Upon leaving the company of Volga Petrovych, one would always feel as one did when leaving a dog shelter empty-handed. You wanted to feel compassion and provide companionship, be able to save her, but you just couldn’t find the room. She was a 42-year old, tall and frumpy, hair dye-from-a-box blonde whose St. Petersburg accent had not diminished one iota after twenty-four years of living in America.
Words were heavy and dark as motor oil, dripping with anguish from her mouth all running together in a monotonously rapid prattle falling off her tongue, so much so that the listener caught about half of what she ever said. A lucky thing for most on the receiving end of Volga, as she was a bit of a crisis-monger. She was an oppressively pathos-ridden character best suited for Turgenev. Or Tolstoy. A Dostoevsky novel, perhaps.
She was terribly suited for the pace of modern-day Americana and certainly way off the beat of the individualistic, narcissistic nature of Los Angeles, California. A portrait artist, Volga lived hand-to-mouth despite her immense talent. Her ultra-sensitive treatment of the fingernail or strand of hair on her subject in a watercolor painting was exquisite, though she was supremely low functioning in the matters of daily living.
Shelby Holmes’ garden apartment stood within rock-throwing distance of Volga’s subterranean hovel and it was hard not to cross paths at some point every day. Cross the garden, up the gravel path, turn right at the communal garbage bins and you’re there. The pretty blue-eyed blonde knew her best bet was to leave her apartment early, as Volga seldom emerged before Noon to walk an octogenarian pace to check her mailbox. Her manner of speech as one rapid-fire, single run on sentence was the only aspect of speed her persona possessed, most everything else weighed down on her like the load on a beast of burden in the Himalayas.
The two women had once found common ground when Shelby first moved in, both single women and artists, but Whit, Shelby’s boyfriend moved in a year later and changed the dynamic. Besides, the differences between them were quickly pronounced in the boldest of type and separated them like the Grand Canyon in spirit and purpose, and no real bond was ever allowed to truly take form. Volga seemed resentful of this unspoken estrangement and envious of what Shelby and Whit had together. For Shelby however, her soul released a karmic, imperceptible – though cavernously deep – heave of relief upon mining the needed distance.
“I do not know what is wrong with people here no one cares about anyone else cannot stop to help anyone else with their problems no one cares”, she gabbled into Shelby’s ear one hot summer afternoon. “Well, let’s get back to the matter at hand, Volga”, she responded, “I’m sorry but I have a deadline and can’t take you to your doctor’s appointment today. But the 25 goes right by there, doesn’t it, Volga?” The location of their apartment building was perfectly situated along several main bus routes to destinations all over the city.
“I do not have the bus fare no pass card no change…” she fired back tersely, pronouncing have as “HAYF”, thickly in her husky Russian parlance, trailing off the last word into an abyss of ever present despair. Shelby left it all right there on the table with a swift sign-off, she simply couldn’t be brought into the mire and bog of this woman just because she lived in the same building. The musty dwelling, set just below Shelby’s in a basement studio shared with vermin both seen and unseen, provided Volga with a bottomless wealth of unending source material for her interminable kvetching.
Her problems were her only friends because, in her disheveled mind, they were many and they were loyal companions that would never leave her unless she wanted them to.
The vermin in fact were her constant companions, too, real or not. The landlord, Mr. Edelman, an old immigrant from Austria, exercised his empathetic muscles for Volga’s status as much as possible, indulging her ongoing tale of creepy crawlies keeping her up at night. He had inspectors and pest controllers come in every month, turning up nothing every time as Volga continued to insist on their presence. Sometimes she would take matters into her own hands and don a full gas mask and coveralls and handle the exterminations in her own way. No doubt all the chemicals and stress were leading her down a dangerous path of mental imbalance, Shelby feared.
It was quite sad, really, to Shelby, all of it. The day the two first met, Shelby was entranced by Volga, stepping into her studio for a fuller introduction one afternoon after depositing her garbage in the nearby bins. “What’s that you’re working on over there,” Shelby said pointing to a large worktable in the corner, the biggest piece of furniture in the apartment. “Come, let me show you my work,” Volga offered.
Spread across the table were a series of photographs of her subject, a commissioned portrait of a young boy with his dog. She had rendered his skin in subtle but perfected shades of blue and pink in a delicate and gorgeous way that held Shelby breathless. “What is that blue…it’s…stunning,” Shelby asked. “Ah. Cerulean Blue,” Volga said handing her the small squeezed up tube of paint. “You know, Shelby, your eyes are that exact color. It’s my favorite because it reminds me of the water at a lake my parents took me to as a little girl … in the country,” Volga explained.
