Ilya Leybovich was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the United States as a child. He attended Wesleyan
University, and he has work forthcoming in the Southern California Review.
It is supposedly a room full of geniuses, but all my grandfather sees is men in cheap suits shredding documents and taking apart electronics. Each sheet fed into the metal teeth emerges as confetti on the other side, where it collects in boxes that the secretaries cart away. Magnetic tape is unspooled and deposited in special containers for incineration, while the recording apparatuses are broken down into their contingent parts like a meal reverting to its ingredients. The geniuses are calm in the undertaking, an activity not of destruction so much as dismantling.
Alexander Novisevich stands at the center of the room, frowning at anyone who approaches him with a question. He has a pistol in a shoulder holster. Anxieties are on display even here in the heart of the machine.
My grandfather is wearing his parade uniform, bread-mold green and spackled with insignia, complete with a wide-brimmed hat pulled high atop his forehead. He removes the hat and holds it at his side as he approaches the sub-commandant. A lip of snow slides off the brim to form a puddle on the floor.
“Here to see him?” Alexander Novisevich says, by way of greeting. My grandfather nods and Alexander Novisevich tilts his head toward the rear office.
The door is open. Gleychik notices my grandfather and gestures for him to come inside. The office has already been reduced to cardboard boxes and stripped of personal adornments, though framed pictures of Lenin, Marx, and Chervyakov still hang from the wall, a trinity witnessing the dissolution of its church.
Gleychik smiles and shakes my grandfather’s hand. “Loose ends,” he says. “So many, many, many threads to sever.”
Gleychik, of the push-broom mustache and prosthetic foot. An old man now, yes, but not long ago his fingers snapped and someone died in Tblisi or Kharkov or Leipzig. Responsible for the bomb planted on the French attaché’s car, the arrest of twenty-six senior officers on espionage charges, the use of martial law to undercut the Polish Solidarity movement, and the feeling that from the moment you wake up each morning you are known. Legend has it that he’d even wired Aksyonov’s personal chambers, keeping tabs for his friends in Moscow. Gleychik, the division head—the last there will ever be.
“Finishing up, then?” my grandfather asks.
“Close enough. A year from now this will be a fast-food restaurant or a department store. Or both, perhaps. Their system enjoys inventive combinations.” If Gleychik is upset about this, he makes no indication, his surface calm as a frozen lake. He moves behind his desk and pulls an accordion file from beneath a stack. “Remember Berlin? How many of them we put down? Glorious days, we thought. The truth is more complicated.” He pats the sides of the file. “You wouldn’t believe the number of fascists we took in, forgave, resettled. Scientists mostly, but some monsters among them.”
My grandfather and Gleychik served in the same unit during the war. They entered Berlin with Chuikov and walked through the streets shooting boys and old men. They corralled the women like livestock to feed the army’s appetites. They took wounded Germans by the hair and dragged them crying through the rubble while the rain washed the trails of blood and viscera away, wiping clean the blood tax levied.
It was there that Gleychik lost his right foot, an hour before the end of the war. He and my grandfather and a few of their platoon-mates were in the parlor of a professor’s home. One of the men sat at a piano and played a little tune. The middle C triggered the wire release for a shrapnel bomb embedded in the frame. It went off, dissolving the piano player and his instrument and shaking the house in its foundation. Through the smoke, my grandfather saw Gleychik lying on the other side of the room, the end of his leg a dark stump leaking across the floor. He lifted Gleychik onto his narrow shoulders and stumbled through a back door into a courtyard as the house behind them shuddered and the roof sagged in. He carried Gleychik toward a crumbling wall and pushed hard against the stones. They fell through in a shower of gray dust and found themselves among a pack of children seated with easels around a woman at the center of the room. It was a painting class. My grandfather paused. Even here, at the end of the world, amid the death rattle of civilization, a painting class. The children stared back, calm at this intrusion of soot-blackened violence. There was nothing of childhood remaining in them. My grandfather trudged outside with Gleychik draped over him like a fur stole and kept going until he could lay his bundle down in front of a medic.
Gleychik survived, but my grandfather didn’t, at least not in any meaningful sense. He stayed behind, another corpse among the boys he’d killed. What he did and saw and allowed to be done demanded a payment. It exacted what he might have called his soul, had he believed in such things.
The sickness never left him. It was, in fact, what allowed him to commit greater betrayals in the years that followed.
“You have been an important asset to us,” Gleychik says. “I have never forgotten that. I only wish I could have done more for you.” He pours himself a glass of vodka and asks my grandfather if he wants one, but my grandfather shakes his head, a lifelong teetotaler and former witness to his own father’s drunken self-destruction.
