Bandiera Rossa
Vadim Bystritski

I put my finger into the bathtub water: too hot; made a splash and got my shirt wet. I spoke and someone else’s voice returned to me from the toilet, deeper and stronger, “Can you hear me, neighbors?” Not in a hurry, I unbuttoned and whistled, then sang the refrain. The neighbor above me flushed the toilet, the others joined him. I wondered if the top and the ground level were now within my range:

Avanti o popolo, alla riscosa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa.

Once Thomas and Znanenski assured me that the situations were real, if defined as such, at least in their consequences. Here is a good example: a young man with a particularly imaginative turn of mind had placed his library card inside an ATM and, randomly pressing the keys, was hoping to divert some undeserved funds from Wells Fargo. An unlikely outcome, you may say, yet he was picked up by the police and delivered to a detention facility: the crime itself might have been spurious, but its consequences turned out to be concrete enough.

I understand that in our choice of conduct we must not be hypnotized into indecision by contingencies: Immanuel Kant had liberated us with his deontological ethics. Deon, the bane of Cal Poly faculty, had sent the philosophically minded students wondering all the way to “de-ontological,” that is, not-ontological, not of being, not of existence?

For the last thirty years of his life Benjamin Moshe wanted to immigrate to Israel. He never really told me his story, preferring hints and allusions to a simple narrative: He must have made some attempts to leave in his younger years, but the results were discouraging.

He directed
The shop light
At himself
Then covered his
Eyes and
“I was born—

in the thirties—somewhere in the Gohbi desert.” Ben Moshe was a concert pianist with a broken pinky. This created a dissonance in his interpretations of Prokofiev. You could always recognize the hand of Little Ben; but this is not to return us to the aesthetics politicized, rather sexuality aestheticized, for during the intermissions his theatrical whisper could be heard in the orchestra pit, “—and then I grabbed her ass, but the wench—” In his youth Venya was fond of American romance novels. His ex reported to my ex that he had brought a suitcase of them from China.

China was Ben’s point of origin. In Peking his mother washed clothes for the U.S. Embassy, while Ben ran errands for the Russian Embassy. On his eighteenth birthday, the Russians offered him Soviet citizenship. He accepted.

Ben’s best friend was Leonid Blanc, a violinist. Here’s their conversation: “Ivan got home early and sees this guy trying to escape through the kitchen window, but the bastard is stuck! ‘Aha,’ says Ivan, ‘so you fuck my wife, eh? Well, since you fuck my wife, I gonna fuck you!’ Hey, it’s easier said than done: he can’t get it up! ‘All right,’ says Ivan, ‘since I cannot fuck you, I gonna cut off your balls!’ On hearing that, the other fellow yells, ‘Be a man, try again!’ Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha—. Check it out, Ben. These three guys are guarding an apple orchard in Balashovo. They’ve just hauled one intruder to the local police station when they notice another shadow lurking in the twilight. One of our guys is a boxer, the other a wrestler, the third one is just a huge dude with the ropes. So the boxer gets to the trespasser first, and gives him a punch; the wrestler throws him to the ground; the third dude is busy with the ropes: they load the asshole into the trunk of their Fiat, and— What the fuck! It’s yeti! The abominable snowman! So they drive him to the cops; but those refuse to take the monkey—the jail is not a zoo! The assholes let him go!”

“That’s nothing! The last year in Sinen’kie we were talking to this old nag who was about to retire from their chicken farm, so they honored her as the worker of the year, for she had been working there for the last fifty years. Guess what she does: Cuts throats of those chickens! Hey, if I were in Hollywood, I’d make such a thriller of this. Imagine when she retires and sits at home with nothing to do; first she’d cut every throat in her own chicken coop; then move out into the neighborhood: cats, dogs—”

“Hey, they found this guy in Medvedkovo, just a stupid truck driver.”

In the nineties things began to change in the former Soviet Union, and in the currents of mass migrations, the Jewish exodus had lost its romantic overtones. In the year 2002, returning to Russia on a business visa, I bumped into Ben Moshe: “Veniamin Moiseich?”

“Still here.” The old man stretched his mouth into an incredible smile and looking down at his strange winter boots, whispered, “I want them to apologize.”

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