In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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We had been preparing for months, slowly ridding ourselves of possessions we had once thought essential. By the time we left, everything that was ours fit into three brown vinyl suitcases. My parents told me this would be enough, but, like so much they said, these words of comfort were not particularly plausible. Still, there was consolation. On our last day in Russia, as the fall of 1979 slid into winter, my brother Viktor lost his piano.
Viktor had always been our family’s main attraction. My parents would look at him and smile at each other in mutual congratulation, as if to say, See, there is something to having children after all. Then their gaze would move to me and settle into an abstracted, businesslike affection. I was older, I was jealous, but even I didn’t question the common judgment that deemed me simply “the brother.”
Viktor never stole, not even a pencil from our schoolmaster’s unguarded desk. His growth was orderly, and his sweaters always lasted the entire winter. Even the town bullies seemed to recognize his superiority, sparing him the pummelings that were a rite for every other child. He didn’t cause trouble. And, to be fair, Viktor was a genius. He played Chopin with such conviction that Mr. Zanusz, the foul-mouthed local composer, mumbled after Viktor’s first recital, “You’d almost believe the little pig had a Polish soul.” Zanusz had been swept up by the Second World War decades earlier and never made it back to his hometown in Poland, where, as he told anyone who would listen, even young schoolchildren and deaf war veterans once had hummed his tunes. Like our town’s other battle trophy — a German Stuka bomber smashed nose-first into a field at the town’s edge, decaying amid rows of sugar beets — he was intriguing and a bit pathetic. The half insult he gave Viktor was probably the highest compliment he could imagine.
We lived in a magnificent old flat far from the tannery that gave our town its foul smell. Officially, our family shared the space with ancient Ivan Dezhnev and his wife, both retired soil chemists. But they had long since moved to a farm near the Sea of Azov, where, we had heard, they grew enormous tomatoes. My father was a librarian, and my mother was a high-school teacher, respectable professions that implied trustworthiness. And my parents had college friends who had done well in the government.
One night, perhaps a month before my twelfth birthday, my father summoned my brother and me to the dining room, where he waited with my mother. “Boys,” he said after we’d assembled, “what do you know about Jews?”
“Nothing?” asked my mother. “You haven’t heard the word?” Directness was her great virtue, and she was quick to point out when it was lacking in others.
“Jews,” I said hopefully, “are dirty.” She raised an eyebrow, and I continued, stumbling over the complex syllables, “Cosmopolitan and stateless.” This was from the outdated textbook with which I had begun the school year.
Viktor wisely kept silent, and as my mother turned to him, her face softened into a half smile. “We’re Jews. Our family. Your father and I never said anything, because it was better you didn’t know.” She paused, daring us to contradict her. “But now you have to.” She clapped her hands once, as if she were ushering a genie into the room.
This made no sense to me. Our name wasn’t Jewish. Viktor was blond. We were Russian, proletarian enough, and certainly not scheming, disloyal bohemians.
“But Uncle Crane,” I said. This was the nickname I had given the tall Muscovite with a lush mustache who visited us occasionally. He was my distant cousin, not an uncle at all, and had a seemingly endless supply of milk chocolate. “He’s not a Jew, is he?”
“Of course he is,” my mother snapped, “and he’s ahead of us on the list.”
My father explained: “We’re on a list to leave the country. A list for Jews.”
“But why would we leave?”
He lowered his chin onto his hands and sucked at his teeth. My mother’s face went blank, and I could see that he had asked her the same question. Viktor sat unblinking, and I took advantage of my parents’ distraction to throw a punch at his shoulder. He moved a fraction to the left, and my fist touched only air.
My mother finally sighed and looked up, annoyed at the silence. “We’re lucky we have the name we do. Of course we’re Russians.” She stopped, as if this were enough explanation.
Hearing her slip into ambiguity was the most disturbing part of the announcement. “But why?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell us, ever? Why are you telling us now?”
She cocked her head to one side and caught my father’s eye. “It would only have made life harder. But now they’re letting us out. And isn’t this better? To know who you really are?”
I knew enough of who I was to know that I didn’t like this. “Where are we going?”
“Israel first, then maybe Canada, maybe the United States.” She lifted her shoulders dismissively.
