The fall of Communism offers an immigrant a space in time to heed their calling, that of a caregiver. A short story that ultimately asks: Who is it that helps the helpers…
by: Rimma Kranet
Jerry knew that he would be out of a job before the day was over. He stood with his hands behind his back, dressed in a dark suit and a new silk tie that hung loose around his neck. Michael’s wife had given it to him as a gift.
He was out of place amongst all of the unfamiliar faces that were swollen by the passing of time and smoothed over with the crafty needles of Botox. After all, this was not his relative to mourn. He was merely there to do his duty; declining the invitation would have been disrespectful. His tall frame with wide shoulders and muscular back stood out from the rest of the guests who, with the exception of the immediate family, were at least ten years his senior. He was restless and wished that he could make small talk with someone, but although everyone spoke his native tongue, nobody approached him.
His gaze fell on the portrait leaning against a black easel on the stage. Michael smiled at him in bright Kodachrome, his hand propped against his once supple, round cheek as if he were deep in thought.
Jerry would only remember him as large, heavy, and bedridden. A man who did not resist and did not speak and thus made his chores less burdensome. A man whose yielding, immobile body he would turn in the middle of the night, protecting it from the deep, festering wounds that would otherwise form and eat away at the delicate fibers of his skin. One night to the left, one night to the right.
He wondered if one day he too would be mute and misunderstood, a living cadaver to be wrestled, being spoken of while he lay absent, unable to interrupt, disagree, or cry out in pain. His eyes spontaneously filled with tears.
The Rabbi appeared, quieting the rustling of feet and whispering, enveloping the room in a reticent lull. Jerry found himself sitting amongst the family members, surrounded by grieving aunts and uncles, cousins, children, grandchildren, and the inconsolable widow of the man frozen in a smile looking down on them all.
“We are here to celebrate the life of Michael…he who is now in the Holy Land….”
Jerry was not Jewish, but the yarmulke balancing precariously on his head gave him a sense of responsibility and so he sat poised and attentive.
“Michael was a good man, a loving husband and father, a provider for his family and an unusually generous man. May the ground be a bed of feathers for him”.
Jerry was familiar with this expression but surprised that a Rabbi would use it at such a formal gathering. He thought of it as a provincial Russian colloquialism used when speaking of the deceased, but found its meaning to be absurd. How could the ground be anything but damp and filled with worms? How could it give comfort when it was dense and rough to the touch?
He knew the ground well, the dirt and the romantic visions of the Motherland which kept the farmers plowing and the agricultural mill churning. In the Ukraine, Jerry had grown tomatoes with his brother to supplement his income from the railroad.
To others in the countryside, the earth was a metaphor for rebirth, but Jerry saw it only as something practical, a source of nutriment and a place to hide things that should be kept out of sight.
The Rabbi motioned to Michael’s wife. Jerry hoped her speech wouldn’t take too long as he was already looking forward to the buffet which he knew would follow.
She read from a sheet of paper into the microphone, her small voice crackling with emotion. Initially speaking in a stunted English, she gave into her frustration and switched to Russian. Her speech was a dramatic retelling of a shared life, a courtship, and how many years earlier her husband’s emotional strength had sustained her through their time as newly disoriented immigrants in the United States.
“Finally, I would like to thank Yuri for his priceless contribution and for his efforts in keeping Michael with us these past two years. Thank you, Yuri, Michael appreciated everything you did for him, just as we all did. Thank you.”
Jerry flinched, caught off guard by the sound of his name. Yuri, who in America became Jerry, saw himself as a particularly sensitive and caring individual, one who had a very clear idea of right and wrong. Yet he assumed the role of caregiver mainly because his lack of language skills limited him to doing what the non-English-speaking Russian community needed — assisting in the tedious process of dying — which did not call for excellent communication skills, but a strong back and stable nerves.
All eyes seemed to shift to look at Jerry, even the people in the back rows leaned forward to see the subject of such heartfelt gratitude. He awkwardly scanned the solemn faces, which seemed to take on a kinder, softer glow. Filled with pride, and governed by his superstitious nature, he suddenly felt that he had been chosen, endowed by a higher power to be a guardian, to protect those weaker than himself, and that he was indeed a righteous man.
Because death was inevitable and a palpable element of his occupation, Jerry was particularly aware of his mortality and of the time spent alone, away from his family and all the things that were dear to him. Hidden in the circumscribed hills of “Mount Olympus,” surrounded by opulence and fenced in by thick hedges trimmed to maniacal perfection, he knew that he was not living his own life, but stagnating in someone else’s. Lured by the occasional sound of children’s laughter or music coming from the adjoining property, he would try to peer through the dense shrubbery into the neighbour’s backyard to escape the unnatural stillness of his habitat.
He missed his wife and his native city of Zaporizhzhia but most of all he missed seeing the clouds converge on the horizon over the river Dnieper, the floating tapestries that to him resembled knights or the remains of a battleship, burning forests or a field of sunflowers. He could spend hours mesmerized by the slow motion of air and water.
His greatest pleasure came from his weekend fishing trips when he was out on the water in time to watch the sunrise and marvel at the thick, regal forest surrounding him. In the bark of the trees he saw a reflection of his skin, now etched with the deposits of time. In the gnarled, craggy branches, his hands, dry and calloused from years of working on the railroad. He sat immobile, gently tugging his fishing line with an agile flick of his wrist, and listening to water lapping at the sides of his modest wooden boat. Lulled into idleness by the swaying movement of the current below, Jerry pledged complete devotion to his motherland and to its people, his heart bursting with something beyond love, a sentiment that even he could not understand. Those outings ignited in him a state of well being that he could only explain as “mystical” and that he could not do without.
