Mikhail Feldman the writer disappeared from this world on June 19th, 1939—or, in the words of my grandfather, went poof. This happened on the street in Peredelkino, southwest of Moscow, in front of a café, though it seems strange to me to mark the spot of someone’s disappearance. It seems to me he could have vanished halfway across town and gone just as poof.
My grandfather fled Russia a few months later; Lev became Leo somewhere over the Atlantic. He landed at a harbor in Baltimore, showed up soon after at a train depot in Chicago, and finally arrived at a bus station in Los Angeles, where a small group of Russian émigrés told him that if he kept going west he would wind up in Russia again. He’s still friends with these men, and growing up I heard them called cousins. They set Lev Leo up in construction. He asked them if they had heard of the writer Feldman, and his new cousins shrugged.
In 1989, a publisher in New York brought out an unexpurgated edition of Mikhail Feldman’s one slim novel, Struggle, a melodrama of a Russian bureaucrat, which had tripped over itself and ended up a satire of its subject. Whether Feldman intended this was a matter of debate; it was argued by some that the circumlocutions required by indigenous Soviet paranoia were such that a fable could turn into a cookbook, a propagandist into a heresiarch. “Half the stuff out of his mouth was lies,” my grandfather said of Feldman, “and that was just him speaking of the top of his head; I can’t imagine what he came up with when he had time to, how you say, polish.”
This was his way of eliding the fact that he hadn’t read the book when it was published in Russia. He had championed the ghost of his friend for decades, but when he did finally sit down and read Struggle, he read it in Los Angeles, and in translation. “Hmmph,” was all he had to say. Whether he said it in Russian or English was anybody’s guess. I was ten years old when he told me the story of his friend Mikhail, there one day and gone the next, and it was years before I understood that, in the words of Struggle’s introduction, “Feldman is presumed to have been executed in the fall of 1939.” Poof. I studied him briefly in college, one of several possible elective texts in a 20th Century Russian Lit course, and pretty much forgot about him, until my grandfather and extended family and I were all coming back from cousin Moshe’s funeral, walking into my grandfather’s hotel off of Fairfax Avenue, when a man in a black hat and striped red shirt strode out the other door and my grandfather spun around and said, “Mikhail?” as the stranger vanished into a taxi.
The Brodsky Hotel was a lobby, one floor of conference halls, and then twelve floors of rooms. That’s eight fewer than my grandfather wanted; he felt you needed twenty floors to be taken seriously, and when challenged on this claim liked to ask why anyone would build a hotel but to be taken seriously. He drew designs for the lobby, Greek references, ornamental columns, a fountain, maybe, the layouts scribbled on cocktail napkins, quick scratches of pen to be translated later. Cousin Moshe nixed them all: “Jews know better than to make themselves ostentatious.” We were at my grandfather’s house, way up off Mulholland Drive. I was twelve, and the trip up that serpentine street always made me carsick; I sat queasy in the corner while Moshe and Leo talked business, my mother out by the pool with a glass of bubbly. “You don’t need the tallest hotel in Los Angeles,” Moshe said, “you just need your hotel. Right? No reaching for the sky.”
My grandfather nodded. Moshe had been his foreman when he settled in LA, my grandfather then just one of the men on the crew, hauling I-beams. That was forty years ago; since then, my grandfather had opened his own business, building strip malls and apartment buildings in Hawaiian Gardens and Lakewood, and Moshe had semi-retired, consulting on a couple properties a year. But Moshe was still the boss. “Don’t worry,” he told my grandfather, “we’ll build it and it’ll be grand and it’ll be great. You can sit out your days in the hotel bar. Let everybody else do the work for once.”
Moshe was right. Twelve floors were plenty, especially during droughts of business; another eight floors would have been another eight empty floors, and might have bankrupted the place. Instead, the Brodsky pulled even, which, given my grandmother’s fortune, was even more than it needed to do. But things were past need. My grandfather’s ambitions were not satisfied by the stunted building, and he pushed what limits he could: overbooking the busy seasons, doublebooking the conference rooms, overseating the restaurant, punishing the valets. And, oh, what he would do if he had eight extra floors: “Suites!” he’d say to the poor VIP stuck at a booth in the restaurant with him. “We don’t have any suites. I would upgrade you right now if I could, but all our rooms are the same. How are you supposed to treat someone special?” He comped their tab, the restaurant manager complaining monthly about his food costs, “I’m trying to make you money, Leo, but you keep giving the place away,” my grandfather waving him off. “How am I supposed to treat people special?” He twice considered building additional floors, going with an outside architect, but he was still scared of Moshe, and in the end the Brodsky remained its modest height.
