Reversing the River: Chapter 1
4:00 AM, January 1, 1900 to
10:35 AM, January 2, 1900
Sitting on the cold stoop as snow flurried around him, Jozef felt as useless as a third boot. Upstairs, his wife was huddled deep in Ludwika’s bed, in the front room where the window was. When any of them were sick, that’s where they lay to get better or to die: little Janka with the fever was the last one, and she had passed on after a long, terrible week; mass was being said at St. Casimir’s in two Sundays. Now his wife, Krystyna — not sick, but with a baby that had been coming for too many hours, so it was her turn in Ludwika’s bed, her turn to lie in the front room.
He had resisted, wanting her to stay in the back bedroom; yes, it was on the airshaft, dark and dank, crowded with the bedding for the little girls, but wasn’t it better for Krystyna to be in a place she knew — the faded wallpaper with the roses, the cracks in the ceiling zigzagging like summer lightning? — “she’ll be fine back here,” he had said, but the women ignored him, lifting Krystyna, pulling her, prodding her into the front, into the bed where people died. How Ludwika could sleep with those ghosts, but she did.
“Go,” they told him. “We’ll take care of her.”
“Go,” and he was nudged out the front door, and one of them even stood there, arms folded like a sentry, watching him clump down the four flights of stairs to be sure he was gone.
He walked to the saloon on the corner, had a beer and a pickle, watched the card game, complained about the ward boss, didn’t mention the baby. No one sent for him. At midnight, he walked the two blocks back, thinking of nothing except the sound of his footsteps, the flickers of light in the streetlamps and how different their dance was from the way flames twisted off handmade candles on the table in Poland. That smell of sputtering wax, a single drip sliding inexorably downward. Thoughts he wouldn’t usually allow in his mind.
Upstairs, the women wouldn’t stop moving: pouring water from a pitcher, soaking rags, fanning Krystyna’s damp face, stroking back her heavy hair, rubbing her wrists. There was a dark, indescribable odor seeping throughout the rooms, and he sensed something lingering, waiting to settle in: he couldn’t describe what he smelled, or he didn’t want to, but it was as if the air had turned itself inside out.
He couldn’t sleep: the children were restless and whimpering, the men snoring, the air impossible to breathe. There was a hush, but no silence, only anxiety and that odor. Not stench, but worse. The blanket on, the blanket off. On his side, on his back. Two punches to the pillow, three more.
Her cries — Matka! — begging for her mother. Matka! Strong, then weaker.
He tiptoed around the children, tumbled like a nest of mice in their pallets, and on into the first bedroom, making his way around the crooked line of sleeping men — lodgers, down-on-their-luck cousins, someone’s uncle — then through the dim kitchen to stand in the doorway to the front room. Through the flat’s only window on the opposite wall, Jozef saw a swirl of new snow through the window and felt an odd moment of panic: so many flakes…too many, too much, more flakes than could be contained in this one night.
Crazy thoughts. He shook his head. Just snow, same as the snow in Poland.
Ludwika stood over Krystyna in the yellow lamplight; the others were tucked into the dark, edged in with the shadows. “It will be fine,” Ludwika murmured in Polish. “God will take care. You’ll see. Trust God.”
“Trust God,” one of the others echoed.
“Of course,” Jozef said. “Trust God.” He didn’t; he couldn’t. He understood God had stopped listening to him long ago.
“Go,” Ludwika said. “You won’t help here. Nothing to do but wait.”
He stood in the doorway for a moment. The doctor, he thought, but it was useless. There was no doctor who would come here. The money. What he had must go for rent, with Ludwika already behind. Ludwika’s eyes did not waver from his, as if she drew his gaze directly to her and held onto it for a reason.
“I have faith enough for both of us,” Ludwika said. Janka had been her favorite daughter, named for a sister back in Poland. In the end, Janka’s skin had crackled like paper. In the end, two flies had sailed freely along the ceiling, buzzing, not landing, and then another, another. Ludwika’s sobs, choked too-tight, an animal’s cry. That smell. That was how he knew it.
“Trust God,” someone murmured, and Jozef turned and left before he would have to hear the words again.
There was nowhere to go, but because he had to go, he grabbed his coat and trudged down the stairs to sit on the stoop, brushing aside a light layer of snow with one hand, pulling his cap down hard over his head.
