SHORT STORY

Crawling Through Life, Tanks
by Emma Krasov

1.  After Lenin’s Death

     Lenin created Comintern to make the world revolution possible.  He died in January, right on Kim’s birthday.  Kim did not cry, because he was a communist, and he had just turned twenty-four.  Born in 1900, he felt like being an ambassador of the new century: an enthusiastic era of freedom, equality, and brotherhood of all the workers and peasants in the world. Kim was named after his grandfather who was Mongolian, or Korean, or Chinese—it did not matter since communists considered any ethnicity to be part of the dark past.  What mattered was one’s social class and political correctness.  Kim came from a class of peasants, which was not as good as coming from the workers, but at least not as bad as belonging to the “rotten intelligencia.”

     Later that year the Comintern honored Kim with an important mission.  He was sent to South America to educate and direct local communists.  Ancient intertribal conflict in the small jungle country had acquired a modern pastiche—hostile parties turned into “communists” and “separatists”.  The morning after Kim started working with his contact he found himself kneeling on a precipice over a jungle river.  A Mauser was pressed against his temple.

     “Who helped you?  Name him,” demanded the aborigine.  Kim whispered something and the Mauser returned to its owner’s loincloth.  The aborigine turned to leave, but suddenly pushed his victim off the precipice. Kim went straight down under water, then came to the surface and swam away.  His executioner shot after him once, but missed.

***

     Not far from the river, jungle yielded to highway.  On the side of the road, a short man in a derby hat moved as quickly as the occasional automobile.  The man was roller skating, carrying a cane and a shabby traveling bag.  Soon he reached the capital of the country, a dusty little town with crooked streets, and dropped into a bar.  The gramophone played a tango.  He looked around and noticed a novice, a fair-haired woman in a silvery dress.  Her laugh sounded like a crystal bell.  He graciously led her to dance.

     “I’m Ginger, from Chicago,” she said.  “Are you American too?”

     “Yeah.  My name is Friedman.  I used to impersonate Charlie Chaplin in L.A.  But business was slow.  I’ve been to five surrounding countries since then.  Now I’ve got a regular gig in this bar.  By the way, do you mind being adored by a strolling actor?  I’m poor.”

      Ginger laughed sweetly, “I love actors.  I would like to be a film actress.  My late husband was a capitalist, you know.  He left me some money.  Now communism sounds so exciting.  So I came here to see communists.”

     “I thought their nest was in Russia,” said Friedman.

     “Oh yes, I’d love to go to Russia, but my daughter Violet is only five.  She can’t travel that far and I have no relatives to leave her with.”

     After the tango, she turned to leave.  He caught her red-nailed fingers, and kissed them lightly, tickling her with his mustache.

***

     The next day Ginger and Violet, both fashionably dressed in low-waist outfits and straw hats, headed to the countryside.  There, local communists commandeered a small clay house into a Lenin museum.  A line of visitors formed at the gate.  It was hot and humid, people stood in line licking their lips and sweating.  Ginger felt dizzy.  She stepped in the shadow of the building, then timidly approached to peek inside.  There was a desk there with Lenin’s famous green lamp on it, and a tattered leather sofa, too.  Suddenly Ginger envisioned Lenin himself lying on the sofa in his military jacket.  His comrade-wife Nadezhda Krupskaya in a faded brown dress and horn-rimmed spectacles was lying side by side with him.  Ginger realized she was hallucinating.  She stepped back.  The heat became unbearable, making Violet cranky, so Ginger grabbed her daughter and left.

     It was late when Friedman was strolling back home after his nightly performance in the bar.  Fragrant night surrounded him with sights and sounds of splendid jungle greenery.  He approached his little hut and bumped into a guy who was trying to nestle into a heap of dry palm leaves by the clay wall.  Friedman fearlessly stared at the longhaired young Asian in dirty rags.  The guy looked like a teenager and was exhausted, hungry and desperate.  He begged for help and shelter in the actor’s hut.  Softhearted “Charlie Chaplin” let him in.  His name was Kim, and the local separatist government wanted him.  Friedman assured him that since governments change often in this part of the world, it was worthwhile to wait.  A new day could wipe out the separatists.

     “Until then you can stay here,” he said.

     “I lost connection with my contact person,” said Kim.  “He might already be dead.  I have to find a new contact.  Maybe I’ll have to come out in disguise.  Thanks for helping me, comrade.”

     They shared a bowl of rice and Kim fell asleep on the floor.  That is how the strolling actor Friedman befriended a Comintern agent.

