Chapter 3. Your Gas — Our Ideas
A year before Panikovski broke the treaty by crossing over into someone else’s operating territory, the first automobile had appeared in the city of Arbatov. This automotive trailblazer was a driver named Kozlevich.
It was a decision to start a new life that had put him in front of the steering wheel. Adam Kozlevich’s former life had been a sinful one. He had consistently violated the Criminal Code of the RSFSR, specifically section 162-10, concerning questions of covert seizure of property (theft).
This section has many subsections; but the sinful Adam had no knowledge of Subsection A (theft perpetrated without the use of mechanical aids). He found this too primitive. Nor did he like Subsection D, with its penalties of up to five years’ incarceration. He preferred not to spend long periods in jail. And since he had been interested in technology ever since he was a boy, he gave himself up body and soul to Subsection B (covert seizure of property, perpetrated with the use of mechanical aids, repeatedly, or in collusion with other parties, at train stations, on steam vessels, in train cars or in hotels).
But Kozlevich was unlucky. They caught him when he used their beloved mechanical aids, and they caught him when he did not. They caught him at train stations, ports, on steam vessels and in hotels. They caught him in train cars. They even caught him when, in utter despair, he began seizing property in collusion with other parties.
After three years or so spent in these difficult circumstances, Adam Kozlevich arrived at the thought that it would be much more comfortable to occupy himself with the overt accumulation of his own property rather than the covert seizure of other people’s. This thought brought serenity into his stormy soul. He became a model prisoner, he wrote exposés in verse in the prison paper, The Sun Rises and Sets, and worked diligently in the prison’s mechanical workshop. The penitentiary system had a positive effect on him. Adam Kazimirovich Kozlevich - forty six years old, the son of peasants from the former Chenstohovskij province, single, repeatedly incarcerated - left prison an honest man.
After working for two years in a Moscow garage, he bought a second-hand automobile so old that its appearance on the market could only be explained by the auctioning off of an automotive museum. This rare exhibit was sold to Kozlevich for 190 rubles. For some reason the automobile was sold along with an artificial palm tree in a green flowerpot, which he had to buy as well. The palm was still in decent shape but the car gave him no end of trouble: he had to hunt for missing parts at various flea markets, patch the seats and rewire the electrical system. He gave the car a new lizard green paint job as a finishing touch. The car’s pedigree was unknown, but Adam Kazimirovich called it a “Lorraine-Dietrich”. As proof of this he affixed a copper plate with the Lorraine-Dietrich logo to the car radiator. All that remained was to try hiring the car out, something Kozlevich had long dreamed of doing.
The same day that Adam Kazimirovich first tried to drive his baby out into the world, out to the taxi stand, something happened that devastated the private drivers in Moscow: two hundred small black Renault motor taxis resembling Browning pistols arrived in the city. Kozlevich didn’t even try to compete with them. He put the palm in storage at the Versaille coachmen’s teahouse and drove off to find work in the provinces.
Arbatov pleased the driver with its total lack of automotive transport; he decided to stay there forever.
Adam Kazimirovich imagined himself working happily, busily and – most important - honestly in the field of car rental. He could imagine himself standing on call outside the station waiting for the Moscow train in the early Arctic morning. He saw himself wrapped up in a red leather coat, his aviator goggles pulled up onto his forehead, good-naturedly offering cigarettes to the baggage porters. The frozen coachmen would be huddling together somewhere behind him, crying from the cold and shaking their thick blue skirts. And here would come the fearful ring of the station bell. That would be the summons. The train had arrived. The passengers would step out on to the station platform and stop in front of the car with a satisfied grin. They wouldn’t be expecting the concept of automobiles for hire to have already penetrated into the backwater of Arbatov. And Kozlevich would rush his passengers to the Farmers’ Home, tooting his horn.
