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Dvorkin

By Emil A. Draitser

Copyright by The International Quarterly, 1999

 

Dvorkin, pale with anxiety, sat in one of the rickety chairs of the front row, repeatedly adjusting the steel rims of his glasses. The bridge kept digging into his nose. He sat solemnly erect, wearing a new dark gray suit and a white shirt. His wife had just bought it at the state department store, having stood in line nearly half the day. The imported English shirt fit rather like a washtub.

"Today," his boss, Victor Markovich began...

Dvorkin had always seen his life as a long freight train, stretching off into the distance, beyond the horizon. That horizon had suddenly refused to retreat any further. The train, with an unbearable screeching of brakes, was stopping. A metallic shiver thundered through the whole length of the cars--ssssh-clang, ssssh-clang--the buffers clashing as the cars smashed into each other. Finally they slammed with all their might into the rear end of the sweating steam engine with its huge steam pipe. From the engine's window, in his snow-white British-made shirt, Dvorkin himself looked out, the engineer of the train. He squinted through what seemed to be puffs of steam slowly peeling from the locomotive, the face of his boss who was sitting at the head of a red covered table.

"Today," said Victor Markovich using his quiet voice, and characteristic, enigmatic little smile that made it unclear whether he was speaking in earnest or in jest, "we are gathered here to see off to the well-deserved rest of retirement the respected Payroll Cashier of our department, Comrade Abram Yakovlevich Dvorkin." 

He continued speaking, saying all the things that were appropriate to such occasions.He spoke smoothly, withoutstammering, stopping only to toss a smile or a nod in Dvorkin's direction. Then everyone began applauding, and Dvorkin rose awkwardly to take a bow. 

Having fulfilled convention, his colleagues, with much banging of chairs, headed for the exit.Dvorkin was left in the auditorium with the realization that he had been let off the train.He was standing on the platform of some unfamiliar station, the echelon moving on without him.Under his feet, the little wooden platform slowly began to drift, and the last car pulled into that thicket of birch trees.The steppe would be there, baked in the sun, warmed-up air spreading over the short dry grass and rising in trembling streams. Next to the platform, in a foot-worn patch of earth, would be the glimmer of a broken beer bottle, then the smell of hot tar on the ties, and as soon as the train wheels had thundered off, the crickets would begin their song, one after another. Then there would be the silence.

 

Dvorkin had spent his whole life as a cashier. He had come to Moscow in 1922.For a long time he could not find a job. He had sold pretzels on the street for some little merchant's shop. Then he'd managed to find his way into an accounting office.

"If you know how to count fast, you won't starve," his father used to say.He, himself had brought home piles of junk--worn jackets, children's tights, ladies' corsets--and somehow manage to unload this junk onto those who were even poorer than he. His father never earned more than a few kopecks, but he taught young Dvorkin the times tables as well as such odd contrivances as twelve times seventeen, and six hundred twenty-five divided by five. This proved to be the decisive factor when the office needed a cashier.

A great deal of money had passed through Dvorkin's hands, but he had never diverted a single ruble. The reason wasn't just his innate honesty, but that he feared losing his job, which uplifted him, especially on payday, when he received respectful and sometimes ingratiating glances from payees. Although it was not he who decided how much to give whom, he nevertheless, on these days, felt himself to be better and stronger than his frail, sharp-nosed, ever-fidgeting rooster of a father, who had vanished somewhere in the chaos of the civil war.

***

Although it had been announced a hundred times, and a sign had been hung above the window, that money would not be distributed until after lunch (and there had never been an exception), still, from early morning on people kept stopping at his window.There were the repair shop men, the fitters who managed to get away from the line under some pretext--they had questions for the management. There were even engineers from the production department--intelligent and educated people who should understand that there could be no pay if the cashier had not even been to the bank. 

Yet from morning on, the same old rumors would spread that somebody had been given something or other by the trust company's cashier's office. People would start to form a line: every once in a while someone would knock on the window to ask some stupid question. They just couldn't wait. Dvorkin knew: the majority of these early birds were alcoholics, for whom every hour that separated them from the bottle was like death itself.

