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January 23, 2023

A Train Trip to Murder on Strawberry Point 13

By Robert Earle

Ivan and Valery have discovered that McGrath has hired Dickerson, and Smedlov, to kill Ivan. In spite of his love for Christina, and concern for his unborn baby, Ivan will have to leave California, but not before he introduces Christina to his all-too-recently found brothers.

XIII

Initially Dickerson and Smedlov thought all they had to do was return to the dock where Dickerson had seen the man who looked like him, and ask if anyone else had recently seen a man who looked like him, maybe hanging around near that fishing ship over there, the Tiburon. Wasn't so easy. One old shopkeeper teased Smedlov, "If you want someone who looks like this one, why not have a go at him and save the other for later?" A Chinese stevedore didn't understand the question. A man with a plucked chicken in his hands asked Dickerson, "You mean like your brother, spittin' image?" Dickerson shook his head yes and no (causing the man to ask, "Which is it?") because he had no brother, only three sisters who spoiled him and disliked their father who treated them like boys anyway. The family's business was a tannery and the girls were forced into it, ruining their own skin in the process. Raw to finished leather -- stinking leather, heavy and rough on the hands and soaked in formaldehyde and animal brain vats, whose wooden lids rotted in the fumes -- that was then yanked out with hooked poles and squeezed with rollers, hung to dry and finally cut into belts and saddle seats and boot stock with huge shears before being oiled and buffed. Twenty-five years later Dickerson still had oversized forearms under his shirt, whose cuffs he always kept buttoned to hide them, but he could not hide the look that came over his face whenever his family was mentioned. From the time he was three, his father stropped him. He stropped the girls, too, even when they were too old to be taking their bloomers off and exposing their fannies to him. Dickerson ran away and came back a dozen times, each time receiving welts so broad and swollen you would think he had moles tunneling under his skin. And then one time his father stropped one of his sisters too goddamned hard and Dickerson pushed him into the animal brain vat where afterwards they all said the old bastard had just "fell ... slipped and fell" and the next day he was under the trestle across the creek smelling the honeysuckle, the morning glories and the sweet water riffling over the stones and felt the approaching train before he heard it and then heard it and scrambled up the embankment and saw the empty-eyed men up in the boxcars, so why shouldn't he leave forever, too? He made a leap, grabbed a ladder rung, pulled hard and just got his ass inside before the tunnel would have wiped it clean for him but good. John Dickerson, fifteen, was free.

"Yes, he'd look like my brother but I didn't have no brother," he told the man with the chicken.

The man said, "Until you said something I didn't notice you, and I wouldn't notice him if you want to know the truth."

No one wanted to tell anyone anything in San Francisco. People had purposes and purposes were private, my business, not yours. Especially down by the water where hard things were hidden in a babble of languages, odd garments, and smoky gathering spots for one sort of people and not another.

"Does he wear a hat?" Smedlov asked Dickerson as they walked along, getting nowhere.

"Of course he wears a hat," Dickerson said, remembering the editor at the Examiner saying oh, yes, the fellow who didn't take his hat off when he came into the office and declined to meet Mr. Hearst, who found his articles of interest, or Ambrose Bierce, the famous writer, who happened to be on the premises at the time. "Everyone here wears hats. Look." He gestured up a street that fed down their way, men wearing hats everywhere, bare heads nowhere.

"How about a belt, or does he wear suspenders like you?" Smedlov asked.

"I have no idea. He wore a coat."

"Boots or shoes?"

"Is that supposed to be a brilliant question?" Dickerson snapped. What was he doing with this big ox? Next Smedlov asked if Dickerson had a gun. Dickerson lied and said no. "How about you?"

In a flash Smedlov wrapped his arm around Dickerson's throat and said, "I will snap his neck. Like this."

"Oh, for God's sake," Dickerson said when he was released. "Not out in public like this."

He straightened his collar, tie and jacket and thought that after Smedlov killed Karamazov, he would kill Smedlov with the two-barrel Derringer stitched into a little cotton pocket he had sewn inside his trousers. What would McGrath care? Another Russian dead. The whole twenty thousand would go to Dickerson. And then what? Then the train. Then east. Ohio? He didn't even know if his sisters were alive or dead or found someone to marry or had children or stayed put or took off, like him.

He suggested that they split up and walk toward the Tiburon from both ends of the wharves, eye-sweep the whole place. Smedlov objected. Insisted they had to stick together. By now they were telling people it was Dickerson's brother they were looking for.

"Bigger lie is always the better lie," Dickerson said. "Lay it on, give them a few details. People won't talk unless you talk, too. Odd pair like us, we've got to have a story."

The story they made up went like this: they came all the way out from Ohio because Dickerson's father died after selling the tannery to Smedlov and now Smedlov wanted to sell it back and Dickerson couldn't afford it unless the brother they were hunting came into the deal, too.

