Brooklyn, Forty-Second Street
by Vasyl Makhno
from the collection The House in Baiting Hollow
Winner of the 2015 BBC Book of the Year Award
Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
Brooklyn’s Forty-Second Street in Borough Park is unenticing and monotone, as are the rest of the surrounding streets. In the winter, it’s cleaner than in the summer. In the fall, it’s warmer than in the spring. The industrial zones on the shores of New York Harbor—Sunset Park and Green-Wood Cemetery—cling to it like tipsy bridesmaids so that, God forbid, it not give them the slip. It’s intersected—or, more precisely, interrupted—by the Mexican Fifth, the Chinese Eighth, and the Hasidic Thirteenth Avenues, and in one spot the metal structure of the subway that covers all of New Utrecht hangs above it. But everything else is as it is elsewhere: laundromats, shops, bakeries, hair salons, schools, churches, synagogues, residential buildings, lone cars that seem to never budge from their spots, and residents who seem to never die.
Standing on a hill of Sunset Park, the panorama of the bay opens up, the spire of a Catholic church can be seen, and the hubbub of Fifth Ave heard. Latinos populate Fifth Ave: you can buy sombreros, cowboy boots, and, on little hewn sticks, peeled yellow mangoes in the shape of a blooming flower there. On the hills of the park Mexicans play soccer from early spring through late autumn, which their progeny-filled families watch as they sip cool drinks and munch the time away on boiled corn. Mexicans have a lot of time: maybe that’s why they’re forever eating and playing soccer. They play soccer even with their language, volleying words in one another’s faces, their corn-flecked teeth in wide grins. The little restaurants on Fifth Ave smell of chili sauce, heels glint with copper horseshoe plates, children cry, and women kvetch, winding their long black braids round their shoulders and wiping their kids’ slavering faces with them. On religious holidays, they organize processions—with sweet singing that tickles the ear, and with an icon of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe at the helm. The procession stretches across several blocks, and the festively dressed faithful strew red flowers before the image, carried by four men on wooden poles, which they immediately trample with their thousands of feet. The procession’s route is gradually carpeted with a masticated floral pulp, marking precisely its beginning and end—that is, life and death.
Further on, leaving behind the singing Mexicans and their Fifth Ave—sweetishly sour, like a ripe mango—and heading uphill, you’ll pass the wholly unnoteworthy Seventh Ave and find yourself in China. If it’s late January, the Chinese New Year will come out to greet you, but if you didn’t make it in time, then red ad banners with golden hieroglyphics will be advertising newly roasted Peking ducks hung out on hooks in the wide restaurant windows or cheap Chinese goods in the little shops squeezed up against one another. The Chinese—paper-thin, like tobacco leaves, and barely speaking any English—will press you to come into their stores. There’s the same kind of hubbub here, the same kind of slaveringly sleepy children in the withered arms of their mothers. The Chinese don’t play soccer; instead, they smoke a lot. Their cigarettes are cheap and stinky. They smoke and gamble over card games, their cries are loud, and they smell like furniture varnish and the fat of plumped up ducks. The Chinese produce shops sell all sorts of seasonings and greens, the aromas of their spices clogging the noses of passersby and almost knocking them off their feet. The smell of fish trails after you, whipping around like the long tail of a freshly caught carp—slippery, and with bloodied gills. Eighth Ave never sleeps, it doesn’t turn off the light, it doesn’t stop working, it doesn’t tire of making love and bearing children, and it doesn’t stop being Chinese, even here, in Brooklyn—because that’s what Confucius taught them.
When on the eve of Rosh Hashanah apples are being baked in honey and when the shofar is being blown at all the synagogues, then Jews come to stand over rivers to pray—because on those days it is decided in the heavens who will live and who will die. That’s why the most waterfilled river of the Hasidim in Brooklyn—which flows in the air and courses through their hearts and stomachs, and to which they come most often—is Thirteenth Avenue. Thirteenth Ave is a place of life and chaos, of stores with diamonds and gold, of kosher bistros, tailors’ workshops, and clocktowers. The paths to the synagogues are carpeted with fur hats and silk robes, and the word that they read in the Talmud they carry around like a hen’s egg—carefully, because it’s warm and white. And beards and payos sway back and forth above the pages of the Talmud, and golden words are gleaned, and every Saturday the men don ironed and starched shirts as the women don new wigs on their shorn heads, and candles in silver candelabra are kindled in Hasidic residences. And wine is poured, and children laugh, and Thirteenth Ave rocks from bout of song to bout of song, from white challah to white challah, from one roasted chicken to the next gefilte fish. And the rabbis and the Talmudists bless this life, awaiting the Messiah, as they have for five thousand years.
The brick residential building with the wrought-iron black door and the heavy padlock stood in a compact row of similar structures closer to Ninth Avenue. The next building, which brought to a close the section of Forty-Second Street between Eighth and Ninth Aves, was abandoned: the windows and front door were nailed shut with coarse plywood, and through the holes that had formed from heat and rain, racoons and Atlantic winds would sneak in. The owners, with an inspector, would sometimes pay a visit to this building with the doweled sockets, checking the solidity of the plywood and whether someone, by chance, hadn’t climbed inside and made themselves a nest there. The neighborhood was peppered with addicts and homeless people who sought out these kinds of buildings, taking up residence in them until the cops dragged the squatters off to the nearest shelter. On the corner of Forty-Second and Ninth, with a plywood cataract and an unpleasant odor wafting from inside, the building awaited its residents and its time.
