This is part two of a two-part fiction piece featured in our summer 2019 issue. Read part one here.
THE FOLLOWING MONDAY THEY strike the Bugler again. This time the paint dries quickly and it takes Pechkin all day to scrub the monument clean. The next morning the local paper has a standalone photograph of Pechkin, soaked in sweat, kneeling before the pedestal, a plaid handkerchief tied at four corners into a pathetic improvised yarmulke to shield his bald spot from the sun. The caption reads: “Antoinette wakes up to Juneteenth surprise.”
They splash the Bugler again the week following. Then three days after that. A TV crew drives up from Austin. The local paper overflows with letters to the editor; a town hall is convened. Several attendees call for a police officer to be placed next to the statue, but the police chief explains that he does not have enough officers on staff. Dr. Nowak assures the scandalized citizenry that Parks and Rec Department remains committed to the monument, and requests additional funding for paint stripper. A tall woman in heavy makeup and fashionable athletic clothes complains that her toddlers have begun finding condoms, again, at the playground that abuts Oak Ridge. Before this whole rigmarole with the Bugler, Pechkin saw to it that the condoms were gone each morning before preschoolers arrived at the playground, but maintaining the Bugler has become a full-time job and Pechkin barely has enough time to do his usual rounds.
“Y’all are wearing me out,” someone says loudly, and Pechkin cranes to see an older Black woman rise from her seat two rows back from the podium where Dr. Nowak sits between the police chief and two men in suits. The woman is wearing a black felt pillbox hat with black voile pinned up with a large sparkly brooch. “Y’all are carrying on about protecting a statue Mother Jones magazine called one of the ten most racist monuments in the South, and meanwhile, my precinct needs roads, the town needs a more efficient recycling facility, and Freedmen’s Memorial has received no support from the town of Antoinette. Zero. I know, I know,” she raises a hand and the murmur in the room subsides, “y’all don’t care about Mother Jones magazine. But y’all do care about Antoinette, as do I, and I tell you, my fellow citizens”—she emphasizes the word fellow—“it doesn’t look good right now. Undignified is all. A lot of nonsense is all.”
“Thank you, Councilwoman, that’ll be all,” says one of the civilian men next to Dr. Nowak, and someone in the audience sniggers. Dr. Nowak and the three men all rise to indicate that the town hall is adjourned, and Pechkin realizes there are no other Black people in the room.
“Councilwoman Johnson’s timing is inappropriate, as always,” Dr. Nowak tells Pechkin when he meets her by the exit.
“Yes, of course,” agrees Pechkin. “You are working very hard, Doctor.”
This is all very confusing to him, the town hall, that anachronistic Black woman dressed like Marilyn Monroe from the movies.
“Excuse me, Doctor. That vogue woman in hat. She said Freed Man Memorial receives zero support. About what memorial she means?”
“The re-interment,” Dr. Nowak says. “Something to do with slavery. The African-American community wanted the memorial to be downtown, but there was some resistance to that. Understandably.” Her many eyes roll in unison. “The city did pay for putting them in the segregated cemetery across the tracks and it paid for the grave markers. And now we are supposed to maintain it. I was going to tell you later, once you’ve established a routine. It’s not a priority. Especially not now.”
THAT SATURDAY AT THE supermarket Pechkin is studying bean cans as he walks down the canned vegetables aisle and, paying no attention to oncoming traffic, he rams Councilwoman Johnson’s grocery cart with his.
“Oy, oh my, I am so sorry,” he says. “Madame Councilwoman, forgive me please.”
Up close she is even more astonishing. She must be at least ten years his senior but she is wearing a tight-fitting black knee-length dress and stockings—stockings in the summer, in Texas!—and a different hat, this one ivory-colored with a purple butterfly embroidered on the side. Not Marilyn Monroe: a Bolshoi Theater prima, he thinks. A Fabergé egg. She looks him up and down and says:
“Ah. I recognize you. You’re the janitor assigned to clean our—hallowed— Confederate statues. Good day,” and she yanks her cart backward and pushes past him.
“Yes—thank you Madame—excuse me, excuse me, I must to ask.”
She stops, turns.
“I hear an accent. New to Antoinette? Where are you from?”
He has only ever spoken to a Black woman twice in his life: the first time in the early ‘80s, before Varya was born, when he was assigned to give a tour of the Tretyakov to a group of African students from Patrice Lumumba University, and the second when he landed at Dallas Fort Worth and the passport control officer who allowed him into America was a Black woman. Before the Councilwoman he feels kind of the way he felt at passport control: tiny, insignificant, shy like an elementary school boy. But he must ask, this is his chance.
