Sunday, February 05, 2006

Friday Night's Not All Right For Locking

I buy groceries only two bags at a time (one for the left arm, another for the right) so every fourth or five day I'm stepping out of the Marshala Zhukova Metro stop and heading into Target, Kharkiv's food-and-electronics super-store, for a needed tour of its well-stocked aisles. But last Friday, after working all of the week on my novel from my morning coffee to my midnight snack, I looked into my fridge and realized I must've missed a trip, maybe two. Wasn't much of anything left. Gathering together the sum of my cupboards and produce bins, I needed a mathmetician's imagination to see a meal. X + Y = It'll see me through the night. When at last I didn't even have any more drinking water (the novelist's war for oil wouldn't stray from the equator's coffee-growing regions) I stepped away from the keyboard long enough to dash off to the corner store.

But I didn't get any water, and I didn't even get down the steps and away from the fourth floor. When I was trying to lock the door to my apartment behind me, the key wouldn't turn -- not easily at least. I used both hands to move the dead bolt into place, only to stop about halfway there after two minutes, having realized if it's this hard to get the dead bolt into place, it might be even more difficult to slide it out. Now I used both hands and a shoulder to turn the key in the other direction, though if the first thing was like walking downhill in the snow, this one was going up. Twenty minutes later, with the dead-dolt stuck half out and the skin of my hands reddened from the effort to get it that far, I did something much easier. Called the landlord and expressed my displeasure -- didn't complain, just expressed my displeasure.

Lena, it turned out, was en route to a birthday party -- it was 8:30 on a Friday night. But I tried to make it known that this was one of the services I had expected to be covered by my rent, the right to enter and exit my apartment both freely and (here is the word I stressed) easily. "I can't close my door right now," I said. No accusation in my voice, just stating the facts. I almost become British at moments like this. "If it weren't for the draft, you understand, it'd be fine. But being January and all, I was hoping you might be a sport and pop over. Mmm?"

Lena agreed, somewhat reluctantly; she said she'd be here in thirty minutes and that she'd bring the original key to the original lock. I had asked for this three times before, but always she'd said I didn't need it, as it was a Soviet-era thing that had possibly been copied by any number of people since my Stalinki, or Stalin-era apartment, went up. Still, I'd wanted it. When you turned it in its mechanism, four metal bars slid out the side of the door and into the wall. Incredibly reassuring, even if it is a mirage.

While I waited for my landlord, I text-messaged my girlfriend and heard back that the locksmiths didn't work 24 hours in Kharkov. I wanted to get back to my novel, but then too I wanted to sleep. And how could I do either with a door open to all the crime and distraction of the outside world? Ten minutes passed. My apartment got colder from the stairwell air coming in. Twenty minutes passed. Then the landlord phoned. She wouldn't be over -- a birthday, she reminded me, once a year and all -- but a locksmith would.

I thanked her. "Thank you," I said. Most pleasant. And then Nikolai appeared, just as she said he would, forty minutes later. It was good. My command of the Russian language didn't get in our way. See the door ajar, letting in the cold. Note the key in the lock, unable to turn. Nods, short phrases, a nice man. "Can I get you something to drink?" I asked. "Some coffee or tea?" He was a tea drinker. "If you need sugar," I said. But no, he took it straight.

Nikolai wore a spelunker's head-light as he worked. While speaking with him about the situation (every idle conversation here seems imbued with international significance) I learned the words for "lock" and "broken," and dared the phrase, "Can you fix it?" Nikolai inspired confidence. My girlfriend called, I laughed and said everything was fine, he was replacing the lock as we speak -- and then I hung up and the ordeal was all but over.

The new lock was secured in its casing. Nikolai took one key off a ring that held five, handed me the rest, then reached for his tea -- Hot tea, thank you -- and bid me inside to test his work.

I closed the door behind me and inserted the key. I turned it one way and jiggled the handle (I always get this wrong) then went back in the other direction and jiggled the handle. Again, nothing. "Nikolai?" I said. I pumped at the handle. "Nikolai?" He set down his tea and helped get me out.

Nikolai, to his credit, was a perfectionist. He shook his head. He studied the dead bolt as it slid in and out and said it was snagging on the casing. I looked to the bag behind him. He'd brought with him three different locks, but I didn't see anything else. He answered my question before it was asked. He said he'd need to get a part from his shop but that he'd be back tomorrow.


He nodded. "Zaftra."

I asked what time. The Philharmonic was doing Shostakovich's Fifteenth. It started at six. "What time?" I asked.

He did this thing with his head and his shoulders. He tried to express his uncertainty. But at last he said a number. "Six."

"Six?" I said.

He handed me the mug and thanked me for the tea.

In tomorrow's installment, Stephan will learn the phrase, "And how much will that run me?" Lena will come over at 1 a.m. from her birthday party. And The Girlfriend will appear as a guest star to ask what happens if the refrigerator stops running, does he pay for that too? Will the door close? Will it lock? Will the drunk neighbors from upstairs mistakenly go to sleep on the fourth floor instead of the fifth? Be sure to watch the next episode of Soap when it airs tomorrow at the same time.


Richard said...

Everything you own probably fits in a back-pack--you can just grab your apartment-in-a-bag and take it with you to the store. Get with the pogrom, dude!

WittyName32 said...

Five of the books I brought over wouldn't fit into my back-pack: Gravity's Rainbow, Underworld, Don Quixote, Middlemarch and The Fortress of Solitude. But the point -- despite the pleasure your "pogrom" line gave me -- is that I wanted some peace and quiet, a quick fix, the American -- "Can we wrap this up in five minutes?" -- and the matter was far more long-term than that. More soon.

The Ranger said...

Wow pal, that sounds like a real good Friday night. Just think you could have been doing nothing and had it happen. Cheers