by Bim Angst
The child was dead before Irina Putavich plunged her hands into the scalding water and lifted him startled-faced to the air. The baby was limp. As his round nose and the fat cheeks with which he so powerfully suckled rose above the shining scrim of clear water, he did not open his small heart-shaped mouth to suck in air. His head flopped back as Irina lifted him, the skin of her hands reddening around his waist as she drew him to her bony chest. Misha Misha Misha she whispered, as if she were trying to wake him.
It was the smell of Irina’s hair smoldering that brought her mother, Vlada, trundling to the kitchen, where Irina knelt on the floor, the heat from the cast iron of the stove searing the loose ends of her hair. Vlada slid her felted feet across the new linoleum rug to peer over her 16-year-old daughter’s shoulder. The beatific face of her grandson was losing its startling russet color. Crystalline droplets from the few golden curls at the back of his head broke ripples in the washtub from which still rose fingers of steam.
At the drowning of his son, Laszlo Putavich was not called from the mine. Instead, he returned home at the normal hour. The bricks of the alley walkway were wet, as he might have expected, but no trousers hung on the clothesline, and the washtub was tilted against the arbor as if it had been thrown. Laszlo entered the quiet kitchen to see his wife rocking in the big chair near the stove. Irina was wrapped in a sheet, her chin on her chest as if she were asleep, yet, softly, she moaned.
On the kitchen table sat the laundry basket, one wicker handle hanging loose. Laszlo did not detect the odor of the lye soap Irina used to scrub the miners’ frayed clothes. Neither did the kitchen smell of lard or onions as it should have, but instead of hot metal and something that burned his nostrils and made his windpipe catch, something like the torching off of the last fur on a hide.
From deep within the house came the drone of prayer and a muffled half-sob. In the far room, Vlada was on her knees—how did she get down, he marveled, how would she haul her great bulk up? Vlada’s oxen shoulders heaved. Beside her knelt Father Yspecky, the prayer for the departed on his lips in Russian.
It was then that Laszlo turned to the basket, where he saw the face of his swaddled son.
She had not been a beautiful bride, nor eager, but Irina had done her best to please Laszlo in the year and eleven months in which they had lain as husband and wife. It was not Irina’s fault, Laszlo pondered, that Vlada was of the old country and treated Irina as if she were an ignorant serf. The new version of serfdom and soldiering as Franz Josef’s conscript were exactly why Laszlo Putavich’s parents had sent their sons from the vineyards of Uzhhorod Raion, why, in the company of his older brother, Laszlo had trudged across Europe to Hamburg wearing three layers of clothing, a pair of too-big shoes, and an uncle’s overcoat.
Irina was, Laszlo knew, his best chance to avoid becoming the lost soul of a man without a country, a man without a family, a man who prayed but did not worship, who worked hard but lost his pay in the bottle. And so, when his friend Mykhail Kruchevich was crushed by a coal car that broke loose when the pillars were robbed in the Number 9 Clareville mine, Laszlo took old Misha’s lunch pail to the home of his wife and daughter and sat with them through the wailing and banging of pots that followed. Two days later, in his embroidered shirt, Laszlo Putavich entered the blue-domed Russian Orthodox church for old Misha’s funeral, not only to smooth the pall and bear Misha’s poor coffin but to return from the graveyard with the dimpled hand of Misha’s rotund widow tucked in his elbow and the offer of her remaining daughter in marriage pouring like oil into his ear. Before the month was out, Laszlo had an American-born wife and Vlada had a strong-bodied wage-earner under her roof.
At fourteen, Irina knew hard work and laundry. She rose to make her father breakfast, to pack his lunch into the metal pail while her mother slept, Vlada’s rheumatism and bad heart swelling her limbs and giving her reason to lay abed. Irina’s hands were raw and the texture of burlap. Yet Irina’s narrow fingers worked nimbly, and she could starch and press flat the fine seams and lace edging of the table linens in the big houses of the English families to whom Vlada farmed her out. Irina was of America and knew both how to pinch the edges of pierogi and how to slice vegetables into the ridiculous shapes of budding flowers. Irina was of two worlds and knew both how to season halupki and how to braise a rack of lamb not big enough to simmer a broth. Before wax in a kistka hardened, Irina could draw a layer of design on an eggshell as had Christian women in the old country, and yet as a woman in this new place she could with a needle reattach a fancy mother-of-pearl button without a prick to the neck of the squirming boy still wearing the shirt. What Irina did not know of either world, Laszlo would gladly have taught her, if he had known any more than she.
