For years, my favorite ficiton writer has been Isaac Bashevis Singer, the author of Enemies, A Love Story and a couple hundred of the best short stories written in the 20th Century. What I love most about those stories is the fable-like mix of realism and magic, coal dust and fairy dust.
I've recently started reading Stephen Poleskie, a Polish-American short-story writer who brings some of that same magic to the page.
Stephen is a man with talent to burn. His drawings and paintings are included in the collections of NYC's Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art, The National Collection in DC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in London. His fiction, essays, and art criticism have appeared in dozens of journals including Many Mountains Moving and Sulphur River Literary Review.
He's allowed me to post one of his stories, "A Loaf of Bread," about a Polish immigrant, here at Writing the Polish Diaspora. The story comes from Stephen's new collection Acorn's Card:
Here's the story:
A LOAF OF BREAD
A sinking orange sun was slowly giving way to a late-summer full moon, whose magical beams now rummaged about weakly in the courtyard below, drawing long shadows underneath the abandoned bicycles, trash cans and prowling stray cats. A tall, angular woman, wearing droll accessories that he could not make out, a pheasant costume perhaps assembled at a thrift shop, tap-danced down the hall, stomping her feet ecstatically, and twirling a lasso made of light. The sudden and rather discordant beeping of Jan Lesnachevski’s alarm clock pulled him from his sleep. It was nine o’clock—as they say here in America—in the evening not the morning. The sky was beginning to get dark, not bright.
Awake now, Jan dressed quickly and then followed an unctuous smell down the hallway to the kitchen, where his wife, clad only in a brassiere and half-slip due to the heat, was cooking him a breakfast of kielbasa and scrambled eggs. “Ahchoo!” Jan sneezed, announcing both his arrival and the fact that he had a late-summer cold.
This reeking and rat infested tenement flat was not exactly what John and his wife had expected when they emigrated from Poland. They had come secretly, via Vienna and London as asylum seekers, to avoid Jan’s being arrested for his part in organizing the Solidarity shipyard strikes. Jan thought to return now that he heard things were much improved in his homeland. But he had written so many letters back, telling everyone how well he and his family were doing—the townhouse in the city, the cottage on the lake, two cars, one a Cadillac, and his children in the best schools. The reality was that while Jan Lesnachevski did own the cheap camera that had taken the photos, the cars and the house in the background belonged to an anonymous someone else. And the shot of his daughter and son under the ivy-covered arch of a fine prep school had been taken on an open tour of the campus. The Lesnachevskis were truly living an American dream.
At the massive, sprawling shipyards in Gdansk, where Poland had once proudly built ships for the world, Jan had been a hydraulic engineer, who wrote poetry in the evenings. Some of his verses had even been published in Polish literary magazines, and he had a minor reputation there. Now, in America, his heart scraped as bare as the knuckles on his hands, he worked as a plumbing repairman, and wrote nothing.
His beautiful and intelligent wife Magdalena didn’t teach in a university anymore, as she had done in Gdansk, but cleaned houses for the rich who lived on River Walk Drive—people who thought they were being nice to her by giving her their castoff clothes, which she accepted and then gave away herself.
Although Jan and Magdalena had become citizens of their new country they felt that they were, nevertheless, without a place. America was still to them a foreign country, where it was not easy to remain yourself and keep your dignity. Although they were unquestionably friendly with their neighbors, and the members of the church group—Protestants nonetheless—who had sponsored their arrival in the United States, the Lesnachevskis had nobody that they could consider their true friends. And while they worked hard to improve their knowledge of their adopted country, its history and its culture, they were forever circling outside, making the rounds, jostled and shoved, polite novelties, in demand until Poland’s plight had faded from the headlines.
They tried hard to start conversations about things dear to them, like mushroom hunting. However, no one here was quite as interested in mushrooms in their natural habitat as Poles were. When you started a conversation about mushrooms you were immediately put in the same category as hippy stoners or American Indians. Those people who did eat mushrooms would never think of gathering them in the wild, but bought Portobellos in the gourmet deli section at their supermarket. Jan and Magdalena wondered if they needed to learn more than just the words to understand the language. Ripe with a great craving for knowledge they kept telling themselves: Soon we will understand and we will truly be Americans.
