Urgh. What’s she doing there? Lukas grumbles as he careens over cracks in the path on his skateboard. The sound of hard plastic wheels over concrete sends birds flying, but an old woman sits, seemingly unfazed, on the bench he thinks of as his.
Lukas always stops in the park on his way home from university to smoke a cigarette and check his messages. At home, smoking is an act of disobedience. It’s easier not to indulge than to go through the rigmarole of hiding it from his mother. Since his father died of lung cancer a few years earlier, Lukas has repeatedly promised his mother he doesn’t smoke. They have the conversation often.
“You’re 19 years old … and you want to char those perfect young lungs,” she begins.
“No, I don’t smoke. I promise.” He has recited the words so often that they mean nothing. When he forgets to remove a pack from his pocket before throwing his pants in the laundry, or to chew mints before arriving home after a party, his mother starts over again.
“You’ll end up like him,” she warns.
Lukas typically stands mute, slumped in the doorway, watching his mother turn the cuffs of his jeans and roll down the sleeves of his shirt before shoving them in the washing machine. Inevitably, his mother’s voice softens, “I wish you wouldn’t smoke, Lukas. I need someone to stick around and keep me company.”
“I’ll be fine,” he says with certainty, recoiling from her display of tenderness.
“Three months from diagnosis to death, with no hope of keeping him alive. I’m not going through that again.”
“Mum. Give it a break. They’ll have a cure by the time I’m that old.”
“Darling, please. It’s the one thing I ask of you. Can’t you stop … for my sake?”
“Okay, okay … I will. I promise.” Lukas has no intention of quitting.
Lukas doesn’t always acknowledge it, but he misses his father. As soon as he was old enough, every night after dinner they would sit and smoke a cigarette. Smoking was the thread that bound them together, the secret language that his mother didn’t speak. Since his death, Lukas smokes as a way to keep his father close.
Of all the benches in the park, Lukas can’t believe she decided to sit on his. Determined not to have his routine interrupted, he decides to sit down in the usual spot. He presses the back of his skateboard with the ball of his right foot, flipping it up on its two back wheels and, in a single movement, leans the skateboard against the legs of the bench. He hauls his bookbag over his head and throws it on the ground next to the skateboard.
“Good afternoon.” The bent old woman greets him.
Lukas mutters, deliberately avoiding her look. He removes his baseball cap and wipes away the sweat before replacing it with the peak at the back. He sits with his legs splayed and shakes out a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. Taking a drag, he savours the burn of smoke reaching his lungs and enjoys the small rush of energy. He exhales a plume of smoke and notices the old woman squirm. Good, he thinks, I hope the smoke makes her move.
She sits perfectly still.
Lukas pushes up his shirt sleeves to reveal the late summer tan on his arms, glowing with a film of sweat. He extends his legs and, allowing his body to slouch into the bench, imagines that if he keeps stretching, she’ll get the hint.
She doesn’t budge.
Out of ideas as to how to get rid of the old woman, he pulls his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans. As he begins texting, he feels her eyes on him. Stealing a look in her direction, he sees a gold wedding band and matching engagement ring with enormous stones on the crooked finger of her right hand. The stones sparkle in the sun as she fiddles with something in her lap. Lukas finds it weird that a woman he guesses must be a hundred years old would bother wearing rings.
He closes his eyes and tips his head back to feel the sun on his face. Her rustling continues. From the corner of his eye, he sees that his bench companion is holding an old black and white photograph in her knobby fingers.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he turns and asks. What he really wants to ask, is if she could do him the favour of moving to another bench. But he hears his mother’s voice instructing him to show respect for the elderly.
“Why would I mind?”
“Because you were here first?” he suggests.
“I like company.”
Lukas turns to his cell phone and taps out a message to Bert, his friend from computer design class.
When Bert doesn’t respond immediately, he looks surreptitiously at the photo in the woman’s fingers. It shows a young man about his own age in a garden, posing with his leg in the air. Lukas’s curiosity is piqued in spite of his lingering annoyance that the woman hasn’t moved.
