The Three Oleksandrs
The first Oleksandr waited alone in the apartment, grew impatient, and walked to the door only to discover himself standing there.
It wasn’t exactly him. This man that stood in the hallway was a couple of inches taller and more than a couple of inches rounder, but otherwise it was him: Same swoosh of grey-white hair, same broad shoulders, same spindly legs. Same dark eyes burning above a neatly trimmed beard, grey-white itself. Their charcoal suits were, at a glance, almost identical, as were the men inside them.
They both stood there for a moment, staring at one another, before finally the first Oleksandr said, “So it’s true. There are more than I after all.”
“I suppose so,” said the second Oleksandr. “Well, may I come in?”
“Please,” said the first Oleksandr, and smiled, beckoning for him to enter.
The apartment was small, simple but tastefully furnished. A surprisingly spacious kitchen opened into a comfortable dining space, beyond which was a small living room and, further against the back, a cozy bedroom. A Turkish ottoman curled underneath a large picture window, outside of which the Brooklyn Bridge could be seen, twinkling in the vague dusk.
“Can I offer you something?” asked the first Oleksandr.
“What are my choices?” asked the second Oleksandr.
“I don’t know,” the first Oleksandr admitted. “I haven’t been waiting long. I took a look out the window. Let’s just say the view isn’t as inspiring as you might initially think.”
“Let us explore, then,” said the second Oleksandr.
The drawers were all empty, the refrigerator was empty, and the cabinets were empty save for the one over the sink, which held only a bottle of Grey Goose and three glasses.
“Ah,” said the second Oleksandr, pulling them out. “Here we are.”
They sat in the plush leather sofa in the living room, admiring the view. Their glasses clinked amicably.
“Might I ask,” said the first Oleksandr, “how you were contacted today?”
“Is it permitted?” asked the second Oleksandr.
“I suppose,” said the first Oleksandr. “I can’t imagine that this is a coincidence.”
“No,” said the second Oleksandr, “I suppose not.”
“Plus,” said the first Oleksandr, “there’s also the matter of the painting in the bedroom.”
The bedroom, in contrast to the rest of the apartment, was surprisingly small, and rather plain in color and design, the only affectation being the large, curving window in the far corner which seemed to curl around the side of the building like an eyelash.
Over the bed, a large mounted painting of a face they both knew well.
“Ah,” said the second Oleksandr, “so that changes things indeed.”
“It is a remarkable portrait,” said the first Oleksandr. “I remember the day I sat for it.”
“Ah,” said the second Oleksandr, this time differently. “So that wasn’t him after all.”
“No, it was me,” said the first Oleksandr. “But the car wreck — that was actually him, despite what you might have heard to the contrary.”
Over the bed, Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich’s face blazed down at them from the canvas. It was the face they knew because it was the face they’d been paid to share.
“My name,” said the first Oleksandr, “is George Stephenson.”
“Leonard Vickers,” said the second Oleksandr, offering his hand, “but please call me Leo.” They shook hands warmly, their friendship cemented immediately. “Shall we to the living room, then?”
“Certainly,” said George, the first Oleksandr. Again, their glasses clinked amicably.
“I suppose I was the first,” George said. “I’m guessing you were the second.”
“I suppose I was,” said Leo, the second Oleksandr. “I wonder how many of us there were after all.”
“There were three glasses,” said George. “Perhaps another is on the way.”
“Indeed. Forgive me,” said Leo, “but you were saying about how you were contacted?”
“Ah!” George cried. “Yes, of course. It was the same as always. A phone call from a gentleman with the Prussian accent –“
“Petrov,” said Leo, with a tremulous shudder, “oh, what a terrifying man.”
“Yes indeed,” said George, “certainly a man I’d never wish to cross paths with again. Petrov would give me an address and a time, and that’s where we’d meet.”
“And then a car brings you to the appearance,” said Leo, “and you’re given your instructions on the way. It was the exact same with me, every time. Today’s was no different than any other. It feels so strange to finally speak of all this after all these years. Often I thought of doing just that, were it not for Petrov.”
George, who had once seen Petrov lift a man by his throat off the floor of a bar in Hong Kong and shake him like a rag doll, needed only to nod to indicate his agreement. Old habits die hard.
“But I always supposed,” Leo continued, “that men like Oleksandr needed men like Petrov. A man in his position must inevitably find someone else to do the things he cannot.”
“You must forgive me,” George said. “But I forgot to mention one thing.”
Leo, as though he was reading George’s mind, produced from his pocket a single long white envelope.
“You as well,” said George as much as to himself as to Leo. “Of course. But of course.”
“I haven’t opened it yet,” Leo said, lying it flat on the glass coffee table before them. “I supposed I would know when the time was right.”
George pulled his from his pocket, unfolding it and opening it to reveal the single key that was inside. “It unlocks nothing in this apartment that I’ve been able to find.”
Leo inspected it closely. “In my actual time — that is what I call it, when I am not supposed to be Oleksandr — in my actual time I’m a locksmith. This wouldn’t open anything in this ZIP code, for that matter. It’s actually a key for a lockbox in a bank. You see, here, the amount of teeth on the blade? Far too many for a simple apartment, even one furnished so tastefully as this.”
