Chapter 7. The Sweet Yoke of Fame
The rally commander, car driver, trip mechanic and general-purpose servant were all feeling wonderful.
It was a cool morning. A pale sun was wandering around in the pearl sky. Little bird rabble in the grass were squawking.
The roadside birds called “little shepherds” were crossing the road right under the very wheels of the automobile. Such vivacious odors poured forth from the steppe horizons [...snip...]
But Ostap and his fellow travelers were far removed from any poetic undertakings. They had now been racing ahead of the auto rally for an entire day and night. They had been welcomed with music and speeches. Children had beaten their drums for them. Adults had fed them dinners and suppers, supplied them with pre-prepared auto parts, and in one settlement had even lifted up bread and salt on a hewn oak slab covered in a towel embroidered with little crosses 1. The bread and salt lay on the bottom of the car, between Panikovski’s feet. He had kept pinching pieces off of the loaf until he finally made a little mousehole in it. After this the fastidious Ostap threw the bread and salt out into the road. The crew of the Antelope had spent the night in a little village surrounded by the attentions of the village workers’ collective. They had taken away a large jug of baked milk and the sweet memory of the cologne-like smell of the hay where they had slept.
“Milk and hay,” said Ostap at sunrise, as the Antelope was leaving the village. “What could be better? You always think to yourself: ‘I can do this again. There will still be a lot more milk and hay in my life’. But the truth is, you will never have it again. So be aware: this was the best night of our lives, my unfortunate friends. And you didn't even notice it.”
Bender’s fellow travelers looked at him with respect. They were in ecstasy at the easy life opening before them.
“It’s good to be alive!” said Balaganov. “Here we are, we’re riding along, we’re well-fed. Maybe happiness is waiting for us…”.
“Are you firmly convinced of that?” asked Ostap. “Happiness is waiting for you by the side of the road? Maybe she's even flapping her little wings out of impatience? ‘Where is Admiral Balaganov?’ she’s saying. You're crazy, Balaganov! Happiness waits for no one. She roams around the country in her long white robes, singing the children’s song: “Ah, America, what a country, there they play and drink without a zakuska”. But this naïve little child has to be lured, you have to please her, you have to court her. And you, Balaganov, are not going to have a romance with this child. You are a scarecrow. Look at yourself! A man dressed like you will never achieve happiness. In fact, the whole crew of the Antelope is outfitted repugnantly. I am amazed that we’re still able to pass for participants in the auto rally!
Ostap looked at his fellow travelers with pity and went on:
“Panikovski’s hat embarrasses me extremely. He’s dressed with a provocative degree of luxury. That valuable tooth, the ribbon ties on his long underwear, the hairy chest underneath his tie… You need to dress more plainly, Panikovski! You are a respected elder. You need a black frock and a beaver hat. Balaganov will look good in a checked cowboy shirt and leather gaiters. It will immediately make him look like a student who practices physical culture. Right now he looks like a merchant marine sailor who’s been discharged for drunkenness. I won’t say anything about our respected driver. Difficult experiences sent by Fate have prevented him from dressing in a way befitting his occupation. Can’t you see how well a leather coverall and chrome-tanned black cap would suit that inspired, slightly oil-stained face of his? No doubt about it, kids, you need to get yourselves equipped.”
“There’s no money,” said Kozlevich, turning around.
“The driver is right,” said Ostap graciously. “There is indeed no money. There aren’t any of those little metallic disks that I love so much.” The Gnu-Antelope slid down a hill. The fields continued to roll slowly past both sides of the car. A large red owl was sitting right by the road, tilting its head to the side and dumbly widening its yellow, unseeing eyes. Frightened by the creaking of the Antelope, the bird spread its wings, flew up above the car and soon flew off on its dull owlish business. Nothing else worthy of attention happened on the road.
“Look!” Balaganov cried suddenly. “An automobile!”
As a precaution, Ostap ordered the banner entreating citizens to strike a blow against bumbling with the auto rally taken down. While Panikovski carried out the order, the Antelope approached the other car.
A roofed-over, slightly listing grey Cadillac stood by the side of the road. The central Russian landscape as reflected in its fat polished headlights looked cleaner and more beautiful than it was in reality. The kneeling driver was taking the hubcap off the front wheel. Three figures in sand-colored traveling cloaks hovered anxiously above him.
“Have you run aground?” asked Ostap, politely lifting his cap.
The driver lifted his tense face and without answering immersed himself back in his work.
The crew of the Antelope got out of their green jalopy. Kozlevich walked around the marvelous car a few times, sighing with envy, then squatted down next to the driver and quickly struck up a technical conversation. Panikovski and Balaganov looked at the passengers with childlike curiosity. Two of them had a very high-and-mighty foreign look. The third, judging by the intoxicating galoshes-like smell emanating from his State rubber company overcoat, was a countryman.
