A Sickness

by V.S. Yanovsky.
Translated by Isabella Levitin.

On the way downstairs, Borisov noticed once again how his neighbor was fearfully shielding her children from him on the narrow landing. "Disgusting! After all, I'm not a leper, those fools!"

He had long since changed his routine: instead of going West, to Broadway with its drug stores, restaurants and tobacconists, Borisov turned on to Amsterdam Avenue. There, in a crammed candy store, hemmed in by scandal sheets and a bright Coca-Cola machine, he ordered the standard coffee and toast. His hand, holding out a dollar bill, was trembling and Borisov recognized the glance, first of surprise, then of Jewish pity, with which the old man from Lutsk gave him his change.

He had planned to walk to the doctor's office for the certificate the unemployment people demanded, but now he was overcome by a loathing for this clear autumn day and by a long-standing, yet still alien, weariness. He took the bus.

Weaving in and out between heavy trucks, and stopping at every other corner, the bus advanced all too slowly. Again Borisov felt a flood of boredom and enforced idleness which seemed beyond endurance. Poisonous fumes rose from the line of buses ahead, and the din of the entire street converged into a single acoustic focus above his head.

Having settled his business with the doctor, a sweet childless Russian lady, Borisov went to Riverside Drive, where there was the semblance of a park, with trees, the river and distant views. To rest, to reflect — on a bench, in the sun! But he could not sit still; the odious body of time seemed to be engulfing him, smothering, squashing, demolishing him. So it was now, and so it had been for too long: mornings, evenings, awake or in deep sleep. He was in a desert, with nothing to expect, nowhere to go, no
one, really, to speak to. And yet, he knew that everything could change radically in an instant: suddenly, as on an X-ray film, new solid contours might appear out of the gloom. A chance encounter, a lucky telephone call, a fresh address, and life would immediately straighten out (as so often before!). That was why, day and night, in park, subway or wherever, Borisov was pushing against the empty superfluous bulk of time, in an effort to reach that split-second when a fortuitous arrangement of circumstances, a miraculous deal of grimy cards, an angelic chorus from the telephone, would put him back onto familiar smooth tracks. A man, heaving his shoulder against a hydraulic lift which continues unperturbed to rise at its own momentum, might experience the same frustration. (In other words, it was as if Borisov hoped by contracting his muscles to affect the movement of celestial bodies.)

He knew that he could not succeed, and a good thing it was, for why limit one's life to a number of disjointed, if interesting and pleasurable, moments? Yet his soul kept straining and his veins distending: the less results his efforts produced, the harder it became to breathe.

Proceeding down Broadway, he ran into chance acquaintances who rewarded him with astonished, sympathetic or condescending looks. When "Well, how are things? What did the doctor say?" they would press. He could not elude them.

If you tell your friends that you are hopelessly in love they will smile despite your obvious suffering, for everybody considers being in love a magnificent condition (not to be gauged by success, happiness or peace of mind).

Dare to admit that for seven months you have been out of work and you will get nothing but caustic advice, critical remarks or cheap sermons implying, "Well, it's never happened to me! You must be lazy! Or too picky!"

But if you announce that you have cancer, or kidney stones, that you need a major
operation, then you may gain genuine sympathy and, occasionally, on the rebound, even some cash. Stories about sickness have the most direct effect on the ordinary man. Personal merits become of secondary importance. Of course, there is always the, "I don’t drink …. I don't smoke !" but, when all is said and done, no one is master of his guts.

Thus Boris, made wise by experience, pointed to his belly. "A tumor! They’re considering an operation," and flitted by the attentive neighbors on the stoop, spiraling up the staircase.

In his room he threw himself on the bed with the momentary blissful feeling of having escaped a great danger. He hoped that he would fall asleep immediately, but a sudden blast of wind (a piercing thought, the memory of some recent insult, argument, letter, encounter) hurled him into the very center, the eye of the storm. Ridiculous! Only a minute earlier he had seriously expected to fall asleep. Now it was clear: even to lie still was torture.

