The Bookshelf: The Bathroom Window
The main property of his prose was revealed early: the combination of heterogeneous layers – both the language and the way of life depicted. His early work is characterized by the story “The Bathroom Window” (1915), in which the hero buys from the owner of the apartment for five rubles the right to spy on the life of prostitutes renting the next room.
I have an acquaintance, a Madam Kebchik. In her day, Madam Kebchik assures me, “nothing in the world” would have induced her to take less than five rubles.
Now she has a nice, respectable apartment, and in this apartment she has two girls, Marusya and Tamara. There are more requests for Marusya than for Tamara. One of the windows of the girls’ room has a view of the street, the other window, just an air vent near the ceiling, has a view of the bathroom. When I realized this, I said to Fanya Osipovna Kebchik, “How about putting a ladder by the little window in the bathroom in the evenings, so I can climb up and peek into Marusya’s room? I’ll give you five rubles.”
“You rogue, you!” Fanya Osipovna said, and agreed.
She got her five rubles quite often. I made use of the little window when Marusya had clients.
Everything went without a hitch, but one time an extremely foolish thing happened. I was standing on the ladder. Luckily, Marusya hadn’t turned off the light. Her guest was a pleasant, unassuming fellow with one of those large, harmless mustaches. He undressed in a prim and proper fashion: he took off his collar, looked in the mirror, noticed a pimple under his mustache, studied it, and pressed it out with a handkerchief. He took off a boot and examined it too—was there a scratch on the sole?
They kissed, undressed, and smoked a cigarette. I got ready to climb down. At that moment I felt the ladder sliding away under me. I tried to grab hold of the window, but it gave way. The ladder fell with a crash and there I was, dangling in the air.
Suddenly the whole apartment exploded with alarm. Everyone came running, Fanya Osipovna, Tamara, and an official I didnt know in a Ministry of Finance uniform. They helped me down. My situation was pitiful. Marusya and her lanky client came into the bathroom.
The girl looked at me, froze, and said quietly, “What a bastard, oh, what a bastard!”
She fell silent, stared at us foolishly, went over to the lanky man, and for some reason kissed his hand and started crying.
“My dear, O God, my dear!” she said, between kisses and sobs.
The lanky man stood there like a total idiot. My heart was pounding wildly. I dug my nails into my palms and went over to Madam Kebchik. Within a few minutes, Marusya knew everything. All was forgiven and forgotten. But I was still wondering why she had kissed the lanky fellow.
“Madam Kebchik,” I said. “Put up the ladder one last time, and you can have ten rubles.”
“Your minds even more unsteady than that ladder of yours!” the landlady answered, and agreed.
So there I was again, standing by the little window. I looked through it and saw Marusya, her thin arms wrapped around her client, kissing him with slow kisses, tears flowing from her eyes.
“My darling!” she whispered. “O God, my sweet darling!” And she gave herself to him with all the passion of a woman in love. She looked at him as if he, this lanky fellow, were the only man in the world.
And the lanky fellow wallowed in businesslike bliss.
Translated by Peter Constantine