Last night, at an Irish pub off of Old Town Square, Michael beat the shit out of two British skinheads. The vile Brits were talking at the bar about killing gypsies, and Michael took umbrage. He busted up the little one pretty well, and took down the bigger one and was pounding him when his buddy, Milt, dragged him off and shoved him out the door and pushed him down the alley before the cops arrived.
Milt screamed at Michael, told him what a dickhead he was for fighting in a foreign country. “Why do you always seem to forget we’re in a foreign country? You’re an idiot. Two assholes mouth off about jacking up gypsies, and you respond violently. What kind of fucking sense does that make?”
Michael knew his buddy was correct, and said so. This morning, his knuckles are sore and his heart contrite. He thinks back on the times, over the past seven months, that Milt has had to extract him from confrontations, save him from himself. The study-abroad program he and Milt are attending at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts purports to educate motivated American university students in the history, the culture and the languages of Central Europe; the reality is that poorly paid, alienated Czech academicians teach in the program to wring a little extra money out of the system, and consequently engage their American charges on intellectual autopilot. One happy consequence of this fraudulent circumstance is that Michael has plenty of time to read books he wishes to read, to imbibe the incredible Czech beer and get laid.
Michael doesn’t seek confrontation. Every conflict he’s had in Prague, and indeed every conflict he ever had back in Chicago growing up, was prompted by guys being assholes. If he sees a guy slap a girlfriend, or a couple of big guys picking on a smaller one, or if someone in a bar declares the kind of vile hatred those skinheads spewed last night, something switches on in Michael; at the core of his being is a fierce need to protect.
He was nine, getting ready for bed. Three men broke open the door. One ripped the phone from the wall. Another, a tattoo of a red dragon on the inside of his forearm, lifted Michael by the hair, tied him with a belt around his neck to the banister, told him if he made any sound they’d kill his sister and mother. The red dragon said that if his sister and mother made any noise he’d kill Michael. Two of them had knives. Red dragon had a baseball bat. They reeked of alcohol. They were all ugly except for the red dragon. He looked kind of like Ben Stiller, but with bad teeth.
Michael’s mother, his sister Billie and he attended family counseling for years. His father left them months after the attack. He sent money, but was otherwise unavailable. He couldn’t live with their damages. In some ways, his father’s departure was more traumatic than the attack; it certainly got discussed more in therapy.
Michael stopped attending therapy with his mother and sister when he was sixteen, indeed the week he first had sex with Brenda Maxwell. Pressed by Billie as to why he was disengaging from therapy, he confessed that he’d had sex, and that the prospect of spending another hour with her and their mother and Dr. Nancy Brandon now seemed somehow not right. He couldn’t say exactly why, but he just couldn’t go on.
Billie calls him at least twice a week. “My battery’s low, sis, how’s life?”
“Dad killed himself.”
From the Leggi Bridge, the Castle is beautiful, lit up golden. Czech kids in pairs, German kids in pairs, Italian kids in pairs, American kids in ragged, loose, co-ed gangs saunter from the left bank to the right, stoned or drunk or both. His father overdosed on heart medication. It was definitely not an accident. Billie has no tears in her voice. Recently, she and Michael reengaged with the corporate lawyer, the father who had abandoned them when they’d most needed him. A cool family connection crystalized. He did not remarry, nor did their mother.
“The bastard deserted her.”
“Yeah. He was weak. He was a punk. He’s dead. What do you feel?”
“Well, work on it. Love you, Mikey.”
There is no mention of a funeral, some kind of memorial. There is no mention of Michael returning.
He calls his mother. They chat for a minute and a half. She clearly is not distraught, though there is a tinge of melancholy in her voice, which brightens when the conversation turns to work. She is a world-class chef, owner of the posh Wonder Works on Michigan Avenue. Michael grew up in that kitchen, through high school worked the fish station, assisted the sous chef, learned from his mother. His mother hired a new cook who is very fast and steady, takes instruction well.
“That’s good, Mom. My battery’s low. I’ve gotta cut it short. Call me over the weekend, and remember the seven-hour difference.”
