Age of Terror

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Set in the seamy world of the Russian sex slave trade, The Age of Terror is the harrowing story of Joe, a disillusioned young American expatriate and lapsed Catholic who searches for life's meaning in the Soviet Union on the eve of its disintegration.

Plante plays brilliantly with our assumptions of both the United States and Russia, and ultimately proclaims a universal ...
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Overview

Set in the seamy world of the Russian sex slave trade, The Age of Terror is the harrowing story of Joe, a disillusioned young American expatriate and lapsed Catholic who searches for life's meaning in the Soviet Union on the eve of its disintegration.

Plante plays brilliantly with our assumptions of both the United States and Russia, and ultimately proclaims a universal theme of sacredness and redemption.
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Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
...[O]ften powerful and disturbing....explore[s] the struggle of the human soul in the face of spiritual disintegration....[The book] can be read as an allegory of the incomprehensibility of human suffering....contains powerful images of spiritual and material decay in a society whose fiber has been corroded. — The New York Times
Caleb Crain
The Age of Terror comes close to confusing a need for faith with a desire to be seduced. This is rich if treacherous terrain. -- The New York Times Book Review
Richard Bernstein
...[O]ften powerful and disturbing....explore[s] the struggle of the human soul in the face of spiritual disintegration....[The book] can be read as an allegory of the incomprehensibility of human suffering....contains powerful images of spiritual and material decay in a society whose fiber has been corroded. -- The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312198244
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

David Plante is a professor of writing at Columbia University, a senior member of King's College, Cambridge, and has taught at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow. He has written more than a dozen novels, including The Family, The Woods, and Annunciation. His articles and short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The London Review of Books. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and an American Academy prize winner.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Joe expected snow to be falling in Leningrad, but when left off at his hotel, he saw the high sky was clear. Standing in the winter sunlight in the square were tall, slender, beautiful girls who appeared to be wandering about, stopping now and then to chat with one another. They looked at Joe as he passed among them with his suitcase.

    The corridor floors of the hotel were covered with linoleum patterned like parquet, with runners over the linoleum. The white wooden doors to the rooms, with the numbers written where the old brass numbers had fallen off, were slightly askew on their hinges. Joe followed a porter in a frayed uniform and with pomaded hair pushing his suitcase on a trolley. A gang of children, five American boys and girls, ran past, calling to one another, "I'll get there first," "No, you won't, I will," "I will," and they giggled.

    The porter wheeled the suitcase to a woman sitting behind a desk, a large but beautiful woman whose face was powdered white and whose long hair was dyed matte black. The porter gave her a card with a number written on it, and in return the woman gave him a key with a big metal ring and a metal tag. Behind her was a glass case of teapots and cups and saucers and metal seltzer bottles.

    She said to Joe expressionlessly, "When you leave hotel, bring key to me, I give you hotel pass. Do not lose hotel pass. Without hotel pass, you cannot come back into hotel, you cannot get key. Understand?"

    "I understand," Joe said.

    He again followed the porter down the long corridor. Joe waited in the vestibule just inside his room for the porter to switch on the lights. He gave a ruble to the porter, who, bowing a little, left. Joe took off his overcoat and scarf and hung them on hooks in the vestibule.

    As he entered the room, separated from a sleeping alcove by a green velvet curtain drawn back from a bed with a green velvet cover, the telephone rang. Over the old-fashioned, black receiver a voice spoke in Russian, and Joe, not knowing what to answer, said nothing. The voice paused, waiting, then went on, a man's voice. All Joe could think of to say was "Pazhalsta," which he had learned, along with the Cyrillic alphabet and a few other expressions, before coming to the Soviet Union. He said please a number of times in Russian, and after a long, tense silence the man at the other end of the line hung up. The green velvet curtain was worn along its folds, and the gray carpet in the room dusty. A couple of French-style armchairs upholstered in green velvet stood turned away from each other.

