Whiskey Sour by Razmik Kocharian

My homeland is where there are mountains, streams and churches. And there it is accepted that the youngest son lives with his parents. I moved out when I was twenty-three. By Armenian standards, I’m a rebel. According to Moscow’s, apparently, I’m a freeloader. However, my timid rebellion was as successful as a rebellion itself can be.

Now my back is numb. The bed presses me against the ceiling. And I’ve stayed in bed for three hours already. During this time, I’ve twice pissed on the lavatory seat, because I had such an opportunity. I’ll continue doing it, since it needs to be done.

A toilet seat covered with piss is a necessary symbol. Now I’m alone.

Now I’m making a snow angel on a damp sheet. And sticky napkins, greasy chips bags, and a pizza box fall off the bed. There is still something to eat. I take a dry piece of dough covered with wilted tomatoes and walk over to the table. God, how can you like it?

I do like it.

To drink on the Ponds, you first need to drink at home. To drink at home, you need to visit the ‘Red and White’ store.

As conceived by its creator, the name is about wine. It’s a certain balance between Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, which drunk working stiffs in sleeping areas find in alcohol drinks with equally beautiful names: ‘Zhuravli’, ‘Zhiguli’, ‘Zhavoronki’.

Then I open the door. And she says:

— Sorry. She says she just wanted to mop the floor. A woman over sixty. She’s my neighbor, and I don’t know her name, but a few things are already clear to me.

I know that her chestnut blunt bob used to grow on another head. Now it’s here, covering a woman with a wrinkled face, obsessed with cleanliness. This’s a cheap wig, since the hair is inserted into the grid along the lines and divides her head, and indeed her whole body, into two equal parts: right and left. It doesn’t work that way. Everything in nature is chaotic. Everything is chaotic, except her daily routine.

I know that every day at 10 a.m. she takes out the garbage. I know it because my door is located directly across the garbage chute. Every day at 10 a.m., I hear the greasy lid open with a bang. Then the garbage bag slides down the pipe. Then the lid noisily closes.

I know a little more. When you leave the apartment at 5 p.m., you are greeted by a strong smell of bleach. And the burgundy tiles, covered with a thin layer of moisture, glare under a dim lamp. This woman never misses a day.

I open the door, and she says:

— Sorry, I just wanted to mop the floor.

I’ve long got something to say to her, but today’s not the day. Today I look at her right side, look at her left one, smile and leave.

To drink on the Ponds, you first need to drink at home. Then you have to pass seven stations with one transfer without wetting yourself. It’s not so easy, since you must drink a lot at home.

I lasted to ‘Mayakovskaya’. Then I realize that I can’t take it, and I come out. I’m passing by the Garden Ring road. Each year Moscow’s sidewalks are getting wider, let’s assume, it’s for the pedestrians to have more space to walk.

Now I’m moving at a fast pace along the wide road by the Friday traffic jam. I’m nervous, because I’ve often strolled here before. On the way to the Ponds, from the Mayakovskaya side, I’m often targeted by people with doubtful stories, and I never managed to dodge them. I couldn’t pass by, because I ran out of my rebellious spirit, when I moved from my parents. A hefty bald man with a big nose and a sixteen-year-old girl with a medium-sized nose are quickly rushing towards me. They’re aiming at me. Let’s assume, the sidewalks are getting wider for me now to have room to maneuver.

— Brother, wait! Brother! Brother, are you Georgian?

Still not wide enough.

— An Armenian.

— Armenian, thank God! Genatsvale, the cops caught my brother a moment ago. We’ve got no money! We’re going there, please, help, we need just two thousand rubles, I beg you, please. Ahper, help me out!

His eyes are wet. His homeland is where there are mountains, streams and churches. And it’s not customary there for a man to cry. But men cry, despite the number and height of the mountains in their homeland. And now this hefty bald Georgian with a big nose is crying in front of his daughter with a medium-sized nose and asks me for two thousand rubles.

— I’ve got no cash.

I’ve got cash.

—Nino, do you have a card? Nino’s got a card, bro, ahper, please, help! I swear on my mother, help!

Now I can’t slip out, ahper. He swore on his mother that Nino has a card, and I have no excuse. Do I have a desire to help him? I don’t know, but I definitely have a desire to piss. I graduated from an economic university and I’ve heard about the Maslow’s pyramid. I don’t remember exactly what the order is, but the desire to piss is definitely closer to the bottom than the desire to show a dubious gesture of altruism.

