Good Clean Looks

by Gaither Stewart


June 2000


There are four of them in the Buick, three men and the woman. They’re speeding along the Shore Expressway. A certain gaiety is in the air, as if they were going to the country for a picnic. They’re joking and ribbing each other. Except for Volodya in the back, the youngest, who suddenly doesn’t want to be here at all. The others are strangers to him. And they’re frightening, like the suspicious characters hanging out in the shady areas near his home in Kiev. He knows the others think he is provincial but he wasn’t born yesterday either. Nobody was, where he comes from.

    Volodya is 20, a sturdy type with short-cropped blond hair and lively blue eyes. He’s wearing a blue T-shirt with the image of the Empire State building on the front, a beige wind jacket, jeans and red and white Reeboks. He has twelve dollars in his pocket and a paycheck due tomorrow. He has come to believe that New York will soon be at his feet. Everyday is an adventure. Each day brings something new.

    The taciturn driver, Oleg, is about 35. He has long black hair, needs a shave and wears a permanent scowl. The woman in the front passenger seat, Olga, has stiff blond hair and is over-dressed for Brighton Beach -- a red and brown satin dress and a showy fur jacket. She has smoked constantly since they set out, occasionally glancing over shoulder at him and winking vaguely toward the back. Volodya doesn’t know if she is with Oleg or Alex, the huge man next to him.

    One thing is obvious – something unusual links the three of them. And the boss is Alex whose bulk is now crushing Volodya against the door. Broad-shouldered with a big belly and fat legs and wearing a brown felt hat pulled down gangster style over his eyes, Alex talks constantly -- about the weather, about Russia and America, about “business” that he says in English in his heavy Russian accent, intermittently slapping Oleg on the shoulders or touching Olga’s neck.

    The weather is sunny. It’s Indian Summer. The haze has not yet burned off the black surface of the bay. Thin shards of light reflect half-heartedly upward in the sunshine from the east. It’s too hot in the car. For a moment Volodya feels drowsy. Lazily he looks toward the islands in the bay. Then he reads to himself the signs indicating the Verrazano Bridge that he has seen only in the distance from Manhattan. He’s never been in Brooklyn. The last place he wants to be today is Brighton Beach – Little Odessa.

    They could almost be a family. Alex the father and his three children -- Volodya, the kid brother. Or by some stretch of the imagination, Volodya as Olga and Oleg’s son and a fat youngish grandfather, Alex. They all live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Volodya in a room in an old third-floor apartment on 81st Street, the others together in a big apartment up closer to Columbia University.

    It all started when Olga came into the copy/fax store in the cellar where he’s been working for two months. She spoke pretty good English. But when she heard his accent she looked at him for a moment and switched to Russian and immediately began flirting with him in the wanton way some Russian women of a certain age do with younger men. Another day she brought him coffee and bagels. She hung around for a while asking questions and asked him to join her for lunch. Then a few days ago she arrived with enormous Alex who immediately spoke of lucrative work for an ambitious young Russian and suggested, or rather ordered with his unqualified authority that he accompany them today out to Brighton. To avoid any kind of trouble, he accepted. He was off anyway. Why not see the famous Russian town? he thought then. Only at the Brooklyn Bridge this morning did he begin to grasp what kind of work Alex meant.

    At this early stage in his new life Volodya didn’t like to leave Manhattan. He was still learning the ropes and the new language. Instinctively he avoided other Russians. They’re so competitive, dangerously jealous of each other. Overall it’s been a hard seven months for him – immigration, finding jobs and a place to live and starting out in English. Now his money from home was running out and his fare was deprivation of old home joys. Yet he had a job he can handle, a girl and lots of hopes. He didn’t need these Russian hoodlums.

    He starts when Alex’s heavy hand falls on his knee. “We’ll teach you the ropes, Vovochka. You won’t have to worry about a thing. You can quit that silly job. Eh, Olezhek … eh Olenika.” It’s disconcerting the way the big man addresses everyone in the diminutive in that deep voice. Nobody has called him by that name since he was six or seven. But everything Alex says seems pregnant with mockery and threat.

