It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This is part one of a two-part fiction piece featured in our summer 2019 issue.
ON HIS THIRD MONDAY working for the Antoinette Parks and Rec Department, Pechkin finds the Bugler streaked with red from the knees down. The front of the granite pedestal is entirely covered in viscous red paint, and in the muggy June morning thick scarlet runnels glisten on the bronze plaque. Pechkin is shocked. His first thought: Communists? Here? In Antoinette, Texas?
Twenty days earlier, Pechkin sat at the edge of a visitor's chair in the office of the Parks and Rec director, a blonde woman hardly older than Pechkin's daughter. She wore an old maid's navy polyester suit, and her thick lenses in outdated pink frames made her look four-eyed, as if she was looking through the lenses and over them at the same time. All these eyes darted between Pechkin's face and his English-language résumé, which occupied the only spot on the director's desktop not taken up by sagging archipelagos of stacked papers or the large engraved glass nameplate that read DR. A. NOWAK.
"Chief conservator at—" she consulted the résumé—"Art Park Muzeon? What's Muzeon? A typo?"
"No, miss," he said. "That's real name. Muzeon." He pronounced it the way it was called in Russian, Moo-zeh-ohn, the stress on the last syllable. "It's very famous museum in Moscow. Outdoors. More than one thousand objects! In Gorky Park. You know, Gorky Park, like crime novel?"
The four eyes glared at him.
"Doctor, not miss." The Parks and Rec woman pointed to the glass nameplate, and the eyes receded behind the lenses, disinterested and without compassion. "I don't read crime novels. I read the classics. War and Peace. Crime and Punishment. You're Russian, you must know these, of course."
Pechkin began to panic.
"Oh yes, yes, I know! Of course! Tolstoy! Of course, I read!"
He was too eager. He was too old. His accent was too strong. He needed this job.
"Miss—Doctor, Doctor! Doctor Nowak. I have experience. I was chief conservator for 25 years. Very-very good chief conservator. Please. I have recommendation letters. Look."
What did these letters contain? An account of an unremarkable but unblemished ascent from the Moscow State Institute of Culture to assistant to the chief pottery restorator at the Depository branch of the Tretyakov Gallery; after that, minor promotions every year or two, depending on the retirement pace of higher-ranking colleagues. In 1992, when the Tretyakov Gallery established Muzeon, Pechkin was appointed chief conservator, which was at once a promotion and a kind of a stowing away—as it was, too, for the hundreds of sculptures in his care, upgraded from inconsequential pigeon perches on medians to showcased exhibits in a museum for politically obsolete art, row upon row of decommissioned Lenins and Dzerzhinskis, hammers and sickles in marble and bronze.
Dr. Nowak glanced at the letters and her four eyes grew disdainful. She pushed the pages back toward him with the tip of her pen.
"I don't read Russian," she said. "Who are these from?"
"Tretyakov Gallery, Doctor. You know Tretyakov Gallery?"
At that, at last, she smiled.
"Dear Varyeshka," Pechkin wrote, in Russian, in an email to his daughter that evening, after a supper of baguette with salami and cheddar cheese—the orange kind—and a glass of strawberry-flavored kefir. "How is school? Today I found my first job in America. I will be the chief conservator at the Antoinette Parks and Recreation Department. Who knew such a position was even available? I will be in charge of 28 memorial sites, 11 statues, an historic cemetery, and a playground. Of course this is not the same as Muzeon—but still, not bad for a small town and your old man, eh? I am so relieved. My boss is a very stern lady doctor from Poland. Please write when you get a chance. Even better, come see me soon. I hope you're eating well. Love, Papa XO."
THE BUGLER IS ONE of the four monuments set at cardinal points of the tidy lawn of the town courthouse where Pechkin's daily rounds begin. Facing south is a wall of polished black marble called Defend Our Freedom, engraved with the names of the Antoinetteans killed in recent wars. To the east, in an octagonal bed of geranium, a 6-foot clapperless brass bell called Founding Fathers. To the west, a bust of Flannery O'Connor, whose short stories Pechkin read in Russian translation 30 years ago, when he was a student at the Institute of Culture. Pechkin takes stock of the rest of the monuments and is relieved that all of them are clean apart from the usual cobwebs and birdshit.