To drink on the Ponds, you have to pass seven stations with one transfer without wetting yourself. You need to transfer Nino two thousand roubles not to wet yourself. And I transfer them. It’d be faster to give cash, but it’d be kind of ill-mannered.

A hefty Georgian throws his hands up and thanks God. Then he thanks me. Exactly in that order. It hurts me a little, but then he grabs me with his long arms and pulls me close to his chest. He kisses my neck and cries. Exactly in that order. Where his homeland is, the men kiss each other on the neck, but they don’t cry. At least they don’t cry in front of their daughters. Nino timidly says to me, “Thank you.” Her father says that God will surprise me. He says:

— God will definitely surprise you soon. You’ll see.

And I'm leaving. My steps are quick. I’m looking for an eatery. I run. The eatery resembles a facility. There is a guard at the entrance. “Toilet is for visitors only.” I remember, I have one surprise from God in reserve. Am I ready to spend the promised surprise on this situation? It will definitely be a pleasant surprise if I can negotiate with him. I need to say something. The surprise needs to be provoked. I need to walk him past. To drink on the Ponds…You have to say something.

— Erm, let me piss, man! It worked. Is it my surprise from God, or did I just get along with the guard? A surprise from God. It looks like some kind of a deal. Since I’ve helped, I’m supposed to get recompensed. It seems that the Georgian believe in balance. It doesn’t work that way. Everything in nature is chaotic, except for my neighbor's daily routine, except for her wig. Everything is chaotic, except the ‘Red and White’.

To drink on the Ponds, you have to pass seven stations with one transfer without wetting yourself. Then you need to give six hundred and fifty rubles to the bartender and get your cocktail. A mixture of lemon juice, sugar syrup, egg white and American bourbon is my balanced Whiskey Sour.

I am standing with a glass near the ‘Pinch’ bar on Palashevsky Lane. There are pompous houses around, people dressed up, but now I only care about that Georgian. His brother has serious problems with the cops, which can be solved with the help of my two thousand rubles.

I got fucked over.

This’s not very pleasant to realize, but I have considerable experience in this matter. You just need to find compromises.

Firstly, if I’m right, I saw first-class acting. This guy came up to me already in tears. He threw up his hands to heaven, and kissed my neck. Let’s assume: I’ve paid two thousand rubles for a small performance of the Moscow Art Theater level. It seems to be about the same price. I can believe it.

Secondly, this Georgian was crying in front of his daughter, and if I’m right, and he doesn’t have any brother, then he obviously needed this money. It doesn’t matter on what. The important thing is that I can believe it too.

Thirdly, I was promised a surprise from God. But I would rather believe in God than in his surprise.

Now I notice near the ‘Shiba’ restaurant, which is opposite the ‘Pinch’, a bum with an obscenely happy face. Homeless people don’t walk around with such a face for no reason, so I follow him. Something is about to clear up, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. A waiter comes out of the ‘Shiba’ and gives him a package of instant noodles ‘Dosirak’, with steam coming out. The bum covers it with a lid and drifts along the sidewalk towards the park. He notices my interested look and doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask for a coin. I guess he’s having a pretty good evening, and I refuse.

He drifted away and disappeared over the horizon.

And I felt so disgusted by my inconsistency. I’ve just held a coin for a homeless man, guided only by the desire to maintain a balance in his life.

Another compromise is needed.

Let it not be about balance. Let’s assume, I did it, because at some point in my head a fund to help those in need spontaneously appeared, and I immediately decided that the Georgian had exhausted it for today. I have nothing to do with it. And there’s no balance here at all.

It’s unconvincing. With a strange resentment, I return to ‘Pinch’ and order another drink.

— It’s my treat.

Such a surprise. A woman in her thirties said she would treat me. The woman is not far over thirty, the woman doesn’t have more than fifty kilograms. It’s a woman I wouldn’t mind treating myself. She holds out her hand to me and says:


Such a surprise.

Don’t be mad at me, Alina, but not today. I already screwed up with this bum, and now I wouldn’t like that Georgian to keep his promise. You really would be a divine surprise, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

I refuse the treat and leave.

