The Birthday Party
The sun was beginning its slow trajectory across the northern sky when Kostya Ligachev switched off his bulldozer, pulled the dust mask from his face and climbed down quickly from his perch. He didn’t mind working the graveyard shift – he never slept well during the White Nights anyway – but he was in a bit of a hurry that morning. It was his wife Tanya’s birthday and he wanted to see her before she went to work. It was also a momentous day for his friend, Sergei. Sergei had been sent to the gulag on this very day thirty years ago. It wasn’t as pleasant a thing to remember, but it was something none of them would ever forget.
Kostya lit a cigarette and began walking towards the trailer where he knew Sergei was waiting for him. Maybe he would ask him to celebrate Tanya’s birthday with them tonight. Tanya wouldn’t mind. She’d known Sergei all her life. She’d even dated him before his arrest. But she’d married his best friend.
Kostya winced. The fact that he’d married Tanya while Sergei was imprisoned was always at the back of his mind, gnawing away at him. He’d led a charmed life compared to that of his friend. Maybe life was simply that way: he had drawn a lucky ticket and Sergei had not. But the fact of the matter was that if Sergei hadn’t been sent to prison, Tanya probably would have married him instead of Kostya. Sometimes he wished it had been the other way around. At least then he wouldn’t have this incessant, nagging guilt.
It was a bit like the omnipresent pain behind his eyes that had started a few weeks ago. He’d tried using some drops, but they didn’t help. The pharmacist said it was probably a result of the dust on the job site. Kostya couldn’t deny that he’d be glad when this project was completed. Yes, the pay was good and the hours were steady, but the work was tiresome and unhealthy. The more they dug, the more toxic waste they found on the site of the old chemical plant near the end of Petrovsky Island. At first the managers thought they could finish the job in a few weeks, but weeks had turned into months, and now that summer and the White Nights had arrived they were working around the clock.
There were benefits, however. The extra work meant he’d been able to get Sergei a job operating a bulldozer too. They had a friendly rivalry going over who moved the most dirt every night. It wasn’t the most interesting job in the world, but it was better than picking up garbage, which had been Sergei’s previous position.
The pit they were digging had grown to immense proportions, and the mountain of lead-colored soil they’d moved was visible from the opposite side of the Neva. Dump trucks were busily hauling it away to Karelia, but what they took was soon replaced by more. No one who worked at the site, including Kostya, knew what would be built there. There were already so many new buildings in St. Petersburg that the city of his youth was barely recognizable to him. Only his memories of it remained the same.
He walked alongside a chain link fence dotted with signs reading “Danger” and “Unauthorized Entry Forbidden.” It felt good to stretch his legs, to feel his muscles come back to life and the blood move in his veins. He moved his arms in circles and yawned. Yes, it was good to be finished with work for the day.
He saw Sergei waiting ahead, speaking with a toadyish little man named Valentin with a growth on the end of his nose. Kostya could tell from the pitch of their voices they were arguing. He sighed. He was too tired to play the referee.
“He’s a thug and he’s made a laughing stock of us all,” Sergei said. He took off his hard hat, releasing a cloud of dust from his thick, blondish-grey hair. “He wasn’t even elected. He’s no better than a dictator.”
“He’s the kind of person we need, someone who doesn’t care what anyone else thinks,” Valentin retorted. “You’re a weak-minded idiot controlled by the west. Elect one of their toadies and the next thing you know terrorists will be blowing up every train between here and Moscow!”
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Kostya said. Neither seemed to notice him.
“I suppose Navalny’s an idiot too?” Sergei said. His face, like Kostya’s, was coated with a thin layer of noxious grey dust. His voice was firm but Kostya noticed that his hands were shaking. “And all those people who were arrested on Bolotnaya, all those who’re still in jail, they’re idiots too, right?”
“They asked for it. Navalny is a naïve little boy who wants attention.” Valentin turned his head and spit into the dirt. “I’m not going to argue with you anymore. Life’s too short.” He walked away, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“What started that?” Kostya asked, following Sergei into the trailer.
