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Stanley Arrives in Prague
The man who met me at the airport was made up. He wore concealer and low-key lipstick. On both hands, his fingernails had been lacquered in clear polish. I was meant to notice these unsubtle subtleties, which I did, and I was meant to feel dropped at the front door to a dark, deviant, and complicated mystery, which I didn’t.
“I am representative of your uncle,” he said, presenting me the key to the apartment.
He was stooped and saggy-faced, a man dragged all the way to the end of middle age. English sounded hairy in his mouth. He wore a black suit, shirt, and tie, but his sleeve cuffs were streaked with white chalk. The chalk, still powdery, poofed when he moved.
He held a poster-board sign that read:
and included an impressionistic charcoal portrait of a figure that was meant to be me. No white chalk was in it. The way the face was arranged, it looked about to eat itself.
On the intercom a woman spoke in sternly bored Czech. We were standing near the exit, under the airport’s huge hangar-like ceiling. I felt sore and foul from the long flight. Around us, backpackers, traveling retirees, and businesspeople tapped out cigarettes on their way to the street, where they stopped to smoke, the gathered cloud looming up above them like a ledge full of gargoyles.
“We are thanking you,” said the man.
I took the key from his palm. He stared at me with an exaggerated indifference, as if he wanted me to suspect that he was masking spite, as if his goal, outside of key-delivery, was to make me think myself observant. There was a chance I’d seen him in Chicago sometime, slinking out of my uncle’s garage with the other artists. To tell them apart was tricky: their work was to change who they were.
He said, “Are you having question?”
My eyes adjusted to his face: its texture shifted, seeming caked and rubbery. He was maybe more made up than I’d thought. I imagined what it would be like to be him—a willing “representative of” my uncle, an adult who’d agreed to participate in another adult’s game of pretend—and what I found myself feeling, instead of pity, was disgust. There were many hateful things I could’ve said to this man. But if I said them, I might shout them, and if I shouted them, I might shove him. It would be the mess my uncle wanted. I put the key in my pocket.
“I won’t have questions,” I said.
He lowered the sign. His face jerked. “You will find yourself around?”
I left—I crossed the lobby, I went through the doors. Outside I paused in the smoker’s cloud to study my map. The urge to smoke was a stake in my chest. I breathed indulgently.
The made-up man watched me from inside the airport, acting like I couldn’t see him. He had put a hand to the glass. He was crying.
A bus took me to a tram that took me to the city center. It worked the way the guidebook said it would. From there I walked, and the closer I came to Old Town Square, the more the tourists, travelers, and citizens clotted up the cobblestoned streets and corners, stuck together with their separate languages. Buildings stacked on the centuries, each one older than the last. The streets narrowed and twisted. Through intersections I caught glimpses of the Square, its broad spaces, its mob, its murmur.
The alley that led to where my uncle had said the main door to the apartment was, though, I couldn’t find—I went up and down the same set of streets; I squeezed past the same sidewalk cafés and tour guide stands. The alley wasn’t where it should have been.
I widened my search, walking bigger boxes-within-boxes.
The streets re-straightened. Tourist spillage shrank. Locals strode into grocery stores and pharmacies, out of banks and boutiques. They plodded up to their apartments above storefronts. I paused at the open door to a butcher shop, where men and women waited in ordinary boredom. An old man paid for a package of hog guts, and a young woman motioned for a bigger hunk of pork, and a little boy kicked another little boy in the butt.
I didn’t want to, but I started to double back to the Square. At a corner that I thought I’d recognize, but didn’t, I stopped. I stood through several cycles of traffic lights. Citizens coursed by on foot, not speaking, and in cars and on scooters, not honking. I shifted my bag to my other shoulder.
More people passed, their faces firm.
I didn’t know what to say to myself: I was afraid.
A fashionable old woman came to a stop in front of me. She glared. I glared back. She looked like the sort of old woman who completed every task on her own, who maintained her solidity through an unreflective commitment to routine. My being there had bent that routine.
She spoke Czech. Her voice was loud and wet.
I told her, in Czech, that I didn’t speak Czech, did she speak English?
The light changed again. She snatched my arm and made me help her cross the street, scolding me, shaming me, and at the opposite corner she tried to tug me off-course, her way. I blushed. When I wriggled my arm free, she raised her voice.
People slowed to watch.
She poked me in the chest, yelling now. Her hands had a pickled stink.
A young mother carrying a kid in a body-sling intervened.
The two spoke. The kid squirmed to get a look at my face. He was mustached in snot.
The young mother squinted at me and said something.
I asked her if she spoke English.
“She is saying you are a relative,” she said.
“You look as if you are from here.”
“I am seeing that.”
They turned their backs on me together.
For a moment, I didn’t move or speak. I couldn’t. My fear had peeled away to panic. All of my reasons for being in Prague went bad at once. This was a separate country, a separate people. These were Czechs building Czech lives in a Czech city, thinking and feeling Czech. They themselves were their own reasons for where they were.
A man slammed my bag as he walked by.
The panic crumbled. My mouth was dry, my face was sweaty.
I wandered back the way I’d come.
Near the Square I found the alley I’d been looking for, the entrance shadowed by a busted archway. It could’ve been a path to a private courtyard. I’d passed it I didn’t know how many times. The alley ran straight to my uncle’s three-story apartment building, which stood with a sullen pride, shoulder-to-shoulder with its more dignified neighbors. It was wall-like. No first-floor windows, a door that looked like it’d been installed that day. I double-checked the address. The key fit the lock when I jammed and wrenched it. I walked through the lobby and took noisy stairs to the third floor, every step a wincing creak.
The apartment stank a little, a kind of pesticidal sweat worked into the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom. The bed was a full, its sheets coarse to the touch. When I sat on the living room couch the cushions gave out a muffled toot. I slumped. My body deadened, going heavy, and at the same time, my head loosened, going light. It wasn’t even noon. I stood up, just to stand up.
That was when a window in me broke.
What broke it came through it: a very bad feeling.
I sat down. The very bad feeling sat down too.
I decided not to think about it.
Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Scapellato