There is no antidote against the opium of Time.
-- Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Burial
The nursing home is a noisy place. Every time I visit, I feel like I'm in a carnival midway. There are always patients shouting and laughing. One woman is constantly banging on the emergency exit and yelling, "Can somebody here open the door? Can somebody here please tell me how to open the door?" Another lies in her hospital bed all day calling out "Hello? Hello? Give me a cigarette! Give me a cigarette! Hello? Hello?" Someone else is always whistling; it echoes everywhere, like a little melodious brook, never the same tune no matter how long you listen. I'm always startled by the contrast: from outside, this looks like just another other placid, tree-shaded apartment building in the heart of Lakeview; inside is an endless cacaphony of wails, cries, laughter and chattering, like the jungle dawn in a Tarzan movie.
My father-in-law Nick isn't one of the noisemakers. He's a pacer. All day, every day, he walks up and down the corridor, between the nurse's station and the big window at the far end and back again. Sometimes other residents start to tag along with him, and the result is a crowd flowing back and forth through the ward like a tide. Nick is a distinguished-looking man, very tall and gaunt, with an owl-like face, graying hair combed straight back, and a neat moustache; in the midst of this ragged mob he looks like a disgraced politician pursued by reporters.
If you asked him why he was so restless, he wouldn't be able to tell you. Of course, he has a hard time explaining or understanding anything about his situation these days -- he is simply afflicted by mysterious surges of nervous energy, like a lightning rod in an invisible thunderstorm. He jumps out of chairs, fusses endlessly with objects on his nightstand, arranges himself in his bed with elaborate formality and then, the moment he is comfortable, bounds up to look out the window. He is constantly wandering into the rooms of other patients, searching for things he can't remember. His possessions -- eyeglasses, brushes, belt, shoes, alarm clock -- turn up everywhere: scattered around other patients' beds, or in front of the nurse's station, or sometimes strewn down the corridor. One of his shirts was found once behind the big TV in the common room.
Sometimes I think he's looking for clues to what sort of place he's in. One day in the common room he looked around in sudden amazement at the other patients watching TV and said to his daughter Nina, "These people -- how did they all come together like this?"
"They're like you, Dad," Nina answered. "They're all getting older and more confused, and their families can't give them the help they need." She didn't use the word "Alzheimer's" -- that only would cause trouble. Nick will never admit he might have such a problem.
He thought about her answer for a moment. Then he shook his head; it just didn't sound plausible to him. "Oh, well, it doesn't matter," he said, with a grandly indulgent gesture. "However it happened, it's lucky they all found each other."
Another day, when we were out for a walk, he said to me: "The people in that place where I live -- they're a little strange. Sometimes I can't even understand them. But it's a nice kind of strange. I like them."
But there are other times when we get that ominous call from the nursing home: "Nick is agitated." It could mean that he had a screaming fit when the nurse tried to give him his medication, or else that he got into a fistfight with the orderlies who kept him from escaping into the elevator. Nina and I will ask to talk to him to try to calm him down -- but often this doesn't work, because he doesn't remember what it is he's upset about by the time he comes on the phone. He thinks the nursing home staffers are acting like lunatics for some reason he can't imagine. Actually he thinks this even in his calmer moments; when the orderlies inscrutably turn on him, or the doctors and nurses try to treat him for conditions he knows he doesn't have, he thinks that's just typical of the way things always go for him. His current situation has only served to confirm his lifelong certainty that he's surrounded by fools and madmen.
The technical name for his condition is "diffuse degenerative dementia." What this means is that he hasn't sustained a strong localized form of brain damage; his mental faculties are slipping from him in countless untracable ways, steadily and irreversably. Alzheimer's disease is one common type of this condition. Another is called "multi-infarct dementia," meaning brain damage caused by a lot of small strokes. It's not clear which one Nick has; usually that can't be determined without an autopsy of the brain. But the prognosis is the same in either case: it is untreatable and incurable. Nick still functions reasonably well, compared to some of his fellow residents. He still walks around, and talks, and eats on his own. In the later stages, people sometimes forget how to breathe.
It's impossible to say exactly when it began for Nick, but the symptoms became unmistakable four or five years ago. He came to stay with us then, because his girlfriend threw him out. ("He's turning into an old man," she told us; "I can't have an old man in my bed.") He didn't know what was happening to him, or how bad it was. We weren't sure either: he still passed most of the standard tests of mental acuity his doctors gave him. But he was painfully aware that something wasn't right, and wasn't ever going to be fixed.
In some ways, though, his condition hadn't changed him much. He's always been a difficult man. In fact, I often think he's the most exasperating person I've ever met. He does make a good first impression: even today, he's almost always pleasant, soft-spoken, and exquisitely polite; he carries himself with the kind of dignity and reserve that people used to call "old world." When I first knew him, I thought he was like a music teacher from some provincial European capital, some place where schoolchildren are well-behaved in public and the young give up their seats to the elderly on streetcars. But as I got to know him better, I realized that his dignity and reserve were covering over something less pleasant: a bottomless well of self-absorbsion and contempt for other people. I came to think that he was going through his life like a silent-film comedian, blithely oblivious to the trail of debris he left in his wake, self-righteously aggrieved at the slightest suggestion that he could ever be at fault. To this day, he is routinely infuriated by the self-evident stupidity of the people around him -- even Nina, the only person he really trusts. When she corrects his mistakes, or refers to events he knows didn't happen, he lashes out with his old, familiar fury: "Don't talk nonsense! You sound like an idiot!"
Soon after he came to stay with us, he asked me if I would help him with his memoirs. I was reluctant. I knew what the point was likely to be: all Americans are ignorant morons. Since he first came to this country in the 1950's, he's never ceased being appalled at what Americans don't know about world history, or for that matter their own history, and he's seen it as his duty to lecture them about their shortcomings. I had the feeling the memoirs would mainly be an opportunity for him to revisit all the stupid and provincial remarks he's heard Americans make over the last forty years. (He's always had a prodigious memory for stupid remarks; he sometimes gets outraged all over again at something a foolish hardware-store clerk said to him in 1955.)
Still, I agreed to help him. Partly it was because he was so obviously pained by the realization he'd never be able to do it on his own. But also I had an ulterior motive: I wondered if his past would explain why he'd turned out the way he did. I knew this wasn't something he wanted to explore (though he never did set any conditions about what kind of story I could write about him, or what I could or couldn't say) -- he's never had any interest in talking about his inner life. In fact, he usually denies he even has an inner life: he's always claimed that all his thoughts and actions emanate from a core of wholly pure and transparent rationality.
Anyway, I plowed through all his papers -- his letters, his published and unpublished articles, the back issues of the political journal he used to edit, the transcripts of an oral history project he took part in during the 1970's, and some episodes of autobiography he wrote for a small-town newspaper around ten years ago. These, together with the stories and letters of the other people in his family, allowed me to reconstruct his life in depth. When I thought I had a handle on the outline, I asked him to tell me whatever stories he wanted to about his past.
I wasn't certain what to expect. From his papers, I had at least come to understand just why he thought Americans were so provincial: his life has been a weird collage of exotic adventures, of mysterious cities, inexplicable wars, storms and invasions and swarming refugee camps. But what else could he tell me now, when he found it increasingly difficult to remember how to tie his shoes?
I needn't have worried. His long-term memory was intact. He seemed to have forgotten nothing about his past: he could describe the exact layout of all the houses he'd ever lived in, the organizational chart of a Southern California defense plant where he'd worked in 1962, and the brass buttons on the uniforms worn by the traffic cops in 1930's Shanghai. The slightest prompt set him off. One day, he saw a poster in a liquor-store window for Tsingtao beer, and he began reminiscing about what the roofscape of the city of Tsingtao had looked like just before the start of World War II; another time, as we strolled along a beach in Evanston, he saw a little patch of clouds rise above Lake Michigan, and he described with hallucinatory precision what a typhoon looks like as it emerges above the Pacific horizon.
There's an essay by Thomas De Quincey that I often thought about when I was listening to Nick. De Quincey compares the past to the strange city of Savannah-del-Mar, submerged beneath the ocean by a tidal wave. One can, he writes, "in glassy calms ... look down into her courts and terraces, count her gates, and number the spires of her churches. She is one ample cemetery, and has been for many a year; but in the mighty calms that brood for weeks over tropic latitudes, she fascinates the eye with a Fata-morgana revelation, as of human life still persisting in submarine asylums sacred from the storms that torment our upper air."
That's how it seems to have been for Nick. The surface of his brain was racked by his dementia; he was tormented by doubts and inexplicable anxieties (when we dropped off his clothes at the local dry-cleaners, he fretted endlessly that the building would be torn down before we returned); but his memories were somehow preserved, with all their detail mysteriously exact, deep in the calmest waters of his mind.
The real problem was something else: the dementia was eroding his attention span. For as I'd known him, he'd been undeflectable in conversation; he droned on to the bitter end, while fire engines screamed by the window, phones rang, and pots boiled over on the stove -- and if he ever noticed that anybody was trying to interrupt him, he simply glared and raised his voice. But now for the first time he was having a lot of trouble keeping on track. He was so concerned to recall every detail that he exhausted himself, and he would often cut a story short with a curt dismissal at a moment of maximum suspense. He liked to tell me, for instance, how his father had once escaped from a POW camp during the Russian Civil War -- but just as his father had gotten through the last fence and was about to make his dash for freedom, Nick would suddenly say, with a weary, dismissive sigh, "So that was it."
"What was it?" I'd ask. "What did he do?"
"What did he do?" Nick said testily. "Nothing. He did nothing. There was nothing he could do."
At other times he would, without explanation or warning, launch into the second half of a story and leave me to guess what the first half had been. Once at a dinner party he turned to me and said, "Lee, I keep meaning to tell you: the soldiers forced the women to strip naked before they could cross the bridge."
I was able to recognize this as a story about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930's -- though I never learned, then or later, whether this was something he'd seen or had only heard about. Our other guests seemed astonished at our choice of dinner-table conversation. One of them said, with a sort of cautious sympathy, "That's terrible."
"Yes, terrible," Nick said mournfully. "But what could they do? There was nothing anybody could do."
As time went on, his stories became more fragmentary. He started telling the same ones over and over again -- but would trail off at an earlier point each time. Then, too, he was having increasing difficulty remembering words. In the middle of a story, he'd hit a mental roadblock where he couldn't think of some ordinary term, and immediately go off on a long detour of paraphrase -- a detour that would invariably lead to further detours, when he forgot one of the words in the paraphrase and had to start paraphrasing that. For a while, I was able to help him out: by then I knew most of the stories by heart, and could unobtrusively supply the word that would get him back on track. But gradually his sentences were unravelling past the point where I had any idea what he was talking about. That's when we had to stop: the struggle to make sense was becoming too painful for him.
In the years since, it's only gotten worse. Today he can barely speak at all, except in jumbled phrases, and it's usually impossible to tell if they're connected by a hidden thread of thought or memory. So I don't know if I ever got his complete story, and I can't ask him any longer what's missing. But I still do ask him questions now and then, and sometimes he surprises me. Typically not: most often, he stares at me with sullen suspicion, or else snaps: "I don't want to talk about that. I've forgotten all of that. Ask me later." But several months ago, in a surge of sudden energy, he began to tell me with his old photorealistic clarity the layout of a racetrack in Shanghai that he used to bicycle past on his way to school. He remembered the banners and pennants flying, the horns sounding at post time, and how unearthly the roar of the crowd sounded, echoing down the tree-lined boulevard... and then he reached for a word, became distracted, and forgot the rest.
"The racetrack in Shanghai," I prompted.
"What are you talking about?" he snapped. "There was one, but I never went to it."
He wouldn't talk after that. I felt as though I had just seen a shaft of sunlight illuminate a submerged line of rooftops, before the waters darkened.
The defining event in Nick's life happened before he was born. The Russian Revolution was one of those vast historical calamities that most Americans have been spared: it was a time when people who never thought of themselves as political, who never thought they'd have to choose sides about anything, were forced to make political choices that could easily cost them their homes, their families, and their lives. This was how it was for Nick's parents.
The Cherniavsky family is from the Ukraine. As far back as anybody could remember, they had been peasant farmers. Nick's grandfather had risen in the world, and had become a shopkeeper in a village south of Kiev. Nick's father Nikolai, when he was a child, had an even grander goal: he wanted to go to the big city and study engineering. But that dream was wiped out by the First World War. Nikolai enlisted in the Russian Army instead, and was commissioned as a cavalry officer; he served on the Eastern Front in Austria, until the news reached the troops of the revolution back home.
The news put Nikolai in an impossible situation. On the one hand, he was a loyal military man who'd several times been decorated for bravery; on the other, he'd spent a lot of time in the officers' quarters having earnest debates about politics, and he'd come to think of himself as something of a socialist. And there was a third factor: as the fervor of revolution spread through the army, he was becoming uneasily aware that if he stayed at his post much longer, he'd probably be shot by his own men.
One night, after many whispered consultations, he and the other officers in his regiment decided to solve their problems together. They all deserted. They took the officer's insignia from their shoulders and solemnly threw them away into the nearest ditch, and then they walked off from their posts. Over the following weeks, they made their way eastward, hitching rides with interminable convoys and sneaking onto overcrowded troop trains, back into the storm that had overtaken their homeland.
When Nikolai reached the Ukraine, he found that his family had fallen apart. His father had died and his brothers were joining the various splinter armies that were already turning their guns on each other. His recent experiences had given Nikolai a taste for making bold, non-negotiable decisions, and he came to one now: he would put his socialist beliefs into practice. He would go northward to St. Petersburg, the epicenter of the revolution, and enlist in the Red Army.
It was a perilous journey; the train wound sluggishly past an endless succession of burnt-out villages and tense military checkpoints. But Nikolai didn't regret doing it -- at least not until he arrived at his goal. His first night in St. Petersburg, he heard Lenin himself address a huge open-air rally. The scene was dramatic: the wild swoop of shadows across the ornate buildings ringing the square, the surge and rush of passion in the crowd, and that famous bald-domed head bobbing in the midst of the turmoil like a deep-sea mine. But Nikolai was appalled by the cruelty and fanaticism of what he heard, and decided right then that he was about to enlist on the wrong side. So the next day, he left St. Petersburg in search of the nearest encampment of the White Army that was fighting the Red.
I don't know if he ever really believed the White Army had a chance. But he stuck it out to the end, as the confused and declining fortunes of his cause took him the length of Russia. Everywhere he went, he saw the chaos and brutality of the civil war: pointless battles, endless swarms of refugees, atrocities committed by all sides. The worst came for him personally when he was captured by a Red brigade and thrown into a prison camp on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was the dead of winter; the prisoners were sleeping in unheated barracks by night and working an ancient coal mine by day. Nikolai met a few White officers, but most of the prisoners were Germans captured years before during the World War. They were pleased (or so he later said) to help an enemy of the Reds escape, even if he had so recently been their own enemy. So one moonless night a bunch of them obligingly created a diversion, a mock fight outside one of the barracks, while Nikolai made a break for it. He got through the fences and bolted across a wide snowbound meadow towards a distant line of trees he could dimly make out in the starlight. He always said afterwards those were the worst moments of his life: waiting for the uproar and gunfire of the guards discovering he was gone -- noises that miraculously never came.
His luck held: he was discovered the next day by a White patrol, and he made his way back to his regiment. But by then he had lost the will to go on fighting. The White cause was lost anyway: except for a few remaining White strongholds, the Reds controlled the whole of Russia. The White armies still in the field were disintegrating; troops were deserting en masse, and the few who remained loyal kept waiting for orders that never came. By that spring, Nikolai was idly passing his days in the White city of Vladivostok on the Siberian coast. That was where he met Irina Spalwing.
She was the daughter of a university professor at Vladivostok's prestigious Far Eastern Institute. Her father Eugene Spalwing was a passionate scholar of Japanese language and culture -- an unusual preoccupation for a Russian in those days, because Russians weren't exactly welcome in Japan. During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, one of Eugene's relatives had been beaten to death by a mob on the streets of Tokyo. But Eugene himself travelled the length of the country without fear, and he eventually became one of the first Westerners to be accepted by Japanese academics as a serious student of their country.
Irina grew up surrounded by the tokens of her father's obsession. A photograph preserved in the family shows the Spalwing children sitting around a little black lacquer table and serving tea; they're all wearing ornate kimonos, and would look just like a perfect Japanese family if it weren't for their flowing blonde hair. Irina was around ten when the photo was taken. I have to say that she looks deathly bored. But she never did have any use for her father's enthusiasms; all her life, her son later said, she was much more inclined to boast about her family's connections among the Russian aristocracy than about how much clout the Spalwing name might have in Kyoto. She grew up to be snobbish, quick, wilful, witty, and restless -- just the sort of young woman who'd fall for a brooding, romantic cavalry officer like Nikolai.
Nikolai and Irina spent the spring and early summer strolling together along the quays and promenades of Vladivostok. They passed hours at a time watching the ships glide in the harbor and the clouds cross over from Manchuria on their way out into the Sea of Japan. They were in love, and it was a love like a classic novel: her parents bitterly disapproved of the match; his life would be in danger if he stayed in Vladivostok much longer. The dramatic crisis arrived in midsummer. That was when word reached the city that the remnants of the White Army in the field were surrendering. Vladivostok could soon expect to be taken. Nikolai knew then that he was out of time.
So he and Irina decided to elope. Nikolai boarded a train overland across the Russian border into Manchuria. Irina followed a few weeks later. She bundled herself up as a peasant woman to attract as little attention as possible. Under normal circumstances, a young upper-class Russian woman would have never travelled alone, but in those days there were swarms and tides of refugees streaming across the border, and she went unnoticed.
They were reunited in the city of Harbin, in northern Manchuria. That was where, a month later, they were married. At the ceremony, they exchanged wedding rings of pale Siberian gold. Each was inscribed around the inner rim with delicate Cyrillic characters: the ring he gave her read "Nikolai," and the ring she gave him read "Irina." Both rings bore the date: 14 IX 1922.
Harbin was a strange place. I've looked through some 19th century books on Manchuria, and none of them mention it: in those days, it was a nondescript fishing village, one of dozens that have been scattered for centuries along the banks of the remote Sunghuajiang River. Nothing of note happened in Harbin until the end of the 19th century, when hordes of Russian construction workers came pouring into town. They were building the great Trans-Siberian railway; the Romanov government and the Manchu court (both of them impossibly exotic to the people of Harbin) had cut a deal to extend the last eastward leg of the railway across the flat terrain of Manchuria, rather than the broken mountain ranges of Siberia to the north. This was how Harbin became a major junction connecting western Russia with the Pacific.
It quickly swelled up into a sizable city -- one of the biggest trading centers in Northern Asia. Russian travellers were passing through on every train, and soon Chinese traders were coming in as well, bringing their goods by boat down the Sunghuajiang from the cities of the Chinese interior. Then with the Russian revolution and civil war, the real torrent arrived. Tens of thousands of Russian refugees came across the Siberian border. There were millions of exiled Russians streaming out around the world in those days; Russian enclaves were springing up everywhere from Shanghai to Berlin. All kinds of people were caught up in the flood, from peasants whose villages had been on the wrong side in a factional fight to millionaires who came overland bringing long lines of limousines like herds of purebred cattle.
They were stunned by what they found in Harbin. Back then, nobody talked about ideas like "indigenous architecture" or "site-appropriate design." The builders of Harbin hadn't created a Manchurian city, but a Russian one. It had wide radiating boulevards and big stucco buildings painted in bright pastels; the skyline was tangled by Victorian terracotta ornamentation and dotted everywhere by ornate onion-ball church domes. The refugees said it was like a mirage of St. Petersburg, floating amid the desolate grasslands of Asia.
They treated the place as a kind of substitute Russia without the Bolsheviks. By the early 1920's, Harbin had downtown department stores crammed with more Russian and imported goods than the stores of Petersburg or Moscow. Its cafes and corner newsstands sold newspapers representing the furiously contending monarchist, fascist, liberal and radical factions. Its boulevards were lined with ornate tearooms and restaurants. There were theaters where great actors staged the Russian classics, and movie houses showing the latest films of Chaplin and Valentino. There was even a yacht club, which filled the Sunghuajiang River (a name soon Russified to Sungary) with bright European-style sails in the long summer afternoons.
When Nikolai and Irina arrived, the talk in Harbin was of the imminent fall of Lenin's government. Everyone was daily expecting the news that the Revolution had failed and they could all go home. Nikolai himself, during his first year or two in Harbin, attended lots of urgent meetings about the plans for post-Bolshevik Russia. He had a certain standing in the community, because he'd been a White Russian officer; many of the leading politicians in the city assured him he'd have an important role in the great counter-offensive that was expected to be launched any day now.
He may have believed such talk at first. But in the meantime he had to support himself; Irina was already expecting a child. So he fell into one of the century's newest and most essential trades: auto mechanic. The streets and the countryside surrounding Harbin were crowded with luxury automobiles, and they all needed a reliable garage.
Irina gave birth to their only child, a son, in April 1924. They named him Nikolai, of course. I'm calling him Nick here to keep the names straight -- nobody actually called him that till much later, after he came to America. (His family and Russian friends always called him Kolya, which is the normal shorthand for Nikolai, like Bob for Robert.)
After Nick's birth Nikolai begin to wonder what sort of future his family could have in Harbin. The great re-conquest of Russia was on indefinite hold, and in the meantime Harbin's own situation was growing daily more perilous. Those were years of revolutionary chaos in China; Manchuria was a shadowy and shifty domain of contending warlords. The people of Harbin often saw interminable, dusty armies of one or another faction marching across the grasslands, and silent gunfire in the distant hills on summer nights. Sometimes the armies swept through the villages along the river collecting conscripts; now and then their officers entered the city to hire mercenaries. A lot of Nikolai's comrades from the White Army, bored with waiting for the Russian invasion to begin, hired on with one warlord or another and went off to fight in the annual campaigns.
Then, too, the city itself was changing. After the Reds solidified their hold on Russia, the stream of refugees across the border dried up; but with war and revolution tearing Manchuria apart, people from the surrounding countryside were flooding into Harbin for sanctuary just as the Russians had done a decade earlier. At the start of the 1920's, the population of the city was around a hundred thousand, almost all of it Russian; by the late 1920's, the population had doubled, and almost all the new arrivals were Manchurians and Chinese. Nobody talked about Harbin becoming a melting pot; the Russians kept to their sections of the city and they expected their new neighbors to do the same. But a kind of infiltration of the local culture began even so.
During the long and bitterly cold winters, the Chinese started a tradition of carving ornate ice sculptures in the public parks. There were huge dragons and dreamy cloud spirits and bristlingly-armored ghost warriors silently bellowing and calling and leering among the massed snowdrifts and the thickets of bare trees; sometimes the artisans would hollow out unobtrusive gaps in the sculptures where candles or even incandescent bulbs could be hidden, so that at night the milky ice would glow from within, in wavering and mysterious pastels, like trapped spirits. The Festival of the Ice Lanterns, they called it. Irina and Nikolai and the other Russians found it beautiful but somehow disturbing. It was as though a florid Asian dreamworld was seeping up into Harbin's strict European proprieties.
