“Something I need you to look at,” Grandfather said, pointing to the bedroom.
“We’re both tired. Let’s do it another day,” Slava said, wanting to return to the living room.
“Another day with you?” Grandfather said. “Another day with you is a year from now. The deadline is soon. It’ll take only a moment.”
Grandfather strode toward the bedroom but stopped at the threshold. Slava followed his gaze to the bed, the largest thing in the room. The biggest and softest, Grandfather had insisted to Marat on Avenue Z, and here it was. You could look nowhere else. Now that one had to sleep in it alone, it was grotesque.
“Her slippers are right there, but she’s not,” Grandfather said. “What sense does that make?”
Slava put his arm around Grandfather’s shoulder and brought the silk of the old man’s head to his chest.
“This day has no end,” Grandfather said. “They’re talking out there, but I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
Slava rubbed his nose in Grandfather’s hair, soft and straight as goose down, the hair of someone a third his age. The old man nodded helplessly, a fat, lazy tear at his eye. Finally, he stepped into the bedroom and hooked a papery finger into the handle of a bureau, removing a straw pouch where he stuffed mail until Slava’s mother came to translate. She came all the time. The item he wanted was out front, backed by circulars and forms. He sat down in the chair next to the bed, eyeing its satin slipcover like an untouchable object. “Look, please,” he said, extending the envelope.
Slava pulled out the roughly folded papers and inspected the lettering. He snagged on the Hebrew, blocky but lissome. Then he saw the English and whistled slightly. He had heard people in the office talking about it. “‘Dear you’,” he translated. “‘The Conference on Material Claims Against Germany’…”
“I know what it says,” Grandfather said. “Mama translated. If you were a Holocaust victim, tell the story and you get funds. They’re saying – depending on what you went through – a bigger piece once or a smaller piece every month for the rest of your life. I did it on the calculator: If you make it ten months, you come out ahead.”
“People at the Jewish Center. On Kings Highway.”
“Why do you listen to them?” Slava said. “It’s a gossip mill.”
“Who else for me to listen to?”
The last page in the packet was blank except for a heading: “NARRATIVE. Please describe, in as much detail as you can, where the Subject was during the years 1939 to 1945.”
“How do they know who to send it to?” Slava asked, looking at Grandmother’s name in the address bar.
“Grandmother’s registered in that museum in Israel. Vashi Yashi.”
“Yad Vashem,” Slava said. “Say it correctly.”
“Yad Vashem. It’s not hard – say it.”
He glared and pronounced correctly.
“Sixty years they had,” Slava said, “they do it the moment she dies.”
“Well.” Grandfather hung his head.
They investigated the window, South Brooklyn steaming in the dense July night. A clothesline strung with large underthings wavered in the breeze.
“So,” Grandfather said, turning to face Slava. “Can you write something?”
Slava nearly laughed. This was Grandfather – the rules were right there, but he was going to ask anyway.
“She…” Slava searched for the word. Gone? Wasn’t? They hadn’t come to an acceptable word yet.
“Not about Grandmother,” Grandfather said.
“About whom, then?”
Now Slava laughed. “I don’t think they’re giving out restitution for evacuations to Uzbekistan.”
Grandfather poked the paper with a square nail. “They are, but it’s dicey. Some yes, some no. Either way, it’s less money. But ghettos and concentration camps, it’s a green path all the way. So, give me one of those. You’re a writer, aren’t you?”
Slava opened his hands. “Now I’m a writer.”
“You write for the newspaper where you work,” he said. “That’s what you said.”
“It’s a magazine,” Slava said.
“So, this is like an article for your newspaper.”
“Articles for my newspaper are not invented.”
“This country does not invent things?” Grandfather said, his eyes flashing. “Bush did not invent a reason to cut off Saddam’s balls? When the stocks fall down, it’s not because someone invented the numbers?”
“This country has nothing to do with it!”
“You don’t know how to do it. Is that it?”
“I do know how to do it,” Slava said through his teeth.
“Then do it,” Grandfather said. “For your grandmother. Do it.”
