|Jan/Feb 2004 fiction|
Everyone said Igor Pavlovich looked like Boris Pasternak, only shorter. Weary, gaunt, and trampled, he was a headstone carved from gray rotting wood and suspended from the rear mast of life as he toddled down the porous street. But this was his time, he insisted. He halfheartedly prated on about how he could now finally exploit and enjoy the perks of being old. But he never did, that is, exploit himself.
Winter had arrived suddenly in Odessa. The streets were stark. Igor Pavlovich was about to enter his building when he noticed workers across the street putting up a large concrete barricade around the park. He hesitated for a moment, as it was cold. But curiosity got the better of him. He moved slowly across the street.
"Allo, what is happening here?" he asked.
"Putting up a barrier," was the curt reply.
"So I see. What for?"
"Building a church," a worker said proudly, expecting Igor Pavlovich to be impressed.
Churches were back in vogue in Ukraine. For many years there had been the park and playground. A monument stood in the middle, commemorating the church that once stood there, which had been destroyed by the Stalinist regime. It had apparently been an enormous church.
Igor Pavlovich stared at them and their barricade for a moment before shuffling back to his side of the street. It was bitterly cold, a stupid time to begin building, he thought, and he shook his head.
Igor Pavlovich had lived on this street most of his life. This street knew him. He owned a two-room flat his father had received for services rendered to the State during the times of the Soviet Union. Igor Pavlovich had grown up in it; his children had grown up in it; his wife died in it. His flat was located in a pleasant, quiet, sleepy neighborhood in the city center. There were no noisy discos or fast food restaurants. There were no busy highways, and there were no bothersome tourist attractions.
For an old man, Igor Pavlovich had little to complain about and was luckier than most people his age. He wasn't living an insupportable death on a pension of thirty dollars. He possessed innovative children, successful enough to provide assistance, although he always made a point to refuse money. His children brought him food and clothing instead. These he never refused. But it was his duty to refuse money.
However, there were pensioners, friends even, who thought him foolish in this respect. They argued that if anyone, especially young people, offered them money, then they should certainly take it in compensation for the meager pension and years of hard work they had given to build the Soviet Union, which, by the way, had been, because of them, a superpower. Igor Pavlovich thought this line of thinking indecent. But it was rude to refuse gifts like food or clothing, although he never wore the clothes they brought. He was used to the clothing he had been wearing for the last several years. His daughter argued though that it hadn't been for the last several years, more like the last several decades. But Igor Pavlovich didn't mind his old clothes. He liked them, and he was used to them. The clothes his daughter brought hung in the closet unworn, the pockets stuffed with sequestered dollar bills.
Times were on the move though. Igor Pavlovich was not resentful. He was not foolish enough for that. Everything that happened, happened for the best, he fervently believed. Odessa was changing in two directions: rebuilding its past and constructing its future, all at once. And until today, Igor Pavlovich had paid no attention to the shifting world outside his flat.
He made the climb up the lopsided staircase, always an unpleasant trip, ignoring the decaying walls of peeling blue and white paint and misspelled English curse words and other inexplicable graffiti. The hall was cold, and he fumbled with the keys as he ascended. He had three locks to unlock. On the way up, his neighbor, Anna Fiodorovna, accosted him. She was younger by five years and a promiscuous talker.
"Good afternoon, Igor Pavlovich, how are you today? What have you been up to these days? I haven't seen you in years, since, which shortage was it?" she laughed jokingly.
"Good day, Anna Fiodorovna. Nothing but the usual."
"How is your sweet grandson?" she asked, adjusting her scarf.
"A handful, I'm sure," they both said together. Igor Pavlovich blushed because he knew she would take it as a sign of something or other, that they said the same thing at the same time.
"You must come for tea," she said.
"I will. I would love that."
"Humph, I always ask, and you always say you will, but you never do, Igor Pavlovich. One of these days I'm afraid I'm going to have to come over and pull you out of your flat," she said with an inviting smile.