Leo wanted people to think his money came from his construction business. It didn’t. My grandmother Annoshka inherited a jewelry store off of Pico from her first husband, Eugene Kaplan, who had moved them from St. Petersburg before the war and then died when he hit a center divider on the 405. She married Leo three years later. By then she was overseeing her second store; by the time Leo started his construction business, EK Jewelers was in every mall in Southern California. She had changed her name to Anna when she started at the jewelry store; when she sold the chain, for several million dollars, she changed it back. I grew up hearing her called Annoshka. At my high school graduation dinner, I found her across the restaurant, wandering up to strangers and forming a circle with her hands; the word cup had left her. She died howling angry, spitting curses at all who came near, moaning for her first husband, her last words in Russian, spoken to a doctor who could not reproduce them.
I was away for most of this, at college first, and then just nowhere. My mother had married a louse, now excommunicated; he had diluted society’s expectations for me; if I turned out a failure, blame was already imputed on the half of my genes currently unemployed in an Oceanside bungalow. I wasted a good half a decade on this excuse. When the world finally deposited me home, I was twenty-six years old, four hundred dollars and a literature degree to my name, outmatched. I appealed to my grandfather’s generosity, famed—not for nothing had he spent much of his life building apartment complexes for the struggling members of our world. He bought me a steak dinner at his hotel restaurant and asked if I knew how to spot a con.
“There’s a recession on,” he told me. “It brings out the shyster in people.”
The bartender poured him a vodka-tonic and gave me a bottle of water, and we sat there until a businessman pulled up onto the stool next to us. My grandfather, warm when he was drinking, engaged the man instantly; from Seattle, he was in town to meet with an investor over start-up capital; when he asked my grandfather’s story, I heard a fiction about how Leo owned a cement company, had done decently for himself until he nabbed the contract from the city to pour the 105 freeway, enough cement to prop up the next four generations of his family. The businessman eventually paid his tab and left; a new patron took his place, my grandfather became the owner of the nation’s first limousine rental company; “I thought it up!” he boasted. “It wasn’t a thing you did, to rent out the luxury stuff, until I did it.” This was my lesson in cons: the quick rain of details, the rush and swell of exuberance. He was teaching me what to watch out for.
The man my grandfather recognized as Mikhail Feldman was registered in our hotel as Mike Feld. We were not exactly strangers, as I had seen him three afternoons straight in the hotel bar sipping a Belvedere on the rocks; we were familiar enough to nod as we passed. He was compacted from the same clay as my grandfather and his cousins, the lumpen shoulders, round paunch, stumpy legs, bags off skin beneath lids and breasts bowing to gravity. His hair was a bright white glare compared to my grandfather’s dim gray. That having been said, Leo’s tailored suits of tessellated blue and grey pinstripes beat the man’s off-the-rock two pieces any day of the week.
The day after my grandfather spotted the man, I found him sitting at his normal stool at the bar, stirring his vodka with a tripick. “Mikhail Feldman?” I said.
“Eh? Who’s that?”
I snagged a bottle of water from the bartender and walked off.
The next day, he was in the same spot, and again I sidled up. “Mike Feld?”
He took a measured sip of his spirit. “That’s closer than you were yesterday.”
I introduced myself. “What brings you to Los Angeles?”
“Grease traps!” From the lapel pocket of his coat he removed a silver cigarette case, sprung open to elicit a business card. The case looked the sharp, the business card less so; it looked as though it had been handled, and handed back. I read it: Mike Feld Restaurant Supplies, Jacksonville, Florida.
“Welcome to the Brodsky,” I said.
“What did you say your name was?”
He swiveled around, gazed out the bar’s windows at the marble expanse of the lobby, the lift of the staircase.
“All this,” he said, “yours?”
“One day, maybe. For now I just take care of what needs taking care of.”
“I notice you have a restaurant.”
“Four stars, unless they took one away this morning.”
“You have a restaurant, you have grease. You have grease, you need grease traps.” At this he was standing. “Follow me.”
