By: Harvey Huddleston
English came easily to Roman, as had the language of every country he’d lived in. Moving in his youth from one country of the Russian Steppes to the next, he’d picked up the Tajik, Uzbeki and Kazak, differentiating between their shapes and nuances. And it wasn’t just the Slavic tongues he had a knack for. After being in Paris only a week, he was talking with a bistro owner about how long a Turkish coffee should boil. He attributed this talent for language to his love for words; for their sound, yes, but, more importantly, their meaning. Meaning led to a word’s usage which led to understanding and then suddenly he would find himself talking to the person next to him. That’s how it had always been.
Rego Park, the New York neighborhood where he lived now, had begun to seem more and more likely his final destination. Here among people from the old Soviet Republics, he noticed in himself a preference for the languages of his youth. There were his Tashkent friends at the barber shop, Robert and Benjamin, then Dimitri and many more. And the Russian stores had everything he needed. Prices were too high but the quality was always better than the American brands. He could already taste the baklava that Katusha would wrap for him tomorrow with her lovely hands and polished nails.
Katusha was a mystery. It amazed him that she didn’t know a single verse of the song she was named for. She knew about the millions who had died with her Russian name on their lips but only because of her grandmother. And he knew Katusha regretted telling it to him because he’d seen her wince when he’d greeted her with it his next time there. But it wasn’t only her. All the young Russians here wanted to be American too much to care about anything not on their cell phones. Maybe he’d call her Kathy tomorrow to see what she’d say.
Another mystery was these Americans on the street today. He saw the disbelief in their eyes above the masks, as if this was the first country — nay, the only country ever — whose government had been attacked by its own people. They said on TV that it had never happened, Americans charging policemen around their Capital, beating them with clubs and calling for their vice president to be hanged. What about the Yeltsin riots in Moscow where he’d seen hundreds die with his own eyes. Did they not hear of it? Or care? But Americans were naive sometimes like children, unlike him for whom these things were old news. Old news, he said out loud to himself, taking note of the paradox. When the new is old and old is new. Maybe there was a riddle there.
It might be that perfect riddle he’d always searched for. That one in which mystery and meaning came together into a simple truth. Not only his truth but the entire world’s. And not to be denied either because it would be manifest for all to see. An essence contained in precise words meaning exactly what they say. And whether this riddle would be his or another’s didn’t matter. It was the essence he searched for. Let the fools spout their nonsense. It was the perfect riddle, the one he would someday find, that would win out over all.
Elliot stood in front of his building, taking a break from the horrors playing out on TV. He’d known Trump’s corruption was exceeded only by his contempt for the law. But the laws that had held him in check during the last four years were mostly norms and traditions and had been inadequate to stop him. It was during this time between the election and swearing-in of the new President that Elliot had feared most. What would Trump do to keep power? Maybe start a war to distract the country. Or declare martial law to “establish order in a time of crisis.” With such a madman in office Elliot felt like anything was possible but then he wondered if maybe the situation wasn’t as dire as he thought, that he was overreacting. He’d always had a habit of imagining the worst possible outcome of any situation.
But then today, suddenly, it was all coming true. Trump had whipped up his crowd to attack Congress and stop them from certifying the election. Thousands were storming the Capital at this very moment, thinking that they could nullify the vote of over half the country — that they had the right to! Trying to tear down in one day what had taken centuries to build.
Roman spotted Elliot in front of his building from half a block away. A Russian, he thought, as no American would be smoking a cigar for his neighbors to see.
Roman greeted him in Russian. My friend, how are you?
Elliot’s eyes shifted to Roman but he didn’t answer. He just stared at him with those same eyes that Roman had seen all day. But there was still the chance that this man with the cigar was only now aware of him so Roman tried again in Russian.
What is on your mind, my friend?
Elliot continued to stare so Roman switched to English. Do you speak Russian?
Elliot answered, no.
Then I ask. Why are you so sad on this beautiful day?
At that Elliot just shook his head. Elliot recognized those Solzhenitsyn eyes above the mask and thought, just what he needed, another crazed Russian escaped from his gulag.
Let me tell you something. I am a collector of riddles. I know riddles from all times and places.
I ask you a riddle now.
I don’t like riddles.
Who doesn’t like riddles? Listen. This is a good one.
Roman paced in a circle. I ask you, what is the invention that lets people see through walls?
His eyes twinkled as Elliot looked into them. But even as Elliot was being drawn into the riddle, he found himself distracted by the baggage that came with it.
