“Where’s your friend?” asked the trainer. I shrugged.
“That’s okay, not a problem. The important thing is that he doesn’t miss training. He can miss a birthday.”
Ten of us were sitting in the trainer’s apartment: one in the armchair, others on the couch and on chairs. Yesterday was Volkov’s birthday and the trainer suggested we get together to celebrate. He said they always did that in his club.
We didn’t have training that Wednesday. The trainer met us at the bus stop by the Goods for Men store. We went in the grocery store and bought two cakes and two big canning jars of orange juice at the cafeteria. The trainer lived on the second floor of a building exactly like ours, also in a two-room apartment, only you had to walk through one room to get to the other. He had sent his wife and kid to the neighbor’s. “So they won’t disturb us,” he said.
I sat on a chair by the window, right under the open transom. Children were chirping like birds in the courtyard, climbing all over the parallel bars, and spreading last year’s dead grass all over the place.
“Boxing is really an interesting sport because it’s a spectacle,” said the trainer. “As it goes in sports, so it goes in life. If a guy is a weightlifter, this is how he how goes around in weightlifting.”
The trainer stood up, hunched his shoulders, let his arms hang down and took two big steps. “So he goes in life, so he goes to the store, so he goes everywhere else. A boxer, on the other hand, is always mobile. I would even say graceful. Do you know this word? Do you understand what it means?”
A few of the guys nodded. I took a piece of cake from my plate, had a bite, and sipped some juice, which was in a white cup with the wolf and the rabbit from I’ll Get You! on it.
“I remember one time at a competition,” continued the trainer. “It was the Belorussian Republic student championship. There were plenty of trained boxers who were studying at the various institutes, but there were also guys who were just students. They’d clearly never had any training. There was one guy from the teacher’s institute who competed. He was a fellow from out in the country, big and strong. His weight category was eighty-five kilograms. So anyway, when he got in the ring he didn’t know the stance or any- thing. His opponent circled him, jogged in place, got ready to throw a punch. Then, suddenly, this collective farmer takes a wide swing, just like in a country brawl, and beats the guy with one punch. It was a knockout. All the spectators were pissing themselves they were laughing so hard, although it isn’t always funny. I know a boxer named Vova Kriptovic who killed a guy in the ring once.”
“Did they send him to jail?” asked Litvinenko.
“No, and why would they? He didn’t violate any rules, did everything by the book. His opponent just turned out to have a weak heart. Generally speaking, boxing—and really, this is true of any sport—is always a benefit in life. I’m not talking about the obvious things like getting in a fight to defend a girl’s honor,” the trainer looked at us. “That stuff goes without saying. I’m talking about something else. For example, it made things much easier for me in the army. I graduated from the history department at the Teacher’s Institute. They didn’t have military classes there so they took me in the army after I already had my diploma. They sent me straight to Pechi, next to Borisov. Have you heard of Pechi? It’s a pretty crappy place to be stationed—the regimen there and everything else about it. Our wake-up call was at six o’clock in the morning. I had late classes at the university so I was used to waking up around ten. Anyhow, maybe some of you will have this opportunity.”
“Why weren’t you assigned to the sports unit?” asked Kostin, a short guy from the Mir-2 neighborhood.
“I have no idea how you get assigned to that one,” the trainer picked up his glass and sipped his juice. “But ultimately my situation wasn’t any worse. They recognized what a good boxer I was when I was still in Teacher’s. Right away the commander told me, let’s have you focused on training. Well, I trained, won first place in the unit, then first place in the division. At regionals I got second just as easily. Then that was it—from then until I was discharged, I never once held a gun in my hand or marched in formation—just training and competitions. They let me go home a lot too. The only orders the commander ever gave me were, buy me this in Mogilev, buy me that. But I didn’t waste my time looking all over for it—I just bought whatever shit I could find in GUM.”
“Did you hear about that girl who went to America?” asked Kostin. “Like, she wrote a letter to Reagan or something. A kid from America came here and then this one went over there.”
“Katya Lycheva?” I asked.
“I don’t care if her name was Lycheva or Gorbacheva, I would totally go to America,” he said.
