Speaking In Tongues

Scribbling In Voices


By Dmitry Kovalenin

I don't know why each time, when popping down there, I always send her a beer. Any night when I come down to the store again, after wandering around those cardboard chilly-huddled streets of the small sleepy town, she still sits, as always, in her corner with all those machinery, hiding in a hole between two tremendous speakers, each fully her own height, under the steel-frame shelves piled up to the ceiling with old records in shabby covers, on her high wooden stool. Just like a ruffled sparrow. And if it's a week-night with only two or three customers at the counter, she puts on that ancient, forgotten, young Roberta Flack record, drowning, with waves over her head, in the sobbing of I Told Jesus all the way through the machine-gun crackling of the needle on vinyl... Slow, regular, meditative rhythm in the rocking of her almost transparently slender body... Like a candle flame enticing you in a dark room - all I can see in that grey dusk against concrete walls after my third beer is the oval of her face slashed apart with the sharp-black shades of her cheekbones in a frenzied draw, passionate, sending all world around her off into eternity, her kiss with the beloved Dunhill.

One could never tell how much she had drunk. If there was any kind of rhythm sounding, she always followed it, beating the second part with her whole body, while sitting astride her high three-legged hobbling stool.

Then she simply fell down, splashing her shocking long black hair all over the tabletop - and didn't move any more.

Moving deftly, yet casually, Brother Lee would raise her lithe body up, carry it to the far corner of the room and carefully lay it, curled up, on a broad oak table. Then he would put her head on some rolled coat or a bag, or anything soft he could find.

I don't know if it depended on the time of night, the number of customers or simply his own mood, but from time to time he would do something else. Out of a huge glass jar that stood in the same dark corner he would take a funny creature, small and plump, with short black-and-brown striped fur, and release it right beside her lifeless hands. Swift and nimble, within a split second, it flew up on her black sweater to her breast, whisked away to her shoulder - and only after that quetened down, taking shelter in the nestle of her hair, somewhere between her collar-bone and her ear.

Nothing on earth dared to wake those two up until the next morning.

I could never tell why (maybe after three years it has simply become a habit) but each time I come here, pulling my raincoat off at the entrance, I still throw out two fingers with a horned V-sign into the thick and tense air scorching my skin with oil-heaters and assaulting my ear by Roberta's voice, then nod toward her - and Lee, giving me his habitual wink, dives into his scratched dresser looking like a weird medical kit for a pair of clean test-tube glasses.

"And y'know, Dima?" As always, without greeting, from behind his long oak counter, Lee starts speaking first, as if just going on with the conversation broken off a moment before. "Haven't you heard that our poor old Ri-chan has just died?"

I really don't know, is it just a usual manner they have there in their Liverpool (never heard anyone from there speaking, apart from the Beatles and Lee himself) or what. But it's purely fantastic when all phrases end up so depravedly, and the whole talk turns back-stitched, like a fabric that came through a sewing-machine, with the same nervous-cleavable, clipped intonation... On paper Brother Lee's speeches could look like that:

"Y'know, Dima? Our Ri? Has just died last night? I've been thinking so long what was wrong?!? And now I think it was all because of that damn subsonic frequency - know what I mean?! Such small animals?? And such a low frequency in the speakers?! I don't get how they could put up with all that for such a long time?!? If I were that size?? I'm sure I would've died even sooner?!! It's so awful?! A squirrel murdered by rock'n'roll - kind of funny, isn't it?!? You want to drink one more beer to that if it's on the house?!"

God knows - maybe it's only his professional bullshit. But indeed, when one bombs you so actively with those question marks all the way, no matter you want it or not, you get drawn into conversation and decide to tarry "a little longer". But this is exactly what he, wretch, wants you to do.

