Debt

Fiction Sana Krasikov

Lev has worried all afternoon that his niece and her husband won’t find his house. It is easy to miss the turnoff for Todd Road and get lost in a maze of half-paved, wooded roads that are part of the town’s semirural fantasy about itself. He is relieved now to see the step-van pulling into his driveway, the late sun bouncing in a streak off the vehicle’s metal siding. 

 “Yes, okay, I have the address,” Sonya’s husband had told him earlier today, when Lev was giving him directions. 

“The address won’t help. Just listen to me...” 

“I am listening.”

 It had been one of those exchanges where the other person’s sentences seemed always to begin in the middle of your own. 

Three years ago, Sonya had sent him and Dina a photo of herself and Meho in a wedding chapel with vinyl records and photos of old movie stars on the walls. A year and a half later, a second picture had arrived in the mail: a professional snapshot of a dark-eyed infant girl posing on a cushion, a studio backdrop of painted clouds behind her. “Our angel has arrived,” it said beneath. When Lev attached the card to their refrigerator, Dina had wondered out loud why someone would burden their child with a name like Andjela Bliss

The van honks its horn in the middle of the driveway. Lev can see a thin, tanned arm wagging at him. “Take a look at our hot-truck, dyadya Lyova!” Sonya shouts as they brake in front of the garage. She hops out and waits for Meho to close the door on the other side. Meho removes his sunglasses and folds them into his T-shirt collar. He is older than Sonya by a good fifteen years, something Lev hadn’t noticed in the photograph, shorter than Lev expected, but with a chest and arms that look like they’ve been built on weight machines. And yet coming up the driveway, he and Sonya share a peculiar resemblance: her hair is dyed black, as if to match Meho’s, and her tan is opaque, a solarium version of his natural skin tone. She’s slim to the point of gauntness, the result of some kind of exercise mania the two of them must be involved in together. 

They’ve spent Friday and Saturday night selling food out of their van at a music festival on Long Island, arranging to stop at Lev’s house in Golden’s Bridge on their way back to Baltimore. It’s the first time they’ve driven so far north of the craft fairs, flea markets, and motorcycle rallies they usually work around the Maryland and Delaware coasts. In the summer the big money is in concerts, Sonya has told him.

“Meho, my uncle Lyova,” she says, giving Lev a cheek. “The brainy side of my family. Half an hour with him is like getting a college degree.” She rubs Lev’s shoulder merrily. 

“You’re very kind, Sonechka.” 

“It’s true, he knows everything,” she says as Lev leads them inside.

“I’m just a garbage collector,” he says, and laughs, bringing them out to the deck, where Dina is setting plates on the wobbly patio table. 

Dina wears the loose-fitting linen dress she puts on practically every weekend during the summer, a dress without a waistline that Lev thinks resembles a smock, though Dina is convinced it looks chic in the countryish way she’s come to like. 

“This is a dream,” Sonya says, gazing at the sectioned-off part of the hillside, which Dina has reclaimed as a garden. “When I was growing up, my idea of heaven was a garden like this. Did you plant it?” 

Dina laughs. “Who else?” 

“I bet you could teach gardening.” 

“Oh sure,” Dina says skeptically. “Another thing I need.”

It has always been hard to tell if Sonya is utterly earnest or entirely insincere in her flattery. When she was twelve, Lev can recall, coming to stay with them for the first time (her mother had put her on the Greyhound), she’d told them how happy she was to see them both again. The “again” had prompted a little laugh of disbelief from Dina; they’d left Tbilisi eleven years earlier, when Sonya was not even two. She couldn’t possibly have remembered them! It had been almost taxing to watch the child laboring so hard to be lovable, awed by everything in their house and speaking in that affectedly precious tone borrowed from her mother, who had called Lev a year earlier to ask him to sign an affidavit attesting she was Emik’s widow. It was 1990 and almost impossible to get a visa without family in America. She didn’t want any money or help, Alla said, only Lev’s signature. At the end of the phone call she’d been effusively grateful. He had agreed of course, all the while wanting her to know she ought to expect nothing of him after she’d depleted and divorced his brother. “Don’t thank me,” he had told her. “Thank Sonya.” 

Lev uncorks the chardonnay with a little rocking motion and pours two glasses for Sonya and Meho, then carries one to the baluster, where Meho stands with his hands jammed in his pockets. 

“It must be an adventure to drive somewhere new every weekend.” 

