by Robert Earle
He didn’t have a father, but his mother hadn’t had either parent. They died in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 when she was an infant. She was rescued and adopted by a childless Russian immigrant couple and had inherited their dairy farm just before he was born in 1951. She didn’t talk about his father. “Someone who passed through when I was too old to have a baby, but look, here you are.” Her laugh ended the conversation. There he was. He liked being where he was.
At first she carried him everywhere. As soon as he could walk he followed her everywhere, just like her shadow. They made up riddles about that.
“How can I have a shadow at night?” she’d ask.
“Because you always have a son,” he’d say.
They were blonde, both of them, she gray-blonde, he towhead blonde, almost white-haired.
He was a Question-Asker. She’d call him that in addition to Mr. Shadow or Shaddy-My Shaddy. Question-Asker wanted to know what towhead meant. She didn’t know. In Tiburon there was a little library. They rode there in the cart—didn’t have a car, just the cart and a pony called Splash for the brown spatterings on his white coat—to ask the librarian. She was a friend of his mother’s and teased, “What, the woman who can do everything doesn’t know everything, too?” But the librarian didn’t know about tow-head, either. She had to look it up: Once upon a time people grew flax plants and learned how to draw the stems’s skins over a bed of nails and glean the fibers that were long enough to weave into wonderful strong soft shiny fabric. The remnants were whitish strands called tow, and boys like him became known as towheads.
“But I don’t want to be pulled through any bed of nails,” he said. “What’s a bed of nails?”
They looked it up in the World Book encyclopedia, and there was an Indian man walking across the sharp points of a bed of nails. Barefoot!
“I don’t want to do that, either.”
When his mother was very happy with his signs of life, preferences, objections, and opinions, she’d pull him close, pressing his head against her soft tummy and hold it there and rock him.
“Shaddy -My Shaddy,” she’d exclaim.
Or she’d sing,
“O Shaddy-My Shaddy
Crossing the fields
Your eyes are so dark
What gives them their spark?
O Shaddy-My Shaddy
Love of my life
Your skin is so soft
How can a little boy
….be made out of moss?”
Ditties, she called them. Made-up little word dances.
“Don’t mind me,” she’d say, “it’s just the wind in my mouth, has to get out.”
“What about a sneeze?” he’d ask.
“Storms in the nose.”
“Sleet in your throat.”
“Thoughts you can’t swallow and can’t spit out.”
“What a fine thing to ask!”
“Mummy, what are they?”
“Burps are frogs that crawled up your bum into your belly so don’t burp and let people know what you’ve got in you.”
The librarian gave him a lollypop and he got a book on loan, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and they rattled behind Splash through Tiburon, taking in the sight of the cars rolling past them, their tires fat and scrunchy, their chrome bumpers gleaming, back out to Strawberry Point past the Lyford farm to their own little farm with its meadow, barn, chicken coop, pig pen, pastures left, orchard and garden right, and woods along the back property line.
There were mushrooms, foxes, deer, possums, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and snakes in those woods. Sometimes he and his mother played shadow-to-shadow between its trees, scurrying around the spots of sun that got through the leaves, never letting a ray touch them and “burn us all up!” Then there was the pond back there with bluegills and perch that had found their way in from the Bay, they supposed. They fished sometimes, each in worn blue overalls and t-shirts with bits of bacon or worms from the mulch pile for bait. He might pinch one’s bottom and pull it out and it would stretch like a rubber band until it snapped, or if he was lucky, he’d get the whole worm with its fingerprint wrinkles at both ends. The fish would nip at it wiggling on the hook, the bobber would sink, he or his would mother tug, and they’d cry together, “Here comes breakfast!”
He would wake up the next day to the smell of fish frying. There was no better way to wake up fully and completely. No yawns. No rubbing your eyes. No tucking your head beneath the pillow and pretending you were still asleep, even to yourself. No, the smell of frying fish was an instant waker-upper. He got right out of bed, padded to the outhouse and then sat at the kitchen table where they told one another about their dreams and plans for the day and his mother served the fish just right, so crispy it crumbled around the edges but was moist and tasty inside.
Fish, milk, eggs, cheese, vegetables from the garden, apples from the orchard, pork and bacon from the pigs, chickens from the coop, homemade bread, cake and pie and cookies and tarts and donuts and donut holes, too.
They needed every bit of what they ate to keep working the way they did, especially when he had to fit school in, too. For three years school was all right. He was smart and the fastest runner if perhaps a little odd because he had no TV or telephone and lived in a one-story farmhouse with a single large room divided with curtains for privacy and sleeping. But he got on the bus when it stopped along their road with no worries. The snuggest thing besides his head against his mother’s belly was his own body, which he said went everywhere with him, making the other kids laugh.