Through much diligent study in night classes Jan and Magdalena had both mastered English, and spoke with only a slight Polish accent. They were, however, dismayed by the fact that they could not comprehend most people, especially their children, who went to a public school and talked like rappers on MTV.
“Like it’s just funk, dude, totally. I mean don’t slam me, dude. Like ya gotta drop that old Polack shit right now and get with the program, if ya know what I mean. Like ya gotta chill out if ya wanna be into it nowadays.” Or something like that? Jan had been pleased that his son had gone back to calling him dad, rather than Jan, until Magdalena had explained that the word her son kept repeating wasn’t dad but dude.
“Son . . . I can’t understand you.” Jan would reply. “Isn’t it hard to talk with that little bolt poking through your tongue?”
Jan watched his teenaged children walk out the door, wondering why his boy liked to wear his clothing three sizes too big; pants so low that they dragged on the ground and his underwear showed out the top, his baseball hat on backwards. And his daughter; a skirt so short and tight that she dared not sit down or bend over, and boots that looked as if they were borrowed from a Nazi Storm Trooper. Jan could not recall when he last saw either one of them reading a book. Their cluttered rooms had the ever present rattle and glow of video games.
Whenever Jan talked about the possibility of going back to Poland—he didn’t say going home anymore as both he and Magdalena were no longer sure where home really was—all his children ever said was: “Poland! Like are you totally out of your mind, dude? No way!”
Jan and Magdalena had degrees, certificates, yellowed pieces of paper written in Polish, framed and hanging in their living room; however, these were useless here in America. But they would be valuable back in Poland. Jan felt that he was too young to be shunted into a sidetrack, and that his wife’s pedestrian life was unfair to her. Back there they could get good jobs again, not so much for the money, but jobs that they could take an interest in, jobs they could be proud of. Jan and Magdalena had never intended to do nothing with their lives. But people would wonder why they had returned, when they were doing so well. They were living the American Dream.
Although the sky had not yet fully darkened, the summer stars had already appeared, lurking like celestial muggers in their furtive cloud alleys. Outside Jan’s window the borne-down-by-the-heat wind hung immobile over the ragged tenement rooftops, now inhabited by refugees from the sweaty, jostling apartments below. Some people were sitting, some smoking the tips of their lit cigarettes hovering like urban fireflies. A young couple discreetly made love in a quiet corner behind a chimney. The sound of boom boxes, forever circling, each one competing to provide the unwanted melody of the moment, echoed up from the street below. It was time for Jan to go to work—he was on night call.
“Ahchoo!” Jan spurted out again, covering his mouth with his hand. Unlike their meals in Poland, which were always filled with conversation, Jan and Magdalena no longer talked to each other when they ate. They seemed to have nothing to say. When they first arrived, to help with their learning a new language, they had agreed to have their conversations only in English. Lately, when they had gone back to speaking Polish, it was as if they needed to learn their native tongue all over again.
“Would you pick up a loaf of bread on your way back, Jan?” Magdalena asked. “We are all out and the children will want some for their breakfast tomorrow.”
“Ahchoo! I am going on a repair call now, Magda, not out for shopping,” Jan protested. “I got a message. I must go to fix a hot water heater in a tenement over in the Snake Hill neighborhood. I hate going out there at night, much less stopping in a convenience store. They are always filled with weirdoes, junkies, and drug dealers.”
“That grocery store on Jefferson Street is open. I have shopped there before . . . it’s not too bad. You can get a loaf on your way otherwise they may be already closed when you are coming back.”
“Ahchoo! But they will probably only have loaves of that pasty white bread.”
“It’ll be alright. I will make toast.”
“Okay. Goodbye. Ahchoo!”
“Goodbye, dear . . . and don’t forget to buy a loaf of bread.”
Out on the street Jan discovered that his truck’s license plate had been rolled up again. A crazy kid, strong as a gorilla, high on dope and steroids, went around the neighborhood rolling up license plates like they were toilet paper—apparently just for the fun of it. Jan had followed him home one day and then knocked on the door and told his father what he was doing and that if the kid didn’t stop he would report him to the police. “So tell me already,” the father had said rather sarcastically, pulling out his badge, “I’m a cop.”