“America probably wouldn’t turn anybody away,” said the trainer. “America is America.”
There was half an hour left before training. The gym was still closed, the cloakroom too.
“Let’s go inside the institute,” suggested Kuzmenok.
We walked up to the second floor, went in the first door, and stood on the balcony overlooking the gym. It was more than twice the size of the one where we had training. There was a real football goal with a net in it under the basketball hoop.
There were students running in the gym for their P. E. class. “I figure they must separate girls and guys for P. E. here,” said Kuzmenok.
“Yeah, I know. Natashka told me. Her class is separated too,” I said.
A tall, bald guy taught P.E. The students were all wearing shorts and t-shirts, different colors and fashions. Their breasts were bouncing around under their t-shirts as they ran.
“That one’s hot, you see her?” Kuzmenok pointed at one with a big chest and butt. “Would you fuck her?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Would you?”
“Me too. Who else?”
“That one,” I pointed. “And that one. And probably that one.”
The P. E. teacher instructed the girls to stop. The students turned their backs to us and started doing stretches. I could see the contours of their panties beneath their shorts.
“Now we will work on sparring,” said the trainer. “You, Kuzmenok, you’ll spar with Frolov.”
“Get ready to see a knockout,” Kuzmenok whispered to me. “I’m gonna smack him around like a little puppy.”
Frolov was short and compact, almost fat. I didn’t know which neighborhood he was from. He was almost always silent. He came to training alone and left alone, almost always, since the first time we went to practice. He wasn’t there for Volkov’s birthday.
Kuzmenok and Frolov punched each other with their gloves, separated to their corners, then touched gloves again. Kuzmenok threw a right uppercut. Frolov dodged it, threw a hook to Kuzmenok’s jaw, a cross to his stomach, and gave him a series of jabs.
Kuzmenok ran back to his corner, danced in place, ran at Frolov again, faked right, jabbed left, then left again. Frolov deflect- ed the blow and crossed to his gut. Kuzmenok gasped and stopped. Frolov punched him full force in the jaw. Kuzmenok crashed down to the oil cloth floor of the ring.
“Knockout!” yelled the guys.
Frolov crawled out of the ring. Somebody patted him on the back. Frolov didn’t smile. He wiped sweat from his brow with his glove, which tore open a pimple and spread a little drop of blood. Kuzmenok got up and crawled out of the ring on the other side.
“I guess he totally overpowered him,” the trainer looked at Frolov, then at Kuzmenok. “I didn’t intend for this to happen. I thought this bout would be an example of equally matched strength.
Alright, let’s have the next pair get up there.”
Kuzmenok and I went to the bus stop. He was still all red. One of his cheeks was swollen. “He got off easy,” Kuzmenok said. “That moron trainer had no right to say our match was over. I would have ended him.”
“He kicked your ass,” I said.
“What? He did not kick my ass, you got that? He just got off easy. And what, you think you kicked Skvortsov’s ass?”
“I never said I kicked his ass. He and I had a draw.”
“Ours was a draw, too.”
“Oh right, a draw,” I said.
“Okay, so what if he kicked my ass,” he said. “But don’t you be blabbing about this at school, alright?”
Mama and Papa were sitting in the kitchen eating sausage patties. Natasha wasn’t home.
“Has training been over long?” asked Mama.
“Forty minutes ago. I’ve been on my way home since then.”
“It’s best that you come straight home—rather than what you do, goofing around out there all evening. The result of that business is evident in your grade book. All threes and a zero in conduct for the week. I cannot fathom why he signed up for boxing,” she said to Papa.
“Boxing is a good idea,” said Papa. “A fellow must learn to stand up for himself. I support him on this one.”
“It’s fine so long as it doesn’t interrupt his studies. Only a few months left until the end of the year, and you have so many threes to fix.”
“I’ll fix them,” I said. “You don’t need to worry about that.”
“We’re not worried about anything. You’re the one who should be worried, that you’ll end up with threes this year.”
“I could care less.”
“Seriously? What would make you say that?” Mama said. “You could care less about your progress report?”
“Progress reports don’t mean anything. Natasha only got three fours and the rest fives, didn’t she? And then at the institute she got all threes.”
