He most likely was of the Chinese descent, indeed, but I have no way of knowing that for certain, and it doesn't matter, in any event. At first I assumed he was a rude Chinese-Canadian man, but then he turned out to be a Chinese-American. I don't think there's anything more to be said about that.
The overnight Greyhound bus, filled to capacity and lightless inside, was barreling across the vast autumnal bleakness of the Adirondacks of Northern New York, Montreal-bound. Nothing but great, starless darkness surrounded us. "My Struggle: Book One" – one of those endlessly mushrooming, bog-like books whose primary purpose seems to be to keep you in the process of reading as a substitute mode of living life, without quite knowing exactly why you should continue to be in that mode – had turned my eyelids to lead at some point between Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls, rendering me unable to keep on struggling with its relentless onslaught of passing revelations and minute observations; and along with all the other bus passengers, I was snoozing away snugly, slumped against the cool window, next to a burly, linebacker-sized blonde young guy in a hooded sweatshirt reading "I'm a Virgin (but this is an old shirt"); possibly, a SUNY-Plattsburgh student returning to the groves of academia after a relaxing weekend in the Big Apple. In my dream, I was back in Leningrad – not even St. Petersburg yet – in the kitchen of an old friend I couldn't recall ever meeting before, at 3 am, arguing heatedly about the putative size of Putin's pilfered fortune, when the unfamiliar close friend's dachshund, named Raskolnikov (also a stranger to me), had walked in and, raising a paw importantly, said, in a clear, sonorous voice, "The fool looks at the finger that points to the sky."
"That's from that French movie," I started saying to the dog...
At that point, I was awakened by the loud phone-ringtone rendition of the Ride of the Valkyries, by the great German composer Richard Wagner, who happened to believe that one microscopic cell of Jewish blood was enough of a reason for its bearer to need to be killed on the spot. It was coming from directly in back of me, and it kept going for a good long while – until the phone's proprietor had stirred to life and, fumbling in the dark, took the call, saying hoarsely and (well, yes; I cannot tell a lie) with an accent which I, broadly and doubtless superficially, identified as a Chinese-sounding one, "Hellooo? Yes? Who is it?"
"Hellooo! Yes! Very good!" he rejoiced volubly almost immediately thereafter. "I was thinking about you! I will see you soon! Yes! Yes! You! Soon, soon! You! Yes! Yes!"
I turned around in my seat and, peering over the back of it, gave him – indeed, a Chinese-looking man, yes, speaking in the most general of terms; rather smallish but wiry and fairly bursting with vigor, a few years older than me (in other words, not young), clad in a skinny black fleece jacket and blue knit cap of the sort which is called tuque in Canada – and catching his diffuse gaze, I gave him a look of mild reproach.
All at once, his eyes solidified, filled with the lead of intense loathing. Without taking the phone away from his ear, he snapped at me, "What? What you looking at? What you want?"
Somewhat taken aback, with a vaguely apologetic shrug, I pressed an index finger to my lips, and then I told him, in a pacifying whisper, "If you could keep it down a little? You're being a little loud. People're sleeping."
"What? No! Turn away! Go away!" he replied in a barking tone. "No, I'm not talking to you," he said into the phone quickly, before returning his attention on me: "Not your business! Go away! What you gonna do? Hit me? You wanna hit me? Haha! Try it! It will be your very big and last mistake! I will be your very bad nightmare! I will kick your butt and smash your teeth! I will knock you out!... I am again not talking to you, " he said into the phone again, already in an irritable voice.
I was at a loss as to how to respond, if at all. "Are you for real?" I managed finally.
"Am I for real? Haha! I am more real than your life!" he raged on, in a hissing whisper. "Try to kick me, and you will see! What can you do? Huh? I will break your chicken neck with my hands! I will destroy your body! Let's go! Huh? Huh?"