There was a knock on the door. Slava’s mother’s head – round, defenseless – sneaked in. “Everything okay here, boys?” she said.
“Okay, daughter,” Grandfather said with a strange formality.
“There’s some dessert on the table,” she said. “I think people will start to go soon.”
“We will, we will,” Grandfather said.
“I ordered the gravestones,” she said. “They go up in a week.”
“Mine?” Grandfather said.
“Will be blank. There’s a plinth connecting them. Says Gelman. Your stone is black, Mama’s is lighter.”
“In Russian. ‘Don’t speak of them with grief: They are with us no more. But with gratitude: They were.’ A poem – Grusheff suggested it.”
“Grusheff drank tea with Pushkin, if you believe what he says,” Grandfather said. “He probably wrote it himself. We should make sure there are no other stones with those lines. The words are nice, though.”
“I’ll check, Papa,” Slava’s mother said and gently closed the door.
“I didn’t suffer?” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve got a grave already, I didn’t suffer. God bless you, you know that?” He snorted, as if he’d been asked to sell a perfectly healthy horse at half value.”
Grandfather turned to Slava. “I need to remind you that your great-uncle Aaron – my brother – is in a mass grave in Latvia? Unkissed, he died. I wish you could read his letters, they weren’t in Yiddish. I went after him with a butcher knife when they called him up. A pinkie would have been enough to disqualify him. In ’41, at least. My year? Every boy conscripted in ’43” – he sliced his palm through the air – “cut down like grass.” He leaned in and whispered, “I wasn’t going to volunteer to be cannon fodder. You wouldn’t be here. I stayed alive.”
“What does Aaron have to do with it?” Slava said. “Look. It says: ‘Ghettos, forced labor, concentration camps… What did the subject suffer between 1939 to 1945?’ The subject. Not you. You didn’t suffer.”
“I didn’t suffer?” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve got a grave already, I didn’t suffer. God bless you, you know that?” He snorted, as if he’d been asked to sell a perfectly healthy horse at half value. “All the men were taken right away: Aaron, Father, all the cousins. Father was too old for infantry, so they took him to Heavy Labor. Two years later, there’s a knock at the door. I see this skeleton in rags, so I shout to my mother, ‘There’s a beggar at the door, give him some food!’ Not a strange sight in those days. And he starts weeping. It was Father. A week later, they told us about Aaron. Killed by artillery. I wanted to spare my mother losing the last of her men, so yes, I went to Uzbekistan. Not to live in a palace – to pick pockets and piss myself on the street so they’d think I was a retard and not draft me.” He looked away. “Look, I came back. I enlisted.”
“On a ship in liberated territory,” Slava said. “Look, I didn’t make up the rules. The paper says: ‘Ghettos, forced labor, concentration camps.’ ”
“What are you, Lenin’s grandson?” Grandfather said. “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered” – he flicked a finger at the envelope – “but they made sure to kill all the people who did. We had our whole world taken out from under us. No more dances, no holidays, no meals with your mother at the stove. A meal like this?” He pointed at the living room. “Do you know what it means to have a meal like this? Do you know what we came back to after the war? Tomatoes the size of your head. They’d fertilized them with human ash. You follow?”
“So now you want your revenge,” Slava said. “Heist the German government.”
“The German government?” he said. “The German government should be grateful to get off this easy.”
“This German government didn’t kill anyone.”
“So, everyone, we should say thank you?” Grandfather slapped his hands, the pop rising to the ceiling.
“What is it?” Slava said. “Do you need more money?” He pointed around them: the bureau, the bed, the tricked-out torchieres keeping sentry in the corners.
“Money?” Grandfather said, drawing back. “Money makes the world go round. Money’s not the only reason, but I don’t know anyone who’s been hurt by money.”
“Why did you never tell me any of that before? About evacuation?”
“We didn’t want those ugly things in your head. We wanted you above us. Enough hands had to go in the dirt so yours wouldn’t have to.”
“So this is a rose you’re asking me to smell?”
