Image excerpted from A Nice Cup of Tea by Roe LiBretto
"There is a Russian coming to the dinner," a guest told him. "Be careful. We think he might be a spy."
"For whom?" Aleksander asked.
"You know, the Kremlin."
A small dinner was being held in the artist's apartment of Klara, Mykolaiv, Ukraine. It was to celebrate a tourist buying one of her paintings, enough money to live on for six months. Aleksander was invited because he was an artist, too, though on a higher floor of the apartment building set aside for visual artists. He painted more in the realist mode currently popular, an expression of Ukrainian pride because he pictured real places in the country, like a famous Carpathian mountain scene near which he had been born. Klara still was more an abstract painter. The painting she sold had the faces of three women at the top of a block of smeared colors. At the bottom were three hands, one holding a hammer, one holding a paint brush, and one holding a knife. Those crazy tourists.
He could hear the Russian before he entered the room. The man was yelling about one time he passed out in a park. His laugh hurt Aleksander's ears. The very sound of Russian had become repulsive to him.
Vlad entered the room like a storm. He was short and stout, dressed in dark clothes with a dark vest. He barely acknowledged the seven other people seated at the table, still yakking with the man who had picked him up at his hotel. He sat next to Aleksander, just Aleksander's luck.
Klara brought plates of food from her kitchen, mushy stuff she cooked herself, then sat at the head of the table. She was a big woman, short and fat, with a plain face made plainer by short brown hair, as if she cut it herself with scissors, which she probably did. Aleksander smiled at her, but she didn't smile back. Though they both were painters and lived in the same building, he had never talked with the woman. He did recognize a couple other painters from the building. They too were realists.
"A toast," the Russian shouted, standing. He interrupted conversations around the table. "I have a sister who is an artist, a sculptor in Moscow. She once told me, 'Art is life.' Me, I have my feet on the ground. I am a businessman. To the dear lady painter anyway. May she live long and paint often."
Everybody raised glasses. Aleksander became aware of the short glass filled with vodka in front of his plate. He raised it. Then he drained the glass like the others did. The vodka was okay. Local and cheap.
Next to Vlad was a professor from the Black Sea branch of Mohyla Academy, Mykolaiv. Philology or something. The man stood. The room's walls, filled with paintings partially finished or finished, were so dark, Aleksander could only dimly see his face.
"My own parents were from Odessa, " the professor began. "We were poor, so poor each member of the family had a spoon, and we lined up in front of the soup bowl. One spoonful, then the next one spoonful. May the lady have a whole soup bowl to herself, always. May she make enough money to fill this room."
Laughter. Another forest of hands raised with the glass. Aleksander quickly refilled his from the vodka bottle on the table and joined them, draining the second glass.
"To the lady's health," the third guest, an engineer, said, rising with his glass in his hand. Aleksander filled his glass again. "May she never have gout or cataracts or syphilis (laughter). I once told my doctor hair had begun to grow in my ears. Was there a problem? He asked me if my parents were werewolves (more laughter). May the lady never have hair growing in her ears." That glass was drained.
The Russian reached for the bottle. He refilled Aleksander's glass, then his own. And so it went around the table. Vlad's harsh laughter rose again and again, until Aleksander's nerves, released by the alcohol, were on fire. By then he was very drunk, very drunk indeed, and when he struggled from his chair, the whole world buzzed and moved.
It was almost as if he heard himself from a distance.
"I am Western Ukrainian. When I was a young boy, I was told I was Russian, but I never felt Russian. One day at school I objected when the teacher told us we come from a place called Lower Russia. 'I come from Ukraine. You should visit some day,' I said. I was expelled from school for a week. Still, I survived. I propose a toast then in the presence of this man from Moscow: Ukraine forever!"
He raised his glass. Nobody else did.
"To Lower Russia," Vlad snarled at high volume. He raised his glass, and his ugly face twisted into a snarl. Even the woman painter didn't talk to Aleksander after that.
"I paint pictures of Ukraine, not Russia," he said to everyone, and left the room.
Three days later Klara watched the news on her TV. The old set was square, but she was on the cable system. First the politicians appeared, blabbing away about being the right man, always, for the job. She knew although they spent a lot of money on posters and TV ads, they were about the same. Nobody was allowed to disagree with the central government in Kiev; their only disagreement was on who could follow their policies the best.
Then there was the picture of a body without a head and a lot of blood. The man had been tied to the railroad tracks, his head on the rail. When the train came, the head was severed. The head was shown also by itself, the neck stem bloody and dripping. She knew this man. Aleksander. He had been at her party a few days before, and had lived upstairs.
