by Patrick Pawlowski
“You write about your parents a lot.” –Helaina
I have an idea for a fiction piece—everyone is disabled. Or maybe just everyone in America. Maybe they aren’t disabled; maybe it’s a weakened arm or leg.
I imagine the hindering that disables them, a fog that slows in—it doesn’t kill anyone, unless they happened to be atop a ladder and lost their footing or their grip.
It takes two people to do anything demanding and every day people seem to find new limitations, but also new ways of dealing.
Inventions that cantilever weight across the body abound; accessibility ramps are finally where they should be. People of all ages and ethnicities retire to Florida.
They still have to work, however. Get up in the morning, or at night, and work.
Existence is positive, despite.
“You need to come home and look through your books.” I have a little more than just books at my parents’ house—clothes, watches, papers, a cat and dog—but my Mom, on the phone, generalizes it to books. “We might be moving.” Uh-huh, I sound. I’m at my apartment in Flatbush.
“Don’t say that! Stop making that sound! Those noises! Speak normally!” At the end, an involuntary yugh, like a divot of cream slipped into thick soup.
She doesn’t like mm-hmms and uh-huhs. She hates them; she explodes, often in Polish non-expletives. Jesteś idiotą? Czy ty jesteś normalny? Translated: You’re a doofus, a clown; are you normal? Until now I’ve never bothered to look the words up in the handy-dandy Dictionary of Polish Pejoratives1, but the gist—the yelling, the faces, the cognates—have been enough indication.
I’ve realized that I can mollify her with warm affirmations, not unlike a Happy Belated Birthday card.
“Relax. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you. I didn’t mean…You’re the hardest working person I know… That’s just how I confirm I’m listening, Mama… Go on. Moving where?”
I mean all of these things—and yet the track of their verbal abuse runs in the back of my mind like a player piano rotating through Liszt.
“Your father might get a job. With an apartment.”
My shoulders rise, then sink, unsure where to settle. I’m sure I store all my stress in my shoulders.I can hear my dad in the background. I can hear my name. This is where I roll my eyes at the Universe; I can almost mouth the dialogue for both their parts, block the scene: my dad, on the bed, wants to know who that was. My mom tells him to mind his fucking business.
And so it goes.
I tap the screen—end the shrieking.
Scene: A couple is in the kitchen, one pouring the morning coffee while the other grabs the milk from the fridge, footing the door ajar. One pours the milk into their cups; the other sugars and spins with the spoon. They sip, their arms slung low, slipped off one shoulder like a loose shift. They limp, perhaps, to the coatrack, to clothe each other against the cold. One wraps a scarf tight around the other’s head, and they help to do the tucking and pulling. They have made light names of their noodling arms and loose knees. One goes to continue building a car for a client, or to thump together a cabinet one mallet-fall at a time. Or maybe they just punch code into a computer and a machine spits out new knives. The other goes to watch over new babies, or to manage an office a few days of the week, or to help in building said cabinet. In times of occasional need everyone anchors together at the shoulders and hips, like carrying a drunk friend to bed. They are not connected by any spirit or fraternity beyond the brace of empathy. The image is opal and clear and humanist, not sad sepia.
It’s the next day. I am in Greenpoint. Mom is walking around, assessing with a mouth agape, then biting: what it would take to transport the dobitek—the whole of our things, the whole of our lives.
Her left arm hangs lower than the other—the rotator cuff surgery stiffened it, like a log, she says, and the physical therapy worsened it. She slipped on some ice a while back, along with the paramedic who came to pick her up. She’s still seeing doctors and lawyers about it.
Dad is on the couch, poking at his arm. Under the skin, we can see the bicep is detached from the bone, garishly offset.He doesn’t remember when or where exactly it happened. Definitely work, he thinks.
He drowns the pain in beer he hides in the paper shredder. That he might be drinking it warm, to pointlessly hide it, saddens me more.
Mom harangues him but in defense he points to his abstinence from hard liquor. They are broken in so many of the same ways. She asks me if I want to eat anything, offering multiple times. Each time a different food option is offered. Nie, dziękuję.2
Dad is angered every time she passes the TV, blocking it, in her surveying of the laughably small apartment. His eyes track her. She can feel them—she looks back. Perhaps it is he who is hungry and waiting for an offer of food.
I imagine the story. I hear the exaggerated creaking of wooden furniture, as quick movements have given to slow. The dragging of a hinge across its normal range. The rasp of new friction from weightier footfalls. I can hear the waiting in the story as I do at home–waiting is the shuffling of bodies in their place. Smoking in the kitchen chair breathing life out the open window. Heavy sighs. Burps. Waiting for the muscle spasms to end by struggling against the bed in a defiant-looking stretch. Pill bottles falling to the floor. One body on bed springs, then another.
“No more ‘Hey Jack!’”