“This conversation isn’t about her, it’s about you.”
“Quiet, listen to what they’re saying!” Papa got up and turned up the radio.
“…an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station,” said the announcer. “There were two deaths as a result of the explosion at the second reactor, as well as a few isolated occurrences of back- ground radiation.”
The school’s parade formation walked down Peace Avenue, passed the school supply store, and the Enlightenment book- store and Sausages, crossed at the end of First of May, and came
out on Lenin Square. The portraits hung from the sixth floor of the House of Soviets: Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Engels’ head was very small and Lenin’s was very big. On the side with the portraits, starting on the second-to-last floor, there was red material draped from the windows. Below it, on the Lenin Square side, there were even more portraits. The first one on the right was Gorbachev, the rest I didn’t know.
Once Papa took me with him to a parade when I was little, but we didn’t stand with the formation from his factory, we just walked. One time we saw the GUM women’s brass band walking on First of May Street, all of them in yellow hats with black stripes, white shirts, blue skirts and yellow high-heeled boots. Their hairstyles were the only things different about them: some had ponytails, some were just long, and a few had theirs cut short.
Dolgobrodov said to Timur, “I called my sister in Dniepropetrovsk. She said there’s already a panic there because of the emergency at the power station. Supposedly it wasn’t just two men who died but several dozen and there’s serious nuclear contamination.”
“I was listening to Voice of America—on there they said the radio- active cloud is moving across Europe, meaning we might already be covered in it.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means that we really shouldn’t have gone outside today for the parade, especially with the school children. But everything’s always like this. We only ever have serious conversations about things like perestroika and democracy…”
“Alright, alright, you don’t need to yell about it. Especially around the pupils.”
“You think they don’t understand anything? They’re grown up enough to get it already.”
I woke up. It was slimy and wet inside my shorts. My dick was hard. I had been dreaming that I was sitting in the cloakroom with Shaturo and Voronkova and that I touched Voronkova’s breast. It was cloudy out the window. It had probably rained during the night. The rails on the balcony were wet. Drops were hanging from the antenna wires. Far away, behind the houses, a train passed through. The radio was playing in the kitchen:
Today is Victory Day
The scent of gunpowder
Permeates this holiday
With gray hair in our whiskers We will find joy
With tears in our eyes
It smelled like lilacs. There were bushes across from the work- shops. The little kids had picked branches with flowers on them and brought them inside the school. The flowers fell all over the floor in the hallway. Kuzmenok and I were sitting on the back steps. We were ditching geometry.
“There’s training today,” I said. “You going?”
“No way,” he said. “Fuck boxing. It’s bullshit. Some guys never do any boxing and they kick more ass than anybody. Are you going?”
“I don’t know.” “Wanna play Choo?”
I nodded and put my briefcase down on the steps.
“My shake,” he said. He gathered up both of our kopecks in his palm, covered them with his other palm and shook them a few times.
“Choo!” I said.
Kuzmenok opened his hands. Kopecks fell down on my briefcase. He picked up the coins that landed heads up, using the five-kopeck to knock the fifteen, turning it over from tails to heads. Then he put all the coins in his pocket.
“You cheated,” I said. “You helped yourself win with your fingers.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said. “I didn’t touch it with my fingers, it turned itself over.”
“You get the fuck out of here. You helped it with your fingers. You cheated the other time, too.”
“You’re the one who cheated. You can go fuck yourself, you got that?”
“You go fuck yourself. I don’t want to play with you anymore.”
“Like I want to play with you. Take your kopecks.”
“You mean the ones you took already?”
“Those are already done. I won them. You trying to say I cheated on those?”
“Wait a minute, how did you win those? You took yours and I took mine. Seriously, am I wrong?”
“Hell no. What’s played is played. All these are already mine. If you want you can take the ones that were yours from these.”
“Alright,” I said.
“My shake,” he said. I didn’t say anything but I wasn’t happy. The point of the game was to get as many coins heads up as you could, and the one who “shook” took all the coins that landed heads up. That guy also had first stab at trying to turn the ones that were left from tails to heads by knocking them with the big- gest coin.
