It would seem I had planned everything according to Hoyle: it’s Saturday, the supermarket is packed to the gills, the five cashier girls are busy like robots and don’t even have time to look up from their work. What’s necessary is to act quickly and decisively. I tossed the package with the hot dogs in my purse, stacked the three freshly packed containers of gazpacho soup one on top of the other, and proceeded to the exit.
Explaining why I did it would take a long time. I’ll just say that for the past six months the rent for our apartment was paid by my mother, an Israeli pensioner.
As soon as I’d left the premises, I felt a hand being placed on my shoulder and an ingratiating male voice announcing just above my ear: “If you cooperate, I won’t call the police”. The man who had put his hand on my shoulder was in no way distinguishable from the other customers. If it weren’t for his eyes. These were completely dim: two tin-can-like circles.
While the two of us were looking at each other this way, I rehearsed in my mind how I would escape – I’d kick him in the groin and run toward the expressway. But the soup, which I was still holding in my hands, got in the way. For some reason, dumping the containers to the ground proved to be entirely impossible. I visualized precisely how the three opaque plastic containers would explode at my feet, spattering me and this creep with their bright red contents. I am a neat-freak by nature, like a cat. “I only put these on this morning!” my husband booms, defending himself from my attempts to strip off his shirt, pants, socks, and shove him bodily in the bathtub. Sometimes he even tells me, in all seriousness that I should seek help from a psychiatrist. At times, I also seriously consider whether I should follow his suggestion? In Moldavia, they have a saying: he who washes off his dirt, washes away his happiness. There’s some truth to that.
But we’ve digressed.
Speaking in broad brushstrokes, having evaluated the situation, I understood that I couldn’t possibly drop the containers to the ground; it would be “untidy”.
“Let’s not do anything stupid!” the Tin Man said, as though he had sensed the direction my thoughts were taking me in.
The tightly confining rear space, positioned between the toilet and the employee’s break room, held rows of television screens. Behind a table sat an obese lady of advanced years examining one of these, the one that displayed the door. I sat down and also stared at the screen. Some people were entering and leaving, a pretty lady passed by with a baby carriage and looked directly into the camera, fixed her hair and waved hello with her hand. It seemed that everyone knew exactly where to look except me.
“Now, we’ll compose a list of what was stolen,” the Tin Man said, reaching for some sort of blank form.
It crossed my mind that this was the right time to appear contrite.
“Please forgive me, I say, I simply forgot to pay. I’m on anti-depressants and have not eaten anything in two days!”
I probably intended to arouse his sympathy. In reply, he opened my purse and disgorged its contents onto the table – my wallet and the package of hot dogs.
His voice dimmed or perhaps the reverse, brightened, as much as it is possible for a tin can to brighten.
“Do you have any ID?” he asked.
I did not have an ID, but I did have a medical card and, perking up, I placed it on the table
“That’s what I thought,” the Tin Man said with an unexplained fatalism and began phoning somewhere.
I was so tormented with hunger pains, that I mechanically slid one of the containers toward me and opened the lid.
As I was about to take a gulp from it, his scream stopped me in my tracks.
“Hands off! It’s physical evidence!” he howled.
“OK, OK,” I say, “It seems you’ve never yourself experienced hunger?
The thought that a human being may feel hunger seemed a novel idea to him. He cringed with his forehead and looked down at his fingernails. Then, the creases on his forehead unfolded,and he resumed his calling.
As it turned out, he was calling the police. Devastated by his treachery – he had just promised me that he wouldn’t do it – I proudly turned my face to the wall. We sat this way in silence for about five minutes, he, creaking with his chair and continuing to write something down and I staring at the wall. He then let me read what he had composed. His documentation was verbose, recounting in all its shameful details my incursion on the soup. I was struck by certain distortions of style and sense in it. “When the detained proceeded to the door, I followed her….” I finished reading only the first third and stopped. I was already nauseous as is.
