By Mark Budman
On that summer day of 1978, in the southwestern corner of the Soviet Union known as Moldova, to be late meant court- martial.
Sitting behind the biker, holding on tight to a hot chrome bar, his knuckles turned white, his body sweating, itching, and aching in unlikely places, Michael Zelinsky felt on the higher level of consciousness like a French aristocrat about to be guillotined, and on the lower, down-to-earth level, like a fish about to be gutted. Dust stuck to wet stains on his uniform, accumulating layer upon layer. He had quit wiping off his face ages ago.
The biker had offered him a ride to the bus station. The building was just a concrete frame, rough, windowless, completely open on one side, with a long wooden bench along the back wall. Dirty words, mostly in Russian, were abundant, carved into the wood of the bench, painted on the walls, and penciled across cheerful propaganda slogans. Heat poured inside wave after wave, unresisted. A smell of urine and rotten garbage hung in the air. A Moldavian woman in a short- sleeved pink dress with two big patches of sweat under her arms was selling tickets. A silver coin on a thin brass chain nested comfortably between her plump breasts.
Michael approached her, staring at beads of sweat on her round peasant face, at her tanned, generously exposed neck. He opened his mouth, then closed it, and returned to the bench. He was hopelessly and helplessly lost. He was considering either committing suicide or taking off his army boots and hiding in the bushes until the end of time.
Another motorcycle came to a screeching halt in a cloud of dust and blue nauseous smoke next to the station. This second biker was a short, unassuming man in his fifties, with a skin so tanned that he almost looked like an Arab. He wore a dirty white undershirt, brown baggy pants, and plastic sandals on his bare feet. Unde duc?" he asked Michael in Moldavian.
Michael hated that language ever since he had been forced to study it in school. He and the other Russian-speakers would mock the Moldavian teacher, a retired Army veteran, until the man was screaming and hammering the table with his fist. Then they stopped for a short while, only to repeat the whole ordeal later. They called him a tsaran, a peasant, the name reserved for all Moldavian-speaking Moldavians, regardless of their occupation and intellectual abilities.
"Going to my base," Michael replied in Russian.
"Aha," said the biker. He thought for a moment, and said in Russian, with an unexpectedly mild accent, "where is your base?"
"I don't know. I'm lost."
"Okay," said the biker, and spit on the ground. "There will be no more buses today," he said.
"I got to get to my base tonight," said Michael. "If I don't, they'll court-martial me."
"Aha," said the biker and sat down next to Michael.
Besides sweat, he smelled of gasoline, onions, and sour wine.
"I'm on leave. Yesterday they gave me a ride to Kishinev, on an Army bus," Michael said. "I got to get back tonight. But I don't know my way back. I thought it's some place around this village. I took a bus to here, but now I'm stuck. I don't know what to do. Shit, I don't know what to do."
"Aha," the biker said. He pulled out a cigarette from behind his ear, put it in his mouth, but did not light it. "I can give you a ride to Kishinev," he said.
"I need to get to my base," said Michael.
"You're a lieutenant," said the biker. "How come you don't know your way?"
"I'm a reserve officer. I've never been in this area before. And they don't give us maps. I thought I'd find it. Shit."
"Aha," the biker said. He thought for a while, staring at the fringe on the bottom of his too-short pants. "I know two bases around here. Does yours have just tents or are there real brick barracks there?"
"Tents," Michael said. His heart pounded inside his chest as if it wanted to jump out and shout, "Help me!"
"Both bases I know have tents," the biker said.
"Are you pulling my leg?" Michael said.
"What leg?" the biker said. "They both have tents. If you want to, we could try both."
Earlier that morning Michael and his wife Olga had kissed on the floor of their one bedroom apartment while their six- month-old Vera crawled over them acting as a chastity belt. Michael was already dressed in his generously-wrinkled khaki uniform and high black boots of the roughest artificial leather imaginable. Instead of socks he had to wear portyanki,, pieces of cloth wrapped around his feet to prevent blisters. Vera was pulling on his khaki epaulet adorned with two tiny yellow stars.
"I could write you a bulletin," Olga said again. A "bulletin" was a doctor's note.
