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Simple Past

ISSUE:  Summer 1996

August, sunless and cold, banished children to their apartments, but Sasha didn’t mind it: the gray drizzle that always fell at an angle, and the winds whipping in from the Gulf of Finland allowed her to stay in front of a record player whose dull hissing needle uncoiled the mysterious beauty of the English language. As she repeated the English words, she narrowed her slightly slanted eyes—a drop of Tatar blood in every Russian—and the nylon bows in her two skinny braids fluttered like butterflies. She was on lesson four, and she had deciphered the secrets of the simple present tense written in docile columns in a ruled notebook. At night, before surrendering to sleep, she whispered the words from the notebook as they floated up from the slow whirlpools of her memory. She was convinced they brought her wonderful dreams: green vastness licked by sweeping winds, bodies of water strewn with fishing boats, and her father.

“Get up right now! Get up, I’m telling you! Why on earth do I have to suffer like this?” Her mother wailed from her sister’s room. Earlier Sasha had caught a glimpse of her sister’s heavy body slumped across the couch, one leg in a rolled-down stocking dangling to the floor. The naked whiteness of Tanya’s body and its total inability to move fascinated her; motionless and silent, her sister was the antithesis of her normal self, an incapacitated heap of flesh drained of the anger and brashness that her body exuded when it was sober.

“Again! Drunk as a truckdriver! What did I do to deserve this?” Her mother’s voice tumbled and soared along the familiar cadences, fading to sobs, then gathering strength again like a nasty storm that picks up the moment you think it has subsided. “Get up, you, pig, and lie down like normal people—on a sheet, with your shameless head on a pillow!”

Sasha knew—with the knowledge of an unwilling yet frequent observer—that, tomorrow, Tanya would be all sweetness, her blood-shot eyes stretched to slits by a rare smile. For about a day, in a short-lived fit of post-drunken humility, she would allow Sasha to use her desk to study English and welcome Sasha’s school friends with falsehearted warmth if they stopped by to visit.

As a result, Sasha could not decide whether she actually abhorred her sister’s drinking as much as her mother did or simply detested the ugliness of the transformation it involved. Each time Tanya got drunk the family stumbled through a series of predictable scenes: a hideous bout in the hallway that often culminated in pulling Tanya’s unconscious body into the apartment, alternating spasms of anger and despair inside, her mother’s sobbing throughout the night on a bed across from Sasha’s. But in the end, as a perverse reward for their suffering, for at least a day Tanya remained a pleasant person who spoke softly, listened, and even stretched herself as far as doing favors. Sasha wondered whether it was out of guilt or just a simple hangover.

The wailing in her sister’s room continued, plodding along a familiar route. Now that her mother had managed to heave Tanya between the blanket and the sheet, she was pecking at the pieces of clothing scattered around—like a hen, with a few feathers plucked out. At that point, wrung of most of her voice and emotion, she staggered to the last stage of the action: invoking a lengthy list of relatives who would have dropped dead at the sight of this shameful horror, had they been granted a clairvoyant’s ability to see through walls. The concluding note, delivered with much pathos and arm waving, was always the same: “I wish your father could see this!”

Her father, usually due to the demands of his work and now due to his deteriorating health, was never there to see it. For as long as Sasha could remember, he was always out of the house: either working or fishing. His two passions, in their essence contrary to each other, oddly merged the two driving forces of her father’s life: his work, like film in a projection booth, reeled in an array of exploding images, unpredictable and fleeting, whereas his hobby metered into his life vital doses of rare solitude and precious peace.

For 33 years he had been an actor in a small theatre company that traveled two months every summer and often, when the management’s calculations of ticket receipts did not look favorable, packed up their scarce sets and took to the road in the winter as well. Sasha seldom saw him home. When in town, he usually returned late at night; as she got up to leave for school, wavering through the morning twilight of the room she shared with her parents, he was still wrapped up in a blanket on a bed next to her mother’s, which by then had always been neatly made. By the time she came back at three, he was gone—to a rehearsal, to an audition, to a recording session. Her mother, an instructor at a nursing school, strongly disapproved of such a frivolous lifestyle, which, in addition to being unregimented, did little to help straighten the precarious tilt of the family’s finances.

“Sasha, put away this silly record player—it’s time to think about dinner.” On the way from her sister’s room to the kitchen Sasha’s mother had reshaped her lips from unprotected grief back to their usual position: tight, ready to dispense commands, the mouth of a leader. “Quickly, move. We don’t have the whole day.”

Her mother’s presence was inescapable: even if each command was followed immediately and precisely, she hovered about to check every detail, to advise further, to comment on the result.

