When the beluga-browed Airbus hit its tenth or eleventh air pocket descending upon St. Petersburg, Oscar Lunquist lost all shame and grabbed the forearm of his seat companion in 21B. A short-shorn woman twenty or so years Oscar’s senior and thus twice his age, she didn’t take the commandeered limb away but lowered her glasses and looked at Oscar with a librarian’s irony. They had just finished a hopeless conversation (“How do you say ‘concert?’” “Koncert.” “How do you say ‘music?’” “Muzyka.” “How do you say ‘baroque?’” “Barokko.” “How do you say ‘millennium?’” A six-syllable pileup of hissing Slavic consonants), and now this moment of absurd weakness must have infantilized him in her eyes even further.
Perhaps he should have explained the root of his terror. The plane’s every pitch and bank resonated through Lunquist’s soft pink body via an external organ, sawed off and stowed hours ago under a pile of Jesus knows what in the cargo hold: his viola. The instrument, a 17-inch Bulgarian-made SofiaMari (the trip was almost a homecoming for it, Oscar fleetingly thought), lay strapped and swaddled in its hard-shell case complete with a hygrometer and vapor bottle, indeed like a transplant-ready liver or kidney. He imagined various fates for it, all bad. A pressure change could implode it. A nearby spill could flood it. The most vivid scenario, however, went thusly: a massive suitcase shifts in its place and prods another suitcase, this one metallic and with improbably sharp corners, to wedge its sharpest, most metallic corner against the central lock on the viola case. One more bump, and the case cracks open! SofiaMari shivers in its scarlet folds, defenseless as an oyster. That’s when the third suitcase, this one made of dirt-gray vinyl, acting in koncert with the first two, begins a sadistically slow journey toward the edge of a shelf that ends directly above the exposed viola. It cantilevers. It wobbles. And then, its dark mass gaining killpower with every millisecond of the brief drop, it plunges, grinding a filthy roller, downy with fuzz and plastic hangnails, into the strings right between the bridge and the tailpiece. A whine, a ping, a snap of liberated catgut, a rib crack, a death rattle, and SofiaMari is gone.
Lunquist stared out the window, breathed, erased his breath from the windowpane with a sweaty palm, erased the palm sweat with an Aeroflot napkin. Below, frozen swamps or lakes or reservoirs shimmered and appeared to move independently from each other, like blots of fat on the surface of consommé.
The St. Paul Symphony flew to St. Petersburg (a rhyme not lost on anyone) to wrap up its European engagement with a koncert muzyki barokko on the city’s Palace Square, pegged to nothing less than the eve of the new millennium. The orchestra aside, the jet was full of Russians. They made for terrible air passengers. Whole groups ambled around the cabin, disregarding the seatbelt signs and arranging complicated seat exchanges; grown men whined and groaned like kids in the back of a van. Somewhere over the Gulf of Finland, it had dawned on Oscar that everyone on board was both suffering from nicotine withdrawal and had already started celebrating New Year.
When the plane touched the tarmac, some people applauded politely as if the pilot had just banged out a little bagatelle. It was meant to be a light-hearted moment, Oscar guessed, but instead it depressed him further: the applause just seemed to underscore how much of a crapshoot this whole flying thing was. Nobody applauds when a train screeches into a station. Oscar looked outside, into Russia. He saw a few mutant cargo vehicles, a radar shack, a striped windsock. Airports are airports.
Not that Oscar had much empirical evidence. His brand new, sour-smelling passport, deflowered days ago with a Finnish stamp in Helsinki, attested to that. (A friendly passport control officer, acting on the combination of Lunquist’s name and nearly noseless, pudding-colored face framed by locks two shades away from albino, spoke Finnish or Swedish to him. “Oh, I’m American,” said Oscar, “I mean, you could say I’m Swedish, I guess. Minnesota. I speak a little German, if you’d—”, and the officer’s cathedral-shaped stamp came emphatically down, providing a period for that sentence).
“Dude,” said Gabe Messer, 22B, second violin, reaching forward to slap Oscar on the back of the head. “Dude, Russia.”
“I know,” said Lunquist. As if on command, both turned and looked right, toward 21G, where Yasha “Dipshit” Ipschits, clarinet in A and the orchestra’s resident Russian, sat pale and upright watching a clump of trees in the distance.
“Hey Dipshit,” said Gabe, turning three heads, including touring manager Burt Weisskopf’s scandalized cueball. “Welcome home, or something.”
“Fuck you,” said Ipschits, causing C, E and F to swivel back as if at a tennis match. “I live in Falcon Heights.”
Gabe, Oscar and Yasha were the youngest members of the St. Paul Symphony. The shared age – they were all twenty-one – nudged the three into a kind of forced friendship despite their barely compatible characters. Gabe was a classical-music jock, a category Oscar didn’t even know existed before meeting him. He lived to tour, like a rock musician, and played with an affectless finesse Oscar secretly found unhealthy, as if music was a competition in hitting as many notes as square on the head as possible; his solos sounded quantized. Yasha had a genius personality – asocial, unhygienic, given to mood swings of astonishing amplitude – not in the least supported by actual genius. He was happiest, he had once confessed to Lunquist, playing Dixieland.
