|Jan/Feb 2006 Fiction|
After promising to arrive at noon with some of the money and an explanation about the rest, Boris still hadn't called by dinnertime. Now, as a purple summer evening stole over Tbilisi, Nana sat at her kitchen table, her tiny, porcelain-white foot beating out an insistent tattoo on the floor tiles. Every now and then, in a voice that seemed too big for such a small woman, she threw her head back and called out to her husband Merab, who was smoking on the balcony.
"It could only happen to him," she said to herself between shouts. "Only to Merab."
Losing twenty thousand dollars, half of the money that she had managed to protect from her husband's bad luck, from the thieves and parasites that latched onto him to suck the family dry, was bad enough. Losing it to Boris Boridze, though, was a disgrace. Hadn't she seen, from the second he walked into their apartment, ash dropping from his cigarette, sweat stains spreading on the back of his shirt, that he was, at best, someone not to be trusted, maybe even an all out thief? Hadn't she told Merab that opening a French deli in Tbilisi--where just last year people were eating beans every day because everything else was sent up north to feed the soldiers--was the worst business idea she ever heard? Oh, what her father was going to say...
"Merab!" she called out.
His only response was a slight shiver, as if a cold wind blew in out of nowhere to disrupt the hazy August heat.
"Merab, are you listening to me?"
"Woman, what do you want?" Merab said from the balcony.
"I want you to call them."
Merab flicked his cigarette butt into the darkness and turned around to stand in the doorway between the kitchen and the balcony. His eyes, liquid black and sad, were his best feature, and when Nana saw them, she remembered that he played the guitar after dinner, that he loved taking Misha, their boy, downstairs to feed the pigeons in the morning, that no matter how many times she lost her temper with him, he never yelled back at her.
He's a good man, she thought. But he's born to lose. He trusts everybody, and everybody takes advantage of him. He avoids smart risks and takes stupid ones, and talks to everyone about what should be his own business. He is weak, and I have to be strong.
"Who do you want me to call, Nana?"
"The kurdebi," she said. "I want you to call the kurdebi."
The kurdebi had been around for as long as those who knew about them could remember, but Nana had only learned of them that morning during a phone call with her friend Etiko.
A few years ago, Etiko's husband had had a business partner who asked him to finance a gas station he was opening. When the operation went broke and the husband asked for his money back, he was first met with a tale of misfortune, then cold refusal, and finally, outright rudeness. And that was when he decided to call the kurdebi.
"They went to see him the next day, and you better believe he had the money waiting for them," Etiko told her. "You'd have to be crazy to refuse the kurdebi."
"Do you think Merab knows about them?" asked Nana, impressed.
"Of course he does," Etiko said. "All the men do. He's probably gone to them already."
But going to the kurdebi seemed like the last thing her husband would do. Merab took everyone at their word, no matter how many times he got burned. At the beginning of their marriage, Nana said nothing; the people he lent money to were so obviously crooked, the schemes he backed so ridiculous, that she was convinced he knew something she didn't. After all, she was then only a sixteen-year-old girl, and he a man of almost thirty who'd been in business a long time. Soon enough, though, she realized that Merab believed in every deal he went in on and was mystified when they didn't work out. As for the loans, he felt refusing friends and relatives money would bring the family bad luck. Whenever some distant cousin disappeared with a few hundred dollars, Merab would say: "He needed money, I gave it to him. If he has it later and doesn't pay it back, let it be on his head."
When she sometimes thought about it, Nana sensed some strange, foolish part of herself that liked Merab's way with money. It was more than just a woman's admiration for a generous man--he was so different from everyone they knew, so different from her. But there was something more important than generosity. Her father, whom she feared and respected more than anyone in the world, always said that the main thing in life, more important than money or even blood, was reputation. A woman's reputation was tied to her husband's, and if he was a man who didn't command respect, a doormat for every crook and schemer working Tbilisi, then it was an embarrassment for the whole family.
With that in mind, Nana made her decision. She spent the day preparing well-reasoned arguments, going over them in her head while she vacuumed and fed Misha and boiled grape leaves for the tolma they would be having for dinner the rest of the week. But when Merab came home, he only asked her where she'd heard about the kurdebi, laughed softly, and went out on the balcony to smoke cigarettes and wait for Boris. Now, after an hour and a half of Nana's shouting, he entered the kitchen at last.
