International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Life Stories
the Lights of Pokrovka
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."
"Arent 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 couldnt 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 hadnt 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 hadnt meant to say anything at all.
"Where are you going?" he repeated much softer, because theres
nothing to do when you shout something you didnt 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 didnt 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 farmers cheese and the bread onto the chair
and turned to Vladimir. He had stopped halfway.
"What are you doing standing there? Cmon!"
"Im coming! Im 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 wasnt
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,
"Sit down, you ogre," she said. "Thats what they
do here, they sit." And then she added at half volume, "Im
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 didnt 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
"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, Im 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 didnt yell at him, like he expected.
He even already had made that look on his face that makes people think
you dont understand them so theyll stop yelling at you because
why should they yell if you dont 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 didnt have to apologize to anyone. He picked
up one of the bones, cracked it open with both hands, prepared his tongue
for the marrows 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 Svetkas smacking. "Svetlana!"
"Vladimir! Im here! Im here!" And then he remembered,
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
Svetkas 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
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 cant!" she called back. "I cant open the
"Just open it!"
"You ogre, thats what I cant 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
"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 dont even care where their coats are
hanging. It was a strange thought, he knew, but thats 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 didnt 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.
Vladimirs features suddenly hardened, and he stopped walking.
The foreigner blinked, but Vladimirs gaze held strong. His look
said, without any irony and without any mistaking: "Dont
pity me. Dont pity me, and dont even try to understand me."
The foreigners glance settled on his empty beer cup, and his fingers
played with his black pen. Svetka had opened the farmers 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
joshua s. walker skij13at gmail.com
life stories in Dreamscapes
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