And now, alas, I am standing here, this…But let’s not rush, because the incident, I think, deserves that I tell of it from the beginning and in detail, no matter how impatient I may be.
In the mornings, the abandoned, dilapidated house’s main room is my bathroom. One day I happened to discover the house, fenced in by concrete slabs, liked it and subsequently began to visit it every day. Generally, it’s in my nature to get used to things quickly and become a slave to my habits. If, let’s say, I drink my morning wine at the same coffee shop for two days in a row, my feet will drag me there of their own volition on the third day. The example is perhaps typical, but certainly outdated; I haven’t drank at a coffee shop in ages, the coffee shop payment, you all understand…But I shouldn’t get off track, otherwise…My mind is very unrestrained and arbitrary. If I let it be, it will, in a short time, get me so far off that I cannot return quickly. And then those distances are painful, and I feel as if my mind is dragging me naked over thorns. But again I’ve gotten off track. I shouldn’t try to be so comprehensive every time I speak about a specific event. Therefore I’ll turn to the latest events, which for me, one might say, have become turning points, because presently, alas, I am standing here, this…Again I jumped ahead…Brother, you really can’t help yourself, can you?
It was days ago—well, four days to be precise. I woke up early in the morning, my stomach was hurting, it was swollen and painful, because my lack of teeth usually leads to abundant gas, if, of course, you eat goodness-knows-what. I woke up and crawled out of the bushes, having no choice but to push aside the bodies of my friends—yes, bodies, because, when after a night of drunkenness they fall asleep on one another, they become bodies and nothing else. Curse them if you want, empty their pockets, but they won’t hear you nor will they feel any of this pestering. I did say “empty their pockets,” but their pockets, except in rare cases, are always empty, especially in the morning, if there are even pockets left on those frayed clothes. For example, only one pocket on my coat at that time was usable: it’s the inner left one, which is a reminder that the previous owner of the jacket was left-handed. How is that kind man doing these days? What is he up to? Is he alive? Dead? …It’s sad, but coats do generally outlive their owners. Anyway. I crawled out, checked the bottles that had been thrown nearby (empty), found a nice cigarette stub in the grass, put it in my mouth and walked into the street. I could have quickly lit the stub, but I love to smoke while squatting in the room, throughout the process, as they say. I finally reached the fence and only then asked a passerby for a light. He looked at my shriveled leftover, took a box out of his pocket, and instead of throwing it at me pulled a cigarette out and handed it to me, even lighting it. I understand, my hands were dirty, but people usually wash their hands after using the restroom, right?
I was squatting and smoking. I had diarrhea, as I always do after having red wine. I don’t like red wine, but you can’t always get your hands on your favorite drink: in fact, it’s usually the opposite. I, for example, love apricot vodka, but that’s another story. So I was squatting and smoking and thinking about life, humanity, the world. I was thinking about how imperceptibly man starts to tumble, and it’s enough to give up even one small thing, to slightly stumble—your downfall has started, perhaps unnoticeable on the outside, but the snowball is already rolling. And if you tumble, it’s very hard to stop. I was thinking that way. I generally like to think, it’s perhaps my favorite pastime. Sometimes, when I get my hands on some money, I get a drink, a smoke and I descend into the ravine, I sit alone under a tree, drink bit-by-bit, smoke and think. And when I return to my crowd, they look at me with such suspicion, as if I’m deprived of the right to privacy. It’s upsetting. Yet let’s return to the events of that day. I was done doing my duty and was already preparing to pull up my pants, when he suddenly appeared. He adjusted his uniform, grabbed his rubber baton from his belt and stood menacingly in the doorway. He was looking past me, as if he didn’t notice I was there. I remained that way for some time, half-seated, half-upright, then finally sobered up and buttoned my pants. It didn’t sit well with me. I thought it wasn’t worth butting heads with this guy, so I quietly approached the door to get out. But he twirled his baton threateningly and ordered.
“Go back! Go back, I’m telling you, ey!”
I retreated and asked, “But why?”
“Because this is a guard post, and I am assigned to guard this place,” he answered proudly.
“Perhaps you’re mistaken,” I said. “This is a long-neglected, dilapidated house—what guard post?”
