Eugene Dubnov

AN EMPTY BOTTLE

LIFE IN AN URBAN LANDSCAPE AND THINGS BEYOND


An empty bottle slid down the length of the luggage rack, clinking on the metal struts as it progressed. Every time it passed directly above him. he flinched at the thought of it slipping through the netting and falling on his head. At one point he even considered getting up and catching it as it went by, but his legs were so numb from the cold inside the bus that the task seemed beyond him. Also, the rest of the dozen or so passengers were unconcerned, and he saw no reason suddenly to get up in front of them all while they were sitting so quietly.

Meanwhile the winter afternoon was growing dark, and soon he could no longer see the bottle at all, only hear its menacing rattle. After an hour of this he could think of nothing but the bottle, and by concentrating on its clatters and silences tried to visualise its exact location and whimsical behaviour.

Finally he felt he was going mad: he could not understand why nobody else on the bus seemed to be bothered. It was as if they were deliberately ignoring the bottle! He resolved to put an end to this silly farce. When he heard the bottle getting nearer, he quickly stood up and reached out for it. But the bottle was not there: it must have stuck above the seat in front of him, just beyond the metal support. As he groped around feeling for it, his left leg pressed against the girl sitting next to him. She had irritated him earlier by choosing to sit beside him instead of somewhere else on the half-empty bus. He still could not find the bottle; his embarrassment became more acute, and he sat down. His buttocks sensed how much colder the seat had grown while he had been standing.

There was a rattle as once more the bottle passed over his head. Now it was surely just behind, him. Leaping up, he wheeled around and snatched for it. The bus accelerated and the bottle rattled beyond his reach, to the rear of the bus. In the light from a passing lorry he noticed how the hem of the girl's coat had been pushed slightly above her knee. "Excuse me. . . the bottle. . . I. . ." he spluttered, grateful that in the darkness she could not see how flushed his face was. She seemed not to mind.

He determined to pay no more attention to the bottle. It rolled by twice, clinking on the metal bars, just a foot above

him. He resisted the temptation to do something about it. A third time it stopped right above his seat, and looking up he could see its blue glint reflecting the white snow outside. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the girl was smiling. For the next ten minutes he sat quietly, watching the bottle, wishing that it would move away; he began to perceive clearly the curves of its outline; he could even see a few drops of liquid which remained in it. The bus came to a stop in front of a railway crossing. He sprang up and grabbed the bottle. The bus jerked suddenly into gear, and he tumbled, clutching the bottle, right onto the girl's lap.

She gave a warm throaty laugh. "Are you all right?" she asked. He had fallen sideways, and to prevent him from tumbling into the aisle she put her left hand over his shoulder. Her right hand was pinned under his knees; she wiggled it free and, as if she did not quite know what to do with it, rested it on his knee.

The touch of her hands was nice; her lap under the small of his back was warm; with his right shoulder pressed against her body he could feel the tautness of her breasts. He clutched the back of the seat in front of him and yanked himself into his place by the window.

"Bravo", she said, taking the bottle out of his hand. "It's 'Moscow Vodka', but it's almost empty".

"I didn't mean to drink it", he stammered, "I was afraid it might fall on somebody's head".

"Whose head, yours? There's no other head under this rack". "So what if it's only mine—why shouldn't I protect it?" "Anything there to protect?"

"More than you might think".

"What, for instance?"

"Thoughts and ideas".

"What sort of thoughts and ideas, for instance?" "About acting in films".

"Are you an actor then?"

"Not quite yet — I've just been in a couple of films".

"Oh! What films?"

"Well. . . you wouldn't have heard of them. . . You see. they haven't been released yet. I've just finished in them. Only last week, in fact!"

"You must be at Mosfilm then?”

"Where else? I've been there for years!" "Really? But how old are you now?"

"Eighteen—but I look much older, everyone at Mosfilm says so. How old are you?"

"How old do you think?"

"Oh. . . about, say, twenty five?"

"Not a bad guess—I'm only twenty".

"I didn't mean to. . . what I meant was that you looked a little like my older sister. She's an actress—that is, also an actress. . . And what do you do?"