We crossed the lobby, past the convenience store selling travel toothpaste and fashion magazines, through the dim dining room, around the sweating line cooks calling out all-days, out the door and onto the back pad. It was high afternoon, the sun drawing a rude shine off the metal traps. Mike shook his head at what he saw. “How old are these?” he said, running a finger along one of drums as if wiping dust from an antique. “This model, they don’t even make it anymore. They discontinued it, what, five, six years ago?” He looked at me. “You, young man, need new grease traps.”
We reversed our path, Mike plying me the whole way with figures and payment plans I wasn’t meant to understand. “You put three thousand down at the start, that’s for installation, but what you’re buying is maintenance,” he told me, craning his neck around as we walked, his voice coming at me in that limping cadence of Russian-shackled English, a skip-and-a-hop every three or four syllables. “We’re not one of these guys who charge you every time we have to come out and turn a screw,” he promised me as we walked back into the bar. “You buy a grease trap from us, we’re committing to it.”
I told him I had to run it by the restaurant GM. How long would he be in town?
“Just another couple of days. I have a few more accounts to clear up, and then I must go home.”
He gave me a tense look, the sort one might give a taxi driver who quoted a suspiciously high fare. “Young man, it was nice meeting you,” he said, and turned back to the drink he had left a few minutes ago, the vodka slipping in with the water.
Since my grandmother’s passing, my grandfather preferred to sleep in his peopled hotel rather than his empty estate. This was loneliness, no doubt, but it could also be said that he enjoyed the dotage of an entire staff; while Leo’s cousins all had wives who stayed at home and kept track of relatives’ birthdays, his had spent most of her life running a jewelry empire and barely tolerating him. He might have felt the staff his reward for this neglect; he might have felt them a poor trade-off for her absence.
My grandfather had the staff well trained to his routine. He woke every morning in his room on the twelfth floor (if only he had some suites!) to find a tray of steaming coffee and a crisp Los Angeles Times waiting outside his door. He blew on the coffee, folded the paper beneath his arm, and took the elevator down to the lobby, where he surveyed the restaurant, the bar, the convenience store, the front desk, and, finding all to his satisfaction, greeted the concierge, ordered his sedan brought around, and walked into the world. This was his routine until, the day after Mike Feld appeared, he forgot the name of the concierge.
Standing at the concierge stand, the Times stashed under his right armpit as usual, he gestured in the air, as if beckoning the name. He laughed, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I’m drawing a blank.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Brodksy. It’s Jaime.”
“That’s right, sir.”
“How’s that spelled?”
“With a J, sir. The j in Spanish makes an h sound.”
My grandfather shook his head. “Was a language I never mastered,” he said, and off he went.
Such was the conversation Jaime recounted to me later that morning.
“That’s not good,” I said.
“He’s old, man,” Jaime said. “He’s what, eighty?”
“People forget shit when they get that age. Neither one of my abeulos lived past seventy. You should be lucky he’s around period.”
I got up early the next morning and shadowed my grandfather as he stepped up to the concierge stand.
“I know you told me yesterday,” he said, “but it just slipped right out.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Brodsky. It’s Jaime.”
“I’m going to write it down today. How’s that spelled again?”
Jaime spelled his name for the second day in a row and my grandfather recorded it on the top of the sport section. “Hi-may. Got it.” He folded the paper, put it under his arm, and walked away. Jaime turned to me and shrugged, but he seemed less sanguine than the day before. “Like I said, they get to their age, man.”
“What’s grandfather in Spanish, again?”
I followed my a-bwai-lo for the next couple of days and noticed nothing out of the ordinary, except for the surreptitious glance he gave that copy of the Times before he greeted Jaime each morning. Total number of forgotten items in the world: two syllables. I was just about to let it lie when he greeted me in the restaurant one evening, and, try as he might, could not remember my name.
I scooted into the booth opposite him. He laughed, the same laugh he had tried to slip Jaime.
“It’s funny,” he said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Mike Feld did not leave.
We nodded at each other daily in the lobby, but he scurried away before I could engage him. He no doubt knew what I knew: that the credit card he’d put down on his room was denied, that the phone number on his business card bleeped a disconnected tone. I had people I could pay to find these things out, and they had informed me that there was a pack of creditors in Florida who wanted him when I was done with him.
