The Green Screen
By Web Ruble
Web Ruble writes: I am a retired newspaper reporter of some 40 years, and a couple of those years I was religion writer at The Oregonian, Oregon's largest daily. Now I am a novelist and short story writer. My wife Norma and I live in Fairview, OR but split our time between there and Tucson, AZ. We are lay leaders and deacons at Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fairview, OR (near Portland). We also are volunteers on Thursdays about nine months out of the year in a soup kitchen in Gresham, OR.
Now-familiar laughter came from behind the door curtain. Martin Shemlik hadn’t paid much attention to it, but now he had to know.
Was there joy of true fellowship on the other side of that partition? Was there a party? What’s going on back there?
The door was more like a screen and it was Kelly green in color. Volumes of laughter were bounding. Occasionally, songs and chants of merriment rent the air.
Martin had speculated more and more about what happens daily behind the green screen.
It’s probably normal, he mused, similar to stuff that goes on everywhere in Azerbaijan. After all, the main city of Baku was full of sounds and sights that Martin Borden had not witnessed anywhere.
In his travels across Europe and the Soviet Union, Martin had yet to hear such warm laughter nor feel the general all-around good mood he felt the last five days he had been visiting Tovar’s tea house.
Not everyone, however, retreats to that beyond-the-green sanctum of mirth. Only a few did so from among the scores who visited Tovar’s daily. Martin realized that to go back behind the chlorophyll curtain one must be invited.
He mused, participants there seem to be open. How strange it was in a land that seemed fogged in secrecy, suspicion and danger.
Hearing the laughter reminded him of that song of the 1960s – “What’s Behind the Green Door.”
Martin enjoyed the clatter and babble of the entire teahouse. Though he did not speak Azeri he enjoyed hearing the old gents jabber over their tea dashes or in the speckled drains in the bottoms of ornate cups.
Folk gathered at Tovar’s big round table daily for routine socializing. They’d dissect world events and local politics. And upon occasion, he guessed, they speculated about what they could expect soon from local Soviet authorities. Once in a while the participants abandoned Azeri in favor of Russian, and Martin could understand at least some of it. Martin spoke a little of the language.
He noticed the fur-hatted man, Tovar.. He was cheerful and welcoming. He had a smile for everyone including Martin. As he toured the tables he would enter the old gents’ conversations, kibitz, and then breeze off on a cloud of mirth to the kitchen..
Upbeat conversation, Martin guessed, was Tovar’s trade stimulator. Martin observed that Tovar spoke Russian as well as Azeri and probably Armenian and Georgian as well. His was an international house, offering fascinating trans-Caucasian interaction.
Tovar occasionally would duck behind the green screen with a teapot, a tray of cups, and pastry. There’d be welcoming cheer and chatter. And then he’d reappear in the main room with a tray of empties on his way to the kitchen.
Martin had been coming here regularly because he loved the ambrosia and sportive discourse. This balconied Chaikhana – a teahouse above a rug shop -- was becoming magnetic and a daily stop for Martin. He was a veteran people watcher who for reasons he did not fully understand about himself, had stayed several days in Baku. This medieval, windy, sand-blasted mecca on the Azeri shore of the Caspian Sea fascinated him.
An American of Russian ancestry, Martin had been traveling Europe and the Soviet Union pursuing elusive roots. He reached a inconclusive pause in his nearly hopeless genealogic search in Kiev, and decided to take a few days’ detour to the Caucuses. He expected to find it quite different. It was different from the Ukraine, but he had begun to see that Azeri values were similar to those the world over.
Normally, a tourist to the Soviet Union goes on a managed tour. Somehow, through Soviet friends in Leningrad, Martin had managed to get a visa and permission to travel the country by himself and somewhat at his leisure. But he was under no illusion. He was sure he was seldom out of sight of the Soviet secret police, the KGB.
Tovar’s “Chaikhana” became Martin’s trans-Caucasian fulcrum. Martin felt that taking full measure of its life was really taking measure of the culture of the whole region.
