in our lives."
       "And I've seen him only once."
       This was a weighty argument, no way around it.
       "You'll agree, " his wife charged ahead, "it's better and more appropriate if a man visits him."
       "Better or worse - I'm not going. I don't have the time."
       No quarrel occurred. The Klyucharovs were a loving couple. His wife admitted that maybe she was asking too much. To send him God-knows-where and for what? So, instead, they started talking about their son, a junior in high school. He was having major success in sports, at gymnastics to be exact.
       Klyucharov would have forgotten about his wife's odd request, except that the same evening there was still another telephone conversation. This time Klyucharov called a friend named Pavel. As often happens, a phrase from one conversation crosses over an migrates to another one. The life of a phrase is short after all, and it's as if the phrase wants to live a little longer.
       It turned out that instead of some word of greeting, Klyucharov asked his friend, jokingly, "Well, how's life? You're not burning out?"
       Pavel answered, "No, I'm not 'burning out'. Where'd you pick that up?"
       Klyucharov laughed and had to explain that it was a joke. He'd said it for no particular reason, just a faddish phrase. "We know, for instance, a certain Alimushkin who's burning out."
       "Alimushkin?" Pavel repeated. "But we work together."
       "Really?" ("Small world," he thought.)
       "We work in adjoining offices." Pavel added that Alimushkin was not a bad guy, but in some kind of rut.
       "Something happened to him. He just can't work at all."
       "Why not?"
       "Who the hell knows? He's the silent type. Frankly, I stay away from those loners."
       Here they were in total agreement. Klyucharov didn't like them either.
       "Even drunks are better," Klyucharov said. And again he remembered what Alimushkin had once been like. "But, wait, what kind of 'silent type' is he? What happened to the bright guy he used to be? Such a hotshot!"
       Pavel responded with a sigh, then started a deep, eternal truth. "Here today, gone tomorrow."
       That same evening, just before bed, Klyucharov went out for a stroll around the apartment building. He called it "airing himself out". While he followed the paths trampled down in the snow, in his head there echoed, "Here today, gone tomorrow." Suddenly, a strange thought occurred to Klyucharov: what if he really had become lucky at Alimushkin's expense? He remembered his boss's proposal to submit an article. He remembered the incident of the wallet. And he grinned. Naturally, the thought was pretty silly - momentary and generally insignificant. The weather was frosty. There were stars overhead. He walked and looked up at the sky. How enormous! How packed full of stars! He thought how these stars had watched or even foreseen so many human successes and failures that long ago they had ceased to care. They'd grown cold in their indifference. The stars? They don't give a damn! Would they interfere and bestow success on one person and failure on another? No way.
       However, Klyucharov couldn't rid himself of that thought the next day, and this is why. He was invited to a party at Kolya Krymov's. While he was still in the hallway and taking off his coat he heard remarks such as, "What? You haven't heard about Kolya Krymov's new love?" or like, "Kolya Krymov's new love will be coming soon," or outright mockery: " Okay, set out the glasses. But don't touch the bottle. Be patient. Any minute now Kolya Krymov's new love will appear." Jokes like these were buzzing around. The people there - men and women in their mid-thirties - all thought the best way of socializing and having fun was to tease the host. Kolya Krymov didn't object; it even flattered him. And then she came. Her last name was Alimushkin. She was a very pretty woman.
       Amid the general noise and hubbub at the table, Klyucharov asked Kolya Krymov whether he was planning to get married. They were friends. While the guests were vying with each other to serve Madame Alimushkin and some poet was describing his volume of verse for her, Kolya Krymov, not wanting to hide anything, answered, blushing slightly: "Yes, I'm planning to." Kolya Krymov loved neat formulations. He said that to have yet another little affair would almost be debauchery. But to get married again was like a quest… Just then it turned out that one of the guests had overindulged in drink, and Kolya Krymov went to find him a cab. So Kluycharov and Madame Alimushkin began a short conversation.
       They were sitting rather close with only Kolya Krymov's empty chair between them. Having nothing else to do, Klyucharov began to talk with her. He had no special agenda in mind, no stray little thoughts.
       "So, what's up with your Alimushkin?"
       "Oh, to hell with him!" the beauty answered. "He keeps saying the same thing over and over: 'I'm burning out, I'm burning out…"
       "He just whines?"
       "It's not a matter of whether he whines or not. Mainly he's silent for hours."
       Madame Alimushkin was somehow brazenly beautiful. She had a certain provocative quality. Klyucharov had never known such women. Of course, he had seen them on occasion, and they were never alone, someone was always accompanying them. Sometimes, even a man on each arm.
