It was on the slopes on the outskirts of Minsk that I first got a lead on the tubes. It was a dangerous time – the slopes had a slick glean from the early thaw and Brezhnev had his hand above the big red button like he was getting ready to swat it. Svetlana and I were playing the game then and had a bug up in the foreign ministry’s room. They had caviar flown in from Ossetia and we could hear, through the swish of the skis along the ice and the popping of sturgeon eggs, the words “glowing Russian tube.”
It was a mission if there ever was one.
Rumor was the tubes were running out and the shipment planned for a submarine port in Arkhangelsk was the last of its kind. I wasn’t an expert but I’d only been to Arkhangelsk once and I swore after a hang gliding accident in Burundi that I’d go everywhere twice, taste everything twice, be everything twice.
In Arkhangelsk, I was a stevedore – my second time – and Svetlana was the headmistress leading a group of Young Pioneers on a workers tour. The boat came in on time, steam chugging into the glum Soviet skyline like upswept thunder clouds. There was a beauty to the grayness – like the whole country was a soul hoping for a love affair.
It wasn’t until Svetlana led the Young Pioneers in the anthem that I suspected Dimitry’d made us.
I was the first on the steamer as it pulled into port. “Comrade!” A Spetsnaz yelled, face stern like a Soviet winter, “Assignment!” he shouted at me in Petersburg Russian. “Cargo,” My cover was from Zaraysk so I hung my Cs, “I’m here for ccccargo.” He pointed toward a doorway and I saluted, hand stiff the way I’d seen the Young Pioneers do it.
The place was crawling with Spetsnaz – like roaches in the tenement that Svetlana used to call home. Someone must have told them there was a spy around. I could tell by the searching eyes, the looks like Lynx on the prowl. But a spy to them meant a tux and the Queen’s English – not a stevedore from Zaraysk.
The door wasn’t locked – an oversight – and I walked in to find the tube sitting on a table, hooked up to a power supply and filling the room with a neon glaze.
I stood, slack-jawed like a first time cosmonaut. There were boxes of them, against the wall, in neat, stacked rows. It was a veritable bounty. This could get me out of the game, I thought, send me to the hills with Svetlana where we could pick wildflowers in the summer and warm up by a birch fire in that cold, protracted winter.
The door slammed. Boots shuffled in. Dimitry entered the room, two mean looking Spetznaz on his wings. Dreams crashed to earth like a U-2 spy plane.
Not even Washington could save me this time.