Though he was feeling good about the teahouse and the people who came and went, he was not quite prepared for what happened next.
Startled, he looked up. Fur-hatted Tovar was standing by his table grinning. He pointed to the green screen and tried English, “You like? Come! Many friends here.”
“Huh? Me?” said Martin.
He was almost speechless as his thoughts ricocheted off the crème-and-green walls. He was an outsider from another culture and a visitor of only a week or so. He could not believe it: he had invitation to the inner bowels of the tea house.
He reacted quickly. Grinning, he said, “Er . . .well, thank you.” Then said it in Russian. He got up and walked three steps with Tovar who ushered him through the green curtain.
‘Twas a medium-sized windowless room and therefore a little darker than the outer. However, through the dimness, Martin could see a sea of smiling faces. He was introduced as a new customer, and from the applause and mild cheers, he determined that Tovar had said something about Martin's ways being similar to those of the others in this inner sanctum and that he was to be treated as a member.
.Martin was welcomed and offered tea and peculiar-looking scones. He sat with friendly faced folk who didn't know how to communicate with him until they discovered he spoke some Russian. Then they spoke to him often. None of them, apparently, spoke more than a word or two of English.
Martin didn't know quite how to react. So he sat, chewed, sipped and smiled and laughed a lot. The folks around him seemed pleased.
It was a time of rapture. He spent minutes observing. It seemed to be a men's club. He was aware of no women. However, he noticed that some patrons were definitely of the Islamic faith; others appeared to be Jewish; still others were in western business suits. Moreover, there were older, bearded men -- perhaps wearing hidden crosses. And then he saw "them" -- oh oh, definitely Soviet authorities. The two who just arrived were obviously Soviet army officers in uniform.
He expected a rapid hush and some quick exits. But no. The pair seemed to be cheered and welcomed. It was amazing. All of these folks -- from disparate faiths, authority, and political persuasion -- all fellowshipping.
Surely he was dreaming and would wake soon to his usual difficult world. He never expected something like this in a thousand years.
I've got to tell my church folk back home about this. This is amazing.
About this time one of his early greeters -- a man about his age who spoke Russian and a tiny bit of English -- got the point across to him.
"You must not tell anyone about this," said the Turkish-looking man with soft brown eyes. "Whatever you see or hear here stays here. Understand? It's code. Don't tell anyone."
"Okay,” Martin said.
"You must see," the man said mainly in broken English, "that all these peoples are from different faiths, life walks, and are important and not important peoples. They comes here for peace, relaxation and brothers-hood. Before man is welcom-ing behind the curtain he is scrutinized -- is zat za word? -- by our observers. Dey have watched you, followed and investigated you, and they have chosen YOU to be one of us. It is big honor. You understand? Very Big. Do not treat lightly. You are the first foreigner so been here. What do you think?
Martin tried his Russian, "I am . . . well, sir, more than amazed and pleased . . . beyond reason.”..
"Good. Remember, tell no one,” the man said, also in Russian. “Come often. We start at about noon but there is no set time. Enjoy us. We are one in the world of peace."
Stunned, Martin asked, "I have one question: Are not you afraid of those two Soviet officers who just came in? . . .that they'll tell the security or secret police, and all will be compromised and arrested?"
"No," the man said. "One of them is already KGB. Both are with us founders. You see, we have built true world view here and have Christian, Muslim and secular love in our many hearts. It is fellowship of man and God. And we are free in our souls. So are you, I hope. Welcome."
More cheers went up. Martin looked up. Tovar had re-entered with more cakes and tea. He waved. He passed by the table where Martin and the Turkish man were sitting.
Martin might have been mistaken, but no. He did see it! There was a crucifix momentarily visible under Tovar's robes.
Martin turned to the Turkish man to comment, but the man was across the room chatting with others. Now left on his own. Martin was in a sea of interfaith love, honor and world peace. He no longer was a stranger in paradise.
"Christ would have it this way," he said to himself. “It’s a shame I can’t tell anyone.”
(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)