In Novgorod the sun was rising on an ancient village square, all onion-dome silhouettes and ravens. A woman in a black head scarf and black work dress was opening her kiosk. She was a strong fierce-looking elder, like some wise warrior from a folk tale. Arranging cut flowers in shining metal pails of water, she looked me over with an adversarial glance. It was normal for shopkeepers to think “Oh, a Kapstránka, a capitalist-country-female. She came to look down at us, to scoff at our consumer goods.” But I just stood there spellbound, staring at the lilies. “That — those — they’re — the most beautiful lilies I’ve ever seen,” I stammered. Each one was perfect, the size of a soup bowl, blood red. Her eyes narrowed, sizing me up again. Then she raised a branch of three flowers, and handed them to me. I caught my breath, turning them over and over, and reached for my purse. But with a proud toss of her head, she waved me away from her stall. “Run along,” she said, with a trace of a smile.
Mild-Mannered Reference Guy
Back at the graduate school, the reference desk librarian spoke English English. I don’t know from English accents, but it sounded high class to me. Still, judging by his conversations in the back room or on the phone he was a lot more at ease speaking French. He was very handsome and scholarly looking with his sleek longish black hair and silver glasses and very calm thoughtful dark-lashed eyes. He was impeccably courteous and helpful about tracking down and handing over books, then would head straight back to his office. Over time though, when I stood around at the front desk thinking it too pushy to ring the bell for assistance, it made him smile. We developed an in-joke where I’d loiter at the counter, and when he finally looked up from his window in the back room I’d hold the bell up and point to it, and he’d laugh behind the glass and then come help. He finally made an observation about how many books I needed for my research, and then we talked about books in general. One day he suggested that we meet for tea at the coffee shop by the park downtown, and then he’d drive me home. I was absolutely thrilled.
That evening over baklava and tea we talked books and film and poetry for hours, and a little bit about ourselves, gazing out the picture window at the pocket park and passing traffic lights. He paid for our tea, and held the door. Then I held the door for three young men from the next table, and gave them a friendly nod. They did not smile or nod back.
My companion led me to a strikingly small silver car, all streamlining and gleam. As I took my seat, one of the three young men came up to my side and said “You sleeping with this Arab here? Well unlike him we served our country. And Jeez, Girl, you’re ugly; you must be bisexual or something. I oughta punch your face in.” I offered him our regrets. “Oh, Sir. Please excuse us; but we need to be going now.” This break in sequential logic left him completely taken aback for a moment. Finally he said “You smartassing me?” I said “No, Sir! Not at all; just telling you the truth. We do need to leave.” He grabbed the door handle, but the small car spun around and shot out into traffic. The three young men revved up their pickup truck. Our librarian leaned back at ease, maneuvering the wheel with his fingertips, skimming through four lanes and right over a concrete median in a hairpin turn that left the pickup stuck in traffic going the other way, lost from view. The silver bullet purred along in some Harry Potter space continuum, gliding gently lane to lane as the other cars melted away behind us. After a circuitous series of loops, still with all clear in the rearview mirror, he finally downshifted for our trip across campus.
Behind my house, in the moonlit alley under the trumpet vines, it took my shaking hands several tries to unhook the seat belt. I felt heartsick at the thought that by accepting his invitation to tea I could have endangered his life. And what if those troubled men were on the lookout now for a silver sports car?
“Are you still thinking about the other guys back there?” my companion asked, adjusting his glasses to scan my subdued and crestfallen aura. He seemed embarrassed for me, disappointed in my performance under pressure, unlike this little gem with its underfoot purr. He shook his head and shifted gears, and drove away.
After that day, there was a change in Reference Reserves. Two new friendly work-study students took over the front and brought me my books. The librarian stayed behind the window cataloguing acquisitions, leaning back at ease and clicking typewriter keys at blazing speed. It took many visits to clue me in that he wasn’t going to speak to me again. They promoted him upstairs. He probably had a successful fine career.
I wouldn’t assume such a bright future for those three young men. It would be good to talk to them today, to hear what-all was going on for them. Probably a lot. Over our chat, I could tell them that despite their first umbraged assumption about public decency I was not sleeping with anyone from anywhere. Despite their second assumption, my companion was a veteran too. It dawns on me just now that at one point, before coming to the States to library school, he might have fought the same army they did. That brings us to their last jumped conclusion: he was in fact a poet from Iran. As a teenager back at home his other keen affinity was rigging up and racing cars.
Wee Hour Surprise
I was fast asleep when Dad sat me up in bed. Mom was grabbing her coat to put on me. “It’s a surprise. Hurry and come look,” they said.
We heard a low hum droning along in the dark, and then Wow — right over the porch roof there were bright lights and letters running through the sky all by themselves! Like a lit up ribbon of wiggly bulbs running back and forth on a movie theater, but in bright colors. “What IS that?” I yelled. Dad explained it all. The Wikipedia version goes like this:
“Skytacular: In the mid-1960s, the GZ-19 Mayflower (N4A) was fitted with over 3,000 incandescent lamps of red, yellow, blue and green on both sides that for the first time featured animation. Usually moving stick figures, ticker messages or colorful patterns. A small gas turbine had to be attached to the car in order to power the Skytacular night sign.“
“That is the GOODYEAR BLIMP,” Dad said. “It’s going off to visit the New York World’s Fair. And guess what? Next week, WE are going to visit the Fair too!”
Well that was a lot of amazement for the middle of a night. “Like skywriting, but from God,” I told them, as they tucked me back in bed. But I sat up for a last look out through the screen of the open window.
Colors and flashes hummed along and headed west, spelling beautiful news across the sky.