My novel manuscript, The Red Corner, recently won the Hackney Literary Award, a $5,000 prize for an unpublished novel. Below is an excerpt that ran in The Great Lakes Review. It is set at a party at the lakeside mansion of a Russian mobster in suburban Chicago. (Also check out the opening chapters, an earlier version of which originally ran in Narrative magazine, here.)
By Russell Working
The day of Garik’s party, a warm front blew in, and Darya Vanderkloot’s sore throat disappeared. It was eighty-six along Lake Michigan, and most of staff of the Cherry Orchard Russian Deli & Productery worked in their shirt sleeves as they loaded the van with cases of wine, plastic bins of food, and coolers of salad, lox, deviled eggs, frozen pelmeni, cakes, sirloin. Like the others, Darya, wore her catering uniform: a white shirt, black bow tie, and baggy pants with a hound’s-tooth check pattern, but she kept an eye on Alexei. He cut a debonair figure, like a young celebrity chief, until he shrugged on a hoodie, despite the warm weather, and shouldered his backpack, transforming himself into a freebooter on a boarding raid. Everyone worked briskly, cheerful about the change in routine, but Alexei’s scowl kept the others at bay. He brushed right past Darya without hearing her hello.
“Hey, you!” she said.
He looked perplexed. “Oh, hi.”
“You all right?”
“Never better,” he said, then went back inside for another load.
They were catering a party for a new customer named Igor “Garik” Voskresensky, who had just shown up in the Cherry Orchard a few weeks ago. Eleven years ago, in Vladivostok, he had assassinated Alexei’s father, who was running for governor. Alexei had witnessed the murder as a child, and he immediately recognized the hit man. But now he was eighteen, and the disguise of adulthood held, while Garik had no idea who he was. Alexei and Darya had not been close, but he had chosen to confide in her for some reason. The boy was a loner, an amateur boxer and astronomy buff, and maybe he had no one else to talk to.
They caravanned from the Cherry Orchard to Garik’s home in Wilmette. The Deli owner, Yakov Isayevich, drove the van, with his wife Lyuba and Darya following in their cars. One of his nieces rode with Darya, and Alexei insisted she take the front passenger seat.
When she demurred, he opened the door and gently pushed her in, a hand on her head to keep her from bumping the frame. The girl blushed at his touch. She was a high school senior, pretty but with a potbelly like a warm watermelon on sale by the road in a village market. Alexei climbed in behind Darya. The niece kept combing her hair from her eyes with her fingers and glancing back to check out Alexei’s surly good looks. Was he staring at her? Irrationally, the thought made Darya jealous, although she had a husband, an American businessman she had met when he visited Russia. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. No, Alexei was lost in thought, gazing out at the parade of strip malls and yellow-brick buildings as they headed west on Devon toward McCormick Boulevard, past a kosher butcher shop, a Korean spa and massage parlor, a Little League field marked with giant baseball on a pole. He kept shaking his head as if refusing to be taken in by some preposterous scheme. She turned right at McCormick and headed up along the parkland that lined the North Shore Channel. The next time she looked at him, he was sorting around in his backpack. He glanced up, and his eyes found Darya’s in the mirror then flitted away.
Alexei, for Christ’s sake, she thought, please don’t have it with you.
They were unprepared for the immensity of Garik’s lakefront home, a French Renaissance mansion on a cobblestone street north of the Michigan Shores Club. His wife Maya, a blonde in a miniskirt and a gold lamé blouse, answered the door and sent them to park beside the guesthouse at the end of the driveway in back. A swimming pool sparkled in the late July sun, and beyond the lawn a little copse of shimmying trees separated the yard from Lake Michigan, which was flecked with particles of whitecap and sail. A Great Dane bounded out barking at them and nearly bit one of the nieces, who dropped a bag of bread rolls and ran screaming for the van. Maya beat the brute off with a knotted rope.
“What’s his name?” someone said.
“Hummer,” said Maya. “We were going to name him Marlboro, but Garik figured he’s as big as a Hummer. He’s really a sweetie, he’s just nervous around strangers.”
