The  Idler

Andrey Bitov

The boss said to me:

"No, Alyosha, this won't work.  It won't do.  I don't understand, Alyosha, what's on your mind?  You give the impression of such a solid man, but how do you stand up to a test?  That's how.  Is the trial period ending?  It is.  And when it's over what then?  Phooey?  (That's his way of joking.) So then, listen to me carefully..." 

He's quite right about that.  I do make this impression.  I make very different impressions.  That of a solid man too.  I can't exactly see what I'm really like.  Let's take a mirror, for example.  After all, it's in front of a mirror that we understand how people see us.  That's why we look at ourselves.  But I rarely recognize myself in the mirror.  Sometimes I stand before it, tall and slim, and my face is handsome, taut, the features classical and sharp.  Sometimes it's an impossibly fat pancake you can't even tell whether there are features on it.  And my face isn't simply wide, but boundless at times, and then I myself am short and fat.  For some time I thought it was only I who was confused by that and that others saw me objectively, with such and such definite features belonging to me alone.  Apparently not.  The boss once said to me: "Excuse me, but what is the matter with you?  Look how tall you are!  Are you on stilts or something?  You always used to be a shortie, didn't you?"  At that point he had already known me for a month and saw me every day.  Then, as it happened, I noticed this in everyone.  I hadn't noticed and hadn't noticed and then suddenly I noticed it.  In everyone and everywhere.  And not only that different people see me differently but every one of them, individually, even my best friend.  And there is one thing about me, it simply terrifies me.  It's my ears.  They are never noticed right away.  But your every acquaintance will inevitably notice them sometime.  It takes everyone a different amount of time.  Some don't notice them for a very long time.  And that's frightening.  Just imagine that there is some large gathering where you want to make some sort of a favorable impression and suddenly your friend, while talking to you perhaps about something quite serious, freezes in the middle of a word, looks at you with amazed eyes, his face becomes unrecognizable and he bursts out laughing.  And only in the rare intervals when he, all red, attempts to inhale or exhale, you hear the whistling: "Ear-rss...  Look at his ear-rs!"  And then everyone freezes, everyone has amazed faces and they all hiss: "Ear-rs!  Ear-rss!"  And one fellow even said: "Hey, is your other one like that, too?"  and took a look at the other side.  So that we never see anything right away and we see everything in different ways.  And it goes without saying that people are all different people.  To say nothing of the different traits of character I see in my face when looking in the mirror.  Here it is, strong-willed and tender, the face of Jack London.  And here is the fanatical, burned out all eyes face of an Indian fakir.  Here is the face of the champion, Yury Vlasov.  Here is the face of Prince Myshkin.  And here is a weak, dirty face with traces of depravity, the face of a man capable of any baseness.  There are of course some objective traits, or, to be exact, those of the police files: eyes hazel, hair light brown, lips thick.  But then, who knows, maybe this isn't exact, either.

"Do you understand everything now?"  says the boss.  "Then do it all over again, as I said.  Otherwise the devil knows what, Alyosha.  Now, then, do you understand everything?" 

Do I understand what?  What am I supposed to do over?  What was this hateful man talking to me about?

...  I get up, take a bottle of ink, approach, all my movements are slowed down and merciless, I approach and pour out the bottle of ink on his bald spot.  Well, do you understand?..

I am sitting next to him, I look at him with clear eyes and nod.

...  I get up, reach slowly into my pocket, my piercing grey eyes squinting slightly.  I keep shifting from toe to heel, and back from heel to toe.  I slowly pull my hand out of my pocket, and there's a lemon-shaped grenade in my fist.  "You see this?"  I say and raise the grenade to his bluish nose.  "And if I open my fist," I say, "neither you, nor this damn office will be here..." 

I am sitting next to him, I look at him with clear eyes and nod.

...  I get up, looking at him with my green, hate-filled eyes and throw the whole truth in his face.  My voice trembles slightly from indignation.  I am not like this, I say, he will not get this out of me.  I will remain a human being, and if you're hoping to get some such thing out of me, take this!

"I see, I see," the boss says with a special, approvingly kind voice.  "I can tell from your eyes that you understand." 

What did he understand?  What did he understand from my eyes?  What am I supposed to do with all this in the end?  From today on I shall dedicate myself...  to what?  I will not sleep for four nights and I will invent a new machine, which, all by itself, will remove all the boring corrections I'm supposed to make, but what corrections I didn't even hear.  Then I will denounce this boss, I will open everyone's eyes.  I will treat people thoughtfully and nobly in his place.  Then in three years, by titanic labor during sleepless nights, I will finish all the institutions I did not finish.  I will get a doctorate, skipping the master's.  I will become the director of a major scientific research institute.  A completely new branch of science!  And here I am in five years, a full professor, skipping the associate.  Then I will remember the wretched boss, who will have completely sunken to the bottom, wallowing in drunkenness and debauchery.  Nobly I will extend my hand to him and extricate him.  And then we will work side by side...  Never!  For this I'll go without sleep for long sleepless nights?  And won't live?  Won't know simple human joys?  0-o-oh, no.  In order to become like you,even if more important?  I won't do anything of the sort.  I will not go without sleep for long sleepless nights!

"Are you figuring out how to start?" 

How stealthily he sneaks up!  Only scoundrels can have such an inaudible step.  Just like...  Why are you breaking into my world?  Leave me alone at least for a moment!  Constantly you must, you must...  And you may?  Is there "You may?" 

Yes, I'm thinking." 

"Don't think.  Just start and think later." 

"Oh?"  I say in a dumb voice.  "You think it's better that way?" 

"A tested method," he says.

"Then, with a tested method?"  I say.

"Yes, yes," he says angrily for some reason and leaves.

