“Round Three, Liverpool Rummy–two runs of four,” Evgenia announced. She reached across the Formica table surface and gathered Adele Tanner’s cards, then her own. She threw them back and forth between her knobby, cracked, somewhat shaky hands for a minute, then tapped them into a proper deck, and began to shuffle.
Adele seemed to listen to the purr of the cards, the crack of the edges on the table. “Uh huh,” she mumbled, drool dribbling to her chin.
“And to think, you were once the best psychiatrist in Philadelphia,” Evgenia said in her thick Russian accent. She began dealing. When she finished, and turned the top card of the discard pile, she folded her arms for a moment over the spread of the hand she’d dealt herself, sighed, stared at her friend.
Adele, strapped in her wheelchair, gazed blankly back, her slack face a myriad of yellowish wrinkles, her scalp a parched field sprouting occasional snowy white curls. “Uh huh,” she repeated, her purplish lips nearly motionless.
“You must think I’m still one of your patients,” Evgenia joked. She stretched her right arm and with thumb and fingers, flipped each of Adele’s cards and formed them into an arc that she could read. “Ah look, a 4 of Clubs, 5 of Spades, and 6 of Hearts! What should you discard?” She decided there was no need for the Queen of Hearts. She slid it towards her and froze–sensing the approach.
“And how are you ladies doing?” the nurse with the young, blemished face and no makeup asked as she made her rounds. “About fifteen more minutes until lunch,” she added, her hand gripping the metal back of Evgenia’s chair.
“We’re fine, just fine,” Evgenia replied, forcing a smile. She didn’t mean to sound rude or insincere; the girl was nice. But she could never bear another human being having control over her. She waited until the nurse ambled away to the next group of residents before she thawed and popped the Queen on the discard pile. She swept up, fanned her cards, stole a quick glance at Adele; she thought she saw something spark brightly then begin to sputter deep in those blank, blue eyes.
“Uh…,” Adele muttered.
“It was always better for you,” she loudly whispered so that it came out like a hiss. “Auschwitz and Belsen. You had closure. People know where those places are. The Gulag was worse! And no one knows or cares….” She bit down hard until her dentures cut into her gums. She didn’t want to cry. She shot out her left arm and grasped Adele’s right wrist. “I’m sorry. Stupid old arguments, right? Whoever thought we two would end up in a Philadelphia retirement community–‘assisted living’ my ass.”
“Are you tired, Adele?” She searched the other’s demeanor, inspected her color. Her heart began to sink like an anchor into the sea. “They told me, with a stroke like yours, you are still in there, trapped in your own body.” She sighed, straightened, lay down her cards. “We found each other, in this city, two refugees, who suffered horrible things. You started out my therapist, but became my friend.” She forced herself up, wobbling slightly, and silently dragged her chair to the end of the table. She sat, leaned close to Adele’s body. “You always asked me, what happened, and I wouldn’t tell,” she whispered, and took Adele’s cold right hand into both of her own. She could see the faint numbers, bluish, faded, tattooed on the inside of the pale skin of her friend’s dangling opposite arm.
The nurse, in the center of the recreation room, shouted, “Five minutes.”
Evgenia huddled closer. “Siberia is a place of death. The Siberian Traps–what’s left of the worst volcanic eruption in geological history; killed ninety-percent of life two-hundred-fifty million years ago. I was a geologist, an engineer. I know. And I know, in the middle of ancient Siberian pine forests with the temperature forty degrees below zero, they cleared a great rectangle and we had to dig pits and put up stone and twig walls and sod roofs. They took our children and our clothes, fed us almost nothing. The women and children with the men. Women raped and abused daily, worked to death, children shot. Such tortures, such horrors, no one can imagine. And all for what? I wasn’t the outsider, Adele. I wasn’t the ‘other.’ I was one of them. We were all, all the same. It was only luck that got me to America when I was released. I never told you how I survived all that horror, because I feel such shame. What I did to survive….” Evgenia Andreeva jerked up her eyes; the nurse was walking rapidly towards them. “I held the gun,” she whispered as the young nurse began screaming for help.