Nodar Djin

First Funeral in America

(Twenty chapters from the novel "The Story Of My Suicide")



        The funeral of Natella Eligulova, the very first in the New York Georgian Community, took place the day following yet another unforgettable event - a live television coverage of an execution in Washington D.C. I was watching the program together with Rabbi Zalman Boterashvili in a room, which was allotted to me, the President of the Community, on the premises of the Georgian synagogue in Queens.
        In Petkhain, the Jewish quarter of the capital of Georgia, Zalman was the headman at the Ashkenazi synagogue and because of that the Petkhainers considered him progressive - the fact which, before emigration, only caused him alarm. Georgian Jews held themselves to be the most adequate of Jewish tribes, which, as fate would have it, became isolated from both the Sephardis, the Eastern Jews, and the Ashkenazis, the Westerners.
        They treated the latter with particular distrust, reproaching them for the loss of the three important virtues of the Jewish soul - baishonim - a sense of shame, rakhmonim - sympathy, and gomle-hasodim - generosity. They ascribed these vices to the weakness, which the Ashkenazis have manifested before the ugly face of progress. In Tbilisi, the Petkhainers called Zalman a deserter, because being a Georgian Jew, he thought like an Ashkenazi. However, convinced that here, in America, the loss of the above virtues was a condition of survival, the Petkhainers decided to give way to the times in a less harmful fashion - by rehabilitating Zalman.
        For the every same reason, they appointed me the President of the Community as well. My responsibilities lay in dispersing with any of their bewilderments that might arise concerning America. I went about it in the simplest of ways: ordered them not to be surprised at anything strange, and take it as something natural. I enjoyed the work, since for the first time I was getting paid for discussing outloud the old suspicion: the strive to understand reality hinders its acceptance.
        I wrote down the content of my conversations with the members of the community into a notebook and kept it inside a safe, as if I were trying to spare others of the proofs on the absurdity of human contact. The notebook was stolen from the safe the very next night after the Washington execution, one night before Natellas funeral. Most probably, Zalman did it, encouraged by the local FBI, which showed an active interest in the yet unfamiliar, Petkhain colony in New York...

        Not long before the live program from Washington began, he entered my office and sat down across from me. As usual, he was wearing his green felt hat whose rims covered his eyes and the base of the nose. Being exceptionally sharp, this nose dissected the lips in two and poked into his chin; under his chin there glimmered his eternal pin in the shape of pirates caravella. However, it was his manner of talking that irritated me most strongly. His words sounded roundish, as though he had several tongues in his mouth.
        Zalman knew that and started conversations with inconsequential statements to give me time to again adjust myself to the unacceptable number of tounges behind his teeth. This time though, he immediately went on to the matter and asked me whether I, as a lover of photography, could somehow get the portraits of Montefiore, Rothschild, and Rockefeller, which he intended to hang in the anteroom.
        I reminded the progressist that the tradition forbids hanging photographs in a synagogue. Zalman declared that it was about a time for the Petkhainers to know in face all their heroes. Then, I replied that synagogue is no place for Rockefeller, for not once in his entire life was he a Jew. Zalman stared at me and swore by Jerusalem that he firsthandedly read in Russia that Rockefeller was a servant of world Zionism. His other argument for the semitic origins of Rockefeller consisted of the firm suggestion that no one except for a Jew is capable of having simultaneously wisdom, wealth, and an American passport.
        I stopped arguing  and inquired - when exactly did he become a progressist. Turns out - while still a child: he noticed that a pig is especially eager when it comes to consuming all sorts of filth and he suggested that they should breed as many pigs as possible in trashy neighborhoods.
        Then, from the Kartlian village Karelli, he, along with his co-believers, moved to Petkhain. The circumstances of this move, he said, could serve as yet another example of his progressive spirit.
        Not long before the war, Zalman, already a teenager, heard the rumors that the Tbilisi film studio was planning to build a decorative settlement not far from his village, which, according to the script, was to be consumed by fire. Zalman talked his people into volunteering their quarter to the flames and with the money allotted to the cinematographers for building a decorative settlement, move from this foul place to the capital. He was about to say something else, but he stumbled: the live coverage from Washington had started.

        A certain old man from Brooklyn drove through to the ugliest monument of the American capital in his truck, and threatened to blow it up if within 24 hours the White House did not order to stop producing various weapons of mass murder. The White House, however, issued another decree. The half-crazed old man was surrounded from all sides by the superpowers best snipers who littered him with bullets. Afterwards, it turned out that the monument was in no danger at all because there were no explosives in the truck after all. Still, they would have probably killed him anyway, even if the safety of the monument were guaranteed because nothing admonishes citizens as much as a public execution against the background of a well-known city monument.
        Before shooting the man, the authorities determined that he did not have any ties with any terrorist organization, but he was a pacifist who took it into his head to singlehandedly end with the threat of nuclear catastrophe after his retirement. In other words, there was no need to take him alive.
        Somewhere in Florida, journalists found with the speed of a lightning his younger brother - who also turned out to be a Jew - and tore the poor man to shreds with their questions. He was confused and kept repeating that he had not the faintest idea when exactly it was that his Brooklyn-brothers imagination began to rock. The latter, he said, lived all his life on a salary, and after retiring could not quite decide what to collect - green bottles or wise quotations. But since he had suddenly found himself with less strength and more time, he began believing in God, disliking mankind more than ever before, and asserting that the collective reason is a Satan who will destroy the world in a nuclear catastrophe.
        They asked also whether the brother has ever undergone a psychoanalytical treatment.
        No, the man answered: the two of us were brought up in an honest Jewish home where people get only diabetes and indigestion.
        All right, journalists laughed and asked him what he would advise his older brother now if he could do so.
        The Florida-man started batting his eyes and fidgeting. I dont know, he confessed, but said that hed like it very much if his brother would get hold of reason, forget about disarmament, and surrender himself to the authorities. He added, however, with a tear in his voice, that he is not hoping for a favorable outcome, for the Brooklyner was always known for his lack of fantasy, that is, for his consistency...
        Right: the brother was not surrendering and kept insisting on disarmament.
        What a fool! Zalman said about him. And what a scoundrel!
        Why a scoundrel? I asked.
        To be born in such a country, to live to retirement, have a brother in Florida, and - then crack all of a sudden!
        You think theyll shoot him, after all? I asked.
        No question about it! he promised. If we dont shoot people like him, life will become uncomfortable... God loves order, and if we dont shoot them, you see, tomorrow, everyone will start demanding for his own thing. This one - for disarmament, the other - for armament... Disgusting! Look, look, they came up closer!
        The ring of snipers around the old man tightened. Now, it was a sure shot. I panicked and cleared the image off the TV screen, leaving only the sound. This evoked anger in Zalman. The sound of launched firing enraged him even more, he demanded that I return the image back to the screen.
        I was purposely stretching time until the firing died down.
        The screen, lit at last, depicted the shot victim close-up. The old mans face was tranquil and the corners of his lips, dripping with blood, were set in a strange smile...
        The rabbi sighed heavily, patted himself on the knee and said that American television is better than any movie and doesnt leave an inkling to the imagination.
        I changed the subject, but Zalman excused himself and retreated to the next room, where the Petkhainers, exhausted from the days work, sat awaiting the evening service...
        While the service was going on, I wrote down my conversation with the rabbi into the notebook and put it away in the safe, never suspecting that I was parting with it forever.
        After the prayer, all of us, were on our way to Natella Eligulovas burial rites taking place three blocks away from the synagogue.


        Natella was not yet 40, but she lived in a two-story town-house in Forest Hills, which she bought right after her arrival to New York. The Petkhainers knew that she was rich, but no one ever suspected that she had so much money - enough to buy five medallions for taxi-cabs, a six-bedroom brick house to boot, and donate $25,000 as a downpayment for the synagogue. Especially as, she, according to the rumors, refused to bring along her inheritance, left to her by the deceased Syoma Shepilov - the nickname given as a joke, to her tow-haired husband who very much resembled the notorious political figure with that last name.
        Although she would laugh, when Shepilov compared her to the Biblical beauty and savior Judith, Natella knew that one becomes legendary as soon as she or he is considered unexpected. For the Petkhainers, her life, much like her death, was unexpected. At least, they learned that she was dying just two days in advance.
        On the other hand, she didnt communicate with any of the Petkhainers - only with a middle-aged Odessa-woman by the name of Raya, a housekeeper from Brooklyn who came to her house every week. Two days prior to Natellas death, Raya came to the synagogue, and reported to Zalman that Natella is dying: she is lying in her bed, thin and pale; doesnt drink, doesnt eat, keeps feeling her head every single minute and insists that shes got only couple of days to live, for she has got the sensation that her head has been finally replaced by someone elses, and that the thoughts of a foreign beast are roaming around in that someone elses head. Raya said that lately Natella maintained that at night, while she was sleeping her own body was stolen from her; she felt as if her head was suddenly placed upon some other body inside of which there pulsated parts of otherworldly creatures - much too big and hot.
        Zalman phoned Natella right away and asked her if she were ill. She answered that she was not ill, but - dying. God forbid! the rabbi got frightened and promised to alert everyone immediately. She said that she wont open the doors to anyone, and that anyway, doctors wont be able to help her. She also added that two weeks ago she had signed her will: the income coming from the taxi-cabs she owned would partly go to the Georgian Jewish community in Israel, and partly to the local synagogue which, now expecting the arrival of a new wave of refugees, must plan on expanding its quarters. He said, she spoke quietly and reasonably - which truly frightened Zalman.
        The next day, at dawn, Raya, with tears in her eyes, ran to the synagogue and announced that calamity had taken place. Natella is not opening the doors for her, and is not responding to her voice.
        Zalman called the police and together with a group of parishioners, including doctor Davarashvili, hurried over to the town-house where Natella lived. Police cars were parked in front of the door that was broken into. The district chief informed the Georgian refugees that, according to all the evidence, Natella died without any apparent torment, for judging by some of the signs death had come to her in her sleep.
        Indeed, Zalman and several other witnesses confirmed that the muscles on her face were relaxed much like a babys in its sleep, and inside her open eyes there froze an expression suggesting that while she was dying, she didnt even suspect that she was parting with life, or perhaps, on the contrary, she desired this parting: that is, she thought of death as of space where there is not any sort of time. Only tranquility.
        I asked Davarashvili, why then were her eyes open if she really died in her sleep. That doesnt mean much, he answered, since at the moment of death eyelids sometimes open involuntarily. Ancient physicians, he explained, believed that nature willed it to be this way, so that when looking into eyes of the deceased, people might grasp the natural state of the human spirit, which, by his calculations, is melancholy.

        Unlike the rest of the witnesses, Davarashvili held that it wasnt tranquility that was frozen inside Natellas eyes, but rather melancholy, that is, spiritual hysteria that usually defeats human will and casts the sensation of utter impossibility or incapacity to fathom ones own desires. With some people, he explained, the transformation from existence to its realization suddenly slows down, and then, melancholy overwhelms such people - a hysterical state of a soul stripped of will. He also told me that this is never fatal, and therefore - one or the other: either this woman was a victim of some horrible, unheard of form of melancholy, or the cause of her death was a kind of ailment which would be discovered only upon a thorough analysis of the corpse.
        Zalman, meanwhile, insisted that Natella not be taken to the morgue and cut open, since no one among the Petkhainers wanted to initiate the first funeral in the community with an utter blasphemy - shredding of a corpse. The district chief readily agreed with the refugees and - for lack of Natellas relatives in America - asked Zalman, along with doctor Davarashvili to sign a paper, stating that Ms.Eligulovas death raises no suspicions of the community.
        Zalman suggested to hold the funeral service in the synagogue backyard, as it was done in Tbilisi. Petkhainers agreed with him not out of love for the deceased, but out of the yet-unsurmounted squeamishness which they felt towards many of the local customs, especially - towards mourning rituals in rented funeral homes which, as they said, reminded them of expensive stores with useless merchandise, where all the salespeople sprayed by the same eau de cologne meander in the same black suits with satin lapels, and sport the same servile smile upon their powdered physiognomies.
        No one among the Petkhainers had ever had any love for Natella, and most of them had already formed an unbending opinion that her untimely death was a punishment from heaven for her long-lasting bodily and spiritual sins - her everlasting luck and success. Men were irritated by her success and by her complete disregard for them. Women could not forgive not so much her beauty and erotic overflow, but her scandalous independence and greedy overtness to fits of happiness.
        Natella Eligulova was an exceptionally vivid embodiment of those qualities which among the Petkhainers - and not only among them - were regarded as vices for very unclear reasons, because secretly everyone strives towards these very vices.
        Although, for example, the Petkhainers maintained that the extreme material surplus corrupts the soul, and is, therefore, a vice, they did not know how to forget something else: God blesses His favorite few with riches, and the list of those few cannot but be held against the heavens. Another example. Although bodily depravation is a vice, sexual delight is a pleasure, a reward, and then he is depraved who is granted pleasure from God in exchange for certain merits. The same with arrogance: arrogance is sin, but God blesses those with it who are strong enough not to depend on anyone.
        Natella knew that her countrymen quailed at her presence but she safeguarded herself against them simply: by avoiding them and by wearing around her neck an amulet of holy stone on a string. She apparently needed to protect herself from her own self as well: all her mirrors, even the ones in her make-up cases, were covered by spider-web which takes all the curses upon itself. She feared that when she looked in the mirror and became astonished at her unusual ailerons, she must accidentally cast an evil eye upon herself, in case - as it happens to many people - she thinks of herself as being someone else.

        The faith in the protective power of the spider-web was inherited by Natella from her mother, Zilpha, a reputed interpreter of stones, which, as they believed in earlier days, not only are not afraid of the passage of time, but hide within themselves living powers - sweat, grow, multiply, and even suffer, while the scratches, pores, and holes upon them were thought to be traces of their tedious struggles with evil spirits. Zilpha died at a young age as well; in a Tbilisi prison where she was driven by the authorities for a supposedly malicious corruption of peoples consciousness.
        Following the advice of my father, her husband, Meir-Khaim Eligulov, Natellas father, a drop-out lawyer and a popular wedding singer in town, was able to prove in court that even if Zilpha did indeed sin against the authorities by practicing ancient art, she did so without any malicious intentions, but out of the naivete, love for people, and hatred for devils. She was, therefore, sentenced to a merely one year, but she never did get the chance to get out: one week before her scheduled release, Meir-Khaim received a notice stating that she had allegedly died in her own cell, stricken by a sudden but natural death. No one believed any of it, particularly since prison authorities - in full agreement with the existing laws, did not issue the corpse but buried it in some unnamed wasteland.
        Petkhainers expected that Meir-Khaim would without any delay marry one of his countless mistresses, but he even managed to astonish my father, who being a state prosecutor and a poet, had a reputation of an expert on human souls. Meir-Khaim was reputed to be the most dissolute of the Petkhain men. At least, unlike all the others, he never even attempted to keep his insatiable gravity towards adventures of love in secret - a quality, which combined with his agitated looks - moist blue-green eyes, high cheekbones, powerful lips, and sharp chin - was inherited by his daughter instead of the money. Rumors had it also, that for some reason, Zilpha did not object to her husbands erotic unruliness.
        The ones who objected - although quite in vain - were her relatives; it is not out of the question that they did so out of jealousy. Having lost their patience, they once dragged Meir-Khaim to my father who served as an arbiter of the community, and complained that their son-in-law is supposedly disgracing not only Zilpha and her kin, but the whole Petkhain as well, for he does not know how to resist even the Kurdish women. My father burst out laughing and reasoned that if anyone is allowed to suffer from the erotic extravagance of the son-in-law, it is not the kin or the Petkhain but Zilpha alone. But since, apparently, she is not suffering, no special measures against Meir-Khaim should be undertaken; especially as, according to the confession of the singer himself, each time he cheats on her is due to the silliest of reasons: when he sees beautiful women, he says, some horrible beast stands on end within him and it eclipses his reason in exclusively specific fashion - he forgets his wife instantly.
        When Meir-Khaim declared this during the arbitrary hearing, my father burst out laughing even louder, but much to the plaintiffs content ordered the defendant to tie a thick red string around his finger, which would remind him of Zilpha at critical moments and thus keep him from cheating on her. Disagreeing with the formulation of his weakness as being adultery, the singer, however, promised to never leave home without the red string. He kept his promise but the string did him no good: every single time the beast that stood on end turned out to be much more skillful, and people said that Meir-Khaim himself is beginning to doubt the strength of his love for Zilpha.
        Meanwhile, as soon as she found herself in prison, he stopped being interested in women, and no one believed what happened after he received the notice of his wifes death. After receiving Zilphas clothes and belongings from prison, Meir-Khaim informed everyone that he wished to spend the first seven days of mourning in total solitude. He sent his daughter to his brother Saul and locked himself in the apartment, not even responding to the calls of the district inspector. Some of the Petkhainers - mostly Zilphas relatives - were starting to spread rumors that Meir-Khaim had split town on the third day with an out-of-town shiksa. Others - his brother and friends - were starting to suspect that something was wrong.
        The latter turned out to be right: when they finally broke open the door, they found him dead. Next to a note, in which he said that he decided to poison himself because he is unable to live without Zilpha, there was a gray holy sea-stone on a black string. Meir-Khaim ordered to give that stone from Zilphas neck over to his fifteen-year old daughter, Natella, for he thinks that uneasy struggles with evil spirits lie in front of her.
        Twenty four years later, in New York, one of the Petkhain old women who was dressing Natellas corpse for the funeral, said that the stone - now, all speckled with scratches and pores - after falling out of her hands as she was untying the string on the neck of the deceased, crumbled like a dried piece of bread...


After the death of her parents, Natella stayed on with her uncle Saul, a local pharmacist, who made his living by selling on the sly rare prescriptions from Hungary and Germany. Although the state prices on prescriptions stayed fixed, he was forced to charge more and more for them with every passing year. Naturally, this was a common practice among all the Tbilisi pharmacists - each, due to his own reason. As far as Natellas uncle was concerned, the reason was a yearly addition of offsprings.
        Every winter, right before the New Year, his wife, a Moldovian gypsy, bore him a child. After breaking off from a wandering Moldovian gypsy camp, she settled down with Saul in Petkhain, which she got fed up with very quickly, but which she couldnt leave because of her constant pregnancy - the only thing that saved Saul Eligulov from a disgraceful lot of an abandoned husband. It was clear to everyone, however, that sooner or later, calamity would strike him: the gypsy would finally be able to escape pregnancy and run off to her native camp.
        The calamity did strike his niece, Natella.
        The neighboring house was inhabited by the wealthy and respectable family of an inspector and diamond dealer, Shaliko Babalikashvili, in with the towns party and government leaders. He was raising his two sons: tow-haired Syoma, Natellas classmate, and dark-haired David - a bit older than she. As far as Syoma was concerned, although he did sent her poems - not his own, though, but Byrons - Natella couldnt care less, whereas David gave her no peace even in her sleep. In high school, girls considered David the handsomest guy, and if were not for the premature baldspot on the crown, one could hardly tell the difference between him and his famous namesake from Michelangelo sculpture gallery - the same stateliness and the same sexual haughtiness.
        David wrote poems as well. Not for Natella, of course, but for her eternally pregnant aunt, the gypsy, who, not knowing Georgian, entrusted the translations of the rhyming messages to her niece.
        Those messages swarmed with images foreign to Petkhain - crystal shades of the Northern light, wailings of a melancholy bedouin, smells of ocean storms, and the squawks of the azure-winged peacocks. The gypsy explained to Natella that this nightmare was due to the energy, supercharged in the young man by a fetid fluid - unexhausted sperm. She also said that David fell in love with her only because she was foreign and vulnerable - pregnant, that is - and thus, the most accessible among the Petkhain bitches. According to the conclusions of the gypsy, David, just like any other young man, is in that state of anxiety, out of which there is only one way - into a hot female flesh. Furthermore, she added, the possessor of that flesh is also bound to become the ruler of the young mans restless soul.
        This announcement prompted Natella towards a desperate thought, and soon Petkhain became aware that the firstborn of the inspector and diamond-dealer, Shaliko Babalikashvili is head over heels in love with the orphan, Natella Eligulova, and that the wedding, as all seems to suggest, is close at hand, since the girl has already conceived.


        Three months later, the Petkhainers were indeed drinking at the wedding of David Babalikashvili, but it was not Natella standing next to him under the wedding canopy. It was an heiress of a renown Kutaisi millionaire. After returning home from Leningrad, and finding out about the adventures of his first-born, the man, Shaliko, flew into an unspeakable fury, for, of course, he would never even condescend to the thought of becoming related with the offspring of the carousing Meir-Khaim and that witch Zilpha - with the whore who seduced his simple-minded son.
        As far as for David, he instantly came to believe in the accuracy of his fathers observation and announcing to Natella about the end of his love for her, offered to give her the money for the abortion. The young girl did take the money, but without shedding a single tear, announced to David that although she loved him unconditionally, she would return her soul to him only through the Satan.
        Never doubting that any Satan could easily be bribed, the inspector found a rich bride from Kutaisi for his son, with such fluffy forms that overwhelmed by the onslaught of a dense, but fetid wave, David lost his head, as if he were still a virgin and started to scribble poems enriched by disguised odors of spices and flowers, unknown to Petkhain. In addition, on the wedding day his in-laws rolled just as a roundassed a present from Kutaisi - a Pobeda car, in which, on the following day, the newlyweds drove away to party in Abkhazia, where the father of the bride owned a dacha by the beach.
        That very same morning Natella disappeared from Petkhain. She returned seven years later. Not that she would have seen David again had she returned earlier.
        During the three days and nights after the newlyweds arrived at the dacha, rumor had it, they did not leave the bedroom where they consumed eight bottles of champagne. On the fourth day, they felt a craving for some Abkhazian figs and they decided to head to the marketplace. However, as soon as the young man sat beside his wife in the Pobeda, placed a straw basket for fruits upon her knees, squeezed her left breast with his palm, and turned on the ignition - the car burst up into the air with a hollow rumble and flew apart in thousands of tiny pieces.
        The investigation brought about the obvious: the cause of the newlyweds death turned out to be an exploding bomb, which the murderers had placed in their car. Additional questions like - who?, why?, when? - didnt interest the Abkhazian authorities because those questions were difficult. The case was closed and the guilt laid upon, as the tradition went, the elusive gang of the Rostov cut-throats.
        In the meantime, the rumors around Petkhain were quite different. Some insisted that the explosion was plotted by Natella who paid the murderers with her body, that is, with sexual favors. This was found to be quite an appropriate payment by the chief of police as well, who - for lack of evidence - let Natella, detained not far from the murder scene, go, but ordered her to never return to Petkhain. According to the same rumors, Natella made for Moldavia, and there joined her aunts - Saul Eligulovs wifes - native camp.
        After the camp was dispersed, they say, Natella decided to return to her native community as though nothing had happened. Informing the Petkhainers that she wishes to start a family, she told them that all these years she had been studying languages and working as a translator in Moldavia. Although there were very few who actually believed her, no one dared to voice doubts, for they were all rather afraid of Natella since she had brought along a considerable sum of money with her.
        The Petkhainers, however, were much more surprised at the respect paid to her by the local authorities. The chief of the district militia went even as far as to offer her his own Volga car with a personal driver. They said that Davids father (the mother died on the next morning after the funeral of her first-born) started bringing allegations concerning Natellas participations in his sons murder anew, but the chairman of the District Council didnt even want to listen to him. He just said that the suspicions are unfounded because his bosses ordered him to treat this woman with utmost respect. People, naturally, started spreading rumors that Natella managed to get herself some high-powered lovers.
        Despite the rumors, the Petkhainers - not just the Jews, by the way, including doctor Davarashvili - were all eager in asking her for her hand in marriage, for, by that time, it had become a known fact even in Petkhain that the present - the brides beauty, and the future - her money - mean much more than her past - bad reputation.
        Her hand in marriage was granted, however, to the most unexpected of suitors: the tow-haired Syoma Babalikashvili, the perished Davids brother, the very man who was nicknamed Shepilov for his coloring and spinelessness. The choice surprised everyone since Syoma, although quite wealthy, was a petsua-dakka - a man with a missing ball, and he, according to the Deuteronomy, was not allowed to be in Gods presence. Besides,they said that after his brothers death he cracked and started referring to himself as Lord Byron. They kind of cured him but not enough to bring him home to the fact that Byrons poems do not belong to his pen.
        Petkhainers believed that Natella had the eye on his inheritance, that she, supposedly, married Syoma for the same reason that murderers are drawn to the site of crime. Shaliko Babalikashvili, naturally, tried to talk his younger son out of the marriage, but, in spite of his spinelessness, Syoma would not give in, and, much to the inspectors horror, Natella moved into his spacious house prior to the wedding.
        He didnt have long to be horrified: according to the official account put together by the militia, the morning, following the wedding party, after having seen the guests off and returning along the outside spiral stairs to his bedroom on the third floor, Shaliko slipped, rolled down and, breaking his temple open against the cast iron step, let out his last sigh. Once again, there were evilsayers to be found who blamed no one but Natella for the unfortunate accident: they said that it was she, that witch, who was keeping a watch over the intoxicated old man on the balcony and pushed him down in order to get hold of his - by the Petkhain standards - countless riches without any delay.
        The chief of the police regarded Natella with servility, but as a matter of form, he still questioned Shepilov on the circumstances of the tragic incident. The latter witnessed what he knew: after midnight, he together with his wife retired to the bedroom. Inside that room, Syoma first read to his bride his famous poem about Childe Harold, then he had sexual intercourse sanctified by the heaven, and, finally, exhausted by the weight of happiness plunged upon him, he fell asleep in her arms. He woke up - enclosed in the very same arms - from the screams of the yardkeeper who was the first one in the morning to discover the dead old man.


After the wedding, they say, Syoma Shepilov took a long time to get used to the fact that despite his missing ball and meditative nature, he was married to the most brilliant of the Petkhain women. In addition to everything else, she was - the only woman in the history of the Georgian Jewry - hired by the KGB as one of General Abasovs secretaries. According to the calculations of the local progressists, headed by the same Zalman and doctor, the marriage of Shepilov and Natella was doomed to a quick failure, for, they believed, a man who realizes inferiority to his begotten wife is bound to discover in her some scandalous defect, and then, sparing himself, send her back where she came from.
        Nevertheless, the marriage supposedly outlasted the test of time due to an unhappy circumstance that fell to the lot of the groom: continuing to be enraptured by Natella, he suddenly began - without any basis - to acquire faith in his own person. This sickly process turned out to be so persistent that with time, Syoma, alas, became himself - the worst of all the possibilities that could have happened to him, according to the Petkhainers.
        And, indeed: disregarding the British romanticist, whose writings were rhymed, Shepilov took to dedicating to his spouse the original love creations written in free verse. Furthermore, he distributed the hand-written copies - not for criticism, but out of pride for the world of poetry - not just among the progressists. Unlike the latter, Natella, however, was not oppressed by his writings simply because she never read them.
        She justified this, though, by saying that shes ashamed, for she does not deserve even the unrhymed poetry. This excuse plunged Syoma into raptures and incited him to yet new dedications, whereas the progressists, were beyond themselves because of its cynical nature: any decent woman, they reasoned, listens even to an out-and-out scoundrel when he keeps insisting that it is she, and no one else, that constitutes the laurels of this world.
        The progressists considered Shepilov to be not some lowlife, but simply a regular fool, who, ashamed of his inherited wealth, instilled in himself the passion for romantic poetry, the fact which, in his own judgment, provided him with the license of living with a beauty, while in progressists judgment, it stripped him of his best quality - disdain for his own self.
        Women, however, insisted that Syoma had a unique soul in his body since all of his poems he dedicated to his own wife.
        Doctor Davarashvili, who was friends with Shepilov from the school-days, and who had a dislike for him ever since his own father managed to leave him nothing but some old photographs, attempted to spell out for the Petkhain simpletons, that from the medical point of view, soul does not exist, but as for Syomas brain, - yes! - that is unique, indeed, and if the necessity arose he would have it transplanted to his own head. It is precisely this organ, he argued, that stands out in Syoma, because, he said, Syoma exploits it on very rare occasions, and his poems are a perfect proof for it.
        The doctor was professing, furthermore, that not only Shepilov, but all the romantics were foolish. And narcissistic: no matter whom they dedicate their compositions to, they only exalt their own frail world. And by the way, Syoma, that no-gooder, Davarashvili would add, is a fake. He fakes mostly out of idleness and being financially secure; perhaps, he is not dumb enough to really love anyone - especially that witch who murdered his family - and soon, remember these words, shell do away with him as well. And as for the Shepilovian lyricism, as well as for his soul, - since all of you are so fond of this word - it should be viewed in light of that symbolic fact that during his school-years, the Petkhain Byron never parted with an aspherical magnifying glass designed for small objects, and used to observe not his fathers diamonds, but his own tiny penis and the one and only ball.
        Shepilov reacted to this sort of malignant gossip as only a true romantic would. Without condescending to deny the vile rumors, he, however, used to declare to the Petkhainers that although, he does consider himself to be a scrupulous man, he, if the situation calls for it, will stab someone, under the yellow autumns whistle.
        Although the Petkhainers respected Davarashvili for his knowledge, the prospect of his immolation - in light of the unbridled boredom - pleasantly excited them to such a degree that they refused to believe the doctor when he told them, through laughter, that the romantics with miniature sex growths can only spill their own blood. And anyway, the doctor said, if one fine day Syoma does go wild, then it is not him, the servant of truth, that he should stab, but his own slut from the secret police who, being of bad blood that she is, would have even cheated on a sexual giant.
        Nevertheless, the Petkhainers considered Natella a slut due to a totally unexpected, yet a simple reason.


Ever since the 50s, after Stalins death and with the beginning of disintegration of the discipline, Petkhain became known everywhere not only as the Georgian Jerusalem, but also, as the republics most ingenious black market, where one could acquire any imported good - everything from Italian panties with an embroidered profile of Gina Lolobrigida to Chinese essences for prolonging male erections. Thousands of the rarest goods, passing by the counters of the countrys biggest department stores, poured through, via intermediaries, over to the Petkhain black marketeers who would determine a price for a certain product in the simplest of ways: theyd multiply its set price by the God-pleasing number 10. In spite of the fact that half of the sum went to distract the local authorities, the Petkhainers were happy.
        But in the year of nineteen hundred and seventy-something, the Kremlin finally became disappointed in the human ability to self-govern, and got angry with the people of Tbilisi, who, suffering from the yet-unregistered form of optimism, not only kept believing in the bright tomorrow, but, in addition and unlike the rest of the country, already existed under the conditions of future abundance and free-thinking. The scandalous love for life on behalf of the residents of the Georgian capital was highly reprimanded as a corruption and this corruption was ordered to stop.
        Since at that time even Georgia did not interfere with its own internal affairs, this task was assigned to a special state committee that arrived to Tbilisi from Moscow, comprised primarily of the KGB member. One week later, new people presided in the Town Council, the prosecutors office, and the militia. They were well-educated young low-enforcement workers, who, according to the calculations, possessed the best qualities of youth: straightforwardness and thirst for blood.
        Gloomy days cast over the town. The new rulers began to decline bribes. Round-ups started taking place. Unlike God, who was eager to forgive all and any of the Petkhainers sins, the authorities suddenly manifested an unusual firmness of character and an astonishing consistency. They played out a series of demonstrative trials over the local Jews, and even sentenced three of them - for illegal dealings in gold - to death.
        The weather, finally, went sour as well.
        Since the basic trade in Petkhain was the black market to which the Tbilisi synagogue owed its luxury, a threat of annihilation was cast over the Georgian Jerusalem - very much like the one two decades ago, which was overcome only by Stalins sudden death. Now even the progressists lost their hearts upon becoming aware that the authorities were intending to burn down the black market to its very roots. Zalman was taken aback as well, although, at that time, true, he was not yet a rabbi. He expressed his feelings briefly but unclearly: God, may His name be blessed, does not exist!
        Later, when he became a rabbi in New York, Zalman would swear that he allegedly meant something altogether different: he meant, hed say, that due to a technical reason, the Almighty found it necessary to temporarily cut out of Petkhain. This announcement, however, caused a stormy protest on behalf of the Brooklyn Hasidim who insisted that God never, ever allows Himself to cut out of anywhere - the idea with which Zalman didnt agree, citing the freedom of Gods will and his own thinking. Naturally, he succeeded in proving his point, for it was America; its just that the Hasidim refused to grant any financial aid to the Georgian synagogue - which almost ruined it. But, of course, Zalman instantly repudiated his views concerning Gods free will, and promised the Hasidim to never again talk of heavens in an unclear fashion...
        Syoma Shepilov, incidentally, had, at that time, uttered a phrase which rivaled with Zalmans in its unclarity: the greatness of God, he said, consists in the fact that He doesnt need to exist in order to bring about unexpected salvation!
        Most probably, Syoma had received this information from his spouse, because salvation, which, indeed, turned out to be an unexpected one, came from no one but Natella.
        The arrests in Petkhain ceased just as suddenly as they had started; investigations were brought to a halt, and the detained Jews were set free. Moreover: those who were convicted of illegal marketeering were granted second trials, and unreservedly found not guilty. The death sentence was overruled for the two of the three men, based on the fact, that they, allegedly, knew not what they were doing but were merely acting upon the urging of the third one, for whom a fantastic escape from prison was arranged.
        At last, Petkhains merry-go-round screeched once again, then started swirling around and the air was filled with the odor of imported leather and fancy-goods.
        Just as Shepilov had assumed, there was no sign from heaven that preceded all this. The only thing that preceded it was the return of the Kremlin commission back to Moscow. Soon after its departure, if the newly-appointed, young rulers did continue to exhibit the testamentary straightforwardness, they did so out of thirst for value, more universal than blood - bribe. Being better educated than their predecessors, however, the new authorities - either out of caution, or out of squeamishness - did not go into direct contact with the Petkhainers, but consented to collect their quitrent exclusively through one-and-only intermediary - Natella Eligulova - the fact which left all our progressists deeply wounded.
        It was precisely then, that Syoma Shepilov started to compare his spouse with the beautiful Biblical Judith, who saved her people from the enemys foray. And it was also then that the Petkhainers, incited by the progressists, decided that the towns new powerful bureaucrats would only admit her out of the very same considerations which prompted the Assyrian king Olofern, acting upon Nebuchadnezzars order to besiege the Jewish city of Vetyli, to disregard the duties of military vigilance and take the legendary Hebrew woman into his tent.  In other words - out of the eradicable male lust for free sex.
        The doctor, meanwhile, prophecised that since free lechery, as well as the lechery out of love, is in the end more costly than the one paid for, the inexperienced Tbilisi bribe-takers who gave their credence not to the educated leader like him, but to Natella, will soon pay with their heads, after the fashion of that carouser and fool, Olofern. In addition, he said, unlike the virtuous Judith, the shameless Eligulova, will deliver those heads in a basket not to her own people, but to her main squeeze, the KGB big-shot, the Amalek and infidel, General Abasov. The latter, he continued, imitating the legend, will not fall short of exhibiting them along the towns northern wall - for the whole Moscow to see.
        Had this prophecy turned out correct, gloomy days would have again returned for the businessmen, but the doctors dislike for Natella was so strong that he would have agreed to pay that price in order to persuade every single Petkhainer once and for all in the opinion that the downright fool Shepilov had chosen just as a downright slut and witch for a wife...