The policemen, they were three in number, arrived almost immediately, having shown thereby their high state of readiness. When they’re really needed, they keep you waiting forever, I thought to myself angrily. Under such heavy guard, I started walking toward the exit, my head bowed, feeling upon myself the disapproving silence of the crowd. It was people like me that were destroying America, bringing the country to the very edge of economic collapse.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked
“To the precinct,” the Tin Man replied, passing to the policeman my purse and my papers. They handcuffed me and shoved me in the police cruiser. He kept staring in our wake, but not for long. Having grabbed a shopping cart that had strayed into the parking lot, he rolled it toward the special penned area by the entranceway where they were kept corralled. The man clearly had an instinct for order – that’s the explanation for all of this.
During the trip, I was able to put a label to my bitter thoughts. I recalled an essay by Bertrand Russell, about so-called good people and their banal notions of law and order. Truth be told, Bertrand Russell had of course not said a word about people stealing soup from the supermarket as an antidote for this social evil. Familiar streets were flashing by me and then unfamiliar ones. I shut my eyes: there’s no way they’re going to prosecute me for such miniscule nonsense.
At the precinct, the elderly policeman on duty was poking around his mouth with a toothpick. He was looking at me with raised eyebrows. It was clear as day that I did not fit the profile of a criminal; my outward appearance is that of an intellectual, someone who might smile wryly while being led through the corridor in handcuffs.
He understood this immediately and brought out the key.
When the handcuffs had fallen from my wrists, I shared with him my newly-found insight.
“Socrates, when his chains were removed before his execution, said that happiness is when the pain passes.”
The desk sergeant looked me over and continued chewing his toothpick.
“Do you have someone you’d like to call?” he said coolly.
“Call?” I perked up. “Yes, of course!”
He pushed the phone towards me and, having dialed some code, handed it to me.
“Keep in mind, you will need eighty six dollars and a passport.”
Of course I had someone to call. I have many friends. But there was just one minor hitch; I didn’t have my address book with me and the only number I have memorized is my own. Philip wouldn’t be back until the evening. I called home anyway and left a short message: “Philip, please don’t worry, but I’m in jail. Please bring my passport and eighty six dollars for bail.” I chased away the dreaded idea that he might not listen to the message until tomorrow, or perhaps not at all. This too would take some explaining….
In every police precinct in America, there are two separate jail cell blocks, one for men and one for women. In the intake room, a bench, and on the wall a board for announcements. I read about the free dinner for the poorer members of the community forthcoming at the end of August. In answer to my question, how long they will hold me, the sergeant on duty replied: “Who knows, it’s a holiday, plus its Saturday!”
I didn’t lose hope for arousing his sympathy.
“What do you mean?” I say, “So you celebrate the Jewish Sabbath?”
“No, we do not celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. Any other questions?”
Of course I had other questions, and more than one.
Why shouldn’t he let me go, I hadn’t killed anyone? I didn’t ask it though.
“There are cigarettes in my purse. May I have one?” I asked.
“Ma’am,” he said severely and proudly, “In American prisons, it is not permitted to smoke. In American prisons, one sits quietly and waits to go before the bail judge.”
After that, he seemed to get something going with the fingerprint clerk. Threatening to shoot someone by the name of Costanza (wonderful, let him shoot, I thought to myself,) he brought over a pad with the fingerprint ink.
“Everything was much easier before!” he was saying, wiping my fingers with a napkin and then again dipping them in the ink, from which I concluded that my fingerprints have a very complicated outline. “They spend taxpayer money and then nothing works.”
My comment, that all these institutions should be shuttered and everybody sent off to work, was met with wholehearted consent.
“Just take a seat until someone comes to get you,” he said calmly, chaining me to the rings affixed on the bench.
A flat-chested, pale-as-a-ghost woman, whom I had initially mistaken for a man, came to get me after about fifteen minutes. She took the handcuffs off and, opening the door to the women’s cell block, told me to walk forward until she tells me to stop. We started walking down a dark corridor past the individual cells. All of them were occupied and all the women prisoners were lying on the bunks with their heads turned toward the wall. Perhaps, this was their quiet hour. From one cell only did a pretty blonde wearing a mini-skirt and leather boots get up to greet us:
“Hi, honey!” she said and tried to smile at me, which is when I noticed a hideous transformation. The thing is that for a smile, a human being requires at a minimum at least three upper and two lower teeth, but it was precisely these that were missing. I keep walking ahead with a heavy heart, trying to catch up to my lady guard. We reached the end of the corridor. In front of me was a rough-hewn stone wall, painted unevenly all white, at the top of which a tiny window barely shone.