Everyone trooped in through a glassed-in porch to a kitchen with marble counters and a brass-trimmed La Cornue oven and a cabinet wine cellar the size of three phone booths. Somebody whistled.
“Do you reckon he owns or rents?”
“Either way, he’s loaded.”
“Where the devil does he get his money?”
“Ts, the wife might hear you.”
Darya dumped her sweater on a wicker chair on the back porch, in case it grew chilly later on, and went out to the car to fetch an armload of tulips stapled up in bright paper. As she headed back toward the porch, Alexei was draping his hoodie and her wrap over his backpack, but when he headed on into the kitchen, the garments tumbled onto the floor. She laid her tulips on a chair, picked up the wraps, and brushed them off. It was wrong, of course, but something made her prod his backpack with her fingers. Empty, except for one hard thing. The zipper was open a few centimeters, and she slipped a finger in and felt metal. She widened the gap. She could see the revolver, read the word Judge on the barrel. She zipped up the backpack, and covered it again with the clothing. When she looked up, Alexei was there.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“My sweater fell on the floor,” Darya said.
“Did you just go through my backpack?”
“Alexei, you can’t seriously intend—”
Like the others they had been speaking Russian, but he switched to
English, as if no one else understood the language: “Be quiet!”
She whispered, “This is crazy. Surely he’s armed.”
He said through clenched teeth, “Shut up.”
Glancing around, he reached into the backpack and removed the Judge, with its burnished steel and black grip and red sight. He pocketed it in his trousers, where the bulge was obscured by his apron.
Moving close, he whispered hotly in her ear, “I’m not planning anything tonight. I just can’t leave it at home. My mother might find it.”
He disappeared into the house.
Her heart racing, Darya went through the steaming kitchen to arrange the flowers in the living room and dining room. Maya, drinking a martini, came in to direct her. Like an actress with an Irish face playing an Oriental courtesan in an old movie, she used mascara to extend her canthi.
“Oh, those tulips are a lovely touch,” she said. “Why don’t you leave a bouquet in the living room and bring the rest of them downstairs by the sauna. Here’s a vase, it was blown by some bigtime glass artist. I can never remember his goddamn name—brain dead, ha, ha!—but it cost sixteen hundred dollars at a gallery in Santa Fe. It’s named ‘Tranquility,’ but Garik thinks it looks like a war on an alien planet. You see the laser beams shooting? We’ll leave this one on the mantelpiece.”
Alexei banged through the swinging doors from the kitchen, carrying a platter of hors d’oeuvres.
“Downstairs,” Maya said. “You’ll see where, on the table.”
When he had gone, she added, “He’s gorgeous.”
“He’s eighteen,” Darya said.
“Were you afraid I was going to pants him in the living room?” Maya said. “How old do you think I am? Some old hag, apparently.”
“Twenties, I’d say.”
The lie soothed Maya. “Thirty-five, actually,” she said. “It’s the cream I use: Elizabeth Arden. I like the sound, so—I don’t know— English. Oh, everything smells so yummy out there. I’m so glad we found you guys. You know, we’ve been here for a year, and we only just learned about the Cherry Orchard.”
“What are you doing in Chicago?” Darya said.
“My husband’s investing in properties on behalf of partners in Russia. You know how it is. Safer here.”
“Where is he?” Darya asked.
“Oh, he’ll be back soon, he had something to attend to.”
Soon the kitchen was a flurry of activity. Fish steaks to grill, salads to toss, beef to lay out in pans. Pelmeni tumbled in cauldrons of bouillon, steaming the windows, and the smell of the boiled dough and beef filled the house. Lyuba was usually unflappable amid the chaos of a party, but tonight she kept muttering, “Ridiculous! Unbelievable!” and extending her lower lip, like a pouting child, to blow a strand of purple-tinted hair from her eyes. She was a stout woman with flour in her mustache, used to getting her way, but she unsuccessfully had fought her husband’s plan to serve sirloin instead of the Kobe beef Garik had requested. Her husband had gleefully embraced the idea of swindling an anti-Semite after Garik had sneered at Jews. “It can’t go wrong,” he had told her. “If Garik notices, I’ll just tell him I couldn’t find Kobe beef at such short notice, and we’ll bill him for sirloin. If not, we’ve made a fool of him. Just marinade it in soy sauce and slice it thin.” It had fallen on her to cook the sirloin and hope for the best, and she kept barking at Alexei whenever he got underfoot.
