Dima woke most every morning to his spastic cat attacking his feet. He punted the cat off the bed and then slowly rolled himself upright, carefully setting his feet to the floor, wary of another ambush. The power had come back on in the middle of the night so the radio and TV competed for his attention as he moved through his second-floor one-room flat. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped to silence Lady Gaga, and then the Ukrainian version of the sitcom ‘The Nanny.’ The room was divided by a wooden fold-out pane he had devised from lumber found near the complex dumpster. For this, as with all his ideas, he was inspired by a need. In this case the idea was prompted when his daughter became a teenager and needed her privacy. But in recent years it also helped for when his brother-in-law would sometimes stop over, uninvited, to sleep off his vodka binges.
In the kitchen he pushed away the yellowed linen curtains and pulled open the windows. He had installed them to open inwards so they would stop banging against the steel bars attached to the window frame outside. Dima didn’t trust the city tap water except to water his wife’s plants along the windowsill. He watered them now, as he did every morning. He set down the watering cup and turned to the kitchen counter to plug in his sheet-metal electrolysis contraption, and poured the tap water into the attached filter. The white and yellow sediment that dropped to the container’s bottom always fascinated him. Dima broke open a packet of oatmeal and poured the clean water into a separate tin pot to boil. He always had warm oatmeal and a banana for breakfast. He sat at the table and waited, sipping on thick black Turkish coffee made from water saved from the day before.."
He was almost happy this morning because he had gotten some guaranteed business. Looked like it would be a solid day’s worth of carting an American around town. He knew them to tip better than anyone, but it was never haughty like the way some of the Europeans did. Sometimes worse, though, because American often conveyed a kind of desperate compassion that reminded him that he was in need.
His daughter was getting dressed for work at the kiosk on the boardwalk. The tourist season was about to hit and half of Kiev and Moscow would descend upon them. Dima forced his eyes to his bowl as long as possible.
"It’s not supposed to be that hot today," Dima breathed.
"Papa, please. These are normal clothes."
Dima inwardly berated himself again for the early years. The neglect, driving the trucks. Always gone. Food, the need of it always on his mind. Did whatever it took to get them the food, maybe some education. In the end his daughter was as skinny as a bamboo rod and probably had read three books in her life. He stared at his bowl with intense distain. This is life, he thought. He left the bowl half-eaten and went to the room to get his jacket. On a hot day everyone would know why he wore a jacket. Dima had learned that people need only to think he carried a knife or gun and that kept him safe from unknown troubles. His wife placed his prized cap on his head. For a moment they held each other’s gaze. When he was feeling lonely or worried he would indulge himself in that moment. And she was faithful to be present and engaged. She would burn a kind of truth, a peace from God, into him. His thoughts of her would come to him throughout the day. A memory, a word, or a laugh. Each moment fresh to him again until he returned home. It was not always that way but he was older now. And they needed each other for so much more now.
Dima distracted the insane cat with food in order to leave the apartment. When his daughter found the cat he had told her that he was a patriot and that Ukrainian communities pride themselves on how fat they can make their strays. But she so wanted to keep the cat and he always held before him all that he had never provided for her. Dima left the apartment, locking both its interior and exterior steel doors. He walked the long damp concrete hall to the building entrance and down the broken steps to the army-green steel entryway. He unlocked both bolts on that door and walked out to relock them. The morning light reminded him that he lived like a coal-miner. In a full circle before him were five other nine-story structures exactly like his. Falling apart, like his. He put on his sunglasses and lit a cigarette. He caught movement around the center courtyard of the complex. He was amazed at the way the boys could carry on their football match, never disturbing the handful of sleeping homeless men. He watched them dribble the ball skillfully around and over the men. The men were always passed out there on the mix of asphalt, concrete and dirt. He took a moment to look back at his building. Dima remembered again how this was not always so. When the complex was new, in 1985, when he worked the factory job he had earned from military service. And the courtyard was clean-cut grass and the city provided free outdoor films every weekend. And the playground was newly painted and filled with young well-dressed children laughing in the swings, not with prostitutes flicking cigarettes and killing the daylight boredom. He sighed, stomped out his own smoke, and slowly buried it into the dirt while reordered his mind for work. This is life, he thought.
