Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Onions and Rendered Butter

Jacek had time to make pierogi because he got out of work so early. Mr. Caudill had closed the butcher shop at four o’clock and Jacek received two hours off with pay. Mr. Caudill planned to take Mrs. Caudill out to dinner at a restaurant that overlooked the city and the Ohio River. He wanted time to stop and buy flowers on his way home.
Jacek situates his plate and fork onto a drying rack on the counter near the sink. The kitchen remains clouded with the thick fragrance of onions and rendered butter.

Jacek stretches plastic wrap across a bowl containing the remaining pierogi. He puts the bowl into the refrigerator next to several cuts of meat wrapped in brown paper. Other than a few root vegetables and cans of beer his shelves seem empty.

He stares inside the refrigerator for a moment; the icebox door has grown over with frost. Somewhere in the back, he thinks, are a quart of ice cream some frozen peas. Neither is still good. Even before it looked like a remnant of the ice age he did not use the freezer much.

He sits at his desk and Jacek takes off his shoes and socks. He rubs his feet. The tough calloused heels are like sand paper. Often times as he lays in bed, Jacek uses his brittle heels to scratch his legs. This work surprisingly well.
He opens a long rickety drawer from his old desk and pulls out his toenail clippers. He handles the clippers awkwardly despite being a man who spends his days cutting meat. He wrestles with each toe trying to pin it in the best position. He forces the stainless steel deep into his nail bed without regard for discomfort. He clamps the device down and fractures off each nail in turn.

One by one, he places each fractured clipping on this desktop calendar; he gathers them up within the box labeled “14”. Why does this day mean so much, he wonders. Not just to Americans, even back home. Before Wałęsa came to power, it meant nothing. Of course, Jacek was only a boy then. Maybe he has forgotten. Anyway, there is no point being sour, his mother had often told him this.  
Jacek rolls up his left pant leg and examines his calf. He looks for signs of discoloration. The leg appears to be normal. He wonders if the rash on his leg will flower again or if he has finally cured it. No woman wants a man with a rash on his leg.
His bare feet drag along the wooden floor as he walks to the couch.  He eases himself down, shifting his weight onto the flat cushions. Jacek pulls an old blanket over his feet. He turns on the television without thought and idly thumbs the remote.

Jacek’s hands ache from the dull February cold. Although the furnace is running, the room is 63 degrees. Jacek sees no reason to heat his apartment any more than this. He has clothes – he knows to layer. The blood has moved to my stomach to digest with the pierogi, he tells himself, it will return to my hands when it can.
He wonders if Mr. Caudill is enjoying his dinner with Mrs. Caudill. Are they be able to see the beautiful river, or is the city too much like the night sky: distant lights in a field of black?

Mr. Caudill must be happy, he thought, he has Mrs. Caudill. Jacek has no one. He does not meet many woman. He tries to think of anyone he might court.
Once while he was at the department store a woman had spoken to him for a few minutes when they were both looking at frying pans. She had green eyes and spoke with a lisp. He knew about the frying pans but he could not find the words to ask her on a date. In any case, his leg had the rash on it then so he knew there was no point.

He remembers that the nurse in the hospital was nice to him. She had brown curly hair and gentle smile. He met her the day Mr. Caudill had sent him to the hospital when everyone thought Jacek was having a heart attack. But nurses are always nice. It meant nothing.
How many times had Jacek mistaken a nice woman for a something else? He knows not to trust himself when this happens. Jacek has learned it is important for a man to know when to trust himself. He trusts his blood will return to his hands soon. He squeezes his fists hoping to find that some color will arrive in his knuckles.  
At work, he spoke to people – if Mr. Caudill was busy. Maybe the old women had daughters. Why not? Then he thinks of the woman who buys sausage every week. Yes. She had smiled at him from time to time. When she did he felt like a little boy.

Maybe that, he thought, might become something.
Back in his homeland, Women’s Day was only three weeks away. On that day, the men of Krakow would bring flowers to their sweethearts as they have done for so many years. His father brought flowers to his mother. It was fitting.

