by Donald Capone
It was just past noon when the county cop stopped Vladimir as he walked along the grassy shoulder of the Saw Mill River Parkway. The lights on top of the police cruiser spun, but the siren wasn’t on.
“You okay?” the cop asked through the lowered passenger window.
“Yes,” Vlad answered, aware of the slight Belarus accent still present in his speech despite being in America for almost ten years. When someone noticed, he would just say it was Russian and leave it at that. Americans didn’t know their geography anyway and he was tired of giving history and geography lessons. “I’m on my way to my cousin’s house, over on Roaring Brook Road.” Vlad pointed in the general direction.
“It’s not safe to be walking here. Get in, I’ll drive you.”
Vlad hesitated, not knowing if he should get in the front or the back, so he chose the back to be safe. Once there, he felt like a criminal and regretted not getting in the front seat. Like he unintentionally was sending the cop a message that he was some sort of criminal and belonged back there. He had over twelve hundred dollars in cash in his pocket, his salary from his uncle, and was afraid he’d have to turn it over to the cop. He stared at the back of the cop’s close-cropped hair and the starched collar of the navy-blue uniform. It gave Vlad an uneasy feeling; it reminded him of the uniforms of authority in the old Soviet Union. But this is America, Vlad reminded himself. The cops are the good guys here.
“What’s your name?” the cop said.
The cop had a laptop open on the passenger seat. “Spell it please.”
Vlad spelled his name and waited as the cop plugged it into his computer on the passenger seat, thinking it was a good thing he hadn’t tried to sit in front. After a minute, the cop said, “Where are you heading?”
“Just to the top of Roaring Brook. I can walk from there.”
The cop put the car in gear and pulled onto the highway. Other cars immediately parted to make way for the cruiser.
Vlad couldn’t get the argument he had with his Uncle Aleksei out of his head. The more he thought about it, the more frustrated he became. Business was one thing, but love was another. Vlad wanted to return to Belarus for the summer to see Polina, divorced now after ten years with that jerk Pavel. Maybe Vlad and Polina could reunite and forget the last ten years ever happened. That was his hope. But his uncle didn’t want him to leave, didn’t want to be shorthanded with his landscaping business during the busy season.
The cruiser stopped and brought Vlad back from his thoughts.
“Is here okay?” the cop asked.
Vlad turned to see the big building of Reader’s Digest looming up above on the hill. This was always Vlad’s landmark when going to his cousin’s apartment.
“This is great, thanks.” Vlad got out of the car.
“Don’t let me catch you walking on the parkway again.”
“No, sir,” Vlad said. He watched as the cop swung around in a big U-turn and pulled back onto the parkway, heading north this time. He was glad to be out of the car, away from the authority the cop represented. Vlad took out his cell phone. He needed to make a few calls.
His Aunt Anya answered on the second ring. “Aunt Anya, is Uncle Aleksei there?”
“No, he’s working. Like you should be.”
Vlad sighed. “I just need to go back. Just for a little while.”
“What, you think you’re going to bring her here? Get married?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t think I don’t know. That woman. Polina. You should forget her. She is tramp.”
Vlad felt the anger rise in him. His aunt and uncle were old world, believing that two people should stay married no matter what. If they didn’t, then the woman must be a tramp.
“You’re no different than your husband,” Vlad said. “I can’t talk to either of you!” Vlad ended the call and began to pace back and forth. Then he tried his cousin’s home phone and didn’t get an answer. He started to walk, crossing over the train tracks and trudging up the hill of Roaring Brook Road, toward his cousin’s studio apartment. He’d wait all day, if he had to, until his cousin came home. But he was thirsty and hungry and had to use the bathroom. Plus, the charge on his cell phone was low.
The hill was steep, and Vlad felt weak. What was the rush? His cousin wasn’t home. It was very woodsy here, and he could pee behind a tree without anyone noticing. He stepped off the road onto the grass and headed toward the woods.
He had enough money saved that he could fly back to Belarus, buy a nice engagement ring, and bring Polina back to the States with him. She could have a fresh start here, like he had when he first came over. Only thirty, she was still a young woman. They’d marry and have kids. She could stay home with the children while he worked with his uncle. Everyone would be happy. It was so easy, why was everyone giving him a hard time?
He picked a tree and began to relieve himself. He wished he had brought Polina’s most recent letter with him. He had left it home in Massachusetts when his uncle picked him up the day before to drive him to the train station. Uncle Aleksei could be a hothead sometimes, and after their fight he was sure his uncle went back home and complained loudly to Aunt Anya about him.
