The accordion player is not in the underpass. Not even the soft faced beggar lady or the gypsies who sit on the ground with babies in their arms are here. The sun flashes at the end of the tunnel. Traffic is heavy, honking and rumbling along Kutuzovsky. A man in front of me pauses to toss something into a bed of flowers. I guess it is just some trash, or an empty matchbook. I pass him, as I suddenly feel the urge to get to E's school a few minutes early.
A massive snap fills the air. A few more times, in quick sequence. I think of the gunshots I heard in the street below our balcony last Spring. My head twists, looking for the shooter. The man I passed is laughing. A tiny cloud of smoke hangs over the flower bed and the firecrackers he tossed there. I shout at him in English, furious. He laughs harder, making pistols from his fingers and making toy gun noises as he mimes shooting at me.
I know there are policemen a few yards ahead of us. They are always in a car there, next to the hotel Ukraine and just across the river from the White House. I think to tell them about this bored fool, but my passport is not with me so I think better of it. Better to leave them staring out at traffic and to forget.
But forgetting is not possible. A few days ago a drunk driver plowed into five children and two adults at a Moscow bus stop, in the middle of a sunny afternoon just like this one. They were all killed. The children were orphans and had just won an award. They were buried in a single grave. The man will not get more than nine years in prison for this. The questions turn and turn inside me, and find no exit. I think of every driver I have yanked E away from as we walk the sidewalks. My stomach becomes a sort of fist. My throat goes tight.
I have been watching documentaries about the history of Russia. On some days it feels as harsh and barbaric as it must have been centuries ago. There is a sheen of capitalism, a facade of democracy and advances like cable tv, but on days like this it feels like there is no modern conscience or sense of right and wrong here. This is not an enlightened society, I tell myself. It is just a place where people are born, go through a series of half-baked motions, then die. They can just watch MTV and crave the newest iphone now. That is all that has changed it seems, when I stare into dead eyes on days like today. My thoughts turn darker and darker, the poison from a handful of idiots deep under my skin as I see every desperate face behind the wheel of a black Mercedes as a potential murderer just like the man driving that car, like the fool with his firecrackers. I think of the schools in America, where there are gunshots and innocent deaths. In truth, no place is safe. A woman here once told me, "Moscow is a good mother, if you can find a way to love her." I have tried for years now, and the best I can muster is a forced tolerance. I see too much to be ignorant about what happens and what does not happen here.
Standing in front of the school with a cluster of mothers and grandmothers, I am the only man. The children burst through the doors in messy groups, bags dragging across the asphalt. E appears, chirping about our weekend homework, to go Red Square and take pictures. She is in a good mood, asking if she can have a grilled cheese with sliced tomatoes for lunch. I take her hand, and bring us home a different way.