Article — From the February 2009 issue

The Murder of Leo Tolstoy

A forensic investigation

( 4 of 16 )

That evening at the academicians’ dormitory, I went out onto my balcony and lit a cigarette. A few minutes later, the door of the adjacent balcony opened. The balconies were extremely close, the railings separated by a mere ten inches of black space. An elderly woman stepped outside and stood very still, gazing sternly into the distance, apparently pursuing her own thoughts about Tolstoy. Abruptly she turned to me. “Would you be so kind as to give me a light?” she asked.

I fished a matchbook from my pocket, lit a match, cupped my hand around it, and held it over her balcony. She leaned over, ignited a Kent Light, and began puffing away. I decided to take advantage of this moment of human contact to ask for shampoo. (There wasn’t any in our bathrooms, and mine was lost somewhere with my suitcase.) But when I mentioned shampoo, some strong emotion flickered across the old woman’s face. Fear? Annoyance? Hatred? I consoled myself that I was providing her an opportunity to practice resignation of the soul.

“Just a minute,” said my neighbor resignedly, as if she had read my thoughts. She set down her cigarette in a glass ashtray. The thread of smoke climbed up into the windless night. I ducked into my room to find a shampoo receptacle, choosing a ceramic mug with a picture of the historic white gates of Yasnaya Polyana. Under the picture was a quotation from L. N. Tolstoy, about how he was unable to imagine a Russia with no Yasnaya Polyana.

I held the mug over the narrow chasm, and my neighbor poured in some sudsy water from a small plastic bottle. I realized then that she was sharing with me literally her last drops of shampoo, which she had mixed with water in order to make them last longer. I thanked her as warmly as I knew how. She responded with a dignified nod. We stood a moment in silence.

“Do you have any cats or dogs?” she asked finally.

“No,” I said. “And you?”

“In Moscow, I have a marvelous cat.”

is a writer in San Francisco.

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  • lionhater

    So cheap. What do all those have anything to do with “The Murder of Tolstoy”?

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