But there was something sad about an octogenarian still working the con. Was he passing through Los Angeles, hoping to sell imaginary grease traps to a bunch of restaurants as one last score before he absconded into oblivion? Did he have children? What did he tell them he did? I felt bad for him, even as I knew I would soon have to demand the $1500 and climbing he owed. I suppose I could have cut off his bar tab, but it seemed mean to deprive the man of his Belvedere a day.
Then I rounded the corner into the bar and found Mike Feld and my grandfather, drinks in hand, laughing like old friends.
“Ah,” my grandfather called when he spotted me, “come meet a literary legend.” He beckoned me over. “Come, come. Mikhail, my grandson.”
Mike Feld held out the same hand he had the few days before, when we had shaken over grease traps.
“I believe we’ve met,” I said, “but under a slightly different name.”
“Ah.” Mike Mikhail waved away my objection. “A bastardized Americanization.”
“It wasn’t yesterday.”
“Even Nana changed her name,” my grandfather reminded me. “Was not something she wanted to do. She started at that jewelry store, was a suggestion of her boss not to scare the customers. Herself an Annoshka, shortened to Anna.”
“Nana changed hers back,” I said.
“When she could afford it,” my grandfather countered.
“What’s the difference,” the literary legend said, “Mike, Mikhail, I like my vodka the same. Gentlemen, on me?” He made three fingers at Shawna, the bartender.
“Excuse me for a moment.” Over at the well, where Shawna was pouring the three Belvederes, I whispered: “His money’s no good.”
“Not what your grandfather says.”
“What’s my grandfather say?”
“Says dude with the accent is on the house. Comp everything.”
“He’s a con man.”
“Well,” Shawna said, “looks like he’s pretty good at it.”
She handed me the three cocktails. I cupping the highballs, checkmated.
“Young man,” Mikhail called, “vodka tastes better than it looks. Stop staring at the drinks and let’s drink them.”
I distributed the glasses. My grandfather teared up. He clasped his drink like a childhood toy and beamed at his friend. “I haven’t seen you in fifty years.”
Mikhail smiled. I smiled. We drank.
My mother chose sides in the battle between my grandparents, firmly on my grandmother’s side. What that battle was I do not know; it is entirely possible that it was an imaginary struggle inside my mother’s head.
Unlike the rest of the Brodsky family, with our tame brown hair, my mother had a head streaked with red, its flame tint felt in her every life turn, dropping out of journalism school, spending four years writing show reviews for chump change in San Francisco, marrying my father, briefly, trying to start an organic candle company, raising or not raising me depending on her whims. Her intelligence seemed to grow in inverse proportion to the world’s inability to provide worthwhile opportunities for its use. By the time I was ten, she was the smartest person in the world, and we were broke, foreclosing on a house in Whittier. Soon after, she showed up to Moshe’s seventieth birthday party with a conservative trim and an obsequious shade of brown coloring. Her parents welcomed her back. They provided her down payment on a condo in Boyle Heights, supported her as she got herself established writing ad copy, a job my grandfather in particular claimed not to understand. After that, she was rarely glimpsed without a glass of sparkling wine in her hand, slogans half-sketched in a notebook on a nearby table, biting her lip at the passage of time and people before her.
This was the uneasy peace that lasted until my grandfather built his hotel with my grandmother’s money. The awkward ellipses of my family’s conversation became especially pronounced that year, whole Thanksgivings of Fourth of Julys passing without the words money or hotel being spoken aloud. My grandmother dutifully attended the opening of the Brodsky Hotel, possibly just to see what her money had gotten, but my mother never stepped foot inside the building. This trend worsened as my grandmother’s dementia took hold. My mother held vigil by her side as she slipped away, and whatever buried memories my grandmother’s disease resurfaced spoke poorly of her husband. To the best of my knowledge, my mother continued to take payments from her parents’ trust, but she never spoke to my grandfather again.