Was this what finally decided Nikolai it was time to go? He never said, and there were other possible reasons. Maybe it was the rumor that the Japanese were going to invade and take the whole of Manchuria for themselves. Or else maybe he'd been to one political meeting too many, and convinced himself that he and everybody else in Harbin was going to spend all eternity stuck out there in the middle of nowhere, debating a dream of revenge. Whatever it was, one day in the fall of 1926 he told Irina that they were leaving.
They packed up their few possessions and set off by train to the Chinese coast. There they booked passage on one of the tramp steamers that bobbed from port to port all along the shores of Asia. For most of the voyage, there was nothing to look at but the blank ocean and a featureless line of land off to starboard. Then one morning they came out on deck and found something new: the blue water for miles around them was stained by a turbulent tawny-yellow murk. This was the sign that they'd reached their goal, the point where the currents of the great Yangtse River emptied into the China Sea. The steamer turned towards the west and made its way up the wide river delta, to the mouth of one of the Yangtse's tributaries, the Huangpu. The river was a gorgeous swarming riot of freighters, junks, steamers, yachts, sampans, and warships. Upstream, around a slow glittering bend, there came into view the vast sprawl of Shanghai.
"My very first recollection," Nick wrote once in a newspaper article, "is of my father holding me by the hand as we walked down a street in the Honkew District of Shanghai. Trucks full of Chinese soldiers were racing up and down the street and there was sporadic gunfire."
That was in 1927. The city was caught in the middle of yet another of the countless convulsions of the Chinese Revolution; units of the Nationalist Army were fighting each other that season. It may seem strange to picture a young Russian man strolling down such a dangerous scene with his three-year-old son at his side, but it actually was a typical sight. There were tens of thousands of Westerners in Shanghai, and they walked its streets as though in an inviolable bubble.
"Shanghai is not China," says a tourist guidebook from those years (All About Shanghai, A Standard Guide, 1934 edition). "It is everything under the sun and in population at least, it is mostly Chinese, but it is not the real China." In some ways, it was a city like Harbin: it had been built by foreign money for foreign interests. At its heart was a crowded zone of banks and stores and trading companies, factories and mansions, apartment blocks and warehouses, known as the "International Settlement." More than a hundred thousand Europeans and Americans lived there; they had their own police and fire department and utility companies and a local administrative council, which operated independently of the Chinese government. (The French in Shanghai insisted on yet another separate set of city services, under their control -- their zone was known as the "French Concession.") Surrounding it were the Chinese districts, where millions of people were crowded together; some estimates put the population density of Shanghai as two or three times higher than Paris or London. If you surveyed the city from a high vantage -- the rooftop of the glamourous Park Hotel, for instance, which billed itself in magazine advertisements as "The Tallest Building In Asia" (it was sixteen storeys) -- it appeared as a kind of doughnut: a central plateau of low, flat European rooftops encircled by a enormous broken mountain range of peaked and serrated Chinese tile.
Inside the Settlement, life was a gaudy cosmopolitan hodgepodge. Something of its character can be made out from the ads in the tourist guidebook. There were French dressmakers, American beauty salons, German breweries, and a British doctor specialising in the treatment of "venereal complaints." There were riding academies and dancing academies. A stop-the-presses ad in the guidebook's 1934 edition announces that the Shanghai Art Store has just gotten in "1935-style shoes." There are listings for brass band concerts, movie theaters, and a municipal symphony orchestra. There are countless ads for nightclubs -- featuring "Charming Dance Hostesses" and "Lovely Dance Partners" and "the Prettiest Dancing Hostesses." The Candidrome Ballroom, "The Rendezvous of Shanghai's Elite," was featuring that season the music of "Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen." It was a whole compacted world of European glamour; most of the people in the Settlement could go their whole lives without bothering to learn a word of Chinese.
There were thousands of Russians living in the Settlement -- ten thousand from the initial flood during the Russian Civil War (or so Nick estimated, in his oral history); tens of thousands more would arrive in the early 1930s, after Japan invaded Manchuria and the White Russian enclaves there were overrun. Because they were refugees with no political status, they became the lowest caste in the Settlement, barely rating above the Chinese. They took the jobs that the other Europeans wouldn't touch: Russian men worked as rickshaw bearers, which was unheard-of for whites in Asia; young Russian women made up by far the largest percentage of the Settlement's prostitutes, and they had a virtual lock on the "dance hostess" trade. But even if they were destitute, they still had their own strong community, as thrivingly insular as any other in Shanghai. They had Russian language newspapers, groceries, teahouses, and bookstores, and even a radio station. And, like Russians everywhere, they tended to treat any new acquaintance as a long-lost cousin, entitled to the family's inexhaustible support. The moment Nikolai had made a couple of Russian friends in Shanghai he had no problem finding a job or a place for his family.
In the spring and summer of 1927, he worked as a longshoreman on the docks and quays of the Huangpu, while he and Irina and Nick lived in an old boardinghouse in the French Concession. That winter, he took a step upward: he got a job installing burglar alarms. It was steady work; there were a lot of millionaires in Shanghai in those days, both Western and Chinese. Nikolai worked in mansions that were labyrinthine vistas of opulence, studded by antique vases and pieced out by luminous tapestries. He would sometimes laugh about it, and say the butlers were just as snobbish and surly whether they worked for bankers or for ganglords. The next spring, he had a piece of real luck. The Chinese laborers at the Shanghai Water Works went on strike. The British owners fired them all and brought in Russians as scabs. Nikolai got hired as a mechanical engineer (mostly because he'd been an auto mechanic), and the pay included a living space in the company housing complex.
The Water Works was a sprawling Gothic maze of dark turrets and grimy walls that squatted on the banks of the Huangpu river. The silt and filth of Shanghai, the garbage from the floating cities of boat people on the Huangpu, the sewage and debris and the occasional dead gangster, came pouring into the plant's vast system of filters and pipes and pools, and the end product was some of the cleanest tapwater in Asia. Nikolai was proud of his work (he was quickly promoted) and Irina liked their little row house; only young Nick was miserable. He was trapped inside the Water Works like an orphan prisoner in a Dickens novel, because Nikolai absolutely refused to send him to school or let him play with other children.
Why not? There were a lot of reasons. If Nikolai had thought Harbin was a bad place to raise a child, the thronging turmoil of Shanghai seemed infinitely riskier. Then, too, while Nikolai still thought of himself as a socialist, he'd come to take on increasingly aristocratic airs; he liked to think of himself as a man of culture and dignity, while his fellow Russians in Shanghai were too vulgar, too destitute, too desperate, too criminal. He particularly loathed the laxity of their childrearing and thought that the company of Shanghai's Russian children would be a disastrous influence on Nick. And then, too, although there was a good Russian school in Shanghai, he was sure that he could do a better job teaching Nick himself. In a way, it was a grand act of love and parental concern; it certainly never thought that keeping Nick isolated might do him any harm.
But Nick resented it bitterly, and always felt that it had been a disaster for him. It marked him in ways he couldn't wholly trace out for himself. At the least, it ensured that he would always have a hard time making elementary connections with people. He seems never to have picked up the cues everybody else absorbs in childhood about how to read people's faces and interpret their subliminal signals. He can't make small talk; he can't tolerate being contradicted; he's always been unable to strike a balance in a conversation between sullen silence and interminable monologue. It's a typical pattern for an only child, that unconscious sense of always being the center of attention -- and for Nick it was intensified by total social obliviousness. It's as though he spent his earliest years blind and for the rest of his life has walked around with tunnel vision.
His parents loomed over his childhood. He regarded his father with an inextricable tangle of respect, resentment, love, and fear. What stood out the most for him was Nikolai's military manners and emotional aloofness; he had, Nick wrote in one of his reminiscences, "an air of near-Olympian omnipotence" -- perhaps the last quality a lonely boy looks for in a father. Nick was awed by Nikolai's strength (he could drive in screws with his thumbnail), his determination, his air of exhaustive knowledgability, and his pose of culture. He remembered him this way in the oral history: "My father was a poet of above-average ability, and he frequently wrote invitations in verse to our friends for holiday or birthday dinners. He was composing for a couple of years, I think, a novel in verse based on the time when he served in the Russian White Army. Sometimes we would walk hand-in-hand up and down the alley at the employee housing complex and he would recite to me from memory whole chapters from his novel, occasionally changing a verse here and there."
But he was less impressed by his mother. In everything he wrote and said about her, the dominant note is impatience. From an early age, he considered her to be exasperating and irrational. In the oral history, he describes her this way: "She always spoke very fast, so fast that she made her words tumble over each other, and whenever she was at a loss for words she would just make up a term on the spur of the moment. The people who didn't know her well found this confusing and perplexing. She was always very self-conscious of position in society, prestige, and popularity. Both her mother's and her father's families had coats of arms and this meant a great deal to her. Her favorite saying in those days -- she used to say it to me repeatedly -- was: Don't you ever forget that your ancestors were nobles. They were not just common people."
This snobbery sometimes was too much even for Nikolai; Nick says in the oral history that he sometimes wondered if his father kept claiming to be a socialist only because it annoyed Irina so much. But Nick's real grudge against his mother was that she was his jailer. When Nikolai went off to work each morning, he would set Nick's lessons for the day (he'd ordered stacks of schoolbooks from the Russian bookstore), and Irina was supposed to supervise him. But she always had shopping to do -- in Shanghai in those days, refrigerators were a luxury for the very rich, and most people kept only a day's worth of food in the house. At the market she would often run into friends, and stop off at the teahouse for a talk; and Nick ended up being left alone for hours. He would wander by himself along the grass plots behind the row houses, or down the grimy brick alleys behind the filtration plant. He often sat at the little window in his bedroom, peering out forlornly at the water works' intricate roofscape as it was washed by Shanghai's cold winter rains or baked by the sultry summer sunlight. A gap in the angle between two rooftops held a wedge of of the Huangpu River: he could see fishing boats bob along the glinting water, and now and then the steep side of a steamship sweeping past.
Like many kids who grow up in isolation, Nick retreated into a world of daydream. He read Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne, the way most Russian children do; but soon he conceived a different passion: for America. His favorite writers (in Russian translation) were Jack London and James Fenimore Cooper; he had an enduring love for stories of the Wild West and the Gold Rush. Almost as soon as he could read, he was devouring Shanghai's Russian language newspapers, and while he was starved for real life and took a deep interest in everything, from Mao's Long March to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Halie Salassie was one of his earliest heroes), his particular enthusiasm was for American news. He followed the Presidential elections closely (he supported Roosevelt); and he read everything he could about the Lindburgh kidnapping and the assassination of Huey Long. It often struck him as a profound injustice that he was half a world away from such excitement, stuck in Shanghai where nothing ever happened.
When he was twelve, he finally persuaded his father to send him to Shanghai's Russian school. He proved to have an easy time in class; Nikolai actually had done a good job with his home instruction. But he was less successful with his schoolmates. They were merciless. Not only was he a newcomer, but he cut an absurd figure: he was tall, skinny, hopelessly unathletic, and socially incompetent. He couldn't even understand a word they said. He spoke the classically pure Russian he'd learned from his parents; the other kids had their own weird patois, a thickly slanging Russian mixed with English and overlaid by a lot of garbled French. It took him months of patient listening to get the hang of it, and even then he had to be careful not to let it slip out of him at the wrong time. If his father had heard a hint of slang in his speech, that would have been the end of his schooling.
But none of that mattered -- or at least Nick would never admit that it did. He was developing his characteristic form of self-defense in difficult social situations: he simply refused to accept he was having a problem. (In later years, he modified this strategy: if he had to admit there was a problem, he refused to accept that it could be his fault.) As far as he was concerned, he wanted to be liked by the other kids, and so he was -- end of story.
Besides, he was dazzled by Shanghai. He bicycled everywhere through the swarming streets of the Settlement and the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession; sometimes he would venture out to where the ruler-drawn European districts ended and the tangled Chinese neighborhoods began: an alluring, tumbledown glow of paper lanterns and neon, announcing alchemists, herbalists, necromancers, radical newspapers, opera houses and opium dens. He was never worried; "the crime rate was extremely low," he remembered, "and I could go into any neighborhood in the city, no matter how poor, without fear."
On the other hand, it was a city perpetually on the edge of catastrophe. The Japanese invasion spread throughout China during the 1930s, and by 1937 there was ferocious fighting in the Chinese districts of Shanghai. The area to the west of the Settlement turned into a weird and savage zone of street warfare where the Japanese army, the remnants of the nationalist Chinese forces, the collaborationist Chinese police, and anti-Japanese paramilitary groups run by the Chinese gangs all contended; it came to be known as "the Badlands." The Settlement remained relatively safe; its neutrality and independence had been guaranteed by America and the other Western powers, who kept gunboats perpetually patrolling the waters of the Huangpu. But that didn't mean there weren't a lot of thrilling close calls. Nick recalled in the oral history: "Machine gun bursts, artillery salvos and rifle shots became a a part of our daily environment ... antiaircraft artillery and machine guns, Japanese or Chinese -- we had no way of knowing -- would open up and the spent rounds would bounce off the roof of our house."
As the fighting worsened, the city seemed to grow more surreal. One morning when Nick was on his way to school he saw a wild dogfight unfolding in the clouds overhead, mysteriously ignored by the busy crowds on the street. Another time he was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange light in his bedroom; from his window he saw that the refinery across the river had been bombed, and huge roils of red flame were shimmering on the black waters. A few days later, a ride on a trolleycar took him through the Badlands, and he found that the familiar streets had been transformed: "For blocks and blocks the Japanese put manila ropes around the utility poles and put straw on the sidewalks and they used this area as stables for the cavalry horses. There were hundreds or thousands of horses. It was an unbelievable sight."
The worst came for the Europeans one Friday when a Chinese plane swooped down and -- deliberately or not, nobody ever found out for sure -- dropped its bombs on the Settlement. One bomb fell on an intersection in the busiest commercial street along the river; another landed in a public square that was serving as a holding camp for thousands of newly-arrived refugees. Nick happened to pass by the square soon afterwards. He described the scene in one of his newspaper articles forty years later: "It was total chaos -- blood all over, mangled bodes, torn limbs, dead, wounded, all in one bloody mess. Cars, rickshaw cabs, buses, streetcars all torn apart, smashed upside down, broken glass. Cries for help, groans ..." Nine hundred people died; it was known in Shanghai afterwards as Black Friday.
But the most important thing that happened to Nick in those years had nothing to do with the grand events of history. He and his father had another gigantic battle, filled with desperate pleadings and absolute refusals: this time the issue was whether he could join the Boy Scouts. For Nikolai it was yet another potential cesspool of dissolute company -- but he finally relented, and Nick began attending Scout meetings. For the first time in his life, he made a friend.
Victor Velgus was an unusual kid, even for Shanghai. He was half-Russian and half-Chinese, a rare combination -- even rarer because it was his mother who was Russian and his father Chinese. They had met in Siberia during the Civil War, where she was a nurse and he was a laborer. In their long, meandering flight over the following years, into Manchuria and then southward to Shanghai, she had somehow strayed away, and Victor had no idea where she was now. He lived with his father in a big, crumbling apartment block in the Badlands. But he detested that arrangement, and he spent most of his time on the streets, or hanging around in the Russian teahouses and taverns in the Settlement. He was fluent in Russian and Chinese (both Mandarin and the hissing Shanghai dialect that most other Chinese professed to be unable to understand) and he had also picked up a smattering of English and French. He earned his pocket money as a bicycle messenger, taking letters and military dispatches from one sector to another through the Badlands and the Settlement -- dodging heedlessly among the swarms of troop convoys and past the bristling checkpoints run by the police and the gangs. That's why he had joined the Boy Scouts: he wanted the uniform because it made him look more official on his rounds.
Victor was everything Nick wasn't. Nick was timid and priggish; Victor was a hustler, an adventurer, a carouser. "He always had one girlfriend after another," Nick said in the oral history. "He was a good dancer and very good in company. He was a very enjoyable person. He was also a very self-centered person, very effective in promoting himself."
Victor could charm anybody -- particularly those, like Nikolai and Irina, who believed they were impervious to being charmed. They were at first furiously suspicious of him, but soon they were enchanted. After a couple of months of hearing his stories about how he was sleeping on the street after his latest fight with his father, they told him he could move in with them. He proved to be a fitful and unreliable houseguest, useless at chores, ostentatiously baffled when cash or little trinkets went missing -- but Nikolai and Irina doted on him. They even enjoyed the innumerable ways he found to hit them up for loans; Irina was still laughing years later over the way Victor had once danced around her on the street like an organ-grinder's monkey, begging her "Let me have a quarter, please let me have a quarter."
Nick and Victor spent every day together, and came to take each other for granted with the profound taciturn devotion of teenage boys. Victor worked hard to bring Nick out of his shell. He had no luck coaxing him into sampling Shanghai's adult entertainments -- but did at least get him to play hooky. The two attended the Russian school together until the fall of 1940, when the school had to close: it was right on the boundary between the Settlement and the Badlands, and the streetfighting in the Badlands was growing more anarchic and savage. So instead Nick and Victor enrolled for night classes at a college in the French Concession. But the lectures were given in French, which neither of them spoke well enough to follow; so at Victor's instigation, they started skipping classes and going to movies instead.
"Never have I seen so many movies as we saw that winter," Nick remembered. "And Shanghai had beautiful movie theaters, elaborately constructed, huge, and richly furnished." They showed the latest arrivals from Hollywood; when The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened, the Cathay Theatre hired dozens of real hunchbacks to go through the streets of the Settlement wearing sandwichboards advertising the premiere. But Nick didn't actually care much about what was showing. What he loved were the American newsreels: Congressional debates, the Presidential election (Nick was still rooting for Roosevelt, but he had some doubts about the propriety of a third term), wacky doings in the Heartland ... and, of course, the latest ominous news from the war in Europe: the fall of France, the London blitz, the Russian invasion of Finland.
Victor was always robustly scornful. Whenever Nick would talk about the issue that concerned him most -- whether America should enter the war against Germany -- he would snort in contempt. What did FDR or Churchill or Hitler matter here in Shanghai, on the other side of the world? And besides, whatever bigshot government or another was in charge, there would always be a deal to be made or an angle to be found. The real issue was whether Rita Hayworth was prettier than Norma Shearer, or whether the usherette was flirting back with enough of a hint of bawdiness to be worth pursuing.
That's how they would argue as they bicycled home, with their voices ringing off the endless blocks of silent warehouses. The commercial district was always desolate late at night -- there was no movement for miles at a time but the silent glittering ships on the river, and the occasional bright spill of revellers from a late-night club, tumbling out into an alley like jewels from a frayed pocket.
That winter was miserably cold and clammy. Towards spring Nick's father fell sick with a serious respiratory infection; nobody knew what it was, but Nikolai's own belief was that it was tuberculosis. He thought he'd had it before, and had cured himself with Ukrainian herbal medicine. This time, though, he couldn't get the right herbs; so instead his doctor advised him to get out of the foul air of Shanghai for a while. He recommended a stay in the resort city of Tsingtao. Nikolai immediately seized on this idea and transformed it into one of his bold life-altering decisions: he would quit his job at the Water Works, buy land in Tsingtao, and become a farmer.
Tsingtao was on the coast a couple of hundred miles north of Shanghai. Like so many cities in China, it had been built by Westerners -- Germans, in this case. It had the Gothic architecture and tree-lined boulevards of a provincial capital deep in the Black Forest; the German settlers had planted the ring of low hills that surrounded the harbor with tens of thousands of pine trees, just to remind them of home. It was a beautiful and peaceful place. For the last several years, it had been under Japanese occupation, but this presence weighed lightly on its citizens; the garrison was well-disciplined and allowed ordinary life to continue unmolested.
Most of the population was Chinese, but several rich old German families still lingered: they lived mostly in the big mansions along the shore. There was also a small but thriving Russian enclave. Nikolai had what he thought was a brilliant idea: he was going to acquire goats, and sell their milk to the Germans and Russians as a luxury health-food novelty item.
Nick was at first pleased by the whole scheme of moving to Tsingtao. For one thing, it meant that he had to drop out of the French college, and so his parents would never find out that he'd stopped attending classes. But he hated the idea of leaving Victor behind, and he was increasingly dreading the prospect of being trapped alone with his parents. Nikolai had no intention of living in Tsingtao itself; the whole point for him was to get back to the land. As soon as they arrived in the spring of 1941, he leased an unpromising acre of land on the outskirts of the city, and supervised Nick in the construction of a ramshackle cabin. Nick resented being ordered around, loathed the work, and detested the result. Nikolai also bought a herd of goats, and leased grazing rights to a stretch of hillside above their land. While he and Irina set out to cultivate their gardens, Nick each day had to keep watch over the goats.
He always remembered that summer as the most wretched time of his life. Each morning he led the goats off to their pasturage -- a difficult task in itself, he said: "goats are extremely obstinate, uncooperative animals." Then, as the herd drifted along the steeps and meadows, nibbling patiently at the acacia leaves, Nick would sit with his back to a treetrunk and feel sorry for himself. There was nothing to do all day but watch the cloud-shadows move from the pine-forested hillsides out across the town and into the shallow bowl of the harbor.
He got to know by heart the roofscape of Tsingtao. Like Harbin or Shanghai, it was a core of squat blockly European buildings surrounded by a fanciful forest of Chinese tile. Here was the big steam-wreathed brewery; there on the outskirts of town was the tight forbidding maze of the local Japanese garrison; in the hazy distance beyond was the airfield, where beat-up one-engine planes, new, sleekly glamorous passenger airliners, and ferocious-looking military fighters and transports (he saw more and more of those as the summer gave way to fall) buzzed and circled and swooped like dragonflies. Enclosing it all in blue-misted splendor was the Sea of China, and out there beyond the horizon where the clouds swarmed and vanished was the world where interesting things happened.
The routine didn't break until the end of fall. One afternoon when he was up in the pasturage he heard an odd sound coming from behind the hills: a low troubled throbbing. It grew louder towards evening, as he led the goats down the slope towards their pen. When he turned to look behind him he was greeted by a terrifying sight: rising above the pine-thick hillcrests was what he later called "the worst thunderstorm I'd ever seen in my life." It was a vast tidal wave of blackness, streaked with purple like a bruise and crowned by flashes of yellow lightning. The rain was already falling by the time he got back to the cabin. The real deluge, though, didn't start until after dark. Nick and his parents spent a dreadful night huddled together as the roof sprang countless leaks and the rainwater streaming under the door and walls turned the dirt floor into a pond of bubbling black mud. Just before dawn, in a great roar of wind and lightning-lit squalling, one wall of their cabin collapsed.
It was the end of Nikolai's dream of becoming a farmer. But he responded to the disaster with characteristic decisiveness. Within a day, he had Nick and Irina put up in a boardinghouse in town, and had arranged storage space for their waterlogged belongings; he sold the herd of goats; and he found a job. There was a big dairy farm on the edge of town run by a Russian Jewish family -- they'd gone to America and become citizens before moving on to China to make their fortune. They hired Nikolai as a foreman and allowed him and his family to move into a little cottage next to the bunkhouse.
The first night in the cottage, Nick barely slept. He couldn't wait for morning, when he would be able to get away from the farm and spend some time in town. But when sunup came and he tried to sneak out unnoticed, he was greeted by a nasty surprise: there was a Japanese soldier guarding the main gate.