“Oh, I’m never around unless my body is, too,” he’d say. Things like that. “Before I was born, I couldn’t go anywhere. Couldn’t see a thing.”
They really laughed at that. You could count on Alex to be cheery and funny and tell stories like the one about where burps came from or how a ray of sun could sizzle you like bacon if you forgot your baseball hat. (The girls who didn’t wear baseball hats hated that one.)
By third grade he was good at getting certain teachers, Mrs. Pappas, for instance, if not Mrs. Hoffman, to let the class discuss his odd notions for five minutes before they went back to arithmetic or spelling.
He did have a favorite topic as everyone knew and various theories about it—the question about where you are before you’re born. He could describe every detail of how a cow became pregnant and gave birth and the same with pigs. One thing he steered away from was people because he had to have had a father, but he didn’t know who it had been. To him the before-you-were-born world was some kind of warm feminine darkness where very gradually and thoughtfully you took your place. He didn’t put it exactly that way, just said it was somewhere you could feel but not see.
Mrs. Pappas said, “Maybe what you mean is the past. We can know about it, but we can’t go there. That’s why we study history, isn’t it?”
“To find out more about what it was like before you were born?” Alex asked.
“I would think so, yes.”
History wasn’t something that he really grasped and he had the sense that it was a pit of a different order, a dead pit, not a live pit.
“Class, where are we before we are born?” Mrs. Pappas asked. “Does anyone have any idea? Alex, you hush. Let someone else answer.”
“We’re angels,” Kit Paddock said.
“In God’s bosom?” Sally Swanson asked.
The word bosom made everyone laugh and Sally blush. The only person in the room with a bosom was Mrs. Pappas and not much of one.
“Be quiet!” Sally ordered, generating more laughter.
“All right, Alex,” Mrs. Pappas said. “Tell us your opinion.”
He wanted to answer and didn’t want to answer at the same time. He felt like dodging, so he said, “I can’t tell you my opinion because that would mean I’m guessing.”
“You mean what you think isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact and you’re sure of it?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
This was Alex’s way of resolving the conundrum of having a mother but no father: “We’re in the everything. We’re all that ever was and all there ever will be.”
Mrs. Pappas was sitting on the edge of her desk at the front of the class with her arms folded across her bosom. She wore a beige dress and pearls around her neck and gold earrings like women in San Francisco across the bay. “Well, that’s a very good idea, Alex. What do you mean by ‘in the everything’?”
“I mean where the beginning and the end don’t meet because there has to be a middle where we are now.”
“I see. Did your mother tell you that?”
“No, I thought it myself listening to her read the Bible.” Alex then did something his mother had told him not to do because it was their secret of secrets and no one else would understand. But he was caught up in his puzzling and excited and forgot her warning. He said the first words of the Bible in a different language and then he said almost the last words in a different language, too.
Everyone in the class looked at Mrs. Pappas’s face and her expression became their expression. Alex had done something wrong; Alex really was in another place.
“What did you say, Alex? Can you say it in English?”
“I only know it in Russian.”
“Yes, our Bible’s in Russian because the people who adopted my mother were Russian.”
At three o’clock the principal, Mr. Brandt, told Alex not to take the bus home because he would drive Alex himself.
“I need to talk to your mother, and she doesn’t have a phone, so you come with me, Alex.”
They got in Mr. Brandt’s Ford station wagon with its wood side panels and drove to Strawberry Point. Alex had never been in a bus but never a car and found it astonishing. Staring right through the windshield was just like looking at one of the movies teachers sometimes showed in class. You could see the world playing itself on the other side of the screen; you couldn’t touch it, but because the car was so low to the ground and small and private it felt like your mind on wheels; it took you where your thoughts took you or listened to your thoughts and followed them and there was no disturbance and distraction of other kids around you calling and laughing and poking and pinching, just Mr. Brandt transfixed by the world-movie unfolding before him exactly as Alex was transfixed, each of them deep in thought.
Alex’s mother was embarrassed to receive Mr. Brandt in his suit and tie while she was wearing overalls and dung-smeared yellow boots. At last she asked,”Would you like to come in for a cup of tea, Mr. Brandt?”
Mr. Brandt was shorter than Alex’s mother, and he was younger than her, though he looked older because he was dressed like the kind of businessman who took the ferry across to San Francisco in the mornings and returned in the late afternoon.
“Suppose we sit here on the front porch. I’ll only be a minute.”
