Grow or Sell

 

Grow or Sell

By Scott Nadelson

 

When his stepson asked for help with a school project, Paul Haberman agreed without hesitation. It was early May of 1991, ten years after Paul had joined the family, and he took the request as affirmation of his importance in Kyle’s life, of the trust that had built between them over that time. “Glad to,” he said, not waiting to hear what the project entailed, and experienced such a flood of gratitude that he nearly thanked Kyle for asking. Kyle, for his part, only nodded.
 
If Paul had thought about it for a moment first, wariness might have tempered his enthusiasm. Kyle was a senior in high school with a solid B average, which to Paul meant his teachers didn’t take grades seriously. From time to time he’d glance at Kyle’s papers and homework assignments, the best of which were full of spelling errors, meandering sentences, unfinished thoughts and red ink. The worst were simply illegible. How he managed to pass any of his classes, much less to meet the requirements for graduation, Paul had no idea, except to believe that failing marks were reserved only for those students who didn’t turn in any work at all.
 
To everyone’s surprise, though, Kyle had actually studied for the SATs, and, a few weeks earlier, he’d received an acceptance letter from Rutgers, the only school to which he’d applied on time. Since the letter had arrived, he’d hardly picked up a school book, instead heading out every evening in the car Paul and Cynthia had bought him for his seventeenth birthday, a used Volkswagen Rabbit, silver, with a black stripe the previous owner had hand-painted down the side.
 
“It’s a chick car,” Kyle had said when Paul first brought it home from the lot. “Why can’t I get a pickup truck?”
 
Soon enough, though, he began rolling it through the car wash every week, changing its oil after every five hundred miles, throwing a fit when Paul, clearing the driveway following a light snowfall, accidentally nicked its passenger door with the corner of his shovel.
 
Where he drove after dinner neither Cynthia nor Paul knew. He had a part-time job as a bagger at a supermarket but kept his hours to Saturday and Sunday afternoons. “Do you have a girlfriend?” they asked, and Kyle only shrugged and said, “I get some sometimes.” Paul would have liked to probe further, but as long as he was home before his curfew — ten o’clock on weekdays, midnight on weekends — Cynthia insisted they allow him his privacy. He usually pulled into the driveway with forty-five seconds to spare.
 
“In five months he’ll be gone, and we won’t have any idea what he’s up to,” she said. “It’s time to start getting used to it.”
 
“And if, in the meantime, he flunks his classes and doesn’t graduate?” Paul asked.
 
“Then he’ll learn something about independence. And the consequences of fucking around.”
 
Unlike most teenagers Paul knew — and unlike himself at the same age — Kyle wasn’t the sullen, angry type, but, rather, dopey and remote, always snickering at some private thought  or trying to make jokes out of things that weren’t funny. Paul would sometimes forget to be careful after putting a fresh blade in his safety razor, and when he came downstairs with a red mark on his Adam’s apple, Kyle would say, “Trying to off yourself again?” Or Paul would come home from a difficult day at work, one of his briefs having failed to stop a suit against his firm, and Kyle, catching his look of frustration, would smile sympathetically before asking, “Hemorrhoids acting up?”
 
When he returned from his evening excursions, Kyle would go straight for the refrigerator, tossing a few grapes into his mouth, unwrapping a block of cheddar and taking a nip from the corner, tipping the orange juice carton to his lips. If he noticed Paul watching, he didn’t let on, which gave Paul the opportunity to assess his appearance. Was his hair messier than when he’d left? His clothes more rumpled? Paul tried to get a glimpse of his eyes and a whiff of his breath — if he was driving the Rabbit after drinking, surely Cynthia would have to ask questions then — but he never caught anything more than Kyle’s ordinary look of glazed indifference and a smell somewhere between body odor and the fresh mud tracked in on his shoes.
 
“You’ll burn out the motor if you keep the door open,” he said.
 
“C’est la vie,” Kyle replied.
 
“A new fridge isn’t cheap. Say goodbye to your paycheck for the next three months.”
 
“Que sera sera,” Kyle said.
 
“Have a nice time tonight? Anything interesting going on?”
 
“Murder and mayhem,” Kyle said. “Mysteries and illuminations. Sex, drugs  and rock and roll.”
 
“Appreciate it while you can,” Paul said. But Kyle’s head was back in the fridge, and Paul couldn’t be sure he’d heard.
 
