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(an existential playlet)

(The spotlight is on me, sitting at a table covered with a red tablecloth. Disembodied voices)
(Voice 1): The Waiter? That’s an odd choice for a title! I mean, I could understand the Wizard, or the Warrior, something along those lines. But the Waiter? Sorry, it just doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi. All he does is wait on tables, after all. Which seems kind of silly, really. I mean, you can wait all you want, just because tables have legs doesn’t mean they are going anywhere. Although why something would be given legs if it can’t go anywhere, escapes me. But the Waiter? That just strikes me as an incongruous image.

(Voice 2): Ah, but wait. Give him a chance. You underestimate him. He is elegant, he is discreet, and most importantly, he helps you make the choices. His role is simple yet essential. He is the messenger, the bridge between your wish and its fulfillment. But here he comes.

(Stick-thin and spindly-legged, clad in a black tuxedo, the Waiter positively glides across the floor, the tray held jauntily yet firmly in his sensitive fingers. And now, with a napkin over his bent arm, he bows to introduce himself. As he does so, the place reveals itself. It is lit with a cozy, rosy light from candles and small table lamps. Classical music is playing softly in the background. The diners, half-hidden in the shadows, are well-dressed in evening clothes. Sounds of muted conversation and clatter of cutlery.)

W. Good evening, sir. My name is Victor. I will be your Waiter for tonight. Now, may I start you off with an aperitif? Some ors d’oeuvres perhaps?

I. No thank you. I’ll just come straight to the point, all right? The truth of the matter is, I am not here for aperitifs or ors d’oeuvres…

W. Oh? I see. Very well, in that case let me bring you the menu…

I. No thank you, that will not be necessary. I am actually ready to order. I would like to have… (a pause for effect) the House Specialty.

Sudden silence. Heads turn in our direction. Then the hubbub resumes. A subtle change, a ripple, runs over the Waiter’s smooth features. Then, like a pebble swallowed up by a pond, his face turns bland and calm again, a picture of polite accommodation and eagerness to please.

W. Ah. The House Specialty. Of course. An excellent choice, sir. And may I add what a pleasure it is to serve such a discerning person as yourself, sir. It might take a while to prepare…

I. That’s fine, I’ve got all the time in the world. I’ll wait.

W. (In sudden alarm, with an expression of anxious unctuousness) Oh, but sir, I cannot possibly let you do that. I am the Waiter, you see. I am the one who does the waiting.

I. Ha-ha, very good. (Then I see that the fellow is totally serious) I mean, you know, there is waiting, and then there is waiting… Never mind. What I mean is, I am not going anywhere, I’ll just sit here at this table (which is not going anywhere either, ha-ha), and I will wait for the House Specialty.

Another abrupt pause in conversation, heads turn in my direction, then the background noise of talk and clinking resumes.

W. (with a hurt expression, in a trembling voice). Well, if you insist, sir. But in that case (removes his napkin and places it on the table), you will have to be the Waiter. (With shaking hands, starts to take off his jacket) I have been working here for many years, sir, but I have never….

I. (with a bemused chuckle) Oh really. (The Waiter starts to loosen his bow-tie) All right now, that’s quite enough. (The waiter bends down stiffly to remove a shoe. I heave a resigned sigh) Fine. You are the Waiter. And I’ll just – oh, I don’t know – I’ll just sit here and, ahmm, anticipate – is that OK? Or how about – I‘ll relish the future prospect – no, hold on, I’ve got it – I’ll look forward with intense and mounting thrill to the imminent arrival of the House Specialty!

W. (Visibly relieved) Very good, sir. (Straightens his tie, puts his jacket back on, picks up the napkin, bows and exits stage. I shake my head, lean back and survey the other diners).

I don’t have to… anticipate long. It seems but a few minutes before the Waiter reappears, balancing a covered dish on his shoulder. He sets it down in front of me and, with a flourish, whisks off the silver lid.

W. Voila! The House Specialty!

A pause. All conversation stops. Faces turn towards us like pale flowers to the sun.

I. Well, that was quick. (I look down at the dish, then back up at the Waiter). Wait a minute. What is this?

W. (proudly) This, sir, is exactly what you have ordered. The House Specialty.

I. (completely mystified) I don’t understand… This is the House Specialty? Are you sure?

W. Of course, sir. Is there a problem?

I. Ahm… yes, I should think there is a problem. See for yourself.

W. (bends over the dish with reverence, regards it, even sniffs it with his eyes closed and a look of rapture on his face, then straightens up) Well sir, this is the House Specialty, no doubt about it, and cooked to perfection as always. Our chef is a true virtuoso, and this dish is his particular forte. Bon appétit!

I. (with another wary look at the dish, just to make sure) But … there’s nothing here!

Indeed, the plate is completely empty. In fact, as I take a closer look at the other tables, the diners engaged in lively conversations, bent over their plates, I can see – it’s strange I haven’t noticed it before – that their plates are empty too, the forks and spoons they bring to their lips are filled with nothing, they are chewing on empty air, and the crystal glasses from which they sip with such evident pleasure are completely empty as well. Meanwhile, the rosy cozy light is fading, to be gradually replaced by a dim neutral light that casts everything in black and white.

W. (shrugging apologetically) Well sir, I concede that it may not be an overly lavish serving. However – and you will be the first to agree once you’ve tried this dish – whatever it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality… But perhaps you have been led to expect something else? In that case, you might wish to choose another entrée…

I. (Removing my napkin, pushing back my four-legged chair – which is not going anywhere – and rising to my feet) No, I think I’ll pass. I must confess, the only reason I came all this way was to sample this one particular dish. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for. Your restaurant was highly recommended to me by people whose taste and opinion I used to trust. Until now, that is. Frankly, I had my reservations, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Needless to say, I am extremely disappointed!

W. (in alarm) Oh, but there is no need to be! A single mouthful, sir, and I am confident that your misgivings will be dispelled!

I. (with a tight smile) All right, you are obviously playing some kind of a… strange game here. Fine, though frankly I fail to see the point. But you can go right on playing the Waiter, and all these people (a nod in the direction of the other diners, who are studiously looking everywhere but me) can go on acting out this childish make-believe. You will forgive me if I just let you carry on without me… (I stop, struck by a realization) Wait a minute, is this some kind of a reality TV show? It is, isn’t it? OK, you had me there for a while… So, where are the hidden cameras? Come on, the game is up, you can tell me. (I look up at the ceiling, twist my head to the sides, peek under the table. Then, seeing the Waiter’s stricken expression) No, I guess not. Never mind then. Goodbye, and sorry to have taken up your time. (I turn to leave)

W. Just a moment, sir.

I. (turning around testily) Yes?

W. Your bill, sir.

I. (bewildered) My bill? A bill for what!?

W. (with wounded dignity) For the House Specialty, sir.

I. Let me get this straight. You want me to pay for something that’s not there?

W. (patiently). Look, sir, I have brought you your order, and you have refused to taste it or to even consider an alternative. I am sure you have your reasons, whatever they may be. Still, I am afraid you will have to pay for it, whether you have partaken of it or not.

I. (in exasperation). But this is preposterous! I would like to see the manager!

W. I am afraid that’s quite impossible, sir. (His lips twitch in a shadow of a smile, an inside joke he seems to share with the others, who are tittering and shaking their heads, but hurriedly look away and bend over their plates as soon as they feel my smoldering eyes on them)

I. And why is that?

W. There is no manager, sir.

I. Now why am I not surprised? Look, this is a restaurant, isn’t it? There has to be a manager!

W. Sorry, sir. No manager. We seem to be managing quite well without one. I guess you could say (another twitch of the lips for the surreptitious benefit of the audience) the place practically runs itself.

I. Oh, how very clever. Well, I am not staying here to have my intelligence insulted and my time wasted any longer! And I certainly have no intention of paying for nothing! Good night!

W. But sir, you have to pay. That is the rule!

I. You don’t say! And what are you going to do, call the guards? Fine! I would love to see what they make of this monkey business! As a matter of fact, I’ve half a mind to summon them myself, but I don’t want to waste another minute of my time waiting (the Waiter winces), yes, waiting for them to arrive. So consider yourself lucky. Good-bye and thanks for nothing! And as for you (a dismissive nod at the diners), you are all terrible actors! (I turn to leave).

