Thursday, September 7, 2017

Reversing the River by Leslie Pietrzyk

If you haven’t read the fiction of Leslie Pietryzk, you really should.  She’s one of my favorite Polish-American writers.

She’s the award-winning author of Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day, two great novels.  Her fiction has been published in the some of the greatest American literary journals, and her recent book This Angel on My Chest was chosen by the Kirkus Review as one of the best collections of short stories this year.

Her most recent novel Reversing the River is currently being serialized in Medium, an internet site that can be accessed online or through the Great Jones Street literary app (available through the iTunes store). 

Here’s a brief note that Leslie sent me describing Reversing the River:

REVERSING THE RIVER, a historical novel, is set on one day in Chicago at the turn of the (previous) century, when the citizens of Chicago completed their massive engineering project to literally reverse the flow of the Chicago River to ensure safe drinking water.

We meet Jozef, a Polish immigrant who is struggling to care for his newborn son and understand his complex relationship with love and family, and Lucy, an affluent young woman who is learning the secrets behind her recent, hasty marriage. How will the course of their lives be reversed on this momentous day?

You can start reading the serialization when you join Medium.  Here's a link to it, and there's info there about joining.  Just click here:

And now here’s the first chapter:

            Sitting on the cold stoop as snow flurried around him, Jozef felt as useless as a third boot. Upstairs, his wife was huddled deep in Ludwika’s bed, in the front room where the window was. When any of them were sick, that’s where they lay to get better or to die: little Janka with the fever was the last one, and she had passed on after a long, terrible week; mass was being said at St. Casimir’s in two Sundays. Now his wife, Krystyna—not sick, but with a baby that had been coming for too many hours, so it was her turn in Ludwika’s bed, her turn to lie in the front room.
            He had resisted, wanting her to stay in the back bedroom; yes, it was on the airshaft, dark and dank, crowded with the bedding for the little girls, but wasn’t it better for Krystyna to be in a place she knew—the faded wallpaper with the roses, the cracks in the ceiling zigzagging like summer lightning?—“she’ll be fine back here,” he had said, but the women ignored him, lifting Krystyna, pulling her, prodding her into the front, into the bed where people died. How Ludwika could sleep with those ghosts, but she did.
            “Go,” they told him. “We’ll take care of her.”
            “Go,” and he was nudged out the front door, and one of them even stood there, arms folded like a sentry, watching him clump down the four flights of stairs to be sure he was gone.
            He walked to the saloon on the corner, had a beer and a pickle, watched the card game, complained about the ward boss, didn’t mention the baby. No one sent for him. At midnight, he walked the two blocks back, thinking of nothing except the sound of his footsteps, the flickers of light in the streetlamps and how different their dance was from the way flames twisted off handmade candles on the table in Poland. That smell of sputtering wax, a single drip sliding inexorably downward. Thoughts he wouldn’t usually allow in his mind.
            Upstairs, the women wouldn’t stop moving: pouring water from a pitcher, soaking rags, fanning Krystyna’s damp face, stroking back her heavy hair, rubbing her wrists. There was a dark, indescribable odor seeping throughout the rooms, and he sensed something lingering, waiting to settle in: he couldn’t describe what he smelled, or he didn’t want to, but it was as if the air had turned itself inside out.
            He couldn’t sleep: the children were restless and whimpering, the men snoring, the air impossible to breathe. There was a hush, but no silence, only anxiety and that odor. Not stench, but worse. The blanket on, the blanket off. On his side, on his back. Two punches to the pillow, three more.
            Her cries—Matka!—begging for her mother. Matka! Strong, then weaker.
            He tiptoed around the children, tumbled like a nest of mice in their pallets, and on into the first bedroom, making his way around the crooked line of sleeping men—lodgers, down-on-their-luck cousins, someone’s uncle—then through the dim kitchen to stand in the doorway to the front room. Through the flat’s only window on the opposite wall, Jozef saw a swirl of new snow through the window and felt an odd moment of panic: so many flakes…too many, too much, more flakes than could be contained in this one night.
            Crazy thoughts. He shook his head. Just snow, same as the snow in Poland.
            Ludwika stood over Krystyna in the yellow lamplight; the others were tucked into the dark, edged in with the shadows. “It will be fine,” Ludwika murmured in Polish. “God will take care. You’ll see. Trust God.”
