Saturday, November 13, 2010

Party Favors

Constantin sat hunched on the edge of the bed, his drowsy head propped between his fists. The clock on the nightstand said it was 3:14 in the morning. He had taken the call sometime before three.

"Constantin Yanovich?" the voice said.


"The hour has come. The Party has need of you."

The voice sounded young, its words slurred. Since the tumble of the Communist Party, the telephone lines had surged with crank calls from surly teenagers. After a bottle of vodka and some scratchy Rolling Stones records, they could be most abusive.

"Who is this?" Constantin demanded.

"No questions, Yanovich. You will be given instructions at the proper time. Don't leave your apartment."

So Constantin had waited. His wife Nadya was staying in Odessa for the week with a delegation of journalists. She had asked him to join her, but he had declined. A nasty flu was working its way through the Ministry of Parks, he said. Eight people were out the previous week, reports were piling up. Nadya had simply nodded.

A knock at the door roused him from a dream about a canoe trip down the Volga. He was leading a group of Red Pioneers. They were lazy, pimpled youths. Constantin paddled ahead, then waited for the boys to catch up. They rounded a bend in the river, their boats filled with tears. A boy was missing. Constantin went back upriver, spading his paddle into frothy green water. He found pieces of clothing — a blue-striped shirt caught on a rock, a cap bobbing in the shallows — but the boy's body was gone.

The knock at the door became more insistent. Constantin squinted through the peep-hole and saw part of an overcoat.

"Who's there?" he asked.

"No questions, Yanovich, remember? Open the door."

"How do I know you're here a comrade?"

"Because you've been expecting this — to be chosen."

It was true. Constantin had always seen himself as being set apart for some higher labor. The few times he had mentioned it to Nadya, she had mussed up his thinning hair and laughed, dismissing the idea as an infantile fantasy.

The door fell open to reveal a blond man about thirty years old. His overcoat was buttoned to the neck.

Constantin looked up and down the hallway, then shut the door, satisfied that none of the neighbors were skulking about.

The blond man pulled a measuring tape from his pocket and began to calculate the dimensions of the door frame.

"Three-and-a-half by...let's see...eight. Excellent, Yanovich. It will serve our purposes."

"What pur — " Constantin bit off his question.

The blond man reeled in the tape with quick little motions, then stepped into the next room.

"Kitchen's in here?


"And the bathroom?"

"Through the curtain there."

The blond man stopped at the refrigerator, took more measurements, opened the door. "Not much here," he said.

"If I'd known, I — "

"Just as well. You'll have to get rid of it all anyway." The blond man held up a jar of pickled radishes. "I didn't know people still ate these," he said, sniffing the jar before setting it on the cutting board.

Constantin looked at the remaining contents of the refrigerator: the fatty hunk of roast pork, the rust-colored head of cabbage, the tin of Ukrainian apricots. He most regretted being told to throw out the apricots, having spent three hours on line to buy them.

The blond man yanked aside the curtain that Nadya had made, then stepped into the bathroom. "Is the bathroom scrubbed on a regular basis?"


"We will not tolerate falsehoods."

"It was done a month ago."

"Thank you. You will have to do it again."


"Of course."

Constantin had a sudden urge to sleep. What was it now — 4:27? "Can't it wait?"

The blond man poked his head through the curtain. "You're not doing it for me — you're doing it for the Party, Yanovich. For those who still believe in it. You think Putin sleeps? I'll bet he is brewing up some new reform this very minute."

"Very well."

Constantin fetched a steel bucket, a brush, and a bottle of cleaning powder from the back of the kitchen closet. He poured out two capfuls of the eye-watering stuff into the bucket, then filled it with water, as hot as he could stand it. He could hear the blond man moving through the apartment.

Constantin set the bucket on the tiled floor and tiptoed to the bedroom.

The blond man had their wedding picture in his gloved hand. "An attractive woman, your wife," he said without turning. "How long will she be away?" He caught Constantin's eye. "In Odessa?"

"You must know that already?"

"Perhaps, but that doesn't mean we can't make pleasant small talk." The blond man replaced the picture on the dresser, angling it just as he had found it. He followed Constantin back to the bedroom, leaning in the doorway, hands in his pockets.