The 1982 Volga was a solid metal box coated with a mix of faded yellow paint, sea-air rust, and always unlocked because no one messes with the taxis. Dima had taken a loan five years earlier to buy it off an army buddy who had stolen it from Kazakhstan. The loan officer in Kiev, who only had a first name, had printed off papers that magically made the deal legal. But it was his now, mostly, even if he had to keep a ‘roof’ on it by paying protection fees to the local police every month. And he was also, despite his efforts to avoid it, part of an unofficial union that might call on him to transport cargo at any time. Though that had only happened once, he hoped it never would again.
Dima switched the fuel line to the two natural gas tanks in his trunk. It hurt his passenger luggage space, but liquid fuel was expensive. Most of his passengers didn’t own luggage anyhow, just their usual favorite plastic bag that every Ukrainian carried everywhere. He kissed his fingers and pressed them against the icon of Mary and Jesus glued to the center of his dashboard. Then he habitually checked the one of Saint Augustine on the visor. The night rain had filled all the many pot-holes along his way. But the holes were not hidden to Dima, because he had them mapped in his mind. A friend once joked that Dima drove left and right more often than straight. But in this, Dima was a serious man. A tire or axle could set him back a week’s pay and cost him a month of weekends to make it up.
The train station was typical of a mid-sized city station in America in 1930, when passenger trains were not yet unimportant. Unlike the larger cities, the Berdyansk station was clean and organized. Mostly no one was there unless involved in travel. Dima parked outside the front entrance with the rest of the local competition. Someone had called him from Kiev needing a taxi available to babysit his American for the day. He still wasn’t sure how the man got his number and thought he sounded young and a little educated. But any lack of cuss words in Dima’s relations qualified for that. The man said he would have red hair and would pull into the station at 10:30, should be easy to find.
So many bags, Americans. He started to worry as he looked around the other taxis. Their foreign cars had the room for the bags and his guy could change his mind. He left his taxi and walked through an exiting crowd to be ready. He would only have to watch maybe five people at a time to catch any with red hair. He barely caught the hair under an expensive ball-cap, but the man only had a small duffle bag. Italian? Then he remembered the man was just in town for the day, and maybe he had sense about him. Dima pushed his way through to the man and stepped in front of him, hat in both hands. "Excuse, sir," he said.
"You my guy?" the man answered.
"Dima. I spoke your boss on phone. To pick you up."
"Okay. Good. You speak English. He’s not my boss. The word is facilitator." He averted his eyes when he spoke. "It doesn’t matter. "
Dima took the man’s bag and led him to the car. He realized he still had a cigarette in his mouth and quickly spit it out.
"This is it?"
"Whatever. Take me to the Hotel Berdyansk. I need to check in and gonna need you to run an errand. You understand?"
On the drive to the hotel Dima opened his mouth to ask the usual, expecting the usual. But he stopped himself not knowing why, only knowing that he was uncomfortable. Normally, he would ask and the nice Americans would say they are on a church mission trip. Or students there for a conference. Sometimes a stressed couple to adopt a child from one of the orphanages -- there were three. But he somehow knew this man was different. He glanced in the rear-view mirror and found the man staring back at him, directly. Dima bounced his eyes back to the road and straightened the icon on his dash as an excuse to touch it.
"Dima, I’m on a tight schedule, right. Here is what I need. I may need you to translate for me at the hotel, maybe not. Then we make a stop at the courthouse. You know where that is?"
"Da. Khomyak Street
"Good. While I’m there you go to Sova. Have them reserve the best table, flowers, best wine. All that. For 4:00 dinner, okay?"
