“What are you bawling about, kid?”
“He’s not letting me play with his toy!”
“Well, you go and hit him. Smash his mouth and grab the toy. You’re a big boy, aren’t you?”
“But he’s wearing glasses.”
“Then smash his glasses in, you coward. Hit him so hard he bleeds, he’ll give it to you then. Make him bleed. Aren’t you my boy? If anyone says anything to you, don’t think, just hit them.”
Six-year-old Arthur rocked on the heels of his feet and seemed unsure as he walked towards the little boy playing in the sand some 20 meters away.
“Why don’t you leave him alone? We’re here for some fresh air, there’s no need for trouble.”
“Don’t you talk back to me! Since when have you grown shameless enough to comment on what I say, you bitch?” Hambo shouted back at her, then lifted his eyes and suddenly took in his wife’s appearance.
“What the hell are you wearing?”
According to an ancient Armenian legend, a king had three daughters: Zanazan (Variety), Zarmanazan (Amazing variety or a seed’s beauty) and Aregnazan (Beautiful as the sun). The king wanted a son but did not have one. One of the daughters, Aregnazan, passed beneath a rainbow and turned into a boy, Areg (Sun). One version of this legend is reflected in Ghazaros Aghayan’s (1840-1911) classic story Aregnazan.
“Looks like yesterday’s lesson wasn’t enough for you. Why don’t you expose your face to everyone too, the way you rush to bare your legs? Go back and put on some normal clothes, you shameless slut.”
His wife adjusted the scarf that was partly covering her face, concealing the bruise beneath her eye, as she turned and left. She was wearing a pink turtleneck above the sundress to cover the bruises on her neck and arms.
“My father would always say ‘Hit first, don’t think.’ Might is right,” Hambo said to his wife’s receding figure. “He was very kind. Back from prison, he spent all day teaching me things. I’m going to make a man of this pup, although your dirty blood is contaminating his roots.”
He stretched out his hand to his side, grabbing the bottle of vodka from the folding table. His gaze landed on his daughters playing near the shore.
“What? You’ve stripped them, too? Damn you! Take them back in with you. I don’t want to see any of you strutting around like that!”
The spring sun was blazing, blinding, burning. There wasn’t a shred of cloud above the lake. He had given his wife a good battering the previous day and, as an attempt at peacemaking, had brought them to Lake Sevan on this hot spring day. There was nobody around yet, except for the parents of that useless bespectacled kid, sitting far away. It was still nowhere near swimming weather, and he muttered to himself, “A guy can’t even sit at home and relax one day. Nobody appreciates how hard I work, I have to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, but nobody gets it. That mule would never get it, that’s for sure, all she cares about is exposing her ass to everyone.”
Fortunately, Sargis from the neighboring village arrived just in time with his inflatable motorboat.
“Let’s move, man.”
Then, to his wife,
“Keep an eye on the car.”
“It’s going to rain,” Sargis said, looking at the blazing sun.
“Rain, in this weather? Do you see a single cloud up there?”
“Daddy, daddy, will you take me with you?” His daughters rushed up to him, dressed in their normal city clothes.
“Fishing is not a girl’s job, my dears. The boat is too small.”
“Daddy, daddy, what about me?”
“Did you hit that kid? Where’s the toy? Does he still have it? What kind of a boy are you, how can you expect me to take you along?”
Arthur hung his head low.
“Take off that cap, kid!”
Arthur looked up at his cap, then hung his head low again.
It had been two years that he would not take that cap off, it would be on his head all the time. As soon as anyone tried to snatch it off, he would start screaming and throw a massive tantrum.
“If I see when I am back that you’ve behaved like a big boy, I’ll take you for a ride.”
They cast the fishing rods into the lake. Hambo looked up and put on a cap – the sun was burning down. They lit their cigarettes, Sargis was slowly rowing the boat ahead. Time passed, but the fishing rods remained unmoved, the trout was not biting.
“So is this my bad luck or yours?”
“If you’d asked for crayfish, things would have been different. Who has ever caught any trout on a lure at this time of the year here?”
“That’s crap. Row softly, you’ll scare them off.”
Very quickly, clouds gathered above them.
“Now this is real trout weather, man!”
The wind grew stronger.
“They’re going to bite now. When I catch one, I’ll give it to my son at the shore and tell him to smash its head against a rock. That little pup has to learn about life’s pleasures.”
But their wait was in vain.
“Should we head back?”