Number 895, on the contrary, was brimming to the ears. And even if two or so of its apartments were empty, new tenants for them turned up quickly.
On the façade above the black doors was the inscription Leonard Court. Inside—in the long corridor covered in white mosaic tile, with two sets of sepia stripes that framed the corridor’s path—were two stairways. One, to the left and almost at the entrance, led to the north wing, while the other, at the end, led to the south one. Together with the adjacent building, Number 895 formed an internal courtyard, the door to which was firmly shut. The courtyard could be seen as you climbed up to the apartments of both building wings, the north one and the south one. From the north wing, it was easier to spot the empty square of the internal courtyard, which had no other purpose than as the place residents tossed out their used kitchenware, broken chairs, and paper bags, and strung clothes lines tied to metal hooks nailed into the walls over its pit. And when the things were dry, they’d pull them to the windows of their kitchens with the help of little wheels that creaked shrilly.
There were four apartments on each of the floors in the north tower and three on each in the south one.
The building welcomed everyone. On the first floor lived two families: the Puerto Ricans Grandma Gabriela, Mom Amanda, and Granddaughter Nicole, as well as two old Jews from Latvia, Basia Moiseevna and Hryhoriy Markovich, with a white doggie and a cart they used to roll groceries home from the supermarket. Upbeat music drifted out of the Puerto Rican apartment all the time, and the grandma, a forty-five-year-old woman, was forever sticking out the window that looked out on Forty-Second, a pillow propped under her elbows. The building across the street was inhabited by her fellow countrymen: women with pillows too stuck out its windows, listening to music, and, their breasts tumbled over the windowsills, bopping around. The Puerto Ricans shared news and cooking recipes, not having visited one another in years. The super of the Puerto Rican building that faced Number 895 would sit on the stairs and drink coffee: he too would listen to these women’s conversations and the music, twice a week would carry out black plastic bags of trash, and then once again would sit down on the stairs to drink coffee.
Two families from Bangladesh occupied the second floor of the south wing. When someone would pass this floor on the way up or down, a specific kitchen smell that wafted over along with the voices of the apartments’ residents would turn their insides upside down, forcing some to even cover their mouth with a hand in order to not puke up. A floor up, above the Bangladeshis, two American families had moved in many years before, but when precisely no one recalled. The first was an elderly couple, the Johnsons, and their daughter Nancy, a done-for addict who was joined sometime later by the young addict Michael. Nancy lived with Michael, with four children on their hands: sixteen-year-old Margo, thirteen-year-old Sapphire, and two more, Mary and Jonathan, roughly six and three years old. Next door to the Johnson family—confirmed by the metal name plate nailed to the apartment door—lived the Mestizo Lucia with her husband Jack and their son, who had begun to shoot up not long before, leaving disposable syringes all over the third floor. Lucia would sweep them up and toss them out the window into the pit of the internal courtyard. Nancy and Michael would often smoke pot out the open window between the stories, ashing on Lucia’s son who was lying passed out, and would yell at their children to not move an inch out the door of the apartment. Old man Johnson supported the entire family working as a driver for some medical facility. He would park his white Chevy, tumble out of the seat with bags jam-packed with groceries, then rake them all under his armpit, open the common door, and vanish into the dark corridor. The grandchildren, like hungry wolf pups, were always waiting for their grandfather because their mom and stepdad were capable of spending the entire day standing next to the building in a somnambulant state.
On the fourth floor of the north wing, Nadia from the Ivano-Frankivsk Region of Ukraine—pushing forty, squat, with strong arms because she had scrubbed down half of Hasidic Borough Park—rented a one-bedroom apartment.
“That she-goat from Church Street said she’s got some Polish woman in Greenpoint…”
“Well, she said that for five grand the Polish woman will arrange a fake marriage…”
“Five grand… Woah!”
“Look, the Chinks are watching a kung fu movie again.”
“I don’t know the difference.”
“It’d be better if they brought home some porn at least once.”
“What porn, dumbass? They’ve got kids.”
This was the sort of conversation that could be overheard in the building with the painted-over monogram in an apartment rented by two men—Genyk and Zenyk—on the last, fourth floor. They had moved in here a few months before, having given the super a few hundred bucks in advance for him to hold the unit while they cleared out of their semi-basement one. And over the course of a few hours, they carried over their things in bags and backpacks.
Looking over the empty new apartment, they found that its former tenant had left them his mountain bike, a white dresser with drawers stuffed full of electronics, and a few cans of beer in the fridge. “The kid was in a rush,” concluded Genyk, standing in the middle of the great room that smelled of the previous inhabitant and cockroaches. Later Genyk’s hypothesis was confirmed as well by the super, the sixty-two-year-old Leningrad native Kolya, who had stopped by to check how the new tenants had settled in and give them the keys. According to Kolya, the kid hadn’t payed in half a year, though you couldn’t kick him out in winter, so they had waited till spring, but the kid was no dummy: he split. In order to remove any suspicion and as a guarantee that they weren’t there temporarily, Zenyk, Genyk’s roommate, offered the super a beer. Grabbing a Budweiser out of the fridge, he rattled off his favorite toast and was the first to pull up on the metal tab of his can. The super, praising this apartment in particular, pointed out the kitchen window as a perk: “Since you don’t have a TV, you can watch with the Chinese.”
