Between Sputnik and Gagarin by Alex Braverman


I think my father is losing it. He doesn’t remember anything at all. At first, he couldn’t remember what happened minutes ago, but could remember what happened last century.

“Where did you put your slippers?" my mother would ask.

“These you call slippers?" he would answer. “Years ago they used to make slippers. Ah! Those were the slippers! And today? Today they can’t make slippers. They make them out of paper," and he would expound on the relative quality of the slippers now and then, comparing their beauty, efficacy, and defects.

“All I want to know is where you put your slippers now! I don’t want to know their state at the time between Sputnik and Gagarin!

"Where did you put the today’s slippers, now?" would insist my pragmatic mother.

“Now?" he would look at her bewildered, “now? Now I don’t remember. Maybe I’ll remember in twenty years!" With this joke as the party stopper, he would recline on the couch with an apple and a newspaper. So he’s losing it, he can’t remember anything at all. Drat!

Never mind the slippers, this story is not about the slippers, so enough already! Not enough? You want to know more about the slippers and whether they were found and what they looked like and whether my father ever wore them again? They
were brown. I am sure they were brown because my father would never wear slippers that were not brown.

“They can be any color you like, as long as they are brown," my father would exhibit his erudition and knowledge of the more popular sayings of the anti-Semite Henry Ford. At this point, it is vital not to let him talk about Henry Ford, for
your own sanity, so you win! You win! I’ll tell you about the slippers. The current slippers, after which my mother inquired, were found between the couch and the vase with no flowers. A vase with no flowers is better than a vase with
plastic flowers, while still efficiently arresting straying slippers.

The slippers made between Sputnik and Gagarin, the ones my father remembered for their sturdiness, had disappeared. Those
slippers were brown on the outside and secretly red on the inside. Not entirely red, they had red and white squares in the Scottish sort of way, but on the inside they looked red to me. So there’s an allegory in this story: the insides of the slippers represent the insides of my father.

Not the kishkes -- the ideology. Red, but not entirely; there are some white squares. Maybe he was a Scottish
Zionist, like Golda Meir. What?

Golda Meir was not a Scottish Zionist? What was she, a Scottish separatist, maybe? So sit. Take off your shoes and put on the slippers.

Recline on the couch and start feeling at home. Since you don’t know the story, all you can do is
listen. Yes, in silence.

Every man’s life is subdivided into three distinct lives: work life, home life, and a secret life. My father’s work life was mostly in the polyclinic where he gave injections and prescribed antibiotics. The injections were very painful, the antibiotics were very bitter, and the patients were very grateful. I know these things because he tried them on me, except I was not grateful. No, he did not try the patients on meÍ he only tried the injections and the antibiotics. I was not grateful. I was grateful when he was trying them out on his other patients. That’s why I really got to appreciate his work life: it diverted his attention from me to the other patients and I was spared most of the time.

My father’s secret life was nonexistent--and don’t tell me it was existent, but so secret that I couldn’t
have possibly known about it, especially at the age of five. Don’t tell me any of it! My father couldn’t
have a secret life because he could never keep a secretÍ for example: that I drew a little blue bunny on the wall under the bed where I thought no one would ever find it, or that a tiny piece of chocolate was chewed off from the main body by an unknown thief that came to dinner but didn’t stay, or that Stalin died -- he just couldn’t keep it secret. He would blurt it out to my mother at the very moment she stepped through the door and then there would be a scandal. So how could such a man have a secret life, I ask you? Such a man could not have a secret life, you should answer! And if you don’t, then stop feeling at home, put on your shoes, and go find yourself another storyteller, with a
sleazy mind, maybe.

My father’s home life revolved around apples, newspapers, and his slippers. His work life took, maybe,
32 hours each day, so by the time he arrived to his home life he was deserving of some rest. This was
fulfilled by reclining on the couch with an apple and a newspaper. The apple was green, sour, and loud. In winter, when there were no apples, the apple was a carrot. Sometimes, it was a turnip. At other times, it was the parsnip-looking heart of a cabbage -- a delicacy! But for my father it was always a green, sour, loud apple.

