Skip to content
Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the June 2015 issue

Fakes

What won’t he fix, what won’t he do? The man’s a treasure, a must-have for any decent household. His fingers are like pincers, they can get a grip on even the tiniest little bits and pieces. His nimble joints can turn taps, table legs, and screws any which way. And then with some fast-drying adhesive, rubber cement or just ordinary glue, ta-da, he’s done.

“Jeez Louise, how do you do it? Normally I’d have thrown that jewelry box in the trash already but then I thought to myself, that Mr. Pawlikowski’s such a magician, he’ll figure something out. And there you have it. Look at me, I just came down in my slippers, not even a headscarf over my curlers, I come down to your place, I go knock-knock, and there you are, same as ever: hair combed, in your cardigan, all dressed up. And so helpful, I’m telling you, if everyone had a heart as big as yours we’d have no wars on this Earth anymore. My God.”

“Now, now, sweetheart, that’s enough, you’re embarrassing me with all the compliments—really, don’t mention it. We’ve got to help each other, don’t we? People should back each other up in times like these, like in the war, because there’s no sympathy in this country anymore . . . Some people would just tear anyone to pieces for a little money, you know? So come by whenever you like. I’ve got my tools here, and the gifts the good Lord gave me, my health, too—and well, please, just feel welcome to visit my humble abode.”

A jack-of-all-trades, an instant, self-taught technician—he’s a pastry chef by training so it makes people wonder, where on Earth do these talents come from, if all he ever studied was icing? Best not to bother people, so Marian Pawlikowski doesn’t brag too much about his acquired trade. But at home in the evening. . . Well, it’s hard to hide the wonderful smells coming wafting through the whole apartment building. Itty-bitty doughnuts, tartlets and cookies in fantastic shapes, meringues—and all so clever, bite-sized treats from teeny-tiny molds. Not only that, but Mr. Pawlikowski made the molds himself out of bits of wire or metal. Gorgeous. Someone should put them in an art gallery. But not one of those commercial galleries—some place with real sophisticated stuff, you know?

Anyway, these cookies, these little beauties, he eats them all by himself, all on his own . . . He’s all alone in the world, meaning he’s a bachelor. Can you imagine, at the age of fifty-six . . . Such bad luck. The other ladies in the building, first thing they did was shake their heads in disbelief, and wonder how it could have come to this—for him to be without a wife? Such a treasure, a treasure! Plenty of them would swap him for the fat-ass they’ve got sitting in his underpants in front of the TV, for sure. ‘Cause Mr. Pawlikowski is articulate, well-groomed, talented—and so charming, like some old-fashioned dandy.

Instead of tails, he’s got a short coat he leaves half-buttoned. Around his neck he’s got this darling checkered scarf that he just leaves undone, or throws over his shoulder so it flutters behind him when he’s running for the bus. He wears the scarf with the tassels facing front—and those tassels tell you an awful lot about Mr. Pawlikowski. They’re so tidy, aren’t they, one thread next to the other and not a single one tangled up. It always looks like it’s been put on fresh out of a box under the Christmas tree—day in, day out, any time of week, no matter whether he’s going to church or to the grocery store. He takes good care of his hands with those long fingers. They’ll fix something here, dust something off there . . .  Somehow they’re all over the place—always moving, never at rest.

But how come those magic hands don’t stroke a wife’s skin every evening, or fix her untidy curls, or flip though children’s exercise books? Well what if . . . hang on, hang on . . .  What if Mr. Pawlikowski is, you all know what I mean . . . Sort of, what you might call . . . soft?

Ohhh, he’s a homo . . . Yeah, sort of a queer, a little iffy!

How could anyone accuse Mr. Pawlikowski of something so awful? Those blabbermouths haven’t got any shame . . . They don’t even have a decent job, I mean they just creep around between that staircase and their little hovels, working themselves into frenzies, the bitches. Mr. Pawlikowski isn’t a faggot, he’s just a sensitive, ordinary, unlucky man. A man!

Ask those buddies of his who sit in Fantasia from morning till night. Sometimes he drops in for a coffee with them, too, since he’s retired and hasn’t got a job as such. So he’s got time. He usually minces through the door at five, sits at a nonsmoking table and puts his scarf, his hat, and his gloves on the chair next to him, just so—always in that order. Then the beer-drinkers say, well I guess it’s five already, Marian’s here just like clockwork! Ha-ha-ha. Then Mr. Pawlikowski goes up to the bar and courteously orders a coffee:

 “Oh Ela sweetheart, give me one of the nice ones, the ones with the foam. And if it’s not too much trouble, how about a scrumptious cookie to go with my coffee? Maybe one of these—all these cookies are fresh, aren’t they, Ela sweetheart?”