“What about the sound?”
“It’s silent film, dude. Edik, who lived here before you, always watched freebie Chinese movies.”
As he said goodbye, from the doorway already, Kolya pointed at the neighboring apartment and warned them that the neighbors’ son was a druggie and slept in the stairwell. The parents didn’t let him into the apartment, so you needed to step over him and not be scared.
Since Genyk and Zenyk’s move, the sweltering Brooklyn summer had passed and autumn had arrived. Every morning they got up and went somewhere. Genyk would hurry to the produce shop on Thirteenth Ave: he worked for David, a Hasid. In theory, the work wasn’t difficult: all day Genyk set out vegetables, picking out the rotten ones, and when the Hasid would leave for lunch, he would add good ones to the rotten ones, then take them home in the evening. Pedro, the cashier, and Leszek, a Pole, worked with Genyk. The Pole was just as junior as Genyk, but he had worked for the Hasid for a long time. All day the Hasid sat on a high wooden chair and observed the customers and his employees. Occasionally, after a phone conversation, he would give instructions on who to make a delivery to. Genyk would then take the hand truck, because Leszek couldn’t be bothered, and would load it up with paper parcels and deliver the orders to the addresses. He would get tips and return to the shop. Every week after the end of the sabbath, Pedro and Leszek would open the shop at 10 p.m. and were alone all night. In the morning, on Monday, the Hasid would come, count over the night’s earnings, inquire about the customers, and then go into a small storeroom and look over the security video. Genyk would show up on Monday morning as David was already sitting on his chair in a white shirt, the fringes of a tallit hanging from beneath it, and reading prayer books. David didn’t talk to Genyk at all because Genyk didn’t understand English; he relayed all instructions for Genyk through Leszek.
Meanwhile Zenyk went off every morning to build New York. En route he bought coffee, then headed straight for New Utrecht. There, next to a playground, at approximately seven o’clock, a minivan covered in ads would pick him up.
Genyk and Zenyk had walked the length of the subway station to the end of the platform and were waiting for the train. This was an ordinary Brooklyn station, Ninth Ave, with peeling paint on walls and rusted communication cables. It was windy. And as always in October, it was raining. As if through a holey sieve, the Brooklyn sky was releasing rain like an infected bladder releases urine. Toward the end of the platform, a young rat stubbornly wrestled with a plastic baggie next to a metal trash can that hadn’t managed to get emptied overnight, but no one was paying any attention to the rodent. Here and there passengers, waiting for the train, watched as a cement plant and a few trees with signs indicating the spot was a park got drenched across the way. The station was located at ground level and was separated off with a metal chain-link fence.
“You always have to pick this fucking spot,” Genyk said with dissatisfaction.
They were waiting for a train in the direction of Manhattan.
Half an hour had passed since Genyk and Zenyk had walked out of their building, but the cop cars that had blocked Forty-Second Street had delayed them. Behind the cops, a few firetrucks and ambulances from Maimonides Medical Center had pulled up. A twenty-year-old drug addict had died in a neighboring building, found on the stairs in between stories. People had come out and, ignoring the rain, were watching in silence as the firemen carried the deceased in a plastic bag on a stretcher and loaded him into the ambulance. Before the crowd had even dispersed, a candle and a modest bouquet of flowers had appeared in the walkway to the building. Twenty-year-olds just like the one who had passed came flocking from the outskirts of Borough Park, lit the candle, and, perched on parked cars, were commemorating their buddy over hits of weed.
A seagull squawked above the tracks, then flew off toward the ocean, while beneath wheels sparks flashed and the train that was turning there let out a piercing screech.
“You think she’ll help?”
“Maybe she will, maybe she won’t. But I can give it a try.”
Genyk and Zenyk entered the subway car, whose windows had misted from human warmth. It seemed as though the rain was flooding the whole world. The Chinese, as always, had taken all the seats, so Genyk had leaned against the doors of the car in his torn jeans.
“The Kytayozas”—that’s what he called the Chinese—“probably all crammed in on Twelfth Ave. Bloody hell, there’s a ton of them everywhere.”
He turned his massive face, speckled with mustard-colored freckles, and rubbed his coppery stubble with a bandaged hand. Zenyk, straightening his shoulder blades as if he was short on air, yes-ed in agreement, and that instant the train slithered into the tunnel and pulled into the Thirty-Sixth Street Station a while later.
The following conversation took place on Sunday, after the sabbath, when Leszek and Zenyk opened the shop. David, the owner, wouldn’t come till Monday morning, but someone should continue on with business through the night. Typically, David entrusted this matter of responsibility to Leszek and Pedro, but Pedro had fallen ill, so on Friday the proprietor had passed along through Leszek that Genyk should be at the store at 10 p.m. on Sunday.
