Alexander Kanevsky



A Tragicomedy Story

Extract from the story:

Sailor was the first to return. It was he who taught grannie Manya to cry “Polundra!” (“Stand from under!”). From morning till night Manya sat on a high stool, at the entrance of her house, in the street, steaming her feet in a spall basin, pouring boiling water into it from a big kettle.

She was talking with her friend who was in a like manner, softening her podagra, across the street. They carried on a dialogue, shouting across the thorough fare. Sailor told Manya that in that pose she resembled a sea observer, and looking into the basin he would ask:

“It isn’t storming, is it?”

Grannie Manya was a born observer. When talking she never slackened her vigilance and always being the first to notice another demobilized man, she’d come to the surface from her basin, and leaving wet traces, hurriedly shuffled over the asphalt with her bare steamed out feet which resembled swollen flippers. Panting she would burst into the yard to shake the walls with a thunderous cry “Polundra!”. Manya had a opera bass, it seemed as if she were

all throat. But it was not so: she also had a nose, big and curious, which she stuck into all the secrets of the yard.

No sooner did Manya’s cry sound than everybody in the yard was rooted to the spot in impatient expectation: who? In all the windows there appeared faces, mostly women’s, twisted with excitement – each woman was expecting her husband, son, father… When the former soldier appeared in the yard and was recognized, an enthusiastic chorus of joyful greetings rang out, but by the established ritual, nobody approached him, everybody was waiting for his wife, mother or daughter to run out of the house and fall on his neck. And only after that was he encircled by a ring of neighbors, the women laughing and sobbing hugged him, the men slapped him on the shoulder with all their might. One such blow would be enough to cause a small earthquake in Japan, but in our yard this was the way sincere joy was expressed, and the soldier smiled, imperceptibly rubbing his swollen shoulders. It was a happy summer – of the front-line soldiers’ return, it was a kind of compensation for the hard years of anguish, alarm and expectation, happy for those who again saw each other, and insufferably bitter for those whose dear ones did not return.

Our yard was lucky, all the men returned: some had turned grey, others limped, some were still in plaster – but they were alive and intoxicated with life. Only Lyosha, Teza’s husband, hadn’t returned yet, and there was no word from him.

Tereza or Teza, as she was called, was the favorite of the yard: stately, long-legged, with a beautiful dark- complexioned face and glorious black hair which, always blowing in the wind, projected from under both her hat and kerchief and lived an independent life. Teza played games with the boys and taught the girls to toss up a metallic bobbin on a rope (this game was called by the exciting name of “Diablo”), carried water for all the lonely old men and women, easily running up to the fourth floor, with full buckets; dashingly danced the gopak (Ukrainian dance), the lezghinka (Caucasian dance) and freilekhs (Jewish dance)… We, little boys, silently worshipped her, the older boys pined for her during their sleepless nights, and grown-up men stopped to follow her with their eyes. They not only gazed at her – some of them tried to make her acquaintance, to court her and to give her presents. But she cast off her suitors in such a way that they were ready to vanish into thin air, and probably did vanish for we never saw them in our yard again. Teza had such a sharp tongue that if she would lick a cactus but once, it would be shaven clean.

Before the war Teza and Lyosha worked in the circus, they tossed up with their feet different articles: balls, cubes, cylinders, and threw them over to each other. This item – called “antipode” was a great success with the viewers. Lyosha was older than Teza, when he married her he was over thirty, and Teza was getting on for twenty. They met in summer and married right away. Their love was bright and hot like the Odessa sun in July. A year after their wedding a daughter, Marinka, was born to them.

They took her with them on tour, and the little girl was growing in the wings, among clowns, acrobats and trained horses. Her parents began little by little to introduce her to their profession, but at that time the war fell upon their family happiness. Lyosha volunteered to the army, and Teza with her daughter and grannie Manya were evacuated to Siberia, then they moved to Tatarstan, then to the Caucasus – ever nearer and nearer to Odessa. As soon as Odessa was liberated they immediately returned home. Teams were formed in the circus. It was suggested that Teza perform alone, but she refused until Lyosha’s return. For the time being she was working as assistant to an illusionist, and in her free hours she ran to the second-hand goods market to barter the bread she had saved, for bright balls and top hats – she was preparing props for their future performances.