        However, despite the doctors gloomy forecasts, life in Petkhain went on without any scandalous news, if one doesnt consider Natellas sudden financial boom as such. This convinced the Petkhainers in the yet another popular truth: intermediacy between the Jews and the authorities is a happy formula for acquiring riches.
        This formula turned out to be just as happy in connection with another epidemic hobby of the Petkhain Jewry - exodus to their historic homeland. Although the Kremlin granted Georgia a liberal quota on Jewish emigration, the Tbilisi authorities, almost in every single case, pretended in front of the future repatriates, that they cannot force their hands to issue them exit visas. They explained this, first of all, by their attachment to Jews, and, secondly - by referring to a strict order which prescribed to refuse exit visas to those petitioners who were highly valued, as well as to those whove committed numerous sins against the national economy.
        The repatriates, in their own turn, hurried to assure the authorities that just as there are no unrepentable sins, there are no invincible attachments. And, indeed, as soon as the future repatriates handed the right amount of banknotes to the proper officials, - amount, corresponding to the scale of their sins - those officials would suddenly discover in themselves enough courage to overcome their painstaking attachment to Jews, and issue the sought-after documents.
        The exchange of opinions and of the most valuable papers - that is, visas, and money - was conducted through Natella.
        According to the doctors information, due to the massive exodus of Jews from Petkhain, Abasov ordered to rid the shelves of his archive off the trophies which were confiscated by the KGB during the long years of struggle against the Petkhain trouble-makers. Among them, by the way, were also stone amulets that belonged to Natellas mother, Zilpha. The trophies, doctor Davarashvili said, consisted of ridiculous rubbish - everything, including pouches of grounded chicken-bone powder, which were once passed by someone for the parceled portions of heavenly manna, and small, rounded pieces of glass, pushed off by the Petkhainers as extra lenses for the lorgnette of the foremost Zionist, Theodore Herzl.
        The only thing of value among the pile of goods expropriated by the KGB, was, according to the doctor, the manuscript of the Bretian bible, to which miraculous powers were ascribed, and which General Abasov had obviously ordered Natella not to be thrown out. As far the Bretian bible goes, or, to be more precise - its importance - the doctor was correct, but - according to the rumors - two of the repatriated Petkhainers that bought the above mentioned amulets from Natella became convinced in their delivering powers after arriving to the historical homeland: one of them survived an explosion in a Tel Aviv bus, while the other was elected to the Knesset.


The importance of the Bretian bible surpasses the bounds of that circumstance which enabled me to finally get together with Natella, whom - for the lack of a valid reason - I never did get the chance to meet before.
        During the long period of its existence, this bible became lavished with contradictory legends and therefore - in order to please everyone - only that, mentioned in every one of them was considered indisputable. It was mentioned, for instance, in every single legend, that the manuscript was written some five hundred years ago in the Greek town of Saloniki, which, at the time, was ruled by the Turkish sultan, Selim the First. The writing was made in a family of a Jewish aristocrat, Yehuda Gedaliah, who migrated to Greece from Spain, where, just a bit earlier, all the Jews that refused baptism were exiled from.
        Yehuda Gedaliah ordered the manuscript of the Pentateuch for the dowry of his only daughter - the fair-haired beauty by the name of Isabella-Ruth, who was suffering from melancholy and whom he intended to marry off in Georgia, for, he insisted, all the Spanish Sephardim, worthy of her hand, had moved to the northern countries where the climate aggravates spiritual disorders. Even if they had never moved in the first place, they would have hardly fought over Isabella-Ruths hand in marriage, because, besides melancholy, she, they say, suffered from amorous vices.
        Yehuda Gedaliah, it turns out, had chosen Georgia not as much due to its abundance of warmth and light, as its ability to preserve the memory of kinship between the Spanish and the Georgian Jews. In those times, even the native peoples of Georgia and Spain remembered that long before they came into existence, and therefore long before they became natives, Jews came to their lands and gave those lands their name, Iberia, which in Hebrew means - those, who arrived from the other side.
        Those Jews belonged to the same tribe, but with time, the Iberians of Caucasus - prompted by Eastern standards of hypocrisy - turned out to be much more inventive than their Western brothers that settled on the Pyrenees. In eight hundred some year, without waiting for the coerced baptism, one of the Jewish families, the Bagrationis, suddenly converted to Christianity and took over the Georgian throne. Thanks to this, Jews were never exiled from the Eastern Iberia, that is - from Georgia.
        It was to the Bagrationis that Yehuda Gedaliah wanted to entrust his daughters hand in marriage, guided by a consideration, that since they decorate their national flag with a six-pointed star, and are proud to belong to the ancient House of David, they would not shrink from entering into kinship with Israels beautiful daughter from the Spanish Iberia.
        The Bagrationis did shrink from it. Yehuda Gedaliah, however, could not take this stoically and died almost without any delay, leaving his daughter with a magnificent villa and the manuscript of the bible.
        After her fathers death, Isabella-Ruth, according to every single legend, plunged into such a deep melancholy that she abandoned the villa in Saloniki, and taking along the Pentateuch (in defiance of the local Greeks, incidentally), arrived to Istanbul. There, she thrust herself unto the Sultan Selims harem, where she spent exactly seven years.
        Although the Sultan was already of that age when it makes no sense to start reading thick books, he frequently asked for the Jewess and ordered her to translate from the Pentateuch. Besides broadening his outlook, this, it turned out, also helped him in accelerating the flow of blood to a peripheric organ almost forgotten by him. Legends ascribed the latter to the magic powers of the biblical text, but there existed yet another opinion that it was Isabella-Ruths foreign accent which excited the Turk. But since the readings excited the melancholy Jewess as well, it is more reasonable to conclude that from the very beginning the parchment scrolls did, after all, possess the yet-unheard-of mystical powers.
        In 1520, upon the conclusion of the last chapter of the Pentateuch, Selim died. Isabella-Ruth left the palace and took off for Georgia. Apparently, she took off without a single penny to her name because she gave the golden adornments presented to her by the Sultan for her beauty and servility, to the main eunuch as a ransom for her own Bible, which, they say, was the only consolation to her despondent fits of melancholy.
        Since that time, during almost 350 years, there are no strict, factual data on the Bretian Bible, since legends about it either contradict each other, or do not completely coincide. However, they all come together upon an event that took place at the end of the last century in the Kartlian village of Breti.

        A Jewish shepherd by the name of Abraham, a serf to the duke Avalishvili, who was related to the Bagrationis, was sitting on a moonless night at the shore of a local mountain river without a name and contemplated to himself on the meaning of life. He sat, they say, in the very same position as his famous name sake and colleague from the Old Testament when he suddenly surmised that besides God, alas, there is no other God and there never will be. However, not having had the time to come to the same, equally universal conclusion, the Bretian shepherd noticed a neat bundle of fire floating along the river.
        When the Jew came to his senses from the shock and rubbed his eyes, the bundle was no longer moving, but shimmering right in front of him, clutching at the white stone that jutted out of the water. Without taking his shoes off, the shepherd went into the river and swam in the direction of the fire, which, as the Jew started approaching, began to bustle and fold. When Abraham swam up to the jutting stone, he made out a very thick book in a wood binding under the subsiding tongues of flame. The shepherd touched it carefully, and, convinced that the book doesnt burn the fingers, lifted it above the water, turned towards the shore, and, as was usually prescribed in similar cases, hurried over with his finding to Duke Avalishvili: the owner of the neighboring waters and lands...
        Pretty soon, there wasnt a person in Georgia who didnt know that a magical Bible was being kept in Breti - one that does not drown in water, does not burn in fire, and, most importantly, one that can smoke out any ailment from a Jewish soul in exchange for a small bribe. Moreover: they said that depending upon the amount of an additional bribe, it can disentangle the most complex dream to a single string, and foretell the future with a precision of useless details. Avalishvili assigned a learned Ashkenazi to the manuscript. The Ashkenazi would receive countless visitors - not just the Jews, by the way - on specially lit premises next to Avalishvilis chambers, where he first carefully discussed with the guests the sought-after service and then, asked them to close their eyes and poke with a silver ruler into an opened text of the Bible placed in front of them. The fumbled line - any which one - served the Ashkenazi, it appears, as the unrefutable key to every and any dilemma picked by the client from the earlier-chosen price list.
        After Avalishvilis death, the elder offspring of the duke had sold the Torah for a huge sum of money to the local Jews who moved it into the synagogue. After spending that money rather quickly, he managed through some means to overtake the manuscript again and then had sold it once more - this time, to the Jews from the neighboring principality. During the following decades, this story - with very insignificant variations - repeated itself sixteen times. If it werent for the entry of the Red Army into Georgia in 1921, the hassle with the Bretian bible would have probably never ceased.
        The Bolsheviks expropriated the manuscript which at that time was being kept at the house of one of the dukes offsprings who had escaped to France, and declared it an evil object liable to immediate annihilation. Fifteen years later, however, it became clear that the object was not annihilated but secretly sold to a Kutaisi Jew by a little-known Red Army commander with the last name of Avalishvili who in 1936 was arrested and tried on charges of profiteering on state property and connection with the Georgian emigres.
        During the trial the commander insisted that the two mitigating circumstances should be taken into consideration: first, the now-deceased Kutaisi Jew to whom he had sold the Bible was a Bolshevik, and, second, it was sold with a personal consent of Sergo Ordjonikidze, the chief of the military expedition that introduced Soviet rule into Georgia. The court took both of the mitigating circumstances into consideration and decided to execute the commander.
        And as for the Bretian Bible, the widow of the Kutaisi Bolshevik, a Ukrainian shiksa from Kharkov, convinced that all this time she was keeping a Georgian translation of the a great Ukrainian epos dedicated to her by her deceased husband, became vexed, and readily complying with the courts decision handed over the manuscript to the Tbilisi Town Council. No one knew what to do with it in the Town Council until several God-fearing Petkhainers shoved someone or other a bribe as a result of which the Bretian bible was deposited to the newly founded museum of Georgian Jews bearing the name of the chief of the KGB Lavrenti Beria.
        Soon, however, it became obvious that besides the Bretian Pentateuch, there could hardly be any valued symbolical objects of that tradition found in the museum due to their annihilation.
        Director of the museum, Abon Tsitsishvili, on whose insistence the institution was named after Beria, exhibited his love for Jews by striving to connect everything grand with them. Since Beria was a Mingrelian, the director decided to prove that the Mingrelian population of Georgia, cosmopolitan in its nature, is directly related to the best of the Hebrew tribes.
        Moscow rewarded Abon for the wisdom of his scientific invention by inviting him to a group meeting with the famous German novelist Lyon Feichtwanger, who later announced to the world community that the nationalism of the Soviet Jewry stands out in its sober inspiration.
        With time, however, that is, with the increase of inspiration, Abon began to lose the sobriety and finally, on the 15th anniversary of the museum informed the dumbfounded Petkhainers that in addition to the fact that Lavrenti Berias forefathers were one hundred percent Jewish, they, supposedly, were also the authors of Deuteronomy, one of the five books of Moses, the Bretian copy of which is the very original which this outstanding family gave as a present to the great Georgian people.

        That very same night, my father Yakov telephoned him at home and ordered him to run wherever his eyes would lead him, for the towns chief prosecutor has already signed an order to close the museum and to arrest its director as well.
        A half an hour later, Abon came tearing along to my father with a huge bath-house handbag, from which - in front of my own eyes - he pulled out a very thick book in a wooden binding and handed it to Yakov with a melodramatic gesture, invoking him to cherish it like the apple of his eye. It was not fear that illuminated the expression of the director of the museum, but rather, surprise at the ungrateful nature of the authorities - an impression, which, by the way, might have been incorrect, since Abon was squint-eyed.
        My father, on the other hand, did get scared. Why is it, he asked, that I should be the one to keep this book?
        You are the official functionary, so, no one would think of looking for it here, answered Abon, slammed the door behind himself, but, alas, started to run not in the direction where he could have found a refuge, but, as it was prescribed to him earlier, wherever his eyes, squinting to the right, would lead him.
        Throughout that whole night, my mother and I did not utter a word in order to give my father the opportunity to concentrate upon Abons farewell wish. My father, however, could in no way concentrate and this confusion of his, it seemed to me, made not only my mother and myself tense, but the book as well which was lying all night long at the edge of the dining room table next to the old German alarm clock, whose arms used to move in the most cautious way clutching at every single point upon the clock-face.
        Right before dawn, when the alarm clock finally went off and began to rattle, my father started, stiffened the ringing with his palm and, upon the return of silence, declared in a whisper that in spite of Abons assurance the KGB would start looking for the Bretian bible namely in our house.
        Yakov ordered me to climb through the window of our neighboring Ashkenazi synagogue at dusk and, once there, hide the manuscript in the built-in closet where the damaged scrolls of Torah were kept.
        During the following three days I felt sorry for the Jewish people and thought my father a coward.
        On the fourth day, the KGB men came and demanded that we return the Bretian bible to the authorities. Citizen Tsitsishvili, they said, detained not far from our house, had stolen it from the museum and had deposited it with my father.
        Yakov reminded the visitors that he was an official functionary, while Tsitsishvili was a liar, because he had never deposited any manuscript whatsoever with him.
        Pretty soon, it became clear that my father was risking his career in vain: after discovering the Bretian bible in their closet, the Ashkenazis ran with it to the KGB and swore to them that the magical book of the Georgian Jews had gotten into the synagogue on its own volition, and thus deserves to be severely punished. The KGB agreed on the advisability of destroying the bible, but refused to believe the Ashkenazis that the bible had managed to get into the closet without anyones help and, as a punishment, deprived them of their own synagogue for a long time. It appears, that neither did the KGB believe my father, for he was also deprived - for a long time - of his post.

        Ever since that time, whenever the Bretian Pentateuch was mentioned in my presence, I would become overwhelmed by perplexity - the kind experienced by a teenager who suddenly discovers the frightening unity of contradictory feelings. An adult is no longer perplexed by this because he is able to do the vile and the impossible - to dissect his sensations and handle them one at a time. I found this general wisdom to be as incomprehensible as the ability to cure insomnia with sleep. That is why, all those years the memories of it reawakened a throbbing pain in that deep, invisible hollow to the right side of the heart where, along with ones soul, hides ones conscience.
        Being quite undemanding, the latter bothered me only rarely, but it got out of hand just when it became known that stumbling upon the run-away manuscript inside their built-in closet, the Ashkenazis condemned it to a severe punishment. There would not have been any punishment, nor would have the Ashkenazis ever found the bible, had I really placed it inside the old closet for the damaged scrolls of Torah, like my father had instructed me to do, instead of putting it into the other, front closet which the visitors used every single day.
        In that old built-in-closet there resided a huge rat by the name of Zhanna, who terrified everyone with her habit of eating parchment scrolls, and damaged ones to boot. Had there been daylight, I would have probably not gotten scared, but to break into Zhannas quarters at night! I became fainthearted, knowing perfectly well after my own example that nothing irritates as much as an interrupted sleep.
        The other emotion which would unfailingly spring up inside me at the mere mention of the Bretian bible was indignation at the fact that first, the Greeks, then the Turks, and then, finally, the Georgians believed that it belonged to them. Besides: whatever hell for did the Kartlian cretin Abraham, contemplating by the river on the meaning of existence, run with the Bible to the duke? Any old answer would plunge me into a rage. And what about all those ridiculous Georgian Jews who, as they said, rejoiced and prided themselves every time they managed to ransom their own bible from their masters?! I was not even thinking of the Tbilisi Ashkenazis: having lived on a foreign territory since the recent times, they, naturally, fawned upon their new capricious masters, the aborigines, and implored them for one favor only - the permission to keep their synagogue. Inside the synagogue, though, they played upon an even more Capricious Master, from whom, in exchange for primitive praisewords spoken during prayers, they managed to extort valuable everyday favors.
        Yet the most smoldering of emotions, reawakened by the memories of the Bretian bible was, of course, my amorous melancholy for Isabella-Ruth.
        Although legends insisted that she was irreproachably beautiful, I imagined her either with big, unattractive palms, or with an ugly scar upon her upper lip, or, again, with some obvious defect, because total perfection doesnt excite one as much and teases neither reason nor flesh. Perfection deprives a woman of yet another merit as well - accessibility.
        In addition, it seemed, that the eyes of Isabella-Ruth should be filled with a half-transluscent liquid - either the eternal moisture drawn from her mothers womb, or the viscous dew which arises as a result of an unyielding sexual languor. Like Sultan Selim, Id get excited that the breathtaking Jewess from Western Iberia spoke with a foreign accent, which, despite her kinship with me, passed her off as a wanderer and an eternal stranger.
        The Sultan knew about love: when a woman is foreign, the desire for her is endowed with a piercing sharpness which returns its initial licentiousness to a morose ecstasy. But if the Moslem was aroused because the Jewess came to him from a strange life, separated from his by a vast space, then I, in addition to this, was driven to her because of our alienation in time as well. My drive was full of that incomprehensible depravity of human flesh that either accompanies, or, on the contrary, incites inside ones soul a melancholy of persistent slip of the all-fulfilling love.
        Since Isabella-Ruth suffered from this very same melancholy herself, since it was namely this ailment that brought her, along with her dowry - the Bretian bible - first to the dilapidated Sultan Selim and, later, through legends, into my dissipated teenage dreams, I sensed in her panting breath not the vileness of the Istanbul harem, but a mixed odor of steppe hay and fresh mountain mint.
        On those occasions, my soul became still in the anticipation of happiness which, I knew, one day would be impossible to suppress.
        Instead of happiness, came disgrace: a humiliating fear of a rat sentenced me to constant feeling of guilt for the ruin of the magical book.
        Since then, my shame before Isabella-Ruth would not allow me to even as much as approach her. My melancholy remained unquenched and wouldnt leave me even when, as it seemed to me, I was already cured of youth and stopped recalling that which had never happened...
        However, having parted with youth , I did not cling to adults. Unlike them, I kept believing that the un-quenching of amorous melancholy, just like the un-fulfillment of a dream, is the only thing that could be called a tragedy. In time, once again, unlike the adults, I began to envision that here is yet another tragedy, one that is more bitter - fulfillment of desires.
        That is probably why I was overcome by anxiety when, not long before parting with my homeland, the doctor spread a rumor that the Bretian bible was alive and well in that very same place to which it was delivered by the Ashkenazis - in the KGB. If that is really so, I decided after prolonged hesitations, then, according to the laws of conscience, I am the one responsible to rescue it...

        Doctor Davarashvili refused to give me the source of his information. Instead, after having listened to my confessions, he shared yet another piece of news with me: conscience, he said, just like soul, does not exist in nature; at least, it has no laws, and even if it does, it is still impossible to live according to them. To live already means to go against ones conscience! The doctor concluded this information with an advice to concentrate upon the existing circumstances, such as the danger of poking ones nose into the KGBs affairs on the eve of departure for the West.
        He was right, but out of that peculiar distrust for the obvious, which is based upon the lack of common interest with the majority of people, I associated my hesitations with a rather different sort of fear - with a fear of resurrecting my youthful melancholy for Isabella-Ruth, or, on the contrary, with the quenching of that melancholy which might come about if I somehow would manage to rescue the Bretian parchment from the KGB, and thus, eliminate the barrier between myself and the everpresent Spanish woman.
        As it usually happens when people hesitate, that is, when they attack a thought with imagination, I came to a foolish decision: to poke my nose into the KGB affairs and rescue the bible, whatever may come. So as not to feel ashamed of my deliberate foolishness, and also, taking into account the possibility that conscience may really not exist, I ascribed my decision to the lowliest of sensations, which, however, people not only never repudiate but also bless with the stature of holiness - that is, to patriotism. This is how I, at the same time, suppressed in myself yet another source of spiritual anxiety - a festive anxiety which overwhelmed me in an anticipation of the unavoidable meeting with Natella Eligulova.
        Although upon my request, through her uncle Saul, the meeting took place not in the KGB building, but in her apartment, still, I was going there with considerable caution. I was even taking suspicious whiffs off of my usual eau de cologne, OJeune, which now seemed different, and forcing anxiety upon me, didnt let me to recognize myself.


Her, however, I recognized instantly. I started and froze in the doorway. A bit later, when she pronounced my name, I started once more: it always seems strange to me that I could be shoved into the frames of some brief sound, but this time it was something altogether different. Suddenly, I liked and was flattered by that sound which she pronounced, especially as, her voice was emerging not from her throat but from the depth of her body, and that voice was hot.
        I quailed and sensed an onslaught of paralyzing stupidity.
        How did you recognize me? I asked.
        She decided that I was kidding. Just in case, she made it clear:
        I wasnt expecting anyone else... I even sent my husband off...
        You did? I was surprised. How is he, Syoma, by the way?
        Compared to what? she smiled.
        Well, compared to his own self...
        Theres no need to compare him to his own self any more: hes gone to his self.
        I didnt get that, sorry! Where is it - you said - hes gone?
        Natella avoided the question:
        I just sent him off for some red wine.
        O, I do have that! she cheered up.
        You know, I recognized you instantly as well, I uttered and settled down by the table.
        You dont say!, she kept laughing and sat down across from me in a leather upholstered, carved chair. Although, they do say that real philosophers easily recognize a woman whom they visit in her own house, and especially when theres no one else there...
        I mean... You know, I said, you look exactly like someone I know... Two drops of water!
        Ive heard that before pretty often! Even here, in Petkhain!
        No one knows this! I was surprised.
        What do you mean, no one knows this?! Thats all they mutter. They cant think of anything else to say...
        But I really mean it: two drops of water!
        And does she have my last name? You probably heard about my father, Meir-Khaim? He also had a lot of acquaintances... Mostly, women...
        Shes a Spaniard: Isabella-Ruth...
        I wouldve never thought that I look like a foreigner. Not that I wouldnt want to. If only because they have able plastic surgeons there and they could have made this scar on my lip disappear in no time!
        And why should it disappear?! I asked with indignation. Its better that way! By the way, she has a scar on her lip also. Really!
        And she also wears a silk robe just like this one, isnt that so?!
        I only saw her face, I confessed.
        Let me go get you some vodka!
        She rose and stepped towards a lavish, wallnut-tree cabinet. I noticed that unlike the local women, she had a neatly-shaped waist and a rounded ass.
        Natella placed in front of me an oval decanter of vodka, but even before she grabbed the elongated crystal top with an egg-like knob and pulled it out of the narrow opening after some effort, I became overwhelmed by something that evoked and incited dark desires.
        I felt uneasy, took the elongated top heated in her palm, carefully replaced it into the opening of the transparent decanter and, with dried-out lips, uttered:
        Not now... and looked at her.
        Natella became confused as well, but instantly, she picked herself up, hurried back to her chair and started to stare at me with a mixed expression on her face. The right tip of her upper lip with the scar stretched upward in a sarcastic grin, the left brow - bent down in an arc of curiosity, but the half-transparent blue-green eyes submerged in a generous flow of white moisture, emanated the significant serenity of lilies in Chinese ponds, serenity of such a long existence when time gets tired of space, but doesnt know where else to turn to.
        What?, she said with a grin. Just dont tell me that you read faces and already know everything about me.
        No, I assured her, I didnt come for this, but at one time I did really study Eastern Phisiognomistics. Nonsense!
        You did? she tensed her big, powerful lips with downtrend edges, which, according to the ancient readers of human faces, indicates a strong will. And, whats written on my face?
        You have straight lips - a weak will, I said. Its easy to influence you. You have a swelling under your eyes: weariness, and uncontrollable desires...
        And what about the eyes?
        The Japanese speak of forty different types and ascribe each one to some animal or other. Yours is a sphinx. Elongated eyes with curved halos. A delicate personality... And a nervous one...
        Youre right, its nonsense! Natella laughed and rubbed her finger against the flat, black stone with white veins, which hung down on a string to her very cleavage. You have the same features, by the way!
        I know. Thats why I think all of it is nonsense, I said and realized that our small talk has come to an end.

        There was a pause during which I had enough time to become horrified: What does it all mean?
        How did it come about that Natella Eligulova and Isabella-Ruth look the same?
        Transmigration of flesh?
        And could it be that they are one and the same woman? Could it be that time and space do not divide existence but unite it into one? And that existence of separate people is just an illusion? Two points in space and time - what are they? - are they really just two points in space and time or - a line which we cannot see in its wholeness? Then again, perhaps everything is way simpler, and the riddle of Isabella-Ruth is explained by that truth in which - out of all Petkhainers, with the exception of Syoma Shepilov - only I did not believe: after all thats said and done, Natella Eligulova is nothing but a witch connected with the demons of space and time by the very same depraved ties which she managed to establish between herself and the authorities? Thus, she has a knack for dealing with people who, according to the Eastern Phisiognomistics, possess nervous natures and weak wills?
        Perhaps, thats what she did, - bewitched me, by looking into her ill-fated mirror covered with spider-web and sending me apparitions of the licentious Jewess, Isabella -Ruth.
        Perhaps, the rumor that the Bretian bible is alive and well at General Abasovs disposal was initially spread by her, Natella, in order to bring me here?
        But what was the purpose?
        Natella kept on smiling and rubbing the stone as if she wanted to heat it, cajole it, and then read some important secret about me off of it.
        I felt queasy; I tore my glance away from the stone speckled with scratches and sores, and my eyes began to roam around the room.
        Suspended from the right wall, there stared into the faraway space, behind a narrow window across the wall, the father and the son Babalikashvili, whom, as they said, Natella had sent off into the otherworldly space. Next to them, there hung three more dead people: Meir-Khaim, with the swollen eyelids and the eyes of a satyr; Zilpha, the hostess mother, with the same sarcastic smile and the same stone on her neck, but without any sores or scratches; and, a little lower, - the Englishman, Byron.
        The portraits were black and white, although right under Byron, there was yet another, color photo of a young man. Since the man looked like a Petkhainer, but sat in a pose of the famed Romantic, I figured that this must be Syoma Babalikashvili-Shepilov, the hostess husband, the heir to the prominent diamonds, and the indefatigable rhymester. If it were not for the sheer terror which had taken over me, I would have naturally burst out in laughter.
        Not daring to return my glance back to the hostess, I transferred it behind her back, towards the bedroom entrance and froze in disbelief: in the doorway, with spread-apart strong legs reflecting against the parquet floor and staring straight at me, there stood a huge rooster, as colorful as a nightcap of a kings fool and as confident as a prophet.
        I had a craving to escape outside.
        I made a sharp turn towards the open window, but that which was outside, behind the window, was itself trying to break in: a dense, smoky shred of a cloud hanging from the sky was crowding through the narrow pane and making its way into the room, filled the whole space around itself. It became harder to breathe in the air but easier to see it.
        Distrusting my own sensations, I finally looked at the hostess. Still smiling, she was caressing the tight crest on top of the roosters head; the rooster was now sitting on her lap.
        I forgot the words which I was about to utter, but apparently, Natella heard them and responded:
        That is a cloud... From Turkey, probably... and she pointed towards Turkey, behind the window. Clouds come from the south...
        Well, yes, of course, I agreed, from Turkey... and outstretching my hand towards the decanter, tore out the crystal top, as if it was a clot in my throat.
        The familiar smell of the spirit burned my gullet instantly. It became easier to breathe, and, pouring the vodka into a big, cut glass, I uttered the obvious:
        Im going to drink now!
        The gurgling of the liquid in a crystal opening made the rooster anxious and he threw his neck upward. Natella bent it down forcefully and still grinning, addressed the rooster:
        Calm down, thats vodka! And that man is allright...
        I emptied the glass in one gulp and stopped being surprised. I even thought that the depravity, so openly airing through her moist, ironical-lascivious eyes of a sphinx, is the worldly, universal depravity, a part of that ineradicable beginning which people call evil, and which they are ashamed to display.
        Natella was not ashamed.
        Natella! I said. If one believes our people, you love money. That is why I came to see you...
        One shouldnt believe our people, she laughed. They dont deserve me! Not even the tiniest finger on my left foot! and she lifted her foot from under a silk robe. Do you know what Nebuchadnezzar had once said?
        About you?, I asked, slanting my glance towards the naked leg.
        Nebuchadnezzar had said the following: people, he said, do not deserve me; I will pick myself a cloud and spend the rest of my days there!
        So, he was a progressist: he chose space that outstrips time! Usually, people settle there after the end, I responded and added. But sometimes, its the clouds themselves that come to them... From Turkey...
        Nebuchadnezzar was a realist: people, he said, arent worth living with, Natella explained. Because what is people? Liars and scoundrels! They scurry back and forth with dinners turned sour inside their bellies. And they also stink of sweat. And they wear underpants that stick to their asses and even get stuck inside them! And just imagine the sight of intestines stuffed into a stomach! What a nightmare!
        I was taken aback, but Natella was looking down at the rooster:
        Isnt that true?
        The rooster did not respond and she continued:
        Anyway, why on earth does God love them, the people?!
        Thats not true! I was indignant. Who says that God loves them?
        I say, Natella responded. He loves me, for instance. Since He doesnt kill me, since He plays along with me - He loves me! God loves the depraved! Without the depraved the world wouldve been gone long time ago...
        A smile was wandering across her face, but I couldnt figure out who exactly it was that she was mocking: myself, herself, or, and this would have been much more understandable, the whole of mankind...