To hell with you!  I can't stand the sight of you even after one month, and what happens later?  The trial period will be over, I won't make it thank God, anyway.  At least I won't be seeing you.  And when they fire me, I will become invisible.  Invisible, I will go through your whole bureau of passes without a pass.  At last no one will be checking me against a document is that me?  This time it really will be me, and I will go through, myself, freely.  I'll go through, open all the safes, burn all the personal files, take all the strictly secret papers into the accounting office, put the accounting books in the secret safes, I will call the boss to the director, and the director to the management, then I'll go to the radio station and play the gayest records and will announce public dances...

Almost missed my turn for a good job again.  Moving cabinets from the third floor to the first.  Last time I was daydreaming and missed out, and once you miss out that's it (for jobs like this we have a line a week ahead).  So then I had to squirm at the instruction period for a whole hour.  I get convulsions if the boss talks more than a minute.  And then he chose me as his focus in the audience.  I have this disgusting manner of listening attentively, looking as if I were.  And if, as most often happens, I don't understand anything, then some devious force prompts me to nod "yes" and to stare with an even more penetrating gaze.  Any speaker spots me in the auditorium immediately.  And then try to turn off when he keeps staring at you all the time and you have already been nodding for half an hour, and your whole figure is one big understanding.  And questions are expected precisely from me.  It's all quite disgusting.

Thank God, I didn't miss the cabinets.  Just think, what a joy carrying cabinets...  But it is a joy.  There is something human in it.  We carry the cabinets, it's both difficult and fun, and there is that chance of breaking one of them.  "JUNK" Jobs Urgent Necessary Klassified "JUNK" our brave doctoral candidates joke in unison, happening into the corridor.  It's really scary, too something human appears only when there is JUNK, but ideally, even this shouldn't happen, right?  But it really is JUNK.  Why,one might ask, do we take out of the cabinets those fat folders which have been gathering dust for three years and stack them (neatly, don't mix them up!) in the corridor, bend ourselves double under the cabinets on the stairway and downstairs again stuff these cabinets, meaningful in their emptiness, with some bulging dusty junk.  The folders themselves are not too bad, but what really amazes me, what seems mystical and simply does not fit into my brain are the looseleaf notebooks.  LOOSELEAF...  What a word!  How people could think up something like that I don't understand.  You have to invent it.  The wheel, the flint I understand that's brilliant.  But a looseleaf it's some kind of a horror, a perversity of the brain!  There's also the hole-puncher.  Also a hellish invention.  HOLE-PUNCHER, SOLE-MUNCHER...  There is even a special little fork for picking out staples!  Just recently one of our workers made a labor-saving proposal: in a prominent place, where the office corridors cross, make a box with cubbie holes for each department so that it won't be necessary for somebody there to sort some junk.  And what's there to sort?..  To sort, yet!..  The box was set up, the worker received a letter of thanks, a twenty- five ruble bonus, he was encouraged, so to speak, and satisfied and is now pondering some sort of atomic box.  He wants to centralize all boxes.  And so on.  And I keep wanting to stick some piece of crap into this box, or to mix everything up, to switch things from one cubbie to another.  However, were the boss to offer me a distraction, like punching holes with a hole-puncher in his stupid papers that I'd do with great pleasure.  It's absurd, of course,but still, some little white circles do fall out...  Or, just recently some fellow brought an American stapler to the office.  It's embarrassing, of course, but it provided amusement for a week: everything possible was stapled.  You push it's stapled, push stapled.  An atomic hole-puncher!  And of course, the contemporary look, the stainless shines and there is all that American writing on it.  We even brought some papers from home, took them through this damn bureau of passes, in order to staple them.  Why?  What for?  Then this, too, was over, and the boss got excited and solicited the little machine for himself: the owner gave it away out of toadyism.  Now he locks himself up in his office and plays.  He doesn't have such a good time either...  There is also the mania for giants: paper-clip giants, inkwell-cathedrals and thumbtacks the size of a half-dollar.  The hierarchy of inkwells and sundry office luxuries is also interesting.  Maybe you've got a runner to sign, so you can observe all this.  There is the director inkwell, can you imagine, even the director's facial expression is the same!  There is also the assistant inkwell.  It seems that there is almost no difference between them it, too, is luxurious, but still it's an assistant.  And soon, and so forth, lower and lower.  It's probably quite difficult for industry to manage such great variety, in order to provide an inkwell for everyone according to rank.  But that there even is such an industry, that's what's so terrible!  There is also the boss-inkwell, which I hate most.  There is nothing worse than the middle rank inkwells!  The whole horror of rabble- inkwells and boyar-inkwells is combined in it.  But what's the use of talking!  Even the recreation corner has its own recreation-inkwell...  But there is still something good in all this crap, and the good is in how terribly exactly the crap is expressed, without any doubts.  Just scan moving cabinets and you will feel joy.  But why?

The cabinets helped.  There wasn't even any of that most terrible agony of the last quarter of an hour before the end of work.  This quarter-of-an-hour is probably the same as slow roasting.  But there wasn't any of that: simply, the bell rang.

That's how low man is!  Only after loathing can he feel joy.  I did have happy times, after all, but I didn't feel anything special at the time, didn't appreciate, didn't understand.  There were, for example, the summer vacations from school.  I keep remembering childhood more often, and get so sad.  And it isn't that it was all rosy, or that I myself was all pure and good, and that now I am filthy and repulsive, it's not the innocence that's the point.  I was alive, to the last tiny cell!  But now, even if I am alive, it's only in moments, between something shameful and something loathsome.  That's it, isn't it?  Maybe it is the innocence, after all?..

And so I've been given a joy: leaving work.  It's touching how everyone starts preparing so as to be completely ready when the bell rings.  How everyone collects and puts away their office supplies, and the girls begin to put on make-up, and some of them who are going out somewhere today even put on their hair curlers and then a kerchief on top of that, and their heads under the kerchief seem angular.  How strange it is when it's an eve of a holiday and all, but all the girls on the bus have these angular heads, even the conductress!  And then I love all of them at once.  And they're riding to work.  And there is so much readiness for the holiday in them that how can one not understand that they are going some place wrong to do some unnecessary work.  And what for?  Even a child knows that.  In order to "eat."  This I know from school: "The workers labor from six in the morning, the farmers give you food, and you haven't done your homework again..." 

