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?”

“Yes, 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.

“Bad sparkplug wires,” Axmet said, straightening up.

“Didn’t you change them last month when you tuned it?”

Axmet shrugged cryptically and closed the hood. He had been a mechanical engineer back in Chechnya, but Jonathan suspected that he was not a very good auto mechanic. His repairs were never without complications. For instance, the Subaru had been guzzling fuel since the tune-up. Jonathan was loath to complain, though, because Axmet had only charged him for parts (air filter, points, plugs, and wires). Axmet himself had insisted on listening to the engine just now; he’d been sitting on a kitchen chair on the sidewalk when Jonathan pulled up.

“I can replace wires.”

“Well, I’m kind of running around today, Axmet.”

“Leave the key, Jonathan! I can fix it now.”

“I told my mother I’d take her to Home Depot. Can I look for you in an hour or so?”

“Of course, Jonathan!”

This was all part of a complex system of barter between his mother and the Gulnaevs. Axmet worked on his Subaru and Helena’s Civic. She’d had eyeliner tattooed on her face at Zabet’s salon. (The idea creeped Jonathan out). Zabet was always bringing food upstairs: black bread or borscht or some Chechen dish. All this was in exchange for rent forgiven — their mandated contribution to the Section 8 payment. And, he suspected, other favors. As much as he liked Axmet, Jonathan found the Gulnaevs frustrating and depressing. The stories his mother told him about them were full of baroque Chechen problems requiring Chechen solutions: bribes, arranged marriages, Soviet-era medicine. It seemed to him that the family was not any better off after seven years of his mother’s interventions, and he wondered if she would have become so involved with them if they were from somewhere else. On her bookshelf: Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Idries Shah.

“Tell your mother dryer is fixed,” Axmet called out as Jonathan climbed the front steps. “Tell her it was thermal fuse. And thanks her again. For Alla.”

Jonathan found Helena in her kitchen. She poured her coffee into a mayonnaise jar, screwed on the lid, and put the jar in her purse — one of her bizarre habits of thrift.

“Axmet says to thank you for Alla. What does that mean, thanks for Alla?”

By the set of his mother’s jaw, he could tell she’d loaned them more money.

“What do you need at Home Depot?” he asked when she didn’t answer his first question.

“A door.” She belted her jacket. “For the dining room in the first floor. Zabet is bringing Alla back from Dagestan in a few days with her baby, and they need to turn it back into a bedroom.”

“Alla’s moving back in?”

“Zabet doesn’t want to leave her with her husband’s family while she’s recuperating.”

“Recuperating from what?”

Helena waited until they were in Jonathan’s car to answer. “The doctors said it was herpes simplex five.”

“Simplex five? I’ve never heard of that. Did her husband pick it up from a hooker?”

She frowned. “I should do some childproofing.”

“How long is she staying?”

“I don’t know. I’m hoping she doesn’t go back at all. Zabet didn’t come out and say it, but I think her husband has been abusing her.”

“Jesus. What next?”

Helena looked tired under the fluorescent lights at Home Depot. As she reached up for a package of cabinet latches, Jonathan noticed her tights had worn through at the heels. It infuriated him to think how the Gulnaevs must see his mother: a rich American landlady. “You should get the cheapest piece of hollow-core shit they have, Mom,” he said as they walked through the aisle of doors, craning their necks.

“Hah. You sound like Adlan. I asked him what happened to the old door, and he said he threw it away. ‘I never saw a piece of shit like that before I moved to your country.’ That’s what he said.” She leafed through the doors on the rack like pages in a newspaper. “The cheapest six-panel is $80.00, without the hardware. Maybe I can get something at the salvage yard.”

The rest of them were depressing. Adlan, though, Jonathan actively disliked. He assumed Adlan, who struck him as some kind of charlatan with his skull cap and hiphop pants, was behind the family’s religious turn — and therefore, he assumed, this latest misery.

“Why do you let him talk to you like that?” he said. “They aren’t even paying rent.”

“Yes they are.”

“You told me they weren’t.”

“I’m getting Section 8,” she said crossly.

