From Russia, With Jack

The babushka was angry.

No, not angry, Tim assured me later as we kicked through the snow. You'd know if she were angry.

I believed him. But she wasn't laughing. Zina had served me five meals in the two days I’d spent under her roof. On the previous four she had left us to ourselves or hovered by the stove, throwing bits of conversation-in Russian-at Tim and great mounds of food at both of us. But tonight she was at Tim's shoulder, a steady stream of throaty clucks and warbles spilling out of her mouth and falling into Tim's ears, his soup. He nodded and gestured without ever breaking stride in his circle of spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth. Occasionally he would reply, repeating one of three or four phrases again and again. Suddenly I understood her power: she would force us out not with logic, but with relentless harassment. We had a train to catch.

Zina was caught between the maternal duties of rushing us and feeding us. I tried to oblige, soup splashing, tomatoes swallowed nearly whole, piles of rice and mushrooms tumbling. Eventually, enough food had been moved that she was satisfied, and she pulled us out of our chairs and pushed us out the door. Tim would be returning, but as I tried to execute a farewell I was threatened with death by cold weather if I didn't don a hat. Good bye, Zina. Paka.

It was cold and late on a Sunday night, and snow was falling. Stepping outside brought forceful reminders that I was far from home; the door, unlocked, heavy, and closer to square than rectangular, was not cut flush to the ground. I had to literally step through it, and doing so brought into view a towering church that was between very old and ancient, and had been painted green. It was lovely against the night sky, against the snowflakes, among the stillness and the quiet. Tim and I didn't speak as we trudged through the drifts. For several blocks we walked in silence, climbing a hill, walking along a park, until we joined the main drag in town, and the noise of traffic and the lights of storefronts began to modernize the experience.

Tim broke the silence. "She doesn't get like that often, but when she does, it's real effective."

"I thought she was angry."

"No, not angry." We crossed the street. "You'd know if she were angry." I believed him. "She was worried that we might have trouble getting to the station." At the station was a St. Petersburg-bound sleeper. Tim and I were ticketed for the second class cabin. The night before I had lulled myself to sleep by imagining the roll and clack, rhythmic and steady, that would draw me under as the Russian countryside rolled by. I remembered this as we walked past the domed cathedral of St. Demetrius. It was gorgeously lit in a ring of soft purple light, and, placed at the edge of a bluff, was dominated only by the sky. The station lay at the base of this bluff, where the tracks ran along the Klyazma River. "Well, we have plenty of time, right?" Tim assured me that we did.

Eventually the road curved, and we stopped to watch for oncoming trolleys. We stood on an icy curb, chatting quietly, snowflakes swirling around us. Trolleys and buses appeared and disappeared, turning away at a traffic light some 200 yards behind. I was unconcerned until Tim chirruped in frustration. Then, as though to mock us, the proper bus pulled up. Tim and I grinned at each other and climbed aboard.

About a mile ahead was a point where the bluff was low enough to allow for a steep and lengthy staircase, which we had ascended Saturday morning upon our arrival in Vladimir. The bus took a sharp left. Tim swore under his breath and we jumped off at the next stop. We dashed back up to Bolshaya Moskovskaya, the main roadway, and hopped onto a trolley that Tim knew to be correct.

"Took a chance on that last one," he grumbled.

"We're in good shape now," I assured him. We began to descend the staircase. The view was breathtaking: the bluff, rising to our right and tapering away into the dark distance at our left, gave a sensation of riding at the crest of a great wave of land, rolling into the sea of the Russian landscape. The frozen river like a white snake, plains stretching into infinity, punctuated by the soft orange glow of distant towns. To the south, there was a break in the cloud cover, and stars twinkled through. The clack and rumble of a train rolled up the hill, and my heart swelled in my chest. The sound was so much better than I had imagined; it was so much more real. I wanted to rush into the station and board right away, but the stairs wouldn't allow it. They had been repaired only weeks before my arrival, according to Tim, and in place of crumbling stone was polished granite, murderous when wet or covered in snow. "How much would it suck," I mused aloud, "to be here and see your train pull out?" We watched a train pull out of the station, its long rectangular windows glowing yellow, the outlines of heads peering back out at us. "It's a nine hour ride, and it's the middle of Sunday night. It's not like there's another flight in a couple of hours."