Work would keep him busy all day, everyone would be glad to make use of the services of the mechanical carriage. Kozlevich and his loyal Lorraine-Dietrich would be indispensable participants in every town wedding, excursion and celebration. But the summertime would bring him the most work. On Sundays entire families would drive out of town in Kozlevich’s car. The carefree sound of children’s laughter would ring out, the wind would yank at scarves and ribbons, the women would be babbling away happily, fathers would look with respect at the driver’s leather-clad back and ask him about the current situation of automobiles in the United States of America (was there any truth to the rumor that Ford bought himself a new car every day?).
That is how Kozlevich imagined his new miraculous life in Arbatov. But reality quickly demolished the castle in the sky that Adam Kazimirovich had built with his imagination, along with all of its little towers, drawbridges, weathervanes and its banner.
The first thing to let him down was the railroad schedule. Express and courier trains rode through Arbatov without stopping, picking up their signal batons and dropping off express mail on the run. Mixed trains would come through only twice a week. They brought rather unimportant people: petitioners and cobblers with their rucksacks, boot-trees and letters of complaint. As a rule, passengers from the mixed trains never used his car. There were no excursions or celebrations, and Kozlevich wasn’t invited to any of the weddings. People in Arbatov had grown used to hiring coachmen for wedding processions; the coachmen would plait paper roses and chrysanthemums into their horse’s manes, and this gave enormous pleasure to the fathers who rode them.
There were in fact many trips out of town. But they were nothing like what Adam Kazimirovich had fantasized about. There were no children, no flapping scarves, there was no happy babbling.
On the first night, four men walked up to Adam Kazimirovich in the dim kerosene lamplight. He had spent the entire day standing fruitlessly on the Spaso-Kooperativnaya square. They took a long, silent look into the automobile. Then one of them, a hunchback, asked with disbelief:
“Can all of us ride?”
“Of course,” replied Kozlevich, wondering at the skittishness of the Arbatov townspeople. “Five rubles an hour.”
The men whispered among themselves. The driver could hear a strange sighing and the words “Shall we take a ride after the meeting, comrades? Is that convenient? A ruble twenty five per person isn’t expensive. What’s not convenient about it?”
And for the first time the capacious car welcomed the people of Arbatov into its calico womb. The passengers rode in silence for several minutes, choked by the rapid movement, the hot smell of gasoline and the whistling wind. Then, haunted by a dim premonition, they quietly started to hum “Fast as the waves, the days of our lives”. Kozlevich put the car into third gear. The dusky outlines of the canned goods shop flickered by, and then the car jumped out into the field, onto the moonlit road.
“Every day our path to the tomb grows shorter” sang the passengers darkly. They were starting to feel sorry for themselves, feeling offended that they had never been students. They finished the song at full volume:
“We’ll have a shot, a little shot, trilim-bom-bom, tri-lim-bom-bom”
“Stop!” yelled the hunchback suddenly. “Go back! My soul is on fire!”
Back in town, the passengers picked up a number of white bottles and a broad-shouldered townswoman. Then they set up a tent out in the field, ate dinner, washed it down with vodka, and danced a coquette polka without any music.
Kozlevich spent the next day asleep at the wheel in his usual spot, exhausted by the night’s events. Towards evening the group of revelers from the night before showed up, already jolly, got in the car again and had themselves driven around town until dawn. The same thing happened the third day. Under the hunchback’s leadership, this happy company’s joyful feasts lasted for two weeks straight. The joys of motorization seemed to have a strange influence on Adam Kazimirovich’s clients: their faces would grow swollen and shine like pillows in the darkness. The hunchback, a hunk of sausage hanging from his mouth, resembled a zombie.
They would become fretful and sometimes weep in the heat of their celebration. One night, the bold hunchback brought a bag of rice over to the automobile on a horse cart. At dawn they drove the rice to a village, exchanged it for pervach-moonshine and did not return to town that day. They sat on haystacks and drank toasts of brotherhood with the peasants. At nightfall, they lit bonfires and cried with exceptional woe.
