by Ewa Bronowicz
Wiesiek hated having to wait for the bathroom in the morning. In Niedzwiedz he would piss outside the house, rain or shine, and rinse his face off with water from the well unless it froze in the winter, when he’d have no other choice but to use the kitchen sink. For more serious business, there was the outhouse, concealed behind an old pine tree which he’d climbed as a teenager to impress Malgosia’s friends. But in America you had to wait in line for the bathroom like Wiesiek’s parents waited for milk and sausages under Communism. Yet again, Wiesiek’s roommate, a black man with broad shoulders and a shaved head, had gotten up at just a few minutes before seven and now occupied the bathroom. Wiesiek was convinced that the Murzyn was a drug dealer. He was about to knock when the toilet flushed and the door opened with a squeak. The shirtless roommate appeared, displaying a large tattoo on his chest. It was a Rottweiler’s head, the dog’s jaw open half-way as if it was preparing to attack in slow motion.
“Why you standing here like a retard, man?” the Murzyn asked, and slowly tottered down the narrow hallway. His heavy legs were spilling out of his boxers. The bathroom smelled.
Wiesiek didn’t know the black man’s name and it never occurred to him to ask. When Wiesiek had first moved in, a white college student occupied the other bedroom. The Murzyn replaced him a few weeks ago, unexpectedly. Wiesiek’s room was too inexpensive to give up, so he stayed. All that mattered was that he lived in Manhattan. The northern tip, to be precise. His mother could tell their neighbors that her son lived in Manhattan. Besides, Wiesiek didn’t want to move to Greenpoint, the Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and become like the other Poles he knew, speaking Polish all the time, eating Polish food and drinking Polish beer, acting as if they were living in Poland.
Malgosia had wanted to go to America. She’d told Wiesiek she was making plans with the Cyganka, her gypsy friend. They’d visit New York, meet Kevin Costner. Both girls died in the steep ravine by the local mountain, frozen to death. They were barely fourteen. Wiesiek was in his senior year of high school when the accident happened. He quit school, and, not knowing what to do, applied for a tourist visa to America. He left Niedzwiedz shortly after his eighteenth birthday. His mother cried. His father didn’t say a thing. Wiesiek promised to return once he had enough money to buy land and build a house in the village.
That was five years ago. Every year Wiesiek had told his mother he’d be back in Niedzwiedz soon, but he didn’t move. America paralyzed him. He was making money alright, although the value of the dollar had recently decreased. Less than four zloty for one American bill. Wiesiek had spent two thousand dollars on a fake social security card, reluctantly, since he could have easily bought a tractor and a few first-class horses and cows for that amount of money in Szczawnica, a village next to Niedzwiedz. He needed the blue piece of paper. It was safer that way. He worked mostly construction jobs, and some employers required proof of the nine digits. In America, everyone had a number. Like sheep.
Then, a year and a half ago, a Russian lawyer promised Wiesiek a green card. Three thousand dollars later, Wiesiek received a deportation letter. He burnt it, and moved from Harlem to Washington Heights in case they came looking for him.
In the bathroom, Wiesiek brushed his teeth and rinsed his face. He’d dressed earlier in his room, as he always did on work days. He opened the fridge and remembered that he’d forgotten to buy ham and cheese the day before. He couldn’t make lunch. He counted the beers in his section of the fridge, and nodded. The Murzyn didn’t steal any yet. Wiesiek returned to his room. From underneath the mattress he pulled out three singles and thrust them into his pocket. Back in the kitchen, he refilled his plastic water bottle and was about to go outside when he remembered he’d forgotten to lock the door to his room. Murzyni and Cygani were not to be trusted.
