Joan

He just loved that little gizmo. Actually, he didn't like it much at first, because he was hot all over and was running a temperature, while that thing was cool, and he shuddered when it got pressed against him. He turned away and made a face. His head was all wet. But he didn't complain, because by then it was already hard for him to cry. He could only groan hoarsely and shut his eyes. But then he began to reach for it, anyway. Because it was shiny.

"You want me to listen to your heart again?" asked the doctor and took that thing off.

I completely forgot what it is called. The gizmo to listen to what goes on inside of you. The one with green tubes attached to it. The disk that sticks to your back if they hold it there too long. Then, when it gets unstuck, it makes a funny sound. And it tickles a little, too. And your head spins.

Little Sergei grabbed that thing and put it in his mouth.

The doctor said: "Stop it. It's bad. Give it back to me."

I said: "He'll let go of it in a moment. He just wants to lick it a bit. Let him hold it, because he cried the whole night through."

She stared at me and said: "Are you on your own with him?"

I said: "Completely on my own. We've got no one else."

She stared at me and said nothing. Then she said: "Are you tired?"

I said: "Not really. I'm used to it by now. Except my arms get tired. By morning, they feel like they're about to fall off."

She said: "Do you carry him like this all the time?"

I said: "He can't walk yet."

She stared at him and said: "How old is he?"

I said: "Two. He had birth trauma."

She said: "I see. How old are you?"

I said: "Eighteen."

She said nothing and began to pack her bag. Little Sergei gave her back her gizmo right away. Because he had no strength left to resist.

At the door she turned and said: "There shouldn't be anything serious any more. But if something comes up, call us again. I'm on call till eight."

I said to her "Thank you," and she turned and shut the door behind her.

She's a good doctor. Little Sergei liked her. As to our regular district doctor, he didn't like her one bit. He always cries when she comes to see us. But the district doctor knows everything there is to know about us. That's why she's never surprised.

But this time I had to call an ambulance. I left him alone for ten minutes and ran to the all-night store that sells vodka. There is a guard on duty over there who has a cell phone.

That's because at four I got scared. He had cried all night, but then at four he stopped. I got scared that he was going to die.

"Your mother died because of you. It's your fault." This is what the principal told me when I came to her to ask if the school would give me a job.

By then, I didn't need a diploma any more. I needed to feed little Sergei. Baby formula costs so much. The imported stuff. In those pretty little cans. The district doctor had said I had to feed him that. It's got good vitamins. That's why I went to the school, to ask for a job, not to attend classes. Especially since I had fallen too far behind, anyway. The money that was left after Mother died had run out. She used to say--"What's the use of saving? We'll go to France and earn a thousand times more." She used to listen to her Edith Piaf tape all the time.

"You knew she had a bad heart," the principal told me. "And now you stand here without any shame and stare at me. How can you even show your face here again?"

I looked at her and I thought: "How could Mother bear to spend so much time here?" What a life. A French teacher. They too knew she had a bad heart. Still, they wagged their tongues about me in the teachers' room. Even in her presence. Because they were sure it was her fault, too. A teacher who couldn't watch over her own daughter properly. She used to cry at home, but she refused to take a sick leave. She would just put in her tape and sing along with it.

And then she died.

"So, you won't give me a job?" I said to the principal.

"I'm sorry, my dear," she said. "It's too much of a responsibility. We have young girls here. We should think of them, shouldn't we?"

And what was I, a whore? Who couldn't even be shown to the kids?

"You know, this movie is not for kids," Mother used to say, sending me off to bed.

While she would stay up and watch it on TV.

I would lie in bed and wonder what was the point of watching all that heavy breathing? I could hear it even in my room.

When Tolik fell off the scaffolding at the construction site he too was breathing heavily. Except his eyes wouldn't open. He lay there with his head on the bricks, breathing heavily. The construction site where he fell was actually our school. Where the principal is now working.

Later on we all went to that school. Except for Tolik. That's because after that he couldn't go anywhere at all. Even to the old wooden school, he never went there again. He just sat at home. Sometimes they would let him come down to the courtyard, and then I wouldn't play with anyone anymore. I would just throw stones at the boys, so they'd quit bothering him. Because he would start to scream if they bothered him. And his mother would come out of the house and cry on the steps. They were even promised a new apartment in a large brick building, but they never got it. Some woman came from the Housing Management Department and said that it would be wasted on a retard. That's why they kept on living in our neighborhood.

