In the original, Gogol’s story centers on Akakii Akakievitch, a low-level clerk in a government office, who lives a life of social isolation and economic insecurity. Deep in a St. Petersburg winter, Akakii is without a decent coat to wear; he saves and strategizes and devotes all his energies to securing a new garment. And once he does, it is promptly, and fatally, stolen right off his back.
In my update, the action is moved to St. Paul, and a laptop computer replaces the overcoat as a crucial item necessary for participating in modern economic life, especially for the economically insecure, such as a freelancer.
At the company — but it is better not to mention the company. There is nothing more irritable than companies, militaries, courts, and, in a word, every organization. Every individual attached to one today feels insulted by all of society. Quite recently, a complaint was made by a contractor, in which he plainly demonstrated that a certain government institution was going to the dogs, and that the public’s name was being taken in vain; and in proof he appended to the complaint a story in which the contractor’s boss is made to appear about once every ten lines, and sometimes in a drunken condition. Therefore, in order to avoid all unpleasantness, it will be better to describe the company in question only as a certain company.
So, in a certain company there was a certain contract employee — not a very high one, it must be allowed — short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and short-sighted, with a bald forehead, wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind known as sanguine. The St. Paul climate was responsible for this. As for his official status, he was what is called an at will contract employee, over which, as is well known, some op ed writers make merry, and crack jokes about, obeying the praiseworthy custom of attacking those who cannot bite back.
Akakii Akakievitch was born, if my memory fails me not, in the evening of the 23rd of March. His mother, the wife of a government official and a very fine woman, made all due arrangements for having the child baptized. “I see,” said the old woman, “that it is plainly fate, it will be best to name him after his father. His father’s name was Akakii, so let his son’s be Akakii too.” In this manner, he became Akakii Akakievitch. They christened the child, whereat he wept and made a grimace, as though he foresaw that he was to be a contract employee.
When and how he entered the company, and who hired him, no one could remember. However much the directors and chiefs of all kinds were changed, he was always to be seen in the same place, the same attitude, the same occupation; so that it was afterwards affirmed that he had been born in office casual with a bald head. No respect was shown him in the company. His superiors treated him in coolly despotic fashion. Some sub-chief would thrust a paper under his nose without so much as saying, “Code it,” or “Here’s a nice interesting piece,” or anything else agreeable, as is customary amongst well-bred supervisors. And he took it, looking only at the paper and not observing who handed it to him, or whether he had the right to do so; simply took it, and set about coding it.
The young supervisors laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their wit permitted; told in his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy; declared that she wanted him; asked when the wedding was to be. But Akakii Akakievitch answered not a word, any more than if there had been no one there besides himself. It even had no effect upon his work: amid all these annoyances he never made a single mistake in a SEO code. But if the joking became wholly unbearable, as when they jogged his hand and prevented his attending to his work, he would exclaim, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” And there was something strange in the words and the voice in which they were uttered. There was in it something which moved to pity; so much that one young man, a newcomer, who, taking pattern by the others, had permitted himself to make sport of Akakii, suddenly stopped short, as though all about him had undergone a transformation, and presented itself in a different aspect. Some unseen force repelled him from the coworkers whose acquaintance he had made, on the supposition that they were well-bred and polite men. Long afterwards, in his happiest moments, there recurred to his mind the little contractor with the bald forehead, with his heart-rending words, “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” In these moving words, other words resounded —“I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honorable and noble.
It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is not enough to say that Akakii labored with zeal: no, he labored with love. In his coding, he found a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face: some sites were even favorites with him; and when he encountered these, he smiled, winked, and worked with his lips, till it seemed as though each term might be read in his face, as his fingers tapped it. If his pay had been in proportion to his zeal, he would, perhaps, to his great surprise, have been made even a CEO. But he worked, as his companions, the wits, put it, like a dog.
Moreover, it is impossible to say that no attention was paid to him. One supervisor being a kindly man, and desirous of rewarding him for his long service, ordered him to be given something more important than mere coding. So he was ordered to write a report of an already concluded project to another company: the duty consisting simply in changing the headings and altering a few words. This caused him so much toil that he broke into a sweat, rubbed his forehead, and finally said, “No, give me rather something to code.” After that, they let him code on forever.
Outside this coding, it appeared that nothing existed for him. He gave no thought to his clothes: his khakis were of an oatmeal color. The shirts were collared, so that his neck, in spite of the fact that it was not long, seemed inordinately so as it emerged from it. And something was always sticking to his clothes, either a bit of paper or some trifle. Moreover, he had a peculiar knack, as he walked along the street, of arriving beneath a tree just as the wind kicked up: hence he always bore about on his head a scrap of leaf or a twig. Never once in his life did he give heed to what was going on every day in the street.
