Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Russians

The most memorable feature of my parents' house wasn't part of the house at all, it was the ferociously steep hill in front of it. A great sledding hill you would think, as you looked at it. You'd have that thought immediately, even in the middle of summer. I don't know how high it was. I can only tell you in kid terms: it took 20 minutes to walk to the top of it and maybe 60 seconds to slide down.
     From the top of this hill you could see it ended in a cross street, like the top of a capital T. Kids sledding needed to prepare, about halfway down, to make a very sharp left or right at the bottom. They couldn't go straight or they'd just end up going down our driveway and crashing into our house. It's been my experience that when faced with dangerous activities, kids are either clueless or wickedly smart. In the maybe 15 years my parents owned that house no kid ever misjudged the turn at the bottom. But because they feared that one might, my parents parked their station wagon in front of the driveway, so that if a sledder went straight, he'd run into the side of this car. My parents honestly believed this made it safer.
     Whereas the hill was excellent for sledding, it was actually a pain if you were on a bicycle. Preparing to turn left or right halfway down was difficult and at the bottom you ran the risk of encountering cars in motion, a hazard not present when there was snow.
     I still wonder why the Russian family couldn't see the danger. Even without being able to speak English, isn't the sight of a steep hill the same? Isn't 50+ mph the same speed if you're zooming straight down a hill on a bicycle? Had they never been on bicycles before? I still don't know the answers to these questions. I also don't know why a drawing of a red cross isn't a universal symbol for first aid. And if it isn't, then what is?
     But I'm jumping ahead.
     I'd moved back home after my freshman year of college and was home alone, typing, when I looked out the front window and saw what looked like a family---a man and a woman and a 12 year old boy--all on bicycles, flying down the hill, already way past the halfway point and going way too fast to possibly make the turn at the bottom. One second I saw them and then they were zooming down the driveway, then I lost sight of them and then I heard a terrible sounding crash as they hit our closed garage door.
     I ran through the house and entered the garage that way and saw two things at once. The first was the family and their battered bikes. All three of the people were standing and looked messed up but the man and the boy seemed like they only had scraped hands and maybe skinned knees. The woman was crying in pain and holding her head with both of her hands. The second thing I noticed was the garage door was still closed but now had a feature I had believed only possible in cartoons: it had a huge, oddly shaped hole punched right through it which I immediately identified as a Wile E. Coyote hole.
     There was a phone in the garage and I asked the man if they were okay, if they needed 911, and soon learned they spoke no English, only Russian. I had finished getting a D in this language only months earlier. The woman was conscious and her head wasn't bleeding but that didn't mean anything. I called 911 and told them what had happened and that none of the people could speak English. No one at 911 spoke Russian and they decided to send an ambulance so the woman could get checked at the hospital, to be on the safe side.
     While I waited for the ambulance to arrive, I tried to make conversation with the man, although my Russian was limited to a handful of words I couldn't quite string together properly.
     "Ye studientka universtyet. Ye studientka Russki," I told him, which (extremely loosely) translated means: I'm a university student. I am a student of Russian.
     The man smiled and nodded.
     "Ye galoopee," I told him. Which loosely translated means: I am a stupid.
     The man and boy both laughed and the woman, still crying, got a little smile on her face.
     Then the ambulance pulled up, which I thought meant I could relax and let the pros handle everything. But the three Russians became hysterical at the sight of the vehicle. As the paramedics walked toward the garage, the Russian family huddled together, all three crying and casting fearful glances at the approaching men. When the paramedics got within 12 feet the Russians began frantically waving their arms in Go Away gestures.
     One of the medics had the idea that maybe their vehicle and their uniforms made them look like police. Maybe the family feared they were in trouble. This is when I thought I had come up with the genius idea OF ALL TIME to draw a red cross on a piece of paper. I pointed to the red cross, then to the paramedics. This and this.
     The Russians calmed down a little but seemed to make no connection. I think they found it amusing that the Galoopee girl was drawing pictures for them.
     The paramedics tried calling on their radio to find a translator and had no luck. I tried calling the local university's foreign language department, to see if anyone there spoke Russian. They did and he was on vacation until the end of the week.
     Since the paramedics didn't know what else to do, they called the police department and within minutes a squad car pulled up. Because we lived in the suburbs and the police often had nothing to do, a second police car pulled up behind the first one. The sight of four uniformed policemen got the Russians going all over again. I think the actual police looked more like police than the paramedics had.
     The four police officers and three paramedics all kept 12 feet away from the crying family. I decided I'd better call my mom and have her come home from work.
     "I think you should come home. Three Russians on bicycles crashed through the garage door and now there's an ambulance and two cop cars here and the family's crying and won't let anyone near them," I told her.
     My mom sounded strange. "Say that sentence again," she said.
     I repeated it and she said she was on her way. The only thing she wanted to know was who was going to fix her garage door.
     The Russians seemed glad the men were all keeping their distance. My experience with actual Russians was limited to Gorbachev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Boris and Natasha (who were, technically, cartoons). Thus I probably assumed all Russian people were either serious and severe looking, sexy ballet dancers, or hated Moose and Squir-rel.
     Not knowing what else to do, I brought out a tray of cookies and a pitcher of iced tea for all the people in the driveway and garage. The Russians calmed down enough to smile. Apparently they understood people don't give you cookies if they're planning on arresting you.
     Then, just when I'd practically become a UN Peacekeeper, my mom pulled up and was yelling before she was even fully out of the car. She wanted to know who was responsible for the garage door. The paramedics looked scared of her and also scared as they told her they didn't know.
     "I don't think they're from here," one of the officers told her, "because they're speaking Russian."
     "Really?" said my mother, "You must be a detective! Can I call you Columbo?" She gave him a scary smile full of shark teeth and he stayed quiet after that.
     Interestingly, the Russians didn't seem upset by her at all. Maybe it was because she was wearing regular clothes and not an official looking uniform. They chuckled at her as if they were watching a comedy.
     Eventually one of the Russians handed the paramedics a piece of paper with their host family's name and phone number on it and, once called, they arrived and took the Russians to the emergency room. As to my mother's question, who was going to pay for her garage door, the answer was: No One.
     It turned out the Russians couldn't be held responsible, through some part of their travel visa. The officer she called Columbo tried to explain this to my mom and I knew it was a mistake. My mother was a dedicated shopper and greatly objected to the term visa being applied in any sense except credit card. I had heard her go on and on about it many times. "Why Visa?" she would ask, "Why not MasterCard or American Express? Why must they pick on Visa, can anyone TELL me why?" The only safe response was to shrug your shoulders and agree with her.
     Poor Columbo. Then he had to tell her the host family also couldn't be held responsible.
     "WHAT?" my mother yelled, "Well that's just GREAT, so they get to just go around crashing through people's garage doors and don't have to pay a thing?" She made it sound like something reckless teens might do for fun on weekends. "Maybe I should go to THEIR country and smash through THEIR garage door! See if they like that! But NO, if I did THAT, I'd have to pay for it! Why, it'd be an international INCIDENT! Isn't that RIGHT?" She directed this last toward Columbo.
     "Ma'am, I don't know," he mumbled, clearly a little scared.
     I could tell I'd have an easy week of it because, no matter what I might do, I wouldn't be Russian.
     Columbo tried to cheer her up: "At least, from what it looks like, no one was hurt."
     "My garage door?" my mother reminded him.

The Russians is one of the stories in Starfish On Thursday, by Amie Ryan. Available at Amazon at

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