        When their conversation lapsed, Madame Alimushkin started it up again. It came easily to her. She had a lively little tongue and a darling look. "To tell you the truth, I've stopped loving him. I'm staying at a girlfriend's. I live as I like, go to parties, and enjoy myself."
       Klyucharov saw her eyes up close. "Maybe it's when you started living at your girlfriend's and enjoying yourself that Alimushkin started burning out?" he asked.
       "How you can say that!" she responded. "In fact, it's just the opposite."
       And it was obvious that she was telling the truth. Their conversation ended; she started talking to the man on the left. But Klyucharov once again remembered that thought of his. He put it this way to himself: "If my present good luck really is at Alimushkin's expense, his wife would have set her sights on me. The time was ripe. But her eyes were for Kolya Krymov. Unfortunately."
       He left the party tipsy and a little confused. His mood was neither up nor down. He was thinking what he would say to his wife now: he hadn't warned her he'd be late. He took out the slip of paper with Alimushkin's address. It was close by - and… he headed there in order to leave at least some kind of excuse. Alimushkin was asleep. It was after midnight. His coming there was peculiar, and Klyucharov didn't know what to say.
       "Were you sleeping? You know people are saying that you're burning out," he said, as if reproaching him.
       Alimushkin was silent as he stood there half-asleep. Then he yawned. Klyucharov felt awkward and dropped the casual tone.
       "I hope you remember me… We've met before. We used to see each other at the library. And once we were at the same party."
       Alimushkin nodded. "I remember." He wasn't totally awake. "Would you like some tea?" he added as if it were an afterthought.
       "No, I just dropped in for a second," Klyucharov answered with a smile. He tried to make it as friendly as possible. "Tea at this point… I'm up to my gills without any tea."
       After Klyucharov left.
       At home when his wife began scolding him about the alcohol on his breath, Klyucharov got angry.
       "Now wait a minute! You were the one who sent me. 'Find out this and find out that!' This Alimushkin was supposed to be my assignment. Because of him I hung out for a while at Kolya Krymov's [Klyucharov arranged the facts pretty flexibly], and then I still had to go over to his space. It turns out the kid's alive and well. All fit and ruddy. And sleeps like a babe."
       Klyucharov was walking down the hall. He had taken a break from work for a minute or two, or maybe ten. He thought this would clear his mind, and he walked along with a light and resonant step. He was passing the doors of a big and well-furnished office, and standing right in front were Boss Number One and Boss Number Two. Number One, the director of the lab, was in a fury about something and was trying to prove a point. But the director was chuckling.
       The deputy happened to cast a glance at the person walking by. And said, "Here's Klyucharov for you - both capable and hardworking - and a Ph.D. But you're still holding him back as a research associate."
       "Maybe it's you who's holding him back," parried the director. He chuckled.
       "Me?"
       "Of course, you," the director grinned.
       Klyucharov stopped a pace away form them. He wasn't pushing himself on them. In fact, he was going his own way. However, to leave or walk past when you're being openly discussed or looked at was somehow awkward.
       "Don't argue," he said to them quietly and calmly. "It's me - I'm keeping my own self back."
       They both started smiling. They were pleased that he wasn't trying to foist himself on them.
       "I'm in a hurry. One hell of a hurry!" the director said and headed for the door.
       Chasing after him, the deputy said, "It's way past time to make Klyucharov a section supervisor."
       "Well, do it then," answered director.
       An hour later - and this was in no way connected with the conversation of the director and the deputy, but came entirely from another source - Klyucharov learned that his article had been accepted and soon will be published. At home that evening his wife once againg said, "My friend called. There's some news." And the news consisted of the fact that poor Alimushkin had been abandoned by his wife. She had left him for good. Moved out. Taking advantage of the fact that Alimushkin was "burning out" - "He's totally spinless, like he's always half-asleep" - the pretty woman had traded their joint apartment for a nice studio for herself and sent the drowsy Alimushkin to live in some damp little hole somewhere. "He's living there now. And that's where he's now burning out," his wife said, and Klyucharov couldn't help but take note that his successes and Alimushkin's failures were moving along just as before - side by side.
       The next morning more news came by phone. Double trouble. Now Alimushkin got fired from his job. He mixed something up or did something wrong, and to make matters worse, he had thrown some important papers in the trash. They could have easily taken him to court, but they felt sorry for him. They simply fired him. Apparently, it wasn't so much matter of the important papers or the contents of the trash basket. It was just that everyone was fed up with Alimushkin's sluggishness and idleness and that had been the final straw.
       "How's he going to live?" asked Klyucharov. He didn't have Alimushkin's inner life in mind. He was thinking of where he would find the money to live on.