On reaching home, he sat down at once at the table, supped his frozen dinner up quickly, never noticing its taste, and gulping down everything with flies and anything else which the Lord happened to send at the moment. His stomach filled, he rose from the table, opened his laptop, and coded from home, as a freelancer for various clients. If there happened to be no work— if he’d not won any bids for the day — he scoured Craigslist, looking for a quick job to do.
Even at the hour when the grey St. Paul sky had quite dispersed, and the official workday was over, each as he could, in accordance with the salary he received and his own fancy; when all were resting, or running to and fro from their own and other people’s indispensable occupations, and from all the work that an uneasy man makes willingly for himself, rather than what is necessary; when supervisors hasten to dedicate to pleasure the time which is left to them, one bolder than the rest going to the theater; another, into the street looking under skirts with his phone; another wasting his evening in chatting up some pretty girl, the star of a small circle; another — and this is the common case of all — visiting his friend in a studio apartment, or at the hour when workers disperse home to play video games, have a drink, vape, hang out on Reddit; do the things that men can never, under any circumstances, refrain from, and, when there is nothing else to talk of, repeat eternal anecdotes about the worst jobs they’ve ever had, Akakii Akakievitch indulged in no kind of diversion. No one could ever say that he had seen him at any kind of party. Having worked to his heart’s content, he lay down to sleep, smiling at the thought of the coming day — of what God might send him to code tomorrow.
Thus flowed on the peaceful life of the man, who, with a salary of four hundred dollars a week, before taxes, understood how to be content with his lot; and thus it would have continued to flow on, perhaps, to extreme old age, were it not that there are various ills strewn along the path of life for contract workers and freelancers as well as for full-time permanent employees, and even supervisors, and even for those who never give any advice or take any themselves.
There exists a powerful foe of all who receive a salary of four hundred dollars a week, or thereabouts, and need their computers to make a living. That foe is losing their ability to connect to work via the Internet; none other than the loss of their computer, through thievery, obsolescence, or a computer virus, which can wipe out a hard drive long before its time. At nine o’clock in the morning, at the very hour when the streets are filled with men bound for various companies, the hackers, so-called black hats, begin to bestow powerful and piercing attacks on all computers impartially. At an hour when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with all the risks to their systems, the poor freelancers are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing the Internet as carefully as possible; though maybe relaxing when called onsite, in an office; their talents and qualifications are all that is needed; the hardware isn’t their own.
Akakii Akakievitch felt that his back and shoulders suffered stiffness from all his worries, but then realized too that his laptop was always strapped there, so he might do a little work at lunchtime. It began to hurt more and more as he traversed the distance between work and home with all possible speed. He wondered whether the fault did not lie in the laptop. He conducted web searches, and discovered that much lighter models were now available, though they were far beyond his means. Besides which, you must know that Akakii Akakievitch’s laptop served as an object of ridicule to his colleagues. In fact, it was old, it was obsolescing month by month, and getting slower too. It had been maintained by the guys at a certain big box store, as Akakii didn’t exhibit great skill in this area. Seeing how the matter stood one morning — when he fired it up and got the black screen of death — Akakii Akakievitch decided that it would be necessary to take the laptop back to them, as he knew they had considerable success in repairing them.
It is not necessary to say much about this store; but, as it is the custom to have the character of each personage in a novel clearly defined, there is no help for it, so here is Petrovitch, the geek. At first he was called only an associate (in retail: a serf); they commenced calling him a geek after he’d passed a test. He’d begun to drink heavily on all holidays, at first, then on all weekends too. On this point, he was faithful to college custom.
Going through the electric doors, Akakii Akakievitch pondered how much Petrovitch would ask, and hoped for not more than two hundred dollars. He found Petrovitch behind the counter, arriving at the precise moment when Petrovitch was angry; Akakii preferred to talk to geeks when they were a little downhearted. Under such circumstances, Petrovitch generally was more patient in figuring out problems, rather than sending the laptop out to be fixed. But now it appeared that Petrovitch was rough and taciturn, and inclined to demand it be sent out, Satan only knew for how long and at what price. Akakii Akakievitch felt this, and would gladly have beat a retreat; but Petrovitch screwed up one eye very intently at him, and Akakii Akakievitch involuntarily said: “How you doing, Petrovitch?”
