Killing the Second Dog
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Marek Hlasko
Translated from Polish by Tomasz Mirkowicz
Robert left, taking the dog with him. He was spending the night at the bouncer’s apartment so I would have our room to myself. I sat on the balcony, reading Chekhov. I read him all the time, lugging the heavy volumes wherever I went; they were a present from Robert, who also gave me a lecture on Chekhov’s greatness. He was right. There are many great writers, but Chekhov is more than that: he’s a friend. It always surprises me how cruel he can be at times. I think he was unaware of his own cruelty; it wasn’t something he aimed for, which is why he seems so vicious at times. “His imagination was completely lacking anger,” Robert said. He had his own ideas of how to stage Chekhov, and he used to talk about them often and at length. The last time he enlarged on his theories was in the Jaffa jail—his audience was a beggar who used to beat his children with an iron rod. I think the beggar understood the lecture; he broke into tears when Robert recited parts of The Cherry Orchard. That happens, too.
Robert was a fanatic when it came to theater. In the slammer he always performed for other inmates. He had fixed rates for his artistic services: one cigarette for the Macbeth monologue, which begins, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” if delivered in Polish, two if in English. The balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet belonged to the cheaper classical repertoire: one smoke for the two of us, since I played Juliet. These were the more expensive pieces. The modern stuff I did alone and for much lower rates. Robert never attempted anything contemporary; he was a priest of High Art. I remember how once he and a smuggler, who in his youth had been a member of an amateur theater company in Cairo, came to blows while playing Faust together; or rather how Robert started beating the other guy for overacting his role and being too theatrical. When we finally managed to pull them apart, Robert continued to upbraid him, screaming that while on stage an actor should tie the wings of his soul. I was much more modest than Robert; I usually acted out scenes from movies. My greatest success was impersonating Goofy. Naturally, I had more cigarettes than Robert, so he would smoke mine and bitch about the degeneration of public taste and the stupidity of films.
Robert had come to Israel from Poland. His big wish was to create Art. He found employment in a Tel Aviv theater, but they fired him almost immediately because he quarreled ceaselessly with all the actors, criticizing them for following the Stanislavski method, which he found loathsome; this was rather strange since he admired both Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg. He made such a nuisance of himself and got on everybody’s nerves so much they gladly got rid of him at the first opportunity. He then convinced two con men to start a cabaret show, but the first night they had succeeded in insulting everybody: religious zealots and agnostics, fresh immigrants and native Israelis, the press, the army, and God knows who else. The two con men grabbed a taxi and left Tel Aviv right after the performance, pocketing the night’s take and leaving Robert alone to face three trials, including one for not paying for the building they had rented for the show. This was how he ended up in jail. He wrote to his erstwhile partners, begging them to help get him out, but they ignored his pleas. He began counseling other inmates, explaining the niceties of the law to them. I met him soon after, sitting on his cot, fat and grubby, giving legal advice to a blind man.
“Okay, tell me what happened,” Robert asked him.
“Well, I kind of felt a hankering,” the blind man answered.
“A hankering to screw your own daughter?”
“I just wanted to help her fasten her bra,” the blind man explained. “She asked me to.”
“How often did that happen?”
“Well, now and again.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Robert told the blind man cheerfully. “All you have to do is tell the judge you didn’t see who you were screwing. You’re blind, aren’t you?”
All the inmates roared with laughter, while the blind man burst into tears. Then Robert met a guy who could make puppets, and so—still in the slammer—they started preparing a puppet show together. When Robert was released, he somehow raised the cash to bail out the puppet-maker. The two of them visited me in the hotel where I was staying and turned my room into their workshop. They even made me help them. We worked on those puppets for three weeks, eating only one meal a day: hummus, which the puppet-maker got at an Arab restaurant a block away. When the puppets were finished, Robert persuaded the owner of a semi truck to drive them around; the truck owner became their new partner. They gave two shows in kibbutzim close to the Syrian border; during the third show, devout Jews overturned the semi, burned all the puppets, then chased Robert and his pals for half a mile, showering curses on their heads and spitting on them. The owner of the semi brought charges against Robert, who got locked up again.
I was in bad shape then, too. I couldn’t obtain a work permit, but I managed to land a job on a building site in Bat-Yam, and I worked there for a while. One day I slipped and broke my arm, however; a compound fracture. The doctor who set my arm said I would have to wear a cast for six weeks. I didn’t have any money for food, and I was really down. An asthmatic burglar staying in the same hotel lent me money for the rent and food. He was a nice guy, born in one of the Arab countries; spoke French like a born Parisian and was rather proud of it. He hated General De Gaulle; said he looked like a sideshow barker and would ruin France. He used to rage that De Gaulle had never been to the front and had cribbed his book on the need for mechanization of the French army from General Guderian; that he had spent the whole war in London spouting drivel over the radio while he should have been fighting the Germans. The burglar went under the nickname of De Gaulle.
