The Orchid Hunter

 

Stanislaw Eden-Tempski

The Orchid Hunter [excerpts from the novel]



1. Beautiful Giraffes

Trawled along behind him by the kind of twine used to wrap packages, Slavek Bald's suitcase banged along the sidewalk of Milwaukee Avenue like a drunk who didn't yet want to go home. It turned over on its side, fell catty-cornered across the sidewalk. It almost hollered out, C'mon. Let's go get one more beer. Every so often its wheels would catch on the uneven concrete and the sudden jerk would about yank Slavek off his feet. Of course, he could just simply carry the thing, but a big leather bag already hung over one of his shoulders, while his other arm was busy with a plastic shopping bag filled with bottles of vodka he had bought at the duty-free store at the Warsaw airport. Meanwhile, he was gawking at his surroundings, the smile on his lips that of a hayseed just now hitting the city. He was almost bursting with a child-like pride. It was one big practical joke, a hoax, a trick done just for his amusement. He was in America. Two girls in New Year's hats and party dresses approached from the opposite direction, one of them hooting at passersby on a party trumpet. The way they walked said for them it was still the night before. Laughing tauntingly, as they passed Slavek they raised their party hats.

"Welcome to the Polish ghetto!" they yelled.

He was so astonished his plastic bags filled with books and vodka slid down his arms. He froze. To him, it was as if two beautiful giraffes had just crossed his path. But the girls were not interested in getting to know him better and, in a moment, their laughter could be heard receding down the sidewalk behind him. On all sides, Polish attacked him from shop windows: Polski Sklep Kowalskich, Polski Dom Towarowy, Polskie Centrum Medyczne, Polska Apteka, Wlasny Wyrob Wedlin, Wysylamy paczki do Polski, Wysylamy kwiaty. This was the first street in an American city he had ever walked on, and immediately he was crushed by its provinciality. Rundown houses, shoddy little stores, the sadness of advertising scribbled out in magic marker, but most of all the surrounding faces and clothing styles convinced him that this was not the America of his dreams, but some Polish Nightmare fixed up with a bit of American glitz. But that was why his suitcase-dragging along behind him like a kid's tricycle-and the heavy bag of dictionaries and books and the plastic shopping bag of vodka went so well with these surroundings. He was one of them, just a day laborer waiting on the corner for the appearance of the contractor, one of those common jerks in Koscierzyna or Monki, huddling around in little circles and blabbing for hours and hours about nothing, chain smoking and staring at the road. He was one of those. Clumsy, half-baked Poles.

2. The Great Shorty: Enter A Very Small Dragon

Slavek's ancestor Szymon Bald had been a shorty. A Great Shorty at that. Slavek himself, who measured 182 cm by army standards, felt that much smaller than his great-great-grandfather. Slavek's scribblings-which he always called his "materials"-contained some information on the first biography about Szymon, entitled Simon Bald: The Last Knight Errant, authored by one Alex Bonder and published in the 1960s by the London house of Hodder and Soughton. The volume's end-paper featured a photograph, the very same one Slavek had found in a pre-war issue of the "Bydgoszcz Daily." It depicted Szymon in the uniform of the colonial Jungle Guards, a unit he singlehandedly organized-enraged by the cheek of the Mosquito Indians and the duplicity of the adventuring Tennessean William Walker, the yearling president of the young Nicaraguan Republic.

Like Slavek, Szymon had a moustache, but no beard. In general, their features were strikingly alike. The same profile, the same slightly protruding cheekbones and narrow lips disappearing into the depths of the facial hair. Slavek would often be moved upon discovering such likenesses to long-dead forebears. It gave him the overwhelming sensation that maybe people do not die after all, but only wilt and drop to the ground some wet autumn day to be reborn come spring on the very same tree of existence. Once, Slavek even experienced a revelation while trying on Grandpa Apolinary's tailcoat. This tall, ill-ridden old man, with a slight stoop and brusk, unkind Prussian manners, had once shared Slavek's body shape-the same long arms, the same narrow chest, wide shoulders and slim waist. In youth, incredibly enough, he had been thin! Slavek remembered him only as a big-bellied gentleman.

