I dreamed this story last night.
My parents brought me to America in 1938. We left Russia because my father was no fan of Stalin. I was happy my father had made this decision because I loved America very much. We lived in Chicago's Rogers Park area in a brownstone flat with the El train running just behind our little porch at a way too regular schedule. Once I was old enough to go to school, it was just my mom and me. When I would ask where daddy had gone, she would just say, “He's no longer with us.” For a long time, I thought that meant he was dead. But when I would ask about details of his death, she would just get quiet and I could tell it made her very uneasy. So one day I just quit asking. I never saw a picture of him and there were no other family members to question, so I just let him be dead in my mind and went about my life without a father.
When I turned 18, I joined the navy and spent WWII on a laundry boat in the Mediterranean
off the coast of Italy. When I returned to Chicago, my mother was gravely ill. They called it consumption
back then. We call it TB
today. Regardless, she was almost fully consumed and I found myself by her hospital bed listening to the rattling in her chest as she labored for each breath. I felt compelled to get some more concrete information about my dad before she died, and when I brought it up, she pointed to a spiral-bound notebook on the bedside table. I handed it to her and then she pointed to a pencil on the same table. She wrote something on a page and handed it to me. Then she started coughing with horrible gasps for air. I laid the notebook down and went to find the nurse.
The next morning when I got to the hospital, I was told my mother had died around 2 AM. They told me where I could pick up her belongings. I was in a sort of shock, orphaned and still feeling more like a child than an adult. I had to arrange a funeral
and it wasn't until she was buried and I was back in our flat that I began to go through her things. I saw the notebook at the bottom of a paper sack and opened it to the page she'd written on before entering her ordeal of crossing over
. She had shakily written a name and address. It said Irina Bezborodov at 1634 West Estes Avenue. We lived on West Berry, so even though it was a different neighborhood, it was a street I knew.
I rang the doorbell and a small woman with her hair tied in a bun answered the door. I told her my name and the circumstances of my visit and all the color drained from her previously rosy cheeks. She asked me in , opening the door with trembling hands. “So you're the son, are you?” she said as I sat at her cheap kitchen table. The window was open and a cool autumn breeze was blowing the yellow curtains in a swirling pattern. I took a deep breath and said nothing, just waiting on her to fill in the details. She said she had seen my mother's obituary in the Sun-Times
but did not attend the funeral for reasons that would soon become obvious. She told me that my father had left my mother to live with her when I was very young. She said they were very much in love and it was the sort of love which could not be ignored or set aside for societal norms. She even used the phrase “burning love” which made me a bit uncomfortable.
When Irina saw my discomfort, she got up and retrieved a yellowing candle from atop a cabinet where she kept some dishes and cups. She sat it between us and began a story of an autumn afternoon much like this day when she was cooking some soup and my father was upstairs getting ready for work; he was a cop on the night shift. She said the front door was shoved open by two young men with bandannas around their faces. One of them pinned her against the stove and she showed me a scar on her left arm which was caused by contact with the hot eye on the stovetop. She said my dad came running downstairs in an undershirt and holding his pistol. The robber not holding Irina saw him before my dad could see that there were two men and not just the one. That unseen robber pulled a .38
from his waistband and and fired up the stairwell, hitting my dad under his jaw. The bullet came out the top of his head and ricocheted off a metal heating grate and lodged in the top of the candle that was sitting between us.
She motioned for me to look at the candle more closely. The police had removed the bullet, but there was a brown hair and a red stain left in the wax just beside the wick. His blood. My blood.
Irina handed me a wooden match from her dress pocket. “Light it,” she said. I did, and as the smell of burning hair mixed with the geranium scent of the candle and the fresh wind from the window, I had a vivid memory of my nose pressed against my father's neck as he carried me in his arms, half asleep, out of the crowded stands of Wrigley Field
on a noisy autumn afternoon.
And there we were, Irina and I, two strangers holding each other and crying out loud like a couple of refugees who had just found their homeland again after many years of wandering alone in lost territory.