Translated from Ukrainian by Khrystyna Makhno
And even when Cimmerian snows hung on white threads, tying together the sky and the Earth, and even when spring rains washed away the dirt off his windows, and more so, when squirrels gnawed at the window frames, and jumped off, falling downwards – never did Eugene feel such confusion as he did that Wednesday.
He lived on the fifth floor, from which he was able to see a small green square of the New York Marble Cemetery. This area of the East Village wasn’t desecrated during construction. And each morning, while stirring oatmeal on a low flame of a gas stove, the old man walked over to the window and looked down. Remaining on the perimeter of the walls were the names of ship owners, merchants, and artisans, carved in stone, who had lived out their measured time, and the names of their children, who’d died of scarlet fever, measles, or whooping cough.
And during the fifty years that Eugene lived in his building, he’d seen enough parties, weddings, and poetry readings on the multi-functional lawn situated tightly in between brick buildings.
But what Eugene saw today – surprised him, worried him even: on the still-green grass, he saw angels sitting. There were so many of them that from their white angelical bodies, patched in blue, radiated a light. And they sat intimately; as if on the morning commute in the subway. And Eugene thought to himself that he had lived to the end of the world.
“How did I not hear the trumpets of Jericho?” he asked himself as he observed with interest to see what would happen next.
The angels sat motionless.
Amidst all the worry, Eugene felt hunger. From the fridge, he got strawberry yogurt and began to eat it.
“I’ll ask Jose,” Eugene thought happily.
He got dressed and went down the spiral staircase.
Outside everything was as always; two visitors went into the copy center, a yellow cab drove slowly down the street, the scent of jasmine emitted from the laundromat today. Jose was busy as usual with the plastic bags, tying and placing them on the edge of the sidewalk.
“What’s the day today, Jose?” inquired Eugene.
“It’s Wednesday, señor.”
“Wednesday?” asked Eugene again.
“Wednesday, Wednesday,” Jose confirmed, tying up the last bag. “They pick up the trash today.”
Eugene was silent.
“Did you see the angels?” Eugene continued the conversation to somehow reassure himself that, even after the end of the world, someone has to remove the trash in front of the building.
“I did,” answered Jose. “I’ve seen them since yesterday. A film crew arrived in the evening. They’re going to film something, señor. Did you not sleep because of them?”
“Well, no. Quite the opposite,” said Eugene.
“Have a good day, señor.”
“You too, Jose,” answered Eugene.
For another moment Jose held the old man in his field of vision, but Eugene, having crossed to the sunny side of the street, was already approaching Second Avenue. A FedEx truck, having stopped at the stoplight, blocked the old man entirely.
Everyday since Jose got hired to work at this building, Eugene would walk out, and if the old man caught a glimpse of Jose, he would initiate the conversation. Jose deemed Eugene absolutely insane. The only thing that interested him was where the old man wandered for days.
Jose mentioned this to his wife, when they were getting ready for bed. “I’d really like to know where he roams.”
“Who?” questioned Bonita, apprehensively.
“The old fellow from the fifth floor,” explained Jose.
“A-a-a,” yawned Bonita. “He told me he goes to buy books.”
“I don’t believe it, he spends entire days picking out books?”
“Don’t know,” she yawned again. “Why do you care?”
“Interesting,” answered Jose, and kissing Bonita on her warm ear, immediately fell asleep.
Waddling from one foot to the other, Eugene walked with the East Village.
“Good thing that the end of the world didn’t happen on this Wednesday,” Eugene will later tell me. Several times we’d agreed to go and see the building on the corner of First Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, in which Trotsky lived. “I want to show you the building where Trotsky stayed,” insisted Eugene, when we’d meet up at the pub on 9th Street.
I’ve been a patron at this pub for a long time now. And every Friday I drank Belgian beer there, submerged in a dimly lit corner with my computer on the second floor. A yellow lamp was on the table and that was enough for me. Few customers were aware that the space on the second floor existed. It was a privilege for regulars. Eugene, knowing where to find me, would also come in on Friday’s to meet me.
“From that building” – he would tell me – “Trotsky left with a suitcase full of money, intended for the needs of the Russian Revolution.”
“What? No. That’s a rumor.”
“What rumor? All the American newspapers were writing about it.”
“And what of that suitcase?”
“Don’t know. They wrote that it was confiscated in Halifax, and then Woodrow Wilson himself intervened. And the suitcase, filled with money, was returned to Trotsky. But he was exporting it from here,” Eugene swore, “from the building on St. Mark’s Place.”
“And Saint Mark supported our comrade Trotsky, handing the money for the Revolution?”
“How naïve you are…” Eugene said, amazed. “Nobody handed anything to anybody. German bankers transferred the money to American banks in order to cover their tracks. What’s not clear about that?”