Meho turns to him slowly. He doesn’t answer but points his chin in the direction of the low, inflamed sunset. “Is it always like this?”

“As long as we pay the bill.” Lev waits for a laugh, but the man only nods solemnly. 

Sonya has settled in beside Dina in one of the patio chairs to show the photos she’s brought. “Oh, she does have a happy little face,” Dina pipes. “And what are those?”

“Garnets. That’s her birthstone.”

“I see,” Dina says, her way of acting innocent about things she doesn’t fully approve of. When they called to congratulate Sonya on her baby, Dina had asked if the name was misspelled in the announcement, before Sonya explained that “Andjela” was how it was written in Croatia, where Meho was from.

“You don’t think it’s a little early for that?”

“They’re earrings, not a tattoo,” says Sonya. “She’ll want them later anyway.” 

“I guess.” Dina gets up to find napkins while Meho sits down beside Sonya, laying a watchful hand on her knee. His eyes are weighed down by heavy brows with a permanent, crescent-shaped wrinkle between them. He looks at Sonya with an expression Lev can’t quite discern, a look that could be shorthand for boredom or patience or nothing at all. Lev edges his chair closer to the table, where Dina has set out a bowl of red beans in walnut sauce beside a platter of fried eggplant strips. She’s carrying a cast-iron pot of pilaf when she arrives from the kitchen. 

“What kind of food do you sell at your shows?” Lev asks. 

“Sandwiches, cabbage rolls…” Sonya answers, watching Dina lift the foggy top and let out garlic-soaked steam.

“Real food,” Meho says. “But they don’t know what the difference. They want only chili dogs, cheese dogs, Chicago dogs. They’ll eat cat litter, as long as you deep-fry it and put it on a stick.”

“Plus college kids at concerts are always trying to screw you,” Sonya adds, scooping spoonfuls of beans onto her plate. “They’ll take a bite out of a sandwich and then try to return it. I’m like, ‘Who do you think we are, McDonald’s?’” 

“People are stupid,” Meho says, chewing.

“Which?” says Dina.

“People.”

“In general?”

“Yes.”

“Here’s an example,” Sonya says. “We sell meat dumplings. If someone wants a dumpling, I say, ‘Two for one, or three for two?’”

Dina blinks. “Two for one or…?”

“Three for two.” 

 “But that’s not a bargain,” Dina says, then hesitates, pausing to think.

“You can’t hold up my line to do math. Next!” Sonya shouts, as though into a crowd, laughing and spilling a little of her wine. Meho plucks a napkin off the pile to blot it.

“I see,” Dina says dryly. “Well, I guess that’s one way of making money.”

“I suppose you need intuition for that sort of thing,” Lev adds, more kindly. He is glad his own work spares him from having to form such low opinions of people. Selling, by definition, puts you in an inferior position, he thinks. To right the balance, people who sell for a living are always forming cynical and manipulative attitudes about others. 

“Her talent was getting completely wasted when I met her,” Meho says. 

“That’s how he started talking to me.”

“She was working at the makeup counter in the drugstore. Every time I walked in, she was talking to another lady, or doing her face. This girl, she could sell you anything. She could sell you last year’s snow. You’d be listening to her and wondering how you could have ever lived without last year’s snow. But I can tell you, she was not one who ate her own bullshit,” Meho says. “She just liked selling, that’s all. I asked her, how much are they paying you here?”

“It was eight dollars an hour,” Sonya cuts in.

“I took her out one night. I said, let’s go get Chinese food in Sharpsburg—this town that was two hours away. She says, ‘Okay!’ Imagine, you give a woman a proposition like that, let’s drive two hours for Chinese food. And she says yes! You know she’s not the kind of woman you’re going to need to read poetry to all night.”

Dina glances at Lev uncomfortably. 

“We were driving back from Sharpsburg, and I said, ‘Come and work for me for ten dollars an hour.’”

“But the joke’s on him,” Sonya finishes. “Because now I take half!” 

So this is their love story, Lev thinks. A sad one, the story of people who’ve fallen into each other’s arms out of some shared knowledge that nobody else gave a damn about them. 

