"A brilliantly constructed first novel." from a lead review in TIME
"An extraordinary first novel by a gifted new author." N.Y. TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Bankowsky is with one novel among our finest writers." LOS ANGELES MIRROR-NEWS
"This is the first novel of a first-rate talent." CHICAGO TRIBUNE
"A powerful and startling new talent." CLEVELAND PRESS
"One of the most compelling American novels to appear in the last
several years." WASHINGTON POST
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY GHOST. AMEN.
I BELIEVE IN GOD, THE FATHER ALMIGHTY, CREATOR OF HEAVEN AND EARTH . . . Bury 'em before sundown's what I believe. Like the Jews. Like out of sight, out of mind; and let the dead bury the dead. And maybe that's no way for a respectable mortician to be thinking, but that poor old sonofabitch has been lying here for seven days now amid tears and wailing and knocking of breasts and these never-ending Polish prayers--fifteen mysteries, a hundred and fifty Aves--and for what? For a little bitch, for a no-good little bitch who in just nine or ten, or however the hell many months she's been away from home now, has already learned that a little thing like her old man's funeral could wait the seven days it must have taken her to paint up her face like that or maybe even to make enough cash laying for those New York Jews so she could drive back home to Anderson in that Packard and show all her stupid Polack friends that old Stanislaw Machek's little girl has learned how to make a fast buck even if her old man never did .
Well, she's paying you for the extra days, so what's the difference? And what’s seven days more or less to a dead man who, once they close that lid over his face, has nothing to look forward to anyway but the satin-smelling inside of a coffin? Which isn’t really nothing, since it’s just about the best satin money can buy—quality satin for a quality casket, one of the best in the parlor. At least he won’t have to worry about the worms getting in at him for a while; because they really don’t make them any better—not out of wood, anyway. And he couldn’t have expected them to take a metal one. You never even expected them to take one as good as this. Why, when you first walked in here last Friday and saw his crazy old wife sitting in her rocking chair smelling that bowl of glass flowers, and not a single window in the entire house that wasn’t broken and paneless and patched like that with wire and flattened cardboard cartons . . Why, you would have taken bets that this was one of those plain unpainted pine box affairs, because the way this place looked then.
But you didn’t have to come inside. Before you so much as even stepped out of the truck, it seemed pretty damned obvious that if he could have afforded wood—even pine—he might at least have built himself some front stairs even if he didn’t feel he really needed a porch with a roof on i t or a floor in i t or a fence with maybe a picket or two nailed to i t.t. Because you sure as hell never figured you’d be getting any richer on somebody who had to tear down half his house just to build himself a couple of rat.ty old chicken coops, somebody who couldn’t hold on to enough money to maybe buy himself a package of seeds and plant some grass or something, who’d even poured gasoline, or what looks like gasoline, or oil, or whatever it is, all over his front and side and probably back yard too, so that out there, there’s nothing—nothing but that terrible sour stink around the chicken coops. Like something dead, that’s what it smells like; like something that died and was buried, and after a while was dug up again—dug up by whoever the damned fool was that opened that kitchen window back there.
He probably thought he’d let out some of that flower-stale air that hung around the coffin when you first walked in here tonight, and together with the fumes of the candles guttering in their sockets was almost suffocating; thought he’d let it out and make the poor little family a bit more comfortable—like walking up to the bereaved with your hat off and your handkerchief all wet and teary up to your nose, thinking maybe to say something about flights of angels and instead coming up with, "Alyosha, your saint is beginning to stink." Why, if you didn’t know about the chicken coops, you’d swear it was coming out of the casket, swirling up in that candle smoke like one of those decomposition ghosts people meet in graveyards when the moon is right and the wind gone; and if they’re lucky. Because it’s all just the right combination of circumstances like anything else— only more so with ghosts, whether it’s a ghost of the dead or of the living.
Who would have guessed that the old man you’ve been waiting to bury for seven days now would turn out to be hers, that she’d be the one responsible for the waiting; so that now, after seven days, now that she’s finally here, you’re not even sure whether you’ve been waiting to bury somebody or to dig somebody up. Because sure as hell, for you she was dead. She’s as much a ghost as you’ll ever see—as unreal as anything in a graveyard—a ghost with surprise in her eyes, as though in her play among the headstones she suddenly came square up against another ghost she’d played with and forgotten in life and never thought to see again either in death or after it. She must have been just as surprised to see you as you were to see her, walking in like that (and you not knowing that for seven days it was she you’d been waiting for), walking in like that in those spike heels, and all the paint on her face and a cigarette hooked in her mouth, and those bracelets of hers flashing even in the candlelight. It was no wonder you didn’t recognize her at first, didn’t recognize her until after she’d taken off the sunglasses and you saw the eyes widening behind the cigarette smoke—the smoke curling up under the brim of the big black picture hat with the floppy rag flowers on it, and the eyes widening just enough to let you know they recognized you before settling back into that mask it must have taken all of at least seven days to paint on her face—and probably more, more like seven months, or eight, or nine.
Because it must be a little over nine months now—yes, last summer, July—a little over nine months to make her look the part she was already playing that day last summer, nine months to paint an inch thick, to hide behind the lipstick and the mascara and the curling cigarette smoke the little naked face that blossomed up out of the street corner, framed in a bright kerchief and in the open window and looking in at you with an expression mute and uncompromising, like a dog who through some unreason all its own has decided to follow you home. You didn’t even see her at first—sitting there behind the wheel, sweating, cursing the goddamned red light—no traffic moving over the bridge into Anderson anyway—wanting to move, to drive on, since only in motion, the air blowing in through the open windows, was there any relief—feeling her, the eyes working into you, and even before you were aware you were looking, seeing the face small in the open window and then big in the seat beside you, the full young ungirdled body stiffening into the corner against the door, the now almost inert face still not speaking, not even looking at you any more, the horns blaring behind you, and automatically, compulsively, the hearse jolting past the green light (the gears not even grinding), and her sitting there beside you unspeaking, looking straight ahead, her eyes bright open, the leather overnight bag small under her bare arms and on her lap, and you too surprised to even think of stopping to let her out, just sitting there, the factory whistle still wailing in your ears, asking over and over again, "What is this? Who are you? What do you want?" thinking, "What in hell is this? She’s only a kid. What in hell’s she think she’s doing?" saying, "You’ll get in trouble pulling this kind of thing. Don’t you know there are men? Don’t you know a girl like you . . . You could get in trouble, you know? Now listen, you better get out! You can’t . . ."
But she wasn’t getting out. And not only because you weren’t stopping, not only because it was noon and the traffic from the worsted mill was crawling up your back bumper, and the cars parked along Market Street were jammed so tight you couldn’t have stopped even if you’d wanted to, even if you were really thinking of stopping —which you weren’t—you know that now. Knew even then, without even having to say to yourself, "You’re it"; knew she had chosen you, or somebody or something somewhere had chosen you, had cemented that sonofabitching red light into that corner and blinked it on and off and on again for five or ten or twenty or however the hell many years it’s been stopping traffic and will go on stopping it; just so on one hot and breathless and generally miserable day last summer, precisely at noon (the factory whistles wailing like banshees), it could flash red just as an empty hearse all black and shiny happened to roll noiselessly up—a hearse with New York license plates on it, the only out-of-state plates in that whole goddamned string of traffic.
Because you were chosen; the whole goddamned bloody strike had been arranged and so many killed just so there couldn’t possibly be enough hearses in the city of Prescott to get them all buried in time and you’d be forced to rent one in New York to handle the overflow and would be driving it back three weeks later after you had got them all decently underground and would stop under that red light—the only car with out-of-state license plates—just so in case you happened to be curious enough to ask, "But why pick me? Why pick a hearse?" she could answer, just as though it were the simplest thing in the world and you were pretty damn stupid not to see it, "Why, you have yellow license plates"—her voice young, too young, so that at first you had trouble making the voice and the face come together, the face still looking straight ahead, the kerchief knotted under the chin, and the wisps of thin blond sun-blanched hair blowing on the forehead and in the eyes looking straight ahead; the arms long around the overnight bag in her lap, and the hands folded quietly on the thin summer dress blowing around her knees—the dress, too, looking too young, too small (though it reached well down over her knees), filling when she moved, tightening over what you might even have allowed yourself to believe were already woman-thighs; so that even after the voice and the face (the profile) finally did come together, and you knew, were sure that she was only a kid sixteen or seventeen at most, you just couldn’t help wondering about the anomaly under the thin summer dress, saying, "Now just a minute. Hold on! I’m not taking you . What is this, anyway? If you want to go to New York, why didn’t you take a bus? You were standing in a bus stop"; saying it, or something like it, but only to make talk.
