This week, Huff/Post50 announced a new initiative to showcase original fiction. Our editor at large, Rita Wilson, issued a call for submissions of 5,000 words or less. We selected the following short story as our first Featured Fifty Fiction piece. This is an ongoing initiative and we'll be showcasing other submissions throughout the year. Writers must be 50 or older and they can submit only one short story a year.
It had been a couple of weeks since Tetka Ira died. I hadn't been able to make it to the funeral. I was too busy with graduate school in California. Which Tetka Ira would have liked, I think. It would have fulfilled her prophecy on those frigid days when we would walk across the commons of the University. She would clasp my gloved hand, fat Misha clinging to her other side, and say "you, my Anya, can teach here one day". And I, heady from the varnished wooden handrails and the vaulted stained glass in the Gothic, stone buildings, believed, with a shiver, that she was right.
So as soon as class ended, I flew across the country, from that warm place I now called home and landed at La Guardia, to tend to Tetak Ollie. I had called him to ask if he wanted me to come to help sort out Tetka Ira's affairs. "Come, if you want," he said, all taciturn, with that gravelly voice that would petrify and intrigue me at the same time. I had to listen, really closely, to the silence during our call, to hear the stifled sob at the end of the line. I knew that Ira would want me to go, to do whatever I could, to make this all a little easier for him.
I don't know why I called them aunt and uncle. It had been that way for as long as I could remember. Ollie met my father at a soccer league, where I imagined they kicked the crap out of each other in honor of the centuries-long rivalry between their respective provinces back in the patched together Republic of Yugoslavia. Soon after, my mother, my father and I were honored guests at their frequent parties and holidays. Tetka Ira, radiant and blonde, with her translucent blue eyes, would pull me to her, murmuring "Serce moya, my dear one." And in the vast spaces of their apartment overlooking the park, I would feel warm and protected.
Tetka Ira would teach me Russian words, cluck over my good grades and generally make me feel precious. So for that, I would put up with fat Mischa, her son, my age and doted upon. A pasty white boy with a frizzy top of blonde hair, bearing little resemblance to his luminescent parents, he would split the ubiquitous Russian chocolates in half, suck out the fillings and place the hollowed shells back into the box. He would scream to be served, howl to be excused from the table, and waddle back to his room all sticky-fingered to build towers out of wooden blocks and then destroy them with a missile made from some household item. Tetka Ira would cluck her tongue at his hijinks, dolefully shaking her head back and forth. I tolerated the hours spent in his room, because of the inevitable moments I would get to spend with Tetka Ira as she cradled my head in her lap, or her arm, the furry cuff of her velvet party frock, tickling my cheek.
It went like this for years, parties in the high-ceilinged apartment, the pleasure of watching the dancing adults, reeking from pipe tobacco, cigarettes and shlivovitza juxtaposed against the deadening hours spent with fat Mischa in his stuffy room. Until we moved across the country when I was in middle school. The loss for me was palpable. I cried nearly every day, missing Tetka Ira, holding my dog-eared copy of The Firebird that she had given me for Christmas one year. It was the wound that never healed. Even those once-a-summer visits to their Connecticut Sound dacha did not make up for her absence in my life. One summer, I lay on the fold-out couch in a wainscoted room in the broad bay house. I was ill with some nasty chest cold. Ira plied me with blini stuffed with lingonberry jam and every few hours would unbutton my pajama top and rub Vicks-vapo-rub on my chest. My embarrassment at having the voluptuous Ira massaging around my bird-like breasts dissolved at the touch of her cool hands. Looking back, I think my embarrassment was due more to this act as a demonstration of a generosity and love that I had not yet experienced from my own family. And it made me long for her all the more.
Tetak Ollie cherished Tetka Ira, like some golden-plumed hen. As mysterious as she was forthcoming, he held himself back from the fray, a solitary figure smoking a cigarette. He was the handsomest man I knew. Steel gray, thick hair on a perfectly sculpted face that held perfect white teeth, warm brown eyes and thick black lashes. The eyes would flash with mischief when he spoke with Ira. And he seldom spoke, aside from explosions of pride over his perfectly barbecued sausage or anguish when the Yugoslavian soccer team was down a goal. He seemed eternally circumspect which frightened me a bit. Occasionally he would play some magic card trick with fat Mischa and I, or when we were younger, make me cringe, as he would pretend that his thumb had come off of his hand. It was certain to me though, that he adored Ira and that they shared a common passage to this land through some inexplicably tangled terrain that was hinted at, sometimes, in whispers.