He is reminded of the black and white photos in the albums at the back of the dining room dresser. They were among the few possessions his father kept after his grandmother passed away years ago. When Lukas was little, his father would take out the photos one by one, carefully pinching the corners to avoid marking the image with fingerprints. He would tell Lukas elaborate stories about the people in the photos, making the boy laugh hysterically. Lukas remembers the vivid stories as if he had heard them just yesterday. He smiles to himself at the thought of Mr. Mason getting caught stealing the neighbour’s chickens, Miss Buzby falling in the well when the water was low, and Willy Friday crying every time his mother left his side.
“You have grandchildren?” Lukas asks, recalling the face of his own grandmother peering out from a photo placed behind buckled plastic in the album.
“I do. Why do you ask?” The woman looks at him intently.
“I dunno.” Lukas gestures towards the photograph in her lap.
“I have seven,” she says in a sprightly voice.
“Huh … oh, okay.” He can’t think of anything else to say and turns back to his phone.
“They are busy, but I see them enough,” she continues.
“Oh.” Lukas has already lost interest in the conversation.
Leaning forward, he plants his elbows on his thighs and flicks through the messages. Seeing nothing of interest, he opens the Snapchat app, but finds no updates since the last time he checked. He takes another drag on his cigarette and closes his eyes again to enjoy the feeling.
“Do you always travel by skateboard?” the old lady asks.
“Yeah … only time I don’t is when it snows,” he reflects, shaping his lips and letting out two perfectly circular rings of smoke. “If this city had hills, I might take the wheels off and use the board as a ski … but it’s too flat,” he adds, turning back to his phone.
“My youngest grandson skates.”
Lukas mutters, half listening and half hoping something exciting will appear on his phone.
“He’s never been out of the country,” she says.
“Him?” Lukas nods toward the photograph in her hands.
“No, my grandson has never been out of the country.”
“Yeah, but what about the guy in the photo?” Lukas asks.
“Oh,” she says, holding the photo to her chest. “It was taken in a small town in Russia.”
“Russia?” A ping from the phone takes Lukas’s attention. A message from Amelia, a girl he’s been flirting with in drawing class, appears on the screen. She suggests they meet at football tomorrow, and Lukas feels a sudden tingling in his arms. He responds immediately, asking her what time.
“It isn’t so far away,” the woman pipes up after a pause.
“Huh?” Lukas mumbles.
“You been there?” Lukas asks, trying to remember what they were talking about.
“Not that I can recall.”
“Not that you recall?” He wonders what the hell that is supposed to mean. His eyes remain on the phone; he’s eager for Amelia’s response.
“So they say,” she says.
Lukas looks up to see the woman leaning over and reading his phone. He feels his cheeks flush.
“Ah, hmmm.” He turns the phone upside down and places it on his thigh.
“What did you say?” he asks, not sure what they were talking about.
“Russia … but now it’s Ukraine.”
“I know that,” Lukas says defensively. He pulls his legs close to the bench, pushing his body upward to straighten his pose. “I do know that Ukraine used to be Russia,” he snaps. I’m not that dumb, he thinks.
“Of course you do. I’m sure you learn such things in school,” the lady says indulgently.
“I’m at university, not school … anyway, who’s the guy in the photo?”
The old lady winces and presses her lips together.
“Him,” Lukas says when she doesn’t answer, pointing to the photograph.
She picks up the photograph and places it over her heart. “It’s my father,” she says in a whisper.
He watches as her top lip begins to quiver.
Lukas’s mind unexpectedly fills with the memory of his father’s shrunken, dying body in the hospital bed. He hears the echo of his mother’s voice, “you’ll end up like him.” A lump forms in his throat and he grinds his cigarette butt into the ground with the heel of his boot. Lukas feels the tears welling in the corner of his eyes and sniffs back the possibility of their escape.
