As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
My brother and sisters sit out on the back porch. They stagger themselves on the wooden steps, leaning their backs against the railings, their knees facing each other. Jeanie is 13, Helen 16, and Stanley 17. They hold bowls in their palms and spoon jewels of cherry Jell-O into their mouths. It’s after dinner, but they hang around the house anyway. These days, instead of gathering with their neighborhood friends, they stay to listen for the 8:00 world report on the radio. The sky before them is fading from orange to white to milky blue. It is the kind of summer weather when it doesn’t matter how long they stay out. The sky seems to linger at dusk for hours.
The gelatin is not their favorite dessert. They like the pies that I make. There’s an apple tree in the backyard, some blueberry bushes in the woods, pints of strawberries, occasionally cherries. But I decided yesterday that there’d be no more pies until Bernard comes home. I did not say when that would be. I don’t know. Maybe soon, Jeanie suggested. We were sitting at the kitchen table peeling paper labels off of cans when I told them. Washing them, collecting them for the war. When Bern comes home, I will bake pies in our own house.
I have just finished the dishes in the kitchen and walk out to the porch to hang the dish towels to dry in the still warm air. I have no reason to go home early and Mamo likes it when I spend the evenings here, so I carry a chair from the kitchen out onto the porch and sit behind my brothers and sisters. Long shadows line the porch; they run along the graying floorboards and up the clapboard sides of the house. The shadows are from the pole beans that grow up the strings Papa has tacked vertically along the porch. Big band polka rhythms trickle out of the radio in the kitchen. Mamo is sitting in her rocking chair, and I can hear it creak against the linoleum when the band breaks between songs. She knits in her chair, a sweater or something for the baby. John is asleep in his carriage in the living room.
“Listen, Stel,” Helen starts to me. “Stanley thinks I’m too young to waitress at Wyoming Valley with you and Jennie.”
She is asking about the country club where I waitress. Our older sister Jennie works there with me, and Stanley works in the pro shop. Before Anthony—the oldest—was sent to Europe, he caddied out on the course.
Helen and Jeanie stare at me for a response. Stanley shrugs his shoulders like he thought his opinion should have been good enough for Helen.
“I don’t know, I suppose I could ask Mr. Everett,” I tell her. “I think most of the girls are out of high school, though.”
I watch her slowly pull rows out of her knitting. She has never caught on to holding the two needles even though every summer Mamo sits her down and makes her practice knitting a square. I watch her wrap the kinked, rusty colored yarn around her finger. She looks at me, unhappy with my response.
“Helen, you don’t need one a dem jobs,” Mamo interjects. She has been listening from the kitchen.
“But it’d be good for me to get a job,” Helen argues towards the house. “And I could help with the money.”
“Ay, Matka Boska!” Mamo moans. “You want’a help? How ‘bout some of de laundry an’ de cooking, and you hav’ta watch baby John while Stella is de one working for herself!”
Helen scowls towards the house but she says nothing else.
Papa, who has been on his hands and knees gathering tomatoes from his garden, sits back on his heels.
“Co?” He calls over to us. “Nothing, Papa,” Jeanie says.
I catch a faint smell of galumpkies being cooked somewhere on the block. Jeanie and Helen carry on with their chatter and for a moment I feel as though I am somewhere else, alone on the porch and staring out at the fading sky. That the voices, the laughter, and the creaking of the rocking chair and the polka playing on the radio in the kitchen are all part of someone else’s life that I just happen to be overhearing.
The war report speaks of little change abroad, and eventually it grows too dark to see much of anything outside so I go in to gather my things for the walk home. The house goes straight back, one room after the next: kitchen, a washroom to the left, living room, stairs, parlor, front door. I walk through the house as if I am still living there, like it is no different from when I was younger.
Not a lot has changed in the rooms. There is a gas stove now in the kitchen, bought on payment. Along the windowsill by the kitchen table there are about a dozen glass jars full of plant clippings growing roots in water, little grafts that Mamo collects to eventually plant in the garden.