        "I don't know," answered his wife. And just because she didn't know, she asked Klyucahrov to drop in on Alimushkin again and check things out. "Stop by," she said. "Come on, it's no big deal." And she reminded him that a long ago they both had seen Alimushkin at friends' and he had been the liveliest of the bunch - so bright and witty.
       Klyucharov asked his wife, "And if he hadn't been so bright and witty, would you still feel sorry for him now - when he's got problems?"
       "I don't know."
       Klyucharov immediately picked up on her wavering "don't know" and with a trace of satisfaction said, "But that's not fair, my love. You only pity the chosen few."
       But as a resourceful woman she found an answer to that, too. "If he hadn't been so bright and witty, he would have been something else," she said. "For instance, quiet and sentimental, and a person like that would also deserve sympathy."
       
       The very next morning the deputy offered him the job of section supervisor. The deputy made the offer without any conditions, but Klyucharov turned it down - he answered that he didn't want to elbow aside the present supervisor; after all, for better or worse, they had worked together for many years. This was the truth. However, truer still was the fact that Klyucharov didn't want to push right now - even without pushing, he felt that he was having a streak of luck and that its benefits weren't going to leave him. He had a clear, but unexplainable sense that someone from above had firmly and confidently tightened the reins and was doing the driving for Klyucharov and, naturally, the one above knew his job and wouldn't allow any slip-up.
       "Strange," the deputy asked again, "then, you don't want to be section supervisor? Are you afraid of the responsibility?"
       "Yes, it's easier without a lot of pressure. I'm working hard as it is."
       "We know that."
       "I've got a lot of work to do, and I don't want any more right now." Klyucharov allowed himself to answer sharply. As if to test and check his success. After all, tomorrow he could say, "Okay, now I want to. I'm ready. I agree."
       He went to see Alimushkin. First he asked, "Gee, friend, how'd you land in a dump like this? Why did you agree to give up the apartment?" Alimushkin didn't answer. He looked bad. He was sluggish, lethargic, obviously not well. Gazing steadily at Klyucharov, he mumbled out, "I … don't remember you."
       Then he turned and started looking somewhere to the side. Into space.
       "It makes no difference whether you remember me or not. Why did you agree to live in such a hole?"
       Alimushkin didn't answer. His mind was functioning slowly. He had just then managed to recognize his guest's face.
       "You're… Klyucharov?"
       "Yes."
       Meanwhile, Klyucharov had glanced around. He had more or less known that Alimushkin, being so lethargic, hadn't bettered himself when he switched apartments, but it never dawned on him that a living soul could be thrust in such a hole. It was a tiny little room, narrow, shabby, water stains all over the walls and without furniture. Just a rusty bed, a table and one chair. It was a communal apartment, and in the next room there lived a lonely man, and his room was just as wretched. The old man was sick unsociable, and deaf as a post.
       "He doesn't even say hello to me in the kitchen," Alimushkin related in a listless voice. "He's just silent."
       "You're not too talkative either."
       "Yeah…"
       A long, painful silence ensued.
       "So this is the way you live?"
       He nodded, "Yes…"
       "Do you go anywhere?"
       "No, nowhere."
       "Forgive me, but where's the money coming from for you to buy your groceries?"
       "I've got a few rubles left. I'm using them up."
       "And after that?"
       A still longer pause followed. Finally, instead of an answer, Alimushkin quietly said, "I…", and he looked at Klyucharov as if to see whether he would laugh, "I'm playing chess…"
       Klyucharov didn't laugh. "That's good," he said.
       "Here." Alimushkin glanced over at some little chess figures. The board was worn. The little figures were set out. "I used to play. As a kid."
       "And who do you play with?"
       "Not with anyone, I, uh… play by myself. I analyze the moves."
       Klyucharov suggested that they play, since there was nothing to talk about.
       Alimushkin was a weak player. Klyucharov played a few games with him and left. He was in a lousy mood. It would have been easier for Klyucharov if Alimushkin had been at least an average player.
       
       At Alimushkin's there was a certain moment - it had been a special moment. During one of the painful pauses Klyucharov had thought: how did it happen that a human life had just simply gone downhill? Klyucharov was not stupid and understood that what happens to one person can happen to another. That's just the way people are born. It's also the way people die. He asked Alimushkin, "So, how did this happen to you?"
       Alimushkin was silent, he didn't quite understand what was being asked. But then he tried to understand (the effort was noticeable on his face), and he answered Klyucharov that, no, nothing special had happened. He felt that he was burning out, and that was all.
       "Did this begin when your wife left you?"
       "No… earlier."
