First Frost

 On this moonless mid-October night, after dining on fast food and making a quick grocery stop, I returned home, veering into the parking lot of my apartment complex. But as my headlights traced their arc in front of me, something in the darkness tugged at my peripheral vision. As I passed it, the front door of an apartment on my right flung open, and a woman came running out into the night. Though this observation struck me as unusual, I reasoned that perhaps she merely enjoyed running in the cool night air.    

     Moments later, however, climbing from my pickup truck, I looked up, surprised to see the running-woman ending her jog only three feet from my left headlight. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, a dull warning light began to flash. But before I could consider its warning, I was in for another surprise: a second woman now arrived, every bit as unexpectedly and just as quickly as the first.

     Catching her breath, and speaking through what seemed a heavy Russian accent, the first running woman spoke. “You help us?” she asked. “Help us move couch?”

     My mind spun, attempting to solve this unexpected puzzle: was it a set-up to lure me into a scam? Were they here to rob me? Or was there, as the woman said, a couch to move? I looked into their faces. The newest arrival spoke not a word, but the eyes of both women seemed to say: “please help us.” The warning light in my head subsided.

     “Give me just a minute,” I said. “Let me put these groceries away, and I’ll help you.” They pointed to the apartment from which they’d come. “I’ll be right there. It won’t take a minute.” The women, I concluded, were busy rearranging their living room furniture. Of course they’d need help with the heavy pieces. And of course--I could help them.

     As promised, I arrived at the designated apartment. A porch light warmly illuminated the sidewalk. The front door stood wide open. I peered in, expecting to see finishing touches being made to a redecorating project, awaiting only the relocation of a heavy couch to crown the process. Instead, my expectations were in for a jolt. Packing boxes and debris littered the floor. Except for a couch, the room was devoid of other furniture. Armloads of remaining possessions were being stuffed into cardboard boxes. Both women worked silently, but they did not work alone. A slender, yet strong-looking man filled other boxes, stacking them to the side.

     The warning light in my head flashed anew. Obviously, I was not here to move the couch from wall A to wall B, as I had assumed. And since the three able-bodied workers already present in the room were more than equal to that task, it struck me that my assistance was clearly unnecessary. Something didn’t add up.

     The woman with the heavy Russian accent eyed me squarely. “Now move couch?” she asked. And in answer to the question mark etched upon my face, she added, “Your truck. You take couch down to 56th Street. We show you.”    

     At last, the full weight of the true need sunk in on me like a cement block on a soft divan. I had it all wrong from the beginning. They didn’t need my muscle power to move a couch across the room—they needed my truck to transport it halfway across town. Since this new development clearly represented a higher magnitude request than first thought, I might, at this juncture, have politely begged-off and walked away. For someone else in my shoes, that may have been easy. But something in the woman’s eyes displayed an urgency I could not ignore.

     I retrieved my pick-up truck from the far end of the complex along with some rope for securing the couch while in transit, and backed into a parking slot nearest the apartment. But for some unexplained reason, during the short interval required to move my truck into position, a key member of the moving party had disappeared. The group’s translator, the only one of the trio with whom I could easily communicate, was gone. With her, the task would have been simple enough. But without her, the task now felt significantly more daunting.

     My new moving colleague and I hoisted the couch and carried it out to the waiting truck. There, Vladimir, as I came to understand was his name, lashed it down tightly with the rope. He would ride along with me in the truck. The remaining woman, whom I believed to be his wife, would guide us to our destination in another vehicle, a small sedan. All these arrangements were communicated by means of hand and arm gestures, without benefit of the spoken word. If only complex thoughts could be so easily communicated.

     Finally, our journey began. I followed the lead car closely, turning south off 71st Street, on our way down to the unknown location on 56th. Traveling through a barren, semi-industrial area of the city, my attempted small-talk with my passenger proved an exercise in futility. For the most part, we journeyed in silence.

     At length, the lead car turned right onto 56th Street, making another abrupt right after a short distance. I followed, surprised to discover we were no longer on paved road. Both vehicles now traversed the darkness, bumping and jostling along a rutted pathway on our way to who knows where. It occurred to me that the safe world of my day-to-day existence had ended somewhere behind me, back where the pavement trailed-off into dirt, and that now, I was a character in a dark, surreal world, in a story with an uncertain ending. At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder about the main characters in this drama, and the seemingly desperate circumstances that surely led my fellow travelers to this place on the outer fringes of civilization.  

     Onward we trekked through the desolation until the headlights of the lead car revealed our approach to a remote structure, but whether a house or an old business of some sort, I could not tell. Discerning but little useful detail by eye, my remaining senses probed the darkness. They revealed to me a place long abandoned, forgotten, hidden.

     Vladimir opened his passenger-side door and climbed out, leaving me blinking in the too-bright dome light of my truck. I quickly joined him, already untying the rope from the load in the truck bed. We again hoisted the couch, and at his direction, ferried it to a low porch on the exterior of the building. Picturing in my mind, that later, after my departure, Vladimir and his wife would struggle to move the couch into the building, I suggested, as best as I could, that he and I accomplish that task now. But unfortunately, to the best of my understanding, it seemed that Vladimir did not have the necessary key.    

      As earlier, when my brain had spun to make sense of fragmented puzzle pieces, it once again raced to solve this riddle, fashioning its own conclusions in the process, correct or not. Had Vladimir, perhaps highly skilled in his prior life, been unable to find work in his new surroundings? And with little or no income, had these people been evicted from the apartment so recently vacated? Would they be forced to spend the night outside on the porch of this abandoned place? Or, would the other Russian woman arrive with the needed key, enabling them to enter its relative safety and warmth? There were no answers to these, or to the myriad other questions now flooding my brain.

     With our couch-moving mission complete, my official duty here had ended, though I could not reconcile myself to leave, at least not yet. We-- the three of us, stood quietly for a long moment, enveloped in darkness, shrouded in silence, awkwardly unable to communicate. My mind groped for a lighted pathway through the shadows, for any means to dispel the desperation of the present moment. But I could find no such pathway. Resigned, I stretched out my hand to Vladimir, hoping to convey in a handshake my wishes for both his and his wife’s well-being. We shook hands, he bowing slightly in a gesture of thanks. 

     I then extended my hand to his wife in a similar parting gesture, and she responded. As our hands touched, she clasped something into my palm, simultaneously uttering the first English words I had heard her speak: “you take,” she said, slipping paper money into my hand.

    Forcing the money back, I said, “no—I’d rather you keep this. I don’t really need it. Please…”

     “No,” she insisted, clamping my fingers firmly around the currency. “You take.” she repeated. Although the money was unwanted, I wished not to injure her dignity by rejecting her repayment of the perceived debt. Finally, reluctantly, with nothing else I could think to say, I told them good-by and moved slowly to my truck. Climbing in, I overheard Vladimir quietly speak two words in English, words that I knew were intended only for his wife’s hearing. But his simple words found their way to my ears and into my heart: “good man,” he said.

     I headed back toward the paved road somewhere up ahead in the darkness, back to the safety and security of my day-to-day world. From somewhere out in the night, unseen radio waves carried their barely heard music and news to the outer fringes of civilization, even to the radio in my truck. A weatherman glibly intoned the forecast: “It’ll be clear and cold tonight, with the low reaching down to about 30—so better get out those scrapers! Looks like tonight we’re in for our first frost...”