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Hrabal

Hrabal
by Paweł Sołtys
Translated from Polish by
Eliza Marciniak
Issue 31 Online Exclusive

Dostałem dziecko. Nieduże, dziewięciomiesięczne dziecko, na parę godzin. Z osprzętem: pieluchami, ubrankami wielkości żartu, wózkiem, kapelusikiem z napisem „LOVE” i niewspółmiernie wielką grzechotką.

– Właściwie nic nie musisz robić. Raz przewiniesz, raz nakarmisz (tu masz kaszkę i podgrzewacz), pójdziesz na spacer. Pilnuj i dostarcz trochę rozrywki. W rozrywce jesteś dobry.

Był środek września. Jak się okazało, chyba najcieplejszy wrześniowy dzień. Jakby ktoś wyciął jeden z tych upalnych sierpniowych i dla hecy wkleił między mżawki i deszczowe warszawskie korki. Rozepchnął gęstwinę parasoli i pyk – świeci. Wsadziłem dziecko do wózka, zapiąłem specjalne pasy, sprawdziłem, czy ma ciepłe rączki i kark. Miało – znaczy z opieki celująco, teraz rozrywka.

Ponieważ z rozrywki jestem dobry, zaaranżowałem wyprawę do najbliższego carrefoura. Wyjechaliśmy (to znaczy ja wyszedłem) z klatki schodowej i dostaliśmy w twarz słońcem. Była dziewiąta rano, poczułem krople potu na szyi, a dziecko jako przedstawiciel zwierząt prowadzących dzienny tryb życia rozpłakało się w promieniach słońca. Pokrótce wytłumaczyłem mu, czym różnimy się od puszczyków i kun oraz czemu nasi przodkowie noc witali zabobonnym lękiem, słońce zaś radością. Potem wymieniłem wszystkie bóstwa solarne, jakie pamiętałem, dorzucając ze trzy zmyślone. Staliśmy przed blokiem, dziecko wykrzywiało się w spazmach jak wampir w filmach klasy C, starsze panie spacerujące obok udzieliły mi paru rad, zdążywszy pokłócić się w trakcie. W końcu zauważyłem, że w wózku można rozłożyć zadaszenie, wciskając dwa przesprytnie ukryte przyciski. Rozłożyłem. Poczułem, że w międzyczasie krople potu dotarły już do spodni, łaskotały mnie teraz w tyłek.

– Blebuble – powiedziało dziecko.

LOVE – powiedział kapelusik.

Tak więc na razie rozrywka na całego, tyle że pomyliła kierunki. Bywa. Ruszyliśmy, pchnąłem wózek i zapaliłem papierosa. Trzymałem go oczywiście za sobą w wyciągniętej prawej ręce, wózkiem kierując wyprostowaną po chrzęst lewą. Wyglądało to, jakbym wskazywał kierunek jakimś niewielkim istotom. Za tego papierosa zebrałem parę gromiących spojrzeń, ale udawałem, że ich nie zauważam. Osoba w wózku wyraźnie zafascynowana dymem unoszącym się zza mnie uśmiechała się, ukazując oba zęby. W drzwiach carrefoura złożyłem zadaszenie, by wielość kształtów i kolorów rozlokowanych na sklepowych półkach mogła zainteresować dziecko. Jak najsłuszniej. Ja wybierałem produkty, wrzucając od czasu do czasu coś do koszyka, a ono chłonęło kapitalizm w całej jego różnorodności. O dziwo, było dość tłoczno. Przy makaronach i kaszach ledwo się minęliśmy ze starszym mężczyzną, który w dodatku zajrzał do wózka, mówiąc: turli, turli. Dziecko mu jednak nie odpowiedziało, wpatrywało się w wielki worek z makaronem. Opakowanie było naprawdę ogromne, wybrzuszone tymi pszenicznymi wstążkami. Duży napis po włosku wykonany był na czerwono.

I was given a child. A small nine-month-old, for a few hours. It came with the necessary accessories: diapers, ludicrously tiny clothes, a stroller, a little sun hat with the word LOVE written on it, and a disproportionately huge rattle.

“You hardly have to do anything. Change the diapers once, heat up some food (here’s the porridge and the food warmer), go for a stroll. Keep an eye on things and provide some entertainment. You’re good at entertainment.”

