UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Sveta the flower dealer has an ass that will stop someday but not today my friends
Of course Sveta has heard all of the tales, from those who tell tales in her line of work as well as from the bored old women who work the kiosks next to hers, of what happens to you if you sell someone an even denomination of flowers it was far worse than what happens to the person who actually purchases them, and just slightly less worse than what happens to the people who receive them. It was an inconceivable thought, one she had considered only about as serious as immigrating to Azerbaijan.
This is why Moscow florists though florist might be the wrong word for what Sveta is because that usually implies some idea about flowers, their origin, their upkeep, their significance, etc., all knowledge Sveta lacked completely and unapologetically would much rather sell three flowers than four, showing an very unusual and very un-Russian-serviceperson-like disregard for the folded notes in their customers' wallets.
Now, as to where Sveta works. It's probably the busiest perekhod in the entirety of the Russian Empire. Perekhod is technically the Russian word for "underpass," but such a translation does the word a grave injustice. Because, you see, an "underpass" is a narrow, half-lit walkway under a street. It's all business, and it's all about getting you from one side to the other. A perekhod, on the other hand, runs the gamut from a simple passageway all the way to a massive, sprawling, self-contained underground city, filled with: crowds of teens in leather jackets banging away on electric guitars with friends nearby aggressively asking passers-by for pocket change; packs of youths drinking canned alcopops and beers out of the bottle because it's cheaper there than in a bar and no one has any private space at home; horny couples on their way into and out of the metro, ducking the wind on the streets but not in any hurry to their cramped privacy-less apartments; long lines of shops seemingly built into the walls selling alcohol, pirated DVDs, bakery-fresh bakery-goods, counterfeit watches, panties, CDs, batteries, machine-painted Russian kitsch, (and flowers); the browsers trying on the hats and watches and squinting at themselves in tiny mirrors; strolling guards who have probably been drinking since the morning before yesterday; packs of police looking for the odd foreigner speaking in loud foreign tongues or darker citizens of nearby-by republics for document checks and the odd fine; stray sleeping dogs; homeless men, long relieved of what once seemed like an instinct of propriety, pissing against the walls.
And the perekhod under Pushkin Square was the mother of all perekhods, stretching the length of the square on the east side, and then under Tverskaya Street across to the north-west corner, creating a massive boomerang of concrete and humanity that emerges near the largest McDonald's in the entire world, and it is there, at the corner of the two passages, right in front of the teeming masses of bodies that squirm in and out of the metro station from dawn till past midnight, that Sveta works.
Sveta was an interesting creature in this perekhod, as she never socialized with any of the characters that surrounded her some seventy odd hours a week. The same police, guards, teens, kiosk operators, DVD bootleggers passed her on a regular basis, yet she was on social terms with none of them. The strange thing about this was that she was not at all homely, at least in the traditional sense. Even though her face left much to be desired her brows seemed a bit heavy for her huge, brown eyes, her hair never quite looked natural pulled back into a pony-tail (as was its wont), she always had the odd zit on the tip of her slightly bulby nose, her skin looked a little sickly, even when she had the (rare) tan and was flushed with (the even rarer) bit of happiness no, for, underneath the sweatpants she would inexplicably and invariably wear, lived, breathed, and heaved one of the finest bodies in the entire Russian Empire. We're talking headless underwear model, actress in orgy scene wearing a mask, and Sveta would no doubt have gone far had she met the right people.
With her baggy clothes, those stupid grey sweatpants and the loose fitting sweaters and blouses, men couldn't tell right away what lay beneath. In fact, many a man passed without the slightest suspicion of what was sitting and smoking on the stool not three feet away from their own fat, inferior bodies. But if you watched Sveta for a little, not even that closely, you would suddenly see: the push of a beautiful, jouncy tit against the front of her shirt, a little line of perfectly-tight creamy and fleshy skin just waiting to be groped at the back of her neck, or even the sight of her frilly red panties when her top lifted up for a moment.
And yet, Sveta mostly kept to herself.
