Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story
I have been a tailor now for 40 years. But at 10 years old, I saw what a good shirt could do for a man. There were qualities I would learn years later when I first made my home in Little Moscow. This shirt, the pinpoint cotton had a rich opaque sheer that caught the light. Above the sleeve, a gauntlet button sat in the perfectly horizontal hole, hand sewed with an irregular stitching. Buttons? They would turn out to be ivory.
I was only a boy, but I knew what a man in Irkutst would have to suffer to get this shirt. Sardines? Vodka? A box of oranges? A lifetime past, and I still wonder what he must have bartered to get that shirt. I am sure Father must have noticed too, though he never mentioned it.
My sister, Sveta, had never brought a man home to our family's apartment before. She worked for long hours selling Sobraine cigarettes on the Anagara Train. Though Mother always told her that she was pretty, she struggled with the qualities that allowed most girls her age to already be married. But I think that even Mother was surprised at the man who climbed the six flights up to knock on our door. I was the age my grandson is today, but I can tell you: This was a handsome man. And a beautiful shirt.
He had thick black curls for hair. Men in Russia are known to have great passion and great fortitude. Russians are known for moving literature and music that one is humbled by. But we are not known for good hair. This man's features were heroic and sharp, and I decided that the next time I read my stories about knights and dragons I would picture this man's face as Vanya, my favorite knight.
And he brought such gifts! The man brought Father a large box of cigarettes from a place called Virginia. For Mother, he delivered a podstakannik, a tea glass holder made of braided silver strings. As my mother blushed, it would have seemed he was calling on her. Father, he might not have liked that. But the welcome Mother gave him made one point very clear: Sveta had done well for herself. But the best gift was for me.
"You are the little soldier?" He smiled, and handed me a gift wrapped in soft purple cloth: A little, wooden truck. The kind of truck I always found myself staring at as soldiers drove them through Ude Street. Sveta, my sister, covered her mouth and giggled, and I loved her for it. "I made it for you, from the wood of a cherry tree. And look! The dye is cherry, too!" Yet as much as I loved the truck, it was the strangeness of his forearm that my eyes fell upon. Those things. Such dark things. Things I wasn't meant to see. He must have seen me notice, for when he stood again, he quickly pulled the sleeve down.
But it was not erased from my mind. Or Father's. Father froze. The preparations for dinner swirled around him, yet he was still. Only I seemed to notice his gaze darkening, as he watched the man from across the room, polishing a glass in his enormous hands. His eyes never left the man.
Mother had spent a week making dinner. First, we were to have chai and bowl of borscht, sprinkled with pine nuts she had gathered, deep in the woods past the Ushakovka River. The first course would be followed by handmade meat-dumplings and boiled milk. I would bite deep into the side and quickly drink the boiling broth inside, before devouring the meat. But the real treat was the quail! It was being kept hidden from view, but I could smell it on the stove, even if it was meant to be a surprise.
Yet I turn back. In the middle of the celebration was my Father. He was motionless, never uttering a sound, but it was as though he was pulling the light out of the room, just by fixing his eyes on my sister's suitor. I know he must have seen what I saw. The secret carved onto his flesh.
My father. My father is the strongest man I have ever known. But he is not always a kind man. Years earlier when the roads and railways were bombed, he limped alone through the Siberian winter, past burned cities, all the way home to Irkutst. I am told that when they cut off his foot, he did not shed a tear. And while he cared for his family, he lived for Russia. But I have never understood why my father loved a country that treated him so poorly.
During the war, he volunteered his dacha to fellow soldiers, and then set fire to it himself when it became clear the axis would take it. He was never compensated. When the frost turned his foot into a stump, he was given a medal and told he would be taken care of. But maimed, and no longer able to work as a respected policeman, he now spent all day in the unbearable grime and heat of a hinge factory as a steam-press operator. But Russia could do no wrong in Father's eyes, even during the great purges, and the whisperings about the night raids of the NKVD.
Now, I always sat facing our apartment's largest window. But tonight, I sat next to the man who courted my sister. He tousled my hair, and pulled out the other chair beside him for Sveta to sit in. But then my father sat in the seat reserved for Sveta. Her glass had already been set there--Father did not drink sugared tea--but he moved it across the table.
"Tell me." Father beckons, "It is tradition for the guest at dinner to lead our family in prayer. Would you lead our family in a good Christian prayer?" Something in father's voice sounded more like a threat that an invitation.
"Jewish," Sveta breaks in with a quiet smile. "Papa, he is Jewish."
"If you like," the man boasts, "I could teach you a prayer my great-grandfather taught me in Moscow when I was a boy like your own."
"No. No," Father interjects, "This is not necessary." And then, Father folded his hands and said a strange prayer I had never heard before. "Blessed is Russia, Blessed is the family. Blessed is my wife who warms our house with food and by the music of her chanza. Blessed is my son, Niko, who is quiet but strong, and will soon grow the strength of a cub." And then for a moment he fell silent. "Blessed is my daughter, Sveta. Who we have given much to, and should try to bring us more happiness. Amen."
Sveta's guest was not included in the blessing. Nor was he included during the second course of dinner when father sprinkled sugar in each of our cups of chai. But the man didn't protest. Instead, he told a story.
"In Hassidic literature, there is a story about the Angel of Death taking the form of a beggar, asking for charity as you pass. If you are not kind to the beggar, he could bring you great misfortune. Even take your life if you are not careful." Then he paused, before looking to my father and saying, "It is a story of the importance of kindness to those you do not know."