Lyosha did not write nor did he return. During the first months her neighbors would sympathetically enquire if she had received word from Lyosha, and then they desisted and only following her with their eyes they sighed with sympathy. And once…

On a warm October Sunday the yard was crowded: the inhabitants were smoking, talking, hanging their linen to dry, shaking out their rugs. Grannie Manya who had been sitting at her observation post, ran – rather flew into the yard, flapping her feet-flippers, opened her mouth wishing to cry out, but panting she couldn’t catch her breath. In a small wooden cart, Lyosha rolled into the yard, pushing it with his hands on the pavement. Both his legs had been cut off to the knees, equally, symmetrically as if he had placed them on rails to be ridden over by a tram, the tram of war. Everybody was stupefied and rooted to the spot. Nobody knew how to behave, or what to say. Somebody tried to smile, but the forced smile turned into a grimace. In silence the people parted, making way for him. With a salutatory gesture Lyosha rode up to his entrance, habitually leaning on his hands, he jumped on to the front steps; and disappeared inside. The sound of the wheels turning on the steps rang out for several seconds, then it died down and a knock was heard at the door behind which was Teza. And then without any appeal, without a signal, by a general impulse, the people disappeared, the yard became deserted, and the open windows were slammed. Expectation followed, alarming and compressed like the spring of a breech-block before firing a shot. Five minutes passed, ten, fifteen. The yard was silent and deserted, the windows battened down as before a storm. But dozens of eyes watched the entrance from behind each curtain, each blind. Finally, a general collective sigh of relief was heaved, and all windows were flung open as if with the exhaled air. Teza came out from the entrance in her smartest dress, with a red ribbon in her mischievous hair. And Lyosha rode out, already washed and groomed, dressed in a new shirt with spangles, which she had bartered at the secondhand goods market, for his future performances.

Pre-war Lyosha was very tall, and Teza despite her long legs, reached only up to his shoulders. Now it was the other way round: Lyosha was a head shorter than she. But Teza did not notice it: she was walking happy, with her head raised high, holding on to Lyosha, as if he were her most cherished possession, and her hair like a black pirate flag, was triumphantly streaming in the wind. And the yard was at once full, noisy and boiling. The inhabitants hugged Lyosha, kissed him, slapped him on the shoulder, but, of course, more reservedly than usually. And for some reason or other, they hugged and kissed Teza not less than Lyosha, and to tell the truth, even a wee bit more.

Thus, a new life began for Lyosha and Teza. Lyosha became a shoemaker. At first he repaired only his neighbors’ shoes, but gradually his clientele widened and customers came from all the street. He was sitting at the open window in his room, with his instruments, nails,

pieces of leather placed on the window-sill. His customers came up to the window, handed over to him broken boots and shoes and received them repaired, treated the master to cigarettes, oracle smoked, talked and joked.

After Lyosha’s return Teza gave up the circus at once and found a job at a box-office as a ticket spreader. From morning till night she was running over all kinds of institutions, praising the local actors, persuading them to buy tickets, appealing to their Odessa patriotism. When actors on tour were expected, but nobody knew about their arrival, Teza would divulge the information to grannie Manya in secret, and in a minute all the yard knew about it. A line would form at Teza’s window. Lyosha would move aside his instruments, making available part of the window-sill. Teza laid out batches of tickets, sat next to him, and they worked side by side: he pounding his hammer, and she jingling her scissors.