All the time looking and wondering if having seen Mr. Ivan on the wharves once made it likely they'd see him there again and listening to people tell Smedlov he was crazy if he thought selling a good business back east made sense. You stay there, they told him, and you and your brother, they told Dickerson, if you've got the money and know how to tan leather, set up a tannery right here. These days there were more cattle in California than gold. California had mountains of rotting hides that could be put to use -- leather furniture, leather wallets, leather chaps, hats, dusters, what about umbrellas?

All this jabber about tanning leather made Dickerson sick. He could smell the animal brain vat and taste the formaldehyde. He could see the pubic beards peeking out under his sisters' soft fannies when they bent over and the old man stropped and smacked them. It was completely the wrong story.

Well, it took a long time, but it didn't take forever. Eventually, they saw a man who looked like Dickerson, the Russian consul Asimov, and a woman, undoubtedly McGrath's wife, heading for a half-bald swarthy guy sitting on a piling near the Tiburon, which was being provisioned with bales of food and casks of water.

"Him," Smedlov said.

"For sure," Dickerson said.

The half-bald swarthy man rose to give Karamazov an embrace, McGrath's wife an embrace (which she received as stiff as a lamppost), and then the consul a hesitant handshake. Next he gestured down below the pier to a skiff and pointed north across the bay toward Tiburon itself, the place, not the ship.

"We've got to follow them," Dickerson said. "This is our chance."

As soon as Karamazov and the others were out in the water, Dickerson and Smedlov hustled around to find a skiff for themselves. The owner of the one they found wanted to go with them. Dickerson reached into his waistcoat and pulled out the emerald encrusted gold crown brooch.

"Take this as a surety you'll get your skiff back and five dollars a day until you do."

The man started to bite the crown. Dickerson told him not to. "If you've got eyes, you know it's real."

"All right, I'll trust you, but ten dollars in advance and none refunded."

Dickerson gave him the advance. Smedlov didn't hesitate about the oars while Dickerson manned the tiller. Within a few minutes they also had their sail up and soon enough they were able to see the little dot of the half-bald man's skiff sailing past Belvedere Island and Tiburon toward Strawberry Point.

XIV

The children wanted to know who Uncle Ivan's friends were -- or at least Deborah the four-year-old did -- meaning Valery and Christina. When she heard, she asked if she could give them a kiss.

"What is it she wants?" Christina asked, not understanding Russian.

"To kiss you in greeting," Ivan said.

Valery already was leaning down to give Deborah his cheeks, right one, left one. The little girl was very precise and careful. She looked at Christina, who was crying as she leaned down to her. Two more precise, careful kisses. Grushenka by this point had joined them. She handed Ivan the baby, Andre, and reached down to take Christina by the shoulders and draw her up. More kisses, and kisses for Ivan and Valery. And tears. They all were crying, Dmitri biting his lip, Alexei approaching everyone from the chicken run with Aaron at his side, wiping his eyes with his sleeve, and Aaron sniffling and blinking.

"All because of Anton Chekhov!" Valery exclaimed.

"Or that devil Dostoevsky," Ivan muttered.

Valery stepped back so that he could take in the three brothers laughing and weeping, surrounded by the two women and the three children. Ivan had said he was looking for an ending. What better ending than this? He looked across the farmyard and pastures to the woods; he looked beyond the woods toward the mountain; he looked at Christina's softness and that dark merriment in Dmitri eyes -- Dmitri Karamazov! -- and the thin, angular gentle figure of the man who had once been the boy in the monastery at Zosima's side, the one Dostoevsky loved best, Alexei Karamazov! How could this be? He felt a force making him want to leave while all this was so perfect.

But he couldn't do it. Alexei was telling them it was a milk day. Dmitri was grinning and cursing, "A milk day! A milk day!" Christina was asking what was being said. Ivan was telling her Alexei was inviting them to accept their hospitality. Grushenka was gesturing for Christina to go into the house first. Little Deborah was pulling at Christina by the hand. Christina was following, and Valery found himself following, Dmitri apologizing from behind to the effect that in Sakhalin there had been less than this, a house less than this, all the children less than this.

"All we had was milk!" he cried, squeezing his fingers together demonstratively as if massaging an udder, making Grushenka scold him, "You never milked a cow in your life!" To which he cried back, "But I could, I could!" and immediately began grabbing and tickling Deborah, making her squeal, "I'm not an old cow's teat! Leave me alone! You can't milk me!"

Alexei took a pitcher from a shelf and Aaron brought out glasses. They all sat at the table. Alexei's blessing was brief:

I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto were you not able to bear it, nor are you yet.

He then said, "Christina, for you," giving her the first glass and comparing, Ivan thought, the way this young woman looked to the way Katerina Ivanovna had looked, that fierce red head in contrast to this dark blonde one, those sharp narrow shoulders in contrast to these broader softer ones. But there was no rebuke in Alexei's eyes as they slid across Christina's face to Ivan's. His look seemed to be saying, I lost Lisa, too.

This was a different Alexei, not a boy, a man. "You're going to have a child, thanks be to God," Alexei said to Christina. And then to Ivan: "Now at last He will teach you what life means."