Leszek, who was now sitting next to the cash register on David’s chair, said that in a week he was heading to Canada to go fishing. Though he was no fisherman himself, taking a break at the Canadian lakes wouldn’t do anyone any harm. As it turned out, according to Leszek, almost three times a year he crossed the Canadian border and spent a week relaxing at the lakes. A few of his buddies in Toronto had everything needed for a good vacation—a car, tents, fishing rods, and even hunting rifles. “If you want, you can come with me,” offered Leszek.
Genyk didn’t have any papers. He told Leszek as much: that he couldn’t because no one would allow him across the border.
“It’s messed up…I came to New York from that damned Toronto. You know yourself: you could run a herd of buffalos across that border before September 11th. No one would’ve even noticed,” added Genyk.
Leszek couldn’t see Genyk because he, bent over, was sorting through oranges and setting them out in wooden containers.
“And you haven’t tried to legalize your status?” asked Leszek with a yawn.
It was after midnight already, and they needed to talk about something in order to not fall asleep. Because even though it was quiet here on Thirteenth Ave, anything could happen. David left Leszek a hundred bucks for those kinds of instances.
“There’s no way,” Genyk’s voice floated from behind the crates. “There’s no U.S. entry stamp in my passport. No lawyer takes on this sort of thing.”
“But do you know what the fish are like in those lakes?” asked Leszek and held up a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola.
Around 3 a.m. they decided to have a bite to eat, but were interrupted. A fire truck with lights flashing had stopped outside the store, and the firemen had opened the hydrant. Genyk ran outside in order to bring in the produce that had already been set out, as the water, like a firecracker ignited by the flames of the fire engine, flooded the street and pooled next to the storm drain, dragging the street trash along with it. One of the firemen poked into the store and explained something to Leszek, and Leszek relayed that the Borough Park Fire Department was holding a night inspection of fire hydrants.
“There’s this Polish agency in Greenpoint,” Leszek said and pulled his phone out of his pocket, jotted down the address on a piece of paper, and handed it to Genyk.
They made it to Greenpoint with some mishaps, after exiting at Lorimer Street Station. Their transfer was at Metropolitan Ave Station, but Zenyk, not looking too closely, went to the station with trains heading in the opposite direction by mistake. In the end, they had lost almost an hour by the time they found the three-story building on Nassau Ave and rang the doorbell. No one even asked them anything: who were they and from where? The door lock turned with a hairy whir, like a bumblebee’s, and Genyk and Zenyk entered a narrow hallway. From the second floor to the third, the stairs stretched upward steeply. A young girl met them in the doorway. She asked if they were there for Ms. Mar’ya. The apartment—that is, the agency—consisted of two rooms: the kitchen, which is where Genyk and Zenyk were now standing, and the room from which Ms. Mar’ya rolled out on a wheelchair. The girl wheeled the chair up to the kitchen table, and Zenyk walked over to the window, signaling that this visit to the Miss didn’t pertain to him.
“So what’s your business, gentlemen?” inquired Ms. Mar’ya, holding a cup of tea in her hands.
“Well, Leszek, from Borough Park, sent me…”
“Leszek, Leszek… which one?”
“From Borough Park,” repeated Genyk.
“OK, fine—not important.”
“Leszek said that your agency can arrange a fake marriage…”
“And why doesn’t the gentleman turn to a lawyer?”
“Well, I entered the U.S. illegally…”
“From Canada… That’s why I don’t have an entry stamp in my passport, and without that a lawyer won’t take the case.”
“And where does the gentleman work?”
“At David’s, on Thirteenth Ave. With Leszek.”
Ms. Mar’ya turned her wheelchair around and rolled off to her room, closing the door behind herself.
She returned in twenty minutes and, rolling up to the table, picked up the cup of tea and began to drink. It crossed Genyk’s mind that maybe the old woman had been released from a loony bin. She had on a red skirt, a thick woolen sweater, and white sneakers with turned-down backs—house slippers or something. “How does she get up onto this third floor? You won’t make it up here in a stroller. Someone needs to carry her down and out. It can’t be this girl that Zenyk’s been whispering with, can it?”
“At the present moment, only Gos’ka’s free.”
“And how old is she?”
“Sir, the gentleman is only getting married for the sake of the papers. Or would the gentleman like to take her to bed straight away too?”
“Yes, yes, for the sake of the papers.”
“Well, then the situation looks like this: Gos’ka is forty-five years old and is a U.S. citizen. If we agree to a price, then the gentleman must attend functions with her and take pictures, at least for the first few months. Those pictures need to be sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services every two months in order to demonstrate that you really do live together. Well, the two of you will work out the details. Everything costs fifteen thousand. The first part of the fee is due before obtaining your marriage certificate in the city registry office, and the second before receiving your Green Card. The whole thing can take two or three years. But, the gentleman should note that this makes it very convenient: after paying the first part of the fee, you can scrape up the second over these three years.”
Genyk looked at Ms. Mar’ya more closely and saw that a green tealeaf had gotten stuck to the corners of her wrinkled lips. “Fifteen grand… holy shit,” whistled through Genyk’s head.
