JENYA KREIN | 29
At dawn, the air was thick in the hollow, settling on the rooftops in a grayish-blue fog, blocking out the sun that was there somewhere under the hazy veil, mostly as a faint and milky glimmer above the river. On the hill, where the trees were growing tall the day was already breaking; but here, near the river, the “village” was still asleep, wrapped in a lethargic, damp stillness.
Every morning, when the light barely touched the tree-tops on the hill, Dina woke to this stillness, straining to hear any tiniest whisper, any breeze, but a great silence enveloped the “village”. It was but a fleeting moment, out of time; the sky stood above two-story houses as a dome. The tires did not make their whirling noise; the old car engines did not explode in rusty barks. The children were asleep; asleep were the “village” dogs, their paws lightly quivering. Tossing and turning, the old people did not wish to part with their unsteady morning naps.
She stayed still, listening. The first morning noises emerging from the deafening tranquility, isolated and mundane, were a door cracking somewhere, a bird’s sharp cry calling to her mate or just proclaiming another day. Gradually, the fog thinned out. The houses covered in yellow and dingy-white plastic emerged outlined against the sky. The celestial dome became flat and distant. Those, with worries and aches and pains, were waking up, those who lost on sweet morning sleep. Gleaming television screens were reflected in the windows. She could see these without actually looking, counting off the gradual progress of every lingering moment of each recurrent morning.
Around seven on weekdays a red Ford always took off from the “village”. Right behind it an old brown Toyota went up the hill. A yellow school bus arrived at about ten minutes before eight. The children came out of the houses, lunch boxes dangling from their hands. For a moment, their bright nylon clothes enlivened the space.
Remembering summers past, images seen, she recreated her memories. Another life, different time. Tasks, needs, things to be done, coffee to be made, laundry sorted. That was the order of the day, a way to survive out of habit and necessity. She stayed in bed, holding her breath, being very still, trying not to wake her husband. Another half hour of solitude; pretend that you are asleep, pretend that you are dreaming, floating. He would wake up soon enough, going about his morning ritual of caffeine, food, shower, digestion and excretion. Better imagine, even to herself, that she was sleeping. Another option, her drug of choice, her reading. The book by the bed, spread-eagled with its cover up, well loved, well used by many. She stretched her hand carefully, quietly, reaching out for her book.
Dina read. Her spoken English wasn’t good. But she was a fervent reader. She read her books in English only; she read historical novels, social studies that made her husband’s eyebrows rise; she got into the habit to research these places she ended up living in. She went to the local library regularly, checking out her books by pounds, that is how she liked to fraise it, being proud of her ability to consume the written word.
Looking for some scrap of history, any story to connect to this place, the only story she was able to find was in public records and old newspaper articles. The “village” had no history of its own. Its history was rather a tiny speckle on the mighty landscape of the collective story of the imperial ghetto.
What was the name of this “village”? It had no name.
The only way to get in or out of it was by descending (or climbing) along the river, past the mill, past the towers and little bridges of the brand new and rather plush condominium, recently built, spotless, with landscaping, flowers in hanging baskets, freshly polished cars—each inside of its own personal garage. At the bottom of the hill the road forked, asphalt was split and radiated into the river of cracks and hollows. And right there, at the bottom of the slightly sloping hill, there was the beginning of the second “village” street. Among this lane, the Veterans Road, there too was installed the iron mesh fence. But the old wire fence had long ago collapsed, sagged with its corrugated ragged edges, and disappeared in the new dusty growth.
The windows in the houses on the Oak Street looked out onto the sloping side of the hill. In all appearance, it wasn’t even a hill—simply the main town stood above the river and the “village” for poor was assembled in the hollow, on the river bend. At one time, here, on the outskirts, in the dampest, most desolate part of the town, there was a cemetery. Much later, when the town was developing and the Housing Authority was taking care of the needy and underprivileged the decision to build this “village” fell onto this area between the river and the cemetery. How was this decision made? Who made it? The rumor was that before the construction started there was a paper battle that played out between the townies and state officials. The project was boycotted; and in all the schools, supermarkets, churches, laundromats circulated hundreds of fliers asserting rights of the poor, persuading law abiding and right-minded people of the advantages of the construction of this “village”—houses for the low income families. The alternative was the horror of the impending project of the public dump.
The slope (more accurately, descent) to which the windows of Oak Street looked out was covered by thick concrete coating with diamond shaped openings meant to support the ground. The concrete grating with its hexagonal cells resembled the surface of an alien planet. The cells evenly covered the whole of the northern slope. The metal mesh of the fence was visible there from the windows, and beyond the fence there was the concrete-covered cellular wall. The windows weren’t large, and on first floors, in order to see the top of the slope, one had to bend and arch one’s neck.
The concrete wall went up, and up, and up, and then it ended; there, on the very top were growing young trees. From the bottom it seemed that the bare branches of the red underbrush were bearing straight into the sky. There, in the nice private houses—on the very top, right under the sky, behind the brush—somebody lived there, somebody who made their home all the way up on the top of the hill.
