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Feature: Back From the USSR
Margarita Meklina

Procession of the Dead
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale

They entered Michael’s place – barely able to hold it in. Immediately into the bathroom – but there’s no toilet paper. In the kitchen, Michael’s longhaired brother Jimmy is puffing away on a joint. On the wall in the hallway – a black and white wedding, drunken guests, a business-like rabbi. The apartment is occupied by two quarreling brothers, and in the hallway – the insurance agent Mayer and asthmatic Ava, their father and mother.

Lively Jimmy takes down the dead portrait from the wall.

Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, Mission Street, Mexican neighborhood. They all pile out into the street; blind Susanna wearing a tall, pink cone hat, joyous, hopping and skipping, runs ahead. She steps on cardboard legs, bumps into someone’s horns, knocks off faces sinister masks painted with ashes from the fireplace, barrels into people. Irina tries to prop her up but Susanna, wiggling away, replies – “in the old days the blind walked without canes.” After them, strutting, stoned Jimmy, holding in his hands a photo of his dearly departed and a candle. Behind everyone, with a photograph of his prematurely deceased mother (cancer) – naked to the waist, grieving, intensely focused Michael.

Beating drums, marching down the street are people in black clothes, instead of heads – skulls. A young girl has stuck on her jacket a pin with a photograph of her murdered husband; another girl holding a frame in her hands – her mentally retarded son who died in infancy. An aromatic odor, a silent procession, the uninterrupted beating of drums, Irina, panting, gasping for breath. The procession finally reaches a cul-de-sac and she sees that an altar has been erected in the square.

Ira’s parents lived not far from the square. They were incredibly poor. A week ago, the father, offended that she refused him money for medications, flung at her a scathing “You cheap bitch.” But Igor, Ira’s husband, has been sitting around without work for several years now. Leaving the square, they again mingled with the crowd. Around them, skeletons were hopping up and down and baring their teeth. Igor said, “And so in advance we become accustomed to death.”

Ira was staring from side to side – the dead everywhere – and suddenly, surprised, she caught sight of her parents: they stood, festively dressed, on the corner, and her mother, laughing loudly, was pointing her finger at the crowd. Ira said, “They too will die.” The column passed, but the parents were left behind in their place, the father after ten years, the mother after eleven.

November 1, 2002


Refusing the Operation
Translated from the Russian by Mariya Gusev

“They open up the patient’s cranium and graft an electrode inside, and to that they attach a miniature video camera. This way, a blind person can see part of the object she is looking at. Just think about it, Suzanna said she would never in a million years agree to such an operation. Because she had already imagined what I look like – and after, she would have to ‘re-compose’ me, bit by bit!”

Mike’s finger circled one of the copper letters on a plaque attached to the wall of a white stone church:
“Here, instead of the whole word, she would have seen one meaningless character.”

“And what did she say to Fernando?” – I’ve never met Fernando, but I found out that yesterday, after chatting with a priest, the atheist Fernando closed his eyes and passed away in the hospital for the poor. The priest was introduced to him by a friend.

“What did blind Suzanna say to Fernando, when we visited him? Can you imagine? He had just barely turned twenty-two?!”

Fernando had come here with his family illegally from Mexico. His father, who stood in line at the workforce exchange center all day, beat him, and his mother was ill with cancer. Her illness had taken, together with her breast, the last of her strength. She couldn’t protect her son who barely two decades ago had sucked milk from her now dead breast.

“Suzanna told him that when he dies, his soul will leave his body and will fly to heaven like a bird.… And Fernando replied: how could you possibly know what birds look like? And then he fell silent. He just probably got tired of hearing nonsense – or figured that blind Suzanna was even more unhappy than he was, and decided not to destroy her blind illusions.

He was dying, and my brother kept vigil at his bedside, without taking a break. You probably know this: my brother was always so secretive that everyone thought he was asexual and autistic, but later it turned out that he was gay. Fernando was the only person to whom he had become attached. He supplied him with money and joints, and they never left the room from which drifted a scent of weed.