Hispanics or Asians he tolerated, even though he couldn’t tell one from the other. Where he’d grown up, everyone was white. Except for the gypsy family. Cygani, everyone called them in Poland. Mostly from Romania. In Krakow, they camped on sidewalks, begging for money and food. The gypsies in Niedzwiedz had moved into a shack on the outskirts of the village. A couple and a daughter. Their eyes and their hair were black as coal. Their skin was darker than Wiesiek’s. They kept to themselves; no one wanted them there. The children in Niedzwiedz were not allowed to play with the Cyganka. When Malgosia called the gypsy girl her best friend, Wiesiek’s father slapped her.
The blacks in New York reminded Wiesiek of the gypsies. Their eyes, dark and muddy, seemed to be challenging him to a fight. On the street, they’d ask him for change and curse him when he ignored them. Hispanics didn’t do that. Neither did Asians. Recently, on Adam Clayton Powell, a Murzyn with disheveled hair yelled at him. “What’re ya doin’ ‘ere whi’ boah?” He raised his hands as if he were a god or a king. Wiesiek turned around. The Murzyn told him to go back home.
And a Murzyn had been elected president. On the night of the election, shortly after Wiesiek went to bed, he heard a unified scream coming from the street, as if the Murzyni had been practicing for months in a chorus. “Yeee-aahhh!!!!,” the chorus yelled out, extending the last vowel like Play-doh. Wiesiek jumped out of bed and looked outside the window where dark bodies danced and hugged each other as if in a trance. Barack Obama became the first black president of America, and Wiesiek recalled his father’s words. “If a Murzyn becomes president of a developed country or if a Murzyn becomes the pope, the world will end.” Wiesiek’s father was always right.
He had been right when he warned Malgosia about the gypsies. He had been right when he asked Wiesiek to keep an eye on his sister, make sure she stayed away from the Cyganka. When Malgosia first befriended the girl in elementary school, shortly after the gypsies had settled in Niedzwiedz, Wiesiek reprimanded his sister every time he caught them together, a pale blond in pigtails and knee-length skirt and a girl with long black hair, her skin two shades darker than Malgosia’s, in a flowery dress. Malgosia knew that her father wouldn’t change his mind about the Cygany, but with Wiesiek she pleaded and pleaded, until finally he decided there was no harm in a friendship between a Polish girl and a Romanian gypsy. He’d even ask Malgosia about the Cyganka, what she said, what she did. Malgosia would then beg him not to call her friend “Cyganka.” She would instruct Wiesiek, “She has a name, just like I do.”
When Wiesiek left the apartment in Washington Heights, his watch indicated a few minutes after seven. He had to hurry to buy his sandwich. How could he forget he’d run out of cold cuts? He headed to a nearby deli, passing three old black men sitting on a bench and talking about Obama with an annoying familiarity. The men were always there, chatting.
In the deli, run by two Egyptians, Wiesiek stood in line behind a big middle-aged woman with a teenage girl by her side, surely her daughter. The woman’s face was tired and at least three layers of fat hung from her neck, but the girl, slightly chubby, was pretty. She wore a navy skirt and white stockings, probably a part of her school uniform. She looked bored. She glanced around the store and fixed her eyes on Wiesiek, who in turn averted his eyes, not sure why he noticed her in the first place. She looked nothing like Malgosia, except for the pigtails. When the girl’s mother walked over to the register, Wiesiek ordered his sandwich, ham and cheese on a hard roll. He paid three dollars and felt guilty about squandering money on a sandwich that he could have made at home. In Midtown, the same sandwich would cost seven dollars, he consoled himself.
He ran to the subway station and located an entrance across the street from the one he normally used. He nearly tripped running down the stairs. He swiped his Metrocard, hoping that the A train would arrive shortly. There were barely any people on the platform, which was odd. The train must have just gone by, Wiesiek thought and looked up. He was about to pray for another train, but remembered it was un-Catholic to ask God for such trifles. The sign read, “A train to 207th Street.” Wiesiek stared at it and realized that he’d entered the station on the wrong side of the platform. He needed to go downtown. Glancing at his watch, he ran out and crossed the street. “Kurwa,” he cursed. Perhaps he could still make it to work, just on time, if the train cooperated. He swiped the card but the turnstile didn’t open. He swiped it again. The screen said, “Just used.” Wiesiek heard the train approaching the station. He jumped to the toll booth operator sitting behind the plexiglass window.