“Good,” said Petrovitch, squinting as Akakii Akakievitch’s removed the laptop from his backpack.
“Ah! I — to you, Petrovitch, this black —” It must be known that Akakii Akakievitch expressed himself chiefly by prepositions, adverbs, and scraps of phrases which had no meaning whatever. If the matter was a very difficult one, he had a habit of never completing his sentences; so that frequently, having begun a phrase with the words, “This, in fact, is quite —” he forgot to go on, thinking that he had already finished it.
“What is it doing?” asked Petrovitch; such is the habit of geeks.
“But I, here, this — Petrovitch — this laptop — now it is the black screen of death. But before, usually, with different programs, it was quite strong — with others, it was not. It’s old, but we added new RAM only a few months ago — but still, it crashes sometimes — do you see? That is all. So maybe a little tune up —”
Petrovitch took the laptop, opened it, and pressed the start button; he looked hard at it as it booted up, shook his head, and reached out his hand to the touchpad, and with his fingers, tried examining various aspects of it. Then Petrovitch shook his head. He said finally, “No, it needs to be sent out, though it really might be impossible to fix it; it’s just too old.”
Akakii Akakievitch’s heart sank at these words.
“Why is it impossible, Petrovitch?” he said, almost in the pleading voice of a child; “it was fine, yesterday. I need it to finish this freelance job I have. There must —”
“Yes, it’s possible they can patch it up,” said Petrovitch, “but there’s no guarantee. The thing is so old anyway. It will die soon —”
“Let’s try to fix it.”
“But it’s not very likely. It is too far gone.”
“Well, try. How long will this, in fact —”
“At least a week, maybe two,” said Petrovitch decisively. “You’d be better off with a new laptop.”
At the word “new,” all grew dark before Akakii Akakievitch’s eyes, and everything in the room began to whirl round. The only thing he saw clearly was the nametag on Petrovitch’s polo shirt. “A new one?” said he, as if still in a dream: “why, I have no money for that.”
“Yes, a new one,” said Petrovitch, with barbarous composure.
“Well, if I bought to a new one, how would it — ?”
“You mean how much would it cost?”
“Well, you would spend about a thousand dollars,” said Petrovitch, and pursed up his lips significantly. He liked to produce powerful effects, liked to stun utterly and suddenly, and then to glance sideways to see what face the stunned person would put on the matter.
“A thousand dollars!” shrieked poor Akakii Akakievitch, perhaps for the first time in his life, for his voice had always been distinguished for softness.
“Yes,” said Petrovitch, “and if you want more memory and faster processing.”
“Petrovitch, please,” said Akakii Akakievitch in a beseeching tone, not hearing, and not trying to hear, Petrovitch’s words, and disregarding all his “effects,” “some repairs, in order that I can use it a little longer.”
“It’s a waste of time and money,” said Petrovitch.
Picking up his laptop, Akakii Akakievitch went away after these words, utterly discouraged.
Petrovitch stood for some time after his departure, with significantly compressed lips, satisfied that he was right.
Akakii Akakievitch went out into the street as if in a dream. “Such an affair!” he said to himself: “I did not think it had come to —” and then after a pause, he added out loud, “Well, so it is! See what it has come to at last!” Then followed a long silence, after which he exclaimed, “Well, so it is! What already — nothing unexpected that — it would be nothing — what a strange circumstance!” So saying, instead of going home, he went in exactly the opposite direction without himself suspecting it. On the way, a homeless man bumped up against him, and blackened his shoulder. He did not notice it; and only when he ran against a security guard, who, having planted himself in front of a building, did he recover himself a little, and that because the security guard said, “Hey, are you okay there?” This caused him to look about him, and turn towards home.
There only, he finally began to collect his thoughts, and to survey his position in its clear and actual light, and to argue with himself, sensibly and frankly, as with a reasonable friend with whom one can discuss private and personal matters. “No,” said Akakii Akakievitch, “it is impossible to buy a new computer. I’d better take the laptop back to him and have him send it in. It can surely be fixed.” Thus argued Akakii Akakievitch with himself, regained his courage, and waited until Sunday, when he went straight to him.
Petrovitch’s eyes were much askew after Saturday: his head drooped, and he was very sleepy; but for all that, as soon as he knew what it was a question of, it seemed as though Satan jogged his memory. “Impossible,” said he: “please order a new one.” Thereupon Akakii Akakievitch handed over the laptop. “Thank you, send it in.”
Petrovitch said, “It is dead. Let’s get you a new one.”