Two years ago, Fernando found out he had AIDS, and he could have lived for another several years, if he didn’t let everything slide. Because he was staying in the country illegally, my brother gave him his own medical card, and Fernando was using his name to get services at the city hospital. His treatments, according to his words, were causing him unbearable pain, and when refusing the treatment prescribed by his doctor, he told him during the appointment: “my life is fucked, I really want to die.” And this doctor, a very well-known doctor who was treating all the AIDS-patients in San Francisco, a doctor-activist who was praised in all the papers, this doctor exhausted by the huge workload and minuscule pay, had cautioned him: “If you don’t pay attention to what I’m telling you, you will kick the bucket for sure,” but Fernando simply stopped going to his appointments and instead lay in my brother’s room, contorted in pain. I doubt there were still sexual relations between the two of them, but I know that my brother loved him a lot. And when finally he decided to do something about his condition and appeared at the doctor’s office a week ago – rather, he was rolled into the office in a wheelchair, since by then he could no longer walk by himself and had developed not only immunodeficiency but also cancer, and inside his spine grew a clot, like a kombucha mushroom – this same doctor told him, cringing inelegantly: that’s it, this is the end.

Take your grandfather who was hit by a car, for example. He’s ninety. He’s salvaged something of his life, he survived, went on to learn English even. Or that group of school kids, crossing the road and laughing. Or the guy in the orange flip-flops. Immigrants in stiff new suits rushing to get to Sunday service. Or even you and I, we’re all right. But my brother is overcome with grief and needs to be persuaded, and to prove to others, that he is still alive.”

February 17, 2002


Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale

There were random meetings, in the gym, on the beach. Hawaii, A young man with a dog. Met in a chat room. Just imagine: invites me into his bed, and the dog is there. The sheets are covered with dog hair. Men are all scumbags.

So, for the first time in my life I meet a couple.

Before that, like navigator and pilot, one on one.

She’s a high-level businesswoman, he’s also a manager, they have a summer house, they have their own plane.

Had ourselves a nice stroll over the soft bed of fallen pine needles, very civilized, the house in the country tastefully decorated, paintings, I was ready to go home. For just a minute went into the bathroom, came out and they are already at it. So I joined in. We were bonking the whole night, well maybe just one break. Fell asleep deliciously.

I insinuated myself into their souls. They’re from Europe. And she … Well, I don’t even know how it happened. Hadn’t been with a woman in eleven years!

They invited me together to fly with them somewhere, to continue our acquaintance. I had plans to meet up with a friend, of course wanted very much to take off with them, but had to decline. What kind of a riddle is this? Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with them in the first place? Or is the point the exact opposite? As though someone was giving me a sign: it’s time to quit boys; after all, two gay men can’t start a family, right?

Should probably get married. Buy a house, have children, take care of business. From one side of it, just fooling around, get together, go separate ways, instinct, but on the other hand – man and woman, a tradition steeped in eternity, the children will keep us together. That I won’t stop running from man to man, that’s to be understood.

So just to get a taste of it, I’m with this couple.

I’m sitting on the beach, ringing them up on the cell, but it’s no use…. And it seemed we’re compatible: interests, temperaments …. so what’s the matter? She’s alluring, radiant, and he’s just exactly my kind of man.

Their lady neighbor returned my call. They died in an airplane crash. The odor of their bodies is still on my skin; his sperm is still in me, my sperm in her, but they no longer exist.



