by Matt McGowan
Artie talked like he owned the place, loud and fast and with a discernable accent. Take our first encounter, the bathroom in Neff Hall. I can’t remember what he was talking about, but I know the person he was talking to said only five words: “uh huh” and “is that right?” While urinating, Artie talked some more and then finally had to be alone with his Grand Central Station brain when his friend hustled out of the bathroom without washing his hands.
Which is what I was doing when Artie addressed me for the first time.
“Is this how they do it around here?” he said. “Jesus Christ! Is it too much to ask for a paper towel? I hate these dryers. They take too long. This one doesn’t even blow that hard. Seriously… The government bails out automobile companies, and this is what we’re doing to save the planet? God forbid we cut down another tree for the purpose of hand drying.” He pointed accusingly at the dryer on the wall, surrounded by obscene sketches. “I bet you ten bucks the energy that goes in to making and operating this worthless piece of shit has twice the environmental impact.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t like them, either.”
To a Midwesterner’s sensibilities, Artie’s inscrutable manner and brogue speech rendered him enigmatic and harsh. Though my initial reaction never completely waned, it definitely dulled, and the more time spent with him, the more I liked him. There was an undeniable, even infectious, charm.
Artie had two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, but I couldn’t see him as anything other than an only child. He wasn’t entitled or abnormally self-centered. He interrupted conversations more than the average person, but this habit could be attributed to an unbridled passion about ideas and new experiences, rather the ill effects of a sheltered childhood.
He dressed poorly. I guess it was this fact that explained why I thought he was an only child. I just couldn’t imagine a sister allowing her brother to leave the house looking like that.
The only pants I ever saw him wear were faded Levi’s. He never wore shorts, no matter how hot it was, and he didn’t own khakis or slacks. Sometimes I wondered if he had something to hide. Maybe he thought his legs were too hairy. But that didn’t make sense. Artie had many neurotic tics, but they had nothing to do with body image. Several times, while hanging out at the park with Natasha’s kid, after complaining about the heat, he would peel off his t-shirt. He seemed fine then, showing off his hairy back and chasing a Frisbee in his flip-flops and old blue jeans.
His over-sized shirts were badly faded and sometimes torn and frayed. They had coffee stains, missing buttons and mangled collars. Sometimes you’d catch him with the buttons in the wrong holes.
There were two pairs of shoes for Artie – those disgusting flip-flops and ratty-old New Balance runners, the kind old men wear to protect their bunions. He owned one coat, a powder blue Members Only jacket that looked exactly like the one Michael J. Fox wore on the set of Family Ties. Like his behavior, Artie’s use of this jacket was random and inexplicable. He’d wear it when it was sunny and ninety degrees outside, and then other times, like when the temperature dipped below freezing, the jacket was conspicuously missing. You’d find him shivering on the sidewalk.
The Russians came ten days after I met Artie. They were supposed to arrive two weeks earlier, but there were visa problems. They talked about it when they got drunk, which was every night. That was the only time I heard them speak Russian.
They too were loud, but different than Artie. Artie was oblivious loud. Clueless. The Russians were bombastic loud. They also talked all the time, simultaneously, and yet they all seemed to understand what the others were saying. They talked and laughed and talked and laughed, and it was chaos all the time. The chaos only amplified when they drank. Then they would talk and laugh and talk and dance until their heels broke or they threw up.
The program we’d entered included an intense clinical component, which Artie just wasn’t cut out for. On so many levels. That first week they sent us out into the community. We covered city and county government, police, public schools, the university, a state research hospital, sports and all kinds of human-interest stories.
Artie wasn’t afraid to talk to people. He had no problem approaching a total stranger and asking personal questions. The problem was, he couldn’t grasp the difference between an interview and a regular conversation. His mind would wander and he’d stray from the task at hand. Then he and the source would end up chatting, or, just as likely, debating the existence of God. Artie would forget his role as observer and recorder. This was especially true if the topic pertained to psychology, philosophy or religion, which it often did, because these were the things he always wanted to talk about.
Consequently, he wouldn’t do his job. He’d forget to take notes, and worse, he’d argue with sources.
