Another spammy post of stories, this one about a trans-Siberian roadtrip.
And some stumping for my favorite band, Ленинград, with Sergei “Shnur” Shnurov as their frontman with Alisa Vox providing most of the new vocals. The song linked has some 343 listens in my iTunes.
With no further delay, Fish!
As the dirty, frosty fields rolled by, Ryba eyed the gas meter, and pondered whether to tell Kretin they needed to stop. And possibly to kill the KGB man tied up in the trunk.
Kretin, to most, did not look like the kind of man you told to stop for gas unless he was already planning to stop for gas. He certainly didn’t look like the kind of guy Ryba would be riding in a car with. But if you knew a little bit more about the man than his jagged tattoos told, you’d know he was only bald because the Soviet used him for chemo testing in the late 70s, and you’d know his breath that smelled liked drain cleaner was the result of being forced to literally eat shit, and the only way to wash the taste out was to start every day with a shot of vodka.
And Ryba for that matter, beneath his wavy Soviet Korean hair and chipped front tooth and good smile and thin wire frames, wished he wasn’t near-sighted so he could look like Viktor Tsoi. He wished he’d snuck an English grammar book instead of Dostoevsky into the Gulag so he could phone up Diana Ross for 1500 rubles a minute and tell her he loved her sulky Detroit voice. And he wished that he hadn’t been so stupid in college to believe posters could have made a difference, that he had saved his anger for Paris, where he could finally see that tower from the postcards, and learn what it meant. What anything meant.
“Kretin. Gas. We’re out.”
Kretin glanced over the steering wheel. “Gas? Where?”
“The meter, dumbass.”
“Oh.” Kretin squinted at the dials, and shrugged. “Okay.”
Ryba sighed. It wasn’t like there was a gas station nearby. There might be, true. But they were also on a dirt road in a rusty old Zaporozhets with an KGB agent tied up in the trunk in the middle of perhaps fucking nowhere.
“Kretin. We need gas to run the car.”
Kretin nodded. “Like you need books to run your brain, eh?”
“Not at all like that. Need, as in the car will stop if it runs out of gas.”
Which it did, not long after. With front-row seats, they both watched the car roll another twenty meters up the road, then politely stop in front of a rusted old elk crossing sign.
Kretin sighed, and pulled out a pack of old soviet cigarettes, Zvezda brand. “Light?”
“No, gas. Lighters don’t make machines run.”
“No, lighter. Can’t smoke a cig dead.”
“HEY! YOU! YES, YOU!” came the muffled voice of the KGB man in the trunk. “I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME! LET ME OUT OF THIS BOX! I AM NOT A SUITCASE! YOU HEAR ME?”
“Nope,” said Ryba. “Kretin, you going to push or what?”
“I was just waiting for you. You’re the boss, eh?”
“And you’re the prison deadlift champion.”
“Naxuy blyad, fine. At least walk next to me so I don’t have to talk with KGB the whole time.”
“Pass me a Zvezda and it’s a deal.”
Cigarettes were exchanged. Ryba lit both, and Kretin began to push, while KGB man kicked and punched the trunk lid. Good soviet steel.
“Hey Ryba, you got a poem for this?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked. Told me that in gulag. Remember? Ask if you don’t have.”
“Memory’s a continuum that we make for ourselves, that we perpetuate solely by faith.”
Kretin nodded and sucked on his cigarette, pushing like a balding mule. “Good shit.”
“I SWEAR TO GOD, IF THIS MACHINE MOVES ANOTHER METER AND THE WORDS, I SURRENDER TO YOUR SUPREME SOVIET AUTHORITY, ARE NOT INVOLVED, I WILL HAVE YOU STRUNG FROM YOUR TESTICLES IN SIBERIA!”
“Been there, done that. Kretin, you have his wallet?”
“No. I thought you had it.”
“Hey! KGB! What’s your name?”
“I DON’T REMEMBER I’VE BEEN IN THIS GODDAMN TRUNK SO LONG!”
