It’s 2006, I’m nineteen, and I have a part-time job with my uncle engraving portraits into tombstones. This is a relatively common practice in Eastern Europe, where he first learned the trade, but in America, most people say it’s the most bizarre job they’ve ever heard of. I find it quite normal: everyone around speaking Russian, straightforward about all things, even death. To me, they’re just portraits. I never meet the grieving widowers and sad-eyed grandchildren that walk through the front door. I work in the back office, giant empty rocks on all sides. Though, lately I’ve been going less and less; partly because I’m a lazy college student, and partly because it’s just so far away. My uncle’s company is located on the west side of Milwaukee, in a strip mall between a DMV and a Subway that takes two busses for me to get to. I live on the other side of town, a few blocks from UW-Milwaukee, where I go to school, in a second-floor duplex with three of my closest friends. That winter my parents finally decide to lend me their old car, a 1995 white Oldsmobile that, by the sound of it, shouldn’t even work and yet it does, even after the muffler falls off and I put it in the back seat.
One morning late in January, something else detaches itself on my way into the parking lot, and I don’t know what it could be, so I put that in the backseat too. At least it isn’t the breaks, I think, though those will eventually go too. Now on top of having to leave my warm, cozy house, I will also have to worry all day about breaking down in a bad part of town. I don’t consider taking it to a shop. I know nothing about cars, don’t want to know.
All worked up before even arriving at work, I breathe a short sigh of relief as I enter the building and open the door to the store. Nobody else is there that day; not Ida, my aunt, or even Misha, the nerdy forty-year-old who’s in charge of engraving all the letters into gravestones using stenciled pieces of rubber. For some reason, I can hear my uncle Peter’s voice in the back of the shop the entire way there. Once I walk through a sea of monument samples and bronze religious figures and get closer to him, I see that he is actually on the phone with Misha, and the reason why I could hear his voice is that he is screaming at him in Russian:
“You’ve been drunk for four days, Misha, and I haven’t said anything. But now it’s time to get back to work,” he’s saying. “Be here on Monday or we’re going to have a problem.”
Then Peter hangs up the phone and looks at me. I hadn’t noticed Misha was gone for so long. He is a nice guy, but, as my uncle will later affirm, it has seemed for a while like he has a crush on me. Which is a little unnerving, considering he’s almost my dad’s age.
“What’s that about?” I ask Peter, in English. This is generally how we communicate, because my Russian skills are so poor, having moved here at the age of five and been raised in suburbs where there were no other foreigners. Peter’s English is almost nonexistent, like most of the older adults in my family, so he replies in Russian:
“His wife left him. He’s done nothing but drink since it happened.”
“It’s life, Zhannuchka,” Peter shrugs. “The important thing is not to dwell on it, and not let it ruin your work.”
“That’s not very sympathetic,” I say. I turn towards the coffee machine, which has just finished brewing a fresh pot, and pour some into a cup, followed by sugar and cream. It’s only Folgers, but it’s better than nothing; I'd been up till four trying to finish a very autobiographical short story for class about a girl in love with brothers. Around us, though I barely even notice it anymore, are giant granite rocks with names on them, sketches of designs, color samples, photos of the dead. It smells like toast and dust.
“Did I ever tell you the story about my first wife?” Peter asks me when I turn around.
“You had another wife?”
“I did. In the Soviet Union, before you were even born,” he says. “I was on a business trip to Italy, and I came home early to surprise her, and caught her with another man.”
“Wow. I can’t believe that really happens,” I say, which is sort of funny, because if you had asked me two years ago if dating brothers one after another was actually something that happened outside of soap operas, I would’ve probably said no.
“Do you think I drank for a week and lost my job?”
“Maybe you just didn’t like her that much,” I say, and he laughs. But what do I know about marriage? I can barely date someone longer than three months, and most of the time they're not even committed relationships. I’m still in love with a guy who works in a porn store and dumped me for his high school girlfriend more than a year ago. I sit back down on my backless swivel chair, my mind trying to absorb what my uncle has said. I thought I had known everything there was to know about him, but now it’s pretty clear I hardly know anything, if I was unaware my aunt wasn’t his only wife. I wouldn’t even be in America if not for him and my aunt Ida. She and Peter are the ones who sponsored us, making it possible to get visas—a fact that is never possible to forget, considering how often it’s brought up in conversation. The people in my family tend to enjoy reminding each other who’s done what and why, but the scales never seem to balance themselves. This is a large part of why I only know a couple of aunts and uncles on my dad’s side of the family—Peter and Ida included—even though my dad’s mother had five older siblings and most of their offspring live nearby. There’s some bad blood between Peter and my parents too, but I have no idea what it is. They didn’t particularly like my taking this job—but if I ever let my parents stop me from doing what I wanted, I’d never get to do anything. I’d be living in their secluded Mequon home, majoring in Engineering or Business, not English. Or, more likely, I’d be back in Hartland, where we lived before they decided to move across the state to get me away from my high school boyfriend.
