Flight From Queensk - in English
BORIS PISMENNY THE FLIGHT FROM QUEENSK
? Copyright Boris PISMENNY
Date: 09 Oct 1995
Originally in the author's book "Охота к Перемен Мест", New York, 1995, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Number 00-191672.
At two o'clock afternoon he would feel out of sorts. Around two the mail was coming. The postman, a grey-haired, dignified black gentleman would appear, in his blue flannel uniform reminding the military-styled dress of Soviet school boys in the very end of Stalin's reign.
If the weather was fine, Dary Ilich Korsh showed up casually downstairs at the entrance of his redbrick project house, a subsidized dwelling for pensioners and the poor. Each time, like a debutante overcoming his anxiety and butterflies, Dary would initiate acting out a scene of an unexpected encounter with the postman. He would shout "Hi, Louis!", or rather, forgetting himself, would greet him in plain Russian, which made no difference since only the intonation mattered. What pleased Dary very much was that Louis was grey-haired and respectable, likely in his seventies, a contemporary in a word. He felt a kind of camaraderie with the gentlemen no doubts. Look -- two of them no longer young lads anymore, coming now together and transacting their business at the cross-roads of Queens; Louis delivers, and he, Dary -- receives, which is certainly an important connection, one of those bridges linking the whole of mankind together.
As the postman, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, distributed correspondence from his bulging canvas sack, Dary would fidget behind him, observing in the large oval mirror of the vestibule the clear steady reflection of Louis bent over the silver mail boxes and, at the same time, Dary could see also his own image, stretching in a funny way, rainbow blurred and spread out along the beveled edges of the glass. If there was a letter or a postcard for Dary, the postman would hand it to him saying something supposedly friendly though too quick for Dary's ears, always ending with "...mista Kosh", the words Dary could understand. Then they would say goodbyes with a customary "see-ya-tumorra", and Louis would, in conclusion, drop onto the checkered marble floor a heavy pile of address-less junk mail, and move off wiggling his right game leg as though readying himself for kicking a soccer ball.
Since more often than not, and to say it bluntly, almost never any unofficial private mail came for Dary, he would, with a deep sigh, assemble a decently looking pack for himself from the junk mail on the floor -- an advertising brochure here, a prospectus there, an occasional notice to tenants or other piece of printed matter meant for everybody and for nobody in particular. Well, but why all these sighs, what correspondence or message has Dary been waiting for so urgently, which kind of very important news, or rather an omen? Frankly, Dary himself wasn't sure; he could hardly guess and more than that -- had no intention of figuring it out. Waiting for the mail, no matter how pointless it looked, has probably become one of his newly acquired strange but benign habits which one way or another made tolerable his new American existence, imposing sort of an order onto his endless amorphous days.
When he was younger and in the thick of things, Dary was really good -- he learned how to plan out his day in advance, be persistent, to stick to the schedule, never panic in face of piling demands, emergencies, headaches... Even when it seemed to him he would confront the unsolvable problems forever, mostly attending to needs of others', he would always managed to get things done in the long last, deftly untangling all intricacies and finding the right solution.
Yet, in spite all his dexterity and precautions, all the same it happened that he would still forget something and was haunted by a gnawing feeling of guilt while the next day's obligations were already building up. All was different now -- the race has been over. Now, in his sixth years of life in New York, Dary got his time out at last. No one needed him. No one cared about him either. As to the mail, except for standardized semi-official letters, he hardly ever came across his own name as an addressee, as he'd prefer it, handwritten by people he really knows or by people who know him well. Most mail stuffed in his box carried only the offensive faceless sticker with promotional overtones "For our friend in the neighborhood." It didn't matter who resided at the address, the same junk would be delivered to a vacant apartment as well. It could be that out of sheer sense of contrariness, the more hopeless Dary felt, the more eagerly he waited for the postman, stubbornly clinging to the belief that a message must come some day personally addressed to him, Dary Korsh. It would not be just a crude idiotic pitch with the promise of winning a million dollars, the kind the computer generates, devouring addresses from a telephone directory; nor an offer to buy for a song some fabulous Florida estate. No, it would be a neat, nice envelope, with Dary's name on it actually written by hand, and after that the mist around him would suddenly dissipate and aimless spinning of his days would stop. All he needed was patience. That's it.
When the weather turned cold and damp, Dary preferred to stay inside, maneuvering on the stairwell by a small stained glass window, through which if he twisted his neck he could see the paths leading to the entrance. It was enough that the rain or snow forced him to stay indoors, but he also felt he had to somehow justify his standing like a dummy on the communal landing. It was never empty in there. Not bothering with the elevator, Puerto Rican families with their many children used only the stairs; two poor things, dull-witted sisters from Ukrainian Melitopol fiercely chased after their cat; and the shadow of a bent-over elderly Rumanian, always in the same faded raincoat, crawled along the wall, breaking off at the corners.
Pretending to look busy, Dary used to take with him a cigarette, set aside for the occasion, or he pretended polishing his shoes with excessive zeal or, it happened also, he simply stood there with an abstracted gaze deep in his thoughts. The air was heavy with the international spicy mixture, a thickly peppered smell of Latin-American chili and a sweet smoky aroma from the apartment of a black family, where a transistor boomed non-stop with the hoarse patter of rap-music trampling itself underfoot. Often, when he really got into the role, Dary would actually fell into a stupor and come to only when it was dark outside. In the pale amber halo of the vestibule light, his vague silhouette was reflected in the window pane, where neon advertisements were also hissing and sparkling. Then, he rushed down immediately to the mailboxes. If once again there was no personal mail, the gnawing feeling intensified, as if from a run of especially bad luck. Whether because of his age and a sense of drifting, or from the emptiness of his being surrounded by a foreign world, the usually unflappable Dary had been inclined to interpret everything now in a morbid way, as a blow to his self-esteem. He missed Mr. Louis, the best prospectuses disappeared or, God help us, instead of Louis, a skinny little girl with braces on her hamster-like teeth would come running up. Dary absolutely refused to recognize her as a real postman and if he had his way would never allow such a pick squeak as a substitute. In addition to everything else, it irritated Dary that the girl, without saying a word, would just gape past him as quick as possible which made him feel like a ghost, awfully old and capable of frightening people.
Gathering up "catch", Dary dashed back upstairs to # 4C, and into a smaller room of his two-bedroom rented apartment, which the Russian call "dvubedrenny" ("two-thighs" in the literal Russian translation). He sunk into an over-sized armchair, part of a set of furniture made up of bizarre odds and ends gracefully donated by the local Jewish community. His wife, Anna Isaakovna, would invariably call out from the kitchen, "Is there something from Senechka?" This was her older pensioner-brother a Communist party member, who had broken completely with the Korshs after they applied to emigrate. From time to time Anna sent off letters to him, the only brother of hers, that remained unanswered, as if dropped in a bottomless well, and it wasn't clear whether brother Senechka was still alive.
