This is a longer version of the story I sent to Writer’s Digest for its Your Story #23 contest. As you can see below, I had to say goodbye to some background on the story. The trick to the 750-word contest is to keep the action to a few snapshots of storyline and then give your reader a vivid image of what’s happening. My creative writing teacher at Pensacola Christian College, Ms. Raymond, used to preach “Show, Don’t Tell.” Hopefully, I’ve picked up on that.
As is the case with the shorter version, Janet is based on a girl I knew at PCC.
The Russian Miracle
By Richard Zowie
I sat at the dinner table, nervously taking sips of water, oblivious of how horrible the tap water tasted. Across from me sat Janet. She wore a blue dress. I never pictured her as the makeup type, but now she wore bright red lipstick. She smiled, but seemed nervous, as if late for an urgent appointment. Her long, curly, dark-blond hair, normally pulled up, cascaded down well past her shoulders. Every so often, Janet would absently brush away the locks when they’d get too close to her face.
My attempts at conversation resulted in short answers:
“What does your Dad do for a living?” I asked.
“He’s a pastor.” Hearing her say this made me cringe. My Dad’s a mechanic whose last visit into a church was when my older sister, Kimberly, got married back in 1984. No pastor would ever consider me fit to marry his daughter.
Janet didn’t ask me what my Dad did.
“Where did you grow up?”
“Pennsylvania,” she replied, her bright sapphire blue eyes darting briefly at mine and then away, as though she’d rather be back in the Keystone State.
“I grew up in Los Patos,” I said. Los Patos, where South Texas University is located, was built around a large lake. They say the settlers who first came there called their new town “Los Patos” because of all the ducks swimming in the lake. Duck, in Spanish, is pato.
Even long before our food arrived (she ordered a Cobb salad while I ordered spaghetti and meatballs), I could see this was going to be a “mercy date.” A beautiful girl goes out with a geeky guy out of pity, hoping he’ll get the hint and not ask again. Most of the time it works but some friends of mine are as oblivious as they are intelligent, so it takes a friendly-but-terse “I just want to be friends” for the guy to get the message. And then the guy spends a month or so acting depressed unless one his friends talks him into guzzling a few Tequila Sunrises at a local bar.
As I asked her a few more casual questions, I sighed and tried to hide my disappointment. The problem was, I really thought Janet was The One. Janet was beautiful. Very beautiful. Janet also wasn’t too heavy or too thin. When she smiled, dimples appeared on her cheeks. She was about 5’3″ with those blue eyes that were so easy to get hypnotized by. I had to work hard not to stare into those caring eyes too long or I’d get real nervous and start acting goofy–something I often do when I’m around a pretty girl.
I first met Janet three years ago at the Baptist Student Union. She was a Christian and a Baptist, like me, which wasn’t very easy to find at STU. I’d often see her in the student union reading her Bible, praying and talking with others as she shared her faith. With her smile and with her godly ways it was easy to fall in love with her even without getting to know her very well.
A few months after meeting Janet, I asked her out. “I like somebody else,” she replied, putting me into a depression that lasted the rest of that month. I tried to avoid going to the BSU during that time. I let things go for a while, only to see her a year later wearing a large gold class ring on her right index finger. Its ruby stone seemed to mock me, as if saying, “HA ha! This girl’s mine! Get someone else.”
Finally, a few months ago, I noticed the ring gone from Janet’s finger. A quick glance on her left hand showed no engagement ring. A friend of mine, Monica, happened to be Janet’s acquaintance. Good news, Kevin! Monica told me. Janet broke up with her boyfriend from back home and isn’t dating anyone!
I waited those two months to ask Janet out, worried she’d realize I’d had Monica act as my private detective and be turned off. Janet accepted my invitation for a date, and we went to the Los Patos Diner, a restaurant on the north side of town where the rich families lived. It has an upscale feel but serves many types of cuisine. You don’t have to wear a tie to get in, but other patrons there look down on you if you don’t. So, to be on the safe side, I wore one despite the hot, dry South Texas climate.
As I sipped more water and tried to think of another question to ask, a young girl at the table next to us started groaning and holding her stomach. She started to cry and grabbed onto the table cloth, yanking at it as some painful spasm shot through her body. Her father’s glass of red wine tipped over, spilling onto his steak and forming a scarlet island around it. It also sprayed onto the white table cloth. Everyone in the restaurant gasped and turned towards them. After all, public commotions couldn’t possibly happen at such a nice restaurant.
The girl, who blond hair and blue eyes, was around 12 while her parents looked to be in their forties. She spoke to them, and I recognized the language as Russian (having remembered Mikhail Baryshnikov in the movie White Nights) but didn’t understand anything. The girl kept crying, this time louder, as if someone had turned up the volume on the pain.
