For a long time the fact that the Krivovs drank was something only their son knew. When it began, Yurka had just started first grade. In the beginning, the Krivovs were embarrassed by their disease and drank together in their smoked-up apartment.
Perched on the windowsill behind the curtain, Yurka would draw squiggles on his writing assignments, memorize the poem about “the forest, like a tower chamber painted” to the sound of his parents’ droning, and glue colored paper cutouts.
No one at school suspected a thing.
“Krivov’s abilities are below average, of course. But he may pull up yet,” Yurka’s teacher said at parent conferences, looking absentmindedly at the parents and not knowing which of them to address right then.
Alena Krivova, who had once gone to this same school, hunched shyly over the back bench and avoided eye contact. She had already started looking at people, including Yurka’s classmates, a little ingratiatingly, just as she did her store bosses. Had they picked up a whiff of booze?
Little Yurka stood out from the other children only because he never hurried home. No matter the weather, he would walk in the mud in the neighborhood’s vacant lots, measure off puddles with his boots, and then warm himself in the cellar as he tried to train the cats. But even there no one suspected anything amiss.
In mid-November, Yurka found himself a buddy, freckle-faced Gerka from the other class. Gerka was an inspired liar. Breathlessly, he would inundate taciturn Yurka with incredible stories about extraterrestrials, Indians, and vampires. Gerka’s parents had started to divorce, with all the plate smashing, yelling, and calls to the police that entailed. So he wasn’t in any hurry after school, either.
No matter how the Krivovs tried to hide from strangers’ eyes, rumors soon started going around their courtyard. By the time Yurka went into middle school, the disgrace had definitely come untucked, like a dirty shirt.
Alena, who looked beaten now even when she smiled, lived by begging near the entrance to the store where she no longer worked. Her husband slept in the entryway, his head leaning over the stairs—always a floor below their apartment, which was too far for him to climb. The neighbor ladies would feed Yurka, taking premature pity on tomorrow’s candidate for the children’s home or colony.
The bedlam at Gerka’s was ongoing. His parents would separate, then get back together, then take a trip to Baikal to reconcile, leaving their son alone in their disaster of an apartment, which looked like a battlefield for mythical giants. Gerka would spray his forelock with his mama’s perfume and go into coughing fits from smoking his father’s cheap cigarettes. He thought that might make him a little closer to his parents.
He was caught in the act by Ivanova, the neighborhood’s iron lady, the inspector for minors’ affairs whose first name no one knew and who sent everyone, especially the children, into a panic. The day before, she had made a menacing visit to the neighboring entryway—to see the Krivovs.
On the first day of the winter holidays, which fell on the Catholic Christmas, Yurka found himself in the grocery store at the same time as his parents. He had come for bread; they, for a bottle to mark the holiday. Alena was embarrassed to go into the wine department, where she herself had once shouted at the stupid drunks, so she and Yurka were loitering on the front steps waiting for Krivov.
Yurka was ashamed to stand next to his mother. He moved aside, buried his face in the holiday window—and suddenly was lost in another world.
It was just a small Christmas tree. The silvery foil needles quivered gently from the draft, casting nearly imperceptible flecks of light on the gray cotton wool that was supposed to depict snow. A tiny, gaudily gilded bell swung on one of the branches. Yurka imagined he could hear its timid, plaintive voice even through the glass.
He heaved a sigh from a crushing emotion he couldn’t name. He felt as if he were running through a magical forest with silver trees. And he tried as hard as he could to believe in it. But the pitiful little bell cried straight to his heart, not letting him forget that it was never to be.
Behind him the snow creaked guiltily, and reflected in the window was his mother’s face.
“You want a tree?” tight drunken tears gurgled in her throat. “We’ll buy one. Tomorrow.”
Yurka squeezed his eyes shut, clenched, and with a final incredible effort—believed.
“Just like this?” he clarified, hiding in his scarf from the maternal reek.
“I promise,” she lied, and turning away she shed silent tears.
But one day passed, then two, the New Year thundered by in fireworks and Champagne, and Alena never did mention the tree. Yurka, who had never asked his parents for anything, took a deep breath—and did.
“That’s all he knows. Gimme gimme gimme!” Krivov burst out shouting immediately, just as expected. “Nothing to drink, and he wants a tree! Go to the forest. There’re lots of them there!”
His mother smiled stupidly, flapped her heavily mascaraed eyelashes, and missed the plate with her fork.
On Epiphany, the Krivovs sent their son to a twenty-four-hour shop far away. He returned to discover the door bolted shut from the inside. Yurka rang the bell, knocked, shouted, and threw snowballs at the window, all to no avail. His parents were asleep. Krivov’s hacking snore came through the keyhole.
At first Yurka sat in the entryway. But when tenderhearted neighbor ladies started gathering on the landing, lashing out at the “rotten alkies” and vying to take him in, Yurka fled.
