What the Russians Overheard

a version of this story was originally in the Red Earth Review July 2019 edition.

Evgeny and Yefim were making their way down Highway 1, just north of Fort Bragg. They were in an old, 2006 Ford Econoline van. The word “FLOWERS” was stenciled on both sides. Despite the certainty that it had never once delivered a flower, it was rare for anyone to give it a second look. At most, the idea it was a cover would enter someone’s head, but it’d quickly be dismissed as an avenue of thought that was impractical and unnecessary. It was so stereotypically a cover no one believed it.

For the last six years the two Russians had driven this van all across the country. By then they’d worked in each of the 48 continental states. It hadn’t taken long for them to decide they liked California the best.

What the Russians liked about California was that they could relax. No one seemed to care about much out there, and if they did they kept it to themselves. Paranoia was a personal problem. Unlike in the Midwest or the South or, especially, the Northeast, where it was constantly bubbling over and where they’d constantly get sideways glances, in California it was all directed inward to the self. That was quintessential America to them. That was what they had expected when they learned they were being sent over. In their assessment, the rest of the country was far too tense. It had a tendency to lash out, which maybe could be a byproduct of living so deep inside a country. A sort of social claustrophobia it seemed to them. A claustrophobia that, yes, Evgeny thinks behind the wheel, includes the Northeast too, because despite being next to the Atlantic the Northeast is so deep within the values and traditions of America, being the birthplace of most of them, that it is lost, and the Atlantic has become less an escape than a thousand mile desert that separates them from anything resembling a new idea. Though, it’d also make the Russians laugh if anyone suggested a new idea would be coming out of Europe ever again. Unfortunately, however, Evgeny and Yefim were never asked for their assessment. Assessment wasn’t their job.

Evgeny watched the sun sink beneath the Pacific Ocean. The sunset was throwing pink and orange over everything. Evgeny felt nostalgic, but he couldn’t imagine being able to see a view similar to it anywhere in Russia. Russia was never pink and orange. Evgeny wondered whether California could be universally nostalgic, a land so primal that nostalgia is instinct, or whether it is proof at how totally the American West had ingrained itself in the world’s collective imagination and memory. Everyone knows California now, regardless of where you are in the world. Everyone remembers it.

In the back of the van Yefim wasn’t thinking about nostalgia or memory. Yefim was working. He sat under a couple fluorescent lights watching a collection of computers and monitors and radars. He was searching for signals.

Along the coast the van was passing a couple worn out motels. They were both painted the same desert pink and off-white trim. One was called The Sun & Sand and the other was the Beachsitter. They weren’t more than 20 meters apart. Evgeny wondered whether they were owned and run by the same person or company. Why were they so similar and so close together? On the inland side of the road was a trailer park called Sleepy’s Mobile Home Park. Evgeny thought about whether the people who lived there could really be considered poor, living so close the ocean and all. He decided not very poor, at best. Then a red light beside the steering wheel came on. Yefim had got a signal.

Evgeny immediately turned left into the trailer park’s gravel entrance and parked just underneath the big sign. He looked around and saw nobody, so he slipped through the door between the seats into the back of the van.

“What have you got?” he asked in Russian as he took a seat beside Yefim. Yefim was wearing a very large set of headphones. Evgeny put on a similar pair.

“Phone call.” Yefim said.

For a couple of seconds static and interference came through the big headphones. Behind the static one could just hear hundreds of stray voices and scraps of conversation. Evgeny always questioned these ghostly hints of conversation. They began every new signal, varying in density depending on the surrounding area’s population. For some reason he could never quite convince himself that they were actually out there, that they were real. Sometimes he found it easier to think the sounds were accidental byproducts of all the radio waves and microwaves and infrared waves floating around in the air, coincidentally mixing into what only sounded like speech. Or other times he would even find it easier to imagine a horde of green spirits somewhere, mingling and talking all over each other in a confused ball of communication. Talking about being dead or whatever. It was hard for him to believe all those voices were coming from real people. So many people constantly talking, but talking about absolutely nothing it seemed. Yefim would always tell him that what he was having trouble understanding was the abundance of this modern phenomenon, talking on the phone, and the absurd forms it takes when zoomed down to the individual level. It was this way with many things, Yefim knew.

