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’d still be in the army if it weren’t for that. The army was never my home, but it was a good job.
Nick makes a face. “They must think to get you in deeper than you can get out. What’s the vig?” Nick uses Mafia talk when he wants to be funny.
“A come-on the first year and ten percent the second.”
“And they call me a crook?”
When I started at the yard, it was all boss/employee. “It’s the fucken battery, Dwight. Why did I hire you?” Like because he owned the place, he knew more than me.
“No, it’s not; it’s the starter. You hear that click when you turn the key? You hired me because I’m the best mechanic you’ve ever seen.” I’d spent three of my seven years in the service going to army schools, learning about vehicle motors and electrical systems. I knew what I was doing. When it came to cars, anyhow. Nick was at least twenty-five years older than me, but that was never a problem; he never treated me like one of his shirttail relatives. I wasn’t Russian, and he wasn’t responsible for me.
For my part, I’d kind of enjoyed watching the spectacle of the Petrovs in motion. Nick was always having these confrontations with his family, on the phone, face-to-face. Once after a lot of yelling a nephew pulled a gun on him when we had a wrecker up on the rack, replacing a muffler. Nick thought it was funny, just said something in Russian and laughed. The kid backed down. I asked him later what he’d said. “I gave him a Russian proverb, ‘You cut off the head of the snake, the whole body dies. That means you.’ Some of them don’t know how much they need me.”
I’d heard Nick’s tow truck business was the closest the Russian families came to a legitimate enterprise, that there were parts of the family group, especially in southern California, who did murders for hire, assassinations, and kidnappings. That another branch handled the drugs. Nick read accounts aloud from the LA Times sometimes.
“ ‘A new wave of assaults and armed robberies. . . . The Russian mafia in action, a police spokesman said.’ Those cops can’t tell the difference between Ukrainian and Chechen and Armenian. They’ve never even heard of Belarus; certainly not of Minsk. I’m an honest Russian-American businessman: I don’t like what they do down in LA. That’s why I came to Sacramento—so I could employ classic business principles up here. Minimize conflict; maximize the profit margin.” That was after we got to know each other better. My stealing cars and going down for it when I was a kid seemed pretty mild.
One time back then he was pissed off at someone or something and grabbed his car keys and told me, “Let’s take a ride.” I had just finished doing a brake job on one of the wreckers. It’s August, blazing hot in the Sacramento Valley, and he starts up Highway 80 like we can drive out of the heat, keeps the needle on 90 up to Truckee and over Donner and down into Reno, AC on full blast. Talking, telling stories about the Russian cars, Lada, a piece of shit if there ever was one, and then the Italians come and build a Fiat plant outside of Moscow and start putting out something worse.
In Reno it’s even hotter than Sacramento. We go to what used to be Harrah’s Auto Museum; I’d been there as a kid, told Nick about it. But now most of it is gone; still a lot of old cars, but nothing like the collection I remembered. The shop’s gone too, where you could watch them restore the cars; that’s what always interested me as a twelve-year-old. The museum is maybe twenty percent of what it used to be.
Nick doesn’t know that and is enjoying himself. When we come to the Maseratis he’s half interested, but it’s when he passes the Chrysler makes, Plymouth and Dodge, that he gets excited and jumps right into a ’53 Plymouth. There are signs all over the place: don’t touch the cars; alarms will go off, sensors; I expect security to come any minute and arrest both of us. Nick yells, “Take my picture, take my picture.” He’s like a big kid. None of the guards come running. I take a couple photographs, then more in a Dodge. From then on, he started to treat me sort of like a friend.
