“On first speaking to the man, his ingratiating smile, his flaxen hair, and his blue eyes would lead one to say, ‘What a pleasant, good-tempered fellow he seems!’ yet during the next moment or two one would feel inclined to say nothing at all, and, during the third moment, only to say, ‘The devil alone knows what he is!’”
—Gogol, trans. D. J. Hogarth
“I ’m going to kill him,” Jenna said.
And, at approximately two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, in Jenna’s and Andy’s apartment, after much drinking and much cursing of Aris and his ancestors, Tchitchikov found himself in the awkward situation of silent disagreement: Aris’ betrayal had spared him from his own.
“The only question is: slow and painful, or … no, it’s slow and painful.”
“Jenna…” Andy said.
“That lying little shit,” she returned. “I never, EVER should have trusted him. Where the hell does he find this bullshit?”
With a clam’s sense of the situation, Tchitchikov’s voice stayed trapped in his lungs.
“The fuck, Andy? Why would he do this?”
Andy shook his head. “I don’t know. Money? Power?”
“Who’s going to believe him?” Jenna asked.
Tchitchikov replied, “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is there are three days to the election. Even a lie cannot be diffused fast enough.” He re-clammed himself.
Jenna shook her head. “Well, in any case, he’s going to be dead.”
Through the morning, Andy verbally fanned Jenna to cool the flames of her anger, though the only real result was the fanning of her flames of anger. A slight miscalculation! Tchitchikov laid in their spare “bedroom,” a storage room laid out with a few blankets, and slept even worse than the night before. He stared at the ceiling in a vain attempt to tune the couple’s arguments out, and in a few moments the sun rose through the smudged window. Tchitchikov groaned.
Jenna sat at their kitchen table and sipped from a cup of chain shop coffee. “Hey, Paul,” she said.
“Hello, Miss Jenna.” Tchitchikov’s vocal cords could have been through a blender. He coughed and yawned. “I am sorry for Aris’—”
“No,” she said raspily. “Please don’t apologize. And definitely don’t say his name.”
“Okay,” Tchitchikov said. “I won’t.”
“I’m sorry if I kept you up.”
Tchitchikov shook his head. “It is fine. I should—” he yawned again, “—prepare for the day. I wonder what lay ahead.”
“Do you need a ride to the train station?”
Tchitchikov seized. It was perhaps a slight shock—which I cannot attribute to static electricity, since he was neither seated on fabric nor standing on shag carpeting—but I could well attribute the shock to the pang of a growing conscience. He stumbled, verbally, I should clarify, though the light night of sleep was nearly enough to make him stumble physically. “No, well, that is, umm, I should—” Yet he recovered some semblance of clarity, “I could do so at a later date.”
Jenna forgave him his befuddlement and attributed it to a lack of proper rest. “Okay, then. I’m sorry for keeping you up.”
Tchitchikov shook his head. He pulled out his cell phone—yes, it was still waterlogged, darkened blotches of water spread through the screen where it had invaded it—and he added an eye roll to his repertoire of morning head shaking. “Oh, this is right, you blasted, infernally cursed contraption from the deepest parts of cancerous nuclear technology—”
Tchitchikov revealed his phone to her. It was, sadly, still dead.
“Hold on, Paul.” Jenna crept open her bedroom door carefully and closed it again.
Within the room were moans—no, that was not happening, you foolish reader, these were moans of light sleeping and general exhaustion—and Jenna tiptoed out and gently closed the door again. “Here you go. You can keep this one. It’s an extra.”
Tchitchikov noted a few things about the free cell phone offered to him: it was shattered, much like his soul; its battery was low on energy, much like his disposition; its sound was garbled much like his thoughts; and it was small, very diminutive, much like his (fend those foolish thoughts away!) current ego. The phone was also plastered with and likely held together by ridiculous cartoon animal stickers. Unlike Tchitchikov, I should note.
“It’s not much, but it still works. I think.”
Tchitchikov placed his card in it, and the first thing the phone wanted him to know was that he was not much sought-after: it buzzed one cruel little message to him.