"I told you, they won't believe me," Michael said. "Sick or not sick, I have to be back tonight. It's my turn to be the regiment's duty officer. Anyway, only Moldavians write bulletins."
"I don't know about you, but I'm really sick," Olga said. "I'm sick of your wargames."
"You're acting as if I had a choice," Michael said.
Actually he did have a choice. His friend had told him about one clever draft-avoiding technique. "They call extra people just in case. So if you have enough guts not to show up in the first place, they might have a sufficient number of heads and leave you alone."
Michael did not have enough guts.
The night before, after Michael and Olga had made love one last time, and lay stark naked, their limbs interweaved, listening to the jumps and howls of Kolka the Idiot who lived upstairs from them, Michael was the happiest person in the whole capital city of Kishinev. Today, expelled from heaven, he was descending ever lower and lower, and there was no end to his descent.
"Here's the camp," the biker said. He stopped his machine on the top of the hill, pointing to khaki tents below lined up like a bunch of ugly cousins. A horde of vehicles of all sizes was parked nearby. The setting sun blazed fiercely in their windshields.
"Is it yours?"
"I don't think so," Michael said slowly.
"Okay, that leaves us only one choice," the biker said.
They drove without saying a word, the wind throwing buckets of dust in their faces. Then a muffled clap of thunder hit Michael's ears. A great inhuman force pulled the bar from his hands and threw him into the air. He hovered there for what seemed to be a long, long time, but instead of seeing his life pass before him, as he was supposed to do according to everything he had read, he just thought pure and virgin nothingness.
He finally landed properly, thanks to his karate reflexes. He felt almost no pain. The biker lay on his face on the side of the dirt road. The bike's wheels were still rotating. Michael slowly inched his way toward the man on the ground. "Are you okay?" he asked in a coarse voice. He felt something warm and moist on his own forehead, but was afraid to touch it. There was almost no pain.
As if waiting for the question, the biker turned on his back and then sat up. "The damn tire blew up," he said, turning off the ignition. "Are you okay?" he asked in turn.
"Then help me. I need to get the bike to that tree."
They dragged the lifeless thing for about fifty meters. Then the biker produced a chain and a lock from a hidden compartment inside the bike. "Let's go," he said when he was done chaining.
"To the second camp, where else?"
They walked for a while before Michael dared to ask, "How far is that?"
The young night had already arrived. Illustrious stars shone like czar's jewels, too bright and unfit to dress up the simple country skies. The moon looked at home, however, with its broad and smiling peasant's face. The dirt road, surrounded on both sides with immense vineyards, just went on, and on, and on. Occasional lights from the distant houses looked unrealistically inviting. Dogs barked somewhere. Michael did not dare to check the time. He hoped his watch was broken from the impact of the crash. Perhaps he could use the accident as a feeble excuse for his lateness.
"What's your name?" he asked the biker after a while.
"My name's Michael."
Nicolae walked with a slight stoop, even though he was far from being tall. But he moved fast, in a relaxed, athletic manner. Michael's portyanki came loose, and his feet were rubbing against the harsh insides of his boots. "Wait," he said, and sat down right in the middle of the dirt road. He pulled off both of his boots. His feet stunk beyond the limits of human endurance. His portyanki were a tangled mess. He wrapped them around his feet again and was about to begin the painful process of putting the boots back on when Nicolae stopped him.
"Let me show you," he said. He sat down next to Michael, and wrapped the cloth in a couple of swift and accurate moves. Then they walked some more, and they saw the lights.
"Puzheni," Nicolae said. "The base is very close to here."
They walked on the village's empty street, along the row of accurate little houses. Not a single human soul greeted them, only the dogs barked viciously from behind the high wooden fences, and a stray black cat ran across the road right in front of their feet. They made it all the way through the village, until the houses began to get sparse and the lights became almost nonexistent. Then they saw two men in their path. One of them held an empty bottle in his hand, by the neck, like a weapon.
In Moscow, where Michael went to school, street fights were very common, especially in the big parks like Sokolniki and Ismailovo. That was one of the reasons Michael took karate for two years. He never was a great champion, just a middling student. In Kishinev the fights were less common, but happened often enough.