“You did WHAT?!” an editor would say. They received many complaints. Defending himself, Artie would try to explain what happened. He’d gesture wildly, swing his arms and nervously run his hand back and forth over his bald head. “NO, NO, NO, NOOO!” the editor would shout, “that’s not what we do here!”
He almost got fired at the university-owned television station, where he’d somehow gotten a job writing digital copy that runs across the bottom of the TV screens – public service announcements, severe weather warnings, that kind of thing. The problem was, he couldn’t write. Not concisely. Artie managed to screw up something as simple as, “Tornado watch for Jefferson and Saline counties from 6 to 9 p.m.”
That day, the day he almost got fired, we were having drinks at Flat Branch, a grill and brewery in the old industrial district. There was a patio outside with clematis growing on a giant pergola. If the weather was right, I preferred sitting out there because I was less embarrassed when Artie got excited and raised his voice. This day he was sitting across from me, a beer in one hand, coffee in the other. For fifteen minutes, I watched him take a sip from one and then a sip from the other. Back and forth like that, up down, up down.
“Artie,” I said. “What made you apply to journalism school?”
He shrugged. “I like to write,” he said. And that was it. That was all he said.
For lunch, Artie and I usually walked to Chaucer’s for a slice of pizza. But this day was different. We were busy, trying to meet deadlines on stories and other assignments, so we grabbed lunch at the union and hustled back to the computer lab in the basement of Neff Hall.
The computer lab, or “the cellar,” as everyone called it, was a long, rectangular-shaped room at the west end of the building. Rusted transom windows lined the top of the cellar’s exterior wall. Because of a strange, sulfuric odor that permeated the basement of Neff, these windows were always open, regardless of the temperature outside. This meant that if you were the first person to enter the room on a given day, you might find a opossum or raccoon munching on a leftover taco.
Artie and I chose two computers in the middle of the room. At the union cafeteria, Artie had gone to the salad bar and piled a mountain of items – peas, bacon bits, sunflower seeds, walnuts, red beans, cottage cheese and four hundred raisins – on a bed of iceberg lettuce. He crammed these items into a clear plastic container, the kind with the edges that can slice your finger.
Artie opened the container and turned on his computer. He asked me a question and we chatted while the machines fired up. When they did, we heard a woman scream and a great shuffling and sliding of chairs at one end of the room. There were gasps and grunts and then an urgent command: “There it is! Kill it!”
The woman who screamed ran toward us. When she reached the middle of the room, she stopped and looked back at the area in question. We all looked that way. Down there, standing against the wall, we saw one of our classmates dangling a field mouse by the tail.
The woman screamed again. When she did this, she startled Artie and he jumped. His arms, almost always flailing for one reason or another anyway, flapped like a fat turkey trying to launch. During this nutty performance, his hand clipped the lid of the plastic container, turning it into a catapult. It felt like we were in a movie then, one of those slow-motion scenes where the unraveling is operatic. All we could do was watch, as lettuce and red beans and four-hundred raisins and sunflower seeds hurled across the room, arcing like a rainbow, raining down on computers and students.
The Russians hit the bars every night. They were rowdy and partied all the time. They dressed wildly, with long scarves, short skirts and high heels. They wore colorful, theatrical makeup. They loved techno and ‘70s disco, and they danced all the time. They drank copiously. They spilled as much they drank. To the average American, they seemed more or less crazy drunk all the time, but I don’t think they were. They were just dramatic and insisted on having fun. They didn’t care what people thought. They didn’t have time for that. It took me a while to understand this, but eventually I figured out that they behaved this way all the time, even before the first drink. And it never let up. Their energy was epic. All night and into the early morning hours, there they were, out on the dance floor, laughing and drinking and dancing and hanging on to each other.
I loved them. But the only one I really knew was Natasha. She and Artie started dating within weeks of her arrival. Pretty soon after that – early November, I think – they moved in together. Some of Natasha’s friends thought this might be premature, but Natasha knew herself and knew what she wanted. Though she could raise hell with her friends, she was slightly older than them, and, for reasons that soon became clear, calmer and much more grounded.
Her English was choppy and clumsy at times, but you could tell that she had worked hard to master it. She grew up in a rural area east of Moscow. Later, after college, she lived in the capital for several years, working as an electrical engineer for a telecommunications company. When she told me this, I reacted with surprise, not because she was a woman, but rather because that career was so different from the one she was pursuing now.
