July 01, 2019

Nikolayev's Birthday



Nikolayev's Birthday

It was Nikolayev’s birthday, which in ordinary years would always start bright and early, with his best buddies tossing pebbles at his window, hinting that a new life had begun and what did that call for? A celebratory drink, or two, or three. Nikolayev, embarrassed by his own stinginess, would have been down to the district cooperative store ahead of time and laid his hands on the two prescribed bottles of store-bought vodka and some nondescript snacks like caramel candies or stale cheese with a name like “Kam-am-ber” that was meaningless to the Russian ear. And only after that, their souls cheered by the spectacle of the day breaking to a burst of birdsong, the whole troop would parade off down the main street to the motor pool and tractor depot, to set the tractors up with parts lost during the hard-fought campaign to bring in the harvest. Toward evening, they’d gather at Nikolayev’s hut, where his wife, her mouth smeared with scarlet lipstick, would sling onto the table a pot of oven-boiled new potatoes generously sprinkled with dill, use her apron to wipe off some dusty three-liter jars of pickled tomatoes, going out of her way to pick out the jar with the biggest ones, and fry some summer squash, all green and blimpy. Their daughter would be grating beetroot – also last year’s and already putting out young leaves – on grandma’s grater. Mayonnaise rarely showed up in the deliveries to the store, so the dressing would be vegetable oil.

“Put some vinegar in it,” the mother-in-law would chip in from behind the curtain that separated the kitchen from the main room. “And add mustard!”

Mother-in-law would be charged with the most momentous job of all, the slicing of the sausage. A brother-in-law, now a head honcho of some kind, would have got hold of the sausage in town just in time for the big day. Ma-in-law, with grandpa’s glasses on for good measure and sticking out her tongue with the strain of it, would cut thin, transparent little circles from the stick of sausage and lay them in a spiral on the plate. But they’d never be tight-fisted with the lard, which had been kept in the cellar since last year’s November holiday.


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