“He’s spending the night at Gerka’s,” the old women decided and they scattered to their respective apartments.
But Gerka was taken in by his aunt every vacation while his parents slugged it out at some holiday camp in the mountains far away.
No one ever did find out where middle-schooler Yurka Krivov, wearing his lightweight coat with the torn off buttons, spent that night, which, as always on Christmas, was starry and frosty.
The next morning his mother, shaking hard, stood watch at the front door, asking everyone where Yurka had gone and cadging change out of habit. Then Krivov stepped cautiously onto the front steps, and touchingly supporting each other on the slippery path, the couple went to the next courtyard over, to their good friend’s, where they hoped if not to find their son then at least to get something to take the edge off.
Yurka came back a little later. He rummaged around in the storeroom and shelves and not finding what he wanted knocked at the facing apartment of Lyosha the invalid.
“Need a tool? Changing the lock?” He was delighted. “Good going! They passed out keys to their drinking mates, made a pass-through of it.”
“It’s none of your business!” Yurka snarled.
Lyosha actually thought the boy had snapped his teeth at him, like a wolf cub. He hastily shut the door, muttering, “Bad seed! Changeling!”
Yurka tinkered with the lock until nightfall. Lyosha observed through the keyhole, gloating that the rude child was doing it “all wrong.” However, he got the job done, silently returned the tool, and shut himself in, flipping the locks.
Soon after that the Krivovs appeared. They scraped at the door with their key for a long time and exchanged curses under their breath for not being able to get it into the lock. Lyosha and old lady Faya, whom he had filled in, each had their eyes to the peephole in their respective apartments. Only for this spectacle would they have left (his) soccer match or (her) soap opera.
Impatient Faya was just about to go out to explain to the Krivovs what was what when Yurka said muffledly from behind the door, “Don’t even try. It’s a new lock.”
Old lady Faya gasped. Lyosha scratched his belly in agitation.
“So you are home, you bastard!” Krivov had to think a minute before he figured it out. “Step lively and open up!”
“I won’t,” Yurka answered.
Krivov raged for a good half hour. Even old lady Faya got bored and abandoned him for her television. Lyosha had sat down on the shoe bench even sooner and at some point dozed off.
When Faya returned to her observation point, Alena was doing the negotiating.
“Don’t disgrace us! Let us in!”
“You disgraced yourself!” came from behind the door.
“The times we live in! How he speaks to his parents!” Faya was indignant. “That kind of impudence would turn anyone to drink!”
Finally, the Krivovs realized they weren’t going to get in that day, so they spat and went to spend the night with their good friend.
When he got back from vacation, Gerka had a gut feeling that something was very wrong. Sparks of a scandal filled the air. Even his hair seemed electrified and stood on end, and his hands, magnetized, stuck to each other. Gerka got the unmistakable feeling that Yurka was the focus of the tension. And before he even knew anything about what had happened, he shrank back superstitiously. At class change, when he bumped into Yurka, he buried his nose in last year’s wall newspaper.
He couldn’t explain what was going on. It was an instinctive reluctance to come in contact with that painful, nameless, and awful something his former friend was now carrying around inside. Gerka didn’t want to know anything. But despite himself he took in the details of the story people were talking about on every corner.
“Gueth what happened yethterday!” lanky Kuritsyn from class B, who lived in Yurka’s entryway, lisped. “Krivov and thome guyth thowed up to break down the door! And he went after them with an akth! No joke! What, you think I’m thome lying female? The neighborth pulled them apart or he would’ve chopped them up, no joke! What would’ve happened to him? They’d have gone easy on him ‘cauth he’th a minor!”
“He’s no child!” The tall, skinny math teacher known as Infinity sobbed to the principal. “A crafty, calculating creature! I spoke to him nicely. I said, ‘Come on, Krivov, why don’t you make peace with your parents?’ And he said, ‘Sure! And when they drink up the apartment you’ll take me in.’ All the inspectors are in shock over him! He’s demanded his parents be denied their rights!”
Everyone was waiting for Yurka to break. The longer this didn’t happen, the less they sympathized with him. The Krivovs had already attracted the general sympathy.
They lived by migrating among their numerous relatives. They drank, complained about the “monster,” and drank again—until their hosts, out of their wits over their drinking, showed them the door. Then they went on their way. Little by little they moved so far from their own home that even old lady Faya, who knew everything about everyone, lost track of them.
At first the adults tried to make Yurka see reason. They called on his conscience, lectured him, told him how to live. He would listen, smile crookedly, and politely answer, “It’s none of your business.”
Little by little even the most zealous backed off. For a while people still expected “that boy” to come to them for help—and then they would show him. But Yurka stubbornly did everything himself. By the end of the school year people had just stopped noticing him.
