Followed by Author Bio and Q&A
At the Imperial Zoo
Standing among frantic, red-cheeked children at the zoo on a Sunday in June, Will Joyce sensed for a moment that he was there not to look out for his own kids but rather to safeguard the welfare of Jack Joyce, the white-haired man beside him.
“Dad, you’re already burning,” Will said. “Do you have that sunscreen I gave you?”
“I haven’t got this far spreading poison all over my face,” his father said. “That crap destroys the endocrine system.”
The lemurs they’d paused in front of were demented, Will thought: the heat must have softened their brains, bringing a kind of senility beneath that cupped metal roof. The ozone layer was shot now, the melting ice up north adding fresh oceans to the brimming water pressing harder all the time at the edges of the continents.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” Will said.
“It’s sunshine. Are you that afraid of life?”
A few hours ago, a bit after midnight, Jack had rapped at the back door of Will’s home, scaring everyone from their beds, and presented himself as a compulsory houseguest after an entire year of absence and silence, his young second wife nowhere to be seen. Will spoke with his father briefly in the guest bedroom, got his frightened kids—a three-year-old girl, who had no idea who Grandpa was, and a five-year-old boy who sort of did—settled down, and went back to his own bedroom, where his wife, Charlotte, had questions similar to those Will had just asked Jack, and which Jack had not answered.
In the morning, the old man was even less willing to explain why he’d come, but Will didn’t have time to get into it. It was Father’s Day, and Luke and Maddie, having been prodded by their mother, had made a big show at breakfast (blueberry pancakes, not really Will’s favorite) of their plan to take Will to this two-bit zoo, the Imperial, that had been around forever. Luke had kept up a hard cry until Jack agreed to go with them, but since there wasn’t room in the Subaru, the old man had to follow in the truck he drove up in from Charlottesville. So they caravaned down Leesburg Pike, past Tysons Corner, with its glass buildings that said Deloitte & Touche and General Dynamics, and out into what used to be Northern Virginia horse country, but where big-box churches now alternated with corporate plant nurseries. Just when they seemed about to reach the green foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, six or seven roads tangled at a nightmare of an intersection. Zebra and emu were wandering around in a dusty field nearby. Not one of the other vehicles stuck with them at the light was familiar, Will saw: his father had been left behind.
“How could you have lost him?” Charlotte had asked. “The way you were driving, it was like we were walking. Like this is a golf cart.”
What was she doing anyway, leaning over to kiss him? No, just reaching into the back to accept a wooden cupcake from Maddie, who laughed when her father stuck out his chin and pretended to eat the toy with an enthusiasm she must have found hard to believe. With Charlotte so close, Will couldn’t help registering her freckled nose and bright milky skin, her red hair and smart eyes.
“Come on, Will, let’s go,” Charlotte had said, snatching the cupcake away and dropping it on the floor. The light had turned green, he was the last there to realize. As he jabbed at the accelerator pedal to beat the yellow, another vehicle whipped past in the left lane, so close to his Subaru it threatened the back seat where Maddie and Luke were starting up a game of pattycake between booster seats, their synchronized handclaps getting louder. The blur resolved into the vivid form of Jack Joyce’s Toyota Tundra. Will’s father was either making up the ground he’d lost, and then some, going sixty in a twenty-five, or the giant candy-red pickup had become a death car piloted by a man who was unconscious.
“We’re going to miss the hayride,” Charlotte went on. “It starts at nine-thirty sharp, and they can be unbelievably strict about it.”
The Tundra swerved into the right lane, cutting off Will’s sage-green mommy wagon, came to a full stop at the zoo entrance so that Will had to slam on the brakes (“Is he trying to kill us?” Charlotte said, her hands pushing at the dashboard), and skittered down a steep unimproved road that ended at a gravel lot. After Will parked in a sweeping cloud of dust, he had to catch his breath before he felt like getting out of the car and walking through the zoo’s dour, one-story concrete headquarters. Inside, where the money was taken from them, abstractions of zoo animals as saturated with color as Jack’s truck were hanging on the beige wallpaper around them, but the low ceiling’s fluorescent lights seemed to swallow their illumination.
“My treat,” Jack said, his wallet already out on the counter.
“I’ve got it,” Will said, putting his hand over the wallet to keep it closed.
“I’ll pay my own way, thank you very much.”
But Will had been too distracted to respond. There was the cashier to deal with. And the bleak room reminded him of something: the rehab center where Jack had spent two months trying to get sober a few years back. The zoo’s cement house, too, had the feel of a hospital hallway, gray and echoing, but without the flow of uniformed caregivers and blipping, half-sentient machines to suggest that lives were somehow moving forward all around them. His father had been at his weakest then, the migraines lasting for days, his wrist still giving him a lot of pain after a fall down the basement stairs at home.
As the sun climbed higher, a small stadium’s worth of pleasure-seekers streamed out onto the exotic playground here in the thick of Obama’s second summer. At the lemur cage, Will saw the old man’s exposed neck as one more sign of how vulnerable he was. To blunt the uptick of concern, he plucked a sunscreen stick from the chest pocket of his checked white shirt and told his father to hold still. He began applying to that defenseless fraction of Jack Joyce the glistening lotion that was like a better skin. The father slumped assent to the son’s babying. Jack retained that tall but earthbound body Will had inherited, their calves meaty even as their shoulders and chests stayed lean, as though their flesh was settling like sediment at the base of them. Jack was wearing the Bermuda shirt that hammier men from his era now costumed themselves in wherever they went, guys who also larded themselves with aftershave, as Jack must have done, Will thought, the old man’s face giving off a strong, sharp scent. Along with the momentary relief Will felt at again being so close to the old man, he was alarmed, as he lowered the little sunscreen device, that despite his brilliantined pompadour and aviator shades, Jack looked far more trampled by life than the other American grandfathers who were striding vigorously up and down the crowded paths around them.
“I’ll be gone by Friday, all right?” Jack said, as if Will’s fooling with his neck had been an attempt to force a concession. “I need some ‘me’ time, to find out what my heart’s trying to make known without someone shouting over it,” he said, in that touchy-feely way of speaking he sometimes used after taking up with Kelly, who was a few years younger than Will despite being his stepmother. This pushy and tacky cosmetics saleswoman, whom Jack had met in rehab, had never gotten along with Will’s younger sister, Allison. But she’d clashed with Will even more after she convinced Jack to subdivide and sell off the family hobby farm, which Will’s mother, Miriam, dead seven years now, bought as a shrine to her love of orchids. Will spent his college summers at the farm, but he hadn’t had a say in whether it made sense to sell. He hadn’t had a say despite the time he put in wielding a crowbar against mold-encrusted drywall in the cottage Jack and Miriam had built together, and handcrafting that gorgeous covered bridge across Goose Creek, and growing and selling enough watermelons at farmer’s markets one year to cover the taxes, and hacking thistles and Great Mullen and those spiked Jesus trees from the meadow so they didn’t choke out the Queen Anne’s lace and trillium, and shoveling out the pig pen night and morning when they had that snarling sow, and scraping the remains of chipmunks out of the big traps in the barn, and cracking the skulls of yellow-toothed Norwegian rats caught half-alive, too, when instead he could have been drinking cold beer and reading Faulkner out on the screened deck-porch he paid for and built all by himself. The farm and his work to shape it all went to Jack’s second wife, as if Will had been nothing more than the hired hand.
At this moment Will would have liked to tell his father about his own heart, but, despite the confessional chatter, Jack’s air of confused preoccupation stopped his son from saying anything. The old man’s skin had been unyielding when Will touched it, rough in texture along the back of his neck, as if calloused.
“Are you wearing Old Spice or something?” Will finally said.
“Are you wearing any aftershave?”
“No. Why? Do you want to groom me some more?”
