Beside The Golden Door

by Mark Budman

"Come to the McDonald's on Main street at two p.m. on the dot," the American woman said to Len. She had the sharp voice of a person always in charge. A police sergeant, perhaps. Or maybe a high-level manager.

"I'll pay you five dollars for half an hour, completed or not," she said again. "I will be dressed in black. Call me. . . Call me Nancy." And she hung up.

"Don't go," Nina said. "It's a trap. She's from the FBI. Or from the INS. Or from a similar three-letter-word place. You don't know American customs. You know nothing about this country. You can break a law. What if they would deport us?"

Nina was tall and thin like your typical starving American model, but without the smile. She stood with the graceful elegance of an Old World ballerina, not quite suited to an unemployed Math teacher.

"Don't be paranoid. Why would they deport us?"

"They deported the Baranovs."

"But Sergei was a Party boss back in Russia."

"You were a Party member, too."

"I was just rank-and-file. And I disclosed that on every INS form they have ever gave us to fill in. You know why I joined the Party. To keep my research job. The INS knows that. And so does the FBI."

"You lost your job anyway."

Len had spoken for Michael at a Party meeting. Nobody could keep his job after defending an enemy of the state publicly.

"Don't go, Len. Please. Are those five dollars worth so much to you? Next week you'll have an interview at Bell Labs."

"Even if they hire me on the spot, we have to make it for three weeks until my first paycheck."

They had forty nine dollars and ten cents, an empty fridge and three unpaid bills.

"Besides, what can that Nancy or whatever her name is do to me?" Len said. "I'm a 200-pound man and she is but a defenseless little woman."

"That's why I'm afraid," Nina said. She was about to burst into tears. Len kissed her before she had a chance for another word and ran for the door without looking back.

He took a bus to Clinton plaza, and then another one to downtown. Fifty cents each transfer, a rip-off. He arrived at McDonald's and paced up and down the block for seven minutes, gazing at the dark clouds that covered the narrow space between rooftops.

He imagined Nancy to look like his former lab director, Elena Grushenko, a woman who was wider than she was tall, as a Russian saying goes. Dr. Grushenko would pound her fist on the table with a force of a prize boxer hitting an opponent's lips and shout words that could make construction workers blush. Her other hand would always held an unlit cigarette, a priceless American Eve. She had beautiful large eyes, requisitioned, according to rumors, from an intern.

Len entered the door at one minute before two p.m. The American woman sat at the table next to the cashiers, drinking coffee and smoking a thin cigarette. Perhaps it was Eve. Whoever came up with that name read his Bible.


"Mr. Zelinsky?"

He sat across the table from her, trying not to flinch away from the smoke.

There was a notepad and a fountain pen next to her coffee cup. She had flamboyant red hair, a long face with a square jaw suitable for a boxer and a slit-like mouth as if she were born without it and it was surgically added afterwards. Her nose was too short for her face.

The dining hall was almost empty, except for a necking teenage couple in the non-smoking section.

"You understand that I represent a major university and this is a research project?" she said. Her large eyes were the color of ice. She kept one hand in her lap, and Len wouldn't be surprised if she had a handgun or at least a can of Mace hidden there.

"How did you find me?" he said. Above all, he was afraid to smile, because Nina said that his smile attracted women like bees to honey. He pursed his lips, trying to look cool and professional.

"I've already told you. I saw your picture in the newspaper. A Refugee Family Settles In Town. Shall we start? It's one minute after two."

Len nodded.

"When did you come to this country?" she asked.

"Did you come from Russia?" she asked.

"Are you married?" she asked.

"How many times a week do you have sex with your wife?" she asked.

"Is the frequency of your intercourse different in America from what is was back in Russia?" she asked.

"What kind of prophylactics do you use?" she asked.

Len answered all of that, trying to keep his voice steady, while she was scribbling in her notepad.

That's what the male strippers probably feel, he thought. Only they get paid more than a penniless immigrant.

Nancy was done with her questions at twenty five past two. She opened her purse and took out a crisp five dollar bill.

"I'll give you ten times as much if you'll go to my place right now and make love to me," she said suddenly after he pocketed the money.

"Sorry?" Len said. He probably should've said "Pardon me", but all English grammar was flashed cleanly out of his mind. She kept staring at him with her two chunks of ice.

"I'm sorry," he said again, "but my English. . ."

"Sex. I want you to have sex with me," she said and made an explicit gesture. Seeing that he still did not comprehend her, she pulled a list from her notepad and drew a crude image of a copulating couple, all with one hand. Her other hand was still in her lap.

"But you said that you're doing research," he finally said.

"I am," she said and smiled. Her teeth were like a horse's. "I haven't done it with a Russian yet. I've tried twenty six other nations. But you have to use a condom. A girl can't be too careful nowadays."

"What are you taking me for?" he said and got up, all six feet plus of him, muscles and all.

"Relax," she said calmly. "Consider this you first job offer in this country. You'll gain valuable experience that you could put on your resume. You'll earn some money. And you'll enjoy yourself at the same time. That's the American way."

I could snap her goose neck like a match, he thought.

"Go to hell," he said aloud.

She took the other hand from her lap. There really was a handgun in it and she pointed the weapon at Len. If guns were alive, that one, silver-plated and snub-nosed, could have been a cute three year old.


Len sat. His mind went blank, wiped clean, like with one of those detergents he saw in commercials. The teenagers still necked a few tables away, paying no heed. Len felt like he entered somebody else's dream by mistake, perhaps a cowboy's or a gangster's.

"If you won't do it for me, I'll shoot you and then shoot myself," she said. She was about as animated as a TV announcer in the old Soviet Union.

"If that--" he said. "If that is--" his voice croaked as if he chewed on cardboard for hours. "If that's the case, I agree."

She scribbled something in her notepad with her other hand.

"Never mind," she said. "It was just another question from my questioner. Here's another five dollars."

He took the bill, touching her hand in the process. Her hand was as cold as interplanetary space. Do all American women have hands like that? He folded the bill in four very slowly and threw it in her face. She flinched.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's not a real gun. We, researchers have to do things like that sometimes. But--"

Len inched sidewise towards the door, watching her. She watched him, too, her chin propped on her fists. Outside, the rain had started and waters from heaven came down hard. Inside the concrete bus stop, Len stood, his hands shaking. The teenagers from the McDonald's joined him, kissing. Their hands flew toward each other's buttocks. Then the bus came from around the corner.

"Good luck with your interview," the boy said to the girl giving her an abortive kiss. The bus took off, leaving the boy behind. He kept waving, a wide grin on his pimpled face.

The girl sat two rows of seats from Len. She was pretty in a girlish way, the prettiness of a butterfly, that comes and goes quickly. Len took out of his pocket the first five dollar bill that Nancy had given him.

"This note is legal tender," he read out loud. He knew only one meaning of the word tender--gentle. The girl looked at him and smiled. Len turned away.

Fifteen years later, when he received a Nobel Prize for the Zelinsky plasma drive he had invented, a journalist from a prestigious magazine called him, asking for an interview, and Len told him to go to hell. Then he walked all the way across his big maze-like American house, kicking his pretty and delicate American things, to the last room of it, to the last wall, to the very end.

Copyright © 1997
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