Constantin scrubbed the tub a gleaming bone-white, then rinsed the stinging powder from his knuckles. He dried them on his pants. The blond man bent closer, peering at the grit that swirled down the drain.

Someone was at the door. Constantin stood up, his hands at his sides.

"Relax," said the blond man.

"I'm not used to this."

"Who is? Now open the door."

Constantin walked carefully. His feet felt small, distant. His hand quivered on the doorknob.

Two men were waiting in the hallway with an immense duffel bag between them. The men wore identical red warm-up suits and white athletic shoes. The duffel was stenciled with the words Official Property — CCCP Hockey.

The men carried the duffel through the doorway, barely clearing the jamb. They moved slowly, as though carrying a tray of china plates.

The blond man directed them to the kitchen. "Just set it on the floor. We haven't all been introduced." He turned to Constantin. "Do you follow hockey, Yanovich?"

"I know only that it's played on ice."

"That's very good."

The men in the warm-up suits shared a look.

"Well, you now have the pleasure of meeting two of Moscow's best. This is Yuri." The heavier of the two men put out his hand. "And Nik." The second man, darker and wiry, simply nodded.

"I hope you're impressed, Yanovich," the blond man went on. "You'll be the envy of every schoolboy on the street."

"The ones I knew left long ago. I don't know any of them now."

"Another point in your favor. One of many which made you so...ideal." The blond man steered Constantin into the bedroom. "You will excuse us now," he said, shutting the door.

Constantin sat on the bed and balanced his head on his fists. He recalled being in the same position just two hours earlier, before he became a host to hockey players, an ideal citizen, a janitor for the Party.

He slowed his breathing as he listened to the sounds beyond the bedroom door. A mumbled toast was made, metal clanged, someone cursed. He imagined it coming from the big one. Yuri. The man had soft hands for a hockey player. Constantin heard the floorboards creak as the doorknob turned.

"You are rested now, Yanovich?" said the blond man.

"And if I say no?"

"You won't."

This, too, was true. Even as a boy, he had been eager to please, content to follow. He trailed the blond man into the living room. The hockey players were gone.

The blond man turned. "I thank you," he said.

"For cleaning a bathtub?

"No. I thank you for what you will do."

Constantin felt himself swallow. His tongue was like clay.

The blond man pulled a wad of fifty-ruble notes from his coat.

"For meals," he said. "It's not much, but it's enough. Don't eat in the same place twice." He moved toward the door. "And don't open the refrigerator. Believe me, it's for the best."

"How long am I to live like this?"

"You will be told."



The telephone rang less than twenty minutes later.

"It's eight-fifteen, Yanovich, are you leaving for work?"

"Yes," said Constantin, fighting a yawn. "I'm leaving now." He had considered calling in sick, but it was suddenly out of the question.

Constantin spent the morning at his desk, compiling a list of reports to be filed by the end of the week. It went on for four pages — then five — as another co-worker left the office early, complaining of throbbing joints.

The next call came before noon.

"Lunch time, Yanovich. Don't spend all your money."

Constantin ate by himself in the Ministry of Parks canteen. Turnip soup, underdone lamb. The cashier had given him quite a look when he pulled out the fifty-ruble note.

That afternoon he hid behind a wall of documents: drinking fountain use studies, monument deterioration reports, restroom graffiti analyses. On his few trips down the corridor, he refrained from engaging in the usual office talk about the leaky ceiling in the supply room or the worsening quality of ink in the mimeograph machine. He wanted to keep his distance. Having been singled out for service, he might be just as easily singled out for elimination.

Instead of riding the usual express bus home, he took a local to a neighborhood on the other side of the city. He walked the streets for an hour, found an inexpensive Mongolian restaurant, then circled the block three times before going in. You couldn't be too careful.

It was eleven o'clock by the time he got home. He put on frayed pajamas, made himself a glass of weak tea, reread an old copy of Pravda before tossing it aside.

Don't open the refrigerator, the blond man had said. The words sifted through him like sand, collecting in the hollow of his gut. It was his refrigerator — his to open or close as he pleased. He and Nadya had each saved up three month's wages to buy it. Delivery from the factory took another six months. At the time, he had thought of the wait as a minor inconvenience. A token sacrifice for the good of the system.

