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The Czarina's Man
By Lucille Bellucci
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Rated "G" by the Author.
Of the foibles of will 'o' the wisp Count Nicolai Valentin Katcharovsky
THE CZARINA’S MAN
Nicolai Valentin Katcharovsky was wearing down the immigration deputy, a pink young man who had begun the interview in firm official tones and now was actually pleading with Nicolai.
I watched, fascinated. As an employee of a small outpost of the U.S. government titled Refugee Resettlement Agency, I was technically on the side of the Immigration Department. From the deputy’s resentful glances I could see that he thought I wasn’t doing my job. How could I interfere? Nicolai’s performance demanded a respectful audience. I admired the strumming of invisible harpstrings even if the deputy obviously did not.
For the interview Nicolai had on his refugee outfit, the one he kept for official people. Americans automatically assumed attitudes of authority when they saw the faded napless tweed jacket, the clown-sized trousers held up by a cracked leather belt pulled tight to show at least six notches of progressive starvation, the frayed-but-proudly-clean shirt. But the pince-nez always confused them. That, and the seven-feet-three inches overtopping even as he sat.
“Why I not let you know I moved?” Nicolai said. “In America is no freedom after all? You are like communist secret police. Yes. Better I died of cold in Trieste camp.”
“Mr. Katcharovsky, we are not persecuting you. All you have to do is send us a special postcard—here’s a bunch of them—whenever you move. Resident aliens must notify us of address changes.” The deputy looked at me again.
Nicolai seemed to be admiring the Bay bridge through the deputy’s tenth-floor window, so I picked up the cards. “I’ll see that Mr. Katcharovsky uses them.”
“Please do. Try to keep him out of trouble.” Wearily, the deputy stood up.
Nicolai too rose, unfolding at knee and hips with a distinct crack from each tendon and socket. He said tenderly to the fawn-colored head of the deputy. You are nize young man. I will not trouble you more.” He led the way to the door. “Come Aleksandr.” Obediently, his retinue of one, I followed him out.
On Market Street we caught a bus to his new digs, an attic overlooking the Panhandle, San Francisco’s finest low-rent neighborhood. Nicolai gestured around. “You like?”
The kitchen was huge, and I saw he kept his cot in there instead of the only other room, which held a cloth satchel, an umbrella, and five or six books. A canvas folding chair added eighteen inches to the end of the cot.
“Here is soup, good borscht.” He uncovered the pot on the hot plate and filled two bowls, added black bread to a platter, and set them on a small wooden table.
“Nicolai, you left the hot plate on all the time you were out?”
“Of course, Aleksandr, so we would have food ready, no waiting.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” He patted my arm. “I will not do it again. It was to keep room warm, too. You are right. For myself I do not care, but other pipple live in house.” He stirred the soup, searching for bits of meat. A chuckle welled up past the bread in his mouth, grew to a belly laugh. With an effort he swallowed the bread and covered his eyes with a big hand, still laughing. I saw a tear roll and was alarmed.
“Are you okay?”
“Alek…I was thinking of lady downstairs, my landlady. Fine woman, widow. All the time she comes knocking on door. Do I need this, that. Last night she came, eleven o’clock, in beeyootiful nightgown, to ask if I need anything.” He blew his nose, a grin stretching past each side of the handkerchief.
Nicolai had stepped off the train in Oakland with my second shipment of refugees that month. My list showed fifteen stateless citizens coming from Italy, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden, though their original points of departure swung from Eastern Europe to the Orient. Fresh from the class of ’55, I had the refugee Resettlement Agency job because I spoke Russian and could stumble along in French. My charges had no linguistic problems: they had picked up enough in every stopping place to talk to each other, and me, in a kind of universal pidgin.
He had shown immense satisfaction with the two-room flat I’d found for him. The closet, I thought, was its best feature. Everybody liked roomy closets, and this one was as big as an extra room. “Very nize,” Nicolai said, depositing his satchel daintily in the center of the closet floor. I pointed out the nearly new electric range, the just-shampooed carpeting. “Yes, yes, very nize.” We shook hands at the door and he waited courteously on the landing as I walked two flights to the street.
Two weeks later I stopped by and found the flat occupied by someone else. The building manager told me where Nicolai had moved: deep into the Tenderloin, a war zone every big city has to have. I drove over there in my business car, a relic of college days, pinging all the way. It was a car that blended wonderfully with the scenery, but still I kept the windows up. I found Nicolai’s address, parked, and picked my way through empty bottles inside brown paper bags and crumpled cigarette packs, and located Nicolai’s room at the end of a narrow alley. The door was half-open and I could see him jackknifed low over something. It was a fuming pot on a gas plate, and he was singing in an exuberant undertone—something in Russian I didn’t recognize.
