Tuesday, November 14, 2006

An epitaph for Anatoli Kulyebyeda

We had the police come to our house a few days ago asking questions and saying that there had been a catastrophe over at the railway station. The policeman didn't give us a lot of details, they were keeping as much secrecy about the events of the situation as was possible, but basically the query revolved around our neighbor Tolic. Perhaps you know him better by the name Tolic the drunk.

I had thought to write something about this a few days ago, but how sketchy the details were made me think better of it. Last night the full situation was explained to us via neighbors and Tolic's sister. Apparently, last Thursday evening, for reasons no one understands Tolic went over to the train station. Possibly he wanted to meet with friends; there are many people (drunks) who simply like to hang around the train station because it is warm. Tolic had a home, but he might have wanted companionship, someone to drink with. According to the police he was very, very drunk and at some time during that evening as an incoming train was approaching, he either fell onto the tracks, jumped or was pushed. The conductor saw him and tried to stop but could not. According to the conductor's story, Tolic was at one point on the rails, but then scurried to the center and attempted to duck away from the engine. He was however struck on the head by some part of the undercarriage and his skull fractured. Tolic was alive when they pulled him out from under the train and we were told that he himself had told the doctors his name while they were preparing him for surgery. The doctors worked several hours, but Tolic did not survive the operation. We learned all of this information yesterday when his sister came by collecting for his casket and burial.

The news of Tolic's demise hit me very hard. I think perhaps this is because of the absolute harsh and stark reality of this particular man's suicide. I have lived next door to him for several years and the truth be known, I really don't remember a single friendly interaction. I mean, the desk I am writing on came from his house and was bought for the price of a bottle of wine, as was a chair here in the room and other than that, all of our encounters have been dealing with him or his friends while they are drunk or with his father when he was coming by to beat him. And before I go on further I should say that I really couldn't say so much for the man's soul because another picture I have of him from the memorial service for Tatyana's father was of him simply sitting at the table and feeding his face and drinking all he could. He had no kind words to say to Tanya's mother of for us, but I made sure that he could eat and drink all he wanted that day and even sent him home with another bottle after he finally finished.

When a person you know dies you do tend to speak about him and yesterday I learned a few things I never knew before. Tolic was not always a drunk. He had graduated from an agricultural engineering college and in the times before the end of the Soviet Union, had a very good job mining peat or coal for heating fuel and that this was a well paying job at the time. He was married and he has two children. Nobody really remembers when or why his family situation came apart. Obvious speculation was that it was over drinking but I have no actual facts to back that up. But in addition to this, I learned that Ivan Foderovich was not actually Tolic's biological father. His real father either died or simply left, and the mother remarried. The story in the house has always been that Ivan Fioderovich killed Tolic's mother, though he was never tried for the killing; the official story was that she died from falling in her house and hitting her head.

As I write these words and also recall how many times Ivan Fioderovich came to beat his son in a drunken rage, I tend to find a small spark of sympathy glowing for Tolic's existence. If you were to take a lot of knowledge away from a picture you are looking at, a lot of understanding and simply look a picture from the perspective of an innocent, a child or at least as a stranger, sometimes you can see something there that ordinarily would not be allowed in. I have many such pictures of Tolic Kulyebyeda. I see him now being dragged along by his father, his eye blackened, blood crusted on the bridge of his nose, his right arm holding his left in support of its injury. And in this moment his gaze meets mine and perhaps I see in this moment a plea for help from somewhere deep inside. In another picture, on a day that Tolic surly was high on grass, I remember him breaking into laughter at the sight and sound of my family coming from the house and indulging our then less-than-a-year-old Anya in her first sounds of communication. Actually we must have seemed funny at that.

And of course the last time I spoke to him. I have not been kind to Tolic for a long while. I stopped even wishing him good health or saying good morning to him. I have let a harsh glare tell him what I think of his bringing drunks and drug addicts into our house and have never failed to let both him and his father know my opinion of them and that I would with pleasure call the police on them. My last conversation with him was the one I mentioned in the Tolic the drunk article. I told him that I had heard that the state wanted three hundred dollars from him to pay for back rent and asked what he would do about it. At the time I believed I heard his response to be posmotrim, we'll see, but Tanya told me that she heard him say viplachivat, I will pay it. Looking back now, I am starting to believe I was right the first time.

It's a hard life anywhere you live, but for sure it has been especially hard here. I really can't in good conscience lionize the man in any way; he wasn't really any good. But at the same time I am not without sympathy. Probably Tolic had had that trip to the train station on his mind for a long time. Maybe even years. Perhaps the oncoming winter and the thought of sitting in an unlit apartment with a broken window that lets the snow in and thought of having to deal with the state over that back money was really enough for him. And Ivan Fioderovich's beatings. And the scorn of his neighbors. And perhaps the reality of the life he lived with his friends. And so last Thursday after drinking every last drop he could find, he walked over to the train station and when he saw an approaching train, he threw himself down on the tracks. In a moment of panic though, he abandoned the idea of letting the wheels do him in and tried to dive for cover under the engine but had his head broken nonetheless. His last conscious interaction was to explain to yet another person who had to care for him that he had a name and then he died.

At the moment I am wring these words, Ivan Fioderovich is around and helping with the arrangements for Tolic's funeral. They are awaiting the arrival of a brother from Gommel, so it will be in perhaps two days. For what it is worth, Ivan Fioderovich looks sad at the loss of his stepson. He is accepting condolences and good wishes from his former neighbors.

It's ok Tolic. You can rest now. There is nothing left to be afraid of. And for all of it, I will lift a glass to your memory at the memorial. Z'darov! Rest in peace.

More soon...