Thursday, April 03, 2003

MOSCOW (March 20, 2002)

Mishah came home with two cell phones: one his own, another a brand-new tiny black thing that he had found by a bus stop on his way from the office. He wiped it carefully with a napkin and washed his hands as carefully afterwards.

“I picked it up from the mud, it’s raining now,” he explained.

“We’ll have to find its owner,” I announced enthusiastically, taking the phone from Mishah.

Then a terrible thought crossed my mind: what if the phone’s owner was a syphilitic, or a terrorist had stained it with invisible anthrax spores and placed it in a public place as a trap for unsuspecting commuters? I hurried off to the kitchen to wash my hands and finish cooking our dinner.

“I was thinking of giving it to the cops on duty nearby,” Mishah said at the table, ”but there’s no way they’d ever want to part with it. I think you’re right: we should try to locate the owner.”

There were only two cryptic entries in the phone book of the stray phone, RLM and Zin. Immediately, I imagined a young, clean-shaven boy with a neat haircut: a student, perhaps, who had been skipping lunches for several months to save pocket money. His thriftiness must have finally allowed him to buy this coveted item of every boy’s and girl’s outfit. Before he lost it, he must have been trying to figure out how to enter his friends’ names and numbers. He must have also been searching for that unique tune, which wouldn’t send everyone around him on a bus reaching for their phones when it was his that was ringing. He must have still been enjoying the feel of the yet unscratched new plastic friend - when all of a sudden the friend was gone.

Mishah dialed one of the numbers in the phone book. As he began talking, I nodded at his every word and smiled: in my mind, I still saw that poor student who, for once, was lucky to have encountered a genuinely kind person in this ruthless city.

“Yes, I’m at home now, at Kalashnyy… Aha...if you’re there…from Pushkinskaya, walk along the Boulevard Ring to the TASS building, then turn to Bolshaya Nikitskaya… No, no, the other way, towards the Conservatoire…”

Here, I thought, Mishah was making a mistake, for how would a boy like this know what and where the Conservatoire was? Towards the Kremlin, that should have been the next point in navigating the boy.

“Yes, call me when you are by the Japanese Embassy and I’ll come down,” Mishah concluded and hung up.

“A nice man, polite, sounds educated,” he said, turning to me. “It’s his wife’s phone. They were returning from a concert at the Conservatoire, and when I called, they had just realized that the phone disappeared.”

Half an hour later, the man called back and Mishah took the phone and left. I stayed, responsible for watching the Juventus vs Arsenal UEFA Champions League game for him. The commentator’s eloquent chat was distractful and I turned the sound off. The game suddenly turned lethargic, and my thoughts wandered back to the phone’s owner's new incarnation: an absent-minded female, a classical music fan, accompanied by her refined husband. If I were them, I thought lazily, I’d give Mishah a chocolate bar – at least – as a reward. My ever voracious mind kept fantasizing about edible remunerations we could receive for our act of kindness (Pickles? Pastrami? French cheese?) - until Mishah returned, a solid book in his hand.

“A very pleasant middle-aged couple. They asked how much they owed me and I protested. They decided to give me a Joseph Brodsky book instead,” Mishah said.

I could see he was very moved, no less than I was myself.

“I didn’t want to take it, but they asked, quite ominously, ’What? Perhaps you don’t like Joseph Brodsky?’ So I gave in."

Mishah handed me the book of Brodsky’s poetry and essays, a new hardcover edition. When I opened it, a leaflet from the Svyatoslav Richter Memorial Concert slipped out and landed on the carpeted floor.

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