Akakii Akakievitch was still for mending it; but Petrovitch would not hear of it. Finally, Akakii Akakievitch saw that it was impossible to get along without a new computer, and his spirit sank utterly. How, in fact, was it to be done? Where was the money to come from? He might, to be sure, depend, in part, upon his present at Christmas; but that money had long been allotted beforehand. He also needed new trousers, and to pay his student loan debt. In short, all his money must be spent; and even if the company should be so kind as to give him a few more dollars a week, it would be a mere nothing, a mere drop in the ocean towards the funds necessary for a laptop.
Although he knew that Petrovitch would undertake to find him a decent computer at a good price, where was he to get the money? He might possibly manage half, yes, half might be procured, but where was the other half to come from? But the reader must first be told where the first half came from. Akakii Akakievitch had a habit of putting, for every paycheck he got, ten dollars into a small box, fastened with a lock and key, and with a slit in the top for the reception of money. At the end of every half-year, he counted it, and added it to a savings account. This he had done for a long time, and the sum had mounted up to over five hundred dollars. Thus he had one half on hand; but where was he to find the other half? Because of his student loans, he couldn’t get a credit card. Akakii Akakievitch thought and thought, and decided that it would be necessary to curtail his ordinary expenses, for the space of one year at least, to dispense with dinner in the evening; to use as little light and heat as possible. When he went into the street, he must walk as lightly as he could, in order not to wear his heels down in too short a time; he must wash his clothes as little as possible; and, in order not to wear out them out, he must take them off, as soon as he got home, and wear only his cotton sweats.
To tell the truth, it was a little hard for him at first to accustom himself to these deprivations; but he got used to them at length, after a fashion, and all went smoothly. He even got used to being hungry in the evening, but he made up for it by treating himself, so to say, in spirit, by bearing ever in mind the idea of his future laptop. From that time forth his existence seemed to become, in some way, fuller, as if he were married, or as if some other man lived in him, as if, in fact, he were not alone, and some pleasant friend had consented to travel along life’s path with him, the friend being no other than the laptop, with a gorgeous screen and a strong new motherboard. He became more lively, and even his character grew firmer, like that of a man who has made up his mind, and set himself a goal. From his face and gait, doubt and indecision, all hesitating and wavering traits disappeared of themselves. Fire gleamed in his eyes, and occasionally the boldest and most daring ideas flitted through his mind; why not, for instance, get the fastest, lightest model out there? The thought of this almost made him absent-minded. Once, in coding at work, he nearly made a mistake, so that he exclaimed almost aloud, “Ugh!” In the course of every month, he had a conference with Petrovitch on the subject of the laptop, which brand was the best, and the colour, and the price. He always returned home satisfied, though troubled, reflecting that the time would come at last when it could be bought.
The affair progressed more briskly than he had expected. Far beyond all his hopes, the director awarded him a raise. Whether he suspected that Akakii Akakievitch needed a laptop, or whether it was merely chance, at all events, twenty extra dollars a week were by this means provided. This circumstance hastened matters. Two or three months more of hunger and Akakii Akakievitch had accumulated about a thousand dollars. His heart, generally so quiet, began to throb. On the first possible day, he went to Petrovitch. They discussed his requirements, and the models available, and the prices. They came up with a good deal, at a reasonable rate too, for they had been considering the matter for six months, and rarely let a month pass without glancing at prices. Petrovitch himself said it was a fine laptop.
Petrovitch ordered it from the factory and it took two whole weeks to arrive, for there was a backlog on this popular model.
It was — it is difficult to say precisely on what day, but probably the most glorious one in Akakii Akakievitch’s life, when Petrovitch at last called to say the laptop had arrived. It was picked up in the morning, before the hour when it was necessary to start for the company.
Never did a laptop arrive so exactly in the nick of time; for their were a lot of new freelance jobs to be had. Petrovitch brought out the laptop himself. On his countenance was a significant expression, such as Akakii Akakievitch had never beheld there. He seemed fully sensible that he had done no small deed. He took the laptop out of the box in which he had brought it. They set it up together.
Akakii Akakievitch, like an experienced man, wished to try the web browser. Petrovitch helped him and the laptop signed easily onto wifi and then the Internet. In short, the laptop appeared to be perfect. Akakii Akakievitch paid him, and thanked him, and set out at once for work.
