by James Fetler
ALEXANDER ALEXANDROVICH KOLODNY. one of San Francisco’s oldest and least prosperous dealers in used foreign books, weighed the old man’s dog-eared volumes unenthusiastically, lifting them out of the rain-soaked carton with his left hand and giving them the one-eyed treatment.Dreck! Rain was always bad; it mildewed the covers and caused the pages to stick together, and now it had been raining without interruption for three days, and no letup in sight. Typical San Francisco winter. He felt the covers with the tips of his bony fingers, like a safe-cracker, and smelled the inside pages. “Mold,” he said, adjusting his glasses. He didn’t want the books, he could see that at once; there was no demand for them, who wants nineteenth-century treatises on animals and bugs; they would simply take up extra space.
“No mold.” the old man objected. His beard was like steel wool rusting in a kitchen sink. “A little damp, maybe, but no mold.” He pressed his bandaged thumb against a volume in Russian on the wildfowl of the Ukraine. 1897. “I wouldn’t be parting with this if I didn’t have to eat.”
Kolodny said nothing. The books were useless, but the old man was tired and obviously in need of some cash. That bandage needed changing. The old man lit a cigarette, and immediately his beard began steaming like a pile of wet leaves. He pulled out a study of the commercial fishing industry in the Black Sea. “Georgi Melezhny spent seven years gathering the data.”
They continued the halfhearted haggling, and as they talked, Kolodny kept his eyes on the old man and felt himself weakening. It was his cardinal fault, and he knew it — his wife had always pointed it out to him, and she was right. But on the other hand — an old countryman down on his luck. And that enormous, ancient coat, soaked from the rain.
“No one wants books on fish.”
“ There is much to be learned from a fish.”
The water kettle in the back room began whistling. Kolodny glared at the rain as it streaked across the plate glass window. “ The kettle,” he said, padding between the shelves like a monk in his cloister. “Gome in here.”
The old man followed him to the back room.
Kolodny flipped the switch on the hot plate. “Look here, I’ll be truthful with you. The books are worthless, an albatross around my neck. I’m in no position — but I’m cooking some hot soup and tea.”
“The soup I don’t need. My books.”
“Soup first.” They faced each other like antagonists, then the old man gave in. “You play chess,” he said, tapping the board with his cane. A typical widower’s room — a bed and a table with the hot plate. An old Morris chair, frayed, as though cats had scratched on it over the years. A couple of wooden chairs, the legs reinforced with wire. A cupboard. Nothing more. “You’re from the south,” Kolodny observed, carefully wrapping a hot pad around the handle of the spoon.
“I never liked it. I was robbed in Odessa. Thirty-six years ago.”
“Everyone to his taste.”
THE old man sucked up the soup noisily, wielding the spoon with his left hand as though he were digging a hole in a flowerpot. In his eagerness to sell he had forgotten hunger; now it came. A noodle stuck to his whiskers.
As they shared the simple meal, soup and bread and tall glasses of very weak tea, the two countrymen talked. The old fellow’s name was Yuri Vassilyvich Serafimovich, and he had come to the end of his savings, which he had been accumulating in small lumps over the years here and there as a seaman, a prospector, a veterinarian, a gardener in a Mexican convent. He had seen the world in his day, roaming about, examining the ways of wild creatures and men. Always there had been animals in his life. Animals were important; they explained many facts of existence. He talked about the pets he had owned. “Parakeets,” he sighed. “More than one. And, dear God — monkeys and drakes, and a trained rat, a rat who slept on the pillow with me. And how many cats I don’t remember. Calico and long-haired. And when I worked in the convent, I had an armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, and a deer which was shot by a hungry policeman. And birds, birds who talked. Give me more tea. I’ll tell you something. There are places I went where a man does not usually venture. Do you know about the island of cats? In the Irish Sea is a great reef, off the Isle of Man, where only cats live. Cats. I row out in a skiff. I row for a long time, and then there is the reef, like a sea serpent lying on its side. Over the years the cats have grown large and ferocious. I sit in the skiff, near the edge of the reef. In the bottom of the skiff is a leak. All day I bail water and study the cats. Then the sun sets, and the moon comes, and the cats creep down to the strand and fish with their claws. I watch the cats fish.”
