My friend the spy, Part I

To the reader: My Friend the Spy is the first Great Whatsit serial. It is a true story (save for the author’s pseudonym), to be told in weekly installations over the coming months.

I found the fax stuffed into my mailbox at the offices of the St. Petersburg Times, the English-language newspaper in Russia’s second largest city.

It was July of 1996, I was 28 years old, and I had spent the last two years working as a freelance writer in St. Petersburg. In that time, I’d gotten used to the aura of eccentricity that permeates that elegant old city, but the faxed letter I received on this summer day still struck me as odd.

“Dear Sir,” the letter began. “I have just read with great interest [issue] No. 178, which I picked up at the Foreign Language Library, Fontanka 44. I especially liked the fact that it was free.”

I scanned to the bottom of the letter, which was filled with such sly criticisms, to a paragraph that was circled in yellow magic marker. It was about the monthly humor column I’d been writing for the paper.

“Please don’t feel insulted if I make a remark about the language. After all, with such a proud name like ‘The SPB Times’ (viz. NY Times) you should be very careful,” the writer lectured. “In one article alone, page 11, ‘Green Lights on Life’s Road,’ without even trying I found about 18 errors. But don’t scold Lisa too much. She has a wonderful sense of humor. Probably like all Russian women she does everything at home herself and has no time to study.”

I laughed. Who could have thought “Lisa Parrish” was a Russian name? I reached for a stack of old papers, pulled out a copy of the column, and quickly read through it. Where were these supposed 18 errors? And who the hell was this “I. V. Berg” who had sent the letter? Beneath the signature was a telephone number, so I picked up the phone to find out.

Allo?” came the voice over the phone. It was a man’s voice – an older man, by the sound of it. “Mozhno govorit s Gospodinom Bergom?” I asked. Polite. Deferential. Yes, the voice responded, this was he. So I. V. Berg and I began our conversation in Russian.

“This is Lisa Parrish” – in Russian, it came out Leeza Perreesh. “I’m calling from the St. Petersburg Times,” I told him. “We received a fax from you this week.

“Ah, yes!” said Berg, clearly pleased. “I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your newspaper!” As he spoke, I tried to place the elongated vowels of his accent. Was it some southern dialect? Or perhaps he was Estonian?

“I can’t believe you called me!” he went on. “What a wonderful surprise!” Odd, I could swear that he was speaking Russian with a … Brooklyn accent?

“Excuse me,” I interjected in English. “But are you American?”

“Why, yes!” he exclaimed. “Of course! And boy, you speak English very well – much better than you write! Listen, don’t take my letter the wrong way. I really think your paper is wonderful.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. Counting the letter, this was the second time he’d insulted me, yet he did it so joyously it was somehow endearing. “What brings you to Russia?” I asked him. “Do you live here?”

“Ohhhh. That’s a very long story. I’ll have to tell it to you sometime.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, not quite convinced. “That would be nice.”

“You know, you sound like a lovely young lady. Why don’t you come to my house? In fact, I’m having a party” – he pronounced it paaawrty – “this Saturday night! You’ll love it! I’m having lots of people over, and I’ve hired some musicians to play. It’ll be great!” By now he was practically shrieking.

“Well,” I said, intrigued but unwilling to commit a Saturday night to this overeager and obviously eccentric old man. “Give me your address, and I’ll try to come.”

“Yes, yes,” Berg crowed, then quickly lowered his voice. “But you have to promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“You have to promise you’ll never write a book about me,” he said gravely. “When you find out who I am, you’re going to want to write my biography. You’re really not going to believe the story.”

I laughed. “Okay, I promise,” I said. “I’ll never write a book about you. Now, give me your address.”

Continued next week.

18 responses to “My friend the spy, Part I”

  1. bryan says:

    Lisa: I love your idea for a serial and especially love that the first installment ends with an injunction to the author never to write the story. Sexy.

  2. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Yeah, what lovely hubris there in that ending… By the way, Lisa, you might want to write a book about me, too, when we meet in Philly. I give you full permission.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Bryan: thank god you finally commented! I was wondering when you’d work your ice-breaking magic.

    Jeremy: This IS about you. Everything I write is, in one way or another, my darling.

  4. bryan says:

    wearing out your refresh button, love?

  5. PB says:

    Brilliant! once again holding my breath, only no ticks, thank god.
    I too love the warning that is an invite. I am intriqued by the doppelganger identity of the spy? Is it the gentleman or the writer who claims will never write and yet is keeping notes all along. Never trust a writer, they lie.

  6. Lisa Parrish says:

    Pounded it into submission until 3:11 p.m., when the clouds parted and the sun appeared. Ahhh.

  7. bryan says:

    anybody seen the Departed? wow. what a flick. and all the secrecy, double agenting, ratting, etc. reminded me of lisa’s tale. the 2 1/2 hour length, lisa, explains why it took my until so late this afternoon to comment.

  8. PB says:

    And Bryan you are the comment cocktail party king messiah, what would we do without you? Sit and stare at each other (on screen), musing, yet shy.

  9. MarleyFan says:

    Leeza Perreesh,
    Great posting, it reeled us right in; can’t wait for the next installment…
    Did you promise that it would be continued next week?

  10. PB says:

    OK, really weird order here, we are all commenting at the same time.

  11. Lisa Parrish says:

    MarleyFan: I didn’t promise, but I hereby do. Part II next week.

    PB: Janet Malcolm famously wrote that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Not sure I agree fully, though getting a really good story often means pressing your subject to reveal more than they feel comfortable revealing. Am I the spy, or is I.V. Berg? All will be revealed…

  12. PB says:

    . . . as if we were all spies, knowing only pieces of the secret mission, see how inspired we are???

  13. G-Lock says:

    Lisa, congrats on a Greatwhatsit first!

    Bryan, Cedric and I are torn about “The Departed”. If it didn’t have the pedigree that it does – Scorcese, Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon – it could easily have gone straight to DVD. Too many cases of “secrecy, double agenting, ratting, etc.” in our collective and humble yet wise opinion.

    Now, to bring this comment full circle, Lisa, I eagerly anticipate how you conclue this tale and impart the way you end up writing the autobiography for Mikhail Baryshnikov!

  14. G-Lock says:

    That was supposed to be “conclude.” Hi, I have a law degree.

  15. i totally disagree. that was one hell of an enjoyable and well done movie.

  16. Lisa Tremain says:

    I’ve seen The Departed, and have been mulling over whether or not G-Lock is right, about what the movie would be without the cred. My vote: if it was done well, no matter the stars or the director, it’s a kick ass movie, as far as suspense and seat-of-your-pants style goes. The love triangle is a bit far fetched though.

    What if Lisa’s spy posts become Scorcese’s next film? Somebody get him on the phone.

  17. Stephanie Wells says:

    It’s not Baryshnikov–It’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (sp?) !!!! I can’t wait! I’m right, right? Right?

  18. […] Pandora Brewer, “Roses are red, aphids are dead” Dave B, “Ghosts” Brooke Maury, “Life and death in the long tail of music” Lisa Parrish, “And the lord said: ‘Ask her about her sex life’” Lisa Parrish, “My friend the spy” (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) Bryan Waterman, “Going Back to Webster Hall” Bryan Waterman, “Coach” […]