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Polish Boys – Mudlum  

Certain later events evolve from developments which are currently underway or have perhaps already occurred. In early spring, Adam’s family received word that an ancient member of the extensive Mackiewicz bloodline had given up the ghost. The expiring of a human life is indeed unfortunate, but generally has no greater impact on the living. This relative left behind a ramshackle cottage which no one wanted because it was so far on the fringes of the city and in such poor condition — rotting to the very foundations, in fact, and stocked with dry rot and giant spiders. The hovel lacked the most essential modern-day convenience, electricity, as well as running water, because the old man’s final ailing years were spent bouncing from hospital to hospital and no one had ever thought to pay the bills, resulting in the utilities being shut off one after another. When someone did finally realize there was a dilapidated cottage standing vacant somewhere, the heirs had to break down the door to gain access — what they found was not uplifting. It was hard to say for what rude contingent the dwelling had once been constructed, perhaps railway workers, but some men certainly owned larger sheds hammered together more competently than it. Doors were apparently the only material the builders had had in abundance: the space, large enough for a single room, had been given a most astonishing lightless vestibule from which an inexplicable six doors opened into rooms as miniature as matchboxes. The front door opened into an entryway so cramped that a broad-shouldered man could get wedged tight, and yet a staircase leading up to the loft had also been crammed into it by some miracle. Once the front door was shut, you found yourself in total darkness. Groping around blindly helped to determine that two doors led to the right. One opened into a “living room” furnished with a puzzling cupboard with mirrored doors which covered the entire wall, across from which was a sagging plywood bookshelf groaning under the weight of musty volumes with crimped pages. The second door opened into what could conditionally be called a study and was likewise piled with books from floor to ceiling; there was even a bookshelf standing in the center of the room like in a library. A decrepit desk was jammed between the heaps, its warped drawers stuck fast and its cabinet doors hanging askew from their hinges. Even the desk chair wobbled on each leg; strips of fabric were wound around the stretchers in an attempt to hold the tenons in place somehow. The single grimy window was divided into tiny grilled panes and faced north, though mighty trees hemming in the house obscured the view anyway. In short, that face of the building was as dark as a cave. The door at the end of the corridor opened into a compact corner room which was a smidgen lighter. A tattered curtain, once yellow but now sun-bleached to the chalky tone of dunes, hung before the window on two nails. Crouching in the feeble light that filtered through the glass was a bed paired with another disorderly stack of books ruined by the dank air. An unwashed mug balanced on the top-most volume, fossilized sugar encrusted at its base. Two doors also opened from the left of the inky intestinal corridor — on into a lavatory occupied by pill-bugs and gigantic spiders which were black and hairy, as big as one’s fist, with legs as thick as anchor cables. The toilet tank was cracked. Consolidated behind the final door was the kitchen and boiler room, which also contained an unusual tin stove and a dish-drying rack set upon a chest of drawers. The drawers were packed with unused bowls, plates, and saucers, all nicely peppered with mice scat. Standing in one corner was the only item true to the times in that cottage: a refrigerator. Next to the appliance was a worn cellar trapdoor, though tugging at its rusted ring only left you holding a few rotting floorboards. No one wanted to know what was inside.


The relatives all shook their heads, changed the lock, handed out the spare keys, and forgot about the cottage.


One mild autumn day, after Sulisław had been expelled from his latest unorthodox accommodation and stood on a Warsaw street corner at a total loss for what to do next, his friend Adam suddenly remembered: the cottage. All else aside, the cottage did have walls and a roof, no matter that that was all it had. And as an additional heavenly blessing, the cottage had retained a modest stack of firewood. The neighboring houses all had generous supplies as well — one could always filch a log or two from here or there, so heating wasn’t an issue. Not even Adam would have been willing to relocate so totally outside of society and its traditional standards of convenience to live in that genuine hotbed of tuberculosis, even though life with Lilita had already begun to go sour. Males at that delicate age, not to mention much older, burly, seasoned men, commonly employ a vile tactic in such a situation. Lacking the courage to end the relationship like civilized human beings by discussing or negotiating or simply fucking off, they pursue circuitous ways to infuriate their partner to such a degree that she herself ultimately realizes their romance is utterly kaput. Men like that start to drink and brawl, behaving like hooligans. Or what behavior is it, really — they are hooligans, scoundrels, bastards. Their actions are terrible and unforgivable; they bring upon themselves a guilt no martyr’s death could redeem. They haven’t the slightest clue that there exist women who simply cannot be shaken off by even twenty years of constant boozing.