I convinced Eugene that it would actually be more convenient for me to see Trotsky’s building tomorrow, meaning this Wednesday. All I heard was Eugene’s dissatisfied, “However you know is best.” Our telephone conversation occurred late on Tuesday evening. I agreed to meet him just so the old man would leave me alone. We agreed to meet near the pub.
That morning, on Wednesday, Eugene had one other errand; this decision had been dragged out, but he desperately needed to go to Morristown. I will hear about this, however, when Eugene, upon his return from Morristown, will complain that his navy blue doorman’s coat had mysteriously disappeared.
The asphalt at many spots on Second Avenue was dug up. Con Edison was adding cables. Three lanes became one. And for safety, plastic cones were placed around the areas of construction. “A week – and they still can’t get it fixed,” thought Eugene, as he watched drivers not allowing one another to pass. Some of them rolled down their windows to flip the other off. Eugene stopped, deciding where to go next. At cafes, people were having breakfast.
Eugene had designated 4 p.m. for the meeting with me. The old man would manage to get to Morristown and back.
“Strand!” he said to himself, before we met. He had often walked over to 12th Street and cross both 3rd and 4th Avenues in order to reach Broadway. On the corner of 12th and Broadway is where Strand is located. There, Eugene felt happy, because the books threw themselves at him from all the shelves. He put them all in a basket, rang the elevator and rode down to the lower level. And there, amongst shelves he’d find a cozy spot. Sit down and start reading. Observe. Make notes. Exit the bookstore and say goodbye to the tired security man near the doors. “Goodnight,” Eugene would say to the security man. “Goodnight, sir. See you tomorrow.” “Maybe.”
With his mind on Strand, Eugene stepped onto the crosswalk and heard a sudden screech of breaks – a minivan hit a motorcyclist, who, breaking the law, was switching lanes while speeding. The minivan was also speeding on the lane that the motorcyclist was attempting to switch to. Eugene didn’t witness the actual accident, but while they awaited the police, several bystanders who saw the collision between the van and motorcycle vividly discussed the incident. Sirens blared from all around. Nearing the site of the incident were policemen, firefighters, and two ambulances from Lutheran and Beth Israel hospitals. Eugene waited until the firefighters arrived, but he didn’t go to Strand.
Temperate days still happened in October. This Wednesday was a warm one. Next to the church of St. Mark, New Yorkers were warming themselves up, sitting on benches. Some came here to feed the pigeons. They flew in from neighboring buildings as soon as somebody took out a French baguette and began breaking up and scattering the bread around them. The birds walled in tightly the ones who were feeding them.
Eugene took off his beret and wiped his sweaty face with it. A shirt, a warm sweater, and a blazer were unnecessary for today’s weather. He dressed in a hurry, so as to get outside as fast as he possibly could. The snow-powdered angels remained on Eugene’s mind, until Jose laid everything out for the old man.
Eugene saw an empty seat. He could’ve sat there, but then his neighbor would be Jeff, and everyone knew Jeff liked to yell and scare away the birds and passersby. Jeff took up the whole bench.
“You have a tired look, sir.” A woman turned to Eugene. She came here to feed the pigeons with a five-year-old boy, whom she nannied.
“Oh no, ma’am. I slept well.”
“Sit with us.” She offered him and broke off a piece of bread to give the boy.
Eugene thanked her.
This morning with the white angels on the green lawn of the abandoned cemetery was reminiscent of Eugene’s other mornings and days. “What if the angels turned out to be real?” thought Eugene, feeling faint from the hot air.
Next to Jeff, homeless and loud, sat a pair of tourists from Italy. They looked like they were about to leave. And Eugene wanted to take their spot. And it was so. He sat down on the bench just as the autumn sun warmed up the street and the small square. Jeff, who sat on the other end of the bench, watched the pigeons indifferently, in his hand a ripped off shirtsleeve. He later threw it around his neck and tied it like a scarf.
It was almost eleven in the morning. Eugene, next to the church of St. Mark, could not decide what to do next. “Jose couldn’t have lied about it being Wednesday or that the angels are decorative,” he thought to himself. “And if not for the adventure with the angels, I would’ve long been on the bus from Port Authority to Morristown.”
On Monday, Magda had called from Morristown, a newly widowed woman whom he knew through his friend Myron Temnytsky. In the couple’s garage, Eugene stored some of his belongings. It turned out that, while Magda was in the hospital, her children decided to have a garage sale. She was worried sick that her kids had accidentally sold Eugene’s belongings for pennies. The biggest loss, if the Temnytsky children really did have this garage sale, would be if they sold the navy coat, which Eugene had worn for seventeen years, standing at a building on 93rd Street, as the doorman. The coat was embroidered with two stripes of golden monograms on the sleeve, and, in addition, two rows of gold buttons ran from the collar down. A high-brand cap was added to the ensemble, decorated with gold stripes along the lacquered bill. When Eugene was retiring and last appeared at the front door of the fancy building, the coat and cap were brought out to him in a paper package. And the old gay dude from the twelfth floor, with whom Eugene would exchange a word or two about music, gave him a videotape of the film ‘Magical Bow.’ Since then, Eugene hadn’t really showed up there and didn’t really maintain any particular friendships, except for the man on the twelfth floor.
