Vladimir Savich      

 

                                               On the Peace Stool

 

 

By the time I came along into the world, my father had already graduated from a course at the local university and was working as an inspector in the .  To this day I dont have a clue what department it stands for. Something to do with speculators and embezzlers of government property.  I dont know whether my father was pleased about my birth, but it is a known fact that he didnt show up for my discharge from the hospital.  Three decades later, I didnt turn up at the hospital to pick my daughter up either.  Apparently it runs in the family.  But that doesnt mean I wasnt happy she was born.  On the contrary, I was thrilled. I adore my daughter. God bless her!

Enough already!  This isnt a story about love, its about music.  More precisely it deals with a guitar, a stool and perhaps life while were at it.  I leave it up to reader.  Ive got to get going with the tale.  So yeah, anyway, my father.  He was always busy in the service: busy investigating, catching gangsters, putting them behind bars, conducting raids, pickets, ambushes all called Operativka, operational work.  He was at it morning to night, sometimes all night.  I always thought of my father as a top secret spy, a cross between Richard Zorge and Nikolai Kuznetsov.  Our paths seldom came together.  At times I felt I loved my father, and sometimes Im afraid, though its terrible to say, I hated him.  Our relationship was like a thermometer in March.

Stop biting your nails.  Stop picking your nose. Concentrate. Shut up Ill tell you when to talk! That was the voice of the officer, heavy as lead.  The mercury fell down way below zero.

Chasing bitches, again, my mother cried, shaking the dry grass and pine needles from his coat.

What dyou mean? I spent the night in an ambush, came the quiet, tired voice of my father.

The word ambush, full of danger and terror, spoken in such a quiet tired voice sounded purely heroic.  I vividly imagined my father lying in a wet ravine waiting for bitches.  Bitches some gloomy unshaven guy wandering through the forest amid fallen trees in the night, swearing obscenely and plotting something wicked and vile, and then my father springing out, shouting, Gotcha, you bitch you! and landing on him, pinning him down, and taking him in under arrest to headquarters.  In such moments the mercury shot up.

Never did the thermometer go up so high as the time he got into his car accident.  Rumors were flying that on that day my father was chasing bitches, but I still believed the ambush version.  The doctor gave him only twenty-four hours.  But he survived and soon I was hearing once more, Stop biting your nails.  Stop picking your nose. The temperature went down to its lowest, and with it my regret the doctor was wrong, when I became a beatnik.  I even recall the words of my father regarding my new life.  Itd be better if you became a thief. What? Why? Because theres nothing about a hippie thats human.  Come on. Yeah, I mean it.  A guy should be handsome.  But whats a hippie?  Nothing but hair down to his knees, boogie-woogie and epileptic fits.  Whats it got to do with epilepsy? I asked.  Hey, Ive seen the way you guys dance. OK, I said, maybe theres nothing beautiful about hippies.  But they sure have a hot life! I exclaimed, rather pathetically, I know.  A man needs to live his life like Pavel Korchagin if he doesnt want to end up sick and wasted.  Korchagin, come off it hes a total has-been! Richie Blackmores the guy!  Just wait a couple of decades and  your children will be calling Blekmordov the has-been.

My father happened to be right about that one.  For my daughter, the new Pavel Korchagin is Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys.

I reminded my father of Eazy Dey Xer Nait, mangling the title of the Beatles song.  He blew up.  The thing is, hard, xer happens to mean dick in Russian.  And like all second generation men who have brains, my father despised crude jargon.  Wake up before its too late, boy. Or youre going to find yourself behind bars.

But I wasnt listening.  For our generation obeying ones elders was as old-fashioned as reading Ostrovsky, and I went on listening to Deep Purple and spending all my free time with my guitar, doing my best to sound like Richie Blackmore.

What the fuck, man! Do Blackmore, on that piece of shit of yours? cried Obodovsky, the top guitarist of our little town.  I was speechless. You wanna play Blackmore, you gotta have a StratakasterAnd old Obodovski pulled out of his crimson case a Fender Stratakaster. 

Timidly I asked, Can it be?

Un momento, he said and plugged the guitar into the amp.  My palms were sweating, my fingers shaking, my forehead was burning. I waited to come down a bit, touched the neck of the guitar and started playing Highway Star. Ill be damned if it didnt sound better than the original. 

I put down the guitar.  Obodovsky s eyes were popping out.  Holy shit, man!

How much is this piece of equipment? I asked, evading Obodovskys regard.  He named the amount: alas, it was the cost of a brand-new Lada.

