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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 169-175

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José Manuel Prieto
Translated by Thomas and Carol Christensen

"Hush, little snowbird," Dalmas exclaimed. "Nobody is trapping
anyone here. This is just a joke among friends. Now get out, and stop playing games."

—Raymond Chandler

Russia 1983

"Well, friend, we will be making a long trip together, and I would like to avoid misunderstandings. My name is Rudi, and this is my dear mother. There are a lot of scurrilous characters in the corridor of this damned train, and I congratulate myself on finding an intelligent face in my compartment. But I don't want any confusion, as so often occurs. That is not our way, among my people. So as soon as this inferno gets rolling, we will share some drinks, and before we go our separate ways, if you have earned it, I will give you my phone number. Then, any time you find yourself in a mess, you can always give me a call."

("Okay, baby. The lighting's fine, smart-ass. Hell! Can you shut that damned door, beautiful? That's great, gorgeous.")

Rudi was as small as a child, and he hid a steely gaze beneath the brim of a hat that was too big for him. From his complexion I pegged him right away [End Page 169] for a gypsy. Yet he went on to make clear that when he spoke of "his people," he meant the Moldavians. He denied being a gypsy because he had left behind the gypsy troop and all of its tricks, though he appeared to retain nomadic blood that was appeased by train trips. With his complicated way of expressing himself, he meant to intimidate, and I admit that, in the beginning, when I had not yet figured him out, it achieved its object; at least, I was sorry to be sharing my compartment with that gypsy and his mother.

I did not want any last-minute problems. I climbed into my berth, and from there I watched the platform for agents. To make matters worse, Rudi recognized that I was a foreigner. He asked where I was from, and when I named my country, he praised our weightlifting, the sport of small strong fellows like him, who had also trained in it. For a moment I shifted my glance away from the platform to watch him miming a lift. He wanted to show me more, but I cut him short with a gesture: on the next track an express train was starting to move. No. We were the ones, our train, which in half an hour left the suburbs behind and quickly began to chew up leagues of snow-covered spaces.

My destination was western Siberia. Every station we passed was like throwing off ballast, leaving behind the jurisdiction of the militsia of the capital to fly fearlessly through the sleepy kingdom of the provincial militsia,who were incapable of suspecting me as a violator of the strict migratory laws that prohibited passing through the territory of Moscovia without a visa. Thank God that one was not required to identify oneself when traveling by train, which had allowed me to rip through the vast continental shroud of socialist law with countless incognito trips. Too many trips for a half-formed character like mine, unclear on the distinctions between right and wrong: there were too many scams in Moscovia, too many laws to break, so much squalor in that overflowing world of ministerial capes and single-breasted uniform jackets with richly embroidered cuffs.

After wearing me out with dull chitchat about leather boots, Rudi said:

"I'll go to the dining car for the drinks I promised you. I'll be right back."

His mother, a giant lumpen mass, studied me silently, considering whether to expose me or turn me in. Violating the precautions I always took in my clandestine travels, I went out to get some air on the platform. Soon Rudi was back at the door of the front car. He clasped several bottles to his chest. I very much appreciated...


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