by Robert Klose
I first saw the table about ten years ago, while driving in my pickup through Wiscasset, Maine, along the coastal route. It was autumn, the air aflutter with falling leaves, and I spotted it at a yard sale, off to the side, suggesting it might have been spoken for. Nevertheless, I stopped. The table was simple but elegant, its round top made of laminated oak and fastened to a slim, four-sided stem. The stem itself was supported at its base by a pedestal consisting of four curved buttresses, one attached to each face of the stem. (Three of these buttresses were in excellent condition; but the fourth was damaged, as if a portion had been chewed off by a dog.)
As it turned out, the table was still available. The seller was a husky, middle-aged man who blurted, “One hundred dollars.”
“That’s a lot for a yard sale item.”
“It’s hand-crafted,” he said, more in afterthought than an attempt to sweeten the deal.
“I’ll give you seventy-five.”
He was aghast. “I’d rather burn it than sell it for that price.”
“In that case, I’ll take it.” After paying the man I threw the table into my pickup and headed north again, ahead of a threatening rain.
I brought the table to my still-almost-empty house and set it down in the middle of my empty kitchen, under a circular fluorescent ceiling light from the fifties. (The realtor had touted the house as having “charming mid-century touches.”) Then I surrounded it with what I had for seats — an aluminum lawn chair, a windsor chair, a metal folding chair, and a lobster crate.
I sat down in the lawn chair, looked out over the table — now the only piece of quality furniture in the house — and said, “There.” I felt that in delivering the table to its appointed place, I was, in a way, inaugurating my new home.
As time went on, the inevitable accumulation of “things” progressed. Beds, more chairs, night stands, book cases, end tables, dressers and a sofa. The table, though, remained my home’s stillpoint — a neutron star whose gravity gathered everything unto itself. In the morning I ate breakfast there; in the evening I opened my mail and paid my bills upon it; when I had guests, we sat around the table; and when I found a baby robin in the backyard, I put it in a shoe box and set it upon the table, where I could observe its return to health under the steady glow of the overhead fluorescent, which bathed the table in a continuous, soft light, like a museum piece. Finally, in a delicate balancing act, I made love to a now erstwhile girlfriend upon the table, calling out to her in my moment of ecstasy, “My flower!”
In short, I loved the table and sensed that, no matter how my station in life might progress and improve, I would never part with it.
Winter came. Waterways froze, icicles descended from the eaves, and chimneys puffed peaceably along. That’s when I saw her. The Russian woman. I was driving along the main road through town. The snow was flying about in periodic gusts, and had been coming down since early morning. Enough had fallen so that the plows had rumbled it into long, high ridges on both sides of the road.
She was hobbling through the drifts, hunched over old-womanishly, clutching a large paper bag of groceries against the front of her gray wool coat. She was wearing only flats, and every so often one flew off, so that she had to pause, backstep, work it back onto her foot (along with a dollop of slush), and then press forward again.
I pulled over and rolled down the window. “Do you want a ride?”
I had startled her. She threw me a desperate look and barked, “What!”
“Oh, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, as if she had been expecting me. She got into the truck and I could feel the cold emanating from her body.
“Where can I take you?”
I knew the accent. “You know…”
“What!” (It came out as “Vaht!”.)
“We have a growing Russian community here.”
“I know,” she said with something resembling disgust. “I am part of it.” And then she asked, crossly, “How did you know I was Russian?”
She examined my face, as if I were joking. “I have no accent,” she said in broad Slavic vowels.
I followed her directions, down poorly plowed side streets and around corners banked with snow. She revealed herself in snippets. St. Petersburg. A research chemist. A husband, Oleg. America. Two sons, Sasha and Timur. Then no Oleg. Lost to a designing American woman. Oleg took Timur. Now she cannot leave America. She is here. She is stuck. She has Sasha, but other than him, nothing. Nothing! “My name is Ada,” she said after taking a breath, as if to punctuate her tale of woe, giving each syllable desperate weight. Ah — duh.
“Here,” she commanded, and I stopped the truck in front of a three-story, peelpaint apartment house. It must have been frigid inside, because the windows were frosted over, icicles hanging in front of them like bars. In a second floor window there was a clear patch, framing a pale face, round and searching. “Sashinka,” said Ada, softly. Then she turned to me and ordered, “You will come in for tea.”