In the grey morning that followed, the Lineets railroad cooperative - where the hunchback served as director, and his happy comrades were members of the management and retail commission - closed for inventory. How bitter was the astonishment of the auditors when they were unable to find any flour, pepper, household soap, feed pails, textiles, or rice in the store. The shelves, cabinets, boxes and bins - everything had been stripped bare. All that remained was a giant pair of size 49 hunting boots with yellow cardboard soles standing in the middle of the room, stretching up towards the ceiling, along with a National cash register glimmering sadly in its glass booth, its nickel-plated feminine bosom spangled with multicolored buttons. A summons from the national inspector was sent to Kozlevich’s apartment; the driver was being called as a witness in the matter of the Lineets cooperative.
The hunchback and his friends were not seen again, and for three days the green car stood without any customers. Then a new group of passengers showed up under cover of darkness, much like the first ones had. They too started off with an innocent drive outside of town, but after only the first half kilometer the thought of vodka had already arisen among them. The people of Arbatov clearly couldn’t imagine how one might ride in an automobile without drinking. And they saw Kozlevich’s auto carriage as a nest of debauchery, where one was required to be boisterous, emit unnecessary yowls and just generally raise hell. Only now did Kozlevich understand why the men who walked past him in the daytime would at one another with an unpleasant smile.
Everything was going completely differently than Adam Kazimirovich had imagined. At night he would drive past the woods on the outskirts of town, headlights blazing, hearing the drunken commotion and the howls of his passengers behind him, and in the daytime, groggy with lack of sleep, he would sit in the prosecutor’s office and give his testimony as a witness. For some reason, when the residents of Arbatov raised hell, they always did it with money that belonged to the state, society and cooperative. Once again Kozlevich found himself plunged against his will into the abyss of the Criminal Code, into the world of Section Three, covering crimes committed in the exercise of official duties.
The trials began. And in each one of them the main witness for the prosecution was Adam Kazimirovich. His truthful testimony cut the legs out from under the accused, and they confessed to everything, suffocating in sobs and tears. He destroyed a great number of administrative agencies. His final victim was the subsidiary division of the regional cinema organization, which was shooting the historic film Stenka Razin and the Princess in Arbatov. The entire subsidiary was put away for six years, and the movie, now of solely judicial interest, was handed off to the museum of physical evidence that was already housing the hunting boots from the Lineets cooperative.
After that came the crash. People began to fear the green automobile like the plague. Citizens would walk far around the Spaso-Cooperative square where Kozlevich had set up his striped pole reading ‘automobile stand’. Adam did not earn a single kopek over the next several months and had to live from the savings he had amassed from the night trips.
Then he decided to make some sacrifices. He hung what he thought was an extremely alluring white sign reading “Let’s Go For A Ride! on the door of his automobile. And he lowered his price from five rubles an hour to three. But even then the townspeople did not change their tactics. The driver would ride slowly around town, pulling up next to offices and yelling in the windows:
“Such wonderful fresh air! What do you say we go for a ride?”
And the town officials would lean out into the street and yell back over the clattering of their Underwoods:
“Take yourself for a ride. Murderer!”
“Murderer? Why?” Kozlevich would ask, practically in tears.
“Murderer and that’s a fact,” they would answer, “You’ll drive us right over to the circuit court”
“If you would only ride for your own money” the driver would cry irascibly.
At these words the town officials would look at each other with amusement and close their windows. It seemed plain stupid to them to go riding in the car for their own money.
The operator of “Let’s Go For A Ride!” quarreled with the entire town. He would no longer bow to anyone, and he grew high-strung and mean. Catching sight of some civil servant in a long Caucasus shirt with balloon sleeves, he would ride up from behind and yell at him, laughing bitterly:
“Scoundrels! I’m going to take you right over to the show court! For article 109!”
The civil servant would start, indifferently adjust his belt with the silver buckle, the kind they usually use to decorate the bridles of cart horses, and pick up his pace, pretending that the shouting was not directed at him. But the vengeful Kozlevich would continue to ride along and tease his foe by monotonously reciting from his pocket copy of the criminal statutes:
“Appropriation by a civil servant of money, valuables or other property under his control as part of his official duties is punishable by...”