"Musya, I'm not taking any telephone calls now!" Dary, immersing himself in brochures, asserted as a kind of a stale joke, although who in the world would call him except Solomon Balkopa, an old buddy compatriot who lived in the next block of apartments, and who at the same time was most likely doing the same. In the absence of any letters, Dary would content himself with perusing advertisements, evaluating, at very least, the quality of 'their' (American) offset type and color and layout of descriptive material. Life in America had already educated him to the strategies of advertising. He already knew how things were usually presented-from necklaces to toys and where to look for the price and a discount. The irony was he didn't intend to buy anything at all. "What the hell do I need to drag things from the stores to my tiny apartment, that's not even mine!" he would say. Yet, why not fantasize a little as long as you didn't have to hang around the merchandise aisles. Here are glossy, beautifully laid-out illustrations, from racing cars to diamond cuff-links. "Since nothing came of living in the world of Ideas," he muttered to himself, "let's live in the world of Things." Sinking deeper in his sagging armchair, he could, just for now, give preference to the Oldsmobile, which for him was an American as apple pie, over the Acura, telling himself with patriotic aplomb, "Enough of feeding Fujiyama!" Glancing through pages that gave off a delicious smell, he could imagine ordering a pound of guacamole paste (good against cancer) and some fresh asparagus to prepare a Provencal meal for two with young Beaujolais... He fancied the names of foods he never heard of or saw in Russia. Particularly he was intrigued by quirky gadgets which were suggested as gifts for those "who have everything" -- a kind of table helicopter -- to relive stress for the boss, a talking wastebasket shaped like a basketball net also for office use, or a showerhead that flashed with all the colors of the rainbow. As he leafed through the brochures, Dary seemed to converse with someone back in Russia, showing him all these inconceivable achievements, the very best and the most impressive. Oh, how capriciously one can live in a consumer society! This imaginary friend was someone of Dary's age with a fate similar to his own. With such virtual listener he could freely share those pretty infantile observations of his. Out of shame he would never speak out, of course, this kind of rubbish to anyone face to face.
When Dary was young, he saw life far ahead as through inverted binoculars, endless alluring kaleidoscopic variegations. Now, it was just the opposite -- what had been long ago got suddenly right under his nose. Just imagine -- he vividly remembered an ancient wired radio with cardboard loudspeaker squeaking out Stalin's decrees all mixed in with enthusiastic songs of Lebedev-Kumach, and his awfully heavy Kharkov-made jalopy of a bicycle, and all the rest of the antiquated, lopsided junk, for which you had to fiercely fight on lines, get marked on the hand with chemical pencil and, then, according to this skin number of a prisoner of the country of victorious Socialism, put your name on a buying list. Somehow, almost always while waiting at night or in a terrible pre-dawn frost, it would turn out that someone had stolen or substituted the lists; some bastard from a hostile group had bribed the commissar manager and so honest people couldn't get a child's coat, a primus-stove or a miserable set of sheets.
If only Dary had come across such a glossy prospectus in the barracks in Kemerovo during his prewar Siberian assignment, he would have looked on it as a missive from Mars. Right away he would have installed it on the best place of his bookshelf, moving aside Jules Verne and mandatory books of political propaganda. He would have bound the prospectus in the best tracing oil-paper and reinforced the cover with cardboard. He would have looked it over and over carefully under the barrack night-light as a promise of a fantastic bright future. Yet, even now, after six years of living in America, the seventy-two year old Dary at times still remembered his impossible dreams, he still saw the world through the eyes of that impressionable young man from the Kemerovo barrack.
When the smell of pea soup and the sound of shuffling slippers would reach him from under the doorway, Dary would gather up the prospectuses, the old and new, in a pile and set off for the kitchen to thrush them out. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen," he thought, "The pictures bored me stiff enough. You'll never build capitalism on the back of such a lousy customer I am."
After the pea soup, his wife would serve cutlets, potatoes and sour cabbage, finishing it off with tea and a kind of gingerbread pastry--"pechenie". Now they gave each dish an American name: cookies for "pechenie", hamburgers for "katlety", drinks for "kvas" or mors", so that at least it had the roper sound of an authentic American meal. Of course it was no problem to add alien to them artichokes or asparagus, but, you know, they better kept to their own, customary food.
The run of bad luck began on the arrival of Chanukah. Dary got up pretty late and on the wrong side of the bed. Of course he missed both the postman and the most colorful of advertisements. The day just didn't work out. It was already dark when Dary returned back to his apartment. Being upset he even lit up his token of a cigarette, and really smoked this time without tasting anything good. After dinner he stayed at the table longer than usual, doing nothing, moved to the coach and drifted fast asleep right in the dining room. He awoke abruptly at two p.m., automatically groped for the remote control and turned on the television, muting the sound so as not to awake Anna. Silent frames were shimmering on the screen. Iron Felix -- Dzerzhinsky monument was tilting over, falling down from its pedestal. Molded cast-iron Stalins, one large in a military overcoat and two smaller ones buried their noses in the mud somewhere on a scrap metal junkyard. Then suddenly this very Dzerzhinsky and Stalins were standing in the Moscow Tishinski farm market; workers' aprons over their coats, winter hats on their heads, selling frozen cucumbers for 1000 rubles apiece. Gray customers in heavy garments advanced gloomily in the aisles along the empty market tables, flowed onto Manezhnaya Square, where after the clip of the chronicle switched, all the people appeared in colored imported jackets; tanks like breakwaters struck out from the human mass. On one of the tanks stood Eltsin, his hands up to the heaven, akin to the Roman pope... Along the walls of the dining room were flickering reflections -- some, blue, from the television screen and the others, red, from the revolving lights of an ambulance and police cars outside the window where somebody dead from the neighboring nursing home was picked up again. After the television adds, in which rather repulsive women solicited phone calls on the 900 number for shameless confessions, the Russian film came on back.- Eltsin, artfully surrounded by body-guards with machine-guns, by his fearless supporters, heroes of people, including the musician Rostropovich. "It's a pity," thought Dary, "that I muted the sound". It was quiet in the room. Only the wall clock ticked away in his wife's bedroom. Soon Dary was falling back asleep. At the very last moments, before he turned the TV set off, Lenin suspended on cables, was floating slowly, legs forward, over the screen. Dary felt bad, was agitated the rest of the night, sleeping very poorly. He was tormented by visions, as if he were still watching the chronicle; he was willing to turn the television off but couldn't somehow move. Old folks in thick shawls and jackets of prisoners of Gulag shuffled through the black, ploughed up squares of the downtown of Moscow, fiercely crossing themselves and poking around with their sticks for a bit of something to eat. But there was nothing, neither cucumbers nor potatoes. Only black ravens hopped behind them. Against a background of a low white sky, detachments of young boy scouts marched with bloodless faces, holding candles, Russian-Orthodox crosses and banners. Drums were beating.
...This procession kept up in Dary's memory, accompanied with the drum pounding in his ears when in the late afternoon he at last lowered his feet from the coach and dragged himself to the bathroom. His body dead stiff, he picked up his safety razor and looked in the mirror over the sink. Reflected there were a long bathrobe hang on the rack behind him, a plastic back brush shaped as Mickey Mouse, toiletry items and the tile-covered opposite wall. Dary himself was not in the mirror.