In front of all the monitors and screens Yefim was pressing buttons and turning dials. From all the voices out there he could pick any one he wanted. The one he chose became more and more clear as the other interference retreated. Eventually the two were sitting in the back of the van with a single voice coming in over the wire, as if Yefim had melted the rest of the world away.

This is what Evgeny and Yefim had been doing in America for the past six years. The two had been intercepting the communications of normal, everyday Americans for various Russian intelligence agencies. They collected phone calls mostly, but they also gathered up text messages, emails, tweets, DMs, snapchats, status updates, YouTube comments, Grindr messages, Instagram pictures, and anything else they could get their hands on. They weren’t exactly the communications they’d hoped they’d be collecting when they first got the assignment.

In fact, the two were specifically barred from intercepting more important communications, such as those from the state or military, considering that’d get them caught immediately. But everyday Americans never suspected anyone was listening in on them, despite being reminded again and again that someone always was. But they never learned, so the two Russians were able to collect just about every word coming from these people. They had no idea what the Russian government could be doing with random American conversations, but they didn’t think about that. They just did what they were told.

When the signal was clear Yefim gave Evgeny a thumbs-up, as if to tell him the signal is clear, as if Evgeny couldn’t tell. The voice coming through their headphones was quiet and slow, punctuated by long pauses. It seemed dejected and, to Evgeny’s surprise, English. He looked at Yefim and mouthed angliyski? Yefim shrugged his shoulders.

“Hello… Hello?” the sad English voice was saying. “Hello? Are you still on the line, love? Helloooo? Are you still there? Are you still listening? … Okay… Well, I’m just going to assume you’re still there, love. I’m just going to assume you’re still listening. I know you sometimes like to be silent. And I know you must not have anything to say to me right now, with all that’s happened. I don’t blame you. And, anyway, I think I can hear you breathing on the other end, unless that’s just the static from a dead line. But I’ll just keep going. I’ll just keep talking about how the meeting had gone well, and about how I was feeling good after it since it had gone so well. I’ll just keep talking about how we had made a lot of progress, and had made a lot of deals. Business was looking good, and since I was feeling so well and things were looking so good I decided to go to the beach after the meeting. I figured I couldn’t go out to sunny Los Angeles without visiting to one of their famous beaches, you know? And it’s so bloody hot out there, as you can imagine. I ended up spending all evening on the beach. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was so hot. I was sweating so much just sitting there. And mind you, I didn’t remember to bring any bathing gear. I was just out there in my pants, which I ruined, and my undershirt, which I eventually ditched. But really, I was feeling quite all right, dear. I knew I looked silly, but I felt all right just watching the water and the beautiful Americans lay around. It’s true by the way, that everyone out here is beautiful. They really are…

“But anyway darling, when the sun was beginning to go down I must have dozed off. I missed the sunset completely I remember. Not that I was waiting for it exactly, but I woke up when the sky was red and getting dark. The streetlights had come on and no one else was around. My car was the last one in the lot. I got up and brushed myself off. I was very hungry by then, and instead of getting in my car and going back to my hotel I decided to walk a little ways back into the city. I knew I probably looked like a beggar with my ruined pants and without a shirt, but I figured I’d have no trouble finding a place that would serve me. I figured I’d probably fit in, really. I was completely at ease. And of course, dear, I didn’t have any trouble. I found one of the food trucks that are so famous out here. There was a small line and no one cared when I got in it. No one seemed the least bit interested in me. I don’t know if anyone even looked at me. I was thinking that I could have been anyone in that moment. I could have been anything standing in that line, and it wouldn’t have mattered…

