Tatyana Apraksina (trans. James Manteith)

These Enterprising Young People…

Published in: 05. Stresses, Robert!

Somehow I always recall Robert — as luck would have it, he was the first real-estate agent I ever saw in my life.

Right around that same time, in a respectable American home where I had suffered through a few hours of an unfamiliar family’s holiday celebration, a thick, serious magazine fell into my grasp. I adore American professional magazines! Even from the smartest scholarly piece you never fail to extract at least something of practical use. The same holds true for political magazines, too, although in them I find a use far from political…

Here it was the same. In the magazine was an extensive article concerning the training of immigrants from Eastern Europe to work in business. A center for studies has been founded and a few groups were already trained. Schematics, graphics, in-depth conclusions. Specific traits and characteristic details were noted. Among them, for example, the staunch unwillingness of Slavs to take an extra shower — and the clean Western nose takes no pleasure in that at all. Still another example: socks. White socks should never be worn on any occasion! So why, a student causticly inquired, did Reagan pay this ban no mind? (It’s true, in many photos Reagan provocatively flaunts white socks.) The professor answered that Reagan was a figure of such high authority, white socks were powerless to harm his reputation!

And so on…along the same lines, but about footwear. The author of the article cites an amusing political incident: During an official visit to an Asian country, the head of some state or other appeared before the country’s leader in woven-leather shoes. Such liberality led to sad consequences: The high-ranking guest’s choice of “sporty footwear” for a meeting was taken as a show of disrespect for the country.

The piece continued in this spirit… Quite educational.


And so I watch Robert with exceptional interest. In what way is he a “Slavic type”? Robert is twenty-four. He hasn’t been in America very long. He made his way there by long paths, through Europe from Poland. He knows the English language well and nonetheless hasn’t quit studying. On the table are mountains of textbooks for foreigners, dictionaries, reference guides of various calibers, all in active use.* Here, too, are some brochures on doing business.

Early mornings, Robert, temporarily lodging at some Polish friends’ place, makes his appearance, sleepy and rumpled, in the apartment. He puts a pot of water on the stove and throws in a couple of chicken drumsticks: it’s the cheapest food available, and Robert’s refrigerator always contains a large stash. He then heads for the bathroom.

Hygienic procedures occupy the greater part of this morning time. Next comes the selection of a suit for a routine workday. A suit, always a suit. New day, new suit. As Dali said, “Triumph requires the right uniform.”

I never saw Robert wear the same suit on successive days (The larder of suits in the built-in closet holds its own against the chicken in the fridge). And no sneaking temptations to try on white socks. Tie always selected with care. Well done, Robert!

Having found time, over breakfast, to look through his work notes and make several phone calls for good measure, Robert dashes off.

He’s had a car a little while, too — payments must still be made “from his first commission.” It’s a small, dark cherry-colored Ford truck. In it, Robert, knowing no rest, races around the sprawling city of San Diego. He views homes, meets with clients, sometimes even lunches with them (so much the better if they foot the bill), from time to time checks in at headquarters.

Sometimes, dropping by to change clothes for the evening, he dozes off at the table. Patti teases him, jokes, seats a plush bear on his knees…

It happened that I urgently needed to make it to the rehearsal of a symphony orchestra, and Robert, already heading out the door for work, volunteered to give me a ride, although this would take him far out of his way.

“I’ve never had occasion to drive to such a prestigious location,” he said, brushing off my objections. “I’ll brag about it someday.”


Robert’s enthusiasm for all that concerned his work never ceased to amaze me. What’s more, I never noticed any signs of stinginess or greed in him. He was always ready to share whatever he had, and did so because he had a pure heart.

Eagerly, in simple, friendly terms, he made room for Patricia and myself in the small apartment whose rent he split with a friend, despite our not being at all acquainted, and this caused him myriad inconveniences, because in the dormitory where he had to relocate, staying with friends, he couldn’t even use the shower and so had to stop by home every morning and evening to change clothes.

Some evenings, he stayed a while to chat with us. Always calm and cordial, Robert created an atmosphere of safety and heartfelt comfort with his presence. His engagedness and unfeigned interest in people easily provoked a sympathetic response.

The more I observed him, the more clearly in him was revealed a wonderful, soulful tactfulness, a kind that all too rarely coexists with business mechanations, and I frequently asked myself whether his work suffered from this excessive sensitivity.

Once, Robert encountered me at a moment of utter despair. He didn’t know its cause and didn’t even try to discern it, but needed no words to understand something had to be done right away.

The ingeniousness of the solution was astounding. He simply seated me in the car and drove to the shore of the ocean; there, leading me up to the onrushing water, he left me alone in the darkness, giving me a chance to come to my senses, faced by the mighty, elemental force, its absolute scale proving the surest means of relief.

I rode back almost calmly. Robert talked about his plans, saying he first of all intended to ensure his own stable affluence.

“I can’t say I experience any passion for money,” he confessed. “I simply understand I have to have it to feel at peace about the future. The work I’m in gives the most realistic opportunity to get the needed result. I try to do my best at it. Here, everything depends on me alone.”

He asked which house I would choose if I wanted to live in San Diego. Of course, on the shore of the ocean, I answered unthinkingly. Robert brightened, and promised he would certainly find me just such a home if I ever chose to settle here.

On the road, Robert’s attention was drawn several times to announcements, hung on facades, of the sale or rent of houses that we drove past.

Each time, he stopped the car and jotted down the address: “I’ll definitely have to drive out here tomorrow to look at this house. What luck, ending up in this area! Now I’ll know all the houses for sale here.”

Leaving San Diego, I wished Robert the rapid attainment of all he aimed for, wished him good luck and rewards for his industriousness, but deep inside I feared for his selflessness, for his generous nature.

For many years, I heard nothing from him. A letter arrived only just recently.

Yes, Robert lives in San Diego — in his own home on the shore of the ocean. He’s married now, and often goes with his wife to symphony concerts. In the envelope, a photograph: a staid, serious man with a stern gaze. And in the letter is an invitation — come any time to the house on the ocean shore…


* From his Russian lessons at school, Robert remembered only the teacher’s constant reproof, “Stresses, Robert”!

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