Abram Katz

Us by Shevchenko park, the foreigner five blocks from the sea, sipping compote at my girlfriend, Zina’s, dacha in Tenth Fountain. Rushing, afraid if we didn’t get there soon enough the foreigner would disappear. Absolutely not, I’d said to my younger brother, Petya, but in the end let him tag along. I’m not good at being curious alone. We wore denim jackets over our bare torsos. I the chunkier, but the denim hid the paunch. Thighs rubbing up against each other, Wrangler jeans wearing to white as we marched across Odessa. Too far to walk. Stepping into the tram was like burrowing into an armpit. Thirty hourlike minutes to the dacha, which stood behind other dachas on Nameless Street, the large green rusted gates always closed, walk in through the side entrance, past a thicket of picked raspberry bushes—it’s a beautiful day. No, overcast. No, we found them all inside the house which the entire thing was the size of your bedroom now so it must have been raining—but we weren’t impressed. Not one bit. The foreigner, Abram Katz from America, was a little Jew with white hair. He was standing by the one barred window as if he’d sat his whole life. Green, wrinkled shorts fell above the knee; his cream polo had a tattered collar. We shook hands. I was introduced as the future husband. Nineteen years old, chances for escape were few. He spoke Russian with a thick accent. We laughed off to the side. But the disappointment was tremendous. We expected American cigarettes, currency. Curiosity, we realized, was expectation. He’d quit smoking last winter. But a vacation was a vacation, so he bummed one of ours. After the first drag he made a face that said, ugh, but then he wanted more. If I’d known you liked jeans, he said casually, I would’ve brought some as presents. A math genius—he didn’t look like one. I tried picking out the math genius parts in him—some specks in his white beard maybe, or his little hairless toes in the too-big slippers. The bridge of his nose was distinguished enough in profile. But. If we’d passed him on the street we wouldn’t have looked twice. From California, yet I would’ve bet his cheeks had never seen the sun. My girlfriend, by the time we’d gotten there, didn’t look particularly interested. Our over-interest, I suspect, made her lose hers. The foreigner was her relation, she could afford the indifference. When the rain didn’t let up—yes, it was one of those August storms—her mother, Eva, made a show of her Turkish towel collection. Only Edik, her husband, pretended to be impressed. Then the china. Abram Katz was made to sit for the show. He immediately drifted off. Any loud sound woke him and he’d jump up, but whenever he sat down again, he’d drift off. He slept upright with his head tipped to rest on his left shoulder, extra skin bunching at the jaw. We tried to keep laughing off to the side, but the laughs stopped coming. My brother didn’t let anybody ignore his boredom. He had no duty there, and so expected to be entertained. I obligingly kicked him out during one of Abram Katz’s longer sleeping bouts. Then we ate. Eva had cooked up quite a feast. She made the best holodetz in all of Odessa. Abram Katz left the next morning, two days in Kiev, where his father’s family was from, and back to California—to Berkeley, where he taught. Autumn in Odessa was the best season. It came time for the wedding. Zina didn’t want any of the dresses in the shops on Deribasavskaya Street. She wanted something different. Her mother, Eva, came up with the idea. They wrote to Abram Katz in California, asking him to send a wedding dress—nothing too fancy, but different, preferably blue. They’d housed him, fed him, and so felt only a tinge of guilt at the request. They waited. No reply. We got married in late November, having miscalculated when the leaves change. She wore a white ruffle dress from a shop on Deribasavskaya. We were so happy—or busy—we forgot to hate the American. It became a running joke, an inside expression. Wait for the Berkeley dress. A year later we got a letter from Laura Katz. Written in Russian. It said that the day after Abram Katz returned from the Ukraine, he’d had a stroke and died. She’d been too grieved to get someone to translate our letter, and apologized.

Which reminds me of the time, long before then even, when a work friend of my father’s brought a stranger to our apartment. They’d met on a plane and came to us straight from the airport. Both had their luggage. The stranger had nowhere to sleep. My father, for no reason we could understand, let him stay. The stranger was tall, dark, unkempt. My brother was frightened. He was sure we would be robbed. Everything will be gone by morning, he told me. All of our precious stuff. The two things he decided to save by hiding under his pillow: our mother’s favorite crystal bowl and Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. The bowl he chipped while tossing and turning sleeplessly, panicked.

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