1. I have begun listening to music again, needing something sweet in a hard world. I have been pleasantly surprised going from one Tiny Desk Concert to another. It’s a kind of shock to feel certain things again, to remember how much you used to feel, to realize how long you’ve gone without feeling. There are people who listen to music all the time, and there are people who don’t listen to music at all, and there are people who listen to music but are unaffected, and all these people are supposed to exist in the world and understand each other.
2. Go back far enough and every unhappy couple is a happy couple—even your parents. Time is moving and time is stuck. Replicated endlessly, they wonder how they got here, in the kitchen (it’s always the kitchen) after a fight. In dreams, too, you appear in a place without knowing how you got there.
3. You can get so tired, sometimes, you feel like you’ve already returned to the dust, except that it’s mud. It rained last night, you see, and the earth could not drink it all. There’s a vehicle parked down the street called the Mud Truck that serves coffee. You’re made of mud, you think, so might as well put more of it in you.
4. You’ve already seen so many people for the last time. Now and then you see someone you thought you would never see again. The effect is like listening to music.
5. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but how many lives does it take to bend it? There was a guy, Paco, who worked on the line at a bar & grill restaurant where I bartended on the weekends. He was a funny guy. His jokes helped keep the energy up during long late-night shifts. Some of the waitresses liked him. Nobody knew how old he was, but he said he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t grown. He had no father but such a large family that he never felt like he’d missed out on anything. He complained often about his gay brother, not because he was gay but because he “mooched too much.” He had worked dozens of jobs in his life, many much worse than his current one. He was acquainted with several cats, and they came to him behind the restaurant, even when he had nothing for them to eat. One night, waiting for the train home, he flicked a cigarette butt on the platform. He was a litterer, in other words. Someone saw him littering, and he got cited for it. Sometime later, he didn’t show up for work, and they had to hire another line cook.
~Bram Shay, Editor
The Maiden with the Rose on Her Forehead by Marc Frazier
The Crossing by Lynn Hoggard
Postcards to Budapest by David Koenig
Candle Making by Richard Weaver
Henri Rochemont by Joseph E. Fleckenstein
We are always at the dump. Men shoot rats. I don’t feel threatened. It seems a natural part of the male world in which my father and I live. He looks for parts while I wander through the rubble spilling its guts. Flies are everywhere. I wonder at some of the items I see lying about, at how people choose what to discard, what to hold on to. My father and I live in a lean-to by the Kishwaukee, a river swarming with carp. One day a microburst blows through and our home is gone. We spend a great deal of time looking for materials to build a new life. I want something better than the old one, but it doesn’t seem to be shaping up that way—the same blankets and tarps attach to trees to hunker down under, a firepit, fetid mattresses covered with clothes on which to sleep. I find an old tintype among the refuse. It has the design of a young woman with the pattern of a rose on her forehead. I set her beside my mattress on top of a wobbly stand. I recall the Madonna from the old days of going to church. I call her Mary and dream at night beside her with the river flowing through me.
One day, two of them wandered down
behind the mountain cabin.
The next day, the owners
threw out corn and birdseed.
The day after that, already there,
the two wild turkeys stood waiting.
The fourth day, eighteen half-grown
jennies and jakes came with their parents,
eyes sparkling, marching
high-footed, necks pumping—
between wilderness and unknown danger,
this a border they dared to cross.
When I am up, I would come down! down here, I long to fly,
without a place of my own between my own earth and sky
Here in this dark damp of soil I sing,
the heart of my voice that beats in my breast
like the wings of the robins in the poplars
that spring morning they took me from you.
Forced marching and digging deep into the earth
while I mined for beauty with this thin point of lead,
until they shot us where we fell in our fatigue
like the shells that fell upon us. And pushed
our skin and bones into the earth along with this
notebook, this heart, these hands that wrote
this sad march of words in postcards to you,
my darling, these skyward eyes that long to hold
you, that see nothing but you in distant fields
of fog beyond the wire where they held us,
and in the trees and in the sky and in the clouds,
still tasting the sweetness of your lips in the damp heat
of a lit cigarette. They did not know that though
my body might no longer breathe, my voice would live
within these words that sifted upward through the soil,
reaching for air for light for you. For I am become
the wind that runs through the fields and rushes up
into the limbs of the trees, that rustles the leaves
and traces through your hair and along your skin
I still feel against my cheek. I am become the air
that breathes in you, your light itself that shines.