“I’m not obligated to give explanations,” he snapped. “I said it’s a guard post and that’s that, keep your observations to yourself.”
“I agree,” I conceded. “It’s a guard post, so allow me to desert the area entrusted to you.”
“Certainly not. It’s been ordered to restrict everyone.”
“To restrict entry is understandable, but exiting…” I reasoned. But he was adamant.
“They didn’t specify, therefore there is no entry and no exit. I’m doing as it’s been ordered, is that clear?”
“It’s clear,” I said, sensing that reasoning was pointless. “And how long do I have to stay here?”
“Until the guarding shift is over,” he answered dryly.
“And that, forgive me, will last how long, if it’s not a secret?”
“As long as has been designated. And don’t you dare try to sway or bribe me, I’ll punish you, so shut your mouth and sit.”
Well damn, I thought, God knows how long I have to sit next to this lunatic…and my friends are probably already awake, they’ve come out to work “combing” nearby streets, except for the two that have trouble walking—one has severe joint pain, the other bleeding hemorrhoids—occupying their permanent places: either end of the park’s adjoining sidewalk, under the fence, wrinkled hats placed in front of them. I usually work at the intersections. I pick out the most inspiring car stopped at the traffic light, approach my “prey,” look straight into its eyes and say—I don’t ask, I simply say—“Excuse me, it turns out that today I have a dire need for money, so help, if you are able to.” I’ve counted; after three to four approaches at least one is successful. But then my friends will send their wives to get wine, I thought, and meanwhile I’m standing here with this idiot. (When I tell them this they won’t believe it!) There was no way out, so I sat quietly on the concrete. I watched the mad guard out of the corner of my eye. My indignation was limitless. But I had to admit that the uniform suited that fool. It was a totally new uniform: squeaky boots, shiny buckles, buttons… who knows where he got it all from.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked, catching my stare.
“Perhaps you just entered the force, yes?” I said.
“What’s it to you?” he snapped sharply. “Get up, get up I say! Sitting here and wasting my time. Up! And now, run and march! Come on!”
“For the love of God,” I said, “I have a sick heart, running is restricted for me.”
“Shut up! You’re ordered to run, so do it,” the madman screamed and hit me in the back with his baton. I gave in and ran.
“Let’s go. Faster, faster!” he was ordering and occasionally hitting my shoulders and waist. I started to run out of breath, coughing and wheezing.
“Alright,” he said, “now walk, put your hands on your waist and walk.” I walked. After running, walking was actually pleasant. But soon after, he gave the order to run again. And so I went in circles around the house, sometimes walking, sometimes running. At noon my tormenter brought a big rock near the door, laid out a kerchief and sat. “It’s time for lunch,” he said and pulled a large sausage out of his green linen bag, where he also kept his gas mask.
“Can I sit?” I asked, because I was still running.
“As you wish,” he said, “your will is yours.” I sat on the sill of the paneless window. I was terribly tired. I couldn’t remember when I had last run like that, let alone ever. “Don’t try to run away all of a sudden,” he warned, hinting at the window, “because I’ll catch you.”
“That hasn’t even crossed my mind,” I said. It really hadn’t. He was eating with gusto. But I had turned around and was looking outside.
“Hey, catch!” he called and tossed a piece of bread. Perhaps he was full. I usually can’t eat until I’ve had at least one glass; my mouth doesn’t produce saliva. But I ate it so as not to anger him. The bread smelled of sausage. He was leaning up against the wall and smoking.
“You couldn’t spare a cigarette?” I asked.
“It is immediately clear that you are a professional beggar,” he said. A little later he threw the smoking stub. “Here, smoke, while I’m being nice.” I can’t take it when people cover the cigarette butt in their spit like he did. Personally, for example, I always smoke it dry. I was smoking and occasionally looking at his uniform. “What, you like it?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s a marvelous uniform,” I admitted. He smiled, pleased with himself, then looked at his boots.
“My boots got dusty because of you,” he said. “Isn’t there a rag over there?”
I found a torn handkerchief in a crack in the concrete and gave it to him. He didn’t take it. “Why are you giving it to me? Clean them! You like my boots, right?”
