by Yelena Akhtiorskaya

“You, 6G, are a strange one, no one will deny that.” A Brighton Beach pastoral with photographs by Julia Sherman.

“Esfir” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

ESFIR PUT ON WORK CLOTHES and left her apartment. As she was locking the door, Mark from 6D was already breathing down her neck. He owned no clothing other than underwear, small, white. And slippers. His large body was tapered at the bottom like a mermaid’s—huge shoulders, humble hips, dainty ankles. Why didn’t he topple over? He looked as if he needed to be secured to the wall. His face was red and pockmarked and he was probably an alcoholic; it wasn’t that he looked good for sixty, but bad for forty-two. Wife, yes; children, yes; job, not currently. He needed something to do while his wife did whatever she did with the apartment, the kids, the meat and potatoes, so he wandered the hallway, rode the elevator, and pretended there was someone on the other end of the phone.

Hi, 6G, he said. Long time, no see.

Do you know what day it is? she asked.

My birthday, he said and laughed, sending ripples down the veins in his neck. Your hair is in your face. He brushed it aside with sticky fingers. Cigarettes, toes, sour cream. He kept smiling, as if he couldn’t close his lips. The phone was in his hand. I was speaking to Jimmy here, he’s all the way in Odessa—not our Odessa, but Odessa, Texas—and he said it’s never been this hot, but I don’t believe him because Channel 61 said it’s below freezing. You know how they are in Odessa, the devils, all about having a good time, playing jokes on everyone, not a day of work in their lives.

I’ve never been to Texas, Esfir said, and to her own surprise pinched the warm rubbery skin over his ribs. He took a step back.

What—I’d be working if I could, it’s just that my leg got screwed up, you see, it used to be as long as the other one. He stepped from leg to leg, gaining and losing two inches. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but you don’t look so fresh, 6G. Not so fresh at all. And you’re bony, not for me, I know some men go for that, but I’m old-fashioned.

He spit on the floor and walked away, putting the phone to his ear and yelling: Jimmy! Esfir glanced at the backs of his thighs. They were strong and neat. She took the stairs, the arthritic vertebrae of the building.

Nonna stood by the staircase on the fourth floor, vigorously massaging her thighs with her fists. She stood there all day, attempting to hook anyone who passed. She looked particularly haggard and aggressive because her morning of fishing hadn’t gone well. Esfir was clearly her first catch, and she was the sort one was tempted to throw back.

Nonna’s apartment was an intricate nylon garden of lilacs, sunflowers, spring blossoms. There were no living plants, and one felt there never could be. Nonna planted Esfir at the kitchen table and served a paper cup filled to the brim with kefir. Esfir’s neck began to itch, but she didn’t scratch for fear the itch would spread. She sat on her coat and pulled at the torn edge of the tablecloth.

Nonna and her husband, simple people, got pleasure from throwing waste out the window. Roman even blew his nose into the street below, plugging one nostril and blowing with all his strength, then plugging the other. He did this regularly, even if his nose was empty, even if it almost gave him an aneurism. When Esfir wiped her mouth with a napkin, Nonna instantly tossed the old one out the window and gave her a new one. The pits of peaches, apricots, cherries, were similarly ejected. Nonna’s body was blue with veins. Roman was the silent type. Most of these types grunted, but he didn’t even grunt.

Look at this tablecloth, Nonna said. Esfir looked. It was oilcloth, dandelions on a white background. Esfir let it slide under her fingertips. You see, Roman is always getting crumbs on it. He likes his cake too much.

Roman was tied into a knot in the corner, his knees tearing through his skin. He blinked. Nonna took Esfir’s empty cup and placed it gently on the counter. She lifted the corners of the tablecloth, gathered it into a sack, and walked to the window. With some difficulty she squeezed the fabric through the narrow opening, her cheek pressed to the glass. The tablecloth flapped in the wind. She beat it against the building and tugged it back in.

The upstairs neighbor bangs and bangs all night, Nonna said. We hear shouts, plates breaking. We don’t sleep. Well, Roman sleeps, he can’t help it. He’s predisposed to rest, but not me. We even hear the cries of pigs.