Mr. Brandt’s smile kept flickering down into a frown, and his eyes never smiled at all. He said he hesitated about coming to visit, but he felt he had some advice about what would be better, before things got out of hand.
“What things?” Alex’s mother asked.
“There are people in the community who don’t remember your step-parents or know anything more than what they see on TV and read in the newspapers so it would be better if Alex didn’t speak Russian at school. Russia is our enemy and the parents could take offense. He caught Mrs. Pappas off guard and maybe this catches you off guard, but I’ve spoken to her and it’s not just the Russian, it’s getting into things Alex likes to think about—before the world and after the world—and mixing in the Bible. It’s politics and religion, the two things it’s better not to discuss.”
Alex’s mother didn’t want to admit she understood perfectly and had warned Alex, which would make him feel worse.
“The Communists are atheists, anyway,” Mr. Brandt said, “so I guess the Bible is something they threw out a long time ago.”
“It is an old Bible,” Alex’s mother said. “It belonged to my father, who adopted me.”
“He came from Russia, didn’t he? I’ve heard that, anyway.”
“Yes, but before the Communists took over.”
“Well, we don’t go into that in grammar school, Miss Theodore, so I ask you and Alex to keep the Russian at home We can’t be practicing drills against nuclear attacks one moment and then the next worrying about one of the children speaking Russian right there in the classroom.”
Mr. Brandt drove off in his station wagon. Alex told his mother what had happened in class.
“I hardly know Russian,” he said, finding it difficult to catch his breath he was so upset. “Just Bible things and you know…that’s really all.”
Alex’s mother pulled his head against her belly and rocked him to calm him. For the first time, it didn’t work. He started crying and tried to pull away. She held him tight. He got loose and ran inside. Alex’s mother sat down and covered her face with her hands. She began crying, too. She had lived on Strawberry Point all her life and was upset that what she had always always worried about was true: she wasn’t welcome and now Alex would feel the same way.
She said she didn’t like San Francisco.
“How can you say that? You haven’t been there since you were a baby.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Not since I was born.”
“No, before then.”
He was sixteen. She was sixty-one. She didn’t like what she called the soda pop in his attitude. “Don’t be so fizzy with me.”
“When?” he pressed, man-like, slender but strong and burnished because he’d worked outdoors with her on the farm all his life.
“You think your life is the only life I’ve had. I’m sorry to tell you that’s not so.”
The way she had begun to speak amused him. Clipped sometimes, loopy and ironic other times. She picked that up from her new friends like Stephanie Wilson who gave her an old Ford and taught her to drive it. That’s the sort of thing that happened when people began coming directly to the farm for her eggs and milk and fruit and vegetables. She became the thing, someone said, making her laugh. “Me at my age ‘catching on.’ What does that mean? Am I a cold?” He told her it meant she was becoming popular, which he wasn’t. Not unpopular, but not popular. A loner except with her and when he went on the ferry across to San Francisco and Haight Ashbury and it was as though he were weightless and floated and couldn’t stop the things that happened; they just swelled up around him or he drifted into them and couldn’t pull away. Everything was happening over there. Everything.
“I had sex with two girls last night.”
“Alex, that’s disgusting. What if they became pregnant?”
“They won’t. I was careful.”
“I don’t like this. You said you’d come back and didn’t. That’s another time. Who went with you?”
“What were the girls’ names?”
“Susie and I don’t know the other one. She just lay down next to me.”
“Where were you? I was awake all night and now here it’s late afternoon and you… It isn’t right.”
He shrugged. If he hadn’t been stoned, he wouldn’t have slept there, girls or no girls. It was an old house with dog shit in the hallways no one cleaned up except one of the dogs, a yellow mutt who pushed his droppings under bedroom doors to make it go away. There was a piece of carpet nailed over the window in the room where he went with Susie—carpet instead of a curtain. The window was open, but no air got through. Several mattresses, some with gray ragged sheets, others thin bare things tossed anywhere. A stereo that kept playing the same Jefferson Airplane record. Ten times. Twenty times. Each note sliding in his ears like someone putting it there with an eyedropper. Straight into his brain. White rabbits. Pills to make you this way. Pills to make you that way. Just ask Alice, ask Alice, ask Alice…
“Some guy’s. I don’t know. It’s hard to say who lives there all the time and who doesn’t.”
They were in the garden. She was picking tomatoes when he got home. She kept doing it, looking down so as not to look at him when they spoke, even when he began following her with the basket.
“We could sell this farm for a million dollars and buy our own house and you’d never have to work again. Me either.”
“I’ll never sell this farm.”
“Then I will when it’s mine.”