"There you go again with your kurdebi," he said, taking out a large bag of sunflower seeds from a kitchen cabinet and sitting down across from her.
"You just give the man some time, Nana."
"Give him some time?" Nana said, her voice rising. "That's what you say about everyone, and no one ever pays you back! Nobody knows where he is, Merab. He's robbed you, and now he's hiding. Can't you see that?"
Merab ate his sunflower seeds in silence, his face blank.
"You think it's as simple as calling them and having them get your money for you?" he finally said. "First you have to find them. Everybody's always bragging about the kurdebi they know, but when you actually need to find them, nobody knows where they are. You have to make sure they're real kurdebi, too. Plenty of fakes these days."
He took a cigarette out and held it between his fingers, unlit. "The worst part is talking to them, having to get close to them," he said. "They're usually polite enough, but there's something in the air around them that makes my skin crawl."
"What do you do once you find them?" Nana asked, grabbing a handful of sunflower seeds for herself.
"You pass your debt onto them. Now whoever owed you money doesn't owe it to you anymore. He owes it to the kurdebi. And then they come after him."
"But if it's not your debt anymore..."
"Once they get the money, they give you a cut. It's usually a small one, twenty, maybe twenty five percent."
Nana's eyebrows came together at the "twenty percent." That almost made the whole thing not worth the trouble, but it was better than getting nothing at all. And much better than having her family being a laughingstock for the entire city.
"Don't you want to know how they get the money, Nana?" Merab asked. "You remember Beso, who died last year?"
Nana nodded. She remembered Beso well: a fat, jolly man who once owned a restaurant in the neighborhood.
"Everyone thinks he died of a heart attack, but one of the cops who found him told me that he was in the bathroom. He was completely drenched and his face was blue, like a drowned man. He says that Beso had a problem with the kurdebi, and they drowned him in his own toilet." They were silent for a few seconds, a husband and wife sharing a mental picture of someone they knew drowning in a toilet.
"Sometimes they do worse things, Nana. Sometimes they come after wives, even children. Kurdebi had some honor in our parents' time, but the kurdebi today are animals."
He got up and placed the cigarette between his lips. "What if Boris really did lose the money in a business deal? You think that would make a difference to them? They'd make him sell his car, his apartment, everything he had, until he could pay them. And if he still couldn't pay them, then they'd just kill him, or cripple him for life. Is that what you want, woman? Is that $20,000 our last money? Is it worth having what they're going to do to him on our conscience? No, Nana, it's not. Good people don't do things like that."
Merab opened the door to the balcony. Before he disappeared into the orange glare, he said, "There won't be any kurdebi, Nana. That's final."
But it wasn't final. That night, while her husband slept, Nana lay awake, staring into the darkness and replaying the evening's argument. How like Merab it was to defend Boris, who had come into their house and stolen money like any common thief. If Boris knew as much about the kurdebi as everyone else seemed to know, than he should have realized that stealing had its consequences.
Then the image of fat old Beso drowning in his toilet floated up in front of her, and she tried to recall whether Boris had a family. And in the last minutes before sleep, Nana found herself thinking of a hot, noisy wedding two summers ago. She and Merab had sat too close to the band, Merab had drank too much and gone off somewhere, and by the end of the night, Nana, sweating, irritable and tired, found herself alone at the their empty table, craning her neck as she looked for Merab so he could take her home. Then he appeared, staggering slightly and arm in arm with the tall, fleshy Boris, on whose other side walked a little girl in a white dress, holding onto his meaty hand. She was pale and dark haired, with huge, bashful eyes and a pronounced limp caused by an emaciated leg that buckled every time she took a step. As the men sat down to toast each other, Nana put a hand around her shoulders and drew her close. The girl kept her eyes on the floor and gave whispered, one-word answers to all of her questions, and just as Nana was about to lose patience and turn to her husband, looked up to her and said, "You're very pretty."