Gleychik gulps down the remainder of his glass and smiles, a light behind his eyes. “Let me show you something.” My grandfather is hard of hearing, and though it will be some years until he is fully deaf, he already has to lean forward and ask Gleychik to repeat himself.
Gleychik takes the bottle and leads my grandfather through a metal door, and then another metal door that requires a combination and a key and the approval of two armed guards to enter. They descend a long spiral of stairs and emerge into a claustrophobic labyrinth of ceiling-high shelves, each weighted with files, some yellowed and crumbling, others crisp and freshly interred.
“This place,” my grandfather says.
“The last great wonder of the world, our century’s Library of Alexandria. The apex of human intelligence.”
They are in the Index, where entire lives are sorted in alphabetical order. Every action, every thought, every feeling of their satellite nation is condensed here into data reports for those who oversee them and their overseers in turn. Imagine your life as a recording, a transcription of the space between childhood and death. It will be stored here. And since it will outlast you, this file will be your true, eternal self. The documents will be your identity long after you are gone.
“Do you want to see your file?” Gleychik asks.
My grandfather nods and Gleychik points his finger left, hobbling down a winding path deep into the bowels of the Index. The division head searches along a row of reference numbers until he finds what he is looking for and pulls down a sheaf of papers.
My grandfather has been a colonel for too long, and Gleychik knows why he has been passed over for promotion. He leafs through the document. “You’ve been a useful man over the years. Also a rather boring one.” He glances up at my grandfather. “I mean that as a compliment. Boring is the best condition these days.”
Gleychik slaps a page with his palm. “Ah! Here we are. On the issue of your career prospects, they have ‘considerable doubts about loyalties. Not recommended for further advancement.’” Gleychik chuckles. “You are too Hebrew for their taste.”
“Of course you do.” Gleychik slides the document back into place. “Everyone knows what the files say. Everyone knows the reasons why the things that happen to them happen to them. They merely pretend they don’t. We don’t record secrets, only truths so obvious no one else would ever think to write them down.”
“What will happen to the Index?”
Gleychik shrugs. “Termination. Their system has no need for such encumbrances. They have more subtle controls, more efficient techniques. To them we are primitives really, rubbing sticks and stones.”
“All of it will be destroyed?”
“Only the sections that matter. The minor files will remain to distract the historians.”
“Most are unknown and still young. They’ll find other work and acclimate to the new age that’s coming. Alexander Novisevich is the only one I’m worried about. He doesn’t understand any life but this one. An idealist, a true believer. Shame, really.”
The clearest expression of Alexander Novisevich’s faith was when he broke the handle of his revolver on an informant’s face. Gleychik is wrong: he will flourish in the coming regime.
“And what will become of you?” my grandfather asks.
Gleychik leans back against a shelf and fishes a cigarette from his breast pocket. “I’ll be reporting back to our friends in Moscow. They have concerns about the transition. And about my connections. I give it a fifty percent chance that I survive the meeting.” He takes a deep drag and blows out a thick cloud of smoke. The only thing missing is a blindfold.
They return to Gleychik’s office. My grandfather retrieves his hat and coat from the rack, and the two of them shake hands.
“I’ve always believed trust to be the most valuable commodity,” Gleychik says. “By that estimate, you are a rich man. But the old currencies will vanish soon. I wish you luck.”
My grandfather stops near the door. “Sir...”
“Ah, yes. Thank you for reminding me. The last favor. After this, we are even, no?”
“Even.” My grandfather salutes him, though he doesn’t have to, and Gleychik hands him an envelope that my grandfather slides into his coat pocket. He walks back through the office, where Alexander Novisevich is still presiding over the end of a sixty-year endeavor.
The room is windowless and in a building so gray and ordinary it is impossible to imagine the many fates that were decided within. And there, in the most secure section of the Index, is a locked cabinet where my grandfather’s testimonies are kept, soon to be consigned to the flames. Of the twenty-six officers Gleychik executed, my grandfather had denounced eight. Eight men who had served alongside him, fellows he’d considered decent enough, but fed to the machine for what he considered a greater good. He has traded their lives for mine.
My grandfather reaches the sidewalk and marches quickly with his head down, never looking back at the place he has left. Great fistfuls of snow tumble down around him. The sky has darkened, the last of the light about to fade. The long day has nearly ended.
Inside the envelope that Gleychik gave my grandfather is the piece of paper that will send my father and my mother and me to America, where we will wage our own war with the past, will surveil ourselves to never betray our bitter inheritance, will preserve our guilt and pass it down the generations as far as it will go, will teach and re-teach ourselves to remember.
My grandfather will die alone in a land no longer familiar to him, weak and unhearing. If he is lucky enough to survive the fatal energies of youth and the sadness of maturity, in the end a man is only a leathered, brown-spotted hand that reaches trembling for a glass of water and wavers helplessly when it finds nothing there.