“Goosy, we made it!” she said.
She squeezed me till my kidneys ached. I buried my nose in her mound of black hair and breathed in her sweat and apple shampoo. We broke apart and I looked down at her. She was still smiling.
“See?” she said. “And I didn’t even get scared on the plane!”
I chuckled and hugged her again. Then I heard the sound of bags shuffling. I looked up and saw my father trying to strap his laptop to his rolly-pack. When he couldn’t get it on there, he slung it around his shoulder and scoffed.
“What a fucking pile of shit, this is!” he yelled.
I unclasped myself from my mother and walked over to him.
“Great to see you, Dad!” I said.
His face softened a little. He dropped his massive shoulders and smiled thinly behind his beard.
“Hey, hey, buddy. How are ya?”
We hugged each other with one arm. Then I felt him tighten up again.
“So where the hell did they put the ATMs in this joint?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows at the adjacent corner. He followed my gaze till he spotted them.
“Oh,” he said.
We walked over there together. My dad pulled his card out and shoved it in the first ATM. It quickly spit it back out at him. He tried the second and the third and got the same result.
“These things blow!” he yelled. “Let’s try your card, Maria.”
My mother dug it up from her cavernous purse and handed it to him. All three ATMs coughed the card out like a hairball.
“Guess I’ll hafta get butt-fucked at the exchange place,” my dad said.
“Gerald!” my mother cried.
My dad and I laughed. We walked over to the kiosk and I did the transaction in Czech. The lady still reamed us good. Forty bucks from three fifty and everything was in big bills. My dad swiped the fan of money up with one hand and shoved it in his pocket.
“Let’s get the hell outta this shithole,” he said.
We skipped the bus and took a Benz to the hotel. The driver got us there in twenty minutes but charged a fifty for it. My father settled the bill indifferently. We went into the lobby, got the keycard and went up to the room. It wasn’t enormous but it looked alright. It had a full bath, a big screen and a king-sized; there was even a foldout off to the side. I flopped across the thing and waited as my folks did theirs. My mother produced a beehive-sized brush from her purse and started combing her mane. And my father dropped his jeans and wandered into the bathroom in his skivvies. From the still-open door, I heard him fold over massively and grunt. Then the plopping began.
“Ya know, son,” he said, between plops. “You’re more than welcome to stay the night here.”
“Yeah, we’ll see how it goes,” I said, holding my nose.
Forty minutes of primping, washing, farting and hacking later, they were finally ready. I herded them down through the hotel and out into the street. Once there, I gave them the “Chop! Chop!” routine. My mom went with it but my dad stumbled along angrily.
“What’s the big rush?!” he asked.
“We have a 9:30 reservation at a place five minutes from here. It’s already 9:27!”
I heard him mumble something about the hotel restaurant being “a friggin’ option.” And he was right about that, but the place I’d picked for us, "U Tří Prasátek," or “The Three Little Pigs’,” had special significance …
At M.I.T. my father and his buddies “Stiffy” and “Beau” had had serious reputations. And not just for doing shit like crafting impossible molecules on their lunchbreaks. When their supervisors had gone home and they had the lab to themselves they used to use the equipment to make booze. I’m an ignoramus when it comes to this stuff, so I have no idea of their methods, but what I do know is that those three long-haired, frizzy-bearded wizards of chemistry would dump a bunch of super pure, super flammable clear liquids into a vat, along with fresh berries, nuts and spices, and what would drip out the silver spigot some ten hours later was nothing shy of demon tears. The guys lovingly named the spirit “Old Mick,” and it was THEE SHIZZ at every shindig on campus. After a while, it even earned their trio a little nickname. You can guess what that was …
As we approached the restaurant, I felt a nervous burn in my chest. I was hoping my dad would look up from his aching feet and see the three enormous hogs hanging their snouts over the front door. My mother was the one who noticed them first.
“Awww Gerry, look at that!” she said, pointing.
He looked up from his feet. He crinkled his nose and exposed his front teeth like an irked woodchuck.
“Look at what?” he said.
“The pigs! There’s three of ‘em!”
“Yeah, well that makes five of us.”
“No, dang it! Over the door.”
“Oh hey …”
I watched the old man’s face soften. I saw the memories flood into his eyes. He held them for a moment. Then he crusted over again.
“Anyways, let’s get in there and eat. I’m freezing my balls off out here!”
