translated by Karina Simakova

I.

The phone rang very quietly and seemingly reluctantly. I was surprised, but nonetheless picked up the phone.

“Yeah…”

“Hi, Serge!”

“Hey, Zhenya,”  as I was called by my nickname, which was known only to my relatives, and as the timbre of the man’s voice sounded familiar to me, I recognized Zhenya.

“I am glad to hear from you. We haven’t had a glass of tea in a while…”

I knew that Jack would not mind to have hundred or two hundred grams with me, but his wife, foreseeing the consequences of our gatherings, did her best to prevent us from such meetings.

“Serge, I’m damn glad I phoned you. I have a request and a guaranteed kickback…” he paused, waiting for my answer. Eugene bothered me very rarely and it happened, as a rule, in extreme cases.

Therefore, I did not express my indignation and protests—I absolutely didn’t have them—in fact, I was glad for his call and said:

“Yes, Zheka, I’m listening and always ready to help.”

“Serge, I heard that tomorrow you are going to Leshan. Would you be able to grab a small gravestone? I need to take the monument there. He is ready, but I don’t feel like going just for his sake. A piece of granite: fifty pounds, no more. Kickback is on me!”

I was embarrassed in front of Eugene because of such nonsense. Being a writer and having a tiny salary, I often borrowed tens and more, so with careless willingness, I agreed:

“Yeah, dude, no problem! Prepare the load. I’ll drop by your place tonight, pick it up, and it’ll be there tomorrow afternoon. I have to be in Leshan in the morning.”

“Well, amazing, I bailed out!” The handset responded with a satisfied cry and short beeps.

We loaded the stove without any complications. My 31029-Volga has withstood heavier loads, and his 21st was not so quick. We put a gravestone, wrapped in thin felt, in the bottom of the trailer, and then all my Mars bars, Snickers bars, and other rubbish: I recently got a job at one of the buying/selling firms and hanged around the area. All these little things required a careful recalculation: I did it in the evening, then drove the car into my garage in the morning and drove around the outskirts. But I went for the first time to Leshan; I still had to find this village and the stall located in it.

II.

The morning fog was so thick that it seemed that if you reached your arm out, you wouldn’t be able to see your fingertips. It was like fresh milk. I remembered Kamchatka; such fog was the norm for those regions. In the good old days, I ended up serving three years there.

Life was beautiful and amazing: I bought the Vosmerka* and pranced on it along and across the Volgograd region, where I came on vacation with my parents. I wanted to stay in Kamchatka longer, but I was caught while poaching. I (how else in this fishy Paradise?) wasn’t malicious, so, on the birthday of my wife…ran into trouble…and these, the valiant, what a pity…I can’t remember names, caught the bastard…they got a reward for me later.

And I was kicked with a stirrer and expelled from Kamchatka.

Although the generals and their informants was out there fishing tons…but they got me…a pathetic person…for a couple of fish tails.

In my memories, I got distracted and missed the pointer. The way to Leshan lay through Rudnya, a large village stretched along the road. I took a right turn and did not go back, deciding to turn at the next intersection and go to Leshan through Novotolucheevo, a small hamlet that had almost merged with Rudnya. It’s a pity that the asphalt ended a hundred meters from the main highway and I had to slowly trudge, rolling along from hill to hill over the village potholes. Finally, I saw the highway and rode out to it, but the place was unfamiliar: no buildings…stunted bushes and trees which were along the roadside. I even had a doubt if it was even the right road. And when I almost decided to go back and ask directions in the village, when suddenly I saw through a shroud of fog a lonely figure, standing near the road and waving his hand. I was glad: now I don’t have to go back, I can find out from the guy if he’s local, he probably knows how to get from here to Leshan. I carefully slowed down: thick snow was falling, the road could be slippery, and the car passed a little further, than he stood up.

