There is a Garden in Her Face
The girl of Yuri’s wild affections lived with her family among the Quick River Hmong, settled in a series of small painted cinder block houses separated by gravel driveways and chain link fences. This was on Washington Street, behind the defunct textile mill. A wide communal garden lay in front of the houses, muddy and stubbled with the remnants of last year’s garden and this year’s early weeds. Yuri rented the house on the farthest edge of the community, just before the highway. The other houses had small scratchy rectangles of front yards crowded with children’s riding toys and sagging lawn chairs. They planted plastic flowers in concrete urns set out on their porch steps and hung seashell wind chimes from the eaves of their roofs. Yuri’s place, the last one on the street, had been painted mint green some years ago but was now cracked and yellowed in places. His house’s yard was as empty as the others were cluttered, only a second-hand ten-speed bicycle leaning against the side of the house and an oversized ceramic mushroom, left behind by the previous resident, on the front porch.
For nearly three years now, since he’d graduated from Mr. Dewitt’s high school, he had watched his neighbors conduct their intractably conjoined lives. They flowed in and out each others’ houses, which appeared to be as communal—and as out of Yuri’s reach—as the garden. The old men and women gathered separately on front porches while the younger men stood in clumps on the driveways, their heads bent over the exposed innards of their cars. The young-to-middle-aged women, clad in printed long skirts and dark blouses, walked to town in single-file lines of three or four and returned with plastic grocery bags dangling from their fingers. The children scampered from weedy lawn to gravel driveway to weedy lawn, calling to each other in bright, indiscernible English. The older children, the adolescents, were rarer to see, hidden away at school or inside the houses. Several times a week, Yuri spotted a clutch of teenaged boys in baggy blue jeans with silver chains looping from their pockets. They sauntered down Washington Street past his house toward the highway. Yuri sat on his front steps, watching the sun settle behind the distant blue mountains before leaving for his midnight shift at the laundromat. The boys hardly glanced in his direction, their faces uniformly bored-looking and unsurprisable.
He first spotted the girl of his dreams one afternoon in March when the weather was warmer than it was supposed to be. It was almost hot, like summer, and everyone was suddenly and fleetingly in short-sleeves. Yuri, who held a half-a-dozen part-time jobs all over town, was on his way home to rest up between the lunch shift at the barbeque place and his night job, his favorite job, at the laundromat. A line of teenage girls were working in the stretch of garden nearest the road, the row of them bent over the dirt with varying gardening tools. The girls wore blue jeans and tank tops, and Yuri intuited the bony delicacy of their entire bodies by the sight of their bare shoulders. They were beautiful, black-haired with plump, soft-looking faces and round dark eyes. Prim little mouths.
He always slowed his mammoth blue Pontiac down when he passed the row of houses, mindful of careless children at play, but on this afternoon, he all but stopped. Yuri was a friendly if awkward creature, pudgy and pale-skinned with yellowish, too-small teeth. He wore ill-fitting hand-me-downs and was perpetually grinning. On this day, the first day of his neighbors’ gardening season, he told himself that all he wanted was for the girls to look at him, to acknowledge, in however a small, insignificant way, that he existed. His car was enveloped in white dust from the gravel road, and, when he rolled his window down, the air tasted gritty. The girls stopped hoeing as his car drew near.
“Hello,” he called out above the crunch of his tires on the gravel.
They stood blinking impassively at this intruder, at the dry wheeze of his car’s engine. He was maybe ten, fifteen feet away, and his car was still moving, inching across. The tips of their spades rested in the dirt while they stood waiting for him to pass.
“Hello,” he tried again, squinting through the dust. “Hello,” a third time, weakly, almost to himself. “How are you.” It was as if they couldn’t hear him, or see him. It was as if his goony excitability, which Yuri had known about himself since grade school, made him invisible to such young, beautiful creatures.
But then, one of the girls—the girl in the purple bandana—flicked her eyes up at him just as he was turning his own eyes back to the road. He braked, sending bits of gravel scattering. He caught not her glance but the impression of her glance. In his side mirror, he saw her lift her round, almond-colored face to the air and close her eyes, those pink lips pressing together.
It hadn’t been much, that first exchange, but Yuri took the girl’s tiny show of pleasure and recorded it inside himself. He continued with his evening, re-picturing her as he started his evening rounds. Yuri was a visitor of church groups and library discussion panels, a late-night convenience store coffee-drinker, a pool-shooter. He stood in the stands at choir practice in the North Methodist Church and thought of the girl. He contemplated her expression, how she’d closed her eyes, pressed her lips together. Maybe she bit the inside of her bottom lip. Maybe she tasted blood. This tiny, black-haired girl in a purple bandana holding herself back against whatever embarrassment or danger or simple exposure the world outside her threatened.
“There is a garden in her face,” he told the cashier at the 24-hour convenience mart. It was a poem he’d memorized as a school boy in St. Petersburg learning English. “Where white lilies and roses grow.”
To the pastor at the Methodist church he recited, “A heav’nly paradise is that place wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.”
The next day at the employment agency, he told his counselor that he wanted for nothing. “I am in love,” he said.
