a village in Western Belorus, 1987)
Basil Wolenski was
allowed to have a minor superiority complex, being a gem of westernization,
at least by Isobelino standards. He owned not one, not two, but
three pairs of stonewashed Levis, while most of his friends rejoiced
if they could procure a pair of Polish knock-offs on the black
market. The pockets of those Levis were filled with condoms of
all colors and flavors, while his friends were still relying
on those Soviet-era torture devices that smelled like car tires
and ripped after the first thrust.
did not get too many opportunities to use his colorful contraceptive
arsenal. There were only four single girls in his village, and
they were going to stay single, for very good reasons. What man
in his right mind would deal with a woman who hasn’t managed
to marry herself off by the age of twenty-two?
Basil had thought
of trying his luck in another village, but that was seven kilometers
away, much too far to walk in those Reebok sneakers that lit
up in the back but were a size too small. He didn’t own a motorcycle,
and he wouldn’t be caught dead riding an ordinary bicycle like
a seventh-grader or a mailman.
So the condoms waited.
The Reebok sneakers waited. The electric guitar waited. For what?
For Alesya Melekh to come home for the mid-semester break. Alesya
studied music theory at the Minsk Conservatory where she was
exposed to all sorts of delicious perversions that other girls
in the village didn’t dare to fancy. Every three or four months
she would appear on the streets of Isobelino, wrapped in a black
cellophane that she called “leather”, with her toenails painted
purple. The boys would whistle and howl. Her mother would offer
her a plate of borsch, and Alesya would spit out her cigarette,
stamp her heels, pull her bleached hair and scream:
“Borsch is for peasants!
You just don’t offer sour beet juice to someone with a Ph.D.
“Settle down, child,” her
mother would say. “Don’t agitate yourself. How about some stuffed
“Ma, you just don’t
get it! I’m writing a dissertation on Scott Joplin, and I desperately
need to get into Creole spirit. What does it take to get some
jambalaya around here?”
“Jambalaya, Ma! It’s
this famous international dish made of burned corn and raw fish.
In Japan they call it paella. In Portugal they call it tempura.
Isobelino must be the last place on earth where they don’t have
it. How I hate this swamp!”
The first time Basil
witnessed one of Alesya’s tantrums he had to pull his shirt out
of his jeans to conceal such an obvious reaction to her squirming
and wiggling. Luckily for him, in Minsk she adopted the concept
of free love. The two had a few explosive encounters in hazelnut
bushes behind the Melekhs’ house.
“You know, Les, I’d
rather do it with you three times a year than with any of the
local girls every day,” he confessed to her once.
The left corner of
Alesya’s painted mouth twitched. A true Western woman does not
allow herself a full-blown smile. She communicates with subtle
smirks and hums.
“While you were gone,” Basil
continued, “I’ve been learning some chords from this Deep Purple
song. Would you like to hear it?”
“Drop it, Bas,” she
replied, unwrapping for a stick of gum. “I listen to this bloody
music all day long. I’m so sick of it. I’m sick of life. Jean-Paul
Sartoris was right. Life is a tale told by idiots, signifying
Watching Alesya blow
her first bubble, Basil trembled with reverence. How progressive,
how civilized she was! It takes finesse to chew gum so gracefully.
In Alesya’s absence
Basil religiously maintained his sleek Western image. He kept
collecting bubble gum inserts and those hard-to-find pocket calendars
with German movie stars and American body builders.
In spite of all his
lofty occidental pursuits, Basil did not slight the company of
his compatriots. On Fridays they drank together. On Saturdays
they made trouble together. On Sundays they all chipped in to
pay for the damage done the night before and prayed for their
sins in a stuffy little chapel. Yes, Catholicism was making a
comeback. Atheism was so 1970s. Jesus was in fashion again. There
are definite benefits to living so close to the Polish border.
All kinds of Western knick-knack teasers seep through. Not only
can you get bubble gum and jeans, you can also get icons, crucifixes
and statues of Virgin. Almost every house had a shrine now. Portraits
of Lenin were being taken down and replaced with images of saints.
“We really need God
now,” Basil’s mother lamented. “Our dear Prime Minister will
do our country in, with those Chernobyl clouds floating over
our fields, and that war in Kabul. Remember your second cousin
Nasthasia? She gave birth to a baby who had lobster claws instead
of hands. They looked like pliers, swear God. The same year her
husband got shot in the war. Or rather, that’s what the letter
said. But then she got another letter from her husband’s friend,
who witnessed the whole thing. He said Nasthasia’s husband got
blown to pieces.”
Basil said a prayer
for Nasthasia’s baby, who would never know the joys of playing
electric guitar or any other instrument. He also said a prayer
for himself, because his own musical career was in jeopardy now.
He had just turned eighteen, and everyone knows what happens
to eighteen-year old boys who aren’t attending a higher educational
institution. They get that dreadful letter summoning them to
the nearest military headquarters. That’s right. Goodbye Isobelino.
“There must be another
way to get out of the draft,” Basil murmured, studying his long
bony hands. “I can’t let them chop off my trigger finger. How
am I gonna play my guitar?”
Complete story available in the
print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010