Because it was at least a half hour to the city and you had to say something, had to justify something, had to justify not so much her hitching a ride with a strange man—a kid, a child, forcing you, a stranger, a reputable and respected mortician, into such a situation—not even what you knew then was your acceptance of it, the discovery that you were actually going to take her, a child, into New York with you; but your wanting to, needing to, even; knowing that if what you were saying then had caused her to start, to blush, to say, "Please! Stop! I will get out. I will take the bus" (which was only three cars behind you in the rear-view mirror), you might even have said, "No. Please. You can’t. I’ll take you. Where do you want me to take you?" And you even did say it, not all of it maybe, because there wasn’t any blushing, and there was no getting out and so the "no, please, you can’t, I’ll take you" wasn’t even necessary, and all you had to say was, "Where do you want me to take you?"—that was enough. And you knew that you had said, not what you had meant to say, but what you’d wanted to. Knew too, even before it was all out of your mouth, that she would understand not what you meant to say—the "O.K. So you’ve come this far. So where can I let you off in New York?"—because she wasn’t listening to that. She was hearing only what you wanted to say and what she wanted you to say whether you were saying it or not.
Because saying wasn’t necessary for her, nor for you either. And you
had probably already heard her answer long before she made it, maybe even
before you had finished asking, probably thinking even then about how you
were going to pull it off, where you were going to take her, what you were
going to say to Sophie over the phone. For when the answer finally did
come, you had not only been accused, you had already been tried and convicted
and probably even condemned, feeling the current jolt through your brain
and right down into your groin, and the fury, the rage—not at the sentence,
not at her, the woman, the eternal judge and executioner, but at yourself,
at your crime, at your knowing and wanting that sentence even before it
had been passed, at the feel of the gas pedal stubborn under your foot
and against the hearse floor, at your hair bristling and blowing all over
your head now, at the tires whining, and the highway like a bright hot
current snapping by in the opposite lane, snapping, "Take me to your place!
Take me to your place! Take me to your place!"
And so there was nothing else to do but laugh, and out loud too. And not just because of the ridiculous fury and rage, the damned and downright delicious shock; but because she had said the wrong thing. She had said not what she had meant to say at all, since "Take me to your place!" actually meant turn around, back into Prescott and up Market Street to the ratty old funeral parlor with the store-front windows (the converted saloon, which from the outside still looked more like a saloon than a funeral parlor), and up the dim flight of stairs into the three-room flat, and Sophie, your wife (even while laughing already thinking of what you were going to say to her over the phone). Because you weren’t turning around. You were heading straight on into New York, and with a girl at your side—a kid, a child. And you were laughing because this kid, this child, had made the mistake way back there in Prescott when she first spotted the yellow license plates and assumed you were a New Yorker (or at least an outof-stater), probably without caring whether it was justified or not, probably without even needing to care.
The fact that you weren’t a New Yorker, that you were really her own kind, probably wouldn’t have bothered her even if you had told her, if you had said, "Now wait a minute! You got this all wrong. I don’t live in New York. I’m not what you think I am. I’m just like you. I’m a Polack too. And in a few months from now, I’m even going to bury your old man."
But naturally you didn’t say it. You were going to play the game, and maybe the laughing was all part of it. You were going to play the smooth city fella, something you never could be, what with your worn shiny undertaker black serge and the celluloid collar; because you were part of the same thing she was, and you knew it; knew that the only people you could ever fool with your borrowed manners and your worked-your-way-through-college sophistication were your own people and nobody else, and that was probably the main reason you could never get away from them, why you let yourself get stuck in a little hand-me-down storefront mortuary with a work- and child-ridden Polack wife, and a batch of snot-nosed little Polack kids hanging on her skirt and one still hanging on her tit and probably another one already growing in her belly.
So you weren’t fooling yourself, and maybe you weren’t fooling her either, because she looked like she wasn’t even aware you were laughing. And you sure as hell couldn’t be sure she was thinking you were what you wanted her to think you were. She hadn’t even looked at’ you once since she got in beside you, just sitting there like that, staring out the windshield, the thin bright sun-blanched hair blowing under the kerchief and around the forehead, and the thin summer dress blowing around the tight knees, and her thoughts somewhere out there on the dazzling highway, stretching way out there beyond the windshield somewhere, always ahead of both of you, so that no matter how much of that bright ribbon your wheels wound up, they were still out there somewhere ahead of you, and the gas pedal played stubborn under your foot and against the floorboard.
But you couldn’t even be sure of that, could you? You couldn’t be sure whether her thoughts were really out there on the highway always ahead of you and that’s why you couldn’t ever reach them, or whether they were spinning off your back wheels like a spool unwinding, like she somehow got a loose thread off the hem of her mind caught in a snare on that corner red light back there and . . .
Either way, her thoughts were not there in the hearse with you. You knew that. Knew too that no matter where they were you were not in them, neither you nor your laughing either. Knew that she was no more thinking about why you were laughing than she was about why she wasn’t speaking or why she would continue unspeaking through the entire ride, probably not even aware that not speaking was all part of the design, the part that would get you to do just what she wanted you to do. Because she had spoken once, had said what she had had to say, and now what would happen would happen, and so all the rest was silence, silence which you must have known even then was bred not out of strangeness or fear or the plain and simple lack of social garrulity, but out of desperation, a calm and patient and deliberate desperation. Somehow you knew that.
And you know it even better now. Because the moment she walked in here you could feel the silence around her. Even amid the click of spike heels and the brass-band aura of bracelets and rose-rimmed picture hat and blatant face paint, even when she spoke, kneeling close against the knees of her crazy and rocker-bound old lady—the silence was there. And it’s not just because of the wake either. It’s like an echo of that silence which bewildered you in the speeding hearse almost a year ago—only then it was desperate. And now, after almost a year—like an echo that’s all but bounced itself out—sitting here before her father’s coffin, the painted nails like rose petals running over the rosary beads amid the low monotonous chanting, BLESSED ART THOU AMONG WOMEN, AND BLESSED IS THE FRUIT OF THY WOMB—it’s a silence not of grief or despair or any kind of desperation, but of something else, of relief maybe, or resignation.
Anyway, with her there were no tears, no wailing, no knocking of the breast—not like some of her sisters, who screamed for their poor dead Tata to come back to them, their eyes wetting the shirt fronts of their embarrassed husbands. Now it’s mostly silence, even with her sisters. Because since she arrived, there’s been hardly a wail, hardly a tear even, except maybe from some of the old ladies of the Rosary Confraternity, who know their job. Maybe it’s the rosary keeps them quiet. Maybe. Maybe it’s her. Maybe she brought it with her, hugged it, clung to it like something precious, like a jewel maybe, or that special flower girls save in iceboxes—or virginity? No, not virginity. Clung to it for almost a year now. Because back there in the speeding hearse you could feel her holding on to it, hugging it as though as long as she kept that, nothing could happen to her, not even what she knew was going to happen, what she wanted to happen, what had to happen.
Only that wasn’t the story at all; it was the silence that did it—her not speaking even after you’d got out of the hearse and picked your way over the bumpers and opened the door for her and walked her out through the exhaust-filled car tunnel of the ferryboat onto the deck and self-consciously filled your lungs with salt air and pointed out along the bright river, saying, "Look, you can even see the Statue of Liberty today," the first words you’d spoken to her since way back there on the highway.
It was her not speaking even then, her not even looking at you—looking instead out across the bright water where the gulls wheeled like doves above the flotsam, so that you were suddenly aware that you had not seen her full-face once since she looked into you back there under the corner red light—all that, the not speaking and the not looking, that made it all happen like it did. Because during the silence on the highway, after you had planned it all out, had planned exactly what you would tell Sophie over the phone, had picked out the hotel, and even reminded yourself not to forget to stop in a drug store after you had parked the hearse after you had it all worked out, all neat and clean—you knew that it was time to start thinking about how you’d get rid of her, how you’d start her talking by saying something nice and friendly and conversational, something completely stupid like, "Look, you can even see the Statue of Liberty today," just as though nothing had happened.
You were sure then that you couldn’t go through with it; and you had even begun to tell yourself that it was all a mistake, that you were grasping at straws, that you had misunderstood her, and once she’d begin talking, it would all straighten itself out and you could just leave her there on the ferryboat deck watching the gulls cavort. She would be in New York then, and she could get a trolley on Forty-second Street, and she couldn’t expect you to drive her all over the city in a hearse.
So if she had only said something, something like, "It’s going to be a hot day," or something; something that you could have picked up and, pretending you hadn’t understood what she’d said in the hearse, could have finished off with something nice and tactful like, "Sure is, I hope it won’t spoil your day in the city. Guess you’ll be taking a trolley cross-town to the shopping center"—anything like that. Even if she had said again, "Take me to your place," or, "Where will you take me?" or anything like that, anything, you could have said, "Now listen, little girl. What do you take me for? I’m a married man. I . . ."—anything. And you could have just turned around when that boat splashed up to the pier, and left her standing there, and got back into the hearse and that would have been it.