“If that’s so, I won’t leave it to you. I’ll donate it, and they can make it an orphanage.”
“I didn’t mean it, Mom.”
“Why do you say these things?”
“I don’t know.”
For years they were just themselves. People hardly knew they were back there. He went to school and made himself as invisible as possible. He didn’t like sports except track, and there wasn’t any track until middle school and when he found out what training meant to the coach, he quit. Didn’t have a phone, radio, or television. Somehow the world came after them, though. He felt responsible for having heard things or been taught things at school that he brought back with him. He was the one who told her the president had been shot. He was the one who told her about the Freedom Marches in Alabama and Mississippi. Then people seemed to take notice of them when the road was paved and the trash trees fringing the soft shoulder were side-sickled. They looked down at the farm and pulled in and offered to buy things from the lady in her big straw hat and overalls and her son, who still lived the way no one else lived but apparently wanted to start living again. Whole and healthy, straightforward and strong. Until the Ford, all they had were his bike and her pony cart. They still heated the house with a wood stove. There was plenty of fallen timber in the forest beyond their fence. That’s where they chopped pieces as long as they could handle that they would pile on the pony cart and bring into the yard where they took turns working the old circular peddle saw until they had what they needed. A winter meant two cords of wood. When they were down to the last few rows, it meant it was time to turn the earth in the garden, which they expanded three times in three years because more and more folks turned in, wanting the peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, squash, beans, Brussels sprouts and broccoli they could see glistening in the sunlight.
“Imagine if you could fold a mirror like a piece of paper,” he said.
“How could I imagine such a thing? It would break.”
He didn’t know about that. It seemed to him the people around them were bouncing off the mirror of their own lives, which were doubled up and hypocritical. He didn’t like Tam High or the Mill Valley kids. The grass came to them; they didn’t bother to get it themselves. Some of their parents were their suppliers. He saw adults he recognized in Haight Ashbury who could only be there for one reason and who left once they’d accomplished what they were after. No interest in poetry readings from a front porch, street musicians and vendors with Indian brassware and trinkets and little bottles of patchouli oil and water buffalo sandals. All the things that made Alex stop and stare, feeling the whole world into San Francisco sloshing by the busload, enough to tip the place over into the bay. But he had to admit it. Whatever was happening over there was happening in its quiet sneaky little way back here.
“It’s just something I thought last night. We have one mirror in the house. Go anywhere else around here for miles and you won’t find a house that doesn’t have a dozen. Isn’t that enough tomatoes for now?”
“I once had a winter hat with sixteen little mirrors sewn into it,” she said. “I had it the year you were born.”
“What happened to it?”
“I gave it to a calf who looked cold.”
They laughed. The truth was that she was exactly like him. When one of her new friends asked her to come to a party, she’d bring along her agreeable, out-of-place honesty that pulled people in and pushed them away. What they liked was to talk about themselves, put themselves in a class. I am this and will probably never be that. Kristina never played that game. Just listened until they ran out of who they said they were or wanted to be and there wasn’t any reason to go on because no one asked her about herself, and she didn’t volunteer. She was who she was. You could see that by looking at her. The long gray-blonde hair, the steady green eyes, the farm work in her face, a tan tinged with red, little cobwebs of blood vessels on her cheekbones that bore no make-up…a lady masquerading as a person.
The first time she smoked grass wasn’t at one of those parties. It was when he brought some home, rolled a joint, and showed her.
“But that’s like a cigarette.” She didn’t like cigarettes any more than she liked soda pop.
“No, because you don’t smoke a pack a day. You couldn’t. And it smells better, don’t you think?”
She couldn’t deny the smell was pleasing in a sweet, musky kind of way. They sat together in the farmhouse and he blew out large smoky clouds at her, watching her eyelids and lips and wondering if this could get her loose enough to try inhaling for herself. He thought maybe so and handed her the roach and said it was just the last little bit. She tried it.
He rolled another joint. She said she didn’t feel anything but he could see she didn’t know what she felt. She said she had never tried alcohol or even coffee. She held a pretty smile a while as she formulated her next comment, which was going to be a big one by her standards: the holiest of things she had as a child was milk, sacrosanct milk.
“Alexei adored it. He worshipped milk.”
Alex knew that a million times over. Wasn’t news, but he was okay with it. “I’m named for him.” As if she didn’t know.
“Yes, you are.” As if he didn’t know.
In his heart, Alex took this rumor of a man for his own father, an emotional fact, if not a biographical fact. He didn’t have much to say about himself because there were so few biographical facts. His mother, the farm, their secrets spoken and unspoken. What was the point of talking? They were each other’s stories. He did think she had not had any other life than him. Whatever came before fell away like leaves in autumn, and he was the new foliage in which they hid.
