How Am I Gonna Play Guitar Now?
by Marina J. Neary
part 1 of 2
Isobelino, a village in western Belorus, 1987
Basil Wolenski was allowed to have a small superiority complex, being a gem of Westernization, at least by Isobelino standards. He owned not one, not two, but three pairs of stonewashed Levis, while most of his friends rejoiced if they could procure a pair of Polish knock-offs on the black market. The pockets of those Levis were filled with condoms of all colors and flavors, while his friends were still relying on those Soviet-era torture devices that smelled like car tires and ripped after the first thrust.
Tragically, Basil did not get too many opportunities to use his colorful contraceptive arsenal. There were only four single girls in his village, and they were going to stay single, for very good reasons. What man in his right mind would deal with a woman who hasn’t managed to marry herself off by the age of twenty-two?
Basil had thought of trying his luck in another village, but that was seven kilometers away, much too far to walk in those Reebok sneakers that lit up in the back but were a size too small. He didn’t own a motorcycle, and he wouldn’t be caught dead riding an ordinary bicycle like a seventh-grader or a mailman.
So the condoms waited. The Reebok sneakers waited. The electric guitar waited. For what? For Alesya Melekh to come home for the mid-semester break. Alesya studied music theory at the Minsk Conservatory where she was exposed to all sorts of delicious perversions that other girls in the village didn’t dare to fancy. Every three or four months she would appear on the streets of Isobelino, wrapped in a black cellophane that she called “leather,” with her toenails painted purple. The boys would whistle and howl.
Her mother would offer her a plate of borsch, and Alesya would spit out her cigarette, stamp her heels, pull her bleached hair and scream: “Borsch is for peasants! You just don’t offer sour beet juice to someone with a Ph.D. in progress.”
“Settle down, child,” her mother would say. “Don’t agitate yourself. How about some stuffed cabbage?”
“Ma, you’re not getting it! I’m writing a dissertation on Scott Joplin, and I desperately need to get into Creole spirit. What does it take to get some jambalaya around here?”
“Jambalaya, Ma! It’s this famous international dish made of burned corn and raw fish. In Japan they call it paella. In Portugal they call it tempura. Isobelino must be the last place on earth where they don’t have it. How I hate this swamp!”
The first time Basil witnessed one of Alesya’s tantrums he had to pull his shirt out of his jeans to conceal such an obvious reaction to her squirming and wiggling. Luckily for him, in Minsk she adopted the concept of free love. The two had a few explosive encounters in hazelnut bushes behind the Melekhs’ house.
“You know, Les, I’d rather do it with you three times a year than with any of the local girls every day,” he confessed to her once.
The left corner of Alesya’s painted mouth twitched. A true Western woman does not allow herself a full-blown smile. She communicates with subtle smirks and hums.
“While you were gone,” Basil continued, “I’ve been learning some chords from this Deep Purple song. Would you like to hear it?”
“Drop it, Bas,” she replied, unwrapping a stick of gum. “I listen to this fucking music all day long. I’m so sick of it. I’m sick of life. Jean-Paul Sartoris was right. Life is a tale told by idiots, signifying nothing.”
Watching Alesya blow her first bubble, Basil trembled with reverence. How progressive, how civilized she was! It takes finesse to chew gum so gracefully.
In Alesya’s absence Basil religiously maintained his sleek Western image. He kept collecting bubble gum inserts and those hard-to-find pocket calendars with German movie stars and American body builders.
In spite of all his lofty occidental pursuits, Basil did not slight the company of his compatriots. On Fridays they drank together. On Saturdays they made trouble together. On Sundays they all chipped in to pay for the damage done the night before and prayed for their sins in a stuffy little chapel.
Yes, Catholicism was making a comeback. Atheism was so 1970’s. Jesus was in fashion again. There are definite benefits to living so close to the Polish border. All kinds of Western knick-knack teasers seep through. Not only can you get bubble gum and jeans, you can also get icons, crucifixes and statues of the Virgin. Almost every house had a shrine now. Portraits of Lenin were being taken down and replaced with images of saints.
“We really need God now,” Basil’s mother lamented. “Our dear Prime Minister will do our country in, with those Chernobyl clouds floating over our fields, and that war in Kabul. Remember your second cousin Nasthasia? She gave birth to a baby who had lobster claws instead of hands. They looked like pliers, swear God. The same year her husband got shot in the war. Or rather, that’s what the letter said. But then she got another letter from her husband’s friend, who witnessed the whole thing. He said Nasthasia’s husband got blown to pieces.”
Basil said a prayer for Nasthasia’s baby, who would never know the joys of playing electric guitar or any other instrument. He also said a prayer for himself, because his own musical career was in jeopardy now. He had just turned eighteen, and everyone knows what happens to eighteen-year old boys who aren’t attending a higher educational institution. They get that dreadful letter summoning them to the nearest military headquarters. That’s right. Goodbye Isobelino. Hello Kabul.
“There must be another way to get out of the draft,” Basil murmured, studying his long bony hands. “I can’t let them chop off my trigger finger. How am I gonna play my guitar?”