“Wait a bit more.”
And as it happens so often at Sevan, the colors and weather around them changed instantly – the wind blew harder and the rain started dripping, then pouring on them, like from a bucket.
“Turn the boat around. Your bad luck has rubbed off on me, man!”
Sargis gathered the fishing rods, which had not moved a bit. He pulled the long cord attached to the engine several times before it finally sputtered to life and the boat shuddered as it gathered speed and raced through the waves to the shore, from which they were now quite a distance away. It even seemed for a moment that they had reached the middle of Lake Sevan, although Hambo knew that this could not be the case.
Perhaps, he contemplated, this lack of success was a good excuse to avoid paying the fee he owed Sargis. He liked the thought, appreciating his own sharpness and farsightedness as he extended his hand to the half-empty bottle of vodka that he had kept under the seat. He had barely opened the bottle when the boat shivered to a stop.
“Looks like we’ve run out of gas.”
“You took the boat out to the lake without checking if we had enough gas?”
“Well, I thought you’d pay me up front and I’d buy some gas. We weren’t going to need a lot of fuel anyway.”
“Screw you. There are the oars, use them.”
Sargis started rowing, trying to move the boat against the wind. The rain came down on them like a sheer wall, and water started to accumulate in the boat as the waves rocked them in one direction, then the other.
“I don’t ever remember waves like this at Sevan.”
“We’ve had ‘em plenty of times,” Sargis said, the words calmly coming out through his mustache as he stubbornly continued to row.
“You’re going to have to empty the water,” said Sargis.
“Who, me? Do you think I am a menial laborer, you bastard?”
But there was no other way. Hambo took out a bucket from under the seat and, cursing the whole world, started to lazily pour out water from the boat, more for show. The water was not decreasing; it seemed there was more of it. “That slut is to blame,” he said to himself, “If she had behaved better and not forced me to whack her, I’d be sitting comfortably at home today, watching Juventus.” He could never forgive his wife – he had forced her to abort her first two pregnancies, but the third and fourth times, she and the doctors—everyone, in fact, her whole family—had tricked and convinced him that it was going to be a boy. As a result, by the time little Arthur came around, there had already been two unnecessary freeloaders needing care, and Hambo’s life had grown harder. Only little Arthur had managed to be some consolation to him, but “what kind of a boy was he going to end up becoming, anyway?” He would have to be taken to a doctor for that obsession with his cap, but he had no time and that lazy bitch could not do a thing without him. What if his head rots? He took another gulp of vodka and emptied two more buckets of water, then looked up to the shore – it was still far away, barely visible, and the rain was coming down like a thick pillar of water.
“Are you even rowing, man?”
“I’m doing the best I can,” said Sargis, the sweat and rain flooding his face in equal parts, “What’s the use?”
“I thought storms like this end quickly at Sevan.”
Hambo ran his hand along the taut insides of the boat.
“This better not be letting out any air, or we’re done for.”
“It won’t,” Sargis said calmly through his mustache, continuing to row.
“It won’t,” Sargis shouted.
“I thought you said the gasoline would be enough?” Hambo shouted desperately through the wind and rain.
“Gasoline costs money,” Sargis shouted back in a lecturing tone. “But the air in the boat is from my lungs.”
“Well, your lungs better not catch that virus or the boat will lose air for sure,” Hambo muttered to himself.
“Nothing, get back to work,” he shouted back angrily.
And then, suddenly, on the other side of a wall of pouring water, a huge rainbow appeared – a beautiful, colorful shawl, stretching from one shore to the other despite the rain, like a mountain in front of them.
“I guess they’re right, Sevan can get crazy sometimes. It’s still raining, but now this stupid thing appears, look at it!” Hambo shouted.
Sargis barely stopped rowing for a second and turned around to see the rainbow. At that very moment, a huge wave appeared and threw the boat upward, then forward, to the left… Hambo recalled the days in the army when the guys in his unit would play “blackout” and one of them would hit him on the back of the head with the butt of his rifle. His eyes rolled back in their sockets and the ground beneath him—what ground, the water in the boat—vanished, as he lost consciousness.
It was like a blow to the back of his skull, but there was no headache afterwards. The rain had stopped. The air seemed full of ozone. Sargis had spread a damp cloth on Hambo’s forehead, and sat in front of him, smoking a wet cigarette. The rainbow shimmered behind the boat.
“What happened, man?” Hambo said, barely managing to move his lips and trying to get up from the pool of water at the bottom of the boat.