The soldier was young and nervous; he brandished his rifle at Nick and ordered him to stand back. A couple of farmhands drifted past to see what was happening, and the soldier waved the rifle wildly in the air and fired off a round. That brought everybody running. Nobody wanted to rush the soldier, who was growing more and more panicky, so instead the crowd stood around vaguely and waited to see what would happen. The stalemate was broken an hour later, when an open-top limousine came up the road, bringing a couple of Japanese officers and an interpreter. One of the officers explained the situation in Japanese; the interpreter translated into English, and the word filtered through the crowd in Chinese and Russian. As of that morning, the officer said, Japan and the United States were at war, and all property owned by American citizens in Tsingtao was being confiscated. This was how Nick first heard about Pearl Harbor.
The Russians in China were in limbo. They had no legal citizenship anywhere; the only official document most of them carried was a temporary passport issued to White Russian exiles around the world by the League of Nations -- which gave them a bare legitimacy, at least in those countries that recognized the League. In practice the passports invariably triggered bewildered consultations among customs officials, requests for bribes, curt refusals of permission to enter (or leave), and threats of arrest whenever they tried to cross a border. But now with the coming of the war the League was gone and the passports had gone from marginally useful to wholly worthless; the Russians were now exclusively dependent on the charity or indulgence of local authorities for their survival.
But Tsingtao's Russian enclave believed its status might not change very much. Japan and the Soviet Union weren't at war with each other; and the local Japanese garrison had always left them alone. Their hopes proved justified, at least for a while. In the months after Pearl Harbor, ordinary life in Tsingtao went on as before. Even the dairy farm stayed open -- though the Japanese now ran it, and nobody ever found out what happened to the American owners. The only immediate difference the war brought was for Nick: he got a job.
There were mysterious organizations springing up in all the Russian enclaves throughout Asia. They were called Russian Anti-Communist Committees. Their exact purpose wasn't clear, nor was the source of their financing; mostly they served as a kind of semi-official buffer between the Russian exile communities and the Japanese authorities. Their public activities were benign and philanthropic. They paid for teachers at the Russian schools, for instance; and they ran fundraisers and charity balls to keep the Russian theaters and music societies open. In Tsingtao they put out a weekly Russian-language newspaper. It ran a smattering of what little local news there was, but for the most part it was filled with wire-service stories approved by the Japanese censors. Despite the Japanese occupation, the wire services were still in English, which the editor didn't speak; Nick had picked it up in Shanghai -- he liked reading American newspapers -- and was hired to translate the stories into Russian.
He took this job very seriously. When the editor noticed his unfailing energy he assigned him another task: responsibility for the newspaper's weekly half-page "Youth" section. For the rest of his life, he's called this the best job he ever had. He worried over every detail -- the notices of band concert programs at the local school, the date of the chaperoned dance at Tsingtao's Russian church. When there wasn't enough copy to fill the half page, he wrote articles himself, with headlines like "What Should Youth Do?" and "Youth Responds to the Current Crisis." He took to conducting all his correspondence on the newspaper letterhead, and signed every letter "Editor, Youth Section." He even started smoking because, as he said afterwards, "It befitted my new status as a newspaper editor."
The newspaper office was on the second floor of a somnolent old German bank building in downtown Tsingtao. It was near the end of a dim corridor of pebbled glass doors, between a Chinese accounting firm and a mysterious import-export company. Nick's happiest hours were spent there -- especially after the editor had gone home and he could stay late into the night, smoking his cigarettes and reading the newest wire-service copy. He followed the progress of the war with consuming fascination. It was difficult to make out exactly what was happening, because the copy was censored, but the drift came through unmistakably: major Japanese victories, the Americans desperately falling back throughout the Pacific. Nick was rooting for the Americans, of course: in recent years, his childhood passion for the Wild West and had deepened into an enthusiasm for the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. And then, too, he had come to detest the Japanese for the way they were behaving in China. He hadn't seen anything happen in Tsingtao, but like everybody else he had heard atrocity stories; when the Japanese had captured the city of Nanking in 1937, people said that tens of thousands of Chinese had been massacred. (One history published recently, The Rape of Nanking, puts the number in the hundreds of thousands.)
Nick was particularly worried about Victor in Shanghai. Around the time Nick and his family had left, the growing chaos in the Badlands was threatening to swamp the whole city; and with the coming of the war, the neutrality of the International Settlement was at an end. The whole of Shanghai was under fierce martial law. Most of the Americans and Europeans who hadn't already left were taken off to internment camps; the Russians had been permitted to stay, but they were harassed and tormented by the Japanese occupying army in a way that the people of Tsingtao had been spared. Victor didn't mention any of these problems in his letters -- instead they contained mocking allusions to dirty jokes that made Nick blush -- but Nick found that suspicious in itself: if Victor had been all right, he would have been boasting of his dangerous adventures.
One day Nick mentioned his worries to his editor. He was surprised when the editor responded by questioning him closely on Victor's background and character. A bigger surprise happened a couple of weeks later: without a word of warning, Victor showed up in Tsingtao. He was carrying a pass stamped by dozens of ideographs and an official letter stating in Japanese and Russian that his presence was urgently needed by the local Anti-Communist Committee.
That was obviously untrue; as Nick remembered it in the oral history, "There actually wasn't anything for Victor to do at the newspaper or the Committee." But Nick and his parents was delighted to have him back, even if he did seem oddly subdued. He refused to say anything at all about what had happened to him in Shanghai. But he was surprised that Tsingtao's Russians were so relaxed around Japanese soldiers.
Nick was deeply impressed by his editor's clout. It confirmed all his old daydreams about the glory and importance of newspapers. He didn't stop to wonder how it was that the editor could have this kind of influence with the Japanese -- or at least he didn't wonder until a couple of months later, when letters arrived for him and Victor from the chairman of the Tsingtao Committee informing them they were being drafted by the Japanese Army.
They were sent to Tientsin, an industrial port city midway between Tsingtao and Peking. That was where the Japanese had set up a cadet school for Russian boys. The school was outside of town, where a factory district gave way to wide fields and rice paddies. The campus was really nothing more than a battered barracks and a couple of derelict warehouses that had been converted into schoolrooms and a makeshift gym. There were a scattering of Chinese servants, and a couple of bored Japanese guards; one of the teachers was Japanese, while the other two, and the school commandant, were old White Russian soldiers. There were around forty boys from White Russian enclaves the length of the Japanese empire, from Harbin to Singapore.
The boys were drilled endlessly. Much of it was the training they would have gotten at any military school -- parade, rifle practice, calisthenics. But they were also taught Japanese techniques of self-defense, and hand-to-hand combat with bamboo rods. And then there was the core subject, the heart of their routine: every day, three hours a day, they learned Japanese.
Their commandant explained to them why they'd been drafted. The school was a tiny part of Japan's long-range plans for its new empire. Nazi Germany had invaded the Soviet Union with the goal of capturing all its territory eastward to the Urals; once this succeeded -- and the news of the final victory was expected any day -- Japan intended to move in from the other direction and conquer Siberia and Central Asia. They were going to need Russian officers fluent in Japanese who could act as interpreters during a prolonged military occupation, and that was why they had instructed the Committees to keep their eyes out for likely cadets.
Many of the boys at the school were already committed to the cause of overthrowing the Soviet Union, with or without Japanese backing. It was a common daydream of young White Russian exiles in those days, just as boys in the American South dreamed of refighting and winning the Battle of Gettysburg. A few of the other boys thought the whole idea was a farce -- and they would sometimes say so during the surreptitious nightly debates the cadets conducted after lights out. Victor seemed indifferent; he was mostly interested in figuring out if it was possible to sneak away from the school long enough to explore Tsientsin.
Nick had no idea what to think. Such grand issues were impossible for him to take personally: he saw the Russian Revolution as such a vast and primordial event that he couldn't imagine what his life would have been like without it. Nor did he want to collaborate with the Japanese, on this or anything else; he simply felt that he had no choice about being at the school. "If I'd refused to go," he said in the oral history, "I would have undoubtedly been arrested by the Japanese military police." So he resigned himself to his situation, and allowed himself to be carried passively along through the weeks and months of lessons and calisthenics and military drills. His chief feeling for quite a while was sheer relief at being away from his parents.
The school existed apart from the larger world; the boys heard little from home and nothing whatever about the war. During the summer and into the fall they spent hours clacking and slapping their bamboo sticks at each other on the wildflower-strewn fields at the edge of the school grounds. By winter they were being taught more elaborate tactical games, most of them military versions of hide-and-seek; they took great delight crashing along through the veils of ice on the rice paddies and stalking and ambushing each other with unloaded rifles among stands of frozen reeds. In the dead of winter the games were often cancelled and the cadets instead had to police the grounds: the winds often came from the northwest during those months, and brought sifting down everywhere cindery black showers of frozen sand, blown hundreds of miles from the remoteness of the Gobi Desert.
The second year was much the same. The only unusual event came one winter evening when soldiers arrived with a prisoner that they locked in the brig overnight. They took him away the next morning without saying a word. But a rumor went around the school anyway that the prisoner was a downed American pilot.
Nick himself was put in the brig a couple of times that second year. Once was for being five minutes late for dinner -- he got two days for that. Then one of the other cadets had been caught stealing, and Nick was the ringleader who organized the punishment: after lights out the cadets pinned the thief to his bunk and lashed him with their belts. Nick was sentenced to three days in the brig (while the thief was expelled). This time he complained so bitterly about the conditions -- the bad food, the hard bunk, the absence of blankets -- that the guards had to remind him he was being punished.
Still, by then he'd come to love being at the school and was becoming increasingly depressed that his time there was almost up. He idolized the school commandant and the Japanese teacher -- perhaps it's no coincidence that they were men like his father, very aloof and imperious, with a regal military bearing. When graduation day came he was almost in tears at the thought of leaving them. The ceremony was held at the end of summer, in the little parade ground between the barracks -- a desolate plot of cracked concrete, fringed by florid weeds. Nick and Victor were both commissioned as lieutenants. They weren't sure what to expect: a posting to some battle zone deep in Asia, perhaps. But instead they were simply told to return home and await further orders.
So they rode the train back to Tsingtao together. It had been two years since they'd been outside the school grounds, and they were vaguely surprised to see how little changed were the vistas of fields and rice paddies unfolding on either side of the railroad tracks. The passengers looked no different -- they could have been the same crowd of soldiers, businessmen and peasants who'd ridden with them the last time. But then Nick noticed something new: at the other end of the car, a Japanese soldier was drunk and causing a disturbance. All the years Nick had lived in China, he'd never seen any Japanese soldier display such a shocking breach of military discipline. It was at that moment that he understood what was going on: why there had been no talk at the ceremony of the great crusade against the Bolsheviks, why the cadets had all been sent home without orders. Japan was losing the war.
Tsingtao had preserved its isolation from the outside world. There were no bombed streets or gutted buildings; the rooftops still glinted peacefully within the ring of the harbor. But Nick and Victor were disturbed to find decay everywhere. The familiar houses had all gotten shabbier, the parks were unkempt, and paint was peeling from balustrades; nothing had been built or repaired in years. The people on the streets, both Chinese and Russian, looked scrawny and unhealthy. While the city was better off than a lot of China -- by then there was famine throughout the country -- food was tightly rationed and there were continual shortages. The soldiers from the Japanese garrison were the most alarming sight of all: they looked like undernourished children. When their superiors weren't looking, they were known to beg the townspeople for food.
But the Russian enclave in Tsingtao was hanging on, and it welcomed the two new lieutenants back like heroes. Friends brought out their hoarded food so there could be a proper banquet; everyone in the taverns bought them drinks; within a day or two of their arrival, people had arranged jobs for them. The Committee's newspaper had ceased publication -- there was a newsprint shortage -- so Nick began teaching Japanese at the Russian school. Victor meanwhile was hired by the biggest law office in town as an interpreter. After that, the next issue to be dealt with was their eligibility on the marriage market. They were good-looking, they had prestige, and they had just turned twenty; it was time for them to find wives.
While Nick had been away, his mother Irina had picked out a bride for him. She was a pretty and sweet girl named Vera, the daughter of a local shop-owner. A dance was arranged so they could be formally introduced. All the young Russians in the town were there. The dance was a disaster, as far as Irina was concerned: Vera only had eyes for Victor, who was being particularly dashing that evening. Irina was furious, and thought Nick should confront Victor over flirting so shamelessly with his intended -- a situation that might have ended up as a scene from a Russian classic novel, with Nick and Victor fighting a duel at dawn. But Nick didn't care about Vera. He'd met somebody else at the dance and had instantly fallen in love.
Her name was Maria Solokovskaya. Her family had been wealthy landholders in Siberia; her father and grandfather had owned gold mines. Since the Revolution, they had followed the same wandering track through China as Nick's family had: first several years in Harbin, where Maria and her brothers and sisters had been born, then Shanghai during the 1930's, and then Tsingtao. But Maria was a couple of years older than Nick, and had led a much less sheltered life in Shanghai. She and her sisters had worked as dance-hall hostesses and movie-theater usherettes, and had gone to all the glamourous parties; there's a photograph from the late Thirties showing Maria, in her most stylish clothes, attending a party on a yacht at anchor in the Huangpu River -- she's surrounded by glittering European aristocrats, and behind them, hanging from the yacht's rigging, are swastika banners.
Maria was beautiful and ferociously intelligent, but her family considered her odd: so odd, in fact, that they thought she was unmarriagable. She could, when she made the effort, be as flirty and charming as her sisters; but she preferred to stay in her room reading books. Sometimes she would refuse at the last minute to come to some party that had been arranged for her benefit. The guests would be waiting downstairs, and her father and mother would plead with her in vain to unlock her door. She had only come to this particular dance as a kind of gesture to her family to prove she could still be agreeable. But she had quickly grown bored, and was more inclined than usual to be tart to any young man who dared address her.
Nick was enchanted. However aloof she seemed, he laughed uproariously at her every insult, and by the end of the evening was pestering her unrelentingly for a date.
What did she see in Nick? By the time I knew her, almost forty years later, she never talked about him at all; the way she told it to me, the one true love of her life had been an American soldier she'd known in Shanghai before the war ("His name was Billy," she said; "and he had beautiful eyes") and when he disappeared she had resigned herself to spinsterhood. But she must have been impressed by Nick's implacable determination to court her. She once told her daughter Nina how Nick had persuaded her to accept his proposal: the first time they were alone together, a couple of weeks after the dance, he had taken his revolver from his pocket, pressed it to his temple, and solemnly promised her that if she didn't immediately agree to marry him he would pull the trigger.
They were married the following spring, in Tsingtao's little Orthodox church. It was the same church where, a month later, Victor married Vera. As Nick and Maria and the rest of their wedding party emerged from the ceremony, a swarm of Japanese planes rose from the airfield into the gorgeous afternoon light and went roaring and sputtering across the sky directly overhead, on their way to bomb something just on the other side of the hills. That was, Nick later said, the closest the war ever got to Tsingtao.
Nick was always an early riser, and it was his habit in the first days of his marriage to sneak out of the house at dawn and bring breakfast back for Maria. They were living then in a beautiful apartment in one of the richest sections of Tsingtao, with a spectacular view of the harbor. They'd never have been able to afford it ordinarily, but the war had created a lot of bargains: the landlady was letting them have it in exchange for half their monthly flour ration. Down the road was a little cluster of stores surrounding a German bakery. It was one of Nick's favorite places: in the summer dawn the windblown scents of pine sap and acacia leaves were suffused with the heady odor of hot sugared flour.
One August morning he was standing outside the bakery about to head back home when his eye was caught by the newspapers tacked up outside the Chinese grocery store. The dawn wind was blowing off the harbor, pale shafts of light were falling across the street, and the newspapers were flapping like banners: the huge ideographs wildly blinked as though signalling a warning. Nick still couldn't speak Chinese -- but Chinese and Japanese are close enough so that he was able to do a rough translation of the mysterious headlines. "Thunder From Heaven Destroys Japanese City," they read. He went home to wake Maria with the news of what had happened at Hiroshima.
A few days afterwards, American planes began passing over Tsingtao. They mostly flew so high they couldn't be seen, but it was easy to recognize them: for years, everybody had gotten used to the sound of Japanese airplane engines buzzing and knocking their way across the sky, barely staying aloft on their low-octane fuel; the American planes soared with engines of sweet humming efficiency. Then one morning the town woke to find an American battleship sitting silently in the harbor. The next day, there were a couple more; by week's end, there was a whole bristling forest of them. They were waiting for the official surrender of the Japanese garrison. When the day arrived for the transfer of power, the people of Tsingtao lined the streets and swarmed the rooftops to watch the Americans come ashore. Nick described the scene in the oral history. "We were flabbergasted. The endless lines of six-by-six trucks and jeeps and personnel carriers, artillery battalions, tanks which snaked through the streets of Tsingtao in never-ending columns -- it was beyond description and beyond our comprehension. It was obvious the Japanese didn't have a tenth the firepower and technical support the Americans had."
The Americans took over the airfield and turned it into a major base. Soon the streets of Tsingtao were crowded with American marines, and the old placidity of the city was obliterated by honky-tonk sleaze. Nick remembered: "Every second business on the main street of Tsingtao became a nightclub. A few weeks before, it was a haberdashery, a five and ten store, a drugstore, a small family restaurant -- now it had a bar and a floor show. There were drunken fights on the streets and all kinds of troubles between soldiers and civilians."
But soon even those who resented the Americans' arrival were looking for a way to cash in. Nick's parents Irina and Nikolai found one: they put a sign up on one of the base's bulletin boards saying they would serve home-cooked meals in their kitchen for any soldier who wanted a break from the military mess. "There was a little bit of a problem with that," Nick once told me, in a confidential tone. "My mother wasn't really a very good cook." But it didn't matter; within a day, they had a full seating for eight and a waiting list. Nick himself quit his job at the school -- he had no pupils anyway, since nobody now had a reason to learn Japanese -- and got a job at the base as a laborer. The Americans were always building something new out there, a new runway or bunker or warehouse, and they were always willing to pay somebody else to do the work.
Nick did his job diligently and well -- he was always a good worker, no matter who his employer was -- and he was soon promoted to foreman. This was his first real exposure to Americans. They perplexed him. He had vaguely thought they'd be idealistic, happy, and honest, like they were in the newsreels. But they were cynical, vulgar, bigoted, and mysterious. They lived according to a code of etiquette that he found inscrutable: they were constantly insulting and belittling you and yet were forever bristling at imagined slights. Where was the democratic pride and openness he'd so long admired? He cautiously decided that the soldiers at the base must not be typical.
About a year after the Americans arrived, news began to circulate among the Russians of Tsingtao about another unexpected consequence of the war's end. The Soviet Union announced a general offer of repatriation for all White Russians still in exile. Anyone who had fled during the Revolution or the Civil War, or any of their children born in foreign countries, could enter the Soviet Union and receive full citizenship. There was a furious debate about this offer in Tsingtao, as there was in all the surviving White Russian enclaves scattered around the world. Most people assumed it was just one of Stalin's lies. Anyone foolish enough to accept, they said, would be sent immediately to the Gulag or else be shot. But there were a few who were more hopeful. They were worn out by the endless uncertainty of the emigre life, the decades of irrelevant defiance and useless hope; they were sick of subsisting on the dubious tolerance of foreign governments; maybe some of them just wanted to return to a place where everybody spoke Russian. In the end, Nick knew two people who decided to accept the offer. One was Maria's oldest brother Donat; the other was Victor.
Donat was the smartest of the Solokovsky children; he was also the most contrary and contentious. He was an engineer -- the sort of hands-on person who could fix anything around the house with indifferent ease while simultaneously haranguing you about some grotesque stupidity he'd just read in the morning newspaper. He had even less of a social sense than Nick did. The Solokovsky family liked to tell the story of a dinner party they'd once given for a distinguished old White Russian general: as the guest of honor retold several of his favorite anecdotes from the Civil War, Donat began fuming over what he saw as their inaccuracies and improbabilities, and at last, just before dessert, he burst out with the furious cry "You're a liar!" and stormed out of the dining room. The family joked that if he really did try to get into the Soviet Union, he'd probably provoke a fistfight with a KGB agent at the border.
As for Victor -- he was bored with Tsingtao and wanted something new. His marriage was a misery. His wife had proved to be timid, vague, and useless (except when it came to his fondness for carousing -- there she was blazingly furious). His job at the law office was going nowhere. He detested the Americans; he thought they were so pervasively criminal they made him look like the soul of honesty. He began talking about the Soviet Union in terms that he had once contemptuously mocked -- it was the future of the world, the idealistic alternative to the corruptions of the West. Nick couldn't believe he was serious. Besides, there was the matter of how he'd spent the war: as Nick remembered, "I warned him he'd be in incredible danger if they found out what the cadet school was for." But who knew? Maybe Stalin's Russia was exactly the sort of place where he'd flourish.
Donat and Victor set off together. They'd never met before the day of departure; but as they sailed away from Tsingtao they looked to Nick and their other friends and family waving goodbye from the dock like two old companions in an epic poem -- the classically handsome White Russian aristocrat and the exotic half-Chinese ne'er-do-well. The ship took them northward to Vladivostok, where they were to cross into the Soviet Union. Nick and everybody in Tsingtao waited eagerly for word of their further adventures. But no word ever came.
Nick never said so, but I think he was relieved to have Victor gone. Their friendship had been slowly dwindling from its peak in Shanghai; in the oral history, Nick barely mentions Victor's presence at the cadet school, and after their return to Tsingtao he talks mostly about how irritating and irresponsible his old friend had become. He says he has no idea what happened to Victor in the Soviet Union, and plainly has no interest in finding out. His whole relationship with Victor was something of an aberration anyway; Nick was not somebody who sought out or could sustain close friendships. Never in his later life did he have another friend like Victor, and he went for long periods with no friends at all.
During those years in Tsingtao, he also began withdrawing from his parents. Their relationship had deteriorated since his return from the cadet school, and his marriage only accelerated it. Nikolai and Irina never liked Maria; they thought she was haughty and strange. (She returned the favor: despite their aristocratic pretensions, she made no secret of regarding them as ill-mannered peasants.) But they also subjected Nick to a steady drone of unsolicited advice and complaint about everything else in his life. They thought it was ridiculous that he was working at such a menial job at the airbase; it proved his basic lack of seriousness as a person. They told him what clothes he should wear, what food he should eat, what books he should read ... he never argued, but would simply stare at them with sullen resentment and then walk away.
But then Nikolai was offered a new job back in Shanghai. The American Navy was looking for mechanical engineers to work at a naval base they'd built near the old Settlement. Nikolai immediately accepted, and he and Irina left Tsingtao in the winter of 1946. From then on, their harassment was reduced to a trickle of erratically-delivered letters and strained phone calls on roaringly loud connections.
Nick was alone with Maria, and that was the way he wanted it. He felt perfectly happy for the first time in his life. He loved being married to her. He did find that she was moodier than she'd seemed at first, but he admired her feistiness and intelligence. She had read more deeply in the Russian classics than he had (he respected the great writers, but fiction and poetry generally bored him) and she was always willing to argue with him about ideas. They spent whole days strolling together around the city and the surrounding countryside, debating and laughing. In the evenings they often took a blanket and picnic basket down to the beach and watched the light fade over the ocean.