A muscular guy in one of those form-fitting superhero T-shirts walked to the front and stood still between Will and Jack and the fence that secured the slapdash rainforest set from the crowd. The guy was too short to block their view, but his shaved head was so close they could have palmed it like a basketball. His nearness felt like an encroachment. “Opa, look at this!” he yelled, not turning but simply lifting his hand and beckoning to someone to come join him at the very front.
“What is this shitbird doing?” Jack said loudly. Opa, Will thought: the kind of cuddly name other grandfathers had. And the guy whose nickname it was, as he walked past to reunite with the little superhero who must have been his son, turned out to be one of those old men who, in their elfin compactness, seemed as hardy as a teenager. The superhero’s wife, another squat bodybuilder with bulging veins, showed up wearing a baby boy across her chest in that snuggly cloth sling Will still missed. His own kids, with their long, springy, and altogether Charlotte-like arms and legs, were no longer built to restfully entwine with either of their parents.
Watching this whole circle of strength that had blossomed not two feet away, Will was embarrassed to feel something weaken and give way inside himself.
“Shit, I left something in the truck,” his father said, abruptly turning around and starting for the exit.
“What else could you need right now?” Will said, his voice sounding thick, starved of breath.
“Calm down, for Christ’s sake,” Jack said over his shoulder. “I’m not asking you to get it, am I?”
The old man kept walking fast, away from him. Will jogged past the thrust-out heads of animals, the llamas or alpacas or whatever they were, hoping for a taste from one of those overpriced milk bottles they rented out at the front counter. A wet nose grazed his hand as he hurried by.
“They’re going to try to make you pay again when you come back,” he said, pulling even, his voice clearer now. “Don’t let them.”
“Do you honestly think I’m completely broke? That thing that happened with the farm, it wasn’t as bad as you got yourself so worked up about. You don’t know the whole story.”
“And don’t go missing,” Will said. “The kids will be back from the hayride soon.”
“Have it your way,” Jack said. “You’ve always wanted to.”
The old man halted to smooth his hair. He’d had the same flashy haircut for fifty years, and the fussy gesture was also set in stone.
“You asked me last night if I was getting divorced,” he said. “That was a smartass question to hit me with.”
“Why else would you barge in like that?” Will said.
“Well, it’s not a divorce or anything like it,” said his father.
He brandished the wallet again, the mess of receipts and other stuff bursting out.
“It’s probably for the best,” said Will. “The age gap can’t be easy.”
There was something small and blurred in Jack’s hand. He grasped the small thing by a corner and held it up. Will found himself looking at one of those sonogram pictures.
“I’m having a baby,” the old man said. “A real live one. Are you happy now?”
Will read the word “boy.” It was written in bold white letters that stood out against the image’s swirl of gray and black, the indecipherable way new life looked to a machine.
“I have a lot on my mind,” his father said. “I’m going to get an honest-to-God drink somewhere. I don’t expect you to like it.”
“You’ve had a drink already,” Will said.
“I have,” Jack said, nodding.
“I smelled it on you earlier.”
The man in front of Will in the mirrored sunglasses and the loud shirt and the pressed slacks could look belligerent, but he could not look young, or strong either.
“I’ll come with you, if you’re asking,” Will said.
They separated, and other people with their own rough edges surged into the space between them.
From a low-slung pocket of his cargo shorts, Will took out a round cardboard container. It was left over from a fishing trip he took months ago. “Copenhagen,” the aluminum lid said, the letters stamped in. There seemed to be two decent pinches, and Will thought of saving one to offer his father, if the old man hadn’t disappeared for good. But the tobacco looked more dense than it was, and he had to take all of it for himself and even wet his index finger and run it around the inside twice to collect the remnants.
The bitter juice filled his mouth, and he felt like hiding. He started to walk. He reached a spot the crowd had shied from. Most of the cages were empty there, the concrete walkway broken. He came to the end of the walkway and wound up taking a wooden staircase down to a small lake that must have caught runoff from the cages. He walked out onto a dock. What seemed like a hundred mallards and those strident geese attacking each other, stiff-necked, were floating on the murk.
In the water floated greasy feathers and a dead carp and a white Styrofoam container that looked solid, like it should have been heavy enough to sink but, of course, weighed hardly anything. There was that rainbow water that came from gasoline, where the birds had made channels as wide as their tails through the scum. Glittering stuff, it was almost beautiful, like the BP oil that was turning the Gulf of Mexico a pearl black. All those pelicans dead on the beach: what it must have felt like to swim through bright water that turned black on you in the middle of the afternoon, became this smearing stuff you could never wash off.
As he worried the wad with his tongue, trying to keep fine grains of tobacco from slipping down his throat, Will lifted his eyes from the rank pit of water and looked out through the haze. The barrels and vehicle frames rusting in the weeds behind one of the zoo’s rundown storage sheds, the rowed half-moon tops of wooden fences dividing one townhouse development from another, the cars stacking up at that light on Leesburg Pike, all shimmered in the heat. He felt the last of the nicotine balloon out of his bloodstream, leaving his nerves more jangled than before. What did his mother say to comfort him once, when he was shaking for no reason one night, and too young to understand—that, well, it took a big brain to imagine the very worst that could possibly happen to someone you love?
On the horizon, from behind trees, a vehicle appeared—an old school bus that bounced over the close-cropped field, stirring dust. This careening heap, Will thought, held everyone he still felt hopeful about: Maddie and Luke, and Charlotte, too. All of them were coming toward him. They’d wanted to see the mismatched animals, the birds and mammals from a dozen different parts of the world, all thrown together on the dry thatch.
The bus had no roof, Will saw, and the sides had been replaced with metal barriers that looked like scaffolding. The faces of the passengers were exposed to the harsh sun, and everyone was squinting at a single bison as it stumbled down to the lake.
The bus picked up speed on the long slope that flattened out a hundred yards from the dock where Will stood. It came closer now: it was aiming straight for the water. But at the last minute it turned, running past the edge of the lake so that half the passengers were looking out at Will, like he was simply another animal to be gaped at. He recognized no one. But even though he couldn’t see them, he was sure Charlotte and the kids were just there, sitting on the other side. If they weren’t impatient for him to come back from wherever he’d gone—the ride would have been too distracting for that—maybe they would at least be happy enough, the three of them, the moment they saw him again. He decided to walk over and find out.
Jim McDermott is the author of two nonfiction books (A Comfortable Range and Literary Minimalism) and a poetry chapbook (Closing Up for Winter). He is a recipient of the Bevel Summers Prize from Shenandoah, and his poems, essays, and short stories also appear in Bluestem, New Limestone Review, Barely South, and other journals. He lives with his wife and two children in Virginia.
1. If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would you ask?
I would want to know if there will still be wild places for people to wander around in, and I would ask about that, with intense curiosity, because a future in which that's possible seems so unlikely at times.
2. What invention in your lifetime is actually “the best thing since sliced bread”?
I'm going to go with "iced tea in glass bottles."
3. If you had to choose one—sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch—what’s your favorite sense?
I would choose hearing because it’s how we experience the liberating, improvisatory spirit of jazz.
Followed by Author Bio and Q&A
Semyon Yefimovich Zolotaryov stumbled out of the paint factory into the freezing early evening. The air in January was sharp and crystalline; it seared the back of his throat as he drew breath. He walked only three steps down the grated metallic stairs of the warehouse—slick and crunching with frost—before he stopped to search his pockets for a Ziganov and lighter. He threw back his parka hood and the tips and lobes of his hairy ears felt hot in the icy wind as he struggled to light the cigarette. He drew deeply and felt the heated poison circulate through his system, numbing his nerve endings. He continued down the stairs. He grasped the metal railing to steady himself. He was already short of breath. When he reached the bottom, a coughing fit left him spitting into the snow. He reached into his pocket for the bottle of vodka.