    Joe threw his clothes on the bed and went into the bathroom. Many of the white tiles on the walls had cracked, and cement covered the patches of missing black-and-white mosaic on the floor. The water that gushed into the huge bathtub when Joe turned on the taps was dark with rust. As he stood in the rusty water to wash himself, he saw, across the bathroom and over the round pedestal washbasin, a mirror and himself in the mirror. He had the sudden sense of his naked body being pulled down, and he held himself against the pull until the feeling passed. He rinsed himself, dried himself with the thin, napless towels, and went into the room to take fresh clothes from his bag and dress.

    The telephone rang. Again, that voice spoke in Russian. Joe said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand," and immediately the man hung up.

    By lifting the net curtain over the window in his room Joe could see out into a well, and as he looked out snow began to fall in Leningrad.

    He kept telling himself he must go out, must at least go out to see again those girls wandering about in the square before the hotel, but it seemed to him that alone he was forbidden to go out, that in the Soviet Union, where so much must be forbidden, certainly going out on his own was. He thought he shouldn't be allowed in the Soviet Union to do anything on his own.

    Putting on his scarf, overcoat, his gloves, seemed to require detailed concentration. Dressed, he realized he had to use the toilet. Then, dressed again to go out, he saw he'd forgotten to put on his gloves and he couldn't remember where he'd put them. They were on the bathroom washbasin. Opening the door to leave his room, he paused because he was sure he'd forgotten something, and he went through everything he must have on him to go out in case he was stopped: his passport and visa. Then he remembered: his hotel pass.

    But the woman was not at her desk along the corridor. Joe walked up and down for half an hour and returned to his room, thinking, as he couldn't go out without his pass, he'd stay in. After another half hour he went out again and saw the woman at her station. He handed her the key, the tag of which she examined, then she opened a drawer in the desk and took out a small stack of passes, but she could not find his. Again she examined the number on the tag and again went through the passes but, frowning, didn't find his. She frowned at him.

    Joe raised and lowered his shoulders.

    "Without pass," she said, "you cannot have key."

    In his confusion, Joe laughed, but the woman didn't laugh, not even when, going through the passes once more, she found his.

    She frowned more when she handed it to him. "Do not lose."

    His confusion made him think he had still forgotten something. As he went past the commissionaire in a uniform and out the hotel through the revolving door, it came to him that he had forgotten something vital, and he stood outside on the snow-cleared sidewalk to try to remember what.

    Outside, the snow was driven by a wet, sideward wind. The young, tall, beautiful women, some in cloth coats and some in fur coats, with fur hats and bright silk scarves fight about their throats, were standing, at distances from one another, in that snow. A small group of them were standing before a woman, a little older than they were and wearing a gray woolen scarf, talking to them, and they appeared to listen carefully. The woman talking glanced at Joe as he went out into the square, where there was a huge, black church, half its black dome snow-white.

    Even though there was no traffic anywhere in sight, Joe, who thought he must in the Soviet Union obey all the regulations, waited for the light to change before he crossed over into the square. The wind drew Joe a little to one side, then, out where the square was open, the wind drew him to the other side. Only one car, its headlights on, passed close by him.

    He walked down the center of a long, narrow park. In the falling snow, he couldn't see beyond the two rows of bare trees. Between the rows was a red stone plinth with the black bust of Gogol, and Joe stopped to study the bust.

    He knew that Gogol, in his despair, had gone to the Holy Land for help, but the Holy Land hadn't helped him.

    He walked toward a bridge over the Neva, but stopped before crossing. It seemed to him it must not be permitted for him to cross the bridge. No footsteps were in the snow that covered the footpaths along either side. He waited awhile, feeling the wind penetrate his overcoat, then he proceeded along the untrodden footpath to the middle of the black iron bridge and looked over the snow-covered parapet.

    Channeled by the wind, the white snow, gathered, it seemed, from the air about him, streamed down in long drifts along with the current of black water on which ice floes bobbed.

    Joe drew back from the parapet when he sensed someone walking toward him and turned a little to see a woman in a long suede coat and high-heeled boots and a fur hat and a gray woolen scarf, and he remembered he had seen her talking to the women with the bright scarves outside the hotel.

