The following is an excerpt from the piece “I Pledge Allegiance to the Butterfly” in McSweeney’s Quarterly Issue 52, In Their Faces A Landmark: Stories of Movement and Displacement, guest edited by Nyuol Lueth Tong. To read the whole thing, buy the issue here. You can also subscribe and never miss another story again.
We had been living in Gainesville for a year when Officer Friendly told my third-grade class you could call 911 from home and the cops would show up within minutes. Nobody else seemed as stunned by this revelation as I was, but that was no surprise. I had been released from ESL at the start of my second fall in America, and there were a lot of things I was slow to learn.
Like, for example, why people called me Rod. I thought it was because I was Russian or just scrawny, but one day, Billy Spencer sang “Have I told you lately that I love you…” at me and I figured out it was Rod for Rod Stewart because I had a bit of a mullet. Mama chopped it off, but the name stuck. The only people who used my real name were my teacher Mrs. Thomas and my ESL friend Raluca—or I should say ex-friend, because she moved back to Romania over the summer without telling me. I tried not to take it personally.
Autumn called me Okey Dokey, which was definitely closer to Oksana than Rod. We only talked after class, when we walked to the lobby so she could meet her mom and I could cross the street to meet my grandmother behind the clump of palm trees where I made her wait.
But the day after the officer’s visit, Baba was flirting with Mr. Trevors the crossing guard by the front entrance, dangerously on display. Kids swarmed around like the ants in our kitchen, looking for their buses or parents or just their friends to walk home with, and nobody seemed to notice her. Baba squeezed the crossing guard’s arm, her fiery hair flying in all directions, her pink dress flailing about her high-heeled veiny legs.
Autumn spotted her. “Yuck,” she said. “Your mom is even older than my mom.”
“That’s my grandma.”
“Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Well how old is she anyway?”
“No clue. Eighty, ninety, something like that.” No one at school had seen her before and it made me twitch. I said, “You really think if I call the cops they’ll come?”
Autumn’s eyes grew wide. “Yes, yes!” she said. “Call the cops!”
“What do I say?”
She rubbed her hands together. “Say ‘Help! My grandma is trying to kill me!’”
“Alright,” I said. As Baba caressed Mr. Trevors’s arms and then his stop sign, it sounded like the truth.
“Okey dokey, Okey Dokey. I’m flying away,” Autumn said, flapping her hands up and down like wings, which had to do with her saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the butterfly instead of the flag every morning. She flew off to her mom, a silver-haired lady who waited for her in a Jeep, merciful enough to never step out and embarrass her.
But Baba had no mercy for me. I approached her with my head down, incognito. Thankfully she had taken a step away from her prospect.
Mr. Trevors was a nice bald war veteran. He lifted a hand at me and said, “Have a nice day, Rod—I mean, Oksana!”
Baba winked and strutted away. She leaned toward me and said, “Such biceps!”
“A cop came to class,” I told her. “He was nice.”
“Some are,” she said. Then she told a boring story about one summer in Odessa in 1957 when a police officer named Bobik wrote a song about her legs.
The sun baked us as we walked along Main Street, also known as Prostitute Street. It was covered in broken glass and only had a couple of palm trees on it. It ran along the Pic ’N’ Save where Baba took me to get a doll once a month, Dick’s Adult Video, and a gas station with an inflatable alligator at the front. Lizards scattered at our feet. There were always a few kingdoms on the ground, looking like deflated balloons. Men put them over their things to have sex with the prostitutes.
I never saw actual prostitutes there, but sometimes men would honk or slow down and shout at Baba and she didn’t know why. Mama and Papa said not to tell her because she needed the attention since her husband had just died, her daughter had kicked it a while back, her morning work at the lab was unpaid, the Soviet Union had collapsed, she had to share a room with me, her family had been gutted by fascism and anti-Semitism, the world was cruel and unwelcoming, et cetera.
She got one honk and tittered. “Your grandma still has it all, doesn’t she?”
“Are you eighty or ninety?”
She laughed. “Eighty or ninety what, dear child?” She realized what I meant and pretended to choke me. “Fifty-one years young. Hardly old at all, infinite imbecile!” Then she walked ahead of me, like she didn’t want to be associated with me, either.
At home, I knew Mama was napping because it was quiet. If the TV was on, she was applying to jobs and drinking white wine or calling her friends or her mother, who lived in a place called New Jersey, or just silently weeping. Everyone my parents knew back in Ukraine was in New Jersey now, but we were stuck in Florida because that was where Papa had found a job as a physicist for the university. It didn’t seem like such a great job to me because he also had to deliver pizza for Dino’s.
While Baba smoked on the balcony I went to the room I shared with her. The carpet was brown and swallowed up cicadas. The walls displayed photos of Kiev and Baryshnikov framed in a heart. Our beds were separated by a nightstand with a sad photo on it and that was all the furniture there was room for. The only thing of mine was the pile of dolls by my bed.
Baba’s cigarette smoke wafted through the window. I had to act fast before I lost my nerve. I took a breath and put my hand on the receiver and pictured Officer Friendly in his black uniform. He was tall and handsome and had a mustache. He winked at me when I said, “You’ll really be there if I need help?” Then I imagined Autumn clapping her hands and dialed.
“911, what’s your emergency?” said a lady’s voice.
“Um,” I said. “I just wanted to see if this worked?”
“Honey, is there an adult I can talk to?”
