Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Fiction
by Miriam Karmel
Lev returns from the park eager for breakfast. He pulls his chair across the tired linoleum and calls out, “Won’t you join me? Your show can wait.” He hates the way he sounds, like a grown man coaxing a cat from a tree.
The kitchen table—the kitchen being an extension of the room where Galena occupies the sofa—is set with the same breakfast she’s been laying out for over 50 years: thick slices of rye bread, sweetcream butter, stewed figs and prunes, a boiled egg balanced in a porcelain cup. A napkin is threaded through a pewter ring. Only Galena is missing. She is no longer at the table with the newspaper or a shopping list, awaiting his return from the park. She no longer fixes her hair before breakfast or colors her lips. This morning she is still in her robe, and now, as he begs her to join him, she dismisses him with a flick of her hand.
Lev considers telling Galena about the empty bottle. Usually, the bottles are so small a child couldn’t get drunk. Worse is the mouthwash. “They’ll drink anything,” he once explained to her, an archaeologist spinning theories to make sense of other worlds. It wasn’t so long ago when he would return for breakfast and report such findings, as if he’d been on a treasure hunt and not a personal mission to clean up the space others litter with abandon.
As he taps the eggshell with the back of a spoon, Lev considers all the turns their conversation might take. Last night, our friend got lucky. After a pause, he might say, Well, maybe not so lucky. The vodka. It was Polish. Flirtatiously, she’d flick that dismissive hand, as if to say, You, with your jokes. He and Galena could communicate like that, with a hand gesture, a shrug, a raised eyebrow. But this silence is different. He misses her.
She used to challenge his assumptions. Our friend, she might snort. How can you be so sure there’s only one who drinks and sleeps in the park? He imagines her shaking her head in disbelief, even disapproval. Possibly both. Homeless. Here. In America. She’d sigh. What were we thinking?
She can pull him under just like that, with her moods. In no time, she will have him believing that it is normal to sit in a dimly lit room staring at the television or blasting music from a tinny cassette player. She’ll wear that contraption out with her Jan Peerce singing Fiddler on the Roof. She loves all the songs. Her favorite, “Anatevka,” she blasts while cooking dinner or dusting the chifforobe. The great tenor’s voice floods the apartment, masking Galena’s silences. If Lev moves to turn down the volume, she holds up a hand, tears streaming down her face.
In the park, everything is different. There, even on the bleakest days, he feels lighter, buoyant, filled with a sense of possibility. Just the other day he heard himself exclaim, “Summer is for people!” They were all gathered around the table. The sisters, Sonia and Rachel. Solomon Polachek, who’d been laid up for a month with shingles. Larissa, whose husband dropped dead of an aneurysm last spring, just like that. Yet she carries on. Morris Reznick and his wife Natalia. Not even Morris, who picks a fight over every little thing, had blunted Lev’s delight over summer. Nobody gave him a sour look or, worse, stared vacantly at the TV, turning his pleasure to dust.
“Summer is for people,” he’d repeated, as if giving his friends another chance to dispute him. But he got no arguments, no quizzical looks. And nobody dared to remind him of the incident. He had Galena for that, with her vacant gaze, her shows, her Mr. Jan Peerce who once sang with the Bolshoi Opera.
The women remind him of colorful songbirds the way they perch on the picnic bench, bantering and laughing. They dress in bright sundresses and glittering costume jewelry, as if a gathering in the park were a great occasion. They fuss with their hair, doing it up in arrangements elaborate as birds’ nests. Always, they ask, “So how’s Galena?”
“Good. Good,” he’ll reply. “She’s watching her show.”
“What’s so good she can’t tear herself away, join us for an afternoon?” someone will ask.
He’s told them about Rex, the German shepherd who works with a Viennese police inspector. Galena watches Kommissar Rex with Russian voice-over. “That show is a miracle,” Lev has wanted to say, but then Morris would counter, Only peasants believe in miracles. Still, Lev marvels at the cascade of events that led to the moment when a depressed woman in an eighth-floor apartment in Minneapolis can view a show filmed in Vienna, spoken in German, dubbed into Russian, and transmitted, via satellite, all the way from Tel Aviv. Their migration from Baku had been easier.