He joined the trickle of men leaving warehouses and dilapidated factories towards the bus stop shelter in the western suburbs of Smolensk. They talked about hockey. They complained about their bosses and wives and children. Some planned to go out skating with their girlfriends on Sunday. Some would go out to cross-country ski in the snow parks. One group would go ice fishing. Some were going to a wedding. It was the same thing, week after week. Inside the fluorescent rectangle of light and aluminum and glass lurching along the potholed streets, it could have been any Friday night in the last seventy years. It was if they had all been doing the same thing forever.
Semyon was not going to any parties, and he was most certainly not skiing. He was now one hundred and twenty-five kilos, and the most exercise he endured was when the elevator in his building was out of service and he had to climb the three stories to his one-bedroom apartment. He finished the vodka during the short walk from the bus stop to his apartment building. He bought another bottle at the kiosk on the corner.
Huffing after three flights of stairs, he entered his flat. The old Uzbek woman who stayed with his mother while he was away at work had already donned her coat and scarf. She was pulling on her gloves and telling him in her peculiar accent that there was bread and cabbage soup and salo. Semyon fished out a few two-ruble and fifty-kopek coins and put them in her hand. She thanked him and looked up at the ceiling in exasperation. “I earned every penny this week!”
She left. His mother was propped up in her bed under a half dozen blankets. From the television, a song contest was blaring at maximum volume, a beautiful woman with green eyes and purple makeup crooning seductively at the camera. During a chord progression, she shimmied along in a little dance, a whirl of blond hair and a flaring jumpsuit of sequins and rhinestones and tassels. She was beautiful, but when she finished, the shot switched to the judges, and there was Anna, her every golden hair perfect. She was applauding, her head back, her chin raised, a brilliant smile. Her eyes were bluer, her hair was softer, her scent was more sublime than violets, her skin was electrifying, even on television. He could not help himself. “Look, Mama! It’s Anna.” His mother did not stir. Semyon could not tell whether his mother was watching or not. He came over to sit next to her, but accidentally kicked the porcelain bedpan, which had not been emptied. Damn Uzbek.
For a few minutes he watched his old girlfriend, the Olympic heroine turned trophy wife of an oligarch, who now lived in the world of European celebrities who spoke French and English and attended fashion shows and film festivals. He allowed his mind to drift to those nights when they were training, when both exhausted after long kilometers on the snowy trails of the steppe, they would lie in bed together in silence and Anna would run her fingernails delicately along his back and chest. She would literally eat from his hand, then, like a pet. Winning was everything to them, and it still was to her. When she won gold—and he failed to medal—she was taken from him forever. She had ascended into an untouchable exalted world to which he would never gain entry.
He went into the kitchen and ate his soup and the remains of the bread and salo. He took out his mother’s medication and laid it on a paper plate. He filled a glass of water and took all of them into her bedroom, along with her kasha. He spoon-fed her like the baby she had become again. She interrupted her meal with the usual odd questions and comments. “Did Sasha come back from the store?” “Uncle Pavel has a new truck.” “Semyon broke his patella.” He fed her with the mixture of patience and disgust that defined every day of his life.
He cleared the plates and gave her the bedpan again and changed her nightdress, as mechanically as if he was changing out a valve at the plant. He tucked her into bed, and turned off the light and closed the door almost completely. Then he went into the living room and laid flat his futon. He knew that he should do it now. He broke open the new bottle of vodka. He grabbed his cigarettes and started to put on his parka when he heard a stirring in his mother’s room.
He opened the door slightly. “Yes, Mama. What is it?”
“A Frenchman came to see you.”
“He had a letter.”
“Yes, Mama, of course he did. Good night.”
Semyon found his cigarettes and he brought the vodka bottle with him out into the cold.
During the winter, Logan Lingenballe stayed late on Fridays. By “late,” of course, he meant until almost 16:30. In doing so, he gave the young parents among his employees a chance to leave early to pick up their own children from school without having to put them in extended daycare. It was a kind of mild penance, since he recognized the discomfiting extent to which he, a partner in the architectural firm that bore his name, profited at their expense. Thus the office was almost entirely empty, except for Michel, whose own partner Jens had arrived with their children to embark on a week-long ski vacation to the Dolomites. Naturally, they invited him to come out for a glass of wine with them before they departed. Logan politely declined and with great joviality and feigned jealousy ushered them on their way.
At that hour in cloudy Copenhagen, it was getting dark and seasonably cold. Logan switched his sport coat for a fleece jacket, and since only a few people were around, he put on his blue-and-green striped wool cap and fur-lined moccasins. As the last few coworkers packed their things to head out into the snowy night, Logan walked about the office dimming the recessed lights in some spaces, and turning them off completely in others. “Good night, Clara! Best to Christian!”
Logan paused in the tidy and neat kitchen. He unscrewed a tiny coffeepot, filled the base with water and the filter with Kenyan espresso. He took down an orange and yellow demitasse cup and saucer. After putting the coffee on the stove to percolate, he went from the kitchenette to the lobby.
The office was built in an old wooden Lutheran rectory damaged during the war; but its stone fireplace had remained intact. It was the main reason he and Michel took a chance on rebuilding it. It cost tens of thousands of euros to rebuild and stabilize the chimney, but when it was done, it immediately became the central dramatic stage for their enterprise. They placed some teak benches and two Shaker rocking chairs around it. There was a communal table. All major firm announcements were made here: every new client, every new commission, every design reveal, was made before the fireplace. Perhaps the only concession to modernity were the stands for the plasma display screens, which were unavoidably necessary for graphic presentations.
Logan loaded the grate with fatwood and logs drawn from the wood box (concealed beneath the floorboards—his idea!). He used the propane line beneath the grate (nearly invisible!) and the remote-controlled electric starter to ignite a thorough, roaring blaze. For good measure, he lit some of the candle lamps that sat atop the stone mantle. A few of the poinsettias had survived the trip from Mexico through Christmas without yet withering, and amid the growing lights and dancing shadows, they made a charming and picturesque scene.
A tall, lean man in a dark suit, no tie, and thin mackintosh—no hat—hastened in from the street. His lack of preparation for the elements told Logan he was not a Dane. A blast of cold air filled the foyer and made the fire flare and pop. “Hallo! Hallo! Welcome, my friend! Your timing could not be better. I have just lit the fire. Come in and warm up!”
The man thanked Logan and went straight to the fire. Logan helped him take off his coat, and he noticed a purple bruise at the base of his jaw below his left ear. The man placed his fashionable black leather case on the table and warmed his hands.
“I have just put the coffee on. Would you care to join me for a cup?”
The man seemed mildly surprised at the suggestion, but he answered, “Yes, that would be very nice.” Logan noticed his accent: French or perhaps Swiss.
“Very good. I will be right back.”
Logan returned to the kitchen and took down another saucer and cup, this one in green and mauve. He searched through the cupboard and found a tin of Italian anise cookies, which he arranged on a small rectangular blue plate with pink trim. He took down the raw sugar, a Pyrex mixing vessel, and a tablespoon. He put two table spoons of sugar in the vessel, dribbled some of the espresso into the sugar, and used the electric stirrer to beat the mixture into a frothy paste. Then he poured the rest of the coffee into the vessel, and from there into the demitasse cups. He took the two cups in one hand and the plate of anisette cookies in the other and went out to serve his guest.
“Ach. Here we are! The true café cubano. Better than they make in Miami!”
The visitor seemed slightly uncomfortable, but he accepted the coffee politely, took a sip and pronounced it delicious. “Thank you very much for your hospitality. You are very gracious.”
“Not at all. I was just making some for myself. It was just lucky that you came in when you did!”
“My name is Luc Desjardins. I am looking for Logan Lingenballe.”
Logan stood up and extended his hand. “And so you have found him. I am Logan Lingenballe. Very pleased to meet you, Monsieur Desjardins. How can I help you?”
“Pleased to meet you also, Mister Lingenballe, and it is perhaps I, I hope, who can help you. I am from the International Olympic Committee. I am a member of the Review Commission for Fairness and Integrity in Competition.” He looked up to gauge Logan’s reaction, but Logan sat at the bench with an expression of cheerful, businesslike contentment. It was a poised look he often employed when meeting new clients.