 Anyhow, after meeting with Sulisław, Adam shuffled off to his parents’ apartment, where he rummaged through all the drawers, peeked under knickknacks on the shelves, and opened and closed cupboard doors with such methodical sluggishness that his mother Ewa finally lost her nerve.


“What wonder are you looking for now?” she asked as she always did. Pani Mackiewicz had served a feast on the kitchen table and was impatiently waiting for her son, who made very infrequent appearances, to tuck into a proper meal. Her motherly instincts had not faded and every time their boy paid a visit, she emptied their cupboards of meat and grains to pack him a sizeable care package. She’d say, “Nobody needs to go hungry,” and, “We’re not going to stop you from eating,” or “Sit right down and have a proper meal.” In this way, she believed that nothing could ever be too amiss.


“I’m looking for the cottage key,” the legendary looker-for-things replied. Adam was always ferreting around for something, be it a sock, a belt, a book, his keys, his hat, or his whatever-else, and oftentimes he wasn’t really looking for anything. “I’m just seeing what’s here,” he’d say. Consequently, Pani Mackiewicz was in no way nonplussed by the sought-after object, and neither did she inquire of the purpose for Adam needing it. Instead, she automatically answered: “There’s a wooden bowl on top of the entryway closet. Check around the bottom.” She, in turn, was famous for always knowing exactly where things were, no matter how strange or little used they were. If she didn’t know where something was, then it was as good as lost.


Key in hand, Adam entered the kitchen to eat, and did polish off a proper meal. He bore a striking resemblance to a starved greyhound.


Sulisław Zawisza moved into the abandoned cottage alone on the first of October. He fetched a pail of water from the neighbors and doughtily set about heating the dank space teeming with rot and must. The peculiar heating system had probably been state-of-the-art at one time and was almost like central heating. A fire in the stove heated the plumbing system and hot water should have circulated through the radiators with the help of an electric pump. Yet since there was no electricity, Zawisza could feel one corner of a radiator turn lukewarm after hours of stoking the flames, perhaps even extending to a second or a third rib, before the warmth dwindled and a dour expression washed over his face. He would crouch before the mouth of the stove and read musty books until the light faded. The bed was like a mire — no matter how much he tried to warm the pillows and blankets by pressing them against the sides of the stove and rotating them every which way, he still felt as if he was wrapping himself in burial sheets as he lay down to sleep. Pervading every inch of the space was the smell of damp clotted soil.


Interestingly, however, the cottage still ushered in entirely positive changes in Sulisław’s social life. Whereas his situation with girls had been spotty before at best, it now turned out that girls were very much willing to come visit, and specifically the bad girls with bad intentions. They wanted to sip vodka, to lounge in an apocalypse by candlelight, to feel how alive, how carefree, how careless they were among the heaps of old junk, which taken as a whole was romantic nevertheless; to recline upon a rose-wood sofa with the springs poking through — well, maybe not rosewood exactly, but embellished with rose carvings in any case. Heavy bronze candlesticks were scattered everywhere; the cold and damp withdrew from the young, warm bodies and the wax spilling in every direction. It was amusing to imagine that those monstrous heaps of books were guarded by a Goethean spirit, gazing upon the young sprites with bulging eyes and salivating lips.


Ultimately, Sulisław settled into the yellowish-curtained corner room. The wallpaper was also yellow and the autumn sunlight which filtered through the window at a low angle turned the dingy room into a golden nook. A girl had scrawled “cold and nasty room, no place to be” on the door, but it was precisely that cold and nasty space farthest from the stove where Sulisław made himself the most comfortable. For while all the other rooms were lost causes to an even greater extent, there were fewer objects in this one, fewer musty volumes, and the ones that Sulisław found he stacked into neat, even rows on a small improvised shelf, tossing the rest of the junk out the door and leaving only the bare minimum: a collapsible table, the least-rickety chair, the bed, and nothing more.



Translation by Adam Cullen