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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 28: Dvadtsat' Vosem’

Yegor called Igor Chernenko. The Chief was still technically his boss, although they had not seen each other for some time. Each of them was taking care of his own business and not sharing the profits. Yegor thought he had learned to get along without the Chief, and now he had gotten involved in a situation that made it clear he had not.

They were like two little children, one playing Spiderman and the other the Invincible Bionicle, who stop playing. They swim across the entire ocean, leap over mountains, fight with giants and defeat them, meet cannibals and kill them, destroy the evil robots and vampires, but now Spiderman trips on the edge of the sofa, falls on the floor, bumps his nose and starts crying. Bionicle looks at him and starts crying too. They both call for Papa and Mama though, just a minute ago, they had completely forgotten that they had a papa and mama and would have been embarrassed to admit to themselves or to their powerful enemies that they needed their noses wiped.

Chernenko still lived in the same building where he had once inducted Yegor into the brotherhood of the Black Book. During all these years, he had displaced, with the help of money and threats, the aboriginal residents of the old landmark of Stalinist architecture and taken over almost a third of the apartments.

The Chief’s aggressive apartment had expanded senselessly but inexorably in all directions, like some kind of wealthy, scattered and poorly administered 14th-century Burgundian duchy. It had inflated within the building to a kind of three-and-a-half story palace, from which protuberances and appendices extended in various directions, exclaves and enclaves of all the new and newly purchased territories subdued by force.

Neither Igor Fedorovich himself, nor his house staff, nor his lawyers, knew the precise dimensions of his dwelling. Many sections of the apartment were perpetually in litigation. On the apartment outskirts, detachments of underprivileged residents formed into partisans. Dozens of rooms were not used or were drowned in impassible repairs and renovations. Groups of Tadzhiks with buckets of asbestos and armfuls of furniture wandered everywhere.

Before Chernenko’s eyes loomed lovers and distant relatives who had gotten lost, who had originally come on business and stayed on to live there as junior partners. He was jostled by a crowd of bodyguards, petty thieves, someone’s dogs, and even an old parrot who, like many native Muscovites, didn’t want to move to Zhulebino and inevitably returned, no matter how many times they were driven off.

The apartment and its contents resembled, as they had many years before, something between a warehouse, an office, and a sort of safe house reserved for illicit lovers. The junk was more modern and significantly more expensive, but was stacked up, strewn about and fraying, as then, in some kind of piles.

The impression it left was not Burgundian but ordinary Russian and brought to mind the majority of our cities, towns and homes, where everything is laid out and looks as if people have only just arrived and not settled in yet, not made themselves at home as they should or, quite the opposite, have sunk as low as they could into boredom and revulsion. They curse the place where they have sat for thirty years on their suitcases, bundles and trunks, almost ready to leave, ready at any minute to rise and run off into the distance, to the four corners of the earth.

They sit and look around at someone else’s sad, ugly, unprofitable household, like uninvolved newcomers. Trash sits uncollected on the street. Houses are constructed hastily, as if not for living in but just to perch on. They’re not willing to spend a nickel for a playground or a park, but for the same nickel prefer to get drunk on something poisonous and nibble on something stale and unpalatable. They get flabby and stare with narrowed eyes over the roadside trash, over the unfinished playgrounds and tottering fences, into the barren distance. And they begin to curse and sing, to weep to themselves, as if captives on the rivers of Babylon.

The chief was at home. He was not surprised to hear Yegor’s voice on the intercom, though he had not heard it for quite some time, and he invited Yegor to come in. From the seventy-seven original brothers of the Black Book, only two remained with the Chief. The rest, including Yegor, little by little, without explanation or notice, had detached themselves. They supported themselves one way or another but were still enrolled in the brotherhood. They had long ceased recognizing the Chief as their boss but did not openly break with him.

The boss also acted as if nothing were wrong and was in no hurry to deal with the apostates.

On the one hand, he did not want to reveal the weakness of the brotherhood and provoke attack from his competitors: the “Crockodilers” and the “Tolstoyans.”

The “Crockodilers” were a wild, bloodthirsty and greedy gang who had started in the letters department of the legendary satiric journal and now handled 100% of the marketing for textbooks in botany and zoology They circled like jackals around abundant markets controlled by black-marketeers.

The “Tolstoyans” were rural bandits with whom the brotherhood waged war over profits from Russian classics, an exhausting and ruinous war, only recently quieted down, whose renewal no one wished to see.

On the other hand, Chernenko was convinced in his heart, like any former boss, that the fleeing vassals could not fend for themselves; they would screw up and return. He was therefore not surprised by Yegor’s visit. He greeted Yegor in an almost completely furnished room with two bay windows, stylish mahogany bookcases, a couple of dirty goats with a singing Tadjik who had plastered the corner, and two psychoanalytical couches, between which were placed a marble malachite table.

The table was strewn with all sorts of expensive leisure items: vintage cigars from the 1960s; bottles of the rarest Scotch; crystal containers of foie gras; watches made of platinum, gold, and antique silver, for wrist, pocket, and table top; clasps for money and for ties; extraordinarily high-priced pens and pencils; platinum, gold, old silver, crystal, marble and malachite statuettes; chess pieces, globes, ashtrays, writing accessories; little Eiffel towers, Kremlins, Taj Mahals, and Big Bens...

