“Naturally, from a canine chorus of such executants it might reasonably be inferred that the establishment was one of the utmost respectability.”
-Gogol, trans. D. J. Hogarth
On Wednesday Tchitchikov awoke from his dream to the high-pitched yelp of a chihuahua mix. It growled and barked and, satisfied that it could do so with utter impunity, nibbled aggressively at Tchitchikov’s hand hanging over the edge of a rather uncomfortable couch.
The chihuahua mix soon discovered it was inaccurate in its assessments of Tchitchikov’s helplessness.
“Fie! Blasted hell-hound, be rid of me!” He batted it away.
“That’s no way to introduce yourself to Achilles.” Through tired vision Tchitchikov made out the rough shape of Aris, who donned blue and chihuahua pajamas. “Be careful, he can be a fighter. You want something to eat?”
Tchitchikov wiped the exhaustion from his eyes and assessed his surroundings: around him was a wooden chair and bike with a rusted chain, a nearly empty bookcase; above him was a ceiling fan, one blade missing, likely broken altogether; below him was a musty, flowered fabric couch and itchy-looking gray carpet; and within him was a growing sense of hunger and need for breakfast. “Yes,” he said. “I believe I do.”
“Okay,” Aris said. He turned back toward the kitchen and paused himself midway to consider something, “Do you like toast? I realize I don’t have much around to eat.”
“Toast is fine.”
“Do you want water? Tuna?”
“Tuna? Yes to both.”
“Okay, one second.”
Aris left to the kitchen. Tchitchikov sat up and rubbed his head. The last thirty-six hours were a blur to him, with the only overarching memory one of pain. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten onto Aris’ couch last night, nor certain of nearly all of what transpired yesterday, but he was certain of one thing: many people would consider themselves fortunate to have such a place to rest, and Tchitchikov was not one of those people.
He faced Achilles.
“Now that your owner is gone, you should be as well. You see, I stare more viciously than you. And I needn’t bark, for my bite … ah yes, my bite. That is my warning to you, mutt that you are.”
Achilles growled slightly, cocked his head, and left to the kitchen, uninterested in further conversation.
Tchitchikov took the respite to check his messages. He had none. He checked his emails, and he saw one from Senator Whittaker. His stomach growled. And one from Kingston, too. His stomach growled with even more agitation. Whittaker inquired about when he should expect Tchitchikov’s list of names and his contacts to getting their votes. Kingston’s email was simpler, and far more effective:
See you Friday.
Tchitchikov read and reread and, with each successive reading, his stomach turned further and further. He was addicted to the pain, much like Selifan—but no, he held himself back from that memory as well. The remaining memory was such: betrayal. I must betray these people to save my—
“Here you go,” Aris handed Tchitchikov a paper plate. There was, indeed, toast, though a little less golden and more blackened for his taste, and on top, a chunk and fibers of tuna. Tchitchikov noticed this and the band-aid on Aris’ left thumb as he handed him the plate.
“What is this?” Tchitchikov asked of his plate.
“Oh,” Aris held up the wounded thumb instead. “I cut myself on the can.”
“Yeah, the can of tuna.”
“Tuna comes in a can?”
“The can opener’s broken,” Aris continued. “Jagged little mofo.” He sat down on the wooden chair facing him and proceeded to eat his breakfast.
Tchitchikov looked down at his portion of toast avec canned tuna. Aris was eating the same, albeit a lesser portion of fish. Against his instinct, Tchitchikov forced the food down his gullet.
“Th-thank you,” Tchitchikov said, nearly gagging. “It was—thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Aris finished his breakfast hungrily. “You looked like you had one helluva trip last night.”
“It was a rather unfortunate excursion, yes.”
“I hardly ate pancakes yesterday.”
Aris smiled. “Maybe a bad ganga trip, you know? Mind if I light up?”
“This is your place,” Tchitchikov admitted.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to bother you. Or asthma or anything. Though that doesn’t stop me.” Aris lit up his cigarette and wolfed that down, too. “Do you—oh wait, you don’t smoke.”
“I do not.”
“Idiot tax, Jenna calls them. I wish I didn’t.” Aris shrugged. “So what’s your plan today? You coming along?”
Tchitchikov arched an eyebrow. “Coming along?”
“Yeah, we’re canvassing today.”
Aris laughed. “You said you wanted to help yesterday! But I get it, you had a rough day. You’re welcome to stay here whenever. The landlord is scared to come around; I keep telling him to change the carpet. Go rest up, you don’t have to come along.”