“We went under the rainbow. These things happen.”
“But what hit me on the head?”
“Just a wave.”
“But can people go under rainbows?”
“Not often, but it happens. My grandfather once told me that he had taken a writer for a ride and it happened. I think it was Avetik Isahakyan.”
The lake surface had calmed down, it looked like a mirror, as if nothing had happened a few minutes ago. The clouds had disappeared. The only trace of the storm was the wonderful rainbow that twinkled behind the boat for a long time, glistening as it vanished bit by bit, as if the storm god was collecting the pieces of his puzzle one by one. Sargis rowed and got the boat back to the shore in about twenty minutes. Hambo swayed as he stepped out, walked to his lounge chair and sprawled in it.
“Daddy, daddy, did you catch anything?”
“No, son, there was a storm.”
“Are you tired, Dad?”
“Sure, you think it’s easy? Your dad had to fight a storm!”
“Could you take me for a ride?”
He thought to himself, “Maybe I could ask Sargis to take him for a ride somewhere close by, just row him around.” But that meant that he would not just have to give the money he had promised, but something extra too. He looked around for Sargis and saw that his wife was standing near their car, her purse open, giving Sargis something. “She wants him to think that she’s the one paying. How do you like that? I give her money, and she spends it like she’s doing me a favor.” His eyes were closing, a moment later he was sound asleep.
He got up at dusk, his wife and children had gathered their things and were waiting quietly near the car. He was in a terrible mood. Something felt wrong.
“Get in, get in the car and let’s leave this dumbass place.”
The guard in charge of the shore walked up to them.
“Sargis will pay for us. He got a nice bonus today thanks to this idiot here.”
“They’re saying that they’ve imposed a lockdown, there are police checkpoints all along the highway.”
“Well, there you go, I knew you had nothing nice to say to us. Get back to work.”
He shifted the old Pajero into gear angrily and moved the car to the highway, barely restraining himself as he drove. He drove for a bit before pulling the car over and stopping.
“My shoes are full of water.”
He took off his sneakers, then his wet socks, and threw them back to his wife without looking. The shoes hit one of his daughters on the nose.
“Hey, watch yourself, will you?”
He drove barefoot. His son was sitting next to him and the three females in the back were quiet.
He drove a bit more, then slowed down again.
“Why are there so many cars? And it’s like this damned road has grown a few more snake-like twists and turns.”
His wife looked at him in surprise, but said nothing.
“What are you staring at? You think I can’t see you? I see everything! Staring with those beady eyes! Mind your own business. Everyone’s going back to the city, it’s a Sunday evening, plus they’ve imposed a lockdown. Hey, what kind of driving is that?” Hambo slammed his hand down on the car horn with all his might.
The car next to him replied in kind.
Hambo blew his horn even harder.
“Hey, if you can’t drive, you shouldn’t be on the road, pal!”
The dark windows in the car next to his revealed the fleeting profile of a young woman.
“Ah, I should have known. She’s picked up her dad’s car and she’s having a good time with it, that blind tramp. No cares, no worries, no brains either!”
His wife once again stared at him in surprise. Hambo felt her gaze on him, but he did not say anything this time, he bit his tongue. “What’s going on with you, man? Watch yourself! You were solid as a rock once, now you sound like just another pebble,” he said to himself in his father’s voice.
The lights of a police car flashed in front of him in the darkness.
“Just my luck.”
He drove past and was not stopped. The closer he got to Yerevan, the slower he was driving. Suddenly, he felt nauseated. “Man, it looks like they sold me some bad moonshine in that vodka bottle, those bastards.” His arms and legs began to shiver all at once, and it was so bad that he was afraid the gas pedal would slip out under his foot or that he would be unable to hold on to the steering wheel. He pressed hard on the wheel, his knuckles going white.
His garage was on the other side of town. He barely managed to get the car there.
“Weren’t you going to drop us off at home first?”
“Get out of the car and get yourselves home, I have things to do.”
His wife and children quietly stepped out of the car and went to the bus stop.
He drove the car into the garage and bent over the steering wheel for a while, trying to gather his thoughts.
He put the moist sneakers on his bare feet, barely managed to lock the garage, and then walked onto the highway, stopped a taxi, opened the back door and sat down.
“Why are you sitting in the back like a sissy?” the driver asked, looking suspiciously at how that awkward figure had climbed into his cab. “I don’t drive sissies.”