His employment agent, a young woman named Sarah, was almost as petite as the Hmong girl, but pale-skinned and blue-eyed and with long, white-blonde hair. Yuri liked to watch her little fingers travel across the keyboard. She put the tip of her thumb in her mouth as she studied the computer screen, searching her database for Yuri’s next job. Despite himself and his great affection for the girl in the purple bandana, or maybe because of it—her look, that miniscule show of pleasure at seeing him, at his hello, and all his subsequent re-imagining it—he wanted to catch one of Sarah’s quick, tiny hands and hold it between his own. He wanted to press her fingers to his cheek, his lips.
He had been in this country for nearly five years now. It seemed time for something as American as this, as serendipitous and lucky as falling in love.
There was, Yuri had observed, abandon in this American life. Something that made you want to lunge for a thing, and then squander it, whatever it was. Squander it only to show how very free you were. How beautiful—how complete—was your freedom.
He drove past the girls in the garden every day for a week. Each time, he slowed his car to a crawl, rolled down his window, and called out hello. The girls stopped their work when he was still several yards away and lifted their faces to the empty air before them. They were yet unseeing. The girl in the purple bandana massaged the palm of her right hand and studied the weeds along the side of the road. She had worn the bandana every day since the first day, when she’d been the only one to look at him; Yuri took this to be a sign.
On the fifth day, he stopped the car. The air, much cooler now, was damp and gray though this part of the state, protected by a ring of mountains, rarely saw weather as pronounced and certain as rain. Instead, a gauzy drizzle dampened Yuri’s shirt sleeve and filled the air between him and the girl.
“Hello,” he said, exactly as he had every day this week. It felt like his millionth hello. As if he’d been saying it all along, even before he’d begun memorizing antiquated British poetry as a six-year-old boy. He was looking directly at the girl, but the girl persisted in looking at her feet.
On the other side of his car, but too far away for him to hear, the old people were on their porches, talking. Yuri could also hear a distant electric buzz of uncertain origin.
These girls were never going to speak to him.
But then, miraculously, so soft, he nearly missed it: “Hi.” The girl in the purple bandana. The very one. Her eyes, dark and shining through the gray, were fixed on his. “I’m Maria,” she said, more boldly. She gave him something like a smile, miniscule and quick.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, but she only nodded again and looked away. The other girls were throwing each other silent messages. One of them, the mean-eyed one on the end, sucked in her cheeks.
Yuri, almost twitching with relief, with encouragement, persisted. “Maybe I will see you tomorrow?” But she was done talking. The girl in the purple bandana—Maria—blinked into the empty air. Yuri said it again. “I will come again tomorrow.” She lifted her spade a fraction of an inch off the ground, then let it drop, the only sign of accepting his proposal. After waiting through another few beats of quiet, the girls’ desire to be rid of him growing, finally, unbearably obvious, he left. Saluting them good-bye, he took his foot off the brake and coasted bumpily down the gravel road to his faded mint-green house at the end of the road.
He returned the next day as promised, this time parking his Pontiac, what his classmates at Mr. Dewitt’s high school had dubbed The Love Boat, near the community garden. Spotting her right away, he began his approach. Maria, he sang silently to himself. He’d been singing it, alone, inside his house at the end of the street, all night. Maria, Maria.
But just as he stepped onto the swath of mud between the gravel road and the garden, a boy, one of the teenagers, appeared from nowhere and stopped him.
“You can’t mess with these girls, man.” He cocked his head and turned to walk away. He appeared to be maybe a few years younger than the other boys Yuri had seen, the group with silver chains trailing their jeans pockets, the ones who walked out to the highway most evenings. Or, maybe it was just that he dressed differently than they did—sans chains. “Follow me.” The boy was headed away from the garden, toward the houses.
Yuri called ahead to him. “I wish to speak to Maria.” His shoes sunk into the soft, muddy grass with every step. “Do you know her?”
This afternoon, the sun had returned and was chasing the wet chill from the air. Still, it was a touch cool, and the boy, slightly pigeon-toed and chubby, was dressed too lightly in a t-shirt and shorts, sandals with Velco straps. Without slowing his step or turning to face Yuri, he said, “The one you been looking at. She’s my sister. But I’m taking you to Wa Yang. Our grandfather.”
Yuri thought of his own rough-cheeked, gray-haired dedushka. He imagined him sitting at his kitchen table this very minute, listening to the news on the radio, one crooked finger lifted in the air as if to follow along. Yuri believed this with a hot, thumping fervor, even though, in clearer moments, he would have remembered it was after midnight in St. Petersburg right now. He felt a pang of loneliness and worry, picturing his grandfather listening to his kitchen radio.
The boy led him up to one of the houses, opened the door for him, and made a mocking little bow, laughing. “Good luck, man,” he said, and was gone.
Yuri stood at the open door, unsure of what to do. The house opened to a small, square room with thin blue carpeting and clean white walls with an oversized burgundy-and-tan sofa centered on the wall opposite the front door. As if to compensate for the immensity of the sofa, the rest of the furniture was spare and temporary-looking: a few folding chairs, a lone bar stool, an upturned wooden crate acting as a small table. Yuri could hear a television news program playing in another room.
