On Friday evening Glebov Senior took a turn for the worse: The ache started in his chest, spreading to his shoulder and then into his back. The ambulance was sent for. A young doctor, sullen and drowsy, examined the patient, scratched his cheek thoughtfully and yawned a few times. This final yawn turned out so enormous that the poor man’s jaw popped, and he fingered his chin, mouth gaping and eyes bugging like he was trying to make something out in the half-light of the room. This entire time, Glebov’s family, including his six-year-old grandson, Vanya, looked the doctor in the mouth and awaited the verdict. “Heart attack, I’d say,” the doctor finally forced out, and once again yawned, though somehow this time with a look of alarm—warily, one might say.
Glebov Senior was taken to the hospital, and by the next morning he was dead.
You couldn’t exactly say his death was completely unexpected or, in the words of one of Glebov’s friends at the funeral, like thunder in a cloudless sky. Considering the distinguished age of the deceased (eighty-four is no joke), all of Glebov’s friends and family—indeed, even Glebov himself—had been mentally preparing for the end. But death always arrives unexpectedly, no matter how one braces for it. Moreover, Glebov, by nature a man patient and soft-spoken, rarely complained about his health. While he was alive, such stoicism was taken for granted. After his death, this trait, as generally happens, took on heroic overtones and even metamorphosed into a sort of bitter reproach that his relatives mentally addressed to the deceased—maybe if you’d complained a bit more (they said to themselves) we would’ve been on the lookout and made sure that things didn’t come to this heart attack. Despite the fact that they all understood perfectly well that the endless complaints of the elderly don’t arouse greater concern for the sick, but instead only cause irritation—in Pushkin’s classic words: “When will the devil finally take you?” So even this rebuke was not without a shade of gratitude.
Glebov’s son Yegor never did get the chance to say goodbye to his father. Not really through any fault of his own—his work brigade, as bad luck would have it, was assigned the night shift from Friday into Saturday. And although he dashed straight from the factory motor depot to the hospital as soon as his shift ended, he was too late.
The wake was modest and sparsely attended: Yegor was there with his wife, son, and daughter, as was a neighbor from across the hall who’d often played chess with Glebov Senior, along with two of the deceased’s army buddies from the Front. They’d worked in the same brigade. Following retirement, all three used to meet up to recount their days of yore, lament the collapse of the Soviet Union, and argue over politics and prices. One of them, raising his glass of vodka at the wake, announced that Glebov Senior was an auto mechanic from God, and it was gratifying to see that Yegor had followed his father’s footsteps, just as in his own time the latter had followed in the footsteps of his own father, Yegor’s grandfather, who was also a mechanic. The other friend noted sadly that Glebov Senior passed away just two months before his eighty-fifth birthday.
At this, everyone at the wake proceeded to murmur assent and nod their heads in unison. Yegor also gave his head a nod, although he didn’t quite understand what might have been different if his father had died after his eighty-fifth birthday. Was dying after a round-numbered birthday that much more pleasant than dying before one? Worse, such a situation could seem even less opportune—look, you could say, he’d only just barely celebrated the big date, and what a shame! But Glebov Junior understood that funerals were a place where one always spoke about how the deceased had passed before his time, even if the deceased was some 120-year-old codger who’d suffered every ailment under the sun.
Yegor was a late child. His mother died a few years after the birth of her son, leaving Yegor wholly to the care of the suddenly widowed Glebov Senior, who was nothing shy of forty-five years of age at the time. If there was any influence on the relationship between father and son, their difference in age more likely was a good thing: His father never pushed Yegor around, treating him almost as a grandson. In other words, as if he was some non-immediate family member who could be loved, though never punished. True, the fact that Yegor had followed in his footsteps elicited from his father neither tenderness nor enthusiasm. Partly because nearly the entire male population of their small town worked at the factory, so that every third person, if not every other person, could boast such a family legacy. And partly also because even his own father, Yegor’s grandfather, had accepted his son’s decision to stay on at the factory’s motor depot with the very same indifference. True, Glebov Senior did add something along the lines of “so go be a fool then.” Apparently having secretly hoped his son would go away to school and rise above his origins.
Unlike Glebov Senior, Glebov Junior actually did attempt to enroll at the institute. But he quickly botched the entrance exams, returning home to work a few years at the factory motor depot in his father’s work brigade, after which he left to serve in the army.
