Duty Free

by Andrey Kuzmichev

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3

part 1


An odd man appeared at times in the background of the Vnukovo bombing broadcast. Rescuers trundled past him with their stretchers, the mangled “International Arrivals” sign flickered above his head.

The man sat cross-legged among the papers strewn by the blast and wrote absorbedly on the sheets he had scooped from the floor. He did not cover the entire page, but jotted a few columns down the midline, laid the page aside, then reached for a new one.

The explosion heard at 16:32 Moscow time carried such force, the girl with a microphone explained, that the bombers would be difficult to identify. Witnesses said the severed head found at the scene belonged to a Chechen terrorist. His female accomplice, killed alongside him, had been carrying a second, unexploded device.

A third co-conspirator, possibly the mastermind, shouted “Allah Akbar” seconds before the blast. Authorities had little hope of catching him.

Throughout the hour-long recording, the man kept writing like a grim, fastidious bureaucrat. A medic squatted next to him, patted him on the shoulder, and talked into his ear. The man shrugged, calm but resolute, and carried on. He tensed up only when the questioner pointed to the stack of pages that was growing by his side. Somebody draped a blanket over him. His face smeared with ash, the man looked like an ancient scribe.

A policeman wandered about, talking into a radio. He prodded the man with his baton, circled his finger around his temple and then hurried away.


1

Nikolay Petrovich Amurov yawned, groggy from an eight-hour flight, raked his thinning hair, and squinted at the Arrivals screen. BA1541 Chicago — London had come in forty minutes early. He changed his watch to 6:15 am.

In the bleak morning hour, a solemn line snaked across the transit zone and up two flights of stairs, leveeing against the security area stanchions.

“Never seen it so slow.” an adolescent girl in the queue looked him up and down. “A bomb tip or something.”

Amurov unzipped his backpack in front of a woman in a white uniform. She flipped between her fingers a tiny icon of gilded wax.

“Nikolay Ugodnik,” he explained. “Orthodox saint, protector of travelers. My mother’s.”

“Not sure I can allow it,” the woman pondered.

“Keep it.”

“You’d give away your mother’s icon?”

She leafed through the dog-eared volume of Coleridge. “You read this?”

“I write it.”

An Ambien pack and a crinkled water bottle completed his personal effects. He slapped himself on the forehead: he had forgotten the notepad and pen.

“The earliest I can put you on is a 9:30.” A woman at the British Airways counter squinted through heavy eyeliner. “And it lands at Vnukovo, not Sheremetievo.”

He shrugged. She tore up his boarding pass and handed him a new one.

He paced up and down Terminal 5, his head lowered, hands folded behind his back. He mumbled and counted verses on his fingers. The hall swelled with idle bustle. Travelers slammed into him, disengaged with puzzled glances, stepped on his heels, apologized or cursed in various tongues. A blended perfume smell hung in the air, at once soporific and disquieting.

He veered into a Duty Free — “worlddutyfree,” the lower-case letters announced. He browsed through Big Bens and Saint Basils on the souvenirs stand.

In the art books section, a retrospective of the Russian painter Vasilyev caught his eye. On the cover, a girl with a long braid dove from a tower, her red shawl strung taut on the wind. Intrigued, he peeked under the dust jacket. A Mongol-era saint, the text explained, Eupraxia chose death over the advances of Batu Khan, her husband’s beheader.

On the exit arc, he crossed sights with a salesgirl at the perfume stand.

“Sample, sir?”

He shook his head.

“For your wife?”

“Not married.”

The girl shifted on her feet. “Something you’d like to smell on a girl?” She shook a bomb-shaped bottle out of the silvery paper bag, squeezed a puff on her wrist and raised it to his nose. The savory smell was more like a China Panda meal than a £50 perfume.

“What’s it called?” he asked.

“Xanadu.”

As he rejoined the terminal circulation, he felt the girl’s look on his shoulder. He trotted for another hour.

His hundred or so poems hung before his mind’s eye. He dusted and polished them: a new word here, a fresher rhyme there. They shone back, smooth, grammatically diversified, clashing consonants reared out. He had counted and recounted each line’s syllables and synonymized every adjective he had not already cut.

But, taken in their totality, they seemed as unimpressive as “ancestral portraits stretched for miles, stoves shone with ceramic tiles” would appear to prodigal Onegin after months of “cosseting the worthy man.” He did this long enough to know that he had written his best verse, his second best, and the third.

Not a religious man, the only God he knew was his gift, modest as it was. And to that God he had one plea: to send down to him a great verse that would live on after he had perished. He did not ask for fame or wealth — he would not know what to do with either — or for posthumous anthologies. “Give me my poem,” he not so much petitioned as extorted. “For that I would die, kill, sell my soul.”

He strolled for another hour, absorbed in thought, and barely heard the Moscow flight announced. With grit under his eyelids, buzzing thighs, and a head crammed with thorny stars, he joined the short queue at the check-in.

2

As he stumbled through the waiting area chairs, a shadow crossed his sight. Talking in Russian into a headset clipped to her ear, a girl elbowed her way in front of him. The swirls of her hair bobbed up and down, her pink-tinted furs leaped about like a tree-dwelling animal. Heady perfume, familiar, but not immediately recognizable, cauterized his senses.

Her rudeness would have offended him had it not been so blatant. Instead, he registered a pleasant quickening of the pulse, which soon subsided, and before his mind again stood only rhymes.