“Dolgo Xuy then,” said Ryba. “How’s that?”
“HEY, HEY, YOU KNOW WHAT’S FUNNY?”
“FUCK YOU, I’M NOT TELLING.”
“That wasn’t funny.”
“Ryba?” said Kretin, chewing his cheeks boredly. “Can I ask you something?”
“Unless it’s a bedtime story, yes.”
“Why are we here?”
Ryba thought about it.
“I don’t know.”
Kretin nodded. “Nice view.”
“No, I meant–”
“No, I meant the view, the stuff we’re walking through. The birds in the upper branches, black ibis and pheasants pecking the ground with the foxes watching from high and far, dark green pine needles against black-brown bark and the musk, oh that aromatic musk of slightly rotted mulch mixed with deer shit. This is fucking nature. Man’s natural habitat.”
“YOUR NATURAL HABITAT IS A PRISON CELL!”
Ryba looked around. And in all his fifteen years in a gulag, that was the first time he’d really paid attention to his prison.
Eventually they made it to the gas station. They almost didn’t know it, until they’d pushed the Zaporozhets into a concrete pole and the old man at the register came out and threw a tomahawk at them. “Hey, idiots! Look at what you do! You think this is Soviet property, you think government pays for paintchips, ah!?”
“Sorry,” said Ryba, wiping his non-sweaty brow, “Sorry, we were tired. We will pay for your paint chips. Gas? Gas in the pumps?”
“You buy gas?” The old man wrinkled his face, then walked up and yanked the tomahawk out of the front right fender of the car. “Okay. Buy inside. Baldy can pump the gas. How much you need?”
“HEY! HEY! I NEED–”
“ALL THE GAS IN YOUR WRINKLED PIZDETZ, sorry, I have something in my ear.”
The old man stuck a finger in his left ear and craned his head towards Ryba. “Ah? You say something?”
“Oh, nothing. Kretin, pump the gas?”
“How come I can’t talk to people?”
“Whoever’s got my money,” said the old man.
“Ryba, you pump the gas. I pushed the car.”
Ryba examined his friend for a moment. That sounded far too sensible and assertive to be Kretin.
He laughed it off. “Naxuy blyat, alright. Get some Zvezdas for a friend?”
“Sure thing,” Kretin said with a smile. “You’re the boss.”
“Kretin,” said the old man, scraping his tongue over his teeth as he got behind the register and checked the buttons. “That a nickname, or your mother just didn’t like you?”
“Both,” said Kretin. “I was a problem child. That’s why they sent me to Siberia.”
“Xha. How much gas you buy for the Zhet?”
“Lots. Full tank.”
“Yeah, yeah, how much gas?”
“Oh. Uh. Tank?”
“Your name fits you. 11 liters?”
Ryba wasn’t fond of pumping gas in the Siberian autumn; beyond natural human selfishness, Kretin seemed to have an immunity to misery. Maybe it was all the benign tumors grafted onto his adipose tissue.
When the second car pulled up, a ZIL-112 in sheer black, and a woman with a blond mohawk in a tight dress stepped out of the driver’s seat, he didn’t really care. (He cared that his friend had been surgically implanted with cancer, it just wasn’t a priority right now.)
“Uh, uh, uh, hello. Hi. Yes. Sorry.
“Good morning,” she replied in French accented Russian.
“Oh. Uh– bonjour? Ya gavaryu frantsuzki yazyk– uh, no that’s Russian—”
“Not necessary.” She smiled. Her smoky, mascara drowned eyes spoke to a part of him that had stopped talking a month into his stay in the gulag. This part was making his pants itch. “My pump seems jammed,” she continued, trying the trigger on her pump. “Does yours work?”
“What? Oh– yes. It’s going pretty strong, in spite of its age.”
“Zvezda?” said Kretin, so forcefully it made you want to believe it was true. “You have Zvezda cigarette?”
“No.” The attendant crossed his arms.
