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.”

“Huh.”

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.”

“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.”

“A gun?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

And, I supposed, we needed him to meet us there too, or at least it felt that way when we left our hotel and got into the cab to go to the station. What I felt, climbing into that car with my suitcase, packed lightly so that there would be room to bring things back if we wanted, and still light now as we were leaving — what I felt then was a mix of emptiness (unnerving emptiness, because, in the end, Kishinev was only a place, and it was a place that did not belong to me), sadness (because I was sorry to be leaving this sweet, green little city, cradle of my oldest and favorite imaginings), and relief (because the pressure was off: finally, we no longer needed to talk about Dad’s past, and could just travel and hang out together). Outside of these feelings, though, I was aware that I wanted something else, something for Dad: I wanted the city to make some kind of gesture, some small overture that showed it was sorry he was leaving. And so I looked forward to seeing Vladek at the station. I was grateful that he, at least, would be there to say goodbye.

We didn’t see him when we arrived, though. We found the conductor and our car, lifted our suitcases onto the train, and then, once we’d examined our little room — it was an overnight train, to Bucharest, and we were traveling first-class — went back outside with our luggage. Dad had been talking for months, since long before the trip began, about how dangerous this train ride would be — how certain it was that someone, some Romanian, he said, would try to rob us — and so there was no way we’d be leaving our things out of sight.

We stood there with our suitcases, out on the platform in the August sun, and as I scanned the exits of the indoor part of the station, I tried not to let Dad see that I was anxious for Vladek to arrive. When he did, finally, come shuffling toward us, apologizing for being late, he came carrying a stuffed plastic shopping bag, some kind of gift. “No no no,” Dad said, “I can’t take this from you,” but Vladek insisted: “Please. These are some of my greatest treasures.”

Still Dad resisted, told Vladek he should keep his own treasures, though I knew he’d relent; and after Vladek said that he had no one else to give them to, Dad accepted the bag.

They embraced. Vladek had dressed up, I realized, to come to the train station — he was wearing a collared shirt and slacks — and I wondered if he’d ever vacationed in his life, ever left this station on a train just for pleasure. He clung to Dad the same way he had the other night. I could hear him whimpering like a child; I could see that Dad was ready to let go but that Vladek wasn’t, was gripping Dad fiercely; and I felt bad for having wished up this kind of display.

Then a man in a suit, with coat and tie, tapped Dad on the shoulder, forcing them to release each other. At first I thought the person was a conductor or a station attendant — was there something wrong with Vladek’s being on the platform? — and then I saw that it was Yuri.

Yuri: one of a group of high school classmates we’d had dinner with earlier that week. He’d never been a close friend, Dad had told me, but since that dinner Yuri had called Dad several times just to talk, arranged to meet us for coffee, visited us at the hotel with a box of chocolates just for me. At first Dad seemed pleased — at the dinner, Yuri had asked if he might call, and when he did, Dad stretched out on the couch with his feet up, chatting for more than an hour, getting gossip, hearing old news: who was sick, who had died, how the city’s geography had changed.

After the visit with the chocolates, though, when Yuri had lingered awkwardly in the doorway for almost an hour, thinking of more things to say while Dad tried to tell him goodbye, Dad told me: “I think he thinks I can help him get out of here. He keeps talking to me about some friend in Germany, keeps telling me he might try to go to Germany like he thinks I can do something.”

Can you do something?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe for a good friend — for a really good friend I might try something, but even
then … Do you know how hard it was to work things out for Fanya and Anna?”

Now, at the train station, Yuri broke up Dad and Vladek’s hug, and when Dad introduced the men to each other, I could tell from Vladek’s demeanor that he would defer to Yuri, would let him direct the last-minute interactions of our little gang. God. I hoped Vladek knew we hadn’t planned this — I could understand Yuri explaining to Dad that he’d looked at the train schedule, knowing we’d be leaving today; that he’d come to see off the morning train to Bucharest and then, because he hadn’t found us at that departure, had come again now. Vladek would understand this, too, of course, but he wasn’t even really looking at them, maybe wasn’t listening at all.

