The Cake

The night before being arrested and sent to the prison from which he’ll never emerge, the playwright David Gronfein has a long and bitter quarrel with his mistress, Natalya Ivanovna Kalmykov. It’s a quarrel they’ve had before, many times. Natalya wants to marry. Gronfein is already married. His wife, long estranged, lives abroad. To travel to France with divorce papers would require permission from the authorities here in Moscow. Such a request would likely be ignored. Worse, it might provide a bored official evidence to accuse him of spying for Western powers.

“This is pointless,” he says. “The whole topic is a waste of time.”

“For you, maybe. But if you haven’t noticed, I am not yet old and used up. I have a life ahead of me.”

They go to bed hurt and angry, undressing in the dark and lying with backs to each other. In the morning, as usual, they both wake contrite, though pride keeps them from showing it. Gronfein knows the argument isn’t pointless, not if read for subtext, something he should understand professionally if not personally. It might, after all, have been a scene from one of his own plays, back when he could still write them. How else can Natalya express her longing for a future they both know he doesn’t have? How else can she fight off despair?

It’s May, 1938. Many of his friends have already disappeared. The only reason he still lives free is for so long he has produced so little. To denounce his work as subversive now would be to admit having overlooked it for years. Yet he knows it’s only a matter of time before the police come for him. Eventually they’ll run out of more threatening figures and find him an acceptable stand-in for an actual counterrevolutionary, even at fifty-six and wrung dry of words, abandoned by wife and daughter, suffering from a kidney ailment, living with a twenty-nine-year-old engineer who is as much nurse as lover.

What else can she do but occasionally rage against the inevitable, blame him in advance for the pain she is sure one day to suffer?

If not the feeling itself, the memory of insult lingers so that they do not speak over breakfast in the small kitchen they share with an electrician and his wife, both of whom have finished eating and retreated to their rooms on the apartment’s lower floor. But Gronfein has already decided he will stop at the market in the afternoon, to purchase fresh herbs. For his wife he would have bought flowers, but Natalya prefers practical gifts, those she can wear or eat rather than simply gaze at in passing. She is an efficient woman who speaks only as many words as she needs, and when it comes to pleasure, she wants multiple senses engaged. He already imagines their silent reconciliation, the fragrance of dill and parsley filling the kitchen while she cooks and he prepares their tea.

And he’s relieved to find he’s not alone in imagining it. Natalya, too, anticipates the coming dissipation of hard feelings. Before leaving for work, she sets on the sideboard a plate bearing three small eggs. He notices only after she’s shut the door, and seeing them looses a flood of affection that nearly propels him out of his chair, makes him chase after her to call apologies and endearments down the stairs, beg her to return so he can embrace her and cover her neck with kisses. But with the pain in his kidney, he cannot rise quickly and run. In any case, such a display would likely embarrass her. So instead he remains sitting, sipping the last of his coffee, contemplating the scene of a play he guesses he’ll never write.

He understands what the eggs mean. This evening, when she returns from her office at the Metroproekt, where she designs underground rail tunnels and station platforms, she will make Medovik, the honey cake that was her favorite as a child. She will present it to him as an appeasement, though he knows she makes it only when she’s feeling most in need of comfort. And he will do his best to act both surprised and touched, assuring her that they will indeed one day be married, he will find a way, he promises. What’s the harm in a bit of fantasy, if it gives her an hour’s solace, a day’s hope? How lucky he is to share a bed with this handsome young woman— brilliant and intrepid daughter of Siberian peasants, model of the proletariat, symbol of progress—even if only for a short time.

And thinking of their bed, he finds himself aroused for the first time in weeks, the desire that has been suppressed by pain and fear seeping to the surface like warm air through a narrow vent. If only he can maintain it for the rest of the day, then after they have eaten the Medovik he will lead her to the bed, remind her that there is vitality in him still, this small, paunchy Jew who fought White Cossacks in Kuban, who was once considered the standard-bearer of the new Yiddish literature, though now he is mostly forgotten. He’ll sweep her into his arms, ignoring the pain in his side, and for one more night at least give her the passion she deserves.

In the meantime, he will channel the feeling into words, which have eluded him for much of the past decade. He returns to the desk he avoids most days, opens his notebook to a draft of the play at which he has been hammering for longer than he cares to remember. It is meant to be about the early days of the Revolution, the period of famine that followed, the resilience of those who believed in the dream they enacted, the dignity that accompanied suffering. He, too, once believed in this dream—in its purest form, he still does—but for too long he has been writing with censors in mind, those who would weigh each word for the appropriate amount of patriotic fervor. As a result, the characters have become wooden, their lines spoken as if from a podium, even in scenes set in a blighted field.

