“A Russian driver has at least this merit, that, owing to a keen sense of smell being able to take the place of eyesight, he can, if necessary, drive at random and yet reach a destination of some sort.”
—Gogol, trans. D. J. Hogarth
Aris snored louder than a fire engine rushing to a four-alarm fire.
Which, I shall note, is a strange metaphor to use, as Aris was indeed immobile and certainly not going anywhere in his sleep. But he seemed to rush there, deeper and deeper into his dreams, his snores keeping a rapid pace, and his twitches signaling deep thoughts unknown to myself or Tchitchikov. Was Aris dreaming of a generous tip at his restaurant? Was he knocking on further doors and soliciting their owners’ civic engagement? Or perhaps he was freed from the mundane expectations of this world, from his job and obligations, and was quietly walking with Achilles on beach sand, breathing in soft, humid brine-scent. But much as this story before you is a work of life, I feel obligated to re-remind you that dreams are made of baser things than reality; but what a noble baseness an honest dream can conjure! What simplicity and respite one can find in the mind’s jumbled imaginings! I would like to say that Aris was living the good life in dream, up until a shudder from him, perhaps a sudden nightmare, disrupted his course, and he was thrust back into the cruel nature of our real, living world. His pacing about awoke our kind Tchitchikov.
“What is afoot?” Our Russian mumbled.
“Sorry to wake you,” Aris replied. “Nothing. Just can’t sleep.”
With that, and with an aching head, Tchitchikov returned to the dominion of the Sandman.
In the full light of Friday morning, Aris was gone, leaving Tchitchikov to roll about in his perspiration gently soaked into the couch. Aris left him a note, Getting dog meds. Thanks for canvassing. Let me know what you want for dinner.
It was also a restless sleep for Tchitchikov, though not unfruitful, for he knew there was much he could square away today. He checked his phone, dimmed and waterlogged from the showers of the other night, and grumbled.
Achilles also grumbled, sympathizing with Tchitchikov’s frustration.
“Much work lay ahead of me today,” Tchitchikov told him. “And now this blasted thing is dead. That is the price of straying from your course. Now I have to recall the day’s schedule.”
Tchitchikov paced back and forth, followed by Achilles. The general knitted together his war-plans with his faithful lieutenant.
“Today is Kingston’s victory,” Tchitchikov told the warrior. “I must yield my defenses to him if I am to stay in this country. Perhaps the payments from Taber and Martinez will help me avoid a total rout. That is the best I can hope for.” Tchitchikov gathered his things. “I must be gone from you for good. I am sorry, my dear Mycenaean. I yield tonight’s meal to you.”
Achilles yelped once, an acknowledgment of the brutal cost of war.
After a brief half-hour of morning preparation, Tchitchikov took to the road via public transportation. His mind was spinning too much for him to notice a man sitting down next to him and humming. When this man left, Tchitchikov also did not notice a young man in bicycle garb replacing him, glistened with a coating of healthful sweat and emanating a powerful, we shall say scentful scent. He, too, left, leaving Tchitchikov with only his thoughts and fearful anticipations. He sighed.
He arrived at Fairwell’s office, and to Jenna. She smiled and asked, “Hi Paul, where’s Aris?”
Tchitchikov could not make eye contact. “I am not sure. But I have something I should tell you. I must leave.”
“No way, really?” Jenna offered a hug that Tchitchikov declined. “Come on now! Let’s go chat a little. You’ve had a rough few days.”
“Surely you have other things to attend to,” Tchitchikov said.
Jenna waved him into the semi-private training room.
Jenna frowned. “Don’t say that! I mean, there’s always something to do, yes, and some place to be. But it’s more important to be available for a friend. What’s the point if I’m not? I mean, that’s what we’re fighting for, right?”
“Anyway, what’s up, Paul?”
Tchitchikov slowly shook his head. “I must leave.”
“Yeah, where to?”
“Tennessee. It is where I must reside.”
“What’s in Tennessee? Country music?” Jenna said. “You don’t seem like you want to go.”
“No. But I will be there regardless. I am sorry.”
