The Pleasure of Despair

Two Russians approached in a spit-shined truck w/corporate logo. I didn’t yet know they were Russians but one look and I knew. The driver had a shiny and ruddy face and a pleasant smile. When he nodded hello, smoldering gray bits of cigarette ash tumbled down his chest. He didn’t seem to notice, expressing immediate interest only in where he could park and unload and then get started. I noticed as he turned his head to pull around front that his face had an Asian arrangement to it, the eyebrows slightly Mongolian.

The other man had a pony-tail, an aqualine nose, a distinct jawline. He was more German than Asian, barrel-chested with huge bulging forearms, but his eyes emitted an odd and indescribable sort of benevolence. This man, by the way, had better English but, as it turned out, almost no knowledge of air conditioning systems whatsoever.

Anyone could recognize in them the archetypical pair from the Russian circus—the confidence man ushering threadbare rubes into a tent for a few kopecks wherein his husky partner bends iron bars (that just might be more like aluminum) and wrestles bears (that look an awful lot like dogs). When they pulled around, I invited them cheerfully in, pointed to the furnace and the place where the air conditioner would sit, and let them get to their important work.

Watching a man who’s always in a hurry, a whirling dervish-type, do something that will take hours is difficult for me and makes me nervous, so after confirming that they had all they needed, I had occasion to retreat to my study and turn to other Russians I’ve known.

Russian lit’s particularly attractive because the characters are incredibly desperate—desperate for survival, for experience, for victory, for embarrassment, for revenge, for redemption, for answers. Whence this desperation? Certainly Russians know from suffering, and they know from vodka, and from poverty, war, and sickness. But maybe most of all, they know from cold. Desperate cold. No pair of Russians could possibly fail to cause a Siberian-Arctic wind to blow through my modest home.

Though it’s not unique to Russian, that language often uses the dative case to describe the state of something, so when you want to say “I’m cold,” it more accurately translates in English to “To me it’s cold,” which suggests a sort of relativity or hints that it certainly could get colder, or that it already is colder somewhere else. Every Russian knows the cold individually, and they thereby know it collectively—it’s both an abstract and a specific cross they bear.

The stories of Anton Chekhov I remember best are about poor people, whom he burdens with so many heavy crosses it’s a wonder they have any ability or space to move around and be abject and get themselves into the trouble they seem to manage always to get themselves into. Chekhov takes you to see peasants wallowing in dirt huts, coughing and being sick and suffering and eating rotten beets and struggling just to stay alive. On top of all that, there’s the cold, which forces all the small children and grandparents to actually lie on top of the stove or, if there isn’t room left on it, to huddle as close as possible and weep bitterly if they ever draw the shortest straw for a firewood or alms-begging errand.

There are two Chekhov stories that aren’t anthologized as much as some of the others, but they have something to say about cold. One is “The Student,” in which a poor clerical student, after a spot of bird hunting on Good Friday, shudders at the thought of returning home to his barefoot mother and father who lay on the stove coughing. He also shudders because the weather is unseasonably cold:

His fingers were numb and his face was burning with the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy. [. . .] And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.

With these thoughts coursing through his head, he stops at a garden campfire where a mother and daughter, both widows, warm themselves. He’s in the mood to talk, and he puts the Gospel readings into his own words, describing Peter’s repeated denials of Christ. His dramatic re-telling stirs the woman and the mother, apparently remembering something from her own life, begins to cry. As she attempts to hide her tears the three experience a communion over the bitterness of guilt and betrayal, the cold and the fire and the sacred text serving as conductors for their emotions.

Before turning to the next story, I trotted down to the garage to offer water to the comrades and to see if I could be of assistance in any way. I found them engaged animatedly in Russian conversation, the knowledgeable one holding a screwdriver in his right hand and also extending his index finger to indicate various wires attached to the furnace, whose guts were totally and luridly exposed, since our installation required integrating a cooling coil in the furnace and then connecting it to the condenser with refrigerant lines.

The larger HVAC professional seemed chagrined that I had offered the water, and he while saying no thanks, he extended both his hands, palms down, in a touching but slightly patronizing fashion. So I left them with that tableau frozen in my mind, the two Russians: the con man and the gentle, conflicted beast, the rat and the cat, the mad scientist and the philosopher—fine-tuning both the fires of hell and icy above-ground life.

In the other story, titled “Misery,” the protagonist operates a horse-driven taxi. He sits outside a place where fares might emerge from, like a restaurant, and waits, each time being covered in snow, so he becomes like as a part of the landscape, mere background, almost nothing—which of course is exactly how he’s treated by his riders. The taxi driver tries to tell them about his son’s recent death and you learn his wife’s gone and you also learn he has no soft shoulders or generous ears he can turn to in this very dark time. One rider, a self-important officer, simply ignores the taxi-driver, and another group of riders, the 19th century Russian equivalent of a pack of drunken frat boys, insult him and slap him on his neck. The grieving man, who’s (of course, this being Russia, after all) poor and (double of course) freezing cold, ends up talking about his son’s death to the only thing that will listen.

It’s a really short story, but the ending manages to be horrific and tender and touching and funny in a dreadful way all at once. Have a look at the entire last graph:

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.

The mare’s warm breath thaws the taxi driver’s hands and he’s “carried away.”

This being Chekhov, the images and words resonate with perfect confluence at the end. He’s finally “carried” after spending all day carrying riders. The warm breath thaws the hands that hold the mare’s reigns; it also thaws his soul.

Again, I go down, this time to offer children’s granola bars, which is about all I can scrounge up to offer. This time, the large man first refuses, then, as I persist, accepts them as if embarrassed for me. He says, “Okay, we’ll take them,” and places them neatly on his toolbox.

I try to engage them in a little conversation, but they’ve been working for a while and want to be done. The smaller one either pretends not to understand my questions about cold Russian winters or actually doesn’t understand. When I leave, their magnificent smiles project all sorts of things at once: an aura of being one step ahead of the apocalypse, simultaneous reverence of and contempt for authority figures of any kind, the burden of a heavy nation’s cold and fiery soul intertwining with their own.

Finally, I hear a knock and trot down one more time. Soon I’m standing with my hand raised, as if hailing a cab, or maybe raising my hand in witness, feeling for the cool air. It comes, caressing the fingers still black with Chekhov’s ink. The confidence man smiles and nods and seems genuinely pleased I’m pleased.

Feeble offerings, my bread and water.  Will it prevent them from sometime pressing a remote button to activate the air conditioner’s secret turbo feature, which if pressed would drive me to a place that offers an idea of what it feels like to be really and truly bone trembling, spit-freezing, soul-squeezing, cigarettes-and-vodka-and-faith-no-longer-optional, Russian cold? Folks probably should visit such a place from time to time–maybe before or after doing something like overseeing the installation of air conditioning–to keep them honest.

June 5, 2008