And here's everyone all ready and dressed and buttoned up.  And something sinks inside me already and here's the bell.  And I rundown the staircase, flying past the watchman, faster, and my heart beats faster, and I grab the handle of the heavy door and squeeze myself out, and run, run as if it were New Year's and the summer vacation, as if I were a child again and as if all the holidays had fallen at once.  I get out.  No matter what the weather is, it is always beautiful, and the first breath a joy.  I am newborn, strong, as if there had not been a working day and you have just awakened having slept the night badly for some reason, but somehow you woke up fresh and not tired, and the day has just started.  And there's also the blue sky and the sun and the dirty snow covered with the fresh, so light and white that its surface is barely perceptible.  The red tram with a white roof goes around the bend by the office, screeching.  I have to go through the square where there is a lot more snow, and white trees, and red, green and blue children digging, and all this red, blue, green it's all covered with snow and alive.  And the old ladies sit quietly on benches and it's quiet everywhere, although the tram screeches nearby going past our office, but it's quiet anyway because quiet is not at all the absence of sounds.  And in front, in this same square, there stands a forsaken church and its cupola is so blue it dissolves in the sky.

And here is the black canal.  I cross it and find myself on a main street.  There are a lot of people here and for a while yet until the bustle affects me, I can walk along and look at the faces.  Many people walk past me and I understand something about some of them, and they stop being strangers and they pass by, they recede.  Here you gain and lose easily and suddenly that touch of an unknown life.  Something isn't right here.  Especially if it's girls.  Then you feel the loss more sharply: a whole world a look and always passing by.  It's so obvious why they have that look, and clothes, and walk, and it's so close just stretch out a hand, and so complicated, so difficult to touch.  And I imagine: in a rough transparent stone there are narrow canals cut out for everyone.  Everyone has a lonely and merciless path, and one can only look with sadness and regret at another one-person passing on the other side of a transparent wall, also looking at you with sadness and regret, and we don't even stop, neither you nor she, we don't knock on the wall, and don't write on it with our fingers, and don't make signs we pass by, and there is so much bitter experience of the impossible in this.  One-person plus one-person equals two one-persons.  Especially if it's a woman...  Especially if it's friends...  Especially if it's children...  Especially if it's old men...

Today is the old man's birthday.  I must buy him something delicious.  I go into the store and I buy chocolate-covered candies.  Half a kilo.  I go back.  I see a girl pretty, very pretty...

...  "Here you are," I say and hand her a candy.  She smiles and accepts.  Such a good smile that neither a thank you or anything else is needed.  So I walk on and present each woman with one.  As I walked I gave away the half- kilo.  Didn't even have enough.  And everyone smiled at me with singular, uncontrolled smiles.  And I am happy, I don't even need anything else.  That is, I need...  But it's embarrassing really to give someone a candy and then make a pass.  What is really nice is to go by.  It's beautiful.  The smile, it's yours.  And if you try to make a pass then what?  For the candy, or what?  It's embarrassing.

But I walk on, and I keep thinking about giving out the candies, but I don't really do it.  If I give them all away what will be left for the old man?  I don't eat them myself, either.  Giving them away, of course, is more pleasant than eating them.  I would even give them all away, but what if, I thought, that pretty one who might smile at me so wonderfully suddenly turns away her cute little face, all crooked and squeamish, and goes around me, and I just stand there with my candy in my hand and a ridiculous smile...  Stupid!  I wasn't going to make a pass at you.  Stu-pid!..  But still, it's true: a guy like that would give you a candy, and then keep bugging you and bugging you, as if it weren't a candy but Notre Dame Cathedral.  The pretty ones, they do have this kind of experience.  So you can't give them one...  The men, those fools, have long ago spoiled my pleasure...

But there is still a way out!  It turned out to be so simple!  I kept walking and walking and suddenly began to fly.  Immediately higher than the houses.  I am looking at everything from above and the flaps of my coat are flying.  A beautiful woman was walking towards me simply.  She kept walking and walked past me.  She didn't even notice.  And here I am flying.  The flaps of my coat are flying and the wind is blowing my hair.  I see the woman and dive down.  When almost near the ground, I spread the flaps and land.  And stand up right in front of the woman.  "Where'd you come from?"  she says with surprise.  "From there," I answer and point upward.  "Would you like to fly together?"  "I would," she says.  And we fly, holding hands.  Wind, space, freedom!

But I am walking down the street, the woman had long since walked past me, I am walking along, and thinking that you might even freeze up there...

In the evening we go to the old man's.  To my mother's father.  My parents keep grooming and cleaning themselves with care and agitation.  Mama is mad at Papa because, apparently, he had long ago eaten the jar of preserves which Mama was saving for the old man.  Papa is mad at Mama because he, having eaten the preserves, managed to forget about it, but Mama brought it all to light and now Papa is embarrassed.  I have been ready for a long while now and am wandering about aimlessly, bumping into my agitated red parents.  They yell at me a little and this way make up with each other.  And the thought suddenly strikes me that they too are old.  I look at them, at how nervous and agitated they are and how they want not to be late and how they will probably be ready an hour before leaving and I suddenly feel like crying.  God, what wouldn't I do to make them happy and satisfied.  To make them not die, not die, not die!  And how little they need.., And I keep wandering about aimlessly and don't give them any peace.  But I would finish a hundred colleges for you!  I would become an engineer a hundred times.  I would give you my word now, my word of honor, that, finally you will not have to worry about your son any more, but I have given you so many already...  "Alyosha dear, we don't insist, we don't need it, we simply want you to be happy..."  They, my old folks, are sure that they know how I am to be happy.  Forgive me...  We all want happiness for one another and forget about our own.  And I think I see the transparent stone again, in which canals are carved for one-persons.