We went in and got a table in back. The place was packed with Czechs, and they were smoking and drinking and clinking and laughing. A cute little waitress came by and took our orders. My dad and I got Pilsners and pork ribs and my mom got sparkling water and a pesto chicken breast. While we waited for our food, I asked how the flight was. My dad shrugged indifferently but my mom smiled and pulled out a little booklet.
“I studied my Czech the whole way with this!” she said to me.
“Really? That’s awesome! What have you learned so far?”
She pursed her lips and opened the phrasebook. After a moment, she looked over at me with a sly eyeball.
“Promise you won’t laugh?” she said.
“It’s the word for ‘Thank you.’”
“OK, let’s hear it.”
“Thank you” in Czech is “Děkuji,” (pronounced dye-quee). I watched as my mother quaveringly formed an “O” with her mouth and tried to harness the word’s slippery edges. Just then our waitress came over with the food. She placed all our meals in front of us then clasped her hands. I kept my eyes on my mother and winked. She smiled up at our waitress and nodded.
“Jacky,” she said.
“Prosím?” the waitress asked.
My mother dipped her chin and blinked. Then she cocked her head and raised an unsure eyebrow.
“Jooky?” she said.
“Já Vám nerozumím.”
My mother kept at the word. She mangled it worse every time, like a blind butcher hacking at the same spot on the same neck bone, over and over and over again. It was obvious our waitress was growing impatient. My father finally threw up his hand and broke in.
“Yeah, beef jerky!” he said.
My mother scowled and slapped him in the shoulder. I pitched my head forward and laughed. Our waitress raised her eyebrows with a big “OK”. Then she nodded and walked away. Once she was gone, we turned our attention to our meals. They were lightly steaming and looked homemade. We grabbed our utensils and dug in. As I took my first meaty bite of rib, I heard my phone vibrate. I picked it up and saw I had a text from Tim. I opened it lazily.
“Have you told them yet?” it read.
My face dropped. My food spread to ash over my tongue. An image of horror crept up through my head. It was of my best friend Hawk, crooked, pale-faced and dead in a cheap motel room.
“Is something wrong, sweetie?” my mother asked.
I quickly bunched my fist up and coughed into it.
“Ermph, no nothing,” I said. “Just swallowed a piece of meat wrong.”
She eyed me suspiciously then went back to her meal. I breathed in deep then brought up the flight again. We talked about the layover, the weather and the crappy American Airlines service. I asked my folks if they’d gotten any sleep and my father shook his head.
“Not a wink,” he said.
“Well, then after this we should turn in,” I said. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
I woke up the next morning with no hangover; a small miracle for me as I binge drink on Fridays and greet most Saturdays like a zombie greets a bowl of brains. Despite my clear head and veins, I was depressed. The thought of telling my folks about Hawk’s death weighed heavily on my mind, not just because the guy had been my best buddy when we were kids, but because he’d basically grown up at our house. This meant my folks had a close relationship with him as well. Especially my mother, as she was the one who’d cooked, cared for and cleaned up after the both of us. After a long, scalding shower, I decided I’d break the sad news at the end of the day. I wanted my folks to have a full twenty four hours of seeing and enjoying Prague before I jabbed a switchblade in their bellybuttons and twisted it.
I was outta the flat in one piece by ten. I took the tram to Flora then walked down to my folks’ swanky hotel. I found them waiting for me in the lobby. They were cleaned and combed, though looking a little tired. I gave them both hugs. Then I trumped up a big, cheap smile.
“You guys ready to see some cool shit?!” I said.
“Sure are,” they replied.
I knew right where I wanted to take them first. I led them across the zebra and down the hill. At the bottom, I stopped at a huge black-iron gate.
“This,” I said, pushing it open. “Is Olšany Cemetery!”
I ushered my folks in and followed behind. When I got inside I looked up at the grounds. They were blanketed with a mosaic of yellow leaves and green ivy. And the tombstones, with their crying angels and steel crosses and busts of forgotten heroes, were all splotched in black from the recent rain. The hard blue sky above was torn to cracks by the branches of the olše (alder) trees. In their leafless state, the trees looked like a mass of giant, subterranean creatures, that’d been electrocuted and then quickly frozen as their ungodly tentacles ripped from the earth in agony and twisted upwards.