“But again, anyway, after I got something to eat I started back to the car. I was watching the buildings get shorter and shorter as I got closer to the beach, until they were mostly little shacks and huts on the sand. It’s as if buildings are naturally shorter near the water. How funny, I thought, like living things, like funny plants. I imagine the ocean is going to swallow those small shacks soon, and then the small buildings farther inland eventually. I imagine the Americans will have to keep building further and further inland, higher and higher, following whatever natural slope until the whole world is underwater and there’s nowhere left to build. That’s what I was thinking while walking back to my car, the whole world being under water. I probably could have known I wasn’t feeling okay anymore…

“Then next thing I knew I was across the street from the parking lot. I was looking at the one car left in the lot, which was the one I was using, of course, and all I had to do was cross one more street and I would have been in it and on my way back to the hotel. And then I would have been on the plane the next day, coming home. And then I would have been back with you, dear. You, my love, who I assume is still listening. I think I can still hear you breathe, unless I’m tricking myself, unless it’s just the sound of no one listening, and I would have been back to my life and my routine, which had been serving me so well lately as I’m sure you’d noticed, as I’m sure you’d been just as grateful for as I was, since it all had been working so well and I had been feeling so fine. But then, just as I was about to cross the street, out of the corner of my eye I see this dark figure walking towards me, and I hesitated for a half second. Just one half-second, as if it were destined to happen, as if it couldn’t have been avoided. So much chaos squeezed from one half-second. I turned to look at this figure approaching. In the shadows and the streetlights I saw this face, this beautiful, familiar face, and it walloped me right in the gut.”

Evgeny and Yefim had been silently listening to this sad English voice, but finally Evgeny turned to Yefim and said, in Russian, “What is he talking about? What is this? He is clearly not American. We should find a new signal.” Throughout the years the two had naturally captured their fair share of non-Americans, and non-Americas were entirely useless to the intelligence agencies.

Yefim, as if rediscovering the person next to him, jumped, and quickly said, “No, no!”

After 6 years of eavesdropping on the private conversations of Americans, something had happened to Yefim. He had come to care deeply about the detached voices he captured over the wire. He felt as if he understood exactly what the intelligence agencies could hear in the random conversations. He felt he could understand the Americans on a deeper level, the voices behind the voices. He was almost spiritual about their meaningless conversations. He thought he knew what they were actually telling each other when they talked about things that happened at their child’s school. He thought he knew their worries and their fears when they yelled over the phone about the disturbing things their neighbors were doing in their yards or garages. He thought he knew what made them happy when they couldn’t remember what they had called to say, or what kept them going, not only as individuals but also as a people, when they told each other the wild conspiracy theories they read on the internet. Even though he knew the intelligence agencies were using the calls for nefarious purposes, he couldn’t help but feel connected to the people he eavesdropped on. They were a people who, like him, struggled to make sense of a world in which progress had shattered the meaning of everything. They were a people who struggled to find purpose in a world in which anything seemed possible and yet so much was still so unattainable for so many. The world was so open and so closed at the same time it could make someone dizzy. And that’s how these people often sounded: dizzy and confused. Yefim could hear it. Yefim was often dizzy and confused too.

Evgeny was surprised by Yefim’s reply. Yefim knew Evgeny didn’t care about anything they heard and only wanted to finish the job they’d been sent here to do. Not that Yefim blamed Evgeny, either. Evgeny didn’t care about the calls, nor did he care about the mission anymore. They both knew by now that they were in too deep to ever get out again, and Evgeny couldn’t help but place a lot of the blame on the Americans. He hated them for it as much as he hated his own country for it.

Still, though, Yefim couldn’t bring himself to disconnect this call. It was a strange call. The two had gotten their fair share of strange calls, and Yefim had come to cherish them the most. He loved trying to figure out what they were really talking about. He knew people don’t say what’s actually on their mind, they only circle it again and again, trying to get closer with random comments about their recent vacations or what they’re making for dinner, until finally one little comment reveals that what they’re really worried about is perhaps, say, what the earth will look like for their children when they grow up. Did you hear about that hurricane? Horrible, horrible.