Slavek's forefathers-he hated using words like "great" and "grand" because it made him think of great auks and other extinct animals, or grand mal seizures-always posed for photographs in uniform. In Polish eyes, History has always been a crippling cataract. Slavek always remembered his grandpa Apolinary's shame when that photograph from his days in the Prussian Army was discovered in a drawer of the family's heavy Danzig desk. An Iron Cross rested on his breast, though what Gramps got it for would always remain a secret. A letter from Apolinary to another forefather, a dentist in Berlin, revealed that Grandpa Apolinary was actually a quartermaster. As such, he must have made a nice little life for himself on the peripheries of the Great War, for Apolinary informed Grandpa Dentist about the new rose beds he planted in front of his quarters. It seems the Prussians thought highly of such horticultural triumphs: as a result, Apolinary advanced from Feldwebel to Lieutenant.

Szymon's father had been in the Prussian army, also. After all, the amount of Polishness in Kashubia-this tiny, little country visited by sailboats from all over Europe and inhabited by peasants who played the burczybas and fishermen who smoked tobacco in stinky Danish pipes-has always been the subject of great political haggling. And, for linguist and ethnographer, it has been a major headache as well; like an oyster making a pearl, the Kashubian region yielded the Free City of Gdansk, die Freie Stadt Danzig, but itself stubbornly retained Slavic tradition and language. If one neighbor was still a Pole, two others would call themselves German. But, since all three were also Kashub and shared the Kashubian language, they lived in peace and harmony until a certain Austrian with a moustache like Charlie Chaplin's tried to stage his own version of the world-wide nationalist grotesque. You could see this complexity even in ordinary language. When an angry Pole from central Poland, the "Poland proper," wanted to say "kiss my ass!" he used the standard word "dupa." A Kashub, instead, used the old Slavic noun "rzec," borrowed the verb "kiss" from some Flemish sailor and preserved the old form of the pronoun "me" that had been used by his ancestors. Thus, although it may have just been the listlessness that comes from breathing excessively high levels of iodine-Slavek's compatriots remained in stoic ignorance of the fact that recent generations have coined that sinister neologism DUPA to replace the old and venerable "rzyc," which now sounds like the Polish word for "life"-"zycie"-with all kinds of far-reaching consequences.

In any case, Szymon Bald's father was a captain in the Prussian army, who later, in spite of a dearth of bigger wars, or maybe thanks to it, advanced to lieutenant-colonel and went on to place his two sons in a school for cadets in Berlin. Szymon graduated in 1844, at age sixteen, with an officer's commission. Here, an independent biographer, on the basis of a certain document, makes claim that on July 1, 1845, Szymon Bald volunteered for a Hussar regiment, from which he was discharged on March 25, 1846, due to insufficient height. It took Szymon a while to come to terms with this painful indignity. And, it was at this point the story began of the Heroic Shorty, whose Jungle Guards uniform fit Slavek Bald so perfectly-except for the length of sleeves and several other embarrassing details.

3. When Slavek's Stomach Turned [excerpts]

Even the thought of leaving for America had made Slavek's stomach turn. One night he saw an item from Chicago on the evening news. It showed a fragment of downtown with an Amoco gas station against the outlines of phallic skyscrapers pocked with lighted windows. The image oozed cold and loneliness. Wind rolled sheets of newspaper along sidewalks free of any passersby. It was nighttime there, over the ocean. Disgustingly elegant cars cruised the roadways. If Slavek were to suddenly find himself there, transported by some genie from a bottle washed up on a beach, he would have died of humiliation. . . .