The Bugler faces north. According to the plaque now thick with paint, he embodies Antoinette's patriotic spirit. Pechkin finds the statue itself to be artistically uninspired: a 9-foot everyman in generic period costume, which is cast into long creases to make the clothes appear windswept. This symbolizes onward motion and the wearer's determination in the face of adversity; Pechkin had a few Lenins like this back in Moscow, trench coats blowing in the imaginary head-on wind while beards remained miraculously unruffled. Feet set a hip distance apart: determination, again. One hand planted at the hip, the other clasping a bugle. Instead of a bugle, Pechkin's Lenins brandished a cap—the symbol of the Great Leader—or a rolled-up newspaper, the symbol of enlightenment. The bugle, guesses Pechkin, would be the patriotic spirit, then.
What Pechkin likes about the Bugler is the bronze plaque fringed by cast-bronze laurels—a cheaper monument would have gone with the more modest stone carving, like Defend Our Freedom—and in particular the inscription on it: "Dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy. On a blistery morn of January 20, 1908, 12 girls equipped with rope and patriotic determination pulled this pedestal into place." These must have been the daughters, Pechkin thinks, and he imagines a modified version of Ilya Repin's painting "Barge Haulers on the Volga," in which instead of the bedraggled grimy serfs in brown tatters leaning into their frayed towing harnesses, 12 nymphets in petticoats and curls and fur muffs prance gaily up the courthouse hill.
Feet set a hip distance apart: determination, again. One hand planted at the hip, the other clasping a bugle.
Now the plaque is obnoxiously besmirched. Stretchy red goop swags on the apertures of the elegant raised ms and ns. Pechkin touches the paint with his index finger, and when he pulls it away a gossamer vein stretches to the plaque like a line of an autumn spider's silk dyed red.
Pechkin rubs the paint-smeared finger against his thumb, brings his hand up to his nose, sniffs it to determine the chemical makeup of the paint, gets into his town-issue golf cart and drives to Lowe's for the paint stripper. He decides not to tell the Parks and Rec woman about the paint, she doesn't need to worry. He's got this.
"HOW CAN YOU BE doing this?" Varya asks when he tells her about the Bugler and the paint. "How can you not see that these monuments are politically problematic?"
Varya came to America years ago as an exchange student, stayed, married an American, became a citizen, received a master's degree in social justice, got divorced, and kept the house. When her mother died she sent him a next-of-kin invitation. "I just hate thinking that you are there alone without Mama, in all that snow with all those cold stone monsters," she said. "Come to America, Papa."
But by the time he had hurdled the green card bureaucracy and arrived in Texas she had begun her doctoral studies in feminist ecology and moved closer to campus, almost two hours away. He is staying in her house in Antoinette alone, though he doesn't have to pay rent, of course. It is Saturday and she has driven down to Antoinette to celebrate his new job at Tex-Mex restaurant. They are having margaritas in pink plastic chalices. The place smells of burnt lard and the food tastes like bad Georgian food drowned in cheese. Pechkin doesn't tell his daughter that Café Pancho Villa on the Arbat with the Gypsy Kings soundtrack is much better.
"They are art objects, Varyeshka. Art objects are apolitical."
"How can you say that? You curated a whole museum—"
"Whatever, conserved—okay, you conserved a whole museum of art objects that had been used for political propaganda responsible for the deaths of millions of people! That's why they ended up in your museum."
Varya's Russian is accented from disuse. If she doesn't find a decent Russian Jewish husband she will lose it, but where would she find a decent Russian Jewish husband in Texas? Pechkin steals glances left and right, sees families of people sharing big meals, laughing in Spanish. Fat, he thinks.
"And the Confederate monuments you are—conserving—are still today being used to intimidate people of color and maintain white supremacy."
"I don't see them this way," says Pechkin. He pushes his shredded iceberg lettuce away from the cheesy rice and beans, builds on his plate a kind of a moat. "I see them as objects of art that have been entrusted into my care." His mind slips out of the smelly restaurant and past the strip mall and the courthouse to the calm, rambling swells of the Oak Ridge Cemetery, and the obelisk tombstone of Commander P.J. Nehemiah Winkler-Myles, "A Brave Commander, a True Patriot, a Noble Life," which he usually saves for last on his daily inspections.
The 30-foot granite pillar truly is magnificent, though not so much because of its size—Pechkin has handled bigger pieces at Muzeon—as because of the intricate filigree of engraved art deco vines and weeping willows that climb the entire height of the obelisk, as if reaching for the entwined crowns of the four massive live oaks that stand guard above it. As though the carved plants long to unite with the real ones. The relentless yearning of the stone branches fills Pechkin with an ungraspable sensation he identifies as nostalgia.
Pechkin talks to the obelisk each time he visits Oak Ridge, after he has finished cleaning birdshit off the rest of the gravesites in his care: eight Confederate lieutenants, four judges, a surgeon, a dentist.
