“I like Los Angeles or New York City,” said Misha. “Chicago, if worst came to worst.”
“Oh, is it so?” reacted Sergei Antonovich swiftly. “You do, don’t you? Well then, listen to what my brother has to say.”
Sergei Antonovich was a recognized authority on life beyond the verge, the line at which our country abruptly ended and a mysterious abroad began, stretching in all directions. His older brother Anton Antonovich, a well-to-do businessman with black market connections, had recently emigrated and settled in Rochester, New York.
Tapping the dog-eared sheet with a fingernail, Sergei Antonovich now read a passage from Anton Antonovich’s letter which described the enchanting beauty of the previously unheard-of city of Rochester, the vast expanse of the lake upon which it stood, the ferocity of its black population and the warm welcome he and his family had been given by the local Jewish community.
“As soon as we arrived,” wrote Anton Antonovich, “we were taken to a two-bedroom apartment in a private two-family home. You can’t imagine our joy and amazement, Dear Brother, when we not only found a refrigerator full of all kinds of food and frozen meats and poultry in the kitchen, but in the garage downstairs there stood a moderately used 1970 Dodge Swinger with an automatic transmission and a full tank of gas. As I subsequently learned, it is worth well over two thousand dollars.”
“It’s very cold up there,” said Mother passing through and carrying an item to be packed. “It’s all the way by Canada. I’ve looked it up.”
Whenever Mother spoke, all arguments ceased and everybody maintained a deferential silence as long as she remained in the room.
“I hear they are a damn sight less generous in big cities,” Sergei Antonovich said vindictively the moment the door closed behind her.
“You may be right,” shrugged Misha. “But because of my profession, I’ll have to live in Hollywood. Or in some other big city.”
Misha was a well-known Leningrad cameraman. He came to us in the company of a young woman with whom he stayed in Moscow while his family waited for him on the banks of the Neva.
“You have good professions, all of you,” sighed Lilly, an overweight librarian at the foreign language library. “I’ll never be able to find a job in America. Not in my field, at any rate. Changing professions at my age is quite difficult, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it, Lilly, darling,” objected Misha. “You’ll get a job very easily. You have to realize that over there all libraries are foreign language libraries.”
The flow of visitors began as soon as Mother and I got our exist visas. They came and went whenever they pleased, barely bothering to knock. They arrived alone or in pairs, with the ones we had met the day before introducing newcomers with the panache of bosom friends of the family. They boiled water for tea at our communal kitchen and scoured the cupboard for mugs and sugar.
Once, getting up in the middle of the night, I tripped on an immobile body stretched out on three dining room chairs.
“Who are you?” I asked, shaking the stranger by the shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m Gogi,” the man replied rubbing his eyes. “I’m from Kutaisi.”
It was as though the moment the State Office of Visas and Registration permitted us to go join our entirely spurious relative in Israel, our private existence ended and our two rooms turned into a railway station. From one day to the next, we became communal property, or public figures like Solzhenitsyn.
They smoked, drank tea and argued while we packed. Movers stumbled in every now and again to take away pieces of furniture which we advertised with typewritten For Sale notices on neighborhood lampposts. When our old loveseat with cotton stuffing coming loose on one side was sold, they simply moved to the divan or to the windowsill and went on smoking, drinking tea, and arguing.
Bookshelves began to free up, too, as I stuffed mismatched volumes of Russian classics and translated foreigners into my school briefcase and took them to the second-hand bookshop on Kuznetsky Most. There, the clerk eyed me closely at first, divining that I might be pillaging my parents’ library without their knowledge, but he eventually got used to my appearances and began to greet me warmly, like a friend:
“What do you have for us today, young man?”
As our rooms grew bare, the stack of hundred-ruble bills in Mother’s lingerie drawer kept swelling. It was as though our previous life was settling into an empty talcum powder jar, undergoing gradual commodization to identical orange-yellow rectangles with long serial numbers and a chiseled profile of Lenin. No one had any idea what to do with all that money.
“Purchase plenty of antiques,” advised Lilly. “Antiques have value everywhere.”
“You’ll never be able to get anything of value across the border,” objected Sergei Antonovich. “You’ll be better off buying lots of cameras and matryoshka dolls. This is what my brother did, and he has a very good business sense.”
“Exactly,” sighed cousin Anatole. “That’s exactly what I would have done, too, had I been in your shoes.”
Cousin Anatole was a living reproach to us. He had submitted a visa application even earlier than we did, but he had received no response so far. Upon hearing how long he had been waiting, knowledgeable people shook their heads gravely and declared that he was very likely to be refused.
