From the author: In search of Chekhov's ashtray, one finds more than a story.
The Fate of Anton Chekhov’s Ashtray
WE were served a fish cassoulet with “percebes”, the poor man’s mussels, a mix and match selection of great and meaty or tenderly and small animals that filled our mouths with the taste of dinosaur longevity. One could not help but think about the tight spider webs that contained their bodies on the way from the market; it was only when the bag was cut open that these undersea aliens moved and gasped for life before steam sentenced them to a relatively fast death. The guests complimented the cassoulet but paid little note to the dead “percebes” as their defeat was part of actions by an octogenarian in the kitchen, a maid, far from the dinner table and the group gathered to feast.
Margarita, our hostess, had arrived from Russia and took no measures to hide her exhaustion, the dark bags underneath her eyes, she was often tired, gasping for vital air from an imaginary source to rescue her from life’s immaterial demands. Her brain wished to disregard her husband’s friends, her ears shut on and off from the conversation. Most of the guests were from the medical milieu, about to retire their surgical hands from the decaying city hospitals. And what was for dessert? A grape sagu with crème anglaise in faint yellow; spoons dipped, coffee cups to follow and Port, some Port please.
Certain circumstances augmented the vileness of Margarita’s mood but she would keep the truth close to her heart. The people surrounding the jacaranda dinner table did not agree on her views regarding overpopulation. For her, incidents and accidents were becoming commonplace, accidental deaths, no longer shocking. The rationale was clear, ten flaneurs going down an avenue, how unlikely that one of them dies in a promenade. However, five hundred people down the same path, one of them was bound to undergo a fatal cardiac arrest or a brain aneurism. Probabilities for people stumbling on their destined target passion also rose tremendously, she argued to the discontent of the dull company. Natural catastrophes (plague transmitted by rats, mice, pigeons and squirrel or cyclones, earthquakes, droughts, floods or hunger) were insufficient to contain the intensity of happenings witnessed by Margarita when she left the house in her search for Chekhov’s ashtray.
Margarita and her husband had visited antique stores around the globe. Neither wife nor husband smoked, actually both condemned smoking and collected ashtrays that they did not offer to guests at their house. Chekhov’s was the most prized one for a simple reason, it worked as a lamp for the genius of stories. For some time, Damasio in an attempt to please his esteemed wife hired a private detective to assist on their endeavors (the secret investigation excluded Margarita’s escapades on Aeroflot). The couple had amassed a collection of one thousand ashtrays, some of which were taken from hotels and restaurants as souvenirs and belonged to an intricate chain of events given that ashtrays provoked reminiscences.
Eight days ago, a Professor Ludovich had contacted Margarita over the phone in a failed connection, they could barely hear each other but the call was live enough to inform Margarita that an ashtray believed to be Chekhov’s was to be auctioned in St Petersburg and would she not come to bid? “Your presence is not only justified but required”, said the Professor only to add: “sweet Margarita, remember, hammers go down quickly on the Neva.”
His voice was half-humorous, half afraid. What would Professor Ludovich fear, speculated Margarita sitting on a bench by the Tagus. The man who she had never met mentioned hammers and auctioneers and she decided to speed the travel arrangements. The same plane that cut the sky above would take her away from that very place facing the Tagus and circumnavigate over the Brandenburg gates and finally bring her closer to attaining success. Once that mission was accomplished, she wondered what else would keep her going, or if she could simply then be gone, gone from the chair around the dinner table where her husband’s friends entertained a conversation about the paper work prior to retirement, gone from the bench by the Tagus, gone from the streets, gone from crowded airplanes, gone from the windows that reflected her face and showed new lines that made her feel like a stranger to herself.
Inside the airplane cabin, Margarita once again sought air, seeking air was inevitable, the air she found was of a stale quality and she placed her hand luggage on the overhead compartment and sat by the window and put her seatbelt on and looked through the glass and the air filled scenery outside, far from her particle fetching breath. Ants as pre-human forms glided on the asphalt as if Zeus still had some hold on them and drove the trucks with suitcases as cargo to be dispatched on the rolling conveyor belt. Margarita spotted her luggage but it did not really matter if hers made it to the final destination. Does one have to have his or her belongings? Would it not be a sign of freedom if she returned home with just Chekhov’s ashtray?
The plane was stalled by the gate for two hours, an announcement explained the delay, a door was not closing due to a fault in the electric circuit breaker and then the pilot lost the plane’s place in the long line of planes waiting to take off. Hopefully, Professor Ludovich and his assistants would track her flight and account for the subtracted hours. In general, delays had that metaphysical quality of keeping life suspended, as if gravity was lighter for the body to move within and Margarita still stared at the ants on the ground and played with the cuticles of her fingers. Finally, she departed.
