People say you see images rush in front of your eyes the moment before you die, images from the past like riding on a dirt road in the trunk of your dad’s truck to a camping ground or a butter pecan ice cream you had last week. They do this in the movies. An advertising executive with a bullet in his head lying on the back at Boy Scout camp watches stars and yellow maple leaves falling from above in slow motion, grandmother’s hands with paper skin.
You see nothing. The mind goes blank and empties itself void of all thoughts. Fear numbs your bones. You want to vomit because you smell your own brain spattered on the grass when you fall face down on it with your head split open from a handgun shot that hadn’t been fired yet.
The gun’s barrel is dug into my neck’s jugular vein, pointing up. This close from the muzzle, the gunshot will leave some soot around the entry hole and pelt in a symmetrical pattern. Forensics call this a powder tattoo, the tiny burns left by the blazing propellant specks leaving the gun’s chamber. When you see a powder tattoo on a dead body and no soot, you know the shot had been fired from a distance because the propellant specks spray farther than the smoke. For handguns, the rule of thumb is the distance the powder grains can travel to reach the skin is about twice the barrel’s length. The bullet, its friction against the rifling will gouge off pieces of the barrel steel and the jacket and thrust them at the skin. You can’t wipe off these fragments postmortem, they stay.
He says pray and jabs the gun barrel harder against my neck. They give you time to pray before blowing your brains off in Eastern Orthodox lands. A benevolent tradition. No rush, it’s an execution. A five-second talk with God before the firing pin strikes the cartridge primer. After that, the primer ignites the powder inside the cartridge and the explosion’s gases send the bullet down the barrel at 315 meters per second velocity. I know this from my school primary military training because the handgun pressed against my throat is a semi-automatic blowback Makarov, the Soviet militsiya’s sidearm.
This is my comeback year. Elizarov never told me why he took me back. Eighteen months off the bike and he grabs me on the street between the seasons and asks if I want to go to Sochi with Titan and start over.
Maybe he has to restart his project too. The Seoul Games had been a flop for the Soviet road cycling. Titan, one of our guys brought home a gold medal from the men’s kilo but no one from the road squad had qualified for the Games.
Start over. Find a new tune. Adopt and mutate. The system you grew up with, that 72-year-old machine no one thought would ever stop turning, it’s on its knees, bleeding and stinking as a wounded pig.
I told him I haven’t got a single piece of kit left, langered everything away. The shoes, I kept the shoes and he says not to worry. Will kit you out tonight he says.
Two days before that, I run into a Ukrainian Cycling Federation bureaucrat outside of a liqueur store on the Kreschatyk street in Kiev. Plastered, with a cigarette in my mouth, I was waiting for Nikolai, hugging two brandy bottles on my chest.
Nikolai, a Gogol lookalike dude with a thin moustache, is a violin maker with a waiting list for his instruments longer than he can handle in a lifetime. He makes violins and cellos at night, sleeps until two, drinks, and makes more violins and cellos. He lives in a one-bedroom flat in Vinogradnyey Gory with his third wife Larisa who used to play the cello before she married him. He works in a 10-square-meter bedroom filled with wood and tools where no more than two people can fit at the same time. Him and his wife sleep on a couch in the living room. No shower. Back when the flat was built, shower was too bourgeois. They wash in the kitchen behind a plastic curtain with a makeshift showering contraption that looks like a stripped-down torture appliance.
I’d been dating Larisa’s sister when I met Nikolai and we clicked right away. Both from North Caucasus, the namesakes, why not.
We drank night after night, me sitting in the kitchen in a cloud of smoke and him in the workshop two metres away talking about violins, Stradivari, and cycling. He told me he knows how Stradivari made his instruments sing the way they do. He’d figured it out. My stuff, he kept saying, sounds like a million bucks.
This one day I come by and he’s sitting in the living room with a guy he introduces as Albert. They drink ethyl spirit, 95% alcohol load. You swallow this stuff straight in and it’ll burn your throat as if you’d swallowed a bag of chillies. Add some water to it and it’s like vodka except it stinks and the reaction between water and spirit makes the mixture warm and milky. If you’re not used to this elixir, it’d want to come up out of your stomach right after it flows in and then it’d settle and stay put. It’s volatile.
