“Nothing bad ever happens on a day when it rains through the sun.” This was said both to me and off into space one afternoon by the ordinarily quarrelsome, foul-mouthed, and altogether pettily malicious old woman who had lived the longest (since shortly after the 1917 revolution, apparently) in the rambling communal apartment of my early childhood. We were gazing vacantly out the open sixth-floor kitchen window and into the slanted airy curtain of just such a quick, sun-streaked spring rain (“mushroom rain,” as it’s referred to commonly in Russia, regardless of whether or not the season may be right for mushroom-hunting), waving over the cavernous inner courtyard in the heart of midtown Leningrad.

What was I doing there, in the communal kitchen, where there was nothing for me to do — and alone with her, on top of that — just then? I have no idea. Maybe (not that it would make any difference) this is but a common case of phantom memory, a falsely credible recollection. But I did remember her saying that, and I still do, because … well, one’s got to remember something, after all. She was a very old Jewish woman. Her name is unimportant. My exact age at the time is unimportant. I was very little. I didn’t know yet I was Jewish myself. None of that is of any importance. I no longer am a young man. I do not live in Russia anymore. It was raining through the sun outside. I was feeling happy. Of course. Children live in the moment.


What — I might have wondered (but surely did not wonder) at that moment — could her definition of “nothing bad” be, given how unimaginably old she was, and also considering the fact of her being wholly home-bound and having to entertain herself with making her communal-apartment co-tenants’ lives as miserable as possible (to wit, slipping slivers of tar soap or spitting into other women’s pans of soup boiling in the dark on the communal stove; shuffling back and forth, back and forth, ad infinitum, all along the endless and perennially dark communal corridor in her oversized Army boots, sneezing and coughing and muttering vile curses under her breath; arranging painstakingly a battery of pots and pans full of water in an intricate pattern near the apartment’s front door every so often, after the Soviet anthem had been played at midnight on the black felt dish of the communal radio in the kitchen, so that any of the men coming home after midnight and in a routine state of drunkenness would stumble inevitably and go tumbling down with a massive thud in the pitch-dark, roaring like a wounded bear and splashing water all over himself and the floor; or occupying for hours on end the only telephone apparatus in the apartment — suspended from two large rusted nails in the corridor, near by the front door, and resembling a giant black beetle — just for the hell of it, merely pretending to be talking to someone on the other end of the line; or cornering one or the other of the pregnant women in the apartment, in the kitchen or in any number of the corridor’s manifold recesses, and whispering hotly and furiously in their faces that the child they were carrying was cursed, and that instead of a normal human baby they would give birth to a frog, or worse; and so on)?


With nothing left to look forward to in the meager twilight of her life — no pulse-quickening moments of searing happiness, no sudden transcendental illuminations of any kind, no (you don’t say!) perspectives for falling in or out of love — not dying, on any given day, had to be her only measurement with regards to the day’s having turned out to be “not bad.” Dishearteningly enough — although maybe not, as far as she herself was concerned, come to think of it — she had nothing but the arrival of death to anticipate in her future.


But she had saved my life on one occasion. At the age of five or six, I’d become carried away in the process of playing a game of hide-and-seek with a few other of the apartment’s children and had flown right into the dark, empty kitchen one balmy spring evening, screaming and laughing at the top of my lungs, and had launched myself in the general direction of the windowsill (why? I have no idea) with too much force and the sheer excess of buoyant acceleration, overshooting my target and commencing thereupon to float right through the open kitchen window, full of unfounded confidence with regards to my Gagarin-like flying ability … at which dire point she, hidden theretofore in the deep coagulation of darkness by the lit burners of the communal stove, stretched out her sinewy arm and grabbed me by the seat of my velveteen pants, almost instinctively, automatically, and pulled me right back inside. Silently and simply. Saving me thereby from certain death. And then proceeding, most likely, to slip slivers of tar soap and spit into other women’s pans of soup on the stove. 

“Nothing bad ever happens on a day when it rains through the sun,” she said, rather ecclesiastically … or whatever. A lovely little sentiment, to be sure — but only, you know, if it comes courtesy of a reliably good person. Why? Because a statement like this in no way is incontrovertible, of course — and therefore, the degree of one’s receptivity to it, of necessity, must be dependent on one’s attitude to its issuer. Saving my life is no small feat, in my book. Still and all, she was not, by any stretch of the imagination, what one might call a good person. Does this mean she was a bad person, then? Yes, it kind of does, I’m afraid. By default. But she was not an inherently evil person, of course. She was merely a very old, just terribly old and profoundly lonesome and unhappy, perennially embittered Soviet woman … Although, come to think of it, she did have a son and grandson, also living in our communal apartment, if memory serves me … Yes. That’s right. She did. Very loud, hale and hearty, ruddy-faced, permanently cheerful and rather, you know, stupid-looking guys. Or maybe, conversely, they were smart and altogether wonderful: that’s not the point. Indeed. All of that is unimportant now. This is not about that. It’s simple: one day, staring absently out the kitchen window, at the sun-streaked rain merrily pelting the cavernous inner courtyard below, she said, off into space, in her screechy, angry voice, one wholly unaccustomed to being used for saying non-evil things, “Nothing bad ever happens on a day when it rains through the sun” — and I was there with her, in the communal kitchen, for whatever reason; and little though I was at the time, I remembered.