“Well, I have some news for you that I think will interest you.” He reached for his attaché, and drew forth a sheath of papers in a clear plastic slip. “As I am sure you are aware, many years ago the IOC commenced an effort to prevent athletes from using chemical and biological agents for competitive advantages in its tournaments. You might recall that when you competed in the 10-kilometer cross-country eleven years ago in Banff, race officials collected urine and blood samples before and after the competitions.”
Logan leaned forward and said, “Ha! Well, if you are here to tell me that I cheated Monsieur Desjardins, I didn’t do a very good job of it! I finished seventh!” Logan slapped his own thigh.
“On the contrary, Mr. Lingenballe, I make no such accusation. You see, at the time of the Banff Games, we were using the most up-to-date testing sciences that were available. In the intervening eleven years, however, there have been tremendous improvements in technology.” Desjardins held up his iPhone matter-of-factly and frowned to demonstrate the obviousness of the point. “The IOC’s ability to analyze the hematology and detect fraud has increased at least tenfold since then. In your case, frankly, the results of the Banff 10k were so anomalous—four separate times that surpassed the world record in a single qualifier—that the Commission on Fairness and Integrity last year ordered a re-testing of all specimens gathered from the event. Naturally, because of the age of some chemical agents, some of the active agents proved to be evanescent, they had deteriorated, but nevertheless we were pleased to find that our new tests yielded startlingly consistent and accurate results. The scientific data is all here in the report. It has been triple-checked.” He handed the pages to Logan. “You may need some help in interpreting the data. I myself have a doctorate in molecular biology, but I confess that there are parts of it that I do not completely understand.”
Kathe and Auguste were approaching the front door, preparatory to leaving for the weekend, but seeing Logan and the stranger at the table, they drifted over with curiosity to listen.
“In your case, Mr. Lingenballe, the results came back absolutely clean—as I’m sure you knew they were. But your competitors . . . well, let me just say that we have rarely encountered cheating to such a pervasive extent. The reason I came to Copenhagen in person is to give you the advance news. The IOC plans to issue a press release announcing the disqualification of certain skiers who medaled in the Banff games. There will be appeals and probably lawsuits, but the truth is that we are absolutely convinced by the evidence.” Monsieur Desjardins dismissively, Gallicly, gestured away all prospective challenges. “The data is unassailable.”
“And so?” Kathe asked, expectantly.
“And so, Mr. Lingenballe,” Desjardins said, reaching into his attaché case and bringing forth a box covered in crushed blue velvet, “on behalf of the International Olympic Committee, I am pleased to award you the silver medal in the 10-kilometer cross-country skiing event of the Banff games. I am truly sorry that it took so long for this day to come.”
“Oh, Logan!” cried Kathe. She jumped up and down clapping her mittened hands, the tassels of her wool cap bobbing wildly. Auguste let out a whoop. “I wish I had my cowbell!”
For a moment, Logan thought briefly how he had been deprived of the fame he might have otherwise deserved and relished. There was a sharp instance of rising anger, but he collected himself. He was being cheered by his coworkers and friends, who knew him for the modest, happy man he was. He could not very well be petty or bitter before them. Logan forced himself to smile broadly.
“Well, well, well, better late than never, eh?”
He shook hands enthusiastically with Monsieur Desjardins. Both Kathe and Auguste hugged him. He would play it without rancor, though as he held on to Kathe, his mind turned darkly on that arrogant Estonian, that preening Swede. He disentangled the medal and the ribbon from the box and kissed the silver. Both Kathe and Auguste took photos of him with their phones, which flashed in the dim light. M. Desjardins also took a photo, and smiled, relieved that it had gone so well.
Just at that moment, the door opened. It was now snowing outside and the wind curled the flakes into little siroccos that skittered across the floor. It was Christiana and the children. Christiana sang a happy “Hal-lo!” even as she struggled to hold Virginia, the baby, whom she carried on her hip as an awkward bundle packaged in Gore-Tex, wool and down. Felix and Georg practically tumbled over one another, barely mobile but impregnable in layers of turtlenecks, sweaters, padded parkas, mittens, and boots.
“Christiana! You would not believe it! I won an Olympic silver medal today—and I didn’t even have to leave the office!” Everyone laughed. Logan went over to Christiana—who was completely confused—to kiss her cold, rosy cheeks. He helped her out of her coat and kissed her again, explaining how he had won his medal eleven years after the fact. Then they helped the children out of their winter coats. Kathe and Auguste took charge of the children and Logan introduced Christiana to Monsieur Desjardin, who told his story once again, though with less science and greater ease.
Within minutes, the story had spread to everyone in the office, and, thanks to modern technology, to Logan and Christiana’s friends, coworkers and clients around the city. Over the ensuing hours, many people appeared at the office. Jens and Michel re-booked their flight and returned to the office for the celebration. “How could we miss a party like this one, Logan! It’s not every day that a thirty-seven-year-old architect wins an Olympic medal.” Champagne appeared, at first served in the eight crystal flutes from the kitchen, and then later in assorted paper cups. There were kringles and other pastries, and Logan had his picture taken with a dozen combinations of thirty or forty different people. He wore the medal all night, and persuaded a little by the champagne, Logan became uncharacteristically emotional and misty. Logan kept Christiana by his side all night. Her straight blond hair was trimmed short in a maternal bob. Several times that evening, Logan nuzzled the fragrant soft skin behind her ears. In a moment of intimacy, he whispered to her, “For years and years, I never cared that I didn’t win. Skiing was just something we did. I was just happy to make the team, and I was happy to march into the stadium, and live in the village. Honestly, there have been times when I have completely forgotten about that part of my life. But now suddenly it seems like the most marvelous thing!”
Michel and Logan decided to host an outing for all the employees and their families at a cross-country resort outside Copenhagen in celebration. Michel jokingly insisted that Logan wear his medal every time they met with clients. While the party was still going on, the firm’s website was redesigned to show a photo of a younger Logan in full flight, ski poles ferociously digging into the trail, right ski fully off the ground.
Logan’s brother Heydrik pulled up in the carpark in his restored lime-green Citroen. He burst into the office and hugged his brother by the fireplace, slapped his large hand on his powerful neck. “I only wish Mom had lived to see this day!”
The sun was a blurry white disk, smudged round the edges by gray cumulus. It was as high in the sky as it would get that day.
Semyon was almost entirely concealed in blankets. His return to consciousness was prompted by the knocking and creaking of the steam as it feebly and ineffectively worked through the building’s radiators. He thought he heard the sounds of his mother stirring. He did not want to get out of bed. He shouldn’t have to; it was his day off. But it was definitely her, and he knew that if she was moving by herself, there would be trouble.
When he put his feet on the floor—one with a sock, one without—he could tell right away that he was still drunk. The pain at the back of his head was tremendous. He lit a match for a cigarette. No sooner did he strike the match than his unseen mother croaked, “No smoking inside!” He waved the match out with resignation while the pain throbbed through his temples. He took a long draw then stubbed the cigarette out on the armrest of the daybed next to several other burn marks.
Semyon went to put the kettle on the stove for tea. His stomach was roiling. He felt a spasm in his bowels and he felt the sweat breaking out along his temples and on the back of his neck. He knew this feeling too well and he immediately associated it with the cheap pirozhki he bought at the tea room. He clenched his buttocks and raced to the toilet.
He heard the kettle whistling and he knew from experience that he had to get it before Mother did, no matter his dire condition. He raced out, not as clean as he would have liked, to reach it before she did. She was still not all the way to her bedroom door, when he turned down the flame and shouted, “I’ve got it, Mama!”
“I like to make it myself. I don’t like the way you make it.”
“No, Mama, I will bring you your tea after it cools. Don’t worry.”