Dad is telling a story. He hates being called Jack. His name is Jacek, Yah-tzek. But he hated the the mangled readings, the sound of Jay-sick, more. Other carpenters would read it off his equipment: rough-made jigs and drums of labeled brushes and hammers, rulers and T-squares, corded power-saws bunching out the top in a monstrous cactus, Husky bags and water bottles and jars of screws and drivers sharpied thick.
At one point he relabeled everything: J-A-C-K. The J looks like a sickle.
He is giving me the latest; there is a superintendent job available.
“The building manager’s already calling me by name. Not Mr. P’lowski this-that, yada! Ja-cek.” His hair, still brown and absent any enervations by cancer, alcoholism, or age, points every way from under a ragged newsboy cap. Ja myślę, żeja3, got it, he says.3
He doesn’t get into the details of how the interview went. He says he will probably be able to work some side jobs for the extra cash. His eyes move, corner-to-corner, as he plans.
“Didn’t you say there are over a hundred apartments?” I counter.
He looks at me as if I don’t know his true strength, his immense value. I look down at his water-bloated knees that crack like a pepper mill when he stands. I complain about my building’s superintendent –we’ve had a widening hole in our closet ceiling for over a month.
The job would come with a two-bedroom apartment with a yard and he would be able to keep his tools in the basement that, he says, is as big as a parking garage. He’s already mapped where he’d put them, in his head and on paper. “Now I am waiting. Just waiting.”
If you asked my parents what they were waiting for, different as they are, their answer would be the same: pieniądze. Money.
I don’t want to dash their hopes or seem like I don’t have faith—I don’t ask if he drank before the interview. “Did the building manager seem nice?”
“I don’t remember, but ya… He seemed nice. Trochę śmieszny, y’know.”4 A little funny. I can feel my mother’s eyes roll—I can see her arms flapping in my peripheral vision. He doesn’t even remember the guy’s name, she is thinking. What a fuckup.
I’m standing by the TV stand. I can see my mom, peeking at him with small steps out of the kitchen, then looking at me. Dad is struggling with his catheter—struggling getting it into the hidden port in his belly button.
My mom hates it when people “make faces.” Or stammer. Or prevaricate. Something about honesty and strength, I think. Something about presenting oneself.
I hear her steps as I watch him. Again him, again me, before turning away with contempt and disgust. I can hear her lips smack.
“Look at you,” she says, grimacing, if I don’t shave down to the dermis.
She does the same thing, same face and words, when she stands down my always-sitting father. My mother’s revulsion when she nears my father, when he is the subject of her attention, is the ugliest hate I know.
Much of their work is waiting. They live in a slowed world, forced into patience with themselves and one another. The arm is tired, so the arm is tired. People think up new Zen aphorisms, often while working together. Be my arm, be my leg become common phrases of endearment, friendship, marriage. Make me whole, hon; come help with these bags.
Sometimes, to listen to my dad is to betray my mother. I think if I were to switch the verbs, listen and betray in that sentence, it would be, too, accurate and encompassing.
I think about the Arm and a Leg story when I come home to my parents, in the cab or subway car to Greenpoint. The theme and shape of the story is my own attempt at sublimation. Waiting happens; it’s part of the process, I tell myself. Tired of waiting on hope’s fruit, I imagine tenderness in the absence of tenderness. I ask myself if I am forcing smiles—making faces.
My parents keep two pets, a dog and cat. The dog is insanely jealous of the cat—she will chase him if she senses any attention being given his way. A bark will always come after a meow. My parents are like this. Each tries to exist at the opposite pole of the other.
I’ve stared many times at my father as he’s sat on the bed, unmoving except for the shifting contours in his face, like pushed-up earth.
It is the same face he has when he lays grout for the tile of the floor; when he spins and slaps down and edges out the mortar for a walled-garden or fire pit. His measurements are always spot-on, even when done by eye. He keeps tight tolerances on his work. Watching him I’ve learned to love joinery and machining, and the beauty in the waste of making, the smell of sawdust.
On the bed is where he assembles perhaps the wood paneling of some dream, or the insulation against self-hatred. Lately he has been letting these fixtures collapse. I have watched the tolerances he had set upon himself widen. My dad can be crass, profligate, narcissistic, gauche. And loving, desperate to express himself, desperate to affect change.
My mom is a great provider, attendant to all needs. She is a great neighbor, a great friend. She can be thoughtful, fierce, funny.
And virulent. Conspiratorial.
I think sometimes: they were together for a decade before they had me.
Having met in New York as travelers, and then barred return to Poland by the fall of communism and their burgeoning love—
I look at them and I see two injured birds caught in heavy wind.
There is universal care and income; a legion of lenses and joysticks joined to drones protect America. War is incidental and digital and won by people with paraplegia. The heroes are the ones who invent all the levitating things, all the things that make the weight of living feel light. Clothes’ buttons are magnet affairs and anti-slip rubber is more common. Congress, seemingly, is representative of the common people.
It’s a week later. I’m trying not to get excited and yell, in Polish. For lack of fluency I sound very formal.
