Mark Lewandowski's essays and stories have appeared in many journals, and have been listed as "Notable" in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best American Travel Writing, and twice in The Best American Essays. Halibut Rodeo, his short story collection, was published in 2010. Currently, he is Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University. He has also taught as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland, and as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Siauliai, Lithuania.
The sentence just slipped out. I was really just thinking aloud, but there it hung in middle of the train compartment, like the cloud of smoke from cheap Russian cigarettes that braced up the ceiling in the hallway:
“A beer would be nice.”
“You know,” my father said, “a beer does sound good.”
That was enough for Arthur. He jumped from his bunk with more agility than you'd expect for someone made thick from a relentless diet of pork and pierogi, and put on his smile, the one that sometimes cheered me up, and sometimes scared me. Just a week earlier, while we were driving through the main square of Biala Podlaska, he flashed me that smile after I casually mentioned that it would be nice to have a Polish flag. Without a word he scattered a group of pedestrians with a screeching u-turn, jolted to a stop in front of the post office, sprang from his Mercedes and, in front of dozens of midday shoppers, taxi drivers, park square drunks, and likely, one or two beat cops, plucked the fluttering flag from the wall, chucked it into the back seat and sped away, all before I could ask, “Do you know where I can buy one?”
Arthur had been doing things like this since I first met him a year and a half earlier. As class representative of the college I would teach in for two years, he picked me up from my Peace Corps training site near Warsaw and delivered me to my new home in Biala Podlaska. He never actually said “your wish is my command,” but it sure seemed like it. During my tenure he arranged basketball games, horse-drawn sleigh rides, Christmas dinners, Halloween parties, and when my father decided to visit me, this train trip to Saint Petersburg. Poles like to say that “A guest in the house is God in the house.” Arthur took it very seriously. No formal request was ever necessary. Any off-the-cuff remark would set him into action. So I knew right away the beer comment was a mistake. He slipped into his battered pair of white dress shoes and tossed back the long, dirty blond hair that reached the small of his back.
“Okay, Markey,” he said, rubbing round cheeks specked with four day growth. “I will need some money."
On the way to Saint Petersburg four days earlier I had nearly started a riot when I tried to buy one dollar's worth of rubles in the 2nd class compartment. I first proffered the dollar to an old woman, the kind I had seen selling crap at the Russian markets in Poland: head scarf pulled back tight, a few teeth, linty pantyhose encasing unshaven legs. She pinched up her face and scoffed, as if the greenback was a dead rat. A young man across the aisle leaped from his seat and produced a wad of bills.
“I will buy,” he said in English.
The old woman looked at him, then looked at the dollar, and then up at me, and then back to the young man. Boy, did she launch into him, this interloper, this little thief. I didn't understand a word, but I'd bet my grandmothers never used language like that. Not one to respect his elder, the young buck retaliated. While he counted out rubles, the spit tailgating his words sprayed her face. That just made her angrier. She stood on her tiptoes and jabbed a curled finger at his chin. He leaned away. In one fluid motion she slapped away his ruble-filled hands and made a grab for my dollar. I pulled it back.
Behind me, Arthur laughed.
“She thought it was fake,” he said. “Maybe it is the first one she saw outside a film. But the man makes her know it is real.”
While the old woman and the young man fought, the heads of other passengers, yanked out of slumber, out of magazines, out of peekaboo games with their babies, glared at us. I suddenly felt very American, and very vulnerable.
“Markey, do you have another one?” Arthur asked.
I produced another dollar and held one out to each. The fury of words immediately ceased. Now all smiles and happy sounding words, we completed the transaction, and Arthur, my father and I had plenty of rubles for bread, mineral water and questionable beef stroganoff from the dining car.
