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A Fair Exchange

Freda Isaksen

Ivan awoke one August morning and looked around the small room which he shared with his two older brothers in a large apartment building in the city of Moscow. The room was sparsely furnished with just enough drawers and cupboards to accommodate the boy’s clothing and few possessions. They had always worn hand–me–downs from one sibling to another because their parents’ income was meager. Lately the two eldest sons had been able to earn a few rubles after school hours, so they could contribute to a few luxuries such as an extra can of soda pop or a few flowers to brighten up the faded paint on the walls. Maybe even an extra pint of vodka to add cheer to the monotonous life of the family.

It had been this way for as long as Ivan could remember, but no one ever complained. The government assured them that they were better off than people living under a capitalistic system, and how could they know otherwise when they had never experienced a different way of life? Everything they read about was probably propaganda.

Ivan was restless because he knew that today should be a special day. It was his mother’s birthday. He wished he could observe the event by buying something new for Mamma, something for her personal use, maybe a cosmetic or a small piece of jewelry. He had passed by shops where such luxuries were displayed, but how could he find a few rubles to even buy a small lipstick?

Then he thought of the boys in the square swarming around the tourists, selling souvenirs to the foreigners visiting the city. He wondered how he could become a mosquito boy, as they were called. But he had no merchandise to sell.

Lying on his bunk he had an idea. At the end of the last winter season his father had bought new fur hats for each of his sons, they could be found for a bargain price when winter is over. All three had been put away in readiness for the next cold weather. Ivan thought, one of these hats is surely mine so I should be able to do what I want with it. If I can sell it in the square I will have the money to buy the present for Mamma. I can wear my old torn hat next winter.

He quietly got up before his brothers woke and took the hat from the cupboard. Surely someone will buy this new fur hat with ear muffs and a Russian insignia on the front he told himself. He had seen tourists admiring them and this was as good as any others. School was very important, he had always been told that, so after school he returned home, retrieved the hat and went to join the other mosquito boys in the square.

Ivan was shy and not aggressive enough to approach a foreigner, so he stood a while watching and learning how this business was done. Then his eyes opened wide as he saw a young man walking towards him wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap, Dodger blue. Ivan was absolutely fascinated, he had read about the ball game in America, but to actually see this living proof was a great excitement. If only I had such a cap, he thought, I would be the envy of my brothers and all the boys at school. He wanted it so badly that all thoughts of Mamma’s birthday disappeared from his mind. He must have that cap and could only think quickly of how he could acquire it.

Like a robot he approached the young tourist. He pointed to the baseball cap, held out the fur hat and motioned to make an exchange. A smile spread over the American’s face as he asked “You want it? I’ll gladly trade with you. I live in Chicago, a fur hat will come in useful next winter.”

The bargain was completed and both young men walked away with smiles on their faces. Mamma didn’t get a practical present that year but the happiness evident on her son’s face was the greatest gift of all on her birthday.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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