Darya watched him as he worked, arranging lox and dill on a plate. He kept whispering, “Goddamn it. Goddamn it.”
Lyuba looked at him. “Are you speaking to me?”
“Sorry, just muttering to myself,” he said.
“Well, don’t,” Lyuba said. “Clients might take offense at your language. Darya, come downstairs with me and Yasha for a walkthrough.”
Alexei lugged an unlikely assortment of bottles down to the basement and stashed them on shelves and in a glass-fronted refrigerator or behind the bar: red and white Bordeaux, sweet Georgian wines, Baltika porters and lagers, Dom Pérignon rosé, Stolichnaya and Wyborowa vodkas. That evening as the guests began to arrive, Yakov Isayevich manned the bar, occasionally slipping upstairs to check in on the kitchen, while Alexei collected bottles, offered hors d’oeuvres, and brought down the food. The basement was an expansive rec room and sauna, paneled in logs, with a kitchenette and a large TV playing music videos, and the walls were decorated with an abstract lithograph of a sort that might hang in a dentist’s office, a map of Primorye, framed travel posters from Thailand and Cyprus, the mounted heads of a boar and a baboon sporting sunglasses and a Hawaiian lei, and a Siberian tiger skin. It was illegal to kill these great cats, but their penises fetched thousands of dollars from Chinese healers, and they were disappearing. Surely Garik was not a poacher, but the regional governor—the one Alexei’s father had tried to unseat in the election that cost him his life—had been known to give the skins as gifts. Anyway, Garik certainly had the weaponry to kill whatever he fancied. The gun case was filled with Kalashnikovs and an array of handguns and machine pistols, the sight of which sparked a panic attack in Alexei. The basement also contained a billiards table and a Terminator-themed pinball machine that jingled, played snatches of music, and spoke in an Austrian accent. The dinner table extended from the kitchenette almost to the billiards table, but most of the guests had gathered in the sauna for a steam. Through the misted window, baleful shades could be seen, materializing and vanishing in a golden inferno.
Hummer, the Great Dane, kept bounding upstairs to harass the guests as they arrived, lunging its massive head this way and that to bark and growl, but it fled when Maya swung the knotted rope. Finally, the brute returned to the basement to sleep beside an old slot machine with a quill feed handle and a brass bucket of quarters under the spout.
Soon Alexei counted twenty-three guests, along with Maya, but Garik was nowhere to be seen. The sauna door opened and she emerged, naked except for a wet sheet, her arms and neck blotched from the heat, her hair pulled up in a towel.
“Alexei, would you open me a bottle of Baltika?” she said. “You must have gotten some sun today, your face is beet red.”
“I’m just hot from running around,” Alexei said.
Maya sipped her beer. “I get hot, too,” she said. “Running around.”
