Story by Natalia Lialina
It was one of those endless summer days in the middle of July when the city was melting – the asphalt pavement became liquid from the heat, and many busy citizens left the stone jungle in a hurry – family trips to the sea, to the river, to the lake or to the nearest pond green with algae, frogs croaking cheerfully, declaring their rightful ownership of the place.
Ivan Petrovich was sitting on a chair in the middle of his little narrow kitchen, more reminiscent of a corridor than a room, dressed only in his muscle shirt and boxer shorts, called in his native tongue “family trunks”, though Ivan Petrovich did not have either a family, or any significant other, neither did he have any significant muscles, and his life was as far from boxing as one’s life could be. He was sitting on the old wooden chair in the middle of the narrow kitchen, with the window wide open, street noise filling the small apartment, which also contained, other than the oddly shaped kitchen, a small living room and an even smaller bedroom. The forth room in the apartment was the smallest of them all – a bathroom, which was practically useless now when it was needed the most. While the only thing that could save Ivan Petrovich from the exhausting heat of his little corner of the stone jungle was a refreshingly cool shower, as it was so accustomed to doing in his homeland, the hot water was blocked on this day due to maintenance in preparation for the cold season, for a whole two weeks, and Ivan Petrovich really did not feel like an icy cold shower, despite the fact that his neighbor Pyotr Ivanovich highly recommended that he do precisely this, at least twice a day, once in the morning, and once again just before bed time – ‘good for the body, good for the mind’, as he repeated with enviable regularity. Ivan Petrovich had not noticed what good this ritual had done for Pyotr Ivanovich body or mind though – as they both lived in similar apartments right above one another, went to similar offices to shovel similarly boring mounds of paperwork on a daily basis, and received similarly humble paychecks once a month. The one difference between them would be that Pyotr Ivanovich did possess some sort of muscles, but that fact was probably more due to his highly disciplined custom to move around weights in the sweaty and loud gym that had opened in the basement of their apartment building a couple of years ago. Which did not save Pyotr Ivanovich from catching the flu last winter, and did not save Ivan Petrovich from running to the pharmacy on the corner to get some flu medicine and vitamin C for his less fortunate, though highly disciplined neighbor.
The thought of that event the previous winter brought Ivan Petrovich out of his half-sleepy state, and with surprising speed he quickly got up from his wooden chair, went to his bedroom, put on the first trousers he could find and a light summer fedora, and then left his apartment as if in a huge hurry, still wearing his muscle shirt (with not so many muscles underneath) and his shabby home slippers.
The pharmacist on the corner was a young guy who Ivan Petrovich had never seen before.
“Can I help you?” asked the young guy.
“N-no, you can’t… Yes, you can… I don’t know,” said Ivan Petrovich.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” asked the young guy, and Ivan Petrovich sensed a little annoyance in his voice.
“Yes, I am.”
“And what is that?”
“I’m looking for another pharmacist.”
“You know, the old guy. The one who was here in the winter. The old guy,” repeated Ivan Petrovich decisively.
“He has retired,” the young pharmacist said. Shaking his head and turning away from the counter, it was as if he wanted Ivan Petrovich to know that he had lost all interest in him.
Ivan Petrovich went out the door feeling disappointed and a little humiliated by this scene, which probably had not made much sense to anyone else in the pharmacy. But more than anything in this moment Ivan Petrovich felt a horrible thirst, unlike any he had ever experienced before. He knew that on the street nearby, by the big old food store, there was sometimes a truck selling kvas, and Ivan Petrovich could imagine nothing that would feel better right at that moment than a good mug of this cold, fresh, sour drink, his favorite for as long as he could remember. Even the thought of it was refreshing, and Ivan Petrovich smiled.
The truck was there, and Ivan Petrovich rushed right to it. Only as he got closer, he realized that he had left his wallet at home. He put his hands into the pockets of his trousers, hoping to find a ruble or at least some change, but all that he found was a hole in the right pocket. He then said a word which would not be polite to type in this story, spat on the hot asphalt pavement and turned around to go home. But suddenly, at that very moment, someone said his name.
“Would you like a mug? This is such a good kvas. I ride the bus through the whole city just to have a drink here.”