       "Aha," Klyucharov said, as if brightening up. "This started with your problem at work."
       "No…"
       "What started it then?"
       "I don't remember"
       Klyucharov showed some impatience. With obvious annoyance he pressed Alimushkin. "But everything can't just collapse for no reason. Think back. Strain your memory. It's important to me, too. In fact, it's important to everybody - how did I start?"
       Alimushkin wiped his forehead. He frowned and said, "No… I don't remember."
       It was time to leave, because now one pause followed another. Klyucharov peeked around, checking - yes, there was a teakettle. But there was so little tea left in the jar, that he didn't even hint a t having a cup. Instead he suggested they play chess. Klyucharov easily won one game, then a second and a third. Then he rose to leave.
       "See you…"
       Alimushkin gave a vacant stare. Then he limply reached for a pen. He wanted to jot down some notes on the last game and look for his mistakes.
       "It's supposed to help," he mumbled.
       That's just the way he had muttered it. "It's supposed to help." And these words, emphasizing his all but total uselessness and emptiness, rang in Klyucharov's ears. The words were haunting. And for that reason, when Klyucharov came home, he decided not to tell his wife the truth. That was easy, because his wife was busy with their son and daughter. She was setting the children's minds straight about some little shortcomings. Klyucharov said as if incidentally, "I went to see Alimushkin. You know, he's not so bad off. Talkative. And absolutely calm."
       "Really?"
       "He's decided to take up chess seriously. All but dedicating himself to it."
       "Thank God. I'm happy for him."
       "Soon we'll be hearing about Grandmaster Alimushkin."
       It's easy to talk when you being listened to uncritically. And Klyucharov added with some solemnity, just in case, "I respect people who start life over again."
       
       The luck continued and now it was like a thief in reverse. An anti-thief. You close your left pocket, but it's shoved into your right one. "Take it, fine fellow, it won't be missed; go on, take it - this is your hour." At work everyone smiled at Klyucharov and was glad to talk to him. "He's got good prospects," they said of him. Even the deputy smiled. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then said that a significant raise was in order.
       "Thank you."
       "I myself interceded for you. And the director supported it. For a start, we're raising your salary by one step."
       "Thank you."
       "We value good associates. Especially modest ones."
       And the deputy added (trustingly - he wouldn't say this to everyone), "Some people elbow others aside. They intrigue. They step on people in order to get to a cushy place. I don't like those kind."
        Half an hour later, Madame Alimushkin called; she somehow had found out the institute's number and immediately got Klyucharov. Later she said that she'd copied the number on the sly at Kolya Krymov's. For some reason it seemed to her that she had to do it surreptitiously.
       She said hello and invited Klyucharov to come over. She didn't beat around the bush; she was pretty woman and knew it. She didn't bother to choose her words and with no embarrassment said, "On that evening…," an she paused in a way that was characteristic of a contemporary woman, "I took a fancy to you."
       "Now really!"
       "Honest. Come over to my place, please. Today."
       He went and wasn't at all dazzled by her voice and her eyes: he didn't like beautiful women; he had never known any. It was easier and more comfortable for him to live that way. He sat in an armchair and inspected the apartment - a cute little place. With great furniture.
       Klyucharov asked, "Aren't you planning to marry Kolya Krymov?"
       This question really meant: "You called me to come over. Is this a whim of yours, or a little secret behind Kolya Krymov's back, and in general, what kind of game is this we've started?"
       But Madame Alimushkin answered simply, "No. I'm not getting married."
       "Why not?"
       "I don't like him. He's a nonentity. He's a good-for-nothing."
       "Make him into whatever you want."
       "I don't want to waste the effort. What for?"
       Klyucharov didn't start that kind of sweet and amusing conversation that would have led him in a certain direction, even though he essentially felt like going that way. Instead of taking a clear approach, Klyucharov behaved unpredictably. All of a sudden he got angry at Madame Alimushkin and told her rudely that Kolya Krymov was even a very "good-for-something" person. And that Alimushkin, who had been abandoned, was also "good-for-something" guy. And that she should get married, not fool around, and stop kidding herself. He kept on talking, knowing full well that what he was saying was stupid and nonsensical. Whatever the case, she was a woman, and she had the right to choose.
       In his briefcase, which he hadn't opened, there were two bottles of wine. He had brought them on purpose. And he knew why. But something got into him, and now he was talking foolishly. "Get married!" he intoned over and over to her. And she was absolutely right when she said, as he was already leaving and at the door, "What a bore you are! You bore a person to death."