Igor Fedorovich had not aged. Quite the opposite, he had stuck some new, unbelievable hairs onto his bald spot that cost US$5,000 a piece. He had picked up some flashy new fangs at the same price, purchased in the same place as the hair, a clinic somewhere near Hollywood, where Cloonies and Demimoories made themselves youthful.

The Chief was dressed for lounging at home in velvet Prada stained with Petrus and Chinchilla slippers splattered with Tadzhik plaster. With all that, he was melancholy, held a copy of Hamlet in his hand and, seeing Yegor disheveled, stained with egg yolk, and disheartened, read to him right there from the book:

With his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors he comes before me.

“Greetings,” answered Yegor, “From hell. About those horrors, that’s the way it is. But what’s with the Hamlet all of a sudden?”

“I’ll tell you, brother, I’ll tell you what’s all of a sudden. Sit down!”

The Chief pointed to one of the couchettes and collapsed on the other. He lit a cigar, dipped the other end into the scotch for flavor, and began to relate his expansive reply. His guest sat down and, without thinking, began nervously to slice foie gras with a little jade letter opener.

“Yes, sit down, sit down, make yourself at home. Listen.

“You remember Fedor Ivanovich? My stepfather. You must remember. So here. When I was six, a relative of mine who had travelled somewhere on the other side of the Iron Curtain gave to a neighbor boy a very chic inflatable orange crocodile, roughly the same as Mimino bought for his nephew on the other side of the hill.

“Well, the neighbor boy, understandably, stuck his nose in the air and would not let anyone else even touch the crocodile. And I really wanted to, more than anything I have wanted in life since then.

“I started pestering my stepfather: buy-me-one-buy-me-one-buy-me-one! Though he had never gone abroad, my stepfather promised, out of pity or in the heat of the moment, to get me the same orange crocodile for Christmas.

“OK, it’s easy to say I’ll get you one, but where? Mama, seeing his embarrassment, tried to steer things to a bicycle from Minsk or a toy rocket set. But I stood my ground: an imported crocodile. You promised. My stepfather sighed uncomfortably and kept silent.

“Then Christmas was upon us. I see my stepfather hiding his eyes, rolling a bicycle around. Mama is fussing with a rocket set, shooting rockets at the Christmas tree; but no crocodile. I cried all Christmas night, and for another day, and another night. My strength ran out, and still I kept crying. My stepfather asked my forgiveness, but I would not forgive him, I was so stuck in my tantrum. I would not speak to Fedor Ivanovich and pouted at my mother because she was on his side.

“Well, you can’t grieve forever. I began to forget about the crocodile and to dream secretly about a real football and a football uniform, especially, for some reason, about the shoes and leggings.

“And somehow, towards the end of January, I remember the evening, the doorbell rang. My mother went to open the door, and I followed her into the vestibule. The door opened. There on the threshold stood my stepfather, just in from the street, covered with frost. He had snowflakes on his hat and coat, thick on his shoulders and more sparse on his coat, and still shining and sparkling, like the stars of a comfortable Christmas sky.

“And in his arms, also all covered with snowflakes, he held the orange object of my desire, no worse than my neighbor’s, better than my neighbor’s. My own for now and forever crocodile.

“Overflowing with joy, gratitude and tenderness, I threw myself on my stepfather and, before hugging the crocodile, I hugged him. I stuck my face into his snow-covered coat and breathed in the scent of January, the good, fresh, freezing air, cold and pure. The snowflakes fell and melted in my tears.

“Mama said, ‘Let him take off his coat. Come away from the door. You’ll freeze.’ And she laughed, and my stepfather cried.

“I will never forget that scent of Winter. It’s been a long time since our winters have smelled so fresh. I don’t know whether it’s global warming or just that our people and climate are growing more mild, but our winters are now hardly winter. The snow is warm somehow, lazy, listless. The air is moist, musty, as if from underground. It’s not Russian winter but some kind of pampering. With such winters, you better steer clear of Hitler. I’ve heard that in the budget this year, expenditures on defense are sharply up. More rockets are needed because we can place no hope at all on winter. But that’s just an aside.

“For the last three weeks, once or twice a week, I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night from the cold. I see the bedroom door is open. In the doorway stands my stepfather, transparent and bluish, dusted with snow even though it’s summer, with a crocodile in his arms, only not an inflatable one, but a real one, squirming a bit.

“Fedor Ivanovich stands there and looks at me, looks at me and says nothing. The snowflakes on him do not melt. I feel coldness coming from him, same as before, but with an aftertaste of something not good. He stands and looks, says nothing, and the crocodile squirms to break free of his hands.

“It gets colder and colder, until the room is covered with frost. I begin to shake, turn blue, and grow numb. Seeing that I can not move, that I’m about to lose consciousness, he leaves. And for the rest of the night until morning, I cannot warm up and cannot fall back asleep. My teeth just chatter, chatter, chatter.

“Last night, the spirit gave me a breather and did not appear. I think it will come tonight. And that’s why I decided to reread the tragic history of the Prince of Denmark, to familiarize myself, so to speak, with the progressive experience of communing with spirits.”

Alas, he’s mad, thought Yegor.

“You thought, ‘Alas, he’s fucked’?” sensed the Chief with his habitual sensitivity. “No, brother, not at all. In fact, as far as I know, the presence of conscience is a sign of mental health, is it not? However, you’ve come for some reason. I’ve told you of my horrors. Let’s hear about yours now.”

To be continued...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 865...

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