Having time on my hands, and hounded by curiosity, I followed Ada up the icy front steps and into a dim vestibule which smelled like old blankets. The wallpaper was from a distant era, scaling off in broad swatches. I watched as she stepped out of her flats and planted a wet foot upon the first step. I followed.
Halfway up the stairs there was a thundering from above. Sasha made a raucous descent, jabbering in an insistent ragtime of Russian. “Da, da,” said his mother. “Da.” They embraced as if the boy had just arrived from a distant journey.
Sasha looked me over, and I him. He was ten or eleven, blond, with a broad forehead and wide-set, light blue eyes, a narrow chin. He was, in other words, a Russian. He put out his hand and I shook it.
Ada shed her coat and threw it over the wooden railing. Her figure confirmed that she was younger than I had at first thought. Perhaps forty. When she took off her knit hat her light brown hair fell forward, plain and straight.
Their apartment was spartan, and cold. A shoddy card table its centerpiece. Two wooden folding chairs. A foam chair/bed occupied one corner, and a canvas cot stretched along a wall, its only gloss a neatly folded, red and yellow afghan. Between these was a small, overladen bookcase. The whole scene was austere, Soviet. Sasha, in anticipation of his mother’s arrival, had already set out tea and a platter of small, plain cakes. Ada and I sat in the two chairs with Sasha squatting between us on a stool. She watched as I took my first tentative sip. “Do you like the tea?” she asked.
“Superb,” I said, my breath visible.
She hauled out the box it had come in. “Five hundred bags,” she proclaimed. “And only two dollars!”
More snippets. She walked everywhere. No car. Little money. Tutored Russian and cleaned the public library at night. Sasha got straight A’s. Spoke English like a native. No, better. If only Timur…
“Are you cold?” she asked. This was Sasha’s cue to jump to his feet and scrape an image in a pane with his fingernail. “It’s colder inside than out,” he announced with a smile, as if to show that they could take it.
“Oil is expensive,” remarked Ada as she cupped the tea in her hands. Sasha ran back to the table and bumped it with his knee. A leg collapsed.
I was on my feet, dancing to dispel the pain. Ada rushed to my assistance while Sasha tried to right the table. “Go in bathroom and put cold water on it,” she commanded.
“The teapot,” I managed, still fanning my lap. “It’s still pouring out. On the floor.”
Sasha was already there, mopping and straightening while trying to hold the table up with his shoulder.
“Some day,” said Ada to my back as I hobbled to the bathroom, “I will have a real table.”
The first day of spring. Maine looked as if it had the potential for warmth once again, its ice and snow having been cashiered into rushing rivers and streams, its front yards and fields awash in mud.
Galina Sergeivna called. She was the linchpin of the local Russian community. Eighty years old, she had the broad, nesting doll expanse of the older Russian woman, but, having survived the siege of Leningrad and then a trek west with her family into Nazi arms, she also had a broad expanse of will.
Her voice was insistent, urgent. But this was normal. Even when she was proffering borscht, her voice was insistent, urgent, as if the fate of the world depended on my lifting a small, red, shriveled beet to my mouth.
“Listen,” she told me, breathlessly. “Ada…” The news took wing from there. Ada’s situation was desperate. As if I didn’t know. I had spent the better part of the winter chauffeuring her about and leaving anonymous packages of groceries at her door, which, one day, brought the rhetorical cry: “If I knew who it was, I would kill him.”
Now her poor situation had worsened. As a foreigner, she was not entitled to public assistance. Her tutoring brought her pin money, and the cleaning job in the public library was enough to pay the rent and insure that Sasha always had clean underwear. But that job had been a risk. Even in a small Maine town, one can get away with paying someone under the table for only so long. The director of the library, having visited and fallen in love wth Russia, was willing to do this. But the new town manager — an old cold warrior — was not.
Galina recited refrain after refrain. “She doesn’t even have… She doesn’t even have…” And then, like a bolt from the blue, it came at me: “…a table.”
I swallowed hard for the two of us. “Yes, she does,” I countered, lamely. “She has a card table.”
“No,” said Galina Sergeivna, rushing to Ada’s defense. “It broke. One of the legs bent.” I could feel her leaning into the phone. “It broke off. Gone.”
