© Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

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The Surge

A true story for April Fools’ Day

Val Vinokur
April 01, 2024

© Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Without a word to her husband or their daughter, my grandmother shoved a chair against the wall and stepped onto the seat. She considered the thing, one hand pinching her forehead, the other on her hip. It wasn’t a fuse box. Or if there ever was a fuse box, it had long been overgrown by a tumor of blue, red, white, and black wires humming and throbbing with disorder, like a dust-covered galaxy threatening to be born.

No wonder my grandmother hated it. This electrical hive protruded just below the ceiling, in the hallway that connected the kitchen to the many subdivided rooms of the communal apartment on Tchaikovsky Street, not far from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow’s Arbat disctrict. In the years following the war, my mother and her parents lived in half of one of these rooms, sectioned off by a thin partition that did not quite reach the ceiling. From the other side of this partition, pointed and drunken discussions about “the Jews” could often be heard. The bathroom was shared by several families or individual pensioners, as was the kitchen, which was populated by a dozen kerosene Primus stoves.

This wasn’t what she had in mind when she became engaged to my grandfather before the war, in Leningrad. In 1939, everything had seemed possible. She and her friends and her siblings and her fiancé studied and worked in a yellow and orderly 18th-century European city. They would stroll through the gardens in the pale summer night and sleep on each other’s couches when the bridges over the Neva were raised until morning. That August, the newspapers were suddenly full of stories about the Soviet Union’s new friendship with Germany. Molotov, the new Soviet minister of foreign affairs, explained to incredulous journalists that “fascism is a matter of taste.” Later that year, my grandfather was mobilized to fight in the Winter War against the Finns, who would shoot at his unit from the treetops.

The signs were there, the smaller disorders that were rehearsals for the tidal wave that uprooted the world. In May 1941, my grandfather’s mother wrote him from Tolochino in Belarus: “Should I sell the cottage you built last summer? I think I should sell it in these uncertain times.”

“Don’t sell it!” he wrote her back from Leningrad. “I’m already planning out the garden Lyuba and I will grow!” Two months later, the cottage was burned to the ground along with most of Tolochino.

My grandfather would serve under Marshall Zhukov on the Belorussian front, where he would eventually lose a lung. He was an artillery lieutenant. Whenever there was an air raid, his unit had to dig a trench, first for the cannon and only then for themselves. One night, there was only time to dig a hole big enough for the piece. His men jumped into the trench and left him and the cannon out in the open. A bomb landed square in the trench, sparing my grandfather and his artillery.

In the meantime, his fiancée had to build bulwarks on the outskirts of the city. One night, her brigade of students spent the night on a farm. The young men offered to let the girls sleep in the barn, while they slept out in the open field. A Luftwaffe bomb landed in the field, sparing none of the boys.

These were the stories my grandmother would tell me years later as we sat in the Miami Beach sunshine. This world, this world was a fundamentally disordered world, whose energy was infinite and perverse, and infinitely perverse. And, according to my grandmother after the war, imposing any kind of order at all on this world was worth any sacrifice, large and small. You could declare victory when, after a week of cleaning strangers’ houses, you went to Barnett Bank and deposited $1.25 or $0.15 and had those amounts printed onto your savings passbook. Victory when you gave away your daughter’s doll because she had started first grade, or when you flushed her aquarium fish down the toilet because she was watching them instead of doing her homework. Those were the stories my mother told me about her mother.

My mother also described the amazing jolt and light that seized my grandmother when she tore at the bramble of wires and flew off the chair and slammed against the opposite wall. For a few seconds, she was still. And then, to the great relief and subdued disappointment of my mother and grandfather, she gasped and came back to life. This life that we are given for a while, for some reason or no reason at all. My grandmother’s family would have to live with her too, with her permanent and insatiable expression of disappointment. One day, my mother asked her father why he couldn’t just divorce her. “How can you ask me that?” he replied. “This person is not well.”

In third grade, after a year and a half of public school in South Beach, I started a new school 60 blocks north, a Jewish day school. In a letter demanding my admission on scholarship, my grandmother’s American cousin, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, explained how it was the school’s responsibility to do its share integrating the newly arrived Soviet remnant into the American Jewish religious and cultural life of which this remnant was entirely ignorant.

I was teased and bullied mercilessly for the entire year to come. I was the wrong kind of Jew, the wrong kind of boy, the wrong kind of smell, the wrong kind of clothes, the wrong kind of money. My overbite was wrong, and I was informed that I was the only child in third grade known to fart and pick his nose, the only child whose body betrayed his dignity. In my Moscow kindergarten, I had been called a yid and a Negro because I was dark-skinned, but there was little malice in it. Those were just observations. Now, my mother caught me trying to bring a kitchen knife to Lehrman Day School, intending to slay the chief of my tormentors, who was also the shortest boy in the class.

Fourth grade I don’t remember. I must have tuned out the world, and the bullying probably stopped because I wasn’t really there to receive it anymore. I do recall one afternoon that year. It was a rainy day. I was looking out the classroom window, watching the utility box across the street, when it was suddenly struck by lightning. The explosion was spectacular. Everyone except me jumped out of their chairs to look outside. A fire engine pulled up several minutes later.

Of course, it’s not entirely accurate to say that lightning struck the pole. After all, the positive charged streamer channels from the utility box flowed up toward the negative charged stepped leader from the cloud at 60,000 miles per hour. It’s not like the sky, or whoever is in charge of the sky, just decided to chuck thunderbolts at the ground, which had been otherwise minding its own business. Heaven and earth were all part of the same system of disorder.

And why was I looking at the utility box? Did I predict the lightning? What if I caused it? Did I call down a strike? Where was the surge? Was it out there, out the window, descending from on high? Or was it here all along, inside the very skull that thought it kept this world outside?

Val Vinokur, a professor of literary studies at The New School, is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press.

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