Tchitchikov recalled disparate parts of the previous day. He had indeed told Jenna he wanted to volunteer, though secretly at Kingston’s insistence. It was the only opportunity afforded him to save his scalp. He would have no choice, and although he told himself it was the unsettled tuna, which was not the most majestic fish he’d consumed, Tchitchikov felt a sinking feeling in approximately his belly region for saying this: “I should come along.”
“No, you don’t have to. Get yourself together first.”
“I would like to,” Tchitchikov said.
“Seriously, no. You look like hell.”
“That is no matter.”
“Yeah it is. You’ll scare the piss out of everyone we talk to.” Aris shrugged. “Just telling it like it is. Go relax. We’ll talk about this later. By the way, your water’s next to the couch. You probably didn’t notice it when you were staring at the tuna.”
Tchitchikov looked next to the couch. The water was there and, yes, he had indeed not seen it placed there because he had been studying the purported fish. Tchitchikov smiled, and when Aris went to the kitchen again, he investigated the glass of water: tepid, a slight feel and aroma of grease to the glass, and small particles on the bottom. It was not the most pleasing cup of water Tchitchikov had encountered.
“Sorry,” Aris’ voice came from the other room. “I shoulda told you, my water filter’s dead. It actually died like three months ago.”
Tchitchikov nodded. Aris re-entered, wearing his wool dress pants. “How do I look?”
Tchitchikov did the most American thing he could do and offered a thumbs-up.
“Okay, cool. I’m heading out. You can stay here. The key’s under the mat, but really, the door doesn’t lock anyway. Just shut it if you head out.” Aris gave a quick salute and left.
Tchitchikov’s walk around the neighborhood produced this:
Sights. There was trash on the streets. Trash everywhere. Where there were trees, squirrels were picking at the trash. Otherwise, it went unnoticed. Tchitchikov walked by a small furniture store, one that offered free layaway and rather sad looking dressers, and in the parking lot there was a car parked fairly permanently, with three of its four tires deflated for what appeared to be a long, long time. There also seemed to be either a liquor store or paycheck cashing business (often both) every other block.
Sounds. There was the omnipresent sound of bad music and garbled, deep bass. The lyrics played on a repetitive background. As Tchitchikov drew closer, he found the source to be something of a tailgating party: large, expensive vehicles with large, expensive speakers producing sounds for young men performing tricks on cheap bicycles. When they were within eyeshot, Tchitchikov adjusted his route.
Smells. The air felt stifling, though more so than usual, especially in the Florida morning. The air seemed to compress itself around Tchitchikov, likely the work of small, wrecked houses packed near to each other, which made it thicker and harder to breathe. A waft of urine and a dark trickle of it passed him by as a bearded man relieved himself upon the side of one of the abundant liquor stores.
Feelings. As in those of general and specific uneasiness. Nausea was present as well.
Tchitchikov cut his exploration short at the sight of two policemen lifting up a homeless woman and headed back toward Aris’ apartment. But an errant turn somewhere, he was not sure where, had confused his tracking back, and Tchitchikov was reminded of the children in the woods with their bread crumbs, although he quickly realized that local gray rats would’ve feasted on his trail back. He came upon a pizza restaurant and decided to recover himself there.
Inside was a more tolerable smell, that of grease and dough, and a less tolerable heat in the air, despite the front and back doors, and the windows as well, being open. Tchitchikov sat at the counter on one of the few stools in a dazed state.
A female cashier walked to her register “Anything I can getcha?”
Tchitchikov shook his head.
“Soda, slice of pizza?”
“No, thank you.”
“The stools are for customers.”
Tchitchikov sighed. “What do you have for pizza?”
The woman offered their menu of brief one-course meals. “I will take a slice of cheese,” Tchitchikov said.
As she went to heat the slice, two men conversed about the football season, apparently it had started not long ago, and about players and statistics and predictions. The discussion grew heated, yet it transitioned not into physical disagreements, but rather from verbal altercation to verbal altercation. They set upon talking about their families, and this seemed the loudest and angriest discussion of theirs.
“Yeah, my daughter is doing well! She just started fourth grade and already the teacher wants to put her in the advanced class!”
“My kid is having one hell of a time with his teacher, what a bitch! I can’t stand the sight of her!”
“Who is that! Maybe I can get Audrey into another class in sixth!”
“Her name is…!”
Tchitchikov came to the realization that loud was the volume in this part of town, something that he did not want to get used to, but that he might have to to try to fit in. The cashier handed him a paper-plated slice of cheese pizza.
“Thank you!” Tchitchikov offered back.
“You don’t have to yell,” the woman said.
It was a slice of grease, as anticipated, and dripped down his arm as he lifted it. He closed his eyes, pinched his nose, and took a bite. One bite, one swallow.