The drugstore job is news to him, too. Last time Sonya visited them, four years ago, she laughed at all of Lev’s jokes and told him and Dina, unconvincingly, that she was supporting herself by working as a photographer’s assistant. She was tall, looked older than sixteen, but the word that had come first to mind had been mileage. The way she crossed her legs and leaned forward, how she didn’t pause to exhale her cigarette smoke but simply let it pass out of her mouth while she spoke or laughed. It didn’t seem to Lev that girls got this way by merely growing up. He hoped that she was indeed working as a photographer’s assistant. A year before that Sonya’s mother had called Lev demanding to know if Sonya was staying with them. She wasn’t. But a week later Lev received a call from Sonya, who was asking to borrow money. She wouldn’t say where she was living. When Lev had requested some phone coordinates, she’d given him only the number of her pager. He had Western Unioned her two hundred dollars the next day, dialed the long sequence of digits, and reached an enervating tone, like the bug-crushing sound of a fax machine. When Sonya called him back a few days later, neither of them spoke about the money. After that he wired her three hundred dollars every couple of months or so. He didn’t want her doing God-knows-what for a few bucks. And wasn’t it to his credit in some way, he thinks now, that she’s managed to avoid a worse turn in life?

Lev can feel the air tickling the hair on the back of his neck. It has gotten cool suddenly. There is only an isolated bright spot now above some woods where the sun has set. “Maybe we should get these young people some sweaters,” he suggests.

“And some real drinks,” says Dina. “Meho hasn’t seen the bar yet. Have you?”

 

Lev watches his footing down the dim carpeted stairwell. The basement tour has become something of a routine in their house, and now he and Dina almost never set out the serious alcohol beforehand, so that Lev can take the guests down to “the bar,” built by the previous owners, who once carpeted the basement and turned it into what must have been their idea of a leisure room. The leather sofa is scratched with claw marks and scarred by cigarette burns, the plywood paneling redolent of stale cigar odor. Behind the actual bar Lev keeps only five or six bottles at a time. When he and Dina first moved in ten years ago, their son already away studying piano at Julliard, Lev had hoped to restock the bar properly, if only out of a vague sense of debt to its purpose. But over the years he’s found another use for it, and now when visitors follow him downstairs, what they see, along the lit-up shelves that once gave a showcase treatment to shakers and highball glasses, are rows of framed patent certificates. They fill the whole back wall, so that guests are often forced into a silent count with their eyes, just as Meho has been arrested now into doing.

Lev snaps the track lighting to make the patents easier to see and goes to inspect the few bottles lined up along the back counter. In the halogen lamplight he finds the silver tray with its six engraved mini-cups, part of the after-dinner ritual, a wedding gift to his parents fifty years ago.

“Your awards?” Meho says. He’s seated himself on a leather stool and folds his elbows on the bartop as though he were in a real pub waiting to be served.

“They’re ideas,” Lev corrects. “Hennessey or Rémy Martin?”

Meho points at the black bottle, then squints at a certificate above Lev’s head. “A nice frame,” he says professionally. 

“That one is very special. It is a design for a filter—not a filter, really a magnet—that goes inside a helicopter turbine.” Lev sets the Rémy down to mime the mechanics with his hands. “If a helicopter lands in a desert and raises a cloud of sand, this charges the tiny dust so it doesn’t get inside and dull the motor.”

Meho watches him with an expression of dull amusement provoked more by the naked eagerness on Lev’s face than by what he is actually saying.

“These six,” Lev points to the yellowed patents on the brick wall, “I brought with me. But all the others I received here in America.” He knows he is carrying on, almost against his better reason. It is unusual for him to wax on so long about himself. Most of the time his guests are deferential, or well-bred enough to barrage him with questions about the certificates, or else to convey their esteem silently. He does not want Meho to mistake his enthusiasm for bragging. Though perhaps this enthusiasm, he fears now, is only a way of bragging without seeming to. “Well, it isn’t as many patents as your Tesla,” he finishes finally.

“What?” Meho says, tightening his brows.

“Nikola Tesla. The father of coil transistors, fluorescent lights, radio…”

“Yes, I know who Tesla is.”

“A fellow Croatian.”

“He was from Croatia, a Serb.” Meho’s eyes are already fixed on something else, a framed photo of Sasha in a bowtie, posing with a high-foreheaded man in a tuxedo. “Your son?”

“That’s him with George Rothman, who conducts the Riverside Symphony. At Alice Tully Hall.” He can hear how it sounds suddenly: meaningless explanation, names and places that seem all the more hollow for their intimations of greatness. But when Meho glances at the patent for the helicopter magnet again, Lev can’t help himself. “We got a contract from Defense to develop it,” he says. 

