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Tolik is following the war from Spain.  “They killed everyone within a five kilometer radius.” [FRAGMENT KSI¡¯KI]

Tolik is following the war from Spain. “They killed everyone within a five kilometer radius.” [FRAGMENT KSI¡¯KI]

Eugenia Kuznetsova shows the everyday life of refugees with her characteristic distance and irony. He proves once again that humor can be a powerful weapon and that difficult things can be talked about without pathos. The book won the hearts of readers in Ukraine, where it immediately became a bestseller and the book of 2023. We are publishing a fragment of “Drabina” by Eugenia Kuznetsova, which was published in February by Znak, translated by Iwona Boruszkowska.

Back in the fall, when the Western press was already publishing articles about a possible invasion and a house with potential was still being planned, Tolik saw an advertisement for the sale of a pinball machine in a local group. In the photo he was standing in the garage covered with a cloth. It was sold by an old American with an accent that made him difficult to understand, bushy eyebrows, white socks pulled up high and a green shirt with palm trees half-unbuttoned. The American, like most retired retirees who dreamed of growing old among olive groves for money that was ridiculous for Californian realities, did not know a word of Spanish, although he claimed to be friends with his neighbor. They both read the Saturday newspapers. The neighbor has his own thing, the American has his thing. On iPad. Either way, over time, the spirit of his soul forced the American to return home to his continent.

“I can’t look at this wine anymore,” George said, introducing himself to Tolik. “Those valleys…” He waved his hand down from the terrace.

The olive groves glistened in the evening sun. He felt lonely. He also tried to equip Tolik with a stepper, a hyperextension simulator and eight weights of different weights. When offering them, George buttoned up his shirt just in case, so that the poor effects of using the sports equipment would not be visible. Tolik promised to take two weights and went down to the basement with the host. George took the green cover off the vending machine. Here it is – a pinball machine.

“I took him from Iowa,” George said. – My uncle ran a gambling club there, and when the club closed and my uncle died, I asked for this machine.

It turns out that as a little boy, George was attached to this pinball machine with all his heart and couldn’t let it end up on the scrap heap. The ball rolled between Indian settlements, caves and forests, and on the panel that glowed above the table was the stereotypical face of an old Indian with a headdress.

– Do you have children? – George asked.

– No, Tolik replied.

– If you have it, show them this machine.

– So I will.

But Tolik didn’t need any children – his heart pounded with joy as he put the machine into the car.

He took the pinball machine into the garage to his previous neighbor, sad Raul. Raul, who was no longer young, still dreamed of a carriage. Tolik didn’t know anything about cars – all he knew was that it was supposed to be some kind of retro convertible in which sad Raul would drive around the mountains, blasting loud death metal, his thinning hair blowing in the wind.

It turns out that for some reason, convertibles never reach those for whom they still fit – young guys without a belly and with thick hair. Instead, they are mostly driven by uncles who can no longer climb over the top without opening the door, and who struggle to squeeze their bellies between the steering wheel and the seat, and in the low seat they look more like Mario and Luigi at a go-kart race than real men. Raul was also quickly approaching this image and still did not have his dream car. However, he inherited a garage in the city center from his mother – an incredible luxury – and he did not want to sell it, because, as we know, convertibles are not kept on the street – the pigeons would surely spoil it. It’s hard to believe that owners of exclusive cars are plagued by such prosaic problems as pigeon droppings in the cabin.

Tolik asked to place the machine in this garage-without-a-retro-car while he searched for a house with potential. Sad Raul readily agreed. And when the house was purchased, Raul recorded a voicemail to Tolik. He never called or wrote – he recorded information, stuttering and making long pauses. Tolik played them at double speed, and every time they met and talked live, he had to get used to Raul’s stuttering and interruptions. The gist of the message was that it was time to get the machine out of the garage. No, Raul didn’t buy a convertible. He decided to sell his mother’s garage.

While going to pick up a pinball machine, Tolik thought that this beautiful machine with an Indian, light bulbs and caves with eagles looked completely ridiculous in his current reality. There is no intelligent lighting, no projector, no plasma, and in the basement, where there was supposed to be a games room with a large billiard table and neon lights, Anatoly Stepanovych, his hairy uncle from childhood, suddenly sleeps among the embroidered Jesus Christs, without a leg.

– Hello, Raul said. – What’s up? War?

– Yes. – Tolik nodded.

– Are you all safe?

– Cali, yes.

– I sympathize – said Raul, which sounded ambiguous. It smelled of beer.

– Thank you – Tolik replied.

– Let them die, you bastards! – Raul exclaimed and went out into the corridor to get the key.

– They will die slowly – Tolik said to himself.

After putting the machine in the trunk, Raul smacked his lips. They had been neighbors for a very long time, so Tolik got to know Raul’s habits well – smacking was preceded by a beer.

– After a beer? – Raul suggested predictably.