The guy approached me with no hurry, I opened the car door and he either asked, or said:

“To Leshan…”

I was unpleasantly struck by his voice. Low and deaf, as from the ground, he was completely devoid of any intonation, and it seemed to me that no muscles in his face moved when he uttered this phrase.

“Sit down,” I told him. He sat in the front seat, but didn’t fasten his seat belt.

“Traffic cops are strict, it would not hurt to buckle up,” I reminded him about the rules of the road. “The black cloak** will not stand on ceremony. Get a fine and be healthy.” I hinted at one of our most vigilant enforces of traffic safety services.

“No one will bother you again with me,” said the young man without any emotion, and I again started to feel uncomfortable. His voice sounded as if he was speaking not in the car, but from somewhere far away, from the depths.

The morning dawn was just beginning, and fog and snowfall made the approach of the day longer. I turned to look at the fellow traveler, but his face was almost invisible, and only an unnaturally white spot on his skin stood out. Noticing that I was looking at him, he, without turning to me, pointed ahead and said: “There is where you have to look.” And in fact, soon, several forks appeared on the road.

It was more than surprising because the director of the base, explaining to me how to drive, warned that there would be no forks from Rudnaya to Leshan. But the companion, as if reading my thoughts, said in the same dull monotonous voice:

“Don’t worry! It is the right way. Leshan is already close.”

“Are you living there?”

“I was living there.”

“What happened? Have you relocated?” I tried to clarify.

The guy turned and looked into my eyes; an icy chill gripped my soul. His unblinking gaze seemed to pierce through me, and I, wishing to smooth out the unpleasant pause, took out my cigarettes and offered him one. He said nothing and looked forward again. The lighter somehow did not ignite. I turned on the cigarette lighter, but it didn’t work either.

“Have you got a match?” I asked the guy

“Your health should be protected.”

His monotonous, deaf voice began to cause me some anxiety. Dawn had risen; I looked at him again and I began to overflow with quiet horror: I noticed that the snowflakes lying on his face weren’t melting. I had already decided to tell him, but he looked at me again, and the words got stuck in my throat. And in that moment, I suddenly felt that it gotten very cold in the car: it seemed to me that the man sitting next to me was a block of ice, exuding a strong chill. I turned on the car stove at full power, and the fellow traveler frowned and said: “So deadly stuffiness…” The last word he squeezed out of him slowly and in a full length, staring at me with his unblinking eyes.

Suddenly, the headlights showed a sign reading “Leshan” and some buildings through the fog and snow mass.

“Well, I helped you to get there.”

“Drop me off, I don’t need to go farther,”  said the passenger, as monotonously as before.

I turned off the transmission and pressed the brake. The car stopped; the guy opened the door and went out. I drove to look for the kiosk. The stall was almost in the center of the village. The meticulous saleswoman carefully counted all the packages, bags and packs: that  with what modern small traders are rich in. It took a lot of time—we barely had time to complete the reception—transfer of goods for lunch. I wanted to get home quickly, but I had to keep my promise to my wife. The saleswoman of the stall kindly explained to me how to find the necessary address, shouting afterwards: “Their son recently died, just forty days ago.”

I quickly found Zhenya’s customers: Leshan is a small village. The old man opened the door. He glanced at me sullenly, and it was evident from his appearance that he was in great grief. After a while, an old woman came out to us. Her appearance only aggravated the oppressive atmosphere. I could not stand it and, wishing quickly to deal with the unpleasant procedure, asked where to put the stove. The old man pointed at the chest in the corner. I pulled it out of the trailer and moved it to the specified location. The old woman unfolded the felt, I looked at the broken mourning portrait and froze: my morning companion was looking directly at me from the gravestone.

***

* Vosmerka: a Russian car model.

** Black cloak: a nickname for particularly zealous traffic police officers.

About Karina Simakova

Karina Simakova is a Russian student and English translator who lives in Volzhsky, Volgograd. She hopes to study English in the U.S. in the future.