But Nick knew their idyll was going to be short-lived. He was still a devoted reader of newspapers, and he was following with increasing concern the progress of the Chinese revolution. He had always felt removed from all that; he never thought he had any stake on what was happening in China. "China was just the place I happened to live," he said in the oral history. "I never learned any Chinese, or had any Chinese acquaintances. There was an insuperable cultural barrier between my life and theirs." Still, he'd never felt this was a problem: "All my years in China," he remembered, "I'd never felt any direct hostility from any Chinese person." But now that was changing. He understood that there must have been a lot of long-smoldering, unappeasable resentment of these millions of invading foreigners who'd built their own cities on Chinese soil, ignored Chinese laws, and trampled on Chinese culture. As the Communist armies spread out from Manchuria into the inner provinces in 1947, Nick realized it was only a matter of time before he and the other foreigners in Tsingtao were driven out.
By 1948, Tsingtao was cut off from the Chinese interior. The Red Army now controlled most of the countryside beyond the ring of sheltering hills; no traffic came through on the roads, and no planes were flying from in-country. The townspeople were dependent for their supplies on the neutral ships still carrying on their trade among the cities of the coast. And then, too, there was the big American base providing protection -- but that prop was gradually being removed. Throughout 1948 the Americans were departing. One by one, the big transport planes flew off eastward and didn't return; the thicket of military ships in the harbor was unobtrusively dwindling. Business began to dry up in the nightclubs and brothels of Tsingtao, and a lot of the townspeople were themselves selling out and departing China for good. Nick kept going out to the base each day, but was almost always told that there was no new construction work for his crew, check back tomorrow.
At the end of the year, the Americans officially announced they were closing the base. That was when the current chairman of the long-moribund Anti-Communist Committee came back to Tsingtao with news of a deal: he and the other Committee bigshots had gotten the new United Nations International Relief Organization to agree to evacuate all Russian exiles still in China.
In January of 1949, one last American ship appeared in the harbor. It was a US Navy LST, sent to pick up the thousand or so Russians who hadn't yet left Tsingtao. The scene was chaotic. The UN relief workers had set an absolute limit of 250 pounds of luggage per person -- "which is almost nothing," Nick says, "when you're talking about a lifetime's worth of possessions." Countless mementoes and treasures were being abandoned on the docks: albums and heirloom silver and hand-crafted furniture and lovingly-assembled libraries that had been saved from the wreckage of Russia were now tossed behind in the scramble to escape. Nick didn't own many such things himself, but he did have one family heirloom: his mother's beloved old china set, rescued from Vladivostok long ago and left behind with him when his parents moved to Shanghai. He had carefully packed it in a steamer trunk for the voyage. Two sailors lifting the trunk into the hold let it slip; it fell to the dock with a crash, and then slid off the planks and vanished into the water.
The ship sailed south along the coast to Shanghai. There the refugees were given temporary shelter while the UN arranged for another ship to carry them out of China. They stayed in a deserted French army base. It was the middle of winter, and Shanghai was clammy and cold. Nick and the others spent their days pacing disconsolately around the base grounds among the long lines of rusting barracks and past the abandoned warehouses, and peering out through the barbed-wire fences at the desolate streets of the International Settlement.
The Settlement was a sad remnant of what it once had been. Most of the mansions and big apartment houses had stood empty for a decade, and during the later years of the war, the Japanese had gutted them for anything they could possibly use: furniture, wood panelling, plumbing fixtures, fabrics. They'd torn out the radiators from the floors for the brass and dug the wiring out of the walls for the copper. Afterwards few of the original owners had seen any point in returning and rebuilding, not with the revolution gathering force. Even the Russians who'd lasted through the war had already been evacuated by the UN. For hours at a time, there was no movement in the old, ornate streets but the last American military patrols.
In the middle of February, the refugees were taken from the compound down to the docks along the Huangpu River, where an enormous chartered transport ship was waiting. It crawled down the Huangpu to the mouth of the Yangtse, and from there into the open waters of the China Sea. Nick said later he felt nothing as he watched the low coastline of China sink below the horizon, never to be seen again: "I never really got interested in China as a place until years after I left." Instead he watched impassively as the ship thundered on into the Pacific. For days there was nothing to look at but empty water. But the weather grew gradually warmer, as though the seasons were passing, and green islands began to edge their way across the horizon lines. They were sailing through the Philippine archipelago: island after island glided past them, shrouded in lushness and mist, some of them almost close enough to touch. One morning a smudge appeared dead ahead, and failed to swerve to the side as they came near; it widened and flattened into a tangled line of palm trees. It was the island of Tubabao, just east of Leyte. There, on a derelict American Navy base left over from the invasion of the Philipines, the UN Relief Organization had set up a refugee camp.
The camp held several thousand people -- the last remaining White Russian exiles from China. Nick always remembered the shock he felt when he got his first glimpse of the Russians already in the camp. They all looked naked. He was from a culture that believed it was indecent for a man to appear in mixed company with his collar unbuttoned -- and here were thousands of men and women walking around in shorts and rubber-tire sandals. The women had their bare arms exposed; some of the men weren't even wearing shirts. Nick's horror deepened when he made his way through the swarming camp to find his parents. They'd been evacuated here from Shanghai a month earlier, and were already thoroughly at home. They were sprawled out in front of their tent in lawn chairs, dressed in little more than their underwear, complacently accumulating suntans.
Nikolai had already taken charge of the situation with his usual decisiveness. He, like most of the camp, wanted to go on to America; but the UN workers had said that they couldn't get in unless they could find an American citizen to sponsor them. So he and Irina had immediately written to all the soldiers who had come to their daily homecooked lunches in Tsingtao. One of them had quickly written back to say that he and his parents in Rockford, Illinois would be proud to be their sponsors. Nikolai had taken the letter to the camp's administrative office (a rotting quonset hut at the edge of the jungle); and the suprised officials there had told him that he and his family should expect to receive permission to enter America within two months.
So for the moment there was nothing for Nick and Maria and the rest of the family to do but wait with everybody else. That wasn't difficult: the island was a beautiful place. The days were hot and serene, the sunsets ravishing, and the nights so glassy it was like being suspended upside down over a well of stars. There was a big lagoon on the east shore where everyone went swimming: the encircling reef was perpetually exploding with froth, but the waters within were pale and calm; you could see every pebble and darting fish ten or twenty feet down. There were no hidden dangers anywhere, no hostile natives or mysterious predators lurking in the jungle; the worst menace on the whole island was a species of poisonous caterpillar, brilliant and furry red, that would sometimes creep across your exposed skin while you slept and leave a trail of angry welts.
And there were rats. Nick never found out if they were indigenous or had come as stowaways on the American Navy ships, but they had overrun the island. On calm nights you could hear them in the jungle, hundreds of thousands of them, scrabbling up and down the palm trees and rustling the fronds. They got into everything -- the tents, the offices, the warehouses. They ate their way into crates of rations and once devoured an entire shipment of badly-packed soap. The one place they didn't invade was Nick and Maria's tent.
Maria came up with a brilliant solution to the rat problem: she adopted one as a pet. She fed it regularly and allowed it to sleep in a little nest of ragged clothes underneath her cot. It was shy around her and Nick; they went for days without getting more than a glimpse of it. But it was fiercely territorial when it came to other rats, and defended the tent against their incursions with unrelenting savagery. The result was that Nick and Maria were the only people on the island who didn't have to keep their food in a locked trunk. Maria recommended her solution to everybody: but there were no takers. Even Nick was uncomfortable about it. He wasn't so much bothered by the rat as by how it looked; he thought it reinforced the general belief that Maria was crazy.
Meanwhile the months slipped by with no word about their entry into America. Partly out of necessity, and partly out of boredom, the residents worked on elaborate projects around the camp. They salvaged wrecked trucks from the old motor pool and cannibalized their parts to get some of them running. They built big communal open-air kitchens and installed rows of war-surplus propane stoves. They managed to recondition two abandoned electric generators, and hung the camp with crisscrossing spiderwebs of wire; soon the tents were all lit up from within at night like magic lanterns. They dammed one of the island's little freshwater streams and piped the water to tanks scattered through the camp. Nikolai was put in charge of that project, because of his old job with the Water Works, and he ordered people about with great satisfaction.
Nick hoped for an important appointment himself: he wanted to be put in charge of the camp newspaper. (One of the warehouses had yielded an ancient typewriter and a mimeograph machine.) He assumed he was entitled, because he had after all been a newspaper editor. But the posts were filled by a university professor and a couple of reporters from a big Shanghai daily; they snorted in disbelief at Nick's qualifications. Instead he was assigned to break rocks at the quarry for the new roads.
The camp developed its own social life and culture. It was like a concentrated version of Nick's whole past: virtually all the White Russians in Asia were now crammed into this makeshift village. His parents' tent was five rows east and six north; his other in-laws (evacuated from Shanghai and Indonesia) were scattered in a narrow circle to the south. He bumped into classmates from the Russian school in Shanghai and his editor at the Tsingtao paper. Everybody knew everybody else, and they all loved to gossip: who was having affairs, who had found American sponsors, who was a big wheel with the UN officials... they all knew that Nick was the one with the strange wife; they sometimes joked that she had some sort of secret fairytale arrangement with the rats.
Still, Nick wasn't unhappy. The society of the camp may have been a kind of a mirage, with its future unknown and its present circumstances precarious at best -- but that any different from the enclaves and refuges he'd been living in his entire life? Day by day, he was content. He didn't mind working in the quarry; he'd always liked hard work. Back at the tent, he became something of an amateur handyman, trying out new projects and ideas: in an ambitious mood he fashioned a private shower for Maria out of a big old corroded oil drum (it didn't work very well, but she loved having it anyway). And he came to enjoy the cultural life of the camp. Every week the relief workers brought in battered prints of old Hollywood movies, and the whole camp gathered to watch them. The professional musicians gave concerts, as did an amateur choral society. In a clearing by a row of derelict barracks -- it had been the basketball court, in the days of the American navy -- some of the inmates built a raised stage out of palmtree planking and old oil drums, and there the actors from the Russian theaters in Shanghai and Harbin put on plays. That was the first time Nick saw Hamlet: performed in a Russian translation by half-naked actors slashing with wooden swords on a bare stage, against a backdrop of windswept palm trees on a starlit tropical night.
Towards the end of their first year, the camp had an important visitor. The President of the Philippines, Elpidio Quarino, came in for a visit and made a speech to the assembled refugees officially welcoming them all as "honored guests." But he said nothing about how long they would be his guests or what would happen to them afterwards. A few months after that, they got a more hopeful sign: a United States Senator, William Knowland, arrived for an afternoon and made a speech promising them that any time now, the Displaced Persons Bill would be approved by Congress and they would be able to enter America.
The day after he left, the UN officials posted notices informing them that America would not let them in and they should make alternative plans.
A bitter joke went around camp: the Americans had gotten so paranoid and xenophobic they thought an "anti-Communist" must be some particularly horrible variety of Communist. Everyone's mood was sour. Nor did morale improve when, a few days later, an official delegation from Australia arrived and announced that the refugees were welcome to come to their country instead -- that is, assuming they were willing to sign employment contracts as manual laborers at the big sheep farms in the Outback. The delegation handed out color brochures describing the excitement and challenge of Australian frontier; they'd even brought an hour-long movie showing the good life awaiting them. "It had a lot of scenes of farmers plowing fields with teams of horses," Nick said. "It wasn't very enticing to professional people from a big city like Shanghai." The Australians got few takers.
After they left, a senior UN official arrived and made a speech accusing the Russians of being ungrateful and obstructionist. Nick said: "It was very rude, and it was finally too much for us. There was almost a riot. His aides had to hustle him into his jeep and drive him out of the camp as quickly as possible." That was the last important visitor they got.
A month or so later, Nick fell sick with dengue fever. He spent six weeks lying on a cot in the camp infirmary, too weak to move. His recovery afterwards was slow and dispiriting. "I sank into a depression," he remembered: "a deep black apathy." He didn't go back to work at the quarry. Instead he spent whole days sprawled out by the lagoon, idly watching the silent movement of clouds over the ocean. "There we were stuck in the middle of that Godforsaken jungle. Nobody cared about us. We were forgotten by everyone."
That was where he was dozing, one afternoon towards the end of their second year on the island, when he saw something strange on the eastern horizon. The clouds were thickening in a confused mob, as though the sky and the sea were blurred. Little flickers of lightning were illuminating the cauliflower-head cloud tops, rose-tinted in the glow of late afternoon, and clusters of small black clouds were skimming in hurrying platoons across the shadowy offshore waters. Showers began to ruffle the calm lagoon, and the waves were shattering on the reef in a deep relentless rage. By the time Nick got back to the camp, the air was heavy with sinister foreboding. Even Maria's pet rat had fled back to the jungle to hide.
The next day was overcast and blustery, and sourceless grumbles of thunder could be heard underneath the roar of the surf. That afternoon the UN workers ordered everybody to move into the few solid structures on the island: the old navy barracks, the hangar, and the warehouse. They all dragged in their cots and a few necessities each; the rest of their belongings they had to leave behind in their tents. Nick and Maria were in the barracks. They and everyone else spent the remainder of the daylight arranging the cots, boarding up the windows and patching the rotting roof.
The leading edge of the typhoon passed over the island towards sundown. By morning its full fury was falling on them: the roar of rain on the corrugated metal roofing was so loud you couldn't hear anybody speak. The generator failed, and the electric lights went out; the cavernous space was lit only by dim shafts of gray light streaming from gaps in the planking across the windows. The storm seemed to become stronger as they day wore on. Nick remembered: "I kept thinking it couldn't get any worse than this, and then it would." By nightfall the roof was leaking in countless places; runnels of warm rain came cascading down through the darkness, and everyone sat hunched together holding big sheets of plastic over their heads. After nightfall, as they miserably tried to sleep, a big patch gave way and a ragged hole in the metal roofing began to shriek in the wind like a trapped demon. Around midnight there was a shatteringly loud roar from somewhere nearby, one that woke up everybody in terror: just a lightning strike, they told each other reasssuringly, and settled back down to pass the night.
By morning the typhoon had dwindled. The rain was still falling, and the palm trees in the jungle were still tossing and quivering in the wind like exhausted dancers, but the blackest of the clouds were now in the west, and the sky overhead was a routine dreary overcast. Everybody emerged blinking into the gray light to find out what the storm had done to them.
The camp was gone. The thousands of tents had all torn loose from their stakes and had sailed off to sea. Only a stray torn panels could be seen here and there dangling from distant treetops, like the banners of a defeated army. The open-air kitchens were a ruin: one of the propane tanks had exploded (that was the blast they'd heard) and had sent the stoves flying into craters of mud. The generators were useless water-logged hulks. Everyone's belongings, the 250 pounds each they'd rescued from China, were scattered in thin haphazard heaps all through the jungle. Scraps of letters, wadded-up clothes, sodden photographs were tangled in the underbrush; trunks and suitcases were blown open and filled with rainwater. For days afterwards people were spotting gleams of gold and silver -- antique watch chains or irreplacable necklaces -- half-buried in the dried mud around the roots of trees.
After that, everybody seemed to catch Nick's apathy. Nobody wanted to repair the dam or get the generators going again; they could barely bring themselves to stake out fresh tents. (At least there was no shortage there: one of the warehouses contained an inexhaustible supply of them, left behind years before by an advancing marine division). For days, everyone moved in sullen slow motion. But then one morning they were roused by a new noise: people shouting and calling in excitement, a confused uproar of people running up and down the path through the jungle. Everyone followed the shouting down to the lagoon, and there they discovered an amazing sight: a US Navy transport ship had appeared beyond the reef, like a giant metal mushroom that had popped up after the storm. Nick was so lost in gloom that he was convinced it had merely brought fresh supplies for the rebuilding of the camp. But he was wrong. It really was there to take them to America.
The first sight Nick had of his new homeland came as the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay. It was a peculiar moment for him. He'd been expecting a scene of swarming confusion like those in the port cities of China; instead there was nothing but stillness and darkness. It was a foggy night in late autumn, and the ship glided slowly across expanses of empty water, past remote hooting fog horns and clanging buoys hidden in the mist. As Nick peered into the fog he could only see hints of the city in the hills -- a distant spangle of blurred glitter, alluring and mysterious.
Then there was a weary wait of several hours in a dockside warehouse, where the customs and immigration officers had set up a makeshift receiving area. The fog pressed in at all the windows and the night was thick with the mysterious sounds of the harbor: shrill bells, metallic thuds and crashes, grinding engines, inexplicable sirens. Nick passed the time by trying to imagine what was going on in the city beyond the warehouse doors. He didn't find out until just before dawn, when he and his family had their last papers stamped. Their sponsors had already mailed them train tickets; the immigration officers painstakingly translated and explained the directions to the station. Then they all stepped out into the night together. The city was deserted. The streets were silent tunnels of mist; the interminable houserows, mounting out of sight on the steep hills, were all dark, shrouded, and threatening. It looked to Nick like Shanghai after the evacuation.
By early morning they were on a train thundering deep into the countryside. Nick couldn't believe how sparsely settled the land was. Hour after hour, the windows showed nothing but slowly shifting vistas of desolate forest and scrubland. Only at rare intervals was there any sign of human presence -- an isolated farmhouse, a little black line of telegraph poles strung along an immense tawny hillside, a battered roadsign on an ill-defined dirt track. At evening he glimpsed, in impossibly remote valleys, villages shimmering like a few strewn pearls. The next day there were only mountains, enormous and cold; and beyond them were featureless plains of windblown snow. Nick felt as though he'd come not to a new world but to an uninhabited one.
They were all dismayed by Rockford. They had been expecting one of America's fabulous cosmopolitan cities, gleaming with wealth and excitement; the train left them in an industrial town deep in a wintry countryside. Their sponsors were nice people but appeared to think that everybody in China lived in mud huts: on the first day, they took their guests on a proud tour, plainly expecting them to be dazzled by Rockford's meager attractions -- the corner drugstore and soda fountain, the little downtown movie theater, the car dealership near the main highway, the glass and steel roadside diner where the truckers ate ... for once Maria spoke for the whole family: she kept saying in Russian, "Well, it's just like some little peasant village, isn't it?" No one could figure out a way of translating this so as not to cause offense.
Within a few weeks, Nick's parents made plans to move on. They'd gotten in touch with the White Russians already in America -- here and there were city neighborhoods of White Russians dating back to the first wave of emigration, comfortingly familiar places with Russian bakeries and teahouses and bookstores, where a distant relative or a friend of a friend could always be counted on to come through with a job or an apartment. Most of the people they knew from the refugee camp were already getting settled in these places; some of Maria's family had gone east to New York, and some west to Sacramento, California. Irina and Nikolai decided to return to San Francisco, where there was a big Russian enclave in the Richmond district. Nick and Maria stayed behind.
Nick had always believed America meant a fresh start -- which for him meant a fresh start without his parents around. He decided to make a go of it in Rockford. He didn't like it any better than the rest of his family did, but it had the advantage of being as far away as possible from anybody he knew. So, as his relatives found their way into jobs and friendships and supportive communities around the country, Nick spent his first winter in America selling encyclopedias door to door.
He must have been a strange apparition to his potential customers -- tall and scrawny, fumbling calamitously with his sample case, and speaking in a Russian accent so thick he came off like a comic book spy. He was a hopeless salesman: simultaneously pushy, whiny, deferential, self-righteous, and incomprehensible. There was also the unexpected problem that, uniquely among the company's employees, he genuinely admired the product he was selling and was astonished to the point of despair that anybody would refuse to buy it. He had no idea it was nothing more than a bad knockoff of Encyclopedia Britannica; he'd never seen anything to compare with it before, and would sometimes spend whole evenings enchantedly reading to Maria from random pages of the sample volume.
His boss took a liking to him, and tried to get him to adopt a more successful style, like the one he himself practiced. Here's how Nick remembered it (this is from an unpublished article about his life in America): "He browbeat working-class people. He said that obviously they didn't care if their children grew up to be stupid, illiterate bums like their parents. He would rage and cuss and he almost always made a sale." Nick was just too polite for anything like that: he couldn't imagine raising his voice with a stranger. So he went on lugging his briefcase in hapless defeat from door to door through the snow-buried streets; sometimes whole days went by without anybody letting him in.
He moved on to other jobs. He worked briefly for a company that repaired furnaces. But they turned out to be crooks; they were sabotaging the furnaces so they could inflate the repair bill. Nick quit two days before the sheriff arrested the whole crew. Then he got a job at a foundry: "a noisy, dirty, smoky place -- I hated it with a passion." He worked at a farm supply house, which he liked better, but it was six days a week, ten hours a day for a weekly take-home of 45 dollars. He couldn't keep himself and Maria alive on that -- especially since she had become pregnant soon after their arrival in Rockford.
Then he turned the corner: he got a job with a company called Woodward Governor. They manufactured prime mover control equipment -- that is, machines that regulate the operation of large mechanical systems like power plants and hydroelectric dams. Nick worked in the deburring department, and spent all day grinding off tiny imperfections in newly-made metal parts. It was exhausting work, but that didn't matter to him. All he cared about was the utopian atmosphere of the place.
Woodward Governor was an anomaly in Rockford -- in fact, it was an anomaly in Fifties America -- because of its progressive approach to employee relations. The owners were fiercely hostile to organized labor, and they believed they could keep the shop from unionizing if they offered their workers benefits no labor negotiator would dream of demanding. So while the pay was comparable to that in most factories, the perks were astonishing. The physical plant was maintained with fanatical care: the grounds were dotted by manicured flowerbeds; the windows and the factory floors were scrubbed down every night; everyone arrived at work each day to find all the machinery gleaming and polished. The cafeteria employed qualified chefs rather than industrial-style cooks (on Thanksgiving, the CEO in a big puffy chef's hat ladled out the turkey). Medical and dental checkups were provided free. There were even free monthly haircuts given on company time: Nick never tired of hearing the announcement over the loudspeaker, "Nick Cherniavsky, you have an appointment with the barber."
He always said afterwards that it was the best company he ever worked for, or even heard about. He grew to idolize the CEO, a man named Irl Martin -- ultimately Martin took on some of the same nobility and dignity in Nick's mind as the commandant at the cadet school had. (One of Nick's unpublished articles, written almost thirty years later, is called "Irl Martin -- American Patriot, Industrial Genius.") During Nick's first week in the deburring plant, Martin gave him the company's regular "welcome aboard" present: a heavy brass nameplate cut on one of the factory drillpresses; and Nick took it with him from job to job for the rest of his working life.
Nick's only problem with the place was his fellow workers. (They were called "members;" the company had forbidden the word "employees.") They never seemed to be as enthusiastic about the place as Nick was, and he was continually pained to hear them grumble about company policies that he viewed as eminently fair and reasonable. But that was of a piece with their general air of sullen ignorance. He often had moments at Woodward when he thought that his old boss at the encyclopedia company had been right -- Americans really were stupid, illiterate bums. The other members never talked about history or politics, or anything else that mattered to Nick; the only subject that seemed to spark their passion was sports. Nick found this inscrutable. Then and later, he thought it was self-evident that anybody who cared about sports was an idiot.