At the nearby grocery, a first floor room, Klara surveyed the cans on the shelves. She had money for a while, so why not? The clerk waited patiently behind the counter for her order. She wanted two cans of exotic peaches and a can of Black Sea caviar. Why not? The total was more than 200 Hryvnias, a real luxury.
"Did you see Aleksander on TV?" the clerk asked her. "He was murdered."
"I did. I happened to be watching," Klara said. She took out the bills and handed them across the counter. "He was at a party in my apartment."
"Everybody says he must have made the mob mad at him. I don't know. What can you do?"
"I think maybe the Russians got him. He hated them. Heah, that means his apartment is available."
"Damn, you're right. I have a cousin."
"I have a cousin, too."
Later that day Klara treated herself to something else super special. Dinner at McDonald's. Food again. To get there she walked across the trolley tracks, which gave her the shivers thinking of the head. The sidewalk concrete was broken and uneven. At the end of the street stood the Dixie Café. Although it was dinner time, the building was dark and closed. Everybody knew it was a mob place. The owner supposedly was an American who was found shot 20 times on a back road. Dixie Café and McDonald's were two of the American places that came in after the fall of the Soviet Union a decade before.
She passed the sculpture of the workers and the world in a small park, and beside that were the golden arches. A clown with an orange nose and orange hair played with kids in the plaza in front. Not the McDonald's clown in the TV ads, but the kids were giggling. At the counter she ordered, in English, a Big Mac from the sign. It was delicious with pomme frites, but so, so expensive. Only tourists and mob families could afford to eat there usually.
Afterward she took a slow walk down the boulevard to digest the heavy meal. The park where tables were usually set up, people selling junk, was empty this late in the day. Then the government plaza with the huge statue of Lenin on a pedestal. Klara, like a lot of Mykolaiv citizens, still felt nostalgia for the old Soviet communist days. In fact, many insisted the city was still called Nikolaiv, the Russian name. Lenin got it right; Stalin screwed it up. Life was secure then, if limited. Few were allowed to travel for example. As she walked the circle around the statue and headed back to her apartment, a black car pulled beside her. In the passenger's seat was Vlad.
"Klara, get in," he shouted. "We will give you a ride."
Total fear came over her. She had never felt such horror before in her life.
"No! No! " she said. His smile faded fast. She turned and ran. The car circled the statue of Lenin and followed her.
"Klara, what is the problem? I just wanted to help."
"I-I am walking for exercise," she stuttered.
Vlad looked across the driver at her. The driver wore one of those cheap leather jackets mobsters supposedly favored. His head was shaven to a gauze and he looked straight ahead. Tough guy.
"We are going hunting this Saturday. You should come with us," Vlad said. Now he was enjoying her fear. "See you later." He and the driver both laughed.
The painter's heart would not stop beating. She could barely breathe. Although she had lived in Mykolaiv for 20 years, back when it was a closed city where Russian Black Sea naval ships were built, she knew no one she would tell what had happened. Back in her apartment she took out the canvas she had been painting. The scene was a crowded sidewalk of uncaring faces watching a swaddled child lying, possibly dying, in the street. It was from a poem by Alexander Bloch, a Russian. She should tell Vlad, give him a copy of the print. Be more Russian. Aleksander had been a fool.
On a shelf was a set of nested dolls, a Russian toy but painted with Ukrainian traditional clothing. She put them together in one, and hid them in a drawer.
On the other hand, what if Vlad was simply a mobster. She hadn't known Aleksander. Maybe Aleksander was in the mob, too, or did something to piss off the mob. The beheading on the railroad track was a big deal made to be publicized. Maybe it was a warning. Maybe maybe maybe. Life had become too complicated. Nobody she knew had connections. Klara hid in her apartment. She didn't have a family, she didn't socialize, and still the world out there in those streets invaded to threaten her. Now she had to give up her daily walk.
One thing she wouldn't give up was the white peacock at the Mykolaiv zoo. Three days indoors in the dark cluttered apartment, doing painting after painting on Russian subjects, and she was about to choke. Klara opened her door like the door to a war and walked down the stairs, expecting to see Vlad any second. Outdoors was cloudy and cold, but the air seemed fresh to her. Past the huge, abstract statue to victory, and then she walked and walked and walked. The zoo was rundown, but the animals coped in their cages. She passed the bear who was famous for doing dirty things before the visitors, then past the building where the elephant emitted huge amounts of dung if displeased with a viewer. Finally she entered the stretch of enclosures holding the white peacock. She could not do without the white peacock.
As she watched the bird, it fanned out its gorgeous lacey tail, looking at her with a haughty expression on its thin face. The peacock had been and remained the most beautiful thing Klara had ever seen, so beautiful she had never dared to paint it. She stood there staring in wonder. She stayed until the bird folded its tail and turned its back. No one would believe her if she said that every time she visited the peacock, it spread its tail.
