Ever since his family had moved to Fellow’s Grove in June, Jude Maxwell had been watching the balalaika player next door with great curiosity. He didn’t know that the triangular instrument the old man carried in his weathered case was called a balalaika. He just called it a Russian guitar and left it at that. Jude’s wife Sandy and twelve-year-old son Roger were also curious, but the family hadn’t gone so far as assuming the same suspicious demeanor as some of the community’s longstanding residents.

“He’s a Commie,” said Mr. Dobbs, a retired machinist who lived across the street.

Dobbs was the first person they met after unloading the van.

“He came when the Wall went down. He don’t talk to no one. Just goes about his business. You see him headin’ out in the mornin’, comin’ home in the afternoon. Don’t know what he does. My son likes to joke that he’s an assassin, carryin’ around that case. But that’s nonsense. You ever get a chance to hear him talk, he’s got an accent so thick you can hardly tell what he says. Don’t trust him myself…”

But Dobbs was old enough to remember the House of Un-American Activities Committee and Cuban Missile Crisis, both of which had occurred when Jude and Sandy were children. The Maxwells came from a different, college-educated generation, who viewed the McCarthy trials through a lens of political liberalism that labelled them witch hunts and scoffed at the fervor with which this fabricated hysteria had swept the country.

As for the Missile Crisis, that seemed a fable, something designed to teach children the dangers of nuclear armament. So even if Dobbs was right, these were concerns of the past. The world didn’t work like that anymore.

At night, the family could hear the balalaika player’s music coming through the walls. Jude went to their porch and listened, but though the air was sultry, the balalaika player stayed inside.

After a week, Sandy joined him. They sat on the deck in wicker chairs. The music was low, sad, trembling on the verge of collapse. And though Jude had never been to Russia, he pictured the Moscow skyline, lit with flames, as the Revolution began. He saw huddled peasants, working the countryside, harvesting crops in preparation for winter.

“He plays beautifully,” Sandy remarked.

Jude nodded.

They both enjoyed good music.

The balalaika player left his home each morning around eight. He was tall and stooped. Wrinkled skin drooped from the corners of his mouth. Graying hair stood in tufts at the sides of his head, flanking a bald streak. He wore dark brown suits, walked with a guarded limp, and stopped from time to time to adjust his case. Some days, leaving for work, Jude saw him and waved, but the balalaika player never responded.

Early one morning in August, Roger decided to earn some money by doing yard work for neighbors. He went next door to ask if he could cut lawn, which had grown long and reedy.

“He ain’t home Sundays,” Mr. Dobbs called from across the way. “Goes out ‘round six and don’t come back ‘til late.”

“I suppose he’s a private man,” Jude told his son. “We should honor that.”

 But none of the Maxwells could help their curiosity.

 The music continued to attract their attention.

As autumn arrived and the evenings grew brisk, Jude and his wife no longer sat on the deck. By November, they listened to his playing from bed rather than the yard. One night, Jude thought of a story he’d heard in his youth about a violinist who roamed small towns after dark. His music induced slumber, and though he couldn’t recall if the man had stolen children or burgled houses, the story had kept him up.

He was a man now, of course, and not quite given to fancy, but as he slept, he dreamt of the violinist—green face, black beard, purple tweed coat and checkered pants. He walked beneath a full moon, and children followed. They wore grins and leapt blissfully about, but every few steps, the man stopped and killed one of them with a long knife he kept hidden in his violin case.  

Jude cried out in his sleep, but he didn’t wake. As he continued dreaming, he saw his son Roger at the end of this line. He tried to warn him, but his voice was gone, and as he leapt forth to stop the violinist from hurting his son, the violinist transformed into the balalaika player. The landscape became their house, and Jude pounded on the glass of their bedroom window, helpless, as the man swooped in and took Roger away.

After the dream, the house next door, with its drawn shades and shut windows, assumed a menacing aspect. In the morning, the silence with which Jude’s hellos were greeted hung in the air like cold fire. He read machinations in his neighbor’s eyes and took to wearing earplugs so that he couldn’t hear the instrument before falling asleep. Of course, he wasn’t going to act on his fears, but the dream had been too powerful to strike from his mind.

When a snowstorm hit in mid-December, Roger wanted to earn money by shoveling sidewalks, but his father wouldn’t let him ask the balalaika player.

“He doesn’t answer the door,” Jude called as his son left the house. “You should leave him alone.”

“You’re worried now,” Dobbs said. He was digging his car out. “How quickly things change. Didn’t believe me before, huh? But now you do. China, Cuba. They ain’t gonna last much longer, you ask me, and he knows it, too. It’s why he’s so quiet all the time…”

Yet Jude wasn’t troubled for the same reasons as Dobbs. He had no valid cause to feel like he did. But that didn’t stop his anxiety.

“What’s wrong with me?” he thought.

He decided the most sensible way to relieve his burden was to converse with his neighbor. Over the next few weeks, he kept looking for an opportunity to say hello, to strike up a conversation, to force the issue if he had to, but he never got the chance.

The balalaika player’s body was found after members of his church called the police. An ambulance came. Its flashing lights caused a spectacle, and Jude watched with his wife and son at the living room window.

Heart attack, they’d heard.

“It’s so sad,” his wife remarked.

Jude and his son were silent.

Over the next few days, Jude searched the news for his obituary.


On January 15, 2002, VLADIMIR ANDREYEVICH PUSHKOV died at age 77; beloved father of Stepan Vladimirovich; Vladimir emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1937 with his mother and father. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania where he studied medicine and worked in pediatrics until 1991. After retirement, he became an active member of the Russian Orthodox Church in Greenville where he played balalaika for the choir. Contributions in his memory can be made to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, 600 Wall Road, Greenville, PA 19090.

Jude studied the notice and felt he’d done the balalaika player wrong. They’d never passed a word, but his suspicions had kept him from giving the man his due. He wanted to make it up to him. He walked to the dining room and pulled his checkbook from the bureau.

“What are you doing?” Sandy asked.

“Making a contribution. It’s the neighborly thing to do.”

“I’ll get you an envelope,” she said.

As she passed, she touched his arm. She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

“You’re a good man. You know that?”

And though he would have liked to agree, somehow, he wasn’t so sure.