by Joseph Harmon
Dmitry was already on stage, and the initial shock had worn off. Now he was numb, and his face kept the anxiety airtight. When asked for a location, the crowd shouted over themselves to provide it. They were excited tonight, so Dmitry bounced in place to match their energy. He leaped into the scene.
Airport! Therapist’s office! Submarine! The audience chose therapy. Anders became the therapist, making himself wise. Dmitri was the patient, laying down on stage as if on a couch, then realizing that he must look like a corpse. Right away, Anders declared a breakthrough.
“Are you sure?” Dmitry asked, looking to the crowd for confirmation.
“I’m positive!” said Anders. “Congratulations! And would you look at that, we’re just out of time.”
The point was to transform impulse into action, laughter if possible. To look into the crowd and feel the thrill of something unexpected.
After handing Anders his imaginary check, he met Roxana. The audience called for love, so she wilted into a calculated shyness.
“Now, what are you in for?” he inquired, his voice turning baritone and suave.
“Oh, I shot my husband,” she admitted, embarrassed.
“I can’t remember. Hopefully, Doctor…”
“Smith…ers,” he offered.
“Hopefully, Doctor Smithers can remind me,” she finished.
They tumbled out to center stage, escalating the romantic comedy as they went. Anders skirted around them and reemerged when the crowd called “robber.” The themes had already been decided.
Anders lunged for them, invisible gun outstretched. But he was a coward, afraid of his own power, and he shook with it to great effect.
“G-gimme all your money!” he stuttered.
Dmitry dropped the machismo and raised his hands, but not Roxana. She was the expert, and she took charge. She dashed to Anders and somehow redirected the gun at his head. She gritted her teeth, lovely and deranged on purpose.
“I’ve killed before and I’ll do it again!” she yelled in a stage whisper. Her tone was just right.
“She will,” Dmitry said. “Watch out, I’m warning you.”
The audience demanded a twist.
“Oh, who am I kidding?” Roxana said, shaking Anders in her grip. “I’ll admit it. I hired him.”
“You what?” Dmitry said.
“He’s my next door neighbor,” she said, indicating Anders.
“But why?” Dmitry asked.
“After I got rid of my husband, I got so bored,” Roxana said. “I wanted some excitement, an, uh, enemy to defeat. Come on, we’ve all been there.”
She shrugged and Dmitry witnessed the shuddery rise and fall of her shoulder blades under her tank top. He wondered if it was the show’s fault, these strangers siphoning away her energy each Saturday night, or else if the improv was her remedy.
“Missus Jones, can I go home now?” Anders asked, squeaky and adolescent. “My mom is expecting me for dinner.”
“Yes, Joey,” Roxana sighed. She released him, and he scampered offstage.
“I forgot to ask,” she said, turning back to Dmitry. “What did Dr. Smithers tell you today?”
Dmitry thought for a moment.
“He told me that I need to stop seeing dangerous women,” he said. His deadpan was enough to seal off the experience, and they called scene.
A light cascade of applause rained down on them. Dmitry stood there, serious in the glare, and then slipped backstage. The American impulse to smile still seemed foreign; in his mind, they had to be earned.
“Nice work,” said Roxana backstage. Now she was wearing a men’s suit jacket with boxy shoulders, her hair loose around her neck.
“I’ve been watching gangster movies from the fifties,” she told him. “That’s why I went violent.”
“I watch so many movies,” he said. It was true. In the spare moments between his work, he would fixate on any film that he could find, finding character when he felt he had none left.
Roxana appeared to be thinking. Her eyes were more alive than most, Dmitry had noticed. They darted around as she spoke as if examining all the ways things might be. She looked most comfortable on stage. Elsewhere, she played an unconvincing version of herself. She spoke with an irony that was almost an accent, making it impossible to tell what she believed. If her words landed wrong, she did not have to own them.
“There’s something about you,” Roxana said.
“If I knew, I’d tell you,” she said. She took a swig from her water bottle.
After a long pause, she said, “I know. You remind me of a train.”
“The sound of a train. The horn, maybe? Even right up next to you, it sounds far away.”
“Ah,” he said without understanding.