Pink from the sauna, partygoers began to emerge to serve themselves or play billiards. The women were all slim and beautiful; some wore bikinis, others were shrouded in sheets. The men ranged from young toughs to a bald Humpty Dumpty known as Vadimych, who, like the women, had hitched up his sheet under his armpits to cover his breasts, and he sat kneading his outlandish paunch, as if to loosen up the borborygmus audibly rumbling within. He was a lieutenant to Garik and a specialist, by the sound of it, in setting up in front corporations; he sat picking at a plate of fatback and the “Israeli salad” and expounding on a scheme that involved gasoline bootlegging and front corporations and “a fucking avalanche of paper that those cocksucker feds never could figure out.” (Clearly, nobody was going to be offended by swearing tonight.) His two interlocutors were muscled beasts who served as enforcers in Garik’s outfit. One of them, Ilya, was a burly man with a plump neck that was pinched in rolls between his collar and his shaven skull, making the back of his head look like the face of a smiling, werewolf in a storybook; the other, Tolya, wore his hair in a ponytail, and a scar encircled his right eye, as if someone had tried to gouge it out with a broken bottle. Buzz and Scarface, Alexei dubbed them in his mind. Hummer, the Great Dane, edged over to the table, slobbering prodigiously. Buzz tossed a bite of lox to the monster. A jingling sound came from the corner, and Alexei was surprised to see a boy of who looked to be no more than twelve years old plugging quarters into the slot machine. He suffered from a cartoonish deformity: his thumbs and three fingers were the size of bratwursts. He was a delicate youth, with long brown hair, a nose like an upsidedown seven, and thick-lashed eyes. Shifting his weight back and forth to the beat of an Alla Pugacheva song that was playing, he pulled the handle. Every so often a stream of quarters poured into the brass bucket, and he rewarded himself with a swig from a bottle of porter. He appeared to be Vadimych’s son: having finished his monologue, the mobster drifted over to look at the slot machine, took a pull on the handle, then patted the boy on the back and returned to the table. Yakov Isayevich was busy behind the bar, but he had noticed the beer in the boy’s hand, and he glanced sternly at Alexei, who took this as an order to take the bottle away or at least find out how the child had obtained it.
Alexei approached the boy. “Hey, kid, what are you drinking there?” he said in Russian.
The boy answered in English. “My dad said it’s all right.” And then, with a touch of annoyance, as if this settled the question: “I’m thirteen.”
He pulled the lever again.
“You got any candy?” the boy said.
“Sure, just a second.”
“His dad gave it to him,” Alexei told Yakov Isayevich, nodding at Vadimych.
“I suppose I can’t stop his parents from serving him,” Yakov Isayevich said.
Alexei returned with a bowl of Primorsky Konditer chocolates, wrapped like tiny Christmas packages in crisp papers decorated with camels, bears, children’s faces, or squirrels nibbling nuts. The boy selected and peeled two of them with his pincers, tossing one to the slobbering Hummer. He pulled the slot machine handle and, seeing that Alexei was looking at him, said defiantly, “At school they call me Fingers.”
“Man is a wolf to man,” said Alexei.
The boy looked at him questioningly.
“Kids will make fun of you for anything,” Alexei said. “If it’s not your fingers, it’s something else. It’s better out in the adult world.”
The boy smiled.
“What’s your name?”
“What happened to your hands?”
“It’s called macrodactylia,” Yurik said. “And no, it’s not contagious.”
Yurik grabbed a fistful of candies and lined them along the edge of the slot machine. He swigged his beer, deftly retrieved another quarter from the bucket with his oversized fingers, and fed the slot machine again.
Alexei returned the candy bowl to the table just as Darya arrived with a green salad overlaid with grilled chicken, strawberries, blueberries, and thin slices of Camembert. With the back of her hand she brushed the hair from her eyes and looked over Alexei. Her gaze fell to his pocket, weighed down by the gun. She shook her head and headed back upstairs.
The next time Alexei went up to the kitchen, Garik had arrived. He was a beefy man, mid-forties. His hair was grayer than eleven years ago, mouth drooping, cheeks roughened to chicken flesh by hard drinking. He wore not a tracksuit, as he had the day of the murder, but pinstriped business attire, with gold cufflinks and a watchband that dangled like a bracelet on his wrist. His buzz cut was receding, leaving an islet of mown stubble where the widow’s peak had once been. His head was narrow, and there was a bump on his brow, the defining characteristic in an otherwise plain and ruddy face.
The Beast: as a boy Alexei had seized on this name during a scripture reading in the church he and Mama attended in Cyprus after they had fled Vladivostok, during that period when she had abandoned her atheism and converted to Orthodoxy. Who is like unto the beast, who is able to make war with him? It had made an impression on him as a seven-year-old. Seven heads and ten horns. Diadems, and on his head were blasphemous names. They worshiped the dragon because he gave his authority to the beast. And so it had now come to pass that God or fate had brought the Beast into Alexei’s life again.
Garik leaned against the counter observing the chaos of the kitchen as he tossed grapes into the air and gulped them down like a parrot devouring tropical bugs. A cheer sounded downstairs, and he raised his eyebrows in a bemused expression. He noticed Alexei.