“Stop,” my guard announced, even though I had already stopped.
My cell yawned with its opened gate as though it had been waiting for me a while.
“Here,” the guard said and motioning me to lower my guilty head while entering gave me a nudge inside.
The uneven cement floor, a low-slung bunk bench screwed into the wall, a toilet with a volume of yellow urine – that is what I saw once I had the time to look around. Then, I noticed the half-circular sink in the corner and unscrewed its faucet to on. What issued from it was not pretty; I even lost my desire for a drink. I closed the tap and lay down on the bunk. Its cold, iron surface dug greedily into my shoulder blades. I forgot to tell you that my jean jacket had been taken from me and stored away in a metal box along with my purse. For ten minutes I tossed and turned from side to side, until I found the only position that more or less accommodated a body lying down. This position turned out to be like that of all my neighbors a fetal one, with face to the rough wall.
“So, now you’ve done it,” I heard in my mind the old familiar, spiteful voice, my own that is. “How could this happen to you?” asked another, more benevolent one.
“It’s alright, we’ll make it somehow!” – my husband’s favorite phrase, that demolishes all of my complaints toward life. He sometimes adds something concrete at the end of it: “Another two-three months – I’ll defend my dissertation, find a job, you’ll see!” In contrast to him, our life-affirming eleven-year old daughter has a recurrent nightmare, something that makes her think I have been arrested. She sometimes awakens in tears: “Mom, please tell me it’s not true!”
“This is all your doing!” Philip told me. “You shouldn’t have read her Kafka!”
But let us leave aside our innocent child, for this has to do only with us, two grown up freaks. We ourselves chose this path and we alone will have to pay for it.
Among my American friends, there have been several people who have gone to jail of their own free will. One journalist, for example, was commissioned to write a “serious” article on conditions in American prisons. He, for the sake of authenticity, went and stole a jacket in a department store. It goes without saying that he, like myself, was detained after exiting and taken to a police precinct. Everything was going according to plan, but then he chickened out and started calling the newspaper. As things go, all his high-minded ideals about authenticity turned out bubkes. At the newspaper, they confirmed his story, giving him an alibi. Truth be told, they did make him pay for the jacket. I thought to myself, perhaps I should use his story for my own alibi. I found all this disagreeable for one reason only. My editorial collective consisted of other people resembling me in their class status, unstable psychology, and even more rickety reputations. A colleague of mine was also arrested recently: he climbed at night into the apartment of a former girlfriend, broke the window and bashed in the face of her boyfriend. What was amusing is that, when the whole thing was over, he himself called the police. A dramatic denouement: he’s in the armchair, his shirt in tatters, his face and hands sliced by the glass fragments. She’s with the boyfriend, huddling in the corner, looking at him with terrified eyes. Just when she was about to marry this boyfriend any day, he intrudes into their lives, crying on the phone, climbing up the fire escape to the fourth floor. How are you going to have a wedding after that? But, by the way, she went through with it anyway, and everything’s just hunky-dory, they live in the suburbs.
Good Lord, what condition have we been brought to if we were forced to break into windows and steal soup from supermarkets? Go ahead and prosecute me, I’ll say to them. I’ll begin by telling them how I had been laid off. The owner of the book store, where I had diligently served for four years, suddenly decided that he would keep only “young and aggressive staff members”. That’s exactly how he put it: “young and aggressive” he said, looking over at me. That’s when I understood why for the past few months my women co-workers had stopped speaking with me. They knew everything in advance and didn’t want to upset me. Very humane on their part. I’ll start with that, thought I.
