Part 1 – Uncle Sasha

“Yo-o-o-o-o!….  Ice-ream!… Oi!!!!…  Who… aunts… ice-ream?!!!!…“

The elephant mating call from the hallway was a call for action: Uncle Sasha was home.  Too drunk to enunciate the words, but still vertical.  It was his pay day, and me and the cat were getting an ice-cream each.

The cat was already there, making circles around his legs, and probably breathing through his asshole to avoid the overpowering smell of the cheap vodka quickly filling the hallway and oozing into the remaining spaces of the apartment.

The Evil Granny peeked into the hallway from the kitchen:

“Wasted already, drunk dumb-ass!…”, she hissed, spat into her apron, and disappeared into the kitchen again.

The cat continued the ice-cream dance.  Uncle Sasha was towering at the end of the long narrow hallway, swaying from side to side like a tree in a storm, each time almost banging the side of his head on the walls.

Welcome to my childhood!

My Mom, Dad, Evil Granny, Uncle Sasha and the cat were the permanent fixtures of the years I sometimes remember with clarity, and sometimes forget with oblivion.  Our memories are selective, indeed, and so will be my introductions.

Looking back at those years, Uncle Sasha stands out as the most colorful personality in my childhood setting, so the introductions will start with him.

Uncle Sasha was a dedicated middle-aged alcoholic with a menial factory job, and a passion for drinking cheap vodka and smoking vile unfiltered cigarettes.  These were, probably, the most distinct smells of my childhood: liquor fumes and eye-watering cigarette smoke, billowing from under Uncle Sasha’s door around the clock and seeping into all other areas of the apartment.

Uncle Sasha was not only not an Uncle, but not any kind of relative at all, for that matter, and was our accidental co-habitant in the Soviet reality of scarce urban accommodation.  My family had two adjoining rooms in a 3-room apartment on the 8th floor of a dull-grey multi-story crumbling apartment block in the “working” suburb of Leningrad (later to become St. Petersburg).  Me and Evil Granny shared one room, and the parents camped in the living room we had to walk through to get to the kitchen and the bathroom.  The four of us shared the bathroom, kitchen and the rest of the communal space with Uncle Sasha.

At the beginning of each month, having received his paycheck, and enjoyed his first well-deserved bottle of vodka, he bought me and the cat an ice-cream each.  With his doze of love shared and the moral obligation fulfilled, he then stocked up on booze and cigarettes, barricaded himself in his room and got mind-numbingly drunk for a week, often not crawling out of it even to visit the bathroom.  The cigarettes were vile and merciful enough to masque the inevitable side effects…

For the remaining three weeks of the month he was quiet and agreeable.  He nicked potatoes from our cupboard in the kitchen, and tucked into the foul-smelling fish we cooked for the cat, but without enthusiasm or any evil intent, and only when he was really hungry.  In any case, food did not seem to be high on the list of his priorities – cigarettes, booze, and the cat were way more important.

Uncle Sasha sure loved the cat!  He held long conversations with him in his drunk stupor of the first week of every month, and complained bitterly to him about life’s injustices for the remaining three.  Despite the vile cigarette smoke, the cat seemed to love him back, and was hanging out in his room almost as much as he did in ours.

Apart from potato- and fish-nicking he was not a bad neighbor.  He was single, did not have screaming kids, or loud friends, and preferred the company of the cat to anybody else’s.  During the “dry” weeks he could be trusted with looking after me and the cat when my parents were at work and Evil Granny was not there.  All in all, even if he was not part of the family, he was part of our lives, and was not much to complain about.

Apart from the 1st week of every month, when the cat’s presence was not always enough, and Uncle Sasha would sit on a stool in the middle of our tiny kitchen, blocking the way to the sink and stove, and “socialize”.  He extended his drunk eulogies to anybody who was there to listen, so we preferred to hide in our part of the apartment during these periods, missing meals, if need be, and sneaking into the toilet or bathroom and back without making any sounds.  Oh, and that incident, when Uncle Sasha shat himself, and left a huge pile on the kitchen floor, being too drunk to hold it in.  My Dad had to clean it up, wearing long industrial rubber gloves, and promising to “kill the bastard, or at least hand him over to the cops”.

The threats were futile – Dad wouldn’t hurt a fly, and neighbor quarrels (including shitting on the floor, and often much worse) were happening pretty much in every apartment of every building in the city with a regularity that won’t enthuse the cops one bit.

Soon afterwards Uncle Sasha discovered counterfeit alcohol.  Or maybe it just became more available.  This allowed him to stay drunk 3 out of 4 weeks during the month, and the shitting incidents increased.  This was the beginning of an end. In a couple of months, one of the “lucky” purchases on the black market paralyzed his legs.  We called an ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital. My parents even visited Uncle Sasha in the hospital, but several days later a bored official called to inform us the paralysis spread and he died in his sleep.  Another not un-common Soviet urban story of a man drinking himself to death…

I still remember the ice-creams fondly, though.

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