Zaporozhets

My family has always had complicated relations with cars. Our first car was a beige Zaporozhets made in the USSR, which had a Beetle-like design. I was eligible for a model with manual controls because I had a problem with my leg. Getting the car was rather simple: tests on a treadmill, proof that my leg acted weirdly, a certificate proving that I had good eyesight and a stable psyche, and, above all, coming to terms with the woman in charge.

To this person, who dealt out these cheap monstrosities to humiliated invalids, I fell into none of the standard categories. She had never approved a young woman with a husband, but without a bribe. And so she started yelling at the top of her lungs: there was: "no way, no reason, no right" for people like me. I've had extensive experience dealing with such women, both in everyday life and at work and outside. So I humbly asked her for a sheet of paper and, right there at her desk, I addressed my complaint to her superiors about her incompetence and performance at this cushy job. Realizing I knew how to act in such situations, the woman looked embarrassed, her eyes sparkled, and then she fawned on me. Finally, she started to cry and complained about a woman's hard lot, blaming fatigue for her inability to think straight . . . after which she filled out papers with the speed of a jet plane. The invalids who witnessed all this looked sideways at me, as if I were a knight who had chopped off the three heads of a dragon.

The victory was intoxicating. And so, in that state, my husband, our friend the journalist Andrei Fadin, and I rushed off to get the car. Neither my husband nor I could drive, so Andrei generously took us under his wing.

--You'll learn to drive, get around in Moscow, bash the car here and there, then buy a better one, explained Andrei. I started with a Zaporozhets too.

When we entered the extremely icy lot crowded with new Zaporozhetses, we were rather taken aback. Every single car was missing parts. The boss of the icy lot reluctantly informed us that that's how they came, though the address of the missing parts was written on his face.

--OK, man, it'll get you as far as home and then you can take it in for service and they'll install what's missing, the boss of the lot advised; --the car is a winner! It's better than a tank for fishing. Of course, it's your choice. But then again, there won't be any other cars until these go. Meanwhile, some other parts will be stripped--it can't be helped.

--Fine, I'll drive, said Andrei to the guy. --If I hit something, you'll need a lawyer!

--Then don't hit anything . . . winked the guy.

Since the lot was a virtual ice rink, there was no point asking how invalids could exit, when first you had to figure out how they could enter to reach a car.

--To tell you the truth, your car isn't missing much. Compared to the rest here, you've got a real Mercedes. And be happy you've got wheels from old stock . . . Soon Yeltsin and Gaidar will steal it all, and no one will get anything . . . said the boss of the frozen lot as we were leaving.

And so the three of us, being editorial writers on politics for a newspaper called The General News, reckless reformers and eloquent liberals, rather than answering him, slowly left the lot, driving the rumbling machine cautiously.

To say that a Zaporozhets is noisy is to say nothing: it howls like a wounded rhinoceros. To say that it jolts, is also to say nothing: a motorcycle, with a sidecar, going down a country road is a luxury liner in comparison. To say that that sitting in it is uncomfortable is to say nothing at all: it's a little more comfortable than a gynecological examination chair, but narrower than a dentist's.

We arrived without hitting anything . . . But all my efforts to tame this iron friend of invalids were unsuccessful, although before that I had enjoyed driving my friends' foreign cars.

--Andrei, I complained after each driving lesson, --this isn't working. The car and I have no feel for each other. Maybe I'm not enough of an invalid to master this thing.

--Evidently, me neither, he would shrug.

After Andre, another successful journalist tried to teach me, with the same lack of results. When my attempts at intimacy with the car resulted only in our mutual torture, I realized that we simply were biologically incompatible. Moreover, this biological incompatibility spread to all the members of my family. Neither my husband nor either of my sons displayed any interest in this marvel of technology. All family discussions boiled down to: "Let's give it away to someone!!!"

But the Zaporozhets would not give in. Not we, nor the car, nor potential owners were lucky--something would always stand in the way. We tried everything: to set a low price, to give it away, to forget about it, to facilitate its theft . . . Nothing worked; it stood peacefully for about five years in front of our house, tenderly referred to as our "real estate." The only thing it did was to participate in my primary campaign of 1999 for a seat in parliament. When the election committee noticed that "Zaporozhets" was listed as my means of transportation in my application, tears came to their eyes and they decided it was a skillful act of PR.

