Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chapter Five

Gunar was sleeping soundly on the sofa when the phone rang. After his large lunch of pork stew at the Pines Café, washed down with a couple of pints of beer, taking a nap was entirely natural. Gunar was a great believer in the natural order of things. Certain people were created to rule over others. Certain behavior was expected by subordinates. An afternoon nap after lunch was part of the natural order of things.

So Gunar was annoyed to have this natural order disturbed, and he let his annoyance show as he answered the phone gruffly.

“Yeah?”

“Timur Rodenko speaking.”

Gunar straightened up.

“Yes, Chairman Rodenko. How can I help you?”

Indeed, Chairman Rodenko had a clear idea of how Gunar could help him. Chairman Rodenko would not have otherwise called. He considered Gunar a lazy and greedy man, an opportunist. But, like many opportunists, he was extremely useful.

“Your friend Emin. He is still working as a national artist, correct?”

“Yes, he is. I saw him this morning. Is there a problem with his work? I will talk to him directly about it. We are not really close friends, by the way.”

“No, there is no problem that I know of. Not with his work. But something else has come up. The committee noticed that the portrait of Our Leader at the Star of the Motherland Metro is hardly visible.”

Rodenko was quiet a moment. He tended to speak softly and slowly, using uncomfortably long pauses for dramatic effect.

“This situation must be remedied,” he continued.

“Of course. Yes. I will contact Emin immediately. The tree will be removed before the end of the day.”

“Gunar,” Rodenko said slowly. “I didn’t say to remove the tree. Our Leader revered this particular species. It too is regarded as a national symbol among some of the peasantry. The tree should remain – but its branches must be substantially trimmed so that the portrait is completely visible. This requires some degree of artistry, so I thought your friend’s assistance might be appropriate.”

“I’m sure that Emin will be happy to assist in this task. I will contact him immediately.”

“Thank you. Oh, by the way. I noticed that the neighborhood donations to the party have been stagnant now for the last three months. Is there a problem?”

The donations to the party came from the businesses in the Sahil District, which Gunar managed. Once a month, a government official and a party official would visit every business – from the car repair shops to the restaurants. The discussions were almost always polite, unless the necessary donation had not been received in the previous month. In those unfortunate cases, some sort of problem was inevitably found. The bathrooms might be deemed unsanitary, which would require the immediate closure of the restaurant. Even car repair shops had been closed because their bathrooms were unclean. The severity of the problem found directly related to the attitude of the business owner. In the worst cases, serious discrepancies in financial accounts would be discovered. This meant that not only would the business be closed, but the owner of the business could be subject to immediate criminal prosecution.

The rules were well understood by everyone and only rarely were such measures necessary. But the economic stagnation in the country had begun to affect the local businesses. The local business owners simply were unable to bear the ever increasing level of donations requested by the party. It had been a long time since Gunar personally had made these fund-raising visits, but he knew the people who collected for the party and he knew the local business owners. After all, they were his customers. Gunar could be callous about people’s feelings, but he was perceptive about how they spent money. And he noticed how even the successful businessmen were spending less.

“There is no problem that cannot be solved with greater discipline,” Gunar said, quoting President Alidev.

“Very well. I am glad you will take care of this,” the chairman said, and hung up.

Gunar, in fact, knew that he could take care of the problem, but it would not be easy. Although he had a slight headache from the beer he drank earlier in the day, he actually relished the challenge that Chairman Rodenko had given him. He sat on the sofa, listened to the traffic below, and considered the alternatives. It might be easiest to completely liquidate one business, rather than require an equal amount of funds from all the businesses who regularly donated to the party. If done correctly, this very liquidation could be used to spur the other businesses into greater generosity. The remaining businesses in the district would understand this fate could await them too, if they were stingy in their support for the party. But which business should be liquidated? Gunar picked out a piece of pork from between his teeth with his index finger and pondered his dilemma.

Taking care of the Chairman Rodenko’s other request was easier. Emin was finishing a lunch of rice soup in his tiny kitchen when Gunar called. Although Emin was looking forward to an afternoon nap, he understood that a request from the Chairman had to be honored immediately. Within five minutes, he had donned his work uniform again and was running down the dark stairwell of his apartment building.

Emin knew the tree in question. The oak towered over the small groups of men who often played dominoes in its shadow. Ten years earlier, all the other trees in the square had been removed in order to create a flat tiled surface better suited for parades and assemblies. But this oak by some strange oversight had been spared. As he approached the Star of the Motherland Metro Station, Emin observed that the poster was nearly completely obscured by the tree. Only large forehead and the eyes of the dead president were visible, peering above the thick crown of the tree. Emin well understood the outrage of the party committee, although he was reluctant to cut the oak. All too few of the trees remained in the city, he thought. Over time, they had been cut to create space for grand tiled expanses. Such places were perfect for athletic displays and parades, but were of little other use. People enjoyed sitting under trees, and the benches erected in these newly created tiled and unsheltered squares were usually vacant for most of the day.

But Emin was glad at this point that no one was playing dominoes under the tree at this hour. He didn’t want an audience for this job. After a moment to contemplate his task, Emin swung a rope over the lowest branch, and quickly clambered up to the lowest set of branches. He had climbed trees since he was a boy in the north of the country, and the climbing skill remained with him like a second nature. Oaks were fine for climbing, with strong, evenly-spaced branches. He stood on the thick lower branch and looked up, feeling the coolness of the tree, its rough dirty bark. He looked at the ants crawling on the trunk, and looking up, he noticed a large bird nest in the top branches. This was unfortunate. Emin liked birds, but he had a job to do.

A few more minutes, and he had reached the branches that covered the poster. In the crook of one of these branches, he noticed the bird nest. It was empty now, but he guessed that it belonged to a couple of crows that sat on a nearby lamp post, angrily cawing at him. Twice they flew up, circling above him. But the nest was empty, and Emin knew the birds would just make noise. He began sawing at the necessary branches, but work was slow. The ants crawled on his pants and his shirt, biting him occasionally. The birds continued their outraged commentary. As the saw blade cut deeper, it got bound up in the green wood, slowing his task even more. First, he was sorry for the tree he cut, for the birds whose nest he destroyed. But as his work continued, he became annoyed, irritated that he was here at work still, irritated at the birds, at the tree that required such trimming. He cut one branch off and watched with satisfaction as it tumbled to the ground. The second branch was narrower and easier. Finally, he cut the branch that held the crows’ nest. The wood crashed noisily down through the lower branches, upsetting the table under the tree and scattering the nest across the pavement. The birds flew up again, angry, circling above the tree. Emin looked over to the poster. Yes, now the dead president could be easily seen from the square. This was good.