W. (gliding close and putting a placating hand on my shoulder) Really, sir, why don’t you sit back down and enjoy your meal, and let the others enjoy theirs. I think that would be the best thing to do under the circumstances, don’t you?

I. (shrugging off his hand) Will you just cut it out! Enough is enough! Stop this ridiculous play-acting, all of you! Admit that this is all a farce, and a tasteless one at that! Then we can all have a laugh about it, I can take a joke even if it is at my expense, and leave it at that!

W. (firmly, looking me in the eye with utmost sincerity) Look around you, sir. We are a venerable and highly exclusive establishment that caters to a select and discriminating clientele. The fact that you are here speaks for itself. And I assure you, sir, there is nothing duplicitous or fake about it. I am the Waiter, and that is all I am. These people, whom you are so unjustifiably insulting, are the patrons of this restaurant. And you, sir, are causing a disturbance. Now please…

I. OK, that does it! I’m leaving!

W. You can’t go, sir!

I. And why is that? I have legs, don’t I?

W. (muttering to the side) Just because something has legs doesn’t mean it’s going anywhere…

I. What did you just say?

W. (his face instantly resuming its expression of patient entreaty). Look here, sir, I am sure we can settle this little misunderstanding like reasonable men. After all, this is all so much ado about nothing, if I may borrow the words of the immortal bard. If you refuse to exercise your sense of common decency, let me at least appeal to, as it were, you common sense. You say we are all actors. Very well. But if, and I say if, that is the case – and I am following the line of your own reasoning – well then, you either choose to sit back and enjoy the House Specialty (which, I should add, you’ve ordered yourself, but never mind that now), to be an actor in the midst of other actors, as it were, or, should you insist on distancing yourself from what you choose to call a “farce”, you automatically become the audience, and then (with a triumphant sideways glance at the rapt faces of the others), as I am sure you cannot fail but to admit, then, as a member of the audience, you have to pay for the performance (shrugging his shoulders). So you see, even by your own very logic (a pause, and then the clincher), you either play – or pay!

The others burst into enthusiastic applause. The Waiter acknowledges it with a bow of false modesty, wipes his face with his napkin, and sinks into the chair I had vacated, but then, remembering his role, immediately springs back up, throws the napkin back over his arm, and bends towards me. So what will it be, sir?

For once, I am speechless. You have to hand it to him, the fellow has good presence and great delivery. He almost had me fooled. Almost. I take a deep breath.

I. Look here, Victor, or whatever your real name is. If you think that this pretentious sophistry, served up in atrocious iambic pentameter no less, is going to convince me, think again! My time is precious, and I have already wasted a good deal of it on this nonsense. I cannot leave, you say? Just watch me!

With a determined step, I march towards the exit.

W. Sir? (with a plaintive tremble in his voice that stops me in my tracks. I stand there with my back to him, about to step off the edge of the stage). You say that all of this is nonsense, make-believe? That we are nothing, that all of our efforts are for nothing? Unkind, sir, most unkind. Forgive me for being blunt, sir, but you seem to be suffering from certain preconceived notions, a certain regrettable tendency to see things in terms of black and white, empty and full, all or nothing as it were. Don’t you see, sir, here you are an honored and respected, nay, I will even go so far as to say cherished, guest. I am your Waiter, and it is my privilege to serve you. This fine restaurant, of which we are all justifiably proud, has everything to guarantee our customers’ comfort and pleasure. And these (with a sweeping gesture at the other diners), these are your company tonight (nods, smiles and raised glasses). Now tell me, sir, isn’t that enough? What more can one possibly wish for?

I. (growing more and more flustered as his speech progresses, I take a step back from the edge and whirl around to face the Waiter). Are you quite done? Well, you can save your breath! This may come as a surprise to you, but out there is the real world, with real people, and… and… real restaurants with real waiters! And now I’m going back out there, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me! (I take a step back to the edge)

W. (with a sigh of resignation) You are right, sir, I cannot stop you. All I can do is beg you one last time to reconsider. Our restaurant may not seem real enough for you. But out there, sir (louder, with a catch in his voice) – and you know it as well as I do, so who’s the actor now? – out there, nothing is the only thing that’s real, and it is absolutely real, and as soon as you step out there, you too are absolutely nothing. You, sir, are about to make a tragic and irreversible mistake…

I. Oh, you’re a real piece of work, aren’t you! I know what you’re up to! You’re trying to entrap me and confuse me with all your chatter and your sentimental claptrap and your… Well, it’s not going to work! I tell you, I came from out there! You all saw me come in, didn’t you? (I appeal to the other diners, who avert their eyes in pained embarrassment.) You did, I know you did! (I whirl back to point an accusing finger at the Waiter, who is looking at me with mute pity) You… you… (I cast a helpless eye to my left)

A clearly audible whisper from the prompt corner at stage left: You are all in on it …

Right! You are all in on it together, aren’t you! I’m telling you, I come from out there, that is my world, the real world. (I get more and more agitated, almost sobbing with frustration). Out there, when you order something they bring you exactly that, not empty dishes, they bring you real food, real you see, hot and steaming, and if it’s not to your liking you send it back, you complain to the manager, every restaurant must have a manager, and then the matter is speedily resolved, they will apologize, they will make amends, they may not even charge you for the meal! And… and… yes, and when you do pay for something, you pay for something! It may not be the House Specialty, whatever that is, a lot of hogwash, a pie in the sky, I can see that now! It may not be your so-called ‘House Specialty’, but so what! So what! At least it’s something, that’s the important thing, isn’t it? I couldn’t care less if I never… Real, you understand! Not this, this…

I run out of steam and sputter to a stop.

(Audible whisper from the prompt corner): This absurd melodrama…

I just stand there with bowed head, looking down.

(A more urgent and louder whisper): This absurd melodrama…

I ignore the whispered prompts, and continue to stand there with slumped shoulders. An uncomfortable pause stretches on. Then the Waiter glides over to me, puts a diffident arm around my shoulders with an air of fatherly concern, and gently guides me back to my table. I sink back into my chair. The Waiter immediately assumes his usual solicitous position, pours from an empty carafe, and offers me the empty glass.

W. You are a little overwrought, sir, here, have some water.

Automatically, I take the glass and drain it gratefully.

There now, feeling better?

I mutely nod. The Waiter beams and rubs his hands together.

Wonderful! Now sir, for your House Specialty. It will have to warmed up, of course, that can’t be helped, but that’s no bother, no bother at all, leave it all to me, won’t take but a minute. In the meantime, do try this wine, a very good vintage if I say so myself. I won’t tell you what it is, but a real connoisseur like yourself should have no trouble recognizing it, I am sure. Believe me, sir, you will begin to see things in a very different light once you have tasted this wine. (He pours from an empty bottle). There you are, sir, on the house. I will be back before you know it.

He turns and glides into the dim background. Everything resumes meanwhile: the soft music, the clatter of cutlery, the muted conversation. For a while, I sit there with hunched shoulders, staring at the table. Then, listlessly, I pick up the wine glass and take an absent sip. Gradually my back straightens, I raise my head, take a deep breath and let myself relax and look around me. The place is actually quite nice in an understated yet elegant way that bespeaks quality and refinement. Subtle and appetizing fragrances are wafting from what I assume to be the kitchen. Here and there I catch reassuring, friendly glances from the other diners. In fact – it’s strange I haven’t noticed it before – some of the faces look quite familiar. It seems that I am in good company, and the evening has taken a decisive turn for the better. Everything is bathed in cozy rosy light again, as I lean back and look forward with intense and mounting thrill to the imminent arrival of the House Specialty, enjoying the warm glow that spreads through my limbs with each sip of the rich red wine, which, I have to admit, is excellent.