It was, of course, a comical situation. There was no way I was going to fight him. Since my early childhood, spent first in the cavernous inner courtyard of an old apartment building in the very Dostoyevskean roiling heart of midtown St. Petersburg, and then (and for the most part) amid the tectonic dirt lakes and mounds of non-organic trash of Leningrad's south-western outskirts, in one of the city's largest and fastest-growing of those, steadily growing and multiplying, Khrushchevean micro-districts, I've known two things about myself, with regard to fighting: to wit, that I was not a good or natural fighter – and that, regardless of my strong aversion to fisticuffs, the only time fighting could not be avoided, in my case, regardless of the situation at hand and the fight's likely outcome, was when someone within your immediate physical reach, be it a local school bully or some teenaged imbecile you'd never met before, called you a kike or little yid. This old man, his remarkable preparedness for flying right off the handle of sanity at the tiniest of perceived provocations notwithstanding, appeared to be well outside of the crepuscular territory of ethnic slurs – and even if he hadn't been, well, I no longer was a child, to put it mildly.
I imagined myself leaning further over the back of my seat and deep into his personal space and shoving my fist awkwardly into his small, shriveled face – and the ensuing short but furious melee in the dark, which inevitably would draw the attention of other passengers, who in turn would notify the driver, whereupon the latter probably would contact the cops at once and then pull the bus over to the side of I-87 while waiting for the cop cruiser to materialize, soon enough, out of the thin night air of these unwelcoming parts, like some automotive Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, and whisk into the inclement night's predawn precincts for detailed questioning and subsequent misdemeanor charges the two of us, the rude Chinese-Canadian man and me, the easily provoked assailant in the somewhat improbable middle-aged persona of former Soviet Jew and current US citizen and permanent resident of Canada and professor of English at a respectable Canadian university – and I laughed and said to him, before turning my back on him and resuming my seat, "Man, you're being ridiculous."
"Yes! Turn away! Go away! Shut up! Be afraid of me! You yellow!" the man crowed triumphantly, and then said hastily into his phone, in a lowered voice, "I'll talk to you soon. See you soon. Yes. Yes. Bye for now."
Then everything returned to melancholy silence.
In about one hour and a half, when the bus, sighing, pulled into the Plattsburgh stop – the last one before the Canadian border – the old man, along (indeed) with the big virginal dude in the seat next to mine, got up, removed a large beat-up salad-green duffel bag from the overhead bin and, throwing it across his narrow shoulder, headed for the exit: small, but wiry and full of fighting spirit. From halfway to the exit, he half-pivoted in my direction and, finding me with his eyes, and scowling and glowering, gave me an emphatic finger.
I pressed my hand to my heart in grateful acknowledgment of his general loveliness, and called out to him, "Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss."
"Shut up! I will kick your butt!" he shouted in response – and a second later, he was gone forever from my life, and I felt a twinge of fleeting, light sadness. For some reason, I had assumed we would be traveling together all the way up to Montreal. But that was not to be. He turned out to be a Chinese-American man.
As the bus commenced the penultimate leg of its journey, steadily closing in on the Canadian border, I was looking out the window, seeing hardly anything in it but my own pale, blurred reflection, and thinking of – what else – life's ineffable, seemingly pointless strangeness, just as random as the couple of sentences which kept tumbling in my head, lonesome as two mismatched socks inside an empty laundromat dryer – a brief passage from "The Hound of the Baskervilles," one of my childhood's utmost favorites (which I only read in English once, in my twenties, with a dictionary, while learning English back in Leningrad), "A strong wind sang sadly as it bent the trees in front of the Hall. A half moon shone through the dark, flying clouds on to the wild and empty moor."Cab Ride
Taxi Driver: Hello, sir.
Me: Hilton on Marquette, please.
TD: You got it.
TD: So, how are you tonight?
Me: Pretty good.
TD: Your first time in Minneapolis?
Me: Not really.
TD: I see.
TD: Marquette Hilton. That's where this big writing conference's happening, over at the Convention Center, right? A-Something-Something.
Me: Uh-huh. AWP.
TD: AWP? What's it stand for?
