Literature | Tumbalalaika

A short story from The Meaning of Children

I f I’m sleeping when the arguing starts, their voices will get louder and louder till they break into my dreams. It happened again last night. I woke up and lay there, listening in the dark. Maybe I should have been afraid but I wasn’t. For one thing, they never yelled at us kids, and for another, it happened so often that I’d grown used to it. Besides, I learned a lot when they fought. My sister Lisa was awake too, standing in her crib, fingers in her mouth, eyes shiny and round as marbles. I got out of bed and walked down the hallway to see what was going on this time.

They were standing in the small dining area, spitting distance apart, leaning toward each other, their faces angry and pink. They made a shape almost like a heart, broken at the bottom and lopsided because my mother was about a foot shorter than my dad. She was pretty, green-eyed with freckles and dark curly hair she said had turned to straw since she had children. She wore black slacks and a royal blue cashmere sweater, her favourite, bought before she quit working to have us kids. Those were the days, she would say, when she spent a hundred dollars on a pair of shoes without batting an eyelash. She was slowly ruining that sweater in the washing machine; she couldn’t afford to dry clean it.

My dad raised his hairy fist to his chin. He’d been on the YMHA boxing team before they were married. “Keep it up, Andrea,” he said, shaking his fist at her, “just you keep it up.”

“What are you going to do, hit me?” my mother shouted back. She pointed a finger in my direction. “Karen’s standing right there.”

My dad turned his head and locked eyes with me, then hauled off and smashed his fist through the white wall beside them. There was a loud crash and then a very round, dark hole. I ran and jumped back into bed, telling Lisa she better lie down, too.

What shocked me most was that a wall could be so thin. I always imagined they were rock-hard. Solid brick, all the way through.

So today, when he said we were going to Chomedey to see our new house and my mother said no, we would just go to look at the flat and they’d make their decision later, I was pretty sure no matter what she said, we’d be moving into that house or flat, whatever that was. My dad was much bigger and louder, with black hair, not just on his head but all over, even on the backs of his hands. He had brown eyes and reddish sideburns. He let me stack his coins at the poker games he played on Saturday afternoons.

My mother was desperate to leave Montreal for the suburbs, where she said kids had the space to run around and make noise. She made it sound like so much fun, as though we’d be yelling and roaring and banging on pots with wooden spoons all the time, like in Where the Wild Things Are. She was sneaky that way. Until she said that about the noise, I felt pretty awful about moving. We’d lived in the apartment on Cote Saint Catherine Road since before I was born. Of course I thought it was perfect: it was the only home I’d ever known. Across the street was a big park, its swings set in the trees, like the middle of a forest, so you could swing in the cool shade instead of baking in the sun all the time. If you wanted to bake, there was the sandbox. The playground also had a twisting line of cement tubes, the ones at either end decorated with red wood like an engine and a caboose, so together the whole thing looked like a train, and a wading pool. My mother didn’t like the pool. She said she was afraid of water because she never learned to swim. I think maybe she was also afraid of germs from all the other kids, but she didn’t like us to know it.

On the corner of our block was an apartment building with two cement lions on either side of the front steps. Whenever we rode on them, my mother always stood right next to my sister, in case she fell off. Lisa was a daredevil climber, part monkey, my mother would say. Once we found her on top of a book shelf as tall as my dad. Lisa was too young to be afraid but my mother said it was fear that makes you careful, so it was her job to be afraid for Lisa.

I also liked living around the corner from my grandparents. I visited them almost every day. My Bubby always had ginger ale in her fridge and bright coloured hard candies in a heavy crystal dish on the coffee table in the living room. My Zaida would pick me up and hug me. “Mamashayne,” he would say – little mother – and then he’d kiss one spot on my cheek three times – “muh, muh, muh!” Their street had just had a name change, from Maplewood to Edouard Montpetit. My mother said the new name was part of a plot to erase all the English from Montreal. My dad said, “Andrea,” in that way he had – as though her name was really much longer – whenever she said something he didn’t like.

My mother said we had to move because the apartment was getting too small; sometimes she’d joke that we were getting too big. But I really thought we were moving to get away from my grandparents. My mother was always saying they were too close. I thought that was funny, because they were her parents.

