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To Straighten Him Out

"Russia? Are you out of your minds? Russia's full of god-damned Communists!"

"Ivan, you had best be watching that mouth of yours around your matryona," his father warned in his languid farmer's way.

"Communist isn't a dirty word, dad."

"Communism in Russia ended over a year ago, Vanushka." His mother now. This was clearly her idea. Always feigning detachment while sneaking one hand behind to curtain to pull on the strings. He wasn't going to be her marionette.

"Mother, just because some old Party-man disavows Marx and gets himself elected president of the Union doesn't mean that the country isn't still full to the brim with godless commies."

"It's already settled, Vanya," his mother continued, "you're going. The plane ticket's already bought and Ata and Apa are already clearing out a room for you. Besides, they're getting old and they could certainly use your help on the farm."

Ivan pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. "I can't believe I'm being shipped off to the god-damned Gulag."

Suddenly his father was on his feet. Before Ivan could react, his father's meaty hand, with callouses formed on the farm and refined in the factory, had swung across the table and landed firmly on Ivan's jaw. Neck twists, teeth crack, head hits the floorboards and which way is up? His ears were ringing and there was blood on his lips. His father had never hit him before.

Ivan made careful mental note of the situation. He loved his father and hated to see him angry, but it was always a very useful thing to know, just where a person's lines were drawn.

It looked like he was going to Russia.

#

Ivan wore his headphones, massive Sennheiser affairs, during takeoff. He didn't feel like listening to music, but neither did he feel like talking. The tremendous black domes covering his ears were an incredibly effective conversation inhibitor. The drive to the Montreal airport with his father had been tense but bearable. The periods of silence had been punctuated by uncomfortable anecdotes about his father's own youth near Stalingrad. Volgograd now. He had been two years old when the German army reached the city. As a result, his childhood memories were all of rebuilding and indomitable Russian spirit and all that crap.

"Son," his father had said, "a year in the Motherland will be the best thing that ever happened to you. A child will go, but a man will return."

Bullshit. A perfectly happy fifteen year old Canadian boy would leave and a bored and bitter sixteen year old would return. He still couldn't believe it. Deported over two grams of weed. The cops had hardly even cared, but his parents, who had grown up under Stalin, were fundamentally unable to believe that a visit from the police was nothing to be concerned about.

Ivan had never left the country before. Never even been on a plane for that matter. There was a certain amount of excitement to it, he could admit that much. But, Hell! He still would rather have been sent to Jamaica or Paris to straighten him out.

#

There was a two hour stopover in London. For about twenty minutes he considered jumping ship and starting a new life in England. But then it started to rain. He bought a coffee and read Sklansky's "Theory of Poker" until the plane was ready. Sklansky. Russian name. Do they even play poker in Russia?

#

Acquiring a cheap cab from the Volgograd airport to the train station was easy. Ivan's Russian was poor and he simply let the cab driver think it was nonexistent. Let them think he's an American.

"I need a ride," he said in English to the first cabbie he saw.

"Hello mister," the cabbie replied, "my name is taxicab."

"Wonderful, Mr. Cab. Can you take me to the train station."

"Train station, mister? Thirty America dollars."

Handing the man American money: "Thank you, Mr. Cab. Thirteen dollars it is."

"No! No! Thirty America dollars. Three tens America dollars."

"Sure thing, Mr. Cab. Three and ten. Thirteen. Can we get going?"

Easiest thing in the world. He was half an hour early for his train. In the dining car on the way to Semikarakorsk Ivan won three thousand rubles at poker. On quick calculation, he figured he was up about thirty bucks, even after buying the train ticket and paying for the cab ride. Maybe Russia wouldn't be so bad after all.

#

It was so bad. 5 am, wake up, feed the chickens. No coffee, no newspaper, no shower (no hot water). 7 am, prayers. Ivan hadn't believed it at first, that his grandparents would actually try to make him pray. Not only did they try, they succeeded. No breakfast before morning prayers and the old bitch kept a key on the goddamn pantry. Suddenly godless commies didn't sound so bad..