“The army?” Meho says, his eyes more alert.

“The air force. Five hundred thousand in grants.”

“They gave you five hundred thousand?” Meho says, looking around the basement, as if its sorry state casts doubt on this fact. 

“Not in my pocket. So the company can develop the idea.”

“So why do you not work for yourself? You like for others to make money on your ideas?”

It is as if some bird of meaning has escaped the cage. Perhaps he’s explained something poorly, Lev thinks. Unless this man makes a habit of misunderstanding things deliberately. “It’s how research works,” he says. “A lottery. It’s all risk.”

“Yes, I understand risk. But you are worried now?” Meho grips the bottle and gazes around the fluorescent-lit basement. “You have what, seventeen, eighteen here?” 

The number is twenty-four, but Lev doesn’t trouble to correct him. He takes the tray of cups and follows Meho up the steps. 

Outside there is still some daylight left in the sky, but the trees have turned black, blurring with the darkness that’s started to encroach on the lawn. The deck and gray siding look pewter in the bluish cast of evening. The women sit with cardigans draped around their shoulders. Lev reaches between them and sets the tray on the glass tabletop. He’s learned just recently, from an American guest, that it’s in fact a set of mini kiddush cups, intended for Sabbath wine, not liquor. He wonders if his parents knew this, keeping them on display all those years? He pours the cognac around, too old to unlearn his ignorance now, he tells himself, and tosses down his drink. It warms him instantly.

“We had these!” Sonya says, picking up one of the cups and turning it in her fingers. She strains to examine the engravings, which are fine like the engravings of old stamps. “Maybe ours were darker,” she says, and takes a sip off the rim.

It’s the same set; after his parents died, the cups had gone to Emik, who’d let the silver tarnish. Years later, when Emik decided to visit New York, Lev had asked him to bring them, wanting to have some keepsake from his parents. The morning he’d picked up his brother at JFK, Emik didn’t neglect to mention how empty the apartment would feel without them. That he had inherited everything else, including the apartment itself, seemed to Lev an ungenerous point to make. 

“Help yourself,” Lev says, refilling Meho’s already empty glass, while Dina turns to Sonya.

“Who do you leave the baby with when you travel?” 

“There’s a woman in the neighborhood who takes her,” says Sonya. “Her husband’s dead, she lives alone. It’s a good arrangement. She says she likes it when there’s another little soul in the room.”

Meho startles them with a deep, oddly charming laugh. “Let me tell you about this lady,” he says. “She sits in a chair all day long doing her needlepoint and channel-flipping.” He makes a deprecating gesture with his thumb.

“And who else is going to take a kid for a whole weekend?” Sonya says.

“Doesn’t your mother live close by?” asks Dina, her curiosity at work again. It’s always best to let her ask her questions without interrupting, Lev has learned, since she will otherwise turn her inquisitiveness on you and ask why you are so uncomfortable.

“I’m not about to start asking her for favors,” says Sonya. “She’s busy with her own life.”

“Doesn’t she want to see her granddaughter?” 

“She can see Andjela whenever she decides to visit us. I’m not stepping foot in her house as long as that monkey’s there.”

Lev snorts a laugh. Sonya has captured Alla’s husband perfectly—the long space between Sergey’s nose and mouth had always given his face a simian quality. Alla used to hang around him even when they were all students, Lev remembers. At the Polytech where they’d all studied, she’d ignored Emik cruelly. Not until she was twenty-eight and not so young by those standards, did she give him a second look. But weeks before they’d gone to the ZAGS to register their marriage, Lev had seen her in a café, sitting across from Sergey, while he fed her a square of cake. It had been a mistake to tell Emik. Lev had only brought more rage down on himself. As for their parents, they’d been useless, glad someone would have him—their biggest fear was that Emik was going to end up alone because of his “infirmity.” “What woman with a healthy head is going to crawl into a sick bed?” had been their mother’s favorite saying back then.

Years later, on their ride to Niagara Falls, Emik had told Lev that he didn’t blame Alla for their rotting marriage or her infidelity, which she no longer bothered to conceal. He didn’t blame her, he had said, nodding off in the passenger seat on their way to yet another obligatory American landmark. He’d struggled to stay awake all that week, taking naps on Lev’s couch, or in the jacked-back front seat of the car when they stopped at filling stations. His problems with Alla were the natural consequences of his bad luck—the bad luck of having become “meager as a man,” as he put it. If only his diabetes had made him go blind instead of limp, he joked.

