On Sunday afternoons, Stanislaw’s only time off, he pulls out the world atlas and travels back to his country. Krakow looks and feels much like the city in which he lives now; a city which neither excites nor depresses him. A city whose river once caught fire from the pollution asphyxiating it, and which is now the butt of late night comedians’ jokes. People always either try to reclaim land or sell it. In the process, they all usually demean it. Sometimes, when there are others around after a shift, and they are all watching these late night comedy shows at the bar’s television set, Stanislaw laughs along with them, although he doesn’t understand why anyone would make fun of a city in which one makes his home. One is free to leave here, if the city is unfriendly or hostile. But laughing along with the others helps to assimilate him into a weird world of abuse and self flagellation, forgiveness and melancholy.
Stanislaw travels east by way of index finger and olfactory memories of his mother’s Sunday meal: polenta and sausages. It’s an elegant line traced from the midwest United States to the old continent, rising slightly over the North Atlantic Ocean, and settling safely just before it runs into that great, hungry and disgruntled Soviet bear grinning at the gates of eastern Europe. During the course of his weekly, requisite trip, Stanislaw often likes to pretend he is Charles Lindbergh on that cold May night in 1927, occasionally dipping down so close to the water to refresh himself from the doldrums of solo flight, the foam of the waves sprays all over his goggles and the fuselage of The Spirit of St. Louis.
“Put the kettle on will you,” his mother says from the bed. “Stan?”
“Stan. Big party of twelve tonight.”
“Party of twelve. Seven o’clock. All right? Stan?”
“Did you hear me? Twelve top!”
“I’m counting on you to clear quickly. They’ll be ordering coffee and dessert, as well.”
“Yes. You can.”
“Absolutely. I will clear.”
“But quickly. Yes. You can count. One clean, clear table.”
As there is a logical order in which a table must be set, so there is one for which a table must be cleared in order that it be turned quickly over for the next diners. A twenty-year-old blonde waiter with feathery hair and thin lips tells Stanislaw that his first day.
“Staszek? The kettle. Be a dear. Mind the fire, too.”
The rest of the week, in the mornings, Stanislaw works one of the fruit stands in the open air market at the corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue. The stand is owned by a Polish Jew, but Stanislaw doesn’t care about those things.
“Whatever you do, when you stack the crates, make sure you don’t bruise the peaches. Nobody buys bruised fruit. If your bruise it, you buy it. Understand? I take it out of your day, understand?”
Stanislaw salutes and stiffens himself at attention.
“Don’t…don’t do that. It looks…just…don’t do it.”
They have dances; mixers or socials for Polish singles. They usually hold them in church basements with low ceilings and flimsy card tables adorned with paper, checkered covers. The church elders stand about and watch the single men and women make awkward conversation and sometimes dance.
“I bruise easily,” the woman said when Stanislaw moved to take her by the wrist to spin her. It had been a good night, he thought.
“And my skin is very sensitive…it hurts at the lightest touch. I even went to the doctor for it; he said something about not having too much fat on my body.”
That one was called Eljbieta. She was Polish, but she had been born in America. Stanislaw never understood why she came to those things. She spoke English perfectly. She fit in nicely everywhere.
Stanislaw no longer goes to the mixers. He no longer goes to church. The fruit stand in the mornings and the restaurant in the afternoons, and on Sundays he travels east to Krakow in the Spirit of St. Louis. That is the routine.
“Like this,” the Jewish owner says, “you stack’em like so and so…this way the peaches don’t get bruised, all right? See how I do? Crate this way, and then on top the next, goes this other way. Like this and this and so and so. Careful. All right? Otherwise?” and he makes a throat-cutting gesture with his index finger and whistles. That is what the Jewish owner shows Stanislaw his first day.
The waiter who tells Stanislaw the Pope has been shot is a kid from Youngstown who lifeguards part time at the indoor pool of The Carlyle.
“Some Turk or something,” he says. “Ali Baba or…Mahmoud…I don’t know. Innit incredible? The Pope! Assassinated.”
“What do you suppose for?”
“I don’t know.”
“The Pope, for Chrissake.”
“In’he Polish or something?”
“He is, yes. He is Polish.”
“For Chrissake…what’s this world coming to?” the kid says. “First Lennon, now the Pope.”
“I mean, innit crazy?”
“Yes. It’s crazy.”
“Chrissake. Listen, anyway, Marty wants you to stock up ice behind the bar, then go clean the men’s stall before the five o’clock dinner crowd comes in. But…you know, don’t do it just right away…whenever you’re finished…I don’t know…mourning.”
In the eight weeks he spent in Italy before coming to America, Stanislaw found work as a day laborer in Umbria. Along with a Romanian, three Turks, and a Yugoslavian, Stanislaw built a concrete wall for a rich family in Perugia. The eight-foot high embankment spanned the edge of the large property the family wanted to keep private. On his last day, as he smoothed out the base of the wet concrete, out of sight of the other men who were lunching from creased brown paper bags and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, Stanislaw found a small twig and at the very bottom of the parapet, almost where the concrete met the earth, where no one would ever be able to see, he stenciled out in small letters: “POLONIA.”