The drive was silent until they reached the hotel. Dima waited outside, paced, smoked. He was relieved that the man didn’t need him inside. He walked towards the hotel lobby windows, mostly to see if some of his associates were there. He saw two drivers he knew sitting in the lounge playing on their Nokias. After counting the number of prostitutes inside he guessed his friends were doing pick-ups from late-night drop-offs. He called his wife and talked about his daughter, as they lately often did. But his wife wasn’t just upset, she was fearful. The girl was missing three days of clothes and that was about all she owned. He reminded his wife that Katya was always trading clothes with her friends. He managed to calm his wife and assured her that he would check on the girl at her kiosk by the beach. This passenger was running him around hard. But Dima was catching some of his wife’s concern and he would make it work somehow.
The man finally came out and must have been getting behind his schedule because he opened his own door to get into the taxi. Their next stop was just five blocks away and traffic was not as bad as it would be soon when the town broke for lunch.
"Stop there. That store."
"Get me a good box of chocolates," the man said. He pushed 20 hrivna at Dima, who took it as he moved out of the taxi.
Dima returned quickly and watched the man place 300 USD into the box. They arrived at the courthouse just in time, as government workers were leaving for lunch early. Not early for them though. Dima saw the man remove his cap and comb his hair. He seemed to be forcing his whole demeanor into a more relaxed frame. As he slowly stepped out of the taxi, he perplexed Dima by saying, "Please go to Sova now. I shouldn’t be more than an hour."
That was enough time for Dima to drive by the Kiosk as he had promised. He saw his daughter there and called to make a quick report to his wife. The restaurant was quick work and gave him time to stop by a coffee vending machine -- they had mochas that he liked for 2 hrivna -- then drove through lunch traffic back to the courthouse and found he still had 15 minutes to spare. 15 minutes to finally think. The man reminded him of an officer he had hated when he was in Afghanistan. A man he had almost killed. Trust was something Dima felt for most people on some level. To his way of thinking, many people just had trust breaking-points. So it was life circumstances that had really failed him along the way. The wrong people in the wrong situations. But this is life, he thought. Some men, that officer, and this man did not present even a kernel of trustworthiness. He found he couldn’t relate to someone like that, just no door to open to it. He checked all his mirrors and saw the man’s bag was still there. He hadn’t dropped it off at the hotel. He checked the mirrors and courthouse entrance again and thought, he isn’t one of the trusted. He doesn’t need my trust. It’s not a problem. Dima leaned into the backseat quickly and unzipped the bag. A shirt, deodorant, shaving stuff. Train tickets, two. For that night at 6:00 to Kiev. Plane tickets. Dubai. Dubai? Time was up. He felt it. He zipped the bag and turned forward quickly, working through possible excuses, but the man took another 5 minutes.
When they were on the road again the man informed Dima that he had two hours to kill before his dinner. He asked him to take him somewhere where there were no people or noise and said that he could keep the meter running. Dima suggested a section of the beach with an abandoned shipyard where it was often quiet and the cell phone reception was still good.
"Sir, can I ask. What business you do?"
Dima watched the man walk to a broken and graffiti painted boardwalk bench, sit and start dialing his cell phone. The solitary state he saw there seemed to fit the man, a cold and friendless object. Dima found his thoughts returning to Afghanistan again as he habitually rubbed at the tattoo on his upper right arm. This day was becoming very unhealthy for him – he could feel it. He could just ditch the man since he had paid at every stop they made. He wouldn’t really lose anything, just anything more. And maybe he could stop at the Market on the way home and catch a few rides to help cover the loss. But something compelled him to remain, something other than the money. Dima wondered if maybe he hated himself as much as the he did the Lieutenant. He caught his own confusion – This man is not the Lieutenant. I’m losing some reality. He lit a cigarette and began to calm himself. This far out, he knew the wind would be a problem for the man’s cell phone reception. He took satisfaction in that while he sat down in his taxi to call his wife.