Only last winter Papa was convinced by a salesman to buy an Encyclopedia Britannica. Just one dollar a month he pays. Slowly I’ll pay it off, he assures us. I don’t think he reads English well, but he insists that the set of 36 books is for my brothers and sisters, so that they get to read and learn what he and Mamo could not. The books are lined up on top of a dresser that sits in the living room. There is a long lace doily under them that Mamo crocheted.
Two bricks, one on either side of the books, keep them from falling over. A picture of the Holy Mother of Czestochowa, Poland’s black Madonna, used to hang on the wall above the dresser, but it is not there now and I wonder where my father has put it.
Now everyone else has moved inside too. From the couch I watch Helen walk up to the books. She runs her finger over their spines, A-Am, An-Az, B, Ca-Cl, Cn-Cz. She tilts Ca-Cl out from the set and carries it to the sofa, next to me. She flips it open on her lap and looks at California today. There is a map of the state, a picture of the ocean, a picture of a tree with an enormous trunk, and a picture of a waterfall in a park called Yosemite.
“California,” she says. Jeanie is sitting on the other side of Helen now and she leans over the pictures too. “Let’s go to California, Jean. We can be in the movies, and get rich!” Helen nudges Jeanie, exciting her with her dreams.
“What else do they say about California?” Papa asks.
Everyone goes barefoot, and I even remember Mamo once, in the winter, stepping out onto the cold ground to throw herbs blessed by the priest over the sidewalk. So far as I know the whole neighborhood is Catholic, but I’ve seen some of the women, now old and their hair growing spindly white, embrace their mystical superstitions even more. It’s as though the closer they come to death, the closer they want to feel to their past, to Poland. No longer do they make sure that their children grow up American, but that they hold on to something Polish.
When I finally decide to leave, Papa walks me home through the alleys. To the west, over towards Nanticoke, the mountains are lined with a glowing blue, and somewhere farther out there it is just a few minutes earlier, and their evening is as ours just was, humming quietly. Most of the neighborhood boys are still out in the alleys, pretending that they can still see baseballs struck high into the air. I can hear them shouting a block or two over: “John-ieeee, Stan-lieee,” they yell. They shriek, their voices rising into the darkening air, fading and somehow seeming soft, even though they try hard to sound loud and demanding.
Papa and I walk silently next to each other. I push the baby carriage and Papa carries a brown paper sack. Inside the bag, the glass lid from a casserole dish full of halushki rumbles below two loaves of fresh bread. Mamo taught me how to cook well, but I do little with Bern gone.
I walk slowly with Papa, the both of us thinking in the dark. I imagine someone sees us from their back porch, watching father and daughter with baby walk home through the alleys, in the dark of the evening, this thick summer.
We are silent, listening together, passing the backyards of our neighbors. Some yards are fenced in, but the sounds are still audible. There are women cleaning in the kitchens at the back of their houses—dishes clink and water runs and sometimes there is a radio. I picture their hands moving, slick with dishwater and grease, plunging in and out of sinks. Some hands are dry, gathering dirty laundry for the next day’s wash, or finishing up some knitting over a cup of tea. They all seem old, the women in these houses. I am one of the only young ones, married and with a baby, my husband at war. Mostly, the women have sons at war. There are few husbands gone in Buttonwood.
We emerge from the alley onto my street, where there are bright streetlights that the county put in. They line the side of the street opposite the houses, the side of the street where there is a thin patch of woods separating Buttonwood from the new Sans Souci Parkway. Walking down the sidewalk, I watch the pools of white light as we pass them. We come upon the gate to my house, right between two semicircles of white light. The house is a shadow, hidden behind shrubs that are hard to keep trimmed since Bern has not been around. They’re beginning to grow out onto the sidewalk.
Papa pushes open the gate and we stop before the front steps.
“Stel, you can stay with Mamo and me if you like,” he reminds me. “It might be easier with the baby, and you could work more at the country club. Maybe even get a job in an office downtown.”
“Papa, I’m fine here.” I shake my head no.
I am eager to get into the house now; it suddenly seems luxurious to be alone, to put the baby to bed and sit in the house with the radio on. I wonder if he knows I like to be alone sometimes.