And, I'm sorry to say, Sveta was coming on hard times. She still sat on the little stool, she still wore the baggy clothes, she still sold the flowers and smoked all day and all night, but a change had come over her. You might need to go all the way into the back of her eyeballs, into the increased tension of her fingers on the cigarette or on her own knee, into the slightly more tensed neck, over the slightly more slumped shoulders, but you could see it. Sveta, so young, and already so old, was in mourning for her life.
Now a girl with a body like that could do a lot for herself. She could go into a strip-club (and Moscow does have its strip clubs!) and get them to make her up like a clown-doll and strut her stuff; she could start screwing one of the policemen she saw in the perekhod every day and have him debilitate foreign students for her pleasure; she could take her wares straight to the street, as she would no doubt look great in tight clothes and a hat in the headlights of an outdoor roundup. But she decided on none of the easy solutions. Instead, she came to work same as always, every morning, and just let her body clench up around her.
It's her mother and her sister. They both have some kind of disease that you could cure if you had enough connections or money, those that slowly squeeze the life out of you if you don't. There was no father and hadn't been one for some time. And both remaining grandmothers were on state pensions, meaning they were barely getting by on oatmeal and potatoes as it was. It's a sad deal for her, the kind of sad deal you hear a lot about if you listen long enough. And Sveta came into work, smoked, sold her flowers, gave her boss the money, and tried best not to think about her life.
To make matters worse, her boyfriend had just left her. She had thought for a while that he might just stay forever, even though she knew in her heart that he wouldn't. But, for a while, Sveta had had a nice, strong body to put into hers, and got to go to places on weekends.
So one weekday evening it's pretty quiet in the perekhod and Sveta's sitting on her stool and smoking and watching a new policeman walk down the stairs and join his comrades at the bottom. The kids playing the guitar are taking a beer break and opening silvery cans all around after scraping together the change they got from the last hour and the perekhod is suffused with a eerie feeling of calm; all around, cigarettes quietly being smoked, doors quietly being opened, glass quietly being looked through, beer quietly being drunk.
And then this well-dressed businessman must be a foreigner, thinks Sveta comes up to her, and, sure enough, in this funny, smooth-but-accented Russian, asks about the orchids.
They're Sveta's most expensive flower at 180 rubles apiece. Her eyes light up a little in that secret place where seasoned salespeople's eyes light up without the customer being any the wiser. It's the first time Sveta has felt a sense of purpose in a week.
"They're very fresh," says Sveta automatically.
"Very fresh?" he asks, stroking his chin a little and already reaching for his wallet.
He looks over, then looks up to do some calculating, then reaches in his wallet and pulls out eighteen crisp notes.
"I'll take ten," he says and sticks the money out in his clean, well-groomed hand. Maybe he's German?
Now, Sveta's thinking, ten is a really bad number to sell someone. It's even and the like. But then she thinks, 180 extra rubles aren't so bad, either. After all, there's got to be some limit to an even denomination, right? Eventually it's not an even denomination anymore but just "a bunch." Also, are the cosmos really going to be that upset if she's selling an even number for medical purposes? No, this rule is probably in place to stop corrupt bureaucrats and the like, thinks Sveta, though she doesn't really have a clue as to why corrupt bureaucrats should be mixed up with her 10 orchids. But she's tired and that's really all the thought she wants to give it.
"Yes?" says the foreigner, his eyes narrowing a little. He puts in a smile because that's what foreigners do when they're not sure what they're supposed to say. Maybe he's Irish?
"They're very fresh," Sveta repeats as she takes the money. "That'll be an extra 10 rubles to wrap them up," she adds without blinking.
Two hours later Sveta's on her way home after a long metro ride and a short bus. She's walking down a dirty little passage-way behind a dilapidated building that used to be some sort of factory (there's some kind of writing on the front of the building, but you can only make out half of the word "factory," that is, "facto," as well as the # sign, though what kind of factory it was and what its number were are no doubt facts lost to mankind forever) and there's trash and pieces of tree on the ground and she's holding her jacket close to her beautiful body because she's afraid. There's something on the wind tonight, some ill omen, some threat or some hidden pair of eyes and she doesn't like it one bit.
