She leaned forward in her rocking chair and pointed the two longest fingers on her right hand at me.
“I’ll tell you this. I know that you’re an adult now and can make your own decisions, but I wouldn’t give him any money.”
“He’s not going to––”
“He’s GOING to ask for money.” She opened her hands like, Are You Kidding Me? “You think I don’t know my own brother?”
I rocked back in my chair and put my hands up.
We were sitting on the enclosed back porch of the house where I grew up, in a suburb just outside of Baltimore. My mother called this the Sun Room, but the oaks in our back yard kept it mostly shaded. Djuna, the dog I had recently adopted from a shelter, was standing in the middle of the yard with her nose up, sniffing the wind. She had been frozen like that for what seemed like minutes.
My mother took a sip of her tea from her mug, narrowed her eyes, and pointed with her chin.
“I’m not sure that dog is so smart.”
“Look I don’t want to pry into your family’s whole financial arrangement, but I was under the impression that your brother was, like, taken care of. By your mom’s will.”
“Yes. It is your family, too, right?”
“Of course, but I mean your immediate––your sisters and brothers.”
“I get it.” She gave me a quick look that made me wonder if I’d meant something more with that pronoun choice, then she leaned back in her chair and rocked a few times, watching Djuna. “My mother set up a trust to take care of Don since he can’t take care of himself. Don gets a certain amount of money every month. It’s definitely enough for him to live on.”
“He lives in a trailer.”
“By his choosing.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that he has more than enough money to live in a house that doesn’t have wheels. None of us really knows what he’s been doing with his money. I have a few ideas about where it all goes, of course, but I try to stay out of it.”
“But you just said that he can’t take care of himself.”
“He needs help, that’s true.”
I leaned back in my chair and looked out at Djuna. She had not moved.
“The dog is smart,” I said. “She’s just thoughtful. Contemplative.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She sipped her tea.
“She is. So who’s helping him? Since everyone knows that he needs help.”
She nodded. “Light of my life, let me tell you: there’s this weird thing that happens when you get older. You learn that you can’t change other people.”
“Come on. That’s fatalistic bullshit. Are you talking about Don’s drinking?”
I stole a quick glance at her face. She pursed her lips, turned her head a little and nodded like she was pretending to consider something, like she was humoring someone. She pointed with her chin again.
“Take old June out there. Do you––”
“Djuna. Her name is Djuna.”
“Absolutely it is. Do you think that you’re going to change her nature? What happened to her in the past? The stuff that happened before you benevolently rescued her from the shelter?”
“Mom, I’m trying to talk about your brother. He called me, you know? I haven’t talked to the guy in five years, and he just calls me out of the blue to ask for my help. I’m going to go.”
This was it, I had decided after Don called me. College had changed everything, and this was the opportunity to show it. So I pushed things a bit.
“And to be honest, Mom, I don’t think you guys, you and your family, have always been particularly thoughtful about how hard things are for him.”
She did that smothered-laugh thing people do when they don’t want to spit liquid all over the place.
“Well, thanks for the perspective, mister college man. I think it’s great that you want to help and all, and I’m so glad that four years of being away has instilled in you such a grand sense of compassions, but while you’re dragging that massive heart of yours all the way over to Easton to, ahem, help––” she tilted her head to the side made a face like, Come on, really? “––your uncle, just consider how far down his list telephone numbers he went before he got to you. Just consider it for one second.”
Djuna turned her head slightly toward us for a few seconds and then turned it back. She looked like a propped up paper cut-out of a dog’s silhouette.
I sighed. “Goddamn, Mom. That’s harsh.”
“Sweetie,” she reached out to grab my hand and I leaned out of reach, “it’s just that I love you.”
The wheels on my uncle’s house were partially obscured by a long dead garden and a piece of lattice that had once been painted sky blue. I tried to focus on the lattice, to think of it as a commentary on society or class or something the way my college professors would have suggested, but it was really just shitty. The whole thing looked totally shitty.
The other houses on Prosperity Way looked equally non-profound. Or totally profound. It was hard to tell. If they were profound, they were really profound.
When my uncle answered the door, I stepped back involuntarily and tried to figure out if it had really only been five years since I last saw him.
“Thank God you came. What took you so long?”