After he stirred the milk and sugar into the teacups, he went back to the bathroom urgently. When he emerged, he caught the smell of the tea, but also of something else, while he looked in the cabinets for the antidiarrheal tablets. He crept around the room following the odors, which inevitably led him into his mother’s room. He pulled back the drapes, and he saw the bedpan on its side in the bed and his mother nervously trying to hide in her small closet.
“I didn’t want to wake you. I tried to do it myself.”
He could see that it was all over the back of her nightdress. It was at this moment that the buzzer rang.
Semyon looked out of the window to see two men, one a burly athletic type in black pants and a leather jacket, cap and gloves, and the other a man in a black beret, suit and raincoat. Who the hell is this so early in the day? Semyon thought. For a second, he considered the possibility that they were police; he racked his brain for what he might have done. Did I drive last night? Were there drugs? What difference did it make anyway? Jail might not be so bad.
He buzzed them inside, hoping that they had simply pushed the wrong buzzer, and that they were coming for someone else. Just to be safe he pulled on a pair of black sweatpants.
There was a knock at the door. Semyon’s head was throbbing, and he was angry that anyone was intruding on his personal misery. Under his breath, he cursed. Aloud, he snarled, “One minute!”
“Someone’s at the door, Semyon. Are you going to get it, or should I?”
“I got it, Mama!”
Semyon pulled on a black T-shirt and answered the door, not realizing that he still wore only one white sock.
“What is it?”
The burly man in the leather jacket answered, “Semyon Yefimovich?”
“My name is Victor Yonacovich. I am from the Government Sporting Commission.”
“If you are looking for contributions, you have come to the wrong place.” Semyon moved to close the door, but Victor, with the confidence of a secret policeman, pushed the door open.
“No, no, no. We are here to help you.” Victor barged into the apartment, surveyed the scene, and seeing no place to sit except the bed, leaned against the kitchen counter with arms crossed. “This man has something to tell you, and you will listen, and I will translate.” With a gesture of his gloved hand, and a repulsive smile, he invited the other man to speak.
Semyon’s pulsing headache could not simultaneously process the intense pain, the vigorous stream of mots francaise, and the guttural fits of Russian approximations. Through the confusion, he caught some phrases: Banff, cheating, re-testing, anomalous results, sincere apologies, admire your integrity. What were they trying to tell him?
He looked from one to another. The big man in the kitchen looked at him with a contempt typical of a government agent. In Russian, he said, “Hey, dummy! You won the gold medal. Be happy and thank this cold fish of a Frenchman.” The former policeman nodded to the other man. The man in the raincoat and suit took a box covered in crushed velvet from his attaché and handed it to Semyon.
Semyon opened it and started to laugh. “Now? You give this to me now? When it doesn’t mean a damn thing!”
The Frenchman, not understanding, looked at Semyon in bewilderment. He looked past Semyon’s face. Semyon’s mother had just peeked her head out of her bedroom. Then Semyon saw the Frenchman sniff as he caught the acrid odor. Semyon was enraged, and even though he knew what would come next, he could not abide this added humiliation. He unboxed the medal and screamed, “Don’t you sneer at her, you pig!” He hurled the medal at the Frenchman and caught him cleanly on the side of his face.
The big man in the leather jacket was on him in a second, and before he succumbed to unconsciousness delivered by those fists, Semyon said, “Please tell Anna.”
For the last twenty-five years, John Bersin has practiced law as a defense attorney. Based out of New York City and later Northern California, he has tried more than two hundred cases as first chair in thirty-nine different states. He is a member of the bar of the states of New York, California, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. His article “The Protection of Cultural Property and the International Trade in Art” won the NYLS Distinguished Writing Award.
Since 2017, he has primarily written fiction, in particular short stories, that have been published in several online journals. In 2018, his story “Slide 88” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. “Fourth First” is one of a collection of a dozen stories related to sports.
1. If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would you ask?
I'd like to know how—not when—it ends. I really can't stand stories that seem to be heading to a conclusion, but just drift off . . . .
2. What invention in your lifetime is actually “the best thing since sliced bread”?
This one's easy: portable telecomm (phones, laptops, etc.) The advent of these devices enables me to write anywhere, as well as to email from golf courses, little league games, soccer matches, swim meets; or to conduct telephone conferences from mountaintops, beaches, trout streams.
3. If you had to choose one—sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch—what’s your favorite sense?
Vision is my favorite: I have terrible 100/20 eyesight, but I'd hate to be without it. Most of the time, it's easy to tell a person's motivations—likes, dislikes, and moods—simply by watching body language. I sometimes watch movies without the sound on, and it's nevertheless easy to discern the story lines.
Followed by Author Bio and Q&A
“This isn’t some dumb story, but life,” Maika said. “My life.”
In the kitchen, across the table, I gazed at my sister, who was thirty-four, two years younger than me. Her face had barely aged, still smooth, dotted with freckles. Her hair long, corn-yellow, heavy. In fact, I often noted how it was the only heavy thing about her. Maika was thin and willowy; she could fold in two and touch her nose to her knees. She had her first fuck at fourteen, her first love at fifteen, her first child at seventeen. She still didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, hopping back and forth between men like a bird between trees. Our parents pretty much raised Sonya, Maika’s firstborn, and would most likely raise her next one.
“Let’s just say you have the baby. How are you going to tell Sonya who the father is?” I asked.
“I’m not. All she needs to know is that it’s her brother or sister. The rest is unimportant.”
“To the rest of the world.”
I finished my tea and placed the cup in the sink filled with plates and skillets. Our mother abhorred dirty dishes or clothes and attempted to clean, wash, and iron all at once. Neither Maika nor I had inherited her gifts or habits. We weren’t slovenly people, but we couldn’t be called righteous homemakers either. And we had limited cooking skills. Maika ate at restaurants with her friends and lovers, and I ate anywhere there was food. When I had entered one of Moscow’s better high schools, in 1984, I was already three sizes bigger than my sister. In those years, I always read at night—Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky—while Maika poured sex confessions into her diary. When I’d begun writing my first stories, Maika was already pregnant but deeming herself a future actress. Watching Maika brush her long silky hair every night—her lips pursed seductively, brows arched at her own reflection in the mirror—I grew aware of my own less-ness in one way, and my superiority in another. I supposed that I knew then how our lives would turn out. She would be the gorgeous sister, I—the smart one.
It was Friday, and we gathered for dinner at my parents’, as we always did. Our mother insisted on baking cabbage pirogues and making pork kielbasa, stuffing hog casings with spicy meat. The apartment wallowed in smells, strong and greasy. I praised our mother for those homemade meals, for giving up on diets, for no longer counting how many calories I’d ingested. “You’re fat,” our father said once. And then Maika said it, and her daughter Sonya, who was only five then, and I took a handful of buttery cookies from the plate and crammed them inside my mouth. I grinned but kept gorging on the cookies. “I’m fat,” I’d finally admitted. “Fricking fat. Maika is Cinderella, and I’m her mean fat sister. I’m huge, giant, jumbo, immense, enormous, massive, formidable, tremendous, cosmic, monumental, bodacious, colossal, gluttonous.” I’d nearly choked and then started crying, smearing salty crumbs all over my face.
Tonight was not about me, however, but about Maika, who’d decided to keep the baby despite our parents’ concerns: Who would raise it? Feed it? Teach it to become a decent human being? Who would take responsibility for yet another child? Should there be another child?
“I’m not killing it, not letting some cold-blooded beast scrape my uterus.”
“Only fish are cold-blooded,” I told her.
“Really, Maya. Both your father and I don’t think we can afford another baby,” our mother said.
Our father still said nothing and kept dipping the kielbasa links in mustard and biting off the ends. It looked as though he was feasting on someone’s fried fingers. Our father was a large man, with a hairy chest and square shoulders. Yet, when Maika and I had been little, playing hide-and-seek, we were often surprised at how easily he could fit in the tightest of spaces—coffin-sized closets, the wardrobe, our grandmother’s trunk.
