Near dark, as rain stumbles in, amusement rides close one by one, and kids swarm the Polish pavilion, festooned in red and white bunting. On stage, the Polka-Aires blare brassily, moving from polka to polka, as couples, hedged in by green picnic tables, round a makeshift dance floor. Under the tables, children squat, hypnotized by the circling of their twirling parents. My sister and brothers scavenge through leftover foods: warm potato salad, shriveled kielbasa links, stale hard rolls, and orphaned bottles of opened soda pop gone flat. Having thrown up on the Jack Rabbit half an hour ago, my stomach is content to be empty.
In the rear of the pavilion, Dad plays poker with a group of non-dancers, whose abandoned wives dance with other abandoned wives. Dad knows how to dance. But he won’t. Not when there’s a chance to clip a few beer-addled pigeons at five-card stud. And no one seems to see what’s going on except me. So I’m keeping my eyes glued to the man who holds Mom closer than Dad does when they hug.
The man dancing with Mom is Ted Benkowski, a friend of the family whom we call Mr. B. He lives a block from our home and delivers our milk. During the school year, his delivery truck seems to pull up just as we’re leaving for school. He takes the opportunity to tease us about our height or our hair or our pitiful lack of knowing anything that would prevent us from driving a milk truck for the rest of our lives. His tortured conversations end in a handshake, our small hands mere walnuts in the massive nutcracker of his clenched fist.
When the band switches from a polka to a Chardasz, Mr. B’s drunken promenade soon staggers out of rhythm. But Mom maintains her balance and his, propping him up like wet laundry. His sweaty face glows red as a traffic light. But he never stops. At the end of each dance, before Mom has a chance to escape, he holds her hostage until the next song. Dad pays more attention to the ladies in his poker hand than his lady on the dance floor. As Mom tries to keep up with her palsied partner, her flowery skirt wilts in the heat. Untucked, Mr. B’s long-sleeved, white shirt, rolled to his elbows, clings to his damp body. A narrow black tie garrotes his neck like a short fuse, and a thick belt chokes his baggy brown trousers. The early grace of his wide wing tips surrendered long ago to several bottles of Pabst.
At the end of the Chardasz, the dancers applaud. The leader of the band grabs the microphone. As his moustache suffocates the chrome, he asks the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, are you having a good time?”
The audience roars with more applause and yips of approval.
The leader’s face plumps with pride. “Dzienkuje, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, bowing. Then he adds, “But as Porky the swinia says, ‘Th-Th-Th-That’s all, folks!’”
The crowd moans.
Like a tinny radio commercial, he shrieks, “Enjoy the rest of Polish Day here at Kennywood Park!”
Mr. B. shouts back, “If y-y-you keep p-playing, we’ll keep enjoying!”
The drummer budda-booms.
Nonetheless, the musicians disband.
As Mom walks toward me, fanning herself with her palms, Mr. B. clings to her like one of my Aunt Valeria’s fox stoles, his long arms draped around her neck. My sister and brothers scatter like minnows. When Mom reaches our picnic table, she rolls her eyes at me. While prying him off, she says to Mr. B., “Taddzu, sit down. I’ll fix you something to eat.”
He grins, leans over, and whispers in Mom’s ear. As she listens, she blushes and smiles, but her eyes dash at me like flash cards she uses to teach my younger brother arithmetic. I know what they add up to. After Mom pushes him away, Mr. B. laughs and plops down next to me at our table. With a napkin, Mom wipes off her ear. Through my peripheral vision, I see him starring at me. His thick spectacles magnify his glass eye as the good eye zeroes in on me like a riflescope. I never know which eye of his to look at. Dad told me to always look a man in the eye when talking to him, but he never said which one. Anyway, direct eye contact will cause Mr. B. to say something to me, so I avoid looking at him. He says something anyway.
“Hey, kid, you kn-know how to d-dance?”
I pretend he’s talking to someone else and don’t answer, but he stabs me with his elbow.
“Hey, I’m-m-m talking to you!”
I look at Mom who’s making him a ham sandwich. She smiles at me and nods toward Mr. B. If I lie and say, yes, Mr. B. will grab me like a mannequin, maneuver me to the center of the dance floor, and force me to prove my claim. I saw him do that once to my cousin Kevin at a wedding. If I say, no, he’ll make some smart remark.
