Shortly before Victor Shulman was to leave on his vacation his father called him at the office to say that
Sander Rabinsky had died. From the tone of his father's voice, and from the simple fact that his father
had felt compelled to call him at work, Victor understood he was expected to recognize the name Sander Rabinsky and also to grasp the significance of the man's passing. Not wanting to disappoint his father he held the phone and said nothing. In recent years many of his father's friends had started to take ill and die. For the most part, these were friends from his father's youth, men whom Victor could not remember, having not seen them in the twenty-five years since the Shulmans left Riga and settled in Los Angeles. For Victor they existed, if at all, in the forty-year-old photos in which they, along with his own father, appeared bare-chested and vigorous on the Baltic shore. Simka, Yashka, Vadik, Salik: athletes, womanizers, and Jewish professionals, now interred in cemeteries in Calgary, New Jersey, and Ramat Gan. Victor assumed that Sander Rabinsky was of the same company, although that didn't quite explain why his death merited a special phone call.
Sander Rabinsky was dead, which was of course sad, Leon Shulman explained, but there was more to it.
Sander had been Leon's last remaining connection in Riga and the one Leon had entrusted with overseeing the erection of a new monument to his own father, Wolf Shulman. Of late, Leon and Sander had been in constant contact. Sander had been acting on Leon's behalf with the stonecutter and
functioning as liaison with the Jewish cemetery. Leon had already wired one thousand dollars to
Sander's bank and Sander had assured him that a new stone would be installed in a matter of weeks.
But now, with Sander's death, Leon was at a loss. With nobody there to supervise the job he had no way of ensuring that it would be properly done.
Believe me, I know how these things work. If nobody is standing over them, those thieves will just take the money and do nothing.
The cemetery guy and the stonecutter?
There are no bigger thieves.
Little more than a year before, Leon Shulman had been forced to retire from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for twenty-three years. The diabetes that had precipitated his own father's death had progressed to the point where it rendered Leon Shulman clinically blind. Leon was a very competent chemist, enjoyed his job, and was well liked by his coworkers, but he could hardly argue when his supervisor took him aside and began enumerating the dangers posed by a blind man in a laboratory. Since then, as his vision continued to deteriorate, Leon imposed a strict regimen upon himself. His friends were dying and he was blind: another man might have surrendered to depression, but Leon informed anyone willing to listen that he had no intention of going down that road. It wasn't that he had any illusions about mortality; he was a sick man, but sick wasn't dead. So he woke each morning at a specific hour, performed a routine of calisthenics recalled from his days in the Russian army, dressed himself, made his own breakfast, listened to the news, and then immersed himself in unfinished business. At the top of the list of unfinished business was a new gravestone for his father's grave.
On occasion, particularly when the Shulmans observed the anniversary of their arrival in Los Angeles, Leon Shulman would recount the story of his father's death. Certainly Wolf Shulman had been ill. He'd been ill for years. But the week the Shulmans were scheduled to depart he had been no worse than he'd been in five years. Just that morning Leon had seen him and the old man had made oatmeal. So there was no way Leon could have anticipated what happened. But still, the thought that he was in a black marketeer's kitchen haggling over the price of a Kiev cameraalbeit a very expensive model, with excellent optics, based on the Hasselbladwhile his father was dying was something for which Leon could not forgive himself. And then the frantic preparations for the funeral, and the fact that Leon had already spent all of their money on things like the camera so that they'd have something to sell in the bazaars of Vienna and Rome, made the whole cursed experience that much more unbearable. Lacking time and money, Leon grieved that he had abandoned his father, a man whom he had loved and respected, in a grave marked by a stone the size of a shoebox.
This, Victor understood, was the reason for the phone call to the office. And later that evening, after submitting himself to the indignities of rush hour on the 405 and the 101, Victor sat in the kitchen of his parents' Encino condominium and listened as his father explained how easy it would be for him to adjust his travel plans to include an extended weekend in Riga. Leon had already called a travel agent, a friend, who couldeven on such short noticearrange for a ticket from London to Riga. It was, after all, a direct flight. A matter of only a few hours. The same travel agent had also taken the libertyjust in caseof reserving a room for Victor at a very nice hotel in Jurmala, two minutes from the beach, near bars, restaurants, and the Dzintari station, where he could find a local train that would get him into Riga in a half hour.
Ask your mother, Jurmala in July, the beach, if the weather is good, nothing is better.
Pa, we live in Los Angeles, if I go it won't be because of the beach.
I didn't say because of the beach. Of course it's not because of the beach. But you'll see. The sand is like flour. The water is calm. Before you were one year old I took you into that water. And anyway, you shouldn't worry. I'll pay for everything.
That's right, that's my biggest worry.
When Victor was a sophomore in college he realized that he would need to make money. This was the same year he spent a semester abroad at Oxford-though living for three months among fledgling aristocrats had nothing to do with his decision. For Victor, having grown up in Los Angeles, the lives and privileges of rich peopleEnglish or otherwisewere no great revelation. What led to his decision were the first irrefutable signs of his father's declining health. Victor began driving his father to the offices of world-class specialists, experts in the pancreas, not one of whom had been able to arrestnever mind reversethe advancement of Leon's blindness. It was then that Victor started the calculations that ultimately led him to law school and a position as a litigation associate at a Century City law firm. At nineteen, Victor recognizednot unlike an expectant fatherthe loom of impending responsibilities. He was the only son of aging parents with a predisposition for chronic illness. His father's mother had died of a stroke before her sixtieth birthday. His mother's sister had suffered with rheumatoid arthritis before experiencing the women's troubles that eventually led to her death. And diabetes stretched so far back in his lineage that his ancestors were dying of the disease long before they had a name for it. More than once Victor had joked to friends that, when confronted with forms inquiring after family medical history, he simply checked the first four boxes without looking. Still, the only reason Victor felt he could permit himself that joke was that he was thirty years old, earned one hundred and seventy thousand dollars a year, and knew that although he could not spare his parents the misery of illness he could at least spare them the misery of illness compounded by the insult of poverty.
After dinner, Victor's mother, instead of saying good-bye at the doors of the elevator, insisted on walking him down to his car. Victor had not committed to going to Riga and she wanted him to understandif he did not alreadythe effect his refusal would have on his father. Both Victor and his mother knew that Leon could be obsessive about the smallest things, and considering his condition, this was in some ways a blessing. Sitting at home alone, his obsessions kept his mind occupied. He could fashion his plans and make his phone calls. At the university library where Victor's mother worked, her coworkers all recognized Leon's voice; he no longer needed to ask for her by name.
Of course you don't know this, but he calls me five or six times a day. Over the last month all the time to consult about the preparations for the gravestone. You know how he is, he says he wants my advice. Should he send Sander all the money at once or half and half? Do I think he should make up a contract for Sander to sign or would Sander be offended? And then when they started talking about what kind of stone, what shape, what size. Finally, when it came time to compose an epitaph, he says to me: You studied literature. There, at least, I think he actually listened to what I said.