“You had two. I want to have two,” Maika said.
“But we’re married,” our mother protested in a rather limp voice. “We’ve always had stable jobs, and your grandmother helped with housework.”
“I can’t kill it, and I can’t give it up. Not like there’s a fourth choice. And just imagine someone’s hand up inside me, tearing your grandbaby apart. Do you know it already yawns at eleven weeks?” Maika’s voice changed into a creepy whisper as she leaned closer to my mother, whose face was a still-life depicting something dead. “Just think how Sonya would feel when she finds out that her brother or sister was cut up alive.”
“Enough!” Our father hit the table with his fist. “You aren’t keeping this baby. You can’t raise a child, and we’re getting too old to raise it for you. Pretty soon, Sonya will be having hers. I’m tired of being the father in this family. All I know is this coop, this pitiful—”
Before he got to finish his sentence, Maika rose from the table and, holding to her would-be belly as though it was already there—a globe, full and heavy, all nine months’ worth—left the room.
I worked at the cleaners six days a week and in the evenings wrote detective stories, the kind in which someone always disappeared or died or both and the readers kept guessing at the truth until the very end. I lived in our grandmother’s two-room flat, and she lived in a Home, where my father had placed her after my grandfather passed away. Over the years, we became strangers to her, and strangers became her family. She talked about people in the Home with genuine intimacy as though they mattered, as though they hadn’t been brought there to die. She talked about what they wore and what they ate, and even how they smelled—mossy and rotten—like old barns.
After the fight, Maika moved in with me and started looking for a job, but we both knew she wouldn’t find one. Sonya stayed with our parents for all the right reasons, but Maika didn’t argue. She sold some of the jewelry her lovers had given her and helped pay for our groceries and the electric bill. Being alone most days, she’d gotten into the habit of sorting through our grandmother’s belongings stored in a musty trunk. There, among tin utensils and old blankets, she found a large wooden comb and a baby cap.
When we were growing up, our grandmother told us about her older sister Ada, who had mothered a child during the war. Everyone assumed it was a German child, for which Ada was repeatedly beaten by village women and almost starved to death because no one would offer or sell her any food. She’d dig in people’s trash at night and sneak into their barns, until someone stabbed her to death. When, the next morning, the villagers went to Ada’s hut looking for her infant son, the boy was nowhere to be found, his crib cold, the covers jumbled. No one saw him afterward; some thought Ada had hidden him, and others believed the boy had been with her that night and a wild animal got to him. Soon after that, our grandmother had packed what she could in a large knapsack and left for the city, where she met her future husband (our grandfather) and stayed. Maika and I never really believed the story, but we didn’t disbelieve it either, assuming that perhaps Alzheimer’s hadn’t just changed what our grandmother remembered but how she remembered it.
One gloomy Wednesday afternoon, I got off work early due to a power shortage in the building. When I got home, I noticed that the door was unlocked and there were voices trailing through the darkness, male and female. In the kitchen, I encountered Maika and my crippled neighbor Burov sharing a meal. Maika poured vodka in a shot glass and dumped the liquor in his throat, letting him smell a piece of black bread and then bite on it. Burov had served in Afghanistan in the 80s and came back missing both arms. Burov’s father abandoned the family a long time ago, and Burov’s mother died last year, so the neighbors helped him with laundry and food. Someone said Burov worked busses and the Metro, begging alms and giving a share to the local mafia, who protected him from other racketeers.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“Eating,” Maika said, fishing a pickle out of a large jar. I always kept kefir and pickles in the fridge for a late snack. In a dieting class, the instructor told us that kefir and pickles were the only calorie-safe foods.
Maika finished crunching on the pickle, her hand diving inside the jar. I noticed she was barefoot and had bothered to put on makeup and wore black leggings and my new eggshell blouse, as opposed to her impossibly tight T-shirts. The blouse came down to her knees and resembled a parachute. Even with her hump of a belly and swollen feet, she still looked sexy and un-pregnant and thin. Burov was dressed in a pair of stained, ragged jeans and a blue sweater, its sleeves hanging loose. He must’ve been in his mid-forties but looked a decade older, with his shaggy hair and a tear tattooed under his left eye.
Bending low over his plate, he plucked a piece of bologna with his lips.
“Here,” Maika said and pushed the meat all the way inside his mouth with her small, birdy fingers. Burov tried to kiss them, then closed his eyes and chewed with more pleasure than anyone could imagine.
“She’s four months pregnant with her daughter’s boyfriend’s baby,” I said, then marched into my room.
“Get fucked!” Maika yelled after me. “Get fucking fucked!”
I slammed the door and started typing. I had to finish the climactic scene in my story, where the heroine attempts to leave her lover with whom she already has a child.
By the time I emerged out of my safety work zone—hours later—Maika was gone and the kitchen was clean, the dishes washed and dried, stacked by the sink. I paused in front of the refrigerator, where the picture of me in a yellow bikini was held in place by a cow magnet. I looked like a mountain of white dimpled flesh no man would ever want to climb. The diet instructor had urged us to take photos of ourselves in two-piece bathing suits and attach the photos to our refrigerators, so we’d be less tempted to open them. I wondered if Burov had noticed the picture, or if Maika had shown it to him—she wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
The vodka bottle was still on the table. I got a shot glass and filled it up, then after staring at it for some time, poured the vodka in the sink. By now, the man in my story had already killed the heroine, but I still had no clue what happened to her baby son.
Maika didn’t come back that night or the next morning. And when I returned from work the following evening, there was no trace of her in the flat, her meager possessions packed and hauled away.
Days went by, then weeks, but I hadn’t been able to write a word. I found myself stuck on the murder scene, and any attempts to develop the narrative further proved futile. I didn’t know the characters anymore, and I couldn’t figure out what happened to the heroine’s son. When I would go to bed, I wouldn’t sleep, my mind laboring in the dark. Then my stomach would start cramping, coveting food, and I would eventually give in and shuffle to the kitchen. Without turning on the light, I would jerk open the fridge and survey its nearly empty shelves for something besides kefir and pickles. First, I ate carrots and green onions and raw eggs and then moved to the cans of Maika’s sardines. But my hunger only deepened. I boiled pasta and mixed it with a dollop of butter and grated cheese. And after that—all hell broke loose. I tore my picture from the fridge and the cow magnet and threw both in the trash.
On Fridays, I resumed dinners at my parents’. No one asked about Maika, harboring a silent assumption that she was still living with me while her place at the table remained empty. One evening, my mother complained about Sonya staying out later and later, and my father voiced a concern that she was turning into Maika, before long she’d be bringing babies in her skirts.
“It’s all my fault,” my mother said with a heavy sigh. “I didn’t pay enough attention to her.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said, adding a chunk of butter to my boiled potatoes.
“There’s already butter in there,” my mother said.
“Leave her alone. It’s over for her,” my father said.
“Over?” I asked, studying his face. It was bleak like a winter sky. His eyes had a dull, worn look to them.
“You’re way past your prime to worry about such things,” he said and swallowed a full shot of vodka.
“I don’t think we should be talking about this now,” my mother said.
I took the vodka bottle from the table and poured half a glass, mixing the liquor with the leftover orange juice. I drained the glass in three long gulps. My head fogged, and everything became a distant blur: the food, the table, my parents’ faces.
Sonya appeared in the room. She was slender and willowy, just like Maika. But her hair was short; it flared at her ears.
“Why?” I said, pointing at her head, pushing a pinch of bread between my lips.
“Aleksey broke up with me, so I wanted to cut off something he loved most,” she said and grabbed a chair.
“Fucking stupid,” I said.
“Stop cussing,” my father said.
“Really,” my mother echoed. “It’s so crude.”
“Too late. I’m way past my prime.”
