Fiction: Take the Giants in Five

By John Giarratana

Rasputin was wasted again.

From a couch in the corner, I rubbed my eyes and watched, amazed, as he lifted another bottle and polished it off. He finished with a belch and a rub of his stomach.

I downed a healthy hit from my own bottle. “And good morning to you, Father Grigori.” With Rasputin on one of his rages I felt it best to join him.

Even in the feeble morning light, the monk’s deep-set eyes shimmered with intensity. “And tell me. In all your wisdom. What’s good about it?” He knocked over several empties with a swift kick. Staggering from the couch he tripped over Ivan, who was sprawled at his feet. The monk lifted his cassock, and grinning idiotically, pissed on Ivan’s head. “Wake up useless lightweight! In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. There. I anoint you.”

Ivan shifted into a fetal position, wrapping himself into the corner of a thick Persian carpet.

His chest heaved with an uneven drunken snore. If he even noticed the warm streaking stream he didn’t show it.

Looking beyond the guzzling monk, through the expansive hotel windows, Moscow materialized from a frozen haze. I downed another gulp and passed my vodka to the monk.

He got up and stepped over to open a window. The room quickly filling with a wind so cold it stole my breath, though it did feel good, replacing the stale stench of smoke, drink and unbathed humanity. Rasputin opened his cassock to the stiff breeze.  “Ah. God is indeed good. Take a deep breath…ahhhh. Feel that.  Smell it. Taste it. This wintry air tastes like…another drink."

The mad monk was apparently recovered. After several months now in his company I was quite used to his mood swings. One minute he could be angry as a Russian black bear and in the next a playful kitten. I couldn’t tell if his eyes were glowing red or if I were still hallucinating from all that friggin vodka and hashish. But damn, they were intense.

“Mad monk, indeed.”

At times it’s difficult hanging out with a telepathic. Maddening, really. Hard enough to watch what you say. But when you have to control your thoughts as well. It was a good thing we got along so well. Which was weird in itself. How we met, and how we hit it off right from the start.

“True enough, my bourgeois American friend.” Rasputin ran a long finger through a spittle flecked beard. “Thinking of which. Join me.”

The sight of the monk’s demonic grin was sometimes more than just a bit chilling, but the fiery jolt of clear liquid soothed my otherwise disturbed visions.  “Ah, fuck it.” Another big hit and I was back where I was the night before.

Rasputin pulled a large chunk of opiated Afghani hash from his brown robe and dropped it into a waiting hookah. Exhaling a huge cloud of blue smoke, he passed the pipe.

Bits of reality drifted amongst hallucination. Rush after intense rush flew up and down my spine.

“Is good, no?”

Time, and my ability to communicate, momentarily escaped me. I watched the disconnected words I attempted swirl in and out of clouds of exhaled smoke. “This Afghani hashish?” I let my grin answer for me.

“The only good thing to come from that forsaken land.  Hot as Hades in summer. Cold as a boyar’s heart in winter. Unbreachable mountains. So arid and dry even the poor goats can barely subsist on roots. And the people. Lunatics. Fighting, always fighting.”Rasputin shrugged. “Ah. What can you do. Some are born to quarrel and fight I suppose. Who really knows the ways and wishes of God.” The monk reached for the passed hookah.  “Me. I prefer to drink and smoke and make love. Yes, my Yankee friend?”

“You know it, Father.” I fell into a plush sofa when suddenly my thoughts were on home and work. Actually, the job I was supposed to be engaged in at that moment. Reading Cobb’s wire for the third time, I crumpled it up and tossed it. He’d just have to wait for my piece on Kerensky and the Duma.This thing with Rasputin was far more intriguing. Anyway, Cobb had it under control back in New York. He’d smooth things over with the old man. After all, Frank Cobb was the best damn editor in the business- a real reporter’s editor. Old man Pulitzer knew it too. Under Cobb’s editorship, circulation numbers had been awesome.

“Hmm. New York. I must visit there someday.  So many beautiful women, yes?" With this the monk lit yet another moist chunk of Afghan and again passed the pipe.

“Yeah…pffft... sure…pffft…lots."

