Not everyone stutters the same way.
Some people speak with a jackhammer in their mouth and misfire on a single letter. Bbbbboy. Me, I sound like a wounded animal with a vowel stuck in my throat.
Mom gave me a bouquet of bronze and burgundy chrysanthemums to take to school on my first day. “Teachers love flowers,” she said.
The white shirt I wear is starched stiff and smells like fresh earth after rain, black trousers’ creases ironed to a blade. In a brown leatherette knapsack on my back is an alphabet book, pen, and two workbooks. She looks at me one last time as I stand in the middle of our living room holding to the knapsack’s straps with both hands.
“Godspeed,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Summer in Nalchik never ends in September. The morning’s air is silk thin and smooth to breathe. The Great Caucasus Mountains stand behind the cityscape in a row of giant teeth. Mountains are everywhere you look as if the city is built inside a courtyard. Its name means horseshoe in local Kabardian language.
I can see the school as soon as we turn the corner of our redbrick apartment building. Kids crowd the schoolyard from all directions. The sea of white shirts and white aprons and flowers make my head spin and I look down at Mom’s heels and trail her until we reach the set of concrete stairs and go up inside.
More shirts, flowers and aprons, nothing is fixed to a single point in space, no one stays still. Voices boom like a pod of whales.
We found my classroom. A stern woman in a gray pinstripe suit jacket and skirt guarded the door. I passed the chrysanthemums to Mom and prayed the tigress won’t ask my name when she greets me.
Mom smiled, stopped near the teacher and said good morning.
“Good morning,” she says and blocks the door with her hand.
“What’s your name?” she says. The words came down on me from her red hair tied in a bun. I looked away at the window inside the classroom with my mouth shut.
“Kolya,” Mom said. “His name’s Kolya.” She gave flowers to the teacher and said, “He’s shy.”
She took the flowers and laid them on top of her arm and next to her breasts like mothers hold their babies if one arm is busy.
“Thank you,” she said and turned to me saying, “Come in. Seat anywhere you like.”
Three rows of brown-painted double timber desks and pews, six in each row, all taken by one or two pupils, filled the sunlit classroom. Still sphinxes with arms folded on the desks sat in silence.
I stand in the middle of the room and eyeball every desk with an empty spot. One is too close to the teacher’s desk. I can sit next to a fat girl with pink cheeks and oily rust hair or a girl who has a face of an ogre with bulging eyes or a girl with a ponytail at the desk next to a window.
Ponytail, hands down.
She rose from the pew to let me in when I came closer, eyes to the floor looking at the white knee socks growing out of white ballet flats with two daisies.
“Children,” the teacher said after the bell rang, “my name is Lyubov Ivanovna.” Looks at the boy in the front row and says, “What’s your name?”
“Vova,” she says, “when I speak to a pupil, a pupil stands up. Standing, you may answer, not sitting. Do not sit down without my permission.”
I’m two rows behind Vova and the way he bowed his head, shoulders hunched, torso slouched in a rag doll heap, I wait for him to start crying.
“Vova,” Lyubov Ivanovna says, “how old are you?”
He stood up, head bowed, not looking at Lyubov Ivanovna and said, “Seven.”
“Children,” she said, “Vova is seven.” She waited and said, “You may sit down, Vova.”
When it’s my turn to stand up and say my name, my lips stay shut, eyes follow a kid outside the window running around the schoolyard with a kite, lungs in overdrive sucking the oxygen, heartbeat knocking on my eardrums.
“Speak,” Lyubov Ivanovna says.
An ugly moan bawls out of my mouth before I push two syllables from the bottom of my throat.
Someone laughs. The row on the opposite side of the classroom, a boy with short black hair in a white shirt with wide collar.
I walk to his desk, grab his collar and punch him in the lips with my fist. I don’t let go and punch again, and again, the lips and the nose, lungs in overdrive, pumping oxygen to my muscles.
I spent the rest of the day in the principal’s office. He said he had never heard of a pupil beating another pupil in a classroom. Maybe you’re disabled he said, maybe a regular school is not for you.
He gave me an envelope saying it’s a letter to my parents. It stayed in my knapsack until dinner.
We sit at the dinner table eating with Mom and she says I’m not myself, how the first day at school went anyway?
“What did you learn?” she says.
“You must’ve learned something,” she says.
I don’t say anything.
My mom, you can’t fool my mom. She says, “Bring me your knapsack.”
“I want to see your school diary.”
She whipped me with Dad’s leather belt after she read the letter. She swung blows at my back and thighs and it burned my skin with every swing until the pain evened out and new lashes burned the same as the ones before and this is when my body ached from burning and I wanted to tell her why I punched that boy in the face and words clogged my throat, I couldn’t squeeze them out when the belt flew left and right all over me.