Krystyna was seventeen and more delicate than she should be, and of course he shouldn’t have married someone so delicate, but her shy, crooked smile had softened his heart, her small hands that drew pictures in the air as she spoke, how she bit her bottom lip when she was embarrassed, how her cheeks turned pink whenever he looked too long at her. Someone had to take care of her. Like the way each spring he saw the first ducklings on the pond, their clumsy paddling, unable to keep a straight path through the water, and he would chase off the hungry herons and hawks. That didn’t stop him from shooting those same ducks come summer, bringing them home for dinner. In the end, a man had to be practical.
Coming to Chicago had been practical. Coming to work hard and earn money, coming to avoid being conscripted into the czar’s army…practical, and practical. A man would go far, assessing a situation and understanding the need to choose the practical course.
Jozef yanked his cap down harder, so the brim almost covered his eyes. Marrying Krystyna, who was the first girl he had met in America, had not been practical. What had been his father’s last words to him, almost two years ago before he left for America: “Don’t believe in love. Don’t let yourself think you’re in love.”
Jozef had met his father’s steady gaze, had shaken his head no. “I won’t.” Why would he? The girls in the village were dazzling, but Jozef knew the deadening endlessness that followed: the worrisome cycle of either too much weather or not enough ravaging the fields; taxes always due; stubborn, unyielding land; hunger’s bite; the hollow words of the priest; exhausted silence; the children left to trudge the same path, and then their children, too. No chance of escape. For proof, he could look at his father and his third wife; Jozef’s own mother had died when he was a baby, and the wife his father had married next died after about ten years. Now, this new wife, once filled with generous smiles and a quick, pretty laugh, was two years into the marriage — with the fussy baby and another coming along — and she might as well be any wizened old lady grubbing with the chickens, her smiles now shriveled.
“You say this,” his father had said. “But — ”
“No buts,” Jozef said.
His father said, “I think I know some things.”
“Of course, Father,” Jozef said. “But not this. I’ll follow your advice.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, nodded his head for emphasis. I’m not you, he thought, though he couldn’t imagine his father in love, whatever that meant. His father, too, was a practical man, and to find a wife to handle the house and children and chores was scarcely a matter of “love,” not with seven little ones running about. So that was one thing Jozef, the oldest, had done: gotten himself out from underfoot and come to America. Where had his father found money for the passage? He didn’t ask. Would he see any of them again? Something else he didn’t ask. When he boarded the ship, he hung over the rail and looked back, wanting to wave, but his father had already melted through the crowd. Jozef waved anyway, as if his father were still standing there to see him. And so he came to America.
And, foolishly, had not fallen in love, but had come as close as one could while not.
He huffed his breath into his gloveless hands to keep them warm. He stood on the step and stamped his feet several times, then sat down again. The church would be open most likely, but he’d choose freezing to death first.
Back on that summer afternoon when he had arrived in Chicago, the churn of people at the train platform was like the sea, heaving and terrifying, overwhelming and endless. Trunks swinging, men pushing, women and children linked arm in arm, strung five and six across, fighting their way in directions opposite everyone else, elegant men and women coming off the fancy Pullmans. Horses and wagons plowing through the crowds, the roads rutted and confusing. Languages spinning like loose marbles and only occasionally a word that sounded familiar, a word that was home. The sun a mallet pounding the breezeless air. Jozef — like the others, wearing three layers of clothing, money pinned to the inside of his waistband — stood in the midst of that mess, still as a rock in a stream, letting it flow around him as he breathed in lungfuls of the black packinghouse stench of blood and guts — breathed it all in: pushing and shoving and jostling, the shifting swells of panic, a shout of, “Brother!” and even with the clench of terror knotting his stomach and throat — even with that, he relished the sensation of being first somehow, even amidst all these others. He, Jozef Nowak, was somewhere no one else had been; he was first. Yes, his father’s plan was to send over others when Jozef sent enough money — brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins. But being first was perhaps the grandest thing he could expect to happen in his life: his two feet on soil where no member of his family had been.
Where he had come from, there was a feeling of tiredness in the same meal of potatoes and bread night after night. Or his father’s shirt that would be made over for him, and then made over for the baby, then made over into rags, so that the same scrap of cloth existed for years — becoming the landscape, same as any tall tree or immoveable hill. Something that had always been there. “You think too much,” his father would say. You don’t think enough, but Jozef would not dare speak the words. Many words there remained unspoken, so that what was said was like that piece of fabric: cycled round, endlessly reused until bleached of all meaning, until limp. Nothing stayed new. The new brothers and sisters grew to look like the brothers and sisters he already had. The pretty girls in the village became their hunched, sour mothers. The sun, the night, the hot, the cold, and all of it around again. Everything got ground down into dust. That was the future: becoming the dust under someone else’s boots.
