I'm not doing well, the doctors say; too much okowita , too much wodka . Still, I must record my thoughts. Down here at the college in Louisiana where my husband teaches my classes when I'm ill, I am a long way in time from the house where I was born. It's hot here, in the 90s and humid, whereas up north people are already shoveling snow and scraping ice.
Here is how the neighborhoods were in a childhood long ago. They still are this way, I should think. The Allouez section of Superior, Wisconsin, was Belgian, the north end French and Indian, and the gas plant neighborhood Slovak. Mine was Polish. It will stay Polish forever, nothing but Polish.
In 1945-46, the years I can't shake from memory most of the neighborhood men returned from the war to work on the docks. Business at the markets and bakeries picked up, as it did in the taverns. Below the ham hocks at the the Parrot Tavern, I can remember a sign read:
WE FIX EVERYTHING BUT BROKEN HEARTS AND THE CRACK OF DAWN.
Another, near the pigs' feet in the tavern below my family's flat, read:
When you order a drink, you'll take what we give you and pay what we charge you ... THANKS. CALL AGAIN. PS. The above was only for the duration of the war. NOW THAT IT'S OVER, we will kiss your ass as usual at the WARSAW TAVERN.
St. Adalbert's, our parish church, was full at Mass in the postwar days when my father returned with the other GIs. It seems everyone was back but me. In the isolation hospital, The Pesthouse, which stood far back away in the fields past Eleventh Street, my skin was peeling. I was weak. A scarlet rash spread to my mouth. No one who hadn't had scarlet fever could enter the building. All night, children cried. In a ward below, an old man yelled " zarazenie ," which means "contagion, infection," then he'd yell something about Poland, as if my grandparents' country, having been overrun in 1939 and having suffered so much, was infected like me. Words I remember from the endless days of dreaming are "rash," "feverish," the " zarazenie " the old man hollered, and crazy things like "oxtail" or " stoczek , wax stand" that made no sense later. It was the time of disease. How many would contract polio, TB, scarlet fever? If my young brother Grzegorz handled something I touched at home, he'd have caught skarlatyna .
When we were young, my brother and I, there was never much sense to our lives. Here is an instance of senselessness: mother wasn't well with her respiratory problem, I was gone away to the isolation hospital, and Grzegorz was frightened of a man who--suitcases filled with uniforms and postcards of Morocco and Algeria--stepped off the train in Superior, Wisconsin. Our sickly father was home.
A week before, the Health Department had had to fumigate St. Adalbert's School or the infection--my own infection--would have spread. The Pesthouse, like the school, was also a sad place. Here were sickroom attendants, laundry workers with peeling hands, janitors who burned the dirty rags and bedclothes patients sweated through. Incinerators went day and night. You'd see the rags that pests and contagions inhabited lying on floors. "The causative agent usually enters the body through the nose or mouth ...," I've read about scarlet fever. No matter how clean The Pesthouse, there were places under the banister or where the linoleum curled that made you ill. Infections were forced out of the chimneys, wrapping the moon in smoky fingers. Not everything was burned up in the furnaces, though, as the place also caused a sickness of spirit that couldn't be treated.
Edda Wasko, a St. Adalbert's pupil, was on the third floor with me, though in the boys' wing. Whenever I saw him in the hall, he looked terrible with his rash-spotted neck, the dark lines beneath the eyes.
Seeing me one afternoon, which I keep thinking was the day after Father's return, he said, "Franny, look what someone gave me."
He held up a sheet of paper that must have been copied from the chaplain's book. The handwriting said:
The regulation of sexual relations between husband and wife is a field of enormous influence of the priest. The priest must answer the questions of women whether conjugal onanism or using medicines after coitus is immoral, sinful, contrary to nature; whether certain kisses and touches are a sin and when ...
After I read it, The Pesthouse grew quiet.