He touched the cold glass in front of him and then felt the stubble on his unshaven chin. He could clearly see the bathtub reflection and the rest, which meant there was a mirror and that he was there, one who saw all of this. Everything was in place; everything but his own reflection. The deviltry seemed so absurd that Dary first couldn't even get frightened. Neither had he felt it was funny. He turned on the faucet and splashed himself with cold water. He touched his forehead. No, he was not feverish. Any reason for panic; should he cry out? Should he call Anna? He felt ashamed of the thought, and he noticed with satisfaction that he indeed was thinking reasonably, was even able to feel shame. Wasn't that proof enough that everything was alright with him? Meanwhile his thoughts accelerated as he was trying to find some meaning in the phenomena. Rising blood pressure caused ringing in his ears. What was actually happening to him? Was there something wrong with his eyes? No, he saw his hands and his feet in the slippers and, from the side, the pinkish spot of his nose. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself', Dary cited to himself, running back into room, inventing as he went along the smart moves to clear up this incredible nonsense that was happening to him, hoping all the while to suddenly turn his gaze and catch his face in the door glass, in the framed prints, or in the mirrored cabinet of the dining room. He reached the far bedroom and discovered that his wife wasn't home, that it was probably late and she was already in her English class for aged immigrants. Dary took a magnifying hand mirror from the dressing table and brought up to his face. In the glass, the ceiling, a piece of the cornice and a curtain were trembling; the window sparkled and moirИ-like magnification effects were flowing... Throwing on something for the sake of decency, Dary rushed now out of the apartment, not yet knowing where really he was going. He just wanted one thing -- to run, over-stripping his own pulse. Downstairs the skinny girl, the postman substitute, was sorting out letters, not paying the least attention to him. Some tenants were also there collecting their mail and walking to the elevator. Dary didn't catch their attention, not in the slightest. So what! It has always been this way. People are so indifferent because everything is alright with him? Or perhaps.. .nobody can see him! Springing out of the doorway, Dary reached a neglected garden lot around the corner of their housing project, where there was a playground and he could hear a metallic din and clatter and shrieks of kids playing. They had surrounded a monkey-bar structure, climbing up along its rails and sliding down the chute. Dary stopped in their way and greeted them loudly, "Gud-monin-children!" Two boys who were standing directly in front of him quickly evaded him like an annoying interference, and jumping up, hung down on the crossbeams.
In the corner of the playground, where swings stood, a local homeless man, Seymour, wrapped in a quilted ladies coat with a hood and a red belt, was slowly stepping backwards, holding in his hands something like a metal-detecting device. Wires of the device were reaching under the ski caps pulled down one upon the other on the top of Seymour's head. His bushy grey hair stuck in all directions from under the hats. Dary neared and, grabbing Seymour firmly by the shoulder turned him around. Dary prepared himself for the worst. Yet, nothing special happened. Seymour shrieked in surprise and stretched out to Dary his hand in a dirty half-glove with his fingers bare and blue from the cold. He uncurled the fingers slowly, in his palm lay blackened small coins, an earring and a metallic beer bottle cap. "Don't hit me! Take it all! "
Just to be sure, Dary pulled back the edges of the caps covering Seymour's ear and asked in a pleading voice whether Seymour had recognized him, Dary.
"Oh, I remember you well. Aren't you the Russian from the long house?"
Dary was ready to hug Seymour brotherly for such reassuring words. He dug in his jacket pockets but found only cigarettes and offered one.
"As a rule I don't smoke," said Seymour, "I never buy cigarettes. But if there's one around, then I smoke, why not." They sat down on a bench and lit up. In English, never minding the words, Dary started to tell his story, all his today's misadventures, how he couldn't shave and about the mirror, asking once in a while whether Seymour understood him.
"No kidding!" Seymour laughed, exposing his yellow teeth. "I'm a bum, but I'm not a fool. Your English is great, Sir. Of course, I got it how you weren't able to shave because you didn't see anything. But that, I'll tell you, is nothing, a piece of cake."
Dary, light-headed from the cigarette, calmed down a little. He felt pretty uneasy, ashamed bothering an innocent stranger with his neuroses. On the other hand, it was very exciting for the first time in America to converse so freely with someone, let it be a beggar; to speak his mind no matter what language it was. He invited Seymour to come for a coffee with him or maybe have something stronger to drink.
"Let's get away from these werewolves," whispered Seymour, pointing back to the children on the playground. They give me bad vibes and spoil my apparatus".
And they walked over to the cafeteria on the corner of Northern Boulevard.
Seymour meticulously unwound his red sash which turned out to be a huge twisted kerchief; pulled off one jacket after another, disappeared in the rest room, and soon returned to the table, freshened up a gentlemen with his shiny hair carefully slicked back. He started to dip a roll in his coffee in the French manner, tastily sucking out the softened wet portion with his lips.
"What other problems does our Russian Ivan have? Let me guess, it's time for you to drink your vodka? Am I right?"
"I don't drink," said Dary, "for one thing. My name isn't Ivan, and I'm not even a Russian but, well, a Jew.
"Gee-gee-Jew," Seymour started to sing, "One more Jew has turned up. I've been the one also but long ago." He went on about the fact that his deceased parents were Jews from Italy and Poland and that after they "tired of being Jewish" they decided to do something about Seymour as well, to make him a 'Dantist'. "You ask me, what's wrong with a Jew being a dentist? Gee-gee-Jew... dentists are rich. But to spite everyone, would you imagine, my parents wanted to make me an expert on Dante Alighieri, a "Dantist" so to say. They figured it was better to sit on Olympus with laurels on your head than putter about in the shtetl. What a pathetic mistake! If I was fixing teeth, I would be a good Jew in America, but with my poetry training, I'm a 'bum'. Not always, I must confess. I had my moments. Say, in the summertime," Seymour stroked the handle of his metal detector, "in the summertime I used to walk fine sandy beaches, got a tan and lived like your Russian tsar. I could even afford a woman. This was in the summer. By the fall my Beatrice was murdered... Well, why am I telling you this? I'm sorry."
"No, no, go on," Dary urged him, more than anything else just pleased to forget himself, feeling relaxed, listening and understanding such a long and unbroken stream of English. "So you too are a Jew, yeah?"
"Well, I'm not sure anymore. When I tired of being the Dantist, I just slipped away from home and set off for Israel. There I saw that I was not Jewish at all, at least not in the way some people imagine it in this country." Seymour asked for another cigarette. "You can fancy what kind of smart-ass Dantist you are; you can imagine yourself a center of universe if your mother told you so. But that's always for others to decide whether you're a Jew or not. Hitler decides, Stalin decides, even, look, that counter girl over there decides. By the way, let's get out of here. She is beginning to give me vibes. But you, Sir, I must tell, maybe in fact you are Jewish -- you doubt so much about things. Forget it! Come, I'll teach you how to cut your nails without looking -- piece of cake".
In the evening, as usually when the television programs with Russian translation were on, Dary hesitated whether to tell his wife about his panic, his Tolstoyan "Arzamaski" horror episode. He really hated disgracing himself, looking like a fool. However, as the program was ending and Anna sat down next to him ready to begin her marathon-telephone chats, Dary all the same remarked casually that, strange as it may seem, he doesn't understand what's happening to him lately: he doesn't see his own face, just a blank space instead...
"Dashenka," his wife leaned towards him, "it just so happens I was going to confess to you that for six years now I don't know myself, I don't see myself either. Look, the children don't need us anymore and that's alright. Everything is somehow so empty, pointless that I don't feel like seeing anyone or talking. Anyway, what's there to talk about! A blank space, you got it right."
"You said so," Dary got up to retire. "Every house is alien to me, every temple is empty..." He cited the famous line from the Tsvetaeva poem.