So thats when I started building my own guitar.  I begged for some materials, stole others, bought some stuff, bartered for still others.  I even hung out around the cars as they were being unloaded at the local glue factory.  It was known as Syarilvka, Shit-shack, in the town, for it was a pile of slimey bones crawling with greasy larvae and a whole armada of nasty rats.  But I got the guitar going. I built the shell out of a huge chunk of cork tree, which I traded for a bottle of Stolichnaya at the village dump. (The vodka Id swiped from the family liquor cabinet.)  I traded in a porcelain statuette and got some branded pick-ups.  The figurine with my name engraved on it would come back to haunt me as I was interrogated by the porcelain maker Alexi Kuzkin.

Show me your diary, my father ordered .  For once hed returned early from work.

Whatever for?

I wanna know how youre doing in physics, he said. 

  Im doing OK in physics, I replied.

Why physics? my mother wanted to know. 

Because he builds his guitars out of broken public phone boxes.

Damn, I said. Alexi told me I could get branded  pick-ups.  I was cursing Alexi.

You bad bad boy! my mother yelled out.  How could you?

I couldnt make out what upset her more, the theft of our family statuette, the vodka or the three destroyed public telephones.

All right, my father said.  I want all this Beatlemania out of the house this minute!

I have legitimate right to house and property! I objected.

OK, I lay claim to my right as owner of this house, he retorted, closing in on my musical possessions.

You touch my stuff and Ill kill you, I swore, my blood seething.

Damn you, Makhno! Call the Japanese police! Youve had it, boy!  We Soviets brought Hitler to his knees, but for a beatnik like you a couple of smacksll do the job! my father cried, trampling my Dieperpoltsev cassette underfoot. The glass panels of the bookshelves rattled, and the plaster bust fell to the floor, breaking off Richie Blackmores head.

What are you doing? my mother cried. I paid for that out of my pocket!

Children pee their pants, but Ill train this boy yet.  Kill Makhno!  He smashed my tape and went for my guitars.

I puffed out my chest and rolled up my sleeves, ready to stand like the Maginot Line.  But father was as unstoppable as a German Tiger. You think you can stop a Russian officer?  You think you can raise your fists at me?  Yeah, yeah, yeah, Ill show you, you little wimp!  And father tackled me under all his weight.

Youre crushing me! I gasped under the weight of fathers body.

Well see about that, he said, dropping me into the armchair.  You could hear the guitar crackling.  It sounded like the whole world was crunching up, the universe coming apart.

Ill never forgive you, I swore at him through my tears, sweeping the smashed fragments under my bed.

Just calm down, my fathers victorious voice rang out.  Youre going to thank me one day.

Let your boss thank you, Im getting out of here for good.  Get used to not having me around. Slamming the door behind me, I made my grand exit.

For an entire week I made myself scarce.  I spent my days on the bank of a forest lake right next to our neighborhood, a place that smelled of fresh leaves and muddy water.  I slept in the attic of an abandoned house, grunge crunching under my feet, the air rife with bird dung.  I went hungry, started losing weight until I was looking all skin and bones.  The smell of fire, mud and pigeon shit stuck to me.  On the eighth day I saw missing child posters with my face on them.  On the ninth day, like poor little Fedor found by his father in the mountains, I was spotted, taken from the roof and brought home. 

You look terrible! my mother cried when she laid her eyes on me.

Something prompted me to come out with Je ne me suis pas vu depuis sept jours.

Thats right, for you it was a lark, for me I couldnt sleep a wink.

In fact, the week had gone by somewhat differently.  It had given rise to exchanges like this:

Father:  How can you get any sleep when you dont even know where the hell your son is?

Mother: No use climbing the walls about it.  Hell come around and return.

Father: What do you mean come around?  Come around where?   Hes your son!

Mother: Great, just great. Am I the one who smashed his guitar? Am the I one who stomped on his cassette?
Father:  So what?  I broke it, Ill fix it.

Mother:  Hell fix it! Dont start saying no matter what.  When it comes to repair jobs youre all thumbs.

Father: Thats an insult!  Ive good great manual skills.  After all, I am a qualified locksmith.

Mother:  You, a locksmith. You!  Apart from making big speeches and locking people up, all you know how to do is lying in ambush for bitches.

Father:  You are reminding me of xer dey nait.

Mother:  Shame on you, wash your mouth with soap.  You, a member of the Communist Party!

But let us return to the day of my homecoming.  Mother told me that my father hadnt been able to sit still the whole time I was gone.  Where, I asked: in ambush?  She said I was a smart-ass.  She said father was sorry.  He had fixed my guitar.  Indeed, the apartment reeked of wood glue, of pine needle rosin, a sharp reminder of the factory with its yard littered with bones.