Here the frightened civil servant would break into a run, lifting up his flattened backside, squashed from prolonged sitting on the office stool.
“...is punishable by imprisonment,” Kozlevich would yell after him “for up to three years”
But all this only brought the driver moral satisfaction. His material situation was not good. His savings were running out. It was time to make some kind of decision. Things could not go on like this. Adam Kazimirovich was sitting in his car one day in this inflamed state of mind, looking with disgust at the stupid striped pole reading ‘automobile stand’. He realized with a feeling of sadness that honest living had failed him, that the automotive Messiah had arrived ahead of His time, and that the townspeople had not believed in Him. Kozlevich was too immersed in these sad reflections to notice the two young men who had been looking at his car for some time.
“That’s some original construction,” one of them said at last. “The dawn of the automobile. You see what you can make out of a simple Singer sewing machine, Balaganov? A few adjustments and you have yourself a gorgeous kolkhoz hay baler.”
“Go away” said Kozlevich sullenly.
“What do you mean, go away? Why is there an advertising placard saying ‘Let’s Go For A Ride!’ hanging on your threshing machine? What if my friend and I wanted to go on a business trip? What if we said let’s go for a ride?”
A smile appeared on the automotive martyr’s face for the first time since his arrival in Arbatov. He jumped out of his car and deftly wound up the motor, which knocked heavily.
“Jump in,” he said. “Where can I take you?”
“Nowhere, this time around” noted Balaganov. “We have no money. Nothing to do about it, comrade mechanic – we’re poor.”
“Get in anyway!” yelled Kozlevich in despair. “I’ll drive you for free. You promise you won’t drink? You won’t dance around naked in the moonlight? Then let’s go for a ride!”
“All right, we’ll take advantage of your hospitality,” said Ostap, sitting down next to the driver. “I see you have a fine personality. But what makes you think we might get it into our heads to start dancing around naked?”
“There are people like that here,” replied the driver, steering the car out onto the main road. “State criminals.”
He was pressed by the desire to share his woe with someone. Best of all, of course, would have been to talk about his sufferings with his gentle wrinkled mother. She would have understood. But Madame Kozlevich had died long ago from sorrow when she found out that her son Adam had become a notorious recidivist thief. And so the driver told his new passengers the entire story of the fall of the city of Arbatov, under the ruins of which his green automobile now wallowed.
“Where to now?” he finished with longing. “Where do I go?”
Ostap waited, gave his redheaded companion a meaningful look, and said “All your troubles stem from the fact that you are a truth seeker. You are simply a lamb, a failed Baptist. It’s sad to see such defeatist attitudes among drivers. You have an automobile and you don’t know where to go. We have a worse problem: we don’t have an automobile. But we do know where to go. Perhaps we could all go together?”
“Go where?” asked the driver.
“To Chernomorsk” said Ostap. “We have a small intimate little matter to take care of there. You’ll find work, too. They value antique objects in Chernomorsk and would be eager to go driving in them. Let’s go.”
At first Adam Kazimirovich only smiled, like a widow who can find no more joy in life. But Bender did not hold back on the colors. He sketched amazing vistas before the embarrassed driver and painted them in with blue and pink on the spot.
“You have nothing to lose in Arbatov except your spare chains. You won’t go hungry en route. I’ll make sure of that. Your gas - our ideas.”
Kozlevich stopped the car and, still resisting, said darkly:
“I’m low on gas.”
“Do you have enough for fifty kilometers?”
“I have enough for eighty.”
“Then everything is fine. I already told you that I have no lack of thoughts and ideas. Exactly sixty kilometers from here there will be a large metal drum of aviation fuel waiting by the side of the road . Do you like aviation fuel?”
“I do,” said Kozlevich shyly. Life suddenly seemed light and joyful to him. He wanted to go to Chernomorsk right away.
“And this drum,” continued Ostap, “You’ll get it completely free of charge. I’ll say more: They will beg you to accept that fuel.”