“My card says that I cannot go in,” he said.
The man, a Murzyn, took Wiesiek’s card, swiped it on his own machine and tightened his lips as if he was about to smile. His hair was like wool, just as in the stories Wiesiek’s mother had read to him and Malgosia, about African princes conquering three-headed beasts and dragons.
“You just used it, so you gotta wait eighteen minutes,” the man informed Wiesiek.
“Look, I make a mistake. I enter wrong side of subway station,” Wiesiek said, pointing to the Metrocard and to the departing train. His boss had no tolerance for employees arriving late for work.
“Wait or buy a new card,” the toll booth operator said, his voice unexpectedly soft, like a woman’s.
Wiesiek stared at the subway map hanging on the booth. The man clearly didn’t believe him. Did he think Wiesiek had stolen the card?
“Please let me go, I have job,” Wiesiek said despite his pride and looked at the man. His father would have never humiliated himself like this in front of a Murzyn.
“That’s the rule,” the man answered, and directed his gaze to the next person in line.
Wiesiek searched his pockets. He had a little over a dollar in coins. He’d followed a distant cousin’s advice about America—don’t carry any cash. A single ride was two dollars. He’d have to wait another fifteen minutes before he could reuse his card. It was the Murzyn’s fault. A white man would have understood Wiesiek’s mistake and opened the turnstile for him.
It was twenty minutes past seven. He could run back to his apartment and get money, but that would take at least ten minutes. Another A train passed by. Wiesiek stared at the Murzyn. He must have been in his early-forties, skinny, his cheekbones pushing his face down like in a scary cartoon. Not many people came up to the booth. Clearly, the Murzyn got paid for doing nothing, and he treated Wiesiek like a criminal.
When Wiesiek entered the platform, he had to wait an additional eight minutes for the next train. On the subway, most people read or listened to music. For Wiesiek, the train ride was like a walk in the woods, a place to turn off the world and be alone with one’s thoughts. He liked to imagine that Malgosia, who would have been nineteen now, was among the passengers, on her way to meet her beloved actor, Kevin Costner. But today Wiesiek didn’t enjoy the ride. At Columbus Circle, the spider web, as he called it, he waited for the C train. He usually walked the eleven-block distance down and two avenues across—he liked that about New York, streets he could pace for hours without seeing anyone who knew him—but the train was faster. On the C train, the people Wiesiek saw looked too colorful. There was not even one woman who in any way resembled his sister. At Fiftieth Street, Wiesiek ran towards Tenth Avenue. He was over thirty minutes late.
“Bill, I’m sorry,” he said to his boss, a tall American man in a black leather jacket that looked like real leather. Bill must have been in his late forties, a senior to most of the workers, but everyone called him by his first name.
“I didn’t know what the deal was with you so I got someone else to finish off the job,” Bill said, pointing to a man in torn jeans and a nylon jacket, unloading the contents of a long white van. It was a black man, his face long and severe. Wiesiek had been replaced by a Murzyn. It’d be a disgrace in Niedzwiedz. Also, he was out of work.
“My train…,” Wiesiek started explaining, but at that moment his eyes met his substitute’s eyes. The Murzyn smiled a victorious smile, standing tall against the backdrop of the half-demolished brownstone, a job Wiesiek had started earlier that week.
“Call me in a few weeks,” Bill added, already walking away. He then stopped, walked back, and produced a pile of fifty-dollar bills from his jean pocket. In a swift movement he counted them and handed a portion to Wiesiek. “For this week,” he said.
Wiesiek put the money away without counting. He knew how much Bill had given him. Four fifty, three days’ pay. It was Thursday.
“Wiesiek!” Only one of his coworkers could pronounce his name correctly. It was Pawel. “What happened?”