I knew this Russian assignment was going to be different, but these now many months with this man. Very strange indeed. His appearance alone. The flowing brown cassock. That wild, shoulder length hair and frenzied beard. I sat up and looked over. Beneath the craggy furrows, his ruby eyes were pulsating like smoldering embers. After a moment the menacing grin softened to a delicate smile. He was reading my mind again.

My thoughts were still home. The November election now just over. There never really was a doubt Wilson would win a second term. HE KEPT US OUT OF WAR. Wilson’s buddy, Joe Pulitzer was taking credit for the slogan. I knew it was Cobb though who had come up with it.

But would he keep us out of war much longer?

The drums of war were beating louder every day. Drowning out the pacifism. The damn bloodthirsty warmongers. They had no clue what they were shouting for. I had seen the results. Up close and personal. Sickening. Returning from the front, the endless files of stumbling wounded. Thousands limbless and broken. All soulless. The vacant eyes. And the many thousands who would never return.

But at home, Wilson’s reelection couldn’t stop it now. He always half wanted it anyway.

He had no love for Germany, or Germans. Couldn’t get enough of the Brits though. Bought every piece of their propaganda. The barbaric Hun my ass. The war from the start…well they all had a hand in it. Including the Brits.

“Woodrow Wilson,” the monk pulled his beard, “a great man…yes?”

I shrugged.

“Perhaps we’ll meet someday. Spend time together. I could offer my services, as spiritual advisor of course.”

I almost spit up my vodka with the bizarre image. Rasputin in the Oval office of the White House. “Whoa, slow down there Father Greg. That’s a scary thought.” Sometimes I wondered about that monk. “Besides you still have a job to do here.” I didn’t have to mention the Czar’s court, to say nothing of his household. As well as the many other households of the nobility he had been a part of. I didn’t have to say it. It was enough to think it, as I watched him studying my eyes, reading my thoughts.

“Ah. You’ve heard the rumors?"

“Yeah, well, who hasn’t? “After all such rumors of the shenanigans between Rasputin and who really knew how many of Moscow’s elite. The rumors were in no small way leading Mother Russia to what? Revolution?

“Yes. One doesn’t need the gift to see it. But to fault me, well, I have always had enemies. Enough such talk and thoughts. “Rasputin winked a sparkling eye.  “Let’s drink to Life.. as long as we still breathe.”

I took the bottle and another big hit of the clear hot liquid.  I may as well. It was November and I suspected reports of the Czar’ s shutting down the Duma were accurate. I wouldn’t even be able to find Kerensky that being the case.

“Kerensky. Forget him. History will. Now, now the man,” Rasputin paused to wipe a trickle of vodka, “the man you will want to speak to, the man who will change all.”

He’s talking about Lenin again.

“Yes, my young friend, Lenin and his Bolsheviks. Soon, very soon. The world will know the name. “

“But he’s exiled. Somewhere in Germany. Or, so I’ve heard."

“True enough. Where if my power is worth anything, is now, as we speak, plotting with the Kaiser himself."

Just then a series of   curses erupted from across the room. Ivan had awakened. Very hung-over. And I suspected not smelling too great. "Father Grigori! Rasputin, you son of a…”

“Ivan. Good friend. Join us, but please. Clean yourself first.” Rasputin’s playful wink was quite comical. He did have a great sense of timing.

That particular day’s events turned into early Russian night, and then that day into a week. It was the morning of December 3rd.  Moscow and much of Russia was in a joyous turmoil. The Duma had reconvened and revolution was all, but a given.  Now, many of the soldiers would not fire on the rioters. More of the army and navy officers were joining the revolutionaries. Kerensky could feel the victory would come at any day. I wired the story from the Western Union office near the hotel. From the window, through falling snow, jubilant Menshevik marchers were shouting cries of liberation from Czarist tyranny. The group was in the many thousands. I sent it all back to Cobb at The World.

I didn’t see Rasputin those last months that I was in Moscow. In fact, there were rumors floating around that he was dead. No one seemed to know for sure, though. Some said it was the jealous husband of one of the many women he had seduced. Others that Nicholas’ palace guards themselves had done away with him. Poisoned. Stabbed.  Shot. Thrown in the freezing Volga. But was the body ever recovered? No one would or could say.