Kuzmenok gathered up both of our kopecks in his hands and shook. He opened his hands and the kopecks fell down on my briefcase again. He picked up some coins and put them into his pocket, then he knocked the fifteen with a five-kopeck, trying to turn it over. When that didn’t work, he helped it turn over with his finger. He put the fifteen in his pocket as well.
“You cheated again,” I said. “I saw it all, you helped yourself win with your finger again.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said. “I didn’t touch it with my finger.”
“You get the fuck out of here. You helped it with your finger. You cheated the other time, too.”
“You’re the cheater, and go fuck yourself.”
“You go fuck yourself,” I said. “This game is over. You take your kopecks and I take mine.” I took my fifteen and two twos. Kuzmenok put all the rest in his pocket and walked over to the goal.
I went over to the horizontal bars, took off my jacket, hung by my hands from the biggest bar, and started doing pull-ups. One, two, three… Ten, eleven, twelve… That was all I could do. I jumped down from the bar.
I took the Komsomolskaya Pravda and the Prospective Worker magazine out of the mailbox. Natasha subscribed to Prospective Worker. Kondratevna from the second floor was coming up from below. Mama said she used to work at our school as the biology teacher before she got her pension but that was before my time.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello, little Igor. How are you doing? How are your future relatives?”
“What future relatives?”
“What relatives? You didn’t know?” she asked. “You didn’t know your Natasha is getting married?”
“No, I didn’t know,” I said.
“Are they really coming?” I asked Kuzmenok. We sat under the Worker’s bus stop shack, chewing on black sunflower seeds, and spitting the shells to the ground.
“They’re coming,” he said. “If I say they’re coming, it means they’re coming.”
“Won’t they be studying for exams? The eighth and tenth grades finished their classes yesterday so they could start studying.”
“What exams? Nobody in those grades studies for exams, even honor students. Everybody just goes for walks.”
“What should we do with them?”
“What do you think we should do with them? Walk around Worker’s, then go to somebody’s house and fuck. Is your place free?”
“That sucks. And my mama is at home. Maybe one of them will have a place to go.”
“They won’t do that. They won’t let us go all the way the first time. We hardly even know them.”
“You think they’re role models or something?”
“I don’t think anything,” I said.
“Anyway,” he said.
I looked at my watch. It was half past seven. Shaturo and Voronkova weren’t there. While we were sitting there, three #2 trolleybuses and two regular buses went past: a #64 “Mogilev-Selets” and a #1 “Green Meadow-Zalutsky Street”.
“They’re not coming,” I said. “If they aren’t here by now it means they aren’t coming.”
“I know that, I don’t need you to tell me!” Kuzmenok yelled at me.
“Why are you going all psycho on me? Like it was me who talked to them? Like I’m the one they told they’d meet us?”
“What difference does it make who they promised? I’m gonna have a talk with those bitches.”
“Yeah? And what are you gonna do to them?”
“Alright,” I said. “Now what should we do?”
“We can go downtown,” he said.
“I don’t know. We can walk around, maybe find some girls to hook up with.”
“You say that every time but we never hook up with anybody. You’re always too big of a pussy to go up to them.”
“You’re the one who’s a pussy, you got that? I feel like punching you in the face.”
“Whatever, fuck it, go where you want by yourself. Go downtown if you want, or go out to Buinichi village.” I got up from the bench and walked toward the school.
A trolleybus caught up with me on the other side of the cross- walk. Kuzmenok was sitting in the front seat. He wasn’t looking toward the side I was on. I turned toward the school and noticed Shaturo and Voronkova across from the general store. I waved. They stopped. I walked over to them.
“Hi,” I said. They both said “hi” to me. “Why didn’t you show up?” I asked them.
“Where?” said Shaturo. “Kuzmenok said—”
They looked at each other and cracked up.
“Why would we tell your friend Kuzmenok that?” said Voronkova. “He’s a moron and a freak.”
“Totally,” Shaturo scrunched up her nose. “You shouldn’t hang around so much with that idiot. It’s your own business, of course, but if you want a girlfriend—”
“You can walk around with whoever you want, just not with him,” said Voronkova.
“What were you doing, going for a walk?” I asked.
