We came upon the place from the backside. We drove through its dark forest and up into its hills until we saw the hotels. They were giant dazzling hotels bathed in champagne Christmas lights. They had high oak doors and marble columns and circular courtyards ringed with limos. My mother went ape-shit, bucket-over-the-head crazy with the camera. My dad banged away at the GPS with his fingertips between roaring coughs. We dipped down and around and into a shady residential area. Then our mechanical friend told us to stop.
“Well, where the fuck is this place?” my dad said, looking around.
I shrugged and picked up my phone. I called the lady and she told me in a thick Russian accent that she’d be down in a sec. We waited on the street, double-parked. Five minutes later, a cute little blond woman with a cherry nose came pattering out of a nearby flat-block and up to our window. She stuck her hand in and smiled.
“I am Veronika,” she said. “I vill show you to apartment.”
We unloaded our shit and dragged it in the building. There was a rickety spiral staircase there and we were three flights up. I carried most of the bags. By the time we got everything to the top, we were pissed as a gang of hornets in mud. Veronika opened the door and pleasantly showed us in. The place was almost uncomfortably clean and the hard yellow lights made me queasy. There were two bedrooms and two baths. The kitchen was pretty big, as was the common area, but its stiff gold-leaf couches and crystal chandelier reeked balls of the Salieri residence. Luckily there was a flat-screen in there. I knew we’d be using that motherfucker in spades.
Veronika gave us two sets of keys and split. My folks took the green room near the antechamber and I was left with the toilet-side pink room, much to my father’s delight. We couldn’t be bothered to do much for food. My dad and I hit a little joint around the corner and got beers and schnitzel. Then we grabbed my mom some chicken to go. The rest of the night was spent tea-nursing our colds and watching flicks. We were out by midnight.
I slept for twelve fat ones. I woke up at noon feeling a sprig better. I took a shit and washed my balls. Then I walked into the common area to see how my folks were doing. They were both wrapped in blankets and sat at the breakfast table. My mother had apparently made chicken soup, as they were slurping it up from big bowls with big spoons. I went over and sat in the empty chair next to them. My mother smiled and sat up.
“Good morning, Goosy!” she said. “Lemme get you a bowl.”
I nodded and thanked her. As she went to the kitchen, I turned to my Dad. He was staring down at his soup with a perturbed look on his face. I told him “good morning,” and in response he let off a chain of humungous coughs. It sounded like someone shoveling bullfrogs into a wood chipper. It almost made my mother drop the bowl of soup she was now returning with. My father retched and hacked and choked. My mother gave me my soup then sat back down. My father finally finished coughing. Then there was stillness.
“You OK, Gerry?” my mother asked.
He straightened his back and gave a tiny nod. He stared at the wall for a moment, letting the silence grip the room. Our eyes crawled all over him with concern. We didn’t know if he would wither into putty or explode. He dipped his chin like he had whatever it was under control. I heard a little newt burble, then …
His chest made a sound like Zeus crushing a storm to a point with his fist. He sucked in air till he no longer could, then in kind fashion, he exhaled, raking the mucus up from his lungs and blowing it into his cheeks. He delicately plucked a tissue from the box and folded it into a neat square. Then he brought it to his mouth and tongued the mucus into it. Most normal people would, at this point, pitch the tissue in the trash. But not my father, the scientist. No, he was curious about his latest expectoration. So like a giant wunderkind with a brand new book of chemical compounds, he evenly pried the tissue open and – top lip raised, full fronts exposed –examined its lumpy, green contents.
“It’s interesting the kinds of things our bodies produce under duress,” he said.
I bobbled my head and grinned.
“Yeah, well feel free to pick through my next whiskey shit,” I said.
“Ph-wans!” my mom cried, spitting up her soup.
My father remained silent. I gave him the sidelong eyeball.
“Dad?” I said.
“Huh?” he replied, still examining his phlegm.
“What do you think of my offer?”
He folded the tissue over and dropped it in his bowl.
“Fuckin’ great,” he said.
I kicked back in my seat and laughed my mouth out. My folks both got up from the table and left me to my hysteria.
The rest of the afternoon was a bust. I was able to roust my father up to come down into town with me and look around, but after half an hour of Prada and Gucci and Gumby, big tall buildings with art nouveau facades, snotty women in high heels walking little dogs, droves of shopping-bag families, four pretty white hotels and scores of riverside cafes serving thousand-crown lattes, we’d had just about enough. We walked back up the hill and stopped at a potraviny. We got some breakfast fixings – eggs, sausage, potatoes, milk, cheese – then headed back our flat. We capped the evening off with “Casino Royale.” Apparently, they’d filmed it at “The Grand Poop” or some such hotel around the corner. When the movie ended my folks crashed and I got wasted in my room off whiskey. I remember frying up potato wedges at 2 am with a sliced and bleeding thumb. Then nothing.
