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the first

The yarmarka (farmer's market) is about to close. Some of the people are already packing up, offering their last bruised tomatoes at half-price to anyone walking past them.  I am wandering, staring at bunches of herbs, at the same old options - cabbage, pepper, potato, garlic, apple, cucumber. But then I see a pile of peas. The season must have come early this year. I buy a kilo, and some mint. I know what is for dinner. We have not had it in eleven months.

At home, I rip the bag open, showing them to V. She stands by the kitchen table, eyes wide. I crack one open, showing her the little rounds inside. She plucks one out, her pinky pointing to the ceiling.
"Try it." I tell her.
She does, but she does not like it.

I pull out a bowl for them. She jumps up and down a few times. V always wants to help in the kitchen. I pull her to my lap, and we begin pulling them out from the shells. She learns quickly, tossing them with a flourish into the bowl, a few cascading to the flo…

crime and punishment

My phone rings. The number is one I do not recognize.
"Allo-ah." I say, trying to make my accent sound correct.
I hear a nose sniffing, and then a child crying.
"Pop." E stammers. "Pop, my phone is stolen."
I am already on my feet.
"Tell L not to let anyone leave the classroom." I tell her, shoving my feet into the pair of sneakers next to me.
"They looked in everybody's bag already." She tells me. "And all around the room. It happened when I was at lunch."
"And what about the kids that go home at lunch?" I ask.
"Nothing." She says. "They found nothing."
"I am coming." I tell her, my voice choking. "Tell L to meet me downstairs at the guard desk ok? You should go downstairs in five minutes and wait for me there."
She mumbles a yes.
I try to call her phone, and of course the service is off. I use an application to try to locate the phone, but it is offline, invisible.

Passport and wallet in my pocket I make my way through the muddy street. I call N. I am shouting over the traffic and she tells me I need to report it to the police, that maybe the school needs to report it for me. 

I am thinking about how long E waited for her iPhone, and how many chores and tests and goals I put in front of her to earn it. I know the school will say I am an idiot for giving her this phone, and that they are not responsible. I also know plenty of kids in her class have this same one, or even a newer model. None of them were stolen. 

Inside, I whip my hat off. I am full of adrenaline now, anything could come out of my mouth. L, her amazon-tall teacher is waiting for me. A mother who speaks English is telling me to use this application that can find the phone. I tell her I already tried this. I am imagining the SIM card thrown in some garbage already, her phone being hijacked and wiped clean, her pictures of cats and dolls and me rolling out pasta all being erased. 

E is red with tears. 
I go through the details of the last two hours with her. L listens carefully, nodding, confirming.
"In 30 years of teaching, nothing like this has ever happened in my classroom." She tells me.
I tell her I want to report it to the police and she agrees, but of course wants to think it will show up any minute. I want to speak to the school director but she tells me they are not in. I point out that they are never in. 
L offers to go instead, and we wait for her to get her coat and boots on.
I give E a tissue. She has been crying so much she cannot breathe from her nose. 
"Is it gone, Pop?" She asks me.
"The truth?" I ask her. 
She nods once.
"The SIM card is already out of the phone or it is just turned off." I tell her. "We are not going to find it."
She slumps against me.
L returns, and tells me the director has just arrived. She brings us into their office. I see the faces, emotionless, barely listening. They say nothing, just a little sound like "hmmf". One person tells me that I am to blame for giving her an expensive phone. 
They offer nothing, not even an "I am sorry". They stand in their fur coats with their hands in gloves waiting for us to slink away, to leave them alone.

Outside in the street, we wait to take the trolley bus.
E looks up at her teacher, her head tilting far back to see her face.
I like this woman very much. She is kind, selfless, honest. She is ready to do things that are not her job without hesitation. I know tomorrow is her birthday, that E has started to draw a card for her. I remind myself to buy eggs so I can make her a spice cake tonight. 

