Get a Grip

by Paul Park


1   2

Here's how I found out: I was in a bar called Dave's on East 14th Street. It wasn't my usual place. I had been dating a woman in Stuyvesant Town. One night after I left her place, I still wasn't eager to go home. So on my way I stopped into Dave's.

I used to spend a lot of time in bars, though I don't smoke or drink. But I like the second-hand stuff. And the conversations you could have with strangers — you could tell them anything. "Ottawa is a fine city," you could say. "My brother lives in Ottawa," I could say, though in fact I'm an only child. But people would nod their heads.

This kind of storytelling used to drive my ex-wife crazy. "It's so pointless. It's not like you're pretending you're an astronaut or a circus clown. That I could see. But a Canadian?"

"It's a subtle thrill," I conceded.

"Why not tell the truth?" Barbara would say. "That you're a successful lawyer with a beautiful wife you don't deserve. Is that so terrible?"

Not terrible so much as difficult to believe. It sounded pretty thin, even before I found out. And of course none of it turned out to be true at all.

Anyway, that night I was listening to someone else. Someone was claiming he had seen Reggie Jackson's last game on TV. I nodded, but all the time I was looking past him toward a corner of the bar, where a man was sitting at a table by himself. He was smoking cigarettes and drinking, and I recognized him.

But I didn't know from where. I stared at him for a few minutes. What was different — had he shaved his beard? Then suddenly I realized he was in the wrong country. It was Boris Bezugly. It truly was.

I took my club soda over to join him. We had parted on such good terms. "Friends, friends!" he had shouted drunkenly on the platform of Petersburg Station, saliva dripping from his lips. Now he was drunk again. He sat picking at the wax of the red candle. When he looked up at me, I saw nothing in his face, just bleared eyes and a provisionary smile.

We had met two years before, when a partner in the firm was scouting the possibility of a branch office in Moscow. Even in Russia he was the drunkest man I ever met. When we were introduced, he had passed out and fallen on his back as we were still shaking hands. Maybe it was his drunkenness that kept him from recognizing me now, I thought. After all, it had taken me a moment.

But we were in New York. Surely running into me was not as strange as me running into him. And why hadn't he told me he was coming? "Sdravsvuytse," I said, grinning. "Can I buy you a drink?"

What passed over his face was an expression of such horror and rage, it made me put up my hand. But then his face went blank and he turned away from me, huddling around his candle and his drink.

He had lost weight, and his black beard was gone. In Russia he had worn a hilarious mismatch of plaid clothes, surmounted by an old fur cap. Now he wore a tweed suit, a denim shirt open at the neck. The cap was gone.

"Boris," I said.

In Russia his English had been absurd. I used to tell him he sounded like a hit man in a cold war novel, and he had laughed aloud. Now he spoke quickly and softly in a mid-Atlantic accent: "I think you're making a mistake."

And I would have thought so, too, except for the strange expression I had seen. So I persevered. I pulled out one of the chairs and sat down. "What are you doing?" he cried. "My God, if they find us here. If they see us here."

These words gave me what I thought was a glimmer of understanding. In Moscow, in the kitchen of his tiny apartment, Boris once had put away enough vodka to let him pass through drunkenness into another stage, a kind of clarity and grim sobriety. Then he had told me what his life was like under the Communists — the lies that no one had believed. The interrogations. When he was a student in the sixties after Brezhnev first came in, he had spent two years in protective custody.

Now maybe he was remembering those times. "My friend," I said, "it's all right. You're in America."

These words seemed to fill him with another gust of fury. He tried to get up, and I could see he was very drunk. "I don't know you, I've never met you," he muttered, grinding out his cigarette butt. But then the cocktail waitress was there.

"I'll take a club soda," I said. "And my friend will have a Smirnoff's."

"No," he snarled, "that was the problem with that job. Get me a bourbon," he told the waitress. Then to me: "I hate vodka."

Which surprised me more than anything he'd said so far. In Moscow he had recited poetry about vodka. "Yeah," he told me now, smiling in spite of himself. "Tastes change."

Apparently he had reassured himself that no one was watching us. But he waited until the waitress had come and gone before he spoke again. "Boris," I said, and he interrupted me.

"Don't call me that. It was just a job, a two-week job. I barely remember it."

"What are you talking about?"

He smiled. "You don't know, do you? You really don't know. Get a grip," he said. "It's like candy from a baby."

I saw such a mix of passions in his face. Envy, frustration, anger, fear. And then a kind of malignant grin that was so far from my perception of his character that I stared at him, fascinated.

"You never went to Russia," he said. "You've never met a single Russian. You were in a theme park they built outside Helsinki, surrounded by people like me. They were paying us to guzzle vodka and wear false beards and act like clowns. 'Sdravsvuytse,' my ass!"

He was crazy. "My poor friend," I said. "Who was paying you? The KGB?"

He knocked his heavy-bottomed glass against the table, spilling bourbon on the polyurethaned wood. "Not the KGB," he hissed. "The KGB never existed. None of it existed. None of this." He waved his hand around the room.

