Notes from Old Nevsky Prospect
© Copyright 2018 by Diane Martin
Achieving my life long dream of moving to St. Petersburg, Russia, I learned first hand that Dostoyevsky was as pertinent as ever. This piece of creative nonfiction pays homage to his story, Notes From the Underground. It was first published in 2017 in Open: Journal of Arts and Letters.
Poor Ulichka. I could not imagine the cause of her lack of appetite, lack of feces, and overall strange behavior. I supposed that the constant whining, dragging her behind on the floor and need for stroking and attention were symptomatic of a urinary tract infection, a speculation encouraged by a self-appointed pet specialist in Colorado. When I discovered nasty, half-inch long, plump, beige worms on the Chinese wool rug, I remembered that I had been instructed to worm the cat prophylactically at eight months. She was now a year old. Oy, Gospodi! Guilty again in the eyes of God and woman, especially woman. I began grape vining, asking all and sundry, including vets and pet store workers on my special forays to more distant neighborhoods, as there was no such thing as a reliable phone book here in St. Petersburg. I found the address of my nearest veterinarian in the usual way: after days of inquiry met with ingenuous replies, “Can’t imagine,” or “God only knows,” I hit upon a rational woman in a pet store, who promptly snapped “Kolomenskaya 45, of course,” as if I were deliberately obtuse for my ignorance of this fact.
During a tussle involving some frightful, bloody scratches to my arms and chest, I managed to stuff Ulya into her despised cat bag, zipping and velcroing it, while wrestling with her panicky lurches. Then the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law with the standard depressing financial news, including messages from my daughter’s College Financial Aid Office in Boston, cat advice, and concern about my latest adventures in the medical skin trade. It was kitten’s play for Ulya to free herself during my chat, while my attention was diverted.
Managing to catch the animal again, trusting, flat-faced, round-eyed Persian inbred that she is—something I never could have done with my streetwise San Francisco rescue cats—we repeated the stuffing exercise. I did not buy or even choose this pedigreed cat. She arrived in a basket one day on a train from Minsk, a gift from an old friend who, having lost her job as a music teacher, was now raising Persian kittens for sale in her miniscule one room apartment. The new Russia was intent on adopting every ridiculous, bourgeois fad it had missed during Soviet years. I was now a bloody mess, but the cat was in the bag with my hand firmly on the flimsy Velcro easy-egress flap. We found Kolomenskaya 45 after a 45-minute walk, Ulya quietly bouncing against my hip once we were out on the noisy streets. Too late, office hours over. Two days on, the exercise was repeated, and we were admitted after a short but stressful wait amid numerous nervous dogs in a long, narrow corridor, the worse for wear.
The young female vet was poker-facedly amused by my urinary tract theory. “She was in heat. Never seen a cat in heat in America? She needs children, poor thing. So, you show her? No? You should. When you decide to do so, you must clip the wispy hair from here (her ears), here (her tail), and so on. Then you must breed her. She could be a champion.”
“How would you like that, Ulichka?” I asked her in Russian. Ulya stuck out her tongue at me. “I see. Not much,” directing my comment to the vet.
Briskly ignoring me, the doctor instructed, “Give her Drental for the worms, which she certainly has, and the fleas, which she certainly has had. It’s not easy to obtain just now, nor is it cheap. Wrap the tablet in soft toilet paper and dip it in honey or sugar or jam and force it down her throat with your fingers, but not so far that she gags. Look in pet supply stores and pharmacies, most of which now have a veterinary section. That will be 31 rubles. Pay at the cashier,” she pointed, handing me a hand scribbled scrap of paper.
Never had I come across a pharmacy with a veterinary section, and I was a frequent pharmacy habitué. Three days into my search, I went to my usual pet supply shop on Vladimirsky Prospect. It was closed for “technical reasons,” the post-Soviet catch-all for any or no reason, including, but not limited to gone fishing, or a death in the family, or burst pipes, or a hangover.
The toilet paper wrap seemed superfluous to me, but the medication was indeed expensive, so I decided to follow directions. I dipped it in fruit-flavored yogurt, to which Ulya was partial, and forced it down her throat. She expelled it, biting my hand for good measure. Undeterred, I seized the moment of frenzy, as well as the capsule, repeating the procedure, this time firmly holding her head back until she choked it down. Victory, of a sort, although she was angry, refusing to acknowledge my subsequent soothing overtures.
