Бабий Яр [Babiy Yar]

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions. My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions. He flips one right side up, slips two thick square tabs into the hollow slots they’re meant to go inside.

Flanigan’s Family Furniture in Jamaica, Queens, has started using these, and that’s where she got the idea. My mother. Except now, our store has more than theirs. We place the TVs on low tables anchoring pastel chintz sofa sets and blue and white striped loveseats in square formations around them.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

We’re creating more of a home atmosphere, my father says. I fold the cardboard along its dotted lines, keep slipping the tabs inside the right slots, which turn them into boxes. My father flips one right side up and starts to tell me about how my uncle Anatoly once trained himself to swim for fifteen hours underwater, trying to leave Russia for Turkey during WWII.

“Lots of people tried,” he tells me, “but they all got caught.”

I ask what happened when he swam the ocean, but my father clarifies that uncle Anatoly trained; he did not try.

“But he did once receive a posted letter from the only man to have made it.” My father sits at his desk now, a desk which is for sale.

We are Vaserman’s in Brighton Beach, edging up along the technicolored Coney Island peninsula, the only store which carries oak in four different shades. I’m only five inches shorter than my father who, at six foot three, ducks under the doorway leading to the back office then up the stairs to the second-floor apartment of our two-story flat— the same stairs where he descends from to work each day.

My mother stands behind the cash register with a bottle of lemon Pledge, spraying the Formica countertop in kinetic circles and telling me I should join the boys’ swim team at my school, and that I, like uncle Anatoly, have the build to swim an ocean.

“Swimming is in your blood,” she tells me.

“Uncle Anatoly is just a story you tell me when you want me to do something,” I say.

My mother throws her arms up, breathes in just as the doorbell chimes and a customer opens the door.

I finish the last television on my own and place it inside a black-lacquered media center, returning to sit in our storefront window at a white, tulip-based table I’ve covered with People magazines, going back to my homework. It’s supposed to be a report on a current event, one we’ve chosen on our own.

Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” has been the number one single for what I’ve tracked so far as seven weeks. I’m writing about this and how she was born with the last name Larkin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, started the Runaways when she was only a year older than I am now.

I think that this gives me one year to figure out something, something revolutionary to do, but time feels like it’s pressing down on me and I don’t even know how to play guitar.

The customer moves methodically around the store, runs her hands along the tops of sectional sofas, the edges of overstuffed chairs but doesn’t stop to sit on a single one.

My mother asks if there is anything in particular the woman is looking for, but the woman only sighs and says no, not really.

“Анатолий просто история. Я не плавание.”

[“Anatoly is just a story. I’m not swimming,”] I tell them, and the woman looks up at me.

I know she wants to know what I’ve said, but my mother takes her attention by telling her that the sofa the woman is standing in front of folds out to become a sofa bed.

I see the woman nods her head as though she likes this but she does not smile; this woman does not seem to smile much. I notice where I would expect there to be lines on her face from years of smiling that there aren’t many. It’s the same thing I’ve thought about my mother, how she could have more smile lines. I believe that the two of them could probably be great friends. They could meet up, neither smile at each other’s stories, taking solemn sips of chamomile tea. But maybe the lady drinks coffee, and my mother wouldn’t approve. Caffeine is a drug. It’s a real drug, she’s told me. In which case if the lady drank coffee, they’d have a falling out, and their friendship would be over before it started.

Hannah. She drinks coffee and smiles a lot, long red hair almost down to her waist. Sometimes it’s braided and other times it’s wild, spinning around with her as she does, and she’s always turning around to someone, some friend calling her name. I’ve heard she smokes marijuana. She’s my age, but she already has lines around her mouth. I smile when I see her, when I think she’s looking my way— she probably thinks I smile too much.

The woman leaves without buying anything.

*    *     *

At dinner, after saying the Bracha Rishona, my mother waits a second before she begins to tear off a piece of bread then stops, “Your uncle Anatoly, he wrote about a secret war, a war before the war in Babiy Yar, before the United States became involved.”

“We’ve not told you everything,” my father says, looking down at his white wine.

But this night, they do. My father tells me the number at the Nuremberg trials was 100,000, but in some accounts, this fluctuates up to 150,000. Then he says it wasn’t just my mother’s ancestors, but his also, who were not Jewish. They were there also.

“They were taken to that same ravine with its twisted trees growing up through all that erosion,” he tells me, “under the same gray sky.”

“стоп.”

[“Stop,”] I say, getting up to leave the table but my father holds my wrist gently, and I sit back down.

He tells me what he says is true.

“We’ll never know,” he tells me, “everything.”

My mother gets up and returns with two Aspirin. I suppose she is trying to help how it aches as my understanding slips away. Or, at least, the order of what I had understood becoming more distant and the pain of no longer being able to organize the force of it all with any sense of clarity. But, if maybe my blood was thinner tonight, it could help in some way, or is it the idea that I could take something to ease this that helps her? I swallow two, as I take a flower from the faux-marble vase on the table. It’s a white rose my mother bought from a woman who sells flowers, pacing up and down Avenue X, her cart piled with bouquets. As I listen, I start to pluck petals off, one by one, letting them fall to the floor. My mother asks me to stop. I pull another petal. It falls to the carpet. They send me with my plate to my room.