“I call it my other life,” said George, “the time when I’m myself. George, that is, not Oleksandr.”
“How terrifying it was to be him,” said Leo. “And yet so terribly lonely.”
“The loneliness was the worst part for me,” said George.
“How long did you work for Oleksandr?” Leo asked.
“Eleven years,” George said. He told Leo about to the first day he learned about Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich. It was a cloudy day in Newark, colder than usual, and George was playing chess on a table in front of the Minute Mart, the corner store in his neighborhood. George played with Mikhail, the Minute Mart’s owner, every afternoon not consumed by work or school.
“Georgie,” Mikhail said late one afternoon, “I have a job you were born for.” Mikhail stood an imposing six and a half feet when he was standing straight, but he hadn’t stood straight in quite some time; a drunk driver had jumped the curb as he was walking to the Minute Mart several years back, and it took six surgeries before Mikhail could move his toes on his own. George only vaguely remembered the time before Mikhail’s omnipresent wheelchair; as it turned out, he never stood up straight again.
“What kind of job?” he asked.
“Trust me, it is a job you are perfectly suited for. There is a man that is coming here. From the old country. He is a man — let us just say that he has an enemy for every friend, and he has many friends.”
“What kind of work are you offering me, Mikhail?” George asked, grinning slyly. He knew the shopkeeper’s idea of law and order was, shall we say, fluid.
“Nothing of the sort you imagine, my young friend,” Mikhail chuckled. “I would not dream of putting you in danger. No, this man is very different from that. No harm will come to you. All that is needed is for you to be who you were born to be.”
George could not get anything less cryptic from his wheelchair-bound friend, and yet when the time on the slip of paper Mikhail gave him was approaching, George’s heart stirred, and his adventurous spirit sent tingles of excitement into his fingers and toes.
52nd and 3rd, 6pm Tuesday, said the note, and that was when and where George was when the black sedan slid to the curb and a door popped open. From inside, a heavy Russian accent mangled the words “Please to come with.”
The car’s interior was dark, neat and showroom-clean. Across from him sat a large man whose presence seemed to choke the air. “I am Petrov,” said the man. “Please to listen to me.”
Petrov explained what George would do: proceed to Grand Central and find the public restroom on the ground level. In a stall in the far rear would be a change of clothes. He would change clothes and leave his own there; “they will be taken care of,” Petrov grumbled. He would then board a train to Philadelphia, and check in at a four-star hotel in the downtown area. He would eat dinner at a fine restaurant of his choosing, cost not an issue, and he would perhaps take in a show, or go to a concert. He’d then return to the hotel, “and you must be alone, always alone,” Petrov said sternly, shaking a thick finger at him. He would then retire for the night, catch a cab to the airport in the morning and fly back to LaGuardia, where another car would be waiting to return him back home to Newark. “You must be alone,” Petrov said, “and you must tell no one you have ever done this.”
George sat in the car, turning this information over in his head, and saw Petrov cross his arms and stare balefully at him. “You can ask questions now,” Petrov said.
“Why me?” George asked.
“Because you look just like Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich,” Petrov said, “and Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich can benefit from being in more than one place at a time.”
“Why should I say yes?” George asked.
Petrov pulled a notepad from his pocket, scribbled on it, and tore the sheet off, handing it to George. “This much now. Three times this when you return.”
“It was a lot,” George said to Leo. “A lot more than I’d ever seen before.”
“I have no doubt,” Leo said, remembering his own number.
“You will never be in any danger,” Petrov said. “Nobody wishes to harm Oleksandr. But not many wish him well. It is precaution. To be simple.”
“I see,” George said. He was a young working student, and he’d just been offered three times what he’d make in a month for a night in Philadelphia. The decision was made, he told Leo, the moment he decided to step into the car.
“After today, you must never speak of this to anyone again,” Petrov said. “You make a contract with us, you are bound by it. If that is your decision.”
“So I assume you took the job,” Leo chuckled.
“Of course I took the job,” George laughed. “Wouldn’t you?”
“I did!” Leo cried, and they laughed together.
And so George did everything that he was asked of him. An envelope of cash was pressed into his hands as he left the car. He found his change of clothes, caught his flight, checked into his hotel, and enjoyed Philadelphia. He got drunk at a fancy restaurant, went to a movie and collapsed back in his bed. When he returned to New York the next day, another envelope was pressed into his hands, and he stood on the corner of 52nd and 3rd, less than 24 hours after meeting the car there, holding more money in his hands than he had ever seen in his life.
“And I suppose you know this,” continued George, “but that’s how it went. I mean, it was shockingly dull most of the time. Just a series of trips, almost always exactly the same list of things to do. Most of all, just be out and be seen.”
“Did you ever figure out why you were being paid to do all these things?” Leo asked.
“Not at first,” George admitted. He leaned forward. “I mean, you probably know as well as I how it was. You just went places. Sometimes it was to Philadelphia. Sometimes it was further out, in places like Chicago or Atlanta. The first time I went overseas, that was interesting.”
“I’m sure it was.”
