Lev has worried all afternoon that his niece and her husband won’t find his house. It is easy to miss the turnoff for Todd Road and get lost in a maze of half-paved, wooded roads that are part of the town’s semirural fantasy about itself. He is relieved now to see the step-van pulling into his driveway, the late sun bouncing in a streak off the vehicle’s metal siding.
“Yes, okay, I have the address,” Sonya’s husband had told him earlier today, when Lev was giving him directions.
“The address won’t help. Just listen to me…”
“I am listening.”
It had been one of those exchanges where the other person’s sentences seemed always to begin in the middle of your own.
Three years ago, Sonya had sent him and Dina a photo of herself and Meho in a wedding chapel with vinyl records and photos of old movie stars on the walls. A year and a half later, a second picture had arrived in the mail: a professional snapshot of a dark-eyed infant girl posing on a cushion, a studio backdrop of painted clouds behind her. “Our angel has arrived,” it said beneath. When Lev attached the card to their refrigerator, Dina had wondered out loud why someone would burden their child with a name like Andjela Bliss.
The van honks its horn in the middle of the driveway. Lev can see a thin, tanned arm wagging at him. “Take a look at our hot-truck, dyadya Lyova!” Sonya shouts as they brake in front of the garage. She hops out and waits for Meho to close the door on the other side. Meho removes his sunglasses and folds them into his T-shirt collar. He is older than Sonya by a good fifteen years, something Lev hadn’t noticed in the photograph, shorter than Lev expected, but with a chest and arms that look like they’ve been built on weight machines. And yet coming up the driveway, he and Sonya share a peculiar resemblance: her hair is dyed black, as if to match Meho’s, and her tan is opaque, a solarium version of his natural skin tone. She’s slim to the point of gauntness, the result of some kind of exercise mania the two of them must be involved in together.
They’ve spent Friday and Saturday night selling food out of their van at a music festival on Long Island, arranging to stop at Lev’s house in Golden’s Bridge on their way back to Baltimore. It’s the first time they’ve driven so far north of the craft fairs, flea markets, and motorcycle rallies they usually work around the Maryland and Delaware coasts. In the summer the big money is in concerts, Sonya has told him.
“Meho, my uncle Lyova,” she says, giving Lev a cheek. “The brainy side of my family. Half an hour with him is like getting a college degree.” She rubs Lev’s shoulder merrily.
“You’re very kind, Sonechka.”
“It’s true, he knows everything,” she says as Lev leads them inside.
“I’m just a garbage collector,” he says, and laughs, bringing them out to the deck, where Dina is setting plates on the wobbly patio table.
Dina wears the loose-fitting linen dress she puts on practically every weekend during the summer, a dress without a waistline that Lev thinks resembles a smock, though Dina is convinced it looks chic in the countryish way she’s come to like.
“This is a dream,” Sonya says, gazing at the sectioned-off part of the hillside, which Dina has reclaimed as a garden. “When I was growing up, my idea of heaven was a garden like this. Did you plant it?”
Dina laughs. “Who else?”
“I bet you could teach gardening.”
“Oh sure,” Dina says skeptically. “Another thing I need.”
It has always been hard to tell if Sonya is utterly earnest or entirely insincere in her flattery. When she was twelve, Lev can recall, coming to stay with them for the first time (her mother had put her on the Greyhound), she’d told them how happy she was to see them both again. The “again” had prompted a little laugh of disbelief from Dina; they’d left Tbilisi eleven years earlier, when Sonya was not even two. She couldn’t possibly have remembered them! It had been almost taxing to watch the child laboring so hard to be lovable, awed by everything in their house and speaking in that affectedly precious tone borrowed from her mother, who had called Lev a year earlier to ask him to sign an affidavit attesting she was Emik’s widow. It was 1990 and almost impossible to get a visa without family in America. She didn’t want any money or help, Alla said, only Lev’s signature. At the end of the phone call she’d been effusively grateful. He had agreed of course, all the while wanting her to know she ought to expect nothing of him after she’d depleted and divorced his brother. “Don’t thank me,” he had told her. “Thank Sonya.”
Lev uncorks the chardonnay with a little rocking motion and pours two glasses for Sonya and Meho, then carries one to the baluster, where Meho stands with his hands jammed in his pockets.
“It must be an adventure to drive somewhere new every weekend.”
Meho turns to him slowly. He doesn’t answer but points his chin in the direction of the low, inflamed sunset. “Is it always like this?”
“As long as we pay the bill.” Lev waits for a laugh, but the man only nods solemnly.
Sonya has settled in beside Dina in one of the patio chairs to show the photos she’s brought. “Oh, she does have a happy little face,” Dina pipes. “And what are those?”
“Garnets. That’s her birthstone.”
“I see,” Dina says, her way of acting innocent about things she doesn’t fully approve of. When they called to congratulate Sonya on her baby, Dina had asked if the name was misspelled in the announcement, before Sonya explained that “Andjela” was how it was written in Croatia, where Meho was from.
“You don’t think it’s a little early for that?”
“They’re earrings, not a tattoo,” says Sonya. “She’ll want them later anyway.”
