by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Petr is getting a new car. He does not know what kind. But he hopes it will be very fast.

We are in a Chevrolet dealership. Petr is sitting in a chair, looking at the ceiling. Petr’s translator, Ivan, is doing the talking, because Petr speaks no english.

“K-l-i-m-a,” says Ivan, spelling Petr’s last name. “He is new hockey player for Red Wings . . . yes . . . he make lots of money, don’t worry.”

Ivan laughs. Petr laughs, too, even though he has no idea what’s going on.

Petr is 20 years old, with a broad frame, thick blondish hair, and the beginnings of a first mustache. He has been in America less than three weeks, since defecting from Czechoslovakia. He was snuck away in the night, leaving his family and friends behind.

Now he has a big NHL contract, and many newspaper stories about him which he cannot read. And, in a few moments, a new automobile. His own.

It was part of the contract. A fast American sports car. Welcome to the U.S.A.

“I want you to give him the key, very special, OK?” Ivan whispers to the dealer. “So we can take picture.”

The car is brought out. A black Camaro Z28. Very sleek. Petr stares. He never owned a car before. He runs his hand along the hood. Along the side. Along the window with the sticker that reads $15,800.

“Wait, Petr! We take a picture,” Ivan says.

The dealer comes out with the keys. He puts his arm around the hockey player. Petr smiles widely. There are spaces between his teeth.

Click. Click. Petr knows to drive American

We are driving in Petr’s car. Rrrummm! Petr is at the wheel. Rrrummm! His foot slams on the gas, then quickly to the brake, then back to the gas.

“It’s a good thing . . . there is traffic . . . ahead of us,” says Ivan, as he jerks forward, then backward, then forward, “or else . . . we be dead.”

Petr pushes the electronic mirror adjuster button. Bzzzt. It is one of a dozen extras that came with the car. Ivan tried to explain them all to Petr, but isn’t sure how much he absorbed. Bzzzt. The mirror moves up, down. Bzzzt. Left, right. Bzzzt. Petr smiles.

“Good?” he is asked.

“Good,” he says.

Back in Czechoslovakia, it is nighttime. Petr’s father is no doubt sleeping, tired from his job at the ice rink. His mother? Who knows? Perhaps she is dreaming of her son, imagining his new life in America.

Bzzzt. Up goes the mirror. Bzzzt. Back down.

How long would it take someone in Czechoslovakia to earn $15,800, Petr is asked?

Ivan laughs. Petr laughs, too.

“I think 10 years,” Ivan says. Petr needs more than a car

“Pull in here,” says Ivan, pointing left. Petr looks at the finger, then turns obediently.


We march to the men’s section. Petr — who defected with only one bag of clothes and personal mementos — needs underwear. He is about to take a road trip with the Red Wings.

“Here,” says Ivan. Petr opens the box of bikini briefs by Brut Faberge. He feels the material and makes a face. Nylon. No good.

He settles on a box of blue and white cotton ones, size large.”That is L,” says Ivan, pointing at the letter on the box. Petr silently mouths the L sound.

“He must work on his English,” Ivan says.

We go to the counter. A young male cashier, about Petr’s age, looks up.
“Will this be cash or charge?”

Petr just smiles. Petr always smiles. “Cash,” says Ivan. He says something in Czech. Petr reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of bills, fives mixed with twenties mixed with hundreds, mixed with ones. The cashier’s mouth drops open.

“Here,” says Ivan, picking out the bills. Petr glances around at the counter merchandise. Film. TV Guide. Halloween masks. Peppermint Patties.

On the ice he will do what comes naturally. He will do well. But how strange this rest must all seem. One month, your native country. The next month, across the world, across the culture.

And no going back.

“OK, Petr,” says Ivan.

Petr puts his money back. Car down. Underwear down. Rest of America to go.

“Thank you for shopping at K-Mart,” says the cashier, but Petr only looks at him blankly and walks away.


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