Today, though, he manages to abandon himself to these people he once felt he knew so well, allows them to argue and say hurtful things masking feelings they cannot articulate. For the first time in many months, he envisions the stage from which the actors playing them will project their lines, and on it conjures a sideboard, a plate with three puny eggs, a sign of hope amid misery and strife. He has written four pages—more than in the last six weeks—and is still scribbling, sweat gathering under his arms, when there comes a knock on the door. He wants to ignore it, to let the words continue pouring onto the page. They seem to arrive now almost without his effort, and he is afraid that once he releases the pen, they will never again come so easily or with such assurance.

But the knock sounds a second time, followed by a voice—male and officious—calling out his name. He pushes back his chair and rises with difficulty. His kidney aches. The desire he experienced two hours ago has cleared like smoke in a soft but steady breeze. He will have nothing left to give Natalya when she returns. So maybe it is for the best that they have come for him today. And yet his hand shakes as he turns the lock. He has imagined this moment so often but now struggles to recall how he is meant to act. Stoic and dignified or incensed and defiant?

He opens the door to three officers of the People’s Commissariat, whom he welcomes inside with a smile that pushes strangely against his cheeks, as if it has formed without his consent. They are polite even as one reads the warrant for his arrest. Two wear soldiers’ uniforms— hats, heavy belts, and high black boots—one round-faced and boyish, with blond fuzz on his upper lip, the other creased and haggard, with kind eyes staring down at his shoes while he listens to the charges. The third, who reads them, seems uneasy in a light gray suit whose jacket is too big for him across the shoulders, an unsuccessful attempt to make them look broader. He’s hatless, with a sharp widow’s peak, hardly taller than Gronfein and much younger—too young to have fought in the war, still just a child when Lenin died.

Despite all the time Gronfein has spent anticipating this scene, there are so many details he has failed to picture. The discomfort on the officers’ faces as they carry out their task, or, for that matter, the presence of faces at all. He has never really considered the people with whom he would share his lines, and he has certainly never envisioned the carefully clipped fingernails of the officer in the suit, nor the crumbs on the young soldier’s jacket, nor the bitter smell of coffee on the older one’s breath. They have eaten breakfast together before coming to him, he guesses. If only he could have listened in on their conversation and written it down. Their exchange would have been far more interesting than the words he hears now, written by a bureaucrat who likely never set foot in a theater, at least not one without film projector and screen. The short officer finishes reading, and Gronfein offers them tea. They decline.

Instead they search the two rooms he and Natalya occupy, along with the shared kitchen. They gather his papers, including the open notebook, the ink still wet enough that it may smear when they close it. These four pages, he knows, will reappear at his trial. They will serve as proof of his decadence, his promotion of capitalist ideals, his crimes against the state. They are the best thing he has written in years, and they will doom him, even if he was doomed long before getting them down. It is, then, as it should be. He has always wanted his words to have power, and finally they have the power to destroy him. But now he begins to suspect that those four pages are thin and contrived compared to the conversation of these three officers over breakfast, a conversation he imagines as he watches them empty his desk. He thinks they would have discussed women, which would have provided necessary distraction. Not wives or girlfriends, but women they’ve seen in passing and admired. Maybe just one woman, glimpsed from a distance as they ate. The three of them watched her cross the street. Dark hair, pale neck. They argued over who would go speak to her. The squabble began with teasing but soon grew fierce, full of insult. Maybe they even threatened blows. All this as a way to keep from saying what they really felt about the day that lay ahead. In the end, none of them approached the woman, or said a word as she walked near.

“It must be difficult,” he says from the doorway, surprising himself. He seems to have as little control over his voice as he did his smile when they entered. “To carry out unpleasant tasks day after day. But I understand. Orders are orders. The most important thing is to support your comrades. Don’t let the pressure undermine your good will toward each other.”

The officers don’t respond. They finish their work, and he accompanies them out the door, the one in the suit carrying his papers, the notebook with the unfinished play, tightly against his jacket. When they reach the landing, the two in uniform grip his arms, though he has shown no intention of resisting. He is ready, he is tired of waiting, listening for the knock he has always known would come. That it did when he was too preoccupied to expect it is an irony he finds quite satisfying. Stepping out of the cramped rooms where he has experienced such constant apprehension, he is relieved, almost joyful, and a surge of fellowship makes him wish he could reach out and brush the crumbs from the boyish officer’s lapel.

Instead he tries joking with them, asking if it isn’t a lovely day for an interrogation. None laugh. The one in the suit nudges him in the back, just above the kidney, as if to show that he knows Gronfein’s weak point. Gronfein in turn lets out a groan, and the officers seem gratified. They all have their roles to play, and a jubilant prisoner does not suit the demands of the drama. He stiffens his arms against them so as not to seem overly compliant.

