THE FIRST SKELETON
My father's photograph was still in my hand.
I needed now to make a detour on the way to my visit with Raya Singh. I looked at the index card. The First Skeleton. Implication: There would be more than one.
But let's start with this one, my father.
There was only one person who could help me when it came to my dad and his potential skeletons. I took out my cell phone and held down the number six. I rarely called this number, but it was still on my speed dial. My guess is, it would always be.
He answered on the first ring in his low rumble of a voice. "Paul."
Even the one word was thick with accent.
"Hi, Uncle Sosh."
Sosh wasn't really my uncle. He was a close family friend from the old country. I hadn't seen him in three months, not since my fathers funeral, but as soon as I heard his voice, I instantly saw the big bear of a man. My father said that Uncle Sosh had been the most powerful and feared man in Pulkovo, the town on the outskirts of Leningrad where they'd both been raised.
"Its been too long," he said.
"I know. I'm sorry about that."
"Acch," he said, as though disgusted by my apology. "But I thought that you would call today."
That surprised me. "Why?"
"Because, my young nephew, we need to talk."
"About why I never talk about anything over the phone."
Sosh's business was, if not illegal, on the shadier side of the street.
"I'm at my place in the city." Sosh had an expansive penthouse on 36th Street in Manhattan. "When can you be here?"
"Half an hour if there's no traffic," I said.
"Splendid. I will see you then."
He waited. I looked at the photograph of my father on the passenger seat.
"Can you give me an idea what it's about?"
"It's about your past, Pavel," he said through that thick accent, using my Russian name. "It's about what should stay in your past."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"We'll talk," he said again. And then he hung up.
There was no traffic, so the ride to Uncle Sosh's was closer to twenty-five minutes. The doorman wore one of those ridiculous uniforms with rope tassels. The look, interestingly enough with Sosh living here, re minded me of something Brezhnev would have worn for the May Day parade. The doorman knew my face and had been told that I was arriving. If the doorman isn't told in advance, he doesn't ring up. You just don't get in.
Sosh's old friend Alexei stood at the elevator door. Alexei Kokorov had worked security for Sosh, had for as long as I could remember. He was probably in his late sixties, a few years younger than Sosh, and as ugly a man as you'd ever see. His nose was bulbous and red, his face filled with spider veins from, I assumed, too much drink. His jacket and pants didn't fit right, but his build was not the kind made for haute couture.
Alexei didn't seem happy to see me, but he didn't look like lots of laughs in general. He held the elevator door open for me. I stepped in without saying a word. He gave me a curt nod and let the door close. I was alone.
The elevator opened into the penthouse.
Uncle Sosh stood a few feet from the door. The room was huge. The furniture was cubist. The picture window showed off an incredible view, but the walls had this thick wallpaper, tapestry-like, in a color that probably had some fancy name like "Merlot" but looked to me like blood.
Sosh's face lit up when he saw me. He spread his hands wide. One of my most vivid childhood memories was the size of those hands. They were still huge. He had grayed over the years, but even now, when I calculated that he was probably in his early seventies, you still felt the size and power and something approaching awe.
I stopped outside the elevator.
"What," he said to me, "you too old for a hug now?"
We both stepped toward each other. The embrace was, per his Russian background, a true bear hug. Strength emanated from him. His forearms were still thick coils. He pulled me close, and I felt as though he could simply tighten his grip and snap my spine.
After a few seconds, Sosh grabbed my arms near the biceps and held me at arm's length so he could take a good look. "Your father," he said, his voice thick with more than accent this time. "You look just like your father."
Sosh had arrived from the Soviet Union not long after we did. He worked for In Tourist, the Soviet tour company, in their Manhattan office. His job was to help facilitate American tourists who wished to visit Moscow and what was then called Leningrad.
That was a long time ago. Since the fall of the Soviet government, he dabbled in that murky enterprise people labeled "import-export." I never knew what that meant exactly, but it had paid for this penthouse.
Sosh looked at me another moment or two. He wore a white shirt buttoned low enough to see the V-neck undershirt. A huge tuft of gray chest hair jutted out. I waited. This would not take long. Uncle Sosh was not one for casual talk.
As if reading my mind, Sosh looked me hard in the eye and said, "I have been getting calls." "From?" "Old friends." I waited. "From the old country," he said. "I'm not sure I follow." "People have been asking questions." "Sosh? "Yes?"
