This book contains seven stories written between 1998 and 2003 when I was living in Poland and working as a consultant. They're the sort of work that is common to a certain breed of self-hating business lads who enjoyed the dot-com boom of 2000, and I've always wondered when or even if I should publish them.
I've decided to publish them now, 15 or so years after I wrote them, because they were interesting and I thought they might offer a bit of light reading to those wishing to understand the alienation of being a skinny vegetarian in post-communist Warsaw. They're also pretty fun.
They're a trifle, to be sure, but please enjoy them.
It was clear that the tech people were tired of each other's company, and one of the tech women, a brunette who said she was from Kansas, kept looking at Michael and smiling across from her at the bar. They were all in the one tavern that catered to ex-pats. They served burgers with feta and soggy fries and lots of the local beer. The tech people were here most nights.
He had been standing by the door in the cold when they all walked in, covered in snow, speaking English loudly. When they had trouble communicating with the waitress, he ordered beers for them. None of them spoke the language and Michael spoke enough, and that was good enough.
Michael wanted to distance himself from the tech people, but they kept asking him to sit with them. He kept making excuses. Finally they gave up and he sat alone at the bar. He had been an English teacher long enough to know that expats made horrible friends. They were always moving, always drinking, too rich for the country they were stationed and too temporary to lay down roots.
The bar was high-ceilinged and dark. It stank of smoke and his friends, other English teachers, were late. When the waitress brought the tech people another round of beer, he saw that she had one extra. The tech guy gestured for Michael to sit with them. He finally walked over to the group and sat down.
They introduced themselves but he forgot their names. They welcomed him heartily and asked questions. The woman from Kansas made room for him next to her on the bench. His friends messaged him: they would be very late. Stuck in traff on R-strasse. Michael listened to the group, quietly sipping his beer.
Another tech arrived, a man whom everyone called The Doctor. He was a short, older man, a local hire with a Ph.D. and a belly. He sat next to Michael and they talked about work. They asked him what he did and he told them. Michael was a business developer, hired to build market share for a software product none of them had heard of. The tech people were in town to help the Ph.D. finish an implementation. Talk turned from technology to wives and girlfriends. Then the Ph.D. spoke.
"The best woman I knew, the very best I assure you, was a woman from my town, long ago." he said. He had a way of speaking without moving his jaw much and some of his words got lost in his brown-and-gray mustache.
"This was after the war, when my town was in ruin. The men were not returning from war and the women waited at home in vain. As a boy, I had heard gossip all about supposed atrocities and horrors taking place. I was warned not to leave the town as the enemy left. One morning the town awoke to more horror -- a girl was missing, the seventeen-year-old daughter of our neighbor. They scoured the town and some of the old men and us boys went into the woods to search for her.
"A week passed, then two. Her name was all that was spoken, a welcome respite because no one assumed she was dead but perhaps just run-off. Women did that, then, when they had the chance. They knew there was better work to be found in the cities. The war was nearly over, the men were gone, and women had the upper hand.
"A month passed, and some boys and I went to the woods. We were told of mines and of secret caches of explosives that we would not live to tell of. We wanted to see what the partisans and enemy fighters had left in the darkness beneath the trees. Then we found the girl.
"She had been kidnapped. A rope was tied around her ankle and she was washing clothes in a stream. A man they called The Donkey had taken her. He was a sick man, I now know he had a severe birth defect, an IQ near the idiocy level, I'd wager. An outcast, he lived with his mother in the woods. It was him the girl was washing for. She sang softly as she scrubbed his clothes against a tin washboard and wrung them out. We watched the soap suds caught in the current drift by our hiding place.
"We ran home, afraid to tell anyone of what we saw. We waited a week, then two. The secret burned in our hearts, and we, being young fools, had no idea what to do.
"But the problem sorted itself out, ultimately. The girl returned unharmed a few weeks later, and she told the town what had happened.
"The Donkey had kidnapped her, but only in name. He had forced her to come to his home and care for his ill mother. He tied a rope around her leg but did not hold the rope. He did it because perhaps that's what he thought was best? As I said, he wasn't smart. She was free. When she arrived at the house, the mother was already dead and had been for days. He was confused. She made he Donkey bury her and she cleaned his house and washed his clothes and cooked for him when he could bring food from town. She took pity on him.
"Weeks passed and The Donkey fell ill. Disease was rampant after the war, water was stagnant, food bad and hard to come by and he was particularly delicate. In his final days, she nursed him and washed him and he, ever thinking she was his captive, never thanked her.