The very next day, Jan had come down to find the kid rolling up a license plate on the car parked in front of his truck. The boy turned around and, with a big grin on his face, gave him the finger. If his father could not even keep his own son in line, Jan asked himself, how was he going to prevent other people’s kids from committing crimes? The damn police in this town were worse than the criminals, he though; at least with the secret police in Poland you knew where you stood. Could he do nothing here but give up all his ambitions and longings, and try to manage as well as possible in a world without grace and intellect—just put his head down and try his best to forget?
“Ahchoo! . . .” Jan drove along in his pickup truck, wondering why he hadn’t got one with an air conditioner, especially with his allergies. And you couldn’t ride around in this town with the windows open either for fear of being robbed. Jan was sad. His life had become nothing. He reminded himself that he did not want to go out as someone who had been called in to fix the Lord’s plumbing.
“Ahchoo! Damnit,” Jan swore. He had gotten off the highway at the wrong exit—it should have been the next one. What a maze, Jan thought peering through his windshield at the unfamiliar scene in front of him. The damn streets were a mess, all torn up, and it was rather creepy down here by the river at night. Nobody lived in this area but the homeless. Jan had read that they even had homeless people on the streets of Warsaw now—the price of progress the article’s author seemed to think.
“Damn! It sure is hot.” Jan said out loud to nobody but the loaf of bread
sitting in a bag next to him. He had bought it at the store on Jefferson Street, as his wife told him to, using the last of his money. Jan never brought any cash with him when he came to Snake Hill. Some of the other repairmen told him that this was unwise, that he could get killed if someone tried to rob him and he told them he had no money. You should always have a little something to give them, an amount that you could afford to lose, they said. But at present Jan could not afford to lose anything.
“Ahchoo! Shit! It sure is hot,” Jan complained again. Who would want hot water on a night like this anyway, he wondered. The call could have waited until tomorrow. “Ahchoo! Damnit!” Jan was really uncomfortable now, sweating profusely. He wished that he could open his window a crack—but he couldn’t risk it, especially not down here.
The long, wrinkled river, shallow and muddy, swung along lazily just outside Jan’s headlight beams, its sour smell blocked out now by a passing freight train. Jan Lesnachevski slid his seat forward, all the while talking to himself, bending to the windshield, trying to make some sense of where he was. Then he saw a sign reading: Morgan Street. Good, Jan thought, this would take him all the way to Snake Hill. He turned and started down Morgan with enthusiasm. But after one block it became a one-way street. “What the hell?” Jan cursed, realizing that if he turned here he would be basically heading back in the direction he had just come from.
“Ahchoo!” Jan feared that he had driven into some kind of labyrinth. Things looked different at night. There was a lonely, rather spooky bleakness all around, the skyline revealing nothing but the crouched roofs of abandoned warehouses and the tetched lights of the occasional topless bar. He had to get out of these emergency night calls, Jan told himself, even though the pay was time and a half. He wanted to move out of the city, to find a job in the country, some place where he could breathe fresh air. Jan imagined owning a house in a town where he could leave the door unlocked when he wasn’t home. He had heard about such places. Maybe he should take that job he had been offered at a high school in the suburbs. It would mean less money, but it would also mean tall trees and green lawns. Jan had only three more days left to decide. Perhaps he should take his whole family back to Poland—whether they wanted to go or not. He didn’t want his kids to grow up to be tattooed junkies like everyone else in their neighborhood.
After a quarter hour of driving up and down a series of streets that seemed to lead him nowhere, Jan Lesnachevski accepted the fact that he was lost. Finding himself back on Morgan Street, and not knowing what else to do, he decided, as there were few cars in this neighborhood at night, to just go down this one-way street the wrong way until he came to some place that he recognized. And he hadn’t seen any police cars. He guessed that they were probably too afraid to come down here by the river at this late hour.
“Ahchoo! Shit!” Jan swore out loud again. “Now what?” There was a car following him. It had appeared behind him at the last intersection. He had watched its lights lurking in the rearview mirror. Now it was catching up. There was no telling who it might be, doubtless somebody looking to rob him. Jan decided that he had better get the hell out of there. He pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator pedal.
The car behind was speeding up also, almost on his rear bumper. It began flashing red and blue lights. A siren blared once as the car closed the gap between them. “Police officers!” a voice squealed, and then bellowed through a loudspeaker. “Pull your truck over!”