"You're very pretty too, child," said Nana, laughing in delight. "And you'll be beautiful when you grow up, more beautiful than anyone else."
With this memory, which had already become the early part of a dream, swirling around in her head, Nana drifted off to sleep. Her last thought was that she would have to call Etiko tomorrow and ask if Boris had a daughter.
The next morning, after she had sent Misha off to kindergarten, Nana's father came by. By the grim expression on his face and the cold, perfunctory kiss he gave her at the door, she could tell he knew all about the situation with Boris.
He was a silver haired, barrel-chested man wearing an immaculately pressed black shirt and smelling of cologne. His booming voice and confident, broad-shouldered swagger made him seem too big for the apartment, even though he was in fact a small man, just a bit taller than Nana.
As he settled down into Merab's armchair and lit a cigarette, Nana scrambled to fix him coffee and lay out plates of cakes and candies, her hands as stuttering and inept as they always became in his presence.
"That's how your husband takes care of his family, that jack ass?" he said, his voice reverberating around the living room. "Who didn't that crook of a Boris try to hustle with his goddamn French deli? At least half the city? The last time he came to me about it, I told him that if I ever saw him again, I'd kick his ass across the street. That's how you talk to people like him. But your husband invites him over, treats him like an honored guest, and gives him twenty thousand dollars."
"It's a disgrace, an embarrassment," he went on. "Even honest people will steal from him now. Why shouldn't they, if he does nothing about it?" He stubbed out his cigarette and lit another, exhaling two thick streams of smoke through his nostrils.
"He may be your husband, but you're my child. If he can't protect you, then I will. There's ways of dealing with people like Boris."
"Do you mean the kurdebi?" Nana cut in.
He fixed Nana with a sidelong glance.
"I mean what I mean, girl. It's no business of yours."
"Because... if you mean the kurdebi, Merab talked to them already," she said.
"How do you know?"
"I told him he'd better," she said. "I decided it was time to... get more of a handle on him."
Nana sat looking into her lap, her father's eyes drilling holes in the top of her head. Finally, she heard him chuckling.
"Get more of a handle on him," he said, and she heard the paternal pride in his voice. "That might be a good idea."
After her father left, Nana sat back down on the couch and thought for a long time. She couldn't understand why she felt so calm, or why she was sure that no matter what, tonight she would get her husband to do what she wanted.
Things settled down over the next few weeks. Merab and Nana seldom argued--indeed, Nana tried her best to be sweet and accommodating. Above all, she didn't ask him about his business deals or whom he lent money to. That was part of their agreement.
Merab gave little indication that he noticed his wife's efforts. He no longer sang or played his guitar after dinner, barely talked to Nana, and spent most of his time on the balcony, smoking and dropping bread down onto the street to watch the birds gather. When he told Nana he was going to Moscow on a business trip, she expected to be relieved at first, then eventually start to miss him like she always did. She didn't expect to become afraid of her phone.
Every time the telephone rang her stomach would tighten up and she would run to pick up the receiver and dissolve her fear with the sound of a familiar voice. And it always was a familiar voice--Merab calling from Moscow, or her parents, or Etiko--and for that she was always thankful when she hung up.
One afternoon, Nana was polishing the big carved mahogany table in the living room, polishing it slowly because she was transfixed by a cartoon on television. The cartoon was a Russian version of Little Red Riding Hood, and Nana was wondering why the Russians made their wolf so evil looking, salivating every time the little girl came near and staring at her with insane, feverish eyes.
The sound of the phone ringing jerked her back into reality. It was three, the time Merab usually called. She picked up the receiver and said, "Merab, my love!"
The voice was something out of a nightmare, harsh and guttural.
"Is this Nana?"
She froze, her eyes wide, her breath trapped in her chest. The voice waited for half a minute, then repeated the question.
"Y-yes, who is this?"
"We have your money."
There were a few more minutes of instructions, which Nana did not hear, then a click.
Nana sat down on the couch, her jaw clenched tight. A growl from the TV made her yelp--the wolf was walking around Grandma's house, his stomach grotesquely swollen. With shaking, nerveless fingers, she grabbed the remote, turned the set off, and picked up the phone to call her husband.