“Go get strawberry baskets. We have to pick some of them now.”
“You’re getting greedy.”
“I am not. People want them and they’re ripe.”
He got a pallet and twenty quart baskets while she stood in the garden and arched her back, her braid below her waist, her arms up over her head while she pushed one hand high, then the other.
“This is yoga,” she said. “Cindy Simpson showed me.”
He walked over to the strawberries and waited while she did more yoga, bending forward not only to touch her toes but also to clasp the balls of her feet, her braid now flipped over the back of her head and hanging down in the air like the pull rope of a church bell.
“Can Cindy Simpson do that?” he asked.
“None of them can. They’re not farmers. Not used to stretching all their lives.”
His mother showed him warrior pose, arms stretched in either direction, legs flexed. Then they began picking fat juicy fragrant strawberries.
“The first girl came back later and woke me up with this big smile and said, ‘Who the hell are you, buster?’ I thought that was funny.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said Alexander Theodore, a little midwest, a little Russian, all Californian.”
“Where was she from?”
“How did she get here?”
“She’s studying Russian literature and culture at Stanford.”
“Older than you then.”
“Most people are older than me. Nothing I can do about it.”
“You wouldn’t ever sell this farm with me buried in the meadow,” she said. Back to that.
“Of course I wouldn’t.”
“And my parents and Alexei and Grushenka.”
“Mother, I said I wouldn’t.”
She wasn’t made of stone. She could cry sometimes. He saw her tears slipping down out of her eyes into the strawberries. He had no complete thought, or even a partial one, about how he could be attached, if that was the word, to any woman but her. He knew exactly what the women who courted her—not sexually but emotionally—from Tiburon and Mill Valley were after. Sometimes he would come home and find one of them working with her, milking cows, fixing fences. What for? To be the way she was.
“Did you say anything in Russian to her?”
“Only to make a joke.”
He didn’t want to say because it would upset her. “Just a joke.”
“What was it?”
“A joke about not knowing who my father was. I said in Russian, ‘Father, father, why has thou forsaken me?’”
“Know what she said back in Russian? ‘Because you’ve been a bad, bad boy. Learn to behave yourself and I’ll give you another chance.”
His mother stood straight up. “She did not!”
“Yes, she did. Her Russian was perfect. She learned it as an exchange student. What if I went to Russia as an exchange student? She said I speak Russian like I came out of a time capsule.” For years—maybe until he was twelve—they had read their Russian Bible every night and discussed all the virtues and temptations and parables and paradoxes. He didn’t know that they apparently were doing it in some kind of old-fashioned Russian.
His mother wasn’t crying anymore. The girl from Texas amused her. “Why don’t you bring some of the people you meet over here sometimes?”
“The ones in San Francisco?”
“They didn’t come to California for this. They came to be Flower Children.”
“We have flowers.” She pointed to the violets and begonias and tiger lilies and yarrow she had planted along the rut they called their driveway.
He couldn’t imagine it. “Over there everyone sort of talks about being there and doing what you do there. It’s like the whole country wants to jam into San Francisco. What would we talk about here?”
He hoisted the pallet of strawberries, and she picked up the tomato basket and they left the garden, crossed the yard and he pumped water over everything, rinsing off the dirt.
“I just don’t know what to do except joke sometimes,” he said. “I don’t have anything special to say. But no one cares. It’s just like here: people want to hear themselves talk, not you.”
They had gone inside. She lit a candle. He went over to his sleeping nook and stretched out beneath the window as she fixed their dinner. They’d settle the cows afterward.
“I shouldn’t go over there so much,” he said. “It makes me feel empty. I don’t even know why I like it. I watch a lot. That’s how I fit in. I watch and people need to be watched. That’s why they’re there and what I do for them. The same thing I’ve been doing all my life. What if I went to Stanford?”
“How would we afford it?”
“What if they gave me a scholarship?”
“Your grades aren’t that good, are they?”
“I could get better grades if I wanted. My test scores are as high as anybody’s.”
“They’re the highest in the school.”
“You never told me that.”
“Susie told me one thing you have to do is write an essay about yourself. What would I say? I lived on a farm across the bay from San Francisco with my mother all my life. My grandparents died before I was born and so did the old Russians who adopted my mother. I don’t know who my father was and don’t care. They had an affair and he took off. No brothers, no sisters, no cousins. I read and work on the farm and go to school and hang out in Haight Asbury and get stoned.”
He tossed himself on his side and stared at the wall.