*    *     *

But I can’t eat.

I put on my headphones, slipping in the tape where I’ve recorded “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” off of the radio to my boombox. I listen to it, and when it’s over, I rewind the tape, and I listen to it again, each time turning the volume up half a notch until I can’t stand it any louder. I write about the Runaways and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts until 3 a.m.

*     *    *

March 22nd, 1982:

On top of the stack of everyone else’s, I set my report down on Mrs. Morrow’s desk in the morning. By noon she’s called my parents and scheduled a conference at 8 p.m. this evening after the shop closes. She gives me a pink slip that allows me to stay in the library until the meeting.

After school I fall asleep at a library table with my head down on a book someone has left out about wild horses, hoping to dream about one but instead, in my sleep, I’m walking down the long hallway to Algebra 2. I see Hannah. She holds what I think is a joint loosely between two fingers, smoke wrapping around her in coiled twists of gray until she seems to fade inside the plumes of her own making. I walk closer to her, reach out into her mist but the hall turns a corner then, and she is gone. Under my feet, the gold-flecked tile falls away to dirt, and I am standing in a ravine, looking down at the earth eroding beneath my feet.

I look up at trees that seem to grow at impossible angles, root systems showing through earth that hasn’t been there for them, not in the way it was supposed to be. I look up to watch tree branches spreading out towards a dark sky, building, sparked with violet.

Wind pours through this valley aqueously, bringing down the trees’ red autumn leaves. They float up instead of falling down. I reach up to touch them. But each time I do, I only feel the veins of each leaf slip through against my fingers, and I can’t sense anything but the unbelievable softness of the air encapsulating me under a sky that now presses down on this place with a holding storm that will not break.

I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

I don’t wake up until a cafeteria woman, who has been sent to deliver me dinner, sets a tray down on the table. She takes everything off of it and lines it all up in front of me because she says the kitchen is clean, closing, and she has to bring the tray back.

It’s a sub sandwich and chips with my choice of milk. She’s brought me two, whole and two percent.

She leaves, and I take a drink of whole and then the two percent, trying to tell the difference but I can’t. I shut my eyes and picture wild horses running through the ravine, a black and white spotted and an Arabian, pure white.

*     *    *

I sit in front of my teacher in silence. I watch the clock tick from 7:57 to 7:58 p.m. until I hear the hinges of the classroom door grate against each other and look back to see my parents walking towards us.

“Mr. Vaserman, Mrs. Vaserman,” she stands, gesturing for them to have a seat. My mother greets her, but my father says nothing.

Mrs. Morrow unclips one of her pearl earrings and then clips it back on, adjusts her shoulder pads, brushes lint away from the black and white houndstooth fabric of her jacket, smooths a pleat of her matching-print, ruched, knee-length skirt. I notice a trace of blood-red lipstick on her upper teeth, but its vanished by the time she drops a stack of papers down on her desk, my report, and opens her mouth to begin.

“The assignment was to write 500 words on a current event. Your son wrote 3,500— I haven’t even been able to count it all yet— maybe 4,000 words on Joan Jett and her song “I Love Rock N’ Roll” running as the top hit for seven weeks. Alexei is not following instructions. This essay is a completely inappropriate length.”

“He is Russian, and he has an electric typewriter,” my mother replies. “What do you expect?”

Mrs. Morrow shakes her head and says she understands that my mother is referring to a Russian tradition involving the long form novel, laughs lightly and in a way that I know as fake, then begins to warn my mother about ethnic stereotyping before interrupting herself—

“And do you believe it is at all an appropriate current event for an academic setting such as this?”

She seems to look at me, and so I answer yes. My mother shrugs. My father looks out the window to his left at a seagull which has landed on the ledge of the windowsill with a crust of bread between its beak. It stares in at us.

“Come on, Chekhov,” my father says to me then, and my mother stands, taking my hand.

We leave the room, and my teacher says nothing, only the sound of her shuffling papers back into her drawer playing on behind us.

*     *    *

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

The BMT Brighton Line is crowded and halts to a stop on the way home. They announce there’s been a signal switching issue and they are working as quickly as they can to fix this. A chorus of complaints fills the train, and I see a glisten of sweat building across my mother’s forehead. A man offers her his seat, but she refuses to take it. I watch her grip the subway pole, her red nails stacked against each other so that they begin to chip along their sides. My father takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabs her forehead.

It is midnight before we arrive back on our street and I see it before they do. The broken glass, shattered, littering the street, catching the orange streetlight and spinning it so it refracts in fragments. It’s our storefront, smashed-in.

