My father’s caregiver knows how to build bombs; “I’ve dealt with metal all my life. Metal is all around us,” he said as he picked up a teaspoon and waved it in the air to make his point. Yuri is a tall man with large feet. His once muscular body stands straight and proud in my mother’s kitchen; “Do you know how many tons of metal I’ve transported? I had a very important job, a job like that should have paid much more than what it did.”
Before deciding to move to America Yuri worked as an engine driver on the Ukrainian Railways, “We worked all around the clock, in the dead of winter, in the scorching heat of the summer when the wind is dry and you are sitting in your tiny compartment, sweat sliding into your eyes like rain….you hardly have time to wipe your brow. You have your windows open on both sides of you and it still doesn’t help.” His blue eyes narrow. It’s almost as though he can see himself in hindsight.
“It’s a job with a lot of responsibility. All those railway lines intersecting in front of you. You need to be alert all the time. It’s a pressure cooker.” He runs his fingers through his buzz cut. He cuts his own hair, but never on a Friday. Getting a haircut on a Friday is bad luck he tells me, and he dare not tempt fate by disobeying.
“And the noise…there is nothing but noise all around you every day all day, the sound of steel against steel….” he trails off and shaking his head as though in disagreement; he reaches for the tea kettle which in the meantime, has come to a boil. He uses a glass jar with a handle as a teacup. Three large tablespoons of sugar and a slice of lemon follow. He is melancholy this morning and eager to talk.
“All my life I was waiting for something to happen,” he continues; “I believed. I trusted people. But now I have seen so many things in my life that I don’t trust anyone. If I could escape to a deserted island or a planet far away so as not to be surrounded by people, and politicians, then I would.”
I want to ask him what brought on this need to reveal himself to me, but I am afraid of interrupting his confession.
As though coming to a realization for the first time, he looks about the room and says: “Your house is like a bunker, you know that? Everywhere you look, out of every window you can only see walls, barriers.”
We have neighbors and green hedges are used to create a sense of privacy, “Well…It’s all just a question of money. If you can afford it you can own a forest and live in the middle of the woods,” I say, not knowing what exactly to answer to such a stinging observation.
“Yes, of course…I understand that…it’s just that where I come from there are lakes and one can go fishing…..you get out there in your little boat on the river, on the Dniper and everywhere you look you see open spaces, such beautiful nature that it makes your heart sing…it fills your soul with….with…joy. And you sit out there in the early morning cold, and you have your bait, your cold beer. …It’s really quite wonderful. I miss it very much.” he pauses and looks at me, as though waiting for acknowledgment. But I know nothing of fishing and the great expanse of land he misses. I am a city girl and what’s more, I left the Ukraine when I was eight and although my mind is filled with images and memories of my childhood, my heart it is not filled with longing.
“Do you think that when your family joins you here you will be able to live differently?” I ask.
I am provoking him, but what it really feels like is a lame effort at trying to defend my ego.
“No…..That’s just the point. If I could make a living and have a decent life in the Ukraine, I would have never come here. But there is too much corruption. Everywhere you look people are corrupt. The government invents something new every day to screw over the people.” His language is becoming increasingly coarse as if to keep up with his mounting anger and frustration. The Russian language is very rich in adjectives, so even when it seems as though the vocabulary you are using is appropriate, the slightest fluctuation in your voice can makes it seem like you are cursing.
I nod in silence. Despite all of his rhetoric and resistance, he is a believer. A believer in the socialist system, in the common man’s plight against and despite all obstacles. I have never met one before. But he is on a roll and cannot stop. He has even forgotten about his jar of tea; “My mother gets four thousand Grivni as a pension…and that is considered a good sum… I guess that would equal to about one hundred dollars a month and you are supposed to survive on that when the price of potatoes is thirty Grivni a kilo! The prices have skyrocketed. There is nobody there to keep control. The people are in despair. I miss my country. With all the money I make here working, I could live there like a king.” He folds his arms in front of him and leans back on the kitchen counter. Finally, a pause. A breath.
My father is sitting in his wheelchair next to me. We have forgotten about his breakfast but he doesn’t seem to mind as he smiles at me. His glasses have slid down his nose. He is lost in his own thoughts. I know exactly what he would say if he could understand. He would say that having a stranger in your home is like, “Living with someone else’s dog, difficult to train and impossible to find a common language.”
The more I get to know this man who is now a permanent guest in our home, the more I understand the unsurmountable divide that separates us.
Yuri was raised in the Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye an industrial city known for its metallurgical factories. An epicenter for the production of steel and aluminum, its giant factories supplied products to much of Europe during the Soviet rule. His was an unremarkable rural town that gained importance during the period of Soviet industrialization. Twenty years ago, Yuri marveled at the light weight pots and pans which had conquered the Ukrainian and Soviet markets and were produced and distributed in his hometown. Those household goods were coveted by every woman in the Soviet Union.
As a boy he swam in the densely polluted warm waters of the Dniper river infested with a rust colored debris, heated by the melting discharge steadily bleeding into the water; “We were kids, we didn’t know what all of that stuff was, we used to dive in to it and off to the side the factories where our parents worked stood over us with their tall, smoking chimneys. The water looked so red and orange at times…like it was on fire. …It had a strange odor that the same river in my grandparents’ village near by didn’t have.”
