Tikkun Magazine



Coywolf

"Self-Portrait with Daughter," Isaak Brodsky, 1911

 

 

 

 

Alexey’s legs still worked. That was more than some people could say. He tried to get out in the mornings to stretch them, at least on days like this, when it was warm and not raining. No one was on Gravesend Neck Road yet when Alexey began his walk, and on Avenue U there were only a few workers, heading to the train or unloading boxes of produce at the Asian supermarket. Some cars and trucks passed on Avenue U, but the traffic was a fraction of what it would be in a couple hours. By then, Alexey would be back in his shop, shut inside for the workday. He chose Marine Park for his destination because the tall grasses and shrubs of the salt marsh which ringed the park were still full and green, and Alexey liked the sense of being close to nature, without quite entering it.

The only other people in the park when Alexey arrived were a group of five or six Chinese pensioners doing Tai Chi in the open cricket field. Alexey was impressed with the precise ways they moved—they seemed to be slowly going in one direction, and then, without a perceptible transition, they were moving in another—considering they were all at least as old as Alexey himself, whose knees were already sore.

He sat down on a bench. He would have liked to talk to some of the Chinese men in the neighborhood sometime. They too had lived under communism, and the countries he and they had fled bordered each other. There had once almost been a war on that border, back in the ‘60s. But even if Alexey and the old Chinese men had enough English in common to communicate, how did one start such a conversation? Aside from customers, Alexey only really talked to other Russians, and even with them, what was there to say?

Alexey stood, stretched his legs, and resumed his walk. He would take the long loop around the sports fields, then make his way back and open the shop. The city’s busyness increased as the morning brightened; the traffic on Avenue U was getting louder. After a few steps, Alexey stopped short. Through the rumbling of work trucks, he heard something high-pitched, urgent. The pained cry of something living.

He scanned the ground, and spotted a dog trapped under the fence. This was surprising; there were very few stray dogs in America. Cats, yes, but not dogs. They had all been rounded up and killed a long time ago. The only dogs in New York were clean, and on the ends of leashes.

Getting closer, Alexey saw that the animal at the fence was no house pet. The long legs and snout. The rusty, matted fur. The wary eyes. It was a small wolf. No, that wasn’t quite right either. This was America: It was a coyote, like from the Wild West. Or the hybrid of the two which Alexey had read about in the Russian newspaper. “Coywolves,” the article called them. The picture in the paper showed a menacing pack, led by a tall, lean beast with impossibly red eyes and fierce fangs. But Alexey had lived long enough to know better than to be afraid of everything the newspaper told him to be afraid of. And this poor creature needed his help.

It tried to pull away as Alexey approached, but each movement only rattled the chain link fence, resulting in more fear and franticness. Getting down on his knees, Alexey saw that the curved end of the unraveled fencing wire was speared through one of the animal’s back legs, a few inches above the paw. The leg was very narrow at that point, even delicate; the curved metal had hooked in through one side and come out the other. The only solution was to grab the leg with his left hand and the metal with the other, and remove the wire from the flesh.

Alexey took the piece of fence wire in his hand first, making sure he had a good grip. Then, taking a deep breath, he grabbed the animal’s leg and yanked quickly.

The coyote yelped as the metal jerked through the wound, then turned rapidly and—before Alexey could pull away—snapped its jaws on Alexey’s left hand. It gave a shake, painfully wrenching the hand. Realizing it was now free, the coyote released its grip, turned forward, ran across the avenue as fast as three good legs would take it, and disappeared into the salt marsh. Alexey knew from his walks that the marsh grass was full of rodents, field mice and muskrats. That was clearly where the coyote hid and hunted.

Alexey’s hand started to bleed. He wrapped it in his handkerchief, and headed for home.