       Klyucharov's wife was somewhat rattled by the abundance of a good fortune. She even got frightened. It took the form of a suppressed expectation that some misfortune or problem would befall them any minute. Without a word about her real reason, she decided to summon her mother - Klyucharov's mother-in-law, that is - let her, say, come for a visit. "Let her live with us for a while. In case one of us gets sick…," she said. "Or, say, something else bad happens," she let slip.
       "But why should anything happen?" Klyucharov laughed.
       Klyucharov was laughing again, he was his old jolly and joking self. He found it funny and amusing when he recalled how he had behaved and what he had said to the pretty woman who'd invited him to her house. "What a buffoon!" he would say, teasing himself. He would recall her cheeks and lips, and a sweet chill would travel down his spine.
       From her own office his wife called him at his. "Are you listening? I just called my friend. It's about Alimushkin again."
       "He's burning out?"
       "Cut the silly stuff."
       "Seems like he's taking a long time to burn out - sometimes I even think he can go on burning out forever."
       "Cut it out!" And his wife started whispering into the phone. She was vaguely apprehensive of something and for that reason whispered to her husband, "Dear, be more cautious." And again whispered, "Dear don't talk about people carelessly; dear, if only you thought about people just a bit more… I know you're kind and sincere, but if you would also think about people…" That's what she whispered. The call ended with a request - to pay another visit to poor Alimushkin. That's the thought that occurred to her once again.
       But an altogether different idea came to Klyucharov: how to make his wife's friend shut up? How come she was constantly jabbering, how come she was always sticking her nose in?
       "Hi," Klyucharov said. After work - okay, he'd given in - he had gone to Alimushkin's, but there was no answer to his greeting. Klyucharov entered his room - and his face fell. It showed sympathy for misfortune - Alimushkin was lying in bed. And like a white apparition, someone stood next to him: a doctor.
        "Don't try to talk to him," said the doctor. "He can't talk. He's had a stroke."
       The doctor explained - a stroke, or cerebral vascular trauma, not one of the strongest sorts, but still it was a stroke. "He needs quiet," the doctor said. "He needs silence. He needs special care…"
       The doctor snapped, "No - no! Alimushkin, you be quiet. You're not to talk. It's useless anyway."
       "Has he lost his speech?" Klyucharov asked.
       "Temporarily."
       "And can he move?"
       "By holding on to the wall he can make it to the bathroom, but no farther."
       Klyucharov went nearer to Alimushkin, stepping carefully as he walked around the cockroaches that scurried along the floor. It was gloomy in the room. Alimushkin smiled - it was a half-smile, only on one side; his facial muscles on the other side were paralyzed. Klyucharov winked. "Hey, what the heck hit you!" Alimushkin stretched his hand out to him, and Klyucharov shook it.
       The doctor was probably on emergency duty. He rummaged around in the papers on the table, then said, "Help me out here. Are you his friend?"
       "Yes."
       "Here in these papers there should be his mother's address."
       "His mother's?" Klyucharov asked in surprise.
       "Somebody has to look after him."
       "And the hospital - why can't he go to the hospital?"
       "The hospital can't do anything special for him. Also, to transport him there in this condition would not be helpful."
       Klyucharov nodded, "I understand." Like all people, Klyucharov assumed that you're hot to argue with doctors. He asked again, "So you're calling his mother to come?"
       "Not me. You." And the doctor looked at him severely, as if he also considered Klyucharov, because of his own success, to blame for the poor man's condition. That's the way it seemed to Klyucharov, although this was the usual look of a doctor who was harried and exhausted from his twenty-four hours of duty. "You call. 'Cause I've got to go. I've already sent an aide here twice to be with him. Now she's needed on a more critical case."
       Klyucharov nodded. He found the address and sent off a long telegram to a village in the Ryazan region. The telegraph office, fortunately, turned out to be around the corner, and there was no line at the window. Klyucharov noted to himself with a bitter grin that - well, in this instance Alimushkin's lucky.
       When Klyucharov came back from sending the telegram, the doctor was gone. Alimushkin apologized for the trouble wit a gesture of his hand: "Forgive me," it said, "that I caused you this problem." Gesturing again, he suggested, "Let's play chess," as if to say, "if you're not in a hurry." Alimushkin himself reached for the chessboard at his bedside. Klyucharov almost didn't glance at the board. He moved the pieces around and looked at the floor, where the shiny cockroaches kept running back and forth.
       Immediately after leaving Alimushkin, Klyucharov dropped in on his wife's friend - he had sought her out. He had her address jotted down on a slip of paper: Malaya Pirogovskaya 9, Apartment 27. Klyucharov had found this address in his wife's notebook, which he had quietly taken for a moment from her purse. Now he appeared at the woman's door and identified himself. "Hello, I'm Klyucharov. You've been a friend of my wife's for many years, right? But, strangely enough, we've never met."