It was the middle of September—as it happened, probably the hottest day of the month. It felt as if for a laugh someone had cut one of those sweltering days out of August and pasted it in between the drizzle and the rainy Warsaw traffic jams. The sea of umbrellas had parted, and pop, out came the sun. I put the child into the stroller, clipped the special straps together, checked to see if its neck and hands were warm. They were—in other words, full marks for child care and now time for entertainment.

Since I’m good at entertainment, I arranged for an excursion to the nearest supermarket. We drove (or rather walked in my case) out of the stairwell and were hit full in the face by the sun. It was nine o’clock, I felt drops of sweat on my neck, and the child, as a representative of a diurnal species of animals, burst out crying in the bright sunlight. I tried to succinctly explain to it what distinguishes us from owls and martens and why our ancestors greeted the night with superstitious fear while welcoming the sun with joy. I enumerated all the sun deities I could recall and threw in a few made-up ones too. We were standing in front of the apartment building, the child wincing spasmodically like a vampire in a C-movie, and old ladies who strolled past gave me some advice, quarrelling with each other in the process. At last I noticed that the stroller had a canopy that could be unfolded by pressing two cunningly concealed buttons. I put it up. In the meanwhile, I could feel that the drops of sweat had already reached my trousers and were tickling my bum.

“Bleh boo bleh,” said the child.

“LOVE,” said the hat.

So the entertainment was in full swing, though it had taken a wrong turn. Well, it happens. We set off. I pushed the stroller and lit a cigarette. I held it far away, of course, with my right arm fully outstretched behind me and my left hand steering, that arm also straight to the point of popping. It looked as if I were showing some small creatures the way. I attracted a few glares because of that cigarette, but I pretended not to see them. The person inside the stroller, evidently fascinated by the smoke trailing behind me, smiled, showing both its teeth. At the entrance to the supermarket I folded back the canopy, so that the child would have an opportunity to take in the multitude of shapes and colors arranged on the shelves. Rightly so. I walked around selecting products, now and then tossing something into the basket, and the child absorbed capitalism in all its diversity. It was surprisingly crowded. In the pasta and grains section, we barely managed to pass an older man who, to make matters worse, peered into the stroller and said, “Goo goo.” The child, however, did not reply but stared at an enormous bag of pasta. The package was truly massive, filled to bulging with wheaten ribbons. There was a big slogan in Italian written in red. I’m not sure why, but I thought it must say, “Wear red dresses, girls!” And I instantly understood why the child took such a liking to it. A jolly Italian matron, sort of pregnant with those ribbons. Although of course it wasn’t true. Or rather it was, for a few seconds.

We finally got to the registers. Most of them were abandoned, and the child and I felt sad. The bald chubby fellow, who always counts the change as scrupulously as if he were reciting “This Little Piggy” in his head, wasn’t there. Neither was the old lady who flirts with the even older security guard. And, what’s more, neither was the deaf young man who’s faster than everybody else and who smiles shyly while pointing to the price on the display. Customers talk to him in whispers, and he looks at these mute figures—us—and hands us our change or gestures to punch in a PIN code, and he forgives us everything. The only open register was the one next to the alcohol, on the long mint-green counter. I hate mint green. Once upon a time, before seven girlfriends and seven breakups, I had to regularly go to the Grochów hospital. Half of the hospital was mint green, the other half was evil. The two merged together for me. Mint green is the pressing of a special button by a person who is dying. Mint green is the bell that then rings at the nurses’ station, and the laughter of those women in white uniforms drinking coffee in clear glasses and joking together, waiting for that blasted buzzer to go off, while bits of wet coffee grounds look like moles on their lips and teeth.

So we waited in the line at the evil counter. We were third. In front of us was a high-strung guy of around forty, and in front of him an old lady clutching a linen purse with red polka dots. Behind the register was Once Pretty, who was called that because she was the embodiment of the phrase “remnants of great beauty.” She was also impatient, disorganized, and always livid. I could understand, it’s a horrible job, but of course I still disliked her. She was picking the change out of the old lady’s purse, irritated at having to do it.

“Madam, could you please stop shaking?”

The old lady looked at the man behind her and then at me. She couldn’t. And in this moment the guy between us became livid too; he’d been infected. He started jangling his two bottles of Okocim Mocne beer, his unshaven jaw jutted forward, there was a fifty-złoty note in his hand. The light-blue paper flashed between the gray fingers of his fist, and when Once Pretty at last finished counting up the old lady’s coins, the paper roll in the cash register ran out.

