Bohemians (george saunders)
The New Yorker, Jan 14, 2004
In a lovely urban coincidence, the last two houses on our block were both occupied by widows who had lost their husbands in Eastern European pogroms. Dad called them the Bohemians. He called anyone white with an accent a Bohemian. Whenever he saw one of the Bohemians, he greeted her by mispronouncing the Czech word for “door.” Neither Bohemian was Czech, but both were polite, so when Dad said “door” to them they answered cordially, as if he weren’t perennially schlockered.
Mrs. Poltoi, the stouter Bohemian, had spent the war in a crawl space, splitting a daily potato with five cousins. Consequently she was bitter and claustrophobic and loved food. If you ate something while standing near her, she stared at it going into your mouth. She wore only black. She said the Catholic Church was a jewelled harlot drinking the blood of the poor. She said America was a spoiled child ignorant of grief. When our ball rolled onto her property, she seized it and waddled into her back yard and pitched it into the quarry.
Mrs. Hopanlitski, on the other hand, was thin, and joyfully made pipe-cleaner animals. When I brought home one of her crude dogs in top hats, Mom said, “Take over your Mold-A-Hero. To her, it will seem like the toy of a king.” To Mom, the camps, massacres, and railroad sidings of twenty years before were as unreal as covered wagons. When Mrs. H. claimed her family had once owned serfs, Mom’s attention wandered. She had a tract house in mind. No way was she getting one. We were renting a remodelled garage behind the Giancarlos, and Dad was basically drinking up the sporting-goods store. His N.F.L. helmets were years out of date. I’d stop by after school and find the store closed and Dad getting sloshed among the fake legs with Bennie Delmonico at Prosthetics World.
Using the Mold-A-Hero, I cast Mrs. H. a plastic Lafayette, and she said she’d keep it forever on her sill. Within a week, she’d given it to Elizabeth the Raccoon. I didn’t mind. Raccoon, an only child like me, had nothing. The Kletz brothers called her Raccoon for the bags she had under her eyes from never sleeping. Her parents fought non-stop. They fought over breakfast. They fought in the yard in their underwear. At dusk they stood on their porch whacking each other with lengths of weather stripping. Raccoon practically had spinal curvature from spending so much time slumped over with misery. When the Kletz brothers called her Raccoon, she indulged them by rubbing her hands together ferally. The nickname was the most attention she’d ever had. Sometimes she’d wish to be hit by a car so she could come back as a true raccoon and track down the Kletzes and give them rabies.
“Never wish harm on yourself or others,” Mrs. H. said. “You are a lovely child.” Her English was flat and clear, almost like ours.
“Raccoon, you mean,” Raccoon said. “A lovely raccoon.”
“A lovely child of God,” Mrs. H. said.
“Yeah, right,” Raccoon said. “Tell again about the prince.”
So Mrs. H. told again how she’d stood rapt in her yard watching an actual prince powder his birthmark to invisibility. She remembered the smell of burning compost from the fields, and men in colorful leggings dragging a gutted boar across a wooden bridge. This was before she was forced to become a human pack animal in the Carpathians, carrying the personal belongings of cruel officers. At night, they chained her to a tree. Sometimes they burned her calves with a machine-gun barrel for fun. Which was why she always wore kneesocks. After three years, she’d come home to find her babies in tiny graves. They were, she would say, short-lived but wonderful gifts. She did not now begrudge God for taking them. A falling star is brief, but isn’t one nonetheless glad to have seen it? Her grace made us hate Mrs. Poltoi all the more. What was eating a sixth of a potato every day compared to being chained to a tree? What was being crammed in with a bunch of your cousins compared to having your kids killed?
The summer I was ten, Raccoon and I, already borderline rejects due to our mutually unravelling households, were joined by Art Siminiak, who had recently made the mistake of inviting the Kletzes in for lemonade. There was no lemonade. Instead, there was Art’s mom and a sailor from Great Lakes passed out naked across the paper-drive stacks on the Siminiaks’ sunporch.
This new, three-way friendship consisted of slumping in gangways, playing gloveless catch with a Wiffle, trailing hopefully behind kids whose homes could be entered without fear of fiasco.