“Where are you from, again?”
“Michigan,” he said. “East Lansing.” He conjured up the pictures he had seen, the demographics, the weather, in case he had to field any questions.
“That explains it,” Roxana said doubtfully.
Some laughter swept through the curtains, and through them too.
“I’ll see you around,” she told him.
“See you around,” he echoed, but it was already time to enter the next sketch. The curtain rippled in her wake and he followed, ready to reveal himself as someone new.
Dmitry missed the train stations. They had the flavor of old Moscow, embellished with arches and barrel vaults, ornate carvings and the occasional stained glass window. The waiting passengers had their heads bowed, worshiping the moments between destinations. The trains were also a respite from the traffic he would never miss.
Although he had not spoken to his fellow passengers, he felt a connection with them simply from executing the same task together. It was a mundane experience, not fit for the stage, but important without applause.
Once, all the lights had gone off in the middle of the trip, and the whole contraption ground to a halt. People filled the silence with unsettled sounds. Dmitry had wondered if he had gone blind—his surroundings looked the same with eyes shut. But no, the lights flashed on again, and the crowd examined each other with fresh interest. An official explanation was provided later, over newsprint and radio, but nobody embraced it completely. There was no pure belief here, only forward movement.
The same was true online. Officially, Dmitry was Paul Campbell of East Lansing. He oversaw an army of bot accounts across social media. They had profile pictures pulled from stock photos. They swarmed around issues of contention: gun violence, Black Lives Matter, and so forth, until the Americans tore their society down these fissures. Dmitry did this because he was ordered to; he had no stake in this country. Even if he did, the system operated above him. Whether the lights flickered on or off, the safe option was to look straight ahead.
He went to the coffee shop with pastries that reminded him of home. It seemed to be only populated by people under thirty-five, all with laptops in front of them, typing furiously.
“You again,” said the barista, Sam. He had recently shaved his head, and now looked too young to be operating a cash register. The gauges in his ears were the only reminder of his age, holes the size of dimes. He reminded Dmitry of Ilya.
“Yes,” Dmitry said. Sam had recommended that he try improv, the first to tell Dmitry that his seriousness could be entertaining.
“Usual?” Sam asked, his finger already poised above the screen.
“Yes,” Dmitry said, and soon enough Sam flipped it back to him to pay.
“You’re talkative today,” Sam observed.
“What is there to talk about?”
Dmitry could sense that Sam disagreed, had evidence that his cafe contained more than the sound of typing, but before long his order was ready and Sam had lost interest. Dmitry retreated to the corner farthest from windows and onlookers. Although his equipment was encrypted, he wouldn’t risk performing any real work here. He could at least monitor his progress. He went through his tabs, one after the next, chaos on every screen. He tipped his head back against the wall, against the posters where he had discovered the improv troupe.
Their advertising had been effective, the photos crisp in quality and the people full of joy. It had seemed like the farthest possible occupation from his current one. He had spent all of his days indoors in front of a screen, leaving only to make meals from corner stores or have brief, impersonal sex with women from dating apps.
“You’re so red,” one of the women had said afterwards. He knew little more than her name and her sense of humor, quick and canny as a Reddit user.
“Oh,” Dmitry had said, glancing at himself, “Yes.”
“Are you embarrassed?” She had been kidding with him, attempting to pry open his personality. Irrelevant—it was an act, and it was not—he shifted by the moment.
“No,” he had said. He did not redden on stage, even full of shame and contempt. Redness came to him after any exercise, rising to the surface of his skin.
“You had more to say over text,” she had told him, half-serious. “You called me ‘baby’.”
He had pulled on his clothes and left.
When Dmitry auditioned, he had discovered that his work had prepared him well. His reaction times were sharp from firing back responses, from egging on the character assassinations. He could invent information to prove himself. He could be thousands of imaginary people at once. All this, and the words came out uniform and strange, his tone pressed flat as if by machinery. Sometimes they laughed because they did not understand him.
It was this disconnect that was so real for Dmitry. Up there, bathed in harsh light, he acted ridiculous and faced no consequences. He could be in battle or not, switching sides by the moment. The audience could all belong to the same body, perhaps Dmitry’s body, and his inherited trauma, residual Soviet paranoia in his veins. They could forget about the change they craved, hallucinate new realities with different rules.