Nonna refilled Esfir’s cup with kefir, and with unbending legs fell sideways onto the sofa. What was I saying? Oh yes, the noise—apocalyptic. She smoothed her robe with dough-kneading hands. And now look at you. No wonder. What are you doing up there?

I live two floors above, Esfir corrected.

Nonna didn’t hear. She continued to massage her legs. They reddened from the pressure of her fists, which made her rub harder—everyone likes to see results. Suddenly she stopped. So it’s you making all that noise, she said.

Esfir nodded once and saw that this was appropriate, so she nodded again. Her body became heavy in the chair.

Nonna acknowledged the nodding. And what is it? Are you slaughtering pigs up there? Do you fling plates at poor fat boars all night long? Mugs, too? Do you overturn furniture as you run after the animals?

Esfir noticed that her business suit was the only black in a room of swirling pastels. She felt a rush of giddiness and held back laughter. Unless the pressure in her chest wasn’t laughter, but— She would not be returning to the office. As soon as she had this realization, there was the urge to reveal it. It had just appeared as something hard, real, fully formed, and she was already debating giving it away.

I’m not going to report you to the super, Nonna said, but you have to quit your nightly activities. Did I ever tell you that my grandfather owned a small butcher shop in Lviv? We lived right above it, one room for the seven of us, but somehow I don’t remember the sounds ever bothering me. My grandmother once told me that occasionally, while sleeping, Grandpa squealed like a pig. Nonna mimicked the squeals and giggled in an easy, pleasant way.

Esfir finished her kefir and Nonna flung the empty cup out the window.

WHEN ESFIR GOT HOME she began to scrub at a jam spill that had hardened on her windowsill. After using her fingernail for half an hour, she had a revelation: cleaning supplies. Not knowing which she’d need, she bought them all. By dawn the apartment was clean. After taking out the last garbage bag, Esfir heard the blast of water. The tap had been running in the bathroom. When she turned it off, the silence was stifling. She hadn’t heard this breed of silence before. A mess was loud, raging, insouciant. Esfir had killed, with cleaning agents, the voices in her home. She could think clearly now, every word took on a definite shape and weight; each time a pin dropped onto the glistening floor of her mind, it made a sound. Countless pins dropped simultaneously, resonating in her skull. She grabbed the phone, dialing the first number that came to her fingertips. There were no rings. Hello, she yelled, hello! Nothing. She slammed the phone down and saw it was the remote control to her TV. She jerked and flung it at the door. The plastic flew back at her.

When she awoke, her head throbbed from lingering chemical fumes. A note had been slipped under her door, written in tiny script on the back of a receipt.

There was no answer when we rang,
There was no answer when we knocked,
We tried the door, but it was locked.

Too many senseless things had been slipped under her door to give this note much thought. The apartment was freezing. It had begun to rain, and puddles formed under the living-room windows. The note got mixed in with the paper towels she used to wipe them, ending up in the garbage. The handwriting reminded her of her father’s, although his was even more microscopic. Sergei liked to write on maps, which had always posed an obstacle for Esfir—not only the colorful clusters of borders, abbreviations, and tangled lines, which muddled the geography instead of clarifying it, but the physical map, unrefoldable. When she thought of Sergei, imagining what he might be doing at the moment, a map was part of the mental image that formed, whether a large map of Europe taped to the wall behind his low-drawn head, among the heap of books on his desk, or a ripped-off piece sticking out of his pocket. The expression on his face never agreed with his surroundings. It was as if the expression came first, and the face had been created to support it. He looked as if he’d been wandering in the desert for forty years. In Russia, where people proudly displayed and boasted of the magnitude of their suffering, his face had been a curse—others grew resentful; though they had lived through worse, they were unable to get their own faces to express such desperation. To wear that grimace was to show off. But here everyone wanted to help Sergei, the political refugee, all he’d been through.

There was a piercing beep, which Esfir hadn’t heard in such a long time it took a second for her to realize it was the lobby door, whose lock she hadn’t expected to ever be replaced. She buzzed it open. There was now someone moving through the building, in the dank, smoky elevator or perhaps on the stairs, inching upward.

