Saturday Storytime: Get a Grip

Paul Park is well known for his Roumania Quartet series of novels, but this story, a 1998 World Fantasy Award nominee for short story, may ring some bells for readers as well.

He had lost weight, and his black beard was gone. In Russia he had worn a hilarious mismatch of plaid clothes, surmounted by an old fur cap. Now he wore a tweed suit, a denim shirt open at the neck. The cap was gone.

“Boris,” I said.

In Russia his English had been absurd. I used to tell him he sounded like a hit man in a Cold War novel, and he had laughed aloud. Now he spoke quickly and softly in a mid-Atlantic accent: “I think you’re making a mistake.”

And I would have thought so too, except for the strange expression I had seen. So I persevered. I pulled out one of the chairs and sat down—“What are you doing?” he cried. “My God, if they find us here. If they see us here.”

These words gave me what I thought was a glimmer of understanding. In Moscow, in the kitchen of his tiny apartment, Boris once had put away enough vodka to let him pass through drunkenness into another stage, a kind of clarity and grim sobriety. Then he had told me what his life was like under the Communists—the lies which no one had believed. The interrogations. When he was a student in the sixties after Brezhnev first came in, he had spent two years in protective custody.

Now maybe he was remembering those times. “My friend,” I said, “it’s all right. You’re in America.”

These words seemed to fill him with another gust of fury. He tried to get up, and I could see he was very drunk. “I don’t know you, I’ve never met you,” he muttered, grinding out his cigarette butt. But then the cocktail waitress was there.

“I’ll take a club soda,” I said. “And my friend will have a Smirnoff’s.”

“No,” he snarled, “that was the problem with that job. Get me a bourbon,” he told the waitress. Then to me: “I hate vodka.”

Which surprised me more than anything he’d said so far. In Moscow he had recited poetry about vodka. “Yeah,” he told me now, smiling in spite of himself. “Tastes change.”

Apparently he had reassured himself that no one was watching us. But he waited until the waitress had come and gone before he spoke again. “Boris,” I said, and he interrupted me.

“Don’t call me that. It was just a job, a two-week job. I barely remember it.”

“What are you talking about?

He smiled. “You don’t know, do you? You really don’t know. Get a grip,” he said. “It’s like candy from a baby.”

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Saturday Storytime: Get a Grip
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