“He asked me if I’d watched Putin’s address to the nation last night.”
“You know better than to argue with people like him.”
“Yes. I don’t know what got into me.”
They went inside to collect their pay. The trailer was sparsely furnished in construction-site style. It was lit by buzzing fluorescent lights that hung precariously from jerry-rigged fixtures. Two engineers were studying a drawing laid across two sawhorses. A young receptionist looked up from her computer as they entered.
“We’re here for our pay,” Sergei said.
“Is Constantine Constantinovich free, Misha?” She addressed a security guard who sat reading a newspaper. He had a revolver attached to his belt. He nodded and motioned the men into an adjoining room.
The two entered a small office where Constantine Constantinovich, the firm’s controller, sat behind his desk. He was a recent graduate of one of the city’s new business schools. His father, an officer in the F.S.B., had paid for his degree. Constantine had large peasant’s hands and wore very fashionable suits. “Ligachev and Shumailov, yes?” he said. They nodded. He unlocked a safe next to his desk, pulled out two envelopes, and pushed a ledger book towards them. “Sign, please.” They scribbled signatures next to their names.
“How’s the job? Enjoying it?” Constantine said. The importance of maintaining good relationships with workers was something he’d learned at school. He was very proud of his degree, which he kept in a frame on his desk.
Sergei shrugged. “It keeps the wolves away.”
“Ha-ha, yes it does. Everything’s gotten so expensive, hasn’t it? One can hardly eat a meal for less than two thousand rubles these days.” He handed them each a pay envelope. “There you are. Don’t spend it all in one place.” A low chuckle got strangled somewhere in his throat.
“We won’t,” Sergei said. Kostya followed him noiselessly out of the room.
The two men walked across the street to a small produkti store. On paydays their routine was well established. After work they’d buy two beers each and drink them on the way home. Kostya considered foregoing it today, but decided against it. He had plenty of time to get home before Tanya left, and he didn’t want Sergei to be alone.
The store was little more than a glorified shack, a white pre-fab structure with a cracked concrete floor and an inventory that consisted almost entirely of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food. It stood on a block otherwise occupied by a car burglary alarm shop and a sad little shoe repair shop. Its owner greatly benefited from the presence of the excavation team. Kostya and Sergei had seen him once or twice, a small man with gold teeth unloading a Mercedes. He purchased everything at a discount store on the outskirts of St. Petersburg and tripled the prices, but they didn’t care. After a long shift they were ready to pay almost anything for cigarettes, beer, and dried fish.
Sergei took four bottles of Bochkaryov from a shelf and put them in front of the young woman at the register. Her name was Olga. She was seventeen, and lived with her mother in a room behind the store. She had masses of curly black hair that she pinned up with combs, and always wore brightly colored skirts and blouses. Olga was the most cheerful thing about the place, but even she looked somewhat bedraggled this morning.
“And a pack of L&M cigarettes, if you please,” Sergei said.
“Two hundred and twenty-six rubles,” Olga said, flatly.
Sergei took out his envelope and handed her a thousand-ruble note.
“Nothing smaller?” she sighed. She never had enough change, no matter what time of day it was.
“No, my beauty. Nothing smaller.”
Olga counted out a wad of bills, then added two small pieces of candy to it. “Sorry,” she shrugged. “That’s all I’ve got.”
“No matter,” Sergei said. He pocketed the bills but left the candy on the counter. “Let’s do something different today,” he said, turning to Kostya. “Let’s walk across Birzhevoi Bridge to Dvortsovy and take the metro at Gostinka. I have an insatiable urge to be close to water this morning.”
Kostya glanced at his watch: it was eight-fifteen. He considered Sergei’s proposal. There were lots of places around Gostinka where he could buy Tanya something, and it would only take about fifteen minutes more than their usual route. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
The two walked outside and drank one beer each while standing on the makeshift sidewalk in front of the shop. Someone had laid wooden planks down in an attempt to soak up the mud from the workers’ boots. They were completely ineffective, but no one had bothered to take them away.