“Okay. I see.” Jenna sighed. “I’m sorry, too, Paul. It was really nice to hang with you.”
Tchitchikov nodded. “Thank you for your kindness. You are a generous soul. There is no doubt of that.”
Jenna could no longer hold back: she hugged him. It had been some time, yes, since Tchitchikov had felt physical affection. There was the shock, yes, then acceptance, then a slight appreciation. He felt guilty.
“I should leave.”
“Okay. It’s a shame,” she said.
On his way out, Tchitchikov nearly bumped into Andy and his new patch: “This Jacket Kills Fascists.” He did not nearly bump into the man following him, a reddened and overly tanned man, now sporting a tattoo sleeve of a sharp-fanged bear from right shoulder to right elbow, biting into a symbol of hammer and sickle; nor did Tchitchikov bump into the heavily pierced woman behind him, mostly the same height, perhaps a few inches shorter, well adorned with thick patterns of tattoos and sporting long, dark hair.
“You,” the man with the bear tattoo said.
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said to Selifan. “I.”
They sized each other up. Andy broke the silence. “You know each other?” He smiled. “I didn’t realize all Russians knew each other.”
The woman frowned at Andy. She offered her hand to Tchitchikov. “You must be Pavel, then.”
Tchitchikov nodded. He took a moment to realize he should shake her hand. “And you are…?”
“She is my girlfriend,” Selifan responded.
“Georgina,” she replied. “It is nice to finally meet you. Selifan has told me a lot about you.”
Andy motioned for Jenna to come by. He whispered to her, “I told you they would know each other.”
“Oh shut up,” she replied back.
“I have some business to attend to,” Tchitchikov said. “But let me say this: I appreciate your time and your help, dear friend. I am sorry that I was not a good friend in return.”
Selifan was not sure how to take this confession. It is an unusual thing to feel much betrayed, and Selifan’s instinct was to let his betrayer leave in that state as well, but that Georgina pinched him on the small of his back—an affectionate pinch, one of appropriate pain—to goad him into saying, “Thank you.”
“Thank you for accepting my apology,” Tchitchikov said. “I must be going.”
“How is the—project?” Selifan inquired.
“It is nearly over.”
Jenna interjected. “We’ll miss you, Paul! Good luck.”
“Good luck?” Selifan asked. “Why the good luck?”
Jenna butted in. “He’s leaving for Tennessee. Right?”
Selifan tweaked his head slightly, half curious. “Why is that?”
“The project, let us say, is something of a failure. Its fruit is rather rotten.”
“Then I am sorry to hear that,” Selifan said. His stomach slightly turmoiled, but his deepest shock came from his truthfulness in his own reply. “I am,” he confirmed.
“I have much travel ahead of me. Goodbye, again. You are a kind, forgiving soul, sincerely.”
“Wait.” Selifan turned to Georgina. “One moment, my darling. Pavel and I should talk separately.”
The two friends crossed the street to a shawarma stand. “Here, choose what you may. It is on me. If this is to your liking.”
Tchitchikov was well aware of the Lower Court ruling of Beggars v Choosers, and decided it would be impolite to turn down the free food. He ordered a pita wrap avec la avocado. For his first bite of the soft, green fruit, he found it thankfully rather unfruit-like.
Selifan took a hefty bite of shawarma. “How has this fruit of yours been corrupted? What has it flowered into? It is a shame to hear of its rot.”
Tchitchikov’s stomach was unstable, though not for reasons of street meat. Yet, in his hunger he forced a second bite down, and after that, “My plan has been found out. Kingston conspired against me, and I have already produced the votes gratis to Whittaker. I am going to get the two payments I can and be gone from this cursed state.” Only Tchitchikov felt the absence of the full truth, of Kingston’s threat against Fairwell.
Selifan said, “Then it’s not a total failure, is it?”
Tchitchikov corrected him. “It is. Kingston wants…”
“Wants what? Just give him the votes.”
Tchitchikov could not summon his courage to speak up. “Yes. That is what I shall do.”
“Good then!” Selifan clapped. “Then why return to Liberty?”