“As an otkaznik, you’ll have to be brave,” said knowledgeable people most of whom were otkazniks themselves. “As an otkaznik, you’ll have to take on the mighty Soviet State all by yourself. You’ll lose your job, you’ll have your phone tapped and you’ll be followed by police spies everywhere you go, even to the bread shop to buy a loaf of black bread. You’ll be abused and perhaps even jailed, your sons will be drafted into the military service and abused there as well, and in the end you’ll have to go to Israel to be a proper Zionist. None of that easy life in America for you. A Jew should live in Israel.”
“A person should live wherever he wants,” declared Mother. “Even if he or she happens to be a Jew.”
The otkazniks kept their own council. Cousin Anatole, however, wasn’t after an easy life. He wanted to go to America because he had dreamt of it for many years and listened secretly to American radio broadcasts on a short-wave radio even during Stalin’s times, when he could easily have lost his life because of it.
“I probably won’t be able to emigrate,” said Lilly. “I have an elderly mother and a chihuahua. Besides, it’s hard being a single woman anywhere, even in America. I don’t care what they say, a woman needs a protector, especially in a foreign land.”
“Don’t worry,” said Misha. “We’ll find you a husband. A millionaire in Hollywood.”
Whenever we discussed anything serious like this, Sergei Antonovich placed a large goose down pillow over our telephone. He explained that the KGB used the membrane in the telephone receiver to eavesdrop on people having subversive conversations.
“Even though the receiver may be down, the membrane keeps vibrating,” he explained. “It’s easy to jigger it and to listen to whatever is being said in the room, whether subversive or not.”
The telephone kept ringing as people wanted to buy more furniture and relatives from other cities tried to reach us to say goodbye, but no one could hear it under the pillow.
A daily visitor was a man of about forty, whose name we didn’t know. He slouched on a stool in the corner and was always the first to jump up whenever he saw Mother carry a heavy object. Because he was so taciturn, it was assumed that he worked for the KGB.
At last, the evening of our last day arrived. All the furniture had been sold, contributing to the trove of unused cash in the talcum powder jar. The talcum powder jar was now kept on the windowsill because Mother’s chest of drawers was gone, too. Everything was gone, as a matter of fact, and guests had to sit astride our packed suitcases.
“When you go through customs control, don’t try anything foolish,” cautioned Sergei Antonovich. “It’s simply not worth it.”
“I don’t have anything to smuggle,” replied Mother looking at the pillow that still covered our telephone.
There was more tea, but there was also a lot of vodka and pickled herring. Sergei Antonivich stood up and made a toast about how they were going to miss us. Misha drank the good luck of everybody who stayed behind, wishing them to join us in America very soon and to drink our next glass of vodka over there, in the New World.
“Next year in Rochester,” declared Sergei Antonovich knocking back his glass.
“Next year in Jerusalem,” said the otkazniks grimly, and stared hard at Cousin Anatole.
“Go take out the garbage, Ilya. The garbage pail is getting full and there is nowhere to put empty vodka bottles anymore.”
“Why bother?” I asked. “Let’s leave them on the floor.”
“Don’t argue. Do as you’re told and come right back, please. The boy has a habit of disappearing. One of these days, I’ll tell you a story or two about him.”
Mother was getting a little tipsy.
I put on my jacket, thought of walking out in my slippers but at the last moment changed into a pair of very good imported shoes, which I had bought on the black market with our surplus rubles. As I bent down to tie my shoelaces, I realized that I would not have to take them off until tomorrow night-in Vienna. The thought was thrilling and a little disquieting.
The courtyard was empty and apartment buildings loomed thickly over it. Almost all the windows were lit, yellow and blue and slightly pink, and the sickly fluorescent glow of the city beyond the building walls played on the grey bellies of low-hung clouds. Behind its tall metal fence, the bust of Lenin frowned at the misty February night. A patch of half-melted snow clung to his prominent forehead at a rakish angle.
As though looking at it for the first time, I noticed with surprise how tightly our courtyard was enclosed by the buildings that formed it, like a stone sack.
Suddenly, it all seemed so remote-the courtyard, its lit windows, the vast city pressing against its tall buildings, the stern Lenin staring disapprovingly at the fruits of his labor. Early tomorrow morning, an Aeroflot plane will slice through the cloud cover, leaving all this behind, removing it from my life forever. Will it still be here, I wondered, or, like a stage set from a discontinued production, will it be stored, rolled up, in some existential attic?