***

     In the morning, the capital resounded with gunshots.  Two dented tanks moved across the square.  Fresh leaflets in a local dialect and peppered with exclamation points littered the ground.  Communists were in control again, and a group of separatists was taken to the Lenin museum to be executed by a firing squad.

     After noon, everything calmed down.  Ginger went to the market place much later than usual.  It was hot, noisy, and crowded.  Fresh crabs died by now, greens weathered, bananas browned.  She was lazily picking cured melon, when an Asian girl with a shopping basket attracted her attention.  The girl was thin and flat-chested.  Her long braided hair shone like a black sun.  At first, Ginger decided the girl was someone’s maid, but her demeanor was not like that of a servant.  She walked graciously, like a tigress.  Ginger watched her for awhile trying to figure out what was so disturbing about this strange creature.  Suddenly she decided that this girl could be a spy, an enemy of the new communist government.  She turned around and hurried to the central square.  A red banner waved above the two-story building.  She entered and stood in front of the local commissar who was sitting at his desk in a sweaty uniform.

     “Most likely I am mistaken,” she started awkwardly, “but this person was so strange-looking... this girl I just saw at the market place.  I know there are so many enemies around.  I just wanted to warn you.  It’s not like I am sure about it, but I am your supporter.  I support communists.”  The commissar watched her with blood-shot eyes, chin in hand.  He nodded doubtfully.

     That night Ginger had a date with Friedman.  She watched his performance at the bar and laughed.  He was charming.  She almost fell in love with him, although in general she preferred taller men.  Then they danced the tango again.  He was a great dancer being as short and light as a woman.  They moved so perfectly together that the bar owner put their drinks on the house for the night.  At dawn, when the bar was closed, Ginger refused to be taken home.  They just laughed and walked, and ended up at Friedman’s place.  Kim woke up to their loud drunken voices, and hurriedly hid in the pantry.  When they walked inside Ginger hugged and kissed Friedman right at the threshold.  She tried to take off her dress, but he pulled it up with both hands, aware of Kim’s presence somewhere in the dark room.  After a short tug-of-war, Ginger’s dress became all twisted and wrinkled.  Confused and embarrassed, she left.

***

     In the morning at the market place, she ran into the strange girl again.  Ginger decided to follow her and watch closely.  The girl suddenly turned around looking her straight in the eye.  Ginger smiled nervously, “Oh, I’m sorry to be in your way.  I couldn’t help noticing you for the second time here.  Are you new to the town?”

     The girl’s name was Kim.  She was just a traveler in this country all on her own, and so awfully charming and friendly.  Soon the two of them were shopping together.  They talked and laughed, peeled ripe bananas, and tried coconut milk. Kim was stronger than Ginger, so she helped her to bring her purchases home.  They agreed to shop together again.  In a few days, they became inseparable.  Walking in the jungle with her new friend, Ginger was overcome with unusual attraction to this exotic female.  She lowered her voice and asked nervously, “Have you ever kissed a woman, Kim?”

     Kim thought about it for a moment, then pulled up his disguising skirt.  Ginger laughed so hard, that she fell on the grass, pulling Kim along.  They made love in the middle of the emerald greenery.  Sunlight sifting through the light and dark leaves above them was gleaming on Kim’s long black hair.  Ginger’s short blond curls jumped up and down like golden shavings covering her cheekbones and revealing them again, tanned and rosy like flower petals.  The sun was high and white.  Then it changed its angle and became low and golden.  Thousands of tiny shadows crossed the shimmering light.  Glossy leaves reflected every movement.  Ginger could not stop caressing her wonderful lover.  Suddenly she remembered her report to the authorities, and started crying.

     Kim listened to her confession silently.  He stood up, put on his drag outfit and left, brushing against hard and soft branches on his way.  Ginger ran after him.  In her grief, she did not notice that he walked straight into Friedman’s house.  She followed him crying and begging forgiveness.  They reconciled inside the cool clay hut laughing, crying and kissing each other like crazy.  The sumptuous jungle sunset shone in a small dirty window behind their backs.

***

     On his day off, Friedman borrowed a car from the bar owner and took Ginger and Violet for a joyride.  Communists were patrolling the city.  Two dented tanks lumbered around the central square.  A group of local tramps, suspected in helping separatists, was escorted to the red-bannered building for a quick trial.  Suddenly a skirmish erupted nearby.  After the first gunshots rang, the joy riders left the car and fled the square.  The fight continued all day and the following night.  Separatists took over at dawn.  They walked through the city knocking at doors.  They took half-dressed men out of their homes and escorted them to the Lenin museum for execution.  The museum was badly vandalized—walls spotted with dirt and burn marks, the front yard stained with urine.  Gunfire resounded throughout the city.  Two tanks continued prowling the streets, but now separatists were doing the steering.