“Such absurd preparations for that trip. Absurd to me, at least. I flew over as myself — George — but paid for the ticket with the cash they gave me. ‘Use only this monies!’ I remember Petrov saying. He was quite clear about that.”
“What was the destination this time?”
“Helsinki, of all places, and yet the routine, once I arrived, was exactly the same. I dined out. I saw the most extraordinary museums and watched musicians bend instruments and notes to their titanic will. I toured everywhere and saw the most incredible sights a person can see. I visited clubs and danced with the most beautiful women. The most beautiful women. I tell you, the temptation was so strong to take them back to my room, but Petrov could not be budged on that matter. ‘Always return alone,’ he’d growl, and that was always that. I found, however, that there was plenty of leeway within the rules.”
“There always is,” said Leo, smiling broadly. “Now you must forgive me.”
“Of course,” said George.
“I know we are not to speak of these things with others. But I feel as though we can share these things with each other.”
“Of course,” nodded George.
“Did you ever really find out why? Why you and why you were to do these things?”
George sat in thought for quite some time. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked gently. Outside, the evening traffic honked and roared. The sunlight grew softer, more golden.
“I can say this honestly,” George said finally, his voice, although quiet, seeming to shatter the thin membrane of the dusk. “I took money from Petrov and I pretended to be Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich for over a decade because I didn’t want to know.”
George explained to Leo his childhood dream: to life a solitary life, to do only as one wished. (“It is the dream all men share,” Leo nodded.) And the money that came from being Oleksandr was, for a time, enough to live on. George was living inside his dream, and for many years, it was more than enough.
But as he settled into middle age, the question grew in his mind: who was Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich? Who was he really? He started to lose sleep at night. His weight fluctuated. He developed headaches, and would grind his teeth so loudly in his sleep that he’d wake himself up. The question began to eat at him with a pernicious, acid relentlessness. He spent so much time living inside the shell of another man that he started to lose sense of who he was. Was he George Stephenson, a kid from a working-class neighborhood in Newark? Or was he just pretending to be George? Was George just filling out Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich like Oleksandr was just an empty shell, always needing filling?
“It was dreadful,” George said, “but I realized that I’d crossed over from not wanting to know at all into needing to know more than anything else.”
So George began to misbehave. Slowly and surely, he started to push his boundaries. Acting out just a bit more every time. He’d switch rooms in his hotel, inventing complaints about the air conditioning or the bedspread. He’d spend longer hours in places that were “less Oleksandr,” and drop his name to anyone who’d listen. Every time he’d get briefed by Petrov, he’d ask questions, the questions he wasn’t supposed to be asking. And every time he was met with a stone wall of silence so pure it seemed like a void.
And every wall of silence meant that George would step outside his normal role just a little further every time. His first real act of rebellion was to miss his flight back to New York from a trip to Oakland. He stayed an extra night, paying cash and using his own name. When he did return, he didn’t receive another call from Petrov for six weeks. Indeed, he had begun to think he’d been blacklisted when one Sunday morning, the phone rang and the same gruff Russian voice ordered him to the corner of 52nd and 3rd at 6pm.
He showed up early, as did Petrov. As they slid away from the curb, Petrov stared at him and George felt he should confess. They know, he thought, they know I’ve been bad. At that point in his life, George was twenty-eight years old and had been taking envelopes of cash from Petrov for almost a decade.
“You have mistaken our arrangement for one that is flexible,” Petrov said. In the years that had ensued since their first encounter, his English had grown only marginally better; he was less prone to the malapropisms that made deciphering his intent an exercise in mental gymnastics. “You stayed extra night in Oakland. Under name of your own. This cannot be.”
“I know,” George said, “I’m sorry,” he said, and he was telling the truth. He was sorry; he knew he’d caused a problem and while he didn’t feel that he was in any danger, he didn’t wish to take up residence on the ill side of Petrov’s favors.
“I will explain this to you once and only once,” Petrov said. His voice changed, became oddly soft. “Oleksandr is a very sensitive man. Very sensitive. He is in business everywhere. He has strange ideas in his head. Very strange even to man like me. He wishes to be everywhere, to be seen doing things everywhere his business is.”
“What is his business?”
“This I cannot tell you,” Petrov said, shaking his head, “but I can guarantee that it is legal. You are in no danger. It is just that — Oleksandr was born with a great name. A very great name, and a very great fortune attached to it. Oleksandr is a very — how you say, shrewd? A very shrewd man. And he knows that someone with a fortune such as his knows that others will come to take it, no matter what.”
“Can I meet him? Can I talk to Oleksandr?” George asked. Petrov, of course, shook his head again.
“Nobody talks to Oleksandr. No one. I have worked for Oleksandr for twenty-two years, since the day he inherited his forture. I have never seen him with my own eyes.”
“And yet you continue to work for this man you’ve never seen,” George said. “Why continue?”
“Why do you?” Petrov asked in return, offering an envelope. George knew what was inside, and took it, but the question echoed in his head.
“You must never be anyone other than Oleksandr,” Petrov said. “and you must honor our arrangement.”