Probably my brother was happily sitting on Father's lap before the stove with the isinglass door when the nurse took the paper from me and, seeing what it was, insisted I have a Lysol bath. The palms and feet will peel for months after scarlet fever. All that morning in the winter light I'd been contentedly building pyramids of dead skin on the floor. Now the nurse who undressed me said, "Lie back in the water. Rest. I'll be in and out. Forget what you read." She peeled my skin before she left.
Sometimes delirious, sometimes clearheaded, I stared at the high ceiling, dreaming I was swimming in a warm, white sea until someone in my fever whispered, "You're peeling worse than ever."
Wiping the mirror by the door so he could see himself in it, Edda peeled a strip of skin from his shoulder. "Can I have some of yours?"
He liked watching me. He'd keep the skin, he said. He had a box for it.
Hearing the nurse, Mrs. Gustafson, he hurried out.
"Is there someone in the steam?" she asked.
"No one," I said.
"Let's check your fever," she said. "You must have terrible fevers."
"If they keep on, Mrs. Gustafson, will I peel to nothing?"
"What's more important is not whether you do, but whether you enjoy your baths."
"Yes, I do," I said.
"That's good. What's the little mound of stuff on the floor by your bed? Is that skin?"
"Well, we can't sweep it now. Your father's outside in the snow."
My father! I was so happy. Downstairs, he was calling up to the window in the girls' wing, "At home, Franciszka, we'll have a pretty time." The wind must've been blowing. He stumbled, caught himself--kept his arms out for balance. It was like he, too, was sick the way he paced back and forth, talking about how he loved autumn. It was windy. It must've been my fever that made him seem so odd. It wasn't autumn. It was January. It must've been our fevers.
"I'm sending a souvenir upstairs," he said. "Did you miss Papa?"
"Yes," I whispered.
"Come away from the window before you tire yourself, Franny," said Mrs. Gustafson.
"Does my father have scarlet fever?" I asked.
Outside the light snow was falling. I saw him wave a package, an envelope. I remember to this day that one corner of the envelope he sent to me read: "After 5 Days Return to: American South African Lines, Inc. New York 4, NY." Next to the words "US POSTAGE .03 [cts.]" in purple ink was a drawing of Uncle Sam in a top hat. Finger to his lips, he's saying, "Sh! Don't Discuss Troop Movements--Ship Sailings--War Equipment." My father'd brought to America wallet-sized photos and postcards, cloth insignias, letters from Mother. But here I'm rambling. Oh, I get off the point! They say drinking does it. I'll stay on course. I will. I promise myself this, if nothing more.
Here's what my father's souvenir postcards said: " L'Algerie Ses Paysages Ses Types" ... "Bonne Ouuee du Maroc ." I wonder why I have them with me when everything Father brought from the war should be in the teakwood box in the highboy upstairs, in the house in Superior where my brother lives; this is where we keep memories, in the childhood home. No matter now, I guess.
Here's a postcard: an Arab sitting cross-legged, sorting twine in a dirt passageway between buildings. Taken no doubt during the 1940s, it's called " Kabyle fabricant de burnous ." It's no. 8000 of the " Carte Postale " series of M. Belkhir of 55, ch. de St. Roch, Nice. Here's another of a white-robed North African tapping a light drum he holds near his shoulder. No. 8021, it's called " Negro jouant du Tamtam ." Here is a young girl on an ottoman. From her headdress, the lovely beadwork and light, thin metal ornaments fall to her naked breasts, which are accentuated as she poses with her arms behind her head. She wears wrist and ankle bracelets. The photographer has caught her smiling. He's told her, "Hold your breath. Breathe in, BouSaada"; for you can see below her breasts the definition of the abdomen as she does. A shawl covers her knees. One naked leg rests on the ottomans striped cover. No. 8032, " Mauresque de Bou-Saada dans son interieur ."