My uncle, still laughing, puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Have I ever told you that you’re my favorite niece in the whole world?”
“Yes. Many times,” I say.
“I still remember you when you were little—you were such a cute girl. You had these huge brown eyes, oh! And that smile! No one could say no to you.”
“I’m not cute now?” I ask, jokingly. I’m trying to imagine a time when people didn’t say no to me, and I can’t. Not for the first time, I wish I could just be five years old again. Little girls are spoiled for the world; they spend the first years of their lives coddled and adored, playing house, wishing so much to be women. Then they grow up, get a very different sort of attention. They realize, too late, that there’s a cost now to be paid. And part of them just wants to go back in time, be safe and taken care of again. This, I believe, is why so many young women get married before they’re ready, before they have become the people they are meant to be. Since the beginning of time we’ve gone from parents to husband. But that time in the middle, when we’re alone, is so vital and necessary. It’s like pulling a plant out of the ground before it’s fully grown—it’s hard enough for something to grow well with perfect conditions, let alone out of its natural habitat.
Not that being single was exactly a natural habitat. And most days, it was very hard; sometimes it was even dangerous.
“Of course you’re still cute,” my uncle says, then walks over to the coffee maker to refill his cup. “But you’re not a girl anymore.”
“Yeah,” I say. Then I look at my job for the day, a new tombstone, small and black—what they call a flush marker, which goes flat into the ground so that you have to stand above it to see it. This one is made for a seven-year-old girl. I’d just sketched her face onto the stone the previous day using white transfer paper, and now that I see how simple her face is—how simple all children’s faces are: no lines, giant features surrounded by blank white space—I’m excited to start. I take out my headphones and mp3 player, loaded with fifty or so Operation Ivy and Against Me! songs, and get my tiny red drills ready. Then I start with the eyes—just a small white dot above the irises, thin white lines to convey a circle.
I’ve only gotten as far as the second eye when Peter approaches me. I’m expecting he has some sort of complaint about my work; he almost always does. I’m trying to get used to it, even if it’s hard to take. My uncle is a harsh critic, and often lamenting that he has to fix my beginner’s mistakes, but he’s the most talented artist I’ve ever met, and the job so far is challenging and rewarding. I also have the best setup imaginable: I can come and go as I please, as long as I let him know in advance. To me, this in itself is hitting gold; nothing is more dreary at nineteen than having a schedule. A schedule is the first step in a series of steps that lead me to my parents’ life: boring job, marriage, house in the suburbs—the imaginary American dream they’ve been trying to force on me for over a decade. Most importantly, what lies underneath all of that: discontentment. They may have left an anti-Semitic, dangerous regime, but are they happier here? Considering all the stories they tell at dinners never happen past 1991, it’s unlikely.
I put my mp3 player down on my lap, and look up at my uncle.
“We’re going to do things a little differently now,” Peter tells me.
“I’m going to pay you per project, instead of ten dollars an hour,” he says. “This one, let’s say, will be fifty dollars.”
“But what if it takes me ten hours?”
"Then it takes you ten hours,” he says.
At first, this seems like it could work in my favor, but this is only because I’ve never counted how long it takes me to finish something. After a few weeks, I’m averaging maybe five, six dollars an hour. Even in 2006, this is pretty bad. You could likely make more at McDonalds, and I’m using a skill very few people have. Plus, now that I have a car that’s in desperate need of repair, I’m paying for gas, and every other day I manage to get a parking ticket, till it gets to the point where it seems like my job is actually costing me money.
