At the Leningrad Institute for Public Housing: fiction

David Meischen

The birches got him started. He hadn’t slept from Houston to Helsinki, couldn’t sleep now on the Sibelius line, his berth like a movie set for the Orient Express, the rails clicking beneath—awake, awake—and beyond the window, light like nothing he had seen, a papery paleness that stretched the twilight hours. He’d been almost relaxed, almost nodding off, when stands of trees he knew only from poetry appeared in the amazing light, their slim trunks sheathed in white. Half-awake still, he thought of Lenin returning from exile along these tracks—what the birches in the late light of deepening spring must have meant after so many years. Henry took out his journal and started a story about a fictional version of himself, a man coming home to his son.

It was ten-thirty when he stepped off his train at the Finland Station. His son materialized out of the shifting crowd, and together they walked from the station, the ebbing sun like a bath of amber on St. Petersburg’s streets. Drew had turned twenty-two during his year immersed in Russian. He’d lost the baby fat, his build trim and wiry now, the cherub cheeks replaced by chiseled facial bones, his jaw line darkly shadowed beneath the path his razor took each morning. He walked beside Henry as if the streets belonged to him, hands plunged into a broad-shouldered wool coat, a muffler of fine-woven plaid visible beneath the collar. With his wire-rimmed glasses, his meticulously combed and barbered hair, he looked every bit the young revolutionary, and Henry said so.

Drew gave him an ironic grin. “It’s 2005,” he said. “The revolution seems to have lost its sheen.”

“I just meant—”

“Something suitably romantic?”

“You make it sound like a synonym for delusional.”

Drew grinned into the waning day and walked on.

The building they entered was massive, weathered, old. Three flights up, they entered an apartment recently transformed by the new breed of entrepreneurs Drew had written of—no trace of the old city, the stains of its history. It looked like a suite in one of the stateside hotels that leased space to itinerant businessmen with laptops at the ready and spare suits in the closet. There was a phone on the breakfast table. It wasn’t a hotel phone. Henry couldn’t pick it up and get an operator who spoke English. And Drew would be miles away, in the spare room of an elderly widow who housed a yearly exchange student in his program.

“Can you show me how to use that thing?” Henry asked, pointing to the phone.

“What for?”

“If something happens.”

“Who would you call?”

“You, son. Just this once, leave your phone on when you go to bed.”

“So you can ring me for what? Room service?”

“I should’ve bought a cell phone.”

“You can’t even figure out a remote.”

This father-son nattering came so naturally Henry wasn’t aware it was happening or that it might be at odds with his purpose here.

“How about the couch?” he asked.

“The couch.” Drew’s deadpan found its target.

“You could sleep on the couch.”

“Dad, please.” Drew turned and walked to the window. Why couldn’t he be reasonable? Just this once, why couldn’t he do the right thing? Henry took a breath. He’d try again. He stepped to the window and, standing beside his son, summoned calm.

“I don’t know a syllable of Russian,” he said. “What if something happens?”

“You’ve spent hundreds of nights in hotel rooms by yourself.”

“That’s my point.” Calm dissolved as Henry spoke. “This isn’t a hotel.”

“You wanted this, Dad, and I’m quoting, ‘inexpensive accommodations.’ You could have stayed at the Grand, with a concierge at the press of a button.”

Henry surrendered to ire. As always in the first moments, it felt good. “I wrote a check for you,” he said. “For this.” He made a flourish at the darkening city. “For all of it.”

“You wrote a check for half.”

“I shouldn’t have come here. I knew you wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“How many times, how many ways am I supposed to thank you?”

“You could do this one thing for me.”

Drew made for the door, then turned with his hand on the knob. “Your letters were different,” he said. “I thought you might have changed.” And he was gone.

Henry chain-locked the door and wedged a chair-back into place beneath the knob—his Best-Western English-conference routine—and began to unpack. He’d come here to make things right with his son. And now this. There were two of Henry when he lost control. One of them was the little bantam rooster of a man who puffed up inside him unannounced and set his heart pounding to get out of its cage. The other watched, helpless, like the floating presence of a driver in cardiac arrest at the scene of an accident, unwilling witness to the wreckage he has wrought.

And for what? He paused beside the clothes rod in the closet, a hanger in one hand, the fingers of the other at a shirt-collar button, remembering how for decades anxiety had concentrated in him, a cold metallic sheath between muscle and bone along the base of his skull. Putting a hand to his neck, Henry massaged the spot behind his right ear where the tension started. It would be good to let go, to slough off the pretense he’d constructed, as a young man, that he was not a fraidy cat. Truth was, life scared him speechless. Only his second wife, only Deedee, had understood that. Others had taken him at face value—the bravado he put on with his clothes, the acting out it fueled.

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