"She let him keep her until he died. Then she returned to town to ask some men to bury him. They burned his house and he and his mother were forgotten."
The group was quiet. The place roared around them and The Doctor ordered a whiskey and cleared his throat.
"Years later I heard that the girl, now a woman, had married a rich communist and had died trying to have a second child. Her remaining daughter came to me when I was a doctoral candidate because I was the only one in town who spoke English well. I had a certain love for the family and thought I would help them. The daughter wanted to write a letter to a man she had met in Finland, an American. She could say a few things but most of their interchanges had been translated by a friend who spoke both our language and halting Finnish, so the American had to translate the letters when he received them. I could see she was in love. I sat with her and translated as she talked.
"She talked of the weather, how dry it had been that summer. I wrote 'My love, I wait for you and hope you will return.' She told me to tell him of the new car her father bought and I wrote 'My father would have me marry you if you would come to meet me.' She told me to ask him what he did in America and I wrote 'I want to spend my life with you in Ohio. My heart trembles.'
"She mailed it and was married a year later. I repaid The Donkey's debt to her mother for the kindness she had shown him.
"I thought I had done a good thing, and to this day I wonder what would have happened had we told the town about he Donkey's prisoner. They probably would have killed him. Those were hard and dangerous times. There was no telling when death would come. Things are better now."
The tavern had grown quiet. It was late, three in the morning. The tech woman from Kansas held Michael's hand under the table. The Doctor stood and cleaned his glasses and stumbled to the bar for another whiskey. Michael looked at his phone: his friends said they could not make it after all. The snow was piling up and it would be hard to travel anywhere.
We were about a mile from our house, heading west on Route 151. It was the middle of summer. Our twins, Joy and Andy, were in the back seat, and my wife tugged on my sleeve and pointed. Leonard, our cat, was sprawled on the berm. I pulled off and my wife and kids got out. Leonard was still breathing, but it didn't look good.
He yowled in the back while the kids built up a blanket around him like a nest. My wife sat in the back to keep their hands off him. His legs were bloody, and my wife mouthed to me in the rear view mirror that they were broken.
Joy was crying. Andy was looking at Leonard and trying to cover him up.
"OK, let's sit on our hands," my wife said. The kids sat on their hands.
We carried Leonard into the house. My wife put him in a cardboard box with some blankets and gave him some cold water, which he didn't drink. Then we pulled the kids away and had dinner. He must have died during the hour we were at the table.
If I said now that that period in my life, or correctly, our lives, was the worst we had experienced, I would sound like a fool. It was not as bad as it could have been.
It began when the kids started having nightmares. Some nights, I'd hear one of them cry in the dark, and I'd go down the hall to see what was wrong. And nothing would be wrong. I'd wake them, they'd stare glassy-eyed and surprised, then fall back to sleep. In the morning, we asked them what they'd dreamt about the night before, and they said they couldn't remember.
My wife handled things calmly. Her remedy was to get the kids a glass of water or turn on a closet light. I felt that something terrible was happening, that I had damaged them by picking up the dying cat. Hot regret rolled through me like a fever. It came every time I felt the kids' sweaty foreheads and heard their nightmare breathing.
We asked the pediatrician what was going on, and he called the dreams night terrors.
My own night terrors were triggered by theirs. Often, I'd wake at false alarms, but now I was waking with a snap that was almost painful: a sniffle or a cough down the hall, and my eyes opened. My deep sleep and dreams suffered. My wife told me I had dark hollows under my eyes. I would wake and ignore her when she would talk to me. At breakfast, only the kids mattered. I buttered their toast, poured their milk, ran my hand through their soft hair.
It was summer; the kids were out of school, and they both had time to think about the death in detail. Joy started composing prayers. One morning, she came up to me with her sharp chin and my wife's blue eyes and said, "Daddy, how about this one: Dear Leonard, I hope you have food and birds to play with in Heaven. Amen."
"And birds to play in Heaven. Amen," Andy, our quiet one, echoed.
I could only think about the problem at hand -- of Leonard's death and the stress of the nightmares, terrors, and prayers that followed it. I thought we were ruining the kids. My wife told me to calm down. One morning at two o'clock, she could tell by the way I was breathing that I was still awake. She took me downstairs, by the hand, and made me warm milk and toast with honey; just like she had when we were first in love.
I went back to bed. My hands were wet with sweat. She rolled onto me and all I could think about was an oncoming tightness that sprung my body like a bow.
"Dear Leo, I hope you are with Jesus in Heaven," Joy recited the next morning at breakfast. "That's not right, daddy. What are the real words?"