“Have you run aground?” repeated Ostap, delicately sidling up towards the countryman's rubber shoulder while fixing his thoughtful gaze on the foreigners.
The countryman irritatedly said something about a broken axle, but this muttering flew right by Ostap’s ears. Right here on a main road, a hundred thirty kilometers from the nearest regional center, smack in the middle of European Russia, two fat little foreign ducklings were playing next to their automobile. This agitated the Great Combinator.
“Tell me,” he said, “Are these two by any chance from Rio de Janeiro?”
“No,” replied the countryman. “They’re from Chicago. And I’m a translator from Inturist.”2
“What are they doing here, at a crossroads, in a wild country field, far from Moscow, far from the Red Poppies ballet, far from the antiquarian stores and from that famous Repin painting entitled Ivan the Terrible Murders His Son? I don’t understand! Why did you bring them out here?”
“They can go to hell!” said the translator bitterly. “This is the third day we’ve been racing from village to village like we're on fire. They’ve completely worn me out. I’ve had to deal with a lot of foreigners before, but I've never seen ones like these.” And he waved his hand in the direction of his florid companions.
“Tourists are tourists, they run around Moscow, they buy wooden goblets in crafts stores. But these two have wandered off. They've started driving around from village to village.”
“That is laudable,” said Ostap, “The broad mass of billionaires acquainting themselves with life in the new Soviet countryside.”
The citizens of the city of Chicago were somberly observing the repair of their automobile. They were wearing silvery hats, frozen starched collars and dull red boots.
The translator looked at Ostap with displeasure and exclaimed:
“What do you mean! As if they needed a new countryside. What they need is country moonshine, not a new countryside!”
At the word ‘moonshine’, which the translator pronounced with emphasis, the gentlemen looked around uneasily and moved closer to the two speakers.
“You see!” said the interpreter. “They can’t listen to that word in peace.”
“Yes. There is some kind of secret here,” said Ostap, “Or some perversion of taste. I don’t understand how you can like moonshine when our homeland offers such a wide selection of noble distilled spirits.”
“It’s all much simpler than it seems,” said the interpreter. “They’re searching for a good moonshine recipe.”
“Ah, of course!” cried Ostap. “They’re under Prohibition, after all. It all makes sense… Have they found a recipe yet? They haven’t? Well, of course not. Why don’t you try coming in three automobiles next time! Of course people are going to think you’re officials. I dare say you're not going to find a recipe.” The interpreter started complaining about the foreigners:
“Would you believe that they’ve started hounding me: tell them, tell them the secret of making moonshine. And I’m not a moonshiner. I am a member of the education workers’ union. I have an elderly mama in Moscow.”
“Ah. And you’d very much like to go back to Moscow? To your mama?” The interpreter sighed sorrowfully.
“In that case, the meeting continues,” said Bender. “How much will your bosses give you for the recipe? A hundred and fifty?”
“They’ll give two hundred,” whispered the interpreter, “But do you really have a recipe?”
“I will dictate it to you right now, right after I receive the money. What kind do you want? Potato, grain, apricot, barley, mulberry, buckwheat kasha? You can even make moonshine from an ordinary footstool. Some people like footstool vodka. Or you could make a simple raisin or plum vodka. In a word, any one of the hundred and fifty moonshines that I know the recipe for.
Ostap was introduced to the Americans. Politely raised hats swam in the air for a long time. Then they got down to business.
The Americans chose the wheat moonshine, which attracted them with the simplicity of its preparation. They spent a long time writing the recipe in their notebooks. As a free bonus, Ostap advised the American travelers how best to build an office moonshine apparatus that could be easily hidden from prying eyes in the base of a writing desk. The travelers assured Ostap that, using American technology, the preparation of such an apparatus would not present the slightest difficulty. On his end, Ostap assured the Americans that the apparatus of his construction would produce one bucket a day of delicious, aromatic pervach.
“Oh!” cried the Americans. They had heard this word before in the home of a respected family back in Chicago. The ‘pervatsch’ had been given wonderful references. The head of this family had in his time been a member of the American occupation force in Arkhangelsk3, where he had drunk “pervatsch”, and he had never been able to forget the bewitching sensations that had accompanied the experience.
The coarse word pervach sounded gentle and beguiling in the mouths of the enlivened tourists.
The Americans happily handed over the two hundred rubles and spent a long time shaking Bender’s hand. Panikovski and Balaganov also got to give a farewell handshake to the citizens of the Prohibition-tormented transatlantic republic. The interpreter kissed Ostap on his hard cheek out of sheer joy and asked him to come visit, adding that his elderly mama would be very happy. Yet he somehow neglected to leave his address.