“Nobody here speaks English,” I said, hanging up. My heart pounded. I had done it! Then the phone rang and I picked it up.
“May I please speak to your mother or father?”
I hung up again. It rang a third time, and I heard Mama grab it. She used her careful English voice, which was nothing like her Russian voice. She sounded nicer in English.
“Oksana Victorovna Konnikova,” she called. I approached her with my best angel face. Her skin was paler than usual, making her dark eyes and hair even more striking. She was tragically beautiful and her eyes were filled with desperate rage. I was tan, light-haired, and hideous. “Tell this lady nothing is wrong here,” Mama said. She shoved the phone in my direction and it looked like a weapon, like a rocket launcher from Doom. Baba crushed her cigarette with her high heel on the balcony and she looked menacing, too. I screamed wildly.
“Help!” I cried. “My grandmother is trying to kill me! Help!”
I wept and choked and ran out the balcony and past the Sun Bay Apartments sign and the pool all the way to the lake with the mossy trees and smelly ducks, and I stared at the water, remembering the Dnieper, which flowed outside our Kiev apartment, where I slept in the living room with Mama and Papa while my grandparents lived on the other side of the city and nobody ever called me Rod. I wasn’t there long when Mama dragged me away by the ear.
“Dearest God I don’t believe in,” she said. “Tell me, what have I done to deserve this child? Did I commit murder in a past life I don’t believe in? Genocide? Was I Stalin himself? Did I smother a litter of puppies?” She glared at me near home. “The police are on their way, poor idiot. You must tell them everything is normal.”
Baba was drinking cognac on the balcony, thrilled by this turn of events.
Papa was in his Dino’s uniform eating pizza standing up. There was sauce on his nose.
Baba wagged a finger at me and said, “I was young and sharp once, but you are young and dim-witted, and one day, you will be old and dim-witted, don’t you see?” She lifted her glass and smiled slyly. “I hope your officer has a nice juicy rump!” she added, squeezing the air with her hand for emphasis.
Papa dropped his slice and shrugged and picked it up and ate it anyway.
“You see?” Mama said. “Normal family.”
They were knocking as soon as we walked in. The woman had short hair and the man was definitely not Officer Friendly, or even friendly. Officer Friendly was young and energetic and this was a tired bearded man. He greeted my parents curtly and walked over to me.
“Do you realize what you’ve done, young lady? We could be spending our time helping people who actually need it,” he said.
“I’m not that young,” I said.
“We are profoundly sorry,” Papa said.
“Very profoundly,” Baba said, circling the man like a vulture.
“Tea?” Mama asked, but they did not look like they wanted tea.
The officer turned her down and circled the apartment, the coffee table we ate dinner on, the lawn furniture we used inside, the tiny TV with its foil antennae, the sign Papa hung up that said It’s Not Always This Messy Here…Sometimes It’s Worse, and the stained green couch that sunk to the floor. Then he studied Mama and Papa and Baba, who, with their thick accents and garage sale clothes, were probably even weirder to him than our apartment. I tried to make eye contact to show I was not happy being tied to this place or these people, but he didn’t look at me. When he finished his inspection, he squatted next to me until we were eye to eye.
“Do we understand each other?” he said.
“No calling unless I need help,” I said. I didn’t know what else to do so I saluted him.
“Enjoy your day,” said the female officer, and they were gone. It was already getting dark out. The cicadas chirped. I had messed up big time, but I was thrilled.
“What were you thinking, you fool?” Baba said. “They could throw you in jail!”
“This feels like jail,” I noted, and Mama sent me to my room without dinner.
At lunch, I sat by Autumn instead of alone. She was weird, but I couldn’t afford to be picky. She had greasy blonde hair and freckles and wore dresses big enough to fit a mother. Billy Spencer grinned a wild dog’s grin at me, like he was amused I had a friend, but I didn’t care. Autumn didn’t tell me to go away, so I told her about the cops.
“What did you say?”
“I said my grandma was killing me.”
“I didn’t think you’d go through with it. You get in trouble?”
“Had to skip dinner but food at home sucks anyway.”
“Not bad, Okey Dokey,” she said, impressed.
I opened my lunch box. It held a slew of items Mama put in just to torture me: crackers with cream cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and a tomato, which were nearly redeemed by a container of herring. Cream cheese always smeared all over the box.
Autumn peeked inside and shrugged. “Find out how old your grandma is?”
“Fifty-one,” I said.
She nodded slowly and took a bite of her PB&J.
“My mom is forty-eight. She adopted me.”
“How old is your dad?”
“No dad, no dad,” she said gleefully, almost singing the words.
“You just live with your mom?”
“Basically,” she said. “We barely talk because she’s always working. She sucks.”
“You’re lucky. My mom’s always home. My grandma too.”
“How annoying,” she said, biting my tomato.
I dipped my finger in a smear of cream cheese and licked it up. Autumn did the same and looked like she wanted me to keep talking.
“Mama and Baba are always home but we never do anything. When my dad said we were moving to Florida, he was all like, the beach, the beach, we’ll spend so much time at the beach, but we barely go, anytime I ask they’re like, we’re too tired. And I’m like, what’s the point of living here if we never even go to the beach?”
Autumn nodded with great understanding. “Family,” she said, and she shook her head like an ancient person.
To read the rest of the story, you can buy the issue here. Plus, adorn your walls with the artwork from the issue with these special, limited-run screen prints. And then subscribe to the Quarterly and never miss another story again.