The Man Who Couldn’t Die

It had been Marina's idea. Keep Alexei Afanasievich from finding out about the changes in the outside world. Keep him in the same sunlit but frozen time when the unexpected stroke had cut him down.

"Mama, his heart!" Marina had pleaded, having grasped instantly that, no matter how burdensome this recumbent body might be, it consumed much less than it yielded.

At the very first, clear-eyed Marina may have been moved by more than this primitive practicality. There had been a period of infatuation between her and her stepfather when the little girl would crawl all over Alexei Afanasievich, who had seemed as big as a tree to her. She would go through all his pockets and invariably find a chocolate planted there for her. Alexei Afanasievich had taught her how to fish and how to toss plywood rings on a post. Once the two of them had cleaned out every last gaudy toy from a Czech Grab-n-Go with the digger claw. All this ended after about a year. For a while, the dragonfly pond out in back of their brand-new nine-story apartment building had sucked on their two red and white fishing floats as if they were pacifiers; the next summer, the pond turned into a swamp plastered poison green with plants--and now there were stalls on the spot. Marina couldn't forget this entirely, though, at least not until that rather bizarre moment when, a month after Brezhnev's television death, she hung a medal-strewn, beetle-browed portrait of that official paragon on the wall.

In retrospect, Nina Alexandrovna could only wonder at young Marina's perspicacity. You'd think she had nothing on her mind besides Seryozha and her work summaries. Yet, at the first historic tremor, she divined in the decrepit general secretary's replacement by a younger, more energetic one not a pledge of the continuity of Soviet life but the beginning of the end. She had immediately begun preserving for future use the substance of the era, purging it of any admixtures, no matter how harmless they seemed at first. So it came to pass that their good old Horizon television--on which only impressionistic bursts of static were still in color--showed the farewell to that great modern-day figure (the richly beflowered tomb, wreathes made up to look like medals, the craned neck and half-face of a watchful man lined up to view the body)--and then went stone dead. Marina temporarily forbade anyone to buy another, but she did take out a subscription to Pravda. No one could say for certain whether Alexei Afanasievich could read now. He always used to work his way carefully through the newspapers, holding his place with a school ruler, as if measuring the quantity of information in millimeters, but now he looked at the newspaper page that Nina Alexandrovna held at half-mast without moving his eyes at all. It might have been a bedsheet she'd removed to mend. Nina Alexandrovna was charged with reading out loud to the paralyzed man specific articles, which Marina made fat deletions from and furnished with handwritten insertions. Nina Alexandrovna carried out these instructions, though she was embarrassed both by the articles and by her own voice. She would tilt the newspaper very slightly to find the end of Marina's almost indecipherable sentences--and sense vaguely that Alexei Afanasievich's immured brain, with its dark bruise from the stroke, was sending her static-y, buzzing blotches in reply. Every once in a while she imagined (she couldn't bring herself to verify this) that if she just leaned closer to this desiccated head with the crookedly stretched mask where his face used to be she would be able to talk to Alexei Afanasievich without using any words at all.

Very quickly, outside time became so altered that there wasn't even anything in Pravda for Marina's pen to rework. However, by the time they started knocking out windows in the stuffy Soviet edifice, inside time had come to a standstill. This was the time kept in Alexei Afanasievich's room, which had acquired a faint smell all its own that had no objective source and that resembled the trace sourness from a burned match. Everything in the room manifested a tendency to stand still, to doze off in an uncomfortable position. Nina Alexandrovna would catch this special quality of autonomous time, at the boundary between wakefulness and sleep, when suddenly she merged with her surroundings and felt nothing but her own weight--which was bliss, but spoke to Nina Alexandrovna of her weariness even more than an attack of hypertension could. In the afternoons she noted that the weight of most objects in the room felt good to hold.

