“Let it not be inferred from this that our hero’s character had grown so blase and hard, or his conscience so blunted, as to preclude his experiencing a particle of sympathy or compassion.”
-Gogol, trans. D. J. Hogarth
Tchitchikov awoke on an early Sunday and found himself in a brief textual exchange.
You’re an ass, came the message.
Methinks I am, Tchitchikov replied.
Why did you do it?
So my marriage was worth how much to you?
I got nothing I am sorry for so using you
You did. You did use me
Tchitchikov stared at the splintered cell phone screen. The conversation produced two contradictory effects on our immigrant: one, a feeling composed of an emotional pastiche of fear and embarrassment, infused with a swirl of fidgety discomfort, not unlike a shameful sundae with terrifying topping; and two, a feeling of release. I find some difficulty in correlating this second feeling with an appropriate food—perhaps meringue? I warned you before restarting this one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old journey, reader, that my literary powers are weak compared to most. But nonetheless, there is an airy sweetness of relief in confronting one’s fears and mistakes.
You’re a real bastard, the text issued back.
Even I felt the truth of this, to some extent. Dear reader and fellow-journeyer, is this what you think as well? Do not banish the thought! Heroes are made, not born, and if they are born, then they are borne from the ashes of their own failures and weaknesses. One does not forge a steel blade in the spring air, but rather in the bowels of flame and cinder. It is not that we must forgive the failure for the hero is a hero; nor even less should we make such excuses as “he is but human, let his error lie.” Nonsense, we observers have nothing to do with the hero and his or her journey! We can but recognize their mistakes, and their knowledge and wisdom gained from such mistakes; and, furthermore, the pains they take to enact justice with the wisdom from their failings. The reader has no input on a hero other than to watch and to learn! Theirs, and ours, is the self-guided road, and one’s volition and decisions are what cobble the path.
Our dear Russian gave the texter his mildly insightful input: Shit yes
And then the phone rang.
“I want to kill you,” issued the familiar female voice.
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said.
“But I think you’re sorry. It’s not much, but,” the woman paused for a thought or two. “I want to make sure.”
“That you mean it.”
It was Tchitchikov’s turn to pause. “I do. I am not sure how to prove it, though.”
“Come to such-and-such a restaurant. It’s in Pensacola. It’s the one off of I-90. Five tonight.”
“Prove it, you bastard.” The phone hung up.
Tchitchikov relaxed again on the makeshift bed. His hostess knocked on the door.
“Morning,” Jenna said. “That sounded like it went well.”
“It is to be expected,” Tchitchikov said.
“You coming out with us today? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Tchitchikov shook his head. “I have a date with rotten destiny, it would seem. I should get going to Pensacola.”
“Pensacola? Yikes, that is a rotten drive. Holy crap.”
Tchitchikov stood up. “It is, and I should summon the safest ride in all of the eastern coast.”
Selifan assumed the role of coachman once more.
“You look more relaxed,” Tchitchikov said to him, which was true.
Indeed, Selifan’s posture was one of calmness and composure. But, recall that Selifan was one to find the comfort in discomfort; to such a man, this composure was anything but! Thus, his mumbled response clarified to Tchitchikov his annoyance and actual discomfort: “Hmmmm.”
Tchitchikov took the hint this time. “How fare you and Georgina?”
“We fare well.”
“That is good to hear.”
Selifan scoffed. “I am only driving you on this hellish journey because my Georgina has a full day today. Do not forget this: you have angered me.”
“I will not,” Tchitchikov said.
They pulled into a gas station partway on their journey. Tchitchikov paid and offered a Sancho Peanut bar to his ride.
“I do not accept the gift of lies anymore,” he said.
“Then at least take this.” Tchitchikov offered Selifan the receipt to the delicious and inexpensive combination of chocolate, nougat and peanut.
Selifan studied the receipt and accepted his gift. “Only because you are mending,” he said. “And it is a long ride, and I am hungry.”
On the road, Selifan licked the chocolate off his lips after he finished the healthful candy. “We are going quite out of the way of your normal targets. I suspect I know what is going on. Or who, at least.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said.
“Then why torment the poor Mrs. Smith again? Has she not had enough of you?”
“No, for she needs my contrition as well.”
“Strange as it may seem,” Tchitchikov said, “but I find the metaphorical whitewashing of fences to be meditative.”
“If it is metaphorical fences and literal contrition, the expression is mending fences,” Selifan corrected.
