by Denis Bushlatov
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“Semantics” was the key word in that early-morning vertigo. Every word, even the simplest, irritated him, seemed fostered and even alien.
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Avdeyev stared at his reflection and tried to bring a hint of order to the chaos in his head.
“It seems I haven’t woken up yet,” he said to the mirror and shivered. Somehow, the words “woken up” reminded him of a lump of naked infant rats, all of them thoroughly infected with bubonic plague.
“Wo-ken up,” he repeated, and shivered again. “Av-de-yev woke up.” Even his own last name had some queasy undertones.
No, really, why Avdeyev? Why not Mamontov, Tirkas, or Kuchko? Why not Steinman, for goodness’ sake? It must mean something! After all, there is something behind all this... He scratched his chin, noting that shaving would be a good idea.
Av-deyev... What a spineless and yet creepy last name... Avdey. Augeas. King. Bling. Baguette. Cranberries. Totally confused, he shook his head, dried off quickly and left the bathroom.
Semantics still worried Avdeyev during breakfast and afterwards, when he was getting ready for work. With decadent astonishment, he asked himself why trousers are called “trousers” and not “trouts,” why a jacket is called “jacket” and not “coverlet,” and why the word “Copenhagen” comes laden with such a blunt threat.
“I’m going crazy,” he whispered cautiously on his way to the parking lot. “I’m losing it.” And yet his experience was undeniable; if you listened, really listened to the words, their loathsome artificiality became obvious. It was like a hatch over the abyss; one had only to lift it slightly, and the abyss would reveal itself in all its monstrous beauty.
It took a while to get the car started, much coughing and grumbling. Avdeyev repeatedly cranked the ignition key trying hard not to think about the metaphysical repulsiveness of the word “key.” Finally the engine revved up, belching a cloud of black smoke.
“What the heck is going on?” Avdeyev shrugged. “I have to get it to a garage. But when? And why, exactly, ‘have to’? And for what? It drives fine. I can’t do everything, dammit! I am not Shiva Maharaj!” His last sentence was a bit loud, and he was immediately afraid that the parking guards would think he was completely crazy.
He drove to the gray, unbelievably filthy editorial facility in an awful mood. The revolution of words gave way to a black despair.
When he passed by the sleepy, semi-blind watchman, he didn’t call out his name and, with a mean pleasure, watched how the old man bustled about in his glass kennel.
“Let him guess who it was. Let him suffer, just like me!” Avdeyev smirked but, halfway up the staircase, he felt ashamed.
* * *
The door of his tiny office was cracked opened. Judging by the sounds coming from the room, Scarabich, a small and inebriated proofreader who shared the same office room with him, had already shown up. Avdeyev made a sour face. Rat-faced and alienating, Scarabich irritated him beyond measure.
Would you look at that, he thought savagely. Every day, he drinks like a fish and is still alive. And he probably never has to worry about semantics or meanings. He is like a roach; everything is too good for him. Feeling his hatred for Scarabich was becoming tangible, Avdeyev kicked the door and, stomping loudly like he owned the place, walked in.
Mikhael Nevadovich Scarabich was sitting at the table in his outrageously, unseasonably unbuttoned checkered shirt and was aggressively drinking his tea. Judging by the clinging smell, he had already had a lot of cheap brandy.
He looked at the newcomer with expressionless fish eyes, hiccuped and returned to a frazzled manuscript that was lying in front of him on the table overflowing with paper. But soon he smirked and went back to staring at Avdeyev.
“So, Vladimir Stepanovich,” he said, not without difficulty, “didn’t your mother teach you to knock on the toilet door before you enter?” He hooted happily.
Avdeyev paused for a moment, visualizing how Scarabich would get buried and how, during the eulogy, his body would fall out for everyone to see. He liked that image, but the word “eulogy” seemed disgustingly soft, like an abscess. He winced, looked away and walked over to his table.
“You didn’t answer me, Stepanovich. Too bad,” Scarabich remarked sarcastically. “Now I’ll subconsciously harbour evil thoughts. And one day, I will devour you... Maybe even today.” He hooted happily looking at foggy-eyed Avdeyev.
“Oh, and another thing, while you are digesting this. Practically a confession about a kind of ‘you are dead’ interpretation in such a modern sense, in a manner of speaking, an implication foreshadowing your quick death...”
He fell silent, having lost his train of thought, dimly looked at Avdeyev, frowned, tried to taste the tea but scowled, set aside the cup, smacking his lips drearily and nastily. “Well then, Proskurnya has been looking for you all morning. Seems important.”
“Tell me, Scarabich,” muttered Avdeyev, “you are not a teenager any more. You graduated in philology with honours. You got a Master’s degree and even taught. At least so rumour has it. Why are you such—”
“An asshole? Is that what you wanted to say, Stepanich?” Scarabich slurped his tea and grimaced as though he had a toothache. “Maybe it isn’t me who’s the asshole? Maybe the world around us is an asshole? Well, whatever. When you come back I will share something with you.” He winked almost leeringly. “I have some leftover Ararat, so we can drown your grief. You see, I have to eat you later. So, you understand, at least drink some.” And he burst into a series of hooting sobs.
Avdeyev flipped him off and went out of the office.
Going up to to see a chief editor, he tried to get in touch with his feelings. Words of his native language no longer appeared alien; anxiety had passed, and even Scarabich’s idiotic remark seemed almost appropriate.
