City of Thieves
My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen. I don't remember anyone telling meit was something I always seemed to know, the way I knew the Yankees wore pinstripes for home games and gray for the road. But I wasn't born with the knowledge. Who told me? Not my father, who never shared secrets, or my mother, who shied away from mentioning the unpleasant, all things bloody, cancerous, or deformed. Not my grandmother, who knew every folktale from the old countrymost of them gruesome; children devoured by wolves and beheaded by witchesbut never spoke about the war in my hearing. And certainly not my grandfather himself, the smiling watchman of my earliest memories, the quiet, black-eyed, slender man who held my hand as we crossed the avenues, who sat on a park bench reading his Russian newspaper while I chased pigeons and harassed sugar ants with broken twigs.
I grew up two blocks from my grandparents and saw them nearly every day. They had their own small insurance company, working out of their railroad apartment in Bay Ridge, catering primarily to other Russian immigrants. My grandmother was always on the phone, selling. No one could resist her. She charmed them or she frightened them, and either way, they bought. My grandfather manned the desk, doing all the paperwork. When I was small, I would sit on his lap, staring at the stump of his left index finger, rounded and smooth, the top two knuckles so cleanly severed it seemed he'd been born without them. If it was summer and the Yankees were playing, a radio (after his seventieth birthday, a color television my dad bought him) broadcast the game. He never lost his accent, he never voted in an election or listened to American music, but he became a devout Yankees fan.
In the late nineties, an insurance conglomerate made an offer for my grandparents' company. It was, according to everyone, a fair offer, so my grandmother asked them to double it. There must have been a good deal of haggling, but I could have told the conglomerate that haggling with my grandmother was a waste of time. In the end they gave her what she wanted and my grandparents, following tradition, sold their apartment and moved to Florida.
They bought a small house on the Gulf Coast, a flat-roofed masterpiece built in 1949 by an architect who would have become famous if he hadn't drowned the same year. Stark and majestic in steel and poured concrete, sitting on a solitary bluff overlooking the Gulf, it is not the house you'd imagine for a retired couple, but they didn't move south to wither in the sun and die. Most days my grandfather sits at his computer, playing chess online with old friends. My grandmother, bored by inactivity within weeks of the move, created a job for herself at a commuter college in Sarasota, teaching Russian literature to tanned students who seem (based on my one classroom visit) constantly alarmed by her profanity, her heavy sarcasm, and her word-perfect memory of Pushkin's verse.
Every night my grandparents eat dinner on the deck of their house, looking out over the dark waters toward Mexico. They sleep with the windows open, the moths battering their wings against the mesh screens. Unlike the other retirees I've met in Florida, they're not worried about crime. The front door is usually unlocked and there is no alarm system. They don't wear their seat belts in the car; they don't wear suntan lotion in the sun. They have decided nothing can kill them but God himself, and they don't even believe in him.
I live in Los Angeles and write screenplays about mutant superheroes. Two years ago I was asked to write an autobiographical essay for a screenwriting magazine, and midway through I realized I had led an intensely dull life. Not that I'm complaining. Even if the summary of my existence makes boring readingschool, college, odd jobs, graduate school, odd jobs, more graduate school, mutant superheroesI've had a good time existing. But as I struggled through the essay I decided I didn't want to write about my life, not even for five hundred words. I wanted to write about Leningrad.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from City of Thieves. Copyright © David Benioff, 2008.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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