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A Former Country of the Soviet UnionFar, Far Off the Grid
Nicholas Rheinhardt lay on the hard stone table, belly-side down, and hoped like hell that the moisture on the towel beneath him came from his own sweat. He gritted his teeth to stifle a groan as a seminaked and thoroughly oiled masseur squatted above him and frog-hopped down the length of his spine.
The humiliation would have verged on the comedic if the pain weren't so excruciating. He couldn't imagine anything worse, not even a root canaltwo root canalswithout Novocain. But he refused to whimper and beg for mercy.
After all, the cameras were rolling.
Whose idea had it been anyway to shoot several episodes of his travel-and-food show in this country so far off the beaten track?
Up until this point, the whole television thing had been a pretty good gig.
Now life had turned into a high-definition hellhole as recorded by a sardonic cameraman and a highly sensitive soundman. Was it any wonder that Frommer's, Michelin or Lonely Planet guidebooks had failed to extol the wonders of this remote village, let alone the bathhouse?
Nick felt the vertebrae cracking in his neck as the otherwise silent masseur worked his torture. And, ironically, that's when it came to him. The jackass who'd suggested they make a trek through the mysterious eastern provinces of the former Soviet Unioncountries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan? The same jackass who'd had this romantic notion that they'd see yaks and yurts, fiery peasants and dreadful communist architecture? It'd been him.
The bantamweight masseur chose that moment to slip his sinewy arms under Nick's armpits and force his elbows to lock together behind his back. A small ugh emitted from Nick's throat. After this workout, he seriously wondered if from now on his upper limbs would dangle uselessly at his sides. Most probably he would go through the rest of life with curious onlookers remarking, "And to think he once was able to debone a leg of lamb with the best of them."
"So, tell me. This massage you're getting. It looks pretty ah strenuous. Still, it's all it was cracked up to be, right?" Georgie, his jovial producer, asked from off camera.
Nick growled deep in his chestthe part that hadn't been crushed as of yetand thought, Just wait till I do the voice-over commentary to this bit back in New York. Because now it all comes back to me, that, between multiple vodka shots the other night, you were the sly dog who suggested this bit of local color. Yes, you, Georgie.
The masseur slapped Nick's towel-covered rump, signaling the end of the session.
Georgie turned to the cameraman. "That's a wrap." Then he bounced jovially across the stone floor to his damaged on-air talent. "That bad, huh?"
Nick thought about raising his head off the table, but that small motion required too much energy. "Let's put it this way, I will absolutely, positively agree to do anything else rather than go through this againpreferably something that involves close proximity to a Nathan's Famous hot dog. I'm starving." Knowing no shame, Nick held out an arm. "Help your lord and master get upright, if it's at all possible."
None too gently, Georgie hoisted Nick to a sitting position. The towel, which was wrapped around Nick's waist, slipped to his hip bones, and his once-taut stomach musclesonce, as in a good ten years agosagged around the cotton terry cloth that had a thread count of about negative twenty.
Nick might have been thirty-seven in chronological years, and genetically blessed with a fast metabolism, but those had been hard-lived years. After turning thirty-five, even his long and lanky body could no longer bounce back from the harsh treatment due to overimbibing of fine food and not-so-fine drink.
Not that he regretted his lifestyle, mind you. Nick smiled at the memory of some of the more infamous escapades, at least those he could still remember.
His so-called adult life had taken a meandering path. After dropping out of college, he'd bummed around the world by scrounging low-paying jobs and harboring absolutely no ambition other than occasionally finding food, alcohol and the eye of a good-looking female. One winter in Paris, where he'd squatted in a tenement that lacked a showernot to mention a toilethe'd landed a job as a dishwasher in a traditional bistro in Montmartre. And voila! Nick had found his calling. Eventually he'd risen up the restaurant food chain to become a well-regarded though not quite top-tier chef.
Achieving greater fame would have required greater talent, a little more luck and, if he was going to be totally honest, a lot more dedication. Even the sudden acclaim he'd garnered for his book, a bare-knuckle look at the restaurant world, had been more of an accident than a well-planned career move. After all, he'd written the damn thing in fits and spurts after shifts at various restaurants, fueled by cigarettes and boozemore than a little, actuallyand bouts of righteous indignation.