Only she didn’t say a goddamned word; and you couldn’t think of anything to say either. You couldn’t ask her where she was going in New York because you were afraid of what her answer would be. And you didn’t want to know her name or where she lived because you just didn’t want to get involved. And so when—without speaking, and without looking at you, and after a minute or so of gazing out along the river toward the sea—she turned and walked back into the tunnel without even waiting for you, and you saw the back of her—the full ungirdled softness in the too-small thin summer dress and the naked legs and feet in the dirty canvas shoes—and after a while heard the slam of the hearse door echo in the tunnel; you knew you were it. Knew that you just had to find out what she was all about. You were still not sure whether you were grasping at straws or not, whether you were dreaming it all up or not; couldn’t be sure whether she was what she looked like— a simple little Polish girl in a kerchief and a thin summer dress that looked too small for her—a child that even in canvas shoes looked like she was walking barefoot, with a voice even younger than her sixteen or seventeen years, and a face which you were sure (if you could only get to look at a little more of it than just the profile) would come together with the voice—or whether she really was what five little words, and all that silence and the already-woman-thighs tightening around your imagination had made her.
So maybe that was it. Maybe if you could have just made up your mind one way or the other, if you could have been sure, if she had been then what she is now, or at least if she had looked then the way she looks now with the paint and the bracelets and all, maybe it never would have happened. You could have laughed at her and said something like, "No thanks. I’m not buying today"; and not because she’s not a looker now; because even with all the paint she’s a knockout, and she sure as hell carries plenty around in front of her. But the not knowing, the standing at the rail in the spray looking down into the gentle heave and swell of the bright water—the gulls piping—thinking of her back there in the dark tunnel sitting in the hearse, trying to remember what her face looked like and the sound of her voice when she said what you knew she had just had to say back there on the highway, and not being able to remember; trying to figure it out, thinking, "Maybe she’s running away from home. Maybe she didn’t have enough cash to take the bus. Saw the yellow plates. A ride. Maybe a place to stay the night. A couple of bucks to hold her over till the next guy. Because she must have done it before"; knowing she couldn’t have, not with all the silence; knowing you were all wrong, that if it were as simple as that, none of it would have been happening.
And even if you did go on letting yourself believe that you had figured it all out—even though you couldn’t explain to yourself why you were going through with it if it was all as simple as you tried to make it—you found out later when it was already too late that it wasn’t simple at all, that it was too damn complicated for you, that you would never be able to figure it out; knew it the moment you saw her lift the overnight bag up onto the desk and open it and reach out the bills and place two of them down on the desk. Because it just didn’t make any kind of sense. You had already filled out the registration card and she was right there all the time, and no matter how far away her thoughts were from the hall of that little walk-up hotel, she just couldn’t have missed hearing him, even though he was keeping it low like he was trying not to offend the lady, saying, "Make it an outta town address. Just ‘and wife’ here under the date" (you thinking, "1926, July—yes, that would make it ‘and wife’ for almost ten years now"). "Double’s a dollar’n a half. Pay for the first night now." And even he just looked when he saw her lift the money out of the overnight bag, probably thinking he had made a mistake, that you really were man and wife—the newspaper he had been fanning himself with ceasing to move, and his hand going once across the two-day stubble; saying, "3C. Up the stairs. First door to your right," not once getting up out of the tilted splint chair, the key and the half dollar rattling briefly on the desk top.
So you took them, and you picked up her bag, nodding to her, following her up the stairs—the canvas shoes as silent as bare feet in front of you, and the back of her catching soft full lines of light from the single bulb at the top of the landing. You knew you didn’t even have to wonder whether his eyes were following you or not, knew they were probably back under the newspaper again—the volume of the radio turned up, the voice of the announcer, German or Yiddish or something, rattling behind you, the hall dim under the single light bulb, tight, still, airless. "First door to your right. 3C"; the key turning easily in the lock, and you thinking, "Maybe she didn’t hear it all. Maybe just the last part, the part about the dollar and a half. Figured she was paying for her own room, that you were just finding her a place to stay, and that now you’d put down her bag and shake her hand and head back out to the hearse and climb back into it and . . .
And so when the door swung open and the light from the hall fell across the floor to the foot of the old double bed—the daylight yellow through the drawn shade, playing across the pillows---you just put the bag down in the doorway, and made room for her to pass and didn’t even bother to snap on the overhead light. You just stood there in the doorway looking at the back of her, dark before the white bed and against the yellowed window shade, the doorknob still in your hand; and then only half of her, then nothing—the door clicking shut—nothing but the biggest, brightest 3C you’d ever seen; wondering, "But why 3C? There are only two floors to the hotel. The ground floor’s a drug store," thinking of her standing there with her back to the door in the soft yellow light, probably already tightening up waiting for the first touch, probably imagining you breathing behind her, coming closer, the door closed behind your soundless moving across the long interminable three feet from door to bed, tightening up, waiting, waiting to uncoil, to spring, to wind around you in a tangle of naked arms and constricting woman-thighs.
And you were waiting too, standing there, the 3C big in your eyes, thinking, "It’s her move. I’ve got to be sure. Turn around! Turn around! See! I’m not there. Now what?" but nothing—for a long while nothing but the dim tight airlessness and the 3C big in your face.And you were already beginning to move away when the doorknob still in your hand began to turn, to pull away from you, the 3C going away and the face there looking up at you, looking up at you for the first time since way back there when it first blossomed up out of the street under that corner red light—and you wondered why all along the highway and on the ferryboat you couldn’t remember what it looked like—the eyes bright-open in the glare of the light bulb in the hall ceiling, the kerchief still tight, knotted under her chin, the lips trembling, about to open to speak; and you straining to hear, your lips opening too, as if by opening yours you could force her to open hers too, as though through some secret sympathy of lips you might get her to speak, to break the spell.
Only it was no good. There was only her hand hard and small in yours, pulling so that for a moment you almost imagined it was the doorknob again; not knowing what to do, thinking, "So I was right. I was right in thinking wrong all the time," saying, "I’ll be back. Don’t worry. There’s a drug store downstairs. I have to get something . . Something to drink." But the hand still there, pulling, and the eyes still looking up at you, pulling too, and you repeating, "Don’t worry. I’ll be back. I wouldn’t leave you here alone"; and then your hand empty, and only then realizing that for the first time you had touched her, already trying to remember what she felt like but feeling only the cold metal of the doorknob and the fifty-cent piece flat in your palm; carrying that feeling back down the stairs with you and past the desk and the clerk under the newspaper; wondering, ‘‘How the hell does he manage to sleep with that radio going?’’ discovering that all the time you were standing up there in front of that door, that foreign music must have been going in your ears and you never even heard it; wondering whether she was hearing it now, way up there, two flights, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty stairs-—and then the street bright in your face.
So you were out of it. And you breathed deep, actually thinking you could smell the salt air of the river again almost halfway across town there on Forty-first Street—the pigeons crooning in the gutter. You were heading toward the parking lot, toward the hearse, and you just couldn’t get over how easy it had all been, how you had taken a woman (a girl, a child) up into a hotel room with absolutely no trouble at all. Why, you even had the Jew at the desk thinking you were married to her. And it didn’t cost you anything either. You didn’t even have to pay for the room (the fifty-cent piece still in your hand). Because the whole thing had come off beautifully. You had pulled it off. You had actually taken a woman, a girl, up to a hotel room in New York City, and it was easy. And you even began to think what a big man you were, a regular gigolo. And you were even laughing to yourself, standing there waiting for the light to change to cross Seventh Avenue, actually laughing to yourself; and then at yourself. Because you hadn’t done anything, not a goddamned thing; and for a minute there, you’d actually had yourself believing that you had gone through with it, that you had really pulled something off. And you would have walked back into that parking lot and got into the hearse and returned it and then ridden back into Prescott in the bus along that same highway and climbed up those stairs and into Sophie, believing that you had done something.
And so you really laughed. And halfway across Seventh Avenue, you were still laughing; and then you weren’t. And you were across the street, and there was a sign "Drugs"; and you were in the door, the giant fans blowing in your hair; and only after he had said it three times did it come through that he was talking to you—"Can I help you, sir?"
Only nobody was helping you that day. He gave you what you asked for, and you placed the fifty-cent piece flat down on the counter—realizing only after it was already too late that it was her money you were paying with—still feeling it pressed into your palm as the fans swung around and hit you once in the back of the head and the sidewalk glowed up into your face. Moving back across Seventh Avenue you had to hurry because the light was red again, thinking of her up there with the light still out, probably knowing even then that she would never have thought of switching on the light all by herself even if it were as dark as death in there, would probably simply have closed her eyes and waited till the sun came up behind the window shade, or maybe would have just left the door open on the light in the hail. And even though while in the ground-floor drug store (you remembered saying you were going out to get something to drink), while they were making the sandwiches, you were thinking how it would be—seeing the thin summer dress blue on the floor among the pink things and the dirty canvas shoes, and the naked face eager above the sheet; wondering how the thin blond hair would look fanned atop the white pillow—even then, you must have known that when you got back up there—the soda bottles wet through the paper bag, your breath coming fast after the stairs--it wouldn’t be the way you’d imagined it at all, not at all. You must have known that she never would have thought of getting herself ready. She had made her move way back there on the highway, and now the rest would just have to happen and she’d have nothing to do with it. It was all up to you now, and she wasn’t helping you; nobody was helping you.