This life less then by a day but longer then by all.
What we find rendered,
fat wrapping the heart,
must be strained twice before
it will burn smokeless. The hours
for melting down, the constant
attention and ladling away
of excess fat, exhaust the night.
We empty what is absorbed
by the wick. The dead that feed
our fires, flickering as they do
without the slightest shadow,
accept us as illusion. Nothing more.
We taper them into fingers
as our hands shrink.
When their light dies
we smoke our names
on the cave’s rough dome.
He tells me this. You’re not supposed to say that, but he doesn’t care. He tells me he doesn’t care. This is a Sunday. Evening. Instead of here, we should be in a late-night church service or something. A mosque. A synagogue. Any of those places that Brady despises. He is furiously atheist. He complains about how much we should not believe in anything except science. I try to tell him that you can believe in science and God both and he says, “Shut the fuck up.”
Brady is my boss. My supervisor. He’s paid three dollars an hour more but his biggest benefit is total freedom to do or say anything he wants. He spends a good bulk of the shift in his socks, listens to death metal on his ancient iPod, and eats in the office even though we’re not allowed to. I’m much more by the book, because if he’s in a bad mood he can write me up. He tells me not to study at work, insisting we’re allowed to play video games, because we “won’t get immersed” in those, but homework will make people forget they need to do patrol. We have to patrol a factory, which is a bit like patrolling an outhouse. Who cares about a factory? But apparently there are meth-heads and terrorists who would like what we have in here. I’m not sure what it is, but I see a lot of signs marked Danger Biohazzard. With two z’s. Brady says it’s because even the signs here are falling asleep. We’re basically paid to stay awake. There is nothing more advanced to our job than that. We don’t need things like knowledge or patience. We just need to be able to keep our eyes open and not steal biohazardous materials that would give our fingers cancer. It’s a great job if you don’t mind things that suck.
We get an alarm.
Brady hates alarms. Alarms are always emptiness. There are never any humans at alarms. There are only ghosts and noise and dust. Brady doesn’t move for alarms. On the other hand, Brady jogs to get to “suspicious person” calls, anonymous tips that some shadow was seen tugging at a backdoor or seen “in the bushes,” although the site doesn’t have any bushes, only concrete and a few trees that look biohazardously anorexic.
He puts his hands behind his head and says, “You got that?”
I get up, put on my walkie-talkie that resembles something some miniature Army toy man would have in hand. My belt droops. They issued me a belt that doesn’t fit. Do you know how stupid it is to have a belt that doesn’t fit? That’s the entire job of belts.
I step out of our office of television screens showing the nothingness of fifty security cameras—empty halls, empty offices, empty parking lots, empty rooms so dark that it’s impossible to tell if the camera is even on. I walk to room 5065. We don’t have five thousand plus rooms. It’s just that numbers make no sense here. Room 3 is next to room 38. Just in case they want to insert thirty-four closets in between the two. On my second day, Brady told me, “If you ever get lost, just start walking in any direction.” Good advice. With alarms, I just tend to walk towards the sound of headache. Most of the alarms, you can hear them from anywhere in the building. The only problem is that some other alarms never seem to go off, so you have to be able to differentiate between the eternal steady high soprano that comes from the garbage bin of area D and the strange low humming that never ends from the bowels of the building. The current alarm is a loud beeping alto, and I take my time because there is absolutely no point in rushing. In security school, they teach you something called Scene Safety. Although I should clarify that my “security school”—if you can call it that—was a grand total of seven hours long. In one day. And, I should add, the teacher had us do it in three hours, because “if you don’t understand this stuff, then you don’t know how to tie your shoes.” I noticed later that the instructor’s boots were Velcro.
The halls don’t scare me anymore. I used to be terrified, but boredom cures fright. If you ever notice, the people who are terrified in houses that are haunted have always only lived there for a few days. If you stay there, after a few years, the ghosts bore the shit out of you. I don’t even turn on my flashlight anymore in the halls where the lights have burned out.