       That was Klyucharyov's tone, almost friendly. Actually, he was really irritated and was about to erupt any moment. But it was just the beginning of the conversation.
       "Nice to meet you," his wife's friend said. She was plump, even heavyset, and a slow-moving woman. Klyucharyov could imagine that she liked nothing better than to sit with the telephone at her ear for days on end. She had that kind of figure and that kind of bottom. To catch himself thinking like this, he knew, indicated just how worked up he was get-ting.
       "Excuse me, but I'm going to be blunt. I'm sick and tired of the fuss you're making on the phone... "
       "What?" She didn't understand. She was slow.
       Trying to contain himself, Klyucharyov explained. "Stop calling my wife about that miserable Alimushkin. Stop getting my wife all upset and worried. Think about what you're doing. Give a break to an ordinary and relatively happy family that doesn't need to be burdened with all the misfortunes and sorrows that you may find all around you."
       "But I didn't think that those calls... "
       "But it doesn't hurt to think. This is so simple to grasp - you're not giving her any peace."
       His wife's friend was silent; she was at a loss for words. Klyucharyov apologized again for being so blunt, then asked, "Do you occasionally drop in on him - on Alimushkin?"
       "Very seldom."
       "Well, keep on visiting him from time to time. And leave us in peace. Understand?"
       His wife's friend was visibly offended. She loved to talk on the phone and now her excuse for the calls was being taken away. She was entirely indifferent to Alimushkin, but people had to talk about something - especially women friends, and, of course, they needed to talk to each other.
       Klyucharyov explained to her one more time. "You see, because of your phone calls my wife can't call her life her own. There's no pleasure in it. She wants to live life and enjoy it, but you're interfering. Even without Alimushkin we have quite enough friends and relatives who also get sick."
       He had said it all. And now he waited for an answer.
       Finally, pursing her lips, she spoke up. "I won't call her any-more."
       "Oh, no. That's not the way to do things."
       "How do you think then?"
       "Call her again. Put her mind at rest. Make up something pleasant. Say that Alimushkin got well, that he's fit and cheerful, that everything's fine. And that Alimushkin is leaving... well, say, for Madagascar on a long-term job assignment."
       "To Madagascar?"
       "Well, for example. To put an end, shall we say, to the topic. So that my wife won't ask you about him anymore.
       You get me?"
       "Yes."
       "I'll leave and you call her. Are you sure you follow me?"
       "Yes."
       "Have a nice day."
       He left. Outside snow was falling. The snow was falling day and night now.
       
       When Klyucharyov came to see Alimushkin after work the next day, he was already lying flat on his back - completely still and silent. At first sight of Klyucharyov, Alimushkin began gasping. He wanted to say something in greeting, but he couldn't even smile. "He's had another stroke. The doctor said a bad one," a soft-spoken little old woman murmured in a Ryazan accent as she hovered over Alimushkin. This was his mother; she'd come after receiving the telegram. Klyucharyov consoled her. When he gave her a small sum of money to help with expenses, she began nodding like a wooden doll and burst out crying. "May God preserve you, sir!" Klyucharyov left, and she remained sitting next to her son. Small and silent and with a white polka-dot kerchief on her head, she sat as if frozen. She didn't understand how this misfortune - this sorrow - could be happening. How could her son, so strong and happy and who graduated as an engineer, now be lying flat on his back, unable to say a word?
       It wasn't at all that Klyucharyov wanted to spare himself from thinking about Alimushkin. He wanted to spare his wife. She was too nervous, too sensitive. Klyucharyov decided that Alimushkin's condition was long-term and that he would visit him from time to time, but he wouldn't tell his wife.
       He didn't tell her and she didn't ask him, because there was lots of noise and commotion and not much privacy now in their household: his mother-in-law had arrived! Not without ceremony of course. There was a gift for Klyucharyov's wife, one for their son, and, of course, another for their daughter. The presents may not have been expensive, but they were certainly chosen with love.
       The next day, however, there was no need to be evasive with his wife. She herself said, "Forgive me for nagging you to death and making you go see him."
       "Who?" Klyucharyov asked curiously.
       "Alimushkin."
       Then his wife joyfully informed him that her friend had called and that at last there was good news. Everything was just fine with Alimushkin. Alimushkin was cheerful and in high spirits again. Alimushkin was being witty again... His wife started telling him everything in detail. These details were peculiar and even in a certain way far-fetched, because the friend - the telephone addict - had tried her best. She had poured her heart into it. All her efforts and even talent went into a grand finale on the Alimushkin topic. It had to be closed - and Klyucharyov's wife retold it all. She was really pleased; she smiled and talked and talked, and Klyucharyov listened. He listened with total interest. "Where'd you say he's being sent?" he asked, even a second time.
