In Search of a Russian

by Mary Joyce Capps

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    Doug usually nodded pleasantly and then hurried past the two-story building where many elderly people sat on the front lawn. The people were frail and sad-looking, and most of them just sat there in the sun or shade watching the cars and people go by.

    One day as Doug was walking home from school, a white-haired man with faded blue eyes suddenly reached out his hands. The sudden movement frightened Doug, and without thinking he moved to the edge of the sidewalk and started running.

    Later that night Doug was ashamed of himself. All those people looked lonely, and probably the old man only needed a helping hand to rise to his feet.

    The least I could have done was to stop and ask what the man wanted, Doug thought.

    The next morning when Doug went out to feed his dog, Fluffy, he found the chain broken and his dog gone. After thoroughly searching the neighborhood, Doug decided to ask some of the elderly people if they had seen his dog.

    He hurried around the corner to the Old Folks Home. And there was Fluffy, wildly wagging her tail while the old man who had frightened Doug the day before patted her.

    The boy sighed with relief. “Thank you for finding my dog,” he cried as he dropped down on one knee to cuddle his pet.

    “No use trying to talk to him, son,” another elderly man called. “He’s from Russia and can’t understand what you say anyway. We call him Nick because we can’t pronounce his real name. He’s nearly one hundred years old!”

    Doug was suddenly filled with a mixture of feelings. He was relieved to find his dog but even more unhappy with himself when he remembered how he had felt the day before about this lonely old man whom Fluffy seemed to like so well. He felt even worse when he learned that the man had no known relatives and had never received a letter nor had a visitor.

    Doug reached out and squeezed the old man’s arm in gratitude and sympathy. Then he picked up Fluffy and carried her home so he wouldn’t be late for school.

    “Dad, do you know any Russian people?” Doug asked at supper that night.

    “Russian? No, I don’t,” his father replied, looking surprised. “Why?”

    Doug explained how he had met Nick. “He found Fluffy for me, and so I want to do something for him. It must be lonely not being able to communicate with anyone! I’m going to find someone who can speak Russian and ask him to visit Nick,” Doug said with determination.

    “I wish I could help you, son, but I can’t,” his father said. “We have people of Polish and Italian descent in town, but I’ve never met any Russian families.”

    Two nights later Doug was doing his homework when he thought of checking the telephone book. He found several long and difficult names, but when he called their numbers, he found they were all of some other nationality. None of them knew anyone who could speak Russian.

    Doug began to stop by to visit Nick for a few moments every afternoon on his way home from school. The old man always seemed delighted to see him and enjoyed looking at his school work. On Saturday afternoons Doug brought Fluffy with him. Nick just smiled and nodded to Doug, but he talked softly to Fluffy as he patted her. After that he sometimes saved a piece of meat from his lunch for the dog.

    How do you go about finding a Russian? Doug wondered, as he left the lonely old man each day.

    One afternoon as he returned home, Doug thought of going to the university for help. He knew they had instructors from all over the world who taught different languages. So Doug raced to his room and wrote a long letter explaining about his friend Nick. He addressed and mailed it to the head of the university.

    After almost two weeks went by without an answer, Doug had given up hope. But one evening a telephone call came for him. A man who spoke with an accent explained that he was a Russian touring the country with a group of Russian educators. One of the professors had told them about Doug’s letter. The man said he would be happy to go with Doug to visit his friend on Saturday afternoon.

    The frail old man was in his chair as usual when Doug and the Russian educator reached the Old Folks Home. Nick was watching for Doug and Fluffy to appear around the corner, and he looked disappointed when he saw the boy wasn’t alone.

    Doug smiled at Nick and then proudly said to the tall man beside him, “This is my friend Nick.”

    The man bowed slightly, cupped Nick’s trembling hand in his strong ones, and began to speak.

    Nick just stared, not daring to believe what he was hearing. His lips trembled and his eyes filled with tears. Then words started to pour out.

    Nick’s excitement and his distinguished guest drew a group of other men. One of them brought a chair for Nick’s visitor. Although they couldn’t understand a word being said, they were all smiling as they watched Nick’s faded eyes sparkle while talking and listening.

    Nick told the Russian visitor that his correct age was one hundred three and that he had left Russia over seventy years ago. Nick explained he had never learned English because he was a carpenter and had always worked and boarded with emigrants like himself.

    The visitor gave Nick several newspapers in his language. He also gave Doug a simple Russian dictionary so he and Nick could really talk together.

    Doug lay awake a long time that night. He was too happy to sleep. Finally he got out the new Russian dictionary and looked at the strange new words.

    It will be great to talk with Nick, he thought, but we really don’t need words to be friends!

    Illustrated by Richard Hull