 
*
 
 
What Paul really wanted to know was whether or not Kyle was conscious of the approaching transition, if the thought of leaving home caused him any turmoil. He paid close attention to the way Kyle acted around his mother, looking for signs of clinginess, and when he saw none, tried to determine whether apathy might be a mask for unspoken fears. When Cynthia tweaked his ear on her way past, Kyle smacked her hand away. Was there more than irritation in the gesture? Could he be making up for the grief he felt, pushing away what would soon be lost?
 
Only with Paul’s ailing cat did Kyle show any affection. Every morning Kyle lifted Franklin from the living room ottoman on which he spent most of his time sleeping, draped him over a shoulder, and scratched his rump with one hand while shoveling cereal into his own mouth with the other. Franklin was eighteen now, with thyroid problems and bad eyesight, and Paul didn’t expect him to live out the year. To his surprise, though, he wasn’t anguished by this expectation as much as resigned to it, as if Franklin’s fate had been sealed long before he’d even come into the cat’s life. In fact, the vet had already suggested, more than once, that they might consider putting Franklin to sleep, given how little he ate, how much weight he’d lost, how much pain it caused him to stand and stretch his paws. But Paul was determined not to take any action until Kyle was gone. Wasn’t it hard enough that Kyle had to say goodbye to everything he knew, to ready himself for a brand new life?
 
Yes, he was only going an hour away, and at least two dozen kids from his high school would accompany him. But unlike his sister, Joy, who, to Paul’s astonishment had transformed from girl to full-blown woman during high school, Kyle seemed hardly to have matured at all. True, after being undersized his entire childhood, he’d shot up more than a foot over the past four years, giving him three inches on Paul, but his face was still a little boy’s, round and hairless, cheeks always the slightest bit flushed. It didn’t help that he had his hair buzz-cut every month and wore almost nothing but sports jerseys or T-shirts with the logos of his favorite teams: the Jets in the fall, Knicks and Rangers through the winter, and, as if to punish Paul for his loyalties, the Yankees all spring and summer.
 
Even if he’d managed to keep his grades up, Kyle didn’t look like a kid ready for college, and for this Paul suffered on his behalf. He remembered too well his own last months in Brooklyn before heading upstate, the hours he’d spend looking out the windows of his parents’ apartment trying to memorize details of the streets below. For weeks stomach aches had tormented him, and, in school, flashes of panic made him gasp for air. Once, so distraught at the idea of going away, he forgot to get off the subway at his usual stop and ended up riding to Sheepshead Bay. When he realized his mistake, he stumbled out of the train onto the platform, so confused by his surroundings — trees with fresh leaves, seagulls turning circles over trash bins, the smell of salt and rot — that, for a moment, he imagined he’d already left home, had taken the trip he’d been dreading for months and had arrived at his destination, though he knew Ithaca wasn’t anywhere near the ocean. He didn’t believe he was there for college, in any case, but, rather, for some unknown journey, fraught with obstacles and complicated trials that would take him farther and farther from the only life he’d known.
 
To make things worse, Paul’s mother had looked as stricken as he did the last few weeks before his departure, if not more so, retreating to bed for most of every day. One night, late, she woke him with loud sobs and a cry through the thin wall separating their bedrooms: “My baby!” The next morning she was up early, singing to herself, cutting bread for breakfast, frying eggs and onions. “I don’t want you to forget where you came from,” she said, placing a full plate in front of him. All month her meals had grown increasingly extravagant, which perhaps had contributed to Paul’s stomach troubles. Regina, two years younger, asked if she’d also get eggs every morning before heading off to college. “Aren’t I your baby too?” she’d asked, with a smirk not so different, now that Paul thought about it, than the one Kyle turned on him from the refrigerator. His mother, red-eyed and exhausted, replied only, “You going away? I should be so lucky, I’d cook you an elephant.”
 
His father had taken a different approach, trying to calm Paul’s nerves by comparing his upcoming move to the one his grandfather, Itzik Haberman, had taken in 1905, leaving his town in White Russia after a pogrom left two uncles and a cousin dead. He was no older than Paul, his father reminded him, and he rode trains by himself from Minsk to Hamburg, where he boarded a ship carrying a bundle of clothes held together with frayed twine. “What you’re doing, it’s nothing,” Paul’s father had said. “You want to feel sorry for yourself, go to college in Bombay.”
 