A half-century ago, these cards entertained a feverish child. On one of them, my father wrote a few words to capture the feel of the native quarter of Old Medina. His words, coincidentally, describe The Pesthouse: "filth, stench, disease ... high-pitched gibberish, scrawny hands and fingers." In those sickly days, I lay dreaming of the heat of that quarter in Old Medina, of the narrow passageways he'd haunted only a few months before. No shawl like Bou-Saada's covered me when I showed my skin to Edda Wasko. In the days to come, I'd pray to Our Holy Mother. As the Polish nurses peeled me, they whispered as in an exorcism, " dezinfekt ... dezinfektowac ." Scarlet fever hung in the steam. My temperature was 103. But ugly Franny survived.
It's so hard for me to think of those times. No one knew about my experiences in The Pesthouse. Has it been forty-eight years, fifty years? I've drunk through half of them to forget the person who's peeled away. After the cure I never looked at The Pesthouse for a long time. I didn't look at the wanderer Casimir either.
My father was a husky man, loud, husky, disoriented. Born August 1908, he died in December 1967. I repeat this: "My father's name was Casimir Stasiak."
In 1945 his brown hair rose stiffly from the forehead. When it turned gray before his death years later, I called it "Stalin hair" for the way it resembled the premier's. My father's eyebrows slanted toward the temples, giving him a perplexed look. After sailing the Great Lakes and the oceans, where, a wanderer, he'd visited Perth, Marseille, Mozambique and on postcards described the purple Arabian hills, how could he have ended up trapped sweeping floors in a flour mill, then coming home to a cold-water flat where a wife and two children waited? You know some have the potential to delight in the world, though not the opportunity. I saw little delight in Casimir Stasiak who, after he'd been home, lost his patience with my mother, brother Grzegorz, and me. Something was wrong when I saw Father that night in the snow, this tall, perplexed man with hollow cheeks and a mouth that turned down as though a grappling hook were pulling him back to where he'd once sunk.
A long time afterward I found out how ill he'd become. Roaming the phosphate docks of Casablanca or the native quarter of Old Medina where a million flies covered the meats of the vendors, he'd needed something more stimulating than the dance of Bou-Saada to satisfy him. In Moroccan bazaars, scrawny fingers reached into his pockets. He was always a man of appetites. Was this how he got sick? With Bou-Saada? Did she wonder whether certain kisses and touches were a sin? How often did Father return to her in the heat of the quarter? Dreaming of home as he lay beside her, perhaps he offered this dancer a Chesterfield. Besides a few of his postcards, I have some matches. On one box is an Arabic word, then a tiger silhouetted against a white moon. The stems of the matches are wax. I judge there to be thirty purple matches in the box our syphilitic father brought home. When I strike them in 1994, no flame.
He never told us about his infirmity. I heard from Mother. When he returned from the Arabian Sea, he informed her he wanted neither the arsenic-bismuth treatment nor fever therapy because in the age of disease a new treatment had been found.
What did I know except Mother never smiled? She couldn't escape the flat above the Coast-to-Coast store. Scandal started when wives left husbands. No gossips ever talked about Father, who was a hard worker during the time of disease and a member of St. Adalbert's Holy Name Society. Had Mother left with my brother and me, the gossipers surely would have said she'd had no cause to leave. So she endured Father to keep the talk from starting, to keep the nuns from whispering.
On the first page of a composition book from the maritime base at Fort Trumbull, New London, Connecticut, Casimir Stasiak had written, "Steps for Prevention of Venereal Disease." He should have followed them, but when theory became practice, my father, the sailor, the second assistant engineer, failed the course.
Now a thought that I, Franciszka (Stasiak) Thomasen, must always clarify to myself. Though a drunk, I am still not so callous as to attempt an analogy between my isolation and those who were quarantined during the war as "carriers of germs and epidemics." Only a fool would make a comparison between my sickness in a building where an old man yelled "Contagion!"--or between my father's sickness--and what happened on Polish soil. Still I must put down this family history, I must commit it. I'm a historian with three university degrees. Who better to tell about a sick man? I trust myself. I will make an effort starting with a kind of postcard of the past. Here is the awful, faded truth on the postcard: my immigrant ancestors' hatred and distrust survived the Atlantic crossing in the 1890s, then survived again when my father sailed back and forth from Baltimore to Fedallah or from New York to Casablanca during the war years. An ugly picture: Distrust. Hatred. We lived in a Polish neighborhood. It was 1945.
