Authors: Andrzej Stasiuk
Copyright Â© by Andrzej Stasiuk, 1999
English translation copyright Â© Bill Johnston 2007
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This is a translation of
Published simultaneously in English in Great Britain by Harvill Secker in 2007.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Stasiuk, Andrzej, 1960-
Nine/Andrzej Stasiuk; translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston.
I. Johnston, Bill. II. Title.
To Jacek, also to Asia and Wojtekâthey know what for.
SNOW HAD FALLEN IN THE NIGHT.
PaweÅ got out of bed and went into the bathroom. The light was on, the mirror was broken. Tubes and brushes and bottles had been swept off the shelf, were all over the floor. A stream of white toothpaste had shot out and dried on the willow-green wall. Disposable razors had been snapped in two and stepped on into a torn box of soap powder. The cracked toilet seat lay in the corner. It occurred to him there was a lot of glass, so he went back to the hallway for his shoes.
He picked up one of the toothbrushes, rinsed it under the faucet, scraped some toothpaste off the wall. Then he squatted and chose a razor with a cracked handle. He found the can of shaving cream under the bathtub. It was dented but something still swished inside it. He shaved in what was left of the mirror. He splashed water on his face. The Old Spice had been crushed, but there was still something left in the white plastic cover. He shook the crumpled container. It made a grating sound like a deaf-and-dumb version of a child's rattle. A few drops splashed onto his palm. He rubbed them on his cheeks. It hardly stung, so this time he must have managed not to cut himself. He took a leak and went back into the living room.
Things were no better here. More smashed stuff. The cracked silver casing of the cassette player emptied its colorful guts onto the floor. He flicked the light switch. The lamp was in pieces. The light of early morning hung like dust in the air. Something white poked from the ripped upholstery of the sofa. He smoothed it with his hand and went to the pile of clothes spilling out of the wardrobe. He sniffed a few things to find something clean in the semidarkness. He put on a shirt and sweater. By the bed he found his pants; he dug out some socks from an untouched drawer and pulled them on, and at last stopped shivering.
He sipped at his coffee and gazed through the window. Snow lay on the roofs and on the sidewalk; the black trees were white now, and everything resembled a distant Christmas. A red bus cautiously made a turn. Sleepily and soundlessly it straightened, receded down the avenue of lime trees. The treetops faded into the low sky. He listened for the patter of drops in the gutters. There was no sound. “It'll lie for a while,” he thought. He waited for the coffee to rouse him into a nervous flutter, into anything like fear or at least surprise. He drank the last mouthful, rinsed out the grinds, washed the mug, set it to dry, and went back into the living room. He shoved the pile of clothes back into the wardrobe to make room to walkâten paces each way, from the door of the kitchen to the balcony window. He counted his steps, to a hundred and more, but in the end gave up, leaned his forehead against the cold pane, and closed his eyes. “Think, think,” he muttered. “I should take something to help me sleep at night.” Outside the window a sander was passing, casting shavings of snow from the blue asphalt, but he did not see this, and when he opened his eyes, the white landscape had been
scored by a horizontal line. He felt sorrowâthe kind of sadness accompanying a memory that can't be summoned in its entirety.
He returned to the kitchen. The clock showed 5:32. Most of the poorest were now up and on their way to wherever they had to go. The long straight stretch of road to the bus terminal had been cleared. The dark band led to distance and the future. Two baby Fiats were approaching like toys the color of cheerful fire and green metal. From the second floor, drivers' faces could not be made out, but he knew they were decent people: in less than nine hours they'd be coming back, in the same or reverse order. The bare asphalt echoed the growl of their two-cylinder engines. Two crows, indifferent to it all, remained in their chestnut tree, on branches that hung over the curve in the road like the spokes of a broken umbrella. The little cars accelerated and rumbled on, and PaweÅ felt a stab of envy in his heart.
He went into the living room to watch from the other window as the two patches of color grew smaller, disappearing in the gray mist of early morning, where the trees blended with the traction pillars. The ribbon of highway crawled onto the overpass across the train tracks, and for a moment it looked as if the little Fiats were climbing into the hazy sky.
He fetched the trash bucket, set it in the middle of the room. But all this mess wouldn't fit in ten buckets. He kicked the broken bottles under the bookcase, and did the same with the books. Now he could even walk with his eyes closed. He extended the path to the kitchen window between the remains of the crockery. Ten and five made fifteen paces each way.
At five to six he said to himself: “Hell with this.” He put on his brown leather jacket in the hall, walked out, and slammed the
door without even checking whether his keys were in his pocket.
On snowy mornings, when there's no wind, the air of the city outskirts tastes of coal smoke, and the scrape of spades on the sidewalk is metallic. He decided to go to the terminal and sit for a while in a warm bus. Sugary snow stuck to the red twigs of the hedge. He passed an old-fashioned villa with a four-column veranda that had a child's tricycle with an unmoving windmill stuck in a handlebar. On the path there were no prints except for a few cat's paws. He passed the next house and two others, gray and square-cornered. The occupants had already left, removing the snow with the soles of their shoes. Mud and sorry grass remained. Then the buildings came to a sudden end to make room for the tapered bulk of a church. The brickwork had the color of congealed blood. Like a wound seeping through a bandage. At the far end of the street he saw a bus standing. There was no one around. Somewhere a dog barked. The yapping was drowned out by a distant clatter of railroad cars. It must have been an intercity or express train, because the sound quickly ended.
