Daniil Ivanovich Blinov climbed the crumbling steps of the city council. The statue of Grandfather Lenin towered over the building, squinting into the smoggy distance. The winter’s first snowflakes settled on the statue’s shoulders like dandruff. Daniil avoided Grandfather’s iron gaze, but sensed it on the back of his head, burning through his fur-flap hat.
Inside the hall of the council, hunched figures pressed against the walls, warming their hands on the radiators. Men, women, entire families progressed toward a wall of glass partitions. Daniil entered the line. He rocked back and forth on the sides of his feet. When his heels grew numb, he flexed his calves to promote circulation.
Daniil took a step forward. He bent down to the hole in the partition and looked at the woman sitting behind it. “I’m here to report a little heating problem in our building.”
“What’s the problem?”
“We have no heat.” He explained that the building was a new one, this winter was its first, someone seemed to have forgotten to connect it to the district furnace, and the toilet water froze at night.
The woman heaved a thick directory onto her counter. “Building address?”
“Ivansk Street, No. 1933.”
She flipped through the book, licking her finger every few pages. She flipped and flipped, consulted an index, flipped once more, then shut the book and folded her arms across it. “That building does not exist, Citizen.”
Daniil stared at the woman. “What do you mean? I live there.”
“According to the documentation, you do not.” She looked at the young couple in line behind him.
Daniil leaned closer, too quickly, banged his forehead against the partition. “Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street,” he repeated.
The woman considered an oily spot on the glass with mild interest. “Never heard of it.”
“I have 13, no, 14 citizens, living in my suite alone, who can come here and tell you all about it,” he said. “Fourteen angry citizens bundled up to twice their size.”
She shook her head, tapped the book. “The documentation, Citizen.”
“We’ll keep using the gas, then,” Daniil said. “Just leave the stove on for heat.”
The woman raised her eyebrows; Daniil seemed to rematerialize in front of her. “Address again?”
“Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street, Kozlov City, Ukraine. U.S.S.R. Mother Earth—”
“Yes, yes. We’ll have the gas-engineering department look into it. Next!”
Was it 14 now? Had he included himself in the count? Careful to avoid the ice patches on the sidewalk on his way home from work, Daniil wondered when he had let the numbers slip. Last month 12 people were living in his suite, including himself. He counted on his fingers, stiff from the cold. In the bedroom, first corner, Baba Olga slept on the foldout armchair; second corner, on the foldout cot, were Aunt Lena and Uncle Ivan and their three children; third corner, Daniil’s niece and her friend (but they hardly counted, since they ate little and spent most of their time at the institute); fourth corner—who was in the fourth corner? Wait, that was himself, Daniil Blinov, bunking under Uncle Timko; in the hallway, someone’s mother-in-law or second cousin or who really knew, the connection was patchy; on the balcony camped Cousin Vovic and his fiancée and six hens, which were not included in the count but who could forget them? Damn noisy birds. That made 13. He must have missed someone.
Daniil’s name had bounced from wait list to wait list for three years before he was assigned to his apartment by the Kozlov Canning Combine, where he worked as a packaging specialist. The 10-story paneled novostroïka had been newly built and still smelled of mortar. His suite was no larger than the single room he had shared with his parents in a communal apartment, but he could call it his own. The day he had moved in was nothing short of sublime: He walked to his sink, filled up a glass of water, took a sip, and lay down on the kitchen floor, his legs squeezed into the gap between the stove and the table. Home was where one could lie in peace, on any surface. He felt fresh and full of hope. Then came a knock at the door. Daniil’s grandmother burst into the apartment, four sacks of grain and a cage full of chickens strapped to her back. She spoke rural Ukrainian, which Daniil barely understood. She said something about her farm burning down and a neighbor who had it in for her. The exchanges between Daniil and his grandmother had never been long. And so Baba Olga stayed. Two. Two was all right. Until two became 14.
Daniil stuffed his hands back into the damp warmth of his pockets, climbed the narrow set of stairs up to his floor. The familiar smell of boiled potatoes and sea cabbage greeted him.
“Daniil, is that you?,” Aunt Lena yelled from the kitchen.
Daniil cringed. He had wanted to remain undiscovered by his relatives for a few seconds longer. He opened the closet to hang his coat, and a pair of gray eyes stared back at him, round and unblinking. Daniil started. He had forgotten Grandfather Grishko, the 14th member of the Blinov residence, who slept standing, as he used to do while guarding Lenin’s mausoleum. Daniil closed the door softly.
