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May 20, 2024

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 8

By Robert Earle

Valery Asimov has settled into his position as Russian consul in San Francisco, not only assisting Russian immigrants, but also teasing his superiors about the burgeoning strength of America. Ivan no longer lives with Valery -- he has taken up residence with Christina, who left her husband to follow Ivan west.


She was like a match suddenly lit in the cave of himself, and no sooner did she cast light into his emptiness than she filled it with her busyness and demands. She didn't have any clothes but knew how to make them. So whatever they leased (they wouldn't live with Valery; she understood that if not exactly the secretive reasons why) had to have a sewing room, a sewing machine, then cloth, then buttons and little instruments -- thimbles, clips, scissors, and the like -- and a full length mirror and a wardrobe in which she could hang her confections, petticoats, blouses, dresses, little waist-length jackets ... all the items that she had worked out in a sketchbook beforehand ... with good windows sufficient for her to work many hours a day, acclimating herself not only to this up-and-down scrap of coastline along the Pacific but also to him who strangely, in the first few weeks, seemed to like watching her sew, everything spread on the floor, until she was ready to don some of these garments and take his arm and walk out with him, showing off her homemade couture, having a look at things, stopping in places where they could drink tea and eat shortbread, and then home for an hour or two when he wrote by the light of an oil lamp and she played a small piano they had bought her -- Chopin, Schumann, soothing composers whose sheet music cost them a pretty penny -- and then lovemaking ... at which she was an assiduous, greedy young woman who kept touching his face with her fingers and remembering the claustrophobic train berth and saying how happy she was that they had this three room apartment all to themselves and she could walk naked to the potty afterward if she wanted to or into the kitchen for a glass of water or just to gather herself and come back, slip into bed and tell him she still felt it, she wanted more.

He didn't know if he could stand it. What did it mean when you could watch a woman eat and feel nourished yourself? So she was chewing, how could that be beautiful? So she was pursing two pins between her lips, how could that be beautiful? So she was coupling one bar of difficult music to the next, going over and over them, how could that be beautiful? Dressing, combing her hair ... telling you in the morning she felt something but couldn't say what, didn't want to say what ... didn't dare ... didn't want to jinx things ... wasn't sure it was good or bad or fit that mold at all.

"Just that I am alive, I guess. Do you feel alive, Ivan?"

"Well, I do, yes," he admitted.

"When are you going to start working?"

"Today, I think." But he had said that for weeks and hadn't made a day into what could be called "working" yet. He wasn't confident. He found Russians but wasn't sure any of them mattered (exactly what Valery told him during their fugitive meetings.) The centrifugal force of the empire had cast them beyond itself; they were disconnected; had no political culture, no knowledge, no general complaint. What about the Chinese in San Francisco? How could he even tell? They survived, it seemed, through hand signals and imitation. One scrambled up a ladder with bricks on his back and the next followed. Japanese? The same. The Americans? He couldn't say. Not yet. When he was "Eyewitness" in Moscow, he was quick to discern who triumphed over whom in a deal about two chickens or a false claim to a pension or the littleness of the poor within the vaults of the ministries and prisons. Then London. How had he done it? He had described a struggle between empires over who would fall and who would stay up on the tightrope, looking down on central Asia. Now it was to be more of that, but he didn't altogether grasp it. Valery told him the people he met in his role as consul dreamed of faraway lands. The people Ivan saw down in the streets either did not dream, or if they were dreaming, were dreaming of where they were right now. The only question for them was getting out from under and putting themselves on top. As practice he began to write things in his notebook the way he wrote when he was a boy. "Would You Hire A Russian?" That was one piece. Another: "The Chinaman Never Stops Working -- Dawn to Dusk, Childhood to Old Age." Another: "The Gold is Gone, The Greed Lives On." Each was a fable about a certain person: A man from Ukraine would steal your lunch right out of its bucket so don't hire him. A fellow from Shanghai bred children to slave for him the same way he bred ducks and fed the ducks better. A man selling shares in a gold mine to drunks in a bar -- if you went to where he claimed the claim to exist, what would you find?

He didn't take these little things to the newspapers. They were what he saw and heard, but not what he had in mind. The prostitutes he described in his notebooks weren't what he had in mind. The beggar boys weren't what he had in mind. What about the courts? He went to a trial in which a man was accused of blackmailing another man who in turn was being tried for causing the pipes in a third man's warehouse to burst, ruining the goods he was storing for many other men. He disliked the way the defendant's lawyer kept quoting the Bible -- thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet your neighbor's wife or possessions -- as if the Bible were the law, an issue he had disposed of for himself when he was a young man, although all of it was Old Testament, never New. Was that the point -- America claimed it was new and yet wasn't? America claimed rebirth and yet inhabited the same old cadaver of ancient quarreling humanity?

Look at how they talked and worried and fought about money. Money would be their poison and their pain. Be simple about it, he told himself. Say that Russia's czar would take it away from them. Say that Russia's czar would break through the seal of Asia and thereby confiscate the world. Woe, woe, the money would be gone. He went to an editor and put a piece like this in front of him and sat across the desk while the editor read it. The editor, a young freckled man with light brown hair, liked the fear it summoned up.

"You're saying we don't know even know we're facing this, Mr. Patmos? Russia's an enemy heading our way?"

"You will face it for a hundred years; when you and I are dead, those who follow us will face it."

"How do you know this? Are you Russian? You hate Russia?"

"If the Czar is Russian, I'm not Russian. If there can be a Russia that is only Russians ... we'll see."

"Like us Americans who are only Americans?"