Maybe the woman who buys sausage would like some tulips for Dzien Kobiet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Den Haag

She had landed at Schiphol almost two hours before me but was kind enough to wait. She had done some shopping to pass the time. When I first see her, she has an armful of gift bags and a large paisley suitcase in tow. She's been to Holland so often that she knows which shops are worthwhile in the airport. She welcomes me with a warm embrace amid the crinkling bags. She's in her 40's now but still the picture of delicate beauty. She's tall, as tall as me. She's lithe and graceful. Her signature dark bangs still manage to fall into her eyes but her eyes shine through. After our hellos and pleasantries we buy our tickets and head down to the platform and wait for our train.

On the train ride into Zoetermeer I am sitting backwards and trying to pretend it isn't bothering me. I direct my focus out the window and onto the passing postcards: windmills and dikes. I notice a row of pale wooden boats overturned near the edge of the water. All identical and delightfully crafted, each panel sanded with care, each fitting caulked cautiously. Despite their initial craftsmanship, years of neglect are evident and the layers of paint are peeling off revealing an assortment of muted colors beneath dry flakes of enamel. Soon we are passing small crowds of gardens huddled together in a vast field of dull yellow grasses. These are little sanctuaries for the city folk who have no room to garden at home. Although it is late morning, the sky is darkening and the sun is indistinct, hiding in some dim recess of the sky behind a wash of steel clouds.

She hired me to teach a class here in the Netherlands. She called me out of the blue one afternoon last summer. I was sitting in the parking lot of a Home Depot. I hadn't heard from her for years before that. We discuss tomorrow’s class – logistics mostly. There's little left to do, everything is prepared.

The NH hotel in Zoetermeer. It's a typically modern European hotel, funky artwork and stark lines. This is the first place I ever stayed in the Netherlands. That was more than a decade ago now. It was summertime then and it was hot. This is December.

We check in and as we are standing in the lobby, she explains that she needs to meet with someone in town. Even so, she wants to go out and have some fun tonight with me. I agree. She promises to be back before dinnertime.

I have time on my hands and little to do so I head to my room. In my room, I have an excellent view of a wide expanse of nothing. I'm facing an undeveloped section of the town that's adjacent to the highway. Amid the puddles from a recent rain, the last of the summer's dry grasses stand in lonely isolation. The puddles of muck and slurry mirror back the faint Nordic sun. I wonder how much longer this spot will stay undeveloped. I press my face against the glass to get a sense of the temperature outside. It's damn cold, even through the glass.

I unpack my luggage and carry my shaving bag into the bathroom. The first time I saw these bathrooms I was amazed. The aesthetic is one of pure European minimalism. Every piece of hardware seems almost under-designed. There are no curtains or glass walls to demark the shower stall, just a depression in the floor tiles so the water will move towards the drain. The showerhead is on an adjustable rail so it can be set at any height and angle or simply removed and used as a wand. I always have trouble keeping my showers from spraying half the room. If more than one person were to use the bathroom, there would be no modicum of privacy.

I need to kill a few hours so I turn on the TV and sit down on the bed. This is a mistake. The jetlag, which I hadn't sensed until now, is brash. The easy comfort of the room and the luxurious downy comforter team up with this brash jetlag – it's too much to resist. The bright halogen lights, the TV and the fact that I'm fully dressed amount to nothing. I pass into a restful sleep. The sounds of the MTV Europe permeate my dreams.

I awaken to the clatter of the phone ringing. It's time to go. As we walk back towards the train station we realize that we are short on Euros. I have none. She has 20 in bills and a few more in coins. I didn't have any at home, only Guilders - but those are worthless now. That makes me sad. We can stop at an ATM and get money; we just need to remember to do that. We have enough money to get the tickets but she suggests we just get onboard. It's not very far and the train will not be very busy. If we got caught we can play the dumb American card. If you think the American Express card is handy, you've never used the dumb American card.

This train ride feels different than the one this morning. The polished steel of the car and the florescent lighting add a grainy jade tint to the air. Outside there are no signs of windmills or gardens as we move along effortlessly in dense concrete crevasses.

She tells me that she knows she is going to be sacked. I know it too, I guess. There were rumors. I just don't want to believe it. Her long brown hair is shiny and well groomed; she tangles it between her fingers as she speaks. She'll be forced out and the thought of it has her knotted up. She started that company. She worked there longer than I was married, I can only begin to imagine the emotional attachment she has for the company. She's rubbing her eyes and her mascara is smudged a little. I tell her that if she does leave, she will start something new. Something more interesting. Something she has real passion for. She nods. We agree that whatever it is, I will help her get started. A few ideas are passed around before the train begins to slow. Den Haag Centraal Station is ahead and we've managed to avoid the railroad dick. Unscrupulous outlaws - we two.

