COLD WAR GIRL
by William R. Stoddart
It was a long death in a short life. Aunt Tanya died from a proliferation of white blood cells, the end coming just shy of her half-century birthday. “Your aunt was buried in Prussian blue, her favorite color,” my Uncle Jovan said. “I want to get drunk with Milo. You come with me. Make sure I get back home. You good boy come to visit your uncle. We visit Milo.” We sat around Milo’s kitchen table and I was introduced to his daughter, Yana. She had thick, straw-colored hair and a face kissed by the raw Yugoslavian winter. Her green eyes were wide-set, serious and judging. She stood with her large, dirty hands in a fig leaf position. Her eyes closed for a moment; she looked like she was making a hasty wish. She opened her eyes and ran out of the kitchen. Milo got out his homemade vodka and we drank and talked for a couple of hours. After the slow burn of a drink cooled, I found courage and asked his permission to call on Yana. She was seventeen when I met her. I was twice her age.
“What you have to offer Yana? What you give me?” Milo began his horse-trading.
“I got a job waiting for me in Vinca with a nice apartment,” I said proudly.
“You police?” Milo looked at me suspiciously.
“Security guard. I’ll work with scientists at the research institute.” I took a swig of vodka from the bottle and noticed bits of food swirling crazily in the clear liquid. Milo had been eating potatoes. When he saw me looking at the bottle he smiled; his rotting teeth looked like broken gravestones in fetid earth. “You like my vodka?” He asked and grabbed the bottled from me with his gnarled hand.
“You drink my vodka and ask for daughter? What you want next? Make love to my wife?” Milo smiled and the rotting teeth smell mixed with the tang of ethyl alcohol. I felt myself begin to retch.
“He’s just pulling your leg,” my uncle Jovan laughed. “My nephew good boy, no worries, Milo. Have another drink. God bless this house.” Jovan reached across the table and grabbed Milo’s beard. He gave it a playful tug. “You got to watch your mouth, Milo. Look what god can do.” Jovan grinned wide and tapped his front tooth with his index finger. It was capped and the veneer made it look larger than his other teeth. “God bless this house.”
Yana and I got married two months after we met. We moved to Vinca and were assigned a one-bedroom, fifth floor apartment. There was a mix of administrative employees, support staff and peasant-workers who had apartments within the same research institute complex. The peasant-workers were farmers who took seasonal jobs in the city to help make ends meet. They were typically the nuclear garbage men who packaged the waste for eventual disposal — they also cleaned-up the accidents.
“Every day it’s cabbage smell. Wafts up from Boskovic’s apartment. How can anyone eat cabbage every day?” Yana asked. She opened the window that overlooked the courtyard. “Clothes smell of cabbage. Bed smells of cabbage,” she pinched her nose and wrinkled-up her young face. A light rain began to fall and Yana put her large hands on the window to close it, but changed her mind. “When we get money saved, first thing we do is move to better apartment where scientists live,” she announced.
“You spend money in your head. Look what I give you. Plenty of food and new dresses. You live in a palace compared to your farm,” I said, tired of Yana’s bitching about money. The rain got heavy and started to come in the open window.
“Close the window, you born in a barn?” I asked Yana. “Oh, that’s right, you were born in a barn,” I said, pleased to think I was clever.
“Go to work old man. I pack your lunch. What I do here all day, smell Boskovic’s cabbage? I want car so I don’t have to walk to market. Scientist wives have cars,” Yana whined.