Three days since Nick’s shown up, and I’m starting to worry a little. If the law doesn’t find him here, his former associates might. He ratted out some of them. But that fret doesn’t last; we start talking and the time passes. New stories: how he got into a life of crime. “I was a star student,” he tells me, “on my way to the university to study mechanical engineering. The Soviet Union was still intact. But it was like living in slow motion, waiting three hours in line to buy a roll of toilet paper. And I couldn’t resist taking things that didn’t belong to me. Just to see if I could. I got caught and I didn’t get caught. I did a little time and I got out. I broke my folks’ hearts. But I was addicted to the thrill, poking holes in the law. I wasn’t the only one in the family; my parents never talked about the others, but I knew. And for me it was never just for the money.”
Nick stretches, rubs the back of his neck. “My mother was a Jew, but that didn’t mean anything to our family until the Soviet Union started expelling unhappy Jews. I signed up and ended up in Israel, a truly paranoid country. Two years in the Israeli army on the border of Lebanon was enough for me. I got a chance to come to the USA, and I took it. If the people of the world have a collective dream, an image of the perfect place, it’s California. Like heaven: if you can get there, everything will be all right. Can you believe in the myth of some place on a map? Yes you can. They made me a U.S. citizen.
“When it got back to Minsk that I had made it to the Promised Land, established myself in the Golden State, nothing could have kept my former associates from coming, pretending to be relatives on visas. They would have swam across the Atlantic Ocean, and crawled across the continent to get here. People who I’d never met came, knowing I’d find them something to do. I didn’t always know what they were up to. That’s where I made my mistake. I could have been legitimate. Real estate was booming; I could have invested my money, but I didn’t. I guess I liked the crazy things that happen when you’re active as a criminal. Don’t you miss it, Dwight?”
He’s always exaggerated my crimes. I’d explained this before. “I was never on your level, Nick.” I just stole cars. It was like I couldn’t help myself. I knew it was stupid. I stole nine cars in one day to top the record at Continuation School, and all the time I was driving each one of them around the building, honking my horn for the guys looking out the classroom window, I knew I was going to get caught. Knew that I deserved to be put in jail for being so dumb. That most of the guys in the school were dumber than I was; that now they’d try and break my record.
“No, I don’t miss it, to answer your question, Nick.” I don’t tell him what I’m thinking: my mother was a waitress. I could have been a better son, got a job, made it easier for her; instead I got the choice, army or prison, and never realized that I’d think about how stupid I was again and again for the rest of my life.
On the fifth day I stop thinking about the cops coming for Nick and locking me up with him. I do my shift at the construction site, head home; Nick works on the alternators. But I stop in at the Silver Dollar once, so they’ll know I’m still alive and won’t send someone to the yard to check up on me. The place is dead. I know the bakery’s closed down, but I’m the only one in there besides a relief bartender I’ve never seen before. I make myself drink my beer slow. This is the time the day shift used to get off; the place should be full of people wearing whites, drinking up before they go home. When Dana comes in I have a second beer. “Dwight, where have you been?” She gives me a big hug. Makes me feel good. She talks, I listen. “Business is so bad it’s almost funny, seeing if it can get even worse. That bakery had eleven hundred employees. Gone, all of them. Swallowed by the recession.” We chitchat. “Wendy was in yesterday; she asked if I’d seen you.”
I say again, “I’ve been busy working.” Driving back to the yard, I realize I’ve been going to that place since before I was legally able to drink. Never joined the bowling team or went down in the hired bus to San Francisco for a Forty-Niners game, but I usually stop by every couple of days. They know me there. I have no family left in Sacramento, but I’ve got friends here.
I’d taken Nick to the Dollar a couple times before the arrests, but I could tell he didn’t really like being there. Jumpy, like someone would ask him to dance or something—mingle, make small talk. He didn’t live in the neighborhood like I did. He had a houseboat on the river and drove a sixty-five thousand dollar Mercedes. He dismissed the place. “A bunch of bakers.” It didn’t piss me off. I understood he thought he was better than they were. He’d invited me to a party once at the marina where his houseboat was docked. Yuppies, professionals who probably thought of Nick as one of them. Lawyers, doctors, businesspeople. I always wondered what they thought after Nick was sent down. I think he was passing himself off as retired English gentleman.
