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Even when I’m sleeping, collapsed in my bed beneath tissue-soft sheets, I can see my son leaving me. He is disappearing in quicksand like in those black and white movies. I wake up sweating, naked. I run down the hall to his room and there he is, perfectly content, sweetly hugging a pillow. Sometimes, half-dreaming, bleary-eyed, I look at his spiky hair and wonder if he’s been electrocuted. It’s only after reaching down and touching those bulging cheeks that I realize he’s fine. He opens his little gray eyes and grips my finger: my heart swells to the size of a balloon. I know this seesaw of emotions isn’t normal, but it’s become our routine.

My name is Mark and his name is Ivan. He’s named after my grandfather, Ivan Targenov. Though we live in Baltimore now, my grandfather, according to family history, arrived at Ellis Island following World War II, riding the wave of displaced foreigners eager to start over. To get there, he saved his roubles for years. He carried them around in a half-empty bag of wheat so as to never draw attention until he had enough to buy the boat ticket to New York City. He emigrated from somewhere in Russia speaking nearly perfect English (he, like me, was completely self-taught). At night he strained to listen through the static of BBC war reports. Ivan even studied a copy of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” some starving British soldier had given him in exchange for a potato. Right away my grandfather impressed the people at Ellis Island. And back in those days impressing people and not impressing people meant the difference between having a home with a view or sleeping on the street. 

I take this lesson seriously. I really do. I work with a commercial painting crew and whenever we get a new job, I show up early. I say, “Yes Sir,” “Yes Ma’am.” Folks stare at me with my long hair, paint-splattered clothes and bushy beard, and act like I’m half caveman. This is the job! I want to remind them. This is how you’re supposed to look! 

Meanwhile, everyone else around me can barely rub two brain cells together. They smell like turpentine and the hardboiled eggs they’ve brought for lunch. Still, it covers the bills. It provides plenty of money to buy diapers and formula and toys for Ivan. That’s the only thing that matters. 

When we’re not reading in the evenings, my son and I peek through the blinds at the stars and watch them flicker like candles on a birthday cake. We look out at Patterson Park and raise our hands high to mimic the way the grassy land rises into hills in places—upup I say to him—before bringing our hands lower—down, down. Ivan loves it. He smiles and pops spit bubbles. When I pat his warm belly I can almost feel the stomach juices churning inside. It’s another reminder that he is all mine, in my care, forever my responsibility. We listen to the occasional groan of traffic as we go (back and forth, back and forth) in the rocking chair.

Before Ivan, when I actually had free time, I used to do more artistic painting. I did city scenes: the quiet places. I liked to paint those yards with the itchy, knee-high grass and rotted trees leaning into chain-link fences. I liked to paint alleyways squeezed between skyscrapers. I’d do it in the morning, before the calm, when streets were still scalded from last night’s sour milk; the pigeon shit crusted at the edges, not yet hosed away. 

You might think they were ugly, but I sold a few to tourists. What saved me was my brushwork. The ones who bought them acted surprised by my ability. Acted like I was incapable of spelling the word “goon,” let alone reading more than 5,531 books by more than 3,332 different authors. Let alone raising a six-month-old on my own. I’m not complaining. I chose this path. Even famous folks, people like Madonna and Rob Lowe, say their greatest accomplishment in life has been raising a family. Not everyone can be a great father. Ivan’s mother isn’t around so I find different babysitters when I’m at work. I research them online or through the postings on community bulletin boards. I tell them I’ve checked their references just to see how they respond. My only rule is they have to stay inside until I get home. I like to keep him extra safe.

