The Road Trip
In August fifty-one years ago, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. What follows is an excerpt from my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient. It is 1968 and Kostea takes his wife Clara and his son Toddy on a very rare car trip from Bucharest to Yalta in the Soviet Union. On their way back they are stopped by police. Their relatives from Odessa, Mila and Yura, are travelling with them .
There were no other cars on the road. Kostea reached 100 kilometers per hour and tried hard not to exceed that speed. In the distance he saw a dark shadow. Soon he distinguished the khaki tarp cover of a military truck. It was moving slowly and Kostea gradually reduced his speed. For a while he drove behind the truck. Ahead of them was a long convoy of military vehicles. A few times he moved to the left and saw no oncoming traffic. He swallowed hard and passed the first truck, the second, the third. Everyone in the car held their breath. They looked straight ahead. From the left side of the road, Kostea waved at the soldier drivers who waved back. It seemed an eternity but eventually Kostea passed the entire convoy and moved back into the right lane. He pushed the accelerator and reached 100 kilometers per hour again.
“That was strange,” Toddy said. His words trailed hollow like leaves in the wind.
“There must be military exercises,” Yura offered. “That’s why they told us the road was closed.”
Soon they caught up to another convoy and passed it on the left. Then another convoy, and another. The sun was setting when they crossed the Dnieper River and drove around Kherson. One hour later they reached Mykolaiv. At a traffic junction a policeman on a motorcycle started after them. He followed them for a few hundred yards and turned his light signals on.
The policeman introduced himself and asked for their identification documents — all five of them. “Where are you coming from?”
Kostea told him they were coming from Yalta.
“That’s more than 200 kilometers away. Nobody stopped you until now?”
“Nobody,” Kostea lied. “Why would they?”
The policeman looked surprised and their conversation proceeded along the lines of the one they had had with the GAI lieutenant in Armiansk, whose order to turn around they had ignored.
Kostea introduced himself as a doctor from Bucharest on vacation with his family.
This policeman was a captain, clearly not a traffic cop. “Well,” he said. “You can’t be on this road. You’ve been spotted outside Kherson, with your foreign car and all, and I’ve been radioed to intercept you. I’ll keep the passports and you follow me.”
“Where to?” Kostea asked.
“The Police Station, Doctor. Where else?”
It was already dark. The captain rode his motorcycle fast and stopped in front of a one-story building with a Police sign above the entrance in red letters illuminated by an electric bulb. The glass protecting the sign was cracked. He drove his bike onto the sidewalk, released the stand with his foot and indicated to Kostea to park his car by the curb behind a police cruiser. The street was deserted.
“Doctor,” he said, “you come with me. The rest of you, wait in the car.”
“Can my son join me?” Kostea asked.
The officer thought for a second. “Sure, why not.”
Without a word, Toddy got out of the back seat.
“What do you need Toddy for?” Clara asked.
“We’ll be all right,” Kostea said. “He’s eighteen and I want a witness,.”
Clara sighed and Yura shook his head.
“I’ll do the talking,” Kostea whispered to Toddy in Romanian as they entered the building behind the officer. “You listen and don’t say anything. If anyone asks, you don’t speak any Russian, all right?”
Toddy felt good to be at his father’s side, but he was scared. No question they were in trouble, not sure how much. He had heard many stories about people who went inside police stations in the Soviet Union never to be heard of again. Of course, this couldn’t happen to them. Or could it? No, not with them being Romanians, his mother waiting outside in the car, and his father acting so calmly. He acted as if he was in control.
The room they entered was windowless, with cracked whitewashed walls, illuminated by an electric bulb protected by a large wire cage hanging from the ceiling. Bugs and black flies circled the light and produced a slight and persistent buzz. The cement floor was littered with mud and cigarette butts. Several wooden benches occupied the middle. Two youngsters, both in white undershirts, sat on one of them. On their arms they had matching tattoos, and their ankles were shackled.
“Doctor, sit here and let me first deal with these two young men,” the captain said. “When I’m done, I’ll be back with you.” He turned to the older of the two youngsters and ordered, “You, come with me.”
The youngster rose and followed the captain as fast as he could with his shackled legs through a door into an adjacent office. Another door at the back of the waiting room stood ajar leading into a dark corridor.
Kostea sat on the bench behind the second youngster and Toddy sat next to him.
“Doctor?” the second youngster repeated ironically, as if doubting Kostea’s title. He lifted his shackled legs over the bench and turned to face them.
“Yes, Doctor,” Kostea said. “Do you have a problem with that?”
Toddy wished his father had reacted less confrontationally and placed his hand on his arm.
The youngster noticed the gesture. “The two of you are a couple, or what?” He laughed loudly and addressed Toddy. “Hey, pass me a cigarette, will you?”
Toddy didn’t react.
“What’s the matter with you, asshole?”