He was on the brink of exploding.
“Mind your own business,” he heard himself say and shut up.
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror and did not continue. He drove to the address he was told.
Hambo stepped out and walked to the entrance of his building.
“Hey, aren’t you going to pay me?”
“You call me a sissy and expect to get paid, asshole?”
The driver swore, spat, and drove off.
He walked into his apartment feeling terrible. He collapsed into bed and fell into a deep slumber.
In the morning—no, it was noon—he woke up. He went to the bathroom. He was no longer feeling sick, but something was not quite right. He was weak. He had not shaved in five days and thought lazily that he would not be able to avoid it today. But when he rinsed his face, he looked in the mirror and was stunned. There wasn’t a trace of a single hair on his face, even the stubble from the past days had vanished. “Did that idiot shave me while I was asleep? I wouldn’t put it past her.” He rubbed his smooth cheeks – there was just a light covering of vellus hair, as if he had never shaved, and there was a mole on his left cheek.
He felt something strange with his chest. He pulled up his shirt. His chest had swollen, each breast hanging. Yes, he had always had a fat belly and large man-breasts—muscular, like a guy should have—and it’s true that he was growing older, but wasn’t this a bit too much?
“What’s happening to me?”
On the toilet, he almost lost his mind.
“Calm down, calm down,” he said to himself, “It’s the virus, it has to be. You’ve caught it. Even better – they’ll realize once I’m gone how tough it is without me. That ingrate will finally know, and that kid will feel sorry that he didn’t take off his cap after I asked him to a thousand times.”
“Hello? Doctor? I don’t feel so good.”
“I can’t explain it, but I think I’ve caught it. I have kids, please come quick, I don’t want to infect them.”
It was a female voice, so he didn’t want to tell her the symptoms. He made up a few – fever, nausea (well, that one wasn’t completely made up), and when he called them a third time, they finally said they would show up.
“So that’s why there’s so little news about what happens when you catch this virus. You really can’t expect them to announce this.” It was a difficult secret to keep and he felt like he would explode, but who could you tell something like this?
They eventually arrived, but unfortunately the doctor was a woman, and there was a female nurse with her too.
“Wasn’t there a man they could have sent?”
“I’m a doctor, you can tell me everything, it’s fine.”
“I can’t. Doctor, I… well, it’s that thing… you know?”
“Is it a venereal condition? You don’t have a fever. Come on, speak up, no need to feel embarrassed.”
“No, nothing venereal. That chick from Ukraine was clean. No, look…”
But he could not bring himself to say it.
The doctor went to the other room and started talking to his wife.
“What’s going on with your husband?”
His wife said that she could not understand it.
The doctor stared at the wife’s face and grabbed her by the chin, then examined the bruise under her eye. She asked her to lift up her sleeves. She saw the bruises. She clicked her tongue disapprovingly. Then she turned to the children. She glanced at the boy’s cap fleetingly.
“Who’s that person in the other room?”
“Father,” one of the girls said.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He had a lot to drink yesterday, and he got drenched in the rain at Sevan.”
“We can’t take you to a hospital,” she said, coming back to his room, “You don’t have coronavirus symptoms, and we only admit other patients if they’re at risk of dying. Spend some time in bed and you’ll gradually feel better. And you should treat your family with more respect. Or you’ll end up being admitted to another institution.”
After they left, Hambo locked himself in the bathroom and began to punch himself in the head.
“Such bad luck, such bad luck! Why couldn’t they have sent a guy?”
He called Sero, one of his few friends.
“What’s up, man?”
“What do you think is up? We’re drowning in orders, we can’t keep up.”
Sero had a company that sold farm food. Sero was really lucky these days.
“Let’s go get a bite to eat somewhere, man.”
Sero had neither the time, nor the inclination to go to a restaurant with Hambo. When he was out with the guys, Hambo had the nasty habit of disappearing at the last moment, as if going to the toilet and then calling to say that he had to leave urgently, asking one of the guys to pay his share of the bill.
“You know how busy I am, man.”
“Come on, pal, this is important.”
“I can’t, man. What’s going on with you?”
“Well, I thought I had caught it for a minute, but then a lady came and said I hadn’t. Things at work have come to a stop, you know?”
“It’ll work out fine, pal, don’t worry.”
