From WTP Vol. VI #7
By Robert Klose
If all the Russians in my small Maine town were planets, then Galina Sergeivna would be the star they orbited. In good times and bad, in joy or need, she was their center, their stillpoint. Nothing they said or experienced could surprise her. Having survived the bombing of Minsk, where the family dog gave its life to sate their hunger, she had seen everything.
Galina Sergeivna was the widow of a dissolute husband who had succumbed to alcoholism. He subsequently had a stroke, and it was Galina who had nursed him during the three weeks it took for him to die. Then, fatalist that she was, she continued on with the life it was her duty to lead.
I had once done Galina Sergeivna a kindness—some minor sinecure—that she never forgot and that brought her to treat me like a son. I continued to help her from time to time, shoveling her walk in the winter, mowing her lawn in summer, bringing her fresh vegetables from my garden.
Galina called one morning to tell me news. Her sister, Olga, was coming to Maine to visit. “I’ve lived here twenty-five years,” she ached, “and never once has she come. But now…”
“You must be excited.”
When I said this there was only silence at the other end of the line. “Hello,” I prompted, and Galina came back to life. “I want you to meet her,” she said. “I’ve told her all about you.”
I knew very little about Olga, except that she lived in New Haven. On those occasions when Galina mentioned her, a palpable tension seemed to underlie her statements of affection. And now, with the approach of her sister in the flesh, Galina was growing fretful. She asked me to come to the house to help her “prepare,” as she phrased it, for Olga’s visit.
I was actually very anxious to meet Olga, wondering how she compared with the singular Galina. Loquacious, animated, and ceaselessly busy with the affairs of the local Russian and Ukrainian communities, she led a breathless and selfless existence. And yet, once a week, her one small indulgence: she made her way to the “hair cutter,” as she called the salon, to have herself made up anew. It was the job of this small hole-in-the-wall of a Maine business to reignite her flame-red coif and refresh her features with moisturizers, mascara and blushes, after which she donned a surfeit of bracelets and rattled about her business.
When I arrived at Galina’s house I stopped to admire her flower boxes brimming with violets and marigolds. In contrast to Galina’s outsized personality, it was a small house meant for a small person. As I looked the place over, Galina’s two chickens clucked onto the front lawn. Interesting, brainless things, they had a coop in the backyard but spent most of their time pecking about the property, oblivious to the danger from neighborhood cats, and never thinking—insofar as they could think—of wandering off.
Galina came out onto the porch to shake out a dust rag. She was wearing a simple housedress with some faded design—I think they were tiny roses. “There you are,” she said matter-of-factly. And then she noted the chickens. “Ach, Anya,” Galina lamented as the dominant hen pursued the other, hapless one which had been pecked bald. “Sonya has diarrhea,” explained Galina, “and Anya won’t leave her alone. Go! Shoo!” she called from the porch, waving the rag at the birds, who scurried around the side of the house.
She turned her attention to me. “Come in,” she said, beckoning with the dust rag. I stepped over the threshold and immediately noted the scent of rosewater. I was forced to stand because the easy chair and sofa were piled with books, magazines and unanswered correspondence. “Ach,” clipped Galina. “There’s so much to do.”
I thought this humorous, because there were only three tiny rooms and a cramped kitchen. It seemed to me that an ordinary person could make quick work of the place in an hour. I asked if I could help.
“It’s an impossible task,” lamented Galina as she spun about and regarded the piles. “Olga will never approve. After Minsk, and all the devastation, one would think that a person could tolerate a little untidiness.”
“Your home looks perfectly presentable.”
Galina paused to look at me as if she just didn’t know where to start the process of educating me. “Olga is very particular,” she said, and I could sense that she was struggling to maintain a temperate tone. “It took so long to convince her to come to visit that I don’t want to justify her worst fears.”
“Fears?” I echoed.
Galina sighed. “She thinks Maine is the ends of the earth, somewhere near the North Pole. She thinks she will be attacked by a bear. She’s afraid she won’t understand the way people speak here.”
“Maine is not a foreign country.”
Galina leveled her gaze at me. “As far as Olga is concerned, it might as well be the moon.” She went on to explain that, in contrast to herself, her sister had never quite mastered English. Her reading knowledge was especially poor, as she saw Russian characters at every turn. “She calls a car a ‘venicle,’” complained Galina. “The English ‘h’ will forever be a Russian ‘n’ to her. No matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of learning.”
“Can I take you to the airport to pick her up?”
“Airport?” chirped Galina. “What airport? She won’t fly. She’s coming on the Greyhound bus. The flight from Hartford is only forty-five minutes, but she’d rather sit for eight hours.”
“Not everyone likes to fly,” I said.
“How can someone not like to fly?” challenged Galina. “Well,” she said, resigned, “You’re coming for tea tomorrow evening,” giving it the weight of an order. “Olga should be refreshed by then.”
Having said this, she turned and I watched her full, rather pear-shaped body as she disappeared into the kitchen.
I, too, returned to my business; but Galina now had me reflecting about the nature of relationships and how we truly are cornered by our families. Despite the current fashion of labeling friends as family, friends always have the option of exiting our lives. But a parent or brother or sister retain their rolls, in spite of enmity or disaffection. In spite of everything.