        Then, there arose a suspicion in me that this womans arrogance and irony is nothing but the measure of her alienation from everything that exists, that very alienation which, being also conditioned by depravity, had teased me so much in Isabella-Ruth. This suspicion had suddenly solidified and transformed into a guess that I, myself, am the same way as well.
        Then, as it is usually the case with me when I am confronted by an unflattering self-observation, I got tense and made an attempt to distract myself by an ingenious thought: a man, I announced to myself, has an answer to any question, but he doesnt know that answer until a woman asks an appropriate question for it. This assertion, however, stroke me as being too reasonable and, therefore, incapable of bringing any joy, since only the wrong excites, and since one can be satisfied with reasonable only after everything else had already been experienced.
        In search of amusement I turned the correct inside out: a woman has an answer to any question but a man must find the latter.
        I contemplated this for a while and found it to be just as reasonable.
        I was frightened by the hopelessness of the situation: where is it then, I asked, that the salvation lies, if every answer is a reasonable one?
        Salvation, however, was found with the speed of a lightning: one must think in the way of asking questions, and only those questions that bewitch and mesmerize, for such questions have no answers, just as existence has no meaning. Such questions bewitch and mesmerize much like life itself does, not merely its generalization.
        Satisfied with this discovery I, at last, tore through to the question which Natella had ignited me onto: And what if she and I have the same soul? What if there are too many people around, - more than there are souls, - and, therefore, many of us have one and the same soul?
        What if, sometime in the future, my flesh would return into this world, just like Isabella-Ruth had returned in the image of Natella? And what if my soul, my consciousness, winds up in my very own flesh once again? Its absurd, but its possible; especially if we take into an account that were not dealing here with a money lottery, where everyone is unlucky! But anyway, what sort of a luck is it - winding up in ones own self with such an abundance of other people is nothing but bad luck! And what if I, just like Natella, had already existed once before - exactly the way I am now - and simply found myself yet once more in my own self?
        This question amused me and I thought of vodka with delight. It appeared, that it had after all managed to eat away the plait that held back my own consciousness in me, much like they hold on a trying a helium-inflated balloon. Now, I was smiling as well.
        You like yourself too, dont you? Natella laughed. And you chat with yourself because you think of all others as fools!
        By the way, I talk to myself as if I were a fool also...
        Is that good?
        Only if that fool is wiser than me.
        And I, on the contrary, dont like wisdom, Natella smiled and checked with the rooster. Isnt that so? If people treated folly like they do wisdom, something better might have come out of it... And what about wisdom? What did it ever do for anyone?
        May I have one more drink? I asked and went for the decanter.
        You should eat something! she exclaimed, and placing the rooster on the floor, brought me a plate with a fork and a knife.
        Then, she stepped towards the window pane where the foaming cloud from Turkey was being stiffened. In the window pane, suspended from shoestrings, rocked beheaded, dried geese, cut-up across the chest. Natella hooked one of the strings with her finger and placed the bird, shamelessly exposing its insides, upon the table.
        The rooster, at first, looked at the goose, then, more intently, at me, and nervously blinking his crimson eyelids, returned to his mistress lap.
        Its - Syoma; he learned to salt-dry geese from his father, may he rest in peace!
        So, where does Syoma find the time? I was surprised.
        Syoma doesnt work, Natella answered. And as for his poems, he doesnt rhyme them.
        Once again, I felt uneasy: who was she mocking now - Syoma or me?
        But I like his poems, I lied. He must love you very much.
        Aloof a sudden, Natella jerked up and leaning towards me, yelled out:
        Dont you dare!
        Dumbfounded, I, however, guessed that it wasnt me that she was angry at.
        No one loves anyone in this world! Natella yelled. And thats the way it should be! Love only hinders and wounds! Love is not of this world! Something other belongs to this world! and pulling the elongated top out of the crystal decanter, she shoved it right under my nose: This, for instance, this belongs here, the cock! And money, too!
        Her pupils burned with the rage of a hunted-down beast, and I could not believe that just a short while ago, they reminded me of lilies in Chinese ponds. Before this meeting with Natella, I have never imagined that lack of love in the world, or its inaccessibility could evoke such a beastly wrath in a human being. What I knew, or rather, what I felt, was something else: this wrath is a result of an unending pain...
        Really? I muttered after a short pause. I heard that Syoma loves you. Why else would he write poems for you? And every single day, at that.
        Why? Because one of his balls is missing. Every single day! she said very calmly. He loves himself, not me! I am a classy broad, he doesnt want to share me with anyone, just like he doesnt want to share his diamonds with me...
        There! You see! You are not a poet, whereas he is one! He doesnt compare you with some stones, but with the Biblical Judith herself!
        Precisely! Poets always compare women with gold, diamonds, all kinds of flowers. But he compares me to another broad.
        She became quiet and added in a very low voice:
        And if you want the truth, sometimes, I am ashamed that he composes poems about me. I am a bitch, you know! And there he is writing poems... That means, Im lying to him, even though hes also... an inspector.
        Also an inspector? I didnt get it.
        Shaliko, that shithead, was an inspector, Natella whispered. There, take a look at him! and she nodded towards the portrait.
        I felt timid: is she going to entrust me with all her vile secrets?
        What? I made believe that Im not expecting to find anything out. Just a regular portrait. Hangs and looks into the space.
        She did not respond, however.
        The same eyes as his sons next to him, I added. I knew him, by the way. David, I mean. Not as well as you did, but I did know him. I just cannot recall who loved whom: you - him, or vice versa... It was probably not you: you dont believe in love, right? He, may he rest in peace, would have really become an inspector just like his father. But, of course, they popped him...
        The rooster started fidgeting suddenly in her lap, but Natella pushed his head down and answered me:
        He, that son of a bitch, was a born inspector. He only loved what can be counted and touched. But he also wrote poems, that lowlife!
        Still, David was an intelligent and handsome fellow, and as for unselfish people, well... they do not exist, I said cunningly.
        What do you mean, they do not exist?! And what about Judith?
        What about her? I asked timidly, guessing that she must have discerned my cunningness.
        What do you mean, what about her? She served her people selflessly!
        Selflessly?! I exclaimed. What the hell! She was a widow in search of a man... And General Olohell, they say, had all three balls, instead of the usual one! And mind you, he didnt waste time writing poems.
        Who says? she asked, laughing.
        I say. Thats why she darted off to him in the first place: to squeeze his balls in the name of her native... what was the name of that town? Well, lets say, Petkhain. She squeezed his balls for one night, for two nights, and then, when the general got a little tired, tsak! - and off with his watermelon! And then she ran to Petkhain with that watermelon and demanded to be registered right into the Bible: I, she said, was serving my people! But no one saw how she served, did they? And no one knows - why did she do that! People go for noble deeds only if they have no choice...
        What a classy broad! Natella laughed. Great, isnt she?! But I still think that she pitied her people selflessly. I laugh at our asses, but I still live in here, in Petkhain. And you know, I can live wherever I choose! Like you, for instance - in Moscow. Youre taking off for a place further down than Moscow. So could I! But I cant live without our people!
        You wouldnt feel as free? I tried.
        I pity them, Natella ignored my remark. Without me where would they be?! In deep shit! All of them! Without an exception!
        I wanted to demand that she make at least one exception, but then, remembered that I came to her for help and decided to keep quiet.
        I pity everyone! she repeated. And yes, I live, as you put it, freely, and will continue to do so. You know why? Because unconditional labor in the name of ones people pays really well! and, again, she laughed outloud.
        I asked Natella to let the rooster off her lap and declared:
        Heres the deal: I have five thousand dollars here with me, and the business concerns our people...
        Inhaling a huge volume of air in my lungs and staring at the remotest spot behind the window, I, as is the rule when the business concerns whole people, started my discourse from afar.
        I festively informed the mistress of the house that we, the Jews - are the people of the Bible, and by taking care of it, we take care of our own selves, because, being our own creation, the Bible itself had created us; that the Bible is our homeland, our patent on greatness;  and finally, according to the tradition, if a Jew happens to drop a golden brick and the Bible at the same time, he is to pick up the Bible first.
        Natella interrupted me here, and in return, offered a much more actual information: these very same revelations, she said, concerning the Bible, and whats more, in the very same order, were apparently already shared with her by - whom? - none other than doctor Davarashvili!
        In fact, he was sitting in the very same chair as myself, and, referring to the Bible as The Old Testament, praised it very highly. He used the same words: creation, initiation, greatness! With one slight difference, however: evidently, he found the Book of Job not entirely to his liking, since God, he said, had failed to get the gist of the main character, and he criticized Solomons Song of Songs for being much too unrealistic. On the whole, though, he found The Old Testament to be more true-to-life than The New one. The latter, Davarashvili claimed, wants us to believe that the Son of God came into this world as a result of artificial insemination - a very unlikely hypothesis, if one takes into an account the level of medical technology in the pre-Christian era.
        The doctor supposedly noted that just like the Bible is the chronicle of crisis in the life of a society and that of an individual, so the history of dealing with it is nothing but the above as well. And - he began relating the story of the Bretian bible, on the one hand, illuminating the critical times in the life of the Jewish people after the Spanish Inquisition, in the Ottoman empire of the Sultan Selim, and in the pre-and-post-revolutionary Georgia, and, on the other hand - no less dramatic episodes taken from the biographies of private individuals, starting with Yehuda Gedaliah, from the Greek town of Saloniki, and ending with the director of the Jewish museum, Abon Tsitsishvili. The latter, the doctor added, resided in the same house where he, himself was born and raised.
        Everything in that story, of course, sounded familiar to me. Everything, except the final episode, which made me shudder, much in the same way as my first encounter with Natella Eligulova standing in her doorway. The doctor informed her that after the ill-fated speech, Abon Tsitsishvili asked him, the doctor, that is, to rescue the Bretian bible from annihilation, and hide it in the Ashkenazi synagogue. He, supposedly, did exactly that: made his way into the synagogue at night and, following the directors orders, locked the book in the front closet. Thats where the Ashkenazis found it and took it to the KGB. Since that time, the doctor confessed, his conscience gives him no respite: out of his lowly, depraved fear of the rat by the name of Zhanna, he hid the Bible in the wrong closet.
        The doctor, it turns out, told Natella all of this in order to implore her to rescue the book from General Abasov in exchange for five thousand rubles; to return it to him, to the doctor, that is, or, in other words, to the whole Jewish people, the true proprietor of that ancient manuscript, and thus - on the eve of the doctors departure for his historic homeland, at last grant his conscience a well-deserved break.
        I wasnt able to utter a single sound for some time.
        Finally, I asked Natella:
        What did you tell him?
        I inquired whether it really existed? Conscience. No question about it, he said! Sure, it exists, he said, to the right side of the heart, in a specially equipped hollow, right next to the soul.
        He said that the soul exists also?!
        He even quoted its weight: eleven ounces.
        I rose from the chair and went for the exit:
        Ive got nothing more to say. Everything is wrong and ridiculous.
        Natella bent down, picked up the rooster crowding between her legs, and, turning her back towards me, stared off into the space behind the window. A foreign cloud stood on the window-pane and dried geese hung slantwise in the cloud.
        I know everything. I was already told everything, she said without turning to me. And the doctor, of course, is a motherfucker! I know it all!
        You do? I asked to make sure. What exactly were you told?
        Natella kept her back turned towards me:
        That you were the one who put the book into the closet, and that your father Yakov, the prosecutor, gave it to you; and that sooner or later, youd come to me to get it back. And that, after all is said and done, you might indeed have conscience, whereas the doctor had never had it; and that all he wants is to get his paws on the book and sell it in the West... Serge told me all this... General Abasov.
        I pretended that now everything became clear to me:
        So, how did you part with the doctor?
        I took the money, naturally, and promised to have a talk with Abasov. Never had any intention of doing that
        So? I asked and pulled out a batch of hundred ruble notes.
        Take them with you, youll need them! And come to Serges office tomorrow. Ill arrange for a pass for you first thing in the morning...
        I became overjoyed, kissed her hand, and hurried over to that very door in which I first saw and recognized Isabella-Ruth in Natella. At this point, however, the Petkhain Jewess seemed more unusual to me than the one from Spain. At least, due to her being alive:
        I want to ask you a question. Is it possible to fall in love with me from the first sight?
        It is possible, but I hope to see you tomorrow again!


Tomorrow, however, I did not have enough time to fall in love with her, since we were mostly at Abasovs - in a well-lit office with tall walls covered with posters from Parisian museums.
        The chief of the counter-intelligence department, General Sergei Rubenovitch Abasov, looked exactly the man that he was: that is, an Armenian, and a counter-intelligence agent, but the French Armenian rather than the Georgian one. And it wasnt only his mannerisms that testified to this. Even his face with ears sticking out, reminded me of a French automobile with unshut doors, rather than a native.
        He was over fifty and he wasnt ashamed of it. He smoked a pipe stuffed with Dutch tobacco and wore a double-breasted English suit, a ring with a green stone, and had the eyes that betrayed a bitter struggle with either ghostwrites or some venereal disease.
        I lied to him that if it werent for the pipe, it would be impossible to tell him apart from the deceased movie star, Jean Maret, who played the Duke Monte Cristo, and once happened to purchase, in front of my very eyes, a malachite ring in the lobby of the Moscow Intourist.
        Abasovs answer was irrelevant, but amusing. He said that hed been to Paris and out of the Parisian bohemians he had only met Aznavour, with whom, he said, he found very little in common, since that brilliant singer of Armenian origin was solely interested in the rebirth of Armenian nationalism in the Trans-Caucasus. And as for Sergei Rubenovitch himself, he, it turns out, was only concerned with principally new trends, which, he warned me, he would like to discuss with me, although, like Aznavour, he does allow that progress is such a movement forward which plunges one into the glorious past. In other words, he added, as another Frenchman had put it so well, one should enter the future walking backwards. According to his own confession, the general was noted for his distrust for the technological surroundings, and every five years he would gladly declare a five-year moratorium on technological innovations.
        Dont laugh, he said to Natella and me and started laughing himself. Please, dont laugh, but I think of myself as a useless man: I live in the twentieth century but I dont know anything modern. I dont even know how to make pencils!
        Abasov was, however, well educated in humanities. Not giving Natella and me the chance to start about the Bretian bible, he also informed me that, even though he considers history to be his strong point, he would, nevertheless, like to humor me and discuss some philosophy. He spoke like Nietzsche - in aphorisms; and it is not entirely out of the question that some of them were actually his own.
        He said, for example, that judging by what is happening in the world politics, both of our hands are right ones: one is right, and the other, extreme right.
        Then, he switched to observation of time: the past lives, he said, only in the present, since it exists in memory, which, in its own turn, cannot exist in the past or in the future.
        As for the present, he said, the time of great destroyers and builders is over; we are living in the times of watchmen. He also said that the symbol of the present is a multi-colored mosaic which is forever changing its depictions; that although the world is one and a different world is but a part of the one whole, today, human choice or pluralism comes down to the choice between different sorts of evil.
        I also liked when he said that every idea, sooner or later, abandons ones head, and doesnt do so only if it has a lot of space to roam around there, which, he said, leaves us to conclude that only ever-fleeting ideas are truly valuable. That is, the ideas which enter ones head and momentarily leaves it.
        He also said - and Natella liked this one - that time is like money, but money is better.
        Confusing me, but not giving me the chance to open my mouth, Abasov, finally, concentrated upon me and declared that physically, I also remind him of his deceased acquaintance - my own father, who, it turns out, once had paid him a visit about the Bretian bible, referring to the pain in the small hollow next to the heart:
        I told him no. Times were different then, you see. Very little depended on us: Moscow decided everything. But the strength of life - and you know this! - consists in its ability to change the times. Today is a different matter altogether! Who couldve imagined then that wed be letting people go! Its difficult to foretell. Especially the future! Now, everything is in our hands! With the exception of that, of course, which is not in our hands... You understood me, I hope. To you, being a philosopher, understanding, unlike perplexity, must come without any labor on your part...
        The general was hoping in vain: I understood nothing except, perhaps, that it was precisely this that he had in mind.
        He rose from his seat and referring to some nonsense, left the office.
        Natella was the one to explain. Supposedly, Abasov was not against returning the Bretian manuscript. In exchange, however, instead of money, he was expecting a trifling favor from me, favor which would not require any change of plans on my part: I would continue living as I had planned, that is - Id leave for New York and settle down there, naturally, in Queens, where the Petkhainers already reside and where lots more of them will soon follow. Lost in the immensely foreign America, the Petkhainers, as it is customary to do there, will knock together their own association and, of course, choose me as its chairman. At this stage, it is required of me to do that which is ridiculously easy: display humanitarianism, inherent in me, accept the position of the chairman and help keep the Petkhain community intact...

        Natella fell silent, and I became overwhelmed by deep anxiety. It was clear to me that the repentance of the past sin was not worth of agreeing to the KGB operation that would last for life. On the other hand, my refusal would bring me against the necessity to accept the unthinkable decision - either forget about moving to America, or, just to spite the KGB, labor there in the name of complete evaporation of my own community. There was only one thing left: grow indignant at the fact that, from now on, all my life might turn into a KGB operation.
        I did this outloud:
        So, whats the deal here? Are you recruiting me?!
        It wasn Abasov, who turned out to be sitting in his previous seat, right across from me, was the one to respond:
        God forbid! Who do you think we are? We do know a little about people, you know! and he puffed on his pipe. What sort of recruitment could there be here, pardon me: you will live as you best know how, and as a reward, you will get the great book.
        And whats your reward?
        There isnt any! the general exclaimed, but exhaling the Dutch smoke from his lungs, broke down: What I mean is that our reward is simple: you see, we, Georgians, do not have any Diaspora... O.K., there are some five hundred or so in France, but theyre all old dukes with dentures instead of teeth; plus, there are some in the Holy Land since recently... Therere a lot more over there, and not one duke among them, but theres another problem there: the land is too small. The States, however, is a different matter, but our people havent gotten there yet! The Russians have their people there, the Armenians, the Ukrainians, the Balts - but not us! And thats too bad!
        Nodding her head, Natella confirmed that it is, indeed, too bad.
        Sergei Rubenovitch, I said. Arent you Armenian?
        Only when the Armenians are being beaten.
        And what if theyre not, what then?
        I was born in Georgia, explained the general and started poking in his pipe with a fleecy pintle. Pardon me for poking in my pipe with a fleecy pintle!
        I love when you do that, Serge - poking your pipe with a fleecy pintle! Natella put in and touched Abasovs shoulder.
        Its a Parisian present! he pointed towards the pipe. By the way, why dont you just send me a pipe from your New York and well call it even.
        Why dont you visit us yourself! I invited the general. Sending it would confuse the matters more: they wouldnt know what to make of your address in a New York post office -KGB, Counter-Intelligence.
        Abasov burst out laughing:
        Theres nothing to do there for me: a face is blurred, seen eye to eye, the great is only visible at distance!
        Beautifully said, Serge! Natella said happily.
        This time, the general confessed that it wasnt he who had said it and added:
        Ill have to send some intermediaries. Will you fly to New York, Natella?
        Natella responded in all seriousness:
        I already told you: if theres no one left of my people, I will leave forever!
        Abasov started fuming on his pipe and came back to me:
        Ill be honest with you. Sooner or later, everything will start falling to pieces here and everyone will go his own way: some to Azerbaidjan, some to Uzbekistan, others to Kirgizstan, or Ayastan - everyone to his own stan... Ayastan, as you probably know, is Armenia. Its in in Armenian. From the word aya. Very pleasant sound, by the way... So, what I was talking about? Oh, yes: And where, I ask you, should Georgia go, where? Who will protect us, who will put in a good word for us?! You see, we need a bridge into another world, something to lean on! And with the Petkhainers in New York, well - thats a pretty good beginning! You are a quick-witted people, youll be able to stand on your own two feet very soon, and with time, - God willing! - to help us as well. If we will need your help, that is, if everything - God willing! - starts falling to pieces here. Most importantly, you should never scatter to different parts there! Although, they say, that America has plenty of everything except nostalgia because you can build any old part of the world there. Thats all well and true, but it still doesnt save you from nostalgia! A man, you know likes not only that which he likes! Youre going to miss all those things from which youre running away now! Besides, youre southern people, people with a soul! Youre not just Georgians, and youre not just Jews - youre Georgian Jews! Blood and milk! Or - the other way: milk and blood! I love these two people very, very much - Georgians and Jews! The aristocrats of history! Yes, I put it well - aristocrats of history! I put it very well, indeed!
        Once again, Natella nodded confirmingly; as if to say: we are Southern people, people with a soul, and everything else that you said about us, Sergei Rubenovitch, is also pretty good, indeed. Especially, about aristocrats... At that she caressed her right hip, enveloped in velvet, with satisfaction.
        I, however, suddenly had a feeling that not only the words like good or bad which he or, anyone else for that matter, ever used, but all the words are mutually interchangeable. Bad is good, and vice versa.
        Counterinteligence is intelligence, and vice versa.
        Everything is everything else, and vice versa.
        The good of truth is that truth does not exist, otherwise, it would have been annihilated.
        Nothing has any meaning in a mans life, and, perhaps, thats what keeps it going; otherwise, if it had any meaning, life would have ceased to exist. Whats the difference - to repent my sin and rescue the bible, or, on the contrary, live senselessly, the way that life goes.
        General! I said suddenly. Where did Natella go?
        I sent her for the book. Didnt you hear me?
        Theres no need, no need for that! I exclaimed. I was just thinking, and I decided that I dont need the book. At all.
        The general was baffled and observed the green ring on his finger.  Then, he said:
        You misunderstood: theres no recruitment of any kind.
        It has nothing to do with recruitment, I answered. I was just thinking and decided that theres no sense in it.
        Pardon me, but thats just not a good reason! Abasov smiled. So, really, whats the problem?
        I told him the truth, although not in its entirety:
        You know, the more I live, the more I am convinced that nothing is worth finishing.
        You have, if youll pardon me, a big problem on your hands! Abasov declared in such a tone as if that problem frightened him. You are evidently very easily influenced: you believe in philosophy, and pardon my expression, doubt everything. And this limits a person: it strips one of decisiveness and faith.
        Youre right, it does strip one of those things, I said. But it is precisely faith that limits.
        You know what? Abasov rose from his seat. Lets you and I take a break and have some tea! One cant always work, can one? And I work a great deal. By the way, work is a hindrance to leisure! and he laughed. You know, recently I went to the Zoo with my granddaughter, and the monkeys stared at me, not at her. They were obviously surprised at what work can do to them, to the monkeys! By the way, what do you think: did the monkeys luck out when they became people or not?
        I think, they did, I said, because although a monkey doesnt serve anyone, it, nevertheless, doesnt understand that thats very good. And besides, it lets itself be enclosed in a cage, and that is very bad.
        Oh, is that so? the general laughed. But it doesnt understand that either! In other words, I think monkeys have a pretty good time of it!
        Oh, I think, the monkey understands this very well. Try and open the cage, and youll see, whether it understands or not. Itll definitely run away, I responded and rose from the chair.
        Are you in a hurry? Abasov asked and stopped laughing.
        Ive got little time,I said confusedly. I must leave soon. For America.


I saw Natella in the mirror - right under the ceiling.
        After closing the door of Abasovs office, which led to the elevator through the library, I stopped, thought about our dialogue with the general, took a liking to myself and decided to admire myself in the mirror, although every time I did so, I recalled that peoples psychological calamities began with the invention of a mirror.
        It turned out to be close-by - antique, in a cut Empire-style frame; most probably, it had been confiscated from some duke who had escaped to France in the 20s. I went up to it but didnt get a chance to take a look at myself. My glance was kidnapped by the picturesque hips of the generals assistant.
        With her back towards me, she was standing on top of the fold-out ladder and rummaging in the top bookshelf under the very ceiling. Like the night before, there were no stockings on her legs, but in these surroundings and because of the unexpectedness of things, they seemed to be more naked now. A strange sensation flashed by me: as if I were standing in front of a still ocean and two white, naked dolphins had suddenly sprung up from under the waters depth and froze in the air. My mouth went dry and blood was pulsating in my temples. I turned around, stepped to the foundation of the ladder, clutched at the handrails and raised my eyes upward. I did all this noiselessly, not so much fearing that Id startle the dolphins but rather, intimidated by the magnificent, antique furniture with inventory plaques nailed to it: KGB.
        The woman, by the way, did not frighten me in the least. It even seemed to me that we had stricken a deal together: agreed to sneak up to her still dolphins, hold our breaths, and jerk our heads upward. I did, however, feel ashamed, and had a presentiment that later on, in the future, this shame would intensify. But at that time, this feeling of shame merely evoked in me the ever-growing feeling of anxiety. Blood in my temporal arteries was pushing its way out...
        It was also pushing and shoving inside the swollen tendons of the ankles in front of my eyes - along the insides of the thighs. Under the flexions of the knees, the blue tendons swelled up again and twisted into pulsating knots. The knots disentangled and throbbing, crept upward, where they finally disappeared inside the thickness of illuminating flesh.
        My breath grew still, while my heart was beating louder. I became even more terrified when I realized that there were no panties under the velvet skirt. The ladder jerked in my hands and a low sound tumbled upon me from under the ceiling:
        Be careful!
        I was startled and threw my glance higher up, to the source of the sound, and it seemed, that it was only then that I noticed that these naked legs with blue tendons belonged to a person. Bending from the waist, Natella was apparently observing me from above for quite a while now, with her elongated, and sarcastic eyes of the sphinx.
        A sensation of humiliating discomfort burst open inside me, and I thought that I should pretend as if I were only supporting the ladder. Once again, however, Natella confused my feelings: in a low voice, heated inside her body, she spoke the unexpected words:
        Did you see?
        I responded like a child - swallowed the saliva and nodded.
        Natella bent down lower. Contrary to my expectations, she wasnt mocking me: her eyes were burning with the curiosity of a still-innocent schoolgirl, who had suddenly eavesdropped on something forbidden.
        You want some more? she whispered.
         I didnt know what to answer - not how to answer, but - what. I caught myself in the state of total physical confusion; my own body was outside of my control. Then, I suddenly thought with fear that the KGB men would run to the noise of my throbbing blood. I wanted to hide myself, but bewitched by fear and excitement, I did not move.
        Come! Natella called out. Come on!
        Finally, I stirred, but didnt run anywhere; I stepped up to the ladder and climbed upward. Once on the landing, I bent my head down under the ceiling, so that I could straighten out my legs. Natella clung to my chest as if she werent doing it for the first time and raised her  eyes to me. She was shivering and her expression was gentle. Then, all of a sudden, she whispered:
        Do you love me? and exhaled from deep down the hot and moist air which smelled like a newly-born infant.
        I did not answer: didnt know how.
        Instead of words, there  sparked in my consciousness the unbearable desire to touch her arteries bursting with blood. Thats what I did - spread my palms apart and carefully held their stretched core against the tight vessels - one, against her neck, and the other, lower, against the flexions between her knees. I felt the hot blood flowing to the arteries and bursting out in jolts into the insides of her incandescing and solidifying flesh. This sensation of being close to a womans blood right away seemed insufficient to me, and pulling her head by the hair, I bit my lips into the swollen, blue tendon under the ear.
        Her body quivered and pushed out a lengthy, mournful sound.
        Afraid of the noise, I recoiled and covered Natellas mouth with my palm.
        The blood was now seeping into the dimming whites of her eyes, while her pupils, it seemed, looked not at me, but inside, at themselves.
        Be quiet! I ordered her and looked around.
        She pushed my palm away from her lips, and greedily inhaling the air, exhaled it at me with the same words as before.
        Do you love me?
        I answered the truth:
        You smell good. Like milk.
        This agitated her: pulling her silk blouse up, she revealed her breasts, grasped the left nipple with one hand, and with another, impetuously pushed my head down towards it. Blue tendons, running together to the nipple, pulsated and throbbed from the pressure exerted upon them. One of them, the thickest one, began at the collar-bone. I grabbed its very source with my teeth and started sliding down slowly. The nipple was huge, hard, and impatient. I opened my mouth wider, and started slowly seducing it inside myself - into the throat. It poked against my palate and quivered with the desire to disgorge a heaping stream of milk and blood into my gullet.
        A black stone, with white veins and deep scratches trembled in front of me like something alive.
        I made an effort to sneak my glance into the most fascinating of the scratches, but the stone was too close, and I felt a sharp pain in my eyes.
        Right at that very moment, lost somewhere, inside the depth of my existence, there fluttered up the ever-dozing - yet, unsubjected to consciousness - blissful feeling of inseparability from everything that is alive. This feeling was, as always, a fleeting one but it was so piercing and strong, that each and every time I shuddered at the thought that it is precisely this feeling that hides and safeguards from any explanation - from my brain, that is - some dangerous mystery of my existence. Very little about it was clear to me; the only thing clear was that the fleeting is not at all fleeting, and that an instant of love is the unfathomably powerful condensation of human experience; not even my own, personal experience, not even the all-male experience, but the all-human, super-temporal and bisexual... Thats probably why I love it so! The women, I mean!

        In all likelihood, Natella loved the same - men! Once again, she suddenly let out the previous, mournful moan, but now, it was more denunciating.
        Afraid, that in agony she would fall down from the ladder, I recoiled again and started shaking her. As soon as she came back to life, - slowly, and unwillingly, - I inhaled deeply, and forbidding her to utter a single sound, put my index finger across her lips.
        Natella understood this gesture in a lascivious way, exclaimed Yes!, and slipped down to her knees. She unfastened the belt on my trousers and pulled at the zipper. Now, the ladder was quivering as well: it trembled under us, squeaked, and imitating Natella, let out a lengthy moan. Throwing up my hands, and clutching with one of them at the shelves, and with the other - at the ceiling, I tensed up my legs and managed to hold on to myself, to Natella, and to the ladder, at the same time. All of us held on, but, in return, my trousers tumbled down to my ankles, right onto Natellas head, while the belt-buckle tinkled against the metallic handrail.
        Right at that very instant, the door creaked, and, much to my horror, the chief of the counter-intelligence entered the reading room from his office. I froze, while the general looked around and yelled:
        She pulled her head out of my trousers, threw a forbidding glance at me, and holding a finger across her lip with the scar, ordered me to keep quiet. Then, suddenly, she coughed and responded:
        Im up here, Serge, on the ladder! I cant find it, that damned Bible!
        The general looked in our direction. I undertook to do the only thing that I had a chance to think of: I turned my back to him, buried my nose in the books, and shut my eyes. My heart, which just a while ago, was beating so loudly, now, was still. In the reigning silence, I imagined myself from below, from the generals perspective - bending into a ridiculous bracket under the ceiling, with no trousers, with a naked, hairy ass in old-fashioned, printed briefs, which my wife acquired in the underground Petkhain.
        Meanwhile, it wasnt me that Abasov addressed:
        Screw that Bible! he yelled in an angry voice. Come on down!
        Why? Natella was surprised and straightened up.
        No fucking reason! Abasov shouted.  Hes fucking smartass, thats why!
        He, of course, meant to say bare-assed, I thought to myself.
        Who s the smartass, Serge? Natella inquired.
        That fucking philosopher of yours! I dont give a shit, he said, about you fucking Bible! You can shove it up your asses! Oh, well just have to see wholl shove what up whose ass! Come down you, now!
        I threw my right hand backwards, roamed with it for the belt on Natellas velvet skirt, and feverishly pierced into it.
        Calm down, calm down! Natella said either to Abasov, or to me. So, he said, he doesnt want it, ha?
        Doesnt know himself! Shitass Hamlet from this fucking Petkhain!
        Serge, there you go again! Natella lost her patience. Im not going to allow this! You promised not to express your opinions on Petkhain anymore! What can we do, after all, we cant all be born Armenian! And dont use your dirty words: I am a woman! And no match for your - what the hells her name, anyway? - that shitass wife of yours?
        She is my Rubenchiks mother! Abasov wailed out.
        Then, roll on out of here, and lick her god-damn ass! Natella exploded.
        Abasov waited out the pause and exhaled noisily: either he kicked the rage out of himself, or he was fuming on his pipe:
        Well, O.K. I got a little out of hands... Its not you... Its him... I hate Hamlets...
        So, he left, you say?
         The son of a bitch said, hes in a hurry to get to America!
        Bare-assed? Natella checked.
        Thats what you called him; I said smartass. But still, even though he is a smartass, he left with a bare ass anyway: he got the fuck out of here without any Bible! If I were him, and if the Armenians had written the Bible, I wouldnt have gotten the fuck out of here without it!
        Oh, so he did get the fuck out of here already? Natella inquired.
        I decided that the tension in the generals expression must have been due not to gastritis, but to another reason altogether - nearsightedness. But all of a sudden, Abasov uttered a riddlesome phrase:
        You know, you really look good from down here! Thank you!
        Whats he thanking her for? - I thought.
        For knowing me so well! Abasov added.
        I didnt quite understand the general.
        You understand me? he laughed.
        Tell me!  Natella insisted.
        He should really tell her, I thought.
        I mean the panties... the general said embarrassedly. That is, that youre not wearing any...
        How does he know that? - I thought.
        I can see everything from here! Abasov said through laughter. Come on down, already!
        I clenched the belt of the velvet skirt stronger in my fist, but Natella wasnt planning to go anywhere:
        Go to your office and Ill be right there... I think, I should at least find the book. If he refuses - others will agree. There are no more Hamlets in Petkhain...
        Ill be waiting for you, the general said and scraped his shoes against the parquet floor. Lets skip the tea, lets have wine. Im too angry for tea!
        Again, the door creaked. Then, it clicked, - it was shut. It became quiet. I unclenched my fist upon the velvet skirt, but didnt dare to move. At last, Natella turned around, bent down, and pulled up my trousers.
        She stretched her hands around me and began to foster my belt.
        As it was to be expected, I directed my thoughts towards the future. Moreover, I thought of it in the forms of a faraway space. Then, I engaged myself in the following question: Why is it, that no matter what, I always believe in the future? I responded: because it never arrives. Another question arose right away: Can a man, then, or some Jew, run away into the future on his own and never, ever, return into the present - not even on a Sabbath? I responded that I didnt know that yet:  first, I have to find myself in the future. Then, I even thought that in the future Ill start recording the silence onto a cassette and reproduce it to myself in various volumes...
        There it is! Natella exclaimed. At least, its the right number!
        She pushed me away slightly, and tried to get the volume into which I was poking my nose throughout this entire time. The volume turned out to be heavy, and if I didnt help Natella and tore it out of her hands, she wouldnt have held her ground on the ladder and wouldve crashed down.

        Is that it? Natella asked when I got down after her.
        Thats it! I answered and placed the book upon the lowermost step.
        It was the same wooden binding covered with brown leather and a lot of bald patches. I had no desire to open the it: as always, after committing an adultery, I felt like a swine, and hurried to my wife.
        Natella went for the bible and opened it. A familiar odor of long-endured time hit against my nose from the parchment pages. Sharp and square characters on them seemed as severe as the law. To be more precise, as a condemnation. Natella said it even more precisely:
        I have a feeling that Im looking at a prison wall, right?
        Have you read it? I responded.
        It wouldve been better had I not read it! Natella exclaimed. I always thought that since God Himself had written it, it must be a great book! I always used to think of it in the very same way that you were describing to me yesterday. My father, - even he used to stand up when someone would utter two words in Hebrew from the Bible. He didnt know Hebrew or else he wouldve seen that its not at all necessary to stand up. I didnt know it either, of course. But I recently read it in Georgian and - would you believe? - I went berserk! Just regular words! Nothing special about them! Really, everythings better in a good novel...
        I smiled:
        Everyone expects much more of God! But he writes about everything; not about something in particular, like writers do, but about everything at the same time... And besides, first He said one thing, then He said the other...
        No, thats fine! I have no problem with that! If I, for example, were a writer, I wouldve also written about everything, and I would have done so in many different ways, but... I cant quite think of how to put it... To keep it short, everything that I read in the Bible, I already knew without it. No, thats not how I wanted to put it. I guess, Im trying to say that God doesnt really understand men. Love me, He says, and no one but me! But, no matter how much you love Me, no matter how much you try, Ill still knock you out in the end! What kind of a deal is that?! He only wants that which He wants Himself. But, pardon me, He is no different from our Petkhainers!
        I felt completely uncomfortable. It was time for me to go, but just like the night before, Natella was waiting for me to invite her to spill her soul. I kept silent and kept staring at the parchment with the latticed text. Without receiving my invitation, she said in a different voice - quiet, and unexpectedly childish:
        You know, theyre so cruel to me... Everyone is... Even the Jews are cruel to me. They say, weve suffered enough, always going from one place to another, like gypsies, but yet, theres so much evil in them also! Gypsies, - and I mean this! - gypsies are probably more honest. I have lived among the gypsies as well, you know: they dont work, they dont save money, and may be thats why theyre not cruel to anyone. But, despite that, I left them: I want to live among my own people, but my own people are cruel to me... Even the men. Take even my father - Meir-Khaim. You remember him, dont you? Look what he did - killed himself and left me all alone here; that means, he didnt love me; he only loved my mother... A woman cant make it without a man... We all need to be protected.
        What about Syoma? I said. And this Abasov of yours? And the rest...
        Everyone loves only himself, and thats exactly why they are cruel to me. One should love another human being in order to protect him or her, isnt that so?
        More than anything, I feared that Natella would demand to be protected by me. Thats precisely what happened:
        Do you want to run away together, anywhere you want?
        I did, in fact, want to run away, but not with her, and not anywhere, but - home. And besides this desire to find myself at home, yet another ancient feeling arose in me - some sort of a blurry sensation that while I am in a company of a woman, about whom I know everything, I am missing out on something more interesting and important; the sensation, as if this very moment, something very important is taking place somewhere else.
        All right, go ahead! Natella agreed and picked up the Bible from the ladder. Go home. By the way, I saw her - your wife. Shes a beautiful woman, and, apparently, a very meek one. I respect meek people; I even think that they know something that is very important. Right? By the way, I am very meek as well. Its just that I have no one to show it to... Right?
        I looked closely at her, but she wasnt being facetious - she was asking in all sincerity.
        You see, I answered, Ill be honest with you: you are always changing, always different. Sometimes, for example, you say that God loves you, other times - that He spits at you...
        Isnt everyone that way? she asked.
        There was a pause.
        All right, go ahead, already! Natella repeated.
        I gave her a kiss on the hand, near the elbow, which quivered under the weight of the volume, and stepped towards the exit without saying a word. Now, I was thinking about my wife. In the doorway, however, I turned around, and couldnt suppress in myself the desire to say a few kind words to Natella. Those words became true, as soon as I had uttered them:
        You yourself are a very beautiful woman!
        Natella became radiant with joy and threw her right hand up:
        Thank you!
        The Bible fell to the floor with a loud crash and stood on end. I rushed towards it, bent down, and started heaping up newspaper clippings and various papers that fell out of it.
        Natella! Abasov yelled out from behind the door. Is that you?
        Its the Bible! I found it! Natella yelled out. Some papers fell out of it, Serge! Ill right there...
        Cmon, hurry up! Ive already started!
        What is it that he started? I asked Natella, and again my glance began to climb up her naked knees.
        What is it that youve started there, Serge? Natella asked and placed her palm on my hair.
        Doing it! he yelled. Im kidding: Ive started on the wine!
        Go ahead, and finish it without me, Natella yelled, too. Im still busy here...
        Ill give you a hand! and I heard the creaking sound of a chair.
        Go! Natella kissed me on the lips, and pushed me towards the exit.
        I came back to my senses in the doorway.
        What should I do with this? and I pointed to the batch of papers that I picked up from the floor.
        Go, Natella repeated. But, this time - in a gesture.


