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Extract from the novel Phone Booth No.3: Ukraine to Los Angeles by Olena Zakharchenko Друк e-mail

Phone Booth No.3: Ukraine to Los Angeles

by Olena Zakharchenko

(Download pdf)

The Road

First things first

I was twenty-two and I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life. Fresh from university, I didn’t feel like getting a job in my field. The field itself—foreign philology—had a ridiculous sound to it. I wanted to become an artist, but my father had told me that I shouldn’t even think about it. Lost, that’s what I was. My English was better than my Russian; I could speak German and Spanish; I played the piano, went skiing, and danced tango. I graduated with honors from Lviv University.

And there I was, standing at a gas station exit somewhere in the middle of Germany, trying to catch a ride to God knows where. Giant wind turbines towered in the field behind the highway, slowly rotating their gray blades. Cars zoomed by, without stopping; I could feel the bump of the wind and see the sun glistening on the car windows. Now and again, I caught the shadow of my reflection on the passing cars. My long hair was blowing, loose, in the wind. In my old checkered shirt and jeans, I felt as empty and detached as the clouds swishing above me across the bright summer sky.

I had hitchhiked all around Poland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. I took a swim in the North Sea and got high in the streets of Amsterdam steeped in the stench of weed. I stayed in an ancient house downtown with a large metal hook in the gable and traditionally un-curtained windows. The building used to be a hospital, but later on, it had been sold and turned into a block of apartments—at the time, one of them housed a motley crew of cheerful young people that did gigs, traveled the world, and threw parties inviting guests from all over the place.

At one of those parties, I met a girl from Ethiopia. She was so eager to have me over in her home country that I even thought of going there, but I had no money for the ticket. I was on a shoestring budget, actually, so most of the time I just crashed on people’s couches, like at that Ido the Amsterdamer’s place that someone had recommended to me. Internet was still in its infancy back then; couch surfing websites did not exist, either, but I had a cell phone and I could text anyone I wanted.

Ido loved Amsterdam and hated it when people saw it only as the capital of porn and weed. Showing me around the Red Light District, he took me to courtyards to prove that life was quiet and peaceful there: in the evening, well-educated people with well-paid jobs took their dogs out for a walk and then lounged on their balconies overlooking the yards, ignoring the tourist hustle and bustle on the other side of the buildings.

Ido was just one of a dozen random people I met over a few days in Amsterdam. I stayed for another couple of days in Germany, in the middle of nowhere, with a nice and sweet family where women still believed in Kinder, Küche, Kirche. They took their kids to playgrounds and bought rolls at the bakeries that were open as early as seven. Or their young babysitters flocked there on their bikes and chatted in their native languages—the languages of the countries they’d come from—while their hosts waited patiently for their freshly baked breakfast rolls at home.

In Sweden, a truck driver picked me up on a highway, and I stayed overnight in his truck cab littered with all kinds of weird trash. Then I spent a long weekend going places with a girl called Iryna—someone had shared her email with me. She was working as an au pair in Germany. Iryna’s host family loved her—she was a great babysitter, obviously—so they let her take their car for the weekend, and we took turns driving it. At first, we followed the Brothers Grimm route, driving around small towns, each with a fountain, a church, and a bronze pig sculpture downtown, and then we moved on to Bremen where we watched hundreds of yellow plastic ducks, labeled, racing in the river, one of them finishing first.

One night, we couldn’t find the way to a hostel and circled around another small German town, Iryna behind the wheel. Late night streets stood empty, but we kept looking for someone to show us the way to the railway station—we were sure that we could figure it out from there. At last, we spotted two men walking along the street. They didn’t understand Iryna’s German or my English.

“Reilweilsteishn—what’s that? A gas station or what?” one of them asked the other one in Russian.

The men turned out to be Russian sailors. They cheered up hearing that “girls are getting it” and offered to put us up at their ship “while the captain’s away.” We had a hard time getting rid of them. They pulled at the door handles, trying to open the car, but I was quick to lock the doors. All the way to the hostel, Iryna and I giggled nervously, and in the morning, we woke up joking: “Come on, get up, the captain’s here!”

I made sketches of streets, roofs, and windows; the Cologne Cathedral and the Rhine; Amsterdam markets, African drug dealers, and Polish nuns on the train. I filled my entire pad with those rough drawings, since my camera had broken down back in the Polish town of Przemysl when someone had stepped on my backpack in a bus.

That day I was trying to get to Salzburg, curious to see Mozart’s birthplace. I got off to a bad start: rides were short, and I had to hang around for an hour or two at gas stations and highway exits before someone would pick me up. It was just not my day. Tired and thirsty, I went down to a gas station shop. I usually kept away from them, because things were expensive there, and I did my shopping in big-city supermarkets, but a bottle of water shouldn’t cost that much, I thought.

I paid and, putting on my backpack, went outside, leaving my bottle of water and my change at the cash register. It was just not my day, I told you. The customer that had been standing in line behind me called after me and handed my things back to me.

“Diakuyu,” I said in Ukrainian. “Oh, I mean thank you. Oh no, danke.”

