Fiction - Spring 2014

Tatiana & T. S. Eliot

By Jerome Charyn | March 11, 2014

 

I’d been dropped from the editorial board at the Review, summarily dismissed, as if I’d gone AWOL from some czar’s court, when all I did was work on an obscure literary magazine. We had to borrow an empty closet in the basement of Hamilton Hall, or we wouldn’t have had our own headquarters. I’d only missed one damn meeting of the board. I wasn’t a scholarship student, like Owen and the other board members, and I had to model men’s underwear several times a month to earn my keep. But my banishment wasn’t about that missed meeting. Owen wanted my tickets.

“You’ll have to give them back,” he said.

He wanted those damn tickets for his mom and dad, and he didn’t have enough pull with the dean to get them on his own. I’d idolized Owen, had been his plebe on the Review last year, had run all his errands, sat with him in the barbershop when he had his hair trimmed, helped him pick out his ties, but he was a sadistic son of a bitch who mocked all his new plebes and turned down stories that were too close to his pointillist style.

“You can’t have the tickets, Owen.”

“That’s mutiny,” he said. “Grossman, search his pockets.”

But no one on the board would tangle with me. I’d been a bodybuilder long before I was a reader of books, and that’s why I was in such demand as a male model; I had that sculpted, sylvan manner every merchant wanted in his showroom. I still had to be careful with Owen. His dad was a Manhattan literary agent who had connections to the Iowa Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor had written her first stories. We stole from O’Connor, we copied her style, brought her backwoods characters to Morningside Heights, and dreamt of studying at Iowa. So I should have been more submissive. But all I could think about was Tatiana.


She’d walked into my class on the 19th-century Russian novel in the middle of the semester like an aristocratic waif, wearing a flimsy white dress; she had a pale, tubercular look, as if she’d just escaped from a hospital ward. Her fingers fluttered all the time. She was blonder than blond, with myopic blue eyes and a tiny, turned-up nose. Tatiana was a senior at the women’s college across the road, she said, and required three more credits to graduate. So she descended upon us, speaking better Russian than our prof.

There was every sort of rumor about Tatiana, that she’d driven the chairman of the Slavic Department to suicide, that she was having a love affair with one of our prize physicists and with his wife, that she was the mistress of a Russian exile twice her age—an unpublished poet, even more impoverished than she was. There was also talk that she was the great-great grandniece of Tolstoy.

So I followed her after class.

“Tatiana,” I shouted, “I have two tickets.”

She pretended not to notice that I had called her name. I stood there, suspended in the silence she had sculpted out of the wind on College Walk.

“And who are you?” she finally asked.

“I’m in your Russian lit course.”

She chortled to herself, her nose wrinkling. “You mean the torture chamber that spits out novels like a sausage factory … Schoolboy, can you lend me $20?”

Modeling in the garment district had made me rich, so I took out a packet of $20 bills and gave her one.

She clutched it in her birdlike hand. “What are those tickets you are talking about?”

“Eliot,” I said.

She squinted now, noticed for the first time that my cheekbones were as high as hers.

“And where would a schoolboy like you get tickets to T. S. Eliot’s lecture? Faculty members have to beg for a seat.” And now Tatiana deferred to me a little. “Show me your tickets, please?”

I took them out of my wallet, where I’d wrapped them in cellophane.

“I’m managing editor of the Review, and—”

“Meet me outside McMillin at a quarter to seven.”

I didn’t know what to wear. So I borrowed a midnight-blue tux from one of the manufacturers, who also let me have a velvet coat with a sable collar. And I met Tatiana outside McMillin Theater, on Broadway. I’d never seen her in lipstick or high heels. That rip of red across her mouth made her pale eyes glimmer like a succulent she-cat.

“Schoolboy,” she said. “You look ridiculous. This isn’t the opera. It’s Eliot.”

