Do you remember how during the late fifties, Kyiv was a dark cloud shrouded behind its fabled golden gates, shut-off from the Western world behind the impenetrable hinges of the Iron Curtain. Do you recall? I still do. In those hard days, the Communist pride of the nation were the Komsomol members, the red-kerchiefed youth whose major duty was to strut in the May Day parades with banners hailing Sputnik and Lenin and promoting anti-capitalistic, anti-imperialistic fervor by whipping the cheering multitudes into a tightly binding obedience with their patriotic presence.
I was there watching, witnessing the masses lining the streets and how wildly they applauded and cheered the Komsomol youth marching past them alongside the floating tanks and missiles, followed by the grand Red Army orchestra and more and more troops carrying curved-butted rifles while goose-stepping their way down the Khreschatyk, the main street of Kyiv. It was glorious if a bit overdone.
I was also watching someone in particular in the crowds. His name was Ihor Ilych Hrycenko who stood waving and cheering along with the others. Perhaps not with much enthusiasm but then he was a quiet dreamy sort. You can tell from the far-away look behind his thick, black-rimmed glasses, and the distracted way he misbuttoned his thin tan overcoat that wasn’t properly protecting his lean body from the cold rain. I stood close enough to him to hear his mousy shouts of “Slava,” and “Glory to our Fatherland.”
He stifled a yawn, then moved and liberated his way out of the crowds pressing against one another on the cracked pavement, passing me, and not seeing me because I am a chameleon, a changeling, a shapeshifter whose remarkable talent—if you can call it that—is to blend and camouflage myself when I need and choose to. We may have even met but you would not remember or noticed. I might have been the clerk behind the counter handing you your change for the bread you just bought. Or the person in line behind you in that same barren store waiting for that loaf myself. You see me, but you really don’t. But I always, always see you.
I pushed my way to follow Ihor walking down an empty and quieter street, partially hidden behind the tall Lenin statue guarding the city. Lenin—always frowning on timid couples who often stole a quick kiss beneath his unforgiving gaze. Like the couple I came upon who were doing just that before they quickly disengaged their arms from each other and scattered like the startled pigeons I scurried through in my haste to follow Ihor.
He was going to his office at the Patriotic House of Translators—it’s actually my office too since I work there with a desk nearest to his. The oblivious Ihor had no idea that I was following him. He never looked back—well, only once when he stopped after he tripped on the curb crossing a busy street after a frantic bus nearly obliterated him into a flattened tan pancake. I almost wished for his sake that he was trampled, but he was not a lucky sort.
Ihor hurried onward. He knew he was late. I checked my watch. He was exactly 25 minutes late. He will explain to our office security supervisor Valentyn Hryhorovich that he went to the parade as was his patriotic duty—and that is true, but he omitted the other things he did en route like his languid eating of a vanilla ice cream cone at one of the kiosks (ten minutes), and then stopping to watch a group of boys kick a ball around in a school yard while shouting out inane advice (fifteen minutes) which the boys wisely ignored.
A bit more about Ihor. He was an English linguist and a translator—a decadent illogical language, but necessary in those times. As his instructors used to remind him in his translation training classes: “We must be ready to yell and jeer at them in English when they come to attack us.” “They” of course, meant the imperialists, Americans usually.
My desk is across from his, and like a cheating student during exams, he would place stacks of the chemistry textbooks he was translating in front and top of his desk as a protective barricade with only the top of his stringy hair visible and which always reminded me of unruly vines a negligent gardener forgot to cut. Sometimes he would peer over the top with his glasses fixed on something on the ceiling, sigh, and say things in an under breath such as, “What a dull job this is.” Then he would sigh louder and that is when I put down my pen and look up at him. “I wish these formulas would turn into musical notes,” he would then say to me directly. “Then I could hum along instead of wondering what in the world I was translating.” He said that often, and I never replied because he would then immediately bob and lower his head back behind those stacks of books as if in tempo to some insular rhythm only he heard.
