The winter I turned fourteen, my mother asked me to do her job for her.
One night over spaghetti and meatballs, she told me about a boy in her ESL class: Ivan.
"Sweet boy, I think," she said, twisting a cyclone of noodles around her fork. "But I just can't seem to get him to talk. I thought it was just nerves. Some kids are like that, you know? Even ten-year-olds. But it's been a few months now and nothing."
"That sounds like something you should talk to the school about," I replied.
Typically, my mother never brought her work home with her. She must have known, even back then, that in the face of geography pop quizzes and hormones and my impending graduation, her troubles would fall on deaf ears.
And she was right.
At that age, I was fluent in two languages: English and sarcasm. It was the former that my mother required, the one at which I was less proficient.
"I think he might be more willing to open up if he had someone closer to his age to talk to," she said, undeterred. "Someone like you, Gia."
I took a gulp of milk and let out a long, satisfied sigh. "Thanks," I said, lancing a meatball, "but no thanks."
"I know that's not how I raised you, young lady. I taught you to think of people other than yourself."
"I'm not just thinking of myself," I told her. "I'm also thinking of me and I."
My mother sighed, but not the kind of sigh you get after a good swig of milk. It was the kind of sigh that indicated her trump card was coming.
"Ivan's mother said she'll pay you fifty dollars for each tutoring session."
And just like that she had my attention.
Of course, that was before I knew where the money was coming from.
At four o'clock the next Wednesday we pulled into a neighborhood on the other side of town. Ivan Volkov's house was at the end of the block. It was a two-story, Victorian, but otherwise nondescript. There were no toys in the yard or chop-shopped cars on cinder blocks like I'd been expecting. No indication of the type of family who lived inside.
The sun was starting to set behind the house as we approached the door. My mother rang the bell, and just to set the tone, I thumped the knocker twice.
The door opened halfway and out popped Ivan's mother's head. She offered my mother a gap-toothed smile as though she were an old friend. Then she nodded her head and disappeared behind the door as she pulled it open. She spoke fragilely, as though her words were made of glass: "Come, come."
The house was quiet, perfumed with a citrus smell. Mrs. Volkov brought us to the edge of the living room, then craned her neck up. In a language both beautiful and haunting, she uttered words with hard consonants and squishy vowels.
Suddenly, a door opened upstairs, producing the outline of a boy. He was dressed in all black, in an oversized fur-lined coat and one of those fuzzy ear-flap hats, which Mrs. Volkov later told me is called an ushanka. He trudged down the stairs with the urgency of a kid getting ready to attend church.
"Say hello, Ivan," his mother urged. "This is Gia." She said my name like it was a rare breed of fish.
The boy looked at me, blinked, said nothing. He did not look at my mother.
"Very sorry. He is little shy," Mrs. Volkov said. She looked from me to my mother as though she didn't know whose forgiveness to beg, whose favor to curry.
"Don't you worry," my mother assured her, patting my back. "This one here is a chatterbox. I wouldn't worry about him being shy for long."
Mrs. Volkov scrunched her brow at the word "chatterbox," but my mother's smile must've convinced her to overlook any barrier in the language. "Yes, please use kitchen table," she said to me. Then, to my mother, "Come, come," and they disappeared into the living room.
Ivan took one side of the table and I the other. Somewhere in the house a clock I couldn't see ticked away the seconds. Ivan coughed, a noise so quiet it sounded like a cat yawning.
"I'm Gia," I said, before remembering my mother covered my introduction. "Hello. Nice to meet you."
Ivan eased his hand along the fur in his jacket, and it was then that I decided we'd start from the basics. Maybe "hello" was too difficult a word for his tongue, the double-L sound too sticky, like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth. Well, there were other ways to say hello.
"Hi," I tried. "Hey. Howdy." And then, for something even a baby could do, I flashed a peace sign like the rappers on the MTV Videos and said, "Yo!"
He didn't budge. Just sat there in his chair and swung his legs around like he was on the world's slowest rollercoaster. Above us, drizzle pelted the roof. The clock ticked. Snippets of living room conversation found their way into the kitchen, my mother's voice: And how is Mr. Volkov doing?"
"He-llo," I tried, spacing the word out. "Now you try. He-llo."
Ivan retaliated by picking his nose.
"You really don't talk, do you?" I asked, and my eyes widened when he opened his mouth.
"It's about that time, you two," my mother said from behind me, before I could get a response. "Five o'clock."
And sure enough, that's what the numbers on the microwave said.
"Thank you," Mrs. Volkov said, and repeated herself when she couldn't get Ivan to say it too. Then, like a magic trick, she opened her hand and offered me a wad of cash. It was held in place by a money clip shaped like an American flag, and I could see President Hamilton's face poking out beneath it.
"What do you say, Gia?" my mother asked.
Understand: I'd had two pop quizzes that day, and after spending an hour in silence with Ivan, I wanted nothing more than to just be done with it all. That's why I made a show of things, why I popped the money clip right then and there, licked my thumb, and slowly counted off each ten dollar bill in the stack. Only then did I thank Mrs. Volkov.