"Oh, nothing special. I'm just a seamstress. . . But it must be very exciting to be at Mosfilm—you must meet lots of interesting people and see lots of great films. Do you like Eisenstein?"

"O yes, very much. We often chat together in the canteen— you know, the commissary. Actually, I bumped into him just yesterday afternoon and had a drink with him".

"I didn't know he was still alive".

"You didn't know he was still alive?" "No, I didn't".

"I didn't myself. . . But it's quite understandable why. . . He is, of course, a very old man. . . almost dead. Many people I've met thought the same thing as you—as I did. . . I mean, you know, thought he must be dead by now. . . When I first got there—to Mosfilm, I mean—and met him in the commissary, I was quite shocked to see him alive!. . . I can see him now as he was then—giving directions to his crew, carrying his movie camera, an old wrinkled face against the background of the falling snow all around him. . . Oh. why are we stopping?"

"I don't know—could be the rest-stop".

As if in confirmation the driver announced that there would be a half an hour stop. It would be the last chance for passengers to take a little walk, if they wanted to.

The girl leaned across him. so that her hair brushed against his cheek and he caught her perfumed scent—like trees in a forest. He followed her glance out of the window. Apart from a dark wooden shack—presumably the station—and a single lamp-post next to the highway, there were only mounds of soundless snow.

"I wonder why anyone would want to take a walk out there?" he said. "Where would one go?"

The girl, still leaning over him, turned away from the window and stared at him.

"Hmm. . . you don't look like an actor, but you have wonderful eyes—so big, so strange".

"Look out of the window", he said, trying to get away from her eyes. "All the other passengers are going to the station-but it looks closed!"

As she moved even closer to the window, she accidentally poked her elbow into the pit of his stomach. It wasn't really a poke but more of a nudge, and in a couple of seconds he began to feel a bit crowded. His bladder seemed about to burst.

"Excuse me. . . You must excuse me, but I think I would like to take a little walk, after all. Just to stretch my legs", he said, bending forward, as if to stand up. Stirring, the girl raised her head and inadvertently cracked him on the chin.

She laughed and asked whether she had hurt him; he replied he wasn't at all hurt, he had scarcely noticed the blow. Then, having been assured by her that her head was all right, he got out of the bus.

Some of the other passengers were already coming back. The driver was standing alone by the lamp-post at the entrance to the station, smoking a cigarette. The young man hesitantly approached him and asked whether he still had time to use the toilet. At the mention of the word toilet the driver spat into the snow and flicked the end of his cigarette benevolently in the direction of an out-building. The young man turned and walked towards the shack outlined in black against the snow-

drifts. As he waded through the snow, a couple of passengers passed him by on their way back. Arriving at last at the dilapidated wooden shed and seeing no sign on the door, he walked around the building. There was no other door. He came back again to the front and hesitated, thinking that he should perhaps knock before entering: it might be a ladies' toilet. The door opened and, to his relief, a man stumbled out, gave him a sullen look, and made his way to the bus through the snow-drifts.

The floor-boards creaked as the young man stepped in. The place was lit by a feeble light-bulb dangling from the ceiling, and there was no one there. Torn-up newspapers littered the floor. There were three cubicles: one without a door altogether, one with a door off its hinges; the door of the third was full of cracks and holes. On the other side a long low trough served as a urinal. He took off his leather gloves and came up to the trough. His fingers were so numb that it took him awhile to unzip his trousers.

Suddenly he heard light footsteps outside, and at the same moment it came to him that this toilet might well be for both sexes. A woman might come in! He ducked into the cubicle with the door that closed.

Someone walked into the toilet, as he fumbled with the door which had no latch. From the stall next to him he smelted the perfume and heard the voice of the girl from the bus. "At least yours is on its hinges—I have to do it in the open", she said.

"Oh, it's you! It's me from the bus—from the bus where we sat together! Is there still time?"

"Oh hi! You're here too—so we've both taken 'a little walk'. Don't worry, there's plenty of time—I asked the driver".

"Would you like perhaps to change cabinets with me—so that you could have more privacy?" he suggested, thinking of her having to take down her clothes openly.

