Slumped on a ratty couch three feet from the fifty-five-inch screen, Kovlov sighed along with Ryu. His cell buzzed and he hit green to Elaine’s midflight yelling that he had better Venmo $1200 as she had to pay her rent. Kovlov grunted, tapped the red icon, and refocused on the movie where an elderly woman, a middle-aged man, a young woman, and two young children sat on individual tatami mats around a low wooden table. The elderly woman scooped rice slowly into bowls. The doorbell rang. Kovlov’s roommate Sal popped from the kitchen, crossed between him and the screen. He opened the door to a man in a suit who queried, “Eugene Kovlov?” and dropped a sizable envelope on the floor. “Consider yourself served.” The family held their bowls, gently shoveling at their portions. A teapot marked the foreground.
Sal closed the door and kicked the envelope toward the couch. “Kovlov, you’re wastin’ away. Maybe eat some Ramen or something.”
When the movie ended, he clicked off the TV, headed into his room and flopped onto the futon.
Moonlight guided a SEPTA train as it emerged from underground and clanked up onto the elevated tracks that ran alongside Route 95 above Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and Kensington row homes, soot blonde brick schools, and entropy riddled factories.
One-eye took in the clock which was mostly hidden behind tipping piles of Japanese cinema books. Why the hell was Sal waking him up? A red neon 1. Maybe 1:00 PM? Could be 10, 11 or 12? Or maybe any hour at all and the one a minute’s digit. He’d hold still within the warm comforter, thwarting any consideration of least bad choices that would hurl him into the world. He might wait until the 1 changed to a 2, which meant waiting on average 30 seconds to 30 minutes, but his concentration broke and he slipped back into oblivion.
“Kovlov! Wake up and listen good. You owe me $1400.”
Thoughts of the Twilight Zone where Burgess Meredith lucked out when a nuclear war eradicated his tormentors, leaving him to pile up books to be savored for years to come. Unfortunately, the show’s karma boomerang smashed its character’s glasses. Immediately after their daughter died, Elaine had kicked Kovlov out, claimed their friends and most of both families. Then Sarge Clatchy got hit by an Uber so goodbye to man’s best friend and even small talk with other dogwalkers. Painful silence chased each negation. Maybe his unique path would one day make sense.
“You missed the bus. What now… if you have no job?”
Morning Philly stretched tall buildings. Steel and glass reached high into the air, long ago surpassing bronze William Penn atop city hall. An endless cacophony of wires, cords and crossed poles and beams blocked the view of those scurrying to work and bothering to search for sky or gazing up at Penn sculpted to look like he was holding his pecker, forever relieving himself upon the city.
Loudmouth Sal was right about losing his job in The Gap’s inventory room, and then a lightning storm of black and white images fired about his mind. He bolted from beneath the covers.
At Khyber Pass, Kovlov pointed up at the rows of glass bottles. The bartender pulled a Knob Creek but he kept his finger pointed at the soft yellow label of the Yamazaki 12 long enough for the bartender to correctly triangulate. He guzzled his shot and pointed again. Guzzled and pointed again. Guzzled. He slapped $100 on to the walnut bar, leaving nothing. In the Giant supermarket parking lot, he Incredible Hulked a shopping cart over the metal divider poles and pushed it back to the apartment.
“Kovlov, why the fuck did you steal a shopping cart?”
He loaded up the cart with hundreds of books that he had accumulated over the past four years during his Purgatorio; piles of screenplays, essay compilations on cinema and television.
The Schuylkill River ran heavy along the snake of Route 76 with its green metal white letter signs and dyslexic web of on and off ramps. The landscaping, recently terraformed for joggers, strollers and to connect a Balkans of neighborhoods, followed quietly along past the enormous Greek columned art museum and lit up boat house row.
