The Words Rumble Down the Tracks
We finally did it. After months of putting it off, complaining about money, and scrounging our hard earned yen my girlfriend and I finally flew to Beijing and boarded the Trans-Siberian Express. We stayed in Beijing touring the sites; the Forbidden City and some of the not so Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly something, the square of heavenly something, and the tea shop of heavenly something before boarding the train.
Inside the compartment there were four beds, myself my girlfriend, and a friendly Russian named Peter, who was meeting his friends in Irkutsk. It didn’t bother us much, and it could have been a lot worse. He was, among other things, a very congenial drunk. We were curious about Russia and he would talk and drink, and talk and drink, and then mostly drink. He would tell us jokes, old stories, fables from the four corners of the empire and up to date gossip. Before we left Ulanbataar, the capital of Mongolia I felt half Russian.
In particular Mika and I loved listening to him tell stories about his Russian Bowling Team! Peter made them sound like a cross between the Deltas from Animal House and the Justice League of Superheroes. Peter was quite fond of Mika, and often called her, “more beautiful than any Svetlana I’ve ever met.” We took this as a gushing compliment, though to be sure we were a bit dumbfounded.
As the train rolled into and over the Ural Mountains the characters in Peter’s stories sprang to life like drunken Greek Gods descending from Olympus to the mortal realm. Our tolerance for Vodka grew with our awe at the misadventures of “The B-Team” as Mika and I began calling them. When the train arrived in Irkutsk Peter simply said,
“You come with me now, yes? You come meet my friends, you will like.”
It was the middle of July and the night air was crisp, a great white pickup arrived no sooner than we had stepped off the train.
”Hey Shit-head, why did you bring truck with three seats when we are four people?”
It was odd that shit-head seemed like a term of endearment. “Shit-head” simply grunted and pointed to the cab. I couldn’t help but notice his massive mustache, it seemed to defy physics. Peter took our bags and put them in the passenger seat and we all jumped in the back. We could barely fit three people between the enormous amounts of vodka stacked around us.
”Peter why do you have so much Vodka in the truck, do you own a bar?”
“No, not bar. BOAT! We live on Lake Baikal for summer, this is supplies.”
Mika smiled, and asked him if he intended to go without food for the entire summer.
Peter thought for a moment. “Well Vodka was potato once, no?”
On that note the truck spun its wheels and flew off down the road. When we arrived at one of the docks it was clear which boat we were going to. The white boat was massive, it had at least two floors and had to have been at least 150 feet long. There were Russian pop songs belting from speakers and beautiful scantily clad women running back and forth on the deck.
“Who are these people Peter?” Mika asked.
“Hey you guys! Come out and meet my friends!”
Almost immediately ten men rushed to lean over the deck on the top floor. They smiled and waved their vodka to us.
“My friends want to know who are we!”
“We are Russian bowling team!” They shouted in unison.
Mika and I were beaming, we hugged each other, tears welling in our eyes, like rival siblings that find a brief moment of awe coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. The clever bastard had been buttering us up the whole train ride.
We boarded the boat and the first sound we heard was the crashing of pins below the deck. The B-team was also decked out in identical track suits of white with the hammer and sickle USSR insignia, only the hammer was a bowling pin.
”You have a bowling alley on the boat Peter? “
He smiled,”You can not have summer with bowling team and have no bowling, would be crazy.”
We went immediately down to the bowling alley, where the “B-team” was in full swing. There were six lanes and twelve bowlers including Peter. Suddenly the stories he told us on the train came to life. These gods may not have controlled thunder, or killed hydras, but they certainly demolished pins. Behind the back, under the legs, many even bowled with a bottle of vodka pouring down their mouth, and all were strikes. Every ball knocked down every pin.
But after a few minutes of perfection the unthinkable happened.
"Vanya! " They all screamed, and the man’s face was as white as the defiant pin. He missed one. The whole bowling team rushed over to his lane as he sullenly began walking toward his lone pin. Halfway down he stopped and laid down on the lane, his hands and feet in the gutter.
The rest of them lined up, each with a ball. Mika grabbed my arm, hard. They all started chanting in Russian and the first man lined up and threw his ball. Just as it was nearing Vanya’s own pin he lurched his body up and the ball passed underneath him. It hooked perfectly to the right and that satisfying crashing sound echoed through the alley. Everyone cheered and Mika released her grip a little. This was repeated ten times, and Vanya never looked back. He raised himself in perfect time just by the sound of the ball approaching. Each consecutive ball was a strike.
Peter hopped over to us and began explaining the customs of the bowling team.
“You see we cannot have members of Russian Bowling Team miss strike. They threaten our…”
“What do they threaten?” He asked the nearest bowler.
"Unity!" Repeated Shit-head. Uri glared fiercely at him and the two began arguing in Russian, with a smattering of English mixed in. “My word first!” Uri screamed. The argument lasted longer than I possibly thought it could, both men were red-faced and screaming by the end.
“You motherhumper! You stole unity in two-zero-zero-three! It was mine! Your brain is like donkey shit!”