They began walking towards the Neva. Kostya checked his pace to stay abreast of Sergei, whose lungs were rather weak. Both men had been very fit when they were young. They played football and even hoped to play professionally for Zenit one day. Their hopes were fueled by Kostya’s cousin, Alexei, who for a time was the star forward for St. Petersburg’s team. But everything fell apart when Alexei was arrested for compromising himself with a western actress. Outraged, Sergei scrawled graffiti on the side of the Sovietsky sports stadium. For that he was sent to prison for six years.
It wasn’t far to the river, but Sergei was still out of breath by the time they got there. They stopped on the embankment to rest for a minute, and open their other beers. A billboard for a new luxury hotel stood before them, featuring photographs of beautiful young women lounging in spas, restaurants, and swimming pools.
“Look,” Kostya said, pointing to one of the girls. “She resembles Tanya when she was younger, doesn’t she? The same blonde hair and turned up nose.”
Sergei considered the young woman before him. “Yes.” He paused. “Today’s her birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Would you like to join us for dinner?”
Sergei looked at him closely. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
Sergei drank from his beer. “We’ll get her something?”
They began walking across Birzhevoi Bridge. It took them to the spit of Vasilevsky Island, past the old Stock Exchange and Rostral Columns. Kostya loved the view of the city from the bridge. Peter and Paul Fortress, the Winter Palace, and Admiralty were all laid out before him. Here was Peter the Great’s vision of Russia: strong, beautiful, progressive. What would Peter think if he could see his country now? Kostya wondered. Would he be pleased or disappointed? Probably a little of both.
Sergei finished what was left of his beer and put his empty bottle down at the base of one column. “What do you think?” he said. “Shall we try to climb this one, like we used to?”
“We’re too old. Besides, we never made it past the first masthead, anyway.”
They walked over the Neva to Palace Embankment. The Winter Palace looked like it was floating on a cloud of vapor rising up from the river. Statues of Greek gods and goddesses in its alcoves looked as if they’d just descended from the clouds. Kostya smelled the salt air and felt the sun on his shoulders. Maybe life wasn’t so bad after all.
“Let’s pick up another beer at that little store on Moshkov. I have an unquenchable thirst today,” Sergei said.
“OK.” Maybe he’d take Tanya fishing in the countryside this weekend. They’d gone fishing on one of their first dates. They sat on the banks of Lake Ladoga, drinking wine from Moldova while they fished for carp. “Do you think Sergei will ever come back?” she’d asked him. “I don’t know,” he’d replied. It was true. Anything could happen in those prisons. So they began dating each other, and now they’d been married for almost thirty years. He knew she was waiting for him at home. Well, she would just have to wait a little longer.
“What do you think we should buy for Tanya?” Sergei said.
“I don’t know. Flowers. Candy, perhaps.” Kostya finished his beer and set his bottle down under one of the palace’s windows. “She’s been hinting about a new cell phone, but I can’t afford one.” He shrugged.
“Well, something will come to us,” Sergei said.
They turned onto Moshkov and noticed a police car parked ahead. They unconsciously slowed their pace, brushed off their dusty clothes, and squared their shoulders as if preparing themselves for interrogation.
“Why do you think he’s here?” Kostya said. “It’s a little early for the likes of them to be about, isn’t it?”
“Probably waiting for some dignitary to come gawk at the Palace,” Sergei said. “They’re thick as crows this time of year.”
Neither spoke as they walked by the car. An officer inside was chatting on his cell phone, but rolled down his window when he noticed Sergei and Kostya. “Hey!” he called out. “What are you doing?”
“Just walking,” Sergei said. “We just finished work.”
“Where do you work?”
“The old Petrochem site on Petrovsky.”