I surrendered, because what else could I do? I was dealing with an absolute lunatic. I was cleaning his boots, my nose involuntarily seeking out the fresh leather scent. My adolescent dream suddenly materialized clearly in my mind: I was a General, no, a Marshall, standing on a high landing, an army a thousand strong below me in tight rows, unmoving, silent, waiting for my order. I wanted to order them to go right, or left, or towards the enemy, I wanted to split them into two and turn them against each other. They’ll do whatever I want, everything depends on me, on my orders! Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice I was caressing the lunatic guard’s buckle and buttons.
He pushed me and said “Hey, hey! Snap out of it. I don’t like things like that.”
I immediately surmised what the lunatic was thinking and wanted to explain, but he didn’t let me make a sound.
“Break time is over, stand up! Run and march!” he screamed. I ran in the already familiar circular area. What was I to do? Try and reason with the brute? I was completing the third, perhaps fourth lap when I suddenly felt a bizarre feeling. Let me move ahead… But no, it’s not worth moving ahead. I clearly felt that strange mental confusion, which lasted only a short while. For then the idiot was constantly screaming, not letting me concentrate.
“Fast, faster, feet high, don’t stop!” I finally lay across the floor, exhausted, and said.
“Do what you want, I can’t anymore, I’m dying.”
“You won’t die,” he said, “rest for five minutes and then run again.” I asked for a cigarette, he refused.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The short break is over, get up, walk.” I gave in and walked. But the lunatic was right, my breath slowed down easier that way. It was already getting dark outside.
He looked at his watch and with obvious regret ordered, “Get up. Enough. I’m leaving, goodbye.” He turned around and left.
I watched him from the window until he disappeared at the end of the street, and then immediately threw myself out into the park. My friends had yet to finish the evening’s wine. I emptied what was left in the bottle in one breath. They watched with hesitation.
I said, “Something happened, I fell in with the police.”
But I stopped there. I don’t know why, I knew deep down that I shouldn’t tell them.
And so it was that in the morning, my feet walked themselves back to the ramshackle house. Of course, I could have gone there much earlier and finished my business and left before the lunatic watchman got there. But, to be honest, I wanted to see him. The previous day we had spent together had served its dark purpose. Yes, perhaps it was unusual, but that’s the way it was. I wanted to see my tormenter, and could not resist my desire. I was curious, would the lunatic show up, or had something gone awry? But he came. Right on time. I don’t have a watch, but I can tell the time flawlessly by looking at the street and sky. He came and didn’t seem surprised at the sight of me, even though he said, “you’re still here, you stray dog?”
“You’re the dog,” I replied in my head, and perhaps my face betrayed me, because he scowled sharply and screamed,
“Turn right! Turn left! March forward, right shoulder first! Run and march!”
I ran and walked until noon, I even crawled, damning my luck all the while. I remembered the days of my past when I used to crawl. When you bury yourself in your memories, it is easier to endure torture. I remembered my adolescent dreams and then I looked at him. I wanted to see his uniform, to ascertain the accuracy of certain details in my memory. But the bizarre mental confusion arose within me again, much clearer this time, and it was suddenly clear to me, that I was not me, rather I was him, and he was not he, but me. It’s happened in the past, I’ve looked at others and suddenly wondered why I am me, and not someone else. What is it that compels me to say that I am me? But those are just contemplations, and I nevertheless felt very clearly while crawling across the neglected house that I was him and even that he was the one crawling, while I, wearing the uniform, was spouting orders. And it was as if I didn’t feel the exhaustion even though my muscles were moaning in pain like a cat that has fallen into the jaws of a dog, or a mouse in the jaws of a cat.
At noon he offered me a whole cigarette, perhaps he pitied me. I noticed that his boundless anger would change from time to time to short-lived kindness, but then he would become even more enraged, as if he regretted having expressed kindness. I was smoking while he ate. Then he gave me the last bit of his bread with butter and jam, and he put a cigarette in his mouth. It was fig jam, my favorite.
I said to myself in a low voice, “Oh, if only there was a glass of wine…” He heard me and smirked.
“An earring for your ear, you drunk,” he said. “Not a drop of alcohol while you are serving me, otherwise I’ll punish you harshly. But now I am going to step out for two minutes. Don’t you dare try and run away, I’m nearby and will catch you.”
