George joined his father, Alex, at the cafe table. The older man finger-brushed his large bush of a white mustache. A tattoo of numbers from his gulag days littered his arm.
George took a sip of his dark coffee.
“Good, eh?” the older man asked.
George swallowed his sip. “Yes, yes.”
“See. I told you this place had the best joe around.”
“You did. But it looks like a dump.”
“Keeps the riff-raff away,” Alex said. “None of that Starbucks gang here. Only we coffee connoisseurs. Right, Nick.”
The white haired, pot-belied man at the next table nodded his head. “Best in the whole darned city.”
Alex laughed. “And the aroma makes me homesick for my Siberian days.”
George went on. “Papa, have you been getting your mail lately.”
“Yes. No problem with the mail.”
“I’ll tell you it’s getting worse and worse. It took two weeks for me to get a birthday card from Olga.”
“Two weeks?” the older man said. “That’s nothing. It used to take six months for me to get my utility bill.”
“Six months?” his son asked.
“Oh, yes. The utility company would call up and threaten to cut off the electricity.”
“Why didn’t they?”
“All I had to say was that I hadn’t received the bill. As soon as I told them, they said, ‘We understand.’ I told them that even if I had received the bill. Got us through the winters.”
“Why did they believe you?”
“Everybody’s mail was slow in those days,” Alex said, then lifted his mug in the air. The waiter saw him and brought another mug of coffee over.
“Why was the mail so slow?” George asked.
“It took forever for the secret police to read our mail. They were slow readers but good at beating people up.”
“It’s not that way anymore. The secret police are all college education. They do next day service. Or so I’ve heard.”
The old man raised his mug to his lips and drank and swallowed. “I think I like the old days better. Every thing has gotten so fast we hardly have time to think. And now they’re saying we have five per cent unemployment. Can you imagine?”
“C’mon, Papa, that’s the best it’s been in years.”
“You call that good. Why, in my day, we had full employment.”
“Oh, yes we did.”
“I don’t believe you,” George said.
Accepting the challenge, Alex said, “Comrade Stalin had a very good solution to the employment problem. If you didn’t have a job, he shot you. I sure miss those good old days.”