“I know,” she said. “It’s crazy. All so crazy.”
When she said this, Natasha was talking about something other than her decision to become a journalist, which actually wasn’t that important to her, though she excelled at it.
Her son came in December, sometime around the holidays. I never knew if this was the original plan, or if they decided he would stay once he arrived. What was clear, however, was that after the new year, Natasha and the boy walked four blocks to Grant Elementary, where she enrolled him in school. Suddenly, goofy Artie was a father.
If I had bet that he would fail in this role, I would have lost. In many ways, Artie, who was thirty-two-years-old and crazy about his sister’s kids, came alive when the boy showed up. He took him to the park. He helped him build model cars and taught him how to ride a bike. He picked him up from school. He even helped the boy shop for American clothes. Yes, Natasha knew herself, and she knew Artie would be good with her son.
That winter I visited them many times. Their apartment had one bedroom and a kitchen no bigger than a coat closet. You had clear everyone out just to grab a beer out of the refrigerator.
Artie bought a used double bed, and I helped him move it in to the bedroom. He laughed when the mattress slipped out of our hands and flopped down on the box springs.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Artie.
I almost pressed him. But I knew it was the wrong thing to do. I figured he had good reasons.
Another thing kept me from asking what was so funny. At that moment, when I heard him laugh about something that was probably personal, I realized that he didn’t give a shit about the assholes at school who had so much control over our lives. Unless they were currently harassing him, in real time, he didn’t even think about them.
Later, hilariously, Artie told me that he and the boy alternated between the bed and the couch every night.
I remember these visits fondly. Natasha’s crazy friends were always there, laughing and talking loudly, sometimes in English, sometimes Russian, while we prepared a meal or they finished dressing for a night out on the town. The women lived in two other apartments in the same complex, and they were always going back and forth, borrowing shoes and clothes or makeup. They too loved the little boy and lavished him with attention.
One night, in the dead of winter, I almost panicked in the living room, sweat starting on my forehead. The women were rushing around the apartment, making sure they had everything for a night of club-hopping. At the same time, Natasha was trying to get her son ready for bed. This of course was a difficult task because Artie was talking and the women were loud and bustling through the room. But Natasha didn’t mind; she was patient and she knew her friends would be leaving soon.
She was kneeling on the floor, trying to get her son to put his pajamas on. When I walked out of the kitchen, they were right in front of me, between the couch and the dining room table. I looked down and saw Natasha’s thong riding up high on her hips, inches above the waist of her jeans. I was embarrassed, even though it was impossible not to notice. I quickly looked away, and my eyes connected with Artie’s. He saw it too. I must have looked guilty, because he was smiling impishly. His eyebrows did a little double pump, and he brushed his forehead, as if he were sweating too.
By this time, I’d forgotten that Artie told me Natasha was married. She and her husband had been separated for years, but he wouldn’t give her a divorce. It just wasn’t a big deal. In fact, it was nothing at all. Natasha never mentioned it, and Artie didn’t talk about it again. They were so good together; I couldn’t imagine either one of them with anyone else.
Everyone had to work one weekend shift per month at the paper. Mine came on the last Saturday in April, two weeks before the end of the semester. I went out early to cover Springfest, and I was back in the newsroom, typing up the story, when chatter started on the scanner. There was an incident on the west side of campus, a domestic problem. When the dispatcher mentioned Stewart Road, I thought nothing of it.
Jody was the only editor working that day. He wasn’t like the other editors. He actually wrote stories and helped reporters instead of trying to make them feel small. I considered him a friend.
I can’t say how long the chatter had been going on, but at some point, several minutes after it started, Jody poked his head out of his office.
“You gonna check that out?” he said.
“You think I should?”
“Why not? Nothing ever happens on that side of campus.”
I grabbed my bike and headed out. It’d been raining earlier that day and the streets were still wet. I took it easy on the hills and turns along Flat Branch. I’d memorized the address but also scrawled it on the cover of my reporter’s notebook.
When I reached the power plant at the western edge of campus, I planned where I would need to turn after I crossed Providence. Only then did it occur to me that I would pass Artie and Natasha’s apartment.
