Friday, February 17, 2006

When the Landlord Came for the Key ...

My landlord sent me a text message this morning asking to pick up the rent. We arranged for an 8:30 meeting, after I visited my Russian tutor and went shopping. I looked forward to the meeting, as it’d be our first since I’d paid $80 to fix the lock on my front door (see below). It’d be pay-back time, I thought. If she asked for a copy of the key, I’d say, “Shto-shto?” (what-what?) to mimic her way of lapsing into Russian whenever she didn’t want to hear something. That, or I’d say Nastia had them, all four, and that maybe she’d remember to bring them in time for the rent next month. I was so set on pay-back, I didn’t even change my Ukrainian Griven into US Dollars.

But then at 8:15, just minutes after I got home, following a message confirming that I was ready, Lena sent me this: “My husband will come for rent next hour, ok? His name is Alexej.”

I didn’t know his name, but I remembered his gun. He’d worn it while installing my washing machine. It had been our first meeting. You see a gun once, you always remember.

I sent an SMS back. “Ok.”

“Give him new key, please,” she replied.

Now I imagined trouble. I thought he was coming over to rough me up, to take my key and kick me down the stairs, stand over me with a gun. Panic took over. I sent Nastia and email, explaining the situation and saying to text me in an hour, for if I didn’t answer – well, call the militsia and request a full and thorough investigation by the US Department of State. “That’s Alexej, A-L-E-X-E-J.” I’d just cleaned the dishes, and so while straightening up – butter here, cutting board there – I placed the baby blue kitchen towel over the blade of the serrated bread knife. Draw him into the kitchen, I thought. And if he gets confrontational when I refuse to give him the key, then go for the bread knife. “How you like me now, Alexej!? That’s right, say, ‘Puh-zhal-stuh.’”

Nastia still hadn’t gotten back to me. I wanted to know if I should give him a key, or take a stand. I’d certainly keep a spare, I thought, and so I pulled it off the ring with all the other spares and slid it beneath the mattress, only to hear the doorbell ring after this, with the three keys still on the same ring. I went to take one off, but I couldn’t manage – my fingers didn’t have the coordination, not this quickly, and I didn’t want to keep him waiting, you don’t keep the Russian mafia waiting.

So it went down like this. I opened the door. I let him in. He looked as mafia as ever, black jeans and a fur lined jacket, his hair flat and close to his skull after he took off his shapka. We stood there, indecisive, neither comfortable with this new relationship. Then I realized something: he was looking for a place to put his things, a place to hang his jacket. There would be no fight. He just wanted what was his. I slid open the closet facing the door. “Puh-zhal-stuh.” Please. And then as he hung his coat, I went for the key ring and came back to say, “The new keys.” Like a normal person might.
He then did as Lena did, though he did not speak English like her. He checked the electrical meter, made a few calculations to bring in the cost of television and phone, and then I presented him with the money to make us right, explaining that I had my Russian lesson today and I was studying so much I forgot to exchange the Griven into Dollars. I hope you understand? He did, and so like this it continued, polite and pleasant, until at last – after he’d turned up the heat on the radiator and called the phone company to return international dialing to my service – we were parting at the door. “Dos Vidanye.” “Poka.”
Another Friday night.


Myfanwy Collins said...

So funny and human. I can see myself acting in a similar way.


katrina said...

Loved this post, Stephan. Riveting and hunorous.


Richard said...

Ah, come on--one of you wise guys could've at least uttered, "Say hello to my little friend."