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By Leonid Leonov


The Montréal Review, August 2011


"Tower Blocks", Kiev, Ukraine
(Oil on canvas, 175cm x 115cm - 2010) by Zachary Peirce




I let my head loll down my shoulder and against the frame of the bathroom doorway. When I closed my eyes and concentrated on rubbing my forehead against the cool wood, I could feel the dust and chips of paint and plaster sailing up into my nostrils. I could only keep my eyes closed for a few seconds, as I began to feel the spin of the room and the history of the plaster I was breathing in. Behind me, in the bathroom where I had clutched at my stomach but not thrown up, the paint was peeling in shards to reveal walls put up by war weary hands six decades earlier. I could taste, far, far back in my throat where it was closest to my brain, the years that had absorbed into the walls. Khrushchev, Kennedy, Brezhnev, Reagan, Afghanistan. I wondered if breathing in old plaster was worse for me than breathing in new plaster. I opened my eyes.

Sitting at a table on the other side of the room, Yuri, dear Yuri, smiled up at me, his fingers already curling around his glass. From where I was looking, he was all eyes and sinewy shoulders, his thin, long head sinking back to rest on his neck. I imagined him as a flightless bird, making the sounds flightless birds make. He stretched out an arm over our crumb covered plates to pour another shot into my own glass, the remains of the bottle.

"What, another one?" I said.

"You have something to do today, do you?" he said.

I smiled back and sat down in the seat. "To what?" I said, raising my glass.

He paused, then brought his own shot up. The seriousness of his voice nearly masked the drunken dullness of his eyes. "Ukraine."

"Ukraine." I shrugged, amused at the quaintness. We touched glasses, still smiling.

Behind Yuri hung a banner, a bed sheet hand-dyed orange and hanging from two nails in the wall, the upper corners fraying under the weight. The color itself hadn't faded, not bright, but warm, almost amber. Just looking at it made my feet as weary as they had been through the vigils, the marches, when Yuri and I, and so many others (where had they gone?) carried it between us. It felt like the distant memory of being in the crowd during a sporting event or a music concert. A revolution we exacted while on vacation in some exotic land.

"Together we are many," I wryly sang, my voice brutally solitary, through the burn of the vodka. "'We cannot be defeated.' You still have that."

He had to look over his shoulder, an eyebrow raised. "Ah, the flag." He turned back to his glass and stared at the table through it. "I usually forget it's there."

"'What you wanna say to your daughters and sons,'" I continued, "'you know the battle is not over till the battle is won.'"

He waved a hand at me, but remained stooped. "I should take it down. I don't know. I still like it." He fingered the crumbs on his plate. "Look, you think you can go down and get some food?"

"Is it my turn?" I said, but Yuri didn't answer, his fingers pushing crumbs together into piles on his plate. Neither of us wanted to leave the apartment. "Fine, I'll go."

"Can you afford something on the side too?"

I shrugged. It was a routine we had.

"I'll get what I can," I said.

We'd both been out of work for the same amount of months, well over twelve, and had created a sort of pact, where we spent our days huddled together in Yuri's gloomy apartment, splitting the vodka costs and breaking bread. We'd come to share the burden, neither openly questioning whose resources would run out first. We were at the same station, awaiting the same train. While I lived with my parents and brothers when I was home, Yuri was fortunate enough to inherit a one bedroom apartment, one of the many remnants of a high-rise building spree in the years of our grandparents. They were lifeless from the outside and even in the hallways, ten-story tusks devoted to tightly locked doors. I envied his ability to disappear.

Yuri picked up the empty bottle of vodka and held it upside down above his glass, exaggerating a frown. I rolled my eyes as I put on my coat. Between heavy curtains, the noonday sun had found the crack like a break in the clouds and now illuminated the right side of his face and the wall behind him. The rest of the room, the size of a crypt and stuffed with old furnishings, hung in a kind of gloaming light, gray and soupy with flecks of flowing dust pattering through the waxen partition shining in.

He was still pouring air into his shot glass as I closed the front door behind me.

I liked Yuri's stairwell more than my own because mine, just down the street, had apparently found refuge from this particular gang of youthful miscreants. While the spraypainted graffiti in mine was mostly screams for attention in the form of stylized names of local taggers and the random obscenity ("Fuck!" one screamed at the world), his bordered on the sublimely grotesque. The swastika, black and large between the fourth and fifth floors, in a building built for veterans of the Great Patriotic War, was a particularly impressive touch, surpassing even the crude, pornographic mural that had been scrawled in the lobby. Though short of evidence, Yuri insisted that Russians created them, but he ventured out too rarely to catch anyone in the act.