And suddenly she remembers back to one of the stories old Nastenka told her, the one about the girl who sold four flowers and was snatched up by the devil. He came, she said, into her apartment that very night in a cloud of red sulfur and snatched her from her bed. Took her out the window and even stole all of Nastenka's frozen beef in the communal freezer and half of the rubles she had stored under her mattress.
It was almost too much, but Sveta kept walking. She had an extra 180 rubles in her pocket, but knew very well here in the pitch black night, walking near the empty building over the trash, still far from home, that she would gladly give it all up and more for a quiet walk home.
And the shadows stretched down the cool, industrial-grey pavement.
Suddenly she sees this kind of piercing light, and she can't even tell where it's coming from, and she drops her bag and brings both hands to her eyes and squats a little right there, in what used to be some kind of parking lot, all alone. And she hears a rustling, this gaspy sound. And she's terrified.
Then there's this shaking, this heavy kind of vibrations coming from all around, she looks up to the sky and then to the ground and they push her onto the ground, hands-first, and she hits one of those beautiful knees right up against the ground. She wants to scream, but she can't, and light and noise are all around her, and suddenly she thinks she can see his face. The face of the man who bought the flowers. And she realizes she hasn't cursed him at all. It's he who cursed her, poor, poor Sveta. And now he's come to finish her off.
He watches her from under the streetlight with his suddenly pale face and his enormous black eyes and his hands are in his pockets. The orchids are God knows where. Then he pulls out a tiny camera, turns it on with his clean little hand, and takes a picture of her, lying on the ground, her knee bleeding.
And suddenly the earth opens beneath her body and swallows it right up.
The picture is still on my camera it's the prize of my collection. Now I just need to go back to Pushkin Square and pick up my handful of rubles. Because I'm not a foreigner at all, just an actor, Sergei, from the Dmitrovka Theater. You might have seen me in the Autumn production of 'The Return of Stalin: Scourge of the Western Cockroach.' One of the local cops on his beat, Seryozhka, the dirty uneducated brute, hired me to buy the ten from Svetka. "She won't know what to do," says he, his disgusting, fat pig face stuffed with pork and salt, a messy cannibal getting rich from the stinking waste of the perekhod, "and I'll prove she's a whore yet. She'll buy the flowers, yes."
She'll buy the flowers, yet Cop Seryozhka wasn't upset that she was a whore, no, he's got an entire pack of them under his thumb, running the circuit from lower Arbat all the way back to Tsvetnoy Boulevard. If there's one thing he can't stand though, it's Sveta's kind of indifference, and he was mad because she wouldn't fuck him or join up. So he decided to plot it against Sveta and ruin her soul for sport.
And why me? Beyond the fact that I am actor Sergei from the Dmitrovka? Well then, I'll go one more I am the boyfriend who recently broke up with her, I am the one who left Sveta alone and scared on weekends. Though, truth be told, it was more her choice than mine.
I was a likely candidate for the task, you might say. At least, that's how Seryozhka put it to me when he stuffed the camera into my shaking hand. Then I had to make Sveta buy the flowers, and when she didn't recognize me I decided, fuck it, let her go and get swallowed by the wrathful city's indifference.
Now I get her salary for the day, once Cop Seryozhka gets the photo. She's just a number for me, the cops, and the rich, thick ground of Russia beneath our feet. I get extra if I can find another whore to take on her booth.
Joshua Walker is a Dublin-based writer originally from Boulder. In addition to short fiction, he writes poetry as well as the odd play. He has published online in Contrary and Ygdrasil, was a weekly humor columnist for Element Moscow, and also translates and teaches literature. He received his MA from Stanford University in 2005 in Slavic Languages and Literature, and is currently dissertating at Trinity College Dublin. A collection of his short stories, "Anna Marie and Other Tales," will be published next year by the AHSGR historical society.
© 2007 Underground Voices