I went through those papers while already at home. It was just one clip, though, that caught my attention: a yellowed-out newspaper clipping of an article with a portrait. I instantly recognized Abon Tsitsishvili, the director of the Beria Jewish Museum. According to a handwritten postscript, the article was cut out of the Tbilisi newspaper Young Stalinist and had a descriptive title: Georgian Scholar Talks To German Novelist.
        It followed from the text, that at the Moscow meeting where Feichtwanger talked with the Jewish enthusiasts, Abon told the famous wordsmith about a remarkable exhibit that is kept in the Petkhain museum - about the magical Bible, as valuable as the Aleppo code. Relating its story, the scholar, it turns out, had mentioned, in a particularly warm light, Sergo Ordjonikidze, who treated the notorious manuscript with special care and ordered one of his Red commanders to deposit the bible with fine community of the local, Bolshevik Jews.
        However, after the official part of the meeting was over, the great novelist invited the scholar to a private conversation, and started to inquire about the very first owner of the Bretian manuscript - Isabella-Ruth, the Jewess from Spain.
        Comrade Tsitsishvili gladly shared his research with the writer. According to one of the legends, comrade Tsitsishvili said, Isabella-Ruth had very soon become disappointed with the Georgian reality and decided to thrust herself - along with the aforementioned book - unto her historical homeland, - the Holy Land. The local Jews, however, had confiscated the magical book from her, based on the grounds that she had desecrated herself and the book as well. As the legend goes, separated from her inheritance, - from the Bible, - the Spanish Jewess didnt even reach Armenia: she lost her mind, died, and was buried in the Erevan cemetery for wanderers. And as for the Bretian manuscript, it instantly lost all its magic powers, save for the power of self-preservation; and moreover, comrade Tsitsishvili continued, even this power diminished with years, since there were multitude of unpunished cases of people tearing out pages from it.
        As for the wandering heretics who seduced Isabella-Ruth into their clutches, the only information known to the Georgian scholar about them was that they professed unknown scriptures, - the gospel, which the dogmatists had refused to include into the Bible, and which was ascribed to a certain Thomas, Jesuss twin.
        Herr Feichtwanger inquired from comrade Tsitsishvili - just what exactly is said in that gospel. The latter read several passages by heart, which were, naturally, devoid of any meaning much like, comrade Tsitsishvili added, all other biblical passages. Accompanied by the laughter of the crowd gathered around the two men, the director of the Petkhain museum recited the following rubbish: The followers asked Jesus: Tell us, master, how will everything end? Jesus said: Have you found the beginning, that you are looking for the end?! For where there is the beginning, there is also the end. Blessed is he, who finds the beginning, for he knows the end, and he will live forever and ever.

        I had not seen or talked with Natella after that, but I heard about her constantly before her resettlement to Queens.
        Although life in the States is stuffed with so many facts that there is no more room in it for rumors, the Petkhainers, being far away from Natella, maligned and spread hearsay about her with evergrowing enthusiasm.
        They still preferred rumors to facts, since the former provided them with the luxury of guessing and choosing, but in America the demand for evil rumors about her turned out to be particularly huge. Just like so many others, - almost everyone, for that matter, - the Petkhainers always believed that there is nothing unnatural or wrong in violating another person, in making that person suffer, and that in ones life, suffering alternates only with boredom. In New York, however, they were deafened by the mad velocity of this alternation - and Natella Eligulova of the faraway, yet not-forgotten Petkhain, instantly became for them that happy symbol, which, combined with the remarkable right to be unjust, cruel, and evil, also provided them with the delight of nostalgia, with the joy of home-like, familiar frequency of swaying the pendulum of existence between emptiness and pain.
        A simple circumstance offended them more than anything else: although they were the ones living in America, it was still Natella that continued to be lucky.
        Soon after my arrival to Queens, there came the news that - just like doctor Davarashvili had foretold - Syoma Shepilov, the romantic, had finally come to his senses and accused Natella of murdering his father and brother. He thrust himself upon her with a hunting knife, but during the brawl that ensued had run up against the knife with his own throat. Moreover, the wound turned out to be a serious one, and his life was hanging by a thread. Three days later, that thread had ripped. That is, once again, she had gotten lucky, for even if everything did happen exactly this way, and not vice versa, as many others believed, even if she didnt plan to stab her husband in advance, following the orders of her main squeeze, Abasov, still, the ripped-up thread naturally suited her much more than the unripped one.
        Then came the other news.
        They said, that Eligulova had supposedly gotten herself a huge rooster, as colorful as a gypsywomans skirt, and as insolent as the Biblical Elijah. Just like its mistress, that rooster was squeamish not only about the Jews, but about everyone that didnt hold an official position. Once a week, on Sabbath eves, Natella would trim its nails, but instead of burning up the waste, as the law prescribes it, that witch would do the contrary - offer it to the wind. Any other person, not only a Jew for that matter, would fear Gods punishment which neither she, nor the bird could now escape: a total absence of light on the way to the other world and the forced need to grope for that world with the sense of touch.
        In this world, however, success had come to her instead of punishment: the morning after that very night when, as they said, the spider over the portrait of Natellas mother Zilpha, got fat in his web and fell down in order to die, Natella went with her coworkers to a country picnic. Prophet Elijah was with her: after Shepilovs death, she, apparently, never went out anywhere without the rooster. In the heat of merriment, the bird took aside the chief of the counterintelligence and, climbing a small hillock on the glade, began to flap its wings and zealously poke its beak into the earth.
        Abasov called his subordinates and ordered them to dig out a hole under the rooster. Instead of the treasure, however, they found a coffin with the remains of Zilpha who died in prison and was buried secretly, following the laws that were in effect at that time.
        Natella was happy with the discovery and dragged her mother to the first-rate cemetery - to lie next to her father, Meir-Khaim. Then, she ordered two wonderful tombstones from Kiev, made out of black marble - without scratches, veins, or spots, and as shiny as the covers of the Becker concert grandpianos.
        They said that she also ordered a gravestone for herself as well - in advance. This, however, the Petkhainers found a very wise thing to do: first of all, everything always keeps getting more and more expensive everywhere; second of all, since God did not grant her children and she doesnt like Jews much - she has no one to depend on in the future; and, third of all, - and, most importantly, - since Natella herself, by buying the gravestone, has acknowledged her own mortality, then, the world has not come to an end as of yet; everything in it is still beautiful and everyone in it dies - even the pretty upstarts!
        Meanwhile, at a meeting of the New York association of the Georgian Jews, Zalman Boterashvilis wife had proposed that with Natellas wealth, her connections, and the peculiarities of her nature, she has no reason to fear the future - that is, death: there are so many poor people, so many depraved, and so many useless thinkers, she said, that in exchange for money, sex, or love for wisdom, she could easily find someone to die instead of her.
        By that time, Zalman had already become a rabbi, and therefore, had acquired a habit of teaching his wife - at least, in the company of others - in the spirit of virtue and order. After explaining to her that it is impossible to die instead of someone else, for everyone has his own death, he also added, that almost no one dies his own death. It is stated in the Talmud, he said, that for everyone who dies his own death, there are ninety nine others who die from an evil eye.
        And what do you have to say about this? he asked me, because I was already the chairman of the Community. I answered evasively, that is, I answered the question which interested me: if Natella had really bought herself a gravestone, then she must have no intentions of coming over here. The rabbis wife once again expressed a supposition: Eligulova had acquired the gravestone with one purpose only - to misinform us. A year wont pass, she continued, and that bitch will make not for the hereafter, not for paradise, pardon my expression, but on the contrary  - she will make for our parts, that is - for New York.
        The debates unfolded accordingly: should we, after all, let her into America or not?
        The overwhelming majority voted against it: they alluded to patriotism - particularly, to their anxiety for the moral purity of their homeland - America. I said that no one will ask for our permission to let Natella in, especially as we are not yet citizens of our homeland, but merely its refugees.
        They agreed on paying a group visit to the New York senator, Halpern, - Galperin, that is - and demand from him that he listen to their warnings and fight the evil. The senator, according to doctor Davarashvili, responded in a reasonable fashion: I, he said, can do nothing to help you as of yet, because it is not even certain that Natella has any intentions of coming here, to America. Nevertheless, he promised to inform the FBI that she is a KGB agent.
        The doctor was especially delighted with the senator and praised the latter for his intelligence, virtue, and, particularly, humility: hes got a portrait of his wife, children, and the president in his office, while his salary is meager.
        I got angry: senators, I countered, get a lot of money, provided, of course, that they are more intelligent and virtuous than the public, but still take its considerations seriously. I also suggested that the FBI - out of love for the public, as well - will definitely insist that Natella, General Abasovs reviewer, be instantly admitted here, in case she decides to make for these parts, after all.

        Despite the gravestone, Eligulova did, indeed, arrive in New York. It happened without any advance rumors, by the way, because by that time the whole of Petkhain had gathered in Queens and there was no one to relate them. The very last rumor about her, however, said that Natella was selling her house and planning to move to Moscow, to where, with the reign of Andropov, General Abasov was moved as well; and that it was the latter that Andropov credited for his exemplary work in mobilizing the Armenian Diaspora in France, and as a sign of a promotion, ordered him to take an according care of all the Russian emigres in the States. They also said that it was Natella who brought Abasov and Andropov together, since she was friends with the famous Georgian telepathist Djuna - supposedly, a witch as well, who got together with all the Kremlin sickmen through Brezhnev.
        Apparently, some mysterious illness had creeped into Natella and Djuna was trying to cure her of it, although the results were not as successful as those with the officials. According to Djuna, the reason for her failure lay not in the insignificance of Natellas position, but rather, in her Jewish origins, which, sooner or later, promote the development of the incurable form of national psychosis.
        Like Natella, Djuna, they said, was planning to settle in Moscow. This rumor prompted Zalmans wife to conclude, after hearing enough stories about the progressive behavior of the Petkhain wives in America, that the two witches were engaged together in a lesbian affair.
        It was this very rumor that the Petkhain wives started to renounce jealously. They even grew indignant: What about Abasov?! they screamed! Her main squeeze! What sort of a lesbian affair can there be when she, after all, has got a man! Here, however, the rabbi had to support his own wife and, calling me in as a witness, announced that the principle of dualism, although it is indeed fatal for ones soul, is nevertheless well known even in philosophy. The term was very much to the liking of the Petkhain wives and they took pride in it, as if they themselves had coined it.
        ...Instead of moving to Moscow, Natella made for Queens and announced herself to her countrymen on the Day of Independence.


In those early years, the Petkhainers used to celebrate the Day of Independence eagerly, since they lived in apartments without central air-conditioning systems, while the festivities took place in a huge hall of the Queens Shopping Center, where, despite the crowds of recent arrivals from Africa, Uzbekistan, and India, the air was still cool and odor-free.
        If the month of July in New York were a little less humid - like in Tbilisi, - or a little cooler - like in Moscow, I would not have been at the festivities either. I could not tolerate crowds. They proved the validity of some non-existent Marxist-Kafkaesque doctrine, according to which, a man is a social insect, which in a collective possesses possibilities that are unthinkable for a separate organism, - especially, my organism. One of such possibilities is celebration in the name of collective independence, - not just my own.
        My wifes presence convinced me of the latter. Unlike many of the Petkhainers I sensed the crisis of my personal independence especially sharply on that day, for, unlike other Petkhain wives who had crowded together, my wife wouldnt budge away from me.
        Rabbi Zalman Boterashvili, with his bulky rebbetzin hanging at his arm, greeted us with a suffering smile. I congratulated him happily with the great holiday.
        In response, he fixed the unfailing caravella-broach under his chin and, in a soft whisper, congratulated me as well, but with the fact that my wife, evidently, had not joined the ranks of dualists. He rewarded her with a kiss on the hand. Then he turned his head and kissed his own wifes hairy chin. He bragged that all his life she is following him every step of his way, like Hamlet followed by his fathers shadow.
        I didnt quite get the comparison but responded by inquiring whether he was still suffering from a gnawing pain in the spleen. Now, the rabbi was the one who didnt quite get it. I asked again: why is it that the stamp of suffering is imprinted upon the rabbis face?
        The rebbetzin took it upon herself to answer: yesterday, I bought him a pair of Italian shoes on a special, Independence Day, sale; theyre a little too small for him, but he could stretch them if he wears them long enough.
        I imparted a horrible thing to her: he must immediately get rid of those shoes; Hemingway, a local writer,  supposedly, shot himself precisely because his boots were too small for him. I think neither she, nor the rabbi believed me. My wife pinched me in the elbow and I changed the subject.
        The hubbub in the hall was increasing rapidly and insistingly. The cramminess was increasing as well; people were beginning to push and shove and everyone was suddenly enveloped in the torpidity of an unhurried celebration. The space around us turned out to be jabbed with a palisade of multi-colored trays: nuts, blinys, pirogis,  pizza, bagels, barbecued steaks, falafel, lobsters, oysters, tacos, gyros, - everything that Americas boiling pot throws out to a gluttonous newcomer from the rest of the world. Everyone was buying the food, except the very recent newcomers, who, nevertheless, had dragged with them some homemade sandwiches, but to whom the rabbi and I no longer attributed ourselves - and thats why we could afford to be dandies and club together to buy a voluminous box of popcorn...
        From all the sides, even from the upper levels, came the festive, insolent sounds of the champing of food, and the gurgling of liquid inside the countless mouths. There were no odors - only the sounds, and just like the rabbi, I too was proud of Americas winning battle with foul smells. As for the battle with the vile sound of chewing, swallowing, and the quick digestion of food inside the countless intestinal tracts, I would, once in while, look, with hope and trust, in the direction of a tall stage at the end of the hall. According to a promise, any minute now, after a short meeting, from behind the brocade, painted after the national flag, musical dare-devils from the neighboring Mexico would come flying up to the microphones - and the faraway, glass dome topping this huge space would shudder from the deafening rhythms praising the national independence of the gringo, the oldest in a brotherhood of the New Worlds peoples.
        And indeed: as soon as I answered doctor Davarashvilis greeting, who by that time had squeezed his way towards us, light poured from behind the stage - right into our eyes - and a very well-fed gringo, separated from a group of people who came on the stage, stepped up to one of the microphones. He was a red-haired Anglo-Saxon, with just as red suspenders and a universal voice of one who represents the authorities.
        Without any delay, he informed us that all of us, who had gathered here in the hall, are living in the most historical of times; for some reason, however, he did not bother to explain why.
        The rabbi nodded approvingly, while the doctor whispered in my ear that the Anglo-Saxons name was Jeremiah Penn and that he is the chairman of the Queens Business Chamber. Mr.Penn also said that America is the stronghold of peace in the entire world and represents the best that happened to humanity after the latter climbed down from the trees and wrote the Bible.
        The rabbi agreed once again.
        Then, Jeremiah Penn exclaimed that Americas future lies in the hands of the blue-collar workers, and thus all of us must exercise caution in our strivings to reach the goal, which, he again, however, did not specify.
        The rabbi became frightened of the responsibility, and the doctor announced that Jeremiah is his patient. My wife pinched me so that I not dare express my doubts outloud: Mr.Penn, the big-shot, and an Anglo-Saxon, somehow found it necessary to go for his treatments to none other than a Petkhainer.
        Although I was the one that was pinched, it was the rebbetzins hand that jerked up. The box with popcorn went flying. The rabbi, the doctor, and I rushed to pick up the flakes from the marble floor. While squatting, Zalman asked Davarashvili in a whisper: could he, in the process of treatment, solicit Mr.Penn to double the state subsidy for the purchase of our own, Petkhainers, synagogue in Queens.
        It was Mr.Penn who responded: he declared, for everyone to hear, that the American government, was the government of laws, not of people. In other words, the response turned out negative, for, according to the law, the government cannot subsidize us with more than we ourselves had managed to collect amongst each other.
        The doctor, however, did promise to have a talk with Jeremiah in the process of treatment. He even said that we have a pretty good chance, since - and, please keep this a secret! - out of all the newcomers, Jeremiah favors Georgians the most. He, however, cannot stand the Far Easterners: he calls them underdeveloped fetuses, and is truly astonished that they are not forbidden to immigrate to the States. Still squatting and picking up the popcorn flakes, the doctor suddenly burst out in laughter, and informed us that he just remembered a joke that Mr.Penn had told him once about the Koreans: even epileptics among them get jobs easily - theyre hired as vibrators.
        The rabbi smiled embarrassedly, but I laughed outloud: a bunch of Korean women with identically bowed legs and identical colorless cotton shirts were standing in front of me and buzzing like vibrators.
        One of them turned around and was taken aback when she saw me squatting, my eyes raised at her. She recoiled from me, and tossed some Korean phrase to her girlfriends - it sounded like a spring popping in some ruined mechanism. The rest of the vibrators grew still and turned around as well. They became frightened since it was not only I who was squatting. They exchanged glances, and, resuming their buzzing, pierced a gap through a tight crowd, like gimlets, and instantly disappeared in it.
        Mr.Penn started talking about them right away. He happily announced that Asians are especially eager about coming here. During the recent years, he said, Korean immigration has grown by 108%!
        Now, the rabbi and the doctor were shaking from laughter as well. My wife and the rebbetzin looked at us with bewilderment. I glanced in the direction of the lights: to the crowds applause, Jeremiah Penn stepped back from the microphone and gave way to the next orator, who was waiting out his turn on the stage - a scraggy Korean, with short and bowed legs in colorless cotton shorts. The Korean croaked couple of words that seemed to be English: Thanks to America! - he said. And glory! And everything! He thought for a while, then croaked again: Its better America than Korea! I very happy! Democracy! He thought again: Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood! And everything! Then, he thought, yet once more, but this time, however, he did not wish to announce anything in English, gave his bows, and let a spring loose inside of himself: he shot forth a Korean word.
        The vibrators started to cheer in different ends of the hall, and the photographers took shot of the Korean orator to the applause of the crowds. Again, I burst out in laughter. Zalman did the same and accidentally pushed the rebbetzin who, yet once more, dropped the box of popcorn. Three of us, exchanged glances, exploded in a loud cackle, and once again - but this time, with much eagerness and joy - squatted, started picking up the damned flakes, and reveling in that sudden fit of youthful carelessness which happens only to independent Yankees in Hollywood movies..
        Zhzhzhzh - Davarashvili was buzzing, cackling, and shaking his index finger to imitate a vibrator.
        Zalman, on all fours, dangled his head and neighed like an enraged horse. Squatting, Id let out squeaking sounds, lose my balance, and, attempting to hold on to myself, would deliriously clutch at the red suspenders on the rabbis back.
        Ive got something else, something else! the doctor turned to us, choking. Penn told me this one also! Its about our doctors! - and joining his index finger with the middle one, he rotated them both in the air.
        Well? the rabbi giggled.
        The doctor swallowed his saliva and began in a whisper:
        Its about a proctologist, the ass-doctor. You know how they diagnose, right? - they stick a finger - tsak! - up the ass, and there you have it - the diagnosis!
        Well, well! - the rabbi hurried him on.
        So, our proctologist from the refugees shoves two fingers at the same time up the patients ass! Why? In case the patient wants a second opinion!
        The rabbi spread his elbows wider apart, and, dropping his head onto the floor, started to shake feverishly and clap his palms against the marble. The doctor and I were laughing not at the proctologist but at Zalman. When, at last, the rabbi calmed down, Doctor Davarashvili didnt give him a chance to raise his head. He bent over it and muttered:
        And heres another one for you, rabbi: Whats the difference between crucifixion and circumcision? The answer: Crucifixion is better - you get rid of a Jew at once, not in separate parts!
        The green felt hat parted from Zalmans head and fell next to it. The rabbi was no longer laughing, - he was moaning. The doctor, standing on his knees now, grimaced from a soundless cackle and alternated between throwing his arms sideways - thats a crucified Jew! - and folding them together, then, striking one finger against another - and this is a circumcised Jew!
        Burying my head into my knees, I was hick-upping, whooping, thinking myself as the luckiest of the three Petkhain jerk, and sensing a deep satisfaction for the lack of meaning in ones existence. I was not experiencing the usual fear that something or someone  will again interfere with my inborn right to be deeply stupid, just like any holiday is, and especially - the holiday of Independence.

        As it happened on previous occasions, my wife was the one to do so. Inclining over me and gleaming with her meek eyes, she demanded that I stand up right away.
        The rebbetzin did the exact same thing - only with the rabbi.
        Even the doctors wife, a passionate ally of dualism, suddenly left her girlfriends-dualists and, making her way towards us, pierced into the quivering shoulders of her spouse, trying to stretch him out into a vertical position. All of us - the three Petkhain jerks - must have resembled drunkards on a spree from a Charlie Chaplin film, whose wives are trying to drag them out of a dirty puddle and place the head up, as it goes with sober people.
        After an uneasy struggle, our wives finally managed to drag us back into the ranks of our independent countrymen. Due to the wholesomeness of my nature, I struggled the longest. Finally, I straightened up, snapped the muscles at the knees and threw a glance at the doctor and the rabbi.
        With faces grown still, they stood side by side, not budging, and not looking in my direction.
        Look over there! my wife whispered to me and turned me by the chin towards the stage.
        I was not surprised.
        On the contrary : I had a sensation that, finally, that which should have happened long ago was indeed happening.


I even dreamt of her the previous week: the three of us, Natella,  myself, and Isabella-Ruth - in that order - are lying with our faces down, next to each other, on the deserted Hawaiian beach, looking in the direction of the sun which is barely touching the water.
        They are observing the pink sunset and holding me hostage - they tie my hands behind my back and forbid me to think about my family, left behind in Queens. Naturally, they manage to do this pretty easily: they take turn patting the hair on my back and nape, and demand that I read outloud from the Bretian Bible, opened in front of me. I read, but it turns out that what Im reading is not from the Bible at all, but from the banned scriptures.
        Those very same scriptures about which Director Tsitsishvili had told the novelist Feichtwanger.
        The disciples asked Jesus: When will the Kingdom come? Jesus said to them: It will not come as a result of waiting for it and you will not say: Here it is! Or - there it is! Its more likely that our Fathers Kingdom  has long been dispersed throughout the earth, but people do not see it... He that is looking for it, let him go on looking for it. When he finds it - despair will take hold of him. And after despair - surprise, and soon he will begin to rule over all.
        More! Natella ordered and turned the page.
        Jesus said: If the flesh came unto this world as a result of the spirit -  it is a surprise.  But if the spirit exists as a result of the flesh - it is a surprise of all surprises. Verily, I am amazed: how did it come about that such riches are housed amidst such poverty?
        More, more! the women demanded and stared at the sunset.
        The disciples asked him: Who are you that you tell us such things? Jesus said: You cannot guess, alas, who I am by the words that I tell you. You became like the Jews, for the Jews love the tree, but despise its fruit, or love the fruit, but despise the tree.
        Dont stop! Isabella-Ruth nodded.
        Heres a bed: two will lie upon it to rest their bodies: one of them will perish while the other will live.
        Then, when the women were sated with love for wisdom, the sun disappeared and it grew dark. They turned me to my back, and then, there was silence...

        I was waiting for Natellas arrival day to day, because Petkhain was now in Queens. Every person needs his own people. The main thing in life is death, and first, our parents protect us from it, then - our people...
        Natella said this into the microphone as well but in different words.
        Because I was agitated I could only listen to her in fragments, but she herself was calm: although she was reading from a piece of paper with a heavy accent, she spoke with confidence.
        From a distance, it seemed to me, that Natella had grown older, and her eyes - when she would look into the crowd - looked like they were weary-of-seeing, bloody wounds. Especially, when the lights were blinding them. They photographed her incessantly as if they were trying to catch her at the moment of disclosing some important truth or an utter lie. But she spoke simply: unlike most people, she said, she came not to America to her own people, and this, she added, is possible only in America. Just like it is possible only here to be unlike the majority...
        People - and her own included - either did not understand these words, or did not believe them: there were no applause.
        Confused by this silence, Natella took a bow and moved back. All of a sudden, Jeremiah Penn emerged again. He took her by the waist and announced into the microphone that Ms.Eligulova had arrived from the plentiful Georgia, and not only did she refuse any financial aid, but she also brought along an important present: on behalf of all the Georgian Jews, she gave an ancient manuscript of the Old Testament to a museum in Queens.
        And he started to applaud on behalf of the Queens population.
        The crowd backed him up - hesitantly, at first - as if it didnt quite believe the announcement, but then - readily and loudly - as if it suddenly remembered that America is the country of miracles.
        The musical daredevils from the bordering Mexico flew onto the stage to the noisy sound of applause, but the Petkhainers, including the six of us, - the rabbi, the doctor, and myself with our wives - poured out into the street, to the entrance of the Shopping Center, and crowded together. It was very hot and muggy but no one risked starting up a conversation about Eligulova: they only grumbled that the Independence Day in New York is always so hot and muggy.
        I imagined that in the depths of their souls, every single one of the Petkhainers that was now grumbling about the heat, was not only proud of Natella Eligulova, but even felt tenderness towards her, especially as on holidays people usually seem less venomous than on the rest of the days. Whatever they might say or think about her in this endless and foreign chaos of incomprehensible passions, in America, Natella was their flesh and blood. And even if her soul is indeed depraved, then, isnt it time to realize, at least now, in a foreign land, that this soul is a part of our own, or that kindness is the only source of evil...
        What does that bitch want from us? the rebbetzin finally said.
        Everyone fell instantly silent. The rabbi broke the pause:
        She wants to live with us.
        And why should she live with us? the rebbetzin said indignantly. Why did this come into her head all of a sudden? Didnt she buy herself a gravestone in Petkhain?! She shouldve stayed there! No good will come out of this! Mark my words!
        The Petkhainers agreed unanimously: no good will come out of this.
        Suddenly, I felt shame for my own silence and said:
        And whats in it to us? She doesn't ask anything of anyone.
        And why should she ask us for anything?! the doctors wife exclaimed. She hangs out with all those Americans, all those officials! Did you see how that redhead type with suspenders grabbed her by the waist? Did you see that?
        And whats the suspenders got to do with that?! exclaimed her husband.
        Im not talking about the suspenders, the doctors wife complained. Im saying that the guy was grabbing her by the waist very, very tight...
        But one thing amazes me more than anything, her husband started. To give our bible not to us, but to some stinking, local museum!
        Since when is it ours? I objected. Just remember how it got into Georgia. From Greece. And who brought it? A Spanish Jewess.
        But this is America!
        And what would you have had Natella do? Make her return the book back to Spain? Or to Greece? After all, where did we all come to?  To America, isnt that so?!
        America doesnt give a damn about anything! Here you ask a man How are you?, and he tells you Fine!, which is to say Go fuck yourself!
        The doctor was not getting angry with America, not even with Natella, but rather, with fate which disposed of the bible not at all to his advantage:
        No one will thank us for that bible here! Because there is no master here, no principal nation! At least, it was better off where it was before!
        In the KGB?! I exclaimed, realizing, however, that I myself do not fully understand Natella. Nevertheless, I have waited long to say something in her defense. It couldnt have stayed with the KGB! And besides, there is no longer a principal nation in Petkhain either...
        Thats not the point, the rabbi interrupted, the point is that we couldve sold it and used the money for the synagogue. And we shouldve sold it to Israel!
        The Petkhainers agreed unanimously: we shouldve sold it to Israel and used the money for the synagogue. A question arose: would it be possible to dispute that gift? Since, when it comes down to it, the book doesnt belong to Natella Eligulova, but - to them, the Petkhainers!
        Much to my wifes surprise, I gladly joined in the conversation, because it became clear to me that, just like the rest of the Petkhainers, I was angry with her as well. I even had more reasons to be angry than the rest: first, I was the chairman of the Community; and, most importantly, it was I who planned to rescue it from the KGB and return it to my people. Before running to some museum in Queens, Natella should have, at least, contacted me: to say, so and so, I brought the bible with me, what should I do with it? It was your idea, so you decide! And the bible is not even the point. Lets suppose that it never existed! Or, lets say, Natella had never brought it with her. Even in this case, - in any case, for that matter - she should have contacted me: here I am, Ive arrived! Wasnt it me whom she was asking on the ladder: do you love me or not? Was she mocking me, after all?!
        I think that we should indeed dispute that gift! I announced.
        Make sure you contact some lawyer! the rabbi supported me. And Ill talk with the Rebe, too. And it wouldnt harm us to contact the press!
        Well definitely contact them! I promised. Oh, yes, we will! Because, you know... I cant even find the right words! Caddishness! No one has right to singlehandedly act on behalf of the people without their mandate!
        Precisely! Davarashvili cut in. Especially, on behalf of such long-suffering people! What does she take us for?! We are in America, after all!
        The Petkhainers were getting noisy: really, what does she take us for?! After all, we are not in Petkhain! They were noisy for a long while, but in the end they guessed that if they dont hide themselves from the heat, their lot will prove to be much more long-suffering one.
        Lets get back into the building, the rabbi suggested and lead the herd inside. And remember, if she approaches us, dont say anything! Not one word about the book!
        Thats right, not a word! I was walking next to him.
        What are you talking about?! my wife could no longer bear it. Have you all gone mad?! You cant do that! The woman has just arrived and youre already against her! We should at least invite her for dinner, make her feel comfortable... Or just talk to her...
        I have no intention of inviting her! the doctors wife called out from behind.
        Im inviting her! said my wife.
        I will not be there! the doctors wife threatened.
        Neither will I! I declared.
        Are you nuts?! my wife inquired. Whats happened to you? It must be the heat! I, personally, am going to find her right now and invite her to my house, and whoever wants to come can come! and breaking away from the long-suffering people, my wife disappeared amidst the gay crowd of multicolored Americans, inebriated by food, independence, and Mexican rhythms.

        As it should have been expected, Natella refused the invitation: she pleaded being busy and weary. She promised that shed invite us all to her place as soon as she gets settled. She got settled pretty quickly, and forgot all about her promise. Instead, she did that, which none of us would have believed possible: she sent the rabbi a check for $25,000 along with a note, in which she ordered him to immediately get in touch with several local officials, including Jeremiah Penn, in order to complete the negotiations on building a Georgian synagogue in Queens, or on buying a building for it. She also informed him that she had already gotten a preliminary agreement from them. The information turned out to be true, just like the check sent by her, turned out to be valid. Three months later, the Petkhainers were celebrating the opening of their own synagogue on Yellowstone Boulevard, and were very proud of it.
        Journalists from local television stations and newspapers, rabbis from Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and even representatives of the New York City Council came to the opening. Everyone wanted to witness the trivia: America is the country of miracles, where everyone, who is capable of thinking soberly, gets dizzy from happiness, and where, in order to achieve the maximum, - a private channel for communicating with heaven - it is enough to have the minimum - $25,000.
        The only person not present at the opening was Natella Eligulova.

        With the passage of time, at every mention of Natellas name, the Petkhainers started to exhibit signs of peculiar anxiety, which, depending upon its accompanying symptoms, is usually ascribed either to pity, or to conscience. Even the doctor confessed, that happiness which he feels for the success that fell to the lot of our community in America, would probably be much sharper, if we could somehow manage to beat the path leading to Natellas luxurious house, where we, inevitably, would come across some influential people.
        He made this confession to me over the phone, after he had seen the inside of her house on a TV program about recent immigrants. The celebrated Jessica Savich - now, deceased as well - told the viewers about her meeting with a remarkable woman from Georgia, who had settled in Queens among her native people and who helped them as  much as she could.
        The doctor was not the only one who liked the house, but he was the only one to suggest, judging by Natellas face on the screen, that if she is not swilling vodka, or snorting the white powder, then, she must be seriously ill.
        Indeed, her eyes had changed even since the Independence Day: the eyelids were swollen, drooping, and dark, while the whites of her eyes were red, as if they were bleeding. She would touch them with a napkin every other minute, and excuse herself by alleging to the bright light in the studio.
        The living room interior, however, had made such a powerful impression upon the Petkhainers that they categorically denied any possibility of illness, and concluded that Natella is squandering her diamonds on sleepless orgies with public officials and television journalists, who, according to them, are also noted for the sickly expressions on their faces.
        Envy, evoked in the hearts of the Petkhainers by the television program, did away with any warm feelings for Eligulova completely. Now, they accused her of American hypocrisy: the money for the synagogue, just like the present to the museum - all of that - was nothing, they said, but a local, cheap, stunt to get publicity. And, Jessica Savich, who also has swollen eyelids and is a feminist at that, is nothing but a secret debaucher and a communist: couldnt she find anyone better to call a remarkable woman from Georgia?!
        And why, I asked, would Natella need this publicity?! Those of the Petkhainers who didnt instantly send me for the answer to General Abasov, in Moscow, responded simply: because, they said, she is fishing for a new victim, a new husband - one of those wealthy, but stupid romantics, who happen to be suckers for a tragic voice, squinting eyes, and mysterious statements. They, of course, meant her conversation with Savich.
        Savich asked her a standard question: does nostalgia torment her? Only as far, Eligulova responded, as it is a part of melancholy. A part of melancholy? Savich was surprised. What do you mean by that? Nostalgia, Natella said, and, indeed, she squinted her eyes, - is a fit of melancholy; a paralyzing sadness caused by ones bidding farewell to life, to ones own self. Farewell? Savich asked again. Yes, farewell, Eligulova answered in a chest voice; each life consists of a number of farewells, but we, immigrants, suffer from yet an additional one of these long-lasting fits. Savich smiled condescendingly, and said that this is all very amusing, but, nevertheless, it is not for television, especially as theres only half-a-minute left: Why dont you quickly give us the name of your heroine! Natella didnt understand the question and Savich helped her out: Who would you like to be if you werent yourself? Margaret Thatcher, Martina Navratilova, Jane Fonda, the Princess of Wells, who? Id be Isabella-Ruth! - and Natella laughed like she used to laugh some time ago. Who is Isabella- Ruth? Savich was surprised. Do we have time? Natella responded. Yes, said Savich, twenty seconds. Twenty seconds? Natella laughed and snapped: Forget about her!
        Unlike Doctor Davarashvili, I was alerted not so much by the way Natella looked, but rather, by her sincerity.
        She was too smart to honestly share her thoughts with the public. Especially, those which are not to the publics satisfaction. Savich asked her: What could you say about America? And Natella responded: everything and anything; America, she said, is the only country about which you could say anything, good and bad, and it all would be true because America is the only place in the world, which isnt any different from the rest of it; and the rest of the world is nothing but rotten.
        No one would dare to slap something of the sort onto his new homeland, in which, according to the statistics, mentioned in the very same program, 91% of the population lies every single day, and thus wants to hear lies about itself in return. Especially if the immigrant happened to work for the KGB before. Natella did dare, and, therefore, either she had no one to talk to, or she simply no longer cared about anything.
        This program was aired on a Sunday evening and I intended to beat the way towards Natellas luxurious house in the very near future - on Tuesday. I saved Monday for overcoming my pride.
        Instead of Natella, however, I wound up in the company of the guests from the FBI.