The hours after breakfast involved hauling grain in from the field with the tractor, shoveling pig manure and the daily perimeter check of the horse fences. Ivan's blood came from virile Russian peasant stock. At fifteen he was broad shouldered, two meters tall, and going strong. But just because he was built for farm work didn't mean he had to like it. After the shoveling and fence checking came more prayers followed by lunch, followed by more chores, prayers, dinner, a couple of hours to be spent in some grandparent approved entertainment (which essentially meant more chores), prayers, sleep.

And sleep wasn't much a treat either. His bedroom was drafty and somehow freezing cold no matter what the temperature outside. And a family of mice had taken up residence in the unused furnace during the summer such that, whenever he fired it up, the house filled instantly with the smell of baking mouse feces. It hardly mattered, though. He was forbidden from using the furnace unless the temperature dropped below zero; too wasteful.

#

Twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, Ivan would get to drive the truck into Semikarakorsk to buy gasoline and the few groceries that weren't grown on the farm or traded for with neighbours. There was a high school in town. The high school had girls. Parking the truck outside the fence to the schoolyard and ogling the girls during lunch hour, Ivan felt every bit the convict. He never hated his parents, but he certainly cursed them.

The town also had a pool hall where Ivan would occasionally be able to find a game of cards. He was careful never to win too much at once, but he was always ahead at the end of the afternoon. As long as he won small, it never caused him trouble. The men felt endeared to him and would laugh it off. Look out, they would say, here comes the Lucky American.

It was at the pool hall that Ivan met Vladimir Borshev.

#

Borshev was an ex-KGB man. A lot of people were ex-KGB men, it was a good thing to be. But Borshev was an ex-KGB man who knew how to fly an airplane.

After cards one Monday Ivan was sitting with a cup of vodka at a table, getting good and drunk before driving back out to the farm when Borshev sat down across from him.

"Hello," Ivan preempted, forcing any impending conversation into English.

"Yes," Borshev said, "Isn't it? I will get straight to point. You are smart enough and I think maybe strong enough. How old are you?"

Ivan smiled. "How old should I be?"

Borshev smiled as well. "Eighteen is good age, no?"

"What a coincidence," Ivan said, "I am exactly eighteen."

"Ah," said Borshev, "it is very fortunate. Would you like maybe a job?"

And so ended Ivan's two months of indentured servitude.

#

Work at the mining camp was hard, but it was worlds better than the farm. Ivan's grandparents disapproved of course, but he stole their venom by writing a letter home immediately upon accepting the job. In his letter, Ivan spoke of how kind Ata and Apa had been to him and how he had been reluctant to accept the new job at first because he loved working on the farm so much. However, he continued, it would allow him to see so much more of the Motherland and he is sure that is what they would want. Having a great time. Think of you often. Wrote it in Russian even. Ha, let the old bastards just try and beat that.

The company worked contracts in Belarus, Georgia and Kazakhstan. There were thirty men on the crew and thirty of them were drunks. Some days Ivan would work with a pick-ax in hand, other days he would be at the in-situ leaching site where he would carefully pump liters and liters of sulphuric acid into the ground. His favorite days however were the ones when he flew with Borshev to pick up core samples from the scouting camps or to pick up supplies from whatever nearby town or to drop off data for analysis in Volgograd. Over the weeks, he noticed that his Russian was improving dramatically despite his best Anglocentric efforts.

#

On his sixteenth birthday (um, his nineteenth), Borshev took him on a vodka blurred romp through V-grad's many bars, clubs, and moonshine rooms. He awoke to a world that had been blunted, sandpapered and submerged in water. It was also a world in which his head hurt like bloody hell. For the rest of his life, Ivan would hold a vague suspicion that he may have lost his virginity to a Russian prostitute.

«Good morning American lightweight,» Borshev teased him.

"Good morning fuck you," Ivan replied, quickly closing his eyes again. He pulled a pillow over his head. "And I'm not a god-damned American."

Borchev seized his pillow and dangled it just out of reach in a cruel fashion hardly befitting of an ex-KGB officer. «No time for a hangover, Vanya. We have work to do.»

