Cutlets for Gogol

Katerina had been crying over Grigory’s disappearance the entire day, alone downstairs. She finally pulled herself together, went back to work around midnight (despite Opiatovich having forbidden her to do so), discovered the bar door ajar, and spotted Gogol in the park at the street corner, sleeping in the moonlight. She briefly returned to the bar to clean up, then borrowed a wheelbarrow from the yard of the courthouse across the street—the rare ethnically-Estonian caretaker there mostly used it to collect fallen shards of red shingle. Then, Katerina determinedly wheeled the unusually- and conspicuously-dressed Gogol back to her home. Late-night smokers loitering outside the nightclub shouted catcalls at her and the wheelbarrow, but Katerina was accustomed to troublesome customers and ignored them. Gogol had to be taken to a safe place. The horrendous cobblestones that the new tsardom had pounded into place in its very first days joggled the wheelbarrow, so Katerina removed her soft, rose-patterned shawl and positioned it under the moaning Gogol’s back.

Once home, she started making cutlets in the early-morning gloaming—more to soothe her nerves than out of hunger. Katerina had put high hopes in Grigory. He had promised her the Sun and the Moon, had even moved his bags into her apartment, but had now disappeared all the same, and did so in such a rush that he hadn’t even flushed the downstairs toilet! Grigory spent an odd amount of time in the bathroom in general, and even took a mug with him, as if he intended to drink the flush-water! Good Lord! Maybe he’d had some strange disease? Or bloody urine? It was too bad that everything went the way it did, of course… but positive that at least some kind of male soul had entered the house again! Furthermore, Katerina felt an inexplicable fondness for the taciturn prophet—Gogol had eaten his meals at Novel Bar ravenously and spoken words that pierced straight through to her heart; long-awaited answers to the woman’s greatest questions. And he never spoke in those awful threefold idioms! Katerina felt inexplicable thrill and dignity. A pop song kept repeating in her head, for some reason—one about a beautiful woman who lived in a riverside house, beneath which a crystal-clear stream started flowing one fine day. She was also reminded of the Gospels—in the end, only women were left at the foot of the Redeemer’s cross, because all the men fled!

The cutlets turned out fantastically. The great Gogol ate sedately and in silence—like an old engraving come to life, which suddenly, glimpsed by a late-night bathroom-goer in the wrong light, appears to be moving. When Katerina offered him wine, the stranger pointed to the kettle and had her top off the glass with warm water. She noticed the man had a strange habit of molding his bread into little balls. What’s more—all the the windows and mirrors had to be covered. When they arrived and she gave Gogol, who was shivering, a dress shirt that Grigory left behind, the prophet stared out into the darkness of night for a long while, muttering something about his last home, the windows of which were always covered in mud because of the carriages that turned around in front of it. Gogol tugged at the window shade and Katerina granted his strange wish, shutting each one. Thus, when the bloodied and clearly deranged Grigory showed up, it was a neighbor who called the asylum, and all Katerina could do was watch from the balcony above as the man, from whom she had hoped for so much, was taken away in a blue van. Katerina started feeling chilly, so she went back inside to sit and doze off next to Gogol, who was fast asleep. She hadn’t the slightest clue how she would move forward with her shattered life. After a while, Katerina awoke and reached out to touch Gogol—his hands were as cold as ice and his face was covered in small scratches, probably as a result of his death mask; the woman hoped to treat the tiny wounds in the morning with a good Yugoslavian spikenard. Her guest also woke up once that night, and—in what appeared to be a sleepwalking state—attempted to clamber upstairs, where he claimed the home chapel was! Gogol howled in his sleep a couple of times, calling out for his servant, but seemed to exhaust himself, and fell back into a deep slumber. After breakfast, Gogol wanted to spend the day in the toilet, as he was accustomed to doing, and Katerina did not deny him that small eccentricity—where else was the dead man supposed to go, anyway? She even brought him a few ballpoint pens and scraps of notebook paper. A couple Estonian-language works of literature—Rise and Shine by an older author named Jaan Kaus, and a thick book titled Tartu Title Track by the Estonian-Nigerian Nobelist Berk Vakri—were leaning on a birch-wood shelf in the bathroom. They were there for not reading, just as the imperial decree prescribed for literature penned by the departed Estonians: at least two books from the list were to be kept in spaces for tending to hygiene, always. Luckily, Gogol said they were too difficult for him… Katerina didn’t want any trouble. She lived a quiet life and abided by all national laws—they were so instilled into her that she even mentally weighed out her homemade cutlets using the state gram-standard and, it goes without saying, strictly adhered to the “blue decrees”, which regulated relationships with any remnants or representatives of the former Estonian state.