“Well, move along.”
“What do you think we’re doing?” Sergei muttered. “Preparing to rob Siberbank?”
Soon they descended some stairs that led to a 24-hour deli. In its heyday it was frequented by the elite, but now it was just another run down convenience store. Its interior was hot, close, and smelled like moldy cheese. Two sleepy salesgirls sat huddled on stools in the corner while a small radio played the latest popsa music.
Sergei beckoned them to the counter. “Wake up, girls,” he said, jovially. “Two bottles of Bochkaryov. And that wee bottle of brandy there. Today is the birthday of my friend’s wife. It’s an occasion.”
One girl fetched the beer while the other got the brandy. Sergei paid for everything and returned to the street with Kostya in tow.
“Let’s cut across Mars’ Field. It’s lovely this time of year.”
Kostya hesitated. He knew that it would take twice as long to get to the metro that way. “What about Gostinka? “ he said.
Sergei considered. “We can use Chernyshevskaya instead. The shops there are cheaper anyway. We’ll get more for our money. We can buy flowers and candy.”
Kostya couldn’t argue with that, so they began making their way to Mars’ Field. The cupolas of Savior on the Blood reflected the early morning light, and brightened the stalls of souvenir hawkers setting out their wares for the day. Soon busses full of tourists would arrive, fresh from the Baltic cruise ships and thirsty for Matrioshka dolls, cheap reproductions of Soviet propaganda, and Red Army uniforms.
“Look at them,” Sergei said, nodding at the vendors. “Selling fake icons and army medals. At least we make an honest living.” He pulled the brandy out of his pocket and twisted off the top. “To Tanya.” He took a pull, then handed it to Kostya.
Kostya put the bottle to his lips. Even as the cheap brown liquor went down his gullet he knew it wasn’t a good idea. Still, it would be impolite to refuse. “Thanks,” he said. “That hits the spot.”
“I’m a little hungry,” Sergei said, lighting a cigarette. “Maybe we should get a little something to eat.”
Kostya was a little hungry too. “As long as it doesn’t take too long. Tanya will be leaving in about an hour.”
They began crossing Mars’ Field. The Tsar’s old parade ground was a city park now. There were lilac bushes and a memorial to the February Revolution with an Eternal Flame at its center. A group of young people were throwing Frisbees on the grass. “Let’s sit here for just a minute,” Kostya said. He was feeling slightly euphoric. “It’s such a nice morning.”
They sat on a white wooden bench. The sun was burning off the morning mist and the lilacs were blooming. Behind them, the young people were laughing and happy: summer vacations had begun, and they were enjoying their freedom. “Look at them,” Kostya said. “We were like them once.”
“Were we?” Sergei said, finishing his beer. “I’d forgotten.”
“It was thirty years ago today, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sergei said. “It was.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, each remembering that day. It was just like this: warm, sunny, full of life. Kostya had arrived at Sergei’s apartment to take him to the train station when the authorities arrived: someone had seen Sergei writing “anti-Soviet” graffiti on the stadium and squealed. Kostya would never forget the way Sergei’s mother wept as they took her son away, or the look on Tanya’s face when he told her what had happened. “I wonder where Alexei is now,” he said. “I wonder if he still plays football.”
“I hope he’s had a good life. ”
“I’m sure it’s been wonderful. He’s probably coaching a team in Chelyabinsk. Much better than being the star of Zenit.”
“Yes,” Kostya said. Somehow he couldn’t stop himself from continuing. “Maybe it wasn’t too bad for him. If you hadn’t done what you did, maybe it would have been worse….” He shrugged.
“My friend, you’re a greater fool than me if you think that. Nothing could have helped, much less writing Sex Is Not A Crime on the side of Sovietsky. Alexei was doomed from the moment he decided to fuck that girl.” Sergei took another sip of brandy.
Kostya set his beer bottle down under the bench. “She was very beautiful,” he said, quietly.