I looked at Viktor with a sudden smile. Did they even have pianos in those countries? I saw Israel as a vague swirl of desert and war, surely no place for sensitive musical instruments. And America had better attractions than ancient music. I was a nobody, average at schoolwork, exceptional only at making fart noises with my armpit. But Viktor had something to lose.
As if sensing my thoughts, he cleared his throat. “And my lessons?”
My mother smiled; she had clearly prepared for this question. “They’ll continue, naturally.”
“Maybe we’ll even find a better teacher than Mr. Zanusz,” added my father. My mother and brother frowned. “But certainly one as good,” he hastened to add. “We’ll make sure of it.” He smiled unconvincingly.
I wanted to counter with a loss of my own, something precious, but I couldn’t think of anything. “What about my friends?” I asked. I often played soccer with other boys. Some occasionally came over for a desultory afternoon of ogling our large apartment and comparing cosmonaut-stamp collections. But these were bonds of mutual boredom, nothing more.
My father looked puzzled.
“Your lives will be better,” my mother said, her tone telling us this was all the information we could expect.
I thought our lives were fine as they were. Because teachers, books, and every television program I watched told me so, I thought our country was doing better than it ever had. A missile treaty had been signed with the United States, and a few Russian troops were even coming back from East Germany. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was awarding himself many of the 114 medals he would be buried with a few years later, and my school ran contests, “medal bees,” to see who could name the most.
Meanwhile dissidents, especially Jewish leaders, were being arrested for speaking in public, for signing protests, for apparently nothing at all. There were shortages of food, and the country had to humiliate itself before the West to secure grain imports. Even I knew the jokes:
A man and his wife are standing in line for soap. He starts grumbling. “Things are getting bad — two hours just for a bar of soap. And we haven’t seen a peach since 1975.”
His wife scolds him. “That was 1974, you idiot!”
“You see? There’s even a shortage of calendars!”
But I was eleven, and these concerns seemed minor compared to the inconvenience of moving.
To be officially recognized as Jews, my brother and I needed passports. This took most of a day, spent sitting on a splintered bench in a government office by the bus terminal. When the clerk finally summoned us to his desk, he licked his lips as he looked at our birth certificates. “Two Russian boys sprouted from two Jews, eh? And then suddenly they decide they’re Jewish after all?”
My mother nodded, not willing to fully acknowledge herself in this place.
“A miracle, huh?”
She stared stiffly ahead, eyes fixed on a wall calendar behind the clerk. Below the black-and-white photo of an ivy-covered cottage, each passing day had been neatly crossed out.
“An amazing womb, to have them go in Jewish and come out Russian. Our scientists would like to take a look at that!”
“Are the forms in order?” asked my mother, matching his volume and turning her cool, angry gaze onto him.
“Yeah, fine. Two little Jews, ready to go.” He signed a form, signed another, forcefully stamped two envelopes, then delicately initialed our passports. “I’m sure you had some friends before,” he said to my mother, passing the paperwork across his desk, “but not anymore, I bet.”
Two weeks later, my father summoned us to the living room again. Apart from the passports, nothing had changed, and I hadn’t shown any curiosity about this Jew business. It was as if he had woken us one morning and told us we were Hottentots, and to prepare for life in the desert, hunting for food and speaking in clicks. It seemed beyond my comprehension, easier just to ignore.
“Pack your stuff,” my father said.
“We’re going to Israel?” I asked. It seemed impossibly quick.
“No, no, to Kollontai Street.” He looked annoyed and distracted, fidgeting with a paper napkin that fell away from him in small, tattered pieces. Viktor was already standing, as though his life had been spent readying for the move and he knew just what to do.
“Then why do I need to pack?”
“We’re not coming back here,” my mother announced from the kitchen doorway.
“What do you mean?”
“Just pack,” she said. “Anything you want, take. Anything you don’t want, leave.”
I thought of my coin collection, my toy cars, my old homework books. I wanted to keep it all. I pretended to consider for a moment, then held up my finger as if a brilliant idea had just occurred to me. “Or we could stay here. It would be easier.”
“It’s not our choice.”
I looked at my feet. “But you’re the one who decided to leave.”
She sighed. “Do you know most days I can’t buy a kilo of meat? There isn’t any, or the butcher’s saving it for his relatives, or any other excuse you can think of. We should live like this?” She narrowed her eyes. “And I don’t want someone deciding one day that you can’t go to college, or do anything else, just because you’re Jewish.”