    “I’ve got a lot to learn,” Volodya ventures and feels the pressure of Alex’s powerful hand. A hand that can break bones. A hand that has broken many bones, he’s certain. Volodya could have gone to Moscow instead if it was only a question of adventure. Or to Europe. But no, his dream has always been “Amerika.” His fundamental strength, he knows, is his sense of adventure and his will to succeed. He can do anything he sets his mind on. Anything is possible. He got that iron will from his grandfather who’d survived Stalinist Russia. His dedushka who before he fell asleep for his afternoon nap used to tell the little boy lying beside him about the magic he’d learned in his years in the gulag. The magic of will power. And the importance of doing the right thing. Volodya’s will power and his desire to do the right thing now seem innate -- his inheritance from his mother and her father, his favorite relative. If the family wanted to know whether a thing could and should be done, they’d always looked to Grandfather Konstantin for the answer. Konstantin Gregorich, as everybody called him, was the family oracle. Not that Volodya’s father agreed with the world outlook of his father-in-law – for hadn’t the broken old man spent 15 years in a gulag for making wrong decisions in life. Only by a stroke of fortune – Stalin’s death – had he escaped. Yet Grandfather was the eternal optimist. And the stoic. He wasn’t the kind to throw himself to the floor and holler and scream and curse unfair fate. He never expressed his worries. Never related dreams as bad omens. No, he always saw life as full of opportunities for change. “Go Volodya,” Dedushka said. “Life is full of promise. Go to Amerika.”

    Da, da, ochen ochen mnogo,” Alex insists. “You have much to learn. The thing to remember, young man, is that they’re all fucking sons of bitches. All mean and evil … but all stupid. They never change. You just have to know how to exploit their weaknesses. That’s the secret. Now look at our Olezhek there at the wheel! Six months ago he was nothing. Sitting out there at Brighton in a stinking apartment full of children and mothers-in-law and ugly women. Look at him today, driving a Buick. Eh, Olezhek, eh? eh?” The big man slaps Oleg again on the shoulders, scratches the back of the driver’s head and caresses his ear.

    Olga looks over her shoulder and laughs loud. Her red, red lips twist grotesquely -- she is nearly chewing on the cigarette hanging from one side of her mouth. “He’s too green, Sasha,” she says, addressing the big man by his diminutive. “Can’t you see that? The boy doesn’t understand.”

    Oleg snickers. “He’s not like us, Sasha. Not like us. You’re wasting your time.”

    Alex snorts and ignores them. “You just listen to me, young man. Forget that whore Olga and that thug Oleg. The main thing to understand is that Russians are our meal ticket. Stick to your own people. You know them best. There are over a million of them around here. Too many to be a colony. Those in Manhattan, the computer specialists and the financiers, they’re not for us. Only about 50,000 of them are our target -- the newcomers fresh from our rodina who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. All concentrated in Brighton Beach.”

    “An elephant cemetery,” Olga says with a sardonic laugh. “A town of losers. Where the old Russian Jews feel secure. A Russian town!”

    Alex scoffs. “It’s our town!”

    Volodya is embarrassed. He leans forward to see better the great bridge on their right. He will drive it someday in his own car. He feels they don’t live on the same planet. Their New York is Russian. His city is an ethnic laboratory. It’s creating the new man of the 21st century – a short dark man speaking a kind of world English, a minimum language of survival. What is the man behind the counter in the deli on the corner of Broadway? Hispanic, Mongol, Indian? A cross category. What confusion! You don’t know where he comes from or who he is. WASPs are more confused than anyone. They either don’t notice what’s happening or they walk around like exiles in their own land. The future is change, is his motto. He’s more than just Russian. He’s a man of the new century. Of the new millennium.

    “It’s the biggest bridge in America,” Alex boasts. “Vyerazana,” he pronounces it. “Like we in America say, it leads also to heaven.”

    'America?' Volodya thinks. Early that morning he’d run up the steps three at a time to street level just to feel the cold air. It felt good like on an early winter morning in Kiev. He felt the new world. So what is he doing here in this car? Is it the smell of money? he wonders.


    Oleg drives slowly under the tracks of the elevated. Main street is animated like the streets of Kiev. Gangs of men in black jackets are lounging on the corners. Cars and trucks everywhere. Grocery stores and cafes with their signs in Russian. The Russky Samovar on the corner. Women and children eating hot pirozhki and bliny sold on the sidewalk. The kiosk under a banner advertisement for Novoye Russkoe Slovo. It’s a total society -- Brighton Beach, Russia. Russian doctors and Russian lawyers, Russian mechanics, butchers, bakers, grocers, insurance agents and real estate brokers, used car dealers, shippers and movers, gas station owners. Russian bars, restaurants and night clubs. And the con men and gangsters of the Russian mafia, they say the world’s most powerful.

    “Little Odessa,” Volodya mutters. Alex slaps him on the knee and mutters again, “it’s ours!”