“Where was that, Volga, where did you grow up?” Shelby inquired, fascinated by this exotic specimen with miraculous talent. Volga went on to tell her about her upbringing in St. Petersburg, Russia as an only child. Her parents fought constantly and her only escape was into her watercolor paintings. To appease the sensitive child after a particularly cruel argument, they would pack the car and spend an effortless day by the lake.
But they were always at odds, Volga and her parents. Her mother pleaded with Volga to study opera singing but she felt too much comfort in her solitary work as an artist and defied her mother’s wishes, eventually running off to California with an American man she met in a cafe on Rubinshteyna Street, a man she married then divorced. Now alone, she sought solace still in her work. And apparently, as Shelby would discover, a temporary respite from bouts of deep depression.
For a short time, the two women did share life stories. And the art pieces they were each working on. Volga taught Shelby simple words or phrases in Russian; how to introduce yourself or express like or dislike. The all-important thank you – “Spasiba”. One day in her apartment, Volga suddenly grabbed an old Polaroid camera off the shelf, saying” Let me snap your pictures so I can do portrait of you someday.” Shelby posed for several and they laughed together over the results magically materializing before their eyes. Then they would say goodbye for the day, “Do Svidaniya”, waving cheerfully.
After nearly five years at her apartment there in Echo Park, though, Shelby had gone from an almost weekly visit downstairs to be awed by Volga’s latest magnificent creation to fewer and fewer visits and now a practical avoidance of her. It was a loss to her as she initially felt so attracted to the Russian woman, so curious, so eager to learn more from her and about her. But Volga sucked her energy dry bit by bit with her neediness and gloom. Shelby simply couldn’t let that in any longer, not even a little bit, through the door of her own pursuit of joy and simplicity.
The division became deep and it had gotten to the point where she made sure not to cross paths with her near the mailboxes. Or the garbage bins. Or at the delicatessen two blocks up the street where she knew Volga liked to get her take-out sandwiches at two p.m. every Monday and Friday.
“God, it’s good to be home,” Whit said as he threw his jacket across the chair and sank into the couch with a sigh. “I mean, I love to travel with you, baby, but it’s been a ridiculous odyssey getting back from Athens today. So much rigmarole, it’s really too much.”
Shelby pulled off her shoes and took a load off in the chair where he’d flung his jacket.
“I know, but it’s just one day there and one day back that’s grueling and it’s so worth it. I mean, c’mon, that water is like nowhere else in the world! I’ll never stop traveling,” she said as she tied her hair up into a topknot. “I’m hitting the shower. Order a pizza?”
It was the end of December and the two woke up the next morning still a bit groggy as they made coffee and eggs and hunkered down to read the local news.
“What do you suppose is going on out there?” Shelby asked Whit as she pulled back the curtain a bit to see two cops talking with the landlord Mr. Edelman out on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building before watching them slip down the walkway towards the backyard.
“Not interested,” Whit replied, not even looking up from his newspaper.
Shelby shuffled back into the kitchen for a topper on her coffee, peeking a bit through the kitchen window but unable to glean what was going on.
“Okay, Gladys Kravitz, bring me another one of those chocolate chip muffin things, will you.”
It was all forgotten soon enough as the two fell back into bed post-breakfast for some lovemaking and laziness, the residue of the dreamy cerulean blue waters of Greece flowing into the pools of their slumber.
“Someone is knocking, Whit. What is that. Someone at the door?” Shelby mumbled in her half-awakened state, nudging him a second time. Then the doorbell sounded and he was absolutely awake but rolled over reluctant to respond.
“Come on, we’ll both go. I mean who could it be at this hour?” Shelby wondered out loud.
But it was only four p.m. and she was just in a lingering confused time warp from traveling. Her toes found her slippers and standing now she reached for her bathrobe, tussled her hair a bit and walked towards the front door. When she opened it a police officer greeted her, showing his badge.
“Excuse me, sorry to bother you, Miss, I’m Sgt. Fillmore. We are investigating the disappearance of one of your neighbors?” he said as if it were a question.
Looking down at a small writing pad, he pronounced slowly the name, “Volga Petrovych” then looked up from the pad and directly into Shelby’s sleepy face.
“Oh,” Shelby said with a surprised inflection, “Ok. Well, I know her, yes, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Well, actually, Miss, can you tell me when you last saw her?”
“Um, well, I’ve just returned from two weeks in Greece last night, so I, well, let me think. I guess it was probably just before that. But I only just saw her walking her bike up the path from her apartment. We didn’t speak or anything.”