“Forget it. Whose car is that?”
He put his hand up to stop me and ushered me in.
I told myself that it was kind of like being in a dorm room. Just a longer, narrow dorm room with no dressers or drawers––only flat surfaces. A dorm room where you can see everything that the occupant owns.
“Is my mom’s car ok out there?”
“Let’s get down to business.”
He gestured to a bench on one side of a fold-up table and then turned his back to me. I heard the glug glug of liquid being poured through a plastic strainer. When he sat at the bench opposite me, he placed a red mug on the table. Written on the mug in aggressive, splintery letters was the question, “98 Rock–Are You Ready to Get Rocked?”
“It’s good to see you. How long has it been? Like two years?”
“More than that, I think. Probably it’s been about––”
“Yeah, it’s crazy. Look at you. All grown up. You’re still working over at the ball park?” As he said this, he leaned back and the sun from the skylight shined directly on him. I saw scalp. He had a kind of Prince Valiant and Donald Trump hair thing going on. I sat up, rigid, and looked anywhere but at his head.
“No, that was just a summer thing, back when I was in…high school. I just graduated college.”
“No shit.” He leaned forward and then back, quickly.
“…Yeah. Just graduated. Trying to figure out what’s next, you know?”
“Yeah, I do know.” He was nodding solemnly and then he picked his head up quickly. I heard a noise like corduroyed thighs rubbing together and I noticed that he was furiously rubbing the pads of both thumbs along the undersides of his index fingers.
“Hey, maybe you can get back on over at the ball park or something. Maybe as manager. Up the ladder.”
“That’s––that’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll give them a call.”
“How’s that car outside drive? Pretty fast?” Now his fingertips were drumming on the table. The beat was completely erratic. 4/4 time to 3/4 time, back to 4/4, then off to something else. It wasn’t easy to stay focused.
“Umm, I guess the car is ok. It’s a regular Tercel. It’s pretty smooth.”
“Nice, nice. Do you remember when I use to have that IROC? With the T-Tops?” He turned his face, pointed his eyebrows, and made that blowing sound that’s like, Damn, that’s badass. “You remember that?”
“…I think my mom told me that Nana bought that for you for graduation. Is that right?”
“Yup. It was fire red.” He leaned back and then forward quickly. “So, look. I gotta ask you to help me with something.”
“You’re basically the first person I thought of when this problem came up, because of the college and all.”
He leaned back and I heard the farty squeak of foam cushions with rubbery covering.
“I need you to go somewhere for me.” He was tracing what looked like a coffee ring with his index finger.
“Ok. That’s no problem. I’ve got the Tercel.” I pointed over my shoulder like an umpire declaring someone out. I hadn’t seen a car anywhere and wasn’t sure if he had one. I looked around the trailer. Maybe we could swing by the container store or pick up a dresser while we were out.
“I need you to go to Russia.”
“Um.” I leaned back as far as I could on my bench.
“Ummmm.” I was mentally spinning the roulette wheel of excuses that might get me out of this, but my wheel was designed to deal with situations like “forgot to turn in paper,” “missed final exam,” “was late sending Thank You card.” I had nothing.
But then, suddenly, I had something. It hadn’t occurred to me before because it hadn’t been a factor in college.
“I don’t have any money.”
He smiled and nodded, like, I fucking knew you would say that. “Hang on a minute.” He walked to the bedroom area in the back and rooted around for a minute. I didn’t want to watch him, so I was looking at the wallhangings: a blown-up photo of the Hollywood sign, a Metallica poster––the group members giving the middle finger to the camera––and some beautiful beach with mountains in the distance––Thailand, maybe. This little reunion was quickly reminding me of why I had always made an effort to avoid being cornered by my uncle at holiday gatherings, and I was fighting to hang on to whatever it was that had brought me here. He had a shiftiness about him that always made me want to look over my shoulder to see who he was looking at while he was talking to me, but there was never anyone there.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I learned that he was an alcoholic, but I was young enough to not really understand what it meant or how it worked. Later, probably in middle school, I realized that there was something else going on with him, something that was beyond the reach of alcoholism but maybe wrapped up in it somehow. When I asked my mother about this, she responded by telling me that he was, “slow,” but by this time I had been around middle school kids long enough to decipher that particular piece of code. When I asked my mother if he was retarded, she told me that not everyone gets to start with a clean slate. To eight-grade me, this granted the whole business a kind of heroically tragic air, and maybe that was the root of why I was sitting there. That and the fact that I had usually been successful in avoiding being cornered by him at Christmas and Easter.