What was going to work out? Hambo was the supervisor at a small factory. The owner paid him regularly, but the factory had been ordered to stop operations five days ago. Things had gone downhill ever since the Revolution. He had been working for Dregs Bindo before that and had a lot of work on his hands, but Dregs Bindo grabbed his things and fled for Paris after the Revolution, leaving just the job at the factory to his loyal Hambo. At least he had left him that much, but now…
“Could things get any worse?” Hambo said in a singsong voice.
“What did you say? Oh, is this Hambo’s wife? Is Hambo really sick, sister?”
Hambo ended the call. His voice had gained a surprising shrillness. He went back to the bathroom and looked at his face. His eyebrows were arched and looked thinner, a glimmer had appeared in his eyes, his lips were fuller and red, as if covered with lipstick. He no longer dared to look down. He tried to sneak a peek, but then quickly looked up again. “If only I’d lose some of this belly fat, at least some good would come of this bug.” But no. His belly kept hanging out, perhaps the only thing that remained unchanged.
“Bring me something to wear, I’m going out.”
His wife brought him a light blue face mask and rubber gloves.
“Have you completely lost it, woman? You think I’d be caught dead with that thing on my face? What do you take me for?”
“What can I do? This is all we have!”
“Are you done talking? Bring me that black scarf of yours.”
“That scarf is really long.”
“It would be a shame to cut it.”
“Shut up, will you? A ‘shame’. We’ll spread it flat as a pancake and snip it, no shame there! You think I give a damn? So, because you bought it, you think it’s a shame to cut it? If I had bought it, it wouldn’t be a shame, would it? Whose money bought you that scarf?”
“Whose? Speak louder, I can’t hear you.”
“Louder! So the kids will hear you.”
“Your money bought it,” his wife shouted.
The kids in the other room fell quiet.
“That’s better. Now cut it.”
His wife spread the scarf on the table and picked up a pair of scissors, but kept staring at the cloth and hesitating.
“Why, you little… Give it here.”
His wife cowered as she handed him the scissors, the blades facing her.
He grabbed the scissors and feigned a blow in his wife’s direction with his other fist. She jumped aside.
“Since when have you been so scared of me? Have I ever stabbed you with a knife? You’re right though, you should be scared. You should be very scared, it might serve you well in life one day,” he continued. But he was suddenly overcome by a sharp pain in his stomach, so powerful that he had to double over.
He barely managed to straighten himself, overcoming the pain, as he bent slightly over the scarf, took a rough measurement, leaned the scissors into the edge of the cloth and then cut out a triangular shape with one swift stroke, and a second with another.
He tied one to his face and he held the other one out to his wife.
“This one’s for you. Now you can’t say, ‘My husband left home without doing anything for me.’ You might need it for going to the store. Don’t put on any other mask, you hear? No wife of mine is going to leave home in a light blue mask, no matter what. If you do anything like that, I’ll hunt you to your grave if I have to, but I’ll find you. You know where the money is.”
This time she paid less attention to his threats. She was looking at him in surprise.
“Where did you learn how to do that?”
“Did you take any tailoring or sewing classes when you were in prison?”
“What, you think I’m talentless like you? Careful now, don’t make me angry!”
He called one of his daughters. He told his wife,
“Tell her to write out that paper that we need to leave the house.”
His daughter filled out the form, Hambo put on his black raincoat, put on a black cap, adjusted the black mask on his face, and left the house.
His garage had ended up being far from home because he had bought another garage near his place, whose owner had moved to America, but he had never paid him. Hambo had registered it in his own name a long time ago. But then the owner had come back and said, “Pay up or move out,” and Hambo had said, “I’ll smash your face in,” and a few other choice phrases about his mother, grandmothers, and other relatives. The following day, six guys dressed in black had surrounded Hambo, removed his car and smashed it against a tree. So it turned out that the guy had not lost his connections here, even after he had hightailed it to LA. Hambo had been forced to take the garage belonging to Garik, one of the factory workers, a quiet guy, promising to pay him for it, but he had been putting that off ever since.
Now, he walked along the dark streets, trying to avoid people. He could only see black shadows here and there, which disappeared into the deserted streets, sidestepping each other, with only the rare asshole in bright clothing. He would no longer risk getting into a cab, he didn’t want to spend the money either, and he was particularly sure that he would not take public transport. As soon as he saw another person’s dark figure ahead—or a group, even worse—he would move in a different direction. He was particularly afraid of the police – they were shining torches in people’s faces. Then he came to a spot where he no longer had the option to evade – a group of five young men in black, wearing black masks but in each other’s faces, were coming from the opposite direction on that narrow path. There was nowhere to go. They faced each other and he tried to turn his face away and slip past them.