Dear destroyed Mr. Tchitchikov, the message relayed through splinters of screen, I hope you are happy.
It was from the number of the mystery text exactly one week ago. The memory the text summoned, of his manipulation of a married woman for his now-dashed scheme, brought Tchitchikov no small amount of shame.
“We’re going to canvass like hell,” Jenna said. “We’ve got one weekend to save Fairwell’s campaign. If you’re still around, you should come join us.”
Andy and Jenna stopped into the local breakfast chain, “Go Nutz 4 Donutz.” As he placed their orders, Jenna turned to Tchitchikov. “Ohemgee, please make it stop.”
“What? Make what stop?”
“This thing is KILLING me.” Jenna pointed to a television.
Tchitchikov recognized Mr. Green, standing arms crossed behind a genteel, silk-suited man who was clearly his boss, Representative Everly. “…lack of morality is a travesty,” Everly was saying. “An elected official’s greatest asset is his word. And Fairwell broke that. He broke that, smashed it open like a ripe melon on a concrete floor—” Mr. Green smiled and nodded behind his boss, “—and betrayed his wife. Of course he’s going to betray his voters! That’s what liars do. That’s why I stand behind James Kingston of my such-and-such party, a noble man who has proven his faithfulness to his community.”
“Thank you, Representative. Now an update from the Sumter County race: revelations from former campaign manager Stuart Raymond of Representative Stoddard’s—”
Andy tugged at Tchitchikov. “I got your lox, we gotta go.”
Jenna was silent while Andy drove. The car hummed along and blasted air with faint wisps of air conditioning. The whole of Jacksonville passed by unabated. The lox was surprisingly tolerable.
To say the scandal flew through Fairwell’s office was an understatement: it was vacant enough to expect tumbleweeds blowing about. The office was emptied of most of the constituents, and many of the volunteers as well. Jenna wiped her eyes. “Dammit, this is such … this is so not fair…”
O— turned up from her desk. “We roll with the punches,” she said. “At least Mr. Abad is here.”
“Wait, who?” Jenna asked.
“Mr. Amir Abad.” O— said a little more quietly, “Jamal Washington. The guy who—”
“OH!” Jenna covered her mouth. She whispered to Andy, “Amir Abad is here!”
“The name sounds familiar,” Andy said.
“You’re coming with me.” Jenna grabbed his arm. “Where is Mr. Abad, O—?”
“I’m not sure, somewhere in the office. At least I didn’t see him leave, anyway.”
Jenna dragged Andy toward Fairwell’s office in the back. Like any curious feline with a couple of extra lives at his disposal, Tchitchikov followed.
Fortunately, he did not need to spend anymore. Jenna found Abad in the training office. Mr. Amir Abad, formerly known as Jamal Washington, wore a plum thobe, a white frizz of hair and tug of beard past his collar, and a congenial, old man smile. He also sported a slight hunch to his back and spoke in a seeming sing-song, in a tone with musical flights of a bird. “Why hello, little sister! Have you seen Alexander about? I believe I may have missed him.”
Jenna was either stunned, shocked, surprised, or some combination of all three. “Uh, well, uh … ummm…”
“Alexander?” Andy asked. “Oh, Alex Fairwell.”
He nodded and smiled, missing one tooth. “Yes, Alex Fairwell. Is he not about?”
Tchitchikov noticed Jenna’s legs, impatient as an antelope ready to spring in any random direction. “You are Mr. Amir Abad. Right?”
“Of course I am!” The man laughed, and it seemed to fill the whole training room. “Now, little sister, you needn’t look so surprised.”
Jenna then proceeded to bite her lip and flick her hands about in anticipation. When she calmed down, she asked, “May I shake your hand?”
The man obliged, leaving Tchitchikov more than a little confused at her being star-struck. She turned around.
“Paul, this is Mr. Amir Abad. The Mr. Amir Abad.”
“Yes,” Tchitchikov said. “I believe he may be.”
“Can I—?” Jenna halted herself, but her propriety could not hold back the overflow of her excitement. “Could I have a photo, please?”