        I had known one of them, Cleveland Overby, for a while now, since the very first weeks of my newly-acquired freedom. Hed never come alone in those days either, and would pose very intricate questions while his companion would write down the answers. They were attempting to understand the real reason why I left my homeland if everything there corresponded exactly to the evidence in the official applications. I responded properly: devaluation of the spirit, I said! Why come to America, then? - Cleveland insisted in surprise. Because it is the only place where you can break free from your homeland and other bad habits: sentimentality and smoking.
        I liked Cleveland Overby because, at that time, I still had trouble when someone spoke too fast, while he would ask his questions slowly.
        On the third day I made a perfectly plain announcement: I am not a spy, and I didnt come to the West to perform a KGB operation, I came here of my own free will. Upon hearing the word KGB, the scribe, not-Cleveland, drowned in a blissful smile and asked: and were there any contacts with - how did you call them? - the KGB?
        Of course, there were, I said, surprised.
        The next morning, besides Cleveland, there were two not-Clevelands who came to visit me. They interrogated me for a long time, although they would remind me from time to time, that this genre is called differently - a conversation over tea, with which my wife provided them generously. The second cup turned out to be too hot, and the second not-Cleveland put it down on the table carefully, blew on it, and asked me the question which he came to ask me in the first place: was I given any instructions by the KGB?
        I gave it a little thought and decided to confess, since the warring intelligence agencies exchange favors at times, and therefore, the protocol of my conversation with Abasov could very well have arrived in the States before I did. In addition to Abasovs protocol, I thought of the scriptures from Matthew: There is nothing that is secret which is not revealed, and there is nothing hidden which is not disclosed.
        Staring the officers right in the eyes, I said, that the chief of the counter-intelligence instructed me to live exactly the way I am living here - that is, to live the best way I know how, among my own people, prudently caring about them.
        There was a long silence after which Cleveland laughed loudly, started to say good-bye to my family, and mentioned that he has four children and is interested in Zen-Buddhism, which is why, supposedly, sometimes he thinks, and other times, he just is.
        After I was elected the chairman of the Community, he visited only on holidays but without companions: he would drink tea, discuss the techniques of religious meditation, and ask questions about the newly-arrived Petkhainers.
        I realized that this tea-drinking ritual with me is one of his duties, but I didnt mind since he was a father of four children. Moreover, I  had to fabricate the information which I provided him with and this amused me very much.
        Cleveland, of course, suspected it, but he had a lot of respect for me and would write everything down anyway. For example, when asked about Zanzibar Attanelov, I declared that he is known for his phenomenal shyness in the presence of women who are part of his nightly fantasies: just like every Petkhain man, he believes that by sunrise, the content of his dreams becomes known to every one of his female partners about which he had fantasized the night before.
        Cleveland Overby, in his own turn, would amuse me with his Zen stories which delighted me due to that wonderful reason that it derives the highly-corruptible world of clear ideas and works solely in paradoxes - as incomprehensible as artless existence, but, nevertheless, capable of awaking a human being from his usual state of trance.
        Well, lets take the art of tea-drinking, Cleveland would tell me. Do you know how Master Rique described it?
        I did not know. This art, Rique said, it turns out, astonishes one with its simplicity and consists of knowing how to boil water, brew tea in it, and drink it!
        And what is silence? I did not know that either: silence is the highest form of eloquence and revelation.
        I liked this so much, by the way, that if Cleveland had not suddenly discontinued his visits, I would have stopped feeding him even with my fictitious information which he was trying to drag out of me. Instead of him, came others - not-Clevelands. They would come out of a mere formality, since, in their presence, I would limit my eloquence to, - grant it - perhaps, the deepest, but, nevertheless, the shortest of confessions: I do not know anything. They did not inspire me, and Cleveland would no longer pay me visits because, despite his love for Zen, he, much like Abasov, had been promoted to an important position - the department chief on the entire immigration, in the entire United States - and, much like Abasov, had moved to the capital.

        He came just once - on Monday, on the eve of my afore-planned visit to Natella Eligulovas house. He came and started to talk about her - without waiting for tea, and without giving me the time to get used to his physical presence, so faded by living in the capital. Even his hair disappeared from his skull, although I did notice his newly-acquired confidence in his bearing, for in Washington they do not recognize ones right to feel sadness or defeat.
        He said that this conversation is going to be the most serious of all that weve had - otherwise, he wouldnt have come to New York - and asked me to answer his questions without any element of fiction, in other words, just like a citizen. Especially as, he added, very important people in the system  have a vested interest in Natella. Thats exactly how he put it: in the system, as if he wanted to assure me that outside the system, existence is no longer considered decent, and that the times of solitary individualists are gone without return.
        The very important people in the system were interested in the questions for which I had no answers. Did Natella know any Americans before she emigrated? Could some Petkhainers have acted as intermediaries between her and Jeremiah Penn from the Queens Business Chamber, and also, between her and Senator Halpern, alias Galperin, who sent her flowers at the synagogue address? Is it possible that there are two copies of the Bretian Bible, and, if yes, how could one of them turn up in Israel? Is it true that, like her mother,  Natella belongs to a secret Caucasus sect, which holds a stone to be its sacred symbol for the immutability and corporeality of the world, and which also believes that the human spirit springs from a stone crumbled into dust? And is it also true that besides the inherited stone around her neck, Natella had also brought along a heap of old rocks, like it was done in the ancient times by the leaders who were leaving their tribe behind and who feared for the disappearance of their people? Is it reasonable to assume that Eligulovas father committed suicide not out of love for his spouse, but because he was overcome by black melancholy? And, finally, would it be correct to presume that Natella would depart from this world as a victim of same sort of a fit? And again, finally, if the Petkhainers hear such an announcement, would they doubt its veracity?
        These questions stirred me and evoked a lot of suspicions. Nevertheless, I did not have the answer for any one of them. And that is exactly what I told Cleveland - without any element of fiction. Meanwhile, however, he was not disappointed in the least. Apparently, the point of his visit was not at all to get my answers to his questions. Rather, the point was to urge onto me his answers to those of my questions which, sooner or later, were bound to arise. I came to this conclusion, thanks to his only question which I did manage to answer, but which Cleveland asked with an air of someone, who, for a long time now, has the answer to it.
        Before posing that question, he passed me a large photograph which, according to the date in the lowermost left corner, was taken three days ago. It was a still of a videotape: an imposing man stood against the background of the New York Central Library, and chewed, with a suffering smile on his face, a roll pieced with a hot dog. At first, it seemed that the man was sympathizing with the roll, but after some observation, I guessed that the suffering expression was a result of a much more serious emotion: either, an attack of gastritis, or a thought about an importunate venereal ailment.
        Abasov? Cleveland said and nodded confirmingly.
        The readiness with which I recognized the general, led Cleveland into a delusion: he suddenly suggested that I should visit the luxurious house, no later than tomorrow, and steal Natellas diary.
        Steal the diary? I could not believe it.
        Or else, invite the mistress of the house for an outing, he explained once again. And well take care of it...
        Why?! I was astonished.
        Who else if not you?! he did not understand my question.
        Im saying - why did you find it possible to suggest something like this to me?!
        Cleveland did not respond. Anyway, I was not expecting an answer; it was very clear to me: Cleveland Overby was deluded by the readiness with which I recognized Abasov. I would have recognized, him, Cleveland Overby, with the same readiness as well, however. They deserved each other, since both of them assumed  that I was capable of being not just a mere citizen, but a patriotic one at that...
        I immediately felt the desire to see Cleveland off to two neighboring destinations. Out of gentility, I only specified the less stinking one. I demanded that he should immediately go back to where he came from. Not in the geographical sense, but, rather, in a biological one - to the womb. And I didnt put it in these words, but - without any element of fiction...
        I never met with Overby again, although he never did return to the womb. He didnt even go to Washington right away: the following day, the doctor called me and inquired whether it was true that there are two copies of the Bretian Bible... And a week later, my wife noticed Cleveland in his colorless Oldsmobile staking out in front of Eligulovas house.
        I never went to that house, after all. Mostly, out of fear that, alas, nothing human is alien to me. If Natella would have suddenly sent me off to the destination which I urged Cleveland to go to, I would have, in all probability, gotten angry with her, gone nuts, and, overtaken by a fit of paroxical patriotism, stripped her of her own diary. And if that should have happened, I would have been deeply sorry, since two weeks after I didnt go to Natellas, and three weeks after her housekeeper Raya told the Petkhainers with much astonishment that someone had, supposedly, stolen a diary from her mistress, - not money or jewelry, - that very same Raya ran over to the synagogue in tears with the bad news: Natella wouldnt open the door for her, and neither would she respond to her calls...


Eligulovas death had stirred deep confusion among the Petkhainers. Some experienced sadness, others - anxiety, still others - pity, and some others - stings of conscience. During the last wake in the synagogues backyard, the women whod always blackmouth the deceased, now sobbed embarrassedly, and in spite of her pitiful, wasted appearance, insisted in unison that even in the coffin Natella looks just as majestic as the Biblical Judith. Only the rebbetzin dared to suggest that with the proper care of oneself, any Petkhain woman could look just as attractive in a coffin. They hushed her up, while Zalman, in his turn, uttered unexpectedly kind and warm words.
        He, apparently, had prepared meticulously for his first funeral oration: he held out purposeful pauses, raised his voice when needed, and arched his eyebrows, stretched out certain syllables, at times, switched to a whisper, blotted his eyes with kleenex, and, finally, illustrated his thoughts with elastic gestures - by sculpting abstract figures in the air and sending them off to hang and soar above the head of the coffin, towards which he was being pushed by the tight crowd in the yard.
        Besides all the Petkhainers, present without a single exception, besides some chance street idlers and the residents of the neighboring houses, there were some fifteen other men. I did recognize two of them pretty soon: Jeremiah Penn from The Business Chamber, and the youngest of the not-Clevelands. They said that the man, standing next to not-Cleveland, was no other, than senator Halpern, alias Galperin.
        To honor the guests, the rabbi spoke in English, and, in addition to the content of the speech, the language itself had stripped Zalman of any recognizability whatsoever. Despite his crooked, green hat, his huge, sharp nose, and the inimitable caravella under his chin, there was an impression that he had been substituted. This impression stayed intact even when he switched from the local, American imagery, to that of the Petkhain. The point was not in the imagery of his oration, not in its style - but in its content. If it werent for that wake, I would have never even guessed that Zalman was capable of being a completely different person. Perhaps, even he himself would have never known that either.
        The rabbi began by saying that the Almighty, supposedly, interferes with every human life only twice in a lifetime: when He gives birth to it, and when He cuts it short. The rest of the time, - the interval, that is, - He entrusts to a person for for music, and for dancing, especially, in this blessed country - America! From time to time, however, there arises an illusory sensation that He is somehow dodging us, breaking His deal, and meddling in our daily existence.  From time to time, the Almighty suddenly cuts out the mad music in the Overby crammed discotheque of existence, and - a ringing silence unexpectedly deafens the crowd, crazed by the thoughtless whirling. Then, He cuts in a blinding light, and - a sad vision appears before the panting prancers: faces, distorted by grimaces, dripping with sweat, with eyes full of blood.
        So, I am asking: how come the Almighty turns off the music and interferes with our amusement, which is none of His business? The answer is very simple: because it is precisely His business! Death - that is His business, and death always stops the music, especially when the Almighty suddenly kills those for whom it is too early to die. So, I am asking: why does He do this? Because only through seeing the unexpected destruction, people, at last, start to think about kindness and values. This coffin, - Natella Eligulova - is our common misfortune and guilt. The Almighty chose her intentionally to be the very first death in our community: she lived all alone among us, without a single soul obliged to mourn her. The Almighty desires that the whole Community should mourn her, because each of us is indebted to her, and each of us is guilty before her.
        If not for her - may the Lord bless her soul! - perhaps, you and I, the Petkhainers, would still be apart, sitting in our tiny rooms without this synagogue which holds us together and gathers us all into one house before the Almighty, into one, tiny boat in this boundless ocean of life. Today, we are burying a person who helped us stay afloat and survive, and whom - whatever we might say about her - we will only miss more and more.
        I am asking: why? Very simple: people, - may the Heavens forgive me! - are, at  times, stronger than any synagogue. Although we didnt associate much with this woman, she was stronger than us, and stronger than the synagogue, because she united us closer together than anyone else or anything else! I am asking: by what means? Yes, by being exactly the way she was, or the way she seemed to us! She was different, unlike, and all of us always thought and talked about her, and thats why she helped us to associate with each other and, either feel and think alike, or make believe that we all have the same speculations and experiences. Perhaps, only on occasions, but Natella, my friends, and ladies and gentlemen, Natella - different and unlike - brought the meaning and order into our lives, and life is a horrifying and dangerous chaos. All of you know this from your own experiences...
        I repeat: without Natella, we would not have this synagogue which today, for the first time, became a house of sadness. And though it is said, that in the house of sadness everyone mourns his own despair, a common despair binds us all! The Almighty is taking away someone not from my family, not from any other Petkhain family, but from all of us together. He is taking away someone who didnt have a family, who didnt have that which all of us had, and he is doing this in order to say: I am taking Natella away from all of the Petkhainers.
        I am asking: why is He - may His name be blessed - doing this? I will give you the answer. It is said in the Talmud that if someone had lived without sadness for forty days, he had already achieved the earthly paradise. We have lived here without sadness for a long time now; the Almighty favored us and did not hurry us on. But a long-lasting happiness leads to the bitterness of the heart, and this becomes apparent only upon the arrival of misfortune. You and I have been bitter and unwise, and, here, in a foreign land, the Almighty is depriving us of this person, so that tomorrow we should become kinder and more just towards each other.
        My friends, and ladies and gentlemen, a big misfortune had befallen upon us, and we can no longer do anything about it. But let us understand together, that Natella is helping us even in her death. Perhaps, tomorrow we will all become a little better, although today...
        But what should we do today?  Nothing! Only pray! Barukh Atha Adonai Amakhzir Neshamot Liphgarim Metim! Blessed are Thou, My Lord, Who returns the soul into the flesh of the deceased!
        The rabbi applied a napkin to his watery eyes and uttered quietly:
        There is nothing left for us today - only to pray, and to cry...

        Although Zalman had not yet finished his oration, women started to sob outloud, while the rebbetzin, who was standing close to him, exclaimed Oh, my Lord! and patted him on the back. The Petkhain women squeezed next to each other and stood on one side of the coffin, while on the opposite side - crammed together, as well - stood the men.
        Amongst the men, right in front of me and Zanzibar Attanelov, in between the doctor and my classmate Givi, the grandson of the renown wailer, Yokha, there intruded the only woman, who appeared to be not older than twenty years of age - dark-skinned, with a sharp, bird-like profile and a haircut of a little boy. She was very pregnant, and we, men, - so as not to nudge her accidentally - would look around every other minute and dash aside, straightening out our elbows or bending them tightly and pressing them against our chests. Zanzibar Attanelov did this most zealously and it was evident that, unlike me, he was not seeing this woman for the first time, and perhaps - not only in his waking hours.
        Meanwhile, she was not in the least confused by any of us, and, in the presence of our wives, standing on the other side of the coffin, she was trying to cling ever so tightly to us and rub against us the different parts of her body which was stronger than any Petkhain standard would prescribe: with its chest, belly, knees, ass. Her eyes - when she would turn around - shimmered like those of a beast, and in the similarly beast-like manner danced from one side to the other. Even the doctor - even he - finally started fidgeting and exhibiting a sort of a mixed state of mind and flesh.
        Who is she? - he asked me, whispering.
        I dont know, I tightened my lips, may be Zanzibar knows...
        Zanzibar nodded and covering his lips with a palm, uttered:
        Thats Amalia, form Salvador. She has a boyfriend, hes a driver, also from there. Did you notice a pick-up behind the gates - a blue Dodge? Thats his car.
        Which Dodge, I asked, the one were going to take Natella in?
        Thats the one! Zanzibar whispered.
        And what does she have to do with it? Givi cut in.
        She earns some money around here on trifles, Zanzibar answered. She helped our old ladies to wash Natellas body.
        Is she nuts? asked the doctor.
        I dont think so. She probably just snorted some of that white stuff.
        Listen! Givi addressed me and imitating Zanzibar, covered his lips with his palm. Tell her something!
        Why me?
        Because you are the chairman! he answered, while the doctor added:
        And also because she is pressing against you much harder than against any of us.
        And, indeed, Amalia was not only grinding her ass into me, jerking it playfully from time to time, but she was also feeling around my trousers with her right hand thrown back. Urged from the outside to grow indignant, I inclined over her, put my hands upon her shoulders and said:
        Pardon me, of course, but you really need to get out of here. You see, all the women are on the other side!
        Amalias right ear, incredibly small,  with  puffed,  turned-inside  pink  petals,  quivered,  while  her  smooth  neck  exuded  an aroma  of  a  very  familiar  Italian cologne, so  familiar  that  I squeezed  her  shoulders  against  my will.  Amalia,  apparently,  exaggerated  the  meaning of the gesture and turned around, facing me:
        I like you a lot too, by the way! Much more than them!
        Well, thats good! I answered and added. Wait behind the gates!
        Will you come? she asked in a whisper.
        Where else am I going to go?!
        And what will we do?
        I dont know, go on! I hurried her on.
        You people always lie! Amalia said and, in spite of her heavy belly, whisked her way towards the gates through dense rows of men.
        Women lost all their shame! declared Zanzibar. What did you say to her?
        I told her not to bother us, I whispered.
        You know, the rabbi is right, after all. People are shit! Zanzibar shook his head. I dont even want to go to the cemetery anymore! Ill probably just stay in the synagogue... With no people! Alone!

        Indeed, Zalman was no longer talking about Natella, but about human misery in general.
        This was the way it was done in Petkhain, where, when grieving due to death, the rabbis concluded their funeral orations with making peace with it and with the defense of the Almighty against anyones accusation of His cruelty. The rabbis defended the Almighty by telling horrifying stories about peoples depravity. In my pre-emigration days, I had heard enough about human nature at funerals. Nevertheless, Zalmans oration made me shudder: word for word, it was a repetition of the very last entry in my notebook, which had disappeared from the synagogue safe a couple of days prior to Natellas funeral.
        Misfortune, the rabbi uttered in a tragic voice, strikes us already at birth, when we are suspended by our legs, and the blood rushing to our heads condemns us, along with our lives, to hardships, for it tears up a very tender vessel in our brain - the vessel responsible for our ties with other people and with existence as a whole. We sanctify this misfortune by cutting the umbilical cord. From our very first instant we become invalids and begin to live only on behalf of our own selves, individually, and that is why we fear death, like no other animal, which - think about it! - dies as easily as it had lived. We are incapable of dying, and this sin of ours, depriving us of the ability to live, asserts the triumph of death over life...
        In accordance with the tradition, Zalman suggested that we brood over this some time in the future, and as for now, we should comfort ourselves with the fact that not everything in our lives ends with death; otherwise, people would never have the sensation that their lives in this world are merely a rough-draft, while the fair copy lies ahead - in the future. This hope, the rabbi uttered the final words from my notebook, is hidden inside every soul, and there, the Almighty Himself, evokes it inside of us: if life seems to be an illusion to us, then death is an illusion as well...
        Zalman fell silent and bent his head over Natellas forehead, white as paraffin, while a light breeze playfully touched her curls.
        Silence reigned, magnified by the even rustle of automobile tires against the asphalt of the nearby highway, and by the rumbling of a plane that flew low overhead and slipped its shadow upon the coffin.
        Nothing was happening, but there was a sensation that, just like me, everyone around was trying to imprint this instant unto their memories.
        Then, very soon, when the silence began to get heavy, and it was already difficult to breathe, I longed for a quick outcome.

        Thats exactly what happened. Zalman threw his head up and concluded the wake with a prayer:
        Itgadal Veitkhadesh Shemah Raba... May His name be blessed in this world, which is created by His will, and may His kingdom come in your lifetime, and let us say together: Amen!
        Amen!  everyone said together and began to stir.
        Zalman searched me out with his glance and asked, whether as a chairman, I would like to add something else. I nodded, and announced that the wake is now over and the funeral - about to begin.
        The public started to bustle. Several of the Petkhainers came out of the crowd towards the coffin, and, raising it by its handrails, made for the pickup waiting in front of the gates.
        What? my wife approached me with tears in her eyes.
        Nothing, I said. Would you drive?
        Why, youre not feeling well? she asked cautiously.
        Everythings fine! and I gave her the keys. I just have to think...
        Thats exactly what you shouldnt do! Accept everything the way it is and live... Look, theyre calling you, at your left... I dont know his name...
        Listen! Zanzibar approached me. The rabbi was just looking for you. Some American is talking to him there. Theyre sitting inside the car, the Oldsmobile. Its kind of colorless... But I know the man... Hes from Washington...
        I knew whom he had in mind:
        Fuck him! What does the rabbi want from me?
        Cortasar beat his old lady up, got drunk as a skunk, and disappeared somewhere. Or, may be, first he got drunk, and then he beat her up. Im not sure... Cortasar is, you know, the driver of the pickup - the one were gonna take Natella in. Amalias boyfriend, you remember? Theres no one except me to drive that pickup.  Everyone came with their wives here...
        Oh, you dont want to go to the cemetery, right? I finally guessed.
        Ill have to... If you dont mind... Zalman said these things are not in his line. I deal with spiritual things only, he said...
        Spiritual? Is that what he said? I asked and added without waiting for his answer: Go ahead, Zanzibar, drive the car. Do you know how to get there? Its our first funeral, you know...
        I dont, but Amalia does... Shes waiting in the car.
        Shes in the car? I checked, surprised at the complex feeling which unexpectedly had stirred up inside me and which I instantly refused to comprehend, since comprehension didnt promise to reveal any delightful truth about myself.
        I did, however, allow one of the sensations to tear through to my head and become an oppressive thought. It occurred to me that everything around is unjust; that Natella is now dead, and that we never did manage to get together with her in America; that my notebook had been stolen and that the rabbi spoke my words over the coffin; that Amalia promised to wait for me but now she was waiting for Zanzibar in her husbands pickup; that Natella is going to spend the last minutes on this earth among people that dont know her, with Zanzibar and Amalia; and, finally, that my wife demands that I shouldnt feel for anything - accept everything as it is and live... Everything else in this universe, absolutely everything, seemed very unjust to me...
        Why dont we do it this way, I addressed Zanzibar, let me drive the pickup!
        Yeah? he was unexpectedly disappointed.
        But I thought, you dont want to drive? my wife reminded me.
        I said nothing and went towards the pickup.
        Its back doors were still flung open. My brother and Givi were trying to shove a lid of the coffin, which, with its head towards the front of the car, was now resting upon the rusted bottom of the Dodge.
        This Dodge was a sad sight. Although it was not yet very old, it was mercilessly beat up and defiantly dirty. Instead of a glass, the window of the back door was covered with oil-cloth, stapled to the edges of the window with a Scotch-tape. A thick layer of dust upon the rumpled sides of the pickup was pierced with the dried drops of rain. Deep inside, next to the drivers seat, I could see Amalias tall, smooth neck...
        I helped my brother to finally close the doors and told him that my wife is going to ride in his Lincoln. Before getting into the Dodge, I turned around to look at her. She was standing aside with her head drooping and I felt queasy. I went back to her, lifted her chin up. Her eyes were wet, and from a jerk they dropped two chains of tears upon her face. I wiped her cheeks with my palm and muttered briefly:
        I dont know, she said and looked away. I think, youve stopped loving me long ago. I got scared all of a sudden.
        Scared? I did not understand. Therere so many people around.
        She nodded and made for my brothers complacently grumbling Lincoln.
        ...It was not only the Lincoln, however, that was grumbling now.
        Although fairly used, yet the most lavish models of the worlds auto-industry - all of them, without a single exception, luxury-sized and meticulously polished with black ribbon tied around the extended antennae - gurgled with hollow, nourishing noises, and ceremoniously turning around, lined up along the street into one long mourning column. It was strange and bitter to realize that in this endless string of American, Japanese, Swedish, British, German and French cars, in the middle of a New York street, populated by recent resettlers and refugees from around the world, sat the Petkhainers who were seeing Natella Eligulova to the cemetery where they have never buried anyone before.
        I felt a pungent wave of pity for all of them - not only for Natella - and it occurred to me, that all of us are united by a passion for solitude, and that without this feeling of perplexity not only we, the Petkhainers, but everyone around us as well, would have run away from each other long ago, in order to never meet anyone again.
        And then,, I climbed into the beat-up Dodge.


Its motor turned out to be worse off than its exterior: after the third attempt, it finally roared, coughed and rattled, while the car began to shake as if it were not parked, but rolling down some cobblestones.
        I turned towards Natella and grew cold: her head was gently quivering in the coffin, as in a fever, and her hair poured over her forehead and nose. I turned off the ignition in a hurry, but, deciding that I have no other choice, turned it back on with an intent not to look at Natella anymore.
        While I was bringing the Dodge back to life, Amalia, who, for some reason, abstained from striking up a conversation with me, unbuttoned the white downy cape at her stomach, took it off and turned towards the coffin.
        What are you doing there? I asked.
        Im going to put this under her head. So that her head keeps still.
        The cars in the column - all of them, without an exception - suddenly blazed up with bright lights, and, taking off,  sounded their horns just as anxiously and heartrendingly as the wailing horn on the Day of Atonement. A warm knot sprang up in my throat. I remembered the Petkhain funeral hooting and lights, and mainly - that peculiar fear before death, which, due to the presence of the serene crowd of people I knew from my childhood days, would become so solemn.
        Already in childhood, I was amazed with that fact that the funeral crowd consisted of the people you know so well and long; the people whom you see gathered mostly at funerals and whose existence unexpectedly brings into your life this feeling of worlds reliability. Generally, you know these people from your very early days, for - with the end of childhood - you instantly find yourself in this fast-moving world where you lose the very ability of establishing long-lasting relationships with new people around you, who all become so easily interchangeable. I also remembered the ever-recuring dream of my childhood: to lie in the coffin and thus be more than just a part of that crowd - to be its cause.
        Lining up the pickup behind the tail of the grumbling Petkhain column, it occurred to me that people never grow out of their childhood - it is just that they never have time for it afterwards.
        How old are you, Amalia? I uttered.
        Are you afraid of death?
        I am from Salvador. Nones afraid there. Only once, when I was a child and they hanged my father. But Im afraid of beatings.
        Someone told me that Cortasar beat you up. Is that true?
        Its true. Because of Miss Natella. He didnt want me to go to the cemetery. Mr.Zanzibar gave him money and he didnt want me to go to the cemetery. He wanted me to stay in the synagogue with Mr.Zanzibar. Mr. Zanzibar wants to fuck me. He said, he had never fucked pregnant women before and he wants to try it.
        Try it?! I was taken aback. What does he mean?
        I dont know, Amalia answered. But its still O.K. to fuck me every which way. Im only in my seventh month.
        And what did you tell Cortasar?
        I told him that I have to go to the cemetery. I respected Miss Natella a lot; she always gave me money. She even gave me some for an abortion, but Cortasar took all of it away. But now, shes dead and will no longer give me any money. And I dont want it. You know, I was washing her yesterday and no one gave me money. No, the day before yesterday. And Im not asking for it either! I respected Miss Natella a lot.
        When did Cortasar beat you up?
        Very short while ago. You know, I was waiting for you behind the gates, like you told me to, and he came up to me with Mr.Zanzibar and told me to stay in the synagogue with him. I said no, ran to the car and got inside. But he came up to me, beat me up and then, left. But he did say that Zanzibar will drive instead of him. He told me that I should show Mr.Zanzibar this place, where Cortasar screws me, when hes not beating me. But sometimes, he beats me and then screws... He told me that Mr.Zanzibar will screw me there very quickly, and then, take me to the cemetery.
        And what did you say? I was taken aback.
        I didnt say anything. I was sitting here and praying to God, that you should come instead of Mr.Zanzibar. I believe in God very much! and pulling a wooden figure of Christ, hanging from the mirror, to herself, she kissed it.
        I observed the column in silence. It started to turn to the left, towards the highway, and I tried not to look at the pregnant Amalia or at Natellas coffin behind my shoulder.
        Are you happy?  Amalia asked me timidly. That I waited for you?
        Tell me, do you love Cortasar?
        Im going to kill him soon, she uttered calmly, and after a moment of thought, added. In three months, at the latest. After I give birth.
        Youre going to kill him? I said.
        Of course! and she kissed the Christ again. When I was washing Miss Natella, I wasnt even surprised: her body was soft. Your old women were all scared, but not me; I know that Cortasar will die soon... No one should ever beat another person, no one!
        What does that have to do with it? I became alerted.
        You mean, you dont know? If the body is strong - thats very good, and if it is soft - then, it will take someone along with it soon. We have this omen in Salvador. The old ladies told me that you have it also. That means, its true. But your people shouldnt fear for themselves: its Cortasar who will die, Amalia repeated and caressing her stomach, added pensively. Ill stab him at night... In his sleep. When he will die, he will forget me, and, perhaps, I will be a happy woman, - which, they say, is very good. Being happy is good for you and for everyone around you, because there are so few happy people...
        When I lifted my foot off of the gas pedal, the Dodge would shake stronger, but I had no other choice because at the turn, the column was moving extremely slowly. I also didnt want any pause in my conversation with Amalia, since silence brought back the memory of Natellas feverishly shaking head in the coffin.
        So, you say, the body is soft, ha? I recalled.
        We bury a body like that on the same day. We dont keep it longer, Amalia inhaled the air with her nostrils and looked at me expressively. Can you feel it?
        I started to sniff and, to my horror, heard the unclear, sweetly-sick whiff of the rotting human flesh. I pulled out a box of Marlboro, but didnt dare light up - not because of the pregnant woman, but because of the dead woman.
        Amalia, however, did think of pulling out of her purse, fastened to her belly, a miniature spray container, and sprayed that same stringent Italian cologne, which, for the second time during the day, had evoked an irrelevant memory of a saleslady from the city of Hamilton.

        The city of Hamilton is located on the island of Bermuda, where, soon after my arrival to America, I was carried off to on a tourist ship crammed with Soviet emigres, who, by that time, had already made New York their home. While the ship was flowing along the open ocean, I - upon the request of a famous bourgeois magazine, which demonstrates to the rest of the world the polychrome delights of American lifestyle - would photograph and interview the happy countrymen against the background of sparkling waves, hired Italian seamen, and abundant food. Towards the end of the day, right before reaching the shores of Hamilton, I was experiencing a powerful crisis of curiosity towards existence among the refugees.
        Breaking away from the insistent invitations to the cabin of a certain, golden-teethed Jewess from Bukhara, who was about my age and a widowing owner of a Brooklyn barbecue-house, I drank some cognac and went down to the shore. Besides the meaninglessness of existence, I was also tormented by a sudden suspicion about the coming of that frightening, spiritual maturity, which, as a rule, is borne as a result of the decline of ones sexual powers.
        Much to my delight, this suspicion started to dissipate as soon as I went into the very first gift shop and began to ask the saleslady about the erotically exciting colognes, which are tax-free in Bermuda.
        The saleslady was young, white-teethed, dark-skinned, and nearsighted, with a very narrow waist, and a very low voice. Hearing me out, she sprayed an Italian cologne on a tissue and handed it to me. $20.00.
        I asked for a stronger scent of the same bouquet. She sprayed the same stringent cologne upon her chest and pulled my face to it. I suggested that this prescription must be priceless. The saleslady noted that everything  has its own price and asked whether I was ready to pay $100.00 for the most effective of prescriptions. I, as it turned out, was ready.
        She locked up the shop, drew the curtains down, undressed, and led me off to a plush sofa behind the counter, so that I, at last, come to understand that nothing excites one as much as full sexual intercourse. Especially, the zealous and uninterrupted one. In a gift shop, on the island of Bermuda. With a young, willowy, near-sighted, dark-skinned girl. In secret, hiding from ones countrymen. Under the splashing sound of ocean-waves, hollowed-out by the drawn curtains...
        The flesh must, evidently, possess its own memory into which consciousness cannot and may not bring any changes. Any sort of encroachment upon this memory only strengthens it, and a person who has no knowledge of this, becomes that which he is trying to escape...