I was working a night shift with Stas. I just started my security job at the institute and was shadowing him. Stas Dragulic was a peasant-worker. His family owned a plot of land in the village outside of Vinca where Uncle Jovan lived. He worked three winters at the institute before he came on full-time as a security guard. He was twenty-two years old and lived with his older sister in a ground-floor apartment in the complex. His sister, Bela worked in the institute’s mailroom. Stas took me through the storage locker that was located in the basement of the containment building. There were rows of metal shelving that lined the area like dominos. The shelves contained canisters, old motors, stacks of files, lose papers, assorted hardware and small cardboard boxes. The boxes were labeled in black marker with a month and year. Stas and I made our way through the rows of metal shelves. He pulled a box off a shelf and lifted the cardboard lid. “You handle this with protective gloves — I’m used to it so I don’t need,” Stas said as he pulled out a glass cylinder. It was the size of a small test tube and had a label attached. “This is production run sample,” Stas said as he held the ampoule up to the dim incandescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Inside the tube I could see a black powder. He slipped the tube into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Hundreds of these lying around here, no one will miss,” he said as he reached into the small cardboard box and removed two more glass ampoules. He closed the box and positioned it within the dust outline on the shelf. “Let’s go, time for lunch,” Stas said and I followed him out of the storage locker.
It was a typically overcast day in Vinca. It was a Sunday morning and I met Stas in front of the church. People slogged past with their heads bowed against the cold. No one bothered to shovel the sidewalks anymore. The streets were plowed and peppered with cinders once a week. Stas spat blood into the snow outside Saints Peter and Paul. “Russian cigarettes like smoking razor blades,” he said. Stas took a deep breath of cold air and started coughing.
I followed him into the narthex of the church. The saint on the icon stand followed me with his
serious and judging eyes as we walked toward the basement stairs. There were long wooden tables on the linoleum floor in the basement. The smell of old coffee filled the damp air. A small group of people gathered around several tables. Stas extended his hand to the man sitting behind a table. “Five cartons, American,” Stas said quietly.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” the man behind the table stood up and shook Stas’ hand. “Who’s your friend?” he asked.
“He works with me. We are partners. He has a young wife. Very pretty. She likes nice things,” Stas said, looking like he was daring me to do or say something. “Her father lives outside of Vinca, in village. His name is Milo,” Stas was still looking at me. “She likes nice things,” he repeated.
“So, what else you got?” The man behind the table asked.
“You know where we work? She likes nice things. Very pretty.” Stas cupped his hands in front of his chest. I grabbed Stas’ arm and pulled him towards me. The man behind the table quickly walked away.
“You want money for young wife of yours? You think she stay with you without nice things?” Stas said. I let go of Stas’ arm. “The man goes by the name Luka,” Stas informed me. Luka walked back to where we were standing.
“Designer bag – New York,” Luka said. Stas smiled and handed Luka a padded envelope. “Tell them we get more samples if they want. We have what they’re looking for,” Stas said quietly.
Luka pulled a large plastic storage box from under the table and began filling a shopping bag with items. He handed the full bag to Stas and we walked out of the basement. Stas blessed himself as we entered the narthex. “We don’t forget Father Nikola,” Stas whispered. He removed a white envelope from his inner coat pocket and forced it into the candle box, bowed his head and muttered a quick prayer.
Yana loved the faux Gucci handbag. The makeup was a gift from Stas. “The lipstick is from Los Angeles, USA.” Stas handed the tube to Yana. She pulled the cap from the gold colored cylinder and clumsily twisted the bottom with her large hand. She looked at me and ran to the bathroom. “You give lipstick to my wife?” I asked Stas.
“Luka threw it in bag. What, I give to my sister? What she do with it, eat? I don’t know any other women. Yana is young. She should have,” Stas said. Yana returned from the bathroom. The gaudy red covered the dry cracks on her full lips. “I want black,” she said slowly, her green eyes competing with her new red lips.
“Black lips with green eyes? What do you think?” Stas asked me.
“Wipe your lips and go pack a lunch for Stas and me. We have to go in to work tonight,” I said, not looking at Yana.
“I get you black lipstick. Your husband and I have connections. Can get you blue jeans, chocolate, even hand gun. Anything you like. Just ask your husband,” Stas looked at me and laughed.
“I want black lipstick and blue jeans, please,” Yana looked at me like she was making a hasty wish on a falling leaf – her green eyes were pleading.
“If you make lunch I’ll get for you. We want sausages, cheese, pogacha bread and a large thermos of coffee. We work into Monday night — double shift,” I said.
“We can get booze — not that beetroot shit. We get government vodka real cheap, maybe imported. Do you smoke?” Stas asked Yana.