“Moscow, Madame. Excuse me, I must to ask about Freed Man. It is statue? I must to clean it too? They just tell me. Doctor Nowak. But I don’t know where. I must to see it, please, Madame Councilwoman. Can you show me?”
He can feel her inventory his appearance methodically, north to south: his balding head, his nose hair, his striped polo tucked into a pair of cargo shorts, his hairy legs in white socks and brown leather sandals. Then she peers into his cart: bottles of kefir and two baguettes and a bag of potatoes, a pale northern palette. Her own cart is a riot of leafy greens and some kind of fruit he doesn’t recognize and large vermillion slabs of meat; he spots two bottles of red wine with yellow kangaroo labels behind a box of granola.
“Okay, Rooski, I’ll show you. Tomorrow after I bring Mr. Johnson home from church. Three o’clock? I’ll meet you at the parking lot outside the supermarket. Have a blessed day. Oh, and welcome to Antoinette.”
THE COUNCILWOMAN NARRATES ANTOINETTE’S East Side from behind the wheel of her white Cadillac sedan in hopscotch sentences.
“This is our Boys and Girls Club. This is where our English teacher used to live. This is where our first Black school used to be. They burned it down. This house, this man, he died, that’s historical. This is a church, we got too many churches. This is a crack area. This is the former pastor of that church down here, this used to be his house.”
This is Pechkin’s first time on this side of the tracks. Deputations of wooden porchless homes look away from him, backyard weeds grow tall. No flagstone sidewalks here, no landscaped rows of regal live oaks, no quaint antique stores selling enameled thimbles and porcelain-faced dolls—no shops at all. Iridescent slime fills deep potholes; he imagines alligators. The Councilwoman navigates the beaten streets in a navy pantsuit with pearl buttons and a cream-and-navy cloche hat with a pearl pin shaped like a daisy. He realizes, with admiration, that the pearls match the car.
People in passing cars honk at the white Cadillac and the Councilwoman waves back.
“This is another church. You don’t see any supermarkets, though, do you? You read The Guardian? There was a good article a couple months ago about food apartheid. That’s what we got here. Because the system is rigged. So many Black farmers in the county but the whites get all the subsidies. No one is investing in our health. Physical or mental. Oh, that’s our funeral home director, hang on, I gotta tell him something.” She slows down and leans out the window. “Hey Mr. D!”
“How y’all doin’ Miss Rose?”
“Oh just fine thank you. But listen, I need you to stop putting glass in your recycling. It’s plastic one and two and cardboard only around here. Like it always was.”
“Okay Miss Rose.”
She rolls up the window. “Same darn thing for six years. That’s when we got the facility. Some people never learn. And I’m the one who gets in trouble. Okay, here we go.”
She takes a sharp turn into a metal gate flung open. Above it, wrought iron rods twist into the words HOMEGOING FIELD. Beyond it, a nearly treeless expanse, flat and wide, fenced in chain link, flanked by pastureland. As they drive through the cemetery’s unevenly paved paths, the Councilwoman continues the tour without changing her tone.
“That used to be one of our Spanish teachers. That’s my mother and father and two twin brothers over there. That’s a boy got killed by the cops in Dallas. That’s a young man got killed by the cops in Louisiana. That’s Mr. Jackson, he founded the first Black school in Antoinette, the one they burned down. That’s his mother over there, she was the first educated woman in her family. That’s a boy that was one of our talented football players, was going off to college but got into some sort of drugs, I don’t know, they killed him.”
Notes from the underground, Pechkin thinks—but what strikes him the most are the flowers. Technicolor silk roses, neon plastic carnations, silk violets of extraterrestrial blue frame hem every tombstone, and there are also teddy bears and half-melted candles and the kind of little ceramic angels his aunts back in Russia displayed in their holiday crystal cabinets and what to Pechkin looks like bags of candy. The graveyard is messily, unabashedly alive. No such frivolousness in Oak Ridge. At the end farthest from the entrance the Councilwoman stops the car and turns off the engine.
“Okay, here it is. Freedmen’s Memorial. Come on.” They step outside.
Twenty-four flat square grave markers flush to the grass like stepping stones. Arranged in a rectangle. Each stone about as wide as Pechkin’s feet are long. The etched inscriptions read: “Unknown Infant.” “Unknown Child.” “Unknown Adult.” No plastic flowers. Grass grows between them, creeps over them, insatiable.
Flat grave markers in general unsettle Pechkin. There are a few at Oak Ridge, in the newer parts of the cemetery. In Russia all grave markers were raised, most were vertical, like his parents’ and his wife’s. Flat markers flush with the ground remind Pechkin of that scene from “Schindler’s List” in which the Nazis pave a road with Jewish tombstones. All the “unknowns” at Freedmen’s Memorial make him think of the cenotaph to the Unknown Soldier beside the Kremlin, the one with the Eternal Flame. No flame here, not even a sign.