#

Alexey cleaned the wound with water and soap. There were curved bite marks on both sides of his hand, though it seemed that only two of the punctures were deep. He poured rubbing alcohol into the bites, wincing at the sharp pain, then wrapped the hand in a roll of gauze. This, in turn, he wrapped with duct tape, so the dressing would stay put while he worked. Osip, an underweight tabby cat who Alexey had found drinking from a puddle and taken in, appeared from one of his hiding places and hopped up onto the edge of sink. He sniffed at Alexey’s injured hand.

A feeling of faintness came over Alexey, but he probably just needed something to eat. The incident had been a lot of exertion on an empty stomach. There was leftover food from the previous night’s dinner in the refrigerator, gyro over rice. His granddaughter Karla berated him for eating from the Halal King every day, something about sodium and fat. Too much meat. Was there such a thing as too much meat, if you could get it? Besides, the food was cheap, he liked the salty lamb and rich white sauce, and the Uzbek boys who served it were very polite. He took the foil container out of the refrigerator, but after a couple bites found that he wasn’t hungry after all. He would just have a cup of tea.

As he waited for the water to boil, Alexey’s eyes surveyed the room. He spent most of every day in the shop—either in the front room where the customers came, or in the private back room where he slept—but he looked at the space now with freshly suspicious eyes, as if something else was waiting to jump out at him. A picture of Karla was tucked into the frame of a large mirror, along with an old picture of her mother, Irina, who lived in New Jersey with her new American husband and never visited. Next to them was a photo of Alexey’s wife; having died of cancer back in Ukraine, her image was black and white. On the other side of the mirror there were also several photos of Alexey’s sister, Lizavetta—who now called herself Leah—and her children and grandchildren in Haifa. In the corner beside them was a postcard portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Alexey had accepted the card from the yeshiva boys who stopped by Jewish businesses on Friday afternoons. The kind, now-familiar face was comforting, and Alexey liked that Schneerson—like Alexey himself—had been an engineer before finding a new vocation in Brooklyn, but he refused the boys’ weekly requests that he tie tefillin with them. The only religious ritual he’d ever participated in—aside from a few HIAS seders at the Jewish Community Center when he first came over—was Simchat Torah, when Lizavetta dragged him out to dance at night in the street in Kiev. He always stayed on the side, too terrified that his sister and her friends would be arrested to enjoy himself.

Emigrating to Israel was the great dream of her youth; she saw the country not as somewhere to escape to but as a prized destination, and studied a Hebrew primer in samizdat form long before she and her husband were granted visas. Boker tov, she repeated over and over, boker or. Incomprehensible words to Alexey, though he still remembered some of the sounds. Hebrew, Lizavetta claimed, was the holiest and most beautiful language in the world. Alexey trusted her in most things, but he knew for a fact this couldn’t be so, because Lermontov had written his poems in Russian.

Alexey’s eyes turned to one of the many refurbished clocks mounted on the wall. It was much later than he’d realized, nearly eight o’clock. He needed to finish fixing the Italian shoes before he opened for the day. He had some other jobs waiting on the to-do shelf, which he would get to if he could, but none of them would be called for before the weekend.

The customer had found the shoes cheap in a second-hand store, and had the sense to recognize that they were quality Italian leather, cut from one piece and hand-stitched, showing minimal wear, but needing a new left heel. So she brought them to Alexey’s little storefront, where she had brought other things in the past—a watch whose band needed shortening to fit her slender wrist, a necklace with a broken clasp.

“Can you fix these?” the girl asked. She was maybe twenty-two or twenty-three years old, with serious brown eyes. Alexey held the shoes up, examined them. They were proper European shoes, the soles nailed, not glued, together. It would be best to re-heel both of them, so they wouldn’t wear unevenly.

“Yes,” he said. “Of course I can fix. They will be like brand new.”

Most of what Alexey did in his shop was take old things and make them new again. He sharpened knives and replaced the straps and zippers on pieces of luggage. He cut copies of keys, so people could enter the apartments where others had already lived and died. He could restore aging vacuum cleaners and sewing machines. It had been years since anyone brought in a typewriter, but if someone did he was ready. Items he’d salvaged from the street and repaired were piled in the windows up front, along with new keychains and luggage tag holders, and various products customers could use to maintain their leather and metal at home. Under the counter, he kept pepper spray and pocketknives for customers who asked. He didn’t know how useful they were, but people wanted something to help them feel safe.