Standing in the street beside his car, Victor explained again why the trip would be much more complicated than his father imagined. He had only two weeks for vacation. And it wasn't the kind of vacation where he would be in one place all the time. He would be visiting the only close friend he had retained from his time at Oxford. The previous year this friend had gotten married and Victor had been unable to attend the wedding. His friend wanted Victor to meet his wife and spend some time with them. They had been planning this trip for months. Not only had his friend coordinated his vacation to coincide with Victor's but so had his new wife. They were to travel through Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. All the reservations had been made. So, it wasn't that Victor didn't want to help put his father's mind at ease, but that there were other people involved and he could not change his plans without inconveniencing them.
If you tell them why, they'll understand. People have emergencies.
I know people have emergencies. But the grave has been there for twenty-five years. All of a sudden it's an emergency?
For your father it's an emergency.
If he waits six months, I promise I'll book a ticket and go.
In his mother's deliberate pause, Victor heard what neither of them dared speak out loud. Leon was careful about his diet, monitored his blood sugar, and took his insulin injections. There was nothing to say that he could not continue this way for twenty years. Nevertheless, Victor felt that it was irresponsible, even ominous, to project into the futureif only six monthsand presume that his father would still be there.
Meeting his mother's eyes, Victor knew that the decision had been made. And when his mother spoke it was no longer to convince him but rather to assure him that he was doing the right thing.
I understand it will be unpleasant to disappoint your friends. But it's only three days. And, after all, this is your grandfather's and not some stranger's grave.
Late on a Saturday night, Victor's flight made its approach to the Riga airport. On the descent Victor looked out his window at the flat, green Latvian landscape. His neighbor for the three-hour trip from Heathrow was a garrulous, ruddy-faced Latvian in his seventiesa San Diego resident since 1947. Following the collapse of Communism, the man had returned to Latvia every summer for the fishing. When Victor informed him that he was undertaking his first trip to Latvia since his family's emigration in 1978, the man invited him to his cabin. Though the man was sincere and friendly, Victor couldn't help but suspect that he was an unregenerate Nazi. To hear his parents tell it, innocent Latvians hadn't retreated with the Germans. Whether this were true or not, Victor was not exactly proud of the ease with which his mind slipped into clannish paranoia. But, to maintain the necessary objectivity wasn't easy, particularly when buckled into an airplane full of blond heads.
In fact, after Los Angeles, and even London, Latvia struck him as remarkable in its blondness. At the customs desk, a pretty blond agent checked his passport. Tall blond baggage handlers handled the baggage. And it was a blond policewoman in a knee-length gray skirt who directed Victor up to the second floor where he could find a taxi. He had returned to the city of his birth, but no place had ever seemed less familiar. He marveled even at the sky. His flight had landed after ten and he had spent close to an hour in the terminal, but when he stepped outside he emerged into daylight. The pavement, highway, and outlying buildings were illuminated by some bright, sunless source.
At the curb, a thin Russian hopped off the fender of a Volkswagen and reached for Victor's suitcase. He wore a New York Yankees T-shirt and Fila track pants and had the distinction of being not-blond. Identifying Victor immediately as a foreigner, he asked, American? Victor responded in Russian, speaking in a terser, gruffer register than he normally useda register he hoped would disguise the extent of his foreignness, make him appear less dupable, less likely to be quoted an exorbitant fare. And so when the cabdriver said, Fifteen Latsequivalent to twenty-plus American dollarsa price Victor still suspected was inflated, he growled his disapproval and, to his satisfaction, succeeded in having the fare reduced by one Lat.
On the road to Jurmala, Victor rode in silence. He focused on the passing scenery. At that hour, nearly midnight, there were few other cars on the four-lane highway. The view was unspectacular. He registered certain banal observations. The road was smooth and clean. The passing cars were German, Swedish, Japaneseand clean. The few gas stations they passed appeared to be newly constructed. Victor kept expecting to feel something, be somehow inspired. He thought: I was born here, and I'm evaluating the infrastructure.
The cabdriver spoke over his shoulder and asked which hotel and Victor pronounced the name without turning his head.
Villa Majori? Not bad. You know who owns it?
The former mayor of Jurmala.
Victor gathered that the driver expected him to be impressed.
He was mayor for six months. Now he has a hotel. The property alone is worth 250,000 Lats.
So he's a crook.
Of course he's a crook.
Did you vote for him?
vote for him? What difference does that make? Certain people decided he would be mayor, then later they decided he would no longer be mayor. It's not like that in America?
In America he'd have two hotels.
The driver laughed, inspiring in Victor a self-congratulatory and yet fraternal feeling.
The mayor: a crook and a bastard, but I hear the hotel is good and that the girls he hires are very attractive.
Minutes later, Victor discovered that the hotel was indeed modern, tidy, and staffedeven at that late hourby a pretty clerk. The hotel consisted of three floors, giving the impression that, before being converted to suit the needs of the former mayor, it had been someone's home. Victor found his room on the second floor and stood looking out the window at the flux of people on Jomas Street. The street was closed to all but pedestrian traffic and was flanked on either side by bars, restaurants, and hotels. Through his closed window he could hear the undifferentiated din of voices and music from rival bars. Had he wanted to sleep, the noise would have been infuriating, but though he'd hardly slept in two days, he felt exceedingly, even pathologically, alert. So, as he watched the sky darken literally before his eyesa change as fluid as time-lapse photography of duskVictor decided to call home.
As it was Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, his mother picked up the phone. When she realized it was Victor, she deliberately kept her voice neutral so as not to attract Leon's attention
In the hotel?
In the hotel.
I can see it from my window.
How does it look?
How did it look before?
People were strolling all day. Everyone dressed up. All year long girls thought only about getting a new dress for the summer.
Victor heard Leon's voice, rising above his mother's, and the inevitable squabbling over possession of the phone.
You see, if I tell him who it is he won't let me talk.
What do you need to talk about? You can talk when he gets home. Has he spoken to Sander's son?
Sander Rabinsky had a son in Riga whom Victor was supposed to have contacted upon his arrival. Sander's son was named Ilya and happened, as Leon enthusiastically pointed out, also to be a lawyer. It had been Ilya who had informed Leon of Sander's death. After not hearing from Sander for several days Leon had called repeatedly, left messages, and kept calling until finally Ilya had answered the phone.
Did you call him?
Call him first thing.
Good. So how is it over there?
Exactly like Los Angeles. Maybe better. The women are beautiful and there are no fat people.
Latvians: they look good in uniforms and are wonderful at taking orders. God punished them with the Russians. The devil take them both. Don't forget to call Sander's son.
Victor slept only a few hours and awoke at first light. He lingered in bed, trying to will himself back to sleep, but after an hour of this futility he rose, showered, dressed, and ventured outside. He found Jomas Street deserted but for a handful of elderly city workers armed with straw brooms, engaged in the removal of evidence of the previous night's revelry. It was five o'clock and Victor walked the length of the street, past the shuttered bars, small grocery stores, and souvenir shops. The only place not closed at that hour was an Internet café attended by a teenager slumped behind the counter. Victor wrote a too-lengthy e-mail to his friend in England. He had little new to say, having parted from him and his wife less than a day before, but to kill time he reassured them that they should begin their trip without him and that he would join them as soon as he resolved the business with his grandfather's gravestone. At the very least, Victor joked, he would connect with them by the time they reached Dublin, where his friend's wife had promised to set him up with a former roommate. Victor knew little about the girl other than her name, Nathalie, and that in a picture from his friend's wedding she appeared as a slender, attractive, dark-haired girl in a bridesmaid's dress.