Tchitchikov, at this point, was a man in a hole of his own digging. With the only tool at his ready, the ever-trusty shovel, he had two options before him: to shovel a deeper hole; or to not. We do not know the deep psychological machinations of why Tchitchikov, and the human animal in particular, feel they must keep digging themselves ever deeper into this metaphor, but to a man with a shovel, every problem looks to be dirt. We must necessarily move forward with the tools at hand, even if they move us backward.
“This is true,” Tchitchikov mustered a smile through his lie. “Maybe I needn’t go back.”
“Excellent! Where is our first stop?”
“Yes! We have some money to make, do we not?”
“Yes. I believe there is some small profit here. I owe you that much.”
Selifan’s car was bumper-stickered with many slogans and advertisements for local businesses in the matter of only a few days. It still cranked up angrily. Georgina sat in the passenger’s seat holding Selifan’s hand, the two of them exchanged gentle sweetnesses to each other, and Selifan glanced occasionally into the mirror to check on his friend.
“We’re almost to Taber’s office,” Selifan said. “It will be something of a rush, but maybe we can also make Martinez today.”
Tchitchikov nodded. Selifan’s payment was the least he could do, and he looked forward to some comfort of success out of the four-alarm fire of his foiled plans. Tchitchikov stared out of the window and into the pitch-dark cloud of his tangled messes until Georgina addressed him. “You know, I’m glad you two met up again.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said numbly.
“Selifan was worried,” she said. “I’m sorry, but you were! He wondered how you’d manage out here by yourself. You’re really sweet, honey.”
Selifan blushed through his powerfully tanned skin.
“Anyway, I heard you two were trying to stick it to the man! Good for you.” Georgina gave her thumbs-up to Tchitchikov. “So cool to see people interested in politics.” She laughed. “Oh, I have something funny for you, Silly Selly!”
“Yes, my dear?” Selifan said.
“What they say is only a half truth! Russia is trying to sell the election!” Georgina laughed.
Selifan and Tchitchikov shared a large dose of confusion. “But I am no ambassador of Russia, Miss Georgina,” Tchitchikov finally said.
“No, it’s that—” she replied. “You didn’t see the last election? Buy, sell, it’s—no, never mind what I said.” She sighed. “I’ll make you laugh one of these days, Selly.” She pinched his cheek, seemingly a mite hard from Tchitchikov’s vantage in the back seat.
Selifan sighed and relaxed. “My dearest, I am a lucky, lucky Russian, so much so that I need not sell an election even to the highest bidder.”
Georgina laughed. “I’m glad to hear that! But I hope you two still make out well.”
Tchitchikov was shocked, and a sudden jolt passed through him. It was static shock. And after the static shock, Tchitchikov asked, “Georgina … what exactly do you—?”
“Oh, Selly told me all about what you two were doing.” Georgina turned part-way to reveal a grin. “You two are pretty clever!”
The next shock Tchitchikov felt was that of betrayal. “Yes, but, still—”
Selifan glared at him in the mirror. “Yes, Pavel?”
Tchitchikov sighed. “No,” he said. “I mean, yes. Yes, we are rather clever. But perhaps not clever enough.”
“What do you mean?” Georgina asked. “It sounds like you snagged some suckers for your trouble. It must be good money.”
“More headache than cashflow,” Tchitchikov softly replied.
They arrived at Representative Taber’s district office. Selifan offered to join Tchitchikov in a show of moral (or more accurately, immoral) support. “Thank you, but I’ll see this one through,” Tchitchikov told him. “I must be careful. The putty-man has been getting impatient the past several days.”
Tchitchikov entered the office. His aide, a young Mr. C— (since we have sheltered M— and O— in anonymity, we feel it only fair to extend our gracious offer to C— as well) welcomed him and called Taber. Tchitchikov waited. And he waited. And after that, he waited some more. It was some time before C— signaled him into the office in back.
“My, my, my,” Taber’s grin bared his hungry teeth. The leopard had—no, he was a lion last time, so let me maintain that metaphor—the lion had finished stalking his prey and was prepared for the feast. “Welcome back, dear, dear Tchitchikov.”