"Katya doesn’t answer her phone," she said right away.
"She is always running out of Bee-Line cards. Go to the store and email her. You know she is at the hotel ten times a day using their internet."
"Yes. I will."
"You are crazy today. She is fine. Please," he laughed. "My American is back. Bye."
Dima drove them to Sova by way of his daughters’ kiosk. She wasn’t there, was probably on break and at the hotel to check her email. When they parked the man gave him American dollars. Dima hesitated before taking it, knowing this would mean something.
"I need you to watch from across the street. Maybe 20 minutes and then I will come out to smoke. I’ll give you an envelope to take back to the courthouse. Understand?"
Dima nodded, noticing the large size of the tip.
The trip back to the courthouse was quick. Leaning against his taxi, Dima took a final drag on his cigarette and took in, as well, the details of the building. An odd faded green with ornate white trim. The front façade was about 1950, Stalin-Georgian, and the real building behind pre-Bolshevik. He walked tiredly up the gray stone steps and through the chipped-paint goliath wooden doors. As he entered the great hall his eyes were drawn to the double staircase pressed against the far back wall, the black iron handrails leading to the visible second floor hall from both sides. The ceilings were much higher than he had been used to seeing in government buildings. The open space was a shrine to the former days, the Soviet years. The tall, draped, deep-red window curtains and blood-red display table-clothes set against the dark browns of the wide-board flooring and custom hand-carved paneled walls. Those walls were a museum of military history. Soviet heroes with uniforms hidden somewhere under the medals. Dima had 30 years to reflect on his war and wondered just then who they thought was buying this crap. He guessed that he once must have.
Looking to the packet in his hand for the first time he read, Ministry of Records. He found directions on the wall and climbed the stairs to the upper hallway. Down the hallway he found the door, a more modern entry to an office that brought him into the mid-1970’s. The woman behind the pressed board counter took his packet without looking up from her ancient computer monitor. She opened the paperwork and for a lack of anything to consume his mind, he read some of the paper in her hands. Suddenly, he was interested. The first name of a woman was much repeated. It was Katya. He leaned forward to fish for a last name but his movement caught the eye of the seasoned bureaucrat and she quickly shuffled the papers into an official manila folder. All worries about his Katya came rushing in on him.
"Excuse me, what was the last name for Katya on that form?"
"It is not for you. I know, I issued the form to the petitioner this morning."
"Right. But I work for him. Please, what was the last name?"
"What is the petitioners’ name?"
Dima hated himself. Why didn’t I know a passenger’s name? I should have demanded to know his name. I always know their names!
"The Marriage certificate is filed. We are closed now."
"You are very sweaty. We are closed," she said, and then stood and walked deliberately to a back room.
Marriage? Dima fought to keep his thoughts straight as he half-ran out of the building. He searched, groped for the next steps. The train in an hour. Dubai? Wait…why a hotel room when the train leaves today, leaves now?
There was traffic as Dima sped through the asphalt maze of pot-holes. He needed help. Sasha! He’s in deep with the union now, he’ll know. He snatched his Nokia from inside his jacket pocket and dialed, misdialed, swore, then dialed again.
"Sasha. Quick, you will know. What is the Union doing at the Hotel Berdyansk!"
"You know what they do there. It’s about seventy bedrooms." Sasha laughed.
"No. Look, an American was there this morning. He didn’t get a room. Why the hell was he there?"
"Oh. Okay, they work the Internet Café there. They have girls who do internet dating online with Westerners. Easy money."
"He filed a marriage license today. But he just got to town!" Dima was honking his horn at anything in front of him now.
"Dima. Sometimes that is the transaction. You don’t want any part of that. You need money? I can get you scheduled on some drops, no problem."
"That’s not it. No. Okay. Too much to tell."
