An Older Woman

by Alex Markovich
Vera was dead. It was there, in the Otisburg Herald-Statesman, all the intimate little details of a lifetime distilled into a few column inches of print. Somehow she had grown old and withered and died.

Vera Wade, a child hero of the Czech Resistance during World War II and a resident of Otisburg for the past 65 years, was found dead in her home yesterday. She was 83 . . . .

Coming across a familiar name in the obituaries was hardly unusual for Nick Tikhonov. His contemporaries—friends, former associates, dimly remembered faces from his college yearbook—had been dying off one by one. Usually he would pause respectfully for a few moments before turning the page and clearing his mind. But this time a flashback, exquisitely painful and totally consuming, swept him away.

#

A sweltering Sunday afternoon in July. Nick, damp with sweat, was leaning against the banister on Kalinin’s front porch, wishing he were anywhere else—playing stickball in the park, or swimming in the town pool, or home in front of a fan, listening to the Yankees-Browns game . His parents and Kalinin were there too, chatting with the ease of long acquaintance.

Nick’s thoughts drifted to the family car, a 1941 Dodge sedan. It had been pristine when his father bought it used in 1942, but now countless dents and scrapes chronicled all of his father’s little miscalculations over the past six years. Nick thought of the Dodge nameplate as a providential warning to pedestrians, but he kept his little joke to himself. And despite its scars, he loved the car—the chromed ram’s head hood ornament, the fuzzy gray upholstery that reminded him of mouse fur, even the puckered red gasoline-rationing sticker that still clung to the windshield some three years after the war’s end. He was looking forward to learning to drive in a few weeks.

A woman’s voice jogged Nick out of his trance. He turned and watched Vera lope across the busy street, weaving nimbly through the traffic. She was tall, a little taller than Nick, maybe two or three years older, and barefoot. Her features were classically perfect, like those of the princess in his picture book of fairy tales that he still kept hidden away on the top shelf of his bedroom closet, and her shorts revealed the longest and shapeliest legs he had ever seen or imagined. Nick was almost sixteen, and instantly in love.

According to the County Medical Examiner, Ms. Wade may have died several weeks before her body was found. Her letter carrier notified the police when her mail accumulated and he didn’t see any footprints in the snow outside her front door . . . .

#

Nick’s father was short and paunchy, nervously cautious, proper to a fault, and Kalinin was big and burly and brash. Only a global upheaval could have forged their improbable friendship. In Moscow, they had been casual college classmates until the revolution started. With the university shuttered and small arms fire crackling in the barricaded streets, they both fled separately to what was then Czechoslovakia to continue their studies. They met again in medical school, and nostalgia for their homeland cemented their bond. After completing their internships, they became friendly competitors, opening their medical practices in a suburb of Prague.

Nick’s parents met in Prague, and that, too, was an unlikely match. Nick’s father was the son of a self-educated tradesman, a mustachioed strongman with a shaved head and a passion for amateur Roman wrestling. And Nick’s mother, the pampered daughter of a provincial Russian magistrate, was a proud beauty who made no secret of her family’s noble title, as minor as it was. Hordes of tattered and unshaven soldiers overran her village when she was nineteen, and her parents hurriedly sent her abroad. Far from her parents’ watchful eye, she found the breaching of class distinctions recklessly avant-garde.

Nick’s earliest years in a rented eighteenth-century stone house were secure. In good weather, he played outside in the courtyard, lazily pedaling his tricycle around and around the dirt path that encircled the central garden, or crowing convincingly outside the chicken coop in the far corner and waiting for the rooster’s unfailing response, or squatting in the cool shadow of the high wooden fence that surrounded the courtyard and listening for the sounds that carried from beyond—children laughing and shouting, the rhythmic thwack of a carpenter’s hammer, the drone of an exotic airplane laboring overhead—content to let them remain at once familiar and mysterious. His nurse, a simple 16-year-old country girl, would lean out the window from time to time, ask what he was doing, and retreat without waiting for an answer.

Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, when Ms. Wade was eight. She remained in Prague throughout the harsh six-year occupation . . . .

Nick’s mother was running an errand with Nick in tow the day the Germans came. An endless column of foot soldiers, led by an officer riding arrogantly erect on a white horse, paraded through the town’s main square, boots kicking in lock step, reminding Nick of an enormous wind-up millipede. Nick’s mother gripped his hand and pulled him along urgently toward home. He was only five, but he sensed that all was not well.

That evening, Nick’s father angrily whipped the sugar cubes in his tea with his spoon. “So this is the ‘peace with honor’ that Chamberlain promised in Munich,” he growled. “First the Brits hand over the Sudetenland, and now the rest of Czechoslovakia. After this, the goddamned Germans won’t stop till they’ve grabbed all of Europe . . . .”

“Goddamned Germans!” Nick piped from the floor, where he was playing, and looked up for approval.

Nick’s mother glared at her husband. He yanked Nick up by his shoulders and shook him roughly. “Don’t ever, ever say that again,” he shouted, “or the soldiers will come and take you away, and you’ll never see us again!” Nick was too frightened to cry.

#

Nick’s father was convinced that the occupation would have no major effect on his family’s lives, and he was prepared to wait it out. But Nick’s mother, in a rare burst of assertiveness, insisted on moving the family to America. A sizeable payment to well-connected “friends of friends” secured exit credentials and passage on a German liner for Nick and his family, as well as for Kalinin. They stepped ashore in New York in the summer of 1939.

Ms. Wade’s father, a history professor, was a member of the Czech Resistance. The Nazis arrested and executed him when she was twelve . . . .

Nick hated the city—the crowds and noise and traffic fumes; the grimy concrete that radiated the summer heat long after sunset; the shabby furnished room he shared with his parents; the palpable despair of the Great Depression that enwrapped the city like a winding sheet. Nick’s parents had always spoken to him in Czech at home, but now they switched to their native Russian. And a few weeks later, Nick’s father walked him to his first day of kindergarten. He grabbed Nick’s shoulders in the hallway, admonished him to learn English quickly, and gave him a firm shove into the classroom.

After her father’s death, Ms. Wade joined the Czech Resistance despite her mother’s pleas. The Nazis never suspected the young schoolgirl as she made her rounds on her bicycle, smuggling messages, maps, false identifications, and currency in her underwear. Sometimes German soldiers helped her with bike repairs . . . .

Nick’s father had an ear for languages, and he passed the Medical Boards on his first try, within three years of his arrival in America. The sizeable Slavic population in Otisburg welcomed him, his practice flourished, and he bought a stately English Tudor in the fashionable north end of town. Meanwhile Kalinin failed the Boards repeatedly and resigned himself to an X-ray technician’s position at the local hospital. At the end of the war, he bought a modest clapboard house wedged between two brick apartment buildings. He flew to Prague on the eve of his forty-sixth birthday and returned with a Czech bride.

Jiri Novotny, Ms. Wade’s handler in the Resistance, devoted an entire chapter to her wartime exploits in his 1951 memoir, “Under the Nazi Jackboot: Diary of a Czech Freedom Fighter,” which was published in several languages, including English. Ms. Wade shunned publicity, but she reluctantly agreed to a brief interview with the Herald-Statesman when the book became a bestseller.

“I take no pride in what I did,” she told our reporter. “It was a part of my life that I’m trying to forget. We sabotaged. We killed. We did what we had to do . . . .”


Kalinin was on his porch, removing the letters from his mailbox, when Nick and his parents drove up. Nick’s father and Kalinin embraced, and a gift-wrapped bottle of vodka changed hands. Nick had been hanging back, leaning against the porch banister, until his father grabbed his shoulders and pulled him ahead.

“. . . and our boy was on the honor roll again this semester,” his father announced in Russian. “Nikolai, tell Dr. Kalinin what you’re going to be when you grow up.”

What Nick was going to be had been firmly established as far back as he could remember: He would study medicine and someday take over his father’s practice. But the phrase “when you grow up” annoyed Nick, and he resented having to recite the same words, “a doctor,” to everyone his father encountered.

And besides, medicine held no great appeal for Nick. While still in grade school, he devoted himself to mastering English more perfectly and elegantly than did his American classmates. He embraced Stevenson and Cooper and London—and, later, Conrad and Melville—and filled many lined notebooks with his own inventions. He dreamed of teaching English literature and creative writing and becoming a published author someday. But now, in response to his father’s demand, he mumbled “a doctor.” His father beamed and allowed Nick to retreat again. Nick’s thoughts drifted back to the old Dodge.

Kalinin’s new bride heard the commotion and came out on the porch. She was still a handsome woman, though her face seemed wan and bloodless. She didn’t speak Russian, so Nick’s father and Kalinin switched to Czech, though without giving her an opening in the conversation.

Vera’s voice jogged Nick out of his trance. “Any mail for me?” she called out in Czech. He turned and watched her lope across the busy street, weaving nimbly through the traffic. “Is there mail?” she asked again as she scaled the four porch steps in two graceful bounds..

Kalinin glared at her shorts and bare feet. “Nothing for you,” he answered gruffly as he shuffled the letters he was holding into a neat, tight stack. His wife’s sharp glance immediately softened his facial expression. He turned to Nick’s parents and said, “I’d like you to meet my stepdaughter, Vera.”

Nick’s mother and Vera exchanged smiles. Nick’s father said, “I’ve heard all about you.”

No one had remembered to introduce Nick, who was staring shamelessly. Vera finally noticed him, and her smile widened. “How do you do,” she said in accented English and reached for his hand. His fingers instinctively closed around hers. “And who are you?” she asked playfully.

Her directness flustered him. “I’m fine, thank . . . .” He cut the sentence short, but not quite in time. He sensed that his face was flushing, and that only increased his embarrassment. Vera betrayed no sign of having noticed, but Nick felt as if his most private thoughts had been hoisted on a flagpole. He wanted to run, and at the same time he wanted to keep holding Vera’s hand.

“You see how nicely Vera speaks English?” Kalinin said, while giving his wife a sideward glance.

Vera gently disengaged her hand from Nick’s. “I learn in school a little,” she said to no one in particular, drawing out the syllables charmingly. She quickly disappeared inside the house.

As soon as she was gone, Nick’s father drew Kalinin aside and whispered in Russian, “Please don’t be offended, but you really must talk to the girl about dressing more appropriately. I believe there’s a city ordnance that requires women’s shorts to cover the knees. She could be arrested. And besides, such clothes can give people the wrong impression . . . .”

“Believe me, I’ve tried,” Kalinin interrupted. “But you know how these young people are. They don’t listen. You can’t tell them anything.”

Nick’s father nodded and grunted. Everyone went inside, and Kalinin’s wife served tea. Vera was nowhere in sight.

Nick thought back to a conversation he had overheard at the dinner table several months before. His parents were gossiping about Kalinin’s infatuation with a young Czech woman while he was still in Czechoslovakia. She was the wife of a college professor, and she had a child, a daughter. Nick hadn’t paid close attention at the time, but now he tried to remember every word.

According to Nick’s father, Kalinin had left Czechoslovakia without ever confessing his feelings to the woman. After the war, he heard through the émigrés’ grapevine that her husband was dead. He flew to Prague and declared, “Pack your bags! You’re going to America!”

Nick’s father envied Kalinin’s strength and self-confidence.

“How charming,” Nick’s mother had sighed. She accepted all of her husband’s stories verbatim, though Nick suspected that they were often embellished for dramatic effect.

“But there’s a problem,” Nick’s father went on. “Her daughter refuses to leave Prague. She’s running around with some boy. Her mother is trying to put a stop to it, of course . . . .”

“How old is the girl?”

“I don’t know, eighteen or nineteen. She’s staying with her aunt now. Her mother keeps writing, pleading with the girl to come to America. What’s more, from what I hear, the boyfriend is a good-for-nothing. He has long, unkempt hair and rides a motorcycle. He quit school during the war to join the Resistance, and now he’s an aspiring actor.” Nick’s father clearly didn’t consider acting—or, for that matter, anything but medicine—a respectable career.

Nick’s mother shook her head. “They just have to convince the girl that there’s no future with someone like that. They should insist that she leave Prague right away. She’ll meet a nice American boy and forget all about her actor.”

“They’re trying, but the girl is out of control. I don't understand why Kalinin lets his wife keep sending her money every month. I told him next time just send her a one-way plane ticket.” Nick’s father raised his hands and dropped them on his thighs with a loud slap, indicating there was nothing more to be said.

In bed that night, Nick thought about the coolness of Vera’s skin when she took            his hand, and he pressed his fingertips to his lips. He whispered “Vera,” and the Czech diminutive,  “Verushka,” savoring the sounds while muffling them in his pillow. He loved the graceful tilt of her head, the shape of her lips as they formed each syllable, the lilt of her voice. And he clothed her in divers personalities, like clip-on dresses on a paper doll—coltish and poised, flirtatious and demure, assertive and shy—and he loved them all. He imagined her his lover, his teacher, his best and only friend.

But then he winced as he remembered his witless reply to Vera’s question. And he began to wonder how the Kalinins had persuaded her to leave Prague. Had she given up her Czech actor? Or was she still waiting to hear from him? Was that why she was asking so eagerly about the mail when she was on Kalinin’s porch? Nick tried not to think about Vera any more that night.

#

Nick’s father was home from the office later than usual. “I have a surprise,” he announced. “I’ve traded in the Dodge.” He led Nick and his mother out to the driveway, where a gleaming new 1949 Buick Roadmaster was berthed. “I was thinking of buying a Cadillac,” he said, “but I was afraid it might make the wrong impression on the patients. The salesman told me that the Roadmaster is basically a Cadillac, but with a more discreet nameplate, the perfect physician’s car.”

Nick’s mother immediately insisted on a ride. Nick slid sullenly into the back seat. His father had ground the gears in the old Dodge, and his clumsy engagement of the clutch made the car buck. Nick had been looking forward to learning to shift smoothly and impressing his father, but the Buick had an automatic transmission. Even worse, Nick wasn’t sure his father would let him learn to drive in the new car.

The car’s interior dwarfed Nick’s father. He sat low in the driver’s seat, with room to spare above his perfectly creased and pinched fedora, his eyes barely clearing the steering wheel. The Dynaflow transmission whined and seemed to gather its strength before launching the five-thousand-pound machine. Nick’s father grimaced as he wrestled the heavy non-power steering. “The engine develops a hundred-fifty horsepower,” he said while holding to well below the thirty-five-mile highway speed limit.

After that, no one spoke until they were on their way home. “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you,” Nick’s father said. “I ran into Kalinin at the hospital this morning. He told me his stepdaughter . . .”

“Vera,” Nick‘s mother prompted.

“Vera, yes . . . she’s engaged to Wade.”

Nick felt as if a grenade had exploded in his gut.

William Wade?” Nick’s mother asked. Isn’t he too old for her? He’s our age, isn’t he?”

“No, he’s three or four years younger. He’s a fine-looking chap, keeps himself in shape . . . .”

“How did they meet?”

Nick’s father smiled. “Well, I had a little something to do with it. When I introduced Kalinin to Wade, I let slip about the pretty young stepdaughter, and Wade insisted on meeting her.”

“Her mother didn’t mind?”

“Why would she mind? Wade can give the girl everything she could ever ask for.”

Ms. Wade, nee Lesakova, came to the United States in 1948. Her husband, William W. Wade, was the chief executive officer of3W Textiles, a major supplier of uniforms for the U.S. and Canadian armed forces during the war. He later became active in local politics and was elected mayor of Otisburg in 1952 . . . .

#

Wade was Otisburg’s most eligible bachelor. Nick remembered him as being prematurely gray, fastidiously tailored, the urbane master of an estate that stretched across half a city block. Rumor had it that his parents were Romanian or Hungarian immigrants—the details varied—and he had anglicized his name.

He collected influential people the way Nick collected baseball cards. He invited local politicians, judges, business executives, newspaper editors, doctors, and lawyers to his lavish dinner parties, with paid professional musicians providing entertainment. Once, when Nick was ten, his parents couldn’t get a sitter for him, so they brought him along. With a child’s keen instinct, Nick instantly disliked Wade.

After the perfunctory greetings, Nick’s father grabbed his son’s shoulders and pushed him ahead. “. . . and our boy is very musical,” he said. “Nicholas, why don’t you hum some Beethoven or Mozart for Mr. Wade. Maybe a few measures of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”

Nick did as he was told.

“And tell Mr. Wade what you want to be when you grow up,” his father said.

“A doctor,” Nick mumbled.

Nick’s parents walked on into the living room. Nick started to follow, but Wade deflected him into the study and left him alone with a pad and pencil to amuse himself until dinner was served.