John guided his pickup to the curb, avoiding as best as he could the intaglio of flattened beer cans and broken bottles that lined the gutter. Shutting off the engine, he rolled down the window. The night air, despite being quenched with a musty dampness and the acrid smell of urine, felt cool on his face. This made him sneeze: “Ahchoo!”
A dark presence unwound itself from the police car and slowly made its way up to Jan Lesnachevski—shinning his super-sized flashlight into his query’s eyes as he came. “Can I see your license and registration, sir?” the officer said. Spoken as a question the tone was clearly that of a command. He followed Jan’s hand with the beam of his light as he fished for his wallet.
“Here are my cards, officer, sir . . . what have I done something that is wrong?”
The policeman gave the cards a cursory look and began his screed. “Do you realize, sir, that we have been following you for the last block, and that you have been going down a one-way street the wrong way?” The police officer’s shoulder radio hissed some static. “And may I ask you, sir, just what are you doing on this street at this late hour? Your truck doesn’t have a name on it. And everything down here is closed.”
“Ahchoo! I am lost. . . .”
“You say that you’re lost,” the officer said with an unbelieving tone, his eyes searching the interior of the cab. The beam of his flashlight circled from Jan’s face to the passenger seat. The circular glow fell on Jan’s toolbox—obviously containing burglar tools. Alarmed, the policeman backed away from the window and stood erect. His free hand moved to the handle of his pistol.
“Sir, I’ll have to ask you to get out of your truck . . . slowly . . . turn around . . . spread your legs . . . and put your hands on the hood.”
Blinded by the lights of the squad car, Jan futilely did as he was told. Jan Lesnachevski had a singular trait that revealed his character, one that placed him under eternal suspicion, perhaps something that had become ingrained in him while growing up under a totalitarian system—strangely enough he took pleasure in obeying orders. He moved slowly, considering any errors or stupidities that might compromise his situation. He wanted very much to sneeze but stifled the urge. Jan could hear the crackling of voices on the police radio, and the idling engine of the squad car. The night seemed hotter now. The air was heavier than it had been just a few moments earlier. The dull, gray sky had become veined with luminous moon-whitened contrails.
“I am a licensed plumber . . . a repairman on a night call,” Jan protested meekly as the policeman, using one arm, the other still on the handle of his gun, patted down Jan’s body searching for a concealed weapon. Jan wanted so badly to sneeze, to cough, to wipe his nose. But he swallowed hard, held his breath and did nothing.
Standing with his legs spread, Jan’s mind recalled a similar steamy night some years ago back in Gdansk. The fear that cloaked his body now was the same fear that he had felt then—a fear that he wasn’t supposed to have here in America.
For no apparent reason the tram had stopped; not at a regular stop, but in the middle of a block. The driver threw the door open and two men got on, apparently the ones who had signaled the operator. They didn’t pay a fare, and the tram did not start up again when the door closed. The two men walked slowly down the aisle, carefully studying the faces of the occupants as they moved between the rows. Jan pretended to be looking out of the window at the dark figurines in niches on the houses: gargoyles, Mary and Jesus, gaudy in painted plaster or enamel. What he really was observing was his own reflection. How much did he look like the photograph on the identification card that he was carrying, a card that had his face, but not his name? In the window’s reflection he saw the two men in leather trench coats, too warm for the season, but a mark of their trade, looming over his shoulder. They had stopped at his seat.
“You! Turn this way . . . and show us your papers.”
Jan pivoted in his seat, smiled, and produced his identity card.
“This is you? The taller of the two men, had asked, holding up the card to John’s face.
“Yes. . . .”
“And where are you going on this tram?” the second man added.
“Home. . . .”
“But this tram does not go in the direction of the address you have on this card. . . .”
John flushed, he needed a good story quickly; he smiled and then leered. “Of course not. I am stopping off at my girlfriend’s apartment first for a little relaxation. And then after home to the wife. . . .”
“And so we have caught you up to some monkey business,” the tall man said. Jan’s heart skipped a beat; sweat began to run down the back of his neck. Were they on to him? “But you are lucky. For tonight we are not looking for cheating husbands, but for strike organizers. We have a list of names of the people we want to bring in . . . and you, Stefan Podlewski, fortunately are not on it.”
