A Christmas Tale: A Taxi Driver and Cinderella

Life outside the window is eternal, dull, frightening in its monotony. Every so often in winter the sun colors the snow and sparkles on the window panes. Below, leaden smoke from random pipes often mixes with the gray of the clouds, forming circles as it rises from square houses. In the distance are cranes like praying mantises, crippled poplars and the endless rustling of the slush-filled street.

On Christmas Eve, early in the evening, Boris Timofeyevich Sizov, an ordinary Moscow pensioner making some money on the side by picking up people in his broken-down Moskvich, stopped for a young and confident woman a few steps from a department store window decked out in lights. The passenger, not noticing the driver, fearlessly plopped down in the front seat, proudly lifted her lovely head and dryly commanded:

"Palace Hotel. Ten thousand."

"By all means."

The cordial invitation of Boris Timofeyevich underscored her arrogance. But he felt sorry that fate had forced him to circle around and around the Kremlin for miserable sums of money. On this holiday evening he counted on picking up some extra work to buy his granddaughter the winter coat that she had needed for so long.

The car became trapped in an endless traffic jam. The heater quietly murmured. The woman loosened an inexpensive but elegant coat and finally put at her feet the big plastic shopping bag she had nervously kept on her lap. She looked over Boris Timofeyevich as if to appraise him. He answered with a defenseless smile.

"What's this to you?'' she asked with a ringing, girlish voice, pointing her finger at a cheap little paper icon which hung from the rearview mirror.

"A guardian angel. Someone like you gave it to me as a gift."

Sizov was happy to keep up the conversation, and so he told the following story:

There was much drinking: a girl and her sugar daddy. They drank champagne along the road. She sang folk songs to him with all her heart. When they said goodbye she took out the icon. "Take it and don't think ill of me. I have been in love with him for three years now. And he loves me. We don't get to see each other often."

Boris Timofeyevich, in a half-whisper, took his passenger into his confidence.

"I held on to the icon not because everyone does so today. No bad can come of it, I think. I am even at peace with Him. I believe in Him."

"Well, yes, of course I also believe," she said. "I have one, too, only golden, on a big chain made of gold. My former husband gave it to me."

She stumbled. But the almost holy, confessional nature of the taxi had its effect. The woman warmed up to him and began her improbable story.

They met by chance at a dance at a Carpathian mountains resort.

"He fell in love with me at first sight, like a teenager. You wouldn't believe it. Flowers, dinners out. He spoiled my daughter with presents. I have a girl. She's 13. He insisted I come to him in Moscow. But I couldn't make up my mind. He's enormously rich. Listen, I'm a simple officer's widow. My suitor is persistent but attentive, gallant. He reserved an executive suite in the hotel. $2,000 a night! No, I can't believe my good fortune. I was given an evening gown -- in their circle one simply cannot do without one. Please don't ask how much it costs. I'll never tell."

What is most surprising is that she mixed her tale with subtle details that only a person initiated into those circles could know. There were many holes in her story but she always managed to sew them together at the last moment. Boris Timofeyevich wanted to believe her.

"Then you found your prince?"

"I don't know. I hope so." She let out a humble, feminine sigh, and this removed any trace of the driver's suspicions.

At the doors of the Palace Hotel the woman abruptly became silent. She regained her proud composure and took out a bill with such virtuosity that he could not understand whether it was the last one or there were many others. Boris Timofeyevich was amazed at the nimble clicking of her heels as she mounted the marble staircase and then deeply regretted that this rich Cinderella could not see her way toward sharing more of her happiness than the 10,000 ruble note.

He felt so ashamed and confused by his thoughts that he began staring intently at the bright icon. A knock on the window woke him from a kind of trance. Before lifting his head, he distinctly saw the golden-curled figure on the painted paper bow its head to him.

A well turned-out man, who seemed happy and slightly drunk and was accompanied by a much younger woman, asked the driver to take them to the distant Nikolina Gora. Along the road they were whispering and embracing each other carelessly and tenderly. Boris Timofeyevich observed from the rearview mirror.

Because he saw the young man making a show of crossing himself as they passed each church on the road, Sizov recognized a certain mafioso style. But for some reason, he was not afraid: They posed no danger.

They asked him to stop outside a deserted fenced-in area.

"Here, Grandpa, have a holiday drink on us." They faded into the darkness.The driver held the two bills closer to the light. He was not mistaken: They were two $100 bills. Somewhere off in the distant darkness he seemed to hear claps of thunder. Boris Timofeyevich crossed himself in fear.

The woman in the Palace Hotel had long since changed into her uniform and put on her starched white kerchief in the cleaning room. A long time had passed since she had cleaned the executive suite with a light heart and great zeal. She took a break for only a minute, froze before the imposing mirror and winked at her own reflection. For some reason, she removed a small, cheap silver medal of the Virgin that had been passed on by her mother. But she did not even have time to look at it. Her palms were perspiring. She trembled with fear.

"Dear lady ..."

She almost did not hear what he said to her, but the tone of his charming and simple words, which somehow went straight to her heart, were so strikingly different from the everyday, the ordinary.

Her warm eyes grew wider. She felt frightened.

On that miraculous Christmas Eve, at the gates of his dacha in Nikolina Gora, Grisha Kiknadze, alias Kika, until then a successful thief-in-law, was shot to death at close range. Dead at his side was the young prostitute, who according to family lore, had been loved madly by the ruthless Grisha for half a year.

Peter Aleshkovsky is a writer living in Moscow. His books include "The Seagull," "The Harlequin," "The Life of the Ferret" and "Stargorod." He contributed this fictional tale to The Moscow Times.