Over on Mozart lived Eddie the Vacant. Eddie was seventeen, huge and simple. He could crush a walnut in his bare hand, but first you had to put it there and tell him to do it. Once he’d pinned a “Vacant” sign to his shirt and walked around the neighborhood that way, and the name had stuck. Eddie claimed to see birds. Different birds appeared on different days of the week. Also, there was a Halloween bird and a Christmas bird.
One day, as Eddie hobbled by, we asked what kind of birds he was seeing.
“Party birds,” he said. “They got big streamers coming out they butts.”
“You having a party?” said Art. “You having a homo party?”
“I gone have a birthday party,” said Eddie, blinking shyly.
“Your dad know?” Raccoon said.
“No, he don’t yet,” said Eddie.
His plans for the party were private and illogical. We peppered him with questions, hoping to get him to further embarrass himself. The party would be held in his garage. As far as the junk car in there, he would push it out by hand. As far as the oil on the floor, he would soak it up using Handi Wipes. As far as music, he would play a trumpet.
“What are you going to play the trumpet with?” said Art. “Your asshole?”
“No, I not gone play it with that,” Eddie said. “I just gone use my lips, O.K.?”
As far as girls, there would be girls; he knew many girls, from his job managing the Drake Hotel, he said. As far as food, there would be food, including pudding dumplings.
“You’re the manager of the Drake Hotel,” Raccoon said.
“Hey, I know how to get the money for pudding dumplings!” Eddie said.
Then he rang Poltoi’s bell and asked for a contribution. She said for what. He said for him. She said to what end. He looked at her blankly and asked for a contribution. She asked him to leave the porch. He asked for a contribution. Somewhere, he’d got the idea that, when asking for a contribution, one angled to sit on the couch. He started in, and she pushed him back with a thick forearm. Down the front steps he went, ringing the iron bannister with his massive head.
He got up and staggered away, a little blood on his scalp.
“Learn to leave people be!” Poltoi shouted after him.
Ten minutes later, Eddie, Sr., stood on Poltoi’s porch, a hulking effeminate tailor too cowed to use his bulk for anything but butting open the jamming door at his shop.
“Since when has it become the sport to knock unfortunates down stairs?” he asked.
“He was not listen,” she said. “I tell him no. He try to come inside.”
“With all respect,” he said, “it is in my son’s nature to perhaps be not so responsive.”
“Someone so unresponse, keep him indoors,” she said. “He is big as a man. And I am old lady.”
“Never has Eddie presented a danger to anyone,” Eddie, Sr., said.
“I know my rights,” she said. “Next time, I call police.”
But, having been pushed down the stairs, Eddie the Vacant couldn’t seem to stay away.
“Off this porch,” Poltoi said through the screen when he showed up the next day, offering her an empty cold-cream jar for three dollars.
“We gone have so many snacks,” he said. “And if I drink a alcohol drink, then watch out. Because I ain’t allowed. I dance too fast.”
He was trying the doorknob now, showing how fast he would dance if alcohol was served.
“Please, off this porch!” she shouted.
“Please, off this porch!” he shouted back, doubling at the waist in wacky laughter.
Poltoi called the cops. Normally, Lieutenant Brusci would have asked Eddie what bird was in effect that day and given him a ride home in his squad. But this was during the OneCity fiasco. To cut graft, cops were being yanked off their regular beats and replaced by cops from other parts of town. A couple of Armenians from South Shore showed up and dragged Eddie off the porch in a club lock so tight he claimed the birds he was seeing were beakless.
“I’ll give you a beak, Frankenstein,” said one of the Armenians, tightening the choke hold.
Eddie entered the squad with all the fluidity of a hatrack. Art and Raccoon and I ran over to Eddie, Sr.,’s tailor shop, above the Marquee, which had sunk to porn. When Eddie, Sr., saw us, he stopped his Singer by kicking out the plug. From downstairs came a series of erotic moans.
