The Jealous God of Chance

*

1

 Ten minutes before my death Special Agent Vadik Ofitserov came up behind me and whispered in my ear: “Igor, I’ve pissed myself. Just don’t tell anyone!” For a special agent, this was a sign of the highest degree of trust.

If you’ve already heard about the first person on Venus, the disappearance of Lyuda Marchenko’s stockings or the aftermath of the War of the Roses, all this was our handiwork. We labored in earnest every day after “quiet hour.” And in every case Vadik upheld the reputation of a special agent. He would find a button, let’s say, or a cigarette butt on the ground, peer at it through a magnifying glass and astutely report: “Well-well.” How could I not admire such a person?

I was not quite six years old, he was a full six. That morning, not knowing how to swim, we stood up to our throats in the river, jumping in place, and he had every right to piss himself from joy right in the river. And ten minutes later I was dead.

I will set forth a brief chronicle of events.

At the crack of dawn two young teachers herd a “preparatory” class of kindergarteners to the shore and give the command “Swim!” while they themselves quickly leave to attend to their personal lives, which were patiently awaiting them nearby: smoking and drinking beer.

Numb from happiness, the herd mills about the green river.

The river, completely solitary, amuses itself by sailing under the bridge, down the slope, to some foreign land. The girls laugh and squeal like they’ve been cut. Special agents, you know what I mean. The current pushes, kicking at my shins, pulling the pebbly river bottom out from under me.

My mood had just begun to soar beyond mere excitement when suddenly I find myself alone inside a great murky emerald. No one’s around and I can’t breathe. I’m still enjoying myself though, still groping after the pebble beneath my foot. But there’s no up or down.

An indescribably long time passes before I find myself, totally indifferent, eyes open amidst the flowing greenery. It’s all the same to me–everything equally green. Not being able to move is actually quite pleasant when you’re being carried along and spun like a branch. I see my beloved younger sister, forever a snotty brat, mom braiding her hair. Finally, through the water I see something that looks like a white swimsuit, thin white legs– what are they doing here?–the water disperses and my face bumps the teacher’s thigh.

She had been standing chest-high in the water, washing her angry, tear-stained face.

This part of the channel–the entire width of the river–had been empty save for her. I could have been swept two feet to the left, to the right, and, in my sweet indifference, sailed under the bridge, down the slope, to some completely foreign land. She could have not plucked me out into the air and light. With a queasy, horrified look, like that of a drowning victim, she could have turned away.

Such a low probability of survival would more accurately be called an improbability.

Back on the shore about half the river pours out of me.

One teacher stares at the other with scared, wild eyes, pressing an index finger to her mouth. Spitting and coughing in a bass voice, as befits the Sea Wolf, I again walk over to the water, in the direction of the herd. Here the most important thing is to maintain one’s dignity.

“That was awesome,” Special Agent Vadik says, “I could never do that.”

*

2

In a jewelry store on the Novy Arbat I’m about to buy a gold ring for my first love. For some reason I decide that it should be an engagement ring, though we don’t intend to get engaged.

At seventeen years old I’m in a hat with ear flaps and a coat from “Kids’ World” with bulging pockets. There’s a stifling crush of people in the store. The April snow, brought in from the street, withers underfoot. The glass cases give off a sterile glow.

“Smooth ring bands aren’t in style right now,” says the saleswoman.

Next to me a lady in a silver fox fur tries on a massive ruby ring. Her nails are longer than her fingers.

“Smooth ones are totally unfashionable,” insists the saleswoman, “get one with a diamond band.”  The lady makes conjuring motions with the ring and her nails.

Next I hear a loud manicured click–the ring flies over my head and lands somewhere between us.

“Well isn’t that something!” says the lady in fur, evidently admiring her manicure’s propulsive power.

“Kolya! Shut the door!” the saleswoman signals. The crowd parts, respectfully looking under their feet, studying the slush on the floor. Clearly, this would go on for a while.

