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Long Made Short
By Stephen Dixon
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1994 Stephen Dixon
All rights reserved.
THE RARE MUSCOVITE
I can be such an egotistical self-righteous pompous son of a bitch; unaccepting, nonaccepting, I can't think of the right word but it's what I so often am and all of it's what I was again. Moscow, my wife and I, she to research a book she's anthologizing and introducing, I just to accompany her and see a city and be in a country I've never been to, and it's really just the extra airfare, since restaurants are very cheap and the hotel room's the same for one or two. She—Marguerite—speaks Russian, will be working all day in libraries and with Russian contacts so, through a colleague in America weeks before we left, got an interpreter for me for the five weekdays. Svetlana shows up at our hotel at nine, half-hour before she's supposed to. I'm squatting in the little tub, reach over and push the door shut, and Marguerite lets her in. I overhear them: Good mornings in Russian, then "Please, if it's possible, everything in English from now on. I want to sharpen my interpreting facilities even better from your trip, and I'm planning of visiting America in a year. And my earliness—tardiness?—earliness is because the metro got here faster than I thought and was less crowded than expected. Then our brave police downstairs let me up with a wave when I thought I'd have more difficulties. And I didn't want to walk around in the slippery cold or sit in the dreary lobby with everyone blowing smoke and sturgeon fumes on me and talking in their loud German and English and American voices, present employers—employees?—excluded of course. I had a stroke, you see, two years ago. Recovered from this side being paralyzed to where I could barely walk. Twelve almonds a day, a healer from Kiev said—the doctors could offer no medicine but time for me. You might think it madness, I know so much how Americans rely on science, but the almonds worked, I'm sure of it, and I don't want to get excited. I can't afford to, you say?—by having to tell them off to their faces, all those bloated businessmen elephants blowing loud smoke and talk on me. I am one of those rare Muscovites who—whom? Let me get it correct now, who. Who detests those burning props."
I get dressed in the bathroom, come out, introduce myself, make coffee for us, take out sugar packets and coffee cake and tiny Edam cheeses we got on the plane with our dinner and snack, offer her peanut butter and dried salami and crackers we brought with us. "You don't get anything like this here," she says, "unless you wait on line for hours or buy it in the dollar stores, which I'll take you to," she says to me. "Hams in tins, coffee in cans, the best sardines and cheeses and most overpriced caviar. You won't need those perhaps, for only a week's visit in a hotel. But if you have Russian friends who do or you want to make a gift out of to them, that's also what they have there. And lemon and peppered vodka and Scottish scotch and Ararat, you know what that is?" "Da," I say. "Ah, listen, wonderful—possible he doesn't need an interpreter. But people say it can be as good or as better as the best French cognac. I wouldn't know since I'm also rare in Moscow in that I've never had a taste for alcohol. Maybe for my bad tooth, as a girl, but nothing else. And also at the Beriozka American cigarettes to kill people is what you get there too. One carton of them, none other than Marlboros, would be equivalent to, at black market rubles for dollars, a month's wages for the average worker here, or fifty rubles less. If you want to, we'll go. For if you return to America and your wife tells Millie you didn't have an opportunity to buy the best Russian whiskies and gifts, because I was taking you to all the more cultural places, I shall be very embarrassed and dismayed."
"No no," I say. "Any place you take me to is fine, since it'll all be new to me. Though if we want Ararat and vodka, better I hear at the duty-free store at the airport going home."
"But for use in your room? Marguerite tells me she'll be entertaining scholars here. Perhaps you brought the much preferred American whiskey with you. Or you don't drink or once did but went A. A., which is only beginning here. It's not that? If it was, or should it be 'were'?" He throws up his hands, points to Marguerite and says "She knows." "Oh, small difference, since we both know what I meant, and I have the few places and hours the A.A. clubs meet each week. Anyway, it's all up to you. I am simply here to coast you through. And the truth of the matter is that the Beriozkas, though something to see for their glamorous contradictions if not outright falsehoods to the rest of Moscow and present Russian life, have no real appeal to me."