I didn't know, and I told her so. I suggested the Lord's Prayer, and began to recite it, but my wife and I thought we were modern spiritualists, and not active in any one religion. I made up something about life and death and balls of yarn.
Finally, Joy said she wanted to put up a cross. I asked her where, and she said she wanted it where Leonard died. My wife eyed me from across the kitchen.
"What do you want to do, Joy?" I asked.
"Make a cross," Joy said.
Andy bounced in his seat. "Make a cross," Andy said.
They had seen the crosses on the side of the road, the ones that marked the scenes of accidents. They wanted one for Leonard.
Joy, Andy, and I went behind the house. I affixed two slats together with nails, bending them down to obscure them. I wrote "Leonard" on the crosspiece and sharpened the vertical post. The kids and I walked to the spot Andy and Joy agreed on as the site and I pushed the cross into the dirt. We stood in silence over the makeshift gravesite.
I thought that was the end of it, but that memorial, the staking out of Leonard's site, left me cold and weird. The Sunday after Leonard died, I was cutting wood out of a brake behind the house. I got poison ivy up my arms, and realized that I was experiencing a physical sensation much like the one I felt when my kids said prayers.
I must have been flexing my arms or doing something unusual that night, because my wife grabbed my wrist and held it hard. "Stop that," she said.
She got tired of waiting for me to fall asleep beside her, and she said she couldn't sleep. Six days after we buried Leonard, she was going over a quarterly return with Kim Haring. Kim owned a dress shop, and she was wearing one of her creations, a tarp of a dress that billowed around her small frame.
Joy came into the office and held her hands together in prayer. "We had a funeral. Mr. Leonard died today, Mrs. Haring," she said.
Kim looked at my wife, puzzled.
"The cat," my wife said.
"Oh, the cat!" Kim said, "The cat. Really? Today?"
"Maybe a week ago," my wife said. "They're having trouble with time."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Joy, but he's in Heaven now. You can be thankful," Kim said.
Joy nodded. "He's with Our Father, whose are in heaven," she said.
I walked in when I heard Joy in the office. My wife flashed me a look, something angry, and I carried Joy out of the room. I had been washing dishes and my hands were wet.
Joy started to cry. "You're clammy, daddy," she said. I put her down outside and sat down, hoping she'd sit down beside me. But she didn't. She ran off to look for Andy.
Later, after Kim left, my wife came to find me. I was repainting flower boxes. "I don't let that happen when you're working, Michael," she said.
"What?" I asked. I dropped my brush in the dirt.
"I don't let that happen --" She bent down to pick it up and got blue paint in the dust. "I don't let the kids play around you when you're working."
I didn't say anything. I had been washing the dishes: I hadn't seen Joy come into the house. I just looked at my wife and she looked straight at me.
She went back inside, leaving me with the brush and the flower boxes.
I wasn't in love with my wife the next morning. I looked at her and couldn't understand why she was still with me. I had a dull ache in my head, and every noise set me to a gritting spasm. My teeth hurt. I had to leave the house.
"Where are you going?" my wife asked after she came back from dropping Joy and Andy off at playgroup. I took the keys and went out to the front drive. She followed me.
"Out for a while, for eggs, maybe."
"We don't need eggs," she said.
It was hot, and my hair was wet from a shower. I had the taste of oatmeal in the back of my throat from my dry breakfast.
My wife stood in front of the truck. As she walked around to the passenger's door, I keyed the ignition, which automatically locked the doors. I looked at her through the window.
"Michael, where are you going?"
"Michael?" she said.
She kicked off her shoe in my direction, and it hit the front grille. Then she bent down to pick up a rock. She cocked her arm, but I couldn't imagine that she would throw it. This was our truck, the truck we both traded in our college cars for, a truck we'd agreed would be most practical, given our situation. She threw the rock over the truck, and it hit with a puff of dust behind me.
I just drove away. This was a grave disconnection.
In town, I parked, got out, and sat on one of the benches in front of the library. I didn't see anyone else around. I rolled up my sleeves, stretched my legs, felt the tension like cables running from my heels and the butts of my hands up into my chest, stopping at my sternum.
For years before I had met and married my wife, I had been nervous, about as nervous as I was that day on the bench. I am skinny, long in the face, with black hair going gray prematurely, a man already naturally bound up. Now, completely tightened, I tapped my foot and watched the sun rise to noon. I knew I had to get back before three to see a client.
I decided to drive into the country to buy eggs. I felt like smelling something soft and natural. I wanted the loam of a garden, the sharp smell of cow pens and chicken coops.
