Are You Now?

Viet Dinh

In 1950, I remember nothing more than hating my piano lessons. My mother paid Mrs. Bacyznsky, a fellow Ukrainian immigrant, a quarter for a week’s worth. Mrs. Baczynsky lived seven blocks away, and I not only had to walk there for lessons, but to practice, since we did not own a piano. Every day, my friends Mario and Dale from PS 8 would interrupt their game of stickball with a sympathetic wave: There but for the grace of God go I. Worse, Mrs. Baczynsky kept a vicious pair of stainless-steel nail clippers on the piano ledge, listening for the telltale click of fingernails against the keys to swoop down to snip them to the pink. When I told my mother my fingers were too sore to practice, she said, “So now you’ll pay attention to your nails, yes?” 

My mother retained a faint accent; she worked as a translator for the UN, which then was still wobbling on four-year-old legs. I never knew where she learned to speak English—if she had learned it in the United States or back in Kiev. She moved to New York with my father shortly before the Soviet advance. My father, I know only from a photograph. In it, he wore his U.S. Army uniform, standing arm in arm with my mother, eyes squinting in the sun, left leg grazing my mother’s skirt, cap low on his forehead, only a rim of hair visible. I imagined it to be chestnut brown, like mine. He had hoped to parlay service in the military into citizenship—but he died in the war. The picture is now probably gathering dust in an evidence box somewhere, wedged between whatever else the police dragged out of our apartment. 

That was June of 1950, the summer I was eight. The same summer that Ethel Rosenberg was arrested, the same summer I stopped playing the piano.

For me, my mother will always look harried, frazzled, her eyes sunken into black pools. My mother worked late often, and when she did, Mrs. Baczynsky watched me for the evening, feeding me hot knidlee with creamed beef or kutia, if she had been able to find it. She played piano with her baggy hands. Sometimes, she put a record on the gramophone and exhorted me to listen. “Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked. Even though she never had a kind word for the Soviets, she invited Khachaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tschaikovsky to invade her apartment. 

Those nights, my mother walked me home. Upon her arrival, she conspired with Mrs. Baczynsky in Ukrainian about me: “Something something Leonid something...” It was this way everywhere we went. The butcher’s, the grocer’s, the seamstress: she only patronized Ukrainians, and spent long hours speaking with them. She stopped at businesses we had nothing to do with: pet stores, bookbinders, jewelry makers. She was especially friendly to the women in the garment district, the women with bulbous, callused fingers and gravelly voices. She handed out Cyrillic newspapers: Robitnyk, Ukrainskyi Shchodennyi Visti, Narodna Volya. 

The walk with my mother through those seven blocks in Brooklyn Heights is one of the few things I remember clearly. She held my hand as we walked. Her shoes were the color of the looming tenements, her stockings the shade of grass clippings. I took one and a half steps for every one of hers. Halfway home, we passed a strip of park—the green island in our neighborhood. My playground. But at night, the familiar things in daylight—the craggy black rocks on which Mario, Dale, and I would fight for supremacy, the elms whispering along the sides of the path—became a Carpathian forest. I tightened my grip on her as we stepped over litter freed by stray dogs, angry with hunger. Whenever she sensed my fear, she scratched her fingernail across the top of my knuckles and told me: “Sing me what you’ve been learning.” I’d hum abridged Dvorak or simplified Mozart—whatever I’d been tapping on the keys earlier. With her, everything seemed solid, bolted in place: the fire hydrant two blocks from our home, the bars on the garden-level apartments, the steps to our building. 

We ascended three flights of stairs to our apartment. She held the outside rail, I the inside one with its sharp wooden corners. We had one bedroom; in winter, since our building didn’t have steam heat, she curled around me to keep me warm, but now that it was summer, it was too hot for us to share the bed. She slept on the living-room couch. But before I went to sleep, she pressed down my sideburns with her thumbs and told me ghost stories of domovoi who do your chores if you are good and hide your shoes if you are bad. Of bannaia, who peel the skin off of your arms when you aren’t looking. I pretended to sleep while I listened to her fix water, taking the kettle off before its whistle grew too panicked. I heard her pour tea from one mug to another to cool it. Other sounds—dishes clinking in the sink, papers rustling, the shower—brought me, finally, to sleep.