Lately, Lev has taken to asking Galena about the dog. “So, how is Rex?” he’ll say. Once, she told him that Rex had been shot, just as the show was ending. That evening, she picked at her supper. “You’ll see,” he’d said. “Everything will be okay. Rex is the star of the show. He can’t die. Please, Galena. Go ahead and eat.”
She watched other things, too. The TV, which consumed more than its fair share of space in the cramped living room, played a hundred channels, maybe more. It was a gift from Benjamin, who is too busy to tear himself away from his fancy job with that oil company in Houston. Galena revered the set as if it were Benjamin himself, and it practically is, the way she’s arranged all his pictures on top. A shrine to their only child.
Now, Lev mops up the yolk with a piece of bread, finishes off the fruit compote and consults his watch. He calls out to Galena, reminds her that it’s Wednesday. It’s the day they go to the community center to study English for Newcomers, though Galena hasn’t attended class in months, and after 15 years, neither of them can be considered a newcomer.
Last week, when Lev returned from class, Galena had changed out of her bathrobe into a blouse with a pattern of blue cornflowers. She had on pink slacks and lipstick to match. Her lunch plate sat empty on the coffee table in front of her. She looked up at him and smiled. When he asked how her morning had gone, she replied, “Good. Good.” Lev took this as a positive sign. She’d replied in English, a habit their teacher encouraged, but which they rarely had the patience to practice. He beamed at his wife. She had not given up. Maybe she’d even return to class, meet the world halfway. “Now,” he’d said. “Let’s have some tea.”
Lev drank his tea from a tall glass, holding it near the rim so as not to burn his fingers. Before taking the first sip, he clamped a sugar cube between his front teeth, closed his eyes and waited for its sweetness to burst on his tongue. He pushed the sugar bowl toward Galena. When she refused, he said, “What’s the matter with you? Take one. It’s sweet.” He plucked a cube from the bowl, set it on her place mat, before helping himself to another.
Absentmindedly, Galena stirred the sugar in her tea. She raised the cup, blew on it, then set it down without drinking. She stirred again, with the same air of distraction, but when she looked up, her eyes, blue as the flowers on her blouse, fixed directly on Lev. “They caught the criminal,” she said.
He set his glass down. “But why didn’t you tell me this? This is great news.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“When? Where? Do they want you to identify him? Tell me. Oh, Galena.”
He recalled the police officer saying they’d have a hard time finding the man, though Lev had suspected nobody would bother to look. Dutifully, the officer had questioned Galena, jotting things on a notepad, but she had little to offer. In her agitation, she kept repeating, “My documents. My documents.”
It happened quickly. Her sister was recovering from the flu, and Galena was heading over to Irina’s apartment with breakfast. That morning, she’d taken a shortcut through the park. She thought she’d tripped on a rock or a branch, but then she understood that her purse was gone. Her left arm took the brunt of the fall. By afternoon it would be sheathed in a plaster cast. Before she could set her broken glasses back on her face, pigeons were attacking the Kaiser rolls from Irina’s breakfast.
After Irina phoned looking for Galena, Lev raced to the elevator. In the lobby, he encountered great commotion. Donna, the building manager, stood clutching a little white dog to her breast. There was a young woman in jogging clothes, the one, he later learned, who had found Galena wandering dazed at the edge of the park. There were others he did not know. Finally, he picked out Galena, swallowed up in all the hubbub by a wingchair near the sliding glass doors. She was clutching her arm; her cheek was streaked with dried blood. And there was Solomon Polachek, talking first to Galena, then to a police officer, and then the other way around.
Intermittently, Mrs. Jensen from the third floor squawked like a parrot. “Was he black? Was he black?”
The officer, a handsome man with a gentle demeanor, shot Mrs. Jensen a look before tapping a finger to his cheek, saying, “If we were to stop every black man, we’d have to stop me.” Turning back to Galena he said, “Isn’t there anything you can recall, Mrs. Zarov?”
She stroked her arm and moaned, “My documents. My documents.”
Lev stood watching from the sidelines, as if none of this pertained to him. Later, he would recall that whenever the sliding glass doors parted open, he thought of their teacher introducing the expression: Doors will open for you.