And so when you saw the door still partly open (she had not even thought to lock it) and you knocked, and she didn’t even say, "Come in," or, "Stay out," or, "Who is it?" or anything, and you found the overnight bag still there on the floor, and her just sitting straight up in that splint chair—her hands folded in her lap, and not even her kerchief off, sitting there looking like her feet should have been dangling instead of resting flat on the floor like that—you couldn’t understand why you were not back in the hearse or already on the bus and on the highway, why you were putting the soda and sandwiches down on the night table, what you were even doing with soda and sandwiches, why you were saying, "A cold soda’ll hit the spot," instead of, "What do you want from me? If you want it so bad—if you’ve got to have it—why the hell don’t you help a little? I don’t know what I’m going through with this for in the first place. So the least you can do is take off your own goddamned clothes."
Only she wasn’t even going to help that much; nobody was helping. There weren’t even any glasses around, and you weren’t at all surprised to find that the soda bottles were warm; and so when you discovered the straws in the bag and the bottle opener screwed into the door jamb, you began to wonder whether maybe it wasn’t some kind of mistake, since you weren’t even expecting that much help and you wouldn’t even have been at all surprised if that slick-haired sonofabitch in his big Seventh Avenue drug store had grinned because he knew he was selling you defective merchandise.
So how did you do it? Not why? That you’ll never be able to figure out.
But how? You sure as hell weren’t getting any help from her—just sitting
there like that, straight up in that splint-backed chair, her hands folded
in her lap, her knees together and her feet spaced flat on the floor, toes
in-pointing like some five-year-old in a doll-house chair where your legs
don’t even have to dangle. And no doubt she would have just gone right
on sitting there, straight-backed, pigeon-toed, her hands folded in her
lap; why, she hardly even started even when the soda shot spattering out
of the bottle all over her hands and dress. And if you’d had sense enough
to realize that warm soda will do that sort of thing, that you can’t go
around wrenching the caps off warm soda bottles like that, maybe none of
it would have happened. Though even that wasn’t really enough, because
she just sat there gazing down at her wet hands in a kind of grave and
becalmed amazement, turning them over once in her lap, palms up, and then
folding them again and replacing them soberly in her wet dress. So maybe
if you just hadn’t said, "Better take it off. To dry, I mean." But even
that wasn’t it, because she only looked up at you not moving, not understanding
apparently, probably not even caring to understand, looking up at you,
grave, becalmed, unquestioning. And so if you just hadn’t said, "The dress.
It’s wet . . ."
We’ll all be poisoned. Every time that wind shifts . . . and with the rain and that window open back there ... You’d think by this time they’d have got the damned thing cleaned up. Seven days. They could have at least taken a shovel and thrown some lime out there. They’re probably all dead. Probably nobody’s even thought to throw a handful of seed out there for seven days now. Putrefaction, that’s what it is. Maybe. Maybe it’s some kind of delicacy makes you blame it on the chickens. With fifteen or more people cooped up in one goddamned little room, and most of them old and dying anyway, old enough to have stopped taking regular baths years ago, and with a corpse lying in here for seven days and the flowers all dying too (probably not so much from sitting here for seven days now without sunlight or air in the heat and smoke of the candles, as from the human smells), what can you expect?
She smells more like a flower than the flowers do, like some artificial flower, with all that perfume. Like a wake herself, like a flower shop always smells like a wake, sweet and pleasant—only a fresh wake and not one that’s been seven days running. Because you could hardly say this place smells like a wake any more. The flowers are probably supposed to disguise the smell of death, and if they begin to die themselves, well, where the hell are you? It wouldn’t be half so bad if she were sitting somewhere back here instead of up there in the first row. That perfume’ll cover anything. It doesn’t smell cheap, either. But then how the hell would you know? Still, anybody that owns a car like that the little pink-faced bastard, following her every move with those button eyes of his, running around lighting her cigarettes for her like she was some kind of Polish princess or something. She must sure as hell give him a time. She must have really learned something since last summer, and learned it fast, too.
Because it hasn’t even been a year, not even ten months, since you left her up there in that room. Just a kid then, not even knowing how to enjoy it, not even knowing enough to at least lie down--like put a bag over their head, like washing your feet with shoes on—not even enjoying it, but wanting more, and without anything the second time, like that was the trouble with it, like it was your fault, like you had played a dirty trick on her, like you had ruined it for her with your stupid goddamned precautions and you’d be a sonofabitch if you left her that way, her eyes bugging, her face contorting in that look of grim and haggard amazement when she discovered it, not even speaking, not even needing to because she could see you knew damn well what she wanted, could see too that it was hopeless, that you weren’t staying around for any seconds, that you were getting the hell out of there just as fast as you could; turning your back on her and wrapping it up in your handkerchief and putting it into your pocket because there wasn’t even a toilet around, not even a sink you could wash off in; moving toward the door, wondering, "What’ll I do if she follows me?" thinking, "I haven’t even paid her, not even the dollar and a half for the room"; taking the five out of the wallet, and then another five, and then another, and not knowing why; thinking, "Fifteen dollars; for what? It wasn’t worth a nickel"; knowing that even fifteen, even fifty or a hundred, or two, or three wouldn’t have been enough, couldn’t have been, and not knowing why; knowing only that she was not even thinking of being paid, that standing there before the bed—the dress smoothed down over the thighs again, her hands going white-knuckled like wringing the blood out of them—she knew you were leaving and .that was the only thing she was thinking about, hated you for—not even hated; something else; something you could see in those eyes looking at and at you.
It wasn’t the money, even though she did take it—you holding it out to her like that, not even wanting to go back into the room far enough to maybe put it on the night table or something, something a little more decent than just handing it to her; and her lifting her hand, reaching, but not for the money (you knew that), probably not even conscious that you were handing it to her (you even had to close her hand on it for her), standing there like that with her arm extended and the money folded in her hand, the lips moving and the voice there for the first time since the highway—young, too young—the words making no kind of sense, like she wasn’t even talking to you, like she wasn’t even in the room with you any more, like maybe she never was; and you, not even trying to figure it out any more because it was too much for you, wishing she had not spoken—the voice young, too young, so young that you just had to get out of there, and fast; thinking, "I can still be back in Prescott before supper; tell Sophie I had a flat or something"; moving backwards out through the door, tiptoeing almost, like she was asleep or something, like she was dreaming aloud and if you were quiet you could get out without waking her; watching the lips moving below the eyes—the wisps of bright hair matted now against the forehead below the tight kerchief—moving, repeating the words, something about pigeons, about white pigeons over water, and none of it making any kind of sense; not even closing the door behind you, afraid the click of the latch might wake her; moving down the stairs, hearing the foreign music again, thinking, "I never even heard it up there," the desk empty, the clerk gone, eighteen more, seventeen, sixteen; "That’s the second time I never even heard it," five more, four, and then the street glowing up into your face; "If I hurry, I can say it was a fiat. If I hurry"; the pigeons fluttering up under your feet, their dark wings rattling (you had walked right into the middle of them, the glare of the sidewalk blinding you); the clerk there in the gutter, smiling, nodding, the newspaper folded under one arm, the other busy feeding the pigeons something out of a paper bag; you not even nodding, wondering, "What the hell was she talking about pigeons?" remembering the gulls wheeling like doves above the flotsam, thinking, "I’m out of it now. She doesn’t even know my name. Fifteen dollars. What’ll I tell Sophie?" not even halfway across Seventh Avenue —crossing against the light, the traffic honking—and already beginning to feel it, seeing her standing up there in the dim little room, the sun shade bright behind her, thinking how it should have been—the eyes closed and the hair fanning bright over the white pillow, and the still, moving lips dreaming maybe of the seagulls, and you pulling the sheet over her, over her and her dream, over her and her dream of THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF the white pigeons. AMEN.
GLORY BE TO THE FATHER AND TO THE SON AND TO THE HOLY GHOST . . . But really it is no great wonder, no great wonder that Pyotr should have allowed old Stanislaw the few extra days to wait for his Stella to get here, no great wonder he did not let them rush him into the ground after the three days named for the wake so he could put in some windows right away and move in the new tenants and begin making his investment pay; for he will lose nothing by his charity; the new tenants will pay for it.
And besides, it pleases him to think of himself as a generous man so long as it does not take anything out of his pockets; pleases him to be able to do something for his poor dead friend Stanislaw, whom (if he has said it once, he has said it a hundred times) he has always loved like a brother; saying, "Jozef, is it not true I always loved old Stanislaw like a brother? Is it not true, Jozef? How is it you can ask why I would allow him the few extra days to wait for the coming of his little Stella? How can you ask it, Jozef? Surely it is little enough I can do. You know I loved him like a brother, Jozef"; blowing his nose into his apron, his eyes wet behind the spectacles, weeping, truly weeping; but not so much for poor dead Stanislaw, whom surely I must know he loved like a brother and whom he will never see again, as at the thought of how beautifully generous he was to allow old Stanislaw the few extra days; just sitting there across the street in front of his store, sitting on an empty soda case (why should he have a bench built when an empty soda case costs nothing?), sitting there in his blood-stained apron, saying, "I know it is foolish of me. I know it is bad business to be sentimental. But you know how I am, ]ozef. It is little I can do. Besides, it will not be more than a day or two. It is not possible that she will be longer than a day or two, is it, ]ozef?" all the time looking out across the quiet street at the house in which old Stanislaw, whom he loved like a brother, was lying-the house he had bought right out from under poor dead Stanislaw, who if he were alive would rather have died than sell it to him-the house he says he bought, not so much because he wanted another house, since he already owned three, but simply because he would do old Stanislaw a favor, since they would need the money from the selling of the house to bury him properly.
