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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Life Stories

Off the Lights of Pokrovka
Joshua Walker

The lights from the cafe, behind the shimmering, humming glass, dazzled his eyes. It was 6 p.m. on a slushy Moscow Tuesday in March and Sveta was looking through the front door. He felt dizzy but was happy because he had half a chicken wrapped in foil in his bag and his breath carried the sting of the strongest vodka he could afford that morning. So each breath in felt good, they filled his lungs with energy, and his teeth were sharpening to tear into the greasy, roast meat.

All around them was Moscow at rush hour, the light indirect, the sounds of the rumbling traffic mingling with the icicles dripping onto patches of ice and hurrying pedestrians sliding on the narrow strips of pavement, hitting puddles of gritty, cold sludge, sparkling with the lights of casinos and headlights and sushi restaurants. And against all this movement stood Vladimir and his wife, Svetka, still looking into the cafe.

Svetka licked her lips. She had been drinking, too, and her old, pudgy face was screwed up into a peering little ball.
"We can eat in here," she said without turning.
"Svetka, move," he said as two hatless blondes in high heels clicked behind him, "move before someone opens the door and smashes your old face in."
"Aren’t you listening to me? I said, we can eat in here." She reached up for the door handle. Vladimir made an uncomfortable gesture, smacking his lips, but Sveta, as usual, anticipated his objections and said impatiently, "we can eat in here, Vovka." And with that she opened the door.

Vladimir shrugged uncertainly, looked up and down the street to see if anyone was watching him, and then followed his wife through the gust of warm air and coffee and the smell of a clean floor and furniture.

For a few seconds, the two of them stood, motionless, as the door closed behind them. The music was unnerving to Vladimir: it was loud, electronic sounding, and strange. Svetka stood to his right, smacking her lips and blinking in the bright light, whether from the shimmering strips of metal that extended across the interior, from the register counter to the ceiling and to the tabletops, or from the pulsing, alien music he couldn’t tell.

Vladimir waited for something to happen. There was a large, open refrigerator to his right, like something he had seen the time he had been in that giant supermarket by his old factory. Straight in front of him was a counter and three girls dressed in identical clean, green shirts, watching him over the shining steel surface that looked like something from the TV, it was so clean. To his left were tables and stools up by the windows.

Vladimir kept expecting one of the girls in clean green shirts to yell something at them, hurl a curse or call over a dog, or shout at them to go away, or motion over some giant kid in an a guard costume. But they said nothing. The did nothing. Vladimir kept bracing himself.
But they just stood there, watching.
Svetka clutched bravely at the plastic bag in her hand and then set off authoritatively to the left, towards the tables, wobbling slightly as she walked, as if she hadn’t even noticed the girls in green.
"Where are you going?" shouted Vladimir, maybe a little too loudly because a few girls looked up at him from their sandwiches, even though he hadn’t meant to say anything at all.
"Where are you going?" he repeated much softer, because there’s nothing to do when you shout something you didn’t mean to shout except to repeat it much softer and trick everyone that you meant to say it. The girls kept looking at him – now the other girls in the green, the ones behind the shining counter, were sure to do something. The blood rushed to his face, but Svetka, brave Svetka, kept walking. She didn’t even turn back. So he started after her, and the girls looked on without talking.

Svetka kept limping until she got to an empty table. She put the plastic bag that held the farmer’s cheese and the bread onto the chair and turned to Vladimir. He had stopped halfway.
"What are you doing standing there? C’mon!"
"I’m coming! I’m coming!" He yelled back. Now more tables were looking at him, he was sure of it.

He reached the table and stopped up next to it. Svetka stood next to it for a while, too, like she had been waiting for Vladimir to come over but then had gotten lost in thought. There were a lot of really rich businessmen sitting around their table, stirring their small, steaming drinks with bright white plastic sticks. The drinks were in bright paper cups. Every once in a while, they would, for no reason, pick up a clean piece of paper and rub at their lips. Vladimir put his own hands on his pockets. For a second, his heart froze. The chicken wasn’t where it should have been. But then, with a deep, gratified sigh, his fingers touched on the weighty bulk, and he removed it from his pocket. The delicious grease was leaking out at the edges and Vladimir had to check himself from licking it off his fingers right away.
"Well," he asked, holding the greasy foil package in his hands, "what now?"
"Sit down, you ogre," she said. "That’s what they do here, they sit." And then she added at half volume, "I’m going to get some knives and forks," her right eye pinching into a fierce squint. She walked over to the nearest side of the shining counter, one without any guard or girl in green, looked around, first suspiciously and then calmly, her squint gently easing up, and then she quickly stuffed a few fistful of the plastic ware into one of her bags. A young man, a foreigner by the looks of him, sat at one of the higher tables with a notebook, a book, a nice-looking mobile phone, and a half-full glass of beer in front of him. He looked up as Svetka put the knives and forks into her bag. Vladimir made eyes contact with him, and the foreigner went back to his scribbling.

