The Russian Affair - By Michael Wallner


Anna laughed and pivoted to the left, turning her back to the harsh wind. The man in front of her folded his handkerchief, laid it across his empty shoes, and stepped to the brink. Instead of using water to wet himself down, he scooped up some snow and rubbed his chest with it. Then, accompanied by the bystanders’ expressions of compassion and encouragement, he arched his back, sprang forward, and disappeared into the black water. Small chunks of ice bobbed against one another. Anna watched as the man swam underwater to the far end of his improvised swimming pool and surfaced there. His beard, white and unkempt a moment ago, was now gray and plastered to his cheeks.

“He ought to get a life guard’s badge,” the woman next to Anna cried out, pulling the fur trim of her cap down over her ears. “That way he could charge admission.”

“The Moskva River belongs to everybody,” a man wearing eyeglasses replied. The snowy wind bent his umbrella to one side. Anna dodged the pointy wire ribs and watched the bearded swimmer as he propelled himself through the water with increasingly powerful strokes. She pushed her way out of the group of spectators and hurried along the riverbank. Under the Krasnopresnenskaya Quay, she climbed up the icy steps and soon reached the bus stop. On the ride home, people on the bus discussed the weather. It was getting warmer, they said; tomorrow the temperature was supposed to rise above twenty below zero. That meant that the cold holidays would be ending soon, and the schools would open again. The thought elicited a satisfied nod from Anna. When Petya didn’t have to go to school, everything was thrown into disorder.

With a jerk, the bus moved out of the middle lane. Anna noticed the policeman who was waving the heavy vehicle to one side; at the end of the avenue, a large, dark automobile appeared and rapidly came closer. The bus rolled into the right lane. The Chaika was already right behind it. When the big car pulled alongside, Anna could see a lady in the backseat, her hair waved, a magazine on her lap, and then the Chaika shot past. Although the policeman, too, must have noticed that the car carried only a female passenger, he saluted it as it sped away.

Anna got off the bus at the Filyovsky Park stop. The queue of people waiting on the corner indicated that the canned peaches must have finally arrived. Should she get in line? It would be her fourth queue of the day. Anna banished all thoughts of peach compote, turned into her street, and entered Residential Building Number Seven. On the fourth floor, she unlocked the door to her apartment.

“Did you get toilet paper?” her father asked.

“No, Comrade, I have procured no toilet paper,” Anna answered, in her best Communist-youth-organization voice.

“If you think we can keep on using newspaper, you’re wrong,” Viktor Ipalyevich said, stretching out both arms and pointing from one end of the apartment to the other. “The paper in the windows was letting in drafts, so I had to replace it.”

“In the living room, too?” Anna asked, putting her purse on the table.

“In the living room, in the kitchen, wherever it was.” Since his daughter was paying his gesticulations no heed, he let his arms drop, took the dark brown chessboard from its shelf, and began setting up the pieces. His peaked cap, which he wore even inside the apartment, made him look younger; only his goatee betrayed the fact that the poet Viktor Ipalyevich Tsazukhin had gone gray.

Anna raised her nose. “Have you been distilling again?” Her eyes narrowed, and the blue irises grew dark.

“That’s no reason to glare at your own father as though he’s some sort of reprobate.”

He tried to bar her way to the kitchen, but Anna was faster. On the stove, she found the telltale system of metal pipes: a many-dented teapot served as a condenser; above, in another pot, the first distillation was cooling. In the next stage of the process, the once-distilled liquor would be sent through the labyrinth again.

“Even when you close the window, the neighbors can still smell it,” Anna said, looking at the elbow joint where the last pipe emptied into a converted paint can.

“And will the neighbors run to the police on account of a little glass of Four-Star Tsazukhin and denounce Viktor Ipalyevich as an unproductive Soviet citizen? Or will they hope to be invited into the courtyard on the