Constantin faced the baked enamel door of the refrigerator for a full twenty minutes before grasping the handle. Another seven minutes passed before he tugged on it; the door's rubber gasket opened with a kiss.

He fanned at the vapor that boiled from the interior. The hockey players had turned the thermostat to the meat setting and removed the steel shelves to make room for the duffel bag, which sat angled with the high end jammed next to the ice-box and the lower end touching the vegetable bin.

Constantin poked the bag gently. There was something solid inside. Something firm, yet slippery. The chilled metal zipper tab stung his fingertips as he pulled it down a centimeter or so, revealing a swatch of dark cloth. The zipper jammed. Constantin peered through his fogged breath. He bent closer, then backed away, letting the door swing shut. There was a small tuft of hair caught in the metal teeth of the zipper.

The telephone rang a moment later.

"What are you doing, Yanovich?" said the blond man.

"Nothing much. Reading. Looking through the mail."

"Anything interesting? A postcard from your wife?"

"Those conferences are busy affairs. She doesn't often find time to write."

"Not a bad thing, Yanovich — staying out of trouble."

"A very good thing."

"It's odd, you know," said the blond man. "We have met only once, yet I miss your hospitality."

"Yes, well — good night."

"Just remember, Yanovich, temptation is great, but the Party is greater."

That night Constantin dreamed he was at a campfire with a troop of school

children. They were roasting meat on sticks and eating it with their hands. The meat ran out. The children circled around him. They pressed in close, rubbing against him with hair like steel wool, abrading, grinding, making meat of him. He awoke surprised to find all his limbs intact.

The telephone rang at 7:15 in the morning, sounding twelve times before it fell silent. When it rang again at 7:17, Constantin picked up the receiver.

"I'm up already," he said. "See, I'm wiggling my toes. Do you like the color of my pajamas?"

"Constantin?" It was Nadya; there were voices and a train whistle in the background. "What's going on?"

"Everything — nothing. Everything is fine. It's the telephone — punks have been calling up, using the most shameful language. Hooligans."

"I'll have the number changed when I get home. I'll be there tomorrow."

"So soon? What's wrong?"

"The speaker canceled. Influenza."

"What did I tell you. It's going around. Please take care of yourself. Have soup on the train."

"I'd better let you go. You'll be late at the Ministry."

"My Nadyana, my little worry wife. I'll be fine. I love you."

"I must go," she said. A train whistle shrieked in the background.

Constantin called the Ministry of Parks to say he was sick, then spent the morning padding around the apartment in his robe and slippers. He moved a chair into the kitchen and sat in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open for minutes at a time, while he stared at the frozen zipper, the wisp of hair.

A knock at the apartment door sent his heart drumming.

"Who's there?"

"Come now, Yanovich, we're old friends by now."

Constantin opened the door dutifully.

"So, you took a holiday?" said the blond man, picking at something on his glove.

"I wasn't feeling well."

"A lie? Please. Your lovely wife — she is returning early?"


"I will forgive your little untruth, comrade, for it truly is a holiday." The blond man went into the kitchen and shoved the chair aside with his boot. "Tell me, Yanovich, how long did you wait before you opened the refrigerator?"

"My refrigerator. I worked for months to buy that machine. My wife, too. We waited for our turn. Almost a year before it came."

"Think how long it would take now...under Medvedev.” The blond man threw open the refrigerator door. "Grab the end here," he said, tipping his head toward the duffel bag. "That's it, gently now."

Constantin gripped the bag and lifted, eyeing the curl of hair in the zipper. The blond man carried the other end, leading them through the curtain and into the narrow bathroom. The load was oddly light. They maneuvered the duffel over the lip of the tub, then slowly lowered it.

"Pay attention now, Yanovich." The blond man watched Constantin's face while he teased the zipper along past the bit of hair and down to the end of the duffel. A bundle wrapped with strips of red muslin emerged as the duffel fell away like a chrysalis. "Bring me something to cut this with," said the blond man, fingering a crimson strip of cloth.

Constantin returned with a kitchen knife. The blond man took it and began to cut the muslin solemnly, as though slicing a wedding cake.

