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Today's Story by Olga Zilberbourg

Of all the possible lives, he’s living this one, and there’s no time for him to even smoke a cigarette in peace.

A Moment of Weakness

Vasya enters the doorway of the building where his father lives, and a gust of unforgiving August wind shoves him deeper inside, sending with him a twister of wet maple and poplar leaves. Vasya pauses in the vestibule to shake the water off his cap and from the collar of his jacket. A stranger on his way out of the building—whose face Vasya doesn’t have time to notice, but whom he doesn’t believe to be one of the neighbors—bumps into Vasya and steps on his foot. O, a hapless descendent of a glorious family! Everything is going against him, the entire world has conspired to mark with pain every moment of his existence.

“Fuck!” Vasya says, and, “Watch where you’re going!” And, “You could’ve at least said ‘sorry’!”

But the perpetrator is long gone, and the outside door locks shut again. Vasya’s curses don’t even reach the intended recipient. It’s enough to make a man want to lie down on the floor and never get up. Lie down right here, between the two doors, on the dirty rag, right on top of the rotten old leaves that are sticking to it, so that everyone who comes and goes would have to walk over him, would have to wipe their feet off on his belly. Lie down—do it now! Maybe then they’ll wince, will furrow their brows, will feel something, a part of his pain, the disgusting way they’ve been treating him all along.

Vasya has a flair for tragedy. It’d be surprising if he didn’t, seeing how his own family is treating him. Vasya’s father, for example: he didn’t invite Vasya here today to drink tea or to discuss philosophical implications of recent trends in music composition—no, he doesn’t treat him like a peer or even a student. And Vasya has had years of musical training, even if at the end he wasn’t good enough to pursue piano or composition as a career. Vasya’s father doesn’t acknowledge Vasya’s erudition or wit, he doesn’t care about Vasya’s inner life. What he needs from Vasya is a chauffeur to drive him to the Conservatory and back or to the doctor’s office and back, or he wants Vasya to drive his stepmother somewhere, wants Vasya to help his half-sister with her homework or to take her to or from school, wants Vasya to fix his computer or refrigerator or toilet, wants Vasya to take a few books and mail them to his other half-sister in New York, wants Vasya to do one of the million things that Vasya doesn’t want to do and hates doing. Vasya’s everyone’s errand boy, and nobody cares to ask his opinion about it, to consider his feelings.

The stairwell in Vasya’s father’s apartment building is the only place in Vasya’s life where he can truly pause and think about the sad way his life is going. Once, probably before the Revolution, it was a grand stairwell. Granite steps! Painted ceilings! Tall windows between the flights—and only two apartments on each landing. Vasya can still see the hooks where the gilded candelabras had been hanging. An elevator was a grand new luxury back then, but now when it’s become a necessity—how can anyone expect Vasya’s 82 year old father march up and down ten flights of stairs every day?—it barely works two days out of every week. Now you can barely guess the granite underneath the coat of mud. The walls are painted bog green. The windows have not been washed in decades, and the light they let through is barely keeping the geraniums on the windowsills alive.

Vasya perches himself next to the geraniums between the second and third floor and lights up a cigarette. Vasya’s life is clearly going nowhere. By day—when he’s not running errands for his father, his stepmother, and his half-sisters—Vasya sells computers, printers, copy and fax machines, and by night—when he’s not running more errands for his mother and her husband—he drinks with his friends in bars and late-night cafes to avoid going home to his wife and his daughter. It’s not that he doesn’t care about his wife and daughter, he just can’t abide any more people needing stuff from him all the time. When he was getting married, he thought it’d be nice if he had somebody taking care of him, helping him, for a change. If he brought his paycheck home and spent nights at home—what more could his wife possibly require? But that’s not how the marriage turned out.

He has a poetic soul, Vasya, he has a heart and mind of a true poet. The music of poetry is always with him, and love—the true essence of a poem—comes his way easily. There are always women around him, always longing and lusting after him. Just the other day, when he took a client out to lunch, she asked him to go with her to a nightclub. During the meal, she insisted on trying his food, and put her hand on his knee or shoulder whenever he made a joke. He would’ve pursued the relationship, why not, but that evening his aunt called: she’d been feeling a little low, and at 63 she should’ve known better, but she decided she wanted to skate, and so she went to the neighborhood skating rink, fell down and injured her arm, sprained or broke it; in any case, she needed Vasya to take her to the hospital. His family’s always tugging him in all of these different directions, everyone always wants his help with the most mundane things, and so he doesn’t have a single moment free to himself, no time to think—and certainly no time to put his thoughts down on paper. Here he sits in the shadow of the brown sky on the windowsill beside the wilted geraniums and drops his ashes in a glass jar that the neighbors put out for this purpose, he sits here and tries to come up with the first line of a poem he would write. Maple leaves—August—life, slipping away. There’s no reward in this life for good deeds, no prize waiting for him at the end of the road.

