The Next Thief of Magadan

 

The luxe door had cost them everything. Oak, with wooden lace. It gave the impression there was more behind it than:

   one bed,
   one couch,
   one cupboard,
   one telephone,
   one twenty-year-old TV set at full volume, and
   two eighty-three-year-old women.
   He was the seventh thief in the last two years. They came as reliably as seasons.

   Luzy was already in bed; Ninel had stayed up for the nine o’clock news. Rising petrol prices; a baby rhinoceros born in the Moscow Zoo; in Chechnya, people killing each other; and in front of them, suddenly, a pimply teenager in
a black tracksuit pointing a gun at her. Ninel hadn’t even heard him come in. There were so many things she didn’t hear anymore.
   “Don’t move. Hands up. If you make a sound, I’ll… I’ll kill you.” His voice was shaky and scarcely audible against the TV, but Ninel knew the procedure. Without standing up from the couch, she put down her teacup, then raised her arms slowly. The sleeves of her bathrobe dropped, exposing her soft upper arms. She wondered if there was a way to roll the sleeves back up without making the thief nervous.
   “Give… money… ow.”
   “Could you please speak a little bit louder?” “The money!”
   “There are six hundred rubles in my purse in the winter coat. And some change in the tea box above the stove. It’s the end of the month, and pensions don’t come until the fifth. I assume you will search the rest of the apartment nonetheless. Please take your shoes off. Luzy is sleeping, and the floors are hard to clean. One of your colleagues took the vacuum cleaner.”
   “What are you talking about?”
   “The young man who was here three months ago.”
   He made a step toward the couch. “Where are the other things?”
   “We cool our groceries outside the window. That’s our fridge. You can have the food, if you want it. The washing machine broke in May—no, wait, it must have been after my heart attack, so April…”
   “Just tell me: Where are they?”
   “They what?”
   “The fur coats, the silverware, the stereo system… Where’s your stereo system?”
   “They took the radio last year.”
   “The silverware?”
   “Year before.”
   “CD players, computers, mobile phones?”
   “How old do you think I am? I’ve only seen those things on TV.”
   “TV! Where is it?”
   “Right behind you.”
   Even the thieves are getting worse and worse, Ninel thought, looking at the boy’s trembling hands. All the good ones have already left town. A third of the population had fled, TV said, since the USSR broke apart a decade ago. Walking down Luzy’s street, one saw rows and rows of smashed-out windows, cement apartments gone hollow-eyed, crumbling. Everyone was gone who could afford the eight-hour flight to Moscow, or the three-hour flight to anywhere.
    The only reason the city of Magadan was not the end of the road was because there never were roads connecting it to the rest of the world. No train station, since there had never been tracks joining the town to the rest of Russia, and no throughways except for the one to Yakutsk, another godforsaken place in the Far East. “Mainland,” everyone here called the rest of the country, as if Magadan was a different continent.
   When the first gulag prisoners arrived ninety years ago, they were told that they were on an island, partly to discourage thoughts of escape, partly because it was true. On three sides the town was surrounded by the green ocean of impenetrable taiga, and on the fourth side by one of the coldest seas in the world.
TV explained the temperatures for tomorrow: twenty-five degrees below zero.
It was an exceptionally mild January. The thief turned the set off with a kick. That thing was older than him; no reasonable person would take it for free. You could see the thought cross his mind: This bathrobe full of bones might be telling the truth; there really was nothing to take.
   The thief grunted, turned some cupboard drawers upside down, then shook out some books, to see if any bills would flutter out. When he crawled under the sofa, Ninel could see the crack of his ass. He was beefy and thin at the same time: a belly of hard fat on spindly legs, like a chestnut-breasted mannikin. He couldn’t be older than seventeen.
   Ninel put her hands down, and retrieved her teacup from the floor. It was a routine housebreaking. Everything would be all right. As long as Luzy didn’t wake up. And as long as Luzy’s daughters never found out. They had said: Next time, no more discussions. They would take Luzy to a home for the elderly in Novosibirsk—a town almost four thousand kilometers away from Magadan, where the daughters had relocated two years ago.
   The thief came out from under the sofa: “Jewelry! Where do you hide the jewelry?” he said in a whiny voice. His hair and face were filthy. His nostrils twitched, rabbity, from the dust. He was about to sneeze.