A double knock resounded. She’d been hovering by the door and opened it instantly, the knocker’s fist still suspended in the air. The two men were taken aback, and their shock canceled hers. Wrong apartment, she was about to say, when the man thrust his hand out to her.

Luke Green, he said. Esfir took his hand eagerly. He was tall, and the long brown overcoat he wore made it seem as if he were hovering. His eyes were slightly mismatched, although it was difficult to tell because the overhead hallway light fell so severely on his eye bags that the rest of his features were eclipsed. Esfir had to assume he was looking at her, but she couldn’t be sure, which put her at ease.

And this is Ray, Luke said, patting the smaller man on the back. Ray had a pale, broad face with almost no features. No nose except for two neat upturned nostrils. The expanse of unfilled face reminded Esfir of midwestern plains, a home every few miles. The people Esfir knew, who’d been stuffed into ghettos, then communalkas, and now overcrowded apartment buildings, had faces without a square inch to spare, their eyes, noses, mouths overlapping for lack of room.

We’re here because of the ad in the paper, Luke said, and when Esfir still hadn’t caught on, he added, to look at the apartment. The two men exchanged a glance. Ray dug around in his pocket and pulled out a folded page torn from a newspaper. He opened it and showed Esfir the address in print, which had been circled with a highlighter. She held on to the paper and looked closer. The newspaper it had been plucked from was called Bay Currents. She’d seen a pimply boy handing it out at the subway entrance but had never taken one herself. Yet here was her address in the real estate section. And a number underneath, too large to fathom.

Come in, she said. The door closed and reverberated behind them. Ray shivered, but Esfir had forgotten the cold. She let them pass ahead and studied their backs. Neatly tucked into the tall collar of Luke’s brown coat was a silk cantaloupe-yellow scarf. Ray wore a short green plaid coat too light for the weather and a formless gray hat drooping to the side like a beret.

They stood in the corridor, awaiting guidance.

So this is it, she said.

They weren’t satisfied with the presentation. What did they want? In the meantime Ray had looked up and found a few tiny spots of mold on the ceiling, which he pointed out to Luke.

What do you expect? Luke shot back.

Is it always this cold? Ray asked, gripping his elbows, the question oddly addressed to Luke.

Cold? No, it’s not cold, Esfir said. She squeezed through and led the way to the kitchen, her breath suspended in the air as she turned on the light by the stove, hoping there wouldn’t be any cockroaches. A fat one sauntered across the countertop. They hadn’t noticed, she assured herself. Ray began opening cupboards. Luke sniffed around. He placed his palm on the far wall, fingers downward. Then he returned to the corridor and paused, thinking of measurements, as if making tentative calculations, though he was actually doing nothing of the sort. He was receiving. He had the disoriented, spastic, yet intentional movements of a person for whom a space was more than just a container of air. Countless invisible factors had to be taken into consideration.

He had the disoriented, spastic, yet intentional movements of a person for whom a space was more than just a container of air.

Esfir sat down on a rickety old stool she never used. Stools didn’t seem appropriate anymore, just anachronistic—they persisted, but who used them? What luck, she thought as she pulled a stray thread from her sweater. What luck that the place is clean—they could’ve come yesterday, or the day before. She debated whether she should try holding on to this thing, luck, this overpowering sensation.

Luke and Ray were leaning their shoulders against the refrigerator, locked into some hushed discussion. Luke made sweeping gestures with his hands, Ray stared up at him with a tilted head.

Esfir led them into the living room. There were puddles under the windows. Hadn’t Esfir wiped them away? A click sounded behind her and she was convinced the door had closed, the visitors gone. The puddles. She was afraid to turn around, waited to hear another noise, some hint they were still there. But nothing, silence. They had left. She finally turned around and they were standing right behind her, arms outstretched, mentally rearranging the room. Ray started walking the width of the floor, carefully, so that the heel of the stepping foot met the toes of the other. Esfir hurried to the windows and punched her feet into the water in hopes that it would be absorbed by her socks.

