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Excerpt from the 3rd novel of the SwiftPad Trilogy
“Digging Around the Pandemic: The SwiftPad Extinction”
BULGAKOV AT THE PONDS
OF THE PATRIARCH
On October 12, meteorologists noticed that unusual conditions in the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia were beginning to brew. Stockholm had a record 10 consecutive days of over 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
In the Finnish Islands to the east the water temperature had risen to nearly 23 degrees Celsius, a record by nearly four degrees. The Baltic Fisheries Commission issued a warning that bacteria in herring had been detected and had sickened over 100 tourists on Gotland Island. At the same time an Arctic high-pressure mass was moving in from the north, setting up conditions for some ominous weather to come.
From The Fall of It All – A History of the Big Dump
AFTER CHUBBY GOT TO HIS FIRST-CLASS TRANSSIBERIAN cabin, he didn’t see Georgy for the whole trip. It was possible he was nearby, because most of the first-class cabin doors remained shut. People bought first-class privacy to hide from the virus – fear of the virus was driving everyone into hiding, in order to stay alive…or sane.
So many trains, Kip remembered, had been open, social affairs. Strangers would chat in the corridor, share food, or vodka (well – not on Amtrak – Americans didn’t go that far with their friendliness). Chubby left his cabin door open. He propped himself up and watched Siberia, through the doorway, and through the panoramic window in the corridor. They went through the Urals at night, and he slept, fitfully. And then they came to the Steppe. He had some music on his fone – Journey – Steve Perry belting out the lyrics…on and on and on and on.
They crossed the Volga at Kazan, the ancient outpost against the Tartars, which had been under siege almost continually for a hundred years ending in the mid-sixteenth century. Mother Volga…from the railroad bridge crossing it, you could see out across the Steppe forever.
When they pulled into Yaroslavsky station in Moscow, his plan was mapped out in his head. He caught a glimpse of someone he thought was Georgy, disguised with a blond wig and a long coat, looking like Bruce Willis at the end of 12 Monkeys. If it was Georgy, he hurried away and disappeared into the crowd.
Kip’s first task was to get some clothes. He had been wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt on top of a short-sleeve t-shirt. He walked out of the station and headed up the broad sidewalk on the Garden Ring boulevard. There were several clothing stores near the Pekin Hotel off Tverskaya not far from the train station, and he had no luggage, and was stir crazy from sitting on the train for nearly three days,so he walked. Cars on the boulevard but virtually no foot traffic.
He found an athletic-wear kiosk, and said fuck it, good enough, bought some dark-blue sweat pants with a stripe on the side, a dull green Adidas jacket, a cheap nylon backpack, a pair of blindingly white Stan Smith tennis shoes (in memory of Aldane), some jock underwear, and three футболка “futbolka” (soccer) t-shirts. And a mariner’s cap like Lenin wore. He bought a few hospital masks too, to fill out his flimsy backpack. Except for the high-class tennis shoes he looked like a wannabe Russian rapper.
The Pekin hotel was gloomy and foreboding, with blood-red heavy curtains on the windows, and Kip had a feeling that if he jacked off, it would end up as voyeur porn on Funcake. SwiftPad’s vlog app Funcake was GG’s booboo. She designed it, and even invented some video manipulation techniques that at the time were pretty advanced. Called it “an adult sensuality app.” Then – too long of a story to get into here – some of her developers went rogue and released it with no connection to its mother app.
He took a shower and changed into his new clothes and his black cap. Stalin had had a hand in designing the Pekin Hotel, and it was one of his big “triumphs” during the terror and deprivation of the times, when it opened just after the Second World War.
Kip studied himself in the long mirror in the bathroom (mirrors that were reputed to be two-way) as he put on his gopnik tracksuit. A total douchebag! In spite of wearing the Russian national gopnik costume (sans Stan Smith shoes), for some reason Chubby looked like a tourist. But he was only staying in Moscow one day, then on to St. Petersburg.
Somebody to meet soon. Georgy had told him to go to see Bulgakov’s house first, then on to Lubyanka. “Sit on a bench in the little memorial park on the south end” of the infamous secret police headquarters, Georgy had told him.
Kip had already every intention of seeing Bulgakov’s apartment, but wondered why Georgy told him to go. He was sure he hadn’t mentioned his love for the Soviet-era author, who more than anyone (other than Anna Akhmatova) tweaked Stalin’s nose.
He walked out of the Pekin Hotel into the morning sunshine, forecast to be another blisteringly hot day, and jaywalked across the Garden Ring street to visit Mikhail Bulgakov’s apartment, which was almost directly across from the hotel.
Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita had been his touchstone, what he touted as his “specialty” when applying to the various Russian Language programs that he talked his way into during his many brief enrollments in a number of universities (including Harvard). The apartment was exactly as he pictured it. In fact (when he was living on a meager monthly stipend from his “trust fund”) he had created almost the same atmosphere – an old building with a winding staircase, covered with graffiti, done in bizarre and quasi-obscene style, and definitely created by talented and skilled artists. It had a musty odor, and all kinds of rooms and alcoves with no regular size or shape, often connected with little hallways. The living room had been converted to a parlor with couches and chairs all facing the front.
Here Bulgakov’s friends would gather, and later, after his death, his worshipers all would come to hear secret recitations of his work and of other banned Russian authors, works called samizdat (самизда́т, “self-published”). It was here, Kip thought, in places like this that hope for mankind burned like a flickering candle.
Little clusters of people who held onto the truth, even through the worst of times. He could feel their presence, even now. He could even feel their fear.
“You read Bulgakov?” A man, wearing a mask, in his sixties at least, confronted him. “You read Russian?”
Chubby realized he was the only tourist in the apartment. The virus had scared away most tourists.
“да,” he said lamely.
“Here, I give you.” He handed him a small paperback copy of The Master and Margarita in Russian.
“Спасибо!” (Spasibo – Thank you)
“Don’t mention it.” Where had he heard that recently? thought Kip.
“Here, one more thing. Take.” It was a typed, stapled manuscript.
“We go underground like before!”
“Political?” Kip nodded to the manuscript in his left hand.
“Not even a little bit. Well, yes of course all is political! I promise. It is scientific treatise on fungus. Common fungus – maybe – you find on trees, in forests in Georgia, near Black Sea. Ancient wisdom. Maybe Herotitus wrote about it,”
“Who is Herotitus?”
“I don’t know, Greek maybe. You decide. No charge.”
“What is it about?”
“Fungus may cause virus – and maybe cure virus – I give you.”
“Go ask Alice,” the man said. “Maybe she know.”
“How –?” He let it go. It made sense, thought Kip. Of course – Jim’s mom. Alice would know. She had been the closest thing to a mom he had ever known. But what did he mean?
The man turned, walked away, and seemed to disappear into the labyrinth of the Bulgakov apartment.
Chubby headed down the Garden Ring to Malaya Bronnaya Street, and came upon the Ponds of the Patriarch. The setting for the first chapter of Bulgakov’s great novel was only a short walk from his home.
There was only one pond, although legend said there were once two. It had been a swampy hollow in the fifteenth century. The scene was exactly as Chubby saw it in his head: the graceful and ever watchful linden trees, the rectangular pond, approximately
100 meters by 60 meters. The pond was surrounded by a wide pea-gravel walkway. Benches were spaced all around the water, on both sides of the walkway. The grounds were immaculate.
It was right here that poor Berlioz, a literary magazine editor, and his young friend, a poet, met “the Professor,” a foreigner who speaks perfect Russian. Sitting right here at the junction of Malaya Bronnaya and Yermolayevskiy, here is the bench!
Probably the same bench. Except there are no tram rails on Yermolayevskiy Lane – that part is fiction. But next to a beautiful public park, the imaginary tram tracks are more believable than a guillotine.
The editor Berlioz had been criticizing a poem by the poet that was not definitive enough or clear enough in expressing the historical fact that Jesus had never existed. The editor goes through a list of ancient writers whose statements about Jesus were later proved to be forgeries. This scholarly recitation conforms to Communist party atheistic standards, and also refers to some obscure but current (early 1930s) literary quarrels within the Moscow writing community. The Professor overhears their discussion and says that Jesus definitely did exist. They argue about the logical strength of Kant’s philosophical proof of God’s existence. Berlioz and the poet joke with each other about the appearance and accent of the Professor (“He must be German!”) and attempt to tease him. But little by little they come to realize this guy is a heavyweight intellect, who might know more than they do. The Professor tells them what he says is the true story of the Passion of Christ – only the Christ he describes is a simpleton.
He digs into Pilate’s mind during the interrogation. Pilate knows something very world-shaking is occurring, yet he sloughs it off. We witness Pilate’s slippery and deceitful negotiations with the Sanhedrin.
Berlioz says that scene is not in the Bible! But the Professor triumphantly points out that Berlioz had just said the Bible was not true! The Professor says he was there, he witnessed it, and the Poet and Berlioz mock him. Soon the Professor says he is moving into Berlioz’s apartment and predicts that Berlioz would die (soon) from decapitation and it all turns out to be true (tram rails…) in a brutal, yet very funny way.