The cashier and other patrons stared at him. Tchitchikov placed the food down on the counter. “I have a cold,” he said.
They slowly resumed their loud discussion.
Plan-maker that he was, Tchitchikov indulged his strength. Whittaker would need a demonstration and relinquishing of his souls today. Martinez would also need to be approached, and he should set a meeting with him to receive his payment. And Taber, he, too, would need one final meeting to exchange cheque and votes. But first, there was the matter of—
Tchitchikov stared into the eyes of a young girl, no more than three, who tugged at his dress pants. Before he left for his walk, he had done his best to smooth out the wrinkles with his hand and a bit of moisture, the caveman’s original clothing iron, but that careful work was being undone by a little devil whom it would be inappropriate to kick away. So Tchitchikov addressed her this way:
“Could you … not?”
The little girl continued.
“Please girl, this is unexpected. Certainly, I do not wish to engage you.”
More insistent tugs.
“Here, have some … pizza.” Tchitchikov cleverly prepared a win-win solution.
“Honey, don’t take food from strangers!” The girl’s mother glared at Tchitchikov and yanked her daughter away. The mother was barely in her twenties, by any generous account. “What are you doing to her? Leave my daughter alone!”
“Your daughter was harassing me.”
“Really now?” She rolled up a sleeve. “So my daughter was harassing you?”
Tchitchikov offered the woman the remainder of his pizza to ensure peace.
Tchitchikov rubbed his cheek, certain a welt would fog up on it soon, and was indeed glad the woman exercised her sense of corporeal justice rather than involving the police. Things could’ve gotten dicey for the immigrant Russian, though, thankfully (he admitted to himself) he was not black. Then the police would certainly have engaged, and, should one peruse but one of the deluge of egregious police-on-black-man cell phone videos … in any case, such is the nature of argument resolution in America. Tchitchikov got off easy.
The sting of reality temporarily halted his plans: he would simply need to sulk in a place of safety, away from the prying eyes and prying fingers of the madding crowd. Rather than risk his skin, specifically the skin on his other cheek, in a neighborhood he could not navigate, Tchitchikov decided there was one place he could return to, one place he could now consider some sort of home, and that place was Fairwell’s office. He plunked his change into the next bus and slowly navigated himself farther away, accidentally, asked the driver, and then navigated closer and closer to the office.
While the office was packed like a can of sardines a week ago to the day, it was, on this Wednesday, packed doubly so, much as a double-share of sardines in the same can. Jenna and Andy were out for the moment. All the seats were taken as well. O— smiled but could only offer but a bit of encroached standing space. Tchitchikov was, she pointed out, younger and more mobile than those who sat in the chairs. He sighed and agreed with her logic.
Fairwell shuffled out to the front of the office. He paused part way and glared at Tchitchikov.
“I remember you,” he said.
Tchitchikov’s heart pounded.
“You seem to be everywhere all at once. At least everywhere I am.”
O— turned up from her desk. She wore a countenance of shock, but that was likely because she was shocked. She had seen her boss angry and agitated, but Fairwell had usually let it subside, for he rarely held grudges. But here was a grudge, and here her shock. She, and Tchitchikov, were speechless.
“What do you want?” Fairwell asked Tchitchikov.
Tchitchikov was cornered. There was nothing he could say or do, and now he was directly in Fairwell’s path of fire. Everything hinged on this moment, and yet nothing came to him. So, for the second time in his life, he said the strangest, meekest words he could muster: “I’m sorry.”
“You should be.” He glared at our frightened hero. Fairwell walked past him and welcomed the next woman back to his office.
“Oh my God,” O— said. “I’m so so sorry! I’ve never seen him like that before!” Which certainly supports what I said about O—’s shock. “Are you okay?”
Tchitchikov reeled in his mind a bit. He was uncertain how to take her question, other than at face value. “Yes?”
“Okay, I’m so sorry. I’ll talk to him when he has a moment.”
He calculated: he certainly was in the wrong in offering dead votes to Fairwell in exchange for a bribe. And he was sure O— would agree with this. But her concern—her rather genuine concern for him—was confusing, and perhaps to some extent, off-putting. He was certainly shocked as well, though in a different manner. He did not deserve her sympathy, not in any interpretation of a normal sense of morals. But he was hungry, and he took it anyway.
“Thank you,” Tchitchikov said. “You needn’t speak to him.”
“No, I certainly will.”
Tchitchikov shook his head. “That is fine.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s not fine!”
And, most surprising of all: “I deserved that.”