“But I wasn’t Jewish until a few weeks ago.” I didn’t tell her that the idea of college didn’t sound so wonderful to me.
Viktor tugged at my shirt. “Come on,” he said.
I shook him off and scowled at my parents. “But I don’t want to go.”
“Well,” my mother said, “it’s not up to you.” She looked at me expectantly, as if these words carried an importance only I could grasp. “Listen,” she said, “people hate us now.”
That was my introduction to the former merchant’s house on Kollontai Street, to the Bessens, and to what was apparently an entire people’s sorrow-filled history, now involuntarily my own. We were given a week’s notice to move — generous, under the circumstances — and our new home wasn’t as close to the foul-smelling tannery as it could have been. My parents still had friends, though my mother did lose her job on the day of the move, three days before my father lost his.
The house smelled of pork fat, cheap Belomorkanal cigarettes, and pikeperch caught in the tannery’s runoff stream. Chipped and faded walls divided the house into communal apartments that appeared to have been designed by M.C. Escher. The Bessens had lived on the first floor for fifteen years and retained unquestioned control of the flat’s windows. My family divided the gloomy interior, my parents taking a room by the kitchen, my brother and I a triangular space just inside the doorway, where we could hear our neighbors climbing the rickety stairs or slamming the doors to the building’s unswept courtyard. What remained of our dwindling possessions went into a third space between these rooms, one so oddly shaped it was useful only for storage. On our first night a set of sheets disappeared from this room, so my father installed a lock on the door. We lived in that building for eight months, waiting, smelling other people, knowing that they could smell us.
In the move, we had been allowed to bring our piano. Even on Kollontai Street our apartment’s door was wide enough to get the piano through: further evidence of Viktor’s good luck. The instrument was slightly battered, but, like so many objects from before the revolution, it possessed an elegance that set it apart from the drab, squared-off objects of our daily life. This made it suspect in my eyes.
For my father, though, the piano was potent, significant. He loved early jazz and blues, and whenever he listened to his records, his back straightened, his eyes glassed over, and his hands became calm. When I was very young, before Viktor was born, he’d given a public lecture about jazz. In order to be allowed to speak, he had to convince skeptical authorities that this music embodied “the Negro resistance to the repressive and doomed capitalist system.”
A few weeks after the lecture, my father received a request from the Ministry of Culture to entertain a visitor. American jazz musician Charles Mingus had somehow been convinced to visit our backwater and give an afternoon concert at the Palace of Culture, which doubled as the high-school gym. Afterward Mingus and his band would come to our flat for “cultural interchange” — which meant, mainly, drinking. To prepare for the occasion, we were provided with a baby-grand piano. My mother yelled angrily when she opened the door to this unannounced delivery, but the movers just shrugged and shoved it past her. I had been clutching her skirt, hoping to observe what seemed like a dramatic moment, but when the piano invaded our hallway I ran to my room, terrified.
It would be years before I learned that my father had never liked Mingus’s music, which he considered pretentious. When the jazz legend showed up at our apartment, ringed by sidemen and officials, we were all properly awed. Mingus and his group were the first Americans, and the first black people, I had seen outside of record covers or newspapers. I was presented in a starched white shirt and received a handshake before I escaped to watch the party from a distance.
Elaborate toasts were offered, annoying the translator. Mingus removed his shoes and tucked them under our sofa, checking them every so often with a nervous bend and pat. He roamed the room in yellow argyle socks, mumbling steadily to his entourage, tapping his head to one beat, then another. Even frightened and shirt-itched as I was, I could tell that the translator had no better idea what Mingus was saying than I did.
After the fourth toast, Mingus seated himself at the piano. He offered my mother a smile, the briefest of blessings, then turned to the keys and began to play. I recognized the song, one of my father’s favorites, probably older than everyone in the room. Mingus launched into another tune, and another, until my father began to sing, a slurred impression of a language he didn’t speak. The drummer started to laugh, but Mingus silenced him with a half second’s flat stare, and then the man began to sing, too, quickly joined by the rest of the band. This continued through my bedtime, and I fell asleep to the sounds of my father’s records mysteriously come to life.