In winter, porous snow and clumpy packed grayish and yellow-brown foliage covered the concrete in irregular spots. In summers, some scraggy grass struggled through. Garbage and throw-outs of the thoughtless civilization somehow got stuck there.
Here, in the river bend, where the heavy morning haze settled to stay as a fat snake lying low, the houses stood near each other on the tiniest parcels of unkempt land. The settlement was paved a long, long time ago, and the asphalt had faded and cracked. Its grey surface was brittle; the crust had burst open and bared the ashen earth. In places where the pavement had collapsed, the rainwater gathered in dark puddles. It stayed there in the hollows not drying for days.
Where was it, the previous place where she lived? How big was this planet anyway? Where else would she go next? The earth slowly turned around its invisible axis, and the small island of cracked pavement lay there on the body of our planet as an ashy, brownish patch. Here, in this lost and seemingly forgotten “village”, there were only two streets, a children’s playground, some forty houses and two or maybe three dried up trees. It seemed as if the “village” had been built without much effort or pleasure—as if somebody pulled a set of plastic blocks out of a toy construction set, a set of little plastic houses, planted them along the river here and there, threw some blocks in the middle, so the space wouldn’t seem empty, and, as a result, fashioned two streets: one running in a circle, one in the center. The curving street was named the Oak Street and the short one, Veterans Road. The river was shallow and not very wide. At times, it would bare its rocky bottom, and only muddy streams would flow between its boulders and gravel stones. The river originated from the swampy little pond; fat grey ducks floated there in the summer; on the banks of it portly Canadian geese wadded about, fattened by handouts from the employees of the nearby small Greek pizzeria. In summers, the air above the pond was heavy, flickering with multitudes of swarming gnats, mosquito cloud hovering over the lake. Wilted and droopy greenery at the edge of the pond; rusting away there was an old baby buggy that some years ago got stuck in the lower branches of the weeping willow; upturned carriage—an ancient industrial shopping cart—snarling with its three wheels, bogged down among pond lilies and worn out auto tires; the whole area was stinking with bird droppings and pond scum.
On three sides, from north, south, and west, the settlement was fenced in with an iron mesh. Relatively new on the Oak Street, shiny and sturdy looking, the net was installed along the northern side of the hill and went from there to the very edge of the playground. Here it stood next to the cast-iron fence of the old cemetery—the eastern border of the “village”.
That very first time, when the Russian family came to look at their new abode and the husband decided to stop next to the large supermarket on the town’s central square, the wife looked out of the car window at the drawn-out barrack-like grocery market. There was dread written all over her small face; she hunched her shoulders slightly and sighed. Then she dropped her head. Meanwhile, the husband came out of the car, stretching his legs and looking around in search of a gas station. Their little son sat in the back, fastened to his car seat, and dangled his feet.
Fat pigeons roamed among the cars. It was quiet and sunny. The wife whose Russian name was Dina and who, for the simplicity’s sake and in initial attempt for assimilation introduced herself to her American acquaintances as Diana, opened the old Buick’s door, put one foot on the hot pavement, the heat sipping through the thin bottoms of her light summer shoes bought some years ago in Armenia, and turned her head looking at her little son. But he was staring somewhere above her head, devotedly picking his nose, then he began to yawn, widely opening his pink mouth. Behind the supermarket there was a pond. Old willows leaned over still waters. A flock of geese promenaded along the swampy shore covered with bird droppings. “Chekhov,” gasped Dina, but then looked askew at the scowling husband and pressed her lips tighter.
He wasn’t really happy, her Vic. Ever since they came to this country, he has slowly transformed into someone new. Her little boy—they named him David after her father—didn’t really mind, since this father was the only one he knew.
That narrow street that went along the river brought them into the “village” where the Oak Street and Veterans Road forked to continue further down into the settlement. Initially, the sight of the river and the street next to it, green and quiet, managed to bring some degree of comfort to the woman. For a long time now, she didn’t feel at home, anywhere she went, anyplace she traveled; the world “home” meant something lost, not easily obtained again, if it ever was to be obtained at all. Even Boston, with its ivy-covered brownstones, its Back Bay, Charles River and Cambridge, even Boston did not seem in any way attractive in a sweet and nostalgic fashion she craved. Nobody would say “Oh God! Oh Boston!”. It just wasn’t that kind of city, in her book anyway. And now, it seemed as if everything at last would be okay; they would have a place, they would nest and survive.
And then, giving a jump over an abandoned rusting away piece of an old muffler, the car made a turn onto the Oak Street, and from that high point came the view of the “village” sprawling in the haze and heat of a dusty summer afternoon. There, next to the nearest house, the travelers set their eyes on some small dirty dog that was resting in the sun; next to the dog there was a small child sitting, maybe three years old, with his chubby little legs spread on the hot pavement, in diapers and a short undershirt. On the top step of the lopsided porch young woman in baby pink shorts sat perched on the steps. She was big and motionless. It looked as if she had been sitting there yesterday and would be there tomorrow, monumental and peaceful, day, after day, after day. In her right hand that was resting on a huge knee that protruded out of her shorts, there was a burning cigarette. The woman stared into space.