"For who but a brother would buy such a house, ]ozef? Anyone can see it is a bad investment at any price. No porch even, not a single picket on the fence. Why, just to put in new windows will cost plenty. And you know as well as I, those chicken coops are good for nothing but to bring rats. Truly, I am losing money on this house, ]ozef. But you know how I am. It is bad business to be sentimental; but for Stanislaw ... Ah, I cannot help myself. Truly, I can not."
And who can say he does not believe it? Who can say that his charity is not the one thing he really and sincerely believes in, that his peculiar kind of generosity is not for him a most beautiful and touching thing; so beautiful that when he thinks of it he can only weep, perhaps even actually believing that he has really made a bad investment and out of pure generosity, and in a few years after the house has paid for itself twice over will say and perhaps even believe that it is only a case of God's rewarding him for his unselfishness? For even now, sitting here before the casket of the man he is sure he always loved like a brother, so that you can hear his sniffling even over the saying of the rosary, he probably weeps not only because Stanislaw's Stella has come at last and tomorrow morning Stanislaw will be decently in the ground and he can begin getting things ready for the new tenants; but because God has been generous and has rewarded his own generosity by not allowing Stella to stay away any longer than she did.
If I were to ask him now, 'Why is it you weep, Pyotr?" I know what he would say. "]ozef," he would say, "I cannot help myself. Truly, I am a foolish sentimentalist. I am not hard like you, ]ozef. Surely you could not have loved him as I did or you would weep too. When I think that now that Stella has come, tomorrow it will be all over and we will never see Stanislaw again, I cannot bear it. Truly, ]ozef, I cannot. I almost wish that she had stayed away another day so we could have him with us a little longer. It is so little I have done for him, ]ozef."
Ah, Pyotr, perhaps you are right. Perhaps I am hard. Perhaps I too should weep in public like a woman. But she is a woman, Pyotr, and not once has she shed a tear. Perhaps she is afraid the paint will run-so hard-faced. What do you think, Pyotr? Perhaps you should go up to this hard-faced Stella and tell her why you weep. Tell her how her father was a fool but how you loved him like a brother. Show her how you have forgiven his foolishness, how though he has sinned against all that you know is right and sensible, all that you know is good in the eyes of God, since He has been generous to you, how you have forgiven all, how all your laughing and all your insults were only your way of trying to lead him out of his foolish ways. Show her how now that he is gone you are all tears; and make her weep also. Ask her to forgive as you have forgiven.
Take an umbrella and walk with her out into the yard; show her the chicken coops; let her smell them up close in the rain. Then ask her; ask this girl, this painted one, this Stella, whom we have both known since she was born and whom now we can hardly recognize, this Stella who has changed so much in less than a year. Ask her as she stands under the dripping umbrella with the cigarette in her mouth and all the paint on her eyes and her yellow hair short under the hat with the rag flowers. Take her right up to the coops, Pyotr, and tell her how for three thousand dollars you have bought them--them and the house for three thousand dollars--the house in which her poor foolish fa ther, the man you loved like a brother, still lies, the house you have bought even before they had time to take his body out of it and put it decently underground. Tell her to smell what you have bought; tell her to smell it good, and then ask her. Ask her if in the dark she can remember.
Ask her to remember very hard way back there before the chicken coops, before the strike, before it all be- gan to happen like it did. Ask her if she can still remember--standing there under the umbrella in the stink of the chicken coops--if she can still remember those lazy Sunday mornings after Mass and how it used to smell then. Ask her to remember that, Pyotr; and make her weep. Make her weep to remember; or if that is not possible for her, make her weep not to remember. If sadness will not touch her, Pyotr, perhaps joy will. Perhaps like you, Pyotr, she can weep only when she is happy; then make her happy, Pyotr. Make her happy to think that even after only a year she is already done with remembering. Or if still remembering, probably remembering only not to remember, remembering to forget, to forget the garden that was there long before the chicken coops, long before she left, before the strike and the thing in the house, long before she was even capable of remembering, long before she was even a seed in her good mother's belly-the garden that was already as good as planted that day long ago
How long is it? Do you remember, Pyotr, how long? Do you remember any of it, Pyotr?--that day long ago when Stanislaw and Rozalja picked the seeds out of the garden in the old country. It was the beginning of the fall. Do you remember that fall, Pyotr? You and I, remember? The sun was not yet an hour below the trees and already the moon was cold in the sky. We were young then (How young were we? How young we were), and still I could feel it, the air biting my face, and my hands like an old man's cold on the reins--the wagon rattling and the dust like fog on the road. For it had been hot that day (Pyotr, do you remember?), and the roads were dry and we even talked about how it comes so suddenly, how when we left the town not two hours before, it was still warm with the sun there just above the trees, and how now there in the wagon on the road to Old Machek's place we could feel it coming, biting, rising in the twilight like the cold moon; talked of how it would be good to miss the long, freezing winter, how in America it would never be so cold, and how in the big cities, Old Lipinski had said, the streets were cleaned and snowless even before you got out of bed in the morning.
How excited we were, how young. And when you reined in the horse in front of Machek's fence-the old dog yelping up out from under the porch around the horse's hoofs-and we saw them there in the garden--the two of them working there together like two old married ones, like they had been married three years instead of three days-both of us so young, so excited, laughing, calling to the old married couple; both of them laughing too, the white pillowcases in their hands full of seeds and bulbs, Stanislaw holding his up, laughing, saying, "Do you have room in the wagon for a garden, my friends?"--poor, foolish Stanislaw, we thought, he is still drunk, he has still not recovered from his wedding.
And later, in the house, as they packed the pillowcases into the trunk, how we joked; you, Pyotr, asking if flowers were good to eat, saying, "What good are flowers if you cannot eat them, Stanislaw? You cannot live on flowers in America. Flowers are only for the dead, Stanislaw. For funerals you need flowers. Better you should sell your seed and your trunk too and take money with you to America like me and ]ozef, Stanislaw" : but Stanislaw only smiling, sitting on the trunk, and his Rozal ja snapping the locks shut, saying, "It is not Stanislaw's idea, my brother": and Stanislaw just smiling, looking down at the trunk, saying, "Yes, of course you are right, Pyotr; but they do not use much room, and seeds are very light": and then Old Machek rocking in his chair by the fire smoking his long pipe, spitting into the straw on the floor, his hand stroking the old dog lying beside the rocking chair, his old eyes bright in the light of the fire and under the heavy brows, spitting and saying, "No, Pyotr, it is not Stanislaw's idea": and then the joking gone, and the laughing gone, and the dog jumping up and snuffling over to young Pawel, who sat in the straw sharpening the scythe and who did not look up once through all of it: and only Old Machek there, rocking and puffing the long pipe, looking into the fire, speaking like for the first time in his life he would make a speech, saying something about how he could not allow a son who would leave him in his old age, leave him and the land he was born on, leave him and the land, with only a sixteen-year-old boy to help him care for it; how he could not allow him to leave without giving him something; how he would not give him his consent or his best wishes, and could not even wish such a son luck, but how a father must still be a fa ther even if his son has ceased being a son; how a father must give his son something.
"He could take the house if he wished it, or the barn, or even the cow if he could carry it. Only, he must take some thing. Ah, but such a son, what do you think? He says to me, 'Tata, I want nothing, only your good wishes, only that, nothing more.' And so he would go without taking anything. Because he has stopped being a son, he would make me stop being a father. And so he would take nothing because he has no room for any thing--only his clothes and his Rozalja's clothes and his money. He wants nothing but his Tata's good wishes; but I cannot give him that. Yet he must take something, and since he is very clever and his wife always liked my flowers anyway, he takes the seed, for it is light and uses little room and it will satisfy his old stupid father who cannot understand all this leaving for this America, who cannot understand what is so much better than here, who cannot understand any of it. The seed he will take and later, on the boat, he can dump it into the ocean. But he must take something."
And that was the last of it. He had said it, and that was the last of it. He had spoken more in one breath that evening than we had ever heard him speak at one time in all the years we had known him, since we were boys and would drive out there with Tata on those lazy summer Sundays (Do you remember ? ), riding out of the town, both of us on the front seat with Tata, our bony knees high and hot under the sun, or taking turns riding up on the horse's back, and Mama on her rocking chair in the wagon bed with all the wine jugs and the baskets, maybe sewing on something, and little Rozalja, her feet dangling off the back, watching the long dust road winding out behind her, and the dog yelping, and Stanislaw and Old Machek and his good wife with the baby Pawel to her breast all in the shade on the porch waiting; and then later under the trees in the garden, the drinking and the talking, and Mama and Pani Machek bringing the cold wine, and Ro- zalja with the baby, and you and I and Stanislaw in the barns or chasing the pigs and them squealing, and Tata talking, always talking, and Old Machek always quiet just listening, once in a while saying something and then listening again, and Tata talking about how it was better in town, easier money and less work, but how he was glad to have Old Machek's farm on Sunday.