But here, America, Chicago, was fresh, was new. The land hadn’t been used up; the land had barely been touched. There was so much of it, endless. Like the sky. And here he stood exactly in the middle of it all.
Then she knocked into him, shoved by someone else who kept moving, a burly man with hamfists swinging at his sides, his back as wide as a stable. Jozef righted her, trying not to notice the sensation of his hand on her sleeve, the warmth of her body radiating into his. He folded his arms across his chest, tried to focus his eyes only on the scrap of torn paper pinned to her shoulder: Chicago. One word he recognized.
“Sorry,” she mumbled in Polish. “Excuse me, please.” Her voice was shy but when she looked at him, there was something lively in her blue eyes, as if she knew what it was to be always thinking thoughts that the others told her to forget. She smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my brother,” she said. “He told me to wait, but how can anyone stand still in this crowd?” Then she slid her eyes away from his face, as if surprised she had said so much to a stranger, and the smile was gone.
He wanted it back. It had been a long time since someone had looked at him with such kindness. So Jozef spoke quickly, “We can find him. What does he look like? Like you?” This was the excuse to study her face: those far-apart blue eyes; firm, high cheekbones, like stone; a sweep of wheat-colored hair peeking from her dark shawl; her skin unlined, unfurrowed, looking soft and cool, despite the hot day, despite the layers of clothes she wore and the thick coat. It would be a relief to rest a hand on her cheek. She wasn’t pretty, but because she was the first person who had spoken specifically to him in Chicago, he wanted to remember her, so he stared harder, memorizing her features. Sun freckles across her nose. Flat, brown eyebrows. A tinge of pink across both cheeks, deepening now into a steady flush, and she ducked her head.
“I scarcely know what he looks like,” she said. “He’s been away for three years, so none of us have seen him. Indeed, I barely recognized him when he first approached, because he was so much taller than I’d seen him last, and dressed like a city man with such a fine hat. He’s gotten on well here, but no one should be surprised because he was always a good worker, and sweet, too. I’d been waiting for him; I arrived in the morning, and he was late, or I think maybe he didn’t know me either. When he left Poland I was a girl, only twelve or thirteen. Following him around the fields too much, ‘his little shadow,’ he teased.”
Her sudden chatter confused him, as if she wasn’t the shy girl he’d painted in his mind, but someone else entirely, someone to be wary of. Hearing so many words was like a thirsty man drowning in too much water. But then she bit her bottom lip hard, and shook her head, as she spoke, “It’s such a world isn’t it, where the ones you love go halfway around it?” and he understood that all this talk was there to cover her fear, just as he slipped into silence to cover his.
He glanced about, then asked, “Where’s your trunk?”
“He took it,” she said. “Strong as ever, it was nothing for him to sling it on his back.”
“Then he won’t be far from here,” he said. “Weighted by a trunk.”
She looked around, lifted her arms in the air in a fast shrug, and there was that smile again. “It seems I’ve been waiting quite a long time since I saw him,” she said. “He went to find a wagon and said he’d come back for me. Three years we’ve waited, so I would say more waiting is nothing. But you. You must be meeting someone. On your way somewhere?”
Jozef shook his head. “I’m the oldest. I’m first in my family to come to America.” To speak the words sounded impossibly grand; how dare he feel so important? His face turned hot. She made him say the things that should stay locked inside.
But she reached out and set one hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “My brother, too. Such a lonely place, being first.”
Again, he felt the heat of her touch through his sleeve, burning into his skin, into his bones. But he shifted so that her hand slipped aside. “There are others from my village,” he said. He had memorized the addresses he’d been given by his father who had gotten them from the priest. At night, trapped in the tight darkness of the rocking ship, while others snored or puked or prayed, he had recited the strange words over and over, imagining himself understanding the odd English someday, imagining what these Chicago streets might look like, what the words might mean and how one day they would jump off the piece of paper and into this new life that was his.
“He has others, too,” she said. “From the village and two cousins. Now me. But to be the only one, first…. Nothing is like family, like blood. Yet I’ll never understand the things he’s known here, what one has to…swallow to get by. It’s a distant place he came to, not America, not Chicago, but a place farther than that. You can’t return from here, not when you’re first…you’ll….” She trailed off. “I’m sorry. I should find him.” But she didn’t move.