#

When he was done fixing the shoes, Alexey wrapped them in a plastic bag, taped on his half of the claim ticket, and placed the package on the pickup shelf. He had worked more slowly than usual, not wanting to reopen the cuts on his hand. It was now time to open the door.

There were the jobs on the to-do shelf he could work on before the morning got busy, but instead he found himself pulling out one of his own projects, a broken 35mm LOMO camera he had picked up at a rummage sale. Cameras were interesting. The little motor, not unlike clockwork, and the almost-magic ability to freeze time.

People didn’t like the film cameras so much anymore, and who could blame them, with the convenience of new technology? The only exception seemed to be high school and college students who bought black and white film from B&H in the city and took artsy photographs of each other. If he got the LOMO working, maybe he’d hang it on a brown leather strap and put it in the window. The artsy kids liked Soviet things, for some foolish reason. The novelty, perhaps, because they’d never had to use them, day in and day out, and couldn’t quite imagine anyone ever had.

Alexey didn’t take pictures himself. When he needed a photograph—such as when his sister asked that he send one of himself and Karla—he had Karla take it on her mobile phone, and print out a copy. Most times, he was happy to just let things pass on. Once, though, when he witnessed a red-tailed hawk land on the fire escape with a slaughtered pigeon in his talons, and spread its wings to ward off any challengers, he wished he carried a camera. It had been like the encounter with the coywolf, so quick Alexey could barely hold the shape of the animal in his mind.

Alexey screwed the LOMO case back together, and looked through the viewfinder at the cat, who was lounging on the counter, licking his paw. “Privet, Osip.” Alexey pressed the button, and the shutter clicked, startling Osip. Maybe Alexey would find a roll of film, and make sure the thing worked. For now, he placed it aside.

Customers trickled in. A wide-footed woman left a pair of boots to be stretched. A regular showed up, a realtor who needed an envelope full of keys copied. Alexey’s hand was starting to swell, making it difficult to manipulate his fingers. He ran the key cutter machine slowly, doing as much of the work with his good hand as he could.

Another regular came in, a chef from the sushi restaurant who needed some knives sharpened. He was protective of his knives, but he trusted Alexey with them.

“You cut yourself working?” the chef asked.

“What’s that?” Alexey looked up from the sharpening wheel.

“Your hand. You cut it on a tool?” The chef’s own hands had several clean, straight scars.

“Yes. I cut myself.” Alexey didn’t know how to explain about the scared coyote in the fence. And he had in fact cut, smashed, and torn his hands many times while working. His later years at the factory in Kiev were spent in an upstairs office, working with pen and paper, but the first few years he was down on the factory floor, with a heavy wrench and a tin of oil, sticking his hands into machines. The hardest work was actually when he was a student. In the summertime, his entire class would be conscripted into a student construction brigade, and shipped to a remote region by train, where they built housing and developed thick callouses. And then in America, he was no longer an engineer, but once again a man who worked with his hands. “Hazards of occupation,” Alexey said to the chef.

#

Alexey thought about how Yuri, his and Lizavetta’s older brother, would have made fun of him if he had heard Alexey hurt himself trying to help a wild animal. He had never sent Alexey a photograph; he didn’t go in for such sentimental gestures. He was practical man, who would never be caught crawling in the dirt at a public park, or dancing at a Simchat Torah celebration for that matter. He was born before the war, so he remembered a stronger type of hunger than Alexey and Lizavetta did. When their father came home as a one-legged invalid, it was Yuri who had to help their mother take care of him and the two babies that soon followed. Alexey could only remember the man as a figure sitting silently on a chair in the corner of the kitchen, drinking from a bottle. One day he was gone, and no one spoke of him again.

