The Summer I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stoli

It all started late one evening about three weeks ago.

I had just returned from eating acid at the Old Hermit’s Cave with some friends. The warm summer air had literally just turned pre-storm green while I was extracting myself from Alan’s tiny pickup, which meant I had first clambered over Tressa David’s fertile lap before tumbling down to the driveway. We were both breathless, laughing like crazed loons; her eyes were twin pinpricks of glittering starlight in the tan canvas of her face. I took my sweet time getting out – I’d had the hots for Tressa since the end of my eighth grade year when we’d shared a smoke and a quiet moment on Mars during a field trip to the observatory. I was really looking forward to tomorrow, but I’ll explain that in a minute.

I stopped laughing long enough to wave off Alan’s muddy truck, the final, blaring chorus of Billy Thorpe’s “Children Of The Sun” falling victim to the Doppler effect as it disappeared down the quiet street and turned the corner. The screen door slammed shut, and I was headed up the steps with my Technicolor mind still focused on Tressa’s lap when my mom seized my shoulders and herded me quickly into the living room.

I was looking at a younger Robin Williams in a Prince Valiant bob with jagged bangs and a beard standing next to a cardboard suitcase. Squinting eyes peered out at me from behind thick, gold-rimmed glasses and a drum-tight grin. He wore a flannel shirt buttoned to the top, battered brown work boots and his only pair of jeans, faded and worn. He lifted one thin hand in greeting and said something I didn’t understand. I watched the iridescent wake flow from his fingertips as he moved and a second Borealis, which seemed to hang over him like a mosquito net on fire. I was, after all, still tripping balls.

“Joe, this is Stolichnaya Krasnoyarsk. He’s a Russian exchange student from Archangelsk. He’s staying with us for the next few weeks. Remember? Now, I’m sure you two will have a lot to talk about, so I’ll let you show Stolichnaya down to your room.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Talk about a buzzkill! I was once again a citizen of Earth and I struggled to speak my native tongue.

“Two… weeks?” I spoke with effort.

Here’s the thing. See, I was supposed to be leaving the next afternoon on a five-day geo-caching trip to Portland with Alan, his brother Quinn, and the lovely Miss Tressa. This was the last summer the three of us would have together before Alan left for college and Tressa left to study in Paris with her dad. You must understand, Tressa and I had a long and painful history of interrupted moments and this was going to be the trip of all trips; this, my last chance to be with her, uninterrupted, before she walked out of my life, probably forever. Unfortunately, I had forgotten all about my mom’s plans to restore world peace one exchange student at a time. Sorry, mom, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on this opportunity. No way in hell. Forget it! Not me!

Needless to say, Stoli and I spent the next few weeks driving around listening to old punk tapes, hanging out at the beach, combing the thrift stores, and playing chess, a game Stoli was some kind of fucking genius at. It’s probably a requirement for citizenship in Russia.

I was pissed at my mom and I wanted to take it out on Stoli, but we each couldn’t understand a goddamned word the other person was saying, so we couldn’t even argue. We had to communicate with each other by sign language, pointing and tugging like monkeys in a think tank. I tried to teach him a few words in English, but every time I opened my mouth he’d interrupt me in Russian. It was like a transcontinental version of “Who’s On First?”

See, at first I thought he was just really eager to fit in, like maybe he’d figured out why I was so pissed at him but still wanted to make the best of it, which, in hindsight, he really did try to. Yeah, I was still sore about the trip and although we couldn’t have even the simplest of conversations, he was still a lot of fun to hang out with. Despite the language barrier, I started to like him. It was hard not to.

He had some weird habits though, like laughing at situations before they turned funny, or opening his hands to receive something before anything had been offered to him. You know what I mean? It was just like… well, like he was one step ahead of everything. I can’t really explain it.

At least not until a few days ago.

We were in this corner store loading up on munchies for a drive up the coast when suddenly he shoved me aside, and I mean hard. I stumbled backwards into a display, knocking bags of salt and vinegar potato chips to the floor. His mouth was working, but no sounds were coming out.

“Hey, what the fuck — ?” I snapped at him, and then froze. His eyes had rolled back in his head, and the bright red flower on the front of his t-shirt – well, the white t-shirt I gave him — was blooming like crazy. It wasn’t there a few seconds ago. In fact, it had still been a plain white t-shirt when we walked in.

Here are the facts; first the flower bloomed and then I heard the shots. In that order. I swear to fuck.  There was at least a three or four second delay. I know what I saw, and I know when I saw it. Everything after that was a blur — the clerk behind the counter whipping out a shotgun, the gossip rags next to the register throwing an impromptu ticker tape parade, the frozen slush machine vomiting icy blue plasma into the air, the thief with the peashooter hitting the deck with a wet slap, now missing a generous portion of his chest.

The roar filled the air and hammered the wind from my lungs like a golf swing. I dragged Stoli over to the beer cooler and dove on him, covering both our faces with my arms, and pretty much stayed that way till the medics showed up and pried me off.

Then things got weirder.

The ambulance wouldn’t let me go with him, so I followed in my car. My cell phone had gone dead for some reason so I raced home, left my mom a hasty note, grabbed Stoli’s passport and headed to the hospital. I was maybe 30 minutes behind them. I don’t know exactly, because my watch had stopped working.

When I got there, the heifer in the beehive behind the check-in desk said she’d never heard of him. Nobody fitting his description, no gunshot wound, no Russians, nothing. But if I would “…just leave a name and an address where I could be reached,” she’d certainly get back to me.

My mouth was open to say, “My name is –,” when I saw the two guys in black suits standing at the counter a few feet away, trying hard not to listen in.

Call me stupid, but that’s when everything finally clicked. The weird second trail I’d seen around Stoli when I met him, still flying on acid. The way he laughed at everything a few seconds before the punch line. When we played chess, he seemed to know what I was going to do before I did, like he was a few seconds ahead of the game. The flower bloomed before the gun went off. My cell phone wouldn’t work, and my watch had stopped right about the time the shooting began. And now these guys. Men in black suits.

A cold chill ran down my spine. “Yeah, my name is, uh, Miller. Henry Miller.” And I blurted out the phone number of my favorite Chinese place over on Lakeshore, 867-5309. When I saw she’d taken everything down, I tried to act casual and walk to the door, when in truth, I bolted like a motherfucker as soon as I was out of sight of the desk.

I haven’t seen Stoli since, and no one’s come to our house looking for him. Don’t you think that’s just a little odd? My mom says he probably just called the embassy or something because he didn’t want to be a bother. A bother? That’s bullshit! He couldn’t speak a goddamn word of English, but I know he wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye to me.

Anyway, I’m writing all this down from my seat in coach. We took off about an hour ago, next stop New York and after that, Paris. Tressa said she’d meet me at the airport and her dad is okay with me staying for a few weeks before I catch my next flight to St. Petersburg with a connecting commuter flight and a short bus ride to Archangelsk.

I’ve got to find out what happened to my friend.

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