“Hell, I don’t blame him. Any man would want to screw a woman like that. But he was a fool to do it in a hotel in the center of town, and be seen with her in public. And I was a fool to think my feeble protest would make any difference. Here.” He handed the brandy to Kostya.
Kostya drank, then turned to look at the teenagers. Champagne bottles lay scattered on the ground at their feet. Well, why shouldn’t they drink champagne? They had every right to be happy. Everyone did. “Maybe we should get some champagne,” he said, suddenly inspired. “For Tanya.”
“Absolutely,” Sergei agreed. “Let’s go. The stores will be open soon.”
“She deserves champagne.”
“Of course she does.”
Kostya wanted to say something else, something that burned just under the surface. It had been smoldering there all morning. But it was a beautiful day. They both had a right to enjoy it. He turned his face up to the sky and drew in a deep, lilac-scented breath. Everything was fine. What was better than having a drink with a friend on a beautiful day?
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He knew without looking who it was. “Hello, my dear,” he said. “Happy birthday. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, thank you,” Tanya said. Her voice was resigned but not bitter. They had been married long enough to know what to expect from one another.
“We’ll celebrate this weekend, I promise. Would you like to go fishing?”
“Are you with Sergei?”
“I worry about you two on days like this.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“You know what I mean. Is he all right?”
“Everything is OK.” He paused. “We’re in Mars’ Field. The lilacs are blooming, did you know? It’s beautiful….”
“I’ve left some sosiski on the stove for you.”
“Thank you. Happy birthday from both of us.”
“Remember what I said. Be careful.”
“Without a doubt. Goodbye.” Kostya snapped his phone shut.
“Is she upset?” Sergei asked.
“No, not at all. Let’s go. I’m hungry.”
Soon they were standing on the corner of Ligovsky Prospect, a bustling thoroughfare thick with morning commuters. Well-dressed young people hurried to work. A few cast disapproving glances at the two tipsy men standing in the middle of the sidewalk. All of the activity caught Kostya and Sergei off guard, and made them slightly dizzy.
They began to weave their way through the crowd. Halfway down the block they stopped at a bus shelter to light cigarettes. An elderly babushka was sitting on a bench, staring at a poster in which a group of men appeared to be sitting in a large container of popcorn. “Polish Popcorn: An Evening with the Comic Chorus of Krakow” was written in bold letters across it.
“Did you ever see anything more ridiculous?” she asked them, pointing to it.
“Totally ridiculous,” Kostya agreed. “Imagine what kinds of songs they sing….”
“The old one in the back reminds me of Mr. Brodov, the butcher,” Sergei said. “He sold the best tongue and brisket in the city. Excuse me, ma’am, do you know where we can get something to eat around here? Something not too expensive.…”
The old woman shook her head. “I don’t know. Everything’s changed so much, I hardly know where I am.”
“Yes,” Kostya said. “But in some ways it’s the same as ever.”
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s worse.” She beckoned them to her with one finger. “I tell the girl who lives with me to draw the curtains every night. They can see the lights, you know. She says not to worry, there’s no one out there. But how can I not worry? Spies are everywhere. Have you noticed?”
“Yes,” Sergei said. “I noticed long ago.”
“Oh Lord,” she said, crossing herself. “Protect us.”
“Yes,” Kostya said, crossing himself too.
“What are you doing?” Sergei said. “You don’t believe in that claptrap.”
“Just being polite,” Kostya whispered.
“I’m going to Kuznechni Market, if the bus ever comes,” she continued. “They used to have very good potatoes, but someone said they’ve sold them all to Finland. Why would they do that? I don’t understand anything anymore.”
Sergei and Kostya glanced at each other. “We must be going,” Sergei said. “I hope you find some potatoes. Good day.”
“Good day,” she said.
“How sad,” Kostya said, as they left her behind. “I wonder what’s wrong with her?”
“Probably just confused,” Sergei said.