The newspaper was Izvestiya. The slippers were brown on the outside and Scottish on the inside, but you could not see the inside because the insides of the slippers were occupied by my father’s feet. It was absolutely prohibited to recline on the couch with slippers on one’s feet. The prohibition came directly from Mt. Sinai and delivered, still warm, by my mother.

And if my mother prohibits something, it’s stricter than kosher in a yeshiva. There’s no atonement for
the violation, no yankipper will wash it away. It is doomsday parade and a scandal. But my father with an apple and Izvestiya was like a rock: unhearing, unfeeling, and unresponsive, and hence not a party
to the crime and punishment proceedings. He was beyond redemption, which he would indicate to my mother before she could make the statement for the prosecution, “My feet are strictly off the furniture. Strictly! -- and that was that, call in the Spanish Inquisition, but he would not part with his slippers and be saved.

The couch was called divan. It was light blue with make-believe gold thread and sewn-in buttons of the same cloth as the rest of the divan. The buttons subdivided the divan’s backrest into the palm-size diamonds called rhombs. The divan was situated in the dining room by the window. The dining room had one window and one door to the balcony.

The divan’s position made it possible to read the Izvestyia without turning on the light, at least sometimes. The divan was very small and could accommodate two people and a cat if all three were sittingÍ so when my father reclined on it with his head on one armrest, his feet (in the slippers) were dangling off the other. This proves that his feet were strictly off the furniture, he didn’t lie. (And you still think he could have a secret life?) And then the slippers got lost. He lost them!

Before this tragic event, my father had not lost a thing. Other people lose things. My mother lost her lipstick, and one time she lost the keys to the house (and there was a scandal and a locksmith), and another time her purse got stolen while she was riding the trolleybus --mand there was a big scandal.

Once, my grandmother lost a chicken on the way back from the marketplace-- it was a dead, plucked chicken, it couldn’t have eloped, so maybe it was stolen while she was riding the trolleybus--either way, she came home -- and there was no chicken. There was no scandal on that occasion because no one gives a scandal to Grandmother Rosa, on account of her being a saint, and you don’t give scandals to saints. Later, when I was already going to school, I once lost my shoes and walked home barefoot, and there was a terrible scandal.

But my father has never lost anything. Never! Until the day he lost his slippers, which actually happened at night. I got blamed for the lost slippers, even though I was only five and I wasn’t even there when it happened. But since my father had never lost a thing, someone had to take the fall for him. So now I rewind my story to the time between Sputnik and Gagarin when I was five, when father was still Papa, mother was Mama, and Grandmother Rosa was just plain Babushka. This is how Papa lost his slippers:


Chapter 1 The Case of the Lost Slippers

Papa went to Kharkov. Kharkov is a city in the Ukraine. The Ukraine is a big republic in the USSR. I don’t know why it is called the Ukraine, instead of Ukraine. There’s only one Ukraine, so why the “the" But I will not burden you with my puzzlement over English. The words that I really need, such as “scandal," or “yankipper," or “divan" I will explain. This is for your comfort. I didn’t have to explain them. I could pretend that this story was originally written in Serbo-Croatian and you were reading a poor translation, just like Beowulf, or Bashevis Singer.

But I will be upfront and tell you that I am writing it in English ground up, so if something isn’t kosher, then it just isn’t.

So Papa went to Kharkov in the Ukraine. Why?

It doesn’t matter! But I also know you will want to stick your snoot right in it and make it matter. Fine. So I’ll tell you. There was a doctors conference about popular Soviet diseases, like tape worms and Pasternak, and my father was sent there by someone high up, very high up, maybe even from the fourth floor of the Lithuanian Ministry of HealthÍ and they only had four floors, so this was as high up as one could get.

Papa was well-known and popular on the fourth floor of the Ministry of Health. This was on account of his extra-curricular activities: every year on the First of May and the 7th of November they held a very special celebration commiserating the (oh, to hell with it! it’s commemorating, of course) tremendous achievements of the Soviet free healthcareÍ and there was a party and a concert and a Khrushchev speech, and my father sang in a quartet:

Morning paints with gentle colors
Hedges of the ancient Kremlin,
Sleeping people wake up taller
In the Soviet land of Lenin.