Now, in the kitchen, Paul gestured for Kyle to have a seat beside him. Instead Kyle stood across the counter, still holding the juice carton. His boyishness had one advantage. Unlike Joy, and Paul, too, he’d never struggled with acne. His face was as free of blemishes as it was of stubble. The buzz-cut made him look less military than pre-pubescent, the border of dark hair slicing a perfect curve across his forehead. Today’s Yankees shirt had the number 23 interrupting the pinstripes on his chest. It was at least two sizes too big, the shoulder seams falling halfway down his upper arm, the hem hanging to his thighs.
 
“Keeping up with your schoolwork?” Paul asked. “You know, just because you got into college doesn’t mean you’re finished here yet.”
 
Kyle took another gulp of juice.
 
 “If there’s anything you want to talk about,” Paul went on. “Maybe something you don’t want to say to your mother . . .”
 
Kyle looked at him closely now, smirk blooming into full grin, and waited for him to go on. The words cost Paul significant effort, and at first he was proud of himself for making it. But sensing the mockery in Kyle’s gaze, he found himself growing bitter. His own father had never offered him anything so straightforward and comforting. He hadn’t even tried. “It’s not easy,” he went on, “getting ready to turn your whole life upside down, leave your home, your mom, your cat and, and — ”
 
Before he could name himself among those things the boy would miss when he left, Kyle laughed — loudly. Then he tilted the juice carton all the way up, held it against his mouth for a good ten seconds, and tossed the empty carton into the sink. “This fucking place?” he said. “I’ve been ready to blow out of here since I was fourteen.”
 
“That belongs in the garbage,” Paul responded.
 
“Que sera la vie,” Kyle answered and sauntered first to the living room, where he scratched Franklin’s rigid ear, and then to the stairs. On the back of his shirt, the name “Mattingly” printed across Yankees pinstripes confronted Paul like an insult.
 
He didn’t want to believe Kyle really cared so little about the life he’d be abandoning at the end of summer. But he also remembered his own first drive to Ithaca, his mother resting her head against the passenger window, his father white-knuckled on every curve. The farther they got from the city, the higher they rose into the misty hills above the Finger Lakes, the deeper Paul descended into a mysterious trance, the sound of the radio growing distant, the trees outside the borrowed car closing in, his outer layers going still, it seemed, so that whatever new version of him would emerge could make its way to the surface. By the time they arrived, he was so eager to get his trunk unpacked that he nearly forgot to hug his parents goodbye. More than a week passed before he thought to call home.
 
Now he wondered if, after dropping him off, they’d ever hear from Kyle again.
 
 
*
 
 
It was only a few days after this conversation, however, that Kyle came to him about the project — a sign, Paul thought, that he was indeed having some doubts, feeling the tug of nostalgia. Wanting to take advantage of that moment was part of what made him sign on before Kyle described what sort of help he needed.
 
The assignment, the culminating project of American History — not the Advanced Placement version Joy had taken, or even an honors section — tasked Kyle with researching family background, conducting interviews and combing archives which would serve as the basis for an essay defining his roots. The title was supposed to be something like, “How I Became an American.” The whole thing struck Paul as juvenile, appropriate for a kid in seventh grade, maybe, not one getting ready to begin his adult life.
 
“Dad’s away all month, so I can’t write about the Demskys,” Kyle said. “And I’m tired of listening to Grandpa Mitzel’s stories. So I guess I better do your family.”
 
This was the closest Kyle had ever come to acknowledging that they might indeed consider themselves related, even if they didn’t share a genetic line. So Paul refrained from saying what he thought, which was that the idea didn’t seem quite consistent with the spirit of the assignment. How, after all, could Kyle claim Paul’s roots as his own? Instead Paul took a seat on the couch, ready for an interrogation. But Kyle only looked at him strangely, one eyebrow dipping, the curved border of hair shifting down. “It’s not due for a month,” he said, and then went out the back door. The Rabbit’s little engine revved and puttered down the street.
 
