During the war they spit and shit and peed in a metal container with rubber clamps at its sides as the turret of their tank scanned the burning fields outside of Stalingrad for German artillery. “In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks, and lives through breaking,” my dedushka quoted someone in his own loose Russian translation. “Scrub, spray, rinse, repeat,” he would add with a chuckle to subvert the otherwise grave implications of his tale as he rubbed a regenerative cream — three times a day for fifty years — into the memories in his backside, “that’s what we’d do when things really go bad, and then we’d sing to whims above us.”
“Spray, scrub, rinse, repeat… we were trained. At the front. Out of ammo. Mortar shells cratering around us. Dead or alive or dying. The lieutenant would order ‘spray, scrub, rinse, repeat!’ That’s how you conquer madness he told us. The purpose of all our training. To conquer the madness.”
“Dedushka, did they sing back?” I would ask, as my imagination ballooned with WWII soldier and angels, and other mythical things.
“Maybe,” he would say drifting back to something unpleasant, “but it was hard to hear with all that other noise,” he’s eyes briefly abandoning his otherwise permanent laugh lines. Then, noting my disappointment, “but you know, I think they sang. Yes, yes, I remember it! If we ever tried hard enough that is, I think we knew they were there.”
He had a bullet fragment buried in his right arm, and shrapnel just below his tale bone from when the hull of their T-34 was blown open. “That one,” he said, “was the one that hurt and keeps on hurting.” The depository container had taken the brunt of the chemical explosion in the breach and then shattered into its own thousand disgusting pieces, one of them permanently lodged in my grandfathers ass. “The shit saved my life,” he said, patting his ass again and chuckling.
He had other wounds too, deeper and less suitable for mocking. When as a boy, following our May Day celebrations, hungry for gory and beautiful details I asked him about the war, he dismissed my questions and answered, “… just… after that you can never have bad day. That’s… yes. Remember my stories and you will never have bad day.”
“I promise. Actors honor.”
He embraced the role of living. He was flawed but not broken. He did more than cover his troubles. He turned away from them towards laughter and the consumption of good things, towards the next exciting moment and, more so, his seduction of it. Towards women. He embodied the spirit of having survived. All eyes were on him. Each day a new play, the world his stage. He was a great actor, I was told.
Fresh from the front he marched into the prominent Michael’s acting studio and declared “I am an actor!” Likely stunned by the naive bravado of this little jew, still in his calvary boots, they took him in. When the studio was raided by the KGB on the final night of Bulgakov’s banned play Heart of a Dog — Stalin’s last attempt to crack down on the Jew artists — Emmanuel happened to be in the bathroom rubbing cream into his shrapnel. Hearing the shouts outside and having been gifted with a tiny frame he climbed through the window and stumbled into a woman in the alley. That’s how my grandmother was swept off her feet. He said escapes were always easy.
My grandmothers family would not let her marry an actor. “A vagabond trade,” is what my great-grandfather called it, rising his head from freshly sketched designs of his dream house. And so Emmanuel Freudzon went and acted like a lawyer for a year, just long enough to earn his law certificate and marry. He didn’t practiced a day of law in his life. He always wished to run away with the circus and such a life is no place for a lawyer.
He worked as an actor. Film and stage. With his jewish last name Emmanuel could not get easy stage work in the U.S.S.R, and so he dumped it and assumed a more appropriate Soviet moniker — something resembling a dead bolshevik. Years later, after my grandmother had walked out on him he went to work at the Shalom theater in Moscow. It became, above his first or second or third wife, above his children, his greatest love. He did not speak a word of yiddish, but such limitations were trifles for a man from the front conditioned to good days as he was. A fortunate soldier, he understood that happiness is an act that becomes you. If I was to be haunted by anyone, I wish it was him. At the least, then I could hear these stories from him, instead of always, only, in my mothers gifted retelling.
There was the knock on the door that comes after a series of ignored phone calls. It was early morning. As a first sound heard up from sleep it is the sense of a ghost returning, except coming up from the dream you are the ghost.
I was the only one sleeping alone and so after two minutes of knocking I opened the door to find my mother standing there. We stood like that for maybe half a minute, me looking to the sides and behind me without inviting her in, and her staring at me. Finally I stepped outside and closed the door. I had a glimpse of my condition then, standing there in my boxer shorts, miserably under weight, with all the things inside I did not want her to see. Our stairwell was exposed to the light in that way of the modern Florida architecture boom, intent on affirming that you are always in a state where shade and cover are a trick of geometric dissonance.
She kept watching me as I squirmed in the discomfort of the early morning. Her look, the only look I seem to remember since that night in 1990 when we landed in Florida, was one of concern.
My family ran away with the circus in 1989, and arrived in America almost a year later, on May 11th 1990. I remember this day because it is sandwiched between my mothers birthday and what was to become known as Mothers Day. May, for us, had always been a month of complicated celebrations. My family consists of my mother and I, and the ghosts I keep locked up in these pages.
