Helena’s three-family building sat on the back half of a divided lot on the Cambridge-Somerville line, tucked in behind another house. A trellis, sagging from the weight of a Concord grape vine, covered the flagstone walk. Crushed fruit littered the concrete steps leading to the porch, where all the names on the mailboxes gave an impression of serious overcrowding. Below Helena’s name on the third floor mailbox was that of her son, Jonathan. He lived in Jamaica Plain but registered his car in Cambridge. A long list of Tanzanian names covered the second floor mailbox: Membe, Batenga, Bukurura, Amani, etc. There were actually only three single men living in the apartment, but not always the same three. As they moved in and out, new names were appended to the list, written on masking tape in various hands. On the mailbox for the first floor, along with “Gulnaev” — Helena’s Section 8 tenants, a family from Chechnya — were several other Chechen surnames; probably relatives using their address for some official business.
It had been a nice little junkyard district when Helena bought the building fifteen years earlier, with only a few houses on her end of the block. Since then, condominium complexes and parking garages had sprung up everywhere. Her building was hemmed in on three sides, but her south windows faced the open sky above her neighbor’s back yard. One moonlit night, Helena and Jonathan had sneaked past the neighbor’s house with two passive solar panels and installed them on the south wall of her building to supplement the forced hot-air heating system. The results had been disappointing, though, and now she was blowing insulation into the ceiling of her kitchen with a machine she’d rented by the hour. She worked slowly. At seventy-one, she’d become unsteady on a stepladder. Insulation escaped from the keyholes she’d cut in the drywall before she had a chance to cover them up, and clouds of itchy fluff blew around the room, sticking to her sweaty arms and neck and to her tights. The hose kept clogging. Each time, she had to climb down, turn off the machine, and pull the impacted wad out of the nozzle. She was beginning to worry that she wouldn’t make it back to the rental place before they closed.
She heard a knock on the back door and descended the ladder carefully. Zabet, one of the Chechens from the first floor, stood in the dark stairwell holding a Pyrex dish. Zabet’s hair, cut stylishly short and dyed a reddish brown when Helena had last seen it, was covered now with a black hijab. It made a striking combination with her thin, gracefully arched eyebrows, which were tattooed on — as were her eye- and lip-liner. Helena smoothed the insulation from her own hair and asked Zabet in. The Gulnaevs were were political refugees. They had been living in Helena’s first floor apartment for seven-and-a-half years. Zabet and her husband, Axmet, had two children: a son, Adlan, now twenty, and his sister Alla, who was seventeen and no longer living at home. All of them were dark and lithe, with long, straight noses and intelligent almond-shaped eyes. Their beauty somehow made their problems seem more tragic.
When they first arrived, Zabet often came to Helena for help. Helena welcomed the opportunity to use her college Russian. She read employment ads for Zabet and helped her apply for food stamps. These were the sorts of things she’d dealt with herself thirty-five years earlier when she was newly divorced, with a son and a daughter of her own. She found charter schools for the children. Also a Balkan choir, a homework club, and a dance school that offered sliding scale tuition.
At first Helena had a hard time making sense of their story — because her Russian was rusty, and because they’d moved around so much. Axmet and Zabet had met as college students in Novosibirsk and fallen in love, to the disappointment of both families, who’d had other plans for them. They’d lived in Grozny and in Zabet’s home country of Dagestan before settling in Kyrghyzstan, where Axmet had relatives. Then, around the time of the second Chechen war, Axmet had lost his job. Zabet described arrests and beatings — sometimes attributing them to ethnic hatred, sometimes to bad luck or random chance, sometimes to professional or family jealousies. Even when Helena didn’t understand the words — visilat, obvinyat — she could guess their meanings from Zabet’s dramatic expressions.
