Once a Taxi Driver

Nina got directions and headed out near the border of the prov­ince, to a village covered with undulating waves of snow, about a hun­dred kilometers from Rogozhin. Ksenia refused to go—her eyes ached from the glittering snow and the blinding sun—and Nina rode with a driver by the name of Vitya in a Barguzin-model van that was white and smooth, like sweet ice cream. Kirill had hired this Vitya especially for Ksenia’s side trips and allocated funds for it, but Ksenia tended to drive herself and keep the money. At that point Nina hadn’t realized that Vitya was destined to become the ambassador for all adoption in Rogozhin. The effect he had on the Spanish couples eclipsed quiet interpreter Nina and efficient Ksenia, whom the clients rarely saw and mistakenly called “the lawyer,” an error she never corrected or laughed about. Vitya was so strong and handsome that when they saw him for the first time, even the most nervous were instantly calmed. He was like a liberating warrior on a military poster. Some of those moments made Nina slightly embarrassed.

“That Vitya is so handsome,” Ksenia said that evening. “I used to think about it, like, what if I got together with him?”

“Did he hint at it?”

“Any number of times. We both stayed in the hotel for a long time, spent entire days together. And then, I will tell you that we drove all over the area, and everything between us was . . . Grrr, I was disgusted. There is no need to mix cutlets with flies. Work is for work, and bed is for bed. Besides, he’s married. Three kids. And the main thing is, he’s a former taxi driver, our Vitya.”

“So what? You think a taxi driver is . . .”

“For me that isn’t a so what. I haven’t forgotten about it.”

This surprised Nina. It wasn’t the first time she had heard this from Ksenia, that Vitya was not as naive as he would seem because he was a former taxi driver, and other taxi drivers were not that way.

Having grown accustomed to trusting Ksenia, she thought it over carefully. But by her own observations, Vitya’s strategy boiled down to a single thing: he was very cautious with people and careful to avoid discussing anyone’s shortcomings. Nina liked this quality in a person and certainly didn’t see it as evidence of a corrupt nature.

Never had Nina felt so confident with a man as she did in the front seat of the van with Vitya behind the wheel. She slept peacefully on their long-distance trips with a feeling of complete safety, like in her childhood, when her father was putting her to bed and sat beside her late into the night with a book in his hands.

At the end of winter, Nina and Vitya helped Zoya Alexievna, her mother, buy the construction materials for repairs—boards, several sheets of metal roofing, and a roll of insulation. He spent a long time choosing meticulously, and that same day he drove to their dacha.

“How much do I owe you?” Zoya Alexievna asked only after Vitya had unloaded the building materials, set them carefully on the terrace, and was refreshing himself with tea and sandwiches as he prepared to return to Moscow.

“You don’t need to pay me anything,” said Vitya.

“I have to. You should be compensated for your time.”

“I won’t take a single kopeck,” Vitya said sternly, getting back in the van and putting the key in the ignition.

“At least take money for gas!”

“I won’t take any money for gas. Nina and I are colleagues, why should we keep score?”

And with that, he drove off.

“That is a true gentleman, noble and intelligent,” said her mother. “With one like that, you will never get lost.”

From her mouth, that was the loftiest of praise.

Nina agreed.

Over time, however, she discovered a number of things that, try as she might, she couldn’t explain. As she saw it, there were incompatible things that coexisted within Vitya’s character.

He was able to admire beauty from his soul—the fields that extended to the horizon, a stormy downpour in June, the autumn for­est dotted with the magenta and yellow of dying leaves, the emerald haze of spring in the birch groves, and the old, crumbling city center of Rogozhin.

“They’ve got the fall harvest out!” Vitya once exclaimed in delight. “Every roadside stand we pass looks better than the one before it! And the honey mushrooms, such beautiful honey mushrooms! Oh, how they make my soul sing! Let’s stop and buy some!”

And they really did stop by the side of the road and buy a small plastic bucket full of choice September honey mushrooms, with pine needles, spiders, and slimy slugs still on them.

“At the dacha, Nina, I planted watermelon this year,” Vitya con­fessed in an intimate voice, like he was a child starting to tell Nina a ridiculous and funny secret.

