Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Floating Continent

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Floating Continent

Article excerpt


"How does it feel doing what you do?" I asked. Stuart laughed. "Like every thing feels when it's you," he said. "Like nothing."

-Jennifer Egan, Emerald City

There was something very wrong with her nose. That was the first thing I noticed. It wasn't that it didn't look like a nose, it just wasn't her nose. My dad was standing next to me and I could tell from his silence he was thinking the same thing. Not just about the nose.

"Well?" my uncle Peter was asking, looking at us expectantly.

I spoke first. "I don't know," I say. "Something looks ... off."

"What do you mean, off?" my uncle asks, almost angrily.'Tt looks just like her!"

My dad shook his head. "Zhanna's right," he says. That it's probably the first time he's ever spoken those words together in a sentence does not go unnoticed by me. "It doesn't look like her."

Uncle Peter points at the large, smooth chunk of marble, my mother's portrait and name embedded across it in giant white letters-Editka Vaynberg, 1961-2012-and then at the photo he has pasted on next to it for reference. In the photo, she's in a boat somewhere on the Mediterranean. Large earrings sparkle down from her ears, and she's smiling her wide, slightly crooked smile. My father, standing beside her, is cropped out, except for part of a shoulder.

Peter is pointing back and forth, photo to stone, photo to stone. "See?" he says, getting angrier."Perfect."

My dad and I look at each other, puzzled. This goes on for a few minutes, Peter trying to convince us the portrait is accurate.

"I'm sorry, but this does not look like my mother," I say, finally. It's really not like him to get something wrong. His work is usually flawless. I know this for a fact, because I used to work here myself, back in college. If they gave out awards for Weirdest Job Ever or Best Conversation Starter, I'm sure I would get one.

My cousin Ilona, Peter's youngest, looks like she's about to cry; in fact, she looks like she might have been crying all day. She tends to tear up easily, even now, in her midthirties with two kids of her own, kids whose names I don't even know. After my mom got sick, I didn't see my Uncle Peter or his wife or any of his kids for years, even at the funeral. Apparently working in the business of death does not prepare you for actually dealing with it.

Finally, Peter gives up and asks us what's wrong with it. That I'm the only person qualified to know this also does not go unnoticed by me. I step closer to the monument, its familiar, shiny reflection, the engraved portrait still surrounded by tiny pieces of dust. I remember the feel of that dust spraying into my eyes as I worked, the smell of ground stone, Peter and his heavy expectations.

"It's the nose," I say again. "And possibly the left corner of the mouth, too.

Peter pulls up two chairs, and everyone leaves the room. He grabs a drill and I point to the areas that require attention. It's almost like I'm nineteen again, paint dried on my elbows, refusing to wear a bra, in love with brothers. Anxious to go home. "This part right here should be whiter," I say, and he drills over the spot."Here too."

Within a few minutes, my mother has her nose. That's the beauty, and the hazard, of detail-one tiny little stroke can make all the difference.

My dad comes back, my aunt trailing behind him now, pink-cheeked and caked with makeup. The instant he sees the new portrait he says, "Yes."

"It looks so much better now, right?" I ask. My uncle quietly seethes. He clearly does not get a lot of criticism. My aunt can't see any difference, but maybe she just forgot what my mother looked like. Maybe they both did.

Ilona comes back into the workspace, her eyes still wet, telling us once more how sorry she is. I say Thanks, but I just really want to get out of there. This is the last piece of ceremony-the funeral, the burial, the monumentafter this gets installed in the cemetery, it's all over. …

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