    The subway rumbles past overhead. In the car silence falls. They’re all excited for their own reasons. Oleg is returning home. Alex anticipates upcoming deals. Olga looks supercilious.

    Oleg turns right a couple times. On a side street he stops at a wide parking space blocked precisely in the middle by a new car. Oleg blows his horn loud and hard. The swarthy driver behind the wheel merely glances over his shoulder and with his lips and his finger says 'fuck you.'

    Without a second of hesitation Alex slides gracefully out the rear door and balanced menacingly on the balls of his feet, a hard grin on his face, his hat in his hand like a weapon, walks slowly toward the car. The guilty driver, startled, quickly flips on his left turn signal and drives away.

    Alex laughs. “I’ll find that sukin syn,” he promises Oleg.

    In pairs they walk down main street like conquerors. Oleg swaggers, Olga looks around haughtily, Alex holds Volodya’s arm in a firm grip. Abruptly they enter a restaurant. Alex steers Volodya in front of him up a flight of narrow stairs in the rear of the Samovar. They go into a private banquet room with a small stage on one side.

    A middle-aged man with a heavy red face dressed in a brown tight-fitting suit and a bright tie is sitting at the end of a long table, flanked by two younger men in identical black leather jackets. Two cell phones are positioned in front of him, one near each hand. “Priviet Sasha,” he says, standing and extending a ham-like hand.

    Volodya shifts his feet, puts his hands in his jacket pockets and looks around at the others. They just nod.

    “Borya, this is our new friend.” Alex puts a hand on Volodya’s arm. “You’ll be seeing a lot of him.” “Very good,” says the other with a blank look on his wide face, hardly looking at Volodya. “The others will be dropping by soon.”

    Volodya sits with Olga at the other end of the table. Immediately she puts her hand on his leg and grins at him. He blushes. “He’s here to make money,” she whispers. “You’ll see. He wants you as an errand boy. You look so innocent. You have to make up your mind quick.”

    Volodya grins weakly. It’s obvious, piles of cheap money is there. Russian money. His face is pale. “Thank God they don’t like me.”

    “They don’t like your blond hair and blue eyes … they’re just a bunch of criminals anyway. What do you care?”

    He watches Alex and Boris talking softly at the far end of the long table. Boris wears a permanent frown. Alex is all smiles. From time to time they look toward him and Olga or nod in the direction of the others. Occasionally a cell phone rings. Oleg has moved from the wall and is standing just behind Alex. They hear constant steps on the stairs. Ostentatiously Alex ignores each new arrival until Oleg whispers something in his ear and the other steps in front of him and they shake hands. He acts like the Padrino. Leather jackets fill the room, occasionally a dark suit without tie, swarthy men in their late twenties and thirties with permanent solicitous looks on their faces. Words and bits of phrases arrive to Volodya and Olga – new immigrants and empty apartments and rents and loans and interest payments and TV sets and stereos and shipments of cigarettes and insurance rebates and arrests and police and courts.

    Alex switches to broken English when a tall gray-haired man of about fifty in a gray suede jacket sits down heavily next to him. There are no hand shakes. Just a nod. The newcomer looks around at the others, registering each individually. His glance seems to pause on Volodya. He nods at Boris. Did he not ask, who’s the blond kid?

    “A cop,” Olga whispers.

    “A cop!” Volodya didn’t come to America for this. This is much more than rackets and Russians.

    “A crook,” she adds.  Amerikanskoe gavno! One of those public officials dedicated to violating the law. The dirty shit who extorts money from illegal immigrants. He protects gambling -- she grins again -- and also prostitution out here in the boondocks. He and Alex do a lot of business with Boris who also owns a towing company -- the cop gets six dollars for every car the police order towed. They make thousands every month! Most people never catch on. Makes me want to change professions.”

    Russian-speaking waiters serve them steaming bowls of borscht and sour cream.  Black bread and zakuzki arrive and a carafe of cold vodka. Olga serves herself, Volodya refuses. “No?” she asks. “I never liked it,” he says a little embarrassed that he seems so green. “Here’s to money,” she says. “You only have to say, yes.”

    “Drugs?” he asks.

    “Not as far as I know. Alex is against it although that thug Oleg keeps pushing dealers his way. No, not yet anyway. You know he’s a pretty good guy, Alex. Better than the rest of them! He made you come today only because he took a liking to your clean looks. He misses that…. So do I.”