Welcome chill and greet the bellow
Of the buses’ cheerful band!
'Morning, morning,' Moscow mellow,
The heart of Dear Motherland!

Forever undefeatable,
My Motherland,
My prostate gland --

You’re the most loveable!
Sunny May will color brightly
Friendly Moscow cobalt skyÍ
Let us briskly march, yet lightly,
Hauling gratitude’s supply!

Let the lacquer on our slogans
Sparkle brighter every dayÍ
Let’s be blessed by our Stalin’s
Blessings, on this day in May.

Forever undefeatable,
My Motherland,
My prostate gland --
You’re the most loveable!--

This singing pleased the Minister of Health, personally and collectively, and he remembered Papa as the singing Jew. So when the time came to send a doctor to the tape worm conference in Kharkov, my father was the one to board the train. He boarded the train with a brown suitcase. No, no! You misinterpret again, like a malicious attorney. My father was with a suitcase, not the train. And quit interrogating me, like I am in the dock. I am not in the dock, I am in the armchair, and you are on the couch. No, this is just a couch, it is not the divan. The divan was left in Vilnius. Papa did not take the divan on the train. But he did take a suitcase. Brown on the outside. Like the slippers.

Yes, there must be some existentialist significance to it. Do you know it? No. So shuh! Have a cookie! The conference was a success, parasites were condemned, especially Pasternak, and Papa went shopping for presents and little treats for the entire family, because not to do so would present him an as unfeeling, uncaring brute and there would be certain scandal. The choice of
gifts was somewhat limited, because Kharkov’s industry consisted primarily of a tractor factory.

The Kharkov Tractor Factory manufactured everything, including tractors, though this was not its main produce. The main produce of the Kharkov Tractor Factory were tanks. Therefore, the population of Kharkov had an unusually high content of spies. The spies were masquerading as drunksÍ that was their deep cover, but while tripping over their own unsteady feet and grabbing at the factory fence for support and pissing at it (what a devious disguise!), they were trying to get a glimpse of the new T-55 tanks and steal their secrets.

Papa marched pass the spies, a silent “phui" on his lips, and entered the factory store where he procured a manicure set, a matching kettle and pot, and a tricycle. These purchases burdened him physically and emotionally.

Physically, he simply could not carry all that and the brown suitcaseÍ emotionally, he had no doubt that the manicure set and the matching pot and kettle were a sign of decadence and a waste of scarce resources, and who did my mother think she was? Pasternak?

The tricycle was for me.

The train journey home was eventful. It was a dark and stormy night. Papa never drank vodkaÍ he also refused the tea, after determining that the glass in which it was served was unhygienic. He, therefore, decided to retire for the night, using his coat for a blanket. His feet rested on the container with the tricycle placed in the middle of the compartment between the benches. The benches were occupied by spies who drank vodka incessantly.

There is little doubt in my mind that the spies tried to examine the content of the tricycle container once Papa was asleep. They thought the container contained the secret part of a Russian tank, and they wanted to steal it, or at least photograph it with Minox, which is a tiny spy camera.

Papa slept and dreamt of the blue divan and Izvestiya. In his dream, he was crunching a loud green apple and keeping his slippers strictly off the furniture. In reality, he shifted his feet off the tricycle, allowing the spies to discover and photograph it. One of the spies
quietly removed the slippers from Papa’s feet -- how else can one explain their disappearance upon his arrival? This spy was even less conscientious than his colleagues, as he brutally stole the slippers in search of quick riches.

There was another theory that the spies took the slippers assuming my Papa was a spy for the third world.

The spies on the train belonged to the first world and the USSR was the second world (or vice versa, no one has ever established this kind of precedence, we only knew that the third world was third). They saw Papa go in and come out of the Kharkov Tractor Factory, lugging a container and a suitcase, with his left pocket bulging from the manicure set (which they confused with the Minox).

Once on the train, they stole his slippers and ravaged them in the train toilet, looking for the sewn-in secret messages and codes, and microfilm.

