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February 26, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 7

By Robert Earle

Valery Asimov and Ivan Karamazov have crossed the United States by train, continuing their personal mission to stir up political trouble for the Czar of Russia. But on this railroad trek to California, Ivan has somehow managed to stir up trouble for himself: Christina McGrath has run away from her husband, right into Ivan's bed.


Valery thought he was mad. "No, it's out of the question. She doesn't want me; she wants you."

"Why does she want me?"

"How would I know why? Ask her! It's always less than delightful not being the one selected, but there you have it: I haven't been selected. If you won't have her, we'll send her back to McGrath, or ..."

"You know we can't do that."

"Then her parents in the Missouri Lead Belt, wherever that is."

"Please," Ivan said. "It isn't possible. Any of it."


"What if I were the one who disappeared? What if I simply ceased to exist ... never existed? She has no idea who I am. At least she knows you're some kind of official."

Valery objected. "That isn't who I am, either. More anti-official."

"Have it your way. It's something."

Valery asked, "What is it?" He meant the thing that most disturbed Ivan. "Katerina Ivanovna?"


"Who is so far away? Who wants to be where she is, thinking you are being who you were meant to be, which cannot be there?" When Ivan did not answer, Valery pressed, "What are you going to call yourself this time?"

Ivan hesitated. The nom de plume was a fundamental and therefore not a simple step. "Not Taciturn anymore. Not history as it relates to the present. The present as it relates to the future."

Valery waited for him to go on, Ivan's life defining his life as well. For weeks now he knew they had been experiencing the same thing, an increasingly abundant American nothingness piled on nothingness, vacant terrain denuded of architecture, human history, civilization ... whatever one would call it. A place without context or situation, something claimed but not seized. One would think Siberia, if further north, if colder, more rugged, more vast, would be like this -- a journey to the end of the world.

"Patmos, perhaps," Ivan said.

"Ivan of Patmos?"

"No, more the way things are here, plain: John Patmos."

Valery liked it but sensed Ivan didn't want to hear him say he liked it. Neither of them had any clear idea of what awaited them. After Colorado a worse place called Utah awaited them. It could have been what they imagined as children when they imagined Tibet. Then came Nevada, which Valery learned was a word derived from Spanish, meaning 'having been snowed upon,' the present passive perfect, yet there was no snow, not a flake. Only drought-dried erosion of prehistoric proportions, a sea of arid dirt and waste, a constantly thickening filament of dust accompanied by a sense of judgment, a sense that what was being stared at was the train, an impertinent intruder into the ashes of the apocalypse. What would Proudhon or Bakunin make of this? A utopia of property with no owner, nothing possessed by no one?

Ivan couldn't stop himself; that was the problem when she came to him. Everything he couldn't sort out in the daylight ceased, and she would tease him a bit and he would forget insisting to Valery that this wasn't settled -- not about her -- a girl out of apparently the worst of places yet having the ambition to not let what little she knew be diminished by how much they knew, the history of the world, the rites of the church, the domes of the Kremlin, biergartens, Big Ben, Pushkin and Schiller and Engels and Marx and the socialist conspirators determined to overthrow it all.

One rolling night sometime between darkness and dawn, she asked him about his brothers, mother and father, education and "what had happened." He said he was done with it. She asked how he could be. He said if she could marry and walk away from McGrath, he could ... had, in fact ... walked ... or somehow gotten ... here ... not there. He added he could teach her to read Russian if she wanted and there was a whole book with a version of what had been but no longer was. She could have been offended -- Christina Terry reading Russian! -- but she wasn't. Instead, she asked if Katerina Ivanovna had read the book. (She'd overheard them talk about Katerina Ivanovna and thought, evidently, she knew exactly who Katerina Ivanovna was, still her rival.) Ivan laughed freely though not loudly for the first time he could remember. No, she had not read it and never would read it. She hated the book. If she read it, what had happened to him would happen to her. She'd lose her mind? Christina asked. Ivan said yes, she would lose her mind. But the book and the Katerina Ivanovna in the book were only part of the real Katerina Ivanovna, Christina objected. How could things someone else wrote trap you or crush you?

Ivan said he didn't know, but they could. Books were more powerful than people. There was something about characters in books that pushed aside the people upon whom they were based. Writing did that. It distilled what we experienced into a concentration so poisonous that it was indelible and overwhelming. She said he made it sound as though reading were like drinking ink. He almost began laughing again because she was toxic ink herself. "Me!" she exclaimed. "What about you? Are you going to write in San Francisco the way you said you did before?" He said it was what he had always done. He told her about "Eyewitness" and how he would go talk to people, find out about the things that had happened, the scandals and crimes and squabbles and injustices. But he would rather, he confessed, do something. "Do something like what?" she asked. He said he didn't know. So if he couldn't come up with anything, he would write in the spirit if not the imagery of John of Patmos who wrote the Book of Revelation. He would write something like a prophecy or instigation that led to the defeat of the czar-God. He was joking, she said. She knew the Book of Revelation and it was just ... just ... how could she put it? Just the Bible, not what actually happened. He left that judgment be the last word, didn't say that what he wrote might not actually happen, either.