Mother used to say that it's not a place fit for human habitation.

"I may die trying, but we'll get out of here. We must escape from this slum."

I used to wonder what the word slum meant. Maybe it was where people had slumber parties. But nasty ones. Unpleasant, like the word "glum." This used to make me wonder. Because nobody had slumber parties in our neighborhood. The living conditions didn't allow them.

Later, I began to understand her.

That was when the police came and broke down our door. They were looking for someone. Someone who shot at them with a shotgun. Then they began going from house to house breaking down doors. It was when they left that Mother said for the first time that we should go to France.

"There is nothing to do here anymore. Who'll fix our door for us?"

She began writing all sorts of letters and buying expensive envelopes for them, but she never got any answer.

"We're going to Paris," Mother told the neighbors. "This is why I'm not going to lend you any more money. You never pay me back, anyway. You spend it on vodka."

This is why it became difficult for me to go outside. Especially to the area where parking garages were being built.

"Get out of here," Vovka Thorn-Eye would say, hitting me with a bicycle pump. "Stewardess Joan."

I would go away then. His blows hurt and I was afraid of him. He was already in second grade. Although that was while we were still in the wooden schoolhouse. His father was the one building those garages. If you wanted to jump off them into a pile of sand, you had to ask Vovka's permission first.

He never allowed me to jump.

"Get out of here, Stewardess. Go jump off a garage in France, along with your mother. She's an idiot. You're both idiots. Get lost."

And he would hit me over the head with his pump.

He walked around with that pump, even though he never rode a bike. He could never learn to ride a bike and kept falling off all the time. And then he beat up other boys who laughed at him.

Tolik never laughed at him. One day he came up to him and said: "Let her stay. What difference does it make?"

Then they started to fight, and after that they kept fighting all the time. Until Tolik fell off the scaffolding at the construction site. That was because we used to climb up to the third floor. We used to play school up there. When he fell, I looked up and saw Vovka Thorn-Eye's face up there. Tolik's breath was heavy and his eyes stayed shut.

"See how his eyes are open," the nurse told me and showed me little Sergei. "You have a baby boy. See how big he is."

I couldn't see anything because I was in pain. I thought I was going to die. I only saw that he was all covered with blood and couldn't tell whose blood it was, mine or his.

"Go on, hold him--Like this--Go on. You'll need to get used to him now."

But I couldn't get used to him. Mother said she too had forgotten everything about little babies. She said: "My God, how is it possible that they're so small? Just look at his tiny hands. Look, look, he has smiled at me."

I said: "He's just making a face. The doctor explained it to us in class. It's reflexive contraction of facial muscles. He doesn't recognize anybody yet."

"Reflexive contraction my foot," she said. "Your doctor doesn't know anything about babies, either. He's happy because he's going to go to France soon. Have you seen where I put my Edith Piaf tape? For some reason it's not in the cassette player."

Our cassette player was very old. It rattled all over. I had hidden her tape on purpose. Because I just couldn't bear this joke anymore. Even our neighbors' kids called us Frogs. And now little Sergei was born. It was time to put an end to it.

She moped around the apartment all evening. She tried to mark exams and then turned the TV set on. She watched the news for a while, but she was still upset. She sat in front of the TV, but even her back seemed to be out of sorts. By then little Sergei had been screaming for maybe two hours.

I said: "Here it is, your tape. It's on the bookshelf. Except you won't be able to hear anything, anyway, with all the screaming."

She said: "I'll go to the kitchen."

At that moment little Sergei stopped screaming. Completely.

I put him in his carriage and listened to her in the kitchen singing along with Edith Piaf. It's very good music.

My arms were stiff, and my back hurt a little. But I still thought he couldn't recognize anybody yet. He was too little.

Tolik recognized me when he turned eleven. On his birthday. Mother told me to go upstairs and give him something. Otherwise they'd all get drunk up there again and forget all about him.

She was worried that he would start eating potato peelings again and end up in the hospital. He had just had surgery for appendicitis.

