Terms and Conditions
“RON, GET OVER HERE,” Morrie said, between coughs, as soon as I answered the phone.
Morrie only called when he had something suitable to impress me with, and since he wasn’t an impressive guy by nature, going ten months with no Morrie calls was not an unusual thing.
“What the hell have you been up to?” I asked.
“Busy. Feeling like shit, exhausted, but mainly just busy,” he said, and hung up.
Morrie was a programmer for some accounting-software firm. He looked more software than accounting–forty, thinning on top, long hair in the back, bifocal lenses. He wore T-shirts and jeans to the office. Morrie had money, pulling in six figures, and since he had nothing but the rent payment, it accumulated handsomely. He was an intelligent guy, of course, degrees out the ass, yet not very smart. I tried to explain the difference to him once: In Brooklyn, I said, where I grew up, intelligent might pay the hospital bills, but smart keeps you out of the hospital in the first place.
Morrie buzzed me into his building, and when the elevator opened at the fourth floor, there he was, waiting for me. “You’re about to meet my wife,” he said, waiting for his words to register. I stopped in the elevator entrance. It was a fact that Morrie never dated, never got women. We used to joke that the only way he would ever get married would be to….
Holy shit. Holy blessed shit. Morrie, that asshole, had actually gone through with it, with the whole mail-order-bride thing.
(Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t totally inconceivable–he’d had hundreds of shit-brained ideas, but he usually pulled the plug before he got himself into serious trouble, like the time he convinced himself he could win huge on Jeopardy. He had plunked down $29.95 plus shipping for some three-DVD trivia study kit off the internet, devoured the things, bugged me relentlessly to ask him questions. C’mon, he said, anything…U.S. Vice Presidents. Victorian Literature. Famous Ivan’s. I ignored him. You think Trebek will like me? he asked. Not a chance, I told him. Hell, I don’t even like you most of the time.)
Summary, according to Morrie: he had taken delivery of Katya five months before, and she hadn’t left the apartment since.
Morrie opened the door. A woman was waiting there, large-framed, muscular, no stranger to work. Short blond hair. Nervous eyes, the tell-tale sign of spinning gears.
She nodded to me, slightly, face level with mine.
“Katya’s from Russia,” said Morrie. “Bigger than I thought, too. Someone in Russia must know Photoshop.”
“No Russia. Kazakhstan,” snapped Katya, with a scowl.
“Oh, right, Kazakhstan,” sneered Morrie. “Kurdistan, Pakistan, Dumbfuckistan, they’re all the same, right? Mud huts and goat-humpers.”
I sidestepped Morrie’s mess, found my own opening. “So, Katya, what did you do there, back in Kazakhstan?”
She looked at me, puzzled. “Do? Do? I live. Live in Kazakhstan.”
“No,” I said, “I mean…work. What kind of work?”
“I help with…farm…animals…doctor,” she said, with considerable difficulty.
“Like a veterinarian’s assistant?” I asked. Too fast, I realized, slowing it down. “You–helped–with–surgeries?” I pretended to slice my abdomen open with the edge of my hand.
She jabbed a finger into her shoulder. “Yes, I help …like this.” She rested her head on that same shoulder, eyes closed.
“But here in America,” Morrie sneered, “she washes a few dishes, does some laundry, watches Oprah, opens her little care packages with all those vials and powders and worthless concoctions her friends send her. What a fucking waste.”
“Okay,” I said to Morrie, “so you get her signed up for some internship training, some tutoring with English, and then she can go do anesthesia in a pet clinic somewhere. Get her out of the apartment, bring in some extra cash.”
Morrie laughed, shaking his head. “Are you kidding me? She can’t give a blowjob without a manual. What the hell do you think she’d do with all those drugs? We don’t use that herbal crap of hers here in the civilized world. She’d be out on her ass after Day One. Complete with lawsuits, for Christ’s sake. A dead pet is serious shit here, pal, not like Kazakhstan, it’s just another meal to those fucking Omars, isn’t that right, Katya? No, she’s gonna stay right here, aren’t you, babe? Wash those dishes and wait for daddy to come home from work.”
Katya gave him a middle-fingered stare and disappeared into the kitchen.
Morrie sat at the dining room table, and I followed. He looked anemic in the late afternoon light filtering through the old leaded-glass windows. He looked warped, uneven, like the glass itself.
Morrie shook violently, moaned in pain, then yelled, “Damn it, Katya, get us some tea.” He leaned toward me and muttered, “I’m seriously thinking of returning that bitch.”
“You can do that?” I whispered, amazed.
Morrie nodded, tapping a finger against his temple. “I went and bought the warranty, see. One-year limit on the return, no questions asked. Incompatibility, false advertising, whatever. Any reason at all. Send her back, get a new one.” He reached over to a small desk next to the table, grabbed a catalogue, and tossed it on the table in front of me.
I thumbed through it. It had a solid black cover, and was indexed by continent and country. Inside were glossy thumbnail photos and short bios of hundreds, maybe thousands of women, from every second- and third-world nation you could imagine. It reminded me of those used car brochures you pick up for free at the supermarket check-out: Low miles. Runs great. All offers considered. I pushed it back at him, both intrigued and repulsed. “Can’t you do this crap online?” I asked.
“Sure, the catalogue’s just for effect,” he replied, jerking his thumb toward the kitchen.
“So how would that work, exactly? A return, I mean.”
“Simple,” said Morrie, “I scan and email them a copy of the divorce papers, she loses her green card, I take her to Customs at Newark and put her on Lufthansa, airfare prepaid, return to sender, bye-bye Katya.” He said that last part louder, toward the kitchen, then smiled. “And then I pick a new girl.”
I thought for a moment. “And what options does she have?”
Morrie shrugged. “Beg me, I guess, suck up to me, try to get me to change my mind. If they get returned, they forfeit the escrow money they were due, and that sucks big time, because most of them do it to help their families in the first place.”
“And you wouldn’t feel bad about that? At all?” I asked.
“Hell no!” said Morrie. “Her worst day here beats the best day she ever had in Crapshackistan. No, she’s stuck. She can’t do a thing.”
Katya had appeared in the doorway with a silver tray and two china cups. Morrie stared at her, but continued to speak to me. “I’m thinking Korean this time, what do you think? They’re bound to be smaller.”
Katya approached the table, and I instinctively reached for a cup. In one motion, she set the tray down hard and swatted my hand clear of the tea. Her eyes were molten, and in them I smelled smoke, and behind them I could see across the frozen stubble of a spent wheat field at dusk, toward a weathered farmhouse, and on into its dim recesses, where an old man hunched over an iron stove, nursing smoldering coals whose faint heat was already swallowed up by the bitter night.
“Cup with spoon is his” said Katya, pointing to Morrie, and offering it to him. The remaining tea, mine, had no spoon.
Katya sat next to the window. Morrie drank. I didn’t. The room grew quiet. A radiator clanked somewhere in the apartment. We listened to it. Minutes passed. Fifty-three clanks.
I heard a new sound, a buzzing, coming from nearby. Katya was watching a fly trapped between the outer screen and the glass. When it alighted, near the bottom of the screen, she raised the inner sash a few inches.
“Shut the goddamn window, I’m freezing here!” snarled Morrie. He shuddered again, lurched forward, cupping his tea in both hands and pressing it to his forehead. Every bit of color had left his face.
I watched Katya shut the window, most of the way.
Joe Kapitan lives and writes and splits firewood just south of the third notch on the Rust Belt. His
short fiction published in 2012 includes work in The Cincinnati Review, A cappella Zoo,
Bluestem, decomP, Wigleaf and Per Contra. He is threatening to attempt a novel in 2013.