ISSUE #3 FICTION: CONTEMPORARY ARABIC AND RUSSIAN PURSUITS, AUTUMN 2013
CREATIVE WRITING
Steven Seagal's Personal Assistant
“I am in receipt of information,” he informed me, sipping tea from a tall glass in a Russian Railways glass holder, “that your father is to be tracked down and assassinated. A decision has been taken.”

My circumstances were straitened.?I found that even the modest family budget left in the wake of my father’s hurried departure, after charges were brought against him, was firmly out of reach in my mother’s safe.

The only notes she saw fit to pass my way were bills, which relentlessly proliferated on my bedside table.?The invoices for electricity, the telephone, and a space, rashly bought in an underground parking garage just before things went wrong, could wait.?Our rent arrears, however, were clearly signaling the imminence of legal proceedings.

With great regularity, envelopes began arriving through the post with black-and-white images from the speed cameras that keep watch over the highways of Moscow.?With total disregard for my present circumstances, they registered infringements of the speed limit and issued seemingly minor fines that, however, soon mounted up.?My modest motor was my sole luxury, my only major possession, and despite the anguish of having to keep filling it up with exorbitantly priced petrol, I was in no hurry to part with it.

At that time cheap alcohol and expensive petrol were the fluid mainstays of my precarious world.

The income I was receiving from a retail outlet, opened a few years previously in the Caucasus, also ceased abruptly.?People with our surname found themselves banned forthwith from carrying on any business in the region.

Actually, I am lying.?I never had outlets selling anything and, despite my unquestionably adult status, was living off my parents more expansively with each passing year.

I had suddenly only my literary and quasi-literary earnings to live on although the mere mention of earnings from such sources invariably provokes a laugh from people in the know, or at best a knowing smile.?Be that as it may, in earlier years more conducive to my creative talent, I had managed to build a certain reputation.?That brought in enough to keep body and soul together, if no more.

My expansiveness, which had regularly taken me to the best cafés and restaurants in Moscow, contracted sharply, and my big heart, which had extended unstinting hospitality to all at my table and to drinking companions, became the shriveled organ of a miser.?I was surprised that those I had regaled in the past now seemed in no hurry to return the favor, until it dawned on me that these boys and girls had all along been used to living hand to mouth, a fate that only now had overtaken me.

I gradually began accepting any work that came my way:?night shifts clerking at the local supermarket, a few daredevil forays sticking other people’s ads on lampposts, cameraman’s assistant, film extra, pet-store security man.?For a time, I even played the superficially romantic role of unlicensed Moscow taxi driver.

Not a bad selection of occupations for the scion of a rather distinguished family, you may agree.

In every instance, I came rapidly to the realization that I was squandering too much of my precious time working for the benefit of would-be fat cat entrepreneurs and not even being decently recompensed in the process.

“Oh, would that I had found the strength all this time to be an author, never tearing myself away from my writing desk!?I would surely be a millionaire by now,”?I reflected wistfully and, to rescue myself from the jarring bombast of that initial formulation, downsized my aspiration from millionaire to a man at least able to stand on his own two feet.

Even in my writing, a realm I had mastered exclusively by following my natural inclinations, I was losing ground, unable to finish a long pre-announced next novel; on the hard drive of my computer, the drafts of novellas and stories multiplied, and I felt no urge to develop them.

Evidence was accumulating inexorably that I was failing the test of the second book.

Despite all the problems of this aspect of my life, I did not neglect the role I had to play in society.?My words I chose carefully; in my judgments I was outspoken.?Hiding my callused workman’s hands beneath the table in expensive restaurants, I tried to put right the seemingly irreparable damage suffered by my father.

When applying for jobs, I observed the proprieties.?On application forms, I entered “secondary” in the box for “Education,” modestly passing in silence over my degree from one of the most prestigious faculties of Moscow University.?I put a dash in the box for “Experience.”?One time, in a moment of great nonchalance, I put an X in place of a signature.

I was prepared to take on any work and, to the undisguised delight of employers, always asked not to have the job officially registered.?It was not only that I could not be bothered with the paperwork but also that I did not want my family name coming in an insalubrious context to the attention of enemies.?The old slogans about the dignity of all labor no longer cut any ice, and I was aware that my political opponents (because I had those too, and they made themselves heard, as I did myself, from time to time on the broadcast media) would find a use for the information, if not directly then in off-the-record gossip.