Soon afterward the real De Gaulle put down the paratroopers’ rebellion, while the “De Gaulle” I knew was arrested for having robbed the cash register at a kosher co-op. A few days later the cops arrested me: some squealer must have told them De Gaulle had given me money. That’s how all three of us found ourselves in the Jaffa tank: De Gaulle, Robert, and me. One day I was about to be taken to the examining magistrate, and a guard wanted to handcuff me.
“Come on,” I said. “I don’t need those. I’ll go quietly without the bracelets.”
“It’s an order,” the guard said.
“Nothing doing,” I said. “I don’t care.”
He tried to grab my hand, but I pushed him away. So he went back to the guardroom and I heard him ask the sergeant what he should do.
“You’ve got to answer violence with violence,” the sergeant told him, though I never learned what violence he meant. They came back and beat me unconscious. As soon as I opened my eyes, Robert said, “I have a great idea.”
“You’re not the only one,” I said. “Every hustler in this jail has a great idea.”
“I’ve figured out what to do with you.”
“Thanks to you, we’ll both be rich!”
“Nobody’s ever become rich thanks to me except for one Hungarian. I got hit by a car and the insurance was paid to him because his name was similar to mine. I never found him.”
“He disappeared into the whirlpool of life,” Robert said. “But your money won’t bring him luck. He’ll slip on a banana peel one day coming down the stairs and become a pathetic invalid. He’ll sing on street corners and some day you’ll pass by and throw him a penny. He’ll recognize you, but you won’t recognize him. And then he’ll suffer even more.”
“You held yourself nicely in the fight.”
“Then how come I’ve got these on?” I asked, lifting my hands to show him the handcuffs.
“You kept your head high and proud,” he said. “I thought to myself that’s how Fabrice del Dongo must have looked on his way to the execution.”
“I didn’t keep it high very long. As you probably noticed, they mainly kicked me in the ass.”
“How can Jews act like that?” a pimp complained in a bitter voice. He was handcuffed to Robert; our conversation was taking place in the back of a police van on our way to the magistrate’s office. “Jews, who for so long have been beaten themselves. A man comes here out of idealistic reasons, full of enthusiasm and the best intentions, and before he’s even had a chance to look around, the police grab him. And this is the Jewish state we’ve been waiting for for two thousand years.”
“Well?” Robert asked me. “What do you say?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Only what you’ve always wanted to do yourself. You’ve wanted to be an actor, right?”
“How did you guess?”
“That’s my business.”
“I see,” I said. “I’m not supposed to know too much. Just like in the stories of that guy who wrote Guys and Dolls. You’re Spanish John, right?”
“No. Little Isidore. And that bastard over there,” he said, pointing to the cop guarding us, “is really Harry the Horse.”
“Better watch it, or you’ll get an additional charge for insulting a police officer,” the cop said.
“So you’ve read that book, too?” I asked.
“Sure,” the cop said. “I just read how Harry the Horse and Big Butch went to crack a safe, and Big Butch took his one-year-old kid with him because he didn’t have anyone to leave him with.”
“You want me to act?” I asked Robert.
“Yes, but for a very limited audience.”
“Who’ll pay me?”
“Don’t worry. Everything’ll be paid for. Leave it all to me; money’ll be no problem. You don’t mind being paid in American dollars, do you?”
“No, not at all.”
Soon afterward De Gaulle was transferred to the Akko penitentiary, where he was to serve out a long sentence, while Robert and I gave our first performance. Everything went just fine; our first client was the American girl who ended up in a nuthouse. That was over a year ago; I remembered it now as I leaned over the balcony rail. The sea in the distance looked misty and dead. I could tell the goddamn wind was coming and that it wouldn’t leave the city in peace. It was half past ten; I knew I wouldn’t be alone much longer. Thinking of the wind, which would be on us tomorrow, I didn’t feel like reading anymore; I didn’t even feel like going into the room. I thought of minor, unimportant things; my mind was in a total shambles and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. All of a sudden I remembered the day Stalin died. Then I thought of the day Patterson beat Johansson, and of winning a bet from some guy who never paid up; then I recalled how a certain rich but tight-fisted man hired me as a driving instructor for his wife, though he knew I didn’t have a teaching permit and that he wouldn’t collect any insurance if his wife wrecked the car.
“Can you drive?” he asked me the first day after treating me to a glass of warm soda water with no fizz in it.
“Do you drive well?”
“What sort of make did you drive last?”
“A diesel truck. Fifteen tons. Five gears and a reducer.”
