Chapter 1. How Panikovski Broke The Treaty
You have to love pedestrians. Pedestrians make up the greater part of humanity. The best part, no less. Pedestrians created the world. It was they who built the cities, raised skyscrapers, laid sewage and water lines, paved the streets and lit them with electric lights. It was they who spread civilization throughout the world, invented movable type, thought up gunpowder, flung bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, introduced the safety razor, abolished the slave trade and established that soybeans can be used to prepare 114 tasty, nutritious dishes.
And when everything was ready, when our home planet had taken on a comparatively comfortable form, the drivers appeared.
We should note that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But drivers somehow instantly forgot about that. They started running over the peaceful, intelligent pedestrians. They took over the streets the pedestrians had created. The pavement doubled in width, the sidewalks narrowed to the size of a tobacco pouch, and pedestrians had to start pressing themselves against the walls of buildings in fear.
Pedestrians in the big city lead a martyr’s life. A kind of transportation ghetto has been created for them. They are only permitted to cross the streets at pedestrian crossings, that is, in precisely those places where traffic is the heaviest and where it is easiest to sever the hair by which a pedestrian’s life usually hangs.
In our expansive country, the ordinary automobile—designed by pedestrians for the transportation of goods and people—has taken on the terrifying outlines of a fratricidal missile. It mows down rows of union members and their families. And if a pedestrian somehow manages to escape from under the car’s silver nose, he is fined by police for violating the rules of the traffic catechesis.
And in general, the authority of the pedestrian has been rather severely shaken. Having given the world such notable persons as Horace, Boyle, Mariotte, Lobachevsky, Gutenberg, and Anatole France, he must now go the most undignified lengths simply to remind the world of his existence. Oh God, oh great God who does not actually exist, what have you brought the pedestrian to?
There he is, walking from Vladivostok to Moscow along the trans-Siberian roads, carrying a banner reading ‘We Will Improve the Lives of Textile Workers’ in one hand. A pair of spare “Uncle Vanya” rubber sandals and a tin teapot without a lid dangle from the stick he carries over his shoulder. This Soviet fitness enthusiast left Vladivostok in his youth and upon reaching the gates of Moscow in his twilight years will be run over by a heavy truck whose license plate number nobody will quite catch.
Or take another one, a European Mohican of the pedestrian movement, circumnavigating the globe by walking and rolling a barrel in front of him. He’d happily go without the barrel but then nobody would notice that he was truly a long-distance pedestrian, no newspaper would write a word about him. And so he must roll forth with his damned container which (For shame!) is emblazoned with a big yellow slogan praising the unsurpassed quality of Motorist’s Dream motor oil. Such is the degradation of the pedestrian.
And only in little Russian towns is the pedestrian still respected and loved. There he remains master of the streets, strolling carefree along the pavement and weaving across it in whatsoever direction he pleases.
The citizen wearing an officer’s cap with a white top, the kind mainly worn by summer park administrators and masters of ceremonies, doubtless belonged to this greater and better part of humanity. He moved along the streets of the town of Arbatov on foot, carrying a doctor’s small traveling bag and looking around with a condescending curiosity. It was clear that the town did not impress the pedestrian in the artistic cap.
He saw a dozen or so blue, yellow and pink-and-white bell towers; the balding American gold of the church cupolas jumped out at him.A flag snapped above an official building.
At the white gates of the tower of the provincial Kremlin, two severe old ladies were speaking in French, complaining about Soviet rule and reminiscing about their favorite daughters. A cold draft carried a vinous smell up from a church basement. Apparently that was where they kept the potatoes.
“Church of the potato Savior” said the pedestrian quietly.
Walking past a plywood arch with the freshly whitewashed slogan: “Greetings to the Fifth Regional Women and Girls’ Conference”, he found himself at the mouth of a long alley named Young Talents Boulevard.
“No,” he said with some disappointment, “This is not Rio de Janeiro, this is much worse.”