Only after Mrs. Jensen pointed an accusing finger at him, as if he were the mugger, and said, “That’s her husband,” did Lev push his way through the crowd and kneel beside his wife. He whispered something in her ear and when she nodded, he looked up at the officer and explained that she had been referring to her citizenship papers, which she carried with her everywhere. He didn’t volunteer that the original documents were in a shoebox in the back of the bedroom closet. If he did that, the police would never look for her purse. Or the mugger.
Twelve weeks later, Galena, dressed in her pink slacks and pretty blouse, had said, “They caught the criminal.”
Elated, but in a state of disbelief, Lev had asked when she’d heard the good news.
“Just now,” she’d replied.
“They just called?”
“What are you talking about? Nobody called.”
“Oh, Lena. Lena. What are you talking about?”
She tugged at her arm, which bowed slightly at the wrist, as if she were trying to correct what the cast had failed to remedy. “Rex,” she whispered, staring into her lap.
She nodded and looked up at Lev. “He found the man who murdered the chef.” She wrinkled her nose and said, “He smelled the rare wine. It was stolen. Rex has a good nose.”
“Ah,” Lev said, sinking back in his chair. “So it’s Rex.”
Today when Lev returns from class the TV is off and Galena is sewing a button on his favorite blue shirt. “You still have the touch,” he tells her. “Your fingers fly like hummingbirds.”
“Is no good,” she says, without looking up.
“If you say so,” he says, thinking how their smallest exchanges deflate him. He probes her face for signs of the bright, capable woman he’d married. It was just after the war. She’d been sent from Leningrad to a coat factory in Baku, where he was teaching mathematics. She was a quick study, had a mind for detail, retained everything. Soon she was assisting the designer of women’s coats, overseeing the cutting, the alignment of zippers and buttons, the snipping of loose threads.
Now, as she sews on the button, Lev fills her in on news from the class. They have a new teacher, a pretty young woman with a soft voice and a loud laugh. She hands out stories from People, stories about movie stars and rock singers, abducted children and train wrecks. Today, a student raised her hand and asked if they might read Chekhov. “The teacher said, ‘Chekhov?’ as if, suddenly, she’s the one learning a new language,” Lev tells Galena. “So the student says, ‘In English, of course. We can read Chekhov in English.’ Still, the teacher looked puzzled and that’s when I understood that she had never heard of the great master.”
Lev shakes his head as he fixes his gaze on Galena, waiting for her to share his dismay.
“Rex,” she says, as if by way of reply. “He helped the police solve another crime.”
What were they doing, talking about a dog on TV? Recently, he’d said, “Galena, what’s happened to you?” A look of terror crossed her face, as if they’d been at a street fair and he’d asked where three-year-old Benjamin had gone.
Now, as gently as his frustration allows, he tells her, “On TV, things get solved. In one hour, everything is better.” Then, out of the blue, he hears himself saying, “Perhaps you’d like a dog.” The idea surprises him. It sounds like an expression their teacher would have them learn—Perhaps you’d like a dog. Yet it sounds right.
“A dog?” She tests the button, then snaps the thread, jams the needle into the spool and thrusts the shirt at him. “Where would we put a dog?”
“I’m thinking something small, like the little white mutt Donna carries in her arms.”
“Yes. A lap dog.” She claps her hands together, in mock delight. “In the summers, we’ll take it with us to the dacha. Oh, Lev. What would we do with a dog?”
After dinner, Lev heads to the park. Everyone is there, crowded around the picnic table, chattering and laughing. When Morris Reznick brings up the teacher who hadn’t heard of Chekhov, they all start talking at once, until someone says, “What are you going to do?” Everyone agrees and then they fall silent until one of the sisters says, “Has anyone seen Klara?”
“Poor Klara,” Solomon Polachek says, and repeats what they already know, that last week Klara Kleinman had stood sobbing in front of the orange juice cooler at Cub Foods. “Too many juice,” she cried, as the driver, who’d been waiting in the parking lot, escorted her back to the van while the others finished shopping.
Then Morris turns to Mr. Polachek. “What’s so poor about her?”
Firmly, Natalia presses her husband’s arm and says, “How soon you forget.” She tells the others how, on their first trip to Target, Morris had stood staring at the toothpaste. “I said, ‘Moishe. Make up your mind.’” Smiling at her husband, she says, “And what did you say?”