Dvorkin would get angry, come out of his office into the hall and ask the line to disperse. Twenty minutes later, people would once again begin to gather.Then pay time would arrive. With every unpacked stack of bills, Dvorkin's excitement would grow. He liked the sound of crisp bills, the sharp, inimitable smell of printer's ink, and the hands reaching into his window. Over many years, without ever seeing their faces, he had learned to recognize each worker unmistakably by his hands. Cuts and scars meant that it was Polikarpov, Ivan, a tinsmith from the shop. Dark brown, baked palms? Valunov, Ilya, blacksmith. Ink stains on the index and middle fingers gave away the junior accountant, Potapenko, Nina Vasilievna.

Dvorkin had noticed long ago that hands had an uncanny resemblance to their owners' souls: the knotted fingers of the misers, the loose palms of lazy ones, the trembling hands of drunkards...

The heightened mood he experienced during pay time would decline little by little. In the days between payroll payments he was bored, restless, gloomy. It was these two days out of each month, Advance Day and PayDay, which made sense of his life. He had never developed a real career. Once, his boss offered to enroll him in accounting courses. He had declined.Dvorkin did not even want to hear about any other profession. Handing out money directly to those who awaited it with such dreadful impatience--there could be nothing sweeter in the whole world than this.

***

Victor Markovich was a rather young man--about forty, no more. He was abrupt and temperamental, his face changing expression from moment to moment, from wrath to sarcasm. Wearing his starched, perfectly white shirt, with gold lozenge-shaped cufflinks in which chunks of yellow-orange topaz blazed in the light, he would glance at the person he was talking to, lean one elbow on the desk, prop his cheek up on the palm of his hand. He did not smoke domestic cigarettes, but an American brand, Kent from the Limited Access Store. He smoked with slow leisure, taking indulgent drags.His office always held the aroma of good tobacco that could only be found in the presence of powerful people.

When Dvorkin cautiously peered into that office, waving, like a parliamentary flag, a payroll list or some urgent bank document, Victor Markovich rarely lifted his head.To get his attention, Dvorkin had to cough slightly.The boss would then read the document, take from its case a burgundy and pearl automatic pen--a Parker--and then not just sign, but slowly draw his name on the document. It was a wonderful signature; a manifestation of inner worth, appropriate to his position, complete with curlicues on the initial letters of his first and last name. In these moments Dvorkin especially worshipped Victor Markovich, felt with all his being the vastness of his power, which was greater than any other's, except maybe that of some member of the Politburo. But then, they really didn't count--they were so high up that they didn't have any influence on Dvorkin's life.

As one would expect of a god, the boss was handsome, and a certain devilish twinkle of the eye and a caustic quality of mind intensified his handsomeness. He noticed everything, and he decided the fates of his subordinates without delay.His high power was most apparent in moments when he summoned some guilty foreman into his office. But Dvorkin so admired Victor Markovich that he forgave him.

The boss had a mistress, and everyone knew about this affair. His beloved was the manager of the personnel department, Olga Ivanovna, a Ukrainian with huge gray eyes. She was married.Victor Markovich would walk into the personnel department and say in a loud voice, "Olga Ivanovna, let's have a conference. I have some confidential matters to discuss." Everybody knew what kinds of confidential matters were on his mind.But Dvorkin understood how irresistible the sleek, impeccably dressed boss must be to a woman.His ultra-fashionable ways were arresting, his position was impressive: electrical fitter's manager. The electrical fitters dug the earth along the natural gas lines in the steppes, laying cables, setting posts, stretching electrical and telephone wires.

Victor Markovich would appear in the hallway in an expensive wool suit, gleaming, black-lacquered Italian moccasins, a smart tie and a snow-white shirt, which smelled of cologne. The loud chatter and guffaws of the workers would die down. The workers would step aside and greet him with respectfully lowered voices. 

Victor Markovich's wife was broad-hipped, opinionated and fat. Her chest rolled up to meet her chin.She had a mouthful of gold caps (sweet tooth, thought Dvorkin) and she seemed older than her husband. Dvorkin could not understand how God-like Victor Markovich could have chosen such a wife.Rumor had it that she was the daughter of the director of a large union trust. This explained a lot, but somehow marriage for advantage didn't diminish the boss in his eyes. 

***

After Dvorkin retired, the country's emigration began.Even his own daughter wanted to take her daughter and go to America.Dvorkin immediately and unconditionally condemned all emigration. The ones who were leaving were only self-seekers: morally unclean people to whom nothing was sacred...or religious fanatics for whom synagogues were not enough.He continued to dress each morning as if for work.He ate a hearty breakfast and, in the front room, zealously brushed his jacket with a damp brush.Out on the street, he headed for the trolley stop which had, all his life, taken him to the office.But now, he paced around the station for a minute, sighed, and walked on.He wandered through the streets and with unseeing eyes stared into store windows, time and again wondering what his life was.It flashed like light through the fencing along the sidewalk not far from his home.The sun was on the other side of the fence, and walking, Dvorkin half-covered his eyes. A quick flash of light, darkness, again a flash.A flickering in the eyes--day-night-day-night--that had been all, everything that his life had been. 