Or even better, I’ll begin by delving into my past. I’ll start by telling them how eleven years ago, when our daughter was born, we placed her in a crib made of a box used to ship apples, because we had no money to buy her a child’s bed. And we had no one to borrow it from, because anyone who could afford to lend it had long ago stopped believing in us. And how we later laughed at a certain eccentric American lady who bought us a gift for our little girl swaddled in a sheet that was stolen from the hospital – a silver rattle from Tiffany’s. When I tried to return the rattle to the store, to make three hundred dollars on it, they would not accept the rattle because, they said, it was purchased at a final sale. The discount was ridiculous, something like ten dollars, but it is precisely these ten dollars that the entire irony consists in. That this generous idiot could not resist saving on us. When I returned home, my husband said: “That’s even better then, that we have to keep the rattle. This way, our daughter will grow up developing an aesthetic sense right out of the cradle.”
Better still if I begin with the heart of the matter. That we are poets, and that life has already maimed us quite a bit. At the hearing, I will say what I had told my boss while he was writing my last check: “When you read biographies of the greats, you come across mention of people who had played some role in their lives – some positive, some the opposite. Meanwhile, you’re thinking this had all happened somewhere and with someone, but in reality, it is happening to you, and right now!” I’ll tell them all this and conclude my speech by saying that, at the end of the day, they dump this cursed soup into the garbage anyway. As I was going over these crackling thoughts, I fell asleep, and when I woke up, I saw above my head the permanently burning, overheated, bare light bulb. Perhaps it knew that somewhere beyond the walls of this prison the evening had already come on and it was quietly welcoming it with its intense glare. I also welcomed the arrival of the evening and, shifting onto my back, began examining the graffiti that had been scribbled on the walls and on the ceiling. These were numerous, and I remembered only a few of them. “Life sucks, and then you die,” and beside it, an inscription intimate in character: “Ladies, masturbation helps”. Another sentence, written in lipstick, pierced my heart: “I love Jesus Christ!” and a phone number alongside it.
Just for the purpose of passing the time, I began to imagine for myself what these women who had been here before me looked like. They were different: some hardened, some kind, some vulgar, some only a tad so. Some of them still had people who cared about them and some were entirely alone in the whole world. What did they think of, lying on this cot? Did they want to get out or did they have nothing waiting out there for them, nothing to do but steal, inject themselves with junk, sleep on park benches, covering themselves from the rain with branches and plastic shopping bags?
I didn’t feel hunger any more, but I did feel a strong urge to smoke. When my father had been freed from prison, I asked him: “Tell me, what was it like in there for you?” He replied that if you didn’t have any bad habits you could survive. Bad habits are a form of slavery, he explained to me, and advised me, just in case, to quit smoking. I didn’t listen to him then, and that’s too bad; it would probably be easier for me now.
I began pacing the cell, forward and backward, counting my steps, counting the bars in the cell, then again lay down and, I think, again dozed off, because the grating of the gate to my cell being opened coincided with a vision of a diminutive demon grating his teeth. At ten o’clock, when my keeper returned to fetch me and led me in the opposite direction, up through the corridor, I had an urge to cover her with kisses.
My father had spent eight years in prison and, when he was free, told me he regretted nothing. I had spent eight hours in jail and can say just one thing about it: freedom is priceless.
Back in the booking room, I was introduced to a woman, the jail administrator. Having scheduled my date of appearance, she looked at me and whispered:
Get a private lawyer!
On a Monday evening, Philip and I are sitting on our porch, waiting for a lawyer of our acquaintance. He had promised to drop by after work. Tuesday is our court date.
Our lawyer-friend – his name is Matt – arrives at exactly six. This is how I know him: our daughters are friends and, when he comes by to pick up his daughter, he cordially asks “How are things” and I courteously reply, “Wonderful.”
He is a tall, thin man with a birdlike face and a loose-jointed walk. In his hands is a brown bag with a sandwich; he came here directly from court. I am a little nervous; I am embarrassed that I have fallen so low. The father of my daughter’s friend. Altogether, it makes sense.
He, noticing, that I am shifting uneasily this way and that, slaps me on my back.
