(Excerpt from a Novel)
By David Bezmozgis
Tankilevich rang the bell to be admitted into the Hesed and waited for some time for a response. He rang again and then felt, through the door, the reverberations of someone’s steps striding toward him. A turn of the bolt and Nina Semonovna was there. A handsome Jewish woman in her fifties, of the Portuguese type, olive-skinned, full-featured, and without a shred of credulity, habituated to a deceitful, grasping world where everyone is suspect. Tankilevich was no exception.
Dispensing with Hello she said, Come in.
He followed her through the empty reception area where the guard usually sat. Then through the narrow corridor, dim because she had not bothered to turn on the lights. Along the walls were posted the displays. There was always something. Tankilevich remembered one that featured Jewish Nobel laureates—Einstein, Bohr, Pasternak, and so on—complete with their likenesses and short biographies. Now it was local Jewish war heroes: soldiers, sailors, and partisans. Affixed to the walls were dozens of photographs; some depicted the fighters in their youth, some in their later years. They passed the doors to the lecture room, the doors to the library, the doors to the game room. At the end of the corridor, Nina Semonovna indicated a padded vinyl chair situated in front of the door to the administrative offices.
—Wait here, please, she said morosely, I have another client. Tankilevich did as he was told. He sat in the dim corridor and, almost in spite of himself, caught strains of the dispute that resounded behind the closed door: Nina Semonovna’s firm, even tone and another, shriller female voice. Nina Semonovna’s words were difficult to distinguish but, Tankilevich could make out some of the other woman’s phrases at the highest pitch: On whose authority? . . . How dare you? . . . Who said so? . . . I am entitled!
After this appetizer, Tankilevich thought, what stomach for the main course?
There followed a considerable period of silence broken by one final proclamation and the harsh scraping of chair legs. Then the door flew open and a woman barged furiously out. She was about the same age as Nina Semonovna, stout and heavy-bosomed. She passed him with hardly a glance, only a flash of gold earrings and a swirl of her long skirt. She stamped her heels on the linoleum and Tankilevich felt shudders through the base of his chair. There was also the echo, like cannonade. Meanwhile, Nina Semonovna filled the doorway and observed laconically the woman’s departure.
—If you would be so kind as to close the door behind you, she called after her.
She waited calmly for the sound of the slamming door and then turned her attention to Tankilevich.
—Now, Nina Semonovna said, what can I do for you? Tankilevich followed her into the office and took the seat she
indicated. He watched her round her desk.
—If once, only once, someone would ask for a meeting to express their gratitude, Nina Semonovna said as she sat down across from Tankilevich. Yes? If someone was so overcome with gratitude for what we do here that he simply had to come in and say so. That would be something.
Tankilevich could think of no satisfactory response. Nor did he believe that one was expected of him.
Nina Semonovna gazed at him with bemusement.
—Of course, if one wishes to hear Thank you, one should seek another line of work.
Once more, Tankilevich could think of no response short of nodding his head.
—You don’t happen to know that woman? Nina Semonovna asked.
—I don’t, Tankilevich replied honestly. He was certain he’d never seen her before.
—She owns two shops, she and her husband. Also a small apartment building. Everyone knows this. But she comes here outraged that I have denied her claim for support. What is my explanation? My explanation, naturally, is that I am not going to be taken for a fool. She insists she is destitute. She owns nothing. Preposterous to accuse her of owning shops and a building. Her daughter owns these. All the documents are in the daughter’s name. In case I doubt it, she waves the documents. So on what grounds and by what authority am I denying her claim? On what grounds and by what authority? On the grounds of conscience and by the authority of common decency. And you saw the result.
Nina Semonovna felt around the tabletop for her pack of cigarettes. Nimbly, she pulled one from the pack and lit it. She held the cigarette in her hand and allowed a tendril of smoke to curl past her eyes.
