Grand Prize Winner, 2008 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award: Round Trip by A. Molotkov

A. Molotkov is a writer, composer, filmmaker and visual artist.  Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993.  He is the author of several novels, poetry and short story collections.  "Round Trip" is one of his modern day fairy tales. His works transcend the minute details of space and time and take on a metaphorical meaning.   Using many stylistic and conceptual approaches, Molotkov creates emotionally compelling imaginary worlds where the laws of physics, time, and logic are demolished or left standing, based on the needs of the story.  His collaborative novels with S.B. Reda include The Gospel According to the Christ Brothers and represent a cerebral rather than emotional aesthetic approach. Molotkov’s critically acclaimed CD “Can You Stay Forever?” is based on his illustrated book Not from Around Now (Poetry for a Small Choir).   In 1996 he co-founded the West Coast multidisciplinary art group Discord Aggregate.  His website is


 Round Trip

A. Molotkov


To the left of the flower stand, there was a coffee counter.  Yes, definitely a coffee counter.  He remembers it very well, because from the spot where he was sitting, across the square, he kept noticing the place, wondering if coffee there may be a little better.  But even the imperfection of his own coffee did not change his mood for the day.  He was utterly, ridiculously happy.

Goombeldt remembers all of this very well.  The train ride.  The passengers’ faces that seemed so empty.  And a little girl across the aisle who smiled at him.  He smiled back.  In an instant, an absurd decision was made, and he grabbed his suitcase and disembarked.  He did not know the station’s name.  He didn't need to know it.

He remembers how he deliberately walked through the station without looking up, so as not to know where he was.  This place had to remain incognito.  He walked ahead, not noticing anything, until he was outside the building.  All he remembers is the pattern of the floor: a strange rhombic invention.

After so many other buildings trying to replicate that unattainable one, the rapid floating of rhombi before his eyes, from yellow to black to yellow to black - after so much searching, he knows what perfection is.  It is something that we knew once, for a moment, and then lost.  He walked across the square to what looked like a charming little restaurant.  He sat outside.  Conveniently, the facade of the train station did not display the town’s name.  His meeting with paradise was well staged.

He has tried so many times to find that town.  Yes, he has.  But didn't he do his best to hide his traces, to preserve the undefined character of this accidental afternoon?

He remembers having his dinner.  Not too many people were out, but every now and then a passerby would send a curious glance his way, and he realized that the catalog of this town’s inhabitants was known to them by heart.

A telephone call interrupts his memories.

“Goombeldt, listen, we found out about a place that sounds like it might be it!”

“Where?” He asks.

“In Bukako Bay.”

“Did you ask about the restaurant?”

“Yes, but almost any train station has a restaurant.”


“Well, why don't you go and check it out?”

“It’s a pretty long trip.”

“I will cover all expenses,” Goombeldt reassures.

"Goombeldt, how come you don't remember what country this station is in?”

'I’ve told you before.  I was traveling a lot that year.  Somehow everything must have blurred in my mind.”


“Let me know when you get there,” Goombeldt concludes.

What was it he was thinking about?  Ah, yes, the dinner.  The dinner was relaxed and pleasant, although he remembers a feeling of slight disappointment because his coffee was not very good.  He looked across the square at the coffee counter next to the flower stand.  Would it have been polite to get some coffee there and bring it back to his table?  No, he decides now, just as he decided then, and so many times in between.  The disappointment about his coffee somehow contributes to the perfection of that afternoon.  Goombeldt is certain that this is what made this place stand out so dramatically among all the many places he used to visit those days.

What if he did choose to get his cup of coffee across the square?  What other unexpected repercussions would this entail?  Perhaps something that would redefine his life from that point on?

Finally, he ordered a bottle of wine.  If the coffee was mediocre, the wine was magnificent.  And to drink the whole bottle, he would have to take some time – which is exactly what happened.  An hour or two had passed – he didn't look at his watch – and finally he felt that his essence had merged with this town.  He could stay there for the rest of his life.  Absurd, wasn't it?  He made fun of himself.  In the state of mild intoxication, it was easy to make fun of himself.  He wasn't in a hurry.

The passersby began smiling at him.  He joyfully returned their smiles.  Of course he would not stay here.  This was just a fantasy, something nice and warm to think about.

And then - Goombeldt remembers how the bliss of perfect inactivity suddenly melted away, and instead, a practical question arose in his mind: “When shall I take a train out of here?”  And then, as soon as this thought was registered, it would never completely leave his mind.  Even though he stayed for at least another hour, the thought was there like a watchful guard, ensuring that he would return to his properly assigned life.