   “I never had any. And Luzy gave hers away to her grandchildren.”
   “You’re lying.”
   She was telling the truth. The day Luzy got her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she had distributed her estate. It made her feel better, she had said, almost as though she had died already and now everything else was a bank loan of time. She had given her golden chain and silver bracelets, even her wedding ring, to her three grandchildren. Ninel liked the stripe of baby-soft skin around Luzy’s ring finger. Luzy’s husband, a carpenter, had died fifteen years ago, and now even the imprint of her marriage was fading.
   Luzy’s brain, this skull-sized archive, was turning into a rotting pile of protein and fat. Ninel’s body was doing the same, but her brain was clear enough to watch it. Her heart still pumped enough blood to fill her head with sense, but not enough to charge her hands and legs. She dropped books now, cups, toothbrushes. After even the shortest walks, her legs were Vaseline. Ninel was the brain now, and Luzy was the body—the opposite of how it had always been. Ninel was the one who used to hug Luzy and swirl her light body around the kitchen, thosemornings after she stayed over. We could run away, Ninel would say. Buy plane tickets! We could fly! Touch the sky—us. No kidding, we could!
   First finish your porridge, Luzy would answer. And Ninel would finish porridge, do dishes, help Luzy with lunch for the Carpenter and the kids. Luzy was right: Where would they go? Even with the gulag system abolished, Magadan remained a town of prisoners, fenced in by the barbed wire of social commitments and the triple wages the Soviet government paid to anyone willing to live here. Then the Soviet Union collapsed—the bonuses ended, too—and it was too late. Leaving meant different elderly homes, different cities even. Leaving meant separation; separation meant death. They were like Siamese twins: one set of legs serving two. One head. She had to keep their head. Keep calm. Keep calm.
   “If you’re monkeying with me, babushka, I’ll kill both of you.”
   The thief held the gun to Ninel’s temple. It disappeared halfway in the halo of her gray curls. His eyes were teary, his nostrils were still twitching, and Ninel was afraid that he might blow out her brains together with the dust and snot from his nose.
   “You better te-he-he-he-ll meeeetshuuuuu!!” There was a shot. Then there was a hole.
   But the bullet hit the wall, not Ninel’s skull: the thief had covered his mouth with his gun hand when sneezing. He was a polite young man when he didn’t concentrate diligently on being a thief.
   “Excuse me,” he said, and half-sat, half-collapsed on the couch next to Ninel.
   “Bless you,” she said. The boy had a chalk-white face, and Ninel had to restrain herself from offering him some sugary tea. He was breathing heavily. The crater in the wall was absorbing his attention, like a black hole. Had that been the first shot of his life? Was he afraid to awaken other residents? Their
neighbors were mostly empty buildings. But did he know?
   “If I were you, I would leave now,” Ninel said. “Some very nosy people live around here.”
   “Ninel? Ninotchka?” The thin voice came from the bedroom. The thief jumped on the couch. “Who’s this?”
   “Luzy,” Ninel said, and then, in a louder voice: “Go back to sleep, Luzetchka! It’s nothing! I only dropped some teacups.”
   “The good ones? From the porcelain coffee set?”
   “No. The old ones. Just stay in bed!”
   Luzy often forgot that thief number three had taken the porcelain cups two years ago. As her illness progressed, keeping track of current events was like sitting at the shore, trying to memorize the flow of the water. Chunks of older memories were floating away, too: dates, names, events. Luzy had eighty-three years in her head, but what was left was Ninel.
   Sometimes Luzy was as apathetic as those old dogs one must jolt awake to feed. On other days, even worse, all her thoughts melted into a sweet, eternal, horrible sunniness. But: it was still Luzy. Ninel liked to sit next to her in the kitchen. Every morning: white table, black tea. The animal snugness of their bed. It really was impossible to imagine her elsewhere.
   Ninel and Luzy had lived in Magadan since birth. Ninel’s parents volunteered to help “build the bright socialist future.” They were communists to their core: the name of their only daughter was L-E-N-I-N, spelled backwards. They truly believed one could repay crimes against the motherland—a rape, a Stalin joke—by cutting timber and digging for precious metals in minus forty degrees. This faith ran differently on the opposite side of the bars. Ninel’s parents were guards.
