The bandages circled my head at an oblique angle and irritated the earward side of my right eyebrow. I was waiting in the sickly park outside the hospital for Zalut (pronounced like “Salut!”) to arrive in his car, a duct-taped Vaz-2101. There was broken glass everywhere. Two nurses sat on a bench and smoked cigarettes and threw sandwich rippings to the pigeons. I thought I recognized them; part of me wanted to approach and awkwardly thank them for their service, but it was unlikely that either was my actual nurse. My head throbbed from the shaved patch on top down to my itchy eyebrow. The nurses’ shoes were comfortable looking but hardly strong enough for the sheer amount of glass shards that blanketed the park, which neither seemed to notice. I stepped forcefully with my own worn sneakers, trying to confirm that I wasn’t crazy, but I couldn’t hear any sharp crunch over the humming city noise. There was an extreme sense of defamiliarization — my whole adult life has been spent learning how to stare people in the eyes and suss out their true intentions; I, as hyper-specialized as the rest of us. When they’d first wheeled me outside, I’d abandoned the chair by the door and stepped directly into glass. For a hospital, this was highly irresponsible. Was there not somebody paid to clean this up?
Zalut’s car was the mauve of rancid meat as it wobbled around the bend on its broken axle. He had his window rolled all the way down to taunt the Siberian chill of the city in January, with his arm resting on the door, hairy and (somehow) slick with a thin sheen of sweat. His sunglasses were dirty, and his favorite Polish (or maybe German) music blared from the blown-out speakers.
“Privyet, coming,” I replied.
I tried to watch my step, but the glass was everywhere, perfectly covering the ground in a transparent mosaic. I could only see it from certain angles. Like somebody had laid down a thin, clear sheet, then shattered it and arranged the fragments. It was on the road, the sidewalks, the grass, below trash cans. Cars drove over it. One would expect to hear a constant crackle, but there was nothing. Muffled by the city, that’s possible. But it was like no sound was coming from the glass at all. People ignored it completely. I was happy to find none on the floor of the car, only the usual smattering of Zhigulevskoye cans and matchboxes.
Zalut toyed with the 3rd Class Blood Donor badge on his jacket while he waited for an opening to pull out onto the road. It was pinned like a military honor, but he was no military man. Never mind the illegal pistol he had under his coat — I’d decided not to do anything, as far as that was concerned.
“That scar on your head will be a great story to tell, about how you fought off those drunk mobsters.”
“Mobsters? I tripped in the ice and — ”
“Oh yes, mobsters. They were huge, too, with the eight-pointed stars under their collarbones. Of course, you only saw those once you knocked them out.”
“Zalut, that sounds like a good way to get my head caved in by actual mobsters.”
He laughed, swerved out into traffic to a chorus of horns. “Where are we going to find actual mobsters?”
I laid my head on the window and snorted, signaling to Zalut that I wasn’t feeling up to conversation. So, he chain-smoked out the open window while I watched the subtle lines of the glass pass by around us. Had I missed some sort of riot, or party? No, I thought, I hit my head after New Year’s, Red Army Day wasn’t for a month, and Zalut hadn’t info-dumped about any exploits. (I don’t think he suspected I was a state informant, considering how openly he sleezed around me.) Then, had I just not noticed before?
The faster Zalut swerved through traffic the less I could pick out mosaic from blurred asphalt. Students congregated in clumps along the streets as vague silhouettes in the shadow of Tomsk’s varied architecture, Brutalism bleeding into the gingerbread of the older, wooden buildings. All their heads were lowered. Muttering. Hunched penguin-like in heavy coats. Around them, parents and soldiers and workers shuffled with heads similarly downcast — all except for the kids. A score of little ones interspersed and running around, investigating, learning. It depressed me to think about them growing up and joining the blind shuffle of the adult we. Something about the crack in my skull made things new, strange, alarming.
I moved around the republics so often that all these varied masses had long since merged to archetypes in my mind. Suspects, criminals, workers, politicians, soldiers, children. Fit into a pattern as tight as the glass.
We parked the car in front of our apartment building, up against a snowdrift. Home, sweet Khrushchyovka. Skeletal birch trees blended out front into its faded, grey brick. If you squinted it almost looked like part of the soot-smudged sky.
“Come inside, I — let’s have a drink.” He coughed and spat something grey.
“Do you really think I should drink on pain meds?”
“Of course, why not? Gotta kill the bacteria somehow, and besides, you can’t heal when you’re depressed.”
“I’m not depressed,” I said, slamming his car door shut. He jogged ahead, keys in hand, not minding any particular path. On top of each uniquely disturbed crest and valley of snow was more of the mosaic, each piece glinting in the dim and cloudy sun.