He paced up and down the unswept room, considering what to do next … rummaged in old address books … attempted to read. But this too was unbearable. There he had it in a nutshell: a man is free all day long, for weeks, even months. How much he might learn, think about, understand — enter at least one remarkable line in his diary. But no! "Time" turns out to be amorphous, sterile, superfluous, disintegrating without having gained any content — pseudo-time. The soul, squeezed in pincers, is crumbling, down on her knees, in such a state that nothing miraculous can be asked of her any more. "The wind bloweth where it listeth." Yes, one could still pray, that was true. And sometimes Borisov did pray. But in other areas he was not up to his obligations: to clean the house, cook a meal, wash, make small talk, smile at children, and, above all, pay the bills for rent, gas and telephone — these were becoming ever more difficult and senseless. Impotent anger made him clench his fists; in a paroxysm of wrath he was ready to beat his head against the impenetrable wall. But then someone within him, someone familiar and divinely marked, would smile and speak out:

“You fool, that is exactly what they want. They are only waiting for you to turn into an insect, an ape, a reptile belching bile and curses. And you are ready to take the bait, to be hooked, you fool!"

And immediately Borisov's eyes would brighten, from a dull blue to a grey with the special, convincing, shine of noble steel. He felt the persuasiveness of his suddenly hardened fists and the accentuated weight of his whole earthly body, which was carrying a much heavier burden than textbooks of biology allow.

"The harder it is to preserve your image the more grounds for doing so; that is the dialectic!"

Absentmindedly, he had again threaded his feet into his wretched shoes, and there was nothing left for him but to go down, past the gum-chewing women who recoiled with their brood at the sight of their sick neighbor. Once in the street it became clear: there was nowhere to go. Have another coffee with a sweet sticky Danish … hand over the trembling dollar bill (an old woman is buying cigarettes, but Borisov has no desire to smoke — how long ago all this was !).

Walk to 96th Street.

Turn onto Riverside Drive.

Sit on a bench; across, the New Jersey shore tinted russet by the autumn sun (over there even factory stacks seem to be of pink Italian brick); below, spreading clumsily, the unnaturally wide and immobile river. From down there, from the invisible parkway, rose the swish of tires, waxing and waning like the ocean surf. Suddenly, unable to endure yet another fit of impatience, Borisov jumped up, discarded the stale newspaper he had found on the bench and broke into a trot, heading home to his own street; (around him there were old people; also toddlers and puppies, crawling, peeing, twittering in heaps of decoratively shriveled leaves). It was all like in a dream, when you try to hit someone or to flee, (without success), and you merely get exhausted from making rudimentary movements with paralyzed limbs.

Most humiliating were the weekends. Just because Borisov awaited them eagerly. On a holiday, idleness, rest, walks, early movies were justified — nothing to be ashamed of. But, alas, he constantly ran into so-called friends who were enjoying the day off. There was no escaping their questions, nor the holiday noises and odors.

"What's really the matter with him?" Borisov caught a hoarse, well-meaning whisper.

"Nobody knows," the pregnant young housewife replied.

"He's all rotten inside," asserted the Irish woman from the third floor.

(And indeed, he had begun to fear his guts had been rotting away for a long time.)
Ten years before, when Borisov was out of work for a solid seven months, he had also stuck close to home base. Neighbors and acquaintances quickly skipped over the phases of pity and contempt and ended up hating him. But now, having heard of his grave illness, although somewhat keeping their distance (especially the mothers
of small children), they tried to be of help, they did him domestic favors and the men occasionally even offered him small loans.

Just as indifferently and restlessly as he watched the sunset or lolled on his bed, Borisov went up to the box office of the local movie house. From the darkness he stared at the screen where people whom he could have liked were impersonating unnecessary and uninteresting heroes. Sometimes, though, an edenic scene amused him: six toughs glumly beating up one guy; a snake, slowly, inspiredly, swallowing another (beginning with its head) … Smiling tensely as if having remembered something urgent, Borisov got up and distractedly headed for the exit. However, before crossing the final line, realizing what awaited him outside, he turned back and climbed to the balcony, where he meekly dozed, every now and then looking up in wonderment at several other misfits who, like himself, happened to have dropped in on the afternoon show at a third-class movie house. In the yoke of fabulous catastrophes in the centre of the Milky Way, as a result of a combination of reckless miracles, thanks to twenty billion years of astronomical gymnastics, shifting continents, floods, erupting glaciers, the Old and New Testament, wars and revolutions — these survivors, for want of anything better to do, had landed at this cheap show and there come to rest.