The old man obliged. Jenna put on the brightest smile that Tchitchikov, and Andy for that matter, had ever seen. After Andy finished taking more than a handful of photos, Jenna stood there in pose for some time longer. Andy took a few more.
“I’m sorry,” Jenna finished her photo shoot. “I just had to; I hope you understand. It’s not every day that I meet—” she bit her lip again, “—a legend.”
“A legend? My little sister, come on now. All I wanted was a sandwich!” His laughter filled the room even more than before.
“A sandwich?” Jenna looked incredulous. “Yeah, from a segregated diner. That’s a big deal! I can’t believe I actually got to meet you! Wait, so you know Fairwell?”
“Of course I do! Alexander and I go some time back.” Abad’s smile faded. “I have never heard him upset like this. He called last night, and I thought it necessary to come in and cheer him some.”
Jenna laughed nervously. “Of course you know him! And you’re so humble, too. It was more than just wanting a sandwich.”
Abad assented. “It was. At the time, I had wanted to go there tomorrow, too. But I got this,” he grinned and showed the gap of the missing tooth. “And their Rueben was too much overpriced. I never went back.”
Recognition struck Andy, and he turned to Tchitchikov. “Wow. Paul, this is Jamal—I mean Amir Abad. He sat in at lunch counters during MLK’s time. They beat him and arrested him. Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s actually here…”
“I am no celebrity,” Abad insisted. “I’m just a stubborn young man grown up to be a stubborn old man. Do you know when Alexander is coming back?”
Jenna reddened and shook her head. Andy rubbed her back. Tchitchikov had a sense of the gravity of their meeting him, but there were few Russian equivalents to measure Abad against.
“We are sorry,” Tchitchikov said, “but we do not know when the Representative is to return.”
“Then, may I ask for your company during my lunch?” Abad smiled. “I see you have your breakfast, but I missed mine. Our talk makes me want a sandwich. Without the beating, hopefully.”
Jenna slowly nodded, then increased the pace of her nodding before saying, “Yes. Yes yes—” her voice squeaked, “yes.”
“You must forgive me, for I am one of those old, ‘long-winded’ folk, if you listen to my daughter’s opinion. But I think that’s because my life has been caught up in the winds of change, as they say.”
Abad laughed. Jenna nodded and Tchitchikov quietly nibbled on his Reuben, a sandwich new to his tastes. He was trying to determine where he landed on its strange intersection of flavors. Abad patted the lunch counter.
“Now this, this I am familiar with. I left a tooth on one of these. A policeman slammed my face down on one of these, on a copper one. I was lucky. Some of us got the dogs.
“But enough of that. These are stories you likely know, and stories I have told many times. Stories are important, yes, but my stories are those of the past, and there is much future ahead to be made yet. I prefer those stories these days.
“Here is one story I like to tell. Here, here she is, my daughter. She is beautiful, yes? Can you see her on my phone? A little smudged. But yes, gorgeous, seriously, she is. And smart! Smarter than me, that’s for sure. This young girl here—young woman, I mean, you see, with how fast time goes, sometimes I need to catch up to it still—she teaches in an inner-city school in Alabama, a brutal, really sad kind of place, and she teaches her students the most important thing they can possibly learn: the Fight. Not just the fight for freedom, the fight against oppression, but the Fight. You know, that thing in you, that thing I see in you, I see in a lot of young people, that makes them challenge authority, that makes them—or you, I suppose—makes you fight for yourself, fight for each other. The Fight.
“The Bronx in the fifties is not a good place for a child. I had the Fight. But it was different back then. We were kids. We learned it from the cops who beat the snot from us. They’d see us, they’d pull us into a hallway, and punch and punch and just beat us. We got in our hits, too. We’d throw bottles at them from our balcony, at this mean one in particular, some redhead, a tall glass of water. He was the worst.”
His laugh nearly startled the counter server. “Here I am, telling these old stories again! You see, I’m still half living in that era, and here I wanted to talk to you about my daughter, what makes her so special. What makes her so much smarter than me.