Yes, all for a dollar. But this was 1993. The Soviet Union was in tatters, the ruble in free fall. Once in Saint Petersburg, we paid twenty-five cents each for box seats at the Kirov to see a ballet production of Macbeth, and fifteen cents for a piano concert. We were in jeans and flannel shirts while the Russians were in tuxedos and bow ties. After the concert my father and I tipped the coat check woman a dollar. She didn't seem to understand at first; no one in tuxedo or fur coat gave her money. (We didn't know Russia wasn't a tipping culture.) When she realized we were giving it to her, no questions asked, her face stretched into a smile, and she blew us kisses as tears formed in the corner of her eyes. I felt rich. Me, a Peace Corp volunteer, throwing around money like John D. Rockefeller and his dimes, battling communism one good ol' American dollar at a time. How smug I was. On the train some young Russians asked my father how much money he made, and how big his house was. When he told them they whistled in astonishment, even though he wasn't rich by American standards. Was it pride I felt, on top of that smugness? Yeah. But now when I think back on it, how we were able to live it up, traversing the rubble of the Iron Curtain with our dollars and expensive shoes, having a grand old time, I feel ridiculous. Before the Curtain fell, the Soviet Union was just a dark mystery to me. I never even dreamed of visiting. I was still in college when the Cold War ended. I am its byproduct. In elementary school I crawled under my desk during bomb drills, and cheered when James Bond snuffed out Soviet agents. In my very first attempt to write a short story-a silly science fiction yarn-the hero, after exploring the moons of Jupiter, turns his space ship into a potent missile and destroys the Evil Empire. I knew about Martial Law in the land of my father's parents, and had read about the 1956 crackdown in Hungary, ancestral home of my mother. The Soviet Union was the enemy, I had been taught, and I learned the lesson well.
Now look what the enemy had been reduced to: fighting over a dollar. Not even enough to buy you a cup of coffee in Manhattan. Initially it was funny, and some part of me thought “they” deserved it. That didn't last, though. I was nobody special, just someone born in the right place, in the right time, part of what a Peace Corps friend called “The Lucky Sperm Club.” I was no more a conquering hero than the two Russians who fought over my dollar were vanquished enemies.
There the beer comment hung. Perhaps I could have taken it back. But what the hell, a beer did sound good. It was past midnight and we couldn't sleep. The train had stopped somewhere on the plains of Belarus. It was always stopping, sometimes for as long as an hour. No one seemed to know why, or for how long, not even our car's matron. Occasionally there was a station, but few people ever seemed to get on or off.
I reached into my neck pouch and pulled out a five dollar bill.
Arthur looked at it and scratched his pointed chin.
“That is too much,” he said.
“It's the smallest I have,” I said. “I have some Polish zlotys. Will that work?”
Arthur gave me a laugh, the one he made with a wide open mouth and arched back, no sound but a slight hiccup at the end, the one he reserved for when I was being the idiot American.
He plucked the American bill from my hand.
“It is no problem,” he said. He slid open the compartment door. Cold air poured in. It was early April and so frigid that we had toured Saint Petersburg in gloves, woolen hats and down coats. The hallway was heated, but the smokers opened the windows, which let in the cold air, yet didn't seem to budge the smoke. I could see, too, that the matron was leaning out through the open door.
“But the dining car's closed,” I said. “I guess somebody might sell us a bottle or two…”
Arthur said nothing, just kept walking. The matron turned away from the door and poured herself a cup from the large samovar in its alcove next to her compartment.
Arthur, without coat or sweater, just jeans and his typical 70's style printed, polyester button down, jumped off the train. It couldn't have been more than fifteen degrees out there.
“Uhhh.” I poked my head out the open door and watched Arthur pierce the darkness. The last thing I noticed was his long straight hair. And then he was just gone: no fading away, no segue, no clear transition. I scanned the countryside. No lights twinkled in the distance; no moon shone. I assumed there was cloud cover, but the only clue to that was absence of stars. I saw no station, no platform.
There's not much out there on the plains of Belarus. Whole towns vanished during World War II. Sometimes no one was left to rebuild. When there were survivors, most relocated (voluntarily or involuntarily) to cities like Minsk or Brest or Tel Aviv. Ruins were plowed under. In eastern Germany or Poland, any sight of an old cattle car makes you sigh and say “Yep” under your breath. In Belarus it's the Nothing that makes you think about what happened during the war. With Arthur sucked into the night like he was, I could've been looking into the Belarus Triangle.
