Vladimir A. Kleyman
In May of 1989, a weeping sea of emigrating Jews lapped against the marble ticket counters of Odessa’s train station. The would-be émigrés waived crinkled rubles over their Panama hats, vying for passes to Vienna as if the passes were prized beluga fillets, scentless and bloody and hawked off the fish merchants’ knives at the Privoz Market. The din traveled all the way to Odessa’s Moldavanka district, located astride the train station, but in our apartment on Proletarian Boulevard the only sound heard was the whooshing of a thread perforating old wool. Victory Day Parade was approaching and Grandfather stitched his war medals to the lapels of an olive jacket, transforming a pensioner’s leisure suit into a semblance of a Red Army captain’s World War II uniform.
Papa and Mama, who had accompanied Grandfather to the parade in prior years, would be spending the holiday in the departure hall of the train station seeing off their friends, the Gurevitches. Shurik Gurevitch, a former psychiatrist turned internist, was our family doctor and his wife Inna had known Mama since the eighth grade, where they were the only girls with shaved legs and dead mothers. The Gurevitches’ bespectacled boy, Ernst, studied piano with Mama and Mama called him my best friend, though she knew my best friend was Bogdan, the flaxen-haired son of the dvornichka who swept clean the courtyards of Proletarian Boulevard.
Papa had asked Grandfather if he wanted to call the Gurevitches to wish them a good journey, but Grandfather bellowed back, “Traitors.”
“Traitors?” asked Papa, “You don’t really believe Shurik is a traitor. Remember the midnight housecalls he made for your gallstones?”
But Grandfather, who lost a finger off his right hand in the Battle of Stalingrad, who shot six Wehrmacht soldiers for the parents and sister slaughtered by the SS, and who, despite Papa’s admonitions, had nailed a worn portrait of Stalin next to the photograph of his deceased wife the day Gorbachev proclaimed perestroika, believed that traitors are traitors.
At night, Mama and Papa whispered about applying for an American visa in Vienna or of following Uncle Misha, Papa’s older brother, to Tel-Aviv. But according to Grandfather, it was the Soviet Union that had saved Jews from Hitler, not America and not Israel. Having made a downpayment at Stalingrad, Grandfather planned to extinguish the rest of his debt to the Motherland by one day fertilizing her soil with his remaining bones.
“You want to spend Victory Day shuffling your yellow sandals by traitors’ boots, you do so,” said Grandfather, pointing to Papa’s suede slippers, and, looking to me, boomed, “Yura will go with me to the parade.”
I chimed back to Papa and Mama: “Yeah, you go spend Victory Day with Ernst-pimple-nose; I’m going to the parade with Dedushka.”
But I didn’t go to the parade with Grandfather. In the early morning of Victory Day, I woke to the sound of glass ringing like a school-bell. It was one of the expertly-aimed pebbles fired by Bogdan at the window of the bedroom I shared with Grandfather. “This is how a real patsan rings doorbells,” Bogdan had once told me. Before I could come down to open the front door, Bogdan shouted, a cracked-voiced holler that nearly woke Grandfather from his asthmatic sleep.
“Yurka! Stuff you zhopa in the most imported jeans you can find. We’re going to see my cousin Sasha!”
Finally! After two months of bribing Bogdan with jars of Mama’s sour cherry preserves, I would go to Bogdan’s flat to meet his older cousin, Sasha, who had recently procured a Sony vidik along with a library of movies that were banned from city cinemas. I could not wait. That April, Bogdan had taken me to the cinema off Shevchenko Park to see the fifty-kopeck screening of the Russian-dubbed “Rambo: First Blood.” After watching Sly Stallone mow down crooked cops, Bogdan and I had chased each other across Deribasovskaya Street, firing off invisible Kalashnikovs at villains we could not see but knew were there. And Bogdan said that what Sasha had in his video library was as much an improvement on Rambo as Rambo was on Papa and Mama’s favorite film, “Old Man Khottabych,” about an Uzbek genie who becomes an acrobat in the Moscow circus. What boy would remember a parade when he could see something even better than Rambo?
I dressed hurriedly, donning a powder blue “Audacious”-brand athletic jacket with a white zipper and a green pyramid insignia stitched prominently above the heart. This was before better imitations of Western brands flooded Odessa’s black markets and anything with Latin lettering was unquestionably genuine. “Audacious,” the bastard child of “Adidas,” earned respect. Even Bogdan was impressed. “Is that real?” he asked when he saw me sprint down the stairs of my apartment building, wondering if my jacket had been manufactured abroad. I nodded. The outfit was sent to me from Tel-Aviv by Uncle Misha, whose security guard salary was spent showering me with unasked-for but greatly appreciated gifts. Most boys my age wore stiff Ukrainian denims, but I was one of the few owners of Turkish-made, red-label “Leevice.”