As for Oscar, his twenty-one was by far the youngest. Music was something he did for most of the day every day since the age of four; a procession of serious-looking people told him he was good at it; in truth, he had no idea. He played every phrase in a state of even-keeled, compressed panic, forever about to be found out for a fraud he suspected he was. He was good at mimicking a better player, if that made any sense: someone who went through the same physical motions but actually knew what they meant. Oscar performed his best blind impersonation of that man every time he picked up the bow. It didn’t help that the sluggish viola required him to start every line earlier, lean in harder, and generally exert more effort than the nearby violinists. And then there were the jokes. (What’s the difference between a seamstress and a violist? The seamstress tucks up the frills. How was the canon invented? Two violists were trying to play the same passage together. Why is the viola called Bratsche in German? That’s the sound it makes when you sit on it.)
The three of them made truly awful friends. They kept forming two-men pacts to shun and terrorize the third one – most often Gabe and Yasha against Oscar, until Yasha had his next “faggoty,” per Gabe’s definition, snit fit, in which case Oscar was recruited to help mock the dander-headed Commie Jew homo. Right now, however, Yasha was indispensable – he knew the language – and Oscar was anticipating forty-eight hours of thoroughly false Three Musketeers camaraderie.
When the plane stopped taxiing, everyone around Oscar was chewing on an unlit cigarette, and lit up the moment the cigarette’s tip crossed the plane’s doorway. By the time the group, pushing through narrow corridors like a thrombo, reached baggage claim, nicotine was infusing everything: the walls painted the color of tooth plaque, the yellowing posters backlit in stripes by fluorescent tubes and advertising Russian cell-phone providers, the gray grit covering the floor and all that came in contact with it.
The carousel would look totalitarian – half assembly line, half abattoir – even without the Cyrillic lettering. According to an agreement with Aeroflot, the instruments were supposed to be unloaded with extra care and delivered from the plane’s cargo hold on a separate trolley; thus a collective groan went through the orchestra when the first tagged and stamped tuba case dawned at the lip of the belt, behind two vinyl civilian satchels, triumphantly parting with its bell the filthy rubber fringe hung, in a customary bit of airport modesty, over the hole that birthed it.
When time came for the reunion with SofiaMari, Oscar could barely contain his jitters. The case was dusty, and a long, elegant black scuff ran down its side like the Nike logo, but the locks looked untouched. He clicked them open. At first the viola felt wet. One terrible second later, Oscar remembered that cold and wet sometimes feel alike. Cold, it was merely cold.
It was cold all around, in fact. A sharp seaside chill seemed to target hands first, turning Oscar’s the color of pomegranate skin. Nothing he hasn’t seen in Minnesota, of course, yet it felt more hostile, more insidious. They exited the terminal and headed toward the bus stand – a gawping, wind-lashed crowd of faces familiar only to each other. Burt Weisskopf was conducting his third or fourth head count in as many minutes.
“Will it be this cold all the way?” asked Oscar when they made momentary eye contact.
“Not on the stage, I don’t think so,” answered the touring manager breezily, blinking back his own panic. The Russian organizers had guaranteed some sort of innovative heating lamp coverage of the area, which would make the resulting picture – a full orchestra in tails and all, playing outdoors in the falling snow – romantically irresistible. Instead, the arrangement almost gave Weisskopf a second ulcer. He worried the heat distribution would be uneven – hot enough to warp wood in some spots and cold enough to freeze the brass section’s lips to their instruments in others. He worried about the drip from melting snow. He even worried about the so-called Y2K bug – that, as the orchestra ramped up into the last movement of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, all electricity, including the heat lamps, would go out. (It had occurred to Weisskopf that the famous bit of stagecraft associated with the symphony – candles on note stands, extinguished as the musicians leave one by one – might have come in handy; they had scrapped it for this performance). After weeks of tortured deliberations, he even raised this concern with the Russians. The organizers were so set on the outdoor idea that they sprang for the premium on the mind-boggling insurance for the event, which allayed Weisskopf’s worries somewhat. His last conversation with the Russian side, however, revved up his ulcer anew. A representative of TV6, the channel that footed the bill, couldn’t understand why instruments going out of tune in the cold were such a big deal: “Just use a fonogram,” her email said. Weisskopf didn’t know the word “fonogram,” but took an immediate dislike to it.
A woman was waving wildly to him from a pedestrian island across four taxi-choked lanes; in her free hand was a large piece of cardboard that said SENT PAUL. When Weisskopf finally noticed her, the woman stopped waving and gestured at a dusty bus idling behind the island.
“Ah, yes,” said Weisskopf loudly. “The Radisson bus.” He looked around to see if this evidence of good planning on the Russian side was lifting everyone else’s spirits as much as it had his, but the musicians seemed to take it for granted, so he went back to worrying.