“Can you credit what he’s doing now!” they would say, followed by an outburst of cackling from that gaggle of the unkempt.?I was in no hurry to deal them a trump card even as paltry as that.

Of course, my educational level and erudition were hardly compatible with the days of manual labor that left my back aching and my muscles in a state of cramp, but even here I discerned the melancholy smile of destiny propelling me in directions that, of my own volition, I would hardly have had the courage to explore.

I remember in the days of my self-satisfied (if delusory) prime, toying with the idea of one day shedding my expensive finery and, taking an ascetic, half-empty bag with a change of underwear, heading straight out into the depths of life to join the common people.

I had little idea of how to merge with “the people,” those ordinary souls already so dear to my mind, and supposed they could only be reached by traveling out in the upper bunk of a second-class railway carriage to find them shuffling about in cheap slippers in tumbledown houses on the outskirts of failing villages.

This had its moments of comedy.?I could turn up for my shift as night watchman and casually throw on the table a newspaper with an article discussing the state of international politics of which I was the author or be unloading grimy beer crates from a grimy van when I heard my voice on the radio in the repeat of an interview I had given earlier in the day.

Of course, I did not make a big thing about this, did not beat my breast and demand special treatment, which would only have alienated my companions in misfortune, but mentally I exulted.?At last, I could feel the pulse of life, and it was beating in and around me.

I drew comfort from the fact that I could think of none of the greats who had not drunk from this chalice of privation and suffering.?What had made them truly great was their unrelenting determination to fulfill their higher destiny, to achieve the goal for which they were born.?I continued to believe unwaveringly in my own mission, even if with every passing year it grew more nebulous.

If, after having provided the denizens of the pet shop with the requisite ration of drinking water, I was reclining on the battered sofa in the back room and recalled that the English translation of my debut novel had for several months now been on the shelves of all the major libraries and bookstores of the United States and the United Kingdom, I was blown away.?Colorful lights exploded before my eyes and danced against a background of sudden darkness.?I bent double, no, treble, with laughter, like an overacting thespian in a bad tragicomedy.

Finally, the labor market picked up, and a few companies responded to my CV, which had been going nowhere on the Internet for the best part of six months.?I attended interviews and looked in horror at the offices of major publications as I took their unoriginal tests.?Vast rooms were crammed with minimalist furniture with built-in computer units, before which, packed together in unimaginable proximity, reporters, editors, proofreaders, programmers, designers, and God knows who else were pounding away at their keyboards.

I had a vision of all these creative individuals being replaced, sooner rather than later, by no less creative machines, and these would no less successfully generate content to fill digital portals.?Human beings with beating hearts were clearly obsolescent components of these high-tech environments.

I fled in horror, recognizing myself as a person with hopelessly outmoded work habits.?Without my personal space, how could I concentrate??The potential employers only added to my misgivings.?I could tell they had already mentally allocated their cozy job to one of their own.?It was a win-win situation:?they promised to think about it, and I escaped into the fresh air, shedding invisible chains that had all but fettered me.

Obliged to unpick my life a thousand times, tightening my belt even more, I phoned back the would-be employers, willing myself to undertake anything if only they would save me from this intolerable penury.

There was, however, no forgiveness for my earlier disdain.?I was coldly informed that the vacancy was now filled although they would keep me on file and, should anything come up, immediately let me know.?Of course they would.

To supplement my casual income, I started selling off possessions accumulated during the fat years.?Nothing was exempt:?second-hand clothes, unused electronic gadgetry, and rare books soon went under the Internet hammer.?The deals proceeded smoothly:?I surrendered an item linking me to my past, collected the proceeds, and could eat passably for the next couple of days, before everything kicked off again.

Things could take a droll turn.?Potential purchasers who checked out my profile from the e-mail address I used for business were surprised:?“Hey, I see you’re a real revolutionary, a romantic, a heroic lover, or so it looks!” one girl e-mailed.?She was after an Italian belt I had not worn for a long time.?“I only watch the world news and don’t give a toss about what goes on in Russia, but you are a big wheel in all that stuff!?Aren’t you embarrassed to be selling your belt?”

I was not embarrassed in the slightest:?I was hungry.?Starting my next low-paid shift, I texted her from my phone, trying to laugh it off:?“It will cost more if you want it autographed, but your grandchildren will be able to sell it and build a house on the proceeds.”

“I’ll buy it!?I don’t even care about the size,” the young lady enthused.?“That’s how much I want it!”