Akakii Akakievitch was in a holiday mood. He was conscious every second of the time that he had a new laptop in his backpack; and several times, he laughed with internal satisfaction. In fact, there were two advantages, one was its weight, the other its function. He saw nothing of the road, but suddenly found himself at work. He took out his laptop at his desk, and looked it over carefully. It is impossible to say precisely how it was that everyone in the company knew at once that Akakii Akakievitch had a new laptop, but many rushed to inspect it. They congratulated him and said pleasant things to him, so that he began at first to smile and then to grow ashamed. When all surrounded him, and said that the new laptop must be “christened,” and that he must come out for dinner, Akakii Akakievitch lost his head completely, and did not know where he stood, what to answer, or how to get out of it. He stood blushing.
At length one of the supervisors, in order to show that he was not at all proud, and on good terms with his inferiors, said, “Please, Akakii Akakievitch; I invite you all for happy hour with me tonight; it happens quite apropos, as it is my birthday.” The workers naturally said “happy birthday” and accepted the invitations with pleasure. Akakii Akakievitch would have declined, but all declared that it was discourteous, that he could not possibly refuse.
That whole day was truly a most triumphant festival day for Akakii Akakievitch. At the end of the day, he wanted nothing more to return home in the most happy frame of mind, take out his laptop, and boot it up, admire it. Then he would bring out his old, worn-out laptop, for comparison. He would look and laugh, so vast was the difference. After dinner, he would code nothing; just laugh again when the comparison of the two recurred to his mind. Unfortunately, he had to go directly the bar, near where the host lived.
Where the host lived, unfortunately we cannot say: our memory begins to fail us badly; and the houses and streets in St. Paul have become so mixed up in our head that it is very difficult to get anything out of it again in proper form. This much is certain, that the man lived in the best part of the city; and therefore it must have been anything but near to Akakii Akakievitch’s residence, or the location of the company. Akakii Akakievitch was first obliged to traverse a kind of wilderness of deserted, dimly-lighted streets; but in proportion as he approached the boss’s quarter of the city, the streets became more lively, more populous, and more brilliantly illuminated. Pedestrians began to appear; handsomely dressed ladies were more frequently encountered; the men had nice suits and coats; homeless people became rarer; whilst on the other hand, more and more high-end cars began to appear. Akakii Akakievitch gazed upon all this as upon a novel sight. He had not been in the streets during the evening for years
Akakii Akakievitch at length reached the bar where happy hour was. The buzz of conversation was audible, and became clear and loud when he walked down the hall toward the room reserved for them and the waiter came out with a tray full of empty glasses. It was evident that the others had arrived long before, and had already finished their first drinks.
Akakii Akakievitch entered the inner room. Before him all at once appeared his co-workers and supervisors, and he was bewildered by the sound of rapid conversation rising from all the tables, and the noise of moving chairs. He halted very awkwardly in the middle of the room, wondering what he ought to do. But they had seen him. They received him with a shout, and all thronged at once. Akakii Akakievitch, although somewhat confused, was frank-hearted, and could not refrain from rejoicing when he saw how they were happy to see him.
All this, the noise, the talk, and the throng of people was rather overwhelming to Akakii Akakievitch. He simply did not know where he stood, or where to put his hands, his feet, and his whole body. Finally he sat down, gazed at the face of one and another, and after a while began to gape, and to feel that it was wearisome, the more so as the hour was already long past when he usually went to bed. He wanted to take leave of the host; but they would not let him go, saying that he must not fail to drink a glass of champagne in honor of his new laptop. In the course of an hour, supper, consisting of bar food, was served. They made Akakii Akakievitch drink two glasses of champagne, after which he felt things grow livelier.
Still, he could not forget that it was twelve o’clock, and that he should have been at home long ago. In order that the host might not think of some excuse for detaining him, he shouldered his backpack, stole out of the room quickly, and descended the stairs to the street.
In the street, all was still bright. The clubs were still open. Akakii Akakievitch went on in a happy frame of mind: he even started to run, without knowing why, after some lady, who flew past like a flash of lightning. But he stopped short, and went on very quietly as before, wondering why he had quickened his pace. Soon there spread before him those deserted streets, which are not cheerful in the daytime, to say nothing of the evening. Now they were even more dim and lonely: the lights grew fewer and far between. Then came some vacant houses: not a soul anywhere; only the snow sparkled in the streets, and mournfully veiled the low-roofed houses. He approached the spot where the street crossed a vast square with houses barely visible on its farther side, a square that seemed a fearful desert.
