& Company


Oleg: A Sequel

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

I saw Oleg.

Now, I was squeezing in more quick visits before having to fly back to Yekat — folks who'd be hurt if they learned I'd been in town without seeing them. And so I rushed from lunch with Natalya in the northwest sector of Tashkent to have tea with Ulyana two modes of public transportation away. Luck got me ten minutes early to the bus stop we'd arranged to meet at. Good. Time to find a place to pee.

Behind the bus stop – a drab outdoor café. Tashkent has hundreds. I interrupted two men chatting across a plastic table. "Pardon, where's the nearest hojatxona?" All Russian except for the Uzbek term: "necessary room". Palpable pause: the shorter man registering – in a process you couldn't diagram – the data he perceived in my short string of words. Then he rose up like Samuel called by God, and beckoned me to follow. His friend remained at table, as if this happened every day.

I followed my man to a drab seven-story apartment block, through a door that was not a main entrance but rather an unmarked way into what, in the dim glow of a dozen computer screens, looked like a bookie joint. It could've been an internet café, but the owner was pretty attentive to the screen activities of several "patrons" and seemed annoyed at my man's negotiating toilet access for me.

Finally got the okay, and he led me down a narrow hall, yanked open a door – the toilet. He closed the door between us. When I was ready to exit – no knob! Fiddling with the nib of a stem gets me nowhere. Just on the brink of panic – phew! – the door opens. My man was waiting for me. Led me a bit farther, yanked on another door – a faucet over a bathtub. I wash my hands. The water drums the tub bottom, dislodging no grime.

Thanking him I look to get back to the bus stop. Surely, Ulyana would have arrived by now. No, no, no, he pulls out a chair from the table and seats me at his friend's left. A bottle of Pepsi arrives, a glass, and a see-through plastic cup, sealed like yogurt, perspiring in the heat like ice water. Vodka sold by the shot, always 100 grams.

I thought I could beg off. After all, by now Ulyana had to be just over there. And so they learned what brought me there far from center city. "I'll introduce you," I stood up. "She's a teacher of English. We used to work together." Wanted to establish this was not international adultery. She wasn't there.

Her delay unwittingly conspired with a long-standing tradition in this part of the world. There was now no polite way out of drinking a toast with them.

I could've said vodka was against my religion, much as tourists wary of some meat dish with gobs of fat floating in it suddenly proclaim themselves vegetarians. But my new friends would identify themselves as mussulmany, as do most other Central Asians. Wouldn't then such an excuse be a judgment on their backsliding? Islam, drier than the faith of Baptists and Methodists, had not stopped them from adopting this Slavic way of showing friendship and hospitality.

Only one excuse works. "I'm driving," or as the Russian expression has it: "I'm behind the wheel." DUI carries such heavy penalties. But — wasn't I at a bus stop?

Now, westerners normally sip their hard liquor. Slavs, however, have long modeled tossing back the full shot, the way Pennsylvania coal miners used to do it. My man was Gafur, an Uzbek. His friend, Rinat, a Tatar. They raised eyebrows as I toasted with just a sip, leaving the remaining 98 grams for the succeeding toasts (there are always more toasts), or until Ulyana arrived.

Rinat wanted to know about America, Gafur about what city was my home, what did I think of Tashkent, and Rinat asked why I would take a vacation there of all places? Gafur introduced me to his wife who works at the café and that's when Ulyana showed up. Her face registered a "What the—?"

"Lemme introduce Ulyana Sergeevna, a teacher of champions."

* * *

Oleg I hadn't seen since the previous summer. (To acquaint yourself with this interesting man, it's best to go to my "Gardener of Eden" piece.)

Days earlier I had succeeded in contacting Oleg, not an easy task. Duly forewarned, he must've scrambled to put order into his one-room-plus-kitchen abode. His bed was made, his clothes neatly hung, the floor swept. Almost a monk's cell. Tomatoes and cucumber, already sliced, were on the table by the window, with sour cream and vegetable oil on the side, my choice. And a half-liter of vodka. No choice.

"Oleg, you wrote me in March saying you'd given up smoking and drinking."

"Mr. Matthew, this is a holiday. A holiday! You've come!" He poured.

"Mr. Oleg, it's just after 10 o'clock in the morning!"

"It's a holiday!" He raised his glass.

You're wondering: what!!! has Stremba lost his sense! indulging in vodka at a time coffee or iced tea would be more appropriate! aiding and abetting alcoholism in the native population!

Listen: when I'm in someone else's country, I find it very difficult to separate myself from the table norms without somehow giving offense. They serve salo (hog fat), I shake paprika on a piece and eat it. A skewer of chunks of ram alongside chunks of fat from lamb, I eat it all. Tort that smells like wet dog? I eat my piece slowly.

"Za zdorov'e!"

He knocks it back like a coal miner, I sip, we both stick a piece of cucumber in our mouths.

Oleg pulled out a cigarette, lit one, grabbed for an ashtray, a novelty item: under the smudges – the palm of a hand holding a skull – on the edge two words: kurit' ubivaet. I poked my finger at the death message. He smiled broadly and inhaled.

Oleg liked the books I'd brought him, previous visit. He's been rereading his small collection of western classics in Russian translation, so last summer I gave him two small works by Sergey Dovlatov.

"Excellent writer," he said, thumbing worn pages to one of his favorite scenes in KOMPROMISS. "Tragic that Dovlatov was an alcoholic. Imagine."

"Yes," I said. "Died an exile in New York. Would've been my age, had he lived."

He refilled the glasses.

"Next time I visit you," I said, "it'll have to be later in the day." I had in mind all of you back home disapproving of indulging before noon.

"Next time you come, Mr. Matthew, I will be dead and buried." He rubbed his lower back, complaining of chronic pain, kidneys, legs.

"And who will inform me? Who will know how to find your friends to say Oleg smoked too much, drank too much, and now he's gone?"

"I have no friends but you and Barbara. Z-z-zdorov'e!"

We both knock it back.

"Who will get the priest for your panakhida?" He roared at the hilarity of religious rites over his dead body. Oleg grew up in a very Soviet home.

The day was sunny, but the yard sheltered in a number of grapevines. The path to the street (Oleg treads like a man 20 years older) was as uncertain as a packrat's cellar. It would take a bigger holiday than my two-hour visit for him to organize the scattered tools; to sort out what was compost, what, debris; to repair the homemade ladders.

I promised to see him, despite his gloomy predictions, in the autumn. And I will – God willing – knowing that visit or no visit Oleg will find reason and means to fill a glass, always, until he dies. But he really deserves a holiday.

Matthew-Daniel Stremba 19 August 2003

< < Essays & Sketches