Arts & Culture

An Old Story

The story below is a better introduction to Daniel Elkind than even I, a friend of years, could provide. Also, he's asked me to keep it short. Born in Moscow, raised in Philadelphia and suburban New Jersey, living in Brooklyn. … Read More

By / July 25, 2008

The story below is a better introduction to Daniel Elkind than even I, a friend of years, could provide. Also, he's asked me to keep it short. Born in Moscow, raised in Philadelphia and suburban New Jersey, living in Brooklyn. A novel and more stories are forthcoming, for our gratitude. – Joshua Cohen, Fiction Editor

 

It's an old story: a father brings his son to the Land, as promised, and the son – though far from prodigal – repays his father with shame, becoming American. Like most immigrant kids, I, too, at one time, was ashamed; though it was not his accent or the way he smelled, but the coins my father made me use – coins disfigured and torn, warped, "But not void," he said; "legal tender." Coins scarred and tarnished he brought home in his hands, sympathetically cracked and dirty, and gave them to us to use at school and in rollerskate rinks, mostly nickels and quarters salvaged from old Chevrolets and Toyotas and Buicks he had put through the shredder at the scrapyard where he worked – nickels and quarters forgotten amid the fluff that was once the gaps between seats or the glove compartment. After school I'd load them into slots and get change, less but shiny, to avoid having to convince the ladies at lunch that my money was good even though there had been a pogrom: Jefferson had only one eye, and Monticello was razed down to one story. When we'd go over the bridge he'd roll down the window and hand the indifferent toll booth blacks his corrugated metal chips as I looked at the city beyond and the grey water below, feeling touched and embarrassed, hoping my son's love would show through the gaps in my ingratitude and trying to understand that this was his acceptance, his assimilation, just as I was his accomplice in survival, and that in his eyes he was only the picture of a decent father: he didn't smoke, didn't drink, and never let the four of us go a day without enough to eat, which only added to the burden – the unforgivable debt that was not his fault either. My acceptance lay in my embarrassment; my shame sustained me. I remember not knowing what the bent coins said about what my father looked like inside. Falling asleep, I drew pictures of the world in which change came from old cars and was further recycled by the children of immigrants who didn't have time to understand that money has to look like money, too. I dreamed of some kind of respect, some kind of stability and esteem, which exceeded me in the daytime and wanted different preoccupations, different worries, and an attention that focused on different aspects of the same basic doubt whereas my father was the right hand of God's own optimism. After several hundred dollars in mangled coins he proved something to himself about a childhood I only vaguely knew had been unfair and insulting. He left the scrapyard after six or seven years. That spring an immigrant with the same name killed himself and his wife and her friend in our old neighborhood, a woman we happened to know, and for a day or two our phone rang with voices asking if what was true was true. My father – I remember – was shocked, incredulous, sad, and relieved. His hands got cleaner as he got older and a hole grew at the top of his head. As for me, I got older, too, squandering some of the years and managing to save not a single crushed coin though the money looks like money now and his house will always be my house, still I live with surreal pride and some esteem under a pseudonym: I rent an apartment of refuge in his name.