   Luzy—full name: Revoluzia—was a child of gulag prisoners. Communists as ardent as Ninel’s, with one difference: they thought that Stalin had gotten the idea wrong, and were sent to a labor camp to think about it there. Luzy’s parents worked in a goldmine five hundred kilometers north of Magadan until they died of being too old at the age of thirty-three.
   Ninel’s parents died during a camp pneumonia epidemic. The girls met in the orphanage dormitory. They slept in the same bed to keep warm, later bed-to-bed in the boarding house for nurses, and door-to-door after Luzy got married. After the Carpenter’s parents came to live with them, and the two daughters were born, Luzy’s apartment was too crowded: six people, three fold-out couches, two rooms. Luzy often stayed at Ninel’s—she wasn’t married, but had a bed big enough for two.
   When she first moved in, Ninel’s bed was a fertile ground of rumors for the entire apartment building, but those quickly died, because nobody ever saw a stranger go in or out. Only Luzy could be seen flashing back and forth between the two doors, as if Ninel’s was the extension of her own apartment. The neighbors were polite to the new residents, but didn’t like them: Ninel, Luzy, and her family led quiet, orderly lives bare of any newsworthiness. Except for that one night in 1954.
“What’s in the bedroom?” the thief asked.
   “A big bed. Baldrian drops. Nitroglycerin pills. Some clothes that weren’t considered worthwhile by your predecessors.”
   The thief shook his head. “I just don’t get it. The door is worth more than the entire apartment!”
   “You are welcome to take it, if you find a replacement. Anything would do. You would be doing me a big favor.”
   The decorative door was the result of that notable night in 1954. According to Polina Afanasieva, the neighbor, the events proceeded as follows: At 23:42, and with a frequency and volume that disturbed Polina Afanasieva’s sleep, Luzy knocked at Ninel’s door. At 23:43 the Carpenter severely mistreated and then unhinged Ninel’s door with his shoulder, and pulled Luzy out of Ninel’s apartment by her hair. At 5:43 Luzy could be seen moving suitcases, then her two daughters, to Ninel’s rooms. The following nights, the Carpenter could be observed in front of the empty doorframe: first swearing, then apologizing, then crying. Without, however, even once crossing the threshold. A week later: the suitcases and children were brought back, Ninel’s door replaced with something new.
   The Carpenter outdid himself. Oak, here in Magadan, must have cost a fortune. And all the trim—the wood flowers and snowflakes and peacocks— days and days of planning and shaving. People from all over the block came to marvel at Ninel’s door. She’d lived behind that door for forty-five years, and after the carpenter died, Luzy lived behind it as well.
   From the bedroom Ninel and the thief could hear the creaks of springs, then steps: “Ninotchka? Ninotchka? I’ll come help you clean!”
   “Your sister?” the thief asked.
   “We were often called that,” Ninel said. “Tell her to be quiet.”
   “Is there someone with you?” The voice came nearer. Then Luzy appeared in the doorframe. She was wearing a green nightgown made from an old table- cloth, her white hair sprouting from her head in all directions. She looked like a ripe dandelion.
   “Stay where you are, or I’ll blow your brains out!” the thief said.
   “Pardon me?” Luzy said. “You have to speak louder—my ears are not very good.”
   “Luzy, this is my nephew. Anton,” Ninel said, and then, whispering: “She is mentally unstable. Play along—otherwise she will scream.”
   “Very pleased to meet you,” Luzy said, and sat on the couch next to the thief.
She smiled politely and tried to press down the white fizz on her scalp to make a good appearance.
   After half a minute, she said: “But, Ninotchka, you don’t have any nephews.”
   “Of course I do,” Ninel said. “Anton. He came to visit in 1992, remember? What a healthy, fat boy he has been!”
   “But you didn’t even have any siblings!”
   Ninel never had any relatives, husbands, pets, boyfriends. In Luzy’s head, the past was muddled and fleeting anyway. It always ran through her fingers, an ungraspable stream: Faceskissesholidayscratchedkneesgroceryliststorms- filmsthetasteofninelsmouthtelephonenumbersunnyafternoonsthedayhermoth- erdiedthedogcalledpeasweatybodiesbirthdaycakes. Filmsthetasteofninelsmouth- grocerystorescloudsthedogcalledpeas. She and Ninel sewing a wedding dress from curtains and Ninel crying—why? And whom was she marrying? This night in the taiga, and no one around, no one, except Ninel and her. The bed and the people in scrubs, and this bloody, crying bundle, Alyssa, or Alyona. Anyuta?
   Do I have children? Am I married? Where is everyone? Luzy would sometimes ask. I don’t remember either, Ninel would say. Is that really important?