If she was put off by my bad manners, she didn't show it. She only flashed her gap-toothed smile and said, "Same time next week. We are here."
"Same time next week," my mother said on the way out.
The whole way home I expected to get chewed out for my behavior. It never came. Instead, we cruised through the early twilight playing a budget version of Twenty Questions.
"How did it go?"
"Did he talk to you very much?"
"Did he talk at all?"
"Hmm," my mother replied.
My eyes were closed and my mind was a million miles away when she finally spoke again.
"How did he look?" she said when we were stopped at a red light. "Ivan, that is."
I opened my eyes in time to catch myself making a face in the rearview mirror. "What do you mean, how'd he look? You saw him for yourself, didn't you?" I asked. But with the way my mother was staring, with her eyes halfway between the road and dashboard, the sarcasm didn't feel as good as I thought it would.
"Yes," she said, her voice and her mouth flatlining. The light turned green. "I suppose I did."
It was a little like playing a game of Uno, tutoring Ivan. As soon as I saw myself inching closer to a victory, he would pull my card and make me start over.
Every Wednesday we sat at his kitchen table working on the basics. I gave him some of my old picture books to look at. We tried simple sentences like "I work in a post office" and "Bobby starts class at 8:00." I even threw in "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
Ivan remained a constant in a world of change. When winter gave way to a balmy spring, he stayed in his fur-lined jacket and ushanka. And when Wednesdays rolled around, he spoke the language he knew best: silence.
I didn't mind it. After all, Mrs. Volkov was still handing me that silly American-flag-clipped money every week just for showing up, and by then I'd saved enough to buy my own makeup and skirts.
And, truth be told, I kind of liked the silence. The way I didn't need Ivan and he didn't need me, not really, but we were stuck together like prisoners each week, listening to my voice echo off the kitchen walls and bounce around the quiet house.
For fifty bucks a week, it wasn't a bad friendship.
Always, whenever one of the lessons ended and I collected my money and returned to my mother's station wagon, there would be questions. After the first tutoring session, she refused to go inside Ivan's house. She never said why. Instead, she would spend the hour running errands and return at five o'clock on the dot.
But once I was in the shotgun seat and reaching for the belt, she'd turn into McGruff the Crime Dog, desperate to solve the mystery of what happened inside that house. Over time, Twenty Questions became more of an interrogation than a game.
"How did Ivan look?" she wondered again at the beginning of January.
"Did he say anything?" she questioned a week after Valentine's Day.
"Have you ever seen Mr. Volkov around the house?" she asked, just once, on the last Wednesday in March.
One day in May, during the middle of a heatwave, as we pulled into Ivan's neighborhood, my mother announced that this would be my last tutoring session. She said it offhandedly, like it was something that could possibly slip her mind.
"What do you mean?" I asked over the hum of the A/C.
She kept her eyes forward. Licked her lips. When she spoke it was in a voice I didn't quite recognize. "They're moving to a new town for Ivan's middle school." She opened her mouth to say more but then didn't. And by the time we pulled up to the sidewalk, it was already four o'clock, already too late to ask.
"Remember to thank them for their time," my mother said when I got out, and drove off before I even rang the doorbell.
"Ivan is in room," Mrs. Volkov told me, and gestured to a red door at the top of the staircase. "I go get him."
"It's okay," I said quickly. Despite the months I'd spent coming to the Volkovs', I'd never gone further than the kitchen. If they were really moving away, I wasn't going to miss my first opportunity to see a boy's room, even if it was just Ivan's. "I can go. My mom told me you were leaving and I'd like to say bye first."
Mrs. Volkov's eyes drifted upward, but she said nothing when I walked past her.
I knocked twice on Ivan's door, unsurprised when no response came. Then knocked a third time, for courtesy, before I nudged the door open. "Ivan?"
A burst of heat struck me when I stepped inside. There was no fan, no ventilation at all, even though it was over ninety degrees outside. The room was surprisingly clean, devoid of the things I'd been anticipating—action figures and Tonka trucks and glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling. On a plain white desk in the corner sat the picture books and ESL practice sentences I'd given him.
He was kneeling on his bed, his knees making indents in the blue comforter, his elbows glued to the windowsill. Outside, the sun stained the front yard, the whole neighborhood. Made the air ripple like a mirage. And maybe all that light is why I didn't notice it at first, not until I knocked again and he finally turned to look at me.
I had never seen Ivan without his oversized jacket, even the week before when the temperature was in the eighties. But here he was, dressed in shorts and a plain blue T-shirt that accented the eggplant-colored bruises running down his arms. Some were big. Others were the size of a pinball. Mostly it was like a constellation; where there was one purple welt, another was sure to follow.
The practice sentences I'd brought felt heavy in my hand as Ivan turned back to the window.
The hour passed by like we were in a slow cooker, waiting for the timer to ding. More than once he caught my eye. More than once I turned away. I found myself stuttering over sentences, fumbling pronunciations, distracted.