The Professor is the Devil, or maybe he really is Stalin. Anyway, as the novel proceeds, he takes over Moscow.
CHUBBY MEETS NIKOLOZ
“I continued down Bronnaya Street. It was so peaceful, fragrant, full of beautiful healthy linden trees, and very upscale. Tall and spectacularly beautiful women dressed in opulent Fifth Avenue style were escorted by short, balding men in too-tight dark suits. Still under the spell of the fi rst chapter of The Master and the Margarita, walking in a trance, I snapped photographs in my mind’s eye, pictures I can still recall and see in full color, each block, each store, each restaurant, just watching and consciously recording the scene in my memory. Beautiful cafés with beautiful waitresses, intriguing and very alluring alleyways, huge windows, half opened, hinting at great wealth and status inside spacious apartments. I felt friendly eyes where I least expected them.
“I had no idea that the stapled, smeared, half-typed, half-handwritten manuscript I carried in my fl imsy backpack was perhaps the most valuable treasure, the most important document in the world. It was the answer to so many prayers – and I remember, as I passed a rubbish bin, thinking – why do I need to lug this around? I almost threw it into the trash on Bronnaya Street.”
From The Fall of It All – A History of the Big Dump
CHUBBY CONTINUED TOWARD THE CENTER OF
Moscow, the Kremlin. He didn’t go in to see the Apostolic Churches, but walked around to the side, through Red Square down to St. Basil’s. There was a pretty big crowd there, with everyone wearing a hospital mask. Eyes, lots of eyes peering out of half-hidden faces, seemingly looking at him. He thought, this must be what it was like in the Seraglio – Mozart’s Turkish harem. How seductive the eyes can be!
Chubby headed over to Lubyanka. It wasn’t far. Georgy had told Chubby to expect company, that there would be people watching him. Chubby had a gut-level understanding of the danger he was in but understood the only way to fight it was to ignore it. He and Nikoloz (who bristled angrily after Kip called him Nicky) met in perhaps the most ominous (yet hopeful) place imaginable – on the southern end of Lubyanka, in the heart of Moscow. The giant secret police headquarters where tens of thousands of political prisoners were executed by the long line of Soviet henchmen was shrouded in a giant burlap covering in preparation for some renovations apparently, or perhaps it was only the sudden onset of shame, a desire to hide. He and Nikoloz sat on the pedestal of the Solovetsky Stone, the memorial to the victims of Stalin’s Gulag, a simple large hunk of granite that had been hauled from a Siberian labor camp. The stone had recently replaced the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s Interior Minister who founded what became the KGB (now the FSB).
“Moscow and St. Petersburg are ready to move against him. But unlike your Real-Prez, ours is a clever man. He clearly understands what people in the street have against him, and he creates hope and confusion to make them hesitate, make them somehow half-believe that he just might be a ‘secret democrat.’ They say, ‘If only he can control the wolves who control him!’” Nikoloz looked out down to the park on Staraya Square. It was filled with young lovers cuddled on benches. A scene like that 50 years ago would have been informants meeting their handlers. “But he knows that his hold on power is dependent on Russians thinking that it is he who controls the White House! Once that illusion is broken, he is finished. The people here – in Moscow and in St. Petersburg – are ready for real democracy. But it all depends on America.”
Kip had met Nikoloz before, in the spring, in Georgia, when he had romanced Nikoloz’s half-sister Milana. When he had last seen Nikoloz – he had been certain he was on the other side. And in fact, he may be still.
“‘Moscow rules’ are obsolete,” said Nikoloz, referring to leCarré’s security procedures that agents follow when on enemy ground. “Technology has made so much useless, probably us most of all.”
Chubby wondered about “us,” but he remained silent.
“Walking around the city, be sure to stop and talk to people. Linger.” Nikoloz looked back at the looming prison. It was once the site of one of the earliest churches in Moscow. Irony that thick is almost comedy. “See that window up there? Third floor – it was Beria’s office, he used to look down here at the statue of his predecessor, the ‘Iron Felix’ who stood right here. Andropov used that office too.”
“Maybe someone is looking down at us now?” said Chubby.
“Maybe. Doesn’t matter. The only way to change the future is to ignore what the past says is supposed to happen. Envision the future we need to have. Join in with what you see. Follow the crowd. Join protest groups if you see them. They won’t see you.
They only see you if you hide. They are looking for the furtive, the side-eyeing man in the corner. Be open, and you are more likely just to walk in where you need. Russians are trusting, and they love the innocent idiot.”
“How is Milana?”
“She can tell you herself. Allegro Hotel by Moscow Station, in Leningrad,” Nikoloz’s face gave nothing away. He put a burner fone on the stone and left.