By eight o'clock Victor had eaten his complimentary breakfast in the hotel's dining room and decided, even though it was still possibly too early, to call Sander's son. He dialed from his room and a woman answered. Leon had told him that Ilya was married with a young son of his own. Speaking to the woman, Victor tried to explain who he was. He mentioned Sander's name, the gravestone, and his father's name. Victor sensed a hint of displeasure in the way the woman replied, Yes, I know who you are, but tried to dismiss it as culturalRussians not generally inclined to American-grade enthusiasmand he was relieved when he heard no trace of the same tone in Ilya's voice.
Ilya said, I spoke with your father. He said you would be coming.
Victor offered his condolences over Sander's death and then accepted Ilya's invitation to stop at his apartment before proceeding to the cemetery.
As the travel agent had indicated, Victor found Dzintari station a few minutes' walk from his hotel. This routeDzintariRigawas identical to the route he would have taken twenty-five years earlier in the summers when his parents rented a small cottage by the seashore. Somewhere, not far from his hotel, the cottage probably still existed, although Victor didn't expect that he could find it.
For the trip, Victor assumed a window seat and watched as the train sped past the grassy banks of a river and then the russet stands of skinny pines. Since it was a Sunday morning, and as he was heading away from the beach and toward the city, there were few other people in his car. At the far end two young men with closely cropped hair shared a quart of malt liquor, and several benches across from Victor a grandmother was holding the hand of a serious little boy dressed in shorts, red socks, and brown leather sandals no self-respecting American child would have consented to wear. Now and again, Victor caught the boy's eyes as they examined him. The boy's interest appeared to be drawn particularly by the plastic bag Victor held in his lap: a large Robinsons-May bag in which he carried a bottle of tequila for Ilya and a small rubber LA Lakers basketball for Ilya's son.
From the train station Victor followed Ilya's directions and walked through the center of the city. Ilya lived on Bruninieku Street, formerly called Red Army Street, in the apartment Sander had occupied for over fifty years. It was there, on Red Army Street, that Sander and Leon had become acquainted. They had been classmates in the Number 22 Middle School. Leon had lived around the corner and spent many afternoons playing soccer in the very courtyard where Victor now found himself. The courtyard and the building were older than the fifty years, closer to eighty or ninety, and the dim stairwell leading to the second floor suggested the handiwork of some pre-World War II electrician. Victor climbed stone steps, sooty and tread-worn to concavity, and squinted to read graffiti of indeterminate provenance. Some was in Latvian and seemed nationalistic in nature, some was in Russian, and if he read carefully, he could make out what it meant: Igor was here; Nadja likes cock; Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Visotsky.
Victor found the number of Ilya's apartment stenciled above the peephole and rang the buzzer. Through the door he heard a child's high and excited cry of Papa, and then Ilya opened the door. He was slightly shorter than Victor but was of the same type-a type which in America could pass for Italian or Greek but which in Latvia wasn't likely to pass for anything other than itself. Ilya wore a pair of house slippers, track pants, and a short-sleeved collared shirt. Standing at Ilya's side was a little blond girl, no older than five. The little girl seemed excited to see Victor.
Papa, look, the man is here.
Ilya gently put a hand on her shoulder and edged her out of the doorway.
All right Brigusha, let the man inside.
Victor followed Ilya into the living room, where Ilya's wife was arranging cups, wafers, and a small teapot on the coffee table. The mystery of genes and chromosomes accounted for the nearly identical resemblance between mother and daughter and, but for a fullness at the mouth, the complete absence of the father in the little girl's face.
As Victor, Ilya, and the little girl entered the room Ilya's wife straightened up, looked at Victor, and appeared no happier at seeing him than she'd been at hearing his voice over the telephone. Ilya motioned for Victor to sit on the sofa and then performed the introductions.
This is my wife, Salma, and Brigitta, our little girl.
Victor smiled awkwardly. He felt that he had made the mistake of taking his seat too soon. The upholstery claimed him in a way that made it difficult for him to lean forward or to rise. Undertaking the introductions while seated seemed wrong to the point of rudeness. As it was, he already felt less than welcome. He wanted to be on his feet, not only to shake hands, but also to offer the giftsthough the prospect of rising immediately after sitting down and then that of presenting the inappropriate basketball to Ilya's daughter momentarily paralyzed him. He was tempted to explain the misunderstanding about the basketball, but knew that to do so would be a betrayal of his father, portraying him as confused and inattentive, self-involved, possibly senile.
Doing his best to mask the exertion, Victor rose from the sofa and offered his hand to Salma and then, playfully, to the little girl. Because he knew that Salma didn't like him, Victor watched her face for some sign of détente, but as Brigitta's small hand gripped the tips of his fingers, Salma's smile merely devolved from token to weary. Her expression made Victor feel like a fraud even though, apart from trying to be social, he was quite sure he hadn't done anything fraudulent. Under different circumstances, Victor consoled himself, he wouldn't tolerate such a woman.
Turning his attention from her, Victor reached into his bag and retrieved first the bottle of tequila and then the ball. To his relief, the little girl took the ball with genuine pleasure and bounced it on the stone floor with both hands. Ilya, inspecting the bottle, looked up and watched as Brigitta chased the ball into the kitchen.
Before she punctured it, she had a beach ball like that. She could bounce the thing all day. Brigusha, say thank you.
Victor, uncertain if he'd been commended or not, said that he hoped the gift was all right.
You couldn't get her anything better. Right, Salma?
Salma, for the first time, lookedthough not quite happyat least somewhat less austere.
It's very nice. Thank you.
She then picked up the empty Robinsons-May bag that Victor had left on the floor.
Do you need the bag back?
It's a good bag.
She called after her daughter.
Brigusha, come here. Look at what a nice big bag the man left for you.
Carrying the ball, Brigitta returned to admire the bag.
See what a big, fancy bag. You could keep all your toys in here. Come show the man how you can say thank you.
Brigitta looked up at Victor, down at her feet, and then pressed her face into Salma's hip. Ilya said, Now you're shy? Maybe later you can show the man how you say thank you. She can say it in four languages. Russian, Latvian, German, and English.
Placing the tequila on the table, Ilya asked his wife to bring glasses.
Come, we'll sit. I should have put a bottle down to begin with. What kind of alcohol is this?
Victor resumed his place on the sofa.
Mexican. They make it from a plant that grows in the desert. It's very popular in America.
Salma returned with two glasses and Ilya poured. He proclaimed: To new friendship.
After Salma made the tea and distributed the wafers she took Brigitta into a bedroom. From what Victor could see, that bedroom, plus another, along with the kitchen, a bathroom, and the living room, constituted the apartment. The ceilings were high, maybe twelve feet, and the floors and walls were in good repair. Also, the furniture, polished and solid, seemed to be many decades old and might have, for all Victor knew, qualified as antique.
Ilya said, You like the apartment?
It would be hard to find one as good in Los Angeles.
