When We Get There A Novel
By Shauna Seliy
Bloomsbury USA Copyright © 2007 Shauna Seliy
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59691-350-9
I was greasing the cookie sheets, watching my grandmother and her sisters do shots of whiskey and feed each other moonshine cherries, when Zoli came into the house, pressed his hand against my throat, and whispered that he would kill me dead if I didn't tell him where my mother was.
My grandmother put her drink down and said, "What in the hell are you doing here?"
They both worked at the Plate Glass and he had rough hands like she did, covered with cuts. He pressed hard on my Adam's apple. I couldn't swallow.
He nodded and said, "Christmas, Slats. Just having a conversation with Lucas." The Plate Glass was closed for the holiday, but he was wearing their deep-blue uniform. It was stained and dirty.
"A conversation with Lucas?" my grandmother said. She got up from the table. "That should be rich. He won't cough up more than two words a day for me." She walked over to the chopping block, where she'd been carving the stems out of peppers, and picked up a knife.
In my ear, Zoli said, "Tell me where she is, you little fairy boy." I was still holding the stick of butter I'd been using on the cookie sheets. I dropped it.
Slats walked to the sink, turned on the tap, and ran waterover the knife. Her sisters were quiet. They were all in dresses with aprons over them. We were in Great-grandfather's kitchen. It was 1974, the year I turned thirteen, the year my mother disappeared.
The knife Slats was cleaning was big, with a wooden handle. She shut off the faucet and pointed the business end of the knife at Zoli. Some of her sisters yelled, some of them scattered.
She said, "You listen, you crazy son of a bitch. Get your hands off him."
He loosened his grip on my neck but pulled me closer. "Is Mirjana here?"
"She sure as shit isn't," Slats said.
"Where is she?" he said.
"California," she said.
"California?" I said.
Zoli took his hand off my neck and moved it to my shoulder. "Where in California?"
Slats said, "What are you gonna do, go there? Might as well be Arabia."
All of Slats's brothers came into the kitchen. They were big. They wore flannel shirts, jeans, farming boots with thick brown soles. Zoli picked me up under my armpits and held me in front of him. My feet were off the ground. I heard the metal click of the screen door and then we were outside. It was still bright daytime. We fell back off the steps and hit the ground. My head knocked on his chest bones. His belt buckle dug into my back.
The great-uncles were on us. I tried to get away. Zoli crossed his arms over my chest and held on to me. The great-uncles couldn't pry me from him. They kicked him. They got on their knees and landed punches on him. I caught a fist on my arm. Red and black flannel covered my eyes, scratched my face. Great-grandfather's dogs barked and growled. They shoved their noses through, trying to get a piece of us. I shut my eyes against their hot breath, the snap of their teeth.
Slats yelled after her brothers to be careful of me. She called for the dogs to come to her. Zoli kicked and squirmed but didn't punch back. He turned us over, pressed my face in the cold grass and said, "I know you know where she is." His head cracked against mine; he'd taken a boot. He said, "Mirjana, Mirjana," soft and sad, as if he were praying to her or to me or to God. I felt his knee on my shoulder and everything got lighter. He was off me, running.
Slats's brothers ran after him. He got in his green Skylark with the black top and tore away up the drive, disappearing in the tunnel of trees.
Everyone said my mother looked like Hedy Lamarr. The way Zoli looked at her, you'd think she was Hedy Lamarr. He liked to say it was against the law to be as beautiful as she was, and then he'd pick up the phone and pretend to call the police or the fire company. Sometimes he did call the police or the fire company.
He thought the two of them should get married, but she didn't think so. She told him she'd stay a widow until she stopped dreaming about my father, and that she would probably never stop dreaming about my father. One of the times Zoli proposed, he took her out behind the Plate Glass and set up a sheet of blue tinted glass between two trees. They watched the sun go down behind it. When she said no, he spread out his arms and walked through it.
Slats said he was a gypsy with no sense. My mother said he just didn't understand some things. Love, she told me, didn't have anything to do with walking through a piece of glass.
In the kitchen, Great-grandfather passed around a bottle of pear brandy to Slats's brothers. He raised his little fist in the air, smiled, and said, "Such unkind boys I have made!"
He had a visitor with a long black coat. The man took the brandy and passed it to me.
Slats said to him, "He only just turned thirteen, Eli. Maybe next year."
"Let's see young Lessar's chest," he said. I didn't remember seeing him before, though everyone else seemed to know him. I wasn't sure how he knew my last name. He had the same accent as Great-grandfather, but not as thick. And while Great-grandfather had only two hairs left, he had a full head of it, all snow-white.
"No one's looking at his chest," Slats said.
But they were all staring at me, expecting something. I unbuttoned the top button, the second button.