And our whole family is going to visit the old man.  It's actually quite close.  The old man's house is right opposite.  From one entrance to the other, you just have to cross the street.  But it so happens that there is no crossing here.  It's fifty meters to the crossing and then fifty more.  That too isn't far, really.  But we always cross directly from entrance to entrance.  It's a shame to have to go around.  There's really no need to go around.  But in the middle of the street there is often a policeman walking along the line.  One doesn't feel like paying a fine, either.  If there is no policeman we cross.  So we are crossing this time, and we are practically in the entrance already when I hear a whistle.  It probably isn't even for us.  And what if it is for us and the policeman noticed which entrance we went in?

...  We are walking through the courtyard, it's a rather long one, and he is already coming in the entrance.  He sees our backs.  He takes big strides to overtake us.  I really feel like turning around but I don't.  We are already near the old man's door.  He catches up with us here: "Citizen!..  One, two, three..," he counts us, bending his fingers over.  "Three rubles, if you please." 

Here I turn and look at the policeman with such a heavy look...  "Go away, go away," I say.  He turns all limp.  "Right away, right away," he says and leaves, downcast.  He walks like a lunatic.  Everyone is amazed.  "Alyosha,dear!  How did you do that?"  exclaims everyone.  "What do you mean...  What are you talking about?"  I make a puzzled face.  "Nothing happened," I say.  And everyone agrees immediately.  I joke with ease and everyone laughs at my joke.  And I alone know who I really am...

Then we all shout, throw out our arms and kiss the old man.  He is so solemn, so solicitious, the table is laid with such care, that I feel like crying again.  Devil knows what's happening to me!  I don't remember crying ever, not even once.  Absentmindedly, I hand my candies to him, he embraces me with his light arms, not exactly laughing and not exactly sniffling on my lapel.  "Excellent student, draughtsman," he says to me proudly, inaudibly, almost shyly, patting my shoulder.  And Papa nods to him.  And Mama nods.  We go to the table and the old man, giggling, with a mysterious face and the motions of a magician extracts a bottle of brandy from Gods knows where.  The brandy he always makes himself, and this is his pride.  He himself can't have any, he only remembers what it used to be like.  Papa can't have any either.  The same, of course, goes for mother.  The brandy is meant for me.  The old man keeps slipping things onto my plate and watches me eat in rapture.  But again I cannot, I cannot look at the trembling hands, light like dried petals...  So that I am even ashamed of my incomprehensible sensitiveness.  And it seems to me that his hands live their own life, and that no matter how the old man tries to be sprightly and lively, disregarding his age, his hands give him away...  They live cautiously, quietly, carefully and there is in this an ineffable sort of beauty and deftness, the deftness with which he masters his trembling and feeble hands.  And I understand that I love those hands madly.  It is not for nothing that the old man is proud of his brandy.  It really is fire.  And it quickly makes its way to the head.  "Just don't drink too much," says my father.  And I see Papa's hands and Mama's hands these hands will drive me mad!  And I understand that my intentions to remain sober are lost and that I will drink all of this brandy.  Mama is throwing reproachful glances at me but I am already raising my hand drunkedly: everything will be all right, don't worry.  As for the old man and Papa, for probably forty years now that bit of formality which arose when the old man was against my mother's marriage has not disappeared from their conversation.  It has all been smoothed over and forgotten, they are attached to each other, but this manner is probably still even dear to them.  They talk about the cosmos and about the giant radio tower which is being built in our city and which will be 500 meters high.  The old man is ecstatic and tells about the popular science articles which are his great hobby.  Everyone is nuts about progress, even my dear old man.  Except for my mother.  It is all the same to her; she is wiser sometimes, and they they are children.  This is what remains of their masculinity.  And I am now completely drunk.  And the old man is so glad and so happy.  That we came.  He loves us.  We are all he has.  We love him.  He is all we have.  And these are all the other words which are the essence and which he does not say.  What he does say is that take the nitrogen bomb, for example not only the atomic bomb, but the hydrogen bomb is like gunpowder next to it.  He seems to be saying this with terror.  But it suddenly seems to me that this terror of his is feigned and that, actually, he even admires it.  That a bomb like that will fall and all that's alive will perish,but that even the windowpanes in houses will remain intact.  And no contagion come in, help yourself.  "That's what's so terrifying," I say, "it would be better if nothing remained."  And the old man his eyes round nods and doesn't understand.  "You don't understand anything," I say.  "But I've been through three wars," he says.  "So you don't understand," I say.  "And that's not all," says Papa, "furthermore," he says, "but this is secret," Papa says, "other elements have been found beyond the hundredth..!"  So they, these elements, according to what Papa says, have exhibited such amazing explosive capacity that take a bomb the size of a walnut and a continent's gone.  Suppose some journalist brings it in in his pocket, drops it somewhere and that's it.  And rockets aren't necessary...  "Aren't necessary?"  I say.  "Aren't necessary," Papa says.  "But in general are they necessary?"  I say.  "You puppy," Papa says, "I've been through the whole war."  "So that's why you don't understand," I say.  "Puppy!"  Papa says.  "And that's not all," says the old man, "if there were some anti-matter from the anti-world then one pin head would suffice for the whole planet."  "And I was told," I say, of course this was in America...  in one of the secret places there were five submarines, side by side.  And on one of them a sailor was sent above to shovel the snow.  But he refused categorically.  Then they sent another one.  It's his the other's brother, who was telling me.  So he shovels, and under him, on the boat, a fire had started and just couldn't be stopped.  And the commander isn't there he's on shore.  And the fellow upstairs still does not know anything (he is shovelling snow), but he just feels: there is something heating up under his feet but he pays no attention to it.  And suddenly, there's this ga-asp!  The boat blew up.  And everybody else with it, and the fellow who was shovelling was thrown up in the air and flew off a few kilometers and straight into a pile of snow.  And the captain was walking along the shore at this time and was just then passing a street light.  His forehead bumped into the pole and he fell dead on the spot.  And there were no survivors.  Only the one in the snow pile he remained..."  "What's this for?"  asked Papa, surprised.  "Just like that," I said, "and then," I said, "when this whole thing blew up, all the torpedoes scattered in all directions.  So they hunted for them for God knows how long after that to catch them all..." 