“Hey, killer,” he said. “How goes the American football?”
“I haven’t played it since high school.” It annoyed Alexei to be explaining this again. He had graduated in June.
Maya appeared in the doorway, wrapped in her sheet. “Garik, where have you been?” she said. “Your guests are waiting.”
Garik slapped his wife’s ass and said, “Coming.” As he followed her out he slapped Darya, too. “Cheer up, doll face.”
“I’m cheerful,” Maya called over her shoulder, “it’s you who can’t put business aside for one evening.”
Darya said, “Goat,” loud enough for her coworkers to hear. But Garik and Maya had already gone.
Presently the sauna was empty, the guests who had dipped in the pool had returned, and the table was crowded with a jolly, half-naked company, all flushed, lank-haired, beaded with sweat. Garik was now wrapped, from the waist down, in a wet sheet that clung to him in places, revealing patches of skin and red bathing briefs. His torso was bare—the paunch, tits, and broad shoulders of an athlete gone to seed. He had steamed himself pink in ringlet patterns, and like Vadimych, Scarface, Buzz, and the other men, he was covered in ash-and-piss penal colony tattoos. If you squinted, his skin looked hideously bruised, as if he had been worked over by thugs with blackjacks. The tattoos would have gotten him kicked out of a family swim session at the YMCA: on his right arm, beneath an epaulet with a skull, was a tomcat raping a naked woman from behind while raising a shot glass in a toast. A devil in a top hat looked on. The legend read, ALL THINGS COME TO HIM WHO WAITS. Shackles of skulls encircled Garik’s legs and wrists, and in the pièce de résistance, his broad back was decorated with a nude woman forking a penis on a dinner plate while raising a bottle of vodka in a gesture that seemed to say, “Up yours.” The severed heads of men were piled around her. This work was titled, “The Prick Eater.” On his chest (hairless except for gray circlets around his nipples), the Kazan Mother of God and Holy Child sat before a multi-domed Orthodox cathedral, each raising a hand to bless the saturnalia.
The Cherry Orchard staff slipped to and fro around the table, collecting empty bottles from the floor and reaching across the warm bodies to serve platters of shrimp, goat cheese, salmon caviar crêpes. The air was redolent of wine, fried butter, sweated vodka, and superheated cedar. Bawdy laughter erupted from time to time, and periodically the entire company rose as one for a toast. It was impossible for Alexei to follow the discussion while running up and down between the basement and the kitchen, but he heard snatches of talk about a restaurant in the South Loop, a condominium building in Rogers Park, and a five-acre plot in Will County ideal for a cartage provider or light industrial user. The properties had little in common.
At one point, Garik said, “The restaurant, sure, why not, but what the fuck do we want with a parking lot? Investing money is not the same thing as just burning it up, you know? Now the Congress Hotel, tell the Nassers, they knock ten million off the price, we’ll talk.” After dumping an armload of bottles out back, Alexei returned to hear Vadimych, whose sheet had slipped to reveal she-ape dugs, discussing a scheme to transfer money from two Russian banks through Poland and Switzerland to Cyprus.
Scarface combed a strand of his long hair from his face. “I love Cyprus,” he said.
“Last time I brought Tolya with me,” Garik explained, nodding at Scarface, who smiled modestly, pleased he had succeeded in getting the boss to acknowledge this. “I bought this gorilla a new suit and took him to these powwows we had in fancy clubs, including this joint where they had belly dancers. Don’t worry, Maya, they were all dwarves.” (Scarface contradicted this with a shake of his head, and everyone laughed.) “I told him to sit there and look ornery and keep his fucking snout shut. And it worked, didn’t it? When he came in, you could see the wheels turning in their heads. It’s that tiger scar across his face. That alone earned me an extra half a million. Nobody wants to negotiate when I’ve got this beast sitting next to me.”
“Scared them shitless,” Scarface agreed.
“How’d you get that, anyway?” Vadimych said.
“Oh, guy with a bottle.”