Me: Nothing too consequential.
TD: They say it's, like, ten thousand writers there. That true?
Me: Probably. Maybe even more.
TD: More than ten thousand?
Me: I wouldn't be surprised.
TD: That's a lot of writers.
TD: And you're one of 'em?
Me: 'Fraid so.
TD: That's nothing to be ashamed of.
TD: So, you must like writing 'em pomes?
Me: Not really.
TD: How come?
Me: I'm not a poet.
TD: What do you like writing, then?
TD: I see.
TD: Well, if I may ask, are you any good, sir?
Me: In what sense?
TD: Would I know your name?
Me: No. Not unless you work for the CIA or the FBI, or the former KGB.
TD: I don't think so.
Me: Then no.
TD: Well, that's nothing to be ashamed of.
Me: I beg to disagree.
TD: You have a touch of the British accent.
Me: No, I don't. Surely you jest! Come on!
TD: No, you don't. But you definitely do have some kind of one. Well, then, where are you from, originally?
TD: Russia! Pushkin!
Me: Good for you.
TD: Note I didn't say – Putin. I know he's not a poet. Just like you.
Me: Good for you.
TD: So then, where do you live now?
TD: Seriously? The great white North, eh? The land of ten million beavers? Where the polar bears roam? That's wild.
Me: Not really.
TD: Peg City?
TD: Funny I just mentioned Putin, huh? I mean, Putin – poutine. Right? Get it?
Me: That's hilarious. Never heard this one before.
TD: 'Fraid I don't know no Canadian writers.
Me: That's nothing to be ashamed of.
TD: That true everyone in Russia knows by heart everything Pushkin ever wrote? From small children to, like, old folks? I had a fare one time also was Russian – there're a sizable number of your people in these here Twin Cities, as you may know – and that's what he told me. Was a bit pickled, to be sure, and kept reciting from memory what he told me was different Pushkin pomes all the way from the airport to St. Louis Park. It was quite something, let me tell you.
Me: Yes, it is true, indeed. He stated the basic facts correctly, in spite of his inebriation. It's just the law of the land, you see, pure and simple: every able-minded citizen of Russia, young and old, with no medical contraindications to memorizing bulk quantities of rhymed verse, must know by heart the entirely of Pushkin's literary output. There are special government commissions set up by the thousands all across the country's eleven or however many time zones, and those latter constantly go from household to household, in a completely unpredictable, seemingly random pattern, at all times between nine o'clock in the morning and ten in the evening, making sure every Russian citizen between the ages of ten and seventy is capable of reciting at will and upon immediate request any part or the entirety of any of Pushkin's poems. It may be difficult to believe, I know, for someone born and bred in the free world. But, well, that's the ugly face of literary totalitarianism for you.
TD: Holy cow!
Me: Crazy, eh? I'll tell you more: in Russia, there is a saying, "Pushkin is our everything." Well, these days, they're also saying that about Putin, granted – but Pushkin, of course, was there first. He's the real deal, like Evander Holyfield, and Putin – well, he's just an incidental poser. And so, in keeping with said mindset, from very early on in life, Russian children deliberately get conditioned to having their daily interactions with the adult world saturated to the hilt with Pushkin's name – typically, in an accusatory, shaming context, if you know what I mean: as a rhetorical trope, like, intended to provide a sardonic quasi-alternative to child's inevitable own failings to, you know, live up to the model standards of Pushkin-worthy behavior, via the incessant drumbeat of statements along the lines of, "And who do you suppose is going to do homework for you – Pushkin?" or "And who's going to help your mother do the dishes – Pushkin?" or "And who's going to make the bed for you – Pushkin?" or "And who's going to write that school composition on the topic 'Why I Hate America' for you you – Pushkin?" And so on. You get the gist. You just said a couple minutes ago you didn't know any famous Canadian writers, right? Well, Margaret Atwood probably would qualify as such, before everyone else, or perhaps along with Alice Munro. Well, then, can you imagine any Canadian parent or school teacher saying to a young boy or girl, "And who's going to finish the food on your plate and make the bed for you – Atwood?" or "And who's going to do the dishes and clean your room for you – Munro?" Ridiculous on the face of it, right? But, well – there you have it. Russia is an enema wrapped in yesterday's crossword puzzle.