But when they near the stairs he experiences a twinge of regret at being taken before he can write down the breakfast conversation he has imagined, and even more, before he and Natalya have had a chance to make up following their quarrel. If only he could have set aside his pride and acknowledged the eggs, acknowledged the subtext of their argument. If only he’d told her their time together was the most precious thing in the world to him, no matter how short; that he wished daily they’d met a few years earlier, before the state tightened divorce laws to strengthen the Soviet family; that he was far more deeply wedded to her—a thousand times so—than to the woman who’d left him for the safety and indulgence of the capitalist West. He says over his shoulder to the officer in the suit, “Before we go. May I please leave a note for my … my wife?”

This, however, only makes them pull him more forcefully toward the top step. He imagines Natalya arriving home to find him gone, his desk cleared. She might think he has driven to his villa in Peredelkino, the writers’ village thirty-five miles away, where he claims to work more effectively, with less distraction, but where, in truth, he drinks and naps and chats with the few remaining friends not yet replaced with propagandists and hacks. She might even be pleased at first, given the time to make her honey cake in secret, preparing to surprise him with it when he returns. As she mixes the batter, she will feel sweetly nostalgic, thinking of her childhood. She might even imagine passing on the recipe to a child they would have together, married or not. If only he’d given her one when he had the chance.

“Please,” he says. “It will take just a moment. A quick note so she won’t have to worry.”

Shouldn’t the officers understand such a request, they who might have talked about women to keep from voicing misgivings about their jobs? Yet they say nothing. He plants his feet on the second step and shifts his weight to his heels. He pictures Natalya pulling the baked dough from the oven, layering it with sweetened cream. For a short time she will lose herself in the work, forgetting the fears that dominate their lives. She will be living, ever so briefly, in the utopia they have all worked so hard to create, the utopia for which they have struggled and sacrificed only to have it poisoned by those who can’t accept its nuances, who refuse to embrace the complexities of desire. The boyish officer shoves his foot with a boot, forcing it down to the next step.

“She’s going to bake a cake,” he says. “I have to tell her I won’t be home to eat it.”

But already he is picturing the cake sitting on the sideboard, Natalya at the small table where this morning they avoided each other’s eyes. Her lighthearted mood will begin to fade with the spring light outside the window. Her thoughts will return to their quarrel, to their bitter words, and she’ll wonder if this time they penetrated more deeply than in the past, if they hit a new mark and caused sharper pain. She’ll wonder if she has finally pushed him away, as she has always feared she might, as she once feared she’d pushed away her father, loving him so much and scolding him so often for his excesses that he drank himself to death in the snow. For a while—an hour, a whole evening?—she might believe he has willingly deserted her as his wife deserted him, without a word, without so much as a note, all his previous claims of devotion exposed as lies. He wants to spare her this pain, even if short-lived, knowing he can’t spare her any other.

“I won’t go,” he says, “not without a sign,” and grabs the railing, an old wooden one worn smooth by many hands, slick under his palm. The officer in the suit, still behind him, shifts notebook and papers to his left hand. With his right, he punches Gronfein in the bad kidney. The pain makes him release the railing. Release his bladder, too, which looses a dribble down his leg. Of course they know about his ailment. They know everything about him—that he wants to leave a note not for his wife but his mistress, that he has long been washed-up as a playwright. They have been watching him, for months, probably, or maybe years, perhaps waiting until the day he finally added to his notebook some new subversive lines for which they can crucify him. But how could they have known this was the day? It’s as if they’ve been in his head all along, looking out through his eyes, reading the words as he writes them, and sent on his behalf. David Gronfein spying on himself. And what did he discover? Until today, only laziness, resignation, forsaken ideals. The haggard officer, whose eyes still look kind, kicks his shin hard enough to crack it, he thinks, the pain vibrating all the way up his spine. Afterward they drag him without trouble, his feet clunking on each step.

He reasons, with what reason remains, that it will not take long for Natalya to realize what has happened. Yes, she might believe he has left her, but only for a moment. Then she will notice that his desk drawers have been emptied. She will know his fate is the one he has expected all along. He tries to comfort himself with this knowledge, tries to believe that a note would make little difference. But then he pictures the cake again, eight thin, moist layers with cream seeping out the sides. He sees it sitting on the sideboard, perfect and uneaten, a symbol not of hope but of all that has been wasted, and he feels his mouth filling with saliva, not from hunger exactly but some other need, more diffuse yet all-encompassing. All the desire left to him, desire that might have spread among his remaining years, now concentrated in a single moment as the officers pull him upright at the bottom of the stairs and straighten his collar. Desire for pleasures of the body, yes, of all the senses—the smell of Natalya’s hair, the first taste of her honey cake on his tongue, the sounds of birds along the Svislach in Minsk where he spent his childhood, a failed yeshiva boy often punished by his teacher—and of the mind, too, of language, of the words emerging from people’s mouths, implying everything they could never actually say.