He began to suspect his Paulina of infidelity. 

"You've lost your mind," Paulina Moiseevna cried, and threatened to move out with their daughter.

Dvorkin refused to even have emigration mentioned around him. But one day, his wife said that if he continued to be so stubborn, she would file for divorce and leave the country without him.She couldn't live without her granddaughter for a single day.

"What will I do in America?" he asked his wife in bewilderment.

"Well, what are you doing here--can you tell me that?" she answered. 

***

To leave, Dvorkin had to go to Victor Markovich for a character reference letter, which was required by the indefatigable Exit Visa Office. Dvorkin gathered his strength for two weeks, until all the deadlines had passed and it was no longer possible to resist his wife's pressure. The decision to emigrate to a capitalist country would prove that Dvorkin was falling behind in the political education of his collective.

"You've been retired for two years now!" his wife tried to persuade him. "The regional party committee has to understand that your old boss can't be responsible for your political consciousness now. You're not part of the collective any more. You're cut off--like a chunk ofbread sliced off the loaf."

His wife's words pierced Dvorkin. He truly felt as if he were such a chunk of bread--dried-up, dusty, with a slight taste of mold.

Victor Markovich was still as elegant as ever, though he seemed a bit paler to Dvorkin.He was already reading the paper.Dvorkin could see how the blood rushed to his face, and how his eyes narrowed, his lip curled, as it did when he tore down a subordinate. Dvorkin rubbed his knees anxiously.A few times he felt like getting up, but understood that he should not; a gesture like that would suggest that he was trying to rush the boss.In his mind he was once again running through the answers he might give:"I don't want to leave, but my family is forcing me..."

To Dvorkin's surprise, Victor Markovich did not ask anything, and after reading his letter immediately wrote on it his decision. "To the Personnel Department," the graceful rings flowed from under the golden plume, "please prepare a character reference for Comrade Dvorkin."He took only a quick look at Dvorkin from under his brows.

For a minute or so, Dvorkin shuffled about in the unclear hope of saying good-bye. Victor Markovich's face had taken on a new expression. Then Victor Markovich, with a sharp movement of both hands, pulled down the cuffs of his shirt. There was a flash of dim yellow from his topaz cufflinks--and he once again buried his gaze in his papers.

***

There was a journey of many months. There was Vienna. There was Rome, with side trips to Pompeii and Venice. Dvorkin looked about him with great wonder, touching the jagged walls of Roman buildings, gazing at the greenish murky water of Venetian canals, drawing into his nostrils their slightly musty odor.

In New York, in the distant outskirts of the Bronx, where he settled, at the newsstand near the subway station, he was amazed to find a Russian newspaper. He stumbled onto a little library that happened to have a shelf of Russian books. Dvorkin was amazed to find how little he had known about the country where he had lived his life.Among the authors, he found in Avtorkhanov, a Russian émigré, a real understanding of Soviet political intrigues, more than that in much-ado-about-nothing Kissinger.

During the day he would circle around the streets, trying not to stray too far for fear of getting lost.Once, while he was on one of those walks, two bearded men, who smiled and spoke in Yiddish, approached him explaining that they needed a minion, that is, ten Jews, to say the moaning prayer of Kaddish. They had nine, and needed a tenth.Would he agree to go with them?Minion... the word somehow seemed familiar.

They brought him to a smallish room with no windows, with a platform on which there stood a podium. They gave Dvorkin a book, which he opened at random.He did not know Hebrew.He listened to the mumbling of the old men: "Boruch ato Adonoy, elochaiunu melech haulam asher kidishanu b'mitzvotzav." Dvorkin remembered that as a boy he had gone to synagogue with his father.He had even attended Yeshiva for almost two months.Peering more closely at the text, he was able to discern separate letters--here was a "shin," looks like a Russian "sha," here was "sade," here "samekh," and "beth"... He had not learned much back then.They arrested his father for some petty theft or swindling.That had been the end of that education. 