It was a long walk, twelve flights, and I wondered how his grandmother, with legs the shape of her rounded body, had done it for so long. Myself, I still had a hand on the railing as I bounded down the steps. The alcohol, coursing through me and numbing my footsteps, didn't help.

Past the mural was the courtyard, flanked on all sides by identical high rises. Throughout the city, they were relentless, yet for their great size they never managed to loom. Each one hunkered, just another gray-coated man walking along on his way. The market, a little store with basic groceries, was across the street, a four lane divide equally dominated by cars and pedestrians. I looked both ways before I put my head down and crossed.

Inside, I quickly picked up a loaf of black bread, a small bit of butter and wandered over to the shelf where row after row of alcohol was lined up against the wall. I found it an amusing selection, a variety of elixirs whose identical effects I knew. I often joked to Yuri, to anybody, that the liquor section was the most colorful place in the market, a collection of bright, catchy labels. I picked the least expensive brand of vodka, the same type we had finished off earlier, and slid it under my armpit.

The salesgirl, whose eye color I couldn't see, mumbled something as I approached the counter. Her hands, which looked young to me, and ringless, lay limply on the cash register in front of her.

"What are you saying?" I said.

She had been saying the total price under her breath, the numbers memorized. The whole time she watched her register, lost under a cover of red locks. I paid and left wordlessly, though I fought the urge, born on a further surging drunkenness, to snap at her. Not to hurt her feelings, of which I knew nothing, but to have her look at me. She was veiled to me.

On the walk back, I noticed that the sidewalk traffic, not typically thick, was coagulating at the crosswalk. My bottle under my arm, I had no interest in brushing shoulders, but it was clear that a crowd was gathering, blocking my way back to the courtyard. On the outskirts, there were a few men nervously pacing with their backs to some curiosity, smoking cigarettes, but the rest, the growing throng, would come near and then stop in their place.

As I approached and entered, crossing a threshold as I began to be embraced in the thickness of people, I could see that it was a circle with a centrifugal gaze, each bystander hovering with chin over shoulder. It was quiet with a hum, the kind felt but not heard, felt in eyes and guts and knees. It was the press of cold weather on an old injury grown to the size of a city block, compressed around a crosswalk. I felt swept up in the current, unsure of the eye of the storm. It seemed like every nearby resident or shopper had emptied out in the streets, only to feel uncomfortable and lethargic, but intent on sharing the experience.

"What's going on?" I asked the closest person, a balding man whose eyes were half-closed.

"A girl got hit by a car," he said as if I'd wanted the time, interrupting his fixation on the high rise strewn horizon down the way. His legs never moved, he claimed that portion of the sidewalk as his own.

I looked around and realized I was in a flesh and winter coat statue garden, a forest of elbows and still faces. The energy that existed was the wind howling through nooks and branches.  I dared to take a step forward, then a dozen, my bones doused with courage from an afternoon spent drinking. My brushes against the bystanders were met with confusion and irritation. I was cutting through, a lone traveler. There, at the brink of the crowd, which I could see now had congregated on either side of the road with a few standing by in the street itself, was a gap the size of a small meadow, the center of which was a car and a corpse.

A part of me was thankful that the girl was facedown, with her straight, blonde hair splayed out like a halo, because I did not want to see or imagine her face. She must have been only seven or eight, had run out of her apartment in a bright red, woolen coat, maybe even the same building I had left. She had pulled halfway out of the coat. A small bag of groceries, a few products for her mother, was ripped open on the asphalt beside her, and some change had spilled out of her pocket to lay beside her. Thin, pale legs ended in feet the size of apples, one black shoe perched upright a few meters away, sent flying by the impact. Her slight size and her arms, limp at her sides, made her resemble a dropped doll. She must have been running back home, her errand done, some warm food or a bit of chocolate waiting for her return.

I scanned the crowd, but there was no weeping, no apron wearing woman screaming as she ran to her dead daughter. She didn't know yet. There were no relatives, no one knew her. Everyone maintained the same stoicism they would have had while reading a book. The few that looked ahead, and I followed their gaze, were fixed on the car, its engine still running, idling two meters from the girl's body. It was an old, silver Zaporozhets, at least two decades old, the condition of its exterior suggesting it had been driven out of a junkyard long after it was deservedly placed inside. The driver was still seated, both hands clenched on the wheel. He was old, had been old when his car was new, had obviously lived a life that left him as equally prepared to run down a young girl as the crowd around him was prepared to bear witness, his eyes fixed straight ahead in an uninterrupted driver's stare, but with no emotional clench to his face.