"You don't know how to drink," said Papa.

I sleep badly from the brandy.  I am being chased, I run and for some reason barely move my feet.  I scream and only open my mouth, then I am chasing someone, and there's some incomprehensible war, the Mongol invasion, they are riding around town on motorcycles, with lances balanced horsemen!  and they break into our apartment, and leading them is the boss who is screaming that I made a mistake in counting the lances and it's no good, and he throws the lance into my chest, and I don't feel anything, only it breaks in half, and then I suddenly feel cool, many hands are stroking me at once, and I recognize my old folks' hands...  Towards morning deep sleep takes over, and I am barely able to get up, and then only thanks to Mama.  I force myself to have breakfast in order not to hurt her.  And I already have to run, I am late, but I don't feel like either running or rushing.  Mama is already worried about everything not being all right at my job, Alyosha dear, don't be angry, I just thought...  you understand Papa and I want you to get everything in order, you know...  O.K., I won't, I won't...  And I begin to feel absolutely black, because Mama always senses so perfectly when something isn't all right with me.  And because she is right as always, I especially feel like getting angry and protesting and proving that they don't understand anything and that I will do it myself.  In the past I was amazed how the old folks sense everything that has not even happened to me yet, even if I give them no clue and everything is covered up.  And I rebelled against the logic of this presentiment.  Now, though, I understand that this is love, but that doesn't make it easier, but a hundred times harder.  And all that maturity of mine consists in my starting to feel responsibility, but I still can't manage it.

I get angry, I say that everything is all right, and I go to work.  It's already unlikely that I won't be late.  I have to run as fast as I can, and get there on time, get there on time.  And I barely move my feet.  Our office is exemplary, and no one is ever late.  It's frightening to see how, at the last moment, old men burst into the entrance hall, running, breathing heavily, and with maniacal faces.  The management invented a horrible way to fight tardiness.  Not punishment, no.  This would have been human, however cruel.  Once a month, and on an unannounced day, all the management lines up in the entrance hall.  The director, the secretary of the Party committee, and the department heads too.  They arrive and form a row on each side one minute before the bell rings.  They stand with immobile, mournful faces, like an honor guard.  And the latecomer, passing by them, lowering his head, almost disappearing, so that you actually sec how much a person diminishes, runs through, but actually drags through, slowly, painfully slowly.  And in fact, we don't have latecomers.

No matter how I dragged myself, the bus appeared immediately, and I got mad at the bus for some reason because, having gotten on it, I again began to rush to get to work.  A seat became free, I sat down and began to look out the window.  And then I again felt cozy, warm and drowsy, and it seemed to me that this was the same bus which I haven't gotten off all my life.  The day hadn't broken yet, although it began to get grey.

I look out the window of the bus and see the lit-up windows of houses.  There too people are rushing to work.  And suddenly I see: in one window,on about the third floor, there's a woman.  The window is well lit, and the woman is standing close to the window doing something.  And next to her, crooked somehow, stands a wardrobe.  One can see it very clearly.  And then it seemed to me that the woman suddenly bent away and that there was some shadow coming from behind the wardrobe.  But the bus, it's moving and there's no more window.  I take away this picture with me and look it over carefully.  Otherwise you can't see it flies by and that's it.

...  And then I see definitely that the woman did not bend away, but swayed, and did not sway, but recoiled, and covered herself with her hand in order not to see or not to get hit.  And the shadow from behind the wardrobe is a man in a black raincoat and a grey hat, and in his hand there's a knife.  He raises the knife: that's why the woman swayed.  If only we'd reach the stop..!  I jump out, catch the first policeman.  "There, there,.."  I say.  "What's there?"  says the policeman.  "Murder!"  "Where?"  "There.  I can show you."  The policeman looks distrustful.  "I saw it from the bus."  And we go.  Not this house, and not that one.  There it is!  And there's the window, "Aha, this window," says the policeman.  The three of us, the policeman, the janitor, and I look at this window.  "This one?"  "Right."  "This one here?"  "No, that one."  "Aha, that one," says the janitor.  "That's apartment 46."  "Let's go," says the policeman.  And here's the third floor.  And here's the door.  Ring the bell.  Ring again.  "Uh-huh," says the policeman.  We break in.  First room.  Second room.  Third...  She's stretched out.  In a puddle of blood.  The woman.  I leave.  I alone know who I really am...

...  We break in.  First room.  Second room.  Third.  Last.  No one.  "Ekh!"  says the policeman.  "Broke in for nothing.  A detective, yet..." 

...  And we go.  Not this house, and not that one.  And what if I don't find the house?  Don't recognize it.  Or if the light has been turned off in the window?  What then.  How embarrassing!  "Ekh!"  says the policeman.  "You ought to be ashamed of disturbing busy people..." 

...  And maybe I only imagined it?  And what if I didn't?  But even if there's only one millionth of a chance even then the alarm must be sounded.  And what if I didn't imagine it?  And indeed.  She's stretched out.  In a puddle of blood.  A woman.  On the third floor.  Near the wardrobe which stands crooked?

...  And what if I had really seen the whole picture clearly?  Both the man and the knife?  And we go.  Not this house, and not that.  I don't recognize it.  I can't find it.  Maybe the light has been turned off?  "Ekh!"  says the policeman.  "Aren't you ashamed?" 