To authenticate such over-the-top enthusiasm, she added, “Oh, Allah!”

Neither her interest in my person nor her enthusiasm prevented her from promptly vanishing from my life forever.

Twice I managed to get taken on for work experience at newly opened Internet TV stations.

I was kicked out of one after a few days for my inability to roll my r’s to the satisfaction of a young editor.

“You see, Artur,” he said, clasping his hands in front of him on the desk with much gravitas, “in some people a speech defect is attractive, but in others it just isn’t.”

He paused to give me time to reflect on this before concluding as if releasing a sharply honed guillotine blade:?“Unfortunately, you belong to the second category.”

Only the lump swelling in my throat at this unexpected classification and tears of almost childish hurt that threatened to pour from my eyes kept me from making an even greater mess of his misaligned sharklike teeth.

“But do come back tomorrow … Be sure to come in,” he burbled at my departing back.

The director of another Internet station summoned me the moment the fuss started about my father.

“I am in receipt of information,” he informed me, sipping tea from a tall glass in a Russian Railways glass holder, “that your father is to be tracked down and assassinated.?A decision has been taken.”

I grunted.

“He is definitely going to be killed.?They are looking for him right now.?This is firm information from a good friend of mine in the FSB.”

“He has left Russia,”?I said shortly.?“No one is going to find him.”

“That is precisely the problem,” he continued.?“If they don’t find him, they will come after his son, you; and your father will report to wherever they tell him to as meekly as a lamb.?That is going to happen.”

I shifted on my chair, wondering how best to terminate this scene.

“We do live broadcasts, phone-ins; you can understand yourself …”?He started explaining what was already obvious.?“I don’t want our station mixed up in this sort of thing in any way.”

“Have you got a cigarette?”?I asked, leaning back casually in my chair.

He pulled out an old-fashioned metal cigarette case, extracted a slender cigarette, and gave me a light.?I took a couple of drags and slowly exhaled thick clouds of smoke, watching his expression of surprise, his two deep-set little eyes blinking above cheeks that looked like buttered pancakes.?I smirked insolently as he tapped sausage-like fingers impatiently on the table.

Very deliberately, I got up and walked to the door.?In the corridor, I tore from my neck the pass issued only shortly before and threw it away.

In what was already a tradition, I shook hands with his two bodyguards at the entrance, finished the cigarette, spat through my teeth, and left.?Another door slammed shut in my life.

***

I bought a can of cold beer at a nearby kiosk and went for a stroll in the strange park that surrounds the National Art Center, homing in on the sound of someone performing on stage.?I sat down on a wooden bench in the back row, took a big gulp, and watched a rather fat youth dancing about.?He seemed to be enjoying himself, twanging his electric guitar, lifting a chubby leg high in the air, and shaking his multi-story quiff about.?I thought I recognized him as the son of a major businessman.?Someone had told me he, the son that is, was quite a playboy.

I quickly got drunk and looked round, bored, at the other people there.?Some girls sitting two or three rows ahead were turning round, taking an interest in something and whispering among themselves.?I did not care.?Dance while you are young, kid.

I downed a second beer and crushed the can noisily in my fist, chucking it in the rubbish can next to me, and left the park.?The music faded and finally dissolved in the air, giving way to the familiar soundtrack of my everyday life:?the noise of road traffic and the metallic rasping of my thoughts.

I was walking nowhere, strolling aimlessly and suddenly overtaken by a weariness that had me barely able to move one leg in front of the other, strolling toward my abduction and the subsequent murder of my father, if I was to believe what I had been told.

Only I did not believe it and would not be giving in.

***

It was in this peculiar mood that I received an e-mail I hoped might save the situation.

I read it out to my mother.?I was staying with her and giving her every last penny of my modest earnings, only to ask for some back the next day to keep me going.

Relaxing in her favorite armchair in the living room, she listened, almost as skeptical as I had been when I first read it.

A famous half-Irish, half-Mongolian Hollywood actor had accepted an offer to come and work permanently in Russia and was looking for a personal assistant.

The job description warned that his assistant would have to be willing to work “24/7,” able to accompany the star on extended trips overseas, and so on.

There seemed no shortage of people prepared to do whatever had to be done.?Even though I applied almost

instantly, I learned with some surprise that my turn in the queue would come only in two or three days’ time.