Of our entire month in Russia, this moment on the platform was the one time that I really, deeply wished I could speak Russian. If I spoke Russian, I thought, I would say something to Vladek, would make something up to distract him from the awful scene playing out now between Yuri and Dad, in which Yuri chattered on, trying to force another two boxes of chocolate into Dad’s hands, and Dad tried unsuccessfully, again and again, to turn away toward his older friend. Yuri’s sports coat stank of sweat and bore a dusting of dandruff on its shoulders. He walked and stood in a broken way — one of his legs was much shorter than the other — and I should’ve felt sorry for him, but that day I despised him.

I met Vladek’s eye and smiled, willing him to understand my meaning: you and your gift are not secondary, but he just looked away without returning my grin. Because of the torrent of Yuri’s words, the urgency of whatever he was saying to Dad, and the one pink and slightly dusty box of chocolates that Dad eventually accepted (he convinced Yuri to keep the other) — because of that, Vladek didn’t get a chance to say much of anything else before the second whistle, the boarding whistle, blew.

We climbed aboard — Dad and Vladek hugged once more; Yuri kissed my hand with his dark, wet lips and then insisted on helping us carry our suitcases into the train – and once Yuri was finally gone from our room, once a conductor had shooed him out of the hall, we waved at them both through the window. Vladek had taken out his handkerchief, which he used both to wave and to wipe at his eyes; he was crying again. In front of him, slightly turned as if to block Vladek’s view, stood Yuri, waving in wild desperation. The train pulled away, and I wondered if they would talk to each other after we were gone, if they would have anything to say.

We didn’t open Vladek’s bag of treasures until much later, sometime during the night, after we’d crossed into Romania, the wheels on the train noisily and laboriously changed to fit the narrower, non-Soviet tracks. By then we were both in our pajamas, side by side on two hard, narrow beds that folded out to cover our luggage. We’d met some of our neighbors in first-class: a couple of Peace Corps members from Wisconsin who offered me a pocket pack of Kleenex to carry to the bathroom so that I wouldn’t have to use the provided toilet paper, which they told us was scratchy and brown; a couple of Israelis from Kishinev who, it turned out, knew Fanya and Anna, had lived in the same neighborhood as them for years. “You’re Fanya’s brother?” they exclaimed. “Unbelievable! Well, maybe not; all of us Kishinev Jews know each other. Send her our regards — it’s a small world.” When I returned from the bathroom everyone had been mystified that I’d chosen not to use the Kleenex.

In Vladek’s plastic bag Dad and I could discern that some tightly packed papers — newspapers and pamphlets — surrounded a very used, very worn shoebox. “Should I open it now?” Dad asked. “What do you think?” When I said yes, he peeled off the tape that held the box closed. Inside, it seemed, was only more of the same: pamphlets; maps; some ancient travel guides for Soviet countries; ten or twenty small, unused photo calendars for years past. Dad began to sneeze — as we sifted through the papers, our hands grew dark with dust. “Shit. I am allergic to this crap,” he said, but he continued to flip through what was there, searching, I think, for some sort of “treasure.” At the bottom of the shoebox were a handful of Soviet pins, little medals.

“Crap.”

“What?”

“I think these are his father’s medals.”

“Let me see,” I said.

Dad held them up close to his face, squinting at the engravings on their surface. “Yeah. These are his father’s medals from the army.”

They were small, but clean, not rusted, and, looking at them, I tried to muster up some sense of awe and respect for what they meant, but I’ve never really cared much for military medals — I can never get them to move me.

“Shit, doch. What are we gonna do with these? Do you want them?”

I shrugged — I didn’t feel like I had the right, the appropriate proximity to their original owner, to be their keeper.

“Phee.” Dad waved his hands — his bed was covered in papers and dust. “Look at all this junk.”

“Yeah.”

“Wonder why he gave them to us.”

“I don’t know,” I said, but I was thinking of what it meant to hand the stuff of your life over to another person like that — to need someone to hand your life over to. “I have no one else to give them to,” Vladek had said. When we got to Bucharest, Dad considered throwing the whole sack away — it was bulky and heavy and smelled like Vladek’s dog — and at first I was going to let him, was going to let him toss everything except the pins; but eventually we decided to keep some of the other stuff too. I don’t know where any of it is now.

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