The newly befriended companions got into their respective cars. Kozlevich played his Brazilian two-step in farewell, and to this happy sound the two automobiles flew off in opposite directions.
“You see,” said Ostap, after the American car had disappeared in the dust, “Everything happened like I said it would. We were driving along. Money was laying in the road. And I picked it up. Look, it didn’t even get dusty.” And he crinkled the pack of bills.
“Speaking personally, there is nothing to be boastful about, it was a trivial combination. But tidiness, honesty – those are what really matter. Two hundred rubles. In five minutes. And not only did I not break any law, but I even did something nice. I provided the crew of the Antelope with its monetary needs. I returned a firstborn son to his elderly mama. And I slaked the spiritual thirst of the citizens of a country with which, for better or worse, we maintain trade ties.
It was getting close to dinnertime. Ostap immersed himself in the rally map that he had torn out of an automotive journal, and announced the distance to the town of Luchansk.
“A very small town,” said Bender. “That’s bad. The smaller the town, the longer the welcoming speeches. For that reason we’ll ask the kind town fathers to serve us dinner as the first course, and speeches for the second. During the intermission I will supply you with your material needs. Panikovski? You are starting to forget your duties. Put the banner up where it was before.”
Kozlevich, by now proficient in triumphal finishes, nimbly set the car down directly in front of the reviewing stand. Here Bender limited himself to a brief greeting. It was agreed to move the celebration back by two hours. After fortifying themselves with a free dinner, the motorists headed towards the ready-made clothing store in the happiest of moods. The Antelopes bore the sweet yoke of fame that had fallen on them with dignity. They walked down the center of the street, holding each other by the hand and rocking like sailors in a foreign port. The red-haired Balaganov, who in fact looked like a young bosun, even struck up a naval tune.
The store called “Men’s, Women’s and Children’s Clothing” was located under an enormous hanging sign that took up an entire two-story building. The sign had dozens of people painted on it: yellow-faced men with thin moustaches in overcoats with their polecat-fur lapels turned up, ladies with muftis in their hands, short-legged children in little sailor suits, Komsomol girls wearing red headscarves, and gloomy factory bosses sunk to their hips in felt boots.
All of this magnificence shattered against the small piece of paper glued to the entrance door of the store:
“Feh, how rude,” said Ostap as he entered. “You can see right away we're in the provinces. If they had written ‘No Trousers’, like they do in Moscow, it would be noble and decent. Citizens could return contentedly to their homes.
The motorists did not tarry long in the store. For Balaganov they found a cowboy shirt in a broad canary check and a Stetson hat with little holes in it. Kozlevich had to content himself with the promised chrome-tanned cap and an army jacket of the same type that glittered like pressed caviar. They had a hard time with Panikovski. The pastoral long-tailed coat and soft hat with which Bender had intended to ennoble the treaty violator's appearance were ruled out immediately. The store could only offer a fireman’s outfit: a coat with golden pumps sewn on the shoulder tabs, a pair of hairy half-woolen trousers and an officer’s cap with a blue bill. Panikovski spent a long time hopping in front of the wavy mirror.
“I don’t understand,” said Ostap, “Why don’t you like the fireman’s outfit? It’s still better than that exiled king's costume you’re wearing now. Come on, turn around, let’s see you from the back. Fantastic! I’ll tell you honestly. This looks better on you than the frock and hat I had planned for you.” They walked out into the street in their new ensembles.
“I need a tuxedo,” said Ostap. “But there is no tuxedo here. We’ll have to wait for better times.”
Ostap opened the celebration in an elevated mood, not suspecting what kind of storm was bearing down on the passengers of the Antelope. He was witty, recounted amusing anecdotes from the road and told Jewish jokes, completely winning over the crowd. He devoted the end of his speech to addressing the long-overdue automobile problem.
“The automobile,” he exclaimed in a booming voice, “is not a luxury…”
Just then he saw the chairman of the welcoming commission take a telegram out of the hands of a little boy who had run up to the stand.
As he spoke the words: “...not a luxury, but a means of transport,” Ostap leaned to the left and looked over the chairman’s shoulder at the telegraph form. What he read stunned him. His mind instantly registered the series of villages and towns where the Antelope had made use of other people's means and materials.
The chairman was still moving his moustache, trying to penetrate into the contents of the dispatch, when Ostap jumped from the reviewing stand in mid-word and began tearing his way through the crowd. The Antelope glowed green in the intersection. Fortunately the passengers were sitting in their seats and waiting, bored, for the moment when Ostap would direct them to drag the town's offerings into the car. This usually happened at the end of the celebration.
At last the import of the telegram got through to the chairman.
“They're crooks!” he yelled in a martyr’s voice. He had slaved all night over the composition of his welcoming speech and now his authorial pride was wounded.