“Have you had any accidents?”
His face was shining with sweat; he was worried about his goddamn car—an old Chevy—but at the same time he was too cheap to part with a few pounds more and hire a professional instructor. I watched him, the half-full glass of warm soda water in my hand, while he trembled and sweated.
“Will you be careful?”
“That’s something women usually ask,” I said. “Sure I will.”
“You look as if you enjoyed risky driving.”
“I just look that way.”
“Do you really drive well?”
“I drove you around a bit, so you should know.”
“It’s hard to tell after one ride.”
“I can drive you around again.”
“It’d be a waste of gas,” he said. “It’s just as hard to tell after two rides. It’s hard to tell anything these days. My partner was the best man there ever was, then he started gambling and didn’t stop until he gambled away everything. God, I lost a fortune because of him. You just can’t tell anything these days.”
So I started teaching his wife and she was making good progress, but whenever I came to pick her up for her lesson, I could see she’d been crying. Finally, she told me her husband suspected she was having an affair with me and would kick up terrible fights and come close to a heart attack. Neither of us was attracted to the other. Whenever I made a suggestion, she’d say, “Don’t teach me what to do,” even though that was exactly what I was paid for. Or, rather, was supposed to be paid for. Each time I came to collect my fee, her husband would pretend he had no small bills; if I reminded him the next day, he would shout at me not to bother him with such trifles since he had a bad heart—so bad, in fact, that the doctors had stopped hiding it from him. He continued to treat his wife so dreadfully that finally one day she and I overcame our mutual repugnance. After that I never went back to their home. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her again. She kept gobbling sweets all the time, even when she was behind the wheel; she would break a chocolate bar in half and with a heavy sigh push both pieces into her mouth. After that her husband hired a highly recommended professional instructor. The instructor wrecked the car, and both he and the man’s wife ended up in the same hospital. Dark forces had conspired against the husband, Robert said.
It was eleven. When the khamsin blows, you close all doors and windows, but I opened the balcony door to go back into the room. At exactly the same moment I opened the balcony door, she opened the door to my room. We stopped and looked at each other.
“Close the door,” I said. “That goddamn wind has started.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I knocked, but you didn’t hear me. So I thought you must be sitting out on the balcony.”
“You won’t be able to sleep now anyway. When the khamsin comes, nobody sleeps much.”
“He’s not here tonight.”
“I see.” She liked to smile, something I liked about her. “His aging mother cabled him she’s not feeling well?”
“No. I told him to get the hell out because I was waiting for you.”
“So I didn’t surprise you?”
“No. I hate surprises. I fear them more than anything. The only thing that brings joy is something you want and have been waiting for.”
“Quite a philosophy.”
“No. I just knew we both wanted the same thing.”
“That’s nice. Listen, you could also say there isn’t much happiness in the world, so you shouldn’t hesitate doing something you feel some good might come from.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth. All I can do is say them again.”
“Listen, why do I like you so much? Maybe you can explain that to me.”
“No. But that explains why you came.”
“Shouldn’t I slam the door and leave?”
“We’d lose one night,” I said. “And I have just enough money to stay here a few more days. Then I’ll have to move. By the way, did you give Johnny a spanking?”
“Yes. He traded your pants for a jackknife with a corkscrew. Johnny says it’s a very good jackknife. I brought it with me. I thought you should have it.”
She gave me the jackknife.
“Thank you,” I said. “Actually I’ve always wanted one. What about my shirt?”
“He traded it for some kind of lizard.”
“Maybe it’ll become friends with my dog.”
“No. It was a stuffed lizard. Next Johnny traded it for a pack of cigarettes. I brought you those, too.”
The cigarettes were Russian; thick as a finger, with cardboard filters.
“I haven’t smoked one of these in years,” I said. “Only Johnny could have come by them here.”
“I’m glad you think so highly of my son.”
“Want to try one?”
“Sure. Then what?”
“Let’s smoke first,” I said. “It’ll soothe my nerves.”
“Actually it’s me who should be tense, not you.”
“Not at all. It’s me who’s afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Disappointing you,” I said. “And you can’t imagine how afraid. I’m not eighteen. This country and this climate have taken their toll.”
“Listen,” she said. She liked that word. “Listen, I can go if you want. It’s just my luck that in this country, where everybody is so goddamn virile, I should be attracted to you.”
“Please stay. Maybe I’ll muster the courage. Good cigarettes, aren’t they?”
“I never knew plain tar could taste this good.”
“Yes,” I said. “The Russians have lots of good things. In Poland they never stopped telling us how good their scientists were.”
“What will we do when we finish smoking?”
“I’ll tell you something about my childhood. I once had a friend who experimented on frogs. The frogs really hated that. That was in Poland.”
