Her grandfather called to her, "Faygella," which meant little bird, and Lainey fluttered cautiously over to the couch, the one at the corner of the room, where he had stationed his wheelchair, quietly sipping his drink and staring dully out the window. She had been listening to her mother and grandmother while they talked, sitting across the table from one another in the adjoining room. Even from where Lainey had sat at the far side of the table, she could hear that wheelchair fwump-fwumping with every movement he made. Still unaccustomed to it, she eyed the chair suspiciously, trying not to catch her grandfather's gaze.
Her grandmother gesticulated vigorously, distorting her face so that her bulldog jowls hung low. " 'My bones ache at night,' he says." Her electric hair splayed out in tufts like a mad scientist's. The whine, the woe-betide, the kvetch, the complaint, the grumble, the grouse: these were her experiments, carefully controlled, perfected to a rhetorical point. As the glacier in her glass melted, as the tide of vodka ebbed, she would even attempt complex impersonations. "They do," her grandfather yelled from the other room.
"Oh look now he's listening. Like an old house, he thinks he's got ghosts in his bones. I even have to help him into bed on cold nights. As if my joints didn't stiffen up too," her grandmother continued. "And then he walks around anyway."
"I know mom," Lainey's mother replied. "But—"
"You don't know Jean. I've heard more about legs in the past month than a hosier. And I'm no sprightly young thing myself. It's a wonder any of the chores get done at all. It's so hard for me now." She shot a look in Lainey's direction. "Are you listening to this Lainey?"
"Uh-huh," Lainey mumbled, looking at her hands.
"You're not going to be able to hop around outside the way you do forever. One day you're going to wake up all grown and tired and you'll remember listening to this conversation and you'll say, 'granny was right all along.' " Lainey played with the bright peeling paint on her nails. She liked scraping it off better than she liked putting it on. She waited until she could feel the focus of the conversation drifting away from her like a searchlight, which, poised for a moment, illuminating a piece of ground and casting shadows upon others, moves on.
Then, "Faygella." She looked up and found her grandfather staring straight at her, that old fierceness in his eyes, no longer dull glass staring through the dull glass window. The grass out there had begun to grow high; it bent under its own weight, blade backs bowed, curling into themselves. He patted his knee, and she sat down in the couch, back bent towards him. "Let me tell you something," he said, and he spoke to her how he had all her life, in gruff hushed tones, his moustache sometimes prickling and tickling against her ear, as if nobody else in the room could know the things he told her, not her grandma, not her mother. These stories, recollections, family secrets he entrusted to her and only to her to remember.
He spoke of the boats and the birds and the people all groaning in the harbor, all sick to get out of that magical country he returned to so often in his stories. Odessa, a place where his parents baked cakes all day and every Friday night the people would gather together to sing songs and nod and bend like antennas in the breeze.
"Have I ever told you about the Shabbos bride?" he asked Lainey and she shook her head. He told her how the Shabbos bride would walk through the town on Friday night, glowing like sea froth in her wedding cake gown, a scarf wrapped around her head, hiding her hair from all but her groom. She came from the harbor and her shoes were tied with seaweed and it was said that if she followed you to your home she would let down her hair for you and you would live a life of eternal happiness. All of the children would run around her trying to catch her attention, pulling at the fringes of her wedding gown, tugging her towards their homes. Come with me, come with me. But she walked straight through the middle of the town. Never wavering, never turning. Her grandmother stood up from the kitchen table and looked into their corner of the room where they were sitting. "Don't torture the girl Nicolai, she doesn't care about your stories."
"Shvayg yenta," he shouted.
"Shut yourself you old bellow."
This set him off and he began to curse at her the way he did when she had gone too far, lashing out in a language Lainey didn't understand, saying, things more horrible than she could imagine, things bent and guttural like the sounds of the words that contained them.
While her grandpa left off his story the bride was left there to fend for herself. The boys, who had been so well behaved, so well dressed in their dark pants and starched shirts, seemed to grow pale, their limbs and torso's thinned, distended, shirts crackling like dried dough. The bride smiled, even as they pulled her harder, this way and that, she's mine, she's mine, they shouted, fingers everywhere, pulling her to the muddy ground, which a recent rain had left moist and malleable, so that it stained her dress in places. And as her grandfather continued his tirade, straining forward in his wheelchair, body bent to topple, a boy with cheeks particularly round and apple-pink reached for the scarf wrapped around her head, just wanting to look, wanting to know about that hair, that hair, made of the stuff of dreams.
But then her grandma laughed and sat back down and picked up her glass and hobbled to the kitchen to fill it up again, and her grandpa's voice quieted, the syllables smoothed and his story returned to Lainey's ear. "She would always smile," he said, "even though she was being pulled in five directions at once, and one time I pulled at her dress so hard that a piece as pale and delicate as spiderweb came off, and still she didn't stop," he smiled, his eyes half closed now.
"What happened to it?" she asked.
"Still have it of course. It's under the mattress. I'll tell you, if you ever want to keep anything safe, that's the place to keep it. Hold on, let me show you." The wheelchair squeaked with excitement as he stood, quickly, comfortably. He took a step forward.
"Dad!" Jean had turned quickly to the sound. She left her mouth open at the end of the exclamation.
"Nicolai, sit." Her grandmother said sternly, one finger pointed in his direction. He sat, his body folding back into the chair as though with those words the sap that animated his limbs had run dry. He gripped the arms of his chair weakly. "Treat me like a dog. That's all right. Treat me like a dog if that's what you think I am. I'll show it to you some other time Lainey. Before you get old. No, don't do that. Never get old. But you've still got some time left." He smiled. "I'll show it to you some other time."