But what am I getting at with all this? I had an idea of saying right at the start "Happens again," and then explaining what does. She gets a stroke our third weekday here, dies, and I didn't especially care for her almost from the moment I heard her through the bathroom door—actually got irritated, but not visibly, by her almost incessant talking and parading of her knowledge and vast learning. She seemed to know something or a lot about everything we spoke about or saw. She was familiar with the details of Marguerite's project and doctoral dissertation and knew the works of the people Marguerite was going to see, as well as every writer, painter and composer I mentioned and building we visited or I pointed out. Knew the dates, history, influences, inner meanings, could quote lines, cite pages and recite poems and so on—I, what? I forget what I started out saying. But she has this stroke, dies, police have to break down her apartment door to get her two days after her stroke and I feel very bad about it of course and guilty I bad-mouthed her so much to Marguerite and asked her to phone her to call her off after the second day, at least for a day and then I'd see how I felt. "I want to walk around alone, not meet any schedules, get lost on the metro if I want with only the few Russian words I know. Find a farmers' market by myself and the Tolstoi museum and Tolstoi's house again if I like, which I think I would but without her telling me who painted what picture on the wall and who the people are in the portraits and what famous composer played what famous composition on the grand piano there. I just want to feel the place, guess which side of the bed Tolstoi slept, and those desks of his and Sofia's and no electric lights and that sad room behind theirs where their youngest son—I forget his name, though she told me, and I think he was the youngest—died of scarlet fever in that oversized crib she said was a typical seven year old's bed then, or maybe he died in the hospital and she said he only got sick at home. For sure she had it right, whatever she told me. Or just to stay in our room finishing War and Peace and maybe going downstairs to the hotel café for a coffee and bun." And I feel if I had let her continue being my interpreter and guide, though we never used that word, instead of giving her a paid day off—paid, it's so absurd, since it was so little money and because she has no survivors we now don't know whom to send it to—she might have somehow survived, or at worst been with me when she had the stroke and I could have got help for her and saved her life. Or been with us, if we again took her to the hotel restaurant for dinner that night—and why not? since she knew which foods were freshest, so was an asset of sorts, and she didn't ask for more wages and the dinner was certainly cheap enough. But she died in her room that Wednesday, might not have had anywhere to go except to stand in the cold for hours on different food lines—she was retired but not even sixty. And maybe was incensed at me—knew I didn't like her much for not very good reasons but stayed because she needed the money—or worried the job wouldn't work out because of what she sensed I felt about her, or grieved or got angry over it or both or something else and that somehow provoked the stroke. But I feel partly responsible for it, also that I wasn't there when I possibly could have been to help her when she got the stroke. And when I say "happens again" I mean because I've done things like that before. Bad-mouthed people for inadequate reasons—there probably aren't any good ones—just to avoid seeing them that night, for example, because they were preventing me from doing something I thought I might want to—just their presence would—or they had achieved some sort of stature or success that let's say I secretly wanted, which I'm not saying she did though I have to admit I admired her intelligence tremendously, and though nothing so bad as a stroke or anything near it happened to any of them I always knew I was wrong in this attitude and regretted it and told myself I wouldn't do it again and sometimes only told myself I should try my hardest not to.
I didn't say what I really wanted to there, only because for whatever it is—my inability to say things clearly and straight and because I really don't have the means to—the language, words, I'm simply unable to do it well, on paper and orally most of the time also, besides not probably having the necessary kind of intelligence and insights. I don't even know if what I just said makes much sense, but let me get on with this. I was where before? Where was I? I'm trying to convey another person and, without being explicit, a person's feelings about her death and the way it changes ordinary life when it suddenly comes and what it can bring out in himself. That and more. Anyway, first place she takes me to that first day—Monday—is Red Square. "Krasnaya—'red'—I'd also like to teach you Russian words connected to the places we go to, which is the easiest way to learn them—through practical identification. Like ulitsa—'street'—which you'll see everywhere after a word like Herzen or Gorki on buildings and street-post signs, but first I must also teach you the Russian alphabet. And we might as well get Krasnaya Ploschad out of the way—see what I mean now? You understood without questioning me. But you can't be allowed to return home without saying you've been there, can you?"
"I think I can. But okay. Even though Marguerite and I went there the Saturday we got here—she insisted I see it at night—I never saw it in the day and nothing was open."
"Shall we walk? It's only two kilometers or and a half, and I can walk that far. It's supposed to be healthy for me besides." I ask how the sidewalks are—"It looks cold and wet out"—and she says icy and I suggest we take the metro or a cab. I didn't want her falling or holding on to me for so long a walk. "If you have dollars to pay or packs of American cigarettes to show and give away we can get a cab, something most Muscovites can't do here. I doubt you'll want to see inside the Kremlin buildings. They're rather vulgar—glittery jewels and gold and thrones—though you might want to see the domes over the Kremlin. But Saint Basil's in Krasnaya Ploschad has some of the best of those and later today or tomorrow we'll go to Novodevichy—novo, which is one of the forms of 'new'—which I think has the city's most beautiful of them. And I'd like taking you by train to Novgorod, which to me has the world's most beautiful of all."