I had no idea what to give him, so I took our cat's ball and an old photograph up to him. The photograph showed a few kids, Tolik and me. Uncle Petya took it, Mother's friend who used to have a car.

He took us for a car ride around the house and then took that picture on the steps. The picture snaked out of the camera right away. I had never seen anything like that before. But later Mother said that I must not ask about him anymore. She said: "Stop it. I'm tired of your questions."

And she put her hands over her ears.

We were six years old in that picture. That was before we began playing at the construction site.

"Wait," I said. "Don't stick it in your mouth. Look, this is you. See? Next to you is Mishka. See? He's the one sticking his tongue out. Next to him are Slavka and Zhenka. Remember how one time they hid out in the attic for a whole night and their Dad chased them around the block with a belt? And this is me. Somebody put their fingers over my head, like horns. Stupid Mishka, most likely. He always did that. He doesn't live here anymore. His parents moved downtown. Mother and I may also go away one day. Wait. Wait. What are you doing? Don't bend it. You'll break it and you won't see anything on it anymore. Why are you pulling at it? What? I can't understand you. You're grunting, nothing else. What? Are you trying to say something?"

He kept pulling the picture out of my hand and poking a finger at it. I looked at what he was poking at and gave him the picture. Because he was pointing at me.

That's how he recognized me. On his birthday.

"The birth of a baby," said the doctor in class, "is the most important event in every woman's life. From the moment it arrives, the baby must be surrounded by care and love."

I sat there and looked at the whole lot of us. It's as though we had swallowed air balloons. There we were, sitting and listening to her talk about love. Wearing hospital gowns. Except I didn't care about it anymore. I was thinking that I might die. And that it would be very painful. I didn't care about love by then.

"You know," all the girls said when I got to the summer camp. "He's so great. He's even cooler than Venya the phys. ed. counselor."

I said: "Who?"

And they went: "What are you, stupid?"

I said: "You're stupid yourselves. How am I supposed to know your Venya. I just got here. I was helping Mom renovate her classroom."

They said: "Venya is an airplane pilot. He has a car and he's twenty-five. When he is on vacation, he works here as a phys. ed. counselor. Because he needs to stay in shape. But he is not as cool as our dear Vovka. Because Vovka--he's just out of this world."

I said: "Wait a minute. What dear Vovka?"

They said: "What are you, stupid? He's in school with you. He told us he knows you."

I said: "You mean Vovka Thorn-Eye, do you?"

They said: "We call him our dear Vovka."

This is when I told them: "Vovka Thorn-Eye is a creep. The worst creep of all the bad creeps in the world."

They laughed and said: "Well, we'll see. We'll see."

I worked at that camp to make some money. I wanted to buy myself a pair of new jeans for the eleventh grade. I also needed a pair of sneakers. That's why I stayed.

Mom kept telling me love is cruel. But even she never suspected how cruel it could really be.

The first week the girls kept talking my ear off about him. Which one he looked at, who he danced with, which boy he socked in the eye.

I said to him when I finally ran into him: "You're a superstar here. A local Jackie Chan. A martial arts champion."

He looked me straight in the eye and said: "Come to the dance tonight. I'll teach you a funny little dance."

Then he smiled and said: "Stewardess Joan."

I did go to the dance, for whatever reason.

"He's a normal baby," the district doctor told me. "He should have started walking at ten months. He's two now, but he only crawls like--like a cockroach."

She didn't say how he crawled right away. She thought about it for a while and then she said it. And pushed him away. Because he kept crawling to her. Usually, he cried whenever she came, but now he was reaching for her boots and grabbing at the bottom of her coat.

"Look," she said. "He's drooled all over me. How am I supposed to go visit other kids now?"

I said: "I'm sorry."

She said: "What of it, that you're sorry? You should've thought about it beforehand, whether to have this baby or not. If you had an abortion, you wouldn't be sitting here alone with him, without your mother. You would've graduated from high school, like you were supposed to. Who knows whether he'll develop normally. A trauma like this is no joke. You already have got one retard upstairs."

I said: "He is no retard. He fell down at a construction site when he was six."

She said: "Who cares whether he did or didn't. What I'm telling you is that traumas like this are no joking matter. Do you want to spend the rest of your life wiping his drooling? You should be playing with dolls, at your age. What is it with this people, they go out and make babies and somebody else has to pick up after them. What were you thinking of? There is no reason to cry now."