* * *
It’s true that my mother and Ethel Rosenberg were friends. Ethel wrung her hands when she spoke, as if laundry were all they had ever known, and ran her fingers through her hair until the curls frayed. She met with my mother every other week, and I would be shuffled off to Mrs. Baczynsky’s. I recently retraced the path from our old apartment to Mrs. Baczynsky’s. I can still identify Dale’s rowhouse, repainted and sliding into dilapidation. I don’t know why I expected nothing to change; perhaps eight-year-old Leonid will always want things to stay the same. I spent two hours wandering those streets, but I couldn’t locate the park I had played in as a child. Instead, I found a VFW post, beige and solid, American flags flapping in the breeze like loose tongues. But the park once existed, I know. The summer I was seven, I took Ethel’s son Michael there to play while she and my mother chatted. We sat in the grass and watched trashmen peck at the litter with sharp-tipped canes. Michael was a year younger than I, and I told him how I took out the trash, cleaned my room, and dried the dishes. I wanted to know if this was normal and asked what chores his mother made him do. “Nothing,” he said. He wasn’t bragging or smug, just matter-of-fact. We met up with Mario and Dale, and the four of us played punch-the-pigeon. Luring them with stale bread crusts, we herded them into a circle. Since Michael was the guest, he had the honor of the first scream to startle them. As they rose, we spun our arms like propellers, trying to hit as many as possible. When we had exhausted our supply of pigeons, we resorted to shooting each other with finger pistols. Michael refused to play. “Come on,” said Dale, “we’re hunting Communists. You want to get the Communists, don’t you?” He shook his head. “Why?” I asked. “Yeah, why?” said Mario. Michael headed toward my apartment. I called out after him, but he didn’t turn, and when I yelled louder, he broke off in a run. We threw pebbles at his back. “What’s his deal?” asked Dale. The three of us continued playing. I, naturally, was the Communist, and though we all took turns dying, I don’t ever remember winning. Later that year, Ethel accompanied my mother and me to see the Macy’s Santa Claus, and while I soaked up the holiday spectacle—penguins doing glacial pirouettes on mirrors frosted with spray-on snow, caroling families of rosy-cheeked snowmen—she seemed unimpressed. She pointed at a mechanical Santa with a ribbon-festooned present in his hands. The Santa bent to place the present under a tinsel-trimmed tree, only to pull back, his motion proscribed by unseen gears. “See?” she said. “Typical. You think you’re going to get something, then he takes it away.” I got angry. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t be making fun, that this wasn’t her holiday, but my mother laughed. I kept my annoyance in check as we stood in line to see the real living Santa. But after half an hour, Ethel complained her feet were killing her and that her ears ached from screaming children. “But I want to see Santa,” I said. “Let’s take a break,” my mother replied. I saw other children running with candy canes, eyes starry with Christmas promises. “But we’re almost there,” I protested, tugging my mother’s sleeve. “He’s right around the corner.” “Leo,” she said. “No.” Ethel made up for it by treating us to lunch at Horn & Hardart. We got a booth near the door. At the counter, teenagers sipped out of tall ice-cream glasses. Nickel-throwers handed out shiny silver blessings. An older man in a woolen cap that covered his ears stood in line at the dolphin-head coffee spout. He caught me looking and winked. “Go, get whatever you want,” Ethel said, and my mother said, “No, it’s not necessary.” But Ethel shooed me off the vinyl seat and repeated, “Anything you want.” Ethel smoked cigarettes one after the other, and my mother turned away from the smoke. I started with an open-face roast beef sandwich smothered in gravy. Mashed potatoes on the side. Peas and butter. I arranged squares of Jell-O—deep red of cherry, pale strawberry pink, bright green lime, yellow, orange—on a separate plate. Ethel said, “Oh, look, Marta. You’ve got a Mondrian in the family.” My mother laughed and said, “My Leo is so sensitive.” I put the plate on the gold-flecked Formica tabletop. I pressed against the metal rim of the table, and the cold seeped into my chest. Afternoon light came through the window where we sat, and my Jell-O glowed like a stained-glass window. We communed there, the three of us, the beginning and the end.
* * *
