A sojourn in St. Petersburg creates an odd resonance for Minta Castelberry, touring this most European of Russian cities with her mother-in-law. The women are accosted by an insinuating stranger. John Emmett insists on telling his story, and Minta soon finds that his arrogance hides a melancholy soul…and finds herself invested in his quest. Then she finds this crossing of paths is no coincidence.
The doors opened.
The queue bunched.
Like the oysters of Walrus and Carpenter fame, the group were mostly fat, and many, by this time, winded. When at large, their Americanness did not stand out badly. They were tourists, but wore what everyone wore, parkas and windbreakers, sweatpants, sneakers.
At their sides their nylon sleeves, as they pressed onwards, swished. Those who had come prepared to photograph everything were strapped from left shoulder to right hip, left hip to right shoulder, black zippered bags bumping, massive-lensed Nikons and Olympias dangling, nervous elbows stilling these.
Blood had spilled here; sorrow, biding its time, had smoldered here, restrained behind intentful eyes. Hatred had flared here in revolution. Today, the square’s indifferent paving blocks were trodden by spongy petro-chemical outsoles. The guide took his post at the top of the stairs, his assistant counted heads; the group drifted to their lodestar and lodged in a roughly deltoid shape, fanning wider towards the rear. Stragglers, reconnecting, gulped their way to the bin, dropping off bottles and cups.
They were cold. They were weary on their feet, but they had another museum to cope with. Clouds pushed across the blue sky, a fulsome ionic weight bellying their midsections. The sun vanished. The idling bus drew wistful glances.
Minta Castelberry scuttled through the glass door, carrying two plastic-handled shopping bags. Her purse slumped off her shoulder and came to rest, a nuisance in the crook of an elbow; around her neck, her own camera was swinging on its lanyard. She spotted a bench. With unapologetic aggression, she spread territorial claim across tufted vinyl, throwing herself in the center. A tee shirt slipped to the floor.
“Put both of those in the same one,” her mother-in-law said. “Why would you carry two?”
Valerie had her crossbody travel bag doubly secured, its steel-wire strap snapped under her vest’s flap pocket. She wore black yoga pants. The pants had sporty white stripes. The stripes had to be allowed.
(“Stripes you don’t need, pockets you need, stripes you get, pockets you don’t…that’s buying pants these days…”)
Mrs. Castelberry shopped for clothes every day, if TV counted. She didn’t buy, but kept avid tabs on price, length, fabric, workmanship (“which with the computers you never find anymore”).
She knew everything in stores had been tried on, was too much money for not being really new. And everything you got mail order had been sent back…they just threw it in the bag and shipped it out again.
And they only made clothes for young people. Half Minta’s mother-in-law’s conversations dwelt on these unhappy symptoms of progress.
Valerie grunted, heaved a labored breath, squatted and flailed after the shirt. Feeling by this show of energy obligated, Minta pushed herself upright. She stuffed the bag no longer needed in the bottom of the other (extra padding for a gift-boxed set of eggs, in the style of Fabergé). She held the bag open, while her mother-in-law stood for a moment, tucking and folding.
“Gimme that. Move your stuff, I gotta sit down.”
Minta said, “Oh, boy, my arches.”
“You wear the wrong shoes.”
“Mom. If your feet are okay, you should go look at the museum. One of us should.”
“I don’t like paintings.”
“They have a whole room full of jewelry.”
“It’s fake. They keep the real stuff in a vault. I don’t have to walk to look at a bunch of glass.”
Their group meanwhile filtered away. Dr. Slater’s voice faded into the main gallery, descending in echoes over his bald and leathery head, upon the ears of his followers.
“…a work on a monumental scale, noted chiefly for its subject, which, if you have read Tolstoy…”
His assistant, Cammie, stared back at the Castelberrys. Her smile was anxious. Her eyes said, “Don’t make trouble for me.”
The Castelberry women shook their heads, and shooed their hands at Cammie.
Their tour group tended, as well as to carry too many accessories, to overbundle against the weather.