Upon his return, he got married to the neighbor’s daughter, Natalya—Natasha, or Natashka, for short—whom he wasn’t exactly in love with, but who had mysteriously awaited his return even though there’d been nothing between them before he’d gone into the army. She’d waited for him faithfully, never cheating on him or fooling around on the side—something she kept Yegor regularly informed of in her letters to Military Command 45A of the Voronezh Region. Even though these letters embarrassed Yegor, they also warmed his heart; no one else in his squadron received anything like them. His fellow servicemen envied Yegor and often clapped him on the shoulder and demanded he invite them to the wedding, adding that having a fiancée made military service that much more tolerable. At first, Yegor protested, swearing that she wasn’t his fiancée at all, just some acquaintance of his, but seeing how he couldn’t explain why she would write him such letters if this were true, he soon threw up his hands and began believing in their inexplicable match—if she was writing to him, surely it meant that she was his fiancée. Particularly envious of Glebov was Lance Corporal Goryunov, who received letters from his fiancée of quite a different character. In them, she told in great detail about when and with whom she’d cheated on him, after which she repented and swore that it would never happen again, and that she completely loved him. Despairing, Goryunov itched to go on leave (which was, in fact, owed him for exemplary service), but he wasn’t allowed time off, because as soon as he got to drinking, he’d start yelling about how he’d kill his fiancée and all of her “gigolos.” Such heartfelt confessions made a strong impression on the squadron commander, who kept having to think of more and more reasons not to allow Goryunov to take his leave. When he finally got tired of straining his imagination, he told Goryunov straight out: “You get discharged, you can put a knife to whomever you want, I don’t care if it’s your mother, your father, your aunt, or your uncle. But while I’m answering for you, you won’t see a day of leave, no more than you can see your own ears.” The story ended rather tragically when, after receiving another letter with a detailed description of a liason, Goryunov dispensed with permission and went AWOL shortly before he was up for discharge, taking his assault rifle with him along with five clips of ammunition (one for each of the men who’d slept with his fiancée). Back in his hometown, however, the local police were already waiting for him. Goryunov was seized and sent back to the base, then on to a military tribunal to be tried. It emerged only later that the letters were written not by Goryunov’s fiancée, but rather by her younger sister, who was secretly in love with Goryunov. Incidentally, this didn’t change the facts of the matter, since all the dalliances described in the letters really did take place. It might even be said that the younger sister had sugarcoated reality a bit, since the fiancée had no intention of repenting and swearing her eternal devotion to Goryunov. As a matter of fact, she didn’t have a clue who this Goryunov was and why she should be faithful to him, since she’d only slept with him once, during the going-away bash when he was leaving for the army. And if this had gone to his head, it wasn’t her problem.
Against this tragic backdrop, Glebov Junior and his letters from dear Natashka managed to look pretty good. Which is why, after returning home, he firmly resolved to marry her. Any girl who’d so faithfully waited for a young soldier who was not only not her fiancé, but who was not even her boyfriend, in Glebov’s mind, deserved being made a wife. She was no beauty, but then again nobody confused Glebov with Alain Delon either.
The wedding they put on was a modest but respectable affair. In other words, it went off without anybody getting knifed. At least, not counting the minor scuffle that resulted in Glebov’s army buddy losing an ear. The ear was sliced off by a kitchen knife wielded by the security guard Goga, who’d become unhinged by a case of the DTs and died the following day after the wedding. Goga was a good man. But hot-tempered. Maybe even excessively so. By and large, nobody was too upset by his death. Unlike the severed ear, which everyone searched high and low for, but never did find. There was some suspicion that it had accidentally fallen into the plate of Kalugin the electrician, who had apparently eaten it, inasmuch as he’d never been much picky about his food, especially while intoxicated. But Kalugin himself swore up and down that he hadn’t eaten any ear, and made a big show of shoving two fingers into his mouth, as if inviting the other partygoers to inspect the contents of his stomach. But he was restrained from this indignity, and told that if it came to that, it was preferable to tear open his stomach than to root around in his vomit. Despite losing an ear, the army friend held no grudge against anyone, and as he was taking his leave, he clutched Glebov into a long embrace, pressing his head, bandaged a la Van Gogh, into the latter’s chest. Thanking Glebov for the invitation, he said that the wedding was a smashing success, that he hadn’t had so much fun in a long time, and that, thank God, there’d be something to remember. “The most important thing is having something to remember it with,” Glebov joked, half-hinting that at the next wedding, his friend should try to avoid getting his whole head cut off.
After the wedding, the daily grind set in, and things were set in motion exactly as they were meant to be: alarm clock at seven in the morning, working weekdays at the auto depot, his little daughter Anyuta, the purchase of a car, the allotment of an apartment, vacation in Crimea, his son Vanya, and so on. Day after day, week after week, year after year. Anyuta went to school, Vanya learned to walk, Natalya put on weight, Glebov Junior grew up, and Glebov Senior grew old—even though it seemed that nothing changed. That time had congealed, or tangled itself stuck into a snarl of the past, present, and future. Just yesterday your mother berated you for skipping class, and today you berate your daughter for the same. Just yesterday, life seemed finished and empty, because the girl from another class declined going to the movies with you, and today you shrug off questions about the meaning of existence like a pestering fly. Just yesterday, it seemed that you would live forever, and today you know that you will, but that time will immortalize you not at a young age, but at the one you are now.
Time is a tricky thing. It shields our mind from its swift passing. Hiding itself from our eyes, it dissolves in thousands of everyday trivialities. But grabbed by its tail, it slips out of our sluggish grasp with a laugh: Oh, come on! What changes? Do you really think you’re different from the person you were two hours ago? Or even a day ago? A month?