"I just came to put on another pair of tights, but thanks anyway".

He heard, just to his left, the rustle of clothing.

"Why can't they make tights in this country? Yesterday I heard from Katya—my girlfriend at work—remember, a seamstress always gets this sort of news first—anyhow, she told me that the Central Department Store had just got some thick coloured tights from Czechoslovakia. I rushed there at lunch time, but you can guess what happened. They had sold out within ten minutes! I'm lucky I at least have these—from Poland. But they say that the best tights come from Hungary."

A few inches away came another rustling sound.

"I nearly froze in that bus with these tights!"

It suddenly dawned on him that the plywood separating them had cracks in it. It was so easy to peep through the one just opposite him!.. She had her back turned and was bent over her travelling-bag, fumbling with its contents. Her skirt was off. Her jumper reached down her back, just to the top of her buttocks. They were covered by semi-transparent tights and looked to him like a big rosy peach.

"Where is that damn thing? You can't see anything in this light!" she said impatiently, bending further over her travelling-bag. "Here it is!" She pulled something out of her bag and turned round to face him.

Through the tights he could see the patch of reddish-brown hair where her legs came together. Hopping on one foot, she slipped the thicker pair of black tights over her right leg. Then she shifted feet and put her left foot into the other hole. Unbending her knee, she pulled the garment up over her parted legs.

"These are really warm, you know. I got them from Masha— another friend at work—when she came back from Poland". She put her skirt on. "Shall we go back? Are you ready? Oh look at all those cracks!"

He backed away from the partition and tried to zip up his fly, but he 'couldn't do it.

She walked out of her cubicle and stood outside his door. "Are you ready? Let's go!"

"Wait! My fly is stuck!" he said. "It never works properly!" he added disingenuously.

"Let me have a look at it. That's what I do at work".

And before he could protest she walked into his cubicle.

This took him totally by surprise; he began to open his mouth but she was already fumbling with his zip.

"Please", he finally forced himself to say, "please, I can do it, I can do it!"

"Can you really?" she said, pressing herself against him.

"I'm sorry. . . this zip is. . . I mean. . . I can't. . . it's. . . so. . . awful", he faltered, putting his hand on her forearm.

"Don't worry. Wait a second, now".

She reached out of the cubicle and turned off the light.

Back on the bus the driver swore at them for being late. The other passengers who had already settled down did not look up as they found their place by the bottle on the seat.

The bus started to pull away from the station, and was already out of the light of the lamp-post.

Published in:
Mattoid 29,
Staple 10/11



LIFE IN AN URBAN LANDSCAPE AND THINGS BEYOND



I.1. The dead and the living both climb the early morning branches and wake us as they start dancing, brightly colored ribbons of their lives fluttering behind them like so many rags in the wind.

All soft fragility, in the very first room with its first features, its enamel stove heating. And then the pathways in the enchanted forest of city gardens. And waiting for the first snowflakes of purest white to fall. And dreaming of falling towards the white, blurred horizon showing in the distance in the gap between two streets when each exhalation brings forth a tiny cloud from the mouth.
Little boys and little girls excitedly elbow each other and tap the rhythm when a train starts moving at the Central Railway Station.
Out of the blue all are there, and so is the first chiaroscuro.

I.2. You go unwillingly, throwing up your breakfast because you may be beaten up again by the stronger boys, the school bullies. You're not even faking the vomiting: you'd have to go to school no matter what. They'll tell you afterwards that it's called psychosomatic.
The street in front of the school is busy on a bright sunny day, the green of the bushes is dazzling, and there's a boy kneeling on the ground over little stones, picking up the strangest ones. Later we see his opaque breath on glass where branches rub against the windows. They greet one another. The roof is glad to meet the wall. The sky is welcoming the gutter. The noise a distant tramcar is making is eagerly subsumed by the barking of a dog.
One sunny afternoon after classes he is sitting in the shadow of the foliage in the school yard, and green leaf light all at once goes through him, and all the past and the future become insignificant. A timeless sense of well-being and holiday takes over.