“I know that. But you said they were supposed to be paying some of it themselves.”

“Axmet lost his job. Zabet’s hours got cut back.”

“Of course they cut her hours back. Who wants to get make-up tattooed on their face by a lady in a burka?”

“It’s not a burka. It’s a hijab.”

“Anyhow, I guarantee you Section 8 did not approve that apartment for four adults and a baby.”

Helena took the mayonnaise jar out of her pocketbook and unscrewed the lid. “Maybe it would be better if Alla and her baby stayed upstairs with me.”

“What? Where are they going to sleep?” Helena had two bedrooms in her apartment, but one was stripped down to the studs and completely filled with tools. “Mom?”

“I heard you. They can sleep in my room, of course.” She screwed the lid back on without taking a drink.

“And where are you going to sleep?”

“The sofa pulls out.”

Jonathan enjoyed telling people about his mother’s crazy building: the Chechens, the Tanzanians, sneaking around with the passive solar panels. Still, the thought of her in her flannel nightgown, stacking the cushions on the floor and pulling out the sofa bed, of the dusty old blankets he remembered from his own childhood, her scratched reading glasses and pill bottles on the cluttered end table — the whole picture filled him with shame.


Helena had spent a week removing the old shingles from the front wall of her building — a job that should not have taken more than a few days. She pulled out the nails with a cat’s paw, bundled the shingles with twine, and stacked them in the alley on the side of the house so she could put them out for the trash men a few bundles at a time. Now she was nailing on new shingles, working from the ground up. She used a chalk line to keep the courses straight. She was almost up to the second floor windows. Looking around, she saw that she’d forgotten to bring the level with her the last time she moved the plank.

Axmet sat on a kitchen chair at the end of the flagstone walk, looking out at the street. It had become his regular spot in the last few months. Helena called out to him: “Axmet, can you pass me that level?” He didn’t turn around, so she called again, louder this time, and he jumped up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Could you pass me the level?”

He got up and steadied himself against the neighbor’s house.

“Are you okay?”

“Headache,” he said.

Helena knelt on the plank and reached down as far as she could. He passed the level into her extended hand. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m so tired of climbing up and down. So, Axmet, did Alla tell you about the place we looked at?”

“What place?”

“Horizon House.” She held the level up to the shingles and pried loose the one she’d just nailed on. “They offer GED classes. Alla shouldn’t need much help, though; she could probably pass the test if she took it today. But they do have some job training.”

“Alla is going to college?” Axmet looked confused.

“No. Well, maybe. It’s more like a residential program.”

“Why Alla don’t stay here?”

“I’m not sure it’s … well, do you think it’s safe for Alla and her baby to stay here right now?”

“Why not is safe?”

“You know her husband’s been calling, right? Threatening to send someone to take the baby?”

His face hardened. “Don’t worry Movladi. I can take care Movladi.” He sat back down on his chair, facing away from the house.


Upstairs in her apartment, Helena found Zabet sitting on the sofa with Alla’s baby, a curly-haired little girl named Malina.

“Galina, come sit!” Zabet moved the baby onto her lap and patted the cushion next to her.

“Just give me a moment,” Helena said, taking off her tool belt.

“I am showing Malina her mother’s wedding video. Sit for a minute.”

Helena sat down.

A snow-topped mountain, a sky of impossible blue. A waterfall dissolving into a beautiful sunset. A pure white dove gliding across the screen, peeling away the sunset with its beak to reveal the image beneath: three old women chopping vegetables in an outdoor kitchen. “Those are Movladi’s aunties,” Zabet said. She pressed fast-forward as a wedding tent went up in juddering video frames. She took her thumb off the button to show Adlan offering a stack of dollar bills to another young man. “Movladi. This is, they are pretending only. A — “

“A ritual?” asked Helena.”

“Yes, a ritual. See, Movladi turn him away.”

Young women danced across a cement courtyard in long, brightly colored dresses, hands held high in elegant shapes. Zabet’s free hand twisted with the rhythm of the pandur music in the background. “See, Malinochka? Your mother is the best dancer. You remember, Galina. You take her to dance class.”