TD: Holy moly, sir!
Me: My sentiments exactly.
TD: If I may ask one more question, sir... What happens to those people – and children! – one of those commissions you mentioned finds unable for some reason to recite from memory one or the other of them Pushkin pomes? Do they actually get punished in some way?
Me: Oh, it's nothing too drastic, in all fairness. Typically, depending on one's age and the severity of his or her infraction, in terms of the person's previous record, or lack thereof, of being unable to recite any part of Pushkin's whole body of work, one – or one's parents, as the case may be – could get fined up to ten monthly salaries or, in more severe instances involving adult repeat offenders, be subjected to one-to-three years of house arrest, or even two-to-four years of medium-hard labor in a relatively lenient penal colony. With the mandatory memorization of Pushkin's oeuvre. On balance, it really is not too bad.
TD: Holy shit! You sure can count yourself lucky, sir, to have managed to escape such a horrible place!
Me: You could say that again.
TD: Well, here we are, sir. Marquette Hilton. It will be fifteen dollars. Thank you for the most enlightening conversation. It gives me a lot to chew on. I sure am glad I'm not in Russia. You have the most wonderful evening.
Me: You too. Let me have a couple bucks back.
TD: Thank you, sir. Can I have the temerity of asking you to recite a line or two from Pushkin for me, as an added bonus?
Me: Sure thing. "A deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low truths."
The number of steps from our house to the nearest bus stop on the Moskovsky Prospect was eleven times fifty and twenty-three. It was late April, and the streets were all covered with deep, oddly shaped brown puddles and lopsided mounds of dirt. If my mother had been walking alone, without me by her side and holding her hand, the number of her steps between any two points along our journey that day would have been considerably smaller.
The bus came in fifty times eight plus twelve. It was empty, due to this being a workaday morning. I knew it was morning still because the noon cannon, heard distinctly, if distantly, in our part of the city also, hadn't gone off yet over at the Peter and Paul Fortress, where I'd never been.
The bus was a bus was a bus. I'd ridden buses before, at least four times since I started having memories. My mother, sniffling her nose and sighing heavily, and even seeming to fight back tears, gave two large dull coins to the severe ticket woman in a square-shouldered man's jacket at the front of the bus, and we went to sit all the way in the back. In the back of my mind, I wondered what was wrong with my mother, why she was so strangely sad, and why she was not at work on a workaday to begin with, in her capacity of a junior engineer in the Children's Gym Shoes department at the world-famous Red Triangle rubber-goods factory, over on the dead-watered Obvodny Canal embankment, the mere four street corners and one small humpbacked bridge away from our apartment building.
It was a short bus ride: fifty times eight and twenty-eight. "Two Balls," was the name of the world's best high-top keds, made in China. One of the older boys in our building's inner courtyard was rumored to own a pair of those. I loved the lush illustrations in the thick, heavy book of Chinese folk-tales our live-in nanny Lyuba frequently read to me from.
The number of steps from the bus stop of our disembarking to the entry of the metro station The Institute of Technology was fifty and fourteen. I'd ridden the metro three times previously. Make it four. Everything about it was just enormous. I knew that its escalators were the longest in the world, leading halfway to the center of the Earth, because of their pulling also the double duty of being the world's most indestructible atomic bomb shelters, for the obvious reason that the pernicious American Imperialism was constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to kill us all. I found it amusing that the Leningrad metro and I were of the exact same age. It was so much bigger than me!
We reached the bottom of the station in fifty times four and fourteen. Fifty plus twelve after that the train arrived, full of roaring and pushing ahead of itself an invisible tight wave of hot air.