The husband swore in Russian. “Blyat’,” he whispered and the word that was spat out onto the pavement fell onto the ground and stayed there with the dust, and grime, and desolation. Dina looked back at her son. David, groggy and tired, slept in his seat, his sweaty head hanging on one side, a thin thread of saliva drooping down from the corner of his mouth.
The family came from Boston, specifically from Brighton, from an apartment that was tiny and relatively cheap, which the family couldn’t afford anyway. For neighbors they had numerous bugs. Some of these species were unknown to them; however, both husband and wife were familiar with cockroaches and despised these human partners back in Russia. In the summer they were visited by rats. Or were they mice? The wife didn’t know the difference. One little rat got into the empty soup saucepan and frightened the poor little housewife out of her wits when she attempted to take off the lid from the pot. The rats (or mice) were overcome with poison; they perished, but, to spite the enemy, they were dying for a long, long time—under the floor. The air in the house was foul. It was impossible to breathe.
They moved, but not because of the smell. They moved mostly for financial reasons. The people who lived in the “village” had an income below the official poverty level. When they moved, the situation of the family was not just difficult, they were broke. They couldn’t afford to just sit around waiting for an apartment that was relatively near the urban life they were used to be a part of.
The houses on Veterans Road looked much better, almost well kept—perhaps because they were built some eight years earlier than the ones on Oak Street. The people who lived here, resided in the “village” for a long, long time; they had time to settle in, had a chance to make this belief that they also have a home of their own that—though owned by the Housing Authority—still, in some small way, provided much needed sense of home and community.
The back side of the little houses also faced the same asphalt—lopsided metal posts supported laundry lines; some old plastic garbage cans were laying about, as well as used garbage bags and some other unexpected and fascinating stuff, encrusted in dust and grime. Behind the wire fence there was thick, random vegetation, masses of ivy. According to the neighbors, it was some kind of poisonous ivy. The greenery, together with compressed foliage from last years, sticks, branches—all this so called “nature”—covered the sloping riverside; the river was streaming somewhere down there. Between the trees and thick underbrush there were thrown about some old mattresses, broken television sets, tattered remains of old clothes that were thrown out, broken baby carriages, toasters and microwave ovens. In a winter through the reddish branches there could be seen roof tops of the houses on the opposite side of the river.
On the east side, where the “village” bordered with the old cemetery, through the cast-iron fence there were visible cypress trees, green lush grass, solemn monuments. Pathways covered with cleanly swept sand. The silence that ruled over the cemetery was unearthly, serene and ceremonial.
In the farthest, deserted corner of the “village”, where the metal mesh on Oak Street came right next to the fanciful wrought iron fence of the cemetery and the concrete grating that suggested outer space travel associations came to an end, there was a narrow strip of ground. This narrow piece between the concrete and a parcel of dry land was covered with some scraggy vegetation. Next to it, the tiny piece of ground had a small structure (and the word “installed” didn’t fully describe it, since the construction was so shaky that every gust of wind produced moaning and grunting sounds); there was an old swing set and two narrow benches. Some long time ago these two benches had been painted a happy red color, but the paint since than had chapped and peeled off.
This children’s playground seemed to be the most neglected place in the whole “village”. Rumor had it that here on this little playground, more than anywhere else in the “village”, had happened some strange things. Once, the neighbor from the number 55 had run out of the playground claiming that he had seen a ghost. Another time, a young teenager, a girl of maybe twelve was seen there alone but talking to someone. She was then seen crying hysterically, running out of the house where she lived with her mother and step-farther. Social services came in soon enough, and the girl was never seen again in the “village”. There was an old army knife found under the swing. Next to the swing, among rubbish and pine cones, people repeatedly had found used needles and syringes. Parents who cared or had any presence of mind did not allow their little kids to visit this joke of a playground. Only teenagers from the neighboring streets wandered here at night inspiring ill feelings from residents in the nearby houses. During summer, the town’s police frequently visited here; they came almost every week, closer to midnight.
The “village” presented a very strange case, especially for a former resident of a large European city, indulging in a vain hope that old Europe still exists somewhere— somewhere far and beyond. But exists anyway.
Neglected and solitary children’s playground, the “village”. Then: the cemetery; clean, comfortable, cozy.
The two levels apartment was a townhouse, a very basic townhouse, but still—it had three rooms, kitchen, stairs and a basement. All the amenities, bathroom and toilet—were located on the second floor. On the first floor, on the lower steps of the staircase, there was always a pile consisted of a variety of things that had to be sorted out and brought upstairs, on the way to the bedroom or to the bathroom.
The little house seemed flimsy, with thin walls painted beige inside and covered with plastic on the outside. The wife had always thought about the three little pigs. I was not the smart little pig—that is what she was thinking. “Why didn’t I build the brick house? Why was I so careless?” Dina did not bother to probe deeper if her self-reproach was directed to her choice of the place, even if it wasn’t a choice. The thought of including her Vic into the fairy tale was too disturbing to explore at any length.
