Ernest Finney

The Russian Visitor

It’s one of those September days, 85 degrees, blue sky full of popcorn clouds. And it’s my birthday. I can’t help thinking people live too long now. A hundred years ago, if you were forty-three you were an old man. Now it’s like you just graduated from high school. Seventy is the new fifty. On the way home from work I stop at the surplus store and buy three pairs of the blue coveralls I wear on the job. Tomorrow I’ll have DWIGHT sewn over the pocket and AAACE TOWING on the back. I do this on my birthday every year.

I decide it’s too early to stop at the Silver Dollar for a birthday drink and head back to the yard. On September 17th I try to feel thankful for what I’ve got—full time employment, two wreckers, a three-quarter-acre yard with a barn-sized garage that the bank lets me pay on, plus a 400-foot office/apartment, so I have a home—instead of moaning about what I haven’t got. But now, six years into the great recession, I’m the only business left in the light industrial park, all alone in the middle of a dozen eight-thousand-square-foot empty cement buildings with For Lease signs in front and weeds growing up through their parking lots.

I check my messages. Someone with a fake gravelly voice sings me happy birthday. No one’s done that in a long time. Wendy. Giggling at the end, then a “Phone me.” Then one hang-up, and then another. I strip, shower, put on fresh coveralls. Feeling good; this is my birthday. I lie back on my bed for just a minute.

When I wake up and glance back through the office door I see someone sitting at my desk. There are only a couple of windows and the light is bad; Wendy calls the cinderblock apartment/office my bunker. I don’t recognize him at first. Then I do. Nick Petrov. Suntanned, more gray in his crew cut now, but looking fit. White T shirt. He’s staring out of one of the dirty windows into the yard.

At first I don’t even think how Nick happens to be in my office today when five years ago he was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison. Big public trial, people testifying how they lost their Porsches and Corvettes. I wonder if he’s looking back to when he owned this yard and ran the biggest towing company in the Sacramento Valley: twenty, thirty employees; the storage yard always full, a hundred cars or more. He’d hired me then as a mechanic when no one else would, back when the Army had just hit me with a medical discharge and the VA was messing with me over my disability pension.

In those days Nick would come into the shop and sit in an old wooden chair, drinking coffee and watching us work. Help out if we were too far behind. He knew what he was doing with a wrench. I think he used to come into the shop to get away from the office. The relatives who worked for him were always showing up there, and then there’d be loud talk in Russian, a lot of yelling, big gestures. There was always trouble. I kept out of it, which was easy: I was one of the three non-Russian-speaking guys working for Nick.

I was there for thirty-one months; then the whole Petrov family organization was indicted; fifteen were sentenced to prison. I’d known something was up, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. Then I found out. When business was slow, the Russian tow truck drivers would stop and hook someone’s Mercedes or BMW out of their driveway or off the street. Bring it back into the yard and notify the owner after a week or so they owed 150 dollars a day for storage. Most paid up. If they protested, their car disappeared into a chop shop in LA or ended up across the border. This had been going on for over twenty years.

Nick turns when I get up from the bed. “How have you been, Dwight?” It always surprises me how Nick speaks English with an upper crust British accent, like in the movies. His mother had taught French and English at some Russian university.

“Good, Nick; I’ve been good.” I realize I’ve been okay when I say it out loud. “And yourself?”

“I got bored at the fire camp up in the Tehachapis and decided to come back to Sacramento for a visit.” He laughs, and I do, too. When two appeals failed and he knew he was going down, he’d left over a half million dollars with me to keep the business connections going with the other Russian organizations. What that meant was I’d get a call from his lawyer that someone was coming by and I was to pay him 20,000 dollars, so you could say I was the Petrov family bagman in Sacramento until the money ran out. For the last year I’d been sending him a hundred dollars a month to use in the commissary, out of my own pocket. I felt I still owed the man; he’d made sure I’d get this property, right before they locked him up.

I notice the time, past six. “You hungry, Nick?”

“I could do with a bite. That Greek pizza place still open?”

“I’ll go pick it up. They don’t deliver anymore. Hard times after you left. They and the laundromat are the only ones left in the strip mall.”

“So I’ve heard; I’ve been keeping up on the decline of the economy. It makes you wonder if capitalism is all it’s cracked up to be.”

I walk down to the Greek’s and get Nick an extra large with four different toppings, and a small cheese for me. I’m never hungry. I have to work out how to handle this situation. What am I going to do about Nick? So he’s escaped, walked away from the fire camp in the mountains like he says. But why did it take him five years? And won’t someone work out that he’ll probably go back to his old towing business in Sacramento? This could get messy. I have one strike from when I was a kid; I don’t need any more trouble. Abetting. But I want to help him out if I can.

When I get back, Nick is on the phone. We eat pizza and drink beer just like we used to do, while he makes or takes calls, talking away in Russian. After that we sit there enjoying the silence for a couple of minutes until he says, “It took me sixty months to decide this, but I have to leave, Dwight. Can you loan me ten K?”

