Galina called to say she had bought me a first-class ticket to Moscow, and then she said that my brother was dead. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d never even received first-class mail since the postal service introduced it six years ago, let alone a first-class train compartment. As for Kolya, well, he’d been dead for years.
She lived in a top-floor penthouse with a chest-tightening view, lined with thick white carpets that may have been polar bear pelts. Wealth announces itself with what’s easy to break and impossible to clean. The chairs were all curvy works of art that turned sitting into yoga exercises. Jasmine and plum perfumed the air. A crooning tenor went into histrionics on the Bose. Dozy bronze Buddhas meditated on the bookshelf. I was wondering if artsy-fartsy types in Tibet fetishize crucifixes when Galina returned, her loosely tied kimono yawning at the chest and knees.
“My. God. Who is your hairstylist?” she asked.
In truth, I’ve never had a haircut that’s fit my head. One-Eyed Onegin used to give my head the once-over with the clippers, but depth perception isn’t his strong suit. Plus I’m pretty sure he uses them to shave his pubes.
“I don’t really have one.”
“Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Very avant-garde.”
If a stopped clock is right twice a day, a bad haircut is right twice a decade.
It had been longer than that since I’d last seen Galina, since my brother left for his first tour and she became a celebrity and they never saw each other again. It’s easy to forget what someone really looks like when you see them everywhere. On billboards her face is airbrushed as smooth and shiny as an inner organ, and she has a bust-waist-hips ratio that is found in nature only inside the mind of a Dr. Frankenstein with Adobe Photoshop training. But the Galina standing there in a slab of noon light, made up and manicured, in a fancy kimono that ten million silkworms gave their lives for, looked more person-like than the Galina of the billboard, tabloid, or screen.
“It’s been the most brutal morning, Alexei,” she said. People who have it easy are always telling you how hard it is.
“You’ve been following the earthquake in Indonesia?” I asked.
“What? No, a trollop from the Royal Shakespeare Company landed the Russian seductress-spy role in the new Bond film. Probably shagged Leo the Lion to get the part.”
“I’m sure you’d have gotten it if anyone in Hollywood had seen Deceit Web,” I offered encouragingly. Her gaze dive-bombed to the floor. Some people you just can’t cheer up.
“I know I should count my blessings, but that’s what accountants are for.”
“Must be weird being you.”
“It’s a strange thing, Alexei. When we were teenagers, I’d never even imagined living in a penthouse with a chauffeur and a chef and a butler. But now that I have it, it’s nothing. Am I awful for saying that?”
“Just a little.”
“Life’s a little awful, I’m afraid. Pitiful creatures spinning on a senseless rock around a dying sun in a cold and uncaring cosmos and they still won’t give me the Bond movie. Fighting over matches while the world burns, no?”
“Sure,” I said. But I was trying to decide if it was rude to take a fifth konfeti when she still hadn’t taken one. Nope, definitely not.
“So how’ve you been? You’re not still in university, are you?”
“I am,” I beamed. Through sheer grit and tireless effort, I’d managed to stretch a five-year philology degree into its tenth annum. It was a loaves-and-fishes variety of miracle. The universe may be cold, dark, and indifferent, but in university you get to take club drugs all night and sleep all day. “I’m working on my thesis paper. On Odessa Tales. I have my title, ‘Babel’s Babbles,’ but that’s about it.”
“I haven’t read it,” I said. “I don’t want the text to influence my interpretation.”
A sixth confection dissolved into a starchy paste that sopped the saliva from my tongue. We were quiet for a little while.
“You heard about Lydia?” I finally asked.
All the blush in a beauty box wouldn’t’ve brightened Galina’s cheeks. “Yes,” she said. Her eyes fixed on a safe, vacant patch of wall over my left shoulder. “Alina told me about her and her mother, and of course your brother. Then Olga told me. Then Lara. Then Darya. Then Zlata. And Tamara must’ve told me a dozen times”—the six-member gaggle that feasted on crumbs fallen from the table of Galina’s celebrity; Lydia had been their seventh member—“I don’t even know how they get my number. I change it every few months, mainly to avoid them, and they still somehow find it. The Americans should hire them to track down Al Qaeda. Ten minutes on the phone with Tamara is enough to make anyone disavow their most sacred beliefs”—she lit an incense stick that smelled of lavender fields doused in sunshine—“but anyway, Lydia. Let’s be honest, never the sharpest bayonet in the battalion, was she? I’m not saying she should’ve known better than to confide in them. But, come on. You could confide a secret to a megaphone and it would stay quieter. I’ve tried to make a film of her murder, but it’s easier coaxing a mouse down a cat’s throat than a decent script into production.”
“It’s a tragedy,” I said. “For Lydia, for Vera, for Kolya, for—”
“You don’t need to tell me. It’s a national embarrassment, really, our film industry. If there is an afterlife, then the circle of hell just below the Satan-Judas-Brutus gang bang is reserved for development executives, I mean—”
“Why am I here?” I shrank a little in the crosshairs of her narrowed eyes. She wasn’t used to being interrupted.
“A good question, Little Radish, taking us to the heart of the matter—though why those with the most free time are the stingiest with it, I’ll never know.” She scooted her chair toward my side of the table. She even made scooting sound sexy. I was pretty sure she wanted me to become her paramour. I’m flattered, I’d tell her, but I can’t do that to my brother, Kolya, even if he’s dead. She’d dissolve into inconsolable weeping, saying if she couldn’t have me she had no reason to go on. Buck up, I’d tell her. I’d kiss her right on the lips—with tongue—and she’d swoon, obviously. Then I’d walk out the door without looking back.
