The Golden Calf
At precisely 4:40 p.m., Basilius Lokhankin went on a hunger strike.
He was lying on an oilcloth-covered couch, his back to the world, his face to the curved back of the couch. He wore suspenders and green socks—known as karpetki in Chernomorsk.
Having spent about twenty minutes of his hunger strike in this position, Lokhankin moaned, rolled over, and looked at his wife. The green karpetki traced a small arc in the air. Meanwhile, his wife was throwing her stuff into a colorful travel bag: decorative perfume bottles, a rubber massage bolster, two dresses with tails and an old one without, a tall felt hat decorated with a glass crescent, copper cartridges of lipstick, and a pair of stretch pants.
“Barbara!” called out Lokhankin in a nasal voice.
She remained silent, breathing heavily.
“Barbara!” he repeated. “Are you really leaving me for Ptiburdukov?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m leaving. That’s how it should be.”
“But why, why?” asked Lokhankin with bovine passion.
His nostrils, already large, f lared in despair. His pharaonic beard quivered.
“Because I love him.”
“But what about me?”
“Basilius! I already made it known to you yesterday that I don’t love you anymore.”
“But I do! I love you, Barbara!”
“That’s your problem, Basilius. I’m leaving you for Ptiburdukov. That’s how it should be.”
“No!” exclaimed Lokhankin. “That’s not how it should be! A person cannot leave if the other person loves her!”
“Yes, she can,” said Barbara testily, looking at herself in a pocket mirror. “Stop acting silly, Basilius.”
“In that case, I’m still on a hunger strike!” cried the heartbroken husband. “I will starve until you come back to me. A day. A week. I’ll starve for a year!”
Lokhankin rolled over again and stuck his beefy nose into the cold slippery oilcloth.
“I’ll lie like this, in my suspenders, until I die,” came from the couch. “And it’ll be your fault, yours and that engineer Ptiburdukov’s.”
His wife thought for a moment, pulled a fallen strap back onto her dough-white shoulder, and suddenly burst out:
“You can’t talk about Ptiburdukov like that! He’s better than you!”
This was too much for Lokhankin. He jerked as if an electric charge went through his entire body, from his suspenders to the green karpetki.
“You’re a f loozy, Barbara,” he whined. “You’re a tramp!”
“Basilius, you’re a fool!” his wife retorted calmly.
“You she-wolf you,” continued the whiny Lokhankin. “I truly do despise you. You leave me for your lover, do you not? You leave me for Ptiburdukov. You, ghastly you, you leave me now, forever, for that contemptible Ptiburdukov. So that’s for whom you’re leaving me forever! You want to give yourself to him in lust. An old she-wolf you are, yes, old and ghastly too!”
Wallowing in his grief, Lokhankin didn’t even notice that he was speaking in iambic pentameter, even though he never wrote any poetry and didn’t like to read it.
“Basilius! Stop being such a clown,” said the she-wolf, closing her bag. “Just look at yourself. You should wash. I’m leaving. Goodbye, Basilius! I put your ration card for bread on the table.”
With that, Barbara picked up her bag and headed for the door. Seeing that his incantations didn’t work, Lokhankin quickly jumped off the couch, ran to the table, cried “Help!” and tore the card to pieces. Barbara was frightened. She pictured her husband emaciated from starvation, with a barely discernible pulse and cold extremities.
“What have you done?” she said. “Don’t you dare starve yourself!”
“I will!” declared Lokhankin stubbornly.
“It’s stupid, Basilius. It’s the revolt of individuality.”
“And that’s what makes me proud,” retorted Lokhankin somewhat iambically. “You’re underestimating the importance of individuality and of the intelligentsia as a whole.”
“But society will condemn you.”
“So be it,” replied Basilius resolutely, falling back on the couch.
Barbara said nothing, threw her bag on the f loor, hastily tore a straw bonnet from her head and, muttering “crazed pig,” “tyrant,” “slavemaster,” quickly made a chopped eggplant sandwich.