I said, “If I was to run away, I wouldn’t have shown up here.”
“A person’s mood in the morning is one thing, in the afternoon another, and at night yet another,” noted the lunatic.
“I won’t flee,” I assured him. “But you can do what you need to do here, too.”
“That’s the last thing I need,” he said. “What are we, one and the same?”
I almost said that we were indeed one, because at that moment it had started to seem that I was talking to myself. But perhaps he was talking to himself? But that could seem so only to him… I was getting confused but couldn’t stop my train of thought. Thankfully, the watchman quickly returned. He furrowed his brows, assumed a bold pose and ordered, “Attention! Run and march!”
It was strange, but later that night, as I was sitting under a tree and drinking wine, I suddenly realized that I missed him. I wanted the night to pass quickly. Of course, the best way to shorten the night is to sleep, but my friends were in a talking mood, and the sound of traffic from the nearby street wasn’t getting any quieter.
In the morning I woke up terrified that I had overslept, but when I carefully looked around me, and later up to the sky, I saw that my worry was for naught. One of our women was snoring with reckless abandon, her knee resting on my stomach. She had urinated on herself. A wrinkled cigarette was sticking out of her breast pocket. I didn’t want to disturb the poor thing’s sleep just to ask for permission, so I just took it. My hand brushed up against her breast. It felt the same as brushing up against a cellophane bag with some tepid water at the bottom. I brushed the dust and dirt off of myself and stepped out onto the street.
The street sweeper was sweeping the sidewalk while cursing under his breath. He let me light my cigarette using the tip of his lit cigarette, continuously cursing, “What dirty people live in this city, mother…”
I closed my eyes empathetically and walked away. Smoking while walking through empty streets is such a pleasure. It’s as if you own the city.
When the watchman arrived, I was sitting on the rock and perusing the previous day’s newspaper, which I had found near the fence.
He screamed at me from afar, “Hey, stray dog!”
I didn’t make a sound, nodded hello and continued to read. “He even reads the newspaper, look at that,” he must have wondered.
What a fool. I have a university education, almost… I was in my third year when I left, but they made me leave, something happened and… In a word, I practically have a university education. I wanted to tell him this, but I froze on the words “third year.” That happens sometimes; I freeze in the middle of what I am saying and leave my thought incomplete.
He was looking at me, bewildered, as I stuttered “third yea…until the third yea…yea-yea-yea…” Damned memories of my incomplete university years always cause pain.
“You can’t get it out, so be quiet,” he advised. It’s easy to say, as if I have control over it. “Stand up! Attention!,” he screamed with might.
It was interesting, I immediately stepped out of my trance and stood up and said, “I’m listening.”
And the running started.
“Do you see? The routines are healing you,” the fool said, serious. “Burst forward!” I stared with uncertainty. I was being sneaky, I knew exactly what I was to do but was just buying myself some time so I could catch my breath. “What is it? Did you not serve in the army?” he asked.
“I did,” I answered, “but that order is not familiar.”
“Well it’s like this: you turn your back immediately to the explosion and throw yourself onto the ground,” he explained. “Do you understand? Burst forward!”
I immediately spun with my back to the imaginary explosion and laid myself out on the ground.
“Not bad,” I heard his voice from above my head. “But your heels are sticking out, lower them. Push your head well into the ground, more, more.”
He pushed my head down with the sole of his shoe, joking, “Better that I push so the shrapnel doesn’t hit you. Stand up, let’s try it again.” I was standing at attention, waiting for the next order.
“Bur…” he started and, what wonder, he froze and stopped.
He was repeating “Bur…bur…bur” while his neck and face spasmed. He finally stopped. We stared at each other, unblinking. It suddenly occurred to me that I knew everything about him. I wanted to be sure and asked,
“Forgive me, I want to ask, are you, by any chance, from the village?”
“What’s it to you, you mangy dog?” he sneered. “Do you hate people from the village?”
“No, why? I myself… It’s true that I wasn’t born in the village, but my parents are from the village. All our roots are in the village,” I justified, feeling that he was getting heated.