And then he was back. He tossed something onto the table right before sliding into his bench.
I was staring at a big Ziploc bag full of cash. I involuntarily leaned back on my bench. Were all trailer benches and tables this small? Was there any danger of the wall behind me giving way as a result of all the pressure I’d been putting on it?
My uncle laced his fingers together like a villain in a spy movie.
“I’ve got the money. All of it. Flight, rental car, spending money, return money for two. You’re covered.”
Ok, just a Ziploc bag of cash on a trailer table and my until very recently estranged uncle, visible scalp and all. No reason to lose one’s cool.
“If you’ve got the money, why don’t you go?”
He leaned forward and then back again before taking a long drink from his mug. “Look, I’ve never left here. I don’t think I’d be great over there. I don’t speak their language or anything.”
Pause. “Are you under the impression I speak Russian?”
He said, “I don’t know” like I had done something wrong. “Do you?”
I put my index finger in the air and opened my mouth to reply but he cut me off.
“Forget it. Forget it. The language part doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m sure you can get around better than me. Because of the college and all.”
I let this sink in for a moment. “Maybe, but, I don’t know.” I had a flash of myself drinking vodka at a cafe on the banks of some river, gruff men eventually being won over by my cool charm and alcohol tolerance honed during four years at one of Playboy’s top twenty party schools. I saw tough, sexy women eyeing me up, hoping to get to know The American. “Maybe, though.”
He nodded like, See what I mean?
“It’s not a big deal, and it’s not illegal or anything. I just need this favor. I’ll owe you.”
Until that moment, the question of legality had not entered my mind, but once he said it, my mind became a shrieking pinwheel of worry and confusion. When it stopped spinning, I remembered something. “Wait. Did you say return money for two?”
I opened my hands wide.
He grinned. “Let me get my computer. You’re gonna love her.” He finished whatever had been in the mug and slid out of the bench. And as he headed back to the bedroom, he looked over his shoulder and I saw a smile that I had only seen on his face in pictures from my mom’s childhood.
Five weeks later, when I got off the hydrofoil that had taken me from Irkutsk to Listvyanka via Lake Baikal,I found myself alternating between thinking about the larger implications of this errand and trying to avoid coming to such conclusions. I jumped off the white and blue boat onto a low concrete wall and saw houses that seemed to have been scattered in the valley like Monopoly pieces tossed by a toddler.
A cracked and bumpy two-lane road hugged the shoreline. Low, evergreen-covered hills rose sharply on the land side of the road. Some of the closer houses were a little rickety and not that great, but deeper in the valley, a few timber, chalet-looking places with green roofs improved the feel. Down the road a bit, a house that must have been some kind of club was blasting American dance music, and some very scantily clad women were grinding on a roof deck while others smoked cigarettes and alternated their gaze between the dancers and the expanse of Baikal. My experiences in the few Russian towns I had visited on my way here suggested that there must be some ordinance requiring that American club be played at extreme volume if a body of water is visible. I had heard more Rihanna in two weeks here than I had in four years of college in Maryland.
One of the dancers was wearing yellow high heels and a yellow dress that looked like a full-body fishnet stocking. The thong and bra under the dress were black and visible at my current distance. Her dancing partner wore tiny spandex shorts, blue Pumas, and an open windbreaker over a bikini top. They looked like they just stepped out of some 80’s hair metal video. I checked my watch and confirmed that it was just after lunch and then returned my gaze to them for a few more seconds. They were endlessly fascinating.
There were a few benches on the concrete wall where we docked. A large man in a too-small Carolina Tarheels tank top sat on one with his foot on the leash to a giant Dalmatian who stared out at Baikal in a contemplative manner. The dog and the man, it seemed, were fighting to expend as little energy as possible.
Just ahead, there was a small gift shop selling stuffed white seals and advertising motorboat rides. Outside, there were women selling cabbage-stuffed buns and dried fish stretched out on sticks. Guys in track suits were ubiquitous. Ever since I landed in Russia, I had been stuck somewhere between stereotypes about a place and how it actually is.