"You have a radio?" he asked.

"It's old."

"Bring it. We must have music."

Constantin put the heavy wooden set on the toilet tank and turned it on. The dial glowed like a scrap of paper catching fire as a news report crackled from the grille. Constantin changed stations, pulling in a children's program, a comedy show, a reading of Belorussian verse. The blond man waited, his gloved fingers tapping lightly on the bundle while Constantin settled on a Prokofiev symphony.

The blond man shut his eyes for a moment, then began to cut and pull at the muslin. "Good," he said, carefully stripping the material away; it fell at his feet like peelings from an apple. A sweet aroma began to fill the room.

Constantin thought of the wildflowers that Nadya had once pressed into a copy of Das Kapital, wild roses gathered early in their courtship.

A yellowed sheet now showed beneath the red muslin.

The blond man glanced up. "Come closer, Yanovich. Give me your hand."

Constantin offered his palm.

"Closer," said the blond man, seizing his wrist. He pressed Constantin's hand to the cloth. "There. Tell me, Yanovich, what do you feel?"

Constantin's fingers roamed over the cloth.

"It's something dense...and old."

"Too vague."

"A statue."

"Not quite."

Constantin shook his head. "I'm not good at games. I don't know."

"I think you do. You've always known. Just as an infant knows its father."

The blond man pulled the cloth aside, and Constantin's hand fell upon a cool, pale surface.

A face.

Contantin pulled his hand away; it was like a lump of ice in his lap.

"No," he said, unable to look at the bared head in front of him.

"Oh, yes."

"This cannot be."

"The Father of the Party."

"But there are laws."

"The Worker's Friend. There are those who would sell pieces of him for souvenirs. They would dress him up in blue jeans and drag him behind a big American car while they play decadent music — all in the name of their beloved democracy." The blond man spoke through tight lips, as though chewing on spoiled caviar.

"But is this legal?" asked Constantin.

"Was the assassination of the Party legal? Or the prostitution of the Mother Union?"

"Surely someone is searching for the body?"

"Everyone is looking. But they haven't made it public. It will send the wrong message."

At last, Constantin allowed himself to gaze upon Lenin's serene features; the ears of the Great Bolshevik were deeply crenellated, twin fortresses guarding East and West. The strange, sweet fragrance seemed to permeate the room.

"What am I to do now — with him?" said Constantin.

"You will be his eyes, his arms, his strength. And you will follow instructions." The blond man handed Constantin an envelope, then backed out through the curtain and was gone.

The envelope contained typed instructions on a sheet of cheap paper. From what Contantin could make out, there were eight steps to be performed, the first of which was: Strip the body.

He was about to complete number six — Bathe and dry the body — when he heard a key turn in the front door lock. He threw a towel over the body and yanked the curtain shut. By the time he realized he had left the radio on, it was too late to turn it off.

Nadya came through the door, slightly out of breath, dropping her luggage in the middle of the living room.

"Nadyana — I — you're early."

"Well, you don't seem at all happy about it." She fussed with her coat, then cocked her head, listening.

"What's that?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I hear something. Who's in the bathroom?"

"Oh, that. The radio. I was cleaning. You know, trying to keep things tidy."

"I don't believe it," said Nadya, taking a step toward the bathroom.

"I'll show you — when I finish," he said. "But first you must tell me about your conference." He lead her toward the bedroom. "Was the food good? Come, tell me everything."

Nadya sat on the bed, while Constantin pulled her shoes off. "Blisters," he said. "You must have walked all over Odessa."

"I'm going to soak them."

"No, no, you mustn't do any such thing. Stay here, I'll bring hot water."

"I'd love a bath."

"Nadya, I've missed you. You must let me spoil you a bit. Now just lie there and rest."

Constantin returned to the bathroom, turned the radio off, and finished drying the body. The Architect of the State had skin like alabaster. Gazing down at the placid cast of the face, at the kindly beard that had been trimmed by the zipper, Constantin imagined working to the accompaniment of a children's chorus.

He carefully swaddled the body with the sheet, taking particular care around the massive head before rewrapping the body as best he could. He heard the bed squeak as Nadya shifted her weight. Was she getting up?

"I don't hear the water running," she said.