Akakii Akakievitch’s cheerfulness diminished at this point in a marked degree. He entered the square, not without an involuntary sensation of fear, as though his heart warned him of some evil. He glanced back and on both sides, it was like a sea about him. “No, it is better not to look,” he thought, and went on, closing his eyes. When he opened them, to see whether he was near the end of the square, he suddenly beheld, standing just before his very nose, some bearded individuals of precisely what sort he could not make out. All grew dark before his eyes, and his heart throbbed.
“Your backpack is mine,” said one of them in a loud voice, seizing hold of it. Akakii Akakievitch was about to shout for help, when the second man thrust a fist, about the size of a man’s head, into his mouth, muttering, “Now scream!”
Akakii Akakievitch felt them strip off his laptop and give him a push with a knee: he fell headlong upon the snow, and felt no more. In a few minutes, he recovered consciousness and rose to his feet; but no one was there. He felt that it was cold in the square, and that his laptop was gone; he began to shout, but his voice did not appear to reach to the outskirts of the square. In despair, but without ceasing to shout, he started at a run across the square, straight towards a security guard in a parking lot, and apparently curious to know what kind of a customer was running towards him and shouting. Akakii Akakievitch ran up to him, and began in a sobbing voice to shout that he was asleep, and attended to nothing, and did not see when a man was robbed. The man replied that he had seen two men stop him in the middle of the square, but supposed that they were friends of his; and that, instead of scolding, he had better go to the police, so that they might make a search for whoever had stolen the laptop.
Akakii Akakievitch ran home in complete disorder; his hair, which grew very thinly upon his temples and the back of his head, wholly disordered; his body, arms, and legs covered with snow. The old woman, who was the landlord, on hearing a terrible knocking, sprang hastily from her bed, and, with only one shoe on, ran to open the door, pressing the sleeve of her chemise to her bosom out of modesty; but when she had opened it, she fell back on beholding Akakii Akakievitch in such a state. When he told her about the affair, and that his keys had been in his backpack as well, she clasped her hands, and said that he must go straight to the police. Having listened to this opinion, and been given a spare key, Akakii Akakievitch betook himself sadly to his apartment; and how he spent the night there anyone who can put himself in another’s place may readily imagine.
Early in the morning, he presented himself at the police department. An officer took his report, and began to question Akakii Akakievitch: Why was he going home so late? Akakii Akakievitch got thoroughly confused, and left without knowing whether the laptop report had been taken at all.
All that day, for the first time in his life, he didn’t go to the office. The next day he made his appearance, very pale. The news of the robbery of the laptop touched many; although there were some present who never lost an opportunity, even such a one as the present, of ridiculing Akakii Akakievitch. They decided to make a collection for him on the spot, but the sum was trifling.
One of them, moved by pity, resolved to help Akakii Akakievitch with some good advice at least, and told him that he ought not go only to the police. Because even if the police might hunt up the laptop, it would still remain in the possession of the police if he did not offer legal proof that it belonged to him. The best thing for him, therefore, would be to apply to the city’s small business office for a loan.
As there was nothing else to be done, Akakii Akakievitch decided to go, and speak to the director of the department. The reader must know that the man had become a director recently; and he strove to increase his importance by sundry devices; for instance, he managed to have inferior officials meet him in his office; and he required reports of all business, and everything had to come before him in this manner. Bureaucracy is contaminated with the love of imitation; every man imitates and copies his superior. They even say that a certain counselor, when promoted to the head of some small separate room, immediately partitioned off a private room for himself, called it the audience chamber, and posted at the door a lackey, though the audience chamber could hardly hold an ordinary writing table.
The manners and customs of the director were grand and imposing, but rather exaggerated. The main foundation of his system was strictness. “Strictness, strictness, and always strictness!” he generally said; and at the last word, he looked significantly into the face of the person to whom he spoke. But there was no necessity for this, for the half-score of subordinates who formed the entire force of the office were properly afraid. His ordinary conversation with his inferiors smacked of sternness, and consisted chiefly of two phrases: “Did you file the paperwork?” and “When was the paperwork filed?”
Otherwise, he was a very kind-hearted man, and ready to oblige, if he chanced to be amongst his equals he was a very good fellow in many respects, and not stupid; but the very moment that he found himself in the society of people but one rank lower than himself he became silent; and his situation aroused sympathy, the more so as he felt himself that he might have been making an incomparably better use of his time. In his eyes there was sometimes visible a desire to join some interesting conversation or group; but he was kept back by the thought, that he might thereby lose his importance.
