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He squeezed the matchbox while I held the match. Crouching down to the ant hole, he trapped tiny black ants between his fingers and shoved them into the carton box that was to be their new home. Meanwhile, from behind me, a wrinkle-faced old lady, the skin of her toothless face like a rag, prodded me with her walking stick. "Help me cross the street, the pioneers have to help the elderly." Bending over to lay the baby match to its slumber, I saw it being overtaken by ants, but, yes, they wouldn't chew it up. Then grabbing her hand, we walked super slowly, as her spindly legs compressed and unfolded like dried tree branches that could crack at any moment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tongue of the flame turn the matchbox to ashes. The box collapsed inside itself, the walls folding inwards and quickly turning to ash. I was irritated by her shallow, rapid breathing and happy once she stopped at a door and knocked. "Do you have some rubbing alcohol?" she said, drawing out the vowels in her words. I feared she'd get stuck on a vowel like a record player on a note and not finish the word.

I turned around to watch my friend holding a tiny green monster with two antennae upside down by its tail. Waving my hand, I beckoned him to come over. The old woman, meanwhile, was gesticulating with her walking stick, whirling it up and down and sideways like a sword. "What do you mean you don't have any rubbing alcohol? Don't you be shitting me. I am an elderly woman, how dare you treat me like that?" My friend slowly closed the gap in the matchbox, through which I could see the grasshopper pacing on its pin legs. As the carton box was tightly shut, that tiny green soul was barred the blue-gray expanse stretching out above us. My eyes wandered to and fro over that celestial sea where opaque clouds were barely moving, almost at a perfect standstill. I knew that somewhere far to the east, right on the border of Vladivostok, was the magic land of China where they manufactured pencils that had built-in erasers.

As his hand shoved the matchbox in his pocket, it pulled out a small yet thick bottle. "Granny, I have it for you," his voice had that naiveté of a child mixed with the authority of a policeman giving directions to an out-of-town visitor who lost his way. "Thank you, dear," the old lady said in her slow way, but as she was caught in a long vowel, he interrupted her. Pulling back the bottle from her eager-to-snatch hand, he calmly stated "two rubles." I felt so embarrassed for him at the moment. We, future pioneers, were supposed to learn to perform acts of kindness as a service to our country. "Just give it to her," I said, but in a hushed voice so that only he could hear. Maybe he could repent; after all, even Lenin was prone to acts of evil. In one story we read in school, he broke a vase and didn't at first admit to having done it. But two months later, his guilt drove him to tears and a confession.

My friend then said in an earnest childlike voice devoid of all adult authority, "Granny, we want ice cream. Please give us two rubles so we can go and buy it." Hunched over to adjust her kerchief, the old woman smoothed over the claylike clumps of white hair that seemed artificially glued on. Her legs were locked into a bent position at the knees and slightly twitched. "Here you go,” she said and opened her balled fist to reveal two crumpled rubles. I don't remember if we ended up getting ice cream later that day. That sunny afternoon was certainly perfect for losing ourselves in a jungle filled with lively hopping green grasshoppers.

 

Notes:

1.) I don't feel that this story should include historical information, but I think it may be relevant to know that it is set around the time of the Soviet anti-alcohol campaign of 1985-1987 during which the sale and production of alcohol were restricted and public drinking persecuted. One of the goals of the campaign was to reduce the negative impact of alcohol consumption on workplace productivity and economic growth.

2.) Also, I have a terminology issue. I am not 100% sure how to translate the Russian word спирт into English. I have found that either ethanol, isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol may be suitable.(Pomegranate has offered the tip that спирт is to be understood as ethanol and not isopropanol.)


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