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A Cup of Coffee in the Café on Ostozhenko

by Yevgeny Shklovsky

translated from the Russian by John Mason and Byron Lindsey


“So, are we going?” she asks.

Well, sure.

After any book signing, party, play, art exhibition, or whatever—every time she suggests going out somewhere to drink coffee. It’s not a big deal. To sit for a while, or even stand at the counter. But we have a cup of coffee without fail, and a glass of liqueur (or cognac) “for the taste,” smoke a cigarette—also “for the taste.”

She’s irrepressible.

She has her favorite establishments but she’s ready to go wherever. Drop in, sit behind the table or bar, order coffee—or, as a last resort, liqueur (or cognac)—cigarettes, if our own have run out, and then . . . sit in isolation. She takes a little sip of coffee, a little liqueur. Blows smokerings, one into the other, as if she doesn’t notice—it’s an art.

The seam between day and the approaching night.

The slow immersion into night. Reverie. In an adjacent, also comparatively small room there’s a half-lit corner with three more occupied tables (couples), separated by arches. They’re celebrating something there—a big group, champagne, musicians, and while now they’re still singing, in the near future they’ll probably be dancing as well. The audience and musicians, already fired up, are continually slipping into a fast-paced Georgian lezginka. Veronica likes this. Of course, in the evening, when it’s quiet and there’s a romantic pallor to the faces through the blue-gray cigarette smoke, if it’s music, better it be insinuating, unobtrusive. But if there’s dancing, why not? If people are having fun, let them enjoy themselves!

We’ve never been here before.

Having ordered coffee and cognac (there’s no liqueur) from a waiter who came to our table quickly (and who could barely hide his disappointment at the modesty of our order), we look around. An ordinary cafe—“U Lady,” it’s called—with waiters mostly from the Caucasus. The cuisine is Georgian. The speech is guttural, reminiscent of an eagle’s screech . . . gamarjoba: “hello” . . . it would’ve been better to put lamps on the table—it would’ve been cozier. The wallpaper is some sort of strange green color and the engravings on the walls are cheap. The atmosphere is completely relaxed, almost homey. The people hanging around in the neighboring room are most likely friends of the owners.

Her attraction to these establishments is an enigma to me. Even if she’s purposely postponing going home, where there’s no one waiting for her. Or, maybe there is someone waiting, but she’s intentionally slow, so that the expectation of her arrival would be even more noticeable.

Maybe, but maybe not.

I myself don’t know why I go with her (and she brought me, for some reason, as an escort). I’m not even in love with her (who can say for certain?). But, for some reason, I can’t decline. She’s a reporter—writes about art and the varied life around it in newspapers and journals. However, the social receptions with drinks and speakers, which she goes out to cover, it would seem, not only don’t satisfy her (even though she goes to them with relish), but maybe even arouse something else in her.

At one time she talked a lot about herself, about life in general, but now even this is past. We simply sit, sipping coffee from the mug (it’s rare to come across good coffee) and washing it down (sometimes) with liqueur or cognac.

Veronica always pays for herself. My attempts to pay for both of us were immediately cut off. Such independence. She guesses that these establishments aren’t really my style but asks that I go anyway, confident for some reason that I won’t refuse. I confess, I too find it strange that I accept. All the more since late in the evening we often have all sorts of unpleasant surprises from which we need to extricate ourselves. Always (or almost always) someone latches onto us. With conversation or with other, understandable and utterly transparent intentions.

Yes, she is attractive. Not so very pretty, but there is something. Especially her eyes. Not very big, really, but set deeply so that her gaze seems especially deep. It’s an engaging look. You can watch for a long time and not see enough. It’s like being lost somewhere in some damp, hot depth.

An illusion of intimacy.

Between two people who are together, the gaze is limited. It can be directed, but not entered into. In it there is a barrier—it’s close. A reflection. And they would hold onto her. Draw themselves into it. At first, by conversation—with her and with me, but mostly with her. The typical half-turn of the body and face: as if to both of us—a look in my direction, a look in her direction. But, at the same time, more towards her than me, then more and more, especially when they notice that there’s no obvious displeasure or even hidden irritation on my part. And then almost fully towards her and to me only out of courtesy (to see if I’m still there).

Is it that so late in the evening the atmosphere lends itself to such things? Or is it her (our) look that attracts them?

At first I even thought that this was why she needed me—to help her out of these situations. But what kind of protector am I? Better if I were a bodybuilder or black belt. Or wore a gun under my shirt. I’m not one, the other, nor the third. Not even an imposing presence to speak of. The most ordinary possible.

She treats me like an old friend, simply and easily, not wasting any words—we’ve already discussed these things ten times over the same cup of coffee. In various settings, without a hint of flirtation. Simply filling the silence by sipping mouthful after mouthful of warm coffee and taking drags from our cigarettes. Staring at the walls—as if in separate spaces. Like fighting lovers.