        Although the sensations, evoked by the saleslady, were now blasphemous, I still, could have done nothing to stop them, and, therefore, I didnt. The only thing - I tried to feel for a fast-forward knob within myself.
        Meanwhile, half-turned towards the coffin, Amalia was now spraying Natella with the cologne.
        Stop it! I commanded. Enough of this spraying!
        The vision of a naked chest to which the Bermuda girl pulled me, was playing within my organism, but my eyes were seeing something else: the mourning column in front, came to a halt, and Natellas, Amalias and my Dodge was stuck at the intersection. This proved to be very untimely, since I was hoping, that with fast driving on the highway, the Italian scents would smoke themselves out of the pickup and whiff the salesladys presence along with them.
        The cars, however, werent moving and it looked like they were going to be stuck for a while.
        Listen! I called out to Amalia. If Zanzibar is right, you know your way to the cemetery. Unless you know some other way, were stuck here...
        Sure, I do. Through alleys, said Amalia. Cortasar told me to take that way with Mr.Zanzibar. Well save a whole half-hour, and Cortasar wanted me to fuck Mr.Zanzibar in that time... I told you, remember? Keep going straight. Dont follow them, but go straight.
        Yes, thats better, I said, especially as we - with the coffin and all - should not be at the end of the tail. And if we get to the cemetery earlier than others, then, thats the way it should be, right? Idiots! I nodded in the direction of the Petkhainers in front of me. They cant wait! Everyone wants to get to the cemetery earlier than everyone else! They couldnt think of letting me ahead of them! Not for me, for Natella! They should show her some respect, at least now!
        Sure, Amalia agreed. Miss Natella died very young because, you know, she was much too good. They say in my country that good people die young because if youre good, theres nothing to do for you in this world - no pleasure for you at all! Therere very few good people around, and I respected her very much, you know, but she used to tell me that her own people do not respect her. Im very sorry I forgot to tell her I respected her so much... Oh! and Amalia slapped herself on the cheek. I forgot to tell her something: she asked me who was the best poet in Salvador. I found out it specially from Cortasar, but I forgot to tell her. Its because Im pregnant, you know...
        So, she said that her people dont respect her? I turned towards her.
        Sure, she said that. You know, I washed her right, but no one gave me even a single cent. If she could, she would have given it to me. But I dont want it. All I want is for her to be clean when she gets there...
        I made a sharp turn and pushed on the gas pedal. The pickup roared, shook, and tore ahead into a narrow space between the houses. The dark-skinned girl from Bermuda was now seducing me to the sofa behind the counter, but trying to slip out from her embrace and distract her from myself, I threw a glance at the coffin.
        It seemed to me, however, that Natella was lying naked in it. Then, I suddenly imagined that Amalia - also completely naked - was inclined  above her very white flesh, rubbing her heavy seed against the corpse, and pouring from a cup of soap-water. The streams run down her stomach and spread about Natellas dead flesh, which Amalia slowly caresses with her slippery palm.
        Shaking off this scene out of my mind, I experienced a fit of tormenting guilt before Natella for looking at her naked flesh.
        I felt ashamed before Amalia as well: she tried her best so Natella is clean when she gets there, while I had to defile her and her seed. So, how am I better than Zanzibar who, out of curiosity, wanted to fuck a pregnant woman in a synagogue? Worse than that! - in a pickup with a coffin! He even whipped out some money - what a low-life! - although he always wines that he hasnt got a cent to his name! Not that he would think of throwing in some money for the girls labors for Natella, no! Suddenly, I was glad that I found a way to be different from him and cover up my shame before Amalia. I pulled out some money from my pocket and handed it to her:
        Take it.
        Really? Amalia was beaming with delight. She moved closer to me, and leaning her hand against my knee, kissed me under the ear. I knew that youd give me money! Youre very good!
        No big deal! I said and got embarrassed, especially as, once again Amalia had enveloped me in her stringent Italian aroma.
        Then, after hustling in her purse, she put her fingers, in a pinch, under my nose. I looked down and guessed that it was cocaine, even though I had never seen it before. I got scared and threw my eyes up at the windshield, with Christ hanging on a string.
        The car was going down the hill.
        Come on, youll spill it all! Amalia whispered. Snort it!
        I panicked but decided to wait until the Dodge would roll up to the base of the hill.
        Well! Amalia hurried me on.
        The Dodge finally rolled up to the marked line, and I snorted the powder in one strong take up my nostril. Then I asked myself:
        Why do I need this?
        Amalia put her hand back on my knee, and caressing it, said:
        I want you to feel good.
        The car was going uphill now and, indeed, I started to feel good right away. The state of carelessness and weightlessness was frothing inside of me at the same time. A wide and light vacuum was formed within me and evoked a sensation of all-accessibility and all-permissiveness. Everything around, however, started to seem strange and enrapturing.
        The Dodge was no longer coughing or shaking; it was buzzing softly and evenly like an automatic toy, while the crucified Christ, hanging below the mirror, swayed absentmindedly, like a child on the swings.
        The most ravishing thing, however, happened to Amalia:  without ceasing to be herself, she was unnoticeably transformed into a  well-scented, dark-skinned girl from the city of Hamilton: the same smooth gestures, the same low voice, and, most importantly, the same primordial, erotic innocence. She started to tell me some shameless, but exciting words, and I, most probably, responded, for she kept going on. And she would constantly laugh and move closer and closer to me. I lost all sense of time: like everything outside of myself, it became totally dense. Even the car was moving slower. Then, it turned somewhere, and got tangled up in space.
        The cabin was dark just like the gift-shop with drawn curtains. Gradually, the sounds disappeared as well: only a smooth and indecipherable whisper, enveloped by a stringent aroma of the eau de cologne was breaking through to my relaxed consciousness.
        Then, the whisper broke off and I felt cool moisture upon my lips: Amalias sharp tongue stabbed into my mouth and began quivering there like fish inside a net. At the very same time, her fingers got buried inside the hair on my chest, but they untangled themselves and slipped down. Amalias tongue slipped out of my teeth, and again, I heard her indecipherable whisper, moving further and further away. After some time, it stopped once again and, at that very instant, I sensed a tormentingly sweet and piercing burning in the lower part of my weightless body. The burning was rising by degrees, gradually but convincingly, although Amalias tongue, needling me with its sharp end, was still cool - just like before.
        Not a single memory of this world was left in my consciousness - only the familiar sensation of proximity of the spasmatic disappearance from life.

        This time, the return into life brought on horror.
        As soon as my body lost its weightlessness, I - through a rapidly clearing fog - realized the meaning of what had occurred and froze in fear. I felt like escaping from myself, doesnt matter where; no destination could add to my vileness; escape and hide the traces, so that I could no longer find my way back. As always, there arose a hope, however, that what had occurred only came to me in a dream, especially as it was completely dark around.
        I turned on the light with my left hand and saw that I was not in a dream, but - awake. Moreover, I was awake in the most foul of positions. First, I straightened out my neck, then, I lowered my right leg from the seat and paired it with the left one, which was so numb that I could not feel it - I could only contemplate it. All that was left to do was to find my right hand. I found it behind the seat. Trying to make out whether it had gotten numb, I felt icy coldness, and a horrible guess ran through my mind. Yet, I didnt dare to move it - I turned around slowly, and stopped short because the guess turned out to be correct: my hand, rather, my palm, was resting upon Natellas face, - upon her eyes, and the base of her nose.
        A corpse-like shiver ran from my palm to my whole body.
        Gathering myself together, I raised my hand carefully and moved it in front of me, not daring to grant it a glance.
        I did glance at Amalia, though. Just having finished blotting her lips with a napkin, she - with her back turned to me - was about to apply lipstick to them.
        She was carrying inside her belly a seed, yet to be born, grow up, and bring into this world its own share of depravity. I shrieked from disgust, now directed towards Amalia, and my brain meekly offered me the chance to lay all the blame upon her.
        I agreed instantly. The brain declared also that it has something to tell me. I agreed to hear it out. From its point of view, it said to me, nothing unfathomable had taken place.
        But what about the corpse? - I objected. Natella, that is? Isnt that blasphemy?
        The brain reminded me that some time ago Natella was going to do the same with me, dont I remember? - up on the ladder of the KGB reading room.
        Everything turns blasphemous in the presence of death, I muttered.
        Nonsense! - the brain answered: death, just like life, is only a banality accessible to all; even low-lives die. This sounded hopeful, but I decided to make sure, anyway: youre saying that Im not a low-life?!
        Thats not for me to decide, confessed the brain; my department is speculation!
        Then, I made a very strange movement: I threw my head up and held it there as far away from the rest of my body as possible. I turned on the ignition and backed into a street. Amalia did not understand the gesture of tearing the brain away from the flesh:
        Are you angry?  I really tried...
        I wished that she werent beside me:
        Should I go straight?
        Make a right at the third light. Just dont go out to the expressway!
        Jesus Christ, confused, quivered to the rhythm of the shaking Dodge. The disciples asked Jesus: Tell us what will the end be like? Jesus said: And do you know the beginning...
        A sky-blue Buick sprang up right in front of me, as if from the ground. A sticker on the rear window announced: A proud father of the son, the honor-student of the Syracuse University. Any attempt on the part of people to share their feelings with other people is nothing more than a conspicuous whim. This time, however, the Overby-happy, dumb Buick filled me with indignation and I sounded the horn.
        Do you know him? Amalia was surprised.
        Yes, I blurted and sounded the horn once again, because just to spite me, the Buick was now rolling at an especially slow speed. An idiot!
        The idiot sent an additional message to me: he thrust his fist out of the window and threw out the middle finger.
        All of the blood that was flowing through my flesh hurried upward, into my distant head. The foot, however, was the one to respond to the call: it pushed on the gas pedal to the maximum and gave it to the Buick in its polished ass a very powerful blow. The Buick started to sway from one side to the other, but there was nowhere to turn: the trees along the sidewalk would not let him. I gave it to him once more - louder and stronger, and the proud parent of the honor student squealed pitifully, at first, then, let out a fearful cloud of smoke, and dashed ahead like a mad pig.
        I went after him but it squeaked on the crossroad, and leaning over to its left side, made a sharp right turn. I thought about Natella lying in the coffin, didnt dare to make a turn at such a speed, and instead, flew ahead.
        Cretin! I nodded in the direction of the Buick.
        Amalia stayed quiet. I thought that she is right: one shouldnt be surprised at cretins, and the only surprising thing about them is that one considers oneself smarter.
        Me too! I confessed outloud. Why did I chase hum?
        You should have followed him to the end, Amalia answered. I told you: at the second light make a right. Now, its too late... Youre going to hit the expressway, and thats just too bad.
        Too bad?!
        Sure, its bad. There arent any exits there. Youll have to go all the way till Manhattan.
        What?! I was horrified. Theyre all probably at the cemetery already! Were late!
        I told you! Theres no other way, Amalia announced sharply. Well have to drive through the city.
        Dodge rolled out onto the highway and, like a scrap of wood amidst powerful currents of waves, gave in to the honking and inexorable movement of infinite number of cars that were racing to Manhattan. The panic which had taken a very tight hold of me, now seemed reasonable, and I became more anxious. I imagined the astonished faces of the Petkhainers, who are climbing out of their cars only to find that the coffin did not get there yet, that the pickup had lost its way. What do you mean, it lost its way?! You mean, we came to the funeral and theres no one to bury?! Who is driving it? Who else is in the car? Where could they have gone? Its only a ten minute drive with no heavy traffic! I imagined my wife, the rabbi, the doctor, even - Zanzibar!
        This cant go on, I decided, I must do something! Especially as, it will take minimum one hour to make a U-turn! Oh, my God! Let me just get to an exit! I started to look around, hoping to come across some object which could give me at least some relieve, or an idea what to do. On the opposite side of the highway, a little ahead, I saw a gas station glittering with neon lights.
        Do you have change? I grunted in Amalias direction. For telephone?
        Yes, why?
        I turned on the blinker and started driving towards the narrow sideroad that separated the highway in half. Again, there was panic from behind, but now, with an idea in my head, I was reacting quite calmly: why dont you all go and screw yourselves! I parked in front of the gas-station, turned off the ignition, and put on the emergency blinkers.
        You need gas? Amalia asked.
        I looked at the gas table: the arrow was at zero.
        Give me the change and wait for me here! I yelled. Im calling the cemetery. The office.
        What?! They all leave at five, and its ten after six now. And what would you tell them in the office?
        Id tell them to give our people the message, so that they dont go crazy waiting for us. That I will take the first exit in Manhattan and get there as soon as I can.
        Why do we need the office for that? Ill tell Cortasar! He went home. He has another car. Its also a piece of junk but itll get there, and Amalia opened the door.
        Making her way around the front of the Dodge, she managed to squeeze through the space in between the stone barriers dividing the highway. The traffic was lighter on the opposite side but Amalia had to carry her heavy belly through it. Although her partisan know-how was quite convincing, the war in Salvador was no match for the New York traffic.
        I turned around and squinted. I thought about something else - about Natella, surprised that I think of her as being something else. I heard a sound of emergency sirens, and opened my eyes in horror, glancing towards Amalia. I was expecting to see the unimaginable. Nothing horrible had taken place, however. Amalia was already at the gas-station. Alive and in one piece. I had no choice but to change my mind about the Salvadoran battles.
        Meanwhile, the siren was wailing very near me now. Bright-blue emergency lights tore into the Dodge.
        I turned around and saw a police jeep through the rear window. It parked right behind me, wailing, blinding me, and demanding that I move.
        I turned on the ignition. The siren flew into a rage, wailed threateningly, and grew silent only for that short instant which was sufficient for the megaphone on top of  the jeep to insult me. It grunted, cleared its throat, and yelled out in a deafening bass: Move your ass!
        I was lost: everything that was alive and ambitiously speeding was staring at me. What do you mean?! I whispered, and looked towards Amalia. What kind of a demand is that?! And what about the lady from the struggling Salvador?!  Move your ass, I said!! the megaphone roared and Amalia waved her hand: Do as he says, she meant, move your ass; otherwise, theyll blow your head off also!
        What do you mean?! I whispered once again and threw my hands aside. What about you?
        Amalia understood and waved again: I am from Salvador, Ill be O.K.! If I could make it to America, Ill make to the cemetery!
        Move your ass!!! the megaphone roared, and I took off towards Manhattan.


I ordered myself to calm down: nothing horrible had happened, after all. Its even better this way - without Amalia. Shell call Cortasar now, and hell go to the cemetery and tell the Petkhainers that I am all alone, without her, without the lascivious Amalia, in a hurry to get to the city, and will be back in an hour. And no one will think anything wrong of me. Really, its not that bad, except for the fact that the gas tank is empty. I fed myself with the hope, however, that in such a ditch, even an arrow could be making a mistake. And what if its not? I decided to distract myself - to get back to Natella.
        At first, I got scared that I was all alone with her. Then, I explained to myself that there is nothing to fear; its just a regular, everyday hustle-and-bustle: the living have to spend some time with the dead. I did, however, ask myself: How would she react if she suddenly comes back to life. Probably, just like myself, she would be surprised that we are not in Petkhain but in a foreign land, in America, on our way to Manhattan, and that one of us is dead, that is, - one of us is a stranger to the other...
         What would I ask her? Well, first of all, - what was the cause of her death? Was she, perhaps, murdered? If yes, who did it? These or those? What is Abasov doing here, in New York? Has she met with Cleveland Overby? And what did, after all, happen with the Bretian Bible? Is it true that there are two copies of it? And where is the second one? Is it really the second or is it the original?
        Then, I thought: Would Natella  tell the truth? And do I really need the truth, especially as, it must be despicable? Is it really the truth that matters? Does it change a thing in the world? And does anything except death really matter? And does it  - death - have any other meaning, besides being the end of existence?
        Although a had never known a more important a question, it seemed to me, that had Natella heard it, she wouldve grinned sarcastically, like they grin at questions asked by fools. And really, is it possible to speculate about non-existence before realizing it? No. Is it possible to speculate about existence without realizing non-existence? No, again. That is probably why, people dont know anything of relevance about it, just like they know nothing of death. That is probably why, the whole of human wisdom does not even deserve a laugh - just a distorted smirk, at best. Perhaps, thats what Solomon meant when he taught the people that a wise man dies the same way a fool dies? It is impossible to be wise without realizing that the nonexistent have nothing to say to the living. That is probably why, God remembers us only when He feels like taking us away from life.
        Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a child-like feeling of timidity mixed with curiosity for something more perfect and complex than my own self - for a being sanctified and grown wise by nonexistence.
        Scared of this sensation, I pushed on the gas pedal and tore ahead, darting from one lane to another. Nevertheless, I was not able to get rid of that corroding feeling, and, stretching my right hand backwards, I placed my palm upon the corpse.
        This time, there were no chills; there was no fear, either - just something lying between numbness and surprise. My fingers groped for the neck, the ear, the chin, the lip with a hardened proturbence of the scar; then, they crawled up - towards the eye-sockets and eyebrows, and froze.
        There was no premonition of otherworldly knowledge - only a simple thought, that in the everyday vanity, we forget to be astonished at the uniqueness of human faces. I did remember, however, Natellas eyes - the same as those of Isabella-Ruth, but now, forever hidden behind the hardened eyelids: the serenity of lilies in Chinese ponds.
        Then, for some reason, it crossed my mind, that she never did get the chance or never did decide to eliminate the scar on the upper lip. Instead of wisdom tenderness took its abode inside of me, and I thought that tenderness towards people is, perhaps, nothing but a sign of approaching wisdom.
        The state of numbness and surprise did not disappear, however. It merely gave itself up to that insistent, all-enveloping feeling of tenderness towards the dead person. And precisely because the person was dead, this feeling of tenderness was supplemented by the realization of inexpressible guilt before her...

        I was sobered up by a siren: I heard the chilling, heart-rendering wailing of a police jeep behind me. I jerked my palm off of the corpse feverishly, and looked into the mirror with the attached Christ.
        The jeep was getting angry at me, blinding me with blue lights, and demanding that I stop. I rode off to the side lane, and put on the brakes. A belted-up fatso, decked out in a police uniform, rolled out of the jeep and started walking towards me, his hand, touching the holster with the gun. I felt such a tremendous disgust for him that if it werent for Natella, I wouldve probably darted out of the car and started running the hell away from him, risking to get a bullet in my legs.
        The fatso brought his face to the opening:
        Are you full of it?
        I remembered with horror that I had snorted some cocaine and decided to behave myself. Especially as, I had no papers for the Dodge.
        Your license! the policeman demanded.
        I handed him the drivers license and said:
        Is anything wrong?
        Anything?! he rolled out his eyes. You were pushing all eighty! Registration for this junk!
        I dont have it! I forgot! I answered and nodded towards Natella.  The circumstances are pretty special!
        The fatso turned his head towards the coffin and squinted because it was dark inside. The belt at his paunch clattered from all the pressure.
        Is it the heart? he grunted. Whats going on with the lady?
        I got numb: is he mocking me?
        The lady is giving birth! I answered. Ana shes in such a hurry!
        Youre still wrong! the fatso straightened up. You can drive her to the grave with such driving before she has a chance to give birth.
        I looked him up and down and thought that there are some people whom it is impossible to imagine as children. Such people are probably born grown-up and hefty, with a name-tag across their chests. This one, for instance, was born Captain Cooke.
        So, what are we going to do, Captain Cooke?
        Were going to give you a fat ticket! he explained and proceeded towards the Jeep.
        As soon as the captain got into his Jeep, it crossed my mind, that perhaps, he was merely pretending not to see the coffin, since he was on duty, and since in the presence of a corpse people ought to change, to come back to the humanity in them - whereas the fatso was at work. And any work is nothing but a departure from the humanity...
        A clash with death reminds us that the world is full not of objects, but of their absence...

        Thats what Bobby Ashurov told me in the presence of a corpse. He was a funny Dagestani Khakham in a sheepskin papakha, who was regarded as the wisest among the Tats - the mountain Jews. It was in a Makhachkala synagogue, on Yermoshkin street.
        I traveled freely  through Dagestan. The Tats were not afraid of the camera lens; on the contrary, they would gather around it like children around some magician. They werent scared of the authorities either. They prided themselves in the fact that, just to spite them, they would not stray from their masochistic rituals - fasting that lasted for several days, aggravating the general state of psychosis, or the ritual of washing a corpse before plunging it into the earth to feed the skunks.
        Bobby was the most eager to pose, although only with his left side, because his right eye squinted constantly. He didnt drink more vodka than I, but he was more systematic about it: at the shakhrit, at the minkha, and the kharbit - the morning, evening, and nightly prayers. He believed that before opening ones soul during a prayer, one should safeguard it from the devil, who is helpless before grapeskin nastoika. He was generous with his vodka: he hoped that I would make him famous in the West, and that he, in cooperation with that very West, would save the whole of the Tat culture, although didnt know why was it that the Tat culture should be saved. He preferred to pose during the dynamics, and, therefore, hed invite me over not during the hours of his brooding over the future, but during the circumcisions of infants or the slaughterings of the birds.
        Bobby was considered to be well off: he had fifty two hens in his back yard: enough for a whole year - one on every Sabbath eve. He did, however, slaughter all of them in my presence, which lasted three weeks, and while slaughtering, he broke the law because he would take his time so as not to ruin a single shot. He insisted that I take shots of him while he was counting the money, of which he had two stacks measuring up to the height of his papakha. It turned out that he was saving it for two extreme occasions: in case, he decides, after all, to move from Dagestan to Israel, and in case he does not decide to do so.
        Although the Tats were happy with my being there, I started to get bored after several days. Bobby, though, would not let me leave Makhachkala before his third cousin - whose name, by the way, was also Bobby Ashurov - would not leave this world because of cancer, and before I photograph the ritual of corpse-washing for the West.
        All the while prior to the death of his relative, Khakham entertained me with young dancers from the local dance group. He would send them, one at a time, to my hotel room with the humblest request to make them happy with a professional photograph taken from a peculiar angle. The dancers were all fat, white, and dumb. Id undress them right away, arrange them on the bed, and would not know how to begin. I got bored with this quickly, but there was not a day without a dancer. Id put them in my bed not so much out of respect for the Khakhams hospitality, but rather, out of the desire to overcome the surrealism of the Dagestani boredom.
        The girls, however, would grow indignant:  theyd leave without a professional photograph taken from a peculiar angle and without a caressing word. Although stupid, but vengeful, they avenged by a completely disinterested behavior in bed and all my love hassles were not even granted a single sigh - as if they couldnt just figure out what exactly was it that I was doing to them.
        The washing of the corpse took place in the synagogue outhouse - as dark as the otherworld. I had to work with a flash that took its time to recharge and this made the Khakham a bit anxious. With a metallic mug in one hand, and a bottle of American anti-dandruff shampoo Head&Shoulders in another, Bobby Ashurov posed in profile over the bony corpse of his namesake. When the flash went off, hed distort his face into an amusing grimace that, according to his intentions, was supposed to express not only grief, felt for the lost relative, but also, the unreserved obsequiousness to the Heavenly Judgment.
        He kept a young boy, his grandson, next to him. The boy was called to the occasion to rub the corpse with a stale wisp, but, much to his grandfathers anguish, he didnt know how to express anything, save for the utter confusion. In between the flashes, after scolding his scared grandson, Bobby amused me with jokes about the everyday life of Dagestan and laughed in his hollow cackle. As soon as I looked in the camera, however, he would come to and start grieving.
        The procedure lasted for about an hour and the Khakham was growing ever more anxious because I would not laugh. First of all, I did not get the Dagestani humor, and, most importantly, I was experiencing technical difficulties - I could not catch with the camera the stream of the green shampoo which Bobby was pouring over corpse so economically.
        Finally, when the boy, following the Khakhams instructions, had rubbed the corpse till the holes, and I caught the short stream of the liquid soap with my lens, I did like the joke as well.
        The Red Riding Hood asked the dressed-up wolf in Dagestan: Granny, why do you have such big eyes? The wolf answered properly. And such big ears? Again, the answer was correct - like in the fairy tale. Granny, but why do you have such a big, big, big nose? Here, the Wolf felt insulted and roared: Listen, you bitch, youd better keep your tarp shut and take a look at your own dagger!
        I started laughing and made Bobby very happy, while the boy, now confused to the limit, tossed the wisp onto the corpse with a huge Dagestani dagger-nose and ran away.
        Good for him, the Khakham said about the boy, he must understand that the world is full not of objects, but of their absence...

        What are you cackling about? Captain Cooke asked and handed me the ticket.
        Did you write it out? I answered, unable to hold in the laughter. You didnt forget to sign it, did you?
        I took the ticket, started the engine, and, shaking along with the pickup, drove away. Then, I looked at the watch and grew gloomy: seven! My anxiety was aggravated by the gas arrow, which now reached below zero. Meanwhile, the worst lay ahead, by the tunnel: there was a half-a-mile traffic in front of its entrance and I had to lower my speed sharply.
        The coffin with Natella squeaked against the iron flooring in the car and slid to the left. I moved it back to the center and drove even slower.
        Next to my shattering pickup, in a bright-red Alpha Romeo, sat a young all-American man, and behind him, in the back seat, sprawled out a huge, white dog who was not only feeling crammed inside the imported automobile, but bored as well, despite the fact, that Luciano Pavarotti, magnified by six speakers was trying to please him.
        The all-American threw a quick glance at me, and then, threw another one - this time, a longer, and a more expressive one.
        What? I yelled out in bewilderment.
        The American turned off the radio:
        Were stuck for half-an-hour! and his maniacally white teeth shimmered under the red moustache.
        I nodded, but the moustached-man would not stop staring at me:
        Do we know each other? he smiled wider and fixed the blue scarf of transparent silk.
        Guessing that he is gay, I pushed on the breaks, so as not to let him behind me.
        This maneuver, however, did not rid me of my worries: the fairy American glued his red, polished behind into me and, staring in the mirror above his head, would not take his eyes off of me. Although, from time to time, I, in my own turn, would look in the mirror, and, to my utter perplexity, fix my hair, my mood was still quite gloomy.
        What is this?! - I grew indignant in silence. Here he is, flirting with men and driving an imported trinket! While I have this tubercular junk of a Dodge! There is no equality in America! Theres freedom - thats true! - but as for equality - there is none! And without equality, you cant have true freedom - only chance, all-permissiblity, and mutual not giving a damn about you.
        Then, I remembered that the Dodge doesnt belong to me, but to Cortasar, and that I own a Buick. Still - inequality, but not that sharp. I calmed down, although not completely. Imagination oppressed me: the Petkhainers, shuffling from one foot to another, waiting for the coffin at the Mount Hebron cemetery, while I still havent entered the tunnel. And it is past seven-thirty!
        In search of distraction, I turned the radio on, and started rolling the knob. Pavarotti. Iglesias. Again, Pavarotti. Madonna. Tchaikovsky. Indian tambourine. Everywhere, they played and sang, and this was irritating, for music aggravates whatever state one is in. A thought is interrupted by another. Finally, I came across a conversation between a tenor and a bass. The tenor said:
        All right, I will repeat: with the breakdown of socialism, the history, as we know it, has come to an end. One has to be either a mystic or an idiot to continue believing in something. And this is awful, just awful! Moscow killed our dream for salvation!
        The bass agreed, although he did start out by expressing his disagreement at first:
        Its not awful, its normal! Thats the way it should be: the world is returning to the great boredom. Yes, the West has won, but what kind of a victory is that? Isnt that catch-22, which exists only because the victim is just as miserable as the victor?! After a victory, theres boredom, and boredom is a defeat. Do you understand what Im saying?
        First, the tenor agreed with the bass, who, in his own turn, had already agreed with the tenor, but then he decided to challenge himself:
        I understand, but, perhaps, there is some hope. The East did lose, but what are we to do with the Far East? With Japan and China, for example? Even if, lets say, liberalism emerges victorious in Russia, - which I dont believe, because I dont want boredom - then the Pacific pool will follow the Japans and Chinas lead, and in that case, I hope, there will be a great struggle. Here is, by the way, another thing, which I almost forgot to mention: Muslim fundamentalism! A very formidable force!
        The bass did not buy it:
        Im not buying this! The West will never allow it to grow into a genuinely menacing force, never!
        Thats, pardon me, nonsense! the tenor retorted. The West has no way to do so! And your words, you know, reminded me of a joke about a doctor, who allowed his dying patient to live no longer than six months, but then, after the poor guy could not pay him all the fee, the doctor allowed him another three months!
        What all this has to do with my words? the bass asked.
        I did not give the tenor the chance to respond. I reached for the knob, and started turning it around. I was searching for some thought capable of feeding me with the illusion that there is a certain order in this world, and that one can grasp this order. I was even ready to listen to the politicians. I was ready for any old lie - if only it would seem reasonable and persuasive enough to alleviate my desperation. Persuasiveness shields one from a sense of being lost, I thought, - and came upon a female voice. I felt a glimpse of hope, for women, provided they are not whining, but reasoning, are better at it than men. This one, however, turned out to be a complex case: she was reasoning and whining at the same time. And concerning a famous personality at that: Freud:
        He is also to blame for the fact that sex has acquired such an immense role today. They say that if Jefferson were to write his Declaration of Independence now, hed have to begin his list of rights with the holy right to have an orgasm, and the duty of a society to guarantee each and every member his or her full sexual satisfaction. Mans tragedy is that he had forgotten how to love. It is Freud that we have to blame every time we say that love demands explanations. If we believe Freud, our attraction for another human being is conditioned by our own problems, and love is the need to be loved. This is a lie. Nature has made us different. A human being finds the fullest enjoyment not in being loved but in that pain and agony which those who are in love experience. I would like to stress, however, that love is not empty romanticism. Romanticism is an instrument of male domination over us, and it is by means of romanticism, that we, women, are made fools of. I am not for sighs; I am for passionate love. So what is it? First, I am going to mention what kills passion. Passion is killed by an absolute understanding and knowledge of the loved one; complete assuredness that he or she is loyal to you; a total trust and absence of jealousy. Finally, by the legalization of a relationship, because it alienates the sensation of sinful desire. Passion is the great organizer of life, an illusion without which it is unbearable to live. It is precisely that which we all strive for, without fully accounting for it. And it is precisely that which Freud did not understand, because just like the majority of men, he was merely a man. He speculated about human nature the way it was profitable for men to do. While human nature is constantly changing. People are devoid of wings, but they fly faster than birds, and dive into deep waters without fins or gills. We are even capable of altering our heredity. The landmark of the greatest progress of our powers came into existence when we started to have sex not at all for the sake of procreation. The secret of our nature is that we constantly change it. We are created imperfect, but we are given the possibility to become the creators of our new essence. And I would like to conclude todays conversation with the two following thoughts. First of all, all women are lesbians, except for those who do not know it yet, and, second, everything has already happened in the world except that which is yet to happen!
        After a short pause, the anchor-lady announced that I was just listening to the second conversation with the professor of the Syracuse University, Fritzi Rabinowitz, taken from her series, The End of the Patriarchal Society: an Anthropology of Lesbian Love. After a newsbrief, she said, Fritzi will be available to answer the listeners questions. In about five minutes.


I looked at my watch. It was after eight, but that no longer horrified me now. Not that I gave in to the circumstances, but I just realized that all that is taking place, is an expression of some deep intention and that it is correct, whether or not I understand its meaning.
        I also thought about my own vulnerability: I looked around and saw that these chance surroundings could very well turn out to be quite a convincing staging of my sudden - at this very second - death, which also would be correct and non-accidental. There was never anything chance: neither Natella, nor her death; neither this shivering pickup without any gas, nor my life in Russia, or - for that matter - neither my immigration, nor this queer in the Alpha Romeo - nothing at all. Some immutable force is moving me and everything around me, the force so convinced in its own self, that it is never revealed - doesnt need to do so. It is unthinkable to trace it - if only through origin, migration, and disappearance of people and objects through space and time. At some point in time and space, this force had dropped me into the world, and if a man truly acted according to his own free will, everything in my life could be otherwise - different in many ways. But - who? - no one acts himself out in this life; one merely observes oneself from a side, provided one has enough time to do so...
        Time, alas, is what I had plenty of now; more of it than I wished for, and I saw that once again, my hand stretched towards the radio dial and started searching for Pavarotti. Pavarotti was not singing anywhere. I had to make do with another Italian tenor - Caruso, about whom, according to the words of a critic, I found out that this great singer will reveal now, in a beautiful aria, the grandiose tragedy and the deep disappointment of an estranged husband. The singer did not get the chance to reveal the tragedy, because our Dodge - mine and Natella's - finally rolled into the tunnel.

        Tiny spaces in between Manhattan canyons, illuminated by myriads of windows, were densely speckled by the nights stars. As always upon entering Manhattan, there arose a sensation that immortality is realizable. And without any special permission of God, whom there is no need to entreat while surrounded by these skyscrapers. The Petkhain catacombs is a different mater altogether - there the whole of my life passed in daily attempts to appease God and to attract his attention.
        I turned on the radio once again. I wanted to fixate the sudden lightness of the spirit by the blues. Instead of the blues, the Black Channel was broadcasting the debates from the U.N., where, as the anchorman reported, a meeting of the Commission on Apartheid was to be concluded in half an hour. The anchorman asked not to switch the stations, - to wait. He promised that the resolution would be signed unanimously. I neither waited, nor changed the station - I turned it off. I decided to do my own singing and remembered a line from a song of the Moscow rockers: My life isnt worth a penny, and that is why, it is so dear!
        Pushing on the breaks at the red light, I saw a dozen of young blacks at the crossroad. Their looks assured the drivers that one penny is exactly the price of any human life. Armed with mops tied around long sticks, they darted in between the densely packed cars, and demanding a dollar in exchange, scratched their windshields with them. The windshields would become dirtier, but no one would dare to refuse the services, fearing that mops were not the only weapons in the cleaners possession.
        I ended up with the biggest of them all - with such massive superciliaries and arms, and such a characteristic expression of the face that had the prophet Moses caught a glance of him, he would have instantly covered by Scotch the sixth commandment about not killing. The guy splashed the mop against the glass - right into my eyes - and pushed upon it with all his strength. Dark, bubbly liquid poured out, and the cleaner smeared it across the whole window. The only good that came out of this service was that his face had disappeared from sight. But not for long. The long, sagging jaw announced itself in the side window and became distorted in a threatening grimace:
        Dollar, sir!
        I quickly reached into the pocket and grew numb, recalling that I had given all my money to Amalia. Thats exactly what I told him:
        Amalias got the money.
        He thrust his head into the cabin, and was left dissatisfied:
        Amalia is lying in the coffin, sir!
        I dont think so, but I dont have a cent, I explained.
        I washed your window! he reminded.
        I can see that, I lied, but I have nothing to pay you with.
        I contemplated on what I had said and discovered that I was wrong: I picked up Christ, hanging by the mirror, and, guessing that he is worth about a dollar, handed Him over to the cleaner. The latter clicked his huge finger against the cross and threw it somewhere into the backseat:
        Pick it up and shove it up your ass, sir!
        Whats the matter, dont you believe in Christ? I inquired.
        I believe than I should kick your ass!
        Oh, I get it! You believe in Allah?! I continued the inquiry.
        I dont believe anyone, motherfucking sir!
        Not even the Jews? I laughed nervously.
        Are you a kike, or what?!
        Just a little, I was cautious.
        Hammer! he called out to his friend over the roof of the Dodge. Over here! Theres a kike ass waiting for you!
        Hammer turned out to be busy with the car next to mine: he was smearing the window while the driver sported a ready dollar in his hand.
        You take care of it, Tiny! Hammer responded.
        So, what are you going to do with the money, sir? Tiny returned to me with a very unkind smile.
        I have no money. But I would not have given it to you in any case! I declared with a serious expression and decided that next time, I would not only vote for the right to carry fire arms, but to force on some people an abortion as well.
        Remembering, however, that first I must live till the voting time, I threw my eyes at the light. It was still red. The guy thrust his left paw into the cabin, brought it up to my nose and closed all his fingers into a fist with an exception of the middle one, which, going by its size, had no right to bear such a name.
        If I werent already being insulted with a finger for the second time during the evening, I could have probably pretended that inaction is the highest form of action. Especially as this gesture, after all, is a sign of the civilizations progress, compared to those primitive times, when people did not know how to use euphemisms and must have thrust into transportation vehicles not symbols, but their originals. Weighing the circumstances, I, nevertheless, decided not to touch the monster with a dirty nail and, as soon as the light turned green, and the cars ahead of me budged from their places, I quickly rolled up the window, squeezed the insulting paw, and tenderly pushed upon the gas pedal.
        At first, the paw was lost, but it came to its senses right away, and started to beat feverishly. Understandably so, for the following moments could have  turned out to be fatal for it.
        The Dodge was accelerating slowly, and Tiny, not wishing to part with his paw, ran along. He was running backwards, because the hand, which he obviously held in high esteem and hated to depart with, was the left one. I was planning to free it right before making a turn, but it had no such hopes and was in a horrible panic, while its master, trying to help it to freedom, was cursing outloud. Once again, this reminded me of the progress on behalf of our civilization made since the times when people had no gift of speech and, much like animals, would express their anger through actions described in a curse. Reaching the crossroad, I, according to the plan, rolled down the window and, letting the paw flutter out, pushed upon the gas.
        The very next moment, however, I had to perform a movement just as sharp and save the red Alpha-Romeo, which had suddenly stopped short in front of the red light, from mutilating it.
        I quickly locked all the doors waiting for the most horrible to happen, turned around as if something extremely crucial was waiting for me in the back seat.
        I found something to do: Natella had once again slipped to the side, and I returned the coffin back to the middle. I heard a knock upon the window: first, upon the side window, then upon the windshield as well. The knocks were accompanied by inventive curses, which shocked me with their colorful imagery. Nevertheless, I pretended that I had a lot to take care of inside the car. Standing on my knees upon the seat, and turning backwards, I started to cover Natellas coffin with the lid - to protect the corpse in case my defense fell through.
        The falling through of my defense was a matter of time since, first of all, the whole gang of cleaners was now knocking against my side windows and the windshield, and, second, sooner or later, one of them could notice that the window space in the backdoors is glued over with an oilskin. Naturally, I had to say no to my luxurious habit of not appealing to God while in Manhattan, especially as I didnt have to fall on my knees for the occasion. Out of pride and lack of time, I formulated my appeal very laconically: Oh, my Lord and the Lord of my fathers, move your ass, make the green light come quick!
        Flattered by my position, the Lord switched off the red light right away, and splashing into the seat, I choked upon the anticipation of a close deliverance.