I once asked his daughter Nina about that: "What kind of conversations did he expect to be having? Did he think that people would sitting around in the company cafeteria arguing about the Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights?"
"That's exactly what he thought," she said. "It's what he'd always believed America was supposed to be about."
During their early years in Rockford, Nick and Maria were very happy together. They were profoundly grateful to America for welcoming them in; they always spoke of the day they became American citizens as one of the proudest of their lives. They even came to like Rockford, in a way. Nick felt a lot of affection for the cramped and dingy apartments they stayed in when they first arrived; he always enjoyed telling the story of a Murphy bed in one apartment that was on so tight a spring that Maria was sometimes folded up inside it. Maria meanwhile grew to be genuinely impressed by all the cheap modern products available at the dime store. A photo taken at their first Christmas in Rockford shows her exuberantly displaying a new set of cookware: she's seized two of the pots and has posed with them in the middle of the living room, her arms spread and crooked like a flamenco dancer.
After she became pregnant, they started looking for a more permanent home. But they dawdled, and nitpicked, and quibbled over every house they looked at; when their daughter Nina was born in the spring of 1952, they still were living in a two-room furnished apartment. They didn't find the perfect place until Nina had turned three. It was a little summer cottage, built of cinderblocks and panelled throughout with knotty pine, that stood on a couple of acres of uncultivated land along the banks of the Rock River.
Nick never liked that house much. But he was determined to be happy there. He was reading a lot of Thoreau in those days, and he was fired up with the idea of self-reliance; he liked to walk around the house declaiming his favorite passage from Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation..." (His other favorite recital piece was from Shakespeare: "Now is the winter of our discontent.") Even though he disliked how isolated the house was, and hated gardening, and was cast into despair every spring when the Rock River rose and flooded them out, he still felt satisfied that he was roughing it so well.
Maria was the one who really loved the place. All her life, she had treasured her own version of the American dream: it was one derived from her childhood reading, in Russian translation, of Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Zane Gray, and -- her favorite -- Captain Mayne Reid (unknown in America since his heyday in the mid-19th century, but beloved by generations of Russian children for Wild West romances like The Headless Horseman and The Death Shot). From all of these, she'd built up a paradisial image: a small cabin hidden away from the world in the depths of the trackless American wilderness, where she could live forever unmolested by society. The house on the Rock River was as close as she ever came to it. While Nick went off to work each day, she was blissfully alone, with no company except her infant daughter and the endlessly fascinating animals who lived along the riverbank. She had pet names for the local racoons, skunks, deer, snakes, and moles; she sometimes glimpsed a marauding fox padding through the depths of a wooded grove; she once raised a litter of newborn rabbits that her dog had found abandoned in a tree-hollow.
The only regular contact the family had with the outside world came in the form of long-distance phone calls from Nick's parents in San Francisco. Everybody found these a trial. One of Nina's earliest memories is of Nick standing stock-still in the middle of the living room, speechless with rage, gripping the phone receiver so tightly his fingers were glowing white. Maria would usually have to take over the conversation and swallow her own dislike long enough to act as peacemaker. The purpose of these calls was unvarying: Nikolai and Irina wanted to nag Nick. They told him what car he should buy and what classes he should take at night school and what friends he should cultivate and what kind of property he should be on the lookout for; they were particularly obsessed with how their granddaughter was being raised, and would call to find out what clothes she was wearing and whether she was eating enough bread and whether her hair was properly long and braided.
They returned to Rockford for a visit during the summer of 1956, when Nina was four years old. A tremendous fight broke out when they learned Nick and Maria were planning to send Nina to kindergarten. Nikolai thought he had made the family position perfectly clear. If the schools in Shanghai had been unsuitable for Nick, the ones in America were out of the question for Nina. When he saw that Nick and Maria wouldn't budge, he began bellowing that they must not love their daughter if they wanted to get rid of her so badly. That was too much for Maria; she became hysterical with rage and stormed around the yard behind the cabin, seizing fallen branches and swinging them furiously against the treetrunks. Nina remembers her shrieking over and over in Russian, "Nobody tells me I don't love my daughter!"
When Nikolai and Irina weren't available to provide a common enemy, though, Nick and Maria more and more turned their frustrations on each other. The isolation of their lives brought out their worst qualities -- or, at least, made some of those qualities intensely irritating to the other person. Maria, for instance, put her energies into fussing and customizing the household, and inexorably turned everything they owned into a one-of-a-kind handmade. Nina remembers: "My mother was excellent at altering cheap clothes -- and we always had really cheap clothes -- so that they would hang gracefully. She would take these cheap, garish white curtains and dye them in instant coffee and tea to give them a faded aristocratic elegance. She had a really uncanny gift with dime-store materials; she would use hobby-kit paint to blend the color palette of mismatched ashtrays and lamps and vases." Nick watched all this with increasing exasperation. It infuriated him that nothing he brought home seemed good enough for her as it was. Sometimes when they were arguing he would pick up a freshly-ornamented trivet or illuminated placemat and brandish it at her, yelling "Look! This was fine! People use it just the way they made it! There was nothing wrong with it, okay!" Once at the dinner table he seized a newly-painted bowl filled with whipped cream and flung it out the kitchen door; it broke and the cream spattered all over the porch shades. Maria was so incensed that she refused to clean it up. This was the middle of winter, and it was bitterly cold: the white dripping globules and stalagtites froze in place, and remained there until the first thaw of spring.
"In a lot of ways," Nina says, "my parents were terrible for each other." Nick had absorbed from his father the idea that it was a man's duty to be the patriarch, the decision-maker, the final authority; for Nick this meant he had to be the bulwark of rationality against what he saw as Maria's increasing strangeness. Maria regarded this pose with amused scorn -- less amused and more scornful as time with on. For all her eccentricity, she could be shrewd about people, and she saw Nick's air of forthrightness as absurd: she knew that deep down he was even more impractical and dreamy than she was.
Their biggest fight began one Christmas when they tried to decide how to spend his annual bonus from Woodward Governor. Maria wanted a clothes drier; she said there was nowhere to string the clotheslines in the winter. (The truth was, she was growing frail with arthritis and was finding household tasks like the laundry exhausting.) Nick thought this was preposterous. He told her that lots of people ran a household without such useless gadgetry, and he expected her to do the same. He settled on what he regarded as an incontestably sensible purchase: a sit-down lawnmower. He explained to Maria that he could use it to keep up the property and thus demonstrate to their landlord what responsible tenants they were. So, on weekends in the spring, as Maria watched him resentfully out the kitchen window, he set out with great industry and self-satisfaction to mow the expanses of wild grass and weeds between the cabin and the forest.
By summer, Maria had had enough. She took Nina and went to live with her sister in Sacramento.
Their departure galvanized Nick. He decided that a grand gesture was in order, like the ones his father had made when he abandoned Harbin for Shanghai, and Shanghai for Tsingtao. He quit his beloved job at Woodward Governor. He turned in the key to the cabin. He loaded up his battered car with all the household belongings that would fit. Then he put the family's dog and cat in the back seat, and set out driving. He phoned Maria at her sister's house to tell her that he wouldn't stop until he found a place where she would be happy.
Nick had been in America for seven years, and he had barely seen any of it outside of Rockford. This happened to be a good time for such a journey: in the summer of 1960, America was in the middle of a social transformation as vast as any Nick had lived through in Asia. The immense boom of postwar development was reaching everywhere; the older America was being engulfed by a tidal wave of suburb and freeway and franchise strip. Only along the crumbling, snaking US highways (fast being supplanted by the Interstates) could you still get a glimpse of what was disappearing: Nick drove through obscure market towns and dusty provincial capitals that looked like they hadn't heard from the outside world in decades -- places that would soon become interchangable phalanxes of chain stores and shopping malls and fast-food restaurants; he passed dingy little roadside museums and patched revival tents, paint-peeling haunted houses and exhausted travelling carnivals -- the last relics of the America of camp meetings, medicine shows, and chatauquas.
But Nick wasn't able to make much sense out of any of it. As a lot of travellers are, he was defeated by the sheer size of the American landscape: everything he saw, new and old, seemed to be swallowed up by those famous oceans of wheat and corn and rye, rippling in the summer breezes, that trailed away at last only into deeper expanses of scrubland and desert. The vistas that opened to him along Route 66 were as alien to him as the endless mirror-bright rice paddies of Asia had been -- and the life of its inhabitants, whether old-style provincial or new-style suburban, was just as unreachable and invisible.
Nina says: "To get in touch with ordinary Americans, he really needed to take an interest in the lives of people much different from his own. He always had a lot of trouble doing that. You have to realize that he always saw himself as having more common sense than anybody else. The whole time I was growing up, I never once heard him admit he was wrong about anything. So when he met people who weren't like him -- and that was just about everybody in America, no matter who they were or what they did -- his first, reflex reaction was that they had to be fools."
And then, too, for all his interest in American history, he still had a naive and schoolboyish notion of what history was. For him it meant the dates of famous battles and the names of famous heroes. America for him was a map of Civil War battles and Wild West gunfights. So as he drove on, he found only what he expected to find: an empty land dotted by historical landmarks. He was always a great reader of magazines like Life, and his deepest satisfaction on the trip came in discovering that the Grand Canyon looked exactly the way it did in its photographs.
He took a lot of photos of his own. He thought it would be funny to include his travelling companions; so wherever he stopped, he would arrange the dog and cat on either side of a bronze historical plaque or before a motor court sign, where they stared at him with the befuddled look of tourists on a package tour. Nick photographed ghost towns and forest preserves, flagpoles and all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, all shining in the flat brilliant sunlight; he and his companions could have fitted into those archetypical magazine ads where beaming families in wood-panelled station wagons posed in front of National Parks: a man, a dog, and a cat discovering a postcard-perfect America. The last shot in the series, though, may be the most archetypical, the most goofily resonant: the dog and cat sitting on a California beach, with the limitless blue ocean beyond.
The early 1960's were boom times for the defense and aerospace industries in Southern California. Nick had no trouble finding factory work: he was hired at the first place he applied, a big military contractor making parts for nuclear submarines. He at once sent for Maria and Nina, and promised them he'd buy a house as quickly as possible.
They came down from Sacramento a couple of months later -- cautiously and skeptically, at least on Maria's part. But Nick did try to keep his promise. They immediately started spending their weekends househunting around Santa Barbara and Malibu. The problem was, Nick and Maria couldn't agree on anything. They were depressed by the new subdivisions going up everywhere, the row after interminable row of short driveways and big picture windows; nowhere did they find a house isolated from the world (as Maria wanted) or with some connection to California's past (as Nick was holding out for). In the meantime, the whole family, together with the dog and cat, remained crammed into the place Nick had rented when he'd first arrived: a cabin in a motor lodge on the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Santa Barbara. While Nick and Maria carried on their increasingly desultory househunting, they all lingered on in the cabin -- for months, and then for years.
"That motor lodge," Nina says now, "was the outward and visible symbol of my parents' failure to get their act together." The cabin had one small room with a double bed and a kitchenette, and another, smaller room that barely fit a single bed. At first Nick and Maria shared the double bed; but towards the end of the first year, Maria moved into the other room and slept in the single with Nina. The only way she could fit was to stretch sideways across its foot with her legs resting on a chair. She explained to Nina that she couldn't stand the way Nick tossed and turned in his sleep. Nina says: "It may even have been true. My father always was a restless sleeper. But I don't think my parents' marriage was ever happy after Rockford."
In the meantime, Nick went off to work each day, helping to prepare for war with the Soviet Union. This job of his was actually an odd situation for him: just as he had at the cadet school, he was taking part in a grandly ambitious military venture against the Communists that he didn't believe would ever happen. He never quite knew what to think about that. The truth was, his feelings about the Soviet Union hadn't much changed since his childhood: he figured he was going to spend the rest of his life in exile from a homeland he'd never seen, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Military intervention, nuclear destruction, an apocalyptic end to the Cold War -- none of that ever meant a thing to him. These days, what mattered much more than some mirage of a return from exile was finding a way to become truly American.
Besides, he liked his job -- or anyway he did at first. He was always a hard and diligent worker, and he gave his new employers the kind of impassioned loyalty he'd learned at Woodward Governor. He was promoted quickly; soon he discovered he was just as good at bureacratic paperwork as he'd been at manual labor. After a year, he was chosen to serve on a joint committee of labor and management that was developing plans for a company-wide project of modernization. The project proved to be a success, and Nick deservedly got a lot of the credit.
But then he decided to take on what he saw as a more difficult challenge facing the company: low employee morale. He thought he knew how to solve it. He proposed a simplified adaptation of the principles that had succeeded at Woodward Governor. He wanted to put big posters up on every wall with the messages "YOUR JOB IS IMPORTANT," and "TAKE PRIDE AND JOY IN YOUR WORK." He was dumbfounded when his supervisors didn't like the idea. One of them even told him it would make the place look like a Nazi work camp. In a fit of anger and disgust, Nick resigned.
It was a pattern he repeated more quickly at his next job, and at the job after that: strong initial enthusiasm followed by sudden disillusionment over a matter of policy or principle, and then an abrupt departure. He was soon spending a lot of time unemployed. Often he fell into deep depressions, and for whole days wouldn't stir from his bed. Maria, who was usually not speaking to him, would sit with Nina on the single bed behind the closed door; and at intervals they would hear him emit long, plaintive, soul-shuddering noises, somewhere between a sigh and a moan. That was, they decided, his way of announcing that he was fully aware of the gravity of their situation and had not yet relinquished his patriarchal responsibilities.
He passed the time by trying to become more American. There was only one way he could imagine to accomplish this: by reading American history. Every few days, sometimes once a day, he roused himself to go to the local library for fresh stacks of books about the Civil War and the Wild West and the California Gold Rush. He dropped references to this reading into his conversation at every opportunity; he pestered all his American acquaintances with clever allusions to Pickett's Charge and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Nobody knew what he was talking about, and at first this pleased him; he took it as proof that he was succeeding. But then he began to suspect the truth: Americans knew less than he did about their history because they didn't care about it.
Nina says: "That really stumped him. It was the first thing about America that he found profoundly discouraging. He talked about it all the time. He must have said it at least once a day, every day: "Americans know nothing about history." I think he probably said it more times than he said any other sentence in his entire life, more than he said "Good morning" or "How are you"."
Sometimes, in the evenings when Maria was willing to speak to him, he would put aside his gloom, and the two would take Nina for walks along the highway. Down from the motor lodge was a drive-in, and if they climbed up a low grassy hillside beside the road they could see over the fence to the screen. They never once drove the car over there and bought tickets; Nick wasn't interested in movies, and he assumed unquestioningly that if he wasn't interested in something, nobody he cared about could be interested, either. (Nina never saw a movie in a theater until she went to college.) Instead they would stand together on the hillside and watch the silent American images flicker against the darkening sky: car chases, love scenes, glamorous apartments and dazzling gadgets -- scenes from another life, unreachable and cold.
"After a couple of years," Nina says, "The defense jobs all dried up. So Dad moved us to Auburn, California. He picked Auburn because he was reading a lot about the Gold Rush, and had some vague idea that it would make him happier to be some part of the country that had a recognizable past." He rented a house, a little cottage in an olive orchard. But he had no luck finding work in town. Eventually, he came up with a solution of sorts: Maria and Nina stayed in the cottage, and he went to San Francisco and moved in with his parents. He came back to Auburn every weekend with whatever money he'd been able to make doing odd jobs. They lived that way for almost three years.
Nina says: "I remember that as being an idyllic time, really the only idyllic time of my whole childhood. I was discovering science fiction and adventure stories -- the sort of books my father had no interest in. And I was discovering boys. And my mother and I were very close then. We slept in the same room, and would start talking to each other the moment we woke up -- talking about anything and everything, all day long.
"By then my mother had the attitude that it was her job to repair and customize every niggling little thing that was wrong with the world. There was this roadside hamburger stand we used to go to -- we were very poor, and this place was our special treat. My mom customized everything about going there. She brought a picnic hamper with our own napkins and silverware and little jars of homemade condiments. It was great. The only trouble was, she was really bothered by the mistakes in spelling and grammar on all the signs. She was particularly annoyed by one in the parking lot. So one night, way after midnight, we went on a raid against that sign. We snuck down there with paint and red magic markers and corrected its grammar."
Nick meanwhile was working sporadically in San Francisco. He hated most of his jobs: he spent a few months in a tire shop ("it was backbreaking," he remembered) and even tried selling encyclopedias again -- he proved to be no better at it than he'd been the first time. It was also during this period that he got into the habit of writing Nina long letters, describing everything that was happening to him during the weeks he was away and telling her how unhappy he was. He often asked her advice as though she were the wisest adult he knew. She says: "In the summer of 1966, when I was fourteen, he and I went on a weekend camping trip together in Northern California. Just before we headed home, he asked me with complete sincerity whether I thought he was wasting his life. I said absolutely not -- the idea had never occurred to me. But the strange thing is, right afterwards, I started thinking that he really was wasting his life."
So Nick gave up on California. At the beginning of 1967, he decided it was time for another grand gesture: he announced to Maria and Nina that they were going back to Rockford to start over. It was the only thing he could thing of to do: and anyway that was the one place in America where they had all been truly happy.
When they arrived in Rockford, he at once bought the cheapest house he could find. Nina remembers it as "a tarpaper shack in a neighborhood of Appalachian fundamentalists." Her walk to high school each day took her through a wasteland of ramshackle housing and light industry; the most prominent landmark she passed was a potato chip factory.
Nick meanwhile re-applied for work at Woodward Governor. They told him they weren't hiring. So instead he went to work for another and less utopian manufacturing plant just outside of town (they made farm equipment). It looked to him as though his whole return had been an instant fiasco -- but this new job proved to be a lucky break, the first one he'd had in years. He joined the union, and met some people who got him involved in politics.
Ever since his childhood fascination with the news in the Shanghai papers, Nick had loved following American presidential elections. Once he'd arrived here, they quickly became his reigning passion. Election Day was always as important an event in his household as Christmas. Even now, when people ask Nina what her favorite TV show was when she was a kid -- they're expecting to hear something orthodox, like Mighty Mouse or the Jetsons -- she answers truthfully: the Kennedy-Nixon debates.
Nick had started out in America as a committed Republican. That was typical of Russian emigres, whose anti-Communism automatically put them on the American right wing -- and besides, Nick had somehow gotten the idea that the Republicans were the party of the intelligentsia. But he'd been immediately appalled by his contact with actual Republicans. He found them bland, mean-spirited, and provincial. So he'd become an equally committed Democrat. (This was much to Maria's amusement -- she never took Nick's politics seriously.) He was an indefatigable supporter of Adlai Stevenson throughout the Fifties, and an early and vocal Kennedy man in 1960. He was devastated by Kennedy's assassination; decades later he would say that he felt as though he'd never really recovered from it.
By the time of the return to Rockford, he'd come to pin all his hopes on Bobby Kennedy. With the friends he'd made through his union, he started a newsletter called "Citizens for Kennedy/Fulbright" -- Senator William Fulbright was famous in those years for his stand against the Vietnam war, and Nick and his friends thought he would be the perfect vice-presidential candidate. (They didn't stop to consider that Kennedy might have his own ideas on the subject.) In any case, the goal of the newsletter was to convince Bobby that it was his moral duty to run for President. The masthead had a little drawing of a trumpet, and bore the hectoring motto: "Now the trumpet summons us again... -- John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address."
As the election year approached, and Kennedy did declare his candidacy, Nick became determined to take a direct role in the campaign. He was in luck: Rockford wasn't even on Kennedy's map yet. The moment Nick applied at the Illinois headquarters in Chicago, he was promoted to the top. They even gave him an imposing title: "Coordinator, Northern Illinois Citizens for Kennedy." (It started popping up in all his correspondence, just as "Editor, Youth Section" once had.) Throughout the winter of 1967 and into the following spring, he wrote and sent out mailings, looked for contributors, and gave speeches. He claimed to hate this -- he said he had stage fright, and was uncomfortable about his accent -- but he never turned down an speaking invitation, whether at a rally or a high school or a local TV station. In fact, he enjoyed everything about the campaign. He was profoundly moved by the Kennedy volunteers: he never got to know them well, but he felt as though he'd finally found Americans who cared as much about politics and social issues as he did. It was paradise for him -- right up until the June night when he was awakened by a phone call telling him to turn on the TV because Bobby had been shot.
The next day, Nick withdrew everything from his savings account. It was just enough to buy a train ticket to Washington DC. He wasn't sure why he did it; he just knew he couldn't sit home and watch the funeral on television. He got to Washington the night before the procession was due to arrive, and he snuck over a wall in the National Cemetery and slept in a secluded grove on the grounds. The next morning, mourners began streaming in. Nick spent the day wandering from crowd to crowd along the funeral route, talking with everyone about their memories of Bobby and saying worriedly what a calamity this was for America. The funeral train was late, and everyone waited for hours throughout the gray rainy evening, listening to reports of its progress on transistor radios. After dark people began handing out candles. Nick was in the crowd near the Lincoln Memorial at midnight when the candles were lit. A choir sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and in the darkness, for as far as Nick could see, tens of thousands of candleflames flickered and wavered like stars. He said afterwards that this was the moment when he finally understood that "all our hopes and dreams had been crushed."
He came back to Rockford determined to find some way of carrying on with political action. He couldn't bear the thought of giving up that feeling of connectedness with the people in the campaign -- even if he never saw any of them again face to face after the funeral. So he dug out the mailing list and little mimeograph machine left over from the Kennedy/Fulbright newsletter, and he began his own political journal. He kept the drawing of the trumpet on the masthead, and the quote from JFK; all he changed was the name. It became "The Trumpet: Digest of Independent Liberal Thought."
I've just read through a couple of years' worth of The Trumpet -- it's archived in the microfiche collection at the Chicago Public Library. It was a monthly, running eight half-pages an issue, and the circulation was in the low hundreds: mostly aquaintances from the campaign, and underground and alternative newsapers that would agree to exchange subscriptions. Each issue reprinted newspaper headlines and political cartoons Nick liked (he was constantly on the lookout for catchy things to clip), and there were a lot of boldface quotations from Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, mostly snipped out of Life magazine's memorial issues. But the bulk of the paper was written by Nick himself.
There was always a lead editorial, in his most grave and impassioned style. He would usually open with a curt declaration that the current situation, whatever it was, was bad and getting worse. The January 1969 issue, for instance, began "We will not insult the intelligence of our readers by wishing them a Happy New Year." Then he would survey the dismal state of the American scene -- Vietnam, apathy, the plight of "Negroes in ghettoes" -- and urge everyone to keep alive the ideals of Bobby Kennedy. "Only then," he concluded, "will we truly overcome." Other times, he was moved to take up some specific proposal made by Democratic politicians and give it considered and respectful criticism. About one such idea (for a cabinet-level Secretary of Peace), he began: "Reluctantly and with regret The Trumpet is compelled to raise its voice against a group of well-intentioned and sincere liberals who, in this particular instance, are in our opinion acting unwisely."