So much time has passed since then that Goombeldt doesn't know if it’s still the same life.  Things that used to be important turned into annoying routines, until he grew older and wealthier, and shaved these routines off the skin of his life.  His friendships had faded, his love was gone.  And finally he realized that he had nothing left to hang on to, except for that long-gone afternoon in the town whose name he didn't know.

A telephone call interrupts his memories.

“Goombeldt!  It looks like the place.  The tiles look right.  What should we do?”

“Wait for me there.  I’ll come down tomorrow morning.”

“Would you like me to send you some pictures first?”

"Well, does it look right or not?”

“Yes, but I only know the place from your description.”

“That’s okay, I’ll come down anyway.  I’m tired of my house.”

“Deal!  We are staying here at Goblin Tower.  This is about the only hotel around here – we’ll be waiting for you.”

Okay, here it is, his chance!  There have been false alarms before.  But this time, he feels that it will be the right place.  He calls the airport and makes a reservation.  The plane leaves in five hours.  Just a little time before he must head for the airport, but not enough to do anything valuable.

He remembers how after an hour or so of an intention to go soon, he finally realized that time to go was now.  Even so, he lingered at his table, sipping the rest of his wine more slowly than it deserved.  It was hard to put an end to such a pleasant afternoon.  He felt that by doing so, he would confess to being a grown up, a responsible person who actively pursues a chosen direction on his personal road of life, instead of being driven through life by the whims of the moment.

Goombeldt had paid sometime earlier, so now nothing was really holding him back, and finally he forced himself to get up.  He nodded and smiled to the proprietor, who had stepped outside to wish him a pleasant trip.  Goombeldt thanked him.  A minute later, he was walking across the square, towards the train station.  Just as he was passing by the flower stand, he was tempted again to get a cup of coffee at the coffee counter.  He looked back, but the restaurant’s proprietor was still in the doorframe of his establishment, and Goombeldt felt awkward and chose to wait for his coffee fix.  He walked through the station, his eyes once again following the pattern of the floor.  Then loudness manifested itself – a train was approaching.  What timing!  The train slowed down.  Goombeldt knew that it was going in the same direction as the one he had abandoned earlier that day.  He boarded without looking back.  This is how it happened that even now, on his way out of this little town, he didn't notice its name.  And for the best, as he thought then.

But now, how he blames himself for not checking!  To think of it: he doesn't even remember which hemisphere this happened in.  He traveled so much those days.

He packs a few items of clothing, a toothbrush, a this and that, and readies himself for the departure.  He has already called a cab.

The trip to the airport is uneventful and so is the airplane.  Before Goombeldt even notices, the plane lands in Bukako Bay.  He is propelled through space and time by the incessant desire to finally attain that perfection he has always been craving.  Bukako Bay is fierce, heavy, the unblinking eye of the sun burning all newcomers into the ground.  Is this how he remembers his lost afternoon?  Not exactly.  It wasn't this hot.  But it may have been another time of the year.  Why didn't he keep a diary?  He could have at least written down the date.  But then he realizes: no, this was not possible.  His fascination with this particular episode did not start until later.  This memory didn't matter much right away, but the more time passed, the more significant it grew among the other memories of his life.

Goombeldt remembers this part.  The train ride.  The passengers’ faces so empty, just like this morning.  A perfect day in a frame of dead faces.  And a little girl across the aisle – was it the same little girl as earlier that day – and a smile, another smile.  He smiles back.

Goblin Tower.  Sure.  The only tall building in this town – you can't miss it.  Where is the train station?  But this may not be the town where…He enters the lobby.  A minute or two later, he is handed a key, and he is en route to his room.  What if he had bought a cup of coffee at the coffee counter that day?  Would his life now be entirely different, or precisely the same?  Sure, he has made millions of small choices in his life, and each of them could have contributed to the diverging branches of his possible futures.  But for some obscure reason, this particular choice seemed the most defining.  And for something this important, how little attention from Goombeldt of that day, who casually decided to reject the attraction of a potentially superior coffee cup in favor of politeness.  Maybe false politeness?

In his room, he picks up the phone.

“I’m here.”

“Good, good.  When do you want to go?  Right now?”

“No, we need to do it tomorrow.  It’s going to get dark soon, isn't it?  What time does it get dark here?” Goombeldt asks.

