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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Souvenirs from Better Times


by Artūrs Kasjanovs


 

 

            “What kept you so long?” said Margo, stirring the liquid mass that was once a lemon ice cream.


            “I had to fetch something from Mr. Bergman.” Kristians answered as he sat down in a chair opposite her.


            Leroy’s was a crooked little place in central Riga that served horrid food at terrible prices and yet somehow managed to become popular amongst the local youth. Their table was located just beside the fireplace. Margo loved the cracking of the logs, a soft, soothing sound that seemed to bring peace into the world.


            “And that something is?” Margo asked.


            “An old typewriter I found a couple of weeks ago. He did some repairs.”


            “Right,” said Margo. “How’s the old man doing anyway?”


            “Good, good. Business is slow, but he says he’ll be alright because antiques never go out of fashion.”


            “I bet they don’t.”


            A waiter then came up to their table. Kristians ordered a cup of black coffee. Margo opted for another lemon ice cream.


            “He talked about you,” Kristians said as the waiter left. “Old man David did.”


            “Really?” she asked, curling her hair with her fingers. “What did he say?”


            “He asked how my girlfriend was doing.”


            They both laughed.


            “I told him that you’re not my girlfriend, to what he replied ‘well, she ought to be’,” Kristians said, taking a glance out of the window at the forever-gray streets of Riga. “I’m starting to think that he really doesn’t remember me telling him this. Then again, that’s hardly a surprise–the man still forgets my name at times, even though I’ve been visiting his shop for ages. The years must be catching up to him. I guess there’s no avoiding it.”


            “You can’t outrun them all,” she said, looking out of the small café’s only window.


            Old Riga was Margo’s favorite part of the city, always crowded, always alive. She lived two kilometers away, but knew a very different Riga–freshly-built apartment buildings that stood untouched and uninhabited, hundreds of closed down shops, and dead, empty streets. Most of the people who were living here just a few years ago were now working minimum wage jobs in Western Europe. Behind them they left only emptiness.


            “Have you finished reading the book that I’ve lent you yet?” Kristians asked.


            “Didn’t have the time,” Margo said. “I can give it back to you if you need it though.”


            “Nah, it’s alright.”


            “I have read the story you recommended, the one about the mentally ill boy and his parents. What was it called again?”


            Signs and Symbols,” Kristians said.


            “That’s the one,” said Margo. “So he’s like your favorite author or something?”


            Kristians nodded.


            “Is there something particular that you-”


            “Yeah,” Kristians started speaking, then stopped to compose himself. He could never speak right away, no matter how hard he tried. “Nabokov’s works are interesting because they have this strange vibe to them. Sometimes it almost seems as if the worlds he creates are, well, alive. His fate is also quite interesting. Studied as a classic novelist in the West, he is oftentimes forgotten by contemporary Russian readers. His works are not studied in Russian schools, and very few Russians mention him as a literary great. It almost seems as if they pretend that he never existed.”


            “How strange,” she said.


            The waiter returned with their orders.


            “Mikhail says it’s all because he was an immigrant. The Nabokov’s, like most royalist families, fled Russia in 1919, shortly after the revolution. Soviets executed everyone who was even remotely suspicious, so this decision was quite logical. Still, no matter the reason, he was an immigrant and Russians aren’t fond of immigrants. It’s just something that’s in their blood.”


            There was a pause. Tears ran down Margo’s cheeks, some landing on the table, others in the lemon ice cream.


            “Margo, I-” Kristians began.


            “What’s wrong with you? Mikhail’s dead and you know it. Why do you keep speaking about him in the present? You don’t talk to anyone. You dropped out of school. All you care about is collecting old junk. Why can’t you just wake up for fuck’s sake?”


            By then, the sight of the crying college girl caught a multitude of stares. Leroy’s sank into silence.


            “Margo, I’m-”


            “I never thought he’d actually kill himself,” she said, her cheeks moist with tears. “I just didn’t think he’d ever actually do that. These last two months, these meet-ups, they didn’t help you at all. It’s all pointless, isn’t it? You’re as wrecked as the day after his death. Look, I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I want you to get better. I truly do. Why won’t you let me help you?”


            She heard only silence in return.


“Our literature teacher once said that no decisions are good or bad. He said that they just are and after they’re made there is no turning back and in the end,” she stopped for a breath. “In the end-”


            “You can’t outrun them all,” Kristians said.

  

            A minute later she stood up and left. The café once again filled with voices. The fireplace continued burning. Nothing had changed. Nothing ever changed. Kristians thought of the typewriter. No doubt it had its own story to tell. Much like Nabokov, it was born different into this world. It was Latvian-made, the brand being “Usins”, a reference to the Latvian folk god. Mr. Bergman said he had never heard of the Usins brand and neither had his colleagues. Judging by the manufacturing date – November 22, 1939 – Mr. Bergman guessed that the it was a small startup that opened for business just before the Soviet invasion of Latvia. Kristians then remembered the first time he entered the building that must have been the Usins factory:


            “Is this safe?” he said back then, hesitant to climb inside through a broken first floor window.


            “You’ll be fine,” Mikhail said.


            “What if someone’s inside?”


            “Quit complaining and get your skinny ass up there!” Mikhail said and pushed him towards the window.


            Despite being closed down seventy-two years ago, the building looked almost new from the inside. It was ever-so-hard for both of them to shake off the impression that this space would be filled with groaning workers the following Monday. Workers who, Kristians thought, would not notice the fact that their last weekend had stretched for three quarters of a century. They would only notice the change after their shifts. Outside, they would see the same red-white-red flags as they had always, only hanging from different buildings. They would mostly see the same ethnical groups as before – Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews – only no longer bound together by their love for the land. They would see people who would gladly leave Latvia if given the chance, not caring for ideas that the people from the factory – the people of seventy two years and one Red terror before – were ready to die for without a second thought. They would then look up at the sun – the same sun that had given them so much warmth in their time – close their eyes, count to ten, and pray to god that all of this was nothing more than a bad dream.

 

            “I sometimes wonder why the Soviets didn’t reopen this place when they seized power in 1940,” Mikhail said once they reached the second floor. “They took over other factories, right? Why not this one? It’s like they forgot it even existed.”


            Kristians didn’t know what to reply. Mikhail then switched the topic to music. Apparently the guys from La Dispute were a gift to humanity and Kristians owed it to himself to listen to their Wildlife album.


“I wonder why they don’t do it now,” Kristians said as they were about to leave. “This place is in great condition and I doubt it’s worth much, seeing how nobody cared for it in the last seventy or so years. Sure, it may need some renovating, but that is still cheaper than building a new structure, Right?”

   

            “I don’t know,” Mikhail said. “As far as I have heard, it originally belonged to a Jewish businessman who immigrated to America when the Soviets seized rule. Nobody knows what happened to him afterwards. Perhaps the government is reluctant to sell this property to anyone in fear of the original owners showing up?”


             “I think you are becoming more retarded by the minute, friend. That’s the biggest piece of bullshit I have ever heard in my life.”


            They both laughed.


            “Still,” said Mikhail, his sight fixed on the ceiling.  “I’m glad it never got open and didn’t become some sort of a Swedish-owned clothing factory or something. I mean, it sort of belongs to a different time and place. You know, opening it for business here and now just wouldn’t feel right.”


            “Yeah,” said Kristians.          

           

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