Tchitchikov produced his notebook and laptop. “I believe we have some business to attend to. I would prefer the payment up front.”
Taber shook his head and, inadvertently, his jowls. “I would prefer you prove your value to me first.”
Tchitchikov cleared his throat. “Very well. Let us go through our business.”
Tchitchikov opened his laptop and scrolled through the program. Taber was surprisingly agile when it came to matters of fraud, and he was quickly apprised of the scheme. Tchitchikov sent Taber an email with the required files and Taber grinned wickedly. “Thank you,” the representative said.
“And my payment?”
“Your payment?” Taber echoed. “I believe you have already received it.”
“I believe I have not.”
“Then I believe there is a mistake, or a miscommunication here.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “I believe there is.”
Taber grinned wickedly. “I will not turn you in,” he said.
It was at this moment that Tchitchikov’s stomach plummeted.
“That is my favor to you,” Taber said. “Be grateful.”
“Do not spit upon my gift,” he said. “Besides, there is something more I need of you.”
“Something more?” It was Tchitchikov’s turn to echo back.
“Yes, more. I take it this program is for only this Tuesday? Right?”
“Then you will need to provide me these votes for the next election. And the election after that!”
Tchitchikov was dazed: his fears coalesced in front of him, in the form of thick, fish-eyed and cruel Congressman. “You must agree,” Taber said.
Tchitchikov had only one thing he could possibly say to save his hide, and it was not this: “No.” Yes, that is what he said instead.
“No?” Taber squinted an eye in Tchitchikov’s direction, as if his bulbous eyelids would shield him from incredulity. “It is incredulous that you refuse.”
“No.” Tchitchikov stood up to hide his trembling. “It is incredulous that you requested. My answer is still: no.”
“Well then. ‘No.’” Taber took a drink of coffee. It improved his breath. “Allow me to answer back: no to your no. You see, Mr. Tchitchikov, if you want to stay in your beloved adopted country, by which I mean the United States of Glorious America, then you must bow to my demands. And my demands are to provide the votes next election, and then next election after that. That is not too much, is it?”
Tchitchikov calmed himself. “Anything you say is too much. I shall not accede to your demands. These votes today are what we spoke of, and all you shall receive. I am not your servant.”
“All I shall receive?” Taber laughed. “Wrong! Not my servant? Also wrong. You obnoxious little worm, you are my servant. Let me clarify something for you: a green card doesn’t mean shit. It’s nothing. It’s worse than nothing, you idiot Russian. I own you. You want to stay here, you want to not get deported back to your communist Russia, well, then you listen and you listen very closely: I. Own. You.” Taber clapped his hands. “This is something you can’t escape. You are done.”
Tchitchikov watched him salivate. “I agree,” he said.
“I agree. I am done,” Tchitchikov said. “Deport me. Arrest me. Shoot me, even. None of these things matter. I have fulfilled my obligation to you, bulbous cretin.”
“Bulbous cretin? That’s brassy.”
“The truth shines better than brass. Now, threaten all you wish, and I will wish upon you something far, far more sinister: I wish upon you the watering of your own conscience, so that it might grow within you.” Tchitchikov set his sights upon him. “You need it. You need to understand the reckoning that is to come your way. Elsewise, you shall be caught off guard and pulled into the deepest pits of hell. I wish you this sinister thought, that you discover your iniquity and yet have a chance at repentance.”
The lion was stunned. “The brass on this one! Come on, how—no, where did this insolence come from? I think maybe you don’t fully appreciate your situation in my country, you grimy little—”
“Your country?” Tchitchikov shook his head. “Hearing this makes me sad. That is what I had wanted, too, long ago. I wanted this country. I wanted it to be mine. But here is the secret, and open your ears for it: that is not possible. What you love of my adopted country, its freedoms, its extravagances, its fifty flavors of soft ice cream, even, all these melt down your hand when you grasp for them. It is the butterfly in the savannah: you open your hand, it may land upon it. You grasp for it, it is no longer the butterfly you have sought. Do you understand? It is dead. I hope you realize this before you have your carcass of a country laid before you.”
