Or maybe she was simply relieved he was busy now. Moving back to Tverkassa had been Krupov’s idea. When his father died, Krupov had come home to dissolve his father’s firm, but he’d found the business viable, and the books clean. Several small projects lingered in the administration phase that Krupov could wrap up easily while using his father’s contacts to line up future work. He’d convinced Katarina that Nadia would love town life, a smaller school, his parents’ pre-war house with airy rooms and mahogany banisters. He’d arranged a teaching position for Katarina and knuckled down to the business of finding work, only to learn that the avenues to contracts in Tverkassa were just as corrupt as in Moscow. His dad had in fact kept two sets of books, one scrubbed and one dirty. A disgusted Krupov put them both away. He’d worked handyman jobs while Katarina taught and soothed Nadia’s adjustment to a new place. Both daughter and wife were disappointed with the move, yet they were settling in more comfortably than he’d managed to do.
Then came the school renovation request for proposals, with funding from Moscow attached to bring the far reaches of Russia into the new millennium with laptops for every child and wireless connections in the schools. Tverkassa wasn’t rural—the town was one of those Soviet holdover oddities, a thriving almost-city in the middle of nowhere, the economy built on secretive military research, the true nature of which even old townies like his dad had never uncovered—but the gym renovation proposal had included these tech funds.
And Katarina had, finally, pushed.
One time, she’d insisted.
I won’t conduct business that way.
Her mouth had collapsed to a frown. Her eyes had narrowed with that incubating disappointment she couldn’t hide whenever he headed out in the morning with a toolbox and belt instead of a briefcase. He’d wondered what exactly it was that disappointed her. Katarina was traditional in her own way, but she wasn’t materialistic. Secretly, he found his odd jobs relieving, dealing as he was with concrete malfunctions or imperfections easily fixed. The toughest jobs—ants’ nests in attics, exhausted water heaters—took at most a long day to make right. Not months of documentation to create a beautiful building, with every detail perfectly aligned, only to have the design rationale hacked to bits by shoddy construction compromises in the field. He’d actually managed to be happy for a time, until the RFP was announced and Katarina wouldn’t let it go. If it wasn’t the money she wanted, he didn’t know what it was. Perhaps she needed him to grapple with big game, tackle challenges on his old grand Moscow scale.
Still he’d refused, until the day she’d finally hooked up their computer to the high-speed cable all their neighbors had been surfing for months. Krupov hadn’t wanted an Internet connection. He’d claimed Nadia, his usual reason, as his excuse—too much time online would corrupt her—but really he’d enjoyed being out of touch with the world. Relying on the local newspaper to smear print stains on his fingertips and fill him with the astringent odor of ink. The paper he could unveil and refold as tidy markers of a task undertaken and accomplished. But Katarina overruled his objections. We need it for work. Both of us, and she’d narrowed her eyes with that chill of disappointment.
When the cable connection was working, she’d opened up a site on vacation resorts. “So crisp, don’t you think?” Katarina had said, examining a photo of a Jamaican coastline.”I’d forgotten how clean digital images can be.”
“Confetti,” Krupov had replied dourly. Pouting, like an entrenched old man.
“What do you mean?”
“Data streams. It’s all confetti. Candy for the eye. I’ll stick to print photos.”
Katarina had rolled her eyes and called Nadia to the screen to see the ocean’s deep blue ripples, but his bright shining Nadia wanted to see news. Foreign news. She’d clicked through a montage of photos on Time magazine’s website, and there it had been: Putin, on horseback, against a panorama of mountains. Workman’s boots in the stirrups. Pea-green canvas trail pants. Wrap-around sunglasses and a silver pendant nestled on his bare chest. Putin was shirtless against a lacy dusting of snow on the peaks behind him. A misplaced show of masculinity. What a spectacle at his age and rank.
“Obscene,” he’d muttered, meaning the impulse toward machismo, not the man’s sagging pectorals.
“I don’t know.” Katarina had been drinking wine, her nose and the dimpled slope above her upper lip flushed with sulfites; stains on her complexion he used to find cute but now dreaded as the first signs of nightly tipsiness that would sour her mood by bedtime. “I think it’s appealing. Shows his human side.”
“Sure does. Look at that belly.”
“What belly? Looks pretty flat to me.” Katarina swallowed and flashed him a glance, settled briefly on his gut, the only part of him that was no longer so petite. “He looks great. For a man his age.”
Which happened to be Krupov’s age.
Katarina and he were years apart, but it had never seemed like a chasm until she slid her gaze over his belly and then turned to study Putin again. A man still in good shape. A man who stripped his shirt in snowy altitudes. A man who maintained an iron grip on power even after giving up his position.
Nadia had said “Yuck,” clicked on the next photo—Putin, still shirtless, feeding the horse a treat—before running off to watch TV.
The next day Krupov offered his bribes to the names written in his dad’s dirty book, those old cronies on the council who never would retire.
A month later, he’d secured the job and hired a full staff.
Now Nadia ran up to him, bedraggled and breathless, her white dress completely soiled, and flung her arms around the flabby gut that had landed him this wretched job. Some ab crunches and a daily run would have saved his soul. “Daddy, you’ll watch me parade in?”
“That’s why I’m here.” He smoothed her hair, plucked a petal mashed behind her ear.
“I’m gonna hide out in the pipe chase if Lydia is mean to me.”
“I’ll know where to find you, then.”