This apartment is the only home I've ever had. Now it's my inheritance. After the war my grandparents returned from the evacuation and moved here. My father grew up here, married here, and when I was born this is where he brought me from the hospital. As a boy I slept on this sofa, my parents in the smaller room, my grandparents in the larger. When my grandparents died my parents took their room and I was given the smaller one. Now it's my turn to take the big bedroom and move Brigitta into the little one. You could say I've been waiting my entire life to move into the big room. Though, if you follow the pattern, you can see where I go from there.
So don't move into the big room. Then maybe you'll live forever.
Well, we haven't moved yet. Brigitta still calls it Grandfather's room. She likes to go and see his white coat hanging on the hook.
She's a good girl.
Do you have children?
It's a different life in America.
Probably not that different. At my age most Americans have children. Some are even married.
The mood had become a little too confessional for Victor's liking and he took it as a good sign when Ilya grinned.
One day I'd like to visit America. Salma's English is very good. Until recently she even worked for an American software company. Owned by Russians from San Francisco, Jews, who left here, like you, in the 1970s. They returned to take advantage of the smart programmers and the cheap labor. But the company went bankrupt after the problems with the American stock market.
Unfortunately, it's a familiar story.
Capitalism, as my father would have said. Though he wasn't much of a Communist. But when everyone was leaving he wasn't interested. He liked it here. He was a doctor; he wanted to remain a doctor. He had no regrets. Not long ago, after your father contacted him he said to me: You see. What if I'd left? I'd be collecting welfare in Brooklyn and who would help blind Leon Shulman with his father's gravestone. He had a real sense of humor.
Wolf Shulman was buried in the new Jewish cemetery on Shmerle Street. An older cemetery, from before the war, could be found in the Moskovsky district, a traditionally poor, working-class neighborhood behind the train station. Before the Nazi occupation the neighborhood had been predominantly Jewish, and during the Nazi occupation it had served as the ghetto. Ilya said there wasn't much to see there but, if Victor liked, Ilya would show him around. The municipal courthouse, where Ilya worked as a prosecutor, was only a few minutes away by foot.
From Ilya's apartment Victor caught a bus that let out at the base of Shmerle Streeta winding tributary off the main roadwhich rose to the cemetery and beyond. A concrete wall painted a pale orange encircled the cemetery. Victor followed the wall to the gates, where three old Russian women minded a wooden flower stall. Business appeared less than brisk, but as Victor neared the entrance, he saw a young couple select a bouquet of yellow carnations and so he did the same. He then passed through the gates and located the small stone building that served as the cemetery manager's office. Inside, the office was one single room, with dusty casement windows, a desk for the cemetery manager, and a lectern upon which rested a thick, leather-bound book. Upon entering, Victor found a short, heavy-set man wearing faded jeans, a pink sweater, and a black yarmulke, examining a slip of paper which had been handed to him by the young couple with the yellow carnations.
Victor heard the man ask, Berk
ovitz or Perk
ovitz? and the young woman reply, Berkovitz. Shura Efimovna Berkovitz.
ovitz, the man repeated, shuffled to the lectern, and opened the large book. Year of death, he inquired and, given the year, flipped pages and ran his finger down a column of handwritten names.
Once he found the name, the manager wrote down the section and row and pointed the young couple in the appropriate direction. For his service, and for the upkeep of the cemetery, he drew their attention to a container for donations. In a practiced appeal that included Victor, the man said: We have more dead than living. And the dead don't donate.
When the young couple left to seek Shura Berkovitz's grave Victor introduced himself to the manager. For the second time that day he was surprised to be so effortlessly recognized. Using the same words Salma had used earlier that morning, though without the rancor, the manager said: Yes, I know who you are. Flipping more pages in the book, he looked for Wolf Shulman.
Remind me, what year did he die?
There. Shulman, Wolf Lazarovich, the manager said, and copied the information.
And is everything ready for the new gravestone?
The grave is there. It's always ready. When the stonecutter brings the new stone, he'll also remove the old one. Very easy. Tik-tak.
Is he here today?
Ilya had told Victor that sometimes, particularly on Sundays, the stonecutter could be found at the cemetery. He added that Victor would be well advised to speak to him as soon as possible because the stonecutter could be a difficult man to track down. Sander had expended no small amount of energy dealing with him.
The cemetery manager said, I'll call him at his shop, and dialed the number. Within seconds he was speaking to the stonecutter. He spoke partly in Yiddish and partly in Russian. After a very brief exchange, he hung up. Victor, trying to suppress his irritation, explained that he had wished to speak to the stonecutter himself.
He said he can see you tomorrow morning. He's very busy right now, but he'll be able to speak to you then. He keeps an office at the Jewish Community Center. He'll be waiting for you at ten-thirty.
I understand. But, you see, I'm only here for a short time and I want to be sure there are no miscommunications.
You shouldn't worry. I know of the matter. He knows of the matter. There will be no miscommunications. You'll see him tomorrow and everything will be just as you wish.
Victor paused, assumed an expression he often employed with obdurate lawyers and clients, an expression intended to imply sincere deliberation, and then said, Nevertheless.
The cemetery manager raised his palms in a sign of surrender. He scribbled a number on a piece of paper.
Here is the number. Please. I wouldn't want you to think I am interfering. I was only trying to help you. The stonecutter is one of those men who, when he is busy, doesn't like to be disturbed.
Victor took the number and dialed. After a short while he heard a man's terse hello. Before Victor could finish introducing himself the man barked, Tomorrow; ten-thirty, and hung up. Victor replaced the phone and turned reluctantly to face the cemetery manager's obsequious grin.
The cemetery at Shmerle had been hewn from a forest, but enough trees were spared so as to retain a sense of the arboreal. Different types of treesbirch, elm, maple, ashprovided texture and shade and resembled in their randomness the different species of gravestonesmarble, granite, limestonewhich sprouted from the ground as naturally as the trees. Though arranged in sections and rows, the gravestones did not follow any other order, and so large dwarfed small, traditional opposed modern, and dark contrasted light. The only commonality among them was that each stone featured a photograph of the deceased and that in each photograph the deceased possessed the same grudging expression. Soldiers, grandmothers, engineers, mathematicians: all stared into eternity with a face that declared not I was alive
, but rather This was my life.
After walking some distance, Victor found his grandmother and grandfather wearing this same face.
Until he saw his grandmother's grave, Victor had at some level forgotten about it. That he carried only one bouquet reminded him of the extent to which he had forgotten. His grandmother had died when he was still an infant and so he had no memory of her at all. Somewhere there was a picture of the two of them together: a baby in the arms of a stout, prematurely old woman. Her gravestone confirmed what little he knew of her: Etel Solomonovna Shulman, beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. Died before her sixtieth birthday. This information, beneath her photo, was etched into a thick, rectangular slab of black granite. And this slab, almost a meter high, towered over its partner, a limestone monument one-third the size, already weatherworn and tilting slightly backward. Seeing the two gravestones side by side, Victor could understand his father's anguish. What was left for Wolf Shulman seemed a slight against a man whose solemn facedue to the backward tilting of the stoneappealed vaguely heavenward with an expression that could also be interpreted as: Is this all I deserve?