Any offers yet? Luke asked quietly. The tone of his voice was different for the question.

Several. The icy water crept up her socks. But nothing has been decided.

Luke nodded significantly and put his palm to the wall. His downward-facing fingers pulsed over the wallpaper.

OK, he said, so this is the living room, and there are two bedrooms?

Esfir, anxious to leave the puddles behind, barged into her bedroom, landing her wet feet on the plastic shards that had been her remote control. Stabbing pain shot through her ankles. Grasshoppers jumped before her eyes in such numbers they blurred her vision. Her lips quivered, but she bit her tongue and forbade any manifestation of pain. She kicked aside the plastic pieces. When she looked at Luke and Ray, they averted their eyes and pretended to be studying the room.

The ceiling leaks, Ray said, nodding toward the brown stains and chipped-off plaster. Luke responded with an irritated sigh but continued looking up, rubbing his recessed chin.

It leaks?

Not anymore since they fixed the roof.

Luke pursed his lips, as if saying, Oh really, but mainly urging her to reiterate.

Yeah, it was about a month ago they replaced the sheathing. No problems, hasn’t leaked since. They’re supposed to repaint the ceiling, too.

Of course it leaks! The pain in Esfir’s feet had been wild, extraordinary, and it had taken extraordinary force to keep from screaming; she succeeded—and was proud, on the verge of exhilarated, her head rising and expanding until her feet were too tiny to be considered … insignificant … and weakness, like a warm, familiar hand pushing back her forehead … while the callous fingers of reality tugged down on her chin. In the middle of something, these men, strangers, wandering her home, already at the entrance to the second, larger bedroom—her parents’ room. Shh, she wanted to say to them. We must be quiet. We must not rouse the … whatever it is that’s lightly, fitfully sleeping. Surely there was something capable of being disturbed. It couldn’t be just them, the three, and nobody, nothing else. Couldn’t be. But what?

There were consequences to spending too much time alone. Esfir was stuck—but excited, too, because something stagnant was being stirred up—in this bedroom, where the same lamp had been standing in the same position for so many years that the ceiling and walls appeared hollowed to a trough by the pressure of the light. Her father’s bodily impression was still apparent on the cushion of the sagging couch, as if he’d lounged there this afternoon.

They were satisfied with the second bedroom, and probably surprised, since it was significantly larger than the first, that she didn’t use it as her own. Luke sat down in a corner and scanned the room. The chair wasn’t sufficient, and he dropped to the floor. Ray waited for Luke to finish, then began his routine of walking the length and width of the room heel to toe. The results he wrote down on the scrap of newspaper. Once they had seen everything, and Ray had pointed out the uneven floorboards in the corridor, the splintering cracks by the windows, and the areas where the base of the wall didn’t quite meet the edge of the floor, they returned to the kitchen and sat down at the table. Esfir sat down with them, knowing only that the end of that wasn’t the end, uncertain as to what next.


Very nice and—

Do they keep to themselves?

Naturally, she said, too readily.

The two men mimicked each other’s smallest gestures, when one crossed his legs the other followed, and when one leaned his head gently to the left, both did.

It’s very important that we have our privacy, Luke said.

I’ve never been bothered, Esfir continued.

So nobody rings the doorbell in the middle of the day?

Nobody even says a word to me, she said.

They don’t want to know what you’re doing?

I’ve never been asked.

They don’t hassle you in the halls?


And it’s not too loud, during the day?


Luke inhaled through his nostrils, held it, and slowly released. It’s just that I work at home, so these things are rather important.

Yes, of course! She was supposed to have been curious about their need for privacy. What kind of manners was it to just let it go? She should’ve inquired—why did they need their privacy, and what did they do? Her lack of interest had certainly been taken for superciliousness. They thought she thought she was better than them. But by revealing only that he worked at home, no specifics, he gave her the opportunity to prove otherwise. She was about to ask—but her throat constricted. The question was right there but couldn’t squeeze past the huge lump that had suddenly appeared in her throat.

Nobody will be ringing the door, and it’s not loud, she said, choosing not to mention the noises.