Eddie, Sr., rushed to the hospital with his Purple Heart and some photos of Eddie as a grinning, wet-chinned kid on a pony. He found Eddie handcuffed to a bed, with an I.V. drip and a smashed face. Apparently, he’d bitten one of the Armenians. Bail was set at three hundred. The tailor shop made zilch. Eddie, Sr.,’s fabrics were a lexicon of yesteryear. Dust coated a bright-yellow sign that read “Zippers Repaired in Jiffy.”
“Jail for that kid, I admit, don’t make total sense,” the judge said. “Three months in the Anston. Best I can do.”
The Anston Center for Youth was a red brick former forge now yarded in barbed wire. After their shifts, the guards held loud, hooting orgies kitty-corner at Zem’s Lamplighter. Skinny immigrant women arrived at Zem’s in station wagons and emerged hours later adjusting their stockings. From all over Chicago kids were sent to the Anston, kids who’d only ever been praised for the level of beatings they gave and received and their willingness to carve themselves up. One Anston kid had famously hired another kid to run over his foot. Another had killed his mother’s lover with a can opener. A third had sliced open his own eyelid with a pop-top on a dare.
Eddie the Vacant disappeared into the Anston in January and came out in March.
To welcome him home, Eddie, Sr., had the neighborhood kids over. Eddie the Vacant looked so bad even the Kletzes didn’t joke about how bad he looked. His nose was off center and a scald mark ran from ear to chin. When you got too close, his hands shot up. When the cake was served, he dropped his plate, shouting, “Leave a guy alone!”
Our natural meanness now found a purpose. Led by the Kletzes, we cut through Poltoi’s hose, bashed out her basement windows with ball-peens, pushed her little shopping cart over the edge of the quarry and watched it end-over-end into the former Slag Ravine.
Then it was spring and the quarry got busy. When the noon blast went off, our windows rattled. The three-o’clock blast was even bigger. Raccoon and Art and I made a fort from the cardboard shipping containers the Cline frames came in. One day, while pretending the three-o’clock blast was atomic, we saw Eddie the Vacant bounding toward our fort through the weeds, like some lover in a commercial, only fatter and falling occasionally.
His trauma had made us kinder toward him.
“Eddie,” Art said. “You tell your dad where you’re at?”
“It no big problem,” Eddie said. “I was gone leave my dad a note.”
“But did you?” said Art.
“I’ll leave him a note when I get back,” said Eddie. “I gone come in with you now.”
“No room,” said Raccoon. “You’re too huge.”
“That a good one!” said Eddie, crowding in.
Down in the quarry were the sad cats, the slumping watchman’s shack, the piles of reddish, discarded dynamite wrappings that occasionally rose erratically up the hillside like startled birds.
Along the quarryside trail came Mrs. Poltoi, dragging a new shopping cart.
“Look at that pig,” said Raccoon. “Eddie, that’s the pig that put you away.”
“What did they do to you in there, Ed?” said Art. “Did they mess with you?”
“No, they didn’t,” said Eddie. “I just a say to them, ‘Leave a guy alone!’ I mean, sometime they did, O.K.? Sometime that one guy say, ‘Hey, Eddie, pull your thing! We gone watch you.’ ”
“O.K., O.K.,” said Art.
At dusk, the three of us would go to Mrs. H.’s porch. She’d bring out cookies and urge forgiveness. It wasn’t Poltoi’s fault her heart was small, she told us. She, Mrs. H., had seen a great number of things, and seeing so many things had enlarged her heart. Once, she had seen Göring. Once, she had seen Einstein. Once, during the war, she had seen a whole city block, formerly thick with furriers, bombed black overnight. In the morning, charred bodies had crawled along the street, begging for mercy. One such body had grabbed her by the ankle, and she recognized it as Bergen, a friend of her father’s.
“What did you do?” said Raccoon.
“Not important now,” said Mrs. H., gulping back tears, looking off into the quarry.
Then disaster. Dad got a check for shoulder pads for all six district football teams and, trying to work things out with Mom, decided to take her on a cruise to Jamaica. Nobody in our neighborhood had ever been on a cruise. Nobody had even been to Wisconsin. The disaster was, I was staying with Poltoi. Ours was a liquor household, where you could ask a question over and over in utter sincerity and never get a straight answer. I asked and asked, “Why her?” And was told and told, “It will be an adventure.”