“I don’t even know what my father looked like, or my mother,” Kristina said.
“One of them must have looked like you. I don’t look like you. Who do I look like?”
She said she didn’t really remember. There was a self-incriminating note in her voice. Self-lacerating, he thought, annealing the pain it caused in him to hear it with this stronger description. He had words for everything. Words he read, words he heard here and there, words he looked up.
“There is nothing that could possibly be worse than not knowing,” he said, “but we don’t talk about it. That conversation is finished even if it couldn’t hurt us. Nothing could hurt us, don’t you understand that?”
“My father was Alexei’s brother,” she said. “His name was Ivan. Alexei was my uncle, but he wouldn’t talk about Ivan, and Grushenka wouldn’t either until Alexei died. Anyway, that’s why they took me in, not just because they were Russians and my father was a Russian who was killed in the earthquake.”
“What did she say about Ivan?”
“She had more to say about the other brother, Dmitri.”
“There were three brothers?”
“Yes. Dmitri was a fisherman whose boat sank, but he was the cause of everything and why they came to America this way.”
“Across the Pacific. And after Alexei died, she talked and talked. She kept saying, ‘I just want to say one more thing’ and then she would say dozens of things and say she just wanted to say another, and I was to write it down, but how could I get it all? She talked so fast.”
He realized that she had just said more in a minute than she had said in sixteen years, and it hurt her. She held the rim of the sink tight and stood there, staring grimly out the window. What should he do? She was like a wall or a boulder or something large and heavy that wavered in danger of crashing down. He was too scared looking at her to say anything. What did he know about whether not knowing was more hurtful than knowing? If she told him more, it would still be them. There wouldn’t be anyone else to help them. And he already had pushed her with his vagrancy to a point she could barely endure, lying there at night worrying about him.
She went behind the curtain of her own sleeping area. He got up and followed her, knowing something was happening. She pulled a tin box out from under the bed. She opened it and took out a notebook that was half torn-apart and some sheets of paper. Some of the writing was in Russian, some in English.
“What are you doing?” he asked her.
Having been “discovered” doing research in the Hoover Institution Tower by the campus newspaper, Solzhenitsyn mentioned he would welcome meeting a student, but it was the first week in June, 1975, and few students were on the Stanford campus except, as it happened, second year grad student, Alex Theodore, who took a call from Professor Staar, Solzhenitsyn’s guardian and interpreter.
“You’re in luck, Alex. He wants to meet one of our students. Who could be better than you?”
Alex couldn’t believe it. “I can think of a lot of students who could be better than me.”
“Really? Anyway, you’re the one with the summer stipend, and we’d fire you or something if you refused to come talk with him a bit.”
“What does he want to talk about?”
“I have no idea. Maybe he just doesn’t want to feel like a prisoner again.”
“I’m working on Dostoevsky.”
“So talk about that.”
The next day the professor knocked on Solzhenitsyn’s office door and introduced Alex to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He was a homely, Amish-looking man, his beard and hair unkempt, his face criss-crossed with the pains and maladies and abuses of a life of intense suffering. But he smiled in a gentle way and gestured for Alex to take a seat while nodding at Professor Staar that he could go now.
When the door was shut, Solzhenitsyn ceremoniously pressed a button on his desktop and a secretary came through the side door with tea and then scurried out.
“You do like tea, don’t you? Or shall it be vodka?”
“No, no, sir, tea is fine.”
“I take four lumps, a terrible habit. I wanted to meet a student, and here you are, the best student, they tell me. You speak excellent Russian. How is this?”
“My mother speaks a little because her parents were immigrants, and then I went on an exchange program when I was a junior in high school.”
“Ah, the best way. And the professor tells me you have read everything. Our literature and our history, the worst and the best.”
“Not everything, I’m sure.”
“But a great deal?”
“Yes, sir. A great deal. I majored in Slavic studies as an undergraduate and now, well…more of the same, I guess.”
“Pushkin, Lermontov, Herzen? Yes? Yes, of course. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov? Of course, them, too. Everyone I talk to with any interest says Chekhov this, Chekhov that. In Switzerland, I heard it constantly. Our great poet of submission, so wise but despairing, he chronicled our weakest times…in the clinic…on the estates…Siberia, too.”
“Yes, sir, I’ve read Chekhov. Everything by everyone you mentioned, in fact.”
“Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diaries?”
“My work, may I ask?”
Alex fortunately could say yes. He knew Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in battle, in work camps, in cancer wards, and in the Gulag that was the boneyard foundation of a superpower.