* * *
Renate Ostrov allows her feet to sink into the carpet of red, gold, and brown leaves. She sits on a bench in a park she is visiting for the first time. Her face is a landscape of lines, carved by the ups and downs of a long and eventful life. An abundance of white hair is loosely tucked behind each ear. People often tell her that the youth of her spirit, not the age of her skin, is the first thing they notice. Her chestnut-coloured woollen coat matches her shining eyes. A cream shawl trimmed with appliqued roses and marigolds is draped across her narrow shoulders. Her hands rest in her lap, her fingers, curved with arthritis, are wrapped around an old black and white photograph.
In the photograph, a young man in his early twenties poses for the camera in a winter garden. He is balancing on his left leg, with the right leg bent at the knee and flung behind his body. His arms are extended as though he is about to fly into the air, and his eyes and mouth are wide open. The photograph is worn with a white line down the middle where Renate has folded it before tucking it inside her wallet for safekeeping.
Renate basks in the warmth of the autumn sun. Reflecting on the colours and sounds of the park, the abrupt sound of a skateboard speeding across the asphalt path causes her to flinch. She watches a young man fast approaching.
Her mood lifts when she sees him heading for her bench. Her decision to try this park for a change in the hope of finding some company was a good one.
As he approaches, she admires the young man’s blond hair sticking out from under a baseball cap, his clear blue eyes, and manicured beard.
“Good afternoon,” Renate greets him. She is always happy to spend time with young people.
The young man seems to ignore her. He throws his bag on the ground, and after taking off his baseball cap and putting it on back to front, finally sits down. He has hardly sat down when he lights a cigarette. Renate inches away from the smoke. The young man responds by extending his legs, sliding down the bench, and pulling out his telephone. He types vigorously with his thumbs.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asks, momentarily looking up from the phone.
“Why would I mind?” Renate asks politely. Though she does wonder why he didn’t ask before sitting down if he was so concerned.
“Because you were here first?”
“I like company,” she assures him.
Renate watches the young man’s thumbs move deftly around the face of the phone as though he is playing a musical instrument. Such dexterity these young people have with these telephones, she muses.
“You have grandchildren?” he asks.
“I do. Why do you ask?” she wonders, thrilled that he wants to talk.
“I dunno,” he responds.
“I have seven,” she offers proudly.
“Huh … oh, okay,”
Renate realizes that maybe he’s not interested after all. Then again, she reflects, who knows what goes through the minds of young men these days. She pretends not to be unsettled by his rudeness and adds, “They are busy, but I see them enough.”
“Oh,” says the young man distractedly.
He pushes his bottom into the back of the bench and plays with his phone. As he raises the cigarette to his pursed lips, Renate notices the suppleness of his mouth.
“Do you always travel by skateboard?” Renate attempts to keep the conversation flowing, making the most of the opportunity for company.
“Yeah … only time I don’t is when it snows,” he replies. “If this city had hills, I might take the wheels off and use the board as a ski … but it’s too flat.” He turns back to his phone.
“My youngest grandson skates.” Renate wonders if the two would get on.
Then again, Josh is 11, so maybe he’s a bit young, she reflects.
The young man mutters something that Renate can’t decipher.
“He’s never been out of the country,” she persists, hoping to recapture the young man’s attention. Her mind wanders to the image of Josh’s angelic face in the photo on the mantlepiece. A smile creeps into the corners of her lips.
“Him?” he asks, looking down at the photograph in her lap.
“No, my grandson has never been out of the country,” she explains.
“Yeah, but what about the guy in the photo?”
“Oh,” she says, holding the photo to her heart and looking into the distance. “It was taken a small town in Russia.” Renate assumes the young man hasn’t heard of Lvov. Besides, it’s got a different name now, why would he know it? No point in confusing him, she reasons.
“Russia?” he asks.
His telephone makes a strange noise and Renate thinks, I’ve lost him. She watches the young man fixated on the screen, again.
“It isn’t so far away,” Renate tries to get his attention.
“Russia,” she repeats.
“Have you been there?” he asks.
She can tell he’s more interested in whatever is happening on the telephone.
“Not that I can recall.”
“Not that you can recall?”