The assignments resumed, but they were erratic, coming in odd bursts after weeks of inactivity, and they became more specific. Take this exact train to this exact restaurant at this exact time, and order exactly this from the waiter (regardless of whether or not it was on the menu). Go to this address at this exact time and mingle with the crowd for exactly this much time. Walk for this number of blocks and stop into this place at this exact time. Return to the hotel at this exact time and turn off the lights at this exact time. And so on and so forth.
George began to feel like a living puppet, a drone following orders, blindly complacent within the hazy womb of wealth and privilege. And he began have the feeling that he was being watched. (“Or being supervised,” he clarified to Leo, “it was more like there was someone with a ruler, watching me from the shadows, ready to attack my wrist and banish me to the corner.”) And somehow he knew that his time as Oleksandr Illych Ivanovich was coming to an end.
“The last job,” George told Leo as the last of the daylight slipped away, “was sitting for the portrait. The portrait that’s in the bedroom. I remember it well. I followed the usual set of instructions and found myself in a studio in Brooklyn. The painter was a very tall man, named Christopher Breeze. Petrov sat and watched as he moved me around into the position he wanted me in, always being careful to show me the most deference and respect. It took about an hour and then Petrov took me down to the street, shook my hand and then put an envelope in it, and he got into the black sedan and drove away. I have not seen him since.”
“Interesting,” Leo said, refilling his glass. “Very interesting.”
“After that, I’m sure you remember, was the car accident. Oleksandr flipped his Porsche on a country road in Vermont. But that wasn’t me, as I said. It must have been the real Oleksandr. And after all these years, these many years, you are the first I have told about this. Not even my wife knows. I don’t know why I never told her. It didn’t seem to matter.”
Leo nodded. “I understand. I understand what you mean. It never does, does it? It never did to me, either.”
“And now you must tell me,” George said, sliding forward on the couch, “when did it begin for you?”
Leo smiled. “I must confess, I can answer many of your questions, the questions I’m sure you’ve had about Oleksandr over the years, but I myself have just as many as you.” He leaned forward and looked at George, smiling. “The reason the jobs dried up,” he said, “was that Oleksandr met someone.”
Leo was finalizing his second divorce when his divorce lawyer, an owlish man always dressed in tweed named Barry Jerkins, blinked at him through his thick bifocals and said, “Ya know, when one door closes, another is flung open.”
Leo, who that day was fighting both a hangover and a persistent creditor, shook his head. “That’s what they say,” he said, “but honestly, I’m not in the mood for anything they say right now.” His first wife had left him for another man, his ex-business partner, and his second had left him for another woman, her tennis coach, and Leo, as he told George later, was not in the mood for much of anything except another trip to the bottom of a bottle.
“Just trust me on this,” Barry said, pressing a piece of folded-up stationery into his palm. “This is something that will help you out. But you didn’t get this from me.”
“My first experience was essentially identical to yours,” Leo said to George, shaking his glass and watching the ice cubes swirl around at the bottom, “but my assignments were far more sporadic. And the money, as I’m sure you know, was excellent.” Leo’s trips, however intermittent, were more focused and specific, and almost always overseas: Bangkok, Paris, Madrid, Moscow. By the end of the second year, he calculated that he’d visited almost every continent at least twice, excepting the poles, both of which he’d flown over multiple times.
The routine was the same to start: a meeting at a park in SoHo, Petrov’s bulk always spilling over the same rickety bench, and from there a car to Grand Central, where he’d locate a change of clothes in a janitor’s closet on the top floor, and then take a train to LaGuardia, where a ticket awaited him. Upon arriving to whichever city it was he was traveling to, he’d be escorted in another sleek black sedan to a high-rise, where he was instructed to wait quietly in the waiting room area. He was told not to speak to anyone, or take a meeting with anyone, or answer anyone’s questions; just to sit in the waiting area.
“A classic intimidation tactic, I later came to find out,” Leo explained. “Oleksandr knew he couldn’t be everywhere at once, but he found out very early on in his business dealings that a simple magician’s trick, executed properly, could benefit him greatly.”
“What was his business?” George asked. “Can you tell me?”
Leo shrugged. “I think that his business, in the end, was not as nefarious as it may have seemed to us. I think that Oleksandr had a great amount of family wealth to manage, and it was all that he had. It was — is, I suppose — the very thing that he lives to do. To sit in rooms everywhere and move numbers around on a spreadsheet and manage the cash flow. To keep the machine oiled.”
“Then why us?” George asked. “Even now, after all these years, the question plagues me.”
“It haunted me as well,” Leo said, “until I realized that the simple truth was staring me in the face. We were simply living the life everyone thought Oleksandr should be living.”
Oleksandr, Leo explained, had fallen in love. Petrov mentioned, during a briefing on the SoHo park bench, Oleksandr’s newfound vigor and interest in expanding his reach.
“Is it a woman?” Leo asked, trying as he did so to make it sound joking and casual. Petrov, true to form, only scowled and shook his head balefully.
“Is always a woman,” Petrov said. But within six months, the trips began to wane again. The overseas jaunts became quick overnights to Los Angeles, then Denver, then Dallas, then Nashville, and so on — each trip less and less further from New York. Oleksandr, from wherever he was in the city, was building a new profile for himself: the homebody.