            “Trust God,” one of the others echoed.
            “Of course,” Jozef said. “Trust God.” He didn’t; he couldn’t. He understood God had stopped listening to him long ago.
            “Go,” Ludwika said. “You won’t help here. Nothing to do but wait.”
            He stood in the doorway for a moment. The doctor, he thought, but it was useless. There was no doctor who would come here. The money. What he had must go for rent, with Ludwika already behind. Ludwika’s eyes did not waver from his, as if she drew his gaze directly to her and held onto it for a reason.
            “I have faith enough for both of us,” Ludwika said. Janka had been her favorite daughter, named for a sister back in Poland. In the end, Janka’s skin had crackled like paper. In the end, two flies had sailed freely along the ceiling, buzzing, not landing, and then another, another. Ludwika’s sobs, choked too-tight, an animal’s cry. That smell. That was how he knew it.
            “Trust God,” someone murmured, and Jozef turned and left before he would have to hear the words again.
            There was nowhere to go, but because he had to go, he grabbed his coat and trudged down the stairs to sit on the stoop, brushing aside a light layer of snow with one hand, pulling his cap down hard over his head.
            Krystyna was seventeen and more delicate than she should be, and of course he shouldn’t have married someone so delicate, but her shy, crooked smile had softened his heart, her small hands that drew pictures in the air as she spoke, how she bit her bottom lip when she was embarrassed, how her cheeks turned pink whenever he looked too long at her. Someone had to take care of her. Like the way each spring he saw the first ducklings on the pond, their clumsy paddling, unable to keep a straight path through the water, and he would chase off the hungry herons and hawks. That didn’t stop him from shooting those same ducks come summer, bringing them home for dinner. In the end, a man had to be practical.
            Coming to Chicago had been practical. Coming to work hard and earn money, coming to avoid being conscripted into the czar’s army…practical, and practical. A man would go far, assessing a situation and understanding the need to choose the practical course.
            Jozef yanked his cap down harder, so the brim almost covered his eyes. Marrying Krystyna, who was the first girl he had met in America, had not been practical. What had been his father’s last words to him, almost two years ago before he left for America: “Don’t believe in love. Don’t let yourself think you’re in love.”
            Jozef had met his father’s steady gaze, had shaken his head no. “I won’t.” Why would he? The girls in the village were dazzling, but Jozef knew the deadening endlessness that followed: the worrisome cycle of either too much weather or not enough ravaging the fields; taxes always due; stubborn, unyielding land; hunger’s bite; the hollow words of the priest; exhausted silence; the children left to trudge the same path, and then their children, too. No chance of escape. For proof, he could look at his father and his third wife; Jozef’s own mother had died when he was a baby, and the wife his father had married next died after about ten years. Now, this new wife, once filled with generous smiles and a quick, pretty laugh, was two years into the marriage—with the fussy baby and another coming along—and she might as well be any wizened old lady grubbing with the chickens, her smiles now shriveled.
            “You say this,” his father had said. “But—”
            “No buts,” Jozef said.
            His father said, “I think I know some things.”
            “Of course, Father,” Jozef said. “But not this. I’ll follow your advice.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded his head for emphasis. I’m not you, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his father in love, whatever that meant. His father, too, was a practical man, and to find a wife to handle the house and children and chores was scarcely a matter of “love,” not with seven little ones running about. So that was one thing Jozef, the oldest, had done: gotten himself out from underfoot and come to America. Where had his father found money for the passage? He didn’t ask. Would he see any of them again? Something else he didn’t ask. When he boarded the ship, he hung over the rail and looked back, wanting to wave, but his father had already melted through the crowd. Jozef waved anyway, as if his father were still standing there to see him. And so he came to America.
            And, foolishly, had not fallen in love, but had come as close as one could while not.
            He huffed his breath into his gloveless hands to keep them warm. He stood on the step and stamped his feet several times, then sat down again. The church would be open most likely, but he’d choose freezing to death first.