Igor Pavlovich offered his standard smile in return.
The radiators in his building were finally starting to warm. When he had gone out earlier in the day, there had been no electricity. It was unusual for his building to be without electricity, but in the last week he had been without power three times. The first time was for the entire day, late into the evening. He hadn't thought to stock up on candles. His daughter had called to flaccidly ask how things were. By that time it was dark, and he was sitting in the kitchen with the gas stove on, the flame digesting all the oxygen but giving enough light to eat by. He half-heartedly joked that he had been without electricity all day. She chastised him and immediately drove over with candles. He didn't like people going out of their way for him. It made him want to cry, although he hadn't cried for years. The ducts in his eyes must have tried up, his gallon of rationed tears long ago wasted. He thought people helped out of pity, in turn prompting self-pity.
He had used all the candles up and had just been out to buy some more. He bought an entire box, enough he thought to last several shortages. But on this occasion, he returned to find the electricity had been restored.
He put the candles in the kitchen and hobbled into the living room, which also served as his bedroom. His back was hurting. He rarely went into the other room anymore. There was no need. His daughter used it as a shortage room. He sat down and turned on the TV. He went to his favorite channel, not a Ukrainian channel but a Russian channel. He didn't speak Ukrainian very well, and anyway the language didn't relax him. The Russian language did.
As soon as he was comfortable, he got up and went to the kitchen to make some tea. While the water boiled, he looked out the window and across the street. There were trucks loading and unloading and polluting the air; trucks and machinery were cuddling up to one another as if the machines themselves were cold. Igor Pavlovich's windows were closed and sealed up with tape, so the noise was only just audible. He shook his head anyway. He finished making tea and went back into the living room and watched TV for a few hours. Then once more the electricity cut out. By this time it was getting dark, and he had to stumble into the kitchen. He lit two candles and decided to start preparing dinner. He looked out the window again. People were still working across the street. "It's interesting, why do they have power on their side of the street and I don't on mine?" he thought. He suspected the construction was the reason for his power outages.
"How long will this go on for?" he thought to himself as he ate. He knew the answer and didn't like it. Years. When it was all finished, it might perhaps look very nice, but there was no guarantee he would live to see it, was there? What if he only had a year left to live? The possibility of spending the remainder of his life looking at a construction site scraped his bones. He finished dinner but couldn't stop thinking about the disturbance across the street. Then the lights flickered on, and he prepared for bed.
It took Igor Pavlovich several days to become resolutely upset. In the meantime the construction site began to look like a construction site. A bulldozer had torn up the earth, which used to be the playground. The more he thought, the more horrible it became. Anna Fiodorovna helped. They met each other many times in the stairwell, and she had many things to say, especially about the church.
"I think it's wonderful to rebuild the church exactly as it was, before Stalin destroyed it, but, my goodness, think of the cost! It will be very expensive. I for one would like to know where the money is coming from, when us pensioners only get thirty dollars a month, not even enough to buy fresh vegetables in winter. And here they are building a church? It is all fine and good, but what about bread for pensioners so we don't have to starve to death? What do we get? Enough for nothing. It is shameful! I don't even have any hot water, and when I do, it is only a trickle. If they have any money at all, they should be giving it to us old people."
Igor Pavlovich didn't much enjoy these conversations with Anna Fiodorovna, but he did admit, she had a point. It started him thinking, and soon he was embellishing her arguments: it was offensive that neither he nor anyone else had been consulted. He decided to visit his neighbors. For a couple days he procrastinated, and it was only when his daughter said he would never do such a thing that he went ahead with his plans.
Oleg Ivanovich had lived in the building just about as long as Igor Pavlovich himself.
"Good day, Oleg Ivanovich. How would your day be today?"
"Blessed, Igor Pavlovich. And you?"
"Well, I should say the same. I wanted to talk to you about the construction site across the street."
"Yes, a nuisance, no? I heard they want to have the first part finished by the New Year and have the whole project finished in three years. It is not going to be an easy undertaking."