“What fuel?” whispered Balaganov. “What are you talking about?”
Ostap looked grandly at the orange freckles sprinkled across his stepbrother’s face, and replied just as quietly:
“People who do not read newspapers should be killed on the spot, out of moral obligation. I am letting you live only because I want to change the way you were raised.”
Ostap did not explain what connection there was between reading newspapers and the large drum of fuel that allegedly lay by the side of the road.
“I am declaring the major Arbatov-Chernomorsk speed run open” said Ostap triumphantly. “I am designating myself leader of the run. The driver of the car will be - what is your last name? Adam Kozlevich. Citizen Balaganov will serve as our race mechanic as well as rendering such additional services as we may need. Only mind now Kozlevich, we’ll have to paint over that “Let’s Go For A Ride!” sign. We don’t want any distinguishing marks.”
Two hours later, the car slowly rolled out of the garage, a fresh dark-green spot on its side, and took its last trip down the streets of Arbatov. Hope shone in Kozlevich’s eyes. Balaganov sat next to him. He was busily polishing copper parts with a rag, jealously fulfilling his new responsibilities as a race mechanic. The commander of the run sprawled on the red seat and looked at his new subordinates with pleasure.
“Adam!” he cried over the grinding of the engine. “What is this carriage called?”
“It’s a Lorraine-Dietrich,” replied Kozlevich.
“What kind of a name is that? A car, like a naval vessel, should have a name of its own. What sets your Lorraine Deitrich apart is its great speed and the noble beauty of its form. So I propose we christen this car the ‘Gnu-Antelope’. Any objections? Then the motion passes unanimously.”
The green Antelope, all of its parts creaking, raced along the outside lane of Young Talents Boulevard and flew out onto the market square.
There the occupants of the Antelope saw a strange sight. A man with a white goose under his arm was running, doubled over, towards the road from the square. He was pressing a hard straw hat to his head with his free hand. Behind him ran a large, yelling crowd. The running man turned frequently to look behind him, and one could see an expression of terror on his handsome actor’s face.
“That’s Panikovski running!” cried Balaganov.
“The second stage of goose theft,” noted Ostap coldly. “The third stage starts once the guilty party has been captured. It is accompanied by painful bruises.”
Panikovski could clearly tell that the third phase was approaching, since he was running as fast as he could. Out of fear he did not release the goose, and that elicited strong annoyance in his pursuers.
“Article one hundred sixteen” recited Kozlevich from memory. “Covert, or else open seizure of livestock from a workers’ agricultural or livestock production facility.”
Balaganov giggled. He was comforted by the thought that the treaty violator would receive his lawful punishment.
The car headed out onto the road, bisecting the boisterous crowd.
“Help!” yelled Panikovski, when the Antelope caught up to him.
“God will provide” said Balaganov, hanging over the side.
The car covered Panikovski in a cloud of raspberry-colored dust.
“Take me with you!” howled Panikovski with his last breath, running along the car. “I’m good”
The voices of the pursuers were merging into a general ill-willed howl.
“Should we take the swine?” asked Ostap.
“No need,” replied Balaganov cruelly. “That will show him what it means to break a treaty.”
But Ostap had already decided.
“Drop the bird!” he yelled at Panikovski, and turning to the driver he added “go slow.”
Panikovski complied immediately. The goose picked itself up off the ground disaffectedly, smoothed its feathers and then started back towards the town as if nothing had happened.
“Climb in,” offered Ostap. “And to hell with you. I’ll rip your arms out by the roots if you sin again.”
Panikovski, scissoring his legs, grabbed the chassis, lay on the side of the car on his stomach, pitched himself over into the car like a swimmer into a rowboat and fell to the bottom, his cuffs clattering. “Full speed ahead,” commanded Ostap. “The meeting continues.”
Balaganov squeezed the bulb and a series of old-fashioned, happy, truncated sounds flew out of the copper horn.
And the Gnu-Antelope leaped out into the wild fields, off to its meeting with the drum of aviation fuel.