My last visit with Ira was before the cancer came back, breaking through her breast like the crimson roses she was growing in the backyard of the bay house. It was summer and we sat in the garden, alone, Ollie dispensing himself to the kitchen table with a vodka and the Daily News. She talked about how worried she was about Ollie being alone if she died. Fat Mischa had a family now and he worked on Wall Street. She was proud of his gifted child, the balletic Lola who seemed to me the embodiment of Ira. Her genes, somehow lodged in Mischa's flesh, had been given expression, finally. But she felt, deep in her bones, that Mischa would not have the time or the fortitude to comfort his father. It was hot and humid and Ira's cheeks flushed with the heat and the worry. She looked at me and said, "Will you, my sweet Krestnitsa, look in on him from time to time?" I was stunned. She had called me "Goddaughter". "Of course, Tetka Ira", I said quietly and she reached out, took my hand and stroked it. "Serca moya," she murmured.
Not long after my visit, the cancer returned. It traveled quickly this time and over the course of the year, I, burdened with my master's thesis and teaching undergraduates did not get back again. I had the vague notion that things were not right when I didn't get a call on Russian Christmas, but I was too busy to act upon it.
Then I got the phone call from fat Mischa in early May that Ira was gone. He told me that the last few months were a "nightmare." Ollie stayed by her side, attending to all of her needs, bathing, toileting and medicating her. Finally, Mischa put his foot down and moved her to hospice when the tumor broke through. The last few days of her life fell during the week and he couldn't take the time to drive Ollie from the city out to the hospice in Yonkers. And so, Ira died alone, among strangers, who knew, as fat Mischa put it, "how to deal with this sort of thing." It didn't matter anyhow, fat Mischa implied, "she was so out of it those last weeks. She wouldn't have known if we were there or not."
So with this image of Tetka Ira, alone in her hospice bed, I dutifully packed my bags after my last class and headed out to keep my promise. When Tetak Ollie met me at the door of the apartment, late the night of my arrival, he was toothless and frail. In his 70s he looked more like 90. "Come in, come in," he said and grabbed my carry-on out of my hand. He lifted it up and carried it past the small bedroom he had shared with Tetka Ira, the kitchen and into the expansive living room. He seemed purposefully ignorant of the rollers on the suitcase, awkwardly hoisting it into the air and down the hall.
"Sit down, sit down. You want some vodka?"
"No thank you, Tetak."
"Always so polite, I know, you are too shy to ask for the schlivovitsa?" He cackled.
"No, no Tetak. A water will do."
"A water? What is that, a water? At least an orange juice or your Tetka would kill me." Tetak Ollie walked into the kitchen and I saw the gauntness of his shoulders through the ribbed sleeveless t-shirt. His pajama bottoms hung from his waist, pooling around his buttocks. But his hair was as perfectly coiffed as always. Not a hair out of place, bryllcreamed, I imagined, into submission.
He walked out of the kitchen carrying a Welch's jelly jar filled with orange juice. I held it in my hand, feeling the Flintstone etchings up against the palm of my hand.
"Tetak, Mischa and I used to drink out of these glasses when we were little."
"Don't worry, the orange juice is fresh. I got it at the Fairway yesterday. It would taste better with a little vodka."
We sat quietly for a while. It was strange to be alone with Tetak Ollie. I don't think we had ever been alone before. I didn't know what to say to him and I was sure he didn't know what to say to me. Tetka Ira always did the talking.
"It was nice of Mischa to call me." I finally spoke.
"Oh yeah, Mischa, the big moneybags, my boy. He has done well. Where do you want to sleep? There is Babushka's suite, may she rest in peace. Mischa's room and Lola's room."
I didn't want to sleep in Ira's mother's suite. She had died years before, but I knew her room was filled with religious statuaries that filled me with vague dread and vestiges of guilt that I was no longer a believer. Mischa's room might be the logical choice; I had spent so many hours there. But Lola's room would be the happiest place. Perhaps there I could best remember Ira.
