This short story is based on an excerpt from The Runners, my first novel published in Romania in 1994. I will present it here in three parts, published in three consecutive weeks.
The entrance door was ajar. Autumn was in the air and the still leafy bush in front of the house cast shadows on the white wall of the stairway. A gust of wind brought in the smell of forest flowers. The silk thread in the wallpaper glittered. That morning Thomas did not go to school. Father, who stayed home as well, was upstairs with the mortician and the two men from Rubin and Rubin Memorial Services, Inc. Yearning for a quiet moment, Mother took refuge in the kitchen. Her eyes were red. She took a cigarette out from the almost empty pack in her purse and rolled it between her fingers.
The night before, Grandmother had died of heart failure. As Mother closed her eyes, she remarked that Grandmother’s sixty-one years had been turbulent, yet satisfying. From Thomas’s point of view, Grandmother’s life had been long. Several months ago, he had celebrated his ninth birthday.
Followed by Father, Rubin and Rubin emerged on top of the stairs carrying Grandmother’s body on a stretcher. A black cloth covered her up to her chin. Walking backwards, the first Rubin started descending the steep stairs, one step at a time. He lifted the stretcher first to chest level, then to his shoulders, and then over his head. To keep the stretcher horizontal, the second Rubin had to bend his knees. At the top of the stairs, a corner of the carpet was unglued and buckled. While bending his knees, the second Rubin shuffled his feet and one caught in the loose carpet causing him to stumble and jerk forward.
The stretcher tilted and Grandmother’s body slipped off, striking the first Rubin on the head and tumbling down the stairs, hitting both the bannister and the wall. The dark cloth flew after the body, fluttering like a banner. Grandmother’s body stopped a few inches short of Thomas. Father stood aghast in the upstairs corridor. Hearing the thumps, Mother came running from the kitchen, cigarette smoke trailing her like the luminous tail of a dragon. The driver of the hearse emerged in the open doorway.
Thomas examined Grandmother’s body slumped at his feet and turned his attention to her face, instinctively searching for a reaction, but the face remained immobile and utterly serene, exuding an indifference that Thomas didn’t know to associate with that of inanimate objects.
Grandmother was born in Warsaw in a poor, but proud family that cherished literature, popular music, and the abundance of foods such as meatballs and béchamel sauce. Great-grandfather was a railway worker. Between train rides, he slept on the living room sofa or hung out with his friends at the neighborhood tavern. Grandmother’s four brothers took classes at the Warsaw School of Technology, but they never graduated.
On the eve of World War I, Warsaw was an elegant city. On spring evenings, on the banks of Vistula, people waltzed to tunes performed by brass orchestras and smoked fine cigarettes from ivory holders. On those enchanted shores, in the company of a mustachioed hussar, Grandmother had succumbed to a brief yet passionate adolescent frenzy that had resulted, nine months later, in the birth of Aunt Angela. The hussar disappeared on an unspecified battlefield. Despite the well-meaning insistence of the family, Grandmother kept Angela’s paternity a secret. Warsaw was a stronghold of Catholicism. The conception of a child out of wedlock, even if fathered by a potential war hero, brought a bastard into the world and disgrace to the family. To provide moral support in such a time of crisis, Great-grandfather started spending more quality time with his family and lost his job. His tavern buddies could not help with the lack of wages, but provided him with an avalanche of advice. Thus he heard that in Pittsburgh the streets were covered in gold and that in Chicago the newspaper boys made more in a day than a Polish railway worker in a month.
On June 28, 1914, holding baby Angela in her arms, Grandmother ascended the narrow bridge from one of the piers in the port of Gdynia to the deck of a trans-Atlantic steamer. Behind her, frightened and dizzy with hope, followed the members of her numerous family. It was raining. Approximately at the same hour in Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were killed by a terrorist of Serbian origin.
At first, Grandmother’s life in America was a string of unrewarding jobs. During World War I, Pittsburgh was anything but elegant. The rainwater that trickled down through the holes in the rubber awnings extending over the doorways of the downtown buildings was blackened by soot. Grandmother’s brothers were hired at one of the foundries. The only benefit they derived from having attended classes at the Warsaw School of Technology was their ability to flawlessly fill in their employment papers. Great-grandfather eventually found a job as a switchman with the train company. As a preschooler, Angela displayed a lack of interest in books and drawings while showing an uncanny and premature skill with numbers. Grandmother was overwhelmed with nostalgia that manifested itself primarily in her consuming impressive quantities of bread soaked in béchamel sauce. Rightfully concerned, her brothers tried to help and introduced her to the unmarried men they met.
One day they brought home an immigrant from the Ukraine who was on his way to Chicago, a serious man who assessed in a positive fashion the Grandmother’s now exceedingly generous curves.
On their wedding night, in front of the nuptial bed, covered in a silky lace nightgown, Grandmother told the Ukrainian: “In an alien country, you’re taking me away from my family. You must promise me you will raise Angela like your own.”
Instead of a reply, the Ukrainian ripped off her nightgown.
After the wedding, they moved to Chicago, where Grandmother gave life, one by one, to Barbara, Theresa, Eleanor, Elizabeth, and Wanda.