Single girls with open books in their hands were sitting on almost every bench along Young Talents Boulevard. Spotted shadows fell on the pages of the books, on the girls’ bare elbows, and on their touching bangs. There was a noticeable stir on the benches when the visitor entered the cool alley. The girls, hiding behind books by Gladkov, Eliza Ozheshko and Seifullina, darted bashful glances at the visitor. He strode past the agitated readers with a parade-like step and headed towards his destination - the ispolkom building.
Right then a coachman rode out from behind a corner. A man in a long-tailed peasant shirt was walking rapidly alongside him, holding on to the dusty, encrusted side of the carriage and waving a bulging folder with the word Musique stenciled on its side. He was heatedly explaining something to a man sitting in the carriage.The passenger, an elderly man whose nose hung like a banana, was holding a suitcase squeezed between his legs and shaking his fist from time to time at his interlocutor, thumb protruding outwards in a vulgar gesture. His engineer’s cap, its band shimmering with green upholsterer’s velvet, had tilted to one side in the heat of the argument. Both sides in this tug of war spoke the word “compensation” loudly and repeatedly. Soon other words became audible as well.
“You will answer for this, comrade Talmudovski!” yelled the man with the long shirttails, pushing the engineer’s fist away from his face.
“I’m telling you that not a single decent specialist would work for you under those conditions,” answered Talmudovski, trying to return his fist to its earlier position.
“Are you still going on about the compensation? I’m going to have to bring you up for extortion!”
“Screw the compensation! I’ll work for free!” yelled the engineer, tracing all manner of curves with his fist in his agitation. “I could retire altogether if I wanted to. Get out of here with your serfdom. You go on all over the place in print about ‘freedom, equality and brotherhood’, but you want to make me work in that rat hole.”
Here Talmudovski the engineer quickly opened his fist and began enumerating on his fingers:
“The rat hole apartment, the compensation, no theater... Coachman!
Take me to the train station!”
“Whoa!” squealed the long-tailed man, running fussily ahead to grab the horse by its bridle. “As secretary of the engineering and technical section... Kondrat Ivanovich! You’ll be leaving the factory without any specialists... for God’s sake... society won’t stand for this, engineer Talmudovski... I have a resolution here in my briefcase”
Spreading his legs apart, the section secretary began to rapidly untie the ribbons on the folder marked Musique.
This bit of carelessness decided the argument.
Seeing that the way was clear, Talmudovski stood up and yelled “To the railroad station!” at the top of his lungs.
“Where? Where?” stammered the secretary, trying to keep up. “You — you’re a deserter from the labor front!”
Sheets of onionskin paper with some kind of ‘whereas – therefore’ written on them flew out of the folder marked Musique.
Having observed this incident with interest, the visitor stood for a minute on the now abandoned square and then said in a tone of conviction:
“No, this is not Rio de Janeiro.”
A minute later he was already knocking at the ispolkom chairman’s door.
“What do you want?” asked the secretary seated at a desk by the door. “What business do you have with the chairman?”
The visitor was clearly well-versed in addressing the secretaries of government, commercial and social organizations. He didn’t try to claim that he had come on urgent official business.
“I’m on private business” he said dryly, not looking at the secretary, and pushed his head through the gap in the door.
“Can I come in?”
And without waiting for an answer he walked towards the desk.
“Good afternoon, sir, do you recognize me?”
The chairman, a dark-eyed man with a large head, was dressed in a blue coat and had his trousers tucked into a pair of high-heeled Skorohod boots. He took a rather distracted look at the visitor and announced that he did not recognize him.
“Really, you don’t? Most people say I look just like my father.”
“I look like my father, too” said the chairman impatiently. “What is it you want, Comrade?”
“It’s all a question of which father,” noted the visitor sorrowfully. “I am the son of Lieutenant Schmidt.”