Luke’s lips were operating an intricate system of tiny muscles most lips weren’t aware they had. Esfir had to look away. They sent too many contradictory messages, and by the time she grasped one, they were already working on another. The second before his voice emerged, the lips lost their extra character and smacked together evenly.

When were you thinking of moving out? The question was posed so casually Esfir didn’t think twice.

I’m flexible on that, she said as if some TV voice spoke through her.

We’d like to move soon, Luke said.

She sat upright. Move here soon?

We’d like to. Am I right? He nudged Ray, who was tapping the table and perspiring. Esfir thought she could smell his damp stewing paleness.

Right, he said. When had they had time to make the decision?

We’re making the offer, Luke said. Ray drew his gaze back to the ceiling, but the sight of the stains was too jarring, and it fell back down to the table.

Did he know this about himself—that he looked forty-five? That he was? And me?

She studied their faces. Luke sat across the table, the vertical wrinkle between his sparse eyebrows deepening, a purple flush being unevenly distributed across his cheeks—in stark contrast to Ray’s imperturbable whiteness. She waited to discover a clue in the gritting of their teeth, the upward-creeping corners of their lips, the shifting position of their brows—discover what? A clue to the joke, or at least the possibility of a joke. They waited. They were serious. No reason to assume otherwise.

Luke, with his narrow shoulders and well-formed head, was most affected by these prolonged silences. How long have you lived here? he asked. Ray studied the wallpaper pattern: rows of repeating prismatic triangles, occasionally interrupted by crusty borscht residue.

Esfir let out a preposterous laugh. Only since I was—

Don’t, she thought. Of course don’t. Ray had prematurely fixed his expression into one of surprise—at the wallpaper, it now seemed. Esfir turned to it abruptly.

It’s old, you could change it.

We like it, Luke said.

It’s a bit old-fashioned, though, and not in the best condition. She traced a triangle with her fingertip. As a little girl, when I refused to eat, my parents would tell me to count the triangles. My jaw would drop open in concentration, at which point they’d stuff in a spoon.

Luke’s laugh wasn’t borrowed or learned, but purely his. It cleansed the air, dispersing the fog that had settled around the table. The new openness between them called for frankness, generosity. The clarity made Esfir notice that Luke was old—forty-five, perhaps. Did he know this about himself—that he looked forty-five? That he was? And me? she thought. Have I lost perspective? Tiptoeing for no reason—through my own home, where I live alone. Keeping my voice hushed. Nobody’s sleeping in the other room. And this should be an emotional moment, she told herself—the culmination of a life in this apartment, these four unaltered rooms. Plus a bathroom. This kitchen—the dark, chilly mornings before school, sloppy eggs, Mama making tea, gingerly sitting down, depositing her gaze into one of the triangles, whistling kettle, getting up and making more tea, Sergei grunting into the refrigerator’s inner light, shuffling his feet, a piece of clear plastic tape stuck to each of his fingers, shaking the orange-juice carton, sloshing emptily, neighbor’s mottled cat on the fire escape, whistling kettle. Esfir toiled, she dug, but the unearthed fragments were neither valuable nor interesting. The kitchen was itself, nothing more. Nothing prevented it from becoming someone else’s.

Yours, she said, and jumped up to fill the kettle. Tea?

No, that’s OK, Luke said. Ray shook his head in agreement.

It’s no trouble. How many sugars?

Really, we don’t want any.

One teaspoon per cup is best. It’s good tea. She mixed one teaspoon into all three mugs, then brought them to the table. The rising steam relaxed their chins.

It’s just that it’s getting late … the caffeine … it keeps me up.

There’s no caffeine, Esfir said, her hand swinging away the worry.

Oh! Decaffeinated?

Decaffeinated? Of course, she said, relieved, and nodded vigorously to show how absurd she found the idea of drinking caffeinated tea this late. She succeeded. Luke was taking sips from the mug in his long-fingered hand. Imagine him as if this were his kitchen. It wasn’t impossible to imagine. He looked exactly like this. He didn’t let down his guard for anyone, not even for himself.