“Come look, we get barely any gas,” Aunt Lena said. She wore a yellowed apron over a floor-length fur coat. Its massive hood obscured her face. “Took me three hours to boil potatoes.” She turned the knobs to maximum; the elements quivered with a faint blue. “Did you go to the city council? They should look into it.”
“It seems they already have,” Daniil said. “They’re just better at turning things off than on.”
Aunt Lena’s daughter jumped out from under the kitchen table, singing, “May there always be sunshine / May there always be blue skies.” She air-fired at the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Aunt Lena tickled the nape of the child’s neck, and she retreated back under the table.
“What did they tell you at the council?,” Aunt Lena asked.
“The building doesn’t exist, and we don’t live here.”
She brushed a strand of hair off her forehead with a mittened hand. “I guess that makes sense.”
“I had a talk with the benchers last week.” She was referring to the group of pensioners who sat at the main entrance of the building, ever vigilant, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and cracking sunflower seeds day and night. “They told me this block was supposed to have only two towers, but enough construction material was discarded to cobble together a third—ours.”
A series of barks blasted through the thin walls of the bedroom. A chill colder than the air ran through Daniil. He hadn’t approved of the hens, but they were at least useful—now a dog?
Aunt Lena cast her eyes down. “Dasha. Bronchitis again, poor child.”
Daniil fiddled with the gas knobs, never having felt so useless.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
Aunt Lena’s daughter bellowed, “May there always be mother / May there always be me!”
Cough cough cough cough cough cough cough.
“I don’t know.”
Uncle Ivan appeared in the doorway to inform them that he needed to get a glass of milk. Everyone evacuated the kitchen and waited in the hallway to give him enough space to open the refrigerator.
The human shuffle complete, Daniil and Aunt Lena resumed inspecting the stove. Aunt Lena’s fur hood kept falling over her eyes until she flung it off, releasing a cloud of dust.
“Grandfather Grishko’s telling everyone he hasn’t seen his own testicles in weeks,” she said. “We’re tired of the cold, Daniil.”
Daniil stroked the smooth enamel of the stove. “I know.”
Cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough.
“And we’re tired of hearing about the testicles.”
The memo on Daniil’s desk unsettled him. It had been sent from Moscow:
In accordance with General Assembly No. 3556 of the Ministry of Food Industry, Ministry of Meat and Dairy Industry, and Ministry of Fish Industry on 21 January 1988, the Kozlov Canning Combine has been ordered to economize 2.5 tons of tinplate per month, due to shortages. Effective immediately. See attachment for details.
At the bottom of the memo, his superior’s blockish handwriting:
THIS MEANS YOU, DANIIL BLINOV.
Attached to the memo was a list of items the combine had canned that year. Daniil read the list with great interest. He mouthed the syllables, let them slosh around his tongue deliciously: sausages in fat; macaroni with beef, pork, or mutton; apricots in sugar syrup; mackerel in olive oil; sturgeon in natural juice of the fish; cubed whale meat; beetroot in natural juice of the vegetable; quince in sugar syrup; beef tongue in jelly; liver, heart, and kidneys in tomato sauce; cheek, tail, tips, and trimmings with one bay leaf; and so on.
The telephone on Daniil’s desk rang.
“You’ve read the memo?” Sergei Ivanovich, his superior, was calling. Daniil turned to look across the many rows of desks. Sergei Ivanovich stood at the doorway of his office, watching Daniil, the receiver pressed to his ear.
“I have, Sergei Ivanovich.” Daniil inquired about testing alternative tin-to-steel ratios for containers.
“None of that, Daniil Blinov. Just stuff more food into fewer cans. Use every cubic millimeter you have,” his superior said. “You’re not writing this down.”
Daniil pulled up an old facsimile and set to doodling big-eared Cheburashka, a popular cartoon creature unknown to science.
“Good, very good,” Sergei Ivanovich said. “But don’t think of pureeing anything.”
“The puree machine’s on its way to Moscow. Commissar’s wife just had twins.”
Daniil noted the diameter of Cheburashka’s head, to make sure the ears matched its size exactly. “Sergei Ivanovich? May I ask you something?”
“If it’s quick.”
“I was looking over the impressive list of goods our combine produces, and couldn’t help wondering … Where does it all go?”
“Is that a philosophical question, Daniil Blinov?”
“All I see in stores is sea cabbage.”
Sergei Ivanovich let out a long sigh. “It’s like the joke about the American, the Frenchman, and the Soviet guy.”
“I haven’t heard that one, Sergei Ivanovich.”