After taking some pains to divide his bouquet into two equal halves, Victor paused and contemplated his grandparents' graves. They evoked in him a peculiar timbre of griefgrief not over what he had lost but over what he had never had. A baser, more selfish form of grief. The kind that permitted him only to mumble a self-conscious good-bye before turning back up the path. He then retraced his steps through the cemetery, stopping at times to appraise certain gravestones, look at pictures, and read names and dates. There were other members of his family buried here, and he discovered the grave of a great-uncle as well as some other graves with the last name Shulmanalthough he couldn't be sure if they were definitively his relations. The only other name he recognized appeared in a section occupied by more recent graves. On a reddish marble stone he read the name RABINSKY and saw a picture of a woman who must have been Ilya's mother. The picture, like all such pictures, was not of the best quality, but Victor could discern enough to draw the obvious conclusion. And beside this grave was another, still lacking a stone; but pressed into the soft earth was a small plastic sign on which was stenciled the name S. RABINSKY.
It was only noon when Victor left the cemetery, and though he felt the sluggishness of two days without sleep he decided to take a tour of the city. He caught a bus back into the vicinity of Ilya's apartment and then walked to the heart of medieval Riga. The city had been established in the twelfth century and had, throughout its history, been the subject of every Baltic power. Germanic Knights, Poles, and Swedes had tramped through its cobblestone streets. In the twentieth century alonebut for a brief spell of interwar independenceit had belonged to the Tsar, the Kaiser, Stalin, Hitler, and then Stalin once more. The heart of Old Riga had been destroyed by the Germans in the first days of World War II, rebuilt unfaithfully by the Soviets, but corrected to some extent by the new Latvian government. And so Victor was able to observe the storied Blackheads House, pass through winding alleyways, and visit the Domsky Cathedral, home to a world-famous organ.
Later, by leaving the old city, he found many examples of art nouveau buildings, with their elaborate stucco figures and faces. However, not particularly interested in architecture, Victor saw just enough to get a sense of the place. And after he'd acquired this sense, he took a seat at an outdoor caf and ate his lunch in view of pedestrians, vendors, drunks, policemen, and bus drivers. In its constituent parts, the city displayed itself, and seemed, with its imported cars and Western fashions, none the worse for fifty years of
On the ride back to Jurmala, Victor allowed himself to drift off. It was the deepest sleep he had experienced since leaving Los Angeles, and when his cab reached the hotel, a tremendous effort was required to rouse himself. He wanted nothing other than to sleep until morning, but at the front desk there were messages waiting for him from his father and from Ilya. So, tired as he was, Victor began by calling Ilya and recounting the episode at the cemetery manager's office. The incident, according to Ilya, was consistent with the man's character.
But you have to consider how many others are practicing his trade. The man has no competition and so, unfortunately, he's become arrogant.
Ilya wished Victor luck and then invited him to come to the courthouse after his meeting with the stonecutter. He framed the invitation in collegial terms. As a fellow jurist, Ilya imagined that Victor possessed some professional curiosity. This way, Ilya said, you will be able to see the fabulous workings of the Latvian legal system.
Victor then placed his call home. This time Leon answered, after hardly a single ring, as though he had been sitting, primed, by the telephone. Whatever reservations Victor harbored about the cemetery manager and stonecutter, he knew better than to reveal them to his father. To Leon's detailed questions, he responded honestly but without elaboration. Yes, he had seen Sander's son. Yes, he had been received cordially. Yes, he had given the child the present and the child had been pleased. Yes, he had been to the cemetery, seen his grandparents' graves, and left flowers. And yes, he had also spoken with the cemetery manager and with the stonecutterthe latter of whom he had not seen personally but would the very next morning.
After the conversations with his father and with Ilya, Victor discoveredto his frustrationthat he had lost his overwhelming need for sleep. The prospect of another sleepless night was unbearable and so Victor drew the blinds, climbed into bed, and resolved to nurture even the slightest vestige of fatigue. But once again his body refused to cooperate. He slept only fitfully, waking up disoriented, sometimes because of voices in the street, other times because of some malformed thought. At one point he found himself bolt upright, unsure whether or not he had indeed requested a wake-up call. He then spent what felt like an eternity, torn over whether or not to call the front desk and confirm yes or no. Later, he lost the better part of an hour recreating the scene at the cemetery manager's office and formulating alternate scenarios in which he didn't come off looking like an idiot. Eventually, in despair, he turned on the television and watched an American action movie, dubbed in Latvian with Russian subtitles.
At five in the morning, Victor was back among the sweepers on Jomas Street. The sky was cloudless and approaching full daylight. Victor made a circuit of Jomas, covering its entire length, and then turned north and walked the few blocks to the beach, which, like the streets, was largely deserted. Narrow and white, it stretched from east to west, seemingly to infinity. The tide was still high and sandpipers skittered neurotically at the fringes of the waves. A short distance away, balancing against one another and advancing gingerly out into the Baltic, were two middle-aged women in bathing suits. They had already progressed about fifty yards but the water was not yet to their waists. The sight triggered Victor's first memory of his Soviet childhood: stepping out into a dark-blue sea, conscious of danger, but feeling as though he could go a great distance before he had anything to fear.
To find the Jewish Community Center, Victor crossed a large municipal park and looked for the spire of a Russian Orthodox church. As he was extremely early, he trolled past the community center, made sure he was in the right place, and then sat and waited in the park until he thought it was reasonable to go and look for the stonecutter.
The community center, contrary to Victor's expectations, was a substantial buildingfour stories tall and designed in the art nouveau style. From a fairly dark and dreary looking lobby a broad stone stairway led to the upper floors, all of which benefited from an abundance of natural light. Not knowing whom to ask or where to look, Victor climbed the staircase and roamed the hallways hoping to stumble upon something that would announce itself as the stonecutter's office. He wandered for what seemed like a long time, finding an adult choir practicing Hebrew songs in a rehearsal room; a grand theater, with crumbling plaster and a seating capacity of hundreds; the locked doors of the Latvian Jewish Museum; and a tribute dedicated to a handful of Latvians who had protected Jews during the war.
He found these things but no explicit sign of the stonecutter, and little in the way of assistance until a young Latvian woman emerged from an office and cheerily informed Victor that the stonecutter did indeed use a room in the building, but he kept no regular hours and she hadn't seen him that morning. However, keen to help, she led Victor down one floor and pointed out the stonecutter's door. She even knocked, waited, and then apologized profusely, as if she were personally responsible for the stonecutter's absence. There was a phone in her office, she said, if Victor wanted to call the stonecutter, and also magazines, if he wished to occupy himself while waiting.
Seeing no other recourse, Victor followed the woman to her office and made the pointless phone call. The stonecutter was admittedly only fifteen minutes late, and the fact that he did not pick up the phone could actually be construed as a good sign(the man was on his way)so there was, in essence, no logical reason for despair. And yet, each unanswered ring reinforced Victor's suspicion that the stonecutter would not show up.