“Eat!” she said, bringing the food to her husband’s scarlet lips. “You hear me, Lokhankin? Eat up! Now!”
“Leave me alone,” he said, pushing his wife’s hand away.
Taking advantage of the fact that the hunger striker’s mouth was open for a moment, Barbara deftly tucked the sandwich into the gap that appeared between the pharaonic beard and the trim Moscow-style mustache. But the striker forced the food out with a strong push from his tongue.
“Eat, you bastard!” Barbara yelled in desperation, trying to reinsert the sandwich. “Intellectual!”
But Lokhankin turned his face away and bellowed in protest. After a few minutes, Barbara, f lushed and covered in green eggplant paste, gave up. She sat down on her bag and burst into icy tears.
Lokhankin brushed the crumbs off his beard, threw his wife a cautious, evasive glance, and quieted down on his couch. He really didn’t want to part with Barbara. Despite numerous shortcomings, Barbara had two very important merits: a large white bosom and a steady job. Basilius had never had a job. A job would have interfered with his ref lections on the role of the Russian intelligentsia, the social group of which he considered himself a member. As a result, Lokhankin’s prolonged ruminations boiled down to pleasant and familiar themes: “Basilius Lokhankin and His Significance,” “Lokhankin and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism,” “Lokhankin and His Role in the Russian Revolution.” It was easy and comforting to think about all of that while walking around the room in little felt boots (bought with Barbara’s money) and glancing at his favorite bookcase, where the spines of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia glimmered with ecclesiastical gold. Basilius spent hours standing in front of the bookcase and moving his eyes from spine to spine. Splendid examples of the art of bookbinding were neatly arranged on the shelves: The Great Medical Encyclopedia, The Animals of the World, the massive Man and Woman, and The Earth and Its Inhabitants by Elisée Reclus.
“Proximity to these treasures of human ref lection is purifying, somehow makes you grow spiritually,” thought Basilius unhurriedly.
Arriving at this conclusion, he would sigh happily, pull out an 1899 copy of Motherland, an illustrated magazine, its binding the color of frothy, foamy sea water, that sat under the bookcase, and look at the pictures from the Boer War, an ad by an unknown lady entitled “How I Enlarged My Bust By Six Inches,” and other curious miscellany.
If Barbara were to leave, she’d take with her the financial foundation on which the well-being of this most deserving member of the intellectual class has been resting.
In the evening, Ptiburdukov arrived. For a long time, he couldn’t bring himself to enter the Lokhankins’ rooms, and he loitered in the kitchen, amid the blazing Primus stoves and the crisscrossing lines for laundry, which was hard as plaster and stained by bluing. The apartment came to life. Doors were banging, shadows were darting, the tenants’ eyes were shining, and somebody sighed passionately: a man had arrived.
Ptiburdukov took off his cap, tugged on his engineer’s mustache, and finally steeled himself.
“Barb,” he said pleadingly, entering the room, “didn’t we agree . . .”
“Look at this, Sasha!” cried Barbara, grabbing his hand and pushing him towards the couch. “There he is! On the couch! The pig! The dirty slave-master! See, this tyrant went on a hunger strike because I want to leave him.”
Catching sight of Ptiburdukov, the striker promptly unleashed his iambic pentameter.
“Ptiburdukov, I truly do despise you,” he whined. “And don’t you dare touch my dear wife. You are a lout, Ptiburdukov, a bastard! Whither are you now taking her?”
“Comrade Lokhankin,” said the dumbfounded Ptiburdukov, grabbing his mustache again.
“Go, go away, I truly do abhor you,” continued Basilius, rocking like an old Jew at prayer, “you are a lout, sad and ghastly too. An engineer you’re not—you are a scoundrel, a lowly creep, a pimp, and bastard too!”
“You should be ashamed of yourself, Basilius Andreevich,” said Ptiburdukov, who was getting tired of all this. “It’s foolish, plain and simple. Look what you’re doing! In the second year of the Five-Year Plan . . .”
“He dares tell me that I’m acting foolish! He, he, the one who stole my wife away! Go now, Ptiburdukov, or else a thrashing, that is, a beating, I will give to thee!”
“A sick man,” said Ptiburdukov, trying to stay within the confines of decency.
For Barbara, however, these confines were too tight. She grabbed the dried-up green sandwich from the table and approached the hunger striker again. Lokhankin defended himself desperately, as if he was about to be castrated. Ptiburdukov turned away and looked through the window at the horse chestnut that was blooming with white candles. Behind him he heard Lokhankin’s disgusting bellowing and Barbara’s cries: “Eat, you nasty man! Eat, you slave-master!”
The next day, Barbara didn’t go to work because she was too upset about this unexpected obstacle. The hunger striker turned for the worse.
“I already have stomach cramps,” he reported with satisfaction, “then comes scurvy due to malnutrition, the hair and teeth start falling out.”
Ptiburdukov brought in his brother, an army doctor. Ptiburdukov the second held his ear to Lokhankin’s torso for a long time and listened to the functioning of his organs with the concentration of a cat listening to a mouse that had snuck into a sugar bowl. During the examination, Basilius stared at his naked chest, shaggy like a woolen overcoat, his eyes full of tears. He felt very sorry for himself. Ptiburdukov the second looked at Ptiburdukov the first and reported that the patient had no need to follow a diet. He could eat everything: for example, soup, meat patties, fruit drinks. Bread, vegetables, and fresh fruit were also allowed. Fish was permitted. Smoking was fine—within reason, of course. Drinking was not recommended, but in order to boost the appetite, it might be a good idea to introduce a small glass of nice port into his system. In other words, the doctor hadn’t quite grasped the Lokhankins’ drama. Puffing self-importantly and stomping with his boots, he departed, his final piece of advice being that the patient could also swim in the sea and ride a bicycle.
But the patient had no intention of introducing any fruit, fish, meat, or other delicacies into his system. He didn’t want to go to the beach for a swim. Instead, he continued to lie on the couch and shower those around him with spiteful pentameters. Barbara started feeling sorry for him. “He’s starving because of me,” she thought proudly, “what remarkable passion. Is Sasha capable of such powerful feelings?” And she kept glancing anxiously at the well-fed Sasha, who looked like no romantic drama would stop him from introducing lunches and dinners into his system on a regular basis. Once, when Ptiburdukov stepped out, she even called Basilius “poor dear.” With that, a sandwich once again appeared at the hunger striker’s lips, and was once again rejected. “A little more endurance,” he thought to himself, “and Ptiburdukov can kiss my Barbara goodbye.”
He listened to the voices from the other room with satisfaction.
“He’ll die without me,” Barbara was saying. “We’re going to have to wait. Don’t you see that I can’t leave him right now?”
That night, Barbara had a bad dream. Basilius, emaciated by his powerful feelings, gnawed on the silver-colored spurs that the army doctor wore on his boots. It was terrifying. The doctor’s face expressed the same resignation as a cow who was being milked by the village thief. The spurs banged, the teeth chattered. Barbara woke up in horror.
A yellow Japanese sun was shining directly into the room, wasting all its power on illuminating such trif les as the cut-glass stopper from a Turandot toilet water bottle. The oilcloth-covered couch was empty. Barbara moved her eyes and saw Basilius. He was standing in front of the open cupboard with his back to the bed and making loud chomping noises. Greedy and impatient, he was leaning forward, tapping his foot clad in a green sock and making whistling and squelching sounds with his nose. He emptied a tall tin can, carefully took the lid off a pot, dipped his fingers into the cold borscht, and extracted a chunk of meat. Basilius would have been in deep trouble even if Barbara had caught him doing this during the best times of their marriage. His fate was sealed.
“Lokhankin!” she called out in a terrifying voice.
The startled hunger striker let go of the meat, which fell back into the pot, producing a small fountain of shredded cabbage and carrot medallions. Basilius leaped back onto the couch with a wounded howl.