So it was Yuri who looked after Alexey and Lizavetta when they were younger, and their mother was working. Alexey had always hoped he’d be able to do something for Yuri in return one day. But they saw little of each other as adults. After Yuri finished his military service, he was sent to the mining institute, and then to work in Siberia—only a few hundred kilometers from the Chinese border, actually—where he married and had two sons, both of whom died before they were forty.

When people were finally allowed to leave at will, Alexey petitioned the American State Department again and again to let him bring his brother over on a family reunification visa. But for reasons no one was obligated to explain, Yuri was never allowed to come over, not even temporarily on a tourist visa. He sent Alexey bitter letters about the situation, but there was nothing Alexey could do. Alexey suggested emigrating to Israel so he could at least be near Lizavetta and her family, but Yuri dismissed the notion of Israel as romantic folly. Only America would do.

After his second son died, Yuri no longer cared if he stayed or went at all, and asked Alexey to cease his project of appeal. It had all been for the boys’ future, which no longer existed. Now Yuri was dead too. A year of silence, and then a month ago, the letter from Alexey’s nephew’s wife saying that Yuri was walking and fell through the ice. Maybe there was more to it than that, but likely not. We all walk on ice, Alexey knew, and eventually we all fall through. No one can pull you out.

#

The phone rang in the early afternoon.

“Hello, shoe repair shop.”
Alo, dedushka, etta ya.” It was Karla. “Kok dilla?”

“I am fine, as usual,” Alexey said in Russian, happy to be able to switch from English. Karla spoke to Alexey exclusively in Russian, though when she spoke to her mother—an infrequent occurrence—she did so in a baffling mixture of Russian and English. Most of Karla’s life was lived in English. Except for the clerks at the Russian grocery store, he was probably the only person she spoke to entirely in Russian. He appreciated this. He could get by in English—he wouldn’t have been able to maintain a shop in the mixed neighborhood, otherwise—but it exhausted him. Today, with the distraction of his injured hand, English was more difficult than usual, and he was glad he didn’t have to try to conduct an English phone conversation with a customer.

“You’re fine?” She pressed. “You sound a little out of sorts.” How could she hear so much in one sentence?

“A little tired today, perhaps, is all.”

“Do you want me to stop by and see you this evening?” She lived in Brooklyn too, but a distant, northern part of Brooklyn Alexey didn’t know very much about.

“I don’t want to bother. I’m sure you have plans.”

“Yes, but not until later at night. I can come right after work for a bit. It’s no problem.” She always came if he asked, and without complaint. She was dutiful, like a soldier.

“Well, perhaps you might come then.”

“Yes, of course. I have to return to work now, but I’ll be over around six o’clock.”

Alexey locked the door, sat down in his work chair. He really was tired. Something beyond tired; the excitement of the coyote had exhausted him. And of course, he had been wounded. His hand was aching worse now. The whole arm, really. He had seen many men injured by machines, but he knew little about animal bites. But the animal had been small, its teeth were not strong enough to do much damage. The worst was surely past. Still, a few minutes of rest might be in order. He wouldn’t get much work done anyway.

Alexey settled into his easy chair in the back room. Karla had bought him a futon bed from the big Swedish store in Red Hook, but he was fine in the chair. It was comfortable, plenty of room for one person, and he didn’t sleep many hours anymore. He listened to the Russian language news on the radio for a while. There was so much trouble in Syria. He hoped his sister’s boys, now in the reserves, wouldn’t be called back up into the IDF and sent to the border. He closed his eyes. The news ended, and a classical music program came on. Something by Mahler was playing.

He was dozing when a sharp rapping on the window snapped him to attention. It was the girl with the dark eyes, peeking eagerly through the glass. Yes, she had said that she would pick up her shoes today.

“I was afraid you closed early,” she said, when Alexey let her in.

“No,” he waved his hand. “Only a short break. Come in.”

He placed the shoes on the counter. She took them out of the bag, examined them carefully, smiled. Now that Alexey had put on the new heels and polished the leather up, the shoes were as beautiful as anything sold in Manhattan. That was what she wanted of course, to hold her own against the other young women working in the city.

