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The Man With the Russian Tattoo

I first saw him on my way to a post office one sweltering August morning.  He sat on a low stone fence, in a precious spot shaded by a tree where the last traces of the night’s relative coolness still lingered — not easy to find a place like that in Israel in August, especially in the humid realms of Tel Aviv’s surroundings. He shared this strategic position with three elderly women who were busy chatting. He was a frail, grey haired man dressed in shorts and a white sleeveless undershirt. Something in his dull, bent posture and fogy glance made me think about Alzheimer’s, as if an aura of dementia was spreading from him in tangible ripples.

And then it caught my eye, his tattoo. Thin and shaky bluish letters on his right upper arm proclaimed: “нет в жизни счастья“(“there is no happiness in life”). The words got stuck in my mind. Long after I hurried by the old man with the Russian tattoo, I kept wondering how this unhappy statement got there.

The first twenty-five years of my life spent in Russia informed me well enough that people most often got their tattoos in prison. Some sailors had tattoos as well; a small percentage of tattooed individuals got their marks in the army. On the average, if it wasn’t prison or fleet, tattoos signified a difficult childhood and questionable company.

My first impulse was to imagine this old man as an innocent victim of Stalin’s labor camps, shuffled to Siberia for one false accusation or another. There, amidst cold, hunger, and frustration, he acquired his “there is no happiness in life” slogan. It made perfect sense except that he seemed too young for Stalin’s labor camps — he was about my late dad’s age. This meant this man was in his twenties when Stalin departed to organize purges and labor camps in hell. Unless this old guy was a real troublemaker or a uniquely unlucky person, the labor camp hypothesis seemed not too plausible.

So, I opted for the army possibility and imagined a letter from home telling this man that his girlfriend married his best friend. That’s when “there is no happiness in life “was carved on his upper arm. It made sense — to me, at least.

Two mornings later I saw him again, at the same shadowed spot. Now he sat not on the fence, but on a camping chair. He was dressed in the same white sleeveless undershirt which must have been his favorite summer outfit. A white cap was perched on his grey head, and his company consisted of the same elderly women. But now his left side was turned to me with his left arm featuring two more tattoos. I stared at a guitar painted below his shoulder and a long curved dagger on his forearm, both depicted in a crude but self-confident manner, not thin and shaky as the pessimistic tattoo on his other arm. It was pretty obvious now: guitar, dagger and no anchors — this graphic repertoire pointed to a prison sentence or at the very least to a close friendship with thieves and robbers.

This time the old man seemed more cheerful and alert. He even participated in the never ending chat of the women, so I discarded the Alzheimer’s diagnosis — one victim of the insatiable cannibal of dementia less. Or was it the same “there is no happiness in life” man? I looked back over my shoulder — sure enough, his other arm still carried the “нет в жизни счастья “stamp. I wondered what he himself thought about his tattoo collection and if he ever thought about it at all. Did he ever look into a mirror long and carefully enough to reread his gloomy slogan and reconsider it’s meaning? And if so, would he nod his head approvingly, and sigh, and groan a series of an old man’s noises or would he chuckle over his stupid young self?

It’s autumn now. I still see him from time to time at the same place and more or less in the same company, but now he is dressed in a hat and a warm coat and his informative skin is hidden from curious eyes. Last time I saw him he did not talk. He sat in his camping chair in a cloud of frailness and breathed his daily dose of the fresh air.

What would happen if I asked him about “there is no happiness in life”? I will never know because I will never dare.

But I did get to hear the old man mentioning his tattoos once — in my dream. Not that it really counts, and yet, it was one of these vivid dreams that take on a life of their own.

I was in the hospital, on an operating table, staring at the white ceiling above me. I did not feel any pain. Suddenly a surgeon pulled out my heart, shoved it under my nose, and shouted:

“Just look at this! What do you expect me to do with a heart like that?”

The heart was fiery red, but it was enveloped in a spider’s web of a thin, white cicatrice — the white cicatrice that spelled “нет в жизни счастья“.

“I’m not gonna fix this mess!” the surgeon bellowed and thrust the scarred heart back into my breast cage. “Disgusting! Barbaric! Who’s next?”

There was another operating table beside mine.

“Hello, doctor.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” the surgeon said, pulling out the next heart. “This is much better! No stupid graffiti.”

I turned my head to look at this lucky patient. The familiar bluish “нет в жизни счастья“ greeted me from his forearm.

“There is no happiness in life, eh?” The old man with assorted tattoos winked at me and began strumming his tattooed guitar.


Irena Pasvinter divides her time between software engineering, endless family duties and writing poetry and fiction.  Her stories and poems have appeared in online magazines (“Every Day Poets”, “Every Day Fiction,” “Madswirl,” “Camroc Press,” “Long Story Short” and others), in “Poetry Quarterly” and in Midwest Literary Magazine’s anthology “Off Season.”  Irena brags about her publications at


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