Charlatan Shambah
Translated from the Russian by David Rich

Michael Gershtein got me out of the Scientology organization where I worked, just after arriving in the U.S. without a penny in my pocket, sitting in a darkly lit basement on MacAllister Street. Michael approached me at the intersection of Stockton and Powell where I passed out flyers. He was a slovenly fellow with something greenish stuck in his beard, kept spitting, not realizing that slobber was accumulating like gauze in the corners of his mouth, and he stuttered and got stuck on each word, telling me that this organization was a conspiracy. Michael saved me – you see, they wanted to send me to El Cerrito, where all the members lived in barracks, wore militarized, navy-like uniforms and memorized the teachings of Hubbard. “If people try to get out,” Gershtein told me, as he fished out grease-stained Xerox copies from his battered backpack, all the while looking up at the sinister shine of a trembling evening moon over Frisco, “they add rat poison to their meals, rip them off and ring their apartments with a special wire to soften their brains.”

Michael said, “I know a preacher named Shambah who was a soccer player. He loved to run up and down the field! This is what he says: if the Devil follows you, stop and chase after him, threaten him!”
“Chase after him, do you hear me, chase after him,” grimaced Michael.

Day after day Michael listens to Shambah’s broadcasts; Michael reads Mein Kampf in German – “moi pizdostradania” (my cunt-suffering,) he tells me in broken Russian. “The Fuhrer. Don’t I look like the Fuhrer?” he asks me, shaking his head violently. We enter a store on Valencia, and he buys a dozen comics books: The Catholic Church is our Enemy, Dating God’s Way, Having Sex God’s Way. In a café he drops them on the floor and fussily starts picking them up, poking his antsy finger into the pictures. “Look! Look! You have to learn from God how to fuck! To fuck means to save! To save Suzanne! And I’m her savior!”

Suzanne is forty-seven-year-old Michael’s first girlfriend. “I sleep with her – this means that I’m saving her!” Michael is yelling. “Shambah touches severed arms! Shambah reaches out to sick heads! To Suzanne’s plastic eyes!”

Suzanne lives with her former husband, who takes her for walks, fastening a dog collar with a long leash on her. Blind Suzanne circles around her ex, not able to run away very far. When it’s time to return home, the ex-husband tugs on the leash and Suzanne, pulling up alongside, walks side by side with him.

“Shambah has touched Suzanne, but he couldn’t grow her new eyes,” Michael informs me.

Suzanne says, “All he talks about is Shambah. Who is this guy? I want to know everything about Shambah, because I want to know my Michael. He’s so beautiful, isn’t he?”

“Michael, and what about your sister and her Native American friend you introduced me to?” I ask, while Suzanne takes her guitar out of case.

“Her friend is dead – they found his body in a river not far from San Rafael; apparently, he had an argument with somebody and they stabbed him with a knife.”

“My sister couldn’t get along in San Francisco with our father; she used to live on the street and pick out things from the trash; she entered other people’s apartments without permission; she would take their belongings that were left lying around; now she wanders from shelter to shelter…”

Michael shows me his miniature computer, a Psion, which he bought dirt cheap. “I often write down my thoughts,” he says and from the screen I read what he just wrote:

“We are seeking God. We seek deep within ourselves, we descend into the depths and collect him piece by piece. We don’t need money to get into heaven. And waiting does not cost us anything either – we wait. And we fill this waiting with the accumulation of all the things that we can possibly buy.”

May 7, 2000



Margarita MeklinaMargarita Meklina is a bilingual essayist and fiction writer born in Leningrad and currently residing in San Francisco. In 2003, she was awarded the Andrei Bely prize for her collection of short stories, Battle at St. Petersburg. In 2009, she was awarded the Russian Prize, established by the Fund of the First President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, for her manuscript My Criminal Connection to Art. Her English-language articles have appeared in The Context (by Dalkey Archive), Words Without Borders, Quarterly Conversation, and many other publications. She co-authored the epistolary novel God na pravo perepiski with poet and essayist Arkadii Dragomoschenko (published in the U.S. under the title POP3) and is at work on a young adult novel in English. See Margarita Meklina at the Michael B. Kreps Memorial Readings in Boston College (video). See her prose in Russian here.

David Alan Rich is a researcher and scholar who lives and works in the Washington DC area. He is the author of The Tsar's colonels: Professionalism, strategy, and subversion in late Imperial Russia published by Harvard University Press.


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