The appearance of the angels at the New York Marble Cemetery nearly crossed out the trip planned to Morristown on Wednesday. “Well, if the world really ended, there’s no need to go anywhere,” thought Eugene, watching Jeff. “And Jose would not be collecting trash and the Temnytsky kids would not have sold my stuff.” And Eugene was overcome with regret that the angels proved to be props. “They bring all kinds of junk here,” he scolded the filmmakers, “always filming something.”
After hesitation, Eugene, nevertheless, decided to go to Morristown. At the 8th Street station, he squeezed into a crowded train car of the subway. He made it to the next departing bus and purchased a ticket at the kiosk and rushed to his platform.
On the way to Morristown, Eugene was tormented by evil premonitions. “If they decided to clean up the mess in the garage, then my boxes, placed on the edge of shelves, would get to their hands first. This means that they either threw them out without opening or put them up for sale. Perhaps if Magda was home, she would not allow her children to gut the garage. And so, there’s little hope.”
With each mile that the bus was approaching Morristown, Eugene reproached himself for succumbing to the worrisome feeling. The clock on the tower in Morristown showed that it was a quarter to three.
Eugene took a taxi to the Temnytsky’s home. He’d been acquainted with Myron Temnytsky since the postwar era. Visited him for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today, though, he came for the coat.
“Sorry,” Magda kept apologizing. “They threw everything away. And the trash was collected today.”
“Your trash also gets collected on Wednesdays?” Eugene asked.
“Yes,” Magda answered his bizarre question. “On Wednesdays and Fridays.”
“And did they also throw away my doorman coat?” Finally, weak with hope in his voice, Eugene asked again.
“I’m telling you, everything.”
“Oh, if only I’d come on Monday or Tuesday, I’d have managed to…”
“Yeah, if you’d come immediately after my call…”
“The kids specifically planned this with the garbage men. There was a mountain of boxes.”
“I should’ve come on Monday or Tuesday…” Eugene repeated once more.
And Magda agreed.
I sat in the pub on 10th Street until dusk, drank several glasses of beer. Growing bored. At ten in the evening, I decided to leave the pub and wait for Eugene no more. “Oh, well,” I comforted myself, “the great secret of the Russian Revolution, which the old man carries with him like a beaten egg, will remain a mystery. But really, where was he?”
I didn’t know that Eugene returned to New York late. The road to Morristown wore him out. At midnight he called me. I heard sand in his voice. There was a feeling of guilt:
“As usual at the pub on the second floor.”
“Forgive me, I didn’t come back from Morristown in time…”
“How did you end up there?”
“Went for the coat.”
“What, do you get your coats sewn in Morristown?”
“Why sewn?” Eugene’s voice was engulfed with sand. “I wanted to get it back.”
“They threw the coat out in the trash.”
“Doesn’t matter. I can’t get the coat back. You know, since retiring, I never wore it. So…a memory.” Eugene paused again then continued. “And this morning I saw angels.”
“Wearing coats?” I tried to make a joke.
“What coats?” Eugene asked surprised. “With wings. White as snow. I saw them from the kitchen, while making oatmeal. Jose said they were decorative.”
“And who is Jose?”
An employee in the building. Listen, we still have to meet, I still have to show you the building.”
“What?” I asked again, absently listening to Eugene’s stream of consciousness about angels and a Jose.
“Have you forgotten? The building from which Trotsky carried one million dollars out for the needs of the revolution.”
“A-ah, yes, yes.”
The next day, waking up, Eugene clasped onto the window – the angels were no longer there down below. Everything looked as it always did. Only more leaves had fallen overnight.
Eugene walked out of the building. Jose was drinking coffee.
“The angels are gone,” said Eugene instead of greeting him.
“No, sir,” said Jose. “At night the film crew coiled the cables and took the angels with them. They are props, after all. They’ll be of use to someone else.”
“I wonder what they were shooting the movie about?” continued the old man.
“I see that yesterday’s trash has been collected.”
“Good day to you, Jose.”
“And to you, señor.”
Eugene left Jose, who always accompanied the old man with his gaze, towards Second Avenue. But the Mexican man didn’t notice that Eugene didn’t turn right, as usual, but instead turned left. Of course, a change in Eugene’s daily route would have interested Jose, but this time Eugene was again blocked off by a van. The old man went to the New York Marble Cemetery on the corner of Second Street. The gate was closed. He looked through the fence and assured himself that the angels really were gone. They took everything, even the fake snow, which covered the entire green lawn. Eugene trampled and went on in the direction of Second Avenue.