From a distance, all these little houses looked like jerry-rigged tourist camp, as if hammered together in a terrible haste. Before their big move to Boston (the move was complicated and involved many formal steps, interviews and travel through Europe, Austria and Italy, where family did not much enjoy European culture and touristy attractions, but tried to survive on a small pension for future refugees), the family had lived also in a very large city. Between these two cities were a big chunk of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. After the fourth year, the wife sometimes forgot why they had immigrated in the first place. She remembered the wide streets, beautiful bridges over a great river, friends, acquaintances, and all her previous life. But the cause of their move was irrelevant. What was relevant was their life in the “village”.
The husband, his name was Victor, accepted this life in a completely new environment as a matter of course; he has agreed to everything, allowed everything, he did not rebel against anything—at least, he stated that he was perfectly happy here.
Dina for some reason was concerned with social problems, the lack of cleanliness on the streets and homeless people. “O-o-o,” their Russian acquaintances were saying, “There is nothing to worry about, why should we argue about them? Homeless? Well, don’t you think it was their choice? That is what they like. Those who live on the streets, they made their own decision to live like that. These are some kind of sick, mental people, whatever they are.” In any case, these Russian acquaintances often had very strong opinions about everything, including weather.
In spring, the tiny scrap of dry land in front of the house, a squire with rough edges, was covered in thin, scraggly grass. In winter, during snow storms that became more frequent in recent years, everything around became dirty and grayish, deserted, naked place.
In front of the neighbor’s house number 47 there was planted a little garden, tiny, so lush and well-groomed: improbable, an oasis in a middle of the asphalt ocean.
The Russian family had almost nonstop company. These people were either Russian guests or fellow Russian émigrés. “They will not take away the luxury of friends and sociability!” the wife was saying hotly. “They took away our theaters, denied us our culture and arts, but the companionship I will not let them take away from me.” She waved her right hand in the air with passion, than she clammed up, as if shy of her outburst. Who were these bad people who took away her culture? She didn’t clarify.
The next time around the family had some serious company: Dina’s father and sister. They came with a hidden agenda. They wanted to understand if the game was worth the trouble, if there were more to loose than to gain. The relatives wished to find out if it was the time to move, to immigrate. Should they join the family or should they live their lives as before, unperturbed? The year was nineteen ninety two.
Dina’s father, the big David was inclined to skepticism which he openly showed in his squints and smirks. The sister was amazed and she was jealous. Of what? Victor made a little money delivering pizza in his old, rusty car, the bottom of which was corroded in many places right through; there was a piece of plywood under his feet so he would not fall through. Dina worked in a small beauty parlor doing nails, her one safeguard, her little skill she drummed up as survivors kit for the immigration in order to obtain her first job. As it turned out, she got stuck in this beauty business, gradually loosing any hope of being professional again, her former university degree in art history, her aspirations, her tastes and sophisticated notions fading into a thin air. Instead, she learned how to master the art of acrylic nails. She came home smelling of beeswax and nail polish, exhausted, pockets full of cash that Victor counted methodically. She relaxed on their brown faux lather coach, and her bare thighs became instantly sticky and clammy. Almost all their furniture in the house was either dragged from the streets or bought at the local yard sales.
Dina was nervous. She did not want her family to be here now. For the last few years she was so lonely, wanted so much to have her people near, to share her life. Now they came to visit, but she was different; as it turned out, she had changed. And they, they did not change at all. Also, she had to spend a good amount of time in the kitchen. It was summer, and the small garden next to her neighbor’s house—the only well-tended piece of land in the whole “village”—was lush with rhododendrons and other American plants. Her neighbor, a woman named Sharon, spent her weekends and nights in this small paradise. She toiled; she planted and weeded her garden. Sometimes she just relaxed with a book in a lounge chair. Tall, bronzed, big-boned Sharon would raise her face to the burning rays of the sun. From time to time she would wipe her brow, move her lovely head, throwing back her ashy, sun-bleached hair. From a frosty glass she sipped something cool, languidly smoked and sometimes showered her long tanned body with a garden hose, legs, torso, hands—together with her precious plants. Dina glanced at her through the kitchen window, sighed and turned her Russian hamburgers, kotlety, over.
She liked Sharon. The woman was strong, uncomplicated, jolly and careless. The American seemed to her as a free, happy bird. Any minute she would rise, swing her wings and fly away.