The next day the living-room walls were scuffed, plants were overturned, and the instrument remained. My mother left a message at the Ministry of Culture to arrange for pickup of the piano, but no response came. The piano stayed, and my father quickly put it to work. He tried to imitate the music he loved, bending his genteel training as far as it would go toward Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson.
Eight months after Mingus’s visit, Viktor was born prematurely. Talking about his unplanned second child, my father would joke about the quality of Soviet prophylactics, but really he was delighted, seeing Viktor as an incarnation of music. And almost from the moment he could stand on his own, Viktor excelled. The piano became his. He humored our father by playing rags and strides, but his interests lay elsewhere, in the classics’ ordered complications. I felt aggrieved on my father’s behalf, but there was nothing I could do.
My own musical efforts had been minimal: six months with Madame Krupskaya. I hated the climb to her garret, its smell of camphor and cats, the eternal clumsiness of my fingers as I choked out songs that I despised even in the hands of experts. Her walls were covered with posters of Ringo Starr, which I asked her about once. She responded, “All the Beatles are excellent musicians.”
By the time I started, Madame Krupskaya had already sent Viktor on to Zanusz, who hadn’t been made deaf by generations of unwilling children. One day during my lesson, she stepped briefly into her kitchen and, hearing her cat dash over the keys, declared, “Thank God, it sounds like you finally practiced.” At the next lesson I peed on her bath towels, knowing that this would get me banned and rescue us both from further humiliation.
© Rita Bernstein
Three weeks after the move to Kollontai Street, I got my first beating from the Izosimov twins, an acne-marked pair who were the neighborhood’s most fearsome bullies. They waited for me on the building steps and brought me to the alley behind the bakery. This was an ingeniously cruel spot — beloved by cats because it was always bathed in a delicious, warm fog from the bread ovens — with a constant whir of vent fans to drown out yells and screams.
At the alley entrance the twins paused, each one gripping an arm. “You’re a Jew, right?” Nicholas said. Somehow, they had heard.
From the few other beatings I’d received, I knew it was a bad idea to answer. Even the dimmest torturer could become a cruel wit in such a situation, twisting denials until they became demands for more blows. I stood unresisting, silent, impatient to be done with this.
“He won’t answer,” said his brother Mikhail.
“I think that’s because Jews are naturally quiet.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that.”
“So he must be saying he’s a Jew. Isn’t that right?” Nicholas let go of my arm and poked at my side with his finger. Still I refused to speak, although my mouth hung open now, uncertain.
“We better not let him talk,” said Mikhail. “He’ll probably just tell us lies.”
“Good idea.” Nicholas grasped my shoulder. “No speaking.”
“But we better beat him.”
“It won’t be easy.”
“He’s tall, but he’s skinny. He’s not that tough looking.”
“No, but Jews are slimy.”
“You hit them, your fist slips right off.”
“It’s a natural defense.”
“You need to hit them twice as hard for them to feel anything.”
“You think we can do it?”
“Well, we’ll have to try.”
They were so engrossed in this conversation that both of them had let go of me. I could have run away. But I knew this was a bad idea, so I stayed where I was, and they finally remembered they were there to beat me up.
Afterward I came home bravely, I thought, crying only a little. Regardless of who I was, the Izosimovs eventually would have dragged me to the alley, so it seemed no more unfair than most things. At the front door I paused to wipe my eyes, then stepped inside. I was prepared to rouse my parents from their unemployed stupor to kiss and comfort me. Instead I found all the apartment inhabitants assembled in the living room. Seeing them voluntarily together was alarming, and I ran forward. Everyone was surrounding Viktor, competing to put a hand on his shoulder or pat him on the back.
“First place! Can you imagine?” Mr. Bessen said. “So young, and already a first-place winner.”
“It’s because we let him practice,” said his wife. “Most people aren’t so generous.”
My parents simply smiled, and when they noticed me, they offered only a happy, vague glance. “Your brother has wonderful news,” said my mother. “Congratulate him.”
I took his hand in my own, which was still rough with small pieces of gravel. He said, without sympathy or surprise, “Your cheek’s bleeding.”
“Oh,” said my mother, finally staring at me, concern emerging on her face. “What happened?”
A few weeks after my beating, word came down that a huge group of Jews would be let out in a year. Nebulous proof was offered: a cousin of my mother’s former co-worker had seen official memos; a speech had been made at a closed session of the United Nations; whispers had been heard from anonymous and unimpeachable sources. Everybody heard the rumors.