Roman stopped pacing. Say the question back to me.
Elliot enunciated, what is the invention that lets people see through walls?
Yes! So now you answer.
Elliot knew the answer was simple, as the answer to these things always were. It was hanging there in the few feet of space between them but its very simplicity was why he couldn’t see it. This Russian had said it was an invention.
X-ray, Roman scoffed. X-ray cannot go far through a wall and how could you see it if it did? No, this is something anyone can see. It’s right there in front of you. Should I give you more time?
If you want.
One more minute.
I’ve never been good at riddles.
So I’ve heard.
One more minute. Is that what you want?
No, just tell me.
It’s an invention we all know.
So tell me.
Roman paused for effect. Window, he said, as his eyes crinkled into hilarity.
He’s right, Elliot thought. A window. How could I have missed it?
Many years ago someone had the idea to invent a window. Invention doesn’t always mean new. Sometimes it is old.
I get it. Laying stone on stone until someone thought to leave a space to look out.
Yes! It was invented! Words are important.
Now do you like riddles?
I tell you another. Roman made some more circles as he searched for that one he’d heard in Sebastopol.
I’d come close but we have to have distance.
You’re fine there. So what’s the riddle?
Suddenly Roman stopped pacing. What is half of two plus two?
It has to be.
No, I ask again, what is half of two plus two? Think. This is an easy one.
Do you need more time?
Just tell me.
Remember what I said. What is half of two plus two? What is half of two?
Ah yes, three! You see now?
Okay, you didn’t say half the sum of two plus two. You left out “the sum.”
Yes! Two words left out. Again I tell you, words are important! Not only the words that are said but sometimes, more important, the words that are not.
I’ll admit, that was a good one.
I give you one more.
Do you have to?
Yes. What is your name?
Elliot. And yours?
Roman again began his circles, this time broadening them out to encompass the entire sidewalk as he tried to remember one of his own. Then it came to him. He referred to the SUV parked on the street a few feet away.
What is the wheel on a car that doesn’t turn?
The steering wheel.
No, the steering wheel turns. You go left or right, you turn the wheel. What is the wheel on a car that doesn’t turn?
Elliot asked himself what is this wheel that doesn’t turn. He knew that there was meaning in the word “wheel.” And it had to be a wheel on this SUV in front of them. Cogs, gears, spinning shafts, all of them round but not wheels. A wheel rolls. The four wheels on the ground roll but what is the fifth wheel?
It’s easy. Right there in front of you.
Roman then saw the light glow in Elliot’s eyes before he blurted. The spare tire!
Yes! Yes! You are right! It is called a spare tire but here is the meaning. Roman used the wheel on the SUV to illustrate. You see, it is not only a tire. Tire is here on the outside but there is more.
The rim on the inside. So it should be called the spare wheel.
Yes. Spare wheel!
Always the words. And what they mean.
So I got one right. Don’t I deserve a congratulation?
At that Roman did a jig on the sidewalk and clapped.
The cold was now creeping in through Elliot’s jacket so he made a move to go in. But even as he turned to go inside, he knew that it wasn’t just the cold. He needed to get away from this Russian. He started up the steps to the building but then Roman went up the steps with him.
I go here too.
Elliot held the door open for him, wondering why he’d never seen him before. Roman went to the elevator to wait but Elliot then veered off towards the stairs. Before the stairwell door closed behind him, he heard Roman call out.
He knew that Roman had said goodbye but Elliot didn’t turn back to acknowledge it. He felt bad at his escape. But then he knew that if he hadn’t gotten away, the talk might’ve turned to Trump’s attempt to destroy America and Elliot couldn’t take a chance on that.
Maybe Roman recognized the Trump goons for what they were, criminals in thrall to their child god. But there was also the chance that Roman, even with his love for words and meaning, had been taken in. That he, like so many other immigrants along with half the country, had been seduced by Trump’s racism and hate. He was afraid Roman would say that it was nothing or didn’t matter like so many others infected with the poison of Donald Trump, that ultimate destroyer of words and meaning.
At any other time he might have listened. Maybe they would have argued or agreed to disagree. But not now, not while this insurrection was taking place. He couldn’t hear that it was a good thing or that Trump had been misunderstood, not then, not at that moment, and not from this Russian. They might have become friends but not today.
The riddles would have to speak for themselves.
Harvey Huddleston’s short fiction has been published in Otoliths, The Eunoia Review, CC&D Magazine, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Mystery Tribune and The Scarlet Leaf Review.