Since that time they had never been to the circus. Nor did they mention it, at any rate, aloud. They lived in a small three-room apartment occupying a light spacious, but inter-communicating room. Adjoin­ing were two rooms, one occupied by Lyosha’s elder brother Zhora, and the other by grannie Manya. Lyosha called her the chief bell-ringer of their family: Manya’s father, a watchmaker, left her an inheritance of a dozen clocks, wall clocks and table clocks. All of them were striking clocks, striking the half hour. But since they showed different time, there was incessant ringing. Manya would leave her musical room in the morning, sat in front of the house to steam her feet in a small basin and in her opera bass she would scold the passing cars which prevented her from crying out to her interlocutor across the street.

“These feet, I wish they may burn!.. They torment me so, torment me so!” she complained to her son-in-law.

“You shouldn’t have crossed the sea together with Moses” Lyosha answered in jest, pounding his hammer. But after some days he handed in to her “tiger ointment” procured from his customers – doctors, which would make grannie Manya run “like a she beast of prey”.

The time away from the basin Manya spent in the toilet from where it was very hard to evict her though Lyosha wrote “Time Limit;” in block letters, on the door. She’d run out into the kitchen in lilac-colored knee-long knickers and a dark-blue man’s sports shirt, “in her house dress”, as she explained to the people around. Shocked by her appearance, Lyosha presented her with red French pantaloons. Manya liked the pantaloons very much, she pulled them on above her knickers and proudly paced up and down the apartment. Leosha said that the red pantaloons might serve grannie Manya for a red flag in a First of May demonstration.

In the beginning in our yard there was a dustbin, as large as a mansion. Then it was broken and garbage was dumped into a special car which came to the house at the end of the day. The driver rang a small bell to inform of his arrival, and a chain of women with garbage pails stretched out. Grannie Manya with her pail ready half the day already, was intensely waiting for the garbage collector like a hunter lying in wait for his quarry: child of queues, she wanted to be first here, too. Immediately after lunch she’d begin to enquire:

“Garbage hasn’t rung yet, has he?”

Once she mixed things up: a bus had stopped in front of our house and the driver raised the cover of the hood to check the work of the engine. The open hood resembled the mouth of the garbage collector, and Manya running up, dropped the contents of the garbage pail there. “This is the way it’s done” Manya calmly explained to the driver struck dumb with the impudence, and went away, happy that she again was first. The driver couldn’t come round for a long time, and the engine offended spat out potato peelings and egg shells.

Our yard lived like a big multi-national family. At that time the neighbors were never interested who is who… Well, frankly speaking, it was hard to define: the singing voices, heated temperaments, active gesticulation, irony, sociability – these common traits grouped all the inhabitants of our yard into a single nationality – Odessites. Apart from Russians and Ukrainians there lived in our yard Moldavians, Jews, Armenians, Turks, Bulgarians… But this I learned many years later, after the events which shocked and aroused our yard, when all of a sudden everybody began to take an active interest what nationality was registered in point 5 of their passports.., But I am anticipating matters – it will come later, later…

Several years passed. During those years Lyosha grew up: he stood on crutches and learned quite soon to walk on them – his circus strain helped. Now he had his own cabin at the street corner, he went there in the morning, beating his hammer all day long, and in the evening he returned home, often staggering.

“Why are you drinking?!” – his mother-in-law scolded him. “Marina, fetch the axe, there will be blood on the walls!”

Lyosha listened to her with a smile, expressing neither fear nor repentances.

Teza was aware why he indulged in drinking: a big billboard had been placed before his cabin, which featured bright circus playbills. She knew it but she pretended not to, and also fought his weakness.

“If you won’t give up drinking I’ll leave you and go away”.

“If you will go away, please take me with you,” Lyosha answered plunging his hand into her graying, but still fluffy mane.

“Model newly-weds!” Zhora, Lyosha’s brother teased them.

Zhora was engaged in trade. All his life he devised machinations, was permanently under investigation, served prison terms, was released again to run a shop or a canteen.

“You’ll be put in prison for life one day”, Lyosha reasoned with him. “Can’t you live an honest life?”

“No, I can’t – I need much money”.

“What for?”

“For a rainy day”.

“Are you going to marry in the rainy season?