“Don’t smoke, but I can start,” she replied.
“Yana!” I said firmly.
“I get American cigarettes. Not Russian razor blade tobacco. We can get what you want,” Stas said.
“Yana, please pack our lunch!”
“Yes, old man, I pack your lunch. Remember lipstick and blue jeans, cigarettes if you let me smoke. Scientist wives have American cigarettes and nice apartments that don’t smell.” Yana made pouty lips.
“Black lips with alabaster skin. We get anything you like,” Stas said. He leaned back in the only chair I owned and smiled at Yana, her baby doll face turned red with a look of guilt.
“Hurry with the lunch, some people have to work,” I said impatiently.
The security guard was gathering his coat and lunch container as Stas and I entered the guard’s station to start our night shift. Kuz was the shift supervisor and had been sipping vodka to keep warm. He was drunk and having a hard time finding the arm of his coat. He leaned against a locker and rested his head against the cool gray metal. “Fuck you in your bloody pockets!” Kuz slurred as he wrestled with his coat.
“You should watch your mouth in front of new guy,” Stas said.
“How ‘bout cigarette?” Kuz asked, trying to focus his bleary eyes on Stas. He raised his arm and pointed. “In your coat. Cigarette. What, I have to beg? American, you have?”
Stas dug the pack from his deep coat pocket and removed two cigarettes. “Only the best for Supervisor,” Stas said and threw the cigarettes at Kuz. I picked them up from the floor and put one in Kuz’s mouth; I put the second one behind his ear. I helped him with his coat and he started to walk out the door.
“You want I should smoke cold fag? I lost lighter somewhere in reactor yard,” Kuz said. The cigarette dangled from his lower lip like drool. Stas tossed a book of matches in the air in my direction and it fell to the concrete floor. I picked up the matches and handed them to Kuz. “Have good night new guy. Go fuck yourself, Stas,” Kuz said as he staggered out the door.
There was a Sunday night skeleton crew of janitors, one reactor technician and Stas and me. The cleaning crew worked their way through the administrative offices. “They clean for a couple hours then sleep — no problem,” Stas informed me. We entered the foundry and sat on a wooden pallet to have a smoke.
“Do you trust him?” I asked Stas.
“Father Nikola trusts him,” Stas replied. “It’s Luka’s problem.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s who Luka trusts that matters,” Stas answered. “Not our problem. He’s blessed by Father Nikola.”
Stas began coughing and spit blood on the foundry floor. “Why I want nice things? I can’t use. You get for your young wife. She likes to make herself pretty for you. I want money,” Stas said.
Stas dropped his cigarette in the bloody spit — it sizzled out cold.
“How much will we get?” I asked Stas.
“Enough for new apartment for you and Yana, better than scientist apartment. You’ll need money for young wife. How else you keep her?” Stas asked.
“She lives in a palace compared to her daddy’s farm. When I met her she smelled like a cow,” I said.
“Why you think she marry you? You old man compared to Yana,” Stas said with a smirk.
I balled my hand into a fist. “Yana is my business, don’t forget that or do you want some of this?” I asked, raising my fist to his face.
“Take it easy my friend, just busting your onions!” Stas said with a chuckle. “After tonight you’ll be thanking me. All you need to do is keep watch and keep your mouth shut. We get what Luka wants. After that, it’s his business. No worries.”
The waste storage building sat at the far end of the reactor yard. I walked to the side of the structure as Stas removed the padlock on the sectional door. I heard him roll the heavy door open. Snow began to fall heavier and I leaned against the corrugated steel of the building and looked down at my boots. As fast as the snow fell it melted once it hit the ground on a three-foot area around the building. I moved away from the steel wall and covered my private area with the small aluminum bucket I was holding. I worried that the nice things I would give to Yana would not be enough to keep her happy. With the money Stas and I would get for tonight’s work, I could afford a better apartment. Yana can start smoking American cigarettes and wear blue jeans from the USA. She’ll be happy with the money, even though it won’t be coming in all at once. These things take time to unfold according to Stas. I took several more steps away from the side of the building and kept watch. When I heard the sectional door roll shut, I approached the front of the building. Stas was waiting for me and holding two protective gloves fastened together with duct tape. He cradled the bundle to his chest and walked slowly toward the foundry. He carried it like a living thing, keeping the bundle level and steady as he walked. “No need for bucket, I carry it,” Stas whispered like he was trying not to wake the thing he was carrying. I reached out to touch the duct-taped gloves and Stas slowly stopped walking. I lightly touched the top of the bundle with my fingertips — it was warm.
