Copyright is held by the author.
IT’S ONLY 10 minutes on foot from school to home. Lyosha lives a bit further away, and so we always walk together. We talk about aliens, astronauts and other cool stuff. It’s 1968, humans will fly to the stars soon! We both cried when Yuri Gagarin, our first astronaut, was killed this spring, in a crash. Lyosha wants to be a pilot, like Gagarin. I don’t know — I’d rather be a commander of a tank. I love tanks. I remember all the models by heart — our tanks, German, even American and English.
Anyway, I don’t think I’ve got any chance with planes — I heard pilots should be super-healthy, and I must wear glasses. Lyosha is rather sickly too, only a bit taller than me and just as skinny. Well, at least if he eats more . . . Mom says I must finish everything on my plate to stop catching colds. It’s all very well, but the glasses will stay, even if I eat an elephant.
The first time we meet them, we’re so busy chatting we don’t even notice them until it’s too late: four kids from the fourth grade, a year older than we, planted at the middle of the sidewalk.
“Hey, Abram,” one of them calls. He botches his r like in these jokes about nasty Jews who speak broken Russian. His friends giggle.
I make to get round him.
“Hey, Abrashka, four-eyes, are you deaf?” He grabs my arm.
“He’s not Abrashka,” Lyosha says, as I try to wriggle out. “His name is Alexander.”
Not that anybody calls me Alexander — I’m just Sasha for everybody, at school and at home.
“Look at this!” the bully lets go of my arm and shoves me. “Alexander the Great!” This brings a roar of laughter out of his sidekicks. “Alexander the Jew! And what’s your mommy’s name? Sarah? Sarah Abramovna?” These botched r’s again.
If he touches me, I’ll punch him on his fat nose. And let the hell break loose.
But I’m not quick enough. His long arm shoots out and lifts my glasses. He swings them above his head like a cowboy with a lasso in The Horseless Headman.
“Both deaf and blind now, eh, Abram?”
I grab at his wrist, but he shakes me off and throws the glasses to one of his pals. They play catch with my glasses—it feels like a bad dream.
“You, cowards, give his glasses back!” Lyosha shouts at them.
“What did you say, midget?” the leader freezes with my glasses in his big palm.
“I said you’re a coward.” Lyosha’s voice is quiet, but his hands are clenched into fists. “You pick fights only with those who are smaller than you.”
“Not my fault you’re such a weakling, little Jew-lover.” He shoves Lyosha at me and we both fall. He twists my glasses and spits on them before throwing them at my feet. I’d rather die than give him the pleasure of picking them up. Anyway, they’re beyond fixing.
We walk the rest of the way to my house in silence, then stop near the entrance.
“Thank you, Lyosha.”
“What will you tell your parents about the glasses?”
“I’ll lose them.”
A week later we meet them again, on the shortcut path near the sheds. They gathered some new dirt about Jews for me. They hurl my glasses high into the air. Gravitation does the rest. This time I manage to hit the leader on the jaw before he punches me straight on my nose. The blood streams out.
A huge guy appears out of the shed.
“What’s going on? Looking for trouble?”
The bullies swagger away, and I notice Lyosha has a black eye. In the evening Mom is beside herself about my second pair of lost glasses.
“I’ll go alone,” I tell Lyosha the next day.
“Why? Aren’t we friends?”
“They’ll not bother you if you stay away from me.”
“Bullshit. But you’d better take off your glasses.”
We don’t walk near the sheds anymore, but a few days later our adversaries are again on our way, delighted to see us.
“Hey, little Jew, where did you hide your eyes?”
This time Lyosha gets a bloody nose and I a black eye. They pull the glasses out of my coat pocket and dance on them.
“You should tell your parents,” Lyosha advises me before we part near my house.
I tell Mom I got somebody’s elbow into my eye while playing football. I consider borrowing Dad’s penknife — I’ll kill the bastard. The moment he sees the knife, he’ll wet his pants and run away. And what if I really kill him? They’ll put me into prison, and Mom will die from shame and sorrow.
Ten days later we face them again. My glasses are perched on my nose — no use hiding them. I half-listen through the stinky-little-Jew opening. When he makes for my glasses, I jump at him. The next thing I remember is Lyosha shaking me and screaming into my ear.
“Let go, Sasha! Stop!”
His hands are grasping at my clenched fingers. The leader is on the ground, and I’m clutching at his neck like a shipwrecked sailor holding onto the beam at the middle of the ocean. His eyes are bulging out of his blue face.
“Let go! You’ll kill him!”
It’s Lyosha, pulling at my hands. How did this all happen?
“Wow, that was some grip!” Lyosha says as we depart, the leader gasping for air in the background, surrounded by his white-faced junkies. “You scared the hell out of them! You almost strangled this asshole.”
I look at my fingers — they’re still curved into the neck’s shape.
“You were like a superman, “ Lyosha goes on. “A superman with a super-grip.”
“And I don’t even remember how I did this,” I say. “Thanks for pulling me away — I don’t want to go to prison.”
Next time our ways cross, the bullies pretend they don’t know us. Lyosha winks at me.
“Your super grip did the trick.”
“They think I’m crazy. Am I crazy, Lyosha?”
“Bullshit. A bit nervous, that’s all.”
Maybe Lyosha will become an astronaut after all. I sure hope he will.