The State Department got her booked on the Accela from Foggy Bottom to the City of Brotherly Love. Sybil was running late and wished that in the years she had been in the field, Amtrak would have had a little more bullet in their bullet train by now. At least the sandwiches were fresh and the booze wasn’t too watered down. She got off at 30th Street station earlier than she thought she would have arrived; maybe a tailwind, she thought, and wandered over to her old digs, walking down Canal Street, knocking on the doors of a few old haunts, but no one answered. She tried out a cheese steak (with) and needed, desperately, the taste of a real Philly pretzel. Eventually she hopped the Septic (SEPTA would always be septic to her) to Wynnewood, where she walked the last few Main Line blocks to the address Anton had given her, her new family’s home.
The house was a neat, large-ish split-level ranch set back far enough from the tracks and deep enough into the arboreal cover to be comfortably suburban for a city family. The swimming pool, carport, manicured lawn and truck garden completed the illusion. Sybil came to the driveway and stopped cold.
Jesus, what is this, Checkpoint Charlie? A little tollbooth declared itself to be Passport and Customs control. There was a swing-gate, just like in the movies. And just like in old war movies, a tall pole featured direction signs pointing in seemingly random directions. Paris 6239 KM, Istanbul 7815 KM, and Podvolostok, 8146 KM.
“Hello! You must be Sybil! I’m Boris, your father-in-law.” The tinny voice came from a speaker in the booth. “Welcome to West Podvolostok. Just pick up a visa form, stamp it, the rubber stamp is on a little chain, sign it, and drop it in the slot.” Sybil did as instructed, but she should have signed first and then stamped, now she would show up to her in-laws’ house with inky fingers. The gate arm swung up with a creak and the Consular Officer marched down the driveway.
Jesus Henry Christ, could that be a Gorodki pitch on the lawn? Why would anyone import the world’s stupidest game? And does that doghouse have an onion dome on top of it?
Sybil switched gears into not-gonna-be-surprised mode; it paid off. When she pressed the doorbell switch, she was greeted with Ay, Ay, Yuchnem. The Volga River boatmen’s song, “Amen to War.” Sybil wasn’t a bit surprised. Neither was she surprised when a spitting image of her new husband, advanced about 30 years in age, opened the door.
“Welcome, Welcome to West Podvolostok, daughter,” the ramrod-straight, high-cheekboned man enthused, first in English, then in Russian, and finally in Yiddish, followed by a triple cheek kiss and a too-warm embrace.
“Boris Earpinsky, I presume.” She extended her hand with her best diplomatic poise; Boris took it and kissed it. He led the way in through a mud room, an odd thing to have in a Main Line Philadelphia house. The living room was empty, but there was a buzz of people being busy apparent throughout the home.
“My love, everyone is getting ready for you, especially my wife, Natasha.”
“Oh, it’s Natasha? Anton said her name was Nattie, I assumed it was short for Natalie. So, it’s Boris and Natasha?”
“We came over in 1966. It was funny to see a cartoon with our own names. It took a few Saturday mornings before we made the connection between Boris Badinoff and Boris Gudenov. My Natasha would be more than a match for the cartoon, but I continue to be disappointed by how my namesake is portrayed.”
“That’s just priceless. But speaking of names, any relation?”
“Anton told you the story, nu? We know a Wolf Earpinsky and other Earpinskys were active in Arizona Territory in the 1870s and 1880s; Whether they were the Tombstone Police Force or drygoods salesmen, we don’t know. We have some snippets that John Holliday, aka as you say, Doc Holliday, was a dentist born Jonah Yomtov. I’m sure you know that Yomtov is Holiday in Hebrew. We’re doing 23 and Me, Ancestry dot com as well as public databases.”
“Amazing what we can find out these days, isn’t it? Is my husband one of the people upstairs preparing things? Or is he late as usual? You know we would not be married now if your son was raised to be punctual.”
“Married three weeks and you’re already complaining about him. You’d make a good Russian wife, but now you have a lifetime of suffering being wife of a Russian. Please, daughter, let me take you up to the Honeymoon Suite.”
The guest bedroom had a charming antique four-poster bed with a view of the garden and the trees beyond. It was quiet and had its own half bath. Oddly, in addition to the beautiful gift basket in the center, the bed had one long pillow instead of the typical two sets of two head-sized ones. It was hand-stitched in an antique Cyrillic Sybil could barely recognize, let alone translate. Boris saw her valiant attempt to extract some meaning from it, but then put her out of her misery.