Seven days, and we are running out of things to talk about. Last night a cop car pulled up in front of the yard and parked by the gate. Then another. Backup. The flashing colored lights on top of the patrol car bounce around the room like party balloons. This is it, I think. Nick is playing it cool. After a couple minutes they drive off. False alarm, Nick says. Then he tells me he’s going to grow a mustache. But tonight when I come home he’s wearing one of my Hawaiian shirts and he wants to go out. I’m getting the feeling Nick is never going to leave, ever, or worse, he is going to contact his old crime partners and do something really bad. A going away tribute to California. What does he have to lose? I shower, change into fresh coveralls. I used to think the big logo on the back, AAACE TOWING, brought business. I still get service calls, but now they are few and far between.
We take my wrecker—I don’t have any other vehicle—and we just drive around, down to the marina first. His houseboat’s gone, sold long ago, along with his Mercedes and the wrecking yard, to pay the fines. I got the yard because the VA came through with a big back payment and no one else wanted to buy a place in a derelict light industry park. We stop at a restaurant to eat. Nick goes for the plastic places like I-HOP or Denny’s where the food always seems to me like warmed-up road kill put on a clean plate. It’s a good thing I don’t like to eat. I have an order of toast and spread jam over each limp triangle. Nick has bacon and eggs and a side of biscuits and gravy. We drive to the Indian casino in Placerville, where he loses seven hundred dollars in ten minutes at the blackjack table. He must know what I’m thinking, because he calls it quits then.
Near the Elk Grove turnoff I’m waved down by a couple who’ve run out gas. They’re arguing: “I told, I told you,” the woman says as the guy tries to explain it’s a rental and he wasn’t watching the gas gauge. I empty the two and a half-gallon can I carry into their gas tank. Nick stays in the cab. I realize I’m enjoying myself; I’ve missed the people I meet, driving a wrecker: it’s a satisfying job. We cruise around the capitol area, then midtown. It gets dark. “How much did you soak them for the gas?”
“On the house.”
“You’ll never be a businessman, Dwight.”
Ten days. Nick has rebuilt a lot of the alternators. We’ve fallen into a pattern: I get off work and we go out, eat, drive around, then stop at a bookstore—Nick is buying and reading books about California—or at the Red Hawk Casino. He’s lost about three thousand dollars of the fourteen that I gave him. I don’t say anything.
He finishes one of his books and wants me to read it too. I read newspapers, and an occasional magazine. Putting a book in my hands is like giving me a sleeping pill. But this evening we’re sitting in the office drinking beer in the cool of the window AC and I’m reading a thick book called Twentieth Century California. He doesn’t say anything if I nod off unless I snore, like now. “Dwight, wake up; I can’t concentrate.”
Nick is not there when I come back the next afternoon. I look around the shop. He’s got ten alternators left to rebuild. I sit at my desk, going over my bills. It’s too quiet. I phone Wendy; she’s out. I never leave messages. I shouldn’t have even phoned. Wendy is too young for me. Twenty years, another generation. I don’t know any women my age; it’s like I missed my time, staying in the army so long. And I’m not sure what I want any more.
I pick up Nick’s book on California. I’ve lived in the state my whole life, successfully completed my fourth-grade Spanish mission built out of sugar cubes, but it’s never occurred to me to reduce California into a package of facts and events that can be examined. Diagnosed. The chapter on the sixties is saying that California is like some big experiment that the rest of the world watches as entertainment, like it’s funny we elected a third-rate movie actor as our governor. Twice. Who then becomes President of the USA.
Nick comes in about eleven; he wakes me up. He’s wearing a new sport jacket, and I see a taxi pulling away from the gate. He sees I’m holding the book: “Hey man, did I interrupt your studying?” He thinks that’s funny. He’s half drunk. He’s reeking of booze and perfume. “The ladies still love me, Dwight,” he calls from the door. I wonder how much money he has left of the fourteen thousand.