When Eugene and I agreed to meet at the pub on 9th street, to go over to Trotsky’s building, the old man said he had errands to run that morning. “Don’t go to the pub before 4 p.m,” Eugene warned me. “You’ll have to wait.” He was complaining about the squirrels that chewed through the dilapidated shutters. “One even came into the kitchen,” he was telling me.
“What was she doing there?”
“Don’t know, maybe she was looking for something to eat. You can’t imagine how the squirrels, jumping from the trees onto electrical wires, are able to reach my window.”
“Perhaps there is a way to exterminate them?”
“Maybe there is,” Eugene agreed. “But I don’t believe that there is a way to scare them. They’re not afraid of anything.”
“So call a glazier or a carpenter. Better yet, both.”
“I’ve asked Jose a thousand times but he never has the time.”
It turned out that on the day of our visit, Eugene did not engage with his windows. Perhaps lamenting the squirrels was a guilty pleasure. And maybe he really liked observing them. I do not know. Because when I asked him what he was involved with that morning, Eugene smiled and reached into the pocket of his jacket. It was evident that some days he had not shaved because many gray hairs penetrated the scarves wrapped around his neck.
Eugene took out a crumbled envelope from his pocket, and he placed it on the table in front of me.
“Did the Mayor of the city write to you?” I tried to joke. “That they’re sending out all the mice for the battle with your squirrels?”
“No one wrote to me,” Eugene said, offended.
“Then what is it?”
“Last will and testament,” Eugene answered.
“And what did you come up with?”
And Eugene read what was to happen to his body after his death.
“Why so?” I asked him then.
“What, is there a better way?” I heard in response.
“And I do not know,” said Eugene.
We sat at the pub a little while longer. Even Eugene drank a small glass of beer. And we went to look at Trotsky’s building.
“And did you know that Trotsky worked as a waiter in this neighborhood?” said Eugene, when we walked up to the angular brick building. “Oh!” Eugene exclaimed and stopped – “Look at the last window.”
“That one, on the left.”
“I see. I presume that’s not where Trotsky stayed.”
“This has nothing to do with Trotsky,” Eugene spoke with no hesitation. “This is the window of George Gershwin’s apartment. The grand piano could in no way be brought in through the narrow corridor, so a few men stood on the roof and pulled the instrument down to the outside of the window, the one I just showed you.”
“If we’re going to be looking into every window of every building, today will not be the day we reach Trotsky’s,” I replied.
Jose and Bonita were lying in bed. Bonita – dreaming.
“Bonita,” Jose whispered.
“Well what now?” she answered unhappily, feeling Jose’s hand on her ass. “Let’s do this in the morning.”
“Bonita,” Jose whispered again. “That old man has disappeared.”
“Quit spewing bullshit, Jose.”
“I swear on the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
“Where could he have gone?” Bonita asked, doubtfully.
“I don’t know,” said Jose, breathing in the jasmine scent of Bonita’s braids, continuing, “For three days the old man hasn’t left his home… And I thought… ‘Maybe he’s just sick.’ Still, I called Mr. Martino. When we entered with the police, we found that the apartment was empty. We saw that the kitchen window was ajar. So we thought maybe he threw himself out of the window. But there was nobody out there either.”
“Maybe he went on a trip somewhere?”
“I just don’t think so, Bonita,” Jose answered, yawning, turning away from her. “He simply left us, like those angels.”
“And also,” Jose spoke again, when Bonita saw her seventh dream, “when we walked in, there were keys on the table. He couldn’t have walked out of the house without keys?”
One day after Eugene’s disappearance, a car with Jersey license plates pulled up to the building. The driver squeezed himself next to a hydrant and turned on his emergency lights. From the trunk, he got a package, and tilting his head, began scanning the windows up on top of the building.
Jose immediately noticed the stranger.
“You’re looking for someone, sir?” He asked.
“Supposedly an old man lives here…Eugene…”
“Lived? Where did he go?”
“I don’t know. Vanished.”
“Do people usually vanish from your building?” The guest from New Jersey tried to make a joke.
“Others – no, but Eugene – disappeared,” Jose answered, dryly, and turned to leave.
“Excuse me.” The stranger stopped Jose. “Could you give him this package?” as he placed a ten dollar bill in Jose’s pocket. He smiled and suddenly found himself back behind the wheel.
When Bonita tore open the heavy paper, she saw a navy blue doorman’s coat.
The following day, a tailor shortened the sleeves and length to match Jose’s height. The two missing golden buttons, Bonita sewed on herself.
And, with the buttons of his navy coat glistening with the reflection of sunlight, Jose thought, “How can one disappear just like that?”