I asked, “Why not Grammy?”
I was told, “Grammy don’t feel well.”
I asked, “Why not Hopanlitski?”
Dad did this like snort.
“Like that’s gonna happen,” said Mom.
“Why not, why not?” I kept asking.
“Because shut up,” they kept answering.
Just after Easter, over I went, with my little green suitcase.
I was a night panicker and occasional bed-wetter. I’d wake drenched and panting. Had they told her? I doubted it. Then I knew they hadn’t, from the look on her face the first night, when I peed myself and woke up screaming.
“What’s this?” she said.
“Pee,” I said, humiliated beyond any ability to lie.
“Ach, well,” she said. “Who don’t? This also used to be me. Pee pee pee. I used to dream of a fish who cursed me.”
She changed the sheets gently, with no petulance-a new one on me. Often Ma, still half asleep, popped me with the wet sheet, saying when at last I had a wife, she herself could finally get some freaking sleep.
Then the bed was ready, and Poltoi made a sweeping gesture, like, Please.
I got in.
She stayed standing there.
“You know,” she said. “I know they say things. About me, what I done to that boy. But I had a bad time in the past with a big stupid boy. You don’t gotta know. But I did like I did that day for good reason. I was scared at him, due to something what happened for real to me.”
She stood in the half-light, looking down at her feet.
“Do you get?” she said. “Do you? Can you get it, what I am saying?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Tell to him,” she said. “Tell to him sorry, explain about it, tell your friends also. If you please. You have a good brain. That is why I am saying to you.”
Something in me rose to this. I’d never heard it before but I believed it: I had a good brain. I could be trusted to effect a change.
Next day was Saturday. She made soup. We played a game using three slivers of soap. We made placemats out of colored strips of paper, and she let me teach her my spelling words.
Around noon, the doorbell rang. At the door stood Mrs. H.
“Everything O.K.?” she said, poking her head in.
“Yes, fine,” said Poltoi. “I did not eat him yet.”
“Is everything really fine?” Mrs. H. said to me. “You can say.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“You can say,” she said fiercely.
Then she gave Poltoi a look that seemed to say, Hurt him and you will deal with me.
“You silly woman,” said Poltoi. “You are going now.”
Mrs. H. went.
We resumed our spelling. It was tense in a quiet-house way. Things ticked. When Poltoi missed a word, she pinched her own hand, but not hard. It was like symbolic pinching. Once when she pinched, she looked at me looking at her, and we laughed.
Then we were quiet again.
“That lady?” she finally said. “She like to lie. Maybe you don’t know. She say she is come from where I come from?”
“Yes,” I said.
“She is lie,” she said. “She act so sweet and everything but she lie. She been born in Skokie. Live here all her life, in America. Why you think she talk so good?”
All week, Poltoi made sausage, noodles, potato pancakes; we ate like pigs. She had tea and cakes ready when I came home from school. At night, if necessary, she dried me off, moved me to her bed, changed the sheets, put me back, with never an unkind word.
“Will pass, will pass,” she’d hum.
Mom and Dad came home tanned, with a sailor cap for me, and, in a burst of post-vacation honesty, confirmed it: Mrs. H. was a liar. A liar and a kook. Nothing she said was true. She’d been a cashier at Goldblatt’s but had been caught stealing. When caught stealing, she’d claimed to be with the Main Office. When a guy from the Main Office came down, she’d claimed to be with the F.B.I. Then she’d produced a letter from Lady Bird Johnson, but in her own handwriting, with “Johnson” spelled “Jonsen.”
I told the other kids what I knew, and in time they came to believe it, even the Kletzes.
And, once we believed it, we couldn’t imagine we hadn’t seen it all along.
Another spring came, once again birds nested in bushes on the sides of the quarry. A thrown rock excited a thrilling upward explosion. Thin rivers originated in our swampy back yards, and we sailed boats made of flattened shoeboxes, Twinkie wrappers, crimped tinfoil. Raccoon glued together three balsa-wood planes and placed on this boat a turd from her dog, Svengooli, and, as Svengooli’s turd went over a little waterfall and disappeared into the quarry, we cheered. ♦