Chapter 4. Just A Plain Old Suitcase
A hatless man with grey canvas trousers, a white collarless shirt, and leather sandals worn monk-style over his bare feet walked out of the low stairwell of #16 with his head bent low. Finding himself on a sidewalk lined with bluish stone plates, he stopped and said quietly “Today is Friday. That means I have to go to the station again”
The man in sandals turned around quickly as he said this. He felt like someone with an observer’s dull zinc face was standing behind his back . But Little Kasatelnaya street was completely deserted.
The June morning was just beginning to take form. The acacia trees trembled, dripping their cold leaden dew onto the flat stones below. The street birds were twittering away together in a happy cacophony.Down low behind the rooftops at the end of the street glimmered the molten, heavy sea. Young dogs looked around sorrowfully and clattered their claws as they tried to climb on trash cans. The hour of the groundskeepers had passed, but the hour of the milkmaids had not yet begun.
It was that interval between five and six o’clock when the groundskeepers have finished swinging their prickly stick brooms back and forth to their satisfaction and have all gone back to their sheds, and the city is as clean, quiet and bright as a national bank. At such a moment you want to cry and believe that fermented milk really is more nutritious and tastier than vodka; but already you can hear a distant thundering: the milkmaids with their milk pails are getting off the local trains. Soon they will launch themselves into the city and strike up their usual bickering with the housewives on their black stairwell platforms. Workers carrying lunch pails will appear for an instant and then be gone, swallowed up by the factory gates. Smoke will pour from the factory smokestacks Then a myriad of alarm clocks, leaping with anger, will flood nightstands with their three-tone ring (the “Pavel Bure” clocks a little quieter, the State Precision Machine Trust clocks a little louder), and Soviet civil servants will flash by, falling from their high maiden beds. The hour of the milkmaids will be over, and the hour of the civil servants will have begun.
But it was still early; the civil servants were still sleeping under their ficus plants. The man in sandals encountered almost no one as he crossed the length of the city. He walked under the acacia trees that served several social functions in Chernomorsk: some had blue postboxes with the agency crest (envelope and lightning bolt) hanging on them, others had tin tubs attached to their bases holding water for dogs.
The man in sandals arrived at the Primorski station just as the milkmaids were walking out of it. Knocking himself painfully several times against their iron shoulders, he made his way to the left luggage office and showed his receipt. The attendant looked at the receipt with the unnatural sternness that is unique to railroad workers and immediately ejected the ticketholder’s suitcase. The ticket holder in turn unbuttoned his leather wallet, took out a ten-kopek coin and lay it with a sigh on the baggage counter made of six old rails that innumerable elbows had polished.
Finding himself in front of of the station, the man in sandals put the suitcase down on the pavement and looked it over carefully from all sides, even touching its white briefcase lock with his hand. It was just a plain old suitcase, slapped together out of wood with artificial cloth glued onto it.
It was the kind of suitcase in which a younger passenger might keep a pair of ‘Sketch” athletic socks, two peasant shirts, a hair clip, a pair of underpants, a brochure entitled Tasks of the Komsomol in the Countryside and three squashed eggs. In the corner you would always find a little bundle of dirty linen wrapped in a copy of Economic Life. An older passenger would use this kind of suitcase like this to hold a three piece suit with a separate matching pair of pants made of the checkered material known as ‘Odessa Centennial’, a pair of suspenders on a metal roller, a pair of household slippers with little tongues, a bottle of triple-strength eau de Cologne and a white Marseille blanket. Here too there would be something in the corner wrapped in a copy of Economic Life. But instead of dirty linen it would be a pale, boiled chicken.
Satisfied with his quick once-over, the man in sandals lifted the suitcase and climbed onto a white tropical tramway car that took him across town, to the Eastern Station. Here his actions were exactly the inverse of those he had just completed at the Primorski Station. He checked his suitcase into storage and took a receipt from the mighty baggage attendant.
