Amnon Ben Ami, Diagram, 2013, oil on canvas
This story originally appeared in Westwind, Spring 2001. It appears here reposted.
The Modern Man
When Grisha Mindevich, a young man of twenty-two years, had come to New York from St. Petersburg in March of 1904 fleeing either the Czarist government or the numerous rebel groups that planned to overthrow it (he was never sure which one he was really trying to get away from), he was struck by one thing more than anything: its modernity. He found in New York lives being led by a different sort of value than he had ever been exposed to, a sort of evolved value where tradition, though never ignored or disregarded, was taken in with a grain of salt. He was a large man, Grisha Mindevich. And deep, forest brown from top to bottom—his hair, his eyebrows, his mustache, his chest hair, his arm hair—everything was brown. Even his eyelashes were brown. Along with overall brown-ness, Grisha exuded thickness. He was thick and brown. The tallness was something that someone who interacted with him didn’t really think about till much later after their first meeting with him, when they had had a chance to really take in the other two characteristics.
Grisha had followed the lead of his older brother and older cousin, both of which came to America the year before, with both their families in tow. Grisha was unwilling to go with his brother at the time and leave his parents alone. His parents refused to leave and start a new life at their age. Grisha stuck with them for a year, but, after giving them that cushion, he packed his bags, called them stubborn asses, and followed the directions that his brother had sent him in a thick envelope, paying for his expenses along the way with American dollars that had been tucked in along with the letter.
His brother also set him up with a job in New York delivering bread and assorted baked goods for Mrs. Pennington’s Bakery, on Seventh Avenue, between Bleeker and Morton, so that he could begin paying off the loan his brother had given him as promptly as possible. Grisha’s job wasn’t difficult. Beginning at 5 am, he led a small truck, filled with all sorts of baked yummies that were baked and organized into boxes early that morning, up Seventh Avenue, across Greenwich Avenue to Broadway, and up to Union Square, where he took 14th Street back to Seventh Avenue, made a few stops on Waverly and West 4th Street, and was back by 8 or 9 am. At each stop, he parked the truck, tying the horse to a nearby pole, delivered the boxes that were ordered by that restaurant café or lunchroom, and continued on his way to the next stop. He liked the light load of his deliveries—he’d seen plenty of men hurt their back delivering milk or bricks—and he liked the four hour break from 9 to 1, when he enjoyed, on quite frequent occasions, romping trips to the brothel. At 1 pm Grisha set out on a second delivery run, following the same route with the afternoon pastries. Upon his return from the second run, some time between 4 and 5 pm, he took over the counter sales, which Mrs. or Mr. Pennington manned during the day, until 8 pm. It was really the loveliest job Grisha could have hoped for. He went out into the city twice a day, had plenty of exercise, and then, in the evenings, relaxed behind the counter serving the nice folks who came in the chocolate eclairs or Napoleon cakes or almond croissants they’d been craving all day.
Grisha was never one to waste time. Within this short time, he had already found for himself a comfortable routine. This was one of the perks to having an older brother immigrate a year before you. Grisha didn’t waste much time in love either. It was a strange occurrence, the way he’d met Lara Sinkevich, a plump beauty of twenty years who worked at a make-up stand in Greenburg’s, one of the new department stores. He and his buddies—Mugooch, Alik and Yura, all of which he met through his brother—were on their way back from one of the Sunday group visits they made to their favorite brothel, the one run by Mrs. Braustreisen on Eighth Avenue and 44th Street. They were on the Seventh Avenue El, sitting across the way and a little behind where Lara was sitting. She worked half days on Sunday, 1 to 5. It was already 1:30. She was applying her rouge with the help of a small hand mirror, but was failing miserably on account of the motion that was so distinctive of trains. It was obvious to Grisha, from the level of the lady’s frustration, that she was late. The little crease between her eyebrows—caused by one failed attempt at applying the red paste after another—is what initially attracted Grisha. But upon deeper contemplation, it would be hard for him to deny that it was the audacity she was capable of, applying her make-up in public.
Having just come from a successful trip to the brothel, Grisha was filled with an assurance he might not have felt otherwise. He had no care in the world—at least for the next hour or so. His nervousness had been drained out of him by the very able Miss Vanessa Jackson, a talented American woman that Grisha especially enjoyed, and who had called Grisha on of her favorite customers. He liked the American brothel-maids most, for there was something free in them, as if they enjoyed their jobs, had no shame in giving a man what he needed while getting what they needed out of him: money. Miss Vanessa had, without knowing it, given Grisha the confidence he needed to approach the lovely, distressed lady on the train.