He was in the middle of a paranoid breakdown of some sort. I could see that. And yet the moment I heard him, I felt instinctively that what he said was true.

"They never would have taken you to Russia," he went on. "Not to the real Russia." As he spoke I brought back my own memories — the grime, the cold, the sullen old babushkas with rags around their heads. The concrete apartment blocks. The horrible food.

He put down his empty glass. "Thanks for the drink. And now I'm definitely getting out of here before somebody sees us. Because this is definitely against the rules. "

Then he was gone, and I walked home. And maybe I wouldn't have thought much about it, only the next day I was walking up Fifth Avenue on my lunch hour, and I passed the offices for Aeroflot. I went in and sat down with the people who were waiting to be helped. We were in a row of armchairs next to the window.

This is ridiculous, I thought. And I was about to get up and go, when I found myself staring at a travel poster. One of the agents was talking on the phone, and there was a framed poster of Red Square above her desk. And was that Boris Bezugly in the middle of a group of smiling Russians in front of St. Basil's? The beard, the hat, the absurd plaid?

The Aeroflot agent was a dark-haired, heavy-chested woman, dressed in black pumps, beige tights, and a black mini-skirt. A parody of a Russian vamp. And what was that language she was speaking on the phone? The more I listened, the more improbable it sounded.

I asked the woman sitting next to me. She frowned. "Russian, of course," she said. How could she be so sure? Made-up gobbledygook, but of course once you let yourself start thinking like that, the whole world starts to fall apart. Not immediately, but gradually. I took the woman from Stuyvesant Town to a musical on Broadway. Critics had pretended to like it, though it was obviously bad. Audience members had applauded, laughed — who were they trying to fool?

At work sometimes I found it hard to concentrate. I was representing the plaintiff in a civil suit. Yet no actual client could have been so petty, so vindictive. In my office I sat staring at the man, watching his lips move, waiting for him to give himself away.

And of course I spent more of my time at Dave's. I would go there every evening after work, and in time I was drinking more than just club sodas. But it was weeks before I saw Boris again. He came in out of a freezing rain and made his way directly toward me, where I was sitting at a table by myself.

He sat down without asking and leaned forward, rubbing his hands over the tiny candle flame. "Listen," he said, "I'm in trouble," and he looked it. He needed a shave. His eyes were bloodshot. He wasn't wearing a coat.

"Listen, I can't do it anymore. All that lying and pretending. I've screwed up two more jobs and now they're on to me. I can't go home. Please, can you give me some money? I've got to get away."

"I'll pay you fifty dollars for some information," I said. I took the bills from my pocket, but he interrupted me.

"No, I mean your watch or something. I can't use that bogus currency." He pulled some coins out of the pocket of his pants, big, shiny, aluminum coins like Mardi Gras doubloons. In fact as I looked closely, I saw that's what they were. The purple one in his palm was stamped with the head of Pete Fountain playing the clarinet.

"I don't even have enough here for a drink," he said.

"I'll get you one." I raised my hand for the waitress. But then I saw her at the corner of the bar, talking with the bartender. As I watched, she pointed over at us.

"Oh my God," said my Russian friend. His voice was grim and strange. "Give me the watch."

I stripped it off, though it was an expensive Seiko. "Thanks," he said, looking at the face, the sweep of the second hand. "And in return I'll answer one minute's worth of questions. Go."

"Who are you?" I asked.

But he shrugged irritably. "No, it's not important. My name is Nathan — so what? What about you?"

"I know about myself," I said uncertainly.

"Do you? Jim Brothers, Esq. Yale, 1981. But what makes you think you were smart enough to go to the real Yale? Do you think they let just anybody in?"

Actually, I had always kind of wondered about that. So his words gave me a painful kind of pleasure. Then he went on: "Twenty seconds. What about your marriage? What was that all about?"

"I'm divorced."

"Of course you are. The woman who was playing your wife landed another job. It was never supposed to be more than a two year contract with an option, which she chose not to renew. Last I heard, she was doing Medea, Blanche Dubois, and Lady Macbeth for some repertory company up in Canada."

Again, this sounded so hideously plausible that I said nothing.

"Forty seconds."

"Fifty seconds."

"Wait," I said, but he was gone out the door. He left only his Pete Fountain doubloon, which I slid into my pocket.

Then in a little while the police were there. A man in a white raincoat sat opposite me, asking me questions. "Did he say where he was going? Did he give you anything?"

"No," I said. "No. Nothing."

But then when I was watching TV later that night, I saw that Nathan Rose, a performance artist wanted in connection with several outstanding warrants, had been arrested. There was a photograph, and a brief description of his accomplishments. Nathan Rose had been a promising young man, recipient of several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. The newscaster's voice was sad and apologetic, and she seemed to look out of the television directly at me. She made no mention of the crime he'd been accused of. What was it — impersonating a Russian?


This story copyright © 1997 by Paul Park. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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