“Dobrze, Stella.” He stutters over my name, like it is hard for him to say. He called me Stanislawa nearly until I married.
Papa helps me carry the carriage up the front steps and into the house. Then he takes the sack of Mamo’s food back to the kitchen and leaves it on the table. I wait for him in the parlor. He leans in to kiss my forehead and then crouches to run his fingers along the baby’s cheek. He whispers something in Polish towards his ear, but I’m not sure what he says.
“I pray for you, Stel. Mamo does too.” He smiles awkwardly, backs out the door, and pulls it closed.
I am alone in the house now. My house. John is asleep in his crib, in his room, the first one at the top of the stairs. I’m sitting in the living room, but it is too quiet. I want it to sound like it did out in the alleys—the young boys, the kitchens, that faint sound of trees and grass. I go around the house opening windows, securing the screens, tying back the curtains. A breeze has picked up, cooling the air, and I sink back down into the couch, feeling the wind blow from one side of the house to the other.
I can’t get the image of the neighborhood houses out of my head. I turn on the radio to drown out the creaking sounds of the empty house, and then walk into the kitchen; the cabinets are painted an orange-red and they are almost too bright, but I like them.
It feels even more lonely in the summer without Bernard. I get letters from India, stained and stamped, affirming their passage from halfway around the world. He says it’s hot, that he has never felt heat and sweat like he feels in Calcutta. I know he’s miserable, but his pride swells in his letters. His duties, his power, his forces. It hardly seems real that the man I married is halfway around the world, in India, fighting off the Japanese, fighting a war. It does not seem like the thing he would do. But he did; he drove me pregnant and on my 24th birthday to Newark to enlist himself. We never talked about it. He left before John was born, nearly two years ago. I find myself wondering what he will do when he comes back here.
I like the letters. I keep them to myself because I think that what Bernard tells me is fragile, that he does not tell me everything and what he does, I should keep for myself. I keep his letters in my closet, in a shoe box under a hat. Sometimes, in the morning, while John takes his early nap and I linger over my coffee, avoiding the dishes, the laundry, the cooking, I read them like the newspaper, one folded letter after the next. Sometimes I pull out the stationary that we all have to buy special at the post office and write Bernard a letter: Dear Bern, You sound so good and strong. We all miss you here in the neighborhood and we’re doing the best we can to help … love, Stel and your little John. Sometimes I slip them in their special V-Mail envelopes and send them. Sometimes I reread them and put them in the shoebox with the others.
The kitchen is clean, baby bottles have been sterilized and fill a cabinet. Another is lined with glasses on one shelf, plates and bowls on another. There are potatoes, halushki, milk, an open jar of pickles, and a ham in the ice box. The fresh bread is in the bread box. Jars of pickled beets, eggs, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots in the pantry. Jelly sealed into their fancy glass jars. A rack of Watkins spices above the gas stove. A dried palm and a prayer card tucked between two of the spice tins. A bunch of herbs, blessed by the priest, hangs from a string tacked up on the wall. Mixing bowls, decorated with cornflowers, orange, yellow, peach, sit nested one inside the other on the kitchen table. The tin jars labeled Flour, Sugar, Coffee, Tea are pushed against the counter, filled with their proper contents except for Tea which holds poppy seeds. There is a drawer full of wooden spoons, a whisk, knives, a vegetable peeler, a sieve, measuring spoons. Another drawer with silverware, a gift from Bern’s parents. The pattern is plain, not like the sets edged with flowers at Boscov’s. In the cabinet under the sink there is a galvanized metal wash bin. I used to bathe John in it, but now it holds wash rags and a brush to scrub the floor with. The soap is in the closet, I think of keeping them all together in one place. Also in the cabinet is a box of Borax, a box of steel wool, a bottle of gin.
I pull the bottle out from behind the boxes. A rag is draped over it and I wonder if at some point I had intentionally thrown the rag over the bottle, or if it was by mistake. I set the bottle on the counter and turn it around, watching the glass, cool and effervescent, reflect what little light there is in the kitchen.
Ali Bujnowski is a recent graduate of Barnard College. This is her first publication.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.