"I'm folding towels, my plum. I haven't forgotten you."

"Don't keep me waiting, Constantin."

"Patience, Nadyana." Constantin hauled the body to the lip of the tub, then tried to tug the duffel bag over the feet. The toes caught on an inside seam. Constantin pulled on the duffel with both hands. The body slipped off the tub, thumping on the floor.


"Yes, sweet one?"

"My feet ache."

"I'll only be a moment, my dove."

He struggled to get the body turned around on the tiled floor, this time coaxing it into the duffel head-first. He zipped the bag shut, humming a strain of Prokofiev to cover the sound.

He called to Nadya. "When I get there, I'll massage each little dumpling toe."

"You've gone mad while I was away."

Constantin did his best to drag the duffel quietly out of the bathroom and across the kitchen floor.

"Yes, little bird, I'll dust your toes with powered sugar and a dash of cinnamon. I'll butter them like tea cakes, dab each one with currant jam..."

He gently shut the door behind him and scooted the duffel ahead of him to the top of the stairs. The bag teetered there for a moment, poised, a log at the brink of a waterfall. He caught the end of it, then began the descent, taking the steps one at a time like a toddler, wincing each time the duffel bumped the wall. He felt himself being pulled along like a toy boat. His shirt was wringing wet by the time he reached the front door. He wondered what Nadya was doing now — what she was saying. She would never believe a word of this.

Constantin nudged open the door to the building with his foot, hauling the duffel after him. A fine snow blew straight at his face. He gripped the iron railing, scrabbling down the iced stone stairs to the street.

He had decided to hide the Champion of the People in the alley at the side of the building, well within view of his bedroom window. He was almost there now. But where were the potato crates and rubble that had lain there for years? The alley was as barren as the steppes, heaped only with snow. It would have to do as a covering.

He knelt painfully in the bluish snow, cupping out a space the size of the duffel. He eased the bag into place, mounded it with snow, then stood back. The little hill he had made resembled a snow-covered pile of dirt or bricks, something long forgotten. Constantin added another handful of snow, blew on his fingertips and walked away, stopping several times to admire his handiwork. It seemed a humble resting place.

Nadya was soaking in the tub when he returned. Soaking and sulking. "There's hair in the drain," she whined from behind the curtain. "Strange hair."

"I'll get rid of it."

"Don't come in here now. I'll catch cold."

Constantin wandered into the bedroom.

"You know," she called after him, "it's time we had a talk."

Constantin barely heard her. Standing on the bed in his stocking feet, he could see the mound of snow far below, a faint blue shadow surrounded by darker shapes. The shapes moved. Children.

Constantin went up on tiptoe, watching the children as they chased each other around the mound. One of them scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at another, while a third child climbed the little hump and tumbled down its side. Then all the children climbed the slope, jostling one another, each of them struggling to stay on top.

Nadya's wet hand snapped him out of the scene. "There's someone on the phone," she said. "Wouldn't give his name, but he says he knows you."

Constantin waited to see if Nadya would close the bedroom door before he spoke into the receiver. She didn't.

"You're wife's trip was pleasant?" said the blond man.

"Pleasant enough."

"And you followed instructions?"

The instructions. Constantin pulled the wadded sheet from his pocket. His eyes strained to focus, trying to break the sentences down into understandable chunks. Body fluids. Core temperature. Decomposition.


Constantin listened to the tiny voice threaten him from the dangling phone receiver.

Nadya was lying on the far side of the bed when he entered the room. Her body was curled away from him; she spoke to the wall. She was tired, she said. The strain was too much. She had looked up to him once. Respected his ideals. But she had needs. Desires. She didn't want much: Prada shoes, exercise equipment, a Sony Walkman. Didn't he have something to say for himself?

Constantin offered a vague apology, his eyes watching the children far below. They were model workers, burrowing under the duffel, tearing the body from its cocoon. While the children danced and shrieked around the swaddled form in the snow, Constantin went into the bathroom. He looked at the bottom of the tub, checked the sink, searched the trash bin. There, coiled beside a wadded tissue and a bent hair pin, was the damp ring of hair.

Who knew what riches such an artifact might bring?

No comments:

Post a Comment