During their first few years in Cambridge, things seemed to go all right for the Gulnaevs. Helena made a few small loans to get them settled in. Helena helped Zabet pay for a cosmetics course. Zabet got a job in a salon in Brookline, where the clients were mostly Russian Jews, and Axmet found work at a muffler shop. Somehow, though, setbacks always outpaced advances, and they weren’t quite able to cover their expenses. Axmet had health problems. Adlan graduated from high school and enrolled in classes at Bunker Hill Community College, but he dropped out within within a few months. Zabet told Helena it was because his classes were too easy — that he was planning to apply to some real colleges.
As their problems mounted, the family seemed to retrench. Zabet and Alla began covering their hair. Adlan grew a beard and began attending a local mosque. Only Axmet was unaltered; he still shaved and wore work pants, running shoes, and fitted t-shirts that showed off his boxer’s physique.
Then, unexpectedly, they took Alla out of school. The concern was that she was “having boyfriends.”
“She’s becoming a wild girl, Galina,” Zabet explained. “You don’t know how wild.”
While Helena was still thinking of a way to get Alla back in school, she learned of her engagement to a Chechen boy whose uncle was a wealthy businessman in Kazakhstan.
“Does she want this?” Helena asked.
“Yes,” Zabet said. “She wants away.”
Alla and her new husband would live in Almaty. She could finish school there, Zabet said. She was interested in the law, or maybe social work. Helena couldn’t honestly say her prospects were worse in Almaty than in Cambridge. Somehow, though, Alla ended up back in Chechnya living with her in-laws. In Grozny, of all places, where the Gulnaevs’ journey had begun. Within a year she had a baby.
Zabet handed Helena the Pyrex dish and stepped into the kitchen. “I brought you cabbage with meats and rice. I think you like this before.”
“Golubtsy,” insisted Helena. “Bolshoi spasiba.”
“Yes, of course, golubtsy.” She collapsed in a chair. “Oh, Galina!” This was what she called Helena. “Is problem with Alla. She is in Grozny hospital.”
Helena sat down across the table and winced. “Alla is sick?”
“She have a fever, very high fever, and pain in stomach.”
“What do the doctors say?”
“Well, you know Movladi’s mother make her work too hard.”
Helena had heard this already. It as was much as Zabet would reveal of any misgivings. “But do they know why she has a fever? Is it some kind of infection?”
“What kind of infection? What’s wrong with her?”
Zabet tugged nervously on the sleeve of her sweater. “I wish she could go to Kizlyar. To the better hospital, for antibiotics.” Zabet’s family was in Kizlyar, just over the Dagestan border.
Helena shook her head, not understanding. “They aren’t treating her? No antibiotics?”
“Of course, but I call this morning and she still have a high fever. I don’t think they are giving her real drugs. You have to pay to make sure they give her real drugs, not counterfeit. I know the doctor in Kizlyar to get them.”
“Maybe she should come back here if she’s sick.”
“No, no — is better there.”
Helena didn’t have the heart to mount a defense of the American medical system. She submitted to it herself only when starkly necessary.
“How much money do you think you’ll need for this?”
“Well, something else. I wish I could go to Kizlyar, to take care from her. And I know we already owe you. I have some necklace that I can sell. Antique necklace. I can show you. But I’m asking, can you lend the money now?”
Zabet’s face, a pale oval inscribed by black fabric, was pinched with fear for Alla. Of course Helena would give her the money, but she already felt the drag of futility.
It was 8:30. She’d have to keep the insulation blower for another day.
Axmet leaned into the engine of Jonathan’s Subaru, listening. Jonathan liked Axmet very much. He was compact and muscled, and Jonathan particularly admired his shapely Caucasian moustache. He could be moody, sometimes passing Jonathan in the stairwell of his mother’s building without a greeting, but there was usually a kind of conspiratorial manliness about their interactions that Jonathan found flattering. A few times he had even been invited into the Gulnaevs’ kitchen for a glass of brandy, which had been served in a cordial class from a mirror-lined credenza jammed up against the fridge.