:: Article

Before Exams

By Vladimir Kozlov.

I decide I’m totally gonna nail her. I’ll sneak up behind her, throw her down in the grass and nail her, and nobody will see us since it’s always deserted here. There’s only the railroad by this spot, and a path from the bus stop that hardly anybody walks this time of day, then a patch of forest, and beyond that the tanks at the oil storage terminal.

I have my eighth grade exams soon. Classes were over two days ago, a few days earlier than usual so we could start prepping for exams. After my last class I went to the Souzpechat news kiosk and bought the first pack of cigarettes in my life – Stolichni brand, for forty kopecks. I had my first cigarette a long time ago, but I only smoked if somebody else gave me one. The lady in the kiosk looked at me but didn’t say anything, took my kopecks and gave me a pack. Then I bought matches in the grocery shop, sat on a bench in the door of building number 171 – where the news kiosk was – and smoked. I still have this pack of Stolichnies and it’s with me now, but it only has three cigarettes left.

​Every morning I take my bike off the balcony and haul it down three floors on my shoulder, then I climb on, ride for a few streets, and the city ends. That’s where the fields start, and the railroad, the patches of forest, and the paths where I ride for hours, just because I’ve got nothing better to do. Sometimes I stop, take out my cigarettes, throw my bike in the grass, sit down and smoke.

Yesterday she was walking in front of me on the part of the path that goes past Timbuktu – that’s what we call a group of a country cottages that for some reason were built between the outskirts of the city and Zakurovka, the nearest village, which are about two kilometers apart. There’s no public transport going that way at all, so people walk there from bus stop.

I said to her, “Miss, do you happen to have a light?” Just for something to say. So we could meet each other. I didn’t give a damn that she was a year or two older than me, or what I had on – a dirty blue t-shirt, white sneakers, sweat pants that were a little faded and stretched out in the knees, and under them the outline of my boxer shorts.

​“No, I don’t smoke,” she said.

​“Honey, it’s not good you don’t smoke.”

 ​“Honey? What, are we friends already?”

 ​“Well, yeah, sure,” I said.

“Well then, kid, I’ll be your friend and tell you this: you better get yourself on your bike and get the hell outta here because my boyfriend’s supposed to meet me and walk me home.”

 ​“No he’s not,” I said.

​“How do you know?”

​“It’s totally obvious.”

“Well now, you’re being rude to me already?”

​“Nobody’s being rude to you.”

“And what would you call this?”

“I wouldn’t call it anything.”

“Alright, kid, you really better get outta here,” she said.

So I left.

But today, when she comes this way again, I’ll show her a “kid” and a “boyfriend” and everything else. I hide and wait for her under the bridge in the ditch along the railroad embankment, where the path to Timbuktu runs along under the railway. I’ll take her down by surprise, so she doesn’t have time to understand what’s going on, and right away I’ll bring her out from under the bridge – I sure won’t fuck her on the rocks, I’d fall down the embankment – but rather on the grass up there, I’ll pull up her dress, shove down my boxers, and she’ll know that if she’s gonna make fun of me, then I get a little something in return.

​A year ago Bull and I rode our bikes together, only not out of town, over by Construction Worker Street, where there are lots of single-storied country houses and a slope down to the river. Our classmates Zelenova and Boyko live there, and one time we met up with them there, and Bull pissed off Zelenova, and she called him “fatso” and ran off, and he caught up with her and grabbed her and hit her a few times with his fist – not hard, but enough that she’d have a bruise on her shoulder to remember him by. But Boyko didn’t call me any names and basically said nothing, just smiled like I had a funny-looking face or snot hanging out of my nose.  

​“What are you laughing at?” I said to her.

 ​“Nothing, just laughing.”

And one time Bull and I were riding further, to Stinky River – that’s what they call the river where the chemical factory dumps all kinds of crud – when some lady came up to us and said, “Boys, take me to the river.”

She sat on my cargo rack and I took her, and Bull rode beside us and smirked. She was heavy and fat-assed, and I could hardly ride with her on. She jumped off the rack and said, “thank you.” And that was all.  