. . . . During his childhood, malicious poverty had been a daily guest in a house filled with antique furniture and priceless mementos left behind by ancestors or rescued from the family "estates" in Kashubia. Slavek got used to these dire straits-to bread topped only with chocolate-flavored "Palma" ("once you spread 'Palma,' no need for anything else"), ham served only on holidays, and jeans with a "Szarik" label on the butt-and he accepted it all as his own choice. Around the situation he constructed a dubious philosophy filled with fake contempt, and stuck with this asceticism all through his youth. Talking with globetrotters who were substantially better off than himself, he would say: Why should I go to America? I already know it. I saw the place in maybe a thousand movies. I've read about it in hundreds and hundreds of books. Nothing there can surprise me. A thousand styles of long johns or five hundred kinds of toothpicks in those goddamn supermarkets. No, that's not what I'm after. If I want to pick my teeth I can always grab a matchstick.

When the steam in his skull reached those compression levels past which nothing remains but to bang your head against the wall, he performed acts of salutary madness. He would hang himself from an extension cord in the dorm or hang onto the edge of a balcony on the sixteenth floor of a Warsaw high-rise, completely drunk, the weight of his thin, long body held by one wiry arm. Penniless, without food or drink-and without a ticket in his pocket-he would cruise randomly all over Poland. Yet these were all gestures of calculated cowardice, for he always fell short of committing a true act of madness to rival that of the Great Shorty in San Juan del Norte . . . .

7. An Evening Full of Bugs and Heros, and One Bug Gets Blown to Bits [excerpts]

. . . Slavek studied the young waitress serving an old man at the next table. That must have been the third huge old man he had already seen since arriving in America. He was too big for the padded bench he sat on, and his knees kept making the table jump up, which in turn splashed the tea from his restaurant mug all over the tabletop. Then he would call the waitress over to make her clean it up, her voice submissive as she wiped up the spill. The bald head of the man transported Slavek back to his days in vocational high school, to an electricity class. Suddenly he felt his forehead burn as if he still wore that stupid old felt hat with its idiotic logo so totally unlike the cool sailor hats on the boys from the nearby marine engineering school.

Meanwhile, the old man placed his big paw on the young waitress's hand, her slender fingers tensing up into a square as if seeking shelter in the folds of the rag she was using to wipe the table. It was a rag that looked slimy and unpleasant to the touch. The man's words were inaudible, but his face suggested that he was trying to talk the waitress into meeting him after work. Then abruptly she turned away while the man fastened his gaze on the page of an American newspaper. Even the newspaper looked as if it were trying to escape, making the old man squint his hairless eyelids in an effort to keep up. His lips grimaced in self-disgust. . . .

 

. . ."But what are you going to do in America?" Katarzyna asked suddenly from the across the table, emerging from Slavek's fog of memories like a ticket collector in a crowded tramcar.

Again, Slavek felt caught in the act, the act of sleeping with his eyes open and talking in his sleep. But he did not want to wake up. The crowded restaurant roared like the sea, like a distant soccer game.

"I want to give birth to a mountain," he said. "No, no." He waived his hand. "I meant to say a mouse-I want to give birth to a mouse."

"And what's that supposed to mean? You want to write a new book?"

"No, I'm thinking of something serious."

"Such as?"

"Such as historical research," Slavek answered quickly.

Katarzyna's mouth, small and lustrous, a narrow trim on the edge of her powdered skin, pouted in disbelief. She lowered her head between her shoulders, then quickly straightened back up.

"And then you will take up the harp, right? That can be useful too," she scoffed. "But how will you support yourself?" She eyed him like a sad, mature hen. Her fingers trembled.

"I haven't thought about that yet," Slavek replied grudgingly, as if explaining to an ignoramus. "But in America money lies in the street, doesn't it? At least that's what they say."

"The only thing that lies in the street here is trash and the homeless. And on Fridays the drunks. Most of them Poles, to boot."

"Then maybe my information is just hopelessly out of date." Slavek was tired of explaining simple things, such as that a life lived with money, or striving for it, was worth the same as poverty. And alive he was, though quite a few years had passed since the irritating term "home" had-as a result of the political electrolysis in his country-separated out into much more significant and particularized terms such as "bed," "teapot," "table," and "plastic food container," kept in a communal refrigerator. Meanwhile, night gathered beyond the window of the restaurant, woollen and very dark blue. And there was only so much of him as there was in that suitcase and two plastic bags.