Ivan Petrovich turned around and could not believe his eyes. A charming older gentleman in an ironed suit was standing next to him (how he was able to not get a wrinkle in his suit while riding the bus is a mystery that has still never been solved). The older gentleman did not smile at Ivan Petrovich, but his eyes did, as if his eyes lived a somewhat separate life from their owner. Ivan Petrovich was so surprised that he forgot to thank the gentleman for his very gentlemanly offer and just took a glass mug from his hands. The mug was nice and cold, and Ivan Petrovich drank the whole drink in just a few short gulps. When he finished, he thought that this drink was the best thing that had happened to him in the whole of the last week, or maybe in the whole month. Then he remembered about the older gentleman.
“Thank you, doctor,” he said. And if you were to ask why he called the gentlemen a doctor, Ivan Petrovich would probably not know what to say.
“No problem, son,” said the ‘doctor’.
“I was just looking for you,” said Ivan Petrovich.
“Yes, in the pharmacy. You can go and ask that guy… that young guy… he knows.”
“That’s quite all right, I believe you.”
“He said you were retired.”
“That is true.”
“And you took a ride here just to drink this kvas, huh?”
“Yes, I sure did.”
“That’s just spooky. You know? I mean, I was not even thinking about kvas. Though it would make much more sense to actually think about kvas today, and not about winter and flu, and about you.”
“Yes, that’s probably true,” the doctor-pharmacist agreed. “So what was it that had you looking for me? I don’t have much time, son. If you have a question to ask, better do it now. Who knows if you will see me again?”
“But the kvas… you said you always come here to drink the kvas.”
“Yes, to drink this wonderful kvas, and to see you. I knew you needed to ask me about something.”
“Of course, I knew. Ask me, don’t hesitate.”
“So… just like that? Just ask you then?”
“Just like that.”
“OK. So if I wanted to do it… you know, it… what should I do?”
“Let me make sure that we are talking about the same thing first. To do what exactly?”
“You know… it… that thing that nobody knows how to do… and you invented a syrup or something?” said Ivan Petrovich in a whisper, cautiously looking around.
“A syrup?” repeated the doctor, who also looked around. “All right, let’s go. I’ll show you the syrup.”
Ivan Petrovich was wrong about two things. For one, the doctor, or shall we say it correctly, the pharmacist, did not invent a syrup. And the other thing he was wrong about, apparently, not every spot in nature was taken by the heat exhausted citizens of his city – the place where the old pharmacist took Ivan Petrovich was rather secluded and peaceful in every way. Ivan Petrovich did not remember when he could breathe the air so soft, so gentle – what the heck, he could not remember when he breathed at all. He did not really think of breathing in his damp from humidity apartment, he was quietly suffocating in the narrow kitchen which looked more like a corridor. But he never realized that before. Only now when his lungs were filling with the fresh and sweet tasting air, not hot and sticky as the air in his city, as if he went thousands of kilometers away, when in fact he knew the pharmacist took him to the central train station, and in short couple of hours they jumped off the train like two carefree boys, rolled down the grassy hill and were both hit by the thick sweet fragrance of mother nature.
At first, they just lay on the grass which felt softer than a couch – though it might have only seemed that way in comparison with the hard wooden benches of the electric train. Neither of them wanted to move for quite a while, it seemed, and we are definitely not the ones who know for how long exactly they were laying there in silence, looking into the high blue sky, with big smiles on their faces. Then they got up, slowly, without saying a word to each other, and started walking toward the horizon, where the sun was going down, painting the sky in such a bright red as they had never seen before.
Right where the horizon seemed to meet the red sky, Ivan Petrovich and the old pharmacist saw a river. The river flowed slowly, in a harmonious swirly line, going to the places neither Ivan Petrovich, nor the pharmacist knew existed.
Ivan Petrovich took off his muscle shirt, and the trousers, and the family trunks (his lightweight fedora flew away the minute he jumped off the train), and his old shabby slippers, and ran into the cold, refreshing water.
“Yahooo! C’mon, doctor! Get out of your suit! You know you want to!”
The pharmacist stepped from one foot to another one, hesitating a little, and suddenly…
The suit that did not wrinkle, the leather shoes, the ironed shirt – everything flew into the air, along with similar family trunks at the last minute.
“I guess Pyotr Ivanovich was onto something with his obsession with icy cold showers,” said Ivan Petrovich.