Mikhail Feldman’s $1500 tab was cleared from the computer. He was assigned a house account, on which he could place any charge for any service, and given his own bellboy, Darnell, who went out and fetched him paper and pens and books and whatever else he needed to become the Brodsky’s writer-in-residence. It circulated amongst the staff that this was a man of letters, with a novel published in multiple languages, taught in college courses; for those unimpressed by the ordering of words, Mikhail Feldman was also a man who had eluded the gulags, who had faced history’s villains and defeated them. He walked the halls and employees parted for him. I encountered him now in the restaurant, slicing into a beef tenderloin, next in the bar gulping Belvedere in new threads—my grandfather had an in-house tailor, and Mikhail was fitted with suits befitting his legacy. His wingtips clapped against the lobby’s marble floor. His hat hung from various coat racks throughout the hotel; a front desk girl, Lisa, particularly liked hunting down and returning it; he signed a copy of Struggle for her. Soon everybody wanted a copy, and Darnell cleaned out the local bookstores. Its cover, a detail of a Kasatkin painting depicting miners huddled round a solitary candle, peeked out from break rooms, from beneath countertops, behind elevator doors; waiters on their smoke breaks read it in groups of three or four in the back alley; copies were stashed in the concierge stand. The staff quickly divided into two camps, those who related to the frustrated protagonist Tzesar versus those who detected a doomed nobility in the landowner Rushkov.
My grandfather noticed none of this. He accompanied Mikhail around the hotel, dining and drinking with his old friend, occasionally having a valet hail his Lincoln so they could attend the symphony. I trailed them, close enough to catch snippets of Mike’s improvised biography, work farm, fodder in World War II for the Russians, captured by Germany, freed by England, London to New York. He was in New York for two decades, delivering glassware, then a supply company out of Florida as middle management, finally his own company, Mike Feld Restaurant Supplies, sixteen years on. All of this was rendered with a substantial amount of verisimilitude, sprinkled with Russian and Yiddish, firm in locale, detailed. I think most of it was true.
But where was Feld in 1989, when the English translation of Struggle finally saw the light of day?
“Florida!” Mikhail said. “American Restaurant Supplies. Northern Florida’s got enough restaurants and bars that it’s its own, how you say it, its own region—they were called regions or markets depending on for what company you worked, is why it took me a second there. So I had all of Florida. You needed dishes in Jacksonville, there was about a decade there when you called Mike Feld, or your patrons ate off of paper plates.”
“And the release of your novel didn’t cause something of a stir?”
“Who knew it was me?”
“I would assume you knew it was you.”
“You want to explain to people in central Florida that you were once a different person who wrote novels in Russian? To your boss? You know, ‘Let’s go golfing this weekend. By the way, I’m Mikhail Feldman, want to hear about the time Stalin had me arrested?’ You try explaining that to people who’ve known you ten, twenty years.”
“My grandson’s just being skeptical,” Leo said. “That’s what they teach them in college these days.”
“Is good, skepticism. The critical—” and here Mikhail reached forward and tapped me twice on the forehead “—mind.” The leather sighed as he sat back. “You know Chekhov wrote to bring forth the ultimate pointlessness of life?”
“It was the doctor in him. I always found his work too clinical.”
“How about that.”
“You be polite, Billy,” my grandfather barked. The emphatic was aimed at me, but the name Billy landed clear across the room. Mikhail looked confused, but not half as perturbed as my grandfather, shaken by his ownoutburst. He rushed a linen to his mouth to wipe a bit of spittle, and in his return to lucidity seemed to hope nobody would ask the obvious.
Mikhail: “Who’s Billy?”
“Billy’s my father,” I said.
My grandfather tried to laugh, a trembling sound. “I get confused occasionally,” he said. He nodded at me. “You two look alike.”
“And what does this father of yours do?” Mikhail said.
“What doesn’t he do? He lives in a bungalow in Oceanside. The bad part of Oceanside. Which, as there is no good part of Oceanside, is quite lovely. He drinks cheap lager by the case. Occasionally he works.” I turned to my grandfather. “Since when do I look like him?”
“I always thought Billy to be a silly name,” my grandfather said. “Perhaps because it rhymes with silly. At any rate, I was never able to take the man seriously.”
“Yes. This is something we know. He’s been Billy-rhymes-with-silly for the twenty-six years I’ve known him, but this is the first time you’ve confused me with him.”
“I think we’ve gotten off topic,” Mikhail said, and he must have felt pretty uncomfortable, as the original topic was the impossibility of his being who he said he was.
“I believe,” my grandfather said, squinting as he cast back a few minutes, “we were discussing Chekhov?”