I overheard Mrs. Bessen in the entryway one afternoon: “The Americans whine, and the Jews get to leave.”
“So?” her husband said. “You want them to stay here?”
“There’s going to be a war. Why shouldn’t they have to fight?”
“A war? Where?”
“We sent a few tanks, that’s all.” He snorted. “It’s nothing. Over by the new year.”
“Oh? So now you’re friends with Brezhnev? He tells you this?”
I coughed loudly, and, after a moment, they moved out of my hearing.
A few days later Alex Bek, who was the postman’s son and had hair so light he almost looked bald, came up to me after school. I was standing at the edge of the playground, eagerly eyeing a few boys with a soccer ball.
“Well, I bet you’re happy,” Alex said.
I shrugged. I thought he was talking about the air show scheduled for the following month. We were both aficionados of MIG fighter jets and had spent hours together, necks craned skyward, during this annual event.
“Don’t pretend,” he hissed. “You’ll be gone soon.”
I shrugged again. He kept staring at me, and I said, hoping to sound like someone with dangerous knowledge, “Best not to say too much about such things.”
That did it. “It’s not fair, you Jew bastard!” Alex yelled. “I want to leave too!” He made a fumbling kick that I easily avoided, and I threw a wild punch, just grazing his shoulder. We started to fight in earnest, evenly matched in our incompetence. After a minute in which we did no harm to one another, the boys with the soccer ball separated us. They knocked us both to the dirt before going back to their game.
When I got home, I was vibrating with excitement and anticipation. I had made a schoolmate jealous, and surely this meant good things. I wanted to know more about being a Jew. My mother shrugged when I asked her, though. “I don’t know any of that,” she said. “I never learned.”
My father had no idea either. “Maybe your cousins know something,” he offered. My parents had been born after the war, into families that knew not to call attention to themselves. Israel was no more real for them than it was for me. For these vague reasons, my family had to put up with the Bessens and that awful apartment.
As the days wore on, my parents began to mobilize. They left on mystery missions and stood in the courtyard with friends, whispering with heads bowed. They stayed up late, drinking weak tea with distant relatives. They didn’t bother going to the illegal odd jobs their friends sometimes arranged for them. Somehow, we ate.
At my prodding, my mother and I traveled to an information session led by a thick-browed man from the Israeli consulate. He was a recent Ukrainian emigrant himself, made nervous by the bored police chaperones who didn’t bother to hide their note-taking. The crowd demanded information: How was housing? Did they need engineers? Food, was there food? I added my own queries, in a voice too quiet even for me to hear: Were there soccer fields? Or air shows? What did they think of piano players?
The speaker silenced the questioners with a peremptory wave, as he must have done in dozens of dusty town halls across the Russian hinterland. “Please,” he said, “please. You’re all going, right?” He waited for us to nod, which we did reluctantly, unwilling to betray too much hope. “It’s impossible — there’s too much to say. You’ll be glad you went.” He eyed the police and refused to say more. Instead he distributed poorly printed brochures, which our watchers eagerly slipped into their coats. My mother and I didn’t speak on the bus ride home.
My parents soon began sweeping through our rooms, looking for things to discard. I defended my stamp collection but was less successful with the letter books I had rescued from the old apartment. My mother waved a stack of them in my face. “You want to keep these? You’re learning to read? You’re still a baby?”
“No,” I said sullenly, and she removed them. But the thought of their being handled by anyone else — books that had witnessed my struggle with vowels and my triumph over them, and had served as accessories in my toy-soldier battles — was unbearable.
This is how I imagined Viktor felt, too, although he gave no sign of it. One morning I blocked his exit from our room and put on a serious expression. “You know we’ll have to work when we go to Israel,” I said.
He kept his face blank, offering only a tiny shake of his head.
“It’s true. They send all the new people to the farms. They don’t let us live in the cities. We have to get up early and milk cows.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is. Read the brochures if you don’t believe me.”
“I read them,” he said, a whiny edge coming into his voice. “They don’t say that.”
“You have to read carefully,” I said. “Anyway, everybody knows it’s true. We’ll have to make butter and fix fences and fetch our own water. And if they find out you play the piano, they might break your fingers.”
“Why?” His eyes lit up with fear, and he turned away from me.