"We all think we're going to live forever, but guess what," my mother said suddenly to no one, as we stepped inside the near-empty train amid the sliding doors' snake-like hissing all along the train's great length. "Life passes very quickly. One day, it feels like it still is too early to tell your loved ones you love them, and then, before you know it, it already is too late." "Don't be unhappy," I told her.
We took our seats in the middle of the car. Momentarily overcome with sadness, I felt like telling my mother not to worry, that she never was going to die, and neither were any other members of our extended family, or any of our close friends, protected as we all were by the invulnerable and invisible shield of my personal immortality: the wondrously unique gift I alone possessed of all the people in the world. But then I decided to say nothing.
You can't do two things at once inside your head.
In fifty times six and thirty-five we arrived at the Insurrection Square metro station. In fifty times four and forty-four we got off the upward-bound escalator there. Fifty and sixteen later we already stood at a bus stop outside the station, amid the incessant flow of a veritable river of faceless people, our fellow Leningraders. The bus my mother said we needed had rolled up to the stop in fifty times three and forty-eight. In fifty times seven and eleven, we already had been riding it, toward wherever it was we were going, for quite a few stops, when, just beyond yet another tight street corner, I saw something so beautiful, I felt as though an unseen iron fist or small horse's hoof had punched me smack in the solar plexus.
"Below the little spoon," as everyone in Russia calls that vulnerable spot on the human body. "Mommy, what is it? Over there?" I cried, jumping up and down and sliding off my seat, and then climbing back onto it, and pointing eagerly with my hand. She pulled me back down."Be quiet," she said. "We're not alone in here. That statue is called the Bronze Horseman. That man on the horse is Peter the Great. He was a very powerful and cruel ruler, in addition to being an extremely tall man. He was the founder of our city. Lots of people perished, having been sucked in by the swamp we're floating on top of, during the laying of this city's foundation. There really shouldn't have been any city built up here. I'm sure you've heard already about Peter the Great, and more than once, too. That horse is just his horse. Its name is unknown, at least to me. It may never have actually existed. Peter the Great was not a good horseman. He was freakishly tall and not well-coordinated. The Bronze Horseman is the name of Pushkin's famous long poem. Pushkin, right? We've read you many of his poems and fairy-tales. Of course, you know him. The Bronze Horseman poem is about the terrible flood on the Neva that took place in 1824. Lots of people perished in it. This city was ready-made for such natural disasters. The Bronze Horseman's main hero, a young man named Yevgeny, loses his mind and goes mad with grief after his fiancee drowns in that terrible flood. Her name was Parasha. It is a very old-fashioned name, the diminutive of Praskoviya. The only living person I know by that name is that repugnant woman in... Never mind. He – Yevgeny – starts shouting and screaming and stomping his feet and brandishing his impotent little fist at the bronze tsar over there, cursing and berating and blaming him personally for the unspeakable tragedy befalling his ill-starred dream-city. He carries on in that vein for a while – until finally, and completely unexpectedly, Peter the Great gets tired of all that verbal abuse being hurled at him, and he and his horse get off that slab of rock they're perched on and start chasing poor mad Yevgeny through the empty, devastated, perfectly straight and soulless streets of Leningrad, or St. Petersburg, and then...Oh well. But – listen to me babble on. Sorry, baby." She cut herself off with an apologetic smile, and put her cool hand on top of my head.
"Life can be a pretty tragic affair indeed," she said abstractly. "No kidding," I murmured absently.
I was staring avidly out the greasy bus window. Beyond it, the most beautiful city in the world was unfolding majestically, unfurling like a dream within a dream made of water and stone. A flock of curly little white clouds moved across the low-slung pale-gray sky with considerable speed. My heart contracted painfully. This, I knew, was my city, Leningrad, the city of my life – only it wasn't the Leningrad I'd ever experienced before, because for all the five years of what felt already like a plenty long life I'd inhabited a different, much angrier and edgier and more crowded, and more decrepit, too, part of Leningrad's midtown core: the city's very roiling, Dostoyevskean (that was an incomprehensible word one of the tenants in our communal apartment, a professor of music, liked to pepper his speech with) heart, or perhaps its liver or solar plexus, where the streets were strewn carelessly with all manner of dirt or buried under the great mounds of snow and offered a passing stranger no half-gorgeous vistas, and were lined haphazardly with the buildings run-down in an unabashedly non-pretty way, presenting to the world their scuffed countenance with natural barefaced candor.