            Back on that summer afternoon when he had arrived in Chicago, the churn of people at the train platform was like the sea, heaving and terrifying, overwhelming and endless. Trunks swinging, men pushing, women and children linked arm in arm, strung five and six across, fighting their way in directions opposite everyone else, elegant men and women coming off the fancy Pullmans. Horses and wagons plowing through the crowds, the roads rutted and confusing. Languages spinning like loose marbles and only occasionally a word that sounded familiar, a word that was home. The sun a mallet pounding the breezeless air. Jozef—like the others, wearing three layers of clothing, money pinned to the inside of his waistband—stood in the midst of that mess, still as a rock in a stream, letting it flow around him as he breathed in lungfuls of the black packinghouse stench of blood and guts—breathed it all in: pushing and shoving and jostling, the shifting swells of panic, a shout of, “Brother!” and even with the clench of terror knotting his stomach and throat—even with that, he relished the sensation of being first somehow, even amidst all these others. He, Jozef Nowak, was somewhere no one else had been; he was first. Yes, his father’s plan was to send over others when Jozef sent enough money—brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. But being first was perhaps the grandest thing he could expect to happen in his life: his two feet on soil where no member of his family had been.
            Where he had come from, there was a feeling of tiredness in the same meal of potatoes and bread night after night. Or his father’s shirt that would be made over for him, and then made over for the baby, then made over into rags, so that the same scrap of cloth existed for years—becoming the landscape, same as any tall tree or immoveable hill. Something that had always been there. “You think too much,” his father would say. You don’t think enough, but Jozef would not dare speak the words. Many words there remained unspoken, so that what was said was like that piece of fabric: cycled round, endlessly reused until bleached of all meaning, until limp. Nothing stayed new. The new brothers and sisters grew to look like the brothers and sisters he already had. The pretty girls in the village became their hunched, sour mothers. The sun, the night, the hot, the cold, and all of it around again. Everything got ground down into dust. That was the future: becoming the dust under someone else’s boots.
            But here, America, Chicago, was fresh, was new. The land hadn’t been used up; the land had barely been touched. There was so much of it, endless. Like the sky. And here he stood exactly in the middle of it all.
            Then she knocked into him, shoved by someone else who kept moving, a burly man with hamfists swinging at his sides, his back as wide as a stable. Jozef righted her, trying not to notice the sensation of his hand on her sleeve, the warmth of her body radiating into his. He folded his arms across his chest, tried to focus his eyes only on the scrap of torn paper pinned to her shoulder: Chicago. One word he recognized.
            “Sorry,” she mumbled in Polish. “Excuse me, please.” Her voice was shy but when she looked at him, there was something lively in her blue eyes, as if she knew what it was to be always thinking thoughts that the others told her to forget. She smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my brother,” she said. “He told me to wait, but how can anyone stand still in this crowd?” Then she slid her eyes away from his face, as if surprised she had said so much to a stranger, and the smile was gone.
            He wanted it back. It had been a long time since someone had looked at him with such kindness. So Jozef spoke quickly, “We can find him. What does he look like? Like you?” This was the excuse to study her face: those far-apart blue eyes; firm, high cheekbones, like stone; a sweep of wheat-colored hair peeking from her dark shawl; her skin unlined, unfurrowed, looking soft and cool, despite the hot day, despite the layers of clothes she wore and the thick coat. It would be a relief to rest a hand on her cheek. She wasn’t pretty, but because she was the first person who had spoken specifically to him in Chicago, he wanted to remember her, so he stared harder, memorizing her features. Sun freckles across her nose. Flat, brown eyebrows. A tinge of pink across both cheeks, deepening now into a steady flush, and she ducked her head.
            “I scarcely know what he looks like,” she said. “He’s been away for three years, so none of us have seen him. Indeed, I barely recognized him when he first approached, because he was so much taller than I’d seen him last, and dressed like a city man with such a fine hat. He’s gotten on well here, but no one should be surprised because he was always a good worker, and sweet, too. I’d been waiting for him; I arrived in the morning, and he was late, or I think maybe he didn’t know me either. When he left Poland I was a girl, only twelve or thirteen. Following him around the fields too much, ‘his little shadow,’ he teased.”