My mind had jumped all over the place when I saw my uncle type Red Flowers into the search bar that first day in his trailer. As I was wrapped my head around the fact that this was a real thing, that mail-order brides weren’t only the gag in zany TV comedies, my uncle logged in and I saw a little 17 pop up next to the mail icon. He showed me some pics of Irina, and he told me that they had been talking for over a year now. He had sent the deposit. Now he just needed someone to go and get her. It was unclear to me why someone had to go to pick this person up, and my uncle answered this question by waving his hand and saying, “Customs.” That didn’t sound right, but I didn’t have enough information to argue, so I had to let it go. At this point, I had begun spinning and re-spinning the wheel of excuses in my head, trying hard to come up with one that would get me out of this.
My uncle clicked on his mailbox and pictures appeared. She looked to be my age. There she was on a shoreline, in a bikini, smiling at someone behind the camera. There was a picture taken from above as she lay in the snow, splayed limbs caught in the early stages of a snow angel.
My uncle started talking as he clicked through the pictures. He told me about how they had been matched based on their interests and how they had been talking for months before she sent him a picture. He said that she was “really into the US” and wanted to get out of Russia. They liked the same music and movies, he said. Involuntarily, I glanced at the four outstretched middle fingers on the Metallica poster. She knew that he lived in a trailer was ok with it. She loved cooking and dancing but was fine staying home, too.
I got the feeling that this was the first time he had spoken this out loud, but that it had been rehearsed countless times, honed and shaped to convince others that this was something real, that he wasn’t being exploited, that he wasn’t a dummy, and I felt really bad that he knew he had to prepare this little speech: that he correctly anticipated this response from his family. I saw my mother’s two extended fingers, jabbing in my direction.
And I felt and hated the desire rising in me to tell him to give it up and realize that he was being scammed, that there was no chance that this was real. That this could end in any way other than unhappiness. And so in spite of myself, or maybe because of myself, I encouraged him while we clicked through the rest of the photos. And I saw again those jabbing index fingers, extended at me and seeming to jab right into the heart of all that was exciting and possible, and I saw them in my mind as I drove back to his trailer three days later to book a ticket.
“You. You are here for the girl?”
I was startled out of my revelry and wondered how long I had been looking at a piece of lattice on which were staked about 100 dried fish.
The guy who had addressed me was maybe 6’4 and wearing track suit pants, perfectly clean white sneakers, and a Kobe Bryant basketball jersey. He had short blonde hair and blue eyes that seemed to be vibrating just a little. He gestured at me with his right hand, which held a cigarette.
“You are here to pick up the girl, yes?”
“Oh. Yeah.” I tried for a minute to recall if I had been given the name of person who would meet me here, but drew a blank. The Red Flowers Company, it seemed, was like Russia in that things were a lot more fast and loose than they were in the US. From the beginning, when they were handling the visa to the time that they were helping me with travel, I was struck by the complete lack of confirmation emails and back-up cell phone numbers. After sending a long and detailed email asking several vitally important questions about travel options, I would receive a response like, “The boat is best. Will be there for you.” And I couldn’t believe that there would actually be a ticket for me, that things got handled and nobody fucked up, but it had been seamless so far. I was here. The girl was somewhere in this town.
The man looked down toward the club for a moment and then back at me, impatiently, I thought.
“American dance music is very popular here.”
“Rihanna, yeah, she’s…popular.”
He nodded. “Sure. Your bags? Where are they?”
“Oh. Just this.” I used my thumb to point to my backpack.
He pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully before throwing his cigarette on the ground. I glanced down at it to see if he would step on it. He didn’t, and when I looked back up, there was a newly lit cigarette in his mouth. “Come.”
And he turned and began to walk toward a small white car that had been left running.
We got in and he turned around and started heading away from the valley with the Monopoly houses. We drove in silence for maybe two minutes. The zippers on my backpack became really interesting to me. The lake was on our left, and it became the sky far in the distance. It was impossible to tell where the lake and the horizon met. Speedboats with massive engines ripped around, sounding like the souped-up pickups driven by the townies of my college town in southern Maryland.
