As I parked my car an ambulance with lights flashing stopped at the entrance to the supermarket. I walked in behind three burly EMTs carrying a stretcher, canvas bags and oxygen tank. They strode with purpose but didn’t run, and appeared well rehearsed in the routine of injury and death. They turned left and I walked past the checkout counters before doing the same. Between cash registers I could see them standing over a figure on the floor, in front of the lottery-ticket vending machine. I couldn’t see enough to determine if it was male or female, child or adult, and I thought of Auden, his Old Masters and how they understood the “human position” of suffering. Two elegant young women in heels, one with a cell phone to her ear, clattered past, unseeing – “just walking dully along,” as Auden puts it.
Finished with my rubber-necking, I went looking for dental floss, deodorant and a plastic spray bottle for shooting water at the cat when he claws the couch. A female voice over the public-address system asked Russian-speaking shoppers to please report to the customer-service desk. I chose the checkout line closest to the EMTs and their patient, a woman in her mid-30s with spiky black hair and smeared mascara, now sitting against the lottery-ticket machine. A teenage grocery clerk in a soiled white apron leaned over her, speaking Russian.
In a letter written Oct. 11, 1899, to Grigory Rossolimo, a fellow physician and professor of neuropathology at Moscow University, Chekhov writes:
“I have no doubt that my involvement in medical science has had a strong influence on my literary activities; it significantly enlarged the scope of my observations and enriched me with knowledge whose true worth to a writer can be evaluated only by somebody who is himself a doctor…”
Auden told Joseph Brodsky he thought Chekhov was the only Russian writer with common sense.