Svetka quickly, but not too quickly, walked back to the table, stood by it for about fifteen seconds or so, and then sat down herself, close enough so that their elbows were touching. She stared greedily at Vladimir as he began devouring the chicken, skin, meat, gristle, fat and all. Her ears tensed at the slurping sound. He pulled at the cold, slick skin, folded it up with the meat, and sucked it into his mouth through his wet fingers.

Svetka snatched one of the bones and started sucking out the marrow. Between each suck she smacked her lips.
Vladimir didn’t notice the music or the foreigner, or even remember to keep a look out for any guard. His head began to swell with a gentle heat.
"Toilet," she finally said after a few minutes of slurping, chomping silence, licking at the dripping goo on her palms. "They got a toilet here."
"Yeah?" he said, looking up. "You going, then?"
"Yes, I’m going," she snapped. "Look after the bag, and leave me some chicken." She got up and limped off.

Without Svetka, he started noticing the music again, as well as the foreigner and the table full of girls. One of the girls in green suddenly appeared form nowhere, he had forgotten to watch out for her, and walked up to his table. But she didn’t yell at him, like he expected. He even already had made that look on his face that makes people think you don’t understand them so they’ll stop yelling at you because why should they yell if you don’t understand. Instead of yelling she just passed by, picked up one of the brown trays that still had half a decent sandwich and some of those bright paper cups on it, and then walked by again.

He took another giant hunk of dark meat and skin between his thumb and forefinger and stuffed it into his cheek. Svetka would be mad he had taken so much, but she would still get full. He was warm and comfortable and eating, and he didn’t have to apologize to anyone. He picked up one of the bones, cracked it open with both hands, prepared his tongue for the marrow’s extraction, but then he abruptly heard a shrill sound that stopped him altogether. One of the pieces of bone fell from his hand and onto the floor.
It was Svetka.
"Help, help, Vovka!" she screamed from somewhere. "Vladimir! Vladimir!" her voice was high and piercing, and each time she pronounced his name it came out a little differently.
He turned his head left and then right. Many other people were doing the same but he barely noticed them.
"Svetka!" he shouted, dropping the other part of the bone. A sliver of chicken skin shot from his lip to the glass table and hit it with a soft sound, like Svetka’s smacking. "Svetlana!" "Vladimir! I’m here! I’m here!" And then he remembered, the toilet.
‘They got a toilet here,’ she had said.

He stood up too fast, too fast for all his vodka breath and the contents of his stomach sloshed around uncomfortably and he almost fell, but managed to steady himself even though he almost tripped on one of those coats hanging from a nearby chair. What the hell was coat doing on a chair like that? He stumbled quickly to the giant concrete tube that Svetka’s voice was coming from.
"Svetka!" he shouted again, and suddenly he noticed that half of the room was staring at him and the other half was just trying not to.
The door, giving off an eerie metallic sheen, was rattling frantically on its hinges, and the doorknob was spinning helplessly back and forth.
"Svetka, open the door!"
"I can’t!" she called back. "I can’t open the door!"
"Just open it!"
"You ogre, that’s what I can’t do, is open it!" He stepped back with his mouth wide open.
"Svetka! Svetka!" And the whole room was looking at him. Everyone, that is, except for the foreigner, who scribbled away and finished his beer in a big gulp.

The door banged around, pulled the hinges a little more, the shining metal door shook in place, and Vladimir took another step back. He finally remember to check on the chicken – it was still there, on the table. And then he looked back at the door, his mouth still open and head still spinning.
"Vladimir – I," she yelled, but just then the door swung open and Svetka tumbled out of the concrete tube. She tumbled but caught herself and then she looked from Vladimir to the chicken on the table and then casually limped back to her seat. Brave Svetka.
"Goddamn bathroom and this Goddamn restaurant and their Goddamn door handle," she muttered to herself as she sunk gingerly into her seat and reached for the chicken. Vladimir continued standing by the concrete tube, not sure to do with his hands. He suddenly noticed that most of the people had their coats off and some had even left them hanging out of reach. Strange, what rich businessmen will do, he thought to himself, so rich they don’t even care where their coats are hanging. It was a strange thought, he knew, but that’s what he thought while standing there.
Most of the Russians had gone back to their food or conversations, but a few were still watching Svetka. And the foreigner was now looking directly at him and Vladimir decided he didn’t like his eyes. He found the strength to move forward, but he kept his eyes hard and locked on the foreigner who sat still, pen in hand, naive eyes sparkling in the metallic cafe lights.

Vladimir’s features suddenly hardened, and he stopped walking. The foreigner blinked, but Vladimir’s gaze held strong. His look said, without any irony and without any mistaking: "Don’t pity me. Don’t pity me, and don’t even try to understand me." The foreigner’s glance settled on his empty beer cup, and his fingers played with his black pen. Svetka had opened the farmer’s cheese and had already shoveled two scoops into her trembling mouth.

© Joshua Walker November 2009
Joshua is a Dublin-based authors currently doing a PhD in 19th-century Russian literature
joshua s. walker skij13at

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