His father’s apartment, for example. Surely, there’s no family member more deserving to inherit his father’s apartment. To think that the apartment belonged to Vasya’s grandfather, a famous pianist, who used to give private concerts in these very rooms to the most celebrated musicians, poets, and artists of St. Petersburg! Blok used to come here at one time, and so did Anna Akhmatova! By all reason, this apartment is Vasya’s birthright—but here too, fate itself interfered, fate itself has been working against Vasya. In the 1920s, after the Revolution, his grandfather had voluntarily given the apartment over to the public authority to help solve the housing crisis, and in exchange was allowed to keep two rooms in the front of the building.

These two rooms were where his father lived, where Vasya was born. But is Vasya going to inherit these two rooms after his father dies? No! Never! Vasya is only good enough to be an errand boy. He and his mother were kicked out of here when Vasya was barely six years old, and had to move in with Vasya’s mother’s parents in their crummy apartment in a proletarian housing block. And his father immediately replaced the two of them with Vasya’s stepmother, a woman of impeccable stature, a woman who worked with Vasya’s father at the Conservatory, who was closer to him in age and educational background, but still young enough to bear him two daughters. Vasya’s mother had been more than twenty years younger than his father, and mortally afraid of him. She was only too happy to get out of the way. And now the apartment, the apartment that should’ve been rightfully Vasya’s, will go to his ungrateful replacements.

Blasted apartment! It’s not the apartment that Vasya really cares about—it’s the principle of the thing. The fact that there’s nothing, nothing that his father has given Vasya after giving him birth, not an ounce of love, not anything of value. Of course, it’s not really clear what Vasya would do with two shabby rooms in a communal apartment. Repairing them would be a huge headache, and they can’t really be sold for a good price, unless the neighbors, all ten families of them, decide to sell at the same time. Vasya would probably end up renting it out, certainly not living here himself. Sure, he doesn’t need the apartment, but he does need all that the apartment stands for. His stepmother and his sisters don’t really appreciate this heritage. They are music people, limited in some ways, and they’ve barely ever cracked a volume of poetry. Why doesn’t his father see this, why doesn’t he care about Vasya?

Somebody is peeping at Vasya from the crack in the door in the apartment half a flight of stairs above his windowsill. Vasya knows who it is but pretends he doesn’t see her. He drops more ashes into the glass jar and turns to look out of the window. The stairwell is not heated this time of year, and Vasya’s is growing cold, and he notices his feet are wet from the rain. This little girl is one of his father’s pupils—the old man teaches two or three little kids in his spare time, to keep himself connected to the young. This girl is about six years old and plays the piano like a young Mozart. Vasya, too, had been a gifted child once. But this didn’t prevent his father from kicking him and his mother out into the world. And now Vasya doesn’t even have time to write poetry anymore. He used to write wonderful poetry in high school, and even his literature teacher read it out loud to the entire class. “We have a new Yesenin in our midst! A new Mayakovsky! A natural talent, a genuine force.”

The little girl has overcome her shyness and steps out onto the landing. “Vasya,” she says, “You shouldn’t smoke, it’s not good for you.”

“What do you know, you little monster,” Vasya growls. “You don’t even know what two plus two is.”

“Are you going to visit your father?” the little girl asks. She’s holding on to the door handle with both hands and puts her entire weight on it, swings out into the hallway, and then returns to her starting position.

What the hell is she doing all alone, hanging out on the landing of the building, where all kinds of people come and go? Like that guy who stepped on his foot downstairs—who was he? He looked suspicious. The girl is not even tall enough to unlock the door to her own apartment—she’s had to use a chair for that, and clearly she’s been sitting for hours by the peephole, waiting for the adults to come home.

“Where are your parents? Your neighbors? Who’s watching you?”

“I’m going to go practice the piano,” the little girl says and disappears inside the apartment. She pulls the door closed behind her, but leaves it unlocked. Vasya is listening for the sound of the bolt on the door, but instead hears the piano, a Bach exercise.

Vasya drops the singed filter into the glass jar and gets up. What had he been thinking about before he got interrupted? Some nonsense, no doubt, some idiocy not worth remembering. What is he lingering here for? He needs to go up there, to his father’s, to see what they need him for this time, and after he’s done with whatever that is, he has to drive over to his mother’s place because his mother and her boyfriend had gone away on vacation and he’d sworn he’d water her plants, and he hasn’t made it there in what, a week? a week and a half?

Vasya, o Vasya. He is a busy man, and so many people need his help, they depend on it. Of all the possible lives, he’s living this one, and there’s no time for him to even smoke a cigarette in peace. There are plenty of people he can blame for this sad state of affairs, but there’s hardly a point in that. Nobody hears Vasya, nobody has any pity for him, and there’s not even the slightest opening for escape. So, stand up straighter, Vasya, shake off the weight of tragedy, walk up those stairs, and do what needs to be done. But, wait, before you go to your father’s, ring the little girl’s bell, make her lock the door behind her. There are all kinds of strangers who can just walk into this old building, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.


Olga Zilberbourg is a writer based somewhere between San Francisco, CA and St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2010, her second Russian-language collection of stories, The Keys from the Lost House, was published by St. Petersburg’s Limbus Press.

This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.

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