—Now I can look forward to a complaint from this person to the Odessa Hesed. And, I assure you, I do look forward to it. The shame of it is that for a person like her, there are no consequences. She will make her outrageous demands, and I—and other people who have far more important things to do—will have no choice but to suffer them. And in the end she will get what she wants. Because even though everyone knows she’s a liar, on paper she has covered her fat arse. It’s because of behavior like this that people detest Jews. Because of this miserable shrewdness and greed. I won’t say it doesn’t exist. In my position, I see my share. But for every one like her, there are twenty others who honestly don’t have two kopeks to rub together. And when this woman takes money to which she has absolutely no right, when she cheats and steals, it’s not from me that she steals, but from them. So even if there’s nothing I can do to stop her, I can at least take some pleasure in blackening her days. I don’t fool myself into thinking that this will cause her to reconsider or repent—with such people, one learns not to expect moral transformations—but it will send the message that when you come into this office with the intention to deceive, you will not be able to simply waltz in and out, but you will take it on the head!
Nina Semonovna put her cigarette to her lips and inhaled. If the point of her monologue had been to discourage him, Tankilevich thought, she had succeeded. Nevertheless, he didn’t have a choice. He’d come with a realistic appraisal of his prospects. Nina Semonovna had done nothing but confirm what he had already suspected. But so? His part was to ask. And her part, then, was to deny. If nothing else, at least he, unlike the woman, was not engaged in fraud. He wasn’t concealing anything. Between him and Nina Semonovna, everything was out in the open. At once out in the open and closely guarded. That was what he believed—though this display of hers, the zeal with which she revealed to him the details of another client’s case, raised apprehensions. Here he was, proposing to go back on his word, but could it be that she had long since gone back on hers? Then again, in all these years he had seen nothing to suggest that she had misled him. He would have sensed it if people knew the truth about his past. It was not the kind of information someone could possess and dismiss. Certainly not Jews. Certainly not Jews like her brother and the others at the synagogue. Which led him to believe that Nina Semonovna had, at least in his case, remained discreet.
As Tankilevich girded himself to speak, Nina Semonovna took another pull on her cigarette and said, But you didn’t come to hear me complain.
—I appreciate your difficulties, Tankilevich said, and do not wish to add to them. But I have come to talk about the synagogue.
—Yes, the synagogue, Nina Semonovna said grimly.
—You probably know that Isidor Feldman died.
—A good person, Nina Semonovna said. One of the last with roots in the farming colonies. I meant to go to the funeral, but it was one thing after another.
—Yes, a good person, Tankilevich said. A loss to the community, and also to the synagogue. He came regularly. Without him there are only five men left.
—This is our predicament. Our people go and we can’t replace them. But I don’t suppose you have come here with a solution?
—I regret—I regret sincerely—that I have not, Tankilevich said and felt the heat of desperation rise on his skin. He imagined Nina Semonovna could detect it from where she sat.
—If you regret, then you are sitting in the right place. The place of regret. This is where everyone comes with their regrets. Regrets, of course, that are really requests. Or am I mistaken?
Tankilevich held a chastened silence.
—So let’s get to it, then, Nina Semonovna said. What do you want?
—It isn’t a matter of what I want, Tankilevich said. What I want and what, unfortunately, I am able to do are two different things.
Nina Semonovna crossed her hands on the desktop and gazed bitterly at Tankilevich.
—It is a Saturday, Mr. Tankilevich. I have just been yelled at by a hideous woman. My patience for games and intrigues is thin.
—Ten years ago, I came to see you for the first time. I wonder if you remember.
—I remember very well. Even with my long and varied experience, it is hard to forget a case like yours.
—So you remember our agreement?
—To the letter.
—I have honored this agreement for ten years. I have not missed so much as a single Saturday.
—Very good. Are you here for my congratulations?
—Nina Semonovna, I think you will agree that ten years is a long time. I was sixty then; I am seventy now.
—And I trust you will soon get to the point.
—Ten years ago, when we made our agreement, there were still enough men for the minyan. But for a long time that hasn’t been so. With me or without me, the number will not reach ten.
