The Russian Poet Goes Shopping at the Deadline.

'Are you hungry?' Nina asks.

'Let's go shopping on the Arbat. Bric-a-brac, broken bats, things made with glue and beans,

And radios with more tubes and wires outside than in.

But maybe today. Maybe today is the day.'

We shuffle through the stalls. I kick at hands that grow like nettles from the cul-de-sacs to clutch at my pockets,

Or, failing that, my shoelaces. I forget how much money I brought with me, but I don't dare check.

I should have brought something to sell!

'Are you hungry?' Nina opens her purse and offers me its contents: a rolling scrum of shiny black beetles.

'Go ahead. They won't bite!' I shake my head, but before the clasp clicks, a solitary bug escapes.

'A waste!' she mutters, watching it flutter up into the spotted air.

A phalanx of thick men stride past, and I am splayed into a basket of plastic Anastasia Mums.

The men emerge from a back room shouldering a golden statue, their knees buckling under the weight.

'Get out! That's the dog's bed!' the stall's proprietor squeaks at me from behind a face made up of folds.

'Here is a nice one,' says Nina. 'Not tall, but it has four limbs.' I object: There is a hole in the back of the neck.

'But that is so you can tuck away your folding money!' I consider this, and strike a deal:

It might come in handy, I tell myself, when the cops lean in on you with their heavy breath and ask to see your tattoos.

We lead my treasure home. In truth, it does not see too well,

And its walk a bit unsteady. Two policemen in their new uniforms scent us out and descend.

"These uniforms cost 16 million rubles!' bellows the tall cop proudly. 'Any tattoos?'

'Just surgery scars,' I tell them. 'No ink at all. In fact, his signature's already bled away on this contract.'

'Oh, you can't see it?' The tall one asks, concerned. "Have you passed a match under the paper?

"Go ahead, try it.' I know it's a joke. But what can I do?

I pull out a lighter, pass it quickly under the page, try to pocket it again. 'No, no, no,'

Says the blocky one. 'That's not how you do it. See here.' And he takes the paper and holds it in the flame.

The coppers' eyes shine happily. 'I think I see something!' They brush my hand away.

The contract erupts, an orange blossom. They both squint, as flames' shadows flatter their fat faces.

The contract flutters to the ground, shedding blackened bits. 'I did see something,' says the tall one,

The paper turning to dark dust under his pirouetting steel toe.

'What? What did you see?' asks the blocky one, sliding my lighter into his pocket.

The tall one puts a ham hand gently on his partner's arm and leans in close.

'I think it said: Beltran!' Their guffaws resound in the dense space.

Their footsteps clack down the alley. I turn to my prize. 'Are you hungry, fella?' I ask, taking his arm and steering him home.

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