“I said, ‘I could lose my mind before I decide. You decide.’”
Natalia beams at him. “Exactly.”
“Yes, but I didn’t break down and cry like a baby and refuse to ever leave my apartment.”
“All the more reason to pity the poor woman,” Natalia says.
If it wasn’t for the fading sun, Lev might see six pairs of eyes darting nervously, one to the other. Still, he senses his friends’ embarrassment. Pity the poor woman. The words pierce the soft evening air.
After an awkward silence, the conversation turns to the specials at Cub Foods. Last week, cherry tomatoes were on sale, two for one. This week it was blueberries. Larissa tells them she baked a blueberry babka.
“So where is it?” Mr. Polachek teases. “You don’t share with friends?”
The truth is, they never carry food to the park. The park is for strolling, sitting on benches, talking, reading. Occasionally, Lev and Mr. Polachek play a friendly game of chess. There’s no need to bring food outdoors. They have tables and chairs in their small apartments for that. Proper utensils. Dishes. Placemats. Yet blueberry babka in the park would be nice, they agree.
Others bring food. They eat on the run. Lev has observed people rushing through the park with briefcases and coffee cups. People amble along drinking water from plastic bottles or soft drinks in cans. The other day, Lev headed out after lunch, a book tucked under his arm, and discovered a group of scantily clad young people at his table. They’d piled it high with liters of soft drinks, bread in plastic bags, shrink-wrapped meats. Paper plates. During breaks from some game that involved the tossing of a red plastic saucer, one or the other broke away, ran to his table, grabbed something to eat, then quickly rejoined the group.
His table. Listen to that. Of course, he has no claim to it. Yet what is one picnic table among so many? Hadn’t the early settlers been given land? One hundred and sixty-acre tracts? True, with each successive wave of newcomers the parcels had grown smaller. Yet even his mother’s brother, Leo Pinsky, who fled after the Kishinev Massacre, received a small plot of land somewhere outside New York. An agency had relocated him from the city, sent him to the countryside, told him to raise chickens, a cow. Compared to all that, what was one wooden table rooted to a slab of concrete by an iron chain?
“Gypsies,” Lev had muttered, as he turned away with his book and searched for a bench in the shade. The next morning, it took an extra jug of water to clean the tabletop. ANARCHY. Someone had scrawled the word in mustard on the tabletop. It had baked in the sun, acquiring the permanence of the brilliant tattoos that snaked up and down the legs of those pishers. ANARCHY. What did they, with their scanty clothes, their plastic toys, their hot dogs and buns, know of anything? Two trips he’d made to refill the water jugs.
He can’t recall when it started, but every day, Lev arises at dawn, eager to get to the park. He rises quietly, so as not to awaken Galena. In sleep, her face in calm repose, her faded blonde hair fanned out on the pillow, she appears as beautiful as the day he married her. Some days, she opens her eyes and wishes him a good morning. “Look at you,” she’ll say, “rising early to look after the land. A count out of Tolstoy.”
Despite his silver hair, remarkably abundant for a man past his prime, Lev Zarov looks nothing like a Russian nobleman. His coloring is too florid. His costume is wrong. He favors hemmed shirts with three-inch side vents that drape comfortably over his old man’s belly. In his leather sandals and dark socks, he could easily be mistaken for a German tourist.
Always before leaving, he leans over to kiss his wife’s soft cheek and whispers, “Go back to sleep.” Such tender exchanges have fallen by the wayside. Still, every morning before breakfast Lev, the self-appointed caretaker of a small plot of land on the edge of a public park, heads out with his tools. In winter, he carries a shovel to clear a path to the table. With a whisk broom, he sweeps snow from the tabletop. The rest of the year, he carries a broom to sweep the sidewalk; he totes jugs of water to wash everything clean.
The casual observer might be excused for wondering whether this ruddy-faced man was a retired shop owner habituated to mopping his storefront sidewalk each morning. But in the old country Lev had been a high school mathematics teacher performing his daily ablutions by wiping the slate clean for tomorrow’s lesson. Sometimes he’d pause, sponge poised in midair, marveling at the proofs and equations that filled the chalkboard, knowing that nothing in his life had ever been, or would ever be, as certain as those elegantly balanced truths.