“Look, the same thing happened to me a month ago. At the Star Supermarket, after work, I smoked a joint…. I got the munchies so bad, I went right into the store and absentmindedly sucked down a bottle of whipped cream…. Anyway, what did you steal?”
“A package of hot dogs.”
“I got it,” he says, his head down in my papers. “Did you read it before you signed this?”
“Of course, I did.”
“Read it aloud!”
I begin to read:
“The detained behaved herself aggressively; while being apprehended she attempted to consume the material evidence.”
“What does all of it mean?” he asks me.
“I wanted to have the soup,” say I.
“After being detained? That’s funny! Very cute!” he says, looking me and my husband over.
“Are you sure you didn’t take anything else?”
It’s strange, but for him, this conversation is absolutely normal, I think to myself.
“No, nothing else.”
He looked at his watch and started to speed things up.
“Generally speaking, this is what you’re going to say: I was in a rush to pick up my daughter, took the stuff and, when I had walked out, I remembered I’d forgotten to pay. I immediately informed the security man who was standing at the door about this.”
I am nodding repeatedly in gratitude. Perhaps nodding too much.
“Is something wrong with your head? Do you have a nervous tic? That would be very good for us!”
I do not, unfortunately, have a nervous tic, and he continues with his set of instructions:
“Mention that you take an antidepressant! Bring your pill bottle with you. If necessary, I trust your doctor will confirm it? Very good. I repeat, the main thing is: I offered to pay, but I wasn’t allowed to. You understand everything?”
Philip is writing down everything that Matt says. At Harvard, Philip’s notes were passed down from hand to hand.
“What’s the worst thing they could do?” Philip asks him.
“They can sentence you to serve three months. To teach you a lesson.”
“I very much don’t want to go back to prison, not even for a day.”
“Don’t worry, I will be there with you,” says Matt, getting up to leave,
Beginning in the evening, a misty, malevolent rain began to fall, and kept on, without interruption, the entire night. We woke to that very same rain in the morning, and walked into it when we left the house to drive to the court.
The court building impressed us with its contrasts. Inside of a simple brick box was a complicated system of arches, walkways, elevators, hallways, cubical cabinets either glassed-in or separated with metal barriers, in which the staff sat, stood, passed to each other telephone receivers. It seemed that the rain was also falling above them, and that the visitors standing at the windows were also out in the rain, all of us slowly flowing from one section to another. The honest people and the criminals, the guardians of the law and the thieves. On the second floor, we filled out some sort of papers and entered a large dim hall, where Matt had to sit separately, together with the other lawyers, and we by ourselves, together with the other criminals and their relatives. Before me, there were still four cases to be heard. Two idiots were being tried who had shot a third, being unable to share some girl they all knew; another guy had stolen a car radio. A woman who did not speak a word of English nor, did it seem, did she speak any other language. She was being prosecuted for drug possession, but right away they remanded her for a preliminary psychiatric evaluation. After these three cases was the case of an idiot belonging to a “Right to Life” group, who had sent around a letter to abortion doctors threatening to blow up their clinics. All the defendants had lawyers, government-appointed and private. The lawyers were sitting on separate benches behind a semi-circular wooden divider. When their defendant’s turn came, the lawyers approached the judge’s bench and, having bowed, whispered something in her ear. My lawyer was sitting among them. We winked over at each other.
The same phrase kept echoing in my head: It is not they who are being judged, but society that is on trial. On the eve, at night, I was trying to remember where I had heard it. And now I suddenly remembered: it is out of Tolstoy’s “A Living Corpse”.
And that is what I will tell them.
I will also say that the great poet Francois Villon was a thief. That Henri Rousseau had kleptomania. And I will cite what the Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky had said. That he’s amazed that poets are not rioting in the streets for how society treats them.
The judge, an intelligent-looking black woman in silver-rimmed glasses, finally called out my name. From here on, everything proceeded as though in a movie. Hand on the bible, I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth….
The judge read out the accusation of the store employee, placing emphasis on certain double entendre.
“The detained behaved herself aggressively … attempted to consume the physical evidence…. It’s not indicated here precisely what the detained attempted to consume?” the judge asked Matt.