We gaze with bewilderment at ourselves in the mirror, day in and day out, and see no changes at all. Even though we know for certain that they exist. There’s no way they could not. We curse and continue to live. And only when we happen upon an old photograph or a former classmate do we stop dead in confusion: Can it be that I’m getting older? And what’s next? I’ll die? How does that work exactly? You live and live and then what, just cease to exist? Yep. Live and live and then cease to exist. And time will only flash its mermaid flipper in farewell and then disappear for eternity. True, it won’t disappear anywhere, because it’s us that disappears. Time is what sticks around.
Glebov didn’t pore over old photographs; as a matter of fact, he was completely indifferent to pictures. All his photo album treasures were kept in an old school satchel under the bed. Neither Glebov nor his wife ever looked there. And former classmates didn’t ever astonish him with their altered appearances, since most of them he saw every day at the factory, and so he wasn’t in a position to detect any serious changes in them.
And that’s how it came to be that the death of his father became the very event that stirred in him some previously slumbering part of his soul. Neither sets of grandparents lived long enough for him to remember them—nor his mother, for that matter—and so consequently his father was the only thing between him and eternity. Now that this sole barrier had disappeared, he found eternity staring him in the eye, licking its chops predatorily. That didn’t mean that after the funeral Glebov Junior suddenly took to mulling over the years he’d lived and searching for some meaning of existence. As before, he got up at seven in the morning and walked to the factory. Evenings he watched television. Sometimes he played chess in the courtyard with a friend. He made plans to go on vacation (although this time without Anyuta, who’d grown up so much that she preferred to spend the summer in the company of her girlfriends and peers). But all the same, something shifted inside of him. Otherwise, what other explanation could there be for that strange chain of events that befell him after the death of his father, and which serves as the reason for our story?
A few weeks after the funeral, Glebov Junior was sitting at home and, like usual after the end of the workday, was watching television. He didn’t feel like sleeping, even though the rest of the family had long ago gone to bed, even stir-crazy Vanya. Some Hollywood action-adventure movie was on tv, where the heroes were either looking for some ancient treasure, or some book of wisdom—whatever it was, it was extremely important, a thing worth risking your life for without a moment’s thought. Glebov tried his best to follow the logic of the plot, but this turned out to be not that easy, since in such movies the characters’ logic seems unassailable only at first glance, whereas the laws it followed were in actual fact completely incomprehensible. And the viewer was not only not in any position to marvel at the mental prowess of the heroes, he couldn’t even understand the basis of the deductive method employed by these scholar-historians, their eyes blazing. That said, every character in the movie was dropping scientific facts left and right, sprinkling in historical dates and big names, as if the only thing they did their whole lives was sit around reading dictionaries and historical reference books.
Unsurprisingly, Glebov couldn’t pierce the heroes’ hazy, voluntaristic logic no matter how he tried. During the commercial break, he got up and began to pace the room in some deep inner distress. Then he sat down again and was glued to the screen, yearning passionately to take part in solving the historical puzzle. Once, his wife popped her head in the room. She gave an affectedly wide yawn and asked how long Glebov was going to watch that drivel and did he want to go to bed, especially since tomorrow he had to be up early.
Glebov, already irritated by the orgy of illogic on the television screen, reacted testily to his wife’s yawn, telling her that he wasn’t a little kid and that he was fully capable of managing his leisure on his own. His wife shrugged her shoulders and, yawning one more time for the sake of finality, left the room. And Glebov continued to sit glued to his spot. He became conscious of his own powerlessness only when the heroes’ final bits of dialogue sounded from the screen, just as they were scrambling to discover the combination to unlock the secret door in the minute left before the explosion.
“What do we have, Susan?”
“Except for the reference to the ancient tribe of the Incas, nothing.”
“Incas … Incas … What was the Incas’ favorite number?”
“Five. I frequently encountered that very numeral in their ancient writing.”
“Right you are. And what’s the number five in Roman numerals? It’s ‘V.’ In other words … ”
“In other words … Victoria? Victory?”
“Right again. And what could victory mean?”
“Victory in war. For instance, World War II.”
“Good. But that began in ’39.”
“But what if instead of the year the war started, you take the year that the man who started the war—Hitler, in other words—came to power?”
“Then that would be ’33.”
“Let’s add thirty-three and forty-five together. We get seventy-eight. And where does that get us?”
“Nowhere. But the ancient prophecy at the entrance to the labyrinth indicates that subtraction is more effective than addition, for ‘in taking away, you proceed from little and achieve much.’ ”
“And forty-five minus thirty-three is twelve!”
“Twelve—that’s the number of apostles. From these, we subtract the number who wrote the gospels.”
“That leaves eight. In other words … ”
“In other words, eight. And what about in other languages?”
“Otto, hati, vosem, acht … ”
“Stop! Acht! But all the sacred rituals of the Incas were done at night.”