They drank their tea in silence.
Serafimovich leaned back and studied his wet moccasins. “Look at those clubs. With those two clubs I tramped through Sonora at the time of the worst peasant revolts, when whole villages looked like butchering shambles. In Yucatán I was captured by drug-chewing insurgents who left me head-down in a pit with my dead mule. And when I was very young, hardly out of my teens, I crept into the Potala in Lhasa disguised as a stonemason. It’s the truth. I froze my toes.”
Such a durable, fragile old man, Kolodny thought. Older than his seventy-four years. His coat smelled of tobacco and rain. And such a coat — a regular tent with a broken ridgepole about to collapse in a heap.
“Then how do you live?”
Serafimovich lit a fresh cigarette. “I live. But my money is gone.”
“No income? No pension?”
No income, no pension. Serafimovich’s explanation seemed curiously impersonal. A man who by habit scrutinizes himself with detachment. Always he had been on the move, forward, forward — the American Southwest, Siberia, New Zealand — and he had never stopped long enough to take out citizenship papers. According to his enigmatic reckoning, he was still, according to the letter of the law, a subject of Czar Nicholas II.
Kolodny was amused.
No, no. He was still under the Imperial Flag. And without American citizenship he was ineligible for the elderly indigents’ pension. He found himself, in short, at the age of seventy-four in a very tight corner and no way out. His only solace these days was the zoo. Several times a week he visited the animals. Brought them knäckebrod and grapes. But now, with his back against the wall, he was selling the last of his beloved technical manuals. Flora and fauna. And when they went, there would be no more. The rent was due. Overdue.
To Kolodny the solution seemed so obvious that he felt puzzled. Why hadn’t the old man thought of it himself? “You must take steps. File for papers. It’s the only way.” Kolodny himself had been a naturalized citizen for over thirty years. “A simple operation: a brief interview, a few questions about the government, very painless.”
Serafimovich hitched up his eyebrows. “I am too old to learn, Alexander Alexandrovich. There are interrogations and inquisitions.” The eyebrows came down. “I will die under the Imperial Flag. In his younger days his status as a citizen of the world had appealed to him. He had always equated chauvinistic allegiances with cant — the last refuge of a scoundrel. “In my youth I espoused nihilism. Now I am too old. I cannot retain simple facts.”
“But you remember your Dasypus novemcinctus.”
“The Dasypus is different.” He closed his eyes. “It is not the same thing.”
“Your rent is due when?”
“And the landlord?”
“Oriental Machiavelli. I don’t blame him. Everyone has to eat. He is threatening to change locks on the door.”
“You are wasting your time at the zoo when you should be studying.”
“You have seen enough animals in your life.”
“All my animals are in cages and pens nowadays. It can’t be helped.”
Kolodny picked up the soup bowls and brushed off the breadboard. Instead of a sink, there was only the basin in the closet. The toilet stood yellow and exposed in one corner of the small anteroom. “How much do you know about the laws of the land?”
“I know what I know, but my memory is dim.”
“I have books,” He scraped the bread crumbs into the toilet. “Who is Everett Dirksen?”
Serafimovich plucked a noodle from his beard and gazed at it with curiosity. “Dirksen is unimportant.”
“Look here, Yuri Vassilyvich.” Kolodny seated himself on his bed, leaned forward, and began rubbing his calves. The dampness always affected the muscles and joints, and often he kept his knees wrapped in flannel. “You are older than me, and we spring from the same soil. I’m not rich, you can see that, but I have a canvas cot and a sleeping bag packed away in the closet. When my son was a boy we went into the mountains together. Before you get your citizenship you must have instruction, and you need a small corner to sleep in. Bring your belongings. Let this room be your home. I will teach you how to pass the examination. And when you get your pension, you will purchase a penthouse on Telegraph Hill.”