Victor put down the phone. Beside him, the woman looked on with a doleful expression, and he dreaded that, at any moment, she would repeat her offer of the telephone and the magazines. He couldn't recall if he'd seen a pay phone down in the lobby but he was quite sure that he had seen one in the park. Calling from the park would require that he go somewhere and make change and then walk the two blocks between the community center and the park every time he wanted to make a phone callthereby introducing a risk of missing the stonecutter should the man make a brief appearance at his officebut all this still seemed preferable to remaining, for even one second longer, the object of this woman's sympathy. Once again, Victor walked up and down the staircase. He listened to the choir and then descended to the lobby, where he found a handful of elderly Jews convened at a table, speaking Yiddish, chewing sandwiches, and playing cards. Victor stood for a few moments, debating whether or not to go outside, until a man brushed past him, hunched, bent under the weight of some psychological burden. He wore an ancient raincoat, a beaten fedora, and carried a briefcase. The man made his way for the doors of the public toilet and Victor heard him muttering to himself: If only to go and shit like a human being. Victor decided to go outside.
Sitting in the parkhaving run the same coin through a pay phone yet once moreVictor thought it funny that there had been a time when the purpose of his vacation had absolutely nothing to do with Latvia. That at some point he had conceived of a relaxing trip with friends, touring the UK. And when the excursion to Riga had been introduced
or, rather, imposed), he had treated it as only a minor deviation. A filial duty quickly and easily dispatched. But now, amid his exhaustion and anxiety, it seemed inconceivable that he would ever reunite with his friends and see Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. His fate was to be perpetually trapped in Latvia, pursuing a stonecutter, thinking obsessively about gravestones. Victor laughed out loud. It was possible that people at neighboring benches turned and stared. He didn't bother to check one way or the other. He had made his phone calls, he had knocked on the stonecutter's door, he had sat and waited. It was now time to walk to the courthouse and continue the farce.
Unlike most of the buildings Victor had seen in Riga, the courthouse was new and therefore outfitted with most of the contemporary trappings. The courtroom doors locked automatically when a session was in order, the faint whir of air-conditioning was omnipresent, and the furniturethough constructed from Latvian pinehad a vague Ikea-like quality. At the very back of the courtroom, to the right of the door, the accused sat on a bench inside a little gated prisoner's dock. Along the wall, just ahead of him, two policemen in green uniforms sat on their benches. They were both young men, barely in their twenties, but already possessing the dull, indolent posture common to all court officers. Victor had his place across the aisle from the policemen. Behind him were a young woman and a teenage boy and ahead was an old woman, presumably the defendant's family. When Victor entered the courtroom, there was no sight of the bailiff, judge, ormore to the pointIlya. Only the defense attorney, a tall, thin woman with tired, houndlike features, was present. Ilya did not appear until the bailiff emerged from the back door and called the session to order. All were made to rise while the judge mounted his podium. He was dressed in a burgundy robe and wore a chain of ornamental, golden medallionsevidently some folkloric symbol of Latvian authority. After the judge assumed his position, there followed the routine sequence of statements and exchangesall of them in Latvian
Victor understood hardly anything that happened over the next hour. He had no idea what the man had done to warrant his confinement, and he couldn't determine the purpose of the proceedings. He assumed they were preliminary, since, at one point, the defendant made a plea of not guilty. However, beyond that, the sense of things was impenetrable. And so Victor paid attention only long enough to register that Ilya, in his suit and tie, seemed to be a good lawyer. He was organized, spoke succinctly, and carried himself with an aloofness that bordered on menace. All of which probably didn't bode well for the man in handcuffs who sat in the prisoner's dock, looking not so much like a criminal but rather like a weary commuter waiting for the train. Victor assumed the same attitude of forbearance from the woman and the teenage boy as he heard not a sound behind him. The only person showing any sign of distress was the old woman in the front row. She had been in tears from the outset of the proceedings, and as time wore on, her breathing became shallower and more labored. Despite the air-conditioning, perspiration gathered in the folds of her neck. She drank water from a plastic, bear-shaped bottlea kind manufactured to contain honeyand alternately wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and attempted to cool herself with a paper fan. But it was all to little effect as, ultimately, her breathing seized up and Victor was convinced that she was on the verge of a heart attack. It was only at this point that the judge turned his attention to her and considered a pause in the proceedings, but when she managed to collect herself things resumed as before.
The hearing was the last of the day for Ilya, and so, at its conclusion, he suggested they have lunch. They stopped at a small cafeteria where Victor bought half a dozen meat and cabbage buns and two bottles of Latvian beer. They then walked back toward the municipal park where Victor had spent much of his morning. On the way, Ilya explained what had transpired in the courtroom.
It was, as Victor had surmised, an arraignment. The man had already spent six months in custody waiting for the date. He would probably wait another several months before his next appearance. His crime was serious, though not uncommon. He was charged with attempting to murder his boss. The man was a mechanic and had worked in an auto shop. He had been on the job for three monthsthe standard probationary period during which a new employee is paid poorly, if at all. After three months, the boss is legally bound to either keep him on full time or let him go. Generally, to avoid the higher taxes associated with a full-time employee, a boss will let the person go and find anotherthere being no shortage of desperate people. In this case, the man claimed that his boss had promised to keep him. But when he came to work after his probationary period he found someone else at his post. His boss told him to go to hell, and so the man stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver.
The boss probably had it coming, but Ilya had no choice but to prosecute. If he didn't, then every boss would be walking around with a screwdriver in his neck.
So what will he get for stabbing his boss in the neck?
Hard to say. Ten years? Or nothing. He'll say it was self-defense. The boss attacked him. He supports a wife, a younger brother. Nobody really wants to put him in jail. But who knows? Maybe things will turn out badly and he'll be put away for a long time.
Which will probably be the end of the old woman.
Ilya considered this and then confessed that he had his doubts about the old woman. It struck him as peculiar that while the rest of the family sat in the back, she had taken her place in the front. Obviously, the old woman was supposed to be the defendant's mother, but this wasn't something anyone had bothered to verify. So she could just as well have been any old woman off the street. Which meant that there was nothing to say that the family hadn't scraped three Lats together and paid her to come to the courthouse and act hysterically. Such things were not without precedent. Though, for an arraignment, Ilya believed it a waste of money. But one couldn't blame the old woman. She probably received sixty Lats a month pension. Equivalent to one hundred dollars. And, Ilya said, he didn't need to describe to Victor what it was like to live on one hundred dollars a month.
They entered the park and Ilya sought out a vacant bench in the shade. It was now early afternoon and much quieter than when Victor had been there in the morning. There were a few young mothers with children and strollers. Now and again, a businessman strode past speaking into a cell phone. A few tourists stopped to buy ice cream and study their maps. Victor sipped his beer and wondered if he should admit to Ilya that he had absolutely no idea what it meant to live on one hundred dollars a month in Riga. Judging from Ilya's tone, he gathered that one hundred dollars a month was a pathetic sum. It certainly didn't sound like a lot of money, but then again, Latvia wasn't Los Angeles and, had Ilya phrased things differently, Victor could just as easily have been convinced that, in Latvian terms, one hundred dollars was a fortune. And though Victor subscribed to a sober view of the world and of the forces that ruled itforces for whom the financial welfare of old ladies was generally not a top priorityhe was in a strange country and therefore prone to a higher level of credulity; liable, practically, to believe the opposite of everything he believed.