About two miles outside of town, I saw a sign advertising fresh eggs posted on the lawn in front of a farmhouse. For a moment, the tightness in my chest dropped, but it came back when I pulled into the drive and shut off the truck.
I went up to the front door, which was shaded by a translucent green awning. It was open. It was dark inside, just the violet light of a television and a voice reading the news. I knocked.
The woman who answered was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, probably her husband's. The shirt was ripped in the front and she had red under her eyes, like she had been drinking or had just washed her face. She had white, wavy hair, pulled back behind her ears.
"Hi," I said, "I'm here about the eggs."
"Come on around the side," she said.
Going around the house, we passed a boy with blonde hair who was trying to put a beach ball through a hoop nailed to a shed. It was a barrel hoop, and there was a runner of rust down the wall where the metal touched.
"Hi," I said.
The boy mimicked me. He had a small mouth. His short hair was spiked up with pomade, and he looked up at me, bounced the clumsy ball, and said hi, hi. I went back with the woman. Hi, hi: I still heard him from around the corner. He was mimicking with a high falsetto, nasal. I wondered if that's what I sounded like. I swallowed hard and followed the woman into the yard.
The woman went around the garage. I could smell the chickens.
Under an elm I saw a corrugated laundry tub. When I got closer, I saw there were kittens in it. The mother, a gray-and-white short-hair, was fat and dull in the rising heat. The kittens were at her teats. One, a small one not attached to the mother like the rest, had blood on its nose and was having trouble breathing.
The woman came back and stood over the tub. She picked the skinny one up and cradled it. She rubbed its small belly. The rest of the kittens had milk stomachs. This one was thin.
"Are they for sale?" I asked. The tightness in my chest returned, more forcefully. I drew my arms against my sides. I swallowed again, afraid to talk.
"Any one but this one. He's a runt and he's sick," she said, looking up, blinking at me.
Again, the feeling of poison ivy. I clenched my teeth and waited for it to pass. I ran my tongue along the roof of my mouth, probing. I reached into the tub and pulled up a small white and gray kit. Its eyes were open. It was ready to take.
"That's the one you want?"
"Yes," I said.
"Do you have kids?"
"I have two. They like pets. Especially..."
The woman waited for me to finish, then smiled when I didn't.
"Especially a cat, because it's a good pet. You don't have a farm?"
"No, just a garden."
"If you had a farm, she'd be good on that. These are farm cats," she said.
"Yeah. I can tell."
Yeah, squeaked the boy from around the house. Yeah.
"That's my husband's boy. I'm his step-mom," the woman said. "He's got his daddy's big mouth."
"Eggs?" I asked.
"We don't have eggs today," she said, "I used them this morning, most of them. The chickens haven't been good. My husband hasn't been back for any stretch and I'm not going to tend his damn chickens while he's out messing." There was a note of anger.
I waited for her to finish. She rubbed two fingers along the runt's chest and tickled its paws.
"So we don't have any eggs," she said. "As long as you get this here kitten its shots, it's yours."
I thanked her and she looked up at me as if I were too bright to look at, squinting into the sun that was rising higher behind me. Time was slipping away.
I went the other way around the house, but still heard the boy as I got into the truck. Yeah. Yeah.
It was near three o'clock when I stopped the truck at the spot we had found Leonard. I sat in the cab and switched off the radio. There was the cross we erected, a few yards away. There was the nest of grass we found his head in, the grit we found his smashed tail and rear legs lying on. Although I could see the crest of my land, our land, a little ways off, I knew I was far from all points. This was a time to get out and walk. I noticed how dry things were, how brittle. I looked at my arms and legs. I looked at my bare feet in my sandals.
I felt like I had felt, once, when I was about ten and helpless. I had been riding my bicycle down a long rural route. A half-hour into the ride, a truck rolled out too fast and knocked me to the ground. I skidded into the weeds, and the truck kept driving. My front wheel was bent and the chain was broken. I walked my bike back, crying. The whole walk back, for about an hour, I'd missed my family, and now, on the berm, I missed my family again. My parents were dead. My sister was living in Wisconsin.
I missed my wife. I realized that I was lucky when I met her. She was a beautiful girl in a sweatshirt and jeans in my psychology class, and I didn't love her until we both graduated and ended up in the same city, Wheeling. We moved out to the country, outside of Brilliant, after our children had grown up a little. We wanted them to live without danger. Any city with too many cars, even Wheeling, scared us.
But now these petty problems, these weak problems unaccustomed to the heat of summer and a jarring death, were filling me up.
