Readings — From the November 2012 issue

Ali-Baba

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By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, from her collection of stories There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, to be published in February by Penguin. Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.

They met in line outside the bar, but that didn’t mean anything—people meet in all kinds of places. Ali-Baba glanced over her shoulder, saw his blue eyes and his good suit, and thought, “Aha,” without suspecting how easy her prey would be. Victor watched her little dance without interest. He knew no woman of sound mind would pick him up; they could always smell it on him. Five or six years ago he might have worked up some excitement, but now he just waved them away, the pretty ones who made eyes at him. In this case, though, there wasn’t much to wave away—just an ordinary-looking Jewish woman with large, dark eyes.

Victor’s boss had dispatched him to an office near the bar to deliver one thing or another. (After a series of mishaps, he’d been demoted to courier.) Finding the place empty, he decided to lunch early on liquid bread, as he called beer. The establishment raised his status to the level of respectable people—Ali-Baba, for example—although he briefly wondered what a well-dressed woman was doing among cursing men. The bar was located in a good neighborhood and had some pretense of design (little lights on the walls), but there was the swearing, not to mention the cleaning woman who swiped half-empty pints, pretending they were empty. (Angry customers once stormed her closet and discovered her chasing one down; a scandal followed, but the police didn’t get involved.) Since Victor and Ali-Baba were waiting in the same line with the same end in mind, they began talking—a harmless exchange between decent citizens.

They discussed this and that but mainly how long one had to wait here and at other places. Ali-Baba seemed to know all the local spots, including The Saigon, to Victor’s growing respect. Ali-Baba was beginning to see that Victor wasn’t often spoiled with attention, and she felt a kind of protective tenderness for him, as if he were a stray kitten of a rare breed. Inspired by this warm feeling, she began to recite aloud a long love poem, originally composed for her latest life partner. Recently that partner had tossed her over the railing of his balcony for stealing his booze. She had hung four floors above the ground, clutching at the railing, until two truck drivers forced their way into the apartment and rescued her. Her beloved was hiding in the kitchen, inventing a scenario for the police: that she had tried to kill him. As soon as the ambulance, summoned by the neighbors, had gone, her beloved, seized by an unforgiving fury, gathered up her things and tossed them over the same railing. Ali-Baba had managed to crawl down the steps, pick her stuff up off the pavement, and reach her mother’s apartment. She’d been staying there ever since, still unable to work or even to unbend her fingers. The visit to the bar was supposed to mark a new beginning.

“Another?” Victor asked. But she insisted on buying this round, and again he marveled at her manners and sophistication. He had paid for six rounds already and had just enough money left for two more pints. This money was to last him until his next paycheck—that is, the whole next week. Ali-Baba didn’t mind: she was flush from selling another volume of her mother’s edition of Alexander Blok. (Her mother didn’t know it, but she now owned only four volumes of Bunin’s works out of her original nine.) Ali-Baba told herself that since half of her mother’s property was hers, she might as well make use of her half. Her mother was undergoing medical tests at the hospital and didn’t know that Ali-Baba had returned to her apartment. Otherwise she would have checked Ali-Baba into rehab, as she had done twice.

Ali-Baba, then, usually preferred to stay at her friends’ apartments. By now she had one girlfriend left, Horse, and recently Horse had found a man, Vanya, who beat her (and her guests) to a pulp. As for Ali-Baba’s numerous gentlemen friends, they all lived with their wives or mothers, so staying the night was out of the question. That very morning Ali-Baba’s mother had called home from the hospital to see if her phone line was working, and Ali-Baba had answered without thinking. The mother called back again and again, but Ali-Baba didn’t answer. She gathered up some things—the volume of Blok, her mother’s new panty hose and makeup, and a bottle of sleeping pills—and was soon standing in line outside the bar.

To Ali-Baba’s delight, Victor wasn’t married and lived alone, without his mother. Victor wasn’t overjoyed at her suggestion that she stay the night, but in the end he agreed. They got to his house; he unlocked the door to his communal apartment, then the door to his room. It was warm and completely dark and also a little smelly. Victor turned on the desk lamp and changed the sheets, and the two began their night of love. Ali-Baba was pleased to have shelter for the night, and Victor was pleased because he found clean sheets and received a decent woman in style. Overwhelmed by a sweet, almost maternal feeling, Ali-Baba began reciting the same love poem, but before she could finish Victor fell into a rhythmic snoring. Ali-Baba stopped her recitation and drifted off, too. Almost immediately she woke up: Victor had peed the bed.

Ali-Baba leaped off the filthy sheets and changed into her clothes in the reeking darkness. She perched on a chair by the desk and cried softly. Now she understood why he was alone, why he hadn’t protested when his wife left him with a tiny room and took a whole apartment. To the accompaniment of Victor’s snoring, Ali-Baba reviewed her life and swallowed the pills. The next morning Victor found her lying facedown on the desk. He read her note and called an ambulance. Paramedics pumped Ali-Baba’s stomach, then took her to a mental hospital. Shaking from his hangover, Victor pulled on some clothes and trotted off to work, to wait for the liquor store to open.

Ali-Baba was lying in a clean bed in a ward for the insane. She would stay there at least a month. Soon there would be a hot breakfast and a conversation with a friendly doctor. Later, as she knew, her neighbors would swap life stories. Ali-Baba also had a story or two to share. She wanted to tell them, for example, about the first time she took pills, when she went blind for twenty-four hours. The second time put her to sleep for two days, but the sixth time she woke up in the morning fresh as a daisy.

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More from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya:

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