It is good tea, he whispered to Ray, who hadn’t touched his.

Eh, Ray replied, but proceeded to lower his face into the cup.

It’s interesting, but I’ve never been much of a tea drinker, Luke said.

Me neither, Ray confirmed. Coffee I understand, but tea? What’s the idea?

You’re not moving to the right place then, Esfir said.

Is that right? What, is there a law here—a minimum of two cups a day?

Well, it is good, Luke reasoned, especially on a winter night like this.

Don’t tell me you haven’t been informed of the laws here? Esfir said. She nudged aside some napkins, found a buried butter biscuit, and dipped it twice into her cup. It warmly dissolved on her tongue.

And the other laws—we should know if we’re going to live here.

All winter you can only eat potatoes, on the beach in the summer you have to wear brightly colored Speedos, what else, you have to become uglier, fatter, and hang your eyebrows lower …

All winter you can only eat potatoes, on the beach in the summer you have to wear brightly colored Speedos, what else, you have to become uglier, fatter, and hang your eyebrows lower, your drinking habits must change, rough up your livers a little. Do you want to know more or is that enough? She’d wound herself into an electric state. Decaffeinated tea? No leaks? Their bewildered, expectant eyes!

If everything is settled, we’re ready to go.

Esfir panicked. Was everything settled? Settled what? She didn’t want them to leave now. I can show you around Brighton Beach, she said.

It’s late, Luke said, forcing a yawn. We have to get all the way back to Flushing.

But I have to go out anyway, for milk.

Luke and Ray had placed their fingers on the edge of the table, straightened their spines, and turned to face each other. They were trying to signal the right answer.

The trains are bad, Ray said.

So if it will already take a while, it might as well take a while later, Luke said. The logic was infallible.

Ray scratched his forehead and mumbled, I guess.

It would be nice to be shown around by a native, Luke added.

To feel a thrill at being called a native was senseless. But the word took an express route to her gut. She stood in order not to squirm. They’d labeled her correctly—a native. The stamp of nothing less than purity.

This will be good for us, Luke said. We’ll be by the water, and we’ll have our privacy—we’ll be able to really work.

They put on coats, hats, wound themselves in scarves, and with rigid joints staggered into the hallway.

Mark from 6D sat on the staircase that led toward the roof, tapping his cigarette on the banister, oily from his hands. Once the ash had been flicked off, he inhaled with such passion his cheeks caved in and the triangle of skin between his clavicles fluttered. To fill that chest he’d need a hundred cigarettes and a vacuum instead of a mouth. Esfir’s breath halted upon seeing him. She hoped he wouldn’t say anything, but the grin meant he was in fighting form.

What’s this? Some company?

Luke and Ray studied him cautiously. They didn’t understand what he said because it was in Russian. They kept their hands in their pockets. Men never knew what to do with their hands.

They’re my friends, Esfir said, knowing that it was a mistake to give him even this much.

Mark threw back his head, but the laughter came with a delay like the discharge of thunder after lightning. Ugly, explosive cackles echoed through the hallway. They came at intervals like hiccups. He held onto his bouncing stomach, stuck his finger into the taut belly button, and pulled at the curling black hairs. There was an audience, which on that far end of the sixth floor was a rare occurrence. Such an occasion couldn’t be wasted. And he was in a gregarious mood. Dinner had settled nicely, the cigarette had brought peace to his gastric tumult. The day was finished, and in the hour or two before sleep there was nothing much to lose or gain. He spread his knees and spat on the lower stair.

These two? Which circus did you find them in? You, 6G, are a strange one, no one will deny that, but come on, even you could do better than these two. Or—I know. It was a deal. Americans always love a deal. Two for the price of one! He threw back his head again. The clap of laughter resounded.

Esfir hadn’t even taken two steps from her door. The lobby floor turned to wet sand, and her feet were sinking. She couldn’t look at Luke or Ray. But they didn’t understand, she tried to assure herself. They didn’t know he was talking about them. Just move! Take a step! Hopeless …

Now Mark had gathered the courage to attempt the shared language. Esfir’s attention wasn’t enough for him anymore.

