Oksana Marafioti's 'American Gypsy': Tracking Down A Hair And Graveyard Dirt For A Spell (EXCERPT)

07/16/2012 10:09 am ET

Excerpted from AMERICAN GYPSY by Oksana Marafioti, published by Farrar, Straus and Giourx, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Oksana Marafioti. All rights reserved.

“Svetlana’s husband is cheating on her, so we need to go to the deli up on Highland.”

No other explanation was offered.

All of a sudden, Svetlana was on me, squeezing my hands.

“Oksanochka, sweetheart, he must return to me,” she wailed.

“And I’m supposed to make that happen how?”

“The witch works at Giuseppe’s Deli,” Olga said.

“Ashley,” Svetlana said, looking like she’d tasted a rotten egg. “American.”

Olga patted her client on the shoulder. “Oksanochka, we need you to go inside and get one of her hairs.”

I pried my hands from Svetlana’s, slowly, so as not to disturb a woman clearly insane. “You want me to steal a hair.”

“Yes,” they said in unison.

“From a deli. With customers and meat and stuff.”

“Yes, yes, what’s the matter with you?” Olga said. “I need one of her hairs for my spell. That’s all I ask. I’m not an evil stepmother. I don’t make you scrub floors. This one simple thing is all I need from you.”

“If it’s so simple, why don’t you do it, then?”

Svetlana grabbed me again before I could protect myself.

“Sweetie, she’ll suspect something if one of us goes. She probably knows what I look like. He’s my husband,” she moaned. “Please, I beg of you. Go in, buy a pound of roast beef, and on your way out, pluck one of the bitch’s hairs.”

I couldn’t stand the idea of assisting Olga in any way, but as Svetlana bawled, her makeup running, she looked at me with so much desperation that I could almost feel it wrap around me like cellophane.

We drove to the deli. As I swung out of the car, Svetlana squeezed my hand and kissed it. I turned around and walked to the store with downcast eyes.

Delis are cheerful. You come in and you’re instantly enveloped by bright lights and the aroma of cold cuts and fresh bread. Not the atmosphere in which to reach over the counter and snatch a handful of the clerk’s hair.

“What can I get you?” my unsuspecting victim asked. She was so thin, probably four of her could’ve fit into Svetlana’s velour pants.

And of course she wore a hairnet.

My brain scrambled for a solution, and I was beginning to lose feeling in my tongue. “I am supposed to buy roast beef,” I finally managed.

“How much?”

“Can you show it to me?”

Ashley blinked a set of fake eyelashes before leaning over the glass case and pointing. “That one right there.”

“The one on the left?”

“No, over there.”

I shook my head in embarrassment, which, at that point, was genuine. “Very sorry. Can you show me from here? If I buy the wrong one, my mother will beat me.”

It was a long shot, but it worked. The woman looked at me strangely, then walked around the counter and stood next to me jabbing her finger at the glass. “The one that says ‘roast beef,’ right here,” she said.

“I see it. Yes. So sorry. My reading is not so good.”

A thin blond hair beckoned from her upper sleeve. I played my “creepy foreigner without a sense of personal space” card and gave her arm a grateful squeeze. “You a good deli person.” And came away with my prize, closing my hand around it.

Ashley eyeballed me while she cut the roast beef and wrapped it. I left the deli, memorizing the location to make certain I’d never shop there again.

I jumped into the backseat of Olga’s car. The interior was a nebula of smoke and I coughed, rolling down the window.

“How did it go?” my stepmother asked.

I handed her the hair along with the roast beef, a little disgusted and ashamed at the same time.

“Did she see you?” She dropped the hair into a sandwich bag and handed it to Svetlana, who rolled it up carefully.

“Well, yes, she saw me. I was buying roast beef,” I said.

“Did she see you take the hair?”

“No. At least I don’t think so.”

“Good girl,” she said, and started the car.

A week after the deli trip, Olga made it known that I was to join her yet on another excursion, this time to a nearby cemetery. “Ny pryamo (Yeah, right),” I said.

The Chinese sundry market might not have been the best place for this discussion, but Olga cared little for privacy, hers or others’. In the dried-seafood section she thrust a fish in my face.

“Your father said you’re going.”

Next: What happened when Oksana and Olga broke into a cemetery

“You better not point that thing at me again,” I said, and called out to Dad, whose voice boomed across the store. He was telling the Chinese salesclerk about the time a Mongolian medicine man taught him the miraculous uses of black moss to cure colon-related ailments. When I called him again, Dad vaulted into our aisle, the flaps on his leather chaps beating around his thighs like bat wings.

“Can you two never leave me in peace?” he said. A couple of ladies quickly disappeared around the corner.

“She wants me to go to the cemetery with her.”

“Ny e shto (So what)?” he said. “To translate in case she needs to speak English.”

“With whom? They’re all dead.”

Olga shook her head with a triumphant snort. “You’re going, you hear? Your father said so.”

“I won’t.”

At half past midnight Olga, Svetlana, and I parked on the curve of the sidewalk leading to the cemetery. Recent vandalism in the area had left some of the gravestones festively spray- painted with local gang signs. A guard booth had been installed at the gate, and a single light illuminated the security guard who sat on its threshold, smoking.

Olga whispered, “You have the bags and the flashlights?” Svetlana nodded. “Good. Soon as you spot a grave with the name Ashley on it, you fill the bag quick as you can.”

To finish the separation spell that would break up Svetlana’s wayward husband and Ashley, Olga needed dirt from a grave of Ashley’s namesake in addition to the hair I’d stolen.

Svetlana unfastened her seat belt and shifted her bulk forward.

“What about the guard?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Olga said, watching him closely. “But what’s this? He’s not alone.”