“Where is the microfilm, agent John?"

“Search me, agent Mustafa!"

“I would greatly like to do that, agent John."

“Keep your hands off me, agent Mustafa! Don’t touch my PPK!"

This conversation took place over the pillaged left slipper in the toilet on the train from Kharkov. It had to take place, there’s a historic necessity for it, for no other theory can explain the disappearance of Papa’s slippers.

The hypothesis that he simply lost the slippers was discarded as laughable. It was retrieved from the garbage heap of history, dusted, and presented to Papa only by Mama and only when she lost the house keys again and he found out and yelled, and “lost slippers" were the only
way to quell his rebellion.

So now you know the Case of the Lost Slippers. Why was it ever blamed on me? What do you think? Could it have happened if not for the tricycle?


Chapter 2 The Case of Cruiser Aurora

Papas' slippers were sadistically taken hostage and subsequently ransacked on the train from Kharkov, and that
was the end of them. But it was not the end of agents John and Mustafa, who pursued Papa and the rest of his suspicious luggage. This is because they did not believe Papa had no secret life.

The next victim of their intrigues was the tricycle.

Typically, the tricycle was used outdoors in the backyard, where agents John and Mustafa could gain easy access
to it. Since Babushka and I were unaware of their malignant presence, we lost diligence once or twice. I was too young to be in counter-intelligence, and Babushka would not have allowed it anyway.

On one occasion, we lost diligence because I had to go behind the wood and coal shed. What? What is not clear?
This is where wood and coal were stored for winter, so what would you like me to call it? You thought the shed was
made of wood? Is that it? Actually, yes, it was made of wood, so don’t you try snaring another ambiguity out of me.

Listen, it doesn’t matter what the shed was calledÍ it still had only wood and coal in it. Someone wrote an obscenity on the wall, so you think, suddenly there were loose women partying in it? No! It was still a shed with wood and coal and will you let me be already? You are making me itch! Just sit and listen, it will make you feel better.

I went behind the wood and coal shed because I had to go I would not have made it up the stairs to the third floor. I knew it was coming but I did not want to get off the tricycle prematurely. I slightly overestimated my ability to hold on to the liquid, so when I finally had to go, it was urgent. The only way to prevent the immediate eruption was to clutch the tricycle squeezing it with my legs. I hoped to persevere this way for another two minutes, but one look from Babushka and the situation grew hopeless. I was outmaneuvered by superior force. Babushka had many hands: she held down the tricycle, picked me up like a kitten by the scruff of my neck, carried me off behind the wood and coal shed while undoing my pants and, I think, she also cooked dinner and cleaned the apartment at the same time.

Babushka was hardly taller than a big child. I was not a very big child so she was taller than me, but there were
many children taller than her. They were taller than both of us and they were mean bullies and I didn’t like them at all.

But I adored the Saint Babushka. Everything she did was for the good of others, and I was the #1 “others": her first grandchild, not excessively defiant, and always a little sick and in need of care. Everyone was in need of care, or at least in need of a dinner, so Babushka was much needed. The family was her religion -- dinner was a religious ceremony-- feeding me could easily be equated with a Temple sacrifice.

The dinner was uneventful, apart from the fact that I did not want it. But this only proves that it was uneventful, since I never wanted it. Had I suddenly developed acute hunger and ate the entire plate of chicken soup (with bread) and the entire plate of chicken legs (with mashed potatoes), this would have been considered an eventÍ and Babushka would meet my mother at the front door and report the happy occasion, which would result in a modest family celebration: he ate the entire dinner!

But this was not to be. I discovered a golden stain of fat floating around the plate and wanted to disqualify the soup immediately. This did not work. Babushka fished out the cruising medallion and insisted that I continue the struggle. I played with the lone boat-shaped fragment of a chicken breast in the soup, nudging it towards the log of a carrot. The soup began to resemble a familiar revolutionary naval scene and I regained interest, albeit not a gastronomical one:
Morning becomes the City of LeninÍ
No one is up yet yelling, gevalt!
What are you dreaming Cruiser Aurora
Right before the sunshine lights up Neva?
What are you dreaming Cruiser Aurora
Right before the sunshine lights up Neva?