Something suggested to Nina Alexandrovna that in this halted time there was no important difference between order and disorder. She couldn't help but see that the objects in a room can acquire and shed their ordinary meaning. This loss of meaning was especially obvious while she was cleaning. Nina Alexandrovna battled resolutely against the thick and amazingly even dust that settled eagerly on the wet spot where tea had spilled, turning very quickly into a fuzzy patch. She was endlessly wiping and feeling everything like a blind woman, whether she needed to or not. Privately, the doctor who came to check on the patient must have wondered at the sterile chaos maintained around the ill man. The china figurines on the sideboard looked like a masterpiece of housecleaning, shiny knickknacks sculpted by hand and rag. Here, too, there was a crowd of empty prescription bottles that should have been tossed long ago, also freshly wiped and clear right down to the medicinal tear visible on the bottom. The glassed Brezhnev portrait, which the doctor never examined but always turned to look at as she walked out of the room, also bore the rag's traces: a violet rainbow from cheap window cleaner. Each time she finished with the portrait, Nina Alexandrovna would cautiously lower her bared leg with the swollen tendons to the floor and in two moves climb down from the wobbly chair, and Alexei Afanasievich would shut his big right and small left eye in approval, as if he were seeing precisely what he thought he ought to see.

Klimov the skeptic, who had been opposed to this whole scheme (at the time he had not yet lost all his rights and had tearfully defended himself against his mother-in-law's slightest jabs), remarked more than once that if they wanted to preserve the atmosphere of the seventies, then they should hang a portrait of Vysotsky, but Marina, guided by instinct, ignored her husband's advice. There was something false, of course, alien, even, about this personal portrait of Brezhnev. As Seryozha, who was caught up in his then wildly lucrative (despite the sewer smells) video store at the train station, said, "It's a prop out of a Hollywood film about Soviet life." Yet this encapsulated time, which had survived its own violent demise in this one individual room, obviously possessed properties which no one had ever observed in its natural state.

These properties had something to do with immortality. The general secretary's rejuvenated photo, half documentary print and half retouched, was striking for that very quasi drawnness you see only in dead human features. So distinct was this impression that, when she realized exactly what the impotent fold of Brezhnev's mouth and the sepulchral tidiness of the hatched-in hair reminded her of, Nina Alexandrovna began wiping the portrait with anxious deference, avoiding looking on its back, where the half-erased inventory number was. But what was amazing was this: the general secretary, whose death had been reversed and whose longevity had become a natural feature that kept increasing, had somehow stolen an authenticity from Alexei Afanasievich that Brezhnev himself had never possessed. Brezhnev had been a cardboard figure in whose name books were written and on whom mutually exclusive medals had been hung, like a game of tic-tac-toe, but now there was no call to doubt his existence because the general secretary--even if one were to admit his desire to do so--could no longer die. Also a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, he was now, in outside time, not dead but missing in action. Having effectively distanced himself from those veterans with schoolboy faces ruined by drink who shuffled along behind their new Communist leaders and continued to live in the present day, he had attached himself to Alexei Afanasievich, who had never belonged to the Party but had begun to bear a certain portrait resemblance to the man. Anyone coming into the room (though in fact they let in almost no outsiders) could see the paralyzed man's forehead, as worn as a coin, the needly, low-hanging eyebrows--and see the same thing on the wall, which was hung with cheap wallpaper covered with teacup flowers. Even Nina Alexandrovna somehow surrendered to the reassuring illusion that Brezhnev in his official portrait was not the former head of the Soviet state at all but simply some distant relative.

Naturally, as the author of the project, Marina had to decide whether this spectral time required events of any kind. She had outlawed the principal natural event (death), thus rendering any event related to it (illness, injury, personnel changes in the leadership, and so forth) impossible. Even the resolute Marina (who had resolved so much!) was disturbed by any effort to add to this list, which extended so deep into life as it was that it might include anything, even something no one had ever connected with death. It was like trying to rip out a plant with a sudden jerk but with the roots resisting, so that you could only lift it up a little, like a sweep-net loaded with the kind of soil you only find under the feet of men. Marina prohibited anything that might arouse negative emotions (in this sense, her stagnation achieved perfection). She cut off any attempts by Nina Alexandrovna to inform the patient of anything personal--about an apartment in the next entryway being robbed, for instance, or Alexei Afanasievich's nephew poisoning himself with rotgut vodka. "Mama, the money!" Marina would exclaim in a voice full of suffering, obviously referring to Alexei Afanasievich's heart but at the same time clutching at her own, which she also had, the plump heart beating in her chest. "Daughter, dear, does it hurt?" "Mama, leave me alone!" Upon receiving this familiar rebuff, Nina Alexandrovna felt on her left side, under her ribs, a subtle ache, which she experienced as a heaviness in her fingertips. Aware, though, that any illness of hers had, with the consolidation of inside time, become simply impossible, she carried all this away to the kitchen. She now pictured Alexei Afanasievich's heart, which had to be safeguarded as the family's principle treasure, as a large crimson tuber for which his paralyzed body had become something like a garden bed entwined with swollen blue roots.

