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“The Patriot”, by Mark Graham (Part 1)

And here’s a new short story which, since it isn’t that short,  we are publishing in two parts, so it’s easier for you to read it ( it’s a well-written story, trust me, take your time to read it, you won’t regret it). And now some information about the author:  Mark Graham lives in the country near Louisburg, North Carolina, with his wife, Christa, and five children. Land Run is his first novel. Mark is currently working on his next novel set in Ukraine.

For additional up-to-date information on Land Run please check out his blog: http://www.landrunbook.blogspot.com/

and his website as well: http://markgraham.tateauthor.com/

Mark’s book is published through Tate Publishing, a mainline publishing house.

THE PATRIOT (part 1)

by Mark Graham

The Patriot

Dima woke most every morning to his spastic cat attacking his feet. He punted the cat off the bed and then slowly rolled himself upright, carefully setting his feet to the floor, wary of another ambush. The power had come back on in the middle of the night so the radio and TV competed for his attention as he moved through his second-floor one-room flat. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped to silence Lady Gaga, and then the Ukrainian version of the sitcom ‘The Nanny.’ The room was divided by a wooden fold-out pane he had devised from lumber found near the complex dumpster. For this, as with all his ideas, he was inspired by a need. In this case the idea was prompted when his daughter became a teenager and needed her privacy. But in recent years it also helped for when his brother-in-law would sometimes stop over, uninvited, to sleep off his vodka binges.

In the kitchen he pushed away the yellowed linen curtains and pulled open the windows. He had installed them to open inwards so they would stop banging against the steel bars attached to the window frame outside. Dima didn’t trust the city tap water except to water his wife’s plants along the windowsill. He watered them now, as he did every morning. He set down the watering cup and turned to the kitchen counter to plug in his sheet-metal electrolysis contraption, and poured the tap water into the attached filter. The white and yellow sediment that dropped to the container’s bottom always fascinated him. Dima broke open a packet of oatmeal and poured the clean water into a separate tin pot to boil. He always had warm oatmeal and a banana for breakfast. He sat at the table and waited, sipping on thick black Turkish coffee made from water saved from the day before.

He was almost happy this morning because he had gotten some guaranteed business. Looked like it would be a solid day’s worth of carting an American around town. He knew them to tip better than anyone, but it was never haughty like the way some of the Europeans did. Sometimes worse, though, because American often conveyed a kind of desperate compassion that reminded him that he was in need.

His daughter was getting dressed for work at the kiosk on the boardwalk. The tourist season was about to hit and half of Kiev and Moscow would descend upon them. Dima forced his eyes to his bowl as long as possible.

“It’s not supposed to be that hot today,” Dima breathed.

“Papa, please. These are normal clothes.”

“What clothes?”

“Papa!”

Dima inwardly berated himself again for the early years. The neglect, driving the trucks. Always gone. Food, the need of it always on his mind. Did whatever it took to get them the food, maybe some education. In the end his daughter was as skinny as a bamboo rod and probably had read three books in her life. He stared at his bowl with intense distain. This is life, he thought. He left the bowl half-eaten and went to the room to get his jacket. On a hot day everyone would know why he wore a jacket. Dima had learned that people need only to think he carried a knife or gun and that kept him safe from unknown troubles. His wife placed his prized cap on his head. For a moment they held each other’s gaze. When he was feeling lonely or worried he would indulge himself in that moment. And she was faithful to be present and engaged. She would burn a kind of truth, a peace from God, into him. His thoughts of her would come to him throughout the day. A memory, a word, or a laugh. Each moment fresh to him again until he returned home. It was not always that way but he was older now. And they needed each other for so much more now.

Dima distracted the insane cat with food in order to leave the apartment. When his daughter found the cat he had told her that he was a patriot and that Ukrainian communities pride themselves on how fat they can make their strays. But she so wanted to keep the cat and he always held before him all that he had never provided for her. Dima left the apartment, locking both its interior and exterior steel doors. He walked the long damp concrete hall to the building entrance and down the broken steps to the army-green steel entryway. He unlocked both bolts on that door and walked out to relock them. The morning light reminded him that he lived like a coal-miner. In a full circle before him were five other nine-story structures exactly like his. Falling apart, like his. He put on his sunglasses and lit a cigarette. He caught movement around the center courtyard of the complex. He was amazed at the way the boys could carry on their football match, never disturbing the handful of sleeping homeless men. He watched them dribble the ball skillfully around and over the men. The men were always passed out there on the mix of asphalt, concrete and dirt. He took a moment to look back at his building. Dima remembered again how this was not always so. When the complex was new, in 1985, when he worked the factory job he had earned from military service. And the courtyard was clean-cut grass and the city provided free outdoor films every weekend. And the playground was newly painted and filled with young well-dressed children laughing in the swings, not with prostitutes flicking cigarettes and killing the daylight boredom. He sighed, stomped out his own smoke, and slowly buried it into the dirt while reordered his mind for work. This is life, he thought.

The 1982 Volga was a solid metal box coated with a mix of faded yellow paint, sea-air rust, and always unlocked because no one messes with the taxis. Dima had taken a loan five years earlier to buy it off an army buddy who had stolen it from Kazakhstan. The loan officer in Kiev, who only had a first name, had printed off papers that magically made the deal legal. But it was his now, mostly, even if he had to keep a ‘roof’ on it by paying protection fees to the local police every month. And he was also, despite his efforts to avoid it, part of an unofficial union that might call on him to transport cargo at any time. Though that had only happened once, he hoped it never would again.