And for an eight-month period, the work dried up completely. Oleksandr was happy. He was in love. There was no need for him to be seen anywhere; he had everything he ever needed. Even Petrov seemed less surly than normal; at their last meeting before the eight-month dry spell, Petrov was even humming a popular tune from the radio between issuing instructions to Leo.
But then something happened. After six months of no contact whatsoever from Petrov, Leo had taken a job at a keymaker’s shop in the financial district, which paid barely enough to cover his modest rent. (“I was dying,” Leo said, wincing even as he spoke to George, “it was the worst of times, to be sure. The walls in my apartment building were so thin, tissue paper would have seemed like it was soundproof. The temperature alternated between subtropical and subarctic. What is the affliction — bipolar disorder? Living in that place was like living inside a crazy person’s head.”) He spent a lot of his spare time simply wandering the island, walking for hours up and down the streets, watching the streetlights sparkle in the darkness and listening to the sounds of the city echoing through its caverns.
It was a very lonely time for him, he told George, a time when his sense of self seemed to be constantly called into question. “I came to depend on being Oleksandr, much as you did. But I started wanting to know. No, that’s not right — I had to know. I had to know more. And then I had my chance.”
The message came through and once again, there was Petrov on the bench, waiting to issue his instructions, in the same stormy temper as always. Only this time, the instructions were simpler. “Do as you like,” Petrov said simply, the swelter of a late-summer evening producing rivers of sweat which he swiped from his forehead.
The assignment this time was Atlanta, and Leo made good on his instructions, or lack thereof. He threw Oleksandr’s name in every possible direction: cab drivers, waiters, people walking past on the street. He blew three thousand dollars in a matter of hours in a high-end strip club, hip-hop booming and rattling the glasses on the table in his private suite, under which a pair of perfectly pneumatic dancers took turns swallowing him whole. He spent an extra day there not because he wanted to further misbehave but because he was so hung over the next day that he couldn’t make it off the floor of his hotel room (the penthouse, of course). Petrov, upon seeing him approach at their next meeting, snorted derisively and said, “This time, you may consider drinking more water.”
The assignments resumed at a steady pace and indeed, there didn’t seem to be much that Leo could do to incent Petrov’s warning. He wheeled around cities, drank and caroused until all hours of the night and day, and even, once, tried to get himself arrested, by urinating on a police car while the officer was still behind the wheel. (He spent all of three hours in a drunk tank before his bail was paid and his charges evaporated into thin air like steam from a sidewalk grate.) But after playing Oleksandr for so long, Leo knew, as George did before him, that there was always a certain limit.
“You played Oleksandr as though he was someone lost,” Leo said thoughtfully. “You could end up on the floor every night and still Oleksandr had to have his dignity. How could you not give it to him? How could you not deny him that very basic gift? After all he gave to you? It seemed unfair to present Oleksandr to the world as a satyr of some sort. He wasn’t anything of the sort.”
And so Leo resolved to disobey once again, and this time the subterfuge took on an extra dimension. Upon landing in whatever city it was he was directed to, he’d enjoy a modest meal, put in an appearance at a local hotspot, and then slip out early, heading instead to a local library, where his research into the past of Olexandr Illych Ivanovich truly began in earnest.
“Petrov either didn’t notice, or didn’t care,” Leo said, walking to the window and looking out at the moonlit cityscape beyond. He looked out at the view before him. “You are right. The view isn’t as inspiring as it first appears.”
George chuckled. “Look at it this way. It’s an excellent reminder that in the long run, we’ll all be neighbors.”
“Indeed,” Leo said quietly, then cleared his throat. “But if Petrov did know about what I was really doing, he didn’t say anything about it. Not at first, anyway. I think he grew suspicious after the six or seventh trip when I didn’t get tossed out of a bar headfirst.”
“Investigating Oleksandr,” George said. “I would think it wouldn’t be easy.”
“Imagining the difficulty is one thing,” Leo said, “and encountering it was something else entirely.”
He did determine, with reasonable certainty, was that Oleksandr had been born into a Russian Jewish family of some respite, their fortunes still flush from a number of investments in oil and natural gas companies. His parents died when he was 14, victims of an influenza outbreak, and the family estate was in the hands of family lawyers until he turned 18. Oleksandr was tutored privately and never went to university, so there were no records on hand of grades; he seemed to have been propelled straight from the womb into the driver’s seat of his family’s fortune. After he turned 18, little else could be found; he lived hermetically, apparently, and was never interviewed. Indeed, there was not even so much as a single photograph that could be found, save for a handful of grainy, out-of-focus shots of men in dark coats which purported to be Oleksandr, but could not be verified with complete certainty as him.
Indeed, Oleksandr’s past was strewn with false starts and dead ends, mostly, Leo explained, because there was little on hand to distinguish which deeds belonged to the real Oleksandr.
“I must admit, you were clever,” Leo said. “There were a number of occurrences which I was never certain about. The early years were the most difficult, of course. You were clever, and so was Petrov. The dates always lined up and there were always eyewitnesses everywhere who would swear in court that Oleksandr was the man they saw in that bar, or in that restaurant, or at that club, or at that concert.”