Struggle, the title, is a mistranslation. The actual title in Russian is раскулачивание, a Russian policy of forced land arrogation and imprisonment of upper middle class landowners; it has no equivalent in English. Feldman often refers to the struggle of this policy, though whether struggle refers to the process itself or its resistance is unclear from the text. The protagonist of the novel is Tzesar, a member of the Party, assigned the task of finding kuzaks, the definition of which depended on everything from income to gossip to the whims of officials. Much of the action concerns the landowner Rushkov, who continually eludes Tzesar’s definitions by hiding livestock, selling surplus to his son and buying it back again the next day, and, once, pretending to be his own father, long deceased; every time Tsezar visits Rushkov’s farm, the dimensions of the land are different, sometimes ending a foot off of his house, sometimes encompassing miles of forest; in one scene, Tzesar’s state vehicle is declared on Rushkov’s land, and Rushkov takes possession of it and goes on a joyride. The effect on the modern reader is almost slapstick, though critics debate whether the humor was intended, or whether it was as funny to the reader of the era. As Rushkov is described in the text as “boorish,” “piggish”, “fat” and “lascivious”, it is commonly thought that he was a satirical figure, embodying the excesses and venality of the wealthy landowner. However, the verbal and mental dexterity of Rushkov problematize this reading (he has been called Falstaffian more than once). It is entirely possible that Rushkov was in fact the protagonist of Struggle, and that the reader was meant to identify with the feints and dodges of the clever landowner against the dour bureaucrat Tzesar; and that Rushkov’s eventual defeat—in the end his land is taken from him, and he is seen last boarding a train, bound for where the reader can now surmise—symbolized the futility of resistance against Stalinist economic policies. This thesis was advanced by the American literary critic Holloway, who wrote the sole book-length reading of Struggle, in which he theorized that the remove of the narrative focus from Rushkov was intentional, that the distance the reader had to traverse was meant to mirror the distance Rushkov had to traverse to appear human to Tzesar, and that in making the reader struggle to know Rushkov Feldman recreated in the reader the struggle of identity in 1930s Russia, thus fusing form and theme. It should be noted that this theory is wrong, as Struggle is not the actual title of the book.
I met my mother for Brunch at the Pomegranate, an organic-only joint off Melrose. I arrived before her, my mother having been late to every event in memory, and waiting in the bright dining room I realized how long it had been since I’d left the Brodsky. I lived on the third floor of the building, took my meals in its restaurant, my drinks in its bar; newspapers were left outside my door, books delivered through the convenience store, clothes tailored, shoes shined. For so long had I crouched in those crepuscular booths that I’d forgotten there were places like the Pomegranate, white tables with cream cushioned chairs, primary colors dashing from the walls, windowsills bursting with sunflowers. It was an insubstantial place, sure, but it felt a bit of a relief as well.
A waiter brought my mother over at last. Her hair was still its compromise-brown, but her blue eyes were swift behind her glasses; I watched them do a thorough inventory of my appearance, then betray nothing of what they saw.
Because she disdained pleasantries, I dove right in: “We need to talk about Pop.”
“Is he losing it?”
“That’s…a crass summary.”
“Don’t you think the time for pussyfooting is over when you’re eighty-two years old?”
“I might appreciate people being respectful of me when I’m that age.”
Unlike most people, my mother didn’t use her neck when she shook her head; it was a tight and devastating movement of her face that said your argument was barely worth the muscles necessary to deny it.
“If people are still bullshitting me when I’m in my eighties I will be furious. That goes especially for you. Don’t be one of these children who talks to their elderly parents like they’re simple. I won’t have spent all those decades on this earth to end up dumb.”
“Noted. So Pop is losing it, in your words.”
“What are his words for it?”
“I don’t think he’s realized it. Do…” I searched for terms. “Do, um…”
“Stop trying to be polite,” my mother said. “Just speak the words that have most direct relation to the thought you want express.”
“Do people with dementia realize what’s happening to them?”
“Your grandmother did. You were at college, you didn’t see most of it. It absolutely enraged her. You should know she acquired quite the potty mouth in her later years: fuck this, fucking that, shit, shit, shit. But she called it The Thief. It was like her brain was a jewelry store, and this thief kept sneaking in and snatching things from her.”
“Are those her words or yours?”
“Oh, the metaphor was entirely hers, and she was quite proud of it. We’d go to the Four Seasons or somewhere for Mother’s Day, or some day, you know, those days that require everybody go to a restaurant and perform family. She’d forget something, even if it was basic, a date, a name of somebody she hadn’t seen in twenty years, and she’d absolutely smack the dishware in anger. She’d say, ‘Fucking thief,’ and look at me and say, ‘Did you know I have a thief that breaks into my head and takes things from me?’ The poor waiters at those things. They never could contain her. Speaking of waiters.”