“Fuck!” the man cried out. “Fuck,” he repeated in a tearful whisper, and in the same tone continued, “Can you please just take my money? Can’t I pay for my purchases? Don’t you see I’m falling apart?”

I could see, I could see perfectly well that his liver, his heart, and his kidneys had fallen apart and looked like frozen diced carrots when the bag breaks and all of a sudden you’re standing over a pile on the floor and you say, “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” the man said. “Have you ever felt like you’re falling apart? When every cell you in your body is hurting and biting at another cell? And you can’t go on?” He turned around to face us. “Or you—have you?”

He had blue eyes, ringed by that life of his, or maybe just the previous week. They weren’t big, but they made up for it with their intensity. Two howls. Once Pretty looked at him coldly, and only her earrings, huge like Hula-Hoops, shook at his complaint. I realized that once upon a time she had been the prettiest nurse at the Grochów hospital.

He threw the banknote at her. It hit the name tag bearing her real name. He grabbed his bottles and a moment later was already on the other side of the glass door. Somehow without either walking out or running. There’s no word for it.

“Boozehound,” said Once Pretty from above the mint green.

“Bleh boo bleh,” said the child.

“LOVE,” said the hat.

I could feel that the drops of sweat had reached my socks.

For the purposes of entertainment, we walked down Francuska Street. The yellowing leaves under the wheels of the stroller looked out of place—in the heat, amid the dinging of bicycle bells, against the backdrop of half-undressed people sitting in cafés and two teenage girls eating ice cream. Judging by their voices and from behind, they were seventeen at most. One had on a pair of jean shorts and a T-shirt, and the other, following the pasta bag’s command, wore a red dress. The child napped; I eavesdropped. They were talking about total idiocies. Their conversation was full of English words inflected in Polish to make them stick out less; a vacation in Mielno, drinking vodka with some Andrzej. And I realized that I was an old fart and that these were not idiocies but life, told in a language that was no longer mine. Someone had taken it and painted it mint green. For a few minutes I was in Teenage Girls’ Land. A bit like in Slovakia: you can sort of understand and communicate, but still, it’s a foreign country.

As we walked past the stone statue of Agnieszka Osiecka, which bore little resemblance to the famous poet and songwriter, the girl in the dress pointed and asked, “Who’s that?”

“Osiecka,” the one in the shorts replied.

Then they turned onto Defenders’ Street, carrying away with them their land, their language, and their Andrzej who threw up instead of kissing.

By the building where there’s currently a bank, the men who used to run The Knight, a second-hand bookshop on Victors’ Street, had spread their wares. They’d been pushed out by the rent and by declining readership. So now they had two tables here: one with new releases and the other with second-hand books. I looked at those books as if I were staring at the sea or at a desert. I thought about language, about getting old, and in my mind I sketched a portrait of that Andrzej, drinking vodka from a plastic cup. Winking at the girls as he drinks with his friends, flexing his muscles, because it’s summer, because he’s twenty and he’s fit and for now has only a nice buzz on. But the sun is warm, the plastic cup keeps getting filled, the air smells of the oil from the fried fish place, the smell is getting stronger and stronger, and it seems as if a shark’s two-day-old corpse were frying in a giant pan.

Something gradually pulls me out of this staring into nothing. As if I were very slowly opening my eyes after waking. Four men in sports outfits from a few decades past are posing for a photo. Their faces are blurry; above their heads on the sunny yellow background are words in a language I understand. Three of these soccer players (they’re soccer players!) are gray, but the graphic designer has painted one of them green. I know they aren’t alive, not even the green one.

“How much?”

“Eight.”

“I’ll take it.”

Afterward we backtrack and turn onto Defenders’ Street, although those men were strikers and wingers.

“Listen to this,” I say to the child: “‘…But the world is made up entirely of victories, people do nothing but win all the time, which is why, for example, car crashes the world over are always someone else’s fault…’”

I closed the book and looked at the child. It was sleeping. It seemed to me to resemble an old man who once upon a time lay in bed next to a mint-green wall. I reproached myself for this worn-out comparison. I leaned over to check if the child had a pulse.

“LOVE,” said the hat.

“Bleh boo bleh,” I replied.

 

 

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Paweł Sołtys, “Hrabal” 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.