The Ingushetian was a man with skills that flicked out like a Swiss knife. That was my aunt’s valediction when he finished coving her guest bedroom ceiling and tiling the rinkydink en-suite. She wasn’t sure if it was Ingushetian or Ingusheti, she said, and she’d hate to be as ignorant as her colleague who referred to Pakistinians and Iranis. Then he fixed a few other things, free gratis, he insisted, shaky drawer handles and gutters throttled by leaves. He even lopped a bough or two. They were elbowing menacingly onto the back roof and in a storm they would crush the kitchen, he assured her. I’d seen that kitchen in photos. It was a furlong of chrome and white shutters. She told him she couldn’t let go such a capable man. She researched and found the term to be Ingush. She offered to rent him that guest bedroom.
It was all above board, she told me, when I turned up in Boston that September, it was all entirely above board. I was at the kitchen island drinking her tea. My face was a blind oblong on the fridge door. After graduation I’d expected to get a big bite out of life, but nothing big wanted me. Everyone I knew had hied to Australia. I did the books for a ten-seater terroir bistro in Dublin. Its potatoes came from Kildare and somewhere in Mayo there was a pig. It was always about to fold. I went out with the head chef, half-slept a night on the tussocks of his old futon, and decided to take the hoary Year Out. I bought up for Boston and my aunt’s guarantee. Two months fact-finding would get me a job. Besides, she said, there was nowhere better than New England in the fall. We drank from porcelain mugs and she made me take a second French pastry.
The Ingush man was somewhere in the long garden that fell down to the sea. My aunt was a radiographer who’d put her learning and time into work, developing and rising until her nose touched the surface and she was Chief Radiologic Technologist at a hospital where she’d screened, she estimated, some thousands of breasts. One Christmas, three Benedictines, and she told me and my sister big or small they all looked like sliced meat on the photo plate. Carpaccio, she said quietly, then a second time, more slowly, as if proud of the depiction. We looked down and folded our arms charily. She was my father’s sister. She had bouts of imperiousness and grand generosity. Largesse arrived during lean college terms. There was repeated advice to never travel the world with boyfriends. We used to feel sure she’d rescue us into a brighter life someday. I suspected there were mornings she looked in the mirror a long time and turned away in disappointment.
His name was Ruslan and he was proud of it, he told me first thing, because it was the name of the best and most peace-keeping president of his country. He met me at the airport, ADELE FROM AER LINGUS held across his chest. Shaping up for forty, he was square of face and smooth-haired as a Pantene ad. He smelled of pleasant herbs like sage and lavender. You knew he would do things well and carefully. He cursed once in the snarled airport traffic. He said sorry. I said it was a thing of nothing. He laughed at that, a thing of nothing. I had a happy presentiment he’d start using it and keep using it until it came to annoy me. We picked up speed on the road to the south shore. I’d been this way once before, two weeks in Cape Cod with a crowd from college, but I’d bypassed my aunt’s locale. Now I was curious, impatient even, to see the road and the house and the rooms where she’d always seemed so content. Something rattled under the Honda’s ribs. Ruslan said he was deliberately choosing to ignore it. I flicked through the CDs. AC/DC. Bruce Hornsby and the Range. Enya. In an effort to resurrect the banter lost somewhere along Pilgrim’s Highway, I said AC/DC were due for a comeback. He said they’d never left, so they were not due for a comeback. He said I was probably too young to have followed their arc. I asked him if Enya had been big in Ingushetia.
He took the CD and looked at it a long while. He probably took the same serious slant to every topic. He probably measured each thing with a set-square. His left hand on the wheel was steady and relaxed. Garbed in velvet and peeping like Bambi, Enya was now in his crosshairs. It made me wonder if he’d been a sniper at some stage. He had the look of militia, dark flak zipped under his chin. I couldn’t remember if Ingushetia was a warry hotspot. I was suddenly disgusted by how little I’d known or cared about world politics. Ruslan would surely be conversant in every Irish pitched battle and failed rising. He left Enya aside and said he was glad, glad in the cockles of his heart, that such an angel had never made it to his country. He called it a toilet and a cauldron. He pointed out new shingles loosened on a church cupola, trees taken down here and there, all by last week’s high wind. He never stopped smiling, right the way to turning up a steep driveway, a house on a hill, my aunt waving us on with a straw hat.