Solzhenitsyn laughed sheepishly and said, “Then you wasted a lot of time, but I’ll do better, I promise you. I have been given a life sentence abroad to tell the truth about what so far I’ve missed.”
Alex couldn’t relax. He’d expected a suspicious man, infected with his miseries. Was that yet to come? He sipped his tea and did sense Solzhenitsyn’s mood darkening.
“In Zurich I knew I was in Lenin’s city of exile and couldn’t bear to benefit from the crafty neutrality of the Swiss, so I came here, and California! What can I say? It is everything and too much of everything, beyond everything.”
“I grew up here. I think you’re right.”
“San Francisco!” Solzhenitsyn exclaimed.
“San Francisco,” Alex echoed, though he had made peace with San Francisco. “Actually, I grew up across the bay in a little place they call Strawberry now.”
“For the fruit?”
“Yes, sir. We grow them on a little dairy farm. There are still woods and trails and some idle land over there. And a big mountain. Tamalpais. We call it Tam.”
“Where were you in Russia as an exchange student?”
“I was in Moscow most of the time, but I traveled a bit.”
“South of Moscow, sort of an arc a few hundred miles south.”
He could tell that Solzhenitsyn liked listening to him speak Russian so fluently. The man was immensely tired, and this relaxed him, the tea and the young man who had read a lot and made him feel at home and perhaps safe, like someone who had put his foot through mushy ice and found a solid layer down below.
“No, sir, I was looking for something else, I guess.”
Alex didn’t want to say. He tried to sidestep the issue: “May I just make one point? I want you to know how much I admire you. I want you to know—”
Solzhenitsyn had a remarkably powerful frown, a frown of massive displeasure. “It doesn’t matter to me what I have done. My life is what I will do if I can do anything at all.” In other words, don’t fawn, don’t tell me I can remedy an instant of what I have seen and survived. “So you went south of Moscow. What is south of Moscow?”
He might as well say it; he couldn’t think of any way out. “I wanted to see if I could find the place Dostoevsky called Skotoprigonyevsk.”
“When did he refer to this place?”
“It’s in The Brothers Karamazov, where the story occurs.”
“He made it up, didn’t he? Had some idea of a town and called it that?”
“Is that what you do, sir?”
Solzhenitsyn laughed at this question. “May I tell you something? I have begun to think that it is impossible to make anything up and useless, too. When we say make something up, what can we mean? Out of nothing? The imagination is nothing? It has no reality? It is false? Why put yourself at risk of this criticism when you don’t have to? Whatever we can think, unfortunately, is real.”
He had won the Nobel Prize; he had been exiled for telling the truth any way he could; what was Alex to say?
“Anyway, I didn’t find it.”
“Of course not, but you looked. For that I give you credit. A young scholar from California goes to Russia—we will call it that—and he pulls his head out of his books and actually goes into our wild depth. Good. We won’t be found in our cities. It’s not where we came from. We came from the woods and fields and rivers.”
Alex nodded to accept the compliment and punctuate how unworthy he felt sitting there with Solzhenitsyn, whose commitment to his characters never flagged. He brought them to life in the throes of death, when they were being beaten, when they were being burned alive by x-rays, when they were losing toes and fingers to the remorseless cold. They still had something to say, a quip, a memory, some little secret hope.
Alex said he ought not to impose on Solzhenitsyn’s time.
Solzhenitsyn showed some of his displeasure and perhaps anger again. He pointed to the doorway through which Professor Staar had passed. “How can anything out there be important? I don’t want to play the nonsense game of saying little things for the newspapers and television cameras. Tell me about your family. You said they were immigrants? When? What was their name?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Alex lied. He was completely sure, overwhelmed and consumed by it. “All I have is some things my mother remembers and notes from when my grandmother would talk about the past. It’s almost’s exactly like The Brothers Karamazov. What would happen next.”
His mother gave him the old notebook and sheets of paper she pulled out of the tin box beneath her bed. He couldn’t keep himself from telling Solzhenitsyn that he read his grandmother’s statements that his father and two uncles were called Karamazov in Russia, and one of the uncles was unjustly convicted of patricide. And the second generation, all but his mother who stayed on with Alexei and Grushenka, went to New York. Except one of his mother’s cousins came to visit once, bearing the surname Alexei had chosen for everyone—Theodore, gift of God—in thanks for their escape from the tsar to America. Alex didn’t say that the cousin who visited from New York was named Michael, and he probably was Alex’s father, but he went back to New York.
Solzhenitsyn listened to this disturbing story of the Russian diaspora filtered through the distortions of legends and literature warily. He chose to ignore the name Karamazov, almost pretend he had not heard it, which is almost what Alex, close to trembling, wished. “Does your family have some business other than cows and strawberries?”
