At noon we pulled into Luga. We stopped at the station square and the tour guide adjusted her tone from a lofty to an earthier one:
“There to the left are the facilities…”
My neighbor pricked up his ears.
“You mean the restroom?”
He nagged me the entire trip: “A bleaching agent, six letters? An endangered artiodactyl? An Austrian downhill skier?”
The tourists exited onto a sunlit square. The driver slammed the door shut and crouched by the radiator.
The station: a dingy yellow building with columns, a clock tower and flickering neon letters, faded by the sun…
I cut across the vestibule with its newspaper stand and massive cement urns and instinctively sought out a café.
“Through the waiter,” grumbled the woman at the counter. A bottle opener dangled on her fallen bosom.
I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“My pleasure,” I said, “is for everyone to be kind, humble, and courteous.”
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
“My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer, and two sandwiches.”
“Sausage, I guess.”
I got out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. “Better not drop the glass…” And just then two refined old ladies sat down at the next table. They looked like they were from our bus.
The waiter brought a small carafe, a bottle of beer, and two chocolates.
“The sandwiches are all gone,” he announced with a note of false tragedy.
I paid up. I lifted the glass and put it down right away. My hands shook like an epileptic’s. The old ladies looked me over with distaste. I attempted a smile:
“Look at me with love!”
The ladies shuddered and changed tables. I heard some muffled interjections of disapproval.
To hell with them, I thought. I steadied the glass with both hands and drained it. Then I wrestled out the sweet.
I began to feel better. That deceptive feeling of bliss was setting in. I stuffed the beer in my pocket and stood up, nearly knocking over the chair. A Duralumin armchair, to be precise. The old ladies continued to scrutinize me with apprehension.
I stepped onto the square. Its walls were covered with warped plywood billboards. The drawings promised mountains of meat, wool, eggs, and various unmentionables in the not-too-distant future.
The men were smoking by the side of the bus. The women were noisily taking their seats. The tour guide was eating an ice cream in the shade. I approached her:
“Let’s get acquainted.”
“Aurora,” she said, extending a sticky hand.
“And I am,” I said, “Borealis.”
The girl didn’t take offence.
“Everyone makes fun of my name. I’m used to it… What’s wrong with you? You’re all red!”
“I assure you, it’s only on the outside. On the inside I’m a constitutional democrat.”
“No, really, are you unwell?”
“I drink too much… Would you like a beer?”
“Why do you drink?” she asked.
What could I say?
Read more in Little Star Weekly
This week in our mobile app Little Star Weekly we conclude our three-part journey into Pushkin Hills, the only hitherto untranslated novel of Russian prose master, Sergei Dovlatov. In it our Soviet-era hero somewhat perversely endeavors to rebuild his life by enlisting as a tour guide in the remote family seat of his illustrious forbear. The requirements of literary earnestness and national self-love are perhaps too much for our delicate hero, caricaturing as they do his own exhausted literary commitments and his feeble stand against his estranged wife’s impending emigration.
In his day Dovlatov was famous in America and unpublishable in his home country; the situation had for some years been reversed until Counterpoint Press began a welcome revival, culminating in this fresh translation by the author’s daughter, who herself enjoys a bit of a cameo in the story.
Read more of Pushkin Hills in Little Star Weekly; join the translator, Katherine Dovlatov, with Keith Gessen, Matt Taibbi, and others for a book launch at PowerHouse Arena on March 19; read Little Star’s own Barry Yourgrau on Dovlatov in Paris Review Daily; read some more Dovlatov here on Little Star online; and by all means pick up the book.
Photograph by Nina Alovert