The city needed to record his feelings before the developers continued. Recording his feelings would be a show of good faith on their part and might appease the town liberals.
The whiskey was as good as it was strong, without aftertaste, and she wondered about the price of the bottle.
For a well planned development
By Peter Brown Hoffmeister
Fedya pulled out the kitchen chair for her with the thin arms of an old man who had never stopped working. Bending over, Emilia set her briefcase on the linoleum and eased into the oak seat, scooting the chair up to the edge of the table. She placed a yellow legal pad, two sharpened pencils, and a tape recorder in front of her. Fedya returned from the pantry with two tumblers, a bottle of whiskey, and a pitcher of water. He poured half a glass for each of them and then offered her water.
Emilia shook her head.
Ice, city councilwoman?
No. Thank you. She pulled the glass nearer to her but only out of politeness. She had no intention of drinking.
They were in the back of the store, above Broadway, in the commercial district. It was well known that the old man had lived above his store for thirty years, but no one was interested in that. It was illegal but there were more important issues to discuss. The city needed to record his feelings before the developers continued. Recording his feelings would be a show of good faith on their part and might appease the town liberals.
Do you mind if we start?
Fedya took a sip of the whiskey and nodded. He smiled with his eyes. He did not smile with his mouth. When he smiled with his eyes, his face wrinkled like lines on a map.
Because he was watching, Emilia put her glass to her lips and tilted the liquid until it touched the edge of her mouth. She smiled at Fedya and returned her drink to the table. Then she pressed play on the tape recorder and picked up one of the pencils.
Let’s start at the beginning. Do you know all about the planned development?
Yes. He rubbed the rim of his glass with a veiny finger.
And do you think it’s a good idea? She leaned forward and pressed her pencil lead against the surface of the yellow paper.
Fedya took a slow drink, tasting it carefully, then let the alcohol run down the back of his throat in drops like medicine titrating into the bloodstream. He tilted his head to the side as a curious dog does. I could not say.
You could not say? Emilia imitated his syntax.
He shook his head as his eyes closed, revealing new wrinkles above his cheekbones. No, I could not say.
Hmmm. She paused, not sure of what to ask next. So you can’t tell me about your feelings on the development?
Fedya put his glass to his lips, drank the remainder of his cup, and returned the empty vessel to the table. He said clearly, No. I am sorry.
The councilwoman wrote words then, on the legal pad, but they were words without meaning, phrases to buy time, and she considered carefully her options. This is why people do not always win, she thought to herself, why they rarely receive what is best for them. They do not understand who is for them and who is against them.
Her pen slowed, then stopped. She had to keep the interview going somehow, it was her job, so she said, Could you, maybe, tell me something you’ve been thinking about lately?
Fedya took in a deep breath, like smelling a memory, and refilled his glass. Because his guest’s glass remained at that time in a perpetual state of half full, without the addition of water, without the subtraction of drinking, he filled the remainder, pouring from his bottle until the whiskey reached the rim.
Thank you, she said, happy to voice gratitude rather than needing to form another question. She picked up the drink carefully, mindful of spilling it, and took a small sip, a sip to keep the drink from spilling over. The whiskey was as good as it was strong, without aftertaste, and she wondered about the price of the bottle.
Emilia noticed then that the hands of the old man were skinned by a translucent paper, revealing the veinwork underneath, and the blood came to the ends of his fingers as he tightened his grip on his glass. He did not bring his glass to his lips now, his mind having traveled somewhere else, but his fingers closed and opened on the tumbler. His eyes looked of loss and she hesitated to interrupt him, watching his lips as they opened but did not produce any sound. She wanted to leave him to his memories, stand up from the table and wander around his small apartment. She wanted to understand how he passed his time alone, passed thirty years without a wife. She wanted to open every drawer in his apartment, rub the antiques with the ends of her fingers, press the ammunition casings in her palms, lay on his firm bed and look at his ceiling. But she feared being rude.