You and you—yous from what planet fly here?

Queens, Luke replied.

Mark threw his head back. If his neck hadn’t been so beefy it would’ve snapped in half. Esfir winced at what was to come. It was as if there was a sequoia inside that monstrous belly and a giant hacking at it. The laughter splintered off abruptly. He turned to Esfir.

Does he think I’m an idiot? I know where Queens is! What does he think, I don’t ever leave this hallway?

Suddenly a door opened and a dwarfish blimp of a woman stepped out. The robe she had on was stained, torn, open at the neck. Bosoms! Bosoms everywhere—a bosom in her neck, one in each forearm, even hanging from her elbows. Her fists were glued to her hips and her eyelids had receded until the better part of the glowing eyeball was exposed. She was a moving, burning stove.

You beast! The voice rang out from each of her bosoms. Swine, come inside—have you lost your peanut brain for good? The whole building shakes whenever you open your trap. It’s after ten. That would mean something to you if you actually had to get up in the morning! Lazy scum! Look at you—in your underwear. The idiot! You want people to call the police, you want to be locked up? I’d be thankful! But don’t think they serve cream herring and potatoes in jail. Get in here before you wake up the whole building. You good-for-nothing. Come on, you lazy pig. What are you laughing about? There’s a saying, you know—laughter with no cause is a sign of retardation! Keep laughing, let them call the police. What am I thinking? Let them take you away. What a prize you are. I’ll give you something more to laugh about.

She stepped inside and slammed the door. It was locked three times.

Esfir found the strength to walk, and the men followed.

Hey, yous—allo—you two names, listen, Barnoom and Bailey, he shouted after them triumphantly, then got up and began kicking his door. Mama, I’ll be a good boy.

The elevator was shivering. Not the elevator, Esfir was shivering. Luke hadn’t noticed the steaming pool in the corner and stepped into it with the little heel of his shiny leather shoe. Esfir’s eyes darted up so he wouldn’t follow them into the puddle. Luke was probably sensitive about his shoes.

He’s not usually like that, she attempted. That’s the first—really—never been that way. I have no idea … I’ve never even seen his wife before so … it doesn’t happen often. Luke’s mouth was a dark swirling drain. Ray seemed almost satisfied. A point had been proved effortlessly. Esfir noticed some wheels turning behind his eyes.

So that’s the next-door neighbor, Ray stated calmly. He glanced at Luke but it went unreciprocated. And the wife, he said. We gave them a good show, some evening entertainment. We got their blood boiling.

Us? Luke asked. Us? That man’s an animal. Sitting around in his underwear. What was he even saying?

Nothing, Esfir said. I couldn’t understand him.

That laugh, my God! Luke whispered in disbelief. Horror intensified the green of his eyes and pulled them together. A beast! Luke seemed on the verge of collapse, but instead broke into convulsive fits of stifled laughter. In his underwear, he uttered between giggles, a lunatic.

I’m sorry, Esfir said.

Ray snarled. I’m just sorry you live next to that. He sighed. And what are you laughing at, Luke? You’re scaring me. Was what that man had contagious? Did you catch it?

Luke kept laughing. He put his hand on Ray’s shoulder, leaned over, and laughed into the floor. The elevator came to a stop.

In the lobby they stood and held their hats. Esfir pulled her burgundy one over her ears. At least the lobby was festive and religiously unbiased. There was a New Year’s tree by one window, a cardboard cutout of Grandpa Frost, and Happy Hanukkah banners sagging over the elevator. True, the chandelier was missing some lights, and the ceiling’s gold paint was full of fissures.

She needed to know if the deal was on or off. Unsubtle, to the point. Yes or no. She had to know. But she couldn’t ask. Asking would introduce the possibility of no. Was that possibility already floating in the stale lobby air? Perhaps. But asking would only bring it to the ground. The possibility, just the thought, was devastating.

Someone in a nearby apartment was frying onions. The smell spread through the building, clung to them. Was it on or off? She opened her mouth, was about to … couldn’t … a last inhale of warmth as they braced themselves for the cold.