When Dmitry was in the last year of senior school, a boy named Ilya had tried to befriend him. With wide eyes and the traces of a speech impediment, Ilya seemed wounded by his own existence, and it was not surprising that he was picked on. The two of them had played together as children, but Dmitry remembered no strong attachment.
Suddenly, Ilya crashed into Dmitry’s shoulder in search of a reaction. He spoke about books. He said that the other boys in their class were destined for bitter ends. They would follow rules mindlessly, drink to oblivion every evening, cheat on their wives. Dmitry took offense, as he considered some of the boys his friends. They could be harsh, but they were not irredeemable. One day Ilya had been too much, and when he made the familiar swerve into Dmitry’s collarbone, Dmitry had shoved him.
“Would you get off me?” he had yelled.
Ilya had tripped over his own feet, fallen back, more vulnerable than ever. Without warning, the other boys came to Dmitry’s side. They taunted Ilya, cursing, invoking slurs.
“Dmitry won’t be your fag,” they said. Their faces took on a kind of hardened cruelty beyond their years. They set on him like animals, Ilya too frail to resist, vanishing under their mass and movement. Dmitry stood still, unsure what to do, and even the schoolmaster hesitated before putting a stop to it. He extracted Ilya, who was clutching a broken nose, had blood dripping from his chin, and would not look at Dmitry. This was the first fight that he had started.
On stage now, events were progressing. There had been a bubble bath salesman, the victim of a botched plastic surgery, and an Australian game hunter who gave up on the accent halfway through. Dmitry and Roxana were paired up again. She surveyed the crowd, hands on hips, as they chose a relationship.
“Spies,” somebody called through the noise. That was the selection. Dmitry stood still, in danger of turning red. They began.
“FBI,” Roxana barked, holding up an imaginary badge. “Drop the act. I know you’re a Russian spy.”
She looked at him, her eyes impenetrable. She looked certain. She seemed to be speaking only to him.
“Ah…” he started. “Nyet. I mean, no.” He grinned at the audience when they gave him a laugh.
“I’ve got a five hundred page document here that says otherwise,” Roxana said. “We used up all of our printer ink making it.”
And what if she was an undercover agent, confronting him like this? Did it matter?
“Then what is my name?” he asked her. If she said Dmitry, he would know.
She hesitated, lips puckering. “Uh, it’s…”
She did not know.
“Oh, don’t butcher it. My name is Ilya,” he said. “Ilya Rostovtsev.”
After the fight, Dmitry had entertained the idea of bringing Ilya a chocolate bar. He could have set it down on the sink basin while Ilya cleaned his wounds, making amends without speaking a word. But what good would that have done? The other boys might have turned on Dmitry, and Ilya had been testing his patience anyway. It was time that he learned to behave appropriately. In the end, Dmitry had done nothing. Ilya had not returned to school the next day, and none of the days after that.
He looked at Roxana while she described his crimes, not far from his actual work and probably taken from news reports she had read. He spoke in his native accent, which sounded as natural as it felt. He made a simple joke about how Russians loved vodka so much that Russian babies drank it instead of breast milk. Was that negligent? Well, Americans love guns more than their own children.
Roxana took him into pretend handcuffs, nails raking his wrists.
“Any last words?” she asked.
“You’re a fool,” Dmitry said to her, squinting in the light. He was facing the audience but could not see their faces. “You are all fools. I am a fool too.”
This was close to what his supervisor Mikhail would later bellow at him over the phone. The clip was posted online, and he was vulnerable even though it was theater. Both of them could be killed, Mikhail said, and he should not have approved such an inexperienced man to travel overseas. Dmitry should hope that he would only be returned to Moscow. Anyone that brushed past him in the streets could be carrying a nerve agent.
“Listen to me,” Dmitry said to the crowd. “Please listen. Keep your head down in the train stations. Trust nobody.”
Roxana squeezed his arm, trying to end the scene.
“There is no winner in this fight,” he said, and the room was silent except for one person, unsure what else to do but laugh.