“Rokete?” Kretin rubbed his hands together, trying (and failing) to read the cigarette boxes on the shelf behind the counter.
“Pisar?” Kretin bit his lip.
“NO! Not Stalinist cigarettes! Please, anything? I’ll smoke crack if that’s all you got.”
“Morks. And a kilo of the white stuff.”
“Goddammit, it’ll have to do. Wait, is that a woman?”
“I don’t know. Is this an idiot?”
“Is he talking to her?”
“I’m a gas attendant, not a safari guide.”
“How do you say your name again?”
“Et-vallyeh. Is that right?” He clicked his tongue, stretched out his mouth, and tried again.
“Et-wall-le. No phlegm at the end.”
“E-vall-ye?” Ryba offered a grin. He really was trying too hard– this was the most social exercise he’d gotten in more than fifteen years (at least, not involving literal gallows humor.)
Etoile chuckled. “Close enough. And you? How do I pronounce your name?”
“Ryba. Ri, ba.”
“So simple! Ryba, Ryba. Did I get it?”
He nodded, smiling. “Da, you have it. Did you come here just to learn my name? If so, you may paint me flattered. Which I think is a lighter shade of vermillion.”
“Ah, no. Sorry. I came for the sights. For the trees and your taiga and birds and snow-white foxes and those adorable furry hats–”
“Yes! Only, I haven’t yet found one that fits my hair. I suspect it might be a futile endeavor.”
He nodded. “Xha, yeah, I can see that. Might have to bend to the river on that one.”
“Oh. I mean– a metaphor, comprendre?” Ryba licked his lips and rubbed his hands together, excited for the first time since he’d last eaten a hot meal. “Universally, that we all have a river to follow, a path set out for us that we all must swim. A sort of fate that is left in our hands.”
“A philosopher? You?”
Ryba shivered- not from the cold, but because this was the first conversation he’d had with a woman in fifteen years. Five if you counted the matron in the gulag. “Yes. Well. Yeah. That’s what I was in the gulag for. For thinking.”
“Gulag? A criminal? You?”
Ryba suspected that honesty may not have been the best policy in this situation.
“Um, well. . .”
“Alright, what’s the price?”
“Five thousand rubles for the gas, a thousand for your cigarettes.”
“Six thousand! How am I to be carrying around that much cash?! I’m a man, not a moose!”
“Should have thought about your cash before you pulled up in a Zhet and bilked me twelve liters of gas. Cash. Now.” The man left one palm face up, and left the other hand beneath the counter.
“I don’t have that money! You didn’t tell me how much gas cost! I thought it was 11 liters?”
“I’m not the one named Kretin, ah? Money, hand it over.”
“I mean, I didn’t kill anyone. At least, I don’t remember doing that. I just made bad decisions. Like painting a portrait of Brezhnev with a fat head. Or hog-tying a man and throwing him into the trunk, though to be fair, that was Kretin’s doing. And he was in the trunk previously, we just put him back in.”
“Oh. Uh, I–
“Listen, listen, can we start over?” Ryba took a step forward, wringing his hands together. “Because, and I’ll give you at least one good reason in a whole communist system of terrible justifications, because this fish, this ryba, he wants to go the right way. His river– he swam in dirty water, went down the wrong proverbial tributary. Philosophy hasn’t done anything for him. Communism hasn’t done anything for him. But maybe, maybe, a random Frenchwoman with a mohawk and a Belgian bandage dress can do what an entire life of frostbite, prison rape and surreal logic couldn’t. Comprendre?”
It was at that point that Kretin came running out of the store with a hatchet buried in his left shoulder and a bag of chips, smokes, and a kilo of crack cocaine hanging from the axe handle.
“Get in the car! He’s got a gun! And I have cigarettes!”
“HEY, KRETIN! YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR THAT!”
Ryba tackled Etoile to the ground as a shotgun blast missed Kretin by an astigmatic mile and blew out the windows of her Zil-112, taking a tuft of her mohawk with it. “Get in the car!”