Aside from a little trip to nearby Loket Castle, the next two days were pretty uneventful. When we weren’t eating chicken soup or coughing our tits off, we were dead-eyed in front of the tube, watching flicks. My dad had come up with the idea to yank the mattresses off our beds and lay them out across the living room floor. This was worlds more comfortable than those ridiculous Venetian couches and it afforded us a bit of real daytime rest after a crazy holiday.
Come the final night, we had to pack. It was a slow process that involved many trips to the toilet and sink, but we got it done in decent time and without making ourselves too much sicker. At around 11 pm, we said our goodnights. I retired to my pink room and clicked out the lights. I tried my damnedest to get some early shuteye. But try as I might, I couldn’t help but think that the entire Christmas trip, save for a few jeweled moments, had been one big disaster. My reasons for thinking this were in part related to the checklist I’d made. I’d wanted to give my folks a true taste of Žižkov and of greater Prague, have a traditional Czech Christmas with them in Český Krumlov, and a kick-ass spa experience in Karlovy Vary. Instead, I’d shown them a wank bench in a cemetery and forced them to eat burnt carp. Not to mention, I’d rendered them bedridden and ill, thus making the “kick-ass spa experience” all but impossible. I felt like a complete wiener. I felt like a shithead and a bum. I also felt furious at my father. Not just because he’d complained about every bird fart and sidewalk crack that’d come his way, but because deep in the saddest part of my guts, I believed it was all my crumby fault.
As I lied there turning over and over again like a skewered lamb on a flame, I thought back to my last day in the States before moving to Prague. It was a hot August mother and I’d spent most of it packing and saying goodbye to friends and family …
Just before my folks drove me to the airport I went up to my room for a last-minute check. I made sure I had all my stuff for the trip, plus I said late to my scary masks and posters, my dusty bookcase and my trusty ol’ bed. As I smiled and ran my hand over its stained sheets, there was a soft knock at the door. I told whom I knew it was to come in and then I sat at my desk. My father turned the knob and opened the door slowly. He stepped in headfirst and peeked around my shelf.
“OK if I talk to you for a sec?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
He walked over and sat down on my bed. The thing hissed and bent inwards and almost kissed the floor. I swiveled around in my chair and asked him what the deal was. He put his hands on his knees and spiked his shoulders.
“All packed?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Got enough cash?”
“Know your flight times and everything?”
“How about a hotel over there? You got anything booked for when you arrive?”
I lowered my chin and looked at him over my nose.
“What’s really up, Dad?” I asked.
He chewed at his lips and inhaled deeply. Then he cast his eyes on the carpet.
“Dad, what is it?!” I asked again.
“I just wanted to let you know …” he said, exhaling. “That you’re breaking my heart by leaving.”
My face froze on my skull. My chest grew heavy with ache. Before I could muster a response he got up from the bed and left. We never spoke of that moment again.
The next morning there was tension in the flat. I could smell it in the air like rotting fish scales. I got up from my bed and took a leak. Then I went into the common area where my folks were. My mother was sat at the table, drinking tea. My father was bent over his luggage, cussing. I asked him if there was anything I could do to help. He punched a lip of clothing into his swollen bag and zipped it up.
“Fucking Wal-Mart garbage!” he said.
My mother rolled her eyes and walked into the kitchen. A few minutes later she came out with plates of scrambled eggs and sausage. We ate in relative silence. Then Veronika (the landlady) came. We showed her the place was clean and gave her the keys.
“So vat is schedule for trip?” she asked spryly.
“Well, we’re heading back to Prague now,” I said. “Then the day after tomorrow my folks leave.”
She smiled and folded her hands.
“No funny plans?” she asked.
My father snickered. My mother smiled back and said:
“We might have a New Year’s party on a steam ship tonight. But we’re all sick as dogs, so we’ll see.”
Veronika nodded and put the keys in her pocket.
“Vell OK,” she said. “Khop you enjoy your stay.”
We thanked her and started taking down our crap. My parents grabbed a shopping bag each and I hauled the rest. The whole process took about an hour. When it finally ended, I was in a shit state like my dad. We all got in the car and drove off. The GPS led us up a bunk road which really flamed my father’s nerves. I tried to look out the window and concentrate on the scenery. But the frosty, twinkling hills and the pretty little villages and the hops fields with their rows and rows of wooden frames draped in dried out vines, did little to improve my mood.
We arrived in Prague at around 1 pm. We dropped my mom off at the hotel then my father and I went to mine. It took me three trips to get all my crap upstairs. When I came back down for the final time, my father was in a flurry. I asked him what the matter was and he motioned for me to get in the car.