“You’re welcome,” the stranger said in Ukrainian, and I just stared at him: was he from Ukraine, too? He didn’t say anything else, though, so I decided he just happened to know the phrase. Dressed as a typical German, he had olive-tinted skin, like an Italian, blue eyes, and dark hair. “Perhaps his kids’ babysitter is from Ukraine,” I thought. “But he looks too young to have kids.” Finally, I continued on my way to the gas station exit to catch another ride. And I couldn’t believe it!—the very first car stopped.

Yes, it was the same guy, Roman. He did come from Ukraine, even more so: he and I lived in neighboring towns. So, we established right away that people from Volyn region—that is he and I—were “top” Ukrainians, people in Polissia potato beetles, and those in Halychyna cheapskates. Roman was studying at a German university, which was a rare thing back then.

Along the way, he and I chatted almost non-stop. I thoroughly missed the Ukrainian language, since for the past three weeks I’d spoken mostly English. We drove past castles, mountains, and roadside restaurants, stopping at one of them for a nice lunch. We didn’t make it to Salzburg, after all, and decided to spend the night in a small town nearby, but there was only one hostel there and it was “fu-u-ull”, as a sleepy administrator told us, peeping her head through the door and instantly shutting it in our faces.

“Whatever,” Roman said. “Let’s just sleep in the car.”

We munched on some crackers we found in the trunk, washing them down with water, and then started to settle down to sleep. Roman tried to clean up the mess on the backseat, and that was when he took off that shirt.

I recognized it right away, even though it was late night, the car lights were dim, I was tired, and my head was splitting. That shirt was one and only—that’s why. It was Maksym who had drawn the pattern, and Marta who had embroidered it. I’d seen that shirt many times on a yellowish framed picture standing on the mantelpiece at my uncle Ivan’s house in Los Angeles. It was a blown-up copy of a vintage photo that showed the whole family sitting, their backs straight, in front of the camera, Maksym in that shirt. The embroidery pattern seemed so unusual that I’d been staring at that photo for a long time, running my finger over the glass. You wouldn’t find a pattern like that anywhere else.

Maksym asked to bury him in that shirt. They told me they did as he’d asked. But there it was, right before my eyes. “Oh wow,” I thought. “Perhaps someone copied the pattern and embroidered another shirt like that.”

Aloud, I asked: “Where did you get that?”

“It’s my father’s,” he said. “He collects vintage men’s clothing. This shirt is from his collection.”

“It’s so unusual. Who embroidered it? Do you know where your father got it?” I asked, rolling up the sleeve.

On the inside, a name was embroidered with a gray thread. Maksym. But of course. The handwriting looked familiar to me, too. Aunt Marta used to write like that. And she was the one who taught me to write. How could I not recognize it?

Ivan’s Bicycle

The photograph was so old that it had turned red. A serious-looking man with a moustache. A woman with her hair piled up, in a long dress, a scarf wrapped around her shoulders. Their children were sitting beside them: Marusia and Ivan, two slim teenagers, and Maksym and Marta, their elder siblings. Frozen faces; eyes staring into the camera, frightened. Staring at us. A date and a photographer’s stamp printed at the bottom.

Looking at its blown-up copy framed under glass in Los Angeles, I could see only the top half of the date. The other half was hidden, and you could imagine the numbers stretching, creating all kinds of combinations. But I knew the right one, because I’d asked about it: June 10, 1941, almost two years after the Soviets had come into town for the first time.

Eighteen months before that photo was taken, in November 1939, Ivan and a few other boys, his classmates, had gone on a bicycle ride to the country. Ivan didn’t have a bicycle of his own—he borrowed it. A borrowed bicycle, you see. He promised he’d give it back. It was an expensive thing, so he just had to return it to that boy, his neighbor, as promised. By the church, though, they’d been stopped by a group of Soviet officials that had just come down to the Western Ukraine.

“Get off, boys! We’re taking your bicycles away!” they yelled.

The boys got off, because they knew better: if the officials were in uniform, armed, and drunk, you didn’t want to argue with them. Even though they’d arrived only a few days ago, the townsfolk had already figured out what kind of people they were—they could get tough on you any minute. They put you in prison and shot you. They treated you as if you were brutes. Or savages who couldn’t speak any language and walked around wrapped in palm leaves. They had to teach those savages to obey their laws—that’s what they believed; they had to beat them up and shoot them, until it finally dawned on them who their new masters were. People knew only too well what happened to those who tried arguing with the officials. So, the boys climbed down from their bikes and walked away. Ivan did not.

“It’s not my bicycle,” he said. “It’s not mine!”

“What’d you say?” one of the officials shouted back, drunk, armed, in uniform.

His buddies chuckled, already seated on the leather saddles. He snapped his gun off his shoulder and fired a round at Ivan up close, straight into his chest. He wasn’t arrested and never went to prison, of course. He got away with it. Wiping the blood off Ivan’s bike, he hopped on it and rode down to catch up with his friends.

The boys just stood over Ivan, at a loss what to do or who to call. Ivan lay on the ground, his body jerking about, his blood mixing with dirt. A couple of crows, scared off by the shots, flew away from the winter-naked poplars growing near the church.

“I took a good revenge on them, though,” Ivan told me decades later.

He still got angry and short of breath whenever he recalled that episode. He always gasped for air when he was nervous. The wounds he’d suffered that day by the church took their toll on him, I guess, or perhaps it was his life of hardships that took all his breath out of him.