Leo was into his sixth or seventh attempt at digging up information when he realized that he was looking in the wrong direction. “No one talked to Oleksandr,” he told George. “Which is to say, no one talked to you about your family. That was the key. When Oleksandr spoke to someone of his family. As I said, you were clever. When the business came up, you had a retort: ‘Business is for the daytime.’”
“Business is for the daytime,” George breathed. “How strange it is to hear it after all these years. My own words presented to me.”
“Indeed, and yet once I realized this,” Leo continued, “determining the real Oleksandr only became slightly more easy.” George, as Oleksandr, had left an erratic but convincing trail of appearances, outbursts, bar tabs and broken promises across any number of cities across America and, indeed, the globe at large, but every once in a while, there was an odd intersection of myth and fact.
On at least two occurrences, Leo explained, Oleksandr seemed to appear in two places at once. Once in a barroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the last week of November of 1978, and also at an estate dinner in New Hampshire on more or less the same date.
“I was in Tulsa,” George explained. “If memory serves, that was me. I don’t know that I ever visited New Hampshire, come to think of it.”
“I presumed it was you, or, at the time I was investigating, I presumed it was someone being paid to be Oleksandr, like me,” Leo said. “The second occurrence was eight years later. You — I presume it was you — overnighted in a bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco — this would have been June, June of 1986, middle of the month — and yet you — Oleksandr, that is — attended a board meeting of his company in Moscow on that same date.”
“San Francisco was indeed me, as a matter of fact,” George said.
Leo finished off his drink, set the empty glass onto the coffee table, and stood, walking to the window. “It’s possible my research is wrong,” he said. “I have only the vaguest scraps of proof of any of this, subject to any amount of conjecture. Add to this the way memory becomes flexible as the years pass. Even after all this, I still never felt I came close to the real Oleksandr.”
Questions plagued Leo as the months passed, performing his surreptitious research while ostensibly enjoying the life of a wealthy and privileged man. Why go to all the trouble of hiring someone to be you? What kind of person needs another to truly live?
“Every time I thought I was close,” Leo said, “I’d find my grasp on it slipping away again. It was as though Oleksandr was just ahead of me, wiping his footprints off the ground, and taunting me for not being able to follow the trail.” Leo began to misbehave, then, and it was newly energized by his own private frustrations. The assignments were sporadic again, and Leo’s attempts to dig up more information on Oleksandr grew stale.
“And then,” Leo said, “something strange happened.”
Leo was in Wellington, New Zealand, following the usual set of orders (take plane from Los Angeles to Wellington, check into downtown hotel, dine along the wharf, attend a local art gallery, return home, and the like) when a waiter brought him a message: there was a phone call for him. He got up from his table at the restaurant, a splendid plate of lamb shanks half-finished, and took the call in the coat room. On the other end, Petrov, breathing heavily, seeming agitated, almost shouting the instructions: “Return to New York. Return to New York immediately and await further instructions.”
Leo left the plate on the table and flagged a cab to the airport; everything in his hotel room, he reasoned, was nothing he would miss. Seventeen hours later, he was staring blearily at Petrov, on the SoHo park bench, the intensity of his exhaustion the only thing keeping him awake.
“Go to Oleksandr’s apartment and stay there,” Petrov said.
“Won’t I disturb someone?” Leo asked hesitantly. “Oleksandr’s wife?”
Petrov sneered and for the first time, Leo thought he saw real anger flashing in Petrov’s otherwise impassive grey eyes.
“There will be no one,” Petrov said, “and this is precisely the problem.”
The taxi ride was brief and less than an hour later, Leo found himself in Oleksandr’s apartment. “This very apartment,” Leo said, looking around at the darkened apartment. “Even now it looks exactly the same as it did then. Petrov was seated precisely where you are now.”
Petrov looked ill. Leo, seated across the room, caught a stale whiff of whiskey and cigarette smoke. Oleksandr, Petrov explained, was losing the woman he loved. Oleksandr had done his best, he said, but to no avail. The woman he loved did not love him back and Oleksandr wished to do everything he could possibly do to show her the infinite depths of his affection.
And so Leo’s orders were to live as Oleksandr, here in the apartment. He was to be seen as much as possible, leaving the apartment, spending time in highly visible spots in the neighborhood, coming back to the apartment after a modest amount of time. To be seen as part of the fiber of the place, to be found indispensable to its sense of community.
“And I tried,” Leo said, “I really did. I introduced myself to doormen and waiters and shopkeepers and people on the street, just walking past me. ‘Hello, I am Oleksandr.’ I said it all the time. I said it in my sleep. It was exhausting. I felt like I had a cache of energy set aside within me that belonged to Oleksandr but was slowly draining away. I ran out of things for Oleksandr to say and when that happened, I’d just smile and open doors for old women who’d curse at me.”
“Nothing makes you feel so at home,” George smiled.
“Indeed. But of course, it was all for naught. After a week, the same thing happened to me. Petrov showed up with an envelope and sent me on my way, and that, as they say, was that. That was ten years ago. Ten years, two months and a day, to be precise.”