This was another level of shock, one that, should Benjamin Franklin have been struck by lightning in the fable of the thunderstorm, this level was one ten times that, as when Franklin’s wife looked on to see her husband flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Tchitchikov and O— both shared this surprise and shock.
Tchitchikov bit his lip. “I do. Please trust me, I do.”
O— nodded slowly. The reception area was quiet and more than pregnant with awkwardness: it was outright birthing new progeny of awkwardness. “Paul,” she said, “go get yourself a coffee, okay? You look like hell.”
Tchitchikov nodded and weaved himself between desks. The coffee was hotter this time, but nonetheless unpalatable. He placed the cup back on the table, remembering why he never sipped of the previous cups. He couldn’t find a chair to sit at, but backed himself against a wall and decided to make like a wallflower (even this saying confuses me, but let me clarify he was out of the way and observing).
He observed a young man conversing with a middle-aged couple on the verge of tears. His observations yielded that the couple were near tear-fall because he had lost his job, she was diagnosed with a serious malady, and they were soon to be kicked out of their shared apartment. The man was consoling his wife, which seemed strange to Tchitchikov because he seemed in as much a need of consoling as her.
He observed a young woman, shy and nervous, who whispered very nearly close to a mouse’s sigh. He couldn’t make out much about her story, but she seemed some sort of victim, and the woman she was talking to was likewise whispering, something about a police officer.
Tchitchikov observed these and many more, many people he hadn’t had a moment to consider. People from different walks of life, from the road more travelled, and not pleasantly so. People trampled upon and spat upon and generally regarded as extraneous, superfluous. Tchitchikov felt for them something new: he felt sympathy. It was a feeling that pushed out and replaced thoughts of himself and his own grand, crumbling plans. It was also, he hated to believe, refreshing to consider his luck in life.
“Oh hey, a crazy Russian!” Jenna waved to Tchitchikov from the middle of the main room. “Come on over!”
Tchitchikov and Jenna sorted through the maze of desks into the small office next to Fairwell’s. “I thought you were at Aris’ place. What brings you here?”
Tchitchikov frowned. “I got lost.”
Jenna opened her arms. “And now you are home!”
Tchitchikov almost nodded but was cut short.
“I’m kidding! But thanks for coming by. Did you still want to canvass? The day’s almost over, but we can get you set up for tomorrow.”
This time Tchitchikov completed his nodding.
“Great! Let’s get you trained a little bit. Canvassing is really easy. It’s even fun. So gimme a second…”
She brought him into the cramped training room. Jenna gathered a few materials and scooted a rickety folding chair near Tchitchikov; it took him too many moments to realize he was to sit in it. When he did, she presented him with a clipboard, a thick pad of paper, stickers, many pamphlets, and a couple “Fairwell for Congress” buttons. She pointed at the lump of paper.
“So these are the lists of people we’ll be contacting. They’re all registered voters, either with our party or independents.” Jenna patted the stack. “Good ole voter registrations. Have you seen one of these?”
“Anywho, they tend to be old and out of date, so half the time the people aren’t there. So these are the addresses to hit up, and the people we expect are there.” Jenna glided her finger on the packet. “This is where you mark them off, either supporting, unsure, et cetera et cetera. You’ll want to engage these people in a conversation. It’s important to connect with them personally. But you seem like a personable person. Right?”
Tchitchikov froze harder. “Then: example?”
“Okay, let’s start here.” She placed a slightly less thick packet on top of the thick sum of voters. “Here’s a script. You don’t really want to use it, but it’s something you really should know and modify as you go along.”
Tchitchikov read it: it included painstaking directions such as, “Introduce yourself [your name]. Mention you are with the campaign [Fairwell for Representative]. Ask for the other person’s name [their name] and engage in personable conversation about…”
“Okay, so, example,” Jenna took in a deep breath and continued in a bouncy voice, “Hello, my name is Jenna! I’m with the Fairwell for Congress campaign! I would LOVE to…”
Jenna gave her spiel. Tchitchikov was unimpressed.
“Where do you mention the color of one’s dress?”
“Not everyone wears a dress.”
“Yes, but where do you make note of their jewelry?”
“Well, not everyone wears jewelry.”
“Okay, but how, how…” Tchitchikov reached, “how do you make them like you?”
Jenna scratched her head. “Okay, I’m not following. You give an example.”
Tchitchikov cleared his throat. “Okay. Hello. My name is Paul Ivan Tchitchi—”
“Give your first name. It’s more personable.”
“Paul. Let me say, you do look smashing today, and I am perhaps to understand that your hair might look as deep as a coral, yes, as exotic as a—”
“Paul.” Jenna stopped him there.
“Are you flirting with me?”