Only sometimes does she look at me questioningly: is everything okay? As if, are you still there? Did I disappear unintentionally while she hovered somewhere in her own thoughts? “What are you thinking about?” I occasionally ask in turn, knowing well that the answer will only be some indefinite shrug of her shoulders.

It looks like she really isn’t thinking about anything at all. And neither am I. We’re just sitting, sipping our coffee, our eyes wandering as if we really were interested in what was happening around us. The waiter serves the food and drinks (he had only just walked by with a bottle of vodka, and now he’s carrying a bottle of sweet, red Napareuli). A solid, graying man behind the neighboring table leans over to his companion and whispers something in her ear, while at another table a girl smiles—first at her own companion, who is waving his hands as he passionately explains something to her, then at me, and then at someone I don’t see.

Time passes slowly.

In the neighboring room they’ve already all slipped into a lezginka. An agile young man from the Caucasus has wrapped his knee around an enchanting young lady. A yellow holster and dark revolver handle on his belt stick through from under the seams of his jacket with every sharp movement: op-pa-pa . . . op-pa-
pa. . .

The man from the Caucasus slides on the soles of his pointed shoes, shined to a gleam, first springing lightly on them, as if making himself taller, and then coming back onto his heels, pulling his weight back to his athletic, chiseled body. He spins, waving his hands in one direction, then the other. The girl, twisting her flexible thin figure as if a snake around an invisible tree, first pulls him to herself, then pushes him away and follows him submissively, her black skirt flying up, exposing narrow, well-shaped ankles: op-pa-pa . . . It’s as if her thin hands are stroking the air, tracing enigmatic figures and signs. Their passion blazes all the brighter as the flames of dance flare up. The feverish shadows move toward our little corner of the restaurant.

Veronica can’t sit still any longer; she jumps up, takes two steps forward in the direction of the room where they are dancing, and freezes with a slight inclination forward, tensely peering in. There’s a smile on her face also, a smile of expectation. A smile of some sort of secret knowledge that only a woman has, a smile that has given man no peace for many centuries. It’s obvious she too wants to dance. She knows how, she can dance—not like that girl from the Caucasus, but probably not much worse. I’ve never danced with her, even though she’s told me a lot about her childhood love for it. I’ve only watched her dance with others—she rarely declines when asked—and I sit and watch as someone else’s hands are wrapped around her waist, as they leisurely lead her away in time to the music.

It’s as though we have an unspoken agreement: we only drink coffee, nothing more. Though in fact there’s no such agreement, and I could ask her to dance. But I don’t.

Now she’s excitedly clapping her hands, encouraging the dancing couple (along with the people sitting in the neighboring room), delight on her blushing face. She’s standing in our nook, a few steps from the table. She’s well proportioned, in her close-fitting black jumper, and her whole figure is taut like a string, like a bow, ready to destroy the silence with a high, drawn-out scream. There in the neighboring room they’ve already noticed her. I see that at the table one of the Georgians, graying but still quite young looking, lowers his head to another and says something, turning his gaze in our direction.

I know exactly what’s going to happen, but I don’t try to do anything about it. I’ve learned this lesson long ago. There’s nothing new here, we’ve already gone through almost exactly the same thing. At first he’ll say, “From our table to yours”—champagne or wine, maybe even hors d’oeuvres—and then an invitation to dance (or maybe the other way around). After that he’ll come over to the table: “I’m not disturbing you, am I?” and so forth. He’ll make frequent, ornate toasts, constantly filling my glass (especially my glass): “Bottoms up, my friend—don’t insult me!” Socializing and finally a skilfull attempt to whisk away the smiling Veronica. The next stage is the most tense, since so many advances have already been made that to decline is perceived as an insult. It becomes necessary—depending on the enthusiasm and obstinacy of the suitor—to make every effort to escape from the persecution. “Why do you do that?” I’ve asked Veronica more than once, but she only shrugs her shoulders. There are questions for which you rarely get answers.

The holster on the belt of this fine actor confuses me. It’s as if we weren’t on Ostozhenka in the middle of Moscow, but in Chicago sometime during the thirties. Isn’t this some trite scene from a western? This isn’t Chicago, however, and this guy—by all indications—is guarding some sort of shady business and has authorization to carry weapons. And, the very owner of that business is probably here at the big table in the neighboring room, maybe he too is staring at Veronica as she claps obliviously. Whispering something (it’s not hard to guess what) to the person at the next table, he points to her with a hawk-like look. Our spaces have crossed, but then is Moscow any worse than Chicago? Anything possible in Chicago is maybe even more so in Moscow.