“Who is Pyotr Ivanovich?”
“The guy with the flu. Remember? Winter time?”
“Oh c’mon, doctor. Pyotr Ivanovich, my neighbor who got a terrible flu last winter. So terrible, I had to go to the pharmacy on the corner. Your pharmacy. That’s where we met. It wouldn’t be, if not for Pyotr Ivanovich’s flu.”
“Ah, yes, yes, now I see. How is Pyotr Ivanovich?”
“He’s fine. Healthy as a bull. But I bet cold showers aren’t as good as this!”
Ivan Petrovich splashed the old pharmacist with a huge splash of water. They both were jumping, snorting, diving in and out of the water and chuckling as freely and loudly as a couple of kids.
Once the evening bath was over, they stretched their exhausted bodies on the grass near the riverbank, and feel asleep watching the red sky that was getting darker and darker.
They woke up at about the same minute when the sun barely started lighting the landscape.
“Have we slept through the whole night?” said Ivan Petrovich, as though it was something unheard of.
“It sure seems this way,” said the pharmacist.
“Wow… I can’t remember when I slept so well,” said Ivan Petrovich.
“Neither can I,” said the pharmacist.
He reached the suit that was lying next to him on the grass, all wrinkly and a little wet from the morning dew, and got a small glass jar from the upper pocket of the blazer. In the excitement, they both forgot why they came to the river in the first place.
“Are you still up for it?” asked the pharmacist.
“I am. What have I to lose?” said Ivan Petrovich, and there was no hesitance, nor bravado in his simple words.
“Then you should know. First of all this is not a syrup. Never drink it. And secondly, this was never tested before. Not on anyone,” said the pharmacist.
“Wow, I can actually be a real pioneer, huh?”
“You already are a real pioneer, son.”
“Nah. Yes, yes, I guess I am. Well, let’s begin then. The sun will come up soon.”
For a minute or two, the pharmacist warmed up the jar in his hands. He held it as though it had precious life inside, with such care, as you would hold a baby. Then he shook the jar, not aggressively so, but very gently. After these manipulations he finally opened the jar, not without an effort – which you can understand, of course, because you know how it is to open a jar that was never opened before, don’t you? The same thick sweet fragrance that hit them earlier, as they jumped off the train, burst out.
“This smells just like… well, this – the river, the grass… Did you use this grass to make it?” said Ivan Petrovich.
“No, I didn’t,” said the pharmacist, and you could tell he was sincerely puzzled with this fact himself.
“All right. What does it matter what it is made from, let’s just get down to business,” said Ivan Petrovich, and again, we assure you, there was no hesitance, nor bravado in his voice.
If only you could hear his voice, dear reader, you would sense too that Ivan Petrovich was not afraid, as well as he did not feel impatient, or intrigued. He was calm and happy as once when he was a kid, and his father took him to the riverbank, giving him a real fishing pole for the first time, and he felt like a real grown up, even knowing that he was only a kid, but at the same time, being treated as a grown up, he felt both free and responsible, but it did not freak him out at all, on the contrary, it made him feel calm and surprisingly alive all at the same time.
The pharmacist poured the contents of the jar into his palms and with the concentration of a scientist performing a highly important test, started slowly massaging the fragrant essence into Ivan Petrovich’s back – that place on the back where the scapula come together, you know the one, it gets itchy from time to time, and you have to ask someone to scratch it for you, as it is not very easily reachable with your own hand.
The essence felt warm and tickled just a bit, and Ivan Petrovich closed his eyes and smiled.
“How long will it take to start working?” asked Ivan Petrovich after a few minutes of the relaxing massage.
“I really couldn’t tell,” said the pharmacist. “I am only the one who figured out the formula. That is all.”
“So we just wait here until it works then?”
“Either that, son, or until we see that it doesn’t,” said the pharmacist.
And for the first time Ivan Petrovich sensed the sadness in the old pharmacist’s voice.
“Nah… Don’t worry, doc, it will work. I know it will,” said Ivan Petrovich.
“I can live with that,” said the pharmacist.
“So can I, doc,” said Ivan Petrovich. “So can I.”
And the sun shone on the river, and the riverbank, and the most unusual couple that we happened to meet.
July 6-22, 2015