More chopping of vegetables. Cartoon animals scampered through the scene — a squirrel, a deer, a porcupine.

“Movladi’s family pay a lot of money for this video,” Zabet said. “Is the best director in Almaty.”

Now the camera followed a line of white Mercedes limousines, and now a row of men in dark, old-fashioned clothes sitting on wooden chairs. Helena recognized Axmet among them. She was startled for a moment, as though she had spotted him in a Stalin-era ethnographic film.

“Zabet, how is Axmet doing? He didn’t seem well when I saw him just now.”

Zabet sucked air between her teeth: tsstch. “You know his headache get all the time worse. And he don’t eat without throwing up.”

“What does the doctor say?”

“The doctor said he have to stop working, he need resting. But what working?” She offered a palm to the sky.

The camera wobbled around a room full of women, stopping at Alla in her wedding dress. Zabet was fixing the veil on her head, which was surrounded by yellow cartoon birds.

“There,” Zabet said, hitting pause. “There, see?” Handing the baby to Helena, she got up and tapped the screen. “One of my necklace — garnet and pearl. That one is Alla’s favorite. Galina, I have to get dinner started. There’s a bottle in the fridge for Malina, and Alla will coming home soon. She say 5:30, latest.” She kissed Malina on the cheek and let herself out the back door.

Helena carried Malina to the kitchen and put her in her high chair. The baby reached up expectantly with her starfish hand, and Helena gave her a spoon — something for her to bang on her tray.

“Buh,” said Malina.

“Buh,” answered Helena.

“Buh BAH.”

Helena was thinking about Alla’s wedding dress, its scoop neck and princess sleeves. She wondered if Alla wore her headscarf and abaya in Grozny.

The front door slammed, then the bedroom door. Helena picked up the baby. She found Alla in the bedroom, dumping her suitcases out on the floor. The recent illness had made her face narrower, and Helena was struck by how different she looked from the girl in the video. She pushed her sleeves back and clawed through the pile. She still had on the thin black rubber bracelets she’d worn in high school — a dozen on each wrist.

“What are you looking for?” Helena asked.

“Malina’s passport.” She extracted it from a zippered pouch and tried to tear it in half, then started ripping out pages and crumpling them.

“Stop that, Alla, and tell me what happened.”

Alla dropped the passport and leaned against the bed. “He says I have to send her to Movladi’s family.” Her eyes watered, and she bent forward, hiding her face.

“Who said that?”

“Papa,” she said through her hands. “I can’t believe you told him about Horizon House.”

“Oh, Alla, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it was a secret.”

“Did you tell him about the herpes, too?”

“Of course not!” But she wasn’t sure. Had she mentioned it?

Malina whined and twisted toward her mother. Helena set her down on the floor next to Alla. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and she really was. Nothing she did turned out right.


Jonathan’s mother looked up at him anxiously while he disassembled the top layer of scaffolding. He could see it was killing her not to be holding the hammer herself.

“I would have come over and helped you with the shingles if you’d said something.”

“I didn’t need help with the shingles. I just need you to loosen those couplings for me.”

She was wearing a wraparound skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her legs were covered in bruises. He noticed that her hair, pinned in a messy bun on top of her head, had turned from blonde to white.

“You can’t do this by yourself,” he said. He hammered in silence for a while. “You know — ” He stopped himself.

“What? What do I know?”

He turned around. “Okay. You could hire someone to do this shit for you if you’d stop giving your money away.”

“I don’t want to hire someone.” Her mouth was puckered stubbornly. “I’m perfectly capable of shingling my own house. And it was a loan.”

Jonathan exhaled “Right, the necklaces. I forgot.” He went back to hammering. “They aren’t your family,” he said. “You have a family. If they were your family, Adlan would be up here doing this instead of strutting around like a holy pimp. Treating his own sister like chattel.”

“You don’t know anything about it,” Helena said, shouting over the clang of Jonathan’s hammer.

“I know you think you’re helping, but you’re not,” he said reasononably. “Throwing money at those people will not solve their problems.”

