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no answer (the melon seller)

A shiny black van pulls up, wheels skidding on gravel. Five, maybe six men step out all at once. They wear black t-shirts and army fatigues. Their heads are shaved, slick with sweat in the afternoon sun. Their arms are huge, squeezed into those shirts a few sizes too small. All at once they circle a fruit stand by the road. It is made of plywood, held together with a few screws. One good sneeze could level it. Rows of torpedo shaped melons sit on bulging shelves, below them a cage full of watermelons. The men yank smartphones from their pockets, taking pictures, making calls. I assume they are some covert team that extorts vendors, either sending them home and destroying the fruit or worse. I somehow expect the man does not have a permit and the right papers to sell anything. In Russia, you need permission to do just about anything. There are no five year olds with lemonade stands here. 
I cross the street, distancing myself as I glimpse the men between the cars and trolley buses tha…

the empty


The fat girl as they call her, came to school with a hypodermic needle in her backpack. It may have been to defend herself, it may have been to instigate something. She comes from a broken home and this is her second or third school. E steers clear of her, and the bullies she tangles with. It was never understood  - how things began, who threw the first insult, the first punch, the first grabbed book but the end is a chronic cycle of violence. At one point, the girl's mother got the police involved and this was seen as offensive, a step too far. The police did not resolve anything so it was all just a lot of saber rattling. That is the most common sound here. The empty threat.

Last week, there was a sobrani, sort of a cross between a parent-teacher conference and a school meeting. I was busy, so E went by herself and took notes. Five minutes in she messaged me, that I was wise not to be there. Nothing about this girl was going to be resolved.
"Boys will be boys" was all that they said.

It was announced that some other, older boys were going to be expelled. They had taunted E recently, shouting that America was the land of homosexuals. But that is not why they were being expelled.

The meeting quickly turned to something the mothers really cared about. They hurled insults and fury at the teachers asking why their children had to go to art classes, why there was a tiny theater program folded into their music classes. And actually, why music classes too? They pissed and moaned about how their children fell asleep at nine o'clock, there was so much schoolwork, and how they (the mothers) had to do most of their homework for them as a result.

Back at home, E talked about all of this, how ridiculous it was for the school to accept homework done by a parent, which was only eclipsed by their habit of letting the children in her class take their final exams with notebooks on their laps, cheat-sheets upon cheat-sheets prepared by their parents. No oversight. No code of conduct, just a beeline for results no matter how or why they would be accomplished.

E sat and sighed. Of course she did her own homework, and asked for help if she was stuck We had even gone so far as to hire her a math tutor to help prepare her for the final exams. But she took them with nothing to help her, no notes tucked up her sleeve or scribbled on the white edge of her sneakers. She gets A's and B's, the hard way.

I did not have any magic answers for her. Nothing will inspire change. This is a country like so many others, built on a brutal foundation, where czars killed each other to take power, sons and fathers, mothers and uncles all at each others throats and it was simple seen as history unfolding.
This is still our world, all of it.
We are the barbarians and there are no gates.




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