I say, “No.”
My answer punches all the air out of his face. He exhales loudly, like a tire going flat fast. I smell stale beer.
“How old are y-you?” he asks.
His face deflates further.
“T-That’s no age,” he says. “T-that’s how m-many eggs in-n a dozen.”
He laughs. I don’t. When he’s done laughing, he inspects me, a non-laugher. As his face contorts like some agony in the garden, I can tell he finds me unsuitable as a child, let alone a Polish one. Then he indicts Mom, the party responsible.
“J-Jesus Christ, Emercine,” he says to Mom, “these k-kids d-d-don’t kn-know n-nothing.”
Mom tries to rescue me. “He’s twelve, Taddzu. He doesn’t have to dance.”
To appease him, Mom sets a paper plate in front of him with two slabs of ham sandwiched between slices of paska.
Looking down at the food, Mr. B. frowns, his chin touching his chest. When Mom places an Iron City Beer next to the plate, he livens.
“Dzienkuje. Do y-you have any chrzan?” he asks.
Mom slides the bottle of horseradish across the table. After slathering the bread with horseradish, Mr. B. takes a horse-sized bite. I figure I’m safe as long as he eats.
“I’ll bet … you d-don’t … speak Polish … either,” he says between chomps.
Busy with packing, Mom stops listening to the conversation. I don’t know much Polish, just a few words. But it’s worth a shot.
“I know that dzienkuje means, thank you,” I say.
“M-My d-dog can say that much,” he says, picking something from his yellow teeth with a match.
“I know that baci means grandmother.”
“After mama and papa, that’s the third word P-Polish b-babies learn.”
I feel like Dad when he’s drawing nothing but losing hands and he knows the dealer’s dealing from the bottom of the deck. So I look Mr. B. dead in his live eye and say, “I know that gromki pysk means loud mouth.”
With his left hand, he grabs the back of my neck and holds it tighter than a grenade. With his right hand, he picks up his Iron City. As he drinks, his grip tightens. I feel like an Ohio River catfish held by the gills by some weekend fisherman, having his picture taken by one of his buddies. Maybe Mr. B. senses the sass in my last answer.
He asks me another question.
“Do you kn-know what today is?”
“Polish Day at Kennywood.”
I’m out of ammo. I know it’s a trick question, but I don’t know the trick answer. I surrender.
“I don’t know,” I say.
He smirks like MacArthur staring down at the humiliated Japanese on the USS Missouri.
“See,” he says, “you don’t know that much.”
He shakes me by the neck for a moment, and when his grip loosens, I wriggle out. He shouts at Mom, “These kids!”
“Don’t cry to me, Taddzu. Talk to his father,” Mom says, pointing at Dad, still playing cards. When Mom refers to Dad as “father,” I know she’s angry with him. This time, for playing cards all day and ignoring her.
“Joe Narky’s a bum,” Mr. B. says. “Christ, I out-shot him at the sh-shooting gallery th-this afternoon. And I’ve only got one good p-peeper.” Looking over his shoulder at Dad, he adds, “He’s got t-ten god-d-damned fingers, and he still can’t w-win at cards!”
Not sure if I should smile or laugh or leave, I look to Mom. Mom laughs, but I know she doesn’t approve of the language. Once, during an argument over his gambling, Dad let the “f” word fly, and Mom didn’t talk to him for a week. Before Mr. B. can continue his editorial on the state of our nation’s youth, Mrs. B. arrives at our picnic table and tells her husband that it’s time to leave. Her voice crackles sweet as a box of Cracker Jack, yet it squeaks shrill as the prize toy whistle. As a child in the thirties, Mrs. B’s leg got caught under a playground merry-go-round. She still walks with a slight limp. Childless, Tillie enjoys strolling the amusement park arm-in-arm with her husband, watching the faces of children as they wait in line, anticipating the wild rides.
Looking at the last piece of his sandwich like it’s a religious relic, Mr. B. says, “I’m n-not going. You go with Emercine.”
Mrs. B. looks at me, then at Mom. From behind his back, she pretends to strangle her husband of eighteen years.