In the first week I drank lots of flavours of tea, hibiscus, Darjeeling, the green leaves my aunt steeped with a virtuous grimace. I put in time on her slim silver laptop, job searches, dating sites. My sister said I should post a profile as soon as I fetched up in Boston. It’s what people did, she said, when they moved somewhere new. Hung up their clothes, sorted their money, and gave themselves a nickname, some outdoor pursuits, and the best smile amongst all their photos. No convert like my zealous sister, who met her fiancé across a speed-dating table in Ringsend. I perused profiles. Grinning, tanned and hopeful. They made me nostalgic for the scruffy Lebanese chef.
I moved back to the accountants-wanted. I replied to Craigslist for an entrylevel accounts receivable analyst. I was told I was too qualified. I answered an ad for a bookkeeper. Growing firms wanted comptrollers, the ads said. A Cambridge start-up called me for an interview. An hour on the line ended in a vague tipoff about another start-up that might be willing to orchestrate the visa they said I’d need, but it was a long shot, because nobody wanted to pay for a visa in the tight economy. I took another phone interview for a weekend job as a tutor for a college student. Accounting was his nemesis, he said on the phone, but he needed it to become an entrepreneur. We agreed to start the following week, three hours on Saturdays, two on Sundays if they were needed for impending exams. The student’s mother telephoned to cancel. She was concerned my Irish training wouldn’t transfer. No hard feelings, she assured me. None, I said. I decided to postpone the job search and commit myself to self-improvement.
I researched Ingushetia. I studied its history of upheaval. It rose against Russia, against Communists, against Northern Ossetia, and lately there was trouble biting round the border with Chechnya. Suicide bombings, high-profile murders and kidnappings. Years ago they had a beautiful female sniper who had never been captured. Everything from its ancient three-handled pots to all the boxers and wrestlers it claimed as famous people made me feel sad not to have known Ingushetia sooner. An elderly woman at the small library sat with me. Together we ticked book after book for interlibrary loan. A lot of them had Ingushetia nested in studies of Russia and Chechnya. Many titles were in the Ingush language, parades of vowels umbrellaed by long accent marks. I settled on an English book about counterinsurgency, disappeared persons and human rights. The librarian said it would take ten days. She ran after me with another reference, a John le Carré spy thriller containing an Ingush renegade. The library had it. I went home with the paperback. A man’s silhouette stood in a door looking out on rocky mountains. The sky above them was crimson melting to pink. It looked pulpy and compelling.
I fixed on the climate as a question for Ruslan. He reported it as summer beauty, sometimes brutal in winter. His father used to say, and he pardoned himself for relaying it, a person put their balls in a lunchbox in the freezer or they let January take them. I was sitting on the back deck watching a wasp disco round his arm. He was putting a new handrail on the steps and the deck. My aunt was in the rose bushes. Below the rose bushes the sea slurred and intimated. It was evening, the last Saturday in October. A dead blow hammer, Ruslan had told me proudly. Filled with lead shot, it struck hard and heavy but didn’t mar the surface surrounding the nail. A beautiful idea, he said.
Earlier that morning he had assembled a new bed in his room. He was all for slats, he said, instead of the base they call boxspring, because slats kept a bed cool and they looked cool in addition. His bedroom was at the back of the house. A mini-foyer, complete with a one-drawer desk and mirror, separated it from the kitchen. When Ruslan was finished, my aunt made the bed with new sheets, also cool. I helped her smooth corners and tuck under. I wanted to press my face into the waffle pattern. Then lunch was made around me at the island. Shrimp asleep on spinach leaves. Ruslan knew precisely when to fluff the cous-cous. My aunt suggested opening a bottle, just for the nice day that was in it. Ruslan took only half a glass. He had bookshelves to assemble. Allen wrenches dangled like sycamore keys from his thumb. My aunt offered to drop me to the train into Boston. T he train was full of Saturday spiritedness. Young parents held children to them and asked enthusiastic questions about what they might see at the aquarium. Did they think there would be a. Who was looking forward to the. Strangers talked about the weather. Two backpackers were told they’d certainly picked their dates. A tropical storm was brewing out there, said an old man, and he waved his hand behind his head as if the sea were in the window. Another man joined in to say he’d heard it all before, it always got downgraded, it was part of weather porn to keep everyone in a state of high anticipation. He goggled his eyes like he’d just witnessed something stunningly wicked on a screen. He patted the backpackers on their JanSports and told them to have a good one and not let the begrudgers grind them down. I held on to his bonhomie when I reached the city, treated myself to a lipstick at Macy’s, fajitas at Rita’s, and a book about Jackie Kennedy’s clothes. A man asked if he could take my photo while I was browsing book carts in a breezy yard. I demurred, and he said it was because I looked so absorbed, and he needed that look for a photo. I said yes. Then I hurried for the street, abruptly lonely and disappointed in myself at having been found absorbed.
My sister once tromped in on her best friend’s parents. To all intents and everyone’s purposes, the girls had set out for the beach at Liscannor. Something was forgotten, a magazine, goggles, and then the scoot back to the hotel. Rooms with connecting doors. She says they were in her sights before she took it all in. There followed a long evening, dinner at different times, skulking, nothing said to her best friend. But I tugged the details from her like a tapeworm. His hairy back. Soles blacked from sandals. The gentleness and how everything was strangely, wrongly, accompanied by her best friend’s mother’s caterwauls. In college there was the obligatory walk-in or being walked-in-on. And there was my aunt, hoiked up on the island. Her legs were slung over Ruslan’s shoulders. My aunt had good legs, lean from walking and cycling. Always a little bit tanned. Ruslan was truffling between them. His feet stood one in front of the other. In the race blocks. His hands gripped the brink of the island. He was still in his clothes. Jeans and a navy-blue shirt. The shirt was only a bit slackened, as if my aunt had given up bothering to untuck him and rushed instead to her own skin. I saw them from the French doors. There was no sound. I stepped back and down the steps. I hugged the hedge until I reached the rose bushes. The pink ones were blowsy, ready to be snipped. I took my aunt’s private path to the beach. I toed dead crabs and swore at a seagull. The Atlantic didn’t give a damn.
That evening Ruslan finished the handrail and grilled trout for dinner. My aunt read out a Daily Mail story about a boy who’d pretended to be the dead son of a rich family. Ruslan said the deceit worked because the family must’ve known all along. They were desperate to have their son restored to them. Any son would do. He spoke with the same concentration and curiosity that went into cooking the trout, the capers and sliced lemons stuffed in the belly. A young policeman, his cousin, had been killed in Ingushetia, he told us. Hundreds of policemen were being killed by Islamist militants at that time, and his cousin was killed by four bullets. He said his aunt and uncle took in another cousin and named him after their son. They gave everything to that boy, Ruslan said, and he used it all for drugs. Now they were trying to find him in the streets of Magas. They wouldn’t stop until they came upon him, Ruslan knew, because that was the kind of people they were. We read about bad weather on the way. My aunt brought armagnac in tiny glasses. Istanbul, she said, flicking her nail at their gold lace collars. Ruslan went to his room for Skype. His sister, in California. A research assistant, he said proudly. A team making headway into motor neurone disease. The door was shut when I passed by. I wondered if my aunt thought wife, children, but didn’t pay it mind.
On that Sunday morning I asked Ruslan to tell me more about that cousin of his shot by the police. He said there wasn’t much more to tell about him, except that he had lived one neighbourhood away from his parents and been a good young man and a large crowd of friends cried at his burial. They were all like him, tall and sad and handsome. He said there usually wasn’t much to tell when someone had been good and kind all their life. They left a light mark. Then I asked him to tell me about the bad one. The imposter. Ruslan was punching keys on his new mobile phone. He set it on the island by his coffee mug. He braided his fingers and set his chin on them and looked at me levelly. Why, he wondered, was I interested in that chap. Ruslan was given to Britishisms, and they came out when he was at his most serious. Gosh. A bitter pill. Agog. Tight as newts, he said of drunk roarers on the beach. I pictured a small musty bedroom, teenage posters, a single shelf stacked and bowed by Jeeves and Bertie. I told him I was fascinated by charlatans. The Pan-Am pilot and the Six Degrees chap. Ripley. Ruslan maintained his gaze and said there was nothing interesting about straw men. He told me I should turn my attentions to real people, their real accomplishments. As with carpentry, he had a way of fixing his final point so it couldn’t be tested. I should get out and about more, he said, meet a nice Boston boy or a Harvard scholar. I should enjoy the freedom before I started working again.
It was the working again that vexed me. He thought I was living off the fat of my aunt’s coastal home, then, off the stock of her fridge and the quilted toilet tissue printed with little daisies. Since I’d been there Ruslan had taken off each morning in a small blue van. My aunt slipped from the house before dawn, quiet as a black-op. He lingered over coffee, the newspaper, email. We passed things to one another, milk, butter. We were wordless as a long-term relationship. He shaved after breakfast, waved from the van before it rafted downhill. But for all I knew he played Keno all day. I’d seen those lost souls when I passed by bars and coffee shops. Old men for whom the counter was home, and the screen of jinking numbers. He rarely came home before my aunt, and he always looked as though he had done a day’s work but found time to smooth himself out, because that was the kind of man he was, because those were the standards he held to.
Sunday evening and my aunt went out to meet her friends. They congregated every week, but this week everyone was summoned in special honour of the hurricane. Sandy had gathered strength and was bowling for the east coast. They said it now had an eye. It might not hit until Tuesday morning. It might not hit at all. I fell in love with the word landfall. My aunt threw it to one of the friends, said she’d be making landfall at the restaurant round eight. She left a scarf of perfume in the air. Ruslan watched her from the porch, shouted he would tie back the trellis just in case Sandy showed up overnight. She shouted back not to wait up, she might even stay over at Suze’s. There were cucumbers growing on the trellis, he told me, a new venture on her part, and what rotten luck to have them destroyed.
As soon as he got to work I asked him about the civil war in Ingushetia. I sat in a garden chair, thick cotton and wood like a film director’s. Had he been involved in any way. No, he said. And yes. Because you had to be involved in a country that small. You couldn’t dodge involvement. He cut and tied thread as he spoke. He said I must mean killing. Which he didn’t. But he gave money and the use of a shed to two of the rebels. One of them was shot dead within a month of the war. He knew the cousin of a suicide bomber. He said he was glad I called it a civil war, because so many referred to it as an uprising. They got that bit between their teeth, he said, and they wouldn’t give the country its war. The sky was ragged and turning for night. Ruslan stopped finicking with the trellis. He sat in the chair across from mine. He was in angry torrent about uprisings and the Arab spring and his own Ingushetia ignored. He knew when I stopped listening. He must be boring me stiff, he said, he must have mistaken my interest. It happened to him a great deal. He would one day learn to keep mum. He sat back dejected. His chair creaked and the cotton looked unsafe beneath him.
I’d gone into the garden without underwear. Under shorts I was bare and open. It wasn’t that I wanted him to intuit it. It was enough for me to know, all through the sermon about Ingushetia being overlooked in the grand scheme of the world. I left my seat and walked to his. I took his hand. It was poorly done, a hand sent up a shorts-leg. I had to jemmy things along. He looked upset at where he was drawn. He said it was a mistake on my part and I would regret it. He said he’d done his level-best to avoid any such thing. Even the top of his head felt melancholy when I kissed it. We stayed there a while. His hand deliberated and did its job until I fawned on his shoulder. He said we should call it a night. He smoothed my shorts and walked me to the French doors. He went back to tying the trellis. I heard him secure the whole thing to the fence. Short dull thuds like sounds inside a box. Later I heard my aunt’s car take the hill. Then a low burr of kitchen chat. Then doors. Later still I strained to hear slats trying to be quiet.
In the early hours of Monday he went about battening the house. The forecast was deadly serious. By then the president had declared an emergency. My aunt conscripted me to make leek soup and a lamb stew before the power went out. She was sick of news-talk about hunkering down, but still we should be prepared. We watched walls of waves on other coasts. Window by window, Ruslan hammered boards to the back of the house. We watched the sea rush under homes on stilts. We watched people Ruslan called bloody fools tying themselves to piers just to say they’d weathered Sandy. One man screamed into the camera. He wasn’t going to let that bitch take him alive. The kitchen was dull like a cellar. Four triangles of light came through the French doors. Ruslan hadn’t enough timber to board them fully, so he made an X and said it should hold. The power stayed on. The lights gave one long hiccup in the late afternoon, that was all. I called my sister and mother. They were full of terminology like batter and storm surge from the nine o’clock news. I told them everything was grand, that Ruslan had storm-proofed the house. When they asked who that was, to say that name again, I told them I had to go.
My aunt and Ruslan went to bed for the storm. They tried to behave like it wasn’t inevitable. She said she should get through a backlog of emails, maybe hem the new curtains, now that she had this free time. He went in and out of his quarters, sometimes closing the door and speaking to the Skype entity. It might have been the Skype entity that set my aunt drifting from her laptop to the coffee machine and back, then from the coffee machine to his door with a thick blue mug. The door closed behind her. I couldn’t tell if she’d closed it or he. I poured coffee into a mug that said Floating Hospital. I sat at my aunt’s screen and went through the open tabs. Holiday homes in Croatia. Her credit card bill, payment accepted. Marie Claire’s advice on how to maximise one’s best feature. My aunt was vain about her hair. I could tell by the way she tossed it or crossly ponytailed it in one hand as though about to chop it off, then dropped it on one shoulder, all forgiven. She had an abundance of hair, true, and it held on to its russet tones somehow. I imagined Ruslan liked to drag his big hands through it. I left the laptop for upstairs and I ran myself a bath and I looked for parts of myself. I made a little noise, my mouth pressed to the high bath wall. They wouldn’t have heard, all the way down there, far inside the din they were making and trying to cover up.