“Check it out,” said Gabe when they stood in line to board the bus. Lunquist clutched his viola, reluctant to surrender it to yet another cargo hold. “Cops.”
“Militiamen,” said Yasha in a stentorian voice. “Don’t point at them.”
Oscar looked. The gray-clad militiamen almost blended into the terminal’s cement wall. They stood in a tight group of three, smoking into cupped hands and watching the Americans file into the bus. If their job was to represent the state they worked for, they did it perfectly: all three looked feral and lost. Their ill-fitting uniforms looked like pelts of other, burlier militiamen. The small guns on their white lacquered belts intimidated in a tawdry, illicit way, symbolic less of authority than of chaotic capacity to harm. The name militia was correct. They seemed to be self-governing.
“You know the Russian joke about militiamen?” asked Yasha, abusing his sudden expert status. He leaned in close, already tittering. “Guy passes the cop exam. ‘Okay, you’re in, sign here, your monthly salary is 3000 rubles, any questions?’ Dude goes, ‘There’s a salary? I thought they just give you a gun.”
The joke turned out to address Oscar’s unease head-on. He didn’t even bother to fake a smile.
“Here’s another one,” continued Yasha, his wet lippy mouth flapping an inch from Oscar’s ear. He was fizzing with the ecstasy of acceptance. “You know why militiamen patrol in teams of three?”
“Why,” said Oscar, without a question mark, and shot another nervous glance at the cops, one or more of whom could know English and possess superhuman hearing.
“One knows how to read, one knows how to count, and the third one is there to keep an eye on those two intellectuals.”
“It’s better in Russian.”
“Nothing is better in Russian,” said Oscar. “It sounds like parcel tongue.”
“Except one thing,” said Gabe. “Holy shit look at her.”
Lunquist and Ipschits swiveled their heads toward the head of the bus. Gabe could be a pig, but his judgment in this case was unimpeachable. Seen closer, the SENT PAUL woman turned out to be a girl of no more than twenty years of age. She wore a bumpy, vaguely Jamaican knit beret, from under which a few wisps of lemonade-colored hair fell across her much darker, substantive eyebrows and over the enormous gray eyes. Her tweed coat began stolidly, with padded shoulders and functionless clasps, and came to an abrupt end around her hips, where a charcoal skirt took over for a very short stretch. The rest of her was legs – legs in black stockings that seethed purple and green around the sides, like a scarab’s shell. She was standing next to Weisskopf, waiting for everyone else to board first, and quietly conversing with him in what sounded like English.
His skills honed by years of playing school bus Pac-Man – dashing forward, doubling back, and triangulating to maintain maximum distance from Pete Reardon’s fist while edging as close as possible to the electric cloud of Debra Szelkowski’s hair – Oscar knew what to do. He walked off as if to study a trash can and re-deposited himself at the very end of the line, behind Angela Lim, the smug empty-handed harpist. (Her instrument, as well as the double basses and the drums, came on loan from the Russians). The girl got on the bus right behind him, followed by the gallant Weisskopf. Once inside, Oscar quickly assessed the spread and found a sprinkling of single free seats – one next to Yasha – and a jackpot of three empty ones in the last, six-seat row. He broke into a light trot (“Hey,” said Yasha) and plopped down not on the middle seat of the three, like his every instinct demanded, but the rightmost one. What’s more, he twisted further right and leaned onto his neighbor, an elderly oboe, again riveted by the very same trash can outside the window and thus freeing up a generous two-and-a-half-seat platform for the next taker.
Sure enough, the girl bit. She picked the seat that registered as “central” to her, which is to say, the one next to Oscar. As soon as she did, Lunquist lost interest in the world outside and returned his torso to the normal, front-facing position, his disturbed bulk settling in all the customary places and immediately darkening the thin sliver of space left between him and the girl. Weisskopf sat down four rows in front, next to Yasha. And then the bus shook, momentarily bringing Oscar and his new companion even closer together – into the buffer zones of each other’s cheek heat – and took off.
“Hi,” said the girl, her “h” deep and sandpapery but her inflection straight out of Malibu. In response, Oscar purpled and gurgled. “Sorry,” he said. “That was a hi.”
“Hi-hi.” She laughed. “My name’s Olga. For friends, Olya. I work on TV6.”
“Oh, cool. You a reporter?”
“Today – translator,” said Olya, tucking a stray strand of hair under her beret. “And not very good at it. As you see.”
“Nonsense, you’re great,” said Oscar a little faster and louder than he meant to. He could see Gabe Messer in the front, craning his neck.
“Oh,” said Olya. “Thank you so much. I was very worrisome.”
