The Russian skies had run out of sunshine. Gray clouds left the town a colorless painting of salt-stained sidewalks and long waiting lines. Gusts of wind punched through the line of brick houses and shops in the town square, shaking the awnings and shutters.
Mama’s eyes were bleary, how they get when she says she’s not tired. Strands of black hair fell out of the scarf around her head, touching her face.
I clung to her secure hand as we waited in another line outside the grocery store. This time the line ran all the way past the edge of the block, almost to the place where Mama sometimes buys fabric to make quilts.
My legs hurt and I was cold. I grew fidgety.
“Katya,” Mama snapped at me.
Her face was stern and showed no mood for my restlessness.
Somewhere in front of us (I was too little to see where) I heard voices whispering about the government. I bent my head toward the sounds of conversation and caught familiar words: “shortage” and “Brezhnev”. The wind scattered the rest of the conversation high into the bare trees.
“Brezhnev” – Papa and Mama would sometimes say that name in the house after dinner when they drank tea and had grown-up talk. Mama told me that he ran the country. But whenever I’d ask Papa, he’d laugh and tell me, “Oh, Katya, you’re too young to worry about politics. Russia takes good care of us.”
We needed toilet paper. The stores ran out a week ago. So did everyone else. Last time we came, Mama was able to buy extra and make it last. Papa has a friend he plays cards with who manages the grocery store. Sometimes he tells us when he thinks things might run out.
Papa’s friend didn’t know about the bread though. We need bread for dinner tonight. Hopefully there will still be some left.
Here, grown-ups cry sometimes like children do. Once, Mama cried, too, when there was no more bread. She hung her face in her hands. I cried so she would stop. She pulled out one of Papa’s handkerchiefs from her purse and bent down and wiped my cheeks. “I’m sorry, Katya,” she told me, “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I stopped crying. See?”
Bodies closed Mama and me in on both sides. We were a link in an endless chain. My mind floated somewhere else. Everyone had on fur coats. For a while I pretended they were hungry bears growling at each other instead of talking.
A man standing behind us wore a warm hat cocked to one side and a gray beard. I looked up at him. My eyes traced the wrinkles in his face like a maze, following them up to the deeper ones by his eyes. This game went on until he noticed me and smiled. I hid behind my mother’s legs, peaking at him from under her coat.
When we got to the store-front the line fed into a room of empty faces. Papa’s friend was helping keep people who were sick of waiting from pushing ahead in line.
“Yegor!” Mama shouted to him over the people’s heads, “Is there bread?”
“Sorry, Lyubov,” he said to Mama.
Inside the grocery store children cried to go home. People argued over the last of things.
Many of the shelves were bare, exposing the blank wall behind them. Condiments and pet food sat untouched in heaps as did other oversupplied goods. Another line that touched the back of the store waited at the cash register.
There were no apples for apple sauce, but plenty of baby food. Mama put two jars in her grocery bag. They would have to do.
A small sack of potatoes sat alone on a shelf. Something we could trade to a neighbor for bread! Mama grabbed it.
A light hum came from her lips. I recognized it. It was the Psalm Mama sings to me when I wake up at night afraid of the dark.
I sang the words I knew so well:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life, all the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever, forever, forever, Amen.*”
Mama stopped and knelt down to my level, “I love you, Katya.”
I felt her warm tears when she hugged me. But I was not frightened.
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