“She did it. Maika did it,” Sonya said, and I saw tears bulging in her eyes; her lips trembled. She looked humble and fragile and unprotected, a leaf in the rain.
“It will pass, dear,” my mother said, patting Sonya’s back.
“No, it won’t,” I said. “You can’t fix everything, Mom. You can’t fix me or Maika or Sonya. We’re not fixable, not mendable, not reparable. We’re a whole bunch of nots.”
On the way home, I bought a bottle of Stolichnaya at a kiosk and a half of a small grilled chicken, which I ate straight out of the bag, sucking on the bones until they shone clean. I thought of my parents, how different they were, how estranged. My mother was a kind, timid person one could ask for a pie recipe or how to remove berry stains from a tablecloth, but she was useless when it came to relationships, human drama; she believed that all things had a tendency to resolve on their own. My father, on the other hand, could assess any situation with the innate brutality of a hunting animal. There was stashed anger in him, unresolved emotion, the bitterness my mother explained and excused by his hungry, postwar childhood.
It was snowing hard, large sticky clusters. By the time I reached my building of flats, I was a cocoon of snow. I patted my coat as I climbed the steps and waited for a few minutes before ringing Burov’s bell. Then I realized that the door wouldn’t be locked because there was no way for Burov to open it other than to kick it. When I turned the handle and pushed the door open, he was standing in front of me, wearing nothing but black sweatpants stretched at the knees. His chest was flat, hairless, and covered with tattoos, a life-size replica of internal organs—heart, liver, intestines. His arms ended twenty centimeters below his shoulders, his skin uneven, chewed up with scars.
“Kind of late for charity visits,” he said.
“I need a favor,” I said.
“Can you have sex?”
“Get out of here.”
“With me? Can you have sex with me?” I asked.
“Because I’m fat?”
“Because you’re crazy.” He turned around and began to walk away, presenting me with the sight of open wings on his back. They were large, detailed, each feather etched in dark blue.
His flat was surprisingly neat but shabby, crammed with cheap furniture. All the lights were on and all the curtains pulled apart. The wallpaper peeled off in places. On the floor, by the couch, I noticed a prosthetic, a long metal pin with a plastic cup and leather straps on one end and a black gloved hand on the other.
“How do you wear this?” I asked.
“You know they make bionic parts now.”
Burov eased on the couch, not saying anything.
“You have food?” I asked. “I’m starved.”
“Help yourself. The neighbors brought dinner earlier. There should be plenty left.”
“Will you have a drink at least?”
An hour later, we were both sitting on the couch, empty plates scattered around. I was doing what Maika had done, pouring vodka in a shot glass and dumping it in his mouth, bringing a spoonful of dressed herring to his lips. A few times I had to weed thin, curvy bones out of his mouth while he waited patiently.
“How do you eat or go to the bathroom when no one is around?” I asked.
“Someone is always around.”
“Aren’t there any good prosthetics you can use?”
He gave me a considerable look, as though I’d suggested grafting new limbs. His eyes were brown and intense. The tattooed tear was somehow darker, the color of dried blood.
“Why did you get all these?” I asked, pointing at the tattoos.
“Why do you eat? Or write?”
“It’s pain management.” He lost his balance and toppled sideways on the couch.
I reached to pull him up by his stump.
“Careful,” he said. “Not a tree.”
“Do you know where Maika is?”
“Fine. I don’t really care. I just need to know she’s not doing anything stupid.”
“It’s her life, let her worry about it.”
“It’s my life, too. I can’t write. I’m stuck on the same goddamned murder scene.”
He opened his mouth, signaling for more vodka, so I sloshed some in, then took another swig myself.
“You should be getting drunk by now,” he said.
“Naw. The fat protects me. At least it’s good for something.”
“It’s good to be good for something.”
I nodded, rubbing my arms up and down.
A week later I went to see my grandmother. As always, she was in her room, sitting by the window, her hands folded on her lap. She wore a flannel housedress and a tawdry shawl overpowered by pink and yellow flowers. Her face was like an old leaf, not really wrinkled, but dry and brown. Her hair, though short, didn’t have much gray, just a snow patch above her ear.
My grandmother’s roommates had gone to dinner; a food tray was placed on her bed.
“Are you fasting?” I asked, shouldering out of my coat and hanging it on the back of the chair.
“I already ate.”
“No, you didn’t. Could you please eat something?” I said and bent down, sniffing the plate. “Solyanka. I thought it smelled like cabbage in here. Do you want me to feed you?”
“I’m not hungry,” my grandmother said. She sounded upset or agitated.
“Then I’ll eat it myself,” I said.
She didn’t answer, her gaze drawn to all the frozen trees in the yard. The wind shook their limbs and the snow, like flour, sifted down, the flurries spinning blindly. I dragged the chair out and sat in front of her.
“So what else can you do besides eating my food?” she asked.
“I can read to you something I just wrote.”
“Is it a romance?”
“No, it’s a murder mystery.” I raised a glass of kefir to my lips.
“Does it have a good ending?”
“I haven’t gotten that far yet.” I drank the kefir and gobbled two oatmeal cookies. “I still wish you ate something,” I said, placing the empty tray on the floor and reaching for my bag.
While I read the pages to my grandmother, she was first cleaning under her short fingernails, but then her eyes switched to the window. Her face was tense, her forehead puckered in thought. When I got to the place where the man kills his lover, my grandmother got up, took her shawl off, folded it, and placed it on the bed. I watched her get her coat from a hanger and pull on her felt boots and then galoshes. She sat down on the bed, securing her hand around the railing.
“I must go,” she said. “I must hide the baby before that man kills it too.”
“There’s no man, Grandma. And no baby. It’s just a story. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She blinked, hard, then wiped under her nose. “That man,” she said, “that man who killed Ada, he was crippled, that’s why he didn’t go to war. Ada was not a pretty girl, large, big-boned. But she read a lot and could write well, for a country girl. When everyone realized she wouldn’t marry—and at that time we married young, too young—the lame man started to come around. She was polite, but no more than she had to be. He persisted and even told our parents he would marry Ada if they would give him a cow and two or three piglets, some kind of dowry. But Ada refused. Not because he was lame, but because there was something mean about him, something dangerous. He had no family, no folks of his own, and no one really knew how he appeared in the village. He was not very old, maybe fifty or so, but he dressed like a beggar, and he slept in other people’s barns. Even with a foot like that, he got to moving very quietly and often appeared places without a warning, like the Devil.
“Soon a rumor started that Ada had been letting other women’s husbands in her bed. That, of course, wasn’t true because Ada and I, we shared a room. Then the war broke out. Our father was killed in the first month, and our mother went to town to procure flour and didn’t come back. The next day, the lame man was at our door, a weighty basket in his hands. It had ham, potatoes, and sugar. He gave Ada the basket and smiled, that sly smile of his. He was missing a front tooth, and the rest were narrow and sharp, stained from smoking makhorka. His face was shaved, and he wore a clean white shirt he’d tucked under his belt. She went to him that night, and the next, and God knows how many times. We had to eat, so she went. All around people starved, children died, there were no more animals to butcher, no more vegetables to dig.
“When the Germans arrived, they brought meat and candy and were very polite at first. A few officers stayed at our hut. Ada and I washed and ironed their clothes, polished their boots, sewed buttons on their overcoats. We cooked for them too, and cleaned, and sometimes took drags from their cigarettes. The lame man stopped coming around, except when the Germans needed something—wood or water brought from the well. One evening in late spring, Ada and I were walking from the bathhouse. We didn’t spot him at first, but he caught the hem of Ada’s skirt, and she almost fell as he grabbed her by the hair. The lame man told me to scurry home and never say a damn word to anybody or I would never see Ada again. Then he pulled out his hunting knife and brought it to Ada’s face, the blade grazing her cheek, so I just ran, ran on home.