All that Laszlo brought with him from the old country, beyond the poor clothes, were sunflower seeds and rootstock from the four varieties of grape his parents tended for the owner of the Slavic land on which the family had lived longer than anyone could recount. The night before her sons’ leave-taking, Laszlo’s mother pulled up a hot stone with a poker and withdrew a small jar of coins from the pit below. These few she had split into two pitiful stacks, sewing each coin and cuttings from the grapes into pockets she had fashioned in the hems of the threadbare overcoats she gave to Laszlo and his brother, Vasyli. Laszlo kissed his parents and sisters, and the next morning, he followed Vasyl’s back, scraping seeds from the dead heads of his mother’s sonyashnyki into his pocket as they passed. The boys settled into the feel of wearing shoes as they shuffled through the fields to a dirt road Laszlo had never seen before, the light of the known world burning up in the Carpathians behind them. One at a time, Laszlo ground the sunflower seeds of home in his teeth, flicking shell off his tongue to the dirt as Vasyli talked, talked, talked, and the two of them walked, walked, walked. Eventually, they met the ocean. Vasyli cut the coins from the hems of their coats and paid their steerage across.
The boys were like so many others on the far side. So many families. So many young men. Vasyli followed a braggart shipmate and his vodka bottle to a Hunkie settlement in Canada. Laszlo drew from his pocket a worn slip of finger-softened paper on which his mother had with the help of the priest carefully written in ink and capital English letters the name of the town to which his father’s friend’s cousin’s eldest son had emigrated in the New World: CLAREVILLE. Beneath, in script, she or Father Grigori had penned Pennsylvania. Somehow, he did not remember how, Laszlo had arrived.
He had also been taken in, all three Orthodox churches welcoming him as yet another son of the motherland. After nights of sleeping on a storeroom floor, after days of eating red-beet eggs offered from a jar in the barroom he was allowed to sweep, Laszlo located countryman Stanis Shandrushavich and, for a time, shared a boarding house bed with this pal who could vouch for him when he made the rounds, using his most important new and difficult-to-pronounce word: work.
By the time he was invited to join the company of men smoking and sharing a bottle in the payday shade of Mykhail Kruchevich’s back porch, Laszlo Putavich had through polite deference and the showing of adequate American cash secured his own bed and meals in the house of Baba Smolnyki, kitchen matron of Saint Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church. Laszlo was not only well fed but adopted by the church’s murder of crow-garbed babas, who were alarmed that he approached the age of 20 without a wife. This, along with the amount of coal he could shovel into a lokie car, assured that Laszlo’s days as a man without family or roots would not last long. His name was mentioned more than once to Mykhail and Vlada Kruchevich.
Of Mykhail Kruchevich’s five children—all daughters—only spindly Irina, age fourteen, remained at home. Irina caught no one’s eye. Behind Irina, the babushka-ed Vlada loomed, casting a dark shadow on any thought a young man might entertain about the wraithlike girl. Even had Irina flesh and sway to spare, the men of Clareville who could speak English would have diverted their gaze to the sky or the frayed tips of their hand-me-down shoes had Irina drifted into view.
And drift Irina did. The child was, to all appearances, without a mind of her own. Some mistook this for stupidity, but Irina’s quiet obedience to Vlada’s barked commands shielded her not only from confrontation with the quick-to-slap matriarch but nurtured the fragile shoots of Irina’s dreams. In her mind, Irina ranged widely. Sent beyond the confines of their yard to purchase butter or deliver laundry, Irina peered into yards and windows, walking fast enough to avoid Vlada’s wrath. Irina saw that not all gardens grew cabbages. Beyond the patch, the windows were covered by lace—and in lamplight, the walls beyond the fine curtains were papered with colorful cloth and hung with gleaming mirrors. These led her to believe: She might, God willing, one day live a different life.
And then Laszlo happened onto the porch of the patch house Irina called home.
The morning before the afternoon Laszlo and Irina stood together hands on a Bible in the priest’s wife’s parlor, Vlada hauled herself up the sagging stairs to the second floor. She directed Irina to gather her church dress and bundle of nightgown, bloomers, and summer and winter stockings from the back bedroom she had shared with her sisters. Then, Vlada led Irina to the larger front bedroom dominated by the imposing headboard of what had been Vlada and Mykhail’s marriage bed. On the coverlet, Vlada laid a gossamer white nightgown with smocked bodice. After the keg in the church hall smoker foamed its end, Laszlo appeared at the kitchen door with a paper sack of belongings. Vlada, who had been waiting in the rocker, led Laszlo on his first visit to the second floor, where the door to the front room was open, a lamp was lit, and Irina was curled under the quilt. Vlada laughed as she closed the door.