One day, I’m going to tell my son the story of his namesake. How, when Ivan arrived at Ellis Island, he had to prove himself in America all over again in front of some frowning immigration agent with big round glasses and a waxy moustache. Besides speaking English, Ivan did not have special skills or talents. But he did have big brass balls. And he wasn’t afraid to get blood on his hands. Most importantly, he had the desire for a better life. He left Russia because he was tired of being poor and insignificant. Ivan had spent years marching into these frost-bitten towns in the pursuit of work. These were places where the gingerbread coloured homes looked spackled together with nothing sturdier than dust. He talked to the butchers because they paid the best. If hired, he always got fired. He had no idea what he was doing. But he kept at it. He learned something each time and eventually got better. Which meant, eventually, the lies he told about his butchering skills eventually became the truth. With this kind of attitude, it’s easy to understand how he could dream of a new life for himself. I picture him standing there at Ellis Island, dizzy with confidence, twisting a waxy moustache of his own. When he is finally asked the question: “What do you do?” A carousel of career possibilities spin through his head: oil baron, lawyer, actor… He thinks of all of the miraculous ways reinvention might suit him. Who wouldn’t want to join the people with the glowing skin in the newsreels? The celebrities in the magazines that slice your fingers when you turn the pages? But as the story goes, Ivan declares to this man, without any further explanation: “photographs.”

In the telling of it, no one ever treats this like it was a mistake. A slip of the tongue, maybe. The error of an immigrant who, despite his near mastery of the language, was only trying to refer to something in all the photographs around him. It made a lot of my family wonder until I started doing well in school, especially in the visual arts. “There’s the heritage,” my father and uncles said, who all took jobs at factories in Baltimore. They never even bothered to wash the grease from beneath their fingernails. When I was younger the only person I liked to talk to was this old Black woman who worked in the basement of the library downtown. She told me how smart I was for coming by and checking out books. “You change the world just like that, one tale at a time,” she’d say. 

When I went to art school for college, though, I had to take out loan after loan and it eventually became too much. I wasn’t making many friends either. When I dropped out I figured I could do my reading at the library and talk to my old gal pal. But she was gone. And when I tried to ask about her no one could give me a straight answer. They just stood there, rigid, looking down and folding their hands until some security officer prodded me away with his stick. So, instead of going to the library and reading, I found a paintbrush and went on my way. 

We practice around the apartment sometimes with a free sample or a leftover bucket. I bring stuff back from the shop when no one is watching the inventory. I show Ivan how to roll the paint in the tray and spread it across the walls and tell more stories about his great-grandfather. In New York, there was plenty of work for an amateur photographer like him. Newspapers were like rats in those days: everywhere. Because he was an immigrant they paid him practically nothing. They sent him to places other photographers didn’t want to go: the slums of the East Village, the harbour docks foggy with disease and alcoholism. If he was lucky enough to travel in a car with other reporters, he probably would have been the one asked to sit on the back bumper as the muffler sputtered and coughed exhaust all the way down the road. Ivan put up with all of it because he believed something important about this existence: everything worth having comes with sacrifice, struggle. 

For instance, I was reading about anacondas in the Amazon the other day. They mostly find their prey in the swamps or slow-moving water streams. But sometimes they appear out of nowhere when they attack. When they drop down from the canopy it looks like they fell from the sky. The animals that survive their attacks are the ones that don’t panic in those first few seconds. I bet they come out stronger, too.

We had our own scare a week or two ago. I took Ivan outside at night in his stroller. We hadn’t been back to the park in almost two months. This time, I brought my .22 for protection. There I was, pushing him around the walking paths, keeping to myself. Then this guy walked by real slow and looked at me and gazed down at Ivan and said something ignorant, like, “you a dad?”

“Certainly seems so.” I could feel his eyes on me so I stopped and turned to face him. “Is that a problem?”             The man waved at the air. “Shit. Thought I noticed you before.” He gestured at the stroller. “I never saw you pushing around no baby though. I saw you out on them benches. Always staring at people.”

“I wouldn’t call it staring,” I responded. “I used to watch people for my paintings. I like to try to remember things for later. Recapture the moment, I guess.”      

The man blinked back at me. “I used to juggle. Down by the harbour. Ride around on my unicycle. Pass the hat around.” 

“Yeah?” Soon, we were both smiling. 

The man shook his head. “Time passes don’t it?”