“That’s a shame,” Sergei Ivanovich said. “When I have time to paint my nails and twiddle my thumbs all day, Blinov, I’ll tell you the joke.”
Daniil resisted the temptation to roll himself into a defensive ball position under his desk, like a hedgehog. He straightened his shoulders. “Sergei Ivanovich? May I also ask about the pay?”
Daniil watched his superior retreat into his office. Sergei Ivanovich mumbled something about the shortages, surely the pay would come through next month and if not then, the month after, and in the meantime don’t ask too many questions. He hung up.
Daniil reached into his desk drawer, produced a new sheet of grid paper and a T square. He ran his fingers over the instrument, rich red in color, made of wild pearwood. When he was a child his parents had awarded the T square to him for top marks in school. At the time he wondered whether the pearwood held some magical property, a secret promise.
He set to work drawing diagrams of food products in 400-milliliter cylinders. Chains of equations filled his grid paper. Some foods posed more of a packing problem than others: Pickles held their shape, for instance, while tomatoes had near-infinite squeezability. Soups could be thickened and condensed milk condensed further, into a cementlike substance. String beans proved the most difficult: Even when arranged like a honeycomb, they could reach only 91 percent packing efficiency. In the middle of every three string beans hid an unfillable space. Daniil submitted a report titled “The Problematics of the String-Bean Triangular Void” to Sergei Ivanovich’s secretary.
For the rest of the day, Daniil pretended to work while the combine pretended to pay him. He drew Gena the Crocodile, Cheburashka’s sidekick. He pondered the properties of dandruff, specifically Grandfather Lenin’s dandruff. Could a bald man have dandruff? Unlikely. But what about the goatee?
Daniil reached the entrance to his building in late evening. His eyelids were heavy with fatigue, but his feet kept him from going inside. Perhaps it was the hacking coughs, the questions, the innumerable pairs of shoes he’d have to dig through just to find his slippers. With his index finger he traced the red stenciled numbers and letters beside the main entrance. Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk Street. The building was a clone of the other two buildings on the block: identical panels, square windows, and metal entrances; identical wear in the mortar; identical rebar under the balconies, leaching rust. Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk was there, in front of his nose. He blinked. But what if it wasn’t? He stepped closer to the stenciled numbers, felt the cold breath of the concrete. Was he the only one who could see it? It was there. Or it wasn’t.
“Fudgy Cow?” a voice behind him asked.
Daniil jumped. In the dark he could make out the hunched silhouette of Palashkin, the oldest member of the benchers. He sat in his usual spot on the bench. Palashkin lit a cigarette, handed a candy to Daniil. The chubby cow on the paper wrapper smiled up at him dreamily. Daniil hadn’t seen the candy in months. He pocketed it for later.
“What are you out here stroking the wall for?,” Palashkin asked.
Daniil shrugged. “I was just on my way in.” He stayed put.
Palashkin looked up at the sky. He said in a low voice, “It’s all going to collapse, you know.”
“Whispers is all it is now, rumors here and there, but give it another year. Know what I’m saying? It’s all going kaput.”
Daniil gave the concrete wall a pat, thinking that Palashkin was referring to the building. “Let’s just hope none of us are inside when she goes.”
“What are you, cuckoo in the head? We’re already inside.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m outside,” Daniil said, now feeling unsure.
“Go eat your Fudgy Cow, Daniil.” Palashkin extinguished his cigarette between his thumb and his index finger, stood up, and disappeared into the dark.
Daniil bent so close to the glass partition, he could almost curl his lips through the circular opening. The woman in booth No. 7 (booths 1 to 6 were closed for technical break), Kozlov Department of Gas, wore a fuzzy wool sweater that Daniil found comforting, inviting. He gazed at her and felt a twinge of hope.
The woman shut the directory with a thud. “What was it, 3319 Ivansk, you said?”
“Nineteen thirty-three Ivansk.”
“Look, I’ve heard rumors about it, but it’s not on any of the lists. Thirty-three nineteen Ivansk is, though.”
“That doesn’t help me.”
“Don’t be hostile, Citizen. You are one of many, and I work alone.”
“I know you know 1933 Ivansk exists. It exists enough for you to fiddle with the gas when you feel like it,” Daniil said.
“What are you accusing us of, exactly?”
“Us? I thought you worked alone.”
The woman took off her reading glasses, rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Refer to the city council with your questions.”
“I was there last week.”
“So nothing,” he said.
“Refer to the factory in charge of your apartment assignment.”
“What do you think they know? The whole combine is in a state of panic.” He was referring to the problem of the string bean.
“Best wishes with your heating problem,” she said. “Next!”