“Mr. Pawlikowski honey, you know I’d move heaven and earth for you. Would I serve you anything but the best? As soon as you come in we put out all our freshest stuff, and we even set the good coffee cups out right away, just for you. I mean, come on, what else could we do? We all know you’re a pastry chef, a master craftsman, like a Wedel or a Blikle. What am I saying? I’m sure you’re better, since those guys are all mass production now, but you’re like a real artist—it’s as if you make every éclair for someone special. And with so much feeling, so much . . . well I’m a simple person, Mr. Pawlikowski, I haven’t got the words to describe it, except that you’re just a master! Now, if you ever wanted to bake like that for our place . . . ”

           

A man who women love has got to be gay—no question. Well, then, maybe they’re onto something. The guys sitting at the tables know everything, all you have to do is ask: what’s the deal with that Marian?

Marian’s our guy. He’s always been sort of different and had his own way of thinking. And sure, the ladies here were saying he supposedly prefers men, but who’d listen to their crap? Look, they’d even call the Pope a faggot. They get these crazy ideas—one of them hears a little bit of something and then they’re shooting their mouths off. And they gossip and they argue—so who’d listen to that? I got nothing against Marian, ‘cause last week he fixed my faucet for me. I mean he helped me fix it—‘cause I know how to do it myself. I know how to do all that home repair stuff: woodworking and what have you. But some goddamn thing was clogging up the pipe and I’m thinking as I’m unscrewing it—and finally I think, well, somebody’s got to come over, ‘cause my house is getting soaked. I called Marian right away and what do you know, the son-of-a-bitch is such a nice guy he comes over and he fiddles around a bit with those long fingers of his and it works. Not a drop leaking out, not one—and it used to drip, normally it would go drip-drop, drip-drop and now . . .

What does Ela sweetheart think? So first of all I want to say it’s your own private business whether, pardon my language, you do it with women or with men too, and if you ask me it’s nobody’s beeswax. Because you are what you are, for better or for worse, and it doesn’t have anything to do with your character. As for us, I mean all of us here at Fantasia, we’d just bend over backward for Mr. Pawlikowski, for sure, because there’s nobody like him around anymore, there really isn’t . . . I’m really sorry, I’m all worked up . . . Kasia, pass me those napkins for the ice cream, please . . . Sorry, I just love Mr. Pawlikowski so much, and to accuse him of being sick like that . . . Those people really have no conscience. He’s so kind, so warm.

Right then one of the customers sitting by the door piped up.

Give it a rest with the grilling. Leave the guy in peace, what is this, an inquisition or something? Mind your own business and quit bugging people, sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong . . . Now good-bye, that’s enough.

That’s right, why should we talk about someone behind his back? We don’t know who needs to know or why.

Mr. Pawlikowski stopped by the grocery store on the way back from Fantasia. He bought a fat-free yogurt and some whole-grain bread for dinner.

You can’t let your belly stick out in front of you like a camel hump—you’ve got to look after yourself before it’s too late. Heart disease, obesity, drug addiction—they’re our civilization’s worst diseases, because, I tell you, we bring them on ourselves. And someone can be well-read and smart, but have these toxins in their body—just all this garbage. That’s why you are what you eat, as someone once said—your plate has to be as tidy as your shelves are. Everything in moderation, little bits, not greedy. Because you scarf down everything in five minutes and then you’ve got ambulances going up and down Banach Street all night long—‘cause heart attacks, high blood pressure, it’s all from eating: too much food, too much fat. No sense of proportion.

And sure enough: in his small kitchen, Mr. Pawlikowski cut himself two slices of tomato and a thin slice of bread with low-fat butter, and a couple spoonfuls of fruit yogurt. Some green tea, but that’s for after dinner, for digestion. He usually drank it watching the news. Three shows at a time, one after the other. You’ve got to keep up with what’s going on, what trends there are in the world—problems, too. Then maybe an interesting movie, or if there’s nothing to watch—just people shouting or stupid game shows—then there’s the radio. The classical station is best, with serious music. Or maybe the talk station, with a political debate or a documentary. He’d switch on the lamp above his head, and Mr. Pawlikowski would get to work. He’d take out of his basket a tatting shuttle, some stitchbows, an embroidery hoop, or some decorative spangles.