I thought about how things were fine: My wife and I were accountants living out our dream. We owned a home. We had a wide, deep base of clients and a good reputation. We worked with clients all along the Valley and in West Virginia.
The life we'd made was a good one, but I was missing something. I had no passion, except for the sensations in my body and head. Maybe I had no dreams: I knew accounting would work, so I followed it. I had no understanding. That was clear from my reaction to the kids' mourning. A real parent would have kept quiet and maybe brought out the Bible. I tried to help by bringing home a kitten.
I got back into the truck. The kitten lay next to me on the seat. It was sleeping. For a while it had hidden under the seat. I'd had to wipe a puddle of weak urine from the floor mat.
The next few hours were simple: I put the cat in a cardboard box on the back porch, got it some milk. Then I went into the office and waited for my client. Today, it was Kim Haring's husband, Roy. He ran a body shop, and I took him on after my wife took Kim as a client. We sat and talked, then began filling out his forms. He left me a shoebox of receipts, all neatly organized, paper-clipped together. I liked Roy Haring because of this, the way he fixed things up in a way that was easy to understand.
I didn't see my wife or the kids. I heard them, but didn't see them. They found the cat a little while after I started with Roy. I heard my wife saying something, but the walls cut off her voice.
"Heard you lost a cat," Roy said as he was leaving.
"He got hit by a car, yes," I said.
"We have kittens, now, at the shop. Should I put you down for one or two?"
"None. I just got the kids one."
Roy smiled. "They'll forget about the old one. My wife said your little girl was still talking about the old one, but they'll forget about it. Our oldest lost a dog when he was three, and that's all he could talk about."
"So they stop?"
"Did you think they wouldn't?" Roy asked.
I spent the rest of the day in the garden. I repainted the rest of the flower boxes and used a chipper to clear away some thick brush. I heard the kids in the house. I heard my wife talking to them. I heard a lot of things until I turned on the engine of the chipper and started feeding branches through.
At 5 p.m. my wife called me in for dinner. She wasn't smiling.
That night, after giving Joy and Andy a bath and putting them to bed, I slept on the couch. It was my decision. Somewhere, right around my thighs and calves, hovering around my knees, the feeling of tension resided. I tried to stretch. I tried to take deep breaths and drinks of water. I vomited once, from drinking. I started coughing, then vomited in the sink.
That was it. The point when I failed. I had felt like this once before: the long walk back to the picnic with my broken bike. I was ready to die, I suspected. I curled up on the couch, my stomach rolling.
I lay under a thin sheet and listened. I heard a car rattle in the gravel on the road. A bottle exploded somewhere, and I heard the individual pieces falling, dropping onto the berm.
The sheer physicality of my discontent had grown out of control. What began with a dead cat had blossomed. My wife came down to bring me upstairs with her, but I refused. I had my back to her. They say you stop maturing sometime, at some age; your development is arrested at that moment and the results stay with you for years. I can't say when I was arrested, but it was somewhere early and awkward, where my legs and arms were too long and my throat was caught and nervous.
"You're scaring me, Michael. What are you doing? Are you sick," my wife asked. She placed her hand on my shoulder. Like a boy, I shook her off. She went back upstairs.
I lay. I couldn't sleep. From the back porch I heard the small cat softly mewing. I went back to look in on her. She was curled in her box. I picked her up and cradled her, and she was afraid, but soon her legs and whiskers curled back and she settled in. I took her outside.
I sat down on the backyard glider. It creaked a little. The kitten was in my lap, now, and I was worried she would run away. I looked at my legs in the moonlight. They stuck out like knuckled bamboo.
I held my hand up to the moon: thin fingers. I looked at my toes and the way the big ones bowed in. I felt the tension relax and I was crying
I wet myself, there on the glider. My shorts were wet, and I was sobbing. The cat stood on my knees, looking down, and I wanted her to jump off me but she was too small and I was too far from the ground.
My wife helped me into the house, I remember, and gave me a bath. She smiled at me, and held me in bed. I was reduced: I felt like a stick in her arms.
The next morning I stayed in bed. Joy and Andy brought in the kitten, whom they had named Corduroy. They had heard Mrs. Haring say it.
"Andy named him," Joy said.
"That's a good name."
Andy nodded. "Are you sick?" he asked.
"A little," I said.
They carried the cat out, quietly.
But that was the end of it. What I had felt was gone. I was drawn in again, not spiraling out in my own orbit. Whatever I'd passed through, I knew it was in all ways natural and easily remedied by falling back into bed with my wife and kids and cat. The panic was gone.