“Oh,” Tchitchikov said. “That seems more correct. I never finished Tom Sawyer, anyway.”
“You would like it,” Selifan said. “There are a good many scams and hoaxes.”
“A part of me yet might,” Tchitchikov said.
They came into Pensacola. Selifan slowed his drive along the coast; he frequently turned his eyes out of the window to the pale, white sands and the sky-blue waters nestled between our two traveling Russians and a strip of more beach off in the distance. “It is gorgeous here,” Selifan said.
“I will miss it very much, Tchitchikov said.
“I was thinking,” Selifan said, “that perhaps I am lucky not to have been as immersed in this project of yours. It seems there is much backfiring of late.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “It is lucky.”
Selifan cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome. The restaurant is here.”
They pulled into the parking lot. There were a great many restaurant-goers enjoying the sun and the food at tables outside, and Tchitchikov recognized the scent of brine and butter. He relaxed somewhat.
“I will textually message you when we are done,” Tchitchikov said.
“Whenever is fine,” Selifan said. “I’ll make myself busy on these roads. Good luck.”
Tchitchikov texted Mrs. Smith, I’m sorry I am a bit late
He waited some moments for a response.
I am here. Where are you? He tried again.
A few moments more, and nothing.
Sandra, where should I go?
The phone rang.
“I can suggest where you can go,” she said. “But instead you can come around the back, by the view of the bay. I’m at the table near the end of the bar.”
Tchitchikov approached the maître d’ and she guided him to the table. Unlike most of the well-dressed customers, Mrs. Smith was dressed in a graphic tee and khaki shorts. She was a buxom woman whose face wore a sour expression normally, and at this moment, her expression soured even further. Tchitchikov sat down and pocketed his phone.
“Does your girlfriend like unicorns?” Mrs. Smith asked.
“Your phone,” she said.
He pulled it out again and examined it. There were a pair of neon unicorn stickers on the back.
“It is from a friend,” he said.
“A friend? I find that hard to believe.”
“Sometimes I do as well.”
The waitress came and they ordered their dishes. When she left, Mrs. Smith began.
“You have no idea.”
“I likely do not.”
“I hardly saw my kids the first two months. My husband still hates me.”
“That sounds difficult.”
“It is,” Mrs. Smith said. “Waitress! Some wine!” The waitress added to their order. “Don’t worry, you’ll get this one for me, too,” she said. “It seems fitting.”
Tchitchikov paled. His funds were nearly depleted. “Yes,” he replied hollowly.
Mrs. Smith shook her head slowly. “I’ve been thinking of what I wanted to say to you for several months. There’s a lot I could say. I’m not sure where to start.”
“Start anywhere,” Tchitchikov said.
“I could,” she said. “But I don’t want to waste my whole night being with you. Besides, there are only two things I need to say to you. The rest can go away. I think I know what I want to say.”
“Okay,” Tchitchikov said.
Mrs. Smith took a measured breath. “Sam and I have been together for fifteen years,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot. We’ve struggled so much, and, of this whole experience, I’m more disappointed in myself than in you. You’re a scoundrel, yes, and a cheat. A hack. But I’m not—or at least I thought I wasn’t—and I see what I have to lose now that I’ve lost most of it. I say this not to blame you, but warn you: consider what you have to lose. There is always something to lose, even to those who have nothing to lose. Behave. Behave honestly and nobly.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said.
“You look like you want to speak.”
“It is not my place right now. This is your space to speak.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Here’s the wine.”
The waitress placed the bottle of red down along with two glasses. “We just need the one,” Mrs. Smith told her. Tchitchikov nodded, and the waitress picked one of the glasses up.
Mrs. Smith took a full sip. “I should also say this. We have little time on this earth. My bigger regret, bigger than letting you wine me up, bigger than subjecting myself to your rather gross kisses, is that I’ve spent so much time volunteering for the party when I should’ve spent it with my kids and my husband. I spent more time hobnobbing with fakes and phonies in the stupid hopes of ‘getting somewhere in life,’ they like to say. I was already somewhere in life. I had what I needed, and I neglected it. Maybe you understand that.”
Tchitchikov waited. Mrs. Smith sighed and took another drink and shook her head again. “Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “I do understand that.”
“I have lost a dear friend,” he said. “We are only close in physical proximity now; I have tainted the closeness of our friendship with my lust for power. He is—or was—perhaps the only one who would understand me in a way no other has in my life. It is painful even to admit he is gone, and it is a different kind of pain, but I think I understand losing someone dear to my own cupidity.”