“She doesn’t tell anybody she’s a grandmother,” Sonya says. “She’s trying to get pregnant, actually.”

“Isn’t she almost fifty?” Dina’s voice is thick with interest.

“Yeah, well. No rest for the devil.” 

Lev pours a second shot for Meho and refills his own glass. The cognac tastes acidy, but in another moment the warmth spreads to his loins and he’s able to recapture the glaring, misted light of Niagara, where Emik, pale and ragged, asked if it was possible for him not to leave, to stay in the United States with Lev. They would need to hire a lawyer, Lev explained, surprised by this turn in the conversation. Even if they built a case for asylum, what would he do here, he asked Emik. He was too weak to tackle the job of starting a new life—he himself had acknowledged that much. Emik said he hadn’t really thought it through. And then the days passed without either of them bringing it up again.

Lev tosses back another ounce of Rémy Martin to rinse out the sourness in his mouth. A refill for Meho, to be companionable.

“For two years I slept on a tiny mattress we got from some charity,” Sonya continues. “I asked my mother to buy me a normal-sized bed, and she acted like I was asking for a boat. And the day he moved in, she went out and bought the two of them a king-sized Sealy to have fun on.” 

“So then you got her old mattress,” Meho cuts in. “Problem solved. How long are you going to cry about this?”

For a second Lev feels almost warm-hearted toward him. 

“I’m just saying,” Sonya answers, “that she’s got a lot to apologize for.”

There are already smears on the cups, salty oils from fingers that Lev will have to wipe off tonight. Tarnishes are hard to get rid of if you don’t clean them right away; the abrasives he used after Emik had flown back to Tbilisi had left the engravings dull in spots. 

And then, not three months later, Emik was dead. He had died in the same apartment they’d grown up in, among the old furniture and crystal dishes, and the dense stacks of magazines their father had never thrown out—issues of Science and Life, Novy Mir, whose pages were warped and stuck together after years of going unread. Whenever Lev had imagined that day, he thought of the wide balcony, half-shaded by branches from a walnut tree. From the courtyard came the scudding sounds of kids herding a soccer ball around; he envisioned Emik falling asleep on the couch beside the balcony doors to the soft noises below and never waking up. 

For years afterward, he would hear of some ignoramus or another referring to Emik’s death as a suicide. An old classmate, a former colleague, alluding in an offhand way to an overdose of insulin. No one said it to his face, but word always got back. And the progress of time, instead of dispelling these speculations, only hardened them.

“Oww!” Sonya slaps her ankle. It has gotten dark now, a darkness bearing mosquitoes. Lev tears a paper match from the matchbook on the table and shelters it in his palm, igniting the citronella candle. A scent like lemon and car wax fills the air, and Sonya’s face swims back into light. “When Sergey moved in,” she says, scratching the bite, “I just told myself, Keep your mouth shut and bide your time.” It’s apparent that she’s been chronicling all this for years. She looks determined, in the candle glow, to straighten out some record. 

“Please eat,” Dina says. 

Sonya pokes around the muddle of her pilaf and beans. Everyone else’s plate is empty. For a moment it is quiet, possible to hear the medley of chirping insects and the deeper, steady croakings of frogs. 

“You live in a nice place,” Meho says.

“We like it,” Dina answers. 

“We live above a freeway,” Sonya adds, apropos of nothing.

“We liked it here, so we stayed,” Dina says.

Lev edges his chair in closer for an explanation. “We were sponsored by a temple in this area.” 

Dina glances at him warily. He has a habit of sharing things she prefers to leave out, though it’s something he’s rarely aware of until after the unnecessary detail has been disclosed. 

“What does this mean, sponsored?” Meho says.

“They helped us with little things,” Dina answers. “English classes, they gave us some used clothes to wear to job interviews…” In her voice there is almost a lazy reluctance about the topic itself. 

“And jobs also, they helped you find jobs?”

They had, in fact. One of the members of the temple was a manager in a company that had hired Lev on a contract basis.

“Finding work was not the hard part. Lev had many publications.” 

“You go to this temple?” Meho asks, turning to Lev.

“No. We don’t,” Dina answers. “Not anymore. It wasn’t… for us.” But then, rethinking, she adds, “Sometimes we go on holidays, and we make contributions.” She smiles serenely, as if to say their debts have been settled. 

