The Last Call
Saturday was a day off at his workshop. Pete had leisure hours, and he put us up to play volleyball. Because of winter it should have taken place in a gym. Не got together the whole team then: Alex and Boris, Pete and me, one more Boris (who was from High Town), and someone else, the last. It’s a shame, I can’t recall him.
In summer we used to play volleyball at the backyard, we had something like a sports ground there. At first it had been a playing field for football, and then a volleyball pitch was set up. There was not much to put up, two poles crosswise the field. Though we did it together, it was me to come out against it: I preferred football. I was about to cut the birch poles down at night for good and all! But, because of a girl, I changed my mind. Girls had grown up in the spring and went out of doors then. And they went to play volleyball to the backyard where we were kicking the ball around. So I turned to volleyball in summer because of a slip of a girl.
Above the playing field electric lines were running, with deadly voltage they hung on high posts. While we had knocked a ball about it hadn’t impeded us: the lines run sky-high. They were harmless for they extended along the playing field there. It was different when playing volleyball with the girls. When one’s serving was lofty, right to hit the lines above the sports ground, the game broke off. A strained conductor buzzed discontented; it dangerously swung overhead.
…Nobody paid much attention to it so far. The electric lines could have been torn down and dropped. Thin sparkling wires then would coil on the playground in order to bite a girl as a snake. It could be one’s sister or cousin; she could have been stricken to death by high voltage. She wouldn’t escape or run away; the girls, they were not agile enough. Chaps would jump back anyway, and a girl would remain there slipping or stumbling. I ever was ready to catch a nude conductor in this case, to tread upon it whenever a wire is torn off, like on a rattlesnake. While I was thinking it over I missed a ball. A squad never guessed that I was ready to rescue them all, at least a girl. So it was in summer.
In winter it was different. To tell the truth there was not much to do in my town that season. That day Pete arranged to play volleyball in a gym situated a long way off. Across a wintry field we hurried to a van. I wouldn’t say the path was snowed up; though all around there was much snow, still the path was beaten hard and slid smoothly. Nevertheless, the path was too narrow for us to march in step. My friends failed to walk in line and hurried up in single file. We held conversation following close to each other’s heels. Perhaps we were discussing yesterday’s hockey game on TV or recollecting a volleyball play at the backyard in summer.
Who the first was to lift up his eyes and note High Town Boris, I don’t know: he hurried home from a bus stop. Well-dressed, he wore a new custom-made overcoat. He was down from the city for a weekend at the right time! I wouldn’t say we rejoiced, we were glad to meet him, but we wouldn’t show it up. It was a regular matter with him to come home for days off. He ever did it, although at that moment he was right to the point. I think Boris got it.
He also enjoyed meeting us; I think he was happy to get all the friends at once.
Practically everyone came but Alex; he was to get out of his mill. In spite of the weekend it still worked: the mill ran round-the-clock. In summer one could hear it far off, in winter the factory buzzing was muffled down by the snow coat. So, one wouldn’t hear whether it droned or not, and there could be a shift break as well. Alex was to drop out of his morning shift; he used to go home after his work. He had to take the same path across the frozen brook. And here he was! Alex looked a bit tired after his labor hours. He said he was not quite ready to join us, “he had to change his clothes.” Why should he, if Boris in his smart overcoat agreed to go with us: come on! So, we started: Peter and me, then two of Boris, next was Alex and someone else, the last one in the squad, I couldn’t tell you who to save my life.
You’d better ask Boris which is still alive, and all the other fellows are not.
“Now, let his best friend have the floor,” said a master of ceremonies to me. It sounded as if it were not Pete’s burial but a recital or an inauguration of a monument. No outstanding personality ever was born here; all were ordinary people, nothing to say, and they all were buried under regular oak crosses. The only monument in town was put to those perished in WWII. They were buried somewhere far away, and the memorial was here.
Pete’s face was as if shadowed, but he looked quite sound and his haircut was regular. His eyes were closed as if he were sleeping, and had just fallen asleep. Still, there was no life coming from his face, a shadow lay on it. And the day was dusky, and gloaming, and no sun around. So, I looked at Pete and had no words. I proved to be unready, never had a rehearsal to say the last words to him. Sorry, Pete, I don’t remember what I said. Not the right words I ought to. I hadn’t prepared myself and I didn’t say the main thing: that he was the best friend, not I!
Then many fellows of his gathered around his grave. The master made room for me when called upon to speak. Not because there were too many people but because the graves were closely set: so folks who came along were cramped, one couldn’t step aside. All of them were familiar to me, though I hadn’t seen them for a long time, and they hadn’t seen me either. It was not the exact place to shake hands, and it wasn’t the right moment: at burials in Russia, one was not supposed to shake hands.
I greeted them by a nod, as though we parted yesterday, that’s all. As though I left my town for half a day, took a morning bus and was soon back in the afternoon, and already was missing all the mates, missed the green lanes and the side streets with soft grass, missed faint shades along the fences at sunset. In fact, it was ages since I visited my town last.