Ollie walked me down the long hall to Lola's room, my suitcase held aloft in his hand. He opened the door and I slipped into Lola's room. It was furnished with a "French Provincial" bedroom set, straight from the 1960's. There was a vanity with a picture of Ira holding Lola in the hospital. There was the requisite picture of fat Mischa as a toddler. And next to it stood a picture of Ira and Ollie as I remembered them. Ira in a poodle skirt and sweater set stared directly into the camera while Ollie in a v-neck sweater wrapped his arms around her waist and stared straight at her, beaming with pride. They were both flushed and the photo just sizzled with desire.
I put on my pajamas and slipped under the hot pink velveteen duvet. The little white China lamp was turned on and I lay on my side looking at the matching doll bed on the floor next to me, Mischa's coveted Steiff bear lying upon it. I picked him up and finally he was all mine. I breathed him in deeply, hoping I could still smell Ira on him. And just like that, I fell asleep.
The next few days passed quickly. I cleaned out the refrigerator, restocked the cabinets and brought in warm food for dinner. There wasn't much to do otherwise. The University would let Ollie stay there until he winterized the bay house, where he would move year round. I answered the phone, putting off people when Ollie didn't want to talk, talking to old friends of Ira's that I hadn't seen in years. I loved the feeling of being a child again. In the eyes of Ira's friends, I would always be a child, the pryomish, or adopted daughter of Ira.
Mischa sauntered in one night with his wife in fur and little Lola dancing in a taffeta dress. He was considerably less fleshy than when I last saw him and he crowed about his fortune. Ollie smoked continuously during the visit and downed shot after shot of Vodka. About halfway through the visit he excused himself and disappeared for the night.
"How do you think he is doing Mischa?" I asked.
"Oh he'll be fine, crusty old sod. Do you know that my mother sic-ed all of her old friends on him? She told him that he should be happy. They have been flying around here in a frenzy."
"Aren't you worried that he will be lonely?"
"The ladies have been wild for him, always. He will have his hands full. Olga Petrakova and Zora have already been over five times with the meals. My mother always said he had the magic touch. And he has been through a long dry spell. I am sure he will shake his doldrums and rise to the challenge of all of these babushkas, if you know what I mean."
Mischa snorted and his wife rolled her eyes. No wonder Ira knew she couldn't rely on him.
I led them to the door at the end of the evening. They seemed oblivious to the waft of cigarette smoke that came from below the door to Ollie and Ira's room. After Mischa left with the requisite embraces, I stood still against the wall across from the door to Ollie and Ira's bedroom and watched the thin stream of cigarette smoke swirl up into the air. There was some kind of Serbian folk song playing on the radio. This room had always been the one place off limits in the apartment. Even fat Mischa knew that he was forbidden to enter there. As I grew older, I realized that it was because they probably had sex in that room, a lot of it. Unlike other grown-ups I knew, who acted like sex was something you did only when you wanted to make a baby, Ira and Ollie made no secret of their passionate attraction to one another. I tiptoed closer to that door than I had ever been before. Slowly and carefully, I leaned my ear against it. I could make out Ollie crying inside. I wondered for a minute if I should call to him. I'm not sure if it was lack of courage that caused me to walk away. I didn't want to look into the yaw of grief that sat in that room. And I didn't want to break the mystique the idea of that room held for me. Imagining the sheets ripped from the bed in flagrante delicto and finding instead a wizened old man, alone and weeping.
The next day was my last. I was leaving the following morning. Tetak Ollie seemed to open up a bit with my departure close at hand. He talked about meeting Ira in an immigration camp. Ira's Russian blondness contrasted dramatically with the darkness of the women from his village. They fell in love instantly, both removed from a familiar time and place. They clung to each other in the uncertainty of their future. And somehow, made it to the U.S. where he got a job as a bookkeeper and she taught at the University in the Slavic literature department. But not before his hair turned prematurely grey, they had been separated for months and her mother turned against him for his ethnicity. We sat quietly and ate in front of the television that night, watching her favorite show where celebrities would compete doing ballroom dances. He told me that she was a wonderful dancer, clearly where Lola got her talents. He said what he missed the most was watching her, just watching her. Whatever she did, he just liked to look at her doing it. That was enough, he said, enough to fill up his life.