"But we have to be fair," Anna continued. "There's nothing to complain about. I mean the social services are excellent here. It's remarkable how they provide us a lot... I mean the food and everything, we must be grateful."
Dary took a sleeping pill and lay down, burying his face in the pillow. As always in these late hours of the discounted rate, Anna stayed behind in the dining room and settled down at the telephone. Just look, Dary thought, so she doesn't want to talk to anyone. He has heard somewhere that women speak their mind natural way which makes them good. As opposite to men whose reservation, silent suffering is wrong just building the stress up. Isn't that the way I am, an old stupid alarmist?
In Moscow, Anna could spend hours on the phone with her friends, mooing and exclaiming, repeating, it seemed, the very same thing, "A-yid? A-goy!" And after a pause and giggles, again, "A-yid!" Although the questions repeated, it was the interjections and unintelligible sounds that made the conversation fun and full of hidden meaning. And it was the same story now, as the clock behind the wall in the dining room ticked away evenly to the accompaniment of Anna's voice, "American? Ru-u-ssian! Tik-tock. ..tik-tock...
Once they lived with Balkopa in Moscow on the neighboring Tverskie-Yamskie streets, Dary on the Second Street, Solomon on the Third. In the Korsh's communal apartment, one window of their neighbor, the Miussov, looked out on the famous Gorky Street, so that Dary, for simplicity's sake, considered this thoroughfare his proper address. He would say proudly to Solomon, "Drop in on us at Gorky. We'll have a drink".
In Khrushchev's times, as the majority of Muscovites, Balkopa was moved to the Moscow far outskirts, the Novogireevo region, and Dary would add, "Come to the Capital to see us. Solya, don't just disappear." It turned out that Solomon was the first to leave for the West, despite the fact that it was Dary's son-in-law, Dodik, who first came with the daring idea to emigrate. Dodik was a natural dissident. This was clear even when he started courting Dary's daughter, Irina. Dary would tease him, calling him a cosmopolitan and hippie. Yet he would listen to him sometimes with utter curiosity to find out, for example, what the dreadful news have been aired the night before by the "Deutsche Weille" from KЖln. Dodik had grown a beard which reached up to his eyes and he would pace up and down his apartment in just his under shorts around his idol, the tape recorder "Dnieper", on which was perpetually hissing and blasting a Hebrew study tape "Shloshim-kashkashim-pishpishmm..." Even in these dreary Brezhnev years, Dodik had begun a new life of an underground revolutionary, the life colorful and full of danger. He would gob the clandestine meetings, speak on the phone with a code and even mentioned to Dary some obscure holidays of certain "Kuschi" (the Sukkoth). In the linen cupboard was hidden a textbook with all its pages already falling out -- "Alef Milim" that had been printed "over there". It amused Korsh when guests, who still didn't know what was going on, would say, "Your son- in-law is a good-looking fellow, and reminds us Fidel Castro with his great beard."
"Go ahead, seize the day," thought Dary watching Dodik changing right before his eyes. At the same time, Dodik developed strange hypochondria. He suddenly refused to go down into the subway, declaring that he felt "irrational dread in an airless dungeon among a callous crowd." And once, when the train radio routinely announced, "The doors are closing. The next station is Kropotkinskaya," Dodik turned pale, dashed out and pushed back through onto the platform. In the movies he would choose mainly the aisle seats, closer to the exit. When there was a full house for "The Queen of Chanticleer", and all the aisle seats were taken, Dodik, in the darkness of the hall, began to faint and convulsively swallow air. Only a miracle saved him: a certain Georgian sitting behind hissed through his teeth, Kyush, katso, nevertis, sheni deda, siapontist! (Don't fidget, you show-off, mother-fucker!) Dodik fell silent and despite his terrible angst watched the film till the end. Then he said it seemed he had been unmasked by the Georgian who labeled him "Zionist". Maybe he had noticed the yarmulke under his rabbit fur hat? His friends in the Yiddish circle reassured him that he was mistaken, and, most probably, the KGB hadn't gotten on his trail yet. Dodik was already a veteran of the movement "Let My People Go". He was giving advice to the indecisive or those from out of town. He was sought out by dissidents from Baku and Kishinev who came to Moscow to find out among other things the latest market rate of the dollar versus the ruble and shekel.
The Korsh's were denied a visa, first, as it was officially stated, because "it was deemed inexpedient", then for the reason "without reason", then the government's explanations run out. As they said, "No inquiries are allowed by the Office". Balkopa, meanwhile, who applied much later, miraculously received his visa without a hitch and flew off. In his sleep Dary had seen America in a festive shower of confetti and lollipops; people he knew hopped down the sunlit alleys and launched the huge colorful balloons high to the sky. The dream had no sound in it.
By the time of the Korsh's arrival to New York, the city was swarming with fellow countrymen who were so kind as to tell them a lot of weird but useful information like that about the Medicaid tricks -- where to get free of charge correcting glasses (you can always send it for profit to Russia) and orthopedic shoes (which could be worn as regular ones). Dary walked around dazzled, not really understanding why the old timers were trying to show off to him their cars, two to a family, their condominiums and private houses as big as the trade union sanatorium in the USSR. Not a day passed without some feast and clinking of glasses. When he went out to the bathroom, Dary would notice idiotic, bemused smile glued on his face. In those days he wouldn't know how to answer the mandatory question -- what impressed him the most? He would shrug his shoulders and skip the answer because in truth he was impressed only by one, so obvious a revelation:
"I, Dary Korsh, am in America. Yes, in America!" He pinched himself in disbelief.
Of course, Balkopa would drag him to restaurants in Brighton Beach. It seemed to Dary that he had already been to such places long before the war, when his father was appointed Chief of a section of a military hospital in Kiev. Looking around, Dary recognized familiar images. For instance, these fleshy men at the corner table, the napes of their necks gleaming under the chandeliers, they were well known gangsters in the textile business. Such types used to sit in Kiev's "El Dorado". The music and the food were basically the same as well as the ambiance. Except perhaps that they had raised the bar and replanted the palms in the larger pots. At the neighboring table a man was yelling, "Don't forget to pour some vodka for the kid. Don't you worry, he won't choke. Let him get used!"
The "kid" was a five years old boy. His aunt, portly and heavily painted woman, in black leather pants had dragged the boy to dance 7-40, while clutching him to her black leather chest. Just as in Kiev, it was senseless even to think of having a conversation; but Solya would try and, overpowered by the orchestra, just got hoarse voice and drop the idea. Dary and Solomon had soon run out of things to say to one another. During their six years together in America, usually after the dinner they would go for the silent strolls. They wandered again and again the same drab streets of Rego Park to which, adding a Moscow flavor, they gave the exotic-sounding names "Kharitonevskaya", "Zachatervskaya". The word game was a good remedy for subduing the foreign terrain which Balkopa had elaborately defined as "urban-style Minsko-Pinsky-Queens." For them, former Muscovites, these parts of Queens didn't look like New York, just something abnormal, like drinking tea without sugar. Still, on a cloudless day, one could make out from afar the glorious skyscrapers of Manhattan. They would end promenades at the playground where the local Russian community used to come together. The domino players, headed by colonel Khrunov, were lining up their pieces at a table joined to the solid benches. The table was driven tightly into the ground at the edge of the grass, and a iron wattle garbage can, resembling the Moscow Shukhov's Radio Tower, was chained to the table with such strong stainless steel links as to thwart any urge the pensioners might have to steal it.