“Put the book and the record on the cupboard,” she commanded as Sasha turned to the cupboard with the book and the record in her hands. “Put the cover on the record player and take it to our room.” Sasha almost managed to escape into the hallway, but the mother’s words darted after her, trailed by yet another order, “Peel the potatoes! They’re in a bag under the coat rack. And while they’re boiling, we’ll go downstairs and call the hospital.”

Calling the hospital had become their daily routine since her father checked in two weeks earlier. A month of radiation therapy had left him helpless, his hands transparent, his usually deep succulent voice locked behind dried lips, his skin suddenly shrink-wrapped around his bones, and his eyes, so dark and alive—eyes that could make the people in the audience up to the last row simultaneously hold their breath—robbed of light. Without this light, as much as Sasha tried, she could no longer see into his effervescent soul.

Twice a week, her mother took a street-car to the hospital, arms weighed down by string bags bursting with fruit all the way from Azerbaidjan, their sun-drenched skin rubbing against pot-bellied jars of home-made bouillon with a yellow crust of fat under the lid. Sometimes Tanya went with her, helping to carry the string bags, but they never took Sasha along: children were not allowed in the hospital. The closest Sasha could get to him was to trail her mother downstairs to the phone booth in front of their apartment building and wait, leaning on the squeaky door, during the daily call to a gruff woman in hospital Information.

Potatoes peeled and the pot installed over a gas burner, mother and daughter rattled down in the elevator that, as usual, hesitated and lurched between floors, listlessly threatening to get stuck. Outside, damp clouds seeped through the gaps between buildings, promising more rain tomorrow, and rare pedestrians, wrapped in their raincoats, threw long shadows onto a pavement lit by egg-yolk street lamps.

As always, Sasha stood outside the phone booth, propping the door. She didn’t want to hear the words her mother was saying; she didn’t want to guess the answers. All she wanted was to stay outside—out of it, on the fringes of the actual events, so that she could re-cut reality to her own pattern. Her father’s stay in the hospital appeared not unlike a long fishing expedition or a summer theatre tour, when the fact that he was unreachable had made him—as many times before—infallible and longed for.

This time, as her mother stayed on the phone longer than usual, Sasha saw her lips slowly fall into an unprotected curve, a shape that had gradually been carved by Tanya’s drinking. She seemed to ask some questions; she covered her eyes with her hand while listening to the answers.

“What, Mama, what? What did they say?”

“Nothing new, really.” Mother was trying to pull her mouth back into a controlled position. “They’re going to change Papa’s medicine because the old one is not working so well. That’s all.” She was walking across the broken asphalt of the courtyard so fast, her pace so resolute, that Sasha had to skip after her to keep up.

“Now, enough of that English.” Her voice lurched forward to deliver a command but stumbled in mid-stream as if she had run out of breath. “You have to help me, with your sister . . .like that.”

Back in the elevator, mother’s sunken face quivered. The door thumped shut, and the cage set off clattering on its way back to the sixth floor.

“Why are you learning English, anyway?” she suddenly asked without looking at Sasha. “You know, I want you to become a doctor. No one in our family speaks a foreign language—not that it matters, really, but why are you doing something so completely different?” Sasha stared into the corner of the elevator, as it chugged up, floor by floor, past the metal ribs of the elevator shaft.

Why was she learning English? What had driven her, three months before, a handful of saved coins jingling in her uniform pocket, to riffle through musty piles at a second-hand book store until she found a set of four English records with an accompanying text that, in its preface, promised quick and reliable results to anyone who studied two hours a day? She could not possibly describe to her mother the rainbow glow pulsing through her veins as the silky voice breathed out of the worn grooves, promising with its mesmerizing rhythm the possibility of anything. The old record bloomed with the same soft magic sounds that swelled her throat into a hot knotted blossom when, on rare evenings at home, her father’s cheek touched hers or when she saw him onstage, knowing that, every moment of the role, he was playing was for her alone.

“You don’t have to answer me,” said her mother when the elevator stopped at the sixth floor. “It doesn’t matter—not now.”

That night her mother sobbed in her bed, uncontrollably and silently, the way she always sobbed after Tanya had gotten drunk.

In her hand she is holding an oar, heavy and damp, that silently cuts into the dark water under the boat. She cannot see her father’s face under the visor of his cap: he has lowered his head to his cupped hands, trying to light a cigarette. Writhing on the bottom of the boat, in an inch of murky water, are two purple worms that have escaped from a tin filled with loose dirt. They dug up the worms together this morning, at 5 a.m., at the boat keeper’s compost pile next to his shed.