The cop had to cut the belt from around his neck. Billie and his mother were taken to the hospital; they were able to walk to the medevac unit, though as they passed Michael they did not look at him. They seemed entranced. Four police cars flashed blue light across the walls. Neighbors stood silent, staring. Where was his dad? He always came home before dark, even in winter. It was summer. Tomorrow Michael had a game. He played left field and batted clean up. He was the best hitter on the team. The Blue Socks won most of their games, and he was a big part of the team’s success. His whole family was supposed to come to the game. If his father didn’t come home, how would Michael get to the game tomorrow? His mother was supposed to wash his uniform.
He was sent to the Bigalow’s. Frank Bigalow was in his grade, but a different class. They hung out sometimes, but though Frank lived across the street and Mr. Bigalow and Michael’s father liked to hang together on weekends, sometimes grilling burgers and dogs in their backyards and catching games together, Frank and Michael didn’t really click. Frank was quiet. Michael sleeping in Frank’s bed that night was uncomfortable for both boys. Each hugged an edge, back to back. When Michael rose in the middle of the night to pee, he was disoriented.
Michael hops on the 17 tram near the National Theater and gets off at the stop just after the brief Vysehrad black-stone tunnel. He backtracks and climbs the hill to Vysehrad.
Marta Bozdechova eats an ice cream under a large umbrella covering the picnic-style table at which she sits, on a rise behind the four five-meter-tall statues, two facing north the others facing south across a fifty-meter field. She smiles as Michael approaches and takes a seat opposite. She is very pretty, though dresses a tad frumpy and Michael admires her lack of sartorial self-consciousness. She places her ice cream on its wrapper, extracts from her large, orange plastic purse a pad and pen.
How are you, darling? she writes.
Ja jsem dobry, he replies.
Mother left for Brataslava today. Would you like to come home with me?
You’re not kidding? That would be wonderful!
They’ve been having sex out of doors because there is little privacy at the dorm, or periods of privacy are unpredictable. Finding nooks far from others’ eyes and ears is daunting, particularly because of the noises Marta makes during sex. Deaf from birth, she makes loud animal-like noises unabashedly during sex, and the noises are constant and varied, like no sounds Michael has ever heard a human being make.
Two of the statues are of Libuse and her peasant husband Premysl, though Michael can’t recall which two, and doesn’t much care. The story that Libuse stood on the cliff of Vysehrad, a hundred meters or so above the Vltava, and presciently saw a great city where there was only water and farm land, makes him think of opera, how the stories are overblown and silly. His father prided himself on being an opera buff. Michael’s early childhood was filled with arias wafting from his father’s home office. At night, his father sipped whiskey and listened not only to all the great operas, but obscure ones as well. He’d watch any sports event on weekend days, golf, baseball, football, basketball, college and pro; he’d quaff lite beer and stare into the screen, commenting laconically on the competitions. But at night, weekends and weekdays, he swigged Bushmills and rode the strains of operas. Michael hates opera, though is conversant on the subject.
Marta looks like a young Diane Keaton, with darker hair and larger breasts, and a tiny mole at the left corner of her mouth. She is fully aware that she looks like Diane Keaton circa Annie Hall. She is a student of popular American culture, is fluent in American Sign Language, and reads lips, in Czech and English, quite well, though with Michael she prefers to write. They are very quick in this mode of communication. She is teaching Michael some American signing, though he is not picking it up as quickly as she would like.
They met at the Faculty of Arts, where he is an undergraduate study-abroad student and she is in the PhD program in American Studies. She is three years older than he. Her dissertation, the subject of which is still inchoate, will have something to do with the idealization of “silence” in the Deep Image poetry of the Seventies, with an emphasis on the work of Robert Bly. Michael knows virtually nothing and cares not at all about her scholarly interests, and that is fine with Marta.
We walk she signs. Michael smiles comprehension. They rise. She takes a last bite of her ice cream, vanilla encased in brittle chocolate on a stick, and drops the stick into the trashcan flanking the take-out window. She shoulders her gaudy bag and grabs Michael’s hand.
Michael loves their utter lack of small talk. Occasionally Marta will point at something, and he’ll have to figure out why, though usually her reason for pointing is clear. Otherwise, they walk, holding hands, and Michael can be wholly in his own head, with no obligation to feign interest in an interlocutor’s observations, commentaries.