“And live like a Turk. Give me a match, all my matches are damp.” He lit his cigarette. “I am too old. I told you. Do you know that they have a new ratel at the zoo?”
Kolodny felt turned down: this made him unhappy. He watched Serafimovich as he packed his books back into the carton. “Think it over.”
“Mellivora capensis,” Serafimovich grunted, pushing the door open with his shoulder. “Very much like a badger,” and he was gone.
THE following day he was back, the whiskers steaming, the carton of books even soggier than before. “Machiavelli changed the lock,” he belched, the cigarette still in his mouth. “Get the cot from the closet, I am bringing my things. The books are my rent, but the Smirkin seal study I keep.” He tapped the Smirkin with the handle of his cane, as if to protect it from confiscation, flicked his tobacco ashes onto the warped plywood counter, and fast-stepped out like a mechanical dwarf. Kolodny blinked at him as he padded across the street in his flapping moccasins. An electric bus was humming toward him, horn honking. Serafimovich sidestepped the bus like a bullfighter who has learned holy indifference. A mechanical dwarf: he should have had a large key revolving between his shoulder blades.
He returned with a suitcase lashed together with twine — the handle was missing — and went back again for a laundry-type bundle wrapped in butcher paper and Scotch tape, and a five-gallon rectangular tin, dented and bent. He began unpacking the suitcase at once. Instead of clothing, it contained documents and drawings—sketches of curious rodents and birds, topographical atlases of Africa and the Arctic marked with arrows and x’s, and long yellow sheets of mathematical computations. “Good news,” he announced as he dug into a pocket for thumbtacks and proceeded to tack his pictures and maps to the wall. “They are planning to dig a new pit for the apes at the zoo. Heaven knows it’s high time.”
Kolodny said nothing. Africa on the wall was not part of the bargain. But then he softened. “You will be my mouser,” he said, unfolding the cot. The cot brought back bittersweet memories: his young son feeding fig bars to coons, asking questions about Cassiopeia. “The rats chew on the books. You’ll be cheaper to keep than a cat. Can you cook?”
“I like rats,” Serafimovich said, looking at his bandaged thumb, which was beginning to ache from the tacks. “On the seas I knew plenty of rats. I have a way with animals.”
So alone, Kolodny thought. Most men live for their sons; this one talks about rats. Like a man in a laboratory. Like a clock ticking all by itself.
They played chess that night and talked about their youth. The old Russia, the land kept intact only in books. To Kolodny it was an album-world artificially tinted by his failing memory. He had left so long ago that he was unsure of his reminiscences; they were too familiar, too much like staged scenes with predictable dialogue and props. But to Serafimovich the old land was still fresh, the impressions were as varied and minute and distinct as the morning he had boarded the merchantman in Odessa. And Kolodny took note of the fact that the old man continued not only to speak but to think in his native tongue. There were roots which had never been yanked out, and this would have to be changed: the roots led to the Imperial Flag, just as his manuals kept him confined in an obsolete scientific world.
But the chess, at any rate, was a comfort, and Serafimovich was a crafty, a deceptively cunning opponent: it was clear that he knew, as he pored over the board, flicking ashes on the pawns, what he was about. Chess gave Kolodny a temporary reprieve from his personal griefs and regrets. Since the death of his wife seven years ago the business had gone steadily down; he was impractical by nature, too soft to conclude the hard bargains required in the trade. Roger, his one son and early delight, had established himself in the insurance game, and by inheriting his mother’s shrewd aggressiveness, had prospered. Although they lived in the same city, and Roger was apparently committed to the life of a bachelor, Kolodny never saw him. Echt Amerikanisch — even his name he had altered to Coleman — but also disturbingly effeminate in some of his ways. Well. And the chess, it also helped the dealer forget the interminable winter rain and the sagging shelves of mildewing books which no one seemed to require, at least not at this time of the year.
