Stories by Lazarus Trubman
  1  A Casual Chat About Nothing
 An Unexpected Sunday Tourist
3  A Note
  4  Medical Examination
  5  Arrest

  About the Author  |  |  Winter 2021 Fiction Issue

A Casual Chat About Nothing

Months had passed since I was liberated from the Strict-Regime Colony in Northern Russia. Behind me were dozens of blood transfusions, restorative dental tortures, and scary talks with cardiologists. I had gotten my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the Soviet Immigration Department to approve my visa. One day, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside a restaurant in downtown Chisinau, someone light hand touched my shoulder.

“What are you up to these days, Lazarus? What are you up to?”

The voice sounded unfamiliar, as well as the short laugh.

I turned around to see the man.

I really hadn’t recognized Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t just his voice, but his face, pale and utterly different. And yet I still felt that I knew him. Something in his aspect could never be changed.

“Yes, yes,” he said, noticing my confusion, “they can do this to you—they and their newly invented millstones! But your colony wasn’t a vacation either, I’ve heard.”

I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face but two cheekbones with thin skin over them sticking out like miniature mountain peaks, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time. That’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face, and it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back in his skull.

“Professor!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add: I was told that you were dead! Instead, “Well, how the hell are you?”

“I’m great, Lazarus, I’m great!” He put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau. Nature’s gorgeous awakening!”

I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor of Electromagnetics at Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth, his face formed that uncanny expression of mirth. To ask seemed impossible.

“I’m better now,” he said. “Those millstones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”

He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheekbones with thin skin over them are laughing. It just looked like it, and I apologized for not recognizing him at first.

“You’re not alone, my friend,” he assured, “but I’ve gotten used to that.”

“I’m sorry,” I apologized again. I felt an impulse to leave, but before I could speak, he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.

“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a few other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”

“We all have our scars to show,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”

“Don’t we, buddy? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”

His skin looked as if it could crack at any moment, like old leather or clay, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon suspended under his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken. I glanced at my wristwatch.

“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked with his short deceiving laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion? I’m buying.”

He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university. I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.

“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go. A few important things urgently require my attention.”

“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.

“Yes, I’d like that,” I said, finishing my coffee. Whenever I’m in Chisinau again.”

Maybe it was a laugh, I thought suddenly while checking the street for a taxi. Maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had been tortured badly and died in the camp.

As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple paid and got out. I slipped into the back seat, lowered the window and said, “It was really nice to see you alive and laughing...”

“We shall meet again, Lazarus!” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”

“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said. “Always up for a good story.”

“I hope you still remember my old apartment: they gave it back to me, those imbeciles, so I can die under a boring ceiling—instead of a starry sky.”

I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.

“In the meantime, call me,” he said, stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”

I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.

We’re damaged goods, I thought, cranking up the window and closing my eyes, but he was right. We survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying. We’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants and blood transfusions. And when none of those helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside. In silence.

“You may take a nap,” the driver said, moving into the traffic. “It’s quite a ride.”

“Can you make it in twenty minutes?”

“I can certainly try.”

“You’ll be rewarded,” I promised. I closed my eyes and went back to the very beginning.

My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught Russian literature and Linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Balti, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldavia, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city's own history is closely intertwined. Then came the Seventies, deadly like a marsh, Brezhnev’s time, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one. Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. The guests enjoyed slow dancing and drinks and always seemed to have a good time. Not my wife though. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course, I could make an effort to be smart and funny; it’s just I had the feeling I had said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden. I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.

Every day I met plenty of people, killers and those who ordered the killings. You couldn’t tell by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, friends no longer answering their phones, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment. I didn’t feel like talking about it.

More than once I thanked God for television.

In 1980 I began conducting underground readings of forbidden poetry and prose and attending gatherings organized by two Jewish professors, where we discussed the latest news channeled to them from Great Britain, America and Israel. In the fall of 1981 I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha near Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and those who would die in the nearest future, a new distribution strategy, as well as the need of a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine, preferably in Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than a professorship or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine. Not for long though.