Breezed by the underground winds, I’m trampling on the escalator. It takes me up to Moscow’s freshness, leaving completely different aromas behind. Then he says:

— Dear sir, I’m not an alcoholic.

He waits for me to turn around. I’d rather pretend I don’t hear. I’d rather take the steps up, but I can’t stand the stairs. Then he says:

— Dear sir, I beg you to listen to me.

These well-mannered men from the subway come across amusing stories every once in a while. The main thing is to try to grasp it. I draw more air in.

— Dear sir, I’m not an alcoholic. Please, listen to me.

I go down a step, and stand next to him. Since I undertook to listen to him, I wouldn't want him to lie.

— You smell like an alcoholic.

— Well, I drank, but I’m not an alcoholic. Look at my clothes. I’ve got normal clothes. Have a look. Do you see?

I look down first. The easiest way to understand how many days a person spent on the street is by the shoes - it’s about three days. Then I understand that I’m behaving badly, since I evaluate his outfit from the bottom to the top. It’s completely disrespectful.

— Sorry. What did you want to say?

— Honestly, I’m not an alcoholic.

Honestly, he’s not an alcoholic yet.

— I’m a normal guy. I’m just unlucky. I’m just a normal guy, you know? It just happens, well, when you’re unlucky.

— Got it.

— Give me some money, please.

He, sort of, got down to business quickly, but I wanted to hear the story. It’s a pity. Okay. I give him a hundred rubles, then a drunken pause comes. He opens his mouth but can’t speak. This happens when, honestly, you’re not yet an alcoholic, but you’re about to become one. He is about to say something, and now he’s standing with his mouth open, trying to push out a word.

— H-honestly, friend, you’re a man of the right stamp. There are so few like you.

A great investment of a hundred. You could just buy a beer, but you can act like this. You could straighten the crumpled banknote and put it into the machine, which will thank and praise you in every possible way. A machine with a black Puma cap and shoes that had been kneading the mud for three days.

— I want to ask you something. Can we talk? I really want to talk to such a person, well, to a real human.

Oh, stop it. Okay. Maybe the promised story will come.

— Let’s talk.

— I want you to believe me. I’m a normal guy. I’m just completely in deep shit right now. Do you believe me?

— Of course I do.

— I used to have much better clothes than this one.

— I like your cap.

A terrible cap. However, he was very cutely embarrassed, and he smiled. The teeth are all in their places, but something is wrong with his leg. He carries a small package with a pharmacy logo in his hand and limps. I hold the door for him to pass. Seems like he really couldn’t handle it. When you are in a deep shit, a heavy glass door and a draft can be a serious obstacle.

It’s dark already. We enter the lighted yard and stand against the wall. Wet snow falls on his black cap and immediately disappears. I really hope that his story will live up to my expectations.

— I ran a restaurant in Ulyanovsk. At that time, my clothes really were much better than this. And I had a wife there in Ulyanovsk. A normal chick. She died a month and a half ago. And just at the same time, the owner of the restaurant kicked me out and put his nephew in charge. These Armenians always do this.

— Yes, we have such a thing.

— No, get me right, he was a normal guy, no problems. He just undeservedly dismiss…

— Relax, it’s okay.

— That’s it. Katya died, and I was fired. Deep shit. But I’m a man. I didn’t break down. I came to Moscow, and went to work at a construction site.

— Why not go to another restaurant?

— It didn’t work out.

— Why?

— Well, you know, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s when it didn’t work.

I know.

— In short, we built such a multi-storey building, you have a lot of them here. These, you know, are sixteen stories high. I worked for two weeks, and then the fittings fell on my leg. The leg wasn’t broken, but it was pierced well. There was blood... An ambulance came and bandaged my leg. They told me not to go to work. My leg hurt, but I needed the money. I came to the construction site and they didn’t give me a job. They don’t fucking need a lame worker, you know? I was looking for a job and, shit, there was nothing. And that fucking leg... I went to the hospital. The doctor looked and said - infection. Either do surgery or cut off. The operation costs two hundred thousand. I don’t have that kind of money. I ask her what it means to cut off? Heal my leg! How is that?! That’s my leg! How can you cut off my leg?!

He grabs my jacket and shakes me. It’s probably okay. I like that kind of jolt. I wouldn’t even turn down a good bream.