“That’s what I said, but nobody listens to Kretin!”
“Why is he shooting at us?!”
“WHO FUCKING KNOWS?” shouted KGB man. “I DON’T!”
Ryba dove into the driver’s seat as another hail of lead shattered the windwhield and peppered the hood with splatters of hot metal. Kretin got himself wedged into the passenger’s seat with his head in Ryba’s lap and Etoile landed in the back seat as the third shotgun blast took out the rear windshield. “HEY! SKATINY! THAT’S MY GAS YOU’RE SPILLING!”
Rybe stomped the accelerator. The Zhet took off as fast as its tiny soviet engine could go, sending the gas nozzle flying towards the old man. He pulled the trigger.
The results were spectacular (though not from his perspective.)
“Kretin,” said Ryba.
“Da?” said Kretin, smiling despite the axe buried in his shoulder.
“Oh. Yep.” Without complaint, Kretin began digging around for the cigarettes, while the axe handle tapped regularly against the car roof.
“Etvallye?” said Ryba, fishing his lighter out of his pocket as the car weaved across the dust road, “You want cigarette? Zvezda. Strong Soviet brand.”
Etoile nodded and cupped the lit cigarette with her shaking hand. “M-mond dieu. . .”
“That’s French for God, right? Is He your God or our God?”
Etoile shuddered and dropped her cigarette. “I don’t know.”
Ryba shrugged and turned back to the road. “We’ve got all of Siberia to find out. And possibly Moscow. Or Saint Petersburg. Road signs are as uncommon as single ladies out here.”
“HEY! HEY YOU! WHO IS THERE? LET ME OUT! MY ASS ITCHES FROM SHRAPNEL!”
And it was quiet for a while.
“Hey, Ryba. Where’s this road go?”
“Who can say where the road goes. . .”
They talked. It was hard to remember exactly what they said that was of importance, but at every short pause, all parties involved felt as if they had come away with a priceless treasure of conversation. Etoile learned the intricate details of day to day survival in a labor camp and the benefits of being a guinea pig. Kretin and Ryba made great gains in the history of the past fifteen years, in Western fashion, and that yes, it was true; the USSR was no more, or soon would be. The two would have exchanged fistbumps, but Ryba drove like his grandmother; constantly paranoid, ever in fear of freak accidents and the invisible hand of God.
“Etvallye, what do you think, eh? About miraculous happenings, ‘acts of God?’”
“I don’t know that what I think is important.”
“Of course it’s important. And I’m not saying that to coddle, or because I’m starved. You’re human. Intrinsically important.”
“For what? My hair, my skin, my curves? Nothing’s worth anything just by being, it has to do something.”
“You go to church, Etvallye?”
“No. My father took seperation of church and state very seriously.”
“A disease of the mind, an opiate for the weak, he called it.”
Ryba sighed. Kretin stared straight ahead, absolutely still as the car thundered down the road.
“You are a fan of Lenin then, I take it?”
“No. He’s a communist.”
“Funny— he said the same thing. Religion is the opium of the masses, is what he said.”
“Perhaps he was right.”
“No, he mistook vodka for poppy. What is religion without something to believe in?”
Ryba decided it would be best to just keep his eyes on the road, let Kretin simmer down before he ripped the car in half.
After an hour, maybe three hours, having blown through a Zvezda and choked on six Morks in silence, Etoile finally said something. And it really was insightful, so full of wisdom that it merited a thoughful puff of smoke and an introduction.
Unfortunately, she said it in French.
“Eh?” said Ryba, looking over his shoulder. “Etvallye, you say something?”
Etoile mistimed the opening of her mouth and attempt to puff on her cigarette, and blew a hail of ash into Ryba’s face.
“Cyka kurwa BLYAT!”
And then they ran into a tree.