Alex said, “I understand that my relatives in New York have been involved in immigration matters.”
“And now there is this new Jackson-Vanik law, offending the Kremlin, taking away trade privileges. So the Kremlin won’t grant exit visas. Who wins? What is this grotesque game?”
“Yes, sir. But…what I understand is that over the years different family members in New York have brought Russians here with the law or without it.”
Solzhenitsyn sat a long time saying nothing. Was this young man some kind of provocateur, a KGB agent?
Alex knew exactly what Solzhenitsyn was thinking. He had seen the notes passed among the family members of the exchange family with whom he had stayed in Moscow—write it down, don’t say it. He had his own KGB tail on his train trip through the south. But he enjoyed his trip anyway. He had liked the food basket smells–bread, onions, and pickles– the broad faces, the curious looks, just not the awareness he saw in others’ eyes that he was bringing an agent along with him, one more jailer in the great big Soviet prison.
He said, “All I am is a literary person. I don’t engage in politics.”
“How can a literary person not engage in politics?” Solzhenitsyn asked.
Alex said, “I understand why you say that. Maybe we’re too comfortable here in America.”
“Too comfortable because of all your missiles pointing at the Soviet missiles? Nothing can be solved this way. I knew it the moment they took me away. It was exile again. Exile in heaven, you could say, not like the old exile in hell, but exile is exile, only now I have paper, pen, and this.” He pointed to the mound of books and documents on his desk. An expression of guilt, probably because he was not working, crossed his face. “You don’t believe what your grandmother said, do you?”
“My mother says some of it, too.”
“Of course, it’s her mother.”
“No, not her mother, but she raised her. I realize it sounds confused, sir.”
“By confused do you mean absurd? Is that what you look for in Dostoevsky?”
“You probably reject absurd.”
“I do reject absurd. Dostoevsky didn’t believe in absurdity any more than I do.”
Alex and his mother were a long time working out as much as they could between themselves. She would help him sort through the papers, and he would tell her what they would have to mean if they were true, and the two of them would shake their heads and laugh, or sometimes grow very upset about what she had not told him before. When he went on his exchange program, they still weren’t comfortable. It was the first time they had been separated for more than a day or two, and if he came back reminding her of the person she imagined to have been his father, she didn’t know what she would do. But he didn’t come back that way. He came back self-contained like Alexei and drew the same kind of line Alexei would draw: no further discussion of whether his father could be his mother’s cousin, this man he had never met in New York.
Now Alex asked himself how, when this encounter with Solzhenitsyn was over, he could go back to what he had planned to write during the summer. There was absurdity all over Dostoevsky and Russian literature, and Alex planned to probe it, but Solzhenitsyn said no.
“Faith bends absurdity like fire bends iron,” Solzhenitsyn said. “I come here and all is given to me, but I feel empty because Americans want but to give you more so they can take more and man is not a marketplace. Faith, Dostoevsky had faith. Whatever he found, even when he found nothing, it was something. His jokes, they are only a way to prick people’s conscience, and make them think. He gave up in one way, yes, but in another way it was to a greater being, and nothing else in what he wrote matters. That is what he was trying to say. Tolstoy, too.”
“Do you know these relatives in New York?”
“No, sir, I don’t. I’ve never been to New York. Well, through the airport, but just through the airport.”
“It isn’t enough. You went to Moscow when you should have gone to New York.”
Solzhenitsyn was so powerful and so certain that he did to Alex what he said fire did to iron. Alex bent. “You’re right. I should have gone to both.”
“And now what do you do? Live here in California, this garden of Eden, and turn your head away from this crazy tale?”
“Are you saying we all need to be exiled?”
“I’m saying we all are exiled. You in America, too.”
Alex didn’t know how but suddenly Solzhenitsyn’s kindliness returned. Some honey appeared in his eyes. He sagged in his chair almost humorously as if confessing he couldn’t keep this up—being the prophet.
“So I should go to New York?” Alex asked.
Solzhenitsyn nodded. “Wouldn’t you learn more there than staying here reading your books and writing your papers?”
Alex had made a pact with himself to never go to New York. He would leave this family fantasy alone. After the exchange program, the closest he came to pursuing it was pulling a few strands of hair out of Dostoevsky’s writing looking for a match to his mother’s or his own.
But now what could he do?
“Believe me,” Solzhenitsyn said, “I’ll leave California, too. Not to New York, but here it’s so sweet it’s death.”
Alex made a gesture that indicated he accepted Solzhenitsyn’s advice. Solzhenitsyn embraced him at the door.