Sometimes my parents argued about this, too. “She’s so domineering. It’s not enough that we come to her forShabbos dinner every Friday, but when we can’t, she makes me send you over to pick up the food,” my mother complained. My dad would tell her Bubby was just trying to do something nice for her, so my mother would have less work, not having to make supper on Fridays – usually chicken soup, roast chicken, store-bought varenikas and canned wax beans, with canned pears or home-made fruit cake for dessert – but my mother would shake her head and say, “You don’t know her. All my life she’s been telling me what to do. You don’t know what it costs me, every time I have to take anything from her.”

Our car was a new black Pontiac Stratochief with red seats and a shiny black steering wheel. There was a chrome Indian in a big headdress stuck on the door to the glove compartment. It was only May, just starting to get hot, though the car was steaming inside from sitting on the street in the sun, all closed up. I rolled down my window and looked through the hot breeze, searching for rare license plates from other provinces. Our license plates used to say la belle province which means “the beautiful province” in French. Now they read Je me souviens. That means “I remember.” “I remember what?” my mother asked, first time she saw them. Then she answered her own question: “I remember how great it was here before the English came.” I don’t know why she was always so mad about it; we weren’t even English. We were Jewish.

When my sister fell asleep in her car seat right away, instead of bugging me the whole time the way she usually did, I thought the ride there wouldn’t be too bad. We drove down Decarie to Laurentian Boulevard, past Canadair (a factory that made planes), and a field that made me think of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. On this field, black men in the whitest short-sleeved shirts, long pants and shoes I ever saw played a game called cricket. My dad said it was like baseball. I thought it was a babyish name for a game played by adults. Then there was about fifteen minutes of stopping and going, because they were fixing the bridge. Chomedey was so far away, it was on a different island. To get there, we had to go over the back river. I wanted to know if there were any beaches we could go to on the back river. My dad said the water was too dirty to swim in. He pressed on the horn and said, “In this province, there are only two seasons: winter and road work.” Then he started singing his favourite song, a Yiddish love song, “Tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalaika … ”

By the time we got over the bridge, I was nauseous. I took after my dad that way. Before every long trip, like to the mountains we called ‘up north,’ to the drive-in at Plattsburgh, or going camping at Lake George, he would tell us that whenever he went on a drive as a kid, he brought along two empty apple juice cans – one for the way there, the other for the way back. He’s better now, but maybe only because he’s the driver. Of course, I was too young to drive. I had no choice but to feel sick, but only sometimes. He used to get sick every time. But he’d always bring an empty apple juice can along for me. Just in case.

After almost an hour’s drive, we finally arrived. I opened the door, hopped out, and threw myself down on the ground. This lawn didn’t look anything like the cricket field. This Chomedey lawn was full of thick, sharp blades of grass, yellow dandelions, and cracked brown bald spaces. The sky was blue, edged with white. There was a very young tree, just planted, still tied to a wooden stick that my mother told me later was there to make sure it grew up straight. “Sort of like a parent,” I said. She laughed. “Like a parent, except that stick didn’t make the tree. A seed did.”

She said this kind of house was called a duplex, two houses stuck together, one on top of the other.

“Which part’s for us?” I asked.

“The upstairs,” my dad said.

“Maybe,” said my mother.

“Andrea,” my dad said, making her name sound very long.

I used my arm to shield my eyes from the sun, waiting for my stomach to figure out we’d stopped moving. Sometimes that took a while. Meantime my parents rang the bell of the bottom half of the duplex and the landlord came out. His name was Benny Laxer. He was a dentist and a friend of my uncle the accountant, the youngest of my dad’s seven brothers and sisters and the only one who went to university. My mother’s favourite sister had also gone to university but after two years my grandparents told her they wouldn’t pay for it any more so she had to go to teachers’ college instead. She was still mad at them. So was my mother, and not just for that. My dad never even got to high school. He quit school to help his parents make ends meet when he was twelve years old.

Benny Laxer was almost as tall as my dad but looked more like a basketball player than a boxer. He had light brown hair and thick glasses and a son, my uncle told us, who needed regular operations to remove skin that grew between his fingers like webbing. I wondered: if they stopped cutting it off, would it make him a better swimmer?

