The Young Russian
The black sedan pulled up along the tall, brick-laced building. Three men emerged from the rear cab. All three were dressed in dulled greatcoats and hats except for one, who appeared weary and tired, and with no hat to cover his thick tussle of black hair. He was young and of medium height, but his face was as dull as his clothing. The only bit of color upon his body was a deep red scarf around his neck.
The other two men held him by the arms, and the young man got only a fleeting glimpse around him before he was roughly hustled into the building. It was a factory area and the building itself, which towered four or five stories into the air, had large, warehouse-like windows. Nearby, was a tall, tan-colored factory with two large chimneys that clawed into the winter sky reminding him of his childhood days in Moscow.
Inside, the building was as depressing as the outside. The main hallway was a mass of activity, with men in greatcoats shuffling across from one room to the next. There was an old, wooden staircase to the right, just after the main door.
“Upstairs, Victor,” the older of the two henchmen said. The man called Victor nodded, and they led the young man roughly up the steps. Soon, he had been shepherded into a room.
It was small, with a single, barred window, high on a grubby wall. The only piece of furniture was a dark-painted desk with a couple of matching chairs. The young man looked about himself with dismay. Then suddenly, there was a sound of a door closing behind him and a click as a lock snapped into place.
“Damn,” the young man cursed to himself. His problems never ceased. After all, it was just that morning that he had been released from jail.
He made his way to the wall with the small window on top, but it was too high for him see out of, and he had no intention of soiling his clothes on the wall, trying.
Resignedly, he sat down on a chair by the table and, covering his face with his hands, sighed loudly. Why did he have to go and get himself mixed up with the Party? Why couldn’t he been just another man on the streets minding his own business? No, instead, he had joined the local Communist Party five years ago when he was 22,when he was still a kid and still naïve. Why . . . ?
The door suddenly opened. Two men entered; one was the henchman called Victor, and the other was a middle-aged man in a dark trench coat with slick, brown hair and a pair of shiny, gold-rimmed glasses. He carried a folder in his hands and sat opposite the young man. The man called Victor stood menacingly by his partner’s side, his hands folded.
“Name?” the man in glasses asked him.
“Alexi… Alex…Alex Kirkov,” the young man said.
“Hmpf,” Glasses said, opening his papers. “Alexi Michaelovich Kirkov,” he said, running down the sheet. “Born: Moscow, 1910 . . . .”
Alexi bit his lip and looked down at his shoes.
There was some hasty scribbling and flipping of the pages by Glasses. Alexi studied him. Boy, those glasses were shiny enough for him to see his own face, he thought.
Glasses cleared his throat. “So, Comrade Alexi, when was the last time you attended a Party meeting?”
“A Party meeting? …Oh, I don’t know…a year ago.”
Glasses nodded. “Huh-huh . . . a year ago,” he said, checking his sheets. “Before your conviction, you mean?”
Alexi winced. “Well, it wasn’t really a conviction . . . a minor infraction really.”
“Oh?” Glasses said, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, you see, it was a strange thing. Really stupid of me . . . ”
“—yes, you were convicted of stealing a handbag, were you not?”
“Yes, but well, you see . . . there is more than meets the eye . . . .”
“Ha,” Glasses said laughingly. “The tale of the common criminal.”
Alexi was indignant. “Now look here, that is not what happened. It was a misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding? You stole a girl’s handbag on a bus, Comrade,” Glasses said as if enjoying a joke.
Alexi was angry now. “Look, am I under arrest?”
“Of course not.”
“Then, what am I doing here?”
“We need to ascertain your loyalties to the Party, Comrade.”
“What do you mean?”
“Perhaps you should tell us your side of the story, so we can determine your case.”
Alexi glanced at the sheaf of papers on the table. “My case? What case? What’s done is done. I’ve already paid my time for it.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“Yeah, well, what do you need me for? It seems like you know everything anyway.”
“It would be in your best interest to tell us everything, Comrade,” Glasses said,“for the good of the Party. Besides, we know what happened, what we don’t know is why.”
