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from the January 2017 issue: Bad Behavior

I Don’t Want Much, But I Must Have It All

Hanna Krall makes the rounds with a con woman

In the elevator with Małgorzata P. We are going down to the ground floor, but first stop on the seventh, where the door flings open. Małgorzata P. freezes in terror—the woman who delivers milk lives on the seventh—but luckily someone else gets in. The sixth is a joke, Małgorzata has paid off her debt here and the elevator can stop, for all she cares. Once we get through Mr. Burek on the third we are home free.

With Małgorzata P. to see Mariola at the store. Mariola works in the children’s clothing section. She was expecting Małgorzata P. before five, but now it is six already and Mariola is certain to get angry and yell at us. Zbyszek sent  the three thousand zloty for Mariola that Małgorzata P. is now clutching tight in her sweaty palm inside her skirt pocket. “Like hell I’ll give it all back,” she says. “I won’t get a receipt.” But now we are getting really close to Mariola’s register, you can see the line and, besides, Mariola deserves a good deal of gratitude for offering the money as soon as she heard the woman from 30A screaming that she had been cheated. The woman from 30A had been given a receipt as a guarantee—the receipt was for three thousand zloty, with a crafty stamp forged by the meticulous locksmith Mr. Staszek, who unfortunately made a mistake and stamped the date of May 13 instead of May 12. The woman accepted the receipt; reassured, she calmly took the elevator, but on her way down it dawned on her that it was the twelfth. And that evening she returned with her husband and threatened to call the police. Mariola happened to be around and felt so bad for Małgorzata she left to fetch the three thousand zloty. The next day it turned out that the money had come from Mariola’s cash register. She has to replace it quickly, only how? Last night—which was quite nice and calm once the woman from 30A had stopped screaming, and also because Mariola had not yet cooled off after her good deed and wasn’t furious or making threats—last night, after everyone had gone to bed, Małgorzata sat down to record yet another day:

From my home all the doors had gone.
In my home there were no heirlooms
or cabinets with wax masks of forebears.
Through my home an angel passed. And all sins.
My windows looked out on the rains.
In my home one kept appearances.
And all felt out of sorts. Had thoughts and chills.
From moldy windowpanes to the Lord’s Prayer.
          

Today Zbyszek brought home his wages and said, “Pay back Mariola first and foremost. She has a big heart.” But Małgorzata P. said in reply, “If I give her back all 3K, we will have only one left.” Zbyszek repeated sternly, “I’m asking you, give it all back.” He took Wojtek, their baby boy, into his arms. “And I’m asking you, quite logically, I give back the three thousand and then what?” Małgorzata asked again and put the money in her pocket, but then said, “I’m going, but don't open the door to anyone.” And now we are bringing the three thousand zloty to Mariola.          

Seeing the line, Małgorzata P. beckons to Mariola, who then comes over to us. “What do I do?” Małgorzata whispers. “Give it back?” At the last moment she cracks and takes out of her pocket just two of the three banknotes. “Mariola, my dear, I’ll drop by with the rest tomorrow, you’ll see.” Mariola looks at the items she left on the counter and says sternly, “It’s the last time. You hear me, Ms. Małgorzata?” Happy and sweaty, we slip back into the street with a thousand zloty still left. But already Małgorzata P. is whispering, “That woman has got some nerve.”  This is all getting Małgorzata P. completely mixed up: first Mariola showed a big heart giving her the money, now she secretly regrets it and demands to be paid back. “I know, I know,” Małgorzata P. remembers as she heads home, “Mariola has a big heart.” But she slows down with each step, and at the very front door she turns back because she forgot cigarettes. (My house won’t meet me half way. / The past, in which it drifts, / is too vast . . . ). Now we are getting far from home again, walking to the newsstand, where Mariola won’t hear a peep, no Romek crying, Januszek wetting his diapers, Wojtek whining for food, or Dorota complaining about anyone, and where no doorbells ring or elevators whirr—in the street nothing awaits us but safe hot silence.

From some place up high my lost self will run
down the wooden steps—in silence deep
as woods I can again meet myself

But then she has bought everything, even the matches, and cannot think of anything else to add, and so this time we are definitely getting home (My home is now everywhere, / It has spread like an epidemic, / All the homes are homesick . . . ). In a rush we press the elevator button to go up and pass the fifth then the seventh floor and then ring the doorbell as agreed, three times, for Zbyszek to open the door.

Zbyszek was shy as a virgin when they met. His eyes were light brown, so light they seemed hazel at times. But then each day they darkened a bit and now some days are black as coal, so black she can’t bear to look.

