September 21, 2012


A writing exercise was well underway when I showed up late, again, for my third grade 
Russian language class.  The teacher, a large woman with the crudely chiseled body of a socialist realist public sculpture, looked happy to see the little fucker who often had more important things to do than to come to her class on time.  Had I missed the class, I could have pleaded illness or family business and avoid the failing grade, which now I would surely get because there wasn’t enough time left for me to do the required work.

     Having glanced at the infantile topic written on the blackboard, I concluded that my teacher’s happiness was premature.  As an 8-year old who read books even during meals, and whose then current favorites included Gogol, Chekhov, and Oscar Wilde (the last in translation), I could handle this kind of writing with a degree of aplomb, not to mention machine-like efficiency. 
      My usual strategy, taught to me by my father, was to begin with a generality vague enough to be plausibly attributed to some figure of authority, trust, and respect: Pushkin, Lenin, a decorated war veteran living next door.  The rest would be guaranteed to benefit, however slightly, from the esteem accorded to my alleged source of inspiration. On that occasion I decided to fabricate something said by my history teacher, a grizzled Party member who was the most senior and the most feared teacher in my school.  After opening with “My history teacher Sergei Pavlovich once said ... ,” I would need only a few platitudes, stated in plain, grammatically correct sentences, to fill the rest of the page and give my teacher another case of indigestion from unfulfilled vengeance. 
      Time was running out.  I opened my blue book.
      Almost as soon as I began to write, the pen ran out of ink.  With my heartbeat ticking away precious seconds I looked at the backpack on the floor, not sure if there was another pen somewhere among the textbooks, notebooks, and assorted junk I routinely hauled with me to school.  There wasn’t.  And even if there were, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  While I was bent over the backpack, rummaging for something to write with, the teacher passed through the aisle collecting everyone’s  work, finished or not.  By the time I straightened up, my blue book was gone.
      The failing grade for that writing exercise turned out to be the least of my problems.   It had not occurred to me at the time that the five words I succeeded in putting down on paper -
My history teacher Sergei Pavlovich
- already amounted to a complete, if grimly terse answer to the assignment’s topic, which was
What I’d love to see hanging on my Christmas tree.
Late in the afternoon of the following day, my father, who worked at home, was yanked away from his typewriter by the telephone call from the principal’s office.  He was asked to come to school at once to discuss an alarming matter concerning his son.
      I was already home from school when my father came back.  Making a cup of tea for himself in the kitchen, he told me about being called to school because of what the principal described to him as disturbing anti-social tendencies manifested in my writing exercise. 
      “I promised the principal that you will be severely reprimanded, and that you will write a sincere letter of apology to your teacher,” my father announced between sips of tea.  “I also promised him a pair of free box seat tickets to the theater, although I suspect that the play will strain your principal’s underdeveloped brain.”
       My father seemed to be in a surprisingly jovial mood.  After finishing his tea, he lit a cigarette and asked with an affable smile, “So tell me, you misshapen affront to genetics, what exactly did you hope to achieve with that literary stunt of yours?”
      I told him what really happened.  My father’s jovial mood evaporated.
       “Too bad,” he sighed, visibly disappointed. “I thought you were becoming funny...”

It was not until several months later, at the funeral feast for my maternal grandfather, that I managed to redeem myself in my father’s eyes.  I was standing next to my parents when we were approached by one of the distant relatives – a thin, sedate middle-aged woman whose narrow face reminded my mother of a Modigliani portrait, and my father of a daydreaming baboon.  After exchanging a few words with my parents, the woman put her bony hand on my shoulder and gently assured me that grandpa is now smiling at us from above.
      “I hope his false teeth don’t fall out,” I replied thoughtfully.  “One of us down here might get badly hurt.”
      The woman froze.  My mother gasped and fixed my father with an angry ‘It’s all your doing!’ stare.  My father – eyes bulging, lips tightly shut – looked like he was trying to swallow a meatball without chewing.  When he regained his composure he barked at me to get out of the room. 
     The next morning I found a one-ruble bill in my coat pocket.  The bill was inside a twice folded sheet of white paper from the stack next to my father’s typewriter.     

When my father died last summer, I spent part of that day in the backyard of my suburban house on the other side of the Atlantic, a glass of bourbon in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  Squinting at the blurry July sun I recalled one of the last phone conversations we had before a pearly thread of saliva, stretching from the corner of his mouth to the stained pillowcase, became his only link to reality.                                                           
      I told my father I was thinking about visiting him for a few days.
      “What the hell for?” he inquired with cheerful perplexity. “It’s not like I don’t remember how you look.”
      I feigned indignation. “What do you mean What the hell for?  For whatever the hell it is that people do in such circumstances.  Talk.  Adjust a pillow. That sort of thing.”
     “We’ve been talking for years on the phone just fine,” he said after a short silence. “As for adjusting a pillow,” he added, “in my situation that would indeed be helpful. But only if you were to place the pillow on my face and press down on it hard for a couple of minutes.  Since I doubt you’d do it, I honestly don’t see any good reason for you to come all the way to Kiev.”
      I felt relieved and began to maneuver the conversation toward my usual ‘We’ll talk again soon’ coda.  This time, however, my father remarked that, given how things are, the conversation may well be our last.
      I didn’t argue.
      “If it is, I hope you won’t be smiling at me from above,” I said, referring to the childhood incident which I knew he never forgot.
       “Are you kidding?” he growled, “I haven’t been smiling for quite some time now.  There are several gold crowns in my mouth, and I don’t want your perpetually unemployed brother to bring a pair of pliers with him on his next visit.”
      I was grinning when he hung up.

*      *      *


Anonymous said...

Liked the story, but not sure what it has to do with the lovely picture of Kyiv.

Brent Miller

Anonymous said...

I want to buy Boom's book.

RonanM said...

I cannot think of anything interesting or witty to say, but I wanted to tell you that a hurried cup of coffee between classes became a little moment of peace, reading your story.