A man in a pomegranate-hued polo shirt had arrived tableside. “No food,” my mother said. “A glass of Pinot Grigio.”
“For you, sir?”
“Just a bottle of water.”
“Don’t hold back in front of your mother. If you want liquor, order it.”
“I don’t want liquor.” I handed our two menus to the server. “One glass of Pinot, one bottle of water.” I paused. “Please.”
He retrieved our drinks. My mother took a long sip of her Pinot and smiled. “Tastes sunshine-y,” she said. “What’s Dad forgetting?”
“He confused me with my father.”
“Ha,” she said, not at all laugh but a mirthless placeholder. Her gaze zagged about the room as if wishing she’d chosen a place with a more relenting aesthetic. Quieter: “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Is it supposed to? Isn’t that why they call it dementia?”
“Your grandmother was sharp till the very end. You could tell she knew the words she wanted, she just couldn’t grab them. Then again—” My mother tried to hide her pause behind her glass of wine.
“Don’t be polite,” I said. “Please finish your sentence.”
“Your grandmother was always much sharper than your grandfather. She earned her own money. Your grandfather just did what Moshe and those thugs told him to do.”
She grimaced, as if her thoughts were crashing into some rock she’d spent the whole conversation trying to avoid. “I’ll share with you something now,” she said after a moment. “I was very concerned about Dad and his, um, finances after Mom died. You think we could never run out of money. But. But but but. There are amazing ways to dispose of funds. None of us was ever in favor of that stupid hotel, certainly not Mom, who had to pay for it.”
My mother tapped the side of her empty glass with her nail. It was refilled. She took another ample sip, swished it around her mouth, gulped to the side, and turned back to me with a tightly enforced minimum of a smile. Had you known to look, which I did only because I’d uselessly ministered to her in the weeks following her mother’s death, my homecoming, you would have seen her swallow a sob in this sequence. This was so expert a disguise that some in our family had asked me, in those black-draped days, what kind of person doesn’t mourn.
“Yes,” she said at last. “Your grandfather, plus money, plus dementia. That is something you should be concerned about. You choose to spend your time around him. Does he have any opportunities to do something stupid?”
When I returned to the hotel, I was immediately informed that the great Mikhail Feldman needed to speak to me.
He’d been moved to the twelfth floor, up from the plebian fourth of his initial check-in. If only we had suites! He greeted me at the door of his room dressed in one of his new tailored blouses, a good silk thread, tucked into the trousers of one of his old olive suits. As he led me in I surveyed the room, the stacks of Russian texts on the floor, all those classics thumbed through for a quick literacy. I saw a copy of Chekov’s Collected on the nightstand; how deeply and rapidly must he have immersed himself to quote Chekhov, to render opinions about him? How long had he squatted in this room, in expensive shirts and poor pants, to come to the conclusion that Chekhov was too clinical?
“Have a seat,” Mike offered, and he was definitely Mike Feld again; the aura of Mikhail Feldman had no jurisdiction here. Next to him on the mattress, a copy of Struggle looked especially slight beside the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys on the floor. He held up the book. “Have you read it?”
“In college,” I answered.
“Did you like it?”
“It was funnier than I expected.” He wrinkled his brow at his own expression. “Perhaps funny is not the word I’m looking for.”
“Yes. I expected a more serious novel. Let’s see here.” He flipped open to the bookmarked page, towards the beginning; the bookmark, I noticed, looked quite like a check. “This is from the introduction.” He cleared his throat. “‘Feldman’s novel is a deep and affecting exploration into the inherent ironies of Dekalukization, but in his reliance upon comedic details over insightful ones, he limits the force of his observations. Rather than give us a timeless and universal archetype of the peasant’s struggle against totalitarianism, Struggle instead is fretted in time and place; it is not a tale about all governments and all subjects, just a story about one landowner and one bureaucrat. Timeless literature requires its truths be portable, capable of being smuggled across borders and down through history. It is the ultimate irony of Struggle that it falls victim to the very ossification against which it protests.’” He shut the book. “Is that true?”
I shrugged. “You are a minor notch in Russian literary history.”
“I had no idea my truths were not portable. Perhaps that’s why my life has not gone as planned.”