I looked at Janet, bewildered. That distant, vacant look was gone and was replaced by deep concern. “Do you know what’s going on?” she gasped, turning towards me.
“I don’t know, but it sounds like they’re speaking Russian,” I replied.
The father, mother and daughter all continued speaking frantic Russian. The daughter’s cries turned into thin, squeaky shrieks as she writhed in her chair and clutched her abdomen. The father looked around the restaurant and screamed something like, “Pa mosh nam! My-ya doch bolna!” over and over again.
Everybody stared, but nobody moved. Everyone looked concerned, but there was the language barrier. Even in the college town of Los Patos, you don’t find a lot of Russian speakers in South Texas. I wondered if these were tourists or visiting relatives of one of the Russian professors at STU.
Janet was about to get up, but before she could I was already over at the table, wondering if I could be of any help. “Can I help you, sir?” I asked, speaking slowly.
He looked at me, his eyes a pale blue, a smile of gratitude spreading across his round face. His sweaty bald head shined in the overhead lights. “Yes, yes, you can!” he said, speaking English in a Russian accent. “My daughter very sick. She said she have pain near her stomach but just to the right of it. She also say it hurt very badly.”
“It sounds like her appendix might be infected,” I said, remembering my nephew, when he was nine, had those exact same symptoms and needed an emergency appendectomy.
I pulled out my cell phone and dialled 911. “Would you like to call for an ambulance?”
“No, my friend,” he said. “Nobody else seem to understand me tonight.”
So I called and explained where I was and that a little girl needed to be rushed to the hospital. In five minutes an ambulance arrived, emergency medical technicians took the little girl (whom I learned was named Svetlana) to the hospital. The father and mother, named Vladimir and Zhanna, thanked me continuously, their Russian accents growing thicker. The mother hugged me and briefly cut off my air supply. As they left, she said to me, “Doe svee don ya!”
Which, I guessed meant “goodbye.”
I went back to the dinner table where Janet was, sat in the chair and exhaled a deep sigh of relief. “That was a close one!” I said, shuddering and trying to make a joke out of it.
Janet stared at me, her mouth locked into a wide, shiny red O of surprise. “That was amazing, Kevin!” she said, a smile growing on her face. Her eyes were locked on mine. The minute she spent staring and smiling at me equaled the amount of attention she’d given me in the past few years, it seemed.
“I know,” I replied. “The little girl apparently has appendicitis, and they got her to a hospital. What amazes me is that nobody else in the restaurant seemed to understand–”
“I didn’t know you spoke Russian!” Janet interrupted. “Where did you learn it?”
“Learn it? What are you talking about?”
“You spoke a few minutes with that couple and it sounded to me like you were speaking Russian.”
“You’re joking, right?” I asked. “I don’t speak Russian. I grew up in Los Patos, and about the only foreign language you hear here–outside the college’s foreign language departments– is Spanish.”
“You’ve never been to Russia?”
“Never.” The only time I’d ever been outside America was to Matamoros, Mexico, to the markets. And there, it’s easy to find people who speak English.
“But I just heard you speaking Russian to that couple,” she said, smiling and pulling out a handkerchief from her purse to wipe away a few tears that had formed.
I started at her as she finished with her her handkerchief, looking for signs that maybe she was teasing me. “You said you heard me speak Russian?”
“Yes,” Janet said.
“Janet, the only foreign language I’ve ever studied in my life is Spanish. I don’t speak Russian. In fact, I couldn’t understand why everybody else in the restaurant seemed to be ignoring the father as he kept saying ‘Help us! My daughter is sick!’ over and over again.”
She shook her head. “Kevin, all I could hear is you speaking Russian. When you first spoke, I heard you say something like ‘Pa-moch’ and ‘doch’ and ‘bolna’.”
I later learned those words meant help, daughter and sick.
I shook my head. “Janet, I spoke English to them. As God as my witness, I don’t speak Russian.”
She stared me for a long time, a smile on her face. Monica told me once that Janet had this uncanny ability to read people and tell when they’re lying. But instead of getting nervous from her smile, I just stared back at her.
Finally, Janet said, “Well, it sounds like I just witnessed something out of the second chapter of Acts.”
“When Peter speaks in one language and people from many other countries hear him in their own language?”
“Yes,” she laughed. “I can’t wait to tell my atheist roommate about this. She probably won’t believe me, but this could help to plant a seed.”
It turned into a nice date that night. I’m thinking of asking her out again.
© Copyright 2010 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be republished without permission.