“Alek!” He straightened, put down a wooden spoon glistening with an orange substance.
“I was waiting for you and finally you come. Sit, sit. Try this jam I am making.” He dipped a crust of bread in the orange stuff. “Eat.”
Prepared for marmalade, my mouth was mystified by a familiar flavor unexpectedly sweet. “What is it?”
“Ha!” He turned off the plate. “Carrot jam. American carrots are so big, so beeyootiful, but I make better in Shanghai with little thin ones. My friends, so many nize Russian girls working in dance halls, they sold jam for me.” His pale eyes wrinkled up in amusement. “No dancing if no jam! A baron, my friend, played violin in nightclub and sold for me also. I make it in Morocco and had plenty customers in Trieste camp.”
I noticed his feet. “That’s a good-looking pair of spats.”
He grinned, drawing his body up till his head brushed the ceiling and pointing his toes outward like a dancer’s. The gray satin straps rode high on the horny black tire-treaded shoes. “From Russia, old days when I wear to court. Now I wear in winters to keep warm.”
“Wasn’t it warm in the apartment?
“Apartment was nize, Alek. I walk around with no socks, no shoes, cook on electric stove, sleep on soft bed. After five days I feel soft too. If trouble comes Nicolai Valentin forget what to do, brains warm like porridge.”
“There won’t be trouble, Nicolai. You’re safe now.”
With naked hands he grabbed the pot handles and swiftly transferred it to a cracked tile. “What is safe? Safe is game, Alek. I play game for forty years.”
I held up a change of address card. “Did you send in one of these to Immigration when you moved?’
“Ah no, Alek, not yet. Tomorrow, maybe.”
“Be sure you do. Here, I’ll leave this one and you just fill it in and drop it in the mail.”
He didn’t send the card, because Immigration began growling about notices returned to them in the mail. I tracked Nicolai to a basement room ten blocks from the Tenderloin. He was apologetic. He had mislaid the card I’d
left him; perhaps some “guest,” a neighbor, had taken it by mistake when he had also taken some wine and some clothes; he hadn’t yet found a post office where he could get another card.
The basement floor was concrete, but Nicolai had glued a large square of burlap in the center of it. He was all happiness about discovering the Pubic Library, overcome by the fact of its very existence. I glanced through the books stacked on the burlap; they had been withdrawn from three library branches. He knew three library branches but couldn’t locate a post office?
In a note to Immigration, I explained that Mr. Katcharovsky had made these moves with my knowledge and undoubtedly would comply with Department rules in the future, and then I prayed there would be no summons from the stone building on Sansome Street.
San Francisco had a mild winter that year, so Nicolai complemented the spats with a muffler knitted for him by a lady in Trieste. He walked the city, to all the libraries and museums and galleries, and we spent hours playing chess.
We didn’t speak the same kind of Russian. Nicolai was astonished and pleased that my parents were Russian Jews. When I told him Russia’s Jews had found sanctuary all over North America and were now simply Canadians and Americans, Nicolai’s emotions waxed.
“Alek, I was in Imperial Guard and also the Czarina’s personal guard. Always Guards were tall, and very proud to be elite. In streets, Alek, we walked on Jews, and the Czar and Czarina did not concern themselves. Inside I feel little ashamed, but I was young, and young pipple have empty heads. Many Jews left Russian to run from us. Now their children are happy.” He swept an arm about me. “Aleksandr, forgive me.”
The Family obsessed him, Anastasia in particular. He told me a hundred tales of when he was Royal Playmate to the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas. My mind saw them as dim figures on silent film, Nicolai and the little girl having no more substance than ghosts playing hide-and-seek in vast gray halls. In the worn film they flickered in mute outflung gestures amongst ponderous tapestries and rows of marble columns. For me they had nothing to do with Nicolai. Sitting very straight, the scratched pince-nez mounted on his raptor’s beak, the old man lapsed into French, the official language of the Czarist court. I understood little except that he was speaking of cabals within the court—something about the Vladimirs plotting the Czar’s overthrow…Anna Vyrubova, a special friend of the Czarina’s…Vyrubova protecting and defending the monk Gregory Rasputin. Rich syllables poured over me, every three-part name given its full rolling consonance: Alexander Fedorovich Kerenksy…Peter Arkadyevich Stolypin…Georgi Vassilyevich Brusilov.