“Why do you think you can leave? Don’t walk away! We have plans, we have arrangements to make!”
Tchitchikov arranged his hand as such: one finger up, three and a thumb folded in. “I owe you nothing further you vile, fish-putrid vote-monger.”
Selifan, Georgina, and Tchitchikov approached Alachua County in the early afternoon. “I’m sorry to hear the plan did not work out,” Selifan said.
“It is something I should have anticipated,” Tchitchikov said. “A little more preparation and I could have avoided much of that disaster.”
“You have done your best,” Selifan said. “Come, now, we are but a few roads away from a payday. You said Martinez will pay?”
“He will pay,” Tchitchikov said uncertainly.
“You have come for your payment,” Representative Martinez said.
Tchitchikov’s trepidation was similar to the tight-rope walker’s after having dropped his balancing pole. He felt eyes upon him, and worse, these now were Martinez’ eyes, the same eyes that sucked all light into their orbit and let nothing escape.
“Yes,” he said, “I would appreciate a payment for my services.”
“Then you shall receive,” Martinez said. “Let us view upon these services.”
Tchitchikov opened his laptop and navigated Martinez through the voting software. He sent a copy via electronic missive to the Representative, and although Martinez made no outward sign of it—again, emotions and thoughts are irretrievably sucked into him—he was satisfied.
“This is good,” Martinez said.
Tchitchikov was wary. “I believe we agreed upon a price of twenty per soul.”
“We did,” Martinez said, not budging.
“Yes.” Tchitchikov slightly trembled.
Martinez sat again in his leather executive chair. “I believe new information has come my way.”
“I believe it might have.”
“This new information requires careful thought.” He sipped from a new mug—a gift from his wife—with the vertical text of “Perfect Exciting Responsible Venturous: My Julio.” Martinez placed the mug down again. “The careful thought yields this: that you are at a certain roadblock.”
“That I, among others, am blocking your stay in this country.”
The room filled with the quiet anticipation of a terrifying fall from a stupendous height.
“But it is no matter,” Martinez continued, “for I am not one to hold grudges, and I suspect neither are you. I believe we shall be of use to each other later on down this road, so I shall not block your path. You may remain here yet. Do remember my generosity.”
“Oh yes, speaking of which,” Martinez stood up. “I believe I owe you a payment.” He removed his wallet from his pocket and produced a bill of twenty dollars. He placed it on his desk. He smiled, “Your payment.”
Tchitchikov felt a chill. “This twenty is for…?”
“For payment of your soul. I am buying your freedom. These other souls, they are, shall we say, in God’s hands, and you cannot offer what is not yours.” Martinez’ smile grew, as he felt what he said was rather clever reasoning. “Take it.”
“So, you are saying that you purchase my skills for the price of twenty dollars.”
“And you would graciously not thwart my presence here.”
“Then I must say this: no.”
Martinez shook his head. “This is not an offer you should want to refuse.”
Tchitchikov bent forward. “And yet I shall. Do you know why?”
“You are stupid.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “I cannot deny that. But you cannot deny this, that you live on a lake of ice, and what you do not realize is the heat of your anger thins your cold ground. You shall fall through, and you know it. And I know that, when you do, you shall grasp like a child to any nearby object to yank yourself out of the icy dousing; that shall not be me. Go in, chill your soul further—should that be possible—and realize that this is something that you have crafted of your own design. You know this to be true.”
“Are you mocking me?” Martinez asked.
The room was silent. They both did not anticipate a slight heat from Martinez, nor the formulation of his first question in several months.
Tchitchikov grinned. “If truth be a mockery here, then yes.”
“Very well,” Martinez said. “Then leave me as a foe. Know that I did speak the truth earlier as well, that I do not hold grudges. But I do hold memories, especially unfond memories of my foes.” Martinez waved his hand toward the door. “You may leave now.”
Tchitchikov stuck his head out of the car window on the way back.
“This is doubly unfortunate, my friend.” Selifan said.
“I’m sorry the plan didn’t work out,” Georgina said.
“No,” Tchitchikov yelled, “it is working out better than I’d hoped.”
“What do you mean?” Georgina inquired.
