Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of our serial novel, Over the Edge, each chapter written by a different author. Click to read Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6 and Chapter 7.
In the clubs, they called him Tommy when they weren’t calling him Zain the Insane. He danced like his life depended on it, which it probably did. No one knew him as Tomás Zehnberg, a Russian Jew short on cash and influence, running out of disguises and languages to dress them up in. After a gung-ho start, his Iraqi refugee economics professor pose was beginning to feel flimsy and the sum total of what he knew about money laundering was that if your pants came out of the wash with wet currency crumpled in the pockets, you had to carefully flatten it out between two sheets of Saran wrap and press it in the Oxford English Dictionary to make it usable as legal tender.
There were days when his true identity was hidden even from himself and sometimes he had dangerous lapses. On those days, he didn’t know his Sunni from his Sh’ia, couldn’t remember the ABCs of Sharia law. All he really knew was that the young lovelies who followed him around that country club of a college where he pretended to be teaching were barking up the wrong tree. That and the fact that his grandmother, definitely not an Arabic speaker, had lulled him to sleep murmuring lullabies in Yiddish. Rozhinkes mit mandlen, she would sing. Raisins and Almonds. Of the many languages he spoke, it was the only one he had not acquired intentionally. It was just there, in his dreams, mostly black and white like the dirty winter landscape on the steppe.
Tommy was not an ambitious person. He would have been only too happy to snuggle up by the fire with a steaming glass of tea and a pile of Japanese comic books. What he was was a scared person, also a broke person. Where he came from, preferring men was not a legitimate lifestyle choice. He had been unceremoniously stricken from all the lists for jobs he might have qualified for. More to the point, he had been beaten into paté and left for dead outside an underground gay bar in Odessa. Hours later, his head exploding with a sound like the banging inside an MRI, his legs refusing to perform their leg-like functions, he opened his eyes and saw a well-dressed, upscale guy, his face wallpapered with worry, leaning over him.
“Kak pazhivayesh. You ok?”
“Vi gavareetye pa angleeskee? Do you speak English? I’m running out of Russian.”
“Da. I speak pretty good English.”
“Great. What the hell happened to you”?
Tommy turned away, painfully. Admitting that he had been put through the meat grinder by homophobic thugs would likely invite more trouble. But Ronnie seemed to get it. That was the guy’s name, Ronnie. Ronnie Forbank, Tommy’s first and most enthusiastic American lover. He propped him up and got Tommy, God knows how, to the Russian version of a four-star hotel where Forbank was registered as a sales rep from an agribusiness conglomerate. Winter wheat. He ordered drinks from room service and put a wet washcloth on Tommy’s forehead. Once the vodka kicked in, Ronnie pressed him for biographical details. He had a gift for getting you to talk about yourself. Like a shrink, but without the transference mumbo jumbo. He sprinkled in just the right amount of info about his own past, his glory days on the Amherst lacrosse team, his cokehead ex-wife, Becky, all the while stroking Tommy’s thigh and leaning closer to his right ear, the one that wasn’t caked in dry blood. Being gay or bi used to be a major drawback in what was now ironically referred to as “the intelligence community,” but times had changed. These days, it sometimes gave you certain opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have.
They spent the next two days in bed. It was more than a little risky in Mother Russia, but Ronnie was so glib, such a smooth talker, he had the desk clerk on speed dial. Brandy and babka. Cognac and croissants. There were drunks screaming gleefully in the hall and throwing furniture around behind the thin walls on either side of them. In fact, there was so much commotion that no one paid any attention to the two men who never came out of their room. Tommy and Ronnie got to know each other really well.
Lying back on the feather pillows on the third morning, Ronnie asked him about his Arabic. Was it any good? Was it colloquial?
“Hell, yeah. It’s my number one language after Russian and Yiddish. I was a bartender in Beirut for a year when I was a kid. Those Levantine types get pretty feisty when they have a chance to drink. You learn the names of a lot of body parts.”
“How about economics? Know anything about supply and demand, interest rates, commodity futures”?
“La shayy,” he answered, demonstrating his Arabic. “Nada.”
“Well, we’ll have to give you a crash course.”
“Crash course”? Sometimes Tommy’s idioms failed him.
“Sure. You’re a quick study. I’m going to send you to Pine Rock, a small, obscure college in America and you’re going to be an Iraqi agricultural economist.”
“I am? Pourquoi? And how, exactly, do you get to send me to places and get me to pretend to be people I’m not?”
“Because I represent the great and powerful U.S. government and the U.S. government, specifically the State Department, has an interest in a guy living in Grandville, Massachusetts where the college is located. We want you to keep an eye on him.”
“Why would I want to do that”?
“Because it’s America, Tommy. Land of the fries, home of the craven. You’ll get to be you for the first time in your life and you’ll have mucho dinero in your pockets.”
Ronnie took Tommy to London to bone up on the economic impact of crop failures, as well as some Baath party gossip from the old days. They shopped for appropriately professorial tweedy clothes and a briefcase made of the softest leather. In between lessons and shopping expeditions, they hung out at the bar and nibbled on each other when the peanuts ran out.
“So who’s this guy you want me to stalk?”
“Name’s Adam Wessex. He makes lattes at the local coffee shop, but my colleagues tell me he’s been on the radar for a while now. May be working for Moscow. Collects books on agricultural economics.”
“So Monsanto doesn’t want the Russian bear coming out of hibernation and stomping on its GMO.”
“Just channeling my grandmother. What am I going to do up there in Grandville?” Tommy asked, with a little bit of annoyance and a contemptuous emphasis on the “grand.”
“You’re going to teach economics, avoid accusations of sexual harrassment and make friends with Adam at the coffee shop.”
After Heathrow, Tommy was on his own flying into JFK, taking a train at Grand Central to a godforsaken place called Wassaic where he was met by the college provost, a woman named Cynthia Curry, apparently an old friend of Ronnie’s.
“We’re so delighted that you’ve agreed to teach at Pine Rock this semester. I’m afraid American students can be somewhat provincial. You’ll give them an expanded vision of economic realities, I’m sure. I assume you’re interested in sustainable agriculture.”
“Absolutely. Crop diversification, small family farms, doing battle with monoculture.”
Tommy found himself warming to the subject. He marveled at his own ability to temporarily depress his Russian while peppering his conversation in Arabic-accented English with the three or four phrases he had brought along to sound like an economist. He could see Cynthia was convinced. It just wasn’t that difficult. Pine Rock was going to be a walk in the park.