Zbyszek grew up in a proper home, cared for by a mother who was religious and taught him to be humble and honest, and to tell the truth. Zbyszek accepts everything with humility: Her child, born out of wedlock and handicapped, locked up in an institution; their living together, which was her idea, even though it is a great sin; her poetry and all the foibles that make her family so unlike the others. There is just one thing that Zbyszek cannot stomach: his wife’s lies and schemes. And Małgorzata P. knows it’s those lies and schemes that have turned his eyes pitch black.

In the night’s slippery vaulted pit
Smallish and plain I slog round streets more winding than words
The sooner I get away from myself
The sooner I can come home . . .
The streets prayed for me
Fervid rosaries for years.
And tragic specters stretched ad infinitum
I think
Death will arrive on the last tram from the suburbs
Quietly and suddenly . . .

The meanest trick she pulled was the one at Zbyszek’s factory, the Energy Project. It happened right after they had paid off their debts, and before Christmas, when she had two days to buy gifts for her children.

All her children were born prematurely, half-dead. And once your first four die after being born, what do you care about right or wrong? She must buy baby formula and fruit, and if Zbyszek does not make enough for it all, she must borrow.

How to borrow money from people? No one believes in children going hungry; a mother’s illness sounds more likely but brings too little money, unless it’s a funeral, but no, pregnancy works best. Małgorzata P. tells people she is pregnant again, five kids at home and her husband is so religious he won’t consent to an abortion, she must do it in secret, but the private doctor wants his money upfront.

This time, the plan works magic. Once people hear “religious husband,” they lend two thousand on the spot. Małgorzata P. says two thousand zloty is easier to borrow than two hundred. If you ask for just two hundred, they take you for a beggar. Around here everyone hates beggars. People feel good about themselves when they lend two thousand to a pious man’s wife, and besides, they figure that to borrow such a big sum you must have the money to pay them back.

And so she borrowed for the abortion—on the seventh floor, from the woman who distributes milk. On the fifth, from Mr. Burek’s friends. And on her own floor, from the people who live one door down from the elevator. But when her neighbors began to talk among themselves and discovered that she took them not so much for decent folk as for easy prey, they went berserk. “Nothing frightens people like being taken for fools,” she tells me. “When they realized they’d been tricked, by a simpleton like me, they all showed up screaming and brought the police.” She had to give everything back immediately and again was short to buy formula; what’s worse, Zbyszek stayed out on the balcony in the freezing cold that entire night. The next day she did the unthinkable: She went to Zbyszek’s workplace and told the abortion story to four different men. Without the slightest hesitation, they lent her fifteen hundred zloty each. She paid off her debts, bought Zbyszek a record, “A Soldier Marches through Woods and Forests,” since he likes military songs, and then still had some money left for Christmas.

She did pay off her debt at the factory, but only after she borrowed even more from Mr. Michał, the welding instructor.

“With all that goes on,” she says, “I always thought I wouldn't be able to live with myself, but I do. I scribble a poem and life goes on.”

With a square table between us
We sat down to an eternal watch
In silence everything becomes
More of a holiday
Even our greenhouse smiles
Served at the square table
Taste of redolent summer
From two ends of the square table
Set with regret, with grudges
Smooth smiles, smooth words
And a dead silence between us.

Małgorzata P. reads out loud while Basia, her friend from the technical school at the railway, sits in an armchair and listens. From time to time, Małgorzata P. says, “Six spoons of milk formula, Basia, one egg, sugar, that’s for Wojtek.” And Basia bottle feeds the baby, out of her own free will, just to hear Małgorzata P.’s poems, which she adores, and then sits back again and stretches her long legs, the longest legs in their class, and lights a More cigarette, one of those thin, brown ones that cost forty-five cents each in a store that only accepts American dollars, but then she can afford it with what her father makes transporting and delivering meat. Basia listens attentively to Małgorzata P.: “The frost was frightful and a loud bang split the air, but walls and international conventions kept us safe. Yet in the houses with less heat many lovers froze that year . . . Basia, Romek needs to go potty!” Małgorzata calls out and Basia asks, “Ms. Małgorzata, now is that poetry or prose?”

It was Basia who let in Mr. Michał, the welding instructor, when he came to collect his debt, even though they had warned her: Open only when you hear two rings for Małgorzata, three for Zbyszek, four for Mr. Staszek who forges stamps. But she opened the door, silly goose, after just one ring. Seeing Basia’s legs, Mr. Michał rushed off to fetch cheap Vermouth. They drank and when Mr. Michał had to use the bathroom, he stumbled upon a treasure: a photographic camera and a lens. The day after the Vermouth binge, Zbyszek walked into the bathroom, and yelled, “For Christ’s sake, the lens!” In that very instance Małgorzata P. thought she could just about die, and since it was almost May, the time had finally come for Małgorzata P.’s Master Plan for a Complete Life Makeover.