A leather-cheeked woman at the check-in leafed through his blue passport, then his red one. She pulled on his sleeve: “We are required to second-screen dual citizens.”

“I haven’t stepped outside the country for years,” he tried.

A second attendant approached. She opened his red passport and scrutinized the blank residence registration page. She glued a yellow dot to the back cover and handed him both documents.

A bus was idling at the gate. The wind’s ruthless whip swiped across his face as he took three or four steps from the door to the footboard.

On the bus, he again stood next to the girl in pink furs. The globe of her hair undulated disquietingly close to his face — a sun that had decided to step down and ride next to a poet.

In a masculine voice, she announced into the headset that she “had met this funny guy named Alekper.”

Why the formal Alekper and not Alek? he wondered.

Alekper would pick her up in Vnukovo unless he got stuck in Moscow’s fabled traffic.

Why would it be ‘fabled’ to a Muscovite?

When the bus turned, he clasped the slippery handrail. As his shoulder invaded the girl’s furs, he noticed how much taller than he she was. (It must be the high heels.) Other than that, his mind did not retain a single feature of the girl: neither her hair nor eye color, nor the fact she was wearing heels. Before his eyes floated instead a pink nebula emitting a peppery smell.

He let his glance slide down her sleeve. Seeing the “worlddutyfree” logo on the bag in her hand (Yes, she was wearing high heels), he understood why her smell was familiar and hurried to look up.

Not a muscle shifted in the girl’s body to acknowledge his attention. Her voice grew harsher, louder. Her narrative left the funny Alekper — an unlucky jester who had lost favor with the humorless queen. She leaped onto the Spring semester, which opened next Monday with the dreaded “Complex Equations” class.

Before leaving the real world for the ideal one of poetry, he had taught college Math. The music of numbers and words, inanimate objects, perfectible in ways humans weren’t, had always stirred his aloof heart. It’s not “Complex Equations.” He smiled. It’s “Equations with Complex Variables.

As they came off the bus to board the plane, he stood closer to the door but, this time, the girl did not cut in front of him. Trotting up the ramp, he heard her chattering close by. Imagining that she was watching him, he felt awkward in his clothes, too youthful for a 35-year old. He wore them not out of vanity, but because he had stopped caring long ago about how he looked. His tan leather jacket felt too short, gray jeans too tight; his knitted sweater pooled visibly around the waist.

3

He walked through the half-empty plane to his seat in the emergency aisle. The two adjoining seats were unoccupied. He slipped off his shoes and propped his feet against the lavatory wall. He took out the Ambiens and swallowed one, then another, washing them with a sip from the bottle.

Not seeing the girl anywhere, he sighed with relief, absolved from taking the initiative in their ambiguous interaction, striking up a conversation or making it a point to ignore her. Having made in the past every effort to be close to him, this time, the girl did not choose a nearby seat, despite an empty plane. He ascribed her cooling to his glance on the bus which gave away his return interest.

Crouched on his double seat as the engines engaged and the plane accelerated into weightlessness, he witnessed his consciousness, itself a heavy aircraft, take off into an uncertain slumber. Unlike the plane, it kept returning to earth and leaping back into the bumpy skies. He dreamt that he was in a crowded hall and talked and laughed too much.

Once he woke up and saw that the cabin lights were dimmed. An icy void flew, turning, behind the window, its perfect surface blemished by streaking stars. Baroque clouds eddied under the patch of high-altitude air. Above it, abstract, constructivist in its austerity, shone a silvery star, unmoving, as if affixed to the sky with a diamond nail.

“Mother Russia”: two words drifted into his mind, and he understood what they meant. The star reminded him of his long-abandoned motherland forever towering over her stormy history. The collective grief of his forebears welled in his heart.

An orphan among the books, he had grown up as a citizen of a dream, not as an heir to an earthly tradition or caste. He had had in adolescence a few affairs with the muses of his country’s literary patriarchs, but later moved on to the leaner sibyls of Algebra and Calculus.

The lavatory sign blinked. The water trickled from afar, raising its pitch just above the motors. A young woman emerged, perhaps the same girl as before, perhaps not. Suspended between a fantasy and a dream, he let his imagination mold the uncertain outline before him in agreement with his memory of the girl in tinted furs.

Red highlights peppered her tightly bundled hair. She had no furs or heels; instead she was wearing jeans and a black turtleneck. Barefoot, despite the wintery drafts snaking across the floor, she appeared supernaturally tall, even taller than before.

The girl lingered at the door. Her lips were moving, as if to a song. At his first stirring of awakening, she took off like an untethered balloon and sailed down the aisle. Her hip streaked maddeningly close to his shoulder, leaving in its wake an aftersmell of once overbearing, now mellowed perfume.

His body tightened, giving in to the magnetism of opposing charges brought together one instant and pried apart the next. He lowered his head into the aisle. His heart pounded with fear that the girl would turn to look, but he checked himself and straightened in his seat.

Later, he sat sleepless, fevered, replaying the girl’s every move. Flying back home to settle a petty inheritance dispute, he understood for the first time what his relationship with his birth country was — a passing, half-imagined encounter with no words exchanged or feelings communicated, an ambiguous flirtation, a fading smell, a brush on the shoulder — overall, a forced memory of a starved poetic mind.

His heart raced, yet his eyelids grew heavy with surprise sleep, which, he knew, would be as deep as a grave.


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2015 by Andrey Kuzmichev

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