It was another week before he asked Paul any questions, and though, during the intervening time, Paul had been preparing to answer, going over his father’s stories in his mind, when the moment came, he found he had less to say than he realized. The trouble was he had only his father’s stories and nothing else. And because his father, dead three years, had forced them on him when he wasn’t in the mood, he hadn’t listened very closely. He didn’t know the name of his grandfather’s town in White Russia, nor the first names of his grandfather’s parents or the uncles and cousin killed in the pogrom. He didn’t know the name of the ship his grandfather had boarded in Hamburg. His grandfather had died before Paul turned eleven, and, until then, it was always a given that he would never speak a word about the place he’d left behind. What Paul could remember of him was mostly a hoarse voice and persistent cough  and the dreamy smile he wore while crunching hard candies between half-rotted teeth. He wished Kyle were interested in things he knew — about his five paternal uncles, for example, who’d given his father such a hard time about missing their Thursday bowling night for his honeymoon that he stayed at the alley on the night of Paul’s birth, which happened, he always claimed, at the exact moment he spared on a dime store split. Weren’t those the roots that mattered?
 
“That’s a good question,” he said whenever Kyle asked one he couldn’t answer. “We could see if my mother knows. Probably not a good idea, though. She hates being reminded of the past. Maybe Aunt Regina.” Kyle scribbled in his notebook with a pencil, looking not so much  disappointed as acquiescent, as if he’d expected little and gotten even less. “Let’s call Regina now,” Paul said. “I’m sure she’d love to talk to you.” But, of course, no one picked up at Regina’s number. She might have been traveling with one of the boyfriends who revolved in and out of her life too quickly for Paul to remember their names. Or she might just as likely have been in the apartment, ignoring him. Since getting her first answering machine she never went near a ringing phone.
 
“It’s important,” he said in his message, after listening to Regina’s long recorded message, in which she expressed how much she appreciated the call, how eager she’d be to get back to him as soon as she had a chance. “Kyle needs your help.” If he was lucky, she’d call back within the month.
 
“I got to go to the library,” Kyle said, and off he and the Rabbit went.
 
Paul didn’t hear any more about the project for five days, during which time he forced himself to keep from asking about it. Kyle was back to his usual routine of disappearing after dinner and returning seconds before his curfew, and Paul worried that he’d given up on the project altogether. And now, if he flunked his history class and didn’t graduate, Paul would be at least partly responsible. He wondered, briefly, whether there was a part of him that wanted it this way, to keep Kyle close while he could. But then, looking for a bedtime snack, he pulled out the block of cheddar with teeth marks in the corner. “The sooner he gets his own fridge the better,” he’d said to Cynthia.
 
When Kyle finally brought up the project again, he did so casually, halfway through dinner. “I found out what the name Haberman means,” he said through a mouthful of potatoes.
 
“Let me guess,” Cynthia said. “Man of iron. No, no. Little man, big heart.”
 
Paul wanted to tell her to be quiet so he could hear what the kid had to say. But Kyle was taking his time now, washing the potatoes down with a leisurely swig of water. Even when he put his glass down he seemed in no hurry to speak. “Well?” Paul asked, finally, when it seemed he wouldn’t go on.
 
“One who grows or sells oats.”
 
Cynthia laughed — mean-spiritedly, Paul thought. “That explains why you’re so handy in the yard,” she said.
 
It had never occurred to Paul to wonder about the name, but now he wished it were more distinguished, something that suggested his family’s unique qualities, though what those were he couldn’t have said. He didn’t even like oatmeal.
 
“So,” Kyle said. “Do you grow or sell?”
 
This time Cynthia snorted and looked away. Kyle smirked. What was funny about oats? “Who, me?” Paul asked.
 
“Your, you know . . . your people. Ancestors.”
 
“Good question,” Paul said. “I’ll have to look into it.”
 
Kyle pulled a Yankees cap over his buzz-cut, spent a few minutes petting the cat, and drifted out. And for some reason Paul had the feeling that this was the night he’d miss his curfew. Only by a few minutes. Then, tomorrow, a few minutes more. By the end of the week he’d be home only in time to raid the fridge for breakfast.
 
After he’d cleared the dishes, Cynthia, eyes flashing mischief, kissed him on the neck and pulled him toward the stairs. “Come on, Farmer Haberman. Time to sow some oats.”
 
 
*
 
 
“Wasn’t Hamburg,” Kyle said two evenings later, without preamble, while cutting into a chicken breast. He pronounced the name like the sandwich, with the last syllable cut off. “Your grandfather. He left from Rotterdam, on a ship called The Patricia.”
 