Eli said, "Look, young mister. If you drink this, it will make your hair here." He pointed to his own chest. He said, "Like this," and opened his collar to show me the big white tufts. "And you'll grow very fast, faster than regular boy."
Slats said, "I have food to cook. Don't destroy him." She turned away from us and went to the stove.
I took the bottle. Great-grandfather made the pear brandy himself, using fruit from his own tree. In the spring, when the buds came out, he would put bottles on them so that the pears would grow inside the bottles. People in the family thought the pear brandy could heal you. When the animals were hurt, Great-grandfather poured it on their wounds. My mother drank it when she felt a cold coming, though she didn't like the taste of it. She'd had me rub it on my gums once or twice for toothaches, but I'd never swallowed it down whole before.
I lifted the bottle and took a long drink. It was sharp and bitter, but I didn't cough or spit. Eli made a big circle with his arms and took a deep bow, as if he'd just done a magic trick. Everyone clapped.
When they turned away from me, I touched the skin over my heart; it was still smooth.
My mother had been gone for two weeks. Slats had been staying with me at my house, where we waited, without saying so, for her to come back from wherever she'd gone to. Since Great-grandmother had passed on and Slats was the oldest of the daughters, she was boss of Christmas Eve dinner. So, even though I didn't like going to the farm, she made me go up there with her to get ready for it. For days, we'd been boiling things and cutting things and kneading things. After the dinner, everyone would eat and drink and go out to the barn at midnight, because at midnight on our Christmas Eve, the animals could speak. Neighbors called us "hard Russians," since we didn't have the Pope, and we took our Christmas on the seventh of January.
Great-grandfather's house was big and pale white and on the rim of a cupped valley. The front door and the mailbox faced a long driveway lined with oak trees that led to the county road, but I'd always thought of the kitchen and the dining room as the front of the house, because they were usually crowded with people, and because their windows faced the valley. No one ever sat on the wide front porch, or used the front door; they always came up the short stoop of concrete block steps on the side of the house, into the kitchen. There was a table in the kitchen with silver legs and a yellow Bakelite top. At Christmas, we pushed the table against the wall so people could get in and out of the room easier. But they liked to congregate there, and if Slats didn't chase them away, they'd stay all day, talking and drinking.
Slats had four sisters and five brothers. Each of them had five or six sons and daughters, and some of those sons and daughters had children. Usually, at Christmas Eve, I would have run around the property with the other boys looking for animal skeletons, or I would have stayed in the house with them staring at the gun cabinet and trying to get at the liquor. But that year I kept close to Slats, her purple dress with the flowers on it always just in front of me.
She complained a fair amount about all she had to do, but everyone knew she liked being in charge of the kitchen. Usually she got her hair done once a week, always on the same day, at the same time, and it was always the same color, a kind of reddish brown. But she'd gone on a different day to get it done specially for the party, and she'd been sleeping on a pillow shaped like a horseshoe to keep it looking right. She'd dressed up too. Most of the time she wore plain skirts, or jeans, and big shirts with milky mother-of-pearl buttons that used to belong to my grandfather. In the kitchen, she'd stop what she was doing, every so often, and fix her lipstick in the reflection of the silver-plated fan cover that hung over the stove.
A few times, in the days leading up to Christmas, I forgot about my mother altogether and it was just regular life, just shaving a carrot with a blunt knife or pouring honey out of a jar for the kutya. Then someone would say, wasn't that Mirjana's recipe, or sweater, or plate, and I'd come up out of the dream.
* * *
Close to dinner, Slats made me help her set up card tables in the living room and drag in a picnic table from outside so there would be enough room for everyone. She didn't want people in chairs eating over their knees like gypsies. She set down plates and I followed her with silverware. I said, "How'd she get out there?"
"Oh that," she said. She picked up a plate and polished it with her apron. Then she kept going around the table.
When we were through, she grabbed my arm and led me outside. It was getting dark. She pulled me toward the barn, her heels wobbling in the mud and stones. We weren't wearing coats. She let go of me and rubbed her arms to keep warm.
We went to a part of the barn I'd never been to, a floor up above the cows and goats and sheep. It was dark there. The only light came through the spaces where the wood didn't fit together. I heard her feeling around on the wall for something, then she opened a hatch and suddenly we had a view of the whole farm. I could see the pond at the bottom of the slope the barn was on, the hay field up to the left, and over on the right the old cornfield where Great-grandfather had an idea once to dig for oil, and then to dig for water-it was all pocked with holes and craters and looked like the front of the moon. By itself, between those two fields, in a clear patch of meadow he never opened for grazing, was the pear tree. It was winter, so the branches were bare. There were bottles scattered around the bottom for when the buds would come in the spring. The last sunlight of the day shone off them.