“Can I ask you something? This is something that has been on my mind for a time.”
So here it came. For the entire trip, I had been wondering when someone involved in this process was going to ask me about my uncle, whether he was a kind man, a good future husband, or some kind of pervert or abusive jerk. I had prepared and rehearsed an adequate response, one that used the word “caring” a lot.
My uncle was a nice enough guy and all, but what did it mean that he had to buy a wife on the internet? And how could I make sense of the fact that this was something that could happen: that there existed a sophisticated process that would allow lonely alcoholics in Easton, Maryland to use the internet to reach out to a young girl halfway around the world and make some kind of connection? Did it prove that the world valued love or the opposite?
And what if it didn’t mean anything: if it was just a reality, one that seemed to suggest something profound but which in fact was no more a manifestation of human desire than the tides or the change of the seasons.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“In American movies, the children they are always eating sandwiches with butter and jelly. But this butter is the color of orange. What is this?”
“Oh. That’s not butter. That’s peanut butter.”
The driver nodded. “This is a thing we don’t have. What is it?”
“It’s like a spread made from peanuts. It’s sticky and salty.”
“This is like an orange honey.”
“No, not really. It’s not runny like honey.”
“Runny like honey?” He took both hands off the wheel and used his arms to make a running motion.
“Um.” I tried to figure out how to untangle this one and was about to start when he put up his hand.
“Ah. We are here.” We arrived in front of a two story house that looked like Barbieski’s Dream Castle. It was pink, had three turrets, and was facing the lake and backed up against the low hills. I was tempted to break off a piece of the wall and see if it was, in fact, made from pink gingerbread.
Once we were inside, there was an immediately noticeable lack of furniture in the place. I could see something like 98% of the floor, which felt like tile but looked like marble. The foyer was open, with two staircases curving up on the left and right. There was a desk in what looked to be the exact center of the room. It reminded me of an episode of MTV Cribs, but the woman behind the desk was not some newly-monied rapper or model. The driver walked around the desk and disappeared through a door. There was no one else in sight and the noises made by woman shifting around in her chair and moving papers were the only sounds. After what felt like an hour, she looked up at me, her mouth a hyphen.
“You are here for Irina. You have the documentation.” These seemed to be simultaneously question and statement.
“Um.” I rooted around in my backpack, conscious of the volume of the zipper, which made me feel like a third grader who wandered into a business meeting. Why didn’t I have something with fancy metal clasps?! The woman cocked her head slightly, as if to say, Surely, you can’t be serious with this, this waste of my time.
I had been having a tough time telling if people were mad at me since arriving in Russia. People were tight with their smiles. I had made a mental note to never play poker against a Russian.
I found the papers my uncle had given me (sealed in two Ziploc bags and rubberbanded closed) and crossed to her desk. She took them, rose without speaking, and took the staircase to the second floor. So I was left there in this giant and uncomfortable building, trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. I heard a thrumming sound behind me and turned to look out through the giant window. I saw the boat that had brought me here ripping across the surface of the lake, nearly floating on air, heading back, I guessed, to Irkutsk.
A pack of four dogs walked the shoulder of the road toward the gift shop. As they passed, a black dog with two white paws glanced toward the house and stopped when he saw me. We locked eyes and he sat down. The others continued, and he looked after them but then returned his gaze to me. I took three steps to the right, and his head swiveled a little to follow my movement.
I heard a door shut and turned to see the woman from the desk descending the staircase, followed by the woman from the pictures.
I tried to slow my mind down a little, to figure out what all this meant, but I was left only with facts and tangible things: Irina carrying a backpack on one shoulder like I had in middle school, the way that the woman leading her double-clicked her heels, toe first, then heel, onto each step. The emptiness of this giant, weird house and this errand in general. They approached and stopped a few feet from me and we stood in silence for a moment too long.
Like a complete moron, I said, “Whose dog is that out there?”
The older woman took a half-step toward the window and saw the dog. “Is no one’s dog. Is beggar. Filth.”
I pointed over my shoulder, with my thumb, and lamely repeated, “Filth?”
“He can tell you are American. He will follow you now. In hope of food.”
“How can he tell?”
“It is in the way you––” she pursed her lips and wheeled her hands in a circle very quickly, “––that you carry yourself.”
