P sits across from me in the restaurant. It is a Korean restaurant. He is looking out the window. I turn around. There is a man, an old man. He is looking into the restaurant and gritting his teeth.
“Old Russians will never understand new things,” P tells me as the waiter brings us bowls of kimchi and rice. I shrug.
“Russians are strange, but I like them. They have good stories.”
P nods. “Tell me a story.” He isn’t eating his kimchi.
A bald man in a souvenir shop told me a story about Russians once. About how they hit their neck when they want a drink with the back of their hand.
“Okay,” I tell P. “You know how Russians hit their neck with the back of their hand?”
“Do you know why?”
He drinks his tea.
“Right—so long ago when St. Petersburg was very young, they needed to clean that thing in the middle of the square outside the Hermitage.”
“Yeah—so, they needed to clean the thing in the square and they didn’t know how. So, the Tsar proclaimed that any man who could figure out how to clean it would be granted one wish. Everyone tried. They tried climbing to the top with ropes, tried building scaffolding, tried all sorts of ways. But, they all failed. Then, in the middle of the night a man went to the column with a long rag and used it to climb his way up one side, then down the other. In that way, he cleaned it. And he was given a wish. So, he went to the Tsar and he wished that no matter what bar he walked into in all of Russia, he would be allowed to drink for free.”
“I know—just, wait. So, he wished to drink for free everywhere and so he did. But, other Russian men learned his name and since there was no way to know his face, many men went to bars all over the country and tried to drink for free. Eventually bars began to turn them away, including the man who cleaned the thing. So, he went to the Tsar and the Tsar had his servants tattoo a symbol on the man’s neck and had this symbol sent to all drinking establishments in Russia so that when the man entered, they would know and serve him for free. This man went from bar to bar and when he ordered a drink he would simply slap his tattoo to show who he was, and all bartenders knew it was him and so he drank for free. But then, of course, other men found out, they got the same tattoo and all over Russia men were walking into bars in twos and threes tapping their necks and demanding free drinks. So, of course, the Tsar had to take the wish away, but men still walked into bars, hitting their necks and so it became custom.”
P drinks his water.
“That is not a true story,” he tells me. “The only truth in that story is the Tsar taking away the men’s drinks.”
I shrug. “Still a good story.”
“No. We had ladders. I will tell you a Russian story, so you understand Russians.”
I smile. “Please.”
“Okay. You know the circus on the Fontanka river?”
“Well, they used to have elephants there, many elephants. They used to perform sometimes, but often they would be trapped in their cages. The men who owned them would take them out to the streets and walk them around, so they do not die. Every day they do this, and the elephants stay in shape for their performance. But, as times became harder and people became more poor, no one could afford the circus. But still, the elephants needed exercise and so the circus men would walk the elephants down the street. But, since there was not circus, for entertainment people would go to the streets and watch the elephants be walked. In this way the citizens were entertained, and the elephants were exercised but the circus didn’t make money and so they died.”
I frown. “The circus.”
“No,” he says. “The elephants.”
The waiter comes and takes my empty plate away.
“Are you going to eat that?”
P pushes his kimchi to me.
“That is a sad story.”
He shrugs. “It is a true story and a Russian story.”
“I like elephants,” I decide eventually.
He nods and waves out of the window. I turn around again. This time a younger man is standing there. He looks sad. P waves him in. The man comes. He has red hair and he is wet. He shakes P’s hand, then mine.
“What are you doing here?” he asks P, in Russian.
P nods to me. The man sits down. He looks to me.
“P was just telling me a story to help me understand Russia,” I tell him, not knowing what else to say.
The man laughs; it is as wet as him.
“The only story you need to know to understand Russia is that Putin just won the election.”
The man waves to the waiter. He hits his neck and the waiter brings him a beer.