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s u n da y, j u l y 1 6 , 2 0 0 6
The telephone rang just after five. Unconscionably, the day was already preparing to begin, a dark blue lengthening across the sky. Hadn't thenight only started? Slava's head said so. But in the cobalt square of the window, the sun was looking for a way up, the great towers of the Upper East Side ready for gilding.
Who was misdialing at five o'clock in the morning on Sunday? Slava's landline never rang. Even telemarketers had given up on him, you have to admit an achievement. His family no longer called because he had forbidden it. His studio, miraculously affordable even for a junior employee of a Midtown magazine, rang with echoes, nothing but a futon, a writing desk, a torchiere wrapped in cast-iron vines (forced on him by his grandfather), and a tube television he never turned on. Once in a while, he imagined vanishing into the walls, like a spirit in Poe, and chuckled bitterly.
He thought about getting up, a surprise attack on the day. Sometimes he rose extra-early to smell the air in Carl Schurz Park before the sun turned it into a queasy mixture of garbage, sunscreen, and dog shit. As the refuse trucks tweaked the slow air with their bells, he would stand at the railing, eyes closed, the river still black and menacing from the night, the brine of an old untouchable ocean in his nose. An early start always filled him with the special hope available only before seven or eight, before he got down to the office.
The phone rang again, God bless them. Defeated, he reached over. In truth, he was not ungrateful to be called on. Even if it turned out to be a telemarketer. He would have listened to a question about school bonds, listened gravely.
"Slava," a waterlogged voicehis motherwhispered in Russian. He felt anger, then something less certain. Anger because he had said not to call. The other because generally she obeyed nowadays. "Your grandmother isn't," she said. She burst into tears.
Isn't. Verbiage was missing. In Russian, you didn't need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English, you did. In English, she could still be alive.
"I don't understand," he said. He hadn't spoken to any of them in weeks, if not a month, but in his mind, his grandmother, quiet sufferer of a cirrhosis that had been winning for years, was fixed to her bed in Midwood, as if the way he remembered her was the way she would be until he came to see her again, until he authorized new developments. Something previously well placed dislodged in his stomach.
"They took her in on Friday," his mother said. "We thought it was only hydration again
He stared at the blanket around his feet. It was as frayed and fine as an old shirt. Grandmother had scoured it in the wash how many times. The Gelmans had brought it from Minsk, as if blankets were not sold in America. And they weren't, not like this, a full goose inside. The cover opened in the middle, not on the side. A girl had gotten tangled up in there in a key moment once. "I think I need Triple A," she said. They burst out laughing and had to start over.
"Slava?" his mother said. She was quiet and frightened. "She died alone, Slava. No one was with her."
"Don't do that," he said, grateful for her irrationality. "She didn't know."
"I hadn't slept the night before, so I left," she said. "Your grandfather was supposed to go this morning. And then she died." She started to flow again, sobs mixing with snot. "I kissed her and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow.' Slava, mercy, I should have stayed."
"She wouldn't have known you were there," he said in a thick voice. He felt vomit rising in his throat. The blue morning had become gray. The air conditioner chugged from the window, the humidity waiting outside like a thief.
From A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman Copyright © 2014 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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