* * *

It was strange to think that this heart had ever loved her. Had it really? At one time, Nina Alexandrovna had been pretty. Hers was a regular, rather insipid beauty so devoid of any color that the eye had literally nothing to latch onto. Her oval face, made in the refined, old-fashioned manner of penmanship lessons, could not stand up to that inner darkness where a person might store and reproduce visual images. She was not preserved in the memory even of people who knew her perfectly well; you couldn't feel any emotion for her when she was absent. There must have been some secret connection here to her fear of ordinary physical darkness, a fear Nina Alexandrovna had never been able to overcome. As it happened, no one had ever really seen her high, virtually satin-stitched eyebrows, or the sweet outline of her lips, which were always dry, like slices of apple left out on a saucer. Nina Alexandrovna's figure was quite ordinary; her appearance on the street demanded no effort of attention whatsoever from passersby. No one had ever once tried to meet her, or asked for her phone number, even when she had purposely taken evening strolls through the Park of Culture, where the benches overflowed like seats on public transportation and tiny lights ran conscientiously down the garlands decorating the central paths, like ants down ant trails. She had lived, unremarked, with sickly little Marina, who had been stricken by every ailment known to man, in a workers dormitory, where she, the accidental mother, was always getting yelled at by the superintendent, Kaleria Pavlovna, a big woman with a teensy mouth. Once, on a soft winter's night, Kolya Filimonov, her neighbor down the hall, threw himself out his window and lay for several hours, in the shadows, swelling up from the snow, and resembling nothing so much as a parachutist's bulging, settled cupola. A marriage proposal from an elderly, childless widower, who immediately gave her a light beige blouse in flat and crinkly Syrian packaging, was an absolute lifesaver for Nina Alexandrovna; on her wedding day, she and her things were literally thrown out of the dorm.

So had this happened or not? Alexei Afanasievich had never permitted any romantic nonsense (which he called literature between himself and his young wife. His rare kisses, mainly in public, on holidays, had been as dry as a toothbrush. Alexei Afanasievich had strict rules about not touching Nina Alexandrovna at all during the day, as she scurried about the housework, as if touching her would implicate him in woman's work. If he did take her by the arm, say, at an evening gathering at the Institute, then he did so with his gabardine elbow held out, thereby signifying and maintaining the distance between himself and his spouse, which left her to mince along, placing her stubby fingers dotted with polish on his cold wool sleeve. Even at night, looming over his wife at an angle, nearly crosswise, as if he were a plane dive-bombing someone fleeing a routed echelon, Alexei Afanasievich made no attempt to talk to her or even to permit a single sound out of her. Nina Alexandrovna had only to moan ever so softly and he immediately covered her mouth and half her face with his salty, leathery palm, after which Nina Alexandrovna's swollen lips long retained that salt, and all her food seemed tasteless and a little slippery, as if she were eating something alive.

At the same time, he never brawled and never drank, the way other veterans did whose memory of the war had become symbols. Unlike them, Alexei Afanasievich kept it all in his mind, fully preserved, link after link (the inevitable elements of secrecy in intelligence work had probably given this chain its special strength). On Victory Day, the former intelligence officer tossed back--without spilling a drop--one single shot poured to the brim and took his family, all dressed for the occasion, out to enjoy the fireworks. Loudspeakers blared verses about the immortality of great deeds. Brass bands blew hot marching music that sent sparks flying. And little Marina, all excited, her summer sandals flapping, raced ahead and scrambled up everything in her path, including railings and lampposts, raising hot bumps on her foolish furrowed brow. When at last the dull, friable salvo rang out and sparkling bouquets were set off above the heads of the oohing crowd, leaving a faint burning ember on the pale sky, a laughing Nina Alexandrovna knew moments of utter feminine bliss alongside her hero, who in honor of the holiday had his arm around her plump little shoulder. At those fireworks she felt happier than the real heroines of May 9th, the sprightly aunties with their white curls and gold teeth shuffling along to the jangle of medals and the yapping of squeeze-boxes lifted chest-high. "People don't do things like that anymore," muttered Alexei Afanasievich, as he greeted yet another frontline woman who planted a pursed carnation of red lipstick on his well-scraped cheeks. Nina Alexandrovna, standing modestly back, thought that someday she would prove to her husband her full value, her feminine selflessness, maybe even her valor--but now the years had flown by and he had had a stroke.

