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 capita