Meanwhile, the fat, wriggling, flesh-colored worms persisted, invading in ever-increasing numbers. The vet had pooh-poohed my speculation that such huge monsters could be emanating from my cat, and I began to believe her. When I lifted the wool rug in the bedroom, only to find hundreds of the slimy, shimmering, disgusting creatures, I dropped it in fright, recoiling and swallowing my gorge. Reluctantly, with finger and thumb, I lifted the edge of the Moldovan wool carpet in the living/dining room. Same scene.
Ulya, on the other hand, was more animated than I had seen her in some time, batting the filth around as if presented with rewarding new toys. I had a medicinal glass of wine, and called Linda, my Colorado consultant. “Only on and under the wool rugs? Yes? Moth worms. Definitely. Get some mothballs, if such things exist in Russia. The mentholatum will go straight to your liver, but hey, what can you do?”
All right, my mission now included mothballs and disposable vacuum cleaner bags, neither readily available. My heartburn and the summer heat now both noticeably pronounced, I popped a Zantac, which I had hoarded from a previous life, as well as a Mestinon, two Trazedone, and two migraine tablets, gingerly turning back the bedclothes of my bed. No unwanted company there yet. To sleep, perchance to dream; the morning is wiser than the night. I clung to clichés.
Trazedone had the Janus-faced effect of putting me out for 12 hours, awakening at 4:30 pm, not, alas, on the seagoing, teak furnished yacht of my dream, but in my maggot-humming apartment on upper Nevsky Prospect. The infestation was in full, hypnotic swing. No sooner would the vacuum suck them up than the parquet floors, not to mention the rugs, the bedspread, and the traditional Russian wool shawl decorating the table was crawling with them again. My back objected riotously from all the bending, and I was hungry. Unable to bear the thought of sitting or eating on the premises, I merely gulped down some kefir direct from its plastic container while standing at the open refrigerator.
In my favorite, adopted city, I strolled sublimely along the Fontanka River with my camera, meandering back along Kolokolnaya St., where I stopped into Blinnyi Domik cafe, drank a beer, and wrote these notes until closing time. Finally, too dark and late to avoid braving the drug-addicts and homeless folk slumped or stretched out on my stairwell, I put my Nikon inside a plastic bag, then both inside a string bag, and headed for home. A challenge, as I never knew what I would find. Fingering the little flashlight in my pocket, I entered from Nevsky Prospect. I had given up replacing light bulbs in my stairwell; other tenants stole them faster than I could stock up. Once the previous December, I had returned late from my teaching job on S—Embankment to find a woman sprawled across the third and fourth stairs of the ground floor steps. Ostensibly oblivious to the subzero temperature, she was snoring off her stupor, naked as birth except for a wool cap. This had posed a significant problem for me, as my muscle disease prevents me from climbing steep stairs, or, as in this case, climbing two to get over a body. I had had to interfere with her placement of limbs, though she didn’t seem to mind. I had minded, however.
At 1:00 am, the phone rang. A woman’s voice. “Hello, do you live in apartment 32? Yes, what is your name?”
“Oh, my apologies, my name is Lyudmila Leonidovna. I’m calling about the old lady who lives above you. I’m responsible for her…I’m supposed to come by and check in on her, but I haven’t been able to come lately. Have you heard any noises in the past couple weeks?”
“What kinds of noises?”
“Footsteps or…loud noises, someone falling…”
“I’ve heard not a sound, but if you are responsible for her, perhaps you’d better check for yourself.”
“Oh, I will, of course, it’s just that I’ve been at the dacha. You see, she has no one but me, her apartment will come to me when she’s gone, that’s our arrangement, so…maybe you would call me if you do hear anything untoward.”
“All right. Give me your number, but I really think…oh, by the way, I have the most terrible worm infestation. Do you happen to know if the lady has had any problems with worms?”
“Not that I know of. Probably woodworms. Yes, undoubtedly. They come out of the parquet when it’s hot. It’s been so hot lately. I’m sure that’s your problem.”
“I’ll look into it. Goodnight.”