“You ought to see what the other guy looks like,” Garik said.
“You’d have to exhume him, though.”
Alexei dashed upstairs with a load of dirty dishes and platters, and when he returned, the room was quiet and everyone was looking at Yakov Isayevich.
“Are you kidding?” Garik said. “It’s a fair deal. I’ll pay you in cash tonight and you can retire.”
The veins that crisscrossed Yakov Isayevich’s cheeks and ears were glowing. “Oh, you wouldn’t want it,” he said. “The location. Everybody’s Pakistani and Indian these days.” For some reason everyone laughed.
“I just can’t see why you’d want to keep slaving away in a deli,” Garik said. “Think it over. Isn’t there anymore mineral water? I’m parched.”
Only Vadimych’s son, Yurik, an exile among the guests, failed to join the crowd at the table. He perched on a couch across the room, a slice of pizza on a plate beside him, fighting a one-man war against a platoon of snipers on a Sony PlayStation he had discovered there. It was displayed on an enormous TV screen: an animated soldier, muscled like a cornerback, was firing bolts of lightning out of his palm as he leaped from building to building across alleyways and skied along power cables in a rooftop landscape that looked like a war-torn Paris, or maybe New Orleans, since one could see palm trees below, and bougainvillea woven into a louvered window, and a neon sign on an ornate theater called YES WE CAN-CAN.
Poor Yurik held the controller and manipulated the buttons with his mismatched fingers. Probably dragged here by his parents: Oh, I’m sure there’ll be other kids your age—though he looked like the kind of boy who would be sitting alone even in a room full of kids. Conversation fell off as the guests tucked into their food, and Alexei sat for a moment on the armrest of the couch.
“You want me to bring you a plate, Yurik?” he said. “There’s some good eats.”
“Naw, pizza’s fine,” the boy said.
“You’re good at this.”
“Oh, I was just—.” Yurik paused the game and crossed his arms, hiding his hands in his armpits. Then, perhaps realizing this only called attention to his deformity, he placed his hands on his knees, studying his bratwurst fingers as if noticing them for the first time.
“You want a Coke?” said Alexei.
“Just another Baltika,” the boy said.
“I’m not allowed to serve booze. And I know my boss won’t give it to you, either. Alcohol’s not good for your little brain.” Alexei tousled Yurik’s hair.
Yurik grabbed Alexei’s hand and held it there on his head. His fingers were textured like carrots. Alexei freed himself.
“I told you, my dad said it was all right,” Yurik said.
“Then go ask him,” Alexei said.
“Can I have your phone number?” the boy said abruptly.
“Sure,” said Alexei. “Why not?”
Yurik got out his iPhone, and Alexei recited his number.
“Here, let me call you; then you’ll have my number, too.”
Alexei felt a buzz on his hip. Yurik immediately hung up.
“Great, I’ll add your name,” Alexei said. The thought of being pestered by this lonely boy caused him to add, ignobly, “I’m pretty busy, though. I can’t always pick up.”
“I won’t call if you don’t want,” Yurik said. “I just don’t have that many contacts in my phone, is all. I asked a couple kids at school, but they wouldn’t give it to me.”
“I’m not saying you can’t call. I’m just busy at work and at night I train at the gym —”
“I can delete it,” Yurik said.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. Call me if you want.”
Alexei started to leave, but Yurik grabbed his wrist again. Alexei glanced around, worried that Yakov Isayevich might think he was goofing off. Over at the table only Garik was watching. Pure lithium plopped into a pool of distilled water in Alexei’s chest and ignited a hydrogen fire. So, are you planning to kill Vadimych, too, Garik? he thought. Want to blow him away right here in front of his son? Who gives a fuck about the kid? Or no, here’s an idea, let’s say we just shoot you for a change.
But then the Beast surprised Alexei by smiling and placing his hand on his heart, as if to offer a blessing. Defender of children, honorary uncle to lonely waifs.
Alexei’s field of vision compressed to a small aperture and in the center was Garik’s head and his own hand extending the barrel of the Taurus Judge, loaded with hollow-point. Yanking free from Yurik’s grip, Alexei galloped upstairs and walked around the living room four or five times, the revolver thumping against his thigh. He drew a deep breath and made his way into the steamy kitchen.
Alexei? Alexei! Hey!
Darya grabbed him by the elbow. “Are you deaf? Take this down. I’ll bring the steaks.” She handed him another tureen of pelmeni in chicken broth. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Downstairs, he delivered the dumplings with trembling hands. Broth slopped on the tablecloth. The swine were too drunk to notice, but Yakov Isayevich glowered as he refilled drinks. Alexei found a rag behind the bar and wiped up.
Maya beckoned Yakov Isayevich and said, “How are we doing on the main course?” but at that moment Darya arrived bearing platters of “Kobe beef,” which she served while Yakov Isayevich bustled about topping off drinks. Garik sawed off a bite, frowning as if dividing a sausage among hungry inmates. He sampled the meat. Wiping his mouth, he impaled the steak, held it up like a burnt shoe he’d rescued from a fire, and with his other hand clinked his bloody knife on a cordial glass.
Alexei moved back behind the bar, leaning against the wood so the revolver, The Judge, pressed into his thigh.
“This—.” Garik cleared his throat. “Guys, listen up. This is what’s known as Kobe beef. You all know what that is?”
Yakov Isayevich blinked with a servile expression that said he was gratified for the attention to his humble cuisine, but he could barely restrain himself from winking at Darya and Alexei. The mobsters glanced at each other uncertainly.
Vadimych said, “Is that the kind where they feed the cows their own shit?”
Laughter exploded around the table.
“You mean like you eat, Vadimych?” someone cried.
“It’s true! Have you ever had dinner at his place? Straight out of the toilet.”
“No, I’m serious, guys, I read that someplace,” Vadimych said.
“Oh, wait, I’m thinking of shit dogs in Korea. Seriously, they keep them in cages so they eat their own shit. Makes the meat taste—”
“Hey!” Garik pounded the table, and the guests fell silent.
“What the fuck is wrong with you animals? I serve you Kobe beef at a hundred dollars a pound and all you barbarians can talk about is shit dogs. Only Vadimych would mistake the world’s most expensive beef for a shit dog.”
“Forgive me, Andreyich, I’m drunk,” Vadimych said, addressing Garik by his patronymic. “Really, it’s delicious.” He removed a bit of gristle from his tongue and wiped it on the edge of his plate.
Garik said, “My point—well, thank you so much for allowing me to finish—my point is, this beef comes from cattle the Japanese fatten up with beer and massage with sake. Which is a drink, Vadimych: sake.”
“Beer, oh, that’s right, they feed them beer, not shit,” Vadimych said.
“Like Vadimych, many of you have doubtless mistaken beer for shit,” Garik said. “But the Japs, go figure, they can tell these two basic substances apart. I first tried this when I went to Toyama to buy cars, back in the day, and I thought it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted. So tonight, as a special treat, I serve it to you goats, which I can see was a fucking waste of money, I might as well have offered you dog food. In fact, I think I will. Isayich, bring Vadimych some dog food.”
Uneasy laughter rippled around the table.
Yakov Isayevich said, “I’m afraid we didn’t have the foresight to bring any dog food, Igor Andreyevich.”
“Maya, since Vadimych can’t tell the difference, let’s save on the catering bill and serve him dog food,” Garik said.
“We’ve just got canned,” said Maya. “Hummer loves it. Is canned all right, Vadimych?”
The stout mafik looked back and forth between Garik and his wife and decided to play along. “Oh, certainly,” he chuckled.
Maya trotted upstairs.
Nobody spoke. The guests sipped their drinks and poked at their plates without eating. Garik threw down a vodka shot and glared around the table, daring anyone to lift his voice in Vadimych’s defense. Buzz and Scarface glanced at each other with raised eyebrows. A moment later, Maya returned with a clean plate (she was serving on English bone china with a blue and white glaze and gold trim) and an opened can of Alpo “beef and liver dinner in meaty juices,” as fragrant as feces. She replaced Vadimych’s plate with the clean one, and shook out a glop of dog food.
