Olga Zilberbourg




I was peeling potatoes for dinner one day when my doorbell rang. The sudden shrill noise made me jump and I dropped my paring knife into the compost pail. I rinsed my hands in the sink and wiped them on the dish towel, at which point the doorbell rang again. My unexpected visitor was growing restless.

At the door stood a middle-aged woman, a platinum blonde, dressed conservatively in a gray pantsuit. She had a pleasant symmetrical face and pale blue eyes. Something about her face looked vaguely familiar, as if I’d met her before. “I’m sorry to disturb you on a Saturday,” she said, “I don’t want to take up a lot of your time, so let me ask you directly if you want to make a donation.”

I should’ve said, “Thank you, but no thanks” — what I always say to the Mormon missionaries — but then I paused to think how I knew that the woman wasn’t Mormon. It took me a moment to process that she’d spoken to me in Russian, which would not have been strange if we were in Moscow or in Yekaterinburg, but actually we were in San Francisco on a bright, sunny day. My next-door neighbor was out washing his car. He waved at me, and I waved back. I threw a second glance at the woman and saw that she was tired, leaning against the door frame.

“Would you like some tea?” I asked the woman, surprising myself. My voice in my native tongue was a little shaky. I’d left Russia as a teenager and lived in Israel for several years before coming to the United States. I spoke Russian once a week on the phone with my parents.

“Gladly,” the woman said. “I’ve been on my feet all day.”

She took off her shoes as she came through the door, and I unwrapped a package of hotel slippers that I’d been keeping in the hallway for—just for such an occasion. I led her straight to the kitchen. “A lovely place,” she said, appreciatively looking around. She stopped in front of the open double doors to my studio/bedroom, where I was working on a fanciful painting of Leningrad—a memory that, like the universe, kept expanding as time went on. “Are you an artist?”

“An actuary,” I said, “I paint in my free time.”

“You are talented,” the woman said. “I get chills from looking at this . . . what is this meant to be? A fisherman sitting on top of a high rise?”

“She’s trying to catch the moon in the lake of tears that fills the courtyard between the buildings that circumscribe her entire world,” I explained.

“I see,” she said, and I could see that she’d already lost interest in the painting. “You did the water very well—it looks so cold!”

“It’s surreal,” I replied. I led her to the kitchen, where I filled a kettle with tap water and put it on the stove to boil. Then I set the table: I took some cheese from the fridge, bread, and butter. I found a jar of raspberry preserves in the cupboard, and a half-full package of chocolate bon-bons I’d bought at a Russian store in the Richmond neighborhood.

As I set these things in front of the woman, I noticed that she automatically picked up the half-peeled potato I’d left lying on the table and proceeded to peel it. “You don’t have to do that,” I said, taking the knife and the potato from her and moving them to the sink. “I’ll finish that later. Would you like some halvah? I think I have a slice of halvah left—” The halvah had been leftover from my last trip to Israel, but at the last moment I remembered that the woman was looking for donations to her church, and decided not to bring up Israel. I was enjoying playing hostess Russian-style and didn’t want to compromise my performance. The authenticity lay in the details.

“Tell me about your church,” I asked the woman, looking in my cupboard among baggies of almonds and walnuts and packages of raisins and cranberries for the halvah.

“We’re very service-oriented,” she said. “Our volunteers run a daycare center for the kids, where we read Pushkin and Marshak, stage little plays. We also have volunteers to help our aging members, to deliver groceries and discuss the daily news. We run a library and computer center, where new immigrants can access the job boards and educational tools to learn English. Our operating costs aren’t very high, but every little bit helps. What money is left over, if money’s ever left over, we use to fund occasional community events. We host a dinner on Old New Year’s and a potluck party for Pushkin’s birthday in June.”

“Here it is!” I said, pulling out the halvah from behind a jar of pickles. Only half of the original loaf remained, but it was still squishy and moist. I removed it from the package and set it on a plate in front of the woman. The kettle boiled, and I filled the teapot with some fresh leaves, doused them with hot water, and wrapped the pot in the dishtowel, just as my grandmother used to do to get the tea steeply brewed.

Finally, I poured the tea into two mugs and sat beside her. “But what religion do you represent? Russian Orthodox? And how did you find me?”

“Did I say we’re a church?” The woman stirred her tea with a spoon. “We’re really more like an organization, a cultural center. Most of our older members came to the US before the Soviet Union crumbled and don’t really practice any religion.”