As sometimes happens even in the dullest offices with the most mundane tasks, changes occur—glacially and with great resistance especially in our country, but they do occur. Ihor no longer had to translate those boring, useless and outdated chemistry textbooks. This happened only because he demonstrated his profuse knowledge of colloquial English by swearing in a chain of exasperated and angry sentences for five full minutes when his barricade of books fell on the floor after he tried to balance them in pyramids instead of the usual flat horizontal stacks. The outburst could have been disastrous for Ihor but turned out to be the catalyst for his desirable and unexpected new task of translating the English language newspapers.
At first Ihor found this fascinating, but as he told me, he soon detested The Times of London, and as he put it, the smarmy stories about the Queen Mother and her toothy daughters riding in silly carriages. Soon after and only when Valentyn Hryhorovich wasn’t bothering him or staring at him in suspicion (he was naturally suspicious of anyone reading anything foreign), Ihor scowled openly and sighed as before.
Ihor was right. The British newspapers were dry and dull compared to the American ones. Even the reserved and grayish New York Times was surging with more life blood and vigor than anything the bourgeoisie imperialist Brits could reveal so it’s no wonder that Ihor became addicted to the American papers. However, in my observations, I noticed that he folded the papers in sly ways that allowed him to read the entertainment sections (I know English too and can read upside down) and all about the latest plays and films, the restaurants and art shows, and the other nonsense that was not at all newsworthy or important for our country’s security. But even so, they were more beguiling, forbidden and certainly more enticing than the front pages. I stared at them myself when he went to lunch or out for a smoke and found them just as fascinating. Who could not, really.
And then it became apparent how mesmerized Ihor was because of the one blazing item that stood out and reappeared over and over on those pages. It struck at Ihor’s encumbered soul and trapped his gaze whenever he came across an item about someone called Elvis.
The headline that really cemented his interest was the one that read, “Elvis: Just a Good Ol’ Boy.” He kept reading it over and over like a litany. No doubt he was as the Americans say, “hooked.”
“How the hell am I supposed to translate this?” He finally said out loud enough for me to look up at him. “This English usage is so unusual.” He needed an audience and I listened to him repeating the puzzling headline. “I mean, this is really impossible. What for instance, is ‘ol’?”
I said, “I never heard of ‘ol’ spelled like that. Maybe ‘oil’?”
He came over to my desk. “Look, at his picture. What does it mean that he is ‘good ol’ boy?”
It was just as bewildering as was this man, Elvis. For the rest of the day, Ihor openly studied the picture of this ‘good ol’ boy’ far longer than he had ever stared at the breasts of the office girls. I have never seen him so preoccupied in his work.
The next day I was surprised to see Ihor on time at his desk and staring at that same photograph in the paper. “I think I have it!” He announced even before I had a chance to take off and hang my coat. “Look at this man. He is what—dancing? jumping? in front of hysterical women. He is handsome, isn’t he?”
I nodded. No doubt, Elvis was certainly a fascinating looking character especially with that thick lustrous dark hair.
“And look at his hair,” Ihor continued in a rhapsodic voice as though he read my mind. “Have you ever seen such hair before? What did he do to his hair to make it float up away from his eyes like that?” Good question. Ihor’s own hair was combed back with water, and as the day wore on, thin strings would flip over his eyeglasses.
“And that great shiny jacket with the black shirt…who would ever wear such a thing here?” He lowered his voice. “They’d shoot you before you had a chance to show your internal passport and plead your loyalty to the Party…,” He stopped talking. I gave no reaction and returned to my own desk and pretended to be working at some translation drudgery of my own.
Ihor disappeared from the office, but as I expected, he returned with armloads of more new newspapers that had arrived that morning. He kept searching for more photos it seemed and each time he did, he exclaimed and ran over to show me. Indeed, there were many more newspaper articles about Elvis and more photos too. “Look!” He insisted thrusting one of Elvis kissing his round-cheeked, baggy-eyed sorrowful looking mother.
“And oh, look, look!” Another photo—in color this time which was very rare in those days. This one was of Elvis riding in his long car with rocket-ship looking boosters bursting from the rear. “Och! that probably makes it zoom easily at a hundred kilometers on those perfect American roads,” Ihor said, enraptured. We read the caption out loud together: “Elvis’s Pink Cadillac.”