“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Wear them well,” Alexey said.

Later, she’d pair them with a new spring dress, style her shoulder-length black hair, put on some makeup, and walk from the apartment she shared with her parents, or maybe two roommates, to the subway, careful not to step in any puddles, or scuff the leather on the curb. The train would take her to the city, and then an elevator would take her to a high floor. She’d walk confidently through the office, letting the others know she was someone fine, not to be trifled with. And maybe after work she’d wear the shoes out to dinner, with some girlfriends or with a young man. He remembered the first time his wife had let him take her dancing.

Well, it wasn’t a new story. So the offices had computers now, and here the files were typed in English. Maybe the girls had a few more dresses in their closets. But it wasn’t a new story.

Alexey locked the door behind the girl. His hand throbbed, and his head hurt as well. The coyote had been injured too. Alexey hoped he was not in pain, and his leg would heal sufficiently on its own.

#

Karla let herself into the closed shop. Alexey didn’t trust anyone but her with a key. She found him sitting in his chair in the backroom.

Privet, Dedushka,” she said, coming close to give him a kiss on the cheek.

Privet, Karla.”

“How is business this week?”

“It could better. But I am making enough for my needs. I fixed some beautiful Italian shoes for a girl today.” Karla was not as interested in shoes as her mother was. But Irinka had only ever wanted brand new shoes. That was how she had gotten into the trouble with the stolen credit card numbers, and why Karla had had to come to live with Alexey when she was in high school. “How is your work?”

Karla worked at a radio station, which, for some reason, was housed in an old fire station in Manhattan. It was “public radio,” controlled by the government. Somehow, as Karla explained proudly, this meant that it was dissident, and they dared to say things “corporate” radio would not. This never made sense to him; in Russia, state radio told state lies. Only privately-owned radio stations reported opposition positions, or at least they had, in the brief window between the loosening of the Communist Party’s grips and the tightening of Putin’s. Alexey worried often that Karla and her coworkers might get in trouble—what would happen if a different politician came to power, for instance, and didn’t like these dissident news reports?—but she said no, it wasn’t like that here. He believed that she believed this, but he believed that here was no different than there, under the surface, and he worried about her safety.

He worried, too, that she didn’t have a boyfriend or husband. Maybe it was how she dressed. She didn’t wear pretty skirts, only trousers or dark jeans. She was wearing a nice silk blouse today, but it was sleeveless, and showed off that her arms were covered in tattoos, like a criminal. No, that wasn’t fair: Her tattoos weren’t crude and ugly like those of the vory; they were beautiful like the paintings in a children’s book. In fact, she said that the woman who did them was the graduate of a respected art institute. He didn’t understand why such a woman didn’t paint pictures to put in a museum, but he saw the artistry on Karla’s skin: There was a wise owl, and two sad swallows, and a clipper ship out on the sea. Birch trees, a typewriter, and a campfire. Scrolls with English words he could sound out, but not really understand. He just didn’t see why she needed to mark up her skin, and why she couldn’t ever wear a dress. He didn’t care, really, it was just that he didn’t want her to be alone, when he was dead, and her friends were gone, as friends were bound to someday be.

“Work is fine,” Karla said, after a long pause.

“Why do you frown when you say ‘fine?’”

“Well, the morale”—she said the last word in English, then struggled to find a Russian equivalent she knew. She was a child in Russian, and a journalism school graduate in English; it clearly frustrated her to have to speak in a less-articulate voice—“The feeling is not good. There have been a few people who lost their jobs, because of the cuts to funding.”

“Is your position secure?”

“Yes, I’m fine. Don’t worry about that.” Alexey walked over to his workbench and took an envelope from under a tray in one of his toolboxes. He removed four fifty-dollar bills, folded them tightly together, and held the money out to Karla with his right hand.

“No, I don’t need any money. I told you, I’m fine.”

“So maybe you are fine. It doesn’t hurt to take, for an emergency. Or to buy something you want.” She folded her arms. Alexey shrugged and put the money in his own pocket. She was too proud. He would try to slip the money into her bag before she left.