I tipped the pail into the garbage container. From under the layer of empty sprat cans and salami wrappers, my old textbooks and worn shoes rang against the metal. The handle slipped from my grip and the pail tumbled atop the garbage. I thought the hell with it at first, but changed my mind.
I had had only half a glass of vodka, but my head was spinning. The tubercular February air provided little relief from our stuffy, smoke-filled rooms. The bottom of the stone sack smelled of soot and car exhaust and crowded airless communal sleeping rooms.
I pressed the metal edge of the pail against the steel spikes encircling Lenin, and it rattled as I walked. The temperature hovered a little above freezing. The softening snow on the path kept slipping from under my leather soles. On the other side of the courtyard, on the façade of a long low building, I half-discerned grotesque faces carved into lunettes above the row of second-story windows. I had forgotten all about them. A long time ago, when I was little, I used to think of those monsters as friends. Now they watched me through the thawed mist with pity and disapproval. We had tried to keep our imminent departure a secret from our neighbors, but those stone monsters, at least, seemed to be in the know.
Suddenly, I heard a gentle sob.
I squinted into the night and saw a dark silhouette. A small figure stood against the dark wall just beyond the semicircle of light cast by the bare light bulb over our entrance. I lowered the pail to stop the rattling and walked slowly, keeping my eyes fixed on it. There was another sob, and then a few more, quicker ones.
“What’s wrong?” I called out.
There was no answer. I stood uncertainly on the path, wondering what to do.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Are you hurt?”
“Get lost,” squeaked a voice. It was small and choked with tears.
I shrugged, shifted the empty pail into another hand and started to walk again. I was about to open the front door of the building when the same voice muttered angrily behind me:
“I’m going to kill him for sure.”
I held on to the doorknob. It didn’t concern me, but I asked just in case:
A boy had walked into the light and I recognized an upstairs neighbor, a twelve or thirteen-year old. I knew him as part of gang of delinquents hanging out in a gazebo behind the playground, with a few older hooligans mixed in among them, smoking cigarettes and cursing. I thought his name was Igor.
“Kill whom?” I repeated.
He grimaced. He was trying hard not to cry. His face was pale and ratty. Tears marked uneven parallel grooves on his cheeks and he wiped them stealthily with a frayed dog leash in his hand.
“Kill whom?” I insisted.
He jerked his head upward.
“My Dad,” he answered. “I’m going to kill him.”
“It’s a good idea,” I said.
“Mark my words,” he said. “Next time his buddies leave him by the door, I’m just going to push him down the stairs.”
“Drunks can be lucky,” I said. “I bet he won’t break his neck.”
“What did he do to deserve such a dreadful end?” I asked.
He didn’t hear the mockery in my voice, or else he chose to ignore it.
“He hates him. I don’t care if he beats him, or doesn’t take him out, but he’s actually happy now that he ran away. And he won’t give me the money.”
Tears welled up in his eyes again and, despite his best efforts to control them, began to run down his face. I let go of the doorknob.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s my Dad. Next time, I’m going to kill him.”
“I got that part. Whom does he hate? Who ran away?”
“Jerry. My boxer puppy.”
“I see. Did he run away?”
I remembered seeing a little ugly mongrel around the courtyard whose name I recalled was indeed Jerry. Some kids kept tossing a stick or a tennis ball in the playground, which the mongrel Jerry was supposed to fetch, but didn’t.
“He did. Now they want money to bring him back.”
“Who wants money?”
“Those two guys. They say they know who found him and they can get him back for twenty rubles. But my Dad said ‘Get lost.’ I know he has the money. He’s just happy to get rid of him. He hates Jerry and I hate him.”
I felt around my pocket with my free hand. I had sold a large consignment of books in the morning, the last and the trashiest that still stood on the bookshelves, but the second-hand bookstore unexpectedly gave me thirty rubles for them.
“Here,” I said. “I have plenty of money. How much do you need? Twenty?”
I handed him two ten-ruble notes. He looked at the money in bewilderment but didn’t touch it.
“Take it,” I said, pressing the notes into his hand. “You’ll pay me back later.”
“I don’t know,” I said airily. “Tomorrow. Or the day after. I can wait.”
“Thanks,” he said, still a little distrustful. “Shit. Thanks. You’re not like the other Jews.”
He smiled, but tears were still smeared all over his face. I stopped with my hand on the doorknob once more and thought about it.
“What are the other Jews like?” I asked.