He was probably a terrorist in Ingushetia, or at least a thug, and she probably knew. He was probably married, with a gang of stolid dark-haired kids. But like my granduncle who willed his home to a younger woman, the painter from Sussex, and caused all manner of acrimony, it didn’t really matter when that stranger from somewhere, wherever, put in front of you what you so badly wanted all along.
My aunt stayed cooped up with Ruslan all day long. I got nauseous from soup and stew. I made popcorn for watching television. Now all the talk was about high tide. Someone said the worst was yet to come. The ominous phrase caught on, and someone said it every ten minutes. I turned on the radio, and its people chirped about high tide. They sounded ebullient, those radio people, bright and excited about the worst that was coming. They’d been the same that morning, telling one another what they’d made for the freezer and how excited their children were to have a day off. They seemed happier chatting with one another than addressing a listenership. A buoy off Cuttyhunk Island recorded wind as high as eighty-three miles an hour. I said the name Cuttyhunk over and over. I found that it was south, near Martha’s Vineyard. I researched wind speed. Anything above sixty-four counted as a hurricane. At sea, the air filled with foam and waves topped fortyfive feet. The whole sea turned white. Cuttyhunk saw it all.
I thought to go out and see the fuss. I wanted to slip down past the rose bushes and find a sea whipped to white fury. From a triangle of French door I saw the rose bushes flattened like horses had galloped through. Wind was all around the house, and rain. I’d heard things flung, paint cans, branches, but still nothing out there seemed perilous. The back door was a problem, all those battens fixed in place by the dead blow hammer. I’d have to go out by the sheltered front and press myself along the walls until I got to the back of the house. The college crowd who went to Australia posted photos of mammoth surfing waves before they got sixty-hour jobs. They commented on one another’s photos, phrases like hot shit, shit hot, holy shit, no shit. I wanted to stand buffeted by whatever shit hit Cuttyhunk, just to film it, just to put it up for all to see.
It didn’t come to that. I was buttoning my phone into a coat pocket when my aunt made a showing. She wore black silk, a cami and panties edged in lace. Her face was miserable in segments, a downcast eye, a line notched more deeply between her nose and mouth. One of her cheeks was red, like she’d been lying on that one all day long. She wasn’t alarmed to be caught out. Behind her, Ruslan’s bedroom door was open a sliver.
In spite of being brought low, she was candid. The rest of the night would only work, she said, if I joined. It was Ruslan’s suggestion. He wasn’t like that, she said, only it was something he’d seen years ago in a film. It might have been Russian. There was a blizzard. A hotel was cut off from the world. A room where a lonely man had gone to drink and coke himself to death. He was joined by two strangers. They knocked at the connecting door and slipped into his room and they all spent the storm together. When the snow subsided, everyone in the hotel was executed, but that was beside the point, according to Ruslan. By then I was sitting on the chair next to his bed. The room smelled metallic and soupy. My aunt was cross-kneed at the bed’s edge. She looked bored and a touch embarrassed by Ruslan’s speech. His eyes were large on something in another dim bedroom. He wore a pale blue T-shirt and tight black boxers. He couldn’t remember why everyone in the hotel was gunned down. It was a Russian film, after all, and he knew Russia for indiscriminate violent happenings and thoroughly bad lots. But the film’s ending was a puff of smoke, he said, a bagatelle compared to the tenderness of those women. They lay either side of that man and comforted him.
The scene felt familiar. I’d seen something like it, minus the massacre. In the scene nothing happened except that a solitary man was kept warm. He was lonely for a wife and a child. Or for a dead wife and a dead child. He was an emigrant who could never return home because everyone there awaited success and all he had was fiasco and debt. Or he’d burned all his bridges after some bad thing done years before. I tried to remember that solitary man’s back story. The en suite gargled. High tide, dark water backing up the gulley traps and pipes. My aunt’s hand tapped my elbow like a soft okay. She was behind Ruslan’s back, her arm enclosing his chest. I was in front, held back from the bed’s edge by Ruslan’s arm. I was still in my hoodie and jeans. Soon a hand might come pecking for buttons. I hadn’t even taken off my boots. I dozed in and out. The pillow was plump and sweetly scented, as if he’d been breathing his fruit tobacco into it. I tried to get back to that film. In his film things must’ve gone on. In mine, nothing but a hand held, maybe a calming word. The bath hawked and spat. My aunt breathed steadily enough to be asleep. I waited for the moment I’d know what happened during the Russian blizzard.