Authors: Boris Fishman
For my mother
For West is where we all plan to go some day. . . . It is where
you go to grow up with the country.
ROBERT PENN WARREN
, All the King's Men
The conquest of the physical world is not man's only duty. He
is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself.
, The Price of the Ticket
Maya had been early to pick up Max the day he didn't come home with the school bus. Usually she was still powering up Sylvan Gate Drive when the old yellow bus sputtered to its crown, the doors exhaled, and Max tumbled out, always before the Kroon girl because Max always took the front seat. Even in the family Corolla, it was Alex at the wheel, Max in the passenger seat, and Maya in the back. Maya had gathered that the popular children sat back of the bus. She had asked Max once why he wasn't among them. “There's too much noise in the back,” he had said, and she had felt a hidden satisfaction at his indifference.
That day, after a week of disabling warmth premature even for New Jersey in June, a note of unhumid reprieve had snuck into the airâMaya had caught it on her drive home from the hospitalâand so she had walked out of the town house early. On the rare occasions Alex was home early enough to collect Max, he drove the thousand yards to the head of the driveâAlex enjoyed the very American possibility of this convenience. But Maya walked. She was on her feet all day at the hospital, but she shuttled between three rooms and it was all indoors.
In Kiev, Maya's mother had always awaited her by the school doors, painted and repainted until they looked like lumpy old women. The walk home was time alone for mother and daughter; by the time they reached their apartment, Maya's father would already be at the kitchen table slouched over the sports section, the only part of the newspaper where things didn't have to be perfect. Maya's mother would begin their walk by asking all the questions a
mother was required to ask of a daughter's school dayâeven as an eight-year-old, Max's age, Maya understood this as a formalityâbut then, after a discreet pause, Galina Shulman would bring her daughter up to date on the indiscreet doings of “the great circus” of their thousand-apartment apartment building.
Maya was exhilarated by these walks for she felt her mother spoke as if Maya was not present, or if she were, then as an equal, a friend, not a daughter to whom convention described responsibilities. Soâa silent hello to a woman now five thousand miles awayâMaya picked up Max from the school bus. It wasn't particularly necessaryâthe danger was not in the distance Max would have to cover down to their town house, but in his time out in the world. But it was Maya's only time alone with her son. She used it to try to understand why she couldn't always speak with Max in the same easy, unspooling way her mother had spoken with her. Maya did not have her mother's imagination; that was part of it, certainly. Nor did she have her mother's curiosity about her neighbors, though Maya knew that this was a failure of her looking, not their living. But none of that seemed the answer. Maya asked her son about school, questions he answered politely and brieflyâshe never failed to marvel at the unkinked Russian speech of her not-Russian sonâand then both fell silent. All she could think was to take his hand, and he let her hold it. She felt she was failing him in some way. Failing him, and couldn't say how; she felt thick and graceless.
They had been lucky, the adoption supervisor had kept reminding them, as if he worked on commission. American parents often had to go abroad to find children: Malaysia, Korea, Romania. Bribes, endless waiting, no medical records. Whereas the Rubins got an outright American. Who got an American any longer, and a brand-new baby instead of a child old enough to have been terrorized by somebody else? Maya had the ungrateful thought that she did not want an American: She felt that she would have more to say to a Romanian child. In the sleepless hold of another intermi
nable night, she had shaken awake Alex and said so. He closed his fingertips around the knob of her shoulder, as if she were a loose lightbulb: “He's a newborn. Was New Jersey familiar to you when you moved here? This house? But now it's all home.” He turned onto his side, cupped one of her breasts from behind, and said: “Sleep, Mayaâplease.”
She had picked out the weary magnanimousness in his voiceâhe had to indulge not only her willingness to adopt, but her anxieties over it. Only who wanted a child more than he did? However, a biological solution being impossible, Alex's desire had just one conditionâthat he not be made to confess it. And so she carried on as the secret advocate for them both. His contribution was to disparage the woe conjured up by her railroad mind at two in the morning. “Railroad mind”âthat was Alex's term for the hive of Maya's brain. Railroads made him think of motion, steam, frantic activity. What he really meant was that she was like some Anna Kareninaâsuperfluously melodramatic. And Maya understood what he really meant only because she had a railroad mind.