The speed with which the Soviet squalor that tends to surround airports in all countries gave way to the actual city took Lunquist by surprise: the highway turned into an eighteenth-century boulevard without much in the way of formal acknowledgment. Soon enough, the long squat buildings whipping by on both sides were crawling with Barocco detail; almost all, strangely enough, were mustard yellow, although their precise hue ranged from Dijon to Gulden’s to French’s. Sometimes, beyond a rusted metal gate or through a darkened arch, Lunquist would glimpse the same buildings’ sooty, psoriatic backsides.
The bus vaulted over a pothole. Below Oscar’s feet, in cargo, something fell and rolled. Burt Weisskopf got up from his seat on the second try, made four unsteady steps backwards and bent over Olya.
“Please tell him,” he said pointing to the driver, “to take it a little easier.”
Olya translated without getting up, in a healthy yell. To Lunquist, all Russian speech sounded like the words cash transaction. The driver’s sweatered shoulders went up in a fatalistic shrug; then he lustily hit the brakes, sending Weisskopf up the aisle well past his row.
“So,” said Olya, turning back to Oscar, “on what do you play?”
“Viola,” said Oscar. “I play on viola.”
“Ah,” said Olya. “Alt.”
“That’s right, alt.” Mystified by the origins of the German bratsche, Oscar had once looked up the word for “viola” in all major languages and happened to know it was “alt” in Russian. In fact, come to think of it, that made “alt” the only word he knew in Russian.
“Are you sad you have to meet millennium on stage?”
“I actually get off a little earlier, believe it or not,” said Oscar. “It’s the Farewell Symphony, do you know it? It’s got this whole thing in the end where musicians leave one by one. First the horns and oboes, then the basses, the celli, then me. Then it’s just two violins at the end.”
“Good,” said Olya. “Maybe I’ll find you and we can go for a walk. I decided I want to be on the river when it happens. The river’s right nearby.”
“I want to be on the river, too,” said Oscar.
* * *
The hasty string rehearsal, arranged on plush red chairs in the hotel’s conference room, flew by in a fluorescent haze. Oscar must have played decently, since he didn’t recall hearing any words directed at him. Afterwards he went walking around the hotel, saw a bridge with four gryphons, got lost, froze, came back to find out he had missed the welcome luncheon, and spent the rest of the day en suite, going in and out of consciousness on an unmade bed next to Josh’s duffel bag, from which a long red t-shirt lolled like a tongue.
When the St. Paul Symphony bus pulled up to Palace Square, around 11 p.m., a local orchestra was finishing a bang-up job on Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” The square, vast and convex, revolved like a warped record around an angel-topped central pillar. Semicircular risers designed to hold the orchestra had swallowed the pillar’s lower half, and behind the musicians a projection backdrop showed an animated “2000” shattering into stars and reassembling on a loop. Every few seconds, the pass of a roving floodlight would blanch the image out; Oscar traced the beam to a small helicopter suspended in the violet skies off to the side. The concert was clearly more of a TV event than a live one. Half a dozen television trucks, including TV6, formed a wagon camp right in front of the stage, and an agile little crane kept rising from the gathered crowd, like a giant robot pumping its fist to the music, to grab sweeping shots of the square.
Oscar squinted at the onstage heating lamps, which appeared few and far between. Icy wind was easily making its way under the tuxedo jacket, past the honeycomb weave of the thermal underwear that encased Oscar’s torso and limbs under the white shirt and flapping black trousers. An ivory waistcoat struggled to keep his freethinking gut in check, its delicate pleats widening visibly with each breath; a white bow tie pressed against the Adam’s apple at each nervous swallow. So used to sweating into his tux at concerts, Oscar found the sensation of cold temporarily pleasurable. For once, this silk-and-wool armor didn’t feel like pointless self-mortification – it actually stood between him and the Russian winter.
The musicians began to take places. Lunquist had barely settled in his first-row position in Camp Viola when the desire to scan the crowd for Olya overwhelmed him, and he stood back up.
He found her in the first place he looked, by the TV6 truck. She was chatting up an enormous and clearly amorous penguin, who kept touching her on the shoulder with his flipper. Oscar bit his lip, and re-bit it harder when the penguin turned around and bounded onstage with the rest of the second violins.
“Yo,” said Messer, passing by Lunquist on the way to his teacher’s-pet perch on the conductor’s immediate left. “You should have busted out with me and Dipshit after lunch. The girls here are – talk later. Rock.”
Forlorn Oscar stared back at Olya, and discovered that she had made her way to the front of the stage and was now waving in his direction. He nodded tentatively; she beamed and clapped with her palms an inch from her chin, like a delighted child. Six positions away, Messer pointed his bow at her and drew a rakish ampersand in the air; she clapped again, perhaps even harder. Oscar looked at Gabe. Gabe looked at Oscar. The conductor, an eighty-year-old Latvian whose bald head shone like a broiling turkey breast under a personal heat lamp, shuffled onstage between them, and now everyone had to clap, including Olya. Then they all went to work.
A few sprightly passages in the Presto part of the fourth movement made Lunquist concentrate on the music, but as soon as the Adagio began, he locked eyes with her again. She was looking at him, at him, God damn it, not at Messer, not at anyone else. This was going to be a good millennium after all. Somewhere on the next two pages of the score, the si parte direction – his cue to leave – lay in wait.