Shelby felt startled, confused, a bit guilty, responsible even, though she knew there was no reason for it. Disappearance? Whit appeared at that moment, his curiosity getting the better of him.
“Hello. Officer. What’s going on?” Whit asked sleepily.
“Oh, hello sir, do you live at this residence also?” the officer inquired.
“Yes, my girlfriend and I live here together.”
“Fine. I was just asking your girlfriend, excuse me Miss, your name is…?”
“Shelby, sir, Shelby Holmes. And my boyfriend here is Whitman Cross.”
Writing this information down on his pad he repeated their names, “Miss Holmes. Mr. Cross. Were you both out of town and haven’t seen her in two weeks, then?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Whit offered.
“Ok, good. Thanks for your time,” he said as he put his pad away in his shirt pocket.
“Wait. I mean. What happened? I mean, do you know where Volga is?” Shelby asked.
Whit turned to look at Shelby, feeling a tad left in the dark about things.
“As I said, Miss, we’re investigating. Thank you for your time.”
And before Shelby or Whit could persist with their own questions, the Officer turned on his heel and was down the steps and around the corner to the main door to the apartment building ringing the bell, seeking answers from other tenants. Shelby slowly closed the door and looked at Whit.
“Well, that’s odd. And I hate how the cops never tell you anything. You’re just part of their fact- finding mission and left in the dark to wonder what the hell is up,” Shelby said.
Whit shrugged his shoulders and agreed it is always a secret as the two padded back to the bedroom. But not before Shelby could pull the curtain one more time to see if there were any clues to that secret.
The next day, Whit went off to work while Shelby worked from home, still acclimating to the time shift. It was around two p.m. when Shelby was distracted from her work by a conversation outside and, pulling back the curtain, noticed her landlord Mr. Edelman again in front of the building with that Sgt. Fillmore and another cop. And Volga’s ex-husband this time was there, too, in the huddle. She’d seen him a few times over the years coming to visit Volga. Helping her move a piece of furniture. Or there to take her out for what Volga called “a pity supper.”
She watched as the four of them talked with eyes to the ground then turned to walk down the pathway to the backyard and towards Volga’s apartment. From the bedroom window, she knew she could possibly hear a bit more so she hurried in and stood at the window. She couldn’t make out the conversation clearly but she heard them all enter the apartment together and the muffle of continued questioning just beneath her bedroom floor. Was there some sort of foul play? Was the ex-husband a suspect? What could be happening, has happened to Volga?
Two days later, Shelby got a phone call from Mr. Edelman just after dinner.
“I wanted to let you know that Volga has been missing for several days and the police have concluded that she is…gone,” he shared.
“Gone? What does that …. Wait. How…How can they know that for sure?” Shelby pressed.
“We were able to get into her apartment. Her ex-husband had been calling her for a week and with no response clearly became concerned and called me. We entered her apartment with the police and things were found that made us believe she decided to…go. Her bicycle was missing. And there were some scribblings next to a bunch of pictures, some color Polaroids on her worktable. And a few old pictures, too, of people from years ago. Her family, I believe. A picture of her as a little girl in front of a lake with a word scribbled across it, her ex said it was the word for “Goodbye” in Russian.” Shelby mouthed it to herself in disbelief, Do Svidaniya.
Mr. Edelman continued. “Then we found a journal opened to what seemed to be a final entry about wanting to jump off a bridge. Her ex, he said she suffered her whole life from depression.”
“Were there any pictures of me on that table, Mr. Edelman, with the Polaroids?” Shelby asked, wanting to collect a vestige of a past, though temporary, friendship during its best moments.
“No. No, I did not see any Polaroids of you there.” He affirmed, trailing off in melancholy.
Shelby, utterly stunned, talked with Mr. Edelman a little while longer, both of them trying to assuage their own guilt and sadness over this unexpected ending to Volga’s story. Shelby would wait for Whit to come home from work to share the news.
On a warm, late spring day a woman with dyed black hair sits in the cafe window looking out at the dreamy cerulean blue waters of the lake, a lovely, low footbridge crossing it on one end where young children take turns jumping into the water, over and over again. She’s drawing a portrait of an old friend from a set of Polaroid snapshots laid out across the table she took a few years ago. A woman approaches with a pot of coffee, furtively eyeing the photographs, commenting on the color of the pretty blonde woman’s stunning blue eyes in the drawing, then politely asks her if she would like a refill.
“Mmm, da. Koneshno. Spasiba.”
© 2020, Mary Corbin.
Cerulean Blue is from the “The Tenants” collection. Featured artwork: “In Part of the Mystery” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.