“Why, money-grabbing, lying, and cowardly,” he rattled off happily.
“Nice,” I said.
I pulled the door open. None of it concerned me anymore. It was time for me to go, to go upstairs, to get ready to leave. Behind me, I heard his quick footsteps sloshing on the melting snow.
“Hey, where are you going?” I asked. “It’s nearly eleven o’clock.”
I released the doorknob once again, even more reluctantly this time, and the door swung reluctantly shut, creaking on its antiquated hinges. I looked for a place to leave the garbage pail, and, thinking of nothing better to do with it, tossed it over the fence, into the prickly shrubbery surrounding Lenin.
Catching up to him I said: “Give me back the money,”
He gave me a frightened look.
“I’m going with you,” I said.
“Me and Jerry have a special bond,” he said. “He’s pretty smart for a boxer. You’re going to love him.”
We walked briskly along the boulevard toward Sretenka. The snow lay soft and inert on the lawns, and dribbled in slow frigid drops from the branches of the poplar trees. A white mist rose up from the ground, getting under my jacket and making me shudder.
“What grade are you in?” I asked.
“Seventh. And you?”
“I graduated last year.”
“Are you working? What do you do? Will you be drafted in May?”
“Maybe,” I said evasively.
There was no need to tell him we were leaving on an Israeli visa next morning. We were money-grabbing, lying, and cowardly, after all.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I thought it was Igor.”
“No, it’s Slavik. Igor is my Dad’s name.”
“I see,” I said. “The one you’re going to kill.”
We got to Sretenka and soon turned into one of its narrow side streets that ran steeply down on one side in crooked parallel lines, like ribs on a putrefying animal carcass.
Two men waited for us at a playground behind a row of old three-story houses. They sat on a kid’s swing, two grown-ups in bulky winter coats squeezed into tiny seats. The rusty steel cords creaked and hawed under their weight. The lighted dots of their cigarettes traced red semicircles in the dark.
“You’re late,” said one of them. “I told you to be here at eleven.”
Close up, they were older than I had expected, two beefy unshaven guys in their late twenties, their faces bluish in the light of the streetlamp.
“Who’s that with you?” asked the other one.
“My brother,” said Slavik.
“Did you get the money?”
I pulled out my money and handed him two tens. I stuffed the other ten back into my pocket quickly. But not quickly enough.
“We had to wait for you,” said the first guy. “It’s going to cost you more now.”
“It’s not fair,” said Slavik. “We made a deal.”
“You were supposed to get here by eleven. Time is money.”
“It’s not fair,” repeated Slavik.
“It’s up to you. You still want your dog, don’t you?”
There was silence while they sat on the swing, smoking. Then the first guy took a couple of quick drags on his cigarette, flicked it far into the darkness, spat thickly after it and, taking a wide running start, jumped off the swing, making it vibrate with relief.
“Let’s go, Vasya,” he threw over his shoulder to the other one.
Evidently he was the leader.
“Wait,” I said. “Here is another ten.”
“No, don’t,” said Slavik. “You’ve already given them twenty.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“A deal is a deal,” he insisted. “Besides, I’ll never be able to pay you back all that money.”
“You’ve got your money,” I said to the first guy. “Now go get the dog.”
“Yes, boss,” he said with mock reverence. “We won’t be a minute. You just wait here.”
They laughed as they walked away, disappearing down the deserted street.
The windows around the courtyard, in the old houses and also in the larger tenement in front of us, seemed so warm and cozy as we looked in from the cold, damp outside. We waited. Time passed slowly but after a while some of the windows began to go dark.
I checked my wristwatch. It was close to midnight. Mother would be furious. The only hope was that she would not notice my absence with so many people making toasts.
I took out a cigarette.
“Give me one, please,” asked Slavik.
“Do you smoke already?”
That didn’t surprise me.
“What kind of cigarettes are these?” he asked, examining the pack of Marlboros I had filched from Sergei Antonovich.
“U.S.,” I said casually, putting the pack away.
American cigarettes were a rarity.
“Got another one?”
A soft, hoarse voice startled us. Unnoticed by us, a boy must have been sitting all that time on the back of a garden bench just beyond the edge of the playground. He now jumped off, lightly and silently, and moved toward us. When he got closer where we could see him more clearly, I recognized Shamil the Tatar. It was not an encounter I was happy about.
Sretenka Tatars lived in cellars and dingy overcrowded rooms in communal apartments. They spoke little Russian and worked as street sweepers and on construction sites. They had large families. Their kids did poorly in school but were good at terrorizing the neighborhood. Of them, Shamil was perhaps the worst.
