Short stories from the Extended Edition of:
My Life at First Try
Mark Budman’s “My Life at First Try,” is smart and funny and compelling, and in an era when both the immigrant experience and the resurgent aggression of the once-Soviet Russia are central issues, the novel is timely, as well. This is a splendid debut by an important new American voice.
—Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, the author of “Intercourse” and “Severance”
The First Song
It’s 1954. I am four. My mother in her black fur coat and valenkies, felt boots, pulls me in a sled over the crisp Siberian snow. Fur is still cheap at this latitude. My two-year-old brother sits behind me. His mittened hands are clutching my sleeves.
I am a reindeer driver. I sing a song about what I see. I sing about a tractor pulling a wooden pole behind it to clear the road of snow. I sing about the general store where a giant poster the color of squished strawberries shows a worker and peasant hammering enemies of the state. I sing about a man lying on the sidewalk with his face down. He’s probably drunk, but I sing that the enemies shot him for defending the village. I sing about two men hitting each other in the face. They must be boxers in training, ready to defend my country. I sing about a policeman in his squirrel hat, its earflaps down, in his greatcoat made of deerskin, criss-crossed by shiny leather belts. A rifle is slung over his back. He says, “Move along, folks, move along,” to the people who watch the boxers. He is one great-looking warrior. If I were in charge, I would give him a medal. I sing about a girl in another sled, who lifts the scarf from the bottom of her face momentarily to stick her tongue out at me. I think it’s a girl because she wears a red coat while my brother’s and mine are black. I also have a scarf over my mouth. My words come out garbled, as if I am a foreigner, which I am not yet.
When I learn the alphabet, I’ll write this song down.
We live in a wooden house. One room is for my family, and the second is for the Petrovs. There is a rug that hangs from the wall, above my pillow, with rabbits, squirrels and hedgehogs. I wish them goodnight before I fall asleep. On the other wall, there is a poster of a grinning soldier playing an accordion. His teeth are white, as if he’s a kid.
Comrade Petrov is a butcher. That’s what my grandmother says. But butchers cut meat. The Petrovs eat only potatoes, lentil soup, bread and garlic. Their son Mishka is my age.
“What’s you name?” he said when we first met.
“That’s a girl’s name.”
“No. It’s Alexander. Like the great king.”
“What the hell is king?”
“King is a foreign tsar.”
“You’re named after a tsar?”
Mishka told me that his dad killed five men in a fight. He can bend a horseshoe with his fingers, carries a big knife, and he has tattoos all over. Mishka also told me that his sister Masha couldn’t piss on the wall. I pity her. Even my two-year-old brother can do that, and Masha is already ten.
In the evenings, my mother reads us Longfellow in Bunin’s translation while we all drink tea imported from India. I don’t know what India is, except that everyone calls it our friend. I like Hiawatha. He could pass for a Russian.
I ask my father how many people he killed. He says that he shot at the Germans during the war, but he doesn’t know if he got any.
Last summer, two prisoners, released after Stalin’s death, tried to grab me while I was playing in my backyard. My grandma saved me. She just took an ax, and they ran away. She is so strong. She has no rifle, but she can split a log with one blow. Her name is Annie. It’s the nicest girl name in the world.
My grandpa is even stronger. He could grab a bear by its paw, spin it over his head, and throw it all the way to the taiga’s edge. My father is a teacher. He knows everything.
Stalin sent my grandparents here to chop wood, and my parents volunteered to live with them. That’s how we got here. I don’t know this yet, and I already forgot about the two prisoners. Mishka doesn’t like Stalin either. He says that he’s a mothersucker. When I asked what it means, Mishka said that it’s a grown-up who still sucks his mother’s titties.
When I see Stalin’s portraits, I whisper, mothersucker. He’s got a big mustachio, so he probably tickles his mother’s tits. I’ve never seen her portraits, but she deserves it because she raised a son like that. She probably has tits like the witches in Macbeth. My mother says it’s too early for me to read the book, but I saw the pictures already. Now, my breath settles on my scarf and turns to ice as fast as I exhale. My song streams wide and fast, like a Siberian river in the summer. I am a happy reindeer driver.
It’s 1957. I am seven. We are not slaves. Slaves are not us. Even in Russian, a language with a more forgiving grammar than English, that second sentence is barely grammatical. Yet Idea Vasil’evna, our first grade teacher, forces us to write it in our notebooks. She has no choice. It’s printed in our textbooks. What’s written by a pen can’t be struck out by an ax.