“And so,” George said. Their conversation had stretched throughout the night; the sun was beginning to glimmer on the horizon.
“And so,” Leo said, “here we are.”
“I must confess, I am hungry,” George said. “Conversation fans the flame of the appetite, does it not?”
“It does,” Leo smiled. “If I am not mistaken, there is a wonderful bistro around the corner which delivers breakfast for a small additional fee. I am feeling charitable; allow me to buy your breakfast. It is all I can do for a fellow who has traveled in the same shoes as I.”
“I would be delighted to accept,” George said. “Strong coffee and a fruit plate, please. I must watch my figure.”
Leo, chuckling, placed the order while George stretched and walked through the apartment, examining more closely the sleek furniture, the cool colors, the clean emptiness. “It is amazing to look at this apartment,” George said as Leo hung up the phone. “Even with us in it, it still feels so empty.”
“It is so much like Oleksandr to me,” Leo said. “Even after all this time, I never have really felt I have come any closer to knowing who he was. But I still feel for him. To feel so trapped by his station that he must have others live for him.”
“Oleksandr lived,” George said. “I don’t think he was as much of a hermit as perhaps you do. Forgive me.”
“Of course,” Leo said, smiling.
“I just have always felt that Oleksandr was closer to us than we may have realized,” George said. “Sometimes I felt he was there. Nothing specific comes to mind, just a feeling. As though his gaze had brushed over me and found me acceptable to his uses, and kept moving onward. It is hard to describe.”
“I felt it as well,” Leo admitted. “Just a few times, but I felt it. A vibrancy, if you will. The hum of something you were close to and yet far away from. Hard to describe indeed.”
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and a voice from the hall called, “Delivery, Bertino’s Deli.” Leo walked to the door and opened it.
There stood the third Oleksandr.
For a moment, no one spoke. The third Oleksandr was taller than both George and Leo, and in a movement that seemed instinctive he slouched, to equalize his height with the others. Otherwise, he was the same Oleksandr that they were. Same swoosh of hair, same shoulders, same legs, same dark eyes and grey-white beard, same charcoal suit. A paper bag with “Bertino’s Deli” printed in a swirling script on its side.
“I presume,” said the third Oleksandr, “that this is no coincidence.”
“I presume not,” said Leo. “Won’t you please come in?”
The third Oleksandr stepped carefully into the apartment. His footsteps echoed back at him.
“You might inspect the bedroom,” George said. “Just in case you think we’re crazy.”
“Oh, I know what’s there,” said the third Oleksandr. “It is a portrait. A portrait of me.”
“You mean me,” George said. “I sat for that painting.”
“Did you, now?” asked the third Oleksandr. His eyes seemed to gleam.
“I did,” George said. This new Oleksandr’s voice was deep and eerily calm, like something was curled in the back of his throat, springloaded and ready to strike.
“And you,” said the third Oleksandr to Leo, “I suppose you’ve been all the places I have as well?”
“Come, come,” said Leo, “let’s away with the charade. Either you are the real Oleksandr or you are not. I think you are not.”
“And how would you know, exactly?” asked the third Oleksandr, a canny twinkle in his eye. “Have you seen the real Oleksandr? Have you spoken with him?”
“Never,” admitted Leo. “Only through Petrov.”
“Yes, Petrov,” sighed the third Oleksandr. “That man, what a piece of work. Please forgive my rudeness. I’m sure — I’m sure you understand that when you stand in Oleksandr’s shoes, many winds conspire to knock you out of them.”
The third Oleksandr ran a hand through his hair. Suddenly he looked exhausted, as though a long trek across day and night had finally sapped his strength.
“May I sit?” he asked.
“Of course,” George said. “Care for a drink?”
“Please,” said the third Oleksandr. The bag from Bertino’s Deli was still clutched in his arms; he set the package on the table and all heard, inside, the thud of something solid and heavy against the glass coffee table.
“My instructions this time were to await a call,” he said. “And to bring this package with me. Along with your breakfast, of course.”
“Someone knew I would call Bertino’s?” Leo asked. “That seems unlikely.”
“Not so unlikely,” said the third Oleksandr, “when you consider where you stand, and who you have been in the past.”
“I was the first Oleksandr,” George said. “I was him for eleven years. My real name is George, George Stephenson. This is Leonard Vickers.”
“Please call me Leo,” Leo said, smiling. The men shook hands.
“And you were the second Oleksandr,” said the third Oleksandr. “I suppose that makes me the third.” Leo and George gave the third Oleksandr a brief overview of their respective careers as Oleksandr, the third Oleksandr listening with polite attentiveness, and when Leo finished with his recap, he stood, walking to the large picture window, deep in thought.
“I have not worked as Oleksandr long,” said the third Oleksandr. “Not as long as either of you, that is. Petrov — you know him — contacted me directly. This would have been just a few years ago, as a matter of fact.”
“Might I ask your name?” George asked quietly.
“My name is Maxim Williams,” said the third Oleksandr. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”
Maxim’s story was exactly as theirs was: a phone call, a meeting with Petrov at Bertino’s Deli, a destination, a list of activities to perform. Nothing more exciting, Maxim said, than a normal night out.