One of my aunts, she was a white-haired lady whose lap I'd sit on; one of my aunts would sing the "landlord song" I liked, then repeat stories over and over. There was one story about an incident on a bridge. She would say, "A wood bridge carry streetcar over river on Fourth Street. I'm on bridge once"--she'd say `breedge'--"when Jew loose control of his wagon and horse. Somethink frighten horse. It jump up, get caught in railing, pull everythink over side. Jew, everythink."
Did he survive? I never knew. If he were an Archambeau, DeBruyne, or Gotelaere, would she say, "I was on bridge once when Belgian loose control of wagon"? Would she identify him the way she did the man with his wagon? Maybe they still talk like this in our neighborhood. Is it why the sick man hollers " zarazenie " in my ear today? Now I'm old with recollections. I didn't understand the ending to Auntie's story then. A Jew lost control of his wagon and that was it, the end of it? What kind of tale was that? Some of my family said other things. I stumble about. I've spilled my drink. I cite a line from history: "According to the most careful estimates, about 3,350,000 Polish citizens of Jewish descent were slaughtered by the Nazis in Poland ."
Now Father was back, his friends home, war over (six million Jews killed in Poland and elsewhere), my brother, mother and grandmother waiting, his daughter found to be living in a pesthouse, and a job opened at the gas plant in Superior, Wisconsin. Please help me someone. I'm drunk. I'm dying. I'll drink all night .
A month has passed since I've thought about it, tried to collect my thoughts. I've been in treatment. It goes day to day. Poor Hubert, my good husband, drove seventy miles to Shreveport to see me when he could. He grows exhausted caring for me, though. A dear husband, he teaches my college classes. My thinking's not straight. I have a disease. Poor Franciszka Stasiak in her dreams ...
Has it been a month without reflection? For a historian, where I live is a good place. I drink on Bayou Amulet, think about history. In this way, I break the treatment they prescribe for me in Shreveport at the hospital: the abstinence from history, the abstinence from the bottle. Doctors tell me, "Don't think about your history all the time!" So I intoxicate myself with the past, fall down with it, find myself passed out with it on the back stoop of the sad house on the bayou.
With everyone returned by 1946, jobs needed filling. One opened at the Water and Light Company. Father felt qualified to be the "driver of a drip truck," which was the job title or description. When he applied, he took me, his poor, scarlet daughter, with him on the bus to the Water and Light Company.
"What does the job call for?" he'd asked the secretary.
"In a truck you go to natural gas mains, put a hose on them, then drip out water that's come in from condensation or in through porous pipes. We've not hired yet, Mr.... Mr. Stapik. You can fill out an application and call again," the lady'd said and gone back to her work.
"Thank you," he'd said in Polish. The secretary was probably Swedish. Here was my father now in somewhat reduced circumstances bowing to her. Bowing! I remember it. Was it a result of an illness? Did he think he was aristocratic? One of the szlachta , the nobility?
He'd go uptown every week to see whether he had the job. Never a sign of Casablanca or of Old Medina from him except he might lose his balance. When we returned to the flat, he'd ask whether Water and Light called Mrs. Callaway upstairs, who, since we had no phone, would relay the message to us.
As he sat alone in the kitchen searching the newspaper for other opportunities, he cleared his throat, smoothed his hair, I recall now, fearing him still. I didn't know whether there was "neurologic involvement." There wasn't in my case, I didn't think, but who knew for sure? My little brother would squirm away from me.
"Have you seen a doctor?" Mother would ask Casimir. She assumed I wasn't listening to them in the kitchen, that I was a child playing.
Folding his paper, he'd slap it on the table.
"Don't talk about doctors. Nothing's wrong here," he'd say.
Thinking he was straightening the tablecloth, he'd only leave it bunched at an angle. A portion of the table lay uncovered. When he called her "a spreader of idle tales," saying he was as healthy as the rest of us, she'd straighten the tablecloth, leave him mindlessly tapping the newspaper.