As they emerge from the park’s second arch, headed toward the first, passing one of the park’s relatively well kept clay tennis courts, they witness a shirtless, clearly drunk or drugged twenty-something, sporting a foot-high orange Mohawk, kick a shivering pit bull.
Marta signs No no no no no no over and over.
“Nechto ho!” Michael shouts.
The kid, taller than Michael but slim, his eyes half open, says, “Fuck you.” He doesn’t sound Czech. He sounds German. The dog shivers, is emaciated; his eyes are gummy, unfocused.
“You kick that dog again and I’ll beat the shit out of you,” Michael responds, fixing the German punk with a steely glare. Both the guy’s nipples are pierced. His nose is pierced in the center, like a bull’s. He kicks the dog again.
Marta rips the pad and pen from her purse. I want to buy the dog, she writes.
Michael pauses. Glares at the asshole. “We want to buy the dog,” he says, tentatively.
“You want to buy this?” the asshole says; his accent is light, almost regal.
“No, what I want to do is beat you unconscious, you loathsome douche bag. My friend wants to buy it. I’ll give you a thousand crowns. It’s all I’ve got on me.”
The asshole smiles; most of his teeth are black or missing. “This fine specimen of a beast is worth at least three thousand.”
About a hundred and forty bucks. Michael grabs the pad and pen, writes, I have a thousand crowns. He wants three.
She writes, I only have seven hundred.
“Motherfucker, we have seventeen hundred between us. Take it, or I’ll jack you up.”
“Adolph and I will wait here while you go to the ATM,” the asshole says, still smiling.
“No, shithead, you’re going to take our money and give us the dog.”
Michael presents his palm to Marta. She reaches into her bag, pulls out her wallet, plucks all of the bills from it. Michael takes out his wallet and adds all of the bills in it to Marta’s, twelve hundred, not a thousand. He approaches.
He looks into the guy’s eyes and sees no fear. The asshole is too fucked up to be scared. Michael kicks him in the nuts. Not hard, just hard enough to make him buckle up and fall on his face. Then he kicks him in the ribs. He throws the money on the asshole’s back, picks up the leash.
“Dad, what is she singing about?” Michael was nine, in his Superman pj’s. It was a Saturday night, so he could stay up and watch Lion King for the twentieth or thirtieth time, or read Harry Potter, which he was beginning to attempt, with some difficulty. What he wanted was for his father to read the book to him, but his father never read to him. His father lay on the couch in his dark office every night, drinking whiskey and listening to opera.
“The human condition, buddy. She’s singing about the human condition.” He spoke with his eyes closed. His tie was loosened. His black socks were crossed at the ankles.
“The circle of life, kind of. And other stuff.”
He was listening to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the fifth and final, the “standard” version. Pinkerton had just returned, with his American wife. Butterfly was sleeping, but would soon awaken.
Pinkerton is a cowardly prick, too, Michael thinks. The dog is sleeping on a blanket on Marta’s side of the bed. In the distance, a jackhammer is tearing through cement. Marta is sleeping. They are naked. Sex was furious. The dog, Shorty, as Marta immediately referred to him, whined for the duration of their pleasuring one another, though Marta’s own vocalizations were more fierce and varied than ever, contained by walls.
I don’t approve of your hurting that boy. But I must confess that I was thrilled in the moment, she wrote after they’d climbed four flights of stairs, the dog’s nails tat-tatting on the steps.
There is much light in Marta’s flat. It is modest, cluttered in an orderly fashion. The couch and two matching chairs are round, their floral patterns faded. The dining table, writing desk, china cabinets are dark wood; the piano is nicked up, the ivory keys tinged yellowish. The photos on the walls lining the piano are all of Marta through the years, and of her twin sister.
In one, the girls, late mid-teens Michael guessed, sat side-by-side in matching skirts and blouses. Their hair was considerably shorter than Marta’s is now.
Michael held the framed photo. Marta fed Shorty scraps, placed down a bowl of water. Where is your sister?
She is touring in America. She plays harp in an orchestra.
Michael was fascinated, wanted to know what it was like being deaf and growing up with an identical twin who could hear. But he wanted to have sex, and such a conversation, on Marta’s pad, would have been tedious. Now, the late-day sun is blasting through the diaphanous white curtains. Michael’s and Marta’s clothes are blended in a pile on a dark green, fake-leather chair. Facing away from the window, Marta stirs, reaches behind her to feel for Michael. Finding his thigh, she turns her smiling face to him, her eyes still closed. Thank you, she signs. Her eyes flutter open.