He spent his youth in the government sponsored sports centers and gyms, dedicating his time to building his physical strength so as not to fall prey to the criminals who wondered the streets looking to entertain themselves by violating the unsuspecting and the weak. He excelled in wrestling and boxing and looked up to his older brother who had earned the respect of the local gangs by having done time in prison.
“I could have been a musician, but my parents were simple people; they could not give me any kind of guidance. I could have gone to study at the conservatory and had a different life. I know that. I would have been surrounded by a different breed of people. When my music teacher came to the house to tell my parents that after middle school, I should be sent to a Music Academy to study the Accordion, my father said that my future was with them, that after High School he would get me a job at the factory. I should have insisted; but I was a kid and I was lazy…too lazy to start struggling against my father wielding his leather belt.”
Every day I learned more and more about our caregiver. I began to understand where his vulnerability came from, and yet there were moments when he seemed almost offended at my father’s non sensical insults. My father struggled to understand who he was as much as Yuri fought against my father’s dementia and his inability to reason and to recognize him as a friend, as someone who meant him no harm.
For the past seven years Yuri had been living in the United States, working as a caregiver for those that spoke his native tongue. He moved easily from one home to another, one job to another, until he found his way to our doorstep one early February morning when my father had come home from the hospital unable to resume life as he knew it.
“To think that I started all of this at the age of fifty. I’m fifty-seven now and what do I have to show for it? I have no home; my family is on the other side of the world and I cannot afford anything. After seven years of struggling I have nothing to show for it. Nothing of my own.”
He has stopped talking and is waiting for me to respond. I say nothing. I often find it hard to find an answer, and let the conversation fall. Yuri seemed to have an endless supply of stories to tell, and a desperate need to be listened to. I was inadvertently becoming his confidant.
Yuri left his rural town filled with imperfections to sit here next to my father, to listen to his garbled speeches and nod, to help him make his way around the living room without falling, to hold on to his hand and play make believe. “Are you tired sir?” he asks my father.
“I’m alright, how are you?” my father shrugs his shoulders, elbows resting on the arm rests of his wheelchair. He is sitting still, his feet in white ankle socks tucked firmly into his slippers. By the end of the day his legs will be so swollen they will look like floaters and feel tight like the skin of a grape. Yuri knows this. At half past eight he will take my father to bed, change him, tell him stories, make him laugh with his crude jokes and thus put another day to rest.
Yuri’s own past lies dormant in a suitcase hidden under a table in our garage, invisible. In an effort to bypass the life it once preserved he had distributed its contents between multiple large plastic bags which he kept by his bed in place of a nightstand. The bags reeked of homeopathic medication and natural herbs, folkloristic remedies for his stiff muscles and endangered prostate. Mixed in were packets of dry Ramen noodles and spices to be used in his culinary endeavors. Looking at that heap of wrinkled plastic filled with the intimate bits of his life embarrassed me.
The caregiver does not like our food; “You waste your money buying all that organic produce but everything here is rotten to the core. Look at the radishes, they are soft and give way under pressure, when I cut into them, they are grey and black inside. These are not authentic; these have been treated…spoiled. The tomatoes here have no scent…and believe me, I know my tomatoes. I use to grow and sell them on the market place with my brother. These tomatoes are no good.” he complained.
Before dinnertime the caregiver is standing over a generous steel pot he has placed on the burner in my mother’s kitchen. His toes are protruding from the open rubber sandals he wears around the house. The pot is filled with chunks of pork and potatoes, mixed in with grilled onions, carrots and tomato paste. He is making zjarkoie, a typical Ukrainian stew. He has used all three of the large golden onions my mother hides in brown paper bags under the kitchen sink and she is furious.
“The refrigerator is only filled with his food. He eats everything in sight. Do you see the size of his omelets? He uses two sausages and four eggs every morning,” my mother whispers under her breath. She watches as Yuri opens the refrigerator looking for what is “his”.
There are now three packets of butter sloppily crammed in to the butter compartment. At least two tubs of sour cream occupy the back shelf of the refrigerator and have to constantly be restocked as he goes through them with unnatural speed. The meat drawer is overflowing with salami and sausage, cold cuts and excessive quantities of pork and ground beef. Our trips to the supermarket have become more frequent as we abruptly run out of essentials such as milk, bread and eggs. Voices carry; and I am sure he can hear everything as he stands with his curved back to us, in defense against her tactless words.
The odor of onions permeates the whole house. Upstairs and down. He stands quietly stirring, adding broth, passively churning the wooden spoon as he blends the ingredients as if it were a magical brew. In a trans, every now and then he brings the spoon to his lips and has a taste, smacking his tongue against his pallet in satisfaction.
Soon he will be sitting down at the table, greedily thrusting the boiling stew in spoonful in to his mouth. Impatient, he will make unintentional whistling sounds with his cheeks in an effort to cool the food while simultaneously taking bites of rye bread. On either side of him, he will lay out the additional servings of salad followed by tea with a danish waiting to be consumed.
He is always hungry.
Rimma Kranet is a Russian-American fiction writer with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from University of California Los Angeles. Her short fiction has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Construction Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Change Seven Magazine and Club Plum. She resides between Florence, Italy and Los Angeles, California.