To hear her talk, this journey was all so spectacular. But she had been on the stinking boat as he had, packed in like chickens to a coop — no, worse; chickens treated so badly wouldn’t lay — the dry bread, the never-enough water, the air breathed out a thousand times already. Now this: swarms of people here after the same jobs; what city contained enough jobs for this multitude? All after the same rooms to rent, the same bit of space to stand on the sidewalk. Coming here, being first, was only being practical. Someone had to, and as the oldest, it had to be him. If anything terrible happened to his father, there would be the children left behind, beggars or worse. He immediately shook the image clear, the little ones starving. He was here, and now no one would starve. It was what a man did — what her brother did, no doubt. What was expected.
But she was just a woman, a girl really. What would she know of “practical”? If she walked away, he would feel more alone than ever, so he said, “And now you’ve come, too, joining your brother.” He had wanted to sound friendly, but she simply shrugged, as if she barely heard him, and he had a frantic tumbling inside fearing she might turn to leave and be swallowed up by Chicago.
“We planned it would be my brother Andrzej coming here, but he’s not right in the head now,” she said. “He sits all day in the corner of the barn, winding straw around his thumbs. So it was me. I can work just as hard here, I would guess.”
He shielded his eyes from the sun with one hand. “Your other brother. The Chicago brother. What’s his name? I can call for him.”
“Jozef,” she said.
“Why, that’s my name, too!” he said, startled. Though why would this be so remarkable; the name was common enough. Whatever she said seemed unsettling, yet he wasn’t willing to see her go. He had to help her find her brother at least. So he shouted, “Jozef.” The crowd was large, gobbling up the sound, and he felt uneasy at the way it was his own name that seemed to disappear. He called louder, and though several men turned to glance at them, no one responded beyond a prolonged, curious stare. He jumped on top of his own trunk, raising himself above everyone’s shoulders, and bellowed, “JOZEF!”
He scanned the crowd, though he didn’t know what to watch for. A man who looked like him? Everyone scurried, intent on their own business, seeking out their Chicago relatives, or trying to shove their way through the station yard to the streets, hurrying to memorized addresses, to streetcars and wagons, to somewhere else, to the long awaited, long feared beginning of their new lives. He belonged in that surging crowd, yet here he was, bellowing like a bull, uselessly calling out for a stranger. He glanced down at the girl. She had been pushed into him at random, and now he was responsible for her. Her forehead furrowed, collecting a glistening line of sweat. She fanned her face with one hand.
He didn’t want to admit his terrible thought, but the question bubbled up anyway: “Is it possible — ?” He snapped it off, and shouted again, “Jozef!”
“Is what possible?” She stopped her fanning, clutched both hands around her face and shook her head. She was too clever, figuring out what Jozef hadn’t wanted to say. “No,” she said. “No.”
“We can find him.”
Her arms wrapped around her body and she rocked from side to side. “I can’t even recognize that a man is not my brother,” she said. “My blood. I was tricked by a stranger. A common thief.”
“No,” Jozef said, almost unable to believe such a thing himself. Again, he shook his head, banishing the image of his brothers — or his father — not recognizing him. He jumped down off his foolish trunk, angry that he had dragged all these things here. What good were these patchwork clothes and coats and boots, these farm tools, the cross off the wall, his mother’s Bible; how could these things possibly be of use to anyone here in this raw, new place? Even families disappeared here.
He remembered how he had stood at the rail of the boat before it sailed, waving, waving, waving — at nothing.
“This country,” she said. “What can become of us here?”
There was only one answer to a question like that — a question that shouldn’t be asked. Jozef gave it: “Only good things.”
“Do you believe that?” Her whisper was a light tickle in his head, brushing against something he had thought was hidden. Her stolen trunk. The missing brother. But here they were now, in America. One answer only. She set her hand on his arm. Again, that sensation of warmth burning through his sleeve.
“Yes,” he said. “I believe that.”
“God will take care of us,” she said.
“God is with us,” he said. He was afraid she might repeat her earlier question: Do you believe that? Dare he lie? It was one thing to let actions lie — going to mass every Sunday, confession, holy communion — but to speak it. No. The sweat collected in his armpits. “We’ll find your brother. Maybe his days are confused.”
She tightened her grasp on his arm. “All my clothes,” she said. “The fur-lined cape I made from rabbit skins. My mother’s fine tea kettle. My — ” She broke off and shook her head. “Lost,” she said.
He spun out of her grasp and called wildly, “Jozef! Jozef!”
