No matter who is in charge of the Kremlin, Trofim Isolevich Klorofil is always alone with his books and papers.
He’s entering a cursed phase when he is losing touch with that mental card catalog by which he memorized where a book was in his library. Dreams intersect with reality to conspire in moving books from place to place in his mind or disappearing them altogether. Also nagging Trofim is the old suspicion, never far from the KGB man’s mind, that members of Snobnev’s cult in the Security Service are rifling through Trofim’s possessions every so often, whenever Trofim leaves his house to go abroad, to go to the market for apples, to go for a half hour’s walk. Trofim used to do it himself all over the globe, mastering someone else’s schedule, slipping into that person’s home when they were gone, focusing on some paper or piece of information hidden away amongst their belongings. In his KGB days they used to bring a Polaroid camera to photograph clusters of objects before disturbing them to search for the prize, so that they knew exactly how to reorder the universe before they left again in several hours, minutes, quanta of suspended time…
As a kind of mutual, well-earned grace, Trofim lets Snobnev know when he’s leaving the area and Snobnev lets Trofim know he’s still under surveillance. Snobnev was a colleague from the old days but one who stayed closer in his orbit to Moscow and the levers or power than Trofim did. Snobnev gives advice and counsel to Trofim but Trofim never shakes the feeling that his own doom lays within Snobnev’s hands. Trofim’s son Yevgeni has dealings with Snobnev, meets with the old man for sometimes quite explicit orders although on paper Snobnev is as retired from active life as Trofim is supposed to be. On paper. Meaning in falsity: the paper universe is counterfeit.
Yevgeni on what is no doubt a secret mission to meet with Snobnev comes to Trofim’s dacha in Lithuania with his new girlfriend Carmen for the weekend. Snobnev is waiting like a trapdoor spider in Vilnius for a meeting with the boy, Trofim knows. Trofim can sense tension in the environment surrounding Snobnev, tension that his son is implicated in. Something operational is happening that is being kept from Trofim like an ominous cancer diagnosis kept from an old grandmother the family doesn’t want to trouble.
The boy shows up with his dull anonymous SUV and his flashy girlfriend from Uruguay or Colombia, Trofim can’t remember. She comes in the door with enough luggage to stay a month on Pandetaria. She hugs Trofim with an earthy, knowing embrace as though he were a beloved patriarch at her sister’s wedding, although they have only met once before, in Spain. More falsity. He can feel in her arms the muscles that must have choked the life out of many people. Through his own investigations he has discovered things about Carmen Anaranjado, her zigzag of (in his view) sloppy assassinations across the continents.
“I love your house, it reminds me of my father’s,” Carmen says in twittering Russian as she stalks around the entryway. Venezuelan. That’s it. She’s wearing a wine-colored velour tracksuit that probably costs as much as Trofim’s car, thick wedges that announce her with every footstep (a noise Trofim realizes with a sinking feeling he will need to get used to during her stay, a knocking noise throughout the precious silence of his home), chandelier earrings, a black t-shirt with an anime seductress on it, a Hello Kitty watch (signs of insouciance, a link to the times), a Louis Vuitton handbag, and a bright blue designer trucker’s cap that reads in English DEAL WITH IT. Her clothes were like the rocks that his ship was meant to dash itself against.
She wants to be taken on a tour of his house. Trofim is waiting for Yevgeni to take the lead in this distasteful task, but no, the son stands by and makes the father lead her about and listen to her loud cooing like a dove at every room. They make it to the kitchen where Trofim finally feels like it is appropriate to switch into Spanish; he politely transitions into her language, not revealing that he can’t bear the sounds of her voice in Russian.
“Who cooks for you?” Carmen asks, peering around the kitchen, the pots and pans hanging from a frame overhead. “I can’t believe you do it for yourself.”
“I have someone.”
“So you admit it.”
He gestures as if giving up a point without betraying any pain although there is some there that Carmen may detect, may be trying to pry out. A sharp hole to haunt.
“Is she your girlfriend?”
“You’re not married.”
“I was. Yevgeni’s mother. She passed away some time ago. I have not married since.”
“You should get married,” Carmen says, eyeing him. “It’s not right for a man to be all alone in a house.”
“I have visitors. I like to be alone.”
“My son visits me, and brings colorful guests.”
She snorts a little laughter. Unbruised.
“I should cook for you tonight,” Carmen says.
“If that’s Yevgeni’s plan.”