"By New Year's? That's only a month away. They will have to work day and night."
"I would imagine so. That is what I heard."
"It will be very noisy."
"I imagine it will be."
"You are all right with that, Oleg Ivanovich?"
"Well, what else can be done?"
"We can protest."
"Protest? Against putting up a church? My goodness, we would be thrown into decrepit hospitals. Igor Pavlovich, nobody protests nowadays. They don't have time. Won't you come in for some tea?"
He went into the old man's home, and they sat and talked. It was discouraging for Igor Pavlovich. Oleg Ivanovich didn't seem much interested in helping. Igor Pavlovich tried to explain that a church just wasn't necessary in these times. The old man didn't argue. He agreed in principle but didn't believe there was anything that could be done about it. When he left his neighbor's flat, Igor Pavlovich was angered.
He didn't know what to do next. He went to the corner store. He knew everyone there, and when he mentioned the church, they shook their heads in disgust. "Did you know that they wouldn't extend our license to have this store here if we didn't donated eight hundred dollars for that church? Can you imagine? It is shameful. We have had this store for three years. We had absolutely no say in the matter. Pay or close the store. I have heard other businesses had to pay even more. When you put it all together, that's a lot of money. And I wonder how much of it really goes to the church."
Igor Pavlovich didn't like to hear people complaining about money; it disheartened him.
Later that evening he decided he had no choice and went to see Anna Fiodorovna. At least he knew where she stood on the matter. She cordially invited him in, almost beside herself with surprise, and as soon as they were seated in the kitchen, they began talking about the would-be church. Only after an hour was Igor Pavlovich able to tell her about his idea of protesting against building it. "I'm sure we can talk to other people in the neighborhood. Once we explain, they will have to agree with us. There is nothing worse for this neighborhood than a church. It is a well known fact that churches diminish the property value of neighborhoods."
"Really, I didn't know that."
"Well think about it. No one wants to come this way as it is. Our serenity will be disturbed for three years. Just think of all the noise and mud."
Anna Fiodorovna agreed and started in on traffic lights and hideous roads for half an hour. Once she began to make more tea, Igor Pavlovich found time to talk. "When the church is finished," he said, "then what do you think will happen? There will be bums and gypsies everywhere begging for money. Soon every sinner, priest, and charity case in the city will be flocking here to do business. I tell you, religion is a business. The worst of the worst will be here, and what about those that sin so much they don't even have the time to travel? Uhmm? They will buy a flat, maybe in this very building, and then that will be the end. The neighborhood will be infested with sinners, beggars, murderers, and drug addicts, and alcoholics too. I tell you we must do something about it. We must put a stop to this before we are run out of our own homes."
Anna Fiodorovna was dismayed at the prospect. She hadn't thought that far ahead and immediately agreed to do whatever Igor Pavlovich wanted. They sat and drank tea until the electricity went out. Then he promptly left. He didn't think it proper to stay and chat with the woman in the dark, even if there were a couple of candles. They agreed to meet the next day and start straight away.
Neither of them really wanted to go and disturb the neighbors. They didn't think it was appropriate, so they spent the following day thinking up slogans for placards. They had to write something catchy yet easy to remember, or no one would take any notice. They spent the day drinking tea and eating biscuits. Anna Fiodorovna didn't have any rich children, so Igor Pavlovich brought the biscuits. By the day's end, they had decided on two slogans: "Let God stay where he is," and "Don't let sentimental religion devalue everything." The last was of course a little long, but they didn't know how to say it in a shorter way.
The next big step was to find the material for the placards. Anna Fiodorovna certainly didn't have anything to serve the purpose. Igor Pavlovich spent the next morning rooting about his flat. There were many cardboard boxes, but they all belonged to his daughter and were filled with her things, and he didn't have the heart to take everything apart. He managed to find some rope and records. He took the record covers and cleverly tied four of them together. It looked ragged, but it would do, he thought. He then took broom handles and tied them to the signs. Then he went to the market and bought blank paper and tape. He also bought some newspapers and then went immediately to Anna Fiodorovna's. She was delighted.