They sat outside at the bar below his house. For the first time during the war, Tolik went out and looked at people with some disbelief: none of them had relatives from the demolished houses at home, none of them was afraid to look into their phones.

– How’s the house? – Paul asked, slurping his beer.

Tolik talked about Jesus Christ, embroidery, golden pillows, the Virgin Mary, mother, sister, Hryhorivna, Zusya, Drusia, Vladik, Anatoly Stepanovych and Polina.

“Okay,” he finally said and swallowed nervously. – I’ll take a pinball machine, it’ll be even better.

“You’re lucky, young one,” Raul replied. – You’re not yet forty, and look: your own house, a nice place…

– Lucky if it weren’t for the war.

– You know, it’s complete shit here too – Raul started his old song. – Corrupt and liars are in power and you pay them taxes! Assholes, where do they get so much money? From our taxes!

Raul was a typical maladjusted only child and always leaned towards the left: minimal taxes, take from the rich and give to the poor. However, when he sold his mother’s garage, he turned into a relentless capitalist and repelled all attempts by buyers to lower the price. “The market is the market!” he said with conviction.

– It’s the same everywhere. – Raul opened another can of beer. – Assholes cling to power and suck everything out of ordinary people.

Tolik thought about rockets, bullets, explosions, bodies, about how the whole country woke up and there was a war. Raul disappeared against the background of his wealthy street, the bars, the noise of people, and the indecently cheerful palm tree from which ripe dates were falling.

– It’s not the same – Tolik said, but Raul didn’t listen to him, he drank and talked. He had beer foam on his mustache. Tolik stood up, patted him on the shoulder and walked towards the car.

Anatoly Stepanovych and Hryhorivna were sitting in the yard. Before getting out of the car, Tolik stayed in its cool interior for a moment, imagining their reaction to the pinball machine. What is this? Why did you buy it? Why isn’t it in the garage? What, the garage has already been sold? What do you need it for? What are you doing, little one?

Tolik finally came out and called Irusia.

– Oho! What do you need it for? – Irusia asked, looking into the trunk. From there, the pinball Indian looked at her.

– I called you so as not to hear it from the others. Help me carry this and answer any questions.

– What’s this? – Hryhoriwna asked.

– It’s like a gas stove! – said Irusia.

– Oh, it’s very similar to ours.

They put the machine in the basement for Anatoly Stepanovych. Tolik looked around once again: Anatoly Stepanovych’s bed, a table with a book, Jesus Christies, embroidery and a pinball machine. Excellent. It was exactly as he had dreamed.

It was approaching evening and cicadas were playing in the bushes in the yard. Polina was serving dinner outside. After a few weeks, when everyone gradually got over the first wave of pain, which turned out to be more extended and dull, they started eating dinner together. Sitting at the table, Anatoly Stepanovych kept asking, “How much?”, and someone looked into the phone to check.

Hryhorivna, who was constantly talking on her cell phone with her friends, told terrible stories about the occupation and daily shelling. Her network of agents covered all of Ukraine, and just as Vladik couldn’t be forced to stop barking when he wanted to, Hryhorivna pontificated until she got tired and finally said, “Why am I telling you these horrors! And you know about them without it!

It was true, but it was not known whether anyone was better off by staying silent about “these horrors”, so it was difficult to be angry with Hryhorivna.

– They were aiming at the city! – she announced. – My godmother told me that they killed everyone who was within a five kilometer radius. They shot something very powerful there!

– What five kilometers? – Irusia asked.

– Well, maybe three – Hryhorivna corrected herself. She knew that in her intelligence network the margin of error could easily reach several or even several dozen kilometers. And Hryhoriwny’s nephew at the front, probably the only reliable informant, was silent as the grave. Although she asked him in every message to tell him how things were going there. He didn’t listen.

When the sun set and the mosquito repellent coils burned off, everyone retired to their rooms. Tolik went down to the basement. He plugged in the flipper and the Indian in the plume glowed. Anatoly Stepanovych appeared in the doorway.

– Do you know – he said – that little Sławka at the front, the one with whom Hryhorivna is talking, hasn’t called for a week?

– I did not know.

– I think something bad happened.

Tolik remained silent. Whenever he heard about those who were fighting, something between shame and a nagging groan flowed through him, and every time someone was mentioned who stayed in Ukraine but didn’t go to the front, he remembered his name as if it was some kind of justification for him. In addition, there was Anatoly Stepanovych, who was constantly complaining about his leg. Sometimes Tolik wished he had such an obvious reason not to be at the front, and his self-contempt only grew because of it. But this time Anatoly Stepanovych didn’t say anything. He drove up to the pinball machine and said:

– Well, show me how to play it?

This is how Anatoly Stepanovych’s addiction began.

‘The Ladder’, Eugenia Kuznetsova cover, promotional materials of the publisher Sign

Source: Gazeta

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