Brother Lee never changes and never gets older. Three years have passed, and he still looks the way he did when he appeared in front of me for the first time: in his sizeless bib overalls with two wide straps and a label with three faded letters "Lee" on the nappy; with his absolutely impudent yet sincere desire to fascinate everybody around with his own self; with that really terrible Liverpudlian accent - "Zuyull a'nutz zyryn Lundun" ("They all are nuts there in London, y'know?"); and of course, with his disordered negligent Bunker: the nostalgia of bare concrete walls, gloomy lights and a bit exaggerated "thee-an'-thou" simplicity of manners, as different as heaven and hell from any other night pub in our small animatedly cartoonish town, with its snobby streets all licked clean to the striptease-like loss of their own looks, the God-forsaken town somewhere in the north-west of the Japanese islands...

"And you want to know why? Why the hell they still like me? 'Cos I never say any damn welcome to them, that is why!?.."

Scrawny like a stick, with an oblong egg of his almost skin-shaved head, he springs straight into your line of vision with his abrupt, furtive glances, now raising, now hiding his naive goggled eyes with obedient madness sparkling between those chicken-like whitish eyelids. And all over his face, nervous and a little tense, there incessantly wanders his inexpressible smile - disarmingly meek, childish to the point of idiocy, absolutely incoherent to any damn look into his eyes, with brilliant dimples still appearing God knows how on those hollow cheeks, like those of a labor camp prisoner, sunken from chronical lack of sleep.

I saw this supernatural mixture of unclouded childishness and deadly fatigue of being in the same face, day in, day out, for the first time in my life. And it took me a certain time before I stopped identifying him with some pityful waif, hungry the rest of his life and periodically caught red-handed at night in the pantry stealing chocolates.

Brother Lee is an ideal type of a life destroyer - both of his own life and also lives of anyone who ever happens to relate to him closely even for the shortest time. All business in his bar cracks at the seams; "The cash? For a Japanese kid? It eats up all your profits, know what I mean?"; and the astronomic debt snowballs causind more and more headache to his creditors. But somehow, no fucking body would even think of putting a blame on him straight to his face. I'm almost sure that even his ex-wife who bursts into the joint once a week with his baby under one arm, "tossing the furniture at the owner, can you believe it?", does it more out of pure jealousy and no-way-out despair, than with a purpose of getting revenge on the bastard ("Wooden furniture? In Japan?! It's not so cheap, have you noticed?!?"). He belongs to that rare breed who never stir up anyone's irritation for any bad reason or any damn circumstances. Recently, I've had a fancy that I smelt some sharp, all-absorbing savour of Fate emanating from him, coming through that outrageous bouquet he reeks of: British eau-de-cologne, raw-draft beer and wormwood-bitter kerosene the place is heated with; the stench of Fate so implacably impending on all of us. In my recollection, about a dozen of his usual haunters quite involuntarily adopted his "Willy-nilly-shit-happens, y'know?" - with exactly the same strange sedatively interrogative intonation.

"And y'know, Dima?! What d'you think I've been feeling all day???..."

He's doing something continuously, scampering from place to place, non-stop fidgeting-on-hinges, all jumping like a grasshopper, without a break: rinsing glasses, rubbing tables in the narrow room, poking at buttons of a scratched calculator with his finger, chirping something with the pencil stub on tattered unpaid bills scraped together into one disheveled batch with two huge rusted staples; vanishing like a ghost and reappearing from two or three sides in the same moment, clustering and thronging all around me. In some incoherent pieces his endless soliloquizing chatter sounds constrained, hollow-howling from under the counter where he dives from time to time, fetching a duster or trying to grab a ten-thousand-yet banknote on a wing slipped out of some drunk customer's uncertain fingers.

"Such a small heart - y'fancy?" His eyes, usually so angelically unclouded, suddenly shoot me pointblank from down below the counter. "No, have you ever just tried to imagine?" Now he's impending over me, whispering straight into my face. "Such a tiny heart, right?!" His eyes sparkle up with some cosmic insanity. "And so much goddamn music?!.."

February-March 1993