My baby sister adopted a Russian boy. “You know he’s different,” she told me over the phone. “One of those kids who inspire their parents to commit murder.” This is why she called me; decided it was a fine idea after more than a decade of ignoring my messages, never answering any of my letters; to help her manage this child who was spinning out of control. She’d become fearful, hesitant, the boy had become strange, reticent, and knowing my expertise in the military and CIA, she reached out just when I was wondering whether she had slipped over the edge of the earth.
I wrote down the address on a cocktail napkin as I sipped a Bloody Mary in a rundown tavern halfway across the country. Bit a chunk into the celery stick and sucked the lemon wedge. Thought she was in Florida, but it turns out she was out in California, living with a new husband, a lawyer apparently. He was working for the justice department or something significant, at least by the way she said it, important enough to impress me. Checked his profile and found that he had in fact worked for the federal government years earlier, until a couple of DUI citations led to his dismissal.
Anyway, told her I would fly out and meet the boy. Didn’t know what I could offer. My only experience with Russians was placing electric cables on their genitals and watching the testicle smolder and then fry for refusing to offer espionage information. Hearing her tell me about how obstinate the boy has become brings it all back. The aroma of burning flesh fills me hairy nostrils as she thanks me. Since the wife left me, why should I even bother trimming my nose?
Last time I saw my sister she was shooting heroin into her veins, living in a Wisconsin trailer park with a construction worker twice her age named Bike Chain. Dad kicked her out of the house for stealing grocery money. Mom died of breast cancer a few years prior, which perhaps inspired April to start using hard drugs. Anyway, she told me she was a Mormon now living with this lawyer, a Mormon himself, and they tried for years to have kids but her ovaries were “burnt out or something.” So at first they tried to adopt a baby from China, but ended up with this Russian kid instead. Alexia was his name. Sounds like a girl’s name, if you ask me.
“Come quick, last night he picked up the kitchen knife and threatened to cut Harry’s fingers off.”
Harry sounded like a pathetic specimen of a man. Imagine: a grown man unable to control a seven year old child.
“Everything was fine when he was a baby, most beautiful child he was, but then something dark came into his eyes. It’s eating its way into his skull. Please hurry.”
Told her we’d work it out, get the kid some help, lock him up if need be.
“Thanks bro, I love you.”
Got drunk as a skunk on the plane out west. Delta Airlines flight attendant almost cut me off when I urinated in a plastic bottle. I’m handsome, so this prevented me from being arrested when we hit the tarmac. She folded a napkin with her name written in it: Lisa–with a bubbly heart over the “i” and tucked into my breast pocket.
“Call me tonight if you feel better,” she said.
Knew I’d never call her, but that number felt safe, strangely numbing in my shirt, comforting against my heart.
By the time I got to my motel the sun was setting. Holiday Inn logo was everywhere, like a spider that lays its eggs. Continental Breakfast menu was all I could focus on. Read it a couple times on the bed, tried to take off my clothes, but just feel asleep instead. Woke to the merciless orange sun peeling through the open curtains. Got up and closed them, pulling the poll shut with a frantic rush as I shielded my eyes from the luminous glory of a California morning in May. Had to get after April this afternoon, but decided a nap was the prescient thing to do.
Stupid maid woke me a couple hours later. Why do they always need to clean so early in the morning?
“Housekeeping,” she sings.
“Sleeping,” I said.
“Housekeeping,” she chants again, door swinging open. “Oh excuse me sir.”
The door closes and I’m wondering how I got naked and when, and why was a morning erection really necessary? I wait till it goes away, too tired to comply with its desire to be enchanted. My head is throbbing and the vacuum is running in the room next door. Somebody giggles in the hall, and I wonder if they’re talking about what the lovely Mexican lady saw a few moments earlier. Walking toward the evil door, grabbing the DO NOT DISTURB sign, I cover my member, open the cursed door, and place the paper hanger outside on the handle.
Giggles follow me inside. Pee in the bathroom and jump in the shower. Warm water covers my madness; my drunken stupor wears off as I scrub the grime from my middle-aged corpse. I feel dead, ten years older than I ever wanted to be. Wish I could have died in Afghanistan with my buddies; should have left my hairy cadaver on the battlefield outside of Helmand province. Turn off the faucet, grab a towel and run my hand across the steam in the mirror. Don’t recognize the face that peers back at me. It’s been years since I have.
My razor is old and nasty. The blade has turned yellow, brown crust had lodged itself in the base. It hurts and leaves razor burns. But that’s what I deserve: to struggle like the soldiers I deserted. Keep the medal of honor in my shaving bag. Reminds me of the men I served with, the warriors whose wives will walk the world without a husband. The American babies will never remember the faces of their fathers, only in photos.
