A pleasant encounter becomes a vague threat.
(excerpt from a novel in progress)
By Josip Novakovich
In the city with bad traffic, Masha’s being late didn’t surprise me. I mused on the inefficient traffic despite so many broad streets created for triumphal armies returning from Sweden by Peter the Great, the father of the city. I was a bit nervous because on the way I had seen a corpse of a young man, on Griboyedova Embankment, whom hundreds of passers-by ignored.
A couple of fit men—a bit on the heavy side, probably from too much weight-lifting, impeccably dressed in three-piece suits, with crew cuts—walked up and down the street and sized me up.
My phone rang.
—Are you on street? Masha asked. —Better to wait upstairs on top floor. I shall be late, half hour. Shall see you upstairs. Better upstairs.
I climbed the stairs, floor by floor, through Vanity. 26,000 rubles for a shirt (close to a thousand bucks), the kind you buy at TJ Maxx for twenty bucks. High-heel shoes for women, 42,000. On the top floor greeted me a bionic looking blue-eyed hostess, over six feet tall, and directed me to a sofa on the roof. Soon Masha showed up. I stood up and kissed her left cheek and she pointed with her finger to the other. —Ah, you Americans, you need to learn!
From the top, we viewed the Kazan cathedral dome being dressed in new copper, which shone in the hues between orange, red, and pink—in the colors of young copper.
—It’s funny how fresh and shiny it looks now but in ten years it will be all green and mossy like the old part of the roof, I said.
—How is that funny?
—Just strange what oxidation does to copper. Anyhow, where are you from?
—What do you mean?
—What do you mean by What do you mean? It’s a normal question, you know. Like what city in Russia?
—Why Russia? Ukraina, she said.
—Why are there so many people from Ukraine everywhere?
—You try living in Ukraina and then you shall know.
—Anyway, you answered from an office?
—Yes, travel agency. It doesn’t pay. Nobody comes to our office to buy billets—it’s all online now. And for me it’s hard, I must help my daughter go to school, get her good clothes, food, books.
—Where is the father?
—It’s sad history. Professional boxer, killed.
—Boxing is such a dangerous sport.
—Somebody shot him on street in Moscow. He was paid to lose fight, but he knocked down other man before he could pretend that he was knocked. Possible that other man also was paid, and he acted like he was knocked down, and did it first. Looked like husband didn’t do his side of deal. Many bullets.
—Wow! Did you know he was involved in that kind of mafia dealing?
—Konyeshna, v Rossiya, in those days, that was only way to live decent.
—Sir, would you like another wine? asked the waitress.
—Da, konyeshna, I said. Mozhna gruziskaya krasnaya?
—Oh, so you speak little Russian? Masha asked.
—Nada govirit po ruski!
—Meni nravitsa se eto, she said.
—Really? She is not as pretty as you.
Masha laughed, and I realized that I had misunderstood her as saying that she liked her (the waitress), while she meant, I like it (that I spoke Russian).
—If you like her better, walk with her.
—I don’t think I have enough money to take her out.
—And you have enough money to drink with me?
She gave me a look from the corner of her eyes, while tilting her head to blow an impressive gust of smoke.
—Barely. This is a pricey place.
—Well, yes, fourteen dollars for a glass of wine.
—But that’s normal.
—In London, yes.
—The waitress came back with a glass of Georgian red.
—I think I will drink another glass of chardonnay, Masha said.
—Haroshaya ideya, I said.
—Why are you drinking Georgian wines? Masha asked. California wines are better.
—I want to taste most Georgian varieties because I am thinking of getting into the wine import business in the States.
—You are businessman?
—That would be overstating it. I used to be a banker.
—It’s chut-chut cold here! Goose-bumps appeared on her forearms.
—Dyevushka! she shouted to the waitress and asked for a wool blanket. The waitress wrapped us in blankets. Masha tightened hers around her neck.
From behind my back erupted a startlingly loud recording of Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg in that strident insistent voice. I turned around. A serious looking man in a three-piece suit shouted, Da? Slushayu! into a thin blackberry and the rally speech quit. So, that was his ringtone? A sense of humor, or a statement of political sympathies, or simply an original choice for a ringtone so he’d never be confused about whether it was his phone.
She took a large sip, and when she put the glass down, the glass carried a clear print, with little vertical breaks in the red, above the swaying transparent green-yellow liquid.
She waved to someone. I turned around, noticing a hefty looking guy with a crew-cut, in a black suit, red shirt, with a yellow silk tie.
—You know him?
—Central Peter, it’s small town, smaller than you think.
—Who is he?
—Do you need to know?
—No. It’s just funny that he’s dressed like a German flag.
—Harasho, where do you stay?
—In an apartment on Griboyedova, opposite from the Russian Museum.
—That’s fine. Expensive?
