Pluzhnikov and his mother, Natalya Pluzhnikov, followed Feliks to the U.S. in 1989. At first they went to Providence, Rhode Island, where Natalya still lives. But shortly thereafter, Paul Pluzhnikov got a job as a programmer at Parasoft Corporation in Monrovia. He and his wife now live in nearby Pasadena.
"When I came to the U.S.," Pluzhnikov tells me, "my father was already in Chula Vista." Pluzhnikov shows some reluctance, however, in admitting that father and son did not see each other. "It's sad. I should have contacted him," he says. "It wasn't that I felt bad about the past, and I don't believe Feliks had bad feelings toward us. I had seen pictures of him from when I was nine. But we just really didn't know each other."
I reach Natalya Pluzhnikov by phone in Providence. She does not harbor grievances against her former husband but remembers that he was "very argumentative over little details. When we finally got our own apartment after being married a few years," she says, "he didn't want to get furniture. He wanted to sleep on the floor. I'm not the kind of person who wants to be arguing all the time. So we divorced."
Next to the family at Feliks Khatsyanov's funeral sat Beth Seberger of Kansas City. She currently teaches English as a second language to refugees. Seberger met Khatsyanov in the 1970s, when he visited the Kansas City Catholic Worker House where she then worked. She thinks he arrived in Kansas City after having volunteered at a Catholic Worker house in Baltimore, where he worked for Johns Hopkins University. They remained friends, writing letters back and forth over the years. Early on, Seberger even wrote to Khatsyanov's mother, who still lived in Russia. On the day of his heart attack, police found Seberger's name and address in Khatsyanov's pocket. They called to inform her of his death.
I ask Seberger her impression of Khatsyanov.
"Feliks was very different than most people I had ever met," she says. "He ate very sparsely and avoided meat. He allowed himself little pleasure, lived simply, and shared with the poor. To him, neither communism nor capitalism was the answer. I found him to be very humble, yet extremely proud of his Russian heritage. He read widely and loved folk songs, both Russian and American. He collected recyclables in Kansas City, too, and would help homeless and alcoholic men. Eventually he moved on to Colorado and then to Alaska, where he worked for Avis Rent A Car in Anchorage. I know that he lived in a trailer up there."
Seberger passed on the information she received about Khatsyanov's death to Ralph Sherman, his engineer friend in Imperial Beach. "From Feliks's letters," she says, "I had information on Ralph as a contact person in Imperial Beach."
"When I was studying engineering in college," Sherman tells me, "I took a short story class that I struggled very hard to understand. But Feliks, also an engineer, had an amazing comprehension of literature, and not only the Russians. He did tell me all about Gogol and a story called 'The Overcoat.' And he said that Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground referred to the crawl space between the floorboards and the ground. But he would read me lines from the Persian poet Rumi, too. He was especially fond of quoting from a nonsense poem by an Englishman named Edward Lear. It's called 'The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo.' It was very funny.
"Oh, we talked a lot about engineering and mathematics, too. Feliks told me he had taken his son Paul to his work in Russia on the old punch-card computers when the boy was very young. Feliks was also an expert in something called 'control theory,' which is important in manufacturing processes. Another name for it here is cybernetics, which, interestingly, comes from a word meaning 'helmsman.' Feliks said he once got sent on a control theory troubleshooting mission to the Uzbekistan city of Samarqand on the old Silk Road between China and the West. There was an error in the feedback loops at a factory there.
"But I think the conversation I'll remember most is when I was telling him about my son. I said my son had become a Hindu yogi and now calls himself a 'sannyasin.' I asked Feliks, 'Have you ever heard that term?' 'Yes,' he said, 'Rudy Kipling wrote about one in a story called "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat." It's about an Indian Brahmin.' "
I look into the meaning of "sannyasin." Huston Smith, the great scholar of the world's religions, notes that the Bhagavad Gita calls a sannyasin "one who neither hates nor loves anybody." In India, a man becomes a sannyasin during retirement years after a spiritual quest alone as a "forest dweller." When the search is over, the man comes back to his community. But he does not return to his family, wanders homeless among his fellows, and begs for his food.
I ask Sherman, "Do you think Feliks truly had that annuity he told you about? The one that took care of his needs?"
"I was curious about a lot of things in Feliks's life," he replies. "But I thought it was not right to pull somebody out of himself."