“Boys! Grab them!”
The chairman’s shout reached the ears of the Antelope’s crew. They began nervously fussing about. Kozlevich wound the motor and in one swoop flew up onto his seat. The car leapt forward without waiting for Ostap. In their haste the crew of the Antelope didn’t even realize that they were leaving their commander in danger.
“Stop!” yelled Ostap, making gigantic bounds. “When I catch you you’re all fired!”
“Stop!” yelled the chairman.
“Stop, you idiot!” Balaganov yelled at Kozlevich. “Don’t you see – we’ve lost the chief!”
Adam Kazimirovich pressed the brake and the Antelope stopped with a screech. The commander tumbled into the car with the desperate shout: “Full speed ahead!” Despite his many-sided and unflappable nature he couldn’t stand a physical reckoning. The delirious Kozlevich shifted to third gear, the car tore forward and Balaganov fell out of the open door. All this happened in an instant. While Kozlevich was braking again, the shadow of the running crowd was already falling on Balaganov. The very healthiest of thick hands had already begun extending towards him when the Antelope arrived in reverse and the commander’s iron hand grabbed him by the cowboy shirt.
“Flank speed!” howled Ostap. And here the inhabitants of Luchansk first truly understood the superiority of mechanical transport over animal-drawn transport. The car sped off, every part of it clattering, carrying the four lawbreakers away from their deserved punishment.
The crooks breathed heavily for the first kilometer. Balaganov, who valued his beauty, was looking in a pocket mirror at the raspberry-colored scratches he had received in his fall. Panikovski was shaking in his fireman’s costume. He was afraid of the commander’s wrath. And it came quickly.
“Were you the one who spurred the car on before I had time to get in?” asked the commander menacingly.
“Oh Lord…” began Panikovski.
“No, no, don’t try to deny it! This is your doing. So you’re a coward, too, on top of everything else? I’ve fallen into company of a thief and a coward? Fine! I am demoting you. Up to now I considered you a fire chief. But from now on – you’re just an ordinary fireman.”
And Ostap triumphantly tore the golden stripes off of Panikovski’s red shoulders.
This procedure completed, Ostap acquainted his companions with the contents of the telegram.
“Things are bad. The telegram directs everyone to stop a green car racing ahead of the auto rally. We need to turn off to the side somewhere right now. We have had enough triumphs, palm branches and cheap free dinners. The idea has spent itself. The only place we can turn off is the Gryazhskoe road. But that’s still three hours’ drive away. I am sure they’re already preparing a warm welcome for us in every nearby population center. That cursed telegraph has stuck its poles and wires everywhere.
The commander was not mistaken.
Further along lay a small town whose name the Antelope crew never learned, but which they would have liked to learn in order to be able to say an unkind word about it when the occasion presented itself. The road was blocked by a heavy log at the very entrance to the town. The Antelope turned and, like a blind puppy, began nosing to the left and right looking for a path around the obstacle. But there was none.
“Back up!” said Ostap, who had turned very serious. Just then the crooks heard the very distant, mosquito-like hum of motors. Apparently the cars of the real auto rally were arriving. It was impossible to turn back, and the Antelopes again moved ahead.
Kozlevich grew tense and drove the machine at high speed right up to the log. The people standing around it recoiled in fright, expecting a catastrophe. But Kozlevich unexpectedly slowed down and slowly rolled over the barricade. Passersby cursed the riders testily as the Antelope drove through the town, but Ostap didn’t even answer.
The Antelope neared the Gryazhskoe road to the constantly increasing racket of the still-invisible automobiles. They had barely managed to turn off the cursed main road and move the car behind a little hill in the gathering darkness when they heard engines firing and exploding and the lead car appeared in twin pillars of light. The crooks hid in the grass along the road, having suddenly lost their usual brashness, and watched in silence as the column passed by.
Strips of blinding light splashed along the road. The cars creaked softly as they ran past the felled Antelopes. Dust flew out from under their wheels. Klaxons sounded at length. The wind whipped around in all directions. A minute later everything had disappeared except for the ruby taillight of the last car, which swung and jumped in the darkness for a long time.
Real life had flown by, trumpeting joyfully, flashing its lacquered wings.
All that remained for the adventure seekers was the gasoline-scented tail. They spent a long time sitting on the grass, sneezing and dusting themselves off.
“Yes,” said Ostap. “Now I myself see that the automobile is not a luxury, but a means of transport. Aren’t you envious, Balaganov? I’m envious.”
- bread and salt. This is a traditional and very rustic Slavic welcoming gift. back
- Inturist. The state tourism bureau in charge of foreign visitors. back
- American occupation force in Arkhangelsk. American, French and British troops occupied this Arctic port city in 1918-19, during the Russian Civil War. back