“I don’t really think you need that make-up. Your skin is very fair already, and your lips, well, let’s just say that from where I was sitting, I thought you were putting rouge on lips that already rouged lips.”
Grisha had spoken to her in Russia, knowing full well that his verbal advance would had been greatly shortened if he had tried it in English. He knew she was Russian; it was obvious to him. She answered him in English.
“Thank you for the compliment, but I work at a make-up counter, and I’m supposed to model the stuff.”
Grisha was disappointed by her language-choice of retort.
“I don’t speak English,” he said, the rim of him courage folding in upon itself.
“Sorry. I said I work at a make-up counter, at Greenburg’s. I have to wear it.”
“Oh, I understand. Are you late to work? Is that why you’re upset?”
“Yes, and I’m not upset. I’m just worried, that’s all. Worried they might fire me.”
“I don’t think any man could ever bring himself to fire such a beautiful woman.”
“They’ve got ten beauties like me on their waiting list.”
Grisha’s courage was flailing now. He was looking down at the floor. He always looked at the floor for answers. None presented itself.
“Look, why don’t you hold the mirror, and maybe with two hands I can manage to get this stuff on.”
“Grisha was at about his average courage level now, which was enough to keep him afloat.
“Okay, that’s good.” She took the mirror from his hands. “Thanks.”
“So, what part of Russia are you from?”
“A small village near the Black Sea.” Aha! He’d guessed that she was a village girl. “What about you?”
“St. Petersburg. I’ve only been here four months. That’s why I couldn’t speak to you in English.”
“I figured.” She smiled at him. “This is my stop.”
They were at West 8th Street. As she neared the exit she turned and continued:
“Come by the store tomorrow at 12. We can go to the new lunchroom up the street.”
“All right, I’ll see you at twelve.” Grisha knew the one. He had begun delivering to it early last week.
“Bye.” She blew him a kiss. She was very forward with Grisha, and this, too, he liked. She wasn’t forward the way girls back home had been. There was more to her than a dumb-whitted need for pleasure. Yes, the girl was more than forward, she was presumptuous. He had known plenty of girls who flirted, but she wasn’t just a mere tease—he could tell that she meant it. He finally became aware of his three friends, who had woken him up out of his reverie with shouts, yells, whistles and yelps of encouragement and celebration. Silently, Grisha thanked Miss Vanessa.
Grisha’s interest in Lara was genuine, but twofold in nature. A woman like Vanessa Jackson, though a hell of a riot to be around, was not dependable in the long run. She had freed herself from the need for a husband by becoming a prostitute. By doing this, she still performed the act of what would have been, had she married, her nightly duty, but got her money up front for it, without having to deal with the husband part. She obviously had no interest in becoming involved with a man. She wanted her life to be separate from his—from his job, his family, the prospect of his children. She wanted, in a sense, to be independent of a man, and for that reason, Grisha felt he could never count on such a woman. Still, he could not imagine spending his life with a woman completely devoted to him, as his sister-in-law was devoted to his brother. He desired a woman who could enjoy herself on her own terms, who was aware of the changing times, which were taking effect all around. He wanted a woman who knew how to survive in the new world, who could modernize herself to the progressive climate of New York, a woman who knew her way around one of the most intriguing but thoroughly confusing enterprises the city had ever offered: the department store. Lara Sinkevich was that woman! And furthermore, she was from his home country, so his family would approve. And, to top it all off, she could probably help him learn English.
The next day, Monday, instead of heading to Mrs. Braustreisen’s—as he usually did on Monday mornings, seeking a more personal, more introspective encore performance to his Sunday visit with his buddies—he headed to for Greenburg’s Department Store, on the corner of West 8th Street and Broadway. He neared the make-up section, and espied Lara at her little booth, three rows down and two to his left. He could see her lips chattering and her head moving this way and that—she was obviously mid-gossip with the girl in the booth across from her—but her voice didn’t reach him. He stood and watched as her free lips spouted unending stories about neighbors and friends, her free lips, rouged to a super-bright red, a double red, the oppressive red of the product she was forced to wear covering the brilliance of the true red, the red that, of all the people in the store, only he knew existed.
She turned, flabbergasted by his inappropriateness. He could make out an index finger over the lips, and guessed that she was shushing him. Then she made a gesture with both her hands, much like the gesture one might make in trying to scoot a cat outside. Grisha understood and pointed towards the door, indicating that he would we outside waiting. He smiled big at her. She rolled her eyes. Outside, he eagerly paced the width of the two double-doors, back and forth, back and forth, waiting for Lara. A good five minutes later, a mild frown hanging low over her face, covering its beauty.
“Don’t do that again! My boss is always nearby. You’re likely to get me fired.”