On a separate bench two frail old men, Goldin and Gildin, sat playing chess. Neither it was possible to tell them apart, nor, it seems, could they easily distinguish one another. With their feet in heavy orthopedic shoes dangling above the ground, both of them somewhat hard of hearing, they would shout out in turn chess moves along with vague exclamations of general nature meaning not much but good to awaken the partner if he's starting to doze. "H2, G4; our life is not worth a kopeck! B5, C6..."
The pensioner, Kichkin, who had recently arrived from Vilnius, watched over the game. He always carried with him red leather old Bolshevik's ID card which he would show furtively to everyone and then immediately hid. Although Kichkin was a newcomer, he was certainly a hard cookie. He would curse to no end both HIAS and NYANA and America as a whole. "They weren't ready to accommodate us, not at all! At Kennedy airport I shoved my ID under their nose. You, lousy bums, better admit you weren't ready!"
To the left of the chess players, along the sides of the sandboxes were grouped the ladies. They behaved like first graders, whispering in an exaggerated way and looking over spitefully at the male contingent. But they would soon tire of this and crumpled up like old tired women, staring fixedly out into the distance. When Dary and Solomon noticed that "the girls" were in a relatively depressed phase, they would first approach them and declaim "Physcult-Salutes!" to stir them up. In their other, manic phase, they would carefully walk around them and join with the chess-players and Kichkin.
"What are they writing about, comrades?" Balkopa asked pointing to a pile of Novoye Russkoye Slovo protected from the wind by the chess board.
"Just the same old bubamainsers," Goldin answered. "We read all that long ago in the real press". In the playground this couple was known as connoisseurs of America. According to rumors, they could somehow make sense of The New York Times or read a label on an American box of medicine. For awhile they were even translators"- ''translating" (in Russian), helping children cross the street at the end of the school day. They have taught themselves to speak English, but strange as it may seem, with different flavor. If Goldin preferred "oiks", Gildin growled it out on the letter "r" like a lion. The way they explained it Goldin had worked out a north Brooklyn accent and Gildin, the one from the south (most of their friends lived in Brooklyn). For example, explaining that the normal work week is 40 hours, Goldin would say, "Noimal-voik-foiti-aus, soitanli," and Gildin boomed out in confirmation, "Ai-gar-r-ryt, for-r-ri-ar-rs."
Sizing up his position on the board, Gildin twirling his queen in the air placed it back on the same square. "Nikht-gut," he said, to which Goldin objected that "you've touched the queen -- be so kind make a move anyway. Everything is nikht-gut. Life stinks; let's only hope it will be better for the children." Kichkin would snort sarcastically and launch into his favorite theme of the over sated West, which is good for nothing. At the moment, Dary usually signaled to Balkopa to have two more walks around the block. A simple stroll did wonders for the soul.
On the first day of Chanukah the postman Louis handed Dary two letters addressed to him personally in handwriting. One letter has a yellowish First of May postcard marked Essentuki, Russia, from a certain boy scout, Sadyk Mameev, whom Dary didn't know. It was written in a round, child's script: "Dear Auntie Dasha! Come visit us in Essentuki!" He went on to say that both his mama and he, Sadyk, loved the deceased Semyon Isaakovitch, "Senechka", who always rested and got better in their Sanatorium named after the XX Party Congress. The letter ended with a tactful assertion that if the Korshs couldn't come quickly to Essentuki, little Sadyk and his mother and Goga, the chauffeur from the Sanitarium, were ready right away to come visit them in the USA and so "teach everyone in the Sanatorium who's who!"
The second letter, in a thick, neat envelope with a stamp of menorah, resembling an inverted branch of the Chanukah palm, turned out to be a personal invitation to the local synagogue for the coming Saturday. It so happened that this very Saturday was the birthday of Tsilia Rakhmunova, an immigrant from Dushanbe. This and many others holidays, a glittering mirage of days loomed now, in December for everybody ahead prior to coming to the next year. For the festive period Dary determined to keep his mystics at bay, just avoided testing the fate. He didn't look for reflections in the mirror and shaved by touch, like Ray Charles.
A light snow had been falling since evening and melted right away everywhere except for a few white patches along the edges of sidewalks and rooftops and some forgotten foliage piles. It was sunny and chilly but not frosty, the usual New York December--uncertain, whether it will turn into winter or hold back under the guise of late fall. And the mood of the people was just as unstable. If there have been a heavy snow, appropriate to the season, they would cleaned it away with their shovels and ejectors; but with the sun and warm air masses from the Caribbean, people felt as if it were autumn, now blowing away the dead leaves. You can always find an overlooked, clattered corner. And from time to time, if there was an unusual warm spell, which was altogether strange for December, they would even start up their rattling lawnmowers. One has to stay busy all the time in America -- the cowboy's work is never done.
By the evening, the streets around the synagogue Beth-Tefila were jammed up with more cars than usual. Russian pensioners who lived nearby would come on foot while a minibus would bring the Americans from the nursing home. At the entrance to the synagogue volunteers distributed yarmulkes and blue pins. They patted on chest stickers "Hello, I'm Hannah," supported the old and frail folk and rolled in the invalids in wheelchairs. The hall was filling up quickly. The stained glass windows facing east with they multicolored mosaics of letters, the menorah and tongue of flame, gleamed in shafts of light. The rabbi, stripped from his tallish and the oblique sunrays, announced the page. Rustling; the reading began. The congregation got up noisily and just as noisily sat down in relief. The cantor sang. It was not the first time that Dary and Anna ("Hannah" on her sticker) had been in this synagogue and they already knew how to find the right page in the book, when one can merely mumble and when to raise one's voice and conclude with "Amen".
Watching the children in the praying crowd, Dary mused how simple and natural it must be for them to get through all of this and how in their old age a habit can become comforting. Unfortunately, it wasn't true for him. In fact he was ashamed to clatter on about such downright gibberish, to parrot words and sounds like a dunce who hasn't prepared his homework, perhaps only to feign diligence. Although all the other immigrants from the Soviet Union were doing the same, he found it rather amusing. On the other hand, a sadness wailed up in him from the realization that as someone who has lived his life, he was somehow not real, neither a Jew nor a Russian, a "Jurassian" monster. He was merely stamped a Jew in his Russian passport but at bottom he was even more confused than the poor homeless man, Seymour.
Once in a while still the prayer words seemed familiar to him, ringed the bell from long ago. He remembered how his mother would repeat them, all mixed up with the pungent odor of treated leather (his grandfather was in the leather trade); he remembered how his father in high leather boots led him by hand alongside tall woodsheds, across meadows and sticky burrs, along the street of Gomel on a Saturday. Where they going to the synagogue? The prayer book with its glossy cover on the stiffly starched tablecloth, the blackened kerosene lamp, the sliver of sugar or halvah in sticky gold paper... The blurriness of these sweet memories, their insubstantiality, the shadow faces, were even more distressing and could bring tears to his eyes when his own self and his own life seemed so pitiful, sacrificed always but to expectations--survive your trouble a bit longer, any minute now it will end, and then -- something's about to begin. You have to bear it, because the pain will certainly subside, misfortune will pass and then -- then in just a little while, something good will happen. And we'll start to live, just you wait...