Years passed; the car lived on its own, not belonging to anyone except the street cats sitting on it. And then, one fine day, through the kitchen window I saw a simple-looking guy and a very pregnant young woman. With an air of importance, they circled the Zaporozhets, pulled at the door handles, peered in the windows . . . and hardly resembled car thieves at all. A bit later, the intercom rang and a male voice said in awful Russian:

--Howdy, uh, I wanna buy your car . . . whatcha want for it?

--The car is not for sale, I politely explained.

--You ain't usin' it an' I got spuds to haul . . . and the little lady's pregnant again! He was outraged.

--The car has manual controls, I explained.

--Vaska will swing by and get 'er runnin' lickety-split . . . Why leave it stuck here? Don't you get it, I gotta haul some potatoes to the barn?

--According to the law, I have no right to sell a car with manual controls . . .

--We can snatch the rig but we need your say-so . . .

--If you move it, I'll be obliged to notify the police . . .

--You ain't gonna see nothin', we just gotta get your OK . . .

--Well, it hasn't moved in five years, it's just been sitting there, immobile!

--Vaska will get her runnin' in no time!

--Good-bye, young man. I've already explained it all to you.

--Good-bye. So I'm coming; meanwhile think how much.

Five minutes later I completely forgot about him, but not for long. The next day, at precisely the same time, there was another dialogue on the intercom. Things went on like that daily for a month, and the guy and I developed the habit of talking this way, and no one was in any sort of hurry.

Our relations changed after he anxiously informed me that the day before his wife had given birth to another little guy, and he had no means of bringing them home. He tried to shame me by saying he had to take the train to transport potatoes to the barn using a wheelbarrow, while I wouldn't even bargain.

--OK, I said, --a hundred U.S. dollars, if I don't have to see or talk to you again.

--Let's get 'er done, the guy responded through the intercom. Vaska and me'll swing by tomorrow and take èer away.

I was already a TV anchorperson and my face was familiar to everyone. But the conversation with him convinced me that he didn't know who I was. The last thing I wanted was every traffic cop along the road from my house to his village to recognize that a certain Zaporozhets belonging to Arbatova had been stolen by him, first to bring his son from the maternity ward and then potatoes to the barn. I hid my hair under a scarf, put on sunglasses, and, with my husband, left the house at the appointed time. His face radiant, my guy stood next to a buddy cut from the same mold. The pal was the promised Vaska. In his squinting eyes you could read: "You fucking intellectuals; leaving such a car to freeze."

I had no reply.

He handed over a hundred U.S. dollars and I gave him the handwritten affidavit of permission. Vaska climbed into the car with obvious delight, admiring its insides.

--Good luck! I wished him. I'd be very surprised if he'd been able even to get it started.

And I headed home . . .

--Hold on, lady, the friend was indignant. --Let's drink to it! Otherwise, it ain't gonna happen! I got everything we need here with me: a hunk of bread, some cucumbers and some hooch. Let's picnic on the bumper so we don't mess up your place . . .

--Well, drink to it yourselves . . . Congratulations on the new son! I backed off politely.

My husband and I returned home and went up to the kitchen window to watch the poor guys fumbling around with the inoperable car. However, with a deafening roar, the guys were already driving away, no sign of emotion on their faces.

That was the last I saw of the Zaporozhets. About three years later a weird character called.

--I was given your telephone number; I'm calling about the car. Was your car stolen?

--What can I say? . . . I didn't know what to answer.

--That's great. It was left in the wrong place, so we had to tow it, according to the law. It's been in our parking lot for a while, but they refuse to pay the parking fee--quite high now, and they don't have money. My wife's uncle could use it. He's got cattle in Kazakhstan; it's just the car for him . . . I only need your affidavit.

--And just who are you! I was completely lost.

--I'm a policeman. We tow cars. Anyway, they have no money and since you're Arbatova, what do you need it for?

--I don't need it, and it's OK with me if it's used to haul potatoes or herd cattle, but . . . I can't sell the same car twice. I didn't have the right to do it even once.

--Why don't I just "steal" it from our parking lot?

--Steal it from whom?

--From you? No, from them . . . No, not from them . . . From myself.

--You don't need my affidavit if you're going to steal it from yourself. Why not write one yourself?

--I wanted to obey the law! he explained. --Well then, all the best to you.

The whole story faded from my memory except for the policeman and his peculiar sense of law.

Translated from "Zaporozhets." Maria Arbatova's Russian text copyright © by Maria Arbatova. The English translation rights are acquired via FTM Agency, Ltd., Russia, 2007. Translation copyright 2007 by Mark Halperin and Dinara Georgeoliani. All rights reserved.

Illustration from Moscow Exotic Cars. © Yuri Nesterenko, 1999-2007