“He doesn’t speak Russian,” Kostea said.
“Why? Is he thick in the head?” the youngster asked. He paused, then added as if surprised by a sudden thought, “Is he American?”
Kostea got to his feet. His calm demeanor had disappeared, and Toddy feared he would strike the youngster. To prevent his father from any hasty moves, he rose as well. They took a few paces together in the small room and Kostea lit a cigarette.
“Doctor don’t be fucking with me,” the youngster sneered and turned to Toddy. “Listen, faggot, I know what you like. When we get out of this shit-hole, meet me at the Kamchatka Square behind the cinema, and I’ll get you a real nice piece of ass. Much better than this geezer, trust me. Just throw me one of his cigarettes now.”
Toddy didn’t react and the young man cursed and spit on the floor. The door to the office opened and the other hoodlum emerged handcuffed, escorted by a policeman. He looked at his friend and seemed ready to say something, but the policeman pushed him from the back. The youngster tripped over his shackles, recovered and moved with small steps into the dark corridor where they disappeared from sight. Toddy heard the sound of a door being slammed shut and locked. The policeman returned and told the second youth to come with him to the office. With a menacing glance at Toddy, the youngster got up and followed the policeman.
An eerie quiet settled over the waiting room and a fly buzzed and hit the cage around the electric bulb a few times. Kostea finished his cigarette and crushed it under his shoe. A few minutes later the second youth was escorted out of the office and down the corridor, Toddy guessed to a holding cell.
“Doctor, come in,” the captain called. He was seated at a large desk with two black telephones on his right. Behind him on the wall was a poster with the hammer and sickle, and a map of the city. Pins and little red flags marked different points of interest on the map. “Comrade Gorsky will be back in an instant,” he started. “He’ll write the report on what happened because he has a beautiful handwriting, whereas if I write anything, nobody can read it. All you’ll have to do is sign it and you’ll be free to go.”
Kostea smiled while Toddy kept a stern face.
Comrade Gorsky returned, pulled up a chair, took the passports from the captain and began writing in a ledger with a large fountainpen.
“You’re not allowed to continue on this road to Odessa,” the captain said. “You’ll have to turn around and drive through Moscow. I know it’s a detour, over 1,200 kilometers each way, but that’s just the way it is.”
“Captain, this is way too far,” Kostea pleaded. “I have to be back in Romania, at work, in forty-eight hours. You know, duty calls. What’s wrong with the way we were going? We drove on it the other day and nobody stopped us.”
“Sorry, I don’t make the rules,” the captain said. He exchanged a glance with Gorsky and gave a short laugh as if expecting Kostea to protest some more. When Kostea didn’t, he continued on a softer tone. “My advice is you stay overnight at the Agricultural Workers’ Hotel, the only one around here. It’s too late to get going for Moscow tonight.”
“I understand,” Kostea said.
“It’s easy to find the hotel. I mean, start driving in the direction your car is facing right now and take the first right on Kusnetska, a major street. Go less than a kilometer, and the hotel will be on your right. You’ll see carts and maybe some horses out in front. All the peasants from the neighboring villages who come for the Sunday market stay there. Can’t miss it. Tell them I sent you and they’ll treat you like royalty.”
Gorsky finished writing.
“Sign here,” the captain said.
Kostea read the so-called report, a single long and convoluted sentence stating that the people listed below had been apprehended for driving on a road closed to private vehicular traffic, apparently without realizing it. Five names and serial numbers followed, along with the date and Comrade Gorsky’s signature. Kostea reached for the fountain pen, when a long and penetrating scream resounded through the police station. For a few seconds, the bugs stopped bumping into the caged lights.
“It’s the hooligans,” the captain said. “Gorsky, go and see what’s happening.”
“It gets worse every year,” the captain explained. “Believe me, by comparison, the likes of you are no problem at all.” He shook his head and watched Kostea sign the register. “Thank you, Doctor.” He got up and shook Kostea’s hand and then Toddy’s. “I assume that tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep, you’ll start early.”
“We have to. It will be a very long trip,” Kostea responded.
“Tomorrow morning drive back on Kusnetska and you’ll get to the Mykolaiv crossing where I waited for you this evening.” The captain quickly showed them the road on the wall map.
They crossed the waiting room and the captain opened the outside door to let Kostea and Toddy walk to their car. “At the crossing, take a left to Kherson and follow the signs to Moscow,” he said. He paused and looked around. They were alone. “Doctor, our regular shift starts at six, so, if you get there earlier, chances are nobody will be there. If we don’t see you and you take a quick right to Odessa, nobody will ever know. And if we don’t know, it won’t hurt anybody, now will it? What do you think?”
Very early the next morning they took a right at the Mykolaiv crossing and two hours later they deposited Yura and Mila at their home in Odessa. They left immediately for Kishinev and entered Romania that evening. Two weeks later the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.
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