Laszlo set the sack on the floor and hung his jacket. He smiled shyly at Irina before he sat on the edge of the bed and removed his shoes. And then Laszlo Putavich, still wearing his new American-made shirt and trousers, stretched out on the felt mattress, nestled his beer-brained head into a pillow whose feathers still bore the scent of Mykhail Kruchevich’s oiled hair, slung his arm over Irina, and fell drunk asleep.
The next morning, Laszlo Putavich presented Irina for the first time with the only fully mature and functioning male member she would ever encounter. The sound of a heavy stream in the night-pot woke Irina as dawn greyed at the windows. Irina had, of course, seen male privates in the snail- and grub-like forms they took on the small boys her duties required her to prepare for school or naps. But the member that her new husband Laszlo shook over the pot was as big as the spigot of a water pump. Laszlo had stepped out of his trousers and knee-length drawers, the hard globes of his tallow-white behind glowing. Still wearing his new shirt and white socks, Laszlo turned, his part in his palm. Seeing Irina awake, Laszlo grinned, and the thing in his hand stiffened.
Laszlo climbed back into the bed and lay gazing sweetly at Irina. Irina pulled the covers to her chin. Laszlo’s thing stretched the sheet, pointing toward the ceiling with persistent rigidity. Once she had seen it, Irina could not take her wide eyes away from the spot where the dark tip pressed a bit of wetness onto the sheet. As the sun rose and Irina became more visible, Laszlo began to believe he was married and that there was now a woman next to him—and that she was his wife and would not refuse him.
Except refuse him she did. When Laszlo reached to embrace her, Irina slapped his face and bolted down the hall shrieking about Laszlo’s deformity. His member not yet calmed, Lazlo was struggling into his pants when Irina reached the stairs, where Vlada blocked the retreat and commanded Irina to return to her marriage bed and attend to her wifely duty.
Laszlo let his trousers drop.
After a few weeks, female wailing and whimpering ceased to seep around the door and out the windows of the front bedroom of the house that had been Mykhail Kruchevich’s. Irina’s cheeks grew rosy. Laszlo whistled as he walked.
He brought her chocolates and cherries. She fried for him the biggest piece of meat and at the kitchen sink scrubbed his back with a brush. She burnished his getting-married shoes with melted candle wax and, when his barked knuckles split and festered, she salved his cuts with rendered chicken fat, wrapping his hands in clean strips of old sheets.
It was Vlada who pronounced the pregnancy. Watching her daughter throw laundry over the lines strung across the kitchen, Vlada gestured from the rocker for the girl to come close. Vlada’s gnarled fingers cupped Irina’s belly.
“Before the green leaves go red,” she announced to Laszlo, who beamed.
Irina pondered how the baby had come to be in her belly, but Laszlo, his head on her shoulder as they lay in the big bed, thrust an index finger in and out of the circle he’d made with the other hand. Irina’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, Laszlo imitated her, and they fell on each other laughing.
When baby Misha arrived, he brought with him the strings and clots of Irina’s insides, washed from Vlada’s slippery fingers after she pulled him from her screaming daughter the dark Sunday he was born. Misha’s birth stained permanently the bed on which he had been conceived. Misha thrived, and Irina survived the fever, but the stitches with which the old doctor days later closed the bleeding chasm between Irina’s legs healed into a scar half the size of a towrope and just as taut.
Relations for Laszlo and Irina changed.
In the weeks following little Misha’s death, Irina Kruchevich Putavich returned to the back bedroom and curled like a potato bug to a ball. Morning and night, Laszlo touched her shoulder, which had no warmth. He bent to hear her breath and kissed her forehead when the brief breeze at her nostrils revealed her yet alive.
Grief, worry, and loneliness forced Laszlo Putavich to drink, and drink returned him to the company of Stanis Shandrushavich, his pal of boarding house days. Drink, however, especially whiskey, which they gulped with a slap of the thick-bottomed shot glass on the bar, led the normally sweet-tempered, happy-go-lucky Stanis to a state of mean-mouthed pushiness. But Stanis was known to produce, as if by magic, small goods and oddments—lengths of lokie rails his neighbors used to support their porches, metal piping and jointures used, alas, in their stills, along with lumber that mysteriously appeared beside their doors as they found need to repair the cladding of their outhouses. However, Stanis’s material benefactions could not prevent those on the receiving end of his insults from sometimes punching his drunken, smirking maw.