The thing about alarms is they can kill you. Brady wants to get “shot”; he wants the glamour of gangster rap lyrics, the whole hoax of some sort ofstylized gunfire that cinema feeds us so frequently, and, of course, the days off to recover. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s nothing un-sexier than walking into a room with sodium barbiturates or whatever the hell chemical and then finding out later that you have a tumor growing on your spine. When I walk, I smell like crazy, my nose in sniffing position. I walk slow and sniff. Another step and sniff. I look so insane that even if ghosts were real, they’d be afraid of me. I smell and listen and look for bodies on the floor and my whole mind-set is to run in the opposite direction if I start feeling like I can’t breathe. I hate this. I’m not paid enough for this. I’m an extra in the movie of my own life, a background actor in my autobiography. There’s nothing important in what I do. It’s a factory that makes products with names I don’t remember. I wish it were something like scissors or underwear or crutches. But we make stuff like tile bifurcators or something worse; take two yawning words and slap them together and that’s what we make. Or they make. And that’s during the day. I’m graveyard shift where nothing is made. Emptiness is made. It’s called graveyard shift because everyone who works it wants to commit suicide. The yearning is for your own tombstone. Except I don’t want that. Ideally, I’d like to have a job where the odds aren’t 98% that I’m going to have the word “metastasis” told to me by an oncologist in the future. My mom says I’m brave. My dad says, Are you applying for other work?
I’m hungry. We can’t eat at work. The problem is that there are chemicals sprinkled everywhere, the worry that our hands are never clean, even after we wash our hands. Especially after we wash our hands. The water here isn’t the safest. The sinks have Non-Potable marked on them, with someone scribbling in yellow highlighter underneath—Whats this mean?
I turn a corner and he’s standing in front of me. Or she. Or it. A thing. This mass of clothing and skin and sweat. I stop. And he lunges at me. It’s a he. A weightlifting, beer-drinking, wings-eating beast who slams me into the wall and then runs down the hall, and I get up and run after him. I’m not supposed to do this. When adrenaline pumps into your body, you just react, usually wrongly. I want to catch this blob and then, after that, I don’t know what I’ll do. He’s fast and carrying something, and I yell into my radio, “10-32,” which doesn’t mean anything. 10-33 is suspicious person, but 10-32 means nothing, but it’s what stumbled out. Later I find out it means “Riot,” but Brady wouldn’t know this, as it’s such an infrequent ten-code. The beast runs into a wall in this hall of mirrors darkness that is this maze of drywall, and then metal clangs to the floor, dropped, and he runs on and I’m supposed to call the police at this point and stand back and observe but instead I keep running. He bashes a door open and I go after him, yelling, “Person” into the radio, which means zero, but Brady says on the radio, “This is Bird One. What is your location?” Bird is his code word we never use, but at least now he knows something is wrong and this particular “wrong” is the most wrong of my six months on the job. I’ve been told everyone gets to have an arrest eventually and this one, I’m thinking, is mine. I look around and we are in a pipe room. That’s the only way I can describe it. A room with pipes. As if this is all we make—pipes, pipes, and more pipes. Pipes inside pipes. Pipes hanging from the ceiling and pipes in a pile, and I could imagine being crushed by a thousand pipes and realize this room is dangerous and a sign says that word—Danger—with nothing more to add to it. And then I am cracked in the head and it’s amazing how easily the body will quit. I just drop so softly, and the beast doesn’t even bother with me. He could kill me but maybe he thinks he already has. He stands over me, but miraculously Brady’s voice bruises the air, kills the air, drowns any weak alarms in the distance, and the beast is gone and Brady’s above me and I’m bleeding and he tells me I’m bleeding. He leads me to a janitorial bathroom, a bathroom tucked under stairs, the dirtiest bathroom in the building. The custodial staff knows that the bosses will never go in here, and so it’s their one haven from cleaning. Brady takes me to a mirror and starts cleaning me like my mother. This desert-to-God with his old-timey construction jackhammer hands is gentle with my head, and I look and there is a sun of blood on the side of my skull. I look good. I mean, I look impressively injured. My thought, strangely enough, is about my brain. I push a little bit of my hair back to see if I can glance at a bit of brain matter and, of course, I can’t.
“Hematoma,” Brady says.
I stare at myself.
“What year is it?” he asks.
“What’s the day?”
“I have a headache,” I say.
“I bet you do. What’s your name?” he asks.
I tell him.
“Who’s the President?”
“Christ, don’t make me say it.”
“You’re A and O times four,” he says.