And what if I had seen it and not believed it: how could that be?  In a lit-up window?  Can't be.  It just seemed that way.  And I would just calmly ride on.  And forget.  And on the following day they would find her there.  Stretched out.

It got considerably lighter in the window.  I look and see that I have passed my stop long ago.  And now I am completely late.  So late that it's better not to go to work at all.  And suddenly I feel really really light.  It isn't that simple: not to go, to refuse, not go.  And for some reason it's very complicated until you do it.  And again I feel little..!  hide my big briefcase in the basement.  And I ride in the streetcar to the final stop and back.  Then I rush to the eleven o'clock show.  Then I go for a walk somewhere beyond the Islands, look around.  And I go home after the sixth lesson...

I get out at a far-away stop.  Here the snow is clean and the sky is soft and grey.  Here stands a lone, last house.  And there is a wasteland.  And in it a strange lonely pipe.  And the horizon blends with the sky softly and imperceptibly, hard to say where: either within hand's reach or in infinity.  I am going along a narrow path trampled in the snow, everything around is even and white, behind, the last house completely diminished, and ahead, the pipe keeps growing and growing, it's huge, and can't be reached.  And it seems that I will walk like this endlessly in a state of peace and happiness.  But soon I get tired of the pipe, and I turn back, without reaching it after all back to the thicket of houses, to the city.

I enter the movie theater an hour before the show...  How well I know all these people who came to the theater for the first show and an hour early too!  The pale, tall adolescent, who is constantly stuffing his briefcase somewhere, and the lame, unshaven man with a worn face, and the two old ladies engaged in such important conversation, and this quiet couple as if in conspiracy, and the ticket lady (her face will change by the end of the day),and the cleaning woman, and the shavings which she sweeps so slowly and lazily, and the waitress arranging her display case, her soda water, her ice-cream and cookies!

How familiar and how forgotten all this is...  Going to the toilet and there's already someone there, smoking, going up to him and asking for a light, although you've got matches in your pocket.  And this moment when you're inhaling and haven't gone away from him yet, mumbling thanks and you're still looking at each other...  And one girl, not quite a school girl nor a grown up, who walks somehow particularly alone and independent, and your eyes meet, and you keep thinking of going up to her and striking up a conversation but you won't do it, won't talk.  And you retain only a sensation of mystery and loss.  And this film, whose subject is quite unimportant...

And then I go out on the street, squinting from the bright daylight.  The sun has come out.  And the city has come alive.  Lots of people, all in a hurry, all with businesslike faces.  All going somewhere.  And this means that that's it, that peace is over.  I am overcome by the feeling of being at loose ends, of alienation and uselessness.  I am depressed that I am not like everyone else, and the people hurrying past me, each one, brings it home to me: you have no right, you have no right.  Suddenly I understand what a wise child I was when I went out to the Islands somewhere after the movie, where there are still few people, and those who are there have broken away and live a stolen life, like me.  Now I understand too much I cannot behave wisely and I don't go to the Islands.

I go to the clinic to get a sick leave certificate.  I am not I anymore.  I have to justify myself and preserve everything as it was with all my strength.  I have to correct what the boss told me to, I have to cope with the trial period and finally, keep my job and not hurt my parents.  I am ashamed and depressed that I am not like everyone else, that I am so weak and have no will power, and that I so much want but cannot force myself to be good, to be like everyone, so that I could be calm and righteous.

I go up the hospital staircase, nurses brush past me noiselessly, as if in a dream, they're still girls...  They are so changed by the white smock and the white caps.  They are not like themselves at all.  Here, too, it's quiet and it's another quiet world.  Or maybe these people are very sick and understand something because of that?..  I sit in a round room taking my temperature.  Next to me is a woman in a red sweater, with a child that keeps climbing on her knees, endlessly repeating the same movement, and keeps sliding down and keeps the woman from taking her temperature.  An unwashed young man who seems especially quiet, because one has a strong feeling that he is not really like that, not quiet.  He holds his hand in a dirty bandage like a pistol and rocks it like a baby.  A kid, a schoolboy with a greenish insolent face, keeps flicking the thermometer from time to time, looking over his shoulder.  He sees that I am watching him, but he is not afraid of me, it is not from me that he is hiding, and he winks at me, as to an accomplice.  Ten minutes pass.  I go up to the nurse and hand her the thermometer.  My temperature is normal, and the nurse, middle-aged, strict, looks at me reproachfully.  And I feel ashamed and think: all these people here are sick, and it's serious, and only I am like this and just disturb these busy serious people for nothing.  And suddenly I keenly want to get sick and have someone take care of me and feel sorry for me, and then I would be justified before everyone because I do have the right to be sick and then no one could demand anything of me.  I feel like lying in a cool clean bed, like being asked how I feel, like looking out the window which one naked branch keeps knocking on and where sparrows live, and having long quiet talks with neighbors.  And then I must, I must be cured!

At this point a strong wind blew in suddenly for some reason, and the windows flew open with a bang.  A lump of icy air and of dry snow burst into the warm and quiet hospital air, it blew up somewhere in the middle of the room, everyone came alive and started talking.  The wind banged the open window frame once again, and it overturned a big potted palm and the stool on which the plant was standing.  I, the person with the normal temperature and also a man, went to the window and slammed it closed with force.  The snow had gotten stuck in the grooves, and the window wouldn't close.  I shoved off the snow with my hand, feeling my fingers going numb and the snow melting under them, and finally managed it.  Then the nurse and I picked up the palm and reinstated it on the stool.  I still smelled the snow and frost, and the skin of my face still preserved the sensation of coolness, and the reddened fingers ached sweetly.  For some reason I was surprisingly pleased at having done all I did, and I was glad the nurse thanked me, and I went out on the stairs and went down to the cloak room.