Kolodny dug around among his shelves the next morning, found a manual published by the Justice Department, a simple text in spiral-notebook form which treated in systematic fashion the basic nature and function of the federal government, and they set to work. It gave him a quiet pleasure to observe that Serafimovich had made himself completely at home. The laundry bundle, the suitcase, and the tin were shoved neatly under the cot, and the old man rocked back and forth in the Morris chair and gazed with absorption at the sketches he had tacked to the walls.
And work it was, more than the dealer had anticipated. If not a tough nut, Serafimovich was at least a slippery kernel to crack. And another thing: either the old man was hard of hearing or he chose to play deaf at convenient moments, so that much of the lecture was delivered at the level of a shout. The Congress of the United States .. .the House of Representatives. . .the branches of government. Serafimovich listened intently — but to what? Was he chewing on his mustache to indicate his understanding, or was he conducting a private dialogue involving his rare fish and fowl? The judiciary. It was like yanking his whiskers out, one tobaccostained hair at a time. And each time the bookdealer turned the page of the manual, Serafimovich’s eyebrows would suffer from tortuous convolutions.
Kolodny gave up after an hour. “Tomorrow will be better,” he suggested. “It’s the first time.”
Instead of replying, Serafimovich lit a cigarette, arose, browsed among the bookshelves, found an edition of John Muir’s account of the Yosemite, and began reading it intently on the spot.
And so it went, in pretty much the same fashion, day after frustrating day. If not uncooperative, he was at least distant, aimed somehow in the wrong direction. Kolodny would lecture him, shouting instructions into his left ear, and in response he would volunteer little-known facts relative to mandrakes (Mandragorae) and Venus’s-flytraps, lovely swamp plants which possessed leaves with doublehinged blades and an appetite for insects. Of course Kolodny understood: his youthful commitment to anarchy had left him with an inner resistance to statutes and codes. But still. “Instead of playing ball,” Kolodny thought glumly, “we are dueling.”
Yet, paradoxically, whenever the dealer decided to call it quits, Serafimovich would wax childlike and make use of encouraging slogans. He would return stimulated from the zoo and insist that they must forge forward, they were almost on the verge of their great leap forward. Very well. Nevertheless. Alexander Kolodny was a tenderhearted man, but business was truly wretched, the winter rains continued, and he was gradually losing his patience.
ONE gray afternoon, as he was attempting vainly to interrogate Serafimovich on the Bill of Rights, he noticed that the old man was even more inattentive than usual. He was staring thoughtfully at the square tin under his cot. Kolodny waited. Eyes sunken, almost turned inward and aimed at the brain, Serafimovich continued his meditations. The dealer slapped the manual shut and threw it to the floor.
Serafimovich awoke, startled. “So?”
Kolodny went to the front of the store and began wiping the counter.
“Proceed,” Serafimovich said, picking up the manual and brushing it off. He opened it to a section they had covered the preceding week. “Forward !”
Kolodny came back, the dustcloth still in his hand. “What’s in the tin?”
“The box under the cot — what is it?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Go. Look.”
Kolodny threw the cloth on the table and went down on his hands and knees. Cobwebs and dust balls. Serafimovich had left tea bags all over the floor, along with his butts. Kolodny pulled the tin out. He flicked off a spider which was scuttling across his wrist. Wedging the tin between his knees, he pried off the lid.
The tin was filled with black, powdery soil, so fine that it resembled dust. Just that. He looked more closely. He reached in and felt it between his fingers. Nothing. Just dust.
He looked at the old man.
“Put it away,” Serafimovich said.
“What is it?”
“It doesn’t concern you. I am weary,” and he arose and limped out of the room.
But during supper that night, alter describing in great detail the progress that had been made on the great ape pit, he changed his mind and asked the bookdealer to drag out the tin again, “In this tin,” he said gravely, as though delivering his own funeral oration, “is our mother soil. This is our soil. You understand what I say, Alexander Alexandrovich. This soil I dug up from a frozen field near Murmansk when I was a young man. A young man. I have kept it, my friend, because this has been country and home. This soil. The soil from which our seed sprang.” He took the tin, balanced it on his lap, and sniffed the dust, as though human bones lay buried in it — bones of Father and Mamushka and girls he had loved. Bones of uncles in fur coats and comrades in school.