“It’s family, Slavik.”
“Let’s skip the big words, if you don’t mind. I’m not Kozlovich. It’s crime. That’s our family? Do you know what the punishment is if we’re caught?”
“I would give my right arm for you if that’s what it took. That’s family.”
“If that’s what what took?”
“You – safe. You – happy.” Grandfather slapped the nightstand between them. “This conversation is over. I don’t need your services.”
“I don’t need your right arm!”
They sat in bitter silence, listening to the muted chatter carrying from the living room. Slava savored his power over Grandfather, like an olive you keep sucking to get every thread of the meat.
Now he was a writer. Who was responsible for this deviancy in the first place? In America, unlike back home, the mail came down like a blizzard. The adults hauled it upstairs with dark faces. Was this a letter from James Baker III alerting the Gelmans that a tragic mistake had been made and the family would have to return to the Soviet Union? They couldn’t read it. The letter was given to Slava. His fingers were small enough for the Bible font and onionskin pages of the brick dictionary they had procured from a curbside, somebody who had learned English already. As the adults shifted their feet, leaning against doorjambs and working their lips with their teeth, he carefully sliced open the envelope and unfolded the letter inside, his heart beating madly. He was all that stood between his family and expulsion by James Baker III. America was a country where you could have Roman numerals after your name, like a Caesar.
As the adults watched, Slava checked the unfamiliar words in the bricktionary. ‘Annual percentage rate.’ ‘Layaway.’ ‘Installment plan.’ ‘One time only.’ ‘For special customers like you.’ The senior Gelmans waiting, Slava was embarrassed to discover himself mindlessly glued to certain words in the dictionary that had nothing to do with the task at hand. On the way to ‘credit card’, he had snagged on ‘cathedral’, its spires – t, h, d, l – like the ones the Gelmans had seen in Vienna. ‘Rebate’ took him to ‘rolypoly,’ which rolled around his mouth like a fat marble. ‘Venture rewards’ led him to ‘zaftig’, a Russian baba’s breasts covering his eyes as she placed in front of him a bowl of morning farina. Eventually, he managed to verify enough to reassure the adults that, no, it didn’t seem like a letter from James Baker III. The senior Gelmans sighed, shook their heads, resumed frying fish.
Slava remained with the bricktionary. Hinky, lunker, wattles. Taro, terrazzo, toodle-oo. ‘Levity’ became a Jewish word because Levy was a Jewish surname in America. ‘Had had’ – knock-knock – was a door. A ‘gewgaw’ was a ‘gimcrack’, and a ‘gimcrack’ was ‘folderol’. ‘Sententious’ could mean two opposite things, and wasn’t to be confused with ‘senescent’, ‘tendentious’, or ‘sentient’. Nor ‘eschatological’ with ‘scatological’. This language placed the end of the world two letters away from the end of a bowel movement.
Russian words were as stretchy as the meat under Grandmother’s arm. You could invent new endings and they still made sense. Like peasants fidgeting with their ties at a wedding, the words wanted to unlace into diminutives: Mikhail into Mishen’ka (little Misha), kartoshka into kartoshechka (little potato). English was colder, clipped, a brain game. But English was brilliant. For some reason, in the bedroom, all this gave him skin against Grandfather.
Grandfather grunted and, avoiding Slava’s eyes, rose. Downstairs, a salsa had started up, the dull bass making the same point over and over. Moving toward the door, Grandfather shuddered and lost his stride, reaching out his arms as if he were going to slip. But seeing no help rushing from his grandson, he got his hand on the bureau, righted himself, and walked out.
From A Replacement Life.
Boris Fishman is a journalist and novelist based in New York. He was born in Belarus and moved to the US at the age of nine. His writing has appeared in publications including the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and New York Times Book Review. His debut novel A Replacement Life is published by ONE. Read more.
“A memorable debut by a wonderfully gifted young writer… Boris Fishman has written a beautifully nuanced, tender, and often very funny novel about conscience and familial loyalty that will linger long in the memory.”
Joyce Carol Oates