   Let’s go for a walk—it’s sunny. And they would go, Luzy pushing Ninel’s wheelchair past the Soviet wreckage that lay strewn around like the morning-after relics of a debauchery. Slowly, oh so slowly, they would move through the thick mist that always lay over the town like a cream-of-mushroom soup. She would comment on the rustling ships rocking in the harbor, and the dead seals that the sea had spat out. She would forget. Luzy always forgot. It was like somebody constantly pressing the reset button.
   But this time she was hanging on to her memory by her fingernails:
   “You have never told me about any Antons! And he doesn’t look like you at all. He’s much plumper than you are! He has a piggy nose! And his hand,” she said, holding up the thief ’s fingers, “doesn’t look like yours at all! He is a liar! We should call the police!”
   “Tell her to shut up!” the thief said, whinily.
   “Liar! Filthy liar!”
   Ninel wanted to walk over to Luzy, place her hand on Luzy’s knee, do some- thing reassuring, but her feet didn’t obey.
   “Shut! Her! Up!” he said, and pointed his gun at Luzy. “Get the money from your winter coat, or I’ll blow out her guts!”
   “Thief! Help! Thief! Help! Thief!” Luzy was screaming. “Thiefthiefthief!”
   “Please, Luzy, be quiet—you are making the young man nervous!”
   “Go get the money!”
   “I can’t walk!” Ninel said.
   “Ninotchka! Your nephew is a thief! A thief! Thief! Thief!”
   “Stop it!” the thief said. His knees were knocking. “Please, just shut up and sit down.”
   But Luzy was already at the telephone across the room. The adrenaline must have lightened the fog of her memory. She was dialing 112.
   “Shoot!” Ninel shouted. “Shoot the damn phone!”
   By the time the police came, the thief would be long gone. The police would inspect the bullet crater in the wall. They would shake their heads. They would call Luzy’s daughters; they would tell them that it was irresponsible to leave two old ladies in a place like this. Luzy would be removed to the home in Novosibirsk and spend her last days chained to a radiator, except for the hours when her daughters visited. There would be nothing left for Ninel except to go into the kitchen, turn on the gas stove, breath in, breath out, breath in. When she began to feel dizzy, she would light a match. She would take it all with her:
one oak door,
one bed,
one couch,
one cupboard,
one telephone,
one twenty-year-old TV set on full volume, and
all the memories the two eighty-three-year-old women had.
   “Shoot! For God’s sake, shoot!”
   The robber’s face was blank as a Kleenex. His forehead was sweaty; his hair dripped water. He looked like he’d started to melt.
   “Thief!” Luzy said.
   “Stop it!” the thief said.
   “Shoot!” Ninel said.
   “Tuut,” the phone said.
   The air trembled. They were all deaf for a second. And then they were all quiet.
   The phone was a pile of plastic pieces. It wasn’t so bad to lose the phone, Ninel thought. It was getting harder and harder to make Luzy sound sane on the phone. And Luzy complained about the strange women who mumbled in the receiver anyway. She would write Luzy’s daughters, explaining that the phone had died of exhaustion. Letters were easy. Everything would be all right. It was doable, even without the six hundred rubles. They would live on buckwheat until the fifth. They would reuse tea bags. They would flush only after both had used the toilet, to save on the water bill. It wouldn’t be the first time.
   “I’d better go,” the thief said. “Can I please use the bathroom?”
   Ninel nodded. She hoped the next thief would be more competent. Tomorrow, they would take a walk under the usual lowering sky. She would make buckwheat porridge and buckwheat soup and buckwheat bread. They would live quietly, as if on tiptoe.
   The world would forget about them, and Luzy would return the favor. In a space with yesterday and tomorrow abolished, only the now counted. Ninel counted. She would rewrite their story in her mind, if only for a couple of minutes. She would be Luzy’s last memory.
   Beyond the hole in the wall, the stars were multiplying like a bacterial culture. Luzy was still clutching the dead phone receiver.
   “Where did the young man go?”
   “To the bathroom. He’s going home soon.”
   Luzy looked around the room, plumped up the sofa cushions, picked up Ninel’s teacup. “Can you ask him to bring down the trash?”

 

Vladislava Kolosova was born 1987 in St. Petersburg and grew up in unruly perestroika Russia. At the age of twelve she moved to Germany with her family. In 2014 she received an MFA in creative writing from New York University, where she studied with Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith, amongst others. She works as a journalist in Berlin and is working on her first novel. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares and The Iowa Review.
Megan DoThe Next Thief of Magadan

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