“I had been sailing, you know. On the Catherine the Great — what a name for a freighter! One day we docked in Murmansk. High noon. Early spring. I stood on the wharf. I looked at the sledges and the horses, steaming, and the dockhands stamping their boots in the snow. Soon we would be off again, Portugal, Argentina. When would we return? I didn’t know. We went where the cargo was — if in hell, then to hell. And with the sun, and the snow, and the horses, I felt a desire to bring back to my cabin some part of the land where my seed was begun. So. I started to walk through the snow. It was like broken glass, the snow. Dear God, the cold! I searched for a field. From a tailor’s wife whose husband had recently perished I bought the tin — it’s just a tea tin — and borrowed a shovel. I never saw such a blunt shovel. And I began to dig. As I dug, the tailor’s wife told me a long tale about how her husband had died. Some kind of disease of the blood. I kept digging. God sees everything! she wept, and I cried Amen! and kept digging. I had to dig deep before I found blackness. It was frozen, the earth, like a great shelf of stone, but finally I hacked out several chunks. I hacked until I had enough for this tin.”
He slid the tin between his legs to the floor. “You understand me, Alexander Alexandrovich. From that day it has been with me, this dust. I carried it with me to four continents. A fact. Sometimes on my mule — I had several mules in my life, did I tell you? — and sometimes strapped to my back.” He exhaled: where was that breath coming from? “On certain afternoons, when I am tired and my memory is sharp, full of visions and smells of the past, I take off the cover and smell this soil, and I hold the tin against my belly and ribs. Against my bowels. This is my home, after all. My nose understands this smell,” and he frowned a fierce frown: for a moment the old man turned gargoyle. “And the animals know — I communicate with them.” Then his face relaxed.
Kolodny bent over the tin. It smelled more like dust from an attic than earth from a cold Russian field, and there was also something of the sea in it, a faint trace of canvas and hemp. Bad business, bad business. Obviously this was part of his problem. Too many knots tying him to the past. Dust and wild animals. It was surely bad business. He was clearly not ready to surrender his tin.
OF COURSE they weren’t prepared — preparation with him was tin-sniffing and spinning his yarns — but Kolodny had submitted all the documents, along with a passport-type photo he had paid for himself (a deplorable shot, like a circus poster of the World’s Oldest Living Homo Sapiens), and the day of the examination came. They took the bus to the federal building on Sansome Street. Although they were late, Serafimovich seemed unbearably calm, optimistic. “The Potala,” he winked as they walked through the lobby.
The examiner’s name was T. J. Hunter, and his head was a neatly combed circle, a friction-free head which the Lord had designed for utility. Kolodny disliked him at once; he reminded him of Roger and his insurance policies. Clinical. Serafimovich seated himself at the side of the desk, and Kolodny took a chair against the beaver-board partition, under a photograph of the Justices of the Supreme Court. Earl Warren looked grim.
“Back,” Hunter droned, waving his ball-point pen at Kolodny, “back to the waiting room. Can’t have you here.” A ventriloquist: his lips didn’t move, but the words came out anyway. He kept his tongue rolled up in the back of his nose. Serafimovich folded his hands. His beard quivered.
“ The old man has bad ears,” Kolodny said.
The examiner leaned back in his swivel chair, thoughtful and annoyed. His head was like a balloon with a pinprick, and the gas was leaking out slowly.
“His hearing is bad.” Kolodny insisted.
“Hard of hearing, are you?” Hunter asked.
Serafimovich crossed his legs and scowled at the bookdealer. “No.”