“Look at this guy,” one of them said. “Hey man, are you afraid we’re going to infect you, or something? Why are you trying to walk past us so silently?”
The blood rushed to his head and he turned around to strike a blow.
“Man, this one’s a whore. Look at her!”
“Hey, sis, are you a slut? Let’s go have some fun.”
“Don’t ‘sis’ me, you son of a bitch,” he said and rushed his fist toward the nose of the person who had just spoken.
But… his muscles were weaker, his arm was just as thick, but the muscles that he had cherished so much had been replaced by fat and flesh. He barely touched the other guy’s chin, who managed to pull back in surprise.
“Man, there’s a lot of fight in this slut.”
Another one of them turned on his phone’s flashlight and shone it in Hambo’s face.
“Hey, take a look at this one. He’s one of those homos from the park, goddamn it!”
“Well, well… looks like it’s our lucky day today.”
The guys jumped him. Hambo fell to the ground after a few blows and they kicked him in the abdomen and back at least ten times. He only responded with groans, so that the police would not hear anything. In the dark, five dark shadows breathed heavily as they kicked around a sixth one on the ground – it was like five street dogs that had found a fat, dead rat. They dug their pointy shoes into the guts of his softened body. But they avoided hitting him in the face or head.
“Disgusting thing. Let’s go wash up, man, who knows what we could catch from this thing?”
Hambo lay there on the wet ground for a bit, curled up in the fetal position, before somehow getting up with a moan. His legs were trembling. His face was bloodied. He wiped his mouth with his hand and limped towards the garage.
He looked at himself in the car mirror and wiped his mouth with his hand again. He didn’t even have any water to wash up. He covered his face with the black scarf again and drove in the direction of the “rancho”.
The “rancho” was his haven. It was in a small space five structures around it, near a city garbage dump where something was constantly burning. It had a nice garden and a wooden single-room hut. It used to belong to an Azeri, and someone had privatized it after he had left, who then wanted to sell it. Ten years ago, Hambo had had a great run selling bootleg cognac in Krasnodar and had returned home in a great mood. The guy had asked for a thousand dollars for the place at first, then they had agreed to three hundred, and Hambo had ended up giving him only two. It was his getaway spot. Even though it was near the garbage dump, one could not sense the smell – the area was full of gardens that kept the stench away, like magic. Hambo’s garden had had fruit trees in it – a sour cherry tree, white cherry tree, apple tree, plum tree, apricot tree, pear tree, and more. There had been berry bushes around the fence. Blackberries and black currants. After Hambo had taken ownership, the trees and bushes had dried up, most of them no longer bore any fruit because nobody tended to them. Some years they would not even blossom, but they were still green.
Luckily, it was night time, and the homeless family that lived in the trailer next door would not step outside their place at this hour, they would not see him. The bums had illegally claimed ownership of the trailer next to the “rancho” and they had seven children. The father used to be an engineer but was an alcoholic and now spent his time digging in the garbage dump. The mother had a degree in education but mostly went through garbage cans across the city. Five of the seven kids were boys, each one smaller than the other; these kinds of people are lucky that way.
Every time he came here, they would run up to him saying, “Uncle Hambo, Uncle Hambo, give us a piece of bread?” He would shoo them away, like they were flies. He used to keep a dog tied to a pole, Geena, a huge animal which he would purposefully keep hungry for days so that she would always be mad. She died of God knows what – Sero said it must have been hunger, but Hambo knew that Geena could go for weeks without food and not care one bit, she would just get madder, which is exactly what he needed. The bum kids must have secretly poisoned her but, ever since she was alive, they had always been too scared to enter Hambo’s “rancho”, even if he had not appeared there for weeks.
He parked the car and glanced at his face in the mirror again – the bleeding had stopped, the blood had congealed on his face. Suddenly, he felt a wetness between his legs. He placed a hand there – more blood. “Ew, I’m utterly disgusting.” Perhaps ending his life was the only way out. What else could he do? He stepped out of the car, limped to the hut, climbed up to the high pile of mattresses that had remained from the days of that Azeri, and was out like a light.
Hambo was woken up by twittering. It was a stunning concert, the kind you would never hear in the city. There were all kinds of chirping involved – starlings, sparrows, pigeons, nightingales, the one that pecks trees, whatever it’s called, even crows. What a concert, what a fight! If you’ve never heard a crow singing a love song, there’s no point describing it to you.