Benny Laxer shook my dad’s hand and said hi to my mother; she was holding Lisa on her hip. Sleepy Lisa had her fingers in her mouth and her head on our mother’s shoulder. After a few more minutes, I got up, took my dad’s hand and made him bend over so I could whisper in his ear I felt better.

“These girls been to the dentist recently?” Benny Laxer asked my mother.

“No,” she said.

“You should bring them to my office sometime for a check up. The little one go to sleep with a bottle?”

“No, never,” my mother said.

“Do you live here?” I asked.

He bent over and put his hands on his knees to talk to me. “No, honey, I don’t live here. I have my own house about a mile away. I’m just here to show you the flat.”

“What’s so flat about it?”

“Hmm?”

“Karen, stop bothering Dr. Laxer,” my dad ordered.

They left me with that puzzle of a word. I knew better than to ask my mother about it right then; the grownups didn’t want to bother with us kids any more than they had to while they were trying to figure things out. My parents were trying to decide whether they should really rent this place because there were nicer suburbs closer to my dad’s work. Chomedey was the cheapest but it was also the furthest. I learned this from their arguments. Benny Laxer was maybe trying to decide if we would be good to rent to. A couple without children might be better: no dropping things down the toilet to see what would happen, no crayoning the walls, or swinging on the doors for fun, say. But who would move out here, to the middle of nowhere, as my mother put it, unless it was for the good of the children? Benny Laxer knew our family. Because of this, he probably thought we’d be sure to pay the rent on time, that we wouldn’t duck out in the middle of the night leaving the place a mess. That was why we were supposed to be getting a good deal on the rent. My mother wasn’t so sure.

I knew where she’d rather be: New York City, where her favourite sister lived. Sometimes, she told her sister on the phone, she couldn’t understand how she ended up stuck in Montreal, married to this gorilla and with two little girls. “Shall I draw you a diagram?” my aunt would say. One night when my aunt was visiting Montreal, they sat with a bottle of wine on the table and said that expression again and again – “Shall I draw you a diagram?” or “Shall I paint you a picture?” Then they laughed and laughed.

We all went up the grey stairs and Benny Laxer unlocked the turquoise door – most of the duplexes on the street had their doors and balconies painted white or brown or turquoise – and led us inside. The staircase was steep and dark, but once we were up there it was very bright. The rooms looked large and airy, with windows filling a wall in every one of them. The walls were white. Benny Laxer said he just had them plastered and painted. I put my hands on them. They felt very cool and smooth. My mother saw this and hissed at me to keep my hands to myself. So then I touched them only when she wasn’t looking.

There wasn’t a curtain or a stick of furniture in the place. This made it look larger; maybe when we got all our furniture in, it would be too crowded, my mother said. I looked at her. We weren’t supposed to lie but I wasn’t sure she really meant this. Did she say it just to make Benny Laxer think she didn’t like the place? Was she trying to let my dad know “who’s the boss?” This was another thing they fought about. Sometimes they called it “who wears the pants in this family.” To me, this was a bit of a mystery. Because they both wore pants.

The bathroom was my favourite of the six rooms (our apartment only had four). It had square white tiles framed by black rectangular ones, a white toilet and tub, and a large thick light fixture like a giant throat lozenge on the wall with the sink, just above the mirror. What made it my favourite though was the colour on the walls, a deep, almost violent pink. All the rooms in our apartment were white. This was the most beautiful, vibrant room I had ever seen. When I saw that bathroom, I secretly switched allegiance to my dad’s point of view.

A door in the kitchen opened onto a curvy black metal staircase that led down to the backyard. It was the kind of staircase that might take you to the dungeon of a fairy-tale castle. The stairs were made of metal slats with gaps between them. When I looked down, I saw the grass through the gaps, far, far below. I grabbed for the railing. It was the first time I realized I was afraid of heights.

Benny Laxer led the way, and we clanged all the way down. My mother let Lisa onto the grass. Lisa immediately started climbing along the steps on the outside of the railing.