The chairman grew embarrassed and got up. He vividly remembered the famous visage of the revolutionary lieutenant with the pale face and black cape, its bronze clasps shaped like a lion’s mouth. As he gathered his thoughts about what kind of question it would be appropriate to ask the son of the Black Sea hero, the visitor appraised the furniture in the office with the eyes of a discerning buyer.
Back in Tsarist times, places like this were furnished according to a certain system. There had developed a unique style of official furniture: flat wardrobes reaching up to the ceiling, wooden sofas with polished three-inch seats, tables on thick billiard legs and oak parapets to separate the Presence from the restless world outside. This style of furniture died out almost entirely after the Revolution, and the secret of its production was lost.People forgot how to furnish the rooms of their government officials, and objects that had hitherto been considered the inalienable province of the private apartment began to appear in government offices. Institutions began acquiring lawyer’s spring sofas with mirrored shelves for holding seven porcelain elephants of the kind that are supposed to bring luck, raised flatware holders, little bookcases, reclining leather invalids’ chairs and blue Japanese vases. Apart from the usual writing desk, the Arbatov ispolkom chairman’s office had been populated by two ottomans, upholstered in pink silk that had burst in places, a striped love seat, a silk screen with a picture of Fujiyama and a blossoming cherry tree on it, and a roughly hewn mirrored display case in the Slavic style.
“Ah, a ‘Hey, Slavs!’ display case,” thought the visitor. “Not going to get much here. No, this is not Rio de Janeiro”.
“It’s very good of you to come,” said the chairman at last. “I take it you came down from Moscow?”
“Yes, I’m passing through.” said the visitor, looking over the love seat and becoming more and more convinced that the ispolkom was in poor financial shape. He preferred ispolkoms with brand-new Swedish-style furniture from the Leningrad woodworkers’ cooperative.
The chairman wanted to ask why the lieutenant’s son had come to Arbatov, but to his own surprise, he gave a sad smile and said:
“We have some wonderful churches here.
We’ve even had people come down from Glavnauka, they’re going to do a restoration. Tell me, do you personally remember the mutiny on the battleship Ochakov?”
“Vaguely,” replied the visitor. “I was still very little at that heroic time. I was an infant.”
“Excuse me, what is your name?”
“Nikolai... Nikolai Schmidt.”
“And your patronymic?”
“Oh, how unpleasant!” thought the visitor, who didn’t know his own father’s name.
“Yes...” he went on, avoiding a direct answer. “Not many people remember the names of those heroes now.That’s the curse of NEP.All the enthusiasm is gone.I happen to have arrived in your town by complete accident. I had an unpleasant little incident in my travels. It left me penniless.”
The chairman was very happy at the change in topic.He thought it shameful to have forgotten the name of the hero of the Ochakov.
“Indeed,” he thought, looking at the hero’s inspired face, “I’m going soft here at work. Forgetting about great events.”
“What’s that? Penniless? That’s interesting.”
“Of course, I could ask a stranger,” said the visitor. “Anyone would give me money, but you understand how that might be awkward from the political point of view. The son of a revolutionary... and suddenly he’s asking for money from a private individual, a NEP-man...”
The lieutenant’s son’s voice broke with emotion on the last few words. The chairman listened to this new intonation with alarm. “What if he’s unstable?” he thought. “There’ll be no end of trouble.”
“You did very well not to ask a stranger,” said the confused chairman at last.
And here, quietly and without any pressure, the son of the Black Sea hero got down to business. He was asking for fifty rubles. The chairman, squeezed within the narrow confines of the city budget, could only offer eight rubles and three dinner vouchers to the “Stomach’s Former Friend” cooperative cafeteria.
The hero’s son put the vouchers and the money into the deep pocket of his well-worn dappled grey jacket and was about to get up from the pink ottoman when the sound of stomping came from behind the office door, followed by the secretary’s interdictory cry.
The door burst open and a new visitor appeared on the threshold.
“Who’s in charge here?” he asked, breathing heavily and running his wandering eyes over the room.
“Uh, I am.” said the chairman.