Yasha Ipschits was in the first group to reach the staggered finish line. He shoved the clarinet under his elbow like a giant thermometer and danced out on spindly legs. 23 more languid measures swam by, 1999 petering out with them. The backdrop projection was showing 11:48 with the pulsing colon, flashing occasionally to live feeds from the Red, Trafalgar, and Times Squares. The first horn and second oboe have waddled off. Bye-bye double basses. And now the cellos were gone, in a herbivorous stampede.
The violas were the second to last to depart, which would give Lunquist, he figured, about fifty-five seconds on Messer. He screeched out his last foreshortened F sharp, yanked himself up, and marched off stage at the head of the viola corps, almost knocking over the abandoned harp and two heat lamps. In the dark mirror of the square, he could see Olya going in the same direction, weaving through the crowd to meet him at the bottom of the stairs.
He thundered down the springy metal steps, with little regard for the hushed coda unfolding behind him, and found her wiping a tearlet with the back of a knit mitten.
“Oh wow,” said Oscar. “Did the music–”
“No no, it’s just cold,” said Olya. “Ready? It’s without five minutes midnight.”
Oscar glanced up at the stage, where the trapped Gabe, alongside first violin Bertha Stivers, was finishing up the business. Impatience was audible in his every note: the final phrases sounded less elegiac than martial. He was ushering in the Twenty-First century with the triple whammy of anger, jealousy and blue balls. Stivers was bending toward Messer in a desperate attempt to secure eye contact. Even from the audience, Oscar could read the polite fury on her face.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered to Olya, in awe of the words that were issuing from his mouth – the most grown-up, the most Hollywood thing he had ever said.
“Do you have a cot?” she asked.
Oscar almost had a heart attack before he realized she meant “coat.” That realization came tinged with relief; otherwise he wouldn’t know what to do with this much luck, this much happiness, all at once.
“I don’t need one,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Okay,” said Olya. “First to the river. Then I show you the city.”
His heart revving in all directions like a daredevil in a bike dome, Lunquist took her by the hand. They walked, walked faster, broke into a jog, bumped a few shoulders and emerged, disgorging clouds of sparkling steam, into the empty expanse of the square. The silk lapels of Oscar’s tuxedo shimmered with snow and reflected light. It was freezing, and the wind from the river kept coming in precise and seemingly targeted gusts, but such heat was coursing between their interclasped hands that Lunquist felt like unbuttoning his shirt at the collar. Behind them, the square finally erupted in applause, and even as they were walking away from it, the applause was for them.
They strolled toward the riverbank. On their right was a wintergreen palace, rows of too-large statues crowding the edge of its roof like reluctant jumpers. The square narrowed, barely, into a majestic bridge; on the other side of the river were two incomprehensible ruddy structures that looked like abridged and overdecorated lighthouses.
“These are rosters,” said Olya, not clarifying much.
“What do they do?” asked Lunquist.
She pointed out at curling cuneiform protrusions adorning the columns. “Noses of ships.”
Prows, Oscar guessed. Perhaps the pillars were a kind of pirate trophy mantle, then. He wanted to cross the bridge but they turned left instead, following the empty embankment. In front of them two lions, each rolling a ball under a front paw, marked a staircase that led to the water. A chintzy pleasure boat stood nearby, ice-locked at a slight list. TV or radio was blaring inside, a slow, shrill male voice slashed by static.
“Wow,” said Olya. “Yeltsin just resigned.”
“Nothing. I think it’s New Year now. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year.”
A few fireworks hissed into the night on the other shore. They paused on the steps, staring. The staircase’s bottom was submerged under ice, making it look as if the steps extended all the way to the riverbed. Oscar mashed Olya’s hand harder in his knuckleless paw, and she drew in close enough to fog his glasses with her breath. He’d kiss her right there but another couple were noisily pawing at each other at the right lion’s haunches, and Oscar grew timid; they jogged back up.
Another hundred feet from the lions was a statue of Peter the Great with an axe, personally whittling yet another ship’s prow from a hunk of wood. It looked newish, but Peter’s lap already shone from the buffing given to it by tourist behinds. Such hoarding of beauties seemed unseemly, almost neurotic, to Lunquist. A serious metropolis had no business being so pretty. He was just about to say something to that effect when they came across yet another Peter, astride a horse astride a snake astride a rock.
The embankment kept offering up little staircases that led to water-level platforms and nooks. Each time he saw one, Oscar swore to himself he was going to drag Olya down there and kiss her, and every time passed one he chickened out. She, meanwhile, kept walking at a brisk, almost businesslike pace, stealing the occasional sidelong look at him and smiling to herself. They passed the French consulate, with a loud party inside; a cork hit a windowpane as they strode by, no doubt having just left a bottle of very good Champagne.