“You can use the yard anytime,” Benny Laxer said. “I just planted a clematis by the fence and a lilac bush on the side there.” He walked over to point it out.

My dad turned to my mother, put a hand on her back and in a quiet voice said, “You love lilacs.” She looked at the tiny bush, shadowed by the staircase. It was no more than a few twigs and leaves, really. “Probably years before there’ll be any flowers. Not enough sun,” she said. Then she walked away from him and plucked Lisa off the stairs, saying, “Come back here, you.”

As we were leaving, Benny Laxer said, “Better let me know soon if you’re interested. There’s a couple more families coming over this afternoon to take a look.”

“We’re going to see some other places, too. We’ll think about it and let you know,” my mother said. My dad opened his mouth like he wanted to add something, but then he thought better of it.

I looked carefully the whole time but I never figured out what was so flat about the duplex. Only the walls and floors, far as I could see. But these were flat in our apartment, too.

The arguing started as soon as the car doors were shut and the car had left the curb. “We have to let him know today,” my dad said. “We should have told him we’d take it right then and there, left him a deposit before one of those other families does.”

“Don’t you fall for his malarkey. He’s just trying to put the pressure on,” my mother said. It kept going from there: Chomedey was too far, Saint Laurent almost as bad, Cote Saint Luc too expensive, and we couldn’t stay in Cote des Neiges because my mother had to get away from her mother. My dad kept insisting this flat was perfect. “Why don’t we see what the kids think,” he said. “Karen?”

“I liked it.”

“Lisa?”

“She’s three years old. Surely you’re not going to let a three-year-old make this decision?” my mother said. “And what about the neighbours downstairs, you forgot to ask about them,” she added. “What if they hate children, or have a big dog? Maybe they’re the type that plays loud music all night long.”

“Why didn’t you ask, then? Why is everything always my fault?”

“Who said that? I never said that.”

“You never say it but you blame me for everything.”

“That’s because you wear the pants in this family,” my mother said. My dad reached forward to snap on the radio and they didn’t say another word to each other the rest of the way home.

That night, I dreamt the walls in our apartment were covered with holes. Green and brown snakes poured out, wriggling their way down and along the floor toward my bedroom. My only escape was out the window and onto a twisty black metal staircase. I was afraid of going but more afraid to stay so I stepped through the window and began running down the stairs. Suddenly, the staircase started rocking from side to side and changing shape, shooting up to the sky one minute, then rushing back down to the ground the next. I held tight to the railing with both hands and screamed and screamed.

For once, it was my screaming that woke my parents up. My mother came to see what was wrong and took me back to their bed. I lay there between them for a long time before I calmed down enough to go back to my own bed.

Next morning, as usual, my dad had left for work by the time I got up. My mother was pouring Frosted Flakes in a bowl when she announced we were moving to Chomedey after all.

“To Benny Laxer’s flat?” I asked.

She said, “Uh-huh.” “What about the park?”

“There’s a nice park named after John F. Kennedy we can walk to,” she said.

“Does it have a pool?”

“We’ll get our own pool, set it up in the back yard, maybe share it with the neighbours.” She poured on the milk and put the bowl and a spoon on the table in front of me. “Eat your cereal before it gets soggy.”

“What about the neighbours? Do they have a big dog?”

“They have two daughters and a son, no dog. Dr. Laxer says they’re very nice.”

“Don’t you fall for his malarkey,” I said. Quick as snake bite, she slapped my face, once on each side.

“You don’t talk to me like that, young lady,” she said.

I tried my hardest not to cry. My cheeks stung; I imagined her red handprints burned into them. I picked up a spoonful of cereal and put it in my mouth. It tasted like sand.

I looked over at the spot in the hallway where the hole had been. The super had come by to plaster it over, but that just covered it up. I knew it was still there, and now I knew what lay behind it.

Tumbalalaika is a story from Montreal author  Beverly Akerman‘s new book The Meaning of Children which was just recently nominated for The 2011 Giller Prize. The Meaning of Children will be a “Book of the Month” at the Cote St-Luc  Library in October, and Akerman’s next reading is at the Visual Arts Centre on September 13th.  Mazel Tov!  Shtetl will keep it’s finger’s crossed for the Giller.