(For my good friend, Andrew)
Nearly noon on a Saturday and no sunlight, no sun at all, just haze and
murk and mist, but he — this Russian thug, this egg-headed gorilla —
he gets a good look; oh, he gets a better than decent view, long enough
to make an assessment. He’s a coy Cossack.
Frowning, snarling, grinding his throat. He spits phlegm at the street,
then makes me an insulting offer.
I’m no good with accents so I’m thinking maybe I didn’t hear him right.
A voice in my head says: walk away, Bobby, just walk away.
But I’m also thinking: what the fuck, take the money and run.
Whatever the amount. Isn’t that the reason I set out so early, why I
walked all morning through dirty Moscow streets — to make a quick
sale? I’m here because things have gotten critical and I’m desperate to
get home, back to America.
Part of me is actually considering this brute’s ridiculous offer as I
hurriedly roll the painting up. And that’s when he grabs on to one end,
seizing the canvas like he’s grasping a lifeline. He shouts in English,
“Done. Okay. Good deal. Very good.”
I’m off balance, one foot on the curb, one foot in the gutter, the
rolled up canvas between us, and he’s got a grip that could pull a boat
to shore. He starts tugging like I’m a dog on a leash. He shouts at me
in Russian and my head feels like it’s been whacked with a shovel.
I’m barely holding on with one fist, fearful the whole thing is going
to tear. From the scars on his face and the blue tattoo on his neck,
I’m sure he’s one of them. Another Russian street thief. A black
marketer. I’m absolutely certain he’s in their service. But really he
could be anything — a grown-up street urchin, possibly even a
legitimate art dealer. He repeats his offer, stating the amount in
German, then French, then in something that might be Mandarin Chinese.
I’m bug-eyed, mouth open, shaking my head, hanging on with two thumbs
and four fingers. He’s already holding most of it, more than I am, in
hands greatly over-proportioned to the rest of him. He could twist my
head off with hands like those. He could snap a limb without effort.
So I think about letting go. But then he starts turning his body,
twisting away, pulling the canvas to his face, smelling it, and just
that quick I’m holding nothing, no part of anything. I’m shaking my
head at him but I’m thinking I don’t know. Why not? Fifteen, did he
say? I don’t know.