“I wish I was French,” sighed Olya. “I should took French instead English.”
“But then we wouldn’t be able to talk,” posited Oscar reasonably.
“We could do other things,” said Olya, and put her head on his shoulder. Next staircase, decided Oscar, he was definitely going to kiss her.
At that moment, the staircases ended. Before them another, iron, vaguely New York-looking bridge rose from the frozen haze. Olya pulled on Oscar’s hand, piloting him across the embankment and back into the city, away from the magic river.
“Where are we going now?” asked Oscar.
“I live in Kolomna,” she explained. “It’s little blocks from here.”
“You’re a sosulka,” said Olya, grinning. “Icicle. You need tea.”
The realization that they were going to her place was so massive, so reverberant with repercussions, that Lunquist needed a few more blocks to process it. The cold, which had reasserted itself somewhere around the second Peter, receded once again. He actually broke a sweat. They crossed a modest bridge over a black canal; a bouquet of golden cupolas came into view far away – the first thing in this city that looked, to Lunquist’s eyes, Russian.
“Look,” spoke up Olya. “Over there. You should know who it is.” She pointed across the street, at a dark mass of a monument. It depicted a seated man, if it was indeed a man, wearing a beard or a ruffled collar – Oscar couldn’t tell from the distance.
“Rimsky-Korsakov,” she explained when he failed to recognize the silhouette.
“My God,” said Oscar, slowing his steps as if to admire the figure. “Such culture.”
Now or never. Olya stopped, too. And with the abandon he had not known before, under the invisible gaze of the great composer, Oscar tore off his glasses and pressed his face, all its chilled hillocks, into hers. She responded immediately, kissing his lips, his nose, his eyelids; Oscar felt around for a pocket to put his glasses, couldn’t find one and embraced her anyway. Olya’s quick hands roamed over his snowy lapels, along the pleats of his vest. “Come on, baby,” she said in a learned, alien voice. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“Let’s,” whispered Oscar. “Let’s.”
“Amerikancy?” inquired a cracked male voice coming from a pool of absolute darkness that stretched between them and Rimsky-Korsakov. “Nu-nu.”
Oscar and Olya fell apart. He peered in the direction of the voice and saw a black blob moving against another black blob. He put the glasses back on. The moving blob separated into three human figures: cops. The feral St. Petersburg militiamen.
Par for the course, Oscar tried telling himself. Doing their job. Nothing to fear. And anyway, he and Olya were just kissing. A part of him quietly rejoiced at that just: kissing had never been just kissing. It was all there was.
“What you do?” asked the same voice, growing louder. “Porno, yes? You make porno?”
The voice’s owner stepped onto a carpet of greenish light laid down by a nearby pharmacy sign. The militiaman was thirty-five or so years old, and wore a heavy-looking mustache that stretched parallel to the rim of his hat and almost to the same width. In fact, Oscar thought, it was he who looked like a cop from an old porno. But this might not have been the time or the place to point out this droll detail.
One by one, the other two cops joined him in the light. One was old – well over fifty, with a craggy, pockmarked face; the other appeared to be of Oscar’s years, a rookie, if not for a wolfish expression that made him look ageless.
“Porno, yes?” asked the mustached cop again, clasping Oscar’s elbow right where Olya’s tremulous fingers have been not twenty seconds ago. He must have been the English speaker of the group, or generally the spokesman. “Chika-chika?”
“Say something in Russian,” whispered Oscar to Olya, who had taken a step back.
“Are you crazy?” said Olya. “If they think we’re American they may let us go. Give them money.”
“What do you mean give them – I don’t have any money.”
“You must have some money.”
“I’m wearing a tuxedo! There’s no place for –”
“No money?” asked the mustached cop. “I hear no money?”
“No,” said Oscar. “It’s all a misunderstanding. No porno. No money. American citizen.”
“Okay,” said the cop in an agreeable tone, without letting go, however, of Oscar’s elbow. “We go make form now.”
Olya sighed and said something quick in Russian. Cashtransaction cashtransaction. The mustache cop nodded and made a dismissive gesture. And then she turned and began walking – past the dark statue, away from Oscar, toward the mysterious Kolomna.
“Olya,” said Lunquist quietly. “Olya?”
“I’ll be back!” she yelled, without turning or slowing down. “Don’t worry!”
“We go now,” repeated the mustached cop, tightening his grip.
The precinct was a few blocks away. Like everything else here, it was housed in an incongruously beautiful building, an ancient firehouse complete with a tower. The foursome – the porno cop with Lunquist at his side, then the young cop, then the old one – marched into the building’s side yard, into a labyrinth of Militia jeeps parked this way and that, and finally through a shrieking metal door the cops had found by feeling around in the dark.
“After you,” said the mustache cop sarcastically.