“You’re always depressed. It’s part of why we get along so well.”
Zalut swung the door to the building open and shuffled inside. I stopped at the periphery and turned back, cold worming its way into my ears and goading me to shut the door and go inside, to get so drunk that maybe I’d forget this strange occurrence of the broken glass, write it off as an ignorable concussive abrasion on the pink of my brain. Somewhere nearby somebody was frying sausages with the window cracked, burning the oil. A rich, old, organic smell, a comfortable one I’d never thought about before — what about the life of the pig that went into its plasticine casing? Did it live with a thousand other meatbags in a bunker-like factory farm? Was it tended to in a small, family operation — maybe even nearby, the farmer a descendant of displaced kulaks from the Ukraine? Or, maybe there are dozens of different pigs in each casing. From different farms. Maybe we aren’t meant to think about the interlaced, matryoshka-esque context of things like that. And then, the glass. Only outside. Just barely noticeable. Thin. But certainly there.
In the time that I’d been at hospital, a resident had spray painted the militaristic badge of CVSK Moscow over another resident’s former shrine to FC Spartak Moscow. The common red and yellow color scheme of the two logos made them blend together into a dialectic synthesis of soviet graphic design, there on the corridor wall. I laughed to myself, shuffling upstairs, wondering if the members of those football teams knew that their respective causes were being championed all the way out on the residential walls of Tomsk. These sports fans were like pigs in that sense — part of an untraceable lineage. I used to report every such minor infraction when I was first an informant, but I was soon bureaucratically honed. A filter for the noise, one growing brittle in the wake of my injury.
My head throbbed and there was nowhere to sit in the apartment, as Zalut had nested while I was gone. Usually I could nag him into containing the mess to his room and (at least) cleaning up the dishes, but, like a kid, you can’t leave him alone for more than a day.
Zalut clicked two cloudy shot glasses down on the countertop, its white marble installed by a minor party official who’d lived here before us. It contrasted against the peeling, brown wallpaper like snow against the tree branches outside. Where was the marble cut? Why was it worth so much, a status symbol? What did it mean that we got it as a hand-me-down?
The Stolichnaya poured clear from its untarnished bottle, always the newest looking thing Zalut owned. He raised his glass to toast.
“I spend every day working with the possibility of death. Instant and total.” Zalut had not told me where he worked because he was forbidden to do so. I’d long since snooped through the files he brought home, however — there’d been rumors of a nuclear plant north of the city for years, and rumors like that tended to be true. Tomsk-7. A closed city. “And it opens my eyes to the enjoyment of the day that comes after, to little things. Angering stuffy old men on the roads. Reading. My music. It’s not that because I face death, I should be more grateful. It’s that I face a more plainly visible death, you know. Everyone else is surrounded by it always, will face the cremator some time, but they don’t notice. Pretend not to. They don’t really enjoy their contradictions, as a result. I say, fuck it. We drink to not making sense. Za zdarovje.”
We took our shots in single, practiced gulps. I wanted to ask Zalut about the broken glass, though I hesitated before the words came out of my liquor-stripped mouth — would I sound insane? I pulled a rickety stool up to the counter and sat on it. Zalut hopped up on the kitchen table, knocking a carefully jacketed book onto the floor. This, like most of Zalut’s secrets, was known to me. After the Prague Spring in ’68, you wouldn’t want to be caught with a copy of La Nausée. Especially not as an employee of Tomsk-7. God knows why they feared the pained ramblings of a French existentialist. The pen clipped on its false binding completed the disguise: when Zalut picked it up he made no effort to explain it. I could report him for it, if I wanted, maybe even get a commendation. But I wouldn’t. This was how it had always been. I suspected we both knew a lot about the other (my occupation notwithstanding), though had not revealed much in either case.
“Pyotr. Pour the shots before you make a toast, you know the protocol.”
I shook my head. The sunset was grainy and smothered through the moth-eaten drapes on the windows. “No, no. I’m not making a toast.”
“Then pass me the bottle, I’ll do it.” He lit a half-smoked, stale cigarette. The smell inside remained almost unchanged.
“We have all night to drink. One second. It’s barely sixteen-thirty.”
“Then get on with it. Did you fall in love with your nurse or something?”
“I always am,” he said, stretching his arms up till they parted against the ceiling. He was a tall and lanky man: reminded me of a skeleton, or perhaps an undernourished ape. I had to be out of my mind, to a degree. The sheer care with which the glass was arranged on every outside surface would require either delusion or a human effort on such a scale that I could scarcely believe it wouldn’t be mentioned to me. If I told my superiors, would I be locked away? Laughed at?