When he looked down again, she’d gone inside the house. He’d resolved to go upstairs and make some sort of conciliatory gesture when she reappeared, holding a sheet of paper.

“Axmet asked me to show you this,” she said. “Adlan’s college essay. He wants a man’s opinion.” She handed it up to him and went back inside.

I would like to thank the Admission Committee for wondering to know more about me. As you will see in my record, I am a very good student in math, and also Physics. I hope to be a mechanical engineer one day, so it is not important that I don’t have such a good marks in English and some other subjects, though of course I love the English Language very much. Also, that I graduated from Highschool over two years ago.

One more thing you might like to know about me is the person I most admire. This Person is my father, Mr. Axmet Gulnaev, age 45. He is a strong Patriarch of our family, when we came seven years ago from Chechnya. In Chechnya, as you may know, we have two wars so that we can be a free country from Russia. This is what I admire most about America that it became free from Britain after much bloodshed and courage and it is no different for Chechnya. I admire Axmet Gulnaev because he was kidnaped by the police and beaten, but he took us his family, to this country. My father was is was a mechanical engineer in Chechnya, as I will be one here. That is the other think I admire about America, that anyone who works hard will get his reward.


In the jewelry stores up and down Newbury Street, they’d taken one look at Zabet’s hijab and directed her elsewhere, hands hovering above panic buttons. That was what she told Helena.

“You think I was carrying bomb,” she said.

Someone told her about a specialist in Downtown Crossing who bought antique jewelry for private clients. They knew what she had, but they didn’t think she did.

“‘Where did you get this?’ They ask me that, and then they insulted me with their offers.”

She took the necklaces to Brookline, where she hoped her Russian would do her some good, but no one offered even a quarter of what they were worth. Finally, an appraiser told her that the market for her jewelry was in Moscow, so the Gulnaevs pooled their money and bought her a plane ticket. She had an appointment that Axmet’s cousin’s husband’s college roommate set up.

“I’d love to see Moscow again,” Helena said to Zabet on the way to the airport.

“You have been to Moscow, Galina?”

“I was there in, let’s see, 1968. With my first husband.”

“1968,” Zabet said wonderingly. “That was a long time ago.” She opened her pocketbook and checked to see that she had remembered all her documents. “Thank you for looking after Alla and Malina,” she added in Russian.

Ne problema. No problem.”

“Oh,” she said, returning to English, “This is insurance card for Axmet. I don’t let him keep it, because he will lose. Can you remind him he have doctor appointment on Friday?”

“Friday. Yes, what time?”

“Friday at 10:00.”

“I’ll make sure he gets there,” Helena said. “I’ll take care of everything.”

She stopped at the curb outside the international terminal. She meant to wait until Zabet got inside, but a shuttle van pulled up behind her and honked. As soon as she got home, exhaustion overtook her and she lay down on the sofa. The shingling was done and she’d replaced two windows, but she’d meant to accomplish so much more, and now the summer was over.

She closed her eyes and saw Moscow, washed in Instamatic green.

Monumental plazas, fountains lined with tulips. Streets nearly empty; shop windows displaying Bulgarian canned goods in sparse pyramids. Zabet steps off a green and white electric tram. Her hair is cut stylishly short and dyed a reddish brown. She looks at the street name high up on the corner building. She shows a piece of paper to an old grandmother sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store, and follows her indicating gesture through a gate to an inner courtyard.

Zabet comes out of her appointment smiling. The envelope she’s holding bulges with hard currency. She crosses to the median island of the wide boulevard, disappears briefly behind a passing bus, and reappears on the opposite sidewalk in front of a kiosk, the kind that sells sausages and piroshki and potatoes stuffed with herring. She changes her mind, and instead, she walks a few blocks west and crosses the Borodinsky Bridge to the market near the Kievsky train station. She’ll buy some bread and apricots, and maybe some tomatoes, the kind they grow in Kizlyar: deep red, almost the color of plums. She’ll eat her picnic on a bench in the vaulted waiting room of the station. Zabet is gone.

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