“Alert and oriented. It means you’re not stupid.”
Brady leaves me. Then the door coughs back open. He drags a chair. Some sort of chair. A chair covered, honestly, in what seems like a thin layer of topsoil.
“Sit,” he says.
“You call P.D.?” I ask.
“Oh shit.” Brady pulls out his cell. It’s off. He turns it on. It takes forever. Forever. A raging forever to start up.
I wipe the blood out of my eye and go to stand, and he says. “Sit down, Rocky.”
“I have to piss.”
I pee when he talks to the police. The police dispatch, I’m sure, has heard the sound of urination before.
Brady runs through the address, the description, that I’m injured, insisting I don’t need an ambulance. “Do you need an ambulance?” he asks.
I shake my head no.
“He’s shaking his head no.” And then the call ends. Fast. I thought it would go on. I thought they’d ask if I wanted some food brought to me, if I needed a hug, if we think we could guess the assailant’s birth date, his favorite foreign film.
We walk back out into the pipe room and it’s empty.
The hall’s empty.
The next hall’s empty.
All the halls are empty.
Our office is empty.
The cops come. Plural. I’m amazed it’s more than one. They search the exterior of the building and come up with nothing. And then they leave immediately. One of them asks if I want to file charges if they find him. I say no. Brady looks at me like I’m an idiot. Brady, for all his lack of belief in hell, is a massive fan of prisons. He thinks we should have prisons within prisons. He thinks America should be one mammoth prison, that everything is headed to hell anyway, that crime is going to take over the government and corporations and schools, and he goes on these rants when he’s sleep deprived and food deprived and water deprived and love deprived and he’s much more sane and coherent after sleep and food and Sprite.
He hands me a green licorice and says, “Here, have some cock.”
Brady is a mess. And a good supervisor. And a horrible person. And a smart paramedic, except he’s not a paramedic. He’s a first responder, but he hates that term. Responder, he says, is a weak word. It’s a word that has had all its muscle atrophied. It’s bedridden, that word. Our official title is Gate Guard. It’s an old term, back when the factory had “gates.” It stuck. We’re stuck. They never fire anyone here. They just move you to another shift. I don’t go to the hospital. I finish the shift. I look in a few different bathroom mirrors over the course of the night, using different lighting. I take my own pulse. I try to determine if I feel faint. I feel fine. Hurting, but sort of fine. Sort of good actually. The night ends. Morning comes on. Angry morning.
Our relief comes in. Brady tells them everything when I’m out of the room.
When I return, Arnav, the new guy, tells me to go to the hospital.
“Why?” I say.
“To see if something’s wrong.”
“Something’s definitely wrong with him,” Brady says.
We go out to the parking lot together. We never do this. Brady asks if I’m all right and when I don’t respond he tells me that I’m going to be all right, and I don’t say anything and I get to my car, and Brady stands there. He looks at me and says, “I don’t really want to get shot.” The astounding thing is not what he says but that he actually looks at me. In daylight. He’s never done that before. When daylight arrives, he turns off, leaves work quickly, almost like he’s panicked, like his life is starting again, as if it has been on hold for the last twelve hours or sixteen hours or however long the shift was.
Brady laughs at something and goes in his car, window cracked.
“Fuck you,” I say and feel weird that I’ve said this, but it feels like something he would say to me. And I know we’re not supposed to curse at work. I mean, I know he can, because he’s the supervisor, but I’m not supposed to. And I get in the car and the sun is pointed directly at my pupils as if it wants to hurt me and it does.
Krystyna was in the same primary school as me, but one year below so we never had a chance to know each other well. Yet I, unlike the other children who looked admiringly at those older than them, as if age alone brought the sophistication and glamour we aspired to, was fascinated by Krystyna’s exotic, almost oriental, beauty: raven hair, dark eyes and lashes, thick eyebrows, olive complexion, and, even at a time when the rest of us were either overly animated or awkwardly gauche in our movements, a tall and slender body that moved gracefully. The only flaw was a scar on her cheek, a memory of some childhood accident or illness. I admired not only her beauty but this scar. For me it was a sign that fate wanted to prevent her from being too attractive, which only proved that she was unusually beautiful. I also admired the fact that she behaved as if she was unaware of her attractiveness. She wore her hair in a simple ponytail and in school photos she always stood on the far side, at the back, allowing other girls to take centre stage.