Oscar half-expected a dungeon but found an overlit office. The walls were paneled with glossy imitation wood; in the center were two desks pushed together face-to-face, an impressive paper pile bridging the divide. Arranged around the pile was a not uncozy display of ashtrays, playing cards, a half-filled, half-doodled-around crossword puzzle, two or three phones and an electric kettle. Oscar even noticed a few haphazard attempts at seasonal decoration, culminating in a small fake tree made of silver foil in the near right corner. Above it, an unlit string of spiky lights hung from the same nail that held a slightly crooked Yeltsin portrait, and stretched across the room in a shallow arc to reach the framed Schwarzenegger poster on the opposite wall.
The youngest cop took over the control of Oscar’s elbow and led him to the holding pen at the far end of the room. It looked less like a cage and more like a big pantry. The bars separating it from the rest of the station seemed so generously spaced that Oscar – well, not Oscar, but someone like, say, Yasha – could, it seemed, easily walk in and out at will. It even had a calendar on its green back wall, a 1988 one, with cats. Instead of putting Lunquist in the pen, however, the young cop took a pair of cuffs from a desk drawer, threaded the detainee’s arms through the bars behind his back, and pinned him up to the cage on the outside, facing the room. The cop with the mustache cleared the far edge of the double desk of debris, plopped down on it and lit up with his back to Lunquist. The older cop, meanwhile, sat at the near side and began diligently filling out a paper form. In front of him was another, tabletop calendar, at which he periodically glanced as he wrote. This one had expired precisely one hour ago. December 1999 was a nurse resuscitating two headless, but very much present, patients at once.
This is not horrible, thought Oscar. I’ll probably just ask them to call the hotel and–
He didn’t catch the moment when a fist made contact with the soft folds of his stomach. Just the poison starfish of pain that sprouted up and out from the point of impact. Bile danced on the back of his tongue, soft zapping sensations walked up and down his limbs like static electricity, but all of that was secondary to the revolt in his overstuffed middle.
“Opa!” said the mustache cop, like a Greek restaurant waiter, turning around. The youngest cop — it was he who hit me, Oscar dispassionately noted — was shaking his balled-up hand in fast small circles in front of him.
“Why?” cried Lunquist, regaining his breath in small irregular allotments. “Why?”
“Whaaa,” repeated the older cop in pitying babytalk, finishing up the form and signing it with gusto. “Whaaa. A nu-ka v’ebosh’ emu esche razok, chtob ne vyakal.”1
The mustached cop, now engrossed in the spectacle, left his perch on the desk and came closer to inspect the damage. The younger cop swung again, but the colleague shoved him aside; both almost fell to the floor as a result, and the oldest cop gave a hiccupping giggle at the sight. Only now had it occurred to Oscar that all three were uproariously, blindly drunk.
“Uchis’, blya,”2 said the mustached cop to the young colleague. He scratched his bulbous nose, visibly thinking, until he came up with a good move. He swung his right leg back a bit, as if kick-starting a motorcycle, and kneed Oscar in the groin.
The good news was that the pain took the focus away from the stomach. The bad news was literally everything else.
Several seconds later Oscar opened his eyes only to see the older cop up off his chair and striding toward him with a paternal smile.
“Ay-yi-yi,” said the cop shaking his head, eyes crinkled with compassion. He put his right hand on Oscar’s left shoulder and leaned in deep, as if to tell him a secret.
“Ay-yi-yi.” Oscar could smell his breath – spent ethylalcohol sub-flavored by rotting teeth, the combination truffle-like in its dank essence. A rumble came from the cop’s chest, drawing closer to the surface; bronchitis, thought Oscar. And then the old man threw his head and shoulders sharply back, setting up a shot, and arced a cameo of bright yellow snot, ringed with tiny saliva bubbles, onto Oscar’s left breast.
“Opa,” said the mustache cop again.
This time, Oscar began to kick. Pain was one thing, this was another. He needed that vile slug off him, by any means necessary. He even almost succeeded in scraping it off on the nearest steel bar when the old cop shook his head once again, disappointed, disapproving, and smashed Lunquist’s lips with a quick, direct downward jab.
The inside of Oscar’s upper lip broke against his own right incisor, filling the mouth with the taste of sea and steel; and then, overcome by a sense of nightmare inexorability – grasping the entire phenomenon at once, beginning, middle, and end, a clarity that counted as extremely short-term clairvoyance – Oscar felt the tooth loosen and unmoor. His mind darkened. A part of him was now a foreign object, a breakaway republic, and the change – the switch – was baffling more than painful. The rogue incisor, hard and light, with a queasily jellied underside, dropped past the recoiling tongue, momentarily clanking against its lower cousins – they felt it, it didn’t feel them – and came to rest on the floor of Oscar’s mouth like a cough lozenge. For a split second, Oscar entertained a wild illusion that it might dissolve. It didn’t, and now a new task presented itself – getting rid of it.
Spitting it in the face of the attacker would be a good gesture, but it guaranteed exponentially more violence. Oscar gingerly released it onto the floor, rappelling on a bright red cord. A stray drop painted a military title on his tuxedo lapel. Good thing I’m not playing in the winds section, he thought, at which point another thought occurred to him. “My hands,” he said. “Don’t hit my hands.”