"Oh, man." Tim concurred. "That would suck." We reached the bottom of the stairs. There was still a bit of hill to descend, and then across a parking lot filled with taxi vans, whose drivers were barking into megaphones out of boredom, calling for passengers in the empty night. In the station, there were a few men milling about, many drinking, some drunk, all clearly looking for a warm place to pass the night. A pair of cops drank coffee at the doorway, ignoring everyone but each other. A woman in an orange uniform pushed dirty water back and forth across the floor with a dirty mop. She was well along the path from young beauty to earthy babushka, but not yet old. The lone ticketing agent was chatting on the phone. Near the turnstiles were four young men and two young women, all together, not talking. As I studied the people, Tim studied the departures board.

"Hmm," he said.

My eyes moved to his. He wasn't looking back, though; he was looking down at the tickets. Then his eyes moved back up to the board. Down to the tickets, up to the board, to the tickets again, and then he shook his head gently. "The date's right, right? Right," he answered himself. "So why don't...hold on." Tim stepped up to the window. The agent ignored him.

Tim waited patiently, and when she realized that he was not going to go away she put the mouthpiece of the telephone onto her shoulder. Tim asked a question softly. Before he finished speaking she shook a fist and belted one word, heavy and unpleasant. Her attention returned immediately to the phone, where we seemed to promptly become the subject. Tim turned in my direction. His face was burning with color.

"Oh, Jackie."

In a flash, it was there: the nine hours, the second-class sleeper, conversation and countryside; St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, the Gulf of Finland, canals and bridges, and all-aboard again Tuesday for the eight hours journey into Moscow, this time first class, and in the quarter-second between thinking and knowing that everything had changed, I heard God giggle. Gone, all of it, gone, the hard-to-find cafe not to be found, the sea not to be smelled, monuments not to be gawked at. Gone, with the clack and rumble of a train we had watched from the steps, gone with the grunt of a babushka working the graveyard shift.

"Let's go back to Moscow."

"Yes."

There would be no trains until morning. Before stepping back into the ticket agent's line of sight, Tim's eyes rolled in his head. "I just can't believe this. But I'll tell you one thing: when we go back to Moscow? We're going first class!"

Tim arranged for new tickets with the glaring agent, using the half-credit that remained from our useless boarding passes. On the way up the steps he called Zina to eat his crow and tell her we were coming home. His head hung low as he spoke and listened.

"Is she angry?" I asked.

"No, not angry." We climbed in silence for a while. "She feels badly for us. That's almost worse."

At the top of the stairs I paused and looked behind at the station, at the country, at the night. We would descend these stairs again in six hours, an hour early, tickets in hand, contingency plans already designed and agreed upon. The parking lot was filled with vans, whose drivers were barking into megaphones at the passing crowds. In the station there were short lines at kiosks and pockets of people on the platform. Two cops hovered at the doorway, drinking coffee and ignoring everyone around them. Two women in orange uniforms pushed dirty water around on the floor. At the ticket window was our agent from the night before, glaring at a customer, phone pressed into her shoulder.

I wanted her to notice us, to see us getting on a train and out of Vladimir, while she was still stuck in that little booth. I wanted her to see that we would have the last laugh. I’d have been wrong, though. Those first class tickets she sold us? They were third class. Three hours on a wooden bench packed with wary Russians.

And Zina? Zina, who had told us and told us to eat faster, to get moving, to not be late, who had shoved us out the door and refused sentimentality or even a proper farewell? She gave me a calendar when I left Monday morning. It has pictures of St. Petersburg.

Written by Jack Finnegan