“Because they think it makes you weak, and they don’t like that. If they break your fingers, when they heal, they’re stronger. But you can’t play piano with them anymore. You can barely play the drums.”
“Liar!” he yelled. He knew he was right. But he was also not quite nine years old and couldn’t dismiss even me so easily.
By that point, with almost everything else gone from our home, my parents turned to disposal of the piano. My mother asked my father what his plan was. He shook his head in fierce confusion, as if emerging from sleep. “I guess we’ll just have to sell it,” he said, but clearly he had never considered leaving without the piano. Until that moment, I imagine he had seen our departure as simply choosing a life that would be better than, but not significantly different from, the one we already knew.
My parents started to follow rumors about those who might need a piano, disappearing to distant inns or to the houses of highly placed officials. At home Viktor practiced his playing while I read. Neither of us went to school for days at a time. We didn’t see the point, and the teachers didn’t want us there distracting the other children anyway.
Eventually my father decided to approach Madame Krupskaya. Forgetting or ignoring my troubles with her, he brought me along. He walked with his hands on my shoulders, showing a protectiveness that was unbearable but not unnecessary. The Izosimovs had been joined by others.
I realized then that whatever Israel offered, it couldn’t be worse than the constant threat of stomach burns and alleyway beatings. I was already tall and imagined myself growing muscular in the desert’s clean air. This was the work of the Israeli pamphlet, filled with images not so different from the halfhearted propaganda I saw every day, but just exotic enough to inspire hope that this time the promise might be fulfilled.
We climbed to Madame Krupskaya’s flat. It smelled just as I remembered, and excessive makeup still outlined an approximation of cheekbones, eyebrows, and lips on her jowly face as she stood in the doorway.
“I remember you,” she said. “The pisser.”
I stared at my feet.
“You’re still playing?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t think so.” She sniffed. “Your brother is?”
I nodded and dared to look up. She stepped aside and let us in. Leaving the piano here would be impossible. Quite apart from the steep climb, there was no room in the clutter. The cats were gone now, or else buried under toppled stacks of paper.
“It’s a small town,” she said. “I’ve heard. You’re leaving, and you want someone to take your piano.” She shook her head. “Not I. What use would I have for another? And, of course, there’s no money if I wanted to buy it. Even if it were free . . .” She shrugged, then fixed me with a stare. “Sit. That you know how to do, at least. Talk with an old lady for a minute.”
But my father was bent on his mission and, I could see, offended by the fraying Ringo posters. “Madam, there could be no greater pleasure,” he said, resorting to the formality he used in awkward social situations. “But duty, as you know, comes before enjoyment.”
Madame Krupskaya gave an annoyed nod, and we were released. At the doorway, I felt her bony fingers on my shoulder. I turned, landing in the unexpected, feathery pressure of a hug. Her dry scent overwhelmed me for a moment, and then she let go. “Good luck,” she said, her voice still a rueful command. I turned to take the treacherous stairs for the last time, my father bounding ahead of me, full of purpose.
His next attempt was at the retirement home. He went alone and returned quickly, dejected. The piano’s uncertain provenance made it impossible to dispose of in an official establishment. Then he tried the Ministry of Culture, which still had no interest. Those responsible for Mingus’s visit had long since been promoted and transferred to Moscow or else had faded into obscurity: retirement, Kazakhstan, or death.
My parents’ attempts to dispose of the piano became increasingly marked by desperation and irrationality. Our relatives, of course, refused the piano. Casimir Yarnoff, who lived upstairs, growled, “I’m on the list, too.” It was the first we had heard of this. Mr. Izosimov, the twins’ father, came to our house, promising to pay an outlandish sum for the piano and pick it up himself, but he never came back.
They mentioned nothing to my brother, for fear that he would be upset, but naturally I let him know. “They’re throwing out the piano,” I said, “to toughen you up.” He waited until I fell asleep and splashed me with cold water. I retaliated by hiding his sheet music at the bottom of the garbage pail. My parents, in their daze, noticed almost none of this. They were roused from their trance, though, when an emigration official summoned my father, who returned with the news that we would leave in three days, far sooner than expected.
“It’s impossible,” said my mother, echoing what we all felt. Then she shrugged.
After two days of deliberation, my father finally approached Mrs. Bessen. “As you may have heard, madam, my family and I are contemplating a departure.”