Did Galina Sergeivna think I had a table to spare? Did she know that I was the one who had left all those groceries at Ada’s door? If so, was she now trying to coerce me? Impossible. She was the soul of altruism and honest intent.
“I don’t have a table,” I told her by way of preemption.
“You don’t have a table?” she echoed, astonished.
“Well, I do have a table, but…”
“Oh, so you do have a table. Well, maybe you could give it to poor Ada. I would give her mine, but one of the legs is bent. It is only a matter of time before it…”
I didn’t know what to say, yet I knew that any pause with Galina Sergeivna was pregnant with the chance of her inserting a paragraph of design. This she immediately did.
“Listen,” she said. “I have an idea. My son Misha is going on sabbatical. He’s going away. In his garage he has a table that his mother-in-law gave him. He can’t bring it inside yet because he has to get rid of his own table first.” Galina Sergeivna breathed hard for a moment, considering. “Well, I could see in my mind’s eye that neither table would fit into Ada’s apartment. By the way, it’s solid bitch…”
“You mean beech.”
“Yes. What did I say?”
“You said ‘bitch’.”
“Did I? Impossible. Why would I say that? Anyway, you could take this table and maybe let Ada have your table for a little while. I was at her apartment the other day and thought that a small round table would be perfect there.”
“Is it really made of beech?”
“Yes, go to Misha and have a look. The garage is open. This could work for everybody.”
I went to Misha’s. The garage was open. The table was beautiful — a broad, finely finished surface of immaculate bitch. It would look perfect in my kitchen. And who knows? The way these things work, Misha just might learn to live without it. I made the necessary arrangements with Misha and within the hour the table was standing in my dooryard, waiting. Fifteen minutes later I was hauling my round oak table up Ada’s creaky, winding staircase. Five minutes after that, she had adorned it with a lace tablecloth and was filling my cup with steaming black Russian tea. It was curious that she resented the gifts of groceries but welcomed the table without so much as a thank you, as if she had been expecting it.
“I’m happy to lend this table to you until you can get a decent one of your own,” I said, staking my right to reclamation should it become necessary.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she said, nodding. “We will take good care of it.” As she said this, Sasha clapped the remaining three legs of the card table together and brought the shabby thing down to the curb.
That evening I ate supper alone, seated at Misha’s lovely table.
In time Ada’s situation improved. In a desperate maneuver to remain in the States, close to Timur, she registered as an undergraduate at the university, majoring in political science. This secured her a student visa and also granted her the privilege of sitting in a classroom with forty American eighteen-year-olds wondering what on earth the course had to do with sex. By virtue of her Russian Ph.D., she was also awarded a tuition waiver and a stipend of four hundred dollars per month. In addition, she had five private Russian language students. On the weekends she and Sasha collected bottles and cans. During one of my visits she opened a closet packed with plastic bags of returnables. “Forty-three dollars!” she sang.
“In Michigan it would be eighty-six,” I remarked
“In Michigan they pay ten cents per bottle or can. So you would get double the money.”
“What a country!” she said, slapping her forehead.
I visited Ada and Sasha often. Every time I did, Ada waxed poetic about the table. One day she told me to close my eyes when I came through the door. “Now open them,” she said, and I beheld my table, but it looked somehow different. If it were a living thing, I would say that it had been rejuvenated.
“I refinished it,” said Ada, clasping her hands.
“Oh.” In truth, it looked wonderful. She had removed the old finish and restained it. Darker. Fresher.
Sasha threw himself over the table and draped it with both his arms. “I love this table,” he said. “Do you know how to say that in Russian?”
“I had only a year of Russian in college,” I told him.
“That should be enough,” he said, chastising me. “Try. Try to say, ‘I love this table.'”
Ada chimed in. “Then say, ‘Sasha loves this table.'”
“It’s no easier.”
“Start by saying ‘Sasha.’ You can say that, can’t you? It’s the same in English.”
“Sasha,” I said, blankly.
“Now say ‘lyoo-bit.'”
I repeated the word.
“Now ‘etot stoll’.”
I repeated it.
“Now the whole thing. ‘Sasha lyoo-bit etot stoll.'”
I did as I was told.