Stage one of the interviews was being held in the lobby of one of Moscow’s top hotels, so dressed “smart casual” (a concept I acquired in my past life) and wearing a snazzy but not flamboyant jacket, I was there at the time appointed.

Not succumbing to my more clamorous emotions, I first took a good look around, settled myself with a show of confidence in a deep leather armchair, and fixed my eye on a fair-haired twenty-year-old a short distance away.

I identified him as Steven Seagal’s headhunter from fragments of his (already curt) utterances into a telephone that rang repeatedly, one call following another.

A general mistrust of people I had developed over recent months after a succession of betrayals, deceptions, and (why deny it?) failures in my life immediately led me to doubt the competence and even the credentials of this raw recruiter.

“Yes, you understand correctly, I’ll be waiting in the lobby … Just hold on a moment …”?Wedging his mobile against his ear with a shoulder, he stabbed at the keyboard of his notebook.?With a snort of exasperation, he repeated, evidently for the thousandth time, “No, you won’t be required to go up to the hotel rooms; Steven won’t be here personally today, no … When??Well, the intention is to involve him in the second round of interviews.”

The intention?

Meanwhile, more and more smartly dressed young men and women were turning up in the spacious lobby, taking in their surroundings, and dialing the same phone number.?The object of my scrutiny switched from one call to the next,

impatiently gesturing to applicants for this enviable job to seat themselves around him.

I was fairly sure I had seen through a conman.?Behind the mannerisms and the overconfident body language, my beady eye detected either a run-of-the-mill middle manager on his first big commission or, as I was more inclined to think, a petty fraudster trying to give the impression of being a film star’s right-hand man.?For some reason, I had little doubt this character had never been any closer to Seagal than I had, which was the distance between a couch and a TV set.

It was only fair, however, to keep an open mind.?Matters were complicated by the fact that, in the three days I had been waiting for the interview, I had already mentally spent the money promised to the successful candidate.?It was going to give me the independence I craved:?I would help out my family and move somewhere else, like the hero of Bukowski’s Factotum who changes his whereabouts in practically every chapter.

And then there was Steven himself, who was quite a draw.?A martial arts champion??That surely guaranteed he would be an interesting, together sort of person.?I vividly imagined myself, Steven, his wife, and a bunch of guests sitting on the veranda of his estate somewhere in Santa Monica,

sipping sparkling wine, and in the course of a leisurely conversation, he would suddenly say, “You know, Artur, you are just a wonderful writer!?I was so interested to read your debut novel.?It is really very good.”

Steven’s guests would fall quiet, listening intently to what we were saying.

“Oh, but really … ,”?I would say with a bashful smile, never having so much as hinted at what I considered my main talent.?“I’m not sure it was worth spending your valuable time on that.”

I would be courtesy epitomized, the very ideal of me, with my hair slicked down like a film star myself, wearing a loose-fitting linen suit, reclining in a self-consciously rustic wicker chair, and not resisting the wooing of warm winds from the south.

“No, you don’t need to talk like that, my very dear Artur.?I respected you even more after I read your book!?I was going to keep it quiet for a while yet, but God, I just have to tell everybody right now – I talked this over already with some producers, and we’re gonna go for a film based on your book!?All you have to do is give the go-ahead …”

My reverie was interrupted by a notification that popped up on my mobile reminding me that late last night I had promised to do a twelve-hour shift at the local bakery where, even now, conveyor belts in perpetual motion, laden with sliced loaves, cheap cakes, and wafers were waiting for me.?The reminder evoked a twinge in my back, in poor shape for one so young.

The ridiculously young headhunter materialized in front of me.

“Well, are you here for the interview too?”

The other applicants, mostly but not all boys and girls of pleasant enough appearance, were dancing attendance on his smug, overweight person.

“Oh, yes,”?I said, coming back to reality and hurriedly brushing imaginary Californian sand from my hair.

He checked my details against a list on his iPad (he was predictably well supplied with the latest electronic gadgetry), ticked a box somewhere, and invited everyone to follow him.

For an instant I pictured a room with photographic lighting, an old-fashioned cassette video camera on a clumsy tripod, and a brightly colored sofa onto which we would all, boy and girl candidates alike, throw ourselves and surrender to passion as convincing as it would be indiscriminate.?I imagined that Seagal, after even a cursory viewing of the video, would be able to decide who was or was not suitable to be his assistant.

Round the corner, beside a high, splashing fountain, sat another, respectable-looking man.?His suit was well tailored; he had a distinguished streak of gray at his temples; and in a quiet, unfussy voice, he asked the obvious questions.