“So you’re not affiliated with the Orthodox church?”

“Nor with any of the synagogues. We’ve hosted events at the JCC—but that’s before we got our own facilities.”

“Where are you located?”

“Not far from here. Do you know the Catholic school in Pacific Heights? Across the street.” The woman took a slice of bread and spread it with butter, then put a slice of halvah on top. “Your tea is quite good. Where do you get it?”

“This one is from the Russian store,” I said. “What about the Russian government? Do you know the people on Green Street? Do you receive any funding from the consulate?”

“No, no! Not at all,” the woman protested. “A couple of years ago, the consulate installed a commemorative plaque on Russian Hill for the soldiers who died there—it’d been our project, we’d been gathering the resources and designing the memorial. But they lured away our architect and offered money to the city—and voilà! No, we don’t do any business with those thugs.”

I watched the woman eat the halvah sandwich. She chewed vigorously but with great decorum, taking care that no crumbs showed in the corners of her mouth. I hadn’t had dinner yet and grew hungry watching her enjoy the food. I stood up and, although this wasn’t very polite or hostess-like, finished peeling my potatoes.

“We’re planning to start a ballet class this year,” the woman said. “One of the members of the San Francisco ballet troupe is a Vaganova graduate, and she’s a generous young woman. She will donate her time to practice with our kids. We only need to find a space with a barre.”

“It all sounds good,” I said, “but I don’t have children.”

“You’re still young, you will one day.” The woman took another slice of bread and spread more butter on it, and this time topped it with cheese. She opened the jar of jam and was looking for a place to put some. I’d forgotten to set out the saucers. I pulled one out now, and she acknowledged it by immediately putting it to use.

“I understand your hesitation,” the woman said. “Many of our current members are like you—they don’t like to give their hard-earned money to causes of no immediate use to them. This is a part of our shared Soviet heritage, unfortunately. The Chinese cultural organizations, the Mexican cultural organizations, they prosper and thrive in this country, but the Russian? When we first started, we had trouble getting people together even to celebrate New Years. We understand all that. We were like that ourselves. But we believe in Russian culture, and we don’t want to leave it hostage to religious organizations or to the Russian government. I can see that you’re a well-educated young woman—you like to read, to paint, to listen to music. So do we. And we believe in Vyssotsky, Galich, Dovlatov, Bulgakov, Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak, and we want our children to grow up knowing the names of authors and musicians who have made Russia great despite, or even in spite of, all the upheavals of its history and politics.”

“I admit, your agenda sounds very good,” I said, dropping the last potato into the pot and setting it on the stove to boil. I had some stew meat in the fridge that I’d been planning to fry up for dinner, but I didn’t feel like I could start that while the woman stayed in my kitchen. My hospitality could extend only so far. I didn’t want her company for dinner. I had a TV show queued up to play on my computer, a new episode I’d been waiting all week to watch. “What’s your next event? Do you do some concerts, some evening shows? I’ll try to attend, and will plan on donating some money then.”

“We do concerts, indeed. Evenings of bard music and traditional romances. When Grebenshchikov comes to town, we always organize house concerts for our members. Sometimes we host piano and violin concerts—several of our members have children who’ve become professional musicians, playing in orchestras all around the United States.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “Do you have a program, a website, with this information?”

“Yes, of course. We have a mailing list—we do try to keep it small because our venues aren’t very large—but if you decide to join, I’ll make sure your name’s on it.” She paused, taking another sip of tea and staring at me with her clear blue eyes. She was compelling me to make a decision.

“So, okay, how much does a membership cost?”

“Please remember that our membership fees cover only the most basic services, and our needs far exceed that. Generally, most people give about $200 a year.”

“Do you have a form or something for me to sign?”

“Of course.” The woman moved aside her tea things and produced a folder with preprinted forms. “We prefer cash or a check,” the woman said.

I gave her a check for the minimum $80—which felt like a lot of money for a service I wasn’t very likely to use. Soon after that, tea time was over. The woman started fidgeting with her purse, and I walked her to the door. As she put her street shoes back on, I remembered to ask again, “How did you get my name and address in the first place? I don’t think I’m listed anywhere.”

“We don’t keep track of these things,” she said vaguely. “You have Russian friends, don’t you? Through friends of your friends, no doubt.”