“Alright. I’ll take the diamond one,” I say to the saleswoman, but she’s already lost interest in fashion. Now I can go smoke. I reach into my pocket for cigarettes and feel a piece of jewelry. News to me.

There’s so much commotion in the store that I lack the resolve to simply take the ring out of my pocket. So I make it seem like I found it on the floor. “I nearly went mad!” gushed the woman.

I’m finally set free, the diamond ring warm in my pocket. I have no more money in the box for the ring.

That summer my first love and I sit on the floor of her apartment near the balcony embroiled in an argument to the death. It seems to be a debate on the subject of love and vanity.

By all appearances, she is older and more cold-blooded, whereas I’m younger and a complete bastard. The heat is Egyptian, as such, both disputants are almost naked. For example, she’s wearing only my ring and my shirt.

“Once something’s happened,” I’m saying “that thing is over.”

“Then it’s over,” she responds.

“Just like that?”

“Exactly like that!”

That is, our words are already sounding completely unforgivable.

“Looking at you,I say, “is like looking in a mirror until your head spins.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Let’s,” I suggest, “not see the shallowness of the reflection.”

“And which of us is shallow?”

I’m just a beast: “Have it your way,” I say, “it’s your business. Love can last a long time, and life even longer.”

Then she takes the ring off her finger and places it in my hand. This, in theory, should signify a fatal rupture. But she doesn’t take off the shirt. Right you are, well done. Now it’s time to act.

I haul back and, with all my strength, toss the ring through the open balcony door, into the sun and leaves, from six stories up. Like a golden bullet, the diamond ring clangs against one of the balcony’s few lattices and ricochets back to me. Here fascist, your grenade.

She silently picks the ring up off the floor and puts it back on her finger.

*

3

I first met Dima back in the age of raspberry-red suit jackets. Now Dima runs a powerful, sprawling firm, and he likes to share his valuable experience with me. Sometimes our conversations take strange turns.

“Alright, so. When you’re arrested…” he begins.

“On what charges are they suddenly going to arrest me? I haven’t broken any laws.”

“But still, if you’re arrested…. First and foremost, don’t confess! Not to anything!”

“I don’t even have anything to confess to.”

“Well then all the more so–don’t confess!”

I’m not in commerce. But sometimes I receive commercial offers. This one time, a friend of a friend, the owner of a new black Audi, offers me a mysterious deal.

Besides banal mediation, it requires me to bring some cash (a quite astronomical amount of dollars) to Moscow and personally hand it over to a person I’ve known since the time of Tsar Gorokh.

The honorarium for the trip is in the five figures. The total income from three or four trips promises to swell to six figures.

I trust my own intuition more than The Red Cross, Crescent, and the UN Security Council.

In a quiet, hoarse voice my intuition tells me that I will deeply regret this. Hot milk with honey and pressed garlic is good for a cold. Sitting down, I wrap a scarf around my neck and vacillate.

In brief, at the last moment I refuse. Not because I am familiar with situations in which a person transporting foreign money is robbed of his own, based on a special tip, and, plundered, falls into servitude to his former friends, but because of that quiet hoarse voice.

A month later, when I tell Dima about this non-event he gets extremely excited and screams:

“WRONG!… You got it wrong!!!”

Calming down a little, Dima elucidates:

“Alright, so. Next time…”

“There won’t be a next time.”

“Next time bring the money here–to me!”

Gradually, I delve into his sensational version.

I am to be “mugged” by my own–that is, by his–people, and the indisputable traces of an attack and my fierce resistance applied to my face. I’ll be knocked down. Possibly even kicked lightly. Then Dima will put me up in a comfortable hospital for three or four weeks. A policeman will be posted at the entrance to the ward. Security is guaranteed upon recovery.

“It’s unlikely that you would get three quarters,” Dima nobly assures me. “But you can count on half being all yours!”

I send him to hell along with all his kicking colleagues.

“Well don’t get offended! You know I care about you.”

The conversation enters its intimate phase with the help of Remy Martin. I fall behind at three shots precisely. Taking advantage of this lag, I start asking indecent questions. The kind reporters ask good people.