When I come back from work the next day Wendy is there in the office, arguing with Nick. I haven’t seen her for a couple weeks. Twenty-five, but she looks fifteen. Nick is saying the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe in Russian history of the last three hundred years. Wendy, who is smarter than any five people I know, is arguing that for Russia to sell their part of California from Fort Ross north plus Alaska was worse. I get myself a beer. “Then Russia would have been strategically placed on the Pacific Rim to rule the world, instead of just manipulating its satellite countries as a buffer to the West,” Wendy says.
“Would-have-beens and should-have-beens don’t count,” Nick says. He’s enjoying himself. I go down and get some pizza and we have dinner. They keep arguing off and on while we eat. It’s dark outside when Nick excuses himself and goes out into the shop. We sit in a comfortable silence until she says, “You didn’t come into the Silver Dollar on your birthday. Everyone was waiting for you.”
“I got busy.” More silence.
“That’s the Nick of that Petrov family you talk about? He’s an old man. I thought he was in jail.”
When I don’t answer the next couple of questions she stops asking them. Says, “I’ve missed you, Dwight.” I’ve tried to break it off with Wendy, but she forgets that now. I’m tired, and just sit there until she leaves.When I come home on the fourteenth day Nick is waiting for me in the office. “I’m almost finished with the alternators. I’ve really missed working on cars. The one thing made by man you can trust. With a car, when something breaks there’s always an answer. Always a way to repair it.” He pauses. I know what’s coming.“One more favor, Dwight; could you drive me down to LA tonight? I can maneuver better from there.”
I’m ready. “Sure. I’ll rent a car and we’ll go when the traffic thins out.”
Nick works on an alternator right up until we leave. He gets in the back and goes to sleep as I head south. I don’t think about getting caught, but I stay within the speed limit. I like driving at night on this eight lane highway, big rectangles of white light coming at me, then following tail light streaks of red as we go up the grapevine.
Nick wakes up. Starts talking. “You and that girl an item, Dwight?”
“That’s bullshit, Dwight. There’s no such thing between a man and a woman.” When I don’t say anything he goes on to a subject I’ve heard about before. “I knew at the bust-up of the Soviet Union that I should go back. That the state-run businesses would be broken up and there for the taking. I could have been one of those billionaire oligarchs by now. I have a niece that must be in that category now, my younger sister’s daughter. But I couldn’t leave California. Couldn’t leave. I tried. I could have left during my appeal, facing jail time, no chance at all, and still I stayed here. Serving time in California was better that anything else I could think of.
“And now I’m going back. I can’t believe it myself. I’m going home. Shit. I got this notice down at Tehachapi that my citizenship has been revoked. They’re going to deport me, soon as I’ve done my time. What choice do I have?”
He has me pull over at the rest stop at Tejon Pass. He makes a phone call. Comes back to the car with handfuls of candy bars from the machine. “What other country would name a candy bar Payday? No other. I’m going to miss this place, Dwight. I don’t want to go.” I don’t say anything. What is there to say?
We go down the other side of the pass toward the 3 a.m. lights of the LA basin. It doesn’t look so big; not big enough to hold the millions of people that live there. I’m taking my time; only a few other cars on the road are passing me up. Nick is quiet in the back seat. We finish off the candy bars.
I’m supposed to take the exit for Valencia, where someone will be waiting to pick him up. He’s assured me several times that he will send me the money he borrowed. It’s funny, but I don’t care if he does. Really. I thought a couple of times tonight he was on the verge of asking me to come with him to Russia. He’s always made Minsk sound like I could do well there, my own shop, plenty of girls. But I don’t want to leave either. I’ve always known what really matters in my life is here. In California. I hear a sound from the back. Sort of a gasping or choking. I look in the mirror but it’s too dark back there to see. When I look again, he’s bent forward, making the same sound; his hands are covering his face. I’m glad I’m not the one leaving.