Having completed these strange contortions, the owner of the suitcase left the station just as the most exemplary civil servants were beginning to appear on the street. He blended into their ragged columns and his outfit lost all of its distinctiveness. The man in sandals was a civil servant, and nearly all the civil servants in Chenomorsk dressed in accordance with the same unwritten fashion: a nightshirt with sleeves rolled up above the elbow, light orphan’s pants, and a pair of those same kind of sandals or canvas slippers. No one wore a hat or a railway cap. Very rarely you might see an officer’s cap; most of the time you would see black curls standing on end, or even more frequently, a sunburned bald head, like a pumpkin in a patch, on which you would be very tempted to write a word of some kind with an indelible pencil.
The office where the man in sandals worked was called the Hercules and was located in a former hotel. A revolving glass door with copper steamboat railings shoved him out into the large pink marble vestibule.
The information desk was located in the grounded elevator. A laughing female face was already peering out from there. After running a few steps out of sheer momentum, the man stopped in front of an old doorman in a cap with a gold zigzag along its rim, and said in a jaunty voice:
“Well, old man, ready for the crematorium?”
“Oh yes sir,” replied the doorman, smiling joyfully, “Time to go to our Soviet columbarium!”
He even waved his arms. His kind face expressed a complete readiness to give himself over to a fiery burial that very minute.
A crematorium with a chamber for funereal urns – that is, a columbarium – was about to be built in Chernomorsk, and for some reason this innovation on the part of the cemetery subdepartment amused the city’s residents. Perhaps they found the new words—crematorium and columbarium—funny, or perhaps they were especially amused by the very thought that a person could be incinerated, like firewood, but they kept going up to old men and old women in tramways and on the streets and crying “Where are you rushing to, old lady? In a hurry to get to the crematorium?” Or “Let the old man through, he’s ready for the crematorium!” And the strange thing was that the old men and old women really liked the idea of a fiery burial, so that these merry little pranks met with their approval. And any kind of conversations about death, which up to now had been considered uncomfortable and unkind, had become as valued in Chernomorsk as jokes about Jewish and Caucasian life, and aroused a general interest.
Passing the naked marble girl with an electric torch in her upraised arm at the base of the staircase, the civil servant looked with dissatisfaction at a poster that read The Purge of the ‘Hercules’ is Beginning. Down With Cronyism and the Conspiracy of Silence!, and went up to the second floor. He worked in the financial accounting department. Fifteen minutes still remained until the start of the workday, but Saharkov, Dreyfus, Tezoimenitski, Muzykant, Chevazhevskaya, Kukushkind, Borisokhlebski and Lapidus the Younger were already at their places. They were not afraid of the purge at all, not at all, they would often assure one another, yet for some reason in recent days they had started arriving at work as early as they could. Taking advantage of the few minutes of free time they had, they spoke loudly amongst themselves. Their voices rang out in the enormous chamber, which in earlier times had served as the hotel restaurant. There were reminders of this on the carved oak caisson ceiling and on the painted walls, where naiads, dryads and meliæ tumbled with horrifying smiles.
“Did you hear the news, Koreiko?” Lapidus the Younger asked the man as he walked in. “Don’t tell me you didn’t. Well? You’ll be shocked”
“What news? Good morning, comrades!” said Koreiko. “Good morning, Anna Vasilyevna!”
“You can’t even imagine,” said Lapidus the Younger with satisfaction. “They put Bergala the accountant in the insane asylum.”
“What? Bergala? But he was the sanest man in the world!”
“He was sane until yesterday, but as of today he is the most insane,” said Borisokhlebski, joining the conversation. “That’s a fact. His brother-in-law called me. Bergala has a very serious mental illness, a disorder of the Achilles’ nerve”.
“It’s a wonder that we don’t all have disorders of that nerve” said the aged Kukushkind darkly, looking at his coworkers through nickel-plated oval glasses.
“Stop your crowing” said Chevazhevskaya. “Always having to bring people down.”
“Still, it’s too bad about Berlaga” said Dreyfus, turning to face the group on his adjustable stool.
The group was in silent agreement with Dreyfus. Only Lapidus the Younger smiled mysteriously. The conversation turned to the subject of the behavior of the mentally ill; they talked about maniacs, several anecdotes were recounted about famous insane people.