“So now you can go ahead and get yourself a good fuck,” the shorter man said smirking at Jan as he handed him back his false identification card.
The two secret policemen turned and continued working their way to the rear of the car. The tram still had not moved, another tram had come up the tracks behind it and also stopped. Two other men in leather coats got out of a parked Lada and boarded the second tram. After a few moments in the back, the two men on Jan’s tram came forward; they had a third man with them. Jan recognized the man from protest meetings that he had attended, but the two were careful not to make any eye contact. At that moment Jan had felt very sorry for the man being taken away. Shortly thereafter he and Magdalena had fled from Poland.
Now, over the policeman’s shoulder, Jan observed a lone figure turn the corner and begin walking toward them. Then the man must have caught sight of the police car parked behind Jan’s truck. He turned his baseball hat around, and pulled his hood up over his head. Although the city was a bonfire the man wore a bulky coat over his black hooded-sweatshirt. Trying to look casual, the unknown man crossed over to the other side of the street. The walker was a black man—the officer checking out Jan was white. There was another officer in the squad car, but he had remained seated inside, only a dark silhouette.
Matching Jan’s Slavic face with the picture on his driver’s license and with the ones on his union card and plumber’s license seemed to satisfy the questioning officer. He returned Jan’s cards and told him he could get back into his truck.
Jan was elated, he had nothing to fear, proud that these really were his cards, relieved. The matter was closed. This was America. There was justice in this country. It was only a mistake, the police couldn’t be too careful. After all, they were here to protect him, looking out for his own good.
“I love America! I love America!” Jan shouted out the truck’s window, startling both the policeman and a very large rat that had just chanced to emerge from the sewer grate across the street.
Ignoring Jan’s enthusiasm the police officer continued: “However, there is still the matter of the traffic violation. . . .” He spoke softly, almost in a whisper, his head leaning into the open window, his words coming slow, groping.
“What infraction?” John asked. He turned his head, “Ahchoo!” but did not cover his mouth, not wanting to make any sudden moves with his hands.
“You were observed by two police officers driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street.”
“But I was lost,” Jan said hoping to explain away his crime. “I was so happy when I saw the flashing lights of your police car. I was quite nervous down here in this dark and unfamiliar area . . . nothing but warehouses and abandoned factories. Ahchoo! I had gotten off at the wrong exit. I was sure that the lights behind me were a car full of thugs planning to rob me.”
Jan thought that he saw a look of pity come over the officer’s face. He felt a slight coolness as a gentle zephyr searched its way down the dark street. With a cautious gesture he wiped the back of his hand across his runny nose, but did not sneeze.
“Well . . . let me go back and talk to my partner about it,” the policeman said, giving Jan a disparaging look. “I’ll tell him that you didn’t know what the law was because you are a foreigner. . . .”
“No! Please. I’m not a foreigner,” Jan yelled after the officer. “I am now a citizen . . . I love America!”
Jan Lesnachevski waited patiently in a clammy silence, not exactly clear just what was going on, his palms and armpits damp. The officer had gone back to the police car and was sitting inside talking to his partner, who apparently was of a higher rank as he had remained in the air-conditioned vehicle while his junior had gotten out and done all the leg work. John watched them in his rear view mirror, wishing for the power of clairaudience so that he might know what they were saying. Nevertheless, his wait was brief. The first policeman returned shortly with a half-smile on his face.
“My partner thinks that we should let you go . . . but first ya gotta give us a Christmas present.”
“A what?” Jan asked incredulously, sneezing again, wondering that either his English, or his hearing, must be failing him. “A Christmas present? But this is the middle of summer. . . .”
“Yeah, a Christmas present . . . you know, a gift. Like how much money have you got on ya?”
“I haven’t got any money,” Jan said displaying his empty wallet. Then he pulled back, suddenly realizing that he could be arrested for vagrancy. He had almost forgotten that in America it was a crime to not have any money. “I mean, yes I do have plenty of money at home . . . but not with me. You see, when I go on calls in these rougher neighborhoods I never bring any money with me for fear I might get robbed.”
“A good idea,” the officer agreed. “We wouldn’t want you getting ripped off down here . . . would we now.”
Jan sniffed. He would have liked to have taken a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his nose clean, but he was wary of making any suspicious moves at the moment. For some reason unknown to him, Jan’s gaze fell on the officer’s chest.