Katerina had invited a guest over the next evening. Her girlfriends were indeed her sole pleasure in life. The closest of them—Katya—worked as the director of two factories situated relatively far from each other, so she paid her soul-sister frequent visits, if only for the purely practical purpose of having somewhere to stay the night. However, the unexpected development dissolved Katerina’s ecstatic anticipation. She hadn’t said a word to Katya about Gogol yet, and intended to serve the news-bomb on a cart that she could “wheel in”, so to say; but as always, something started to burn in the kitchen at the busiest moment. Katya was left alone in the entryway, and her shrill scream immediately rang out as she discovered a skeletal old man from beyond the grave reading mandatory toilet literature on the john. Toilet books were always stocked everywhere by law, but no one ever picked them up! Now, Katya was gripped by the feeling she would die a gruesome death today, somewhere on a park bench where the committee of local pickpockets gathered in the bushes poking through the eerie ruins on Castle Hill! That was how horrible the phantom appeared! The disgusting and illegal act—reading an Estonian book in the bathroom—was so unbelievable that the strawberry cake she had bought from the confectionary slipped from her grasp and hit the ground with a plop.

Yet, all three eventually collected themselves, and life’s unexpectedly hot broth cooled when later, Katerina asked the stranger to emerge and Gogol, clad in raspberry-red pants, offered the women papirosi from his squeaky cigarette case with trembling gallantry. Katya knew that Katerina always possessed a certain hidden and elusive class; probably a result of her Baltic heritage. With her friend by her side, the situation even seemed exciting—Katya had never seen such a fascinating man where she worked; even the IT guy wasn’t on par with Gogol, though he similarly dressed unusually and spoke gibberish. Katya stared in wide-eyed wonder as Katerina fetched her most treasured spikenard from the bedroom and rubbed it on the old man’s legs. The whole room smelled pungently like a church. Katya inspected the ointment’s box and was incredulously speechless—it cost almost her yearly salary. Katerina’s hair even brushed across the ointment as she leaned over Gogol, but the woman didn’t care. For a moment, it seemed as if Katya’s friend was downright scrubbing the phantom’s brown, rotting feet with her hair. Katerina lastly applied the ointment to Gogol’s face, apparently to treat the small cuts made by his death mask.

“Why on Earth are you using such expensive ointment on him?” Katya asked Katerina as soon as they were alone in the kitchen for a moment. “You can’t live with an old man like him, you know—he won’t bring home the bacon… Wouldn’t you like a long-distance trucker? I could arrange it—I’ve told you before…”

Katerina sat down at the kitchen table and started to cry.

“Look, he’s only going to be here for a short while, but those other men are around all the time,” she sighed when she regained her composure. “I just started feeling sorry for him—he’s a total nemodny-unitaz-parasite, of course, but Grisha disappeared and I don’t have it in me to start over again…”

“Yeah, but you really can’t live with someone like him, Katerinka,” Katya said, her face now bathed in the glow of the inner lamp of feminine astonishment. “You could feed a regular man for a good three hundred days with the money spent on that ointment! He’s no Christ, now is he?! And we’re not Jewish women! And on top of that, if the inspectors come and see him reading, then no one will be able to protect you anymore—you’re an Estonka. Do you want to be hauled off to the old metro to die, too?”

“The metro?…” Katerina exclaimed. “I’ve served the tsardom honestly my whole life—I’ve never even read newspapers in the bathroom…”

She cried like a prostitute or a train-station pianist. Oh, how dearly she needed a Grigory in her life—a little aranzhirovchik of everyday affairs, who would tell her what is good and what is bad, and what the point of life is; who would put the right tone on things and always pull a suitable sum of money out from under the piano cover! Now, her entire life was a mess again, just like France Boulevard in Pskov after its opening ceremony.

Katya tried to think businesslike for a moment, just like she did at the factory whenever the workmen came around to gripe about not having this or that. She would ordinarily have all of them display their tools to her, after which they’d realize there was actually no basis for demanding extra, and that all the right conditions for drudgery had been established. Katya attempted to formulate her developing viewpoint:

“There has got to be some place that’s safer and better for him. There’s nothing wrong with your place, of course—this is worlds beyond a communal apartment. But listen, Katerinka—what do you say we take him to the museum?”

Katerina leapt to her feet, her eyes glinting strangely, like a house’s last nightlight tossed into a pond.

“Yes!” she exclaimed after a minute-long silence, her voice cracking.

The women composed themselves and returned to the living room. Gogol had gone into the toilet again, and all the bread on the table had been molded into little balls. The two friends began quietly packing what they would need.

(1) unfashionable-toilet-parasite (Russian)
(2) Estonian [woman] (Russian)
(3) organizer (Russian)