“I guess.” Dina gets up to find napkins while Meho sits down beside Sonya, laying a watchful hand on her knee. His eyes are weighed down by heavy brows with a permanent, crescent-shaped wrinkle between them. He looks at Sonya with an expression Lev can’t quite discern, a look that could be shorthand for boredom or patience or nothing at all. Lev edges his chair closer to the table, where Dina has set out a bowl of red beans in walnut sauce beside a platter of fried eggplant strips. She’s carrying a cast-iron pot of pilaf when she arrives from the kitchen.
“What kind of food do you sell at your shows?” Lev asks.
“Sandwiches, cabbage rolls…” Sonya answers, watching Dina lift the foggy top and let out garlic-soaked steam.
“Real food,” Meho says. “But they don’t know what the difference. They want only chili dogs, cheese dogs, Chicago dogs. They’ll eat cat litter, as long as you deep-fry it and put it on a stick.”
“Plus college kids at concerts are always trying to screw you,” Sonya adds, scooping spoonfuls of beans onto her plate. “They’ll take a bite out of a sandwich and then try to return it. I’m like, ‘Who do you think we are, McDonald’s?’”
“People are stupid,” Meho says, chewing.
“Which?” says Dina.
“Here’s an example,” Sonya says. “We sell meat dumplings. If someone wants a dumpling, I say, ‘Two for one, or three for two?’”
Dina blinks. “Two for one or…?”
“Three for two.”
“But that’s not a bargain,” Dina says, then hesitates, pausing to think.
“You can’t hold up my line to do math. Next!” Sonya shouts, as though into a crowd, laughing and spilling a little of her wine. Meho plucks a napkin off the pile to blot it.
“I see,” Dina says dryly. “Well, I guess that’s one way of making money.”
“I suppose you need intuition for that sort of thing,” Lev adds, more kindly. He is glad his own work spares him from having to form such low opinions of people. Selling, by definition, puts you in an inferior position, he thinks. To right the balance, people who sell for a living are always forming cynical and manipulative attitudes about others.
“Her talent was getting completely wasted when I met her,” Meho says.
“That’s how he started talking to me.”
“She was working at the makeup counter in the drugstore. Every time I walked in, she was talking to another lady, or doing her face. This girl, she could sell you anything. She could sell you last year’s snow. You’d be listening to her and wondering how you could have ever lived without last year’s snow. But I can tell you, she was not one who ate her own bullshit,” Meho says. “She just liked selling, that’s all. I asked her, how much are they paying you here?”
“It was eight dollars an hour,” Sonya cuts in.
“I took her out one night. I said, let’s go get Chinese food in Sharpsburg—this town that was two hours away. She says, ‘Okay!’ Imagine, you give a woman a proposition like that, let’s drive two hours for Chinese food. And she says yes! You know she’s not the kind of woman you’re going to need to read poetry to all night.”
Dina glances at Lev uncomfortably.
“We were driving back from Sharpsburg, and I said, ‘Come and work for me for ten dollars an hour.’”
“But the joke’s on him,” Sonya finishes. “Because now I take half!”
So this is their love story, Lev thinks. A sad one, the story of people who’ve fallen into each other’s arms out of some shared knowledge that nobody else gave a damn about them.
The drugstore job is news to him, too. Last time Sonya visited them, four years ago, she laughed at all of Lev’s jokes and told him and Dina, unconvincingly, that she was supporting herself by working as a photographer’s assistant. She was tall, looked older than sixteen, but the word that had come first to mind had been mileage. The way she crossed her legs and leaned forward, how she didn’t pause to exhale her cigarette smoke but simply let it pass out of her mouth while she spoke or laughed. It didn’t seem to Lev that girls got this way by merely growing up. He hoped that she was indeed working as a photographer’s assistant. A year before that Sonya’s mother had called Lev demanding to know if Sonya was staying with them. She wasn’t. But a week later Lev received a call from Sonya, who was asking to borrow money. She wouldn’t say where she was living. When Lev had requested some phone coordinates, she’d given him only the number of her pager. He had Western Unioned her two hundred dollars the next day, dialed the long sequence of digits, and reached an enervating tone, like the bug-crushing sound of a fax machine. When Sonya called him back a few days later, neither of them spoke about the money. After that he wired her three hundred dollars every couple of months or so. He didn’t want her doing God-knows-what for a few bucks. And wasn’t it to his credit in some way, he thinks now, that she’s managed to avoid a worse turn in life?
Lev can feel the air tickling the hair on the back of his neck. It has gotten cool suddenly. There is only an isolated bright spot now above some woods where the sun has set. “Maybe we should get these young people some sweaters,” he suggests.
“And some real drinks,” says Dina. “Meho hasn’t seen the bar yet. Have you?”
To read the rest of “Debt”, buy Issue 6 or start a subscription today.
Read more in Issue 6
|Fiction||Debt by Sana Krasikov|
|Fiction||Politics Is a Craft by Peter Orner|
|Fiction||Politics Is a Craft: Part Two : Peter Orner on Harold Washington by Peter Orner|
|Fiction||The Cold, Cold Water by Gary Amdahl|
|Poetry||Bridge Passed by Pierre Martory|
|Poetry||Coyote by Tom Yuill|
|Essay||From the Hills of Fauquier County by Peyton Marshall|