At first, Victor was happy with the arrival of his father-in-law, and Dina was happy for him, but suspected what was coming next. After three weeks of shopping, of nonstop scrutiny of every item in every local department store and numerous expeditions to small consignment shops, several gifts—how could he say no to the old man who didn’t have any American money?—after hours of watching television in his company and acting as his personal interpreter, he became irritable. In the evenings, he usually went upstairs early. Dina became progressively more and more anxious. At night, she did not sleep so well. She tossed and turned and her husband’s grubbing hands weren’t welcome (he was off course asleep, but his automatic response was to touch, and stroke, and to probe). She got up and walked quietly through the house, anticipating the day of tomorrow, trying to enjoy her space; but her father slept in the living room, snoring and making some other strange noises. Her sister took over the nursery, David’s tiny room. They had to move his bed into the master bedroom, and he did not like it. Poor David, spoiled rotten by his grandpa and auntie Vera—with rich Russian chocolates, and cuddles, and fuss, and baby talk—his schedule upset, his temper unbearable, turned into a hyper mini-monster. He was running around, almost naked, in his diapers and undershirt, up and down the stairs; he jumped out of the house, dashed back in; he slammed flimsy doors and yelled, tormenting the tight inner space of the house. The visitors, it seemed, looked the other way, as if they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. They perpetually asked questions and criticized everything: America, Russia, humidity, and stupid television shows.
Walking through the house, thinking her little anxious thoughts, Dina craved some activity, her hands tight in the suffocating space of the sleeping house. What to do? What should be done? The dishes washed, the laundry sorted; there was nothing, nothing at all. Her sleeping Vic, the fool, he was happier in his own silly way, he slipped into the world of his own making, building his castles in the thin air, escaping. And what about her? What did she have besides this family, her son, her unquiet self? What did she have that separated her from everything else? Or rather, what did she have that allowed her to suffer through her separation?
Once, at sunset, when the dishes had been already washed, Dina came to the front door that was open for some cool evening air. Through the fine door screen she peered into the darkness. The late summer twilight had already fallen; the sun was setting into the river; and the drabness of the “village” wasn’t visible. The sweet scent of summer overwhelmed her with a smell of flowers and greenery. She heard voices from the far ends of the “village”; perhaps, teenagers were at the playground again; a dog’s woof came from someplace, another dog replied in a drawling barking retort. All these came from that sweet summer dusk …
Dina stood in the doorway, her hands wrapped in the edge of her apron. Delicious coolness and tranquility was flowing into the house; the darkness was spellbinding. It was strange for her to stand there like this. From the neighbor’s garden came Sharon’s voice; it sounded relaxed and slow—she made out her silhouette in the darkness and called out.
The plastic seat of the garden chair was damp with evening dew. The neighbor offered her a cigarette and made a gesture, extending her hand with a can of beer; but Dina shook her head.
Even the air was different here. The little garden enveloped them from all sides, plunging her onto the bottom of a forgotten world that was alive, breathing out scents and freshness; bringing cool relief, absorbing dust and space. The garden took her in as its own, into the world of plants—the tiny garden, squeezed in the corner between identical plastic houses. And they were just sitting there—Dina, confused, shy and silent, and her neighbor, a charitably indulgent, friendly woman, who didn’t mind this timid and bewildered immigrant.
“So, tell me, what is that that your husband has been typing every day?” Asked the neighbor from her benevolent darkness and the wife almost jumped with surprise.
“Hee izz… hee iz … ah… rayting a book.”
“A book? What kind of book? He must be smart. You will be rich!”
“O-ooh… Nau… Hee iz … hee iz djaast rayting.”
“Well, good for him. I don’t know a thing about writing.”
Indeed, the husband was writing something, banging on his old electrical typewriter that was a gift from Russian friends who were clearing the space for new things in their new house. He sat most of the time on the second floor at the little desk near the window, in the bedroom, writing something unknown to his wife. She didn’t know what he was writing, and she didn’t ask. She didn’t feel she needed to know; she stopped asking questions, anything. What do you ask of someone who doesn’t care? Was he ashamed of not being able to make it here, in America? Was it about loosing his manly face? Is that why her loving husband turned into a stranger? What was the point? Besides, if she asked, he wouldn’t answer anyway.
“That is good, don’t you think? He is busy. I can hear him every day.”
At times, she did wonder what is that he was doing. Was he really writing a book? Or was it something as crazy and a total waste of time like he did when they lived in Brighton, some kind of multi level thing? Buying stamps, sending out envelopes and wasting paper?
“Ay am sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be sorry. Everybody needs something.”
The big David had a little trouble with his “plumbing”, the way he put it. Victor took him to a Russian doctor, urologist Leo, an avid poker player who often hosted the little get-togethers with beer and snacks for his fellow less fortunate émigrés, unemployed and under-employed players bogged down by families and credit card debts. Victor called him in advance. “Bring him in”, said gregarious Leo. In the car, David kept on harassing his son-in-law with question and pumped him for information on about anything that crossed his mind or line of vision.
“So, tell me, what do you make delivering this pizza? … What? You must be kidding! My former co-worker, Mark, who lives in Texas, he is making like sixty thousand a year.”
“Your Mark is an engineer.”
“So? You have an education. Listen, you have your university degree, you can teach.”
“Teach? What? Marxism-Leninism? Why would I want to do that? Also, my English is bad.”
“Better than mine. Anyway, what do you guys pay for rent? … What? That’s a lot of money!”
