One Mid-Summer Night
Five of the women could easily have been models for one of those oversized Soviet Realist portraits you now occasionally see on ironic t-shirts worn around town. You know the type: coarse, amber-colored hair, styled in a neat modish bob; apple cheeks; firm mouth; sharp eyes looking, gravely, to the beyond.
With a pale moon out and the night so deep, it was hard to see the exact contents of the food and drink being consumed so vigorously. Nothing but rapidly moving fingers, hands and mouths, and fully lit lunar faces despite the dark. The ladies, mothers and grandmothers all, passed pieces of this and that, back and forth, working their hands to their furious mouths. They chatted fantastically on and on in their still-fluid Ruskie. Amazingly, each woman knew when it was her turn to play Greek chorus, or pick up and run relay on a tale, or start the story cycle anew. It was at this point, somewhere past midnight, and past the mid-way point of their meal that one of them remembered this story:
“As a young woman living in Moscow, I worked at a restaurant near the U.S. embassy. One Monday afternoon, an American marine came in. Some stares, he was a black fellow, but nothing too serious, you know. He walked up to the counter, sat down, and waited for me to take his order.”
“Is that restaurant still there, Olesia?” asked the younger of the black-haired sisters, rubbing her nose before slowly applying what appeared to be the last coat of jam to a fat heel of bread snug in her palm.
“I couldn’t say for sure where now. You see me here like you sitting on this bench in Brooklyn.”
“We just wanted to know how long ago,” said another of the women.
“A few years before I came here.”
“Twenty years ago?”
“About, yes. So he ordered this way,” continued Olesia, “‘Cabbage soup, cabbage soup. Every day, cabbage soup’. Well, there’re other things too,” I said, “care to try my mother’s bean pie? It’s from her circus days.”
“I’ll stick with the soup,” he said. So, I brought out his soup. He takes a sip then says, “Pajahlsta.”
“You mean spaciba,” I said. I figure, for a foreigner, you know, it’s not too difficult confusing please and thank you.
“Nyet,” he said and then said please for the second time. I leaned in.
“It’s time for me to go back,” he said.
“Where to?” I asked; but he being an American I figured he meant the States.
“I met my father, we had our meeting, and I see no more reason to hang around,” he explained.
“All right, so what do want from me?” I asked him.
“Take the train to K_____. Go to the factory at the end of the dock. Speak to the watchman and he’ll tell you the rest,” he said.
Why not? I’m very curious, right? The next day, after work I put on my new boots and walk to the train station. I get off at the last stop as he suggested. I see the dock in the distance and the factory next to it.
“Hello,” said the watchman just before I got to the factory gates. I told him about the marine who sent me.
“I see,” said the watchman. “And do you have the password?” He was like a housewife fiddling with the radio dial. Curious in his own way, yeah, but not too worried.
“I don’t,” was my reply. “What does it start with?” I asked him. “What letter?”
I can’t tell you that now can I, he said.
“Just the first letter,” I insisted.
“Hmm…all right. ‘P’.”
“How many letters in the word,” I said.
“I’ve told you enough. People. You give an inch…”
“Just one more clue.”
“I may as well give you the answer.”
“Okay, what’s it about?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Well, then it’s Pi,” I said and imagine my surprise when he stepped aside and let me in.
“Was that it, really?” I asked him. I wanted to know, and he nodded before continuing his pacing and then said over his shoulder, “Maybe you could tell me what they’re doing back there, eh.”
“So,” said the older of the black-haired sisters, “you just guessed?”
“It’s what came to mind. As a young woman, my mother was part of this group, Pi, and she talked about them all the time. She told the most fantastic stories of traveling and performing for audiences all over the world, which was remarkable in itself. It even sounded like for a time she worked as a spy... so, the letter ‘P’? What else could I have said?”
“I see,” replied the older sister.
“Well, inside was just a regular looking factory, yeah, only empty. I walked towards an off-section, maybe the lunchroom, with a long metal bench and chairs. But it was too dark for me to go any further without a flashlight and I said I’d come back. I did hear sounds like there were foreigners there. Lively. A bold voice similar to the marine’s saying, ‘That’s right!’ But in all, what? I couldn’t know.
At work, the next day one of the waitresses asked me, did you lose weight, and another, my best friend then, wanted to know if I was seeing my son’s father again. ‘He’s a louse Olesia,’ she said, such a charming romantic he can be and a louse all the same. You yourself said it, was her final warning.
It’s true I’d come to work excited, smiling at everyone, and I kept checking my feet to make sure my new boots were holding up; but other than my plans for that night nothing much had changed. I was still divorced, living with my mother and son, and working at the restaurant.
Well, when my shift ended, I quickly took off my uniform, washed up and put on a favorite old skirt I found at the back of my closet that morning. Before that, there was no reason to wear it. I remembered my leather jacket, too, the one with all the pockets. Some rogue uncle of mine had smuggled it in from Italy. Probably in jail somewhere, bless him. You should have seen the looks I got from the other girls when I headed out after work. It was brazen then for a restaurant girl to go stomping about town in fine Italian style.
So same routine as the night before except this time the watchman didn’t stop me and gently smiled when I said, ‘I’m back.’ I walked down the long corridor towards the sounds from the eastern side of the building. I kept going until I reached the back – this time I had my flashlight, and a stick I’d picked up from outside. You know, just in case. Well, the back door was open and apart from that, where the noise was coming from, there it was, right there, a tent of people drinking and talking. I stood there taking this in when the old fellow at the head of the table — red jacket and black jodhpurs — turned around and said, ‘Don’t be shy. Come on in. Meet my friends. Stan, say hello to the lady. Someone get her something to eat.’”
He introduced me to the tattooed fellow with rings in his nose, ears, lips… and pins. Oh boy. You wouldn’t have known what to think either ‘til he smiled and showed his gap teeth.
There was a gentleman dwarf – crisp business suit and the eyes of a killer. Also a Czech piccoloist holding a toupee. I remembered, too, a glamorous femme fatale attending to her little girl. So pretty, she. Black eyes and tiny heart-shaped lips.
“I know why you’re here,” the older fellow said. And the resemblance was plain on his face.
“Well, why am I?” I asked.
He smiled at me before looking away. “The boy’s forcing me to make square,” he said. “These days,” he said, and at this point, he turned to the group, “they’ve got it so there’s no where you can run or hide.”
I asked about the crew and why here, near the end of the world.
He said, “It was as good a place as any for a man to pitch a tent and have good times with old friends. This is it. Just wrapped up our last tour and here’s a chance to say goodbye.”
“There’s nowhere else to go?” I asked him.
“Three generations,” he replied, “my dad, and grandpa were circus folk too. One a flamethrower, the other a hype man. And they never settled any one place as far as I know.”
Later when everyone was singing along to the piccolo player’s last jingle, and I finished up the last of my beans, the old man took three gold coins out of his pocket, fiddled with them a while before handing me the shiniest. Then he said, “Take that one, eh, and give it to my son. He knows all about me but knows better than to get too close.”
Then he asked me about myself. “What about your mother? Still around?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, all right, she can have this one.”