Tchitchikov pulled his head back in. “If my plan were to succeed and I receive their money, even then would I be indebted. I would always be on my hands and knees to someone, even if others were on their hands and knees to me. I understand now why the American is so obsessed with freedom: I have tasted it. It is frightening, like the first fall of a rollercoaster ride, and there is that chance of never breaking that plummet, that’s what shook my body at first. But now, after that fall—am I mixing metaphors? perhaps—I have felt the nubs of my wings stretch and course me through a rocky ride on the wind. It is no longer a fall, it is a flight! It is terrifying, it is deadly, but anyone who tells you otherwise is your captor!”
Georgina turned the volume of the radio down a few ticks. “Selly, dear, what is he talking about?”
“Pavel is intoxicated by freedom.” Selifan glanced at Tchitchikov, “This is something I should have—”
Tchitchikov resumed sticking his head out of the window.
“Something I should have warned you about!” Selifan finished. He turned to Georgina, “My Georgina, there is a little explanation to be had here. The Russian soul is composed of equal parts fear, tyranny, suffering, and death. Of these, we look forward only to the release that is death. The others we appreciate insofar as they guide us toward that release. Pavel has tasted but half of death, the part of it which you call ‘freedom,’ and has gotten himself rather inebriated.”
Tchitchikov yelled out the window. “Inebriated indeed!”
Selifan continued. “So what Pavel is feeling, then, is something alien to the Russian soul. It is a full-bodied wine to an unfortunate child. Poor, poor Pavel.”
“Okay, I get the child part,” Georgina said, “but that still doesn’t explain why he’s basically drooling all over your car door.”
Tchitchikov howled into the wind. “I am more courteous with my drool than that! I have a handkerchief—here—though what’s a little drool on the car? It is American-made, and intended to be drooled upon.” He patted the door.
“Well look at you!” Georgina shook her head. “You are excited! And you can control some of your precious bodily fluids.”
“Dear Pavel,” Selifan yelled out his window, “you are scaring my lovely lady!”
Tchitchikov took one last breath of hot, humid air and returned himself and his thoughts to within the car’s cabin. “My apologies, dear Georgina.”
Georgina raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I mean, I knew you’d be weird, but…”
“But?” Tchitchikov asked.
“But Fairwell didn’t request your votes,” Selifan asked, “correct?”
“No, he did not.”
“Then perhaps there is one last play you may make,” Selifan said. “You may ask for his protection.”
“Ah, that is—” Tchitchikov’s excitement immediately deflated. “No. I do not understand what you are saying.”
“Fairwell may have some protections to offer you.”
“Because he’s a good guy,” Georgina added.
“Yes.” Tchitchikov admitted, “I’m not. Why me?”
“It is worth the asking,” Selifan said. “And nothing ill could come of it.”
“Yes, true, but we are not exactly the best of friends.”
Georgina said, “Just go for it. Better to try than not to. Right?”
Tchitchikov sighed. “Perhaps.”
“He seems to have come back down to earth,” Georgina told her Selifan.
“Yes.” Selifan sighed. “Though I do like him better when he’s snubbed authority.”
“Pavel,” Georgina said, “how fun was it to tell those two jerks off?”
“Tell those two jerkoffs what?”
“It was a flat joke, Miss Georgina.” Tchitchikov laughed his snickering, giddy laugh. “But that verbal smiting, it felt as powerful as wielding a hammer to smash my own manacles.”
Georgina was confused. “Smiting? Manacles…?”
“Liberation is the deepest thrill one may ever get. One must always eschew banal authority.”
Georgina turned to Selifan. “Honey, is he still talking English? I haven’t heard these words since I was in high school.”
“That is how we get,” Selifan shook his head. “My dear, consider it this way: consider the excitement one finds in love. I have felt giddy since I had met you and you dared me to eat that whole pizza.”
“And I still can’t believe you did it,” Georgina retorted.
“Yes, I did! And somehow survived to tell the tale.”
“Awww,” Georgina said, “you’d die on a pepperoni slice for me.”