The warm purr of the bus made him feverish. In only a few minutes he had several dreams. People boarded and passed through his visions without dispelling them: the visions split, then fused again, because the stuff of the past from which they were woven still lived in the world. As alive as people. He dreamed several years, in episodes. He stopped at the night before, bounced back to his childhood, when no one yet imagined that commerce would save the world. He raised his shoulders, stuck his hands between his thighs. Leaning forward, his eyes closed,
he looked like someone teetering on a cliff edge and about to jump, or to lose his nerve and fall safely on his back.
The buzzer sounded, doors hissed shut, and the bus moved. He kept his eyes closed. It was a game: to guess where on the route he wasâhe'd open his eyes quickly, “Just checking,” and win or lose. Zawadzki's house, the screwed-up Dumpster, the intersection with Bystrzycka, the stand of birch trees where the pissheads hung out on a bench, and so on till the next stop. Listening to the engine, counting distances in the dark. He'd get it right or not. It's easier for the blind, because of the constant fear, and in the end they get used to it.
Feeling the bus turn, he looked out the window. The whiteness dazzled. The stop was coming up. A snow-covered square overgrown with bushes, then the tin wall of a warehouse and a path along which people approached from a small development of three barrack blocks where the weeks extended down long passageways: Monday at one end, at the other Saturday just beginning. The stop was deserted. The old-fashioned post was a red crayon stuck into dirty paper. Everywhere else they'd put up the new blue signs; not here. “Beirut,” he thought. “What do they need a stop for? They're not going anywhere. They're fucked.” And a sadness came, wretched self-pity, the kind of feeling you can get from memories, those unwanted images that crawl out from nowhere just when the mind needs to be cool, clearâas cool and clear as the present is.
The bus climbed the overpass. A Star milk truck came the other way. The crates were the color of rain, the caps glittered like cheap false teeth. That was how his imagination was working. The divider seemed thin, insubstantial. The openwork of the girders provided a hopelessly trite vision of infinity. The
rails ran north and after three hundred kilometers fell into the sea like silver threads, while the power lines vanished in the sky, which at night was lit up by the fiery plumes of the refinery. A local train clattered away toward the city. It had emerged from the gray morning and plunged back into it at once. From the open driver's cabin a radio played for those already up. The music of Station One had the taste of tedium; otherwise all those people would long ago have gone mad or died a violent deathâyou can't take five thousand mornings; there has to be a way out, some poison, something to fill the void between heaven and earth.
The overpass ended, the houses reappeared. Each stood alone, surrounded by a chain-link fence; the square links repeated into infinity the angular shape of the buildings, windows, and lots. At the next stop three people got on. The bus lurched forward; a fat woman with a ticket in her hand stumbled backward and brushed his arm. He felt her soft backside, smelled her perfume.
To the right there'd once been fields. Clouds would gather over the river, rise and move across the sky, dragging their shadows over the fall stubble where cows grazed. Cars would move slowly in the narrow street. The horizon was a decoration made from torn green paper. One day he rode his bike there. Yellow paths twisted among willows. He saw a teenage girl in a red bathing suit. She was pissing. He even saw the dark patch on the sand. When she saw him, she stood up slowly and pulled up her suit bottom.
Now a row of billboards separated the road from the boundless gray grass that had taken over the vegetable gardens. On the horizon gray apartment complexes stood, or rather hung in the sky like ragged, dull drapes; the walls and the clouds
were the same color. “A blond pussy,” he thought, remembering how the red cloth moved up, brushed her bright hair. Then it was gone with a snap as she pulled her thumbs from the elastic waistband and put her hands on her hips. He had pedaled harder, the hot wind in his face. The billboards separated him from all that now.
Someone came and stood by his seat.
“So you're taking the bus today?”
He looked up, recognized the guy, said:
“Yeah, sometimes you have to.”
He stood by the window and stared at the brown building of the railroad administration. Here there wasn't even a trace of snow. The road and sidewalk were wet. Wheels hissed on the asphalt. The facade behind the iron railings seemed to be sinking into the ground. “Tympanum”âhe recalled the word from school, and then, also from long ago, “Brandenburg Gate,” and other images and words. Three minutes passed. He raised his eyes to the Orthodox church, its black spheres wreathed with a network of bare branches. “Who the fuck needs it?” he thought. “Russkies here, Germans there, Germans here, Russkies there.” An electric train pulled into WileÅski Station, and the crowd filed over the crosswalk while the light was red, entered the maw of the underpass, and emerged on the other side, by the post office. The trams took bites from the churning mass of people, swallowed some and whisked them off to the four corners of the city. The ones traveling to the WZT television plant had it worst, they had to walk to ZÄ
bkowska Street and catch a crowded, sagging 138 to the huge gas tank that he dreamed about at night. He dreamed that it exploded, that the fire moved across the ground, stripping it of everything, of the brush and grass and
the unkempt Dumpsters in Olszynka, and it poured into the railroad tunnels on Kozia GÃ³ra, till all that was left were the frames of buildings and cars, naked skin with the raw veins of rails. Kamczatka Prison burned like a house of cards, and all the women thieves and the murderesses, beautiful and unattainable, melted into the metal skeletons of their own beds. He had dreamed this many times.