When his deda Valeriy, his grandfather, had heard that he was going to be an exchange student in the States, he had called him the Russian equivalent of a son of a bitch. “Amerika!” he’d said, spitting the word out of his mouth. His mother, conversely, had cried from happiness.
Finally, Yuri called into the house. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
A moment later, a short elderly man in a flannel button-down and baggy slacks stepped into the room from a hallway. He had a perfectly round, deeply wrinkled head, plastic eyeglasses, and flossy white hair.
He took Yuri’s large, moist hand between his two small, cracked ones. “Welcome,” he said in English. He didn’t smile.
The old man waved Yuri into the house and pointed to the sofa, inviting him to sit. Yuri, entering, bowed slightly, said, “Oh, yes, thank you, sir.” The house smelled of stewed meat and bleach and the hot-dusty smell of an over-worked vacuum cleaner.
He had just seated himself when a woman, as broad as the old man was thin, swept in carrying a wooden tray holding a pair of green enamel teacups and white porcelain teapot. She set the tray on the upturned wooden crate. She didn’t speak, though Yuri saw her eyes flit from the old man to the carpet to Yuri, who attempted to smile, and back to the carpet. Everything—the tea things, the giant sofa, the folding chairs—felt shabby and old but clean. There were vacuum marks in the carpet. The woman called out something to Wa Yang, who had not yet seated himself, and he grumbled back at her. The Hmong language, to Yuri’s ears, sounded like different enunciations of the same harsh, vowel-heavy word.
Wa Yang waited for the woman to leave, knelt before the table, and, on his knees, began pouring the tea. He placed one cup before Yuri and held his own in the air as if to toast. He nodded, his lips bunched crookedly over his sparsely toothed mouth, and then brought his cup to his lips. They drank. The tea was weakly bitter but very hot, and Yuri had to proceed with care. The old man set his cup down and put his hands on the floor beside him. He grunted as he pushed himself up. Yuri rose to help him, but he shook his head, offering Yuri a little self-deprecating smile. Yuri smiled back at him, and the heavy fog of fear and wonder inside him thinned a tiny bit.
The old man turned his face and yelled into the house. A voice answered, and a moment later, the adolescent boy who had taken him here appeared in the doorway, a bowl of something hot in his hand and a can of soda tucked under his arm. Wordlessly, he perched himself on the bar stool, set the bowl in his lap and retrieved the soda from under his arm. Wa Yang waited for him to get settled, and then, still standing, he began. He paced as he spoke, treating the space of living room floor as a stage or the front of a classroom. Yuri remained on the sofa, the old man’s speech flowing meaninglessly over him. The boy sat eating his bowl of some kind of noodle soup, his just-opened soda pinned between his knees. Finally, Wa Yang stopped, his ancient face clamping down hard at the close of the last syllable, and looked at the boy.
The boy, whose name Yuri still had not learned, let his spoon clatter against the side of the bowl.
“Wa Yang,” he began, “was a young boy in Laos more than seventy years ago, but he still remembers the soil of his homeland.” This soil, the boy explained, was moist and warm and so rich with mineral matter, with life, it felt springy. The boy spoke dispassionately, without pauses. Yuri got the feeling he was routinely called upon to translate for Wa Yang.
“Laotian soil felt alive,” the boy said, “under his bare feet. Even now, in Wa Yang’s dream memories, it feels this way. When Wa Yang sleeps, he smells Laotian air. He feels the oddness of America, of its trucks and salty foods and televisions, in his bones. It is an arthritic ache, America. He moved here at the age of thirty. His is seventy-six now.”
Wa Yang, who had been standing a few feet away from the boy, watching him as he spoke as if to divine something from the way his story—summarized so quickly, with such flat English words—translated, now folded his arms across his chest and looked expectantly at Yuri.
Yuri started to say something, first in English, and then, stupidly, in Russian, and the old man’s eyebrows shot up. He turned his small body toward Yuri and then, leaning over the wooden crate still burdened with the teapot and the half-drunk teacups, he brought one hand down sideways onto the palm of his other hand, a definite chop.
“Protection,” he said, the second English word he had spoken to Yuri. “No, no, Maria. No.”
No, his third English word. He clasped his hands behind his back and, without another word to Yuri or any gesture of good-bye, moved toward the hallway. He was talking to himself now, quiet but excitable Hmong words, unintelligible to Yuri.
America—an arthritic ache. Yuri tasted bile. He understood it was the bile his own grandfather tasted in the back of his throat. Amerika! Ack! Yuri stood, bowing again, though the old man was already gone.
“Thank you, sir,” he called. “Thank you very much.”
A beat later, and Yuri remembered himself. He stared at the slack-jawed boy slurping up the last of his noodles.
“Well,” Yuri said, hitching his pants up. He patted his hair into place.
The boy laughed, shaking his head at Yuri’s stupidity. “Forget it, man,” he said. “Just forget it.”
