Don't Tell Me
At Central Station we stare at the blinking board of departures: local streetcars and buses to the surrounding villages, trains to thousands of exotic places throughout Europe.
We decide on a destination. We are unlikely to take the express train to Vladivostok, or even the bus to Prague but one crazy morning we just might. I have a rucksack with my sleepies, a toothbrush, an apple and a chocolate bar. Grandpa has a larger one, filled, I’m sure, with his own treasures, like a flashlight and a lighter, string cheese and a sleeping bag. He’s been reading me Robinson Crusoe and Scheherazade, and when I said we are conquerors, Grandpa said of course we are. We need no shipwreck, no magic carpet.
An old bus rumbles by, spraying us with exhaust. Its destination says Presov. I cough and rub my eyes and Grandpa says, “We’re not going to Presov today, are we?” and we both laugh. I don’t know anything about Presov; it’s just a name of a town I’ve seen on our heavily creased map of Slovakia. Yesterday we went to Zilina by train, walked on the cobblestones, saw a castle from a distance and ate hunter’s stew in a side street restaurant where three old men played violins. They looked bored; their grins were plastered on. At the next table a man who squinted like Dad played chess with his son. I wanted to study their board, find a mate in three. Grandpa had a beer and let me lick off the foam.
We don’t talk about Grandma, haven’t had the right occasion. Grandpa sighs a lot but I think he doesn’t hear himself. Every morning, as he pours hot chocolate into my mug, Grandpa says, “We’re just fine, aren’t we? About to have another exciting adventure today.”
“Of course,” I say. “Two musketeers.” He laughs.
Grandma was buried thirty-seven days ago; it’s just the men now. We called everyone we knew and spread the word but never found any trace of Aunt Evie or Mom and Dad; not one of them made the funeral. The first two weeks Grandpa and I sat in the yard, soaked up the sun and moped. Sometimes I fell asleep and sometimes we both did. Neighbors stopped by and Grandpa offered tea, beer, slivovitz and many of the men had a shot or two, twirled mustaches, cleared their throats. The women brought containers of paprikash, sauerkraut soup, sausages and cheeses and Grandpa put their offerings in the fridge. After they left, I wanted to say I wasn’t hungry but I always was, and I stuffed myself. It was good food, but none of it tasted like Grandma’s. Sweets. Trays and trays of sweets. More than once a neighbor said to Grandpa that they should have a few words and their eyes travelled to me, but Grandpa said I can hear anything they want to say, and they dropped it. Only Mrs. Capatova could not resist.
“The boy. The boy cannot go on living with you now. It was bad enough while she, may God give her heaven, was still cooking and looking after him, but you’re not well, just been hospitalized yourself, and anything could happen. How could you manage, an old man and a child. Impossible. You have to go to the authorities. The boy’s parents have to be found; ask the police to find them. They’re the ones responsible for him, or else it has to be the orphanage.”
“Always a pleasure, dearest Mrs. Capatova, to see you. Sure you wouldn’t like a little shot of schnapps before you go?”
She grew red and snorted like a steam locomotive, opened her huge purse and snapped it shut. Grandpa was right by the door so she couldn’t slam it but I knew she wanted to.
Grandpa says we could take a train into the Tatra mountains, but if we’re going to do that, we should bring more stuff, a heavier coat, a walking stick, a compass. I agree. We have packed lightly.
A heavy-set woman limps past us and her clothes smell like Grandma: garlic, cinnamon, burnt sugar. Grandpa looks up. He grins, says, “I wouldn’t mind trying the wine in Malacky. Bus in twenty minutes. Ready?”
'Don't Tell Me' is the third part of a triptych written by Andrew Stanek. To read the first story, please go to 'Rooster Crowed'. To read the second story, please go to 'Moths'.
Andrew Stancek describes his vocation as dreaming – clutching onto hope, even in turbulent times. He has been published widely, in SmokeLong Quarterly, FRiGG, Green Mountains Review, New World Writing, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review and Peacock Journal, among others. He continues to be astonished.