But she took my hand, and how they all envied me—instructors, assistant deans, doyens of the faculty, editors of the Jester and the Spectator, and their dates, and my own editorial board, with Owen in the lead. He was livid. I had come to Eliot’s lecture with the ragged princess whom half the college had slept with in their dreams, had crushed her fragile bones, tasted her spit and blood.

“You’ll pay for this,” Owen whispered in my ear while Tatiana ignored him. We took our seats. Ushers spied on her. Faculty wives caressed the furrows in their throats. And then Eliot appeared onstage. He must have been 70 or so, our greatest living poet, whose first wife, Vivienne, had died in an asylum. He’d once been a bank clerk. He shuffled slightly, but he hadn’t come alone. He was a newlywed. And his second wife was onstage with him—Valerie. I believe she had reddish hair. I couldn’t really tell in the dim light. She was stouter than he was, half his age, a little stiff, while he had the sudden grace of a much younger man. The dean introduced Eliot, called him Tom.

He rarely read in public. But Valerie had brought him out of his cocoon at the London publishing house where he worked. He sang to us “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with Valerie beside him, utterly still, implacable, while he danced like a dervish.

Tatiana never let go of my hand. She wasn’t Tolstoy’s great-great grandniece here, wasn’t a siren or a waif. She was a worshiper, like the rest of us, listening to the master’s rough purr that would ring in her ears into some eternity, as it did in mine.

Tatiana wept.

Eliot answered some questions, but the reading had drained him, and he couldn’t leap from Prufrock to Tom Eliot. Tatiana rippled under her dress. She got up and ran out of McMillin.

“Couldn’t they leave him alone?” she muttered when I caught up with her outside the theater. “He gave us this gift, and we tyrannize him with questions. He’s not a vaudeville clown. He doesn’t perform.”

I didn’t know what to do next. So I went down with her into the subway. We got off at Columbus Circle, and I followed her like a ghost from the IRT to the Independent Line and the D train. I didn’t dare talk about T. S. Eliot. I could tell how much his reading had disturbed her, as if each line of Prufrock was chiseled onto her cheeks, with blood marks under the skin.

“Schoolboy, what will you do after you graduate?”

“Go to Iowa, if I can get in.”

Her pale blue eyes seemed to roam right out of their sockets. “Iowa?”

I told her about the Workshop, and how one could study the craft of fiction with some of the same tutors Flannery O’Connor had.

She didn’t even bother to suppress her own giggle. She mocked me worse than she’d ever mocked our prof in Russian lit. She dubbed him Oblomov, after one of the novels in our curriculum about a lazy landowner who couldn’t get out of bed; and for her I was another Oblomov, another lout.

“And what will they teach you at your precious Workshop? To do calisthenics before you sit down to write? Or will you have finger exercises for your brain and your soul? Isaac Babel rode with the Red Cavalry. That was his workshop. Leo Tolstoy was an artillery captain in the Crimean War. Dostoyevsky dreamt of axe murderers day and night …”

We got out at Grand Street, on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood where my own mother had come right from Belorusse, and where her father committed little acts of larceny for the Republican chieftains of East Broadway. He was a lone wolf, one of the last Republicans on the Lower East Side. I adored him. He wasn’t a pious man, didn’t even belong to a synagogue. He delivered kosher turkeys before Election Day in his futile attempt to gather votes. Democratic hooligans would howl at him and knock him senseless every six months. But Grandpa never deserted the Republican Party. So I wasn’t unfamiliar with Tatiana’s streets. I wondered if she lived with her tribe of Russian aristocrats in some arcane palace hidden among the labyrinth of tenements and kosher pickle factories.

I knew every yard, every step, having trolled these streets with Grandpa, who had been precinct captain for a Party that had a name but no constituents. He was a magnificent tour guide. He told me about the Jewish prostitutes and pimps of Allen Street, who had paraded under the darkness of the elevated tracks until the Second Avenue El was torn down to provide scrap metal for the military.