“Do you know what we paid in market rent before moving here?”
“But this is a rip off!”
“No, David, it’s called market economy with some humanistic features to it.”
“Why don’t you then open some kind of business for yourself?”
“You kidding, right? What kind of business? With what money?”
“I don’t know, make up something. Anyway, what are you banging on that old scrap metal of yours upstairs? People use computers nowadays, you know.”
“David, why do you ask? In any case, since I have no inclination that you could comprehend even a portion of what I am doing, I wouldn’t waste my time explaining it to you.”
“Victor, listen, I just knew that you were a regular shmok when married my daughter, but I kept my mouth shut.”
Victor kept silent. He wasn’t upset. His mind and energy were taken by an article he was writing. The article was supposed to be a new revision of the old economic theory of convergence. Also, his father-in-law was known for his lack of malice. He didn’t keep his grudges for too long.
The relatives did not want to leave. And the new friends they were able to meet while living in Boston, visited rarely if they visited at all; she wanted to think that it was because of the remoteness of this place. And then summer came in full blast and submerged the “village” into humidity and haze. The air at noon would become heavy and tart—and the space would vibrate in sweltering dusty waves. There was no escape from it. Only in the basement was there some degree of cool and shade, but it smelled of mold, and Dina would sneeze uncontrollably and feel sick and miserable and lonely. Her son, little David, befriended a little girl who lived across the street and chased after her around the “village”. And when occasionally he bounced into the house, all sweaty and grubby, his shouts and demands were more and more suggestive of a fluent American slang.
Her sister, who was happily married, but had no kids of her own, first tried to help with dishes and cooking, but she was hopeless. She was a “liberated woman” with successful career as a family lawyer. She also managed to launch into the non-existing Soviet business law making some money now, when the country went through a lot of changes. Vera became acquainted with aspiring political leaders, consulted those who lived abroad and wanted to financially support their relatives who stayed behind in Russia. She wasn’t domestic, but considered herself a business woman. She was loud, direct and insufferable. She was her older sister.
Now, Victor showed himself downstairs only rarely to get himself a plate of food to bring it upstairs to the bedroom. She would hear the tap of his typewriter. Her father and sister were always chewing on something: they aspired, it seemed, to taste everything that American supermarkets could offer.
And then, on the third week of their visit, in the middle of the unbearable month of July, when she came home from the nine-hour workday and after two hours of traffic on the 95-interstate, where she suffocated in the rotten air in her car (the open car windows didn’t help, and the air-conditioner didn’t work), she walked into the house and stood at the threshold. The TV was working; her father was chewing on something. He got up and went to her, saying something with his mouth full, his potbelly tightly packed in green sweatpants protruding towards her. She looked around and it dawned on her: she needed a fence.
She needed a fence to shield her little parcel of land in front of the house from the asphalt ocean that had swallowed up her life; to plant in this dead soil some grass, and flowers, and something green, something that has leaves, that has life in it—and to put in this newly discovered paradise a table and a chair.
The neighbor was leaving.
“I am a pioneer!” She was saying this stretching her strong long body in a blazing sun. “You know what the pioneer is, don’t you? I am a pioneer woman. You must be a
pioneer, too. Now I have to move on.”
She had put aside her paperback and took out of the red pack a cigarette. Then she pulled out another and offered it to the Russian woman. Dina surprised herself by accepting it.
“Your husband is still writing, isn’t he? I can hear him every day. And what about you? What makes you tick? Do you enjoy doing things; don’t you like to have some fun?”
Dina looked at her with astonishment, but Sharon went on, though without much interest:
“You don’t drink, you always cook, and you’re like a servant around here. Don’t your men ever do anything?”
There was no privacy in this “village”. The houses were set right next to each other, the flimsy walls didn’t provide any isolation, and the noises were heart, things seen. It was strange how this little society worked: nobody cared or interfered, but everybody knew everything. Yes, thought Dina, more than once I did refuse an alcoholic drink from her, and yes, she does see me through my kitchen window, always cooking, always doing. My husband is helping, Sharon, by taking out the garbage. Don’t you know it about our Russian men; don’t you know that they need to stay manly? And before, we were all thinking that he was our main provider. And he also drives the car when we go somewhere. He is on the driver seat, I sit next to him, and our little son—he is in the back. No, she did not say any of these; she just set there looking at Sharon. She might think I am stupid, that is why she comes across so…motherly, patronizing?
“Your father seems rather nice. Is he married? Well, don’t say anything. I know, I know, I’ve been without a man for too long. Anyway, I’m off. We are moving on Saturday.”
“Where are you going?” Dina was upset. This strange friendship had developed out of nothing, but she had taken to the neighbor. In all these years, out of all people she knew only Sharon, lazy and carefree American, seemed real and alive.
“Where I am going? I don’t know. I’ll stay with my sister for a while. We’ll see. I can’t stay in this place any longer. I was thirty-five when I moved here. Kids were still little,” her voice trailed of, she inhaled deeply. “I served my time,” this time she said it forcefully, as if with an angry conviction. “Would you believe it? Eight years.”