As I went to secondary school in a different town and gradually moved further and further from my village, I would see Krystyna only occasionally, typically in the summer. During my visits I learnt that she’d become a midwife and married Tomek, a boy from her class in primary school. Tomek was the youngest of three brothers and one could see that the older ones had sucked all the attractiveness and acumen allocated to this family by the Almighty. They were tall and good-looking with dark hair and expressive eyes, while Tomek was short, with narrow eyes, wide lips and blondish hair, which stubbornly refused to be tamed by a comb. Both of Tomek’s brothers got managerial positions in large factories in Włocławek, and when these factories were privatised, they acquired a large chunk of shares and set up their own lucrative businesses. Tomek moved from one dead-end job to another and eventually ended up working for one of his brothers. One might wonder why Krystyna chose such an unattractive loser, but a large part of the answer was that there weren’t many men to choose from in our village: any non-drunkard and non-wife-beater was regarded as good material for a husband. According to the gossip, Tomek was also very persistent in his courtship, ensnaring Krystyna like Soames Forsyte Irene from The Forsyte Saga, the series we all watched as teenagers.
It was a long time before Krystyna and I had a proper conversation. This happened when my mother was looking for a companion for Andrew, preferably a boy his age, because I had to go away for almost two weeks, leaving her to look after her grandson by herself. In summer, finding such a companion was difficult as most kids were on vacation, and those who didn’t go were, according to my mother, too rough to be allowed into our house. When she exhausted all possible candidates on the list in her mind, it occurred to her that Maciek, Krystyna’s son, would suffice. He was twelve or thirteen, five or six years older than Andrew, but he had Down Syndrome, so intellectually they’d probably suit each other. My mother first approached Maciek’s grandmother, with whom she was friends, and then we walked to Krystyna’s house with Andrew to introduce the boys to each other and see how they got along. The house was a hybrid between an old-style box-shaped house, typical for the 1970s and 1980s when people were hungry for living space, and the post-communist nouveau riche residence, in which style was as important as size. It was grey and angular but had a slightly sloping roof, a porch and a well-groomed garden. The estate on which it was built came into existence in the last years of the communist rule and was full by the early 1990s. Most houses there looked similar to that belonging to Krystyna and Tomek; they reflected the hopes of a new system, which weren’t quite fulfilled. Many simultaneously concealed and revealed stories of unemployment and bankruptcies through their neglected façades, very old German cars in the driveways, and on occasion, ‘For Sale’ signs.
When we were introduced to Maciek, I noticed that he looked like his father in his youth, except that he had a slightly shorter neck and flatter face and was stouter than him – a result of over-supply of confectionery by one of his grandmothers. Maciek’s older sister, Dorota, was also physically similar to her father. This similarity seemed to be a source of discomfort. When Dorota stood next to her stunning mother, she would touch her hair nervously or cover her mouth, as if trying to hide the physical traits which marked them as different. All in all, it felt as if Tomek’s genes were adamant in overpowering any others.
Maciek and Andrew’s first meeting indicated that the boys would get on fine. They both liked watching cartoons and were fans of the ‘Ben 10’ series, as proved by a large collection of franchised toys, meticulously arranged on the shelves. The speech of our sons was also slightly impaired, albeit for different reasons, which paradoxically helped their communication, as they didn’t mind not understanding everything.
I suggested that one day Andrew could visit Maciek and the next Maciek could come to our house, but Krystyna said that it wasn’t a good idea, as Maciek wasn’t used to leaving his comfort zone. Luckily Andrew didn’t mind being away from home, even for half a day. He was happy to have a new friend, access to a big supply of toys and a large television.
When I returned from my trip, Krystyna suggested that the boys continue to play together. This time it was my turn to supervise them. I tried to take them outdoors, to cycle or play ball. Maciek had a tricycle but he wanted to try my bike and, after couple of minutes of quivering and wobbling, started to cycle properly and so fast that Andrew struggled to keep up. It was also during our time together that I noticed that he was very perceptive and in an incisive way was able to provide an accurate portrait of his family, using just one word to describe each member. One of his grandmas was ‘soft’; the other was ‘loud’; his sister was ‘quiet’; his mother was ‘kind’ and he was ‘good’. The only person for whom he had no adjective was his father, who was merely ‘there’ – locked in his room in a self-imposed exile from the family. Indeed, apart from his genes, Tomek was noticeable mostly by his absence. The space around his study-cum-workshop was ominously curved; nobody seemed to have the courage to disturb him or even risk coming too close to him. On subsequent visits, the only times I saw Tomek leaving his room was when he came out to complain about the noise.