We dip our pens into the inkwells, stick our tongues out and write, “р–а–б–ы….” I hate how the ink smells—like scarlet fever. The pigtails of the girl in front of me beg to be pulled, but I restrain myself. I’m a man.
We know that we live in a Socialist society, but we are ready for the next step in the path of progress. That’s what Idea Vasil’evna said before the class began. She is wise and motherly.
She drums the beat on her desk with a ruler. Occasionally, she goose-steps the aisles, and cranes her neck to check our progress. When she does that, our hands shake. She hits the boys on the fingers with the ruler and returns to her desk. She never hits the girls. Their fingers are delicate, like ivory netsuke, and their tears shoot out too easily. She smells like the perfume store, only stronger.
Above the teacher’s desk, sweet Grandfather Lenin observes us with glee. If he could, he would jump out from his gilded frame, take away Idea Vasil’evna’s ruler, and drum our fingers with it. He would never spare the girls.
His portrait is off-center, and next to it, there is a painted-over spot. Kids say that it had Stalin’s portrait hanging there once. A few years before, these leaders would have jumped out together, and divided the responsibilities. Joseph, you go to the right, and I will take the left. Don’t spare the rod, Joseph.
Joseph would nod, grinning under his sardonic mustache. Afterwards, back in his frame, he would light a pipe. Lenin would squint like a tomcat with the belly full of mice.
But now, Lenin is lonely.
The bell rings. We run into the school yard, which is surrounded by a heavy iron fence. We scream. We jump up and down. We chase each other. Two older boys, maybe even sixth graders, get into a fistfight, and we watch. One boy falls and the other kicks him in the ribs. The school principal comes out and positions himself by the gates. He looks like a statue in the town square, but without a horse. Iron face. Endless shoulders. A raised hand. His clothes are the colour of dust. Does he have shiny, polished balls like the horse in the square? He coughs into a bullhorn. Everyone quiets, even the boy on the ground. The principal speaks.
I can make out only some words. Party. Lenin. Happy childhood. American imperialism. Five-year plan. When I grow up, I will draw posters and write big words with a red pen.
Yesterday, I saw a group of foreign tourists downtown. They stood so straight and laughed loudly like kids, as if no one was watching them. They were dressed in shiny, neat clothing, and their voices sounded like the cry of the birds heading west. I want to be a foreigner.
The bell rings again.
We return to the next class. A banner hangs along the length of the aisle. The Party solemnly proclaims: this generation of the Soviet people will live in a Communist society. That’s progress. One plus one is two. Slaves are not us, and will never be.
It’s 2020. I’m seventy. Now, I can attest that truth of the Talmud’s statement. At that age a person really reaches fullness of years. I did live a full life. So far.
At the doctor’s office, I introduce myself first. “Hi, I’m Alex. I’ll be your Russian interpreter.”
“I don’t understand you,” the doctor replies.
His last name is Arrogant. Maybe that’s not the name listed on his driver’s license. At least it’s not how he introduces himself to the patient. The way he says it, his name is completely unintelligible. Not that he speaks English with an accent. He probably doesn’t care if anyone understands him, least of all me.
“I’m trying to introduce myself,” I say. In my years on this job, I learned patience. I speak even slower now, trying to pronounce each word carefully. “Let me repeat that. Hi, I’m Alex. I will be your Russian interpreter.”
Dr. Arrogant apparently turns towards the patient. Apparently, it is a young or youngish woman, because he says, “When are you due?”
I couldn’t see any of that. What I’m doing is called OPI, Over the Phone Interpreting. There is no actual phone, at least in the room of my condo where I’m sitting now. I’m tethered to my laptop by a headset. The doctor has a similar arrangement in his office, but he’s using a microphone instead of a headset.
In the past, I used to do video interpreting, with a webcam. The doctor’s office also had a webcam. I stopped doing that. Now I don’t need to shave and brush my hair in the morning. They don’t need to see my wrinkles.
More importantly, with the OPI, I can make faces or flip the bird when I talk to providers like Dr. Arrogant. And I don’t have to wear a mask, or wash my hands, or breathe in viruses as when I was doing in-person interpreting in the office. The flip side is that I don’t go outside that often, and see the beauty of the early fall only through my window.
Dr. Arrogant measures the size of the patient’s dilation. When I was doing video interpreting, the nurse would turn the webcam away at that time, and I would turn away from the screen, too. Now, I don’t have to. The only thing I see on screen is the stats of the call.