"So what then?" Katarzyna was asking. "What do you want to do? You have to know something!"

He kept silent for a while. Through the window he studied the shimmering cars and the banner over the enormous entrance to the Park Trading Corporation Bank Building: "Only PEKAO will fulfill your dreams, stop by for an appointment." The windows on the second floor belonged to a club for Polish-American policemen who met there one Friday a month at seven p.m. In the next window was an eagle on a piece of cardboard-like an unplucked hen pulled out of the oven, and with a crew cut at that. That room housed the offices of the weekly newspaper "Kurier." All that was very unimportant. And yet it was much more solid than what he would say now.

"There is this passage which has bugged me for years, ever since I found it in an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica: "In 1875 a catastrophe, commonly attributed to an explosion, dislodged the sandbars at the entrance to the port of San Juan del Norte, eliminating its port as the greatest shipping hub in the Caribbean, a staging area for gold seekers, dreamers, and adventurers bound for San Juan del Sur, from where the way to California was smooth and easy. Some sources argue that Major Szymon Bald was involved in the explosion.'

"Everyone has a great-grandfather. So do I. Only mine keeps interfering in my life despite the fact he died so long ago and God only knows where. I told you about Szymon's biography, by this guy named Alex Bonder? The immigrant press wrote about it at one time? Well, all this raises several questions. You must know that at that time the port of San Juan del Norte processed around a million people annually. A city of scores of thousands arose to serve this big mass of crazies with vacant eyes and beards as large as sails. That catastrophe would have thus ruined the lives of maybe a hundred thousand people. Do you see? Why, then, did Szymon decide to do it, and is this all true anyway? Bonder, despite the fact he wrote such a fat biography-it's over three hundred pages-still didn't give any primary sources to confirm Szymon's involvement, but only repeated second-hand information. And no source I've found yet tells anything about the location of Szymon's grave."

"And you want to answer all these questions?"

"Why not? Szymon himself wrote a book, too. . . ."

9. When Animals Speak with Human Voices

Commotion stirred the restaurant. In the middle of the room, the owner argued with a group of men, two in police uniforms and three in plain clothes. The men were pointing to the waitresses, clearly inquiring about them. Ania, a friend of Katarzyna's, ran past Slavek and Katarzyna's table and the women exchanged meaningful glances. Then Ania ran behind the counter.

"Do you have a valid visa?" Katarzyna asked Slavek.

"Of course I do. I just arrived today. Why?"

"No, nothing. Just a thought."

Ania came out from behind the counter. Her gestures suddenly seemed slower, more sluggish. To Slavek, it looked as though she had just overeaten, or it was painful for her to move.

Slavek and Katarzyna recognized these new guests to the Orbit Restaurant. They were immigration people, and they assembled all the waitresses along the bar and asked to see their documents. The owner herded the women along, as though afraid that any delay in carrying out the procedure might show his business in a negative light. The nearest customers were leaving, casting fearful glances over their shoulders. There was no one to pay their bill to. One waitress dissolved into sobs, wet and helpless.

"Holy Shit," sighed Katarzyna. "They got Jadzia. She just arrived from Nowy Targ. If she doesn't come up with a decent lawyer she'll face deportation."

The owner was busy explaining himself to an official, a tall, heavy man with a red face, probably the superior in the group. They were talking in English, and the words of the relentlessly foreign language fell like mud dripping off the roof. Ania, perched on a bar stool, made a face like a schoolgirl with a stomachache. Suddenly, counting on God knows what, she went over to the huge old man at the table next to Slavek and Katarzyna. The scene that followed seemed like a sequence from a silent movie. First the man smiled, satisfaction spreading on his puffy face as Ania, her eyes averted, spoke to him quickly in a low voice. The man nodded. He circled the waitress with a huge thick arm and moved his tea to her place at the table. They froze there like this, as though posing for a snapshot. The man said something to her, his lips moving slowly, while Ania kept nodding, the very picture of wretchedness.

