Black and White Days

17 Apr

We had dissidents in the house back then. They had been broken and re-arranged by the system, down in the salt mines, but they had once been decent people. These men (there were never any women) were sculptors, writers, professors, intellectuals, people who wore eye glasses. What came out of the gulags, if they were ever allowed to come out, were peanut shells without peanuts. Gaunt, jaundiced, toothless, brittle, with a sort of delayed, leaking death flowing from their eyes like a gooey conjuctivitis. One of them brought me a tiny little, rubber penguin; something one might put on a key chain. When I took it from his hand, I felt his skin; it reminded me of distressed leather and dry yoghurt. There was almost no electricity flowing through his flesh, no life. They were all weirdly-mutilated corpses, these men. My father served them Turkish coffee and received them in his reading room. That’s how the system came at you first. With the soft ones. To show you what they could do to men. These intellectuals were re-arranged as easily as making new stained glass designs from rogue, shattered pieces. It’s amazing to me, even to this day, how easily everything fell into patterns; into routines. Even the arrival of these men at our apartment. The system had found its rhythm: the disappearances, the violence, the forced public confessions to crimes that had never been committed, the executions, the torture. Once, we hosted a man who had been arrested, tortured, and re-educated in the salt mines for listening to Radio Free Europe. His mother, sitting on a chair nearby, had overheard his short wave transistor on the beach at the Black Sea and turned him in. There was a trial, which was televised; it was quite famous. The mother sat across from her son, on a simple stage, and accused him of being corrupted by the West. She accused him of smoking Kent cigarettes and drinking Johnnie Black. She told him he deserved to die because he had betrayed the revolution and the people and the state. And he agreed with her. They both sat there on the empty stage talking as they might have of arrangements for his forthcoming marriage. Only they were agreeing casually that his crimes were so heinous the only way he could atone for them was to accept execution. But the system let him go after it eviscerated him for five years. Men like him were the first line of offense for the system. They came at you like smiling zombies and tried to turn you. All you had to do was look at them. You could imagine the rest. My father kept photographs of the friends who disappeared and never again came out. The system had a good track record of erasing your entire history if you were condemned. But my father held on to photos. They were old pictures, passport photos, student IDs. In these insidiously innocent photos the men all smiled with a conscious pose for the camera. My father used these photos as shoe trees, crumpled up and stuffed into his thirty-year-old proletarian loafers. He took them out almost daily to look again at those faces he had last seen before they were plucked suddenly out of history. Those were black and white days; there were no gradations or shades of anything. It’s how we all lived.

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