Another regular feature was a column called "Random Thoughts of NCR" -- the first two initials were Nick's, but he couldn't remember afterwards if the "R" had any significance. NCR was supposed to be a wild polemicist, compared with the more sober editor; but his most dramatic excesses were undercut by Nick's distaste for strong language in any form. In one column about the corruption of Democratic machine politicians, the nastiest word he could bring himself to use was "rascals." There was also an unsigned regular feature, called "Profiles in Focus," in which Nick would subject some prominent person or organization to withering scrutiny. Here again, any actual withering was undone by his bland judiciousness. Mayor Daley, he wrote, "basically is, perhaps, a good but simple man." Richard Nixon "seems to be not entirely in touch with the nation."
The editorial policy of "The Trumpet" was as Nick described it on the masthead: independent liberalism. He was against the Vietnam war and for civil rights; he detested Lyndon Johnson and loathed Nixon. These were unexceptionable views for those days, but "The Trumpet" still has an aura of eccentricity, of removal from the mainstream. It often reads as though Nick were talking only to himself. In any great crisis, from the riots of 1968 to the shootings at Kent State, he invariably urged moderation on the extremists -- but he always wrote as though he hadn't actually met any extremists and was relying solely on what he'd read about such people in Time and Newsweek. And while lead editorial after lead editorial built up to ringing phrases like "we call upon the leaders of our country to act now!", he never had any specific suggestions for what the leaders should do when they acted. He seemed to think it was their responsibility to know the solutions even if he didn't.
Nina says: "The Trumpet was my father's own little world. It wasn't about persuading people to change their political opinions. It was really more of an expression of his longing for a community."
That's why The Trumpet gives off such a strong feeling of isolation: Nick really was isolated. He was living alone with Maria (Nina had left high school early and had gone off to college when she was sixteen), and he was commuting daily to that same old routine of factory work. His life was bounded by miles of chainlink fences and endless truck-lined parking lots; he had no close friends, and his political discussions were restricted to rare exchanges with his fellow workers -- most of whom regarded the convulsions of those days as being as remote and bizarre as a dust storm on Mars. Nick's constant, unsatisfied urge to have political debates wtih everyone he knew earned him a reputation for being a wild-eyed radical, and everyone avoided him in the cafeteria.
Those were unhappy times for him. His marriage in particular had turned into a perpetual misery. He felt (or so he told me long afterwards) irrevocably defeated by Maria's irrational behavior; he said he couldn't risk inviting guests over for dinner because Maria would lock herself in the bathroom whenever she heard strangers at the front door. Even Nina found some of her mother's actions baffling in those days. She remembers: "Around the time I was going to leave for college, my mother gave me a little plastic bottle and said I should guard it well because it contained her soul."
But Maria herself believed that, whatever her private eccentricities might have been, she was making her wants perfectly clear. She didn't care about her marriage or about her own emotional needs any longer; all she required was a cosy, clean, isolated house in a warm climate.
So, in the summer of 1969, Nick gave in to her. They moved across country yet again, back to California, and he rented a normal, modest house in the unincorporated suburban sprawl of Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. Maria was immediately brighter than anybody'd seen her in years. She befriended the next door neighbors, a couple raising six children, and the kids quickly came to think of her as a kind of combination saint, witch, and surrogate grandmother.
But Nick was restless and bored. He got a job as a machinist in an aerospace plant, which he hated: he'd come to feel it was fundamentally dishonorable to work for the military in the midst of the Vietnam war. Unlike Maria, he made no friends; and anyway, Nina says, "By that point, my father's idea of a close personal friend was some prominent Democratic politician who recognized his name." He was also envious of Nina herself. In 1970, as soon as she turned eighteen, she'd left college and begun travelling. She hitchhiked through Europe (a place Nick had never been); she talked a British amateur newspaper into giving her press credentials and she used them to go to Belfast for several months; she returned to America and worked on an underground newspaper in Baltimore. During that time, Nick's only consolation was The Trumpet, which he worked at with a kind of despairing passion. The editorial headlines from that time suggest how edgy and frantic he was becoming: "Before It's Too Late," "Now Or Never," and "The Time Is Now!"
In the late spring of 1972, Nina returned home for a visit. "Almost as soon as I came through the door," she remembered, "my dad told me he never wanted to work in a factory again. He had a new dream: he wanted to work for George McGovern."
She was able to help him. She had friends in the McGovern organization in Illinois who promised to hire them both. The only problem was Maria, who absolutely refused to consider leaving California. "She packed a suitcase for my dad, and a suitcase for me," Nina says, "and she left them in the middle of the living room floor. She wouldn't even come out of the bedroom to say goodbye."
"My father's whole life," Nina says, "was a quest. I don't even think he knew what it was a quest for -- for a community, some place where people thought the way he did, a feeling of belonging." The McGovern organization was the closest he ever got to finding it: he threw himself into the campaign with a passion that surpassed his enthusiasm for Bobby Kennedy four years before.
He was assigned to Alton as a labor organizer, and he spent the summer and fall tirelessly driving around the state, from thinly-attended rally to tepid registration drive. He was delighted to be around the young McGovern supporters. They did baffle him much of the time -- they seemed so wildly frivolous and irresponsible, and, needless to say, were appallingly ignorant of history (unlike a lot of the Kennedy workers, who'd had ties to the old labor movement). But he was still dazzled by their energy and commitment. He learned from them, too. He became an unlikely but genuine fan of the Grateful Dead, and along with his recitations of Thoreau and Shakespeare he would often declaim "What a long strange trip it's been."
He loved the campaign's whole atmosphere of romance and crisis -- the urgent strategy sessions, the shocking new developments on the wire services, the interminable wait for the candidate's statement. There is a well-known eroticism about political campaigns, an endless omnidirectional excitement; all day long, Nick was finding himself in the presence of young, attractive women, and when he dared to flirt with them (in his ponderously gallant Victorian way), he was delighted to discover that they'd flirt back.
He was having such a good time that he was blind to the way McCovern's candidacy was going. Most of his co-workers had been pessimistic about their chances from the outset, and they were sinking deeper into gloom as election day approached and the polls showed McGovern trailing Nixon in double digits. To the end, Nick acted as though he genuinely believed they were going to pull off a miracle. In October he wrote Nina (who was working at McGovern's Illinois headquarters in Chicago) a letter ending with the exultant proclamation, "WE WILL WIN!"
After Election Day, he was stranded: he had no job, no money, and no prospects. And he was permanently disillusioned about politics -- he never worked in another presidential campaign, and could barely bring himself to praise another Democratic candidate. It even became an effort for him to vote. Nor did The Trumpet resume publication: he'd put it on hold when he'd left for Illinois, and he couldn't bear the thought of reviving it again. It seemed a painful irrelevance now, with all his hopes in ashes.
He had no idea what to do next. Nina had moved to Springfield (her boyfriend, whom she'd met during the campaign, had gotten a job as a state lobbyist), and he stayed with her for the winter. Towards spring, he roused himself to get an apartment of his own. Then Nina brought the news that Maria was at last coming from California to join them.
Maria had remained alone in their house in Goleta. Nina had been paying the rent -- she was working as a secretary in her boyfriend's lobbying office. "My salary was $425 a month," she remembers, "and I was sending my mother $380." But Maria said she felt guilty about that arrangement; so over the winter, she'd gotten out of the lease, sold all their furniture, and bought herself a plane ticket to Springfield. She had not talked to Nick since he'd left the previous summer, and hadn't heard anything about his adventures in the campaign. A week before she left for Illinois, she finally did have a phone conversation with him. It went poorly. "They had a standing joke that he was going to leave her for some young blonde," Nina says. "During the call, she asked him whether he'd finally found that blonde, and he said yes."
Why did he say yes? Nina says: "I don't know. He always claimed he'd been faithful to my mother, and as far as I could tell, he never did anything more than flirt with the women he met working for McGovern." It may be that he hadn't been telling Nina the truth, although I've never turned up any evidence of that, either in his papers or his conversations with me; more likely, he said yes because he simply couldn't bear the thought of resuming his marriage.
In any case, it was too late for Maria to change her mind about flying out from California. She arrived in Springfield and was met by Nina and her boyfriend, who took her to their house for the night. She was supposed to see Nick the next day. But when she woke up that morning, she said to Nina, "Tell your father we have nothing to say to each other." She returned to Goleta, and she and Nick never spoke again.
Nick began putting a new life together. He didn't want to go back to factory work; so, with the help of Nina's boyfriend, he got a state job, with the Department of Labor. He was an inspector enforcing the regulations of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It was a natural for him -- after more than twenty years in factories, he was an expert on plant safety conditions. And it meant being on the road all the time, just like during the campaigns, which he found very congenial. He also liked living by himself, which he'd never done before; he had his own apartment and he was able to furnish it to his own taste. Nina remembers his place as "completely anonymous and sterile -- wall-to-wall shag carpeting and anonymous modern lamps. My dad told me with great satisfaction, `I'm never going to have another garden.'"
His job took him around the state, from old, smoky factory towns to the new manufacturing districts spawling like metal suburbs. He was seeing a kind of archaeological cross-section of American labor and industry, and it rekindled his interest in history. He started reading again, and was soon talking with his familiar knowledgability about Haymarket Square and Pullman and the Wobblies. He was even inspired to enroll in a class in labor history at a small college in Springfield. That was where he met a woman I'll call Charlie, who was auditing some of the lectures.
They noticed each other right away. They were both in their late forties, and everybody else in the lecture hall (including the professor) was half their age. Charlie was an enthusiast for history, particularly the history of Illinois. This was mostly for personal reasons: she had married into one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in Springfield, the sort of people who still had strong opinions on whether Abraham Lincoln had mistreated Mary Todd. But she also wanted to do original research. After she heard some of Nick's allusions to his past she asked if she could record his life story for the university's oral history archive.
The transcripts of these interviews make for curious reading. Nick was plainly enchanted to find somebody who took such an interest in his past, and he responded to Charlie's questions with a kind of archaeological fervor. No detail was too trivial for him to remember. He inventoried the furniture in his childhood home at the Water Works and analyzed the administrative structure of the International Settlement; when he reminisced about the times in the cadet school when he was thrown in the brig, he spent the better part of an hour on the hardness of the bunk, the poorness of the food, and the coldness of the cell ("The temperature would be in the high 30's, I would venture to guess").
At the same time, he was plainly frustrated by Charlie's typically American ignorance of Chinese history and the politics of the White Russian emigration. Whenever he hit some point he was certain she didn't understand, he would stop in his tracks like an obstinate mule and lecture her -- and often, since he felt that she still didn't get it, he would return to the subject in a later tape and expound on it again. Here's a representative sample, severely abridged: "You asked yesterday whether the five encirclement campaigns that I have mentioned which were organized by Chiang Kai Shek's government were the so-called Salt Campaign and I don't think I have actually responded to that in any way; so let me give some additional information on this. The encirclement campaigns as such ..." and so on, for several minutes.
It took him a long time to get through any of his favorite stories at that rate. Worse still, his manner of speech had grown increasingly longwinded as he'd gotten older, and the novelty of being tape recorded made him dreadfully self-conscions -- and whenever he was self-conscious, he became even more reserved and ceremonious. His version of "I don't know" came out as "I really could not say one way or the other, with any very great degree of assurance." His schooldays turned into "the years of rather unexciting, and in fact somewhat boring, routine of going to school and things of that nature." At one point he regretfully admitted that "I would not be able to venture a guess what the average admission ticket to a movie theater in Shanghai was in that period."
And then there was Charlie's infuriating habit of asking him questions that he considered impertinent and inappropriate -- like about his personal feelings about the events he'd witnessed. That had nothing to do with history, as far as he was concerned, and he had to cut her off whenever she pressed him. When she asked why his father had kept him so isolated at the Water Works, for instance, this was his reply: "I don't know whether I really should speak for him because we haven't discussed that since those days. My recollections might not be as accurate as they should be." End of discussion.
Above all, Nick was frustrated because he'd fallen in love with Charlie and felt he had to find ways of correcting her without alienating her. The real charm of the transcripts is in the indirect and elaborate courtesies Nick had to summon when normally he would have snorted in contempt. At one point Charlie asked if, after he'd graduated the cadet school, he was going to be put in command of Japanese troops. The notion that the Japanese Army would ever allow a foreigner that kind of authority was so preposterous to Nick it left him speechless. He worked hard to think up this gallant answer: "I imagine that would have happened only under circumstances of the most dire emergency."
The tapes cover most of Nick's years in Asia, and trail off only as the Americans arrived in Tsingtao. But this inconclusiveness wasn't due to flagging interest: instead Nick and Charlie had become inspired to do a bigger project. They decided to collaborate on another oral history, and the topic they chose was the great Illinois coal strike of the 1920's.
That proved to be a happy time for Nick. He had gotten beyond his old schoolboyish notions of history; this was a way of getting in touch with a real past, the sort of rooted and traditional past he'd been missing ever since he'd come to America. He felt he was doing important work, documenting a significant part of American labor history that was inexorably disappearing behind the relentless spread of suburbia. He took great pleasure in all the bureaucratic trappings of the project: the elaborate protocols, the careful cataloguing and cross-referencing. And he loved being with Charlie. They spent all their free weekends and vacations driving around Southern Illinois, following up leads concerning survivors who might agree to be interviewed. They passed hours at a time talking to each other about whatever came into their minds, as they spent their days visiting nursing homes in obscure river towns and their nights in anonymous motels on Illinois back roads. After a few months, they began having an affair.
Charlie had a husband and four children, and she made it as clear as she could to Nick that she wasn't going to leave them. But Nick was in love, in a way he hadn't been in years or decades, and nothing she said could dent his passion. He confided all the details of the affair to Nina, putting particular stress on the unflattering things Charlie said about her husband; Nina warned him that these complaints didn't sound like much, and that he shouldn't get his hopes up about the long term (advice Nick found absurd). He ultimately became so besotted with Charlie that he started spending every chance he could with her family: he crewed on their yacht with Charlie's husband, and he house-sat for them when they went on their frequent vacations. Maybe he thought that somehow, eventually, he would persuade her to go away with him; more likely, though, he simply believed he had no choice -- this is what you do when you're in love, you hang on no matter what.
The affair lasted for a couple of years. When Charlie at last told Nick it was over, he was devastated. Long afterwards, he said the breakup was a wound that never fully healed. Even though he never saw Charlie again, when he learned fifteen years later that she had recently died of cancer, he was grief-stricken. He wrote then to Nina: "You are the only person in the world who knows how much I loved her, and who understands what a horrible shock this was for me. I have calmed down somewhat, but I do not think I will ever fully accept this."
After the breakup, he was despondent. He immediately lost interest in the oral history project; he couldn't imagine going on with it if Charlie wasn't involved. What made things worse for him was that he was also having a big crisis at work. It was one of the most straightforward of his fights over principle: his boss had been paid off to approve the safety of a concrete plant. Nick refused to acquiesce, and (to his boss's amazement) he resigned in protest. Now he was broke, unemployed, and alone, and his feelings of apathy and hopelessness deepened.
He began talking about suicide. He told Nina how he was going to do it: he had decided to run his car off the road into a tree. He was constantly driving around the open country outside of Springfield on the lookout for the perfect spot. Nina didn't know whether to believe him or not. But on one of these drives, on a dreary, rainy autumn afternoon, along a deserted strectch of country highway, he gunned the engine and swerved off the road. He ended up in a roadside ditch that was filled with half-frozen rainwater. The car was totalled; Nick walked away without a scratch.
"I tried to give him as much help as I could in those days," Nina says. "It was difficult, because he'd become very hard to get along with. By then he thought anybody who disagreed with him about anything at all was an idiot. I would get him ready for job interviews and implore him not to start any arguments. I'd say they didn't want to hire somebody who seemed like trouble. "Oh, I can't agree with you there," he'd answer. "They want employees who can think for themselves." And then he'd come back afterwards railing at that company for being full of morons, and it would turn out that he'd expressed his frank opinion to the people in the personnel department about their corporate policies. After a while, I was tearing my hair out."
But Nina wasn't the only one trying to help him. All that time, through his seperation from Maria, and his affair with Charlie, and his directionless wanderings afterwards, he'd had to endure, just as he always had, his parents' decades-long drone of unwanted advice.
Nikolai and Irina still lived in the Richmond district of San Francisco, in a neighborhood they and the other Russians called "Fog Town" -- they claimed the fog hung heavily on it even when the rest of the city was sunny. They had made a good life for themselves there: soon after they'd arrived, in the early 1950's, they'd gotten jobs as janitors, and for the next twenty-five years they'd worked the night shift cleaning schools and downtown office buildings. They belonged to the union, got decent pay and benefits, and lived comfortably. Their only disappointment with America, really, was their hapless son.
After so many decades in America, they still barely spoke English. All their friends were Russian, they read only Russian books and newspapers, and they rarely strayed away from Richmond's Russian groceries, teahouses, and bookstores. But this meant that they had a lot of connections: friends of friends in other Russian enclaves around the country who could always be counted on for favors. So when Irina finally got fed up with Nick's dejection and drift, she called someone who knew someone who was able to pull some strings and get Nick a plum job with the American government. The Department of Defense ran a language school in Texas for military intelligence officers, and they needed people who could teach them Russian.
Nick didn't want to work for the military, and he hated the thought of being so beholden to his parents. But he was desperate; it had been a couple of years since he'd quit his job, and he hadn't been able to find steady work. So he agreed to go down to San Antonio for the interview -- he was so broke that he had to borrow the money from Nikolai and Irina for the bus ticket and a new suit.
He did impress the personnel department at the Defense Languages Institute: they hired him right away. So he rented a little apartment a couple of blocks from campus, and he showed up for work determined to make a fresh start. But things didn't work out. His first day on the job, he fell in love.
I'll call her Raya. She had only been working at the Institute for a few months herself; she was an emigre from the Soviet Union, where she had been a professor of linguistics (specializing in English) at Moscow University. The circumstances of her arrival in America were mysterious. The way she told it to Nick, she'd gotten involved in Moscow with an American attached to the United States Embassy -- I'll call him Sam Hall, a name as blandly unlikely as his real one. Sam may or may not have been with the CIA; at any rate, he knew people in a position to do unusual favors. When Raya had become pregnant with his child, he'd had her smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
Raya and Sam had gotten married as soon as they reached New York. But the marriage had failed a couple of years later. When Nick met her, she was newly divorced and was living with her small son -- I'll call him Erik. She and Sam had joint custody of Erik, who was just about to start kindergarten: he was going to live with Raya during the school year, and with Sam (who'd moved to Minneapolis) during the summer. It was the sort of arrangement that a lot of Americans had learned to accept, but Raya found it baffling and enraging. She was increasingly convinced that it was a swindle that had been foisted on her only because of Sam's superior knowledge of the American legal system. As soon as she had Nick's attentive ear, she vented her unceasing anger against Sam, against the judge in the family court, and against this trashy, degraded culture that would order a child to be seperated from his mother.
Raya lived in a state of perpetual crisis. She had an explosive temper and was abrasively arrogant; she was forever complaining about the stupidity and malice of the people around her. These were, in a way, exaggerated versions of the qualities Nick had once seen in Maria, and they made Raya even more attractive to him. He was relentless about comforting her: he supported her in every mood and egged her on to attain a deeper sense of injustice. Even though he was in a perfect position to calm her down and help her work out some sort of new compromise with Sam, it never occurred to him to try. He would have found such an idea impossibly ungallant. Instead he adopted all of her opinions and parrotted them back to anyone who'd listen: in the letters he wrote to Nina soon after he arrived in San Antonio, he obligingly painted Sam (whom he'd never met) as a monster, a vindictive persecutor of Raya, and a dangerously irresponsible father.
Nick had started working at the Institute in mid-spring. As summer approached, Raya confided in him that she'd decided to renege on the custody agreement. She knew this would mean trouble, though she wasn't clear on what form it would take; she vaguely thought Sam would be able to send federal agents after her. So she had come to a bold solution: she would take Erik and return to the Soviet Union. Nick instantly said he'd go with them.
He was caught up in a whirlwind of excitement, so he never did stop to explain his reasons. It's possible that the idea of a return to Russia really had been at the back of his mind the whole time; after all, even after so many years, there were White Russian emigres who still spent their lives dreaming of little else. But I think this is unlikely. The real issue, I believe, was that there was nothing keeping him in America. His attempts to assimilate had all failed; he had ended up almost as unencumbered as they day he'd arrived, more than twenty-five years before. And then, too, there was something that overrode every other consideration: he was in love, and when he was in love he believed he should be completely devoted. If Raya was determined to go, whether to the Soviet Union or to Antarctica, he simply found it inconceivable that he would stay behind.
They made their preparations in dread secrecy: packing up all their belongings, selling her car, closing out her apartment. One morning they called in sick at work, and took Erik to the airport and got on a plane to London. Their plan after that was nebulous. Before their departure, Raya had exhausted every contact she had, official and unofficial, to try to get permission to enter the Soviet Union, and she had received the same answer each time: she would never be allowed back in. But she had grown up in a system where the back-alley deal was the only one that counted; she was convinced that once they got to London, she would somehow be able to buy, wheedle, or bully her way home.
For three days, as Nick and Erik sat amid their heaps of luggage at Heathrow Airport in London, Raya worked every angle she could think of to get them visas. She spent hours standing in line for a chance to see one minor Soviet consular official or another -- only to have them listen for a moment or two and then curtly tell her to get out. She poured rivers of change into public phones to get in touch with friends of friends back in America; after a while, everyone refused to take her calls. In the waiting room meanwhile, Erik grew increasingly bewildered, morose, and frightened; and Nick sank into funereal gloom. As in any crisis, when the grand gesture didn't work out, he was helpless. The end came when airport security told them that if they didn't make a connecting flight somewhere soon, they'd be arrested as vagrants.
So they returned to America. They didn't even have enough money left to ship their luggage along with them. Just as had so often happened to Nick before, they had to abandon their belongings at the border. Everything Raya owned, all of Erik's toys, and the clothes and books Nick had been carrying with him in his wanderings throughout America -- it all got left behind at Heathrow.
Their plane landed at O'Hare, and from the concourse Nick called Nina, who was living then in Chicago. Nina hadn't heard from Nick in a long time; she knew nothing the flight to Russia, and listened with growing astonishment as Nick spilled out the story. He wound up by pleading with her to take them in. "You've got to help us," he cried. "We're wanted!"
"Well, if you're wanted," Nina snapped back, "you can't stay with me. This is the first place they'd look."
She was amazed when Nick replied, with perfect sincerity: "Of course you're right, it would be out of the question. We can't possibly risk it."
Instead Nina found a friend who agreed to take them in -- who quickly found them another friend, who found yet another. They wandered from borrowed spare bedroom to living room floor, down a receding line of increasingly tenuous hospitality. They proved to be the sort of houseguests who are received with cautious indulgence and are expelled with weary relief. Raya was abrasive and demanding with every one of her hosts (one said that her opening words were "You must help me get Public Aid"); Nick was miserably feeble; Erik, who had a bad ear infection, cried and screamed constantly.
At last Raya used her one remaining contact: her ex-husband Sam. In desperation she called him up and asked him to help out, on whatever terms he wanted. He invited them up to his house in Minneapolis. Erik moved into the bedroom that was already waiting for him; Nick and Raya slept on mattresses on the basement floor. In a letter to Nina, Nick described it, with some understatement, as "an unbelievably primitive and unorthodox lifestyle." But he had one consolation: they were in the last place anybody would look.
