By Thomas Burke
Svetlana is so efficient and organized that it’s borderline nauseating. But she’s a laugher with knockout dimples, and she wears bright, eccentric European couture, so it’s easy to like her.
She’s not the director, but I’m her subordinate. If our employer, the annual Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg, Russia, were an old car, Svetlana would be the carburetor. I, on the other hand, would be something of a backseat window that doesn’t always close all the way.
In the welcome sheet given to all the North American participants and faculty, my bio lists me as the one that can help “if you need some heavy lifting done” or if you want to know a “decent place for lunch.”
Here’s a scene: Svetlana has cell phones to both of her ears, she’s pecking something into the computer, she’s hugging to her chest seventy-five passports and two thousand dollars cash, and I grimace and say, “Can I help you with something?”
Svetlana stops everything she’s doing and smiles, honestly smiles. “Just be happy, man.” Then she’s back to work, and I’m back on the couch picking lint balls off a Soviet era wool blanket and flicking them onto a plate of half-eaten blinis.
“Just be happy, man,” is what she always says to me. So, at a moment when things were cool for once, and Svetlana and I were hiding out in a back hallway with a Nescafe, and I asked her if there was anything I could do, and she said, “Be happy, man,” I said back, in all seriousness, “Svetlana, please don’t call me Happyman, not unless I am coming out of a phone booth wearing my red cape.”
“A what? A cape? C-A-P-E? What’s a cape?”
I often teach Svetlana new words, though they’re usually many times more useless than cape. She teaches English in a local university. “Do you know Superman? Sure you do.” I put one fist out ahead of me and the other on my hip, then shuffled over the parquet like I was flying. “Superman has a cape. That floppy thing around his neck.”
“Okay, sure, a cape. Like Superman. So that makes you Super Happyman?”
“Yes. When I come out of a phone booth wearing my cape, I am Super Happyman.”
“Cool. Nice to meet you, Super Happyman.”
“Super Happyman is happy to meet you, too.”
From then on my given name ceased to exist for my coworkers. We developed a system of third person dialogue to communicate. “Did Super Happyman sleep well last night?” “Has Super Happyman moved the sofa and armoire in 529 back to 207 yet?” “Are you done with the computer? Is now a good time for Super Happyman to get in a few minutes of minesweeper?”
That’s how we operated, and all was going smoothly until the beginning of the second session when we had our first real snafu. About a hundred new participants and faculty had just arrived. They were an interesting but oddball group, as per usual. We were walking as a massive, serpentine unit to the welcoming event a half-mile from the hotel, and a group of about twenty—thoroughly engaged in conversation, bewildered by the city, and somehow confident that two drunken Georgian men were program assistants—missed one of the two necessary turns en route and continued in a wrong direction.
I was charged to find them and trotted up and down Nevsky Prospekt, the ten-lane major artery of St. Petersburg, in search of the missing writers. Those who were lost were only twelve hours into their stay, and Nevsky Prospekt was clogged: teens, lovers, samba dancing street performers, families, drunks, the militzia. By the time I caught up with them, they looked haggard but relieved, were low on fluids and down one purse.
The Russian tour guides use umbrellas to lead groups, but I didn’t have one. “Okay everyone, I’m going to hold my arm in the air. Please stay close to me. Yell, please, scream bloody murder if you lose sight of the arm.”
The group paraded down Nevsky Prospekt, my hand in the front and pointed towards the sky. Svetlana met us on the way. She was beaming when I saw her.
“We’re here,” I said.
“I can see that.”
“So what’s wrong?”
“Man,” she said, “Look at you, your arm in the air like that. It’s freaking Super Happyman.”
Thomas Burke received a BA from Union College and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is a writer and teacher, and he is very interested in managing programs that relate to the arts. He currently works for the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University. Organizations he has worked with in the past include the Chinua Achebe Center at Bard College, the Summer Literary Seminars in Russia and Kenya, and Words without Borders, which advocates for literature in translation. He is working on a novel, Everett and the Cosmos. He is a native of Evanston, Illinois and currently resides in Chicago. You can learn more about him at tsburke.com.