The Tenth Annual "Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest Results
Fifth Place: Thirsty Dog: A Prague Storyby Steve White
"Close the door, boy," barked the drunker and rougher of the two burly men sitting closest to the entrance. They were ticket handlers from the metro, dressed in pale green uniforms stretched to the thread's end by the years of inactivity.
Tomas pulled the door shut and probed the small pub looking for an empty spot. The Thirsty Dog was packed, all but one seat was taken. The playful dogs painted on the walls were something quite short of Picasso. The stale smoke of black-market Marlboros chocked the room and Tomas now wondered why he had tossed his cigarette; Force of habit perhaps. The Babichka from the panelak where he rented his dingy room forbade smoking inside the flat. Even the slightest hint of smoke on his clothes was cause for preachment from that old woman.
He waded through the crowd of workers and young travelers to an empty chair in the corner. "Dam si, kavu a Beckerofku, prosim," he asked a young waitress, as she passed by.
She merely nodded a head of hair shaded with the cheap, store bought purple dye unique to women of the region. The waitress bore the high cheekbones and broad shoulders of a village girl of the Tatras. She was not a beauty by conventional standards. However, a light of future maternal capabilities in her eyes and breasts gave her a certain enigmatic attraction.
An emaciated pensioner sat at the corner table straining to read a newspaper through a battered pair of glasses held together in the center by electrical tape.
"Is the seat free?" Tomas asked. The Old Man said nothing. "To je volno?" Tomas asked again in the language he acquired on his Grandfather's central Texas farm.
"Of course," the Old Man responded in a Czech that carried the harsh accent of the Krkonoshe mountain region. His rough hand trembled as he held it out to welcome Tomas.
"Thank you," Tomas said as he removed his cream faded Carhart, placing it on the back of the chair.
"Jiste neco?" the waitress asked as she placed his drinks, a coffee and a liqueur, on the soiled table cloth.
"Ne." He answered her negatively and thanked her. "Dekuju."
"Prosim." She responded in kind.
Tomas tore off the bottom corner of a sugar packet and watched as its contents slowly emptied into his coffee. He added cream, then poked a hole into the tar black liquid with his spoon and began to stir deliberately. Tomas finished stirring and laid his spoon on the saucer. He took the shot of liqueur between his thumb and index finger, raised it to his mouth, and then pressed it to his lips. He took a precursory sip off the Beckerofka before tilting his head back and choking it down. As he placed the shot glass back down on the table Tomas' lips rubbed over his gums as though he had just bit into a lemon.
"Don't like the stuff much?" the old man queried.
Tomas shook his head no, as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You know it's considered a medicine here in our country," he informed Tomas, as he folded up his paper, placing it in his lap. "It's made for sipping."
"I can't drink it slow." Tomas said. "The taste is too thick."
"American?" The Old Man asked.
"Ano," Tomas said giving an affirmative nod. "Second-generation Czech-American from Texas."
"Ah, a Tex-Czech."
"I guess you could say that."
"Your family name?"
"Sykora," Tomas said slowly, placing the accent on the first syllable to give the name its full weight.
"That is very Czech," the Old Man observed.
"That is what I've been told," Tomas said grinning.
"Do you know what that is?"
"A bird, I think," Tomas.
"Damn right you are!" the Old Man blurted slapping his hand down onto the table causing coffee to leap out of the cups and into saucers. "A finch to be more precise."
The old man smiled and chuckled to himself flashing a gapped cursed grin. Tomas took a sip of coffee to avert his eyes.
"What brought you out on this cold night?," the Old Man asked, raising one eyebrow slightly.
"I was celebrating." Tomas said. "Valentines with my pritelkyne."
"A lady friend?" The Old Man repeated.
"Ano." Tomas confirmed.
"Where is she now?"
"At home," he said. "She's a school teacher and they start work very early."
"My wife was a teacher," said the Old Man.
"For how long?"
"Thirty five years."
"And now?" Tomas asked.
"Nothing." He said sadly. "She passed away 17 months ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Yes, so was I."
The old man removed his glasses for a moment, then stroked his face as if to clear his mind. "Is this teacher pretty?" He asked.
"I don't know," Tomas said.
"You don't know." The Old Man protested.