Sasha applauded while his mother went to fetch the tea and I sat down at the table, which was redolent with the aroma of fruitwood stain. As Ada set the tea down, I accessed my dormant Russian. “Ada, ” I volunteered. “I think I can say, ‘I love this table too.'”
“Good,” said Ada. “But first tell me if you want sugar or honey. And drink the tea before it gets cold. How are things where you work?”
* * *
I stayed late into the evening. When I finally left, toward ten, it was dark. A solitary streetlamp shed a paltry light. As I approached my car I caught sight of a moving shadow off to my right. Who was this? A mugger? In Maine? Alarmed, I quickened my steps, but too late. It was upon me. I turned and cowered. “Get away!” was all I managed to cry before a hand grabbed my arm.
“It’s all right,” counseled a man’s voice, heavily accented. “It’s me. Oleg.”
I lifted my eyes and squinted at him. “I don’t know you,” I said.
“Yes you do, although we haven’t met.”
This, then, was Ada’s ex-husband. As my eyes adjusted I could make him out. His youngish, boyish face and thick, brown, blow-dried hair brushed straight back. Like Stalin. He even had Stalin’s tiger eyes. “What do you want?”
“I’ll be brief. I see you’re spending time with Ada.”
“Not the way you think,” I was quick to answer.
“No matter,” said Oleg. “Things take on a life of their own, even when you think you have control. I know you gave her a table.”
I relaxed a bit, calmed by his quiet manner, although I remained on my guard. “How would you know that?”
Oleg shrugged. “How did I know you were here this evening?”
“Good question. How did you know?”
He shrugged again. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll bet she told you that I am some sort of monster. If not a monster, then maybe a Bukhara from Brighton Beach.”
“She didn’t tell me anything. And anyway, it’s none of my business.”
Oleg smiled. “That’s a very American thing to say. In Russia, everything is everybody’s business. Don’t you want to know why I left her?”
“I’m not the least bit interested.”
Oleg narrowed his eyes. “That’s a lie. You’re really dying to know, so I’ll tell you. We came here with Sashinka and Timurka — our boys — two years ago. I found that I wanted to stay. For a man like me, there are more possibilities here. But Ada longed for St. Petersburg. What could I do? We separated and I found an American woman.”
“For the green card,” I said, and immediately regretted it.
“Don’t worry,” said Oleg, sensing my alarm. “I’m not going to kill you for speaking the truth. Of course, for the green card. I don’t love this woman. She’s too old for me. And now Ada feels trapped here, because of Timurka.”
A silence settled over both of us. “All right,” I finally said. “Now I know more than I knew before, but I don’t see why you had to tell me this. It doesn’t change anything.”
“I love her,” said Oleg matter-of-factly. “I just want you to know that. If I knew she needed a table, I would have given her one. I build houses, you know, so I could have made her one. From cherry. Very expensive. So then, your table is harmless, but please remember what I said about things taking on lives of their own.”
Having said that, he turned and disappeared into the night.
The next morning, while reading the paper, I was stunned to see Oleg’s name in the police blotter. He had been summoned. For assault in a local bar. Only an hour after approaching me in front of Ada’s house. He was free on bail.
I didn’t tell Ada about my meeting with Oleg. Instead, life went on as usual. I visited her on a regular basis and began to get close to Sasha, who became interested in me when he learned I was a biologist. I took him on field trips to the coast and found him to be a quick learner with a keen eye for detail. Between my normal visits for tea and my relationship with Sasha, I found myself at their apartment more and more. As the weeks and months passed I made fewer references to the table being mine, that concern having been supplanted by a subtle but persistent fear that Oleg was lurking in the bushes.
Still, I felt at ease with Ada and Sasha. The simplicity and quiet of their small apartment made it seem like some distant place divorced from both Ada’s and my preoccupations. Now and then, as we drank our tea, I caught her peeping at me. When I did, she blushed. Her manner of serving tea was usually brisk and antiseptic, but on one occasion, as I took the cup from her, her hand brushed mine and I caught a flash of heat from her. She quickly left the table, scurried to the kitchen, and gazed out the window. For my part, I continued to sip my tea and nibble at my cookie.
One day, Galina Sergeivna called. As usual, her message was urgent. Misha had returned from his sabbatical and wanted his bitch table back. Could I bring it to him that evening? I asked for a little time to arrange things so that I would not be without a table, but I could hear Misha in the background, whispering to his mother, “Tell him tonight. I must have it tonight!”