About thirty minutes into the session, I put the worksheets aside. They were damp with sweat.
"I heard you were leaving," I said. Then, for the sake of clarity, "Moving, I mean. To go to another school."
Ivan said nothing, let the silence roil around us like the heat, so I decided to visit the picture book collection on his desk. I shuffled through the pile before selecting one with an image of two bunnies on the cover.
"She is liar."
The book hit the desk with a thud and opened to a page where one of the bunnies sat alone in a field of grass. I turned around in time to see the words come out of Ivan's mouth again.
"She is liar."
He spoke like his mother, softly, delicately, with hints of another world, another life. It was what I should've expected, if I ever expected him to talk. Where had he learned that word, anyway? "Liar" wasn't on any of the practice sheets.
"My father is nice man. He do not hurt me." He was looking straight at me when he repeated himself: "She is liar."
"Who?" I asked, breathless, though I wasn't sure if I wanted to know.
He lifted his bruised arm and pointed to something beyond the window, silently inviting me into his world. I approached him in a daze. Walking over to the bed, I knew it couldn't be my mother he was talking about. She never stayed around during these tutoring sessions. She was out at the laundromat or the grocery store. It couldn't be her.
But that's exactly where Ivan had his finger. He was circling my mother's station wagon with his pinky on the glass like it was the answer to a multiple choice question.
And as if summoned by magic, the door opened and my mother emerged carrying her purse.
We were quiet as we watched her advance to the house. She stopped by the mailbox, rifling in her bag, until her hand resurfaced holding a wad of bills stuck together by a money clip shaped like an American flag. She approached the front door, disappeared under the porch awning.
"She is liar," Ivan kept saying, as my mother retreated to the car minutes later. "My father is nice man. She is liar."
My head was spinning. Sweat pooled under my armpits. I couldn't stop myself from stealing another glance at Ivan's bruises, no more than I could stop myself from remembering my mother asking me about his father a few months before. I understood then, and only then, why Ivan had to move away, why my mother had really asked me to talk to him all these months. It all felt like a pop quiz you never wanted to know the answers to.
Ivan's words followed me as I picked myself up from the windowsill and headed toward the door, down the stairs, past the living room where Mrs. Volkov was talking into the landline, speaking words I couldn't understand, and out into the sunshine.
My mother startled when I tapped the window, then unlocked the car.
"What happened?" she asked, glancing at the radio clock. It was only 4:38. "You're done already?"
"They're busy with their moving," I said. And even to my ear it sounded like I could be one of the Volkovs, like my words were made of glass. I knew they would shatter if I said anything more.
"Oh," my mother said. She wrapped her fingers around the key in the ignition but didn't start the car. She turned to face me, study my features. "Did you get your money from Mrs. Volkov?"
She had never asked this before.
"She said she had a special gift for you for all your hard work and help with Ivan."
In my mind's eye, I imagined my mother holding that stack of money—her own money. Had it seemed larger than before? Was it more than fifty dollars?
I decided it didn't matter, that Ivan and Mrs. Volkov would probably need that money more, wherever they were going.
"Yes," I managed. Not "yeah," not "yep." Just yes.
Peace returned to my mother's face as the engine purred to life. It was the only sound in Ivan's quiet neighborhood. "I'm glad."
And for the last time, we pulled away from the memory of Ivan's house. My mother kept her eyes on the road the whole time, but just once, as we passed his mailbox, I allowed myself one look back, and my eyes found Ivan's.
He knelt on his bed and watched us drift farther into the distance. Just as we rounded the corner, right before he was out of sight, he nodded his head, the same way his mother had the first time I ever showed up to their house. And for all the ways I'd tried to teach Ivan how to say hello, it felt like he was returning the favor. Like he was trying to teach me a new way of saying goodbye.
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Dear Zack, I've read your story, the plot is fabulous. However, I have some questions about this story: -How does the theme "communication" develop through dialogues? -Is Gia's mom the person who beats Ivan? -What is the theme trying to tell us? I 'm confused about the relationship between the characters in the story and who is the person make the bruises from Ivan? I will be very appreciated if you could answer those question. Have a nice day!
Hey, Simon. First, thank you for the kind comment. It's much appreciated. To answer your questions: - The theme is just as much about communication as it is miscommunication. Simon refuses to speak, Gia's mother refuses to tell the truth about how much she knows about the situation. Plus there's the language barrier. The theme and dialogue is mostly about people trying to make a connection with one another. - Gia's mother knows Ivan is being beaten, but she isn't the one beating him. - I personally think the theme is about the importance of...
First, your story is awesome. Thank you. My students are doing a literary analysis of your short story. They are currently trying to cheat. Keep the stories coming, friend. Mr. Miles
Thank you, Mr. Miles, for the heads-up and for choosing this story to use for your class activities! I was wondering what caused such a recent re-interest in this piece, and now I have the answer. (I will say, though, that's quite inspired for the students to directly ask the author what a story means.) Much appreciated.