The next part of the story is patchy. Nick never talked about his life in Sam's basement, and his letters from that time are confusing and emotionally chaotic. As nearly as I can reconstruct it, he didn't stay at Sam's for very long; a couple of months later, he was in a cheap studio apartment in downtown Minneapolis. Raya stayed behind. She was still seeing Nick, but she was also reconciling with Sam -- or trying to, anyway. Sam wanted Nick out of their lives for good. There were endless scenes, frantic phone calls, abrupt ultmatums. One night (or so Nick wrote in a letter to Nina), "Sam and I had a sort of confrontation at their house -- a few blows were exchanged, we wrestled around a bit, fell to the floor, etc. He twice (before and after) called the cops and charged me with trespassing. The cops asked (not ordered) me to leave but didn't arrest me." Soon afterwards, Raya told Nick she couldn't see him any more.
Nick went into a tailspin. His mood can be judged by his letters: "Dear Nina," one of them begins, "things are very bad." Others say things like "My life goes from bad to worse," "I've been through Hell," and "My life is Hell on earth." "My physical and mental state is very low," one concludes; "and I really do not know how long I can last."
It was in the midst of this crisis that he received a telegram:
YOUR FATHER IS DYING YOU MUST GO IMMEDIATELY YOUR MOTHER IS ASKING POLICE TO LOCATE YOU IF YOU DON'T GO I MUST LET HER KNOW HOW TO REACH YOU
His relationship with his parents had been at a low ebb for a long while. They were still furious with him over his debacle with the teaching job, and they could not believe that he was still involved with Raya. In their phone calls Irina would invariably tell him that he had to leave "that awful woman." Nick had responded to their barrage as he usually did, by withdrawing. This time it had been more effective than usual: he stopped keeping them up to date on his addresses and phone numbers, so the only way they could contact him was indirectly, through Nina. Now in this new crisis he rose to a greater defiance. He told Nina he would not go to San Francisco and would not write to his parents under any circumstances.
"What is happening with my parents is, of course, a genuine human tragedy," he wrote. "But my going to San Francisco would not alleviate the situation but aggravate it ... and I could not write anything to my parents that would be affectionate and reassuring and not be highly hypocritical."
Nina insisted that he go anyway, and she forwarded a letter from Irina pleading with him to get in touch with her. He replied:
"Both my parents, in their own strange way, are wonderful people and had helped me on many occasions and had given me much love and caring. There is, however, a fundamental difference in our personality makeup -- they are demanding people and I am not. They give something, whatever it is: love, money, attention, and always [underlined] demand [underlined twice] something in return. I have never demanded anything from my loved ones [entire sentence underlined]. For example, your grandmother writes to me -- `It is your duty to...' [presumably, to come out to San Francisco]. To draw a parallel, I could have, but I didn't even dream to tell you -- `It is your duty at this time of my personal hardship to give you room and board or whatever.'"
Nick had no use for duty, and no stomach for his parents' scrutiny: if he was on a seemingly-irreversible slide into poverty and hopelessness, at least he wanted the satisfaction of doing it unobserved. Only as Nikolai recovered from pneumonia (he was in the hospital for several months) did Nick finally unbend enough to consider writing -- and only if Nina were willing to fulfill conditions suited to a spy novel. He provided a curt note with instructions for her to forward it, but only if she could do so without giving any hint where he was. He wrote: "It might be a good idea to mail the letter from some small, not easily identifiable town -- otherwise my mother would insist that since the letter bore Chicago's postmark, I must be in Chicago and you must know my address..."
I first met Nick in the summer of 1982. Nina and I had been seeing each other for around a year then; and while she'd told me a lot of stories about her nomadic childhood and her otherworldly mother, she'd never said much about her father. "He travels around a lot," she'd say, with a wave of impatient dismissal; "he works odd jobs." She, too, had fallen out of touch with him, for the first time in her life. When Nikolai and Irina called her to find out what their son was up to, she had to confess she was just as much in the dark as they were.
He wrote out of the blue at the beginning of that summer to say he wanted to come to Chicago. He was a surprise to me when I met him. From the few stories Nina had told me, I had gradually built up the image of a hapless ne'er-do-well, a sad sack always getting himself involved in schemes that never paid off. But he was self-assured, humorous, and pleasant. He was vague about how he'd been living for the last couple of years -- it was obvious, though, given how shabby his clothes were, that he hadn't been doing very well. Still, he carried himself with a lot of dignity. And while he did seem subdued, which I put down to shyness (the truth was, he was still deeply despondent about his breakup with Raya) he enjoyed nothing better than to sit around the kitchen table talking and laughing at everybody's jokes. I liked him enormously.
At the same time, he displayed a couple of traits that weren't so endearing. He made it as clear as possible as quickly as possible that he didn't want to hear any advice about anything that mattered to him. And as for what didn't matter to him (a list that included novels, music, movies, and sports) -- he was puzzled, though polite, that anybody intelligent could take an interest in such things. Then, too, he hated admitting he was wrong about anything, no matter how trivial. At the dinner table one night, Nina corrected him about some small point about American history, and he became extravagantly self-conscious; he made a great show of wittily deferring to her superior knowledge, while implying that only a pedant could possibly care about such a niggling detail. A little later, he made an oblique reference to some of the problems he was having with his parents. "You even suggested I go out to San Francisco that time," he said to Nina.
"I didn't suggest anything," she said. "I demanded that you do it and I am still certain you should have."
He was taken aback; he made a rapid, florid gesture of dismissal, as though he was willing to indulge her eccentricity on this point but wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible. "Oh, let's not quibble about words," he said. "Suggest, demand -- that's really all the same thing among friends, isn't it?"
His career in Chicago proved to be brief. While he was in Minnesota, he'd gotten licensed as a full-time caregiver for senior citizens; and now that he was in Chicago he figured he'd have an easy time picking up clients. And he was right: that summer he found a job in Downer's Grove, one that included room and board. But his client went into the hospital a month later; Nick quickly moved on to another, and then another. Sometimes they needed more care than he could give them; more often he couldn't take what he saw as their irrationality and stupidity, and he'd quit in disgust.
By the end of the year, the caregiver jobs were drying up -- his resume was growing too spotty and sporadic for any new employer to have much confidence he'd stick around. The best job he could find was seasonal labor in the men's department at Marshall Field's. Nina went there one morning after Thanksgiving to take him to lunch, only to discover that he'd quit -- he'd had a ferocious argument with his supervisor over how to ring items up on the cash register. By New Year's, he was living in a transient hotel on Diversey, and making a couple of dollars a day handing out free cigarette samples on the streets of downtown Chicago at lunch hour.
He left Chicago soon after that. He'd heard from Raya: she had left Sam again, this time for good, and had taken Erik with her. She had returned to Texas to try to get her job back with the Defense Languages Institute. Nick immediately decided to follow her.
He had nothing to lose. He had no job, no savings, and no future; he was almost sixty years old, and everything he owned could be fitted into a suitcase. But he told Nina before he went south that he feared for the worst if Raya wouldn't have him back. One more failure, he said, would surely finish him off.
In the end, Ronald Reagan was his salvation. The early Eighties were a growth era for anti-Communism: America was pouring billions of fresh dollars into defense spending, most of it directed against the Soviet Union; there were thousands of new spies listening in to the Evil Empire's communications traffic, and this this meant that the Defense Department needed every Russian teacher it could find. So Raya had little trouble getting her job back; and when Nick cautiously approached the Institute's administration, he was soon rehired as well.
And that was all it took. In January, he'd been stuck in a barely-heated, roach-infested room in a transient hotel in Chicago; by May, he was in a big condo apartment in San Antonio, with a new car, a new wardrobe (he favored maroon and brown polyester suits), and the best-paying, most prestigious job he'd ever had. He was back together with Raya, the woman he considered his true love; and while they never got married -- Nick had never been divorced from Maria -- they now regarded themselves as husband and wife.
The years passed, and Nick and Raya and Erik settled into becoming an ordinary American family -- or their own version of it, anyway. They did all kinds of American things. They went to the mall every weekend. They took time-share vacations in Hawaii and Bermuda. They bought lots of new fake-leather furniture on the installment plan. They had a glass display case in their dining room filled with Hummel figurines. They watched daytime talk shows together and they hooted in derision at all the guests. Nick and Raya never did quite get the hang of contemporary American culture: Raya in particular was bad at keeping her slang current, and would invariably shout things like "Oh, brother!" at the latest development on Phil Donahue. But their lives were essentially no different from those of any other family in their sprawling housing complex. To a casual observer, they might have even seemed happy.
But Nick was miserable. He never was at ease with Raya, first of all. "I know he was deeply in love with her," Nina says. "But to this day, I don't have the slightest idea whether she was in love with him." Raya's perpetual anger had not dimmed over the years; she often treated Nick as a target in a free-fire zone. At the slightest provocation, she would pummel him with tirades that went on for hours at a time and left her raw-throated and uncontrollably weeping. He would endure these with sullen stoicism and then erupt in a self-righteous fury over some tangential triviality. Then he would call Nina and me to tell us about the latest cataclysm. "This is it," he'd always say, "It's really over." "Like last time?" Nina would ask. "No, not like last time," he'd snap. "You're not listening. It's really over." And then a few days later he'd call and chat cheerily about the latest vacation they were planning to take. Once he sent us a letter that began, "Yes, Raya and I are back together" -- we hadn't realized they'd split again.
Then there was Erik. Nick did make some sort of halfhearted try at being a good substitute father -- but by then he was in his sixties and the mental world of an American teenager was unimaginable to him. He despised Erik's love of comic books and video games; he thought he ought to be reading history instead, and once said to Nina that all the boy needed was a good biography of Theodore Roosevelt to motivate him properly. An even bigger issue was Erik's shyness. Unlike Nina, who'd been a strong, self-reliant child, Erik was withdrawn and socially awkward -- in many ways, rather like Nick had been as a boy. But if Nick noticed the resemblance, it only made him more impatient. When they were at the mall, he would sometimes shove Erik towards groups of teenage boys and order him to make friends with them. He'd say, "Just do what I did when I was your age. Go up to them and say "Hi! My name's Erik!" They'll be your friends right away."
Another problem was San Antonio itself. Nick loathed it. All his life, he'd loved reading about the Alamo, and he'd initially been enchanted by the prospect of being so near to it; he was bitterly disillusioned to find it ringed in and virtually obliterated by a flood of modern shoddiness and commercial blight. The city was caught up in a big oil and real estate boom in the early 1980's, and when it went bust the wreckage was everywhere: Nick's condo was surrounded by a wasteland of unfinished office complexes, boarded-up mini-malls, and row after row of empty ranch houses. It was a kind of hell for him, to commute to work through this modernist ghost town and see nothing anywhere but "Alamo" restaurants and department stores and dry cleaners, untenanted and desolate.
As for his job -- "it is what it is, alas," he wrote in a letter to Nina; a couple of years later, he was writing: "the job at DLI goes from bad to worse." There were several big problems there, mostly related to the Reaganite military mentality of the teachers and students and the bureaucratic incompetence Nick predictably found in the administration. The real issue, though, was that Nick had never wanted to be a Russian teacher, didn't feel he was particularly good at it, and was bored and depressed by the thought of doing it for the rest of his working life. He went on with it only because he was growing increasingly worried about money: he dreaded the prospect of a return to poverty. Under ordinary circumstances, he would still have found a way to pick a fight on principle and resign, but now he passed up provocation after provocation: in the end he stuck with DLI for more than a decade, and that was the longest he spent at any job in his life.
Nina sometimes told him that if he was so unhappy at DLI, he should look for other work, and she offered to help him learn to use a computer. He found that suggestion absurd and unhelpful. There was no way he could accomplish such a feat at his age, he wrote her: "I think that even though you have seen me rather recently and are aware that I am crowding 70, you might be still influenced by your recollections of your dad, the way he was way back, when he organized the Citizens for Kennedy. Those were the days! But not any more! Now I am a forgetful old man who has to ask a number of times which class he is supposed to teach, misplaces his keys, etc. I am old and there is not much that I can do."
That was another problem he hadn't expected: age. He hated getting older and never stopped complaining about his faltering health; no letter from him was complete without the announcement of some mysterious new physical ailment, some ominous new foretaste of the ultimate calamity. Teeth, back, eyesight -- "My bad eye was diagnosed as having ulcer of the cornea" -- digestion -- "For no obvious reasons, I had an acute diarrhea a week ago and another somewhat not quite as bad this morning" -- it all added up to one conclusion: "Your old man is falling apart."
Underlying all his complaints, though, was a more pervasive problem: he felt defeated. Nina says: "It had always been part of his quest that he knew he could move on -- there were always more places in America to try, there'd always be another factory job. But when he was living in San Antonio, he thought he'd gotten to the end of the line. It was the first time he realized that he might have to spend the rest of his life trapped in the middle of nowhere. And San Antonio in those days -- it really was nowhere."
Those were the years when Nick's most difficult behavior became fixed in stone. Before then, he'd always had a kind of resilience, a back-handed, inadvertent charm; his perpetual good humor and courtesy often made you forgive his most exasperating failings. But now he couldn't be bothered with any of that. He turned into a bad-tempered, intolerant old man, whose conversation was nothing but a spew of complaint and disdain. The quickest way of getting on his bad side was to suggest that any of his problems -- from the unpleasantly spicy food at the nearest restaurant to the bad reception on his cable TV hookup -- could be solved: it irrefutably demonstrated to him you were an idiot who hadn't heard a word he'd been saying.
The only solutions he himself could think up were magical. For a couple of years, he was obsessed with winning the lottery. He sent away for all the lottery systems advertised in the back pages of tabloids, and every couple of months, he would forward to us a thick packet containing elaborate quasi-occult instructions for picking numbers. He grew irate when we suggested (with dwindling politeness) that he was wasting his money. Then he gave up on lotteries and moved on to chain letters and pyramid schemes. Once he called us in great excitement because he had at last found what he thought was a surefire winner. He sent us a sheet of typewritten chain-letter instructions, together with a stack of dimly-photocopied political manifestoes, from a white supremacist group somewhere in Latin America. "We can't operate inside the United States," their cover letter explained, "because our financial system is so good it would break the Jewish hold on the economy!"
He also began sending out floods of letters to anyone he thought might listen to him about anything at all: politicians and newspapers, mostly. "I am still politically active," he wrote us once. "I've just sent letters to 1/3 the members of the House of Representatives and 1/2 of the U.S. Senate." He neglected to tell us what he'd written them about, but it was probably one of his sardonic criticisms of Reaganism or a passionate defense of the nuclear freeze movement -- that was the sort of thing he was sometimes getting into letters-to-the-editor columns around the country, and which he began noting proudly on his resume, under "Publications" (beginning with "Joyner Condemnation of Mondale Extreme and Unfounded," Minneapolis Star-Tribune).
But those weren't much consolation to him; mostly he just sulked. "I more and more am tired of the daily routine of living," he wrote Nina. She remembers one of her visits to his condo: "My dad and I were having a totally innocuous conversation, and suddenly he went over to this big recliner he had in the living room, put his feet up, closed his eyes as though he were in unendurable pain, and refused to speak another word all evening. Raya and Erik just shrugged, as if to say, he's like this all the time."
He never did settle anything with his parents. It's true that Nikolai and Irina were strange, difficult, intransigent people, who had nagged him remorselessly and made his life miserable. But they could be, on their own peculiar terms, loving and attentive in a way that had always been beyond him. The happiness of their marriage was something he could only envy: they sniped and bickered constantly, but no one who saw them ever doubted they were profoundly in love.
They were married for sixty-two years. In all the time they were together, they only had one serious fight. That was in the early 1980's, when Irina found out Nikolai had taken out a life insurance policy. He tried to explain in vain that it was a union benefit and would provide her with a little security in case he got sick again; she found the very idea gross and outrageous. "How dare you do such a dreadful thing?" she shouted at him. "You know I don't want to live without you!" They had the policy cancelled.
In 1984, Nikolai went into the hospital again with pneumonia. One night the nursing staff persuaded Irina to go home and get some rest, and the doctor called the next morning to break the news that Nikolai had passed away peacefully just before dawn. Irina collapsed on the spot; she never even hung up the phone. Two days later, she died without regaining consciousness. The official cause of death was a brain aneurism.
The memorial service was held at a Russian Orthodox church in the Richmond district. Most of the people who attended were friends from the neighborhood; some had known Nikolai and Irina in the refugee camp, and a few remembered them from Shanghai and Harbin. Nick and Nina were there, too. It had been decades since Nick had been in a real Russian community, but he had an easy time falling back into the old social forms. Nina says: "He was always at his best in those times -- that is, situations where he knew how to behave correctly. He knew how to act at a traditional Russian funeral."
I asked her: "Did he talk about his parents at all, or what he felt about them?"
"No, no," she said. "He would have thought that was improper. But he did keep repeating something constantly, like it was his mantra: "What a long, strange trip it's been"."
Irina and Nikolai were cremated together. They left behind two heirlooms: a pair of rings of Siberian gold. These were the rings Nina and I exchanged when we were married a year later, in the spring of 1985. I wear one of them now as I write this. It's plain and unremarkable, but sometimes it seems to me like a relic from Atlantis.
Nick's string of bad luck was broken in the late 1980's, when the Defense Languages Institute moved to Monterey, California. Nick was suddenly happier and more at ease than anybody could remember him being in years. Compared to San Antonio, Monterey and Big Sur had a strong aura of connectedness to the past: he could drive around wherever he liked and feel as though he were in touch with an ongoing history. He joined a local historical society, and started reading John Steinbeck's books; soon he was talking with some of his old assurance about the fishermen and the canning industry, and the struggle between the old labor movement and the modern corporations.
There was another unexpected side-effect of the move: he became interested in writing his memoirs. The Monterey newspaper had a page set aside in their Sunday edition for local residents to tell their most memorable experiences, and Nick was suddenly seized with enthusiasm about publishing some of his favorite anecdotes. The average contributor to the page could come up with nothing better than a dim recollection about a school prom, or a schmaltzy elegy about the day a cannery closed -- Nick wrote about Black Friday in Shanghai and the typhoon hitting the refugee camp, about his father's adventures in the Russian Civil War and his own memories of the funeral of Robert Kennedy. He had no trouble making his past sound like a garish tapestry of excitement; he took over the page for weeks at a time.
These pieces are the best writing Nick ever did -- in part, no doubt, because they are the only writing he ever did that was reworked by professional editors. (There's no telling how much editing was done, because his first drafts haven't survived, but his unpublished pieces from those days are almost unreadably wooden.) He got tremendous satisfaction out of seeing them in print, arrayed beneath dignified headlines and illustrated by some of the photos he'd inherited from his parents; it was a triumph for him, that at last he could think of himself as a real newspaperman.
Still, the pieces are odd. Partly it's Nick's style: even heavily pruned, it remained flat and affectless. The tone is so remote that Nick himself even felt like he should apologize for it; his childhood in Asia, he says, "now seems to me like a movie I saw long ago." They are also extremely reticent about anything Nick might have found emotionally complicated. He described the splendor of Shanghai but said nothing about his old friend Victor; he wrote about his hard times early on in America but didn't mention Maria. It was as though he'd closed off those relationships in his mind and didn't want to think about them anymore. He was like that in conversation as well: he said once to Nina that Victor had never been his friend in the first place -- Nikolai and Irina were the ones who really liked him. As for Maria: he told me that she'd always been crazy and he never should have married her.
The strangest quality these articles have, though, is a kind of frozen finality. When I compared the articles to the oral history (which he hadn't looked at since he'd recorded it -- his copy of the transcripts was pristine) I found that he'd retold all the same stories in the same way, drawing the same comparisons and making the same allusions. Evidently he hadn't had a new thought about his past in decades; it was all fixed and non-negotiable, as though preserved at the bottom of the ocean.
Here's a typical example, concerning how his father's brothers had had chosen up sides during the Russian Revolution. In the oral history, he puts it like this:
"One of his brothers was on the Red side, and one was one what was known as the Green Army, which was a local, populist type of a movement within the Ukraine. I would like to bring a parallel from American history -- something in the way of the Quantrill Irregulars in Kansas would be comparable, perhaps, to the Green Army in the Ukraine in those days."
This is the corresponding passage in the newspaper series:
"One of Father's brothers joined the Red Army, and another the Green Army (also known as Mahnovtsi, the name of their leader, a huge guerilla band similar to the Quantrill band of the American Civil War days)."
His faith had never wavered: even after everything that had happened to him over the last forty years, he was still certain he would someday find Americans who knew as much about their own history as he did.
Maria died one morning at the end of May, 1991. She was alone in her apartment in Goleta. She'd moved into the place right after her return from Springfield in 1973, and over the years had gradually fixed up, customized and tweaked it to her satisfaction; by the time I first visited it, in the mid-1980's, she'd painted and ornamented and illuminated every lampshade and placemat and trivet, and there were so many plants twining around the windows that when I sat in the living room I felt like I was inside the root system of an enormous tree.
In her last years, she never liked to talk about Nick or her life since she'd come to America. When she reminisced, she usually went back before the war, to the American soldier who'd been in love with her and had promised to take her away from China. (This had become a habit of hers; no matter what the subject, she always talked about the road not taken.) She liked reminiscing about her life in Shanghai. Once she brought out an album from those days and showed me some of the photographs; she was wearing fashionable outfits and posing for the camera as glamorously as a Thirties model. "Maria, you were hot back then," I said in surprise. "Oh, no, no, no," she answered quickly: "Not hot. My look was always cool."
She always lived alone. Nina once suggested she get a cat. Her answer was: "I couldn't take care of a cat. But I do sometimes want a rat. But then the problem is that I wouldn't want it to be lonely, so I'd have to have two rats. And then I'd hate to keep them in cages, so I'd have to let the rats out in the apartment. And the problem with that is, the landlord doesn't allow pets." She did, however, still have the occasional odd encounter with the animal world. Once she found a fly feebly twitching on her windowsill, and put out a little plate of sugar water for it; the fly revived, and for the next few weeks followed her around the apartment, sitting for hours on her arm peaceably cleaning itself.
She rarely went out, but friends often came to visit, and within this little circle, she had the reputation for being a saint. Whenever anyone went on a journey, or entered the hospital, or faced any other exceptional crisis, they'd ask her to light a candle for them. Other people's candles would burn out overnight, one of her friends once told me: Maria's candles would stay lit for weeks.
She never worked. She'd had a few jobs early on in America, before Nina was born, but in later years she was so frail that employment was out of the question. Nina paid her rent, and she also got a disability check from Social Security. There was always a mystery about this. She'd applied for physical disability benefits because of her arthritis, but she'd been turned down; instead she was granted benefits for a mental disability. Nina once asked her, "What mental disability, Mom?" "I don't know," she answered. "They wouldn't tell me. They said it would only upset me."
She distrusted doctors and hated hospitals; her growing fear as she got older is that she'd have some sort of major health crisis and be trapped inside the medical system for the rest of her life. But she was spared that. She was killed instantly by a heart attack, between the time she finished breakfast and the time she started doing the dishes.