"Depends on whose measuring stick you use."
"Yours of course."
"Then yes." Tomas said with a broad smile.
The old man sipped his coffee, then scratched the back of his head with his other hand.
"St. Valentine eh, the lover's saint" The Old Man began. "My mother was a devoted catholic, prayed to all the saints."
"And you?" Tomas asked.
The Old Man shook his head every so slightly, no. "I prayed for them to spare my mother and she was murdered anyway."
"Murdered?" Tomas asked.
"Yes by the Nazis."
"Because she carried food in the hollow of her prosthetic leg to the starving children at Theresienstadt."
"The concentration camp?"
"That is horrible."
"It was and I saw no God in that." The Old Man murmured.
Both of them returned to the comfort of their coffees, as the words of the story hovered over the table.
Tomas thought that had nothing to do with God, and he wasn't in the mood to discuss theology, so he said nothing.
"Surviving these last fifty years of officially no God and your neighbor being a snitch, maybe that's enough to celebrate, don't you think?" the Old Man quipped looking back up from his coffee.
"Sure." Tomas agreed. "Then I take it you don't celebrate any holidays?"
"Holidays such as this are just another reason to make a buck. You should know that, you're the American." The Old Man grumbled.
"True enough." Tomas agreed.
The old man dug into his left ear with a thin index finger. "Of course during communism official state holidays were another story. When I was working in the heat of the steel factory in Kladno, I would have been foolish not to welcome a free day." He conceded, glancing at his fingernail, then flicking away a trace amount of ear wax with his thumb.
"Steel was your profession?" Tomas asked.
"Professor of Economics and Music. My communist friends had me promoted to the factory." He whispered.
"A joke son!" the Old Man said good-naturedly, as he slapped Tomas on the arm. "Intellectuals were sent to the back of the line, ignorance ruled the day."
"A confederacy of dunces?"
"Yes, rule by a confederacy of dunces, though I have never heard this term."
"It's a book title."
"I take it you never achieved your sense of higher socialist consciousness?" Tomas asked with a smile trying to be clever. The Old Man shook his head.
"Keep in mind they never figured in the element of human nature." The Old man jabbed back.
"Was that the great failure of Communism?" Tomas asked.
"Maybe, but most likely explains why some comrades drove Mercedes while others picked potatoes."
The Old Man settled back into his chair. Tomas watched as a middle-aged couple began verbally sparring at the bar. They were both drunk. The woman was talking rapidly. The man seemed only to want to be left alone with his beer and thoughts. She persisted and he shoved her. She looked around to see if anyone would come to her aid. No one noticed. She went back to badgering him.
The old man looked right into Tomas' eyes, past him, then briefly up to the clock on the wall. "I'm here celebrating tonight."
The Old Man feigned a look of surprise for such a question. "No, I celebrate what happened on this day 47 years ago."
The Old Man signaled for the waitress with a wave of his hand. Her attention caught, she moved towards the table. "Do you have time?" the Old Man asked, and Tomas nodded. He smiled then pointed at Tomas' shot glass, and with the other hand help up his thumb and index finger, and mouthed, "Dva."
The waitress nodded, pivoted back on her left foot to the bar, and began pouring the two panaks of Beckerofka.
"It was a cold morning, like today." The Old Man began. "The wind was as sharp as a butcher's knife coming off the Vltava, and the city was full of those Nazi roaches."
The waitress placed the shot glasses down on the table, receiving only quick glances from the two men. "Dekujeme," they thanked her in unison.
"It was when one hurried, that they harassed us the most." He said. "They would terrorize us with questions. Where are your papers? Where are you headed? Why and so on? That day I was stopped twice by those bastards."
A drunk edged against the table, tumbled into Tomas' lap, then down to the floor, cutting himself on his own beer glass, interrupting the old man.
The Old Man waited while the drunk rattled off a string of profanities as his friend struggled to raise him to his feet and out the door.
"I was to meet a young lady for mass at Emauzsky cloister"
"Mass?" Tomas said, holding up his hand. "I thought you weren't religious?"
"I'm not." The Old Man said straightening his glasses with caution. "But, I am a man."