Selifan laughed. “Yes, so please do not ask that of me. But in love, we find parts of ourselves that were lacking, and to Pavel, no, to every Russian that has come out of our country, we all lack that thing that you twirl your flags for and makes you sing off-key and ignite colorful explosives: that same freedom I had mentioned. This is what he has imbibed, a draught enough to fill the soul.” Selifan turned to Georgina. “As much as a draught of your love—”
Selifan turned his eyes back on the road. “Yes. In any case, Pavel has gained freedom and thereby lost his mind. Perhaps it takes a true Cossack to fully appreciate the intoxication of American freedom!”
“Okay.” She shrugged. “Freedom. Go ‘Murica.”
“Yes!” Tchitchikov pulled his head into the car again. “Exactly! We should be proud of the freedoms that we have!”
“Yes. Proud,” Georgina replied.
“There is many a nation on this planet that denies these very rights!”
“Of course. I might know of one,” she replied again.
“We certainly all have seen it, I am sure.”
“I’m being sarcastic, Pavel.”
“Yes! Be sarcastic! The Russian rebellion thrives in irony.”
Georgina sighed. “We hardly have any rights in the US. Have you seen what’s been happening for the last, I don’t know, my whole life?”
“I have seen it,” Tchitchikov said, “and it is horrible and atrocious and that is exactly why we must always appreciate those rights we have, so that we may fight for the remainder ahead.”
Georgina nodded. She fiddled the radio dial to land on a nondescript talk channel.
“How does Fairwell take his dinner?” Tchitchikov asked her.
Fairwell nearly choked on the question and on the second forkful of the peace-offering pad thai. “And you think I can help how?”
“This is perhaps a mistake,” Tchitchikov said.
“Yes, and your fraud is another mistake.”
“Yes, you are correct. I shall relieve myself from your presence.”
“Not yet,” Fairwell said. “Let me think.” He stood up and paced back and forth, though a quick back and a quick forth, for his office floorspace had been encroached upon by more boxes of files since last Tchitchikov had entered. “I think, no, maybe you could…”
Tchitchikov performed a quick calculation. This time, he did not need a second adjustment to make it. It was simple. “I must receive the bullet.”
Fairwell grasped Tchitchikov’s shoulder. “Kill yourself? Nonsense. That’s crazy talk.”
Tchitchikov was perplexed. “No,” he said, “I mean eat the bullet—no, actually, the expression is bite the bullet. Still I don’t understand this expression. You don’t test lead like gold.”
Fairwell scratched his graying hair. “You’re a weird one, alright. I think you’re right, though, you have to bite that bullet. Let me tell you a quick story.”
Tchitchikov relaxed his anxiety, or rather, Fairwell’s kindness gave him the space to do so. Such is the nature of compassion, in that shared passion—pain—lightens and diffuses a burden borne by one. But that, reader, is also basic, simple math: pain divided by two is halved.
“This is a stressful job, and—no, I can’t really let myself off that easily. But it is. A few years ago, I cheated on Martha, my wife. I did. It’s a shameful thing I did, and, at first, I couldn’t even admit it to myself, let alone come to tell her. The girl was young—well, in her forties—but you get the idea. I was ashamed.”
Fairwell looked around and found a cup of water nearby. He imbibed the drink and continued. “For four months, I’d felt the worst I’d ever felt. I was a prisoner. I thought everyone was talking about—about my shame. It was strangling me, quite honestly. I was terrified. I thought, let’s say, a lot of thoughts.” He reddened. “It was bad.”
Tchitchikov recognized the moment of one baring one’s soul, and not in the presence of alcohol. He shouldered some of Fairwell’s burden.
“But, one day, I thought to myself: I have to end it. End the whole blasted thing, one way or another. So, I did. I made that promise to myself, and I gathered my courage for the most difficult, the bravest thing I’d ever done. I told Martha. She knew. She saw it eat at me, and while she was broken and shattered by my betrayal, there was also that deep sigh of relief from the depths of my soul. That’s the nature of hiding in the shadows. It crushes you, it hides your good in the shadows, too. And to let that out, that kind of release…”
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Tchitchikov said.
“Up from the depths of the cold sea. Yes.”