“You don’t say! Did they ripen?”

“They ripened, Nin, you’d better believe it. They’re small, but so sweet! They’re like sugar, these watermelons.”

Vitya was capable of admiring the cherry and apple blossoms, sun­flowers, and clover. He grew vegetables at his dacha, understood what to plant and when, and read special magazines.

“Fir and pine,” he told Nina, “must absolutely be covered in the fall. In the winter they are cold, and in spring the sun burns them. Imagine, you’ve got flowers all around, but your pine tree is burnt.”

But one time outside the notary office Nina saw a tiny red puppy, so little and comical, hobbling down the path. A bitch had whelped under a construction trailer two weeks before. Nina picked him up and held him in the palm of her hand, where the plump puppy flattened himself out like a pancake, and brought him to the car to show Vitya.

“Vitya, look at this little miracle!”

And then came the unexpected: a fastidious, almost disgusted gri­mace appeared on Vitya’s face. He gave Nina a bewildered look as she smiled with the puppy in her hand, not understanding what exactly it was he should admire.

Another time they were on their way back to Moscow toward eve­ning. They had taken the Spanish couple to their hotel and were hurrying home. Suddenly Nina saw a cat lying along the highway. The cat looked like it was napping, like a ceramic piggy bank—its paws curled up and its head lowered. It had been hit by a car—hit but not killed. Stunned by the blow, it couldn’t get off the road. It was lying there help­lessly, directly in the path of traffic.

“Vitya,” begged Nina. “Stop the car!”

“What is it?” Vitya said, surprised.

“There’s a cat. I need to get out for a second. It’s lying on the side of the road. And it’s in bad shape.”

Again there was a look of disgust on his face.

“To hell with it. That piece of filth did it to itself. Leave it, Nina.”

He hit the gas and drove on.

One time in the summer, they were meeting a plane from Barcelona at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. The flight was delayed. The stifling afternoon heat baked the asphalt, and the airplanes flew into the sky surrounded by a wavering, sweltering haze.

Nina and Vitya sat in the airport restaurant, reading the newspaper and drinking kvas.

Suddenly Nina looked up and saw unusual people in the dining area. By all indications, they were genuine orthodox Hasidic Jews. There were two older men and a younger man, and they looked as if they had just emerged from a theatrical scene, or arrived in a time machine from somewhere in the nineteenth century: long curly sidelocks, long black coats, and wide-brimmed hats. They were heading to the check-in desk—about ten minutes before it had been announced that the just-arriving plane would be continuing on to Tel Aviv.

“Oh, Vitya, look! Jews with sidelocks!” Nina exclaimed. “I thought you could only see them in Jerusalem!”

Vitya put his mug of kvas down on the table, set down his news­paper, and dutifully looked where Nina was looking. Then once again before her was a man she didn’t recognize, a man who was markedly different from the customary Vitya: foreign, with a face distorted by anger. It was the first and last time the typically amiable and well-mannered Vitya cursed in her presence—he cursed angrily, hoarse and stammering.

“I can’t tell you how much I hate those bastards!”

“For what?” Nina wanted to ask, but she restrained herself. It was such a fierce, centuries-old hatred that had hardened on Vitya’s hand­some and amiable face.

“I told you,” replied Ksenia, like it was nothing, after listening to Nina’s story. “Once a taxi driver, always a taxi driver. Why are you so surprised?”

But Nina was still surprised.

Later, when her life began to change rapidly and irreversibly, when everything that was destined to happen happened, she often thought about that time back at the beginning, when she first saw in Vitya how good and evil were unfathomably and hopelessly mixed up in the world, so much so that they were impossible to separate.

*

From Wake in Winter by Nadezhda Belenkaya.

Nadezhda Belenkaya was born in Moscow and has a degree in Hispanic studies and literary translation from the Gorky Literary Institute. She is the author of more than twenty short stories and novelettes. She has also translated many essays and novels from Spanish to her native Russian. Wake in Winter is Belenkaya’s first novel. She currently resides in Moscow.

Translated from the Russian by Andrea Gregovich.

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