When he turned away, she saw the bandage.

“Wait, what happened to you?” She stepped forward and took his hand in hers. They could both see that the skin was bright red, and alarmingly swollen around the tape and gauze.

“It is not as serious as it will sound. But a wolf bit me.”

“A wolf?”

“Yes. Just the small type. Coy-o-te.” He had to sound the American word out syllable by syllable. He had read it, but never spoken it. It was such a strange word. Though, he saw that it made sense. The shape of the sound seemed to describe the shape, or at least the movement, of the animal. He said it again, with more confidence. “Coyote. Actually, I read they are mixed now, both kinds. Coy-wolf.”

Ladna, so there was a coyote, or something. Did he run up and attack you? He might have had rabies. You need to get a shot.”

“No, no, I approached him.”

“Fine, he could still have rabies. You still need a shot. Shots, actually; you’ll need antibiotics too. An animal bite is a serious thing. I’m calling a car; we’re going to Coney Island Hospital.” She took out her touch screen phone and started tapping away, calling up a car on some sort of application. “He’ll be here in fifteen minutes. But tell me, I truly want to know: Why did you approach a coyote?”

“He was trapped in the fence. I wanted to help him. Like I helped Osip.”

“Osip is not a coyote.”

“Do not tell Osip this.”

Dedushka, no jokes. So fine, you like to help, but why didn’t you call 911? Or 311, whichever. The city. They could have sent … officers—” She switched to English: “Animal control officers.”

“Call officers on the little coywolf? Do I look like an informer to you? Better I should lose my hand.” He held up the injured extremity, as if making a pledge. “I only wanted to help. Perhaps we should try to find the coywolf in the marsh, to make sure he is all right.’

“Come to the sink,” Karla said. “Let’s get the bandage off and see how bad it is. We need to keep the wound clean.”

#

When the car arrived, Karla led Alexey outside, and locked the shop door behind them.

“What if customers come when I’m gone?”

“Then they’ll have to come back tomorrow. Or the next day. You have the Medicaid card, yes?” He knew that she was a good granddaughter, that she was trying to help him, but no one knows how to help another person.

Alexey had a difficult time bending down to enter the car door, especially with only having one hand to steady himself. Karla put her hands on his back and shoulder. It felt strange; no one had touched him in a long time. He remembered how his wife used to hook her arm through his when they walked in the street. Lizavetta told him that Chernobyl was once the home of a great rabbi and his disciples, but to Alexey it could only be the place that exploded, sending out the clouds of radiation that destroyed his wife’s body. He sat beside her for four months, unable to do anything for her as she rotted away.

Karla was born the year after the meltdown, and Alexey often worried about her health, that something might have happened to her in the womb. But she was born very strong, able to take care of herself. She was now sitting beside him in the car.

“You’re not coming with me to the hospital.”

“Of course I am,” she said.

“But you said you had to be somewhere this evening.”

“No, it’s nothing.” He hoped he wasn’t causing her to miss anything important—a professional event or, a date with a man—but he didn’t have the energy to argue, and leaned back into his seat.

The driver seemed concerned about the situation, said something to Karla in a fast, French-accented English Alexey couldn’t understand. She gave the man directions, and he pulled out onto the road, turning the steering wheel with two strong hands. Alexey couldn’t feel his own arm at all. It occurred to him that he might actually lose it, that the doctors might cut the arm off, if not at the shoulder then at the elbow or wrist.

With only one hand, he would not be able to do his work. His father had sat in the kitchen, useless, unable to do anything for his children. The driver stopped at a light. The car’s motor continued to vibrate. Alexey wished that he himself was a machine whose parts could be replaced when they failed. He wanted to be of use.

 

Ben Nadler is the author of the novel The Sea Beach Line and the nonfiction monograph Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side 1981-1991. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at SUNY Albany.
 
tags: Culture, Judaism, Poetry & Fiction   
https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/coywolf