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[Readings]

The Gamblers

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From Unwitting Street, a collection of short stories that will be published next month by New York Review Books. Translated from the Russian.

They were two in a square unheated room in a wooden shack by the city gates. A bookkeeper and a poet. On the abacus there was nothing to count. Except changes of regime. Only yesterday the bookkeeper had slid a ninth white bead from right to left along its spindle. Paper had all gone to handbills, orders and appeals stuck to the brick and wood of walls, while resolutely rejecting anything as trifling as poetry. So then, both men were out of work. Their money had long since emigrated from their pockets and turned into bread and firewood, long since eaten and long since burned. Two men, two benches, one table, two stools and one dog-eared deck of cards. From morning till night, the poet and the bookkeeper played stuss. Now and then, most often in the evening, one of them would go out to forage a crust of bread or a plank from a fence for kindling. The trouble was that between them, they had only one pair of boots, which was constantly, depending on how the cards fell, changing hands. Or rather: feet.

The poet was having bad luck. For a week now he had been going around in clothes no longer his. An unpaid advance and the dedication of his book, Dreams of a Freezing Man, had likewise passed into the possession of his partner. Yet the gamblers continued to gamble.

In effect, the cosmos belongs to everyone; everything—from stars to dust motes—is the common property of humanity. Proceeding from that thought, the poet—this was only yesterday—put the North Star on his card and began to tally. Alas, ten seconds had not gone by before the star was made over to the bookkeeper. In that same way, the poet lost Berenice’s Hair and, soon after, the Little Dipper, then the Big.

Because of the Milky Way the gamblers did not sleep the whole night. By the light of an oil lamp, they battled on furiously until that starry way wound up in the bookkeeper’s pocket.

But after that, fortune suddenly turned 180 degrees. For a start, an extraordinary thing happened: the poet managed to collect his lost advance. True, it was only three or four million. But even if the bread was stale, it was bread; even if the wood was green, it was wood. In the cube of four walls it became warmer in their stomachs as well; their fingers unfroze and, naturally, reached for the deck of cards. The poet’s run of luck continued: first he won back his millions, then—planet by planet—the entire solar system, and finally whole constellations rained down from the starry heavens straight into his palms: the bookkeeper had only a few paltry starlets left; he managed to hang on to Saturn’s rings, but two or three deals later—the rings too rolled away, right behind the planet, to his lucky rival.

Never mind the stars. The poet won back the boots! The entire universe belonged to him. Excited by his good luck, he took a few turns up and down the room. By now the small stove had grown cold. The universe the poet had won was slightly frozen. Ornate white patterns were forming on the windows.

“Who’ll go for wood?” asked the lucky man.

“The one who won the boots,” replied the bookkeeper.

He sat on his bench, knees pressed to chin, and rubbed his rag-wrapped feet.

The winner did not object. He pulled his canvas cap down over his ears, wrapped himself tighter in his quilted jacket, and went off.

Outside, at almost that same moment, gunshots crackled. The bookkeeper understood: the Whites were entering the city; it was their turn. The bookkeeper went up to his abacus hanging on a nail and slid a black bead from right to left along its spindle.

The volleys intensified; in the distance two or three cannon shots thundered. From somewhere nearby came the typewriter-like rat-tat-tat of a machine gun. The pre-dusk light turned to dusk, the dusk to night.

His partner had not returned.

The temperature in the room was falling. All through that long winter night the bookkeeper sat on his bench, and uneasy thoughts slipped through his brain.

Come dawn he wound strips of felt and two newspapers around his feet, and shivered out into the street. Snow, saltpetrously glittering snow. Clenched shutters of long, yellow, coffin-shaped shacks. At a crossroads a gray—like a spreading inkblot—body. Near the body, three women and a little boy, the earflaps of his cloth hat hanging down, wagging their ribbon tails.

The bookkeeper approached. Yes, it was the poet, his lucky partner. He lay facedown in the snow, arms flung out. Under his chest was a bundle of wood. One of the women, wiping away freezing tears with her black shawl, wailed:

“Oh, my darling, unfortunate man. Who’d have known, who’d have guessed? I sent my Mitka out last evening for kerosene. But those—what do you call them, I don’t know— they were about. About and shooting. What could I do? My little Mitka . . . Then God sent a kind man. He swooped Mitka up in his arms and ran for the gate. Only he was got, poor fellow, by a bullet. Just look at him! What bad luck. Just look! Bitter sorrow . . . ”

“But is Mitka all right?”

“He’s all right. Nothing wrong with him. But this poor . . . May he rest in peace . . . ”

The women stood sighing for a minute more, then the gate closed behind them.

The bookkeeper looked around. The street was empty. Kneeling in the snow, he drew the boots off the corpse, pulled them on his frozen feet, and, without looking around, went back to the shack. As for the Universe, which remained the property of the poet, he didn’t give it a thought.


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July 2020