When Nina flew out to make the funeral arrangements, she called Nick from the plane and told him the news. Nick and Maria hadn't spoken in almost twenty years. But they'd never filed for divorce. Once in the mid-1980's, unbeknownst to her, he'd rather grandly agreed to help Nina pay for her rent; he'd just as grandly reneged a month later, pleading extreme poverty. But Nina's call galvanized him. He immediately got in his car and drove all night from Monterey to Goleta.
It was his last grand gesture for Maria, as sincere and as useless as all the others. Nina remembers, "None of my mom's friends really knew who he was. But they invited him to dinner, and he spent the whole time lecturing everybody on Chinese history and the Russian emigration. Then he told stories about Mom that were all about how crazy she was and how long-suffering he had been. And then the night before the funeral, he suddenly said to me that he had to go, and he got in his car and drove back to Monterey."
Nina thought for a long time about Maria's headstone. In the end she chose a simple epitaph. It reads:
Harbin 1918 -- Goleta 1991
I often wonder whether anybody who passes by her grave is ever puzzled by that curious name "Harbin" -- maybe puzzled enough to look it up in an atlas or an encyclopedia. But what would they learn if they did? Harbin is a large city in the industrial region of Manchuria; its urban core is an old district of Russian-style architecture, surrounded by a limitless expanse of factories and cheap modernist apartment blocks. The occasional tourists report that the city does have one intriguing custom -- a winter ice-sculpture competition known as the Festival of the Ice Lanterns. The artists used to carve huge sculptures of ghosts and dragons, but in recent years their subjects are more often Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse.
One summer night in 1993, Nick couldn't get to sleep. He was tormented by the urgent need to urinate; he was in the bathroom ten times, maybe twenty times, before dawn came. In the morning he was disoriented and shaky, and his eyes were weirdly bloodshot. Raya had him call in sick and told him to go to the doctor. He left, still acting befuddled, and he returned without a word a couple of hours later. When Raya asked him what the doctor had said, he just shrugged and smiled weakly. At last she managed to get out of him that he hadn't seen the doctor; he'd sat for a while in the waiting room, but he couldn't remember why he'd come, so he left and rode the bus home.
The next day, he seemed better; he went to the school and taught his classes with no problems. After work, he saw the doctor, who conducted a thorough examination and found nothing wrong. The verdict was that he'd had some sort of transient and harmless episode, the sort of mysterious cerebral glitch that sometimes troubles people as they get older.
The day after that was Saturday, and Nick as he always did on Saturdays drove Erik over to the mall to visit the comic book store. While he was waiting for Erik to finish shopping, he grew worried that he'd forgotten something at the apartment. He couldn't think of what it was. He decided he had to go home and check. Raya got a frantic call from Erik a few minutes later: Nick was nowhere to be found. He had started walking home along the highway, and he'd left the car behind, with the door standing open and the engine running.
Now his problem became obvious to everyone -- everyone, that is, except his doctor, who said he could find nothing organically wrong and that Nick still passed all the standard tests of mental acuity. But Nick was unable to go on teaching his classes; if he dropped his notes, he was helpless, and he would simply walk out of the classroom rather than admit to his students that he was having a problem. After a month or so of this, he agreed to take an early retirement from the Institute.
His condition maddened Raya. She couldn't trust him to carry out the simplest tasks. If he went driving, he immediately got lost; if he set out to wash the dishes, he would stop midway through, unable to tell the dirty dishes from the clean. If he was told to keep an eye on the dinner as it was cooking, he would grow distracted and leave, and wouldn't realize anything was wrong until the smoke detector went off -- and then he would become enraged at the suggestion that it was his fault.
His letters to us became more difficult and curious. They were strewn with misspellings and grammatical mistakes -- many were the kind that anyone might make, but Nick had come to take a lot of pride in his faultless English, and it was a shock to see him write "Anfortunatly" and "Ilinois" and "could you please explore all of this problems" and "I think we should started now." Worse, though, was the content; he sounded bewildered, helpless, and out of touch. He proposed goofy solutions to their current financial crises: "Today I am going to look for a job as an usher at one of our local movie theaters. Who could ever dream that in a couple of years it would come to this." He wrote once only to say that he had lost Nina's most recent letter but had found it again. He several times wrote to ask for stamps: "Please do not forget to enclose some postage stamps with your next letter. I have right now only one stamp, which I will have to use to put on the envelope I will send this letter in."
When we talked to him on the phone, he sounded morose and uncomfortable. He asked if he could come out and stay with us for a couple of weeks, and we agreed. The moment he was on the plane to Chicago, Raya called to say that he was now our responsibility and she didn't want him back.
He arrived in Chicago with some clothes and a couple of his most treasured possessions -- most prominently, the brass nameplate from Woodward Governor. At the airport, he presented Nina with an envelope and told her it was her inheritance. "It's important for you to have it," he said. "You're the last of the Cherniavskys." Inside the envelope were two old photographs of Nikolai, taken during the Russian Civil War; one showed him on his horse, and the other showed him standing by a campfire in the middle of a desolate winter landscape.
But Nick did not bring any money or financial documents. He was unable to say what had happened to his savings; nor did Raya ever offer us a clear explanation. He'd received a large settlement from the Defense Languages Institute when he retired, but it had vanished -- Raya said that she had spent a lot of it on Nick's medical bills, because she didn't trust Medicare. She herself was broke. She'd just gotten back in touch with her family in Russia and had lent them all her money. "I can't tell you how much," she said; "It makes me dizzy just to think about it." And then, too, she was expecting daily to be laid off from work, along with the rest of the Russians at the Institute. With Reagan gone, the Cold War over, and the Iron Curtain dissolving, the military didn't need many new Russian-speaking spies.
We moved Nick into our spare bedroom until we could figure out what to do next. He proved to be a surprisingly pleasant houseguest. Maybe it was his condition, or maybe it was that he felt so battered by his last months with Raya, but he was far less prickly than I'd seen him in years. He was almost abashed when he lost his train of thought; he became dreadfully embarassed when he couldn't remember simple actions like how to zip up a jacket; and if Nina or I did him a favor -- one as simple as bringing him a glass of water -- he would sometimes be so overcome with gratitude that his eyes filled up with tears.
Our friends and neighbors got to like him. He could be a baffling conversationalist, but his manners were as impeccable as ever. He once startled our Japanese neighbors by addressing them with the correct Japanese honorifics. (Another time, he picked a bamboo pole out of an alley trashcan and gave an unnervingly energetic demonstration of traditional Japanese martial arts.) People got used to his self-effacing presence in our house. He even charmed our most timid cat, who ordinarily vanished at the sound of an unfamiliar footstep on the stairs; she began creeping out from her hiding places so that Nick could pet her.
But Nick himself was uncomfortable with his circumstances. He never said so, but it was obvious that he hated our apartment. He kept getting lost at night when he was trying to find the bathroom -- it was right next to his room, and we left the door open and the light on for him; but we would invariably be awakened by the sound of him banging around at the far end of the hallway, frantically opening and closing doors and muttering Russian curses. It was impossible to help him at such times, because he was humiliated by his inability to find the way, and would become incensed if we tried to guide him. Nina put up signs for him, in glow-in-the-dark letters ("BATHROOM," "NICK'S ROOM"), and this did work for a while -- but he just as often ignored them, or became distracted by other problems. Once we were awakened by a ferocious pounding sound from the bathroom: when he'd tried to leave, he'd become enraged when he couldn't figure out the difference between the door leading to the hall and the one opening onto the linen closet.
Soon afterwards, he started making it as clear as he could that he wanted an apartment of his own. As often as we would arrange his things for him in a dresser and on a nightstand, he would without a word pack them neatly back into his suitcase and leave it standing in the middle of the floor.
We got him a room in a retirement hotel in Evanston. It was an old, decorous, and quiet place: a labyrinth of hushed corridors and somnolent common rooms and libraries. It even had a formal dining room, where at dinner the female residents were required to wear dresses and the male residents suits and ties. We didn't know if Nick could cope with it, but he seemed to master all its ins and outs quickly. He praised the place to us at every occasion; he even loved the soft and savorless food they served at every meal. He introduced himself to all the staff -- sometimes he did it several times a week -- and he was soon on a first-name basis with all the maids and custodians. He was very concerned with their working conditions and constantly inquired about the possibility of negotiating a new agreement with management.
He was less pleased by the other residents. He invariably detested everybody at his assigned table in the dining room. They were too talkative, too nosy, too flighty, or politically too conservative. He particularly loathed one resident that some of the staff had been sure he would become fast friends with -- after all, this man was smart, cheerful, well-educated, and a Democrat. But none of that counted with Nick. "He reads mystery novels!" Nick said with disdain. "How can I take such a person seriously?"
Nina tried to arrange for him to meet new people by spending time at a local senior citizen's center. This, too, was a flop. The center arranged informal discussion groups on a variety of topics, and Nina signed Nick up for one on history. At his first attendance, he impressed everyone with a story about the death of a White Army general during the Russian civil war. He came away somehow convinced that the teacher had turned the class over to him and that he would be able to lecture every week on his favorite topics in history. When he found out his mistake the next week, he left crestfallen and never came back.
In the meantime, he did grow to like two residents at the hotel. One was a very old, frail and dignified Korean doctor. I think he reminded Nick of the Japanese teacher at the Tientsin cadet school; in any case, soon Nick was calling him "the best friend I ever had." He became obsessed with the idea of taking his friend on a walk to the beach, despite his extreme physical delicacy -- he looked to me as though a stroll to the end of the block would finish him off. Nick came up with the idea of bringing along a folding chair, so they could stop and rest every few feet. But his friend passed away in his sleep one night before Nick had a chance to try it out.
His other friend was a mean, foul-tempered and spiteful woman named Gertie. Nick was enchanted by her, and was soon spending every waking moment in her company. They sat together in one of the common rooms for hours at a time, and all the while he had his hand draped over her shoulder, so he could fuss over her and pat her and say soothing things whenever she got testy. He adopted all over her rancorous opinions about the hotel; even after she got tired of having him around, he still obediently repeated her complaints about the food (which he no longer said he liked), about the management (he spun out several theories about occult power struggles among the staff) and about how soon the place would be closed down and they'd all be out on the street.
His endless solicitude for Gertie did briefly lift her spirits. She sometimes came with us when we took Nick out to dinner, and she would occasionally emerge from her sullenness and tell stories of her childhood. Almost of them concerned bizarre misfortunes she'd had to endure. Once she said to me that she'd regretted her whole life not going to her high school prom, and when I asked her why she'd missed it, she said, "Oh, I was in the hospital. The day before, I went roller-skating and slipped, and I impaled myself on a fence post. It went all the way through my shoulder."
Their relationship became the talk of the hotel. Nick began telling us that he'd never been so happy. But it was hard to see why: Gertie quickly grew to despise him. Whenever he got confused, or made a mistake -- as happened often -- she hooted and mocked him. Sometimes he seemed to be on the edge of tears as he endured her shrieks of scornful laughter; but he never once spoke back, and he became outraged if he heard a word against her.
He was more relaxed when we got him away from the hotel. He often went with Nina to a nearby Starbuck's; he happily spent afternoons there, sitting placidly while she did her mending. He'd always been a big coffee drinker, and he loved how strong this coffee was (he took it black with seven sugars). He and I took frequent walks together around Evanston. He'd gotten to know the neighborhood well, and he liked pointing out to me the ornamental details he'd spotted. The churches, the parks, the mansions, the apartment blocks, the streets lined by ancient elms -- all of this reminded him strongly of the International Settlement in Shanghai, and he was constantly comparing the sights to Bubbling Well Road or the French Concession.
He still told me stories about his past. But this was the time when they were getting difficult to follow -- and there was also a new and more disturbing problem: their details were changing. One day he said that Nina had been three years old when they'd arrived in Rockford.
"I thought Nina was born in America," I said.
"Oh, no!" he exclaimed. "That's totally wrong! How could you think that? Nina was born in China. She was in the refugee camp with us. She was already a little girl when we came here."
I didn't argue. A few days after that, a story he often liked to tell about a foolish American doctor in Rockford became a story about a foolish visiting American doctor in Shanghai. Soon afterwards, a factory he'd worked in California mutated into a factory in Tsingtao. The pattern was unmistakable: America was dwindling away in his mind, and China was swelling to replace it.
From then on, the losses seemed to occur daily. Parts of his American life were inexorably falling away, as though into an ocean, to join the growing jumble in the deepest waters. Soon only the biggest and most thoroughly indigenous American elements -- like presidential elections -- remained sticking up like spars; everything else in his life, he solemnly assured me, had happened in China. America's physical reality was inexorably shrinking as well. He'd say, for instance, that in the McGovern campaign he'd travelled to every state in the Union -- he'd actually never left Illinois. One day, he asked if we could walk over to visit Raya and Erik, and when Nina reminded him that they were in California, he burst out: "I know that! But California is only a few blocks from here!" Another time, I asked him how long he'd been in America. He was stumped, and had to think for quite a while. "I would say..." he at last began hesitantly, "I would say I have been in America for seven years." The correct answer was forty-three years.
He remained a devoted correspondent. Every few days, he would sit down at his desk and laboriously compose a new letter, in blue ink on ruled paper, about whatever was currently concerning him most. Once he had a cold he couldn't shake, and wrote the following:
Dear Lee and Nina,
I come to a sad, cause:,
It apeared to me that a very
sad, and aparently and possibly
shocking -- it is very possible
that I might have succumbed to a
very possible, to the the thatti,
tubercculoses, which, would
would practically put almost
everyone, who would put
practically to thesis.
I certainly hope the th,
God wilg we may survive,
But serious precautions,
probably may bee mightt
I hope and this wil
This will this th,
His formality and sense of occasion had remained intact, even if he was now unable to get through to the end of a sentence, or even the end of a word, without losing his thought: "I have come to a sad and shocking conclusion; apparently it is very possible that I have succumbed to tuberculosis; serious precautions probably/maybe/certainly must be taken; God willing, we may survive..."
A few days later, he was feeling better, and he wrote to say how much he missed Nina (who'd just seen him the day before):
In hope of your expdedishis return.
We all ar here, verily
in always, here disapeering, and
are hoping, to way of here
He wasn't able to mail these letters, of course; the post office was beyond him. He would simply leave them on his desk when he was done, knowing they'd reach the right person.
He had less luck with our answering machine. He was able to use the speed dial on his phone, but he was baffled when he heard my voice on our outgoing message. He would typically begin brightly, and then trail off into despair: "Hello, Lee. This is Nick. Hello? Lee, it's Nick. Why aren't you saying anything? It's Nick. It's Nick. Lee! Lee! What's the matter? What's the matter? It's Nick!" Sometimes he did nothing but breathe and mutter nervously, and then hang up. Now and then I would hear a snatch of conversation he was having with somebody in his room -- a nurse, most often, who was trying to get him to take his pills. Once I heard him cry out petulantly, "I don't want them! I don't want them!" The nurse said "Nick, could you please take them for me?" "Oh, well, if it's for you!" Nick said, with his old gallantry in full flower. "Why didn't you say so?" Then the connection was broken.
Dear Lee, and Nina,
I woud be going to R Rosia,
soon, I will be leaviiing,
This to and the cats,
Please, take al oof this, forr
Oof them, in mi, absence,
Love, and al the best,
To every lone,
We were surprised by this letter. Nick was aware of the collapse of the Soviet Union, because Nina read to him regularly from Time and Newsweek ("It's amazing that things keep happening," he said once), but we hadn't realized how much it mattered to him. At first we thought he might have been thinking of a vacation, but he soon made himself clear: he wanted to spend the rest of his days in Russia.
He was so determined, Nina began wondering if she could arrange it for him. It didn't seem wholly impossible. Of course, he would need someone to take care of him full-time, but he did have his monthly check from Social Security -- and while it barely covered his rent here, it would be a fortune over there. Nina had friends who had friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and they might be able to find somebody who'd agree to act as his caregiver. True, it was very risky for him to be so far away, and so dependent on strangers -- "But why not?" he kept saying. "I have no friends in America. And what's the worst that could happen to me? I'm an old man and I'm going to die soon anyway." Sometimes he would begin sobbing because he wasn't already in Russia and we were holding him back from his last journey.
Then one day Nina was reading him a story in Newsweek about recent developments in the new Russian Commonwealth, and he began shaking his head sadly about the crime problem. "It's very dangerous there right now," he said. "Remember when I wanted to move there? I'm so glad that we decided against it." He never mentioned going to Russia again.
The doors in the hotel were increasingly giving him trouble. He often woke up in the night to go to the bathroom, and if he picked the wrong door, he ended up in the hotel hallway. He would then start trying every door to see if it was the right one, and when he couldn't get them to open he would start pounding on them and yelling. The other residents were terrified by the noise; the few who were brave enough to answer the knocking were confronted by a gaunt, wild-eyed, distraught apparition babbling incoherently in Russian. It only added to the confusion of the scene that Nick was naked.
Sometimes he was nowhere to be found in the mornings, and we would have to search for him in the remote depths of the hotel. Once we found him wandering naked down one of the service corridors. He looked like he hadn't slept in days; his expression was dark and haunted. "There are terrible things happening in this place," he said to us. "Evil things. You can't imagine how evil." Then his eyes filled with tears.
He began having visitors. "The strangest thing happened to me the other day," he said to Nina. "I can't explain it. An old friend came to see me -- one of my oldest friends in the world."
"Who?" Nina asked.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't remember his name. But he said he was going to be staying with me in my room from now on."
"Did he?" Nina asked. "So what happened?"
Nick smiled. "Oh, you'll have to tell me that."
Another guest he didn't say anything about. We learned of her presence in one of his letters.
I still recal when I was
siting at your nee grumling
if the cros was giving you problems, but then, somehow, I
grew up, and even some how, I myselv became a parent, and
insted of you teaching me,
I was teaching my dather,
and was I was staying
But somehow, I came to you and broght you to me again.
One morning he heard on the radio that this was going to be the hottest day of the year. So he decided to take a walk. He changed into a shortsleeve shirt and light pants. When he passed through the hotel lobby, the staff tried to stop him. He was furious: they had no right to keep him indoors when the day was so nice. They told him he'd get frostbite if he went out dressed like that, because the temperature was below zero and there was a strong wind blowing. "Don't talk nonsense!" he snapped at them. "I heard on the radio it was hot!" They pointed to the thick frost on the window and the snow sweeping wildly past the door. He refused to look. He managed to shake free of them and step outside. He couldn't understand what he was seeing; the sky seemed to be filled with white ash. It must be extraordinarily hot, he decided: that explained why the air was so painful on his skin.
OK, is heart of m
My heart of heaart of heaarari,
O let us, get togeser, and gett
togegter, before we really, get
all scattering all over -- lets
everyone, lets get together,
you Lee and get a good gett
together, after,, guys, --
What to you gang, what,
do yyuo lets and have a
gyood totegther, a a good
a gogood a a, real good,
a ggood a gugo a, gygood, every
avery Leaa and Lee, anid
So wat, ad you sa -- gong,
Okey Riaght -- wel.,
Okay ganmg, well,?
Nina went to see him for her regular Saturday visit and found his room in a dreadful state. He had caught the flu, and was having attacks of diarrhea; he sat miserably in his chair, with brown and sickly green spatters smeared on the bed and the blankets and the rug. He knew something was wrong, and he was distressed because he couldn't understand what it was. He had forgotten how to go to the bathroom.
v., snis si nss. s.
xx x.s sn xtst.
tack sinsk then.
x x x
When someone applies to put a relative in a nursing home, the state sends a social worker to do an interview just to make sure the person isn't being dumped. The social worker sent for Nick's interview was bright, professional, and courteous. These days, Nick was intensely nervous around social workers and doctors, but she put him immediately at his ease.
"How long have you lived in Chicago, Mr. Cherniavsky?" she asked.
Nick was baffled: he'd passed through the city several times, but he'd never lived there. "I have never lived in Chicago," he said firmly.
"All right," the interviewer said. "Where were you before you came here?"
"China," he answered promptly.
The interviewer looked at Nina and rolled her eyes, as if to say, "there won't be any problem, if he's this delusional."
Nina whispered to her, "He really is from China."
The interviewer pressed onward: "What did you do in China?"
Nick made an expansive gesture with his hands, and said happily: "Oh, well! I lived! I worked!"
"I see," the interviewer said. "Do you know where you are now?"
Nick looked out the window. He thought some more. "Illinois? I would venture to say so. Rockford?"
"How long have you been in America?" she asked.
"A long time," Nick said. "At least a month."
During Nick's first week in the nursing home we visited him every day to see how he was doing, and we were surprised each time by how relaxed and happy he seemed. He was shaking clear of the memory of the retirement hotel, which he thought of as a dreadful and oppressive place. Here he had no routine to follow, no expectations to meet, no cause to be embarassed about his forgetfulness; he paced around the corridors and common room happily, introducing himself to all the staff and vigorously shaking hands with everybody he recognized. Whenever he saw us emerge from the elevators, his face would light up with surprise and pleasure, and he'd advance towards us with his arms held out, crying "My God, what are you doing here? It's wonderful to see you!"
Sometimes, though, his delight was marred by sounds from elsewhere in the ward. Once as he came towards us, he flinched when he heard gunfire from the TV in the common room. "I'm glad you've come," he said urgently. "But we can't walk down this street. They're firing live rounds."
"Well, then we'll go the other way," Nina said. She stopped to talk to one of the nurses, and Nick led me on a circuitous route towards his room. We were met by several residents standing together by the nurse's station, and they greeted Nick with wild enthusiasm. "Giddy-up!" one kept crying. "Yahoo!" yelled another. "I like you!" a third exclaimed: "Give me a piece of cake!" Nick brightened considerably as he shook their hands and patted them all on the shoulder. Then we made our way down the hallway. The doors to the rooms were all open, and I saw residents alone at windows or lying in their beds. Some were talking to themselves; a few were laughing at some untranslatable joke. Some were sitting silently, with an odd expression I would often see here: one between blank indifference and hypnotized dread, as though they were staring into the darkness between the stars.
Nick's room was at the end of the hall. Nina had arranged several familiar objects on his desk, including his nameplate from Woodward Governor, and she'd put on the wall some framed reproductions: they were etchings of St. Petersburg in the 19th century. The room had a sweeping view of an old tree-woven Lakeview block, with glimpses of weathered ornamental stonework and terracotta rooftiles. Nick and I stood before the window for a long while.
"It's beautiful," I said.
"Yes, very beautiful," he answered. "It reminds me of somewhere ... I don't know where. But I often come here and look out the window like this. I keep hoping I'll see my daughter when she arrives for a visit. But I never do. She must come from another direction." He thought for a moment, and then he turned to look at me. "But I wanted to ask you a question. I have seen something I don't understand. In the mornings, there's a certain time when suddenly the streets fill up with people. They're all well-dressed and carrying briefcases, and they're all in a big hurry to get somewhere."
"Yes," I said. "I've seen that."
"Ah, good," he said. "This is my question. Do you know where they're going?"
Nina had come into the room while he was speaking, and she asked, "Where do you think they're going, Dad?"
"I don't know," he said. "I wonder. I think they must be going to coffeehouses."
"Is that where you'd like to go?" she asked. "We could take you to one, now that you're ..."
Nick finished the sentence for her: "Starting my new life," he said. Then he laughed, and turned to look out the window again. "Now that I'm starting my new life."