The doctor says something I couldn’t hear. He’s probably turned away from his mic.
Usually, I have to be transparent, as if I’m not there, and as if the patient and doctor are speaking to each other, and they both understood English. So, for instance, I could say that I have bloody discharge from my vagina, and no one who knows the game would laugh. At least not out loud. Sometimes, I have to get out of that role—like when I can’t hear them speaking, for example.
I say, “Doctor, this is the interpreter speaking. I can’t hear you.”
The doctor doesn’t reply. I repeat my plea.
“She understood me,” he says. “Don’t interrupt, translator.”
I’m about to say that we don’t know if she understood him correctly, and that is the reason they employed me. I also want to say that I’m not a translator but an interpreter. I bite my tongue. My tongue already has a lot of bite marks.
There is some silence after that. Maybe the doctor knows what I think. More realistically, he’s typing his notes on the computer. I begin to compose a story in my head.
A man comes back to the country of his birth. He wears a beard and sackcloth. He enters a bus. The driver is bald like a watermelon. A poster of Stalin is attached behind his seat. The man nods to everyone. He’s met by thirteen pairs of hostile eyes, plus the dead eyes of Stalin. The man gives the driver a strange coin. It looks to be made of gold, and is shaped like a miniature version of a knight’s shield. When the driver touches it, hair grows back on his head. Everyone laughs. The man gets into his seat, takes out another coin and raises his hand high, showing it to everyone.
“Make no mistake,” he says in his native language.“I’m a miracle man. Curing baldness is just the beginning. I’ll cleanse your mortal sins, including pride. Beware, Stalin is rising. The end is near.”
The doctor interrupts my thoughts. “Everything looks good. See you in two weeks.”
I interpret that and say, “If there is nothing else, the interpreter is disconnecting. Thank you for using our interpreting services.”
There. I hope he won’t say “translator” next time.
The patient thanks me. The providers usually thank me too. If they are young, they at least say, “no problem.”
This doctor just disconnects. He probably thanks the janitor for cleaning the office. As a nationally certified interpreter, bilingual writer, inventor, engineer, and former editor, I’m as qualified to receive a thank-you as any average janitor. But maybe he doesn’t thank the janitor either.
Waiting for another call, I calm my nerves by reading the news about fires, the pandemic, and violent demonstrations. Only after work, I continue with the story. I don’t like it so far. It’s too didactic.
The following day, I receive an email from my boss at the interpreting agency. I’ve never met him, and know him only by his first name.
“A provider complained that you are too arrogant. I didn’t expect that from one of our best interpreters.”
Now, finding another job when you are seventy is not easy—not because I’d die from hunger, but because I’d be ashamed not to work. I mean, not to work for money. I do have other work. I write and help with raising my three grandkids. So I reply, “It won’t happen again, sir.”
He probably doesn’t know my age. That’s one of the advantages of OPI.
Outside, the leaves are turning red, brown and yellow. I open the window and tell them aloud, “Arrogance has no redeeming value. That’s your lesson for today.”
The leaves mouth silent thank-yous. They probably think I’m a janitor, and therefore deserve it. I fish out something from my pocket. It’s a gold-looking coin shaped like a miniature version of a knight’s shield. I hold it in my hand. It’s warm, and it clings to my fingers as if inviting me to be embraced for a long time, until the end, which I hope is not near. Not even at seventy.
I can still sing. I’m a feisty seventy-year-old. I’ll try to sing at the second try as well. We all deserve a second try.
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Copyright © 2008 by Mark Budman
All rights reserved.
My Life at First Try is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
First published by Counterpoint Press.
This extended edition published in 2020.
The author and publisher gratefully acknowledge the editors who have previously published chapters from this novel:
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Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union but now resides in Boston. Mark follows the fine American tradition: a person moves to the US, learns the language, takes any job he can find, complains bitterly, but perseveres. Mark also writes and publishes flash fiction, so he knows how to express himself concisely, before the reader gets bored. He loves to travel so he can compare foreign countries to America and congratulate himself on the fine choice he made 38 years ago when he came here. He loves his family so he can get emotional support and an audience for complaints. Above all, he loves his readers, in sickness and in health.
Books by Mark Budman
The Shape-Shifter’s Guide to Time Travel
Condensed to Flash: World Classics
You Have Time for This: Contemporary American Short-Short Stories
Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories (Karen and Michael Braziller Books)
You Have Time for This