All my father says is that he would have dropped the bars down had he known we would we would be returning so late, that the subway would break down. My mother sighs and nearly pretends not to notice until she sees the television sets.

*     *    *

The police dust for fingerprints, but don’t find any and say whoever it was must have been wearing gloves. They say it’s retribution. The vandals thought the TVs were real and that’s why they broke-in.

“When they weren’t,” the older of the two officers shrugs, drawing a swastika in the air with his gloved finger. The other looks down at our floor, waxed hardwood, and complements the grain.

The swastikas are in red marker, one that came from behind the front counter, across the cardboard face of each television where an imagined scene from Family Ties or Soul Train should be. There they are, more than symbols. We can’t even say. Maybe the officer can’t even say. That’s why he’s taken to the air. That’s why he has to use space to say it because he can’t. He can’t say anything.

When she sees they used her marker, this is when my mother begins to cry.

I trace the symbol the with my finger, but my father pushes my hand away.

“Что делаешь?”

[“What are you doing?”] he asks me.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I tell him.

“Ничего.”

[“Nothing,”] I say, beginning to unfold the box, pulling out the tabs to make it into a sheet of cardboard again, like it was before.

My father picks one up, steps on it, crushing the cardboard in on itself. I do the same, and soon all we have is flattened cardboard that we carry to the dumpster in the alley behind our building.

The lid slams.

My mother sits on a sofa now, the one which folds out to become a sofa bed. She puts her head in her hands and says sales had been good today. A living room set sold, and two lamps have gone. I notice one corner of the store is dimmer.

An officer comes down from upstairs, announcing the door to our apartment is still locked and remains undamaged.

I ask the officer what makes him sure whoever broke-in thought the TVs were real, how is he sure that they didn’t know the TVs were fake? He tells me, “Logic.”

I say that hate isn’t logical and he says that’s not what he’s saying. I notice his cheeks turning pink, sweat building on his brow. He’s young, maybe twenty-five. He doesn’t wear gloves and now presses his hands together, as if to pray. He says he’s not saying that hate is logical. I tell him OK, as long as on that, we agree.

“We agree, Alexei,” he tells me, his hands fall limply to his sides, as though he’s been lifting something heavy.

The drawer of the cash register was pried open, but the day’s take had been moved to a safe in our apartment, upstairs.

When the officers have finished what they have come to do, my father drops the bars over where the glass is supposed to be and says, “In the morning—” but stops his sentence there.

We know what he means. In the morning he’ll call the insurance, the claims adjustor, the glass shop. They’ll be out.

My mother retreats to the back of the shop, walking more slowly, I can tell, her steps more cautious on the stairs as though the glass blew through the room and shards could still be circling, eddying in the air.

A light rain has started, and now my father is lifting up a tarp to nail behind the bars, refusing my help.

“Идти в кровать. Пойте себе колыбельную.”

[“Go to bed. Sing yourself a lullaby,”] he tells me.

I don’t say anything, knowing he’s angry, but not at me. I walk toward the stairs singing, softly: “тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom.”]

“тили тили бом.”

[“Tili-tili-bom,”] my father sings back, his voice beginning to lift.

He strikes a nail, pinning the tarp to the window frame.

*     *    *

Now I’m standing on the green-shag carpeting of our upstairs hallway, in front of my bedroom door as I see her there down the hall— looking at herself in the bathroom mirror though she has not turned on the light.

She uses a Q-tip to remove her mascara, gently wiping away its stain. She unclasps her necklace from around the starched collar of her shirt, presses it between her fingers and hangs its sterling chain on the knob of her medicine cabinet.

“Mom,” I say, walking down the hallway, stepping into the half-open door.

“Yes,” she says, running the cold water. She splashes her face, now less flushed from crying. She pats her skin with a white washcloth.

She looks up at me. Behind her, through the bathroom window, I can see the moon over our city, a million lights going on and off at every hour in the distance, like an ocean without a pattern, without a current, each wave under a different force of wind.

I reach out and touch her necklace, David’s star hanging from a sterling silver chain. I look out the window at the sky for a star or constellation, even though I know that we can’t see them, not here, not in this city.

“I’ll write about our secret war, the war after the war,” I tell her.

She is silent, hanging up the washcloth; she turns toward me.

“Начните сегодня.”

[“Start tonight,”] she tells me.

I can see by the edge of streetlight coming in through the window, just barely eclipsing her face with soft orange in this incredible darkness, that she is smiling.

“я буду.”

[“I will,”] I say.

And I do, retreating back down the hallways, shutting the door to my room, pulling a stack of plain, white paper up from my unlined drawer.

I roll the dial on my Smith Corona, setting it to on, motor humming:

March 21st, 1982:

Cardboard televisions.

I pause, feeling the beat of electric current reverberating against my fingertips; I begin again:

My father and I are putting together cardboard televisions.

Jordan Faber is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in TIMBER, and her playwriting on Manneqüin Haüs. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Growing up, Jordan attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio several times. Jordan received a BA in creative writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University, where she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel.