Tapka (from Natasha and Other Stories)
Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school - one respectable block away from the Russian swarm. We lived on the fifth floor, my cousin, aunt, and uncle directly below us on the fourth. Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.
In March of 1980, near the end of the school year but only three weeks after our arrival in Toronto, I was enrolled in Charles H. Best elementary. Each morning, with our house key hanging from a brown shoelace around my neck, I kissed my parents goodbye and, along with my cousin Jana, tramped across the ravine - I to the first grade, she to the second. At three o'clock, bearing the germs of a new vocabulary, we tramped back home. Together, we then waited until six for our parents to return from George Brown City College, where they were taking their obligatory classes in English.
In the evenings we assembled and compiled our linguistic bounty.
Red, yellow, green, blue.
May I please go to the washroom?
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenny.
Joining us most nights were the Nahumovskys. They attended the same English classes and traveled with my parents on the same bus. Rita Nahumovsky was a beautician, her face spackled with makeup, and Misha Nahumovsky was a tool and die maker. They came from Minsk and didn't know a soul in Canada. With abounding enthusiasm, they incorporated themselves into our family. My parents were glad to have them. Our life was tough, we had it hard - but the Nahumovskys had it harder. They were alone, they were older, they were stupefied by the demands of language. Being essentially helpless themselves, my parents found it gratifying to help the more helpless Nahumovskys.
After dinner, as we gathered on cheap stools around our table, my mother repeated the day's lessons for the benefit of the Nahumovskys and, to a slightly lesser degree, for the benefit of my father. My mother had always been a dedicated student and she extended this dedication to George Brown City College. My father and the Nahumovskys came to rely on her detailed notes and her understanding of the curriculum. For as long as they could, they listened attentively and groped toward comprehension. When this became too frustrating, my father put on the kettle, Rita painted my mother's nails, and Misha told Soviet jokes.
In a first-grade classroom a teacher calls on her students and inquires after their nationality. "Sasha," she says. Sasha says, "Russian." "Very good," says the teacher. "Arnan," she says. Arnan says, "Armenian." "Very good," says the teacher. "Lubka," she says. Lubka says, "Ukrainian." "Very good," says the teacher. And then she asks Dima. Dima says, "Jewish." "What a shame," says the teacher, "so young and already a Jew."
* * *
The Nahumovskys had no children, only a white Lhasa-apso named Tapka. The dog had lived with them for years before they emigrated and then traveled with them from Minsk to Vienna, from Vienna to Rome, and from Rome to Toronto. During our first month in the building, Tapka was in quarantine and I saw her only in photographs. Rita had dedicated an entire album to the dog, and to dampen the pangs of separation, she consulted the album daily. There were shots of Tapka in the Nahumovskys' old Minsk apartment, seated on the cushions of faux Louis XIV furniture; there was Tapka on the steps of a famous Viennese palace; Tapka at the Vatican; in front of the Coliseum; at the Sistine Chapel; and under the Leaning Tower of Pisa. My mother - despite having grown up with goats and chickens in her yard - didn't like animals and found it impossible to feign interest in Rita's dog. Shown a picture of Tapka, my mother wrinkled her nose and said "foo." My father also couldn't be bothered. With no English, no money, no job, and only a murky conception of what the future held, he wasn't equipped to admire Tapka on the Italian Riviera. Only I cared. Through the photographs I became attached to Tapka and projected upon her the ideal traits of the dog I did not have. Like Rita, I counted the days until Tapka's liberation.
The day Tapka was to be released from quarantine Rita prepared an elaborate dinner. My family was invited to celebrate the dog's arrival. While Rita cooked, Misha was banished from their apartment. For distraction, he seated himself at our table with a deck of cards. As my mother reviewed sentence construction, Misha played hand after hand of Durak with me.
- The woman loves this dog more than me. A taxi to the customs facility is going to cost us ten, maybe fifteen dollars. But what can I do? The dog is truly a sweet little dog.
When it came time to collect the dog, my mother went with Misha and Rita to act as their interpreter. With my nose to the window, I watched the taxi take them away. Every few minutes, I reapplied my nose to the window. Three hours later the taxi pulled into our parking lot and Rita emerged from the back seat cradling animated fur. She set the fur down on the pavement, where it assumed the shape of a dog. The length of its coat concealed its legs, and as it hovered around Rita's ankles, it appeared to have either a thousand tiny legs or none at all. My head ringing "Tapka, Tapka, Tapka," I raced into the hallway to meet the elevator.
That evening Misha toasted the dog:
- This last month, for the first time in years, I have enjoyed my wife's undivided attention. But I believe no man, not even one as perfect as me, can survive so much attention from his wife. So I say, with all my heart, thank God our Tapka is back home with us. Another day and I fear I may have requested a divorce.
Before he drank, Misha dipped his pinkie finger into his vodka glass and offered it to the dog. Obediently, Tapka gave Misha's finger a thorough licking. Duly impressed, my uncle declared her a good Russian dog. He also gave her a lick of his vodka. I gave her a piece of my chicken. Jana rolled her a pellet of bread. Misha taught us how to dangle food just out of Tapka's reach and thereby induce her to perform a charming little dance. Rita also produced "Clonchik," a red and yellow rag clown. She tossed Clonchik under the table, onto the couch, down the hallway, and into the kitchen; over and over Rita called, "Tapka get Clonchik," and, without fail, Tapka got Clonchik. Everyone delighted in Tapka's antics except for my mother, who sat stiffly in her chair, her feet slightly off the ground, as though preparing herself for a mild electric shock.
After the dinner, when we returned home, my mother announced that she would no longer set foot in the Nahumovskys' apartment. She liked Rita, she liked Misha, but she couldn't sympathize with their attachment to the dog. She understood that the attachment was a consequence of their lack of sophistication and also their childlessness. They were simple people. Rita had never attended university. She could derive contentment from talking to a dog, brushing its coat, putting ribbons in its hair, and repeatedly throwing a rag clown across the apartment. And Misha, although very lively and a genius with his hands, was also not an intellectual. They were good people, but a dog ruled their lives.
Rita and Misha were sensitive to my mother's attitude toward Tapka. As a result, and to the detriment of her progress with English, Rita stopped visiting our apartment. Nightly, Misha would arrive alone while Rita attended to the dog. Tapka never set foot in our home. This meant that, in order to see her, I spent more and more time at the Nahumovskys'. Each evening, after I had finished my homework, I went to play with Tapka. My heart soared every time Rita opened the door and Tapka raced to greet me. The dog knew no hierarchy of affection. Her excitement was infectious. In Tapka's presence I resonated with doglike glee.
Because of my devotion to the dog and their lack of an alternative, Misha and Rita added their house key to the shoelace hanging around my neck. Every day, during our lunch break and again after school, Jana and I were charged with caring for Tapka. Our task was simple: put Tapka on her leash, walk her to the ravine, release her to chase Clonchik, and then bring her home.
Every day, sitting in my classroom, understanding little, effectively friendless, I counted down the minutes to lunchtime. When the bell rang I met Jana on the playground and we sprinted across the grass toward our building. In the hall, our approaching footsteps elicited panting and scratching.
When I inserted the key into the lock I felt emanations of love through the door. And once the door was open, Tapka hurled herself at us, her entire body consumed with an ecstasy of wagging. Jana and I took turns embracing her, petting her, covertly vying for her favor. Free of Rita's scrutiny, we also satisfied certain anatomical curiosities. We examined Tapka's ears, her paws, her teeth, the roots of her fur, and her doggy genitals.
We poked and prodded her, we threw her up in the air, rolled her over and over, and swung her by her front legs. I felt such overwhelming love for Tapka that sometimes when hugging her, I had to restrain myself from squeezing too hard and crushing her little bones.
* * *
It was April when we began to care for Tapka. Snow melted in the ravine; sometimes it rained. April became May. Grass absorbed the thaw, turned green; dandelions and wildflowers sprouted yellow and blue; birds and insects flew, crawled, and made their characteristic noises. Faithfully and reliably, Jana and I attended to Tapka. We walked her across the parking lot and down into the ravine. We threw Clonchik and said "Tapka get Clonchik." Tapka always got Clonchik. Everyone was proud of us. My mother and my aunt wiped tears from their eyes while talking about how responsible we were. Rita and Misha rewarded us with praise and chocolates. Jana was seven and I was six; much had been asked of us, but we had risen to the challenge.
Inspired by everyone's confidence, we grew confident. Whereas at first we made sure to walk thirty paces into the ravine before releasing Tapka, we gradually reduced that requirement to ten paces, then five paces, until finally we released her at the grassy border between the parking lot and ravine. We did this not out of laziness or recklessness but because we wanted proof of Tapka's love. That she came when we called was evidence of her love, that she didn't piss in the elevator was evidence of her love, that she offered up her belly for scratching was evidence of her love, all of this was evidence, but it wasn't proof. Proof could come only in one form. We had intuited an elemental truth: love needs no leash.
* * *
That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge. By the end of May I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say "What's up, Doc?" and "superduper." The playground introduced me to "shithead," "mental case," and "gaylord," and I sought every opportunity to apply my new knowledge.
One afternoon, after spending nearly an hour in the ravine throwing Clonchik in a thousand different directions, Jana and I lolled in the sunlit pollen. I called her "shithead," "mental case," and "gaylord," and she responded by calling me "gaylord," "shithead," and "mental case."
- Mental case.
- Tapka, get Clonchik.
- Come, Tapka-lapka.
- Mental case.
We went on like this, over and over, until Jana threw the clown and said, "Shithead, get Clonchik." Initially, I couldn't tell if she had said this on purpose or if it had merely been a blip in her rhythm. But when I looked at Jana, her smile was triumphant.
- Mental case, get Clonchik.
For the first time, as I watched Tapka bounding happily after Clonchik, the profanity sounded profane.
- Don't say that to the dog.
- Why not?
- It's not right.
- But she doesn't understand.
- You shouldn't say it.
- Don't be a baby. Come, shithead, come, my dear one. Her tail wagging with accomplishment, Tapka dropped Clonchik at my feet.
- You see, she likes it.
I held Clonchik as Tapka pawed frantically at my shins.
- Call her shithead. Throw the clown.
- I'm not calling her shithead.
- What are you afraid of, shithead?
I aimed the clown at Jana's head and missed.
- Shithead, get Clonchik.
As the clown left my hand, Tapka, a white shining blur, oblivious to insult, was already cutting through the grass. I wanted to believe that I had intended the "shithead" exclusively for Jana, but I knew it wasn't true.
- I told you, gaylord, she doesn't care.
I couldn't help thinking, "Poor Tapka," and looked around for some sign of recrimination. The day, however, persisted in unimpeachable brilliance: sparrows winged overhead; bumblebees levitated above flowers; beside a lilac shrub, Tapka clamped down on Clonchik. I was amazed at the absence of consequences.
Jana said, "I'm going home."
As she started for home I saw that she was still holding Tapka's leash. It swung insouciantly from her hand. I called after her just as, once again, Tapka deposited Clonchik at my feet.
- I need the leash.
- Don't be stupid. I need the leash.
- No you don't. She comes when we call her. Even shithead. She won't run away.
Jana turned her back on me and proceeded toward our building. I called her again but she refused to turn around. Her receding back was a blatant provocation. Guided more by anger than by logic, I decided that if Tapka was closer to Jana, then the onus of responsibility would become hers. I picked up the doll and threw it as far as I could into the parking lot.
- Tapka, get Clonchik.
Clonchik tumbled through the air. I had put everything in my six-year-old arm behind the throw, which still meant that the doll wasn't going very far. Its trajectory promised a drop no more than twenty feet from the edge of the ravine. Running, her head arched to the sky, Tapka tracked the flying clown. As the doll reached its apex it crossed paths with a sparrow. The bird veered off toward Finch Avenue and the clown plummeted to the asphalt. When the doll hit the ground, Tapka raced past it after the bird. A thousand times we had thrown Clonchik and a thousand times Tapka had retrieved him. But who knows what passes for a thought in the mind of a dog? One moment a Clonchik is a Clonchik and the next moment a sparrow is a Clonchik.
I shouted at Jana to catch Tapka and then watched as the dog, her attention fixed on the sparrow, skirted past Jana and into traffic. From the slope of the ravine I couldn't see what had happened. I saw only that Jana had broken into a sprint and I heard the caterwauling of tires followed by a shrill fractured yip.
By the time I reached the street a line of cars was already stretched a block beyond Goldfinch. At the front of the line were a brown station wagon and a pale blue sedan blistered with rust. As I neared, I noted the chrome letters on the back of the sedan: d-u-s-t-e-r. In front of the sedan Jana kneeled in a tight semicircle with a pimply young man and an older woman wearing very large sunglasses. Tapka lay panting on her side at the center of their circle. She stared at me, at Jana. Except for a hind leg twitching at the sky at an impossible angle, she looked much as she did when she rested on the rug at the Nahumovskys' apartment after a romp in the ravine.
Seeing her this way, barely mangled, I started to convince myself that things weren't as bad as I had feared and I edged forward to pet her. The woman in the sunglasses said something in a restrictive tone that I neither understood nor heeded. I placed my hand on Tapka's head and she responded by turning her face and allowing a trickle of blood to escape onto the asphalt. This was the first time I had ever seen dog blood and I was struck by the depth of its color. I hadn't expected it to be red, although I also hadn't expected it to be not-red. Set against the gray asphalt and her white coat, Tapka's blood was the red I envisioned when I closed my eyes and thought: red.
I sat with Tapka until several dozen car horns demanded that we clear the way. The woman with the large sunglasses ran to her station wagon, returned with a blanket, and scooped Tapka off the street. The pimply young man stammered a few sentences of which I understood nothing except the word "sorry." Then we were in the back seat of the station wagon with Tapka in Jana's lap. The woman kept talking until she realized that we couldn't understand her at all. As we started to drive, Jana remembered something. I motioned for the woman to stop the car and scrambled out. Above the atonal chorus of car horns I heard:
- Mark, get Clonchik.
I ran and got Clonchik.
* * *
For two hours Jana and I sat in the reception area of a small veterinary clinic in an unfamiliar part of town. In another room, with a menagerie of various afflicted creatures, Tapka lay in traction, connected to a blinking machine by a series of tubes. Jana and I had been allowed to see her once but were rushed out when we both burst into tears. Tapka's doctor, a woman in a white coat and furry slippers resembling bear paws, tried to calm us down. Again, we could neither explain ourselves nor understand what she was saying. We managed only to establish that Tapka was not our dog. The doctor gave us coloring books, stickers, and access to the phone. Every fifteen minutes we called home. Between phone calls we absently flipped pages and sniffled for Tapka and for ourselves. We had no idea what would happen to Tapka, all we knew was that she wasn't dead. As for ourselves, we already felt punished and knew only that more punishment was to come.
- Why did you throw Clonchik?
- Why didn't you give me the leash?
- You could have held on to her collar.
- You shouldn't have called her shithead.
At six-thirty my mother picked up the phone. I could hear the agitation in her voice. The ten minutes she had spent at home not knowing where I was had taken their toll. For ten minutes she had been the mother of a dead child. I explained to her about the dog and felt a twinge of resentment when she said "So it's just the dog?" Behind her I heard other voices. It sounded as though everyone was speaking at once, pursuing personal agendas, translating the phone conversation from Russian to Russian until one anguished voice separated itself: "My God, what happened?" Rita.
After getting the address from the veterinarian my mother hung up and ordered another expensive taxi. Within a half hour my parents, my aunt, and Misha and Rita pulled up at the clinic. Jana and I waited for them on the sidewalk. As soon as the taxi doors opened we began to sob. Partly out of relief but mainly in the hope of eliciting sympathy. As I ran to my mother I caught sight of Rita's face. Her face made me regret that I also hadn't been hit by a car.
As we clung to our mothers, Rita descended upon us.
- Children, what oh what have you done?
She pinched compulsively at the loose skin of her neck, raising a cluster of pink marks.
While Misha methodically counted individual bills for the taxi driver, we swore on our lives that Tapka had simply gotten away from us. That we had minded her as always, but, inexplicably, she had seen a bird and bolted from the ravine and into the road. We had done everything in our power to catch her, but she had surprised us, eluded us, been too fast. Rita considered our story.
- You are liars. Liars!
She uttered the words with such hatred that we again burst into sobs.
My father spoke in our defense.
- Rita Borisovna, how can you say this? They are children.
- They are liars. I know my Tapka. Tapka never chased birds. Tapka never ran from the ravine.
- Maybe today she did?
Having delivered her verdict, she had nothing more to say.
She waited anxiously for Misha to finish paying the driver.
- Misha, enough already. Count it a hundred times, it will still be the same.
Inside the clinic there was no longer anyone at the reception desk. During our time there, Jana and I had watched a procession of dyspeptic cats and lethargic parakeets disappear into the back rooms for examination and diagnosis. One after another they had come and gone until, by the time of our parents' arrival, the waiting area was entirely empty and the clinic officially closed. The only people remaining were a night nurse and the doctor in the bear paw slippers who had stayed expressly for our sake.