“We had to fish around for it in the attic. It says ‘Husband and Wife, Sleep on the Same Pillow, Piss in the Same Pot.’ A bit of Russian folk wisdom.”
Boris was growing on the new bride, so like her husband. “And I see you saw fit to bring Gorodki west of the Line of Demarcation. Any luck trying to get anyone else to play a game where you throw a stick at a bunch of sticks?”
“Not yet, but we have patents for our newly-designed bats and sticks.”
“Boris, I sincerely wish that in your lifetime, a world-championship Gorodki game will be played in Citizens Bank Park. But don’t hold your breath.”
“Well, daughter, I have to make sure preparations are going as planned. You know how lazy Russians can be.”
“Not all of them, apparently, especially not you. What is it, six Cognithon locations now?”
“America has been good to us. I must go now. Here is the true secret to a happy marriage. Don’t forget the tits.”
Sybil was trying to decide if she mis-heard, but either way, her diplomatic subtext training emphatically stated that whatever she’d heard wasn’t dirty. She decided to see if she could help out any of the preparers and opened the bedroom door. Smack into Anton’s head. First, she finished kissing his boo-boo, making it all better, and then he kissed her back as a husband.
“For you, this is early, but I was still here first. Dibbs on the bathroom side of the bed, Kotik.”
“Thanks, Lapochka.” The couple was in the heavy Pussycat – Sweetie Pie phase.
“Tony, get me something to do. I’ve got, what’s the word you use? Shpilkes? Did I pronounce that correctly? Someone must need some help in the kitchen.”
“You are the guest of honor, the visiting queen.”
Anton led his new bride to the auxiliary kitchen and introduced her to his aunts, now Sybil’s aunts as well, Frieda, Francis and Fanny. There were kisses and hugs all around until Sybil asked if she could help. Anton gave the hi-sign to Frieda, the head aunt.
“Well, dear, there’s something not exactly Russian, but it’s delicious and easy. Tongue Polonaise.” The tall, striking woman with close-cropped gun-metal grey hair fished out an index card from Natasha’s file an handed it to her new niece. “An appetizer, candied meat, made like campers at a cook-out, with ketchup and mustard and sugar.” Sybil read the card.
“Cut off the first three inches of the tongue? Isn’t that where the blood vessels are richest, the sweetest part?” The three women stared at each other, but none had an answer. Fanny, the younger, told Sybil that it was the way the family had always done it. Not quite an answer to the guest’s question.
“We should ask Bubbie. Our niece deserves an answer!” She went to the main kitchen and brought back a woman the spitting image of Molly Pecan, mannerisms, gestures, idiom and all.
“So nu? All this way I came from the other side of the house, where’s the fire, what’s so important, and oy! Darling, you must be Sybil, and you three, you put a guest to work? Vey is mir.” Granny stopped talking long enough to kiss her new granddaughter. Boruch Ha Bah, Welcome, Sybil. What a marriage, Anton is always late and Sybil is early. So what's all the tsuris about?”
“Bubbie,” Frieda said, “Sybil wants to know why when the family makes tongue, we cut off the first three inches. Momma does it, now we do it, but why? Is it a Kosher thing? Not that all of us keep Kosher, but is that it?”
“Kosher? Podvolostok was an autonomous Yiddish Language region, we were loyal communists, believing in the Socialist Idea. Now we are good Democrats. What did we care about Kosher back then? Simpletons, the three of you. A cow’s tongue, even a calf’s tongue is very long. My biggest pot was not very big, we couldn’t afford luxuries, you know. When we made tongue, we cut off the tip so it would fit in the pot. Now let me get back to the real work. Gutten mir.” On her way out, Grandma whispered in Sybil’s ear. “Sybil, dahlink, here is the secret to a good marriage. Don’t forget the tits. Every night.”
Sybil’s youngest new cousin, eight-year-old Felix, went around the house hammering out a dinner call tune on a little hand-held mini-xylophone. Everyone was seated in no time at all. Except for Anton, who absolutely had to take a call from Kampala about a set of pumps being sent out to farms. Boris grabbed the phone from his son’s hand and shouted into it “Prime them with a narrow funnel” and hung up.
Boris stood, lifted his glass, and toasted Sybil, the honored visiting queen.
“Even though we are not religious, we still have our sacred book, and I will toast from it. A woman of valor, who can find, her worth is beyond precious rubies. Our Anton has found a woman of valor. A toast to our new-found woman of valor!”