Pawel, ebullient to a fault, was from Krakow, the swirl of blond hair almost covering his deep blue eyes. He lived in Greenpoint and was engaged to a Polish woman.
“Did you see who replaced me?” Wiesiek asked.
Pawel inhaled a cigarette, glanced over at the black man and nodded vaguely, as if not understanding the significance of the situation.
“Murzyn,” Wiesiek whispered, even though no one else on the site could understand Polish.
Pawel laughed good-heartedly and patted Wiesiek on the shoulder. “You were late.”
Wiesiek stared at Pawel. In his blue jeans, hiking boots, and a wool sweater, he looked like he was from the mountains. Wiesiek wanted to tell Pawel his father’s prophecy about the black president, but changed his mind. He described his morning commute instead.
“It’s happened to me and they always let me pass through,” Pawel informed him. His cigarette break was over. “Good luck,” he added, smiling. “Remember about the wedding. November sixteenth!”
“Yeah.” Wiesiek knew he wouldn’t make it. November sixteenth was Malgosia’s name day. They used to celebrate with Murzynek, her favorite chocolate cake. A few years before the accident, she’d asked him to make her a hay doll. He’d refused, an older brother with more important things to do.
He did make the doll after all. For the funeral. He carved a piece of wood and wrapped it in hay. He cut a piece of a kitchen towel for the doll’s dress. He placed it in Malgosia’s hand in the coffin. Wiesiek’s father said it was a dumb idea. By then, Malgosia had been too old for dolls.
Wiesiek was about to cross the street and head back to the subway. He looked back at the construction site and saw Pawel hand something, perhaps a cigarette, to the black man. Soon the Murzyn would climb into a crane and carry on Wiesiek’s task. They were building a luxury high-rise apartment. Wiesiek stepped onto the street without looking when a blaring horn forced him to stop. He looked to his right and saw a Murzyn behind the wheel of a yellow cab, the color of his skin in contrast with the happy color of the car. The man waved his hands at Wiesiek as if he were about to strangle him. Wiesiek crossed the street and stopped again when it dawned on him that Pawel may invite his black co-worker to his wedding. Every tragedy began innocently. Wiesiek thought of calling his mother. He looked at his watch. It was almost three o’clock in Niedzwiedz. His mother must have started her day at five, as always. She heated the wooden stove, boiled some potatoes for the pigs. She went to the stable to clean up after the cows and the horses. She fed the cows, the horses, the pigs, the chickens and the dogs. She prepared breakfast. Then Wiesiek’s parents went to work on the farm. Someone would have to milk the cows. Obiad was always at noon. Wiesiek liked to imagine what his mother cooked on any given day, and decided that today it was tomato soup and bigos. Ninth Avenue was full of hot-dogs, roasted nuts and dust, but all Wiesiek could smell was his mother’s boiled cabbage and sausage specialty that took two days to prepare. She’d serve it with mashed potatoes or homemade bread, and Wiesiek would dip the latter in bigos so that it soaked in the flavor and color. He’d done that as a little boy, and Malgosia took after him. He smiled, remembering her piercing green eyes and the taste of the cabbage. Wiesiek’s mother hadn’t blamed him for the accident, but then again, she never blamed anyone for anything. Not even the gypsies.
Barack Obama smiled at him from the cover of The Economist. Wiesiek quickly located a hardware store and bought a small kitchen knife with a long blade.
“For cut red meat,” he explained to the clerk, a skinny man with thick eyebrows and a ponytail.
“Be careful,” the clerk said, and watched Wiesiek place the knife, wrapped in a plastic bag, in the inside pocket of his fleece.