Grandmother became a widow during World War II. At nearly fifty, her husband, animated by the need of fighting the Fascist scourge, enlisted as a volunteer with the First Ukrainian Brigade. After a voyage by ship to Sicily and a forty-four hour march, he died under the wheels of a supply truck. His battalion comrades maintained he had fallen asleep while standing guard. A military courier handed Grandmother a black-bordered telegram, a one-hundred-and-twelve-dollar compensation check, and a bag with the personal belongings of the deceased. The exterior of the bag bore the indelible imprint of a tire. Inside was a photograph of the six girls, arranged in the order of their age and starting with Angela. Recognizing the photograph as the unspoken acknowledgement of her nuptial request, Grandmother’s face lit up with a smile of gratitude. Then, she broke into tears. She wept for six days and six nights, and, burdened with grief, she pondered the prosaic and repetitive irony of wars. The seventh day she began to eat. The béchamel sauce evoked to her the image of snow-covered Mount Aetna. The fluffy cabbage and meat pies suggested the shells piled in front of the cannons. Sausages next to heaps of mashed potatoes resembled the endless ranks of bleeding soldiers on their road to death.
Grandmother rejected any gesture of endearment from any of her family members. She went to the kitchen and bolted the door. Gradually she understood that the first man in her life had not been only a charming scoundrel, while the second had not been just an irresponsible dreamer. After all, it was a matter of perspective, and, with somewhat of a stretch of the imagination, both could very well pass as real war heroes.
When Grandmother rejoined the world, through the now almost too narrow kitchen door, she weighed two hundred and twenty-two pounds. But she remained an energetic woman. She opened a restaurant and a school for young girls. At the restaurant, she served piroshky, kielbasa, vodka and plum brandy. She taught the girls music and poetry. On spring afternoons, she also explained to them the indisputable advantages of abstinence. In time she became a personality in the Chicago Polish community. Everyone called her Pani.
The last years of Grandmother’s life were a string of weddings, christenings, and bus rides.
Angela was the first to marry. She and her husband moved to Denver.
Barbara got married next. Her husband was an electronics engineer of Irish descent. His name was Ronald Cope, and his friends called him Ronny. Barbara and Ronald settled west of Wabash Avenue, on 4th Street, in Chicago. A year later, Barbara gave birth to Thomas.
Theresa, Eleanor, Elizabeth, and Wanda married in sequence, at equal intervals. They settled down respectively in Cairo, Illinois; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Ashtabula, Ohio; and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Wedding cakes enhanced the menu of Pani’s restaurant.
Thomas became Grandmother’s favorite grandson. He had a thin and delicate nose, blue eyes, and black, curly hair. His body was well shaped, his little hands agile and his legs strong. At age five, he could read and add. “He looks like a little prince,” Grandmother murmured. “He looks like a miniature Christ,” she exclaimed piously on Sundays when she returned from church. “He looks like a movie star.”
Like everybody else, Thomas called his grandmother Pani. He had learned that Pani meant “lady” in Polish. In the evenings, when Grandmother came to their house and put him to bed, she told him stories about a world full of ladies who wore ruffles, white elbow gloves, and beribboned, feathered hats; a world of violins, good manners and spur boots. In that world, the river had clear water and grass-covered banks, and the gentlemen were always on the verge of a duel. They carried Toledo sabers and one-bullet pistols and Grandmother was young and beautiful.
The Copes lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses in an ethnic district like many others in Chicago. The houses stood wall to wall and were identical. The facades overlooked the blacktopped street. There were twelve houses on each side of Thomas’s street, which was crossed by two other streets. At the back of each house, stairs descended to a paved alley used for garbage collection and as refuge for cats. Across the alley was another row of twelve brick houses. Then came another street, yet another row of houses, and another alley. Beyond them was the avenue. Thomas’s school was on the far side of the avenue, near the church. In front of the church, in a rectangular plaza with a grassy island in the middle, there stood a flagpole. The avenue continued in a gentle slope down to the river. The riverbanks were covered in concrete and the water smelled of sewage and turpentine. If you took the avenue in the opposite direction, you reached Pani’s restaurant. Above the restaurant was a four-room apartment where Barbara and her five sisters had grown up. Not far from the restaurant was a subway station, from which you could catch the train to go downtown to Ronny’s work or to the suburbs and the green shores of Lake Michigan. Thomas was convinced that the world of the ladies and the gentlemen in his grandmother’s stories began at those shores.
The back alley was a favorite spot for the neighborhood boys. On summer evenings, after sprinkling the hot asphalt with water hoses, the older boys put up tents and spent the night in the open. Thomas was allowed to stay until nine in the evening. The air was stifling but when darkness came, a cool and moist haze rose from the asphalt.
Often the alley rang with the sounds of the ice cream van. The driver would climb into the back of the van and open a window through which he served his customers. Children crowded around. The driver, who was fatter than Pani, wore blue coveralls over a sweatshirt. He wore a baseball cap with the words Chicago Bears inscribed in large letters on it. On his right arm, the man had a tattoo. Besides ice cream, sold in cones, boxes, or colored foil, the children also bought peppermints, chewing gum, crackers, candy cigarettes, confetti, lead soldiers, balloons, and baseball cards.
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