Ivan threw an arm over his eyes in protest. «Don't you diminutive me, you bastard. One more hour.»"

«Sorry Ivan, not possible. I just got the call. I have to make an emergency run out to Kazan immediately. I'll be there three days.»

At that, Ivan woke slightly. «Kazan? Three days? But we're supposed to be back in Atyrau this afternoon with the chemicals.»

«True,» Borshev conceded, «and one of us will be getting them there.» He dropped a set of keys onto Ivan's stomach before continuing. «Be nice to the truck, it's borrowed from a friend.»

#

When Ivan arrived at the chemical warehouse with the truck, his order was waiting. As the factory workers loaded the drums into the truck's bed, he browsed through the catalog. Nitroglycerine. potassium chloride, chemical grade ethyl alcohol, methylphenidate, nitrous oxide, gamma-hydroxybutyrate.

Ivan grabbed one of the workers by the arm. «What kind of a license do you need to buy this stuff?»

The man laughed heartily.

#

Driving through the mountains on the way to the Kazakhstan border, Ivan sang along to Dassin on the radio while happy little rubles danced around his head. He of course drove incredibly carefully. Not so much because the truck was borrowed, but rather because the bed was filled with four drums of anhydrous sulphuric acid, two crates of raw TNT, two canisters of pure oxygen and a keg of alkyl propylene glycol ether. Sitting in the front passenger seat was half a canister of nitrous oxide (purchased with Ivan's own money). If he rolled the truck, the resulting crater would probably make the authorities think that Russia was being bombed from orbit.

Sitting also on the front passenger seat were a large collection of chemistry and pharmacology books. One of the few good residual effects of communism was the preponderance of excellent public libraries. Ivan had a lot of reading to do.

#

It was five days, not three, before Borshev returned to camp. The plane landing woke Ivan. He lay in his cot with his eyes open waiting for Borshev to walk in through the flap of his tent. He was not disappointed.

"Tough time in Kazan?"

Collapsing to the floor in the corner and pulling out a flask, Borshev said, «I don't want to talk about it. What's new around here?»

Ivan swung his legs over the corner of the bed so he could look his friend in the eye. "Stick to English," he said, "I have some very important things to ask you."

Borshev narrowed his eyes slightly and said nothing.

Ivan swallowed before asking, "are you a cop?"

Borshev's eyebrows shot back up. He looked as though he were about to lunge for Ivan. The feeling of the floorboards on his face in his parent's house and the taste of blood in his mouth played quickly through Ivan's mind. Borshev was one man whose lines in the sand Ivan never cared to cross.

But Borshev restrained himself, relaxed his muscles and said, "don't ask me that again."

"Sorry," Ivan said quickly, "I needed to be sure before I proposed that we get ourselves into the heroin business."

Again it took Borshev a few moments to respond. This time he seemed paused by confusion rather than rage. "Ivan. You may not have noticed, but we don't have any heroin, we don't even have any poppies."

"Get out of the god-damned Eighties, Voldya. Free market, supply and demand and all the rest. So we don't have any poppies. Are we going to let that keep us from our slice of the loaf?"

"Do you mean 'slice of the pie,' Ivan?"

"Don't correct my English, it's my first god-damned language. Imagine, Voldya, just imagine, a land where poppies grow like bluegrass. Were such a place to exist, do you know what would become just as valuable as heroin?"

Borshev waited silently for Ivan to answer his own question. Ivan reached under his cot and pulled out the chemical warehouse catalog. He turned it open to a dogeared page. "The chemicals required to convert opium latex into heroin hydrochloride, of course. Specifically," Ivan said handing the catalog to Borshev, "acetic anhydride."

Borshev looked down at the open page. Ivan had underlined the price for acetic anhydride. Two thousand rubles, about fifty American dollars, per liter.

"Do you think," Ivan asked, "that we might perhaps be able to squeeze a couple of side trips to Kabul into our busy schedule?"