Tchitchikov stared. “No. I am merely trying to get what I want.”
Jenna shook her head. “Okay. Now that’s cold. Look: we’re trying to get their vote. You don’t need to get their pants off, okay?”
“Well, I’m not sure why that wouldn’t help.”
Jenna thought of an initial reply but changed course. “Fair enough. Still, we want their votes. What you do on your time is your thing, right? Let’s give it one more go.”
Tchitchikov nodded. “Hello. My name is Paul Ivan Tchi—”
“First name. Let’s try again!”
Tchitchikov sighed. It was to be a long afternoon of training.
Tchitchikov passed the remainder of his night in Jenna and Andy’s company, feasting upon a far more palatable pie of pizza. Tchitchikov this time opted for their preference of terrestrial toppings over his hopes of sea food; that said, it was acceptable to his tastes. Perhaps that was because it was also a night of celebration, perhaps one too early, but such is the risk of spending quality time in the company of friends. Jenna and Andy were a treasure trove of stories about canvassing and politics, and should one ever doubt the perceptions of the lesser classes which, I admit, I have been wont to do from time to time (they are less glamorous, and yes, less beautiful, but their two eyes and two ears function just as well as mine!) then one should correct oneself and do so immediately so as to enjoy the tender company of people like Jenna and Andy. They related many stories, including “The Tale of the Temperamental Senior”; “Why You Don’t Mention Your Last Name or Address”; “Young Children Lie Better Than Their Parents”; and “Beware: Guard Dog.”
“But surely their dog is unfriendly,” Tchitchikov said between healthy gulps of clean water.
“My family had dogs growing up,” Andy said. “Jenna never had any, so she’s always been terrified of them.”
“Not all of them,” Jenna said.
Andy whispered loudly. “She’s still terrified.”
“No, I’m—okay, fine, go tell the story.”
Andy shook his head. “So in any case, the story, as I am telling the story, is that Jenna wanted to leave the place. She is—I mean was—terrified of dogs. Big deal. But we were drumming up support to fight the—I forget which bill.”
“It was that bullshit park safety bill,” Jenna said.
“Right,” Andy continued. “Basically some bill that closed parks in minority neighborhoods early. Anyway, the sign, Beware: Guard Dog. I read it and I knew this guy. This was an NRA-abiding hands-off-my-Constitution Super American. He had a vicious, man-killing Doberman and would shoot you twice after for good measure.”
Jenna hid her face in her hands. “Oh my God…”
“He’s going to vote for freedom. He’ll love fighting the bill, I just knew it. So, I opened the gate, which you should NEVER DO when there’s a dog sign, but it’s quiet. I knock on the door. Nothing. I ring the doorbell. Nobody. Dog and owner must be gone.”
“I hate you.” Jenna shook her head. “I hate you so, so much…”
“So, I forget, I think I go peek around the corner, see if the guy is outside, and I come back to the front door again, only Jenna is screaming.”
“Oh, shut up! I wasn’t screaming!”
“Bloody murder. She was terrified, shaking, freaking out. I’d never seen her so upset. So I—so I look around. The owner’s not bringing his machine gun, is he?”
“You keep making this part up.”
“Wait,” Tchitchikov said. “Then what was happening?”
“Literally nothing,” Andy said. “Nothing as far as I could tell.”
“I really fucking hate you,” Jenna said red-faced.
“It was the literal end of the world. I just didn’t know it.”
Tchitchikov produced a very Russian scoff of confusion.
“At some point, Jenna catches her breath, and points at my feet.”
“Did you trample dog feces?” Tchitchikov asked.
“Almost! I would’ve noticed that. But there he was, everyone’s favorite warrior, Achilles. He was attacking my shoe. He very nearly undid a shoelace.”
Tchitchikov grinned and, against his better judgment, hiccoughed a succession of quick, stuttering laughs. Jenna was, at first, confused, but then realizing her friend was not choking, but rather producing laughter, she responded in kind. “The beast!” Tchitchikov recovered some minor portion of his breath. “I should have known.”
“Whenever Jenna and I are out canvassing, I make it a point to risk life and limb to meet guard dogs and their owners.”
“Oh, shut up already!” Jenna captured some of her breaths. “I wasn’t freaking out like that!”
Andy nodded. “She was. But that’s how we met Aris.”
The three of them enjoyed their night together, and when they returned Tchitchikov to Aris’ abode, he was sad not to see him there. Tchitchikov turned off the light and lay on the couch, dangling his arm limply over the edge. A light nibble and generous licking came upon his knuckles, and Tchitchikov wished the warrior a good, peaceful rest.
“Good night, you Greek savage.”