They passed a few coffee and sushi bars, a designer boutique and a trendy Argentinean restaurant. “Look, there’s a stolovaya on the next corner,” Kostya said. “Let’s go there.”
They wobbled their way to the café and went inside. It took a few seconds for their eyes to adjust; small table lamps and a neon fixture over the bar were the only sources of light. All of the windows were covered with red velvet curtains and panels of dark wainscoting reached halfway up the walls. Old Soviet propaganda posters completed the decor, together with a large stuffed bear propped in one corner. A man in a security uniform sat drinking tea, while two young businessmen were engaged in a hushed conversation in a booth. A plump middle-aged woman with a red face peered at them from behind the bar. “Sit anywhere you like,” she said.
Kostya and Sergei chose a booth near the door, pulled off their dusty hats and looked around. “Looks like an old-fashioned place,” Sergei said. “Let’s hope the food’s good.”
“Yes,” Kostya said, glancing around.
The waitress brought them menus. “Something to drink?” she asked.
“Is there beer?” Sergei said.
“Bochkaryov, Nevsky, Stepa Razin…”
“Nevsky on tap.”
She went for the drinks as they squinted at the menus. “They have kasha,” Kostya said. “That’s what I want. Kasha and bread.”
“Same for me,” Sergei agreed. “And dried prawns with the beer.”
After they’d ordered the food and drank some beer, Kostya leaned across the table. “I don’t like these posters,” he said. He motioned towards one that hung on the wall opposite their booth. A pretty young girl, her hair wrapped in a scarf, stood smiling and waving from the middle of a cornfield with the caption Field Work Waits For No One! “I don’t understand why they choose to decorate with those. Who wants to be reminded of all that rot?”
“It’s fashionable,” Sergei said. “Like mini skirts or faded jeans.”
“It was horrible then and it’s horrible now. I don’t know why they have to put it in our faces.”
“Think of it as therapy. Confronting the past makes it easier to forget. I heard that on some talk show.”
“It gives me the creeps.”
The waitress returned with their food, and sat bowls of warm kasha in front of them together with their bread and prawns. “In my opinion, we’ll need two more beers soon,” Sergei told her.
Neither man spoke as they took their meal. They ate as if they hadn’t seen food in weeks. The pat of butter on Kostya’s kasha reminded him of a children’s song his mother used to sing: “Let there always be sunshine, let there always be blue sky, let there always be Mama, let there always be me…”
“This isn’t bad,” Sergei said.
“Edible,” Kostya replied.
When they’d finished they sat back in their chairs and smoked, enjoying the feeling of fullness. Sergei closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the booth. Kostya looked at the clock over the bar. Tanya would be leaving their apartment soon. Field work waits for no one, the girl in the poster exclaimed. To hell with that, he thought. We’ve done our work for the day. He read the other slogans. “Careful! The enemy is listening!” “Let’s raise a generation devoted to communism!” “The USSR: A Mighty Sports Power.” Yes. A power that sent athletes to prison for dating a westerner or writing graffiti. A power that ruined a man’s life by punishing him for that. It wasn’t fair and he’d only made it worse. He’d taken away the one thing that made Sergei’s life bearable: knowing someone at home still loved and waited for him.
“I’m sorry,” Kostya blurted. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“What?” Sergei opened his eyes. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I shouldn’t have married Tanya. It wasn’t right.”
“For God’s sake, not again. Haven’t we gone through this dozens of times…” He took a drag and blew smoke towards the ceiling. “Forget it.”
“You were my friend. My best friend. I shouldn’t have…”
“Listen.” Sergei leaned towards across the table. “It was a long time ago. We all did what we had to do. It wasn’t your fault….”
“No.” Kostya shook his head. The burning pressure under his ribcage rose to the surface. “You don’t understand. I took advantage….”
“You did what anyone would have done. You were nineteen. Do you think you and Tanya should have been celibate? How would that have made it better?” Sergei drank what was left of his beer. “Miss!”