“For what?” he mouths slowly.
No go, she signs, and he understands her to be thanking him for not leaving as she slept.
He reaches across her body for the pad and pen. I’d like to cook for you. I checked out your kitchen, what’s in your refrigerator. I want to go buy some things, bring them back and cook you a great dinner. Also, you’ll need some dog stuff. I’ll hit the ATM, then Tesco. Be back in about forty minutes.
Two plastic bags of dog stuff and groceries on the seat beside him, Michael digs into his pants pocket, when the transit agent flashes his badge, and produces his transit pass.
The sky is darkening. The 12 tram rattles from stop to stop. A couple of kilometers from Tesco, the car fills, and many riders are standing, holding straps, surfing the tracks, reading. When a hump-backed crone trudges up the steps, a cloth bag in each withered hand, Michael stands, places his bags between his feet, freeing the seats for the woman and her bags.
His parents were in their early forties when he was born; their stellar careers well advanced. Billie, nine years older than he, had been like a third parent, though also a friend and confidant. A corporate lawyer in an eight-year, committed relationship with a woman seventeen years older than she, Billie prodded him to study abroad. She visited Prague four years ago with Malinda, her partner, and pressed Michael to look into study-abroad opportunities there, indeed did some initial research into opportunities at Charles University.
His mother retrieved him early the next morning. At home, Billie was asleep on the divan in the TV room. His father sat at his desk, his face in his hands. Richard Wagner’s Siegfried was turned up much too loudly. Michael’s mother stormed down the steps, screaming, demanding to know how Michael’s father could listen to such proto-Nazi dog shit after what had happened to her and Billie.
At Michael’s bar mitzvah, his favorite uncle, Toby, got drunk and declared that if Michael’s father showed his face, he’d drag him outside and beat the shit out of him. Michael hadn’t yet grown disgusted with his father, held out hope for his return. He wished mightily that his father would not attend so that Uncle Toby wouldn’t beat him up. The universe, a power that morphed into his father’s cowardice over time, granted his wish.
Wonder Woman, work on your computer and let me cook you something special, he wrote.
He prepares Pork Shashlik with Spicy Red Wine Marinade, one of forty or fifty of his mother’s recipes, from her best-selling third book, and a watermelon and squid salad the recipe for which he picked up somewhere else, though he can’t recall the source.
I thought you can’t eat pork? She signs, though she has to spell out most of the words very slowly. He signs Again, so once again, and even more slowly, she asks about pork.
Michael grabs the pad. The food presentation was as beautiful, as stylish as Michael could make it under the circumstances.
We’re quite secular Jews, my mother and sister and I. My father wasn’t Jewish.
Wasn’t? She writes.
He died yesterday. Please eat while the food is hot.
They dined together a few times, in noisy restaurants, usually, and the lack of discourse on those occasions suited Michael just fine. But now, the sound of their cutting and chewing, the sound of forks and knives scraping on porcelain, puts Michael on edge. He grabs the pad. Does your mother have recordings of your sister playing? I’d like to listen to music as we eat.
She smiles, rises, and fetches a CD. Shorty rouses and follows her. Michael will walk him on the new leash, for a second time, in a few minutes.
Michael loads it in the CD player in the living room. They reengage with the excellent meal Michael prepared for them. It is Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony, very pastoral. Michael can’t hear harp, but it doesn’t matter. He just needs noise. Marta is intent on her food. When she looks up, Michael points at her plate, touches his chin, pulling his fingers away quickly, and furrowing his brow: Is it good?
Her face brightens within the shadow that slants across the table. She smiles hugely. He falls in love with her that moment, and weeps for his father.
Richard Katrovas is the author of fifteen books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, most recently Scorpio Rising: Selected Poems (Carnegie Mellon University Press, Pittsburgh: 2011) and Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father (Three Rooms Press, New York: 2014). This story is from The Great Czech Navy (in progress). Stories from the collection have appeared thus far in Cabildo Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, Mississippi Review, The Southern Anthology, The San Francisco Review, and The Southern California Anthology.
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