“I’d sell them back their own images,” I added. “It was like charging someone for a look in the mirror. I guess they liked what they saw.”

The man laughed and clapped. He whistled. “The things we do for money.”

I pointed at Ivan. “I do it all for him now.” 

“The things we do for family.”

I pushed the stroller back and forth a bit to keep Ivan moving, but my legs didn’t move.

“Momma off tonight?”

“No,” I said, moving with the stroller this time, “she’s gone.” 

“Hey,” the man said, waving his hands at me. “Sorry. Meant no disrespect. We was just talkin,’ right?”

His voice sounded squeezed down to the last breath. I stopped and scratched my beard. I turned back to look at him and tried to think how to start over. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, when I rolled back in speaking distance. The man smiled at my return. I gestured at someone with a pit bull on the sidewalk down the hill from us and said to Ivan, “look at that scary doggie, son.” Ivan poked his arms out, making his tiny fingers move around like noodles as he tried to point. He was giggling. Then I pointed and said, “look at the trees—look at the moon.” He gurgled and did the same gesture as before. A car drove by blasting rap music so I started to do some pretend dancing. Ivan did a little shake with his fists in accompaniment.

“That’s cute,” the man said, flashing those yellow, candy-corn teeth. His breath smelled tuna fish. “Yeah, yeah. You a good dad. I see it now.”

All at once, he started to get fidgety. It seemed like he was scoping out the park and trying to see who else was around. Bobbing up and down on his toes like a weasel or something. He leaned in close to the stroller and I got shaky. I told him to back away but he didn’t listen. He was too close. When I reached out to grab his arm and push him back he smacked my hand. 

“Don’t touch me!” the man said. So when that weasel leaned down again I pulled out the gun and stuck it into his neck. I could feel the heat coming off his skin. I had his attention.

“Whoa,” the man replied. “Hey.” He moved back real slow.

“Too close,” I said, and gave the nozzle a little twist as I pulled it away, still keeping him in my sights. 

“Ain’t nobody trying to rob you, motherfucka!” the man said. His eyes looked as wide and white as two yolkless eggs. “Just wanted to see what the baby look like.” 

“Now you have.”

I tucked the gun away and listened to him curse me as I pushed out of hearing distance. All the way home I raced, wheeling the stroller until I was out of breath. I hugged Ivan as soon as I got him in my arms. I could feel my ribs tremble against his toes. I wiped my eyes in his hair, the dampness from his skin mixing with my own. We sat in the rocking chair for what seemed like hours (rocking and rocking) until he fell asleep. It was too close a call. I knew it could never happen again. 

My grandfather Ivan eventually moved to Baltimore. He gave up photography and, apparently, ended up a grunt like everyone else in our family. But whenever I asked why, everyone stopped talking about him. So, eventually, I decided to do my own research. I went up to Manhattan to the public library there. I wanted to find the old, yellowed editions of the newspapers he supposedly used to work for. The lady in the archive room was nothing like my friend from when I was younger. This one might as well have been a horse the way she snorted at me when I made my request to see the originals. She looked down her half-lenses and said the microfilm should be good enough.

“Good enough?” I repeated, “I come all the way from Baltimore on some stinky bus just so you can tell me what’s good enough? Good enough for who?” I pointed to my library card that I needed to show just to enter the room. “You got something against people with Ruski-sounding last names? You hate communists or something?” 

My dad and uncles laughed when I told them this part, but the grumpy lady didn’t like it at the time. She started to stammer back objections, so I continued. “I really can’t wait to go on Yelp about this.”

Eventually, I got my way. She threw up her hands and swiped me in. I pulled down at least half a dozen dusty bound books of newspapers and sat in a corner and read through each and every one. Imagine my pride when I opened one and saw, right there, beneath a faded photograph of a new fire truck at a station in Flatbush, the name: Ivan Targenov.