“Now, look, I just got out of jail today,” Alexi said. “I have no wish to talk about it, so there.”
“So you refuse to talk?”
“Am I being charged with something?”
“Do not be ridiculous; this is a routine examination.”
“With all due respect Comrade, you can go to hell.”
Glasses sighed. “A pity.” He laboriously got out of his seat.
“Hey, where am I?” Alexi asked. “What are all these people doing here?”
Glasses pursed his lips. “We are holding an investigation of all Party members. There have been a host of defections in the last few months, information leaks, and so on. So, naturally, you’re being detained.”
“But, I’ve been in jail all this time. I’m not involved.”
“Yes, well . . . a year’s imprisonment for petty theft doesn’t exactly leave us with good impressions of your character does it, Comrade?”
“Now look Comrade . . . ,” Alexi began and then realized he didn’t know the man’s name. “Now look, I told you it was all a mistake . . . .”
“Speak up, and maybe the Commissar will take pity on you,” Glasses said.
“Or . . . who knows?” the man said with a shrug. “Take time to think about it.” He led his companion out. Alexi heard the door click shut again.
He sat there for what seemed like hours before the door opened again. The men were back, and this time, they had a rabbi with them.
“What the hell is this? Alexi asked, leaping up from his seat. “I’m not Jewish.”
The men didn’t say anything, and left the rabbi with Alexi. He heard the door click shut again.
The rabbi looked around meekly. He took a seat and gazed up at the ceiling as if in wonderment. Alexi was looking at him with contempt. Then, the rabbi met his gaze.
“Hello there,” he said.
Alexi snorted. “They’re wasting their time. I’m not Jewish.”
“Oye, nobody’s perfect,” the rabbi said, shrugging.
A few minutes later, while Alexi was anxiously pacing the room, a series of gunshots rang out in the distance outside. “What was that?” he asked the rabbi.
The rabbi, shrugging. “Who knows?”
More gunshots followed in the next half hour. Alexi began to get worried. Then there were even more gunshots. Alexi began sweating. The pressure was getting to him. Just when it seemed like he couldn’t take anymore, the door opened and the men reappeared.
“So Alexi, has your tongue loosened?” Glasses asked.
“You can’t hold me like this. It’s against the law.”
The men laughed. “Against the law? My dear man, calm down. You are a member of the Communist Party. It’s all in the interests of the Party, I assure you.”
“You’re mad. All of you,” Alexi declared.
“Let me ask you something, Comrade. What is more important, the individual or the Party?”
Alexi wiped his forehead. “Can I go home?” he asked.
Glasses shook his head. “In the words of our great Comrade Stalin, the Party always comes before the individual. Did you forget that in prison, Comrade?” He laughed loudly.
Alexi was grim. There were shots outside. No mistaking it; there was obviously something going on, but these fools were enjoying themselves as if it were all a Sunday parley.
“Are you going to talk, Comrade?” Glasses asked him. “It might be a long night.”
“Okay. Have it your way,” Alexi said, pulling up a seat. “But for heaven’s sake, get the rabbi out of here. I’m no Jew, and even if I was, I don’t need a holy man to hold my hand.”
The men were puzzled by this. “Just get on with it, Alexi,” they said, impatiently.
Alexi had a look of dismay on his face. “Okay, it all began a year ago. I was, as usual, going down to the grocery for the work when I see this good lookin’ broad get on the bus, see?”
“Huh-huh,” Glasses said.
“She was beautiful, I tell you. It took me all of my guts just to talk to her. And you know what she says? ‘Not interested.’ Just like that. One look at me and ‘not interested.’ Here I’m standing in my work overalls with a crowd full people looking at me, while this dame says ‘not interested.’”
“What’d you do?” Glasses asked.
“I’ll tell you what I did. I stood there for half an hour looking like a fool. Then I did something really dumb. Just when my stop came, I grabbed her handbag and jumped. The police got me a block later.”
Glasses had an incredulous look on his face. “Why’d you do it?”
Alexi bit his lip. “I was desperate. I thought that I would see her again if I took her handbag, you see?”
“Okay,” Glasses said. “Please continue.”
“Yeah, well, I saw her again all right—in court. She testified against me, probably picked me out of a lineup, too. But she had this look on her face . . . like she was real uncertain or like she was real sorry for me or something. So, the judge gives me a year, but I wrote to her from jail.”
“How’d you get her address?”
“I told you, I had her purse for a while.”
“Yeah, so I write this letter, telling her how pretty she is and asking her to visit me in jail and, who knows, maybe go to the movies after I get out.”
“And she writes back saying how sorry she is that all this happened, and at the end of it, she signs: ‘Good luck. I hope everything works out for you, and please don’t write again.’”
“Hmmm. Too bad, Comrade.”
“Yeah, if I had my stuff together, I would have sent her a different letter. I would’ve said, ‘Miss, I’m no ordinary thief. The only reason I stole your bag was because I fell in love with you on that bus. I was afraid I would never see you again. It was a foolish thing to do, Miss, but when you’re in love, you do foolish things.’
I tell you Comrade, if I had any brains, I might have told her that I loved seeing her hair in the wind and the way her eyes looked at me in the noon sun. I would have said, ‘Now, Miss, I know I’m not much. I’m 27 years old and still working at a store while other men have fancy cars and a house in the country. I know I’m nothing special. I think that when I was a boy, people used to say that maybe I was nice looking, but those days are long gone. These days, Miss, there is only a dream of being somebody, and not much else.’
I would say, ‘I know what love is, Miss, but maybe I don’t. I know that it isn’t marriage, as some might think; it isn’t holding hands; it isn’t sex; and it certainly isn’t about flowers and chocolate. It’s when a person cares about someone more than they care about themselves.
‘I don’t expect an answer from you, Miss. I only wanted to explain myself, and if my love for you has put me in jail, so be it. Maybe, one day you will able to forgive this foolish admirer of yours.’”
Alexi stopped here and looked at the guards sheepishly.
“Comrade, my apologies,” Glasses said.
Alexi nodded mutely. “That is my story, Comrades. That is why I spent a year in jail. Now do you see why I’m no petty thief? Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Comrade,” Glasses said, getting to his feet. “We have done what we have had to do. You can leave.”
Alexi was surprised. “Leave?” He laughed nervously. “That’s it? That’s all you wanted to know? I thought you were going to shoot me . . . or at the least leave me with a beating.”
Glasses stopped. “Shoot you? What do you think this is—Russia?”
“But, what about that shooting that I heard a while ago?”
A puzzled look appeared on the man’s face, then understanding. “Oh, that. That’s the nearby rifle range,” he said.
Alexi felt anger rising within him. “Why did you bring me down here then?” “We had to be sure,” Glasses replied, opening the door for him. “And not to worry Comrade, we’re convinced that you’re a loyal Party member.”
“Very kind of you,” Alexi said and walked out the door. He looked back at the Rabbi, sitting quietly. “What about him?” he asked.
Glasses looked at the Rabbi. “Oh him? He’s next for questioning.”
They led Alexi outside the building. The sun was already setting. “Just walk down this road and you will get to the turnpike,” they said. “You should be able to get a cab back to Brooklyn.”
Already, Alexi could see the evening lights of New York City in the distance. The men were standing stolidly behind him. “Apologies for all this, Comrade,” they said. “But we had to be sure. No hard feelings, eh?”
Alexi had a sullen expression on his face. They had brought him here against his will and whisked him away from his first hours of liberty in over a year. Now, he was out in the cold again. He checked his pockets. He had nothing but a couple of notes and some small change. Glasses slapped him hard on the shoulders. “It’s a pity you never wrote that second letter, huh kid?” he said.
A slow grin appeared on Alexi’s face. “Who says I didn’t?” he said. With that, he strode off with his hands in his pockets. He began whistling Dixie as he made his way to the turnpike. From here, a cab would take him back to the city and as away as he wanted to go.