The right bus eventually arrives, sloshing through the brown muck, doors slapping open. 
"It really is a pity." L says at one point, after we lurch away from the school.
"I don't want to sound terrible, but stealing and being a thief is not considered a bad thing here." I tell her. "How many heroes, and politicians and oligarchs steal their way to success?"
"Many." She says, agreeing with me.
"From what I have learned here, stealing is not bad at all." I continue. "It is getting caught - that is the mistake. If you don't get caught, people think you are pretty smart."
"Also true." She says, frowning.
"You know, I want to report this not just for E but for all of the good kids in her class with iPhones." I explain. "If someone can steal E's and get away with it, then they can do it again."
She nods.
E leans against me.
The dim afternoon shuttles past us, as people walk dogs in little sweaters as old ladies wheel carts with groceries along the sidewalk.

Inside the police station, a dispatcher talks to us from behind a giant glass window through an intercom. He keeps asking if the phone was lost at home. L explains it was stolen in the school, over and over. They give us a blank form to fill out. 
We sit in our jackets, feet dripping mud on the slick floor as L writes her statement and then one for me that I sign.
A detective enters, not in uniform. He gestures towards a hallway and we follow him into a little room.
E sits, her hands folded in her lap. L sits next to her and I walk back and forth across the carpet. The detective has short hair that is going grey, his parka open but still on. He goes over the statements, asks E questions over and over. He seems to be a very serious and thorough person. The detective scribbles paragraphs of additional notes down, and stops occasionally when his phone rings, barking a few words and hanging up without a thought. He asks me if I have some special numbers from the phone that can be used to track it. He shoves a post-it note to me with his phone number on it, and tells me to send him an SMS when I find them at home tonight.
A woman officer enters, in uniform. She specializes in crimes that involve children. 
I ask if one of them can come and speak to E's class the next day and they both smile. One of them will do it, with pleasure. More documents are signed, passport numbers written down once again. It has been three hours since we left the school. I thank L over and over for giving us her time, for translating for me, for being so generous. Her hand goes up. She tells me to stop, that it is the least she can do. 
E squeezes my hand as we go outside. 
L takes the trolley bus and we make our way to the metro.

At home, E finishes her homework. I warm up leftovers and N comes home. We try to cheer E up but she is exhausted, putting her head on the dinner table after a few bites. I make sure she packs her schoolbag for the next day, and turn on the hot water for her to take a shower.
"It will make you sleep better." I tell her.
"But I am tired, really tired." E complains.
"Trust me, you need to wash off the bad feelings." I tell her, putting her orange towel on the sink where she can reach it.
She does take the shower for a few good minutes. 
I tuck her into bed, just sitting there and holding her hand until she falls asleep. 
There is nothing left to say.

Later, I sit with N and we drink sweet black tea in the kitchen. She agrees with me, the phone is gone,  already wiped clean and sold or in the morning it will go to Garbushka, the black market where anyone can hack anything for a few thousand rubles. 
"Shit." I say at one point. "I forgot to buy eggs."
"For what?" N asks me.
I shake my head, looking for a recipe that can make use of just the one that is left.
"L's birthday is tomorrow." I tell her.
I pull together a half-batch of apple muffins, sprinkling some sugar stars and glitter on top of them, trying imagine what E would put there. The kitchen smells of butter and vanilla and nutmeg. 
They are done quickly, and I place them to cool in a plastic box, splitting the last one with N. 
"You should make these more often." She says, her mouth full.

I fall asleep early, my hands in fists. 

The next morning, I make E lunch in the dark kitchen then wake her up. I see her face as it changes, as she remembers what has happened. She dresses in silence, bringing me her brush and a hairband to make her ponytail.
We walk without saying anything. 
At school, I pull her bag off and slide it onto her tiny shoulders.
"See you right before lunch, ok?" I agree with her. "And we'll go buy a simple phone and then have lunch at home."
She nods, staring at the ground.

I walk home in the darkness, my hands still clenching in my pockets. Then, I get an alert. Someone has turned on E's phone. I look in the app to see if it can be located, but it cannot. I realize at this exact moment it is being erased. My stomach turns. We are not getting the phone back.