“Don’t lie to me. I know that you hate them. I know your kind very well. Never mind, never mind, I’ll guard this place for a month or two, then I’ll be called on to be an officer, and then we’ll see who’s who.” It was as if those last words were directed at someone else.
“Perhaps you have good friends in high places,” I tried to win him over, but it was fruitless because he got scared at first, even cowered a bit, then got heated and screamed,
“You’re talking out of your ass. Stand up, attention! Suck your stomach in, point your chin up.” He thought for a moment, then took out the gas mask hanging off his side and handed it to me. “Six seconds, you understand?”
“Forgive me,” I protested, “but as far as I know the regulation time is eight seconds.”
“It was, now it’s six.” He held the timer, ready. “Pay attention, we’re starting. Put on the gas mask.” Until the break I wasn’t able to get the damn rubber casing on in less than six seconds. It kept pulling at my hair. I managed to do it in less than eight seconds twice, but that wasn’t enough for him. The rubber had burned my face, and it was as if my salty sweat was running down my raw flesh.
“Alright, we’ll continue after the break,” said my tormenter, eyeing his watch.
Fatigued, I sat on the pockmarked rock. “Listen, you know, the gas mask suits you well. It would look better than your face, if only we could sew it on!” he giggled. “If I were you, I’d live with the gas mask on, it’s your only chance to get women’s attention.”
I looked down at the gas mask at my knees and it seemed to me that it, too, was laughing at me. The lunatic, meanwhile, was already devouring his sandwich, which had smoked sausage this time. The sausage’s scent was reaching all the way to my nose. He didn’t offer me any. Nor did he give me a cigarette. I looked for a morsel in the gaps in the concrete, didn’t find any, but instead a shard from a mirror caught my eye. I picked it up and looked at it…My face looked like a cooked beet, a wrinkled beet.
I tossed the shard aside. He turned towards the sound, and, running his eyes over the room, ordered, “Attention! Stand up! What kind of state is the guarding post in? I’m asking you, a pig’s sty is cleaner than this. This has to be an immaculate guarding post, one that amazes and earns accolades. Hurry up, stray dog, put the place in order. Collect those rocks, too, arrange them nicely by the wall, get to work, just don’t raise any dust.”
I was actually happy about this change. I was finished with the gas mask. I cleaned the area, collected the rocks and piled them with care along the wall, but he looked, disappointed, and criticized: “No, it doesn’t look quite right there, move them to the other wall across from it.”
He was a damn aesthetics specialist! And so, until the end of the day I moved the rocks from one side of the room to the other and so on. At the end of the day I shined his dusty boots and wanted to shine his buckle, too, but he didn’t allow it.
“No,” he said, “I can’t trust you with the belt.”
Why not? Did he think I’d eat it? The lunatic was already the death of me, I was sick of him, and the uniform didn’t even suit the idiot anymore. Is this it? Is there no way out? I thought. And it was right then and there that I figured it out…but I’m jumping ahead again…
In a word, this morning, when he was walking down the hallway toward the room, I was holding my breath while hiding behind the wall.
“Hey, stray dog, where are you?” he called out.
I didn’t make a sound. “Could it be that you didn’t come?”
The possibility seemed to sadden him as he sat down on the rock. A t that same moment, I brought the piece of wood in my hand down onto his head. He let out a heavy groan and crumpled to the ground. There was shock in his frozen eyes. But I had no time to celebrate. I quickly took off my clothes, then took off his uniform and put it on, dressing him in my clothes. It wasn’t easy. Finally I put my hat on his head and looked at him, the stray dog. And I said it, too.
“You stray dog.”
The uniform fit me perfectly. I adjusted it under my belt, shined the buckle using my sleeve, picked up the baton and stood at the door. Meanwhile he had started to come to. He swung from side to side while standing up and looked at me.
I said, “So, stray dog, how are you?”
Stupefied, he was looking from me, to the uniform, to the dirty, wrinkled rags on his body. “Attention! Turn right! Run and march!” I ordered. He tried to resist, but I immediately brought the baton down onto his neck. He quietly ran.
And now I am the dilapidated house’s watchman.
From the photo story "Khtsaberd" by Anahit Hayrapetyan