“You saw us. What did it look like we were doing?” Shaturo smiled. “Got any smokes?”
“You’ll share them with us, of course?”
“Let’s go somewhere. How about the kindergarten?”
“#51?” I asked.
“No, the one that’s by the store in Worker’s,” said Voronkova.
We sat down on the children’s carousel. I pushed off from the ground with my foot and the carousel went around, but not very fast. Shaturo inhaled then gave me the cigarette.
“What are you doing this summer?” she asked me.
“I still don’t know. Nothing really. You?”
“I’m going to stay with my auntie in Krivoi Rog,” said Voronkova. “That’s not very far from the sea. They take their Moskvich every year to the seaside. I went with them last year too.”
“And you?” I turned and looked at Shaturo.
She shrugged. An old Moskvich-401 drove down the street. A stray dog ran behind it barking. I stopped pushing. The carousel stopped.
It was raining. Thundering. Drops were streaking down the window glass. Natasha was at the table recopying some notes. I sat in the armchair flipping through the Prospective Worker. The radio was playing in the kitchen—Kuzmin and Pugacheva’s song “Two Stars”:
Two stars, two bright spots comprise
My love, like weightlessness.
“Is it true you’re getting married?” I asked.
“Who told you? Mama?”
“No, Kondratevna. Mama knows too?”
“What do you think, Kondratevna knows but Mama doesn’t?”
“No, but how am I supposed to know who knows? You didn’t say anything to me. You think I’m just a little kid, like I won’t understand any of it.”
“Nobody thinks that,” she said. “I don’t, at least. I was going to tell you when everybody else found out.”
“Who is he?”
“A guy from my class at the Institute. Zhenya Lutsevich. One of the army students.”
“What does that mean, army students?”
“He already completed his army service and now he’s going to the institute.”
“Why hasn’t he ever visited us? Lesha was with you all the time,” I said.
“He was serving in the Far East. Now he lives with his parents way out by the silicate factory,” she said.
Lightning flashed above the school.
I opened the last page of my grade book with the progress report for the quarter and grades for the year. I had three fives for the year: zoology, shop, and physics, and all the rest were fours. Kuzmenok hid his grade book right away—didn’t show me. But I knew exactly what he had: all threes except in P.E. and shop, and a two in algebra for the third quarter.
Kuzmenok took out a pack of Astras. He and I lit up. Fallen petals were scattered on the grass under the apple tree.
“I’m leaving for the countryside tomorrow,” said Kuzmenok.
“For how long?” I asked.
“All summer. Wanna go for a walk tonight?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Watch football. It’s the World Cup.”
“That’s not today, it’s tomorrow. Isn’t it?”
“I think it’s today,” I said.
Kids from the after school program were racing around on the playground asphalt. Or maybe the school’s summer camp was already going. Two teachers were gabbing nearby—a young one and an old one. The young one had a big, round butt and was wearing pink pants, the kind with the legs shaped like bananas.
From the door I could hear unfamiliar voices. I took off my sneakers and looked in the living room. A man, a lady, and a younger guy were sitting on the couch. Natasha was sitting in a chair, Mama next to her in the armchair. The football game had already started on television: USSR vs. France.
“We should get to know each other. This is our youngest, Igor,” said Mama. “And this is Zhenya, Natasha’s fiancé, and his parents, Olga Sergeevna and Anatoly Sergeevich.”
“Hello,” I said. Zhenya looked up from the screen, gave me a nod, and went back to watching football. His folks smiled.
“Hello, hello!” said the lady. The guy gave me a nod. Zhenya’s cheeks had acne scars, and his greasy hair was speckled with dan- druff. He was in plain gray pants and a white t-shirt that said “SPORT.” I sat in a free chair.
“What’s the score?” I asked.
“Nil-nil,” answered Zhenya.
“I really like Platini,” said his mama. “Everybody’s always talking about Maradona this, Maradona that. But then he never does anything spectacular. But Platini, well, he’s another story.”
“I don’t have one good thing to say about him,” his papa interrupted her. His voice was loud and harsh. “Our boys are gonna win for sure, and then you won’t be singing me the praises of that Frenchie Platini.”