When Papa was a boy living in Russia, he didn’t have a lot of things. Which is not the same as to say that there were a lot of things he didn’t have. If this sounds confusing, let me put it another way. There simply wasn’t that much to be had. The most basic things we take for granted here and now were in short supply there and then. You want your milk? Get up at 7 in the morning and go stand in line. You want a TV set that works? Well, you better have connections at the electronics store. Toilet paper? What are you, an aristocrat? Newspaper isn’t good enough for you?
That is why people never left home without a “just-in-case” in their pocket. A “just-in-case” was a cotton mesh-bag. It took up no space, and could be unrolled at a moment’s notice. Whenever there was something good for sale, out came the “just-in-case”. Shampoo or champagne, bananas or bath-towels, oranges or orangutans – doesn’t matter what, it had to be snapped up fast, before the store ran out. Goods appeared and disappeared following some mysterious laws that had nothing to do with demand and supply. Magically, lines formed as soon as some desirable item went on sale, sometimes even before it did. Over the years of this kind of life, people must have developed a supernatural sixth sense.
You turned a corner, saw a queue snaking towards a store door, and you joined it no questions asked. After all, if it wasn’t something good, there wouldn’t be a queue, would there. Now you could chat to your fellow queuers at leisure, and find out what was being sold. A few hours later, if luck was on your side and the store had not run out of it before you got there, you would emerge victorious, your “just-in-case” bulging with a chicken, a dozen oranges, or a pair of fluffy sweaters from Bulgaria. And as you walked home, basking in the envious looks from the passerby, you had that warm, gratifying sense of achievement that made it all worth it.
See, the rulers of the Soviet Union knew a simple secret. If you want to make people happy with their lot, don’t give them everything they want. They’ll just keep wanting more and more. That’s just how people are. No. If you want to make people happy and to keep them quiet, take everything away from them. Make sure they are truly miserable. Then give them back a little at a time. They will be glad and grateful for every little thing.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that. All he knew was that, like everybody else, he craved things he couldn’t have, and when he did get them, boy, he was in seventh heaven. Things like blue jeans, for example. With a Levi’s patch on the back pocket. Never mind that they were not real American jeans but a cheap imitation from Poland or Bangladesh. Jeans were jeans. Or rather, they were much more than jeans. They were a sign of status, a statement, an attitude. When you wore shabby, ill-fitting Soviet-made pants, you just shuffled along. When you wore jeans, you strutted like the cowboys in American westerns.
In different places at different times, just about anything could be a luxury. It’s a relative thing. Once, at a train station in Bulgaria, someone asked for the yellow plastic bag Papa was carrying, with the words “Coca Cola” on it, and was overjoyed to get it. In another place, it was Marlboro cigarettes, which could be used instead of money. In certain African tribes, plastic bottles or balls of string could be luxury items, coveted and treasured. Anything can be a luxury, as long as it is hard to get.
Well, chewing-gum was one such luxury. It was not made in Russia, was not sold in Russia. Not officially, anyway. It was a symbol of Western decadence and corruption. It was one of the ways the rich in America stupefied the poor into accepting their lot. Chewing gum made them forget they were hungry and unhappy. That’s why there was no need for chewing gum in Russia, where everyone was equal and everyone was happy.
Well, of course America and all the other capitalist countries were evil and corrupt. Of course they would rot and crumble like – well, like old chewing gum, while people in the Soviet Union would eventually live in a communist paradise. Of course. Everyone knew that. But until that glorious day, a little decadence and corruption in the form of chewing gum wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?
Chiclets. Juicy Fruit. Wrigley’s. Spearmint. Tutti-Frutti. Oh, just the names alone, with their exotic and mouth-watering sound; and the bright, bold letters on the wrappers promising an eternity of chewing pleasure; and the sweet, crisp flavor and playful resilience of the gum; they all spelled America, the land of white teeth and square jaws, of skyscrapers and big cars, of wild abundance and unimaginable freedom.
Chewing gum has been around for a long time. Cavemen, ancient Greeks and American Indians all chewed gun made of tree sap to clean their teeth, freshen their breath, and simply for fun.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that. All he knew was that he wanted it. It was hard but not impossible to get. It was smuggled in by those lucky people who got to travel abroad, even if no farther than Rumania, or by sailors back from some exotic port. Little Papa heard that you could also buy gum from Gypsies. They always lived outside the law. Little Papa never bought it from them though. It was too expensive, and Gypsies were scary.
When there was no gum to be had, little Papa and his friends chewed paraffin wax. Sure, it was crumbly and tasteless. But it was better than nothing. However, when little Papa did get a stick of real gum, he made it go a long way. He would bite off a little piece, and save the rest for later. He would chew that piece of gum until all the sweetness was gone, and then he would bite off another little piece and chew that. He would put it away at night, and pick it up the next day. Only when the gum lost all its rubberiness and taste and disintegrated like a wad of wet tissue paper, only then did little Papa reluctantly throw it away.
For the famous writer Marcel Proust, it’s the taste of a cookie dipped in tea that sets off a flood of memories big enough to fill a book. For Papa, it’s chewing gum. A piece of Double Bubble – and presto, little Papa is walking with his dad through an amusement park. At one of the booths, there are air rifles, and if you hit the bull’s eye, you get to pick one of the prizes displayed on the wall. There are stuffed toys and candy and – oh, what glorious miracle is this? – puffy squares of bubble-gum! Little Papa fires shot after frantic shot – and misses every time. Then his dad takes the rifle – and before you know it, they are walking away from the booth, little Papa clutching a little bubble-gum packet in his sweaty fist.
And after they get home and have dinner, they all sit down to watch a TV movie called “The Portrait of Dorian Grey”. It’s about a young man who keeps doing all kinds of mean things to people, but always looks young and innocent, while his portrait grows old and mean instead. It’s a very good movie, with a satisfyingly tragic end. Little Papa pinches off a piece of the gum and chews his way though the movie, which makes both the gum and the movie twice as enjoyable. The movie becomes sweet and chewy, and the bubble gum takes on drama and meaning. He doesn’t blow bubbles – he will do that tomorrow in school, to the envy of his classmates.
Today, it’s enough for Papa to even smell bubble-gum – and he is immediately transported to the darkened room of his childhood, the small black-and-white TV screen flickering in a corner, the gruesome fate of Dorian Grey unfolding before his mind’s eye.
And then there were times when his craving for gum brought out the worst in little Papa’s nature.
Little Papa is sitting at his desk in the classroom. The teacher, her broad back to the class, is scratching at the blackboard with a piece of chalk. Spring is in the air. The smells of lilac, gasoline and the distant sea are wafting through the open window on the May breeze that ruffles the pages of notebooks and gently stirs the silky blond hair of the girl sitting next to little Papa. Her name is Irina. Little Papa likes her a lot, and she knows it. Sometimes their knees touch under the desk, maybe by accident, maybe not, and then little Papa freezes, afraid to break the magic. Irina leans over to little Papa. “Can I borrow a pencil?” she whispers.
Now, Irina’s father is in the Navy, and he must have just returned from an ocean voyage, because that morning little Papa saw Irina sharing some chewing gum with her best friend. And so, instead of doing the right thing, instead of simply reaching into his backpack and giving Irina his extra pencil, little Papa whispers back, “A pencil for a stick of gum.” Irina shakes her head: “Sorry, I don’t have any more.” “Well then,” says little Papa, “I don’t have a pencil either.” He is already blushing as he says this. If little Papa had a magic portrait like Dorian Gray, the face on the portrait would now be turning into a hideous mask of greed and guilt.
After that, he couldn’t look Irina in the eye. Needless to say, it effectively killed any chance of a budding romance. To this day, Big Papa cringes when he remembers that moment. If he could take it back, he would. But he can’t.
Time went by. One fine day, little Papa and his family left Russia for good and came to the west. Here, the system worked the opposite way: give people anything they want, and then make them want more. This didn’t make them any happier, but they didn’t know that: they were too busy making and spending money.
Well, little Papa didn’t know anything about that either. All he knew was that here were all the jeans you could wear, all the Coca Cola you can drink, all the toilet paper you can use – and all the gum you can chew. The wonder and excitement of it all lasted for a while – and then faded away.
Chewing gum too quickly lost its magic. It became a piece of sweetened rubber, nothing more. To this day, though, when big Papa unwraps a stick of gum, he only breaks off a piece and chews it thoroughly, and keeps the rest for later. And when he sees one of his kids casually take a piece of gum, chew it for a few minutes, and then throw it away, he is appalled. It’s all he can do to stop himself from diving into the garbage bin and fishing it out. “Hey!” he wants to say. “There’s still a lot of good chewing in this gum! You’ve got to chew it slowly, make it last,” he wants to say. But he doesn’t.