Bogdan and I wound our way along Proletarian Boulevard, crossing the city west on Tomás Street. Spring winds blew against each other that morning – one from the sea and the other from the steppe; they covered my glasses with a thin film of shale dust. Those hated oval glasses, imprisoning my brown eyes behind thick, Ukrainian-ground lenses. How I envied Bogdan’s eyes, as open and free as the Black Sea.
Bogdan told me that he didn’t want me to be an ochkarik, the glassy-gazing-four-eyes that I was, but instead become a kliovyi patsan like himself. He said that his cousin Sasha only let the kliovyi-est of all patsans spend time in his video library. I would have to impress Sasha to be invited back.
Hurrying behind my friend to Cousin Sasha’s cinema, I mumbled to myself the lessons Bogdan had previously taught me to help me become a kliovyi patsan. I would have to bury my parents’ piano-proper Russian in the coffin of Bogdan’s vocabulary:
“Don’t say ‘boy,’ say ‘patsan.’”
“Don’t say ‘car,’ say ‘tachka.’”
“Don’t say ‘girl,’ say ‘tiolka.’”
And a tiolka, according to Bogdan, was to be judged solely on the diameter of her tits and her pizda – measurements which in a perfect tiolka were inversely related to each other. Though Bogdan was only twelve and a year old than I, he claimed to have personally experienced at least four or five pizdas before he lost count.
“A pizda?” I asked.
“You don’t even know what a pizda is?” Bogdan shook his head. “You’re one strange ochkarik.”
“Mama says that if I do my eye exercises, I won’t need to wear glasses in a few years.”
“Mama says?” Bogdan shook his head again. “You really are an ochkarik, glasses or not.”
Bogdan and I passed the train station’s square columns and reached the Moldavanka district, whose best days seemed to have elapsed in the first decade of the 19 th century. Soot-covered men in soiled undershirts lounged outside dusty tenements that clung to the cobblestones. They played durak with worn cards and argued over bottles of Zhiguli beer. Their Russian, fractured into Odessa slang, floated through the spring air like poplar fuzz. Mama had told me that the wrong kind of people always lived in the Moldavanka: once Jews, but not our kind of Jews, who practiced arpeggios and resolved disputes over a chessboard, and now Russians, but not our kind of Russians who quoted Pushkin and Nekrasov. I was not to wander in the feared Moldavanka and had only seen the neighborhood from the back seat of our family Lada. Being there with Bogdan steeled me. I felt like Rambo, rebellious.
Bogdan led me to the interior courtyard of a hobbled stucco and stone building on Babel Street. Wet bed-sheets hung off white cotton ropes like ear flaps off a Siberian ushanka hat. Behind them was a rotten oak door leading to a first floor apartment. Sasha shared a space smaller than our living room with Bogdan and Bogdan’s widowed mother. The space was clamped between a communal kitchen and a communal toilet. Intermittently, the crackling scent of garlic-fried potatoes and the fetid stench of day-old urine wafted in and out. I had never seen people live that way.
I remembered when Bogdan first saw our three room flat on Proletarian Boulevard. He looked at the jar of sour cherries I had handed him, at Mama’s “Ukraina”-brand baby grand shining by the kitchen’s veranda, and at the blinking eye of the Black Sea stretching beyond our oak-frame windows.
“You live here all by yourself?” Bogdan asked me.
“Of course not – with Mama, Papa and Dedushka,” I told him.
“And that’s all? All three rooms for just three-and-a-half people?” Bogdan asked, referring to my diminutive height.
Bogdan then expertly extracted cherry morsels from the preserves jar with his little finger and held them up to the warm Odessa sun, whose rays, refracted through the dripping red cherry juice, left crimson spots in Bogdan’s blond hair. “Quality stuff,” he had said and sucked the cherries off his finger.
When Bogdan and I walked inside the Moldavanka flat, his mother was gone, and the room was filled by four adolescents with hints of first facial hair. They all sported black leather jackets with silver zippers and silver studs on the cuffs and shoulders. Round Bon Jovi buttons graced their lapels. Teenagers of that sort were known to other Odessans as “rockers.” Grandfather called them “socially undesirable elements.”
