I met Andrei Nikolayevich downtown at the statue of Lenin. He wore a tailored suit and seemed the type who shaved and washed his hair every day. I didn’t know why Riscani’s district attorney had summoned me, but I enjoyed that he referred to me on the phone as a foreign expert. Andrei Nikolayevich shook my hand and spoke Russian with long and learned words. After talking for a while—after I’d nodded as though I’d understood everything—he asked if I would be willing to help. “Of course,” I said without hesitation. Andrei Nikolayevich smiled and placed a hand on my back to lead me into his building. As though in a dream we pushed past all potential points of resistance, past nodding security guards with machine guns, past laborers in wool suits in search of justice, into his office past his secretary, to a square inner-office with two flags on his desk split apart in a V—Russia and Moldova. Instead of the plain chair facing his desk he pushed me around to sit in his leather chair, at a higher elevation, where he turned a boxy IBM monitor to face me. The background was black and the electronic script green. This was an official document, in English, in need of editing.
“Please fix all that you can,” said Andrei Nikolayevich. “I realize my English is not trustworthy.”
The district attorney had studied English in college, back when Soviet professors thought they were training future spies to speak the language of the enemy. After a cursory glance I saw the document only needed a few touch ups, not an entire rewriting. I started at the beginning, changing the official government heading of the document to read, “The Republic of Moldova” instead of Republica Moldova. Andrei Nikolayevich stood over my shoulder, inspecting my work, nodding his head in agreement with each correction. “You type quickly,” he said. He made a joke to his secretary by screaming through the wall and laughing.
I returned my focus to the monitor and finished reading the entire document before I made any further corrections. Half way through reading I became aware of the pulse in my neck. By the time I reached the end I was breathing heavily and tapping my foot against the floor to release nervous energy. “Mr. Andrei Nikolayevich,” I asked in English. “What do you mean by this phrase?” He came around the desk and a special smoky musk dominated my atmosphere. I could breathe fine but coughed instinctively. He followed my finger across the screen to the words unacceptable acts of pleasure. He screamed through the wall and his secretary appeared, a tiny woman not much taller in appearance now than when she’d been sitting, and they conversed in Russian beyond my capacity for understanding. He explained to her his choice of words. “When sex is forced,” she reported. “Forced and not clean.” She’d evidently studied English as well.
Andrei Nikolayevich nodded his approval and tapped the screen where I should write those words with my fast typing.
“Rape,” I said.
Andrei Nikolayevich threw his hands in the air in relief as though he’d been searching for that word for weeks.
The document was a formal petition to the Austrian government. It requested the collection of evidence against a smuggling ring. A girl from the Riscani Region had accepted an offer to be a chambermaid in a Salzburg hotel. After traveling to Austria she found herself stripped of her passport and forced to pay off an invented, astronomical debt through prostitution. Andrei Nikolayevich had used bullet points to list the many grievances reported by the girl, including slavery-like conditions, rape, and the repeated injections of narcotics into her veins to maintain a non-combative attitude. The petition requested the assistance of the Austrian authorities in monitoring a Salzburg tavern called C-------, the alleged site of the prostitution, as well as a formal police inquiry into the Austrian citizen called K----- K-----, the alleged pimp who’d received the girl at the airport. In conclusion, Andrei Nikolayevich’s petition summarized the efforts of the Moldovan authorities—the Moldovan man who’d procured the girl an expedited Austrian visa had been arrested—and humbly requested that the Austrians continue with the investigation, as it legally extended into their jurisdiction.
My hands shook from excitement while finishing the corrections. I wanted to do more. Andrei Nikolayevich thanked me profusely, repeated over and over what a great help I’d been.
“Of course,” I said. “I will help you at any time.” Andrei Nikolayevich shook my hand and winked at his secretary.
For the first time in Moldova I felt useful. Teaching English to half-focused high schoolers had never given me the same buzz in my fingertips.
Six months later a car beeped at me, so I stepped from the road onto the unswept sidewalk. I’d been at a town hall party to celebrate spring and collective farming and such, so I was tipsy from combining cognac and vodka. The car pulled over just up the road. The man driving got out and walked directly toward me. My instinct said I must fight this man. I tensed my hands, but then I recognized the portly elegance of his movements and the threat disappeared, though something kept me from remembering his name. The man swayed as he approached, not able to advance in a perfect line, but he wasn’t drunk.
“Aaron!” said the man, his hand outstretched.