To this director Akakii Akakievitch presented himself, and this at the most unfavorable time for himself though opportune for the director. The director was in his office conversing gaily with an old acquaintance and companion of his childhood whom he had not seen for several years and who had just arrived when it was announced to him that an applicant had come. He asked abruptly, “Who is he?” Once informed, he said, “Ah, he can wait!” And he said it in order to show his friend how important he was.
At length, having talked himself completely out, and more than that, having had his fill of pauses, he suddenly seemed to recollect, and said to the secretary, who stood by the door with papers of reports, “So it seems that there is a man waiting to see me. Tell him that he may come in.” On perceiving Akakii ’s modest mien and his worn clothing, he turned abruptly to him and said, “What do you want?” in a curt hard voice, which he had practiced in his room in private, and before the looking glass, for a whole week before being raised to his present rank.
Akakii Akakievitch, who was already imbued with a due amount of fear, became somewhat confused: and as well as his tongue would permit, explained, with a rather more frequent addition than usual of the word “that,” that his laptop was quite new, and had been stolen in the most inhuman manner; that he had applied to him in order that he might, in some way, by his intermediation, as Akakii was in effect running a small business, and maybe he could help?
The director said, “Have you filled out an application, sir!?” He went on abruptly, “Do you have a business plan? And do you have a small business license? Where have you come from? Don’t you know how such matters are managed? You should first do those things; they will go through the division, then it would have been handed over to the secretary, and the secretary would have given it to me.”
“But, sir,” said Akakii Akakievitch, trying to collect his small handful of wits, and conscious at the same time that he was perspiring terribly, “I was told to ask for you directly, and time is of the essence. I have a freelance assignment due soon.”
“What, what, what!” said the director. “Where did you get such ideas? You must follow channels. What ideas have spread among the young generation!” He apparently had not observed that Akakii Akakievitch was already near fifty. If he could be called a young man, it must have been in comparison with someone who was twenty. “Did you do the paperwork?”
Akakii’s senses failed him; he staggered, trembled in every limb, and, if the security guards had not come to support him, would have fallen to the floor. They carried him out insensible. But the director, gratified that the effect should have surpassed his expectations, and quite intoxicated with the thought that his word could even deprive a man of his senses, glanced sideways at his friend in order to see how he looked upon this, and perceived, not without satisfaction, that his friend was in a most uneasy frame of mind, and even beginning, on his part, to feel a trifle frightened.
Akakii Akakievitch could not remember how he descended the stairs and got into the street. He felt neither his hands nor feet. Never in his life had he been treated so rudely by a government office. He went staggering on through the snowstorm, which was blowing in the streets, with his mouth wide open; the wind, in St. Paul fashion, darted upon him from all quarters, and down every cross-street. He reached home unable to utter a word. His throat was swollen, and he lay down on his bed.
The next day a violent fever showed itself. Thanks to the generous assistance of the St. Paul climate, the malady progressed more rapidly than could have been expected: and when Akakii went to the ER, having no health insurance or doctor of his own, the ER doc found the pneumonia quite progressed. To the nurse, he predicted the end in thirty-six hours.
Did Akakii Akakievitch hear these fatal words? And if he heard them, did they produce any overwhelming effect upon him? Did he lament the bitterness of his life? We know not, for he continued in a delirious condition. The nurses observed that visions incessantly appeared to him, each stranger than the other. Now he saw Petrovich, and ordered him to buy a laptop, with a trap for robbers, who seemed to him to be always under the bed; and cried every moment to pull one of them from under his coverlet. Then, pointing at his vitals on a screen, he inquired why his old laptop was here when he had a new one. Next, he fancied that he was standing before the prominent person, listening, then saying, “Forgive me, sir.!” At last he began to curse, uttering the most horrible words, and later on he talked utter nonsense, of which nothing could be made: all that was evident being, that his incoherent words and thoughts hovered ever about one thing, his laptop.
At length poor Akakii Akakievitch breathed his last. There were no heirs, nor was there little to inherit beyond a bundle of pens, a ream of paper, socks, two or three buttons which had burst off his shirt, and the dead laptop already known to the reader. To whom all this fell, God knows. I confess that the person who told me this tale took no interest in the matter. They carried Akakii Akakievitch out and buried him.
And St. Paul was left without Akakii Akakievitch, as though he had never lived there. A being disappeared who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, and who never even attracted to himself the attention of those students of human nature who omit no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly, and examining it under the microscope. A being who bore meekly the jibes of his company, and went to his grave without having done one unusual deed, but to whom, nevertheless, at the close of his life appeared a bright visitant in the form of a laptop, which momentarily cheered his poor life, and upon whom, thereafter, an intolerable misfortune descended, just as it descends upon the mighty of this world!