We moved up the grey-brick lane that split the cemetery in two. Every so often, we passed a bin of the dead that was brimming with broken candles, rotting flowers, dirt clumps, knickknacks, rain-wilted letters, etc. My mother was enthralled with all this. She bombed around in circles like a coke beetle, snapping photos of every pretty leaf, every hidden statue. My father took it more casual. He strolled up the path with his hands behind his back, drawing in the scene with one lazy eye after another.
After a bit, we came to spot I’d been waiting to show them. It was a bench I’d discovered a few years back while exploring the cemetery one afternoon. I enjoyed telling people that this was the bench I visited when my brains and fingers were in knots. I liked the idea that I was the type of writer who needed morbid silence, tombstones and lost ghosts to beat his block. The truth of the matter is though, I get more inspiration sitting on a tram during rush-hour with the bums and the drunks and the little old ladies with canes. In fact, as far as drawing inspiration from that bench goes, I’d only done it that one time, and to mediocre effect. Nevertheless, when the ugly black thing came into view, I ran in front of it and fanned my hands.
“So guys,” I said. “This is the bench where the magic happens!”
My mother raised her chin and smiled in patience. My father crinkled his eyebrows and sniffed.
“You really wanna tell this story in front of your mother?” he asked.
“Jesus, Dad,” I said. “Not like that! I mean this is the bench where I sometimes come when I have writer’s block.”
I looked at him expectantly.
“Why?” my mother asked.
“Well, if you must know, it’s because the trees and the tombs and the spirits of the dead give me inspiration. I guess it’s a writer thing.”
“I guess,” my dad said.
My mother told me to pose in front of the bench for a photo. My father walked off down the lane as she snapped it. We caught up with him and toured the cemetery a bit more. Then I cut in and said:
“Why don’t we head to my place now? I want you guys to see it before lunch.”
We left the cemetery and took a tram to upper Žižkov. As we neared my neighborhood the buildings got progressively greyer and the passengers entering, progressively more haggard. After a few minutes, we arrived at my stop. The tram doors pushed open and we were greeted by a fresh blossom of kebab-puke and a pit bull scratching his asshole against a metal post.
“Nice area,” my dad said.
I chuckled and got off the tram. My folks followed and I led them off the platform and down my street. On the way to my place, I showed them what few sights there were: the little potraviny (minimarts) I shop at, the crappy bars I frequent, the windows and the trees I admire, the bright piles of dog shit. As we neared my building, we came upon my favorite of all local phenomena: a motley crew of perpetual day-drinkers, half of whom have snow-white beards down to their nipples. I pointed at the hammered cadre and grinned.
“This,” I said, proudly. “Is our very own group of derelicts!”
As I said this, one of the crew tipped his brew back and spilled it all down his beard. His zit-faced companion cackled and collapsed to the ground with a fart.
“Bet you fit right in,” my Dad said, laughing.
“Indeed,” I replied.
We arrived at my building and I keyed the door. It was blocked by a loaded trashcan and a pile of mildewed boxes. I forced everything outta the way and let my folks in first. I followed them to the stairwell, where my father stopped.
“How many flights is it?” he asked.
“Oh only three,” I said, grinning privately.
He put his head down and scowled. I stepped in front of him and led the way. We hammered it up the three flights. As we approached my door, a dog in a nearby flat started yipping.
“Is that the little dog you wrote about in your last blog post?” my mother asked.
“Nah,” I said, chuckling. “That dog’s dead.”
My mother slapped me on the shoulder. I smiled at her and readied my keys. My father made it up the last step with a huff. I looked at him and stuck the key in the hole.
“Prepare thyselves for Chez Hans,” I said, twisting.
I pushed my door open with grandiose flare. I knew that compared to my folks’ lakeside mansion, my flat was scarcely more than the matchbox Speedy Gonzalez kept his rubbers in. I still took pride in the little rathole. Before my folks had arrived, I’d spot-cleaned its every dip and corner with a soft toothbrush. I walked inside and turned around.
“Well,” I said. “Whaddaya think?”
They entered like two spooked minors entering the black mouth of a cave. My dad almost whacked his noggin on the door-head and my mom scanned the area as if looking for bats. I maintained a smile and started the tour. I showed them my dinky kitchen and bathroom, my storage area, and my hall-closet of a toilet. The whole thing took less than a minute. And it was executed in no more than ten steps, collectively.
“So that’s pretty much it,” I said, stopping in front of my bedroom. “The only thing left is behind this door.”