“Hendz,” said the man that hit him. “Hände hoch!”3 he suddenly added in German, and the two others laughed. What the hell? Did they speak German? Could this be an opening, a chance to connect on a more European playing field?
“Ich…” began Oscar.
“Ikh,” repeated the old cop. “Ikh libzdikh! Ne bzdih.”4 The other two were now practically on the floor. OK, so they didn’t actually speak German. They just knew a few phrases and found them funny. Still, this was… something. This was worth trying.
“Ich,” repeated Oscar through tears, drip-painting a crescent on the floor in front of himself. “Ich spiele Bratsche. Brechen Sie nicht meine Hände, bitte. Ich spiele Bratsche.”5
“Uh ty,” said the mustache cop. “Bratcami zovyot.”6
The youngest cop, who had been meaningfully cracking his knuckles, suddenly hesitated at the edge of Oscar’s bloodmarked private space. He hovered about two feet from Lunquist, stepping up and drawing down, up and down, gripped by mysterious indecisiveness.
Oscar had no idea what, if anything, was going on. He just knew that something he had said found the right frequency, filled the right slot in the swirling chaos. “Bratsche,” he sobbed, zeroing in on the magic word, the missing tooth somehow making his Schs more authentically German. “Ich spiele Bratsche.”
“Izbili bratcy,”7 nodded the older cop sympathetically. “Mda… Izbili bratcy.”
The youngest cop gave a puzzled snort. “Yopta… zagovoril.”8
“Blya, a shepelyavit-to kak. Vo suka, a?”9 said the mustache cop.
There followed a brief and urgent conference among the three. The older cop shushed the younger one and exchanged a few quiet, almost professional-sounding phrases with the mustached cop. And, after another deafening fermata, the former reached for the key to the cuffs while the latter, in one disgusted motion, lifted from his desk and thrust in front of the sobbing, blood-bubbling Lunquist a red plastic phone that looked like a toy Camaro, with a curly cord tangled into a dreadlock.
By 8:30 a.m. on January 1, 2000 AD, Burt Weiskopf and Yasha Ipschits located the elusive entrance to the precinct in a sideyard off Sadovaya Street, near Voznesensky Boulevard. Weisskopf spoke a little, in upbeat tones, and Yasha translated; then a thin envelope, prepared back at the hotel, surfaced in Weisskopf’s hand and dove into the older cop’s, wave to wave in one smooth dolphinlike arc, and Yasha’s services were no longer needed.
The light outside was sick and sourceless, with a milky-blue tinge. Oscar’s reddened collar took on the hue of Concord jelly. Weisskopf tentatively half-hugged the violist’s soft shivering shoulders, thought of a harassment suit, and withdrew. A private-looking van waited right on the sidewalk; the driver was finishing a short flat cigarette that burned with audible crackle.
“Hey Osc,” said Yasha. “What do you call a violist with two brain cells?”
Lunquist climbed into the van without answering and sat in the back sideways, left cheek to the velour upholstery. The seat smelled of fresh tobacco crumbs.
“Pregnant,” said Yasha, following him inside. “Pregnant. Get it?”
Weisskopf and the driver took their places in the front. The van’s radio, which had been playing a synthesizer version of Vivaldi with a disco beat, issued a series of beeps and went into a news brief. Cashtransaction Yeltsin cashtransaction Putin.
“Have you seen Olya?” asked Lunquist. His eyes were closing and opening like a fed kitten’s; he didn’t know it at the moment, but for the last two minutes he had, in fact, been asleep.
“All right!” said Weisskopf with desperate pep. “To Radisson, please.”
The driver sucked the last molecule of tar out of his cigarette and ground the fag into the dashboard ashtray. He was a man of at least sixty-five, with rabbity eyes under a plaid golfer’s cap crowned by a cloth button. He had yanked it too far down, pinching his earlobes; his noggin had stretched the cap into a cupola, lifting the edges of the button off the cloth. It looked like a tiny UFO that’s landed on top of a hill.
“Ruddyson,” the driver repeated melancholically, glancing back past the destroyed Lunquist to check for passerby. He turned the ignition key, making a keychain devilkin dance and the whole van shudder and buck, and began to edge into the hungover morning traffic, down Sadovaya, toward Nevsky, steering with his left hand while his right one switched the station from talk to another terrible melody.
- Give him another good one so he stops mewling. [↩]
- Watch and fucking learn [↩]
- Hands in the air! (Ger.) [↩]
- A corruption of “I love you” (Ger) rhymed with “Quit farting around” (Rus) [↩]
- I play viola. Don’t break my hands, please. I play viola. (Ger) [↩]
- Well I’ll be. He’s calling us “brothers” (Rus) [↩]
- Brothers beat me (Rus) [↩]
- Fuck me … he can speak (Rus) [↩]
- Shit, listen to him lisp. Son of a bitch (Rus) [↩]