By Jack Caseros
If there were many sunny days in Leningrad, they were worn down by the endless subarctic night. Josef knew the weather well; although he lived in a booming Soviet metropolis, he worked with his fellow proletariat at the harbour.
In the evenings he ate, he showered, he slept. He was an adolescent working a simple plebeian life, and he was a Soviet hero for it. A true young pioneer.
Despite the stiff perception of Soviet customs, Josef was expressive, which made him popular. There wasn’t a party or a social or a march that he didn’t attend; he even attended the lame ones that involved tearing apart old churches for their furniture. But then there was a girl.
There was always a girl. Josef had read the ancient Classics and knew of the mighty hero dying for his lover. In a way, humanity was always chasing a muse. But then there was a girl.
Sara wasn’t popular; she was from Moscow, and didn’t fit in with the local customs. That didn’t matter much, because under Stalin’s watchful eye everybody was a sibling. Sometimes it was by force. Josef’s house had been stormed one evening because word got out that Josef’s father had purchased a record player. He was detained, and three days later he was released when it was confirmed that he had bought it to listen to the propaganda records distributed by the government. Josef had stared at his father’s gash above his eye for days, but never gained the courage to ask about it. But then there was a girl.
Josef was swooned by Sara in an instant. It did not take long, especially after she started coming out to some of the parties. He asked her if she wanted to rent a room in his apartment. She said sure, because at this point they had already danced; but when she showed up lugging her bags she almost threw them at Josef. He confessed that his apartment had only one room.
Instead of getting herself caught in a gossip mill she took Josef to her parents and made him pretend that they were engaged. Josef liked the idea until he met Sara’s father.
He was a distinguished captain in the Soviet navy, a proud war veteran, who as a boy stole boxes of ammunition and gasoline for the Bolsheviks. He was an impenetrable man with a wavy moustache. Nobody could be good enough for his daughter; especially not a seaman who had never seen war. But Sara had learned her father’s impenetrable ways, and stood even more impervious to her father’s refusal. Josef fought nerves and assured her father that he would always take care of Sara, with all his heart. Sara’s father slammed his glass of vodka and said:
“At least get a haircut.”
Josef and Sara raced back to their apartment. When the door burst open so did their mouths. They fell into each others arms, and collapsed onto their bed, together, falling victim to the fabrication they had just sold so convincingly.
Josef went to work the next day light-hearted. He laughed, he flung boxes and bags into the hull, and he hummed tunes to himself.
“Hey, music man, turn it up or turn it down,” one of the other seaman called out to him.
“Sorry, I have a tune in my head.”
“Sing it out! Sing it out, comrade,” the seaman sang.
Josef hummed the tune louder, cracking at the higher notes and missing some of the lower notes.
“Comrade, not so loud after all,” the seaman got closer to Josef. “That is not the kind of music the crew likes to hear.”
“What do you mean?”
“That is bourgeois British music. It is violent and hysteric, you know. Where did you hear it?”
“I don’t know. On the radio, I think.”
“It must have been Radio Luxembourg. That is not music Stalin likes to hear.”
“You know what it is?”
“Yes, of course. The Beatles. They are very cool. But I do not sing them on the ship. That is why I made a record player.”
“You have a record player?”
“Yes, but again, this is not something I tell everybody. But now that you have sung, you are just as guilty as me, jailbird. We will talk tonight. You keep working hard. For the Motherland.”
“For the Motherland.”
Josef knew about the Beatles. He had seen the propaganda. It was very disturbing. Just last December the cinema and radio played reports about the Beatles’ mania:
Struck down with psychosis, the fans hear nothing. Hysterics, screaming … people are overcome. Vandalised concert halls and fights are the usual finale of a concert. It’s a world of four walls covered with the pictures of four guys with long hair.
Keep dancing kids! Forget the world’s troubles. You don’t want to know what is happening. Keep on going. Louder, faster! You don’t care about anyone else.
But any tune besides the old peasant waltzes they played between news bulletins was a relief. The tune bored into Josef’s head all day. He told his seaman friend, Krushka, that he would meet him that night to talk about the Beatles.
Josef took his supper at home with Sara, and planned to leave for the port bars. Sara insisted she go too; she was already tired of being holed up in their apartment. She only left to work at the textile factory in the early mornings.
“The bars are dirty places with drunks who have no reservations. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt,” Josef argued.
“And I should let you go, then? I don’t want you to get hurt.”
So Josef conceded, and Sara dressed in her best clothes. He shook his head, but knew Sara in light of her father—she was impenetrable. So they went together to the noisy bar, where Josef had to shout his order to the waitress, who gave Sara an untrusting eye. Krushka found Josef before Josef had a chance to take his first sip. Josef introduced his friend to his fiancée and Krushka apologized to her for being as drunk as he was.