They’re drunk as skunks when I walk in. Albert is a violin player who owes Nikolai two thousand roubles for an instrument he made for him last year. This is how they treat him these guys. Order an instrument, pay couple hundred to start the job, pester the instrument out of his hands for another couple hundred when it’s finished, and then make sure you never run into him or when you do and he gives you hell, bring a bottle and some cash to calm the fret. Nikolai is a human bank with thousands in outstanding debts and no leverage to make his clients pay. Everyone is broke, even the ones who travel the world and make money. Back at home, they blow away what they earn abroad on toys and parties.
Hours later and more ethyl we kick Albert out the door, sit in the kitchen and brew Turkish coffee. It’s four in the morning and Nikolai shows me a piece of maple wood and how this is going to be the next viola’s neck and why maple is used for the neck and spruce for what he calls the soundboard. This is when he says, “What are you doing sitting here with me drinking ethyl?”
“We’re pissing our lives away. I make the best violins in the world and I’m drinking ethyl with a Jew who owes me more money than he can make in a year.”
Yeah, tell me about it. Tell me life isn’t shit that smells like ethyl, tell me the best day of my life is still in the future. Tell me, let’s hear it.
He says, “I need a bigger workshop.”
Me, I need a sleep.
“Imagine,” he says, “imagine this whole flat is a workshop. I’d have room for a lathe. I’d triple my production. More than triple.”
“No one pays you anyway.”
“Man, if I could build an extension to this building. A shed.”
“Dream on,” I said in English.
“A song by Nazareth. You’re fooling yourself… dream on… dream on.”
He lights a cigarette and says, “What if we dig under the flat?”
“You’re drunk. And mad.”
He kneels on the kitchen floor and crawls to the workshop looking at the floor planks. “Easy to remove these,” he says from the floor.
I tell him again how crazy this is and how we’ll end up in prison if someone finds out we’re digging a hole under the flat and what if the whole building falls because of our digging and he says it won’t fall, it’s just a small cellar and you’re not a construction engineer anyway to know why buildings fall.
Yeah like you are.
We start digging the next day. To keep this a secret, we dig at night, fill 40-liter potato sacs with dirt, carry them outside and dump them at the construction site next to Nikolai’s flats. After digging for two weeks, we hit a concrete slab and our cellar is only one meter deep. You can hide a dead body in this hole but the dream of doubling the workshop’s space dies here tonight. I sit on the kitchen’s floor with my feet in the hole and tell this to Nikolai. I tell him the last two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life and as all dreams do, this one has to die too.
At least, we’re not in prison.
This is when we run into the cycling bureaucrat on the Kreschatyk street, the day the workshop dream died. Nikolai had a job to go to once a week at the Kiev Conservatoire because not having a job was against the antiparasite laws. Stay unemployed for more than four months and you’d end up behind bars for parasitic lifestyle.
I tagged along with him to Konsa to hang out with men and women who all carried violin cases and talked as if they’d never heard a swear word before in their life. We smoked and drank black, thick coffee mixed with brandy in one of the foyers and I listened to bohemian gossip, jokes, and anecdotes about Vienna’s and Stockholm’s concert halls. The brandy came from violin cases, everyone had a flask or a small bottle in the case. In the Soviet Union, sober is not how you play serious music.
The bureaucrat, eyes wide open, says: “You smoke?”
“Nah, fooling around.”
He says, “What are you doing here?” Looks at the bottles hugged to my chest, saying: “What’s going on?”
The guy doesn’t know I quit racing. This is when Nikolai comes out with two bottles of Crimean champagne he bought for his wife and an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
“Light?” he says and looks at me and then at the bureaucrat.
I give him my cigarette to light his. He lights it, looks at the bureaucrat, saying: “Problems?”
“No, not at all. Didn’t expect to see this young man with cigarettes and alcohol.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“I’m one of the Titan’s backers, I chair…”
“What do you want?”
“Kolya,” I say and pull Nikolai by the sleeve, “let’s go.”
“Excuse me,” the bureaucrat says. “Do you realise,” he says to Nikolai, “you thwart the development of a state-sponsored athlete?”
“Yes, you. We spend considerable resources on these guys and people like you impede our work. You should be ashamed.”
If hanging communist bureaucrats was a job, Nikolai would be its paragon. He smiles and tells him how the world would be a better place if everyone did something useful, like making musical instruments, and not sit in a room filled with sick demagogues’ collected works, go to meetings to talk and listen to bullshit, and then pretend all day you’re the hub of the universe.
“You’re a foul schmuck,” he ends the sermon.
Three days after that, I’m on a plane to Sochi to reboot my career.