She pulled him back, clung to him. “No, no,” she said. “What can we do now? His days are confused, or his job keeps hold of him, or…or something. God is here, even in Chicago; God will take care of us. You said. What can we do?” She smiled slowly; he imagined it would be hard for her to smile, but then she laughed. “Here I am in America, robbed already, and left with nothing!” Another laugh, and she flung her hands upwards, surrendering, and twirled so fast her skirt flared out like a bell, and Jozef had to laugh, too. Only here, in this place halfway around the world, might one think it funny to be robbed so cruelly. And, of course it wasn’t funny — not at all — but here they were, tossed together through no rhyme or reason, and so here they were laughing as if this were the happiest, funniest thing.
Together they made their way to one of the addresses he had memorized. One of the women in a flat there, Ludwika, said she’d help Krystyna get a four-dollars-a-week job sewing shirts, and she could lodge with them, and maybe ask around and find some skirts to borrow until she got paid. The men sent Jozef to the stockyards, with a name to ask for and a dollar in an envelope, and he quickly got a job cleaning the refrigerator cars at the packinghouse depot. Ludwika, who knew everything in the neighborhood, even guided Jozef to a place to live with another family a couple of blocks away whose lodger had left that morning. “Stay clear of the Irish,” she warned. “You’re better off sticking to your own people.”
And that was the beginning of the new life.
But the Chicago brother never showed up, and as Jozef made his way around the city, he found himself staring into Polish faces, grabbing aside likely strangers to ask if they knew this other Jozef or maybe had heard of him. These strangers would pause, ponder briefly, then shake their heads no, never asking questions before hurrying away and slipping back into the crowd.
A week or so after arriving, he went to the address on the letter Krystyna had tucked into her dress, not far from the addresses he had memorized for himself, where buildings were tight against the streets, and the raw death stench of the packinghouse twined through any open space. They knew the brother at this address, but they hadn’t seen him for many days, for weeks — they had rented his spot, divvied up the shirts left behind, passed along the suspenders to the boy who was bigger than his years to help him look old enough for a better-paying, man’s job down at the packinghouse. “We couldn’t say what happened,” they said. “People here just disappear.”
“No one disappears,” Jozef had said, but they shook their heads, let their eyes stare at a point in the distance.
“You’ll see,” they said. “People disappear. They shouldn’t, but they do. Maybe he’s out west — maybe he hopped a train heading west.”
The cousins were no help. “He stopped going to the factory,” they said. “The boss gave his job to another man, so we thought he went west. He talked about it.”
But Krystyna wouldn’t believe what Jozef reported to her. “What would he want out west?” she said. “He knew I was coming to Chicago. Knew I’d have to be looked after.” She shook her head, slowly at first, then faster. “No, no, no, no, no. He’s here somewhere. In Chicago. I’m his sister, and I feel it.”
So Jozef kept grabbing the arms of strangers speaking Polish, scanning faces, hoping. He asked men at the stockyards and the packinghouse; he asked men and strangers to ask other men and more strangers. What had happened to this Chicago brother; where was he? A man — a literal flesh and blood man — couldn’t melt into absolutely nothing, leaving behind only shirts and suspenders.
There were times when he found someone who knew Jozef Walczak, and the responses ran the same: “I haven’t seen him for — how long? What happened to him? Where’s he at? Tell him he owes me fifty cents. Tell him my wife had her baby. Tell him now they’re hiring down at the rail yard; I can put in a word. Tell him we’re playing cards on the corner every Saturday night and his money’s still good with me. Tell him my sister couldn’t wait so she’s getting herself married to Jan Praski, and a shame that because we know he isn’t half the man. Tell Jozef Walczak that the girls are still asking about him at the dances. Tell him I’m praying for his soul. Tell him Father Grzegorczyk wants to know why he’s not coming regular to confession.”
Tell him, tell him, tell him. The burden of these undelivered messages made Jozef toss and turn through many nights. It was like living a life in reverse, piecing together the character of a man through his absence instead of his presence: it was unnatural, confusing. Yet he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about this other Jozef, the disappeared Chicago brother, what he looked like, how his voice sounded, what jokes might make him laugh, whether his laugh was long and loud or only a quick snort?
As the weeks passed, Krystyna became more distraught — covering her face with both hands as Jozef spoke, her voice collapsing into choked whispers — until Jozef couldn’t bear to tell her the latest message or scrap of news. Though it couldn’t make sense, he began to doubt this brother had ever existed. Was he real, Jozef wondered, or was he the ghost story repeated at night to keep the little ones fearful and close to home, a warning that wandering the graveyard will bring calamity?
Still he searched. There would be an answer; there would have to be, and he would have to find it. America was that kind of practical place where problems had solutions and questions had answers. It was dark, so someone invented electric lights for the rich people. The buildings were too tall, so they put in elevators.