“He mentioned a business meeting,” Yefim said, trying to quickly come up with an excuse. “He must know something about an American business. We should keep listening for that, don’t you think?” He glanced at Evgeny. Evgeny looked back at Yefim. Evgeny knew Yefim liked listening to the calls. He knew Yefim found some kind of meaning in the random and whiny conversations. Evgeny found it childish, but childish in a friendly, sweet way. And he liked Yefim, so he said “fine,” but said it seriously so as not to let Yefim think he was getting soft.

When the two concentrated on the call again, they were surprised by quiet, easy sobs coming from the Englishman’s end of the line, and still nothing, or mostly nothing, from the other end. Finally he sniffed a bit, and seemed to gain some composure, and started again.

“I don’t know what happened when I saw her. She was beautiful. Her hair shone off the streetlights. It was so strange to see her walking by herself, but, then again, I guess that’s not strange at all. She had a long coat on over some fancy dress. I don’t know how I’d describe it. She looked elegant and misplaced, which I guess is an understatement, as you’ll see, because what doubled me over, love, what really hit me hardest, was that she was familiar. I knew her, dear, do you understand? And I knew where I knew her from. When I saw her face, and her round, light eyes, which had glanced in my direction just so slightly, it was like a shock went through me. Something very serious happened. It was like a glitch, or like something short-circuited, and suddenly things started rushing back to me. I instantly recognized her as a woman I dated when I was a young man at the university. And what hit me hardest, dear, is that not long after we both got out, just as we were beginning to make a life together, she had died.”

The Englishman let out a long groan that seemed to stretch and warp in the two Russians’ headphones. They looked at each other.

“What the hell is he talking about?” Evgeny asked. “What is this?”
Yefim didn’t know what to say. It was not what he had been expecting.
“Turn it off,” Evgeny said. He had no patience for sentimentality or extravagant displays of imagination.

“No. Please,” Yefim said. The two were looking at each other. Evgeny’s eyes were almost angry. Yefim’s were desperate. They both wore huge, enormous headphones.

“You think you have found something that is not actually there, Yefim! You are reaching for meaning that doesn’t exist. These people are whiny, and desperate, and they are fat. They are the enemy. They are everything that is wrong with this world! They talk horribly, about horrible things. They tell each other terrible, terrible things, Yefim. There are no secrets in their conversations! When they tell each other that they want kill their mother or their father, they mean it. When they tell each other about their illnesses and diseases they aren’t being profound, they are being disgusting! When they talk about the weather for the tenth time, it is not because it means something! It is because they are living empty and hollow lives Yefim! Empty! Hollow! Yefim!”

Yefim was silent. Evgeny was pounding the desk now, letting all his anger out. How funny, Yefim thought, he couldn’t hear the sound Evgeny’s pounding was making. He watched for a couple seconds as Evgeny used both fists on the table. They both knew they’d be eliminated before getting back to their country and their families, by one government or the other.

Finally, however, the Englishman made another noise.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHH.” It was a noise that caught both Russians’ attention. Evgeny’s fists stopped midair above his head. “I was transported back, love! I saw it all before me, in a flash that I can hardly describe. She and I were back on the streets of London. We used to walk so much late at night, after she’d get off serving at the restaurant she worked at and long after I’d gotten off my day job working construction. I don’t know why we were never tired. Lord knows we should have been. I think I’ve told you about my construction days, love, those miserable days of hard, hard work. Everything exactly the same, day after day. The second I had gotten out of the university life became tedious and repetitive. It was a slog every day, but those walks with her kept me going. There’d still be so many people out, so much light everywhere, and we’d just walk and walk. The police would be out in pairs, harassing the boys in their cutoff shirts and spiked hair. Did you ever notice how many people had rollerblades back then? It seemed like everyone was rollerblading. And in the nooks of every late night shop was a group of men who got quiet as you walked by, as if they were all talking about something criminal. So much color in London in those days it seemed. Marques for every little building. She would talk about everything. She had so many plans. Quite unlike you, dear, who is so silent, who takes in everything silently, evenly, with so much care I’ve noticed. Not like her, she was the kind who tried to fill everything with her energy, with her life. She reflected off those nights, in my memory. I couldn’t help but follow her. We were so young and everything was so real on those nights. Anything she said could have come true. And then she had the accident. It just happened, the way those things happen. She took off for the day. She was driving through Suffolk to visit her parents, as if that place couldn’t be any gloomier, you know? A man who had been walking along the road had tried to blame himself. Some poor old German man. He said he’d probably distracted her, or that perhaps he hadn’t been far enough to the side and she’d had to swerve, lost control. Neither was true of course. It’d just been an accident, and it was a coincidence that this man had been walking through the country at the same time…”
He breathed deeply for a few seconds. The Russians waited.