He was about fifteen but shorter than Slavik and very slightly built. He had a ferret-like body, spiky black hair and a pale Central Asian face. Two of his older brothers were doing time.
The previous winter, I had seen Shamil beat up a much bigger boy. Shamil and several of his friends cornered him in the narrow space behind the lockers at the Clear Ponds skating ring. The boy was tall and was wearing skates, and Shamil barely reached up to his waist.
“Bend down,” ordered Shamil’s friends. The boy obeyed, letting Shamil hit him hard across the jaw.
He reeled and fell backwards.
“Get up,” they told him. “Bend down.”
Blood was dripping from his cut lip. Shamil swung at him again, the garland of green and red lights around the skating rink sparkling on his brass knuckles. There were several of us looking on, but none was brave enough to interfere.
“Give me a cigarette,” said Shamil.
I handed him the pack. Shamil fished out one cigarette and slipped the pack into his pocket.
“Got a light?”
He stared at me, his black eyes unblinking and insolent, challenging me to say something. I shrugged and struck a match.
I was hoping he would leave after that, but he stood next to us, sending a thin stream of yellow smoke into the air.
“Good cigarettes,” he said approvingly.
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you have any more money?” he asked after a while. “Or did you give everything you had to those two losers?”
“All of it?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes,” said Slavik. “Everything we had.”
“That’s too bad,” Shamil said thoughtfully. “I could have gotten you your dog if only you could pay. Now you can stand and wait here till morning.”
“Why?” asked Slavik. “You don’t believe they’re going to bring him?”
Shamil spat on the snow.
“They promised,” said Slavik.
“Let me take a look at your watch,” said Shamil.
I was wearing an old Swiss Omega watch that used to belong to my grandfather. It had a black face and a silver housing, and its three hands and upraised numbers glowed bluish-green in the dark. It was a family heirloom. It came in its own box upholstered in faded green velour and was worn rarely, on special occasions. I loved that watch and had put it on early, in anticipation of the morning flight.
“It’s not a very good watch,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“I see,” agreed Shamil, examining it on my wrist. “But let me have it anyway.”
I took off my grandfather’s Omega and handed it to him.
Shamil headed deep into the courtyard, along a narrow path leading to an opening in the fence. He pushed aside a board hanging by a single nail and squeezed adroitly through the hole, not bothering to look whether we followed.
I grew up around those parts, but even few locals knew all the back passages that existed there for a hundred years, from the time those side streets served as a notorious red light district and prostitutes plying their trade there robbed their inebriated clients in the dead of the night and then signaled to their accomplices to come and carry the senseless bodies down to Trubnaya, into the swift frigid waters of the underground stream. We came out in some other courtyard, passed under an archway, crossed an empty street and dove into another alley. Now there was no path and we had to walk on the frozen snowdrift, stepping carefully into someone else’s deep footsteps and falling through the crust of ice on the surface. The footsteps were too widely spaced for Shamil. He skipped from one to the next like a tiny agile predator, a ferret.
At last, we reached the boulevard. Shamil crossed it and entered a tall apartment building on the other side of the street. He was moving with great deal of confidence, like someone who not only knows where he is going but also has the absolute right to go there. It had once been quality building, with remnants of a stained glass window over the entrance and flowery ironwork running along the edge of the broad staircase. The airshaft smelled of stale cabbage soup and, faintly, of urine.
We climbed to the third floor. Shamil rang the doorbell and waited. The sound broke the night silence of the sleeping building and traveled up and down the stairwell. A few minutes later a woman opened the door. She wore a bathrobe over a tattered nightgown and a pair of shiny black galoshes on bare feet.
“What do you want?” she asked rudely.
“We’re here for Radim,” said Shamil.
“You’ve got to ring four times for the Baidulins,” said the woman. “Two long rings and two short ones. When are you going to learn, you ignorant bastards.”
“Call him,” said Shamil.
“You can call him yourself,” exploded the woman. “You’re a bunch of thugs, you and Radim. I’ve got a seven o’clock shift. I’m going to call the cops. If only my coward of a husband . . .”
“Call him,” repeated Shamil firmly, ignoring her outburst.
The door slammed in our face and a little later opened again, to let through a middle-aged man in an undershirt.
“What do you want?” he asked, peering at us. His shoulders, thick muscular forearms and other parts of the body not concealed under a garment were richly tattooed in dark blue ink. “Who are you?”