Before Andrew and I returned to England, Krystyna and I went to the café in the park – the only one in our village; only open in the summer and, even then, only on weekends. From our table we could observe people going to church or the supermarket and some children playing on seesaws in another corner of the park.
‘Do you remember that when we were children, this park was full of drunkards and retards?’ asked Krystyna.
‘Yes, I do. I still remember a woman who spat and shouted obscenities at passers-by, and another with a large red bow in her hair.’
‘The first was called Nanny Goat, because of her swearing. She was impossible to stop. The second was quieter. She became popular among the boys who were too shy to lose their virginity with normal girls. There were many others too, because behind the corner there was a special school. With less work and higher salaries, almost every teacher from our primary school wanted to move there. My mother got very bitter, because for many years she couldn’t get in; she was outflanked by other teachers; as a PE teacher she was the last in line. It was only two years before her retirement that she moved there, but now she has a “special child” to teach for the rest of her life,’ said Krystyna and, after a while, she continued with a nostalgic smile:
‘The retards used to come here during breaks and after school. After 3 p.m. there were at least ten of them at any given time, and in the summer, they would hold their own parties with lemonade and cheap wine.’
‘What happened to them?’ I asked.
‘The older ones died, the younger ones got moved on, and the next generation got aborted. The special school was closed down even before Maciek was born due to the lack of children and funds. The language got more polite; now people don’t use words like “retards” and “freaks”, only “people with mental disabilities”, but the attitudes to them got harsher. Nobody wants to see them on the streets or in school. They say this is because they don’t want the unfortunate to be bullied, but the truth is that they don’t want them to spoil their pristine neighbourhood.’
The occasion required an expression of deep concern or at least a sombre nod but instead, partly out of discomfort at not knowing what to say and partly because the conversation had taken me back to childhood where differences between people, if not unsettling, are an amusement, I giggled thinking about the ‘village idiots.’ It seemed that Krystyna didn’t notice, as she continued:
‘You wonder why Maciek was born. This was Tomek’s idea. Not that he was anti-abortionist as such, but he wanted us to make a sacrifice. Even when we were in secondary school, he was the only one in the class who read Polish romantic literature as if it said something profound about his own life. He wanted to be like the nineteenth century insurrectionist who gave his life for the freedom of his country. Back then it charmed me. It was only some years later that I noticed he preferred to dream about noble deeds behind closed doors, yet expected me to go out and make them happen. The more he was outpaced by others in real life, the loftier became his ideas and the more pompous a loser he became.’
‘So you regret that Maciek was born?’ I asked tentatively.
‘I do. Not because he is a burden, but because he is lonely. He only knows his family. I don’t know what will happen to him when we die. I just pray he dies before us.’
As I wasn’t good at changing the subject, Krystyna petered off and we sat in silence. The waiter came, asking us if we wanted to order something else. We didn’t, so we left, passing the old ‘special school’, which had become an economics and management college. Apparently, the school struggled to recruit, despite offering courses in ‘agritourism management’ and ‘PR in agriculture’. According to my mother, it was precisely because of these contrived and pretentious titles that the local farmers didn’t want to send their children there.
The next summer I kept bringing Andrew to Krystyna’s house, and the boys played together, although Andrew did so reluctantly because, by this point, he preferred cycling with me to the lake, and his ‘Ben Ten’ stage had passed. Moreover, he didn’t like it when Tomek was at home; the television had to be turned down and there was a tension in the house.
One year later and Andrew didn’t want to visit Maciek at all. By now he had befriended a group of local boys roughly his age with whom he went to the local park or the pizza parlour. Once or twice I suggested that they take Maciek with them, but Andrew refused, saying that Maciek wouldn’t fit in and the other boys wouldn’t like it. This summer I didn’t visit Krystyna either, as I was too embarrassed to tell her that Andrew had substituted his old friend for new company, even though she wouldn’t begrudge my son for having done so.