Husband and wife Kharitonov never really got the hang of love. Now the traces of her former beauty had become more noticeable than the beauty itself had ever been; the years seemed to have applied a crude layer of stage makeup to Nina Alexandrovna's face and neck. At times, Nina Alexandrovna thought that her paralyzed husband not only didn't love her but simply didn't realize that she was she. Maybe this was because Nina Alexandrovna was often embarrassed to talk to him; it felt like talking to herself or, even worse, to a cat or a dog. Given the restrictions imposed by her daughter, any sentence had to be fully composed in her mind before it could be spoken. Sometimes Nina Alexandrovna would start out smartly and gaily, right at the door, but then she would forget a word, instantly forget everything else, blush, and get confused, exactly as if she'd been caught out in a lie--and as a result she had fewer and fewer words left. Relief came only when she did something physical with the patient: fed him his cereal and strained soup, having wrapped an old sheet around him (on which half his dinner was left in curdled patches), like at the hairdresser; or scraped off his stubborn, salty, fish-scaly stubble. Once she dreamed of Alexei Afanasievich in a salt-and-pepper beard that sucked up his eyes and cheeks, and she woke up in tears. The harder the job, the more natural it felt. If during these ablutions Alexei Afanasievich's body, which had accumulated a shapeless layer of fat on the sides, was especially hard to turn over, Nina Alexandrovna would shout smartly at the ill man, as if she were a stranger--a nurse or an aide.

Nothing from outside time could serve as an event for inside time anymore; communication between the two times had ceased. Inside had its own daily schedule, which was defined by task: feeding, shaving, pillow plumping, using rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls that quickly hardened to wipe down his body, which she covered with a blanket for modesty. The fact that Alexei Afanasievich's body was also laboring (when it swallowed, its expanded throat looked more powerful than any athlete's muscle) created the illusion of a shared life that even had a kind of goal in time. Nonetheless, these daily events were not enough. Inside time required a larger scope as well, and even Nina Alexandrovna sensed that every scene played out between her and the paralyzed body required some context for plausibility.

Thus, there arose something that could be likened to the pseudo-exchange processes in the organism of a feeding vampire. After she had decided to invent pseudo-events (honorably shedding her own blood first), Marina one day announced--ostensibly to her mother, who was sitting near the ill man--that she was a candidate for membership in the Communist Party. During this open-ended period of candidacy, Marina acquired a cheap Korean television (which within twenty-four hours was white with dust, as if it had been draped with a cloth) plus the most basic video player, which they concealed from the paralyzed man with a stack of dried out newspapers. At the TV station, by making use of the archives and the not entirely unselfish help of secret allies dissatisfied with station policies, Marina edited the "evening news" for the ill man. The monotonous pictures consisted of collective applause, the kind of long shots of state workers that smudge not only hands but faces, a row of tall, smoke-belching, grated-window workshops, and summit-meeting kisses, where the general secretary's profile dominated the oncoming profile of his partner, the way a processing machine dominates its material. Soon Marina had teamed up with computer whiz Kostik (who had fallen in love with Brezhnev and asserted that by using a program he had found on the Internet, downloaded illegally, he could factor the general secretary's voice into a woman's as well as a man's) and got so good at it that they were able to compile the Twenty-Eighth and Twenty-Ninth Congresses of the Soviet Communist Party for the paralyzed man. Serving as material in part were black-and-white Duma sessions, which they spliced in (there was something unnatural about Chernomyrdin, who flashed across the screen a few times and bore a distant resemblance to Brezhnev), but the general secretary himself delivered a speech many hours long, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, economically setting the text out in two stacks. Marina nearly believed she was actually hearing every word of the speech being delivered by the two-voice chorus. Meanwhile, the text suggested that there had been an increase in international tension, and the deputies in the audience listened meekly, like troops seated rather than standing in straight rows.

