Years ago, I went down to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a brief trip, and I'd been told to look a guy up. He lived on St. John, above Cruz Bay. I flew into Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.
Back in those days, the islands were nowhere near as developed as they are now. You took a bus to Red Hook, at the east end of St. Thomas, and caught a ferry over to Cruz Bay. There was no marina at Red Hook, then, just a jetty and a parking lot of beaten earth. There was a gal who sold sodas and sundries out of a shack. The ferry wasn't a high-speed catamaran, either. It was a water barge, with low gunwales and a one-lunger diesel, the skipper and a crew of three. It didn't make more than five knots, so it took maybe forty-five minutes to get across. That early in the day, I was the only passenger.
Cruz Bay was a sleepy little town. A few miles up the coast, RockResorts was breaking ground at Caneel Bay, but that was the first sign of bigger investments to come. It says something about my lack of local knowledge that I'd assumed I could rent a car. No such luck. The lady at the rental agency, which served more than one purpose, she was the postmistress, too, among other hats she wore, explained kindly that they only had a dozen or so vehicles, and they were spoken for weeks in advance. I asked her, by chance, if she knew somebody named Yuri Ivanov. Why, of course she did. She pointed me up the hill. Not far at all.
It was dusty. It was hot. The sun in the Caribbean is a lot more intense than you expect, if you're not used to it. But it was a nice walk, some scattered shade along the sandy path, the climb gentle. There were few people about. How he knew I was coming I don't know. He didn't have a phone. It didn't look like anybody did. There he was, though, standing outside a small cottage tucked into the hillside, as if he were waiting for me. I called his name, and scrambled uphill the last twenty or thirty feet.
He wasn't unwary, but neither did he seem surprised. I wondered how many visitors he got, in this out-of-the-way place. Hot and bright, with the sea on every side, a quiet kind of exile. I'm a friend of Gorodny's, I told him.
"Aah," he said, smiling, and we shook hands. "I took you for KGB. You're so pale, you could have come straight from the winter streets of Moscow."
He was short, and thick through the chest, wearing a pair of cut-offs, and flip-flops. I guessed him to be about sixty. His skin was sunburned darker than walnut. I found out he snorkeled the reefs, almost every day. I asked him if he saw many sharks. "The water's full of them," he said to me, with his quick smile.
We sat on the flagstone patio in front of his cottage. The sun beat down. He was used to it. I felt a little faint. There were sea-grapes growing all around. Ivanov suggested we move our chairs into the shade.
"How do you know Gorodny?" he asked. He was one of my Russian instructors, I said. "Nu, govorite po-Russki?" Da, nemnozhka, I answered. "Khorosho," he said.
He got up and went into the cottage, and came back with some herring sandwiches. "Selyedka," he said, putting them down. Where did he get the black bread? He baked it himself.
After elevenses, we went down the hill a few yards to the pump house. Ivanov brought a dented metal pitcher. Inside the little stone building, there was a fifty-five-gallon drum on a wooden cradle. He drew a pitcherful of Bajan rum the color of molasses. Well, it was made from molasses.
We sat under the sea-grapes, drinking rum and grapefruit juice. There was no ice. The sun passed the meridian. As the day drifted toward afternoon, his English got shakier, and my Russian got more persuasively fluent, or at least that's how it seemed. We were drug s drugom, fast friends. I was also half in the bag. The rum, the drowsy heat.
Ivanov drew me out, my family, where I'd studied Russian, what I figured to do with my life. He was an easy listener and asked only the simplest of questions. Finally, it was late afternoon. "Well, you'll miss your ferry," he said. He walked me back down to the harbor, waved me on board the water barge, and wished me well. "Do svidanya," he said.
Next time, I thought. I was in a stupor. Back across the channel, I bought a Coke from the woman at the beachfront shack in Red Hook. She fished it out an ice-cold cooler the size of a coffin. I went to wait for the bus.
It came, I got on, I found a window seat at the back. It was all local people, Thomians, women for the most part. A very nice lady sitting opposite me remarked that they didn't see that many tourists off the cruise ships at this end of the island. I didn't tell her I wasn't off a cruise ship. She offered me a slice of fresh mango.
Sitting there, looking sleepily out the window, my fingers sticky with fruit, the bus yawing through the curves on the one-lane macadam, back to Charlotte Amalie, I was thinking to myself, Boy, that was the worst debrief ever. I got nothing out of the guy, and he got everything. I must have been a slow learner.
The lesson is, when you match wits with an old pro, he's going to take you into his confidence, and win your trust, and turn you inside out like a sock. Or, as the saying has it, when you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.
NOTE: I've changed the names, although they say you can't compromise the dead, but who knows? Any embarrassment here is my own.