When a month after my return home I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat. It was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan room—a desk and two chairs—and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. The operative who soon walked in greeted me with a smile and introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. His smile disarmed me. He knew a lot about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Checking something in a tiny notepad, Anatoly assured me that I’d done nothing wrong, and the reason for the invitation was rather prosaic. His department had been informed recently that some students from the university I worked for had been distributing printouts of BBC’s radio transmissions. He would love to know the names of those students.

“This is like a mountain off my shoulders, Comrade Major,” I said. “Really.”

“So, you don’t know anyone?”

“None of my own students is capable of such a thing,” I said. “They’re just not brave enough!”

“Great!” he said and glanced at his watch. “Look at that. Almost noon!”

Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break bread with a KGB major in a public eatery didn’t look like a wise idea, but I couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef stroganoff and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands.

Sunny day, everybody in white shirts.

Anatoly called again a week later to request another meeting, this time outside of his Spartan room.

“A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There’s one close to the university.”

“I have a better idea,” he said. “The residential complex on Garden Street, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule.”

“I’ve taken the liberty. Your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”

“This is not about those careless students, I gather?”

“Not anymore, my friend. It’ll be more to the point, I promise.”

We chatted for another few minutes, then the line went dead. I stood motionless in the hallway, with the phone still attached to my ear, unsure suddenly of how to live my life, how to go back into the living room and entertain my wife and daughters as if nothing had happened.

It was a nine-story apartment complex behind the downtown bookstore. It had two elevators but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. I reached the sixth floor and stopped. I suddenly remembered Anatoly’s quick remark before he disconnected the line.

“The millstones of history never stop,” he had said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them. In your case though, it’s a bit too late, my friend. Your hands were already caught when I got you.” And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to squeeze my body and mind between the rusty millstones and grind me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger!

I pushed the red button.

The door was unlocked by a tall woman of satanic calm and indistinguishable age.

“Lazarus, isn’t it?” she said, holding the door open. “Major Orlov is waiting for you.”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “is this…”

“You’re not lost, please,” she assured softly. She accompanied me into the living-room and walked away without uttering another word.

Anatoly stood next to the wall-to-wall bookshelves with an unlit cigar in his hand, and said as though reading my mind: “Her name is Iraida Borisovna Borodina. She’s a retired schoolteacher, a great hostess and a widow. Her husband, General…”

“A great hostess?” I dared to interrupt.

“Sit down,” he interrupted, ignoring my question.

And I understood: the casual time was over.

We were about the same age, Anatoly just a couple of months older, with a typical milky-buttery Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and was moving quite fast up the ranks.

“A cigar?” he offered.

“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly. “Almost a year ago…”

“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again!” he said in a slightly raised tone of voice. He pulled a tape recorder out of his breast pocket and for the next half an hour I listened to my own secret seminars and the discussions I’d had with my colleagues at that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened, “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…” At that moment Iraida Borisovna came into the living room with two cups of steaming tea and some sponge cake on a silver tray. She placed everything on the table and walked away.

“Please, help yourself,” said Anatoly. “It’s an herbal green tea from China—very healthy. Does wonders to a man’s sex drive, I’ve been told.”

I took a sip of tea, and asked, “Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?”

“You’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily; at least for now, you’re a Soviet citizen, aren’t you? To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”

“Don’t see any difference!”

“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents or pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you’ll never know what happened to them, how they were punished or if they were punished at all. As far as I see it, you’ll be a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is very interested in a circle of your friends and acquaintances, Jewish in particular, with whom you have established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, and the contents of letters that are constantly channeled to them from around the world, especially from the United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”

“So, it’s a risk-free job, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is completely risk-free, professor, even this healthy tea.”

“I’m actually a college lecturer.”

“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”

“Not today, no.”

“We’re done then!”

“Do I have a choice?”

“To avoid punishment? Not really, but that would be something to talk about in detail at our next meeting on Monday. Time’s the same. I also want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”

“My wife?”