The latter made a slight bow.
“Three containers of Gazpacho soup and two pounds of hot dogs,” your honor.
Laughter reverberated in the courtroom. The judge took off her glasses and looked over in the direction from which the laughter issued. Then she again turned to Matt.
“Did she succeed in this?”
“No, your honor.”
The judge nodded and wrote something down in a large journal that was lying in front of her on the table. Then she again raised her eyes to Matt.
“Your honor, you see her before you!” Matt answered, slightly jerking his shoulders.
The judge looked me over with an extended, inquisitive gaze. I started nervously grooming myself.
“Would you please try to explain precisely what you mean?”
“How could she possible eat so much!” Matt said and once again made a bow.
The judge flashed a smile, but then immediately lowered her eyes to the journal.
For some time she read the accusation in silence. I awaited the moment that I would be given a chance to speak.
“What else was found on the accused at the time she was detained?” The judge asked, once again not directing herself at me.
“Nothing else, your honor.”
She re-read the accusation, following the lines through with her finger.
“The accused behaved aggressively. What did this aggression consist in?”
“She entered into a debate with the security employee, your honor.”
“Please try to be specific. What sort of debate?”
“She asked for the soup, your honor!” Matt answered and once again bowed slightly.
Laughter was once again heard in the courtroom. Matt continued:
“Your honor,” he exclaimed. “The accused is on antidepressants. This category of the medications has a side effect…. You can read it for yourself in the fine print at the bottom of this container.”
He stretched out his hand with the yellow pharmacy container, but she waved it away.
“That won’t be necessary! I’ve been taking them myself for twenty years now!
“Moreover,” Matt continued, “my client is a smoker. Among smokers, the incidence of this side effect is elevated by 90 percent.”
“Side effect or no side effect,” the judge said and, banging her hammer on the table, yelled something out. I did not make out what she said, but by the reaction of those present in the courtroom, it was something very good.
“Your honor, I thank you,” said Matt.
Then there was the hallway, bright lights, five stairwells going up, because the elevator wasn’t working, and for some reason we had to go to the seventh floor. I tried to hug the employee who was handing me the note of final dismissal. He squeezed out of it in time, bending down to pick up a pen that had fallen to the floor.
When we left the building, Matt pulled off his tie and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt.
“There’s a new brewery that just opened not far from here,” he said, immersed in thought. “They brew it themselves; we should go try it!”
We turned the corner and sat down at the table. The rain had stopped. There is a saying in New England: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a couple of minutes and it will change.”
“Three pints of beer and something to eat?” my lawyer asks us.
“Excellent,” Philip says, “only we’re paying!”
Matt, waving him away, leafs through the menu.
A waitress comes over. A young girl with a notepad in her palm and a sharpened pencil in hand. Matt rattled off the order:
“Young lady, three beers, three gazpacho, three orders of homemade hot dogs with all the fixings. For desert – three apple turnovers and a pair of handcuffs for the lady!”
She quickly wrote it all down and the bit her upper lip.
“I didn’t have time to get all of that. Would you please repeat the last part?”
KATIA KAPOVICH has published nine volumes of poetry in English and Russian. Her latest collection in English is Cossacks and Bandits (Salt Publishing, 2007). Born in Chişinău, the capital of Moldova, she later lived in Moscow and St Petersburg. Unable to publish her work in the former USSR because of her participation in a samizdat dissident group, she emigrated, in 1990 to Jerusalem, and then in 1992 to the USA. In 2001, US Poet Laureate Billy Collins selected her for a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and she has also been Poet-in-Residence at Amherst College. Kapovich now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she co-edits Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics.
About the Translator:
ALEX CIGALE’s own English-language poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. He has served on the editorial boards of Asymptote, COEUR journal, Mad Hatters’ Annual, St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013, he was an Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Read more work by Katia Kapovich:
Read more translations by Alexander Cigale:
Translations of Acmeists Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Narbut in New England Review’s “The Russian Presence” issue
Translations of Russian Absurdist Daniil Kharms in Interlit Quarterly, Numero Cinq, and Narrative Magazine