So it was hardly surprising that as Nick looked down at his body he felt a certain measure of disgust. And that was before he glimpsed his upper arm. The tattoo circling his right bicep was undulating with involuntary muscle spasms. An enormous Maori had given him that tattoo on a warm spring day on the north island of New Zealand. Now, that had been a good shoot, he recollected.
He raised an eyelid and saw Georgie silently chuckling. "What?" he asked with a snarl.
"Is that a promise?" Georgie asked, not bothering to hide his amusement, so secure was he in his worth as a producer. "That you'll go anywhere provided it's within sniffing distance of a New York hot dog?"
Nick contemplated the wisdom of getting up. "As long as it doesn't involve rubdowns."
"Last I heard, New Jersey specialized more in rubbing out than rubbing down."
"New Jersey, you say?" Nick opened his jaw slowly and experimented with trying to shut it again. He got halfway. "You know, I was born and raised in Jersey."
"Excuse me. Like I wouldn't know? I was responsible for hiring that underpaid intern to write your bio for Wikipedia."
Nick grumbled. "You know there's a reason unions were inventedto regulate the outrageous behavior of unscrupulous employers like you."
"Too bad, that's all I can say," Georgie said without any remorse. "Which is why I have decided to accept a request that came to the office last week."
"I suppose this is my cue to say, 'Could you be more specific?'"
"My pleasure. By the unfettered powers vested in me as producer, I plan to accept the offer for you to be the Class Day speaker at your old alma mater, Grantham University, this coming June," Georgie announced proudly. "Naturally we'll use it as an episode for the showI'm not that generous."
"Come again?" Maybe his brain was also starting to fail.
"You know, the Commencement ceremonies for the graduating class? The day before they do the whole diploma-giving-out bit, you will speak with wit and with a soupcon of encouragement to the seniors."
"Soupcon of encouragement? Are you kidding me?"
"Well, their families will be there, as well. I think it's only right and proper," Georgie explained.
Nick stumbled to the dressing area and eased on his clothing. He didn't bother with the button or the zipper on his jeans. If his pants fell down, so be it. He couldn't be any more humiliated than he already had been.
He joined the others at the entrance to the dank, tiled bathhouse, nodding appreciatively to the manager, who had a severe lazy eye, which made eye contact difficult. The man would no doubt be dining off tales of the crazy Americans for years to come.
Georgie pushed open the heavy wooden door, and their little group instinctively huddled together. A horse-drawn cart, loaded with hay, clopped down the dirt road in front of them. Its driver paused and yelled to two men standing cross-armed in the narrow doorway of a coffee shop across the way. His loud monologue was seemingly cheerful sounding, but who could be sure?
Where is our friendly translator when we need him? Nick thought.
Then the squat and hairy horse turned its head at the sound of his master's gravelly voice, and proceeded to do his business in the middle of the street.
Nick looked over at the steaming deposit. "I think that just about sums it up." Then he creaked his neck in Geor-gie's direction. "You realize of course that I never graduated from Grantham, don't you? A little thing called the Junior Paper that I could never quite wrap my head around?"
"I don't think they're gonna rescind the offer, and frankly, I think they probably already know that."
"True, failure has been one of my favorite biographical topics. Still, what would be the point? I mean, I do thirty minutes of hopefully semihumorous anecdotes about the world of food and travelminus my usual four-letter words since, as you say, kiddies are likely to be present. And then what have you got? An hour's TV show? I think not."
With that, the horse, the cart and its owner moved on. The two men with grizzled beards and in severe need of good dental work, peered suspiciously at Nick and the rest of the crew before turning to enter the gloom of the coffee shop.
"Think of the bigger picture, Nick." Georgie waved his hand across the gray and unforgiving sky. "The whole idea of graduation as the culmination of those happy college days, which, being happy, had to have included the customary drinking and eating of large quantities of food."
"You want to check out dining-hall fare?" Nick asked, unconvinced.