The ash had grown at the tip of Nina Semonovna’s cigarette. Without taking her eyes from Tankilevich, she tapped it into a crude ceramic ashtray, a children’s craft project with a purple Star of David painted at its center. Then, implacably and unhurriedly, she brought the remainder of the cigarette to her lips. She released the smoke and continued to regard Tankilevich as if from a predatory height.
—Despite what you might think, Nina Semonovna, it was not easy for me to come here. I have endured for a long time the hardship that our agreement has imposed on me. I have endured it and accepted it as my obligation and my lot. But I am an old man now. My health is not what it once was. My vision is bad. My heart troubles me. I have sciatica that makes sitting for hours on the trolleybus a kind of torture. These trips to and from Yalta are taking their toll on me, Nina Semonovna. A toll both physical and psychological. A toll that, I believe, no longer has a justification.
Nina Semonovna ground her cigarette into the ashtray.
—So we have finally reached the point? You would like to be released from your obligations? On account of the terrible hard ships imposed, yes?
—And what about my part of our agreement? Am I then to be released from that?
Tankilevich eyed Nina Semonovna cautiously.
—You speak of the hardship our agreement imposed on you, but why not ask about the hardship it imposed on me? Do you think it was easy for me to engage in this subterfuge all these years? And to engage in it for the sake of a person like you?
Nina Semonovna leaned forward, her eyes lit with malice. But also with something else. A kind of gladness. He had been mistaken. The appetizer hadn’t robbed her of a stomach for the main course. Quite the contrary. It had whetted her appetite. The appetizer had made her ravenous, eager to devour something. It was likely that, even without the episode with the horrible woman, Nina Semonovna would have denied his request. But after the horrible woman, his fate was sealed. Such was his misfortune.
—You ask if I remember when you first came to this office. When I say I remember, not only do I mean that I remember it now because you have asked me to. When I say I remember, I mean that I have never forgotten. I mean that, from time to time, I still think about you, Mr. Tankilevich. I still think about you and whether I was right or wrong to enter into this arrangement with you. Because I did not like you from the first. I did not like you and I did not trust you. I thought you were an opportunist. That is still my opinion. Because of what you did for the KGB, because of how you conducted yourself in the decades after, because of the circumstances under which you came to my office, I thought you deserved nothing but scorn. Not my indulgence, not my protection, and not a kopek of the Hesed’s money.
—I see, Nina Semonovna, Tankilevich said. And ten years of my faithful attendance at the synagogue has not changed your opinion?
—Why should it? You attended only for the Hesed subsidy. What is there to admire, Mr. Tankilevich? It is batlanus, and you are a batlan. I am not happy that I had to resort to batlanus to help the synagogue, but that is our reality. Hilka complained to me that they did not have enough men and by chance you happened on my doorstep. So I extended my offer. More out of sentiment than sense. Always a mistake. As you have now proved.
—I’m sorry, but how exactly have I proved this? By making a difficult trip from Yalta to Simferopol for ten years, until my health no longer permits it? You think I did all that as part of some fraud? The fraud, Nina Semonovna, was my life until I came to you.
Nina Semonovna leaned back and emitted a throaty, contemptuous laugh. She laughed this way, deliberately, overlong, until the laugh drained to a dark smile.