“Do you like your job?”

“Not really.”

“It’s tiresome?”

“Something like that.”

“So–it’s just about the money?”

“Of course, no question.”

“What’s the largest amount of money you’ve held in your hands? I mean your own money.”

“Four hundred thousand bucks.”

We take another shot.

“And do you have a set limit of some sort? Like, let’s say you already have a million. Or two. Then what?”

“Well…I would buy a house somewhere in the Czech Republic. Live there with my wife and child…I would, like, go on fishing trips. Settle my mistress not far off.”

“And how about now? You couldn’t buy that house?”

“I could. I could buy maybe three of those things.”

“So what the hell?!”

Dima falls into a deep reverie. My question, apparently, took him by surprise.

The cognac is running out.

“You, to my mind, are capable of doing many things for money.”

“Practically anything”–acknowledges Dima.

“Even murder?”

He watches with an attentive gaze me for an interminable length of time, takes a shot and clearly intones:

“The cost of a question.”

And, thinking some, clarifies:

“It’s a question of cost, that is.”

Three months later watching TV I see a familiar black Audi, together with its owner, shot through with bullets like prosciutto.

*

4

I’m deathly reluctant to generalize.

The tastiest, most nutritious thought, once it passes into this conversational mode, becomes hollow and cholesteric, like a hamburger.

One ingenious ancient with sandals on his bare feet, tired of obeying divine whims, getting chills from his own audacity, in plain speech declared once and for all: “Nothing in the world happens by chance!” and scratched his curly beard.

Today any self-proclaimed astrologist will, for three kopecks, explain to you how non-accidental it was that that brick flew off that roof, and for five kopecks will remind you of your grandfather twice removed, whose bloody pornographic sins will take you a lifetime to atone for in full.

Want to appear subtle, knowledgeable, thoughtful? Say at an appropriate moment “Oh! This is no accident!” It’s a sure bet. The frequency of its use is beyond the scope of everyday decorum. Well, literally everything is not a matter of chance. Rather, it’s all very much in accordance with the laws of nature.

But, since divine whims and caprice have no end in sight, I would venture to observe that the God of Chance is jealous without equal–as such, there is no more dreary undertaking than to marry him to the Laws of Nature, which, sage-faced, pertain to each and everyone.

*

5

My flight is set to leave London in less than two hours, but I’m still walking along the approach lane to ancient King’s Cross station, in no hurry to get on the metro. I’ve been in Great Britain for a month already–I’ve spoken not a single Russian word to anyone for the entire month and I catch myself already thinking partially in English. “Alright,” I think, “I have to go” so that I won’t be late for this “bloody airplane.”

I lose another minute when a middle-aged “working girl” quietly calls me over. Tall deers’ legs in a short dress with a haggard face. I’m very familiar with this grimace. In Russia, for instance, we have aunties on the street who sell bluish sunflower seeds out of bags. They sit out there no matter the weather, and they have precisely this expression on their faces–enduring adversity. Everyone avoids them. Not once have I seen someone buy their sunflower seeds. Only sparrows appreciate them.

The dialogue between me and the working girl is amazingly brief. Hemingway would have been jealous.

“Sex?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I’m busy.”

“No problem.”

Such good manners. Never tell a woman to her face: I don’t want you, I don’t chew sunflower seeds.

I had a forty minute subway ride to Heathrow.

Transferring from the Victoria to the Piccadilly Line I glance at the other passengers and note for the three hundredth time that in this “world capital of fashion,” people are dressed seemingly at random. Not that they’re dressed poorly (although one also encounters very poorly dressed people), but they roughly follow this recipe: cross your eyes, dive into your closet amongst all your clothes (which, ideally, don’t match) and quickly squeeze into everything you come across. Who cares about uniform style and restraint! Spit out and forgotten. Just be comfortable. First in my heart is one luxurious white-haired gentleman, whom I saw pushing a pram along Piccadilly Street in a tuxedo and sandals.