I went through the hospital garden and came out on the Karpovka.  The water was black under the bridge, and white further on, and separate logs had frozen into the ice.  There was ice on the hunchbacked wooden bridge and a horse was helplessly scrambling up it.  The wide, low cart with fat rubber wheels was mounted with metal screens with bottles, and the bottles were ringing.  The horse's muzzle was grey from frost and huge balloons of steam were billowing out.  The driver, red-faced and even more fat in his sheepskin, was urging the horse on threateningly.  The cart was barely moving, the horse's legs were sliding out in all directions, and then the cart stopped.  The horse, pushing with all four legs, slowly started sliding backward.  The driver yelled with a fierce voice, the horse pulled forward with all her strength, and slowly, unbearably slowly, sank down on her side.  She lay on her side, with her head thrown back, and neighed quietly.  She was so guilty, that horse, and there was so much guilt and hurt on her face, that it was clear: she was crying...  Something big and choking came up to my throat: better I should have been lying on this ice now, trying to get up, and I would have been hurt and insulted, and better I should have been pulling this cart all my life...  She was lying on her side, and her other shaggy side was heaving convulsively, in spurts, and steam was coming from it.  The driver was yelling and beating the horse's wet side with all his might.  I hated him, and the sudden thought that he too probably loves her, knows her, feeds and cares for her, was unnatural and revolting.  And here some young fellow, cheerfully ran up from the other side of where the driver was, and, saying something cheerful and bracing to the horse, began helping her to get up.  Then I also ran up and other people too, and all of us, united by something grand and happy, put the horse up on her feet, and with all our strength, sliding and falling without noticing it, pulled the cart up the bridge, shouting something loud and joyful, and then the horse separated herself from our efforts and went off by herself from the middle of the hunchbacked bridge.  The people dispersed, the first fellow went off somewhere, grinning, and I remained alone again, and something big which I had felt just then slipped away from me.

I walked and thought badly of myself.  I wasn't the one to realize that it's no use standing around and feeling sorry, but that one should simply help the horse.  And how simply and well the first fellow managed it.  And I will probably never be able to do it like that...  And I disliked him.  But I felt grateful to all the people who understood together with me that the horse could be helped and who forgot everything else at that moment.  And it's so great that they are capable of forgetting "everything else!"  And it's impossible, I thought, that they should be in a bad mood now, that they would not look at their cares and bustling lightly after having helped the horse, and, I thought, they will spend this day well.  Perhaps the sole true feeling of freedom comes when a person realizes that he has just behaved like a human being...  And, I thought, for how little we are grateful to people.  And we are happy when we meet a man who has not lost his human self.  And how good it is, I thought, when in the face of something significant and serious many people bring out the human being in themselves...

Then I saw the horse again, how she lay on her side, heaving her other, steaming side, and threw back her grey muzzle and helplessly moved her legs.  And I understood that the horse is some quite remarkable person, for whom one feels like praying and crying, and that there is no sight sadder than that of a horse.

Fine.  This is all fine.  But there's no sick leave.  And what's to be done next?

And suddenly such a depression came over me that I didn't want to live.  Something in me is arranged wrong.  I have no right to walk among people and pretend I am like them.  They should isolate me or something.  Put me in prison?..  Take me!

...  So I am in prison and finally I understand something essential.  This "something" has to exist...  And it's like a key to everything, to everything...  And here I've got this key.

And perhaps then I would stop feeling restless and would gain the power of seeing and understanding what's around me.  I would understand the goal and the meaning.  I would get everything out of myself and create everything I was capable of.  And maybe I wouldn't even understand, but simply by some miracle, I would wake up early one morning in equilibrium and simplicity.

But I am not in prison.  There are no walls, no bars.  I am walking on grey, trampled snow.  Houses, streets.  If I want I can turn left, if I want right, if I want straight ahead.

I walk as if free...  What is this?

I see a self-service beer bar and go in.  Before this was just a bar, it had a permanent clientele, it had its own micro-neighborhood and micro-world, and everyone knew each other, there was noise and smoke and they drank vodka.  Now there are counters made of disgusting grey marble and shining stainless automatic dispensers, and you can't smoke here and hard liquor is forbidden.  But people couldn't part with this place, they keep going here as before, and they have preserved everything as it was before: the spirit of a bar hasn't left the place.  They smoke and they drink vodka here, and here they live their finished lives.  There's noise here and everyone knows everyone else.  And apparently, even the bar management understands that it's useless to fight this.  The red dispenser spits out my favorite "Volga" wine, and will spit it out as many times as I want it to.  I want it, I don't remember how many times.

I go out, reeling, onto the street.  It's dark already, and my soul is quiet and peaceful again.  I am able not to remember anything.  I find myself in a square between two houses.  There are no street lights here, only some light comes from the windows, and it makes blue shadows on the snow.  A little kid has built a snow city and is playing in it, riding his truck.  I plunk down on a bench next to him.  And he really does live in his snow city, I think.  He is not playing, but living.  I quite understand him.  I myself am dying to crawl on all fours on the creaky dry snow now and live in this city.  I don't even want to be a little kid again, I want to get even smaller.  A completely tiny man, for whom this snow city is really a city and the houses huge houses.  Tiny, invisible to everyone, I walk along these snow-covered streets and scramble up the huge peaks over to the kid on all fours.  He throws a suspicious, sideways look at me.

"Don't be afraid, little boy," I say, "I'm from this city too..." 

He stares silently.

"We'll live here together," I say, and ridiculous drunken tears are streaming down my cheeks.

"Uncle, you're drunk," says the little boy.

"I'm not drunk," I say, "I won't cry.  We'll live in this city.  You'll hire me as a driver for your truck..." 

"You can't be drunk behind the wheel," says the little boy seriously.

"I'm not drunk, I'll never do it again," I say.

And so I'm riding the truck, filled with snow, I crawl on all fours along the narrow streets of this snow city and I push the truck ahead of me.

"Uncle, you'll destroy my city..."  says the little boy.