“I was a schoolteacher for thiry-two years,” Maxim said, rubbing his hands together as though to bring warmth back into them, “and never have I experienced such excitement from simply putting on the clothes of another man and walking out onto streets I’ve never walked down as him.” It was a drug, Maxim said, and a potent one to which he’d become happily accustomed.
“But as to exactly why I am here now, I could not tell you,” he said. “The assignments have dwindled in recent years but the pay has increased each time. Forgive me, I know it’s not polite to discuss money, particularly in work such as this.”
“Of course,” said George, standing. “But you raise an important question. The most important of all, as far as I am concerned.”
“Why are we here now?” Leo asked.
The three men stared at each other for a quiet moment, then Leo removed from his pocket the long white envelope with the key inside.
George, too, retrieved his from his coat and, slicing it open, discovered a single sheet of paper with three numbers on it: “33–6–49.”
“What does it mean?” he asked, staring blankly at the numbers on the sheet and then showing it to the other men.
Maxim stood, and walked to the Bertino’s Deli bag he had brought with him. “I think perhaps this might be the answer to some of your questions,” he said, and pulled the large black metal box out of the bag.
“This was my assignment,” Maxim said, setting the box onto the coffee table before them. “Petrov’s voice seemed weak on the other end but he was very specific: Go to the First Trust bank downtown, retrieve this lockbox, and return to the deli. When I was summoned to the apartment building, I was to bring this with me. And that was all.”
Leo took the key from his envelope, then looked at the other men. They nodded, and Leo leaned forward, inserting the key into the lock. The click of the lock was surprisingly loud and George twitched reflexively in his seat, catching himself and chuckling at his own jumpiness.
Leo swung the lid open. Inside was a plain black box which Leo lifted out and set onto the table. Beneath the box was a long, flat lockbox with a numerical combination wheel set into the fine-grained steel.
George leaned forward and spun the numbers on his paper into the lock. “Thirty-three, six, forty-nine,” he breathed as he did so, and the lockbox clicked softly.
Inside, a single sheet of fine white paper was folded around three envelopes, each bearing a name: “George.” “Leonard.” “Maxim.” A few words of scrawled across the page in shaky script were all that was on the paper.
“’To the three,’” George read aloud. “’My thanks for going where I could not.’”
They opened their envelopes. A check was inside. Neither saw the other’s amount but each could tell from the other’s expression that the amount was substantial.
Maxim spoke for all of them: “My friend, you are so very welcome.”
Leonard, finally able to regain his voice, said, “My God. I could retire on this.”
“I think I will retire on this,” George said. “My heart is pounding. I can hardly believe it.”
Maxim shook his head, grinning wryly. “Let us just hope,” he said, “that these don’t bounce.”
“They won’t,” George said. “I am certain of that.”
“But what is in the box?” Leonard asked finally. Their eyes swiveled to the black box on the table. Maxim reached for it, and slid the lid quietly off.
Inside was a pair of sleek black binoculars. Maxim held them in his hand, staring at them blankly.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
George and Leo looked at each other, then George cleared his throat.
“I think I might,” he said. He stood and walked to the picture window. “We were saying, earlier, before you arrived, that the view from this apartment was quite inspiring. Save for one thing.”
George raised the binoculars to his face. For a moment he was quiet.
“Have a look, Leo,” he said. Leo stood and walked to the window, looking down with the binoculars himself.
“Of course,” Leo sighed, something within him deflating. “But of course.”
“What are you looking at?” Maxim asked. “What is down there?”
“A cemetery,” said Leo simply, handing Maxim the binoculars.
Maxim took them and looked down at the cemetery within sight of the window. A funeral was in progress; suits of grey and black dotting the bright green grass. Flowers draping across a large but simple casket. Maxim focused the glasses and before long, the gravestone leapt into his vision: “OLEKSANDR ILLYCH IVANOVICH.” A birth date below, and after that, the date of Oleksandr’s passing.
“His last orders,” Maxim said, lowering the glasses, his deep voice thick with sadness.
“At last, we know what his life really was like,” Leo said thoughtfully. “Like looking at someone else’s life through binoculars.”
“I wish I could have spoken with him, just once,” George said.
Leo walked to the kitchen and pulled the third glass from the cabinet. He poured two fingers of vodka into each glass and they all toasted to the memory of Oleksandr.
“You are quiet, Maxim,” George said. “What troubles you?”
“You both said you had never met Oleksandr,” Maxim said slowly. “But I think you may have. You just may have after all. And never known it.”
“What makes you think that?” Leo asked.
Maxim stood, stretched and walked to the kitchen, where he’d left his coat.
“Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure meeting you both,” he said. “But now it is time for me to take my leave.”
“Wait,” George said, standing. “Please tell us what you mean.”
“There never was an Oleksandr, was there?” Leo said.
“No, my friend, you have it backwards,” Maxim said, smiling and shaking his head. “There was always an Oleksandr. There never was a Petrov.”
The door closed quietly behind him.
- March 19–29, 2012