"Buna sara, good evening," Michael greeted the men, trying to keep his voice steady. They did not answer, just moved a little closer. A wine aroma, thick and sour, enveloped them.
"Got a smoke?" the man with the bottle asked in Russian.
"I don't smoke," Michael answered. Nicolae stepped ahead and said something in Moldavian that Michael did not understand.
"Fuck you," the man with the bottle said. Then the other one, without saying a word, hit Nicolae in the face. Nicolae's head jerked back, but he remained on his feet. Michael stepped towards the man who had hit Nicolae and, forgetting all the karate lessons, smashed his booted feet into the man's leg right below the knee.
The man collapsed on the ground like a fallen tree, with a roar close to that of thunder. The other one, shouting something in Moldavian, made wild clumsy motions with his feet and hands. He dropped the bottle and hardly kept his balance.
Michael swung his right hand at him, and the man turned around and fled. He fell, got up, and ran again. The first one still lay on the ground, clutching his foot and shouting obscenities in both languages.
"Let's go," Nicolae said, gently pulling Michael by the sleeve away from the fallen man. Michael's teeth were chattering even though the night was hot. "Sons of bitches," he said. They walked some more, silently. The night was full with aromas of summer earth. Bugs sang in the international language of love.
"Drunken sons of bitches," Michael said again. "They should be exterminated, damn drunkards. They should have their balls cut off. They should be shot. They should be hanged. They should..."
Nicolae was silent.
"Does it hurt?" Michael asked.
"What do you do for living?" Michael said about a hundred meters later.
"I'm a kolhosnik."
"A farmer, huh? And I'm an engineer. Do you have kids?"
"I have one. A girl. She's the best girl there is."
They walked some more. A dull glow appeared behind the horizon.
"You know," Michael said, "I never had a Moldavian friend before."
"I knew that," Nicolae said.
"How did you know?"
"I know. I saw you."
"I'm not prejudiced. By the way, my roots are here. My ancestors lived here ever since the Turkish War. That's almost two hundred years. Impressive, huh?"
"Here we are," Nicolae said.
In a valley below they saw an entity, a giant beast, emitting noise, and acrid smells, and waves of overheated gases. The beast stared at them with scores of moving blazing eyes, its tentacles waving frantically, its body shuddering.
"Is this your camp?" Nicolae asked.
"I don't know. Let's get closer and check." "I can't get closer. Civilians are not supposed to."
"Then wait for me, please. I'll be right back."
Michael ran down to the gates of the compound. A sentry armed with an AK-47 stopped him.
"Is it you, Ivanov?" Michael asked.
"Aye, sir," the man answered, letting him through. Michael ran inside, toward the guard's tent. Nobody was there but a small reddish dog who licked his boots delightedly. Michael ran to the officer's tent, followed by the dog. Inside the great tent, under a dim bare bulb hanging from a post, four men were playing cards on beds covered with rough woolen blankets.
"Look who's here," said one of them. "Michael fucking comrade Zelinsky. And we thought that you deserted."
And they all laughed.
"C'mon guys, what's happened? Were they looking for me?"
"Sure they were. They even called the military police. With dogs."
"Oh yeah, dogs. Here's one of them," and the man pointed toward the small reddish creature who cringed before them on the dirt floor. Michael's feet gave out, and he sat, almost fell down, on the bed.
"Relax, buddy," another man said. "Karpenko took your place. Nobody cared. Nobody has even noticed."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I am," the same man said. "Just don't forget you owe him. A bottle of nice wine would do," he said."
"You play poker?" the first man said. "Care to join us?"
Michael took some cards in his shaky hands. His head was empty, like the wine bottles that littered the tent.
Above them, on the top of the hill, Nicolae lit a cigarette, and sent a puff of smoke toward the deep, empty skies of his homeland.
(Mark Budman is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. His short fiction and poetry have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Mississippi Review, Midstream, Beyond, Thoth, Highbeams, Rictus, Knightmares, and Anthology magazines. He is a finalist of several Writer's Digest fiction competitions. His poetry is included in the anthology of the best American magazine poetry of 1995/1996. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and two daughters. His home page: http://www.geocities.com/athens/delphi/3220)