She picked something from her molars, saying nothing.
“And while of course we would wish to keep our piano, it might be difficult to arrange to have it shipped overseas. So we were thinking, perhaps . . .”
“Out,” she said, “we want it out. We only let you keep it so your little boy could play that nice music. And because we’re good flatmates. Get rid of it.”
“I assure you, madam, it is a valuable instrument —”
“So why haven’t you been able to sell it?” She crossed her arms in triumph.
“We have been considering offers, but the matter’s delicacy requires time.” My father swayed on his feet.
“Well, you haven’t got any more time, have you?”
At this he bowed his head, defeated, and retreated to sort and pack his records.
The next morning my father shook me awake. An idea had taken hold of him, and although he couldn’t quite articulate it, the first step was getting the instrument out of the apartment. He tried waking Viktor, too, but my brother merely turned over and covered his head with a pillow. My father shrugged and motioned for me to follow. Together, we lowered our shoulders to the piano and began to slide it across the living-room floor.
Somehow we got it through the doorway and into the unlit hall. My father, in the lead, guided the piano toward the interior courtyard. I knew this was a dead end, so I asked what he planned to do with the piano once we got it outside. “Just push,” he grunted, and I bent and pushed with as much strength as he did. At the courtyard double doors, the instrument hesitated, half in and half out of the building. Then we rammed it through. As we stood upright and turned to congratulate one another, an ominous crack sounded. The right front leg, which had always been wobbly, snapped. With a clang, the right side hit the ground. The piano listed on the concrete like a felled animal.
We stared, fascinated. The rear leg, weakened by the jolt, snapped off next, the piano exploding in an unpleasant roar as it resettled. Then the final support gave, and the mass collapsed, the pedals issuing a metal squeak as they were bent flat.
“Oh,” my father said. “Oh.”
I started to laugh. “Now it’s not good for anything.”
A few curious heads loomed in the upper windows, their eyes sleepy and cautious. My mother came up behind us in her bathrobe. She surveyed the scene: the scattered legs, the beetle-like shell of the fallen piano. She put a hand on my father’s shoulder. “So what?” she said. “What can they do, make us clean it up?”
But my father wasn’t ready to surrender. “We can’t just leave it.”
My mother removed her hand, tilting her head in amusement. “Maybe we should pack it? Each one of us take an octave?”
“At least,” he said, “at least . . .” We waited for him to finish this plea, but nothing emerged.
I retreated to the apartment. Viktor was awake, standing barefoot in the almost-bare living room and contemplating the spot where the piano had been. “Well,” I said, “too bad.” This inspired no reaction, so I took a step forward and continued, “Something terrible happened to your precious piano.”
“It wasn’t that precious,” he replied. “The tone wasn’t great, and the pedals stuck.” He lifted a lazy finger to his nose, explored the left nostril for a moment, then flicked in my direction. “Now maybe he won’t make me play that awful jazz.”
This was too much. I jumped onto Viktor and started to hit him. I was taller, stronger, and older, and it wasn’t a fair fight. He knew this, so he bit my wrist, then my shoulder and my neck. Enraged, I bit him back. He grabbed the piano bench and tipped it onto my head, which dazed me for a moment, allowing him to roll away.
I hauled myself up, preparing for another attack. My vision was blurred; my knuckles felt grated. Viktor was gasping, his lip was bleeding, and a pattern of bruises darkened his forehead. But he held up his hand and stayed me a moment, then said, as if our fight had already settled into history, “Come on. Something’s burning.”
I followed him to the courtyard, where my father had enacted the solution to his competing, irreconcilable ideas. A forest of matches was scattered across the piano’s surface, and the broken legs, some scrap wood, and scavenged straw were piled for kindling on its right side. Flame sucked at the bubbling varnish, dulling as it reached wood, reviving again as a slow orange glow.
We stood close, ignoring the smoke; the rich, too-sweet scent; and the increasing number of neighbors appearing in their windows. At first the fire was surprising, then just hypnotic. The fierce joy that had laced through me settled as I watched the piano burn. Viktor stood by me, battered and panting but otherwise impassive, as always. We remained there, coughing, as long as we could stand it. Then my father put one hand on my shoulder and the other on Viktor’s, and we followed my mother back to the flat to finish our packing and wait.