“Look, it’s ‘gourmet!’” she said.
“Gourmet shit dog,” Garik said. The guests barked out guffaws.
“Vadimych, we’re waiting.”
Vadimych forked a bite and chewed it pensively, as if sampling foie gras. “Ah, excellent, Andreyich. But you know, it could use a little—would you please pass the pepper, madam? Thank you so much.” He seasoned the dog food.
The guests laughed until tears ran down their cheeks. Vadimych took a second bite, and Scarface snorted so obscenely, a further gust of laughter erupted.
Across the room Yurik was watching with wide eyes, his face and ears crimson, as his father ate. When he realized Alexei was looking at him, he averted his gaze. Garik’s cruelty in humiliating Vadimych in front of his son made Alexei blush, too; but then again, why should anything Garik did surprise him?
Pleased with the success of his joke, Garik said, “Just be glad I didn’t serve you dog shit. I bet you’d eat that, too, if I put it in front of you. Come to think of it, Hummer’s probably left some out on the lawn, for dessert.”
Fear flashed in Vadimych’s eyes. He smiled weakly. “No, this is fine,” he said.
Perhaps Garik would have served him dog feces, too, but Maya said,
“For Christ’s sake, Garik, we’re eating.”
“I’m just joking, my joy. All right, lads, let’s drink to the crew at the Cherry Orchard. Get Yakov Isayevich a glass. The girl there, too—fair Darya. Let’s see how she holds her vodka. And my buddy Alexei. Are we having fun yet? Hey, he’s capable of smiling, almost. Get him a drink, too.”
Yurik came over and nudged Maya, indicating a bottle of Baltika with his carrot finger. She passed the bottle and an opener back over her shoulder.
“I’m only eighteen,” Alexei said.
“Who cares?” Garik said. “Yurik’s thirteen and he’s chugalugging Baltika Number Six. Besides, Isayich doesn’t mind, does he?”
Yakov Isayevich shrugged.
“Come on, you box, you play American football, you’re man enough for some Russian vodka. Or whatever the devil this is, Polish.”
Garik stood, and everyone did likewise. Three more glasses found their way to him, and he filled and distributed them to Yakov Isayevich, Darya, and Alexei. The old man was watching Alexei with an alert expression that was not necessarily judgmental, for he, with his turnip nose, was in no position to cast stones; yet it was clear he understood the significance of this moment, since Alexei had never shown any interest in booze, the only upside of having an alcoholic parent being an immunity to temptation.
Alexei started to move back by the wall behind the bar, intending to tip the glass in the sink, but the mobster beckoned. He wrapped an arm around Alexei, who shifted away to avoid bumping Garik’s hip with the pocketed revolver.
“To Kobe beef,” Garik said, “and to our fine culinary staff at the Cherry Orchard. May they all work for me someday.”
They clinked glass all round, Garik ending with Alexei, and threw down the vodka. It scorched one’s gullet and seeped, burning, into the bronchioles of one’s lungs. Alexei sneezed. Somebody offered him the bread basket. He snatched a piece of black sourdough and sniffed it.
“Attaboy,” Garik said.
The alcohol in his empty belly burned away the knot of anxiety, and, as he finished a second shot that was poured for him, the constraints against acting—against doing it—seemed to melt away. The only way you could pull it off is as a suicide mission, and all at once, warmed by the vodka, Alexei did not reject this idea out of hand.
The guests sat, Alexei moved back from the table. Yurik came around and playfully elbowed him. He shouldered the boy and was rewarded with a grin. But Yurik moved over beside Garik.
The hit man mussed up the boy’s hair, just as he had seen Alexei do, proving that even chimps can imitate human gestures. But then, to Alexei’s dismay, Garik captured Yurik, pulled him close, and bent him to whisker his thin neck with his chin.
Alexei’s first thought was this: So he’s a freaking pedophile, too.
His second—dawning slowly, as Garik began tickling Yurik and the boy squealed and wrapped his thin arms, with their grotesque fingers, around the man’s neck—obliterated the first:
It’s his son. Jesus Christ, the Beast has a son.
© Russell Working