"When I arrived I glanced inside church and didn't see my friend, Pavla." He said. "I assumed she had similar dealings with the patrols at the Palackeho bridge and Smichovski train station and would miss mass all together."
"Did you wait?"
The Old Man nodded. "I turned to wait outside and I was confronted by a young girl."
"She never came." He said fingering his nose with his pinkie, "and well, after some small talk the girl suggested we go the Café Slavia for coffee."
"Was she beautiful?" Tomas asked.
"Not particularly." He said. "Her scent is what struck me first, when I removed her jacket at the café."
"Nice?" Tomas asked.
"Enough to make a young man sweat." The Old Man said, then leaned over the table, grabbing Tomas firmly by the arm. "It was the way she bit her bottom lip when I made her laugh that clenched my heart." He added, eyes gleaming with nostalgia. His foul breath caused Tomas' nostrils to flare and eyes to blink.
The Old Man glanced up at the clock on the wall again. The crowd had begun to thin. A table of young Swedes, inspired by liquid courage, began to sing at the top of their lungs what parts of "Country Roads," they could remember.
"I had gone to take our coats to the shatna. The attendant said, 'its a good day for Nazi occupation don't you think?' and I had only smiled as she fumbled with our coats." He said, then paused strategically for a moment. "Then there was a sound, like a train rumbling overhead."
"Kaboom!" the Old Man roared, as he grabbed the table with both hands, lifting it slightly then slamming it down. The move startled Tomas. The Old Man became theatrical with large flowing gestures. "People jumped under tables, men and women screamed, café windows leaped out of their frames, some shattered onto the street and others onto those sitting closet to them."
The Old Man nodded. "Many of them. Afterwards we rushed out into the streets." He said. "It was madness ,the, e smoke everywhere caused great distress."
"Were you hurt?" Tomas asked. The Old Man shook his head.
"Later we learned the church had been hit and the Girl became ill. She collapsed to her knees and vomited a few times." The Old Man said, touching hi stomach. "I helped walk her home, taking a longer route over the Karlov Bridge because, the Paleckeho bridge was cut in two."
"Who would bomb a church?"
"The Allies did." He said holding out his hands in an agreeable disbelief, then added, "those Nazis tried to tell us it was a deliberate attack on the Czech peoples."
"Was it?" Tomas asked.
"You try to drop bombs on a targeted factory from 30,000 feet in the air, with anti-aircraft shooting up your rear."
"A mistake then."
"Of course." The Old Man said. "Even a trained airman is still just a farm boy from Iowa or Nebraska. A factory, a cathedral; They could look the same."
"Pavla must have been glad she missed mass."
"But, you said she wasn't there." Tomas protested.
"Her sister told me that Pavla probably had been kneeling in prayer when I arrived, that is why I hadn't seen her."
"She was killed then?"
The waitress walked over, broom in hand. "Gentlemen, it's time to go."
The Old Man took the shot glass, held it to his nose, inhaled, then toasted Tomas. After slamming the shot, the old man carefully set the panak down, then rubbed his fingers inside his palm.
Tomas shot down his Beckrofka then gingerly placed it back on the table, having unconsciously mirrored the Old Man's actions.
The Old Man removed his glasses, placed them in his shirt pocket and began to gather his paper into a worn canvass bag. The waitress swept back towards the bar around empty tables.
The Old Man rose to his feet and slid his arms into an elbowless wool coat. "Mr. Sykora it has been a pleasure." He extended his hand and the two shook. "and happy Valentine's."
"You too, thank you."
Then the Old Man shuffled towards the door, waving superficially at the waitress as he exited. He cautiously stepped out into the cold night regretting the prospect of going back home to his empty flat. The Tyn church called out twelve times for the city to go to sleep.
Tomas sprung to his feet and out the door. Though the Old Man shuffled he had already put quite a distance between himself and the pub. Tomas, careful not to slip in the snow, jogged slowly after the Old Man.
"And the girl?" Tomas pleaded gently grabbing the Old Man by the arm. "What happened to the girl from the Cafe?"
"Yes, the one who smelled so nice when you removed her coat, the one who bit her lip when she laughed. The one who kept you from going to mass."
The Old Man shrugged his shoulders, tilted his head, revealing his palms to fate. "That girl became my wife."