“I had a crazy uncle once” exclaimed Saharkov. “He thought he was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all at the same time! Just try to imagine the racket he made!”
“It’s a wonder,” said the elderly Kukushkind in a tinvoice, unhurriedly rubbing his glasses with the tail of his jacket. “It’s a wonder that we don’t all imagine ourselves to be Abraham,” - the old man sniffled – “Isaac...”
“And Jacob?” asked Saharkov teasingly.
“Yes! And Jacob!” squeaked Kukushkind suddenly. “And Jacob! Jacob is right! We’re living in such anxious times... Why, when I worked at the Sikomorskii and Cesarevich bank, there were no purges there.”
At the word ‘purge’ Lapidus the younger shuddered, took Koreiko by the arm and led him away to the enormous window with two Gothic knights overlaid in multicolored glass.
“You haven’t heard the most interesting thing about Berlaga yet,” he whispered. “Berlaga is as healthy as a horse.”
“What? You mean he’s not in an insane asylum?”
“Oh no, he’s in an asylum.” Lapidus smiled subtly.“That’s the whole trick: he was just frightened of the purge and decided to sit out the riskiest time. He pretended to be crazy. Now he’s probably chuckling and growling. That sly dogIt’s enough to make you jealous.”
“What’s the matter with him? Maybe his parents were the wrong kind of people? Merchants? Or a foreign element?”
“His parents weren’t quite right and neither is he; between you and me, he used to own a pharmacy. Who could have known there would be a revolution? People made do however they could, some owned pharmacies, some even owned factories. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Who could have known?”
“They should have known” said Koreiko coldly.
“That’s what I say,” Lapidus seconded quickly. “There’s no place for that kind in a Soviet office.”
And looking wide-eyed at Koreiko he went off to his desk.
The room had already filled with civil servants; elastic metal rulers were taken out of boxes, flashing with a herring-colored silver light, abacuses with boxwood beads, fat books ruled with pink and blue lines, and a multitude of other light and heavy bookkeeping equipment. Tezomenitski ripped yesterday’s square from the calendar - the new day had begun, and one of the civil servants was already sinking his young teeth into a long lamb-pate sandwich.
Koreiko too sat at his place. Resting his tanned elbows on the desk, he started making notes in the current accounts book.
Alexander Ivanovich Koreiko, one of the inconsequential civil servants of the “Hercules”, was a man suffering the very last pangs of youth - he was thirty eight years old. A pair of yellow wheaten eyebrows and white eyes sat on his waxy red face. His English moustache was also similar in color to ripe grain. His face would have seemed completely young if not for the thick corporal’s wrinkles running across his cheeks and neck. At work, Alexander Ivanovich behaved himself like a career soldier: he didn’t reason, he was hard-working, productive, ingratiating and somewhat dim-witted.
“He seems somehow timid” the head of the Finance Department would say about him. “There’s something too downtrodden about him, a little too subordinate. As soon as they announce a subscription to a state loan he’s there with his monthly salary. He signs up first - and the whole salary - forty six rubles. I’d like to know how he manages to live on that kind of money...”
Alexander Ivanovich had an amazing ability. He could instantly multiply and divide large three- and four-digit numbers in his head. But this did not free Koreiko from his reputation as a rather dull-witted guy.
“Listen, Alexander Ivanovich” - his neighbor would ask. “How much is eight hundred thirty six times four hundred twenty three?”
“Three hundred fifty three thousand six hundred twenty-eight,” Koreiko would
reply, after the tiniest moment ofhesitation.
And the neighbor wouldn’t check the result of the multiplication, since he knew that the dull-witted Koreiko never made a mistake.
“In his place another guy would make a career of it” said Saharkov, Dreyfus, Tezoimenitski, Muzykant, Chevazhevskaya, Borisokhlebski, Lapidus the Younger, the old fool Kukushkind, and even the accountant who had escaped to an insane asylum, Berlaga. “But this one - nada! He’ll earn forty six rubles his whole life”.
