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A Tap on the Shoulder

Pukanie w ramię
by Paweł Sołtys
Translated from Polish by
Eliza Marciniak
Issue 31 Online Exclusive

Ciemność puka w ramię. Znałem kiedyś człowieka, był wysoki, ale przygarbiony, w czasach, o których mówię, włosy i brwi miał już siwe, w czasach jego młodości ponoć były czarne. Nie byliśmy przyjaciółmi ani nawet bliskimi znajomymi. Widywaliśmy się od czasu do czasu, w tym raz na weselu jego córki. Z tego dnia jego obraz zapamiętałem. Uśmiechał się szeroko, jak to ojciec wydający jedynaczkę. Zęby miał chyba sztuczne. Idealne. Światło żyrandoli i błyski fleszy odbijały się od nich szybko i gładko, nie znajdowały szczelin. Piliśmy wódkę i musujące wino. Jedliśmy zupy, kotlety, ciasta i w końcu tort z lukrowymi figurkami. Trzymały się za parocentymetrowe ręce. Oczy obojga i guziki garnituru miniaturowego pana młodego były zrobione z takich samych czarnych kropek, welon maciupkiej panny młodej przypominał strzęp bandaża. Obaj najwyraźniej nie przepadaliśmy za tańcami, bo gdy się zaczęły, wpadliśmy na siebie przed wejściem do restauracji. Gorący czerwcowy wieczór. Spojrzeliśmy na siebie oczami załzawionymi od paru kieliszków i śmiechu, podałem mu ogień, pogratulowałem pięknej uroczystości, a on spytał półżartem, czy nie powinienem raczej rozpaczać. Słyszał, że podkochiwałem się w pannie młodej. W blasku latarenki zawieszonej nad wejściem błysnęły nasze zęby. Moje nie tak idealne jak jego, połknąłem trochę światła.

– Coś panu pokażę! – powiedział i sięgnął niezgrabnym ruchem do wewnętrznej kieszeni marynarki.

Zastanawiałem się, ile ma lat, na pewno był starszy od mojego ojca, chociaż dziewczyna tańcząca właśnie pierwszy weselny taniec była tylko rok ode mnie młodsza. W końcu wyciągnął coś i podał mi gestem konspiratora ze slapstickowego filmu. Była w tym jakaś przesada, szukałem w jego oczach błysku rozbawienia, ale znalazłem tylko zmęczenie i uwagę. Kartka. Kartka złożona na czworo, zwykła biała kartka w formacie, który nazywano listowym. Niezapisana, z wyjątkiem samotnej linijki przekreślonej rysą jednego ze zgięć. Ktoś, najpewniej on, eleganckim, staroświeckim charakterem pisma napisał:

Ukrywający się, przerażeni ludzie.

Spojrzałem na niego zdziwiony. Pamiętam, że z jakiegoś powodu wydało mi się, że te kilka słów napisane jest szeptem, tak przeczytał je mój mózg, ten głos, który pozornie nie ma barwy ani wysokości. Mężczyzna poczęstował mnie francuskim papierosem, zapaliliśmy znowu.

– Wie pan, noszę parę takich przy sobie. W chwilach wielkiej radości, szczęścia, czy jak tam pan chce, wyjmuję jedną i czytam.

– Dlaczego? – zapytałem.

– Tak trzeba.

Zgasił niedopałek czubkiem eleganckiego buta i wszedł do środka krokiem, który łapał już takt muzyki. By jakoś umieścić tę rozmowę w szeregu zwykłych zdarzeń, uznałem, że to jakaś odmiana umartwiania się, odprysk ojców pustyni na warszawskiej, umiarkowanie reprezentacyjnej ulicy. Ot, jeszcze jeden dziwak.

Darkness taps you on the shoulder. I used to know this man: he was tall but had a stoop, and even back then his hair and brows were already gray, though in his youth they must have been black. We weren’t friends or even close acquaintances. We saw each other from time to time, including once at his daughter’s wedding. I can still picture him that day. He smiled broadly, as befits a father marrying off his only daughter. I think his teeth were false: they were perfect. The light from the chandeliers and the camera flashes bounced off them quickly and smoothly, without finding any crevices. We drank vodka and sparkling wine. We ate soups, cutlets, pies, and finally the wedding cake topped with figures made of icing. They held each other’s miniature hands. Their eyes and the buttons on the bridegroom’s suit were made of the same black dots; the bride’s minuscule veil looked like a scrap of bandage. Clearly neither of us was too keen on dancing because when it started we ran into each other outside the entrance to the restaurant. It was a hot June night. We looked at each other with eyes watery from drinking and from laughter, I gave him a light and congratulated him on the wonderful occasion, and he asked half-jokingly whether I shouldn’t despair instead. He’d heard that I’d been in love with the bride. Our teeth flashed in the glare of the lantern hanging above the entrance. Mine were not so perfect; I swallowed some light.

“I’ll show you something!” he said, reaching awkwardly into the inner pocket of his suit jacket.