Dima switched the fuel line to the two natural gas tanks in his trunk. It hurt his passenger luggage space, but liquid fuel was expensive. Most of his passengers didn’t own luggage anyhow, just their usual favorite plastic bag that every Ukrainian carried everywhere. He kissed his fingers and pressed them against the icon of Mary and Jesus glued to the center of his dashboard. Then he habitually checked the one of Saint Augustine on the visor. The night rain had filled all the many pot-holes along his way. But the holes were not hidden to Dima, because he had them mapped in his mind. A friend once joked that Dima drove left and right more often than straight. But in this, Dima was a serious man. A tire or axle could set him back a week’s pay and cost him a month of weekends to make it up.

The train station was typical of a mid-sized city station in America in 1930, when passenger trains were not yet unimportant. Unlike the larger cities, the Berdyansk station was clean and organized. Mostly no one was there unless involved in travel. Dima parked outside the front entrance with the rest of the local competition. Someone had called him from Kiev needing a taxi available to babysit his American for the day. He still wasn’t sure how the man got his number and thought he sounded young and a little educated. But any lack of cuss words in Dima’s relations qualified for that. The man said he would have red hair and would pull into the station at 10:30, should be easy to find.

So many bags, Americans. He started to worry as he looked around the other taxis. Their foreign cars had the room for the bags and his guy could change his mind. He left his taxi and walked through an exiting crowd to be ready. He would only have to watch maybe five people at a time to catch any with red hair. He barely caught the hair under an expensive ball-cap, but the man only had a small duffle bag. Italian? Then he remembered the man was just in town for the day, and maybe he had sense about him. Dima pushed his way through to the man and stepped in front of him, hat in both hands. “Excuse, sir,” he said.

“You my guy?” the man answered.

“Dima. I spoke your boss on phone. To pick you up.”

“Okay. Good. You speak English. He’s not my boss. The word is facilitator.” He averted his eyes when he spoke. “It doesn’t matter. “

Dima took the man’s bag and led him to the car. He realized he still had a cigarette in his mouth and quickly spit it out.

“This is it?”

“Da, sir.”

“Whatever. Take me to the Hotel Berdyansk. I need to check in and gonna need you to run an errand. You understand?”

“Da.”

On the drive to the hotel Dima opened his mouth to ask the usual, expecting the usual. But he stopped himself not knowing why, only knowing that he was uncomfortable. Normally, he would ask and the nice Americans would say they are on a church mission trip. Or students there for a conference. Sometimes a stressed couple to adopt a child from one of the orphanages — there were three. But he somehow knew this man was different. He glanced in the rear-view mirror and found the man staring back at him, directly. Dima bounced his eyes back to the road and straightened the icon on his dash as an excuse to touch it.

“Dima, right?”

“Da.”

“Dima, I’m on a tight schedule, right. Here is what I need. I may need you to translate for me at the hotel, maybe not. Then we make a stop at the courthouse. You know where that is?”

“Da. Khomyak Street.”

“Good. While I’m there you go to Sova. Have them reserve the best table, flowers, best wine. All that. For 4:00 dinner, okay?”

“Da.”

The drive was silent until they reached the hotel. Dima waited outside, paced, smoked. He was relieved that the man didn’t need him inside. He walked towards the hotel lobby windows, mostly to see if some of his associates were there. He saw two drivers he knew sitting in the lounge playing on their Nokias. After counting the number of prostitutes inside he guessed his friends were doing pick-ups from late-night drop-offs. He called his wife and talked about his daughter, as they lately often did. But his wife wasn’t just upset, she was fearful. The girl was missing three days of clothes and that was about all she owned. He reminded his wife that Katya was always trading clothes with her friends. He managed to calm his wife and assured her that he would check on the girl at her kiosk by the beach. This passenger was running him around hard. But Dima was catching some of his wife’s concern and he would make it work somehow.

The man finally came out and must have been getting behind his schedule because he opened his own door to get into the taxi. Their next stop was just five blocks away and traffic was not as bad as it would be soon when the town broke for lunch.

“Stop there. That store.”

Dima obeyed.

“Get me a good box of chocolates,” the man said. He pushed 20 hrivna at Dima, who took it as he moved out of the taxi.

Dima returned quickly and watched the man place 300 USD into the box. They arrived at the courthouse just in time, as government workers were leaving for lunch early. Not early for them though. Dima saw the man remove his cap and comb his hair. He seemed to be forcing his whole demeanor into a more relaxed frame. As he slowly stepped out of the taxi, he perplexed Dima by saying, “Please go to Sova now. I shouldn’t be more than an hour.”

That was enough time for Dima to drive by the Kiosk as he had promised. He saw his daughter there and called to make a quick report to his wife. The restaurant was quick work and gave him time to stop by a coffee vending machine — they had mochas that he liked for 2 hrivna — then drove through lunch traffic back to the courthouse and found he still had 15 minutes to spare. 15 minutes to finally think. The man reminded him of an officer he had hated when he was in Afghanistan. A man he had almost killed. Trust was something Dima felt for most people on some level. To his way of thinking, many people just had trust breaking-points. So it was life circumstances that had really failed him along the way. The wrong people in the wrong situations. But this is life, he thought. Some men, that officer, and this man did not present even a kernel of trustworthiness. He found he couldn’t relate to someone like that, just no door to open to it. He checked all his mirrors and saw the man’s bag was still there. He hadn’t dropped it off at the hotel. He checked the mirrors and courthouse entrance again and thought, he isn’t one of the trusted. He doesn’t need my trust. It’s not a problem. Dima leaned into the backseat quickly and unzipped the bag. A shirt, deodorant, shaving stuff. Train tickets, two. For that night at 6:00 to Kiev. Plane tickets. Dubai. Dubai? Time was up. He felt it. He zipped the bag and turned forward quickly, working through possible excuses, but the man took another 5 minutes.

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