Next to him some children-were innocently munching and squealing; there was a smell of urine and candy.

“You can't just sit here, you must do something!" And there he was again, blinking and sighing in the dusty, sundrenched street.

Yes, when Borisov had led a normal existence, he had found neither time nor strength to think about the meaning of life, to tackle such a question in earnest. And now that there was time enough and to spare, he could not come to grips with this theme either — because his soul was crushed and bewildered, deprived of the accustomed props.

He walked the streets like a dead man who has been let out only to see that day still follows day in his native village and that life continues as it used to be, unchanged; (this is an essential property of death: everything remains as before — without you!)
The fact that Borisov, while still alive, was already dead to his street simply by virtue of having lost some of his dimensions – no longer buying fruit, cracking jokes, taking care of his laundry – this fact could be used as a proof of the relativity of death itself. It, too, is a conventional quantity and in need of analysis and interpretation.

Home again, past the garage where glistening buffoons attentively followed his progress, as if he were a sexy babe or a potential hold-up man.

In newspapers and books it says: America, New England, the Far West, the Eastern Seaboard, New York … One imagines a gigantic butterfly with asymmetrical, colorful spots: the USA. The clanking of engines, the howling laughter of turbines, the cities of the triumphant mushroom, the dance of artificial dentures on Wall Street, oil from Texas, tobacco from Virginia, the Lynch Law, Rocky Mountain spotted-fever, Hollywood starlets. But in reality it turned out to be a side-street, where Borisov has lived for twelve years, around the corner from a school with crowds of motley children, and a Catholic church in whose basement one voted for the president; Mrs. McShane, a widow, mother of Jane, Joy and Geraldine, whose youngish, taciturn husband, a great swiller of beer, died of a coronary in the elevator which he operated; the superintendents wife, a flabby woman from the West Indies who, a year before, was raped by a Spanish-speaking passer-by, and has half a dozen children scattered over the damp linoleum while in the corner the forgotten TV set keeps advertising turkeys and lamb roasts in color. All this, familiar, thwarted, shameful, and saved by Christ; European, Russian, human, eternal – like anywhere, and from which so rarely a Mozart or a Gauguin springs – had nothing whatsoever in common with that poisonous butterfly on the colorful geographical map.
"He's losing weight," said the laundress behind the window of her shop; Borisov did not hear her voice, but he could read her fleshy lips.

"He's been opened up once already," stated, or inquired, the attendant at the gas pump.

"He's completely rotten inside," announced the redheaded Irish woman, a good Catholic.

Borisov, out of breath but still taking several steps at a time, was climbing up to the fourth floor. Often, at precisely this minute, he heard a phone ring and prayed that it was for him, running even faster – without regard for his racing heart. Theoretically he knew that salvation does not come this way; (if they really need him they'll call again). Yet, like one of Pavlov's dogs, he always reacted to the familiar sound in the same way, although his thoughts at such moments were not doggish at all, but different every time. ("It must be a business call. Friends have long since stopped calling me. Only when I die they'll make a fuss and start phoning each other. But it's all my own fault.") In the hasty search for the keys he usually dropped some coins for which he later searched in disgust.

Needless to say, the ringing came from the apartment next door, inhabited by a couple of particularly barren and noisy homosexuals: even their kettle whistled like a fire engine.

Once, when Borisov was between the second and third floors, his phone actually did ring. He managed to rush in (without closing the door) and with the hand that still held the keys loosen the tie around his wet neck, while with the other hand ("bleeding but ironhard" as the poet Gumilev has it) he grabbed the receiver.

