over the next few days, i’ll be posting a very old story i wrote in college that’s a bit long for just one entry.
reason why this (admittedly) inferior story is being pulled up from obscurity:
this is the story i wrote just before giving up on short stories to write my novel. i felt claustrophobic the whole time, like my pictures were larger than the canvas.
anyway, enough talk. let’s read some old crap.
The Pretty Polish Girl
Billy awoke in a chair with his back close to a source of heat. He heard the crackling, and smelled the smoke of a fire. The ash in the air reminded him of cigarettes. He hadn’t had a cigarette in weeks. He opened his eyes. He focused. He sat near a doorway, and looked into a barn. Each of the stalls had been refashioned with barbed wire to make cages. Filthy men squatted in the cages. Some of them looked back at Billy.
After a few moments, Billy remembered that the war was over, and that this was not another POW camp. This was a prison in the Polish countryside.
He moved his head around, looking for his bearings. Something cold sat on top of his skull. Underneath the cold throbbing blasts of pain snaked through his bloodstream. He was hung-over. He remembered now. Men had found him sleeping off a bottle of brandy in a ditch. They had dragged Billy’s semi-conscious body to a truck. The truck had taken Billy here. They had tied Billy to a chair before Billy’s consciousness lapsed.
Billy heard voices speaking behind him. He couldn’t turn and see them because he couldn’t bear to move his head around like that. Instead, he let his head hang down and he investigated his body. His body was still there, and still dressed. A bowl of soup, thin and greasy, attracted flies next to Billy’s filthy right boot.
Voices called out from a farmhouse far off to Billy’s left. The men behind Billy — they were soldiers, in uniforms, and Billy could see them now with their muddy jackets and bored eyes — obeyed. They picked up the chair, with Billy still bound into it, and they picked up his bowl of thin soup. They carried him and his soup inside the barn, and away from the fire.
There wasn’t vomiting, just dizziness. Billy was feeling horrible, but he had nothing in his stomach to throw up.
The soldiers turned Billy’s chair around so he could look out at the fire where the men in gray uniforms tossed cards around like mortal enemies. Past the fire, and next to the barn, a white farmhouse towered over the Polish fields. Three men and two pieces of furniture emerged from the house. One of them was clearly in charge. He was older, and walked like an officer.
That man was Captain Chekhov. Billy didn’t know him, yet.
Captain Chekhov disliked leaving the farmhouse, especially when the ground was still wet from the morning’s rains. He was already ordering his attendant, Krupchik, to prepare a wash for the pants and a polish for the boots. Two soldiers walked behind Captain Chekhov, one carrying a small table, and another carrying a chair.
Captain Chekhov stepped inside of the barn, and looked his latest, muddiest prisoner up and down. Captain Chekhov walked around behind Billy’s chair. He leaned in close. Much can be learned about a man by the stink that hangs over him like a cloud. Two days’ mud smells different from two weeks’ mud. Chekhov held back a cough at the stench of the prisoner. He walked back around to the front of the barn, where he could glower down on the young man in the chair.
Captain Chekhov covered his hand in a handkerchief and lifted the young man’s chin up. Captain Chekhov winced. He dropped the tottering head and quickly shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket. Captain Chekhov turned to one of his soldiers and said, in Russian, “He looks very much like my son, Sergei. They could nearly be twins. Perhaps one of my secret bastard children joined the American army. I don’t recall sleeping with any American women.”
The soldiers laughed at this.
Billy did not acknowledge Captain Chekhov’s hands. The cold pack slipped, and landed on the thick clumps of dirt.
Chekhov said to one of his men, in Russian “Krupchik, Put the ice pack back on his head. The poor fool’s got a hangover the size of Roosevelt’s beard.”
The Russian picked up the pack and put it on Billy’s skull carefully, and the new grains of mud ran down Billy’s filthy neck, merging with the mud of the ages on Billy’s skin. The soldier re-tied the cold pack down lightly. Then the Russian soldier turned to Captain Chekhov and said, “Roosevelt is dead, and he had no beard.”
Captain Chekhov shrugged, “So? Let us see if this American has a tongue.”
Chekhov had been speaking in Russian. He continued momentarily, “What is your name?” Chekhov pulled dogtags from his pocket. They had Billy’s name, and rank, and vital information. Chekhov said it again, “What is your name?”
Billy opened his eyes, and gazed at the stranger speaking gibberish in front of him. “I’m sorry, no sprecke German,” said Billy, “No Dutch sprecken.”
One of the two Russian soldiers sneered. “Shall I hit him?”
Captain Chekhov smiled, and spoke the two German sentences he knew.
The Russian pulled out a knife from his belt and lifted it in the air behind the prisoner, slowly, waiting for the final command in Russian.
Billy didn’t notice what was happening behind him. “Listen, I don’t know if any of y’all speak English, but I don’t speak German. I’m sorry y’all lost the war, but it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Man, doesn’t anybody speak English on this God-forsaken continent?”
Captain Chekhov lifted his open hand at his soldier. The soldier dropped his knife. Captain Chekhov said, “Yes, we speak some English here.”