One summer, when Papa was a little boy, he went on a trip to a city called Leningrad. ‘So what?’ I hear you say. Sure, it would make it much more exciting to write that he went to the jungles of Borneo, or, say, some undiscovered island in the Pacific. But you see, until that time little Papa had never set foot outside of Odessa, the city he lived in. Nowadays, of course, kids of little Papa’s age fly off to Hawaii or Mexico or Florida at the drop of a hat, and think nothing of it. For little Papa, however, going to another city was a big deal indeed. Never mind going to a different country. At that time in Russia, to go abroad you had to get a special permission from the government, and only very important people could get a permission like that.
So in a way, going to another city was exciting enough, a little like going to a different country. Besides, sometimes you can spend a perfectly boring day in the middle of Africa, and have a most thrilling adventure waiting for you right outside your front door.
Their traveling team was made up of five people: Little Papa, his mom, her friend Lusya, Lusya’s son Borya who was a year younger than Papa, and Aunt Linka. They were going to ride the train all night.
As soon as little Papa saw Borya at the train station, he smirked with glee. Borya was a pudgy, freckled-faced mama’s boy who spent hours each day practicing piano – which made him a sissy in little Papa’s books. Borya knew what was coming, and edged closer to his mother, who was having a lively conversation with little Papa’s mom.
“Well-well,” said little Papa. “If it isn’t the great Shmozart himself. Long time no see, Shmozart. So, Shmozart, how’s your latest symphony coming along?”
Borya tried to look like he was ignoring little Papa, but his trembling lower lip gave him away. Hah, worked every time!
“Hey, Mo-zart, Mozzarella fart, written any masterpieces lately?” little Papa went on with his little routine. Little Papa wasn’t a bully, but he just couldn’t help it: Borya was such an easy target.
Borya looked up at his mother hopefully, but she was too busy chatting to be of any help.
“What’s the matter? Are you deaf like Mozart too?”
“You mean Beethoven,” said Borya quietly.
“Beethoven,” repeated Borya more loudly. “He was the deaf one.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said little Papa. He felt he was losing the advantage. He was clearly out of his musical depths. This called for a new line of attack. A couple of days ago, he had seen this adventure movie, where the hero says to the villain: “Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!” Now, that was a great line. Little Papa was dying to try it on someone. Here was his chance. He looked Borya squarely in the eye, put his hand on the hilt of his sword, and opened his mouth – when his mom grabbed him by his sword hand and pulled him along. It was time to board the train.
After they had settled in and stowed away their luggage, they headed for the dining car. The train corridor was very narrow, barely enough for two people to squeeze by. A fat woman was walking towards them, with a little blond girl in tow. His mom and the woman met halfway, and after some shuffling and apologizing, they got into a conversation. Meanwhile, little Papa took a better look at the girl –and his heart stopped for a spit second, and then started racing like mad. She had blond silky hair, blue eyes, and a turned up nose. She was everything a girl should be. She was the girl of little Papa’s dreams.
The fat woman looked down and beamed at little Papa. “My, what a cute little boy you’ve got there,” she said, and pinched his cheek. Little Papa hated that.
“Cute?” said Mom. “Oh, he’s cute all right.” Then came the punch line: “When he is sleeping with his teeth to the wall.” That’s what she usually said when someone called little Papa cute. Or else she would say: “Who, this ugly little monkey?”
Little Papa, he didn’t know what to think. Actually, he did know. Mom had told him that she only said those things to ward off the evil eye. This meant that when people said nice things about you, you should pretend they are not true, or else something bad would happen to you.
While his mom and the fat lady went on chatting about nothing the way grown-ups do, little Papa kept sneaking glances at the girl. Each time he did that, he saw the girl looking straight back at him. Of course, he immediately looked away to make it very clear he had other, much more important things to do, like stare through the train window – where all he could see was darkness and his own blurry reflection. Finally, the two women said good night and they all went their separate ways. Little Papa saw the fat lady and the girl enter the compartment right next to theirs. Little Papa was in love.
Back in their compartment, they began to settle in for the night. There were five of them and only four bunks. Since Borya was afraid of heights anyway, he was sleeping on the floor. Little Papa was given the choice of the two top bunks. He picked the one on the side of the girl’s compartment. He had a brilliant idea. Chances were, the girl next door was sleeping on the top bunk as well (he couldn’t imagine the fat woman ever making it up the ladder). And chances were, she was on the side facing him, with only a thin wall between them. What he would do, he would send her secret messages by knocking on that wall. Of course, she would know it was him, and then maybe, just maybe, she would knock back. And that would mean that she liked him too.
As soon as little Papa began to hear even breathing and little snores coming form the other bunks, he proceeded with his plan. First he tapped on the wall quietly with his knuckles. Then he held his breath and waited. Nothing, except the creaking and rattling of the moving train. He knocked again, a little louder. And again. And finally he heard an answering knock. Yes! No, wait. Could it be just random noises? He knocked again, to make sure. He heard another knock in reply, a little louder this time. No, this was definitely human knocking. Hurray, it worked!
Little Papa lay there in the dark, knocking and listening. He imagined the girl on the other side, tapping on the wall, thinking of him. This was like those stories he had read, where prisoners talked to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in a secret code. This was exciting stuff. Little Papa could have gone on all night, but the knocking from the other side was getting a little too loud. Someone might wake up. It was time to stop. He gave one last goodnight knock, and turned over in his bunk.
Little Papa lay awake for a long time, happy in the knowledge that the girl he loved loved him back. Eventually he must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew he was standing on the edge of a cliff, with nothing behind him but a long, sheer drop to the jagged rocks below. The enemy, his eyes glinting through the slits in his black mask, was pressing a sword to little Papa’s throat and grinning an evil grin. Little Papa took a desperate step back – and then he was tumbling through the air. Somehow he managed to grab on to the edges of the top bunks. Only one of his feet landed on Aunt Linka, who sat up with a grunt. “Damn it, I think I fell down,” mumbled little Papa, climbed up the ladder and went right back to sleep.
The next morning, he didn’t remember any of this. He only found out what had happened when Aunt Linka told everyone about the frightful shock she had last night, and showed a bruise on her arm to prove it.
The train was slowing down. They dragged their suitcases into the corridor. The fat lady and the girl were there too. Little Papa tried to catch the girl’s eye, and when he did, he gave her a look filled with meaning, to remind her of their last night’s shared secret. The girl frowned and looked away.
“Good morning,” little Papa’s mom was saying to the fat lady. “Did you sleep well?”
“Actually, no,” replied the lady sternly. “Someone,” – and she glared down at little Papa – “someone was banging on the wall right next to my ear all night long! I didn’t sleep a wink!”
Little Papa turned beet-red and stared at his toes. His heart was shattered.
With a grinding of brakes, the train came to a stop. They were in Leningrad.
They were all staying in the apartment of some friends of little Papa’s parents, who were away at their summer cottage. The next morning, after a quick breakfast they headed out to see the Peterhof. This was where Peter the Great, the emperor of Russia back when Russia still had emperors, had built his grand palace. Oh, the place was grand all right, with all sorts of beautiful buildings, gardens and statues. But best of all were the Joke Fountains. This was a big round area covered with paving stones. If you stepped on a particular stone, a jet of water would come shooting out and spraying everyone nearby. There were lots of kids and even some grown-ups running around and jumping up and down, trying to hit the right stone that would make the water come gushing out. But there were so many people rushing about, so many feet stomping and jumping, that there was absolutely no way to tell when the water would come and from where. That was the beauty of it!
Borya stayed outside: he was afraid to catch a cold. Little Papa jumped right in. At first he tried to guess when the next spray would come. He looked around him to watch the others. He tried stepping now on one stone, now on another, to see is there was some kind of a pattern. But after a while he just gave up and joined the pandemonium of squealing, dripping and delighted kids.
The sun was hot. The water was cool. Little rainbows formed in the air where the two met. The suspense of now knowing when the water would hit you was delicious. This was heaven!
Eventually, panting and soaking wet, he left the circle and came to take a breather on a bench next to his mom. At first he just sat there and watched the action. Then he noticed a man sitting on the other side of the bench. Something about that man caught little Papa’s eye. Maybe it was the bored expression on his face, in the middle of all the fun that was going on. Or the way his knee kept rising up and down, as if he was playing the piano.
Little Papa leaned over and pretended that he was tying his shoelaces. Out of the corner of his eye, he followed the man’s knee down to his foot – and then he froze! There were pedals hidden under the bench. The man’s foot kept pressing the pedals, sometimes one, sometimes two or three at a time. Little Papa was puzzled at first. He looked up at the fountains. He looked back at the man’s foot. And then it all clicked into place. Every time the man pressed a pedal down here, a jet of water would shoot out over there. The man was controlling the jets! There were no right stones to step on! This was all a set-up!
Little Papa whirled back to his mom and nudged her with his elbow. In a shocked whisper, he told her what he had seen. His mom leaned over and peeked at the man, who kept raising and lowering his knee with the same bored expression. She leaned back with a sigh. “Well, what do you know,” she said, shaking her head.
“Mom, shouldn’t we tell everyone about this?” whispered little Papa, nodding at all the kids squealing and running through the water jets. “Mom?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said his mom.
He looked again at the man next to him. Well, this would be a perfect time to deliver his line. To stand up, face the man, and exclaim: “Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!” And then watch him squirm, the lousy cheat. He didn’t do it, though. Somehow his heart wasn’t in it.