Laszlo Putavich stood beside Stanis when Tador Milzewkevski missed his aim and stumbled, mashing his nose on the hard brass of the foot rail at Yushko’s Bar. Tador’s head slid off the rail in blood running as wide and thick as the stream at the butcher’s drain. They let Tador lie.
Tador lay so long that Buzzy Lukavuch rolled him over with a foot, and the men at the bar, Stanis included, peered down at him, beer glasses in their hands. Someone threw water on Tador’s face. He did not stir.
That night, it took five Cossacks of the Coal and Iron Police to pummel Stanis to the floor of his rented room while furniture broke and Baba Smolnyki, wailing in her nightgown, covered her eyes. Stanis was wearing only the union suit he slept in as he was dragged through the front door. The trial was swift, the verdict predictable. His name could not be found in the records, and illiterate Stanis could produce no document, consign no property, which would convince a lawyer to take his case. With sadness, Laszlo Putavich, himself possessing no document save the slip of paper on which his mother had written his American destination, held the roll of Stanis’s clothes as Baba Smolnyki bound it with the knot-mended laces of his boots. Said bundle she pressed into the hands of Dorcas McElhenny, the Mick girl who peeled potatoes and onions for boarding house meals, with instruction to send it with her half-idiot brother William, whose lilting tenor could be heard blocks before he arrived to deliver ice at the county jail.
Stanis’s name, like Laszlo’s, was recorded nowhere but at the port of entry and in the Cyrillic script of St. Michael’s church ledger, the pages of which Father Yspecky held in one hand as he gathered the hem of his cassock to mount the marble steps to the courthouse and plead for Stanis with Judge Hargrave Ellicot. Before he took the trolley back to Clareville, Father Yspecky knelt to say the benediction with the blubbering Stanis in his cell. Before the month was out, Stanis was on the train to Philadelphia under Coal and Iron guard, and no one in Clareville, not even Masha Trushkonic, who in shame bore his child seven months later, heard from or of Stanis Shandrushavich again.
Mykhail Putavich son of—Laszlo knew it proclaimed as his fingertips traced the English letters of their names, carved in stone only in Amer-EE-ka. Laszlo’s grief burned into a desire for the recognition that would establish him as head of his American family, more real to him than any before. Laszlo prayed to become a SITZ-i-zen.
Irina had finished third grade. When she satisfied Vlada that she could read and reckon well enough not to be cheated by butchers, farmers, tinkers, sheenies, and the ragman, Irina was no longer sent to school. No decent, hard-working man would marry a woman who might confuse him with fancy words or waste time on reading. A good wife could cook, sew, bear healthy babies, raise respectful children, run a clean and pious household, and without a hitch wring the neck of any chicken she raised. If she could grind and season kielbasa, so much the better. Fair looks were not to be prized above these wifely skills. An educated girl was a ruined woman. She guaranteed that even a good husband would, eventually, be driven to drink, may the saints forgive him. Mykhail’s hosting of the Saturday bottle-passing and uneducated Vlada’s wiles and sharp tongue were never discussed—though what these might suggest was sometimes pondered.
Laszlo himself read in Ukrainian and Russian and could reckon well enough to track in his head and to the penny what his pay should be for the lokie cars he’d loaded and the total he ran for shovelheads and cowhide gloves, but he could neither write his name in English nor read the documents which might secure him a place in this new country of America.
On a little tablet, Irina penciled her few purchases—most recently green thread matching the voluminous plaid skirt she had taken from the rubbish at the home of her Tuesday-Friday English employer, cloth Irina had carried home to make a winter jacket and two pairs of jumpers for poor, then-growing Misha. They had lost the child, and although God had secured their bond, Laszlo would see that American law kept him with Irina. The salvaged length of plaid wool was spread across Irina’s knees, and she held the wooden spool of thread. Laszlo opened the fabric, stacked Misha’s garments and diapers, and rolled them into the wool along with the spool. He kissed Irina’s head and set the bundle in the empty dresser drawer. Laszlo would take the test for citizenship in the United States of America. He would have his papers.
Before Laszlo returned to sit beside Irina, he took her tablet and pencil from the top of the dresser, along with the McGuffey’s primer that she had slipped from a shelf and dropped in the deep pocket of her skirt while dusting the bedroom of sickly, sissy Luther Hathaway. Laszlo adjusted the pillows against the headboard and helped Irina slip off her shoes. He opened to a page marked with a prayer card, set Irina’s finger on a line, and urged her to say the letters. Laszlo, looking first to the book, watched her mouth intently, pronouncing the sounds he thought she’d made. Each time Irina pointed to her mouth, signaling him to watch how the American sounds were shaped by lips and tongue, Laszlo wanted to kiss her but refrained.