"What did he say?" Christina asked.

Ivan said, "He said you having a baby makes me the luckiest man on earth."

Valery insisted, however, on the more accurate translation, to which Christina responded, "With all your brother's learning, Alexei, you don't think he knows the meaning of things?"

Hearing this, Alexei grasped Aaron's forearm and pulled him to his side. He was a sinewy, strong man and was giving Aaron an instruction to reply for him (Aaron knew other boys on Strawberry Point; his English was perfect): "Papa thinks all children are Jesus. He calls us teachers. 'Teacher, speak to me,' he says to Deborah and me. He even says it to Andre."

Everyone laughed at the idea that the suckling infant could be wisest of them all, but Dmitri agreed he probably was. "At least he hasn't had a whole lifetime of false thoughts cluttering his brain, and he has never hurt anyone in his little life. Not once."

Valery couldn't imagine how difficult this was for Ivan, or worrisome to the others, each wondering if the gap of time and experience between them was unbridgeable, the feelings unrecoverable. The peace of the place itself was a mystery. How could the horrors they'd experienced in Russia simply disappear? San Francisco itself, where was it? Gone, fenced off from this tranquil little property set below the road, everything about it made by hand, hammered and twisted and sawn and hoisted and fastened and framed. All the settlers in America had come west from east, but not these people, the continent they crossed was depthless water, the skills they'd mastered were conjured out of desperation on Sakhalin, and then there was the luck, or the grace, that not one of the babies had died, nor had the mother, halfway or more toward becoming a babushka, her eyebrows stronger features than her mouth, her hair something like a forest, her great bosom worthy of a dairy farm, the baby wanting her nipple again and pressing his whole face into her unselfconsciously exposed breast, a sight never seen in the town houses of London or Berlin or St. Petersburg or Moscow.

Ivan said, "Lyosha, have you ever married anyone? Can you do that as Molokan elder?"

Alexei's expression grew stern, almost reproachful. "Vanka, what about the preparations?"

"I don't know anything about any preparations," Ivan said. "But you see the baby is already with us in Christina's belly, and I may have to leave San Francisco."

"Where are you going?" Grushenka objected. "You can't leave us now!"

"Oh, Mother, Mother, " Ivan joked, making everyone laugh, "if one of your boys sails the seas, maybe the other will sail with him."

"Why would you do that?"

"To see the war."

"What war?"

"The war between Russia and China or Russia and Japan. We fight and fight, don't we? Haven't we always fought? Isn't that the czar's way?"

"Who would take care of your wife and child?"

"What are they saying?" Christina asked Valery.

Valery said to her, "He's saying if he has to be gone for a while, perhaps with Mitya, then possibly you could stay here."

Christina looked at Ivan and Grushenka as if they were clouds envaporing one another, mixing grays and silvers, purling words together like water that might mean rain or a storm, Ivan the darker of the clouds, denser, heavier with trouble.

Dmitri entered the conversation, a man who discussed things, especially the most personal, with a peculiar lack of feeling, something like deadness, indifference. "He tells me he wants America to know what Russia does to China and Japan. All right, why not? I can take him there."

"No, you can't, you're an escaped prisoner," Grushenka said. "You can't go further than Japan."

"Yes, I can. Who knows who I am? I am Dmitri Theodore, American, captain of my ship. Speak Russian, born in Russia, so what?" He squinted the way he did whenever he thought of how he had been brutalized and humiliated in Sakhalin. "When I told him what we told Chekhov and what Chekhov did, he told me he read Chekhov's book. Not our names -- not us -- but it was all there. So Ivan writes, too. Next chapter, no more czar!"

Grushenka and Dmitri glared at one another. She said Chekhov was a fool. Dmitri said thank God for that. Grushenka said so was Dmitri. Dmitri said yes, every day of his life and tomorrow, too.

Alexei interjected, looking at Aaron so that Aaron would interpret for him, "The only two people I ever married were them."

Christina began to say, "But I thought you and Grushenka were the ones married," but stopped herself in mid-sentence, uttering only the, "But I thought -- " and then everyone looked at everyone else and they all laughed.

"When he finally could be my husband, I said okay, now you can be my husband," Grushenka explained.

Dmitri didn't say anything vulgar, but was thinking something that caused Grushenka to sanction him with a raised eyebrow, shutting him up.

"Okhrana," Ivan felt compelled to say.

The word hung in the air. He felt guilty saying it; it seemed ludicrous and profane. Why drag it in? Why permit someone like Smedlov to exist either by fighting or fleeing him? Dis-imagine him. Just stay here forever and make Russia itself cease to exist. Let Valery go back. Let Valery tell Katerina Ivanovna and River-now-Lenin ...what?

"But I can marry you, too, if you want," Alexei said. "Is that what you want?"

Ivan asked himself if he kept doing the wrong thing, would he eventually stumble into doing the right thing? He didn't know, but he said yes, he wanted Alexei to marry them.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-04-15
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