West of Providence, I turned right on Ash. The little hill there was deceptive. It looked easier than what it took to climb it. I kept my head down and pedaled hard. I was almost panting when I reached the top.
I looked up then and saw a thousand flashing lights.
As I pedaled toward the scene, I started to feel sick to my stomach.
Three paramedics were kneeling over a person lying on his back in front of the complex. I walked closer. I was wearing my nametag, attached to a lanyard. Two patrolmen nodded as I walked by. There was a TV crew already there. The cameraman was trying to set up a tripod on the driveway.
We stood there together and watched.
The paramedics talked to each other while they worked. One of them was plucking instruments and gauze from a large toolbox. I moved to my left, going along the edge of the driveway. From there, I could see the patient better. Now he was lying on his side. His shirt was hiked up, gathered under his arm. A paramedic worked on his flank, holding gauze and applying pressure.
The TV crew lifted the tripod and moved closer to me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Stabbing,” said the cameraman.
The paramedics lifted the man up so one of them could get a better view of his back.
“What?” said the reporter.
“I know him.”
Artie’s eyes were closed, but he was conscious and responding to the paramedics. He grimaced as one of them again pressed on his back.
To our left, we heard voices coming from the end of the driveway. The cameraman ditched the tripod and pointed his camera that direction. Two cops walked around the back corner of the first building. They were ushering a hooded, handcuffed man up the driveway. Then a third cop appeared. His feet were covered in mud. As they came up the hill, I tried to see the hooded man’s face but couldn’t. He was looking the other way. When he saw Artie and the paramedics, he shouted something in Russian. One of the cops yanked his elbow.
I looked at the man’s feet. They too were covered in mud.
I followed this group to a police car parked on the other side of the street. I asked questions. The cops wouldn’t answer. Finally, after shoving the man inside the back of a police cruiser, one of them confirmed that the man had “allegedly” stabbed Artie.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“No idea,” said the cop.
Back at the paper, I asked Jody if I was the appropriate person to write the story. He looked at me like I was crazy.
I saved a copy.
… The victim, Arthur Jennings, 32, student at the university and permanent resident of Bethesda, Maryland, was returning home from work when the assailant attacked him. Police said the man was waiting for Jennings. According to the police report, Jennings saw the man hiding behind a tree. As Jennings approached the building, the man jumped and ran toward him. The report stated that the man screamed and then attacked Jennings, who tried to defend himself. There was a struggle near the entrance to the apartment building, and the assailant stabbed Jennings four times with a Swiss Army Knife. Police identified the man as Andrei Varennikov, resident of Nizhny, Russia.
“Gorky,” said Artie.
“Nizhny. The Soviets called it Gorky. You know, like Leningrad instead of St. Petersburg.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“Can you imagine waking up one day and finding out Chicago’s now called Daley?”
“Huh… Yeah, that would be weird.”
“You should have seen him,” said Artie. “His eyes. They were crazy. I thought it was a joke… Until the blade hit my ribs. That wasn’t funny.”
“Did you see the knife? Before it was in you, I mean.”
Artie frowned. “Maybe,” he said.
“When did you figure out who it was?”
“Oh, he told me.”
“He spoke English?”
“Not really. But he said her name. And I know a little Russian…”
“What’d he say?”
Artie looked up at the ceiling. He winced as he shifted in the bed. In the hallway outside his room, nurses were laughing. I raised his pillow and situated it behind his neck. When he got comfortable, or as close to that as possible, he let out a long breath.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Weird stuff. Something about the covenant of marriage, I think. Religious stuff.”
“Really,” I said. “While he was stabbing you?”
“I know,” said Artie. “I thought that was ironic too.”
Artie healed up and but couldn’t finish the semester. Some of his professors offered to give him an extension on assignments, and he talked about taking summer courses to try to catch up, but he did neither. Instead, early that summer, only a few weeks after he got out of the hospital, he and Natasha and the boy moved to Philadelphia, where his brother lived. Artie was still weak and sore, so I helped Natasha load the car. While we did this, he and Natasha’s son played chess on the patio, about forty feet from where the boy’s father had stabbed Artie.
They didn’t have much stuff. Artie left me some books.
Matt McGowan grew up in southwest Missouri and attended the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, Deep South Magazine, Concho River Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.