Failing health forced her husband to resign his office several months into his first mayoral term. He died in 1966 after a long illness . . . .

#

“When is the wedding?” Nick’s mother asked as they were pulling into the driveway.

“Early next month. Wade wanted to give—what’s her name again?—the finest wedding and spare no expense, but the ninny insisted on a civil ceremony and no reception.”

“It seems like a rather quick engagement,” Nick’s mother said. “She’s been in America, what, three or four months?”

“Well, she’s a willful, headstrong girl. When they finally got her to leave Prague, she threatened to marry the first man here who proposed to her. But as you can see, everything has worked out nicely. Obviously the girl is clever enough to recognize a good opportunity.”

”But why are they rushing the wedding?” Nick’s mother persisted, perhaps still hoping to uncover some lurid detail.

”Kalinin and Wade want to get the whole business over with as quickly as possible, because rumors are going around that the Czech boyfriend is coming to America, and they’re afraid the girl will find out.”

Nick’s mother accepted that answer without further comment, but Nick could barely control his anger. The Buick was still rolling in the driveway when he jumped out and ran upstairs to his room. He picked at his food at the dinner table, and he slept fitfully that night. By morning he had made up his mind to call Vera after school.

The day dragged. His stomach was roiling, and he couldn’t keep his mind on his schoolwork. After his last class finally let out, he trudged down the street to the drugstore, feeling as if he had completely lost control of the events he was setting in motion. He didn’t know exactly what he would say; the words kept jumbling in his head. He enclosed himself in the phone booth, smoothed out the scrap of paper with Vera’s number, pressed a nickel into the slot, and turned the dial.

He panicked at the first ring. He hadn’t even thought about how he would address Vera. Would “Verushka” be too familiar? And should he speak to her in English? He was afraid she might not understand, but he no longer felt comfortable with Czech after he hadn’t spoken it for the past ten years. And what if Vera’s mother or Kalinin answered? Worse yet, what if Vera answered and didn’t remember him?

“Allo?” It was Vera.

“Hello,” he said in English. “It’s Nick.”

“Who?”

“Nick Tikhonov.”

“Oh, yes. Dr. Tikhonov’s boy.”

The word “boy” didn’t bode well, but there was no turning back now. He rushed to finish his message before he ran out of breath and courage: “Verushka, I’m calling to say you mustn’t marry Mr. Wade.”

“Oh . . . well, okay . . . .” She seemed puckish, as if she was expecting a prank. “So please, why not?”

What to say? Because Mr. Wade is old enough to be your father? Because your Czech lover is coming to America to look for you, and your mother, your stepfather, my parents—even I—don’t want you to find out? What he really had wanted to say was, “Because I love you.” It almost slipped out. But at the last moment he sensed the meanness and absurdity and futility of those words, and his voice cracked. He slammed the receiver onto its hook and ran all the way home.

In the following months, Nick’s parents sometimes brought him along when they visited the Kalinins. He dreaded the chance of seeing Vera, but she was never there, and her name never came up in the conversation. It was as if she had ceased to exist.

Early in Nick’s first semester in college, he came home one weekend to make an announcement. He faced his father and told him quietly but firmly that he had switched his major from Pre-Med to English. The deed was done, and no, he wouldn’t reconsider. His father gritted his teeth and swept his open palm in a wide arc square across his son’s face. Nick took the blow without flinching.

After her husband’s death, Ms. Wade let all her servants go and lived reclusively, according to her neighbors. She contributed generously to local amateur theatrical groups such as the Otisburg Actors Circle and the Performing Arts Center at the State University campus, though she never attended the performances. She leaves no known survivors.

#

Nick had had a good life. He had a good marriage, good children and grandchildren, generally good health, and his published novels and short stories received generally good reviews. As professor emeritus, he still taught a weekly seminar on creative writing. His students called him “Doc Tikh,” an informality he fostered. And some of his favorite students still came back occasionally to visit, to share their struggles and successes, to tell him how his passion for language had shaped their lives.

Nick folded the newspaper and put it aside. Then he picked it up and opened it again.

###
Alex Markovich has been an editor at several national magazines. His stories have appeared in previous issues of Halfway Down the Stairs and in other literary publications.

© 2013, Alex Markovich