“I’ll make it the plan. I insist.” She starts looking through his kitchen and pantry. She’s pushy and she owns it. He stands back and watches her. He thinks about the first time he met her, he doesn’t know if she remembers. Granada, Spain. Trofim and Yevgeni on vacation. Yevgeni didn’t introduce Carmen Anaranjado as anything formal; he never has. Carmen made it a point to melt into the Spanish culture in the presence of the two Klorofil men, to be a part of the scenery. Trying to prove a point, that she could blend in anywhere, embody the Spanish sights and sounds like a zealous tour guide putting tourists in their place, but she did not know that Trofim had been all over the world, was a tourist nowhere. Carmen tried to dance the flamenco, tried to enter the performance space at a nightclub where everybody gathered to watch but Trofim had seen her superior in dancing and sex all over the globe, across the years in many quiet combat zones. The whole globe was a combat zone in Trofim’s time. The romance of the KGB man stalking people in Granada, in Rio de Janeiro, in Cairo, collecting agents like Dracula collecting other children of the night, spawned by him. Bound by extortion, forgery, blackmail, a host of crimes, feeding off the dark hemoglobin of espionage. Granada had been a tug of war in cultures, Carmen claimed it by inserting herself in the flamenco, a field of Latin fire; he the observer, the observer still plays the game, has two hands on the rope, the dancer holds the other end, machine gun heels, the explosions of energy and defiant grand gestures in a traditional space, only to be undone when Trofim clapped a knowing hand on the shoulder of the resident Spaniard-in-charge and they seemed to know each other, Trofim was at ease and she saw. It undid her because it was her task, her game to show she was more acclimatized. It was a childish foolish thing, he imagined, like when she must have grabbed the guitar as a little girl and pretended to play and the cousins ignored her. She hated to be ignored, he could tell both from Granada and from his kitchen where she sorted through spices that Yulia the housekeeper had left there.
Yevgeni drifted in, still with his jacket on, didn’t offer Carmen a drink, and said he needed to go out for a couple hours. To meet Snobnev no doubt, in Vilnius, forty minutes away. Yevgeni might as well not be there, he’s so powerless in the face of his girlfriend and his father. He knows she will act out, when she dances, when she tries to talk tough, portray herself as a vicious operator.
A contest of unspoken evil begins when Yevgeni leaves. Carmen might win because Trofim has lately felt the silhouette of God, if not God, cast upon him. Over coffee or cognac in the living room she’ll break and tell him the stories of murder in Mexico City, trying to impress him. She’s never really affected policy, though, in the great game. She’s a pawn, self-starting though she may be.
She’s stared into the faces of those she killed. Trofim has watched his evil play out in worse places than that, and understood it, like on the front pages of international newspapers, the mysterious drift of events that he has set into motion. Death is beyond revocation. Hers was in close quarters, in the backs of limousines or in alleys or back rooms. Favelas. She’s a murderer of men, he’s a murderer of the spirit of the times. Of history. Evil writ large, yet oozing from secret places.
Over a light dinner she put together, sitting at opposing ends of a long table, he talks about Yevgeni as a boy.
“What was his brother’s name again?” she asks.
“Stanislaw,” Trofim says. The food is spicy, was she trying to subdue him? But he disassociates from the tastebuds under fire. “He and his brother were always playing games.”
“Yes, Yevgeni is a player. Maybe he takes after his father.” It’s flirtation, hinting perhaps inexpertly at sex that can never happen. Flirting with other family members seems to be a role she has fastened onto, her flirtation a kind of sequence amongst men, like the tapeworm that turns the stickleback white so it can be visible to predatory birds and eaten, the bird its next intended host.
“Did Yevgeni have a lot of girlfriends?” Carmen asks.
“No. He was a solitary boy for a long time.”
“Did you ever, you know,” Carmen says. She’s grinning and scrunching up her shoulders, signifying something salacious.
“I don’t know what you mean, speak up.”
“Did you ever—“ (blushing false) “—take him somewhere, to learn to be a man? Like to a prostitutki? Some fathers do that. It happens in Venezuela.”
Trofim thinks for a second. “Yes, there was one time. We were in India. The lady had one leg but was twice as expensive.”
“It is not true.”
“I don’t know how he ‘became a man,’ that’s a question for him. What do you take me for, an evil father?”
“An evil gentleman.” She drinks from her wine.
“Do you want to see evil? Do you really want to see something really evil?”
He says nothing, just stands up and wipes his lips with the napkin, gestures for her to follow him. She brings her wine glass. She leaves her DEAL WITH IT hat.
They go out the back door, towards the white barn that holds his workshop. He looks at her to gauge how ready she is for this. She gives an excited gaze back—is it some kind of artwork he’s working on, a sculpture? They are playing, and it is exactly what she wants.
They come into the darkened barn and he turns on the switch. Banks of fluorescent lights come on, they have been positioned over a wide table. Train tracks. Model trains. Mischief on her face falls into confusion.