That’s my favorite memory of Ethel. In it, she and mother laugh and carry on like old friends, though I’m unsure how long, in fact, they had known each other. Ethel walked us to the subway station and promised to visit soon. But this is not my most memorable Christmas memory. Here is the most memorable: When I was fourteen, I was transferred into a Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic family, the Zownirs. No presents for St. Nicholas’s Feast and only a pair of socks on Christmas, which they celebrated on January 7th. The socks had been darned and mended to look argyle and were thick and warm. The Zownirs lived a block from the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church on Seventh, and we walked to midnight mass together. The snow was ankle-deep. Inside the cathedral, the air was heavy with paraffin. Mr. Zownir, head bowed, mumbled the liturgy, and I went through the motions of prayer. I was always last to say, “Amen,” my voice quiet and alone after resounding unanimity. And, after what seemed like hours of sitting with my hands folded on my lap, I had a realization: my mother was dead. This could be the only truth. Surely, even if she were in prison or back in the Ukraine, by now she would have tried to contact me. After mass, back in the Zownir’s apartment, I waited until they turned out the lights before I put on my new socks and shiny black dress shoes, the insides still warm and damp, and fled. I had a notion to enlist in the army, as my father had done, and die. The overcast sky suffocated the city, and the flakes swept down on a sharp, slapping wind. I walked without aim, street signs half obscured by veils of snow. Though there were others on the streets, none of them paid attention to a shivering boy, clutching his arms, plumes of breath escaping from between his chattering teeth. They were wrapped in their own furs, their own miseries. Their indifference was a comfort: if we are the children of God, then God bears no malice toward us. He simply doesn’t care. I’d gone a mile, maybe more—who could tell? I never looked to see how far my tracks had taken me—before I collapsed in an alley. If I could have, I would have walked all the way across the country, across the Bering Strait, and back to the Ukraine, back to my mother. The policeman who found me thought I was dead. “It’s a miracle,” he said when I woke up in the hospital. “You weren’t breathing when I found you, I swear.” He and Mr. Zownir watched over me as I slept. I had escaped serious frostbite on my fingers and toes. When I was released, Mr. Zownir agreed that it was indeed a miracle, then whipped me until I bled. Now the Zownirs’ building has been converted into lofts and office space. On the front, next to the reflective glass doors, is a plaque, a single piece of bronze, describing the building’s history. The plaque has oxidized along its borders to a sea green pastel. The metal has blackened the stone on which it is attached. From the street, I can’t see where my cramped room used to be, but I imagine that it has been renovated. Made into something beautiful, I hope.
* * *
Ethel was there on the last day I spent with my mother. It’s not surprising how connected they are; Ethel’s face is now the only way I can remember my mother. I see a picture of Ethel and think: My mother’s nose didn’t have as severe a slope. Her hair only curled at the ends. She smiled. Ethel and my mother inform each other, the way a switch tells electricity to flow. But make no mistake: this is Ethel’s story. She is the one who brings historians to my door. She is why you are reading this story. There’s no point in denying it; I have accepted my place in history. My mother and I, we are merely footnotes. So then: Saturday, July 22, 1950—my last true memory of my mother... Ethel comes over, more nervous than ever, and looks on the bottom of whatever she can lift: picture frames, potted plants, books—her eyes alert for stray wires. She knows she can’t be too careful. My mother tries to talk away the hurt of mistrust: “The weather looks good for tonight’s concert,” she says. “Though I wonder if I should bring a sweater.” Mrs. Baczynsky recommended the concert (Vladimir Horowitz playing a Tschaikovsky piano concerto) to us: “Music is not dead notes on a page. It is performance. It is a story that must be seen to be heard.” “I can’t go,” says Ethel, cigarette smoke streaming from her nostrils. Her smoke clings to the fabrics: the upholstery, the curtains, our clothes. “You know that.” “You must take your mind off of it,” my mother says. “Try to relax.” “How can I relax?” Ethel paces, her eyes the size of walnuts. “He’s in prison, Marta. Those animals have thrown Julie in jail. You don’t know what it’s like. Filthy. Disgusting. I visited him, and I was so scared. Not by the guards and their guns. I don’t care about them. But the other convicts—they look so rough. And you know Julie hasn’t got a rough bone in his body.” “I saw you in the newspaper. All those reporters in your house—that was incredibly courageous.” “Only the foolish take comfort in courage.” My mother brings Ethel a small dish, and she smothers the gold-and-cobalt pattern in ash. My mother puts the kettle on, but Ethel stops her. “I can’t stay long,” she says. “Every part of my life must be accounted for. I shouldn’t have even come here.” “Of course you should have.” Ethel shakes her head. “They’re investigating my family, my friends. No one is safe, Marta. You, most of all, you’re more active than anyone. You’re in the most danger.” “I know,” says my mother. (Already, her friends have been harassed and taken in for questioning. A shroud of silence has fallen over her fellow Ukrainians—everyone speaks in reserved, prepared tones. It is a matter of time before someone identifies her as the distributor of pro-Worker literature, if it already hasn’t happened. Friendship is the first casualty of fear.) “You must leave,” says Ethel. “You must go immediately.” “How can I?” asks my mother. “I’ve Leo to take care of.” “You can send for him later. What good are you to him in prison?” My mother pounds her fists against her temples. “He will be safe,” Ethel reassures her. “There’s a plane that leaves tomorrow for Los Angeles.” Possible patterns back to Kiev: from Los Angeles, the Gardemor, a freight ship loaded down with heavy machinery for plastics manufacturing. Another freighter, the Marumari, bound for Vladivostok. “Don’t make the same mistake we did,” says Ethel. They are both startled by the door opening. It’s me. This is where I walk in on them.