“Tomorrow by 10 a.m., the gentleman should let me know what the gentleman intends to do. The gentleman has my number?”
“I do,” replied Genyk and, with a nod at Zenyk as if to say wrap it up, said his goodbyes to Ms. Mar’ya.
Nancy and Michael were standing on the corner of Forty-Second Street and Ninth Ave when Genyk and Zenyk returned from Greenpoint. Genyk even cheered up: upon seeing them, he felt relieved. The feeling of home or something? He and Zenyk had bought a six-pack of beer on the way, two bottles of which Genyk handed to Nancy as they approached, who blurted out a “cool,” the following sentence of Nancy’s trailing in their wake: I’ve always told you, son of a bitch, that these Europeans are classy dudes. Michael mumbled something in seeming agreement.
Zenyk was making dinner while Genyk, standing next to the window, held two plates and two forks in his hands and spied on the Chinese getting ready for bed. The Chinese had finished dinner: two old people, a young couple, and their children. The old Chinese woman was washing the dishes, and the young one was wiping the table. The old man and the young one were smoking out an open window, outside which they had affixed an ashtray on one side and some sort of tin can for feeding birds on the other.
“Well, what, bridegroom?” Zenyk blurted as he sat down at the table.
“I’m going to look for the money.”
“That’s good. Or else what—die an illegal? Fuck.”
“Two and a half grand I’ve got. The rest I’ll borrow.”
The telephone call caught Gos’ka as she was turning onto Delancey Street to the Williamsburg Bridge. She slowed down and, with her right hand, felt around in the inside pocket of her coat for the phone. Her sedan was met with ear-piercing honks from the cars backed up behind her that were clearing out of Manhattan to Brooklyn. Gos’ka replied, “Hello,” and stepped on the gas.
Gos’ka had everything, but had no past—beginning with France, where she had emigrated to study. Her father and step-mother simply thanked their lucky stars when Gos’ka left them in peace, and her six-year-old stepbrother forgot her as soon as the door of the apartment in the provincial Polish town shut behind his sister. At the university in Lublin, she found a Frenchman, who helped her move to Paris and complete a semester at Paris Nanterre University on government funding, studying French and art simultaneously. Then the French government’s money ran out, and Gos’ka became a waitress at a bar on Rue Trousseau between the Ledru-Rollin and the Faidherbe–Chaligny metro stations, almost in the center of Paris.
Gos’ka made it to the U.S. with one bag, which she had managed to earn from Pascal, the owner of the bar who would often hole up with her late at night in the kitchen. When Gos’ka’s plan to split to the U.S. had ripened, she took advantage of the state of emergency of 1980, and, thanks to the State Department’s lax policies, obtained a six-month visa. Gos’ka went to the bar for the last time a few hours before her flight. She told Pascal that she needed to go visit her aunt. As it turned out, she had found herself a French aunt—OK, not exactly an aunt, just a relative of her father’s on his brother’s side—who had emigrated to France back in the 1920s to work in the coal mines. Gos’ka asked to borrow some money, promising to return it in a week. As she was flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, she spit on Paris’ asphalt for the last time, smoked a cheap cigarette, and, laughing herself into stitches, imagined how this bar twit would be waiting for the returned loan, how he’d be looking for her in sublet apartments, and calling around among her friends. But she, Gos’ka, would already be smoking up the New York sky with her cigarettes then.
It was Mar’ya was calling—the old cunt, as Gos’ka called her, that ran her agency for dubious affairs or, put more precisely, sought creative ways of making money off OTBs, whom America terrified and left feeling helpless at first. Gos’ka had gone through all this long before, after the death of her husband—an old American through whom she had managed to inherit some shares of Shell and half a building in New Jersey as well. The rest of the inheritance went to his daughter and a few organizations the old idiot had belonged to. The half of the New Jersey building didn’t bring Gos’ka any profits, especially since the other half belonged to the old geezer’s daughter, in whose opinion Gos’ka was a vile little bitch that had taken advantage of the financial position of her father—also a son of a bitch that had let himself get talked into marriage and rewriting his will in a law office a month before his death. That’s why Gos’ka lived in Manhattan, in a one-bedroom apartment on Broadway, the purchase of which was financed by all the proceeds from the shares, since the building in northern New Jersey wasn’t for sale yet. She needed money like she needed air. Hence, Mar’ya’s phone call was timely.
“A Ukrainian?” Gos’ka was rattling off into the receiver. “Fuck, what Ukrainian, Mar’ya? What are you making up? He’ll call tomorrow? And what? How much for me? How muuuch? Mar’ya, like I’m an idiot? Fuck. Is he old? Young? And what, it’s really that bad there in Ukraine? But Mar’ya, I don’t want to hear anything else. Call me tomorrow. I swear…”
Margaret Westwood—once upon a time Malgozhata Shimkowski, or Gos’ka among family and friends—pulled off the highway and set out down empty streets in the direction of Greenpoint.
At the first gas station, Gos’ka decided to buy gas.
A Sikh in a black puffer jacket asked, “How much?”
“Fill it up,” replied Gos’ka.