"Oh my, how your wife would have been proud of you! This is just like the old days, isn't it? Making something out of nothing."
They worked the rest of the day trying to make the placards look professional. Afterwards Anna Fiodorovna entreated Igor Pavlovich to stay for supper. She had prepared beef Stroganoff with buckwheat gruel, Ahkroshkah soup, goat cheese, and pancakes. He humbly accepted. He had had dinner alone every night for almost a year. He conscientiously remembered to chew with his mouth closed. But all the same, eating with another person across from him made him uncomfortable.
"I have some vodka. Would you like a bit?" she asked.
"Well, I really shouldn't."
"Well, as you like. I also don't drink vodochka, I was just thinking we could celebrate a little."
"Well, why not? A little celebrating never hurt the soul."
They sat down and began drinking and eating. They managed to drink half the bottle before they noticed they had drunk so much. They laughed and poured some more for each other. When they finished, Anna Fiodorovna cleared the dirty dishes away and made tea. A mild silence was flushed into the moment. She poured them both some tea and more vodka and then sat down. They must have both been drunk. Anna Fiodorovna most certainly, as she was more temperate and relaxed, happy there was someone with her.
More of that same mild silence was flushed into consequent moments. She stared at him. He studied the floor but felt her staring. It was embarrassing. It was a prying stare. He pretended not to notice. They sat for a quarter of an hour like this.
"Will you kiss me?" she asked suddenly.
But it didn't seem sudden. Igor Pavlovich thought nothing of the question. He certainly could kiss her; he had nothing against kissing. Anna Fiodorovna, like he, was old, but not so old that kissing was completely out of the question. She was beautiful, or had been, and for old people that's the most important thing. The problem was, he had forgotten how to start. He was sitting across from her and didn't feel like getting up and walking across the room and then having to bend over. What if his back gave out while bending? It had been happening to him with more frequency lately.
Before he had a chance to do anything, she got up and walked over to his side of the table. It was a short walk. One step. She stood waiting. At least he didn't have to bend over. He stood up as if he had been ordered and kissed her, being careful not to touch any other part of her body. She was, however, interested in something slightly more passionate, perhaps something more youthful and naughty.
Igor Pavlovich hadn't had sex in years and frankly hadn't thought about it in years either, and was happy for the amnesia. He hadn't thought he'd ever have sex again. She kissed him next, and then again just to make sure he wouldn't forget. It awakened some vague memories in him, most of which were too hazy to be pleasurable or painful. It was extraordinary. It felt as if he had never kissed a woman in his life.
Igor Pavlovich left not long afterwards. They promised to go out for a walk the next day and scout the area and decide where to best picket the construction site.
The next day came, and Igor Pavlovich was excited to get started. Life seemed full again. Maybe they would get on TV. It had been years since he was last on TV. He called his daughter and told her everything. She laughed, and then they talked about other things before he hung up and went to Anna Fiodorovna.
They went out to the park. The air was biting. It had been several weeks since construction had started. Stray dogs were already squatting the area. They barked whenever anyone came near, especially if they brought other dogs. "There had never been wild dogs here before," Igor Pavlovich said. "You see how bad things already are? This is just the beginning."
Anna Fiodorovna didn't say anything. She nodded instead like an obedient girlfriend.
Then Igor Pavlovich had an idea. "What would happen if we made smaller posters and pinned them up on these concrete walls? That would save us from having to stand in the cold. Anyway, people don't seem to be out and about in such large numbers these days."
"Maybe we can go and talk to some other neighbors?" she suggested.
"Would you like to come up to my place for some tea? I have made some fresh bread."
They went upstairs and had tea, and in the course of time forgot about the church that was destined to change their lives. But they found other things to distract themselves. The church, even before it was built, had served its purpose.