No one could say for certain, of course, whether their playacting was fooling the ill man. Nina Alexandrovna, at least, thought she caught in the signals emitted by his asymmetrical brain a certain agreement, a gesture of approval. Of course, Alexei Afanasievich had never not so much liked as considered it proper that his innumerous family wait on him hand and foot, so he may simply have been pleased with their efforts and the theatricalized fuss occasioned by his illness. The pseudo-events, these spectral parasites, began to acquire increasing power over the Kharitonovs, though, and were already beginning to feed on them. It was like a change in focus that reveals in a single landscape at least two. Nina Alexandrovna was sometimes frightened by the distinct sensation that Brezhnev's funeral had indeed been a deception, a film someone had spliced together, that the years were still divided into five-year plans and the country, with all its heavy industry, was continuing to build communism in the sky above--and it was nearly ready, its facades glittering. She did get out of the house, of course, and her own glutted eyes did observe the changes: the colorful litter on the street from imported wrappings, which the dream book said meant riches; the abundance in the shop windows of all kinds of meat--from mosaic slivers of pork to candy pink Finnish sausage--which meant an advantageous marriage; the abundance of private trade in all kinds of little things, including amazingly cheap Chinese pearls as white as rice, a strand of which Nina Alexandrovna dreamed about from time to time with hopeless emotion--but which meant, however, copious and bitter tears. The fact that she had seen all this in her waking hours only intensified the prophetic qualities of the objects that crept into her field of vision.

One day, on her way to the nearby market, Nina Alexandrovna suddenly saw, instead of the elegant mini-mart, the old grocery's empty glass (a bubble routed by competitors the day before yesterday), and on its skewed doors a fresh flyer for a candidate for deputy, a stern comrade with the handsome face of a St. Bernard, a director by the looks of him, with a perfect rectangle of biographical text beneath it. This remarkably restored scene--the fat, sluggish cleaning woman at the back of the store, the black-and-white flyer, the sticky spot and curved glass from a broken vodka bottle on the front steps, which smelled like grapes in the autumn air--suddenly overwhelmed Nina Alexandrovna with its undeniable reality, the reliability of simple things. In the market, which seemed like a mirage with empty waving sleeves and buzzing flies, she obliviously paid whatever they asked and returned home to her angry daughter with an empty purse.

***

Nina Alexandrovna had lost her appetite; the sour bun from the street stand had settled in her stomach like a wad of heavy dough. Alexei Afanasievich usually slept at this time of day--or rather, drifted into what in his unvarying existence might be considered human sleep--and softly snored. His half-shut right eye glittered, while his brain burned like a frosted lamp, clearly delineating the spattered bruise from the stroke that made Alexei Afanasievich look like Mikhail Gorbachev, whom he had never heard of. Nina Alexandrovna usually spent this time in the kitchen, so as not to disturb the paralyzed man with her heavy, ambulatory presence. Now, though, in a state of mollified good will, she had an urge to feed him. She decided to check on him first, though, so she cautiously opened the bedroom door. Only then did it occur to her that she couldn't hear him snoring. Standing on the threshold in dismay, Nina Alexandrovna instantly saw--but did not understand--that something unusual was going on in the bedding, whose big gilded knobs burned like headlights. The bed, which Nina Alexandrovna had left smooth and tight, with the neat paralytic slipped inside like a pen in a shirt pocket, was now rumpled and bunched up at the ill man's feet, and a corner of the blanket was hanging over the side. Alexei Afanasievich's left arm was lying quite apart and seemed nearly as big as his entire body, whose odd bending had something armless and fishlike about it. What struck Nina Alexandrovna most, though, was the flimsy white rope fastened to the bed's latticed headboard like a monogram woven in the air. At the other end, the rope ended in a noose, which lay askew on the paralyzed man's face. Betrayed by this seemingly carelessly drawn circle, Alexei Afanasievich was looking through it wildly, and his protruding right eye blinked, while the other, half-closed, twitched like the withered leaf of a tree splatted by drops of rain.

