by Chris Bacas
(Midnight in Moscow, Chapter 1 is here.)
En route from Petersburg, adrenaline and second-hand nicotine kept me awake at first. Eventually, I slept through the cabin heat and sparking wheels; waking up in Moscow weak, achy and slightly dizzy. Everything finally caught up with me. For that day, we planned on Red Square, Kremlin and a home-cooked meal. His tomb closed, Lenin was in for regular maintenance: change of embalming fluid and new fan belt.
We made a stop at my colleagues' apartment. He had business there and a lesson for me. A neighbor of his survived the Nazi blockade. Now bed-ridden, she would tell me the story. One of her children let us in. A TV quietly hummed with peppy pop music, expertly sung and mostly minor-key. My friend sat nearby in the darkened apartment. I pulled a chair next to the couch bed. She greeted me warmly despite obvious pain. Slowly, with somber translation, she told how scores of people dropped over daily and lay where they fell. Exhausted crews cleared their bodies. Her husband, athletic and lean, went quickly. Parents fed children all their rations until the inevitable end. Grass, bugs, pine needles and bark were staples. In the twilight parlor, tchotchkes and framed photos blurring, the velocity of life slowed and upended. Blankets tucked chin high, her voice corkscrewed into me; a warmer echo of the Petersburg sleeping car. It cut furrows into the puny real-estate of my experience. The agony of a vast nation and unknown people is a mirage. Its' contours and colors shimmer and fade in pace with our false distance. One moment made that span an arm's length. In the hallway, roasted meat, pine-scented cleaners and dusty carpet smells hung thick. We said goodbyes and thanks, while she told my host her time was nearly up.
At dinner, the food was fantastic and hospitality warm. In a Russian meal, the starters: salads, beans, soup and sautés are so tasty, it takes tremendous effort to save room for the main courses. The Russian method of vodka-drinking requires great strength: glasses hold 2-3 ounces and get refilled for toasting many times. I tried kvass, a rye-flavored soda. It delighted me, after growing up with “Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer”. I ended the meal happy, stuffed and fully delirious with flu.
Back at my colleagues' apartment, his tenant offered to treat my condition. We went upstairs to a neighbors' for the prescription. One placed tumblers on the table and peeled a few inch-thick garlic cloves. He poured full glasses of hot-pepper vodka and encouraged me to eat the garlic. I chewed up the biggest clove, my mouth and nose burning. We raised the tumblers.
The spicy liquor washed down any remaining chunks of garlic. My body temperature soared, like those cartoon characters whose bodies stiffen into thermometers with boiling Mercury rising and exploding out of their head. We gathered luggage and headed down in the elevator. I was reeling, a red hot coal in my belly and scalp itching with sweat. Outside, through columns of headlights, wispy flakes fell steadily onto hard-packed black snow. Ten steps from the waiting car, my feet whizzed sideways on the ice and I slammed down onto my suitcase. The jolt took my breath away. My colleague reached down and pulled me up by the armpits. Face to face, he searched my eyes with his.
“I'm very worried about you” he said.
In my scrambled mind, his voice sounded both hard and disembodied. We got into the car, its' heater blasting and my gullet pulsing. The ride and airport check-in passed as hallucinations. I'm sure my host chided me on my catatonic indifference to any and every announcement. Our eastbound red-eye slated to cover two-thousand miles and four time zones; barely half the territory. In my seat on the bright, modern plane, people bustled all around. Leaning back, the air jets whistled across my face. Lights out.
I woke on the landing at Krasnoyarsk airport. Tour destinations have a flavor of “summer vacation” even when they're below zero Fahrenheit or look just like our neighbor's place. The pace of travel summons childhood trips and backroad drives. That swimming hole or ice cream stand waits around the corner. A continuous stream of vistas awakens our ancient navigators. The succession of new faces and voices fires tribal and familial circuits, overloading them, bypassing the ignorance switch. These surroundings looked uncluttered: a small terminal with planes and vehicles clustered in a corner of the vast, empty tarmac. Heated underneath, the runways were easy to clear through heavy snow. Disembarking, my whole body felt scooped out and brittle; haze lifted and joints only stiff, not aching. The fiery furnace in my belly burned away the worst of it. After collecting luggage, we drove off.
The city rising ahead looked futuristic; its' blocky architecture dense with angular details. Passing quickly through bare streets, the driver delivered us to our venue, eight hours early. There wasn't a hotel for us, we'd travel after the gig. The concert hall looked new and every part of it, shiny and clean. The bathrooms in particular were grandly scaled and spotless. After missing breakfast on the plane, I was starving. Dumping my bags and horns, I went in search of something, anything, to put in my stomach. I'd run out of protein bars. Through the cafe windows, rows of polished glasses glinted on varnished shelves, two and four-tops sat empty with no food on offer. There weren't any snack machines in the lounges or green room. Still, they promised us lunch. Once staff arrived, we sat down alone in the gleaming room for an elegant luncheon, deftly served.
My colleagues knew all about this kind of gig: long waits, fabulous hospitality, grand venues and punishing travel. Their stories fascinated me while we ate. Soon, I felt the urgent call of nature, excused myself, and sped to the lobby. In the enormous men's room, I sat down in a stall. Glancing left, the toilet paper dispenser was empty. I got up. The others were empty, as well. I frog-walked to the ladies' room.
“Privyat! Hello! Hellll-oooh!”
No answer. No paper there, either. My band mates had quit the cafe and its' doors were locked again. The foyer stood empty and quiet. Cramps knifed my guts. On the facing wall, large glossy concert posters hung stapled to a soft board. I tried to gently pull around the staples without leaving a mess. After grabbing one, I quick-stepped to men's room while tearing squares from the flapping paper. The whole operation was pure agony. I folded and employed the colorful poster stock like I was restoring a priceless painting. Ordeal over, my insides ached constantly, giving exhaustion a new dimension.
Less than 18 hours earlier, in a fever, I'd washed down incendiary alliums with pure firewater. Today, a continent east, approaching the traditional zone of exile and oblivion, I'd be on stage with a new quartet: my housemate, Quantum Pianist and a drummer I just met. He was a veteran musician and a board-certified pulmonologist who served as department chief in a large teaching hospital. His presence gave us important connections in Siberia. The Doctor loved to play and soon shared his precise ideas about Jazz and more. We rehearsed: the bassist had a swinging arrangement of Gershwin's “The Man I Love” and we each contributed originals. Our drummer employed all his cymbals in skittering patterns that floated around the reverberant hall. I'd need to keep my ideas simple and well-grounded or risk a train wreck.
A more pressing issue showed up. When I played, eyes closed, a peculiar vertigo set in. My head did stop-motion somersaults; taking my stomach along for the ride. Keeping eyes open at all times while playing solved this problem. After two hours of work, we had a program and plan. It was time to rest before the gig