Fortunately, Soviet cars are not especially fast, and are made with the same mentality as a tank. Kretin, not wearing his seat belt, would have been propelled through the windshield if his massive forehead did not stop him by ramming into the ceiling at full speed. Ryba, being skinnier and no smarter, disappeared into the trees through the screen, trailing glass fragments and cigarette smoke. Etoile jerked forward in her harness, slammed her head against the back of Kretin’s chair, and spend the next couple of minutes staring blankly at the shattered windshield, blood trickling out of her nose.
KGB suffered no more than a bruised shoulder blade and the indignity of landing on his balls.
“Goddamn it, I peed myself.”
Ryba did not die in the crash, nor did he die out of it. Siberia is not the worst place to wreck; a bank of frosty mud and moose droppings cushioned his fall, but did nothing for the savagely ripped mess that the branches had made of his face.
If Ryba knew what contacts were, he would have wished he’d invested in them.
He cursed long, but not too hard. He could feel the air in places he shouldn’t in his mouth; it didn’t hurt yet, but he knew enough to know it would, soon enough.
He sat up, and stared forward.
As callous as life had been, through police jails, street beatings, even the gulag, it had been a long time since he had been blind.
He felt around his surroundings, trying to get his bearings, lurched into a tree. Some more feeling up found himself a low-hanging branch, which he tugged on ineffectually for several minutes before he gave up, panting hard. He couldn’t see his breath.
“Ya skatina, naxuy.”
He had to check on Kretin. The big idiot never wore his seat belt, never said why he didn’t. With that thick forehead of his, he may as well be blind without Ryba around to steer him around and point him in the direction of the bad guys.
Ryba didn’t want to think about how he was going to find Kretin. The thought of a plan was tied too intricately with the thought of failure and the sightless vision of wandering the tundra until he fell into the snow and froze up with the mammoths.
Or worse, in a gulag latrine. What is time and distance to a blind man?
He swallowed the slag of his spit, blood and fear, and set off, stumbling forward into the invisible.
Ryba’s mother. That’s what they were looking for.
Kretin understood it all. Everything. The whole affair. At least, as far as his intellect was needed. The rest of the plan was up to Ryba. This was comforting. Kretin had been worried that they were just aimlessly wandering. He’d nearly forgotten that fifteen year old promise, to show Ryba’s mother their prison diplomas, in literature and plumbing. He hoped Ryba hadn’t forgotten.
Their quest started as a dream. Ryba told him about it a misty monday morning. In the dream, he was a professor at Moscow State University, teaching the undergraduates the finer points of their native Russian literature. He lived in a house with silver plumbing (Kretin pointed out silver tarnished), and ate off of stainless steel dishes with a cast-iron spoon. And after the first anniversary of his job, he came to his mother’s tenement with his diploma, his paycheck, his tax return…
But he forgot his proof of tenure.
Kretin told him they would show it to her next time.
“No you idiot, it was a dream. I don’t have it.”
“Well, when you get it then.”
“I won’t. It’s a dream.”
“Fine. I will.”
They made a promise together then, signed it in spit and blood and piss. No matter the cost and no matter how long, they’d make a graduate out of Ryba. Kretin believed so hard in the dream, he didn’t even think about what he might want for himself. He still believed.
Yes, they were on their way, all the way to the top. . .
Etoile opened her eyes, felt around for her head, and blessedly found it still attached to her neck.
Perhaps sneaking off on a Soviet safari was not the best way to spend her semester. Maybe she shouldn’t have told her father she was taking a semester off for a spiritual retreat. Maybe if she’d told him she wanted to tour Russia, she might not be in a car wreck in the middle of Siberia. True, she might be under house arrest. But she might also be in an ambassadorial motorcade, shaking hands with the premier, or the president, whoever was in charge of this fucking mental institution of a country.
“Ryba? Are you alright?”
Getting no reply from Ryba’s empty chair, Etoile kicked open her door (which took several tries) and climbed out onto the snow and mud, already cold and shivering. This was not good weather for bandage dresses. At least she had boots, however thin and non-functional they might be. Forget designer clothes and the luxury of capitalism, right now she wanted to find a bear and wear it.