His visits to Krystyna continued. After the moment of hearing whatever bit of new information Jozef had about her brother, she would take a deep breath, and then turn calm. She laughed again. She told stories of her brother, of herself. She shared gossip about the women at the shirt factory. He had his own stories, and sometimes he told one. Her eyes brightened when she came to the door and saw him standing there. Her cheeks flushed pink, shone like the good side of an apple.
“Shoo, shoo,” she always said to Ludwika’s little girls who followed her about. She had told Jozef how they liked trying on her clothes when she was away; they used her comb and stared at themselves in her mirror; she had caught them, but they wouldn’t stop. “Such a hurry to grow up,” she had said of them, “like little Americans.” They chattered in a mix of Polish and English, and they were always at the door when Jozef called, giggling and leaning up against each other, hiding behind Krystyna, tugging each other’s sleeves.
After several months, one day when he arrived, wet from walking through a sudden rain with his cuffs rolled up, she said, “Shoo, shoo!” but the little girls only laughed, and the smallest one called, “Chłopak Krystyna, Krystyna’s boyfriend!” and Krystyna flung out an arm, catching the older one with a hard smack on the shoulder: “Away! You know better. Let me talk to my chłopak by myself,” and they clattered down the stairs to the stoop. After the sound of their footsteps faded away, Krystyna said, “They think you’re my beau.” She blushed more deeply.
“Well,” Jozef said, suddenly confused. He had never used such a word with her. He was helping her look for her brother. Wasn’t that all? This country was a hard place, and he hoped a man would help one of his sisters if he could. He remembered his father’s words. He didn’t want to say more, so he bent and unrolled his pants cuffs. They were wet nevertheless.
“Do you have good news about my brother today?” she asked. Her smile that sometimes was shy, and sometimes bold. He knew she was pretty; he had been wrong earlier to pretend she wasn’t; she was as pretty as any of the girls from the village. When he didn’t answer, she said, “Oh. I hope you don’t mind that I called you my chłopak. They just have their silly, childish ideas.”
He stepped back, to allow her to pass into the hallway where they might have a better chance of speaking privately, since Ludwika and one of the older girls were sitting at the table in the kitchen, assembling paper flowers. They seemed fully focused on the task, their hands twisting quickly, but this job was like any of them: the hands were busy, but the mind stayed free, each working independently of the other. Nothing that happened in the flat would escape Ludwika’s attention. The hall was the better bet, or the stoop; he could give the little girls a penny to go away.
But Krystyna pressed her lips together and shook her head. She pointed to a closed door on the other side of the hall. “That nasty old gossip listens to everything; she’s like a newspaper, with all her stories. We’re better inside. Just whisper. Ludwika doesn’t tell anything, even if she does hear. The girl Danuta, too.” As Jozef opened his mouth, she added, “Let them have the stoop. They’ll only follow us and be pests, and it’s wet and damp out there besides. Stupid rain. Come in,” and so he did. She led him to the far corner of the room, next to the cookstove, and they stood awkwardly side by side. “We didn’t see you at mass this morning,” she said. “I was looking.”
“I went early,” he said. Maybe he was her beau. Chłopak Krystyna. Did she want him to be? It was hard now to tell if he was or wasn’t; the little girls seemed to know what a beau was better than either he or she did. He stuck his hands in his pants pockets to keep them from dangling.
Ludwika’s eyes steadily watched her fingers; the paper rustled as she worked, almost like wind bending tall grass. She wasn’t going to let on that she was listening. There was so much space in this country, but it was all somewhere else.
“Tea?” Krystyna asked.
“Not now,” he said, though he knew it was rude to refuse.
“What?” she said. “What?” She brought her hands up to her face, covered her mouth and cheeks so only her eyes peeked out at him. Her words were muffled: “You do mind that I called you my beau. It was nothing, just a game with the little girls.”
Her eyes glistened with tears, and he thought of how the sun passed through the stained glass at St. Casimir’s. He liked to watch that glow intensify as mass went on, as the priest’s voice faded to a murmur, a forgettable noise like the rustling paper of Ludwika’s flowers. Not a lie, but not the truth either, what he said next: “I don’t mind.”
She relaxed her hands, brought them to her chest and crossed them over her breasts. “Then what?”