     Kim disappeared from Friedman’s hut without any explanations.  A series of explosions and arsons erupted in the town, turning it into a deserted ruin.  The separatist leader was riding around in the bar owner’s car with a green-orange national banner attached to the spare wheel on the back.

     One morning a bomb killed him, strangely causing very little harm to the car.  Power automatically passed to the communists.  The red banner returned to the roof of the official building.  Kim showed up at Friedman’s hut at the end of the day.  Friedman, Ginger, and Violet were sitting around the table, for the hundredth time discussing where he could be.  Glancing at the door, and seeing Kim there as dirty and exhausted as a stray cat, Ginger screamed and ran to him to hug and hold him tight.  Kim gently took her hands off his neck and sat by the table.  Ginger cried and hugged him while he gulped his rice.

     Through the day different groups of separatists and their supporters were shot in front of the Lenin museum.  The reconstruction started immediately after.  The wounded commissar in a bloodstained bandage supervised it, fighting his dizziness.  He approved the newly arrived plush sofa seized from the separatists, a substitute for the leather one that vanished from the museum.  The portrait of Lenin was gone, too.  An obscenity marked its place on the wall.  Commissar thoughtfully looked around.  Then he picked up a brochure, and tore out a portrait of Karl Marx.  Overcome with giddiness, he took scissors and cut off Marx’s long locks.  Then he shortened Marx’s beard and wedge-shaped it.  He sighed, and painstakingly wrote LENINA under the cropped Marx portrait, adding an extra letter to Lenin’s name, perhaps just out of delirium.  He looked at his work with satisfaction, and proudly glued it to the wall.

***

     Late that night an urgent council meeting took place at Friedman’s hut.  Kim was restless.  Communists were at power again, but the commissar did not know how Kim’s solo-terrorist acts helped to gain victory.  All his contacts were dead.  Somewhere in the commissar’s desk, Ginger’s report on him was filed.  Should he show up, the trial would be quick and unjust.  He did not think it was wrong.  In war circumstances communists were supposed to act fast.  It is just that he was not ready to die.  Kim decided to leave and get back to Moscow.  He would report to Comintern.  They would send him somewhere else.  Ginger cried on his shoulder like a little girl.  But he made his decision.

     Next morning they all drove in the bar owner’s dented car to the state border deep in the jungle.  Kim shook Friedman’s hand, kissed Ginger and Violet, and crossed the border marked with green and orange lines on tree trunks.  He continued walking through the same jungle in the direction of the same highway, only in a different, capitalist country, not yet touched by progressive movements.  “The victory of the world revolution is unavoidable,” said Lenin in one of his famous speeches.  So one day all these countries shall become communist under the power of workers and peasants.  This thought made Kim march merrier ahead.  Sunspots ran over his shiny black hair.  Friedman’s roller skates hung over his shoulder.  He will put them on once he reaches the highway.  In the next capital, he will find out about the ship.  He touched Ginger’s gift in his pocket, a tiny silvery purse filled with rolled up bank notes.  A long, long trip to Moscow lay ahead.

     They sat silently in the car.  Then Ginger said, “I have to go, too.  I have to follow him.  He does not want it now, but he will later.  He does not realize that he needs me.  I want to be there for him when he will look for me.  Do you understand?”

     “Yeah,” said Friedman looking aside, both hands on the steering wheel.

     “We will be happy there, Kim and I.”

     “And if not?”

     “If not, then I’ll come back.  I’ll find you both and we’ll live together.  Right, baby?”

     “Right, Mom,” said Violet, absorbed with the actor’s watch on a thick faux silver chain.  “We’ll be waiting for you...”

 

2. After Stalin’s Death

     ...After Stalin’s death in 1953, among the political prisoners set free from the zone, there was an old stooped Asian, dry and wrinkled as a mummy, with gray bristle on his cheeks.  His guard teased him, “Say American spy, how did you survive a twenty-five years sentence?  You are one year short, right?  Aren’t you lucky, that the Master died?”  The old man just grinned, not a single tooth left in his gums.  The guard opened the gate and continued, “I remember the accomplice in your case.  That Hollywood blonde.  If you hadn’t dragged her along they never would have exposed you.  Women.  Bitches!  They are killing us.  You stupid American spy.  But she paid her price.  It’s been like twenty years since she bit the dust.  See that cellblock?  Right there.  ‘Of heart failure’ if you know what I mean.”

     The prisoner stood beyond the gate frozen under the blazing sun.

 END

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