Sasha was sitting on a broken piano stool. He greeted Bogdan with a handshake and squinted his right eye at me.
“Who’s the little zhid?”
Me, a zhid? My eyelids perspired under my glasses and for some unfathomable reason, my groin hardened.
“He’s all right,” Bogdan answered Sasha.
“How old is he, six?”
“Eleven,” I started to reply.
“Fifteen,” said Bogdan.
“He looks small,” Sasha said, “A half-zhid.”
My eyelids sweatier still.
Sasha pointed to my Audacious jacket. “Is that real?”
“My uncle from Israel sent it.”
“Obviously,” said Sasha, “All zhids have relatives abroad.” My eyelids drooped with sweat. Sasha paused for a moment. “Too bad you’re so small.”
Sasha swung around on his piano stool and fiddled with the first-generation, locally-made color Elektron TV set, to which, in a most unequal coupling, was attached a sleek, silver Sony VCR.
Sasha grumbled, his back still turned to me. “You can call me ‘Volk’ because I’m like a wolf.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
The other three leather-jacketed boys had names as hard-bitten as Sasha’s. We shook hands:
Sasha-Volk rifled through plastic boxes of videotapes while Nail, Mole, and Bone assembled themselves on a balding green-velour sofa across from the television.
“Why is he calling me a zhid?” I whispered to Bogdan. I knew the word, of course, what Jew didn’t? But though by age eleven, I had learned to endure the full thesaurus of insults Odessa schoolboys flung at the diminutive and the bespectacled, no one had ever called me a zhid.
“It’s nothing,” Bogdan hissed, “Sasha means nothing by it. That’s just what he calls the ne-kliovyie patsany. It's probably your glasses,” Bogdan said, “Can’t you stop being an ochkarik and take them off?”
I stuttered – “But how will I see the movie?”
“Take them off!” – but I would not.
The glassy ovals atop my nose, I saw in Sasha-Volk’s communal apartment, what had been concealed from me by Soviet censorship and my parents’ evasive answers: “Sex Trek III: the Search for Cock.” This recent cinematic feature from the American West Coast had bypassed the usual channels of film distribution, and, after lingering in the oiled suitcases of black-market foreign currency speculators, wended its way to Communal Apartment Number Seven on Babel Street. Attached to the film was a second-rate Russian translation of script, neatly typed out on an antediluvian Underwood typewriter.
“Pet my rooster,” Sasha-Volk read from the script in befuddled monotone, as a middle aged man on the TV screen slowly unzipped his futuristic aluminum-foil pants, disgorging an enormous red member far more impressive than the blue-veined minnow fluttering inside my Soviet-red briefs.
“Oh Captain,” the orange-haired topless woman in the film moaned, also in Sasha-Volk’s monotone, “You are vast like space, the final fuck-tier.”
Sasha-Volk’s voice cracked. “Affirmative baby.”
He paused the video. “I can’t see the movie when I read.”
“Well I can’t see the orange tiolka’s tits through your fat head,” said Mole.
“We’re out of beer,” intoned Bone.
“Congratulations patsany,” complained Nail, “You killed my boner.”
“What’s a ‘boner?’” I whispered to Bogdan.
But this was no time for another vocabulary lesson. “Stop asking stupid questions,” Bogdan hissed.
After some more grumbling the rockers decided to omit reading the male role and to delegate the female narration to the only available person whose voice was untouched by puberty: me.
Unbeknownst to the rockers, I was already an experienced public speaker. Several years prior, I had plagiarized a short poem about a World War II veteran from a well-sold but rarely read anthology of Socialist-Realist verse and recited it to a reunion gathering of Grandfather’s Red Guard Artillery Unit. Although much of the gray-maned audience greeted my recital with catatonic silence, Grandfather applauded loudly with his nine fingers and carried me out of the reunion hall on his shoulders. “The best poet in Odessa, my grandson!”
For the best poet in Odessa, reading the female lead in “Sex Trek III” was a cinch. I declaimed the stark lines with glee, ad-libbing additional moans after every sentence, my voice undulating between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano. The rockers shuddered with laughter on the green sofa and Bogdan slapped my back approvingly. Even the orange-haired tiolka on the screen seemed to like me more than the aluminum–pantsed patsan giving her a ride in his space-tachka.
Sasha-Volk smiled. “When I close my eyes and hear your pouty-princess voice, I can almost see you with tits and a pizda,” he said to me. “You’re alright, patsan.”
