People say you see images rush in front of your eyes the moment before you die, images from the past like riding in the trunk of your dad’s truck to a camping ground or a cherry ice cream you had last week.
They do this in the movies. An advertising executive with a bullet hole in his head lying on the back at a Boy Scout camp watches stars and dead maple leaves fall from the sky in slow motion. Grandmother’s hands draped in paper skin.
You picture yourself falling face down. You smell your own brain splattered on the grass, head cracked by a handgun shot that hadn’t been fired yet, gut muscles squeezing the stomach and pushing the steak and the baked potatoes you ate for dinner and the brandy and the champagne you drank up the food pipe.
Vomit, you want to vomit all of it. You wait for the gun to go off and pray time would freeze and never tick to the next moment.
The gun’s barrel is dug into my neck’s jugular vein, pointing up. This close from the muzzle, the gunshot will leave soot around the entry hole and pelt in a symmetrical pattern. Forensics call this a powder tattoo because of the tiny burns the blazing propellant specks leave on the way out the gun’s chamber.
When you see a powder tattoo on a dead body and no soot, you know the shot was fired from a distance because the propellant specks spray farther than the smoke does.
For handguns, the rule of thumb is the distance the powder grains can travel to reach the skin is about twice the barrel’s length. The bullet’s friction against the rifling will gouge off the barrel’s steel pieces and thrust them at the skin. You can’t wipe them off the corpse, they stay.
He says pray and jabs the gun barrel against my neck. In Russia, they give you time to pray before blowing your brains off. An Eastern Orthodox tradition. No rush, it’s an execution. A five-second talk with God before the firing pin strikes the cartridge primer. After that, the primer ignites the powder inside the cartridge and the gases send the bullet down the barrel at 315 meters per second velocity.
I know this from my school primary military training because the handgun pressed against my throat is a semi-automatic blowback Makarov, the Soviet militsiya’s sidearm.
This is my comeback year. Yuri Elizarov, the team boss, never told me why he took me back. Eighteen months off the bike and he grabs me on the street between two seasons and asks if I want to go to Sochi with the team to reboot my career.
Maybe he wanted to save the team after the Seoul Games’ flop. One gold medal in the men’s kilo and nothing on the road. This is not what the state agreed to finance. They want gold, road gold.
Start over. Find a new tune. Adopt and mutate. The system you grew up with, that seventy-two-year-old machine no one thought would stop turning, it’s on its knees, a bleeding, stinking wounded pig.
I told him I haven’t got a single piece of kit left, sold everything I said except the shoes and he says not to worry, will kit you out tonight.
Two days before that, I ran into a Ukrainian Cycling Federation bureaucrat outside of a liqueur store on the Kreschatyk street in Kiev.
Plastered, with a cigarette in my mouth, I was waiting for a guy named Nikolai, my namesake, with two brandy bottles hugged to my chest.
Nikolai, a Gogol lookalike dude with a thin mustache, was a violin maker with a waiting list for his instruments longer than he could handle in a lifetime. He made violins and cellos at night, slept until two, drank and made more violins and cellos.
He lived in a one-bedroom flat in Vinogradnyey Gory with his third wife Larisa who used to play the cello before she married him. He worked in a ten-square-meter bedroom filled with wood and tools. No more than two people could fit in that room at the same time.
Larisa and Nikolai slept on a couch in the living room. No shower. When the flat was built in the 1960s, shower was too bourgeois. They showered in the kitchen behind a plastic curtain with a makeshift showering contraption that looked like a stripped-down torture appliance.
I’ve been dating Larisa’s sister when I met Nikolai and we clicked right away. Both from North Caucasus, the namesakes, why not.
We drank every night, me sitting in the kitchen in a cloud of smoke and him in the workshop two meters away talking about violins, Stradivari, and cycling.
He told me he knows how Stradivari made his instruments sing the way they did. He’d figured it out. My stuff, he kept saying, sounds like a million bucks.
This one day I come by and he’s sitting in the living room with a guy he introduces as Albert. They drink ethyl spirit. You swallow this stuff straight in and it’ll burn your throat as if you’d swallowed a bag of chilies. Add some water to it and it’s like vodka except it stinks and the reaction between water and spirit makes the mixture warm and milky. When you’re not used to this concoction, it tries to jump out of your stomach the moment you swallow it, settles in after three seconds if you stop breathing, drops an anchor and stays. It’s volatile.
They’re drunk as skunks when I walk in. Albert is a violin player who owes Nikolai two thousand rubles for an instrument he made him last year.