“And how are you getting home?” she asks.
“I’m g-going home with Joe N-Narky.”
Still standing behind him, Mrs. B. cocks her fist. Her upper teeth bite her top lip. Then she explains the situation to Mr. B. as though to a child.
“Emercine’s going home with Joe Narky. And they have four kids. Remember? There’s no room for you.”
Like an impudent child, Mr. B. explains with equal composure, “N-Narky is still p-playing cards. You take Emercine and her kids in our car, and m-me and this kid will go with N-Narky in his car.”
When Mr. B. said, “this kid,” he nudged me in the ribs. I do not want to ride with Mr. B. I look at Mom and try to catch her eye, but she and Mrs. B. have already begun taking our stuff to the other car. I do not want to ride with Mr. B. As my older brother totes a cooler to the car, he sticks his tongue out at me and laughs. I do not want to ride with Mr. B.
When Mom leaves with Mrs. B. without saying anything to Dad, I run over to where he sits playing cards. The whiskey-blank faces of the other men reveal nothing. As I circle the table, each man moves his cards closer to his chest, unwilling to let anyone, even a kid, get a glance at his hand. A few of the men, the winners, have piles of dollar bills and change. Dad’s got fifty-seven cents. After he tosses two quarters into the pot to call a raise, he’s down to two nickels and two pennies. With beer bottle in hand, Mr. B., somber as a funeral visit, approaches the table. When a fat man with a cigar lays down three kings, Dad slaps his cards on the table face down like drowned bodies and gets up, leaving the seven cents behind with the rest of his losses. Mr. B. laughs and slaps the fat man on the back.
Dad’s not a sore loser. He always figures he’ll win big next time. When he asks me where Mom is, I tell him she left with Mrs. B. I can tell he’s putting two and two together and coming up with an odd number. After some pensive thought, his face animates, saying that Mom will probably be asleep in bed by the time we get home.
On the way to the car, he endures the verbal abuse of Mr. B. as he details Dad’s “piss poor” card playing. The rain weakens to a mist. As we cross the cinder parking lot, Dad knows just when and where to help keep Mr. B. from falling down without being obvious. As I trail behind them, I figure I can hide in the backseat of dad’s car like a foxhole. But as Dad opens the back door of our Ford Fairlane, Mr. B. insists I sit up front, between Dad and him. I look at Dad. He shrugs and shuts the rear door. I try to slide across the seat to the middle, but my sweaty legs stick to the hot vinyl. Mr. B. thumps down on the seat like a dead man.
As we pull out of the parking lot, Mr. B. wedges his bottle of beer between his legs. On the way, his image fades in and out of street-lamp light, his torso stiff as a bronze on exhibit at the Carnegie. I smell stale sweat. I keep waiting for someone to speak. After a while, Dad turns on the radio.
After a few minutes of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, Mr. B. grouses in a low drunken tone, “G-Goddamn hippie m-music. How do kids d-dance to th-that?”
Dad elbows me and nods at the radio. I change stations, finding the news.
“ . . . at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on this the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy . . . ”
Mr. B.’s left arm flies in front of me, his hand knocking my hand away from the radio. His fingers poke at all the radio buttons, changing stations like a mad piano player trying to find the right note. His furious fingers continue to pound until Dad turns the radio off. The death of the radio seems to please Mr. B. To the thud of windshield wipers, he lights a Lucky. He takes a drag and exhales, smoke rolling, banking off the windshield, and spreading like a slow motion explosion. In a trance of alcohol and under a veil of smoldering tobacco, Mr. B. speaks.
“D-Day we parachuted behind enemy lines.” His stony face is the color of a tombstone. “As we fell, the krauts fired into the night sky, picking some of us off like clay pigeons.”
Earlier in the day, Dad challenged Mr. B. to a contest at the shooting gallery.
“Five bucks says I can out-shoot you, Taddzu,” Dad bragged
Mr. B., walking with Tillie, worked on a chocolate cone. Mom told Dad that we didn’t have five dollars for foolishness.
“Good,” Mr. B. said. “M-make it ten, J-Joe.”