My mother smiled in anticipation. My father looked like he was about he was about to pull slowly into a carwash. I opened my door and stepped aside. My mother looked in first. The cleanliness of my room jolted the wrinkles from her face. I could almost hear her little brain say:
“Oh dear, Goosy really needs a girlfriend.”
My father, on the other hand, seemed consummately unimpressed. As he poked over my spotless desk and pressed bedding and my neat little shrine of choice artifacts from abroad, he looked like a monocle-fixed aristocrat who’d just been offered a Ring Pop from a vending machine.
Once the two of them got their fill, I offered them seats. I gave my mother a rickety old chair that had been rotting in my storage closet, and my father, the bed. He took off his tennis shoes and descended across it like an enormous storm cloud. I could hear the wooden frame squealing and sweating to support him. After a full minute of readjustments, he was in a position he could stand. He looked up at me with his knees in his gut and his arm wrapped around his head.
“Boy this is comfy,” he said.
I smirked and went to the kitchen. I brought back three shot glasses and a bottle of marhulovica (Slovakian apricot schnapps) that a student had given me. I put the glasses on my desk and poured up the shots.
“What’s that?” my mom asked.
“Something delicious made from apricots,” I said, still pouring.
Her eyes burst like two match heads.
“I love apricots!” she said.
“Well, then you’re gonna love this.”
I handed out the shots. My mother sunk her nostrils into hers and my father quickly sniffed at his, curling his face in disgust like he’d just been forced to sniff a cat’s vinegary anus. I smelled my own then raised my glass.
“To us,” I said. “And to a kickass Christmas in Český Krumlov!”
“Hear, hear!” my folks said.
I gulped my shot. My dad sipped his and handed it back to me. My mom tried to drink hers down. About halfway in, one of her eyes shrunk and the other bulged and her lips puckered to a dot and went sailing off towards her earlobe.
“That’s really strong,” she said, hoarsely. “Are you sure there’s apricots in there?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
I took the glass from her and finished off the shot. Then I strummed up another cheap smile.
“Whaddaya say we grab lunch guys? I’m starving!”
The rest of the day was a whole lotta really boring shit, the finer details of which I wouldn’t even inflict on that little ass-eating maggot of a dog that lives next door to me. Suffice it to say we ate hamburgers and walked around Prague a lot. We saw the castle and the bridge and the monuments and the stupid fucking birds at Malá Strana that the idiot tourists just LOVE to throw breadcrumbs at. We also saw Nový Svět and Loreta and the house where some-such-someone-or-other fucked their grandpa in the shower. We topped everything off by going to the bar where I read my shitty poems, only to find that the bitch was closed for a children’s birthday party.
After all that, we went to dinner at this place that only served duck. We got a seat right next to the piano, amidst all the quacky kitsch, and straight up gorged ourselves on foie gras and cabbage and dumplings and crispy-roasted fowl parts. At about our third bottle of Rioja, it dawned on me that I still hadn’t broken the news about Hawk’s death. And seeing my folks’ drunk and smiling faces in the wash of piano music and candlelight just made me feel plumb sick to my toes.
At around 10:30 we finished dinner. My father, bless his sour but unbelievably generous heart, paid the four hundred dollar bill without blinking. We then left and went out onto the street. I could tell my folks were still looking to party but I had to drop the snuffer.
“We got another big day tomorrow, guys,” I said. “Why don’t we head back to your hotel and chill."
They both nodded at the reasonableness of my suggestion. We got a cab to the hotel and went up to the room. Once my folks were all settled in, I stood in front of them. My face was on the verge of cracking.
“Now that we’ve had a full day together in Prague,” I said. “I need you guys to sit down so I can tell you something.”
The calm was sucked outta the room. Silence hung in the air like a lynched criminal. I gave my folks a minute to sit down. Then I started in again.
“I want you to prepare yourselves for some really sad news,” I said.
“Well, what is it?” my dad asked.
I took a deep breath. I pulled a knife out and cut the rope.
“Hawk passed away last night …”
My mother reacted first. Her eyes burst into running water and her mouth made the most agonized “O.” She slapped her hands up to her face and the tears poured through her fingers. When she pulled her palms away, she looked like a trample victim.
“Nooo! Nooo! Nooo!” she cried. “Tell me what happened to him! Tell me that poor, sweet boy didn’t die alone!”