The walk home seemed longer than it should have been. It was already growing dark, and the clouds above him had piled themselves into heavy black abstractions. Storm dreams. Yuri continued across the gravel path, the Appalachians rising up in the distance, blue-brown and grainy-textured, still mostly leafless.
The fairy tales of his childhood featured snowy midnight woods with hidden cranberry bogs and lost little girls. Huge, primordial birds with sharp talons and enormous black wings cut the silent, cold air. Everyone in Russian folklore sang in the dark to stay warm, and, in their happiest endings, swaddled themselves in furs, still musky with animal stink.
Yuri imagined there were brightly colored birds in every Laotian tree. Laotian fairy tales were surely made of beautiful, black-haired maidens and magnificent jungle beasts. Such beasts were wise and approachable—even in their treacherousness, their huge teeth glinting in the tropical sunshine. They lived atop lush green mountains and dispensed cryptic, often violent, parables. The hero descended the winding mountain path, unraveling tiger-spoken riddles as he went.
Pro-tec-tion, the old man had decreed. No Maria. No. But why not? What must he do to prove himself? What quest must he embark upon?
Whispering aloud to his mint-green house in the gathering, cloud-heavy dark: “Who is this Yuri Dimitry? And, what can he bring?”
His plan came to him complete in the morning with the tepid early sunshine. He dressed quickly and parked his Pontiac on the far end of Main Street, near its intersection with 2nd Avenue. He stood leaning against his car, waiting for the shops to open, and enjoyed a beautiful sense of calm. It was as if it had already happened.
First, he hit the toy store. He walked the narrow aisles and plucked up ever little thing that caught his eye. Yoyos. Rubber frogs. The morning was cool and foggy but clearing quickly, the sun warm on his shoulders by the time he stepped out of the toy store and back onto the sidewalk. He carried a shapping bag and a giant teddy bear tucked under each arm. He struggled to get the bears seated, side by side, in the back seat of his car.
He told a passerby, a woman walking her dog, “Beginning layer.” She squinted at him. “Prehistoric volcanic ash,” he explained.
The second layer was a round of potted daisies from the florist—those he set in the floorboards—and the third, three one-dozen rose bouquets: pink, red, yellow. “Cushion layer,” he told the florist. His trunk was filled with chocolates and old-fashioned licorice whips from the candy shop, tins of cookies and cardboard boxes of apple pies and glazed doughnuts—still warm—from the baker’s. Bath soaps. Embroidered pillows. Drippy-glazed coffee mugs from one of the potters’ studios.
As he shopped, he kept a running mental total. He knew, almost to the penny, how much money he had in his checking account. With each boutique bottle of Carolina Barbeque sauce he took from the shelves, every rhinestone-studded trinket he dropped into his shopping basket, Yuri felt his money dropping away. A salt-shaker shaped like a black bear, plink! A mirror-eyed stainless steel mountain cat, plunk!
He felt dizzy and light, awaiting the total. “I want for nothing,” Yuri told the clerk, “because I am in love.”
All the trinkets and bath soaps and sterling silver cuff bracelets went in without their respective boxes, cradled in the hands and arms and toes of the teddy bears and perched inside the daisies’ greenery, one tiny brass chipmunk asleep beneath the stalks. Finally, he stopped at the supermarket for balloons and every last space in his sturdy, wide Pontiac was filled.
This was how Yuri returned to Washington Street. It was mid-morning, a Thursday, but people were home. The old ones were perched on their front-porch sofas and younger men sat somberly on lawn chairs inside one of the car ports. The cigarette-smoking ladies were already meeting at the chain-link fences.
He parked there by the garden, about halfway down the row of houses, and, seeing him, the old people stared at him. They began to talk to each other with their eyes still on him, and though Yuri was too far away to hear them, he felt their words as if they issued from his own chest, the low, sad vowels, and soft consonants thrumming lightly against the inside of his ribcage.
He climbed out of the car, and the people began to leave. First, the old ones, bent over and stiff, slinking unhurriedly into their houses. The young men turned from their spots on the driveways and carports, glancing back darkly at Yuri as they went. A woman stood in the door of a house, calling to group of little girls playing on a plastic play kitchen at the end of one of the lawns. As if it were a drill they’d practiced, the little girls fell in line at her call. They followed each other across the grass and into the house where the woman stood waiting. The smoking ladies were the last to go, gathering each other into the same houses. It was like a sudden change in weather, or the sun passing over a field, the people vanishing like shadows.
The door closed behind them, and Yuri was alone on the street. He looked at the fake flowers blooming from their ugly concrete urns. The darkened windows, the chain link fences. The plastic play kitchen and pieces of white chalk left out in the yard.
In the sudden still quiet, the warm sunshine of a mid-morning weekday, Yuri felt a leap of panic rise up inside of him. Silently, instinctively, he translated his actions for his grandfather’s scrutiny, as if the ancient Russian man were here inside his very brain, observing.
It has to be this way, he thought-told his deda Valiery. And then, because the translation did not work as well as he wanted it to, and because what he was feeling was largely untranslatable, even to his own mind, he shook his thoughts away and set to work.
Car to porch and back again, he took the things from his trunk and the floorboards, the Pontiac’s wide backseat, and gave them to the houses. Up and down the street he hurried, delivering so many treasures. He hung the leather necklaces with positive-energy crystals to the arms of the lawn chairs. He delivered the salt shakers and the candlestick holders and the fruit pies and the Neapolitan cakes and the doughnuts, which had already begun to dissolve a little into their own glaze. He nestled cardboard baker boxes in the seats of the rocking chairs and front-porch sofas. He lay the hand-thrown coffee mugs on the worn rubber welcome mats and propped sateen throw pillows against the closed-tight screen doors. He began slow, but soon was working quickly, hustling up and down the street, retrieving, placing, arranging. The work itself—the steady back and forth—energized him. He grew giddy with the joy and small terror of it. He had spent so much money.
Finally, his car was empty. It was done. Standing back in the street, Yuri looked over everything, up and down the street. All the front porches stood elaborately gifted, clear plastic wrap shining. Bright primary color balloons, tethered to every front door on the street except his own, bobbed in the breeze.
The following morning, early, Yuri walked down to Wa Yang’s house. He was wearing his every-weather blue suit with a new white button-up and the green striped tie he’d bought on Nevsky Prospect some years earlier. On a bald patch of earth in front of Wa Yang’s house lay a bent-stemmed daisy, fallen from one of the plants he’d purchased, and he leaned over to pick it up. He tucked the stem into his breast pocket so that the happy little daisy-face showed brightly against the blue.
Yuri knocked, then immediately worried it was too early. He’d come just after his midnight shift at the coin laundry and the sky was still silvery-pale behind him.
The door opened and the old man stood before him. Wa Yang held a fork in one hand and a yellow sponge in the other as though he had been eating and cleaning at the same time. Yuri imagined him scrubbing the inside of his oven with one hand, spearing a morsel of fish from a plate on the counter with the other. He was gratified to find that Wa Yang was, like himself and the quarry men at the laundromat, a nocturnal creature.
The house was silent behind him. Yuri had hoped to be invited in. He wanted to see if any of his gifts had made it inside to this house, if Wa Yang had employed a ceramic squirrel for a doorstop or if he’d hung any of the crystals on a lampshade or a doorknob for both aesthetics and good fortune.
Yuri, however, hadn’t known what to expect from Wa Yang. The old man—the entire street’s grandfather, it seemed—had in effect told him to leave them alone—pro-tec-tion—and Yuri had responded by spending his life’s savings on trinkets, all those pretties sprinkled across the front porches.
But the old man finally nodded, as if deciding on a plan, then held up one finger, gesturing for Yuri to wait. He closed the door, leaving Yuri alone on the porch.
Yuri faced the graveled road and wondered what to do. He looked toward his own house, hidden behind the others. This quiet, silvering hour, unlived by most of the world. So much quiet.
Just as he had given up on the old man’s return and begun to slouch down the porch steps, the door opened and Wa Yang reappeared, empty-handed, in a pair of baggy pants that pooled around his feet. His feet were calloused and gray inside a pair of plastic flip flops. He lifted his chin in the direction they were to go. Behind the houses, toward the old textile mill.
The two men traveled wordlessly through the grass, which became higher and weedier as they went. The moon, only visible in the spaces between the trees, had paled with the sky’s small brightening and now appeared whisper-thin and flimsy—ghostlike. The old man walked with a surprisingly strong gait. Yuri did not ask where they were going. Secret passage, he imagined. Desolate place with no witnesses, he thought. He smiled to himself at his joke. He didn’t believe it, though. Nothing bad was going to happen to him.
Yuri was trying to think of things to say, and several times he opened his mouth to comment on the quiet of the hour, the grimness of their weed-choked journey. He thought about telling Wa Yang about his own grandfather who also enjoyed long, exercising walks. Deda Valeriy also believed in the restorative powers of an ice bath followed by a steaming hot banya.
They came up behind the old factory, and Wa Yang, glancing behind him, motioned for Yuri to follow him around to the side of the huge cinder block structure. Traffic on the other side of the factory, on the highway up ahead, was strengthening now.
“Law tear naw!” Wa Yang called back.
“Okay,” Yuri answered, though he had no idea what Wa Yang was saying. “Okay. Okay. I’m coming!” Then, as he hurried after him, “There is a garden in her face.” Almost singing. He felt happy and light. “A heav’nly paradise is that place.”
Wa Yang had stopped walking and was standing a few yards away from the side of the building, its red paint bleached pink by the sun. Yuri, having never bothered to venture this close to the old mill, was surprised by its size. Enormous. The traffic scudding by on the other side was louder now, and faster, it seemed.
Yuri was too nervous to quit talking. “Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.”
Still, Wa Yang gave no response, and Yuri, uncertain and weary at last, was desperate for the old man to speak.
“I love Maria!” he called out, wildly. “I love her! I love her!” He stopped walking and balled his fists at his sides, his arms tensed straight as a child preparing to wail. “I fucking love her!”