He hung up and suddenly got a flash of hope. But no one answered at home. He gave up trying five minutes from the train station and placed the cell phone in his front pocket. He had to commit to the worst possible outcome. Be ready and committed. The task was clear to him now, and simple. Katya would come home with him or he would be going to prison. This is life, he thought. He parked and reached under his seat.
As Dima walked, the station interior released greater light and sound through the windows. And each concrete step up into the entrance was important to him. He was aware of the feel and weight of each step he took. Each movement and sound inside was vivid: the woman arguing with the teller over her compartment assignment, the Polish chatter from the line at the currency exchange, a Babushka snapping at an overactive child, the flick of a lighter and associated smells of smoke in the air. Dima pushed through all the pews and people. Once on the platform, he slowed his pace to match the calm that now filled him, checking each car for the number he had read on the man’s ticket. By the time he reached the train car all his acute senses had melted away. He was no longer in the present. His mind was fully fixed on the impending confrontation he imagined, and in believing with all faith that he was in complete control. Get the girl. Go home.
Once inside, Dima walked, floated, through the aisle. He found the man making up his bunk. The man’s confused expression pleased him and further fueled his confidence.
"What the… What do you want? Was there a problem with the papers?"
Dima didn’t see a point in answering questions.
"Where is Katya?" Dima asked. Get the girl."None of your…"
Dima pulled the knife from his inside jacket pocket.
"The bathroom. She’s in the bathroom." The man backed away, instinctively raising his hands outward.
The news forced Dima from his singular, emotional path, to one that demanded some level of thinking. He pointed for the man to sit as he sifted through the problem. Each Ukrainian rail car had two bathrooms, one on each end. He could ask, but the man could lie. He could walk the man out but then anything could happen, less control. He would wait.
Dima saw the man’s lips moving but didn’t hear him speaking. He saw that he was scared and agitated, but his movements were more like an abstraction to him. Dima was now consumed with the task of waiting. He placed his finger to his lips and the man was stilled. "I may kill you," Dima said. "It will be quick."
He heard the footsteps coming and braced himself for the hard, but was ready for the easy. He stepped to position himself beside the cabin door. By training, he could not turn his eyes from the man. As the door slid open he grabbed the long hair from the head he saw as it graced the entrance. Get the girl. He swung the body to the bunk opposite the man, ready to grab her up again. Go home. But she wasn’t his Katya. He saw that the woman was about to scream and so he moved his knife to her. He stood before them both for an eternity.
"Where is this man taking you?"
"America. He is my husband!"
"Show her plane ticket."
"What?" the man asked.
She read the ticket. Dima could tell she didn’t even know where Dubai was. He watched them argue for almost a minute. Then saw she needed only a little prodding. He waved her to the door with his knife. Still covered in anger and tears, she grabbed her bag, and stomped past Dima. He peered through the window and watched her run from the train, through the station, and away into darkness. He turned back towards the man, relieved that he had not moved, and then backed himself out of the cabin and into the aisle.
"Go home," Dima commanded.
He reached his taxi and sat for a time watching the parking lot lights flicker their way into solid beams, one by one. He took out his knife, paused briefly to regret the need of it, and then tucked it under his seat. Dima rolled down his window and leaned his head back, taking his cap off for a moment to wipe the sweat from his face. He turned his head to face up in resignation to the stars above. For the first time in many years he smelled the old air of salty sea mixed with fifty years of factory soot. From it he breathed in a moment of comfort. Dima truly loved Ukraine and his city. He gave some thought to his life and his country. How his youthful dreams and those of Ukraine had not quite turned out as planned. He straightened his small icon of Saint Augustine, almost smiled, and thought, Ukraine is corrupt, but she’s still my mother. Dima lit a cigarette, started the engine, and pulled out his cell phone. Twelve messages from home. Dima pulled away from the station before calling.
"Da, I know. Good. Tell her I said she is not to leave the Kiosk tomorrow and I will get her for lunch. And no going to the hotel checking emails."
The Patriot, by Mark Graham, 10 Cities Junior Contributor