The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 19, No. 3

Two Stories

by Tatyana Tolstaya

Translated from Russian by Anya Migdal


When I was a sophomore at university, I lost my monthly stipend. I needed money—you know, coffee, taxis, cigarettes—so I got a job at the post office delivering telegrams.
     It was June; evenings were as bright as day, not at all menacing and quite beautiful: Leningrad, deserted for summer, the magical streets of Petrogradsky Island. On the building walls, just above the entryways, mascarons of cats and mermaids, triangular female faces of resounding beauty: downcast eyes, luscious hair, daydreams. Alleyways bathed in crepuscular light, purple-hued lilac trees in the parks and gardens, and in the distance, beyond the Neva River, the spire of the Admiralty.
     The post office was on Kronverksky Avenue, and they were happy to have me; not many people wanted to work in summer, with such great weather and for so little money. The boss—a woman inflamed with government concerns and the anxiety of financial responsibility—broke down the effortful job of the telegram delivery person.
     There is route number one, to the left, and route number two, to the right. The postman arrives at the branch, picks up the newly arrived telegrams, and walks first this way and then that way, in turn. Formally the telegrams are sealed, but the postman will definitely peek inside—there is no privacy in correspondence, you can forget about that. This is because the postman is not some dumb robot but a keen psychologist.
     What does psychology have to do with it, you ask? Well, for one thing, it's summer. People drown in lakes and rivers, you see. Every month at least one telegram announcing that Nikolai drowned is sure to arrive. So just imagine: You bring said telegram and offer it to a lovely woman who is, perhaps, brushing away a strand of hair with the back of her hand, or maybe wiping her palms on her apron. Women, as we know, are forever cooking something. And there you stand, at the threshold of a communal apartment, and this woman is smiling at you while the sun floods the landing, as if shining through water, via the dusty and miraculously well-preserved stained glass windows dating back to prerevolutionary days. Nice and clean.
     And if you, unaware of the contents of the telegram, also find yourself smiling, enjoying life, commenting on the beautiful weather or other silly nonsense, and then she unfolds the sealed paper only to read that Nikolai drowned—well, that is quite a blow, quite treacherous, really. It might even mean a heart attack.
     No. One needs to be prepared for bad news gradually, whenever possible. Grief is easier to cope with when it's brought by a mean person. Thus you must assume a disagreeable, vicious-looking scowl. When the door opens, you boorishly blurt out: "Telegram!" Don't smile; look away, down at the floor. Shove the receipt to her—"Sign here." Once she signs, thrust the telegram into her hands and run like the wind. Reaching the landing below, you can catch your breath by the wall, close your eyes, grit your teeth, and tilt your head back, unable to expel the image of this unsuspecting stranger's sweet face—a face that was happy for the last time, there, upstairs. On the shore.

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