“Could it be that what is meant is ‘nacht’?”
“Yes, if we take ‘acht’ and add the symbol ‘N’ revered by the Incas, then we indeed get ‘nacht’ … ”
“In other words … night. And ‘night’ happens to be the name of one of the tribe’s leaders during the time of the conquistadors.”
“That’s his second name; his first is Dezuma.”
“So it’s Dezuma!”
It probably goes without saying that, having entering in the name of the chief, the heroes gained access to what they were searching for, and obtained eternal bliss. Or saved the world. Or whatever else it was.
On the screen, the credits rolled in triple speed, but Glebov remained seated, staring dumbly at the space in front of him. Then he seemed to come to his senses and switched off the television set. He did this with a sense of chagrin, as he felt that he’d been hoodwinked. It had seemed as if the heroes’ clearheaded logic was capable of uncovering the key to any riddle, but Glebov alone did not understand this logic. Maybe I’m not educated enough, he thought, with a feeling of shame. I should have gotten a higher education.
Lying in bed and listening closely to the even exhalations of his wife beside him, Glebov brooded about his wife’s unshakable calm and felt irritated for the first time. She couldn’t just enjoy the movie with him—at the end of the day, was she his wife or not? But this irritation soon passed, giving way to excitement. For some reason, he recalled his father, recalled the auto depot, recalled the army. And while heroes in books, faced with mortal danger, often see their lives passing before their eyes, Glebov saw something like a compilation. And it flashed before him not chaotically, but somehow in an orderly fashion, as if shaped by some hidden system. When it was finished, Glebov was even further from sleep—he just lay there and thought.
At 6 a.m., he shook his wife awake.
“Huh?” her whole body jerked and she started blinking her sleepy eyes in alarm.
“Listen,” Glebov whispered. “When was I born?”
“What the hell, Yegor, are you off your rocker?” said his wife, choking with surprise.
“No, I’m not off my rocker. I was just asking rhetorically, to get you thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” his wife asked. “Did something happen to Vanya?”
“Well, no,” Glebov said, frowning and waving dismissively. “Listen. I was born on February 9. And my father?”
“As if you don’t know yourself.”
“No, you tell me.”
Figuring out that the children were all okay, his wife threw back her head on the pillow and yawned. “Is it absolutely necessary to discuss this at six a.m.?”
“Yes,” Glebov answered sharply. “My father’s birthday was March 15. Get it? There’s a thirty-five-day difference.”
“Unbelievable,” his wife said. “What do you want me to do, go hang myself?”
“What does hanging yourself have to do with anything?”
“Don’t yell. You’ll wake Vanya.”
Glebov swore and sputtered. “My grand-father was born on April 20, get it? The difference between him and father was how much? Correct! Thirty-five days. The difference between Vanya and me is thirty-five days, get the picture? Everywhere is the same thirty-five days!”
“Don’t ‘so what’ me. Why don’t you count off thirty-five days from the start of the year instead?”
“Not a chance.”
“It’s February 4,” Glebov triumphantly concluded. “Anyuta’s birthday.”
“What a bunch of baloney.”
“It’s not baloney.”
“Okay. It’s not baloney. Can I go back to sleep?”
“No,” Glebov said. “Listen up, there’s more. Our last name came from Gleb the metal smith, our ancestor. If you take the letters of the name Gleb and assign them numbers, then you get four, twenty-three, six, and two. Now add them together.”
“A million,” answered Natalya, who was starting to get rather sick of all this.
“Million yourself, dummy. Thirty-five, once again. Get it?”
“So where’d you put the final letters?” his wife said.
“Aha!” Glebov cried, delighted he’d finally brought her around. “That’s where the most interesting part begins. ‘Ov’ is twenty-six and three. Add that to thirty-five, and you get sixty-four. And my granddad died at age sixty-four. And he had my dad at age twenty. Now then, add twenty to sixty-four.”
“Eighty-four,” his wife quickly calculated.
“And at what age did Dad die?”
“Eighty-four,” she answered wearily.
Glebov looked victoriously at his wife, but she only raised herself up on an elbow. “Listen, are you telling me all this now for real, or have you truly lost it?”
“The hell with it,” he said, and flopped his head back into his pillow. “You haven’t understood a thing.”
“No,” his wife answered truthfully, and yawning, turned over onto her side.
In the morning, Glebov left for work like usual, and Natalya forgot about the incident in the night, chalking it up to some temporary impairment of his mind. But that same evening, not long before her husband was due home, she got a phone call from Oleg Ushakov, a coworker mechanic who was a frequent visitor at the Glebovs’.
“Did something happen?” Natalya said, alarmed because Oleg never called, and why would he? After all, he saw Glebov every day at work as it was.
“Afraid so,” he answered somberly.
“Yegor? He’s alive?”
