by Andrew Stancek
I wake and my mouth is overwhelmed by trnky. A word I hadn’t thought in forty years, a remnant of my childhood. The berry is called blackthorn in English, I remember. Its taste is disgusting, tart, acidic, stronger than blackcurrant, making the mouth pucker. No matter how much I brush and spit, the revulsion remains.
Alicia arrived last night, hugged me hard, shook her head when she looked me over. ‘We have to…,’ she started and then rethought it. ‘Lots of time.’
Now she’s sitting in my kitchen, our kitchen I guess—house in my name but she is the heir. She looks like she hasn’t slept, hair disheveled, no makeup; she yawns and slurps coffee. She’s wearing one of her mother’s bathrobes, royal blue, smelling of a perfume I’d been buying for forty years. I wish I’d bundled the bathrobe with the charity cast-offs, so I’d never have to see it again. She gives me a tired smile and my stomach heaves with the blackthorn and I shuffle off to vomit. Alicia does not move; she is a woman who does not rush to a ringing phone or a crying child.
My thoughts are in Slovak this morning. I’d never taught the children my first language, thought there was no point in them learning obscure contortions they’d never use. I regret it now. Je mi zle, I want to cry to Alicia. I’m feeling rotten doesn’t have the same heft. She knows, I suppose, whether I tell her in one language or another, or not at all. She flew across the damned continent to rescue me from my rottenness. I cry out: Pomoc! Topim sa! But I’m not really drowning, just don’t want anyone to help, including my daughter.
I long for everything Slovak: bryndza cheese on potato dumplings, a tankard of zincica, Dobsinsky folk tales, fujara music. I’ve lived in Canada for fifty years and suddenly feel an intruder, desperate to go home; this house, this country, is not it.
We didn’t argue last night and are trying not to argue now. She tells me what I have to do and I nod. The nod only means I heard, nothing else.
‘On your own, in this house, out of the question,’ she says. ‘It was too big when Chip and I were growing up, with four of us, dogs, gerbils and fish, the damned parrot for a while, always too big a house. Now, just you and ghosts…ridiculous.’
I don’t disagree, know she is right. Ever since Petra’s funeral I’ve been thinking I’m ready to die, a relief not to wake up in the morning. I imagine walking into traffic, or taking the bus into Toronto, so I can fall under a subway train. I won’t hang myself, don’t want her to have to cut me down. I probably could not make a noose.
I’ve been waking up exhausted, shuffling through the day exhausted, going to bed exhausted. My accomplishment is eating. I defrost Sara Lee strawberry cheesecakes, devour whole rotisserie chickens in one sitting, spread cream cheese on slice after slice of freshly baked sourdough and eat. I don’t care to know the clinical name for what I am going through.
I don’t tell Alicia any of this, but she knows some. She has seen my fridge, my cupboards, the dust over the furniture, the lawn not cut yet this season.
‘Dad, this salad, behind the pickled beets, how old is that?’
I could not answer even if I wanted to. I don’t usually pick up salad. Must be a seafood mixture from over a week ago.
‘I’m throwing it out,’ she calls. ‘The vegetable crisper reeks. I guess those used to be radishes?’
I should tell her I am grateful. I have not felt grateful. I want to be left alone.
‘Rose Simmons from Re-Max Realty is coming at lunch, Dad. She’ll do right by us, get us a good price.’
I want to ask her who the hell she thinks she is, but I do nothing, keep my eyes closed. She knows I’m not asleep, that I’m trying to keep myself under control. Hovno, hovno, hovno, I mutter.
Her footsteps approach my La-Z-Boy; I open my eyes and she stares at me for a while. ‘Want to go lie down? Or a blanket?’
I shake my head. I don’t even have the energy to tell her to go away. She walks away, not taking care to step softly.
‘I can’t keep coming out, Dad. You can’t handle it on your own.’
I’m too tired to yell. My house, not hers.
‘It would be best, I think, if you came to live near us, in BC. But if you can’t, we’ll find a lovely retirement home here, where you’ll have company and be safe.’
I keep the eyes closed and then suddenly I start: I must have actually fallen asleep. From the kitchen I hear water running, Alicia singing I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, scrubbing dishes. I hadn’t heard friendly kitchen noises in a long time. I sit up, bones creaking, look over the living room: the crushed pillow Petra used to put behind her back on her sofa, the coffee table piled with her half-finished magazines I could not bear to put away. On the mantel is the photograph of Petra I took in our backyard, with the apple tree in bloom behind her, Petra staring her half-smiling, half-rueful So now what?
‘Damn it, Petra, you left me.’
But then she speaks, her words in my blood.
‘Time to move on. Not time to join me yet. Make it easier on Alicia. Dig deeper. Let go. Give.’
Petra always had more sense than I did. The doorbell rings and Alicia marches to let the realtor in. A warm gust blows through the door and I rise.
Andrew Stancek describes his vocation as dreaming—clutching onto hope, even in turbulent times. He has been published widely in SmokeLong Quarterly, FRIGG, Green Mountains Review, New World Writing, New Flash Fiction Review, Jellyfish Review and Peacock Journal, among others. He continues to be astonished.