We stood there for a while looking at everything. Slats said, "California is more like something to say when you don't know the answer to a question. It's not so much a real place, like this here."
* * *
When we'd all settled around the dinner table and it was time for Great-grandfather to tell his story about coming to America, like he did every year, and for everyone to toast him with his pear brandy, he didn't do it. He looked around at all of us, his shot glass shaking a little in his hand, and apologized for landing us in a country of disappeared women. He turned and looked only at me, and then he put his glass down and started eating his dinner.
We dipped bread in honey to remember that life is sweet, and then we dipped it in garlic to remember that life is bitter. There was kutya on the table, with honey and crushed poppy seeds, to eat for good luck and deep sleep. There was hay under the table so that people would think about Jesus in his manger while they were eating. I didn't think about Jesus. I thought about how Zoli used to say he would string me up if my mother kept denying him. I thought about the three miners who got killed by the blackdamp in the explosion that took my father. They didn't get cut up or burned; they died from the inside out. When there's a fire or an explosion in a closed-in place like a coal mine, the air isn't any good for breathing. If you're down inside and you hear a big booming noise, you can make a run for it. If you get out with only a little of it in your lungs, you'll probably be okay, though you might come down with some pneumonia. But the mouth of the mine is usually too far away, sometimes a mile, and the blackdamp gets all through you and chokes you.
They found two of the miners in a dinner hole sitting with their pails on their laps, sandwiches still in their hands. The one I thought about most, though, was the one they found on his knees, his hands together in a prayer. I'd always thought my father had it the worst of them, but I was starting to think that the guy who was praying did. That guy knew what was coming and knew he couldn't do anything to stop it.
* * *
After dinner, Great-grandfather asked me to walk his friend Eli home.
Eli said to him, "No, no. I don't need ambassador."
Great-grandfather said, "Lucas will see you to there. It's late. Cold. He is company for you."
In the kitchen, Great-grandfather buttoned my coat to the top and kissed me on both cheeks. Usually, he wished goodbye to the great-grandchildren by patting us each on the head as we trailed out of the house behind our parents. I wasn't used to being so close to him. He had a liquor smell coming off him, and sharp stubble on his cheeks. I backed away. He said he trusted me to take care of his friend. In my ear, he said, "Don't let him wander aways from you in woods. Get him insides his house."
Slats was surrounded by sisters; they were deep in with the dishes. I was nervous and I must have looked it, because Benci, the oldest and biggest of the great-uncles, said to me, "Don't worry, Lucas, that Zoli won't fuss with you no more. He won't come around here again."
Another great-uncle said, "Not after that beating."
Outside, I looked at the parked cars and up the road for the Skylark and was glad for not seeing it. I followed close behind Eli. We walked up the driveway toward the county road. A few of the dogs walked alongside us for a while and then trailed off. Eli walked leaning over as if he had a cane, but he didn't have a cane. His bones poked at his coat. Whenever he said anything to me, he called me Luca, and there was no correcting him. After a long while, he turned off the driveway onto a grazing field. There wasn't anything around, no houses or cars.
At the end of the field was a set of woods. He stopped, pointed at the wall of trees, and then stepped into them. The ground was thick with bushes and twisted vines and the trees were packed close together. I couldn't imagine there was any kind of house in there, but after a while of picking our way through, we got on a skinny path that led to a shingle brick shack with one window. He fished a big skeleton key out of his pocket. He opened the door, walked in, and switched on the light.
I stuck my head in the door. "This where you live?"
"You could say this. Is like living."
There was paper everyplace-pinned up to the wall, spread out over the chairs and tables. There were books on the floor, piled under the furniture and against the walls.
I looked at the papers that were tacked up. From what I could tell, they were hand-drawn maps of coal mines. There were so many of them and they were tacked up so close to each other that you couldn't see the wall behind them. "What are these for?"
"I was engineer, in mines," he said.
"Mines, I said. Many."
"You been in King?"
"Of course, I was been everywhere, through all of seam. It was my job to understand if we dig here," he put his long fingernail on one of the drawings, "what will happen to over here," and he moved his hand to a different part of the drawing. "Maybe rocks are falling down, or ceiling, or whole place. Always something wants to come apart."
He took off his coat. He had a map of the bituminous fields tacked over the fireplace with the Pittsburgh seam colored in yellow and red, like a gash. He had stacks of papers all over. Some of these were drawings of mine tunnels, some had numbers scratched over them. And there were just regular maps, of the county, of Pennsylvania, of other states-West Virginia, Ohio, one of the long stretch of California in light yellow. While he was hanging up his coat, I shoved the California map in my jacket.
Excerpted from When We Get There by Shauna Seliy Copyright © 2007 by Shauna Seliy. Excerpted by permission.
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