The fall of Communism unhinged his life. The startling abundance of opportunity led to a new, unfamiliar problem: what to do with all this freedom? While the intellectuals starved, trying to reason through the unfamiliar reality of their daily existence, Jerry instantly understood that this space in time was like a fortochka, a small window. All it took was a change of direction and the wind would swing it shut once again.
Later, in the United States he recounted his many schemes to anyone who would listen as proof of his astute nature and perseverance. The most profitable of all of his endeavors during that time of his life was the sale and distribution of cognac. “I worked out every detail,” he would explain. “The barrels of liquor were hidden in my garage. I had labels printed, bought beautiful glass bottles and even placed a hot wax seal on the front to make it look more expensive and comparable to the authentic product they sell in the liquor stores in the city. People went mad for it. Now every time there was a special occasion they came to me for their liquor supply. They gave my bottles as gifts and because it really was good quality. They came back again and again. My luck is that everyone in our corner of the earth loves to drink. There are more alcoholics than crooks in our town. Once they figured out where to go, they would come find me even in the middle of the night, climb into the garage, pay me to drink directly from the barrels. They would even come with their own mugs, that’s how desperate they were to get their fix. So what, I didn’t care. I sold to everyone, I didn’t discriminate. Money is money. I am a simple man, a working man…do you think all those illegal dealings didn’t fill me with fear? Of course they did, to the very bone. I drove my covered van at night with crates of bottled cognac in the back, covered by a canvas throw. I always took my wife with me so as not to raise any suspicion — two married people who get lost on a dark back road. It made more sense than a single guy driving in the dead of night through the empty countryside. You had to be smart, you had to be ready for anything, you had to always have a plan, an explanation for what you were doing in any particular place and time. I drove slow so that the bottles wouldn’t rattle, a menacing sky the color of freshly picked blueberries suspended above us. I remember leaning out of the window, my heart pounding so hard I almost fainted. I breathed in the fresh air and slowly I came back to myself. We were all taking a risk. If they caught us it meant going to prison. But that’s just how we lived. We risked so we could have a new pair of boots for the winter.”
The Rabbi motioned for everyone to rise and with a lyrical prayer on his lips he ushered the guests outside to the burial site. Jerry marveled at the theatrics of it all as he watched the guests brush past him to take their places,and it occurred to him that this was an ode to the staggering power of Death. The bereaved and inquisitive gathered under a canopy to pay their respects and to observe the youthful Rabbi adorned by his James Bond good looks as he recited the “Mourner’s Kaddish”.
Like all citizens of the ex Soviet Union, Jerry was an atheist. More than the power of God, he believed in destiny and perhaps a bit of luck. As a child he was taught that certain invisible entities wield their mystic powers over the living and not to question how or why.
One by one the mourners approached the coffin being lowered into the awaiting cavity, its smooth lacquered surface deflecting the rays of the sun. To the side of the open grave there was a mound of freshly removed earth with a shovel planted firmly in the middle. As per the Jewish tradition, each mourner was to throw a shovel of dirt on the deceased.
Jerry intentionally backed away, not wanting his ears to resonate with the “thump” of the heavy earth hitting the casket, a sound that echoed with emptiness and loss. This reverberation of life’s end, of the soil’s compactness, layer upon layer pushing the dead into the very fibers of the earth had a profoundly disturbing effect on him. He had been a witness to many such ceremonies and every time had refused to partake in the tradition, which in his view disrespected the dead by placating the vanity of the living.
The buffet was held at Chrystal, a popular venue in West Hollywood. Jerry had no intentions of socializing with anyone. He was there exclusively to seek out the consolation of food, as it brought temporary relief from his permanent state of anxiety. He filled his plate more than once with dishes like Blini, Pirozhki, Zharkoe, Borscht, and an array of cold and hot appetizers. Dishes whose names were familiar but once in his mouth, tasted foreign. The Borscht he made back home was rich with beef and bone marrow, it was overflowing with cabbage, it’s color a blood red from freshly grown beets. Here it looked a transparent watery pink with thin strips of meat brushing against the inner rim of his white porcelain plate. He wanted to add a spoonful of sour cream to make up for its lack of substance, but that too fell short of the heavy, creamy rich texture that he so yearned for.
He sat alone, absorbed by his meal, trying to consume as much as his body would allow. He didn’t care if people looked at him, or past him, he did not mind being unseen. Hovering over his half-empty plate he reached for several thick slices of black bread.
“Is everything alright here? Did you have enough to eat?” Michael’s wife ran her hand up and down Jerry’s back in a soothing gesture of affection. Too distracted by his own thoughts to have noticed her small figure approaching, Jerry observed that she looked fragile and unkempt. Her dress was too tight for someone her age, her eyeliner smeared from crying.
“All good…of course…thank you,” he replied.
Shortly after, Jerry rose from the table, sluggishly drifted through the banquet hall and overcome with the gravity of sleep, made his way through the Hollywood Hills to Michael’s house on “Mount Olympus” for the last time. The narrow winding road lined with trees seemed unusually long and laborious. Once there, he took a nap and later in the evening packed up his things and emptied out the quarters that were his home for the last two years. In the morning he would load all of the plastic bags filled with transient living into his car and drive off. He had nowhere to go, no plans, and no new employment.
Rimma Kranet is a Ukrainian-American writer with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from University of California Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Construction Lit, Coal Hill Review, EcoTheo Collective, The Common Breath, Drunk Monkey, Door Is A Jar Magazine and in The Short Vigorous Roots: A Contemporary Flash Fiction Collection of Migrant Voices. She resides between Florence, Italy and Los Angeles, California.