And then language comes, and then on these leaves he discovers both ostentatious and inconspicuous words.

It is school autumn, and here he is, bending over the notebook, his tongue stuck out, writing out each letter in ink. Rain is pattering on the window, he is now at home, and evening comes. There are words beyond the window. There are words in the room. There are words everywhere.


I.3.See, just see the pathways along the skated-over surface of ice in the stadium rink! I remember you, I said, but you were only a child of five or six then. And now look at you! And at your skates! Together you're the most beautiful thing in this crowd!
The tower clock is sounding through the whirlwind. Here in this snow-filled night everything all at once turns bright and clear, the sky is lovely, the wind fresh, the neighborhood seemingly asleep, the pavement stones timeless. And I am standing on these stones. And a girl is standing next to me. And this girl is my first love.
She has a sparrow where one's supposed to have a heart. She has a heart leafed with words like a tree in the park. She is the pathways girl, the river bridge girl. She is the rain and the snow and the sunshine girl. You love to watch her hand rise and fall, lit by bridge lights.
She is the girl on the seashore, isn't she? She lives near the gulls by the bridge over the ocean, doesn't she? She stands against the backdrop of her sea.
Time passes. City lights drift in the water. Moonlight streams through the window at each landing.
Do you hear the ruckus of startled starlings flipping up from the roof into the sky? The rustle of sad lovely leaves dancing across parked cars? The way you shouted a girl's name when a warm wind blew from the river? She called back, and the moist water fragrance went to your head, intoxicated you, made you ecstatic.
In the morning standing by the window (there was a small flood on the sill) we laughed at the flustered pedestrians running in from the rain down below.
Time is passing. Has been passing. Has passed.


I.4. I got on the bus, on my customary route to the front line, still feeling the slight stiffness from a jog. Buildings, roofs of cars, parks and faces flashed by. As I stepped off, distending my nostrils, a young girl cried out something I could not understand. Gusts of wind moved an empty can from under a bench into the open where pigeons were quarreling. Trees were budding in city gardens nearby.
Back at what you call home, having lost and won (won and lost), safe in bed, you got up, came to the window and opened it. A cold current drifted in. The night was transparent. A woman was walking through the square banging her heels upon the asphalt.
(All of this is only pseudo-solarization, pseudo-bas relief, holocopy. And even if your disturbing dreams are real, who will make restitution for the pain of waking the sleepwalker?)
Snow came, falling silently like unspoken syllables. Let's look together, you and I, through the windows: the crescent-moon night glitters and gleams outside; let's try out the consonants and the vowels. Let's try out language round the skater's picture, along the distance and rhythm of the dream. We all create our rhythms, out of drifts and fistfuls of snow, out of bitter rain, unbearable sunshine, verdant pathways. Then, after a silence, words become voluble, calling out from countless directions, addressing us with the fluency of water, freely articulating tree and grass, avenue and square, earth and sky, the seasons beginning and ending. With every turn of wing or weather there is always language.


I.5.Upon earth's surface, along streets both wide and narrow and lit against the sun or sparking with lights, along embankments (sequins upon the river, the wind coming off it, flocks of birds wheeling above it) on April morning and during a summer day with the sky partly overcast, on the New Year's eve and when bleak lifeless steeples stab a grey November horizon, looking for an old woman and her old dog crossing the square in front of the school, coming across a word, in order - as in the dark - to stumble on or bruise yourself against it, while dreams italicize all hopes and fears on these pathways seen from within, to the accompaniment of agonizing music that sounds the length of the corridors.
Taking letters by the end, I lift the word; I read the message drifting there: in the middle of our lives we were walking.