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul said, harshly, with a sting of anger he didn’t understand. Only afterward, catching a glance from Cynthia, did he check himself, force a smile, and add, “Where did you get that idea?”
 
“Ellis Island,” Kyle said. “At the library. They hooked me up with the number for the archives.”
 
“They must have made a mistake,” Paul said. “Dad — your Papi — he always said Hamburg. Sounds like homburg — you know, the hat — only with an a.”
 
“Rotterdam, Hamburg, what’s the difference?” Cynthia asked.
 
“There must be another Itzik Haberman,” Paul said.
 
Kyle chewed, swallowed and began cutting a new bite before answering. Paul expected him to flaunt his usual smirk, the one that suggested everything and everyone was a joke to him, none of it worth his time. Go ahead, Paul thought, and I’ll wipe it off with the back of my hand. The thought surprised him less than the accompanying feeling, a pleasantly righteous fury. But Kyle showed him a straight face, composed if not earnest, and said, “Not one who got here in 1906.”
 
“Oh-five,” Paul said.
 
“He might have left in oh-five, but he landed on January 14, oh-six.”
 
“Maybe,” Paul said.
 
“Place of origin, Slutsk,” Kyle said.
 
Once again Cynthia laughed a cruel laugh. “That explains Regina.”
 
But this time Kyle didn’t join in. For a kid who, over the last four years, had spent more hours watching comedy acts on cable than doing homework, he was oddly serious now, grave even, giving Paul a hard stare, challenging him to argue. If he wasn’t trying to make fun of him, what was he doing? Was this some form of bonding after all?
 
“With a k,” he said, and then repeated the name, enunciating the last letter. “Slutsk.”
 
Why did Paul have such a hard time staring back? Instead he glanced at his severed chicken breast, a few stray strings of meat looped in the juice of his green beans. If he could have stopped Kyle from going on, he would have. But he had no idea how.
 
“A town of twenty-thousand at the turn of the century. Thirty miles south of Minsk.”
 
“Sounds about right.”
 
“Major center of Jewish life at the time.”
 
“A great place, except for the pogroms.”
 
“There weren’t any pogroms in Slutsk. Not before World War II,” Kyle said.
 
“Are you calling my grandfather a liar?” Paul asked, but now there was little force behind the words. Anger seemed a distant emotion. Had he really imagined smacking Kyle’s grinning face only moments ago?
 
Kyle shrugged. “There was one in Gomel. Another in Mogilev. But those were pretty far away.”
 
“And his uncles? His cousin?”

Another shrug. “No records on them.”
 
Paul had other questions, but he kept them to himself. Why else would his grandfather have left his family, gone off by himself across the ocean to a country where he didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language? Why in the world would you do that, unless you were afraid for your life?
 
Kyle went back to eating. Cynthia said, “That’s impressive research, kiddo. Good preparation for next year.”
 
“I want to see your sources,” Paul said.
 
“It’s a good thing he did leave,” Kyle said, after wiping his mouth with a napkin and shoving his plate away. “‘Would have been screwed otherwise.” Without another word, he pushed his chair back and stood. “I’m out,” he said, and headed for the door.
 
Paul had eaten less than half his dinner, but when he brought his fork to his mouth, the chicken smelled gamey — undercooked, maybe? — and he set it down. “Wait a minute,” he called. “Screwed how?”
 
Kyle stomped into his sneakers. “Slutsk Affair,” he said. The door shut behind him.
 
 
*
 
 
On the weekend he could have looked it up. He had books to drop off at the library, and, before searching for new ones, he could have stopped at the card catalogue. And if he didn’t find what he needed at the township branch, he could have gone to the larger county one on Hanover Avenue and asked a librarian for help. But instead he did the crossword and watched golf on TV and took a walk with Cynthia  through their neighborhood and up to the new development under construction at the top of the ridge, where a few skeletal frames stood against yards of blasted granite and bare earth, new curbs, white as bones, bulldozer and backhoe slumped like extinct creatures beside holes they’d dug in which to bury themselves.
 