After sixteen hours on the plane, six of which were spent in a grounded Boing 747 in Rome watching Arnold Schwarzenegger defeat an alien predator, we had finally landed in JFK airport. The passengers were excited. We weren’t exactly familiars, apart from the familiarity that comes from having escaped the same place, but after 16 hours spent together on a plane and another eight months independently spent lodged in varying holding patterns throughout Europe, our new contingent of American adoptees felt like a united, be it temporarily, wandering clan. We the nomadic tribe, the restless few, the prince’s of the desert… Eh, too many princes make for a blind kingdom.
I once saw a terrible movie with one really great monologue. I love film. A vacation is an early matinee alone and without a clock in sight. I took many such vacations in the months leading up to leaving Russia. I stopped going to school and instead went to the movies. I sought out American films. I was trying to educate myself. I did not see this movie then. Even had it already come out this monologue would have been banned even by the already fragile and crumbling Soviet State. No, this I saw years later. And the film was terrible. But the monologue was the one genuine and redeeming note of the story.
“One great monologue can change your life,” my grandfather used to say. This terrible script took place on a ship. We did not arrive on a ship but I understood its implications:
“It happened every time that someone would look up and see her. It’s difficult to understand. I mean, there were more than a thousand of us on that ship, traveling rich folk, immigrants, strange people and us. Yet, there was always one, just one who would see her first. Maybe he was just sitting there eating or walking on the deck. Maybe he was just there fixing his pants. He’d look up for a second, glance out to sea and he’d see her. Then he’d just stand there, rooted to the spot, his heart racing. And every time, I swear every damned time, he’d turn towards us, to the ship, towards everybody and scream… America! It’s a miracle… The one who sees America first. There’s one on every ship! And don’t be thinking it’s an accident or some optical illusion. It’s destiny. Those are people who had that precise instant stamped on their life. And when they were kids, you could look into their eyes and if you looked carefully, you’d already see her, America.”
But we never saw her, Miss Liberty. Years later I will move to New York, and I will make an appointment to meet her. Her crown and head will be permanently off limits. The torso will be as high as you can get. The American dream is a labor. There is no access to the crown but by private invitation. The best spot to see her, the most appropriate distance from which to pay your tribute, will be from Red Hook, Brooklyn — from a far. If you’re there, go have a drink at Sunny’s, if you’re still into that kind of thing.
From the airport our kielbasa perfumed tribe was ushered onto a bus and then to some small motel near the airport where we were fed crusty chicken from the state of Kentucky and sent to our rooms. In the morning everyone received their final papers and prepared for the final leg. To abandon such a journey is like a little death, similar to becoming a lawyer after a life of clowning. In that daylight bus ride back to the airport I saw men congregating next to a soup kitchen, I saw a tired prostitute fix her heel, I saw my first lurid handshake… “I’ve seen a few Americas,” is how that monologue ends.
My mother and I boarded a small plane en route to Florida. We went up, we went down. There was a welcoming party of some representatives from the Jewish Community. Someone took pictures. Soon we were told to dress up and look happy. A bald and skinny reporter with a harsh lisp asked us to list the things we were grateful for and to give an account of our “ordeal.” I was given a collared shirt and a sweater. My mother spoke english. She had learned this second language while still in middle school only instead of ‘color’ she wrote ‘colour.’ That’s why they picked us. We were good representatives, smart but in need, a photogenic vision of deprived potential. And then we were on the cover of some magazine as the embodiment of the newest jewish miracle.
From the airport my mother and I were driven to our subsidized apartment. The air was muggy. It was getting dark. I looked through the window in that way that the last 8 months had taught me, scanning the world for signs of civilization, novelty and play. But I saw nothing.
“Where are people?” I asked my mother, who too was looking out the window, looking for signs of her own earlier visions.
The light from abandoned street lights tattooed shadows on her face.
“Where are sidewalks?” I added.
Those shadows on her face became features, the webbed apparitions of doubt and concern that invaded her that day and never left.
I finally made eye contact with her. “Dedushka died,” she said. The drugs from last night released their hold.
Soon I was wearing pants. Soon I had coffee. Soon we were rushing around to see if the U.S. would release me but a fat lawyer with a half eaten croissant on his desk finally confirmed that because I was still an “alien” and did not have my citizenship the visa process would take at least three months. My mother chastised herself for waiting till after I turned eighteen to get her citizenship, and thus my not becoming automatically naturalized with her. She felt like it was the first time she had forgotten to bring me along.
On the drive back to my apartment, in a chokehold silence, she looked over me.
“You’re loosing a lot of weight, chucha.”
“Not enough. I’m worried. What is happening in that apartment?”
“Just living, ma.”