“You don’t like it here?” The wife seemed surprised. The neighbor laughed in response and for a second fastened her eyes on her. What was it in these baby blue eyes—astonishment? Pity? Disdain?
“This place sucks,” she said. “Don’t you know it?”
“But it’s cheap!”
“Yes, it is cheap.”
“I want your fence,” said Dina.
“You want my what? Why would you want my fence? Do you know, I am the only one here, I mean with the fence. They didn’t dare to mess with me. Why would you want my fence?” There was a silence for a moment or two. The women set companionably next to each other. Then, Sharon continued with contempt:
“Off course, they wrote me a letter, but that was it,” she said this with a pride, meaning Housing Authority and her uneasy relationship with local bureaucracy. Then, her face took on a nostalgic, dreamy expression. “Tony made it. Long, long ago,” she stopped again.
“Tony. No, he wasn’t my kids’ father, don’t you make no mistake. I met him when Brian was only three. Tony, he had money. He had money, and he had guts! Italian he was, you know? You know what I mean. I moved here, he helped out, but mostly we traveled. At the end, he didn’t stay with me, my Tony. He was married, anyway. It wasn’t like they lived together or anything,” there was a moment when Dina thought that Sharon might tell now her whole life story. But she didn’t. “Why do I tell you all these? He was a gambler, my Tony, always loved a good hand of poker. Anyway, it’s all good and gone,” she lighted another cigarette and shook her long hair out as if getting ready for whatever was there ahead of her.
”You can have it,” she said in a moment and lost all interest in her neighbor. She had to get busy, had to get ready for her big move, had to shout at her grown up children. She had to hurry and urge them; she had to pack. She had to root up her rhododendron, the acacia, break her flowerbeds, so not to leave anything behind.
Every morning Dina left for work thinking about the little white picket fence around her little piece of land. She went to bed thinking about her fence, and the fence appeared in her dreams. She was telling her husband about her dream in the mornings and she was telling him about her wish every night when she cuddled next to him in the large king-sized bed on the mattress that they found on the streets of Boston and drugged into their tiny apartment in Brighton and then brought with them to the little “village” on the outskirts of suburban town she never heard of before she moved there …
Her husband was against it. Her husband did not want to make unnecessary body movements. He delivered pizza. Victor (his Russian friends called him Vict?r on a French manner with sophistication of pretentious émigrés, whose notions and knowledge didn’t provide much in a way of knowing, but rather bordered on the verge of aspirations of wannabes), Victor, who became just Vic in the States, did not have a useful profession for America. Victor withdrew into himself and did not want to come back.
He was her lover and friend; here in this godforsaken project, he became an obligation, a reminder of some previous connection, relationship that dissipated in the stale air of poverty and desolation. At night she dreamed about her past. The future seemed dim and disconcerting. But on the horizon, clearly and artlessly, in the halo of lively and vibrant dream, there was her little white picket fence, her zaborchik, swaying awash with desire and longing, like a tiny shiplet in the concrete ocean of her mundane life.
First, she bought the seeds of grass mixed with soil. It came in a large plastic bag. There was a picture of a rainbow on the package. Between this and that, when her son refused to eat or clammed up in a rubbery silence, stubborn and hostile like his father, or when he shrieked and went into tantrums, and she came out of the little house into the embrace of gray asphalt—some small pebble would be picked up as if by its own accord and laid put in a gradually growing pile at the far corner of this dry patch of land.
Then, after a while, sinking deeper into her dream, as if entering into the deep waters of some river, or maybe into the seawater—at first, letting herself to only wet her feet, shivering from cold, with total lack of belief in her own power, but step by little step moving father and father—and lo and behold—swimming, floating! She swept out the asphalt ground all around her house, clearing it from the last year’s brown, withered and packed foliage. She then tilled and spaded the dry deadened ground with the tools borrowed from her neighbor, separating the soil from the mass of cracked concrete. She did not know what she was doing. It was her first encounter with the earth. She came from a large city. Even tomatoes she did not grow on her balcony, like some people did. Also, she did not have a balcony where lived.
It was long, grueling and back-breaking struggle. The summer took a turn, progressing into the near autumn with hot, windless, endless days. The people in the neighborhood lazily pulled on their beer- and soda bottles, stretching out on the porches, beach chairs and on the tiny patches of withered grass that pushed through the ground here and there between the houses. The children were running around in their bathing suits, splashing in inflatable pools and showering with cold water from garden hoses. The dry heat mixed with bitter dust was emanating from the ground. Now it was not a clear and vibrant vision—it was an angry and agonizing need that pushed Dina out of her house.