Wiesiek nodded and left the store. What he should do had become clear to him as if he’d been plotting it all along. He’d killed chickens and pigs before; he could kill a Murzyn. He would kill the Murzyn from the subway station and teach them a lesson. Get his job back, save more money, and then, finally, return home. It’d be easy, he thought, walking east to Eighth Avenue. A pretty woman in tall boots and blue jeans passed him. Light blue eyes, shoulder-length hair. She may have been Polish. He thought of Danusia. They were dating when the accident happened. He’d had a crush on her ever since she let him kiss her lips on Smingus Dyngus when he was sixteen. It was Easter Monday. Tradition had it that men chased women with buckets of water. Danusia wore her blond hair in a ponytail, and screamed when Wiesiek poured water on her. Now the fountain water across the street from Central Park multiplied in his eyes like a rainbow, and he remembered that Danusia had gotten married last year, tired of waiting for him.
Wiesiek headed underground. The A train arrived as if on call, and he interpreted this as a good omen.
Cyganka, the gypsy girl, was the last person who saw Malgosia before the accident. They’d gone sledding together. The next day the gypsies were gone. Wiesiek’s father never forgave Wiesiek, or himself, for letting them escape. Everyone knew that gypsies kidnapped children and put curses on them. They hadn’t exactly kidnapped Malgosia, but they must have put some kind of curse on her.
Wiesiek got off the subway and exited the station. There were a few people, black and Hispanic, walking out of the station. Wiesiek crossed the street and stopped on the stairs to the platform. From there he could see the black MTA booth operator. Someone had to die; the Murzyn had to die. Wiesiek’s revenge would restore justice in the world. He watched the Murzyn take a few dollar bills from a black woman and place a subway card on the metal tray under the plexi-glass window. The Murzyn smiled. Wiesiek decided to come back a few hours later, when the station would be almost empty.
He’d thought of going back to his apartment, but it’d be too suspicious in the middle of the day. What if his roommate was there, dealing drugs? The sun was hidden behind the clouds and Wiesiek decided to take a walk along the river, have lunch and prepare for his assignment. His father would be proud of him. They’d barely said a few words to each other since the accident. When Wiesiek called home once a week, he only spoke to his mother. There wasn’t much to say anyway. He couldn’t talk about the loneliness that devoured him like foxes devoured their chickens in Niedzwiedz. Neither could he talk about living with a Murzyn. Or about how every once in a while he’d see a blond girl on the street, almost a woman, green eyes and a charming smile, and how he’d close his eyes and imagine it was Malgosia.
Wiesiek touched the right pocket of his fleece jacket, making sure the knife was still there and that no one could see it. The Hudson River opened up like a meadow, filled with a few boats scattered about the port. The George Washington Bridge stood strong as ever. Wiesiek had crossed it many times on foot, walking until the sun started going down. On the other side, there were hills that gazed dreamily into the water. He’d remembered his Spartan hikes in the mountains with his father. They’d climb Szczebel or Makuchowka, the spectacular views surrounding them like a merry-go-round. They wouldn’t say a word for hours. Sitting on a bench by the water, Wiesiek now realized that those silent conversations were the best ones he’d ever had with his father. No amends needed to be made, nothing needed to be explained over and over again. They were united by the same desire. What came later was frozen like the well in Wiesiek’s backyard in the winter.
The river sparkled. A few rays were peeking out of the clouds, as if shy to come out all the way. Wiesiek unzipped his fleece. He grabbed his sandwich and ate it slowly, chewing the bread with deliberation. He couldn’t wait to eat in his mother’s kitchen again, the bread fresh out of the stove, fruit kompot instead of sugary American juice. Wiesiek saw two cyclers pass by, a man and a woman, and wondered if they were siblings. He stood up and threw his brown paper bag into a nearby garbage bin. It was time.