I said: "I'm not crying. I've got something in my eye."

She said: "You've got something in a different part of your body. I'll be back in a week. Same time. Please be at home."

I said: "We're always at home."

She got up and left, boots and all.

When she left, I picked up little Sergei, stood him on his feet and told him: "Come on, little one, please. Walk."

I couldn't see anything because I was crying. I wanted so much for him to walk.

But he didn't walk, and every time he plopped softly on his behind. I kept lifting him, but he kept smiling and sitting down again.

Then I stood him up one last time, pushed him in the back and yelled: "It's all your fault, you stupid log. Why can't you walk normally for once?"

He fell headlong and hit his face on the floor. Blood came out of his mouth. He was crying because he was scared of me. I grabbed him and pressed him hard against my chest. I was crying too. I couldn't stop. I kept wiping blood from his face and I couldn't stop crying.

"Don't stop," I yelled to Tolik. "Don't stop. Come forward. Don't stand still."

He didn't understand me. He heard what I was yelling to him but he thought we were still playing. But the ice was already cracking under his feet. He yelled back to me and waved his arms, and I was worried he'd start jumping. Because he was always jumping in place whenever he felts happy. I yelled to him: "Don't stop, please. I beg you."

Because the ice was very thin. But he walked on that thin ice after the cat's ball that I had given him for his birthday two days before. He took it everywhere with him now. He even ate holding it in his hand. Because it's my ball. Because I had brought it to him.

When we came back, Mother looked at me and said: "Why do you bother with him? Your friends came by looking for you. You should play with normal kids."

I said: "Tolik is normal. He recognized me in the picture."

She said: "They should have sent him to a special school. Except for you, nobody bothers with him here. One day those drunks will let him fall down again and break his neck. But maybe this is exactly what they hope for. That pit by the school, it doesn't look like it's ever going to be filled in. Don't go there with him. He might run onto the ice and fall through. Do you know how deep it is?"

I said: "I do. We don't go there to play. We almost always play in the courtyard."

She said: "When I take you to France, who is going to look after him? Do you know how it sometimes happens in life? Nobody cares about him."

Now nobody cared about me, either. By winter, Mother's money had run out and I had to look for a job. But nobody would hire me, anywhere. Even the school principal sent me away. She said I'd set a bad example for the girls.

I didn't want to set any examples. All I needed was to feed little Sergei. And by then my boots had completely fallen apart. That's why I was running around looking for a job in those sneakers I had bought that summer. They were pretty scuffed, too, after almost three years. And my feet froze in them. Especially while waiting for the bus for a long time. You stand there at that bus stop, stomp your feet like they're made of wood and worry yourself crazy whether or not little Sergei is crying all alone in a locked apartment.

It was horribly cold that winter. They had just marked year 2000. But I didn't mark anything. Because I had already sold the TV set. And the sewing machine. And the vacuum cleaner. But money kept running out anyway, and so I began selling Mother's things. Even though at first I didn't want to sell them. Except when I got to the cassette player, For some reason, I couldn't bear to sell it. I would sit in the empty apartment, watch little Sergei crawl on the floor and listen to Mother's Edith Piaf tape. Little Sergei liked her songs. I watched him and wondered how I could get some money.

Because by then there really was nowhere to get it.

And then the letter came. Some time in mid-March. My feet no longer froze in those sneakers by then. At first I couldn't figure out who it was from, but then when I opened it I was very surprised. Because I had never really believed that this letter would come. Even though Mother waited for it probably every day of her life. I didn't believe in it. I thought she was probably a little nuts. I thought there would be no miracles.