Turn on Good Morning America and watch Diane Sawyer making an ass of herself, chopping celery while some pompous British chef fires up the grill for a pork chop stew. It looks good but I hate the confidence of these cooks from England. Who do they think they are anyway?
Feel like a new man with clean clothes. Leaving the room behind, sneak like a spider, creeping in silence so the maids don’t share another giggle. Click the door shut with not so much as a sound. Only wrinkle in my plan is the elevator. It’s on the top floor and I’m near the bottom. Watch a maid in blue uniform reach her arm out into the hall and grab a clipboard off her cart. Run past her into the stairwell at the end of the corridor. Giggles follow me downward like echoes. Feels like I’m drowning.
There’s a yellow taxi waiting out front. It looks dirty, makes me want to find a rental car, but I’m already running late. The driver smells like pot roast–but not in a good way. Sitting on beaded seats the streets fly past, each one nicer than the next. He asks for the address again, and I tell him. Hungry, I regret not enjoying that complimentary Continental Breakfast in the lobby.
He pulls to a stop in front of a small yellow house with turquoise shutters. There’s even a little white picket fence out front separating the charming yard from the sidewalk. There’s a flowerbed around a maple tree, pink roses leading outside the path to the front door. All she used to know about gardening last we met was how to keep her grass fresh in her dorm room freezer in a plastic baggie with some orange peels. My sister has come a long way.
The door opens and a man approaches, wearing a nice gray suit, holding a briefcase. Harry, I presume. He holds out his hand. “Nice to meet you Raymond,” he says, “I’ve heard so much about you.”
“You too,” I lie.
His eyeglasses are extremely thick. It’s all I can focus on as we walk into the house. The yellow cab disappears and fresh bacon drifts into my unkempt nostrils.
“Welcome Ray,” she says, hugging me. The house smells funny. It’s not messy, not neat either, but disorderly nonetheless.
“Where’s the little monster?” I ask.
April looks at me funny, Harry giggles like the Mexican maid as a little boy crawls out from behind the sofa.
“This is Alexia,” my sister says. “Alexia, this is your uncle Ray. Can you say hello to Uncle Ray?”
He runs away into the living room and jumps back behind the coach.
“Be careful of that furniture Alexia,” Harry says softly, “this isn’t the Holiday Inn you know.”
“How was your flight?” she asks.
“Fine,” I lie, remembering the stewardess.
Her phone number is in my suitcase along with the dirty shirt and the bottle of urine.
“May I take your suitcase?” Harry asks.
“Oh no,” I say. “Want to do it myself.”
“Maybe you should bring it up to your room now. Will you show him the way Harry?”
“Of course, follow me Bub.”
The carpeted staircase strikes me as tacky, the pictures climbing the wall show a diagonal pictorial timeline of this Russian child my wife found. As a baby he looks happy, Harry holding him in his arms at the base of a Christmas tree full of colorful lights, the snow falling outside. As we get higher up the staircase Alexia is crying in many photos; biting toys in other ones. Near the top is a couple I can hardly recognize, a demonic expression that makes me stop a few steps from the landing.
“You okay?” Harry asks.
“Fine,” I lie.
Catch my breath and turn away from those cold blue eyes.
“This is your room,” he says, “in here with the toys.”
There are puppets with their heads ripped off, stuffed animals all naked, Muppets desecrated, strange crayoned drawings on the walls like peculiar hieroglyphics of a sadistic madman.
“Well, I need to get back to the office,” Harry says. “We’ll sit down for dinner and talk later. Just wanted to come home and have lunch. Thank you so much for what you’re doing here to help us.”
I nod, shake hands again, sit on the little bed in the corner, try to read into the strange symbols on the walls. What the hell could they mean?
“I’m cooking omelettes,” she yells.
Her voice echoes. A blender clicks on from below. I wonder what the maids must be doing? Thinking of the stewardess from yesterday; makes me want to jerk off. I grab the bunny but one of the eyes falls off as soon as I pull down my pants and place it against my cock.
“Hurry, it’s gonna be cold,” she yells.
“Coming,” I shout, throwing the bunny into the corner where it lands with its tail in the air.
Walking down the stairs, holding the banister with my eyes closed until I get closer to the bottom. Opening them, noticing Alexia standing with his arms crossed. Brushing past him, he follows as we enter the kitchen. I’m almost expecting the kid to give me a ninja kick to the back of the legs, but he doesn’t.
“Spanish omelettes,” April says. “I didn’t have the chance to go grocery shopping, so hope eggs is okay for lunch.”
“It’s fine,” I lie.
“After we eat I thought I might be able to sneak over to Wall-Mart, buy some steaks for later. Harry’s a whiz with the barbecue.”
“Sounds fine,” I say, swallowing organic tomatoes, olives, and diced onions; watching this delinquent foreigner out of the corner of my eyes.