There were three people waiting for the train, a black woman and two white men. He swiped his card and entered the platform, keeping his eyes on the booth operator. He wasn’t sure if he would run outside or on the platform afterwards. He’d know what to do when the time came. He remembered his roommate and the Rottweiler tattoo. It was the Murzyn who’d launched the chain of unlucky events earlier that morning. The MTA worker was next. Then the Murzyn who’d stolen his job, and the taxi driver who nearly ran into Wiesiek. He thought of Barack Obama. A black president. Obama would surely approve of the Murzyn behind the plexi-glass who made Wiesiek wait almost twenty minutes after he’d accidentally used his subway card on the wrong side of the tracks. Obama wouldn’t believe Wiesiek either. Like Wiesiek’s father didn’t believe him. Wiesiek had told Malgosia she shouldn’t go sledding alone with the Cyganka on the day of the accident. He promised to take them the next day. Malgosia didn’t listen. In the subway station, Wiesiek remembered that the gypsy girl didn’t have any siblings. He’d never cried after her. No one did, except for the girl’s mother who howled like a wolf when she saw the dead body of her daughter next to Malgosia. Wiesiek now wondered if the gypsies had taken the dead body with them, or if they buried the girl in Niedzwiedz. A train was approaching the station. It was the A, its blue sign shining in the tunnel. The train stopped, two people got out, and the three others disappeared into the cars like ghosts. The train rumbled and faded away.
Wiesiek didn’t have to touch the knife. He felt it against his ribs, still, unlike his racing heart. He moved towards the booth heavily, as if his body didn’t fully cooperate with his decision. To his left was a poster of a black man holding a little girl’s hand. They were both smiling, their white teeth shining like snow in the sun. Wiesiek thought of the girl with pigtails he’d seen in the deli and wondered if her father loved her as much as his father had loved Malgosia. Every parent loves their children unconditionally, he remembered.
Wiesiek stood still. He reached for the knife and held it behind his back. The black man stood up and walked outside the booth. He seemed smaller now, even though he was standing. He wore navy-blue pants that showed wrinkles around the knees from sitting. He looked around, saw Wiesiek but clearly didn’t recognize him from the morning, and raised his arms above his head. To Wiesiek’s surprise, he began to stretch, his sleeves folded up, his fists twitching, his head up, facing the invisible sky. There was a hole in his sweater on the right elbow, a small hole which would have been unnoticeable when the man sat behind the thick glass. A shy smile appeared on his face, the smile of a man who steps away from his duties and takes a deep breath. He knew he’d soon have to return to work, but not yet, not just yet. After his shift, he’d go home and his growing daughter—suddenly Wiesiek had no doubt that the man had a daughter—would ask him how to spell a new word she’d learned at school, perhaps “forgive” or perhaps “accident,” and he would sit down next to her, fighting the desire to take her on his lap like he did when she was little, and he would pronounce each letter clearly, watching her diligently put them down in her blue notebook.
Another train was approaching the station. Wiesiek placed the knife back in his jacket. He stared at the place where the black man had stood as if he were still there. A few people exited the subway, and Wiesiek blended in with them and climbed the stairs without looking at the booth. He thought of the gypsy family. The village blamed them for Malgosia’s death. What if they fled not because they were guilty, but because they knew they’d be prosecuted as if they had been the murderers? Wiesiek reached the top of the stairs and was blinded by the bright sunlight. He tried to remember the name of the girl, Malgosia’s friend. Luminita. That was it. Her name was Luminita. Malgosia said it meant “little light” in Romanian.
It was time to go home.
Ewa Bronowicz, originally from Poland, lives in New York City. She is a writer, a journalist, a graduate student in literature, and an educator. Her fiction has appeared in Apalachee Review, Red Rock Review, and Bryant Literary Review. She is also a columnist for The Post Eagle, a Polish-American newspaper, where she writes about the Polish-American world. Ewa is currently working on a novel about a young, idealistic high school teacher, a Polish immigrant, who enters the public education system in New York City, and discovers more than its madness. In her writing, Ewa likes to explore contrasts: Eastern Europe versus America, the imaginary American Dream versus reality, the rich versus the poor. Those contrasts often lead her to a place of ambiguity and nuance, where black and white no longer exists. Ewa is delighted to have her fiction published in Empty Sink Publishing.