It was too hot in the waiting room. Too many pregnant women, too many clerks wielding rubber stamps. The man sitting half-asleep in the back row looked too much like King Farouk. Kolodny roamed through the halls with his hands in his pockets, read the bulletin boards, filled his mouth with warm water from the fountain, studied the faces of the clerks and the elevator operators, and stared out the window at San Francisco Bay, gray and rain-swept below him. Over there, out of view behind the hill, was Clement Street and the shop. Today, perhaps, customers were waiting for him. Not likely. Mount Tamalpais to the north rose up pale and unlovely, its haunches immersed in a mist which washed out depth and shade and left everything underexposed. He saw the ridge where he used to go hiking with Roger. His breath was steaming up the glass. He wiped it off. And almost directly below him, slightly to the left, the financial district and the fancy aluminum building where Roger sat sassy and fat with his white telephones. He forced his eyes back to the mountain. There is also destruction in distance: either end of the telescope bruises and robs.
Then he heard Hunter’s voice summoning him from the end of the hall. “Come in here,”he demanded, his tongue in his nose, “I can’t spend the whole morning on one deaf old man.”
Kolodny entered feeling apologetic, embarrassed. It was a reflection on him, yet he was equally aware of the absurdity of his feelings.
“Hallo,”Serafimovich said brightly, uncrossing his legs. “I am finished?”
Hunter did not even look at him. He removed his glasses and rubbed the sores on the bridge of his nose. “How many states in the Union?”
“Alabama — ”
“How many houses in Congress?'’
Serafimovich opened his mouth, then closed it. He looked at Kolodny. The bookdealer remained deadpan.
Hunter droned on. “How many branches in the government? What are the branches?”
“In the government,” Kolodny shouted, mouthing his words into the old man’s left ear, “how many branches?”
“High court —”
Hunter waited, one shoe on top of the other under the desk.
“Legislature—senators.” Pause. “Senators.”
Hunter reversed his feet. “Checks and balances — what does that mean?”
“Checks and balances,” Kolodny said.
“Checks and balances,” Hunter repeated.
The beard quivered.
Hunter flipped the page of the examination booklet. “How many years does a President serve?”
Serafimovich sat up, then leaned forward. “Which one?”
“What should I do with this old man?” Hunter asked. “He doesn’t know what I’m talking about.”
Serafimovich cleared his throat. “You permit me to smoke, brother?”
“Smoke,” Hunter said. “You don’t need my permission to smoke.”
They looked at each other, all three of them. “He’s pretty old,” Kolodny suggested.
As they stepped into the elevator Serafimovich fluffed out his whiskers. “OK?”
Kolodny stared blankly at the emergency-exit rules. “Fine.”
The eyebrows went to work.
“Button your coat, it’s still raining.”
“I am tired,” he said. “I—” and he rapped his cane against the elevator. Down plunged the steel box, beneath streets and houses, and lower and lower. “We will try again,” Serafimovich said, and the steel cage went deeper, and yet farther down.
So they picked up the pieces. Kolodny put the old man on a rigid schedule: when to eat, when to study, when to pay court to tigers and apes. He employed sundry threats. He resorted to bribery: promises of all the pelmeni he could stuff in his gut. Serafimovich looked grave, twisted his beard between his fingers, and responded as one might expect. Kolodny brought up the geographical location of the prairie states, and Serafimovich plunged into a sermon on partridges. Gallinaceous fowl. “A Perdix perdix of the subspecies Perdicinae — a gray partridge which I had painstakingly trained
and I would call to him, as though he were a regular seafowl: Holloa there, Mishka, you foolish Perdix, how’s the weather upstairs?”
“You will not get your papers,” Kolodny assured him. “You will die under the Imperial Flag.”
“. . . and a frigate bird who followed our ship out of Newfoundland, a Fregata aquila . . .”
And suddenly Kolodny felt the burden of his years on his shoulders and back, he felt for one stone-cold, unbearable moment the death of his wife and the indifference of his son, and the rain kept on falling, and the business was going kaput.
“Enough!” he whimpered, struggling to put on his raincoat. One sleeve had been turned inside out. “I’m going for a walk. Watch the store.”
“I am sorry,” Serafimovich said.
“So am I.”
“Men must focus their eyes on essentials.”