Kuz Boskovic was a proud soldier with the Yugoslav Partisans during WWII. The slow death of his communist party fueled his thirst for vodka. He planned to live out his days in his fourth floor apartment. He had everything he needed: enough money for cigarettes and alcohol, food (he was partial to cabbage), and his mementos from his Partisan days. He met monthly with local veterans (a dwindling lot) in the basement of Saints Peter and Paul church. Kuz was especially fond of his cigarette lighter that he had carried through the campaigns. He would brag that he used his lighter to burn bodies of dead Nazi soldiers. The emblem of his partisan unit was engraved in the brushed chrome casing.
Kuz didn’t go straight to his apartment that evening. He went to a back street to purchase black market vodka. He removed the cork from the naked bottle and took a long drink. He thought about his lighter. He couldn’t leave it lying in the reactor yard, not after he carried that damn thing through the war. He must have lit a hundred thousand cigarettes with it over the past fifty years. He wore the shiny case dull from all the handling. It was a part of him and he felt the dull pain of its separation. He put the glass bottle in his lunch duffel and turned toward the Institute.
Two security agents were zapping the security guard’s scrotum with a stun gun. He passed out with his eyes open and bulging from their sockets. A trickle of blood ran from his left eye. “I told you to slow down. Now we have to wait for him to revive,” the older agent said, angry with his younger colleague. The basement where they worked was dry and soundproof. Outside, it was an overcast day in the suburbs of Belgrade. The government people there were hopeful the State Security Service could help them with their special problem. They didn’t want the scrutiny of the world if the theft was discovered. The Security Service was grateful for the information that led to the arrest. They were confident that their interrogation would eventually lead them to the location of the stolen material and the security guard’s young accomplice.
The older agent paid a visit to the prisoner’s wife. He sat in the only chair that she owned in the tiny fifth floor apartment. “Your husband was seen with a man who was carrying a bundle through the reactor yard. An eyewitness saw them both that night. Do you understand the trouble your husband is in?” The older agent asked. The security guard’s wife was a young girl in her late teens with strikingly beautiful green eyes. This was an observation the agent had not overlooked.
“My husband likes his secrets,” the wife said. “I am not surprised. You will not shock me.” The agent was disappointed; it was his duty to shock. She offered the agent a boiled potato and opened a bottle of vodka. The agent finished his potato and took a drink from the bottle; bits of food washed from his mouth into the clear liquid. “Tell me, where did you get imported vodka?” The agent asked, wiping his mouth with his shirtsleeve. He took the wife’s hand and kissed it softly. She drew her large hand back slowly, curling her fingers into a fist. “I know nothing about his business,” the wife said.
“And, those tight blue jeans?” the agent asked, starring at her legs.
She unbuttoned her blouse and stood in front of the agent. He buried his head between her breasts, wiping his hungry, wet mouth over her soft skin. The wife lifted the bottle to her lips and drank. She blindly reached for the cigarette pack on the dining room table; the cigarettes fell from the pack like holy cards from gilded pages of scripture. “And, American cigarettes?” The agent asked, and finished quickly with his last question.
“I am good person. Father Nikola can vouch for me,” Yana whispered. She lit a smoke and relaxed; smoke rings floated from her painted black lips like trial balloons to a partisan witness. Things take time to unfold — like a long death in a short life, she waits.
About the Author:
William R. Stoddart is a poet and short fiction writer who lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Adirondack Review, Ruminate Magazine, Pedestal Magazine, Every Day Fiction and other publications.