He also had wanted to believe that someplace over there exist the most wise people, much better than we are, intellectual giants and seers, all-powered healers, who laugh down at our childish fears. But as he aged, he was slowly overcome by the dreary suspicion that there was nothing and no one like this anywhere and could never be, because everyone was exactly as he was, abandoned and naked, just living and hoping day by day.
As Dary repeated along the obscure words of the Jewish prayer, swaying and staring blankly at the ribbon like pattern of the holy book, it became crystal clear to him that his fears were not unfounded, that in truth he was orphaned and naked in the face of the pandemic terror; at the same time, his fetters were suddenly falling away and he felt redeemed. His nose tickled and tears came to his eyes. Looking to the side, he noticed something similar happening to those next to him. He even caught in their intonations a hidden tremulous impulse to cry and marveled that they were able to penetrate "his" innermost thoughts. He immediately pulled himself together, reproaching himself for the improper onset of dementia or just plain senility. He neither consider himself an old man yet, "Sorry, not quite yet," nor a blind believer, and he put on a yarmulke as only a gesture of solidarity, a mixture of decency and curiosity. What did he really care about the synagogue? What did he know about the Pentateuch of Moses or the Talmud? However, Dary would curse and fault himself and he was at a loss for what to do when for example he would consider a certain person or a uniquely Jewish issue disagreeable. He would denounce himself as anti-Semitic when the sight of a group of strangely looking Hasidim, celebrating in their ridiculous black outfits, didn't move him, not to say the worse. He saw only black crawling beetles and felt disgusted. It was the same when somebody tried to appeal to his Jewish-ness, to amuse him with flat, stale Yiddish jokes, offered up as some sugary trifle or tried to influence him with thin arguments in defense of something only because that "something" was labeled Jewish. He reached an impasse each time he had such "improper" feelings.
He was forced to realize that, alas, he was a product of another time and it was rather late to change. On such a sunny day, as today, for example, it was much easier for Dary to remember things full of energy and sport--the skating rink Dynamo, the vivacious soccer march "Come on, you sun, shine more brightly!", the hoarse voice of the popular Soviet sport commentator Vadim Sinavsky, the names of forwards on the Spartak team--the whole that "country of dreamers, country of scientists..." How ironic it was to know about all the cheating and bloody terror and still hold on to the old jumble of Soviet life, being eager to sing the songs of carefree youth! Dary still remembered how he envied his older brother, the chaigetz, the renegade of the family. From Motl Korsh he turned himself into the Komsomol commissar Mikhail Korshunov, who wrote First of May poems for the papers, began to appear in the movies and even ended up as one of the delegates of the Party Congress. He was in turn eventually "exposed for concealing his ethnic identity," among other things and, eventually, disappeared without the trace. It seemed that an eternity had drifted past since then, but even now, looking around at the Jews who had gathered in the Queens synagogue, Dary felt that "the beautiful yet foggy dream" from the song of Mishka Korshunov, the handsome glorious commissar-brother, though no longer "urging him forward", was stuck somewhere and buzzed and itched Dary. And it wasn't just his dream. There was something curiously nostalgic even in the outfits of his elderly fellow countryman in the synagogue. No, they didn't make a special point of getting dressing up. Why would such sickly, shapeless, displaced lot bother with that! They simply picked out something appropriate from whatever was at hand in observance of Chanukah, although here, in America, it really made no difference what one wears. Yet even in these improvisatory best outfits, Dary could recognize that very persistent dream of the past. Here was someone in an aviator, Chkalov's type jacket and someone in a leather military coat of the partaigenosse with squeaking belts and shoulder straps. The tweed cap of the celebrated goalie Homich turned up as well as did the heavy winter coat of a top-secret rocket designer. The women wore scarves and wraps of movie stars. It wasn't intentional masquerade, but still, somehow, vague images of Stalin's pilots, war-time movies, liberated Paris--the whole mess of the forties and fifties, when all these people were young, paraded by.
During tea they distributed token gifts and the yeshiva students began the show. The setting was remarkably like a children's New Year party somewhere in the kindergarten on an unavoidable Lenin street; although one couldn't think about a Christmas in a synagogue, of course. However, it was customary to maintain the delicate, American-style balance of seasonal" holidays--something for the goyem something for the Jews. To avoid making a mistake, you have diplomatically wished each other "happy holidays," with no specification, please. On the streets and squares Christmas trees and menorah gleamed together--two inverted variants of the very same symbol; with the Christmas tree the tips of the branches leaned downward, the menorah's -- pointed up.
The show included especially for the Russians many fiery Yiddish songs which smacked of petty small-town hooliganism. Supported by the activists, they all sang together off pitch Havanagilah, and kept up a jumpy rendition of the violin Klezmer, which in the old country was cautiously named Moldavian Folk Dances. Despite all these rather boisterous amateur numbers with their stamping and clapping, many of the nursery home people, the senior citizens were already dozing off, mumbling in their sleep. Anna kept looking fearfully at her neighbor, whose head had lifelessly dropped off, with her whitish tongue sticking out. Anna whispered to Dary, "What kind of children are these who put their mother in the poorhouse!"
That very evening everyone gathered in the apartment of Rachmunova. Those who were curious, were told the jubilee date -- 65, but at once they made it clear that is was not right to confuse the official age needed for the bureaucratic pension application, and the dark browed thick-set hero of the day herself, who no one in their right mind would think was so old.
The apartment was over-heated. Tadjik rugs were everywhere. Rugs covered the walls, the furniture and there were also runners on the floor. The spotless, embossed brass plates and pitchers gleamed golden. Over the floor model, immigrant choice, television "Zenith" hung a rudely retouched sepia tinted photograph of Tsilia's late husband, where the best part were mustaches and a colonel's lambskin curly hat, nicknamed "brains".
When the Korshs arrived they could find seats only at opposite parts of the table. Some couch cushions had to be removed and guests who come earlier were crowded closer together. They had already tasted the moist, crumbly meat pie - kulebyaka and were moving on to the steaming pilaf with raisins and dried apricots. All the while they were praising the hostess for her culinary talents which watered the mouth. To liven up the meal and add a touch of sophistication, a neighbor, Lilia Pombrik brought a videocassette with sИances of the magic healer Mr. Kashpirovsky.
"We would like to live a thousand years, wouldn't we?" said Lilia. "Meanwhile we're nearing a critical age." Her dimpled cheeks in the shy smile softened the harsh truth.
"If it weren't for my unruly stomach, I would turn America upside down. I swear I would do that!" exclaimed Tsilia brimming with energy.
"Beware!" retorted Balkopa. "It will land us back in Dushanbe".
It was impossible to listen to Kashpirovsky's conjurations with all the noises and chatter. Balkopa had picked a fight with Goldin, insisting that the hypnotist worked secretly for the reactionary Zhirinovsky to which Goldin objected that it was all nothing but slander. No one paid attention to them because everybody was too busy finishing off the pilaf and passing out the jelly dishes for the desert. However, just when the female patients on the TV screen started to violently circle their heads, someone turned up the volume after which Kichkin climbed onto the table, clapped his hands and jumped so that the dishes rang: "Stop it right away!" he yelled; "I can't stand this TV farce. We, old Bolsheviks never...
Khrunov got up, turned off the set and in suddenly ensuing silence said: "Nothing ever pleases your kind of people."