Billy smiled at him, sarcastically. “Are you a German? I don’t think you’re a Pollack. I know y’all ain’t Pollacks.”
Captain Chekhov shook his head and rolled his fingertips in a steady cadence on the table in patient boredom. “We are the People’s Army of the United Soviet Socialist Republics.”
“Russian? I spent a year or two with a bunch of Russkies. I only saw a couple pieces of a uniform. Mostly they had on the same shit we did. They didn’t speak English. We didn’t speak Russian.”
Captain Chekhov cocked an eyebrow. “Are there more of you?”
Billy spoke with a pale smile. “Not anymore. What’s with all these ropes and shit? Ain’t we supposed to be allies?”
Captain Chekhov smiled back, with a wide open face difficult for anyone to trust. He said, “We are allies, which makes you and I friends.”
“For the record, I’m a bandit.”
Captain Chekhov smirked. “You are an American, yes? Americans are not bandits.”
“Well,” Billy paused, looked down at his feet, and looked back up into his captor’s eyes, “just because I’m an American don’t mean I ain’t a bandit. I’ve been stealing chickens and liquor all over.”
Captain Chekhov leaned back in his chair. “Do you really believe I am going to execute an American POW over a few chickens and a few bottles of schnapps?” Captain Chekhov shook his finger at Billy. “You are a soldier stranded and alone in a foreign nation. The war has ended, and you have no way of getting home. I can see your whole life before you, friend.”
Billy looked down at the mud-stained boots of Captain Chekhov. The uniform was clean, buttoned to the top. The Russian’s boots looked as if they were sewn together out of mud. “Nah, I don’t think you can,” said Billy.
Chekhov smiled and leaned further forward. The two men’s eyes met. “I can,” he said, “You joined the Army because you wanted to fight for your nation in these troubled times. You have an army air corps uniform. You wanted to fly. You did, too, didn’t you? You were a pilot, and an officer. You probably lied about your age and provided many false documents to do so and no one stopped you because of the need. You flew and flew until your plane was shot down. You crashed, were captured, and spent too much time among the camps around here. You have decided to just live it up while you still can. You will walk out of this camp today, and steal more things to drink. You will screw more women, all of whom will pity you, and none of whom love you. When the Americans finally find you, you will be useless to them. They will pin a medal on your chest and you will go back to ditches. Women will fade as your medals tarnish. You’ll die alone and sick in the streets. You are not very original in these troubled times.”
Billy smiled again, and for the first time he parted his lips when he smiled. His teeth were nearly pitch black. He said, “Well, that ain’t it at all. End’s about right, I guess, but the rest is all wrong.”
Chekhov leaned back in his chair and matched Billy’s smile with clean nearly white teeth. “If the end is right, what difference does the beginning make?”
Billy snarled, his smile gone. “Everything,” he said, “Listen, I can tell y’all my life story, but it wouldn’t matter. I’m a bandit, now. Hang me high.”
Captain Chekhov motioned to one of the Russian soldiers, named Krupchik, and Krupchik produced a piece of paper from his jacket. Chekhov scribbled furiously on the piece of paper and handed it back to Krupchik. Chekhov leaned back in his chair again, looking up and down the American.
Captain Chekhov twirled the dog tags in his hand. He stood up, and draped the dog tags back around Billy’s neck. “I have decided that you are an American soldier,” he said, “I will wire my commanding officers right now and tell them all about you. Perhaps they’ll wire something back. Since you seem like a danger to yourself, I shall leave you here tied up. Krupchik shall make sure you eat your soup. Krupchik.” Captain Chekhov snapped his fingers and pointed at the soup on the ground, with a dead fly now floating and bloated on the greasy surface of the broth.
Krupchik picked the soup up, brushed out the dead fly, and dumped the meager liquid down Billy’s throat. A lonely chunk of carrot caught in Billy’s throat, but after a moment of gagging it lumped down like a horsepill. Afterwards Billy threw up all over his chest. Krupchik left him there, tied up and covered in flies. Some of the prisoners inside of the stalls yelled out. Billy recognized a smattering of French, and Italian. He also heard some German. He knew vaguely what the Polish and Germans were yelling at him. They said that they wanted his chair for his mother. They said he had shit all over him. Billy didn’t bother responding, even in English.
Captain Chekhov gestured at a prisoner inside one of the stalls. Russian soldiers dragged the screaming man into the yard. Chekhov walked behind him, lifting a small pistol from his belt as if it were a pencil from his pocket. As he walked, Chekhov looked up at the sun with a wistful smile. It was a beautiful spring day after a cool rain.
The prisoner had jaundiced skin and muddy hair. He struggled against his captors. He shouted “Hail Hitler! Hail Hitler! Hail! Hail!” Billy noticed the sweat. He had only ever seen German sweat before when the Germans were beating on the prisoners, or the sun was warm and the air was wet. This German was sweating in the cool afternoon air because he was about to die.
Captain Chekvov lowered his pistol against the prisoner’s temple.
Billy didn’t flinch when he heard the sound of the gunfire. The high keen of the wounded German replaced the fleeing birds. Chekhov fired again. All sound stopped.
***to be continued***