Short stories by Bobby Fox
The following short story is part of a major work (Love & Vodka) Bobby Fox wrote about his travels to Ukraine.
We were taking an overnight bus to Yalta, located in the Crimea – a peninsula on the Black Sea that was given to Ukraine as a “gift” from Russia back in 1964, not realizing at the time that Ukraine would one day gain its independence. Russia has regretted that decision ever since and is determined to take Crimea back. We were heading there to visit her cousin Andrei and his family, as part of my fiancé Olya’s goodbye tour, as she prepared for life in America. I was looking forward to leaving the dirty, claustrophobic confines of industrial Dnepropetrovsk (little did I know that I was simply trading that in for the dirty, claustrophobic confines of Yalta).
We climbed into the hot, stuffy bus. Surely, the air would be turned on after we left. As we waited to leave, Leonid stood outside our window, waving goodbye enthusiastically until we were out of sight. Our long, 12-hour journey into southern Ukraine had begun. And despite the oppressive heat, the air conditioner was never turned on – assuming the bus even had it to begin with.
What was turned on, however, was that cinematic masterpiece Taking Care of Business starring the legendary Jim Belushi. Little did I know that this bus ride was about to become a Jim Belushi film festival. As if one Jim Belushi film wasn’t enough, the first one was followed up with another one that was so awful, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. And to make matters worse, these two films were looped over and over again throughout the entirety of the trip. As Olya later explained, Ukrainians love Jim Belushi, who is apparently to Ukraine what Jerry Lewis is to France.
As we drove through downtown Dnepropetrovsk, I began to notice something rather unusual. Every couple of minutes or so, the bus driver would pull over and somebody would come on board, paying the driver cash before finding a spot to stand in the aisle. After observing this three times or so, I asked Olya what was going on. She explained that these were people who had prior arrangements with the driver to pick them up at a pre-arranged location. It was cheaper than paying for a route van and the bus driver was able to make some extra money on the side. Some of these rogue passengers were dropped off along our route before we got out of town. Many were dropped off along the main highway outside of town. These people were villagers who worked in the city and were looking for a cheaper way to travel.
Soon, night fell and I felt nowhere close to sleep. The obvious thing to do would be to read, but there were no reading lights. And talking to Olya wasn’t much of an option, either, since I was advised not to speak English. That left me no choice but to watch Jim Belushi’s hilarious antics, dubbed in Russian. The passengers were all but rolling in the aisles with laughter.
At some point three or four hours into the trip, a rancid odor filled my nostrils.
“Wow. That’s different,” I blurted out.
The stench was a bit on the sweet side – a cross between bacon, burning trash and body order – with a slight hint of nut. And it was all drifting in from somewhere outside. Never had I smelled such a hideous stench. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what could possibly cause such an odor, lest it be a rotting corpse set on fire. And it lingered for miles, becoming more unbearable with each passing second,
“What is that?,” I finally whispered to Olya.
As curious as I was to find out what it was, I was also relieved not to know. For all I knew, it was a chemical plant leaking toxins. At the very least, I hoped that if they were toxins, they would help put me into a state of sleep. But instead, all it did was make me want to gag. Eventually, the smell dissipated.
Olya fell asleep against my shoulder and all I could do was either stare at the pitch darkness outside. Or watch Jim Belushi bicker with Charles Grodin. I picked pitch darkness.
At some point, I finally managed to drift off to sleep, only to be awakened like moments later as the bus pulled into a market literally in the middle of nowhere. Its sole purpose was for people en route to the Crimea. It was the Ukrainian equivalent of a rest stop.
We stepped off the bus and I couldn’t help but dread the thought of being stranded out here. We purchased some snacks and then asked if there was a restroom nearby. Olya pointed in the direction of a small, brick building that looked like something from a death camp seen on a History Channel WWII documentary.
“That’s a bathroom?,” I asked in morbid horror.
“Yep,” she said, handing me some change.
“What’s this for?”
“Why would I be kidding?”
“I have to pay to piss? In that?”
“People have to make money somehow.”
That right there about said all you need to know about Ukraine. I reluctantly took the money and proceeded toward the outhouse with caution. The stench was evident from outside the bus, which was parked a good 50 yards or so away, so I proceeded toward it with caution. As I drew closer, the stench was becoming unbearable. I entered for a brief moment, being sure to hold my breath before I entered. But that was no defense against the putrid odor. I gagged. A babushka bathroom attendant glared at me from her desk inside the outhouse. Yes, there was a desk inside the restroom. Upon the desk sat a rusty moneybox.
I decided I had both seen and smelled enough. You couldn’t pay me to piss in that stink-hole, let alone pay to piss!
I decided my best course of action would be to head to some nearby bushes like Mother Nature intended. But before I reached my destination, I noticed I was being followed by a babushka bathroom attendant, wearing a dirty apron, which suggested that this same attendant is also responsible for cleaning the outhouse, on top of collecting money for it, therefore making it highly advisable to carry exact change.
Realizing that I put myself into a potentially ugly situation, Olya quickly rushed to my aid as the attendant yelled at me in Russian:
“Hey, boy. Where are you going? I’m sick and tired of you rich assholes always pissing in the bushes instead of my toilet.”
“You can keep talking all you want,” Olya told her in Russian. “He doesn’t speak Russian.”
“Is this your foreigner?,” the woman demanded to know.
“Then you tell your foreigner if he dares piss or shit in the bushes, I’ll throw chlorine on him. You hear me?”
Clearly, the chlorine wasn’t being used to clean the outhouse.
“Bobby, I strongly recommend that you pay this woman and use her toilet.”
Realizing what’s best for me, I reluctantly paid the attendant, refusing to take my change from her shit-stained hand.
I struggled to hold my breath for as long as possible, as I pissed into a seemingly endless pit. An empty roll of toilet paper was on a roller loosely anchored to the vomit and shit-smeared wall.
As I pissed, the attendant entered, standing behind me, no more than five feet away, as she continued to berate me. Meanwhile, Olya stood outside, listening to all of this take place.
“You rich assholes think you can piss and shit wherever you want and go to Yalta, while I spend my life slaving away in this restroom.”
I tried my best to ignore her. After I shook off the last drops of urine, I walked past the attendant and over to the sink, where I washed my hands with water more yellow than my piss. I passed on the filthy remnants of what used to be a bar of soap.
“You’re lucky I don’t lock you in here!” the attendant shouted, shaking her ring of skeleton keys, reminiscent of a prison warden, before returning to her desk.
As I walked out, I nervously smiled to the attendant and muttered a meek “Spasibo.” But I was quickly reminded once again that Ukraine is not for the meek, as she gave me the Ukrainian equivalent of a middle finger – putting her thumb between her fore and middle fingers. I learned this when I earlier played a seemingly innocent game of “I got your nose” with Olya and then stood there in mass confusion as she slapped my hand away, deeply offended. Lesson learned. On this trip, there were oh so many lessons. But I was – and continue to be to this day – an ever-so-eager student.
Tree Hugger1 http://yareah.com/?p=1184
Tree Hugger2 http://yareah.com/?p=1217
Bobby Fox website: http://www.foxplots.com