“Do you need anything.”
“Nope. All is great.”
I wanted to comfort her. To reach out and join her, hold with her the trials of passing. I wanted to mourn together, to have our shiva, but I could not wrap my head around how this mourning was different from the type we had done for those last ten years since leaving. Whether living or dead, all those we had left behind had long ago become specters for me. They were stories I could not speak back to. My memories of them were a one way conversation. A monologue but without an audience and thus driving me mad.
She drove tentatively, city born and anxious on the roads.
“Did I ever tell you how dedushka escaped the KGB and met my mother, your grandmother?” she asked.
“Yes ma, you have.”
“Have I told you about what happened with him in the war, and the shrapnel wound?”
She took a few picture of me before she left, to show the Russians how I have grown. We had not taken any pictures since arriving in the U.S, maybe afraid to document the facts.
The next day she flew out to Russia. Dima drove her to the airport. He had called me the night before to say he is around in case I needed anything, that maybe we should go get some sandwiches. She bought a new coat at goodwill, because her old one had expired. That morning I had woken up early, again, and called hoping to catch her just before she left.
“I just want… I wish… my god, just say hi to everyone from me, Ma,” I said before the answering machine ended its recording.
It is silly, but I hoped they remembered me.
And an hour later Rory showed up with a vile of liquid acid.
Spray, scrub, rinse, repeat. We were frantic in our cleaning. Beer bottles, takeout containers in various states of decomposition, loose papers, a jar filled with someone else’s urine — someone who is not here — and a green lamp, its base a ceramic frog, one of its marble eyes having been poked out, its chandelier studded with burn marks and the cave of the missing eye having become a depository for other peoples ash — all was getting tossed. Like our lives depended on it, in silence, we cleaned. We cleaned front and back, every crevice of our space, like never before, in the way our mothers must have in their solitary struggles, and must have wanted us to… in a daze, in a burrowing towards freedom, in euphoric desperation.
Had we had a handful of magic feathers we would have smudged with them.
We locked the door and unplugged the phone. Had a visitor intruded on us, we were prepared — through an unverbalized agreement between us — to ignore them, to be a haunting, to turn up the music, to let the knocking exhaust itself and brake apart upon our mission, to block out the sun in the toil of our actions.
Spray, scrub, rinse, repeat. We had no words left. We were dying inside and as if this act of repair, of silence, could stall some motion that had become greater than our earlier innocent pact, we trudged towards a veiled destination, we sweated, even if the act itself could not bring us back together again.
The new Chili Peppers album was the soundtrack. The balcony doors had been removed from their hinges and Tim used a wrench to straighten the warped slide-rail.
Rory, kept his attention to the kitchen, a frantic frown on his face, whitening each block of tile on the island with a tooth brush as if in the sterility of those concrete abrasions he could unearth some earlier simplicity in the design of this home.
Spray, scrub, rinse, repeat. I moved things, vacuumed the seat cushions, beat and beat and beat the rug with the un-dented side of the bat. Dusted the speakers and the television, hung a new shower curtain, made basic circles around the apartment, to check and recheck every crevice, always careful to sidestep and leave undisturbed the short soldier who stood in his ceremonial red army gear, saluting us with one hand, the other with his sword lifted in mourning. I knew he wasn’t real, but that sort of knowledge was not enough to make him go away.
That’s what two weeks of acid are like. That’s a glimmer of dark in a static house of gray. Who cares what happened. Who cares, now, what I knew and what not. I did not see my spirit animal. I did not meet my guide. There was no opening in the ground towards a grander illusion. There were other lost souls visiting us for more of the same, for the escape we offered, and the nightmare is that they are as living as we are.
When we had fallen apart there was no reconstitution. There is no spray, scrub, rinse, repeat, to put lost boys back together again. In Amerikana Dreaming abandonment is the counting of sheep, divided from the prairie, from the tangible dream, by an ever widening moat. And we, spray, scrub, rinse, repeat, were its soldiers turned on each other.
I spent my mourning period trying to conjure up visions of my grandfather but without the guiding voice of my mothers stories, I had no building blocks — just mute nightmares.
Spray, scrub, rinse, repeat, the soldier stood there, useless and only obstructing my path, wordless, motionless, like a statue tempting me to wake up. Only his eyes followed me, only his eyes challenged me to name this disaster, and we, the lost boys of that decade, we were all laughing.
Nikita Nelin was born in Moscow, Russia and immigrated to the U.S in 1989. He has lived in Austria and Italy, and has traveled the U.S extensively. He received the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, the 2011Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdon short fiction prize. His work has appeared in Southword Journal, Catamaran Literary Reader, Tablet Magazine, Joyland Magazine, Elephant Journal, Mission at Tenth, Electric Literature, and other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, and is currently working on his first collection of stories, as well as a hybrid project around student debt.