I tried not to let that statement sink down too deep into the old brain.
“This is Irina.” The woman did not point or gesture toward Irina. Her hands were clasped in front of her. “She will go with you and be your bride.”
“This is a happy time for everyone.”
Irina, for whatever reason, had not yet spoken up to correct this misunderstanding.
“This is a very happy time for everyone, but––” at this, the woman raised one eyebrow, like, this better be good, “––Irina is not my bride. She is my uncle’s bride. Will be.”
“Yes, of course. Your uncle. Extremely happy time for him, as well.” She gestured back to the desk, where papers were to be signed.
I was finding the overwhelmingly casual air of all this to be terrifying. Irina was looking through the window, at the lake, I guessed. I signed some papers without reading them, and the older woman slid them into a manilla folder and then slid this into a drawer. She pressed a button on the phone and the guy who had driven me here came down the stairs on the right with a bottle of vodka. He was carrying four shot glasses.
The woman addressed Irina in Russian, and Irina joined us at the desk. There was a cigarette hanging from the driver’s lower lip as he poured the shots. I had one of those moments when I saw myself from outside and tried to connect the dots of my life to construct some sort of shape that made sense, but, while there were straight and strong lines that ran between my childhood and college, there was no line that got me from there to here, so the shape ended up being something angular, like a square that had melted on one side or a puking trapezoid or something.
“Za-loo-boff!” the woman said. The driver and Irina followed suit, and then I made an effort. The driver looked at me, cracked a much appreciated half-smile, and nodded like, is good try.
And then, after a few more remarks I did not understand, we were out the door. I turned to look at the woman. She was standing on the threshold with her hands held together in front of her. She did not wave or smile. I think I had been inside for about seven minutes total: the same time it took to pick up some Thai carryout or reclaim a car that had just had some work done. I wanted to put the brakes on all this so I could figure out what it meant, but things were in motion and I knew I’d just have to try to put it together later.
And once we were outside, the driver carried Irina’s red leatherish suitcase and put it in the trunk of the white car. I started to follow, but noticed that Irina did not. She looked out toward the lake. I imagined her viewing the tranquil lake in a state of great contemplation and figured she was attempting to do what I had done just a few minutes earlier: make sense of all this.
But then, Irina walked quickly toward the dog and it leaned back and put its front paws in the air and whined in absolute pleasure. She knelt down and hugged the dog, and I swear that the dog’s eyes closed when she hugged it. Then, Irina stood, ruffled the fur on the dog’s head, and strode to the car. The dog stood up when she got in. It was looking through the window at Irina, whose eyes were glued to the back of the driver’s headrest.
I thought about the few times that I had tried to hug Djuna. Mostly, she just used her front paws like poking sticks to maintain her personal space as she leaned her head as far away from me as possible.
As we pulled away, I turned and saw the dog sitting in the shoulder, head cocked slightly to the side, staring intently at the back of our car. I decided to take a risk.
“Is that your dog?”
Irina kept her eyes straight ahead. “That dog? No. I don’t know him.”
The rest of our short drive we passed in silence. We cruised past the house club with the dancing and bored women writhing around on the roof deck, and then we arrived at the dock. The driver retrieved Irina’s suitcase from the trunk and walked it to a nearby bench. He returned, leaned in the car and pulled our return tickets from the glove box, and handed them to me, saying Travel safely. He looked Irina in the eye and spoke to her for about twenty seconds. When he was finished, they both nodded and then he left.
We sat on the bench and looked out over the water. I had so many questions that I wanted to ask her, but there was no way to know how to phrase them or which one to begin with, so I fidgeted with the zipper on my backpack and pretended that I was enjoying the view. Irina looked out over the lake, and I was trying to get a sense of her. I imagined her as some Tolstoyan heroine, resigned to the cruel winds of life, cast from her homeland in search of happiness, but then I thought back to earlier, when I thought she had been looking at the lake and she was actually staring at the dog, and I realized that I had absolutely no idea what she was thinking and that I was almost always wrong about stuff like that.
The boat that would take us back to Irkutsk was not due for another twenty minutes, and I was trying to figure if it would be rude for me to retrieve my book from my backpack when Irina spoke.
“Have you gotten the luck yet?”