“If you’re looking for pity—”
“No,” he said, more forcefully than he might have intended. “I have never asked for pity, never charity. But I have come to an unfortunate point in my life in which my ability to make money is, how you say it—at odds with honesty.” He laid the book on the bedspread and patted it once, as if it were alive and needed to calmed. “Young man,” he said, “I would have loved to retire off the earnings of my business. You know, Mike Feld Restaurant Supplies…it’s not flashy. It’s not a hotel. But it didn’t deserve failure. I didn’t deserve to fail.” He held out his hands, cupping the air in front of him, then nothingness. “I do not have family to fall back on. This is where I have come to.”
He removed the bookmark and handed it to me. It was from my grandparents’ joint trust, made out to Mikhail Feldman. I dangled the rectangle, as if the extra zeros and commas might fall off.
“This is the first of the checks your grandfather intends to pay me. He wants be secure through the end of my life, so that I can write, so that Mikhail Feldman can produce literature without that pisher Stalin peering over his shoulder. It is, though, the last of his checks I intend to take. Young man, your grandfather thinks I’m Mikhail Feldman—and before you go and blame all on his senility, keep in mind that he has convinced most of the people of this hotel of that, and they are, how you say, in full possession of their faculties. I could probably get many people I meet from here on out to think I’m Mikhail Feldman. But,” he said, thumbing the pages of Struggle like a small fan, “my bank will not think I am him. Which makes this check of no use to me.”
He set the check down on top of the book next to him, a stack of failed writing.
“Why don’t you get him to write you another one?” I asked.
“He is insistent we both return to our Russian names. Anything less is a compromise, and I haven’t been able to convince him otherwise.” He was rubbing his finger along the perforated edge of the check. “You, however, might be able to. During his moments, when he is clear, he trusts you. If you tell him that it will be easier, with the banks and all, to make the check out to Mike Feld, he might be less inclined to lecture you on the, how you say it—issues of identity.”
Mike Feld held the check out to me, as he had initially his business card. “If you can get me this check with the right name on it,” he said, “I will split it with you.”
I prepared a fiction for my grandfather concerning the second disappearance of Mikhail Feldman. In it, Mikhail used a small portion of my grandfather’s sponsorship had to travel back to Russia, back to Peredelkino, for the first time in fifty years. He longed to see his homeland, freed from the Tzesars of the world, in full eruption. Once there, of course, he would stay, with promises to send us a manuscript of his first work in more than fifty years, his writing no doubt invigorated by the new draft of his country.
I needn’t have bothered. Leo Brodsky’s memory soon lost its tether, leaving him in wild centrifugal swoops that would render him fine every other day and mad in between. The Mikhail Feldman of recent drama and the old one of his recollections merged and blurred; most of the time he couldn’t remember the fate of either. He spotted the writer occasionally, telling me that he had been drinking with Mikhail just that afternoon, and when his attention wandered I was out of my seat and across the hotel to the bar, where I interrogated every staff member I could find. But they told me that not only had they not seen Mike Feld, but my grandfather hadn’t been there either. “He must be confused,” they’d say, and though this was always the result, I still assiduously chased Mike Feld’s ghost every time it was invoked.
About once a week my grandfather confused me with my father and demanded security have me removed. In private discussions with the staff we agreed upon a set performance, in which the security guards pretended to haul me away until we were out of his view. Sometimes he would greet me five minutes later with my given name and a hug. Sometimes not. Either way, it was a depressing fulfillment of Mike Feld’s prophecy, that this substitution would occur more and more frequently, until one day I would be so branded in my grandfather’s mind. He screamed this timeline at me as two guards dragged him down the hallway of the twelfth floor of the Brodsky, warned me that it was only a matter of time until my grandfather permanently mistook me for someone I wasn’t and deprived me of my inheritance, that I was a fool not to take his offer.
I watched from the middle of the hall as he was removed. When he saw his reasoning had no effect on me, he began to beg. “Please, no,” he said to the two thugs pulling him away, “to do this to an old man, is a shanda.” He faced me. “To do this to an old man, it’s a shanda!” They dragged him around the corner and he disappeared from sight, poof. Like the original Mikhail Feldman, I have no idea how he ended. I can’t bear to even think about it.
Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Taxes State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in more than a dozen journals, including Post Road, Arcturus, Oddville Press and more. He was a finalist for the 2017 Al-Simāk Award for Fiction and the 2016 Glimmer Train Fiction Open.