            Her sudden chatter confused him, as if she wasn’t the shy girl he’d painted in his mind, but someone else entirely, someone to be wary of. Hearing so many words was like a thirsty man drowning in too much water. But then she bit her bottom lip hard, and shook her head, as she spoke, “It’s such a world isn’t it, where the ones you love go halfway around it?” and he understood that all this talk was there to cover her fear, just as he slipped into silence to cover his.
            He glanced about, then asked, “Where’s your trunk?”
            “He took it,” she said. “Strong as ever, it was nothing for him to sling it on his back.”
            “Then he won’t be far from here,” he said. “Weighted by a trunk.”
            She looked around, lifted her arms in the air in a fast shrug, and there was that smile again. “It seems I’ve been waiting quite a long time since I saw him,” she said. “He went to find a wagon and said he’d come back for me. Three years we’ve waited, so I would say more waiting is nothing. But you. You must be meeting someone. On your way somewhere?”
            Jozef shook his head. “I’m the oldest. I’m first in my family to come to America.” To speak the words sounded impossibly grand; how dare he feel so important? His face turned hot. She made him say the things that should stay locked inside.
            But she reached out and set one hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “My brother, too. Such a lonely place, being first.”
            Again, he felt the heat of her touch through his sleeve, burning into his skin, into his bones. But he shifted so that her hand slipped aside. “There are others from my village,” he said. He had memorized the addresses he’d been given by his father who had gotten them from the priest. At night, trapped in the tight darkness of the rocking ship, while others snored or puked or prayed, he had recited the strange words over and over, imagining himself understanding the odd English someday, imagining what these Chicago streets might look like, what the words might mean and how one day they would jump off the piece of paper and into this new life that was his.
            “He has others, too,” she said. “From the village and two cousins. Now me. But to be the only one, first…. Nothing is like family, like blood. Yet I’ll never understand the things he’s known here, what one has to…swallow to get by. It’s a distant place he came to, not America, not Chicago, but a place farther than that. You can’t return from here, not when you’re first…you’ll….” She trailed off. “I’m sorry. I should find him.” But she didn’t move.
            To hear her talk, this journey was all so spectacular. But she had been on the stinking boat as he had, packed in like chickens to a coop—no, worse; chickens treated so badly wouldn’t lay—the dry bread, the never-enough water, the air breathed out a thousand times already. Now this: swarms of people here after the same jobs; what city contained enough jobs for this multitude? All after the same rooms to rent, the same bit of space to stand on the sidewalk. Coming here, being first, was only being practical. Someone had to, and as the oldest, it had to be him. If anything terrible happened to his father, there would be the children left behind, beggars or worse. He immediately shook the image clear, the little ones starving. He was here, and now no one would starve. It was what a man did—what her brother did, no doubt. What was expected.
            But she was just a woman, a girl really. What would she know of “practical”? If she walked away, he would feel more alone than ever, so he said, “And now you’ve come, too, joining your brother.” He had wanted to sound friendly, but she simply shrugged, as if she barely heard him, and he had a frantic tumbling inside fearing she might turn to leave and be swallowed up by Chicago.
             “We planned it would be my brother Andrzej coming here, but he’s not right in the head now,” she said. “He sits all day in the corner of the barn, winding straw around his thumbs. So it was me. I can work just as hard here, I would guess.”
            He shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Your other brother. The Chicago brother. What’s his name? I can call for him.”
            “Jozef,” she said.
            “Why, that’s my name, too!” he said, startled. Though why would this be so remarkable; the name was common enough. Whatever she said seemed unsettling, yet he wasn’t willing to see her go. He had to help her find her brother at least. So he shouted, “Jozef.” The crowd was large, gobbling up the sound, and he felt uneasy at the way it was his own name that seemed to disappear. He called louder, and though several men turned to glance at them, no one responded beyond a prolonged, curious stare. He jumped on top of his own trunk, raising himself above everyone’s shoulders, and bellowed, “JOZEF!”
The rest of the first chapter and the other chapters can be found at Medium.
Just click HERE.