“So listen,” she said, sliding her hand across the table until the space between her fingers and mine was as thin as a butterfly wing. “I went to Chechnya a few years back. With Oleg. He had some business there, drilling oil and his assistant. The tart. While he was out doing that, I visited a few army hospitals and bases. I thought starring in a Great Patriotic War biopic was enough, but no, my publicist insisted that I had to actually talk to the poor devils. A pair of jackboots away from being a wunderbar stormtrooper himself, my publicist. Anyway, I asked an army official about your brother.”
“I’ve asked after Kolya with every army official in every army office with a listed address and phone number. No one knows anything.”
“You’re just the sweetest, aren’t you?” Her eyes iced over. “When you’re an important person, you can ask a question and even an army bureaucrat will answer.”
She reached across the table and sealed my fingers within the warm envelope of her hand. Her pulse clicked against my wrist like a telegraph message her heart had sent me to decode.
My nerve endings gasped.
“I was told that he was taken prisoner and died on that field”—she nodded to the wall where a frame of golden dollops and curlicues wrapped around a simple painting of a pasture—“The field is something of a local landmark because it was the subject of this painting by some nineteenth-century artist. Rather dreary place if this is its most majestic vista. But it used to hang in a museum, so it must be important. I bought it.”
I left a trail of footprints in the plush white carpet as I approached the painting. It wasn’t much to look at, which is about all you can do with a painting. An empty pasture cresting into a hill. A small house. An herb garden. A waist-high wall of white stone meandering at a diagonal. But in a patch of plugged-in canvas the size of a halved playing card, two slender shadows ran up the hill. One was a head and a half taller than the other. A slender bar of green grass separated their dark hands, and I couldn’t tell if they were reaching for each other or letting go.
“Kolya died here? On this hill?” I asked.
“That’s what the army adjutant said.”
I turned back to the painting, to the two stick figures running up the hill, limbs unfurled. “Who are they?”
“I’m really not sure. I should’ve asked the prior owner when he called last year, asking for it back for a retrospective on Zakharov. Up in your stretch of the forest, actually. The Teplov Gallery, in Petersburg? I told them precisely where they could stick their request, and it wasn’t in their mailbox, mind you. The nerve. Sell you a painting one day, then ask you to donate it back the next. No more than vipers in ascots, these academics.”
A placard hung to the side of the painting. The final lines read Pay them no mind, for they are merely the failures of a novice restoration artist. They are no more than his shadows. They are not there.
My palms had dampened when I returned to the table. “You remember the mixtape we made for Kolya, before he went to Chechnya the first time?” I don’t know what prompted me to ask, but I’ve often thought about that tape.
She gave the widest smile. It was the first genuine sentiment she’d expressed that morning. “Devil, I’d forgotten. Then again, I try to forget about everything from Kirovsk. I was a mess back then, wasn’t I?”
She wanted me to say no, so I said, “Yes.”
“Let’s hope there’re no extant copies. If that made it online, I’m not sure I’d ever live it down. Probably as damaging as a sex tape, that.”
Nothing demystifies the glamour of celebrity like hearing one talk. I plopped an eighth confection onto my saucer. “He told me that he’d put off listening to the mixtape as long as possible. That he’d wait until he really needed it, like the last sip of water in his canteen. Do you think he ever heard it before, you know?”
I wanted her to say yes, so she said, “No.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Confections nine and ten landed on the saucer in tiny detonations of powdered sugar. I swear I just didn’t want them to go to waste.
“Oh, one other thing,” she said, crossing the living room to an antique desk constructed of a jillion drawers too small to hold anything larger than paper clips and stamps. She returned with a folded Polaroid I’d given to Kolya before he left for his first tour. I couldn’t risk unfolding it in front of her. “The army adjutant in Grozny gave me that.”
“Why’d you wait so long to tell me all this?”
She gazed at her dim reflection in the teacup, and then quickly broke it with the turn of the spoon. “I didn’t invite you here to talk about your brother. You see . . . my husband is divorcing me. Some people think I’ve been a bit too frank in my public comments on the state of modern Russia in recent interviews. You begin criticizing the casting choice of a certain director, and you end up comparing Putin, unfavorably, to Lord Voldemort. Who knows how these things happen?”
“What’s this have to do with me?”
“The painting, you idiot. The Zakharov. Oleg’s hired suit-jacketed leeches for lawyers. They’d claim my toes if they weren’t attached to my feet.”
I still didn’t understand.
She stared dismally. “I’m giving you the painting. Better you have it than the lawyers.”
Then I understood.
I wrapped the painting in enough bubble wrap to mummify a mastiff. She followed me into the hall. I’d sweep her off her feet and we’d waltz out the door. Never mind the daughter sleeping in the other room. The tabloids would call me heartless, but I won’t raise another man’s child as my own. We’d buy a mansion on the Riviera, and I’d learn how to do all the things the nouveau riche do, like buy cuff links and belittle the work ethic of the poor. I’d leave her heartbroken in Marseilles. She’d never recover. The tabloids would call me a cad, but I wouldn’t play by society’s rules. Everything in my life would be different. I just had to kiss her.
I shook her hand.
“It’s been good to see you, Alexei,” she said as she closed the door, and I knew she meant it. She’s not a very good actor.
From THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2015 by Anthony Marra.