“It’s for your own good, my friend, believe me.”

I looked straight into Anatoly’s eyes, trying to understand why a young man of his abilities would dedicate his one and only life to a system that is hated by every civilized country. Is it the money or the power to manipulate people’s lives? Or both?

“Don’t judge me and don’t try to understand me,” he read my mind again. “I’ve chosen this life and I have no regrets. Notice this: I can do a few things for you if you decide to consider my offer. If not…well, let’s just say that your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”

I kept silent.

“Until next Monday then?” he said, extending his hand.

I kept silent.

“Is it Monday or Tuesday?”

“It’s Monday.”

“Very good.”

We shook hands.

I took the elevator this time; didn’t know why, but wanted to meet somebody, an old classmate maybe, or an old neighbor. Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.

Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. I heard my wife talking to my daughters, their usual morning wrangle. To go or not to go? A door slammed, then another. Everyone was gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I brushed my teeth, breakfasted. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. Perhaps Anatoly was right. In a few years no one will remember. Time, like a miracle doctor, will erase from people’s memories the good deeds and the bad deeds. If not I—then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, more ambitious and braver. Survival is the name of the game.

I finally left the apartment.

Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.

I felt mad suddenly. And what made me mad was Anatoly’s strong belief that I would accept his offer; that no one, including me, ever believed that the monster called USSR had clay knees. He had no doubt that I'd choose to stay neutral, and to stay neutral meant to be on the side of the ruling regime.

Instead of taking a bus I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside I asked for a telephone.

“Please be quick,” said the young freckled clerk.

“I will,” I promised and dialed the number.

“Borodin’s residence,” answered Iraida Borisovna.

“Anatoly, please,” I said, my mouth suddenly dry as desert. I wasn’t ready to talk to the wife of a war hero.

Whispers on the other end. Then, “I’m listening.”

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming.”

“You shouldn’t be calling from the bookstore.”

“I know, I’m sorry…”

“It’s very understandable.”

“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday…” I didn’t know how to end this conversation. "It’ll be on me then.”

“I doubt it,” said Anatoly. He disconnected the line.

I thanked the clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light, cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.

In a small restaurant I sat on a stool at the counter and asked for some coffee.

“In a minute, teacher!”

I closed my eyes and imagined Anatoly’s face, hands, rare anger.

“Your coffee, teacher,” said the barman.

“Thank you, Konstantin.”

“Is your family alright?”

“Everybody’s fine, thank you for asking.”

“That’s good! There’s nothing more important than your family. When my Stella died, life lost its meaning…”

I nodded, sipped my coffee. Surprisingly enough, I felt pretty calm, as though my sudden decision not to see Anatoly again was the only one I could live with. Consequences? Of course! It would be naïve to assume that, having all this power, he’ll simply forget about my underground seminars, trip to Moscow and the sudden rejection of his offer.

“Is it too early for a shot of cognac, Konstantin?” I asked.

“Well, it depends…”

“I’ll have one then.” The drink burned my throat.

“Some fresh coffee?” asked Konstantin.

“Thank you, my friend, but I really have to go.” I paid and went out. The rain had stopped while I was inside the restaurant, but it would probably start again later in the day. I walked fast, feeling younger, lighter—no longer a robot. The sun fought its way through the clouds, brighter than ever. People everywhere, cars, dirty buses; more people than before the rain. Freshness pushed them out of their disgusting apartments. Well, I thought, what was done was done, and thank God, I never discussed it with my family…

A month had passed. On Friday, as soon as we finished watching the late-night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.

“Are you okay, honey?” she asked touching my arm. “I can make you feel better in a heartbeat.”

“I’ve no doubts, love,” I said. “How about a rain-check?”

“A rain check it is…don’t take too many though.”

On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of aged Fetyaska Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch. Almost midnight.

A black “Volga” attracted my attention, appearing suddenly and stopping under a streetlight. Three men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building. A few moments later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.

They came for me.


  © Lazarus Trubman, 2021

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