I smiled back, feeling as if I had just won a new, four-door Lada on “Forty-nine by Seven,” the televised lottery drawing. I was learning so many wonderful new words, words that even Bogdan didn’t teach me. I would no longer be Yura Kofman, the ochkarik. I would be Yurchik, the kliovyi patsan. Odessa’s motherly sun embraced me. Why would the Gurevitches ever want to leave? Looking at Bogdan and my newfound friends, I knew that I would never abandon my home city, that one day my bones would lie here alongside Grandfather’s. With a motion as quick as a Sex Trek thrust, I pulled my glasses off my nose. The Moldavanka’s graying face became as soft and white as a seagull feather and I blinked myself closer to her bosom.
“Patsany,” said Sasha-Volk, rising off his piano-stool throne, “Why are we scratching our eggs here in the Moldavanka when it’s noon on Victory Day and our patriotic duty calls us to the City Garden?” The rockers and Bogdan laughed but I blanched. The parade. I left Proletarian Boulevard while Grandfather’s eyelids were still grinding early morning nightmares. What had he thought when he woke up and found me missing on the morning of Victory Day? I felt my Audacious pockets for a two-kopeck piece to feed a payphone, but the pockets held my glasses and nothing else.
“Come,” said Sasha-Volk, his studded sleeve brushing my spine and I followed, uneasily at first, behind the snaking line of black leather and flax hair out of the Moldavanka to the City Garden. We walked briskly; and my nervous, under-exercised calves were fuelled by camaraderie and a jelly-filled ponchik Bogdan bought for us along the way. No need to worry, I told myself. I had promised Grandfather to see the parade and I would. I would explain afterwards that I had already told him, several times, that I would go to the parade ahead of him, to stake out a good spot. Grandfather had turned eighty that year. Surely he would believe me if I told him that his memory had begun to fade.
When we arrived at the Garden, the prime parade-viewing spots lining the Deribasovskaya were already occupied by relatives of marching veterans. The rockers and I sauntered behind the thick rows of spectators, examining the motley groups camped off Deribasovskaya’s center stage.
“Pet my rooster, cripples!” Sasha-Volk yelled as we passed legless Afghan war soldiers lounging their salvaged haunches near the public toilet booth dressed in a red banner reading, “Peace.” These Afgantsi were nothing like the veterans of Grandfather’s generation. Long-haired and bearded, they looked to my weak eyes like giant, furry guinea pigs. They spent their disability pay drinking Red Moscow cologne, famous for its high alcohol content, because economic rationing emptied the stores of vodka. Grandfather had called them cowards because they lost Afghanistan, but Papa said they were sad young men.
“Pet my rooster, Crossed-Eyes!” Bone screamed in Sasha’s voice at the Uzbek shashlik peddlers bunched outside the Passazh mall. Grandfather had called the peddlers capitalist thieves who ought to become laborers, but Papa asked why Grandfather smacked his lips when chewing the peddlers’ tender lamb cubes with his Czech-made dentures.
“Pet my rooster, flag-farts!” Nail and Mole shouted at the Ukrainian nationalists from Lvov, bedecked in blue and yellow tanktops. Grandfather had said that these nationalists were sabotaging our Soviet land, where a hundred ethnic groups lived in harmony, and even if there were certain misunderstandings, was there a country without a few problems? But according to Papa, the only harmony in the Soviet land was the equally oily sheen on both sides of Grandfather’s gray moustache.
Behind the parade procession, the nationalists defiantly sang their anthem, “ Ukraine is Not Yet Dead.” “Give it time,” Mole laughed back, “ Ukraine will yet die.”
When the afternoon sun began its reddish descent into evening, the tinny din of the World War II Marching Band rose above Odessa. Everyone in the Garden and the Passazh pressed forward towards the Deribasovskaya to catch a glimpse of the veterans slowly and solemnly plodding toward Kulikovo Field at the end of the parade route. The rockers, Bogdan, and I remained behind the rows. Sheltered by a wall of sweaty backs, with just two eyes instead of my usual four, I could only see the soft outlines of the veterans’ faded military caps bobbing above an assortment of spectators’ hairdos and headwear.
Sasha-Volk snickered. “Look at that old zhid, marching in the third row.”
“Hey, big-nosed zhid!” Sasha-Volk hollered above the military band’s staccato march.
“Hey, big-nosed zhid! Too bad Stalin didn’t get around to ripping your nose off!” Sasha-Volk bellowed again. The rest of us were quiet. “What’s the matter, you all afraid to tell the truth?”