Cough cough cough cough cough cough cough.
Daniil entered his apartment to find every square centimeter of shelf and bed space covered in stacks of red bills. His relatives had squeezed themselves into corners to count the money. No one looked up when he came in.
Daniil backed out of the apartment, closed the door behind him, stood on the landing until he had counted to 30, then came back in. The red bills remained. All right, he thought, so the hallucination continues. Run with it. Let the mind have its fancy.
The children’s shrieks and snivels and coughs rang from the kitchen, but their voices seemed warped and far away, as though they were coming from a tunnel.
Uncle Timko, the only grown-up not counting bills, sat cross-legged on Daniil’s bunk, hacking away at a block of wood with a mallet and chisel. “Your grandfather’s disappearing testicles saved the day, Daniil.”
“I can’t stand lamenting them anymore,” Grandfather Grishko said. He assumed his straight-as-a-rod Honor Guard pose, cocooned in a bed comforter. “Back in my district, they had quite a reputation. The girls would come from far and wide just to—” He said a few things Daniil chose to block out of his hallucination.
“The children!,” Aunt Lena said from somewhere under her fur.
Grandfather Grishko tossed a red stack at Daniil. He leafed through the crisp bills, half-expecting them to crackle and burst into pyrotechnic stars.
“This is my life’s savings, Daniil,” his grandfather said. “I’ve been keeping it for hard times, and hard times have arrived. Take the money. Don’t ask me where I’ve been stashing it. Put it in for heating, bribe someone, anything.”
Daniil mustered a weak thank-you.
Uncle Timko held up his mangled block of wood. “Does this look like a spoon or a toothbrush?”
“It’s supposed to be both.”
“You’re getting wood chips all over my sheets.”
Uncle Timko ignored him. “Spoon on one end, toothbrush on the other. A basic instrument of survival.”
Four hours later, they finished counting the bills. The sum of Grandfather Grishko’s savings, along with the money the other relatives had scrounged up, turned out to be a hefty 8,752 rubles and 59 kopecks.
Daniil calculated what 8,752 rubles and 59 kopecks could buy. He took the rabid inflation into account, recalled the prices he’d seen at the half-empty state store the week before. Daniil looked from the stacks of bills to the expectant eyes of his family.
“We’ve got enough here to buy one space heater,” he declared. He held up a finger to stop the dreamers in the room. “If I can find one.”
Daniil discovered another memo on his desk, this one from Sergei Ivanovich:
TO FILL UNFILLABLE STRING-BEAN TRIANGULAR VOID, ENGINEER TRIANGULAR VEGETABLE. DUE FRIDAY.
Daniil rubbed his temples. An irresistible desire to stretch came over him. He wanted his body to fill the office, his arms and legs to stick out of the doors and windows. He wanted to leap and gambol where wild pearwood grew. His great parachute lungs would inflate, sucking up all the air on the planet.
The phone rang.
“Is that a Fudgy Cow on your desk?” Sergei Ivanovich stood in his office, on tiptoe, squinting again.
“Just the wrapper, Sergei Ivanovich.”
“I haven’t had one in months.”
The line filled with a heavy silence.
“I should get back to the triangular vegetable, Sergei Ivanovich.”
“You should.” Sergei Ivanovich kept the receiver pressed to his ear. “Daniil Blinov?”
“Yes, Sergei Ivanovich.”
“Was it good?”
“The candy? A little stale.”
Sergei Ivanovich let out a moan before catching himself. Daniil’s superior glanced at his own superior’s office, to find himself being observed as well. He hung up.
Daniil placed the wrapper in his drawer, beside the T square and the drawings of the entire Cheburashka gang. He turned to the diagram lying on his desk: a tin can containing exactly 17 black olives. Seventeen was the maximum capacity, provided the olives were a constant size. The ones in the middle were compacted into little cubes, with barely any space for brine. Good, thought Daniil. No one drinks the brine anyway.
The heater was set to a lavish High. Its amber power light flickered like a campfire. Fourteen figures huddled around the rattling tin box and took turns having the warm air tickle their faces. Some even disrobed down to their sweaters. A bottle of samogon appeared from its hiding place, as did a can of sprats. Daniil felt the warmth spread to his toes, to his chilliest spots. Aunt Lena took off her hood and Daniil noticed that her normally pallid cheeks had gained a lively red. Grandfather Grishko sat on a stool like a king, legs spread, chewing on a piece of vobla jerky he claimed predated the revolution.
A knock came at the door.
Everyone fell quiet. Daniil ignored it.