“Hurry the hell up!” he said. “I just talked to the guy and he said the rental place closes at two.”
I jumped in the car and we drove off. I tried to read the navvy but kept getting us lost. We must’ve made three loops around the neighborhood. Then by sheer miracle we stumbled across the right street. I spotted the rental place first. My father asked me where it was and I popped my chin at it.
“Over there,” I said.
He furrowed his brow.
“Where?” he asked.
“There!” I said, pointing with my whole face.
He furrowed his brow deeper and scanned the scene. Then he threw up his hands.
“Where the hell are you talking about?!”
I speared my finger out at the sign.
“Right fucking there!” I yelled.
My father finally clapped eyes on it. As he slowed to park, he looked over at me.
“You know, you are really goddamned impatient with me,” he said.
I almost blew up at him right there. I almost pulled the hot stick from the flame and stuck it to the rhino’s ass and sent him charging out of the cave. It took a whole lotta teeth-clenching and averted eyes to calm me down. Thankfully, we were able to drop the car off and grab a cab to our respective places, without incident.
I had about four hours at my place to cool off and unpack. I toyed with the idea of bagging the New Year’s cruise but I wanted to see how my folks felt first. After my stuff was all put away and my bones were chilled, I split and hopped on a tram. As I rode it along, I could hear the machinegun pops of lady-fingers riddle up the sidewalks, trees and buildings. I got off at my stop and went into the hotel. It was a swanky joint with a velvet pool table and a candlelit bar and lounge. I texted my folks and told them I’d arrived. I sat on a leather couch in front of the steel elevators and waited. Twenty minutes later my folks came down. My father looked grey and drained and my mother looked even worse. Her cheeks were tinted green and her hair was scraggly. She had beads of sweat across her brow and her eyes were red as cranberries. I asked her if she was OK. She shook her head.
“I’m gonna stay in tonight, OK sweetie?” she said.
I breathed a sigh of partial relief.
“Yeah, that’s probably best,” I said. “You guys should really get some rest.”
My father raised his eyebrows and stepped in.
“Well, I’m still up for doing the cruise?” he said.
My heart sank a little.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said lightly.
“OK then. I’ll call a cab.”
We hugged my mother goodbye and took a cab into town. We ate dinner at a Vietnamese joint I like then had drinks at some smoky bar to kill time. At around 10 o’clock, we walked over to the Vltava lookout. We saw our boat at pier 16 and nearly soiled ourselves. It was a janky old slab covered in tinsel and blown-out Christmas lights. Its tiny widows were spray-painted with frost and its peeling sides were scrawled with crap like, “Go Go Boat!” and “Happy New Ear!” My dad took one look at the thing and sneered.
“What a hunk of shit,” he said.
We walked down some stairs and over to our pier. The place was flooded with cotton-headed tourists from Italy, Germany, Spain, etc. We huddled up amongst them and got in line. As we stood there in the blistering cold, some yard hog in fishnets with red lipstick smeared across her cheeks came rumbling up to us and waving her flabby arms.
“Are you viz ‘Amazingly Toorz?!” she yelled.
“’Amazingly what?’” my dad asked.
“Toorz! Are you wiz ‘Amazingly Toorz?!’”
“Amazingly not,” he said.
I whipped my neck back and laughed. Yard Hog huffed against her fat titties and walked off. My dad and I then looked out at the crowd around us. Everyone looked so stupid and joyful and red. I could feel the urge to bounce coming on us. I could feel the cold seeping into our bones and agitating the labyrinth of phlegm in our throats. We looked at each other and then at the boat.
“Should we just split?” I asked.
My father chewed his lips and looked down at his phone. The thing buzzed in his hand.
“I just got a text from Mom,” he said.
He picked it open and showed me. It read:
“Have a wonderful time, my sweet guys.”
“Aw fuck, now I guess we hafta get on that damn thing,” I said.
We walked onto the boat and to the upper cabin where the party was. When we got in there we looked around and laughed. The place was showered in confetti, balloons and ribbons. It looked like a “Dollar Tree” had just exploded. We kicked through the refuse and found our table in back. We pulled our plastic chairs out and sat down. In front of us, was our food for the evening: a plate of dried lunchmeats and a little dish of unsalted peanuts.
“Yum!” my dad said, sinking his fingers into the peanuts.
He tossed a few in his mouth then the waitress came by. She asked us what drinks we’d be having with our “meals”.
“What are our options?” my Dad asked me.
I took the drink menu from the waitress and looked.
“Well the only beer they have here is ‘Budweiser,’ so that’s out,” I said. “And I know you don’t like shots or cocktails. So why don’t we just go with a nice bottle of their 2011 Argentinean Malbec?”
My father raised his eyebrows up to his hairline.
“Argentinean, is it?” he asked.
