(Page 2 of 4)
“You really remember it? Weren’t you, like, five years old?”
“Of course I remember. I was five, and six, and seven. I remember we would go there, eat meals together
— very simple meals, very simple; our mothers would drink tea and watch us play. You know what I remember? I remember that their house, Vladek’s house, had a dirt floor. Like in the old days, they still didn’t have a real floor there. I guess maybe they were even worse off than us, or maybe we just were lucky, because we had that house from before the war and somehow it didn’t get taken away. I don’t know how my parents got to keep it. Anyway they had that dirt floor, and I thought it was so cool. I remember I asked my mother once, Why can’t we have a dirt floor like that? And my mother laughed and laughed. She thought that was so funny.
“And, doch, you know what else I remember? I remember one time — you see, Vladek is maybe six, ten years older than me, so I looked up to him, I liked to play with him but he didn’t always want to play with me, so when he did, I felt really cool. I remember one time, I don’t know where he got it, but he had a
little … a little pistol.”
“Not a real gun. You know, what is it called, this kind that shoots little — “
“A BB gun.”
“Yeah. I don’t know where he got it but it was the first time I ever saw a gun, and I was so excited. He was going to let me play with it, and I remember he wanted me to ask my mother first and I was trying to convince him not to, I was sure that she would say no. But we asked her and she said since Vladek was older it was okay. He was supposed to watch me. We went into the woods — “
“The woods? Here? In Kishinev?”
“Well, not forest, but you know, an area with lots of trees. And we shot at the trees and the rabbits…. Yeah.”
“Then what happened?” I asked, thinking, When you bring a gun into the story …
“What do you mean, what happened? Nothing happened. I think that was the most fun I ever had in my life. At least in those years it was the most fun. But I remember they were very good times, I remember our mothers would drink their tea and play cards. You weren’t really supposed to play cards in those days, but they didn’t care. They had nothing to worry about anymore.”
“Because, you silly, it couldn’t get any worse. After my father came back, actually, we didn’t see them that much. But he remembered me right away, this Vladek. He remembered me right away.”
Dad put his hand around my ponytail. We were walking back to the trolleybus, back toward the center of town, past the train station, to where the hotel was. It was dusk, and the gray concrete and stone of the city, the buildings new and old, glowed in a way I hadn’t yet seen.
“That BB gun was cool,” said Dad. “But you know what I have now?”
He pulled, and I jerked my head away, twisting my hair out of his fist. I knew what he was going to say, but didn’t want to hear it.
“You know what I have? Dochka. Now I have a real gun.”
“I know,” I said, and walked faster.
“You don’t like that I have a gun?”
“What do you want me to say? Congratulations.”
“It’s okay,” Dad said. “You don’t have to be so politically correct. It’s good, if someone tries to get in. I am American! I need a gun.”
We eventually convinced Vladek to keep the envelope of money, of course. “You know how much I get in pension?” he asked Dad, and I couldn’t understand the figure, couldn’t do the conversion of Moldovan lei to dollars, but I could see that even Dad was surprised at how small it was. Later he told me: something like thirty-five dollars a year.
“What? Are you sure?” I said. “How can anyone live off that?” And Dad said, “You can’t. Look at him, he’s barely alive.”
We took Vladek out to dinner after he accepted the gift, that second time we saw him. Dad had asked Vladek to suggest a place, but he’d resisted — he didn’t often go out to eat, he said, and so didn’t know what was good; and eventually we’d settled on this: the restaurant on the first floor of the Hotel National, near the train station. “Growing up,” Dad told me in English, “I always wanted to come inside this hotel, but I was sure I never would. I could never have imagined it. It seemed so fancy.”
And Vladek, when Dad asked, said yes, of course, he’d heard it was nice; and no, he had never been there before.
By then I was annoyed at Dad for even asking.
I was tired that day, and so stopped trying to understand what Dad and Vladek were talking about during the meal. But there were long silences, lapses in their conversation, which made me feel sad for both of them: for Vladek because I wanted him to get some pleasure, some rare joy, from being with Dad; and for Dad because I wanted him to find something here, some connection to Vladek and so to the place and the past that he depended on, the past that — I thought — he needed badly, back in America, to be real.
We ate, and at some point it occurred to me that the yellow-brown color of the tablecloths and walls and carpet was meant to be perceived as gold; and when the meal was over Vladek asked Dad to please let him pay, please since he’d already given him so much — the meal cost something like fifteen dollars — and Dad refused; he was going to put it on a credit card anyway, he said. Creditcheski cart. Creditni cartichka –Dad could never remember how to say this in Russian. “You have one?” he asked Vladek, showing him the little magnifying lens that was embedded in his Discover card. By now, I’d watched him do this at every other outing with an old friend we’d had: Dad would point it out, talk about how cool it was, what will they think of next?, then hand it over. Vladek turned the thing around in his hands. It wasn’t clear if he knew that the magnifying lens was the part he was supposed to be impressed by. Dad pointed again, but his finger was thicker than the lens itself, and Vladek’s enthusiasm was only polite. When he asked again if he could pay, Dad let him leave a few coins for the tip.
That night, saying goodbye, then, was the third time Vladek cried, standing in the city evening on the sidewalk. It was well lit because we were near the train station, and after he let go of Dad — as they hugged, Vladek had been the one hanging on more tightly — the tears rolled freely down Vladek’s face. He didn’t move to wipe them away. Instead he began talking, fast — I imagined that he was saying how lonely he was, how difficult his life had become, how he was sick and sometimes hungry, or maybe how good it had been for him to see us; when Dad responded I knew he was promising to keep in touch. I wondered if he really would — Vladek didn’t have a computer, and he’d told us his phone was often disconnected. “Please,” I understood Vladek saying. “Please, let me meet you at the train tomorrow”; and though Dad said it wasn’t necessary, I knew he’d give in, knew that in another minute or two he’d tell Vladek the details, the time and the track, because meeting us there, at the beginning of our trip out of Kishinev, seemed like a thing that Vladek needed to do.