“When I came out of that vision I followed her. I was so sure it was her. I didn’t know what else to do. The whole thing had lasted a mere moment, the amount of time it took her to pass in front of me. I wanted to call out but I didn’t. I kept to the shadows. We walked up the highway that ran along the beach for a handful of blocks. Nothing changed the whole time. Nothing became evident, one way or the other. There was nothing to indicate it was all real or all fake. Finally she got to a bus station and I waited. I waited for what seemed like hours. I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for. She was waiting for a bus but I didn’t know what I was waiting for. But finally a bus came and it said ‘Fort Bragg’ and I realized that’s what it was. That’s what I was waiting for, wherever Fort Bragg was. I drove through the night and got here this morning. I’ve just been sitting here in this motel all day, on this small bed. It’s very hot in here and I’ve been sweating quite a bit, and now I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Love, dearest, I’m so sorry. Do you know that?”

Evgeny immediately realized that the Englishman was almost certainly just across the street, at one of the two identical desert pink motels. It sent a chill down his spine for a reason that wasn’t quite clear to him. He knew despite how close they were, simply across the street from each other, they were never going to see each other. He was going to forever remain an invisible observer to this event. Yefim was thinking that it’d probably be best to never send the intelligence agencies this call. He knew they’d think either both of them had completely lost it or that they, as Yefim insisted, completely understood.

“He is just across the street,” Evgeny said.

“He is?” Yefim asked.

“I am here for some kind of conclusion, my love,” the Englishman said.

“Yes. I saw the motel he mentioned before we pulled over.”

“I am here to meet something, dearest one.”

Yefim began typing something, and the two of them watched a bullseye swing around a map of the area on one of the computer screens in front of them. It came to a stop right along the coast, just next to the van. Evgeny was right.

“I have a feeling that what has dogged me my whole life is going to reveal itself here, in this place. I’m coming face to face with the truth of my reality. The source of the melancholy and hopelessness that I’ve lived with for as long as my memory goes back is going to become tangible here. Those things we thought we’d finally gotten control of are going to form the conclusion they’ve been building toward my whole life. You’ve probably already guessed I won’t be coming back, love, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to your life. I will surely endure the punishment for what I’ve done now in the next life. You, who has been so sweet to me, and so kind, did not deserve this. I just hope that one day—wait, someone’s knocking. Oh God something’s here!”

The two Russians we’re both hunched over now listening to the Englishman, holding their headphones very tightly against their ears. What, what? Yefim was thinking. Evgeny just stared at the screen telling them they were right across the street from whatever was going on.

“Oh God it’s you. It’s you. IT’S YOU!”

The two Russians then heard a noise they’d never be able to describe and a noise they’d never speak about again. In that moment Yefim realized that perhaps we are hopelessly alone in this world, and Evgeny realized how disastrously malleable reality could be. And the two just sat there with the Englishman on the other end of line.

Meanwhile, outside of the van, which was still parked and idling, a shirtless man from the trailer park was pounding on the side of it, yelling to whoever was inside that they weren’t allowed to park there.

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