It wasn’t an idle question: Zhora adored getting married, he arranged magnificent wedding parties, celebrated the birth of each child, then got disappointed, divorced, again fell in love, and again celebrated his wedding. Flocks of his children sent by their mothers, crowded under his window, demanding alimony. Only in prison could Zhora escape them.

Before each new marriage Zhora would urgently put in order his dentures, as if he were going to bite his bride. He went to his neighbor dentist Mr. Nevinnykh to ask him to “trim” his teeth. Nevinnykh put into Zhora’s mouth the borer of his portable dental drill and thunderously wielded it as if it were a pick hammer in a drift. Carried away he filed the remnants of Zhora’s teeth to the gums, and hurriedly made new dentures, charging additional payment for the rush order.

Zhora was ashamed of his dentures, and on the first wedding night, when going to bed and switching off the night-lamp, he would unnoticeably remove the dentures from his mouth and hide them in his slipper. Once he confused the slippers – he put his dentures into the bride’s slipper. The first to get up, she put on her slippers and the dentures sank into her foot. His wire went into hysterics, kicking her leg in an attempt to shake off the teeth. It all looked so unethical that Zhora divorced her right away.

Zhora’s family life consisted of eternal honeymoons, that is why he was thin and blue like a professional cock. He loved fat women. Every new girlfriend exceeded the previous one by about ten kilos. Now again divorced, he courted a lady from next door. His new love was Mary Alaya (Scarlet), a soloist of the philharmonic, a student of Lyala Chornaya (Black) and Zoya Belova (White). Her genre were “Latin-Armenian” songs which she performed in a horrible southern language, passionately biting the microphone. Mary Alaya’s contribution to variety art was exceedingly weighty: over a 100 kg. Mary was continually on a special diet which caused her to become even fatter.

“She is a remarkable woman”, Zhora melted with delight. “She eats nothing and gains weight”.

“Let her urgently share her experience with our cattle-breeders”, Lyosha advised with a most serious air.

Zhora was perishing with passion, but the wedding was postponed: the singer lived in one room with her father and mother, so he couldn’t move in with her, and she couldn’t go into his small room.

«I wish we could find a fiancé with dwelling space for our dear Marina, then Lyosha and Teza would move to my room, and darling Mary and I would live in the inter-communicating room», Zhora engrossed in wishful thinking.

But it was no easy matter to marry off Marina. Awkward, angular she did not readily attract men’s gazes. To crown all, Marina had an eternal incurable nasal cold. She had her tonsils, adenoids and part of her nasopharynx taken out, but all the same she spoke through her nose as if she had a plug inserted in each nostril. Lyosha insisted on his daughter being taught music – what kind of Odessa kid is she with¬out a violin? But Marina had neither ear for music nor singing voice, that’s why they categorically refused to admit her to the musical college. It was with great difficulty and for much money that they managed to talk their neighbor Grabovsky into giving her private lessons. Grabovsky played in the or¬chestra of the operetta theater from where he was periodically sacked for drunkenness… He was Polish, therefore he was addressed as “Musiu”. After the first lesson the desperate nobleman gave to Marina, he immed¬iately indulged in a drinking bout.

It would be untrue to say that Marina had no talents whatsoever – she had one blazing passion: she adored laundering. She laundered every-thing she could lay hands on: pants, dresses, suits, caps. Once on New Year’s eve she laundered her winter coat which had been drying throughout January. Then she boiled Teza’s bag with the money for the tickets she had sold. Teza was all day long drying the ruble -, five ruble – and ten ruble notes, smoothing them out with an iron. But since Marina had added washing blue to the boiling water, the bank-notes assumed the color of a drowned man, and it was risky to give them to the cashier: they might be mistaken for foreign currency. Since that time, when go¬ing to bed Teza would hide all her things under her pillow – otherwise Marina would find them and launder them. She also liked to sweep out the rubbish from the room, and as she considered rubbish everything that wasn’t locked up from her, she swept and threw out combs, slippers, spectacle cases… In order to find an outlet for her cleaning energy, Marina would Sundays make her rounds of all the lonely old men and women. And in their houses, she would, to the joy of their masters, launder, wash, boil, to her heart’s content… She was solicitous about the neighbors and they repaid her with love.

