One of my cousins got into some trouble years ago while he was backpacking overseas. I’m not too close with him, that is, he was never really too close with the family, once every couple of years he’d show up for Thanksgiving, but besides that, nothing, I didn’t have his cell phone number, he wasn’t on Facebook. Anyway I was in high school when my mom announced at the dinner table that Chris “fucked up really bad, got himself sent to some Russian prison.”
And everybody at the table was like, “What do you mean? Russia? When did Chris go to Russia?” but maybe we were all a little too enthusiastic, bombarding my mom with a bunch of questions she wasn’t really ready to answer, “I don’t know,” was all she would say, “Well what do you mean you don’t know? He’s in Russia?” and she’d say, “That’s what I said, Russia.”
“But how did he get to Russia? What did he get arrested for? Was it guns? Or drugs? Is he involved in some sort of organized crime? Does Chris speak Russian? What did Uncle Steve say? Is he going to go to Russia to try and bail him out?” And my mom was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t … I don’t … I couldn’t tell you … I … I don’t know! All right? OK? I don’t know! Why don’t you call up your Uncle Steve and ask him?”
That was it, really, everybody got quiet after that. Call up Uncle Steve? That would have been nuts. As it was, we all saw Uncle Steve a little more regularly than we did Chris, but what I mean by that is that Uncle Steve actually showed up to Thanksgiving every single year whereas with Chris it was always, “I don’t know if Chris’ll be here. Ask Uncle Steve,” and Uncle Steve would just be sitting in the corner drinking a Manhattan, so nobody ever went over to ask Uncle Steve.
And that was that, for a while anyway, I went away to college, I graduated, I got a bunch of boring jobs. Every once in a while my dad would say something at the dinner table like, “I wonder how your cousin Chris is holding up in Russia,” and we’d all get a little excited, “Did you hear something about Chris? Did you ever figure out how he wound up in Russia?” but I think my dad must have only brought that up as a way to get under my mom’s skin, like maybe they were fighting or something before dinner and they didn’t get a chance to resolve anything, so they’d both be sitting there, my dad would drop the bomb, “I wonder what Chris is up to …” and my mom would get fed up with everyone, “I don’t know! Stop asking me about Chris! I haven’t heard from your cousin in years!”
A couple of months ago my grandfather died, it wasn’t anything sudden, and he was really old, so it was kind of just like, you know, everyone was sad, but it was more of a lament over humanity, over old age than it was over a tragic death in the family. I called out of work, they were like, “How much time do you think you’ll need?” like even they were thinking, grandfather? That doesn’t sound too devastating, like everybody’s grandparents die, can you be back the day after tomorrow?
So we’re all at the second wake, and like an hour before the funeral home was about to close up shop, guess who walked in? Yeah, it was Chris. And everyone went crazy, “Chris! Oh my God Chris! What’s up man? Where have you been? Were you really in a Russian prison? Jesus Christ, look, mom, Chris is here!”
And it was pretty crazy to see him. For the first time all day, it didn’t feel like that weird death-in-the-family feeling, and it’s like, he was standing there surrounded by everybody, in those first few seconds before he really had a chance to say anything, I was trying to piece it together, how I got from a few minutes ago to where I was right now, and I must have been embellishing it already in my head, but I played it back, it’s like I pictured him leaping through those doors, “Hey guys! I’m back!”
It was unbelievable, Chris, right here, finally, everyone let him catch his breath, gave him a little room to explain himself, “Yeah it’s true,” he told us, “I got sentenced to prison while I was in Russia. I didn’t know I was in Russia exactly, I was backpacking through Eastern Europe with some friends, and then we were on a train, and I couldn’t understand anything, I thought we were in Poland or something, so these guards start getting all up in our business one night, we were just having a good time, they start pushing us around, and here I am, I’m thinking this is Poland, or Prague, I’m thinking, these guys won’t do shit, I’m an American, what a power trip, so I’m laughing and joking and not really cooperating at all, and then finally these guys take their guns out, and you know, I don’t understand a word, nothing, so I just put my hands up, we all get carted off, the next thing I know I’m before a judge, there’s a big bag of cocaine on the table, I swear, I have no idea, but what am I going to do? How can I get in touch with the ambassador? I never figured it out. That night they had us on a train to Siberia. Fucking crazy right?” and my mom shot him a look, like what are you cursing for, you idiot? And he saw it, he said sorry for cursing.
I said, “Chris? How’d you make it out?” “What,” he said, “Out of the prison? I got out. The maximum sentence in any Russian prison is like eight years. Didn’t you ever read Crime and Punishment?” and no, I never read Crime and Punishment, I think I was supposed to one year for school, but I don’t even think that the teacher read Crime and Punishment.
“Did you get beat up or anything like that? I can’t believe you still have all of your teeth. You actually look pretty good.” And he said, “Why wouldn’t I look good? Those Russian prisons have a bad rap. Those guys aren’t so bad. You just have to know how to deal with them, all of those prisoners, criminals, political prisoners, they’re all so used to being pushed around by the state, bullied their entire lives. You know how you deal with someone like that? You stare them down. You hold your ground. No, nobody messed with me over there. I was like an honorary guard. Let me tell you something about Russians …”
“Chris!” it was Uncle Steve. I hadn’t even said hi to him, “Let’s go. Now.” And that was it, they both said goodbye and left, we all hung around until they blinked the lights off and on and kicked us out. Afterward we went back to my parents’, we were all still going crazy about Chris, talking about Chris, “Mom! When did Chris get back? Did you know he was coming? Did Uncle Steve ever tell you anything about any of that prison stuff? Did that really happen? When did he get out? Mom? Mom!” but she wasn’t having it, it was all, “I don’t know. Look. I don’t know. You should’ve asked Uncle Steve, because I don’t know.”
And my dad was finally like, “Enough already, enough, leave your mother alone, she’s got a lot to deal with the funeral tomorrow, her dad just died, enough about Chris!” and everyone got quiet, but after a couple of minutes, my brother Phil breaks the silence, “Is he coming for Thanksgiving?” and I had his back, I said, “Yeah mom, did you ask him about Thanksgiving?”