“A hundred grams of vodka here, quickly.”
“I took Tanya,” Kostya said. “I benefited from your misfortune….” Tears rose to his eyes. “I wasn’t your friend.”
“Snap out of it!” Sergei slapped the table. “Don’t say such things. You…you…” He began to cough, and couldn’t catch his breath. The waitress looked up from measuring vodka into the decanter.
“Are you all right?” Kostya reached across the table. “Maybe if you stood…”
Sergei brushed him away. In a few moments his convulsions subsided. He put his napkin to his face and blew his nose. Kostya gazed at the poster of the farm girl. She seemed to taunt him from the middle of her cornfield.
The waitress came back with the vodka. “To your health,” she said, setting them down. Then she went back to the bar.
“I know there’s no way to make amends,” Kostya said. “I know it does no good to talk about it. But I feel as though I owe you.”
Sergei sat quietly, his eyes downcast, drumming the table with his fingertips. “And so?” he said, finally raising his eyes. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you feel better for having spoken of it?”
“No. Not really.”
“Then what good did it do? You don’t feel better, I don’t feel better. You’ve tortured us both for no purpose.” Sergei picked up the vodka and filled their glasses. “Drink. To Tanya. To her birthday.” He put a glass in Kostya’s hand, and they drank.
“Listen,” Sergei continued, in a gentler tone. “At first I hated you for being free. I also hated Tanya. But I had to let it go. If I hadn’t, they would have won. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Kostya wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then used his index finger to trace a small circle of vodka his glass left on the table. It slowly evaporated until nothing was left but a faint, almost invisible stain.
“You’re my best friend. You were then and you are now. Why else would I want to spend my time with you today of all days?”
Kostya nodded. The pain beneath his ribcage made it difficult to speak.
“You must know that,” Sergei said. “Or things will never be right for you. Besides, it would never have worked out between Tanya and me, even if I hadn’t gone to jail. I prefer simple, plain women. Like our servant here.” He nodded towards the waitress. “The kind who lives to give pleasure. Because what else is there? You must take from life what you can. Enjoy one thing every day: a cigarette, a drink, a piece of meat. Otherwise, you might as well cash in your chips. Nothing will make you happy: no politics, no work, no woman….” He took another long drag, then smashed his cigarette into the ashtray. “We’re finished here,” he said. “Let’s go buy your wife’s champagne.”
They paid the bill and dragged themselves into the street. For a few minutes they debated where to go. Kostya preferred Gostinka, but Sergei insisted he could get more for his money at Chernyshevskaya. They argued, swaying like reeds in the wind until Kostya became convinced Chernyshevskaya was better because it was closer.
They found a delicates where Kostya bought Tanya a large chocolate bar and Sergei got her some Sovetskaya champagne. They were about to enter the metro when Kostya put his hand on Sergei’s shoulder.
“I feel badly about our conversation,” he said. “Let’s sit in Tavrichesky Gardens for a while. It’s just across the street.”
They wobbled into the old playground and slumped onto a bench near the carousel.
“I’m sorry I brought that up again,” Kostya said.
It had turned warm and many people were enjoying the weather. Young mothers wheeled their babies in prams; children played hide and seek. A small boy, mistaking the two men with construction hats and dusty faces for clowns, wandered up to say hello. His mother quickly snatched him away. He cried that he wanted to see the funny men. “They’re not funny,” she said. “They’re simply not clean.”
A young girl happily riding the carousel reminded Kostya of someone. But who? It was good there were such rides. Children had a right to be happy. Everyone did. “It’s so warm,” he said. “Why don’t we open the champagne? I’ll buy Tanya some more on the way home.”
“That’s a good idea.”
They popped it open and drank the warm, sweet wine straight from the bottle. Little by little the heat and alcohol robbed them of consciousness and finally they slept, Sergei’s head propped against the bench with Kostya’s resting on his shoulder. The children played on, as Tanya’s present slowly melted in the sun.