“He’s more alive than all the living, don’t worry. Just odd. What I’m driving at here is, today he came in to the shop and spent the whole day filling our brains with rot, some sort of numbers and calculations.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“Who the hell knows. Something lined up here, something coincided there. He started to recite our names from front to back, then count the number of letters. And the amount of stuff he told us about himself, whoa boy. He’d say that there was nothing accidental in such-and-such happening, and everything was already figured out beforehand in something else. What I’m driving at here is, we heard him out the first time, and the second time, but it’s getting late, and there’s work to be done. He’s supposed to be assembling the carburetor, but the whole time he’s mumbling something to himself and every once in a while he smacks himself on the forehead. What I’m driving at here is, did he get to drinking last night?”
“No,” his wife said, flustered. “Just watched tv, that’s all.”
“Maybe after his father’s death he got off his rocker?”
“I don’t know,” Natalya said, at a loss.
“What I’m driving at here is, maybe he should see a doctor. Or else you never know, he might chop you into pieces with an ax, then you’ll be sorry.”
“Sorry wouldn’t even begin to describe,” Natalya replied cheerlessly.
“What I’m driving at here is, if anything comes up, don’t hesitate to call.”
“Sure,” Natalya said, and hung up the phone.
Glebov came home that evening carrying two hefty bags.
“And what’s this?” his wife asked with alarm, remembering Oleg’s words about the ax.
“Books, just books.”
“Well, I just got myself a library card. Got myself a whole bunch of books on history and math.”
“Why so many?” Natalya asked. “Were you thinking about going to college or something?”
“No, why don’t you?” Glebov said. “See how everything has worked out?”
“It’s like this. There’s no accidents. Here’s the thing. I was thinking that it was my own choice I’d taken you as my wife, but it turns out that I had no other choice.”
“Whoa, wait a minute,” Natalya said in a huff. “First of all, I chose you.”
“It doesn’t matter. You didn’t have a choice either.”
“How’s that?” Natalya asked. “And you were just the best game in town, I guess.”
“You’re missing the point,” Glebov said, growing angry. “Look, we named our daughter Anyuta, right? We took a long time picking out a name. We thought we chose it ourselves.”
“Not at all. I’ve got it all figured out. Turns out she was destined for that name all along, and we only were carrying out someone else’s will.”
“You’re right about that. My granny was also Anyuta, and Dad wanted a granddaughter named Anyuta, after his mother.”
“You’re not getting me,” Glebov said. “You know what I used to think? Here I am, born into the world—did that depend on me? Nope. And when I finally kick it? No again. Well, unless I decide to do the job myself.”
“But inside that, you know, between birth and death, I’m the master of my fate. More or less, of course. But it turns out that I’m not the master of my fate.”
“So who is?”
“That’s what I don’t know. There’s a lot of work to be done.” Yegor glanced down at the bags. “That’s why I got myself on leave at work. A few days should do the trick. We’ll see on the other side.”
Natalya wanted to ask if he was planning to eat dinner, but Glebov only grabbed the bags and went into the spare room, shutting the door behind him.
Wary of inciting her husband, she decided not to ask him about dinner, but nevertheless put her ear to the door and listened. From inside the room came the sound of surprised clucking of the tongue, along with the rustle of papers and scratch of a ball-point pen.
Well, Natalya thought, Looks like dinner’s not going to happen.
After this, life in the Glebov family was transformed. The patriarch of the family locked himself in the little room and wrote feverishly. He slept in the same room. Sometimes he came out for a bite to eat, looking both sleepy and agitated at the same time. His eyes burned, and on his thinner and darker face this was especially apparent. This metamorphosis was noted by Natalya with increasing alarm, but she was afraid to say anything. Occasionally cries could be heard from the room, either of wonder or dismay. At these times, Vanya pressed himself against his mother in fright. Natalya had begun to think it might be prudent to follow Oleg’s advice and have Yegor examined for a psychological disorder. But she kept putting it off, hoping that her husband would return to his senses. Besides, deep down she was afraid that her worst fears would be confirmed—it was less worrisome for her to believe that everything would clear up on its own. After all, two years ago her husband had gotten into yoga. He’d even quit smoking. He used to do morning gymnastics by the name of “sun salutation.” He had sat in a lotus and had gotten enlightened. And after a week of this, he overslept for work, didn’t have time to do his gymnastics, and it all came to nothing. He’d gotten sick of it. Or else the enlightenment hadn’t taken hold enough in his soul.
But the days passed, and Glebov continued as before, sitting buried in his books and his private calculations. A few times he ventured out to return library books and take out new ones. Thus he passed his entire break. In light of his seniority and the value of his work, his employers quietly cursed but agreed to give him two more weeks. That’s just what they said to Natalya: Let him be sick or whatever his issue is, but when the two weeks are up, we’ll have to think about firing him. If that happened, Natalya knew they’d be up a creek. After all, shedidn’t earn any money, and without her husband’s salary, how would she feed the family? She tried a few times to get through to Glebov (both figuratively and literally), but he just waved her off—Give me a sec, he told her, let me figure this all out.