Dvorkin began to frequent the temple almost every day; two or even three times on holidays.He learned many of the prayers by listening and his pronunciation of them was no worse than that of the other men.Sometimes, when the leader stammered, he would be the first one to step in.Rabbi Soifer once, at the end of a service, summoned Dvorkin to him. Extending a hand, he invited him to step up on the platform and stand next to him.Dvorkin obeyed.

"Here," said the rabbi, "is a man whom you should all try to match in diligence and devotion to prayer."

That night at tea, Dvorkin told his wife as if in passing, "The rabbi called me up on stage today..."

"What rabbi?"Paulina said.

"Rabbi Soifer.From the synagogue.What other rabbi is there?" said Dvorkin.

"Well, well, you certainly have gotten awfully religious in your old age, haven't you?" Paulina said, turning on the television. She threw a woolen knitted jacket, which she had brought from Russia, over her shoulders, and seating herself down in front of the set began moving her lips along with the announcer as she always did.The sure way to pick up the new language, as they told her at her night school... 

"Let's go," the rabbi said once at the end of a service, extending a hand to Dvorkin, who was the only one left in the synagogue. Soifer's eyes gazed at him kindly, and his pale hand, bent at the joints, palm upward, was cold and gentle. At that instant the shabby little room sank into darkness. Bewildered, Dvorkin saw not only the ceiling lamp go out, but also that the light streaming in from the door to the outside died.

"Let's go," the rabbi repeated in the darkness, as if nothing had happened, and gently pulled Dvorkin behind him. He felt his way along until he found the platform, and clambering onto it, took a few steps forward after the rabbi and stopped.There was supposed to be a wall here. But Rabbi Soifer was still moving forward shuffling his feet, never letting go of Dvorkin's hand. The darkness swallowed them. They moved along like that, single file, for a long time. Dvorkin could have sworn that he had walked at least a kilometer in that hellish dark, step after step, so that his eyes were filled with swimming spheres of light, pulsating in time with the beating of his heart. Then he stopped, sensing that he must have arrived somewhere, since the rabbi's hand melted in his palm like an icicle.

He stood hesitating. It was very quiet; the only sound he could hear was the rushing of his own blood pounding in his ears. He took an uncertain step, then another, and then he had to duck. Something had swarmed by, headlong and close to the ground. The floor had imperceptibly turned into a stony terrace, there was the smell of stale night dust. Dvorkin felt a resilient wave of air pass across his face. He realized that the thing had been some kind of huge bird. It landed somewhere in the nearby darkness. Dvorkin heard a light scraping of claws on stone--the bird seemed to be settling into a more comfortable position.The blackness seemed to be thinning, but it was being broken only slightly by what seemed to be moonlight, although he knew, from often having helped to clean the synagogue, that there were no windows in that room.

Then he saw something he had never seen before. Glistening faintly, like the cover of his granddaughter's piano, was the dark smoothness of a lake. He could smell the lakeside mud and hear the gentle slaps of small waves. The lake, heavy as mercury, was pouring itself slowly from bank to bank; it was completely desolate. He recognized this lake, and at the same time could have sworn that he had never seen it before; that he never had seen anything like it...

He felt a gust of dry, lip-burning air, which was strange for nighttime on a lakeshore. He realized that he was in a desert; realized that he was alone but felt no loneliness. His feeling of bewilderment, which had never left him in all these many years, disappeared.He belonged to this mysterious night desert...

Then there was nothing more. Slowly the lake and the desert faded around him, and Dvorkin found himself on the street, near his synagogue, squinting into the sunlight.

***

After that, he existed in two worlds. At home, from morning till night, his wife sat moving her lips in front of the television.Dvorkin would often lie down on the sofa and watch her from beneath eyelids swollen with weariness, and grimly say to himself:

"Praying to her electronic god!"

He would lie there and think how in the morning he would go to the synagogue and that as soon as the old men started up their prayers, his body would again become weightless, that nagging ache in his shoulder would disappear. He would wait for Rabbi Soifer to finish the service and to extend his hand, inviting him to come up on the platform. He would hear the swish of the wings of the giant bird, settling on its rock perch. He would feel the whistling wind of the desert, would see the sparkling smoothness of the mysterious lake. "Boruch ato Adonoi elochinu melech haolam..."

"The rabbi called me up on stage," he would say out of nowhere at tea, and then would say no more. How could she understand!