Hambo got up, those legs covered in blood from top to bottom, and stepped out into the garden. The trees had blossomed – white, red, yellow, every color. As Hambo walked beneath their foliage, the dew and the previous night’s leftover rain dripped down. “So now my life has served up a dew shower too.” Hambo walked up to the tap attached to the water source and tried to twist it open. It had grown rusty and would not budge. Hambo tried with both hands, the fingers of which suddenly stood out – they had grown slimmer, the nails were clean and trim, as if they had been manicured and adorned with nail polish. Thank God, the rough skin beneath the nail beds was still calloused. Hambo barely managed to open the tap, both hands hurting with the effort. Hambo splashed the cold water and washed up, or rather bathed, muttering with pain. Hambo’s whole body was covered in bruises. Hambo shivered all the way back to the hut and found a piece of cloth, which fit well between the legs. Hambo then wrapped a tablecloth around the waist – those pants were no use now, they needed to be washed. Gathering the dirty clothes, Hambo piled them up and put them aside. The hut was terribly dirty, it hadn’t been cleaned in years. The wife would not come to the hut, Hambo had never wanted her to step foot here. The last time Hambo and the guys had been here, they had had a feast and then left everything messed up like this – the plates and glasses on the garden table remained as they had been, now covered with mold. Hambo picked them all up, took them to the water source and washed them, removing the moldy crust, arranging them carefully. Then Hambo picked up a piece of cloth and cleaned up the hut, removed the portable gas stove from under the table, found a match and tried lighting it – it still worked and had some gas in it. The match was a reminder of cigarettes. So Hambo lit one and took a drag, but spat it out in a coughing fit and extinguished it, throwing it aside. Hambo opened the small refrigerator – there was a lot of food in it. They had come to have a feast last time and everyone had brought something to eat. They had had so much to drink that they had barely been able to take a bite of any food. Sero had brought a large amount of cottage cheese—God knows who needed so much of the stuff—and bricks of it still remained there, piled on each other.
“I need to work out a system.” Hambo gathered all the garbage in the house and garden and wrapped it in the pages of an old tabloid that had Gorbachev’s picture on it (he would use old newspapers in the furnace in the winter), then took it outside to throw in a pile of garbage. The pile of garbage had an umbilical cord connecting it to the garbage dump, but it was not very close to it – it stood at the end of the five-structure territory. It was still quite early in the morning – the homeless kids had not yet stepped out of their house, although their father had been “at work” for a while now and their mother had probably not returned home from her “scavenger hunt” from the previous night. Walking back, Hambo spotted them looking out the window and the three-year-old shot out of the trailer, shouting, “Uncle Hambo, Uncle Hambo, got any candy?” But he was suddenly quiet and ran back inside.
Hambo found the frying pan in the hut, cleaned it and poured a little oil into it. Hambo put it on the gas stove, opened a can of cherry jam, and poured some cottage cheese into a plate. Hambo added a few pitted cherries and some of the jam, cracked a couple of eggs, added this and that, then kneaded the mix. Then Hambo started to cook something that had been made thirty years ago, when mother had last done it. No, the wife had never made this. Hambo could never forget how it had tasted. The pleasant smell of something frying emanated from the “rancho”. The bum children, stunned, were scared at first. But they grew braver and more brazen, glued to the gate and peeking at Hambo like homeless dogs looking into a garden. Hambo made around thirty pieces – that huge plate was full to the brim. Finally, the smallest of the bums dared make a sound, “Auntie Hambo, Auntie Hambo, could you give us something to eat?”
Hambo stepped out into the garden with the plate and put it on the table. The smell of cottage cheese pancakes rose up like a cloud, adding the aroma of cake to the fairytale scene of the blooming garden. The birds ended their concert and gathered at the top of a tree to watch the miracle that was unfolding on the table beneath them. Hands wiping on the tablecloth skirt wrapped around the waist, Hambo hiked up one edge of the cloth to make it easier for those hairless bare legs to walk, then slammed a foot down with certainty in the direction of the garden gate. The kids ran back. Hambo went and opened the door for them.
“Come on kids, the cottage cheese pancakes are ready!”
In the distance, near the garbage pile, seven pairs of shiny eyes were warily peeking at Hambo.
Dedicated to Margo Dadayan.
In cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Foundation Yerevan Office South Caucasus Region