And of course Alexander Ivanovich’s coworkers, and even the head of the Finance Department himself, comrade Arnikov, and not only he, but even Serna Mikhailovna, the personal secretary of the head of all of Hercules, comrade Polyhaev - in a word, all of them would have been extremely surprised to find out that Alexander Ivanovich Koreiko, the most sedate of accountants, had only an hour before for some reason lugged a suitcase from one train station to another that contained not “Odessa Centennial” pants, not a pale chicken, not some kind of Tasks for the Komsomol in the Countryside, but ten million rubles in Soviet paper securities and foreign currency.
In 1915, the bourgeois Sasha Koreiko was a twenty three year old layabout of the kind who are in all justice called retired students. He had not graduated from a real institution of learning, he had not taken up any business, he wandered down boulevards and supplemented his diet by eating at his parents’. He was saved from military service by his uncle, a filing clerk for a military commander, and for that reason he could listen to the cries of the half-crazed newspaper vendor without fear:
“Latest telegrams! Our boys are attacking! Praise God! Many killed and wounded! Praise God!”
At that time Sasha Koreiko imagined the future like this: he would be walking along the street - and suddenly at the rainspout, sprinkled with zinc stars, that ran under the wall he would find a dark red leather wallet that creaked like a saddle. In the wallet would be a large sum of money, two thousand five hundred rubles... And from then on everything would be absolutely wonderful.
He so often imagined himself finding this money that he even knew exactly where it would happen. On Victory at Poltava street, in a paved corner formed by the outcropping of a building, next to the starry rain gutter. There it would be lying, the leather wallet, partially covered by dry acacia flowers, right next to a squashed cigarette butt. Sasha would go to Victory at Poltava Street every day, but, to his great astonishment, there was no wallet. He would rifle through trash with his gymnasium student’s riding crop and look dully at the enameled sign hanging from the gate—“Yu. M. Soloveiski, Tax Inspector”. And then Sasha would stagger home, throw himself on the red velvet sofa and dream about wealth, deafened by his pulse and the beating of his own heart. His pulse was weak, impatient, and angry.
The revolution of 1917 chased Koreiko off of his velvet sofa. He understood that this was his chance to become the happy heir to unknown rich people. He could sense that a great amount of unsupervised gold was there to be found across the entire country, valuables, gorgeous furniture, paintings and carpets, fur coats and plate. The important thing was to grab this wealth as quickly as possible, without missing a minute.
But back then he was still young and stupid. He took over a large apartment, whose owner had wisely departed on a French steamship to Constantinople, and lived there openly. For a whole week he grew into the departed merchant’s foreign wealthy lifestyle, washed down his ration of herring with muscat wine he found in the pantry, took various trinkets down to the bazaar and was more than a little surprised when they arrested him.
He left jail after serving five months. He did not give up his idea of becoming rich, but it was clear to him now that thiswould require secrecy, darkness and that it had to be done step by step. It was necessary to put on some kind of protective skin, and this came to Alexander Ivanovich in the form of high orange boots, cuffless short pants and a produce supply worker’s long military coat.
During that restless time everything made by human hands performed worse than it had before. Buildings no longer protected from the cold, food didn’t fill you up, electricity would only come on if there had been a big roundup of bandits and deserters, the water pipes only supplied water to the ground floor, and the tramways didn’t work at all. All the forces of nature had become malicious and dangerous: the winters were colder than they had been, the wind blew stronger, and a cold that used to send a person to bed for three days now took those same three days to kill him. Young people with no discernible occupation wandered the streets in groups, singing carefree songs about money that had lost its value:
“I run down to the cafeteria, Not a kopek to my name, Can you break ten million fooor mee”
Alexander Ivanovich watched anxiously as the money that he amassed with such great slyness turned to nothing.
Typhus was killing people off by the thousands. Sasha trafficked in medicine he had stolen from a warehouse. He earned five hundred million on typhus, but a month later inflation had turned that into five million. He earned a billion on sugar. Inflation turned that money to dust.
One of his most successful bits of business during that time had been stealing a running supply train headed for the Volga. Koreiko was in charge of the train. The train left Poltava headed for Samara, but it never reached Samara, and it didn’t return to Poltava. It disappeared without a trace along the way. And Alexander Ivanovich disappeared along with it.