“When it became obvious that Ada was pregnant, the Red Army was already advancing and then the Germans fled the village, forcing everyone into a barn they didn’t have the time to burn. We were freed two days later and went to our homes and started putting our lives together, except that everyone grew convinced that Ada was carrying a German bastard, and they couldn’t forgive her. We were starving again. The lame man thought Ada would go back to him, but she refused. When she had her baby, I helped clean him and swaddle him in old cut-up sheets. He was purplish-blue and smelled of blood and grass. One night I woke up because the baby started to whimper. It was almost dawn and Ada’s bed hadn’t been slept in. She was nowhere in the house, and outside, I found her wooden comb in the mud, just a few steps from the porch. I knew what had happened and that it wouldn’t be long before the lame man came for the baby too.”
My grandmother got quiet all of a sudden. Still in her coat and boots, she heaved her legs up on the bed and rolled on her side.
That night my grandmother had a stroke and became paralyzed. She never regained her ability to move or speak. I visited the hospital the next day, but she was unresponsive to anything I said. She wasn’t exactly asleep, but she wasn’t awake either. I kept thinking about Ada and her baby and the lame man and how I would never know the end of the story, never know the truth. I ended up going down to the cafeteria and ordering stringy beef stroganoff over mashed potatoes. They had rumbabas too, and I bought three, remembering they were my grandmother’s favorite. On my way out, I left one dome-shaped cake by her bed.
I took the Metro home and ran into Burov two stations after I’d gotten on the train. He wore a blinding orange sweater under his coat. A plastic bag was tied to his belt with some change and a few bills in it. It was rush hour, and the train was crammed. When Burov finished his rehearsed unenthusiastic sermon, a few women reached for their wallets, including me. He began walking, slowly, halting every now and then to collect the money or to balance his body as the train rattled along.
“Nice sweater,” I said, dropping fifty rubles in the bag.
“What are you doing here?” He sounded unperturbed, nodding at those who continued to slip money in his bag.
“My grandmother had a stroke yesterday. I was at the hospital.”
A woman next to me got up, and Burov sat in her place. “My mother was sixty when she died. But she was in so much pain—eaten up by cancer—I was relieved when she went.”
“I need to find Maika. Our parents don’t know she isn’t living with me. It’s been months.”
“I wouldn’t worry. She’ll be back as soon as she squirts.”
I kept silent, then asked, “Can you hide a baby in a knapsack?”
“Sure. But not for long. He needs to eat. Speaking of which, are you hungry?”
“Always. But I’m trying to ignore it.”
“Because look at me. Who would ever want to land on this planet?”
“You’d be surprised. There’re plenty of perverts out there.” He cocked his head. “Kidding. But seriously, why are you worried about some asshole you’ve never met?”
“Do you know how long it’s been since I had sex? Fifteen years. And the guy was so drunk, he kept missing.”
“You love being a victim, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t. I don’t enjoy pain either.”
“Fuck pain. Can’t take it with you.” His face twitched.
Just then I thought that I really wanted to know what Burov’s hands looked like, his palms, his fingers.
Maika was dressed in slim jeans and a tight pink shirt and looked as though she’d never been pregnant or had a baby. And only her full breasts were pulling at the buttons of her shirt. Her hair was gathered up and twisted at the back of her head. She sat on the hospital bed, next to her coat and her duffel bag, already packed.
“Thanks for coming,” she said.
“I was happy you called. I didn’t tell anyone.”
She was silent for a moment. “You want to see him?”
“You bet your skinny ass I do.” I reached to hug her, but she squirmed out of my arms.
“He’s down the hallway, with other preemies.” Her sweet voice had a sharp edge to it. It made me think of grass, how soft and thick it could be, and how it could also cut your feet.
“Then why are you dressed? Don’t you have to feed him like every fifteen minutes?”
“He can’t suckle on his own yet. But he’ll be O.K.”
“What do you mean he’ll be O.K.?”
“I’m not keeping him,” she said, reaching for the coat on the bed. “Can we talk outside? I’m dying for a cigarette.”
We exited the room and trudged down the hallway until we faced a large window into the nursery. Maika pointed silently at the miniscule red baby inside a plastic capsule. He was half the size of any baby I’d ever seen, his head too big for his body. His skin was thin, laced with blood vessels, his features puffy. A tube was attached to his nose and pasted onto his throat. It was hard to believe that such a homunculus would grow up into a robust, willful man with appetites and desires of his own, someone who would touch a girl and say: You’re pretty, or I love you, or I love you anyway.
“It’s loud in there,” Maika said. “All the mechanisms to maintain heat and humidity. He’s five weeks early. He can’t even cry, just whimpers—barely—like a kitten.”
I heard tears in Maika’s voice, but didn’t turn to look at her.
“You aren’t leaving your baby here,” I said. “No way. No fucking way.”
“I can’t care for him. I can’t care for a healthy child. And this one, who knows what problems he might have. I really am worthless,” she said.
“No, you are not. It’s the postpartum. Sometimes it lasts for years. When I researched for one of my characters, I learned all that crap about the baby blues. It can be serious.”
“I’m not one of your stupid characters,” she said, almost screamed. “Is everything a damn story to you? My child is going to grow up and hate me, just like Sonya.”
“Not if you don’t fuck his friends. Or girlfriends.”
“That’s just it,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I can’t guarantee what I might or might not do. I can’t guarantee shit. It’s better if he’s with someone who can really love him and care for him.”
I was staring at her hair that had come undone and gushed down her back. And her beautiful, wet, helpless face she kept rubbing and stretching with her fingers. The baby was still sleeping. He jerked his feet a few times and bunched his fingers into tiny fists, his whole body tensed.
“He’s probably hungry and can smell my milk,” Maika said. “It’s like they have this radar when the mother is around.”
“Seriously?” I glanced back at the baby.
“He makes a sound, and my breasts inflate with milk. I can feel it coming, I swear.”
I touched Maika’s slim shoulder, pinched it, barely. “You’re going to be a good mother to him. Tender, compassionate, and yes—a little slutty. So what? No one is perfect.”
She laughed and blew her nose in a handkerchief. “Did you finish that story?”
“What happened to the baby?”
“The heroine’s sister hid him in a knapsack when she fled the village. She met a man, got married—they seemed a happy family.”
“But did the boy know they weren’t his parents?”
I pondered Maika’s words. “I think he did, but he refused to believe he could be anyone else. Anyone other than who he already was.”
Sometime in the future, when Maika and her son were back living with our parents and Sonya went abroad to study architecture, Burov came over for dinner. He bought grilled chicken that hung from his neck in a canvas tote. I placed the chicken in the oven to keep it warm and lit a cigarette for him. While I chopped salad, he stood in front of the kitchen window, smoking and shedding ashes. He wasn’t much taller than me, dressed in jeans and a bright red sweater, with the sleeves hanging empty at his sides; the reflection of his sad face caught inside the glass.
I laid down the knife and turned off the water. “Don’t move,” I said. “I have this crazy idea for a story.”
Walking toward him from behind, I put my hands under his sweater and carefully threaded my arms through its wooly sleeves. Ashes dusted the sill, and his cigarette almost fell. I caught it between my fingers and brought it back to Burov’s mouth. He took a drag, and then another, his new arms long and curvy in the darkness of the window.
A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry holds an M.A. in English from Radford University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. She has published forty stories, some essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Slice, Prairie Schooner, The Bellingham Review, The Southern Review, Bayou, Rosebud, The Southwest Review, Nimrod, Arts & Letters, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Her short fiction was selected as a finalist for multiple awards, including six Pushcart nominations. Kristina is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her debut novel, Not to Be Reproduced, was shortlisted for the 2016 Dundee International Book Prize.
1. If you could learn the answer to one question about your future, what would you ask?
Who will be our next president?
2. What invention in your lifetime is actually “the best thing since sliced bread”?
3. If you had to choose one—sight, smell, hearing, taste, or touch—what’s your favorite sense?
Sight, of course—so I can read and write.