“Are you prepared to work long, unpredictable hours?”

“How would you feel about extended trips abroad?”

“How do you rate your English?”

“Are you in a long-term relationship?” he asked and elaborated, “This position is not compatible with the luxury of being in a long-term relationship.”

It was hardly rocket science.?I knew the answers to give to these and his other questions.?This totally standard interview with a potential employer reminded me of my recent encounter with a psychiatrist who issued the certificates required before you can obtain a firearms license.

“Why do you need a gun?” he had asked.?A slightly flabby man of thirty or so, he sat with his hands behind his head.?“You must be planning an armed attack, perhaps even to kill someone?”

“No,”?I replied, looking down submissively.?“I would like to have a gun for self-defense.”

“Who do you think you need to defend yourself from??Is somebody threatening you?”

“It’s difficult to explain exactly, but there are all sorts of people out there, you know, and nowadays you can’t rely on the police.?Our fatherland is in decline.”

I had gotten him on my side.?The heart of a state

employee, doubtless being paid next to nothing for a full day’s work, could not fail to respond to that possibly overdramatic but precisely targeted “our fatherland is in decline.”

“Yes, indeed,” he agreed ruminatively but continued carrying out his duties.?“You, my dear Artur, as a man from the East, must surely be quick-tempered by nature??Hot-blooded and unable, well, not always able, to control your emotions?”

“Oh no, that’s not a problem at all,”?I reassured him, not rising to the bait.?“I am very placid.?The kind of person who wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

I knew I had the right to appeal any decision he took, so I could afford to be a little mischievous.

“Well, do you have any bad habits??Do you smoke or drink?” he persisted.

“No, certainly not.?How could you think such a thing??I am far from perfect but suffer from neither of those faults.”

“What, you don’t drink at all?” he asked in disbelief, glancing at the bags under my eyes.

“No, it is not acceptable in my community,”?I answered airily, keeping my fingers crossed that he did not have a Breathalyzer at hand.

“Well then, how do you relax?”?I think he had me figured out because from then on his questions were asked with an ever broader smile.

“Well, you know ...?I listen to music, go to the café with my friends ...”

Needless to say, I got the license and used much the same technique for this first stage of the interviews.?The main thing is not to try too hard to tell the truth but to listen to the tone and sense the vibrations of your man and then feed him the only correct answers, the ones he is expecting.

“Thank you, we’ll be in touch,” my interviewer by the splashing fountain said.?He rose slightly, indicating that our little talk was over.

“Are you sure you will?”?I asked unwisely, reluctant to part with the prospect of an instant solution to all my problems.?“How soon do you think that might be?”?It is the naive interviewee’s commonest mistake.

“Too early to say.?A lot depends on Steven’s schedule.?We’ll let you know,” he said with barely concealed irritation.

“I bet you will,”?I thought.?“All you’re looking for is a couple of hundred overconfident half-wits you can con out of one or two thousand dollars for a vague undertaking to slot them into the next job opportunity that comes your way.?Interviewing in a lot of hotel lobbies doesn’t tie you to anything.”

***

The call never came, but instead, I was quite soon able

to persuade myself and the surrounding world that I was a born copywriter and found a position with one of Russia’s numerous advertising agencies.

At last, my mother’s dream was coming true, that one day I would leave the apartment to go to work in the morning and come back in the evening.?Wrapping up warmly, I stepped out into the darkness of a Moscow morning and, having endured an hour-and-a-half commute on overcrowded public transport, took my place in a stuffy office.

Every day, I would write dozens of soulless pieces about anything and everything, from the history of bodybuilding to the health-giving qualities of freshly squeezed fruit juice, and at the end of the month receive my crust of bread.?I left home early in the morning and came back late, my life dedicated to supporting the soul-destroying business of another would-be American-style go-getter.?I sensed I would not be lasting there for long.

I was unhappy.?It might be a dream career for many, but certainly not for me.?But that is another story.

Neither did I get to be Steven Seagal’s personal assistant.

 

Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Arslan Khasavov is a journalist and writer, born in Aghgabat, Turkmenistan, and his critically acclaimed novel, Sense, was published in Russia and the United States.

MORE BY THIS AUTHOR
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FURTHER READING
Chechen Writer Arslan Khasavov Underwent an Attempt in Moscow
BBC World Service: Listen to Arslan Khasavov
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