* * *
Both Ethel and my mother looked as though they had expected someone else. “Leo,” my mother said. “Did you have a good day of practicing?” I saw Ethel smoking, my mother drumming her fingers on the counter. “Look at you,” she continued. It had been thick and hot that day, a tongue over Brooklyn. My forehead was ringed with sweat. “Take a bath.” “I’ll be going,” said Ethel. “You are sure you don’t want to come with us tonight?” Ethel gave my mother a look. “Yes,” she said. She turned to me: “I’m sorry, Leo.” They hugged as I went into the bedroom for my suit. The rod in the closet bent under the weight of our clothes. I swept my mother’s dresses aside to reach my suit; it was made of scratchy wool and was a size too large. My mother had hemmed the pants with stick pins, little flashes of silver in the cuffs. After I had showered and dressed, my mother put a tin of sugar cookies on the kitchen counter. The tin was red with oval scenes of Holland, pastel cameos of windmills and Dutch boys. “Not too many,” she told me. The cookies were frilled on their edges and tasted slightly burnt, sweetness mingling with acridity. I have long tried to find the same exact brand, but with no success. We took the 2/3 to 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, a ride of over an hour. Back then, the windows on the trains were clean and clear; not like nowadays, the glass etched with initials and names, an opaque babble. Then, I could see the sun setting, the ghost-faces of other passengers reflected each time we went underground. I must have fallen asleep, because my mother shook me to let me know we had arrived. My hand tight in hers, we walked the remaining blocks to Lewisohn Stadium, lit up, majestic. At the ticket window, the man, formal and proud with his bow tie, asked, “How many, please?” “One,” my mother said, digging into her purse. “Is the boy with you?” “Yes,” she said, without looking up. “Then it’ll be a dollar.” “Full price? He’s just a boy.” “Admission is fifty cents a person.” “Ridiculous!” she said. “He is not even nine years old.” She rustled my hair. “I’m sorry, but it will be one dollar.” “What is the price for children? Is there a discount?” “Not for concerts.” “Very well,” she said. My mother opened her purse with a grunt. She rooted in it, as if looking for something, but I knew this was a pretense; she did the same whenever she lost a haggling match with the grocer. She emptied a handful of pennies on the counter in front of the ticket window. They clattered like faint gunfire. She counted them, one by one, and the line behind us began to stretch down the sidewalk. “Miss, could you hurry it up?” The man looked anxious. My mother glared. “Now look what you’ve done!” She threw up her hands. “I’ve lost count! I must start over.” “Just,” the man said, “just go on in.” She swept the pennies back into her purse and hustled me inside. We could have sat in the stadium seats, but my mother insisted that the field had better views. The rows rose behind us, seat backs straight and aligned like teeth. On the lawn, a number of families had already spread blankets. My mother declared she found a perfect spot after scouting for ten minutes, half-squat, for an unobstructed view of the stage. She laid a white handkerchief on the ground, but I didn’t think this was something boys did, so I sat Indian-style on the warm grass. But she would have none if it: “Why do you sit like that? Everyone can see the soles of your shoes.” She produced a handful of napkins. “Here,” she said, spreading them next to her. I hugged my knees to my chest, feet firmly on the ground. The orchestra marched out in orderly formation. They tuned their instruments in unison. Amongst the hums and squeaks and squawks, I almost didn’t hear my mother speak. “The last time I saw Horowitz play,” she said, “was in a tiny little concert hall. It was so crowded that we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to find a seat.” Near the stage, two kettledrum spotlights shot straight into the sky. I traced the weaving paths, the loops, the circles. The sky seemed to be a solid mass, impenetrable. I stared until my eyes hurt. “Ethel and Julie were there,” she said, almost offhandedly. “Your father was there too.” I wish I had looked at her face right then. A man appeared on stage and everyone clapped. He seemed tiny, his features indistinguishable: his eyes, dark spots; his mouth, a dash—if I were to see a picture of Horowitz today, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. His shirt was impossibly bright, as if made of diamonds. After the applause diminished, he sat at the bench and lifted the piano lid. His fingers hovered over the keys, sweeping back and forth, then he turned to the conductor, who gave a slight nod. His hands came down—boom!