A biker whizzing by brings Lev back to his companions. Nobody wants the velvet evening to end. Couples, arms linked, stroll past. More bikers appear. Playful shouts erupt from the basketball court. Dog owners are out for their final walk of the day. The chirring of late- summer insects herald nightfall. Only when the streetlights come on do Lev’s companions stir. The women, a bevy of songbirds, appear to rise at once. The men slowly follow. As the group disperses, someone reminds Larissa about the babka and she laughs.
On sleepless nights Lev stands by the window with his binoculars. In letters home, he brags about the view. Our place is on the eighth floor of a high-rise overlooking a beautiful park. He describes the pond where people skate in the winter. And in summer, the pond is home to egrets and herons and even wood ducks. Parents take children to fish off a dock by the reeds. He describes the formal garden and a fountain that sprays water like dandelion seeds in the wind. Children splash in the fountain, shrieking with joy. Like children everywhere. Lev’s letters omit any reference to the boisterous young men who lay claim to the basketball court, their t-shirts tossed casually to the ground, disconcerting him with their lack of inhibition. He doesn’t write about the other men either, the ones who camp out under the trees or sleep on the benches. Nor does he reveal that his rent is heavily subsidized, so once again he is a dependent of the state. He doesn’t write that his building is managed by a Christian charity and that to reach the elevator he must pass a table upon which rests an enormous New Testament, opened to a different passage each day. In the elevator hangs a picture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. There are notices in English and Russian about daily prayer services, amateur musical performances, social hours. Recently, a note appeared warning the women to avoid carrying handbags in the park.
Now, from his eighth-floor aerie, Lev surveys the park. Does he really expect to discover the mugger, even with binoculars? Galena’s incredible Rex would have trouble finding such a man. Lev has told her as much. “Your arm is healed. And you’ve got your documents. Your purse. Not even Rex can do better. It’s over, Lena. Let it be.”
He is beginning to comprehend that her mood suits her. Darkness is her companion, her balm. Her revenge. It is her way of saying that he may as well have carted them off to the moon. But they had to leave Baku. The day he returned home, after louts knocked him down in the street, he’d told her, “Enough is enough. We’re leaving.” She’d replied, “The tension won’t last. This sort of thing has always been the case. Do you think it will be any better in America? Nobody likes the Jews.” The irony had not been lost on him. He hadn’t needed to remind her that years ago the state had robbed them of their religion. In Baku, a place that forbade him to be a Jew, he was tormented for being a Jew. And hadn’t her father, a rabbi, been taken away in the middle of the night by Stalin’s henchmen? “You’re right,” he’d replied. “Nobody likes us. But this is a civil war and we’re caught in the middle, fair game for either side. It will be different over there. You’ll see.” And then they were in Italy, in limbo, waiting for visas. Six months they lived, packed together with another family in a drab hotel room, between the only world they’d ever known and the world to come. Sponsors awaited them in Minneapolis, distant relatives willing to vouch for them. “You’ll feel at home here,” the cousins had written. “Bring warm clothes.” Warm clothes they had.
Now, bringing the binoculars into focus, Lev spots a tall, heavy-set man circling the picnic table. Suddenly, the man pauses and looks around, as if sensing that someone is watching. Then he hops up and sits, resting his heavy boots on the very spot where, earlier in the evening, Larissa had set her pleasing round bottom. In the morning Lev will go out with his water and rag and scour the bench. He’ll collect whatever the man leaves in his wake. Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts, potato chip bags, candy wrappers, chicken bones, beer cans, plastic bags, empty vodka bottles. Lev has seen it all. Once, in the middle of a heat wave, he found a sticky condom.
Even with binoculars, Lev has trouble reading faces. He guesses the oaf is 30. Despite the heat, he is wearing a jacket, the kind Lev has seen in the window of the Army surplus store on Nicollet. His hair falls to his shoulders, in a strawberry-blond cascade, like a vision out of Renoir. Lev should wake Galena, ask her to take a look. Is this him? Did he have hair like a young girl? A soft beard to match? His jacket. Does it look familiar? But she already told the officer everything she’d seen, which was nothing. Lev adjusts the binoculars. Without hesitation, he can identify a Horsfield’s cuckoo. Once, in the Astrakhansky forest, he spotted a Eurasian three-toed woodpecker. But Galena’s mugger? There are no field guides for such things.