He usually embroidered wall-hangings—either with an elaborate design or with a proverb or some words of wisdom. He preferred subdued colors—dark blues, maybe pastels. First he’d make the frame, usually in an openwork style like Toledo, hemstitch, or Richelieu. Then, on a sketch he’d made beforehand, he’d mark the beginning and the end of the saying. He’d embroider it in gothic letters or an elaborate style with lots of flourishes—it depended on what the wall-hanging said. So he’d embroider heartwarming, thought-provoking common wisdom, sort of in these  waves of letters. Each period was one in a million, a work of art, the tails on the “g” and the “y” were like ships sailing across the fabric. Alternatively, if the hanging was meant to be stern or express something profound, then the whole style would be restrained and hard—so “Love One Another as I Have Loved You” in cursive, but “Cleanliness is Next to Godliness” in gothic.

He always copied the pictures from old postcards or already-existing wall-hangings. Mr. Pawlikowski wouldn’t change much, because—as he admitted himself—he had no knack for illustration. And sure enough, the women on his designs had fierce faces, tiny eyes and unusually long hair, which sometimes even ran into the phrase he’d embroidered.

What would happen to these little artworks afterward? Naturally, they’d be given as gifts to close friends. Since he didn’t have a family as such, Mr. Pawlikowski had made himself a private list of replacement relatives. So his sister was a doctor’s intern on Skarżyński Street (she always got medical designs); his grandmother was Maria Wachelberska, his upstairs neighbor; and his cousin was a woman he ran into now and then walking in Szczęśliwicki Park. For her, Mr. Pawlikowski had a bit more artistic wall hangings with one word on them, like “Prayer” and two hands held together around a rosary—different things to contemplate, because the lady from the park used to be a theology student and she’d been studying catechism for some time.

Hold on, hold on . . . So maybe Mr. Pawlikowski was unhappily in love with the woman from the park? Maybe he was even happy, just not too brave?

No, the lady’s a widow for sure, but she swore to her husband he’d be the only one till they were both in the grave. Besides, sure Mr. Pawlikowski acted charming and nice, but he was like that with everyone—nothing special going on there. I mean, in his head he called her his cousin—so it was nothing like that, it was just friendly. But look, who cares what his orientation is? That’s Mr. Pawlikowski’s business.

Sure it is—but it’s society’s business if a fifty-odd-year-old guy instead of going drinking or taking his wife to the movies just stays home doing embroidery. And he’s so helpful, so nice and clean-cut—come on, show me a normal guy who’s always like, oh darling, oh sweetie, oh honey, I’ll help you, I’ll carry this, I’ll fix that. And a pastry chef—always in the kitchen! I mean, I don’t believe it—nothing like it anywhere in the world . . . He goes for a walk in the park with a lively, attractive girl and doesn’t want anything? He even asks about her husband, may he rest in peace, helps with little jobs around the house, walks her home . . . And he doesn’t want anything, doesn’t sneak a peek? Sounds like he’s never even accidentally let his hand drift below her waist. Nope, I don’t believe it! It can’t be anything else: he’s gay. A faggot, a queer . . . I mean, Christ Almighty, he’s not a normal, Polish man.

What are you talking about? He’s a man. He’s a Ladyman.

What, like both at once? Like a hermaphrodite, a freak with two set of genitals?

No, I’m not talking about biology or his private parts. I’m talking about his mind, you know, you could say his psychology . . . Human nature, which changes. And Mr. Pawlikowski’s a man, but he has so many womanly qualities he’s sort of a cross. Like buy one, get one free. You get it now? So give the snooping a rest, for goodness’ sake, leave the man alone, live and let live. The whole neighborhood here accepts him and God forbid we’d wish him harm—never. And if by chance someone doesn’t know him, someone fresh off the boat from God knows where, they’d stare at him, first like they were curious and then even sort of threateningly. And they won’t know whether to punch him in the mouth ‘cause of those feline movements of his or maybe just wait and see how it plays out. What a bunch of morons, they don’t get that we’re such a mixed bag here in Ochota—those other neighborhoods can go and shove their people you-know-where. We’ve even got a colored guy here. And don’t forget the Chinamen, you see them everywhere nowadays . . . I’m not saying I have anything against them, why would I, just the opposite, I’d say. Because as soon as you get near Banach Street on the number 25, you’ll see, it’s like being in another country—all kinds of people walking around—dark skin, and, you know, slanty eyes . . . We’ve got everybody here. And we’ve got Mr. Pawlikowski, too, who’s a man just like me, because that’s the truth, but he could also be a woman. And that’s that. You get it?

No.

Well then I can’t help you.

Read more from the June 2015 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.