As they walked away from the fountains, little Papa kept looking back at the screaming children and the shooting water and the hunched figure on the bench. All the gladness was gone out of him like air from a punctured balloon.
And then he saw something that made him forget all about it. He knew what these things were. He had seen them in pictures and movies about cowboys and Mexican bandits. But he had never seen them in real life before: cactuses! Rows and rows of cactuses all along the sides of the path. Some were tall and spindly, others round and fat. Some looked like big balls, others like Mickey Mouse with ears sticking out on top.
Little Papa thought how cool it would be to take one along and show it to his friends back home. He let the others walk ahead. When he was sure no one was looking, he quickly bent down and tore an ear off a Mickey Mouse. Then he hid it in the first place he could find: down the front of his shirt. Which, if he had only stopped to think, was not such a great idea.
It took his mom quite a while to pluck all the tiny thorns out of little Papa’s chest and stomach. She threw away the cactus ear, and little Papa wasn’t a bit sorry. In fact, he would have been quite happy not to see another cactus for the rest of his life.
All in all, that day’s disappointments were getting to be a little too much. It didn’t help when, back in the apartment, little Papa lost to Borya in checkers, three games in a row. Little Papa called Borya a fat blob, and was sent to bed without desert. A perfect ending to a perfect day.
“Why in the world are you taking the raincoat?” little Papa’s mom was asking Lusya. “”It’s a sunny day out there.”
“Well, you just never know,” replied Lusya with a shrug. In her other hand, she held a buldging handbag. She had been lugging this bag during their entire trip. It contained everything one needed to survive for a week in the snake-infested jungles of the Amazon. Bandages, matches, a flashlight, a roll of toilet paper. Hard-boiled eggs, apple slices and cucumber sandwiches to keep her precious little Borya from starving. Even a kitchen knife, for god’s sake. Because, that’s right, “you just never know”.
Today, they were going for a walk along the Neva River to look at Leningrad’s famous bridges. Little’s Papa’s mom had already seen the famous bridges before, and so she stayed behind to make supper. They took a bus to the river, and then had a nice enough walk, although little Papa was feeling a little bored with the famous bridges. They all looked pretty much the same to him. He couldn’t even pick on Borya, because Borya was sticking to his mother’s side all the way.
As they walked back, heavy drops of rain were starting to fall. Within minutes, it was pouring. With a look of “Well, now you know!”, Lusya produced the raincoat, which she spread over the heads of Borya and little Papa. They all began to trot in the direction of the bus stop.
Little Papa was feeling uncomfortable all hunched over under the raincoat. It was hard to see where he was going. So he slipped out from under it. As he did so, the raincoat fell over Borya’s head, completely covering his face. Borya veered off the path and ran headfirst into an iron lamppost. There was a resounding crack. Borya stood swaying for a moment, then fell over and opened his mouth in a blood-curdling scream. Aunt Linka and Lusya braked to a stop and came rushing back.
“What happened!” cried Lusya and put her arms around Borya, who was wailing at the top of his lungs.
Little Papa told her. She scowled at him as if it were his fault, then rummaged in her bag and whipped out the kitchen knife. Little Papa stepped back in alarm, but all she did was press the knife blade against the bump the size of a golf-ball that had sprouted in the middle of Borya’s forehead. “There, there, my sweetie-pie, my precious,“ she crooned. “This will stop the swelling, you’ll see, it will all be better in a moment.” Borya wailed even louder, vainly trying to push the knife away.
Somehow they made it to the bus stop. The people on the bus stared open-mouthed as the four of them, drenched to the bone, tumbled into their seats. Borya kept screaming non-stop. Lusya was wiping his wet cheeks with toilet paper and waving the knife dangerously close to his nose.
As they were crossing the road from the bus stop to the apartment, little Papa’s mom happened to look through the window. What she saw made her gasp in shock. In the pouring rain, four figures were crossing the road at a run. First came Linka, pulling little Papa by the hand. They were followed by Borya, who was tripping over the raincoat and wailing so loudly little Papa’s mom could almost hear him through the glass. Last came Lusya, wet hair plastered over her face, shouting at Borya’s back and brandishing the kitchen knife.
What went through little Papa’s mom’s head, before they all came bursting through the front door, is best left to imagination.
They were at the train station again. This time waiting for the train to take them back home. Aunt Linka and little Papa stayed to guard the suitcases, while the others went to the cafeteria to get some sandwiches and water for the road.
Little Papa looked around the platform. Not far from where they were standing, there was a family of three: father, mother – and a little girl. She had light-brown hair, gray eyes, and dimples in her cheeks. She was everything a girl should be. Little Papa was in love.
Suddenly little Papa noticed that Aunt Linka wasn’t alone. A tall young man was talking to her. Little Papa moved closer so he could to hear better. The young man was grinning, and for some reason asking Aunt Linka for her name and phone number. Aunt Linka was blushing, shaking her head and smiling in an embarrassed sort of way.
Little Papa didn’t like this man. He didn’t like the way he smiled. He was clearly bothering Aunt Linka. Something had to be done. He looked around, but the others were nowhere in sight. It was all up to him. It was now or never.
He came right up to the young man and took a breath. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. Then, in a shaking voice, he said: ““Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he couldn’t believe he actually said it. Apparently, neither could the man. He raised his eyebrows in astonishment. He looked like he was about to say something, but no words came out. He just stared down at little Papa, and little Papa stared up at him, his face bright red, his heart beating hard. Then the young man curved his lips in a thin smile. He shrugged, gave Aunt Linka a wink, and moved away down the platform.
Little Papa couldn’t believe it! He won! He won! It worked!
Aunt Linka looked at the young man’s retreating back with a mixture of relief, and strangely, what looked like regret. She gave a little sigh, then turned to little Papa.
“My hero,” she said, and tousled his hair.

In their compartment, little Papa climbed into a top bunk. He lay on his stomach and stared through the window. Houses, lampposts, trees and sky streaked past in a blurry stream. The wheels of the train beat out a soothing, hypnotic rhythm. He closed his eyes, and images came rushing in. A man was playing the organ. Every time he pressed the pedals, jets of multi-colored water came shooting out of the organ pipes. Then he turned, and little Papa saw it was Borya. A horn from growing from the middle of his head. Little Papa ran. Lusya was chasing him through the train corridors, with a sword in one hand and a cucumber sandwich in the other. He jumped from the train and swam through the air in slow motion. There was a river, with a bridge over it. Little Papa began to walk across the bridge. At the other end, the girl of his dreams was waiting for him. She was smiling and holding out a cactus.

One fine sunny afternoon, Little Papa was walking home from school. He was in a very good mood, and that was strange, because only a few hours ago he had a math test, and all he got was a C. Now, little Papa was a pretty good student. True, math was his least favorite subject, but he had always managed to get B’s or A-minuses. Until today that is. But the sun was shining, and school was over for the day. So what if he got a C? He’d just have to work a little harder, and next time he would get a B for sure, or even an A.
So he walked home, swinging his satchel, and as he walked, he made up a little poem. The poem just kind of traveled from his feet up through his middle and into his head. He didn’t have far to walk, so the poem was quite short. It went something like this:

I was walking home one sunny day
With a happy song inside my head.
Even though I got a C today
I am not so terribly upset.
Even though I got a C today
I will get an A, just wait and see.
First I’ll have to get a B, but hey!
I will never settle for a C.

All right, so maybe it wasn’t such a great poem, but it rhymed and it made sense, and for an eight-year old boy, it wasn’t bad at all. Anyway, it was little Papa’s first poem ever, and he was very satisfied with it, the way it just popped into his head out of nowhere.
When he got home, he wrote it down on a sheet of paper. And later, during dinner, he proudly presented it to his parents. They liked it so much, they didn’t even get angry at little Papa for getting a C in math.