The letter said that in response to numerous requests from Mme my mother the Embassy of France in Russia had made the requisite inquiries with the proper authorities and now it apologized for the length of time the process took. Because of legal and political reasons beyond their control the Embassy of France had not been able to clarify the circumstances of this complex case until very recently. Nevertheless, it now hastened to report that after a lengthy search they had indeed been able to locate a Mme Boche who did not deny a family connection with my mother through her grandfather, who in the course of World War II had found himself a displaced person in France and upon the cessation of hostilities had decided to take up permanent residency in France, having espoused a French citizen. The difficulty the Embassy of France had encountered in this particular case was due to the fact that the progeny of the displaced grandfather and the aforementioned French citizen had moved to various other countries and had assumed different citizenship. In particular, the parents of Mme. Boche were citizens of Canada. However, inasmuch as Mme Boche had returned to France and had married a French citizen, the Embassy of France in Russia no longer saw any reason why Mme my mother could not apply to them for the permission to obtain a residency permit in France. The Embassy of France would be glad to provide all the requisite documents for this purpose at the following address.

After that there was a fax number. And some words. But I couldn't read French, and I had sold all of Mother's dictionaries. By then, Mother had been dead almost six months.

And I had no idea what "displaced" meant.

But the envelope was very pretty and I gave it to little Sergei. He loved to rustle all sorts of papers.

He grabbed it and started to purr with pleasure. I looked at him and wondered: "Why haven't you started walking yet?"

Because I had no intention of going to any France. Who was waiting for me over there? And I already knew something about Tolik, that I wouldn't be able to leave him. His parents by then had gone completely nuts. They got drunk almost every day and often beat him up. He couldn't understand why they were hurting him and screamed loudly. Neighbors said that even people down the street could hear him. I would go upstairs and bring him down to my place. He would calm down right away. He would crawl with little Sergei around the rooms and whistle like a train. Little Sergei would turn on his back and laugh. Little laughing boy lying on his back. I had no intention of going anywhere.

The only thing was, I felt sorry for Mother.

That was why next morning I went to look for a job again. One of my old classmates had told me that her boss was looking to hire another counter girl. For the night shift. It would be good for me. Because little Sergei had turned two and was sleeping through the night. He didn't even have to pee till morning.

And the pay wasn't bad, she said.

But in the end nothing came of it, as usual.

"You know," she said. "He doesn't want to hire a salesgirl with a baby. He says it'll be more trouble than it's worth."

"There will be no trouble at all with me," I said.

She just shrugged.

I said again: "There will be no trouble at all with me."

And so we stood there and stared at each other, and she was waiting for me to leave, because she was already regretting that she had asked me to come. The place was all crammed with Snickers bars and Baltika No. 9 beer bottles. But I wanted to work there all the same. Because I knew there is no other place for me to get money anymore.

And then I saw a very small boy in the corner. He was just four years old or maybe a little older, and he was sweeping dirt off the floor. Not really sweeping, actually, because the broom was taller than he was and he couldn't easily move with it from place to place.

I said: "What is he doing here? Is it your nephew perhaps? No one to leave him home with?"

She looked at him, laughed and said: "What nephew? Are you kidding? They finally got to me, that's all. They come here all the time and beg first for one thing, then for another. I have it up to here with them. Now he comes in and says--Please, Lady, give me a yogurt. I gave him the broom. Let him work for it. He has a sister, too."

I turned around and saw there was a girl at the door. Even smaller than him, she was. And all covered with dirt, too. She stood there and stared at us. Her eyes were shining.

When I came in, I didn't notice them. Because I wanted very much to find out about the job.

I bent down to that kid and asked him: "Do you want a yogurt?"

He stopped what he was doing and said to me very softly: "Yes."

I said: "Have you ever had it?"

His cheeks were filthy.

He said: "No."

He stood there and stared at me. He was shorter than the broomstick.

I straightened out and said: "Give them a yogurt, please. Here's the money."

Then I went outside, stood at the bus stop and began to cry. Because I felt sorry for those kids.

They were like slaves. Except very small.

Next day Vovka Thorn-Eye came to visit. I didn't even know he was in town anymore. Somebody had told me he and his father had gone to Moscow. They had some business there.

I opened the door and he was standing there fancy-looking in a shearling coat and a mink hat. Even though the snow was already melting outside. I was wearing Mother's old warm-ups. My shirt had a hole on the shoulder.

Besides, little Sergei had crawled out from behind my back. Moving sideways, like a crab. First he swung one leg forward, and then drew the other one up to it. But very fast. Because he was already a big boy, and he wanted to get around fast.

I picked him up so that he wouldn't catch a cold from the open door, and we stood there for a while looking at each other.

At last he said: "I heard your mother died."

