Thursday, November 16, 2006

Tolic's Epitaph: part II

I went to Tolic's Pominki today. A pominki is a memorial service. I had wanted to go, out of respect and propriety because this is something that one does, but the actual events of my day sort of pushed the event out of my mind and that I got to go at all was only because a neighbor caught me at the door on the way out and told me to go up and put in an appearance.

At that moment I was ready to say that I forgot and that missing it all had been simply an accident, which was the truth. I am not an insensitive man, but that original propitious thought of lifting a glass to Tolic had gone and given way to the truth of the matter which is that the man wasn't all that worthy of tears, especially in the face of a business meeting. You want to call me selfish? Ok, I am selfish.

But the hand on my arm did stop me and after a moment of doing the math on the situation, I decided to go and… there are no other words so I am just going to say it: Pay my respects.

I guess I get kind of wound up at times when I am busy and I have a great desire to get done what needs to be done and I was in this mood when I went upstairs.

I was welcomed into a room with most of my neighbors and about 8 relatives and everyone in the room sort of stared at me when I came in. They did this staring routine when Baba Masha died, which you may recall. This time however, I already had the yarmulke on so I gave my cap and things to Nina and met the gaze of each and every person in the room. You are not supposed to give verbal greetings at pominkis.

I had been asked by a neighbor to help with the casket at about noon yesterday but I didn't go. I had carried one corner of baba Masha's casket- I think this has more to do with being a grown male than it does with familial status here and I was told I would be helping along with Vadik from downstairs. Vadik was the potato thief from the first Tolic article, but that is neither here nor there. But I wasn't there though at noon nor at the cemetery because, as I said, I was working. Don’t think that this is some empty excuse that I am making for not wanting to go, I was just really busy. I would have gone, even though this would have taken several hours away from much more important things, but I forgot because of the work and also nobody came to get me. So I didn't go.

But now they were all staring at me but I am sure my not having gone to the funeral was only part of it. A much bigger part of it was that I lived next door to the son of a bitch for the last four years and I was the one who had to throw his drunken bum friends out of our house, wake them from drunken slumbers in our corridor, occasionally throw a punch or two in defense of Tanya when they had decided that we were a likely source of money, or having to deal with Ivan Fiodorovich, the guy who killed Tolic's mother and spent the better part of the last few years successfully wearing Tolic down with his weekly drunken beatings of his own. They could sit in their homes miles and miles away and have Tolic most of the time completely out of their minds. I had to live next door to him. I was the one who has had to do the dirty work around here and every single face knew it.

But now I was there and, well, what the hell are you supposed to do? There was not an honest tear in the house. Everybody was just standing around ashamed at the utter and colossal humiliation of all of this. But propriety is propriety and Tolic's sister, as a way of breaking the ice, I suppose, did what was called for by tradition, and offered me a glass of vodka. Of course, of course I would have this drink. I said I would and I meant that I would. I am sure that the irony was not being missed. I raised my glass and tried like hell to think of what to say. I really, really wanted to say a nice thing. When Baba Masha, G-d bless her elegant, intelligent and beautify soul for ever and ever amen, had her pominki, I stood up and spoke of a friend who was always gracious and even, who was good to me despite my being different and out of place- but here in this dark, no electricity, no phone and a broken window in the kitchen situation, I could not for the life of me think of what to say. So I said that:

"Um… frankly, I don't know what to say." Three or four people nodded at this. Not with sad eyes mind you, they just nodded hat they understood that there simply wasn't a whole lot that someone could say. After a minute I thought of the phrase rest in peace. Now, I have never heard this phrase used in Russian and often, you can try to put together a familiar sentence but it comes out wrong as an idiom. But it was all I had and so I raised the glass and said "Za Tolic. Dochnut v mir" It must have been close enough because a few people drank with me and then we all fell into silence.