It disturbed and comforted me at the same time to think that I had friends who had friends who were connected with a Russian organization in San Francisco and who thought that I too might be interested in being connected with the Russian organization. My family lived in Israel and most of my friends in America weren’t Russian or Russian Jewish—but I had spent my childhood and my most formative years in Russia, and even though I didn’t go out of my way to do Russian things, I felt touched that somebody still recognized me as Russian and thought that I belonged to this Russian community. That night, I finished making my dinner and watched my TV show, and then, feeling nostalgic, went online and found a Soviet made-for-TV series I’d enjoyed watching as a kid, a story about a girl from the end of the utopian twenty-first century who accidentally landed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. I stayed up late into the night watching one episode after another.

About a month later, when I ran out of tea and decided to make a pilgrimage to the Richmond to replenish my supplies, I remembered the woman’s visit and realized I didn’t get any kind of email or a letter in the mail, confirming my membership. My check had gone through, and the money had been deducted from my bank account, but I had nothing to show for it. I couldn’t remember whether the woman had given me a receipt or left her business card. I tried searching online for a Russian center in San Francisco, and several websites popped up, but none of them seemed to match the organization my visitor had described.

I should’ve reported the incident to the police or bank, requested that they trace the check, but I simply couldn’t believe I’d been duped. I decided to give it another few days and waited for an email, for an invitation to a night of bard music or a screening of an old movie—didn’t my visitor say they organized events like that too? But Pushkin’s birthday in June came and went, and soon enough New Year’s was coming up, and I still hadn’t heard anything. I had to admit I’d fallen for a scam. It was too late to do anything but laugh. I started telling this story to my friends, making much of my show of hospitality and the rhetoric the woman used to convince me to give her the money. Everyone loved hearing the anecdote—“It sounds so quintessentially Russian,” they said.

I had told the story to amuse, but then it saddened me that my friends had been amused by it so easily. I didn’t actually think that all Russians were crooks, and I didn’t want that particular stereotype to be the point of my story. This had not been my personal experience growing up in the Soviet Union, where I had enjoyed a perfectly ordinary childhood until my parents decided to emigrate. As the Soviet Union became the thing of the past, I felt that it had left its children with a lingering dream of humanity’s bright future and the hope for universal peace and equality, where Russians, Armenians, Chukcha, and Jews were all one—that these dreams, however naïve and childish, were as much a part of our post-Soviet heritage as our common Russian language or the traditions of the bread-and-butter hospitality.

This insight came to me at a company celebration for one of our actuarial associates who’d graduated to the status of fellow. Like for all such parties, we assembled on the roof of the insurance company building and braved the cold of the evening by consuming a lot of wine. I entertained my colleagues with the story of my visitor, and they started asking typical actuarial questions, “What’s the probability of a scam like this being successful?” and “How many people does she dupe this way daily? Weekly?”

I’d been thinking that the scam seemed designed for me alone, but clearly this was not the case. With small adjustments, it could work on almost any Russian speaker in San Francisco. In her way, the scammer sold me on the same idea of social communion marketed to several generations of Soviet citizens, who had been no wiser than I turned out to be.

My colleagues didn’t understand why I’d fallen mute. They waited for me to say something, but soon moved on to a different subject. I let the party carry me away from the group and moved to the edge of the terrace, drinking my wine, and staring at the low stars sparkling dimly over the far side of the San Francisco Bay. These were the same stars I’d watched as a child from the balcony of our apartment in Leningrad. I was almost grateful to the woman for scamming me, for the sense of connection it gave me to my past. For a moment, I remembered myself as a passionate and determined dreamer. That was the feeling I’d tried to capture in my painting of the girl with the fishing rod, but until now it had escaped me. She was trapped in her corner of the canvas, overwhelmed by the moon, whereas instead she should’ve been turned to the night sky and open to all the worlds it contained.

I finished my wine and quickly left the party, trying to carry this new understanding home with me. But I had been too tipsy to mess with the oil paints that night, and by the time the weekend rolled around, the feeling had lost intensity and memory dimmed again. That painting never got finished.
OLGA ZILBERBOURG grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia and came to the United States at the age of seventeen. Two collections of her fiction have appeared in St. Petersburg, and a short film Where Does the Sea Flow, based on her story, was a finalist in the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Zilberbourg is a bilingual writer and editor and currently serves as a consulting editor at Narrative Magazine.

Read more work by Olga Zilberbourg:

Fiction in Hobart
More fiction in Narrative
A short story in Eleven Eleven