“In about an hour.  You are right, we might want to go tomorrow.  Would you like to meet us for a drink?”

Goombeldt is uncertain how to respond.  Then he remembers that somehow he has convinced himself that he should not accept invitations like this.

“No, thank you, I’m pretty tired after the flight.  Maybe tomorrow?”

“Okay.  See you in the morning then?”

“Yes.  See you in the morning.”

He hangs up.  Sure, there used to be things in his life that were more important than this.  But now they are gone.  Just a collision of metal, that’s all, and people who matter in your life are not there anymore!  Ironic.  And later, he started questioning sometimes: Had his family really been a good one?  Something he was happy about?  Did his life improve in some way after they were gone?  He calmly dissected his temporarily dried up emotions, and yet in response to each question he asked, all he could think of was just another question.

And then nothing mattered anymore, except for that train station.

Why did the little girl smile at him?  He felt happy, really happy.  And then, the train arrived at its destination port, and he was once again submerged in the well rehearsed performance of his life.

The morning comes unexpectedly: he must have dozed off.  He looks at the alarm clock on the bed table: he had slept for over ten hours.  But he does not feel rested.

He calls the front desk and asks to be connected.

“Ready?” He asks.

“Well, not quite.  How about in a half hour?”

“Okay.  I could use a shower too,” Goombeldt responds.

The car drive is just as uneventful as the flight.  And yet, he feels, growing within himself, a strange feeling of anticipation, of closeness, as if this time, out of all these other times, he is certain to find the right town.  He feels more optimistic than he has ever felt before.  Somehow, he knows.

And then, as he is submerged in the general feeling of expectancy, suddenly the car slows down, and they are in the square!  The car stops.  He looks around – yes, it is the place!  The restaurant over there!  But where is the flower stand?  The coffee counter used to be right next to the flower stand.  But neither is there anymore.  And then, he questions: Could both have fit in that space between the columns?  Seems like an unlikely fit?  Or maybe a very likely one?  He walks – no, he runs towards the restaurant, then hungrily swallows every face he sees inside.  But the old proprietor is not here.  How could he be?  He must be dead by now!  Goombeldt runs out.  He stands where his table was.  The wine was excellent, just excellent.  The tables are not out at the moment.  But from this point of view the station looks strange, imperfect, unreal.  Can he be certain that it is the same station?

He runs towards the building, scolded by an occasional astonished glance of a passerby.  The floor!  The pattern!  Are these rhombi or are they squares?  The colors seem to match.

Do they match?

He walks looking down, trying to imitate the manner in which he performed this action so many years ago.  It looks similar, very similar, except…are the colors really right?  He seems to remember yellow and black.  And this one is not yellow, it’s more like orange!  Was it yellow in the first place?  And the rhombi – are their angles quite right?

The little girl smiled at him twice.

He runs out onto the platform, but the platform is so generic he has no way to be sure whether it’s the same one!  What should he do?  It’s so hot, stifling, he can't think straight.  He runs back into the building, his wild eyes devouring the tiled floor.

And then he knows.  He stops abruptly, walks slowly towards the side of the waiting room, sits down on a torn, worn seat that has supported so many travelers.  He knows that he is not sure!  He simply can't be sure that it’s the right place!  It seems so – but the tiny claws of doubt in his mind will never let him feel completely certain.

And he finds himself sobbing.

“What’s going on?  Can we do something?”

“No.  No.  I just can't be sure.  I just can't remember,” he mumbles. “Can't remember.  Can't remember.”

A solemn silence, and then he begins walking, he walks slowly out onto the square – the coffee counter is gone, just as it has been gone all these years.  He walks to the car.  Suddenly, he realizes that the past does not exist.

An unexpected heart attack is awaiting Goombeldt in the car.  There are few ambulances in Bukako Bay.  And although I invented Goombeldt only a few days ago, I feel sad about his death.  A person with a dream, wasn't he so much ahead of most of us?  At least he had something to look forward to – and what about ourselves?

And because I feel sad about him, I am prepared to give him a different ending.  No, I’m not able to bring him back to life (I’m not a paramedic), but I grant him an afterlife he deserves.

He is in the town of his dreams.  He walks through the station without looking up, so as not to know where he is.  This place will remain incognito.  He walks ahead, not noticing anything but the strange rhombic pattern of the floor.  Now he’s outside.  He sees a charming little restaurant across the square.

But instead of crossing the square, he walks around the flower stand, approaches the coffee counter, and orders a cup of coffee.