After she had stood there for a minute and her mind had plowed into an impasse, Nina Alexandrovna realized that she simply could not acknowledge this. The string lowered around the lattice and around itself in a limp, empty noose represented not a running knot he had made but a graphic diagram in the air of how its intended knots should be tied. There was something innocent in the white, drapey silkiness of the rope, which bore some vague relation to a daintily embroidered blouse she recalled on an adolescent Marina. First, she had to dispose of the evidence of the crime. Cautiously, grasping it with two wary fingers, Nina Alexandrovna threw the noose off the ill man's face; in response, the paralyzed man emitted a throaty, indignant grunt. Murmuring something reassuring, Nina Alexandrovna tried to remove the deadly rigging from the bed; the knot in the noose slipped off easily, like a bead, and dropped into her hand, but her light tug pulled the half-finished, branchlike work on the headboard lattice so tight that Nina Alexandrovna spent a quarter of an hour gnawing away with scissors at the tough, silken stalk, trying to free it from the scratched twig. All this time, Alexei Afanasievich, lying in a cooled patch of venomous old-man urine, breathed more evenly and vigorously than usual, and Nina Alexandrovna could feel his brain pushing out dark, concentric circles, like a stone thrown into water.

So that's how it is, she told herself, as she dropped into the chair. Alexei Afanasievich had tried to hang himself. It was incredible. This wasn't just about the remainder of his paralyzed days. The particular way Alexei Afanasievich was living, steadily adding minute after minute to his total time lived, never for a moment distracted from increasing the quantity of his existence, meant one thing: as soon as he died, his whole construction would disappear as if it had never existed. A distraught Nina Alexandrovna tried to imagine things which her ordinary little mind simply could not absorb; she felt as if a tight woolen cap had been pulled over her head. She had the vague sense that her gray-haired husband's life, which to the disinterested outsider was quite unremarkable, like a set of unimportant files (if you didn't count the historic war), was in reality an unacknowledged act of heroism. His life was colossal and, like everything colossal, pointless. Any bit of fluff, any scrap of existence, to say nothing of larger, more valuable items, came into play for Alexei Afanasievich now. Everything became building material for his nest, his anthill, which he was creating not according to any rational plan but instinctively. It was quite clear that this life of accumulation, which never let anything go, could exist wholly either on this or that side of the line of death--but not both. Alexei Afanasievich had been trying to put a halt to his construction before its natural completion. He was preparing to destroy not only his comfortable future, with his velvety strained soups, featherlight cereals, and false newscasts; he was planning to annihilate everything in one fell swoop.

This was inconceivable, monstrous, and unfair--this devalued the life he had lived. Nina Alexandrovna's hands, resting in her lap, could not calm down; they kept jumping, like writhing fish cast ashore. If the veteran had managed to stick his head through the noose, which was in fact too small, then Nina Alexandrovna's conscientious marriage would have drowned in oblivion, leaving her, no one's widow and no one's wife, in alien, isolated surroundings. It would also have meant the disappearance of her predecessor, Alexei Afanasievich's first spouse, a stout young woman with an oval face like a large medallion and dark hair that covered the bottoms of her ears and gleamed like a record in the sad daylight that permeated the old snapshots of her kept in her maidenly purse, which was as heavy as an encyclopedia and worn down to its gray material. Nina Alexandrovna could not imagine what voids might arise if Alexei Afanasievich made an exit like this. She had some notion of them from the light of those faded snapshots, which preserved the woman's pose-in-the-park on a backdrop of pointy leaves: a star-shaped kaleidoscope of trees. Speaking to the void, too, was the light of the day lived in such sorrow today--a sun-filled light, so resembling that, photographic light, an odd taste of the astronomical distance of its source, of just how far that light had traveled to outline the tall trees in a fever of falling leaves, the coarse sugar of the window tulle, and these little medicine bottles. This meant that her husband was planning to abandon Nina Alexandrovna to the tyranny of fate. Of course, he didn't know that his handsome pension was supporting the family, and now it was simply too late to tell him. Nina Alexandrovna did not have the words to tell him, out of the blue, about the changes, which even to her seemed implausible. She wouldn't know where to begin because she herself didn't understand how or why all this had actually come about. If you looked at present-day capitalism from that distant point where time forked, then this looked more like a puppet show or the nightmare of a convinced Communist who finds himself inside his own dream. The only thing that gave life meaning, if only in men's minds, was the victory in the Great Patriotic War.