The clouds over the Gulf of Finland glimmer with a barely noticeable lemon tinge along the line where they roll into the water—a distant hint of the sun hidden away, a row of dimmed stage lights. The gray surface of the water is a stage, with just her and her father on it, the sky, and the air swollen with dampness, and a cove of marshy coastline as audience.

“Look behind that light,” her father tells her. “Look hard and you’ll see the audience beginning to file into the theatre. The crowd swells quickly, people meander to their seats, ushers rush up and down the aisles. The murmur rises like a wave, and when it comes to a crest, hangs in the air full of expectation. And then, just a moment before the lights start to dim, the noise stops for an instant—everyone in the whole house holds their breath simultaneously, as if they know what is going to happen. This is the moment that has always thrilled me most, the moment that has given me strength, and inspiration, and greatness: the anticipation of the magic, the expectation of the illusion.”

She still cannot see his face: now he is looking away, at the horizon, into the audience. She wants to touch him, to feel his leathery palms with her fingers, but he seems out of reach, and no matter how far she stretches out her hand, he is further than her arm’s span.

“Don’t let the magic slip away,” he says in his old voice, the voice before the sickness had conquered it—the dramatic voice of all the emperors and murderers and simpletons that he has played—”or you’ll sink right back into the quicksand of the ordinary.”

He gets up and starts walking away slowly, and when she wants to run after him, she realizes that she cannot move, her feet welded into the ground like lead weights.

“How will I recognize the magic?” she wants to yell after him, but she cannot speak either.

He turns, having heard her unborn scream, and she finally sees his face, the beloved face that is so familiar, yet so enigmatic: his soft thin lips, dense eyebrows above the luminous black eyes, thin nostrils that tense at the slightest scent.

“You will know,” he calls from the distance in a conspicuous stage whisper, like a conspirator sharing a secret with a fellow outlaw. “You will know because all the noise will stop.”

He turns and walks away into the soft glow of the stage lights, the lemon hue of the clouds.

Morning oozed into the room through the yellow curtains in patches of pale light. After a night of drumming on the windowsill, the rain finally relented, but the clouds still hung low, heavy and pregnant. Without opening her eyes, Sasha lay in bed, registering the sounds through a veil of departing sleep: mother, tinkering with the coffee pot in the kitchen; Tanya, predictably quieter than usual, puttering around her room, as though rehearsing her one day of subtlety and refinement.

“It’s eight-thirty Moscow time,” a female voice trumpeted from a radio propped on the shelf. “It’s time to begin our morning exercises: one, two, three, four,” her triumphant crescendo and a piano march drummed into the room.

The stale smell of coifee from the tin percolator whiffed in; mother always reused the coffee grinds at least once, so when they were finally thrown out into the garbage pail in a dead brown pile, they bore the faint odor of the inside of the coffee pot, the same indestructable kitchen smell that burrowed in towels and dish cloths made from nylon stockings criss-crossed by runs beyond repair.

In the kitchen, Sasha sat down on her stool at the side of the table, the two places at the ends already occupied by her mother and older sister. Breakfast was ready for her: two slices of bread covered with an anemic cheese lay next to the cup into which sugar had already been measured—always two rounded spoonfuls no matter how often Sasha had told her mother that she wanted it less sweet. On the other side of the cup sat a bowl with a hefty chunk of farmer’s cheese half drowned in milk, a spoon already in it. Tanya, with an identical set-up in front of her, was poking into her bowl in a serene pose of drunken repentance. Although justified by occasional food shortages, mother’s faith in the never-changing breakfast had its roots deeply buried in her stubborn belief in the virtues of routine and order.

“We are going to call the hospital early today.” After her usual kitchen hovering, mother finally sank onto a chair, her hand propping her forehead. Her pasty cheeks and the little pillows under her eyes betrayed a night of crying, and there appeared again the curve in the downward curl of her lips—an uncharacteristic curve of defeat.

“Why early?” protested Tanya, having instantly forgotten about her repentance. “It’s Saturday morning, and I have a million things to do. Besides, what do you need me for? You two can go down and make that lousy call without me just fine.”

“We are all going down,” said her mother slowly, and the firmness in her voice, a determination of someone prepared to face a tragedy, silenced Tanya with frightening immediacy.

They rattled down in the elevator, all staring at the floor, mother stacking a pile of two-kopeck coins in her palm. She always kept a handful in the pockets of her rain coat; since the whole city depended on them to use in public phones, they were in great demand, and she saved each coin tossed down at her by surly salesclerks.

It started to rain again, transparent bubbles dancing on the puddles, a sure sign that the rain would be a long one. Pulling their raincoats tighter around them, they walked across the courtyard, around the puddles, and onto the street, where the gray and red phone booth gleamed like a beacon in a dreary sea under a sheath of rain. They stopped in front of it, water drumming on their heads, trickling down their necks. Mother and Tanya stood there motionless, looking down at the wet pavement, like two abandoned puppets. Sasha saw them suddenly shrink—the two predictable grown-ups, the ones who had always been there even when she did not need them—they stooped under the rain, limp and powerless.