He is sick with desire, it makes him cough and retch, and then out of anger or obligation the officer in the too-big suit punches him once more in the kidney, making him spit onto the floor. And he sees that it hasn’t been saliva in his mouth after all. Blood, yes, of course, just blood, the medium of desire that pumped through his body for fifty-six years now spilling from his lips into the apartment’s downstairs hallway, a dim space with wood-paneled walls and no windows. To his left, a door behind which the electrician Tupolev and his wife live in two rooms as small as his own. Tupolev is sure to be at work, but his wife, Klavdiya, seven months pregnant, must be inside. He makes a noise, or tries to, hoping to rouse her. He wants only for her to open the door and see what is happening, so that she can assure Natalya he did not leave of his own accord. But even as he thinks it he knows she will not open the door even if she does hear, will not say a word to Natalya for fear of retribution. He is now quite certain she hears everything, that she is standing just behind the door, listening as he spits blood onto the tiles, telling herself she must never say a word.

So he hopes instead that Natalya will linger just long enough in the hallway to notice the blood and understand what has taken place before climbing to the rooms above. That’s the crucial thing, that she knows before she makes the cake. She can save it for another time, when she has recovered from this blow and is open once again to the comforts of sweetness and recollected childhood.

But of course the officers will return to clean up the blood, or else they will send others to do so, as well as to scour the apartment for any papers they missed. By the time Natalya returns, all will be put back to order, as if they have never been here. As if Gronfein has never been here, either, not just in the apartment but in the city, on the stage, in the pages of any newspaper or book. They will remove all trace of him from the public record, his works will disappear from libraries, no one will be able to read or hear a word he has ever written.

The two officers in uniform lift him again, and the third brushes the front of his shirt with a handkerchief. But there is a spot of blood on the front, one they won’t be able to scrub away, and for that he is thankful. It’s the last lingering hint of him, something they will have to hide from passersby as they walk him out of the building into their waiting car. Still, there will be nothing to keep Natalya from making her cake. He accepts that now, the beautiful Medovik uneaten on the sideboard, waiting for someone who will never appear. This, too, is one of the nuances of longing, a part of the true utopian dream, and now all he can do is mourn it and hope that one day another playwright conjures it before an audience when they are too entranced to look away.

The boyish officer kicks open the door to the street. The sunlight is dazzling. Gronfein finds enough strength in it to pull against the hands on his arms, not enough to break away but to make them wrestle with him as they haul him outside. This is what the officers expect in their line of work, what they have come to crave, and who is he to deprive them? To his surprise, he manages to yank one arm free. It flails, half-closes into a fist, lands on the ear of the short officer in the suit, hard enough to make him flinch. It’s a gift he gives this dutiful defender of the state, whose loyalty is matched only by his cruelty, a little smile on his thin lips as his comrade—the one with creased cheeks and gentle eyes—grips both Gronfein’s arms behind his back so the other can land blow after blow on the ribs. Gronfein coughs up more blood onto his shirt. There is no hiding it now, and he is pleased. Everything in plain sight.

But in front of the apartment building, Brestskaya Street is empty of pedestrians, and before anyone sees, he is shoved headfirst into the back of a car whose seat smells of ammonia. The officers settle in with satisfied grunts, the boyish one beside him, crumbs still visible on his jacket, the others up front. The little one takes the driver’s seat and pushes a hat onto his head. Unlike the suit, it is too small, sitting lightly atop his widow’s peak, perhaps to make him appear taller. All three light cigarettes. They have played their parts well. They deserve applause, then drinks to celebrate a successful performance. What Gronfein experiences as pain is nothing more than the fulfillment of their studious and disciplined training.

The more compelling scene, however, is the one that will follow, the conversation they’ll have over breakfast tomorrow morning, before visiting another tired revolutionary who has outlived his usefulness. But he no longer has the concentration to imagine such an exchange, doubts he imagined it correctly before. They wouldn’t discuss a woman, not a stranger or a wife or a mistress, wouldn’t need distraction from their unsavory duties. How absurd to believe he could have understood them. What hubris to think they needed his encouragement or reassurance. Whatever passes between them is beyond the reach of his comprehension or fancy, it always has been, and instead all he can access is the thick metallic taste of blood filling his mouth. To spite them, he leans forward over his knees and lets some of it seep onto the floor of the car. But as soon as it’s gone, more replaces it. He can no longer recall the taste of anything else. The little officer starts the engine.

Knowing this is his last chance, Gronfein tries again to say what he must. The blood makes speaking difficult, his words garbled, and he has to repeat himself three times to be heard. But even when he’s sure he’s made himself clear, the officers don’t respond.

“My wife,” he sputters once more, as the car pulls into the street.


Scott Nadelson’s most recent books are a story collection, The Fourth Corner of the World, and a novel, Between You and Me. A winner of the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, and an Oregon Book Award, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

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