One morning an excited Zhora telephoned Teza to inform her in nervous tones:

«I have left my dentures at home. Bring them right away: the OBKHSS (Department of Fight against Misappropriation of Socialist Pro¬perty) inspector is with me, I must have lunch with him!» Teza ransacked his room, but to no avail. Then she asked her daughter:

«You didn’t happen to see uncle’s dentures, did you?»

«I cabe acdoss gevoltig teeth – I threw theb out».

«Where?» Teza asked in horror.

«Into the garbage pail».

Luckily “garbage” hadn’t rung yet, and grannie Manya hadn’t yet taken out the garbage, so they emptied the contents of the pail on to the kitchen table, sorted them out, and found Zhora’s dentures sunk into a piece of cucumber, cleaned them, rinsed them with boiling water, and delivered them to Zhora – lunch with the inspector took place. Lyosha adored his only child, and she reciprocated his love, hours-long she would sit in his cabin, cleaning the repaired shoes to a shine.. Evenings they would together feed the stray dogs which Marina brought to the house to comb their tangled hair.

The people in our yard adored animals. In each flat there lived either a dog or a cat, or a canary. Mornings the children would take out into the yard tortoises, hamsters, guinea-pigs, to have them warm themselves in the sun. All homeless dogs found shelter in our yard, all pregnant cats of all the city considered our yard their maternity home. The cats bore kittens twice or three times a year, multiplying at cosmic speed and after several years it was necessary to regulate their birth-rate: the newly born kittens were drowned with one kitten left to mother-cat for comfort. The drowning was done by Galka-Debilka (Fool), the charwoman of the neighboring yard, who charged a «buck a drown». Our people detested her but paid her the money because they couldn’t find another «downer». Saturdays Galka had an additional income: she went out to wash the deceased. The women-neighbors fearing that she «might bring an infection», were going to prevent it, but Sailor stopped them:

– «You should be grateful that she doesn’t bring the work to do at home».

For many years there had lived in our yard a kind and clever mon¬grel Bulochka (Bunnie) for whom they laid a layer of felt in the corner of the yard and placed a small awning over it. There stood two plates – Bulochka’s personal dishes, into which the neighbors daily poured milk, put food and added delicacies. Bulochka had a permanent visiting husband, dog Shmurdyak from the neighboring yard. The couple lived in peace and harmony, never barking at each other, walking together and raising their progeny together. Bulochka was silvery-beige and Shmurdyak was jet-black. Their children were of two contrasting colors, in spots or stripes, like leopards or zebras, and they readily found masters among the inhabitants of our street. There even existed a special list scheduling what puppy would be given to whom.

Once Bulochka couldn’t give birth, the people in the yard suffered, sympathized, but they didn’t know how to help. On the instructions of the neighbors grannie Manya ran to professor-gynecologist Glinkin who lived opposite our house. It was already late in the evening and a dissatisfied Glinkin came out in his pajamas, with a glass of tea in his hand.

– «She is suffering so! Please help her to be delivered!» grannie Manya implored him.

– «I am not an obstetrician», Glinkin answered irritably. «And then you can see: I am drinking tea». – «Professor, you aren’t drinking anything!» grannie Manya said, putting her two fingers into his glass. Indignant at this insolence Glinkin cried out: – «Get out! I won’t go anywhere!« – «If you don’t go I’ll lie down and I’ll be lying here all my life «, Manya said calmly, slowly bending her knees. The prospect of seeing all his life grannie Manya lying in his anteroom, shocked Glinkin, and he agreed. The delivery was successful, and the professor liked the puppies so much that he asked to be given one.

Contacts :

mkanevski@mail.ru   (Marina)

+972-54-3257886 (Alexandra)