The policeman caught Jan’s eyes trying to read the number on his badge. He shined his flashlight in his suspect’s face. Jan blinked and turned his head. The flashlight’s beam fell on the brown paper bag stuck in the space between the seats.
“So ya got no money . . . but my partner says ya gotta give us a gift if ya don’t wanna get a ticket . . . and he’s my superior. So what ya got in that there bag?”
“It’s only a loaf of bread . . . for my children’s breakfast.” Jan stifled another sneeze.
“Is it fresh?”
“Yes, I just got it back there in a store on Jefferson Street.”
“Let me go talk to my partner. . . .”
The officer turned and slowly walked back to the police car. Jan watched out the half-open window as a low flying airplane passed overhead, its strobe lights appearing like nascent diamonds in the hazy night sky.
“My partner says that we’ll take the bread,” the officer announced on returning.
“What do you mean?”
“Just give us the bread and we’ll let you go. . . .”
“You’ll let me go if I give you this loaf of bread?”
“You heard me. . . . That’s what my boss said.”
Slowly rolling his window down all the way, Jan handed over the brown paper bag.
Holding it rather nervously, the policeman shined his flashlight into the bag, warily verifying its contents. “You can’t be too careful these days, it might of contained a rattlesnake . . . or maybe even a bomb. You never can be too sure of these things. Like why do people hate us policemen so much? They’re always trying to kill cops. I can’t understand why? I mean, we’re only out trying to do our job.”
“I understand,” Jan volunteered cautiously, clearing his throat.
“Thanks,” the officer said smiling. “And if you turn right at the next corner, and then go three more blocks to Truman Avenue . . . that’ll take you back to the expressway. Have a nice night, buddy.”
“And you too, officer. . . .” Jan smiled his best smile.
Gingerly gripping his prize, the policeman raised his free hand to the peak of his cap in a smart salute. The officer looked rather comical standing there rigidly in the darkness, Jan thought, rather like the cutout life-sized man that served as a “welcome” sign at his neighborhood carwash.
“Ahchoo! Thank you, God. . . .” Jan said when, upon turning his key in the ignition switch, his truck, not known for its dependability, sprung back to life. It was apparently as glad to be leaving this dark place as he was. Peering through the windshield, Jan glimpsed a violent flash of energy from a building thundercloud, too far away to be heard. It looked like rain for later tonight.
As Jan pulled his truck from the curb a man, apparently homeless, scruffy but still perky, darted through the yellow circle of the street lamp in front of him. Jan applied his brakes rather firmly, causing his metal tool box to depart the seat for the floor, landing with a crash. As Jan drove away, the anonymous man quickly disappeared into the anxious shadows alongside the building.
Jan Lesnachevski’s family would have no bread tomorrow morning. His children wouldn’t care though—they rarely ate breakfast. And Magdalena didn’t like toast anyway. Jan would lie and tell them that he gave the bread to a homeless man. His wife was very generous and would understand. He didn’t want to reveal the perplexing story about the policemen, and what actually happened to his loaf of bread.
Jan wondered again if perhaps he should take that job at the high school, even if he would be nothing more than a glorified janitor. No one had pointed out any reason why he should or should not make this choice. He could work days, and be home at night. And the school superintendent had said that they would find a job for Magdalena too, if only as a school bus driver. She would earn less than she makes now cleaning houses, but still, with the two salaries they might be able to afford a small house of their own. They could have a yard, with grass and trees, and even a cat. And maybe then he could tell his wife the real story of what happened to the loaf of bread he bought that night—but never brought home.
Freed of the Stygian darkness, Jan urged his pickup truck onto the rushing asphalt beltway, newly paved, whether it needed it or not, by a company owned by a friend of the mayor. Jan’s headlights flashed on the posters lining the concrete abutments; posters for candidates who promised him less taxes, and more of everything, if only he would vote for them—no more lost jobs, no more hunger, no more war, no more graft and corruption.
In the sky above, Jan Lesnachevski saw the fickle moon wink from behind its horehound ring, aspen wisps of cloud hurrying past. He thought he caught the fresh scent of a new wind prowling around the roof tops.
Visit Stephen Poleskie's website by clicking here.