—Quite a declaration, Mr. Tankilevich. You’ll forgive me if I don’t applaud. But since you put it like this, allow me to say you could have put an end to the so-called fraud of your life at any time simply by walking through this door and declaring : My name is Vladimir Tankilevich. I have reached my pensionable age. I am a Jew, descended from Jews. I was born on such and such a date, in such and such a place. Here are my supporting documents. This is what everybody else does. But this was not what you did. You came here under a shroud of secrecy and asked me to help you conceal your true identity. And in the moment I agreed to that, I became a party to this deception. I compromised myself for you. I could say for the synagogue, but this fine distinction would not count for much in the heat of a scandal. You have thought only about yourself and your situation, but allow me to enlighten you about mine. From the performance you witnessed a few minutes ago, you might have gathered that I am a person who is not without enemies. Can you imagine what that wonderful woman would do if she learned that for ten years I have been secretly helping a person like you? A notorious traitor to the Jewish people? You think she would keep quiet? You think she wouldn’t be writing to Odessa and Moscow and New York to denounce me? Here I am, denying her humble claim, while I am giving money to Vladimir Tankilevich, KGB informant, the man responsible for sending the great Baruch Kotler to the Gulag. How do you think this would be received by my superiors? And by their superiors? By the American Jews in New York whose job it is to raise the money for our sustenance? Do you know how they do this? By appealing to their wealthy brethren who still harbor quiverings for their shtetl roots. By telling them sad tales about our existence. By printing brochures with photographs and touching descriptions of poor, neglected Russian Jews. By staging lavish events for millionaires where famous Jews, like your Baruch Kotler, make speeches to get them to open their wallets. Now, can you imagine what happens if it is revealed that some Nina Semonovna Shreibman, director of the Simferopol Hesed, has, with full and deliberate knowledge, been aiding and abetting the traitor Tankilevich, this disgrace to the Jewish people? That for ten years she has been giving him money—and not only him but also his shiksa wife? That to this end, she has manipulated documents? Are you getting the picture, Mr. Tankilevich? Can you imagine what would happen if this information was to be publicized? Not only what would happen to me. That should be quite clear. But the harm it could do to the larger structure upon which we all rely? Can you imagine how such an embarrassment would look printed in the newspapers? You have no idea how sensitive these American Jewish organizations are. Or how territorial. I have seen them go into fits over far lesser things. There are many organizations and they are all competing for the same dollars. If one group stumbles, believe me, the others are quick to take advantage. And just like that, money that has been painstakingly solicited for the Jews of Ukraine is now diverted to some other, less controversial, cause, like teaching Ethiopian Jews to eat with forks or sending young American Jews to pick tomatoes in the Negev. And all this because I stuck my neck out for you. So while you have been riding the trolleybus, Mr. Tankilevich, this is what has been hanging over my head.
Tankilevich received the speech as if it were a clobbering, and he slumped down accordingly. And yet, he thought: Clobbered, yes, but not beaten! In his life he had known real terrors, real bloodlettings. So this was nothing new. Unpleasant, yes, but it would take more to make him fold. He found his voice.
—Nina Semonovna, I don’t dispute anything you say. But the fact remains: What choice did I have? As Vladimir Tarasov—with this false identity bestowed upon me by the KGB—I could rejoin the community of my people. As this aberration, Vladimir Tarasov, I could attend the synagogue. And as Vladimir Tankilevich, I could not.
—As Vladimir Tarasov, this aberration—as you call it—you could have rejoined your community and attended the synagogue a long time ago. Nothing was stopping you. But you came only when there was money for the taking. And now you wish to have everything: to retain the disguise of Vladimir Tarasov, keep the subsidy, and retreat from your obligations to the community and the synagogue. But, Mr. Tankilevich, hear me well: So long as I sit behind this desk, I will not allow this to happen. If you do not fulfill the terms of our agreement, I will cut you off. Doing so, as you should by now understand, would be a great relief for me. A great relief and no small satisfaction.
With this statement of finality, Nina Semonovna reached again for her pack of cigarettes and, in a flare of punctuation, struck a match.
Tankilevich regarded her across the desk. She looked contented, the cigarette smoking between her fingers.
He remembered Svetlana’s words. Now, then, he thought. So the time had come to go to the farthest extreme.
Stiffly—not without difficulty—he rose from his chair and pushed it from him. Its legs scraped, and the sound shot like a current along his calves and up his back. Gripping the edge of the desk, he lowered himself until the points of his knees met the hard ground. When he felt steady enough, he removed his hands from the desk and let them dangle at his sides. He lifted his eyes to Nina Semonovna, his inquisitor. This was the posture, but it was not enough. More was required. There were also the words.
—I beg of you, Tankilevich said.
Nina Semonovna gazed down at him from her bastion.
—Stand up, Mr. Tankilevich. If you are fit enough to do this, you are fit enough to go to the synagogue.