The first of the waitresses was escorted outside, where a police van awaited. On the way out she wailed, "O Jesus, O Dear Jesus!" But the officers' movements just became more urgent. Most likely, they wanted to get it over with. The whole kitchen staff still needed to be checked. The next two women's papers were in order. Completely blas�, they smoked their cigarettes, exhaling over the heads of the Americans as though not to mess up their haircuts. They even tried to chat with the officers, who smiled back halfheartedly. Then one of the remaining waitresses-a young woman with a long golden braid-made a run for it, hitting tables along the way. Sudden hubbub ensued. The policemen drew their guns automatically. They seemed ready to fire, but then didn't. The girl with the braid stopped short at the door, right by the cash register. She spun on her heel and walked to an abandoned table untouched by a bus-boy. It was still full of dirty plates. She sat down, held her head in her hands, and froze. Then she made sounds quite unlike crying, though crying it was, uttered through one dark vowel sound: "aaa," then "eee," and then again "aaa," and then "eeee."

Katarzyna and Slavek looked on in silence. Then Katarzyna spoke about Ania. A while ago she had promised to help her get a fake social security number. She got to like this girl, a sociology student back in Warsaw, and on her visits to the "Orbit" she always sat at one of Ania's tables. Ania reminded Katarzyna of herself before she had her son and things started to go to hell. Ania's hair was the same dark ash blonde, prone to oiliness. She had the same green eyes, and the same penguin's smile. Her teeth were still undamaged by nicotine and her breasts formed a steep outline under her blouse, like two clearly pronounced words. Two words bursting with encouragement.

Now Ania was sitting with that old man. He was delighted, though her own face showed despair. She looked ready for anything. Then she got up suddenly and walked towards the restrooms. Nobody stopped her. A moment later, Slavek walked the same way. He felt a lump in his throat and butterflies in his stomach. He pissed in the urinal and felt better. Then he heard muffled crying.

"Is that you, Ania?"

"Yes."

Slavek made up his mind. "Wait right there. I saw a door here behind the cigarette machine. It must lead to the backyard. Will you wait?

The waitress sighed deeply in her stall. "What else can I do?"

Bald walked over to the corridor between the men's and women's restrooms. There really was an unused door behind the vending machine. He moved the machine aside and started to poke at the lock on the door. None of his keys worked, so he got his Swiss Army knife out of his pocket and tried to move the tongue of the lock sideways. Suddenly he realized that he couldn't hear any of the customary buzz of people talking in the restaurant. Instead, he heard only guttural commands in English. Furniture was being moved and he could hear the voice of the owner trying to explain himself. It seemed the police were after someone. Finally the lock gave way, but when Bald opened the door he couldn't help but curse. Behind it was a wall. The door had been bricked up and abandoned. He fumed with disgust. He felt ridiculous. He entered the women's room. The desperate waitress was struggling with a little window leading to the world outside. Slavek gently pushed the girl aside and positioned himself against the latch. Placing one foot against the off-white tiles of the wall, he gave one yank on the rusty handle. The window jerked free. The way out stood open. Damp autumn air blew in the room. He hoisted Ania and, grasping her rear-end, pushed her on out.

He peered through the window, which looked out on an alley. Ania got up, brushed herself off, and walked with her head up toward the street and freedom. Then a man in a black jacket rushed into the alley and yelled after her:

"Freeze! Don't move! Your identification papers!"

But the waitress ignored him. She only craned her neck around as if to catch what was happening behind her back. But she still kept going. The immigration officer ran after her. He grabbed her shoulder. Indignant, Ania whirled around and faced him, as if something like this had never happened to her before.

"Give me a break," she hissed out in English. "I don't talk to a stranger on the street."

They were in Jackowo, near the intersection of Milwaukee and Central Park, the heart of the Polish ghetto, to which the waitress was so keen to return. That is why the American returned to the restaurant with the face of an astonished dogcatcher, furrowing his brow to count on his fingers the days left to Christmas Eve, the night when all animals speak with a human voice.

(Translated from the Polish by Urszula Tempska and Daniel Bourne)

 

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