The infestation worse than ever, I vacuumed round robin until 3:00 am, at which time my downstairs neighbor rang my bell. Shouting through the locked door that I was sorry, and would cease for the night, I packed up the vacuum bags, alive with vermin, put them inside additional plastic bags, and braved the dark staircase with my flashlight. I had stopped answering the doorbell, as the stairwell transients had taken to ringing it at all hours to ask for water. Initially, pity had motivated me to fill bottles for them; word got around, and shortly, the line became an anschlag. If I failed to answer, they moved on to other tenants, usually to be further rebuffed. Eventually, we had established something of a system. Sometimes, but not always, before I retired for the night, or after I awoke, or was on my way out, I would fill a few plastic bottles with water, leaving them on the landing outside my door. After all, tap water did not seem like much to ask, and there but for the grace, etc. In exchange, I hoped they would not pee or do worse on my threshold.
The following afternoon, my friends Bella and Georgy found me furiously losing the vacuuming battle. Bella’s reaction to my predicament reminded me how squeamish I too had been only two days previously. Now, I was almost inured to the horror, proving Dostoevsky right, once again: a person can get used to anything. I had given up almost all other activities in my determination to rid myself of The Worm.
My friends, on the other hand, were fresh recruits, taking a more analytical approach. Following much speculation on the nature of the beasts and their source, Georgy, a biochemist, took matters in hand. Locating a free advertisement circular, he called exterminators until he hit upon one who agreed to stray from its usual roach and rodent routine, and come to my rescue that same day.
Perky, blue-haired Kristina arrived promptly, as promised, armed with a no-nonsense spray canister. Donning what looked remarkably like a WWI gas mask, and turning her head with a jerk, she set straight to her work without warning. Protesting, I stuffed Ulya unceremoniously into the cat bag and closed her between the old summer and winter dual windows until I was able to assess the situation and devise a plan of action. Naturally, the cat was out of her bag in a trice—clearly, I needed more reliable gear—though, at least she was sequestered for the moment. Bella, Georgy, and I were hastily moving furniture, rolling rugs, and cramming the fridge with dry goods while Kristina sprayed with abandon. Bella nervously remarked that we didn’t have the protection of masks, eliciting a curt, “Don’t worry about it,” from the efficient exterminator.
When I began to feel headachy and dizzy, I announced that I was going to the bank, thereby forestalling argument, and went, as well, in search of disposable masks. I remembered having noticed them in one of my pharmacies. My search proved unsuccessful, except that it did get me out of the toxic environment for 20 minutes. Georgy later said that disposable masks wouldn’t have done us any good anyway. Exposed to harmful chemicals at work on a daily basis, he is given milk to drink routinely, as an antidote to the poisons he encounters. About as much good as a glass of milk, he opined wryly.
After Kristina had completed her toxic task, she ordered us to vacate my apartment for at least three hours. I was unconvinced by this better late than never logic and said so. Blue Hair, collecting her rather exorbitant 500-ruble fee, gave me a Slavic shrug, still in her gas mask, and tripped down the stairs, avoiding new piles of excrement and fish heads with alacrity. Rather than traumatize my kitty any further, I allowed myself to be convinced to leave her locked in the window casement. I wearily protested that I feared she would rip off the improvised screen I’d thumbtacked over the fortochka, a small pane opening separately at the window top that prevents inhabitants from suffocating in both summer and winter, and jump out the third story window to her death, at best, or be lost to street life at worst. It did not take much persuasion to overrule my feeble anxiety, as by then, I felt quite nauseous.
Treating my friends to beer and a boat ride along the rivers and canals neatly killed three hours. Lingering over a fierce sunset filtering through the graceful iron tracery of River Moika bridge railings, I asked Bella if she ever became indifferent to “all of this.”
“All of this what?”
“This,” I swept the horizon with my arm. “This magnificence.”
“Then why do you want to emigrate?”
“The New World. We are practical people, not romantics, like you. We can’t eat poetry.”
So, it was like that, was it? After thanking them somewhat stiffly for their assistance, we went our separate ways. When I returned home, making as much noise as I decently could while climbing the stairs to alert the audibly fornicating pair on the second landing, and carefully sidestepping used needles on my way up, I unlocked, and then closed my door quickly, pinning it shut in relief with my back. Flooding the room with light, my eyes lit on the swarming window casements. Yes, literally crawling. Maggot corpses strewed the floor, but the space between the windows was alive with hundreds more. I freed Ulya, who was frantic, into the poisonous room, removing the hideous creatures from her fur. To hell with it. I opened all the windows onto the courtyard, letting the corruption escape into the wide world.
The phone rang before I could feed her, or pour myself a glass of egregious Aligoté wine. “Lyudmila Leonidovna here. I’m back from the dacha, and wondering if you have heard any noises from above. What do you think, should I come over and check on my old lady? I wouldn’t want it said that I neglected her.”