“It was a panorama,” Grandpa had said. Born in Minsk, he’d moved to Odessa, where he crept onto a Norwegian ship in the harbor, and arrived on Ellis Island in 1907, a petty criminal with criminal papers. But nothing in Odessa, with its Jewish boulevards and cafés, could compare with all the human cargo on Allen Street 40 years ago, he said—the waft of cheap perfume, the sweat, the bathhouses, the prostitutes with their sunken eyes and plastic rain hats, the Jewish pimps with their pointy heels of flamenco dancers. Allen Street was a series of lots and tire shops now.

As Tatiana and I descended into the Lower East Side, the tenements seemed to sit in a curtain of dust. We walked under the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge, in another land of darkness, with abandoned schoolhouses, a matzoh factory that was now a storefront church, a synagogue transformed into a public shelter.

We arrived on Attorney Street. The din from the bridge knocked every other sort of music out of my ears. One of the tenements had cardboard in its windows; its stoop had vanished into a mound of rubble. But Tatiana’s tenement was untouched; it had elaborate brickwork and stone cornices—the last palace on the Lower East Side.

I followed her into the building; she stepped out of her high heels like some pale Cinderella and climbed up the stairs in her stockings. The walls were made of corrugated tin; the banisters quaked the closer we got to the fifth floor; the lamps on several of the landings had burnt out. Her blonde hair shone like silver in the shadows.

“Oblomov, don’t stand like a dunce.”

The door of her apartment wasn’t locked. I felt like an interloper, but I walked inside. She lived in a flat with a tub in the kitchen, a toilet enclosed in frosted glass, a living room with its bumpy floorboards covered in oilcloth. A man sat near the window, with a pipe between his teeth. He must have been 50 or 60; he had yellowish white hair, and looked like an angel rotting from within; he had bags under his eyes and puffy, colorless cheeks. At first I thought he was her father, but they rasped at each other like estranged lovers, and I realized soon enough that he was her husband, Pavel. He chided her for speaking Russian.

Darling, introduce me to your new friend.”

“He’s not my friend. He’s Oblomov. And he picked me up outside Hamilton Hall.”

“Just like that. With tickets to a reading by a poet who never reads in public. I would have killed to be there.”

“Well,” she said, “you could have strangled me and gone with Oblomov as his date.”

We drank schnapps and tea with strawberry jam and munched on little poppy-seed cakes. Pavel was a poet who had once been treasurer of the Moscow Writers’ Union. He’d had his own dacha in Peredelkino. But in a drunken stupor among his fellow poets, he recited a couplet about the sour smell of Stalin’s sweat-stained uniform. He was stripped of all his honors, lost his dacha and his limousine. He might have landed in the cellars of the Lubyanka, but he’d squired a delegation of American writers around Moscow the year before, and the same writers wrote to Stalin, begged him to allow Pavel to enter the United States as a true Soviet pioneer.

Pavel had a wife and two children. But he fled without them, and brought his 17-year-old secretary from the Writers’ Union, who wasn’t Tolstoy’s great-great grandniece, as I had imagined, but the daughter of Pavel’s chauffeur. She would have been handed down from poet to poet until her pale eyes turned to glass, so she decided to accompany Pavel. Now he was a bigamist with a second wife, who was a spy for the Slavic Department, or she wouldn’t have wandered into my class.

Pavel seethed at the ignominy of oilcloth and this dacha on the Lower East Side, but he didn’t stop talking about T. S. Eliot. He questioned me like a commissar.

“Stop it,” Tatiana said. “He’s a boy. He dreams of a writers’ school, a workshop for robotniki.”

Pavel sucked on his schnapps. “What do you expect? It’s America … Oblomov, why did you come here? To feel up my wife behind the curtain while I’m asleep?”

He rose from the table, twisted about, stumbled into the kitchen, and returned with a carving knife.

“What gives you the right to bribe my wife with the one thing in the world that could bribe her? Not mink collars or a Cadillac. Poetry.”