“This is ridiculous,” my dad tells me, when I come to visit one weekend. They live in a giant, pastel-colored condo off a speedy highway road in a suburb thirty minutes north of Milwaukee, where they’ve only been a few years, so it doesn’t exactly feel like home. Though, nothing really ever felt like home, because for the last fourteen years we were always moving—usually just between apartments, but sometimes between cities. After the initial move from Ukraine, none of them hit me quite as hard anyway. I spent my first year of kindergarten crying all day until my grandparents picked me up. By the time we moved cities again, in fourth grade, I wasn’t crying about anything anymore.
“Is he trying to make money off you?” my mom asks. Outside, there’s nothing around the house but grass and more condos, a tiny strip of woods. I have yet to meet even one of their neighbors. “We didn’t move from the Soviet Union so you could make five dollars an hour. Let me talk to him.”
“He’s not trying to make money off me,” I say, though it’s hard for me to focus. On top of the tiny TV in the kitchen, both the living room and bedroom TVs are all on, blasting different channels. It’s starting to give me a headache. “He’s always complaining that he has to fix all the portraits I do.”
"I’m sorry Zhanna, but you don’t know him very well,” my mom says. “People treat kids differently.”
“He’s always been nothing but nice to me. Minus the criticism, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. ”
“That’s because he still sees you as a little kid.”
“You know that he and Ida refused to take Raheel with them to the States?” my dad says. Raheel is my grandmother’s sister. She lives down the hallway from my dad’s parents in Milwaukee, inside a building full of Russians where all my grandparents live, and is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“So how did she get here?”
“Vova and Galya brought her. And they had a one-year-old baby to deal with, and Vova’s dad,” my dad says. Galya is Ida’s sister, and Vova is one of my dad’s best friends from high school.
“But why?” I ask.
“Ida didn’t feel like dealing with it, and Petya lets her do whatever she wants.”
“We wouldn’t be here if not for them,” my mom says. “But don’t confuse that for them being good people.”
“And by the way, Ida hasn’t visited her mom once since she got Alzheimer’s,” my dad says.
“She’s afraid of sick people,” my mom adds. “She always has been. If I even get a cold she won’t go into the same building I’m in. And do you think Petya goes anywhere without her?”
In a few years, I will see just how true this is. But now, it’s hard to imagine my uncle doing such things.
“I guess I didn’t know any of that,” I say. Not for the first time, I think how strange it is to be an adult, to have to get to know your relatives for the first time. You think you have a clear picture of them from seeing them your entire life, but then you start to realize it was all an illusion. Not only is there no tooth fairy, but your aunts and uncles and grandparents are bizarre, complex human beings, some of them more childish than you ever were as a child. It makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing.
My dad tells me not to go back to work until he’s convinced Peter to go back to the old way of payment, ten dollars an hour. But my uncle won’t budge. This is pretty strange, considering when I’d first gotten hired he told me he wanted to train me to take over the business someday, and how often he tells me he loves me, but maybe I’m just bad at it. I’m quite good at representational portraits, especially using paint, but I’m certainly nowhere near his level yet. He’s been doing it longer than I’ve been alive.
“He’s trying to take advantage of you,” my dad says. “This is exactly why I don’t trust Russians. And why I didn’t approve of you working there.”
“You never approve of anything I do,” I say. “It’s kind of hard to take it seriously.”
“We came here so you could have a better life,” my dad says, like a refrain.
“But why do you always get to decide what’s a better life for me?” I ask.
“Because we know more than you do,” he says.
In the end, I stop working for my uncle, but it’s less about the money and more that I just don’t like it anymore. It’s very stressful to create portraits when your canvas is a five-thousand-dollar rock that will last forever. When I paint, I mess up all the time, but I can go back over it and fix it until it’s perfect. With monuments, like life, the stakes are so much higher: one bad move and it’s ruined. Every action has a consequence. You can always add more white, but you can never get the black granite back. An eyeball can become square, a hairline pointed instead of round. The best time I had working for my uncle was actually the first few weeks of training, when I engraved five or six different Jesuses. Jesus was easy—his face, like the religion named after him, was open to interpretation. So was a rabbi, or a Virgin Mary. Once it became about real people, the pressure was on. I still did a good job, I thought, but my uncle and I had very different interpretations of what a good job was.
Years later, my uncle barely remembers my working for him. He doesn’t come to my mother’s funeral, after she dies of cancer at fifty. When I ask him for a reference for a job, he has my cousin, who had taken over the business side of the company, write me one, because his English is still so poor.
The letter says I worked there for one summer, not almost two years. It says nothing of my skill or talent, or even that he liked me.