What could I do? I agreed and delivered the table to him, trucking it over in my pickup. I returned home to a void in my kitchen. Girding myself, I called Ada. “Do you remember the table I loaned you?” I asked.
“Remember? What do you mean? I eat on it every day. I work on it. Sasha does his homework on it. It is the center of our lives.”
“Yes, but do you recall that it was a loan? The time has come when I need to have it back.”
“Not right away,” I said, wincing, as I did not feel comfortable making the same unconditional demand as Misha. “Please keep it while you look for a new one. I’ll even help you.”
I could sense her panic at the other end of the line. “Oh,” she moaned. And then, “I’ll give you anything you ask for the table. We have gotten used to it. Two hundred dollars!”
“Ada,” I pleaded. “I’m not looking to sell it. It…it has sentimental value.”
She slammed the receiver down. What did that mean? Was I getting my table back or not? I called her. After five rings she picked up. “I’m comforting Sasha,” she said. “He loves that table. He’s used to it. He’s devastated.”
“Ada,” I insisted. “Put Sasha on the phone.”
She hung up again. I decided to go to bed in the interest of letting tempers cool.
In the morning the phone rang. I steeled myself for Ada’s next assault, but it was Galina Sergeivna. “Listen,” she said, “we know about the table.”
“All of us,” she said, cryptically. “And we want you to know that we’re on your side.” After a pause she added, “You did tell her it was only a loan, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, then you have every right to ask for it back. I mean, if this were Moscow…”
“What do you mean? What if this were Moscow?”
“Well, in Russia we help each other like this. It’s not unusual to give someone furniture.”
“But I didn’t give it to her.”
“Yes, I know. But you went there from time to time and had tea on the table, and you reminded her that it was yours?”
“Yes,” I said. “But were those things I had to do? Ada says it’s killing Sasha.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Galina Sergeivna. “He’s a big boy. What is he, eleven?”
“Twelve then. Children that age recover quickly. Well, I just want you to know that we’re on your side. I had friends here last night and they’re all from Moscow and they all agree that this isn’t St. Petersburg.”
“Ada’s from St. Petersburg. Maybe your friends could talk to her.”
“No,” said Galina Sergeivna. “They won’t.”
“Because she’s from St. Petersburg.”
I hesitated to call Ada. If I followed through and took the table, I would be thought of as cold and uncaring, at least by Ada and probably the other St. Petersburgers in the community. Perhaps it was best to just let her keep the table. Could she live with that?
By evening I was still mired in indecision. I decided to go over and speak to her personally. I got into my truck and pulled up in front of her apartment, but didn’t get out. As the vehicle idled I once again considered simply not mentioning the table again, and perhaps the situation would resolve itself over time. Suddenly I was startled by a tapping on the window. Oleg.
“You scared me half to death!” I said as I rolled down the window. “What do you want?” Then I noticed his bruised forehead and a gash across his left cheek.
“I was in the neighborhood and I saw you sitting here,” he said.
“I’m thinking about taking the table back.”
“Yes,” he said. “I heard. The arrogant Muscovites are all on your side, except for Ludmila in the bakery, who remembers the old days and feels that a loan is as good as a gift. Russian and American cultures are very different. This is what happens when you get mixed up with a Russian woman.”
“Look,” I said. “This whole thing is crazy. I’m not mixed up with Ada. But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s best if I let her keep the table.”
Oleg grabbed my arm with alarming force. “No. You can’t,” he said. “Then you’ll give her an opportunity to play the martyr. You must take the table back.” I tried to avert my eyes, but they became stuck on a black object shoved into his belt. My God. A pistol. I began to stammer.
Oleg smiled, then pulled his jacket front together. His expression dropped and he glared at me for one, long moment, as if to say, “Now you get the message.” And with that, he went on his way. I didn’t go in to see Ada. I drove home and ate a TV dinner while sitting on the floor.
That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of Anna Karenina. What was it about these Russians? In America, people got splinters, hit their thumbs with hammers, and stubbed their toes. In Russia they rolled under locomotives. Could an entire country have such an insatiable appetite for drama? And why were they always at each other’s throats? Why couldn’t the Muscovites talk to the St. Petersburgers? Why did both these groups hate the Russians of Brighton Beach? I could only surmise that, as a result of historical deprivations, they always perceived the pie of opportunity as being too small, even in a land of excess like America. This made them suspicious of each other.