I told him what I saw. That since I’d woken up there’d been the mosaic, and no, I didn’t mean a couple of shattered bottles, nor was I speaking metaphorically; that I couldn’t hear the glass, but I could feel it, touch it; it was there, from the snowdrifts to the streets to the sidewalks, but not inside, and —
“I believe you,” he said.
I tensed in my chair, picking at splinters of wood along the side. “You believe that I’m not making it up?”
“No, I believe it’s real.”
We drank and drank. Somehow I felt more crazy with Zalut believing me; it added to the miraculous nature of it all, a random slip and fall, an awakening with no thesis.
“I wish I could see this puzzle of glass. Tomsk has little wonder for me, anymore.” Zalut seemed to never get drunk, only more pensive, tipsy at most.
I was standing up, wobbling, fiddling with the drapes. “Thatdoesn’tmakeanysense,” I said, “Your whole absurdist toast from before, you said you pitied people like me. You said fuck it. That doesn’t sound like fuck it.”
Somewhere else in the building Van Morrison’s Caravan echoed off a 78rpm roentgenizdat record, a bootleg cut and printed on the vinyl of a discarded X-ray.
“Pyotr, friend, these ways of thought aren’t always easy to live in. One wavers. It’s the only way to approach a semblance of truth.”
It was at that point that Zalut began drinking straight from the bottle.
“Still sounds like fuck it, to me.”
“Listen to this: ‘A man is always a teller of tales, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story. But you have to choose: live or tell.’ Do you see? Even if I were without doubt, it is still better to live each new thing over retreating into my own ideas about the world.”
“You really want to see it?” Out the window, I could now see moonlight reflecting off the few snowflakes that fell.
“Alright, then come outside with me. To the balcony. I’ll try, I’ll try to explain. But it won’t do any good, you know.”
I bundled up in my oil-stained leather overcoat, while Zalut declined to grab anything. Maybe that’s where all the liquor went, right into that coal furnace of a heart keeping his blood warm. Twin flags of Tomsk and the USSR hung from rusted, metal bars on the balcony. Somewhere far away a woman yelled and the sound came muffled, quickly absorbed by the snow. Dim lights diffused out from the other buildings around the courtyard, little but the moonlight making it to the snowy center. The world was grey and small outside.
“The glass is on the snow. Moonlight shining on it and reflecting off — kind of like that film, the plastic on a sausage.”
“A sausage?” He spat. “That’s your metaphor?”
“If you ask me, I think I’m crazy. Yes. A sausage. We’ll — no, fuck it. More like these barely-there lines of white light, each marking a sharp, razored pane. It’s so perfect I can’t accept it. I think you believe me more than I do.”
“I can close my eyes and imagine it. I imagine it’s subtle. Like finding mushrooms in dense brush. A pearl on the beach. Shapes in the clouds.”
“Like it was that way my whole life. . .”
“But now that you’ve seen one, you can’t unsee it.”
“Like maybe I’d seen it before, when I was small. . .” I leaned on the railing, hanging my head down hunched. “Or something. Or in a dream.”
“Maybe you haven’t been paying enough attention, now that you know so much.”
“I don’t know that much.”
He tapped his skull three times, and smiled. “Ha, exactly. You get it.”
A woman yelled, again, closer this time but from a different heading. Zalut and I leaned against the railing, watching our breath spiral out, his thicker with its exhaled smoke. The thrashing sound of trash being rumbled through came from the alleyway between the two buildings directly to the right of us. We ignored it till it got suddenly louder, accompanied by a low, diffuse growl — a hunched, furred silhouette of a creature stumbled out from the alleyway, dragging something small and alive in its jaw.
“Is that a cat? A wolf?” I asked. The thing was ten, twenty meters away in the dark. Three-quarters of a meter at the shoulder, at least, and forty kilos or more by weight. Robust. Coat the color of dirty snow.
“No, no,” Zalut said, “It’s a lynx. Biggest lynx I’ve ever seen.”
There was the unmistakable limp shape of a child in its mouth. The kid had on a blue parka stained near the neck and did not move very much.
I’d had a similar coat when I was young.
With each step, the lynx left tracks of blood in the snow as if it were cutting its paws on the broken glass that was maybe there. I couldn’t tell if the child was alive or not. Blood had crusted to a cherry-dark mask on the left side of the lynx’s face, and its eyes were yellow and reflective and trained on Zalut and I. Daring us to act. The woman screamed again. The lynx labored, then Zalut pulled out his 5.45×18мм pistol and fired at it twice, cracking through the still night like lightning. The animal went limp and thrashed sideways into the snow and neither it nor the child moved. I wondered whether the bullets left any holes in the glass or not. I bet the kid could see, if he tried, if he weren’t dead.
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. New York: New Directions, 1964.
Broken Glass originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of the Santa Ana River Review.