Damn, it was cold. My cheeks started to tingle. I looked at my watch, and did so repeatedly for ten minutes. I knew the train might leave any second. And Arthur was out there, with no winter clothes, and probably without his passport. If the train were to leave without him, even five American dollars might not be enough to get him out of the middle of nowhere.
“Arthur!” I called out, and then again, “Arthur?”
No reply. Should I go after him, I wondered? All I knew is that he went left. After that? Again, I could see absolutely nothing but the amorphous yellow light creeping from the windows on the train. There were no buildings visible, no platform, no friendly conductor-type swinging a lantern along the side of the tracks, whistle ready to announce an imminent departure.
The train lurched. I gripped the cold hand rail and looked at my watch again.
“Arthur! I think we're leaving soon.”
But what about the matron? Wasn't she there to help the passengers in her assigned car? I turned around. There she was, a bob of brown hair hugging a square Slavic face streaked with greasy makeup, sitting in her compartment, drinking her tea and leafing through a magazine.
“Excuse me,” I said, in some form of rudimentary Polish. “My friend is out there, and I don't know where he went, and I'm really worried the train is going to leave…”
My lament lasted a good two minutes, but there were two serious problems with it. First, even though I had lived in Poland for nearly two years, my Polish was shit. Sure, I could read a menu and order dinner, and I could buy bread and toilet paper, but once it came to explaining the Belarus Triangle and the impulsive nature of my friend and the fact that the dining car wasn't open all night long, even though most of the passengers were still up and most likely craving refreshments, well, to use the nomenclature of second language acquisition, my Polish quickly “plateaued.” This in itself really wasn't an issue because of the second problem: the matron was Russian, and even though there are many similarities between Slavic languages the whole Belarus Triangle thing likely would have eluded her, even if my Polish had been spot on. Still, with enough pointing and gesticulation, I finally convinced her to leave her compartment and follow me back to the door.
Once there, I repeatedly skewered the air with a pointed finger, while saying “Friend! Friend! Friend!” over and over again, in Polish.
The matron peered outside and lit a cigarette. When a bite of wind kicked up, she squeeze closed her uniform jacket, shrugged, and then went back to her tea and magazine in her compartment.
The train lurched again. This time it moved a foot forward. In the distance, things clanged and clinked. I also made some kind of noise. I looked back to the matron. She puffed her cigarette and flipped another page.
I was shivering by then. The bite of the air induced tears and snot. I wiped at my face and willed my watch to stop. What had I done? Arthur was my best friend, and I had sent him out into the frozen, Belarussian wasteland for alcohol.
As the minutes ticked by I thought the worst. Arthur had been conked over the head for the five dollars I gave him. Arthur had tripped in a pot hole and lost consciousness in the fall. Arthur had been picked up by the secret police. Belarus was still a Stalinist state, was it not? No glasnost in Minsk.
What would I tell Arthur's parents, those two beautiful people who treated me like one of their own? We were to celebrate Easter with them upon our return.
I felt myself growing smaller and smaller, shrinking into a puddle. I had the sudden urge to blindly jump off the train and tear into the Belarussian darkness. Arthur wouldn't hesitate to do it for me.
But that wasn't necessary. Before I could make the leap, Arthur reappeared.
“Hi, Markey!” His arms were wrapped around the eight, one-liter bottles of beer pressed to his chest. His face was bright red, and snot leaked from his nose, but he had made it back. He boarded the train and flashed me his kielbasa eating grin. As he headed down the hallway I stumbled after him.
“What the fuck, Arthur. Where did you go? You were gone for like a half hour!”
He looked back and laughed. The bastard.
“Alright, you found some,” my father said, as Arthur slid into the compartment. My father cleared the small table in the aisle and Arthur arranged the eight bottles on it. He opened one with his Bic lighter and handed it to my father.
“Na zdrowie!” my father said, before taking a swig.
“Mark,” Arthur said. “There is one problem.”
“What? What is it?”
“You see, it is late out.”
“Yeah, I know. What is it?”
“Well, the men I buy this from? They had no change for your five dollars. I am so sorry!”