The old man at last turned around to look at Yuri. Yuri felt a stab of fear. Wa Yang’s expression was wound tight with rage. At Yuri’s yelling, at his declaration of love, at the word, fucking. A word Yuri rarely used, only partly because it was offensive. Mostly, he hated that his accent sharpened the k too much, fell too hard on the –ing. It sounded silly, like a caricature of an Eastern European accent, even to his own ears.
Yuri, silent and frozen in place, watched the old man. He had been wrong—he had seen wrong. Wa Yang’s face was scrunched up not in anger as he had first thought, but instead in a great smile, his eyes nearly disappearing among the wrinkles, his mouth a joyous, gray-toothed hollow.
“Aye!” the old man shouted. His yell was nearly as loud as Yuri’s. He planted his shoes in the dirt, bowed his back, and shot his arms into the air. “Aye!”
The reason for their journey finally came to Yuri. They were here to watch the sun rise, huge and yellow, over the edge of the world. Here, the edge of the world was a spot of clear earth, its visage unmarred by trees or buildings, across the highway. Standing in this spot, the sun was framed, searing blue-yellow, in bit of wall crumbled through in the middle, as a rough-hewed window. The wall, just taller than Yuri, jutted out from the side of the mill. The wall seemed misplaced and useless. Maybe it had been a part of a larger structure, gone now, though there was no rubble on the ground, or at least nothing significant enough to amount to anything. It was a mystery, too, how the window-like hole in the wall had come from. It was rough and crumbly, but almost perfectly rectangular.
And this was the moment—now—when the sun shone through. Wa Yang squinted hard, hazarded another “Aye!” and then produced a bottle from the pocket of his baggy trousers. He took a swig, then offered it to Yuri.
“Whiskey,” Yuri said, seeing the label. “Don’t mind if I do.”
And Wa Yang, who may or may not have understood what Yuri had said, looked at the younger man and laughed. He clapped Yuri on the back, causing a dribble of whiskey to fall on Yuri’s white button-up, and laughed again.
Returning, Yuri told himself he had passed the test. Triumphed. He had dared to knock on the door. He had followed the old man without any indication of where they were going or why, and he had swallowed the whiskey. He was, he hoped, in.
Wa Yang brought him around to the front of the house. There, just a few feet from the little patch of dried mud where he’d found the fallen daisy, Yuri caught sight of denim and black hair, a green backpack accessorized with neon duct tape. A flutter of motion: snapping gum, heads cocked. Quick talking, laughing. The purple bandana. Four girls, all in line, waiting for the bus, Maria among them.
Yuri stopped short and the girls looked at him. Stupidly, he waved.
The girls stared at him. The girl on the end, the one in pink sequins and a jean jacket, let out a great hiccup of a laugh and another girl, feigning disco, swung her hip at the first girl, throwing them both off balance. The two staggered a few steps, laughing. The other non-Maria girl sang out something Yuri couldn’t understand. The words were in English, but high-pitched and garbled. It didn’t matter—Yuri wasn’t listening. His eyes were on the fourth girl, his Maria, who stood tiny and quiet among the others. “Hello,” he ventured, and she—miraculously, magically—grinned back at him.
This was the closest he’d ever been to her. Her face—the garden he’d been quoting—was smaller and more pinched than he remembered. Her eyes were huge and very dark, nearly pupil-less. Her grin revealed a row of uneven teeth, the front two large and slab-like. She cocked her head in a girlish, almost coquettish gesture, and Yuri, despite himself, stepped back.
“Hello,” he said. “Hello, Maria.”
She didn’t lower her eyes in shyness as she’d done before, when he’d called to her from his car, but instead lifted her chin and smiled even more broadly. Now the pink gums above her crooked teeth gleamed.
“Hello,” she said, too brightly, and collapsed into a fit of giggling with the others.
Wa Yang stood a few feet away, waiting for Yuri. He shook his head and wagged his finger, tssking softly. “No, no,” he said, “No Maria, no.” The old man chuckled, and Yuri, at last, followed him into the house.
“Here,” Wa Yang said. He opened the door. “Come in.” Moving through the living room, the sofa as enormous as ever, as if a weight to hold the entire house to the earth, Wa Yang asked over his shoulder, “Naw?” He paused, turning back to Yuri, and pantomimed dipping a spoon into a bowl. “Naw?” He was inviting Yuri to eat.
But Yuri was slow and dumb from his exchange with Maria, and he didn’t know what to think of Wa Yang’s playful reprimanding.
Wa Yang led him through the house and into the kitchen which had a round, three-chaired table and scrubbed-clean counter tops. The boy from the other day sat at the table, hunched over a bowl of cereal.
“Please.” Wa Yang tapped the back of one of the other chairs. He said something to the boy, and the boy answered him without looking up from his breakfast. Wa Yang laughed, said something more, and tousled his grandson’s hair. He shrugged at Yuri in mock exasperation, then left the room.
“So,” Yuri began. “What’s your name?”
“Drummond?” It was a name Yuri had never heard before.
The boy shrugged. “It’s my name, okay?”
“Okay. Okay.” Yuri indicated Drummond’s bowl. “Froot Loops.” He nodded approvingly. “Good choice.” The boy didn’t respond. “What else do you have in there?”
Drummond let the tip of his spoon drop against the bottom of the bowl. “It’s honey,” he said, as if it was the most obvious answer.
“Ah. Looks good.”
Yuri was once again uncertain about what was expected of him. He tapped his fingers on the table and wondered if he should venture into the house after Wa Yang. Drummond hadn’t expressed surprise at Yuri’s being out with his grandfather in the still-dark hour of morning, but he knew he must be curious.
“Do you ever go walking with your grandfather?” Yuri asked.
The boy chortled. “No way. He only brings special people with him. Real special.”
Yuri watched the boy laugh. Despite his mocking derision, he displayed a brand of discomfiture Yuri recognized. The boy, chubby, a little hunched, prickled with unease, and Yuri wondered what this day—a day among his peers—held for him.
Yuri asked, “Did you get any of the gifts I left?”
“My mom made me take one of the pens.”
Yuri hesitated. Drummond’s cereal was nearly gone.
Drummond laughed. He pointed his spoon at Yuri. “Man. You’re not that stupid.” He ate the last of his cereal. “You can’t be, man. You can’t be that much of an idiot.” Yuri stared at him. “Don’t you get it? Maria, man, she’s my age. How old are you?” Yuri didn’t answer. “Not fifteen, I bet.”
“Man,” Drummond said. “All that stuff you gave us.”
Yuri sat perfectly straight in his chair. He remembered what he was wearing: the blue suit, the white shirt, tie. He missed the cool loneliness of the laundromat. The quiet night sounds, the swooshing. The sigh of his hot iron, rising up, the small hiss of released steam.
He said, “I thought she was your sister.”
“Cousin,” Drummond answered. He stood up and stretched his arms over his head. “Same difference.”
A few days later, Yuri was again wearing his every-weather blue suit and his green striped Nevsky Prospect tie and worrying that it was too early to knock. The sky was once again pale as moonlight behind him, and he was subdued and peaceful and a little tired from his shift at the laundromat amid the midnight-washers. The gritty-silvery men from the quarry, the young people in blue jeans and tattered baseball caps slumped into plastic chairs, eyes shadowy and blurred with drowsiness.
Yuri imagined the different scenarios. The broad, silent woman who had once served Wa Yang and Yuri tea would answer the door and only stare at him. Pudgy, cheerless Drummond might answer, one eyebrow cocked in suspicion, his chapped lips twitching toward a sneer. Or, it could be that all the men—Maria’s uncles and brothers and cousins—whom he’d feared at his first visit, when Wa Yang had first told him, no, Maria, no, were gathered now behind the silent gray door. These men had known he would return, and they were ready for him. They would finally pounce on him, rip him to pieces. For approaching the girl—girl!—named Maria. Maria, Yuri reminded himself—as he had been doing all week, silently, reproachfully—was only fifteen years old. Fifteen.
He hadn’t even thought about Maria’s age before Drummond told him. He hadn’t wondered, not for a second, how old she was, or what it meant, that she was there with the other teenaged girls, giggling in the wide, green garden.
Finally, he knocked. He hadn’t thought too hard about his expectations lest they fall apart. Ostensibly, he was here to apologize for his foolishness. But what he really wanted was for Wa Yang to take him in again, invite him on another journey to see the sunrise framed in a crumbled factory window. He wanted Wa Yang to offer him another good-morning draft of whiskey.
The door opened, and Wa Yang stood before him without his glasses, his eyes tiny, almost lost inside the folds of skin.
The old man—who seemed to have been asleep this time, not awake, cleaning and eating as before—held his hand up, and Yuri nodded. The routine was in place. Yuri waited on the front step, alone in the gray while the tiny old man bustled about inside, preparing.
This time, he emerged from the house with a kind of musical instrument, a system of bamboo pipes curved together. One long, thicker pipe extended upward beyond the rest and shaped into a mouthpiece at the end. Also, Drummond was with him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
Wa Yang lifted the instrument to show Yuri. “Qeej,” he said.
He took them back behind the house, into the field. But there, he stopped. Drummond kicked at a tuft of weeds. He regarded his great grandfather with his head tilted, peering out behind a swath of black hair grown too long over his eyes.
The qeej was nearly the size of a tuba, but Yuri had imagined the sound it produced would be thin and reedy. The instrument was made of bamboo. The man playing the instrument was tiny and wrinkled and so very old.
Wa Yang put his lips to the pipe and his cheeks blew up to the size of small apples. He closed his eyes. Wa Yang’s hands reached round the bottom of the instrument, where the pipes fit together, rounding upward in an unfinished circle.
The sound came, much lower than Yuri had expected, and denser. If sound contained mass, Wa Yang’s music would pin them all to the earth. It was loud, even in the great, open field, so quiet this early in the morning. The sound wasn’t pleasant so much as it was impressive. Yuri felt it in his lungs. It was like a pipe organ, almost too much to be considered beautiful.
Yuri understood that he would not be able to enjoy this music in the usual way. There was no easy beat, nothing to tap his toe to, nothing to close his eyes and savor. Instead, he let it assault him. He gloried in that—in the music’s power. Wa Yang, tiny, ancient man, producing such noise. At the end of each song, a single note trembled painfully, alone. Yuri glanced over at Drummond, standing a few feet behind him with his hands in his jean pockets. But even he had lost the veil of boredom that always dulled the black in his eyes. He stood now in calmness and watched his grandfather play.
Later, Wa Yang let him hold the qeej and he was amazed at its lightness. “It’s like a balloon,” he told Drummond. “It’s like a piece of paper.” He struggled for the names of other weightless things. “It’s air,” he said.
Wa Yang stopped playing and walked on, toward the sun. They had missed the moment it was framed inside the cinder block window. Now, it was blocked by the upper ledge of concrete, and Wa Yang motioned for them to step around the building. They stood in the mill’s cracked and weedy parking lot and drank their swigs of whiskey, watching the sun rise through the trees on the other side of the highway. Even Drummond took his share.
On the way back, Yuri explained to Wa Yang that he was no stranger to poetry. “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Yuri quoted. “In the room where the women come and go,” he said. Besides the Americans and the Brits, he enjoyed Rumi. “Dance when you’re broken open... Dance when you’re free.” He owned a book of Russian poetry his mother had sent to him. She had found it at a Russian market. “A rynok,” Yuri told them. Drummond translated to Wa Yang everything else that Yuri said. This one Russian word, though, Yuri spoke directly to the old man, who listened and then nodded, as if he understood.
“The unusual thing about it,” Yuri continued, “was that it had the English alongside the Russian. Like this.” Yuri demonstrated, pretending to open a book and point first to this side of the page, then the other. “Russian here. English here.
“Oh, my dear love, what have I done to you? It is a famous Russian poetess,” Yuri explained. “She was speaking of her death, of her former lover walking past her grave.” Yuri was actually unsure on that point. “Maybe I am mixing up my poets.”
Back in the house, Drummond sat down at the kitchen table for his Froot-Loops-and-honey breakfast, and Wa Yang presented Yuri with a cup of tea in a Smoky Mountains coffee mug, a remnant of Yuri’s gift-spree. Wa Yang remained at the table with him, even after Drummond left to catch the school bus.
“I have an idea,” Yuri said. “A plan. I will return to Russia. St. Petersburg, I don’t know. Maybe the village where my grandparents are from. Or, one of the smaller towns. It doesn’t matter. But listen. Maybe I will go back, and I will a better person? Do you think I could be? Because of my time away? Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Yuri chuckled self-consciously to himself. His tea was gone.
Wa Yang, who probably had not understood much of all that Yuri had told him, leaned on his elbow and closed his eyes.
A moment later, a woman, not the broad, silent woman from before, but a taller, younger woman, in dress slacks and a pressed blue shirt, stepped into the kitchen. Yuri, who was almost delirious in his exhaustion now, drunk from all his talking, from the long walk, the gleeful swigging of whiskey, smiled at the woman. Her sharply pressed blouse—blue oxford, like a man’s shirt—made him think of the quiet of the laundromat. The beautiful lonely hiss of the iron lifting off fabric.
“Hello,” she said to Yuri. “Ah, yawng,” she said to Wa Yang. She touched his shoulder. “Can you wake up? Can you walk? Here.” She smiled up at Yuri. “Let us help you into the living room.
He rose to help her but Wa Yang opened his eyes and, after a shadow of confusion passed over his face, he waved them away. He spoke a few words to the woman, then, seeing Yuri was still there, said, “It’s okay.” He rose on his own and made his way across the linoleum. His gait was steady if a bit slower, less sure than when he had led Yuri out earlier.
The woman caught Yuri’s eye, the two following Wa Yang down the hall. “He has already worn himself out,” she said. Yuri didn’t know where the woman had come from, if she had been in the house the whole time he’d been there or if she’d just arrived. Yuri wondered if she’d been tucked away in one of the small bedrooms at the back of the house, asleep, when he’d been standing on Wa Yang’s doorstep hours earlier. Did she know who he was—the man who had weighed down their front porches with gifts?
Now, the old man lowered himself onto the sofa in the living room and the woman brought a knitted afghan to tuck over his knees. He blinked, grumbled a bit under his breath, and closed his eyes once again. Yuri and the woman stood watching for a moment to see if the sleeping would take.
Yuri glanced at the woman. Her face was wide and pale, made up with blush on her cheeks, sheer pink lipstick on her lips. She was wearing silver hoop earrings and a thin gold necklace with a tiny cross pendant. The pendant fell to the bare spot of chest between her shirt collar. Her skin there was flecked with tiny brown moles.
“All right,” she said. She smiled at Yuri, waiting for him to leave.
He started to go but turned back at the door. The thin blue carpet was marked with hard yellow rectangles of sunlight from the windows.
Yuri slipped past the woman, touched Wa Yang’s face. It was nearly hairless. The woman said nothing, but Yuri felt the tension in the way she was standing, waiting.
“Okay, okay,” he whispered, then leaned down to kiss Wa Yang’s cheek.