* * *
Andrei Melekh, Alesya’s brother, was the first one to arrive at Basil’s house for the chopping party. He brought a freshly sharpened ax and two bottles of vodka — one to get Basil drunk, and another to sterilize the wound once his finger was chopped off.
“It’ll just take a second,” Andrei assured him, already anticipating the pleasure of playing a surgeon. “Ask Gregory. We did him last week. His hand is still in the sling, but the bleeding stopped. He said he’d come tonight, to cheer you on. If we do you today, you’ll be in good shape for our fishing trip.”
“Do me...” Basil muttered.
“Hell yes! Or else they’ll draft you and ship you to Kabul, where you’ll lose your arms and legs and other precious parts. If they ask how you lost your finger, just tell them you were chopping wood, and we’ll all testify to that. What’s that communist word for it? So-li-da-ri-ty...”
Andrei made perfect sense, and there wasn’t much Basil could say, as much as he hated the idea of laying his hand down on the same wooden board that his mother used for chopping pork.
“Best of all,” Andrei added, “if you stay here, you be able to hump my sister all you want.”
Basil twitched in his chair and lowered his eyes. “You know about me and Alesya?”
“The whole village knows! We saw your naked rump flash in the hazel bushes.”
“And you didn’t shoot me right there?”
“Over Alesya? Nah! She’s been doing it since the ripe age of twelve. Why do you think Daddy sent her off to the city? So she wouldn’t shame him. It’s Gregory that you should be scared of. He’s wild about that slut. But he’s just a pox-faced sot. He doesn’t stand a chance next to you, with your Levis and colored rubbers.”
Gregory Korczak was already in Basil’s backyard, jigging and howling:
Hey there, White Russian,
Where is your mus-tache?
Hey-da, hey-da, hop, hop!
Andrei darted through the window. “Watcha singing, drunk ass?”
“Something I wrote for your sis!” Gregory replied merrily. “She’s a musician, right? I bet she’ll like this one.”
“And I bet the cellophane slut will kick you below the belt. Your song blows royally! Hear that? So shut up and give us a hand. We have a task of making Bas unsuitable for combat.”
“Why, I’ll be honored,” said Gregory, shedding his grin. “What are friends for? Now, how much booze have you got?”
“Two bottles. One to get him drunk and another...”
“One isn’t enough,” Gregory declared. “The boy’s gotta be totally out by the time you bring down that ax. I downed only one bottle, and I still heard the bones crack.”
“Well, Grish, that’s cause you’re a clinical case. No amount of booze is enough for you. Don’t compare yourself to Bas. You’ve got Polish roots. He doesn’t. He’ll be fine just with one bottle of vodka, now won’t you, Bas?”
Basil opened his mouth a few times, but no words came out. Andrei waved in front of his face.
“Snap out of it, Bas. I asked you a question. Is one bottle enough for you? Or should I get more? Cause that can be arranged, you know. Tonight is your night. You drink all you can hold. We don’t want you screaming.”
Basil rose from his chair abruptly. “Do we really have to go through with this?”
Andrei’s face stretched. “Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts.”
“No... But can this wait at least?”
“How much you wanna wait, Bas? You wanna go to Kabul?”
“I guess not.”
“But that’s where everyone goes nowadays. You think they won’t come for you? They will. In the middle of the night. With rifles and handcuffs. Your Mama will cry. Have you no pity on your Mama? They don’t care if you die. Sorry, man, we can’t let you go. You’re just too precious to us. Who’s going to be our link to the West? And that’s just what you are to us. Right, Grish?”
Gregory nodded hastily. “Andrei’s right. We love you, man. Can’t let you go.”
“Until tomorrow, please...” Basil begged half-audibly. “Just give me one more day, with my guitar. Is it so much to ask?”
Andrei shook his head. “Sorry, that’s not convenient for me. I’ll be in town all day tomorrow. My moped needs new tires. No, we’ll do it tonight, as planned. There’s no reason to delay. I’ve got the ax and the booze. Grish is here, and the rest of the boys will come soon to keep your spirits high.”
Basil hid both hands in his pockets. “That’s just too bad. The boys will have to go home. I’ve changed my mind. No butcher party. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Andrei folded his hands over his heart and stepped towards Basil. “But we aren’t just anybody, Bas,” he said in the most insinuating voice. “We are your flesh. When you bleed, we bleed.”
“That’s such bull! You just want a freak show.”
“Come on, Bas. You don’t mean it. You’re just nervous, that’s all. That’s your fear talking. Trust me, when it’s over, you’ll change your tune. You’ll be so glad. You won’t miss that finger at all.”
“Right now this finger is pointing to the door. Get the hell out of my house, both of you.”
Andrei sighed, scratched his neck and nodded, as if surrendering. Then he hissed to Gregory: “Lock the door.”
But Basil overheard the order. With one shove in the chest he sent Gregory flying against the wall. The hapless Pole landed on his mutilated hand and whimpered.
“See, Andrei, what happens when you try to help your friends?”
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Marina J. Neary