No hesitation on my part. “It’ll take me half a day.” Not that I knew this was coming, but daily, sometimes hourly, I run my financial situation through my mind like some recurring news flash. Second mortgage: some places are still giving loans if you have any equity; the yard and shop should get me ten thousand easy.

It’s dark outside. I explain to Nick I’ve got a contract with a construction company that’s resurfacing eleven miles of Highway 99 and adding eight new overpasses, that it’s a gravy train job, keeping the single lane moving, towing the breakdowns and accidents out of the way. A stand-around job most of the time, but lucrative. I have two trucks and another driver, Rusty; we split the thirteen-hour shift; I take the first shift; he takes the second. I phone Rusty and get him to fill in for me tomorrow.

Nick is yawning but he wants to talk about being in prison. “For me, Dwight, it was like a rest camp. I was still doing business from inside. Good business.” He goes on, with more than I want to know. Here is a guy who breaks all the rules, gets caught and is undeterred. No second thoughts. No remorse.  Like he is made different, freer or something, from all the restraints the rest of us have. Like he can do anything he wants. I still can’t help feeling a kind of amazement, listening to him.

Nick punches me on the shoulder. “But to what end, Dwight? All the years I was in Sacramento, thirty-five percent of the money I made was going back to Minsk. Everyone who was working for me was stealing from me. My seventy-eight-year-old aunt was skimming. I know they were criminals, but they felt robbing me was their right.”

Nick wants to sleep in the shop. He’d designed the layout for the building himself: two bays with two lifts, a workbench that went along one side of the 4000-square-foot metal building, a lot of overhead lights, a washroom with toilet, urinal and shower, a stove and refrigerator where I cooked if I needed to, a locker room. We go in the side door and I turn on the lights. “What the fuck happened, Dwight?” he says, looking around.

“I was robbed. They stripped the place: all the diagnostic equipment, tools, everything down to the compressor. I got some of the hand tools back when they tried to sell them at the Saturday flea market. But that’s all.” I’m glad he doesn’t ask me about the insurance: I’d let the policy lapse the second year of the recession. At least the place is clean; I still sweep out the gray painted floor and wipe down the metal-topped workbench daily. Nick was a stickler for neatness. About fifty alternators are stacked next to one of the vices: I’m rebuilding them for a friend who owns an electrical shop. Under the table money.

We both take an end of the tire rack and roll it away from the alcove with a couple leather car seats where we used to take naps when we had an all-night job. “Home sweet home,” I tell Nick.

Next day I’m out early. The loan companies are waiting for me. If you have property above water, they’re glad to take a chance on you losing it to them. By noon they’ve sent one of the pilot fish out to take photos of the place. Without me saying anything, Nick stays low. I don’t see him until about one when I bring him his lunch and a red plastic bag filled with hundred dollar bills. He’s at the workbench rebuilding an alternator, wearing a pair of my new coveralls. He’s not making any effort to disguise himself except for a pair of thick state-issued glasses, but maybe he needs those now.

“These foreign makes are crap, Dwight.”

“I know, but that’s what everyone buys. You have to special-order to get one made in USA, and even then be careful it doesn’t have Chinese parts.”

Nick stops what he’s doing and washes his hands at the sink with a bar of Lava. I’ve brought his favorites, foot-long hot dogs with more relish and mustard than bun. He finishes the first in five bites, then starts on the second. Slows down so he can talk. “I hate to admit it, Dwight, but I miss incarceration a little. I liked fighting forest fires. Not that I did a lot of that, because after the first season I passed the EMT test so I got a sit-down job in the first aid tent. But fires have their own personality, just like winter storms. Wind, temperature, the condition of the terrain: all that matters.” He goes on when he sees I’m interested. Finishes up with, “And the food was good; we had our own garden, and a lot of professional cooks end up in minimum security prisons. For drugs, mostly. The gangs are a joke. Some kid thought he should have my desserts. I had to convince him it was a bad idea, and then convince two of his friends before they decided I was too much trouble. It’s the psychotics you have to be careful with.”

He stops to look at me, then finishes his hot dog and empties his bottle of beer. “You want to get rid of me, Dwight?” I don’t answer, and we both laugh. “I don’t want to cause you any trouble. But, sad to say, I had nowhere else to go.” He wipes his hands with the napkin that came with the hotdogs and picks up the red plastic bag. “Ten?”

“No, the sharks insisted on fourteen.” And I‘d thought, what the hell; I wanted to seem generous. He’s good for the money. We’d talked before about me visiting Minsk, on him, as his guest. Belarus is right next to Lithuania, where the most beautiful women in the world are, he’d always say. I’d liked the idea. It’s not that I haven’t been around: in the army I saw most of Western Europe; Panama; the Mideast in the Gulf War, where I got hurt. I’