“Alright, let’s change the subject,” said Zhenya’s mama. “I see you have a shelving unit too, the same one as ours. Only ours has the finished wood. But you were actually smart to get the unfin- ished one. Now that I see yours, I think the unfinished wood looks better. Don’t you think, Tolik? The finish on ours is so light, it looks like it’s all faded.”
“What are you harping on about?” Zhenya’s papa interrupted her again. “Now you’re obsessed with a shelving unit. We have business to discuss—where to have the wedding and when, and she’s going on about on about shelving units.”
“We don’t want to have a wedding,” said Natasha.
“You don’t want to have a wedding? I’m not understanding something here,” Zhenya’s papa said.
“We don’t like the way people always do weddings.”
“I am just not understanding something here. Have you completely lost your mind? Not have a wedding! What will people say? Have you thought this through? Zhenya is our only child. What will the neighbors say and all of our relatives? If they hear you got married without having a wedding?”
“Goal!” hollered Zhenya, slapping his palms on his knees.
“Serves those shitty Frenchies right,” said his father, smiling. “Who scored?”
“Why is everything football, football, football now?” said Zhenya’s mama. “Football is the least of our worries. They just said they’re not having a wedding.”
“Don’t even listen to them. We decide how it’s going to be. Isn’t that right?” Zhenya’s papa looked at Mama. “We’ll do what we have to do so as not to disgrace ourselves. We don’t need to have a hundred people of course, but fifty for sure—most likely at the Dnieper restaurant. I have a friend who works there.”
“Maybe we could let the kids decide for themselves,” Mama said.
“Decide what? About the wedding? Parents plan weddings and we’re the parents. That means it’s ours to decide. Whatever we decide will be just fine.”
The doorbell buzzed.
“That’s probably the father of the bride,” said Zhenya’s mama.
I got up, went to the entry, and opened the door without look- ing in the peephole. Uncle Zhora was standing in the doorway. It hadn’t been very long since he’d reconciled with Papa, and before that he hadn’t come over for more than a year.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“We have company,” I whispered.
“Zhenya’s parents. He’s Natasha’s fiancé.”
“Have I come at a bad time?”
“Of course not, everything’s fine.”
Uncle Zhora took off his sneakers and went in the living room.
“This is my brother Georgi,” said Mama.
“We thought it might finally be your husband,” Zhenya’s mama turned to the television. The French were hugging on the screen.
“What’s going on with football?” asked Uncle Zhora. “One-one,” I said. “The French just scored an equalizer.”
“That’s how it should be, really,” said Uncle Zhora. “The French have a stronger team than we do overall. Our national team is incapable of professional sportsmanship—categorically incapa- ble. They only step it up when they’re in the right mood.”
“How can you say such a thing?” said Zhenya’s papa. “Didn’t you see them play Hungary? The pounding our boys gave them there? Smacked them around like little puppies.”
“But that’s Hungary—you’ll agree with me they’re not a real team. I have to say my prognosis is pessimistic: our boys won’t go any further than the quarterfinals. They just can’t make it.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” said Zhenya’s papa. Everybody except Natasha was looking at the screen. Natasha was examining her fingernails. They were painted with red polish but the polish was starting to come off.
“So what are we going to do about the wedding?” asked Zhenya’s mama.
Vladimir Kozlov was born in 1972 in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. His fiction and nonfiction has been long-listed for awards in Russia such as the National Bestseller prize and the Big Book prize. In 2011 and 2012 he was nominated for GQ Russia’s Writer of the Year. English translations of his writing have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, AGNI, the Tin House Books anthology Rasskazy and Best European Fiction 2014. Recently he has been making independent films, including a groundbreaking documentary about the influential Siberian punk rock movement of the 1980s. The English edition of his novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was recently published by Fiction Advocate.
USSR is Andrea Gregovich’s “first book”. Her translations have appeared in a number of print and online journals, as well as several anthologies. Most recently, her translation of Mikhail Tarkovsky’s “Ice Flow” is the story for Russia in Best European Fiction 2015. In other parts of her life she homeschools her kids, blogs about the literary elements of professional wrestling, and is writing a book about her infamous cowboy grandfather called The Skeletons of Nicksville.