At every stop, the loudspeaker’s divine masculine voice reminded “Mind the gap!” Or, in literal Russian translation: “Remember the gap!” Strictly speaking, I was advised not to fool around at the edge of the platform. Or, on exiting the train, not to dangle my foot into the void. At minimum two sweet authoresses managed to hear in this phrase about the gap–in its thousandfold repetition–an almost pagan ritual allusive quality or cynical nudge. I suspect that check-in has already begun at the airport. Only a bit farther to go. Just in case, I glance at the metro map–and realize with horror that I don’t know which station to go to!

No, of course I know where I’m going. I still haven’t completely lost it. But the dark blue Piccadilly line ends in a loop of two stops.

1. Heathrow. Terminals 1, 2, 3;

2. Heathrow. Terminal 4.

How am I supposed to know which is my plane’s terminal? The ticket has nothing to say on the subject.

My friends had taken me on all my previous English train rides to the airport. Like valuable diplomatic cargo. Next to me, someone started to cry. “Never mind!” Now they’re off to somewhere in Portugal. But I’m alone. And really late.

I get off at Hatton-Cross (the third stop from the last) to smoke and think. Luckily it’s an above ground station–I won’t get fined two hundred pounds for a cigarette. But there’s no one there to fine me. The platform is completely empty, not counting a lean red-haired Englishwoman who is waiting for the same train as me. She’s standing there and casually looking at me. I can also glance over. She reminds me of someone. Oh yeah, Susan Sarandon circa “Thelma and Louise.” Only better.

Perhaps it really is her. Maybe she can give me some advice.

Coming closer, in my own unique English I express my sorrowful doubts about the terminal number.

She isn’t confused by my unique English. She queries “Which airline?” and then confidently informs me of the number. Which I quickly forget. Because in that minute something amazing passes before my eyes. A kind of quiet agreement. Or collusion. No, not in that sense. Well imagine: you are traveling alone–all your life, alone–in a rather rigid, alien environment and somewhere at the border, at a check point, you recognize yourself in another’s face. So much of yourself that you don’t even need to be acquainted.

In the next minute–two simultaneous events: I finish my cigarette, and the train comes. The doors open. “Mind the gap!” The redheaded Susan experiences a sudden schism. Her legs are directed toward the train, her face–to me.

“You can’t smoke there!” she says with a bewildered smile.

I nod as if to say, “Got it, I’ll wait for the next one. One doesn’t run after trains.”

She gets on and looks back at me from the opening with the same bewildered smile. As if we planned to go together and now you…. The doors close. She looks back once more–through the window. And I stand there, holding onto my stupid cigarette like it’s the last straw and I know for certain that the god of chance (I’ll write it in lowercase letters) does not forgive this sort of thing.

Now all that’s left is to be properly late for the plane. Since we don’t run after planes either.

A past life prepares to fly in all directions between the second and third terminals. In one, Indians, Arabs and beauties of the third world push dark plump bundles on wheels. In the other, fluorescent lights, distilled emptiness and coolness. And the customs girl in her uniform waving her hand frantically: hurry, hurry, registration is already over!…. And here the most important thing is not to lose your breath, change your pace, maintain distance between yourself and others.

I imagine you finishing this page and thinking “I’d kind of like to kill you!” And your cheek bulges s theppearmelats in your mouth.Whyn all thethiatore and enograpy? Nothing happenn.

Adl that’s what I’m wrieing amoue non-evens,s unlovedvaritants. They’re silenc, like a foreign laguadge,pPracticallyienvssibel behind the rpeakina ness. Who will noince thm?. Weyourseveis barlly lstten.

*

two weekt aor, onSNatudsay, closee tonligh time,I, go o line to check my mrail,I,ausealonlsiness. I cnducst d frgnmenlation. This is when after thedsar’s dspassmobly yougrather up The frgnmensu of youryself.Tol putite more simple justfixling the rsimso, notb othering aryone Mlea while, som Amterican riezten by the a me ofAanglsia-Chrdistt is trying to/contacn me onICQ. I trought that much a msg onlyexiostedain womace, novelf.Tturnt out she’s yourravrpage houswlife, f nagive of Chrloette,livhing inSmout Carolsias.