“My first year I found only two kinds of work,” Meho tells Lev. “Carrying crates off a truck to a store, and carrying crates from a store to the truck. My concessions business took me six years to start.”

Lev nods sympathetically. “And now you see how well it’s doing.”

“As well as it’s going to do. We cannot work more than two shows a weekend. Maybe three, but that’s all.” 

“It’s not the kind of business that can grow,” Sonya says. “And all this driving around with a child. What we really want is to open a place of our own.”

It’s starting to dawn on Lev why they might have driven so far out of their way now. 

“You’re talking about a restaurant?” 

“Just Soups. That’s what we want to call it,” Sonya says, giggling. “We’ll add other things to the menu later.”

“You already have a menu?” 

“We’re ready to open it tomorrow if we had the funds. We’ve found a place, but…”

Meho is staring down into his plate, letting Sonya take over. 

“We’ve saved up fifteen thousand, but the banks won’t give us more. We’ve gone to two, and it’s always the same thing… we can’t get a second mortgage because we don’t own a house. We’d have to grow the business we have now, and start taking on debt and paying it off to show we’re responsible. But that’s impossible because, like he said, we can’t work more than we already do.”

Dina has joined Lev in his benign silence. It seems almost impossible to continue this discussion without raising the question of how much they need.

“Life,” Lev says wistfully. “We can’t work more, and we can’t work less.” It makes him sound dim, he realizes, or possibly cruel. But he knows he needs to discuss this question with Dina in private. She might agree to offer a sum—not huge but not insulting. 

Meho is squinting off into space with the inward look of someone trying to maintain his dignity. Lev guesses it was Sonya’s idea to ask for money, that her husband has gone along with it in spite of his faint contempt for such solicitations. Though of course it may be just the opposite. 

The frogs fill the silence with their croaking. Meho and Sonya are quiet, waiting for Lev to say something more, and when he doesn’t, Sonya takes a deep breath, savoring the air dramatically. “It must be nice to sit out here every evening,” she says. 

“Last summer this was all a pile of wood,” Lev answers, glad the other conversation has been aborted. “The deck kept us busy for months. Every weekend we were making trips down to the Home Depot.” On his lips it sounds as though he’s done the work himself. Though there is some truth in that, since the carpenter they hired dawdled, and he and Dina did finish the banister themselves, and the paint job.

“I went to the Home Depot last month,” Meho says. “And the salesman told me I could get a line of credit, no questions, for thirty thousand dollars unsecured. I thought, Are they crazy? Two American banks turn me down, and these people want to give me money for nothing? Then I understood, if I buy from them, they want me to borrow from them, so they can control my money instead of the American banks.”

“The American banks?” Dina laughs. “And what is Home Depot?”

“They’re Jewish.”

For a moment Dina’s lips are stalled in confusion. When she speaks, it comes out like a childish protest. “But they don’t take your money, they give it to you.”

“Correct. But I’m talking about control. Having money is one thing, having control of it is different.” The patience in his voice suggests he is stating something apparent. And for a moment Lev can’t tell where the problem in the reasoning lies, aside from it leading to one illegitimate conclusion.

“So the banks don’t want to control the money?” Dina says.

“You are misunderstanding me.” Meho grins knowingly at her glassy smile, to show that he can see what’s coming his way if he takes her bait. “Say something about one, they think you are talking about all.” He isn’t addressing Dina anymore, so much as withdrawing into a private conference with himself. Sonya has fixed her eyes on the glow of the candle, her fingers splayed on the tabletop. Her hand resembles a sea creature fastening itself to the floor of the ocean, making itself invisible until a danger passes.

“You look tired, my dear,” Lev says, getting up out of his chair. Sonya raises her eyes at him, startled and then relieved. “I’ll show you both to your room,” Lev tells them. And one by one they begin to get up, stacking the dishes and collecting glasses marked with the dregs of wine, managing through an awkward ceremony of thank-yous and praise of the dinner, until Lev follows them up to the second floor. He shows them the towels in the linen closet, and the bathroom, where he twists the shower faucet to demonstrate how to change the temperature, while they nod at his earnest, unnecessary instructions, his final, bedtime effort to restore peace.

“I don’t care about him,” Dina says when Lev is downstairs again. She runs the tap and shakes the water from her hands. “Now we know what’s in his head. But what’s in hers?”