This led to more questions. Why did they treat ulcers with vodka? Why did they curse the lives they left behind, yet weep at the thought of their country? I was reminded of something Paul Theroux wrote about riding the Siberian Railway. He reported the grinding monotony of day after day of a featureless, snowbound landscape as the train crawled westward toward Moscow. And then, after an eternity of unbroken whiteness, the passengers saw a wisp of black smoke on the horizon, emanating from one of Russia’s industrial cities. At which point a man, a peasant, stood up and recited a poem that went something like, “Even the smell of our industry calls us home to Mother Russia.”
I suddenly felt that I understood why the table meant so much to Ada, as it would to most any Russian. In a life which offered little variety, much grayness, and little hope of improvement, any gloss whatsoever was a pearl of great price. As I dozed off I felt that I had reached my decision: I would let her keep the table, even if she crucified herself as a result.
That night I dreamed. The image was stark, threatening — Ada with the table slung over her back, Christlike, stumbling along the main road in a driving rain, determined to throw it down at my doorstep, but not until she had fallen three times. Or was it two?
I awoke in a sweat. And then I laughed. Was I becoming Russian? I rolled over and went back to sleep.
The next day, after work, I stopped at Galina Sergeivna’s house to drop off the quart of milk she had asked me to pick up for her. I pulled into her gravel driveway and regarded the small, rundown abode which still managed to look fanciful, like a dacha. It was painted brown and yellow, with a low peaked roof and filigrees about the eves. Flower boxes brimmed with marigolds. The shutters had cutouts of daffodils. As I went up the steps, Glinka, her porch cat, meowed and ran through my legs.
“Oh, come in,” she said with the hint of insouciance that belied, I was convinced, some intent.
I had long since grown accustomed to Galina’s flame red hair and the prominent mole, as big as a marble, that sprouted in the middle of her forehead. Her fruity perfume wafted in her wake as she moved to the sofa in her tiny living room and motioned for me to take the easy chair opposite her. It was the perfect old person’s home: four small rooms, all on the same floor, yet with space for a piano. Knickknacks abounded, a lifetime of work for a dust rag.
Galina Sergeivna, normally composed and cheerful, seemed uncharacteristically nervous and preoccupied. “So,” she said, “have you decided?”
“Yes. I’m going to forget about the table and let her keep it.”
Galina Sergeivna laid a hand across her neck and sat bolt upright. “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”
“No, I’m not. But when I considered all the options, this one made me feel the best. And it will preserve the peace.”
“Yes,” she said, looking first at the floor, and then heavenward. “Russians prefer peace above everything. Even freedom.” Then an almost beatific smile broke across her lined face as she turned to me. “But maybe not more than love.”
I thought that an odd comment. But I disregarded it and continued. “I think I know how to handle this in a way that will allow Ada to accept the table.”
But I said nothing else, and Galina Sergeivna suppressed her curiosity. I nodded and got up to leave. As I opened the door she said, “Please come by tomorrow evening around seven. There’s someone I’d like you to meet. It’s very important. We’ll have tea.” She would not let me leave until I had promised.
From Galina Sergeivna’s house I went to the florist and bought a lush bouquet, which I brought to Ada’s apartment. I knocked on the door and it swung open. When I called out there was no answer. But there, before me, was the table. It had been taken apart, its top standing on its side against the pedestal. Using a coin from my pocket, I screwed it together again and laid the flowers upon it, my peace offering. Then I scribbled a note: “I’ve found a table that’s better for my house. Please enjoy this one in good health.” Then I left the apartment.
As I came onto the street it occurred to me that Oleg, if he was still lurking, may have seen me. My God, what would he think now? And what about that pistol? But when I went outside all was clear.
The afternoon turned to evening, and still no call from Ada. And no one answered when I tried to call. Curious. The silence persisted into the next day. When evening came I went to Galina Sergeivna, who was waiting in the doorway, kneading her hands in her house dress. “I thought you’d never come,” she said.
