Free Beer

babushkas

In Moscow it is January. It is cold.

V looks up at me from the grocery cart. Her tail is flopped over the side. She’s started using a heavy-duty trash bag so the water won’t leak out. She is staring at the bags of frozen fish.

“Do you know matryoshka dolls?” she asks me.

I nod.

“Do you ever feel like the smallest matryoshka doll?”

I nod again, “insignificant?”

She shakes her head.

“No. Empty.”

I push us faster, past the seafood section.

“Do we need anything else?” I ask.

She looks down at her lap full of beer.

“No.”

We head for the check-out. I can feel something wrong before we get close. A change in the wind, but not. V feels it, too. She is looking toward the check out. We approach, cautious. There is a crunching sound. People are fleeing. My heart stops. Two babushkas stand, head-to-head. Their grocery carts banging into each other.

The cashier is stricken, backed into the liquor shelf. The Babushkas are screeching at one another.

One, in a floral bonnet, lifts her cart and smashes it over the head of the other. Boxes of table wine explode. The cart turns to a heap of metal twigs. Then, they are on each other. Their faces close, noses kissing. They are hollering. It is so loud, my ears hurt. Bags of chips and candy bars rain to the floor around them, blown to bits.

They circle each other. The cashier sees her moment. She tries to run. One of the babushkas turns. Her screech hits the cashier. The cashier explodes, becoming indecipherable from the blanket of red wine. A finger lands in the cart next to V.

The Babushka’s continue their manic dance of death.

“We need to go,” V says. I pick her up. We go back through the entry-way. It beeps, V is still holding the beer. We get outside just in time. The roof of the grocery store caves in. I run. We make it back to V’s apartment. I’m out of breath.

“What the shit was that about!”

V rolls her eyes.

“The one in the floral bonnet was trying to pay her whole bill with one ruble coins.”

She opens a beer. Hands me one. “But,” she smiles, “free beer.”

I take it, open it.

“Okay, then.”

The Man From Peace

M and I stop at a convenience store on our way to the bar. We buy a bag full of beers. The Babushka behind the counter rings us up, at her pace. We pay, gently, so as to not startle her.

The wind, being the strongest supporter of anti-smoking laws, forces us to hide in a doorway to light our cigarettes.

“Why did we buy beer, aren’t we going to a bar?” I ask M.

He nods. “You pay with beer.”

“Pay for what?”

“Beer,” M says.

“Sure.”

We finish our cigarettes and walk to the bar. Our friend Z is waiting for us at a table, his own bag of beer resting against a leg. M shakes his hand. I fumble with my glove and get it off in the nick of time. I shake his hand.

M and I take our bag of beers to the bar. The menu is in English. The large, hairless, bartender is Russian, but greets us, with a friendly smile, in English.

“We’ll have two beers,” M says.

A bartender turns around and fishes in a cooler. On the back of his head a second, much angrier face, glares at us. M flips it off. The friendly face turns back to us, snaps open the beers and places them on the bar next to a pair of glasses.

“That will three beers each,” the bartender says. M fishes into the bag and places six beers down. The bartender takes them up in his arms and turns to place them in the cooler. The face on the back of his head is giggling. M and I go back to the table.

M and Z strike up a conversation instantly. I sip my beer and listen.

“Where is it you’re from again?” M asks.

Z says he is from some town I’ve never heard of. M sifts through the sands of his thoughts for a moment before making an ‘aha’ face. “That means peace in Russian doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it also means world,” Z replies, nodding, “it is a military town.”

I chuckle into my beer, Z gives me a mildly confused look. I shake my head.

“Are you in the military?” M asks. Z shakes his head.

“No, I am a student.”

M turns to me. “This is a thing actually, many Russians have Masters and PhDs because if you are a student you do not have to join the military.”

Z confirms this with a nod. “I am a PhD student. But I do not go and so I will be finished soon and there will still be one year that I will have to be in the military. I do not want to go.”

“You need to find a friendly doctor,” M says.

“Yes, but they are expensive. I cannot afford it.”

“Friendly doctor?” I ask.

M smiles. “Yes, you can pay a doctor to say you are unfit for military service.”

“But they are very expensive,” Z says.

“So, what will you do?” I ask.

Z bobs his head from side to side trying to make a life-changing decision for my benefit. M excuses himself to the bathroom.

“Maybe, maybe, I will hide.” Z tells me.

“Hide from the government?” I ask.

He nods.

“Will you have to pay a fine or something?”

“No, when I turn twenty-seven I can go to the offices and say I am twenty-seven and you can no longer take me.”

“Oh, that’s it?”

He nods.

“Huh.”

I sit and imagine him walking into the offices on his twenty-seventh birthday and saying “Aha! I’ve made it!” while all the military men slap their knees and go, “Aw shucks, you got us kid, you got us.”

I relay this mental image to Z, chuckling.

“Yes, yes, that’s right,” he says, without humor. 

“Would you like a beer?” Z asks. 

I nod. 

He picks up his bag of beers and heads for the bar.