Overflowing with ardor, with a dire surfeit of instant happiness, my little heart was galloping away in my chest. Tears welled in my eyes. Perfect and absolute was the eternal beauty I was beholding.
It occurred to me, just then – and the thought startled me at once with its pure streamlined simplicity, as well as with the very fact of its having visited my head – that it would be impossible, or nearly impossible, for someone growing up amid these staggering spaces, with this immutable view reflected by his retinas at all times, to end up becoming a bad, dishonest, dis-har-monious person, let alone a criminally inclined one; that the number of good, decent, noble and spiritually uplifted people, therefore, had to be higher in Leningrad, or at least in this particular area of Leningrad, than anywhere else in the Soviet Union, let alone the rest of the world. The rest of the world, my foot! The rest of the world, stuck forever as it was on the planet's dark side, could just go to hell, for all I cared...
I was breathing fast, my nose pressed to the bus window.
Oh, how lucky indeed I was, to have been brought into existence in the Soviet Union, by a Soviet crane, and subsequently to have been found in a cabbage patch by a Leningrad rabbit! Not only was I living in the most wonderful country in the world, hands down, but I also happened to reside in that wondrously wonderful country's best and most beautiful city – the most beautiful city in the whole world! It was simply unbelievable!
Some day, I told myself fervently, some day, when I was a grown-up, I would be coming here, to this very spot, every single night, in order to keep becoming progressively more infinitely good person, amid this eth... ethereal symphony of water and stone!
That meaningless phrase – "symphony of water and stone" – having popped into my brain out of nowhere, kept bouncing off the inner walls of my head, ever so annoyingly. I knew it was too advanced for a child my age. I shook my head energetically, like a wet dog, to purge it from my mind.
"Oh!" I cried out, unable to contain myself any further. All this was just too much for me Happiness was engulfing my whole little being with its relentless bonfire. "Our stop," my mother said, looking at me sternly. She took my hand, and we got up and headed for the bus doors. Twenty-three. Thirty-two.
At that instant, the air all around us was torn to shreds by the roaring of the noon cannon over at the Peter and Paul Fortress just across the wide, wide river from us! I covered my ears with my hands and hunkered down on my haunches, but my eyes remained open. I'd been seeing photographs of that most trenchant of the symbols of Leningrad ever since I started having memories – and now, what do you know, there it was, right there, towering majestically in plain view just across the river from me!
The river was called Neva. It was the most beautiful river in the world. I had never seen it before with my own eyes, either. I couldn't bear to look directly at that shining gold spire across the water: it was just too blindingly magnificent.
Twenty-seven. Forty-nine. Fifty and six.
Wide was the embankment, tall the granite parapet bordering it, sharp the cries of large white birds overhead, wet the wind, silvery and everlasting the river. So much stone. So much river. So, so... much of everything. My mother was scrutinizing her face in the small round mirror in her palm. The number of those little white clouds moving speedily across that pale-gray sky above us was twelve... twenty-three... fifty and nine... Done looking at her own reflection, my mother pointed at the imposing granite building facing us directly on the other side of the empty embankment.
Tiny was the number of Leningrad's private car-owners back then.
Fifty and nine was the number of steps it took us to get across the embankment and inside the granite building of our destination – where, in contrast with the faded grandeur and noble proportions of the building's facade, the air was musty and damp and smelled like the toilet in our communal apartment did, and was filled with large whirling particles of black dust, the black moths otherwise known as soot. The number of the time-worn, tired, thinned-out, dirty-pale marble steps of the steep staircase leading all the way up to the landing of the last, sixth floor in there, was fifty times two plus eight.