Later, I get a call from an unknown number.
E chirps something I cannot understand.
"Pop, Pop!" She shouts. "They returned it, they found it!"
I cannot believe it.
"The phone says it is locked." She adds. "So I am calling you from my friend's phone."
"OK." I say. "This is some kind of freaking miracle."
"I know!" She tells me.
"Who found it?" I ask her.
She tells me a boy found it and gave it to L. I realize this happened shortly after I got the alert. The phone was in the school the whole time, hidden somewhere. The police woman had come to talk to them, and then when they turned on the phone it gave some sort of alarm and this was enough to scare them.
I am relieved, but still furious. E is in class with a thief that will not be exposed. These are nine year olds, not five year olds in a sandbox sharing plastic shovels. I start to understand no one will be blamed, that nothing will happen now. 

I take E in the afternoon and she hands me the phone like some sort of trophy. L has come downstairs with her. She has a paper for me. I need to sign it and bring it to the police station to close the case.

E is staring at me, smiling, relieved. 
"Are you happy Pop?" She asks me.
"I am happy I was wrong." I tell her as we go outside. "I am happy they got scared and gave it back."
"It is a miracle!" She shouts, her hands in the air.

I have to go to the police station again, and deal with the dispatcher. 
They stare at me, eying the document, looking in a book with numbers written in it. I just want to sign the statement and go home but they tell me to wait. One officer comes in, and asks me why we called the police for a phone we lost in our apartment. "You just needed to call the phone and you would find it." He is laughing, snickering at me from behind the glass. I tell him no, it was stolen while E was in school. He asks me again, do I always call the police when I cannot find my kid's phone? I walk away for a moment, hoping he will disappear. The dispatcher shoves him aside, and reads the paper again. They make more phone calls. He asks me if I went to the seventh floor and I say no. He makes a strange face. An officer in a black leather jacket lined with fur comes in. His collar is all silver fox and he has a shaved head. He eyes me, fingering the document, looking in the book with numbers written in it. About ten minutes pass. Then, they tell me to sign it and I am outside.

Later, I learn that E's school has video cameras in the classrooms and the hallways. They knew exactly who took her phone, and refused to share this information, or use it to find and return the phone. I think of the surveillance files, locked behind doors, studied, noted and reviewed and then kept secret. I think of that moment when I asked the director to do something and she said nothing except that I was stupid to buy a fancy phone for my child. I think of the boy who took it, and how he is from a rich family, and how he disturbs the class all of the time. I don't know his father but I know his mother. She will not look me in the eye, but she used to. 


Rio Bruin said…
SOooOOo elated to hear E got her iPhone BACK! - LOVE your proactive approach of asking an officer to come in & 'share' the teachers at Otego Elem. Did that for us & I STILL am connected to what I learned- Also as a parent can sympathies with you, I remember when our first of 3 iPhones got stolen (my son saved 2 years for his!) we did ALL the same things, locator app & police report, unfortunately we weren't so lucky- it's the photos & memories that capture time that hurts MORE than than the loss of SUCH a SUpER cool little computer!!! It MoRE than 'just ' a phone-
As for the scenario that unfolded at school & ESPEcIALLy at the station where the regurgitated mimic of the phone being 'LOST in APT' well, ...:) seems right out of Russian novel to me ;). -

Enjoyed reading, takes me RIGhT to Russia Everytime! Always black & white, & E ALWAYS in bright vibrant color! So Happy she got it back -
Have to share a funny story , When I first moved to Otego, my mom Always packed my lunch, killer sandwiches!! Sides! Drinks Awesome stuff, well all of a sudden someone was stealing my lunch right out of the locker, kidna out there by Mr. shoes room -- yeah!! When. We figured it out she made a week of mustard sandwiches while I bought my lunch ;)
Reads like a novella, M. Absolutely brilliant!
liv said…
Imagining that sweet little voice saying: "Pop, Pop, my phone is stolen." is like an arrow through the heart.

So glad that it was retrieved, but the lacking sense of justice there is tough to take.

Wonderful writing, Marco. Just wonderful.

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