​Bull said, “That was goddamn Ninka, she’s a whore. What, you didn’t know about her? You should have said, ‘I’ll take you, but as payment, gimme something in return.’”

 ​“Why didn’t you say it yourself?” I asked.

 ​“Nah, I’m just fooling around.  Her fucker’s probably waiting down there in the bushes.”

 ​And at the end of that summer – I wasn’t in the city at the time, my parents and I were on holiday in the Azov Sea – Bull fell under a car on his bike and broke his spinal cord or something like that, I don’t know exactly what. But now he can’t walk, he just lies in bed. The teachers go see him at home, and I go see him sometimes too. He’s learning to play guitar and sings me all the popular songs about criminals. Some songs I like, and some I don’t. Bull says they’re going to do an operation on him in Moscow, and he might walk again someday and even ride a bike.

​I peek out from behind the embankment, waiting for her to show up, but she’s still not there. In the distance, this freak in a black track suit and sneakers is running across a field. I know him, he lives in our neighborhood. He’s schizophrenic and he gets a pension, and Bull said he has a crazy card from the government, which means he can legally kill somebody and nothing will happen to him. He could kill me right now, but I won’t let him get me. I’ll whack him in the balls, get on my bike and take off. He’ll never fucking catch up with me, even if he runs every day.

My palms are sweating and something lurches in my stomach, and I feel like shitting myself. I’m excited, like a guy who’s waiting for his date and he doesn’t know if she’ll show up or not. I’ve never once gone on a date, I mean really, not a single date. A few guys in my class have already been going on dates for a long time, Yurchenko for one. He doesn’t waste any time in class, either. He sat at the next table over from me with Khmelnitskaya, and when nobody was looking he’d grope her under the table, and she wouldn’t squeal, just smile, like she liked it.

​And last summer Bull and I rode there a lot, over where Zelenova and Boyko live, and this one time we met up with them again, and Bull said to them: “We’re going to the Stinky River to get a tan and stuff and we’ll take you – you can ride on the cargo rack or on the frame, whatever you want.”

They exchanged glances and whispered to each other, and then said, “No, we don’t feel like it.” Boyko was in a light-colored dress, the kind that clings, and her breasts were visible – they were real and round, like an adult babe’s. And Zelenova still didn’t have much of anything, but all the same Bull chased after her for some reason.

Fuck, she’s not here. Where could she be? It rained today, and now I’m worried it might not be warm enough. I’m only wearing a t-shirt, and I’m already getting cold. Maybe she doesn’t usually come out here on this day? Or she’s already gone? And why exactly was I so sure she comes out here every day at this particular time?

I get on my bike and ride over to the forest patch. Snails crunch under my wheels – they crawl out onto the road after it rains for some reason. Usually, on the edges of the forest patch, there are men from the oil terminal sitting in the grass after work getting hammered, but today they’re not there, probably on account of the rain.

I climb off my bike, throw it on the wet grass and walk a few steps off the trail. I piss, then start jerking off. Drops of water fall on my neck and head from the tree branches. I finish, and the spunk splashes on the wet, black bark of the tree and hangs on it, like snot. I go back to my bike, take my cigarettes and matches from their pouch, and smoke. There are two cigarettes left in the pack.

[Pic. Elena Kirillova]

Born in 1972, Moscow novelist, journalist, and cultural critic Vladimir Kozlov grew up in Mogilev, an industrial city in what was then the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic. He is the author of a dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, writing largely about Soviet and post-Soviet popular culture, youth subcultures, the Russian music scene, and coming of age during perestroika. He has recently ventured into the noir genre with his just released detective novel 1986. His novels CCCP and Domoi (Going Home) were both long-listed for the Big Book and National Bestseller literary awards in Russia, and he has also been nominated for GQ Russia’s Writer of the Year in 2011 and 2012.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator living in Anchorage, Alaska. Her translations of stories by Kozlov and others have appeared in Tin House, AGNI Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cafe Irreal, and two anthologies of Russian writing. She is currently seeking a publisher for her translation of Kozlov’s novel USSR.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 18th, 2012.