We stood before a massive, cotton-padded, grimy black door all the way up there, on the sixth-floor. It didn't look all that different from the front door of our own communal apartment. The door was a door was a door. My mother, her hands shaking slightly, once again gazed intently at her face in that small round mirror in her palm, stretching her lips into a frighteningly unnatural smile and touching the corners of her eyes with her pinkie, first one and then the other. Finally she exhaled and pressed the lower of the two little metallic buttons sticking out of the unruly cotton padding at door's edge. A distant, muted ringing deep inside the space behind the door reached our ears. Twenty-nine, thirty-five. There came the slow, deliberate shuffling of heavy, unwieldy feet. It grew louder, drew nearer.
An old, kind-featured rotund woman with pale eyes and a worried look on her pancake-flat face, having unlocked and unlatched the door from within, materialized in front of us.
"Come in, come in," she said hastily, crying a little and moving aside to let us in. "How is she, Praskoviya Petrovna?" my mother asked in a perfunctory manner, looking past the woman. It was clear she was not expecting any substantive response from the latter. The two of us stepped inside the cluttered hall permeated by the blended smell of sweet dried flowers, chlorine, various medical substances, tobacco, mothballs, metal rust, unwashed human flesh, mice droppings, and something else – something... something truly dreadful I couldn't quite put my finger on.
"Still the same, only worse yet," the woman replied plaintively. "We're losing her, we're losing her, our dear sweet angel Roza Aronovna! O, woe to me! How am I going to live without her?" She began to weep openly, crossing herself and rapidly bowing her head, the way the backward old women in babushkas in our apartment building's inner courtyard were wont to do on occasion, when they thought no one was watching.
We went into the room situated on the right of the hall. Inside there were my grandmother – my mother's mother, who lived in Moscow but had come to Leningrad two nights earlier and had been staying with us, although I barely had seen her since her arrival – and, prone on her back on the bed, her sister, and my grand-aunt Roza, or Auntie Roza, whom sometimes, infrequently, I called grandma Roza. She was my real grandmother's older sister, but while her patronymic was Aronovna, that of my real grandmother was Alexandrovna. I wondered how that might be possible: had they been raised by two different fathers? I realized, at that moment, that I hadn't seen Auntie Roza in a really long while – a week maybe, or maybe a month, or even three months. Forever, in a word. Her eyes were closed with papery lids, cheeks sunken, the skin on her face and on her hands was sallow and yellow and crinkly. She looked altogether frightening. Through her cavernous gaping mouth the air went in and out, in an out, with a hollow whistling sound. My grandmother was sitting close by the edge of the bed, slouched in an old armchair with tall carved back.
The small, cramped room was chock-full of ancient-looking books, sundry nicknacks and dried flowers in cracked ceramic vases. The walls, papered rather sloppily in blue-gray, were hung with very old photographs. Auntie Roza lived alone. Her two sons, I knew, were killed during the War. I didn't know if she'd ever had a husband. I wasn't supposed to know such things, either. I was only five years old, after all. I had no idea, for instance, as to where the babies came from. I'd never been in this room before. Auntie Roza was almost unrecognizable to me now. This was not the Auntie Roza I'd known and loved all my life, ever since I started having memories: the ever-authoritative, self-assured doctor Roza, assistant director of a local polyclinic, who always walked fast and had a husky voice and spoke in short assertive sentences.
My mother went over to the bed, too, pulling me in close behind her. "Say something," she whispered to me urgently. I cleared my throat. "Auntie Roza! It's me!" I said feebly. "Roza, Roza!" my mother said. "Look who's here! Take a guess! It's someone you really wanted to see. You wanted to see him, remember? Well, he's here now." "She probably can't hear you," my grandmother said, in a bleak, exhausted voice. "The nurse from the polyclinic came an hour ago, and gave her a large dose."
Twenty-seven. Thirty two. Forty-five. Fifty and three.