Out the gate Klara started walking down the dirty street. A black car that had been parked on the street edged away, and she kept walking. She braced herself.
"Did you hear?" the engineer, Vanko, told his supervisor at the ship factory. "A painter was found shot to death near the gate to the zoo. I was at a party in her apartment not two weeks ago. She had just made a lot of money. Maybe that was why she was killed."
"Probably," the man said, uninterested. "I doubt if she kept the money in the bank."
He watched the TV late news that night, but there was nothing about the painter.
So the next day when the secretary told him he had a call from Vlad, a shiver ran down his spine. It was always best not to be too visible.
"Vanko!" Vlad's Moscow harsh accent shouted over the phone. "I was so sorry to hear about the deaths of two people at the party. That is terrible. It doesn't do to stick your neck out these days," he said.
Vanko took that as a warning.
"No, indeed. That is why I tell everybody to keep quiet and do your job."
"The best thing to do. I hear her apartment was broken into and all her money stolen. Such it is these days. Anyway, we are getting together a small hunting party Saturday, and since I don't know many people here, you should go."
A new shiver went down his spine. Vanko thought of ways to beg out, but knew he couldn't. Guns and an isolated place. He was as good as dead.
"We will pick you up at your apartment about six."
"Okay." So Vlad knew where he lived. Near the shipyard so he could walk to work.
The phone clicked dead. Vanko thought about fleeing to his family's collective farm in the steppes north of the city. He would just be followed. Maybe his family would be killed, too.
6:00 AM Saturday, a hard bang sounded on his door. "Vanko!" Vlad was incapable of being quiet, even though he woke people up and down the hall. The engineer had not slept a second that night.
A white van waited by the curb. Vlad opened the back door, and there glumly waited six people, only one of whom he knew, a man, another of the party guests. His hands went numb when he saw him. He sat next to a chubby woman. Instantly he knew her type. Beside her sat a daughter, so she was a widow or maybe divorced single mother in her 40s desperate for a husband. He nodded at her. At least the daughter, introduced as Sofiya, seemed lively, though a blonde to her mother's brown hair meant the father must have had Viking ancestry. Vanko had never married. The woman made him uncomfortable. She poured a paper cup of hot tea and handed it to him with a smile. Serving him was supposed to make him think she would make a good wife. He didn't even listen to her name.
There was little talk as the van ran through the Mykolaiv streets, then out to the highway, a narrow black ribbon through the countryside. Vanko gazed out the van's side windows at the passing scenery, especially the Bug River. He looked for the latest ship he had worked on, which had just been launched a week before. When the Russians ruled Ukraine and Nikolaiv was a closed city, there were 60,000 workers in the shipyards. Now there were barely 20,000, and even at that the place seemed about to close. He always felt relieved when given a new design assignment. Another six months of work.
"So Vanko, what do you make of Aleksander and Klara's deaths?" Vlad insisted on talk. The other passengers looked like they were dead already. They must have thought as Vanko thought, that the van was a hearse. Two men sat up front, the driver and a muscled greasy thug beside him. Both wore the cheap leather jackets. Shotguns were piled on the floor against the back of the seats.
"I think they should have kept their mouths shut, especially Aleksander," Vanko said. His only hope was to convince Vlad he was on the side of Russia. "And Klara made too much money for anti-communist art. She should never have told anybody about the sale to the tourist."
"But this is Ukraine after the Orange Revolution," the Russian offered. "You are free."
"We are..." he almost made a mistake and said independent... "poor."
Though some collectives were divided into individual farms after independence, his family's was not. Life had become a constant struggle. Last March he had visited his parents, and his father was risking arrest to burn off the stubble and plant a crop. Without the crop they would starve. Kiev had ordered no burning because fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 15 years before was still in the soil. Burning would release it into the air. His father wasn't arrested, but rumor said that others were.
Vlad laughed like a horse. He wore a black jacket, quilted, and a furry hat. It was a cold spring day.
"The grandfather of someone at my office became so upset at the anti-communist remarks of the politicians running for mayor, he had a heart attack. He would stand up and rant at the television every time some hack from Kiev said something bad about the old government. His doctor has confined him to an asylum until after the elections when he can return home. The old man is not allowed any news of the election. Such is our times," Vanko continued, then wished he had kept silent.
Nobody else spoke up. Most looked down at the floor. Vlad yakked and yakked about nothing.
"Could be mafia, could be Kiev, could be Moscow," he offered at one point. "We ordinary people will never know. Me, I just drink my vodka and have a good time."
Eventually—it seemed like forever—the van pulled up in an empty parking lot. It was the National Park, a bleak peninsula of treeless dunes on the Black Sea. The group piled out and stood shivering in the cold wind. The driver and the thug remained in the van, not even looking at them.