Ilya said, Do you want to know how much money I make? and then answered his own question before Victor had a chance to object.
Two hundred Lats a month. This is considered a good salary. Just enough so that I will think twice before taking a bribe. My father made the same as a dermatologist with forty years' experience. Salma, when she worked for the Americans, made two hundred and fifty. For a time, with three salaries, a total of six hundred and fifty Lats a month, we were relatively well off.
Ilya then proceeded to quote a litany of expenses, most of which, he said, were common to everyone in the city. Rent, food, transportation, miscellaneous items for children and the elderly. The figure he quoted for rent alone exhausted the total of the old woman's pension. There was, Ilya said, really no such thing as disposable income. This was why, to cite an extreme example, most of Riga's prostitutes had abandoned the city for points west. And as for the young mothers in the park, the businessmen, the pretty girls in summer dressesin short, the reason Victor saw no squalorwell, it was Europe, after all. Not Africa. One good suit, one designer blousethough secondhand from Germanyrepresented the difference between self-respect and despondency.
Ilya recited all of this information with detachment, as though he were addressing something merely statistical, academic, impersonal. His voice contained no resentment, which was why, when he asked Victor how much money he made, Victor felt less than his normal reticence to respond. However, he chopped fifty thousand off the number, which, given the context, still sounded obscenely excessive.
But, Victor qualified, I work for a large firm. We do most of our business with corporations. Someone doing your job would make less. And then you still have to adjust for the higher cost of living . . .
He realized that his was not a very persuasive argument. It was, even in terms of Los Angeles, not a very persuasive argument. He made a lot of money. Probably more than he deserved. But then again, he knew of others who earned even more and deserved even less.
Ilya leaned back on the bench and regarded, as though with intense botanical interest, the leaves and branches of the shade tree.
I have some money saved up. Enough to send Salma and Brigitta to America. As I say, Salma is an accomplished programmer and her English is very good. And Brigitta is young and will easily learn the language. I am the only impediment. But I have my job here and am prepared to wait until they are ready for me.
Ilya then turned his attention from the tree and focused on Victor. As Ilya prepared to speak, Victor noted an inchoate defensiveness in the set of his features, as though Ilya, like a teenage suitor, was poised for imminent rejection; prepared, at any moment, to dismiss the proposition with never mind. Which was precisely what he said, but not before he said: I'm not asking for money. And not before Victor replied: I do not practice that kind of law.
But perhaps someone in your firm?
We deal only with corporations. Trade issues. Never individual immigration cases.
Whichother than the exceptions made for the sons and mistresses of wealthy clientswas the truth. Immigration cases were frustrating and time consuming, entailing a morass of paperwork and almost always ending in recriminations. Given the choice, he would have preferred it if Ilya actually had asked for money.
And what about other means?
What other means?
But you are already married.
We could divorce. Temporarily, of course. I have heard it done.
And then what?
Salma could marry an American.
Just like that?
And where would she find this American?
Which, Victor immediately understood, was a stupid question.
Never mind, Ilya said. I see that it is asking too much.
Victor considered explaining, so far as he knew, the problems inherent in this option, to try to exonerate himself, to impress upon Ilya the impracticality; beyond that, he considered lying, consenting to fill out forms, marry the man's wife, adopt his daughter, do whatever, since it was pitifully clear that between him and the stonecutter remainedeven if only tenuouslyIlya. But he couldn't quite bring himself to do that. Instead, he sat beside Ilya and resigned himself to a punitive silence.
After some time, as if having reached a conclusion, Ilya repeated, Never mind, and ended the silence. I realize that this isn't why you came here, he said, with each word distancing himself from the man who had, only moments before, offered Victor his wife and child.
Fortunately, your problem is easier to solve. I will call the stonecutter for you.
Ilya rose and went to the phone booth, though Victor was sure that he hadn't said anything to him about his most recent frustrations. And when Victor approached the phone booth Ilya was already dialing a number. Then he was speaking in Latvian, exhibiting the same bloodless composure he had evinced in the courtroom. The conversation did not last very long and Ilya did most of the talking. Once again, as at the cemetery manager's office, Victor felt himself excluded from considerations related to his own life. His input wasn't requested except to establish the departure time of his flight the next day.
When the conversation was over, Ilya exited the phone booth and announced: If you like, he can see us now.
That was the stonecutter?
Is he at the community center?
So, where is he?
At his shop. In the Moskovsky district. It's possible to walk, although I would recommend a cab. A cab would get us there in ten minutes. We can get one easily on Brivibas Street.
Ilya half turned in the direction of the street, ready to hail the cab, as if Victor's consent were foregone and incidental. Angered by Ilya's presumptuousness, and momentarily unsure of what he wanted, Victor said:
What if I don't want to go?
You don't want to go?
I don't understand the rush.
I thought you left tomorrow.
In the afternoon. I could see him in the morning.
But he can see you now.
I waited for him for two hours today. Where was he then?
Ilya regarded Victor as one might a child or a dog, as some thing ruled by impulse and deficient in reason.
I couldn't say. Though I imagine if we went you could ask him yourself.
The flatness of Ilya's tone discouraged Victor from asking anything further. Which was fine, since Victor no longer had anything to ask. He now recognized that he was in a situation that provided for only a binary choice. He could go with Ilya and see things through to their conclusionwhatever that might beor he could refuse and claim the transitory pleasure of refusal. Those were his choices. There was nothing else. Calling the stonecutter and repeating his mistake at the cemetery was out of the question. And though he had misgivings about the likelihood of things turning out right, he had also an almost inexorable curiosity to finally meet the man. It seemed ridiculousand likely a symptom of his deliriumbut he had begun to doubt the very fact of the stonecutter's existence. And he entertained the thought, in some subrational recess, that meeting the stonecutter might be like meeting God or the president or the Wizard of Ozequal parts disappointment and rewardbut at least the truth would be revealed.
Victor followed Ilya out to Brivibas Street, where, as predicted, they had no trouble finding a cab. Ilya rode up front and directed the driver while Victor sat in the backseat. The driver navigated along streets now familiar to Victor. They passed through the medieval city, looped behind the central markets and the train station, and followed a route that brought them to the courthouse and the limit of Victor's knowledge. They then continued south, into what could have been generically described as the bad part of town. The change was abrupt, as though the result of a civic consensus: No tourists expected beyond this point. The streets were gray and dingy. Old buildings deteriorated unchecked. Not infrequently, Victor saw listing, wooden hovelsseemingly anomalous in an urban settingbeside concrete apartment houses. People moved about the streets, tending to their everyday affairs, but there were also shadowy figures loitering in the doorways. In America, the place would have qualified as a slum, depressing and interesting only in a sordid way. But Nazis had commanded here and perpetrated horrific crimes, the knowledge of which invested the place with a sense of historical gravity; the slum felt like more than just a slum. And, assuming he didn't get mugged or clubbed to death, Victor thought it fitting that he should come here to get to the bottom of things.