He came over a few more times. He brought food, sweets and diapers. He also brought toys, but they were all very strange. He was a little strange himself. He hardly even spoke. He explained that they had to sell his father's dacha, apartment and garage, all in a week. And that he had no business being in this town anymore.

That's how he put it himself.

He said that and stared at me. And at little Sergei.

Then he said: "How come he doesn't walk yet?"

I said: "A trauma at birth."

He said: "Is it so? What is it?"

I said: "I was too young when he was born. My pelvic bone was too small. When he was coming out, they applied the forceps. The head got a little deformed. And the vertebrae shifted a little in his neck."

He stared and said: "Maybe he needs surgery?"

I said: "They can't tell yet. The doctors say we've got to wait. Time will tell."

After that he disappeared. He stopped coming, and I thought he must have sold his dacha.

And then I finally found a job. Actually, I wasn't even looking for one anymore. We were just sitting at home, finishing up whatever Vovka had brought us over a few visits. Little Sergei was finishing up the sweets.

This is when the district doctor came in and started to scream at us.

She screamed that I was an idiot and that they should have whipped me more as a child, and that little Sergei needed a totally different diet and that I was a terrible mother. We sat on the floor and watched her scream. Little Sergei was no longer afraid of her. Because he got used to her and no longer jumped at the sound of her voice. He just stared, his face upturned and his mouth wide open. His eyes were wide, but you could see he was no longer scared. He just wouldn't take his eyes off of her. I looked at him, and I felt sorry for him because he kept bending his head to his left shoulder. It took my breath away, to see that.

Then she asked whether she could sit down.

I said we had nothing to sit down on.

Because I'd sold all the chairs. First the armchair, then the chairs and finally the stools. In any case, little Sergei and I didn't need them. We hung out on the floor most of the time, anyway.

She said: "I'll sit down on the bed then."

I said: "Go ahead, sit down."

She sat down and little Sergei started to crawl toward her boots. I wanted to pick him up, but she said don't. I was surprised, because before she never liked it when he crawled toward her.

"My husband found you a job," she said. "You'll do the cleaning and wash the floors at his bank. They pay very well. In any case, more than your mother used to earn at her school. But you'll have to promise me that you won't let us down because my husband recommended you. They have a very strict staff selection policy. They have to trust you. Can you give me a promise?"

"What promise?" I said.

Because I really didn't understand her completely. Even though I wanted to. Very much.

"My, you're a real idiot. I'm asking you--can you promise me that you won't let my husband down. He asked them to do you a favor."

Then I said: "Sure. Sure I won't let your husband down. I'll do everything they tell me to do and I'll wash all the floors very thoroughly. And throw away all the waste paper."

She said: "Good girl. Finally you figured it out, what is required of you. The day after tomorrow you'll go to this address at five o'clock. You'll work evenings. Do you have somebody to leave your boy with?"

She gave me a piece of paper.

I said: "Yes, yes. Everything will be all right. Don't worry about Sergei. He's a big boy now."

She said: "Very well then."

Then she got up and went to the door. At the door she turned back.

"By the way, how is he doing?"

"He is doing very well," I said. "Thank you very much."

When she left, I began to cry.

Next day toward evening Thorn-Eye showed up again. I thought he had already left, so I was a little surprised. I was also caught off guard. Because they'd started drinking upstairs and I had to take Tolik. Otherwise he would have been screaming all over the street.

Little Sergei crawled to Vovka's bag right away. He'd already got used to it that there'd be candy in there. But this time Vovka had brought him nothing. He kept staring at little Sergei and Tolik crawling around the floor and didn't say anything.

Then he asked me: "Can he at least talk?"

I figured out he wasn't asking about little Sergei. Because about little Sergei he had asked everything there was to know already.

"No, he can't," I said. "He can only scream when he is afraid. But he recognizes me."

"What about others?" asked Vovka.

"I don't think so."

He stared at Tolik a while longer and then sat down on the bed. In the same place where the district doctor had sat the day before.

"You know," he said. "We need to talk."

"About what?" I said.

Because I saw he was nervous. I was a little nervous myself.

He said: "Tomorrow I'll be leaving for Moscow."

I said: "Moscow is cool."