I sat there while he circled around the table. Tatiana stole behind him with an ancient steam iron she must have brought with her from Pavel’s dacha—as her dowry. It looked like a gigantic snap turtle with a handle. She tapped him once on the back of the skull. He plummeted to the oilcloth.

“You killed him.”

“Don’t worry. He’ll rise from the dead.”

And she sat down with me, while Pavel started to snore.

“But why did you invite me here?” I asked the goddess.

“I had to reward my schoolboy. I’d been scheming for months to get a ticket. And then Oblomov appears out of the blue. I’m not a monster. I had to reward you.”

And she took me by the hand again, stepped right over Pavel’s snoring, crumpled body, stood against the wall, like an imperfect Madonna with pale blue eyes, and wiggled out of her underpants.


She never appeared again in my Russian lit class. I searched for her in Philosophy Hall. I took more Russian classes. I thought of going on a raid to Attorney Street. I wasn’t worried about Pavel’s knife. I was worried about the vacancy in her eyes once she opened the door. But I wasn’t completely reckless. I patched things up with Owen and returned to his editorial board. He named me his heir apparent.

I thrived at the Review. We won every sort of prize—for the layout of the magazine, the design of our covers, and a story about a boy who drags his dead grandfather across Armenia in a wheelbarrow and buries him at the side of a mountain. Yet all I could think of was Attorney Street, with its corrugated tin on the walls, its broken tiles, the smell of cat piss on the stairs, and my beggar’s reward from Tatiana—coupling like a pair of truants, while that husband of hers lay on a patch of oilcloth with a bump at the back of his head. Her body never moved as she stood against the wall; there was no love cry, not even a kiss, yet those pale eyes had a luster as I looked and looked, and then I heard the slightest moan, like some child stifling a scream of delight.

Still, I’d made a name for myself on Morningside Heights. I was at the printer twice a month, my pockets stuffed with proofs, my palms stained with ink that could have been spurts of black blood …

And then I saw her, outside Philosophy Hall, with a band of graduate students and profs, walking like smugglers or secret agents. They were all in love with this siren of the Lower East Side. She stopped for a moment, to taunt them, I suppose, and kissed me in front of the entire troupe, her tongue writhing in my mouth. Then she shoved me away.

“Schoolboy,” she said, “don’t be shy. Come visit our magic kingdom again. Pavel really misses you.”

Fool that I was, I went down to Attorney Street with a fistful of roses. Pavel met me at the door with yellow, beaded eyes. He wore a bathrobe that clung to his body. His teeth were chattering. He glanced at the roses, pirouetted once, and did a bumbling entrechat. I had to hold him up, or he would have toppled into a chair.

“Oblomov, are the roses for me … or my wife?”

And then he ate the petals, like a madman, devoured every one. “I’m starving,” he mumbled, his mouth all crimson.

“Ah,” I said, oblivious of the robe rotting on his back. “Then I’ll take you and Tatiana to dinner.” I hadn’t given up my modeling career, even with the page proofs in my pockets.

“Tatiana isn’t here,” the poet insisted, with mashed petals on his tongue.

“Then why did she invite me to Attorney Street?”

“As a cruel joke,” he said. “She’s living with her thesis adviser.”

And so Pavel got dressed, and we climbed down the warped stairs, landed in a dust storm off the Williamsburg Bridge, two lovesick souls, and went to Katz’s, the kosher non-kosher delicatessen that had been Grandpa’s canteen on the Lower East Side once upon a time. Whatever Republicans he could corral off the streets, he held hostage at Katz’s, fed them pea soup and pastrami sandwiches. I grabbed two tickets from the toll collector near the door, and we got on line with our trays while the countermen mocked our mournful looks, punched our tickets with metal contraptions that could have bitten our fingers off, and we returned to our table with platters of pickled tongue and sauerkraut, and bottles of Dr. Brown’s celery tonic.

“Where’s the vodka? I can’t digest without some vodka or schnapps.”