“Wow! Did you really write this all by yourself?” asked his dad.
“Yep,” said little Papa modestly.
His parents exchanged a strange look, and then looked back at little Papa as if seeing him for the first time.
Right there and then, little Papa knew he was going to be a poet.

From that day on, whenever little Papa’s parents had some friends over (which happened quite often), they would call little Papa into the living room at some point in the evening, and ask him to read his poem. At first little Papa was a little shy. He would shuffle his feet, blush, and had to be asked two or three times before he read out his poem in a trembling half-whisper. But as time went by, he really got into the act, swinging his arms and declaiming in a clear and ringing voice, and then modestly lowering his eyes for the well-deserved applause. The guests were very impressed. They would clap, pat little Papa on the head, and congratulate his parents on having such a clever and talented son. “You’ve got yourself another Pushkin there!” they would exclaim. “Another Shakespeare!”
This went on for some time. Little Papa began to enjoy his performances, to look forward to the attention and the praise. But, as they say, pride comes before the fall.
One evening, everything went as usual at first: the poem, the applause, the clapping, the pats on the head. Then one of the guests, a man with glasses and a little beard, coughed into his fist and said: “Ah, you know, I could swear… I could be wrong, of course… but I could swear I’ve read this poem before… I think it was in the children’s magazine my son reads… Yes, I do believe that’s where I saw it, the exact same poem…”
There was an uncomfortable silence after that. Little Papa stood there, still the center of everyone’s attention, but not in a good way. He tried to say something, but couldn’t. He blushed and hung his head. His parents exchanged a strange look, and then looked back at little Papa as if seeing him for the first time.
His dad finally cleared his throat. “So!” he said a little too loudly, turning to the guests. “Who would like more tea?”

Later, back in his room, little Papa tossed and turned in his bed. He just didn’t get it! He was sure it was his poem! He had never even seen that stupid magazine! Well, maybe he had read an issue or two, but he had never seen the poem, he was sure of that! Pretty sure anyway… It was his poem, his, and now that bearded man had stolen it from him. And the worst thing of all was that everyone had believed that man!

Well, I wish I could tell you that little Papa went and found that magazine, and then showed it to everyone to prove that his poem wasn’t there at all, that the man had been wrong. But this is a true story. Here is what really happened.
The next day at supper, little Papa’s parents asked him if he wrote the poem himself.
“Yes,” said little Papa.
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes,” said little Papa.
“Hmm,” said his dad, and bent back to his steaming bowl of borscht.

And that was that. Little Papa’s poem was never mentioned again. Needless to say, he was no longer asked to read it in front of other people. Which may not have been a bad thing, come to think of it. The truth is, he was becoming a little too smug, a little too pleased with himself. For all you know, he would have gone on performing his one little poem for the rest of his life, like some kind of a trained parrot. Instead, even though it was a long time before little Papa ever wrote another poem, he eventually did, quite a few in fact, and songs as well. He didn’t become another Pushkin or Shakespeare, but some of his things weren’t bad at all. And most importantly, what he did write was his and his alone. No doubt about it.

And guess what: little Papa did get a B on his next math test, and an A on the one after that. So there…


Once, when Papa was a little boy, he was invited to a Halloween party. Little Papa had never been to a Halloween party before. Everyone would get dressed up in all kinds of costumes, and you could be anything you wanted.
The day before the party, little Papa’s parents brought him a mask. It was a witch mask, with green skin and ugly warts, with wild gray hair and a long hooked nose. It was the scariest thing little Papa had ever seen in his life. He loved it. He couldn’t wait to go to the party and show off to other kids. He would walk in and cackle in a scary voice: “Heh-heh-heh… I am a mean old witch, and I am going to gobble you all up! Heh-heh-heh.” He practiced this in front of the mirror a few times, until he had it perfect.
Next day, he was brought to the apartment where the party was taking place. Little Papa got ready for his grand entrance. He pulled on the mask, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
The room was bright and filled with princesses and fairies, pirates and goblins, bears and rabbits, soldiers and clowns. They were shouting, running and prancing around the room. Then little Papa stepped in, One by one, they all dropped what they were doing and stared at little Papa. There was total silence. Little Papa stood there with his mouth open, the words he was about to say stuck in his throat.
The first blood-curdling scream came from a little blond princess, who then covered her face with her hands and burst into bitter tears. Then there were other screams and crying. Goblins and pirates, soldiers and bears were scattering every which way, hiding behind their parents. The parents put their arms protectively around the kids and glared at little Papa.
Then little Papa felt his parents pushing him outside and closing the door.
“Listen,” said his dad. “It looks like you’ll have to take off your mask before you go back in…”
“I am a mean old witch,” little Papa finally managed to mumble in a small voice, “and I am going to… to…” He sobbed. It was so unfair, he was so looking forward to this party, and now…
“Look, “said his mom brightly. “I have an idea: you could pretend to be a witch dressed up as a little boy.”
“Nonono!” cried little Papa, stomping his feet. “I’m not taking off this mask!”
“Well, in that case we’ll just have to take you home, young man.”
“Fine,” sobbed little Papa. And they went home.

That night, little Papa had a nightmare. He was standing in front of two rows of people, the front row sitting on chairs, the back row standing, like on a wedding photograph. They were all people he knew – his whole family, relatives, friends. And they were all staring over little Papa’s shoulder at the other side of the room. Little Papa turned to see, and realized that they were all looking at the closet. Then the closet door slowly opened, and a long bony hand with sharp claws crawled out, followed by a long bony arm, and then a face with green skin, hooked nose, wild hair, warts and all. The witch came out of the closet and moved toward little Papa, grinning, reaching out for him with her crooked fingers, coming closer and closer. Little Papa turned back to his family, knowing they would protect him, hide him. But to his horror, he saw his grandmother Fenya and his parents push him away, toward the witch! He opened his mouth to scream – and woke up in his own bed, Grandma Yana stroking his hair softly, saying, “Sh-sh-sh, it’s just a bad dream, it’s all right, mama is here…” And it was all right.

For next Halloween, little Papa was a pirate.

As for the witch mask – well, little Papa never saw it again. Maybe his parents buried it in the ground, or burned it in the fire. He wishes he could have it now. To see if it was as scary as he remembers. He could give it to his own kids. They could wear it for Halloween. He is sure it would be all right. Kids today do not scare so easily.

After you’ve climbed the many many mountains

And crossed the crossings

And crisscrossed the valleys

Unearthed the skulls

And earned your cross of death

After you’ve crossed your breast for the required trillionth of time

And burnt the villages the ships the bridges

And crawling back with legs eyes fingers crossed

You finally emerge

You’ve lost your way

You’ve lost your guides and donkeys

You’ve lost your flair your memory and your mind

Still you emerge

Lo and behold!

You’ve reached the Promised Item

The old decrepit Keeper will demand the customary fee

The nose the eyes the ears (tips not included)

And unlock the gates

And there you are

The Shrine of the Beholder…

Let us go back

We cannot stay here any longer

Inside the eyes

The ears of the Beholder

Here beauty sleeps

Curled up within herself and waiting

Let us withdraw


And see the statue

We only see the statue now

The eyes of stone

The ears where lizards nest

And hear the ancient rhythms

The chanting

The rites performed

Yet even this is now beheld


Let us withdraw

Still further we withdraw

And see the skull

The skull of the Beholder

Unearthed and now staring back at us

Through empty holes

Where is the beauty now?!

Thus could exclaim some Hamlet or another

Soliloquizing to the plastic skull

The audience applauds

Row upon row of be-holders

Except the ‘be’

Except the ‘be-ing’ part

They hold oh how they hold

(a cold beheaded orphaned wordling)

They hold their lives

So dear very dear

They hold their wives

“So, dear, did you like the play?”