A certain Gordon was calling; the chance that it would be this particular man was about the same as that an actor who had died two years before in Hollywood would suddenly knock at his door. But, inasmuch as Borisov harbored no special feelings for Gordon, he was not shocked; (resurrection without love for the miraculously risen will not satisfy anybody and may even become a source of all-around chaos).

" Some time ago I took down your number. Are you still available?" The voice conjured up the picture of a heavy-set executive at an enormous desk covered with an array of samples«

"Yes, I am still available (hurrah!)," Borisov responded hoarsely, trying to readjust his dislocated voice; (at the end something beggarly and cornered had sobbed up in his drained throat). He coughed to erase the impression, but he knew that Gordon would not be fooled; (the serpent that first succeeds in forcing shut the other's jaws will automatically, then, swallow it).

And indeed, the hint of feebleness in his voice cost him twenty-five dollars a week.

Gordon offered one seventy-five to begin with.

"I understand you are qualified?" he asked again.

"Of course! Don't worry!" Borisov was already playing the part.

And on Tuesday, November 1st, he started living again. The alarm droned at 6:30. He had coffee on Broadway with two of his neighbors. Then the subway, reminiscent of a track meet; at noon a sandwich in the business district, again the studio, and the hour's ride underground. Finally, around six o'clock, with sweating belly, he entered his old restaurant at the corner.

"Hi, Boris," the athletically built waiter with the baby-like smile greeted him; during the war he had sailed several times to Murmansk and become a fast friend of the Russians.

"Say, I hear you were sick?" solicitously, but not waiting for a reply. These were the hours when the restaurant was jammed and supposed to pay for the day's overhead.

"It turned out to be a gallstone," Borisov explained to the boss who was serving beer.

"Now everything is fine."

"Keep punching!" On the run, the athlete threw him the words like a ball.

Borisov was filled with proud joy. He liked that mood! Life is only a game; the team carries the ball. Score a goal, win a prize, raise children, then the whistle: half-time, players off the field! How foolish to complain about conventions, bourgeois morality, the absence of higher meaning: a game is a convention and therein lies its purpose. One must simply stick to the established rules. A goal should not be considered an absolute value. It is forbidden to take the ball outside the playing field. Nonsense to seek for the metaphysical meaning of an "out." Only children and barbarians keep asking, "Why must it be done like this? Can't it be the other way round?" Any game makes sense if you attain mastery and derive pleasure from it. And if you are beaten to the ball or knocked down, don't complain, don't attempt to explain why it happened. Yes, the soldiers at Verdun, filthy, lice-ridden, hungry, angry, ready for anything, fulfilled at the price of their lives only one, circumscribed, absolute task. But the members of an athletic team pour onto the field, clean, groomed, trustworthy, inspiring confidence, respectful of order and other people's property, all of them united by the conventional rules of the game; (and it is pleasant to meet with them even after the match).

"Who is right?" Borisov pondered, drowsy from the warmth, benevolence and rhythmic efficiency surrounding him. "Is life Stalingrad or is it an entertaining game with transitory aims … Or is there still a third possibility?"

"Hi, Boris, how do you feel?" A yellow gnome, who not long ago was the center of a family drama involving the police, sat down next to him; with dignity he ordered Irish stew and beer.

Borisov readily took part in the uncomplicated and pleasant exchange, baring his teeth in an optimistic smile, cheerfully throwing out his chest, and letting fall to all and sundry:

"I'm fine, I'm all right "

"Good boy!"

"Have another beer!"

It seemed to Borisov, one more second and he would understand everything. Yes, the third possibility! If only, instead of running to the subway, he could stay home tomorrow and the day after, he would surely find the answer. A vicious circle. The boa constrictor which has clamped down another reptile’s jaws will slowly suck it up … and both, during that time, may have highly creative visions.

After his working day, Borisom returns home, thinking of a certain girl he might call up. The women on the stoop and stairs greet him with relief, as if he were a soldier back from a long campaign.

"Lovely day!" Borisom avers.

And the antique chorus echoes back, "Lovely day, isn't it." Only the pious Irish widow, caught by surprise between two landings, hissed, "A temporary improvement. That happens."