Alex had been ten years younger than Maya's eighteen when his family had come to America; the Rubins had come for good, whereas Maya had come on an exchange program in 1988, the first year such things were possible. After college, Maya was supposed to return to the USSRâa plan altered by her love affair with Alex and the end of the USSR. Alex had taken to Americaâhe spoke with confidence about Wall Street, the structure of Congress, technology. Maya conceded his authority. Only once had she exclaimed that in twenty years he had almost never left New Jersey, so what did he know? Alex had looked at her as if at a child who doesn't understand what it means to say things one will later regret, and retreated upstairs. He did not speak to her for three days, their sullen meals spent communicating through Max and his grandparents, and Maya never said that again.
Was this acceptable to discuss with an eight-year-old? Maya laughed at herself and rehearsed her to-do list: Max needed a ride
to Oliver's on Saturday, and they had to find time before the end of the month to update two of Max's vaccinesâshe would have to pick him up from school and rush back to the hospital before that office closed at four. She sniffed at the festively mild afternoon. The briefly unfevered air grew fevered inside her all the same due to the exertion required by the hill. The sweetness in the air would not last the night.
The Kroon girl was first, swinging her arms. This was new. This was something she and Max could talk about. Today, he had decided to sit in the back, just to see how things looked from back there. Perhaps he had made some new friends; he had one friend in the world, Oliver. Maya smiled at the Kroon girl, who ignored her, and looked up expectantly at the driver, who never chatted with Maya, which made her feel snubbed though she tried to persuade herself it was because he was grave about his responsibilities. He nodded and yanked the door lever.
“Wait!” Maya shouted. She laid a soft fist into the glass. The driver looked up reproachfully and the door folded back in.
“Please don't hit my bus,” he said.
“But where is my son?” Maya said. She heard, as always, her slight accent, like a hair under the collar. She spoke with resentmentâall those times the bus driver had not acknowledged her.
“The young man was not on the bus,” the driver said.
“It's Max,” she said.
“Not on the bus,” the driver repeated.
“But he went to school,” she opened her hands. She took in the driver's gray T-shirt, swollen by the half globe of a gut, the blue sweatpants and brown sandals.
“Call the school?” he said. “But I've got to move now.” He checked the mirror for traffic.
Maya's chest emptied out and she leaped onto the first stair of the bus. The driver looked on with astonishment.
“Children!” she yelled at the bus. The small heads poking out of
the green rows gave her attention, even the ones in the back. “My son, Max. He takes this bus every day.”
They stared at her silently.
“Ma'am,” the driver said.
She swiveled to face him. “You might put on something more decent to set an example for children.”
His head retreated slightly, and a look of sleepy alarm came over his face.
She turned back to the rows. “Does anyone on the bus know who my son is?” They gazed at her stubbornly. They were not going to give anything up and they felt pity for her.
“You know Max,” the driver called out from behind her. She felt gratitudeâhe knew her son's name. Then she remembered that she had just used it. “This is his mom.”
A hand shot up from a row midway down the aisle.
“You don't have to raise your hand,” the driver said.
“Max took another bus,” the voice came. It was a girl's voice. Maya surged down the aisle.
“What other bus?” she demanded. The girlâunattractive, a pug nose, Maya disliked her instantly, as if she were responsible for Max's disappearanceâshrugged.
“Was it a school bus?” the driver said. “Yellow.”
“No,” the girl said.
“Town bus? With purple stripes.”
The girl nodded.
“I don't suppose you saw the number,” the driver said.
“It stops by the flagpole.”
“That's the 748,” he said. Maya turned toward the driver. “That one goes north,” he said. “Toward the state line.”
“What state!” she exclaimed.
“New York State,” he said. His face folded, concern rising in it like color. Until a moment before, Maya had wanted to see it, and now she did not. “I'll radio the school.”