I fell silent.
“Is that your only memory from Poland?” she asked after a terribly long pause, when she must have lost all hope of my continuing the conversation.
“Actually the only thing I really remember from Poland is Khrushchev’s face,” I said.
“You’re a very strange lover.”
“I know. Once for three nights in a row I explained the construction of a steam engine to some girl. It didn’t get me very far. But apparently I was very cheeky as a kid. You’ll have to excuse me for a moment. This room doesn’t have a toilet.”
“Okay,” she said.
I went out into the corridor. There was a buzz in my ears and a total void in my mind. I went down to the reception desk and called Robert from there. When I heard his voice, brisk and eager, I felt a little better.
“Bobby, quick,” I said. “I’ve forgotten how it goes after the initial nonsense. It’s because of the khamsin. Why don’t we wait a few days?”
“Are you crazy? Think how much we’re paying for that goddamn hotel room. We can’t wait, damn you.”
“Then what am I supposed to do now?”
“Don’t touch her yet. Tell her what you’re going to do to her, but keep away. Wait until she gets so hot she can’t stand it.”
“What if she doesn’t get hot?”
“She will. No woman can resist for long if you tell her what you intend to do to her. Even St. Therese of the Child Jesus would have given in. Can’t I ever leave you alone? You’re like a child, you know?”
“Okay,” I said, putting down the receiver. I went to the hotel bar and drank a beer and listened to two German Jews talk about Goethe.
“He was a great man,” one of them said.
“What do you mean great? He was the greatest!”
“And so cheerful,” the first one gushed.
“He was our greatest poet,” the second one said.
They were both corpulent and elegantly dressed; I was certain they had spent the war in Switzerland or in the States. I looked at my thin face and bleached hair in the mirror over the bar, gulped down the rest of my beer, and turned to them: “Das beste, was Goethe geschrieben hat, ist An American in Paris, meine Herren.”
I bowed and went upstairs. She was standing by the closed window, taking deep breaths. Her forehead was covered with sweat, but that didn’t make her any less attractive. Or maybe she wasn’t perspiring. Maybe it was only my imagination.
“It’s all because of this wind,” I said. “I’ll tell you what happened once in Haifa, when after four days of khamsin ...”
“I think it’s time you shut up,” she said.
“No. I’ll decide what comes when. Nothing I desire will pass me by, but I want it to last a long, long time. So that I’ll never forget. First I want to think about it, then talk about it, and only then do it.”
“You haven’t said anything yet.”
“But I’m going to now. I’m thinking you’ll be naked soon and that while I’m undressing you, something may rip. I’m thinking that your breasts are small and your legs strong. And I know your belly is flat and hard. And that afterwards we’ll lie next to each other smoking the cigarettes Johnny contrived to get us. And I’m sure we’ll speak softly to each other, even though we could speak quite loudly because we’re all alone. We’ll both be a little uncomfortable. I’ll feel your hair on my lips.”
“Don’t say anything more.”
“No. I’ll go on talking. I’ll talk until we both go mad. I’m thinking of your belly, whether it’s strong and hasn’t been disfigured by Johnny. Maybe it has tiny light scars which I’ll be able to feel with my fingertips. I hope so. Maybe I can kiss them once you stop feeling shy. And soon my shyness will also disappear and you, too, will be able to kiss me. And then we’ll start again, and the whole room, the bed, everything will have your smell. Not mine, but yours. But until I say that one important word, this is all.”
“I have to leave Israel,” she said.
“So leave. Go wherever you like, remember me only as long as it brings you joy.”
“What if afterwards nothing brings me joy?”
“No man should be so conceited as to believe no other man can replace him.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Neither do I.”
“Don’t think about it now,” I went on. “Think what I’ve been telling you. Think of me taking off your dress very, very slowly, and other things. Think only of that.”
“I love you, you know?” she said. “I’m glad I said it first. I really am. Did you hear me? I said it first. Will you remember that?”
Copyright © New Vessel Press 2013. Translation Copyright © New Vessel Press 2013.
The novel from which this excerpt is taken was first published in Polish in 1965 as Drugie zabicie psa. This novel will be published in English in March 2014 by New Vessel Press.
Marek Hlasko, known as the Polish James Dean, made his debut in 1956, at the age of 22. Hlasko was a representative of the first generation to come of age after World War II, known for his brutal, unflinching prose. He left Poland in 1958 and spent the next decade in exile in France, the United States, Israel and others. Hlasko died in 1969 of a fatal mixture of alcohol and sleeping pills Besides Killing the Second Dog, his translated works include the novels All Backs Were Turned, The Graveyard, and a memoir, Beautiful Twentysomethings.