The train station is wide and busy with commuters making their way home. Outside there's a light drizzle in the air. We walk towards a shopping district in the cold of the evening. I'm wearing my black leather jacket that's seen too much service over the years; she's dressed in a smart gray trench coat. Most of the stores have already closed but we window shop undeterred by weather or circumstance. There's a certain style of shoe that she's looking for, one that can only be had overseas. In a window display, a few doors down from a McDonalds she spots it. She tries to elaborate on the uniqueness and appeal of the shoes and I try to appreciate those things.

She thinks she's knows a coffee shop up ahead. She asks me if I mind if we stop. I know what she's asking. In Holland, a coffee shop means only one thing: she wants to smoke. I don't smoke but she knows I don't mind. I acquiesce.

A few blocks further we turn down an alley and into the coffee shop. From the outside, you might think the place dodgy but inside are only stoners; it's warm and filled with pleasantness. She orders a joint from the menu: a Black Widow. They serve beer which not all coffee shops do, so I order a Witbier. A young girl behind the counter, with green and purple dreads, grabs a pilsner glass and fills it. The white beer is quite cold and has taken on a milky appearance. We sit on a bench at a thick oaken table near the cobblestone wall, a wall which is probably a couple hundred years older than my country. From the far end of the place a large dog appears. He belongs to one of the stoners but he might as well be the coffee shop mascot. He saunters over to our table without an agenda and we stroke his long golden fur absently. She takes the joint and smokes it at leisure. Pushing her hair out of her eyes, she looks squarely at me and starts to complain about her sex life. How she hasn't had sex with her husband in maybe a year, how she's no longer attracted to him. She's begun to experiment with "marital aids". She says it must be great to be single, and to not being stuck having sex with the same person forever. I laugh. She has a point, I guess, but I can't remember the last time I got laid.

She has been married as long as I have known her and it is clearly wearing on her. Many things are wearing on her. As she burns down the joint, I can see it helps her a little. She isn't stoned, or at least she doesn't seem so - she seems more upbeat. We pet the dog a while longer and I finish off my Witbier. We head back outside.

We continue along the same street we had wandered up from the train station. As we near the end of the street, we pass a wide-bellied Cathedral. We stop to admire its collection of gargoyles clinging to the walls. Beast-headed men and demons. They are lit dimly from the street lamps below and their edges melt away into the night air. Then we turn and cross over a large causeway but there are no cars on it. We pass a store that sells Frittes, large golden French fries slathered with mayonnaise, and we lament that it is closed. Stoned or otherwise a bundle of Frittes sounds good. At the end of the causeway, there is an English pub.

The place smells of stale smoke and cologne. It's busy and loud. We order beers and pretended we are in England. As we first entered, the pub was filled with the sounds of the Pouges and that was good. The barman keeps our tab with tick marks on the back of a coaster. The coasters are ornate and interesting so I take one and tucked it into the inside pocket of my jacket. Eventually, I forget it is there. I would find that same coaster, it turns out, the following February while riding the Metro in Washington D.C.

Somewhere between the beers and the music we are both smiling. The class tomorrow and the fear of being fired have been peeled away like a stained yellow veneer. Fear has been replaced with a comfortable, unquestioning, acceptance of the moment. She leans over to tell me something, one hand buttressed on the brass rail, the other resting solidly on my shoulder. It's loud enough that she has to speak into my ear as if she were whispering something to me. I haven't heard exactly what she said but she giggles and stares at me. Unsure of the proper response, I smile. Her chocolate bangs are covering her face again; I gently reach over and lace them behind her ears. Her eyes shine through a tearless blue. I'm cast back in time to the first time I met her - that was in a bar too. The memory of that moment saddles me for a second. That was years ago and on another continent.

The hours drift off in the cold night air and we find our second wind. Of course, our bodies are thinking it's just after dinner time so now jet lag works in our favor. The band plays one Billy Joel song after another. I wonder if it's his birthday or something. We sing loudly and off-key. We dance.

Finally, the sounds of the bar begin to quiet and we know that we need to go back to the hotel. Outside it has gone from cool to icy but the beers have flushed my face and it feels good to be in the cold. It smells like winter. She walks on my right and takes my arm. We move with closeness and great affection. The walk back from the pub seems much shorter than it had a few hours before. The streets are empty but brilliantly lit. We see the shadow of a drunk relieving himself in an alley.