I was proud, but it also confused me as I reflected more on the ride home. Because if it was all true, I wondered, if Ivan actually did work in the news business, didn’t he want to be a bigger deal in his life? Maybe, I don’t know, find a way for his own picture to be in the paper instead of just a damn fire truck?I also wondered why he moved to Baltimore. What had taken him away from New York, where all great immigrant success stories are told.I thought of something that made me more upset than curious. Maybe the reason he didn’t mind the mousy print of his tagline beneath his photographs, why he wanted to run away from his chance to build an empire, was quite simple. In the end, he understood no one would ever notice him, no matter what he did.

I Googled myself shortly after that trip. I found ten other people with my exact same name. Ten other people, from all over the world. None of them were me. Like all things, I eventually made my peace with it. History’s never been for the living. And a photographer uses a camera like we painters use brushes. Whether its shot by shot, layer upon layer, we play some small role in the creation of the future. In those rare times our work happens to be good, we quietly soar. 

A few months ago I went poking around the library and learned even more about my grandfather. It started with me reading about the Cold War. How the FBI, the CIA, they all used to run this undercover operation called COINTELPRO that was done to mostly spy on Russian immigrants. It began in the late 50’s and ran all the way to the early 70s.  I found maps that showed all the different American cities government agents focused on. Sure enough, there was New York City. This was the part of the Ivan story only my dad could tell me about. 

I knew he would be home because ever since my parents got divorced he pokes around smoking and drinking, drinking and smoking. The more I asked him about Ivan and government surveillance, though, the more he started nodding. Ivan’s fate was sealed the day he applied for membership at a Russian social club he had no chance of ever being admitted to. He probably figured if he could impress the Americans he could have even better luck with the wealthy Russian-American immigrants. The problem was, just being associated with communists was more than enough to draw the attention of the local authorities. Those Russians with connections, they were fine. The ones without, like us Targenovs, had to move—quickly. Ivan wasn’t a coward. He just couldn’t take any chances in New York. He had to protect his family. 

But then the story takes an even more tragic turn. As my dad talked, his face got still and he pressed his chins together. He told me about the last day he saw his mother. He and his brothers had all boarded the train with their parents heading to Baltimore. Ivan was ready, once again, to start over. But this time? This time, nothing goes according to plan. At the last moment, when no one is watching, his wife steps off. Then the doors close. The train chugs south as she watches them pull away. My dad and everyone bang the window and scream for the conductor to stop. It was all a mistake! they thought. His wife, my dad’s mother, had tripped…fallen…somehow ended up on the other side of the glass. She needed rescue, they thought. My dad told me she went on to marry some Wall Street type. Their kids attended fancy schools and took finance jobs around the city. When my dad said this last part, he started punching the sofa cushions. But I just stared at the ceiling and waited for him to finish so I could go home.

Because, for us, it’s going to be different. On quiet evenings like this, I cradle my son and whisper my promise that he will be the Ivan his children (and his children’s children) tell all the wonderful stories about. He’ll never know how helpless his great-grandfather became toward the end of his life. I was just a little boy when I met him. Ivan was blind and nearly deaf and was forced to move in with us. As he hobbled down our halls in his ancient body, he used to request things from New York: sweet sausages from delis we had never heard of, sour breads and ryes from bakeries located in neighbourhoods no one could find. My cousin once joked: Grandpop found himself in a strange country when he arrived. And also when he left! To her it was funny: the tale of someone who never had any right to expect much. We had all been raised on watered-down dreams. But to me, the end of his life was a tragedy. After years spent searching for somewhere or something better, taking in the days one flash at a time, Ivan had nowhere else to go. Stuck in the darkness, haunted by a collection of images, he was desperate for everything to come into focus. The way I see it, my grandfather deserved better. He earned it. If walking through the park one day he found happiness giggling and blinking up at him with little gray eyes, he would’ve taken it too.


Matthew Kasper is a Baltimore native who lives in Singapore as an English teacher, freelance writer, and former journalist. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Pacific University as a Washburn-Hayes Scholar. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, The Avenue, and elsewhere. 

© 2022, Matthew Kasper

 

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