One wheel of the cart spun about its axis gaining no traction on the sidewalk as the piles overflowed, causing him to stop and pick up the fallen. The Book Trader on Second and Market offered $120 for the fraction of books they might re-sell. He pushed the remainder to a makeshift thrift store squatting in an abandoned building on Front Street, and, despite the sign to not leave donations outside, he piled the remaining books under an awning. His phone rang as if Elaine was going to chide him to read the fucking directions and add that only a moron doesn’t read the labels on food at the supermarket. He powered it off and stomped it to bits.
On his way back to the apartment he stopped in the Kyoto Grill, walked past the tatami rooms to the bathroom. There was no alarm system. Adjacent to the kitchen a back-alley door with a bolt and doorknob locks.
His bedroom window looked out on the bricks of the adjacent building and down three flights to the dumpsters. He ripped from the walls the paintings by art school friends who wrote him off long ago. He garbage bagged them with his trilobite fossils, superhero and wrestling action figures, and tossed the bags, book shelves and futon frame out the window.
“You’re a fuckin’ massive psycho! But at least you’re showing some initiative. Dude, to kill yourself you’re going to need a higher window. If you jump from here, you will just break your ankles unless you land on your head. You know that, right?”
When the room was empty except for a knee-high table and a green futon, he slipped into the stairwell and hid up one flight, waiting for the superintendent to race up the stairs in response to calls complaining about some lazy fucker throwing trash out the window. Jansen passed, and Kovlov slipped down to the basement and into the unguarded office. He grabbed a box cutter, a Silky Zubat stainless steel handsaw, a wrench, and a box of garbage bags, and headed back out with the shopping cart.
He pushed along Chestnut, back on Walnut, and then back on Locust, stopping at garbage pails to pull soda cans and beer bottles. When he filled two bags, he sat on a stoop till the restaurants were cleaned and locked up. He headed east along Locust and then south on 2nd to the alley behind the Kyoto Grill.
It had been one of those Philadelphia days that pivoted through every season. Morning crowds crisscrossed lush parks and colorfully packed parking lots, Bruegel-like Phillies caps dotted the spring tapestry red. By noon a summerish sun flexed, forcing off coats and jackets. By early evening a brief fall drizzle until temperatures steadily dropped into the low 30s. Backlit by a full midnight moon, the massive cloud banks covered the city wintry gray.
Box cutter and credit card slid open the deadbolt. He clasped the wrench onto the doorknob stem and jumped his weight to crack it open. Once inside he passed a shelf with a stacked fleet of all-you-can-eat wooden sushi boats. To avoid being seen through the front plate glass by late night strollers he hunched-over headed for the backmost tatami room. He gathered and piled four earthy igusa mats and dislodged two bamboo posts and beige paper screens of Zashiki Hakkei prints and calligraphy. The hand saw and box cutter gently sliced the screens into sections. On his way out he grabbed a red teapot. The collection was gently placed into the cart and covered with the bags of empty cans and bottle. Within a block of his house, Kovlov pushed the cart and bags into an alley and grabbed the teapot, mats, and posts and screens to be re-assembled.
That night after a warm bath, Kovlov walked back to his bedroom and opened the door. Ozu waved a bamboo stick to enter. The stick settled back perpendicular to a pencil-thin mustache, creating a cross. To the master’s right, bespectacled Noda cooly palmed a lit cigarette. The red teapot was set in front of his tatami placed among a family scattered about a low table. Ozu looked at the one empty tatami, a sign for him to sit. Chishu Ryu sighed. Up close Ryu glowed a monk or maybe an angel. Setsuko Hara, wistful, understated, angled grace despite carrying a far too heavy burden, welcomed him with a modest glance. Atsuta calculated the presence of Kovlov and re-squared the shot. Kovlov had no lines but what matter in this simple space, to abide in nourishing silence.
David M. Rubin has a Ph.D. in biology. His stories, poems, and essays appear in After Dinner Conversations, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Café Irreal, ffraid, Last Stanza, Maudlin House, Moss Piglet, The Nabokovian, and The Smart Set. Links and connections to be found @Six18sFoundry.