But who could have imagined that this was not really the end of Akakii Akakievitch, that he was destined to raise a commotion after death, as if in compensation for his utterly insignificant life? But so it happened, and our poor story unexpectedly gains a fantastic ending.
A rumor suddenly spread through St. Paul that a dead man had taken to appearing on the Washington Avenue Bridge and its vicinity at night in the form of a freelancer seeking a stolen laptop, and that, under the pretext of the stolen laptop being in it, he dragged, without regard to rank or calling, every one’s backpack from their shoulders. Even one of the company officers saw the dead man with his own eyes and immediately recognized in him Akakii Akakievitch. This, however, inspired him with such terror that he ran off with all his might, and therefore did not scan the dead man closely, but only saw how the latter threatened him from afar with his finger. Constant complaints poured in from all quarters over the frequent dragging off of their backpacks.
Arrangements were made by the police to catch the corpse, alive or dead, at any cost, and punish him as an example to others in the most severe manner. In this they nearly succeeded; for a security guard caught the corpse by the collar on the very scene of his evil deeds, when attempting to pull off the backpack of a retired musician. Having seized him by the collar, he summoned, with a shout, two of his comrades, whom he enjoined to hold him fast while he lit a cigarette. But Akakii was allergic to cigarettes, and the corpse sneezed so violently that he completely filled the eyes of all three. While they raised their hands to wipe them, the dead man vanished completely, so that they did not know whether they had actually had him in their grip at all. Thereafter the security guards conceived such a terror of dead men that they were afraid even to seize the living, and only screamed from a distance, “Hey! What are you doing?”
So the dead freelancer began to appear even beyond the Washington Avenue Bridge, causing no little terror to all timid people.
But we have totally neglected that certain director who may really be considered as the cause of the fantastic turn taken by this true history. First, justice compels us to say that after the departure of poor, annihilated Akakii Akakievitch he felt something like remorse. Suffering was unpleasant to him, for his heart was accessible to many good impulses, in spite of the fact that his ego often prevented his showing his true self. As soon as his friend had left his cabinet, he began to think about poor Akakii Akakievitch. And from that day forth, poor Akakii Akakievitch, who could not bear up under such official indifference, recurred to his mind almost every day. The thought troubled him to such an extent that a week later he even resolved to help him, and asked an underling to call. When it was reported to him that Akakii Akakievitch had died suddenly, he was startled, hearkened to the reproaches of his conscience, and was out of sorts for the whole day.
Wishing to divert his mind in some way, and drive away the disagreeable impression, he set out to develop a grant program for freelance business owners. That night, he went to a friend’s, where he found quite a large party assembled. What was better, nearly everyone was of the same rank as himself, so that he need not feel in the least constrained. This had a marvelous effect upon his mental state. He grew expansive, made himself agreeable in conversation, in short, he passed a delightful evening. After supper he drank a couple of glasses of champagne — not a bad recipe for cheerfulness, as everyone knows. The champagne inclined him to various adventures; and he determined not to return home, but to go and see a certain well-known lady, Karolina, a lady, it appears, with whom he was on a very friendly footing.
It must be mentioned that the director was no longer a young man, but a good husband and respected father of a family. Two sons, one of whom was already in government, and a good-looking, sixteen-year-old daughter, with a pretty little nose. His wife was still a fresh and good-looking woman. But the director, though perfectly satisfied in his domestic relations, considered it stylish to have a friend, though she was scarcely prettier or younger than his wife; but there are such puzzles in the world, and it is not our place to judge them. So the director descended the stairs, stepped into a taxi and gave the address to the driver. Arriving at his destination, the man paid the fare and stepped onto the sidewalk.
Suddenly he felt someone clutch him firmly by the collar. Turning round, he perceived a man of short stature, in oatmeal-colored khakis, and recognized, not without terror, Akakii Akakievitch. The man’s face was white as snow, and looked just like a corpse. But the director’s horror transcended all bounds when he saw the dead man’s mouth open, and with a terrible odor of the grave, gave vent to the following remarks: “Ah, here you are at last! I see you have a laptop in bag in your hand. I need your laptop; you took no trouble about mine, but reprimanded me; so now give up your own.”
This occurrence made a deep impression on him. He even began to listen carefully to the citizens who came to him, and learned the nature of the matters they brought. But most noteworthy was the point that, from that day forward, the apparition of the dead freelancer ceased to be seen.