“I’m sorry. I was excited to see you.”
Grisha was reassured by his yelp in the store. It meant that he had managed to keep a vibrant amount of his courage without having made a trip to Miss Vanessa. Lara filled him with courage in her own way.
“Well you were a little too excited. Maybe you should save that excitement for other activities.”
Grisha could think of a few. He wondered what he would think of Lara if she had allowed him to know her before they married. Sure, it was unheard of for an honest woman to join a man in bed before they were married, but that wasn’t what Grisha was questioning. He wasn’t concerned with such outdated formalities. He asked the question more out of consideration of the Modern Woman, and Modern Values, and came to the conclusion that hey were somehow linked, that Women and Men were now going to be able to interact in new ways, in different ways, in freer ways. He had no idea, at first, whether Lara was a Modern Woman as such, but he tried his damnedest to find out, asking her questions like, “What have you heard about a man’s organ?” and “Do you ever feel like you’re too eager to wait till marriage to find out what sex is like?” Lara always gave insightful, direct answers such as, “I know that men build tall buildings to emulate their penis,” and, “My curiosity has already been sufficiently staved off for the time being,” without hesitation, but with unwavering honesty, while still able to keep Grisha guessing about what she really said.
Grisha didn’t have to rack his brain guessing for very long, though. A month, to the day, after their first outing to the lunchroom just up the street from Greenburg’s, Lara surprised Grisha by taking him to a nearby hotel after work and introducing his to the pleasures of a different kind of sex, and oral sex. Grisha was impressed by the fact that, as a Modern Woman, Lara was able to answer his questions—both the ones he asked and the ones he kept to himself—with such rapidity. They had only been together a short four weeks, and already his outlook was being broadened and becoming more defined. This new sex was a very pleasurable experience for Grisha—in its own way, as pleasurable as the more traditional kind—and, best of all, Lara was able to participate without losing her honor. It was a compromise, a meeting place between the old values and the new. It allowed a man and woman to have intimate relations, to explore both their own and each other’s erotic sides without ruining the woman’s reputation.
“Lara, you’re a real Modern woman, you know? I admire that. Sometimes like I can’t even keep up with you, like my values are still tied in certain places to the old ways. But I want you to know that I’m trying, I try to understand where you’re coming from and, more importantly, where you’re going. And if I don’t understand, then I just trust.” Grisha was in a peculiarly verbose mood. “I want to grow with you, with the times. I want us to marry, Lara.”
“I don’t mean we should get married right away. We can just be engaged.”
“Grisha, we’ve known each other for a very short time. Our commitment to each other doesn’t have to be spelled out at every step of the way.”
Lara had, as usual, spoken very directly, but Grisha could only guess as to what she might have meant.
The meaning behind Lara’s statement plagued Grisha throughout the rest of that night, and was his first thought the next morning. He had arranged with Lara to meet a little earlier for lunch than usual. She didn’t know it yet, but he had a discussion of fair size planned for the two of them, and he wanted the extra time for lunch to make sure they got through it without any rush. They had agreed to meet at 10:30, after he had made his morning deliveries and taken care of the grocery errands his brother had asked of him.
Grisha was eager to start the day as early as possible. He had arrived at the bakery at 4:30 am and prepared the horse and truck so that he was ready to go by 4:45. He hadn’t slept very well, which added grogginess to his already present irritation and nervousness about the planned discussion. There were a few basic things that he wanted Lara to know. His intentions for her were genuine, this he would tell her; and although they had been sharing somewhat unorthodox activities, it didn’t mean that he expected any less respect from her. She had to understand that when you were with a man, there was an unspoken agreement that you would give him your loyalty, no matter how progressive the relationship was. He was contemplating the progressiveness of his relationship with Lara when, on West 8thh Street, near the Sixth Avenue intersection, he noticed that a large crowd had gathered in the street, and that a possible passage through it seemed unlikely. He had to get to Broadway, but he was already past the halfway point between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, and he didn’t feel like backtracking and taking 7th Street, which would put him back half an hour, ruining his lunch plans. He heard a muffled bang, but was too preoccupied to consider that the noise might have been. He continued stubbornly down 8th street, finding, to the best of his ability, a way through the crowd.