In one corner of the table is the Umschlagplatz near the Warsaw Ghetto, where trains are being loaded with people, then to be taken several dozens of not-to-scale miles to the death camp in Sobibor Forest. Little cottages of the Vorlager with gardens and barracks of Lager I and then the barbed wire fences and gun emplacements on top of towers. He has assiduously gathered the tiny figures to be the SS, the Ukrainian guards, and the Jews.
Time is frozen. It is a great day.
“It was a great day,” Trofim said. “October 14, 1943. There was an uprising. A Soviet soldier, Pechersky, had been taken prisoner and helped them plan the revolt. That’s him, there.” Trofim points to a tiny man running with hordes of other prisoners across a minefield, some figures lay broken next to detonating mines which Trofim has indicated with towers of black cotton, the smoke.
“Pechersky helped them plan to kill many of the SS, then they saw their chance and fled. Hundreds escaped the camp but were shot or died at the minefield. Many made it to the forest and some to safety.”
The figurines of the escaping Jews are running toward where Carmen stands at the edge of the table. She looks out over the whole of the model train set up.
“At first it was just the trains. I researched heavily. Then I wanted to do the escape. For Pechersky.”
She sets down her wineglass on the field the Jews ran across and bends down, at first he thinks to get a closer look but then unavoidably it is her behind pointed at him, that ass in wine-colored velour. She has shed her jacket and is just in the black designer t-shirt which is riding up and exposing her lumbar area, the dazzling coloration of the skin of the lower back. She’s standing sort of hip-shot and now putting her hands on his model to really lean forward and support herself in that position. A woman who may as well be at a pool table showing her ass to her opponent.
It was just part of the texture of the afternoon, nothing shocking, no threatening secrets to keep from any other figure in the triangle. She looks over her shoulder at him, smiling, turned on. Does the death camp do it for her?
Here time splits, tributaries of suffering action diverge, Trofim enraged yanks down the waist of her pants and underwear and whacks her ass hard with the slightly cupped hand he knows from many prior chastisements would make the loudest pop, starlings startled from their places in the rafters, she screams as she hugs the table tight, the mystery of pain that she wants to drink, wants to feel the nerves die, he spanks her hard on the same area of her backside ten or twelve times until she comes in a ragged shudder with tears ejecting from her eyes, crying out and knocking the fleeing Jews down, squashing them with her upper body, the two hundred foot woman like from some old horror movie…
Or he doesn’t touch her. Doesn’t spank her because that is what she wants, she wants to triumph over him by making him deal her out pain, she will control him with an invitation to degrade her on the altar of his train set of the Sobibor death camp. He looks at her and says, “Stand up. Stop putting it in my face.”
She straightens up and turns halfway to look at him like what are you talking about you dirty old man.
“I’m not going to tell you any anecdotes about my son because I don’t think you’ll be here long.”
“You love it,” Carmen says.
He reaches out not to hit her but to grab her wrist and jerk her away from the table.
“You don’t shock me,” Trofim says. “You’re an amateur at this.”
“I’ll tell him you made a pass at me.”
“It won’t matter to him. Unlike you and him, he knows me. You don’t know us, you don’t know anything. I bought him a woman once, remember?”
She jerks her arm away from him and rubs the wrist where he’d held her tight.
“Let’s just try to make it through the weekend,” she says. She looks at the wineglass that got spilled in the Schrödinger’s commotion, red wine soaking into the old mossy surface of the field with the now tossed aside escaping Jews.
“Your model is sick,” she says to him and goes out the door of the barn into the backyard.
He usually gets some variation on that reaction when he shows the model of Sobibor to people, which he very rarely does. It was a test, the Venezuelan assassin failed, and it was most instructive to see her stupid middle-class morality rear its ugly head after she’d been so clearly turned on by it. The first response is the most real.
He goes inside and sees that she’s retreated to Yevgeni’s room. He supposes a further bifurcation could take place where he seeks her out and torments her, shows her what real psychological torture is, measures the length of her evil against the limb of his own which he knows from long decades he can put on or take off like any tool. He knows he is good. He’s been meaning to talk to his son about the good that he feels pervading him, wants to tell Yevgeni about the beautiful light so he can leave monsters like this woman behind, as well as his twisted occupation. Trofim sits in his study surrounded by books and thinks about suicide bombers, sleeper cells, deep cover stay-behind agents dissembling before revolutionary courts-martial, people holding the good deep inside themselves, showing no trace or knowledge of it even under the most savage torture, the belief system of the deep cover operative infiltrating all enemy territory, even heaven.
— Jesse Hilson is a freelance newspaper reporter and cartoonist living in the Catskills in New York State. His writing has appeared in AZURE, Maudlin House, Pink Plastic House, The Daily Drunk, Misery Tourism, ExPat Press, DFL Lit, Orchid’s Lantern, and elsewhere. His comics have appeared or will appear in Misery Tourism, Bear Creek Gazette, and Excuse Me Mag. He can be reached on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com