Russian Pelekh Box story always worth reliving

By Bob Huber

So it’s another Christmas season, which means my daughter Tracy will corral friends and family to tell her favorite yuletide story — “The Russian Pelekh Box.”
It’s a marathon narrative full of adventure, romance, and mystery, although its authenticity leaves something to be desired.
So while a turkey roasts in the oven and pumpkin pies cool on the porch, put your elbows on the kitchen table and sip your hot buttered rum as Tracy tells her story. It’s a Christmas tradition. I’ll tell you an abbreviated version.
When Tracy lived in Russia for a couple of years as a paid guest of the U.S. State Department, she experienced all kinds of adventures. But I’ll cut this part short. The way Tracy tells it, it gets longer and more dramatic each year.
Then one particular Christmas, Tracy got homesick for America. The weather in Moscow didn’t help. For three months, she says, temperatures stayed below freezing, and it was smoggy, dirty, and damp. And that was inside her apartment.
Outside, KGB agents with fur hats watched Tracy through binoculars as she scraped ice from her window and looked out on the bleak Moscow day. The only movement she saw was an American named Cruz taking measurements across the street in Gorky Park.
That’s when she decided to make one last heroic effort to find a perfect holiday gift for her family back in the States. She left her apartment on foot, her baby strapped snugly against her, the bitter Moscow wind biting her face.
At this point in the narrative, Tracy always goes into lengthy descriptions of Russian winters, but I think that detracts from the story. She has a tendency to exaggerate, such as, if she forgot to blink, her tears froze her eyes open and she couldn’t sleep. She also claimed fire sometimes froze, but I won’t go into that.
Anyway, she ventured out and had traveled less than a block when a young woman, a black marketeer, stepped from the smog and held out a small, square box. In halting English the girl said, “You buying? Only $100, American.”
At this point Tracy always lapses into lengthy lectures on the differences between Russian and English languages, but I’ll omit that too. What’s more important, Tracy came back to her apartment with the box, called a “Pelekh,” a handcrafted, delicately painted wooden container no larger than a pack of cigarettes but worth in the neighborhood of $1,000. After some haggling, she only paid $50.
But Tracy knew she’d found the perfect Russian Christmas gift for her folks back home. It captured the country’s flavor, was worth its weight in Black Sea caviar, and would rest on a shelf in her mother’s china cabinet with other precious mementos.
So Tracy put some Russian candies in the tiny Pelekh box, and the next day she shipped it home in the State Department’s diplomatic pouch. It was verboten by the Soviets to send treasures like the box beyond the Iron Curtain, but the diplomatic pouch bypassed inspection, because everyone knew what was in it — disgusting love letters, dirty laundry, and distressful pleas for loans from parents.
Weeks passed. This part of Tracy’s version is horribly long and dull. It bogs the story down, because it involves tedious travelogues, adventures with KGB agents, and views of Russian customs, including the fact that Russian women run the entire country without benefit of Wal-Mart.
Anyway, we telephoned her on Christmas Eve.
“Did you get my gift?” she asked across a dozen time zones.
“Yes,” I said. “It was … interesting.”
“Did you like it?”
I paused a moment, searching for words to hide the regret we felt, because frankly, we didn’t know a Pelekh box from a bowl of borsch. We had tried to deduce what it was. Our best guess was a cigar humidor for midgets.
But I organized my thoughts and said, “The candy was delicious.”
“What about the Pelekh box?” she asked.
“Is that what it’s called?” I said. “It was so cute, we almost saved it.”
“You almost … WHAT?”
So that’s Tracy’s Christmas story. My version is different. The candy was awful.

Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.