       "To Madagascar."
       Then Klyucharyov started talking about something else, because the other topic was as troubling as it was sensitive. But their son, still a high school junior, had taken first place in almost all the apparatus events. On the bars he got a 9.7 - an amazing score for his age group. The major coaches had taken an interest in him. Things were under way to send young Denis Klyucharyov to the national finals.
       "Way to go, kid!" Klyucharyov said.
       Naturally, his wife showed no. signs of elation. In fact, that sense of fear so familiar to Klyucharyov flickered in her eyes, as if to say, "Now can't something else happen? The bars are dangerous." But their son interrupted and reassured her. "Never fear, Mom! Why should I fall? They'd just deduct two points from my score!" he laughed, both proud and pleased. People who saw him felt like saying, "That's Klyucharyov - Klyucharyov's son!"
       
       On Friday Klyucharyov gave his okay to the deputy. His agreement was vague, but in essence it really meant yes. And now the deputy led Klyucharyov from room to room. "Well, how do your future colleagues look to you? Like them?"
       "I like them," answered Klyucharyov. By combining two laboratories and adding some other, unassigned staff, a new section was being formed at the institute. It was going to be a brand-new unit, and Klyucharyov wouldn't have to kick or step over anyone to become a supervisor.
       He was thinking exactly about that fact. But the deputy was going on and on about what a great lab section it would be. "Powerful. On the cutting edge. And, we must presume, a friendly place. You hear me, Klyucharyov?"
       "How could I not hear when you're saying it for the third time?" Klyucharyov replied.
       "I'll even say it a hundred times," the deputy laughed.
       "I'm trying to tempt you."
       "I'm already tempted."
       "And I'm tempting you some more, so you won't back out."
       "You think I can handle it?"
       "Come on. Cut it out!"
       Continuing to talk as he walked through the lab, shaking hands with one of the technicians and winking good-naturedly, as if to say, "Keep working... keep at it, I won't distract you." He nodded to a couple of the staff and shook hands with others. He and Klyucharyov were walking past the work tables and talking quietly.
       "Choose yourself a nice secretary. See those three girls over there?"
       "Yes."
       "Notice the little redhead."
       "The prim-faced one?"
       "Yes. She's a smart little thing. And really does her best. All your papers and files will be in perfect order."
       "Thanks."
       They talked quietly. Then they stepped out in the hall.
       "And now over to Lab Six," said the deputy.
       On the way there Klyucharyov stopped for a minute and lit a cigarette. He had a certain thing to say and he thought it was better to say it right away. Better sooner than later.
       "A small query...," he began. "When someone moves a person up, then later this someone can hang a rope around that person's neck. It won't work with me."
       The deputy laughed. "That's excellent. Be independent."
       "I'm not joking."
       The deputy patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry in advance. Nobody's going to put a rope around your neck. In any case, not me."
       The deputy was a happy and jolly sort of person, and Klyucharyov was a similar type. Such people will always find common ground. Klyucharyov simply thought that at this moment he needed to be on guard.
       
       When Klyucharyov returned home, everyone there already knew everything. Both in the hallway and throughout the apartment you could almost physically feel the mood of a small family celebration. Kolya Krymov had already called and offered his congratulations. Pavel had phoned with his best wishes. It turned out that both Kolya and Pavel and other friends were about to descend on them to celebrate. His mother-in-law was beaming. She was pleased that the Klyucharyovs were on their way up.
       "I'm going to fix you food for the gods today!" his mother-in-law announced. And sure enough, she trotted off to Nature's Gifts meat market and brought back an impressive leg of venison. Roasted and dripping with juices, the crimson-red leg on an enormous white platter was bound to be totally irresistible. The leg roasted in the oven for some forty minutes. Before that it was basted with cream, so that when the deer blood trickled out from the heat, it would form a pink crust that would positively enflame the appetite.
       The leg was done! Klyucharyov went to buy some wine. Just when he came back, Madame Alimushkin called.
       His mother-in-law didn't approve. Klyucharyov had gone to the phone when she thought he should be polishing the floor or at least opening the bottles. That, after all, was the primary job for the man of the house.
       On the phone Madame Alimushkin said, "I want to thank you." And she explained exactly what she was thanking him for: it was the advice not to squander herself and to get married. She really had come to her senses and had already found a nice man, a professor and not even very old. He's very kind. And loves her very much... She spoke with barely discernible irony, and Klyucharyov understood which way the wind was blowing. It wasn't hard to grasp.