He couldn’t imagine what might cause such a commotion that people would block the street from one side to the other. As he neared the throng, he saw that finding a passage though it was going to be harder to find than he thought, and that he would have to check out the scene more closely before he could navigate through it. The road was very dusty and he began to sneeze, his eyes watering a bit. He tied the horse to a nearby pole, locked the back of the truck, and headed into the crowd to find out what happened, and whether he could wriggle his way through with his little buggy. As he pushed past the fringes of the mob, he heard women crying, saw them hiding their eyes in handkerchiefs or men’s chests. Them men, also affected by the sight, whatever it may be, averted their eyes occasionally, but couldn’t completely squelch their inner interest in the grotesque. All these things Grisha gathered by looking at the people around him and their expressions, but he had yet to see the sight himself. He pushed his way through the denser nucleus of the mass and, to his own disgust and excitement, reached the scene of the attraction: an automobile had collided with a horse and buggy. The tires of the automobile had scraped the horse’s belly, ripping through the skin and underlying tissue so that the inners were exposed. The vehicle itself was overturned, and had caught fire. The people inside the buggy were fine. They had merely been overturned, which anyone with a wild horse had been through at least once. He could only see a faint outline, but he picked up from what the people around him were saying (Lara had indeed helped him with his English) that the man inside the automobile had been locked in with the raging flame, and had very recently stopped banging on the window. As was apparent, no one helped him. No one tried. No one really knew how. They hadn’t a clue as to how they might free the man; and they had no desire to somehow get sucked in and stuck inside the cabin with him. They could do nothing but watch as the fire consumed the man inside, so that the only recognizable thing that was left was the outline of his fist in the window. The horse had been much more lucky. Everyone knew exactly how to help him: a clean shot in the head administered almost immediately after he had received his stomach wound.
The smoke that carried over from the accident smelled very strange to Grisha. It smelled of burnt rubber and leather, and it carried with it a scent of animal blood and entrails. He needed to get out of there, but quick. He pushed his way back out of the crowd—perhaps more forcefully than necessary—untied his horse, and proceeded to walk back to Sixth Avenue, and then to 7th Street, avoiding the accident altogether. He was too preoccupied with the complimentary thoughts of mortality and death to know it, but the entire incident, with his having to backtrack and walk the extra distance, put him back a good forty-five minutes.
By the time he had finished his route and taken care of the grocery errands, and walked back to Greenburg’s from his apartment, it was already 11:20. Being as upset as he was about the horse, and the burnt man, about the accident’s having ruined his plan for the discussion with Lara, about what exactly she had meant by “our commitment doesn’t have to be spelled out”—being as upset as he was already, it didn’t help matters one bit that Lara was not at her booth when he arrived, fifty minutes late.
“Excuse me!” Grisha yelled at the girl at the counter across from Lara’s, the one Lara had been gossiping with that first time he had come to call one her, “You know Lara? Where she is?”
“She’s at lunch,” the girl said with a roll of her eyes.
“Who she go with?!”
“What do I know, some guy, maybe her boyfriend.”
I’m her boyfriend! thought Grisha. He didn’t dare say the words out loud, though; he simply gave the girl an intentionally frightening stare. What he didn’t know, unfortunately, was that the make-up girl he had been speaking to, Doloris McClurg, detested rudeness, and that, having guessed that he was Lara’s boyfriend, she had told him that Lara was out with another man simply to return his bad manners. Doloris smiled a broad smiled with her freshly made-up lips, accentuating her unruly, yellowing teeth, as Grisha found his way out of the store through the maze of make-up stands, under-wear displays and mannequins, and lumbered out of the glass-paned double doors.
He went directly to the lunchroom up the block, to straighten out both Lara and this other man. He arrived to find a group of lunchers that did not include Lara. Whether it included the man she was with, he did not know. He went in and stood by the door to the ladies room. Who was this man she was with? Did they agree to enjoying the company of other people? He didn’t remember discussing the fact. But maybe that was it, Lara was so progressive that she assumed these things would be all right. Five minutes next to the bathroom and no sign of Lara. Of course! She had known that he would have come looking for her, and had found another place for her outing, probably carefully chosen for its seclusion and stealth from angry boyfriends. Well, Grisha had a place he could go too, a place carefully chosen for it’s seclusion and stealth from unfaithful girlfriends: Mrs. Braustreisen’s brothel—particularly, Miss Vanessa Jackson’s room.
If it weren’t for the rapidity of the El, and its ability to get him to his destination in three short stops, Grisha just might have exploded. He might have lowered his pants and jumped on any lady that was nearby, no matter her age or degree of attraction. He burst the door open and there, smiling, laying languidly and suggestively on the couch, her toes dangling just beyond the arm-rest, her hair splayed out across her bare chest, was Miss Vanessa Jackson, practically awaiting Grisha’s arrival. She had been sitting that way all morning, bored. The excitement of this man rescuing her from the boredom that she was being eaten alive by was more than she could bear. She vaulted off the couch, her breasts swinging separate ways, barely visible under the cover of her hair, and jumped front-ways onto Grisha. She began kissing and nibbling at his neck as he led them both into her room. With her leg, she kicked the door shut behind Grisha. It made a tremendous roar. Grisha was more than pleased with this welcome.