But you know, alcohol has an effect. It is a sugar and acts like a sugar in that your body uses it rather quickly for fuel. Your veins and capillaries open, your blood pressure comes up- at least with that first glass. And all of this happened to me and in that moment I felt like I wanted to swing on somebody. I started to pace like a lion in a cage. Maybe it was all of that pent up anger form the last years. After a minute I decided that I needed to find Ivan Fioderovich and see what he had to say for himself. I found him in the kitchen, a napkin full of sausages and cheese in front of him talking to somebody. I never said a word, but he introduced me to the man, telling him I lived next door and how I was a good man, a righteous man, that I lived next door, that I put up with so much. The friend kept saying "I know, I know…" to everything Fioderovich said. And then suddenly Fioderovich told me that I needed to know that he had a real son and that he was here. This real son had cars and a nice house. This was his real son and I needed to know that there was a real son and that he was here and that I needed to meet him. He took my arm and brought me back into the parlor and pushed me over to a man who bared some resemblance to Fioderovich, but taller, stronger.

"This is my son." He said. I looked at the man's face and he showed me that this moment had nothing for him that he would ever like to remember.

"Peter." He said extending his hand. I said my own and took it and then Peter looked a way. Fioderovich thought he wanted to explain further how this one was a real son and that Tolic was nothing but a drunk and a bum, but several people dragged Fioderovich back to the kitchen explaining to him that there was no longer any need to beat Tolic, he was gone and there was no longer a need. After this moment had passed, I went over and stood next to Tolic's sister again.

I stood there for a few minutes quietly. There was no real talking in the room. After a bit I leaned over and asked about Tolic's family. There was only one child, not two as I had heard the day before. The family had broken up some 15 years ago- just after the end of the Soviet Union. Tolic was never one of the pull yourself up by the bootstraps types. He had his life because he was made to be a certain way. But with the end of the USSR there was no longer a real salary and the drinking which had been a family trait, stopped being for friendship and togetherness and became morose. After a short time his wife, like many, many others here either could not or would not accept the financial circumstances and left with their son. Having nowhere else to turn, Tolic simply crawled inside the bottle and took up residence. Socialized housing gave him a place to live. Odds and ends jobs mixed with renting his beds and couches for flops kept him drunk and indoors; he stole, he scavenged- he just kept on.

I just realized that there was something good to say about him. He seemed to keep the rugs swept and the house clean. I don't know why I have thought of this but it is true; on the occasions that I went over there, the house always seemed clean for some reason. So I guess there was that.

And then they offered me another drink. I was empty you see. They were being gracious hosts. The sister lifted a bottle that had only a little vodka left in it and poured it out for me: The last of the bottle but only half a glass. I picked it up and looked at it. And then I looked around and put the glass back on the table. I said that I was not refusing the toast; I was toasting him but for this moment, I was simply going to put it down and say "no more". Enough is enough. And than I said goodbye to all and left. Most of the neighbors followed me out. I guess I had managed to say all what needed to be said.

I went downstairs and got my hat and things at Nina's. Egr was with her. I was so mad I thought my teeth would crack.

"Do you know what happened with Tolic?" I asked the 10-year-old

"He died." said the boy.

"Do you know how?"

"A train hit him."

"Do you think he did it himself?"

"Yes." said Egr.

"Can you see him? If you try and remember, can you see Tolic in your mind?"


"Don't ever forget him. You understand about alcohol?"


"Don't be a drunk, Egr."

"I will not drink."

"Oh, you say this now. But believe me in two, three, four years there will be many "friends" who come to you to be friends with them. They'll offer you vodka, wine, beer….narcotics… and they will all be your friends, do you understand? This will come from your friends." The boy nodded. "When they come, you remember Tolic. He is an example of the beauty of alcohol."

"We have another example," Said Nina pointing a thumb at the bathroom door. Vadik was in there. "Egr knows all about this, Adam." I nodded and took my things. "When is the next English class?" She asked.

"Anytime." And with that, this little interlude ended and I went back into my life.

You were a stupid, drunken son of a bitch, Tolic. I don't want to write about you any more. Two columns about your death were more than you were worth. You were my neighbor for four years. Obviously you were not a lucky man in life. Lots and lots of people have had hard luck but somehow come back to live in spite of it all. I am sorry for your step dad and I am sorry you lost your job 15 years ago and your family along with it. I hated you for what you did to my home but you are out now. You're in the ground now, Tolic. We drank without you today. We all stood around, absolutely flabbergasted and astonished every one of us, at how ridiculous it all was. You're dead now, Tolic. I hope G-d accepts your soul. But in any case please, don't come back.

More soon…