Maybe you dream of the signal salvo,
The Revolution’s momentous start?
We are so grateful, your contribution
And participation set you apart.
We are so grateful, your contribution
And participation set you apart.

Forces of nature, power of nations,
Such is the fate of the naval craft.
What are you dreaming Cruiser Aurora,
The destinies likeness of person and raft?
What are you dreaming Cruiser Aurora,
he destinies likeness of person and raft?

I hummed this popular children’s song while reenacting in the soup bowl the historic events of October 25, 1917.
(The events actually took place on November 7, but before the Revolution people didn’t know that. I didn’t understand this jumble of dates. November 7 was not the same as October 25Í even I knew that, so how could have people not noticed? Or was the entire span of time between the two dates wiped out? Even now, I still don’t understand this phenomenon, but I became more tolerant of it, since now I know: more than mere 13 days can get wiped out, and they do, from time to time, even without a revolution.)

The cruiser-shaped chicken breast was attacking the reactionary carrot log, and then --"wham!"-- Cruiser Aurora
fired the fatal shot, assisted by the spoon -- vermicelli flying everywhere -- and Babushka came to storm the Winter Palace. She retrieved the spoon and started singing something sedate about a little gray goat. The song was about another Babushka, who had a little gray goat whom she loved dearly, but nevertheless she cooked him in a soup. Babushka preferred singing about the little gray goat, because the song had a Babushka in it, instead of Cruiser Aurora. What do you prefer?

I was force-fed in this diabolical manner by the Saint Babushka.

This is entirely forgivable, because in her mind force-feeding The Child was a saintly deed. And as an object of her sainthood, I had to go to the vermicelli cross, day after day. Can anyone tell me why the chicken could not be the object of her sainthood? Or maybe the little gray goat? No? You are not answering any questions regarding sainthood, soup, and agriculture? A pity. I thought you could be useful. Well, at least you listen. You don’t listen? Then what are you doing being so comfortable?

Once the dinner was over and it was permitted to leave the gastric torment at the table, I went back to the precious tricycle. Now it must be explained that playing with the tricycle in the house was permissible, but riding it wasn’t. This did not matter, since the contraption offered numerous exciting pastimes apart from the intended one. For instance, I turned it on its side and pretended that the rear left wheel was the steering wheel of a truck. I pulled up the little bench, the one I used when I had to put on my shoes and tie the laces, and I sat and spun the tricycle wheel as if the truck I was driving was looping loops like a figure skating lady at the Winter Olympics. I soon had an accident, something broke inside the truck. I turned the little bench over and immediately it became the engine.

The truck was fixed, two more loads of sand, bricks, and other building materials were delivered to the building
site, and I became a bus driver. I put all our dining chairs in a file behind the little bench. Now I needed the passengers.

Babushka took two rides and went back to the kitchen, at which point I turned the bus into a tricycle again and started using it as intended, in the dining room, against the strictest prohibition.

The tricycle had transformed into Cruiser Aurora, circling around the dinner table: the lair of the retrograde Interim Government -- the Winter Palace. I rode a couple of times around the Winter Palace, and since the dining chairs were still the “bus" next to the wall, underneath the table, now the Throne Room, was unprotected and very, very attractive.

“Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood! Comrades --forward!--I gave the order and immediately obeyed it. At great velocity I directed Cruiser Aurora into the palace, and about ten minutes later, when I came to my senses, I discovered Babushka was holding something cold to my forehead, I was in great pain, my face was wet, a child was crying in the room, and the revolution was over.

There is no doubt that Cruiser Aurora was sabotaged by agent John and agent Mustafa while I was behind the century ago, some time between Sputnik and Gagarin, he simply lost the slippers getting off the train from Kharkov
because he was too busy with the suitcase and the tricycle. His sanity demands agents John and Mustafa. But mine
doesn’t. Nor do I really need them in the rest of this story, so I’ll just retire them, hoping that the CIA will pay them for their dedicated service of many years. Let my father call them back, if he wants to.


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