I wondered how old he was; definitely older than my father, though the girl who at that moment was dancing the first dance was only a year younger than me. He pulled something out and handed it to me with the gesture of a conspirator from a slapstick film. There was something exaggerated about it, and I searched his eyes for a twinkle of amusement but saw only tiredness and concentration. A piece of paper. A piece of paper folded in four, a regular white sheet in a format that used to be called letter size. Blank except for a solitary line of text struck through by the crease of one of the folds. Somebody, probably he, had written in an elegant, old-fashioned hand: Frightened people, hiding out.

I looked at him in surprise. I remember that for some reason I thought those words were written in a whisper, that’s how they were read by my brain, a voice that seems to have no pitch or timbre. The man offered me a French cigarette; we lit up again.

“I carry a few like that with me, you know. In moments of great joy, happiness, whatever you call it, I take one out and read it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“One ought to.”

He stubbed out his cigarette with the tip of his stylish shoe and walked back inside, already stepping in time with the music.

To somehow fit this conversation in among everyday occurrences, I decided that this was a form of self-mortification, an offshoot of the Desert Fathers in a moderately fancy Warsaw neighborhood. One more weirdo, that’s all.

I went back to the hall and drank with everyone and sang “A Hundred Years” and the rest of those dreadful songs that make you sober up and feel ready for another drink. Everybody knows that at weddings even the biggest lightweights get stronger from all that wailing. And between sips of chilled vodka and the heated, off-key “a hundred years is not enough,” I watched the father of the bride. He drank half-shots, and not even at every round, he entertained his wife and guests, he engaged in jokey banter, but I gradually realized that he was acting. Of course at parties like that everyone acts, that’s how it works, but he was acting doubly. Or maybe that’s how it seemed to me, with the whispered phrase from his piece of paper in my head. A double agent at his own daughter’s wedding. From time to time our eyes met, without a smile; for a split second we were both elsewhere, in a quiet, dark place. And then one of my friends would slap me on the shoulder and fill my glass or nod towards a girl on the dance floor, and music would find its way to my ears again, alcohol would swell my veins, and chandeliers would shine indiscreetly into whirling cleavages.

 

Time flowed on, and the man remained submerged in it for a long stretch. I almost forgot about him. However, many years after that wedding, when I was bringing flowers to the hospital on Madaliński Street, struggling with my hangover and yet barely touching the pavement with the soles of my shoes, an image of that piece of paper suddenly came to me. I stopped and shook my head, like after too long a sleep. I might have even spat on the pavement, as if you could spit out a memory. Later on at the hospital, looking at my wife and son, I forgot forever.

The human “forever” is brittle and shatters when a fingernail strikes the white counter of the Bar Astoria at the Uniwersam Grochów shopping center. The political system had changed by then, I was forty, and he was very old. I was standing behind somebody, waiting for the bartender to pour him a large shot of the house brandy, and when he impatiently tapped a few times on the counter, I looked into the mirror behind the bar. I recognized him: old and wrinkled, reflected in the dirty surface, with a Johnnie Walker sticker above one ear. I had to remind him who I was, and then he greeted me politely and proposed we share a table. I got my coffee and sat down. The hand warming his brandy glass was almost blue. As if veins had completely replaced the skin. In places where there was still some of it left, it was nearly transparent, and the brandy shone through it as though he were holding a flame. I asked after his daughter. She was living in Canada with her husband and children, pursuing a career. I mumbled something about my divorce, the university, my “successes.” We were silent for a while. Then I brought up that evening. He nodded, his head shaking as if he were agreeing and disagreeing at the same time. A strand of gray hair fell across his forehead.

“Do you still carry those pieces of paper with you? In case of sudden happiness, an unexpected or maybe even expected joy?”

“Yes.” He smiled. “But, you know, there’s really no need any more. Old men don’t experience sudden joys. But I still carry them.”

He reached for his coat pocket. He undid the button slowly; his fingers were not obeying him. Finally he pulled out two rolled-up slips.

The same antiquated writing. Elegant and compressed somehow. The bellies of the letters d and a like pussy-willow catkins frozen on a branch. Pressing into the wall of the stroke behind them.

A lost child.

And on the other: The humiliators and the humiliated.

“That day you never really answered me. Why do you carry these scraps of paper? These laconic misfortunes in a pocket?”

He looked at me intently, as if trying to memorize the details.

“Because one ought to, you know. Because darkness taps you on the shoulder.” He finished his drink and stood up with an effort. “They’re yours. Goodbye.”

He waddled off toward the exit, stooping. I lit a cigarette and laid the burning match in the glass ashtray. I threw in both bits of paper. They burned without fuss, without miracles.

 

 

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Paweł Sołtys, “Pukanie w ramię” from Mikrotyki. Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2017.

Paweł Sołtys is an acclaimed Polish singer-songwriter. Mikrotyki, his debut story collection, was published in 2017. It was shortlisted for several prizes, including the Nike Prize, the Polityka Passport Award in Literature, and the Witold Gombrowicz Literary Award, and it won the Gdynia Literary Prize. (Photo © Monika Sołtys)
Translator
Eliza Marciniak is a literary translator and an editor. Her translations include Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017, and a series of classic Polish children’s books by Marian Orłoń.