I.6. The building across your childhood courtyard refracts the throbbing light. The sun is dipping lower and still lower; the house is now in shadow and looks estranged. The fog rises slowly and fills the crevices. Snow begins to sparkle on your windowpanes.
Let the meaning go, movement or its absence is all. Sea, time, house, boulevard, skating rink, sleep - all are one.
Remember the way he stood motionless, light falling thinly on pavement stones, from the moon and the open door? The way she was waving in the partially fogged cafe window? Remember another window overlooking the river far below, in the distance?
The bus slides by; there is no detour; the long street is becoming shabbier; you're standing before a group of old buildings with overgrown gardens. Dark umbrellas weigh down on people but it isn't raining. The road leads to coastal pines. The wind is flowing through it like a river.
It takes time to gather things in your bag of words while gulls whirl around where the tolerant city meets the unbenign ocean and the turmoil of the geese is heard as they cut through the sky.
Some teenagers appear at a lamp-post by the busy intersection. I stand watching an old man through the window. I stand where childhood snow falls fast. The sounds of my speech, of a lonely language, keep retelling that muteness whose store in the city sky is limitless. Into our apartment the sea looks, and it's cold and murky.
Because words are made and understood in flight, said the hard birds flying in a hard space. Language streams soar above everything. I've had my fill of rising and falling inflexions, of dying and resurrected syllables where language seeks to define, to pin down the inarticulate swerving in the darkness and in the void.
Through the chink, the interstice of seconds and years I look at the shadows of sunset and sunrise and the stars trembling insufficiently close. I look upon the fallen leaves at the door. Doing my daily duty, beyond which lie fields of shadow, inhaling the musical air, I breathe in disintegration. I carry a window with me but it is dim. In its frame I will feed you the seasons and the pathways.


I.7. See, new arrival, while breathing duskily on glass, waiting for sleep, the pathways along which the over-coated messenger strolls, where life searches the dust and as the wind rises the rustling of both thin- and thick-skinned urban foliage is still profoundly ambivalent. The sun is dappling the bench through summer leaves, the birds are weaving your thoughts through twigs and branches as eyes in the warm darkness of memory keep watching the snow's gleam under the streetlight and ears are ever on the alert for the crackle of logs in the fire and the high flow, return of ebbing voices as we are all traveling homeward past childhood.

I have lost my faith that the fare is commensurate with where I'm going. I have lost my faith that the death of a bee is not meaningless. I stand under the rain, in the mist, going back, watching the shriveling cityscape.
What faces haunt us in our sleep? Whom shall we see strolling through the green-vibrant summer park or along the sheet-fresh winter street towards us when a place in the universe has been laid bare? You, you whom I'm talking to, you who held your hands to your face, and you who stared into the air at the loss, and you who uttered unforgettable words while I was leaning on the windy fence, you could all find room here. We could walk, you and I, walk the narrow ledge and give thanks to the light of the retreating silhouettes of buildings in the city of home that is reached only when asleep, its river with bridges, its town center, its clock tower and its pigeons. You and I, we will sit down together on this little stone, in this space beyond time, and speak in a tongue only we understand while time passes and hangs light on our lips and the paint goes on flaking off the walls. While the earth, the ground, the soil, the humus keep managing their business.

Here where windows do not open and doors do not lock only the past seems assured. We are they who toss pebbles to make them skim across the surface of the pond in the gardens, to make them touch it and bruise time. We are they who walk along a wide avenue, through the seasons, through the enormous memory, trying to reach their destination.


II. I caught myself out treading on the road's edge, just like in childhood. It was snowing lightly over all pathways, amber streetlamps punctuated the flurry; everything was coming to me through this limpidity of snow. I was losing all idea of where I was and when all this was happening. It could have been anywhere - this perspective of a street, the shop windows, the uncertainty of what had been yesterday, the unknowingness of what would be tomorrow, the slipping awareness of my own self. I caught myself out on a sunny lane lined with budding trees, daydreaming greenly.
We share a memory, don't we, urban sounds, cars honking, people walking and talking, girls laughing and singing, children playing and running towards the marble fountain in the gardens, city water gurgling, raindrops and snowflakes falling on umbrellas, hats, shoulders, vehicles, asphalt, shop windows, bus terminals; and alleys, streets, avenues, lanes, roads, boulevards and squares an emptiness can always rely on for a reply and a hope for dialogue.
I sat down in a chair and then suddenly a melody emerged before me. In it I heard that entire morning world which, just as the wind makes mischief with the trees, the pathway keeps rolling back in mist.

2010
(Published in American Letters and Commentary 24)