Sebastian Pavlechenko was unemployed, with distinction. That his condition, entering its fifteenth month, did not worry the Professor (a capital “P” for “previous”) worried his wife, the still-lovely Garbine Pavlechenko, greatly.
They had met in an opium dream, glances snared in midmoment smoke. He had asked for a dance. She had said yes—on third attempt. He could not dance but it did not matter, and as she lost herself in his clumsy steps, she felt something shift deep within her, like a silent room rediscovering music.
They married the next day. Tradition dictated that the ceremony take place on the banks of the Volga; and so it did. As sole witness to holy matrimony stood Sebastian’s childhood friend Pudga, who in the expansion of his watchmaking business had grown prodigiously obese himself. Garbine’s parents were also present—a marvelous attempt on such short notice—but came too late. They left then as they had arrived: in haste, without a word.
Sebastian did not often think about his wife, not anymore. In fact, he had lately begun to notice that he did not think much about anything. Just earlier that very day, for example, during the sort of spring afternoon found on a poet’s page, Sebastian had found himself, quite suddenly, in his study. How had he gotten there? He could not say. His feet had carried him, yes, but what of the mind? He sought to consult the cranial creator but received no answer, an increasingly common occurrence. For Sebastian, a mathematician of some repute, these periods of amnesia (“fertilization”, one of his mentors had called it) once foretold imminent eureka. They spoke now of other sickness.
It was thus, without a thought in his head (and so much more the pity, for he had a large head, ideal for the storage of a great many thoughts), that Sebastian Pavlechenko left his apartment in the search of an answer. He did not know the question, not yet, but that there was one to be asked—and no one else clever enough to ask it—seemed to him quite self-evident.
He snuck out of the house an hour after dinner; Garbine would not comment on his absence if he returned before bedtime. Besides, she had of late developed an interest in documentaries—of the gory and ghoulish varieties—and they claimed her attention in the evenings. He sometimes wondered if she noticed he was gone at all, and as he closed the front door, muffling the tat-tat-tat of gunfire from their recently-purchased television within, he thought it unlikely.
The air was pleasant, cold. The carcass of the meatworking district (the last in Kalyazin, located rather unfortunately behind the house) welcomed Sebastian’s first step: calf blood and lye, leather and chlorine. He ignored it tonight.
He walked blind to the world. No purpose, no intention charted his course: to that task he assigned destiny. At the end of his home street he turned left; another left followed that street’s end; and a third left he took for good measure some time thereafter. At the completion of this circuitous route, the traversal of which left him short-winded, Sebastian Pavlechenko arrived, finally, at his destination.
The historical heartbeat of Kalyazin coursed through Ulitsa Karla Marksa’s northern end. A ragged median, brown grass not yet enervated by summer sun, split the motorway in two. Here and there squatted long buildings, their pink stone reduced to a dull grey under moonlight.
“Bad night to be wandering about, Sebastian.”
Already a man of a nervous nature, Sebastian Pavlechenko jumped in fright at the invisible voice. He whirled about to face his faceless assailant, fists clenched in violent parody.
Silence, and an empty street, greeted him.
“Up here, Sebastian. No, to your left—no, sorry, my left. Your right. Yes, you have the building. Now higher, top floor…there we go. Hello, Sebastian.”
The speaker, a handsome grey-haired man of near forty-five, extended a hand in greeting from his balcony towards Sebastian, who for his part stood quite bewildered on the opposite side of the road.
“Not one for idle chitchat, I take it? A wise choice in these times,” the man said, retracting the handshake with a congenial shrug. He wore nothing but a too-short raincoat, yellow striped with red. “Cigarette?”
“Yes,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko. His throat had gone dry and he licked his lips. A train horn blared in the distance.
“Do you have a lighter?” the man said.
“I do not smoke,” Sebastian Pavlechenko replied.
The man laughed. “A good day to start then,” he said and threw onto the sidewalk below a cigarette and a match.
Sebastian crossed the street—looking both ways as he did so—and picked them up. He stood then under a bright light, very white, very fluorescent, and realized with a start all the other streetlights had gone out. Strange business, to be switched off so early.
“Oh, not so strange, I think. They take and they take until someone comes along, strong enough to stop them,” the man said. He had lit a cigarette himself and the smoke from its end drifted before him like a sluggish snake.
Sebastian Pavlechenko blinked. He looked upwards but was blinded by the light. Staggering two steps backwards he tried again, this time successfully. The man watched him with curiosity, and a smile.
“How did—how did you do that?” As he spoke, Sebastian Pavlechenko remembered the cigarette in his hand and with shaking hands struck the match. He inhaled tobacco smoke, coughed wretchedly.
“Careful, careful. That’s a Belomorkanal—strong stuff. Treat her like a lover, Sebastian,” the man said.
“No, how did you—how do you know my name?”
The man grinned at the question, leaning over the balcony’s railing like a jungle cat ready to pounce. “You don’t recognize your old friend, Sebastian? Aleksandr Ivanov,” he tapped his chest, “from St. Petersburg. You remember. We studied Lie groups together under that horrid woman…what was her name? Natalia Kovalevskaya, wasn’t it?”
Sebastian Pavlechenko could only nod. He remembered Natalia—the first woman he had met more mathematically gifted than him—but not the man he spoke to. “I am sorry but I can’t place your face,” he said. As if in apology, he drew heavily from his cigarette and was rewarded with another bout of coughing, worst than the first.
The man waved his arm. “We did not speak often. It’s not important anyway. Tell me, Sebastian,” he said, flinging his cigarette onto the street, “what troubles you so. I’m afraid we don’t have much time.”