Her plan:

May is a time of First Communion. Each Sunday, one hundred and eighty children will gather at the local parish to receive their first holy communion. And what does every child want as a souvenir, if not a group picture with a priest and a religion teacher in the middle. Each postcard-size color photo costs seventy zloty.

So if we do the count. “My god,” Małgorzata P. whispers, “my god. It’ll cover all my debts, my past due rent, and payments for Tomek’s specialized clinic.”

The First Communion day is coming up on Sunday.

But already since Monday Małgorzata P. has been overwhelmed by the tremendous, tremendous urge to die.

Suicide
should be committed after breakfast.
At breakfast it is best to drink a glass
of milk.
Milk is rich in vitamin A.
Vitamin A protects against eye
diseases.
The eye is to behold.
And we should behold
the world.

Suicide
should be done most quietly.
As quietly
as a fly passes through
a violin string;
releasing a fuzzy sound or perhaps
sighing lightly.

All leftover bread
should be thrown to birds.
So that they can live on.

And so we’re off with Małgorzata P. to see Mr. Michał, the welding instructor. Małgorzata P. is afraid to get out of the taxi. She has tried everything: Tomek’s illness (worth a week of delay), the stamped receipt (a week), the return of the receipt (two weeks), her mother’s death (four weeks in all, because the formalities to cover funeral costs take long), two months altogether since she last gave her word of honor to pay off her debt. Małgorzata P. stays in the taxi while I talk to Mr. Michał and pat his arm with a demure, ingratiating smile, “You’re a good man, I can see it in your eyes. You’ll give Małgorzata back her lens, won’t you?” Mr. Michał disappears, then comes back with a friend—to be his witness, no doubt—but then, thank god, hands me the Jampol-Color as if it is no big deal. “Careful,” he says. The lens costs thirteen hundred, but he won’t settle even for six. He will come for his money on Monday.

With Małgorzata P. over bitter rowanberry vodka—we bought it on our way home, forgetting that today is already Wednesday, the thirty-first of May, and there are no more Sundays left. But then suddenly it dawns on us that today is the day to pay up and the lenders will start ringing the doorbell any minute.

 “Zbyszek has to leave me,” Małgorzata P. whispers. “He can’t stay honest or resolute or strong when I’m around. He must leave, it’s practically written in his eyes, did you notice? He doesn’t know it yet, has no clue, but he has been leaving me from one day to the next, each minute . . . (Pity, even as you leave, may you step sprightly and your eyes shine. Let us agree then to keep one very light thing, in a world where all things are heavy . . .). “He won’t leave you alone with five children,” I say. “That’s the thing,” Małgorzata P. replies, worried, “He lacks guts even for that, but I must help him. I should do something so despicable he won’t even have a choice. For instance, maybe I’ll find a lover? It’s an idea, but then I’ll have to first lose weight, get my teeth done, paint my hair, and buy a dress. I don’t have money for that . . . We won’t pierce one another, won’t mold ourselves anew, now only two eyes gape, as two rescue buoys . . . It’s Akhmatova, she’s got some lines that’ll drive you mad. Will you drink with me some more? I’m already a teeny bit less afraid. I don’t want much, but I must have it all, no less, blossoms and you.” Her children climb all over us, into our arms, laps, our handbags. Stifling heat rises from the dark, cramped kitchen and the creditors make the doorbell shriek, but some thirty meters above Małgorzata P.’s apartment a balloon, light as poetry, dances in the breeze. “Эти волосы взял я у ржи, Если хочешь, на палец вяжи - Я нисколько не чувствую боли. Я готов рассказать тебе поле. . . . My fear is almost gone, and so, a toast to Zbyszek’s health, no, to all Zbyszeks, all the hazel-eyed Zbyszeks in the world, if, of course, there are still any left.”

 

Postscript

My story about Małgorzata P. appeared in the weekly magazine Polityka. The next day I learned that Małgorzata P. had lied to me as well:  The poems she had read were not hers but Ewa Lipska’s. [“I don’t want much . . . ” comes from “A Green Poem” by Władysław Broniewski and the fragment in Russian from “Shagane, oh my Shagane!” by Sergei Yesenin]. I placed a suitable correction to my piece, and yet I felt sad. For in the end, fate had denied Małgorzata P. even this much. Talent. The one thing that makes life bearable. 

 

© Hanna Krall. By arrangement with the Liepman Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Ela Bittencourt. All rights reserved.

January 2017
Bad Behavior
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