At the end of the street we can see the wide morass of a parking lot taking shape. We are back at Den Haag Centraal. The thing is, and we both know it, it's late. In fact it's early. Close to 3 AM. We'll be lucky to get a few hours sleep. No trains will run again until morning. There is still a short row a Mercedes-Benz lined up at the taxi stand and this is our only option back. Our lack of diligence regarding our cash problem has taken the situation from dire to absurd - and we have a long way back to the hotel. We ask if any of the taxis would take a credit card but no one accepts the offer. Instead, a thin man, with a head like a cactus, offers a solution:

"The credit card can be used at the hotel to get cash."

The man runs his hands from his bristly beard all the way to the whiskers atop his head. Every bristle cropped the same length. His hair is thin and patchy throughout. He says that if we charge the cost of the taxi to our room, the concierge will give us the cash. Neither of us has ever heard of such a thing but we agree. If he's right, it all works out fine. If he's wrong, it was his idea and, in any case, we'd be back at the hotel.

We lurch forward under the hard shifting of the driver, and jostle down the streets of den Haag. We wind through alleys and cobbled streets charting our course to the highway. Fiddling with a stack of CDs, the taximan finally finds what he is after. The driver feeds the CD into the car's stereo and adjusts the controls. The stereo glows with blue neon and it washes all other color from the cab. The music begins and it folds us into the rich lather of Pakistani jazz.

We are back in the cavernous stretches of concrete adjacent to the train tracks. Riding down that industrial gulley - we are isolated from the world, from Holland, from everything but the A12 and the passing Vauxhalls. We are loosing any reference to place from this featureless trench and the cyclical chords of the bass begin to muddle our sense of time. The car has no discernable temperature and we rest in languid comfort. As we drift along the lights from the highway are brushing over her and lighting the curves of her face. Other than the dance of the lights there is no sense of our movement. She stares out the window in silence and doesn't seem to sense my gaze.

Inching over to my side of the seat, from her station at the window, she rests her head against me. Her long mane flows down the breast of my jacket. As the thin wires of the brushes slap against the drumhead and pudgy fingers carom down fret boards, they seem to free us from the bounds of the car. I feel adrift. Without a word or a glance, she slips her hand into mine. Our fingers interlock in familiar comfort. Her touch is sublime and it draws me outside myself - casting off the dull musty fabric that has enshrouded my life.

To be right there with her was all I wanted then – lost in that taxi ride. Disconnected from our lives but mindful of them. There was no distance between us then, no gulf to span. There was nothing more intimate than the soft cadence of her breathing awash on my neck. No dull aching of desire is left to fulfill. We transcend ourselves.

When the cab begins to slow from highway speed, the moan of the engine will drop an octave. I will see the signs for Zoetermeer in the dim metallic sky. Our trip will be nearly over. Still awash in the nomadic saxophone and galloping bass, I will close my eyes, breathe in deeply and squeeze her hand.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


The bowl of gazpacho sat cold on the table.

Outside it was thick with snow. The storm had come suddenly but was over now. The Michigan countryside was still except for the slow grey fingers from chimneys. The black squirrels that normally dashed about were missing. The morning sky continued to snow but without malice. Slow silent diamonds flitted though the morning air.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Going Home

The waitress hadn’t left a pen for me to sign the bill so I dug one out of my bag. It was a white Bic; I got it in Tokyo. It said WESTIN TOKYO on the side. I tried to think about that trip and that hotel but it didn’t work. I put the pen back in my bag. A travel bag is good that way, like a good jacket. You’d find all sorts of shit in it, stubs of theatre tickets or a playbill, receipts, maybe some old matches. Loose ties to those things that you had forgotten.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Candyland in Lilongwe

Purple. Candy Hearts. I missed the Rainbow Trail. Boy, you can say that again.

It’s almost eight o’clock in the morning and I’m playing Candyland with a Dutchman at a hotel bar in Lilongwe. You’ve never heard of Lilongwe, I know. It’s the capitol of Malawi. Maybe you’ve never heard of Malawi; that’s okay too- it’s lost in that thin murky section of Africa. We’re drinking bad gin and killing time. What do the Dutchman, the bad gin and Candyland have in common? A flood, a political insurrection and a lot of bad luck.