This is how these guys treat him. Order an instrument, pay couple hundred to start the job, nag the instrument out of his hands for another hundred when it’s finished and make sure you never run into him. If you do and he gives you hell, bring a bottle and some cash to calm the fret.
Nikolai is a human bank with thousands in outstanding debts and no leverage to make his customers pay.
Everyone is broke.
Hours later and more ethyl we kick Albert out the door, sit in the kitchen and brew Turkish coffee.
It’s four in the morning and Nikolai shows me a piece of maple wood and says this is going to be the next viola’s neck and why maple is used for the neck and spruce for what he calls the soundboard.
This is when he says, “You’re an idiot, you know that?”
“Sitting here drinking ethyl with me like a dumb fool.”
“We’re pissing our lives away. I make the best violins in the world and here I’m, drinking ethyl with a Jew who owes me more money than he can make in a year playing my instrument.”
Yeah, tell me about it. Tell me life isn’t shit that smells like ethyl. Tell me the best day of my life is still in the future. Tell me, let’s hear it.
He says, “I need a bigger workshop.”
Me, I need a sleep.
“Imagine,” he says, “imagine this whole flat is a workshop. I’d have room for a lathe. I’d triple my production. More than triple.”
“No one pays you anyway.”
“Man, if I could build an extension to this building. A shed.”
“Dream on,” I said in English.
“A song by Nazareth. You’re fooling yourself… dream on… dream on.”
He lights a cigarette and says, “What if we dig under the flat?”
He kneels on the kitchen floor and crawls to the workshop looking at the floor planks. “Easy to remove these,” he says from the floor.
I tell him again how crazy this is and how we’ll end up in prison if someone finds out we’re digging a hole under the flat and what if the whole building falls because of our digging and he says it won’t fall, it’s just a small cellar and you’re not an engineer anyway to know why buildings fall.
Yeah, like you are.
We start digging the next day. To keep this a secret, we dig at night, fill forty-liter potato sacs with dirt, carry them outside and dump them at the construction site next to Nikolai’s flat.
After digging for two weeks, we hit a concrete slab and our cellar is only one meter deep. You can hide a dead body in this hole but the dream of doubling the workshop’s space dies here tonight.
I sit on the kitchen’s floor with my feet in the hole and tell this to Nikolai. I tell him the last two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life and as all dreams do, this one has to die.
At least, we’re not in prison.
This is when we ran into the cycling bureaucrat on the Kreschatyk street, the day the workshop dream died.
Nikolai had a job to go to once a week at the Kiev Conservatoire because not having a job was against the antiparasite laws. Stay unemployed for more than four months and you’d end up behind bars for parasitic lifestyle.
I tagged along with him to hang out with men and women who all carried violin cases and talked as if they’d never heard anyone swear before.
We smoked and drank black, thick coffee mixed with brandy in one of the foyers and I listened to bohemian gossip, jokes, and anecdotes about Vienna’s and Stockholm’s concert halls. The brandy came from violin cases, everyone had a flask or a small bottle in a case. In Soviet Union, sober is not how you play serious music.
The bureaucrat, eyes wide open, says: “You smoke?”
“Nah, fooling around.”
He says, “What are you doing here?” Looks at the bottles hugged to my chest, saying: “What’s going on?”
The guy doesn’t know I quit racing. This is when Nikolai comes out with two bottles of Crimean champagne he bought for his wife and an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
“Light?” he says and looks at me and then at the bureaucrat.
I give him my cigarette to light his. He lights it, looks at the bureaucrat, saying: “Problems?”
“No, not at all. Didn’t expect to see this young man with cigarettes and alcohol.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“I’m one of the Titan’s backers, I chair…”
“What do you want?”
“Kolya,” I say and pull Nikolai by the sleeve, “let’s go.”
“Excuse me,” the bureaucrat says. “Do you realize,” he says to Nikolai, “you thwart the development of a state-sponsored athlete?”
“Yes, you. We spend considerable resources on these young men and people like you impede our work. You should be ashamed.”
If hanging communist bureaucrats was a job, Nikolai would be its paragon.
He smiled and told him how the world would be a better place if everyone did something useful, like making musical instruments and not sit in a room filled with sick demagogues’ collected works or go to meetings to talk and listen to bullshit and then pretend all day you’re the hub of the universe.
“You’re a foul schmuck,” he ended the sermon.
Three days after that, Elizarov sends me to a training camp in Sochi to start a new season.