“I see,” Tchitchikov said.
“You may not believe it, but these moments, these mistakes in our lives, they are the greatest opportunities to believe in our better angels, to reconstruct our faith and, well, I found it renewed me. It gave me something, a vision I’d never seen before.”
“And that is?”
Fairwell grunted. “Run away. Politics is hell. And I suspect you see that now, too. Don’t ever, ever get sucked into it. It will suck you dry.”
“But you have been in Congress for…” Tchitchikov could not come up with the number.
Fairwell did. “Fourteen terms. Twenty-eight years.” His eyes glazed over. “That’s a long time.”
“Then why are you there? Why are you running?”
“I need to save this world.” Fairwell continued in a whisper. “Or needed to. But, from what I’ve seen, fuck it, Paul.”
Tchitchikov’s stomach plummeted. “But—but—”
“You have not seen what I have,” Fairwell resumed his normal volume. “And you have not been through what I have been. So, I beg you: bite the bullet. Get out of here, get out of politics. Save yourself. That’s the best you can do here. That’s the best anyone can do these days, and all we can try to do.”
Tchitchikov trembled. “That is…”
“The best advice I can give,” Fairwell said. “So please, take it.”
Tchitchikov was in such a daze that Selifan could hardly get through to him; he mumbled something to his friend. O— made an attempt for Tchitchikov’s attention as well.
“Aris was just looking for you. Did you…?”
But Tchitchikov, stunned, did not hear about Aris’ inquiry, and instead he smiled and left Fairwell’s office for a walk. He was half-certain he left an outwardly positive impression upon them.
Tchitchikov started regaining himself on the bus. His smile quickly soured. He was uncertain of what he was doing for some time, and managed to keep the day’s final destination a secret, even from himself: he had one last gift to offer. As the bus drew him nearer to Kingston’s campaign office, he noticed the streets packed with cars, expensive BMWs and Mercedes and other cars of foreign ilk. There was a crowd outside the office, through which Tchitchikov awkwardly maneuvered, squished between a smattering of young rich white men and old rich white men and, on occasion, their wives. Inside the office, Tchitchikov tapped one of them on his shoulders.
The man turned around, wearing an amicable smile. Tchitchikov recognized him as a Kingston, but not the appropriate one. “He’s in the back,” the Kingston replied, pointing through the crowd.
Tchitchikov attempted to navigate himself through the glob of self-important people—perhaps they were packed over the fire code, and no matter, for many higher-ranking police there certainly would have noticed—but he found himself “lost in the shuffle,” so to speak. There was no way to deliver his final, shameful prize.
Tchitchikov located a table of beverages of varying strengths and picked up a glass of red wine this time. He nearly bumped into a man who picked up a chilled glass of white. A masculine hand grabbed and squeezed his shoulder. Turning, he met his foe.
“What are you doing here?” James Kingston asked our hero.
Tchitchikov took a healthful sip before responding. “James, I have something for you. Fairwell, he and his wife, he—”
“Really now? Well, let me say something, you idiot Russian: you’re late to the party. Never needed you. We’ve practically won! So, you can kindly get the hell out of my hair.” Kingston shook his shoulder. “Now.”
“What do you mean?”
“This kid just gave me his spiel: Fairwell cheated on his wife. The TV will have a field day with him; thank God and Jesus for twenty-four hour news stations.” He laughed. “And, just between you and me—and everyone here—a little bit of money makes everyone brave. Brave enough to step up and reveal the truth.” He lifted his glass and shouted: “TO ARIS!”
A few of the nearby partygoers turned to James, and one of them, perhaps a brother or a cousin or some other relation, patted him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear.
“No no no, I’m fine. I handle it quite well, I assure you. Almost as well as I handle my victory.” James turned to Tchitchikov. “You should watch the news tomorrow, my friend.” Tchitchikov’s stomach plummeted. “Now get the hell out of here,” he finished.
Tchitchikov’s nausea turned his head around and around. He made his way through the crowd outside and turned the corner. He dropped the glass of wine, its contents bleeding out from fang-sharp shards, and bent himself against a secluded wall.