"What kind of people' are you talking about!" Kichkin shouted with falsetto. "I won't allow you to make anti-Semitic remarks here." He already shoved his hand in his breast pocket where his red ID card was tacked away.
"Come on now, comrade colonel of the USSR. How is it you got out on an Israeli invitation? Why didn't you arrive at your proper destination?"
Khrunov was astounded. "That's really low. And how are you any better?" Meanwhile, with a glass in each hand, he experimented with liqueurs, one bright green, and the other canary yellow. Having tasted and savored both of them he pronounced dreamily that he was thinking very hard recently and it looked to him like a great idea to move to the state of Israel for the permanent residence. "You know, I have the best friend of mine living in Rahmat-Aviv and, I'll tell you, Israel is a fantastic land." It turned out that he was the only one in the room who had been over there. "And what kind of Jews really are you, people. They've only mocked at you in Russia, made fun of you in fact; but I want to become one and I will. Watch me!"
Dary was dozing in the corner surrounded by couch pillows. The room was stuffy and hot. Dary seemed to be drifting off in the sleep and then, shuddering returning to what was going on at the table. He heard the whole razzle-dazzle, however, and thought about Seymour from the playground.
"I'm afraid, Fedor Nikanorovich," Dary said, "It will not be easy for you to become Jewish. That's only for those chosen ones who have no choice. When it seriously comes to the gas chambers, they'll eventually pick out your opponent". Dary pointed to Kichkin.
"Hey, excuse me," Kichkin became alarmed. "Thanks for the compliment!"
Dary wanted to add something else, but odd things were happening with his eyes. The faces of the people in front of him were flowing together and then spreading apart, growing big before popping up like balloons, the room was tilting. Dary jumped on his feet which were reluctant to obey after such prolonged sitting, thanked the hostess, said goodbye to everyone and grabbing Anna by the hand, hurried home.
There he rushed about, not really knowing what he wanted to do. Finally he drew up a stool, climbed into a niche over the door and, stirring up a collection of useless things, pulled out an old photo album from Russia with the front cover missing. Sitting down in his chair, he started hastily to leaf through the album: there he is with a shaven head in a soldier's tunic embracing his buddies-soldiers. And there he is with Anna, temple to temple, in their wedding monograms. And there is the communal Moscow apartment where they are celebrating a Women's March Day; Stalin had just died and in a month Dary's father would be gone too. Dary could make out his father's glasses and nose, bleak images bent over the table under the lampshade with shimmering tassels. And there is Irina in kindergarten and Dary, the professor, all dressed up, on the board of Honorees of the Institute. His heart helped him to recognize his mother's face even on the faded old prints. While Dary often needed to guess to recall his relatives and himself. Sometimes he was confused. The same as long ago, while hurrying through the Moscow biggest department store GUM, he unexpectedly stared in the mirrored pedestal in the center of the hall by the fountain and was scared by his own face looking so unfamiliar and strange. In fact there was no mirror that time but a window in the pedestal and there was another person he actually saw. Still he remembered the ominous vision.
Dary began to turn the album pages more and more quickly as if short of time he was afraid to miss a certain vitally important picture. Anna, who was passing by to the kitchen, asked, "Do you want a snack or just an apple?" Dary threw the album aside and reached back toward the nightstand for the hand mirror which he kept hidden these days. Now it was covered by the envelope from the synagogue with a branch of the Chanukah palm on the front. He grabbed the mirror and brought it closely to his face. An imposing Dary looked back at him exactly just like in the photograph of the Honor Roll, in a double-breasted uniform jacket with many military order ribbons on his chest; a strong open face, prominent cheekbones and eyes that had a brave, yet slightly mocking and arrogant look. The face in the mirror didn't move. Only darkening spots began to creep from the edges, gradually swallowing up the whole field of vision, as on an exposed photographic plate.
On Monday morning before Balkopa had not even started his usual squats and was still yawning, the phone rang. "There's nothing worse than a phone call in this hour," Balkopa grumbled. "Who, the hell, may it be!" It was Irina Korsh calling.
"Uncle Solya. ...Well, you see... papa died last night."
Two rival funeral parlors stood on opposite sides of the boulevard. Many of the coming guests were ending up by mistake at "Ben-Aram", where a polite lay brother warmly invited everyone to come in and take a seat; it seemed, however, that they spoke mostly Arabic, an oriental zourna emitted wailing sounds, a sweet, bluish puff of smoke was curling about and they were burying a very young girl.
In the other building "Weiss and Sons," this was closer to the street crossing, the services not yet begun. The organizer was bustling about and those who arrived lingered uncertainly in the anteroom before going in the door. It was quite frosty and cold so that many people stood crowded together on line in front of the side entrance to the to washroom. They smoked and exchanged remarks in hushed voices. "I wonder how my Eli will make it here ? it's during working hours and his boss pays him by the hour.
"Well, did the dead man ask you when it would be more convenient?"
"I hardly knew him. Is it the one from the second floor?"
"No, that one died last week."
A stale, sickening smell filled the half darkness. The long prayer benches freshly cleaned with furniture polish gave off a heavy musty odor. Next to the window partially smeared with white-wash and closer to the radiator, sat Goldin and Gildin, their feet dangling not reaching the floor. Looking over the people coming in, they instructed them, "One's not supposed to bring flowers. You're not supposed to shake hands. Take a yarmulke by the entrance. Forget your 'hellos' and 'thank yous'..."
The door into the hall couldn't be pushed outward. It was separated from the street entrance by a narrow vestibule and hall. There Dary, or rather what was recently Dary Korsh, still hovered close to his body that had given up. Dary's emanation, which is now prophetically defined the same as it was a millennium ago, as a mythic soul or an angel of death, sometimes an angel of life, the still inexplicable "something" which is interpreted variously depending on an preference - a puff of smoke, a scent, some magnetism or plasma... This "something" was floating over its former dwelling place, now lying as a lifeless waxen doll with its vessels filled with horrible heavy formaldehyde, like with lead. The lid of the coffin embroidered with white silk, formed an edge between a rolled up rug and a box with candles. At the entryway to the pulpit were sitting the wife and daughter of the deceased and neighbors. With each new person the wife surrendered herself to grief with all increasing bitterness, covering her face that had aged overnight with a shawl and repeating over and over: "...he asked me for an apple... I had just come back from the kitchen, and he was go-o-one...
"That's enough, mama, it's enough," asked the daughter, Irina.
"Oy, he wanted something sour to taste. Why did he do this to me?" Anna threw up her hands wrapped in the shawl and with the air wave Dary's spirit went gliding over to Goldin and Gildin, who were wondering:
Why doesn't Dodik get out of the car? They'll be starting soon."
"I know he'll never step inside, he's having his weltschmertz episodes. They say, he can't in principle stand any negative emotions."