“Hello, chairman.” barked the new arrival, holding out a shovel-like hand. “Let me introduce myself. Lieutenant Schmidt’s son.”
“What?” asked the city head, his eyes widening.
“The son of the great, immortal hero Lieutenant Schmidt!” repeated the intruder.
“But that’s this comrade right there – this is Lieutenant Schmidt’s son, Nikolai Schmidt.”
And the chairman, completely taken aback, pointed at the first visitor, whose face had suddenly taken on a sleepy expression.
A ticklish moment now transpired in the lives of the two hucksters. The long and unpleasant sword of Nemesis might at any moment flash in the hands of the modest and gullible ispolkom chairman.
Fate was giving them only a second’s thought to come up with a winning combination. The eyes of Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son filled with terror.
This son was dressed in a summer Paraguay shirt, sailor’s trousers with flaps over the seams and bluish canvas shoes.
His figure, so rough and sharp-cornered just a moment ago, had begun to fade, losing its menacing contours and certainly no longer commanding any kind of respect. A nasty smile appeared on the chairman’s face.
And then, just as the lieutenant’s second son thought that all was lost, and that the furious anger of the chairman would rain down on his red head, salvation arrived from the pink ottoman.
“Vasya!” cried the Lieutenant’s first son, jumping to his feet. “My brother!
Don’t you recognize your brother Kolya?”
And the first son locked the second son in an embrace.
“Yes!” exclaimed Vasya, catching on. “I recognize my brother Kolya!”
The happy reunion was marked with such an excess of affection and an embrace of such unusual strength that the Black Sea revolutionary’s second son stepped away from it pale with pain. His brother Kolya had squeezed him rather hard in his joy.
As they embraced, the two brothers cast sidelong glances at the chairman, whose somewhat vinegary expression was not leaving his face. They had to develop their saving combination on the spot, supplementing it with period touches and previously unknown details of the 1905 sailors’ mutiny that had escaped Party historians.Holding each other by the hand, the brothers lowered themselves onto the love seat and, without taking their shining eyes from the chairman, plunged deep into reminiscence.
“What an amazingly surprising meeting!”
exclaimed the first son in a high falsetto, inviting the chairman with his eyes to join in on the family celebration.
“Yes,” said the chairman in a frosty voice.
“It happens, it happens.”
Seeing that the chairman was still gripped in the claws of doubt, the first son patted the second son’s hair, red as an Irish setter’s, and kindly asked:
“When did you arrive here from Mariupol, where you were living with our grandmother?”
“Yes, I was living there,” the lieutenant’s second son muttered, “with her.”
“Why didn’t you write more often?
I was very worried.”
“I was busy,” replied the redhead sullenly.And fearing that his indefatigable brother would right away want to know what had kept him busy (he had mainly been busy serving time in the correctional facilities of various autonomous Soviet republics), Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son seized the initiative and asked his own question:
“And why didn’t you write?”
“I wrote to you,” said his brother unexpectedly, feeling an unusual influx of mirth, “I sent you certified letters.
I even kept the receipts.”
And he reached into his side pocket, from where he indeed pulled out a large number of worn tickets, which for some reason instead of showing to his brother he showed to the ispolkom chairman, though from a distance.
Strange as it was, the sight of these papers soothed the chairman a bit, and the brothers began to reminisce with more zeal.The redheaded brother had completely come to terms with the situation and was able to coherently, albeit monotonously, recite the contents of the mass brochure “Mutiny on the Ochakov”. The brother ornamented his dry exposition with details that were colorful enough to make the chairman, who had begun to calm down, prick up his ears again.
But the chairman let the brothers depart in peace, and with considerable relief they ran out into the street.
Around the corner of the ispolkom building they stopped.
“By the way, about my childhood.” said the first son. “As a child I used to kill people like you on the spot. With a slingshot.”
“Why?” asked the famous father’s second son gaily.
“Those are the stern laws of life.
Or, to put it more briefly, life dictates to us its own stern laws. What were you doing barging into that office? Didn’t you see that the chairman wasn’t alone?”