”Your mother was mine! Your face look like corpse of dead uncle! I spit on memory of your chin! “
”You bowl worse than Svetlana!”
Uri grabbed Shit-head’s beard and the two men mere centimeters apart began talking faster and lower than before. They seemed to come to an anti-climactic ending before Shit-head turned around.
“Yes?” Uri asked.
“Yes.” Shit-head answered and he raised his glass and shouted.
The Perfect Game!
All twelve Russians raised their glass as did Mika and I and repeated, The Perfect Game!
Zen: and the Art of Svetlana
No matter how fast he seemed to wave his arms the vodka swirled precariously close to the surface but he never spilled a drop.
“What is…this word…means?”
”It means you’re a special person Peter”
“Yes, and you’re woman is un..can..knee woman as well. Is she not?”
“We have 12 women on our boat, all women are named Svetlana.”
"Why do you have 12 Svetlanas?"
"Well I came up with theory, there was girl in my high school, very beautiful and loved to have sex. Her name… Svetlana. Then I told Mikhail one day, and he said his high school have only one Svetlana, very beautiful, loved also the sex. So each member of Russian bowling team had same story, Illya from St. Petersberg, Vanya from Moscow, Uri from Samara, Ivan from Vladivostok, Andrei from Sochi, Boris from Kaliningrad, Sergey from Kazan, Dimitri from Olmsk, Gabriel from Arkhangelsk and Hey! Shit-head! I can’t even remember where you come to high school anymore!"
"Ah yes, and shithead from Perm. Also have one Svetlana."
"See we make bet, he is only one of us with ugly mustache, how will successful Russian bowling team be famous with such a face. So we tell him, until you kill mustache we treat you…like dog. So now he named Shit-head. Hey Shit head get me more vodka."
He grumbles but does as he’s asked.
"If you treat him so badly, why does he do what you say?
"Well there are eleven handsome baby face Russian bowlers, and one ugly Misha…I mean one ugly shit-head. So now he is not angry anymore, he gave up long time ago."
"Well, how long have you been calling him shithead?"
"Now is two-zero-zero-eight yes?"
"Wow. That still doesn’t explain your dozen Svetlana’s."
"Oh yes, I will continue with story. So when I realize that all cities in Russia have beautiful whore Svetlana’s I made theory that girls who are named Svetlana are cursed to become whore. I ask gypsy woman and she said me, 'We learned long ago never to name our daughters Svetlana, it is cursed name.' So now I am leader of bowling team."
"Wait, what? Why are you the leader of the bowling team for that?"
Because my theory was correct, I am Russian Bowling Rasputin! He pointed his hands over his back and smiled. Then he turned around. His bowling jersey sure enough, in very small letters, said 'Russian Bowling Rasputin.'”
"Ok so Svetlana’s are whores, and that’s a very nice shirt by the way…"
"Your welcome, and your theory was correct, so…"
The boat began lurching forward, the sound of ice clinking to glass was almost overwhelming. Though Mika and I could hardly keep our balance the bowlers continued their games completely unfazed. Their legs bent and they twisted at slightly different angles when they threw the ball, but the result was always the same.
"Peter how does everyone bowl so well with the boat moving like this, I can barely stand up."
"Is nice. This is special Lake Baikal Training."
Peter covered his face with his shirt stood on one leg and absent mindedly threw the ball down the lane, where it crushed all ten pins.
"Here," he said handing me a small paperback book,"is manual."
The book was called Zen: and Art of Bowling, and the author was Russian Bowling Team.
I was becoming more confused and more accepting of everything by the minute. I couldn’t really afford to think anymore, just respond. When I looked around the alley and saw all 12 bowlers bowling I asked, Who’s driving the boat Peter?
”Svetlana drive boat. And Svetlana brought in vodka and park truck in garage.”
”So the Svetlana’s do all the work?”
”Well, Svetlana is bad bowler, so she do other work. Svetlana also sing very nice, you see later.”
”How did all of the Svetlana’s get on this boat?”
“Oh, easy. We bought them.”
”We bought them, they are whores!”
One of the Svetlana’s started walking over angrily. She was an incredibly lithe and graceful figure but her eyes were quickly becoming daggers. Peter turned quickly.
”Not you baby, your sister, I would never call you whore.”
She is stopped in her tracks, suddenly her smile seems to erase any trace of the violence her eyes held moments before and she bounces cheerfully back to the cabin.
“No I mean it they were all whores,” he whispers now. “We went to every city in Russia looking for most beautiful Svetlanas in whore houses and picked these twelve.”
“Well how did you get the money to buy all of these Svetlanas? “
“I told you, we are SUCCESSFUL Russian Bowling Team. Now Drink.”
After that the night gets a little hazy, but in the last few weeks we’ve seen a lot of changes. Mika has gracefully changed her name to Svetlana, and I’ve dropped use of pronouns and article when I speak English now. My Russian is almost passable. Of course, we haven’t stopped bowling.
“Hey Shit-head!” I yell across the alleys. “Bring me more Vodka…please.”
Although I guess I still haven’t gotten the hang of everything.