“She teaches in Alabama, this poor, dirt poor neighborhood. Oh yes, I remember now what I was saying, yes, she gives her students the Fight. You see, she is an advocate for the young punks, what I was in the Bronx, it’s not much different these days how kids get trampled on and beat up. But yes, she’s got heart and she’s got the Fight.
“Tayla, that’s my daughter, she organizes an afterschool program for her students. They get together, she and her students, and work on different art projects. This one student painted a mural on an old, crumbling—here it is. Can you see that? How lovely, what talent! I like how she used the crumbling wall. It’s scary, this picture—can you see it?—there’s a girl running away. The world is crumbling, where the wall is crumbling, right there, but even this gives me hope. Seeing this girl’s understanding, her awareness of her situation; seeing that kind of art in the world, it gives me hope.
“Now what was I saying? My mind, you see, it isn’t as sharp as it once was. It’s been filled with words and stories, but in my old age, sometimes there’s no point. Get it? It isn’t sharp, no point … never mind. I was making a bad pun, but I see you’re not interested. No, it’s okay, I appreciate your politeness.
“My daughter. Gorgeous. Smart as a rod. She asked me something the other day. She said, ‘Dad, when will we get there?’ There is a little context needed, she meant when will the struggle be over? When will the human race come to love itself, when will it find itself to be enough and stop devouring its people with hate? And then she said something else. She said, ‘I’m so tired.’
“I was frightened. But I understood that, I was her age once, and I was tired, too. Look at me now! Seventy-eight years old, at least I’m pretty sure I’m seventy-eight (that was a joke, you know, I’m not that senile, not yet). In any case, I was frightened to hear that, to hear the exhaustion and fear in her voice, because your generation, you are the ones to be making the change that we need in the world, the change that my generation promised but could not deliver. Hearing that, it scared me. It made me think the Fight was going to leave her. So, I did what any respectable father would do. I asked her ‘What’s wrong?’
“She told me. I think I see now the obstacles your generation faces. They are far more vast than the ones I dealt with, far worse than some redhead police jerkoff who liked to wale on black boys. She went into her speech about modern racism, corruption, corporate power, the underground sex trade, global warming, climate destruction. That’s quite a handful for your generation to deal with! So, like any good father, I tried to make her feel better. I tried to tell her things will be alright.”
Abad smiled and shook his head. “Parent mistake number one: don’t lie. You see, she asked me how I knew that, but I had nothing to back up what I said! Now Tayla, she’s very smart, and she caught me up in some conversation about literature, no, about stories in general. I think what she said was that stories are written by the survivors, yes, but the problem is that we don’t tell the stories of those who perish. We ignore them and their stories. You see, when I said ‘things will be alright,’ that’s the story a survivor tells after they triumph. What do the fallen say after they fail in their stories? I don’t know. We don’t have those stories. That was her point, and one I’d never thought of before. She’s way smarter than me. You see that?
“But I realized something well after the fact, and I will call her back soon and tell her this: that there’s still hope. There’s still a chance we will end the struggle, that we’ll arrive at love and peace and the goodness of eternal life on this Earth. I know it’s hard to see hope in this kind of world, but it is there. There is always hope! I think that is something my generation learned, we learned it the hard way, and sometimes I had no hope, but I just kept going. It comes and goes, sometimes, or we feel it does, but it’s always there. Allah, God, is always there. Now, let me be clear, I have to acknowledge my daughter’s wisdom, and I have to flesh out this about hope, that hope doesn’t mean we will get ourselves there. Hope is no guarantee. Hope is a chance, even if it’s one in one billion, hope is the chance that we will get there, not as an individual, not as a generation, but as the human race. That is hope. There is always that hope. And I see you have that too, it’s braver of you to have that than my generation, given all these things crashing down upon our world. But, hope: don’t forget that. It’s always there. Don’t give up on it. It won’t give up on you.”
Abad’s smile softened, and slowly dissipated from his face. He looked worn, like a smooth river stone weathered through by several small, unending trickles. “I got a call from Alexander yesterday. I felt something deep. I’m not quite sure what he said, but I felt it was gone. I felt he lost the Fight.”