    Quickly, he looked down again, to where the water, separated by one of the breakwaters, folded into a whirlpool as it flowed together just beyond it. Blocks of ice spun in the whirlpool.

    He turned again to see that the woman, with a broad, smooth, blond face, made taut, it seemed, by her high cheekbones, was staring at him with dark eyes, her lips parted as if she were about to speak. Her long suede coat was stained, and her boots, of patent leather, were cracked, the fake leather peeling from the heels, and her hat was of yellow cat fur.

    Her lips still parted, the woman looked at Joe, then looked beyond him, in the direction from which he had come. He turned, too, to look. A man in a coarse, brown coat and a brown rabbit-fur hat was standing, as if idling, just off the bridge. As Joe looked from him back to the woman, she, frowning as she gave Joe one last look, passed by him. She crossed to the other parapet of the bridge to avoid passing by the man in the brown coat.

    Again, Joe stared down into the river. Two long, rough, crossed beams of wood appeared from under the arches of the bridge and, sinking and rising, twisting and turning among the ice floes, were folded away into the swift current.

    When Joe glanced to the side, he saw the man in the brown coat still standing there.

    Joe followed the woman's footsteps across to the parapet on the other side of the bridge, away from the man, and he continued to follow the footsteps from the bridge. There were no cars, but pedestrians in the square, isolated figures in the falling snow, and soon Joe lost the footsteps of the woman. But he continued across the square to the beginning of the wide Nevsky Prospect, down the center of which only one snow-piled car drove, its lights off, and where huddled pedestrians walked the sidewalks. When the doors to the crowded shops along the Prospect were opened, many boots appeared standing on muddy, slush-covered wooden floors, with string bags hanging among the boots.

    Joe heard a loud voice behind him, shouting in Russian, and he thought for a moment he was being shouted at. He turned quickly, and an old, toothless man with a huge hat of tabby-cat fur was shouting at him in Russian. No one passing stopped to listen. Joe hunched his shoulders and raised his arm as the man kept shouting, spittle flying from his lips.

    "Ya nye panemayou," Joe said, "ya nye panemayou." He didn't understand.

    He heard laughter behind him, a woman's throaty laughter, and turned round to a woman who said, "He is shouting at you for not wearing hat."

    She was the woman he had encountered on the bridge over the Neva, and Joe immediately thought, She has followed me.

    She spoke in Russian to the old man, who, frowning severely at Joe, pointed to his own hat and continued to shout, but the woman, laughing as she spoke more to the old man, silenced him, and still frowning severely, he left. She said to Joe, "You will be stopped often by old people and reprimanded for not wearing hat. You will catch bad cold."

    Joe put his gloved hands to his hair, which was thick with snow. "I'm sure they're right."

    "You don't have hat?"

    "No."

    "You must get hat."

    They were standing where pedestrians passed them on both sides. Two naval cadets, the skirts of their black greatcoats swinging, passed on one side in one direction, and an old woman, with a string bag bulging with newspaper-wrapped bundles, passed in the other direction.

    Joe thought the woman standing before him was going to say something more about--as Russians often dropped the articles--hat, but she, her dark eyes narrowed, stared past him in such a way that he looked round. Standing at a corner was the man in the brown coat.

    The woman said to Joe, "So you are still being followed."

    "Why?"

    The woman laughed her throaty laugh, the laugh of an older woman, though she was not old, but young. She blinked from the snow flying about her face. She said, "He himself probably doesn't know why."

    The man glanced away.

    Suddenly taking Joe's arm, the woman said, "Shall we give him fun? Shall we walk together and make him wonder? He is bored, I know he must be bored. Let us give him little fun."

    She drew Joe with her in the direction from which he'd come, holding his arm closely, and he went with her.

    She said with a slight warble in her voice, though she held her chin up, "Here I am, taking risk of walking and talking with foreigner in street." Joe felt her grasp his arm a little more tightly. She laughed. "And do I care?"

    "Do you?"

    "No, I do not care. Isn't that amazing, that I don't care? If you are not amazed, I am amazed."

    "Will he arrest us?"

    She threw her head back when she laughed so her long, slender throat showed above her gray woolen scarf folded under the greasy collar of her coat. With her, Joe suddenly felt a free forward movement in whatever direction she was headed.

    And he had the very curious feeling of having walked together down the Nevsky Prospect with her many times before, though he had never before walked down the Nevsky Prospect and certainly not with her; and, as if in the past, of having joked with her whenever he and she were together walking down the Nevsky Prospect.

    She said, "When we stop at the next corner, you glance back to see if he is following us."

    Joe glanced back. The man was a block behind, and when he saw Joe turn, he immediately went to look into a shop window, though there was nothing in the window.

    "He's there."

    "Now where shall we go that will make him really wonder?"

    Joe wondered if she had in fact been following him, and if she and the man now following them both were working together.

    On the other side of the side street, he asked, "Are you taking a risk walking with me?"

    "I hope."

    "But why?"

    "Because, when I saw you on bridge and recognized you as American standing there, all alone, looking down at river, I wondered, what kind of American can this be, here, alone, standing on bridge? And I wanted to go to you and ask. But when I saw KGB man, I left. Then, when I saw you again just now, being shouted at just like any Russian for not wearing hat, I decided, KGB man or not, I will risk doing what I would never have done before."

    "What is happening?"

    "Oh, everything. Soon, everything will be possible in Soviet Union. Soon, there will be possible what we could never have imagined even a year ago. It will happen very, very quickly."

    "Have I come to the Soviet Union at the right or wrong time, then?"

    "That depends on what you want. You will be able to do in Soviet Union what you would never be able to do in United States." She laughed her throaty laugh. "And because that will be terrible, I must hope that KGB man will arrest me."

    Joe, too, laughed. "To really excite the KGB man, we could go to my hotel."

    "That would be big risk."

    "Too big?"

    "If I am going to take risk, it should be the biggest possible. Where is your hotel?"

    "The Astoria."

    "We shall see if they let me in."

    "Why shouldn't they let you in if I, a guest, ask you?"

    "You are foreigner, I am Soviet citizen, and you have more rights in Soviet Union than I do. I am not allowed in hotel where foreigners stay. Or, since I last tried, I was not. We shall see now. But look to see if KGB man is still behind us."

    "He is."

    "This will be real fun. We shall do this--when we enter hotel, I will hold your arm as you show your hotel pass and we will go past commissionaire quickly. He will think I prostitute with you."

    As they passed among the tall, thin women with their bright scarves about their throats still standing outside the hotel, Joe suddenly thought, They are of course prostitutes.

    He imagined that they smiled a little at the woman on his arm as he and she walked among them, but the woman, who had just a little while before been talking to them, didn't even glance at them, but held Joe's arm more tightly.

    As she and Joe went through the revolving doors of the hotel, the commissionaire, in a frayed uniform greasy around the stand-up collar, turned away.

    The woman said, "I see now that Soviet Union really is breaking apart. They do not look at who enters hotel. This is terrible. Should I go tell commissionaire he is not doing his duty as Soviet citizen?"

    Outside the revolving glass doors, the man in the long brown coat and brown fur hat was standing in the falling snow among the prostitutes.

    Joe said, "The KGB man still seems to be doing his duty."

    "Then, perhaps, there is still some hope. But we shall see if he waits until we leave."

    They deposited their coats in the cloakroom, where the young woman, after removing her fur hat, stood at a mirror and ran her fingers through her long, light, loose hair. She was wearing a black angora sweater and a black woolen skirt. As she once again took Joe's arm, he felt her body heat. She guided him to the only restaurant open in the hotel, one of many old, once grand but now run-down restaurants, in a winter garden, where all there was to order was black bread and butter and caviar and tea.

    The young woman asked, "But there is always champagne. Shall we have champagne?"

    Joe called the waiter back and ordered a bottle of champagne.

    Alone in the large restaurant, they clinked their frothing flutes.

    The woman said, swinging her hair, "I am Zoya."

    She did not, she said, live in Petersburg, but in Moscow, and was only in Petersburg for three days.

    "You say Petersburg and not Leningrad?" Joe asked.

    She smiled and asked his name.

    "I'm Joe."

    "Such an American name. To think, the first time I am speaking to foreigner is with American with the so American name of Joe." Holding her champagne flute high, she looked at Joe over it. "Tell me, Joe, why you are in Soviet Union? To see it break apart so much that Soviets can go into hotels where foreigners stay and drink champagne with them?"

    Joe simply smiled a wide smile.

    "So you don't want to tell me. Very well, don't tell me. I am used to not knowing why people do what they do."

    Joe blushed a little as his smile became wider, showing even, strong teeth in a mouth with large, dark lips.

    Zoya drank down her champagne. Then, with a swing of her arm, she poured more into her flute, laughed, and said, "Tell me, Joe, when you were standing on bridge, were you thinking of jumping into river?"

    "What made you think that?"

    "Maybe it is because I am Russian that I thought it."

    "Do Russians always think of jumping into a river when they stand on a bridge and look down into it?"

    "Always. There is no other reason for Russian to stand on bridge and look down into river than to jump into it."

    "And do they jump?"

    "They jump, they jump. I had aunt who went every day to bridge to stare down into Moscow River, day after day, waiting for her exit visa to go to America. She had made up her mind that if she was refused her exit visa, she would jump into river, and she went every day to prepare herself. Either America or river."

    "And what happened?"

    "She jumped into river."

    "She had no other choice?"

    "For her, no, she had no other choice." Zoya laughed. "Don't be sad. Maybe she made the better choice." She tilted the bottle to see how much champagne was left in it, then filled Joe's flute and poured the remainder into hers. "So, tell me, when you were looking down into river, you were thinking you wanted to jump?"

    Laughing, Joe said, "Do you think I came to Russia for that?"

    "Is possible."

    Joe laughed more, and he saw in Zoya's eyes that she had, after having thought about it, formed an image of him--though he was twenty-three, she saw him as a boy of thirteen.

    Her dark eyes, with lashes black with mascara, concentrated on him, she smiled and said, "Or is possible you came to Russia for other reason."

    "It's possible."

    "Russians always suspect there are other reasons for a person doing something than what the person says."

    "What do you think my reason is, then?"

    Zoya raised her chin so her long, slender neck elongated, and she said with a slight thrill that implied a friendly warning in it, "I shall find it out."

    "Maybe I came to Russia to meet someone."

    "As I want to go to America to meet someone."

    "Then you should go and meet him."

    Zoya laughed, a rough laugh. "Go to America? Go to USA as easily as you come to USSR?"

    "You can't go?"

    Zoya shrugged a shoulder. "Now, exit visas are easy to get. Maybe Soviet Union thinks solution to our problems is for everyone to leave, everyone, so there will be nothing, nothing left but our great forests under snow. But now entry visas into Western countries are difficult to get, because Western countries do not want problems of millions of Soviets. What would America do with millions of Soviets with worthless rubles even Russian taxi drivers will not accept in payment, and no hard currency? Entry visa to America is for Russian very difficult, very. But I would so like to go to America to meet someone."

    That sense of having known her before, of her being in some way familiar to him, came back to Joe, and he studied her face. She, smiling, let him study it as if she were used to people studying her face. But, he thought, how could a face that seemed so familiar to him seem also so strange?

    They were the only people in the restaurant, and when, after a long while, the tea and the bread and butter and the tiny glass bowl of black caviar arrived, Joe and Zoya became silent, as if to try to talk more would leave them with no possible reason for being together. When Joe, who began to make small, awkward gestures, let the knife slip out of his fingers when he was buttering his bread, Zoya said quietly, "Be careful." And he tried to be careful.

    He ordered another bottle of champagne.

    As he poured some out, Joe had more distinctly than before the feeling that Zoya saw him as a boy; a boy who, with her, gave her all the attention in the world, but a boy who, mostly alone, was frightened to be alone.

    When the second bottle was empty, Zoya laughed a deep, loud laugh, Joe wasn't sure about what.

    She said, "Let us go see, now, if our KGB man is still waiting. I shall be very worried if he is not, because that will mean our Soviet Union has lost all its values, all."

    In the cloakroom, Joe helped Zoya on with her suede coat, the lining of which, he noted, was torn.

    She stood for a moment before him and stared at him.

    "What's the matter?" he asked.

    "Your hat. You must have hat."

    "Where can I get one?"

    "Hotel hard-currency shop will have hats, I know."

    Zoya, who had made Joe think she'd never before been in this hotel, knew just how to get to the hard-currency shop of the hotel, where, among the shelves of bottles of vodka and whiskey, she made Joe try on one hat after another until she, clapping her hands together and laughing, said, "Yes, this one." He looked at himself in a mirror: a young man with a pale, square face with a black stubble of beard no matter how closely he shaved and black eyebrows that almost met over the bridge of his nose. He had large, wet, black eyes, and wide, dark lips. The fur hat with long hairs stuck out in a wide circle about his head was also black. In the mirror he saw reflected Zoya's smiling face.

    She said, "Now no one will shout at you in street for not wearing hat."

    It was as though she gave him no choice, he must go out with her; but not having a choice was all right with him, and he would go anywhere with her.

    The snow had stopped, but the low sky was dark. The KGB man had removed himself from the prostitutes and was leaning against one of the great pillars of the portico of the cathedral in the square. When he saw Zoya and Joe come out of the hotel, he stood away from the pillar.

    Zoya said, "I see there are still some who are having fun trying to sustain Soviet values. I am not disappointed."

    "What would they do to us if we were arrested?" Joe asked.

    "You would not be arrested. I would be arrested when on my own. And then I would see what they would do." She smiled. "I would like to know what, now, happens when a Soviet citizen is arrested. Instead of being sent to labor camp or psychiatric hospital or to Lubyanka to be shot, what would they do with me? Maybe they would tell me I must leave our country, and then, what would I do, because I think no other country would have me?" Zoya took Joe's arm. "Let us see what he will do now."

    "Is this really worth the risk?"

    "It is worth the risk. Being with American is worth the risk. Being with American while KGB man follows us is such fun that it is worth all risk."

    "Follows us where?"

    "I will show you. We shall make him wonder more about us. And you shall see Russia."

    Her arm in his, Zoya led Joe into side streets, and from time to time Joe glanced round to see if they were still being followed. They were, though the KGB man hung back at corners. When passing an open manhole in the snow-covered sidewalk from which a long, narrow, wooden ladder stuck up, Joe disengaged his arm from Zoya's to stop and look down into the darkness where he saw the faint beam of a flashlight. Zoya had gone on ahead of him, and he hurried to catch up to her.

    "What were you looking at?" she asked.

    He didn't answer, but looked round to see the KGB man also looking down into the open manhole.

    This made Joe laugh to himself: that the KGB man would examine an open manhole because Joe had stopped to glance down into it.

    Zoya again took Joe's arm as they turned into a fenced-in churchyard, where, as if in a field of snow, stood a blue-and-white church. A smell of burning beeswax candles seemed to penetrate the walls of the church into the cold outside. Zoya, holding a door open for Joe, said, "Now take off hat," and he did, entering among low vaults where candles were burning before icons. People were lined up to buy candles, and others, with candles in their hands, slowly walked round the crowded church, murmuring. Most of the people were women with knitted caps and felt boots.

    Joe followed Zoya to the altar screen, where she kissed an icon and crossed herself three times. To the left, baptisms were taking place: about a holy-water font, people in a circle, among them girls and boys and very old people carrying candles and mothers and fathers carrying screaming babies, were going round and round, the priest, in a gold-embroidered cope and chanting, going round with them. Some parents tried to shush the screaming, red-faced babies, some let them scream. The chanting of the priest rose above the screaming.

    Then, to the right of the altar screen, Joe saw, past the long overcoats and boots of another congregation, three open coffins, and in them the pale, shut faces of women, their noses, chins, cheeks pointed. They appeared to have white kerchiefs folded over their foreheads. Propped against the coffins were flower wreaths with ribbons; candles, in stands, were burning at the foot of each coffin. A woman standing by a coffin reached in and touched the cheek of a dead woman. Zoya went toward this multiple funeral service, and Joe with her. The altar at that side of the church was covered with an oilcloth patterned with daisies, and the priest at the altar was chanting.

    Joe suddenly found himself standing next to a woman who was sobbing into a white handkerchief that she held over her nose and mouth.

    He pressed his hat to his chest and remained very still. When Zoya said to him, "Come, I will show you more," he didn't move. She asked, "What is wrong?" but, wide-eyed, clutching his hat to his chest and standing tensely still, he didn't answer.

    "Joe? Joe?" She held out a hand to him from which she had removed the glove, and he stared at it for a long while before he, with his gloved hand, reached for it, and she led him away.

    He turned back to see the woman weeping into a handkerchief.

    Zoya led him up old wooden stairs to the upper church, where a mass was being said behind the high altar screen. The church was crowded with people standing. Just when Zoya, still holding his hand, led Joe in, the rococo golden gates of the altar screen were being closed. A large golden sun, attached by one of its rays to the mullion, shook in the round space above the gates when they were shut, and a red curtain was drawn slowly behind the sun. The choir sang. The air was warm with body heat and candle flames. People kept bowing again and again, all the while making the sign of the cross. One old woman, in black, ragged, felt slippers, her black, torn stocking sagging, a black rag wrapped about her head and neck, almost bent her head to the floor each time she bowed, and she never stopped rapidly crossing herself. In the midst of these people, Joe stood motionless.

    Frowning, Zoya leaned toward Joe and whispered, "You do not pray?"

    "I would like to leave."

    Zoya nodded.

    As they left, he saw, at the back of the congregation, the KGB man, who was standing with his fur hat in his hand and his head bowed low.

    The dark sky seemed to have sunk to the earth, with streetlights and house lights buried in it. Zoya didn't talk to Joe. Outside the hotel were only a few prostitutes. They appeared to approach Zoya but she stopped them by turning away. She said to Joe, smiling slightly, "Our KGB man stayed in church and gave up following us."

    He tilted his head to one side.

    They stood in the light that came through the glass revolving doors of the hotel, beside which the commissionaire took a stance as if to let no one in without a hotel pass.

    Zoya said, "I am sorry I took you to church. I didn't know that, perhaps, you are against prayers and religion."

    "I thought religious services were forbidden in the Soviet Union."

    "That, like everything, is changing. Are you disappointed?"

    A laughing couple came out of the hotel, and Joe moved out of the way to let them pass.

    Zoya remained where she had been, then, as Joe didn't move, she went to him and said, "Am I doing what American woman would never do to man, asking if I can see you again?"

    Joe, sure he had seen her before in just this place at just this time, said, "Tonight, come to have dinner with me in the hotel."

    She smiled a smile that was slow but that finally revealed one stainless steel tooth at the back.

    The woman from whom he had to get the key to his room was not at her desk. Joe walked up and down the corridor until she appeared. He presented her with his hotel pass and she gave him the key, neither one looking at the other.

    From the freezing outside, he found his room so hot he sweated. The window didn't open. Naked, he lay on the bed in the dimness behind the dusty green velvet curtains.

    Maybe, he thought, he shouldn't see Zoya again.

    In the suffocating heat, he felt sweat drip down his armpits and his groin as he fell asleep. But he was drawn back from sleep by shouting and the stomp of feet, and he recognized the voices of the American children running along the outside corridors, now near, now far. He heard, in the distance, something break, like glass crashing, and the children shout, "Let's get out of here."

    He tried to sleep for an hour, thinking of seeing Zoya again, because he was frightened to be left alone.

    He fell asleep and was woken by the telephone ringing. Dazed, he answered, and a man spoke in Russian. Joe hung up.

    He looked about the room, where the woman from the church, weeping into her handkerchief and her face wet with tears, appeared to be standing in a corner.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2005

    a heart warming novel

    It is a disturbing novel that touches the heart of a reader, makes people create a idea about russia regime

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