I squinted, and when my eyes focused enough to pick out the details of the other person’s shape, I exclaimed, “Huyovo (This is bad)!” before I could stop myself.

“You recognize him?” Olga said.

“We go to school together.”

“No matter. He’ll never know what we’re doing.” She got out of the car and approached the booth.

“Dai em deneg (Give them some money),” Svetlana mouthed.

When Olga came back, she looked cross. Apparently the guard had resisted the bribe. She and Svetlana went back and forth with ideas: climb the wall, wait until the man fell asleep or went to pee, find another cemetery that was not so heavily guarded. I made the mistake of suggesting we go home. As soon as I spoke, Olga snapped her fingers. “You go. Your friend will let us in.”

“Not a chance.”

“If you do, I’ll never ask you for help again.”

I snorted and she crossed herself. “Nu shtob ya sdokhla (May I die if I break it).”

The security guard, clearly uncomfortable, yanked his cap off his head as I drew near. Already he was waving, telling me in broken English to leave. He held, between his thumb and forefinger, a fat joint that he laid on the ground. I looked past him at the figure now occupying the chair hidden from view from the street behind the booth.

“Hey,” I said, and he jerked out of the shadows.

“What are you doing here?” I’d never seen Cruz shocked before, but even in that reaction there was a hint of pleasure, and it warmed me.

“Can you tell your friend to let us in? It’s my stepmother’s grandfather’s death anniversary.” I had to tell him something.

The joint in his hand sent wings unfurling into the air.

“Why should I?”

Not what I expected. “It’s very important.”

After a moment of consideration, he turned to the other man, who immediately began gesturing wildly at his badge and speaking in a language that sounded like a love child of Spanish and Italian.

“Não, não, não.”

“Dá um desconto, primo.”

The man gestured to all of me at once with a salacious whistle.

“Você esta louco por ela, entâo você é estúpido o suficiente para
acreditar em qualquer coisa que ela diga.”

Cruz whacked him on the back of the head. “Eu vou trazer para você um twenty-sac. Apenas fa.a isso por mim.”

They shook on it and Cruz swept an arm at the cemetery entrance.

“Cousin Roberto says you’re free to enter as long as you go to Pizza Place with me tomorrow.”

The only thing I understood in their exchange was “twenty-sac,” a term used regularly by Dad’s rock-band associates in Russia. It was considered hip among the Soviet rockers to butcher American terms with Russian accents, therefore it sounded more like tovenysuck. But the meaning remained the same: twenty dollars’ worth of any drug delivered in a Baggie.

“Are you dealing?” I said.

“You got all that? Impressive, but all the same.”

“That’s blackmail.”

“A favor for a favor, that’s all.” Another hit and he passed the joint to Roberto, his voice strangled. “Otherwise the gate stays closed.”

As luck would have it, there were several dead Ashleys, and Olga picked the grave with a tiny statue of Jesus clutching a bleeding heart in his ceramic hands. She filled the bag, but Svetlana dropped only a handful of earth into hers before hiding it in her bra. When she saw the expression on my face, she pressed a fist to her chest. “If I keep that bitch close to my heart, my prayers will be answered faster.”

On the drive home the two women chatted excitedly about the forthcoming ritual. My only consolation was in the knowledge that the living Ashley would be unharmed. She’d slowly begin to un-desire her lover until their attraction chipped like the rouge from the ceramic Jesus’ cheeks.

As always, Olga paid little attention to the road, speeding through a red signal. When police lights flashed behind us, she pulled over in disbelief.

The officer sauntered over and asked to see our documents, capturing the interior of the car with one expert glance.

“Sir,” Olga said, digging in her purse, “I do no wrong. Yes? Just drive like all peoples drive. You know I can see you have big arms like Hercules.”

The man took Olga’s ID and gestured at the console. “What’s in the bag, ma’am?”

I sank into the seat, wishing I could disappear.

“Dirt,” Olga said, smiling.

The officer didn’t reciprocate. “Please step out of the car.”

We did, just as another police cruiser drew near. There were moments of confusion, and I did get to translate, as Dad had said I would. The cops were convinced that no sane person would be driving around at two in the morning with a Ziploc bag full of dirt. They took us to the station, where a Russian-speaking officer gave us the “all bad cop, no good cop” routine.

“What’s really in the bag?” scrawny Officer Popov said. The only thing of substance about him was his belly. He could have been a proud mama carrying twins.

“Zemlya,” Olga said.

“You know, jail is no place for Russian women.”

“But it’s dirt, I swear. Taste it and you’ll see.”

With a grimace, Popov made a ceremony of taking the bag to get tested. Sometime later he came back.

“What were you doing with a bag of dirt at two in the morning?”

Olga told him everything except where the dirt came from, stating she had collected it in Griffith Park. Once the man heard the words “Gypsy” and “spell,” he got this shriveled-up look on his face, the one people get when they hear someone say, “I’ve been to jail, but I’m a changed person now.” Regardless, he had no choice but to let us go with nothing more than a speeding ticket and another for running a red light.

Olga took the steps to the parking lot as if she wanted to trample something solid and breathing. She wasn’t upset over the tickets; six hundred dollars to her was the change you find inside a kid’s piggy bank. But before letting us go, the Russian had confiscated her bag of dirt, advising Olga to start doing something more useful with her time. I would’ve thought the loss of the most important ingredient to Svetlana’s happiness would upset her, but she merely put her arms around Olga’s shoulders and led her away in case Popov rearrested us out of spite.

It wasn’t until we had lost the police station to miles of paved roads that Svetlana freed the stash from her bosom.

Excerpted from AMERICAN GYPSY by Oksana Marafioti, published by Farrar, Straus and Giourx, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Oksana Marafioti. All rights reserved.

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