Son, what I did was wrong, father told me that evening.

Well, what do you expect me to do with it? I asked, pointing to the pieces of my guitar.

Dont worry, Im going to put it all together like new, he said with brash self-confidence.   I pledge the word of a Communist. Ive already got the glue and the rosin on the boil.  Come on, we dont have our hand up our asses! Theyre screwed on properly, lets get to work.

The house was frantic with work. The moment he got back from work he had a bite to eat and got right down to it. Lets get this guitar moving.

 

For a good month we went on sawing, planning, digging and soldering.  We stank like devils in hell.  All we said to each other was chisel, rasp, pin, nut, bore, bridge.  We hired Leo Smitchkov, the maestro of violin makers, as our consultant.  My father went as far as to break the law in the line of duty, breaking into the safe at work where they kept material evidence.  He took out the plans of a fingerboard of an Orpheus guitar, a Bulgarian make.  It enabled us to put together something with a soft, smooth sound not particularly appropriate to rock music, but when I added fuzz and hooked the guitar up to a reverb, it didnt sound so bad.  All that was missing was the varnish.  The leftovers went into  the kitchen stool.

Stool of peace, my father said solemnly unless he meant piece of stool.

Anyone entering upon the slippery path of Russian rock, as indeed of all things Russian, risks breaking ones head open.  But that is perhaps our Russian way, slippery, perilous.  Perhaps it was along this trail that my father found his calling as a parent.  Hard to say, for my father went on to commit further crimes, going into the vault to bring out pieces of evidence from cases all the recording of Dieperpoltsev Deep Purple, that is -- along with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath.  Soon my musical archives were complete once again.  Soon we were making amplifiers and speakers, aided and abetted by further crimes on my fathers part.  So it was he brought up from the department cellar lamps, transistors, a 50-watt speaker.  My father alleged he was cleaning the stores out.

 

It took about a year for my father to be able to tell the Beatles apart from the Rolling Stones, and Richie Blackmore from a D. Page.  Two years later he accompanied me as my sidekick disk jockey, and before three years had passed he showed up at a Party meeting in jeans and, declaring rock the future of the planet, he demanded deep-seated reforms to the socialist laws of the land.

After making his declaration, my father was transferred out of the security department.  Hired on as a security manager at a sausage factory, he developed a habit of exposing worst-case scenarios of  rotten meat and was forced into early retirement.  The last two years of his life he didnt work but sat watching over my disk jockey equipment.  Sitting on the stool of peace, he looked out the window anxiously awaiting my return.  When he saw our car approaching, he came to life.  He started putting things together.  He fermented cabbage, pickled cucumbers, cut into strips Chinese ham, and took out the crystal rum glasses hed received as part of his pension fund as a department of the ministy of the interior solderer.

Dont get it my way, he would say to his protesting wife.

But you mustnt!  Youve had two heart attacks already!

Step back, he said.  Youre reminding me of Xer Dey Nait.

Youre the dick, even if youre not an officer of the Community Party anymore.

At one of my gigs someone stole our guitar.  I was no longer using it by now, having acquiring a much better Japanese model.  But one day when it wouldnt play, I had had to resort to our home-made guitar. In the evening while we were loading the equipment into the car I couldnt find it anywhere.  I exhorted food handlers, promising them anything in exchange for a clue to its whereabouts, but it was useless: the drunk bastards shrugged, looking at me with blank guilty smiles.  I alerted all the local musicians, but to no avail.  It had disappeared without a trace.

Soon thereafter my father died.  He walked into the kitchen and collapsed; he came out propped on my shoulders, already dead. 

Outside the courtyard the shrill winds of economic reforms were blowing.  Not only were the grocery stores all empty but the funeral parlors likewise.  In the canary yellow building, where the wake was held, there was nothing, no brushes, no wreaths, no tapes and no coffins.  Just the director and a few not quite sober souls. 

We should call the authorities, I advised my mother.

What are you on about? she asked.  Have you forgotten they fired him.

Yeah, but with his veterans pension, I argued stiffly.

Yeah, sure.  First they get fired then they get medals.

But it turned out I was right. The authorities did pay for the coffin the boards, the red sheathing and even the bright crimson brush. Once more I was hearing them say chisel, saw, rasp, pin

All that remains of my father are some of his black and white photographs and that heavily varnished kitchen stool.  Will we whose lives were so cleverly woven together along the paths of life meet once again?  Whenever I look at our little peace stool Im quite certain we will.