On Saturday, Genyk was driving his Crown Victoria past Sunset Park to Second Ave. Hundreds of different kinds of warehouses and auto body shops were huddled in the industrial zone overlooking the East River. He had scheduled a meeting with a certain mechanic, who was fixing his old car. Genyk had gotten to know the repair man, Hrysha, who had emigrated from Belarus post-parole, during Genyk’s first New York days when he was working as a seafood loader in a Chinese fish warehouse. They would haul the frozen fish out of huge refrigerators, load it onto refrigerated vans, and deliver it to fish markets in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Hrysha would tell Genyk back then that he dreamed of having his own auto repair shop in America. Hrysha was married, was legal, and quit the fish warehouse before long because he had supposedly found a new job. With an old pickup he had bought, he went out on calls to fix the school buses the Orthodox Jews used to deliver their children to yeshivas. Genyk had run into Hrysha a year and a half ago in a parking lot next to a supermarket in New Jersey. They struck up a conversation. Over the time that they hadn’t seen one another, Hrysha had become co-owner of a repair shop, and Genyk had bought a countlessly resold Crown Victoria sedan. Hrysha, giving the car a once-over with a professional eye, had offered his services if they proved necessary: that is, as Hrysha put it at the time, for you a discount. They exchanged numbers. And Genyk had in fact stopped by Hrysha’s shop a few times.
As he passed Fourth Ave, Genyk ran a red light and looked in the mirror. Luckily, there were no cops. He was heading to Hrysha’s in hopes of borrowing money for a fake marriage with Gos’ka. Hrysha’s was the first name on the list that Genyk had made. He needed seven and a half thousand bucks for Ms. Mar’ya to introduce him to the girl. Next would be all the formalities in New York City Hall. And in two or so years max, he’d have a Green Card in hand with which he’d be able to go fishing in Canada with Leszek, visit Ukraine, stop being scared of the police, and stop waiting to get deported. “If only Hrysha lends it, if only he doesn’t refuse,” Genyk thought in almost a prayer.
Hrysha’s shop was small, with two vehicle lifts. Genyk walked into the premises. Hrysha was examining the underside of a Ford under the light of a portable lamp. They exchanged greetings. Nearby, Hrysha’s partner had opened the hood of a dinged-up minivan and was tinkering with the motor. The workshop smelled of all kinds of oils; plastic garbage cans stood in the corners. Hrysha motioned for Genyk to wait a bit and climbed further under the car, which was on a lift. Genyk was in no hurry, so he walked out of the shop, sat down on the front left fender of the Crown Victoria, and lit a cigarette.
Genyk spoke to Hrysha for twenty minutes. He pulled at the words till they surfaced and watched as sea gulls flew into the industrial zone from the direction of the ocean. And Grysha stared vacantly at the ground, not letting the cheery grin slip off his face.
“If we sign a loan agreement at a lawyer’s, you’ve got two grand in your pocket.”
“Thank you, I’ll need it in a week.”
“Great, my lawyer is on his way back from the Caribbean. I’ll give him a call.”
Genyk breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed Hrysha’s shoulder.
And he drove down Second Ave, this time with a song on his lips.
Gos’ka was sitting in a hair salon in Greenpoint and reading Polish magazines. She had enough time for dinner at a restaurant and a meet-up with Waldek. The hairdresser was already combing out Gos’ka’s trimmed hair as she described the latest series on the Polish TV channel Polsat. It was all of eight blocks to the restaurant, but Gos’ka decided to buy a pack of cigarettes in the nearest shop and, while she was at it, a few videos.
She and Waldek had dinner together two or three times a month.
After her old geezer died, Gos’ka had managed to finish two semesters at The New School. She still had enough money back then and a lot of free time that she didn’t know how to fill up. Gos’ka rushed off to the Virgin Islands with some American, enrolled in a horseback riding school, and played a few tens of thousands of dollars on the New York Stock Exchange. Every morning she would turn on her computer, find her account on the stock exchange, then would read The Wall Street Journal that had been tossed in front of her door and make bets. She also had a consultant whom she paid a few hundred dollars monthly. One time she even slept with him, but then decided to hold subsequent consultations over the phone.
Gos’ka would wake up late and make Viennese-recipe coffee, with a dash of salt and sugar. Then she would buzz the doorman and ask for the newspaper. Even with the geezer, whom she had met at a party at the consulate organized for a Polish documentarian who had come to show his film at the Tribeca Film Festival, Gos’ka had kept her figure. After Paris and their successful union, she had taken to working out: she went to a gym three blocks from their building. A young trainer there stretched Gos’ka’s muscles, massaged her calves and buttocks, and taught her how to do sit-ups correctly. The African American started inviting her to his place in Flatbush, and Gos’ka barely got rid of him by canceling her annual gym membership, which she ended up having to pay for. She was worried that the old man would find out about her romance with the trainer. And when the old man kicked the bucket, she took to the courts and lawyers, and traded letters with his daughter and her children, who name-called her everything imaginable. But per the court’s decision and in accordance with the will, she had close to three hundred thousand bucks to her name. There was something dribbling in from the exchange too, and Gos’ka didn’t at all have the desire to be thinking about tomorrow. It all happened unexpectedly. One morning Gos’ka’s financial advisor called and recommended she sell off all her stocks because a crash was expected. While Gos’ka was brewing her morning black coffee, sprinkling salt and sugar into the coffee maker, the stocks crashed so hard that once she turned on her computer, she understood: she had been left with a tenth of what she had owned only the day before. Gos’ka burst into tears. She still had a decent-sized pension from the deceased old man, which she could live off fairly comfortably, but she needed to say goodbye to the horses and cruises. And Gos’ka instantly felt as if she had just flown into New York, when the heavy New York sky pressed you down to the ground itself. Out of despair, she called a girlfriend of hers in Poland and talked to her for a few hours. The girlfriend informed Gos’ka that her father had died—the stepmother hadn’t notified her of this—and caught her up on a few classmates who had remained to waste away in their little town.