Within a few weeks, Laszlo had filed his declaration of intent and could recognize the letters of the alphabet large and small, delighting Irina when he correctly identified all the capital letters of self-rising flour, and the small script o, c, l, and a in Coca Cola. Irina began to run her finger along a whole word, and Laszlo sought to move those words from his mouth, though they emerged sometimes as if they were shards of glass or tangled lengths of string. The J of June and July fell out of his lips as a halted breath, his Slavic tongue resting low in the channel of his mouth. The H in Heinz arrived accompanied by a back-of-the-throat growl Laszlo could not suppress, and inevitably, wherever the letter occurred, he rolled the R. The vowels were deep and released with the mouth open. Work was wahrrk and over was ovair. Some sounds were followed, inexplicably, by a sound similar to a soft, plosive E, not fully a sound of its own but more the halting of the tongue at the back of the teeth. And yet Laszlo caressed the words in his mouth and began to rrEEdeh. Each time he spoke a word in English, the words spelled United States of America.
Laszlo and Irina sat together on the overstuffed parlor sofa, the McGuffey’s Third Level Reader across their adjacent knees. Laszlo followed Irina’s finger and read word-by-word, his understanding keen, but the mechanisms of his tongue and teeth, his lips and breath, tumbling like stones at first but then dancing a heavy-footed mazurka that real Americans, if they listened carefully, might almost understand.
From the rocker, Vlada listened to the lessons in the parlor, her block-like feet pushing the old chair into the train-like rhythm with which she had for one year, two months, and fourteen days lulled and cooed Misha to sleep. Laszlo rested his hand on top of Irina’s hand. Several evenings later, Laszlo’s hand progressed to Irina’s thigh. And then, one night, holding the primer, Irina settled not only onto the sofa but into the arm Laszlo slid around her shoulders. Vlada’s fat fingers rolled the beads of her rosary and she prayed.
After the birth of Misha, Irina had lain with her back to Laszlo, who folded his muscled arms around the spikes of her ribs and shoulders, the back of her frail skull resting against his chest. She could hear his heart. He could smell the sweat and Ivory Soap in her hair. In the six months Misha had been with God, Irina had learned to force her body to rise, and she busied herself with chores and laundry. When Laszlo returned from the mine, the bricks in the alley had been swept and the air was heavy with the scent of frying onions. As Laszlo left his dirty boots at the door, Irina met him, and from the top step that made them even, she wiped the coal dirt from his face and kissed him. Though Vlada dozed in the rocker, Laszlo stripped to his drawers, washing not like a peasant from a bucket in the yard but like an American, at the kitchen sink.
The scar that roped the opening of Irina’s private parts had diminished. Finding the scar no longer froze the air in Irina’s lungs, and though she held her breath sitting down, all she felt there now was a numbness that grew in her groin and belly to a hard, Misha-sized heat. She missed the child, the loss a great gaping space inside her. She had, as all mothers must, she felt, come to think of the child not as the sun around which the earth moved but as sun and stars themselves, as heaven and earth combined. Misha had clung to her, crying to be lifted, his tears when finally she held him sparkling on his cheeks like drops of dew and summer rain on the petals of flowers. Misha had nuzzled in Irina’s neck, played with her hair, and purred in her ear. Irina ached to feel that shape of love again.
And so, one evening Irina closed the book of American history passed down to her by Baba Smolnyki, whose current boarders were not fit for reading, and took Laszlo’s hand. His head tilted, and in answer, Irina led Laszlo to the bedroom, where she unpinned her hair and set his hands to the button at her nape.
At noon, the 19th day of February, 1920, Laszlo Putavich, born most likely in 1894, a son of Zakarpattya Oblast in what was now Czechoslovakia, stood with 20 others in the cavernous, oak-paneled courtroom of the Anthracite County Courthouse, kissed the last of the foreign coins his mother had sewn in his coat, and took the oath of American citizenship. Behind him as he signed each round letter of his name in English stood his wife, Irina, her cheeks filled out, her hair shining, her belly showing a definite roundness under the green plaid of the shawl draped over the shoulders of her winter coat.
“SITZ-i-zen” is from a manuscript of linked stories titled At the Surface of the Mine, set in the anthracite area. Bim Angst lives in Saint Clair, Schuylkill County.