And we froze. No one had ever questioned Father before. Sveta dropped her spoon, and spilled tea upon the table. Father stood and walked to the cabinet where he produced a bottle of vodka. His wooden foot echoed with his footsteps. He poured a single cup. Sveta quickly reached across the table and touched the man's hand, but withdrew it again when Father glared. But the man, he reached across the table, and took Sveta's hand in his.
"I love your daughter." This was all he said. His arm, in all its shame, was for the first time exposed to the whole table. He knew we had seen it, that we could see it! But he looked only at Sveta, and traced her palm with his fingertips. "I love your daughter."
"You think we can't see what you have done to your arm?" The bear was mad.
"It is nothing."
"I know these markings. I know where they come from. Russia sends its dregs to the islands!"
The islands. The whispered name. The darkest corners of the country. The secret corridors.
"Take off this shirt" Father ordered, but the man sat quietly. "Take off this shirt!" Once the bear had started to roar, Mother could not calm him. "I want to see this man my daughter has brought into my home!" I do not know who was stronger. My father was broad like an oak tree that grew thicker and stronger each year. But the man looked as though he has been carved out of marble.
"I was a teacher of Jewish Literature." The man says. "That was my crime."
"Take off this shirt!"
Father lunged and began to pull at the man's sleeve. Between the sounds of tea glasses breaking and plates falling, there was the harsh sound of ripping fabric as I watch this cotton shirt shred like paper. Then we saw that it was more than his forearm that was painted with ink. His shoulders also bore the tattoos. He struck Father's arm away, and Mother screamed. None of us have ever seen Father challenged before, and he held his wrist, aware for the first time that he may have met a man stronger than him.
"Take off your shirt!" Father commanded.
Our apartment is filled with a quiet I cannot endure. In that moment, it is so empty I heard sounds I had never heard before. The wheeze under this old man's breath, the snow falling outside our window. The man kneeled back and picked up a chair that had been knocked over. He straightened the rug that was Mother's favorite.
"You want to see?"
Mother stood to object, but Father would have none of it. The man unbuttoned this beautiful, torn shirt, and pulled it over his lean frame. He turned to face the wall. On his back, a monster looked back at us. A face. The scream of a corpse. Ink burned into his skin. Ink made by burning the heel of a shoe, and mixing the soot with piss. Ink injected into the skin by a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver. Large cuts into his chest. A screaming face. I do not know the meanings of all these markings. The suit of diamonds. The terrible grin. The snake wrapped around his shoulders. But some are familiar. They meant many things. They meant "Propagandist." They meant "Traitor."
They meant "Jew."
Even Father seemed to hold his breath before speaking again. "You must leave now."
Silence. The kind man looks at Sveta. He turns to father.
"My friend, you have been hurt too. I see that you limp. Can I ask how it..."
"You must leave now."
I wanted Sveta to yell, to protest, but she did not. And a new horror revealed itself. I looked at my poor mouse of a sister, and she understood Father's anger. Even though I couldn't. I wanted this man to be my friend, my older brother, but Sveta understood the code of our house: One could not question Russia. This man had questioned Russia. And even though it was the same Russia that took my Father's foot, his job, his house, and his pride without ever giving back, this man could never question it.
He buttoned his shirt. One of the beautiful ivory buttons had been torn off. The rip where Father clutched his shirt. A deep one. Off the seam. A funny thing. At that moment, I said something I didn't understand. An eight year old boy, but I said, "I can fix it." I had never picked up a needle and thread. But still I said "I can fix it..." Even as a boy, my first thought was... What I could do to repair that beautiful shirt? If I fixed it could we begin the evening again? Like resetting the needle on a phonograph? But no one at the table seemed to hear.
Mother quickly fell to the floor, searching for the ivory button. She understood how much such a thing would cost. But the button was lost in the shattered porcelain of our family's finest plates. The man quickly knelt and pulled my mother up. Still he smiled.
He put his hand on my Mother's. "Thank you for this meal." He looked to me and winked. He did not look at Sveta. I think he wanted her to say something. But she did not. From the lightless hall of our apartment, he turned to Father. He leaned in to speak quietly, but we all heard him.
"I am a teacher of Jewish literature. I am not a criminal." He traced the tattoo showing through his torn sleeve. "Do you think I would do this to myself? Do you think it was a choice of mine to put these marks on my body?"
Then Father closed the door on him.
Sveta's eyes had tears, but she would not let them spill. Father sat at the head of table. I remember his enormous hands smoothing the shirt over his slowly heaving chest. I remember realizing for the first how old he looked, and thinking that he was nothing more than a machine that was slowly breaking down. That he would shed parts on the side of the highways; a hinge here, a pipe there. A leg here, a hand there. Eventually his shell would be left in the fields outside the city, a rusted relic the country he loved would not pay to scrap. Father ate. And when he did such a thing, it was clear the rest of us would too. Quail could be eaten only once a year.
I have been a tailor in Little Moscow now for 40 years. By the time Sveta passed in 2004, I had not been back to Russia for nearly 20. She married a man Father introduced from the hinge factory, who brought her enough money for heat, but little else. While emptying her apartment off the Anagara Train station, my son and I would not find many items by which one would measure a life. But in an old cigarette case, in the bottom drawer of her dresser, I found a toy wooden truck, and an ivory button, so carefully preserved that it still had the string threaded through it, even though it had been broken so many years ago.
What a wonderful story! An authentic voice; highly original, inventive, touching. The writer takes us back in time to a place that few of us know. And for a number of unforgettable moments, we are truly there. Bravo!
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Registration is now open for the 33rd annual Palo Alto Weekly Moonlight Run and Walk. This family-friendly event which benefits local nonprofits serving kids and families will take place on Friday, Oct. 6 at the Palo Alto Baylands.