"I won't," I say, "I'm a tiny man.  Next to me, you're a giant, and I'm so tiny that I can't destroy our city." 

I bring the truck to a big snow house and unload it.  I put the truck in the snow garage.  The work is finished, now lean rest.  I walk in the snow city for a long time and choose the house in which I'll live.  I finally find it.  It's a marvelous house, it just needs a bit of fixing up.  I'll make an addition for our house.  I am pottering about with the house for a long time and now it is ready.  Now I can call the little boy.  We will be very comfortable in this house together.

"Little boy, little boy," I call him.  "Where are you?" 

I return home.  I feel sick.  I am nauseous.  And I understand everything already.  I am just madly sick.  I would like to drink up a bucket of thin jello, to undress and lie down on a white, just washed and scrubbed, wooden floor.  And just lie there and feel its fresh wooden smell and come to myself...  Where is this floor from in my memory?

I don't remember anything anymore.  Early in the morning I open my eyes and I see myself undressed and in my bed.  Next to me is Mama with a concerned, sad face.  I am ashamed, madly ashamed and I'd like to disappear, dissolve into something, so that only a clean, unwrinkled bed would remain.  Again I want to be invisible.

"Don't be upset, Alyosha," Mama says.  "Everything will be all right.  Your mama will always be near you..." 

It's worse than killing saying this.  I feel that I will start crawling on the floor now and excusing myself, like a worm.  I hate myself...

I force myself to eat my breakfast and get dressed to go to work.  And all the time more than anything else I am afraid of meeting my mother's gaze.  I know what it's like, this gaze, when reproach and reproof have already disappeared from it.  I fear it, because then I feel despair.  Dressed, with my eyes lowered, I go up to Mama, kiss her on the forehead.

"Forgive me, Mama," I say and hurriedly, almost like a thief, run out of the house.

I am riding on the bus, but this time I can't succeed in becoming either a flying man, or a hypnotist, or a detective...  I only reminisce about this.  And it's a strange thing that I discover, reminiscing.  Some time in the past, and it seems to me that it was terribly long ago, I was simply flying, I was simply invisible, I performed heroic deeds and died from insult.  And didn't even notice how I did it.  But now, and it seems that this started a very long time ago, any one of my fantasies, empty and silly, ends sadly in the fantasy itself.  And there's neither victory nor triumph in it.  There's always doubt or disappointment and the expected sad result...  And that's in the fantasy, empty and stupid ...  And this is what experience is Pit's this, only disgustingly blown up, that will become maturity and wisdom?  And I will age just as cleverly, unnoticeably rejecting this and that and saying: how naive and stupid I was then, how little did I know and understand and at this I will feel calm and fulfilled.  To hell with it, to hell with it...

And here I am at work again.  And first thing I bump into the boss.

"How are things, Alyosha?"   he says.  "What happened to you?" 

And I suddenly feel that I am unable to lie and I remain silent.

"Did you get sick?" 

"No," I say.

"Then what happened?"  says the boss in surprise.

"I just couldn't," I say and deviously think of how I am still telling the truth, that I really couldn't, and that I can say this phrase and remain honest.

The boss exercises his tact and doesn't question me any further.  That's just what I was waiting for, I thought.  I begin to feel ashamed, and try to get rid of this shame.

"And have you made the corrections?"  asks the boss.

I haven't had time," I say and comfort myself: "I really didn't have..." 

"But how is that, Alyosha?"  says the boss.  "Let's go into my office." 

I drag myself to his office.  The boss plunks himself into his armchair and it resounds under him.  I stand at the table and don't look at the boss.  I notice an American looseleaf on his neat table and can't take my eyes off it.

"Well, tell me about it, Alyosha," the boss says in his special tender tone of voice.

I remain silent.  The boss again exercises his famous tact and asks no further.  Then he begins to talk.

"What is this, Alyosha?  I know your father, you studied together with my son...  You know my attitude to you.  You are an intelligent, capable young man, you have a lot of talent...  How is one to explain your attitude?" 

I remain silent.  I know: it's better if I don't talk.  He probably really doesn't have a bad attitude towards me.  He probably really would like to help me and let me stay, although I don't deserve to.  He probably will give me more time so that I can prove myself.  Better not give him any more words of honor.  It's more honest.  Better to remain silent and wait till he decides it all himself and lets me go, slapping me on the shoulder...

The boss maintains the silence for a while and continues:

"You're a grown man, Alyosha...  You well remember your school graduating class...  Kukharsky, Potyomkin and Myasnikov are already doctoral candidates, Moskvin and Nomokonov are research assistants at major and promising institutes.  Zaporozhchenko is already a captain...  And you, after all, were no less talented than they?" 

He maintains the silence again and now speaks in a more jocular tone:

"The trial period is ending?  It is.  And what's the result?  The result is phooey.  I can, of course, give you another chance...  But I must be certain..." 

I am standing.  I am silent.  This is not a lie yet.

"So then, Alyosha..." 

A quiet skirmish starts up inside me.  Everything in the office smoothly slips aside.  And all this dissolves.  I don't see or hear anything more.

And what I see is the cactus on the window sill.  Every one of its needles.  It's green, but the needles are reddish.  And in the window there's the sky, very blue for some reason.  The snow glistens.  The snow and the cactus.  A red streetcar with a white roof bends around the turn.  The streetcar and the cactus.  And the cupola so blue that it dissolves in the sky.  The church and the cactus.  Black-white trees...  And that's the same square!  I am always happy to see it after work...

And in the window pane, above the cactus, there's a bubble.  It's amazing what's in this bubble!  The sky, and the snow, and the streetcar and the trees, and the cupola it's all inside it.  It's all tiny, strangely elongated and somehow especially bright.  The snow city is in it.  Someone lives there, someone completely tiny...  I wonder, what do I look like to him from there?

Andrey Bitov
"The Idler", 1961-1962
Translated from Russian by Greta Slobin