“What happened?” he says.
“What happened?” she repeats, as if she has never thought about it before. “Let’s see. A few years back there was a drought. The big reservoir they built in the ‘80s receded quite a bit and they found remains of two enslaved children. Or maybe sharecropper children, but they were working for the same Mississippi planter who had brought them all here. So. Anyhow, they dug and found more remains. Children mostly, a couple adults. Antoinette is the nearest town to the reservoir. We wanted them buried in Antoinette. The town said they had no room downtown. Of course. So. Here they are.”
Her voice grows quieter, her sentences fray, until it’s just the fence chinking in the wind. On the other side of the fence, cattle graze in slow sun. Pechkin notes: no birds.
“That reservoir,” the Councilwoman says, after a silence. “No one knows if they knew about the cemetery or not when they built it. The Army Corps of Engineers. They ought to keep track of such things. But maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s the same old nonsense. Some people won’t have none of our memories, only their own, you know what I’m sayin’? Memory is a strange thing. For example.” She tilts her head and her gaze wanders toward the cow pasture and sort of beyond it. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was lynched just south of here. My mother used to show us that tree when we were kids. And then they cut it down. And I never even took a picture of it. Was it an oak tree? A maple tree? I don’t remember.”
She adjusts her hat and looks straight at him.
“Anyway, I showed you. Now, you will come and maintain it for us or what?”
Pechkin doesn’t know what to do with what he just heard. This is so intimate, so foreign to him. Sure, one of his great-uncles was killed under Stalin before he was born, but so many people were killed back then, and Pechkin and the rest of his family did very well in Moscow. What would it have been like if he had grown up in Siberia next to the camps, if his mother had pointed them out to him on their walks from school in early winter when young snow hushed all in purple evening darkness, and if then one day the camps had just poof, disappeared?
Then it occurs to him that he used to pass by the Lubyanka KGB headquarters almost weekly, and who was to say that his great-uncle hadn’t been among the thousands of people tortured and maybe murdered in its dungeons? What’s that metro station called? Still Lubyanka, isn’t it? And then there is Revolution Square, where he used to buy roses for his wife’s birthday every year from that nice lady vendor beneath the exquisite Florentine mosaics. And Ilyich Square, named after Lenin’s patronymic, a fabulous, streamlined design of red and white marble and labradorite... And Pechkin realizes that he had never paid any attention to these placenames, because when you are constantly and irrevocably surrounded, doomed to daily encounters with the infernal, you shut these things down, stop noticing them, disappear their politics, transmute them into something else—a flower vendor, a mural, an example of beautiful décor—otherwise you’ll just go insane, otherwise you will not survive.
The Councilwoman is looking at him, head cocked, waiting.
“Yes Madame. Yes, I will come and maintain.”
After they get in the car he summons the courage to ask if she wishes the tree had not been cut down. The Councilwoman doesn’t respond. Maybe she can’t hear him. He is ashamed to ask again, ashamed to have asked in the first place. In silence they drive out of Homegoing Field, past the churches and the burned-down school, and then, as the Cadillac rattles over the railroad tracks, she says, “I don’t know.”
“Excuse me, what, Madame?”
“I said I don’t know. The tree.” She keeps her eyes on the road, her hands on the steering wheel. In the late afternoon light he can see drops of perspiration on her chin, two long coarse grey hairs on her lower jaw. He remembers how his wife would study her chin in the bathroom mirror for stray hairs, thrusting her bottom lip up in a way that was so unattractive and so endearing at once. “I think—for me? For me, yes, I would want to show my children. But I don’t know if I would want my children to see it.”She pulls into the supermarket parking lot and he opens the door and steps out, turns toward her and, holding open the passenger door of the Cadillac with one hand, says, “Thank you, Madame Councilwoman.” For some reason, he can’t tell why, he bows. He feels so inadequate, so bereft. And he thinks of the art deco vine and the grackles in the live oaks and he imagines how consoling it would be to stand under those trees before the marble majesty of the Commander’s obelisk with this beautiful, beautiful woman, this regal dame, the most noble lady of Antoinette.
“Madame, it is my great honor to very respectfully invite you to visit one very calming and beautiful memorial to a very noble Commander very close to here in Oak Ridge Cemetery,” and she looks at him from under the brim of her hat with eyes suddenly so much deeper than anything he’d ever seen, layers of grief and revulsion, and a color he has seen no piece of art convey, deeper and older than anything he has ever seen, deeper than the stone vines growing out of the Commander’s heart. She says nothing to him, nothing at all, and he knows that he must now very gently shut the car door.