Shall I once again take another short little break from all of this gloom and doom and Big Bang stuff, and tell you more about how life was for Mother and me once we settled in Brooklyn, Father?
Ok, let’s talk about Mother. You want to know more about what life was like in Brighton Beach for Mother. We found a great place a half-a-block from the beach at 3099 Brighton 6 Street on the fifth floor over looking the street.
You know that by now she was a mature woman in her fifties, with brand new front teeth and all. Her cousin immediately found her a job in a Russian bookstore near where we lived, and she could walk to work. That was the first big blessing: no more cars, with their expensive gas, constant breakdowns and watchful cops always on the prowl. Mother rarely got political about anything, but she always thought the politicians in LA needed to be put in jail for not providing adequate public transportation.
Soon she started to regain her old confidence. This is where I first understood the power of art. It was art, Father! That was your great insight into what made some of us so different. Sergie couldn’t take it away from her. The lost of you, her precious black American Pushkin couldn’t take it away. This strange, artless country couldn’t take it away.
An artist is always an artist, until they die. And yes, she was an artist, you once wrote about her.
And how right you were, Father. She founded a theatre company dedicated to the Russian classics, which were performed only in Russian. The Pushkin Playhouse, she grandly named it, in honor of both her only son, and the great Pushkin of mother Russia.
I remember her taking me to this small storefront at 259 Brighton 2 Street, right off of busy Brighton Beach Avenue. I could still see the old sign of its former business. It was barely readable. It read: Barber Shop.
“See, Alex,” Mother said. “Need work.”
Need work indeed! I worked with Mother for months helping get the theater in shape. The inside looked like it had not been occupied in years, and had a stale, funny smell. In the end, the theater was small potatoes, but it kept her busy and made her happy. She loved being on stage, as you well know, Father. But now, she was not only acting, but she also tried her hand at directing.
And, as you have undoubtedly guessed by now, I grew up fluent in Russian. After you died that was almost all we spoke in our apartment. That’s why I could give the finger to people like David who dared question my Russian bona fide’s.
After you left us, my Russian grew stronger and stronger. I guess Mother needed to talk to me. Mother said that one of the reasons she missed you so much was that you were quite the talker.
“All time, Alex,” she would say, making the shape of two lips flapping together with her hands.
It seemed that all your talking greatly improved her English. But now that she was in Brighton Beach, surrounded by Russians speaking Russian, her English slipped, and all I heard in our apartment was mostly Russian.
I also spent a great deal of time in her little 40 seats, storefront theatre. Father, I don’t know how much you saw her work. Here’s what you wrote in your famous short story, The Queen of Macy’s:
It was a surprising first meeting. I thought that I had met her before, many, many times. We shared the same work place, and met at least three times a week, and had spent long hours together, selling underwear, lounge wear and pajamas to The Valley elite, and world famous faces.
But this was the first time we had really met.
She had just revealed to me that she was a trained actress, and had what we in America would call a Master’s Degree.
“Really,” I said, very much surprised at this news.
“In Russia we must educate to work on stage,” she answered carefully in broken English. I could see her face turn serious as she struggled to find just the right words.
“Well, what kinds of things did they teach you?” I asked. I now apprised her more closely; again, meeting the real her for the very first time after all these weeks.
“First,” she said, all at once bending down in front of me, catching me somewhat off guard, twisting her body into a deformed shape, which made her seem like a broken down, defeated old lady.
A sad, downtrodden look appeared on her now weary face. “You don’t play the king like this.”
She suddenly straightened up, and all at once a profound transformation took place. Sasha held her thin body up regally, threw her blond head back in a haughty, lordly, disdainfully proud manner, and flashed me a youthful smile.
She then dramatically, theatrically threw out both of her hands.
“You play the king like this! For no matter what, the king is always the king.” She then spread her arms out gracefully and took a small bow. She had a triumphant look on her face. Sasha’s small, dark blue eyes were now huge, sparkling with life, and filled with great confidence.
All at once she was ten years younger, not the 39-year-old unhappy immigrant woman I thought I knew; and while not quite a king, Sasha was at the very least, a queen.
A few days later she brought in several stories that were written about her back in Russia.
I could not read Russian, but from the photo accompanying one story, I saw a younger version of her with a distracted look on her face, posing half nude, with a man leaning over her, seemingly in deep heat.
“We considered, how you say, avante garde. Yes, avante garde. I all the time in the newspapers. My director was sooo famous. Everyone in Moscow knew him,” she said.
We both stared long and hard at her former self. I saw a look of pure pride on her face, and also, almost a sense of disbelief that that beautiful young, daring looking woman in that black and white photograph, laying back on a couch in such an artful pose, was once her.
How wonderfully observed, Father. I wish I were as gifted as you were. I have read that passage quite a bit lately. I could picture both of you starting to realize each other’s true self, coming to an awareness of each other’s special ness. It has brought tears to my eyes many, many times.
But Father, did you ever really get a chance to see just how gracefully she moves on stage? If so, you would have noticed how she would wave her delicate hands around like a precious, human butterfly, and move across the stage tossing her head all about dramatically. It was at moments like these moments that I saw the magical powers she held in her small body; the power of The Muse.
It was hard to believe this was the same woman up there; my mother. She was still on the thin side, and she still had the old charm, the old magic, the same ability to turn men into adoring little puppy dogs, or brilliant creative artists, or mean, jealous, dangerous maniacs.
She had become involved with a Russian man I hated. I heard that he was a gangster, a member of the famous Russian Mafia. Needless to say, Father, that relationship only lasted for a few years. Not that the gangster, as I called him, wasn’t nice to Mother.
It was clear even to me, that he absolutely adored her.
