Prose Header

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 23: Dvadtsat’ Tri

Yegor wept. He wept from shame, from his unlove for Nastenka, from his wish to love her, and from the impossibility of realizing this wish. He wept from pity for himself, for Svetka, for their youth now gone, for their unbeautiful offspring. He wept from pity for their scattered, lost life. He wept from the understanding that his daughter would be insulted and mocked by everyone not too lazy to do so, and that these insults would lead her to get fatter and fatter, to bury herself deeper and deeper beneath the warm, soft layers of fat, where it wasn’t painful, where the taunts were not heard.

He wept for the first time in forty years, wept long and hard, as if he wanted to cry himself out in advance for the next forty years, when it would be time again.

He sobbed without tears. There were no tears, though spittle and snot ran in streams, like blood from a head perforated in three places.

“How could this be?” he lamented. “What kind of bastard am I? Nastenka, forgive me! Lord, why do I love no one? Why me, Lord? Why this for me? Why are You doing this to me? Have You goddamn gone and lost it, Lord? Am I alone guilty of everything? Well, I am guilty. Maybe I have to pay for everyone.

“Well, yes, I have killed. That old man, and Tralshchik, and Bonbon, and Desyatskii together with his mama. And Bentsion Kondratovich Gerbershtein and Alexei Yaroslavovich Sidoruk, and that bull with no name who came to rub me out, and Chachava the younger, and Chachava the elder, and plain Chachava, and also that other one, what was his name, ah, the hell with them, with all of them...

“But Nastenka, Lord, why punish her? What has she got to do with this? Why did You make her so fat, so disheveled, such a little fool? Why did You give her freaks for parents who don’t love her? They don’t love, Lord, they don’t love when they must! Who will love her? Who will pity my poor Nastenka? What a fucked-up world! What depravity! What bullshit!

“That’s enough howling. You won’t get anything out of me by crying.” Nastenka had woken up and was reacting to Papa’s sentiments in a strictly secular way. “Papa, I want to go to Mama. And to MacDonald’s. Don’t cry. Want some toothpaste? There’s a little mint left over. Well, OK, I’ll finish it myself.”

“We’re going, we’re going, Nastenka, right now, immediately, to Mama and to MacDonald’s.” Yegor was embarrassed. He hurriedly wiped the salty slime from his face, started the car and drove to Mama’s.

Mama, seeing Nastya, growled at her ex-husband, “What have you done with her? Her clothes are all stained! What’s she wearing? You took her to Belenky?”

“Belenky?” Yegor stared.

“You didn’t see Belenky? But I asked you... You are simply... I told you, Nastya has angina. You have to take her to Doctor Belenky. You know him! I made a special appointment with him for Saturday. He’s Jewish. He made an exception for us. But now... You didn’t see him? Now he’ll refuse to treat Nastya.” Sveta raised her voice with each word. “And you dragged a sick child around to who knows where—”

“Nastya, are you sick?” Yegor, in cowardly fashion, rushed to his daughter.

His daughter hiccupped.

“She’s sick!” the ex-wife answered for her with a shout. “And she needed to go to the doctor, to the doctor!”

“No, but no... Well... But... Ehh... Us, we... We were... in the drugstore! And... We were in the drugstore! Nast, tell her.” Yegor clumsily regained his composure. On the t-shirt, Mickey Mouse smirked. “We went to the drugstore, tell Mama! Everything’s fine with Nastya, Svet... Look, she’s covered with chocolate... Actually, with hematogen... Drugstore—”

“What depravity! What bullshit!” declared the daughter suddenly out of the blue.

The ex-wife opened her mouth, remained quiet with an open mouth for five minutes and then, not closing it, howled full-throat at the whole city: “Where were you? Wandering around to your Crybabies and your Sarahs? And while you banged them, you sent Nastya to the kitchen? Or to hide under the bed?”

How does she know about them? wondered Yegor.

“Where did you take her? To what whorehouses? It’s you, you taught her! Or not? Or did you just corrupt the child? You will never get her again! Never! Get out of here.” Mama pulled her daughter up like a turnip and dragged her away.

Yegor trudged slowly in the other direction. He stopped by the car and turned around. Sveta and Nastya were heading away from him and not turning around. Sveta, not turning around, snapped, “Don’t turn around!”

Yegor crouched down and jumped into the car. His wife’s less than tender word “Bastard!” screeched across the windshield in farewell, like a slow-motion bullet from Wachowski’s Matrix, like the iron sting of rage come too late.

Proceed to Chapter 24...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 860...

Home Page