A Reputation for Wildness: An Excerpt from Jeff Fearnside’s ‘A Husband and Wife Are One Satan’
Fiction by Jeff Fearnside
Neither of them could remember exactly when their arguments began bringing more business to their café. A certain amount of public obnoxiousness could be expected in Kazakhstan, especially when vodka was involved, but normally the deeply personal affairs of a husband and wife were kept secret, behind the locked doors of crumbling Soviet-era apartments or closed gates of tiny village homes.
That doesn’t mean people were above prying into their neighbors’ lives, especially in the villages. Raim and Railya made it easy for them.
It started out playfully. “Mare,” Raim would say, smacking his wife on her great round behind, which shivered like a horse’s flank under her cotton skirt. “Stallion,” she would return, grabbing him by his fleshy hips and then pushing him away, laughing.
The few customers who came at first, mostly their friends and relatives, enjoyed this little theater. Then one day Raim returned drunk from a trip to the bazaar to buy onions, and Railya soundly scolded him for “coming in on his eyebrows” in front of the entire café.
“You’re really under her heel!” roared the big foundry boss, Kolya, and everybody laughed.
Raim, normally good natured, and too drunk to fight back anyway, grinned sheepishly. “But it’s a very pretty heel,” he said, trying to wink but blinking both eyes instead.
Once the taboo was broken, they began arguing as freely in their café as they did at home. Being ethnic Tatars, descendents of the Mongols who had ravaged the region some eight hundred years before, they already enjoyed a certain reputation for wildness. At some point they realized that business had become brisk. Just how much was due to their tasty homestyle cooking and how much to the entertainment was uncertain, but Railya shrewdly observed that there were certain phrases that always pleased her diners, who even insisted that the thunderous pop music, normally a café’s main attraction, be turned down in order to hear what the combatants were saying.
It was a summer Friday night, and the regulars were all there: married, bear-like Kolya and his doll-like girlfriend, Larisa; Murat, a quiet little Kazakh man, and Tikhan, the equally quiet Russian youth who always sat with him; Dilya and Olya, excitable and extravagant teenage friends; and Alikhan, a widower everyone assumed was alcoholic because he strangely sat by himself and never spoke except to order.
Raim bustled between his roles of greeting customers, grilling large skewers of meat, and dishing out portions from a massive cauldron of plov — long-boiled rice, carrots, and onions topped with mutton.
“Assalamu alaikum,” he greeted Murat as he did all his fellow Muslims: “Peace be with you.”
“Wa alaikum assalam,” Murat returned. They gripped hands lightly but warmly, their free hands holding each other’s forearms to show respect.
Since Kolya was Christian, Raim greeted him in Russian and shook his hand in the vigorous Western style. In such a way, Raim visited each table to ensure that his customers were happy. They all settled into their seats while Railya topped off everyone’s glasses with their drinks of choice.
Then the show began.
“Your portions are too big,” Railya complained, emphasizing each word by pointing a spoon nearly as large as a ladle at her husband. As a schoolgirl in Soviet times, she had often starred in the many holiday pageants the authorities staged, and she relished reliving the emotions of those days.
“People come here because they’re hungry,” Raim said. “I feed them.”
“They’ll have to feed us soon if you keep giving away everything we own.”
“It might do you good to relax and open up a little, you dried-up old galosh.”
“I gave you the best years of my life! If I’m dried-up, it’s because you sucked me dry.”
“Stop your talking, snake.”
“Deaf farter!” Her eyes twinkled, for she often used this epithet affectionately with him. “You’re lucky I married you — you from a family of cattle thieves. I’m a head taller than you!”
Kolya began laughing so hard tears streamed down his ruddy cheeks. “That’s exactly what my wife says!” he exclaimed between sobs before downing a shot of vodka. His girlfriend patted him consolingly on the arm. He placed his enormous free hand upon hers, and half her slender forearm disappeared.