In the middle of this dehydrated world, on the flat land that, rolling down, spread out, slowly curving—on the very top of this burned out land forsaken by God and people, she was standing alone in her pink cotton dress that stretched over her naked body with her heavy shovel, pushing her anger into the planet, digging out pieces of soil, pieces of lifeless ashes, grinding these, sensing it in her mouth—the taste of bitter tears, mixed with sweat, with ashes. The planet was soaring through the space; the time was running down, floating out into the bottomless emptiness. And she was just standing there, alone, supporting herself with her shovel, on her swollen dirty legs—and with the skin of her face she felt all the worlds that were hurrying past her, dry sweat and dust stuck to her body. Somewhere, in the middle of this desperation her guests left, her husband lost his job, her neighbor moved out and picket fence obediently laid out its slight planks next to her porch.
The poor husband could not any longer peacefully settle on the porch of their light yellow cottage, could not draw on his cold beer from a dark bottle, glancing around on the albescent sky, neighbors, fatigued and dirty dogs that stretched out right in the middle of the street, indifferent to cars, cats and life in general.
The neighbors avoided looking at him; their eyes politely by-passed the little house and the mad woman, who, surrounded by swarms of dust, doggedly pecked the ground in the scorching, unforgiving sun.
She has dug the holes for the corner poles, and Victor, obedient to the silent call, as if going to the scaffold, came out for the disgrace, first have covering his head with a humble baseball cap. Together, they drove the poles into the ground, poured in the cement. The neighbors, used to everything, accepted as a fact of life these mad Russians. Although, they were well-seen these neighbors. There were among them the Irish, the Puerto-Ricans, refugees from the island of Haiti, Arabs, Hindus, handicapped, Vietnam veterans, seniors, psychics and simple and plain losers. The Arab family moved here not so long ago. They were: the perpetually preoccupied, sullen and exotically bewhiskered husband; his small and timid wife; four kids and an elderly, grandmotherly woman in dark robes. During the night, from the cottage where they lived there could be heart some strange noises and screams, and the wife jumped out of the house in her nightdress, fearfully pressing her small hand to her mouth, looking around in alarm. Next to them resided the Armenians from Lebanon. The Greek family from the Oak Street that consisted also of a husband and wife and their little boy, who was about five years old, weighted cumulatively approximately no less that 500 pounds. When they were getting into a taxi cab that came for them regularly (in all likelihood to take them to some medical appointments) this family unfailingly inspired a great terror in the taxi driver, who was certain that the car wouldn’t be able to move from this point on and will just stay here, on Oak Street, as a monument to public commonwealth.
It was midnight when they battered down the last nail. The streetlights on Veterans Road gave out a harsh glare that poured over the houses, pavement and little parcels of land. Somewhere over the river a dog was howling. The “village” was asleep; David, their little son, slept in his small bed on the second floor. It was quiet, but for the beery voices of teenagers that were heart from the children’s playground.
Dina and Victor examined their tiny lot, their low fence. The little white zaborchik that was gleaming in the dark. These dry lumps of earth set amid deserted street surrounded by white canvas; and indifferent moon hung forlornly above the “village”, directing its waning half-face, as it turned out—on this side of the Earth—to the opposite side … The husband put out his hand offering the beer bottle to Dina, and the wife accepted it, taking a swig out of the bottle, even so as a rule she was not a beer-drinker.
The planet was slowly turning around its invisible axis and above the “village” for the poor there, in the middle of nowhere, the remote street lights were glaring, making almost brightly white and new the old snicker that, from the times immemorial, in some unknown manner got stuck in the street wires. The white picket fence, slight, low to the ground, firmly hammered together by the tired but hopeful husband, was gleaming in the dark, marking off some small patch of Earth.
In a couple of days, she seeded her land with the seeds of grass. The open soil, tilled, turned up and free of stones, has darkened from the regular watering, and set encircled by the fence as if a piece of fabric stretched out on a large frame for embroidery. The earth was waiting for a miracle.
The tiny beaks of grass peeped through at once on the open ground of the square’s entire surface. The cruel month of July was coming to an end, the heat was declining; all around it was summer again, the limpid air as a cupola was rising in the hollow at the river.
The son ran out onto the middle of the bran new grassy green. He was skipping and hopping up and down under an easy and light morning rain. Above the “village” there was a rainbow arching in the sky.
Next year, the Housing Authority has issued a new and much debated decision: to install the sturdy and standard fences around all cottages in the “village” for the disadvantaged. The Housing published a bid. The usual vendors, who built for the project previously and always, had applied and won their contract. The trucks loaded with logs and beams arrived into the “village”. The place was cleared from the trash, human throw-outs and ancient natural garbage. As the result, in a couple of weeks around every cottage there was installed a simple construction made out of two parallel beams that were supported by mighty corner posts. All these resembled some rustic fencing around a pasture, railing made out of poles of long wood. Dina asked around and found out that this kind of fence was called “Split-Rail” and became popular, since it’s allowed neighbors to see each other. Having read many times over and much enjoying Jane Eyre as a young girl, she was imagining that this kind of construction was invented in Victorian England.
Naturally, her white little fence was torn down as well. And only on Veterans Street, next to the number forty five, as before, there was hanging down an old snicker that in some strange, inexplicable fashion got stuck in the electric and television wires some many years ago.
Boston, 1993 — 2010