A light went off in my head. “Andrei Nikolayevich!” An entire winter had passed since I’d helped to translate his petition to the Austrian government about sex trafficking. In that time I’d watched several girls leave school for work abroad, their friends reporting they’d found work in hotels and restaurants. An unmanageable class of twenty pupils had shrunken to a silent collection twelve bodies.
“The Austrians finally wrote back!” said Andrei Nikolayevich.
“Do you speak German? No? But the official letter is in German! I thought you might know German. But do not worry, I’m sure the letter is rubbish. I’m not getting my hopes up. But you and I—you and I—we—you and I—we should you and I go fishing!”
I smelled vodka on his breath. He was in street clothes, not his lawyer suit. I apologized that I couldn’t provide a German translation. He waved his hand in the air and returned the conversation to fishing. Even while tipsy, he still used large words. He wanted to go fishing and talk about the Soviet Union and what he’d learned about America in the Russian schools. I offered to find a German speaker in the capital. Andrei Nikolayevich brushed that thought away. He thanked me anyway. “But we’ll go fishing,” he said. “We’ll talk about—” and the only words I understood of what he said next were the ones that sounded the same in English and Russian, like communism and democracy. I nodded my head as though I agreed with everything.
We shook hands and went our separate tipsy ways.
At home I collapsed into my bed, but didn’t sleep. Although my head buzzed from alcohol, not without pleasure, my mood soured as I thought about the many girls who’d left Riscani, about Austria, about translating, and about the use of language. In the capital, several weeks back, I’d entered a bookstore. In bed now I remembered the entranceway marked with nothing more than the single word--book—as though the store sold raw materials in the same way butchers sold meat. The shopkeeper wasn’t interested in learning why my accent in Russian sounded strange. With a cigarette he pointed to his selection of foreign texts. The pages of the books in this store smelled more of smoke than the sweet notes of aged American paperbacks. I didn’t hold any books up close to my face for inspection because I felt no connections. But now I remembered the further disappointment that washed over me when I discovered that dictionaries dominated this foreign book selection. I’d been looking for novels, so I left immediately. And now, in memory, I was certain that bookstore contained a Russian-German dictionary. And this felt important to me. With that book it would be possible for me to accomplish something heroic.
I woke sometime later in my clothes and left the apartment, walking in the dark with the dull outline of the Lenin statue as a landmark, until I arrived at the bus station. When no bus arrived I hitchhiked, offering to pay extra for gas if we reached the capital before dawn.
“Are you drunk?” asked the driver. “Your accent is funny.”
I assured him I wasn’t. I wanted to reach the capital. I wasn’t running from police.
“I don’t care,” he said.
“I want to buy a book,” I offered.
“I don’t care,” he repeated. “It’s best if you sleep. Your accent is funny and I don’t wish to talk.”
In the capital I found the storefront quickly, but hadn’t considered the possibility that Russian booksellers didn’t operate on the same sun-schedules as farmers. Hours later I returned and passed by the same smelly storekeeper I’d seen before without speaking. There were no dictionaries on the shelf. The raw materials of the day were a collection of nonconsecutive X-men comics, several Bibles in various languages and a copy of War and Peace, which the smoking man out front had mistakenly placed among his selection of foreign stories.
On the slow bus ride back to Riscani I wasn’t too upset about my failed dictionary mission; accomplishing nothing had come to feel normal. Since arriving in Riscani I’d experienced the personal shock of uselessness on repeat. Everyone experienced futility, and the only social requirement was to keep functioning. The only failure would be in not trying to help, in denying the biological impulse to move toward action.
For a moment I was inside the mind of Andrei Nikolayevich and I felt heroic.
Still on the bus, passing through the sunflower fields belonging to other villages going northward toward Ukraine, I decided I would call on Andrei Nikolayevich instead of going home. In my mind I reworked the last words he’d spoken to me into a promise; he had definitely promised to take me fishing.
Once off the bus I entered town through the alley of vodka bars. It was mid-afternoon and already the bars were filled beyond capacity with grisly men wearing tracksuits. The men spilled into the alley holding shot glasses and sugar biscuits. I pushed past them. A vodka drinker said something to me that made others laugh. Moving up the street, the police station was on my right, across from the ruined shell of the asylum that an angry mob had burned down some years back. From this spot there were another four bars in view. I paused at the monument to Lenin. I remembered back to when I first arrived in Riscani; I’d been told to avoid this area after dark.
About the author:
A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and served in the U. S. Peace Corps from 2006-2008. His writing has appeared in Hippocampus, 1966, Drunk Monkeys, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Pure Slush, among others, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York City. Visit his website here.