… I never saw Pete asleep, just once when we had woken him up to take his record player. It was quite a thing! Then we took away his record player to arrange an occasion for high school graduates. School leaving party had closed already, and under exposed heaven with the stars-birthmarks a question poised in midair: what’s next? And we made up our minds: a dancing party to Pete’s records then! Dancing until the daybreak as it is you are supposed to do, at least once in your life.
So, we simply made Pete awaken then and asked him for the stereo record player. But I didn’t catch Pete asleep – we were for music! Then we had hurried to Pete for music records by a pothole country road walking on air …
As for music, there was no music at his funeral. It all happened ordinary and dismal. He wasn’t a distinguished one, just Pete. He was so plain that didn’t distinguish bad things, no black! More than that, he confused black and white when speaking local dialect. He uttered “black α white” – this and that, such was my playfellow, my close friend.
Though the sun didn’t reveal itself that day, the sky was getting clear as happens in March afternoons. Only on Pete’s face there lay a shadow, not quite a shadow, just a tinge of a stiff idea as though he were about to utter a word or two. You know such a look when one is going to open his mouth, such an intense expression but no words.
– So, now his best friend is called upon to speak… And I was unable to put it right.
A lonely crow would fly away from a crooked tree at the graveyard; it has nobody to fly to.
So, I turned up a murderer, I started killing friends of mine. I killed them according to the telephone directory; I just took my notebook and stroke them out, one by one. First I crossed out my folk who had passed away by themselves; I would strike them out and then put down nearby, “dead”. I don’t know why but those formerly dead I pitied less. It was by misfortune that it should have happened, but I felt less sorry for them, though the day they passed away I felt the other way, sharper.
Then I recollected the last meeting: what we had talked about, how he had looked, what had he asked me about. I had a vague memory that I gave my word to call him back, to find out whatever he had asked and to call him back. I tried to keep my word and honestly looked for that, and I failed to do any good. What a funny thing, any matter could be settled but not this one! Something went wrong and then came abruptly to an end. Afterwards it turned out that he had died, except that a scrap of paper with his telephone number inscribed on the go was left with me.
Maybe it wasn’t worth any efforts in that case. The matter wasn’t going well from the very beginning as if I had a foreboding, so I failed to settle the case and had no one to impart to. And there was nothing to report! Possibly, his wife would take up the receiver and what I would say then. Allegedly that he had asked me to find out something but I failed, some people changed their position there, and nobody was no to arrange it. So I could have asked her to convey my “no”, but one wasn’t alive any more.
And she’d be ill at ease to tell me that. I had some misgivings and I saw the point, but there were the others to call up and ask for him, and then they would ask when he is back, but he is never to be back and there is no need to call, for he is gone. His telephone number is still in the list, and people would call him not once. Surely, he had promised someone to clear up a question as I did, and then he was missing.
When there are no calling then one is dead.
…I called on a friend of mine a year ago. He was out, so I left my whereabouts to his secretary and asked him to call me back. He could have been busy then or he had nothing to say to me, it happens so, one can overwork himself. I didn’t bother him afterwards; he didn’t call me up after.
Yesterday he passed away, so it had been worthwhile meeting.
And I feel myself a murderer while crossing away his name.
Meanwhile, I have a wish to key in a number to hear a friend, “Hi, how are you? I’m alive…”
Or I want to put up an ad in a newspaper, “Hello everybody! Call me up, my number is …”
Once or twice I made a call to my old friends in another city. They were amazed first but I had nothing to add next time, and they didn’t call me back. At times I was answered that it was a wrong number there, and I have the same number still, I never changed it.
… So I’m crossing out my friends gone from my life. They are not interested in me; I’m not interesting for them. At a chance meeting less and less questions arise; shorter is talking in the street as if it were an international call. The reminiscences are moving away, and emotions are dying out, and small details are obliterated. But stronger are the drinks at a brief encounter, less is the pause between the first and the last drink and cut-glass ware is changed for plastic cups. And drinks do not burn one anymore and the past doesn’t warm up. And one calls after you, “Well, I’ll ring you up…”
Then nobody calls up.
Why, maybe I’m dead?
Parts of the story were primarily published in Marco Polo, CLRI, and Yareah Magazine.
Valery Petrovskiy is an international writer from Russia. He is a Chuvash State University, Cheboksary graduate in English, graduated VKSch Higher School, Moscow in Journalism. His prose was published in Metazen, Danse Macabre, NAP, Atticus Review, Monarch, elsewhere in America; in Blinking Cursor and Firestorm Journal in the U.K.; RYGA Journal in Canada; The Skive and Going Down Swinging in Australia; and Contemporary Literary Review in India. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and Super-10 prose finalist at The Open Russia’s Championship in Literature, 2012. Valery lives in Chuvash Republic at a remote village by the Volga River, Russia.