“I think you do,” Mrs. Smith said.
“I don’t have an answer to how to carry on. Does the pain soften? It might. But it certainly lingers, and so does the source of it, my cruel hunger. It is something I must be on guard for, but now I have seen the reason why.”
Mrs. Smith swirled her wine. She nodded softly.
“That is little consolation for the loss, but it is something, and something is better than nothing. I should not have seduced you, Mrs. Smith.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
Tchitchikov rubbed the condensation on his glass of water. “Also, I am unused to kissing.”
“It was like you were trying to eat a gooey brownie.”
“I haven’t made a kiss since I kissed my mother’s cheek, countless years ago.” Tchitchikov thought. “Brownies are okay.”
“You don’t kiss? Do you have no one to kiss?”
“No, but it interests me not.”
The waitress deposited the food on the table. Mrs. Smith put on a bib for her lobster. Tchitchikov stared at his fine dish of scallops, balsamic vinegar, lightly browned: the height of seafood. Yet he could not enjoy it; a single bite, and he could not continue on with the main course. He put his fork down and left it there.
“I lied.” Mrs. Smith tapped the bright lobster shell. “There was one last thing I should say. I won’t pursue this any further. We’re done. But please, do not come back here again. Ever again.” She wiped an eye. “You can go.”
Tchitchikov stood up and pulled out his wallet, leather with “The Master” embroidered on it. He pulled out a credit card. “I haven’t much cash, but I shall approach the waitress and—”
Mrs. Smith shook her head. “No,” she said. “You came and you delivered your part. I’ll buy the food and wine. Just please leave.”
Tchitchikov acceded to her request.
“It shall be late. I should stop by Georgina’s on the way.”
Selifan’s statement pulled Tchitchikov from his day-dream, or rather day-nightmare, a turbulence of the events transpired over the past four months. He considered the time he’d invested, and had little way to justify its loss. “It has been many days put into this scam,” he said.
“It has,” Selifan said.
“It makes me wonder that you have stuck it through for so much of it with hardly a kind word from me.”
“Let me clarify that I have shed that part of my hunger,” Selifan said. “I am the better for it. And I consider you my friend.”
“You have taken the brunt of the consequences,” Selifan said. “And I none. We were into this in equal parts, yes?”
“Then I consider you a friend with my best interests in mind. Let us leave it at that.”
The two arrived at The Rooster and the Dragon well after sundown; it was a two-faced type of building, painted yellow on the left, and orange-red on the right. The yellow half was dimmed and the right half but a few tints brighter. “Come,” Selifan said.
The two entered a hybrid diner and tattoo parlor; Georgina wore a blue surgical mask and pink headband, immersed in tattooing a stylized fist holding a thin stem onto a woman’s breastbone. “One moment, Selly,” she said.
The left side had a counter and four booths, and the faint smell of hashed browns still lingered. On the walls hung black and white photos of varying subjects in awkward and artful poses. Grand dragons and mythical creatures soared on the walls of Georgina’s half of the building. Selifan and Tchitchikov took their seats at the diner counter.
“You should watch,” Selifan said, staring at Georgina.
The black coloring of tattoo was in its final stages. Georgina’s needle was adding crosshatching to the meaty part of the palm, just below the thumb. “That’s my boyfriend, Selifan,” she told her client.
“Oh, that’s nice. You said you two met at a Fairwell thing?”
“Yeah, at one of his fundraisers. He’s really sweet. You should see the Slavic bear I did for him.”
The fist deepened. Georgina finished the crosshatching and distinguished the fingers one last time. “You said you were at the protest a week ago?” Georgina asked. “At the state house?”
“Mmm hmm,” the woman replied. “It’s nice to see so many people there. Maybe something will get done.”
Georgina nodded and the stem darkened. She stepped away and dabbed the sweat on her forehead with her headband. “The stem should be quick,” she said. She switched needles.
Green slowly suffused through the stem. The woman said, “Now’s such an important time. It’s nice your boyfriend is in the fight, too. Most of the men I meet don’t care.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Everyone on dating apps is either a fish-touting status-quo moron or an idiot who doesn’t care. It’s sad.”
“Mmmmm,” Georgina replied. A green leaf slowly grew out of the stem.
“Sorry,” the woman said.
Georgina returned to the black needle and defined the tip of the leaf. “No, no problem. What were you saying?”