— It’s my leg! If it can be cured, why are they going to cut it off?! I need it! Heal it! He told me to come tomorrow and they’ll cut it off for me for free. They’ll cut it off for me for fucking free! What the fuck?!

We are standing in an empty courtyard. Me and that guy with the holey leg. He cries and his shoulders twitch in time with his sobs. And through the tears he speaks:

— Tomorrow I have to go to them to cut my leg off. It’s my leg. Tell me what to do? I got fucking lice a week ago. I had to cut my hair bald and throw out all my clothes. I’m bald, do you understand? I had normal hair, just like yours. Now, have a look.

He finally takes off that awful cap. There is a shaved skull with cuts. It’s crumpled like a snowball with fingerprints.

— I’m persistent. I know what it’s like to be a man. But I can’t take it anymore. I can’t do anything. Tomorrow the leg will be cut off. They can heal it, but they will cut it off. What should I do?

— I don’t know.

I don’t know if there are lice on him. I don’t know if they jumped on me when he was shaking my jacket. I know that I want to leave. I need to muster up the courage and leave. The man wipes his snot with his sleeve and says:

— Listen, can I ask you something?

— Yes.

— Give me some money, please.

— I gave you a hundred.

— Yes? Thank you so much.

— Well, I guess…

— What do you do?

— I’m a student.

— What’s your major?

— Medicine.

I’m not studying to be a doctor. I don’t know why I said that, but now he’s rubbing his palms contently.

— God sent you to me, I swear.

He leans against the wall, rolls up his pants. He is breathing hastily, gathering strength. I look at the bandage that is wrapped around the hole in his leg. Blood, pus, and greenery. A real Russian autumn. He draws some air and holds his breath. He unwinds the bandage from the back of his leg, reaches the hole and freezes. An inhale again. He pulls off the bandage with a quick movement. He screams, and his voice echoes through the empty yard. One, two, three, four turns. How much more? Five, six, seven. Seven. There are seven circles of hell around a holey leg. Anxious residents come out onto the balconies. They scold the peasant for the noise, they scold him for disturbing the peace. And he leans against the wall of the house, breathing heavily. With a trembling hand, he holds out a package with the pharmacy logo. And he says insistently:

— Do it.

— What?

— Do it!

Now I stand in an empty yard and look into this hole. Blood is pulsing from it, mixed with pus, and this man, he’s patiently waiting. He thinks that today he was lucky, and he got a sympathetic medical student. Now this student will carefully, competently, treat his leg. The leg which will be cut off tomorrow. The real Russian hope.

I take out a new bandage and some ointment from the bag. Each medicine has instructions. Everything is written in it to understand how it works. I find a way to use it - it’s nothing complicated. I heard that if you can’t do something, pretend you can until you succeed. I put the instructions in my pocket.

Tomorrow this leg will be gone. I like to think about it. Now I feel like a priest, and I need to read a prayer for the rest of the leg. I don’t know what it sounds like. I’m not a priest, not a doctor, but over the past six months I’ve learned to pretend quite well. Now I draw a cross on the red-yellow hole with ointment. One, two, three, seven. Seven turns around the leg change the color of the white bandage. The leg will be gone tomorrow, but the good news is that you’ll not have to rip the bandage off again.

— Done. It’s time for me to go.

— Thank you very much, but I want to ask you something else.

— Come on, for the last time.

— I want to tell a story.

— Tell me, just quickly.

— I once bought Katya a cat. Thoroughbred, twenty grand worth. And he never learned to use the litter box. He shit anywhere. Can you imagine? Shit. I’m so fucking unlucky in life.

The snow is wet tonight. I walk home through the park on the dirt. I’m picking up a bunch of mud on my boots, enter the elevator, pressing the worn button. I arrive on the tenth floor, traditionally the cleanest in the whole house, and look at the shiny burgundy tiles. I want to take off my shoes and carry them in my hands to the door. I don’t take off my shoes. Because I have something to say to my neighbor. Both parts of her, the right and the left, I have something to say. Tomorrow.

Razmik Kocharian writes novels, short stories and screenplays. He is based in Yerevan, Armenia, and studied playwriting at the Meyerhold Theatre Centre, Moscow. Connect with him via email, razmikkochar@gmail.com.