Another year passed and most likely I would not have seen Krystyna again, save for fleeting moments when our bikes crossed on the way to or from the grocery shop, were it not for the fact I had learnt that Tomek had drowned on holiday at the Baltic coast whilst trying to rescue a drowning teenager. I decided to visit her, not so much to offer her my condolences, as to find out how she was coping. As I expected, Krystyna wasn’t grieving. For one, she couldn’t afford it. There were the usual bills to pay, as well as extra expenses related to Dorota’s studies and Maciek’s health. He’d started to suffer from breathing problems, and she was taking him to a specialist in a different part of the country. She’d decided to give up her work at the hospital, as it was too poorly paid and had started her own business, assisting home births. For that, she’d begun learning to drive.
There was so much news that we almost forgot to talk about the accident at the seaside. It turned out that Tomek had managed to bring the boy to safety but once on the beach had had a heart attack and died within minutes.
‘He had a weak heart, which he used as an excuse not to do much around the house and to lock himself in his room so he could imagine himself as some Polish general assisting Napoleon or liberating Hungary. But I never believed that he would actually try to do anything heroic. Maybe I didn’t know him that well. Anyway, he must have been happy to have this guy clinging to him, as it was as close to fighting in the uprising as he could get in this time of peace. And equally in vain,’ she added with a wistful smile.
’He rescued somebody,’ I said earnestly. ‘So maybe it wasn’t in vain.’
‘Well, it transpired that the boy was a junkie and he died several months later from an overdose. I keep quiet about it, so that the neighbours don’t think of us as even bigger losers than we already are.’
Krystyna said this with the same impassive voice which she always used. The inability to show outrage impressed me most about her, even though I knew that it was a protective mask that she wore.
Before I left, I spent some time talking to Maciek. Since my previous visit he had lost quite a lot of weight. This was because Krystyna was adamant that he didn’t become obese as it would worsen his breathing problems. He’d also started to learn English; every week a tutor came to his home. Yet, the death of his father hadn’t changed much in his general outlook. He was still ‘good’, his mother was ‘kind’, his grandmother was ‘loud’ and the father was still ‘there’; except that the position of his hand changed subtly as he said it, with his fingers pointing slightly higher than before, as if Tomek was now occupying a space between heaven and his old study.
A couple of summers passed and I decided to visit Krystyna again. I came on a Sunday afternoon without announcing myself, and it turned out that she had a guest – a handsome man in his forties, tall with dark hair. When I arrived, they were drinking coffee in the sitting room. Inevitably, I felt like an intruder and wanted to leave. But Krystyna insisted that I stay. I was informed that the visitor was living in Szczecin and had his own IT business. I gathered that he was well off, as suggested by his perfect haircut and discretely elegant clothes, as well as a new Audi parked in the driveway. When we finished our coffee, Krystyna asked me if I wanted to see Maciek; we went to his room where he was playing with a girl named Kasia, who also had Down Syndrome. It turned out that she was three years younger than Maciek, but came across as more boisterous than him. Unlike Maciek, she went to school and had private lessons in English and Spanish and was learning the piano. I looked around and noticed that he still had ‘Ben 10’ on his shelves, but now as a memory of his childhood, they’d shifted into the background. New things filled his room – an iPad, a laptop, a smartphone, and it was these objects that occupied his play with Kasia. He was better with technology than her and was happy to show her his skills.
Krystyna asked me if I would like to come another day, but I said that I wouldn’t have time this summer, as I had to visit relatives in different parts of Poland before returning to Britain. However, the real reason was that I wanted to keep the image of the happy family intact, at least till the next summer.
Henri asked me in German to please stop the vehicle. He said he had a pressing need to empty his bladder. As I brought the car to a halt along the right side of the highway, the headlights showed the road was elevated above the surrounding fields. It appeared there was a sudden drop-off on both sides of the road. Recalling as best I could the appropriate German words, I told him to be “careful” and that it was “low” out there. Maybe it was all that wine we had to drink. I was certain I had the correct words, but I also realized that perhaps those words were not in Henri’s German vocabulary. Whatever the cause, he failed to heed my cautions. He opened the car door, took one step and fell out of sight. Henri and I usually conversed in German since my French at that time was limited. Henri spoke no English, but he had learned German as a POW.