“I think you should do just that,” barked I. “I haven’t heard so much as a thud. Furthermore, my maggot infestation is worse than ever. I have had the exterminator in, but it just continues, and they seem to be coming in through the windows. I can’t help but wonder if they are coming from the apartment above, where your charge lives.”
Her tone cautious now, more formal, Lyudmila Leonidovna bristles, “I can’t imagine what you are insinuating. You have woodworms. Are you trying to get me to pay for the extermination? Well, I won’t. Your worms aren’t my responsibility. Goodnight.”
“But…” I wanted to add that I intended to call the police the following morning. She had hung up. And, so I would do. Enough pestilence!
In the event, the police awakened me with a rap at my door before I was out of bed the next morning. Perceiving a good deal of uniformed activity beyond the officer, I began to question him, but he turned the tables. “Have you been troubled by worms lately?”
I recounted my adventures to date, including my conversations with the nominal caretaker. “What’s happened? Is it the woman upstairs?” I asked, craning my neck to see around him.
“Never mind,” he puffed himself up to block my view, “it’s none of your affair. Stay inside your apartment for the next half hour.”
“It certainly is my affair,” I countered, “from a health and safety standpoint. The woman is dead, isn’t she? Will the building be fumigated?”
“Open your outside windows. Soon it will be all over.” He closed my door, going about his business.
Not about to be so summarily dismissed, I opened my door again in time to see two men carrying a stretcher with a sheet clumsily thrown over a large, lumpy form. As they negotiated the corner on my landing, something slimy, an organ of some sort, slipped out onto the stair. Undeterred, they bumped down the narrow staircase. I wasn’t the only tenant disobeying orders; most doors were cracked open. The slime, with its attendant wriggling cargo, lingered. A face in shadow behind her door muttered, “Disgraceful. Now we’ll all be overrun with them. In Soviet times, the Department of Sanitation would have come and cleaned up, fumigated. We don’t even have that service anymore.” She made a stage spitting sound.
Closing the indoor windows in the casing tightly, I vacuumed new intruders, shut the curtains tightly, inspected my bed, and crawled back under the covers with Ulya. It was really too much.
of Wet Rain
Two days prior to the ensuing events, I had bought a sturdy, new, sky blue umbrella, and hooked it on the balustrade while I was fumbling with my door lock with one hand, and holding a heavy bag of groceries with the other. During the scant moments when I deposited the food purchases on the kitchen drain board, the umbrella had been snatched. Today, sans umbrella, I descended the dark staircase, avoiding the still extant stain where a portion of my neighbor had been unceremoniously splattered, as well as a typical corner pile of human excrement, haphazardly covered by a sheet of newspaper.
On the second landing, a streak of lightning lit the broken windowpane overlooking the building’s “well” of a courtyard. As shards of rain assailed the earth, accompanied by sallies of thunder, one of the grimy, homeless men who had set up camp on a squalid mattress against the far wall stood up, walking unsteadily to the center of the enclosure. He raised his hands and face to the heavens, grinned, and began scrubbing the dirt off his face, smoothing back his hair, getting soaked. Within seconds, I was focusing the telephoto lens of my camera discreetly through the broken glass. The man sensed rather than saw my voyeurism, ceased his ablutions, and looked directly into my lens, not retreating, merely confronting me with what seemed like his last vestiges of dignity. Shamefully withdrawing my camera, I returned it to its case, careful to secure the waterproof shield, and continued down, cane in one hand, railing in the other, sighing regretfully. One that had got away.
G—Street would have provided me with a quicker, more direct route to my destination, but getting to it involved passing the soaked mattress with its huddling homeless. Furthermore, I was not at all sure I was up to running the gauntlet of criminals, drunks, and addicts clinging to the fringes of Moscow Station farther along. Instead, I covered the few soggy paces to our Nevsky Prospect entrance, teetered on the plywood board tossed over crumbling stairs in the corridor, and was arrested by the sight of a small man in a threadbare suit carrying a vinyl briefcase, who was peeing full stream against the caretaker’s padded door. In slight trepidation, given the possibility that he would turn his aim to me, my annoyance nonetheless bubbled over. “People live there, you know?” pointing my cane for emphasis at the door. The stream was, apparently, unending. The new passion for outdoor beer drinking had its downsides. Fortunately, the little man revolved only his head in my direction, unperturbed, continuing without acknowledgement of any kind. “Someone might open her door. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Nothing. It gushed until it was abruptly turned off, like the fountains at Peterhof. Rather bravely, I felt, I edged past him huffily into the bustling, sloshing street.
