We met up just after dark at Mudbugs, a backwoods crawfish joint in Leesville, Louisiana, itself a half-dead cluster of pawn shops and dollar stores that owes its existence to nearby Fort Polk. I pulled in early and hung outside, chain-smoking and listening to some reptile or another croaking in the woods past the gravel parking lot.
Halfway through my third cigarette Mike, an old Army buddy, showed up. With him were his wife Yvette, a surgically inflated Zumba instructor from Jersey, and a Russian immigrant who called himself Vlad and looked suspiciously like Putin. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged. We opened the screen door, walked in and claimed a lopsided table in the back corner, underneath the television.
Vlad sprung for the first round of beer, and Yvette ordered ten pounds of boiled and spiced crawfish for the table to share. She was amused that I’d never tried them before.
“Crawdads, we used to call them,” I said. “When I was a kid they’d climb out of the mud every spring and we’d use them for fish bait. The idea of willingly eating the filthy creatures never appealed to me.”
The waitress came out and placed before us a plate piled high with steaming red crustaceans, ears of corn and potatoes. She left and returned with a roll of paper towels. “You eat them like this,” chirped Yvette, grabbing each end of a crayfish. She twisted it until it snapped in two, then she slurped the meat from the tail end. “See… easy.”
“It looks a lot better when you do it,” Mike told her. She grinned, not bothering to blush.
I took one and twisted. It cracked open easily enough, but I kept my amateur status and used my fingers to remove the tail. Cajun spices burned my lips. Vlad let out a curse and wiped a paper towel across his face. “Damn, that’s hot,” he growled.
“That’s quite an accent you’ve got there, Vlad,” I said.
Mike jumped in. “The first time we met, Yvette made him say that line from Rocky.”
“You know… ‘I must break you.’”
“He sounded just like the actor,” Yvette said, giggling. Vlad grinned, and we continued to whittle down the pile of crawdads.
Mike dished out for a second round of drinks, and his wife called for a toast to good times. Across the room, a crowd of bikers celebrated somebody’s birthday. Above, the television blared an old black and white sitcom. I had to shout to be heard. “So how did you folks meet up, anyway?”
“Vlad’s a soldier in my unit,” Mike said. “He came to the U.S. a few years ago and signed up to serve.”
Putin’s lookalike spoke. “But I’m getting out this summer. I’m moving to China.”
I slammed beer down and glared at him. “What, you don’t like America?”
He took a long swig. “Yes, but, Americans aren’t as nice as they are on television.” His accent got thicker with the alcohol.
Yvette interrupted, hoping to prevent an international incident. She asked him what American television shows he watched back in the motherland.
“I liked the show about the guys from the oil family.”
“No, the other one. Knot something.”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“That’s a hell of a way to learn about Americans.” Of all the things we could be shipping over to Russia – jeans, cars, toilet paper, we wind up giving them a soap showing us all as wife-swapping alcoholics. It’s a wonder the Kremlin hasn’t dropped the bomb on us already – the rest of the television-watching world would probably thank them for the favor. Hell, after watching J.R. in action a few times, I was ready to go off on a rampage.
I called the waitress over and slipped her a twenty. “One more round,” I told her. “Keep the change.” She collected our empties and hurried back to the cooler.
My attention turned back to Vlad. “You know what t.v. taught me about Russians? It taught me that you all live in Siberia, and that you spend all your time drinking vodka and eating potatoes.” He laid down his crawdad shell and stared at me.
“You know what else I learned? You’re all spies. Every last vodka-swilling one of you. You’re spies, you’re wives are spies, and I’ll bet your dogs knock over our garbage cans looking for state secrets.”
The Russian leaned forward and squinted. “Everywhere I go in America,” he rumbled, “from New York to North Carolina to Florida to here, everybody – everybody – asks me if I’m a spy.” Mike stopped in mid-chew. Yvette looked down at her lap and fidgeted. The waitress, oblivious, walked over and set down four cold bottles.
Vlad continued to hover over the table, like a demon preparing to rip our souls out. I sat petrified, waiting for him to pounce across the table and pummel me to death, Drago-style. Then without warning he slapped his hand on the table, leaned his head back and roared in laughter, pulling us all in with him.
“Well, that’s it then,” I yelled, lifting up my beer. “A toast – to spies, vodka and network broadcasting!”
“And Rocky!” Vlad raised his bottle and knocked it into mine. “I must break you… hilarious!”