"On the phone you were worried about being overheard. Are you worried about that here?" "No. Here it is completely safe. I have the room swept weekly." "Great, then how about stopping with the cryptic and telling me what you're talking about?" He smiled. He liked that. "There are people. Americans. They are in Moscow and throwing money around and asking questions." I nodded to myself. "Questions about what?" "About your father." "What kind of questions?" "You remember the old rumors?"
"You're kidding me." But he wasn't. And in a weird way, it made sense. The First Skeleton. I should have guessed. I remembered the rumors, of course. They had nearly destroyed my family.
My sister and I were born in what was then called the Soviet Union during what was then called the Cold War. My father had been a medical doctor but lost his license on charges of incompetence trumped up because he was Jewish. That was how it was in those days.
At the same time, a reform synagogue here in the United States- Skokie, Illinois, to be more specific, was working hard on behalf of Soviet Jewry. During the midseventies, Soviet Jewry was something of a cause celebre in American temples getting Jews out of the Soviet Union.
We got lucky. They got us out.
For a long time we were heralded in our new land as heroes. My father spoke passionately at Friday night services about the plight of the Soviet Jew. Kids wore buttons in support. Money was donated. But about a year into our stay, my father and the head rabbi had a falling out, and suddenly there were whispers that my father had gotten out of the Soviet Union because he was actually KGB, that he wasn't even Jewish, that it was all a ruse. The charges were pathetic and contradictory and false and now, well, more than twenty-five years old.
I shook my head. "So they're trying to prove that my father was KGB?"
Frigid' Jenrette. I got it, I guessed. I was something of a public figure now. The charges, even if ultimately proven false, would be damaging. I should know. Twenty-five years ago, my family had lost pretty much everything due to those accusations. We left Skokie, moved east to Newark. Our family was never the same.
I looked up. "On the phone you said you'd thought I'd call."
"If you hadn't, I would have called you today." lo warn me?
"So," I said, "they must have something."
The big man did not reply. I watched his face. And it was as if my entire world, everything I grew up believing, slowly shifted.
"Was he KGB, Sosh?" I asked.
"It was a long time ago," Sosh said.
"Does that mean yes?"
Sosh smiled slowly. "You don't understand how it was."
"And again I say: Does that mean yes? "No, Pavel. But your father... maybe he was supposed to be."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Do you know how I came to this country?"
"You worked for a travel company."
"It was the Soviet Union, Pavel. There were no companies. In Tourist was run by the government. Everything was run by the government. Do you understand?" 1 guess.
"So when the Soviet government had a chance to send someone to live in New York City, do you think they sent the man who was most competent in booking vacations? Or do you think they sent someone who might help them in other ways?"
I thought about the size of his hands. I thought about his strength. "So you were KGB?"
"I was a colonel in the military. We didn't call it KGB. But yes, I guess you would call me"-he made quote marks with his fingers-" a spy' I would meet with American officials. I would try to bribe them. People always think we learn important things-things that can change the balance of power. That's such nonsense. We learned nothing relevant. Not ever. And the American spies? They never learned anything about us either. We passed nonsense from side to side. It was a silly game."
"And my father?"
"The Soviet government let him out. Your Jewish friends think that they applied enough pressure. But please. Did a bunch of Jews in a synagogue really think they could pressure a government that answered to no one? Its almost funny when you think about it." you're saying...?
"I'm just telling you how it was. Did your father promise he would help the regime? Of course. But it was just to get out. It's complicated, Pavel. You cant imagine what it was like for him. Your father was a good doctor and a better man. The government made up charges that he committed medical malpractice. They took away his license. Then your grandmother and grandfather... my God, Natasha's wonderful parents... you're too young to remember-"
"I remember," I said.
I wondered if I really did. I have that image of my grandfather, my Popi, and the shock of white hair and maybe his boisterous laugh, and my grandmother, my Noni, gently scolding him. But I was three when they were taken away. Did I really remember them, or has that old photo I still keep out come to life? Was it a real memory or something I'd created from my mother's stories?
"Your grandparents were intellectuals-university professors. Your grandfather headed the history department. Your grandmother was a brilliant mathematician. You know this, yes?"
I nodded. "My mother said she learned more from the debates at the dinner table than at school."
Sosh smiled. "Probably true. The most brilliant academics sought out your grandparents. But, of course, that drew the attention of the government. They were labeled radicals. They were considered dangerous. Do you remember when they were arrested?"
"I remember," I said, "the aftermath."