She goes on like that. Steers me where she wants to go, doesn't think much of my suggestions. Arabat Street, where I'd like to get my gift buying done with: matryoska or maritroska dolls—I can never seem to get the word right—and painted wooden boxes and barrettes and decorated potholders and things like that. "Exclusively for tourists," she says, "who want their pockets combed through and gypsy beggar boys to steal their wallets and socks and shoes. Oh, they'll do it, and with baby brothers on their backs to distract you. But if you insist to go there, I won't stop you, but it's walk walk walk through unruly crowds for practically one of your miles." Chekhov Museum—"Ugly, not at all brings to vivid life the personality and living style of the man. But you love him, is that why? He's not Tolstoi, but I like his work very much too. 'Toska'—that's 'misery' or 'grief or really 'long drawn-out sorrow'-not translatable as one word, and you can always remember it by the opera of the same name. A touching story. Very few as good except 'Ivan Ilyich,' which is more than touching—it's terrifying. This man reconciling himself to death after such an empty, trivial—how should I say it?—unenlightened life? I read it once a year. Just as your War and Peace there I try to every three years or anytime I need some tranquillity of spirit and mind. You were right to bring only that book with you—it serves the place of an entire library. Unfortunately there is little left of the Russian soul that's in that novel." The most grandiose metro stations—"For tour buses to empty themselves out into only, except for regular riders like myself who truly use it. You'll be staring up at the statuary and chandeliers while getting bumped by our rudest inhabitants, too ignorant or impolite or perhaps too eager in a rush to excuse themselves, even to foreigners. But you wish to see these stations—and the deepest you say, for some unexplained reasons?—then we'll go to these too."
After we all have dinner at the hotel restaurant and Svetlana leaves I say to Marguerite "Did you see the way she made those last-minute sandwiches? I mean, she got a free meal—I'm not begrudging her it, since it was cheap enough and she wasn't too intrusive at the table and I had enough wine in me to ward her off when she was. And I know there's a shortage of dairy stuff in Moscow. But Jesus, have some self-respect and maybe consideration for us, since this is our hotel, and don't stuff the rest of the table bread into your bag and fill the two slices of bread left on your plate with a quarter pound of butter and wrap that up for home too. I shouldn't be saying all this, right? since I probably don't know what I'm talking about."
"It's that you forget. She asked our permission first. She's giving the butter to an old woman in her building who can't get any and the bread I guess she figures the woman will like also or else just that the kitchen will throw it away. But suppose she was drying the bread for herself and hoarding the butter for a day when she won't have any, like tomorrow perhaps? So what."
"Okay, fair. But also, when she talks to us I kind of get upset"—"You get very upset"—"I get a little less than that upset that she keeps me out entirely, and it's in English. When I do say something when you're around she often looks at me as if I were a kid who's barged in when he's been warned not to, as if this is adult conversation only so buzz off. You're the big genius and intellectual toiler she's saying—after all, it's your project we've come here for. I'm just a stupid site-gazer—didn't know Red Square wasn't inside the Kremlin—but at least I was honest enough to admit it. Doesn't know the difference between the Tver—that the way to say it?—and Novgorod Russian icon schools. Why should I know? Who does but an art expert of that period or field or someone who has few books to choose from in libraries and stores but all the time in the world to read? But credit me with a little intelligence and conversational interest or skills or whatever you want to call it. Someone who can on occasion talk with some knowledge and depth about the less poppy and mundane things. For instance, also credit me with—but nothing, when at the Pushkin, seeing me standing there staring at the Van Goghs for a few minutes, she asks me do I like them. 'You bet,' I said, which is what I usually say in front of Van Goghs, for what am I going to do when I'm still in a state of enthrallment, go into every crack, dab, dot and corner? But she gives me the French expression about each to his own taste or gut and then starts in with this pro-Monet and-Cézanne and anti-Vincent treatiselike argument or lecture I could hardly understand it was so over my head, or else she didn't know how to deliver it clearly and succinctly in English. But how these three Van Goghs all on the same wall are critically puffed up by unscrupulous experts, dealers and museums so people—like me, I'm sure she's saying—who know little to zero about art and artistry will pay fifty million bucks apiece for. My point is she thinks I'm uncultured, or barely cultured—certainly not intelligent. A walking talking absurdity when you think this shmuck also teaches at a university. Even if it were phys ed or home ec I taught—still, he represents the academy so should be much smarter, know several languages backwards, be able to communicate without hesitation and with full intellectual rigor and appropriate ornate words what he knows, sees and likes instead of being someone who probably always needs a thesaurus when he writes and talks. The typical example of the stereotyped American tourist she's shown around Moscow or just interpreted for before. Except of course you—ah, the intelligentsia. And those rare nonacademic people like the ones in Boston who gave you her name—fancy journalists, magazines—but so cultivated she kept telling me: educated, eloquent, polyglottal—at least the guy—worldly and well read and with even an executed Decembrist count way back in his family. Because I've no advanced degrees or easy time with the spoken language and have little political feeling or at least nothing much to say about it for either of our countries, she thinks I've no mind of my own and so have to have everything explained."
Excerpted from Long Made Short by Stephen Dixon. Copyright © 1994 Stephen Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Rare Muscovite,
Man, Woman, and Boy,
Turning the Corner,