Then he told me about the letter he had written to Paris. A pretender had been uncovered, a waif who had grown up wandering Europe. Between them, the European and American press had all but crowned her expatriate Czarina of Russia. I had never seen Nicolai so nervous. He studied the two-day-old newspapers I brought him, and walked the streets in between peering into newspaper vending boxes. “Ha!” he exploded, “ha!” over hypotheses of her survival from a bullet in the head, her escape from Russia. Nicolai’s body vibrated, his large feet tapped drumbeats.
He went to an amusement arcade on Market Street and had his picture taken, three for a dollar, in an automatic photo booth, and sent the picture with the letter to the pretender. Did she remember him, the Guardsman, her childhood playmate? If so, she was to write, and he would rush to be her champion. She did not reply. Nicolai became despondent, then scornful. Obviously she was not Anastasia, only a deluded impostor. As for himself, relief! America suited him; he was too old for quests. The bottle of vodka I’d brought emptied. I went out to get another and it, too, sank. He was bottomless, showing no effects of the stuff. If anything, he sat more erect.
While he talked of his mistress the Czarina, of her stable of blooded horses, the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg, the seaside villa at Peterhof on the Baltic Coast, he polished the pince-nez endlessly, his eyes near-sighted slits, shadowed hollows, crosshatched wrinkles in the yellow candlelight, Nicolai’s ruined eagle’s head and glittering pupils were ferociously convincing. I, too, thought the mutilated woman in Paris, had she been Anastasia, would have recognized him even now.
At three o’clock in the morning I left him and went home.
Immigration called about Nicolai while I was out of the office. The message read that Mr. Katcharovsky had failed to file his annual alien resident card and unless they received it within the month, official action would be taken.
I rushed over to his digs, but he had left weeks ago, the landlady told me primly. She had no idea where he had moved, but then refugees were an unreliable bunch.
With one last place to look, I went to North Beach and found Nicolai in his favorite coffee shop.
“Aleksandr!” He jumped up to hug me. “You look terrible! Like young old man. You have been working too hard.”
An accurate observation. Some of my new aliens didn’t want the jobs guaranteed them, and their sponsor had told me clearly that the next batch he aided would be three-headed extraterrestrials. Also, I had been trying to match up electrical engineers with screw-machine factories and chemists with janitorial services.
“Nicolai, the alien report form, did you send one last January?”
“What is this form? Oh yes, that one, where I must tell secret police I am still here in America.”
“Well, did you?”
“Aleksandr, I cannot remember. I had to move again and then I was busy in new job.”
“Yeah,” I said dryly. “Something wrong again?”
The pince-nez waggled up and down. “A little. This landlady was also nize. She brought me so many things all the time. Cakes, pies, meat loaf. I had to go away. I am not used to so much food.” He smiled, amused by my expression. “But she had not such beeyootiful nightgowns.”
You’re something, you know that? They can deport you for noncompliance. Nicolai, please tell me when you move. I’ll send in all the cards for you, you won’t have to worry abut them at all.”
“Maladiets. Nivazhna.” He shook his head. “You don’t worry. America is wonderful country. Manager in bookshop next door insist I take coffee break everyday even if I don’t need coffee. Pipple here are good.”
“They’re not all good, Nicolai.”
“I know, malinki,” he said gently. “And it does not matter. I am old man. I have lived everywhere and I am not dead yet. America is nize, but I will not die if I have to go.” His look held patience and an opaque distance. I felt left out.
I gripped his hand. “Just please tell me where you are. Will you promise me that?”
“Yes, Alek. Now I must go back to work.” At the door, his head grazing the lintel, he turned and waved.
A month later he phoned me from somewhere far away, I could tell by his reedy tones on the line.
“Where are you, Nicolai?”
“I am in nize town in Nebraska. Pipple here are more quiet, not so nervous. San Francisco was very noisy city.”
“What are you doing in Nebraska?”
“I was first in Minnesota, then Iowa. America is beeyootiful, Alek. So much good space, like Russia.
“But what are you doing!”
His voice was muffled. “I have new job.”
“What kind of job?” I couldn’t help the questions; he seemed to pull them out of me like a string of knotted magician’s scarves.
“They give me beeyootiful uniform. Blue, with gold buttons and big epaulets. Hat like cossack.”
“You’re a hotel doorman?”
“Aleksandr.” The voice quivered. “I, Count Nicolai Valentin Katcharovsky, am working for Great American Traveling Circus.”
The receiver erupted in my ear, crackling and whooping, as the old man’s laughter spiraled and flew over the line from the American Midwest.
Site: Lucille Bellucci, Author
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