        Never before had I realized that God is capable of being so refined in His ambition. As soon as the red Alpha-Romeo took off at the green light, and I, in my turn, squashed the gas pedal with my foot, the Dodge bellowed out, then, suddenly coughed, and grew mute.
        Abandoned by the heavens, I immediately suppressed the panic within myself and defined my plan. First of all, I needed to free myself. Second of all, I needed to get in touch with someone who could drive down to the cemetery and let the Petkhainers know about the additional delay. Finally - to get to the gas station and get some gas.
        All three operations required money, while the first one - a gun as well. I wasnt in a possession of either one.
        Hammer, irritated by my self-imposed isolation, threatened the windshield with an iron bar, but Tiny suddenly stopped him and pushed him to the side. I even hoped for just an instant, that a need to do something human had risen inside of him and that he decided to make peace.
        Like every optimist, I turned out to be half-right: Tiny had no intentions of making peace, although the need turned out to be a quite common one among people. Climbing upon the hood of the car with his knees, he parted them sideways, unzipped his jeans, and, accompanied by the loud cheers of his joyous gang, started to piss on my windshield.
        At first, I felt lost and looked around myself, but detecting cosmic fear in the eyes of the drivers and passerbys at the sudden collapse of the Western civilization, I adopted an expression of utter tranquility. I wanted to let them know, that according to my opinion, nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. Its just that a certain Afro-American boy really needs to take a leak, and since the local system of public toilets reeks of precivilization odors, the boy decided to piss against the windshield, and by doing so, incidentally, he is helping me to see the surrounding world in sharper outlines.
        I also wanted to let them know that since they are in such a hurry to disappear, and do not wish to defend their own civilization in my person, that I as well, spit at it.
        Tiny was taking such a long leak against the windshield that the other bull, who looked much like him, climbed upon the hood from the passengers side. His member turned out to be smaller, but this allowed the bull to manipulate it with that peculiar degree of professionalism, without which it is impossible to survive in Manhattan. Clenching it with his fingers like a fountain pen, he - with a thin stream of urine - wrote out callihraphically upon the dust-covered part of the windshield, a categorical, but vulgar challenge of sexual violence against the world Jewry. His colleagues started squeaking excitingly and running around the Dodge in search of an appropriate beginning.
        Hammer jumped up to my door, and blew the iron bar against my window.
        The window didnt even crack, and I was stung by a thought that if I get out of this alive, I would start buying out shares of the company that supplied Dodge with windows.
        If youre still alive, America is full of opportunities!
        I smiled at this guess and still sure of the heavens mercifulness, raised the middle finger up to the window. I had never done that before, because in my homeland I used to communicate with people differently - like a red-blooded European - by measuring off an elbow. Hammer would have never gotten the meaning of the elbow, but he did, however, regard the gesture with the finger quite adequately and got further enraged. Appropriately, he took a wider swing, but did not get the chance to hit: Tiny, whod apparently finished taking a leak, grabbed his hand and shouted:
        Dont! Over there!  In the back, man! Theres no glass there! The door is open!
        Hammer looked at me expressively and, prancing about, followed Tiny to the back door.
        What should we do with the coffin? I heard Tinys voice behind me. That prick covered it up! Hes got a chick in there. I saw her! Amalia or something!
        Fine name! someone giggled.
        Whats the name got to do with it, stupid? Hammer snapped. Theyve got all kinds of names! Is she a kike?
        Sure, shes a kike! Tiny answered. Look at that kike star on the lid. See? What are we gonna do?
        You know it! Hammer responded and giggled as well.
        Shes dead! You drill her! someone called out. And Im gonna do him!
        Why not?! I will! Shes not buried yet, right?! You know them, kikes - theyre hot chicks! and he gave out a dense laugh.
        My body was covered with cold sweat. I turned around and saw that the whole gang was now crowded at the open, back doors, while Tiny and Hammer were stretching their hands towards the coffin. Blood was beating inside of me, splashed into my head - and, in an instant, I was already standing behind the rejoicing gorillas.
        Tiny said to his colleague:
        Why dont you fucking leave the lid alone! Youll get the chance to look at her later! Didnt I tell you: the chick is fine! Grab the coffin, grab the coffin by the handles!
        I realized that Id have time to kill only one. Two - if Im lucky. But, which one? The question was essential. I was anxious to take along those of the young and full-of-life creatures to Hell with me, whose skulls I could squash there once more with great joy. I was hesitating between Hammer and Bull the Calligrapher, since I had gotten more or less even with Tiny.
        Although I despised the Bull for his ideology, my choice fell upon Hammer: I was being seduced by the chance to scatter those brains across the asphalt with that very iron bar with which he was trying to get me, and which was now at my feet.
        I picked it up from the ground, and began awaiting for the most important - the sure moment to inflict a blow.
        Where is that fuckhead? Hammer exclaimed.
        Everyone suddenly grew quiet, thrust their skulls inside the car, and making sure that, indeed, I was not behind the wheel, slowly turned them around.
        What was horrible was that the skulls were tightly crammed together, like billiard balls before the first strike, and it was impossible to reach with the bar the targeted ball in the back row...
        Hiding the bar behind my back, I smiled and invited the youths to any movement whatsoever, which would clear my way towards the doomed skull. There was no movement and Hammer still remained inaccessible.
        Well? I filtered out and pierced all of them with my glance.
        The expression of those faces bewildered me: there was such an animal, and, at the same time, childlike fear in the eyes, that I started imagining that their skin had grown white. I looked deeper and noticed that young gorillas eyes darted like mad rats from side to side - from a sardonic smile fixed at the left corner of my mouth to the bent elbow behind my back.
        Well! I repeated, still disbelieving my eyes.
        What? a voice cracked in the back rows.
        Who said What? I raised my voice.
        The gorillas rolled their skulls around and stared at the ideologist.
        What What? I raised my voice even higher.
        Nothing, he mumbled.
        What you got behind your back? Hammers voice suddenly cut in.
        Hands up! I bellowed. All of you!
        They raised their hands. Their palms grew white also, for some reason. Whats this Im imagining? - I thought. - Blacks turning white! However, I instantly remembered that thats the way it is with blacks hands. Then, it is not because theyre scared: arent they scared?!
        Whats gonna happen now? Tiny asked and swallowed his saliva.
        Happen? I repeated, not knowing the answer myself. For you, nothings going to happen ever again!
        I thought about this announcement and decided that I ought to express myself simpler:
        Its the end! Im going to shoot all of you, scum! and once again, I looked into their eyes: oh, yeah! - they were already acting like corpses - didnt move, didnt breathe.
        Tinys skin, all the way from his elbow to his wrist was scraped clean. My work, - I thought, bud didnt experience any joy. On the contrary: I imagined his pain and felt like squinting my eyes.
        We were just... We didnt mean to... he pushed out of himself and started blinking as well.
        We didnt mean to!  supported him the not-yet-plumed male.
        How old are you? I asked.
        Fourteen, and he started to blink.
        Thats my brother, Jesse, Tiny returned. His tone of voice was appeasing, but it hid an air of hope that somehow, he could make a deal with me and not die...
        Although I already knew that I would not be killing - at least, not Tiny or his brother - I did not want to reveal that.
        Well, thats great if hes your brother! I shot out. Both of you brothers will die together! I mean, Ill kill you both together! And others too! All of you! One at a time!
        Jesse started shaking his head feverishly and darting a glance towards a Mercedes that had come to a stop at the red light. He squealed in a desperate, childish falsetto:
        He-e-e-lp, he-e-e-lp!
        The driver of the Mercedes looked away, while the cleaners bombarded the boy with cuffs. Clasping his brothers face with his paws, Tiny felt for the mouth and shut it. I took half-a-step backwards, and yelled:
        Nobody move!
        Tiny recoiled and grew still. No one was moving and Jesse was no longer screaming. Everyone - and this was funny - was batting their eyes. In unison. It was clear that none of them was going to take a shot at me. It was also clear that I was not going to kill anyone either. No one. These two circumstances had unexpectedly debased the situation to such a degree, that, saddened by them, I could find no way out of it that wasnt either humiliating or ridiculous. I was even ashamed of those intimidated slimes: I had promised  to  shoot  them, but, apparently, I am going to let them go, as if nothing happened.
        But then, did I really come into this world to get even with some low-lives? Does Natella, lying in the coffin behind their backs, have the time?
        A feeling of bitterness and fear for her overtook me: even now, after death, her story continued evolving into a sinister and tragic symbol. I also thought about the Petkhainers who are still waiting for us at the cemetery. However, life would not permit Natella and me to enter it. These boys have nothing to do with it: they just happened, accidentally, like everything else, including our life itself, which we live out only because we found ourselves in this world; just as accidentally as there was no more gas to be found in the Dodge, or money - in my pocket, so I could get to the cemetery. The only thing within our powers is not so much to create, or, on the contrary, to prevent an occasion, but rather - to make the best of it, regardless of its nature.
        Heres what! I uttered and looked into the sky. I need money!
        Terror reigned in the boys eyes from realizing the shocking truth that there are things more horrible than death itself.
        Five dollars! I said with the coolness of the legendary lover-of-truth, Clint Eastwood.
        The boys kept silent and even stopped batting their eyes. They could not believe that life could cost so much money.
        Seven dollars, and you can live! I added, after calculating the toll for the tunnel.
        The slimes exchanged glances once again: now, they were shocked by the speed with which the price for their existence kept growing.
        I was satisfied with the impact and, although I was in a hurry, I figured that an additional dollar could bless me with the chance to conclude the whole scene with a dramatic gesture: step forward, and with a lazy movement of a hand, made so famous by the renown lover-of-truth, shove the bill into Tinys jaws, ajar from terror.
        Eight dollars! I exclaimed, but realized that I had made a mistake.

        Without exchanging any glances, the slimes grew anxious, and the next minute they were all scattered, as though a bomb had exploded. The were flying with the velocity of the most vulgar thought; they disappeared as instantly as the realization that followed was born: that I still had no money, and that my wanderings with Natella are to be continued...
        Applause concluded the scene. I jerked my head up, towards the sound, and saw a young couple with fleshy faces, staring out of the window. The woman was happy that I had granted them my attention and nudged her neighbor with an elbow. He was happy as well, and bending forward, over the window sill, began clapping his hands louder. Why dont you all go fuck yourselves! - I decided, but said it differently: I asked to borrow ten dollars.
        They got scared, shut the window, and drew the blinds. They were right, of course: for ten dollars, they could rent three movies, starring Eastwood, who loves the truth much more than I do, and who finds a logical expression for that love through stereophonic crunching of bones, and through shots at the shuddering billiard balls of the escaping scoundrels.


        With my head cast down, I stepped towards the Dodge, closed the backdoor, and, for starters, made it my goal to get a quarter for a telephone call. I picked up a disgustingly looking tow from the ground, wound it around the end of the bar, and, after the red light came on, stepped towards the nearest car. The driver shook his bald head and turned on his windshield wipers: dont even think of it! The next one didnt even bother to shake his head - he waved with his pink finger and turned the wipers as well. Everyone was categorically against it.
        I tousled up my hair, knit my eyebrows, and opened my jaw ajar. Still, they were against it: they probably took me for some decadent, rather than a murderer. I decided to do away with the professionally worked-out expression of sensibility. Then, I unbuttoned the shirt on my chest, revealing dense sprouts, and started entertaining thoughts on man. The drivers grew anxious. The first one, with a bald head, turned off his wipers. Exhilarated by success, I raised the collar of my jacket, and - with the speed of computer - raced with my thoughts over all the categories of todays mankind: conservatives and liberals, fuckers and impotents, pragmatists and romantics. I halted when the race reached my own self. The expression must have been an exceptionally effective one - that of an enraged dinosaur. The windshield wipers hid into their nest, and the windshields meekly left themselves up to the stinking rag in my fist. All of those windshields, however, illuminated the crystal clear light.
        Roving in between the cars, and finally, detecting a spot of bird droppings on the side window of a silver Jaguar, I dashed towards it. The window with the bird droppings grew agitate, slid down and a one-dollar bill was thrust forward from inside. A capricious, female voice accompanied it as well, which, like the Jaguar, is made only in Great Britain:
        Sir, be so kind as to take the dollar, but dont touch the windows! Please!
        Madam! I objected. Its smeared with shit!
        Pardon me, but youre mistaken! the voice corrected me. Thats bird droppings, and they bring good luck! Take the bill and leave me alone. Please.
        I took the dollar:
        I dont need a bill, I need quarters. Can you change this dollar?
        I dont carry them, sir! Sorry!
        Then, take it back! I got angry.
        No way! another voice - a male voice - called out.
        As soon as I turned, I recognized it right away: such voices, just like their beat-up vans could only be found in Brooklyn, amongst the Hasidim.
        Dont give the lady her dollar back! She doesnt need it at all, nu! Look at her car! Thats a real Jaguar! the Hasid explained and motioned me with his finger. Ill change that bill for you!
        Thank God! I turned around and extending the dollar to him, added: Its only your own kind that come to the rescue.
        Youre a Jew also? he took the money.
        Cant you tell?
        Not only Jews are circumcised in America! And while Im looking for quarters, why dont you blow the dust off of my windshield, O.K.?
        Sure, I said happily and only now noticed that the windows of his Ford were covered with such a thick layer of dust, as though the Hasid had just returned from a 40-year-long cross-Sinai drive in search of a cheap carwash. How could I have missed you?
        Our kind doesnt thrust out too much, the Hasid boasted. You know, like it is written: the meek shall inherit the earth!
        Theyll definitely inherit, I agreed, jerked the rag of the iron bar and attempted to blow the dust off of the windshield. It couldnt be blown off and I had to scrape it off.
        And why do you need a quarter? To make a phonecall? To who? Also Jews? Thats good... But then, what is it that you have to tell them which they dont already know?
        Long story! I answered, scraping the glass. One of our people had passed away.
        This is not good.... But then... Like it is written, you know, about Abraham: not died, not even passed away, but became one with his people.
        Thats right! I couldnt recall that. But Abraham was a righteous man... This spot, by the way, isnt going away: its probably the heavenly manna... Abraham, I was saying, was old, while our Jewess was young and besides, she had many sins to her name. So, you see, shell never be able to become one with the people... Thats it! Its green!
        Here, take the money, and he extended his hand to me.
        I opened my palm, and saw a quarter in it.
        Thats all I have! Just one! the Hasid smiled meekly. Shalom! and pushing on the gas pedal, he inherited 75 cents...
        I had to walk three blocks to find a payphone that worked. After lifting the receiver and depositing a coin in the slot, I quickly grasped that there was no point in calling Queens: none of the Petkhainers would be at home - theyre probably all at the cemetery. I decided to get in touch with Bruce Saludski, who lived right in the area. Although he was not home, his answering machine confiscated my only coin.
        I tore out the receiver from its nest and threw it against the phone. Instantly, the receiver and the dial disk broke into pieces. I sensed a deafening joy of destruction and pulled out the cord. Then, I knocked my boot against the glass door and measured off an elbow to a shocked old woman passing by. Unfortunately, the eclipse lasted merely a moment. Despair returned and with it - an oppressive thought about the urgency of sensible actions.
        Determining my location upon an imaginary map of Manhattan, and then glancing at my watch, I decided to go down the First Avenue,towards the U.N. building. It was impossible to think of an action more logical, not only due to spatial reasons, but due to temporal ones as well, because according to the Black Channel, the nightly session of an emergency committee on Apartheid was supposed to have already come to a conclusion.

        Right across the street from the U.N., on the corner of 49th Street, there was a restaurant called Kavkazian. It was owned by a Petkhainer, Tariel Israelashvili, life-loving fatso, famous in his homeland for his exotic passion for parrots and the non-Jewish women from the national minorities. First, he emigrated to Israel, and, besides a parrot, stuffed with inherited diamonds, he exported there a young Kurdish woman, who soon afterwards, ran off to Turkey with a Turkish diplomat of Kurdish extraction.
        Israel - with its highly dense concentration of Jews - disappouned Tariel. He moved to New York, however, where he sold his diamonds, and in a strategically close location from the U.N., opened up a restaurant, which he was intending to use as a tribunal for defending the rights of the American Indians. With this goal in mind, he added to the basic menu of Georgian dishes a selection of American Indian ones as well, and got himself a mistress by the name of Dawn of East - from the political activists of the Seminole tribe.
        Meanwhile, neither her presence, when she wasnt busy demonstrating in the streets, nor even the presence of the parrot, who knew how to greet the guests in the three official languages of the U.N., helped any to make the restaurant successful. Things were going so badly that Tariel was thinking of closing it down and dedicating himself to a more active struggle on behalf of the countrys American Indian minority: the underground buying and just as underground a selling to the tribe, of the Israeli Uzi machine guns.
        The deal fell through because of a business meeting arranged by Dawn of East on a reservation near Tampa, between Tariel and one of the tribes elders. That dickhead with chicken feathers, as Tariel referred to him once, turned out to be an anti-Semite: upon finding out that Uzis are made by the Jews, he grew indignant and delivered a long speech which made it clear that to a miniature automatic rifle, he prefers, just like his forefathers, guns with barrels long enough to reach the target closer, even though they do blow up occasionally.
        Upon returning to New York, Tariel hurried over to the FBI and let Cleveland Overby know that the stinking Seminoles are getting ready an armed rebellion against the lawful U.S. government.
        Overby was touched by Tariels vigilance, but assured him that no minority is a threat for a majority; especially, when it comes to the sweet Seminoles, who are arming themselves merely to struggle against the Jewish dominance in Florida. Overby advised Tariel to calm down, forget about the Seminoles, and give the restaurant some time before selling it, because, according to a unanimous opinion of his colleagues from the FBI, it is located in a promising proximity to the U.N.
        Either because of Overby's and his colleagues concern, or because Tariel discarded the American Indian dishes from his menu, business went uphill: diplomats would shuffle into Kavkazian with whole delegations, they would converse with the parrot at the entrance, would praise Georgian dishes, and rejoice when Tariel would offer them the Kakhetian wine on the house. Once - this was reported in the newspapers - Tariel was paid a visit by the then-hungry, but now-deceased Soviet minister Gromyko. Another minister came by twice as well. He was also hungry both of the times, and also now is an ex - Kissinger. Shevardnadze, however, - although a countryman - was too squeamish to eat: he told Tariel that he was on a diet. But he did drink a glass of wine with him for the new thinking and promised to help by popularizing Georgian ambiance in the vicinity of the U.N. He kept his word: soon afterwards, there appeared a sculpture ensemble right in the U.N. backyard; it was sculpted by the Tbilisi symbolist, Tsereteli: a dashing mountaineer upon a gay horse pierces a sharpened spear into a ballistic missile with a very big nuclear warhead.
        As for Dawn of East, she converted to Judaism, and moving into Tariel's apartment, which he was renting right above the restaurant, she became the maitred - and got noticeably better-looking. Even Shevardnadze could not hold himself from a compliment, and without hiding the gleam in his wise-from-international-living eyes, announced to Dawn of East that one of the leading Tbilisi newspapers bears the same name. Dawn of East knew this for quite a while, but she was still flattered beyond believe and, in return, offered the minister to try her strawberry jam which, she said, shed prepared exactly according the recipe described in the great Russian novel Anna Karenina. Tariel swore to me that he didnt get jealous of his countryman because he had acquired a new passion - playing pool.
        This passion, it appears, was awakened in him by Cleveland and his colleagues. It was also they, who instilled in him and shared with him the love for partying with the U.N. delegates from the Third World. For some time, this love seemed suicidally unprofitable to me, for Tariel granted the diplomats a 30% discount on all the dishes, while towards the end of the party Dawn of East would sent over to those diplomats politically active Seminole-women, who, in exchange for a night of sexual miracles, demanded a shockingly low price - compared to the standard rates accepted by the G-7 countries. It was clear that the restaurant paid them the difference.
        It turned out, however, that all the losses for the price of dishes, drinks, and sexual entertainment were covered by the Overby people, although, starting recently - blaming the budget cuts - they stopped doing that.
        Stripped of the lively juices of income, Tariels love for the Third world cooled off considerably, but he could not object to the parties, since, as the Overby people had hinted, the only alternative to the frequent visits of the U.N. multi-colored diplomats were visits of the black-and-white auditors from the IRS. They added also that despite the comparative comforts of the local prison, there are still no pool tables there.
        All this - I found out from Tariel a week prior to Natellas death. Tariel had come to me for an advice. I recommended that he sell the restaurant, break up with Dawn of East, and return to Queens, to the abandoned by him Petkhainers; and in the meantime, he should not tease the Overby asses and party with the delegates who shuffled into Kavkazian after every diplomatic victory.
        Tariel always seemed quite cowardly to me, and going to him for ten dollars, I had no doubts that at this very minute he would not be in some Manhattan pool club, but in his own restaurant, seating the opponents of Apartheid at the tables.

        The multi-colored diplomats, excited by their most recent political success and the prospective culinary feast, were already being seated at the banquet table of the Kavkazian. It wasnt Tariel doing it, however, - it was Dawn of East.
        Wheres Tariel? I asked, but she didnt answer.
        The parrot did. In the native, Georgian. He said that Tariel wasnt there.
        How come?! I was indignant. Today is the day of the big banquet - End the Apartheid - isnt it?
        Dawn of East still didnt respond while the parrot quacked in English:
        No to Apartheid!
        I demanded that he shut up, but in response, he cursed me in a dirty slang.
        Why arent you answering? I asked Dawn of East point blank.
        Didnt you hear: Tariels not here! she snapped.
        Is he in the pool room?
        Hes in Queens, just like you instructed him! she whimpered. At the cemetery. Didnt one of yours peg out? He called and said: I dont give a shit about the banquet. Our funeral here, he said, is dragging out!
        What exactly did he say? I livened up.
        Thats what he said - dragging out! bickered Dawn of East. What, did they forget dig up a hole?! Look at you! Youre here to party, you buried it out! And hes stuck in your shitty Queens! Its the second time in ten days, now! He probably found some slut from his own country!
        Thats not it! I said. Calm down. Its true about the funeral. It is dragging out. Hes probably at the cemetery, dont worry!
        Calm down, please! I said. Its true: our funeral is drugging out...
        And you really care if I calm down, dont you?! she pierced me with an evil glance.
        Of course! I assured her. I need ten dollars from you, if Tariels not here.
        Dawn of East threw her eyes at the parrot and clicked her fingers at him. The parrot got excited as well:
        Go screw yourself, shithead!
        I didnt feel up to a brawl. Thats why I didnt address him:
        Whats the matter with you, Dawn of East?
        You heard me! she started shouting. First, you tell Tariel to drop me like a hot potato, and then, you come to me and ask me for money!
        Thats not the way it is! I lied. Should I explain?
        Im busy! and once again, she clicked her fingers.
        I showed a fist to the parrot and he shut his beak. To make up for it, though, the whole of the starving Third World was piercing me with murderous glances and was full of decisiveness to struggle either for the further emancipation of women in American society or for the minimal rights of the native Americans in that same society.
        Nodding towards the parrot, I made it clear to them, that I was threatening him, - not Dawn of East; furthermore, the threat was well-deserved: for the undiplomatic language. I wasnt granted their understanding: they still stared at me hostilely. Are they defending fauna as well? - I thought, but gathered that this would be out-and-out hypocrisy on their behalf, since judging by their looks, some of the delegates were still indulging in cannibalism. Having also gathered that I was not going to get ten dollars here, I borrowed the parrots last exclamation, and addressed it to the whole of the Third World.
        I proceeded, however, not towards the exit, but to the depths of the room, to  the coffee table with a phone, in order to resume my further contact with the civilization. Few of the payroll tribeswomen were out on a pasture near the coffee table. They exuded the same aroma of a strong perfume, and smiled in the same guilty way. Even their mouths were colored with the identical, burgundy lipstick, and being swollen at the corners, reminded one of a chickens rear end.
        Pushing them away from the table, I lifted the receiver. Just like before, I had nowhere to call. I senselessly dialed my own number. No one answered. Still holding the receiver to my ear, I mechanically began observing the excessively lit room. On the stage, there sat in front of a microphone, with a guitar on his knees, Tchaikovsky - a composer, from Saratov, whom Tariel hired for his refined, old-fashioned gestures. Tchaikovsky was robed in a white tuxedo, he stared at his guitar and echoed it in Russian, with an inappropriate for him, Caucasus accent:
             Clouds after clouds swim along the sky,
             They bring me the news of my beloveds life...
        Besides the delegates, there was another agitated group of people seated at the long table. They were blabbering away in Russian and in English. The most active of the group was a very large-boned, but unassembled, bulldozer. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses that blinded me from time to time, by reflecting the light pouring out of the jupiter behind Tchaikovskys back. Tchaikovsky, however, was sad and imperturbable:
              The bird of my happiness has flown away,
              I will no longer sing or play...
        Dawn of East searched me out with her glance and demanded that I put the receiver down. Go screw yourself! - I decided and looked away.
        At the small round table, to be more precise, - under it - a middle-age man from Overby's gang was caressing a fragile thigh belonging to one of the tribeswomen. She was listening to him intently, but apparently, couldnt get anything he was saying, and so, she was trying to free her hand from his palm. I thought that he must have ruined his career with his lasciviousness, because at his age, one is expected to do better than stalking out, in restaurants, diplomats from Africa.
        With the receiver in my hand, I stood - as though spellbound - motionless on the spot, and, no longer feeling despair, could think of nothing to do. Hollow ringing of the telephone in the midst of the merry uproar, - ringing that no one answered - promised that peculiar, anxious sensation, when the incoherence of all lives or a dissociation of all the instances in a particular life, acquires a clarity of the simplest images: the endless rows of punctured lines. Symbols of the all-enveloping absence! World is full not of objects, but of their absence!
        Then, my attention was caught by a rat. Confused, it was darting from table to table, but then, jumped towards the board plinth and rushed nervously across the room. Its movements seemed to be devoid of any sense to me. However, very soon, I noticed another rat, smaller in size, which the first one was trying to catch. No one saw them except me. I imagined the hubbub in the room when someone accidentally steps  and squashes one of the rats.

        Put the receiver down! I suddenly heard Dawn of Easts squeaky voice. She was standing next to me and piercing me with her glance. I said, put the receiver down! and she pushed at the lever with her finger.
        Bitch! I described her in a very loud voice.
        She reacted colorfully: rolled out the yellow whites of her eyes and started squeaking for everyone to hear. I could only make out three words: woman, minority, rights. Its possible that there was no fourth word: wailings constituted the rest of the noise. With the exception of Tchaikovsky, everyone fell silent, turned towards me, and despite the hysterical lamentations of the maitred, the pre-stormy silence reigned in the restaurant, fortified by the guitar strums.
        The guitar-player was addressing the ancient Central Asian poet Omar Khayam, and begging him to arrange it with heavens so that he, the guitar-player, should, too, die from nothing else but wine-drinking, after which, he was promising Khayam in a mellow voice, that he, the guitar-player, would reappear in this world in the form of a single poppy-seed flower - shooting up through the ground. And that very flower, Tchaikovsky insisted, will keep swaying, on its long stem, from side to side like a hopeless drunkard...
        No one rose from their seats to help Dawn of East.
        Tchaikovsky went on and told Khayam that life has crushed his heart, and the dead heart is now bleeding with this red wine...
        Finally, the half-assembled bulldozer with mirrored glasses started rambling. Wiping his lips with a napkin, he swung it to the floor, and proceeded towards me. Noticing him, Dawn of East calmed down right away and stepped aside to reveal a better view of me to him. It became completely quiet. Tchaikovsky continued conversing with Khayam. He offered, in particular, that all winejugs in the world are made not just of sand, but of the poets ashes; and that Georgians know it awfully well that nothing perishes from this world for the man who drinks his wine from a jug made of you, oh, great Omar Khayam...
        What a jinx, I thought, they want to beat me up again! I had a strange sensation at that: although a half-screwed bulldozer, especially one full of vodka, represented a lesser threat than the little black devils, still, I didnt feel like defending myself - I was too tired. A thought of Natella, however, forced me to shuffle my right foot back and aim it at the approaching bulldozer right under his gas tank, - into his belly - so that the sparks, resulting from my strike would pop off right into the fuel and blow the whole structure to little splinters. And of course, I would have made my move, had the structure suddenly not removed his glasses and had he not said in a familiar voice, in Russian:
        Ill kick your ass now, scum!
        Nolik?! I cried out in Russian as well. Nolik Aivazovsky?!
        The bulldozer stumbled, skidded in place, and flinching noisily, yelled out:
        Is it you?! My dear!
        Much to Dawn of Easts confusion, Nolik kissed me on both cheeks and dragged me to the table - to introduce me as his old-time pal.

        We were never friends, although we knew each other from childhood. As for his first name Nolik, or Little Zero, I was the one to give it to him, for his round form. Originally, his name was Armenian - Norik Aivazyan - but as soon as he moved to Moscow from Georgia, he became Aivazovsky: he wanted to sound Russian. This allowed him in those years of much-loved Russification to express utter perplexity at every mention of Armenia and Armenians.
        While in the States, I read an article in the Time about restaurants in Moscow. The restaurant Kavkaz was among those that only accept foreign currency, I read, and it is located near the Novodevichy cemetery. Also mentioned was the name of its owner - Norik Aivazyan, the Moscow representative of the Armenian National Front for the Salvation of Nagorny Karabakh.

        Recovering from the sticky embraces with his half-drunken friends, and from vodka as well, which Nolik poured into me from a tea glass, I immediately decided to borrow ten dollars from him:
        Nolik, I have a very important matter to discuss with you!
        But of course! he nodded. Did I introduce you to Colonel Fyodorov? To my friend Tolik? Were in business together...
        Which one is he? I looked around at the barely-present crowd.
        They were blabbering away in English. The only one who was speaking Russian, and rhyming at that, sat across from me; he looked half-Jewish and didnt hide it either from his neighbor, to whom he would translate his own words: My father is a Jew from Minsky, and my mother - she is not. Itd have made much more sense to poor the seed into the rot. But it happened - I was born -  unrecognizable by face. As a Russian I drank from childhood, but as a Jew - not to death.
        The neighbor was looking at him suspiciously. He couldnt believe that this particular half-Jew wasnt a total drunk. Neither could I.
        Is that him? I asked Nolik. Is that Tolik?
        Im Tolik! said Colonel Fyodorov, who, as it turned out, was sitting next to me, by my left hand, which I confusedly shoved into his nose and said:
        My pleasure, once again! I would have never guessed, I smiled. Youre too young!
        Aivazovsky gave me a pat on my back and exclaimed:
        He is a genius with the golden hands! Armenians have a saying: A deer is afraid of an arrow, while the craft fears its master!
        I respect Armenians! the colonel agreed. By the way, Russians have their own saying too: Every craft fears its master.
        Almost the same, but without a deer! I generalized and added an even more general observation: All peoples are brothers!
        Philosopher!  Nolik proudly announced to the colonel about me.
        I respect philosophers too! Tolik allowed and took a swig of vodka.
        Tolik here is the colonel of state security! Nolik announced.
        You mean, the KGB?! I looked around myself.
        Besides the parrot and Dawn of East no one was looking at us.
        Thats something! I said to Nolik. And you said: were in business together...
        Times are changing! the colonel boasted.
        And now, were thinking of buying out this restaurant from Tariel, Nolik added. Its time to conquer America!
        Of course, its time! I agreed. But its expensive - America, I mean, isn't it?
        Well scrape it together! Nolik promised.
        I sighed and said:
        Good for you! Nolik, I need a ten.
        How soon?  Aivazovsky was taken aback.
        Nolik wiped his lips with a palm and got offended:
        Ten thousand?! the colonel hung his mouth open and emptied a shotglass into it.
        Ten dollars! I said.
        Aivazovsky looked at Fyodorov and uttered after a long, expressive pause:
        Heres my advice to you... Why dont you send your philosophy to all the devils and get into a real business. This is America, after all! Even in our stinking country, people who have heads on their shoulders wised up and... and went into business. Ill tell you what to do now, but meanwhile, why dont you have a drink! Nolik poured vodka into the glass and again looked at Tolik: What was I telling you yesterday, Tolik, ha? Was I right or not?
        I never said you werent! People say: a crow flew over the ocean, but didnt get any smarter! and he turned to me. And as for you, listen carefully to what Nolik has to say: he wont teach you bad things!
        Well, Nolik, do you have a ten? I asked.
        Listen, my dear, Nolik got offended again. How am I going to get it for you? Were walking around with checks here! What do you call them? Threevelers? No - Travelers! Right, Tolik?
        Threevelers, Twovelers! the colonel laughed. Whats the difference?! Travelers! And wed like to... he turned to me. Wed like to give you sunglasses instead of money! Theyd look good on you, let me put them on you, were friends, arent we? Give me your nose, dont be shy!
        I rose from the table and patted them both on their shoulders:
        Ive got to go!
        Well said! Nolik was happy.
        Philosophically! Tolik added.