—a resounding chord. The sound was magnificent. The speakers and acoustic engineering of today’s concerts cannot match that little man. Even the orchestra—the cumulative power of the other instruments—could not compete with him. The trombones raising fists in the air, the violins squeaking for attention, the timpani’s deep, bombastic proclamations—he dominated all of them. He led, and they followed. But halfway through the first movement, a different sound began. A low and private rumbling—a faraway roll of thunder—that grew louder, angrier, a plague of hungry locust wings. Everyone looked to see where it was coming from. I followed fingers pointing toward the horizon, where a dark cloud was building. As the cloud blackened the sky, I could make out individual shapes, a squadron of crucifixes. The noise became deafening; I saw the violinists hold their bows and gawk, open-mouthed. There was no mistaking the drone as the airplanes passed directly overhead. The spotlights, now and then, caught one in a circle of light. People put their fingers in their mouths and whistled. Men got to their feet to salute; women clapped as loudly for the planes as they had for Horowitz. And through it all, Horowitz continued playing, didn’t miss a phrase or drop a note. He played as if music were our only hope. “Where are those planes going?” I asked my mother. “I don’t know,” she said. She didn’t avert her gaze from the stage. “To war.” The last of the planes passed, but their growls still rang my ears. “Where?” I asked. “Korea, perhaps.” The planes merged into the night. I followed their lights as they grew smaller and smaller—distant, flickering stars. People had turned back to the concert. “Are they going to fight the bad guys? The Communists?” My mother turned to me. “Where did you hear that? Who told you that?” I pulled up handfuls of grass and threw them at my feet. “Everyone.” “Everyone,” she said, shaking her head. “Everyone is not always right.” She folded her hands in her lap. “Do you know who helps out everyone? No one!” She laughed, but it sounded like a cough. “Do you hate the Communists?” she asked. I shrugged. “Everyone says they’re the bad guys.” “Everyone again.” My mother rose to her feet. She put her arms out to me, and I stood to grab them. “Does everyone dance?” She dug her heels into the ground and pivoted as I ran circles around her. “Let’s dance,” she said, and she began spinning me. “We can dance away the Communists!” The world around me became a strobe light: the brightness of the stage, the darkness of other faces. I grew dizzy. We kept twirling. I knew that at any second, I could jump and become airborne, and she’d keep me spinning for as long as I wanted, my feet never touching the ground.
* * *
We came home exhausted. I pushed off my shoes and fell into bed still wearing my suit, too tired to take it off. The sheets smelled of perfume. I heard her rustling, taking off her clothes and picking up mine, and I turned my head toward the wall. Her sounds became more and more indistinct as I drifted off. The scrape of hangers. Light, quick footsteps. Then, nothing.
* * *
I have never forgiven myself—will never forgive myself—for falling asleep that night. I have tried to remember something about that night, anything. The door opening. The door closing. Voices. Noise. But it is forever a blank, laminated page; I can write upon it what I wish, then wipe it clean. What I do remember: a rusalka, an evil water spirit, at my bedside, waiting to steal me away. She brushed her long hair and stared at me with wailing eyes. Her mouth never moved, but her voice was ice-clear in my head: Come. Come into the river and drown with me. We will play in the cold water and I will fetch you smooth pebbles and small white bones. With them you can build your house on a foundation of mist, and then it will be your turn to call people. Come. When I woke, nothing was out of place. My mother was gone—shopping, errands, I assumed. On the kitchen counter was the quarter for a week’s worth of lessons. All normal. I dressed, pocketed the quarter, and walked out. I reached Mrs. Baczynsky’s apartment as usual, but instead of spreading the sheet music on the piano ledge, she was speaking to two men in charcoal gray suits, their tall, stiff backs to me. They must have heard the door open, because they turned to look at me. Their hair was clipped conscript-close to their scalps. “Leonid,” she said, “these men would like to speak with you.” They approached with unerring steps. I felt nothing at the time: no fear, no worry. I couldn’t understand why Mrs. Baczynsky stood behind them, shaking her head vigorously. “We need to ask you a few questions about your mother,” one of them said in a stern, soothing voice. They knelt before me, and all I could do was stare at Mrs. Baczynsky, mouthing the words, “No, no”—not to herself, but to me, as if there was something I should have already forgotten.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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VIET DINH earned his MFA from the University of Houston and currently teaches in Denver. His work has appeared in journals such as Zoetrope: All-Story, The Threepenny Review, Indiana Review, and Fence.