A Man of the Country
All fairy tales have in common not “once upon a time” but an unlikely pairing of characters who under normal circumstances would never have met. Like a former waiter from Madison, Wisconsin, and a giant.
Jirka is tall and tlusty, which translates roughly into “thick.” It is an equally useful word for describing people who weigh over two hundred pounds as well as books that clock in at over a thousand pages. His nose, chin, and fingers are fleshy and full of life. The only subtle thing about his looks is his smile, which curls up in the corners of his lips as if he’s winking at you.
We met on a subway platform. I was standing under an ad for the new Pizza Hut, my nose buried in a book with the cover wrapped in brown paper. A guy from Minnesota advised me to cover all my English books to avoid being hassled by undercover ticket inspectors on the subway.
Jirka picked me out of the crowd to ask if he could take a picture of my nose.
“It is regret I do not understand what you have said,” I told him in Czech.
“Where are you from?” he asked. He wore a bright yellow knit cap over his mangy curls and a dull blue winter jacket that looked like he’d slept in it. I wore a full-length Czech gray raincoat to hide my American clothes.
“I am a man of America but I speak a little of Czech.”
His eyes, already big and round like moons, widened. “You are American and you can speak Czech?”
I said, “Is it contrary to a law for an American to speak Czech?” Sometimes I was reckless in languages that were not my own.
“Wir können to speak the English,” he replied.
We rode the subway to Dejvice together and then transferred to the tram. Jirka, who worked in construction, wanted me to be his English teacher. After fumbling around in his coat pocket, he fished out a pencil stub and a wrinkled Dunkin’ Donuts napkin so he could write down his phone number. How much did I charge for lessons? Could I give him a list of books? He would buy them the very next day. He knew a good bookstore.
“Wait, wait,” I said.
“I no can wait,” he told me and pulled my arm. The other passengers in the tram stared. “I must besser speak English. It is important to make my fortune.”
“But this is my stop. I have to get off. Moja zastavka.”
Jirka looked deep into my eyes. “Please call to me tomorrow,” he begged.
A year passes, and I’m going home. Jirka the giant and I stand in front of a pink and green castle on a hill that inspired a novel by Kafka. We are not lovers and Jirka has no idea I ever wanted to be, but he has taken the day off work to spend it by my side like a lover would. The smog has melted, as if in honor of my leaving, and we have a clear view of the trams, the tourists on Charles Bridge, trees dragging their leaves over the water, paddleboats on the Vltava River, shadows, islands.
After a last look over the city, we walk down the craggy steps of Nerudova ulice into Mala Strana, a neighborhood of narrow streets where the buildings are painted in pastels and trimmed with scallops and curls like wedding cakes. Jirka scratches his chest with a proud, satisfied smile. His size and rocklike good looks turn heads everywhere. Even the American tourists wearing the red-and-black-checkered velvet hats for sale on Charles Bridge stop to look at him. I can’t decide if he’s unaware of the attention he’s getting or if he enjoys it.
We turn right onto Malostranske namesti and Jirka puts his hand on my neck. His touch feels cold and heavy, like a metal clamp. “Please, my friend.” He slips his whole arm around my shoulders and pulls me against his hip. I try not to get hard because we’ve never talked about it openly, this propensity of mine to be attracted to him.
Three teenage boys dressed in oversize sweatshirts and backwards baseball caps like the hip-hop artists they watch on Euro MTV are heading straight for us, but Jirka doesn’t drop his arm. He points at the show window of a store that imports Levi’s. “It is funny reklama for slips. How you say reklama?”
“Advertisement.” The ad in question, for men’s underwear by Diesel, consists of three close-up shots of crotches in various states of arousal as seen through white briefs. The word for underwear in Czech is slip. I ask him, “What kind of slip do you wear?”
Jirka hikes down the waist of his pants low enough for me to see his paisley-print bikini briefs.
The boys walk by and take no notice of us.
He used to live in an apartment in a complex of high-rise cement buildings called Cerveny vrch, or Red Hill. When you came over, you had to phone from the corner. Instead of letting down his golden hair, he’d open his window and throw you his keys.
“Why don’t you fix your buzzer?” I asked when I visited him the first time.
“I like to give keys out window,” Jirka said. He took my raincoat and pointed to a towel spread on the floor where I could leave my shoes.
Jirka rented his spare bedroom to Jason and Teal, a Canadian couple whom he never saw except passed out on their mattress, once next to a pool of vomit. Their backpacks, still stuffed with clothes, lay unzipped next to a stack of books covered in candle drippings, books like On the Road and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Jirka had taped an index card to the phone for them: “Jirka neni doma 5 Jirka no home.”
Pots of basil and thyme and baby tomatoes grew on the windowsill in Jirka’s kitchen. I sipped a glass of carbonated water while he consulted a water-stained cookbook his mother had given him when he moved to the big city from his village. The black-and-white illustrations showed ecstatic families in peasant clothing sitting down to a traditional Czech meal after a hard day’s work on a collective farm or the People’s Steel Factory. Jirka nodded thoughtfully as he leafed through a few pages, then tossed the book aside and scrubbed five potatoes in the sink. After boiling them into a mash, he mixed in two sticks of butter and a small tub of sour cream.
We ate without speaking. I stared at the tiles on the floor, the color of piss, and tried not to touch the sticky table. When Jirka finished, he wiped his bowl clean with a hunk of wheat bread. “If my English is no so good, you must say me, okay?” he said, licking the corners of his mouth for crumbs.
“I want show you some things.” He wouldn’t let me wash the dishes so I piled them in the sink.
Jirka stored his treasures in a scratched china cabinet with its left door missing. I nodded my approval as he held up a few specimens from his collection of design magazines from Austria, a couple of crystals wrapped in rags, and incense.
“Smelling sticks are good for relaxation or when you must meditate. And here is my favorite auto.” Jirka reached over my head to grab a Mercedes ad tacked to the wall, and I inhaled a whiff of his spiky body odor, warm and honest. As I admired the car he wanted and could never afford, he grinned as if he was ready to offer me anything. “I like your nose,” he said and pointed a lamp at my face. “It is Judish nose, no?”
“Yes.” I braced for an insult.
“I like it.” He spread out his palms to frame my nose, and I smelled his armpits again. “Some-when I want take good photo of your nose. Ja?”
After I promised he could take a picture of my nose, Jirka lay back on his double bed and stretched his legs. He had a massive chest and thighs like horse flanks. There was so much of him, it was really impressive. “You want use toilet maybe?” he asked.
“No thanks.” I sat on the edge of the bed and stared up the folds of his shorts hanging loose. “We don’t say toilet in English. We say bathroom.”
“Why? When you no want bath, why say bathroom?”
“It’s softer, more suggestive. Maybe more polite.” Jirka shook his head to tell me he hadn’t understood. “Zdvorily.”
He snorted. “I think is strange, Americans must say they want take bathroom when they want take toilet. Is no normal.”
Amazingly, in all the time we’ve known each other, Jirka hasn’t yet managed to take a picture of my nose. But then he still has one day left to try.
We stop by my flat, which after today I no longer rent. My bags are sitting by the door, ready to transfer to his place where I’ll spend the night before waking up early to catch my plane. Pan Cerny, the landlord, has given up renting the flat because he can make four times as much money letting it out week by week to tourists or Western businessmen. He’s eager for me to go so he can accommodate a pair of insurance agents from Rome.
Excerpted from The View from Stalin's Head by Aaron Hamburger. Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Hamburger. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.