There was no doubt in my mind that Galina loved her sister. On many occasions she had spoken in affectionate terms about the special bond they shared as a result of huddling under the kitchen table while German bombs were raining down. “Let’s count them,” Olga had said to the younger Galina in order to calm her. “Whoever guesses how many will fall is the winner.” Well, both of them survived, so in a way, they were both winners. Further, Galina’s personality was relentlessly, consistently, defiantly bright, belying the horrors she experienced in the twin onslaughts of German and Russian armies.
I was not at the bus station when Olga arrived. Instead, I waited at home, patiently anticipating Galina’s phone call. Shortly after supper I was summoned.
“She’s here,” she announced. “And no worse for wear. When can you come?”
“I’m on my way.”
I stopped to buy a bouquet of carnations—an appropriately neutral choice—as a way of welcoming Olga to Maine. I arrived at Galina’s dacha, knocked, and a moment later was looking in on a scene of quaint domesticity: the card table draped with an embroidered, party-colored cloth, a steaming pot of tea, a plate of frosted cakes, and, of course, Olga. She was sitting bolt upright and expectant. I looked from her to Galina and noted the powerful resemblance, with a few distinct glosses that defined the older sister. Her hair was a creamy bleach blond. Her sunken cheeks were fired up with rouge and her lips shone with bright red lipstick, setting these features apart from her otherwise strikingly pale skin. Around her neck was a chain of costume pearls—they were too fat to be real. But most notable were her full dentures, white and protruding, as if they could leap from her head of their own volition. “I’m happy to meet you,” I said as I handed her the flowers.
Olga averted her face from the carnations and then looked at her sister. “I’m allergic to flowers,” she said, as if in confidence, though loud enough for me to hear. And then, in afterthought, “Thank you.” Galina took the flowers and placed them immediately into a vase, though at a point far removed from Olga. Then she returned to the table.
I couldn’t help noting that both sisters sat very close to one another, on the same side of the card table. I took the seat opposite them. Olga reached into the front of her housedress and pulled a tissue from her cleavage. “Shew!” she gasped. “It’s hot in here. I thought Maine was a cold place.”
“Well,” began Galina, already looking pained, “it gets hot here too. But if you stay long enough the winter will come and then you’ll be begging for heat.”
Olga registered shock. “So you’re already trying to get me to stay? Or are you trying to move me out because you don’t think I could take the cold?”
At first I thought Olga was just trying to be funny, but as she spoke, those magnificent teeth flashed and snapped, like weapons. With every click, Galina pulled back under the assault. “Listen,” she said in an attempt at amelioration, patting the air with her hands, “you can stay as long as you like. You can have anything you want. You know that.”
Olga would not be mollified. She began to fan herself furiously with her tissue. “How can I have anything I want? I don’t even have a venicle. I have to rely on you.”
“Ach!” exploded Galina, having finally had enough. “After all these years you still say ‘venicle.’” And then, turning to me with her hands out, as if begging for a witness, “Have you ever heard such a word as venicle?”
Both women looked at me expectantly, as if challenging me to choose sides. Instead, I tried a feinting maneuver. “Galina, what kind of tea do you have?”
The sisters stood down as Galina reached for the teapot. “It’s Georgian,” she said. “You’ll like it. Here, give me your cup.”
I noticed Olga looking me over as I held my cup out and Galina poured. What could she be thinking? Her look was beguiling. I had been in her presence only five minutes and already I felt that I understood her completely. Although she was the younger sister, Galina seemed to be more in control, but more discomfited by the difficult nature of their relationship. Olga, on the other hand, proceeded on the assumption that the world, including Galina, was allied against her.
Olga rattled her own teacup onto the saucer with a look of disgust. “No,” she said, “it’s too sweet.”
“Then why did you put so much sugar in?” Galina pleaded.
Olga grabbed her pearls and glared fiercely at her sister. “I thought it was sugar but it was Sweet and Low. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Galina rocked her head and attempted to smile. “Well,” she said, “if this is the worst thing that happens to us I think we’ll have a good visit.”
Before Olga could return fire I interceded again. “Olga,” I said, “I’m going to run some errands today. Maybe you’d like to come along, in case there’s anything you need.”
Galina perked up. She moved to speak, then thought better of it. Instead, she waited for Olga to respond. Olga, for her part, looked first at her sister and then at me. “Yes,” she finally said, “that would be nice. I need to move around. It’s too cramped here. In New Haven I have a lovely yard and even a deck.”
Galina would not allow herself to be afflicted with guilt for not having a deck. As she rose to clear the table, she commented, diplomatically, “We’re all different.”
I thought that nobody could disagree with such a benign statement, but Olga found a way. “Ach, syestra,” she ached as she straightened her skirt, “we’re more alike than you think.”
Galina looked relieved as I walked out the front door with Olga who took my arm as we went down the steps. The two hens clucked and scurried out of our way. Olga seemed fascinated by the sight. “Look,” she said. “That one has no feathers on its head.” She continued to look on as poor Sonya emitted a stream of diarrhea under Anya’s relentless pursuit.
Once in the car, Olga was unable to abandon the theme of the chickens. “I don’t understand why she keeps chickens. Whoever heard of such a thing?”
“She likes them,” I said.
Olga shrugged. “We can’t have everything we like.”
Robert Klose is a regular contributor to The Christian Science Monitor. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Confrontation, and elsewhere. His books include Adopting Alyosha—A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia, Small Worlds—Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas and Other Mortal Concerns, The Three-Legged Woman & Other Excursions in Teaching, and a novel, Long Live Grover Cleveland, which won a 2016 Ben Franklin Literary Award and a USA BookNews Award.