I have to say that I felt uncomfortable seeing this side of Ollie. He seemed so vulnerable, the opposite of the prideful machismo that he exuded to the world. I felt like he had left open their bedroom door. No, that he had invited me in. But I stayed and listened until he started to fall asleep. I walked him to the bedroom door, kissed his cheek and made my way back to Lola's room.
The next morning I awoke early. It was an unseasonably cold morning for May. The apartment always seemed especially cold, perhaps because of the huge, uncovered windows that looked over the park. I walked into the cramped bathroom to take my shower. It had always been my least favorite room after Babushka's suite, tiny, with no heat and a small tub that Tetak Ollie had fashioned a piece of hose at the top of the wall to serve as a shower. With Ira's final illness, the place had gotten dank and musty and one of my chores that week was to scrub the tub walls to get rid of the mildew. This morning, I cranked the hot water on as high as I could stand it. I stripped off my pajamas and hung them on the back of the door. I placed the towel in the sink so I could wrap it around me as defense against the cold. I grabbed the bar of Caress, Tetka Ira's favorite soap, from the sink and placed it in the shower, climbed in and pulled the curtain closed. The hot water coursed down my scalp and I lathered my hair while the room heated up from the steam.
Slowly I noticed a bit of cold air penetrating the steam. I looked up at the window on the tub wall and saw that it wasn't cracked. Thinking I was imagining the breach, I rinsed out my hair. Now it was getting colder. I wondered if I hadn't fully closed the door. I grabbed the edge of the shower curtain and peeked around it. The door gaped open. Sitting on the wooden chair next to the tub in a dressing gown was Ollie. He was holding a large yellow mixing bowl filled a quarter of the way with rice puff cereal and milk.
I gasped in surprise.
"I'm sorry," Tetak Ollie said, "I used to sit here all the time and watch Ira shower."
I was silent, embarrassed for Ollie, outraged for myself.
Ollie crumpled forward, for the first time ever his hair was disheveled and I could see through to his mottled scalp.
He seemed lost to me.
"Ira", he said, "Can I stay?"
I hesitated for a moment and then pulled open the shower curtain.
"Please just keep the door closed."
He stood up, set the cereal bowl into the sink, shuffled to the door and pushed it closed. Then he grabbed the bowl, sat back down and began to spoon the cereal into his mouth.
I closed my eyes then and began to wash myself with the bar of soap. I started with my feet resting my toes on the edge of the tub, rubbing the soap into every crack between them. One leg after another I swirled the soap up the slopes of my thighs and the curves of my calves. I turned my back to Tetak Ollie and kneaded my buttocks with the soap, washing in between my legs from the front so he could not see that part of me. I heard the water coursing down my body and the periodic crunch of rice as he slowly ate the bowl of cereal. There was nothing erotic about this for me. I felt strangely cold and removed, as if someone else was animating my body. I turned back towards him, soaping then rinsing the crack of my ass. I brought the pink bar up to my stomach and made figure eights around my navel.
My eyes were still closed, but I could feel him staring now at me. The crunching had stopped, momentarily. I swear at that moment I was back in that foldout bed at the bay house. Ira's hands were now mine as I lathered up the bar of soap. I placed it down on the soap dish in the window and slowly massaged my chest, making swirls and circles around my breasts, slipping the soap down past my ribs then up through my cleavage to my upper chest. I did this several times, as many times perhaps, as Ira had rubbed me so lovingly during that summer illness. I opened my eyes and looked at Ollie, sitting still, tears rolling from his eyes.
I rinsed myself, turned the shower off and wrapped the towel around me. I squeezed between Tetak Ollie and the sink, without looking at him, pulled my pajamas off the door and went back into Lola's room to dress and finish packing.
When I left an hour later, the door to Ollie and Ira's bedroom was closed. I slipped quietly out the door, not sure what I would or could say to Ollie as a goodbye. I knew I would never see the apartment again, but I did not linger. I wanted to leave Tetka and Tetak here as I remembered them. There were already too many new memories that would cause static later on.
When I got the phone call a few weeks later from fat Mischa, I was not surprised. Tetak Ollie had a major stroke and died in their marriage bed. Olga Petrakova found him when she brought over a bottle of borscht. When he didn't answer the doorbell, she let herself in with the key Tetka Ira had slipped to her so many months before.