All that month no call came to Mrs. Callaway's flat with good news for Casimir Stasiak. No doubt there were many coincidences related to my father's not getting the Water and Light job. What if their newest employee, whose name we eventually learned was a Mr. Liebmann, had returned from the army a month later or had delayed his job application a day or two? Father may have had the job he wanted by then. But instead a coincidence occurred. Liebmann, Liebmann. A name entered our lives.
Like Liebmann's applying when he did, here is another coincidence I can't seem to forget--how in 1942 in a room off of an alcove in a dusty bazaar, a young Arab woman, Bou-Saada, waited on an ottoman for Father with his purple matches, while in a room in the northeast section of Warsaw in 1944 another girl, maybe named Lottie or Clara, waited in terror for her German escorts, while here in America in 1946 in a room in an isolation hospital Franciszka Stasiak was beseeching St. Theresa to protect her. The pestilence was great all over. There was this triangle of children--one in a hospital here, one in an old quarter of Casablanca, one in a ghetto of Warsaw. If the last one survived, she was lucky. That I did was a coincidence, but what happened in the life of the daughter of a diminished man was that some of his infection spread. How did it happen that I should be infected, though not by the physical, venereal part of Casimir's life?
In those times of sickness and pain, an ad for the Water and Light Company read:
POWER FOR PROGRESS
A $52,000,000 expansion program since 1945 shows our faith in this great region of shipping, diversified industry, and recreation. It shows our confidence in the future ... Providing POWER FOR PROGRESS.
Behind it was a drawing of hydroelectric generators and power lines Everything was Progress ... Liebmann ... Progress. Dream shattered Casimir Stasiak ended up at the Fredericka Flour Mill where he swept grain dust from the packing floor. "It's like in the Old Country," Father told people in the Warsaw and Parrot taverns. He had the worst luck, was being kept down when he certainly wanted to join the march for progress. Now there was the name Liebmann, though.
With a nice drip truck, you bet Liebmann didn't have to walk. When Father drew the night shift was Liebmann out at 3 A.M. checking low-pressure gas mains? At daybreak, yellow with grain dust, Father would mutter " Psia krew! ... Dog's blood!" as he stumbled home. I would go get him. Everywhere he turned, my father had lost out to progress--to Liebmann. Dogs nipped at his heels.
Maybe Liebmann had lived in town as long as we. Maybe like Father he, too, lost his patience, thought of the future, thought of the past, worried about bills as he sat in an undershirt at a kitchen table, argued with his wife, turned the calendar toward winter, laughed, played with his boy, took his family to movies when he had money. Wouldn't it be ironic to think we'd sat behind them at Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart or at Morocco with Charles Boyer? Now my father listened intently in the living room of the flat when our old aunt began her story of the rider on the bridge. "Tell it again, Auntie," he'd say, looking for other ancient reasons to dislike Liebmann. I've peeled away thinking about them.
I am looking through a book, piecing thoughts together. In it, the writer is saying, "Poland is a country where, unfortunately--just as in America--one encounters a deep-rooted and evidently ineradicable anti-Semitism." Then he, Simon Wiesenthal, speaks of the "countless Poles who tried to help their Jewish compatriots" during the war. In fact, they saved his wife and him from death. Neither here nor in the Old Country should Poles be condemned. Many of our neighbors in Superior would have fought for Liebmann. No one can say different. If my father was hateful, such men live everywhere. With the neurological involvement he may have had, "infection of the brain leads general paresis with psychoses and deterioration of the mental faculties." I could see the ranting worsen. He said Liebmann, no one and nothing but Liebmann, made him sick. Even in Casablanca, in Marseille ... it was Liebmann who made him sick, he insisted.
I will call my thoughts now "Water and Light." In the back of Liebmann's truck (it is 1947) was a boilerlike tank where extracted was went. I'd see him working with his wrenches and his hammers around the neighborhood. Liebmann, a quick, lean Liebmann, was cooperative, energetic, efficient. Everything a company valued.