Middle-schooler Krivov resolved the financial question by renting his second room out to Alex, the perpetual student. His lodger was quiet. He slept during the day and at night read Roerich, the Bible, Mein Kampf, and Castaneda. He went to the institute twice a year: to get his certificate back and resubmit his documents. He was already thirty. Alex poured everything he gleaned from his nocturnal vigils into Yurka, taking absolutely no account of his age.
Alex got by with rare translations from five languages, including Yiddish. This was barely enough to pay for his room. Yurka used that money to buy noodles and packaged soups, which the two of them lived on until the next occasion.
Sometimes Alex would disappear for a few days and come back with cash, banana liqueur, and chocolates.
His former classmates were engaged in petty thievery and sometimes, out of compassion, took useless Alex along and put him to use: standing lookout far from the action
When he got his passport, Yurka took a new surname, “Yuriev,” formed from his own name. And his patronymic he replaced with “Alexeyevich,” in honor of Alex the perpetual student.
Then he and Gerka unexpectedly got to talking and talked for several hours straight. By that time Gerka had let his hair grow long, was going around in an old greatcoat, and had renamed himself Yegor.
At the beginning of their new friendship Yegor felt hot and cold all over whenever his eyes met Yuriev’s. But the awful uncertainty soon died down.
For this reason, their unpleasant conversation caught him unawares. It happened in the winter, when Yegor was dodging the draft in a psych ward. Yuriev stopped by to see him and was about to leave when Yegor, bored from his neighbors’ monotonous raving, begged him to stay. At this Yuriev said that he still had to get to the women’s section.
“Someone caught your eye there, huh?” Yegor chuckled, having learned to be cynical.
“My mother’s there.” Yuriev frowned.
Yegor went into a coughing fit, started squirming, and blinked stupidly.
“Hey! Why didn’t you say something?”
“I didn’t think you cared.”
Yegor felt his ears burning.
“What’s the matter with her?” he got out somehow, hating himself and hating Yuriev even more.
“So you . . .?”
“So I what? I visit her, as you see.”
“But you . . . You . . .” Yegor faltered desperately. “Well, but how . . .?”
“Oh, you mean that. She won’t recognize me. Every time she tells me her sob story about her heartless son.”
“What about you?”
“I listen. I console her. She says, ‘You’re not like that. You’re good.'”
A heavy silence fell. There was a question on the tip of Yegor’s tongue, but he just couldn’t get it out.
“Go ahead. Ask me,” Yuriev commanded him quietly.
Cornered, Yegor blurted out, “Didn’t you feel sorry for them?”
“Yes.” Yuriev grinned grimly. “Except my pity couldn’t help them.”
“You mean, kick a man when he’s down?” Yegor said boldly.
“Idiot!” Yuriev finally exploded. “You’ve read too many idiotic books! You all would have been happier if I’d ended up in a children’s home, slit someone’s neck over a trinket, and kicked the bucket in the clink at twenty from TB! That’s what you expected of me!”
“Don’t be like that,” Yegor murmured nervously.
“But in every other respect things would have been just the same,” Yuriev didn’t hear him. “My mother would’ve drunk herself to the devil and my dad would’ve got a screwdriver in the throat. Only something extraordinary could alter that course of things, something off the wall. Their minor son driving them out of the house, for instance. A strong enough impression to make them wake up. But by that time there was no getting through to them.”
“You really . . .”
“You want to know whether I regret or apologize for what I’ve done? No! The only thing I regret is not doing it sooner!”
“You really thought that then?”
“It’s none of your business.”
Yuriev left without saying good-bye. He took a few turns around the hospital park. Jackdaws, excited by the thaw, were brawling in the birches. The wet snow was squelching humbly underfoot.
“There’s the Christmas frosts for you!” an older nurse aide he knew complained.
Yuriev’s face contorted. He had never been able to stand Christmas since then. He always tried to ignore the holiday, which, as if in spite, was celebrated with more enthusiasm every year. But this time something different and unusual resonated in him at the detested word.
Half an hour later Yuriev placed a large artificial Christmas tree in the middle of the ward. When she saw it, Alena Krivova—bent, meek, and with no memory of anything—gasped and opened her mouth ecstatically.
“Here”—Yuriev took her by the hand and led her closer. “Merry Christmas.”
Alena shyly touched the silvery needles. The half-dark room was filled with shimmering fairy-tale flecks. A memory she couldn’t quite catch hold of blazed up among them and stabbed her in the heart.
“What? What?” She became agitated trying to catch that glimmer.
But the fog gathered once again. Turning around helplessly, Alena saw Yuriev and dissolved in a smile.
“So good and kind!” she mumbled as usual and suddenly added, “Why don’t you be a son to me?”
“Why don’t I,” Yuriev agreed and he too touched the tree. “Why don’t I.”
Translation of “Ne vashe delo.” Copyright Natalia Klyuchareva. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Marian Schwartz. All rights reserved.