A week passed in this fashion. Several times Natalya got a call from the auto depot. She lied and said that her husband was still sick (or was it a lie?), but that he’d soon be on the mend.
Their daughter Anyuta called from the south where she was spending the summer, but Glebov said—dryly but politely—that he was busy and couldn’t talk.
The end of the second week closed in. Their savings were rapidly melting away. Natalya’s parents helped any way they could, but even this wasn’t enough. The family began gradually sinking into debt. There were no more telephone calls from the auto depot, but one thing was clear—he was a heartbeat away from a pink slip.
Glebov refused to see a psychiatrist, and when threatened that he’d be taken away by orderlies, he said that they should just try, and that he’d tear their legs off, then slit his own throat. Yegor was a quiet man, but he always kept his word. If he promised to do it, that meant he’d do it—that is, the whole tearing and the slitting business. Natalya retreated.
A few times she got on her knees and banged on Glebov’s door, sobbing and demanding that he stop tormenting her and Vanya, and just kill them, if that’s the way things were headed. Glebov sighed heavily and tried to calm his wife through the door, informing her that he hadn’t lost his mind, that every person came to a moment in his life when he needed to pause and give thought to questions bigger than a dead car battery or a broken exhaust pipe.
Thus did the second week end and the third begin. And that’s when misfortune struck.
Deep in the night, Natalya was woken by some kind of meowing sound, or sobbing.
It wasn’t Vanya, since Vanya had long since taken up sleeping in the same bed with her (just in case). She swung her legs out onto the floor, threw a bathrobe on, and clopped in her slippers into the hall. She strained her ears. The meowing came from Yegor’s room, and judging by the strip of light coming from under the door, Glebov was still awake. Natalya knocked a few times on the door and said in a loud whisper, “Yegor, open up.”
But the sobs coming from the other side of the door did not cease; they only grew louder.
Natalya wanted to rattle the door handle for greater effect, but the door unexpectedly gave in to her push.
Yegor lay on the cot. His body shuddered with sobs. He was crying into the pillow, which was why it came out sounding like a pitiful meowing.
“What’s the matter, Yegorushka?” Natalya asked, squatting next to him.
He lifted his face, wet with tears. “That’s all,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What do you mean, that’s all?”
Glebov jumped to his feet and threw himself at the table. He grabbed his papers and proceeded to shove them into his wife’s face. “Every-thing, you see? Everything was all spelled out in advance. And I’ve simply been living out the plan. And not just me. All of us!”
Blinking heavily, either from lack of sleep or fright, Natalya proceeded to examine the papers. They were covered with names, arrows, numbers, various diagrams and drawings. Percents, decimals, dates—Natalya couldn’t make out anything, let alone understand it. “Right here,” Yegor jabbed one of the diagrams with his finger, “It’s clear that I was supposed to be born just when I was. And here,”—he jabbed at another—“it’s plain that I was supposed to flunk the college entrance exams and enlist in the army. And then marry you. Even your name is here. See? Na-ta-l-ya.”
Natalya looked at some sort of diagram resembling a mountain range, but could not see anything that might possibly form the letters of her name.
“And from this here it follows that I was supposed to become an auto mechanic. And that I’d have a daughter first, then a son, and everything, everything—even the names of some of the guys at the auto depot. Get it? I’ve lived my whole life following a trajectory that was mapped out long ago. Nothing of my own. I’m not the master of my fate, see? Everything I do is according to someone else’s bidding. I may think I’ve decided to do something, but it turns out that I was supposed to do exactly that. I decide to not do something, and it’s the same thing all over again. That’s how I’ve been living, and how I’ll go on living. And die on March 25, fifteen years from now. And all those fifteen years, I’ll be an auto mechanic.”
“But what if you take after your dad, and his handiness with cars?” Natalya tried to object. “Why run from fate?”
“Maybe there’s no need to run from fate, but I just can’t live like this, knowing that everything is already fixed. Here I am, a mechanic. But maybe I’m not a mechanic at all?”
“How do you mean?” Natalya asked, unable to grasp how he could both be and not be a mechanic.
“Here’s how. Everything was decided for me. And I was the fool and believed it. But what if I have a gift for doing something else?”
“How the hell do I know? I haven’t even tried anything else. How can I explain it to you?” He ran his hands through his hair in anguish. “So, for example, you make some decision.”
“Any decision. Maybe you decided to quit smoking. You summoned up all your willpower and quit. You strut around, thinking what a strong person you are. But, in fact, you were meant to quit. You yourself had nothing to do with it. So there’s nothing to strut about. Since someone has worked it all out for you already. So who does that make you? Who are you?”
“Me?” shuddered Natalya, imagining for a moment that Yegor had forgotten who she was.
“Not you personally, but in general. You are a nobody. A doll. A marionette. But one that thinks it’s a person.” He groaned and threw himself back on the bed, shaking his head. “How can you not understand?”
Natalya bit her lip and silently gazed at the slew of papers that she still held in her hands. She didn’t know what to say.