Georgie nodded. "You're missing the potential. Think bigger, like how the whole eating experience is the same or different from your day. What does that say about the peculiarities, if there are any, of the Ivy League experience?" Georgie suddenly got more animated. "Wait a minute. Doesn't Grantham have those Social Whateverstheir own kind of snobby fraternities? Surely food and beer are plentiful at those places for the select few."
"Social Clubs. And only a few of them were snobby. Certainly not mineotherwise I couldn't have been a member," Nick clarified. Despite his carefully honed jaded personality, he found himself becoming intrigued. "There used to be a couple of places in town that I regularly went to, too. I wonder if they're still there, especially this one greasy spoon famous for its hoagies."
"Hoagie Palace," Larry, the cameraman, piped up.
Nick slanted him a startled expression.
"Hey, I might have only gone to the University of New Hampshire, but even I know about Hoagie Palace." Larry wore a down coat over a down vest and a stocking cap on his head. For a supposedly rugged New Englander, he had a very low tolerance for the cold.
Georgie punched the air. "There, what did I tell you? And by way of contrast to the usual street-food shtick, we could sample some new highend joints. You knowwhat the wealthier denizens of the quaint college town go for when they want a night on the town."
"As I recall, it was uninspired, nominally French foodand I mean nominal." Nick thought back to the one time the mother of one of his freshmen advisees had taken them to the finest culinary institution in town. You knew it had pretences because it was housed in a mock, half timber Tudor building across the street from the university campus. Only minutes before meeting her Nick had learned it was a jacket-and-tie joint only, of which he'd had neither. He'd frantically scrounged something up from a guy who roomed down the hall. The waist on the jacket had been six inches too big and the sleeves three inches too short, but at least the tie hadn't had a naked lady painted on it.
"People are always curious about Ivy League colleges and picture-perfect towns. Now we'll be able to give the insider's view," Georgie continued, still selling the idea. He was a producer, after all. "Get the lowdown on whether students still go to the same places to grab something to eat when they're up all night studying. Or maybe they've developed more sophisticated palates over the years to go along with their future hedge-fund-manager lifestyles?"
Something was definitely wrong because Nick was becoming seriously interested in Georgie's idea. "I don't know if you realize it, but Grantham holds its alumni Reunions right before Commencement. So it's essentially a weeklong college-nostalgia party, where the soon-to-be graduates get to lock arms with their fellow Granthamites, thus building their sense of family and forging contacts for future employment."
Nick was acutely aware that he was talking as if he was doing voice-over commentaryin addition to regaining feeling in his outer extremities. No wonder Larry's bundled up like a polar bear, he suddenly realized. He shivered. A mistake, given his recent encounter with the lethal masseur.
"That's better than perfect," Georgie responded with enthusiasm. "A blend of past, present and future all rolled into one big happy, highly photogenic package." He paused. "I presume these alums are your usual craziesall rah-rah and wearing garish school colors?"
"Oh, wait till you see their school colors," Nick said knowingly. The totally tasteless Reunions getups that the returning alums donned for the traditional parade and class functions were legendary. Then he eyed his producer. "So tell me. You think this august Ivy League institution is really going to allow my unique commentary on the wild and wacky world of small town, Ivy League customs?"
Clyde, the sound guy, snickered.
"Hey, just because you grew up in London and went to Cambridge, doesn't mean you can look down on Grantham," Nick shot back. "I've seen the apartment you share with three other guys in Queens. No one in your shoes can even think about looking down their nose." Speaking of shoes, he was becoming increasingly aware of just how cold he was. He also figured that once he got back to their excuse of a hotel his maimed body would be incapable of removing his own frozen shoes.
"Clyde's just being Clyde, and as to the permissions? Don't worry," Georgie interjected. "I'll have them in hand before you can say 'bourbon on the rocks.'" He seemed so gleeful that he began to skip down the frozen road.
In Nick's critical view, the producer seemed more like some demented munchkin stumbling along some nightmare version of the Yellow Brick Road. Georgie was not exactly svelte, and he barely topped five feet three.
"I love it. I love it," Georgie said to no one in particular as he continued to lead the little group down the road. Then he stopped and turned to face them. "Just think. You'll be able to answer the question that burns in the hearts of all college students." He put his hand to his chest, and if Nick didn't know better, looked truly earnest.