“Oh, bloody hell, you’ve lucked out as it is, Gosya,” her friend chirped from Poland.
“Well, yes, yes, but you can’t even imagine what life is like here…”
“Nothing like mine—I have two kids, a small apartment with windows overlooking the train tracks, and my man’s only a damn railroad worker. Our apartment has been vibrating from those freaking trains our whole lives. Even when we’re making love, it feels like a train is going to squash us, Gosya. That’s just how the fuck it is.”
That day, as she dined with Waldek, Gos’ka was thinking about how to tell him about the upcoming fake marriage. Waldek had been her lover for several years now. He owned a construction and building repair business. The company was called Wladyslaw’s Construction. He worked with three other Poles, who accepted bookings from New Jersey to Connecticut for a variety of construction jobs: tarring roofs, fixing concrete coatings, building some sort of extensions or porches on houses, and they didn’t shy away from internal work either. Waldek’s wife lived somewhere in eastern Poland—where precisely Gos’ka never inquired. Every year she’d come to New York for three months, and then Gos’ka would be free from Waldek. His older daughter Monica lived with him here in the States, but, as Waldek put it, she had her own life and didn’t meddle in her father’s affairs.
To Gos’ka Waldek was essentially nobody.
“Waldek, listen,” Gos’ka began cautiously. “I’m going to have to leave New York for a bit, maybe for a year or so…”
“You’re going back to Poland?” asked Waldek, pouring Italian dressing over his salad.
“No, it’s not that,” Gos’ka went on, “but we need to not meet up for some time.”
“But why?” he asked with dissatisfaction.
“It’s just, my love, that there are matters that I need to attend to urgently.”
“Gosya, what happened? Do you not like something about our arrangement?”
“Waldek, stop. You know that you’re exactly the man I’ve always dreamed of, but there are matters that supersede our desires—so said the priest who married my parents.”
They walked out of the restaurant, and Gos’ka waved at Waldek in farewell as she opened the door of her car. Once in the car, settling back in the seat, she said aloud, “Jesus, what a dunce.”
The next person Genyk wanted to visit in order to talk about a loan was his acquaintance Petro from Delyatyn in western Ukraine. Petro rented an apartment on that same Forty-Second Street, but lower down, between Ninth and Tenth Aves. Genyk didn’t see Petro often, but had once jotted down his cell phone number. It was Saturday and he anticipated reaching Petro without any problems. Glancing out the window, he saw the sky shrouded in gray clouds and scrapped the idea of going to the laundromat on Eighth Ave. He found Petro’s number in a notepad and dialed him. Petro answered.
“Who is it?” Petro asked matter-of-factly.
“Petro, is that you?”
“It is, and who’s this?”
“It’s me, Genyk. Listen, can we meet up?”
“Today, no,” replied Petro.
“But… it’s urgent.”
“I can’t. We’re celebrating Delyatyn Day today.”
“What kind of day?” asked Genyk.
“Delyatyn. All of us from the town are meeting up in a café today.”
“It’ll only be five minutes?”
“Fine, meet me there—but early on, so that I’m not drunk yet.”
They chatted a little longer, and the first drops of a dense rain struck the window. But within twenty minutes the clouds had huddled over the East River and sunshine had flooded Borough Park.
Genyk knew the street he was walking down: he walked that way to David’s store. Once in a while a car would drive by, and teenagers were playing with a basketball in the middle of the street as usual. He passed Tenth Ave. He pulled out the piece of paper and confirmed yet again that he needed to walk down his Forty-Second Street all the way to Thirteenth. “And don’t turn off anywhere, just head straight and only down Forty-Second,” he remembered Petro’s instructions. As he walked, Genyk saw Jewish women, both young and old, in wooden chairs, dressed in holiday dresses. The young ones were pregnant, with big bellies, as if they had deliberately set them out to warm under the September sun, while the old ones, with prayer books in their hands, squinted from the sun and nearsightedness. On Thirteenth Ave, Genyk breathed in the sweet summer air with a hint of halva, as if it had drifted there from childhood.
Delyatyn Day was being celebrated by a jovial little crowd in a small restaurant on Thirteenth Ave closer to Thirty-Ninth Street. Petro was standing next to the entrance and smoking. Genyk thought that he had lucked out and would be able to have a chat with Petro, because everyone who knew Petro also knew about his fundamental flaw: when he got drunk, he gnawed glasses and hurled them at walls.
“Hello, Genyk,” Petro said first.