I made him drink the celery tonic and nibble on the sauerkraut. He devoured half the platter.

I handed our punched tickets to the cashier, paid for our meal, and we went to one of Pavel’s canteens, a dingy bar on Delancey, dark as a dungeon. We slurped vodka for two hours and stumbled back to Attorney Street like a pair of bandits.

“Brother,” I said, “I’ll translate your poems—publish them in the Review. You’ll never grow rich or famous, but you’ll have readers.”

He quoted Pushkin and Lermontov to me, wallowed in their words, while we helped each other up the stairs.

“We’ll live together,” he growled. “We’ll work as busboys at Katz’s … and write poetry on the side.” He fumbled with his keys. “Fuck Moscow and Stalin in his mausoleum.”

I joined Pavel’s refrain. “Fuck the Cold War … and Tatiana’s thesis adviser, whoever he is.”

“And fuck Tatiana,” Pavel said, as we entered the darkened hall. She stood in the shadows, smoking a black cigarette that had a bitter aroma. Pavel switched on the light. He let out a soft shriek; both his hands were trembling. I was confused and alarmed on account of Tatiana, who was wearing white makeup, like a corpse or a clown.

“My two lovely boys,” she whispered.

“Get out,” Pavel screamed. “You’re not welcome here … Oblomov, look at her. She’s come to us in her own death mask.”

She walloped Pavel with one of her tiny fists, and he landed on the floor.

“Schoolboy,” she said, “I need some cash.”

Pavel’s head was like a great curl of hair. I listened to him snore. I must have reeked of vodka and sauerkraut.

“Is that why you invited me to your magic kingdom? To pick my pockets?”

I crumpled up all the 20s I had and tossed them at her.

“That won’t be enough,” she said. I was powerless. I had no balalaikas in my blood. All I could ever do was swindle her into a reading of T. S. Eliot. I couldn’t even write her a check. Rosenzweig, who owned a catalogue company, paid all his models in hard cash.

“How much will you need?” I asked.

“A thousand dollars.”

She tossed back her head like the daughter of a Moscow moneylender.

“We’re in a hole. We haven’t paid our rent in months.”

“But you’re living uptown with some doyen of the Slavic Department. Let him bail you out.”

“Idiot,” she said. “I’m living right here … with Pavel. I’ve become the panhandler of Philosophy Hall. I’ve slept with a few of my admirers, so what?”

I wanted to smash her bones and run away with her. Yet I was no cavalier. I ran to Rosenzweig. He had the most expressive eyes in creation, always filled with tears.

Boychik, she’ll break your heart.”

“I’ll work weekends,” I told him.

He opened his safe and removed a neat bundle tied with rubber bands. He had enforcers, this merchant prince. I had to make him swear that he wouldn’t harm Tatiana—or Pavel.

“Don’t worry,” he said, snuffling with those wide nostrils of his. “I can always sew your eyes shut and sell you to a circus.”

But he wouldn’t have harmed me. He never touched his own merchandise. He couldn’t afford to have me appear in some industrial calendar with my face all marked up.


I’d never met anyone like them, swindlers who had swathed themselves in the sacred cloth of literature. Rosenzweig warned me they would disappear, and they did—without a word, vanished from the tenement with all their knickknacks, while I rose higher and higher at the Review. I didn’t have to stage a palace revolution—Owen resigned from the board.

“Vulture,” he said. “You’ve been eating my entrails.”

“That’s what vultures do.”


I didn’t have much pity for Owen. He’d bullied all of us, crucified my best stories with his green pencil. Without Owen, the Review won even more prizes, and I was invited to the dean’s annual party, but I couldn’t imagine showing up without that waif of a princess at my side.

I trolled Grandpa’s precincts, convinced I could summon up Tatiana with some magical slice of my mind. I visited Allen Street, pictured Jewish prostitutes parading in their silks during Grandpa’s reign as Republican lord. And while I dreamt, an apparition appeared in a ragged silk turban, with a host of shopping bags. She must have been hunting for bargains at the Chinese grocers on Grand Street.