Aunt Lena poked Daniil’s arm.
Daniil took another swig of home brew, slid off his chair (which Uncle Timko immediately occupied), and opened the door.
Two tall men stood in the dark, narrow hallway before him, holding a coffin.
Daniil teetered where he stood. “Uh, hello.” His relatives crowded behind him. “If you’re here to collect me, I’m not ready yet.”
“We need access to your apartment, Citizen,” the man on the right said.
“Why?,” Daniil asked.
The man on the left rolled his eyes at the man on the right. “God dammit, Petya, do we have to give an explanation at every landing?”
“An explanation would be nice,” Daniil said.
“The guy on 10 croaked, and the stair landings aren’t wide enough for us to turn the coffin around,” the one named Petya said. “So we need to do it in people’s apartments.”
“Yet somehow you got it all the way up to 10.” Daniil knew the cabinet-size elevator wouldn’t have been an option.
“When the coffin was empty, we could turn it upright.”
“And now you can’t.”
Petya narrowed his eyes at Daniil. “Some might find that disrespectful, Citizen.” In agreement, Baba Olga flicked the back of Daniil’s neck with her stone-hard fingers. Petya said, “Look, this thing isn’t getting any lighter.”
“You aren’t here to collect anyone,” Daniil confirmed.
“As you can see, we’ve already collected. Now let us in.”
Everyone stood aside as the men lumbered in with the coffin, trampling on shoes and scratching the wallpaper.
“Yasha, we’ll have to move the cot to make room,” Petya said.
“Pink flower sheets.”
“Keep holding on to your end while I set mine down,” Yasha said. “Toasty in here, eh?”
“Yes, mind the heater by your feet,” Daniil chimed in.
“I’ll have to step out on the balcony while you pivot. Got it?”
Baba Olga lunged at the men. “No, no, don’t open—”
A panicked brood of hens stormed the room.
Aunt Lena clutched at her chest. “Sweet Saint Nicholas.”
“We’ll have to report this poultry enterprise, Citizens.”
Daniil opened his mouth to tell them the hens must have flown in from another balcony; then everything went dark.
The heater’s rattle ceased. The hens were stunned silent. Through the window, Daniil could see that the neighboring buildings were blacked out as well.
“Electrical shortages,” Yasha said. “Heard about it on the radio. Looks like the blackouts are starting today.”
“I’m setting the coffin down,” Petya said. “I have to set it down, dear God, it’s about to slip out of my hands—”
A delicate, protracted crunch of tin filled 17 pairs of ears. Daniil had counted. Seventeen, including the man in the coffin. No one said anything for a few seconds. They did not need to see to know what had been crushed.
“Well, looks like we’re going to be here awhile,” Yasha said. He sat, a shuffle followed, a stale smell of socks wafted through the air. “Wasn’t some jerky going around?”
Daniil’s head whirled. Seventeen humans in a room, arms and legs and fingers and toes laced together. Plus one bay leaf. The crunch of the space heater replayed in his mind. Seventeen olives. Cough cough cough cough. Daniil would die just like this, stuffed and brined with the others, their single coffin stuck in someone else’s bedroom. No one drinks the brine anyway. Already the cold was seeping in. A small clawed foot stepped on his. A little heating problem. A brush of feathers huddled on his feet, shivering. Daniil took a step forward, and the feathers swished past. In the dark he felt for the coffin, yanked out the crumpled space heater from underneath. The corner of the coffin slammed down to the floor. The children screamed.
Daniil stepped onto the balcony, flung the heater over the ledge. For a second he felt weightless, as if he himself were flying through the air. A hollow crash echoed against the walls of the adjacent buildings.
Daniil stepped back inside, sank down on his bunk. Wood chips scratched between his fingers.
Grandfather Grishko was the first to speak. “Daniil, go down and get it.” The whispered words were slow, grave. “We’ll get it fixed.”
Daniil didn’t know what his grandfather was hoping for, but he would do as he was told. Then he felt the cold steel of his uncle’s mallet and chisel among the wood chips. He grabbed the instruments and descended to the ground floor. A gruff voice offered caramels but Daniil snatched the man’s cigarette lighter instead. Its flame illuminated the red stenciled numbers. Daniil cared for nothing else, but there had to be heating, because heating meant No. 1933 Ivansk existed and he and his family had a place, even in the form of a scribble buried deep in a directory. He would show them, the ones behind the glass partitions, the proof. Daniil positioned the chisel. The first hit formed a long crack in the concrete, but kept the numbers whole.
“Novostroïka” is part of a story collection in progress.