“So they say.” Renate recollects the day her aunt told the story of her father’s disappearance. She was living in Breslau after the war with her mother, sister and their aunt on her father’s side. Renate was no more than five years old and in her aunt’s charge while her mother went to work. She sat on her aunt’s knee in the kitchen singing nursery rhymes, bobbing up and down to the beat. Suddenly, her aunt stopped moving her legs and nervously began to relate the story that would be all Renate ever knew of her father’s fate. Whether it happened this way or not, Renate couldn’t say. She just remembered the urgency in her aunt’s voice when telling the story.
Renate’s aunt related how the entire family was scheduled to leave on a train for Prague the next day.Their green suitcases were packed, and Renate and her sister, her mother, father, and aunt slept in their beds for what they thought would be the last time. In the morning, her father left before the others, arriving early to ensure no one took their seats on the train. The rest of the family were to come an hour later and meet him on board. The women and girls followed as planned, found their carriage, and waited for the father to return.
On the rainy day in the kitchen of their Breslau home, Renate’s aunt related the anxious wait on the train. Renate recalled the story as snippets of jumbled dialogue.
“He must be buying biscuits for the journey,” the aunt said her mother claimed with certainty.
“More likely a newspaper,” her aunt quipped.
“Where’s Daddy?” her sister whined.
“He’ll be back in a minute, darling, don’t worry,” her mother reassured her.
“Where is he?” the sister insisted.
“I don’t know,” her mother looked out the window.
Renate’s aunt described her mother’s eyes flitting restlessly across hoards on the platform, nervously picking at the peeling paint on the wooden window frame with her long manicured nails.
When her father never appeared, they got off the train and went back to their house on the outskirts of Lvov. Her mother spent months searching for him. She pasted her father’s photograph on the fence at the station, the board at the grocery store, the local bookstore, and all the other places he went in his daily routine. The mother reported the disappearance to the police, to the army, to the hospital superintendent, and the mayor of Lvov. Her father was never seen again.
A few years later, in the kitchen, on the soft mohair rug draped over her aunt’s knees, Renate remembers the promise.
“He will come back one day,” her aunt said, handing her the photo. “Take this, so you know you belong to each other when they find him.”
For many years, Renate tried to forget the story of his disappearance. She had never uttered a word to anyone for fear of being told she was lying. Every time it popped into her mind, she chose to remember the softness of the mohair rug over her aunt’s knees. Forty years later, the Berlin Wall fell and everyone cheered the end of Communism. Secret documents were released, and the news was flooded with the unspoken histories of those who were victim to the Germans during World War II. It was then, finally, that Renate’s deep yearning to find her father was ignited. Luckily, she had kept the photograph in her purse all those years.
Renate peers over to see what has captivated her interlocutor’s attention, but the words on the phone are too small to read. Without thinking, her hands gently stroke the face of the photograph.
“Ah, hmmm,” the young man quickly turns his phone upside down.
Renate swiftly sits upright and looks straight ahead, pretending she wasn’t looking.
“What did you say?” the young man asks.
“Russia … but now it’s Ukraine,” Renate reminds him.
“I know that.”
Renate senses the young man’s body stiffen. She hears the annoyed tone of his voice and interprets, don’t lecture me about the past. She worries that she has said something wrong.
Then she realizes she didn’t tell him the name of the town anyway, so how could he know whether it’s in Russia, the Ukraine, or Uzbekistan for that matter?
“I do know that Ukraine used to be Russia,” he retorts.
“Of course you do. I’m sure you learn such things in school,” she responds, attempting to assuage the sudden tension.
“I’m at university, not school … anyway, who’s the guy in the photo?” He blurts out.
Renate shrinks at the memory of her lost father.
“Him,” he says, pointing to her photograph.
Renate picks up the photograph and places it over her heart, one hand covering the other.
“It’s my father,” she murmurs. A familiar emptiness tugs at her chest.
She senses the young man’s body become tense again. He crushes his cigarette butt underneath the heel of his boot with an exaggerated twist of the ankle.
…I take the photo wherever I go, in case I meet someone who knows him. Renate is too ashamed to finish her thought out loud.