“And when do I die?” she asked.
“I don’t know and don’t even want to know,” Glebov said. “I’m no Nostradamus. I can’t predict everything. I haven’t even gotten to the bottom of my own life yet.”
Then he began shaking his head again and mewed into the pillow.
Natalya felt sorry for her husband, but didn’t know how she could help him. “But why can’t you just live?” she asked at last. “Raise Vanya, love Anyuta and me. What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s wrong is that there’s nothing of me in it. There’s only a plan that I dutifully carry out. From cradle to grave. Period.”
“But what can you do?” Natalya asked, bewildered.
“Something at least.”
“But maybe even that’s preordained.”
Glebov raised his head and looked at his wife with interest. “Maybe,” he said. “But I haven’t run across it yet. Which means that I need to act in order to keep ahead of this.”
Natalya attempted to stroke her husband’s hair, but he jerked his head away. Something flared up in her chest, searing her heart with a sense of foreboding. A sense of foreboding that she needed no math textbooks or knowledge of history to grasp.
Early the next morning, Glebov quietly gathered his things and left. At the very last minute he looked into his wife’s bedroom. She quietly snuffled in her sleep, pressing six-year-old Vanya to herself. Glebov’s eyes began to sting, but he stoically pulled the door shut and didn’t go inside.
At the train station, he bought a ticket for the first train out. The train was bound for Tver. This calmed Glebov down. He’d never once run across the word Tver in all of his investigations. It was as if he’d really managed to change something on his own. Words ran through his head like a skipping record: Run. Run. The faster the better. Run faster than fate. Run while it hasn’t had the chance to notice anything, to figure things out, while it can’t catch up to me, can’t outstrip me, while it hasn’t written down the rest of my life.
There was only one other person in Glebov’s train compartment, a man about fifty years of age. Glebov greeted him, but quietly and only out of politeness, hoping that his neighbor wouldn’t pester him with the idle chitchat of the road. But that hope fizzled in an instant, because his neighbor not only immediately spilled his name, occupation, brief autobiography, and the goal of his journey, but also a detailed weather forecast for the entire week, the latest political news, and even the technical specifications of the train that they were riding, although this last piece of information did not interest Glebov any more than, say, the mortality rates of livestock in Uruguay. Nevertheless, Glebov nodded his head, as if in agreement with every word his neighbor uttered. And when he answered, he did so in as few syllables as possible, so as not to provoke further verbal eruptions. In vain.
All it took was for him to utter the platitude “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” and his neighbor would start in on drinking, alcohol, the history of homebrew in ancient Russia, and so forth.
And if he said “that’s for sure,” then his neighbor would hold forth on one of his old classmates who used to say “that’s for sure” all the time. And how later that same classmate became a big-shot boss, but continued his love of saying “that’s for sure” apropos of nothing at all. And then how a contract was put out on him, and he was gunned down, and how he was buried. And how his wiseacre buddies suggested carving his gravestone with the deceased’s date of birth and death, and then lower: That’s for sure.
Glebov laughed diplomatically, but decided that he wouldn’t say another word, so as not to give the man a reason to spin yet another anecdote. So he switched to nodding his head wordlessly, but even that didn’t help. His neighbor began to come up with his own topics. A mosquito flew by, so he started talking about mosquitoes. The train attendant stuck her head into their compartment, and he took to expounding on women. Glebov was starting to lose his mind from this blathering, but as fate would have it, he had nothing with him that he could make a show of occupying himself with: no books, no newspapers, no crossword puzzles. A few times he went to the car’s vestibule to have a smoke. Then he made up his bed on the bunk, but it was only noon and it felt odd to go to sleep. And even if he got into bed, then he’d be forced to pretend to be sleeping, and that would be even more agonizing.
“He sure has glommed onto me,” Glebov thought, cursing his garrulous fellow traveler and realizing that there was no escape. But here his neighbor started to give up on his own. Either his store of topics had been exhausted, or he himself had. He told one last story, and it was as if he’d purposefully held this story until the end, so it would make a greater impact.