        I went back to the phone. I had nowhere else to go. Dawn of East was seating the tribeswomen with the fighters of Apartheid. I was still not answering on the other end.
        Neither the Overby-man, nor his confused companion were sitting at the round table any longer: she must have finally understood and left with him. The parrot was now looking at Tchaikovsky; he was listening to him and nodding his head in approval. The old man liked the song himself:
                        Tell me, timeless river,
                        Flowing past my door:
                        What was the most beautiful
                        Sight you ever saw?
        The parrot pricked up his ears - he was interested. The old man winked at him and continued:
                        With a smile the river
                        Wistfully replied:
                        The black and clumsy stone,
                        At the source of my life...
        I remembered Natellas stones. With tenderness, I remembered her mother, Zilpha as well; even - myself at the source - as a teenager, scared of Zilphas magic over the stones and of her husbands suicide; for the first time, I was scared of the guess that the mysterious in nature and in a soul stays mysterious forever. I remembered my fathers surprised face, when he read Meir-Khaims last note about the unbearable love for his wife, Zilpha. Suddenly, I loosened up, and with a bated breath awaited the already unpreventable, blissful wave, pouring out from ones throat across the whole flesh and dissolving that flesh in space and time...
        I had no time to dissolve: the bulldozer pulled up again, but this time, without the sunglasses and totally unscrewed. He took the receiver from my hand and put it upon the lever. I did not protest: I didnt even expect to hear apologies for his swinish behavior at the table. I was expecting something more important: ten dollars. Still, he began with apologies:
        Im sorry, old man,O.K.? But you see, she insists. The broad is tough, but, you see, on the other hand, shes right. Its not your phone and after all, shes an important figure here - a maitred. By the way, her figure, Ill be honest with you, her figure is just right, old man! I like it when the ass and the belly surround a broad like a cornice, get it? Not on white chicks, but on blacks, and yellow asses. Monkeys will stay monkeys, its true, but at least, there is something to squeeze! You understand?
        Nolik held me around my waist and in the course of his monologue, was nudging me towards the exit, while Dawn of East stood nearby and observed his success with a victorious smile. Finally, realizing that he was not going to give me the ten dollars, but, on the contrary, decided to please the yellow-assed maitred, and throw me out, I stopped listening to him. First, I gave it to him with my left elbow into his gas tank, shaking up the fuel inside it, and then, again with my left palm, I seized his balls and squeezed them hard.
        Nolik stopped holding me around my waist: he twisted over, jerked his head up, and wheezed hoarsely. For some reason, I thought that no one in this world needs him and I felt like exploding him. My fist got tighter but the balls inside it turned out to be very small and sparks flew out not from there, but from his eyes. Realizing that there was not going to be any explosion, I looked into Noliks eyes and asked:
        You understand?
        In response, he whimpered and bent lower.
        Nolik! the colonel called out from behind the table.
        He didnt respond to him either.
        Answer me, Nolik, do you understand or not? I repeated and this time, he produced a nod.
        No one except him understood anything, however. Even Dawn of East did not understand, and she was observing us from the side in order to see why is it that the Moscow guest began to suddenly twist and circle around his own thick axis.
        Norik!  Fyodorov shouted. Are you O.K.?
        Coming, coming! Nolik responded in a thin voice and looked at me beggingly.
        I went as well. Towards the exit. Dawn of East followed me with her victorious glance in which I saw contempt for me and delight for Nolik, that I didnt quite understand. Tchaikovsky confused me even more:
              To be alone is all I ask.
              I wish to quit the weary road.
              And like a cloak upon the grass
              My thoughts and precious dreams unfold...
        This seemed quite understandable to me but as I was leaving, I heard something else:
              Come, people, carry me along
              With you! I did not realize
              How wretched I would be alone
              With all the dreams and thoughts I prize.


I looked at my watch only once I was behind the door. Ten thirty!
        The sidewalk was deserted - there was no one to rob. Despair urged me onto a scandalous plan: to get inside the U.N. building and put the very first passerby, be it the general secretary, up against the wall. Reason was struggling to keep me from doing that, but I no longer trusted it. I reminded myself that the world represented by this box across the street, is ruled by no other but absurd and despair.
        I didnt have to get into the U.N., though.
        One of the cars, parked along the gates, looked like there was someone in it. I sneaked up from behind and peeked through the glass. I saw two shadows at once - both in the frontseat. I felt relieved, for now, my chances were doubled: if one of the shadows wouldnt have the ten, the other will.
        While I was calculating which side to approach from, I noted that the shadows will soon be relieved as well: one of them, a thin one, turned out to be a female, and bending over in a bracket towards the other, a male one, fussed about. As for the bigger shadow, it stretched out on the seat, fidgeted and shuddered once in a while. From a slightly lowered back window, Lucianno Pavarottis voice pushed its way to freedom, but during the pauses, when the Italian gathered air into his lungs, another voluptuary grew breathless in that same window; he wasnt singing, however, but - moaning.
        I didnt let myself linger on: the victim is less dangerous in a pre-orgasmic state. I unbuttoned my shirt, raised the collar, and approached from the left. Knocking my elbow against the glass, I pushed down upon it. It squeaked and sank down. Growing squeamish, I turned my face away. I coughed and announced to the driver that life is vile and disgusting and thats why Im fining him for ten dollars. Cash.
        But why are you looking away? they responded from behind the wheel.
        Because Im nauseous. Spying is vile too...
        I wasnt spying on you, the driver answered. Not - on you...
        What the hell are you talking about, there? I was getting angry. Did you button up yet?
        Whats the difference? the driver responded. Look at yourself! Youre baring your stomach! After all, Im in the presence of the lady here!
        A lady?! I grew indignant. You were giving this lady...
        So, run and tell him! Fuck him too!
        Too?! I got insulted. Why dont you come on out!
        Listen! the answer had calmer overtones now. Why are you pestering me? I wasnt talking about you! I meant Cleveland.
        Who? I was taken aback.
        Youre trying to tell me that he doesnt have good times with the chicks?! And about you?! I know you by heart! I just forgot your name. But Im telling you like it is. Your telephone or your mail is one thing, but we no longer spy on you! Im being honest with you! I have no hopes of a promotion anymore... Im old, as you can see...
        I didnt have to turn and look at him. Now I knew whom I was about to rob - an FBI officer. That very same one that was sitting at the round table with the confused Seminol woman. What a curse! Throughout the world people rob each other with no problems, no hang ups! Especially here! Who is playing tricks on me? No one is playing tricks, I am the one to blame: I should have gone to the U.N. instead of pestering the veterans of the secret service right before their orgasms...
        I shouldve gone to the U.N., I uttered and, insulted by bad luck, turned my saddened face towards him.
        Now, look at you! he said. Youre in a bad mood again... Like that time, five years ago... First, you make an uproar, and then you get offended at yourself. You were dying to go to the U.N. then also, remember? But the U.N. has nothing to do with it: they dont bother with private complaints; only if a state complains... But Im telling you the way it is: were not spying on you... I can even tell you who were spying on...  and he started to come out of the car.
        I didnt know what to do; especially as his pants were zipped up and I had nothing to fine him for, even if I did dare to fine the FBI agent. The agent, meanwhile, approached me, put his arms around my waist, - just like Nolik did - and took me aside:
        And it is not you were spying on... I even forgot your name. Would you remind me?
        My name is my business! Im not asking for yours, am I?!
        Cmon! he shot out. My name is Bobby, and Im not spying on you... although they happen to be your country men. The one in the yellow jacket, but, especially the other one, the fat one. Have you known them long?
        The fat one? Yes! I became happy.
        He was happy too:
        We know the other one well: Tolya Fyodorov. He is not the one were interested in...
        Thats right! I was excited. You should get the fatso!
        I can see that you love him! But that didnt stop you from chugging down vodka with him!
        Its a custom, I got embarrassed. But later, I did squeeze his balls, though! You were probably already here, in the car.
        Is that a hint? he got embarrassed as well.For your information, I was just instructing this girl on what to do with that fatso, Gurevich, you understand? I was holding a seminar! and he laughed.
        Which Gurevich? I did not understand.
        To your good friend, Gurevich. The one that you first kissed, and then demanded that he be arrested immediately! he whimpered.
        You mean the fatso? You guys really do a good job! I stung him. Hes no Gurevich! His last name is Aivazyan! I know him from childhood! It never even smelled like Gurevich in his kin!
        Bobby was saddened noticeably.
        Thats very good that it never even smelled! he finally deliberated. I mean, its good for him, not - for us; for us - its bad. So, hes leading us around by our noses, too! That bastard! and he shook his head. That means the whole deal is off!
        Whats off?
        Everything! he explained. Everything is off till I have a meeting with Cleveland! And as for you, we really need to get together and talk. I mean about Gurevich. Aivazyan, that is. To sit down and have a friendly chat... Im sure, youll want to help.
        I dont think so, I confessed.
        No doubt about it - youll want to help us... You see, everythings tied together here. I heard, theyve already told you about it, right? About General Abasov! Everythings tied: Gurevich... I mean, Aivazyan, and Abasov! And, of course, the bible!They told you, come on! The Georgian bible! Why dont you trust me? I trust you...
        I thought about everything and was filled with joy. Not because Bobby trusts me, but because he needed me.
        I know that you trust me, I told him. How long have you been checking up on me, ha? A lot! Lots of time passed by! And in time, Bobby, everything changes... In the past, I talked to you guys for free. Right? But now, Im just like all of you. Im an American now! Now, I dont even say hello without a fee...
        It seemed to me that Bobby was suddenly stricken by a fit of thirst:
        I dont deal with money matters, and he lit a cigarette.
        Ten dollars! I blurted out, and, once again, looked aside.
        There was a pause, filled with clouds of cigarette smoke.
        In the darkness, a lonely light of a bicycle felt for Bobby and me. The bicycler had white sneakers and red tights on him. He looked at us seekingly, but got embarrassed and turned away. I followed him with an angry glance and returned to Bobby. His face was enigmatic. Then, he climbed into his pocket, pulled out a wallet, and took out two tens. I took both of them, and thought that Nolik, that swine, must have grown to be an important catch...
        After shutting the door behind himself, Bobby turned to me and said:
        By the way, dont say anything about the seminar to Cleveland, O.K.?
        I nodded. Then, I approached the right door. Just like before, I knocked with my elbow against the glass, and asked the Seminole-girl to lower it. Her face was fearful. I extended one of the tens to her and said:
        This is a token of my apology. For interrupting the seminar! and I winked at her knowingly. And as for that fatso, - everything is off! But dont you fret: hes got nothing down there! Lump of jelly!
        At first, she was confused, but when Bobby shook with laughter, she laughed as well.

        Ten minutes later, I had to regret about my squandering and my lust for effects: a Pakistani guy at the gas station refused to trust me with his canister and demanded five dollars minimum for it. I offered three - I had no rights for more than that: ten minus eight for the gas and the canister, and the rest for the tunnel.
        Listen! I was trying to outsmart him. Why are you wrangling like some kike? Youre a Muslim, arent you?
        The bastard did not turn out to be an anti-Semite:
        Everyones equal under God! he announced and pointed at God with his puffy hand. Five, and thats final!
        I demanded to see the manager.
        But Mr. Bhutto is at home! the Pakistani answered.
        Mr. Bhutto is my friend! I tried.
        Then, Ill call him, he said. Talk to him!
        So late?! I grew anxious. I am a gentleman, you know! A philosopher.
        Then, Ill talk to him myself, agreed the Pakistani and called Mr. Bhutto.
        He talked for a long time. In Pakistani. Hed look at me from time to time, apparently attempting to describe me, but Mr. Bhutto was refusing to recognize me. The Pakistani asked what kind of a car I had. I told him that I have three cars: Dodge, Buick, and a third one. Which one, the Pakistani asked. I was going nuts and could not think of another brandname. I answered in general terms: Japanese. Then, they resumed talking again about something. The salesman was waving his short hands around, dropping the receiver, catching it in flight, and casting his eyes up at yet another manager: he was either thanking God or apologizing for inadvertence. Finally, he asked for my name.
        Javaharlal! I declared.
        He transmitted the information to the other end of the cord. Then, once again, he turned to me and asked for my last t name.
        Nehru! Javaharlal Nehru!
        Mr. Bhutto must have ordered him to describe me in more details. I eased this task for the salesman: I began turning slowly around my own axis. Not a single thought was passing through my head. Neither was there any despair - only fatigue and impartiality towards existence.
        The Pakistani lowered the receiver upon the lever, and reported that Mr. Bhutto sent his regards, but he is not ready to part with the canister for less than five dollars.

        Striding along the street with a heavy canister without a single cent left for the tunnel, I again saw the bicycler in neon sneakers and red tights. He looked back at me this time, as well. And perhaps, I am just imagining it; perhaps, hes not queer at all! Perhaps, he has no one else to look at, or perhaps, he just wishes to let me know that my canister is leaking.
        I was trying not to think about Natella, with whom I had yet to be alone. I sensed a blurred guilt before her, although, now, life was burdening me as well. When my hand got numb, I stopped on the edge of a sidewalk to catch my breath, and leaned upon a white Mercedes. Couple of moments later, I bent down to pick up the canister, but before I could lift it, I froze - I saw a corpse!
        Right in front of my nose. He lay, covered with black plaid and black boots sticking out of it, upon a tall chromium wheeler that was stuck in between parked cars.
        I looked around.
        Everything seemed dead: the buildings, standing in a row along the street, the empty cars along the sidewalks, - nothing was moving. Whats he doing here? I thought in horror about the corpse and stepped up to its head. I lifted the plaid carefully and stared: I got even more terrified because in the half-darkness, the corpse had suddenly acquired concreteness.
        This was a man my age - in an expensive navy blue suit and snow-white shirt with a red bow-tie. His face - completely white - expressed dissatisfaction, one of the reasons of which was obvious to me: the belt that strapped him down to the wheeler was drawn too tightly. Yet another reason seemed quite obvious as well: the dead man lay on the wheeler all by himself, with no one to watch over him; he was somehow very lonely and despite his festive appearance - very lost.
        Thats it! I guessed. He is lost! He rolled over here between the cars and got stuck, buried in darkness. But where did he come from?
        I covered his chest with plaid and looked around once again, this time, more closely. It was quiet and still - usual. Behind the crossroad, however, in the light of an open front door, I made out two live figures standing by  under a peak. One of them had neon sneakers on. Looking more intently, I also discerned a bicycle leaning against a tree. I took off, ran across the avenue, and hurried towards the crossroad.
        Both figures turned towards me and one of them turned out, as I expected it, to be familiar - in white sneakers and red tights. I stopped at a distance and stared at the second figure - the unfamiliar one, cast in a black tuxedo with velvet lapels.
        Waiting for someone? I started.
        Looking for someone, the tights responded.
        I was happy:
        In a navy blue suit, right? And black boots?
        Perhaps! the tuxedo was happy as well now.
        What do you mean perhaps?! Youre looking for a man and you dont even know what he looks like?
        Stop messing around! the tights said. Where is he?
        I started to suspect the horrible, and shifted back. I regretted that I left the heavy canister with gasoline on the sidewalk.
        We must explain to the man! the tuxedo reasoned and stepped forward. We dont know how hes dressed, but we know everything else about him, though.
        What, in particular?  I demanded.
        Everything! We even know that he was in Philadelphia yesterday.
        I felt worse:
        In Philadelphia? Who is he? That is - who was he?
        Kisselborg! the tights said. The ballet critic.
        Ballet?! But how come you dont know what he looks like if youre looking for him?
        I do know! I am a ballet dancer myself. Hes the one that doesnt know.
        Then, why dont you say something. How does he look? I asked the dancer.
        Listen, he flared up, youre mocking me, right? Werent you asking about how hes dressed, not how he looks?! Very tall, and a white face.
        Wait, wait! the tuxedo interrupted. They all have white faces, if theyre not black. I mean not critics, but people.
        But his is too white, understand?
        Thats bad taste! the tuxedo objected. My make up man never uses whiteners. He likes it when they look natural, I mean, - dead!
        You dont understand me! the dancer interrupted him. He had a very white face when he was alive. Too white!
        More so! the tuxedo countered. You should never use whiteners on faces like that. They shouldve touched him up with some blush, so that you could see that once he was alive, and he turned towards me. But, you see, they brought him over to us from Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is not New York. It hasnt been for a long time, now!
        At first, I imagined that I was beginning to understand something, but then I decided, that the safest thing to do is run away.
        So, where is Kisselborg? the dancer asked me.
        And why do you need him? I answered.
        Listen! he flared up again. What kind of a person are you, after all?! Youre not mocking, no! Thats just the way you are. After all, why should we need him? Cant you guess? I mean, you came to us, right?
        Thats right, I admitted. I came to you. And now, Im going back.
        Wait! the tuxedo got anxious. What do you mean, going back?! But where is the critic?
        And why do you need him? I asked again.
        Now, they both, apparently, understood that it was I who was in need of help. The tuxedo stepped forward, but I stopped him with a gesture and let him know that he should help me from a distance. He stepped back and said:
        That critic... What the fuck is his name, anyway?
        Kisselborg, the dancer said. But dont talk about him that way!
        I dont mean anything by it... So, here it is: I need this Kisselborg only to bury him. Into the earth. Its customary - to bury a corpse...
        And how did it come about that you have to bury him? I said and corrected myself. Why is it you who has to bury him?
        Let me explain it to him, O.K.? the dancer uttered calmly. You see, Mr.Kisselborg lived in New York, but he passed away in Philadelphia, at a concert of the Leningrad ballet...
        The Kirov? I interrupted.
        Thats right. The Kirov, the dancer continued. So, he passed away there, but they didnt bring him here right away, because they wanted to pay their respects... Tonight, however, they did bring him here, of course: tomorrow morning is the funeral service. The whole ballet world is expected to come! We try not to bury our people during daytime, because at night, we have performances. Clear, so far?
        So far, yes! I urged him on, since he was really trying.
        So, in short, they brought him here, unloaded him out of the car, gave Carlos a paper to sign, and left. Understand? Carlos - thats him! and he poked a finger into a tuxedo.
        Thats right! he confirmed and bared his bad teeth. Carlos Bonaventura!
        So, Carlos signed it, the car left, and Carlos went inside to move away the chairs for Kisselborgs wheeler, understand?
        Not completely. Appropriately, I merely gave a slight nod.
        Right! So, Carlos goes back to get Kisselborg, but hes not there anymore! This is what we think happened: the guys that unloaded Kisselborg didnt push upon the safety breaks of the wheeler, and he rolled away... I mean, the wheeler rolled away, and Kisselborg, of course, rolled away with it. Understand? Probably somewhere, over there... I rode around, but theres no trace of him.
        Everythings clear! I smiled. The only thing...
        Say it! Carlos allowed.
        Why did they bring this critic to you? I asked. Are you relatives? But you dont even know his name!
        No, not relatives, Carlos answered. But where else should he go?! The whole ballet world is buried here, in my house. O.K., may be not all of it, but most of it...
        Carlos, you see, was the first one to think of opening up a house for gays, the dancer explained.
        House for gays?!
        Yes, Apollo! he confirmed and pointed at the sign behind Carloss back.
        Apollo, I read, Funeral Home of C. Bonaventura.
        I gleamed with delight:
        You shouldve said so in the first place - Apollo! Because, you were covering the sign behind you... Yes, of course, Apollo!
        Everyone knows me around here! C. Bonaventura started shuffling about.
        I know about you, for example! I said. Very good idea!
        A timely one! the dancer started shuffling about as well.
        Sure! I started shuffling about also. We all die.
        Always! he agreed. Oh, you too, ha?
        Very much so! I dont want to but I have to.
        And why dont you want to? the dancer was surprised.
        Who does?!
        The dancer grew pensive and asked again:
        I meant - are you gay too?
        I was taken aback:
        What do you think?
        I, by the way, could tell right away! he was ecstatic.
        Should we go? Carlos grew indignant with the dancer.
        While we were crossing the intersection, I thought about Natella, and remembered that I had to tear a couple of dollars from the dancer for the tunnel. I started searching for the best words to address him, but after finding them, I startled: next to a Mercedes, there was no trace of the wheeler with the critic.
        He was right here! I exclaimed.
        Could they have taken him away? Carlos got anxious.
        What do you mean taken him away?! I smirked. Who needs him?
        People need everything! Carlos explained.
        I thought about the canister. There was no trace of it either. I was enraged. Just in case, I looked up the sidewalk. Then - down. The canister was where I had left it, a dozen cars down.
        There it is! I exclaimed. My canister!
        What canister?!
        And he must be there too - that critic! I answered.
        The three of us ran down. First, we saw the white Mercedes, and then, the wheeler as well.
        There is the son of a bitch! Carlos said with joy.
        The dancer stung Carlos with a sharp glance, then approached the deceased at his head and raised the plaid:
        Yeah, thats him all right! Hasnt changed a bit. Very white...
        Carloss face assumed a philosophical expression:
        Youre right, he is very tall... and he turned towards me. Look how his feet are sticking out!
        I looked at the boots and noticed that the soles were very clean.  Adolfo - I read and started cackling:
        Im sorry, I just remembered something! In the city where I was born, I once bought boots on the black market. They were called Adolfo. But the next day, the boots ripped at the seams. Then, somebody saw the boots and told me that they were made for corpses. In Italy. Very cheaply...
        Thats right! Carlos said. Theres nothing funny about it. Theres a special attire made for the deceased.
        I, for one, never knew that, the dancer confessed. It always seemed to me that life is not adjusted for the dead.
        Thats a good line, I said, because, youre right, life is not for the dead. Especially, if the dead is an emigre...
        Kisselborg was born in New York, the dancer informed me.
        Carlos chose to skip the above:
        To each his own. Your guys in ballet - you have your own shoes also, dont you?
        There was nothing to talk about. The dancer covered the critic with plaid and looked at Carlos questioningly.
        Ill go as well, I muttered. Just give me a couple of dollars, O.K.? But dont get upset... I found the critic for you, after all...
        They exchanged glances. Carlos pulled out a thin stack of one dollar bills, unfastened two of them, then, whipped out a business card from his chest pocket, and extended his hand.
        And we parted.
        The canister was lighter now: probably, a lot had leaked out of it. My steps, however, were heavier.
        On the crossroad, I searched for them with a glance. In the stillness of the city, in its half-darkness, Carlos - in a tuxedo, - and the dancer - in neon boots, bent over, pushed their Kisselborgs wheeler up the hill. And for all three of them, and myself as well, - the fourth one, - and for all the people that now were invisible, those very ones that will wake up tomorrow inside these houses, and ride out into the city in these automobiles, for all of them, including Tchaikovsky with his guitar, even Aivazyan with Colonel Fyodorov, Dawn of East, the young Seminole-girl, Bobby from the FBI, the Pakistani from the gas station - for everyone, everyone around I felt so sorry as if something had painfully stung me. I saw all of them the way they really are - much like the Petkhainers waiting for me at the cemetery: defeated, lost, and thirsty for warmth.
        I saw myself in the same light as well - ridiculous, worthlessly small and deprived of love. I halted, looked up at the prayer shawl burned out by stars and sprinkled with ashes of clouds and wished everyone a victory...


Although it was probably too late to be in a rush, I tore off and ran as soon as I detected the Dodge with Natella. I poured the content of the canister into the gas tank and threw it away with all the clanking and banging, since it turned out to be half full. I said couple of swear words and addressed them to the state of Pakistan. Responding to the noise, the fat couple, which, at first, applauded me and then refused to lend me a ten, came to the window.
        Why are you making a brawl, you stupid?! the husband screamed, while his spouse added that the hour is very late and called me stupid too.
        The feeling of pity for mankind had instantly disappeared from within me.
        Go fuck yourselves! I ordered them.
        They disappeared. Either they went to fuck themselves, or to get a gun. I flew into the Dodge and turned the ignition on. Accustomed to bad luck, I was expecting that the motor would refuse. It didnt. Instead, it roared - and in less than a minute, I was speeding along an empty tunnel leading to Queens.
        Under the ground, I felt like a corpse.
        I didnt feel like thinking about anything, but I realized that there isnt a single muscle in my body capable of shutting off a thought as easily, as lets say, closing ones eyes shuts off vision. The universal nature of this defect frightened me: the humankind consists of all these round-faced couples, Pakistanis, colonel fyodorovs, ayvazyans, seminol-girls, dancers, down-of-easts... - and no one ever is able to stop thinking!
        This time, I had to think a strange thought. It appeared to me that along with the coffin in the back seat, I - very much alive - was rolling along the main highway in Hell. I was realizing that I was dead, but I was seeing myself alive in the neither-world, behind the wheel of the tubercular Dodge, which was, at last, rolling towards the cemetery. It seemed that I, along with all the rest of the people that are alive, have already lived and pegged out - but no one realizes it.
        I felt ridiculous. Especially for the Petkhainers who - if they had not taken off for their homes - must be sitting down at the gravestones of the Mount Hebron cemetery and waiting for the coffin. They are all, of course, sick of waiting, but none of them dares to show it. Even my wife, who always shocks me with her artlessness. Everyone grows timid at cemeteries, especially the Petkhainers - at the yet-unlived and foreign cemetery; in the expectation of Natella before whom every single one of them feels indelibly guilty.
        So, what are they doing there? Everyone - his own thing, probably.
        They are looking at the graves and admiring the order, which in the West - unlike Petkhain - reigns even after death.
        Others are delighting in the luxurious monuments, touch them, and sigh, because they would never have enough time to make money for such things: they should have come here much earlier! Or - on the contrary - they are feeling sorry for the deceased under the scanty, basaltic gravestones; they are feeling sorry for them, but they also console themselves that even today, every one of them could afford to order a better looking gravestone.
        Others are thinking that they - alas!- wont be able to escape death, and entertain thought of a divorce.
        Someone else is starving but doesnt admit it to anyone: its a shame to think of food amongst the dead.
        Would you go for some roast beef now? another asks him, pretending that the question was meant to disturb the silence. His hunger is so real that it seems just as sacrilegious to ignore the question.
        Roast beef, you say? Well, how should I put it... he grimaces and mumbles in response. If only to chew... Just a little...
        And there are among the Petkhainers those who dont utter a single word: first, theyll sit down, then, theyll stand up, then, they will start measuring space with steady steps, observe everything around them, feel, listen, perhaps even think, then, again, theyll finally sit down, and keep silent. Sometime ago, I used to regard someone like that as a wise man: he is silent, therefore, he thinks, and if he thinks - therefore he exists! And if he exists - then, he must be very wise! Not anymore: silence, as a rule, is not wisdom, but merely silence. When the Petkhainers keep silent - when they do - they do so because they have nothing to say: otherwise, they wouldnt be silent.
        I could discern the shadows of the Petkhainers - tired from waiting - in the midst of the cemetery gloom; moving around in the background of the faraway, Manhattan skyline, irrigated by the multitude of lights. I made out lit cigarettes; I even heard how they blew their noses, how they sighed; I heard their irrelevant and meaningless remarks, the rustling of leaves under their feet. I could also see our Petkhain lot at the Mount Hebron - the uneven, but tidy wasteland, allotted to us by the cemetery authorities. I imagined Natellas hole as well, which, upon the Petkhainers insistence, must have been deeper than is customary in America, although they get it in America in a much more reasonable way: to bury someone is just to make him or her not visible to the living folk, and, to achieve that, there is no need to dig too deep a hole.
        And as for a spot for Natella, it was I who chose it on our lot - upon a green hill, strewed with small white stones...


These thoughts, tired and sorrowful, continued on, although I had already popped out of the tunnel and was driving along the highway. I was looking around greedily, trying to seek out the space, drowned in gloom. Getting used to the darkness, my eyes finally learned to make out separate objects within it. The gas station flashed by, the one at which I dropped Amalia off; the first apartment complexes of Queens glided by as well. The familiar sign: Kosher Meats. Simon Bros. The familiar reservoir stone and above it - the just-as-familiar disk of the moon tangled up in the clouds.
        The moon was so pure, so orange-pink that in the background of the emigre Queens, I suddenly felt sorry for it.
        On both sides of my car, images of the familiar space sprang up, fidgeted, and ran away into the rear. This suppressed the frightening sensation of non-being within me.
        Space, I thought, like time, is a metaphor of existence, its guarantee, the surroundings without which it is impossible to feel yourself alive. Death, on the contrary, is the disappearance of space. Space - that is good, I thought. And time - thats good as well.
        In darkness, I discerned the same lines and objects which in the sunlight, I had seen on the way to Manhattan. I felt the presence of time within me, its extension. And this connection with time also assured me that, after all, I was still alive. Death is - detachment from time. That is probably why people are drawn towards the old, the bygone; towards the people which they know, and towards places which they call their own. The recognition of the familiar people in space and time, the recognition of space in time, or time in space - this is the only sign of our existence. Perhaps, that is why the disappearance of the familiar, of our own, distresses us. And that is why all of us, the Petkhainers, were so sincerely pained by Natellas disappearance...
        Then, I thought about Natella herself: what is it like for her there where they disappear? I realized that I had already answered that question: she feels the same that we would have felt had we been deprived of everything - our ties with space and time; had they stuffed us into a wooden box. And had we known that everything will always remain the same with us. Horror! - I shuddered: never - anything new, never- anything old, never - anything at all. This is why everyone is afraid of death. This is why our existence is thoroughly saturated with the horror of non-being. That is why  death, serving as the end to life, turns the latter into perpetual agony and is the moving force and ever-attracting mystery of life...
        Again, I was swiped over by a feeling of tenderness for Natella. Tenderness and curiosity. Again, I felt sorry for her. And again, she became riddlesome. I wanted to slide the lid off the coffin and, as I had done earlier, caress her face, touch the non-existent.
        Shutting off my sense of smell, I stretched my hand back.

        There was no coffin.
        It hadnt slipped off anywhere - it just wasnt there. No coffin, no lid, not even the odor - nothing...
        The Dodge had miraculously kept its balance: it went mad, squeaked, screeched, turned around its backside axis, fell off to the left, but, nevertheless, kept its balance. It crashed with its rear against the concrete in the middle of the highway and stood stock still, as if rooted to the ground. But it didnt lapse into silence - continued grumbling and shaking.
        I turned the interior lights on: there was no Natella. As if she were never in the car.
        I closed my eyes, then opened them, but she was still not there.
        A liquid, scorching weight penetrated into my flesh and consciousness - heated mercury. I even imagined that death had suddenly arrived. I came to instantly, straightened up in the seat, grabbed the wheel with my left hand and with my right, turned the ignition on. Squeezing upon the gas pedal, I shot the car forward.
        The gasoline arrow, again, fell below zero, but I didnt even turn a hair - just registered it in my consciousness. Although I did doublecheck my capacity to follow simple habits: I whipped out a pack of Marlboro from my pocket, pulled out a cigarette, brought it up to my lips, squeezed it in between them, and, at last, lit it. The cigarette let out a smoke and the smoke scorched my throat. I started coughing and that convinced me that Im still continuing.
        I was racing towards my very own, towards the Petkhainers. To the cemetery. As for thought, or realizations, or feelings, - they were not there. There was only a panic of accelerated existence.
        The cemetery gates turned out to be shut, but I didnt push on the breaks - I merely squinted. The left gate flew off the noose and landed about five meters away with a rumble; the right one merely doubled-up and with a despondent screeching and wailing, flung itself open.
        It was completely dark at the cemetery: the Dodge had only one headlight now. The narrow, uphill road darted from side to side, looped nervously like a snake - and from under the still gloom, there popped out old gravestones, agitated by the light: fanciful granite constructions - cubes, balls, spheres, sculptures, marble heads. On one of them - the color of light basalt - a fat snake flashed by.
        Approaching the yet-uninhabited Petkhain lot, located at the far end of the cemetery, at the very hilltop, I slowed down so as not to run over people which I was already expecting to see.
        The Petkhainers were not there.
        I drove along the backside of the fence - not a soul.
        I drew the car back and halted right in front of the Petkhain lot. Made a U-turn and rested the light rays against the wasteland. There was no one around. Carefully, I stepped out of the car onto the ground and observed it.
        The grass was trampled and littered with pieces of newspapers, cigarette boxes and butts. No one except the Petkhainers would do it, I thought. So, they were here, but they have disappeared. Did they leave? I flinched from fear: it seemed as though something horrifying had happened and all of them - the Petkhainers - are scattered around the yet undesignated graves along this wasteland. I thought about them being all together - as one and the same being. I didnt even think of my wife separately.
        I shook my hand and hurried along the wasteland, towards its very depth.
        The Dodge was grumbling unevenly and menacingly behind my back. The faint ray coming from the only headlight started to quiver and blink nervously. Clutching at it, I wandered ahead, as blindly as a lunatic groping for his way. I was looking for the hill, with Natellas dug out grave. It was also nowhere to be found. Again, a suspicion darted through my mind that I am not within life, but somewhere where no one among the living had ever been to.
        Few moments later, the light started to give out - and the engine jerked  and died. I sensed a sudden dizziness and stumbled upon a jut in the ground. I fell on my knee but I knew that I wouldnt be able to overpower it: silence and darkness leaned over my shoulders and pushed me down.

        Time elapsed. When strength came back to me, and when my eyes acquired vision once again, I caught a glimpse of the sharp, Manhattan contours on the other, faraway side of life. Then - next to myself - I saw a short shovel with patches of earth stuck to it. I saw the little, white stones in the grass as well and, at last, realized that I cannot see Natellas hill only because I am on it!
        I made out a fresh knob under my knees. I heard the sulfuric odor of the damp, ploughed earth, and the bitter-sweet scent of wild flowers. I saw the flowers as well. A wreath was resting at the top of the hill. Its leaves were rustling, as if it were alive - as if it had grown out of the earth. A white silk bow was quivering in the wind; its knot untied in the wind and it was ready to flit away. I stretched out its end and read: To Natella Eligulova from her countrymen. We shall not forget you and may God forgive us!
        My throat tightened. I gathered all my strength and pushed the salty knot in throat deeper inside. I dropped my head into my hands and prayed that God should appear in this world, because my soul is full of tears and prayers.
        Then, I sensed pain in my chest. It was rapidly heating up and I got scared: dying in the cemetery was shameful and ridiculous to me at the same time. Listening more carefully to myself, I sighed with relief: the pain was coming not from the heart, but from that tiny hollow located to the right of it, where, besides ones soul, hides ones conscience. This pain, though, was not just the pain of my guilt before Natella; this pain was caused by the intolerable offense that Natella and I parted so unexpectedly, and for all times, and that now, she is resting in the earth.
        My chest wasnt the only thing that was aching now: my whole being was overtaken by a horrifying pain of inexpressibility...
        With my fists in the ground, I tore my closed eyes into them with even more zeal, and attempted to revive Natellas image, so that I could caress it with my palms, full of tenderness and blessing. I could not recall her face. I began torturing my memory, but it would not respond. I even saw the scene in the Queens Shopping Center, when Natella announced herself to the New York Petkhainers for the first time. I recalled her words, even her voice - but her face was still not there.
        I saw her in her Petkhain apartment as well, and in the KGB building. Even - upon the ladder. And again - inside the coffin, in the backyard of the Queens synagogue. There was no face.
        Then, a thought flashed in my head - and I opened my eyes.
        From out of the cemetery haze, out of the dense mirage of sadness, there appeared a pure, orange-pink disk that resembled the moon. It stopped right in front of me and started fading out rapidly. But it was fading out unevenly - in separate blots and patches. Then, it shuddered suddenly and stopped disappearing. I looked into it and discerned a female face, and upon that face - elongated eyes of a sphinx blue-green pupils. The pupils froze amidst the generous inflow of white moisture and emanated the grandiose stillness of lilies in Chinese ponds, the stillness of such a very long existence when time tires of space, but does not know where to go.
        Natella Eligulova had the same eyes and the same facial feature, and the same scar upon the upper lip, but something inside of me urged me on to believe that this face belonged to another woman, to Isabella-Ruth, who was breathing on me with the mixed scent of the steppe hay and fresh mountain mint.

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