The young man pulls something from his pocket, tilts his head back, and after taking a swig, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He sits motionless for the longest time, then suddenly slides off the table and staggers toward a tree.
The man faces the tree for a long time, like Lev, who can stand forever and hardly anything comes out. But at 30, even 40, Lev had not been beset by such problems. Now Lev sees that this man suffers from nothing worse than a full bladder. He pisses like a horse. He is drowning their tree. Lev wants to shout at him to stop, that he is killing it. But his voice would never carry and for once, Galena is sleeping soundly.
Lev tiptoes out of the apartment, carrying a water jug and his sandals, slipping into them when he reaches the lobby. He exits through the sliding glass door into the still, summer night.
Galena would call him crazy for what he is about to do—confront a stranger, in the middle of the night. But Lev approaches his table without hesitation, greeting the young man with a solemn nod, an Old World formality that suggests the doffing of a cap.
“Whoa,” the young man cries, leaning back, as if to create distance between him and Lev. “You scared the hell out of me, man.”
By way of reply, Lev holds up the plastic jug.
Warily, the man shakes his head and pats his pocket. “I’ve got my own,” he says. “So why don’t you go find yourself another table? This park is big enough for the two of us. Did you hear me? I said, ‘Find another table.’ Amscray. Scram. Vamoose. Take a hike.”
Lev tries speaking, but his tongue is thick, useless. His mind scrambles to recall if the teacher has taught them such words. Scram. Vamoose. Finally, he says the first thing that comes to mind. “Is my table.”
The man tilts his head to one side and cups a hand to his ear. “Say what?”
Calmly, Lev repeats, “Is my table.”
“Your table?” The man slaps his thigh and laughs. “Your table. That’s rich. This is a public park. As in public.” He spells out the word.
In the light of the full moon, Lev sees that the man is not yet 30. He’s practically a child, perhaps the age Lev’s prize pupil, Anatoly, would be today. But Anatoly had worn crisp shirts with starched collars. Polished boots. Anatoly looked you in the eye when he spoke. This strange man’s eyes focus on nothing as they dart nervously about.
Again, Lev holds up the jug, this time making a beeline for the tree where the young man had relieved himself.
The man calls after him. “Did somebody send you here to torment me? Are you like some angel in reverse? Or perhaps I forgot to take my meds. I must be seeing things. As in hallucinating.” He spells hallucinating.
Lev is sloshing water over the desecrated ground when the man suddenly rushes toward him, shouting, “What the F?”
Lev continues to ignore him. Now, finished with the tree, Lev helps himself to some of what’s left in the jug, then offers it to the man.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” the man mutters. After hoisting himself back on the table, he pulls the bottle from his pocket and between swigs, chatters fast as a mynah bird. Lev, who is mentally composing the things he wants to say, can hardly keep up. At last, the man pauses for a drink and Lev breaks in. “My wife.” He forgets what he’d planned to say next. “My wife. My wife,” he stutters. And then it comes to him. “She is knocked down. In street.” He points to a spot not 30 meters from where he stands. “She breaks arm. Now, she sits with TV. All day, the television. She thinks dog will find man who knocked her. She talks about dog. And she says to me, ‘I am suffering for my arm.’”
“Whoa!” The man holds up both hands. “I’m beginning to get your drift and I do not like it. Not one bit. I am here to tell you that you are barking—Hah! No pun intended—up the wrong tree.”
Lev shifts his weight from one foot to the other, clutching the water jug and staring at the man’s mouth, waiting for something, anything, to fly out that he can grasp. Barking up wrong tree. Was the man talking about dogs barking? Everywhere, all Lev hears is dogs. Lev nods. “You like dogs?”
“Oh, Holy Je-sus Christ.” The young man rakes a hand through his remarkable hair. “What planet are you from? I don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know you’re not from here.” He leans forward, trying to stare Lev down, but his darting eyes betray him.