The sun had risen but remained hidden behind grey clouds. A few spikes of pink rose from the horizon.
Vanko was deeply tired. He had lain in bed thinking of death. It was good to be alive, but if he died, he would accept it. Life in Ukraine was so unsettled, he never knew what was happening. Never married, afraid of women if the truth be told; his apartment was sparsely furnished, white. He didn't even put a picture on the white walls. In his 40s, he dreaded every day. The engineer had nothing but work, though he was proud of the ships he helped designed, the ships traveling the Black Sea.
Vlad grabbed a shotgun and held it out for Vanko. He was distributing the guns, even one for the little girl.
"No, thank you," he said. "I think I will just walk around."
"Sure?" the Russia shouted. "We will see you back here for the breakfast picnic. Two hours."
So Vanko walked across the dunes, which were really dirt. It was hard to walk, and his shoes were more for hardwood floors than the wilderness. But he moved away from the noisy hunting party, off by himself. How did they expect to hunt anything making that much noise? Maybe they didn't. He realized that off by himself, alone, he would be an easy target for the two silent men in the front seats. He didn't care. Besides, it was probably against the law to hunt on the nature preserve. He didn't care.
Soon he was out of sight and sound from the group. By himself, he stopped at the top of a dune. The Black Sea stretched forever in front of him. The sea was poorly named because it was gray, but an infinite number of shades of gray. Though it moved constantly, the water seemed solid, as if he could walk onto it. He gazed in a tired barely conscious way.
Bang bang bang.
The report of the distant guns could mean dead birds, or it could mean dead people, Vanko thought. And he accepted either one. He was too tired to fight. There was nothing he could do. If he escaped the park, he would be killed in the city. He had no power over anything.
In time, he turned and retraced his steps, visible at places in the dirt. Grass patches grew here and there, especially in hollows made by the wind. The grass was almost beige as the dirt. He walked proudly toward his death.
But when he got to the people, sheltered in a big hollow, they were laughing. All were still alive. Colorful sheets had been laid out and weighted down with baskets of food from the van. Even the two from the front sat on them. Vlad held up a dead bird when Vanko appeared. The blonde girl held a shotgun vertically against her chest, like a lover. She looked shy but proud.
"Have a glass of vodka," Vlad said, raising his paper cup. "The girl is a better shot than any of we men. She killed the bird."
He smiled at her. Though he had to face life, life didn't seem so bad. He was too scared and too morbid. Who killed Aleksander and who killed Klara was somebody else's business. None of these people knew, he decided.
So Vanko took a sandwich handed him, and a paper cup.
"To Sofiya, a Cossack to be sure," Vlad shouted. Everybody laughed and raised their cups toward the girl. Her matronly mother sat beside Vlad, taking care of him, pouring his vodka, taking the wrapper off his sandwich. He didn't seem to have a wife.
So it went. The van driver's toast was to "this friendly city Nikolaiv," the Russian name, and the professor from Klara's party told a story about his father hunting. "May all birds be fat and tasty and slow," he said. Nobody toasted anything political.
When it was Vanko's turn, he raised his cup thoughtfully.
"I have been thinking a lot about death today after the end of our friends Aleksander and Klara. Being an atheist, I don't think anything waits after I die, but basically I just don't know. Nobody has ever come back, and no MRI has ever detected the soul. Angels and a gate and harps don't interest me. What I lack in my life is adventure. Every day I wake up, I walk to the shipyard, I design parts in my tiny office, I make sure the parts are made right, then I design more parts. The ships churn off to sea, and I never see them again. I am, frankly, bored beyond withstanding. What more drastic a change from that boredom could there be than death? What an adventure, a walk into the totally unknown. Here, then, to Aleksander and Klara. They are on the biggest adventure anybody could ever have. We all will have that adventure. Life is too complicated and frustrating. Here's to death!"
But he wasn't sure if he meant it. Death was scary.
The others raised their cups, some awkwardly, but Vlad laughed even louder than he had in the past. The driver and the other man raised their cups, too, smiling. Vanko smiled back. The Russians understood death. Some kind of vague understanding passed between them. Were they Russian thugs or Ukrainian thugs? Nothing he could do.
"To death!" Vlad shouted.
The girl raised her dead bird. Even she smiled.
Vlad slapped Vanko on the leg in a friendly way. "You are a Russian for sure. Maybe a Cossack."
On the drive back, the girl refused to give up her gun. Her innocent face, her tiny body, her tiny hands, her wispy blonde hair. Seated on the bench, she gripped the shotgun to her chest and held on to it like she would the dead body of her father. Vlad led everybody in singing. Russian songs, of course.