The hold their rallies

With a weak attempt at chanting

They hold their breath

And dole it out in cream-puffs

To windless skies

After I’ve climbed the many many mountains

And crossed the crossings

And crisscrossed the valleys

Unearthed the skulls

And earned my cross of death

After I’ve crossed my breast for the required trillionth of time

And burnt the villages the ships the bridges

And crawling back with legs eyes fingers crossed

I finally emerge

I’ve lost my wife

My money

All my moorings

My life

My name

My memory

And my mind

All those things I never had

But could have

And all for what

All for a stolen peek

A dubious inkling

Tail-end of a lizard

To play with at my whim

Enjoy now

Chew it slowly

Make it last

Who knows where you may find your next repast

One man, tired of his empty and pointless existence, heard of a great oracle, a sage who knew the answers to all questions, living atop a lonely mountain. So the man went in search of the oracle. After walking long and hard, at the end of his strength, he finally found the place.
He entered the hut, carrying a gift he had brought for the oracle – a bird in a cage – he thought would provide welcome company for the lonely man.
The oracle was seated on a mat, motionless and silent.
“Greetings, Oh Great Oracle,” said the man. “I have brought you a little gift, a bird, which I humbly beg you to accept.”
The oracle spoke not, nor looked at the proffered cage, but simply gestured for the man to sit down facing him.
“Oh Great Oracle,” began the man. “I have walked long and hard to find you. I have left behind my home, my family, my tasks, for life has grown stale and tepid in my mouth. Tell me, you who know everything: How do I find meaning in life?”
The oracle said not a word.
After a long pause, during which the man uncomfortably tried to glean the Oracle’s intention, he suddenly perked up. “Oh, I see. Just as I thought. I must find the answer within myself, right? Yes… Only how do I look for this answer? This you surely must know.”
Still the oracle was silent. After a yet longer pause, as the man furrowed his brow trying to understand why the oracle refused to answer, he suddenly beamed.
“Ah yes, now I see. What you’ve been trying to tell me all along is that I am asking the wrong questions. Of course, of course… And yet – what then is the right question? Now this you must tell me.”
And still the oracle was silent. The silence stretched on, almost reaching the snapping point. And then, just as the man felt he was on the brink of discovery, the oracle rose from his seat and silently pointed downward.
“What’s that? Ah, you mean if I sit in your place for a while I will know? Well, why not?”
So the man sat on the vacated mat and closed his eyes in anticipation.
The other picked up the cage and went to the door. There he opened the cage and watched the bird fly away.
Then he turned and faced the one sitting on the mat, motionless and silent. “Farewell, Oh Great Oracle,” he said with a smile. And was gone.

When Papa was a little boy… Actually, in this story Papa is not a little boy anymore. In fact, he was now old enough to go out by himself, to walk to the store to buy milk, or catch a movie with a friend, or take the streetcar to the beach.  That Saturday, not-so-little Papa and his friend Marik were walking along the street, all by themselves. They were going to buy some ice-cream, and then maybe go to the park, or to play at Marik’s house. In his pocket, Papa had a whole rouble (that’s what money is called in Russia) that his mom had given him that morning. And a rouble was a lot of money back then. Why, you could buy not just one but five or six ice-creams for a rouble. Or a dozen doughnuts oozing with jam. Not to mention tons of sunflower seeds or tiny dried shrimp sold by grandmas on street corners, measured out in glasses and poured into newspaper cones – or straight into your pocket if you planned to smuggle them into the classroom and munch them on the sly when the teacher wasn’t watching.

As Papa and Marik walked, they talked about girls. There was one girl in Papa’s class, Irina, that Papa was secretly in love with. Marik was the only one Papa had told about this, and now he thought that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.

“Well, are you gonna tell her?” asked Marik eagerly.

“No way!”  said Papa.

“Why not?”

“Because…” He kicked at an empty can out of the way.

“Because what? Are you scared?”

“Scared? I’m not scared! It’s just…”

“Oh come on, don’t be such a coward. Just tell her!”

Papa walked on without replying, his blushing face lowered to the sidewalk.

“Or how about if I tell her?” said Marik excitedly. “Hah? You want me to tell

Papa stopped in his tracks and shot Marik a furious look. “Oh yeah? And how about if I rearrange your face?”

Marik smirked at that, and they continued walking. Just then, at the other end of the empty block, they saw three boys coming towards them. From the way they looked and walked, Papa could tell right away that these were “hooligans”, “tough boys”, the kind that usually sauntered around in packs, swore a lot, smoked, and bullied other kids for money. There were some in Papa’s school, but Papa kept his distance from them and they usually left him alone. These, however, were strangers, and they were heading straight for Papa and Marik.

Papa’s heart was beating fast now. Even from a distance, he could sense the wave of menace coming from the boys. He and Marik kept on walking, trying to look unconcerned, hoping they would let them pass. No such luck. They found their way blocked by the three. These boys were older, taller, and definitely stronger. The one in the middle, probably the leader, smiled a slow smile like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.

“Hey, kids,” he said on a hoarse voice. “Got twenty kopecks we could borrow?” (A kopeck is like one cent in Russia).

“No, sorry,” said Marik quickly.

“No? And what about you?” The boy scowled at Papa.

Papa looked down on the ground in miserable silence. He could say no, of course, but he knew very well that it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. They would rummage through his pockets and find the rouble anyway.

Suddenly Marik tore away from the group and sprinted across the road to the opposite side of the street. For a chubby boy who skipped Phys Ed whenever he could, he turned out to be a pretty fast runner. As soon as he was at a safe distance, he started waving his hands and shouting, “Come on! What are you waiting for? Run for it!”

Papa didn’t run. He couldn’t. Only cowards run. Those who are brave stand up and fight. Although in this case fighting was not really an option. These boys were bigger and tougher and three against one.  Besides, Papa wasn’t really much of a fighter. He was a gentle and well-brought up kid who preferred to solve conflicts by peaceful means. In all the years of school, he only fought once. The other boy started it, there were girls watching, and so he simply had no choice. Anyway, it didn’t last long, their heart wasn’t in it, the others pulled them apart, and somehow Papa still ended up with a bloody nose.

So now Papa just stayed where he was, surrounded by the three hooligans, waiting for what would come next.

“Well now,” said the leader to Papa. “Are you gonna give us the money, or do we have to search you?”

Papa squared his shoulders, looked the boy straight in the face, and said in a loud and clear voice: “No!”

“What did you say?” growled the boy.

“I said no! I am not gonna give you the money! It’s mine! You want it? Come and get it!”

“Oh yeah? We’ll see about that!” The three hooligans raised their fists and closed in on Papa.

Now all these karate classes Papa had been taking finally paid off. When it was all over, two of the bad boys were sprawled on the sidewalk, and the third one was running away full speed. Papa calmly dusted off his hands, jumped back on his horse and…

“Well now,” said the leader. “Are you gonna give us the money, or do we have to search you?”

“All right”, said Papa in resignation. “But all I have is a whole rouble.”

“That’s OK,” said the boy, winking at his buddies. “We’ll give you change, don’t worry.”

With a sigh, Papa reached into his pocket and handed over his precious rouble. The boy pocketed the money, slapped Papa on the shoulder and turned to go.

“But what about the change?” Papa blurted out.

“Oh, right, I almost forgot.” The boy smirked as he handed Papa a dirty five-kopeck coin.

“But… that’s only five kopecks,” Papa muttered. “You owe me eighty.”

The leader frowned and brought his face close to Papa’s. Papa stared back, feeling his eyes grow hot with hurt and indignation.

“What the hell are you looking at?” growled the boy. “You got your change. Now scram!”

The three boys swaggered away, laughing and bumping against each other. Papa stood staring at their retreating backs, biting his lips and blinking away the tears. When the three hooligans were out of sight, Marik jogged back to Papa’s side. “Well, that was dumb,” he said, puffing. “Why didn’t you run?”
Papa shrugged and didn’t answer. What was there to say? That Marik was a coward for running away, and that he was brave for staying? He didn’t feel brave. In fact, he only felt stupid. Running away would have been the smart thing to do, and he would still have his rouble. But… at least he wasn’t a coward, right?

Well, many years have gone by, and Papa still can’t figure it out. Was he brave back then? But he gave the hooligans the money, didn’t he? Yes, but he didn’t run away. True, but the reason he didn’t run was because he was afraid to look like a coward. And that in itself is a kind of cowardice, isn’t it? I really don’t know. What do you think?

Oh, and by the way, Papa did tell Irina that he was in love with her. Not face to face, of course. He wrote her a note saying “Irina, I love you.” He had carried that note in his pocket for days before he finally plucked up the courage and put it on Irina’s desk during recess, when the classroom was empty. And later that day he got a note back: “I love you too.” He was very happy. They didn’t go on a date or kiss or anything like that, they were too young. It was just nice to know.