Jenna was too caught into Abad’s story to touch her sandwich. “What do you mean?”
Abad shook his head. “This scandal is too much for him. It’s only been a day, and already he is—he is hopeless. I had never heard him speak like this before. He was—let’s say he didn’t spit that fire I knew from him, from when he’d come to bail out ‘ungrateful citizens’ like me.
“But there is a reason for everything. Whatever happens, I believe that. Maybe this is what he needs to bring himself back into the fight. Or maybe I’m wrong, which is often the case, and maybe it’s time someone else stepped in. Someone from your generation. You, probably.”
Tchitchikov watched Jenna freeze up. She shook her head. “No no no, what do you mean? Not me. I’m just—I’m—I can barely pay my rent!”
“Oh, please now, that is what my foolish generation says about you. All the time. Now when I look at my daughter—you know, the ‘Greatest Generation,’ those who fought in World War II? I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that they are the ‘Greatest Generation.’ Yes, they faced Nazis, and yes they killed Hitler, and yes they saved the world from fascists. But that makes them the greatest? No, here’s where I differ: I see your generation, my daughter, you, little sister, even this silent Russian here—sorry, not to point at you—and already it has been decided that they are the ‘Greatest Generation,’ and that your generation, those who are now entering the next Great Depression, who are making ends meet on a quarter of the budget my family saw, who will now face not just the dominant world of fascism, but the destruction of the planet itself? That you might not be the ‘Greatest Generation’ after all is said and done? Bull. Total bull. I see in you something greater than I saw in my parents and their parents’ generation, though I love them dearly. Do you know what I see? I see the Fight, yes, but also heart. That’s what their generation, and my generation, too, that’s what we lacked. We had brains, we had plans, so, so many plans, we had a promise that everything would be fixed. But we lacked the heart to guide our sense of the Fight. That is how we have failed. We forgot, long ago, or maybe we never knew we were placed here on this planet, by Allah, to save ourselves with each other. To bring all to that place of peace and beauty. Or, because maybe my daughter might be right, to bring all toward its final destruction. The end of the human race. But maybe I’m being foolish.”
Jenna shook her head. “No,” she said. “I wonder about that, too. We can’t do it; we can’t save the planet. Not alone. That’s why we need Fairwell to—”
“Darling,” Abad said, “and I do apologize if you feel I insult you. That is how I was brought up, to say ‘darling,’ and sometimes it slips, so I hope you don’t take offense at that. But Miss, little sister, what I’m trying to say is, for all Fairwell has done, for all a small handful of my generation has accomplished, and sometimes that looks like a lot, that the burden of saving this planet is placed on your generation, the Bravest Generation. That is who you are. You get up, you work, you struggle with no money, you head out and you make a difference, sleep, and the next day you get up and do the same. You, your generation will climb the biggest mountain the human race will ever have to climb. And I think you will succeed, you will deliver us into that promise my generation wanted to give but could not, at least I pray you will deliver us. You’re tougher, you’re smarter than this old guard, anyway, and you have the heart and the love to guide you. That is what I think, anyway. But I have been wrong, and like my daughter would say, there is no guarantee in life. There is no guarantee that ours is a story of survival, and not one of destruction. But, in any case, do not give up. Hope. Fight. Do not give up.”
Jenna and Andy were silent. Tchitchikov hated to admit it, but there was some morsel of truth to Abad’s desperation.
Abad sighed. “And here I am, with a cold sandwich and cold fries. I warned you I was a long-winded old man. And now I must suffer the price, it seems.”
Tchitchikov was lucky. He finished his sandwich. It was a good Reuben.
“Thank you for keeping this old, stubborn man some company during his lunch.”
The four of them walked back to Fairwell’s office. Andy carried Abad’s leftover fries. They were a gift from the elderly radical who believed that food was a blessing and should not go to waste, and moreover, that microwave ovens were Allah’s promise that it shall not henceforth. They returned to find Selifan and Georgina engaging in idle chatting with O—, who was wiping her eyes of a great many tears.