Ryba’s friend did not look awake. And he still had that axe buried in his shoulder. She decided to let him sleep it off.
Ryba. She needed to find him. She didn’t know how to fix cars. And he had glasses. Surely that meant he knew something.
First, she needed a compass or a box of cigarettes, something to mark the path back to the car with. She reached in through Kretin’s window and opened the glove box. Papers, chewed-on passports, ancient sticks of gum, soggy and worthless cigarettes, a golden Makarov pistol and two magazines, but no compass. Oh, and a kilo of crack cocaine, which had broken up and lightly dusted the entire front of the car.
She didn’t know why, but she grabbed the gun and the magazines like they were hot, tried to run, and fell on her face. When she’d gotten a good ten meters from the car, she sat down in the snow and stared at the golden handgun.
“Why do you have. . .”
She realized she already had her answer. Ryba had said as much himself. Straight out of the gulag. There was a man tied up in their trunk. Handgun in the glovebox. Russia was a lawless place.
She should report to the authorities. Even if they consisted of a mental case tied up in the trunk of a car.
She loaded the gun, stuck the remaining magazine into her bust, and crept into the woods, following the trail of cigarette ash and blood.
She came back a couple minutes later, and retrieved the pack of Zvezdas from Kretin’s bag.
Fifteen years is a long time. It’s long enough to read the Bible front to back three times and compile 150 pages of annotations on it. It’s long enough to re-read Crime and Punishment six times and debate it with the other PhDs in the gulag until the guards beat them to death, one by one. It’s enough to learn how to achieve erection by scent.
But it still wasn’t long enough for Ryba to find his way.
He was lost. Aimless. On a journey with no destination, following a dream that would never be, with a man who was impervious to negativity. But at least he had been able to trick himself into believing he could see, for a while. That nature was the true home of man and that his journey through wilderness was really the voyage through home. That the cold and hardship were actually character and self-discovery. That everything was okay as long as he was still breathing, and still had a pack of cigarettes.
Well, now he’d lost his cigarettes. All he had was a lighter that he couldn’t see.
Mother. Why mother? Why was she so important? Fifteen years, at least. What if she’d moved? What if she was dead by now? What if she hated him? He’d hate himself too. He was stupid. Stupid enough that, at the time, he didn’t know just how stupid he was. The self-important stupidity of the educated un-informed, the confident idiocy of imagined intelligence. That his idealism could make a difference in the world, that the color red could turn blue if you squinted at it hard enough.
He was cold. His feet shuffled forward, but not straight. His compass spun to every pole he imagined, anything solid he could think of. To Moscow, Vladivostok, New York, the liquor store, the bread line, Moscow State University, the farmstead where the illegal church met every Saturday, the conscript office, the little dinghy moored in the Volga river that said every morning, ‘I’ll take you to freedom.’
The torn up pages of a Bible, fluttering through the Siberian wastes.
Life is not callous.
Life is cruel. It despises people. It hates their love and winces at the mention of hope. It sneers at compassion and laughs at idealism. Justice is something it uses to crush the unlucky and the weak. Ryba had thought life was God. Only a thinking being could be so awful and deliberately hateful.
“Ryba. The car is this way.”
Ryba shuddered as two hands settled on his shoulders, and the angel’s voice murmurred softly as mink fur. He couldn’t cry for the ice in his eyes, but he cried with his feat and his shaking arms as step by step, a random French woman in a Belgian bandage dress led him back. Home? Maybe not.
And when she put a Zvezda between his lips and lit it for him, he realized he’d understood something wrong.
Only a thinking being could be so deliberately kind. Life itself was kind only by accident. It needed meaning, love and hope to be anything but luck and idiocy, a stew of human incompetence and surreality.
A thousand Bible’s pages, fluttering through the Siberian wastes. Not scattered like birds, but dispersed as a cloud of locusts, ordered beyond the understanding of the man whose fields are consumed, locusts’ bodies that will eventually feed a thousand fields, by then unrecognized.