“What was she supposed to say?”

“Something!” 

They can hear a soft shuffling of feet upstairs. Dina’s voice falls to a harsh whisper. “She didn’t peep a word.”

“You know she’s better off with him.” 

Dina fiddles helplessly with the dish tray. He reaches for her arm, draws her in. She resists at first but lets him pull back the hair from her moist forehead with his palm. She smells of light perspiration and cooking oil, the green-tea perfume she’s worn for as long as he can remember. How much easier, he thinks, when it’s just the two of them, a balance that others only disturb. Without embracing her too tightly, he holds her face and kisses it. 

He tells Dina he’ll put away the food, and stays in the kitchen after she goes upstairs. In the refrigerator the shelves are crammed with bottles of condiments they rarely use, white Chinese take-out boxes from work that he has to move around to make room for the leftovers. After Emik’s death, he recalls, his brother’s refrigerator had been found full of food: fruit and yogurt fresh from the market, an unopened bottle of milk, and a stick of salami still wrapped in its brown paper. Lev was told all this by the wife of a neighbor who had discovered Emik on the couch; the wife had been kind enough to clean the apartment before the funeral. She’d told him he hadn’t been lying there very long, only a day or two. It hadn’t comforted him then, but later it had. What person intending to end his life would restock his refrigerator for the weeks ahead, he’d ask himself whenever he heard one of the festering rumors. 

There are footsteps descending the stairs, too soft and childlike to be Dina’s. When he turns, he sees Sonya standing in the kitchen entryway in her jeans and an oversize T-shirt she’s changed into, a face printed on it, probably of a musician from one of the shows she’s worked.

“Everyone comfortable upstairs?”

“Mm.” She smiles in a courteous, distant way. 

“Do you need another blanket?”                

She shakes her head. She doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to talk about what it was she’s come for. Her eyes wander around the maple cabinets, stopping on the baby picture tacked to the refrigerator.

“It’s hard to leave her every week,” she says. “I don’t want you to think we would be asking for a donation. We only need fifteen thousand, even less—ten, as an investment—and we’d start making it back immediately.”

He closes his eyes in the hope that she’ll stop. “I’m not a businessman, Sonya,” he says opening his eyes and looking up at her. “And I’m not…” He tries to clear the gravel from his voice. “I’m not a lender.” 

Her arms are folded tightly across her chest. She seems to be nodding, or just pondering something, a quietly miserable look on her face.

“You know I’d always help,” he hears himself say, “if it concerns you or Andjela.”

She doesn’t look at him and continues to rub the goose bumps on her flesh. 

“You’re cold?” he asks. 

Sonya shakes her head. He gets up anyway and finds one of Dina’s cardigans on a fan-back chair, brings it to Sonya, and spreads it over her shoulders. She manages a dutiful smile, allows him to draw her into a hug. But he can feel the change—Sonya’s back stiff under his arms, almost like a physical reproach. He presses her tighter until her body relaxes a little. When he lets her go, there is a wet film over her dark eyes. “I’ll go up to bed now,” she says.

“Okay.” He smoothes the sweater over her shoulders. 

She turns and heads back up the stairs, and he can hear her shuffling footsteps, the sound of the door closing. When she’s gone, he is glad to be alone. Even while he was holding her, it had felt like a preemptory move, putting her in a spot where she would be the one looking for an exit. 

The porch lamp is still on. It draws bugs to the netted screen on the door. He finds the switch, killing the illumination on the scattered arrangement of patio chairs outside, and makes his way up to the bedroom. From now on, he thinks, she will speak his name in the same uncharitable way that she talks about all the others who’ve failed her. 

Dina is already snoozing, asleep with the reading lamp casting a prism of light on a paperback, which lies on her chest, her reading glasses tucked between its pages. There will be no more requests, he thinks, from Sonya. No more concerts on Long Island to justify the long drive north to see them. In the morning, while the light is still gray, he’ll probably be awakened by the rustle of them carrying their bags downstairs. When they leave, he hopes Dina will still be asleep. He doesn’t know if he’ll go downstairs or just lie and listen for the slap of the car doors, the rasp of the engine receding into a relieving silence. 

“Each new issue feels like a public report from many individual private spheres.” —Antoine Wilson

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Issue 06

ISSUE

06

Summer 2008

Author

Sana Krasikov’s debut collection of stories, One More Year, will be published by Spiegel & Grau later this year. ​

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