“My, wow … I mean, so—ha—those must be good dreams!”
“They seemed delicious ones,” Selifan returned to her, “for he licks his lips sated in the morning.”
“Selifan,” Tchitchikov said. “You beast! Abate your attacks at this poor woman at once!”
O— attempted a good look at our hero, but broke gaze within a moment and a half and resumed wiping her eyes. “I just, I—Paul, do you remember any of your dreams?”
“Do you have weird ones? Like,” she looked at Selifan, “being a good puppy dog?” O— laughed.
“What now? Laughter…?”
O— caught her breath again. “I’m sorry. Selifan was telling me that you nodded a lot during your sleep. Like this—” she scrunched her arms toward her face, paws downward, “—like a sweet little puppy?”
Tchitchikov growled, like the suggested puppy, though less sweet. “Why, now, I think I prefer you accosting her, dear friend. No. All of you. The bed was tight, and I was very cramped in upon myself. Hence my compactness.”
O— successfully fought off the next round of laughter. “It’s okay. I had a partner who dreamt they were a cat. They had crazy adventures.” A sudden thought hit her. “Oh, maybe I could introduce you two!”
“No,” Selifan said, “I know the nature of this one’s dreams. There is no room for another in them.”
The shaft of truth from his former friend hit Tchitchikov. He had no rejoinder to Selifan’s attack, and only had the choice to receive it rather than return it.
“In any case, we shall head out,” Selifan said. “There is much ahead to do.”
Abad shook his head. “I’ll be here,” he said. “Alexander may come by.”
“Oh, you don’t have to, Mr. Abad,” O— said. “The Representative hasn’t emailed me back. I’m not sure when he’s planning to stop by.”
“It is my duty to a friend,” Abad said. “He has demons he must face, and I will face them with him. Besides, we have very many TV shows to catch up on.”
“That’s sweet of you, Mr. Abad.” O— addressed Tchitchikov, Jenna and Andy, “Are you staying, too?”
“We’re going to head out,” Andy said. “Selifan’s right. There’s so much we need to do until Tuesday.”
“You have quite the drive in you,” Abad said. “It makes me sad a little. My course is near an end. But I see our battle is in good hands.”
“Thank you, Mr. Abad,” Jenna said. “Thanks so much. We should get canvassing again today.” She turned to the remainder of the group. “I’m ready. Are you ready? ‘Cause I’m ready.”
Jenna was not ready for the fallout from Fairwell’s scandal.
Even Andy, Tchitchikov, Selifan and Georgina were not quite prepared for the amount of vitriol lobbed in Fairwell’s general direction. Some highlights included:
“Isn’t he too old for that?”
“Leave me alone. You’re all perverts.”
“Good for him, the old bastard. No, I’m still not voting for him.”
“Him? He’ll destroy the sanctity of all marriages. He’s just getting warmed up.”
“What a dick. That’s how a man thinks, with his…”
And so on and so forth. It is no small matter, a politician having an affair, though it should be said many a man (and woman) of the wonderful United States have participated in many an affair. So why should it matter that a politician, or this politician more specifically, had betrayed his spouse?
Why could a Kingston, should it ever happen, get away with such an indiscretion, but never a Fairwell?
“They’re all a bunch of prudes and hypocrites,” Jenna said. “And don’t get me wrong, Andy: you cheat on me and you’re dead.”
“Oh, I know,” he said.
“But you know half of these people cheated, they’re probably cheating right now, and the gall of them, the straight nerve to bash Fairwell. He’s done so much for Florida! What a bunch of, of…”
I shall put this simply: because an honorable personage such as a Fairwell should never attract dishonor. The honest suffer worst from dishonesty, for there is much more luster to tarnish there.
“It’s not fair,” Jenna said. “It’s so not fair…”
On the ride back, Tchitchikov felt a need to do something important. He pulled out the phone gifted to him, and texted a reply to the message he received earlier:
I am ashamed and sorry, his message read.