“Men are douchebags,” the woman said. “Your boyfriend is nice, though.”
Georgina returned to the stem and two sharp, green thorns sprouted from it. They looked exceptionally painful to Tchitchikov. “I’ve been there,” Georgina said. “A lotta jerkoffs online.”
The woman continued. “It’s not just that. I mean, yeah, people on the internet are terrible. But it’s so sad what a little money does to you. Get twenty dollars to your name, and you close off to everyone else. To everyone else’s suffering.”
“Yeah,” Georgina replied.
“I’m not sure why that is,” the woman said. “It’s like the money stuffs your ears.”
“And your heart,” Georgina said.
The thorns were finished. Georgina placed the two needles down and dabbed her forehead again. “Red, right?” She asked. “What kind of red? Bright red? Deep, blood red?”
“The most beautiful red you can make it.”
“I think they’re the problem,” the woman said. “All these idiots who have a little money—all the ten-thousand-aires out there—more than the richest rich pricks who keep robbing—I’m sorry, but you don’t mind my…?”
“The choir listens,” Georgina said.
“It just gets in your blood, I guess. I don’t know. I just hate it, I hate feeling so powerless in all of this.” The woman sighed. “And thanks.”
“That’s what I’m here for, sweetheart. Tattoos and therapy.”
The woman laughed.
Petals grew from the stem, faint outlines and tips marked off in red. “I understand it,” Georgina said. “It’s not an easy world. It’s okay. I don’t mind listening. I’m in the same spot. I also think it’s important to remember we’re all in the same spot, even the fish-touting morons.”
“What do you mean?” the woman asked.
“They’re not the ones writing the laws.”
“Yeah,” the woman said.
“Yeah.” Georgina continued. “I’m not sure this helps, but for me, I feel better when I find something I can do about it. Small things. And that’s what gets me going through the day to the next. Maybe someone will listen to me and share one of my posts. Maybe I’ll listen to someone and tattoo her chest. Day to day, that’s what it is.”
“It is,” the woman said.
“Day to day, sometimes…”
The petals filled out in a royal red, seeming to burn from her flesh. “The thorns, too? You sure?” Georgina asked.
The woman nodded. “Pain in love.”
Georgina brought the needle to the thorns. “One day, this is something my grandmother would always say, one day we will. One day we will break the system. One day, we will fix what has been so wrong. One day, we will get our chance to speak truth, disarm power, and free ourselves and our children will rest on that.”
Blood dripped from the thorns in the same royal red. “Yes,” the woman said.
The parlor was quiet except for the slight buzz of the tattoo equipment. Georgina stood back and mopped her forehead again, then resumed one last time on the thorns. The blood on the thorns deepened and darkened. “There,” Georgina said. She brought a hand mirror to her client.
“This is lovely,” the woman said, checking out her new tattoo from several different angles. “Wow. That’s all I can say.”
“There you are,” Georgina said. “First one of these I’ve done. Pretty sure not the last.”
The woman smiled. “Peace and power.” She left a tip for Georgina in an old army helmet overturned for the purpose.
“God bless,” Georgina said.
Selifan rose and hugged his Georgina. “My Georgina,” he said, “I am sorry it is so late!”
“It’s okay,” she said. “There were a few things I caught up on. What were you two up to again?”
“Burying the ax,” Tchitchikov said.
“The hatchet?” Georgina replied.
“Oh yes, that.”
“I’m glad it went well,” she said.
“I realize now that I have one more task ahead of me,” Tchitchikov said. “I am not one to disturb the flowering of your love, but this is something I must begin immediately, for it must be finished by tomorrow night.”
Selifan cocked his eyebrow. “Already?”
“I am sorry,” Tchitchikov said, “but I realize I have a great many betrayals to make in the next twenty-four hours.”
“How so?” Selifan asked.
“Let us say the dead do not mind how we use their votes.” Tchitchikov smiled. “The living might complain more.”
“If I understand your plan correctly, then that would clearly backfire.”
“It would not just backfire. It should dumpster fire if done appropriately. I believe that is the term.”
Selifan turned to Georgina. “Go, go,” she said. “Jacksonville’s only an hour round trip. I’ll still be here. Just come back so I can feed you.”
Tchitchikov’s Monday was spent slavishly hunched over his laptop, click click clicking more votes onto the rosters of his political blackmailers, and chomp chomp chomping much better diner food through the day and well past sundown.