Concerned for my French friend, I stopped the engine, pulled the brake handle and hurried around the rear of the car. I hoped his injuries would be only minor. But as I peered down from the road’s edge into the blackness below, his groans told me there was a problem of some degree. I hesitated from going any farther, because I was hoping to avoid the same mistake Henri had made. After some delay, my friend started clawing his way up the bank. As he neared the top of the embankment, I gave him a hand, helping him up the last few steps. His right hand was bleeding and he kept rubbing his right ankle. After he relieved himself, I helped him into the car, and we continued on our way.
Earlier in the day we had visited Henri’s aging mother in Paris. He had not seen his mother in a while and a visit was long overdue. He had made me an offer. If I would drive him to Paris, he could promise me a fine home-cooked meal and some good wine to go with it. Since I had not experienced a home-cooked meal in more than a year, Henri’s offer was irresistible. To my great delight, the meal was everything he had promised. His mother was a gracious, quiet lady who lived alone in an apartment. She was delighted to see her son. After coffee we said our good-byes, as we had several hours of driving to get home..
Once in the car, Henri suggested we might stop at a café that he had owned at one time. He said it would be only a little out of the way. “Sure,” I said. When we arrived at the café, the current proprietor greeted Henri with a friendly smile, a handshake and a hug. Henri introduced me as a friend and neighbor. The man was more than cordial to both of us. In a matter of minutes, he sent the bartender for a good bottle of wine. While we were enjoying the drinks, the café’s regular fille du joie walked over to our table. Henri knew her from past years and rose to give her a kiss on the cheek. Humming a tune, he led her for a few whorls and dance steps in front of the bar. That was all! Neither of us was interested in a joy girl and Henri didn’t wish to unnecessarily keep her away from prospects. When the bottle was empty, we said goodbyes again and were back on the road. To tell the truth, we didn’t need the extra wine.
Henri was a neighbor of mine in Tours where I lived on Rue Lobin. We met one day while I was washing my car in the street. He did not have a car whereas I did. He knew some good fishing spots; I knew of none. I enjoyed fishing. So, we made a good match and a natural friendship developed. Occasionally we would get together to try our luck at some country stream. Sometimes we would bring along a young boy, Philippe, who Henri and his wife were boarding in their home.
Typically, when we would approach the fishing site, Henri would ask me, “Joseph, how about a coffee?” I always knew what he had in mind, whether it was early morning or mid-afternoon. After we entered a café, the first thing he would ask the waitress was a question like, “What kind of house wine do you have today?”
Once in the café, there was never any more talk about coffee. He always went for a full carafe of the lowest priced wine. To his way of thinking a varietal wine would be a waste of money. Both contained alcohol. He would take his time savoring the wine while I had a coffee or two. I enjoyed Henri’s company. He was a free spirit and a good balance to my more serious nature. Henri explained to me that he learned German out of necessity as a prisoner of war. He was captured early in the war and was sent to work on a farm in Germany. The German farm girls taught him the language over a four-year period. On one of our fishing expeditions, Henri told me more about his German lessons.
“When I was on the farm, there were no men around. They were all off fighting somewhere. Once every several months a gestapo agent would come around to check on things. The women were longing for male companionship, and there I was. I was in demand.
“We, my girlfriends and I, ate very well throughout the war–unlike many people in Germany. All of the crops did not go to the war effort. It was easy to hide ample food for everyone who lived on the farms. I would catch wild rabbits in the woods and trout in the streams. There were always chickens, eggs, potatoes and carrots. The vegetables could be hidden without difficulty. You merely dig a hole in the ground. Preferably one well away from the house. You put them in and cover them with dirt and leaves. They will keep that way until the spring. Now and then you go and retrieve whatever you need. In a way I was sorry to see the end of the war, and I believe the girls were disappointed to see me return to France.”
When Henri and I finally arrived in Tours, I parked in the street near Henri’s house. I had to help him out of the car and to the house. His ankle had grown to the size of a grapefruit, and he had difficulty leaning on that foot. At the front door, his wife was not pleased with the sight in front of her. Her husband, standing on one foot, was dirty and bloodied. He smelled of wine, his shirttail was half out. While her look accused me of multiple violations, she abstained from vocalizing her thoughts.
Henri was off his feet for a spell, but he did not seem to mind his predicament. The ankle gave him a good excuse for not going to work and, I am sure, for having a few extra glassfuls throughout the day.
—Joseph E. Fleckenstein