by Christopher Bacas
Backstage, old friends were stopping by, bringing hugs, booze and sweets. In an embossed box tied with ribbon, a Kievski (Kiev-style) cake rested on a gold foil base: stacks of merengue ovals held with mortar of the richest, densest buttercream imaginable. One small piece made my teeth ache and fell brick-heavy into my belly. If I could prevent vertigo by opening my eyes, maybe I was immune from diabetic coma, as well.
All conversations stayed in Russian. Through the cacophony, Drum Doctor began to mention the names of American musicians. It seemed he was throwing out names with possible Russian connections. Equating nationality and ethnicity with instrumental skill is a fool's errand, but I offered great composers Vernon Duke (Dukelsky) and Irving Berlin (Balein). He wanted players, though. I added Stan Getz. Drum Doctor looked shocked.
“Jewish family from Kiev” I said.
He waved his hand majestically.
“Aaaaah. Special category!”
I looked around. Pianist never flinched. Another day at the office for him.
Each musical genre collects myths; of origin, personality, prowess and transcendence.They are passed around, misconstrued by dilettantes, written down, challenged by academics, reversed and re-reversed. Phylogeny can't explain greatness nor its' relation to place. Tales about Russian musicians include feats of flawless execution and prodigious memory; gifts nurtured by colossal workhorses while epic snowstorms raged outside their practice rooms. During the Cold War, Soviets paraded one phenomenon after another. Gilels said “wait until you hear Richter”, and he was right. Heifetz and Horowitz got out before Milstein, while Kogan and Oistrakh stayed, the latter teaching Kremer. I wouldn't appreciate how overwhelming their approach was until I heard others play the same notes. Connecting tone and articulation to written music in the moment is a thespian feat. We are what we play, an act that places anyone, sufficiently aware, in the eye of that howling storm.
Krasnoyarsk was with us from the beginning, but expected force majeur. In that spirit, I stepped front and leaned into my horn, closing my eyes. I saw myself: black cashmere jacket, matching wool pants and multi-color shirt; tumbling head first off the stage. My stomach executed a double flip. I jacked my eyelids open and kept them there. On break, the Kievski cake, its' box permanently compromised, slept in a forest of liquor bottles. We finished the night with encores and satisfaction. My roomie, a veteran of dozens of house-wrecking Far East tours for the Soviet agency GosConcert, felt the Siberian audience had become jaded with so many international musicians showing up on their stages. We said our goodbyes to the green room guests and headed to the station.
The band was booked on an overnight train to Novokusnetsky. The trans-Siberian railroad is an incredible feat of Soviet engineering and heroic slave labor. Solzhenitsyn said there were “two heads under every railroad tie”. Our driver dropped us at the station and we rolled luggage up to wait on the platform. My colleagues joked and talked impenetrably, their voices alternating and overlapping, maybe remembering a hundred past Siberian journeys. Standing next to them, half a world from home, on a soundless, windless night, the absolute desolation of our planet dawned. The cold coiled head to toe, absorbing into my body in advancing layers. The Doctor examined my coat and boots and made a halting diagnosis:
“Boots and jacket…are good…but…..for Siberia….NOT GOOD ENOUGH.”
Everyone roared and I felt at home again; the butt of a loving and pointed jibe.
When then train arrived, we boarded quietly, the others reacting instantly to the crew's instructions. Each car had an attendant; mine, a tiny elephant-skinned woman in headscarf. She addressed me sharply. I mumbled a few Russian words. She smiled gloriously, revealing a few widely-spaced incisors. My colleagues chuckled, relaying: “your girlfriend is asking if you want tea”
My berth was comfy and spartan. Its window, clean enough to see limitless taiga. The attendant turned the bed down, grinning and chatting non-stop. I slept once we started moving but woke up for the bathroom. Behind its' sliding door, The WC was a metal and wood enclosure, completely porous to the outside; air well below freezing. Exhaling unfurled ghostly sails. Inhaling singed my nostrils. Stocking feet couldn't stand the steel sheet floor, so I went back for shoes and a hat. On the way, I saw my attendant, bundled and bolt upright in a child-size seat, her head vibrating against the wall. Back inside, the steel toilet stood ready. Next to its' wooden seat, a carved out wooden block filled with sloshing water and a battered plastic dipper for flushing. The car rattled and groaned, swaying in little whirlpools. I aimed for the hinged bottom of the toilet and missed widely, breathing quickly through my mouth. Against a tender throat and voice box, the air hit and stuck sharp and three-dimensional, a Ninja throwing star. Lips pressed tight, I used the dipper to carefully wash down the spills, then replaced it in the tub. Fully awakened by cold and adventure, I slid the door shut with a metallic clang. The attendant's eyes opened. She got to her feet cat-like and slid past me, voice starting as she clasped the door handle. I turned to face her. She entered the freezing enclosure demonstrating the process of manually emptying and rinsing the toilet; copiously narrating each quick, rough movement. Standing in the doorway, I just watched, adding misplaced comments.
I had no idea what she was saying. There wasn't a simple way to excuse myself. Awkwardly, I backed away and reached for the door handle. She continued talking as the door closed behind me. Once inside my berth, I undressed and laid down. From the window, stars and moon reflected purple on the snowpack. Taiga, a boreal forest of moss and stunted spruce and pine, passed on a spinning wheel. Taiga makes up twenty-nine percent of the land mass of earth; a biome second only to the oceans. Poking through the snow, skinny trees multiplied into thickets, then borderless fields, and finally vast spiny peninsulas tilting toward dark river beds. Every hour or so a clump of snow blasted buildings appeared, barely a block wide and lit by a conic section of yellow light.
Hurtling toward solstice, on a silent planet frozen to its molten core, the arctic night felt like an intergalactic Christmas Eve. I slept on and off until what I guessed was morning, then dressed for breakfast. The chair where my attendant slept sat empty, her bag tucked under a low table beside it. Chests and lockers lined the walls around the corner. In a forward car, Pianist sipped tea at a table. His attendant, a hard-faced Siberian beauty, served him rolls and cold cuts. She spoke to him softly, leaning in close, then stepping away. A slight smile stayed on his face as she left.
At breakfast, we met other passengers. A solider, who drove tanks, told us wearily he was going home to his family after two years away. He hadn't even been able to talk with them for months as diligent thieves in his hometown dug up more than a mile of copper telephone cable. My attendant appeared. She never acknowledged me and shuttled about doing small tasks. Pianist's attendant served me breakfast. With its' battered furnishings, idiosyncratic staff, and remote location, our train seemed like a rustic inn near a long-vacated vacation spot.