Everyone downed their glasses in one shot, including Bubbie. Sybil threw her shot glass into the fireplace, where it shattered with a satisfying tinkle. Everyone stared at her. Natasha let out a groan and said “That was the last thing I had 12 of…” but Boris then tossed his glass into the fireplace, and the entire company followed suit.
“I am so sorry. Every Russian dinner I’ve seen in the movies had people throwing their glasses in the fireplace.”
“Russian gentiles, yes, dear. We Jews did not have two kopeks to replace a glass. But thankfully, now we do,” Natasha attested.
Out came the blini with caviar and with it the interrogation started.
Based on the pictures Anton had given her and which she’d memorized—Consular Officers had to be good at putting names to faces—it was her new cousin Max getting ready to ask a question.
“Cousin Sybil, how did you meet Tony?”
“Well, Max. Your Uncle runs Cognithon, Cognithon develops and puts out prototypes that might solve problems. Your cousin Tony works for an NGO that helps countries solve problems. And I work for the United States seeing that good projects get funded and that they really work. And that the money actually goes to the projects. So we frequently crossed paths. And eventually fell in love. Even if we barely saw each other. Fortunately, we both are entitled to satellite phones.”
It looked like Deborah asking the next question. “Why did you get married in such a hurry?”
“We had to.”
“Ooohhh... a shotgun wedding???”
“No, silly, it was Anton who was late, not me!” Deborah blushed when she figured out what her older new cousin meant. “Your cousin absolutely couldn’t leave Gitega without making sure all of the equipment he dropped off would still operate after he left Burundi. So he missed the official transport and couldn’t get another exit visa for two months at least. It was possible,” Sybil continued, staring square into her bridegroom’s face. “It’s possible that Burundi wanted to keep him. Or that he has OCD. Does that run in the family?”
Anton gave as good as he got. “Russians are all obsessive and compulsive so it doesn’t count as a disorder.”
“Anyway,’ Sybil went on, “He was stuck. The local Charge d’affaires where I was operating called in a favor from the Burundi Deputy Assistant Foreign Minister. Anton could travel on my diplomatic passport if we were married. So we got married, and here we are, stuck with each other.”
Facetious groans of “How romantic” mixed with “How clever and resourceful.”
It was odd, but justified under the busy conditions. The first question Sybil’s mother-in-law asked her new daughter was about her job.
“Where were you stationed, darling?”
“Oh, Natasha, sorry to disappoint, but this was a classified posting. Sensitive mineral rights. Nobody wants anyone else to know what they’ve got until it’s ready to be on the market.”
As Natasha passed her on the way to the kitchen, she whispered in her new daughter’s ear. “If you want to have a good marriage, don’t forget the tits. Every night.” She disappeared into the main kitchen.
Sybil settled on an optimization strategy, alternating answering questions with bites of food, which seemed to satisfy everyone. Sybil was a fabulous optimizer and the protocol lasted until it was time for tea, which was served in glasses, of course, in the garden.
“Kotik, I’ll meet you in the garden. I just need to get something from the room.”
“I would say ‘Don’t be late’ but, well, you know.”
“Ya Tibya Liublu!”
Anton went up and fished his vape out of his carry-on and turned around to go back down and to the garden. He just couldn’t leave without finding something to check if it was alright or not, and settled on checking the bed. All four posts were in good shape. Anton saw it from the window as he was turning to go out the door. The UPS truck that wasn’t quite the same brown as every other UPS truck, the truck being here before its usual time, after commuters get home, the truck not slowing down on the sharp curve. Anton, who did know where his true love had been stationed and what she was doing there, literally slid sown the rain pipe shouting “Gevalt, Gevalt!” and tossing the Gorodki bats to his cousins, who were able to charge the fake UPS guy. Boris took the Geiger Counter from Passport control and analyzed the clicks.
“It’s hot. Sybil, can you call whichever spook handles this, please? Funny, we start a meal with Tongue Polonaise and wind up being served Polonium.”
It was a long Russian celebration, which eventually included an inebriated game of Gorodki, which Anton’s team won. If one could say that hitting more sticks with a stick than the other team did was actually winning something. Finally, the honeymoon couple was in their suite on their four-poster bed.
“Anton, I just have one question. Everyone kept telling me that to have a happy marriage, I shouldn’t forget the tits. What was that all about?”
Anton laughed so hard his hot chocolate flew out of his nose. “Oh yes, the tits, a family tradition from Russia. Every night. Mit ah toot brush…”