       "I'm happy for you," he said.
       Just then his mother-in-law said, "Why's he chattering away on the phone!"
       And his wife explained, "He has things to take care of, Momma."
       "I know what 'things."
       "Momma!"
       Klyucharyov continued his conversation. "I'm happy for you," he said with a laugh. "It turns out I'm not needed any-more."
       "Well, why not?" A tugging note crept into the pretty woman's voice. "You gave me a thump on the head, and that was right. I appreciate it. I've even changed my attitude. But still in the future... I may need some more advice."
       "From me?"
       His mother-in-law said, "He thinks I don't guess what they're talking about."
       "Momma, don't be suspicious."
       "And don't you defend him. What's he chattering on for? Better if he polished the floor."
       "Momma!"
       Madame Alimushkin said, "I would like very much to have a wise friend. And there's nothing special about it - just a wise and faithful friend, okay?"
       Klyucharyov smiled. "Sure, sure, a wise and faithful friend. Just like in the movies."
       "Is he calling himself wise?"
       "Momma!"
       "I'm not planning to press you to come over in the next few days, but still you might come see me sometime, not necessarily in the evening, even during the week, even if once a month, okay? And sometimes - not often - I'll call you. And ask you for wise advice, may I?"
       "Give me a call," Klyucharyov said.
       "Let her call... Just let her. Once I hear that sweet little voice, she'll get a dose of medicine from me."
       "Momma! You ought to be ashamed! Why are you so sure it's a woman calling him?"
       "And why should I think it's a man?"
       The guests assembled. Some alone, some as couples, they came with bottles in their briefcases and all sorts of kind words in their hearts. Klyucharyov's wife led everyone to the table, seated them, and smiled. She had stopped being afraid of the good fortune that had come tumbling down on them, and it no longer seemed to her that the gods would go into a fury, that something bad would happen. She'd gotten used to it.
        Klyucharyov rightly detected the change in her face. And for that reason, when he was asked to say something, while the guests all around were loudly congratulating him, he started by teasing his wife.
       "Success is a good thing," he said and raised his glass high, "but the person who's afraid of it gets used to it the fastest."
       He glanced in his wife's direction. Everybody laughed.
       "And good for her that she's getting used to it!" someone shouted out.
       "I won't argue. Good for her... But she's already used to it, now it won't be enough. Soon she'll want more - new successes. That's the way a person's made... "
       "I won't," his wife said with laughter. "I won't want more. I'm too afraid."
       Everyone laughed and shouted, "Yes, you will! You will! You'll want more success!" And when Klyucharyov proposed a toast, they started clinking glasses. His toast went like this: "May success come to everyone!" Then they ate and drank, and at the end of the evening Klyucharyov's wife started showing pictures of Denis doing his most difficult gymnastic exercises. The pictures were passed from hand to hand, and they were indeed impressive. One of them captured Denis for all eternity, as he reached the peak of his highest vault on the bars. Their son frozen on his outstretched arms, his slender legs - a gymnast's legs - totally vertical, pointing skyward. Klyucharyov's wife showed the picture for the first time. Before she had thought she would be tempting fate to show such photos.
       The guests dispersed. They were pleased with the hosts, and the hosts were pleased with them. Klyucharyov's wife and mother-in-law cleared the dishes away. His mother-inlaw had drunk a drop too much and was humming.
       Klyucharyov and his wife were lying in bed and gradually drifting off to sleep, they talked about all kinds of unimportant things. First he yawned, then she yawned. The children were asleep. It was past midnight.
       "So is she leaving?" Klyucharyov asked about his mother in-law and yawned again.
       "She's already bought her ticket."
       "By plane?"
       "Why do you always want Momma to fly?"
       "Um... comfort. Speed."
       They were silent. Then Klyucharyov said that tomorrow he'd go to the library, pick up some books, then maybe look in on Alimushkin. He wondered how he was doing. "I'll drop in on him tomorrow. I'll check."
       "You can stop going to see Alimushkin," his wife said. "My friend called. He left for Madagascar."
       "He already left?"
       "Yes."
       "When?"
       "She said he took off at ten o'clock this morning. She said, 'Tell your husband that Alimushkin has left. And that his mother saw him off."
       Klyucharyov was silent. Then he suddenly felt like having a smoke and went out to the kitchen. His wife was already asleep.


 *Translated from the Russian by Tatiana Spektor, Iowa State University (URL of original text page- http://www.language.iastate.edu/russian/Stories/Klyucharov&Alimushkin.html)