Krushka ordered a round of vodka, and the three toasted to good friends and the Motherland. Then Krushka went right into it—quiet under the din of the rowdy bar—asking Josef where he had heard Radio Luxembourg.
“I don’t remember, but it was probably my father’s radio. I was trying to find the weather, and found the staticky music instead. It was a good tune. I have heard it since at parties and so forth.”
“Very risky parties,” Krushka said. “You should be more careful. Look.”
He removed his cap to reveal a freshly shaved head.
“You see, the police, when they hear the Beatles music, they arrest you, threaten the gulag, and shave your head. I had hair almost as long as your mistress. And they cut it clean off.”
“They believe it’s a crime against the state.”
“It seems harmless.”
“That is probably exactly why it’s banned,” Sara said.
The two men looked at her, stunned with her boldness, but she didn’t seem to notice. She drank her beer and watched the others in the room.
“But, the punishment does not work on me. The funny thing about hair, right? It grows back. I still listen to the music.”
“Where do you buy the records? I have never seen them.”
“They are up the sleeves of our comrades. There is a place to buy records, if you want them. I am going later tonight.”
Josef eyed Sara, unsure whether he was willing to risk her liberty or her life. She answered Krushka instead.
“Let’s go right now. I am curious.”
“Curiosity kills cats,” Krushka warned.
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t have a tail.”
Krushka shrugged away responsibility and assumed a daring smile, motioning quickly for the couple to follow him out of the bar and onto the street. Through pitch black alleys and over lamped bridges they tramped across the city to a quieter neighbourhood.
There was a long main street with some noticeable activity in the storefronts. Cafés and bakeries lined the street, and they were busy with people on late night errands and night shift workers at breakfast. The trio cut into an alley between two bustling shops that emanated the smell of fresh coffee. Perked by the roasted perfumes, Josef took Sara’s hand and kept a careful eye on the figures in the alley.
Krushka finally stopped beside a lanky man with a heavy overcoat. He smoked beside the back door of a café. The shady man and Kruhka shook hands, and he introduced Josef and Sara, assuring the man that they were ‘hip’.
“Okay, shakes or rock-and-rolls?” the man asked.
“Just rock-and-rolls comrade. Any cheap ribs tonight?” Krushka asked.
“Just the usual.”
“Okay, one rib for me and one rib for my comrade here with the girl.”
“Three roubles each.”
“Three roubles?” Josef asked. “Comrade, I need to eat tomorrow morning.”
“You can eat when you are dead,” Krushka smiled, taking Josef’s reluctant money and handing it over to the shady man, who drew two rolled vinyl sheets from his long sleeve and handed them to Krushka.
They shook hands again, and that was it. Krushka pushed one of the flats into Josef’s sleeve and urged everyone to move on.
On the street Josef shook the vinyl free and looked at it. In the light pouring from the public house windows Josef saw that he held an x-ray.
“Are those bones?” Sara asked.
“Rib x-rays, yes,” Krushka answered. “But you should hide those, comrade, you want to keep your hair. And your freedom, yes?”
Josef was beyond ecstatic with his new treasure. He picked up his gait and gripped Sara’s hand. He hummed the snippet of the tune he recalled from the radio and giggled.
“If anything can bring down the Soviet Empire, it’s this music,” Krushka said hushedly. “It’s strange, but true. Like snow in Leningrad spring!”
The snow high-lighted the streets and made the dark passages easier, although slipperier. Josef was too anxious to entertain another round with Krushka, so he resigned and told the seaman not to give himself too much of a headache.
Back in Josef’s room Sara prepared tea while Josef set the flimsy record on the player.
“Where did you get a record player?” Sara asked.
“My father. It was my birthday present last year. He made it himself. I have a stack of waltzes there, but I never listen to them. They give me a headache.”
When the first notes spiked out of the tiny speaker, Sara cringed. Josef threw his arms up in victory, laughing at how easy it was to be defiant.
“Ah guitar,” Sara crooned. “So bourgeois.”
“Yes, but the harmonica? Love, love me do!”
When Josef danced it made Sara laugh enough that she rolled around on the couch.
“Madness!” he shouted as he turned up the music.
“You look like a drunkard!”
Josef changed dance moves to the beat, shifting into the twist.
“Now you are a madman.”
But Josef managed to get Sara on her feet, and soon she was doubled over in laughter, mimicking Josef’s twisting pelvis. It was so vulgar it made Sara uncomfortable. She imagined the police knocking down the door only to find them fornicating with their clothes on.
And it would be okay, because they shouted love, love me do! at the top of their lungs even after the record needle shredded the x-ray, and how for two minutes and twenty-two seconds they heard the electrified call of liberty.
Jack Caseros is a Canadian writer and scientist whose work has recently appeared in Cactus Heart, Epigraph Magazine, and Sundog Lit. His newest novel is currently seeking a publishing house to call home. You can read more about Jack at www.jackcaseros.webs.com.