    All of a sudden Russian pop music explodes in the room. Olga grimaces. “That’s Alexander Rozenbaum. From Sankt Petersburg. Must be his latest CD -- he thinks he’s the new Vysotsky! He even bought his own restaurant just down the street and flies back and forth between Russia and the States. Comes over here like a conquering hero! Volodya, you can’t imagine the money moving between Russia and America. They’re probably doing some business with him too,” she says, nodding at the trio at the head of the table.  

    “Look, what do you say we get out of here,” Olga says after a long silence. Her hand is again on his thigh. Alex and the cop are drinking vodka and Boris keeps making toasts. Phones are still ringing. The dark men occasionally look at Olga with suggestive expressions on their faces. Even Alex now ignores Volodya. “Look at them … what a gang of cheap crooks,” Olga whispers. “They have no morals.”

    “They look like all the hoods in Big Odessa,” he ventures. They both snicker.

    “I was never in Odessa but it must be more … let’s say more refined than this,” Olga says. “We don’t have to stay here, dear. You know you should see Coney Island – even if everything’s closed down there.”

    Da, da, poshli!” Away from this cesspool! He’s beginning to like her. She might have a rough way of talking and looks … well, she looks pretty cheap but she’s straightforward, honest -- even a little motherly. Actually she’s better than she looked at first -- and also sexy. She is sex. She laughs and squeezes his thigh. He blushes again.

    Downstairs under the elevated she hails a taxi and climbs in showing a lot of her very good legs. He grins. She reaches forward and pulls him into the back seat.

    “Won’t he miss us?” Volodya is bewildered by the new slant the day is taking. On one hand he feels liberated from a great misunderstanding with Alex. On the other hand he’s no saint but fooling around with a Russian gangster’s woman is something else. Grandfather would have an adage for it -- Risk and enjoy, risk and pay, two sides of the same coin. Or something like that.

     His love life has been going well. Shortly after he arrived he’d met a girl. Anne. His same age. Anne is a student at Columbia sharing an apartment with another girl up near the university. Anne is not flashy but she’s pretty. American healthy, bright and rich. A well-to-do family in the city of Syracuse. And she likes him. Sometimes he spends nights with her -- when her roommate is away. Their sex together is all right but hardly fiery. American women, he thinks, are different. Always agreeable. Childish. But always so secure. Safe sex. A safe ride. No risk. Someday she wants children. Maybe they’ll get married, she says. She made photos of Volodya and her together in front of St. John the Divine and sent them to her parents. She’s Catholic, he’s nothing. She says she loves him. He’s not certain what that means. They are very different but he’s flattered by her love. She’s also his most solid contact with America. The whole thing seems workable. He doesn’t want to exploit her but he doesn’t want to lose her either. Anyway he’s not in a hurry -- marriage is a long-range matter.

    “He doesn’t own me! Alex keeps me around only as decoration. I make him look good! Ha! No! No! I just come along each week for the ride. It’s usually not bad, eating and drinking in the Samovar. They see to their shitty rackets and I do what I want, mostly shopping in the Russian grocery stores. Don’t know where they get all that Russian stuff. Besides they’ll be busy after lunch and we’d just be walking around among all these creeps. Oleg will go to see his children – and maybe fuck his wife. That svoloch! You know what Alex does? He visits an old Jewish lady he’s helping to get American citizenship. That’s another of his activities. He’s got lots of influence in immigration offices -- dollar influence. She’s been here ten years and immigration keeps losing her papers. So he’s taking care of it.”

    “So why does he do it? He’s a gangster, no?”

    “Just to prove to people here he’s not anti-Semitic! Ha! He does a good deed in the Jewish community and collects 1000% profit. Good old Alex!”

    Coney Island is deserted. They walk slowly down the boardwalk among boarded-over stands. He imagines the Ferris wheel turning. Lights should be ablaze. Maybe an ice rink and joyous shouts of women and children. There are no trees. No grass. The water is dark and forbidding. The sun is bright and warm. The wind from the ocean runs around their feet and up under their jackets.

    “Do you like America, Volodya?” She is again whispering. It’s the silence of the place. He likes that better than her raucous voice in the car. She hasn’t smoked since they left the restaurant.

    “New York is fantastic … but I don’t know America. I know I don’t like Brighton Beach America.”

    “That’s not America. Who can live here besides those insecure immigrants? Not that I’m in love with New York! It’s too hard for me. Too cruel. New York is work for me. Otherwise I’m bored. As soon as I have enough I’ll return to Europe.”


    “Paris. I spent two years there before I came here. That’s home. I’m a European, you know? I think most Russians are. After a while you’ll feel what I mean.”