But apparently, although that did seem unlikely, Roza still could hear and understand. "Come here, my love. My dear boy! Tell him to come to me," she said with a slow effort, in a rustling, barely audible, entirely strange voice. Her eyes continued to be closed. It occurred to me, completely out of the blue and much to my inner shuddering, that she never was going to open them again. But no, that couldn't be.
After a brief hesitation, my mother gave me a light nudge in the back, causing me to take two further small, mincing steps toward Roza's bed. Now I was standing next to her.
"Roza, he's standing right next to you," my mother said. "Dodik, my love, is that you?" Roza asked, in the same spooky, rustling voice. Her emaciated hand had lifted off the bed's flat plane and was groping weakly in the air.
Dodik? Who was Dodik? I was no Dodik! What kind of name was that – Dodik? For a moment, I panicked. "Say nothing, just keep quiet!" my mother whispered in my ear. "Don't be afraid. It will be over in a moment" She took the bird's foot of Roza's hand and placed it on top of my head. Eight, nine, twelve. Roza's hand, though seemingly weightless, was, in point of fact, as heavy as if it were made of cast-iron or plaster of Paris. It felt hot on my head.
"Your hair is curlier than it used to be," Roza said distantly, dreamily. "What happened? Have you been walking in the rain?"
Twenty-three, thirty-two. I just stood there, with her hand on top of my head. It was all I could do not to burst into tears.
My mother, sensing perhaps the state I was in, pulled me out gently from under the weight of that terrible spectral hand, and it fell heavily, lifeless, back down on the bed by Roza's side.
"Go wait for me out in the hall," my mother told me quietly. "I'll be right with you." Never before in my life had I been quite as glad to leave the room.
Eight, seventeen, twenty-five.
"Soon, soon it will be over," said, stepping out of the condensed shadows of some strange pieces of furniture and piles of clothing items in the hall, the fat old woman with a kindly face – the one who had opened the door for us. Only now her face was not kindly, but rather dark and joyously angry. "Soon, soon, thank God!" She was wiping her wet hands on the dirty-white kitchen apron tied around the middle of her shapeless body, with a bunch of ugly, carnivorous-looking red cockerels printed on the apron's rough fabric. "And your dear mother and your high-cultured grandma from Moscow, they better not even think of laying their grubby Jew hands on her room," she continued, in a deepening tone. "It is mine. Mine. By all rights, before God and the city municipality. I've earned it, through the very fact of living for twenty-five years in here, alone in the same small apartment, with a damned Jew, right next door to her, cooking my food in the same kitchen with her, going to the same toilet, washing myself in the same bathtub. That must count for a lot of suffering, let me tell you, in Jesus's eyes. And now that she's dead..."
"She's not dead," I interrupted her, taking a quick step back from her, just in case. I didn't know what the word Jew meant, nor what she was talking about on the whole, but I didn't like her wheedling, gloating voice or the triumphant fury animating her unremarkable features. Nor did I like it, either, that she was talking as though to herself, as though I wasn't even there, standing right next to her in the hall. "She's not dead," I repeated stubbornly, in a quavering voice. "And she's not ever going to die, either. I can tell you that right now. So, you're wrong. "
Emerging from her apparent reverie, she shook her head and gave me a curious look – one of pitying condescension and ironic contempt. "She's not, huh?" she said, chuckling. "Is that what you think, my cute little Jesus-killer? Well, if you say so, it must be so! That changes everything!.. My, but aren't you just adorable!..." Then she, too, as if on cue, put her hand, which smelled of fried fish and was rough and damp, on top of my head. What was wrong with everybody today? I squirmed out from under that revolting paw of hers.
My mother, her eyes rimmed red, came out of Auntie Roza's room. Without saying a word, she took me by the hand, and we started on our way back home. Fifty times fifty and five.
My mother, her eyes rimmed red, came out of Auntie Roza's room. Without saying a word, she took me by the hand, and we started on our way back home. Fifty times fifty and five.