There was only one way, one practical way. He had been thinking about it as he had hurried through the rain. No, he had thought then, no, he couldn’t. But now. That word. It meant something that she used it. So now he spoke slowly: “I have some bad news. Your brother.” His arms felt tight and constricted in his pockets, and he couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t simply stand; it was as if he had forgotten how. How did a tree stay always so still? He stared at the rough wooden floor, at the tiny droplets of water that had fallen off the bottom of his pants. From one of the back rooms, across the airshaft, someone shouted something in a language he didn’t understand.
“Bad news? Really?” Krystyna seemed startled, as if up until now this had all been a fun joke, a lark. It was if she were thinking, There was no brother, so how could there now be bad news about a non-existent brother? “Impossible,” she said.
“Your brother…,” and Jozef took a deep breath, held it in for a moment. Had he ever told such a lie? It wasn’t too late; he could turn back. Both he and Krystyna turned to watch Ludwika. She wasn’t listening, or that’s what they all had to pretend. Her head was bent, concentrating on her work. The girl, too. If the flowers weren’t perfect, they wouldn’t get paid; it was a job for the little girls, and Ludwika shouldn’t be feeling sorry for them, filling in, letting them slip off. Here, everyone had to work.
Jozef let out his breath in a gust, and started again: “I have some bad news. Your brother — ” and the plan he had debated in his head while he walked through the rain was to say, “Is out west.” But she had called him her “beau.” He wasn’t. But if he wasn’t, why had he been going to all this trouble for her? Traipsing the streets of Chicago looking for this man, this other Jozef. She would have him ask every last person in the city about this brother. Everyone needed an answer. She needed an answer. It was America, and people disappeared here. So in that single second of a pause, “is out west” turned into a whisper: “is dead.”
Then he repeated the awful words, still a whisper: “Your brother is dead.”
There was a silence.
Ludwika started another paper flower. Rustling. The pale sound of the priest’s voice in his memory.
“Dead?” Krystyna repeated. “That can’t be.”
“He drowned,” Jozef said. “I met a man who told me. He knew your brother.”
“Where is this man?” she said. “Where is my dear Jozef buried? I must…I must see to this.” Her face was ashen, her posture suddenly drained, limp.
“He drowned,” Jozef said. “There’s no body that anyone found.”
Ludwika and the girl picked up paper for another flower at the same time, their fingers touching. Something in the corner started scratching, a persistent scritch-scritch. Jozef stamped his boot and the thing stopped.
“This is best,” Jozef said. “Now you know. Now we know.”
Again, scritch-scritch, but Jozef let it go, trying to hide the pooling silence. But the tiny noise only emphasized how awkward the room had become, so he stamped his foot once more, and the girl’s shoulders jumped.
“He’s right.” Ludwika spoke suddenly, not looking up. A bright red flower bloomed in her hand. “This is terrible, but terrible things happen. And so now we know that he is gone.”
“The man,” Krystyna said, blinking too quickly. “Where did you meet him?”
“In a saloon,” Jozef said.
Krystyna frowned, but she said, “Take me to him.”
Ludwika set her flower on the table and walked over to Krystyna. “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said, stroking Krystyna’s cheeks. “A saloon? You think now you’re going to saloons? Listen to yourself. Your brother was a good man who wanted you to be here. He wanted you to come to America and seize opportunity. You must honor him. You must.” She spoke fiercely, clasping Krystyna’s face between her palms and staring into her eyes. Jozef knew that Ludwika’s brother’s hand had been hacked off at the packinghouse the second day he worked there, turning him into a street beggar, and that her husband had only six months ago died in the packinghouse in an accident she wouldn’t talk about. Terrible things happened. They just happened. There, and yes, also here.
“But…” Krystyna said. “So I’m alone here?”
“He’s with God now.” Ludwika lowered her arms and pulled Krystyna into a close hug. “Can we complain about that? You’re here, you’re alive, and you have your wonderful beau to take care of you. This is what your brother would want for you.”
She stared over Krystyna’s head and directly into Jozef’s eyes as she said “your wonderful beau.” He didn’t look away; he couldn’t. Ludwika’s dark eyes would have found him wherever he sent his gaze. Ludwika understood everything. She knew he had lied.
Ludwika went on: “You will have to write home to tell them this sad news. But now, come — we can go to the church to light a candle for the soul of your lost brother.” She called to the girl, working on another flower. “Danuta! Watch Janka and the baby when they wake up.”
“He’s dead,” and now Krystyna began to sob. She sagged heavily and suddenly in Ludwika’s arms, but Ludwika was strong and held her steady.
“Dead,” Ludwika repeated. Again she pierced her dark eyes straight into Jozef’s. “Drowning is not such a bad way to go,” she said. “Compared to some. Was it…where? The Chicago River?”
