A textile design by Varvara Stepanova, 1924.
The other day I stopped to see a friend, the journalist Misha Kovrov. He was sitting on his couch, cleaning his fingernails and drinking tea. He offered me a glass.
“I don’t drink without bread,” I said. “Let’s get some bread!”
“Under no conditions! I’d offer an enemy bread, certainly, but never a friend.”
“That’s peculiar. Why not?”
“This is why. Come here!”
Misha walked me to the table and pulled out a drawer:
I looked into the drawer and saw distinctly nothing.
“I don’t see anything … Rubbish of some sort … Tacks, rags, some little rat tails … ”
“Take a look at exactly that! I’ve been collecting these rags, twine, and tacks for ten years! A remarkable collection.”
And Misha gathered up all the rubbish and shook it out on a sheet of newspaper.
“See this burnt match?” he said, showing me an ordinary, slightly charred one. “This is an interesting match. Last year I found it in a baranka pastry bought at Sevastianov’s bakery. I nearly choked. My wife, thankfully, was home to pound me on the back, or it would have lodged in my throat, this match. See this fingernail? Three years ago it was found in a sponge cake bought at Fillipov’s bakery. The sponge cake, you understand, lacked hands, lacked feet, but had nails. A freak of nature! Five years ago, this green scrap inhabited a sausage bought from one of the best Moscow shops. This dried roach once swam in a cabbage stew that I ate at the counter of a railroad station, and this tack—in a meatball, at the same station. This rat tail and bit of dress hem were both found in one and the same Fillipov loaf. This sprat, of which now only bones remain, my wife found in a torte, presented to her on her name day. This creature, known as a bedbug, was brought to me in a mug of beer in a German beer hall … And this little piece of guano I nearly swallowed while putting away a little stuffed pie at an inn. And so forth, my dear man.”
“A wonderful collection.”
“Yes. It weighs a pound and a half, not counting everything I’ve carelessly swallowed and digested. And I’ve swallowed, probably, five or six pounds … ”
Misha carefully lifted the newssheet, briefly admired his collection, then shook it back into the drawer. I took up my glass and began to drink the tea, no longer suggesting that we send for bread.
Translated from the Russian by Elina Alter.
Alter is a writer and translator in New York. Look for her translations of Chekhov sketches each day this week on the Daily.
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