One day the nun led me to his truck. The sky looked bruised had turned so dark and hung so low over our rooftop. I'd been church practicing crowning the Blessed Virgin, the Queen of the May Sunday's service, and there was a storm when I came out. Everyone ran. Sister Benitia called to Mr. Liebmann, "Can you take this little one a few blocks? You have your boy with you. Go on with Mr. Liebmann Fronia," Sister said.
Mr. Liebmann pulled open the door. The cab smelled like the gas that utility companies warn you may escape from faulty stoves. The wind blew papers and dust about.
"Don't get yourself dirty in here. My boy's got piano lessons gotta take him to," he said.
Mr. Liebmann drew out a hankie, wiped the rain from his face. The boy Daniel sitting behind us was my age.
To this day I remember a wind tore pink and white blossoms from the trees so they looked like snowflakes building along the curb. I saw my father stumbling home, swinging his lunchbox at dogs and talking to himself. When he came in, I hardly recognized him--the red eyes the vein in his neck nearly bursting.
Speaking softly, my mother said, "Casimir ... if you throw down the lunchbox, you'll ruin the thermos."
"How'd you get home?" he asked me.
Flour flew up when he hit his fist on the table. "I walk home, see my daughter not notice me. She goes right by wit' her friends."
"Sister asked a man to drive me."
"She's a handmaiden to the Virgin today, Kazimierz," Mother was saying.
" Psia krew! "
I started to cry. If not for this history I'm recording, who'd remember my pesthouse? How easy to forget the Water and Light, too; these and other things--Auntie-storyteller's death, Mother's leaving Father when I was grown, my worsening infections in life--yes, my own, Franny Stasiak's. Here is my infection--thinking of the eighty-three thousand Polish Catholics murdered at Auschwitz. Why must we not care for the Catholics exterminated in those camps? Small numbers, eighty-three thousand, but should they be forgotten? I am drunk, off course. Presidents, dignitaries ... they will always say, "Six million Jews and `others' were killed in the Nazi death camps in occupied Poland ." I've heard it often. There we are: "Others!" Always "Others." I am off course. Steer me on course . Who will bow to "others" if I don't? I bow to the humbler element, to the forgotten element! Is this an infection? I'm drunk. Another college will let me go. There are no more. I've taught at every college--Central New Mexico, Missouri-Rolla, East Stroudsburg, Alverno . Day in, day out, pestilence, pestilence. Most people up there in Superior, Wisconsin, aren't like me. Why is this an infection to remember Catholics killed at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and in the camps all over Poland?
Now in 1994 I pretend to be a child again. When I'd been a handmaiden and school was to close for summer, Mr. Liebmann--prized by the Water and Light Company--came by in his drip truck. I watched him until, finally, he said the strangest thing.
"Yes," I answered.
"Good," he said.
No one would compliment me on it again, I think. I'm sixty year old and surely would remember someone's compliment.
What did it mean that time? I wonder on a November midnight in 1994--no, 3 A.M. when I am so sick with this drunkenness I have Fever and thirst. I remember them the way I do the picnic on the school grounds and Mr. Liebmann telling me it was good I was Polish. It's haunted me. I've studied numbers over the years and found that the Poles, Gypsies, intellectuals, the disabled, the homosexuals killed a Auschwitz and elsewhere are called "Others." Was Mr. Liebmann remembering them or remembering those heroes whom Wiesenthal wrote about, "the countless Poles who tried to help their Jewish com- patriots" during the war? O God, must I worry that we're called "Others" Am I sick with resentment that I argue about the dead and defend Polish suffering and want it acknowledged? Eighty-three thousand Polish Catholics died at Auschwitz alone. I offer them my small bows .
There was, in memory, this isolation hospital. Its chimney smoke rose above the neighborhood.
Innocently, a half-century ago, I told Mother at supper during the first snow after a hard, November rain, "Daniel Liebmann is quarantined."
Coming into the kitchen, Casimir Stasiak said, "How do you know this, Franny?"