"You must miss all this above-ground," he tells the granite vine, which he imagines growing straight out of the heart of the fallen Commander—at least, he corrects himself, it was the artist's intention to create such an illusion, to symbolize the triumph of life over death. He speaks to it in Russian. He says, "Believe me, brother, I miss things too." He misses Moscow, the deep-fried meat pies by the metro, the smell of wet fur coats on winter buses that would take him home, where his wife would be waiting in their fifth-floor apartment with borsch and homemade mushroom pelmeni. He misses his wife, whose ashes lie in the leafy shadows of Vagankovo, a cemetery much like Oak Ridge only bigger and more crowded.
"If you see her in the afterlife," he says, "tell her I am thinking about her."
"Well, since you brought up the pharaohs," Varya says, peeling a tamale and stabbing it with her fork, "the idea of African bodies displayed in the West for popular amusement without consent is a revolting expression of, of, of white hegemony…"
Grackles roost in the live oaks. The birds give the Commander no rest. They cackle above him and splotch his obelisk with monochrome shit, which Pechkin removes with a solution of mild dish soap. The grackles make Pechkin think of another Russian painting, "The Rooks Have Come Back," a desolation of black birds on leafless birches in piss-yellow spring snow beneath a bleak and spongy village sky. Pechkin grew up a spectral city Jew in the treeless stucco courtyards of old Moscow, mostly indoors, and he had never seen a flock of either rooks or grackles in person before moving to Antoinette. At his approach the grackles always lift up and eddy away, undulate to lesser trees above newer graves and clamor there until he is finished scrubbing the stone with his telescopic mop, wait him out as they wait out the dead.
How can he explain this to Varya? She couldn't get a Russian visa in time to attend her mother's funeral, and Pechkin imagines that inside his belligerent daughter there is an unsaid farewell aching for a release—and in that instant he knows what to do: He must bring her to the obelisk and hold her hand the way he did 20 years ago, when she was a little girl and he would pick her up from the extended day program at her school and she would peel off the flock of children in the squeaky playground and run to him, and when she would thrust at him her clammy cold hands in soggy down mittens they seemed to him like precious birds that he was, unbelievably, improbably, allowed to safeguard. He would hold her hand just like that, just like before, and together they would stand amid the confluence of branches stone and wood and the elusive black birds, the obelisk like a cenotaph for their loss, and their hearts would break in synchrony. Flushed with excitement about this plan he leans over the restaurant table toward her.
"Let me take you out for a walk," he says. "You'll see. There is amazing artistry involved in some of the works here—a true soulfulness!"
He knows that squint: she disapproves. He sits back in his chair, embarrassed by his eagerness and his failure, and says,
"Okay, look at it a different way. You've been to museums, right? The Smithsonian in Washington? Every one of these men in the portraits oppressed or colonized or murdered. Do you suggest we just toss them all out? Shred 'Meninas' by Velasquez? Dump the pharaohs?"
"Well, since you brought up the pharaohs," Varya says, peeling a tamale and stabbing it with her fork, "the idea of African bodies displayed in the West for popular amusement without consent is a revolting expression of, of, of white hegemony—not to mention desecration and plain old disgusting tomb raiding—so yes, I do think the pharaohs definitely should be returned to Egypt where they can be treated with dignity. But that's a separate conversation. For the purpose of our present argument, however," and she cuts a slice of the tamale and holds it up on the fork, waving it like a conductor's wand—she is on a roll— "the pharaohs may have been awful but they didn't oppress and murder my ancestors like the Communists did, and they didn't enslave and murder my neighbors' ancestors like the Confederates did."
She pops the tamale slice in her mouth, triumphant.
When she gets worked up Varya looks like her mother, glowing and fierce, and it makes him at once sorrowful and proud, and also—he is surprised to admit it—intimidated. He rakes his bean puree into an oxidized zen garden. But, my god, he thinks, she is so young.
"Well, as a matter of fact," he says, "the pharaohs did oppress and murder and enslave our ancestors. Moses and the Red Sea and all that." He adds, in an off-key singsong in English: "Let my people go!"
She blushes: for a second he has won.
"There is also, Varyeshka, the small matter of survival," he continues, emboldened. "A paycheck. Benefits. And spending hours out of doors, healthy living for your old man." Her smile goes away, and he hurriedly says, "Enough about me. Why don't you explain to me instead what it is you are doing? What is feminist ecology?"
Varya takes a swig of her margarita, wipes the blue salt off her lips.
"Intersectionality," she says. "You won't get it."
Look out for the second installment of this story in the coming weeks!