Early the next week, coming home late from work, Paul spotted the Rabbit leaving the driveway. He didn’t think at all before following, passing the house without touching the brake, as if he’d never intended to stop there. It was dark enough that if Kyle glanced in his rearview mirror, he wouldn’t have been able to make out Paul’s car, only a pair of headlights half a block away. Luckily for Paul, Kyle cared too much about his recent wax job to drive like most teenagers,  who seemed to think a gas pedal worked only if pressed all the way to the floor, and who took every turn as if flipping upside down in a ditch were something they’d always wanted to try. Instead Kyle kept an easy pace, turning onto Lenape Road and then onto Skyline, heading around the side of the ridge in a direction Paul never drove. They passed the last of the new developments and then a chain-link fence that surrounded what had once been an open reservoir and was now a muddy depression full of weeds. And here the road changed names, from Skyline to Okenaki, fresh tar giving way to crumbling pavement. Ahead, dense woods, the last in the county, as far as Paul knew, crowded the south slope of Union Knoll. A spiny shadow rose over the tops of birch and oak, and it took him a moment to recognize it as an abandoned fire tower, left over from days when the entire ridge had been a wilderness ready to ignite.
 
There were no street lamps here, only the red of Kyle’s rear lights. And now, if Kyle glanced behind, he’d surely realize Paul was following. But Paul had the feeling that Kyle knew, already, that he was leading rather than being tailed. On the right, an old wooden sign came into view, letters etched into two silvered boards, only a few flakes of varnish remaining.
 
COMANCHE BOWMAN
 
ARCHERY RANGE AND CAMPGROUND
 
It was at least fifty years old, hanging from rusted hooks, and beside it was a gap in the trees that must have once been a driveway. The place was a relic from the time of Paul’s childhood, though of course he’d never been anywhere near here then. His only outdoor excursions as a boy were in a cornfield adjacent to a Catskills resort, where his parents had played canasta under poolside umbrellas. He’d once gotten so lost among the stalks he’d panicked and run a mile and a half in the wrong direction, finally emerging onto the highway and slogging back along the shoulder, so filthy and spent by the time he reached his room, that, looking at his reflection in the mirror, he imagined he’d been gone for days.
 
It was hard to believe the ridge had been occupied fifty years ago, the road so overgrown now it was nearly impassable. Who’d been here then? Fathers and sons shooting arrows? Teenagers wrestling each other out of clothes and steaming up canvas tents? Not far past the sign, the pavement turned to gravel, and this, too, seemed decades old, so uneven that Paul had to hold his mouth open to keep his teeth from clattering. And yet the Rabbit kept its steady pace, its tail lights growing more distant as Paul slowed to maneuver around fallen branches and rocks the size of skulls.
 
Soon the road narrowed. Leaves and brush scraped against his passenger door, and huge tree roots rocked the car from side to side. The Rabbit disappeared around a curve. If there was a moon out, the canopy overhead blocked it. The only light came from the front of Paul’s car, reflecting here and there on the dusty surface of week-old puddles. If he kept going he might get stuck in a bog. Or else he might emerge from the woods in a spot he didn’t recognize, a place unconnected to the one from which he’d set out.
 
When another branch crossed his path, this one slender enough for him to roll over, he pulled to a stop. Whatever was out there, waiting for Kyle, he wouldn’t see. It took him ten minutes, working the car back and forth across gravel and weeds, to turn around and make his way out.
 
 
*
 
 
He had no intention of bringing up the project again. As far as he was concerned, from now on Kyle could keep all his discoveries to himself. And for a week he did. But then one evening he lingered after dinner, not heading straight to the back door as usual. He hovered in the kitchen with Franklin draped over his shoulder, waiting until Paul had finished loading the dishwasher before handing him a sheet of paper.
 
“I know you think I’m an idiot,” he said, and Paul was so surprised that he didn’t answer right away, as he knew he should. The appropriate words came to mind quickly enough: Of course I don’t, or, Whatever gave you that impression? But he couldn’t manage to get them out. Instead he glanced at his cat, translucent eyelids and limp paws, and then at the paper, guessing it was an outline for the essay — a sketchy one at best — and, before taking a close look, he reached for the pen in his shirt pocket, ready to make corrections.
 
But there were no Roman numerals, no titles or topics or subheadings. Nothing but a list, with three columns. Name, age, place. The first names varied, but all the last names were the same: Riva Haberman, 31, Slutsk; Aron Haberman, 42, Slutsk; Liza Haberman, 7, Slutsk; Sofia Haberman, 3, Slutsk.
 