He closed his eyes for a long second. "What it did to your mother?"
"Natasha was never the same. You understand that?"
"So here he was, your father. He had lost so much-his career, his reputation, his license and now your mothers parents. And suddenly, down like he was, the government gave your father a way out. A chance for a fresh start."
"A life in the USA."
"And all he had to do was spy?"
Sosh waved a dismissive hand in my direction. "Don't you get it? It was a big game. What could a man like your father learn? Even if he tried-which he didn't. What could he tell them?"
"And my mother?"
"Natasha was just a woman to them. The government cared nothing for the woman. She was a problem for a while. Like I said, her parents, your grandparents, were radicals in their eyes. You say you remembered when they were taken?"
"I think I do."
"Your grandparents formed a group, trying to get the human rights abuses out to the public. They were making headway until a traitor turned them in. The agents came at night."
"What?" I said.
"This isn't easy to talk about. What happened to them."
I shrugged. "You can't hurt them now."
He did not reply.
"What happened, Sosh?"
"They were sent to a gulag- a work camp. The conditions were terrible. Your grandparents were not young. You know how it ended?"
"They died," I said.
Sosh turned away from me then. He moved over to the window. He had a great view of the Hudson. There were two mega-cruise ships in port. You could turn to the left and even see the Statue of Liberty. Manhattan is so small, eight miles from end to end, and like with Sosh, you just always feels its power.
"Sosh?" When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "Do you know how they died?" "Like you said before. The conditions were terrible. My grandfather had a heart condition."
He still hadn't turned toward me. "The government wouldn't treat him. Wouldn't even give him his medicine. He was dead within three months."
"So what aren't you telling me, Sosh?"
"Do you know what happened to your grandmother?"
"I know what my mother told me."
"Tell me," he said.
"Noni got sick too. With her husband gone, her heart sorta gave out. You hear about it all the time in long-term couples. One dies, then the other gives up."
He said nothing.
"In a sense," he said, "I guess that was true."
In a sense:
Sosh kept his eyes on whatever was out the window. "Your grand mother committed suicide."
My body stiffened. I started shaking my head.
"She hung herself with a sheet."
I just sat there. I thought of that picture of my Noni. I thought of that knowing smile. I thought of the stories my mother told me about her, about her sharp mind and sharper tongue. Suicide.
"Did my mother know?" I asked.
"She never told me."
"Maybe I shouldn't have either."
"Why did you?"
"I need you to see how it was. Your mother was a beautiful woman.
So lovely and delicate. Your father adored her. But when her parents were taken and then, well, put to death really, she was never the same. You sensed it, yes? A melancholy there? Even before your sister."
I said nothing, but I had indeed sensed it.
"I guess I wanted you to know how it was," he said. "For your mother. So maybe you'd understand more." "Sosh?" He waited. He still had not turned from the window. "Do you know where my mother is?" The big man didn't answer for a long time. "Sosh?" "I used to know," he said. "When she first ran away." I swallowed. "Where did she go?" "Natasha went home." "I don't understand." "She ran back to Russia." "Why?" "You can't blame her, Pavel." "I don't. I want to know why." "You can run away from your homelike they did. You try to change.
You hate your government but never your people. Your homeland is your homeland. Always."
He turned to me. Our eyes locked.
"And that's why she ran?"
He just stood there.
"That was her reasoning?" I said, almost shouting. I felt something in my blood tick. "Because her homeland was always her homeland?"
"You're not listening."
"No, Sosh, I'm listening. Your homeland is your homeland. That's a load of crap. How about your family is your family? How about your husband is your husband-or more to the point, how about your son is your son?"
He did not reply.
"What about us, Sosh? What about me and Dad?"
"I don't have an answer for you, Pavel."
"Do you know where she is now?"
"Is that the truth?"
"But you could find her, couldn't you?"
He didn't nod but he didn't shake his head either.
"You have a child," Sosh said to me. "You have a good career."
"So this is all so long ago. The past is for the dead, Pavel. You don't want to bring the dead back. You want to bury them and move on." "My mother isn't dead," I said. "Is she?" "I don't know." "So why are you talking about the dead? And Sosh? While we're talking about the dead, here's one more thing to chew over"-I couldn't stop myself, so I just said it-"I'm not even sure my sister is dead any more."
I expected to see shock on his face. I didn't. He barely seemed surprised.
"To you," he said.
"To me, what?"
"To you," he said, "they should both be dead."