Dad plunked down a quarter on the counter. Mr. B. did the same. The barker snapped up the change and held out a rifle.
“You go first, Taddzu,” Dad offered.
“N-No, you,” Mr. B. replied and continued eating his ice cream.
Dad grabbed the rifle. I had never seen Dad shoot craps let alone a gun. When dad started firing, Mr. B. watched, and Tillie and Mom left in a huff. When dad finished, he had only scored three hits. No prize.
With a crunch, Mr. B. finished his cone and picked up the rifle. While he was still chewing, he fired off round after round, each shot pinging a target. It sounded like a car running back and forth over the ding-hose at a service station. By the time Mr. B. finished, the barker had lined up several stuffed animals on the counter, all of which Mr. B. ignored and stray kids fought over.
When the car stops at a red light, Mr. B. takes several loud gulps of beer. Like many other vets, Mr. B. never talked about the war. Dad, a younger man, served as a peacekeeper in Bad Wildungen, Germany after VE-Day, and now concentrates on Mr. B’s tale of combat.
“Just before I hit the ground,” Mr. B. continues, “a sniper shot me in the eye.”
I peek up at his eye, expecting blood. All I see is a dead marble. Without looking at me, Mr. B. nudges my ribs with his elbow, sharp as a bayonet.
“It had to be a sniper,” he says. “No green-ass recruit gets that lucky!”
He laughs. Dad laughs. I laugh, too, and notice that Mr. B. no longer stutters.
“My buddy got caught in a tree. He dangled like a puppet. I cut his chute straps. He fell on me. That’s when I saw his chest wound. I slung him over my shoulder. As he wheezed, blood splattered down the leg of my uniform.”
Mr. B. grabs my knee, his grip tightening, hurting me. I don’t let on. I bite my lip ’til it bleeds, the irony taste, like a mouthful of shrapnel. When he continues the story, he lets go of my knee.
“I tried to find my platoon and ran into a German soldier, a boy my age. He raised his arms in surrender. The three of us wandered in silence toward the sounds of artillery fire. By midnight, I found the front, the end of a day that had no end.”
Mr. B. removes his glasses, the lenses, thick as a telescope’s, able to pierce the past. He rubs his eye as if to erase the haunting faces of a war still being waged. Into the red ruts on the sides of his nose, he realigns his frames.
“A medic snapped off my buddy’s tags. The lieutenant swore, stared at me cold, told me we weren’t taking prisoners. So I marched the kid into the woods. I raised my rifle and shouted at him. He turned and faced me, his mouth open, afraid, yet knowing what I had to do. Before he could speak, I shot.”
For a while no one speaks. Then, I guess, I say the wrong thing.
“You’re a hero, Mr. B.”
His hand returns to my knee, but his touch is gentle. “What I did,” he says, his voice subdued, reminding me of mine when I confess sins in the dark of the confessional, “I am ashamed of.”
Mr. B. lets go of my knee. In the ashtray, he executes his cigarette. From his shirt pocket, he removes his cigarette pack. Empty. He crushes it. As he tries to draw another swallow of beer, the empty bottle huffs. He drops it like a dud grenade.
“F-F-Fuck it,” he says, his stutter revived.
Dad pulls up to the curb in front of Mr. B’s home. The wipers scud across dry glass, and Dad turns them off. Sitting on the porch steps, Tillie waits. Their pet, a three-legged dachshund, nestles in her lap. After Dad exits, he walks around the car and chats with Tillie. He lost at cards and he lost ten bucks to Mr. B. at the shooting gallery. He wants to delay going home to face the music Mom will make him dance to.
While still inside the car, Mr. B. grabs my knee again. He squeezes while shaking it, and looks at me, his good eye bloodshot, yet focused, lucid as memory, the other, dead as his buddy.
“L-Learn to d-dance,” he says to me, “n-n-now that you kn-know a little something.”
Don Narkevic received an MFA from National University. His recent poetry has appeared in The Binnacle, Nassau Review, and About Place Journal. Laundry, a poetry chapbook, was published in 2005 by Main Street Rag. His plays have received readings in Chicago, New York, and Virginia. FutureCycle Press published Admissions, a book of poems, in 2013. He lives in Nutter Fort, West Virginia.