“Tatiana,” I said. I’d startled her. She dropped one of the bags. I stooped and helped her pick up renegade oranges and grapefruit, while she mocked me with those pale blue eyes of hers.

“Pavel can’t forgive you,” she rasped. “He still has the taste of celery tonic on his tongue.”

I knew I didn’t have much time to bargain with her. “I’ll give you another thousand bucks,” I blurted, “if you’ll come with me to the dean’s party.”

I let her have whatever cash I had on hand—as a deposit, but I was suspicious as hell. She might never show up on Morningside Heights, with or without that turban, no matter how much I had offered her. And I sulked for a week or so, certain I’d have to face the dean and his wife without Tatiana …

As I stood waiting inside Philosophy Hall, she arrived out of the wind, wrapped in a scarf, my own blond angel. She carried a silver purse, wore red pumps.

Tatiana clutched my arm, and we strode into the lounge, where all the dean’s men and their wives gaped at us. She had a silver glow under the soft light. She smiled and drank punch with honor students who wore their Phi Beta Kappa keys chained to their vests like medallions.

“Well,” she whispered, “am I performing for you, darling? You owe me $860.”

I stuffed an envelope into her silver purse. “You were never a student here, were you, Tatiana?”

She swilled some punch and started to laugh. “Who had the time or the patience or the money? No, I arrived on campus like a Martian from Moscow. I knew more about Russian literature than all the Russianists. They talked of stipends. But I had no academic credits. I was Pavel’s secretary … and his whore. So we had to learn how to survive. We borrowed, we begged.”

“But you could have left him, gone off to live with—”

“Some fat Russian professor who would have fed me cake. I’ve had plenty of propositions.”

Tatiana danced with the dean. The assistant provost flirted with her, while the provost’s wife treated me like her own personal satrap. “She’s a jewel, dear boy. You must bring her to our dinners and teas. I demand it! She’s Tolstoy’s grandniece.”

And then Pavel appeared in a tattered coat, like some forlorn trampoline artist. He swayed across the lounge, crashed into the punch bowl, and spilled punch on the dean and half the honor students.

“Brothers,” he shouted, “someone kidnapped my wife.”

I had to stand there and watch the dean’s white shirt blossom into a blood-red rag.

“Charles,” the provost’s wife growled at the dean, “call security at once. Who is this awful fellow? Some mad pirate let out of the loony bin?”

“No, Madame,” said Tatiana. “He’s my husband.”

And she walked out of the dean’s party in her red pumps, the spangles on her purse creating an aura of silver light that blinded us for a moment. Pavel ran after her, and I ran after Pavel. I caught up with them near the subway station. Tatiana took the envelope stuffed with cash out of her silver purse and flung it at me.

“Oblomov, we don’t need your blood money. We’ll survive.”

The envelope’s sharp edge had torn into my cheek. “Tatiana, I slaved my ass off for every cent.”

“It’s still blood money,” she said, shaking Pavel as he tried to retrieve the scatter of $20 bills from the pavement. And she dragged him into the subway’s dark well. I stood there, wondering at my own delinquency. I’d turned Tatiana into a handmade goddess when she was a creature of complicated blood. She and Pavel might have been the hoi polloi in Moscow, surrounded by a little union of poets, but she landed on her ass in America, where poets and their secretaries had to survive without a dacha. So she sank into the Lower East Side, with her love of Pushkin and her stale crusts of bread.

I wrote a story about her and published it in the Review. “The Witch of Peredelkino” won the college fiction prize, but I was still bereft. Tatiana had touched a raw nerve. I couldn’t impale the Witch no matter what prize I won. I was a boy with ink stains on his hands. My workshop would remain the concrete gardens of the Lower East Side, where Grandpa had his travails as a lone Republican chief, where celery tonic still flowed from some impossible tap, and my Tatiana sailed through the streets in a ragged silk turban.

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