But his face lit up when he recognized Shamil. Shamil said something to him in rapid-fire Tatar and the man shot back with a quick answer. It must have been quite funny, because both of them laughed. They went on with their back and forth for a few minutes, exchanging strange, short, guttural sentences. Shamil laughed again. I had never seen him laugh. It wasn’t the kind of laugh that invited you to join in.
Then, abruptly turning serious, the man asked Shamil a question and pointed at us. He didn’t bother look in our direction as he did so, as though we were two inanimate objects, a pair of suitcases standing on the landing next to Shamil. He knew we were there and he didn’t need to look again to make sure. Shamil gave a curt monosyllabic answer, a yes or a no, but I couldn’t tell which. The man thought it over for a moment and nodded. Shamil motioned for us to go.
“What were you talking about?” asked Slavik anxiously when we got down. He was still carrying that frayed dog leash in his hand. He even looked slightly like a little pooch, not a boxer but a beagle perhaps, with a keen, alert face. “Does he know where Jerry is? What did he say?”
Shamil ignored him. We stood on the sidewalk outside.
“What time is it?” I asked.
Shamil took out my watch and showed it to me. The hands and the numbers glowed in the dark. It was past one o’clock.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “I didn’t realize it was so late. I’ve got to get back.”
“Did you get scared?” asked Shamil. “Don’t worry. Radim won’t hurt you. You were with me.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’ve got to get home. I hate to leave you like this, Slavik.”
“He got scared,” said Shamil. “He saw Radim and he got you scared. He’s a coward.”
“He isn’t,” said Slavik. “We don’t know Radim. We never saw Radim before. We don’t give a damn about Radim. You aren’t scared, are you?”
“Whatever,” I shrugged. “Let’s say I am scared. I’ve got to get home.”
Slavik turned to Shamil.
“Give him back his watch,” he said.
Shamil stared at him.
“I’ll pay you. I’ll get the money to pay you. Give him back his watch.”
Shamil was still holding my Omega. He shrugged and dropped it at his feet. I bent down and pulled it out of a puddle.
“I’m sorry, Slavik,” I said. “I’ve really got to go. I’ll try to explain it to you later. If I can. Perhaps you’ll understand. I’ve got to go now. I’m sorry I’m leaving you like this.”
I wanted to turn and look at them. The hill was steep and I was out of breath. My good shoes slipped on the thin slush into which the snow had thawed. They had become soaked with water and seemed to weigh a ton. When I got to the top of the hill, they were gone. The boulevard in front of me was dark and empty.
At the intersection with Sretenka, a mud-splattered Lada overtook me, slowed down and then swerved abruptly into my path, sending a frigid spray into my face. The driver leaned over and rolled down the window.
“I’m alright,” I yelled, thinking it was a private driver trying to pick up a late fare. “I don’t have any money to pay you.”
“Get in,” I was told and the car door swung open. I stepped back, recognizing our silent KGB visitor.
“Get in,” he repeated.
I had just managed to climb into the passenger seat before the Lada took off, tossing me back onto the seat cushion and spattering dirty snow from under its wheels. It sped up the boulevard and down Kirova, turning into the entrance to our courtyard. It hardly slowed even through our archway.
“Your mother is hysterical,” said the man sternly. “Where the hell have you been?”
I said nothing.
“Where have you been?” he repeated. “The taxi has been here for half an hour. You’ll be late to the airport.”
My mother, hunched and anxious, paced nervously alongside the parked taxi, passing through the semicircle of light in front of our doorway.
“Finally,” she cried out when she saw me. “Oh, my God, Ilyusha. Finally.”
“Finally,” echoed Sergei Antonovich and opened the taxi door. “You have to leave right now. This minute. No more time to lose.”
Misha, overweight Lilly and other friends were lined up along the wall, where Slavik had stood a few hours earlier. They were tense and silent, like mourners. Cousin Anatole was shifting our empty garbage pail from one hand to the other, not knowing what to do with it.
As I squeezed past him to get into the taxi, Sergei Antonovich caught my wrist. His palm was large and moist.
“It’s an antique watch, Ilya,” he said looking at my Omega. “It may be filthy, but it’s valuable. They’ll confiscate it at the border.”
“Oh, my God,” said Mother. “What else can go wrong? What to do?”
There was a silence. For a while no one seemed to be able to think of a solution.
“I know,” said Sergei Antonovich at last. “Leave it to Anatole. Who knows how long he’ll be waiting for his visa.”