He stood at the sink staring at the paper long enough for Cynthia to ask what was on it. But he didn’t answer. “Totally fucked up,” Kyle said. “One of the worst massacres of the war. Four thousand people in two days. Rounded them up and shot them in the street.”
 
The page was full. Maybe thirty, thirty-five Habermans in all. Fanya, 19; Sonechka, 4; Nekhama, 28; Yessel, 65. His grandfather had never mentioned the fate of the family who’d stayed put. Neither had Paul’s father, nor any of his uncles. They’d purposely cut all ties, leaving specific suffering to others. They’d contributed to funds for displaced persons, nodded their somber justification when Eichmann went to the gallows. His immediate family reserved tears for the day the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn. And Paul had been perfectly happy to go on living without any thought of the past he’d had no part of. His roots were shallow, no more than a few inches into soil. No wonder the slightest tug made him tilt.
 
“I contacted Yad Vashem,” Kyle said. “This is what they sent.”
 
Paul handed the paper to Cynthia. She read it and covered her mouth with a hand. “Oh, Paul,” she said, and her eyes watered before he could turn away.
 
Kyle stood at the edge of the kitchen, scratching Franklin just above the tail, eyeing Paul. What did the boy want? Did he think these names and numbers were supposed to mean something? Until a week ago, Paul had never heard of Slutsk. As far as he knew, it was an invented place, as unreal to him as Crown Heights must have been to Kyle. But Crown Heights was the place Paul had left, and there no one had been rounded up and shot in the street. Few had died of anything more violent than a heart attack or a slip from a tenth-floor fire-escape. Why should Cynthia cry as she handed the paper back? Why should everyone look so serious, so full of pity? He read more names: Slava, 26; Grish, 82; Dora, 10. Who were these people to him? Who was Kyle, for that matter?
 
“It’s better to know, right?” Kyle said, his expression different from any Paul had seen on his face before, no hint of amusement or ridicule. It made him look older somehow, his features brittle with doubt. Before he could go on, Paul waved a hand in the direction of the door.
 
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
 
Franklin’s tail flicked back and forth in sudden irritation, and Paul had the uncomfortable feeling that the cat had figured out what was in store for itself once Kyle went away. Before Kyle made a move, Paul left the kitchen. He dropped into his chair in the living room, picked up the crossword and studied a pair of clues: 81 Across — Samantha’s daughter; 83 Down — Cacao exporter. He listed off every South American country he could think of, but none fit. And Samantha? Was she a biblical figure he’d forgotten from tedious Hebrew school afternoons, when he’d paid so little attention to names from the past, thinking only about the handball games waiting for him when he got out? If he recalled correctly, Enoch had begat Methuselah. Who had Samantha begat?
 
He glanced at the paper again. Taube, 39; Geshiel, 64; Baila, 13.
 
The question about Samantha occupied his concentration for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, only at the end of which he realized he’d been chewing his pen. When he pulled it out of his mouth, the plastic was mangled and covered with blue spittle. Bitter ink washed back and forth across his tongue. He looked around for something to spit it into — a tissue, a flowerpot, the gaping fireplace, Franklin’s fur-covered ottoman — and then swallowed.
 
 
*
 
 
At the end of the summer, a few days before the start of freshman orientation, business took Paul unexpectedly to London. So Cynthia brought Kyle to New Brunswick on her own and settled him into his dormitory. “He’s ready,” she reported when Paul returned. “Whether he knows it or not.”
 
Together they cleaned up the mess Kyle had left in his bedroom, and among unreturned library books and magazines — some with Yankees players on their covers, some with nearly naked girls — Paul discovered a paper titled, “My Journey to Being American.” It chronicled three branches of the Demsky family, from the Ukraine to the Bronx, citing interviews and records that were obviously made up. There was no mention of Paul or Slutsk or the people Itzik Haberman had deserted. The paper was full of spelling errors, meandering sentences, unfinished thoughts, and red ink. The teacher had given it a B+.
 
It went into the trash with everything else. A week later, Paul called the vet to make arrangements.

         

 
 
 
Copyright © Scott Nadelson 2015
 
Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath (2011), and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress (2013). Winner of an Oregon Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, he teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. His episodic novel, Between You and Me, which includes “Grow or Sell,” is forthcoming from Engine Books in November 2015.


 

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