“Then you and Alexia can have an opportunity to talk.”
He stares at me when she mentions his name, fork in his enormous mouth–a few seconds too long if you ask me. Thankful there are no knives at the table, I swallow my coffee, look around the kitchen for the liquor. Goddamn Mormons.
“We’re really happy you joined us,” my sister says.
Alexia devours his omelette and jumps up from the table, runs outside. We watch him riding his bicycle in circles in the driveway.
“It’s been hard for him adjusting as he’s gotten older. Kids at school can be so harsh when you’re different.”
I nod, finish my coffee, watch her get up and clear the table. I offer to help her with the dishes but she won’t let me. I sit while she finishes rinsing the plates, glasses, frying pans. Alexia is still cycling in circles.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” she says.
I shake my head. She kisses me on the forehead.
“It’s great to see you again,” she says, leaving me alone in this demonic self-righteous house haunted by the pale demon in Corduroys.
As her Chrysler minivan pulls away the boy stops peddling. Looks at the window, and I wonder whether he can see me inside through the glare. He drops the bike on the driveway and walks toward the door with this horrid expression, as if he’s trapped between happiness and hellish psychosis. I’ve only seen that expression on enemy soldiers about to die. For some reason, I dive behind the couch, hiding from this pre-pubescent monster from eastern Europe as he busts down the door and screams his lungs out.
“What do you want from me?”
He’s crawled into a ball and we’re face to face, me and this creature that came from halfway across the world. His eyes so icy and large. He takes my hand and leads me to the side of the house. The sun makes me squint, but I trust him for some reason, this cretin with a tendency to terrify my sister and the mouse she married.
There’s a hole in the bottom of the wall leading under the house. I follow him, ducking, squeezing my neck and hips through the narrow opening. Sunlight streams through the one-inch spaces between the wooden floorboards, the ground is covered with dried-up feces and there’s a dead racoon in the corner. We go farther.
He opens another door, this one hidden so well I never knew it existed. We crawl beneath the house. It’s dark, so he lights a candle. It’s damp. The candle flickers. Inside is a collection of dead squirrels, raccoons–some skinned–others decapitated. There’s a bicycle built for two in the back. For some reason, we sit in this secret crawlspace, Indian style, listening to the wind whistling little Russian symphonies between the porous cinder blocks of my sister’s life.
“Let me stay here forever,” he says.
“Where?” I ask.
“Here with the animals,” he says.
He has an American accent. He could be my son. The candle goes out, and his eyes are all I can see. The sclerae so white, the stink of a skunk, interrupted only by the intermittent flicker of lashes, I wonder if the ice in his irises has escaped. Enchanted, till those great whites disappear back into the abyss of the ocean, as the room closes in, walls and ceiling and this Russian boy sitting on my lungs.
Try to find the little man, but unable to rise to my knees we struggle on the ground and the elfish assassin has complete control of his surroundings, floundering back and forth from wall to wall, a fish out of water. I grab his leg as a wrestler, Macho Man Randy Savage, a middle-aged man on a mission, but he smacks it with what I imagine is a dead animal. Want to kill him, but then the ceiling collapses with a thunderous explosion and the echo makes me wonder what doomed miners must have to go through in that ultimate moment when they know the end has come.
Alexia lights a match in the darkest corner, scratches against the silence and rising dust, the candle is placed on the dirt, my eyes adjust to a steel trap. He’s gotten another animal. The sound of music sets me strangely at ease: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2 plays in C Minor as he leans in and whispers into my ear.
“I come from a hunting family.”
I lie, “I come from a hunter family.”
We sit and listen to the music; all of Tchaikovsky’s classics. He skins a rabbit and tosses me the tail. It’s nice to be in the company of a soldier again. Captive, we become friends in our fox hole as the my sister shouts:
He lowers the music.
He gestures to keep my mouth shut, and that’s exactly what I do, possessed by this dwarf nemesis from a foreign land. After a while he blows out the candle and opens the cage. I drag out the bicycle built for two, set it up on the sidewalk. We’re covered in dirt, evidence of a battle between nuclear-armed nations. April’s car is gone. He climbs on the back and we peddle down the street, toward the nearest bar.
“Can we be friends?” he asks.
“Already am,” I say.
We pull into this dump where a chubby prostitute sits in front and smokes a cigarette. She looks at the kid, then at me, then back at the kid. Then she goes back to smoking like she never noticed us. The door opens and a dangerous looking hostess asks if we’re coming inside.
“Five extra dollars for the kid,” she says.
I pay for her addiction, deliberate to look cool in front of Alexia.
“What’ll it be?” bartender asks.
“White Russian,” I tell him.
Matthew Dexter lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Like the nomadic Pericú natives before him, he survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine.