Literary Orphans

Crooked Arrow
by Thomas Healy


The sauna was even warmer than the one Zurin went to a couple of times a week back in Brighton Beach and quickly he grew drowsy and was half asleep when the platzeur entered the room and told him to lie face down on a narrow board covered with a thin terry cloth towel.  He did and, almost at once, was whacked across the back with a leafy bundle of oak branches called a venik.  It had been soaked in olive oil soap and the ripe smell was so pleasant and intoxicating he almost didn’t mind the repeated lashings delivered by the platzeur.

“You all right, mister?” he asked a few minutes into the massage.


“You’re sure?”

Zurin nodded as an oak leaf fell across the back of his neck.

“I’m all right, too,” the platzeur said in his thick Georgian accent.  “My name is Yuri, and when you come back, be sure to ask for me.  I’m the best.”

“I’ll do that.”

“You do, mister,” he said as he poured a bucket of ice cold water across his back and shoulders.

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     Zurin felt limp but invigorated after he left the bathhouse, felt as if he could carry out his assignment without a hitch for a change.  He was surprised he was able to find a bathhouse in this sprawling cattle town hundreds of miles from Brighton Beach, figured it was a good omen for this assignment.

Three blocks down the street from the bathhouse was Alliance Capital Bank and, after making sure he had the correct passport, he walked through the revolving brass door and approached one of the half dozen tellers.

“Yes, sir, what can I do for you this afternoon?”

“I’d like to open a checking account.”

Smiling, the teller glanced over at the circle of armchairs beside one of the business counters.  “Please, if you will take a seat, someone will be with you in a minute.”

More than a minute later, an owl-faced man with spectacles the size of safety goggles introduced himself as the person in charge of processing New Accounts and invited him over to his desk against the back wall.

“Have you been in the country for very long, Mr. Mueller?” he asked after Zurin presented his Austrian passport.

“No, not long.  Just a few days.”

“Well, let me welcome you then, and I hope you enjoy your stay here.”

“Oh, I’m sure I will.  Thank you.”

Around the corner from Alliance Capital was another bank, Frontier Independent, and he opened a checking account there with a Norwegian passport.  The two days he was in town he opened four more checking accounts, all under different names, then boarded a plane and headed farther west to open additional accounts.

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     “You know you will have to go to many different places if you come to work for me,” Golodkin told Zurin one afternoon at the bathhouse in Brighton Beach they both frequented.  “At a moment’s notice you’ll be expected to stop whatever it is you’re doing and pack a suitcase and leave.  Are you willing to do that, Pasha?”

“Yes, I am, sir.”

“You’d be a kind of arrow … sent out to all parts of the country on sometimes very brief assignments.  You wouldn’t mind that?”

“No, sir, I’ve always wanted to visit different states.”

“That’s good, my son.  You’re the kind of person I need to work for me.”

A scrawny man, who always spoke out of the right corner of his mouth even the few times when he didn’t have a cigar planted in the left corner, Golodkin was well known through Brighton Beach.  He owned a couple of delis and a dilapidated lounge but he also was suspected of deriving a substantial amount of his income from his close ties with some of the more unsavory people in the community.  Zurin’s father cautioned him to keep his distance from the businessman, convinced that all the money he promised those who worked for him was not worth the aggravation that was likely to accompany it.

Generally he did what his father asked but not in this instance.  As a substitute elementary school teacher, he was tired of scraping by so one day, without consulting his father, he approached Golodkin in the bathhouse about going to work for him.  It was a decision he prayed he would not come to regret and, so far, he hadn’t because of all the places he got to visit and all the money he earned.

Once he hoped to be a celebrated athlete, someone others would recognize from his appearances on television, but that didn’t happen so, instead, he got a teaching certificate.  To achieve that kind of notoriety was something his father wanted almost as much as he did, and, consequently, he felt he had let him down.  Years ago, in what was then the Soviet Union, his father was a very accomplished triple jumper who one year nearly earned a spot on the Olympic team.  And it was his fondest wish that his only son would some day qualify as a jumper for the U.S. Olympic team.

One of his earliest memories was playing hopscotch with his father in front of their apartment house.  Nearly every night, after he got home from work, his father chalked out a hopscotch course on the sidewalk and they would play until it was time for dinner.  Their games were seldom carefree and fun like the ones he played at school but were very intense with his father constantly reminding him to “skip not bounce.”  On weekends, if it wasn’t raining too hard, they would go to the seaside and jump in the sand until their ankles burned then run through the surf for a mile or more.

“I never felt as special as I did when I was competing,” his father often told him.  “Sometimes, before a jump, I’d clap my hands above my head until people in the stands joined in, then I’d feed off their support to jump even farther than I expected.”

No other child at his elementary school was groomed to be a triple jumper so he was not surprised when he started to collect blue ribbons and trophies for his jumping ability.  That changed, however, when he entered high school, and other boys suddenly came in first.  He became discouraged but his father continued to have faith in his ability and pressed him to work harder, citing, time and again, a favorite maxim from the Aeneid:  “Fortune favors the bold.”  He did as his father urged but still seldom won, others were just a shade faster and more nimble.

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     “Don’t you trust American banks?” a teller at First Federal asked when Zurin said he wished to open a checking account.

“Excuse me?”

“I also work part-time as a teller at Pacific Continental and I saw you open an account there yesterday.”

Nervously his left eye twitched.  “I don’t like to keep too much in one place,” he answered hurriedly.

“So you really don’t trust our banks?”

Not knowing what more to say, he looked down at the Danish passport in his hands.

“Well, I can’t blame you, really.  Not these days.  More and more folks, I suspect, are keeping their money under their beds.”

Nodding, he sat down, relieved that she didn’t suspect him of doing something improper as he feared.  If she had, if she had called over one of the security guards, he wasn’t sure what he would have done.  Maybe jump, he thought, suddenly picturing himself racing across the lobby and leaping over the velvet ropes then out the door.

There was nothing improper about opening more than one checking account, even at the same bank, but he knew it was wrong to present a false passport as identification when doing it.  To be sure, he wasn’t the person he claimed to be but otherwise his hands weren’t too dirty he rationalized.  Golodkin was the one whose hands were filthy.  Seldom did he ask why he was sent out to do the things he did, figured the less he knew the better.  But this time, after talking with others who opened bogus checking accounts out west, he gathered he was involved in some kind of scam in which customers thought they were purchasing classic American cars on the internet and sent their money to the bogus accounts which Zurin and the other arrows then collected and sent back to Golodkin.  He really didn’t feel sorry for the duped buyers, believed they should have known better.  “If something sounds too good to be true,” as his father used to warn him, “it probably is.”  Besides, if they were willing to waste money on some old jalopies he wouldn’t want to be seen in, they could certainly absorb the losses they suffered at the hands of some clever businessman in Brighton Beach.

His conscience might not be entirely clear but he certainly didn’t have any trouble sleeping at night.

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     “Help!” a woman screamed from inside a bus shelter.  “That man took my purse!”

At once, Zurin, who was across the street from the shelter, spun around, shading his eyes from the sun.

“Help me!”

He then spotted the thief scramble through a throng of Canadian tourists outside an art gallery and, instinctively, charged after him, leaping over cartons and cans scattered across the pavement.  He was confident he was still fast enough to catch the thief but, to his surprise, lost him when he disappeared into an outdoor food market that covered three square blocks.  Up and down the market he searched but could not find him and, strangely, was not that disappointed.

He wasn’t really any different than the purse snatcher, he realized, almost felt as if he were chasing himself the past couple of minutes and, a little embarrassed, leaned against a lamppost and lit a cigarette.  Then he started back to his hotel, hoping no one came after him some day for what he was doing for Golodkin.

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     Late one afternoon, after opening another spurious checking account, Zurin happened to walk through a park where three boys were taking turns jumping through a sand pile to see who could jump the farthest.  He sat down on a bench and watched for a while, recalling the many afternoons he had practiced jumping in sandlots when he was their age.  He doubted if any of them aspired to be a serious jumper as he did for so long, more likely they were just fooling around until it was time to go home.  Still, he was tempted to offer them a few pointers to improve their takeoffs but assumed they wouldn’t be much interested so he kept quiet.  Besides, mindful of Golodkin’s constant warning, he didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to himself.  He probably shouldn’t even be watching the boys, he reckoned, should get up and leave at once if he wished to be as inconspicuous as Golodkin demanded.

One boy was a much better jumper than the other two, might even be able to win some competitions if he put in the necessary work, but he also seemed the least disciplined of the three.  Always clowned around before he jumped, making faces and sticking out his tongue, wiggling his hips and shoulders as if struck by a frigid breeze.  He could be pretty good if he wanted to be, he had the burst of speed that Zurin lacked, but he doubted if he had his determination.  Few, if any jumpers, had his determination he believed.  If only he had the speed to go with it, he might have become the champion he always hoped to become.

A little while later, after the boys left the sand pile, Zurin walked over to the duck pond in the north end of the park.  There was no one there, surprisingly, considering it was such a pleasant day and he was glad because he didn’t have to worry about drawing attention to himself.  Suddenly he felt twelve years old again and bent down and picked up a smooth, flat stone and hurled it across the water.

“Hop, skip, and jump,” he muttered as he watched the stone bounce three times then muttered it again as the stone bounced three more times.

He smiled, remembering all the stones he had skipped when he was a kid because his father suggested he should duplicate the flight of a stone in his jumps.

“Let others soar through the air like eagles,” he told him.  “But you stay low and conserve your energy.  What you want to be like, Pasha, is a stone skipping across a calm body of water.”

He picked up another stone and skipped it then a few more until one reached the middle of the pond.  His father would be pleased with that toss, he thought, if he were here.  Maybe as pleased as he was with some of his jumps.

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     As usual, the teller Zurin approached at the main branch of Suntrust Savings told him to sit down and someone from New Accounts would be with him shortly.

“Thank you, miss.”

“You don’t sound as if you’re from around here.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Where are you from?”

Smiling shyly, he had to think for a moment which passport he had with him today.  “Stockholm.”

“That’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit.”

“I hope you can some day.”

“So do I.”

He had barely taken a seat when he began to feel something tangled and hard like a knot tighten in the pit of his stomach.  He was alarmed, not having experienced that sensation since he competed as a jumper.  Often he associated it with a poor performance, as if it were a premonition that he was going to commit some kind of technical mistake that would cause his jump to be scratched by the officials.  Anxiously he wondered why he felt that knot now, worried that maybe the banker he was waiting to speak with might be familiar with Stockholm and start asking him questions he couldn’t answer.  Then he would be exposed as a liar and a fraud, maybe even arrested.

In another moment, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an emaciated man get up from behind his desk in the rear of the bank, and sure he was on his way to speak with him, Zurin also got up and started toward the door.

“Sir,” a voice said urgently.  “Please wait, sir.”

At once, then, he began running, barely brushing the floor as if he were a stone skipping across an immense body of crystal blue water.

–Story by Thomas Healy Sports News | adidas