Looking desperately around the room, Rita screamed: "Doctor! Doctor!" But when the doctor appeared she was incapable of making herself understood. Haltingly, with my mother's help, it was communicated to the doctor that Rita wanted to see her dog. Pointing vigorously at herself, Rita asserted: "Tapka. Mine dog."
The doctor led Rita and Misha into the veterinary version of an intensive care ward. Tapka lay on her little bed, Clonchik resting directly beside her. At the sight of Rita and Misha, Tapka weakly wagged her tail. Little more than an hour had elapsed since I had seen her last, but somehow over the course of that time, Tapka had shrunk considerably. She had always been a small dog, but now she looked desiccated. Rita started to cry, grotesquely smearing her mascara. With trembling hands, and with sublime tenderness, she stroked Tapka's head.
- My God, my God, what has happened to you, my Tapkachka?
Through my mother, and with the aid of pen and paper, the doctor provided the answer. Tapka required two operations. One for her leg. Another to stop internal bleeding. An organ had been damaged. For now, a machine was helping her, but without the machine she would die. On the paper the doctor drew a picture of a scalpel, of a dog, of a leg, of an organ. She made an arrow pointing at the organ and drew a teardrop and colored it in to represent "blood." She also wrote down a number preceded by a dollar sign. The number was 1,500.
At the sight of the number Rita let out a low animal moan and steadied herself against Tapka's little bed. My parents exchanged a glance. I looked at the floor. Misha said, "My dear God." The Nahumovskys and my parents each took in less than five hundred dollars a month. We had arrived in Canada with almost nothing, a few hundred dollars, but that had all but disappeared on furniture. There were no savings. Fifteen hundred dollars. The doctor could just as well have written a million.
In the middle of the intensive care ward, Rita slid down to the floor. Her head thrown back, she appealed to the fluorescent lights: "Nu, Tapkachka, what is going to become of us?" I looked up from my feet and saw horror and bewilderment on the doctor's face. She tried to put a hand on Rita's shoulder but Rita violently shrugged it off.
My father attempted to intercede.
- Nu, Rita Borisovna, I understand that it is painful, but it is not the end of the world.
- And what do you know about it?
- I know that it must be hard, but soon you will see . . . Even tomorrow we could go and help you find a new one.
My father looked to my mother for approval, to ensure that he had not promised too much.
- A new one? What do you mean a new one? I don't want a new one. Why don't you get yourself a new son? A new little liar? How about that? New. Everything we have now is new. On the linoleum floor, Rita keened, rocking back and forth. She hiccuped, as though hyperventilating. Pausing for a moment, she looked up at my mother and told her to translate to the doctor. To tell her that she would not let Tapka die.
- I will sit here on this floor forever. And if the police come to drag me out I will bite them.
- Ritachka, this is crazy.
- Why is it crazy? My Tapka's life is worth more than fifteen hundred dollars. Because we don't have the money she should die here? It's not her fault.
Seeking rationality, my mother turned to Misha. Misha, who had said nothing all this time except "My dear God."
- Misha, do you want me to tell the doctor what Rita said?
Misha shrugged philosophically.
- Tell her or don't tell her, you see my wife has made up her mind. The doctor will figure it out soon enough.
- And you think this is reasonable?
- Sure. Why not? I'll sit on the floor too. The police can take us both to jail. Besides Tapka, what else do we have? Misha sat on the floor beside his wife.
I watched as my mother struggled to explain to the doctor what was happening. With a mixture of words and gesticulations she got the point across. The doctor, after considering her options, sat down on the floor beside Rita and Misha. Once again she tried to put her hand on Rita's shoulder. This time, Rita, who was still rocking back and forth, allowed it. Misha rocked in time to his wife's rhythm. So did the doctor. The three of them sat in a line, swaying together like campers at a campfire. Nobody said anything. We looked at each other. I watched Rita, Misha, and the doctor swaying and swaying. I became mesmerized by the swaying. I wanted to know what would happen to Tapka; the swaying answered me.
The swaying said: Listen, shithead, Tapka will live. The doctor will perform the operation. Either money will be found or money will not be necessary.
I said to the swaying: This is very good. I love Tapka. I meant her no harm. I want to be forgiven.
The swaying replied: There is reality and then there is truth. The reality is that Tapka will live. But let's be honest, the truth is you killed Tapka. Look at Rita; look at Misha. You see, who are you kidding? You killed Tapka and you will never be forgiven.
From Natasha and Other Stories. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright © 2004 by Nada Films Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.