Galina Sergeivna introduced me to an older Russian woman named Zinaida, who looked to be straight out of the days before glasnost: her thick, salt-and-pepper hair was held back with bobbie pins; her stockings were as thick as cloth, with a visible seam; she wore a plain beige blouse topping a brown wool skirt. All of this was in contrast to her brilliant, welcoming smile as she took my hand and rolled it in both of hers. She spoke no English.
We sat around a card table and had tea and pound cake, Galina Sergeivna translating my every word for her friend. When the subject of the table came up, Zinaida’s eyes flashed with intense interest. She asked many questions. Did I give the table or lend it? Did I show continuing concern for it during the course of its absence? Was Ada from St. Petersburg? Finally, Galina Sergeivna threw me an imploring look.
When I told her about the flowers she put her tea down and swallowed audibly. Then, clearing her throat, she translated this conclusion for Zinaida, who immediately clucked and then emitted a dense paragraph of rapid-fire Russian as Galina Sergeivna repeatedly chirped, “Da, da, da.” Then she turned to me and said, “Then you do understand.”
I looked blankly at the two women. “Understand what?”
“That Ada is in love with you.”
I was speechless. Of course, I had suspected something, but I was sure I had done nothing to encourage Ada.
Zinaida took a tissue from her bosom and blew her nose. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “Zinaida is happy for you,” said Galina Sergeivna. Then she leaned across the table, not translating, leaving poor Zinaida to fend for herself.
“It was the table,” said Galina Sergeivna. “Ada told me, very early on, that it was the greatest act of kindness anyone had ever done for her, especially since enduring the hell she has known here in America. Oleg, Timur, food, money,” she enumerated on her fingers. “And all the attention you paid to little Sasha. Now you see why she couldn’t give it up.”
“To guarantee my visits?”
Galina Sergeivna nodded. Zinaida honked.
“I’ve been trying to call Ada for several days, but there’s been no answer.”
Silence. Galina Sergeivna’s eyes grew soulful. “Are you saying that you love her?”
“No,” I clipped. “I don’t.”
There was a cry like a wounded animal, from another room.
“It’s her,” said Galina Sergeivna, searching the pockets of her house dress for a tissue of her own. “Ada. She told me everything. She came here to seek refuge.”
“Who do you think?”
Galina Sergeivna nodded. Then she turned to Zinaida and assaulted her with a tidal wave of Russian to bring her up to date on all that had transpired since the last translation. Zinaida wept anew into her sopping tissue. After confirming that her friend would survive, Galina Sergeivna turned back to me. “Ada told him everything too,” she said. “Finally. Just the other day. He exploded. Did you know that he has a gun? He threatened to take Sasha, so that she would be left with nothing!”
I swallowed. “Where is Sasha?” I managed in a bare whisper, while Ada’s howling continued on the other side of the door.
Galina Sergeivna steeled herself and leveled her gaze at me. “He took him.”
I splayed my hands out on the table and regarded both weeping women while, in the next room, Ada continued to vent her grief. “Did she go to the police?” I asked.
Ada looked at me as if I were a moron. “Police? What police? What rights does she have? Oleg has a green card, a job, an American wife, a big house. Ada has nothing. If this was Brighton Beach she would be sitting on a subway grate with her hand out.”
Ada’s cries had become deafening. I could hear her pacing the floor. “My heart is bleeding for her,” I whispered to Galina Sergeivna. “But I just don’t love her.”
“Ach,” she said, sniffing and looking off into the distance. “Ach.”
“Let me talk to her,” I volunteered. “I can’t leave her like that.”
Galina Sergeivna waved me off with her tissue. “No,” she said. “She has to understand that this is America now and things are different here. It’s a woman’s job to talk to her, and I will do it.”
“Then I have to go,” I said, excusing myself. I reached out for Zinaida’s hand, but she was using both of them to clutch the tissue to her nose. I left the house feeling as if I had committed a murder. As I descended the steps, I caught sight of a distant figure, a man, coming down the street at a rapid pace. He was carrying — or rather, swinging — a bouquet of flowers, while inside, the women were squawking like hens.
Robert Klose teaches at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is a regular contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Confrontation and elsewhere. His books include “Adopting Alyosha — A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia,” “Small Worlds — Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns,” “The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching” and a novel, “Long Live Grover Cleveland,” which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award.