“Mother, you are given to such fanaticisms! To drink alcohol is not to be an alcoholic!” She looks at me like I’m a fool. She’s talking about my Dad’s relatives. “They drink over there for any reason. For every reason,” she replies, looking out the kitchen window.
Dad didn’t get the superintendent job. But he did get drunk and curse out the landlord. He got a formal eviction notice. My mom and sister can stay, but Dad has to go.
What’s more; he has to travel to Poland, as soon as a few days from now. His late mother’s tiny estate is finally paying him his equity in the apartment that he bought her before he moved away, to America. He never lost the receipt, over three decades later.
It’s hard for me to care about any of this. Everything’s so present-progressive. Pain overlaps pain. A new plot point enters the scene before the last beat has ended. I’m plagued by the inkling of an end, a cultivated pessimism that keeps me slouched toward fears of dissolution.5
My dad points to the immigrant experience. My mom points to him. I point to them. Olivia is busy working, keeping herself purposefully out, so she’s not free to stand around pointing.
I’ve been trying to keep my expectations measured. I meditate. I practice being grateful, identifying grace, being grace, just being.
I am regardless reminded of the time in high school when we sold most of my movies and games to pay for the electricity, all of them gotten during a robust family period in middle school. It took a half hour to scan everything, popping my eyes as items of priceless memory were rung up for cents, dimes. We walked out with $120.
We couldn’t afford the electricity at the time because, after they turned off our heating for nonpayment, we adapted by running the oven and a bunch of old electric space-heaters. I took cold showers for three months then, simply because I didn’t want to wait for the water to come to boil.
I like cold showers now.
“Have you heard back?” I ask Mom. She just finished giving the familiar. Her arm still hurts. The meds are no use.
And: Dad is in Poland. The landlord lent him the airfare. I’m at their apartment to check-in with my mother.
“I’m telling you, he is drinking over there and, if he comes back, he will go right back and leave us.”
“I meant about social security, Mom. Have you heard from the disability office?” She’s waiting for her disability approval. It’s been five months. Her arm has not improved since the surgery. She walks around the kitchen as if she’s carrying phantom groceries. I’m so sick of waiting, she almost whispers into the smoky kitchen air.
We’ve waited for more time than this—a decade for Section 8. Then they only gave us six months to find an apartment in the price range prescribed. For renters it’s a perennial seller’s market.
Years ago, a few months before we’d moved back to Greenpoint, years before I’d move out, we waited for hours at the PATH Shelter Intake in The Bronx, for a bus to take us back to Brooklyn just to sleep, really. The experience of homelessness is waiting. Waiting for food to come around—the same ham and cheese sandwiches, and the small cartoned milks, white and chocolate, that they serve in the schools. Waiting around in the morning with the other families for the buses.Waiting to be able to sleep in an unfamiliar bed.
All that waiting for nothing.
Later that night, I’m at a dive in Williamsburg, drinking with J-Slav. I’m telling him this story I am writing.
Every story at the bar, from Crazy Neil or Solemn Tom, seems punctuated by ego and violence. I am reminded that these men are alone but for the empathetic graces of others; the delis that give Neil an errand for a sandwich or a cot to rest; the bar-goers who transform into listeners and audience for Solemn Tom and those like him—those shouting something seemingly important during a maelstrom.
Every story at the bar seems a mayday.
But there is also laughter, J-Slav reminds me with a sweep of his arm: “Look.”
“Did you have a good time at the bar with J-Slav?” Helaina, my partner of six years, has made lasagna. Our cats welcome me, intertwining my feet and almost tripping me.
“I guess. There was a weird energy there. And at home. But, I’m just glad to be here. At proper-home. I love you, bay-be!” I holler. She’s right in front of me. We laugh. I uncork the whiskey and hold it up to her.
She nods. I pour us two drinks. She sets up two plates of lasagna.
We look around for the remote in silent pantomime, turning over cushions and cats.
We find it.
We settle in on the couch.The only noises are low and simple: the TV whirring up; the cats circling, padding, and purring; her heartbeat.
I am grateful.
Existence is positive, despite.
- głupek (idiot), kretyn (cretin), pajac (clown), jeleń (sucker), pijak (drunk), jesteś loserem (you’re a loser).
- No, thank you.
- “I think I got it,” in a mix of Polish and English.
- “He seemed a little funny, y’know.”
- With a dumbfounding regularity, my mother will intone:“He will leave us. He will disappear. I am telling you. You think I am lying?”
Patrick Pawlowski is a graduate student, high school English teacher, writer, a Pole, and other stuff. His writing can be found at The Brasilia Review, The Daily Drunk, and 433, which he also edits. He resides in Brooklyn.
Mane Hovhannisyan is a fine art photographer who reflects the state in-between magic and reality. As a leading photographer of the Daily newspaper she collaborates with Golden Apricot Film Festival, had exhibitions in Berlin, Cologne, Yerevan and Gyumri. She was among the winners of the Mirzoyan Library photo contest, Multimedia Production Lab Grant in Tbilisi.