#

Ivan hadn't done any real work for fifteen weeks. His job consisted entirely of running back and forth between Volgograd and the camp in the truck (bought now from Borshev's friend with his own profits). None of the other miners seemed to notice or care that he made many more trips than were expressly required for explosives and mining related chemicals. Partly, this was due to the fact that the nitrous oxide had been a real hit. The GHB and pure ethanol were also pretty popular. After a few unsuccessful attempts at drinking the CH3CH2OH straight, the miners had taken to mixing it in equal parts with vodka. Ivan of course sold these substances to his colleagues at a very modest mark-up in order to engender their respect. But there was a second reason for the workers not questioning Ivan's business. They were all men who had grown up and lived under the Communist regime, many of them born under Stalin. And in Ivan and Borshev they saw through the jovial exterior to something deadly serious that reminded them of the sort of things about which one should never ask questions. Or so Ivan imagined, maybe they just didn't care.

Borshev was thrilled, however. Immediately after their very first run to Kabul, where they had realized a three thousand percent profit on their chemical investment, Borshev declared Ivan an honorary ex-KGB man. Ivan had almost cried with pride. Not until they were safely back in Kazakhstan though. The tense flight through semi-contested airspace and the negotiations in Arabic (which Borshev spoke fluently) with men whose desperation was tangible had not sat lightly on Ivan's nerves. After that he had convinced Borshev that the operation would run more smoothly were Ivan to take care of the Russia-Kazakhstan end of things and Borshev the Kazakhstan-Afghanistan end.

He even had a regular girl in Volgograd who he lavished gifts upon and who had no idea he was sixteen years old. He couldn't have been happier.

Until the night he woke up from fitful dreams and found himself unable to get back to sleep. He pulled his flask out from under his pillow and went for a walk to calm his nerves. Ivan intended to walk randomly, but his feet rebelled by tracing the familiar path to the truck. As he drew closer he noticed that there was a human figure doing something underneath the front end of the vehicle.

"Borshev?" Ivan called out. "Is that you?"

The figure jumped up, looked quickly in Ivan's direction and began to run down the road. Ivan yelled after him "Hey! Stop!" but the man jumped onto a motorcycle hidden behind a bush and sped away. With a growing sense of panic, Ivan ran to Borshev's tent and awoke him. Borshev was promptly awake and out of the tent with his gun drawn. Ivan started to climb into the truck.

«No,» Borshev barked, «the Jeep!»

They caught up to him quickly. Ivan was pushing the Jeep's engine as hard as it would go. Borshev leaned out the passenger side window and there was a loud crack as he fired his gun. The motorcycle's rear tire exploded dramatically and the spent rubber went spinning into the air. The man was thrown clear of the bike and rolled some fifteen meters before coming to a stop.

"Holy Fuck!" Ivan shouted. "What did you do that for."

«Pull the car over,» Borshev said.

Before the car even stopped, Borshev was out the door and on top of the man. «Who sent you?» His voice had a deadly sharp quality and for the first time Ivan had no doubt that he truly had been in the service.

The man stuttered something in Arabic. Borshev snapped another question. The man mumbled a response and began to sob. Borshev shot him once in the head.

Ivan's vision blurred. He started to run, but his knees failed him. Collapsed at the side of the road, he began to throw up. Within moments Borshev was at his side.

«Vanya,» he said, «pull yourself together.»

«Get away from me,» Ivan shouted, «Get the Hell away from me!»

«It's okay,» Borshev said, «everything's fine. It's all taken care of.»

«Everything's fine, Borshev? Everything's not fucking fine. You just killed a man. He's still sitting over there with his fucking brains leaking out. You can't just kill people, man!»

«Vanya, look,» Borshev said opening up a black wallet.

«You stole his fucking wallet?» Ivan shouted.

«No. To find out who he was,» Borshev said, «no citizenship card, Vanya. He was planting a bomb, trying to kill us. He's not even a citizen, the laws don't protect him.»

«I'm not a citizen either.» Ivan vomited again.

Borshev walked back to the Jeep, pulled out a tarp in which he wrapped the man's body, and placed the corpse in the back. He then got into the driver's seat and drove the five meters to where Ivan was still dry heaving at the side of the road.

«Get in,» he said. Ivan did.