Polina’s latest letter had given Vlad hope, had put the idea of marriage in his head. She said she missed him and had made a big mistake all those years ago. She said he was the only man she ever loved. Vlad had just begun to write his return letter when his uncle had come to pick him up. Polina would have to wait a few more days for his response. He probably should have emailed her instead. Do you write something like that in an email, though? When he gets to his cousin’s apartment, he decided, he’d at least draft an email, and if he had the nerve he’d hit send. He was tired of waiting. His uncle and aunt would get over it eventually.
Finished, Vlad was pulling up his zipper when he heard a car driving on the grass behind him. He stepped from behind the tree and saw the same cop as before parking his cruiser behind a stand of trees, out of view of the traffic on Roaring Brook Road. He got out of the car and approached Vlad with one hand resting on his gun.
“What are you doing back there?” the cop asked. “I knew I shouldn’t have left you off on the road.”
“I was just pee—” Vlad stopped himself, figuring that public urination was probably a crime. “Nothing,” he said. His hands were in his pockets, one hand on the wad of cash. Cops can probably smell money, he thought, like police dogs sniffing drugs.
“Okay, hands on top of your head.” The cop had the gun out now, pointed at Vladimir. “Is someone else back there with you?”
The cop brushed past him and looked behind the tree on which Vlad had relieved himself, the bark clearly wet. The cop came back smiling. Vlad lowered his arms.
“Did I say you could lower your arms?” the cop said. Vlad raised his arms again, resting his hands on his head. The cop came over and began to frisk him. His hand stopped on the lump of money. “What’s this?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Take it out—slowly.”
Vladimir did as he was told and held the folded bills out in the palm of his hand.
“Well, well,” the cop said. He took the money, and quickly glanced back over his shoulder toward the road. Then he began to count. “Twelve hundred and eighteen American dollars. Bet that would buy a lot of vodka back in Russia. Keep you going through a long Siberian winter.”
“I’ve never been to Siberia,” Vlad said.
“Yeah, sure,” the cop said. “Turn around and start walking. Keep your hands up.” Vlad felt a push on his back, and he began to walk.
“Where are we going?” Vlad asked. The cop didn’t answer. Soon the ground began to slope. Vlad slowed to be careful with his footing. The cop gave him another shove. He fell forward against a tree, getting his hands down just in time to prevent hitting his face.
“Hands up!” the cop said. Vlad did as he was told. The hill was much steeper now, and Vlad could see train tracks at the bottom, and the thin strip of water that was the Saw Mill River. Maybe when he goes back to Belarus, he’ll just stay there with Polina. America was quickly losing its appeal. Vlad stepped gingerly now, trying hard to keep his balance with his hands still up. He felt another push against his back. Then his feet went out from under him. He heard the cop mutter, “Oh, shit.”
He couldn’t get his hands out front in time and felt his face crack hard against a rock. He felt loose teeth rattle around in his mouth. He tasted blood as he tumbled fast toward the ravine, gaining speed. A tree limb whipped across his chest, cracking several ribs. When he landed face-down in the underbrush before the stream, it hurt just to breathe. Blood quickly filled up his mouth now that he was still. He felt his heart thumping in his chest, and this was a good thing. Or was it? With every beat, it drove more blood into his mouth. But he was alive. Surely the cop would help him now.
But it was quiet. No one coming after him through the brush. No one calling out to him. He heard a car engine rev off in the distance—the cruiser leaving, no doubt. He lay there alone. How long was he there? It was hard to tell now. He was so tired. It was getting dark. The cop was long gone. The hum of traffic on the Saw Mill Parkway frustrated him at how close help was; the sound of it also lulled him.
Later, a commuter train screamed by momentarily rousing Vlad. But it was so hard to breathe. He couldn’t raise his head to see. All he could see now was Polina in his mind. Her beautiful blond hair. Her blue eyes. The way she looked at him. The future that was right there for them, but just out of reach. He had to stay focused, but was so, so tired.
But by the time the next train passed, Polina was gone.
When the train after that passed, Vladimir was gone too.
Donald Capone‘s short stories have been published in the anthologies Sudden Flash Youth; The Westchester Review (2013, 2014, & 2020); Short on Sugar, High On Honey: Micro Love Stories; See You Next Tuesday; and The Ampersand volume 4; also Weekly Reader’s READ magazine, and Word Riot. His novel, Just Follow Me, was published by Pen-L Publishing in 2014 and republished by the author in 2018. He is currently at work on a YA novel. @DonaldCapone