Dary's spirit thickened for a moment at the window behind which Dodik could be seen, sitting in the "Cadillac". The window had become covered with an instant frost. Till this very moment since last night, when Dary suddenly saw himself in the mirror until darkness obscured the image he sensed a weightlessness, then heard a long shrill mosquito buzzing after which endless myriads of pointed flashes, lasting till down began to crackle, while his spirit bestowed for a time, seemed to snap away spot by spot from its useless body, that was sinking opposite way under a dead weight. In the blissful darkness Dary heard distinctly his wife's cries, all the rushing about, the fine almost ultrasonic moans of poor Dodik, who stayed that night over at their place in Queens, the arrival of the ambulance escorted by the police. The same noise and sirens as happened almost every night at the nursing home across the street. Dodik begged to be saved. Dary tried to get up to help him, but like in a dream he just couldn't move. The impenetrable darkness was gradually clearing with the release of his spirit. The blackness broke up into spots which like amoebae began to float, bumping into each other, and separated, revealing a pale lilac sky with myriads of flashing stars. Silhouettes appeared within the room, with the people and objects. Dary recognized Dodik in an armchair with a towel around his head. Microscopic bursting synapses have already started cut a little the thread of Dodik's frail soul the way it had happened to Dary, but soon stopped, and Dodik stayed alive. Later, during the hospital procedures and while being transported to the funeral home, Dary started to feel himself bodiless in a charged field. Since then he could somehow begin distinguishing the shapes and sounds around him.
Tsilya Rakhmunova was sitting in the company of her friends who listened to her intensely: ...then she says to me -- now bring me a 'jar' ('fire' for the Russian ear). I wonder who needs fire on a hot day like that! That was the first summer I had just begun to help house keeping for this crazy American."
"Tsil, did you have her taste your tstimmes?"
"Wait a minute, listen. She takes me by the hand and shows me a jug with lemonade, a 'jar' in their language. Right away I made a note that the next time she cries 'fire' I hand her the jug. I understand the rules. Come this Linda to my place in Dushanbe, I'll also give her a hard time ? Yes, sir!"
Two more women came up and joined the group. Tsilya nodded to them sorrowfully, "He's alright now; Dary's alright."
"Did you hear," said a newcomer, "he just asked Anna for a snack and -- bang! Now that's an easy way to go. Like a saint. I wish I could the same..."
Everyone agreed and felt a twinge of envy. "What did he die from? Was he sick or something?"
"What are you talking about," said Rakhmunova. "Did you forget? Yesterday he was perfectly okay, dancing and having fun at my place."
The women huddled together in fright. The hall was already full. It was as if on this bitterly cold day all the Russians of Rego Park had transferred their usual coffee-klatch to Weiss's funeral services. Balkopa, exercising his rights as organizer, was busy making calls and running up to the entrance to meet people; now and again looking into the rabbi's study, narrow as a closet, to remind in his mixture of Yiddish, English and Russian, what a remarkable man Dary Korsh was. The rabbi was sipping coffee from a paper cup. Over his desk hung a portrait of the great Lubavitche's leader who looked here like Santa Claus in the hat of traveling salesmen. Balkopa was agitated and his cheeks were burning.
"Dear Solya," Dary noted gliding by and circling around. "No one gets down to business with that much zeal as you do, whether it's a wedding or a circumcision or a funeral..."
For the first time, Solomon was wearing his holiday's best Finnish three piece suit, the same brand that every immigrant brought from Moscow. The suit had a sweet smell of naphthalene, which was somehow pleasant for Dary's emanation. Besides the postman Louis and the beggar Seymour, there were several Americans in the hall, neighbors and employees of the Services for Aged. Dary didn't remember many of them, and therefore in the place where they sit was a void foreign space for him. Finally from behind the claret red curtain, as if onto a stage the frail rabbi emerged, dressed in a black lapserdak with a black felt hat. Everyone stopped talking. Even Anna had become tired and withdrawn silently into herself. The rabbi hastily read through kaddish, here and there inserting the names of Dary and Dary's father Moshe. At her husband's name, Anna attempted crying more, but there were no more tears left. Clearing the throat, the rabbi opened the prayer book and now looking in it, declaimed several paragraphs of the English text. He put aside the book and covered his eyes, silently moving his lips and bowing briskly in all four directions. He said "Amen". Then, screwing up his eyes and peering somewhere deep in the half-lit hall, he began to tell in Yiddish selected for the occasion stories and parables. He almost sang, rolling his eyes and swaying gently to the rhythm of each story.
The older Russian Jews could but guess individual clever figures of speech. But besides the words, everyone understood the ancient, familiar swaying tune, its bitter questioning, its skeptical shrugging of the shoulders and infinitely mournful drawn expression of the face, a melody which ends up with a wave of both hands and what seems like a mocking "hmm". The young people exchanged glances fearfully; it seemed to them that the rabbi was sort of kidding around. Was he allowed to do that, at a funeral? But they saw that the old folks were listening and accepting the words with awe, which meant that some hokhmas were appropriate always, even in times like this. The one, who was listening most attentively to the whole service, was Dary himself. He understood absolutely everything, every single word, no matter what the language. The rabbi was addressing directly to him. Even more that the people sitting in the hall, Dary not only followed every word of the rabbi, but, as if intoxicated by the hot breath of the congregation, whirled around and danced to the Klezmer tunes which got faster and faster... Hand in hand with his father he skipped through puddles and the chickens cackled and scattered away from them.
The cortege of cars with their headlights on stretched out toward the cemetery behind the hearse. The closest Jewish cemetery was overcrowded and neglected. Even Balkopa with his knack for getting the impossible could mark out just a little plot at the furthest fence. People came out of their cars and walked single file along the narrow path between the Old, porous tombstones, toward a freshly dug grave. Flakes of new show, "white flies" were slowly circling around.
"Yesterday he didn't even know where he would be today," a woman said.
"He's alright now," repeated Tsilia.
"Yes," said the other. "It does all of us here, still have to suffer. We have to go through this lot; the same thing is ahead of us. God forgive me."
Balkopa was walking without a coat between Anna and Irina, his arms around their shoulders. "Well, girls, I kept teasing him with such stupid things -- that I was the first American, that I was the first to arrive here. Why did he beat me to it? It's not fair."
It became really dark and towers of Manhattan lit up on the horizon. The workers lowered the coffin on straps. People threw on first clods of hard earth. Once again the mourners listened to the rabbi. Already in the dusk, to the thud of the frozen earth flung quickly by shovels, people began to disperse. They discussed who would drive who home and turned their attention to their plans for the rest of the evening, for tomorrow and for the life that lay ahead.
"In the papers they say that in Mogilev the bandits are running wild. Even in Minsk. My brother-in-law arrived and says that he didn't buy a return ticket. He says, 'I won't go back, no way, you can kill me if you wish on the spot.'"
Lilia Pombrik, slipping on the ice, almost fell. Someone laughed, "No, this isn't the right place. You have to hurt yourself in front of a rich house. You'll get a million then in reward."
Dary's spirit circled over his tablet, a temporary one made out of cardboard, but bearing his own name Dary Korsh clearly written by hand. Not just "anybody" as on a junk mail letter. The silhouettes of the receding crowd were quickly disappearing for him, as on a TV screen that had been turned off. Neither time nor space existed for him anymore. That is, he was at once everywhere and forever. Still, in some place, there was somehow more of him, of elements of his emanation, recombination of which represented his movements. Once again he flew along Queens Boulevard, along a route of Chanukah dandies set in windows, past pine Christmas wreaths with red bows that looked funeral-like to the Russian taste, and through the huge glow of New York City. Passing the icy cold of the Atlantic, he flew over Old Europe and settled softly on the outskirts of the Byelorussian town of Gomel, on the much suffering land, polluted by murders and by the Chernobyl radiation, on the land where his grandfather and both of his parents lay and where there was a stone with a menorah symbol like the branch of the Chanukah palm.
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