I was watching to make sure little Sergei and Tolik didn't upset his bag. They were very close to it.

He said: "We must make a decision about something."

I turned to him and at that moment everything in his bag tumbled out onto the floor. I tried to run over to it, but he grabbed me by the hand and said: "Wait. It's not important. There is nothing important in it. We must talk."

Then I sat down on the bed. While little Sergei and Tolik laughed and tossed his things about.

He said: "He can't stay here."

I figured he wasn't talking about Tolik now. Because he had seen Tolik for the first time five minutes ago and maybe didn't even remember him.

But I did remember.

He said: "In short, I've figured it all out. This is what we're going to do."

I looked at them how they were playing over there by the door and worried that they would cut themselves on something. He might have some sharp objects in his bag.

He said: "So, do you agree?"

I said: "To what?"

He stared at me and said: "I've just explained everything to you. Weren't you listening?"

I said: "I was listening, but I'm a little tired. I have a headache."

He said: "The most important thing, you must sign this paper, which says that you make no claim that I'm little Sergei's father. I have consulted with a lawyer. He says we can draft a paper like this. Then I can take you with me. We'll rent you an apartment. One room, but it's OK. The most important thing is that I'll be helping little Sergei. Except there is no need to tell my father about it for the time being."

I turned to him and said: "You want us to come to Moscow with you?"

He said: "Yes, of course. Except you'll need to sign this paper first. So that there isn't any legal mess later."

I said: "What legal mess?"

He said: "Well, what if you decide to sue me. Meaning that I'm little Sergei's father."

I stared at him and said: "But you are his father."

He said: "I know. Except it's not important."

I said: "What do you mean, it's not important? He's your son."

He said: "I know."

He got up, walked up and down the room and said: "In short, you have to decide. Either you come with me to Moscow or not."

I looked at little Sergei--how he was crawling around Tolik, and then at Vovka, how he was standing there in our room in his shearling coat and didn't even bother to take off his mink hat—and I said: "We're going to France. Pretty soon now. We'll probably take Tolik along with us."

Vovka kept staring at me, and then he laughed.

He said: "You're as crazy as your mother. You've gone nuts too. Wake up, she's dead."

Then I went to the kitchen and picked up the letter on the windowsill. I gave it to him and said: "I don't have the envelope anymore. But all the official seals are in place. Read it yourself, if you don't believe me."

He read the letter and his face changed. Like it used to be in childhood, when he used to fall off his bike and the kids used to laugh at him.

I even felt sorry for him.

He said: "When are you going?"

I said: "I don't know yet. I've got to sell the rest of the things. Also sort out a few things."

He said: "I see."

Finally, he removed his hat. His hair got all stuck together under it. Sweat was running down his temples.

I said: "Thanks for the offer. Maybe we'll meet again someday."

Then he began picking up his things. Tolik and little Sergei crawled around him and bothered him a lot. Because they thought he was playing with them.

Finally he put them together again, straightened out and pulled a small telephone out of his shearling coat.

He said: "Take it. Press this button and you'll get connected to Moscow right away. I don't live with Father any longer, so you can call me any time you want. I pay for the calls."

I said: "What for?"

He stared at me and said: "I don't know. Who knows what may come up."

Then he looked at little Sergei and Tolik, stepped over them and went out. I shut the door behind him.

I stood still for a while to calm myself down. But then they began to carry on. Because Vovka had taken away their toys, and they liked playing with his things so much.

I crouched next to them and gave Tolik the phone. I also gave the letter to little Sergei. To keep them quiet.

They did get quiet. Because kids like to break things. And little Sergei liked to tear paper.

I watched Tolik smash the phone against the floor and thought of nothing at all. I just liked watching him. I also liked watching little Sergei. How he shoved the paper into his mouth, spat it out and laughed.

Then he crawled to the bed, grabbed the headboard and got to his feet. He stood upright for a moment, then let go of the headboard, swayed and suddenly took a step forward, toward me. I kept still so as not to frighten him, and then reached out to him. Then he took another step. I couldn't move, just kept staring at him. He swayed again and took another step.

Then I said: "Come to me. Come to Mama."

Translated from "Zhanna." Copyright Andrei Gelasimov. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 Alexei Bayer. All rights reserved.