The train hoisted itself up and up, now there was snow in sight, soaring snowcapped peaks, and the days were gelling into a mold that contained within it all the odd fragments and pieces and bits of what they'd apparently gone through and somehow put together, and Ivan could not imagine turning her over to Valery anymore. The coolness was bringing them together even closer, and Valery was not at odds with that. In fact, he obviously was relieved.


No sooner than they had arrived than Valery found himself swept up. He had a secretary, Mrs. Morgan, who had been alone in the consulate office for fourteen months now, but said she could take it because she was a tough old bird.

"Meaning what, exactly?" Valery asked her.

"I'm no crème puff."

"Which is to say?"

"Which is to say I've been sitting here taking messages from people and sending out replies that when there was a consul, he would deal with their issue, not me. I don't identify bodies or pay fines or toot around like Miss La-dee-da kissing people on the cheek I don't know. So here: this is yours." She gave him two accordion files crammed with correspondence about falsified letters of credit, missing shipments, harbor infractions, court proceedings against thirty-six different Russian-born individuals who could not speak English and therefore were deemed not American, four abandoned families, twenty burials at city expense requiring "just reimbursement" and dozens of official requests for the consul to attend inaugurations, dedications, speeches and public discussions that had occurred long since, complemented by many impressively calligraphed invitations on note cards, vellum paper and virtual billets-doux from aspiring hostesses desirous of the consul's presence for tea or a Sunday "picnic" or the inaugural sherry hour of the Friends of California Mineralogical and Agronomical Technology.

"What do you suggest I do with all this?" he asked.

Mrs. Morgan was a bluish sort of woman with bulging, exasperated eyes. She might be forty-two or fifty-five. Hefty. Angry that she had been left alone for so long, thrilled to have someone to boss, Valery being her fourth consul, and by far the youngest she had ever laid eyes on. "The honest truth?"


"I'd throw the old things away. Forget about them. I just didn't feel authorized to do it myself."

Valery said, "I so authorize you." He pulled a pen from its holder on the desk -- a pen in whose nib the ink was caked to powder -- and tapped her gently on both shoulders.

"Is that what your czar does when he tells you something is okay?"

"I believe he has someone else do it for him with a sword or something."

Mrs. Morgan liked him, a good first step. Once she had swept away the old stuff, they divided the remainder into piles of "yes," "hopefully," and "so sorry."

"Did you bring your seal and your wax?" she asked him.

"Of course!" He reached into his valise and drew out his rather heavy consular seal -- embossed with the same two-headed eagle and crown that adorned the consulate's modest public door and his own more impressive inner door -- and two sticks of rich red wax.

She had plenty of official paper, some turpentine they used to free up the nib of his official pen, and considerable skill in writing down exactly what he said. He watched her work in something like wonder. When people knocked on the door outside, she blithely ignored them. When the office became too stuffy, she didn't ask permission to throw open the window, she just got up and did it -- hard.

And then, for days, weeks and soon months, he set about doing what he theoretically was supposed to do -- make connections, establish himself, receive supplicants, pay calls on the police, the city elders, the harbor master, the jail, hospitals, a Russian orthodox church, etc., etc., all with a second eye on filing reports to Count Cassini about the American west and its overseas connections to Japan, China and the rest of Asia as they impinged upon, advanced, or stymied the czar's interests: the trade, the financial propositions, the crude political attitudes Californians held toward Washington, which is what they called it, "Washington," as if referring to Sodom, Gomorrah, or the toilet, although unfortunately or not, depending upon one's perspective, Californians did not automatically see what Russia had to do with Asia. To the contrary, Valery kept running into a bemused, somewhat annoyed undertone of, "What are you doing here? You're not part of this, you're part of that, back there, back east, back in Europe, back in time. All you represent nowadays is freebooters, rogue traders, and poaching fishermen. You're coming in the wrong door. We bought you out, remember?"

It took a while, but he learned to enjoy this resistance ... this sense that he was welcomed to the party primarily so that he could be, "sent packing," as the Californians liked to put it -- not in direct reference to him, of course, but to Russia in general ... and liked provoking Ambassador Count Cassini in Washington with what he sensed: America was a massive beast with a mouth at both ends and the California end was the more voracious, unruly, anarchic, greedy and rough. It wouldn't be assigned a place in the far corner of the universe and stay there like the class dunce; it would sprawl; the energy that had boiled across the plains and mountains and driven these people here was still driving them. Meaning to disturb Cassini, Valery succeeded. "I fear we are too weak," he wrote provocatively without adding that the things that would make Russia strong -- social and economic and political freedom and solidarity from peasants to princes -- were clearly beyond the Czar's grasp or imagination. Cassini's response was sharp, amusing, admirable and wrong: WE HAVE BEEN ASIA BEFORE CALIFORNIA EXISTED STOP NEITHER HISTORY NOR OUR NAVY WILL BE DENIED STOP TELL THEM THAT.

Mrs. Morgan asked if the Count's telegram should be kept or destroyed.

"Oh, kept, it's an important document," Valery said. "As he says, history matters."

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-02-25
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