KOLODNY regretted his temper at once, before he had come to the end of the second block. Had he offended the old man? Would he leave now? But where would he go? Already he saw Serafimovich removing his pictures from the walls, slipping the tacks into his pocket, packing his suitcase, wiping the cobwebs from the tin. He hurried back to the shop. Dear God, he had done it; the shade was down, and the CLOSED sign lay propped on the sill. Kolodny wanted to weep: he was cursed, a man destined to suffer a series of losses. Even the key was rebelling: it stuck in the lock.
But there he was, the old reprobate, lying on his cot, a book propped against his knees. Kolodny said nothing. He felt greatly relieved. What were manuals and flags? Serafimovich could stay with him, eat his soup ad infinitum. He wanted him to stay. And he made a decision: there would be no more lessons or interrogations.
“Still raining,” Serafimovich observed, noting the puddle Kolodny was leaving on the floor.
“Still raining.” He shook out his raincoat. “ Let’s have tea.”
And the following day, as if in reaction to the bookdealer’s new policy, the inexplicable card came. How to account for it? A mistake? It was no mistake. An official postcard, Department of Immigration and Naturalization, signed T. J. H. Kolodny was dumbfounded: he had misjudged this man Hunter. Hunter had bowels, after all, and a heart. The card advised that Yuri V. Serafimovich had successfully passed the citizenship examination and would be sworn in at the federal courthouse on the twenty-first of the month at 3 P.M., Judge Harry Neumann presiding.
On the day of the swearing in Kolodny arranged to close the shop early and meet Serafimovich at the New Manchuria for dinner. There are things men must celebrate. Already he had bought him a full pound of halvah — Serafimovich was childishly fond of halvah — and a carton of Camels. “First an early dinner,” the bookdealer said, “then we’ll go to the zoo. Since my boy graduated from high school I haven’t seen the zoo.”
“Good!” Serafimovich broke off a large chunk of halvah, leaving crumbs on his coat and the floor, and began shoving it into his beard. “I want to Lake notes. I told you about the new ratel, the rare Metlivora capensis —”
“For God’s sake, don’t plunge into lectures on ratels! You’ll be late for the swearing in. The New Manchuria — you know where it is? Brush your coat.”
“I know where it is. But we must eat fast. They lock up the gates sharp at five.”
“Wait a minute. Five. No. Better go to the zoo first. Then we can take the whole night with our dinner, and I’ll order a bottle of kvass.”
“I’m going,” Serafimovich said. “The zoo. I’ll be there before you. Look for me. I’ll be smoking your Camels in front of the ratel.”
A customer came in looking for Lazhechnikov’s House oj Ice. Kolodny knew he had it, but it was difficult to find. By the time he had ferreted out the volume, Serafimovich had departed, and Kolodny noticed that he had taken the tin with him. Incorrigible! Crumbs of halvah and a tin in a dignified courthouse!
Business was unaccountably brisk that afternoon. a group of language students from Berkeley, a good omen, but it meant that Kolodny was delayed. He took the “K" car to the zoo. Almost closing time, and the rain had given way to a dense, grayish fog which was blowing in from the ocean in large pockets, like great, heavy opera-house curtains. Serafimovich wasn’t at the ratel’s cage, or anywhere else. Over the loudspeaker a voice announced that the zoo was closing. Where was he? Avoiding the watchmen and caretakers, who were whirring about in the fog on three-wheeled scooters, he slipped past the various animal shelters. He gave silent thanks for the fog and the poor visibility.
Yuri Vassilyvich. The log kept rearranging itself around him. Kolodny tiptoed on, soles squeaking, past the oxen and ibex, the apes and the pronghorn, and then he discovered the old man.
Serafimovich was shuffling from compound to compound, from railing to railing, and each time he stopped, he plunged his hand into the tin box and scattered the dust among the beasts. Kolodny kept his distance and peered through the curtains of fog. When Serafimovich stopped, Kolodny stopped. When he moved, the bookdealer went forward. Dust to the elephants, dust to the imprisoned cats. Like a planter, the old man was sowing his dust.