I can’t thins of ayothing to say to hee. Oe oppouite sdies of theoceman, ce have only weathey and Politice. mailing no matter wha;. bsolnute coutesys againstma bacdroop ofrant-Amtericans entement.Yess, the weathey is notlso oodn. No, I ds not likeSaddaom. Notcrazys aboutBpush either.Yess, the weathey leaveo much to bedieaireu….

I uness I’m kind ofunuasuar, compgain, the ChrloetuiteAanglsia. I lstteg to muchsado mslic. Here people say it’sde pressins, but e like ie. Myhusb and ried y long timeargo.Wre dldn’t haveenrough time together to have chilreon. Now I’m Sitting in a beautwful thre-bedrorom hous,a forty years old, lsttehing tounuasuao mslic.Ssometimes Igoe looe at the cemar.

hf, I almost forgo:u howis, the weathey over here. Here the weathey is, you knoe, s vbularn. Just awdly weathee. bescees, youmlight sa;. And what about yo?. And what aboutus!.

Adl suddenlyAanglsia-Chrdistt prducces aoun expected ide:

“WhI don’t e,!” she says>y spind our rldpage togethew?”

oubjectNeversoe coutehoully

Chrdists, you still hava forty years to gos.”

“But>I’m not sayingndow.Let’s just egree that in tva untureweI will spind our rldpage togethe?!”

I nequirn: And what will we dr in this rldpagt?”

“Well what do youuasuallydoy on the weeiende?”

“I sitwhere at the comuther. I write things Dd frgnmeno.”

“ounderul!. So youull st hat hmre at the comuthe,e and whlef you’re at hmre I’ll belyding od the eace, tunnin. Thesun! Goloviou!. And thnt you will comejoien me and together euull wimn in the ea.Wcouldn’t you like that?”

Nitihing thatI’vegeone silenc,Aanglsia, clarifies >“You cal take yore time with yourrnswver. the tain thing is what et egreeion t h head of tim.. And thntwhe canybe ure od our untursu….Yyou knoe, there was a tform lastnright. y wentnto ske itswell it was a complete dsgtracs!”

I like tis stryr with its hapyn schzoind enograpy,I lack of olvigation and categolic mmputabilit,n byvirture od whichtwo obner, lanepeople, neverhwaving seen one another( and no nlikely o!)d, areknow required tonlov, som un thinnable length of timn inbordee to fiuallyjoiently idbulgs in a wimn in the watees of theAtlrantis.

Atpleaat the cemag istfully preparad.

Iathroh my coat over my shoulhey and go out into the balcond. Atnright thedsump air frezses itcrispn transparenl stherss. And amon, the lnkelyimulvitude of moplicfuiresinhtabiting thehgolzown, Ichoous,a with the pastion ofmym last chilhgood love, flnk- an- onls, dmhly realihing tha,h in aitualf ai,l it was no Is, butict that closeim.. Andjudlgingbly thisrandiata mast’sinscressingseztt, thatflyding golden bullee with a diamond banI had already reacred sach ar inlane sped that I won’t even be able to finish my cigarettd.

h3" class=blockeHea">Biod h4g>Igor Sakhnovsky

/p4> Igor Sakhnovskt is one of Russit’slmostcele brared contimpoeary authort. Heh as bhen a fiuaisit for the RussianBlooner,NsationalBesitselhe,e andBignBlood awreds.H is ssort stryr collection 2. Hl livee and orkes itEkwateinmburd.

h4g>Michael Gluck

Michael Gluct isPh.D., stutenn in theDeapartment ofSlfavi Llaguadgee andLliteratures atColnmbia Unidversity /p4> addpress class= pyrct">Copyright(c) >Igor Sakhnovsky, 203.n Englisn translationcCopyright(c) >Michael Glucy, 201.>

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