“Pink?” Ihor said. “How wonderfully decadent! But what is a Cadillac? Maybe, it’s like those black Volgas?” He asked with some innocence, but I understood what he was referring. Those special black Volgas were the official cars that drunken Party officials and their giggling girls in the backseats zoomed around in under the pretense of special government business—always, always on their way to confiscating black market contraband like condoms and bottles of French cognac that renegade sailors hid on a docked boat en route to Turkey. I should know—I have been in several such Volgas myself.
Ihor found another item. A much more in-depth story about a new home that man bought for his mother: “Grasslawn,”—Ihor translated. “Grass. Lawn. Doesn’t that mean the same thing?” He mumbled to himself while peering down into the paper causing his enormous glasses to slide down his nose already slick from perspiration and oil glands.
“Ach! No! No!” He shouted. “I misread it. The house is called “Grrassse-land. Grace landiya. Grace. Like slava which means honored, right?” He smiled and nodded his approval to me although I was only there to hear him sound out his cryptic translations. “A house with grass in an honored country—his house.” He looked up at me with a moony, reverential and besotted look. “Yes,” he whispered. “Amerika.”
For the rest of the time I shared an office with him at the Patriotic House of Translation, Elvis’ photos continued to permeate Ihor’s brain. His desk was flooded with picture after picture and more articles of Elvis. He confided how he liked the way this American looked. “So unusual! So original!” He said not able to contain his envy. “Do they all look like that?”
“What do you think,” I said.
Ihor thought a bit. “No, probably not. The other newspaper photos show average normal people. Like their president. That bald man who is dull looking.” He leaned over and showed me Eisenhower’s photo and whispered: “Their president could pass for any Soviet commissar or Red Army commandant really…”
Ihor fell silent. He was deep in concentrated thought and although I returned to my own stacks of magazines and nonsense I heard him mumble to himself or thought I did but even if he didn’t say it out loud, I’m sure he thought it: “Well, if their president looks like a Soviet, then why can’t I look like a good ol’ boy?”
Then like an abrupt and unexpected sunburst bursting through and dividing the dark clouds in a gloomy winter sky, Ihor’s own dour face cracked into an uncontrolled smile and his throat burbled with a joyful yelp, an unfamiliar sound heard in the office which he suppressed the moment he looked up and met the stern soulless eyes of Valentyn Hryhorovich who made it a point that day to linger around Ihor’s desk more than usual.
The rest I will relate—if I may reveal to you—through my own imaginative embellishments. Only a few measly bits of my creative and wholly unreliable insights which I tend to indulge in after making a report on my colleagues mostly—sometimes family members, one time a love interest. The reports are official, terse, written in short declarative confident sentences without flare or poetry. But after the forms are signed and submitted to my higher powers where I really am employed—which is not in the translation office at all, but in another office altogether that I would rather not admit to having a desk there as well—I rewrite these reports into a fictional account. No one knows and one day I too will be discovered of violating government secrets in this impractical, dreamy, nonsensical way. I expect that will happen. But at the very least, the very, very least, it allows me some absolution for the souls I denounce if I am allowed to rewrite their crimes with more humanity. I too can be poetic and dreamy and impractical and at the same time, it allows my own soul to breathe a little in the pollution I always inflict on it.
I continue with a private glimpse of Ihor at home. Alone, locked away in the one bathroom he shared with at least three other families on his apartment floor. It was there he began and experimented with his metamorphosis by spending hours in front of the dingy mirror where a lone naked light bulb shone and revealed every strand of his unyielding hair. And with his mother’s fancy tortoise shell comb, a holdover from pre-Soviet times I believe, he combed and fretted and experimented sometimes for hours before someone banged on the door, cursing and demanding to know what the hell was he doing in there, who did he think he was…
His experiments resulted in the fact that mere water wasn’t going to glue his hair upwards, like Elvis’ miraculous hair. Maybe a dab of the brown sunflower oil his mother cooked with would do the trick and make it shiny. He hoped his mother wouldn’t notice how much oil was missing because it took several tries before he got it just right. Then he took off his glasses, squinted a bit and rolled his eyes like he remembered Elvis did in the newspaper photos before curling his lips enough so that his front gold teeth wouldn’t show. He snarled just a bit before falling in love with himself for the first time in his life.