"Sometimes he's in the truck with him when he comes by school but not now anymore, so I asked Mr. Liebmann."
"You can't be reinfected," Mother said. "There's nothing left to peel away."
"She is reinfected. I can't breathe either. Don't say Liebmann. I get sick. You come here," my father was saying, yelling.
Mother grabbed him as he pulled on his work coat. He was syphilitic. He threatened her, swore at her. He went through the flat looking for my coat. Throwing clothes from closets, he told me that any disease around there came from me. He threatened to hit Mother if she didn't get away from us.
"I don't want to go," I'd said. (Sometimes I still say it. Then Hubert wakes me and quiets me.)
My father grabbed my collar. "You're reinfected so bad?" he asked in Polish.
From the landing upstairs, Mrs. Callaway watched as Father pulled me out the door, past Dunalski's, past the icehouse, past the railroad freight depot on Tenth Street. When he let go of my arm, he weaved on alone down the road, turning periodically to wave me on. Dogs chased after him.
An iron gate read ISOLATION HOSPITAL. Light snow covered the fields as it had when Father came home. High up in the brick and stone of the building stood a soot-blackened arch pigeons flew into. Far below, a glass panel, a religious painting, decorated the entryway; part of the sorrowful mysteries of a place where people were isolated. Christ was isolated.
Now a syphilitic cursed his isolation, cursed a Jew, then cursed Liebmann's son, who, waving innocently, pressed his face to a thirdfloor window the way I had once done.
Out of the neighborhood toward the isolation hospital the drip truck came.
"Liebmann!" Father called as he saw it. "You ... your kid. We're tired of infection."
Surprised, Mr. Liebmann must have wondered who was this yelling at him?
I saw a nurse in the upstairs window beside Daniel.
Picking up a brick that'd probably fallen from the walls and lain there in the mud for a year, Father tossed it at Mr. Liebmann. If I trust myself, if I value myself despite my weakness, I must believe that this brick smashed out the corner of the Lamb of God. Glass lay over the threshold of the hospital.
"Praised be Jesus Christ!" yelled Father. "Right now," he said, yanking me. "You spit there, Jewess. You spit on him for his truck." He slapped me. I wouldn't do it. My father--my dear, hated father--spit at Mr. Liebmann of the Water and Light, calling him words I'd never heard, resenting him for his drip truck.
For my history, I'd put it about November 13 that Mr. Liebmann picked up a piece of the broken glass, turned away, and walked inside. Why did Casimir the syphilitic think Liebmann couldn't enter a pesthouse? What was going to hurt him when sometimes fifteen thousand a day had come in boxcars to Auschwitz, fifteen thousand Jews?
Of the neighborhood where we lived, a person could say in a history like mine that in the fall of 1947 a man had been harassed. He'd shown Liebmann all right! my father told everyone. "Sure I had to put him in his place," he said, weaving on to the next tavern as smoke from rags and dressings wound from The Pesthouse chimneys.
By St. Francis's Day, that would be the third of December, Daniel Liebmann, who'd recovered, wrote me a note. He'd drawn a delicate sketch of the isolation hospital. From the school window, I watched for his father.
Winter came. An odd neighborhood, I could hear polkas playing when it was twelve below zero. Before the flat I lived in, snow swept down the street. The bay and the town froze. Everyone stayed inside, but I could hear the polkas drifting through the alleys.
My father reread newspapers he'd brought home from his journeys--the Basrah and Iraq Times, the Lourenco Marques Guardian , "Mocambique's Oldest Newspaper." He'd go on about the old days, dully though, as if stupefied by a midday sun on the Arabian Sea. "What's this?" Mother once asked about a photo of a Moroccan dancer.