—Considering what a dump it is, yes, it’s way too expensive.
—Do you need to know?
—It’s my turn no need to know! I live far, near Park Pobyedi.
She looked at me as though to emphasize the injustice of it, that she, such an elegant lady, should live in the Lumpen-proleteriat section of the city, and I, a slob in generic sneakers with a creased blue shirt, in the very center.
I was close to finishing my drink. There was still a sip-worth left at the bottom. As soon as I put down the glass, the waitress lifted it and carried it away. I wanted to say, Wait, that’s my drink, but I didn’t, and only gazed longingly after the quickly receding silhouette carrying the glass, through which the setting sun reflected from the cathedral copper.
—Crazy how they take away your glasses here even before you are done, I said. —And at restaurants, you may not be quite done with your meal, and they already want to take your plate away. When you pay so much, you should at least savor it till the very end. Are they scared people will steal the plates and the utensils?
—You are fast drinker! Are you so fast at everything you do?
—No, for example I am very slow with this.
I put my palm on her hand. It was surprisingly stringy, her long fingers continuing in delineated tendons.
—Could I kiss you?
—Do you need to ask for permit?
—Well, I don’t want to be pushy.
—Maybe if you didn’t ask you could. Would be natural.
—But you just said . . .
—You not need to talk about something like that. Maybe Americans talk crass like that.
—Is it going to happen?
—I see. David?
I expected a question, but none came. —Yes?
—I am calling you.
—That doesn’t make sense. I am here.
—You want sex?
—Well, a kiss for sure, and . . .
—Let’s not pretend. Men will kiss but that’s not what they want, they want sex. You want?
—Well, if you want to put it so bluntly.
—What does bluntly mean?
—See, we are having an English tongue lesson.
She put her hand on mine, like a card trumping another. —David, are you ready to spend three hundred dollars?
—You would do it for money?
—I will not do for nothing.
—I don’t want to pay for something that I could get for free.
—You could? You could?
She leaned away from me and measured me up and down, petted my potbelly.
—Maybe if you knew how to dress.
—Here, I give you compliments, and you insult me? Why didn’t you say you wanted to do a trick with me? You could have saved us both a lot of time.
—A trick? We aren’t circus.
—Here we spent three hours together, we talked on the phone, you could have asked me to pay for sex right away. It’s not a very efficient way of working, is it?
—I am not working. I didn’t know that’s what you want. And I am shy. I thought maybe you want to be friend, and I shall teach you Russian, but now I see you don’t want friend; you want sex. Ladna.
—Are you disappointed?
—It’s hard to find true friend. You not true friend. And it’s getting dark, so you tell me if you pay.
—Two hundred is too much. Maybe one hundred.
—Who said two hundred? Where do you think you are?
—It would be less in Holland.
—You not in Holland. And their women not so pretty. I make you deal, 3000 rubles. You have?
—Before I go with you, show.
—Why don’t you give it to me? Don’t you love to share? I share everything with my friends, bread, wine, apartment.
—I’ll give it to you later. Isn’t that the usual thing? I’ve actually never done this, so I don’t know.
—I don’t know what usual is. Who do you think I am?
—Isn’t it obvious?
—I never do this, but you are friend.
—You just said I wasn’t.
—I give you another chance to prove you my true friend, and you can give three thousand to help.
—You not trust?
—I don’t know you. What’s the point of talking about trust before we get to know each other?
—I don’t know you and you want sex. How can I trust man like that?
—You want me to trust you?
—You want to be friend, you have to help. You want success, you must trust in yourself. And even more important, in friends.
—No matter what, I have to pay. How’s that?
—If you don’t pay, I don’t know what will happen.
Is she threatening me? I have to pay now because I’ve talked with her? That’s absurd. Are some of the men around working with her? I decided she was tipsy from the 15% alcohol content of California Chardonnay.
—OK, I am tired, and it could be nice. I will give you one hundred.
—But that’s less than 3000 rubles—2700?
—Let’s not put down the dollar, 2750 is more like it.
—David, you are rich, how can you worry about little rubbles? My daughter and I are poor and we need rubbles.
—Rubles, you mean.
—Yes, Russian rubbles. My phone is out of minutes, that’s why I couldn’t talk with you longer. And I need to call daughter.
—I am not here to just give out money.
—How can you be such? You tell me you are banker, and you want to start wine-import business, you have many money. And that is not many money. Shall you borrow me ten thousand?
—When would you return that?
—Cherez five days.
—I’ll give you three thousand.
She took three crisp blue notes and put them in her purple leather purse, made out of imitation crocodile skin, which snapped shut like a crocodile mouth snatching a family of poisonous blue tropical frogs.
—We can go now. David, you want to go, we go.
—To my apartment? Or yours? Mine is closer.