They drove in silence for over an hour to Site 45. The mining team had stopped working there several weeks earlier. It was exhausted. Borshev dragged the body over to the main shaft and shoved it in. Two hundred and forty meters Ivan's memory told him. They wouldn't hear him hit bottom. As soon as Borshev was back in the car, Ivan spoke. "Drive me to the airport."

Borshev looked at him closely. «You don't mean that.»

"Yes I do," Ivan said, "drive me to the airport. And speak English. I'm done with that god-damned language."

"But everything's going so well."

"Going well?" Ivan was flabbergasted. "Someone just tried to kill us."

"Yes," Borshev acknowledged, "but they failed. We don't have a monopoly on the export business. Any new competitor is bound to make a few people angry. So they figure maybe we're pushovers and they send someone like that for us. Their man never comes back and we keep on operating. They get the message. Don't mess with us. We can't just quit at the first sign of trouble."

"I'd say that was a pretty big god-damned sign, man!"

Borshev started the car. "You're making the wrong decision."

Ivan said nothing. They drove first back to the camp, to make sure none of the other miners had been awoken by the noise. Everything seemed safe. Ivan retrieved his possessions from his tent and the money from the spot where he had buried it. He gave half to Borshev and tucked the other half into his bag.

"You'll never get it out of the country," Borshev said. Ivan shrugged.

On the long drive back to Volgograd, Ivan's nerves began to calm. As the adrenaline flushed slowly out of his system, he began to feel much better. He had gotten in over his head, but he was getting out while he still could. He was going home.

They stopped in briefly at Ivan's grandparents' house so that he could pick up the few things he had left there. They were asleep and the door was locked, but Ivan had made a copy of the key promptly after arriving. On the kitchen table he left a note:

    Ata and Apa,
       Had a wonderful time in Russia. 
       Going home early because I have changed and learned my lesson. 
       Tell my parents otherwise and the police will learn about the 
       funds you have been smuggling to your nephew in Chechnya. 
    Love, Ivan.

When they reached the outskirts of Volgograd, Ivan said "You can let me off here."

Borchev reached out to shake Ivan's hand. Ivan took it firmly. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Sorry nothing," Borshev said, "you have been a very good friend and I will continue the business without you."

"Good luck then," Ivan said.

"And you too," Borhev replied. Ivan got out of the car and Borshev started the engine. Ivan was a dozen steps away when Borshev called out his name. Ivan turned.

«Maybe I will come visit you in America some day!»

Ivan smiled, gave him the middle finger, and turned away. He heard Borshev laughing as he drove away. Ivan looked up at the clock tower. It was very late, but there were a few people he needed to visit before his flight.

#

When Ivan reached the airport security gate, he took his headphones off to show respect to the men with the guns. They hung heavily around his neck. One of the guards took his backpack from him and took it into another room. Ivan was left alone with the second, younger guard.

"Very nice earphones," the security guard said through a thick accent.

"Thanks," Ivan said, "they're Sennheisers."

The guard nodded sagely.

When the other man returned with Ivan's backpack, Ivan didn't have to look inside to know that the money was gone. And so he left Russia in exactly the way he had entered, with three changes of clothes, his discman and a pair of expensive headphones. After the first gate there was a metal detector and a narcotics dog, and then he was on the plane. Did you know that any given narcotics dog can only be trained to smell three different substances?

Ivan wore his headphones as the plane took off. He didn't feel like listening to music, but neither did he feel like talking. Really, listening to music wasn't even an option anyway. The speakers which came installed inside the Sennheiser headphones could certainly make a lot of noise. They could pump sound into Ivan's ears, probably even blow out his eardrums, set his bones rattling and, if he happened to be standing in a puddle of water, set up an impressive standing wave in it. They were serious speakers. But those speakers were sitting in a garbage bin on a Volgograd street corner. Ivan smiled. No dog had ever been trained to smell 3-methylfentanyl and half a kilo of China White would probably pull a pretty good price-tag on the streets in Canada. In Canada, where both bombs and guns were a lot harder to come by.

He leaned back in his seat. He was actually even looking forward to seeing his parents again.