Lev stands, unflinching, the way he’d faced his angry student, while the young man shouts, “Where. Are. You. From?”
“Ah. Yes.” Lev sighs with relief. “Baku.”
“Baku. Is in Russia. Soviet Russia. Now, no,” he says, wagging a finger for emphasis. In Russian, Lev could talk for hours about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the independence of Azerbaijan. The ensuing civil war. The ethnic strife. But he is reduced to broken sentences and finger gestures. Without the means of self-expression, he is trapped inside himself, lost in translation.
“I knew it.” The young man slaps his thigh and grins. “You’re not from here.”
Not from here. That, Lev understands. After all these years, he is still not from here. He is still a student of English for Newcomers.
For a long moment, Lev waits for the man to say more, but he is busy with his bottle, which, after a long swig, he holds out to Lev.
Lev shakes his head and again hoists the jug.
“Oh, come on,” the man pleads. “Try this. Fire water. Much better than your brand.” He practically topples over as he extends it to Lev, who understands this much: to refuse is an insult.
In the distance, Lev hears the faint call of a barred owl. When it stops, he gestures for permission to sit on the bench. The young man slides over, and once seated, Lev takes an audible breath. On the exhale, he repeats what he’d told his friends. “Summer is for people.”
The wild-eyed man hoots with laughter. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day. ‘Summer is for people.’” Bemused, he shakes his head. “Actually, these are the dog days. So you could say, ‘Summer is for dogs.’ But that’s not right, either. You know, people get it wrong about the dog days. They think it refers to summer days that are so hot even dogs won’t do anything but laze around. Now the Romans. They had the right idea. They associated hot weather with the star Sirius, which they considered to be the Dog Star, because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major. That’s Latin for ‘large dog.’” He pauses, takes a swig, then tosses the empty bottle to the ground. “I bet you’re wondering what the ‘h’ ‘e’ double ‘l’ I’m saying. And if you knew, you’d wonder how I came to know all that I know. And I would tell you, ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.’ Hah! But I will tell you that you’ve given me something to think about. Summer is for people. That sounds like one of those Zen riddles.”
The man prattles on making so little sense that even Lev’s teacher of English would have trouble understanding. He doesn’t stop, not even when he lies down, resting his head at the end of the table where Mr. Polachek had earlier in the day talked about the fires consuming Moscow this summer.
Lev remains seated while the young man talks himself to sleep. Soon, a soft, guttural snoring replaces his ragged breathing, his eyelids flutter shut, and his face rearranges itself into something close to contentment. Even the manic eyes have come to rest beneath heavy lids. Gently, Lev raises the collar on the man’s jacket to shield him from the night air. “Dasvidaniya,” he whispers. Then he reaches under the table for the empty bottle. Polish. Like the one he’d collected this morning. Yesterday morning, by now. “Dasvidaniya.” Then he starts for home.
As he steps through the sliding glass door, Lev again recalls the teacher explaining, Doors will open for you. “It’s an idiom,” she’d said. Once, during a different lesson, Lev had raised his hand and asked, “Is that, too, an idiot?” She laughed so hard, Lev never asked another question. Let the others disgrace themselves, like that blockhead Zaretsky, always with his hand in the air. “Teacher. I don’t understand. How can a door open for you?” That’s when Lev almost blurted, What difference does it make? They needed to know how to get on the right bus, ask directions, explain to the store manager that when you got it home the milk was sour. They needed, it now occurs to him, to be able to describe, in as much detail as possible, the distinguishing features of the man who knocked you down in the park, stole your purse, broke your wrist. Crushed your soul. Still, Lev understands the idiom. Not that doors had opened for him, as they had for Benjamin, their son. Or for Boris, the shtarker. Yes. Lev’s big-shot nephew Boris has a house in the suburbs with a redwood deck and an outdoor grill that is larger than the kitchen stove Galena cooks on. The younger ones have it easy. Boris. Benjamin. They picked up the language; they blended in.
Lev waits for the elevator knowing that in a few hours it will be morning. He will return to the park with his water and broom. The young man will be gone. Galena will settle in to watch her shows and applaud like a child when Rex solves another case. Later in the day, Larissa, to everyone’s delight, will bring blueberry babka. They will eat off paper plates. Just like Americans.