I crawled past her legs and ran to the door.
“Don’t let them laugh,” my brother said to me in the summer before school. “You let them laugh, they’ll make your life hell.”
Sergey looked after me during the day when the school broke for New Year’s holidays. He drove a dry cleaner’s van stuffed with strangers’ clothes. Dresses, shirts, jackets and coats hung on two steel rails bolted to the van’s roof. They swayed like seaweed on the ocean’s floor.
He picks me up one morning and says we’re going to a garbage dump. Svalka, he says, is a fluke parade. “I found a Pilot watch under a rotten shoe I kicked. Not new. An idiot threw away a good watch, maybe by mistake, and I found it. Today, we go to svalka to look for things.”
“What things?” I said.
“Don’t know. Crap one day and then you find a watch the next.”
Sergey turned eighteen last October. Four days before his birthday he married a girl he dated for three years. Mom and Dad, they were okay with it. You want to marry Lyuda, go ahead, do whatever you want to stay out of jail.
He hanged around with the wrong crowd. Hooligans Mom called them. They spent days tinkering with Czech-made Javas and Soviet Voskhod bikes and rode them around town soused on cheap port.
His buddies called me bratishka, little bro, and shook my hand instead of patting my head as some grownups did when they met me. “What’s your name, boy?” they’d say and pat my head and turn to Mom or Dad and say, “Is this your son?” and after a yes they’d say, “Oh he’s cute. Look how cute your son is.”
Sergey’s buddies, they never said I was cute. They’d shake my hand and say, “Kak dela, bratishka?” What’s up, bro?
When you’re six or seven, nothing is up. Except this one day Mom and I got off the bus next to a sports goods store and she said she wants to buy me a bike.
“Time for you to start riding a bike,” she said and we went to the store. She paid thirty-eight rubles for a fixed-gear green bike with wheels shod in stone-hard rubber tires.
Next Saturday I’m up at six, grab the bike and spend half a day riding on it downhill trying to stay up and not crash every time I put my feet on the pedals. My knees and elbows bleed and burn from sanding my skin against the asphalt. A shoelace goes into the chain and I hit the floor, sit on the ground, sob and blow the wounds.
I kicked the bike and a neighbor, Dad’s chess partner, a quiet German I imagined was a former spy, got up from a bench he sat on reading a book, walked to me and said, “Try riding uphill.”
It worked the first time and it worked every time after that. Uphill and downhill. Tamed the beast.
This is when Sergey and Ruslan, his friend, turned up for lunch on their Voskhods and Ruslan said kak dela and I said, watch, I can ride a bike.
I rode to the bottom of my training hill, turned around and bolted up the slope to impress them. Near the top, the chain broke and I crashed and the guys laughed but ran to me and Sergey said chill bro, Ruslan will fix your chain.
And he did. Pulled out some tools from his bike’s toolbox and linked the broken chain.
That summer a cop pulled Sergey over and arrested him because he rode a stolen bike and they charged him later with the bike’s theft. He swore he bought it in good faith.
Mom and Dad, they borrowed money from everyone to pay off the cops and the prosecutor to save him from jail.
And then he vanished. Didn’t come home one night and after waiting for days, we thought he was dead, knifed by gangsters and damped in a ditch to die.
Mom’s crying echoed in my bones with every tear she dropped sitting alone in the kitchen and weeping in silence.
She heard a rumor someone saw Sergey living on a horse farm in the mountains. He loved horses and motorbikes.
We took a bus and went to a village where they said he stayed to look for him. She found him living in a barn next to a horses stable. Before talking to him, she sent me away and when she came out of the barn, she said Sergey’s not coming home.
“Not today,” she said.
Days later, the door opens and Sergey walks in. Dad was standing not far from the door, ready to go to work. Sergey walks in and they look at each other and Dad, a man sculpted by a muscle bulk of a mid-weight boxer, swings his torso around, uncoils, and lands a blow on my brother’s face with his right fist.
Sergey dropped to the floor as if someone pulled a carpet from under him. The punch knocked him out and he lay unconscious in a heap of shoes, jackets and coats scattered around him after he crashed into a wardrobe on the way down and blood from his nose ran into his mouth and around his lips to the chin and down to his neck.
In the van on the way to svalka, I heaped a bunch of coats and sweaters, laid on top and watched the fogged December sky through the van’s windows. I pictured myself running away to the mountains to ride horses and then coming home and opening the door and there’s Dad putting his jacket on before going to work and me coming home after weeks in the mountains. I picture a punch landing on my mouth and fall in slow motion into a heap of coats and sweaters where I lay now.
Years later, Sergey went to jail anyway for getting into a fight with a wrong guy. He took his wife and the newborn son to Kamchatka nine thousand kilometers east from Nalchik to reboot his life and then he punches the wrong guy and they lock him up for three years.