I couldn’t answer because I knew he had. I looked over at my father and he was staring blankly at the coffee table. His mouth was moving but I couldn’t make the words. I inched closer to him and heard him saying:
“Such a tragedy … Such a tragedy …”
It took about an hour of sobbing and hugging for things to calm down. I managed to keep my shit mostly together. When the rottenness fell away we were able to remember the good stuff about Hawk. We spent the rest of the night telling those stories and sending his spirit off peacefully. At 1:00 am, I decided it was time to call it a night. I left my folks with one last hug and a promise to keep things light.
Over the next two days, I kept my promise. I sliced my itinerary for Prague down to the naked bone, only keeping the things that were fun and undemanding. We had good meals with some of my students and visited Bert and Tim. We rested a lot and took walks during the day. Then in the evenings, I showed my folks the big lit-up tree and the Christmas markets in Old Town Square, where we had trdelník (Czech cinnamon rolls) and svařák (hot, spiced wine). We didn’t see a bunch of sights as the streets were clogged with tourists. But the weather was nice and the slow pace allowed us to heal from the shock of Hawk’s death.
When Tuesday rolled around, we were in fairly good spirits. We packed and settled everything at the hotel. Then my father and I made for the car rental place. We took a taxi there as it was in kind of a weird spot. We went in the building and did the paperwork then the guy took us around back to see the car. I was hoping the Škoda Octavia was as big and roomy as it looked in the pictures. And it was, by George, just so long as you were of average size. But for a man like my father, a man who’s taller and wider and bushier than a roided sequoia tree, well, let’s just say when he saw the thing his face pinched inwards like a giant anus being fucked by an invisible dick.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” I said, reaching up and putting my hand on his shoulder.
He mumbled something about trains and walked around to the driver’s side. He opened his door and climbed in gingerly. I did my absolute darnedest not to laugh. But watching the man whoof and spit and wheel himself around like a grizzly bear trying to fit himself into a baby stroller just kicked me square in the clown-balls and in two seconds I was on the asphalt, howling up the dead. My father ignored me bitterly. When he finally got himself plugged in there, I was up and by his side, ready to tackle the ride.
“You get your fill?” he asked me.
“You bet,” I said.
“Good. Now let’s see what we’re workin’ with here.”
He looked down at his feet and around the console. When he saw the gear-shift and the clutch, he flipped.
“It’s a goddamned stick shift!” he said.
“Well, yeah Dad, it’s Europe. Anyways, don’t you know how to drive stick?”
He sniffed sharply.
“Yeah like two decades ago. Anyways, fuck it.”
He slammed his foot against the clutch and fired up the engine. The car jerked forward and stalled.
“Wonderful!” he said.
He repeated the process and put the car in first. As he inched slowly forward, I popped open the GPS. It took me a second to get it working. When I saw the welcome words, I smiled.
“At least our GPS is in Portuguese!” I said.
“There’s a fuckin’ relief.”
We pulled out of the parking lot to the GPS mechanically commanding:
“Vire à direita! Vire à direita!”
We switched the language, picked my shit up, grabbed my mother and split.
It took us a bit to get outta the city. My dad threw a few fits, calling rogue drivers “Ass Hairs!” and “Cock rings!” but eventually we peeled up outta the tumult and onto the straightaway. As we left, the traffic and the smog and the spires of Prague dissolved into rolling brown hills and patches of stick-forest. Every so often a little village would sprout up like a cluster of red-capped mushrooms, or hidden chapel would reveal its gold-lined face from behind the trees. I played country and folk music to cool my dad’s nerves and keep his temper in check. The songs that worked best were “Take it Easy,” “Moon River,” and “I am a Pilgrim,” to name a few. As the clean twangs and gentle bumps filled the cabin, we whistled and sang and tapped our feet. The old metal plates of time and distance loosened around our chests, and for a few precious moments we were a family again.
Then my dad took a wrong turn just outside of Tábor. The GPS said the dirt road we were on would connect us to the highway. As we drove deeper and deeper into the woods, it became less certain. We ended up on a thin trail of gravel just below a red cottage. My dad looked at the stack of logs and the wheelbarrow in front of us and threw up his hands.
“This is someone’s fucking driveway!” he said.
We made a U-y and went back the way we came. Three roundabouts and a three hundred cusswords later, we were back on the road, southbound.
Note: I reserve the right to occasionally alter the character names, descriptions, and/or event details in my posts for the purposes of identity protection and “fluidity of story.” If this puts a kink in your panties, read someone else’s blog, homey.