When Dad and I left Kishinev, Vladek was crying. It wasn’t the first time — he’d cried a few nights earlier, when we said goodbye after dinner, and before dinner, at his apartment, when Dad handed him a hundred dollars in an envelope. “Oh no, no,” he’d said then and walked away toward the other room, making wheezy weeping sounds that were surprisingly high-pitched for a man. I watched his white-white hair bobbing above his scalp.
When he returned, he was honking into a dirty handkerchief. “Take it back,” he said. “Please, I can’t keep it. I can’t.” He said it so urgently I thought there might be some reason he was literally unable to take the money — maybe it was illegal, maybe he’d recently recovered from an addiction that forbade him to keep any hard cash in the house. Maybe his having the American money would be dangerous, would lead to his getting kidnapped, or worse. “I can’t, I can’t,” he kept saying — in Russian, of course, but I understood — and he tried to force the envelope back into Dad’s hands.
Never in America had I seen Dad acting like this: generous without reservation, kind in a way that was solemn and direct. Back at the hotel he’d worried that a hundred wasn’t enough — but we still needed to keep some cash for the airport, he said — and then he’d worried that it wouldn’t be nice to give five twenties instead of one hundred-dollar bill. Before that, he’d worried it would be insulting to offer money to his oldest family friend, but I’d insisted that it would be equally insulting not to at least try. That was another thing about being in Kishinev: Dad sometimes asked for and took my advice.
“I can’t keep it, I can’t — “
“It’s nothing,” Dad said, brushing the envelope in Vladek’s hand away. “Really it’s not much. Did you look inside yet? Did you see?”
“Please,” said Vladek. He reminded me of a sickly old man in a movie, with bright blue eyes that bored straight into you. I’d seen those eyes go watery when he first saw us, and then again that first day when he and Dad were talking, remembering old times. Dad had spoken to him on the phone, and we’d gone to meet him at his building as planned — though at first, we couldn’t get in.
“Does Vladek X —- live here?” Dad had asked a woman who emerged from the front door, and when she hesitated to answer he told her who we were: “Old friends; I’m an old, old friend from America. I haven’t seen him in thirty, maybe forty years.”
We crept up the stairs without speaking, and after Dad knocked and yelled through the door — “Vladek? Eto Osya. From a long long time ago,” he added — and after Vladek had responded in a voice that sounded, I thought, appropriately pleased, it still took a long time for the door to open. We listened to the rustling noises inside; Dad turned and looked at me as if for a moment he’d forgotten I was there, standing in my sandals just behind him, this thing that had sprouted up, this person, in the last twenty years. The lock disengaged, someone peered out (“It’s you? Really? Osya, you?”), and then we were waved in.
It stank, like mildew and urine and dog. For a second, my eyes adjusting, I felt afraid of what I saw: the old man in a stained undershirt; the tiny, darkened room; the dog barking, fast and loud and mean. Vladek was holding the animal by the skin on its neck. “Boosch!” he yelled — that was the dog’s name, and he would continue to yell it over and over during that visit, “Boosch! Boosch!” At some point Dad tried to ask Vladek if it had anything to do with the American president — this was 2004 — but Vladek didn’t understand, didn’t get the joke, and eventually Dad just waved it away: “Never mind.”
Vladek apologized: he hadn’t expected there to be a girl, and he buttoned another shirt over his undershirt, telling Dad I was lovely, congratulations, asking where was his wife? and listening to the usual explanation of how Mom had to stay home and work and take care of the other daughter. Dad had stopped telling people I was trying to write a book, I’m not sure why — maybe I’d asked him to; maybe it had felt, one night, too much like a jinx, bad luck; or maybe it just seemed weird, too inviting of questions: Why a book about Dad? What would it say?
Vladek apologized, also, that the doorbell was broken, that he had nothing to offer, no tea, no cakes. His refrigerator was broken, he told us, empty. The water he served came from the small second room in the apartment, which was the bathroom and, he told us, the dog’s room. It was lined in newspapers that indicated it was the dog’s bathroom too.
“So what, you don’t eat?” Dad asked, and he said it like a joke, letting out a short laugh, but Vladek answered, too seriously, “Usually I have some crackers around. Actually, I think I have some here,” and he went rummaging behind some magazines. The place was filled, to the brim, with newspapers and books and dust and, on top of it all, a not-insignificant film of dog hair. “Want some crackers? Here,” and Vladek dug out a box of crackers, went to get a plate. When he left the room the dog lurched at our legs, slobbering, its breath awful.
“No, no,” said Dad. “It’s okay. I was joking.”
“You’re sure? You’re not hungry?”
“We already ate,” Dad lied; as the afternoon wore on I willed my stomach not to rumble. Later Dad would ask to go to the bathroom, and Vladek would show him, the toilet was broken so he’d been using this bucket — and Dad would say to me quietly afterward, while Vladek was using it, “Do you have to go? Can you hold it? Better to wait.”
But before that they just talked, talked for so long that I stopped trying to understand and got bored, sitting there on Vladek’s bed — Dad was in the only chair and Vladek was standing, leaning against a table. (“You’re sure? You don’t want to sit?” Dad asked; we showed Vladek how he could sit next to me on the bed, or I could even stand — “She’s young,” Dad said, “Look how healthy, how strong”; he’d pinched my calf to show it; but Vladek said no, no, his back hurt, it hurt all the time now, it was better for him to stand anyway.) They talked and talked, serious, and that was the first time I saw Vladek choke up, his eyes watering, and when I asked Dad why, afterward, he said they’d been remembering the good times.
“What good times?”
“You see,” said Dad, “his father was also in jail. Our families were friends during that time. Our mothers were friends. And they were good times.”
“While your father was in prison you had good times?”
“It’s hard to explain. Financially it was very hard, my mother had to stretch everything because she was the only one working. There were many days she didn’t eat, she would give everything she had to Fanya and me — “
“I know, Dad” — I’d heard this so many times.
“What I am saying is financially it was hard, but emotionally, in a way, sometimes it was good.”
I must have sounded skeptical, because Dad said, “Agh. You cannot understand, growing up like you did. It was tough, but good — they were very close, my mother and Vladek’s mother. Our families spent a lot of time together. You see, in those days, if your husband was in prison, people didn’t always — they weren’t always nice, they didn’t want to talk to you. My mother lost some friends in that time, but she got closer with other people too. Like this Vladek’s family.”