Ivan hesitated to answer that question. How could Americans be anything? What could they be, only a hundred years old and already wrong? But he sensed this young man would publish Patmos no matter what he said face to face, so he said it: "America is not Americans."

"What is it, then?"

"It is the same people as everyone else caught up in the same misery of money."

"Hah, I like that. Want to write that next?"

"No, I want to write about the anti-Christ lying in wait for you across your horizon, gathering his armies and navies."

"And you don't think we can handle that?"

"Americans don't seem to understand that as they build their little railroad from one coast to another, Russia builds one six times longer across a continent six times larger. Think of the tulips in Holland, then think of the Czar's fleet. Think of the tea in China, all in the Czar's cup."

"I'll take that, if you want to write it. Never had anything like it. People will be interested."

He wrote it: "All in the Czar's Cup." The third piece was: "Why Are All The Russians Here?" The fourth: "China the Russian Vassal." Fifth: "Japan in the Shadow of the Two-Headed Eagle's Wings." Sixth: "South To the Philippines, East to India." Again and again he described the menacing weight of Russian snows burdening Asian rooftops from Port Arthur through Peking to Delhi and Teheran. He wrote nothing about socialism, revolution or communalism. He drew instead on what he remembered so well from those illustrated travelogues in Katerina Ivanovna's house on Main Street in Skotoprigonyevsk. Little Bhutan. Strange Burma. The Netherlands's thousand isles. The jewels and spices of India. Russia would triumph. Russia would keep America in its harbors, push Europe out from the rear, and envelop Asia as every czar had sought to do and would always do until there were no more czars.

Other editors wanted Patmos. Ivan distributed pieces of him. Lots of pieces. Patmos had a limb to share, an eye, a slice of tongue. He began pushing the Russians he met and made them tell him about the land they'd left.. The same with Japanese, Chinese, the people who called themselves Koreans, Mongolians, Manchurians. Could they all be in San Francisco? They were. The point now, all said and done, however, was the point that had always been the Russian point, Moscow's point, St. Petersburg's point: warm water for cold water ships, Russia's use of the Triple Alliance to throw Japan out of Liangdong province and take control of the harbor called Port Arthur south of Vladivostok and south of Sakhalin.

"Now you are working," Christina said to him.

He had gone to stores where he found old maps and picture books like the ones he'd studied so long ago ... first as a child, really ... then as a broken man ... and now? He was sitting at the table in the kitchen examining a map, playing with a thought. If faith the size of a mustard seed could save a soul, could a droplet of a harbor drown a continent? The map was yellowed, its creases torn. It came with a leather wallet that was stitched to its borders; folded properly, it fit beautifully within the leather wallet, which in turn fit beautifully within a man's jacket pocket. He folded the map. She said she liked to watch his hands do that. He wrote at the kitchen table, and she liked that, too.

"What'll I do when I have all my clothes made?" she asked.

He smiled at her absently, not enjoying this interruption, thinking that what America should do would be befriend Japan to strengthen it against Russia and yet restrain the Japanese on the mainland. He'd spent the afternoon with an old Chinaman, a lawyer by profession, who spoke English exceedingly well and insisted that China was more fragile than spun glass ... the oils on a man's fingertips would be enough to shatter it.

"I'm almost there," she said. "One season to go: spring. But the cloth hasn't been pulled out for sale yet." She pushed aside a stack of books and pamphlets so she could rest both elbows on the tabletop and put her chin in her hands and stare at him, girlishly. "Or do you just like me better naked? Would you want me naked all the time up and down the streets, naked as a jaybird?"

"No, I think not."

"How would you like me then? Want me fat, pregnant?"

He used French letters, but not always. The truth, which he had not shared with her, was that he liked children and mothers but abhorred fathers. There had been no question -- Katerina Ivanovna could not endure a pregnancy. Christina Terry could, of course, but then he would be what he abhorred.

"Noch nicht," he said.

"What's that mean?"

"German -- not yet."

"When? What if I was already? I could be. You never know. A whole 'nother set of clothes. You came from a pretty big family, so did I, but a pram on these hills!" She laughed. "If you asked me, I'd tell you I think I am."

"You do?"

"I think I am. Come on now. Don't make such a face."

"Am I making a face?"

"I know it's not that you don't love me. But look, you're working. What am I going to do?" She cried a little bit. He took out his handkerchief and dried her eyes and pressed her head against his cheek. She said, "You go off and I'm here thinking. I think about the clothes. I think about the food. I think about you, wondering where you are. I think about the articles and why you write them. I really do." She was laughing now. "Oh, here comes the end of the world ... oh, the sky is falling ... " She reached across the table to the folder in which he kept the articles. "Do you really know all this for certain?"

He said, "No. I've never been there. To Asia, I mean."

"Do you want to go?"

"Yes, I do. I feel I'll have to."


"I don't know. Right now I'm here."

"If we have a baby, you'll have to stay here or take me with you," she told him.

He spent months watching Christina's belly swell and felt an analogous pressure inside. The mustard seed, the droplet, the oil on the tips of a finger, the beginning of the beginning and the beginning of the end. Meanwhile the ships, the wharves, the saloon establishments along the water ... he kept drifting down there, too. That's where the people who told him things and gave him ideas washed up and clung and where the seal to nowhere stood, a kind of filament that was the foreground of the endless ocean, a translucent portal through which one had to travel to complete whatever one had begun. Japan and China. Sakhalin and Siberia. They were on the maps and in the books and portfolios but really only in his mind. Dmitri and Alexei. Moscow and its old narrow streets. Katerina Ivanovna. The man called River, cocky Lenin. Take Christina there? Where? It was all in his mind. What was being born was all in his mind.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-03-04
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