After traveling for several more minutes, Ilya pointed to a dark green cottage and instructed the driver to stop. Victor then paid the driver and joined Ilya at the cottage's entrance. They stood there for a short while, but Ilya offered nothing in the way of explanation, not even a word to assure Victor that the dilapidated structurebearing nothing to identify it as the stonecutter's shop or as a place of business of any kindwas where they needed to be. Victor had expected to find heavy machinery and stacked rock, but there were only a peeling facade, drawn curtains, uncut grass, and a dirt path that turned ninety degrees at the front steps and wound around the side of the house. Taking this path, Ilya led Victor the length of the house and into a yard dominated by a Mitsubishi pickup truck with a sunken rear suspension. The truck had been backed into the yard so that its tailgate was only a few feet from the doors of a garage and from a large manual winch. The winch looked ancient, a relic from previous centuries, but Victor could see that it was still very much in use. By its heavy rope, it suspended a rough marble obelisk three feet in the air. The obelisk spun lazily, as though it had only recently been disturbed.
Ilya placed a hand on the obelisk, indicated the garage, and said: Well, here you have him.
Victor stepped past a door and looked into the garage. Looking back at him was a man in his sixties. He wore scuffed work pants, a sleeveless undershirt, and he had the hands and arms befitting a man who spent his days working with stone. He sat on a low stool with his legs splayed out before him. In one hand he held an abrasive cloth, which he had been using to polish a granite tombstone propped against a nearby wall. He blinked sullenly and looked very much like someone who hadn't been happy to see anyone in years.
Shimon, Ilya said, I brought you your client.
Shimon blinked again and showed no indication that he heard what Ilya had said.
Ilya gave the obelisk a firm shove, putting the weight in motion, and eliciting squeals of protest from the winch.
Aren't you even going to say thank you, you old goat?
Go to the devil, Shimon said, and take him with you.
You shouldn't talk like that. He came all the way from America just to see you.
All the worse for him.
Shimon glared from Victor to Ilya as though trying to determine which of them he despised more. For a moment, Victor wondered if maybe the old man had him confused with someone else. He'd not yet said one word to the stonecutterbarely looked at him, done nothing more than show upand yet the man seemed to loathe him in a personal way. Victor found it unsettling, like the opprobrium of a cripple or a religious person. However, it didn't appear to bother Ilya, who responded to the stonecutter's hatred with a patrician smugness.
Listen, if you don't want the business we'll leave.
Shimon shrugged, hatred undiminished, but evidently not prepared to lose the business. Though, what business, Victor could not quite figure out. The money had been sent months ago and the work reportedly done.
Shimon lifted his face to Victor and said: Well, did you come from America to stand here like a mute? What is it you want from me?
It could only be, Victor thought, that the man had confused him with someone else. Either that or he suffered from a mental illness.
I spoke to you yesterday. We had an appointment for this morning. I waited for you for hours. We were supposed to discuss the gravestone for my grandfather's grave. Work which I was told you had finished. Work for which you have already been paid. So, how exactly do you mean what do I want?
Who told you it was finished
His father promised my father it would be finished. Money was wired. Are you saying it's not finished?
Ask your friend the parasite if it's finished.
Shimon jerked his head toward Ilya, the parasite, who had allowed a shadow to fall over his smugness.
You see how he talks. You see what it's like to deal with him. My father literally spent weeks trying to have a reasonable conversation with him. And though I saw the trouble he was having, my father refused to let me intervene. Now, you've seen the Latvian legal system. You have seen where I work. It's nothing to be proud of. But, for what it's worth, it gives me access to certain people. And, if absolutely necessary, I can complicate someone's life.
Ilya frowned in the stonecutter's direction
Not that it's something I enjoy. What's to enjoy? Old men like him pass through the court every day. You'd have to be a sick person to enjoy making someone's miserable life even more miserable. Right?
Ilya smiled philosophically at Victor, his eyes seeking confirmation, as though the question had not been rhetorical.
Just to be clear, he repeated it.
But what choice do I have with someone like him?
From the roof of his skull, Victor felt the spreading of a vaporous warmth. It filled him, like helium but not exactly, making him very light and very heavy all at once. It took him a second to identify this sensation as a powerful swell of fatigue. His legs were like pillars, rooted into the ground, and yet he believed he might tip over. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a lumbering, retarded man. The man was Shimon's son. He helped his father load and unload the heavy rocks. Victor turned to get a better look, but when he did he saw only Shimon sitting by himself in the garage.
Victor turned back to Ilya and said, What does any of this have to do with my grandfather's gravestone? Ilya wavered before him, for a second blurry and then immaculately sharp.
Let me explain it to you, Ilya said.
Three weeks ago my father got on a bus to go and see this man. This man who could not be relied upon to keep an appointment or return a phone call. On a hot day, after working for eight hours, at five o'clock, when the buses are full, my father had to ride across town. Before he got here he had a heart attack. They had to stop the bus. We only received a phone call when he was already in the hospital. I, my daughter, my wife, none of us even had a chance to say good-bye. This is what it has to do with your grandfather's gravestone. My father, who from the goodness of his heart agreed to help. My father, whom your father only pestered. Calling all the time. And then wanting to negotiate payment in installments. As if my father was a thief. And later sent him a contract
Ilya spat out contract, as if a more offensive word did not exist in the Russian language.
This is what it has to do with anything. That my father killed himself over this gravestone. This gravestone which nobody would ever even visit. And what did my father get in return? Never a thank you. Only a hundred Lats for his trouble. A hundred Lats that won't even buy a stone a fifth as big for his memory. Now you tell me if that's fair.
Through the murk of fatigue, Victor heard the things Ilya said, but his brain processed only the rudiments: my father, your father, my father, your father. If there were an argument here, Victor didn't see how anyone could hope to win it. There was nothing to win. There was Sander, an old man suffering a heart attack on a cramped city bus: Ilya's father, but an abstraction to Victor. And there was Leon, an abstraction to Ilya, but as real to Victor as if he were standing before him. There he was, stumbling around the apartment, feeling the walls. There he was, every morning, in his tracksuit, doing deep knee bends and other ludicrous Soviet calisthenics. There he was, injecting himself with insulin and fretting about one thing or another at the kitchen table. His father.
I thought I would give you a chance. If you would help, Ilya said. And even now, I give you a chance. You can buy yourself another gravestone. God knows you have the money. Give this old bastard the business he doesn't deserve. And I'll send you a photo to prove it gets done.
In a daze, Victor didn't quite remember refusing the arrangement. Because he was already picturing his cab ride and the blur of pine trees on the way to Jurmala. And he was already in his hotel room, lying in bed, asleep and having a dream in which Nathalie, the Irish bridesmaid, appeared to him either on the beach in Jurmala or on the beach in Los Angelesmaybe bothand in which she professed her undying love, had sex with him, became his wife, and thenwith the confounding logic of dreamstransformed into Salma, who, stranger still, did nothing to undermine the benign quality of the dream but rather, in some illicit way, only enhanced the sense of pleasure. And then he awoke and dialed and had a conversation with his father. A conversation in which his father asked him how everything went. If he met the stonecutter. If he saw the gravestone. If everything looked as it should. And Victor answered his father, saying yes about the stonecutter, yes about the gravestone. Yes about everything. He answered him and said that everything was perfect, just the way he imagined it.
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