There is something I have thought of lately. His voice was quiet, as if from a distance, and she leaned forward so she would not miss any of his words, as a devout Catholic leans forward when a priest begins his response during confession. He did not look at her as he spoke, but at the wall next to them, an old brick wall from an earlier construction, mortared dirtily, sticks visible between the cracks. That is how they mortared walls in the old country.
He did not continue.
After a while, she could not help her anxiety and she tapped her glass in a nervous pattering rhythm. If you don’t mind me asking, she began, but she slowed her cadence, worried she might be sounding rude. She began again, Mr. Kleschev, what is it that you have been thinking? She did not notice that she had changed her syntax once again as people often do when speaking to foreigners. She made the mistake of believing the old man was another.
The old man smiled at her again with his gray eyes, eyes the color of a dirty sidewalk. He rubbed his hands over the stumble of his face, making a rasping sound. It is something of long ago, in Russia, he said.
It was now her turn to smile with her eyes, to say that she wanted him to continue with the story. She smiled with her eyes and took another drink from her glass.
Fedya stopped the slow rasping of his face. Hmm, well it is this. I have thought much about this. They always said when I was young that the histories are written by the victorious. You know this saying?
Yes. I was taught something like that in school. She did not write the phrase now, her pencil replaced by the whiskey glass in her right hand. She drank his words and the whiskey together.
Good. Yes. Fedya eased some of his drink into his mouth where it snuck around his tongue like a thief. His voice was not emotional, but was as if ice covered a field. He began again, I know now that the histories will not always be written by the victorious. They will not. And I know this because I will write a story some day, a day in the future when there is time and when people are willing to listen. He paused to finish his drink, then refilled the glass slowly, carefully, pouring as though he were pouring coffee over a white tablecloth. He looked older than eighty-five, caught in his remembrances, and she was not in the room with him any longer because he was not in the room himself.
Emilia took a long drink from her glass unconsciously. Much of her drink was gone and she did not think about it.
The darkness stayed until eleven in the morning during that month. It did not get light until eleven and then it was dark by two o’clock. I did not know any different because I was only six years old and expected the darkness to come with the cold, and I thought that all places on earth were the same.
The army came into town while it was still dark. I do not know if it was nighttime or not, only that it was still dark. There was no light, but the light of kerosene lamps. I remember that well. I was standing against my mother’s leg, leaning my head against her, and I remember she kept pulling my hair until it hurt, but I did not say anything. I knew that it was not a time to complain about simple things. It was not a time to complain about the pulling of hair.
I remember the shadows on their faces from the lamps. When they spoke to her, they spoke roughly, using words I was not accustomed to hearing in the presence of women. I had heard men speak this way before, yes, when they were angry, or drinking, but these soldiers spoke roughly to my mother and she told them not to speak to her that way in front of her son. She did not say that my father was gone. She said only not to speak to her that way in front of me, and she said many times that I was six years old. I heard her many times…
The city councilwoman had not meant to drink during the interview. The drinking had not been purposeful then, but rather unavoidable as she listened to the story. The old man had refilled her glass twice, pausing the narration out of politeness as he did so. He drank as well, his tongue easing in the romantic way of drinking. And the romanticism was necessary.
Emilia was quite tipsy and becoming drunk when she left the apartment, and she checked her mirrors for police officers as she drove herself home.
Her house was dark. She had forgotten to leave the motion light on and she did not feel safe in her own driveway. She fumbled with the keys, then turned the lock and went inside, flipping on a number of lamps and overhead lights. Attempting to sit comfortably on her white couch, she tried reading a magazine, then switched on the TV. The faithless noise of the box agitated her and she stood up. She could not enjoy being alone at that moment and so she stepped out onto her back porch. The porch light illuminated her planter boxes along the south fence throwing shadows against the cedar slats. Emilia walked over to the box of flowers that were laid out in clean patterns by height and color. At the corners, she saw the Echinacea opening on three-foot stalks, stamens like blood coming to the skin, petals like knives. §
Peter Brown Hoffmeister teaches English and lives in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife. He is the recipient of a 2006 Oregon Literary Fellowship for fiction.