“Oh, so you thought? You mean to say that sometimes you think? You are a thinker. What is your name, thinker? Spinoza?
Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Marcus Aurelius?”
The redheaded man stood silent, crushed under this just indictment.
“Well, I forgive you. Live your life. But let’s introduce ourselves. Like it or not, we’re brothers, and kinship compels us.My name is Ostap Bender.
Allow me to ask your original name.”
“Balaganov,” said the redhead. “Shura Balaganov.”
“I won’t ask your trade,” said Bender politely, “but I can guess. I assume it’s something intellectual? How many convictions this year?”
“Two,” admitted Balaganov freely.
“Now that’s not good. Why do you sell your immortal soul?A person should not go to court. That’s a despicable way to spend your time. I’m talking about theft.Leaving aside the fact that it’s a sin to steal — I’m sure your mother acquainted you with this doctrine in childhood —it’s also a pointless waste of energy and effort.”
Ostap would have gone on developing his life philosophy for some time if Balaganov hadn’t interrupted him.
“Look,” he said, pointing at the green depths of Young Talents Boulevard. “Do you see that man over there in the straw hat?”
“I see him,” said Ostap haughtily.
“And so what? Is he the governor of Borneo?”
“That’s Panikovski” said Shura. “Lieutenant Schmidt’s son.”
A somewhat elderly looking citizen was coming down the alley, tilting slightly to one side in the shade of the August lindens.A shaped straw hat with ragged edges lay askance across his head. His pants were short enough to expose the white ties of his long underwear. Under his mustache a gold tooth blazed like a cigarette.
“What, another son?” said Ostap. “This is starting to become amusing.”
Panikovski walked up to the ispolkom building, traced out a figure eight in front of it, deep in thought, then grabbed the sides of his hat with both hands, pulled it properly onto his head, plucked at his coat and headed inside with a heavy sigh.
“The lieutenant had three sons,” noted Bender.
“Two smart ones and a fool. We need to warn him.”
“No need” said Balaganov. “Let him find out what it means to violate the treaty a second time.”
“I’ll tell you in a moment. Look, he’s gone in!”
“I am an envious person” confessed Bender, “but there is nothing to envy here. Have you ever seen a bullfight? Let’s go watch.”
Lieutenant Schmidt’s newly befriended sons walked out from behind the corner and stood under the window of the chairman’s office.
The chairman was seated behind the cloudy, unwashed glass of the window. He was writing rapidly. Like all people who are writing, his expression was doleful. Suddenly he looked up.
The door opened, and Panikovski walked into the room. Holding his hat to his greasy coat, he stopped in front of the desk and moved his thick lips for a long time. After that the chairman jumped up in his chair and opened his mouth wide.The two friends heard a prolonged cry.
With the words “fall back”, Ostap pulled Balaganov after him. They ran to the boulevard and hid behind a tree.
“Take off your hats,” said Ostap.
“Bare your heads.They will now be bringing out the body.”
He was not mistaken. The peals and echoes of the chairman’s voice had not yet had a chance to die down when two massive employees appeared in the doorway of the ispolkom. They were carrying Panikovski. One held him by the arms, another by the legs.
“The ashes of the deceased,” commented Ostap, “were carried out in the arms of friends and relatives.”
The employees pulled Lieutenant Schmidt’s third, foolish son onto the wing and unhurriedly began swinging him back and forth.
Panikovski was silent, obediently looking at the blue sky.
“After a brief memorial service...” began Ostap.
Just then the employees, having imparted
sufficient momentum to Panikovski’s body, threw him out into the street.
“...the body was consigned to the earth,” finished Bender.
Panikovski splatted on the ground like a frog.
He quickly picked himself up and, tilting to one side more than before, ran down Young Talents Boulevard with unbelievable speed.
“All right, now tell me,” said Ostap “How did this lowlife violate the treaty, and what kind of treaty was it?”