Being from Livermore – the first wine-producing region in California – my father and I share a snobby fondness for wine. This is huge because the two of us can’t agree on fucking corn nuts. But what we can agree on is that big-berried California reds with long and complex finishes are just about the finest damn things on the planet. And although this Malbec was from another place, it was still a red wine and that was something.
I told the lady to bring us a bottle of the stuff. She walked off in a hurry and brought it back to our table with two little glasses. Then she popped the cork and poured us up some grapes. As she walked off, I made a toast.
“To the trip,” I said. “And to this godforsaken boat!”
“Hear, hear,” my dad said.
We clinked our glasses and put ‘em to our lips. We sucked down a bit of wine and, as expected, it tasted like weasel piss. The boat started rumbling and moving away from the dock. Then I felt this pinching feeling in my stomach. I looked up at my Dad and he seemed OK. I mean, he looked like shit, we both did, but he was sippin’ on his garbage wine and taking in the cheap atmosphere with a smile. Still, I couldn’t avoid the words that were stinging my lips. Finally, I had to spit ‘em off.
“Dad?” I said.
“Hmm?” he replied.
“Have you even enjoyed this trip at all?”
His countenance came to a still. I could almost hear the man’s anus squeeze to a dot. He repositioned his elbows and took a tiny sip of wine. Then he breathed out.
“I have had a good time, Hans,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You’ve just complained a lot and it’s made me feel like you hate this place.”
“Well, I don’t.”
“Then why all the complaining? Why all the ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that’ and ‘fuck everything’?! I worked my ass off to make this trip a reality! And all you’ve done is bitch and moan and …”
My father coldly took the bullets to his grill. When I finished my tirade, he matched pupils with me.
“I know I’ve been difficult,” he said. “But hey, I’m here, aren’t I?”
My face softened.
“That’s true,” I said. “And I don’t know … maybe it’s not just you. Maybe I’ve been kind of a pain in the ass too.”
He took another little drink.
“Gee, ya think?” he said.
“Haha, screw you!”
Just then, the two-dude band struck up a tune. It was “Hotel California” in Czech and it sucked my ass, but it was fun enough and went well with the wine. When we finished our Argentinean Malbec, we moved on to a South African Cabernet. I’d tasted better venereal diseases but the shit got us drunk and that was OK.
When the band became insufferable, we looked for other options. We spotted some people filing out onto the deck and decided to grab our coats and join them. We took the venereal disease and a couple of cups. We checked our watches and they read 11:40.
“You sure there’s gonna be fireworks tonight?” my dad asked me.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t entirely sure. I’d been in Prague on New Year’s before and seen fireworks, but I’d heard from one of our cabbies that the big show would be the following day at 6 pm. I figured it didn’t really matter anyways. If Prague hadn’t blown the man’s skirt up the first two times, it wasn’t gonna whet his lizard with a bunch of pop rocks on the third.
We walked out onto the deck. There was a little crowd forming there but we were able to squeeze in and get a place between the benches. We set our cups down and poured ‘em full. We put ‘em to our lips and sipped and looked out. Prague was lit up pretty in the night. Its spires looked like the stalagmites of some unearthly cave being illuminated by flames. The Charles Bridge was overflowing with people; a rectangular sea of black ants, flashing and screaming and shooting off Roman candles. The air around us was tense and freezing. Tiny snowflakes started falling diagonally across the rippling jet skin of the Vltava. I checked my watch and it read a minute till. I started thinking the show might be nil. Then a boat horn went off. Then another and another and another, till I felt like I was in a stationary school of aquatic dinosaurs performing a pre-game mating ritual. The horns nearly blasted the drums outta my ears. They nearly blew the coat off my back. Then a single light drew my attention. It shot up from the riverbank in a flash and like a glowing-white sperm cell, it wriggled its head to the top of the night sky then exploded into an enormous umbrella of sizzling glitter. After that, all the cannons blew loose. Fireworks shot up from every corner of the city and turned the sky into a clown’s happy nightmare of jagged smoke and colors. Every burst was different. There were ones like cosmic pollywogs escaping from the chests of dying aliens, ones like mutant succulents being run through with current till their veins ignited, ones like giant squid spontaneously combusting, their suckers crackling and burning blue on the way down, and even bigger, crazier ones that looked like God after God after God, furiously popping a face full of gunpowder zits.
I looked away from the show and back at my Dad. I could see the greens and blues and yellows of it all tickling up his glasses. He was smiling bigger than I’d ever seen him. He looked like a huge, hairy child seeing the 4th of July for the first time. There were tears in his eyes and his cheeks were red. After a moment, he looked down at me and said:
“Boy, Prague really knows how’ta do it up for New Year’s!”
I smiled and sipped my wine.
“Bingo,” I whispered.
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.