Once again the pitch-black darkness would descend in the depths of the little synagogue. This time Dvorkin felt that he was not alone in the night desert. From somewhere nearby, someone's measured strides could be heard--sand crunched under feet; someone was walking slowly back and forth, and he was also praying.The voice was hardly audible over the mumbling of the old men, who should have been gone by now. The one who was walking in the dark kept repeating a prayer, weakly and uncertainly, obviously lagging behind the old men and unsuccessfully trying to blend his voice with theirs.Dvorkin could not bring himself to move from his spot, couldn't even try to touch this mysterious person in the darkness, maybe to pull on an edge of his clothing.

***

This went on for a long time, almost the whole winter. But on a day when a spring-like mildness had come, the prayer in the darkness suddenly ceased. Dvorkin felt someone touches his hand and the touch was careful, uncertain, even a little shy, so that he was not afraid, and he lifted his eyes.The gloom that surrounded the figure he had been trying to discern all that winter thinned almost imperceptibly.He strained his eyes, but all that he saw was the cuff of a white shirt and a man's temple.And then he thought he saw the sparkle of a gold cuff link, lozenge-shaped, in yellow topaz. Then, near that temple he saw a sharply arched brow. His eyes became a little more accustomed to the dark, and he was no longer shocked by what was happening, but nonetheless he shuddered when he finally realized who this was before him.HE was looking Dvorkin straight in the eye, simply and clearly, as one looks at an equal. There was even a kind of entreaty in his gaze. Watching more closely, Dvorkin discovered with frightening surprise that the face of this night-stranger had that unique expression of one who is terminally ill, an expression of helpless despair. This totally distorted the features of his face, so that he was hard to recognize. Dvorkin noticed that HE had not only grown gaunt, but had somehow, it seemed, become shorter in stature.His cheeks were sunken, his eyes had grown dim, and his temples were completely gray and dry. Dvorkin could see how a vein pulsed weakly in one of them; even his handsome, well-cared-for hands had become aged and dry. 

"Victor Markovich," Dvorkin whispered, "is that you?" 

No answer. Dvorkin was gripped by panic. He knew for certain that his hero was in Kiev, on Red Army Street, in an ordinary office, behind a huge oak desk. He had no reason for being here, in a poor little synagogue on the outskirts of New York, and Dvorkin promptly told him so.

The answer he received was sharp, as it had been in the past, and the memory of it made Dvorkin shiver. 

"Who are you to know for sure who belongs where?"

But then the voice softened, and Dvorkin heard words that he could never have imagined coming out of the mouth of his former deity: 

"Forgive me," he said, and Dvorkin noticed that the voice of his boss had dimmed, that boyishly challenging tone was gone."Forgive me," he said. 

Dvorkin even began to doubt whether this was indeed the person he thought it was. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, he forgot all his doubts. Moved by a hollow anguish that grabbed him by the throat, Dvorkin stepped boldly into the darkness, pleading in a parched voice:

"Why? What was it all? I am seventy-three years old, it's time to find out!" he said. "What was my life? What did it mean? Tell me, I'm begging you. You are an educated man, after all... I spent my whole life counting other people money. Who was it that thought of that for me?What was happening to me, tell me please. I was born, I counted money that did not belong to me... a lot of money, and that was all!Nothing more happened to me.My whole life has gone by, hasn't it?Seventy odd years!And what? What?What was it all for? I don't understand anything. I beg you, explain it to me.You are the boss, you should know."

The night-visitor smiled weakly, and turned away with a guilty look.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know anything. I don't even know what I was doing."

"How can that be!" Dvorkin said with passion. "You must know! You were a leader!" 

"A leader?" he asked with a slight rolling of his "r's", which in the past, back in his homeland, had seemed to Dvorkin a jolly harmonic accent in the music of his speech. "What does that mean?How could I have led anyone?Who am I to lead?"

He started coughing, turning his head away from Dvorkin, so that his face completely disappeared, and there was only a thundering in the dark.

"Who does know then, if not you?"Dvorkin said, "You must know, you have got to know!" 

"Nothing, I know nothing" was the dim reply from the darkness. 

The next morning Dvorkin felt that he could not get up.He was feverish. At night he hallucinated and called out for someone; his wife could not understand.

A week later, drained emotionally, feeling physically hollow, light as dry straw, he once again dragged himself to the synagogue.He went there for many days more, barely managing to drag his feet, slowly fading away.

 

Translated by Galina Dorman and the author

 

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