This is something, Ihor thought. This is really amazing!
He couldn’t keep this hidden anymore. Slowly, gradually, he emerged from the bathroom every morning before going to work with only the slightest, most minimal changes to his hair. Each day, he would see what effect it had on the outside world, if any—and how far he could go before anyone noticed.
The hair styling made him bolder and Ihor elicited other changes that were shaping his behavior. Unlike before, he was thrilled to go to the office, not only for more chances to find photos and articles about Elvis, but also because of the exciting inner blossoming he was experiencing within his own transitioning persona he was projecting to others. He kissed his mother on the cheek before every morning, and at the office, he noticed how the girls smiled at him since he wore his upswept, greasier hair and his half-grinning mouth. Even shy, blushing Oksana and sinful Tatiana (that wicked one with her heaving breasts poking through her angora sweaters) appeared to be kinder and more attentive to him. Oh, to kiss their thick welcoming lips with his!
But he needed more. He was cracking a code that had gone silent because in actuality, Ihor really knew very little about this Elvis. What did that name mean, anyway—what would it be in my language—Ihor asked himself and me nearly every day. The closest thing he came up with was the word “elves” …mythical creatures. “So he is supernatural, a myth. Fits him,” he decided. “He’s supposed to be a singer. What exactly did he sing? What did he sound like? He surely doesn’t look like an opera singer.” Ihor again studied the now familiar pictures of him performing with a band of musicians and swinging a guitar. “A guitar! Like the tzihani play on the streets of Kyiv here and there! Maybe he is a Gypsy too—I mean, he looks dark and wild doesn’t he,” he asked me, perplexed. As usual, I hardly answered because he was too absorbed in deciphering it all himself. “No, somehow that doesn’t fit,” he mumbled.
Maybe he was the type of singer Ihor had heard during the war—crooners, they called them. Binga or something. Or Glen Meelyero. Music he heard from the American allies in their makeshift juke joints they organized whenever they took over the German occupied buildings. He tried to conjure the songs, but his memory wasn’t keen because the Red Army soldiers weren’t allowed to fraternize, and he heard the happy strains of that loud music only during his lonely turns at sentry duty.
Ihor clearly remembered how awkward and shy he was when he saw how confidently those Yankees danced with the women. No wonder so many of our own girls trapped them into marriage by learning how to jitterbug and shamelessly twisting their legs around their Yankee khakis…Ihor was perspiring. What was it about those American men?
The miraculous occurred. Whatever mysterious cosmic forces gathered in that stuffy office in Kyiv, it touched and seeped into the constipated gray matter of Valentyn Hryhorovich’s consciousness and directed him to quietly send his staff into the dusty projector room. Only the men were allowed for this secretive meeting. The women were too delicate for this vulgarity. Valentyn Hryhorovich glared at his workers and lectured that they must see for themselves what base levels of decadence and horrors the Americans were capable of. The lights went off, the projector lit the screen and the men watched in mute fascination scenes of a blonde, buxomly woman with her dress floating up around her from a blast of air, and then blowing kisses at swarming photographers who were flashing hot camera bulbs in her goddess face. Next, a handsome man in a tuxedo played noisy dance music at his baby grand piano bedecked with glowing candelabras. He looked up often and grinned at the audience. Then, several teen-agers were dancing to the horrible decadent jez. They had on funny hats with some sort of pretend animal’s ears (“A bear’s?” whispered Ihor to me. “But why?”). They wore their names branded over their shirts and cuddled with someone in a huge rodent costume with a bow tie and white gloves.
Finally—the screen revealed the one Ihor searched for. He was wriggling on a stage in front of frenzied, hysterical women. He was wearing a golden tuxedo with sequins winking with his every twisting motion. Ihor was spellbound. He finally saw this man and heard his voice. His voice: warbling like a baby pigeon’s, trembling, alien and so seductive. Elvis! Ihor was fixated. He was enraptured. He was transformed!