A few hours into the flight, a passenger fell ill, the crew called for assistance, were there any doctors on board, and her doctor husband was not there to hide his face behind the seats, he did not like to take the responsibility for someone else’s life in extreme circumstances, when not all the tools and resources were available to him. Damasio was a cautious, meticulous man. The scene brought her back to the opera where a member of the audience had died. The poor devil hiccupped endlessly prior to parting from his earthly convictions and ties. La Traviata was halted, police officers and the whole rescue apparatus transformed the theater into a sort of Hades underworld. The cadaver was pink, pink as the fetus of a pig, exclaimed somebody in the audience and the widespread laughter alleviated some of the tension of having a dead body in the midst of the living. They should have been drinking Port. And, now, on the plane Margarita questioned if the situation would repeat itself and how unpleasant it would be to fly two rolls away from a dead passenger and a baby started crying and yes, the man did die on board only to prove that the more people move around the world, fatalities multiply. The crew kept taking the dead man’s pulse, ignoring the truth straight out. The idea was to keep a lie afloat during the flight so that the plane did not have to interrupt the journey and land somewhere else in Europe. Of course, the flight time felt eternally prolonged for the passengers who wanted out and did not wish to see the crown of the head of the dead man that the crew placed seated and to whom the stewardess offered water as if nothing had happened. But the man was more dead than a rock, his heart as cold as Margarita’s former lover who smoked Havana cigars, the end tips of which he squeezed on any surface, including a metal ashtray he carried along. Turbulent skies, seat belt signs on, eyes blinked and the two assistants of Professor Ludovich each held an arm of Margarita and took her to a yellow beetle. The trio moved through St Petersburg’s traffic jams in the direction of the auction house (the airline had invited passengers to bury the dead man from the plane but Margarita replied with a negative to the invitation, the burial ground was in the outskirts of the city, too far way for someone who did not dispose of available hours given the pressing issue of the ashtray).
The auction house was crowded with people, some in folkloric outfits, others in suits. The building with white in and outside, stairs and walls of marble created the ambience. A pedestal was placed on the stage table and one supposed that it would hold the ashtray for viewing by bidders. Soon after Margarita arrived, the auctioneer greeted those present and suggested the initial price for Chekhov’s ashtray even though nobody could affirm with one hundred percent certainty that the ashtray had belonged to the author of The Seagull. Bids became fast unattainable and Margarita realized that she could not afford the price. A cunning old hag stood on her left side and offered boxes of money in cash brought by servants dressed in gold. Margarita felt as a lioness inside a cage, unable to realize her long wished for dream. How painstakingly frustrating!
When hope was evaporating, the door to the auction room suddenly opened and Professor Ludovich entered and affixed his aquamarine eyes on the much desired object. His assistants recognized him and whispered to Margarita that the man in a grey linen suite was the famous professor, a man who had written a thousand and one essays on the most interesting contemporary topics and developed documentaries on agricultural cooperatives and greenhouses. He expeditiously brought a check to the auctioneer and withdrew to the back of the room, next to Margarita and his crew. Professor Ludovich, whose actual name was Anton Pavlovich, noted that not a drop of her blood was human, but that she was made like a soft, sweet woman. Her fleshy lips indicated an irresistible sensuality. As Ludovich blew his nose in a red handkerchief, he removed a box of Swedish matches from the trouser pocket and offered a match to Margarita: “blow”, he asked. The fear of the power of the ascending little flame struck Margarita, she marveled at the surprise. There was no inhibition lost between them, as if they had met long ago by recognizing the bearable lightness of their feelings. The wretch was consumed with passion and so was Margarita, a darling of the goddesses, as she adjusted the straps of her purse where Ludovich placed the newly acquired ashtray. Stories lie on two poles, a woman and a man.
As the plane had forty minutes before landing, Margarita, who had slept for most of the flight felt a touch on her shoulders. A stewardess wanted to ask if she wanted the snack. Margarita looked on her left and found a plump woman in her eighties chewing on bread and breathing heavily, identical to the old hag who almost bought Chekhov’s ashtray. Needless to say that woman was me and unbeknownst to Margarita I had been with her all along. A short conversation was supposed to entail but Margarita seemed lost in a reverie. We both realized that Lissabon was below, so close to our feet, ready to swallow those who wash their faces in the abundant, crystalline waters of the Tagus, waters that have the remarkable power of ridding away sorrow in sixteenth century vessels filled by the ash of poems by Camões, the sonnet master.
Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524 or 1525 – 10 June 1580) is considered Portugal's and the Portuguese language's greatest poet. His mastery of verse has been compared to that of Shakespeare, Vondel, Homer, Virgil and Dante. He wrote a considerable amount of lyrical poetry and drama. The influence of his masterpiece Os Lusíadas is so profound that Portuguese is sometimes called the "language of Camões".