She leaned back and pulled both of them down onto the bed. Without his seeing it, she had managed to get her only article of clothing—her underwear—off and was now stripping him. Now that was the mark of a professional. Grisha just laid back as this woman, this true Modern Woman, took all his thoughts, his worried, his cares, his dreams, and tucked them gently away.
Grisha woke up at 12:40, with just enough time to wash up and get back to work. He hadn’t remembered falling asleep, hadn’t even known that he was tired. Miss Vanessa had made him tired, in her most thorough manner. One thing he knew was this: he had missed Miss Vanessa. She was smiling at him, now, from the bed, as he tucked in his shirt and pulled on his suspenders.
“You been out of town, sweety? Back in your home country?”
“No. I find girlfriend. But girlfriend no good. Only you good.”
“Well don’t kid yourself. As far as you’re concerned, I’m good for you between girlfriends and that’s about it.”
Grisha wasn’t quite sure what Miss Vanessa was talking about, but the little bit he did pick up, he misheard—or rather, misunderstood. He thought she had said that girlfriends are like prostitutes, not that she wasn’t a girlfriend substitute.
“No, they are girlfriend, not prostitutca!” Grisha threw three dollars at Miss Vanessa and stormed out of the room, slamming the door on his way out. Miss Vanessa lay on the bed, straightening out the folds in the three dollar bills he had thrown at her, laughing. “All right, sweets, whatever you say,” she said to herself.
After picking up the afternoon load from the shop, Grisha set out to make his dutiful deliveries. All the way up Seventh Avenue he cursed in Russian. Then, making his way across Greenwich Avenue, he cursed using the few words he knew in English. He had been upset at Lara all morning, and now that came back to him, but now he was even more upset by what he thought Miss Vanessa had said, that girlfriends were whores, and that there was no difference between Lara and Miss Vanessa, other than the fact that Lara wasted her time at the make-up counter. And he was irritated that he had gotten so upset by what she’d said at all, as if he wasn’t able to match her Modernity—or Lara’s Modernity, for that matter. He was upset because he had been outmatched—by himself. His own desire for the progressive had been handicapped by his background. As he reached the corner of West 8th and Broadway, he realized what he was going to do, and a small part of him wasn’t happy about it. He tied the horse to a pole and stomped up to Greenburg’s. “Lara!” He was screaming her name from the doors, through the aisles, through the ties and robes.
“Grisha, what the hell are you doing?”
She was rushing to the doors, maneuvering like a professional past the displays. She grabbed him by the arm and led him into a changing booth, locking the door.
“Where were you?” he asked, a bit ashamed at his own outburst.
“Where were you? I waited until eleven o’clock, then I went to lunch.”
“With who? What does it matter? You were late!”
He was so frustrated and confused that his voice got stuck, bottlenecked at his Adam’s apple. The break in their tennis match of yelling gave Lara a small break in which she noticed a change in Grisha’s physical condition.
“You smell horrible. Where have you been?”
He looked at the floor for an answer. “I was working.”
“You’ve never smelled like this from work.” She sniffed him closer. “You smell like another woman, like a whore. Like the time I met you on the subway.”
How had she possibly known that he’d been with a woman the day they’d met? The woman’s perceptions were uncanny; and even though she’d known that he was making a pass at her having come straight from a brothel, she had accepted him, accepted his choices, accepted who he was, accepted what he was in the habit of doing before they’d met. Of course at that moment, in her mind, there were no thoughts passing through about acceptance. She didn’t care what he’d done before they’d started their relations, just as long as he kept his hands clean while they were together.
“Well, Grisha, I hope you had a good time, because I hope it’s worth not seeing me again. Good bye.”
Grisha couldn’t never be honest and deny that he had had quite a good time with Miss Vanessa that afternoon, but he definitely wasn’t sure whether it was worth not seeing Lara again. Either way, she was gone, had left him in the changing room and gone back to her make-up counter, already helping a woman try on make-up that she desperately needed.
Outside, Grisha unhooked the horse from the pole, and led it up Broadway, to the lunchroom where he and Lara had first gone. It was at the end of that block. He kept his eye on it, watching it, trudging in front of the horse and truck—the truck filled with tasty treats for the many customers of Mrs. Pennington’s Bakery. He stopped the car, three storefront before he’d gotten to the lunchroom, unlocked the back of the truck, pulled out a box of chocolate eclairs, leaned against his horse, and, watching a man in an automobile speed past him, devoured three of them.
© Copyright David Stromberg