And certainly here as well, at U Lady. Behind the walls in the distant semi-basement rooms with hanging ceilings, the sweet smoke of the secret life flows: saunas, carpets, mirrors, hookahs, mermaids on branches, expensive games, the rustle of bills, powder, potent and fine, like sand, the tipsy aroma of vice. Although, it’s completely possible that there’s none of that here, and everything, to the contrary, is scrupulously clean and humble. Metal engravings twinkling dimly on the walls, the greenish floral wallpaper, and a revolver handle, sticking up from the holster on the belt of the man from the Caucasus as he dances. He has one and I don’t.

Veronica is already dancing with the man who was looking at her. Dancing something slow, gracefully bowing her head almost to the very shoulder of her proud and self-assured partner, who is whispering something in her ear with a demonic smile. Her talent for instantly forgetting shocks me. It seems the dance lasts forever. The pace speeds up and then slows back down.

This dance is for Veronica.

It will last exactly as long as the boss wants it to. It will be as long as he orders it to be. An hour, two, three, the fatigued musicians, falling asleep, instruments in hand, will play until victory. To the very break of day, which will suddenly blaze in the gold on the cupola of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. “From our table to yours.” Such chivalry. “Bottoms up, my friend, you wouldn’t insult me, would you?” Past the tightly shuttered window, the July night in Moscow creeps like velvet, the little orchestra strums something romantic. With the guard slouched in the chair, extending his feet in his pointed patent-leather shoes, I watch as his boss shuffles with Veronica.

A small bird. A big pheasant—there, in the far hidden depths with rugs and mirrors. The Khvanchkara screams in my head; my feet, it seems, are not there. Veronica, let’s drink the coffee and go—it’s time! “My friend, bottoms up, are you a man or not?”

A banal storyplot set in Gorgia on the Black Sea. Except that outside the window there isn’t the dull drone of the restless evening tide, but Moscow’s Ostozhenka. A wasteland already at that hour, with gangster jeeps rushing by from time to time and a rare taxi light. The spires of Christ the Savior growing white in the floodlights.

Veronica, I’m finishing my drink and going home. You’re not leaving me here alone, are you?

The Khvanchkara is never-ending. Dark wine from grapes of far-off Svanetia [fn 1] (bottled in Moscow). To one side is the Svan river. To the other, Chicago. Mountain peaks sleep in the darkness of night [fn 2] . . . the Guadalquivir [fn 3] boils and roars. Long, ornate Georgian toasts. “My friend, do you respect me?”—“I respect you, but I’m not going to drink.”—“With a plate of pheasant, will you?”—“Even with pheasant, I will not.”—“So what will make you drink?”—“A Smith and Wesson.”—“Well, then! You’re a sharp wit. Fine, a Smith and Wesson.” The glasses clink above the gleaming steel of the revolver. “And where is the dagger?”—“What dagger?”—“Well, that silver one like Shota Rustaveli had in the picture . . .[fn 4] like the hero in tiger skin.”—“The Smith and Wesson isn’t enough for you?”

It’s enough for me. The thick, sweet wine, red like blood, and the Khvanchkara, repetitive like the beating of a heart, comes crashing straight down the mountain, a turbulent stream into our tired veins. An eagle’s scream of secret desires. Veronica’s head is on the boss’s shoulder. The smooth bend of the handle of the Smith and Wesson. “This is no game, brother. Leave it, let it lie!”

The film is approaching the finale: when the guys in blue appear (the crash of the doors as they are thrown open), everyone is already standing with their faces to the walls, hands behind their heads and legs spread wide.

It seems to me I know all about her. We’ve already been together a long time. We simply go to drink the stale coffee (life’s bitter sweetness) in some sort of snack bar, listen to music and the muffled din of people, and look around.

Footnotes

1. Upper Svanetia is an historic province of Georgia in the central part of the main Caucasian ridge.

2. The first line of Lermontov’s poem From Goethe.

3. A river in southern Spain, a reference to Pushkin’s The Night Zephyr Blows Fragrantly (1824).

4. Shota Rustaveli is the national poet of Georgia.

 

Yevgeny Shklovsky, a Moscow critic and editor, has published two collections of short stories, Zalozhniki (Hostages) and Ta strana (The Other Country), as well as Pitomnik (The Greenhouse), a cycle of new stories recently in Novy Mir, the leading Russian literary journal. His story cycle Ulitsa (The Street) was short-listed for the 2001 Yuri Kazakov Short Story Prize. The story in this issue of AGNI is his first in English translation. (10/2003)

John Mason is a student at the University of New Mexico studying Russian history and literature. He has been published in the 2001-02 issue of Conceptions Southwest and was the winner of the CSW fiction contest. His non-fiction has appeared in The UNM History Association Journal. (10/2003)

Byron Lindsey is a critic and translator of contemporary Russian prose and teaches at the University of New Mexico. His translation of The Loss, a collection of Vladimir Makanin’s works, won the Eugene Kayden National Translation Award in 1997. He also won AGNI’s 2000 Arrowsmith Translation Award for his translation of Victor Pelevin’s story “The Greek Version” (in AGNI 50). (10/2003)


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