When I finally stopped walking, almost as an afterthought, I found myself within the circle, between the girl and the car. I was the first to get so close and suddenly I could feel the old man's eyes turn to me. I stared back at him, looked at his face. His hair was nearly gone, just little bundles of strands. The large, gray eyes were sunk into their cavity, and I had seen the same blank look on soldiers lined up for inspection. A grizzled stubble poked through the lines of his face, a ravaged landscape under the cueball smoothness of his head. I wanted a connection between us, a flicker in his eye, a tightening of his mouth, a recognition, but I'd felt more between myself and marble busts. I had seen paintings of his youth in my own youth, in the brown uniform, holding the crimson flag, in the snow, in the boots, with the rifle or the broken hands, and their picture frames had been broken, they had been left out in the weather, to be rained upon and boiled, to be extinguished of surface feature or fleshly life, to become the mannequin I saw before me, staring through eyeglasses at myself and the dead girl beside me.

"Are you a witness?" I heard behind me. It was a policeman, a notebook in hand, a squint below the brim of his hat.

"I didn't see what happened," I said.

He nodded, intent on writing in his notebook. After making a mark, he called out, "Has the ambulance been called?" There was a murmur in the crowd. Someone had.

"This man killed this girl," I said. There was a slight slur to my words.

"Someone should go alert her parents," he said, nodding again, this time towards me. He waved the old man forward, but I stepped into the way, leaving the girl's body to block the other path.

I expected motion in the crowd. At least talk. "Why don't you arrest this man?" I said, more strongly.

The policeman stopped writing in his notebook, looked up. He was as quiet as the mob around us. No one seemed to stir. And the Zaporozhets hummed.

"This old man killed this girl," I said again, more forcefully. I had begun talking to the crowd, I could feel the rise of emotion in my chest. I tried to roll the girl over, to get the people's attention in a macabre, desperate way, but her body simply shifted and the jacket slid off, ending up in my hands.

"What do you want us to do, wino?" he asked. "String the old man up? Go home, you drunk." Around him, those that didn't stay still, nodded.

Just like that, the feeling died. He looked at me, remorseless, until I began walking away. The crowd neither parted nor dispersed, watching as the policeman took notes until the old man eventually drove away, his engine running the entire time. I walked back to Yuri's apartment building almost immediately after, unwilling to further face either the policeman or the driver and thirsty for the bottle under my arm, but I allowed myself one last look as I left. The girl's body lay there, still uncovered, but some enterprising soul had found the strength of will to pilfer her groceries.

When I entered Yuri's room, he was standing on his chair, swaying slightly, with his back to me. He was reaching up at the edges of the orange flag, trying to pull it off the nails. Hearing the door close, he looked back and paused when he saw my face.

I stumbled in and took the few steps left to round the table. "Leave it up."

"I started feeling like an idiot about it as soon as you left."

Unsure of myself, numb to the motion of my limbs, I raised the coat up towards him. "Then put this up instead."

Yuri took it into his hands and suddenly jolted, dropping the hideous thing. It fell into a small pile among the legs of the chair. "God, is that blood on it?"

"Put it up," I said. I could see the bottle shivering in my hand, but could not feel it. The spirits were the fuel of my logic, but not the source, that was clawing from somewhere deeper inside me. "If you're not going to open the curtains then put it up."

"Why would I open the curtains?"he asked, confused.

"There's a dead girl outside."

He looked at the window, down at the coat, and then back at me. "My god, what happened?"

I refilled both of our glasses, missing mine at first by a mile, and leaned back in my chair, eyeballing him.

"What the hell did you do?" he asked with a step forward.

"Nothing," I said and picked up my glass. "Honest to God, I did nothing."

He grabbed the coat and put it down on the couch. It was a red blur against the gray of the room. When he sat down, unsmiling and staring at me, I was swirling my drink with shakes of the wrist, breathing heavily, the beginnings of strain across the tenseness of my upper back. I thought back to the familiarity of the crowd, the press of the people, but without the marching of the feet. The confusion, the loneliness. It came in waves, sometimes pushed up by the vodka, sometimes buried by it.

Yuri wordlessly drank, his eyes flicking between me and the coat. Behind him, the orange flag was now fully within the crack of sunlight, bright like fire in a halo above his head, sagging only slightly where it ripped. As the vodka burned down my throat I kept flipping back to the choice I had given Yuri, already foggy in my memory. To either put up the jacket or open the blinds. I was already beginning to forget, and the darkness of the room was comforting, and something about the flag reminded me of cinders in a fireplace, the kind that you hold your hands bare inches above.


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