How fast it all went. How soon it was all over--Pani Machek, Tata, and Mama, all gone in three short summers; then seeing them only at Mass on Sunday, the three of them--Old Machek, his hair going but still black, the heavy eyebrows and mustache black and thick over the long pipe, and Stanislaw and young Pawel sitting in the pew beside him; and later Stanislaw coming to court Rozalja in the Count's carriage, looking so grand in the livery, holding the great stamping horses. And then what, Pyotr, what then? A wedding, and you giving the white-veiled Rozalja to Stanislaw; the church almost empty (because why should anybody go to a wedding without a reception), but Stanislaw not caring, and Rozalja not caring (since the money that would pay for a three-day reception would come in handy in America), and only some drinking back at the house, just the four of us and the witnesses, and all of us drunk and nobody caring, for in three days we would be on our way to America.
Only Old Machek cared, not talking, not understanding any of it, saying how he would not ever be able to face his friends again after allowing a son to get married like that without even a reception, like he got married every day, like it was nothing very important, like nothing was very important, only to go to America where there were jobs and money to be made, and only that was important. He could never understand any of it, Old Machek, and there was just no talking to him. For even after we lifted the trunk into the wagon bed, and Stanislaw and Rozalja went to say good-by, he just sat there not speaking, lighting the twisted straw in the fire and holding it to his pipe, puffing with all the smoke blue around his almost bald head--the mustache still black over the long pipe and the brows heavy--not even looking up when Rozalja kissed his cheek, and stiffening with Stanislaw's hand on his shoulder; and young Pawel too, just like him, scraping the stone on the scythe, not looking up, not even allowing Rozalja to kiss him; and Rozalja crying, and Stanislaw helping her into the wagon bed and the weathered wagon rattling and the sound of the scraping and the old dog howling in the lighted doorway, and after a while only the crying and the wagon rattling and the road long and cold un- der the moon.
How sad it all seemed. How sentimental to think on it now. Is it that which makes you weep, Pyotr? What do you think on as you sit there weeping? What, Pyotr? You could always weep so easily. You wept then too (Remember, my brother? Remember how we talked on that long ride?)--the wagon clattering on the cold road, and Rozal ja and Stanislaw sitting against the trunk in the wagon bed behind us holding each other for the warm, and all of us talking so sentimental, just remembering the good things, and you weeping as much as Rozalja. Only, you wept for different reasons; she for what we were leaving, and you out of joy of leav ing it, or perhaps at the thought of how generous you were to have given Rozalja such a good dowry even though Tata left it to her to begin with.
But it was you who said you would miss the "old lady summer" with the webs covering all the trees, silver in the moonlight. And it was you who said you would miss the violets, how we could smell them everywhere in the spring and how " Lipinski had said there was no "old lady summer" in America and only very sickly violets with no smell and so few of them. However, it does not seem to me that you have missed either of these things too greatly, Pyotr. It was just the night, perhaps, and the leaving; because we were all shamefully sentimental, talking only of the good things and closing our eyes to all the bad that made us decide to leave in the first place--the Austrian occupation and the threat of being forced to serve in an army that was not even our own, that was overrunning our country and raping our women and eating our bread and providing no jobs and . . . all the rest.
Old Machek had said those things were not important, that they were terrible but would pass if only the young ones would not run from it but stay and fight it or just endure it--any thing but run from it. But we knew it was all hopeless, that the young ones would soon be old ones and still Old Machek would go on saying, "It will pass. It will pass." We were not going to wait. No, we were not going to serve in any Austrian Army, and we were not going to work all our lives for Austrians; we were going to go to America and get rich, and we were going to take our sister with us and her husband and not leave anything be hind except a few hundred old friends who would be dead soon anyway, and an old butcher shop in a town that was really too small to make any real money in, and of course an old man and a sixteen-year-old boy sitting before a fire in an old run-down farm house who were nothing to us anyway except that our sister happened to marry that boy's brother and that old man's son.
But we did not talk about those things that night. We did not even let ourselves think that it was because of most of those very things that we were leaving at night with the moon cold in the sky and the fog hanging like smoke over the road. We had the papers, and Old Niemotka knew his job, and they were good papers and would pass us as they had the others. Niemotka would be pleased to hear of our passing, and he would not worry because he was old, and before they would find him out with all their military efficiency he would have already sent half the young ones of the town across the ocean, and in America they would thank him and pray for him, and he was old and it was prayers he needed now, prayers and the pleasure of fooling them, and perhaps that even more than the prayers.
At dawn we would be in Lublin and there was nothing to worry about until then, and so we just sat there on the sagging and broken-springed seat with only the rattling of the wagon and the creaking of the unoiled and weathered wheels and the steady sleepy sound of the horse's hoofs on the dirt road and the slap once in a while of the reins on the broad slick back and maybe the single note of some foolish night bird left behind with the autumn moon and the coming snow. All night you talked--you and Stanislaw--and the wagon would jolt and I would snap awake, and the circle of your cigar would glow orange like a pigeon's eye. And I would listen for a while, watching the circle glow and fade and glow again as you talked--talking about all kinds of things, talking about how Old Machek was not young any more and was settled in his ways and could not be expected to understand the ways of the young, and Stanislaw sitting there in the wagon bed against the old and battered trunk, his arm around the sleeping, shawl-wrapped Rozalja, answering in whispers like it was not important whether he was heard or not, like talking to himself almost, saying how perhaps there was something in what Old Machek had said, that all this leaving for America might be useless, that perhaps it would not be any different there, that we were running away from the foreigners who lived among us and going to live among foreigners.
"'At least here it is they who are the foreigners, the intruders,' Old Machek had said, 'at least here what you have, though it is not much, is at least yours. There, nothing will be yours, and you will lose even that which you take away with you-lose yourselves, and what is worse, your children'"--Stanislaw's voice running down with the horse's hoofs, like a heartbeat running down, slower and steadily slower, and then the quick easy slap of the reins and the heartbeat picking up again and Stanislaw's voice with it, only to begin running down again, talking, whispering his father's curse as though he had memorized it or was memorizing it like you do a catechism lesson or something, like he had to learn it in order to pass some test he was afraid to fail, whispering about how it was a sin for a son to leave his home and his father like that and how some day Stanislaw would pay for his sin, how some day he would wake up in the new land and find that he had lost everything, even his children, and that he hoped Rozalja would not give Stanislaw any sons to do to him as he had done to his father.
Do you remember that, Pyotr? No, why should you? As you said, those were just the foolish words of a useless and bitter and spiteful old man, and better forgotten as soon as heard; saying how Stanislaw knew as well as you that Old Machek was a fool, an old fool with dried-up ideas who could see no further than the front gate of his worthless and rotting farm, an old fool who made as poor a farmer as he would have made a priest if he had stuck it out instead of giving up all those years in the seminary just to come home and take over a farm which his older brothers did not even want-did not even want in hard times when even a farm like that was something; an old fool who should have gone on and become a priest at least, since surely he was good for nothing else, had proved he was good for nothing else, not even to run a farm, to run a farm that at least made some money, for at least as a priest he could have preached his nonsense and made money too, since that is the first thing they teach them in the seminary--how to make money; and Stanislaw not speaking, just sitting there with the sleeping Rozalja on his shoulder, not even smoking, asleep too perhaps, for all we could tell in the dark; and you talking anyway, not to anybody perhaps, not to Stanislaw or to me either--though I was listening, watching the orange circle of the cigar glow and fade and glow again--your voice low now above the slap of the reins and the hoofs picking up, saying how at least you could have admired him if he had become a priest, since nobody could say that you did not admire and even envy priests, for surely priests are the wisest of men and the most practical, for nobody knows the value of a dollar like a priest does,
"Why is it any priest can make a good farmer or a good administrator?
Why are they always the best politicians? Not so much because they know
all about faith, hope, and charity--all very fine sentiments, and nobody
admires them and tries to live by them more than I do--but because they
know that all faith and all hope and all charity are just manure without
Manure. If that wind does not change they might as well have the wake out in the coops. Somebody must have opened one of the kitchen windows, because it is even worse now; it is enough to wake the dead. But he does not seem to mind. It means nothing to you, eh, Stanislaw? You do not have to smell it, not any more. You look quite content lying there. Yes, they have done a good job with your face, old one. This young fellow knows his business; he has made you look quite well, Stanislaw, quite fine. He does good work, and he is very helpful and respectful for such a young fellow. It is good to see such a young fellow so respectful. It is not even his job to be here tonight, to sit here through the saying of the rosary. Why, he has even brought some beer and two bottles of whiskey. A nice boy, Stanislaw, very polite. He has done much to make it easier for your daughters, and for Rozalja too--though there is little anyone can do for Rozalja, the way she sits there not understanding any of it, mumbling like that with the bowl of glass flowers in her lap-mumbling, smiling sometimes, weeping sometimes.
