Archive for September, 2011

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For Russian Models.

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Buffalo buffalo, Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

In America, they cite this as the longest grammatically correct sentence made up of all one word. Buffalo of Buffalo! Your fellow buffalo from Buffalo often buffalo other Buffalo buffalo! If I were a buffalo, I might be mad. I try to think of a similar Russian word. Comrade, be a comrade to your fellow comrade! I have a lot of time to consider such nonsense since I have taken over caring for the cripple. The cripple looks close to one hundred. His hair is brittle and white. He looks shriveled, like the teat of a nanny goat. But he is only thirty.

In his leisure time, when I am not bathing or feeding him, he bangs away on an old typewriter. He only ever writes about the accident. He has written it from every perspective: his own, of course, but also from that of the nightguard that witnessed it, his friend the poet who was beside him and died, from the perspective of the beastly machine that did it, and even from the point of view of a goose being plucked for the fire near the circus tents.

The roller coaster had clinched the decision to have the circus on the island. The cripple, then just twenty-one, was accompanying the poet, who wrote for the newspaper, and was there to write a review of the circus and the fair that came along. The newspaper photographer insisted that they take a picture of the poet enjoying the island’s famous Roller Coaster.

I warn the cripple that he should not call the accident “the hand of God”, that the might be sent somewhere worse, without a caretaker. He tells me that nobody cares about a dried-up fig like him. I go on thinking my buffalo thoughts.

The typewriter is fitful. The cripple stops to breathe and it falls silent along with him – sometimes in bursts of five minutes or more, sometimes for only thirty seconds. Nine years of boxes line the hallway to his room up to the ceiling. The cripple re-examines the most significant minute and twenty seconds of his history every day. I wonder if it ever changes.

The photograph taken before lift-off is in a frame above the typewriter. The caption is something tragic, something about the death of a national poet and seventeen others. My charge, the cripple, is unsmiling. Maybe the safety bar was pressing into his balls (it must have been, that part of his anatomy hangs useless now). Maybe the poet had gas. Maybe the cripple was worried about missing the ferry back to the mainland. It is hard to say – does anyone look as they imagine they do as a photograph is being taken? My cripple stares at that photograph every time I help him to the desk, before he begins recounting.

The nightguard screams a warning that nobody hears.

The poet feels his monogrammed pen pierce first his notepad, then his thigh, before it snaps.

The roller coaster squeals dark delight at their doom.

The dead goose lies half-plucked and watches the structure come down.

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Sewing

A story for my Russian Models class, based on ten words. Expect to see one of these about once a week.

Alex had just been given a new – used – sewing machine. For most sixteen-year-old males living in Brighton Beach, this would not have been cause for celebration. But Alex looked at the machine like most guys look at a Cadillac. It was a foot and a half tall and half a foot wide. It had its own internal light and three different foots that he could change between, including a foot for sewing zippers.

“Thank you so much,” Alex told his parents. His mother looked away, sort of disgusted. His father gave him a look that he took to mean “don’t mention it – ever.”

It should have been a new hockey stick, a chess set, or even money for ballet lessons. All of those things, Russia was famous for. Any of those things would have been acceptable pastimes for the only son of Russian emigres. They had no use for “couture” – haut or otherwise.

Alex knew that it was his father who had finally relented. Alex had more than decent grades, and it was his parents’ custom to reward his diligence with a yearly gift during the summer months. When they had escaped Stalin and Russia and the troubles of poverty, Alex doubted that they had ever thought one of their children would grow up to watch fashion week and make clothing for the family dog.

Sometimes his mother seemed to long for her old life. She tried to make life in Brooklyn as close an approximation as possible. Her kitchen was sacred: “my stove, my pots, my dish, my spoon” – but Alex had shared a bedroom with his parents up until the age of thirteen, when he had insisted that he needed privacy. She had grown up in communal apartments, and Alex figured she still missed the closeness of her family all around her. There were other things too: she would only buy the pickles from the Russian import store, even though Alex told her that the brine tasted like soap, and she saved bales of newspaper in their basement.

Alex thought that his father was pretty normal, just quiet – and he never ate all that much. He insisted that Alex have second and even third helpings of just about everything though. His mother said that it was because of the gulag. Alex’s father had been labeled an extremist because of one of his university classes.

Well, the extra helping meant that not only was Alex a sixteen-year-old fashionisto with a new sewing machine, he was also rather chunky. Was Alex a target for bullies? No, of course not. They all wanted that he should teach them to sew and fix holes their gang jackets. Alex came home with a black eye about twice a month.

“Why not join a nice sport, Sacha? Why not boxing? Why not ice hockey? You could learn to give back as good as you get. Maybe better.” That was his mother’s solution. His father’s speech went more like this: “You’re different. I get it. It can be a very good thing. Only pretend and they will be able to ignore you. Instead, you affront them. You are a challenge to them.”

But they had given him his sewing machine. If Alex had a brother, or even a sister, maybe his parents would have given up on him. Seeing as he was the only game in town, even his mom eventually let him hem her skirts, and darn the household socks. The sewing machine signaled a new era – Alex became involved with more teams and organizations than anyone else that he knew. The ballet school needed costumes. The hockey team needed numbers on their jerseys and someone to sew the tears. The chess team – well, who kept up with the chess team anyhow? The bullying didn’t stop, but it was gentler. The old people in town called him “Alex the Haberdasher.”

In an effort to get rid of what his mother called his “puppy fat,” Alex started swimming at the beach. At the same time, he started making himself a suit. He wanted to wear his work to his first job interview. Sometimes, when he came out of the water after a long swim, his mother would be waiting with a hot bowl of borscht, and tell him how proud she was that Alex was practicing a sport – and an Olympic sport at that. She would list him the names of Russian Olympic swimmers, no matter how often Alex told her that, as an American, he couldn’t compete on the Russian team. It was the combination of swimming and borscht that caused the dreams.

In his dreams, Alex walked along the frozen beach and could not swim. His mother brought bowl after bowl of borscht anyway, and Alex ate until his stomach was swollen and distended. As he ate, a lone seagull wheeled above the beach, which Alex took for an albatross. Just when he thought that he would burst, a pair of hands landed on his shoulders. “You have grown fat on the misery of the poor. We’re sending you to the gulag.” Then, men in dark, handmade suits smashed his sewing machine and he would find himself in an old cabin, naked and cold. Alex knew it must be Siberia.

With the dreams, Alex slept less and less. He worked on his suit for the better part of a year, until it was summer again, the suit was ready, and his parents were ready to give him his gift. It was a plane ticket to Russia.

“You will be safe – you aren’t even a dual citizen,” said his mother.

His father seemed less sure, but still supported his mother. “Alex, it is time for you to meet your family.”

His mother liked how his suit had turned out, and insisted that he wear it for the journey, so that when he arrived in Russia, he would impress the cousin that came to meet him. Alex had never flown before – his family had never been able to afford fancy vacations. He boarded the plane, took his seat, and threw up all over himself as soon as they were in the air. With his baggage checked, Alex had to sit through the entire flight with vomit drying in his lap. When he got off the plane, he spotted his cousin Peter, holding up a sign for him. Alex told him what had happened.

Peter laughed, and said, “Welcome to Russia, Brighton Beach.”