    “Not me! I’m going to be an American. Not a Russian in America. I had enough of Europe in Kiev. Enough of Russia too.” He’d never even gotten a driver license over there. He learned computers in school but had never owned one. He’d played soccer but now he’s mad about baseball, which he doesn’t understand. Volodya never knew Soviet times. He only knew about Gorbachev from hearsay. His father despised him but Dedushka called him the Saviour of Russia. A Russian, Volodya was a stranger in the new Ukraine. He’d never belonged anywhere except to his family. And that was not enough.

    The wind has turned colder. There’s an open space between two stucco structures. A little park with benches and a kind of protected porch.

    Nichevo,” Olga says, guiding him toward the shelter with her arm around his waist. “No matter. We understand each other, no? You me and I you. That’s what counts.”

    She turns toward him. He’s surprised that she’s his same height. She didn’t seem so tall before. For an instant he hears music from farther down the boardwalk. He listens. It’s Louis Armstrong. Some love song. There’s something romantic about the moment in the desolation. Like he imagines the desert. Her red, red lips glisten. Her mouth is about an inch from his. He feels her breath. He too is breathing hard. He stiffens slightly. No need for sweat, he’s not that green, he thinks. He’s had some women before. He had his regular girl in high school. She was sexually wiser than Anne.

    “You must have lots of girl friends in New York.” She speaks straight into his mouth. Her arms are around his waist, pulling his body toward hers. He feels her hips undulate. His thighs are now sweaty under his jeans. His body must be drenched. His heart has begun thumping. His legs are shaky.

    “Would you like to stay here with me for a while?” she says.

    What he wants is … is … he doesn’t know what. This is risky. If she’s sick? If she tells Alex? But what would he care? “You’re pretty,” he says. She laughs softly. He likes her hot breath in his. She does look different. “I mean you’re very pretty … and sexy too.” He feels flustered and not knowing what he should do.

    Then her hand is on his groin. Her mouth is in his. They’re breathing together. No more blushing. No more not-knowing. He hadn’t wanted anything like this to happen. Maybe. They go to the bench under the shed. In an instant she’s astride him and the wind and the sun the sound of the ocean are all one. Her mouth is open, her eyes closed. He watches the regular motion of her thighs and her stomach. They don’t feel the cold. She is so light. Her body is no bigger than Anne’s. He’s surprised she’s so delicate. She’s a good woman. A good woman. So good.

    Later, she says, “I’ll walk you to the train. The train to Manhattan.”

    “What about Alex? Won’t he be mad? At me or at you?”

    “Don’t worry about him. I’ll tell him you’re just not like us. That you changed your mind. He’ll understand. It was only a whim anyway. He’d probably have forgotten you by tomorrow. Alex is a man of the moment.”

    The subway car is nearly empty. Lights in the houses of Brooklyn burn weakly in the twilight. Darkness is beginning to fall to the east. Coney Island disappears behind him. Occasionally the headlights of a car blink toward the train. He’d liked it when Olga blew him a kiss as he walked up the station. He isn’t sure he understood when she said, “thanks.” Slava Bogu he didn’t have to see Alex. Or Oleg’s sneer. That was over.

    He presses his face against the window. All at once a complex vision comes to him of the different futures vying for him. The future taught by Dedushka, a future of change, uncertainty and final success -- if you have the necessary will to succeed. And underneath, as if traced on thin copy paper, the future of the dark men in leather jackets -- also a future of uncertainty but of final darkness. No, he would take New York.

    Tomorrow? What will tomorrow bring? Tomorrow is payday. In the evening after work there will be Anne. They will go out into New York. Maybe he will spend the night with her. She will talk about marriage and children. They will talk about the future when he too will study at Columbia.

    He stares out the window. It’s now dark. He takes a deep breath and slowly lets the air out through his mouth and watches the window pane fog over. It’s too early for marriage. But no, he will never return to Brighton Beach -- Little Odessa. That’s a vow. It’s fear. Russia is behind him.

    Yet, maybe, not tomorrow, but another day, Olga will come. In a way she is part of Russia. The good part. She will remain his good friend. He hopes she will come. Anne doesn’t have to know. Nor Grandfather either.


Since leaving journalism in Europe in 1997 Gaither Stewart has been writing fiction full time. Originally from Asheville, NC, he has lived his adult life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy, working as a journalist. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Dutch daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad [Rotterdam] and wrote for publications in various countries on politics, culture, travel etc. He currently lives in Rome and can be reached at