I graduated from St. Adalbert's School. During the winter holiday of my second year at East High School when through the crisp air I could hear the loudspeaker at the skating rink playing "White Christmas" as I sat quietly in the kitchen dreaming of places I'd like to visit, Mother called from the bedroom, "Look, Franciszka, at The Pesthouse." The third floor where I'd peeled away was burning. The blazing hospital eclipsed the moon. Before I pulled down my shade on the sicknesses filling the burnt sky, I imagined the silhouette of the lives of people who could hate each other. I imagined the silhouette of Father spitting at Mr. Liebmann. The fire lit up East End, and the silhouettes went marching over it. I will write it down in my history that Mr. Liebmann had had the Lamb of God repaired.
Years later by accident I saw a human being's cremated remains. I'd gone to a crematorium with a friend when I taught at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix. Another friend was picking up an uncle who'd wished to be disposed of this way. How hot must have been the oven to reduce a human to ash, I thought. It was a pile of bone and ash a child could hold in his palms. How much hotter than the fire at The Pesthouse that'd gotten out of hand before I dosed my shade. Though I'm old now, I see The Pesthouse burning.
Curiously, thinking of Phoenix in my sickness reminds me of a teaching job my husband and I held at a college in Pennsylvania. There I had a friend named Florence in the history department who invited me to lunches and parties. With my last name being Thomasen, she didn't know I was Polish. Hers was Florence Rubenfield. In the history office after lunch one day, six or seven of us were laughing and talking. How did the topic of ancestry come up? Everyone started saying what they were: Swedish, Norwegian ... When my turn came, I threw up my arms. "I'm a noble Pole," I announced.
Florence stopped laughing. Her face turned ash gray. "Ask my relatives about noble Poles," she said coldly. This was my last lunch date with Florence Rubenfield.
So forty-eight years ago when I was young, a man immune to infection walked into a pesthouse to visit his son. Let me not make so much of it in my history of disease when I don't know how much I myself have contracted of the ancestral sickness. I do know that just as there were honorable Poles during the war, so, too, were there Jews like Liebmann after the war who were good to remember our suffering.
I haven't thought as often of Mr. Liebmann and his son the past few nights. How do I tell myself to finish with them? The man who tormented himself over Mr. Liebmann has been dead twenty-seven years now, leaving me his purple matches. My mother, too, is gone; someone is saying a rosary for her. How do I finish telling myself about Liebmann, then retelling it all my life?
He will always be part of me. So will the Polish neighborhood I will drink out of my mind if I can. About myself I ask this: Had I loved the Jew who said "good" when I told him who I was? Yes, I did--for his kindness, for his patience, for his courage in walking away from Father. Though he is out of my thoughts for a month at a time, I never unchain myself from the man who worked for Water and Light. Maybe this, after all, is why I lose so many jobs, because I remember postcards of Mr. Liebmann and the Lamb of God, of Edda Wasko, and of Father before he sailed away. Mr. Liebmann was everything at the Water and Light, and he is the only one who saved me in those days.
"Poland and the Jews ... tell us about them," my better students say. I have a hard time doing so, because I never understood hatred. I do understand the intricacies of hearts that don't belong, however. With these I'm quite intimate. I know that once when I was sober I heard people chanting in a park in Boston, "The People of Israel Live!"; that once I knew a Florence Rubenfield who'd lost people in the war and in the Nazi extermination camps; and that once I saw an oven in the desert and now myself have chosen that means of disposal. Hubert, my husband, will arrange it when my time comes. Then will be returned to ash a heart that didn't belong.
I would go by The Pesthouse now in winter if I were there in Superior. I'd clear away the snow. Walk the foundation. Nothing has been built on the spot, I know. I wish tonight I could go to the place to discover for my history what I still can of the intricacies of certain hearts' workings. I wish someone could write to me to inform me whether in spring the creeks and ravines will still run muddy up there in Superior, Wisconsin, or write to inform me that no flowers or shrubs grow on The Pesthouse grounds.
For me (alone in Louisiana with my sickness tonight), I try to remember Polish, but the only Polish words I remember anymore-- words for "pesthole," for "pestiferous"--bring with them memories of my father in the native quarter of Old Medina or on the phosphate docks of Casablanca.
Copyright © 1999 Anthony Bukoski. All rights reserved.