“They’re veterans,” Bogdan meekly offered. Nail, Mole, and Bone shuffled silently in their oversized leather jackets.
Sasha-Volk stared at each of them and then at me, hard. “What about you?” he said, “What about you, half-a-patsan?”
Gratified, I thought, “a half-a-patsan but still, a patsan,” and answered, “I’m not half-sized, I’m growing.”
Propelled by an inexpressible amalgamation of fear and devotion, I grabbed Sasha’s forearm and shrieked over the spectators at the veteran whose face I could not see, “Pet my rooster old man, pet my rooster!”
I was brought up to revere those old Red Army vets, who had once rescued our people, my people, from the oblivion, but I could not stop shouting, I was overwhelmed. All of my new vocabulary sprayed out of me, simultaneously, onto the Deribasovskaya.
“Pet my tachka, you big-nosed tiolka! Pet my patsan, you kliovyi rooster! Pet my Sex Trek, you four-eyed ochkarik!” And then, my voice not my own, but somehow still shouting, “Pet me, zhid!” Zhid? Did my mouth really shape that word? The Deribasovskaya’s black cobblestones, brought to Odessa as ballast on Italian grain ships a hundred and fifty years earlier, gripped my sneaker soles with their granite teeth. I should have asked the stones to devour me, to swallow me whole into Odessa’s catacombs, where the bones of luckless adventurers and war partisans shuffled in eternal darkness. Instead I kept shouting.
The Marching Band lost its tempo and the veterans’ caps began to bob unevenly. Another “zh” had escaped my lips but the “id” remained lodged in my throat, choking off air and watering my eyes. The old, four-fingered zhid, his familial Kofman beak flaring, barreled through the crowd of spectators towards our little group, his pupils – mad and unseeing – trained only on me, the little spot of Audacious blue in a pond of black leather and silver epaulets.
“Bogdan,” I whispered, “Save me.” But Bogdan was already gone.
Grandfather clenched my left ear between his index and middle finger and dragged me out of the crowd. He led me across the Deribasovskaya through the City Garden.
“Dedushka,” I wailed, not knowing what to say to him, “I told you I would go to the parade before you. I told you, but you forgot, Dedushka, you forgot.”
“Put your glasses on,” Grandfather ordered me. But I would not. How could I look at him after what I had done? Grandfather dragged me by the ear across Odessa’s dusty streets, past the Moldavanka and the train station, until we reached our apartment on Proletarian Boulevard. The whole length of the way, Grandfather’s war medals stared at the green pyramid marking my Audacious jacket and clanged in a uniform chorus: “Traitor.”
That night, I lay on the fold-away couch in the bedroom I shared with Grandfather, listening to the tram squeal along Proletarian Avenue. What were the tram’s passengers thinking, those late-shift stevedores hurrying home to their crowded, communal quarters? Beyond them roiled the Black Sea at low tide, her waves licking the dock posts and the loading cranes further along the shoreline. Stalin and my dead Grandmother peered from their wallpapered perch towards the kitchen’s veranda, where Papa and Grandfather were having tea, while an errant draft conducted an orchestra of creaking doors and tapping floorboards. Too tired to think any more about what I had done that day, I only thought about Bogdan. I knew I would not be allowed to see him again and I missed him. I missed my friend.
Through the bedroom’s open door, I heard Papa ask Grandfather how he could want to live in a country where, besides all else, a Jewish boy could learn to call his grandfather a zhid. And Grandfather told Papa, in a voice worn smooth by eight decades of shouting,
“Alik, my son, I have been in this world forty years longer than you. Do you think any place is different than Odessa? Believe me, people are people. If they are not held by a strong hand, they become unmoored, like the fishing sloops in Odessa’s harbor that a storm sweeps out to sea.”
But Papa did not believe Grandfather.
Several months later, a forty-car train swallowed our little family along with hundreds of others and slithered out of Odessa’s rail station, heading towards Vienna. Jews crowded caboose hallways with their Romanian-made brown leather valises. They stared through the windows as the train passed familiar neoclassical facades they would not see for years to come, if ever again. The elderly grandmothers and grandfathers, survivors of Hitler and Stalin, held their grandchildren and cried. Only Grandfather did not cry. A gray fedora in his remaining fingers, he stared dry-eyed and grim at the disappearing city, his sorrow tarnished by knowledge and complicity…
Vladimir Kleyman was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He now lives in New York City and is working on a collection of short stories.