Grandma’s strudel sizzled with cinnamon and cloves; her paper-thin apple slices were dipped in plum brandy. Visitors, demanding her recipe, always called it the best apple strudel in town.
She placed a large piece in front of me, with a dollop of whipped cream. But Grandpa’s piece she slammed down and the fork bounced off the plate.
“You want me to be a widow,” she said. “You never listen to me. You always know best. Rest. Exercise and rest is what the doctor ordered. But do you take care of yourself?” Grandma’s mission in life, regardless of impending widowhood, consisted of baking rich desserts and ensuring Grandpa and I were bursting with sugar and butter.
Everyone’s nerves were on edge. When Kennedy was elected, everyone in Czechoslovakia breathed a sigh of relief, thinking we wouldn’t get blown up by the evil Americans after all. But recently the mood changed. On the radio they frequently interrupted Beethoven and Haydn with the announcer’s somber voice talking of troop movements, of the threat of the imperialist Yankees invading first our socialist brothers in Cuba, and then the rest of the world, and Grandpa sighed and turned the set off.
He grumbled now. “Oh, Heli, you know I’m doing my best. It’s just that the neighbors are so needy and the radios made so poorly. Once they’ve grown used to the broadcasts from Vienna and Berlin, to the concerts, to the football matches, they feel they can’t live without. A little sunshine in their gardens is all they want. And when they come, desperate, well, I can’t say I’ll get to it in three weeks, can I? I fix it in a few days, even if I sleep a little less and get up a little earlier. I’ll try to stretch and lift and twist into those doctor contortions, I really will.”
When I still had Napoleon, whenever Grandma and Grandpa fought, he and I would crawl under the kitchen table and I’d curl into him and he’d wag his tail and lick my face. But ever since Mr. Stetina ran him over, I play under the table by myself.
Every time we strolled through our district, the neighbors all shook Grandpa’s hand and patted his back. So what if he jiggled when he carried me piggyback? Mr. Kroner next door had a gut the size of a zeppelin and did no jumping jacks. For that matter, Grandma didn’t go for jogs either. Then I remembered Grandpa last Easter, stretched out on the living room floor, jerking and turning blue, with Grandma screaming into the phone, “Send the ambulance double quick. We’re losing him.” If the doctor wanted him to exercise, he should. An ant crawled up the wall, carrying a white pebble, larger than himself. I sure wasn’t strong like that. I would keep Grandpa company, lift barbells, build muscles next to him.
A fly struggled on the strip of fly paper by the window, wings flapping, recognizing its big mistake. Down the street the troops newly stationed in the barracks at Franconi performed their maneuvers. Two weeks of steady marching, right by our house. Grandpa said he sure felt safer now and Grandma gave him a look but didn’t say anything.
Our rooster crowed outside. I loved to watch him parcel out corn to his favorite hens but I could not leave the house until I was sure Grandma and Grandpa made up. Grandma poured coffee into his huge mug and he made his eyebrows wiggle.
“Maybe the three of us can go for a walk this afternoon, gather linden blossoms for tea.”
I chuckled: I knew Grandpa was coddling her. She nodded.
I tried to whistle through the gap between my front teeth but could only hiss. Grandpa turned on his Blaupunkt radio, smiled at the final duet of The Bartered Bride. The hero tricks everyone, gets his bride and his inheritance.
Grandma is lying in the middle of the kitchen, growling like Mama Bear. Her eyes flutter, her arm jerks and when I stumble into the bedroom, crows are cawing. I grab the vial of pills from her bedside table, shove one into her mouth and sprint next door to the Durinkas. They call an ambulance, and tell me she’ll be fine. But I know what I did wasn’t enough.
When Grandpa and I visit her in the hospital a week later, the doctor talks to him for a long time as I play with my fire engine outside Grandma’s room. Her breathing sounds like a truck without a muffler and I long to snuggle into her bed.
“Children are not allowed in intensive care,” the nurse scolds.
When they are done, Grandpa grips the doctor’s hand and both shake their heads. I know what that means: when the doctor’s and Grandpa’s shaking heads come true, I’ll have no place to live.
Last week, when I was swinging in the park with my friend Maco, he asked if I’d be going back to Mom and Dad soon, and I explained that I never lived with both of them, that when Mom dropped me off, she only said she’d see me sometimes, never said anything about coming back for me. This is home now, or was, until Grandma got sick.
When Grandpa joined me after talking to the doctor, he helped to put out my pretend fires and clutched my hand; his smile was all teeth, no eyes. We bought znojemske sausages at the deli, gobbled them with sauerkraut and hot mustard. He made his usual lame jokes and posed groaner riddles when we played checkers before going to bed. Just the same, I knew.
I wake with Grandpa’s cool hand on my forehead, rubbing my neck with a wet cloth. “Shhh, shhh, just a nightmare. You’re safe.”
My throat is sandy, my face tear-streaked and my body burns. Grandpa calls nightmares moths: they have black wings, staring eyes and when they sit on your chest you can’t breathe. Spider webs or coiled snakes I don’t mind, but I sure hate moths. One could fly in through my eyes and burrow into my brain.
The moths I used to have were leering monsters who’d chase me up unending staircases but always when I woke up, I could climb into bed with Grandma. The new moths have angry voices and scrunched faces: Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, screaming, “Why didn’t you run faster? Why didn’t you hear sooner? Your fault, your fault.”
Cold water seeps into my pajamas when Grandpa pats me with the cloth, his arm around my shoulders and he’s sweating, too, all down his face.
I don’t remember what Mom wanted my help with in the moth, what it was I failed to do. No doubt on my quest I dropped the fiery sword or forgot the secret password, so was barred from the cave.
Grandpa has stopped his virtuoso whistling. Before, when he wasn’t grinning, he was whistling. In the last week, not even a bird call.
I take my dinky police car and ambulance into Grandma’s garden and a butterfly settles on my sleeve. I stare at the orange and black pattern of the wings but to me it’s too much like a moth. I blow and it flutters away.
Don't Tell Me
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.
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?”