“The Chicago River,” Jozef said. “Yes. A dark, moonless night. An accident. There was a loose horse someone was trying to capture, and your brother was helping. The man in the saloon was there; he tried to save Jozef, but he told me to tell you it wasn’t to be. Peaceful, he told me. As if God himself simply plucked him away. He said to be sure to tell you that. As he spoke, tears came to his eyes.” The walls of the room felt as though they had moved closer, and Jozef’s back was drenched with sweat; it trickled down his spine. He should be quiet. Should just let her go off with Ludwika to mourn her brother. And then he, too, could disappear, could slip away and not return. He could “go west” or “drown.” This was Chicago, this was America; men came here to escape. Wasn’t that why his father had sent him, escape? Freedom? His father had warned, “Don’t believe in love,” and he hadn’t, he hadn’t.
But here he was, with Ludwika’s coal eyes latched onto him, his body pressed into the corner of this tight, closed, sweaty, dark room; and boots clattered up the stairs — the little girls back already, or if not them, it was the boy, or the aunt, or another lodger, and from the front room, the baby’s thin wail, and Janka calling, “Mama!” There was someone around, always; he saw there always would be, and honestly, it might as well be her as any other. Krystyna. It would be this way no matter what he did or where he went. He remembered how her trunk had been stolen, and there she was in America all alone with nothing, and how the two of them had laughed themselves silly to think of it. He would remember that.
Jozef said, “Krystyna, I would like to come next Sunday to take you to church. And I will add your brother to my prayers. I feel as if I know him.” The other Jozef, is how he would always think of him, his Chicago brother.
Several months later, in November, he borrowed money so that he and Krystyna could be married. Ludwika baked the cake, and they all ate bigos and pierogi and food that the women brought. Several men drank too much beer, but everyone danced for hours and toasted them, the happy couple. He sent a wedding photograph to his father. “Very pretty girl,” his father wrote back. “You are doing well in Chicago to be married so soon. Bad winter here, so I hope you can spare us something.”
Now, a year and a half after that first day, Jozef knew he was right on both counts: the brother, the wedding. Krystyna took care of him as much as he took care of her. This was a hard land, America. The shirt factory had burned down, so now she was at another place, a canning factory, and he had found a better job, digging away at the Chicago River — the brother’s river — a big, important project for the city, and though he was little more than one ant on a hill, he admired the tremendous machinery tearing up the earth for the new canal, and the men responsible for planning and executing such a marvel. It was far too grand for his own puny head to absorb. When he would think of trudging behind the plow back in Poland, one furrow at a time — and now to see that even the gang plow he had longed for then was tiny compared to these machines of Chicago that clawed apart rock.
So between the two of them, they might get their own apartment after the baby came, and take in some lodgers. They could find a place where she could clean the building and not have to go to the factory. There would be the baby, born at the beginning of a new century; that had to mean good luck. Krystyna was a fine wife, and how else was one to find a wife anyway? Fall in love? His father had been right.
The stoop was getting cold; he had been sitting out here, alone, for several hours, watching the night sky finally lighten into near-dawn, watching the flurries of snow whirl in the light of the new streetlamps. A rat scuttled through the gutter below, and the milk wagon rumbled by. The sludge and puddles in the gutter were frozen darkly solid. He blew on his hands to try to feel them and wrapped his arms around his chest. There was a silent emptiness that he was only now noticing. Hadn’t he heard her cries earlier, faint through the window glass? He should have found something to do, a way to help her. Not this, sitting by with no use.
No. They would call him when she was ready, what she wanted, too. He would hope for a son. She had picked out the name: Jozef. Another one, he thought. American Jozef. Nothing terrible happened to these Americans. They were lucky. Perhaps they were the ones blessed by God.
A screech of the window opening, and Ludwika’s voice from above: “Jozef!” Her words slashed apart the new morning, and he realized he had forgotten what birds sounded like. He shook his head as if startled to hear her, though he had been expecting her call for hours, impatiently waiting. As he stood up, something dark clutched his stomach — cold? hunger? no — and for a brief moment, he wished he were somewhere else and that he would never know what she was about to say next.
But he was here. “Your son!” she cried. “Your son is born!”
That clutching thing. That smell. He walked into the tenement building, and like that, he knew his wife was gone.
Up the stairs, the wooden thump of each footstep. Swallowing a wave of icy water to understand suddenly exactly what he had done to Krystyna with that terrible, regrettable whisper: is dead. To feel, to be alone.
I’m alone, he thought, before remembering the baby.