In fact, he largely financed that little 40 seat non-profit theatre. I know it was him who talked her into opening it, with promises of as much cash as she needed.
No, I didn’t hate him because he was a crazy, abusive man like Sergie. He seemed like a nice person. He was soft spoken, with a strong Russian accent whenever he spoke in English, and he laughed a lot. It was hard to believe, as the whispers on the street had it, that he was a mean, callous, violent extortionist, drug dealer and hired killer.
Mother said that he had “courtly” old world manners. He was a thin, tall, brown-eyed Jew like Sergie. He was the first Jew Mother had met in America she liked. She hated the Jews she met in Los Angeles. ”They not like Russian Jews. In Russia, Jews are funny and interesting. Not like here. They not real Jews.”
The gangster was a real Jew for her, however. He was funny, and alive, and generous on top of it, and seemed to like Mother for her Muse-like qualities, which pleased her greatly. He never said much to me, almost as if I wasn’t even around, as he directed all of his conversation toward Mother. He just grunted at me when he came over, and that served as the cue for me to go to my room and leave the two of them alone.
Still, I didn’t like him. Maybe it was the thought that Mother was in the next room making love with him. I hate to tell you this, Father, but I once opened the door and saw Mother going down on him. Can you imagine! My mother!
Maybe my reaction to the gangster was the reaction of a jealous teenager, madly in love with his own mother? Or maybe I just didn’t like the way he made his money, and the company he kept? I could see Mother drawn into a dangerous world of guns, drugs and who knows what else.
I knew what the word on the street was about him, and I became very nervous, and once pleaded with Mother to stop seeing him.
“Please Mother, please!” I begged her.
I was seventeen, and already, I towered over her, and I was still growing.
Tall or not, Mother could still quickly put me in my place, and intimidate me beyond belief. I had watched her on stage. I knew she could throw darts across the room better than anyone I had ever seen. Even through I knew she was an actress, still, when she whirled and fixed her small blue eyes coldly on me, the same blue eyes I had inherited—I was frozen in my place.
“Alexander,” she answered sharply in a loud, high-pitched voice in Russian, “Just stop it! Just shut up!”
I was shocked! Mother rarely called me Alexander, and almost never yelled at me.
I was also taken aback because I saw the look of hurt on her face. That look said I was selfish. That I was trying to take away what little happiness and pleasure she got out of life. That I was a thoughtless ingrate. I knew what her face was telling me!
Father, I felt so ashamed and embarrassed. I felt that I had stuck my stupid, dumb nose into something I had no business. I quickly went to my room and closed the door.
I turned on the thin screen hanging on my wall and put on little dark goggles and immediately engrossed myself in a video game, struggling against mighty electronic foes that seemed as if they could reach out and knock me on my stupid, ungrateful ass.
I vowed never to bring up the subject again.
Well, it turned out Father that I didn’t have to. A few months after my emotional confrontation with Mother, I was sitting in our living room, alone, watching a movie. It was Friday. It was late, past mid-night.
Mother had produced, starred in, and directed Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. She played Mrs. Voynitsky with uncommon bravado.
The play was well received, and a local success; her first real success in her theatre after two grueling, frustrating years.
A local paper even ran her picture and a rave review of the play in it. They called her, and the Pushkin Playhouse, a local “cultural treasure.” All of this attracted large crowds, as Old World Russians poured into the theater.
Mother had pulled it off, big time, Well, big time for her, Father.
I knew that Friday was always her best night, and that afterward, she and the gangster would go to dinner and stay out until early in the morning, hanging out in one of the many clubs where they had become local celebrities because of Mother’s new found fame, and obviously, because everyone knew who he was.
And equally as obvious, I had mixed feeling about her new success. Suddenly I wasn’t seeing much of my mother anymore!
But I was used to that by now. Whether I liked it or not, theater people, I have learned, are all night people. They start coming alive, just when other people are shutting down for the evening. They are not the kind of people that like sitting home at night watching television.
We lived of the fourth floor, and our living room, which also served as Mother’s bedroom, faced the street.
Suddenly I heard loud screaming in Russian coming from the street below. One voice sounded like the gangster. I then thought I heard Mother’s voice.
I ran to the window just in time to see someone being chased across the street by two men.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
Three shots rang out, and the chased man fell right in front of 3096. Lights went on all over the place! The two men ran, but not until one of them managed to pump two more shots into the man lying on the ground.
I was sure it was the gangster who was now lying bleeding to death. But where was Mother! Father? I never felt so scared before in my life. Was Mother dead? Were they now going to come and shoot me?
I heard someone fumbling at the door, which further scared the living shit out of me! I didn’t know whether to run and open it, or put a chair in front of it to keep whoever it was out of my apartment!
I know I was thinking cowardly thoughts, Father, more afraid for my own safety than that of Mother’s. I am deeply ashamed of myself, even now, as I write this, years later.
But it was Mother at the door, out of breath, Father.
She was flushed, sweaty, red-faced, frightened out of her wits! She had run up the entire flight of stairs, afraid to wait for the elevator, afraid that the assassins wanted her as dead as her now dead boyfriend.
But it wasn’t her they wanted. They got what they wanted! He was lying in a pool of blood, right in front of our living room window.
Once again, Father, the now familiar crackling, and official sounding voices coming through the radios of the police, echoed loudly through our living room, as they did once before in Los Angeles.
“I know nothing! I know nothing!” Mother kept insisting, her Russian accent now becoming heavier. She started biting her bottom lip and glanced nervously around, throwing me quick, dart-like looks.
The two black policemen listened patiently, fiddled with their loud radios, and took long copious notes. They looked at Mother with suspicious, skeptical dark eyes, unlike the deep sympathy I had seen in the eyes of the white and Hispanic policewomen years ago.
TO BE CONTINUED
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