They shook hands and then embraced. Genyk and Petro hadn’t seen each other since winter even though they lived on the exact same Forty-Second Street. Delyatyn natives, warmed up by alcohol and dancing, were beginning to exit the restaurant. First the men, whom Genyk had once met in a store, in the laundromat, or even at church, and then the women: there were so many of them that it seemed all of Delyatyn had moved to Brooklyn.
“Petro, I have this one issue. How should I sum it up for you?”
“You need money?”
“I can’t. I swear.”
“Well, it’s just two…”
“I can’t. I send money to Delyatyn every month, and I’ve got a broad that I live with here. I don’t put anything away. I’m building a house in Delyatyn. Well, and I have to live off something here too.”
“But don’t take offense. I just don’t have a penny to spare.”
As he said goodbye to Petro, Genyk noticed Nadia from his building, who had also come out for a smoke.
The day before Genyk and Gos’ka’s wedding, Zenyk came from New Utrecht and said that C-Town, the supermarket where they used to buy groceries, had burnt down. And that the Chinese, Zenyk was saying, were looting everything they could before the firefighters and cops arrived. Genyk wanted to organize a little get-together after the marriage registration, and that’s why Zenyk was running around from store to store, buying up everything for the wedding feast.
When Genyk brought Mar’ya the first half of the payment for the fake marriage—seven and a half thousand bucks—he asked the old woman about Gos’ka, whom he still wanted to meet. Mar’ya called her in front of him, but Gos’ka responded that she didn’t have time to meet up and that they’d see each other next to the main entrance of City Hall. Mar’ya said that Marysia would serve as the witness.
Genyk woke up at 6 a.m. He pulled his suit out of the closet… But, on second thought, put on a sweater and jeans, and tossed the suit on the bed.
Through the window, Genyk could see that the Chinese had woken up and were making breakfast. And that thick clouds had shrouded the sky. For the wedding celebration, Zenyk had bought a few bottles of whiskey and stocked up the fridge with various snacks and two-liter bottles of Coke. He brought an oblong table in from the street, which he placed against the wall in the larger room.
“She’s Polish, after all. Everything needs to be classy,” Zenyk was saying.
“I don’t know… Is this necessary?”
The office where marriages were registered in New York was housed on Worth Street in Lower Manhattan next to a tiny park.
Gos’ka pulled up in a taxi and Marysia on a racing bike. And Genyk, leaning against the gray concrete building, correctly picked them out—these two Polish women, Gos’ka and Marysia. But he was in no rush to approach them. Gos’ka was in a luxurious cream-colored overcoat with a dark blue Paris scarf round her neck. Marysia wore jeans and a jacket. Fixing her disheveled hair with a hand, Gos’ka spotted her prey with a precisely aimed look, like that of a sniper.
“Gos’ka. Does the gentleman speak Polish?”
“I understand,” Genyk acknowledged and went on surveying his fake wife.
“And this is Marysia,” continued Gos’ka. “The gentleman likely saw her as Ms. Mar’ya’s?”
Marysia was that same girl that had invited him and Zenyk in at Mar’ya’s.
“So then, the gentleman has a passport?”
“Yes, with me.”
“Then let’s go get everything registered. I don’t have much time.”
“I wanted to ask, if you could… come to my place today. You know, to have a drink and a bite to eat. I invited the guys over…”
“Hmm, why?” Gos’ka’s voice was surprised.
“Well, just to… this is kind of our wedding…” Genyk was grasping for words. “To take a picture, you know… for Immigration Services…”
“At what time?”
“Well, with this and that, maybe at eight…”
“Fine. Maybe I’ll find the time.”
All three of them walked another ten meters, and Gos’ka sharply yanked the massive door of the building where the sacrament of holy matrimony should have been taking place. Fifteen to twenty minutes were allotted for each couple. In the large hall them, a guard blocked them and asked them to show their passports, and also to sign the visitor log. After a quick look, the guard chivalrously returned Gos’ka’s and Marysia’s passports to their owners, but Genyk’s he began to inspect more critically. Gos’ka was becoming anxious that things were dragging out.
“What’s wrong, Sir?” she asked.
“His passport is invalid, and he doesn’t have an American visa…”
“Miss, I told you that his passport isn’t good.”
“Sir,” the guard said, addressing Genyk. “Your stay in the U.S. is illegal.”
“He says there’s something wrong with your passport.”
Genyk arrived in Borough Park late in the evening, dragging like a beaten-up dog. Such a melancholy had accumulated in his deep sad stare that Zenyk, who was sitting bored at the table with Nadia—he had invited her for no good reason—and two guys, carelessly spilled a bottle of red wine on the white batiste tablecloth.
“Where’s Gos’ka?” Zenyk asked.
“She couldn’t make it…”
“Oh. Well, we waited and waited…”
Nadia, in a gesture of pity, took Genyk back to her place that evening, so his night passed in the chasms of Nadia’s body, and in the morning, pale, he left her apartment, saying that he was going out for cigarettes. Exiting the building, he walked into the Brooklyn rain and vanished in it. And only Zenyk, who now lived with Nadia, knew that Genyk, in some Brooklyn asylum, was preparing for his wedding till this day.