“Here is the number,” muttered Tanya without looking at Sasha, and stuffed a piece of paper into her hand. “You call today.”

With fingers as wooden as her legs, Sasha dialed the six digits scrabbled on the paper, her heart pounding, her stomach queasy. She didn’t recognize her voice when she pronounced her father’s name; it sounded coarse, as if she had a cold or a sore throat. On the other end, she could hear the information clerk rustle through paper, slipping a funny remark to someone in the background and chuckling in response.

“Died last night,” the voice resounded from the other end of the city, from a different universe—a normal voice accustomed to delivering abnormal messages. Then Sasha heard a click, followed by a long tone—no intermediary stage between life and death, no limbo to hover over, no rehearsal. The words hung still in the soggy air of the phone booth, unthinkable yet real, like death itself.

They were silent on the way back up. In the apartment, mother trudged into the bathroom and thoroughly toweled her face and hair. Slowly, she filled a watering can, bubbles gurgling from a curved spout, and lumbered down the hallway to water the plants struggling out of multi-sized pots on peeling windowsills. She moved carefully and methodically, her rhythm and silence dictated by a long-practiced habit of survival.

“The latest news from the fields,” barked a voice from the radio. “Collective farm #54 of Oktyabrsky region is happy to report the largest ever harvest of. . . .” Tanya reached up and turned the knob. The radio voice continued humming behind the wall, in the neighbor’s apartment, with the words glued together into a familiar drawl.

Death, Sasha knew, made people cry, but no matter how diligently she fumbled inside herself for the appropriate response, she could not locate the required sense of grief. Unchartered on the map of her experience, it belonged to the orderly world of adulthood whose foundation had unexpectedly shifted, exposing precarious cracks in what she had believed to be reliable and solid.

Strangely, life outside her body continued as before, reeling out people and scenes with the same predictability and order. Her pores soaked in those floating images—her mother shuffling around the apartment; her sister trailing after her, clueless, waiting for orders; screeching of brakes on the corner—a car had failed to make the light; a smell of fried onions oozing in through door cracks—someone was cooking. She registered them all, as though on film, to remember and store in the deepest folds of her memory.

Embracing her record-player, she lugged it into Tanya’s room and carefully placed it, together with the records and the text, onto the apartment’s only desk. She didn’t ask permission to use it, but the presence of her things made it hers. The room still secreted a faint odor of alcohol, a stifling and sweet smell of disease.

Sasha opened the book to the page marked by a neatly cut piece of paper colored in the pretty colors of English: shimmering waves of green, yellow, and pink. Holding a record by the rim, she carefully placed it onto the rubber disk of the player and, bending to see that the needle fell into the right path, lowered it onto the shiny surface.

The voice rolled on, in mesmerizing cascades of velvet, lulling her into the familiar magic of illusion. She opened a new chapter in the English textbook: the simple past tense, a grammatical structure that felt oddly familiar, as if riveted deep into her tissue at birth and just beginning to swell with its first budding sprout.

The voice rolled on, and behind a gauzy theatre curtain, she saw herself perched on the edge of a cliff, a distant valley sprawling down below. Diminished to a comfortable stage size, narrow lakes glistened like slivers of glass, cotton smoke curled out of brick chimneys, spurts of children’s laughter rose like vapors through the limpid air—a perfect set for a pastoral play. People, barely visible, moved about underneath the green canopy of trees, enclosed by the blue canvas of the sky dotted with white wisps of clouds.

Suddenly Sasha realized why this stage view looked so painfully familiar, and this realization, like a flood bursting through a dam, gushed up her throat. She had seen it before, many times, the only theatre stage she had ever seen, but for the first time in her ten-year-old life the harmony of this performance space was violated: a once majestic necklace of illusion fell apart into myriad pale disconnected beads because her father was no longer there to hold it together.

The torrent of tears filled and choked her. She couldn’t control her breathing or her voice as spasms cinched her throat and contorted her tongue. Bursting through her resisting lips, a wail staggered out and, once free, picked up strength in the still air of the room, gradually yielding to the pressure of oncoming tears. As she wept, with her chin nestled in the spine of the open textbook, her small hands twitched in her lap, in rhythm with the tide of crying.

A street-car clanked along the steel tracks, jingling a warning to a careless pedestrian. An ambulance siren ripped through the air and faded behind the corner. The simple past lesson ended, the needle quietly hissing around the last groove.


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