That summer, as usual, little Papa and his parents were staying at their summer-cottage by the Black Sea. Well, actually little Papa and his mom and grandparents were living there all summer long. His dad had to stay in the city for his work, but he came down every weekend. Little papa and his mom Yana would go to meet him at the train station.

One day, little Papa’s dad brought him a beach ball. Little Papa had never had a beach ball before. He loved it. It was perfect, white and yellow and blue, and just the right size. He couldn’t wait for the next morning, when he could take it down to the beach and try it out.

In the morning, they walked down to the beach, little Papa proudly carrying his new ball. Now little Papa understood why it was called a beach ball. It was blue like the water, white like the sand, yellow like the sun. It belonged.

For a while, little Papa and his parents and some of their friends tossed the ball around. Then the grown-ups got tired and went back to their beach-towels.

Little Papa took the ball down to the water. He waded in waste-deep, as far as he was allowed to go by himself. (This was before little Papa had learned to really swim and snorkel and catch crabs with his bare hands.) He stayed there in the warm shallow waters, happily throwing the ball up and trying to catch it, or hugging it with both arms and kicking his legs.

Then the ball slipped out of little Papa’s hands. He tried to grab it, but it was now too far to reach. “My ball, my ball!” cried Little Papa. The grown-ups back on the beach lifted their faces from their card game. His dad came into the water and patted little Papa on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it back,” he said, and dove in.

At first it looked easy. The ball was still just a short swim away. Strangely, though, just as little Papa’s dad came within reach, the ball floated a little further away, as if teasing hom, playing a game with him. Still, he was a good strong swimmer, and it would be just a matter of time, just a few more strokes, before he caught up with it. Besides, he knew how disappointed little Papa would be if he came back empty-handed.

This went on for quite some time. Little Papa’s dad kept swimming after the ball, and the ball kept floating away, and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t catch up with it. By now he was getting really tired. When he finally stopped to take a breath, he turned to look back at the beach. The beach was a thin line, unbelievably far, and the people on it were tiny specks. He realized he was too exhausted to swim. What’s more, his legs were getting cramps. And cramps are the worst thing that can happen to you when you are in the middle of the sea.

Little Papa’s dad started to panic. He suddenly knew with perfect clarity that there was a very good chance he might not make it. Wildly, he began to thrash in the water, looking in all directions for any sign of help. He was lucky. Not too far off, out in the sea, he spotted a fishing boat. “Help! Help!” he shouted. The next thing he knew, two pairs of strong hands were lifting him out of the water and into the boat. He was saved.

When little Papa’s dad got back to the beach, everyone was very relieved. He had to lie on the warm sand for a long time before he felt himself again. Little Papa had missed all that. He was too deep in his misery over the lost ball. “But where is my ball!” he kept asking his dad. “I want my ball!”

“I’ll get you another ball,” said his dad weakly.

“But I don’t want another ball! I want this one!” cried little Papa.

Then his mom got very angry with little Papa for some reason, and they all went home.

Years went by. Little Papa became big Papa. He now had a family of his own, and every summer they returned to their little cottage by the Black Sea. One day, as he stood on the beach watching the sunset, he saw something colorful and round bobbing up and down in the water. You will never guess what it was! Believe it or not, it was the beach ball! The same one he had lost years and years before! Papa fished it out of the water, and everything that had happened that long-ago summer day came back to him. Back at the cottage, he gave the ball to his kids and told them this story.

Yep, this would have made a great ending. Unfortunately, this is not what really happened. For one thing, little Papa and his parents moved far, far away, and they never went back to the summer cottage again. And the ball – the ball disappeared for good, wherever it is that things disappear. Of course little Papa had other beach balls after that, but none of them ever came close to the one he had lost.

Here is an interesting thing, though. To this day, little Papa’s dad is very careful of the sea. It is another sea now – an ocean, actually – but he doesn’t trust it anyway. He still likes to swim, but he doesn’t go further out where the water is deep. And when Papa, who is a grown up man now, goes in for a swim, his dad paces the shore, shielding his face against the sun and shouting: “Don’t go too far! That’s quite enough! Come back!”

Papa doesn’t listen though. He waves to his dad and just keeps on swimming, further and further away.

When daddy was a little boy/ All little boys were good/ And did just what their nurses/ And their parents said they should.// And sometimes when I’m naughty/ He takes me on his knee./ And tells me when he was little,/ how good he used to be.”
From a 1900 child’s handkerchief

When Papa was a little boy, he had no pets. Not really. He lived with his dad, Ark, and his mom, Yana in a city in Russia, in a large apartment they shared with three other families. When little Papa asked his parents if he could have a dog or a cat, they said, “Of course not, you know we are living in an apartment we have to share with three other families, we have no room for a dog or a cat” – and that was that.

And so little Papa had no pets. Unless you count the ants that lived in the windowsill. Sometimes he played with the ants. He would lay out little piles of sugar or breadcrumbs, and watch the ants grab the food and drag it into their hole in the windowsill. Or he would pretend the ants were an enemy army, and bomb them from the air with little balls of plasticine. But ants don’t count as pets.

So, little Papa had no pets. Not really. Well, once his mom brought home a cage with a family of guinea-pigs – a father, a mother, and a baby guinea-pig. Little Papa was very happy. It wasn’t his fault that in Russia, guinea-pigs are called sea-pigs. He felt sorry for the poor sea-pigs, having to live in a cage so far away from their home in the sea. He decided at least to let them swim in the bathtub for a while – starting with the father sea-pig. That didn’t go very well – and the two sea-pigs that survived were eventually given away to someone else.

Other than that, little Papa had no pets. Not really. The closest he ever came to a pet was a chicken. And this is how it happened.

That summer, like every other summer, little Papa and his parents went to live in the little summer-house they had next to the Black Sea. One morning, on the way home from the beach, little Papa and his dad took a different road. They passed a big yard with a fence, and inside they saw hundreds and hundreds of baby chickens. Little Papa came closer and saw one tiny baby chicken, fluffy and yellow, who had somehow managed to get out through the fence, and was running around outside. “Oh Papa,” said little Papa to his dad, “can’t we take it home? Please?” His dad looked at the chicken, looked at little Papa, sighed and said, “Well, I guess if we take just this one little chicken, no one will miss him, I guess.” And that is how Tzipka came to live with little Papa.

Little Papa was very happy. It was almost as good as having a dog. Tzipka followed little Papa everywhere. He would come running when little Papa whistled or called his name. He would let little Papa pick him up, and even sat on his shoulder and pecked him lightly on the ear. Others thought it was very funny. They told little Papa, “This chicken thinks you are his mother.” That made little Papa very proud.

As the summer went on, Tzipka lost his fluff and turned white. Every day he grew bigger and bigger. Little Papa’s parents would sometimes say, “Look how big and fat your chicken is. What do you think, should we have some chicken soup tomorrow?” They would laugh, which meant this was a joke, but little Papa didn’t think it was that funny.

With time, though, little Papa began to get tired of Tzipka following him everywhere. Tzipka was no longer fluffy and cute, and he was too big to be picked up. I am sorry to say that sometimes, when little Papa wanted to be alone, he even kicked Tzipka and shouted, “Go away, leave me alone, stop following me!” Tzipka soon learned to keep out of little Papa’s way.

Then, one night, Tzipka was gone. They found a hole dug in the earth under the box where Tzipka slept, and there were some white feathers scattered on the ground. “It must have been a fox,” little Papa was told. “See, the fox made a hole under the box and dragged your chicken away. Don’t cry. He was too big anyway. It was either this or the soup.”

Little Papa didn’t cry – because he knew better. He knew it wasn’t a fox. He knew that Tzipka had been hurt by his shouting and kicking, he had probably heard them talking about chicken soup, he had realized little Papa wasn’t his mother, and so he had escaped to the forest, where he would live with other wild chickens and be free.

Still, little Papa was sorry and sad for a while after that. And he made a promise to himself that when he grew up and had a kid of his own, he would make sure that he would have real pets, instead of just ants, sea-pigs and chickens.

And that is exactly what happened. Little Papa did grow up, and had not just one but two kids. They live in a big house with a back yard they don’t have to share with anyone. They have a cat, and a dog, and four hens as well. The dog follows big Papa everywhere, but big Papa never kicks him. And he never jokes about making soup out of the hens – at least not where they can hear him.