Maya raked her temples. She heard the rumbling of the vehicle and the silence of the children. The back of the school bus was sticking out into Brandenburg Turnpike, cars backing up as they funneled into a single line to avoid it. The driver lifted a wired receiver, which crackled like a radio between stations, and murmured into it. Some of his belly rested on the lower part of the steering wheel.
“I can't get them,” he said, exhaling contritely. “They're busy with buses. But I'll get 'em. He'll turn up.”
Things had improved between them, between her and the driver, and Maya tried to take this to mean that good things were possible and her son would return. She stared out of the open doors down at the drive, its familiar plunge suddenly malevolent and abundant with risk. Without turning back to the driver, she rushed the steps down to the ground and ran toward home, the pavement going off in her knees. Behind her she heard sounds belonging to other people in another world: the bus doors sliding shut, the brake coming off, the bus shuddering off to the next residential development, where children would be disgorged into the hands of their mothers, an unremarkable ritual made remarkable only by its failure to take place.
Maya was unvigilant about her cell phone. She would be serving dinner to Alex and his parents, who almost always ate alongside their son and his wife, and hear that each of them had left multiple messages earlier. This information was relayed to her with exasperation covered with feigned amusement. Now, predictably, her handbag, emptied out on the dining table, gave up nothing. She ran for the landline. At Max's elementary school, she demanded the principal's office. The man himself came on the line once word traveled why she was calling. Maya was too troubled to feel nervous about speaking to him. He listened to Maya's news with a strange disappointment, as if she and not he had failed to keep an
eye on her son. “I'll stay late and make inquiries,” he said flatly. She admonished him that she was about to call the police, but it failed to have the intended effect: “Good idea,” he said noncommittally. She wanted more from him; he had lost her son. How could a child wander off school grounds and climb aboard a regional bus line? But she heard herself only thank him.
She walked the kitchen, trying to think of whom else she could try before Alex and his parents. There was no one. She called the police and was reassured by the temperate way with which her information was received by the dispatcher. Temperate meant that such things ended positively all the timeâit had to mean that. Finally, she hit the buttons for Rubin Trading. The line strafed and buzzed. When the secretary's voice came on, Maya burst into tears.
Alex and his father drove home in a mourner's silence. Alex's mother, who was taking her afternoon swim, was summoned by loudspeaker from the pool. Wary of all singling out, Raisa Rubin waited some time in the slow lane before making sure she had to come out. She did just in time for her husband and son to pick her up from the YMCA, and the three of them set off to receive Maya's terrible news. When the bell rang, Maya ran for it, but on the other side of the door she discovered not her son but a mournful trio of Rubins, gazing at her as if her discovery of their child's disappearance meant that she had lost him as well.
The elder Rubins lived right in Sylvan Gate, though enough properties away to be out of view in deference to American ideas about privacy. A forty-three-year-old son, and they weren't seventy yet, Eugene still practically full-time at his food-importing business, all of which allowed the senior Rubins to feel a sense of youth and modernity. Of necessity, also: Where would Maya and Alex be without their aid? They had encouraged Maya to move from mammography to pharmacyâpharmacists earned in the six figures, with another half on the side if she wantedâbut Maya
was not proactive like them. Alex had tried investments, but if he had earned for himself a fraction as much as he earned for others, it didn't show, and his father had persuaded him to become the second-in-command at Rubin Trading.
“Someone's laid a hex on us,” Raisa said grimly. The four Rubins, two by birth and the others by choice, were leaned over the kitchen table in a tight, anxious circle.
“When I was a boy, I ran away, too,” Eugene said. “My father laid the strap to me. I didn't run away again.”
“So why didn't you do it to me if it was so effective?” Alex said.
Eugene looked up. “You didn't need it.”
“I don't understand why you called the police,” Raisa said to Maya. “People will find out and think he's some kind of runaway!” The other Rubins looked at Raisa in such a way that she did not try this line of argument a second time.