She too will be gone tomorrow, Stanislaw. They have made all the plans and the car from the sanatorium will be here for her in the evening. It will be like two funerals in one day, my friend. Perhaps they should have at least waited until Monday, but you know they must get back to Dupont to work, and anyway, she will not mind. It is all very easy for her now, Stanislaw; no need to worry about her. She smiles at everything. She weeps too, yes; but when you talk to her, she smiles and smiles and gives you the bowl of flowers to smell like they were real. She will be all right. They will all be all right, Stanislaw.
Only perhaps. . . I do not know about Stella. She has changed so much, I do not even know her. Why, she will not say more than two words to me, and I am her godfather; she could at least talk a little to her godfather. But she is so far away. It is as though she is thinking of something far away, like maybe how it used to be--only there are no tears, Stanislaw. I cannot understand it. Perhaps she still thinks of the other thing-whatever it was. But we never talked of it while you were alive, and now it does not matter. Still, she worries me-the way she is painted . . . And she does not look healthy, even with all the paint. Though she could not be called skinny; she is plenty woman; but something . . . And this man with her, this pink-faced one who looks like in all his life he has never needed to shave once. . . Even when they drove up in the car . . .
Pyotr and I were sitting in front of the store on the soda cases as always when we saw this wonderful car come driving up with its horn making music at the boys playing in the street. It was no wonder we did not recognize her sitting there in that big black hat with the rag flowers on the brim and the cigarette in her mouth and her face hidden behind the sunglasses, and with that man sitting next to her pushing on that wonderful horn that plays music. Even while he was in the car, we could tell that he was not one of our kind--sitting there behind the wheel in that yellow Panama hat and his face so round and pink. He does not speak much, either. All he seems to do is follow Stella around and give her cigarettes and light them for her and then follow her around some more. Neither of them talks very much. But he, of course, does not understand Polish, and he looks like he thinks every time we say something we are talking about him. Yet he looks like a good man, the way he follows her around and watches over her. And he must be very rich to own such a car and to live in New York.
Whoever thought little Stella would grow up to live in a place like New York? Such a big unbelievable place. Remember when we first saw it, Stanislaw? Standing there at the rail, the four of us waiting with all the others to get our first look at it, Rozalja's shawl blowing in the morning cold, the white gulls screaming and hanging in the air around the boat and falling and slanting and screeching so loud that Pyotr had to say it twice, "Look, you can see it now! Look now!" pointing, and through the cold haze the statue standing on the water and later the points of the buildings and all of it so large and unbelievable, and all the shouting and singing all over the boat, and Pyotr with tears in his eyes and his nose going in his nose rag, and everybody so happy--until we got there.
For it was very bad on the docks, with the men pushing and cursing and telling us what to do and where to go and none of us understanding a word of it and not knowing where to go or what to do and sleeping as much as twenty in one little room, men, women and children, and practically nothing to eat for days--all of it so terrible and unbelievable until the day we dragged the old trunk up the seven flights of stairs to the room in the tenement in Prescott and put it down on the bare wood floor and just sat down on the window sills catching our breath and watched Rozalja take out the pots and pans and underwear and the Sun- day suit and dress and the overalls and aprons, and dump the seeds out of the pillowcases into the empty trunk and put the pillowcases on the bed and lock the trunk and push it into the middle of the floor away from the wood stove and put a tablecloth on it. And then, though we had no chairs and most of the dishes were cracked from the long trip, we had our first real meal since we had left the old country and it was home at last.
Those were good days. (I am beginning to talk like Pyotr now. All I need is a few tears. Forgive me, my friend!) But they were good days--hard, but good too. Not as easy as we had expected, but not so bad as it might have been. And when you and Rozalja and the baby Helcha finally moved into Anderson and took the house here across from Pyotr's store, it was not so bad at all, was it, my friend? (I am still of the opinion that Pyotr made himself some money on that bargain he got for you.) Not so bad at all, what with the garden. . . How did it happen, that garden? It was early spring, you had not yet been living in the house a year. A Sunday it was--a good Sunday, warm and bright like all Sundays should be after a long week in the factory--and Pyotr and his good wife and myself were coming home from Mass all dressed up like Sunday, when we saw you there across the street in your yard in your work clothes--the scythe flashing in the sun like a looking glass--and we went over, me with my pipe in my mouth and Pyotr with his cigar, and just leaned over the fence like two big sports in our Sunday clothes, watching.
You did not even see us at first, working there like that with your shirt wet on your back; did not see us until Pyotr spat into the weeds, saying, "Hey, Stanislaw, what is it you do? They cannot work you very hard in the factory": and you, turning, that smile big under the mustache and behind the smoking pipe, leaning on the scythe wiping the sweat out of your cap, not speaking, just smiling, and your breath going hard: Pyotr saying, "Do you not know today is Sunday? You should be in church, Stanislaw. What kind of Catholic works on Sunday ?" and you going over to the faucet on the side of the house and putting your head under it and drinking some and wiping your mustache with your cap, saying finally, " A friend would not ask so many questions and bring a working man some beer," saying this and wetting your cap in the rain barrel and putting it back on your head, saying, "But truly, this is not work, my friends. After the factory, this is play, eh, ]ozef?"
"For a man like Pyotr, who sits in a store all day and talks to women, this is work, Stanislaw ."
" A man who cleans his yard on Sunday instead of going to church is no Catholic."
"But I am not cleaning my yard. And besides, I do not sleep like you, Pyotr. I was in church praying for your lazy soul while it was still lying in bed dreaming about the women you talk to all day."
And even Pyotr laughed, fingering his cigar, saying, "At least I do not work on Sunday."
"But I am not working. I am playing. I am making myself a garden. I have the seed in the trunk and it would be a sin just to throw it out, and besides, a garden will be nice."
"Truly, Stanislaw, I would rather see you working on a Sunday than playing around with such foolishness. Come, give it up, my friend. Let us get some beer and sit on your porch and play some domines."
"Dominoes? It will take me all day just to finish with these weeds. If I did not know better, I would think that the Hollanders were growing them, they are so thick."
"The Hollanders had better things to do than plant gardens, my friend. Besides, they said the town was going to the devil anyway with all of us Polacks moving in from across the river, so why should they bother about weeds? They could not wait to move out. And you should be thankful, Stanislaw; how else do you think I could get you such a good bargain on such a fine house? Pah! But it is too hot even to watch somebody else work. Goodby, Stanislaw. If you are serious about this foolish garden, however, I advise you to get yourself some new seed. After five years, that in the trunk is worthless."
But it was not worthless, not even after five years, and by the middle of that summer, the garden was already beginning to be something. Of course, it was not yet the garden it was later to be--a few snowball bushes and violets and sickly rosebushes hardly tall enough to reach past the first rungs of their trellises--but the grass was fine, and some of the transplanted crab-apple trees were already providing shade. So that even in that first summer, even Pyotr, who lubricated his cigar and laughed, enjoyed sitting there under the trees on those Sunday afternoons playing dominoes and drinking beer--his little pig eyes bead-bright behind the spectacles--laughing and saying, "Truly, Stanislaw, this is the sickliest garden I have ever seen. The first truly hot day and all those little roses will give up the ghost. And surely this is the smellingest garden ever. People ask me, 'Pyotr, what is your friend Stanislaw raising in that garden, roses or manure?' Which is it, Stanislaw? Truly, I cannot decide which is worse, playing dominoes across the street in front of my store and being eaten alive by flies around the empty soda cases, or playing here and being poisoned by the stink from your manure garden."
And he would laugh and maybe place a four next to a five, and somebody would say, "It is too bad that your eyes are not as sharp as your nose, Pan Pyotr."
And he would lift the spectacles up onto his forehead and look, saying, "Oh, forgive me gentlemen," and he would ta.ke the four back and go fishing in the pile for a five, all the time talking very fast, saying, "The stink makes my eyes water so, I can hardly see to play correctly. Surely, Stanislaw, this garden of yours is a joke. Perhaps Old Machek was good for nothing else, but at least he could always plant a flower garden that was at least a flower garden and smelled like one. You should write to your old father, Stanislaw, and ask him how to plant a garden that smells like a garden. You can bet he has some flower garden this summer. He probably has nothing to eat, but you can I bet he has some garden."