He really is an unlucky man, it occurred to Avdeyev. No wife, no children... He returns, like, every evening to his bachelor pad and drinks... when he’s got money... I should be nice to him sometimes.
* * *
At the door of the chief editor, the only decent-looking door in the whole building, Avdeyev paused, straightened his jacket, wiped his sweaty palms over trousers, coughed and knocked gently.
“Come in!” came a voice from behind the door.
Avdeyev came in and carefully closed the door. Suddenly a wave of weakness washed over him. All his morning suffering, despair, anxiety and unexplainable butterflies in the stomach came back at once. Looking up at the editorial desk, he was surprised to discover that it was empty. But who, pray tell, had answered his call?
There was some groaning below and then large Proskurnya’s head with gray wiry hair rose slowly over the desk. The chief editor was unshaven and wore a stubbornly dreary expression. Sitting up at the desk, he looked up at Avdeyev from under a frown and, grabbing a pen, he began to scribble furiously.
“Investors are coming tomorrow,” he muttered suddenly. “But we have nothing. No-thing!” He threw his pen aside and stared at Avdeyev. “No hotel, no banquet, no driver! The City Council is silent. City D-duma.” He chuckled contemptuously “Duma is considering. There is only one state marine newspaper in the city, and the Duma is too cheap to shell out a measly five or eight hundred bucks.”
“B-but they’re supposed to be here in two weeks...” began Avdeyev, going cold inside.
The Polish publisher Sanmar had been absolutely vital for Marine Messenger. Over the past two years, Proskurnya had been trying relentlessly to persuade his Polish colleagues to sponsor the publication of his book How We Sold the Black Sea Fleet in Russian and Polish. The chief editor had been strongly convinced that the publication of this monumental work would not only help strengthen the shaky position of the newspaper, it would also bring in a lot of money.
Being a man of action, he had involved several competent translators who had promptly translated the unpublished book into both Polish and English. The chief editor believed that the demand among politically conscious western readers was inevitable. Moreover, there had been a website dedicated to the book, and Proskurnya had repeatedly mentioned the forthcoming sensation in an editorial column of the newspaper.
With a considerable enthusiasm, he had been looking for sponsors, both amongst government institutions and representatives of marine business in the area. However, despite all his efforts and practically fanatical belief in the success of the manuscript, there hadn’t been anyone willing to invest in the publication and its subsequent promotion on the international market. Foreign publishers had simply ignored the letters of the chief editor.
At first, Sanmar hadn’t even considered cooperating but, little by little, Proskurnya’s aggressive preaching had convinced the board of directors to inspect the project in person.
After that, madness of the chief editor had shifted into a manic phase. Over the next three days, he had walked the corridors, visiting accountants and proofreaders and declaimed a great, inevitable success. Collecting himself, he had called an assembly to put together a detailed plan of the meeting, including the selection of a hotel for distinguished guests, excursions and later entertainment.
“Dammit!” he had shrieked in the heat of the moment, “let’s get them whores!” But soon, after learning the prices of the local love priestesses, he had dismissed that profound idea.
The meeting had been scheduled for the end of November. Proskurnya had appointed the ones responsible for a hotel, a restaurant, and even a rental to pick up distinguished guests from the airport. The only company car, a Volga, was in the shop for the third month in a row. And it would be embarrassing to use Avdeyev’s Lada or accountant Bubentsov’s rusted-out Moskvich.
Avdeyev had taken very seriously his assignment of choosing a hotel. He had conducted a survey among three- and four-star hotels in the city, bearing in mind that prices should be reasonable and service respectable — “Without these modern shenanigans!” the chief editor had hinted mysteriously. Andreyev’s attention had been held by a few choices. He submitted them for Proskurnya’s approval and had been very surprised when, after a moment’s consideration, the chief editor rejected them all and suggested reservations in a hotel with insipid name Safe Haven, located on the shore.
“My friends stayed there once,” said the chief editor. “They were happy.”
A week from now, Avdeyev planned to go there personally, have a look around and book the rooms without delay.
Proskurnya’s declaration shocked him to the core. “You have to!” bellowed the chief editor. We have to!” He stared at Avdeyev and suddenly licked his lips. The flicker was so fast that Avdeyev doubted the reality of it.
“Now, you listen to me. Now, I repeat: right now, drop everything and go to the Safe Haven. Run, if you have to. See how it is and book the rooms. Let them write us an invoice; we’ll pay for everything. Call me back when you’re done. If there are any problems... Oh, Vladimir Stepanovich, I hope there won’t be any problems. Okay, be there and back in a flash.”
And again his fat purple tongue slipped between his lips. It seemed for a split moment that the tongue was forked. Avdeyev shuddered and pushed the delusion away.
“Don’t worry, Leonid Petrovich, I can do it. Everything will be hunky-dory.” He smiled nervously.
Proskurnya stared at him like a bull. “Hunky-dory?” he repeated, purpling slowly. “Hunkey-dorey? If you do not call me back in a flippin’ hour and say that everything is hunky-dory, I... I guarantee you, Avdeyev, I gua-ran-tee you, I...” His face went beet-red. “Are you still here? Run!”
Avdeyev leapt out of the office and tore across the hall.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Denis Bushlatov