Catfish in Kiev
As a boy you sat propped against your windowsill illuminated by a weak lamp sketching long into the night with your sharpened pencil. The block of art paper your uncle got for you through his connections at the store was as costly as the battles you depicted.
Your world separated from that of your mother by a thin wall of fabric and your imagination.
At the age of twelve your uncle and your mother told you that being an artist meant “being a beggar on the streets” lined with propagandist murals bearing their iron fists.
Their words clinging to you like ivy.
Years later, on your way to work the metro flew by those murals, still there, unaltered by the rigid winters, the heat or the sound of the water spilling from the countless fountains onto the patchy asphalt. The girl you dated through college, and into whose home you brought fresh meat on a weekly basis, became your wife. She was thankful. She tutored you in math to get you through the National Academy of Architecture. You watched as young aspiring artists used her as their model during a sketch class. She sat posed on a chair in her suit with a smart hat pulled over one eye. You have the photo still.
She took care of you. She ironed and starched your white shirts into attention and kept your small apartment in a reputable side of town neat and tidy, befitting a now prominent architect with his finely altered suits, imported overcoat and shoes. She polished them for you. She sent you spotless out into the world.
You stepped through the front door with its leather padding and copper bolts into the light of the city. You walked fast and took the central streets to your office. The ones lined with chestnut trees that offer up prickly round seeds to the spring. Like rolled up little hedgehogs, their needles poised as armor against the indifference of strangers’ heels.
The overbearing churches with their blue domes and gilded crosses towered over you. Their gates shut tight like the mouths of adamant children. You knew what was housed inside although just like the rest of the masses you had never seen it. You were not allowed inside. Denounced by the Mother Land these temples of worship were now turned into glorified storage spaces for the Holy images which once adorned their walls. You imagined what it must be like in the darkness, the humid air thick with the averted eyes of Gods and Angels, their faces turned blindly to the heavens.
You strolled around their perimeter on the weekends. On the lawn outside you rooted your easel and took out your carefully sharpened pencil and your brushes, your watercolors and your block of paper. Everything seemed undeniable on that tiny island of grass as the paint from your pallette of foreign colors slid smoothly and silently filling in the outlines.
Sometimes on your way home you would buy flowers, red and pink carnations, from a street vendor at the entrance to the underground.
Other times you would stop by the store, ring the bell, and when a slight man in a stained apron and kind face opened the door, he beckoned you inside. He took you to the back, and there , behind the barren and dirty white counter, amidst the smell of cottage cheese and smoked fish, he would ask you if you had brought anything. You said yes and opening your leather briefcase, you extracted two freshly laundered pillowcases neatly folded into squares.
The man filled one and then the other with buckwheat. He then asked you if you had brought along a page from an old newspaper. “No,” you replied. “I didn’t know. What for?” “For the herring,” the man said. “Very fresh.”
Seeing how puzzled you looked he waved his hand at you and once more disappeared. He returned with the herring already wrapped and extended it to you. You took it, thanked him, and hurried home.
On one of those trips to the store the man would invite you down into the basement.
You did not resist. You counted the steps as you followed closely behind him. There were 13. Your lucky number. You were asked to take a seat and wait for the others. Shortly the room would be filled with the faces of strangers. You shifted uncomfortably in your chair.
“This is illegal” was the only thing that ran through your mind.
“There’s a small window, they can see the light” This too worried you. It was getting dark outside. The incessant ticking of a projector could be heard as the chapped wall became illuminated by its artificial light.
“The Roads of America” the title read.
The images showed roads and freeways, open space and fancy automobiles speeding steadily to their destination in black and white. You watched.
You got home later than usual to find three men trying to push a piano up the weak, narrow staircase to the foot of your door on the third floor without scratching its perfectly polished surface, without doing damage to its slender curved legs.
You offered them cognac once they had reached the top. They accepted, and dragging their thirst, odor of poverty and cigarettes behind them, they drank on their feet in the hallway. Your wife smiled, drifting in and out of her white kitchen like the pendulum of a clock. Once they were gone and the piano was in place against the wall in the living room, you stood next to it and breathed in the odor of the keys. They smelled like wood shavings. It was too late to play, you would disturb the other tenants in the building.
You looked around the room. The dark blue sofa and the two matching armchairs, the bookcase sagging under the weight of your countless art books, the small television, the radio, the sewing machine. Your paintings. Your paintings in their heavy frames fought for breath against the too crowded walls and low ceilings.
You wondered how long it would take you to be rid of everything. How long it would take your boss to fire you, and how long it would take your friends to abandon you.
You wondered what it would be like to eat tomatoes during the winter and to not have to house another catfish in your bathtub while expecting guests for dinner.