The rain eased for the first few blocks of my walk down Nevsky, lulling me into a dubious notion that I might make it to the French Cultural Center before a renewed onslaught, and prompting me to remove my raincoat, which had become disagreeably steamy. Of course not. Just as I was admiring the fourth horse at the end of Anichkov Bridge, this one at last, fully tamed, heaven’s great bucket tilted, pouring a deluge the likes of which I had never experienced. Some Bastille Day. By the time I had nearly reached the garden gates of the palace where a concert of French chansons a la Piaf, Aznavour, and the ever-popular Mireille Mathieu was to be held, I was as drowned as submerged seaweed. My feet dredged ankle deep water; my ruined sandals kept getting stuck in the mud beneath the wash of water. St. Petersburg’s intrepid audiences are used to navigating extremes of weather, so I was not alone. The same could not be said of the visiting performers, however, and the concert had been canceled, along with revolution inspiring fireworks.
The rain persisted in biblical proportions. Dripping profusely, I popped into a basement shop to buy a bottle of wine. Comfort most certainly would be needed later that night. Pickins were slim; the only offering drier than sickly sweet Kagor was Isabella, still too sweet, but must needs make do. Next stop was the photo shop to drop off two rolls of film I had taken on my unsuccessful visa trip to London. After a week of hanging around, the Russian Embassy had declined my application, without explanation, as has become the procedure with all countries. (I had then repaired to Helsinki, where I had my one-year work visa in hand within 48 hours. No logic to it. As was the norm, 2+2=5.) Still, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the results of my photos, as they included an architectural stroll through Cambridge and an inadvertent tour of historically preserved sections of the WWII Underground, which, surely, I would never put myself through again, what with all the stairs and distance walking. Disappointingly and inexplicably, the business was “closed for technical reasons.” I dropped the films into the plastic bag containing the wine.
This time, I did slog up G—Street, tripping on the invisible, flooded, potholed pavement, and falling on the plastic bag just outside the arch leading to our courtyard. The wine bottle had broken, cutting my knees so that blood flowed. In my distress, I tossed the whole mess into our overflowing, open dumpster, forgetting the film.
Ordinarily not subscribing to Russian superstitions about illness-inducing drafts and wet hair, I succumbed, in this case, steeping myself in a hot bath, and tea in a teapot as soon as I was safely back indoors. Whether because of my chronic autoimmune diseases, or my drenching, I was soon a feverish ball of shivering flesh. I felt terribly weak, afraid of suffocating, and unable to care for myself. Yet, in this letting go, there was a liberating sense of independence. In this asphyxiating, asymmetrical room with the sloping floor, I was master, quintessentially, acutely alive in my discomfort. Moreover, though I was obliged to work in general, tomorrow was my day off. Timely.
The next morning, Armen showed up from Moscow, depositing his duffel bag inside the door without a by your leave. I was semi-engaged to Armen, though still uncertain of the wisdom of the arrangement. Moderately infatuated, desirous of a romantic partnership, I deluded myself as to the probable outcome, while he, although exercising near model behavior for nearly a year now, was more interested in another style of partnership having largely to do with American residency, I surmised. A self-published author, he tucked a block of twine-wrapped books under his arm after taking in my predicament, and promising to pick up a few necessities after delivering the books to various venues.
That evening, my flu come robustly into its own, and my Myasthenia Gravis exacerbated as a result, I dutifully ate Armen’s khashlama—at least he could cook—and returned to bed, from where I recounted my previous day’s incidents to him. Detecting my pronounced disappointment, my suitor offered to dumpster dive for my film. Appalled at the prospect of his pawing through the often restless garbage, I assured him that I would not expect another person to do something I would not do myself. This was definitely such a scenario. Alas, another one that got away.
As the evening wore on, I found Armen’s possibly insincere solicitude, constant proximity, television watching, and bad jokes intolerable. At the risk of appearing rude, I asked him to spend the night at his daughter’s apartment, not a distant walk, and anyway, the downpour had become a drizzle. No, I needed nothing but peace and quiet, thank you. Tomorrow was soon enough for reassessment.
“Leave me now, please, alone, wallowing in my pain. This is a good place to stop.”