Ten years or so before, he was working as an accountant at a warehouse, on the same shift as some old guy with one leg. And at some point he asked the man something about his leg, like what’d been the cause of his bad luck. And so the old man told him. When he was young, the man was with a group seeing off a friend to the train station. Well, they’d all been drinking, the whole nine yards. And they ran into a gypsy woman. On account of their mood, they agreed to let her tell their fortune. And she foretold some hazy but pleasant future for everyone, but when she got to him, gave him the equivalent of a sucker punch, something like, “I see an airplane, and on this airplane, misfortune will strike and leave you crippled for life.” He laughed, of course, being drunk, and what else could he do? Cry in front of his buddies? Of course not. But in his soul, he was half-dead with terror, and from that time on, he did not once set foot on a plane. Everybody else flew, while he alone went by train, by boat, or by car. However he could. And the main thing was that he avoided any and all airplanes: from model planes to the types in museums. Once he went to visit some friends in their new apartment. They show him around, tell him about the place. They get to the nursery room. And the interesting thing about this room is that it had five corners instead of four. So he asks, why five? And they tell him that the architect had designed it that way. And more importantly, they tell him with a chuckle, is that because of this extra corner, their six-year-old son called the room an airplane. Hearing this, our hero almost died of fright. He rushed out of there like a speeding bullet. Except that in the doorway he tripped over the threshold and broke his big toe. He broke it so badly that his toenail split in half, and the toe itself couldn’t bend anymore. Of course, he couldn’t exactly call this a crippling injury, so he continued to believe that the hour of the grim prophecy had not yet come. But after a few months, his wife died in a car accident. And after another six months, his son died of hazing in his army unit. And our hero was left without a family, though the prophecy about airplanes continued to dog him. And this idea became so sickening, and it was so unbearable to wait for some misfortune to befall him, when his whole life had been one big misfortune, that he went to an amusement park where a friend was running the rides. He got drunk as a pig’s whistle and hopped on the ride’s airplane and asked his friend to let loose, come what may. During his flight, the buckle on his lap belt came undone, since our hero hadn’t clicked it all the way, being drunk as he was. And our hero fell out. When he landed, he caught his leg on the gears, and they tore the hell out of it. And that’s all.
Glebov listened to the story with growing interest; at first he hadn’t believed his neighbor had anything useful to say to him. The thing that distressed him the most in this story about the one-legged accountant was its utter lack of any sort of moral, or even some clear point. You could say that the prophecy had come to pass, but on the other hand, it had come true in a rather odd fashion, since the man had brought it on himself. Moreover, the awfulness of the prophecy paled in comparison to the other tragedies in the man’s family, so that you could say that there was no real reason for him to fear it. Anyway, the whole thing was simply incomprehensible.
His neighbor went to the dining car to have lunch, and Glebov remained on his bunk, thinking about the gypsy fortune in time to the rhythmic clatter of the train’s wheels. Maybe the point was that everything was relative? And that any stroke of bad luck could, in hindsight, turn out to be something trivial? But maybe if it weren’t for the other tragedies, the prophecy wouldn’t have come to fruition at all, since the man wouldn’t have set foot in the amusement park to begin with?
The neighbor soon returned, but didn’t bother with any more stories, lying down on his bunk instead and dozing off immediately. Only Glebov couldn’t sleep. He lay there, listening to the metronome of the rails flying by beneath the train, and it seemed to him that he, just like the one-legged friend of his fellow traveler, was running from some grim prophecy. Maybe that was why it was becoming harder and harder for Glebov to lie there without moving. It seemed that while he was lying there, fate was creeping up on him and soon would pass him by, and that he would become its plaything once again. Deep into the night, Yegor gathered his things and got off at some station a hundred kilometers or so from Tver. He had no idea which station, since he hadn’t had the time to read the name on the station building, and there was no one inside the empty building to ask.
With no concrete objective, he decided first to stop by the bathroom. A single light bulb glowed in the men’s room, and it took Glebov’s eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dimness. But scarcely had they begun to adjust, when at that moment he caught in the corner of his eye a flicker of shadow behind him. He wanted to whirl around, but didn’t have the chance. His head felt as if split by a dull blow, and everything sank into murk.
Glebov came to in a local hospital. He didn’t remember or understand anything. His documents, money, and even his wedding ring had been stolen, so the police were left hoping that Glebov himself would remember who he was and where he was from. A few days passed, however, and an untrammeled blankness continued to reign in his mind. He was discharged from the hospital in short order, since he was perfectly fine from a physical standpoint, but there was nowhere for him to go.
Down at the precinct, the police took pity on him and gave him a temporary identification with a made-up name, so he wouldn’t end up on the streets. They christened him Georgy in honor of the section chief. His last name they pulled from the television, which was showing a movie that day about someone named Gleb, so he became Glebov. Knocking around the small Russian town for a few weeks, the newly christened Georgy—Yegor for short—looked for work, although he had no memory of what he’d done before. Sometimes he unloaded train freight; other times he painted walls and fences or fixed something that needed fixing. And everything would have continued in just this way if he hadn’t dropped by the police station for his regular check-in and noticed that their police jeep was broken. Yegor offered his assistance and surprised even himself by completely fixing it. Impressed by his mechanical abilities, the policemen put in a good word for Yegor at an auto depot nearby. There, Yegor’s talent was recognized, and he was brought on as a mechanic. And they didn’t regret it either, since it was clear that his calling was doing auto repair. Six months later the company was able to find him a small apartment. A raise in salary followed. And a year after that, Glebov married a local divorcée by the name of Natalya. And they had a daughter named Anyuta, and after that, a son named Vanya.
It wasn’t that Yegor was exactly tormented by the fact of his amnesia, but from time to time it was as though he would become despondent and withdraw into his shell, trying in vain to recollect who he was and where he’d come from. Gradually, however, even these spells faded, giving way in their passing to ordinary, human joys.