I remained in Russia through the winter of 1917. I eventually did interview Kerensky by March, just following the revolution.I wired Cobb that I didn’t believe that Kerensky and the moderates would retain power. The decision of the Kerensky government to stay in the war and continue fighting would prove disastrous. Cobb wired back to me his usual - just keep to the facts and leave the opinions to the editors back at home.

Through the rest of that winter, into the spring and summer I grew more convinced that Kerensky and the constitutional monarchy he hoped for would never come to fruition. While Russia remained in the war and the numbers of Russian dead and wounded grew into the millions the people were increasingly radicalized. They wanted peace at any cost.

I was disheartened with the news of my own country’s entrance into the war that April.

From the horrors I had witnessed I was certain that this war would end in disaster. That the millions of dead and wounded would prove nothing. That America’s entrance might very well lead to the defeat of Germany- but at what cost?

Most of my fellow journalists from home and the others from Britain and France didn’t share my pessimism. I got along with so few of them I spent much of my remaining time in Russia, alone. Mostly though, I missed my friend, wacked out as he was. Drinking alone in my hotel room I couldn’t help but wonder what, if any, of the rumors about him were true.

“Here’s to you Father Greg.” I downed a last shot of vodka and fell asleep.

My predictions concerning the Kerensky government proved accurate (even Cobb grudgingly admitted it and gave me a raise) as Lenin and the Bolsheviks rose to power in November of 1917. With Russia now withdrawn from the war, the fighting was going to be more intense on the Western Front. In early 1918, Cobb sent me to France.

By April of 1918, I was mostly sober, and in northern France and Belgium covering the war.

I was at Cantigny where I witnessed firsthand the horror of a gas attack. And at Aisne-Marne I watched and wrote of the nearly 40,000 American killed and wounded.

The horrific scenes of war brought me to an even darker place. The insanity of it all. The incredible waste.The blind stupidity. Cobb wasn’t pleased with my antiwar sentiments. Even went so far as to call them treasonous. I just shrugged and grew closer to the pipe.

I was back in New York by early 1919, and the months became three years. I was drinking too much again, and also spending way too much time at Ching Wing’s opium dens. Cobb fired and rehired me a half- dozen times during those years. And then came that fateful day,in the early fall of 1922.

It was the morning of October the Fifteenth when I woke with considerably more than my usual hangover. It had been a long night on the pipe over at Tommy Yaw’s Theatre in Brooklyn and I had topped that off with some not so bad bourbon at Jack’s Inn. A bit of the Hair of The Dog was now in order. But first I needed a slight stimulant.  With a weak cup of Joe made from some already reused coffee grounds, I pulled back the curtain and surveyed the scene in the park below. I decided then that I liked my room in the Hotel Holley, and hoped I would be working soon enough to keep it. It was about ten and Washington Square Park was brimming with activity.

By half past ten I was making my way through the park. I exited on West Broadway, went south a block heading for my favorite speakeasy- The Black Cat Restaurant.  Inside, a local cop on the beat, Tom Daley tipped his cap. I guessed he was in for the weekly pay-off for the 16th Precinct on Wooster. So much for the Volstead Act.

Tony Molinari- the bartender slash bootlegger slash gangster filled up another - “this one’s on me pal.”

A salute with my shot glass as I continued, "so like I was sayin Tony, now they got Ruth, I gotta go with the Yankees to win it all.”

With his fat stubby fingers, Tony continued drying a glass with a towel. He shrugged, while his look said, “ah who knows, and who gives a fuck.”

At first, I had not noticed the big guy to the right of me. Actually,he was the only other customer. He was turned with his back to me hunched over his own drink. He was smartly dressed in a gray pinstriped suit and derby to match. Suddenly he turned to face me. “The Giants will pitch around Ruth and shut him down.” He continued in a thick Russian accent.

“Take the Giants in five.”  He finished with a wink of a fiery red eye and a tip of his glass.

Damn! He was alive! And he had gotten out! Just as he promised he would, so long ago in that frozen dream.