This elicited one of those delayed responses where I was eager to respond and show my desire to begin a conversation, but my mind was trying to unpack that sentence and reshape it in a way that made sense (was she asking me if I was a virgin?), so all that came out was something like “Errrrgghhh,” and then I grimaced a little when I heard that sound.
She looked at me and smiled. “Baikal. The lake is lucky. Did you know this?”
I shook my head.
She nodded several times. “This is in all the guidebooks. Old legend. They say that you get five years of good luck if you put your hands in, ten for feet, and 25 for your whole body. You should get this luck while you can.”
“Does it work? Have you done it?”
She tilted her head away from me. There was a playfulness in her eyes that made me smile. “I have been in the lake many times. Here. We will go to the shore. I know a good place.” She sprang up and looked at me expectantly, so I rose and grabbed her suitcase. She grabbed it from me and gestured to the gift shop. “I know people who work here. We can leave this.” She went in and came back out without the case. “They have told me that the boat will be late, ten minutes at least. We have time.”
And so we headed away from the houseclub and walked past several gazebos and benches set up on the beach. Vendors were roasting lamb and chicken on long metal skewers and playing American top 40 out of small boomboxes. Tourists occupied the tables and drank beer out of large plastic bottles that had polar bears on them. We had been walking for a few minutes when the road changed from cracked and bumpy asphalt to dirt. There were small houses along the water and scrubby forest on our left. I turned to look back from where we had come and saw, in the distance, the black dog with two white paws trotting toward us.
We were passing around the side of a house now.
“This is my friend’s house. She is gone for now. We can go here.”
When we came around to the back of the house, I had a different view of the lake then the one I had from the docking area. There, the lake had spread out in front of me like the clouds do from a plane’s window––straight out on the sides and away until they vanish into the distance. But here, the shoreline on my left crept out gradually and rose higher in the distance, trees and houses and decks and speedboats parked at small homemade docks, and it felt like a lake I had visited once with some friends in upstate New York.
Irina took off her white tennis shoes and socks. She rolled her jeans up to about her knees and waded in.
“Oooohhh! It’s still so cold!” She laughed a little and pulled her arms tight across his chest in an exaggeration of someone trying to stay warm. After a moment or two, she began to inch further out. By watching her deliberate progress, I could imagine the feel of rocks, smooth and sharp, against the soles of her feet. I was still standing on the porch with my backpack on.
She walked a few more steps and then turned to me. She grinned and then bent at the waist and thrust her hands into the lake. “Ahh!” and she laughed a little more. After a moment, she snatched them back and shook them. I heard a splashing and realized that the dog with the white paws had come around the side of the house and was now slowly walking out to Irina.
“This dog has us both beat! Maybe forty years of luck without getting his belly wet!”
My reluctance then felt totally out of place here. I tossed the bag onto a chair and slipped off my shoes.
Irina looked up at me from the lake. “Well, now you must decide. How much luck do you need?”
I tried to think about this question. I lived at home, had no expenses, and was just passing the last year or so of my childish adulthood, making gestures toward responsibility like adopting a dog that I didn’t really have to take care of, giving my mother lectures on compassion, and waiting until one of my friends’ dads made a call for me and a good job that I didn’t love but which paid the bills would fall into my lap and I would be set on cruise control until retirement. And then I saw my uncle in his trailer, probably pressing just then his browser’s refresh button and checking again our flight’s status, even though we wouldn’t be on the plane until tomorrow. And I looked out at Irina, nearly knee deep in the lake, her arms held tight against her chest, the smile remaining on her face even as we heard in the distance the thrum of the boat that would take us to the next step of our journey.
I had a terrible flash then of all this, because with a return ticket in my pocket, I could see the straight lines that had guided me up to this point resume course after this slight detour. I could see them continuing off into the distance, which was my life, and I was on those lines like rails, and I told Irina that I needed all the luck I could get.
About the Author:
Dave Scrivner was raised in Baltimore, MD and is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing Program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. His recent fiction has appeared in Barrelhouse and Hawai’i Review. Dave’s fiction won the National Society of Arts and Letters’s Short Story Contest, regional, and was selected as a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Stories by New Writers Contest and New Letters’s Alexander Patterson Cappon Fiction Contest.