—First I need to top off my phone so I can call daughter.
I covered the bill, and tipped twenty percent.
—David, that’s too much tip. You like her better than me? Why give her so much.
—That’s a habit. We tip twenty per cent in New York, so why not here?
We walked out. The Nuremberg rally speech blasted again, and the business-suited man shouted, —Da, slushayu!
Out in the streets, Masha said, —Let me first walk into Office Pub.
—You want another drink?
—I have to return debt, and now I can. I am so glad, it would be terrible. I, I don’t know what would happen if I couldn’t return it.
—Should I go in with you?
—It’s better they not see you.
Is she making it up, about these men, just to psyche me out? Is she a gambler feeding her habit by pretending to be a prostitute?
After about ten minutes, she came out of the English-imitation pub; it even sported a red-painted English phone-booth in the front. Masha fluffed up her hair with her right hand and said, —Ladna, and now we can walk to priyem platezhei.
—What is that?
—Where I top off my phone.
We walked out and crossed the golden griffin bridge over the Giboyedova.
I was short of breath. We turned left, and there was the body of the young man, back in the original prostrate position, his feet in the direction of the cathedral. His black shoes looked like concert shoes. He had grown a bit paler in the meanwhile, but his lips had grown redder. He was in the shades of black and white other than his scarlet lips and a lip print on his cheek.
—This corpse has been here for at least eight hours, I said. Why doesn’t anybody move him?
—Who are they?
—What’s rushing? It’s over for him.
—Why doesn’t an ambulance or a morgue car come to pick him up?
—Why ask me?
—Well, you are from here, sort of. Why wouldn’t I ask you?
—If nobody touch him, it’s mafia.
—He’s too thin to be mafia. And his hair is too long. And they are touching him plenty.
—You know how they used to call Jeep Cherokee which mafia men drove? Shirokee! Wide. They didn’t know how to pronounce it right, so they said Cheap Shirokee!
—So you think he’s a mafia guy.
—I know many mafia, and they come in all shapes. Thick, thin, long, short. . .
—I didn’t know mafia was still around. I thought it was oligarchy now.
—Oligarchy is passé.
—Who is it now?
—Putin’s cabinet and the new Russians. But the others are still here. Yes, there’s oligarchy, mafia, communists, fascist, and Czar is back, his bones, at Petropavlovsk.
—Wonderful, isn’t it? I said. —With all the layers of history right here, there is no rush to pick up the corpses. What is one more or less in the city which had a million of them? And where are policemen when you need them?
—I need them?
—The dead man needs them.
—Where were they before, when he did?
—He never needed them. Nobody needs them. And if you see them, cross the street to the other side. It’s better not talking to them. The White Nights are coming. They have to be good during the tourist season, but before it, they need to make more money, so they are aggressive.
—What do you mean?
—Oh, here’s my phone store, I am going to top off. Can you wait here?
—I can come in with you.
—Better if you don’t.
—You are coming with me right after it, so why split up.
—You don’t trust? David, that is your problem. I shall call later, and if I don’t tonight, I shall call Wednesday.
—Wednesday? I was paying now for now.
—We never said when. It could be tomorrow or in five days.
—You are telling me you are backing out of the deal.
—What deal? I didn’t say I do anything. You are friend, nice man, helping poor Ukrainian. Shall see you in five days. It’s late tonight.
—You know people in the shop?
—Maybe. Maybe not. How would I know who I know?
—Now you sound like Donald Rumsfeld.
—How would I know him?
—You just might, at this rate. Won’t he come here for the G-8 summit? He’s famous for talking obliquely: There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
—Keep talking if you like, but I am topping off my phone.
—Should I call the police?
—You threatening me?
She put her hands akimbo laughing at me.
—I mean, about the corpse.
She stepped into the shop through the glass door. I walked away, furious for being such a dolt. Why didn’t I read it right in the coffee shop that I was being picked up and that she worked as a mafia prostitute? But who is she? Just when I concluded she was a sex-worker, she slipped away, evading sex. She is just a decent scoundrel, posing as a sex-worker. She just outplayed me for my money. Oh, it is better this way, nothing sordid happening. And I have better things to do—research the art scene, the wine business, read, write. Where to start?
It was dark now, and the streets were shadowy. I was followed by shadows, mostly my own. As I entered the gate to the courtyard, I looked behind me: nobody at my heels in the incomplete darkness of the nearly white nights.
Josip Novakovich (Croatian: Novaković) is a Croatian-American writer. He has published a novel (April Fool's Day), three short story collections (Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust), two collections of narrative essays (Apricots from Chernobyl, Plum Brandy: Croatian Journey) and a textbook (Fiction Writer's Workshop). Mr. Novakovich is the recipient of the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, an award from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He was anthologized in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and O.Henry Prize Stories.