When the verdict reached home, Mom sat on a chair in the kitchen and wept. “They’ll kill my son,” she kept saying between groans. “He won’t get out alive.”
Her eyes turned red after weeks of crying and I saw her one night sitting alone in a living room at a dinner table with Sergey’s 6×4 portrait in her hands. With wet face, she stared at the photograph saying, “Lord, kill me I pray you instead of my son.” In night’s silence, the whispers she prayed reached my ears as if she sat next to me.
No one believed in God here. The Party said intelligent people don’t believe in God. Religion is the opiate of the masses. When in a corner, you don’t plead with God. You stay calm and take it on the chin. You deserve it. You do it wrong.
Round up the priests, file them against a wall. Fire. Maxim machine gun is the tool of choice but rifles work too. Shoot with a hand gun to shock the spectators. Gun down every priest you find and tell the masses God is dead. Send Gagarin to space and ask him if he saw God. No, he didn’t.
Turn churches into public toilets. Bulldoze the superstition nests too big for toilets. Cut down the crosses, strip the gold and convert a house of worship into a house of atheism.
Don’t forget the scripture. Borrow. Borrow from Isaiah and tell the masses the Party’s mission on earth is to turn swords into plowshares. Borrow from Paul and tell them if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. Make this a law and jail those who dare to resist.
Round them up, file against a wall. Fire.
Give the masses new rituals. Make them marry in state cathedrals. Fill them with gold and red carpets. Play an organ. Make them vow an oath and say, before the law of our Soviet motherland, before our parents and friends, we declare our will to live together as husband and wife, family cornerstone and fount of progeny in the name of the state’s prosperity, immortality of the Soviet people and personal felicity.
Clap, don’t say amen.
We killed the priests. Not hard. Faith, it lived on. Turns out, you don’t need priests. Turns out, they fired bullets to kill the bodies but had nothing against the soul. Everyone who cared to know knew God owned the souls. Ezekiel 18:4.
The rituals lived on. Paskha, the Russian Orthodox Easter, lived on. Mom baked paskha cakes and painted the eggs and we went to the cemetery where my parents and family drank vodka with the dead. The dead stayed in the grave and my parents and grandma sat on a bench and drank vodka.
We went to my uncle’s grave, my dad’s little brother Kostya who died weeks after I was born. He was my God’s father. My parents baptized me in an Orthodox church near our house and after that Uncle Kostya died.
At his grave with a table and two benches, we sat in silence and waited for Dad to pour vodka for grownups and one glass for Kostya with a slice of rye bread on top. They said the same toast every time, let the earth be like feathers to you, drank their vodka, sniffed the rye bread and ate a pickle and then a painted egg sprinkled with salt.
Dad always cried after the toast.
First time I asked why you cry he said he missed his brother. Over time, the story evolved to watching Kostya drown too far from the shore and Dad swimming too slow to save him.
Sergey named his firstborn son Konstantin to honor Dad’s brother. He too watched him drown. Me, I was in a pram looking at the lake and this explains why I pictured my uncle’s death when Dad told me how he died as if I stood on the shore and watched a man go under water.
The crying dad on my uncle’s grave wasn’t the dad I saw in a family album. The dad in the monochrome photographs from the 1950s was a man who laughed and pranked. In one photo he’s in the center of a shot in his polo neck jumper and high waisted pleated pants with one leg up in the air footballing a mug and a bunch of friends on the background sitting on the grass with food and drinks on the blanket watching the show.
When sober, the dad I knew spared his words when he spoke and never smiled. Drunk, he was the 1950s dad, a dad who hadn’t watched his brother drown, a funny dad who sang verses from the Stalin-era movies’ hit songs and dribbled with a ball like a pro.
At some point, the booze stopped working and the 1950s dad died. The singing stopped and the jokes turned sour. Once, half way to pass out drunk, he mocked my stuttering when I asked him if he needs help to get to bed. I opened my mouth to tell him what Sergey told me I should do when someone mocks me and I said yeah Dad, funny that.
The speech pathologist we went to see with Mom to find out why I stuttered spoke to me for half an hour about what I do at school and if I had a friend. Like a really, really good friend she said. Do you have one?
I said, “Yes.”
“What is he like?”
“He stutters,” I said. “Only worse. He stutters on every word.”
She looked at Mom and said, “This is why you two are friends? Because you both stutter?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “We hang out at his place and read books.”
She looked at Mom again and said, “What kind of books?”
All this time she scribbles notes in her notepad, notes about my stuttering friend and now my books and I look down and stare at her black lacquered shoes and picture a man on the bonnet with a black face and the nurse with strawberry-red Gypsy lips who wanted to know if I remembered my name.