Only Old Machek had no garden that summer. There was no I longer even an Old Machek that summer. For that was the summer the letter came from Old Lipinski (Do you remember, Stanislaw?)--the letter in the big brown envelope with the Austrian stamps; the letter in the big careful hand of Old Lipinski, every letter precise, perfectly formed, so flowery that it looked like the old brown pages of some Bible copied by a monk in the days of King Ladislas; the letter written by Old Lipinski, who had gone back to Poland because while in America he could think of nothing but going back, and who once he was back in Poland could think of nothing, dream of nothing, but America--Old Lipinski, who must have spent a month composing his letters to his good friend Pyotr in America, to whom he wrote religiously four times a year, the letters coming regularly every spring, summer, fall, and winter, in the same neat, precise, flowery hand on the same brown paper with the Austrian letterhead and the Austrian stamps; the letters telling about the old friends, about the births and deaths and marriages, and about Old Machek, who would not write himself and who, whenever Old Lipinski would ask him why not, would just show him the unopened letters, saying, "Some foolish one keeps sending me letters. But my eyes are too old to read. And besides, I know no one in America"; Old Machek, whose farm was running down since young Pawel was taken into the Austrian Army, and who just sat and drank and worked a little on the farm, just enough to keep himself in food; Old Machek, who luckily had found himself a friend in the Old Count Resniski, a friend for his old age to sit and drink and talk with through the long lonely nights on the farm--the Old Count, who would drive the twenty miles in his paintless and broken-down carriage behind the one remaining half-dead horse just to sit and get drunk and talk with Old Machek, their old voices singing and rattling far into the quiet country nights.
The letters came every spring, summer, fall, and winter, and Pyotr would read them. And then, that one summer, the first summer of the garden, he brought the letter into the garden that evening after work, and all of us sat there holding the lighted cattails against the mosquitoes, and Pyotr held up the letter to the bug-swirled lamp, saying, "It is bad news this time, Stanislaw ," and began to read.
It all happened that spring (do you remember?). In fact, as Lipinski said, it happened a few days after he had mailed his spring letter and that was why we did not hear of it until almost three months after it had happened. Why they did it we could never understand; and how it happened exactly not even Old Lipinski knew, and he worked at the Stockade. From previous letters, we knew that Old Niemotka had been arrested and was being held in the Stockade. And we all knew that Old Machek was never any friend of Niemotka's and indeed cursed him many times for making the papers which were responsible for sending the young ones like ourselves away. So none of us could understand why he would do such a foolish thing. It was not as though the Austrians were going to harm Old Niemotka. For, as Lipinski had said, they fed the old man well and indeed even liked him, for he was always such a pleasant and funny old man. And Old Niemotka himself did not mind being in the Stockade, for he was old and it was difficult to make a living and in the Stockade they took care of him and he could make jokes to their faces about how long he had fooled them.
So we could never understand why when Pawel came home on leave from the border, he and the Count and Old Machek would go riding up like that in the Count's broken-down carriage with the broken-down horse which they should have known would drop dead in a gallop; go riding up to the Stockade in the middle of the night when everyone but the sentries was asleep, and somehow get into the Stockade by stabbing one sentry and shooting another with the rifle of the stabbed sentry, and get Old Niemotka out into the carriage even before the sleeping soldiers could get into their trousers, and go riding away with the horse at a gallop and Pawel still in his Austrian uniform using the whip on him, and the horse galloping and then just rolling over and dropping dead before they could even get more than a hundred yards from the gate--the carriage turning over and the old ones rolling out with the pitchforks and the scythe, and Pawel popping at the oncoming soldiers with the borrowed rifle as they came running out of the gate in their un- derwear tops and trousers, and the old ones shouting and swinging the scythe and the pitchforks for a few minutes until they were all dead and bloody in the street with a couple of half-dressed soldiers lying bloody beside them,
No, we could never understand any of it. All we knew was that they were all gone, and that it had been a complete waste, and that we would never be able to understand any of it. For no one ever understood Old Machek or his ways, except maybe Pawel and the Count and perhaps even Old Niemotka in his own way (for they were really not very different from each other no matter how much they said they hated each other), and of course you, Stanislaw. Perhaps you understood, or understand now, lying there in your coffin. Perhaps you understand why they would get so drunk and do such a foolish thing, to even burn down the farm and what was left of the Count's estate, saving nothing but some jugs of cider and an old scythe and some pitchforks. Perhaps you understood from the very beginning, my friend, though you said nothing. For when Pyotr finished reading and we all just sat for a while understanding none of it and only being able to say how sorry we all were, you did not speak. And after we had crossed ourselves before the Virgin and were going, we could see your face in the growing twilight and we just left you there in the garden in that first summer with the night coming fast.
So that was the first summer, Stanislaw (do you remember?), the first summer here in Anderson. How long ago it all seems. That was a spring and summer of endings and beginnings--the end of living in the tenements across the river, and the beginning of life in Anderson; the end of Old Machek and Pawel and the farm in the old country, and the beginning of the garden. It was a small beginning, just a small garden that first summer with more manure in it than flowers. But there was the next summer and the next and the next, with everything going well and easily, with the work good at the factory and steady and the garden progressing each year with more flowers and more trees until it was really something of beauty in the town. And in those early days (do you remember, Stanislaw?), whenever any of us of the town spoke of flowers, we would also have to speak of Stanislaw; and one could hardly speak of or to you, my friend, without speaking also of your garden. Truly , it was something of beauty in the town.
Those were the days when many of us who worked in the worsted mills in Prescott could hardly wait for the week to be over so we might come back from church on Sunday morning and sit with the wives under the big crab-apple and cherry trees there in the garden--Rozalja and Pyotr's good wife bringing the beer and wine from the kitchen, and the little ones playing hide-and-seek or cowboys and Indians or whatever it is children play; the men talking about all kinds of things, about the work at the factory or the old times in the old country; the women telling of their dreams, and Rozalja telling them what their dreams meant; and maybe Pyotr telling some of the scandalous tales about the people of the town which he would hear from the ladies in the store. It was good there in the shade, talking and drinking, and when the night would come, we would kneel before the white statue of the Virgin that Rozalja had stood on the rock among the roses, and cross ourselves before going home to our beds. And after the peaceful Sundays in the garden, the next day at the factory would not be so bad. And anyway, every day you would bring your garden to work with you in your lunch pail.
Do you remember that first day, Stanislaw? It was in the second summer, do you remember? We were all sitting beside our ma- chines after the whistle had blown-opening our lunch pails and shouting to each other as usual-when you opened your lunch pail and there, along with the hard-roll sandwiches and the sour pickle, was the rose. You got all red in the face, my friend, laughing and holding it up for all of us to see, saying, "By golly, my Rozalja plays jokes on her husband. A rose in my lunch pail--why, it is almost indecent." And how we all laughed and joked about a man bringing a rose to work with him in his lunch pail. And how you blushed, Stanislaw. And though the rose was a little withered from being in the lunch pail all morning, it pleased us very much, and we all laughed and joked and passed it around the entire department--some of the crazier ones dancing around with it like it was a woman, and smelling it and pretending to almost faint from the fragrance, saying how romantic this Stanislaw fellow is to bring a rose to work with him, a rose from his wife, a rose from Rozalja, saying, "Truly , this Stanislaw must have made his Rozalja very happy in bed last night if she sends him a rose this morning." And everybody joking and asking what this Stanislaw's secret was, for after more than five years of marriage and children such romantic foolishness was indeed indecent.
And you could do nothing but blush, Stanislaw, trying to take the rose away from the jokers. But of course they would have none of that--one of them filling a soda bottle with water and putting the rose in it and setting it up on top of your machine just as the whistle blew and the machines began going again; and through the rest of the day, all over the department, the men shouting and laughing and joking about working in the prettiest department in the entire factory , and saying how even at the farthest end of the room, they could smell the fragrance, even over the stink of the wool and the greasy machines, and how they could not even be sure any more whether they were working in a factory or a garden.
For almost a whole week, it went on like that every time you took the rose out of the lunch pail--the laughing, the joking. But soon it became an accepted thing to see the rose in the soda bottle on top of the machine; and even in the winters, we had the garden there in the factory with us. Perhaps it was not always a rose, but there would always be some kind of flower which Rozalja would cut from the plants that grew in the small greenhouse you had built behind the house, and which she would pack along with the hard-roll sandwiches and the pickle in the lunch pail. And it was good to be able to think of the gray snow in the courtyard and then look above the crashing machines and see the green soda bottle with the flower sticking up out of it.
But like all things, even that had to come to an end, eh, Stanislaw? And after the coming of little Stella, there were no more roses in the lunch pail. And then the strike was there, and soon there was no longer even a garden--only the flowers steaming and rotting under the sun and the toppled crab-apple and cherry trees, their stumps sticking up all over what used to be a garden. And now, not even Stanislaw; and just nothing left of it, nothing left even to remind us of it--nothing except maybe the stink of the chicken coops to remind us not so much of what was, or even what is, as what can never be--not in this world, anyway. For it is the same old story over and over again, eh, Stanislaw? And it happens to all of us, only in different ways-a little joy, a little sorrow, and the hope for maybe just a little glory. And so many different things happen, in so many different ways, in so many different places; and still it is always the same story and it always ends the same way. You would think that by this time some of us would begin to understand it, eh, my friend? But we never do.
Pah, it does not even pay to think about it. What I need is another drink. I did not think this praying would take so long; I am beginning to get sober. I think I will get extra drunk tonight, Stanislaw. I will drink to you, my friend, and then I will sleep the sleep of the dead. Tomorrow morning, I will throw a flower into your grave and maybe a handful of earth, and try to remember again how it was in the beginning . . . IS NOW AND EVER SHALL BE, WORLD WITHOUT END. AMEN.
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