Contest winner for The Long River Review Graduate Award (2022)
“What would you like to know about yourself?”
This was what my neighbor asked me when I took my seat. He was wearing a black suit and had a thick laptop resting on his thighs. I asked him what he meant.
But he wasn’t talking to me. He was on the phone, alternating between Czech and English, which he spoke with an Australian accent. He spoke Czech too fast for me to understand what he was saying. I felt lost and awkward. The man looked at me sideways and smiled, and went on with his conversation, his tone slightly hushed.
The train to Ostrava was mostly empty. It was a relatively new line, highspeed. I had never been on it before, and perhaps never would be again; it was too expensive for me to pay for on my own. I was only able to take it this time because the school I was working for had offered to pay. The people seated around me were dressed in suits, like my neighbor, and formal-looking raincoats. There were also a few retirees, older couples on vacation.
“Sorry about that.”
I turned to my right. My neighbor was looking at me, smiling. His teeth were straight and white, possibly fake. He laughed and apologized for the confusion. He introduced himself.
“Australian,” he said. “As you could probably tell. Here for business.”
He gestured at his laptop and then at his suit. I told him I had been a tutor in Prague and was on the way to Ostrava for a short stint at a partner school. He nodded, seemed to understand. He said he had taught English here when he was younger.
“After university,” he said. Another toothy smile. “Good times.”
I asked him what he did.
“I’m a management consultant.”
He reached into his breast pocket and handed me a card. He did this with practiced nonchalance. I watched his hand descend into his jacket, watched him feel around the inside of it for a moment, as if he had forgotten where the pocket was, then watched his eyes zone out into the middle distance in front of him as he withdrew his hand from the pocket and produced a card. As he handed it off, his eyes met mine, and a smile shone briefly on his lips. I wondered where he had acquired this particular set of movements. From a movie? From a mentor or superior? They seemed incredibly natural. Too much so to be genuine.
I took the card. It was a company I had heard of. I asked him what he was doing in Ostrava.
“I’ll be visiting an electronics company. It’s a sales call actually. I’m going to convince them that they require our services.”
He did a sort of sarcastic bowing gesture with his arm, and immediately looked embarrassed. I wondered if this was an actual feeling he experienced or if it was another performance. Something to endear himself to me. It was difficult to read.
After he recovered, he spent a few minutes explaining his business to me. What he did, how he did it. He said that his job, essentially, was to visualize and then eliminate inefficiencies that the companies and organizations he worked for were unable to see on their own.
“Admittedly,” he said, “it’s quite brutal, and in a way, quite evil. Companies bring us in just to fire people, basically, and naturally this can be very upsetting. Very emotional in some cases.”
He told me about the phone call he’d had earlier in the trip, before I’d sat down next to him. It was with an executive at the electronics company in Ostrava whom he was scheduled to meet later that day.
“Originally I called him just to soften him up a bit to figure out what he really wanted, because that’s a lot of what the job is too. Everyone wants something. Whether or not they know it. And I have to figure out what people are actually interested in, without asking them directly.”
An attendant came down the aisle, wheeling a small cart. He was selling drinks. I thought about buying a beer but decided against it. The businessman ordered something and set it on the tray table. Ice cubes cracked as vodka emptied into his cup. The conversation paused, and later resumed.
“But this guy,” he said, “as I’m talking to him, he just breaks down in tears. Just in the middle of a sentence starts sobbing, right as I’m asking a question.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, I couldn’t have the conversation I’d wanted to have, could I? I waited for him to stop, but he didn’t stop, nor did he seem intent to, and so I just told him to take care of himself and hung up. In so many words. But it’s like I said. Everyone’s fucked. Just beneath the surface. I think my work tends to bring that out in people. It tends to get beneath things.”
He took a long drink of his vodka, paused, and started talking about the time he’d spent teaching English here after graduation. There was one particular time, he said, when he cracked a tooth on something but wasn’t able to fix it since the school hadn’t given him dental insurance.
“So I just let it be,” he said. “There was nothing else I could do.”
He said he started chewing with the other side of his mouth and was able to avoid thinking about it for several months.
“But then, one day, I saw this old guy, just this old, feeble old man, get bowled over by a truck right in front of me. And when he was on the ground on his side, unable to move I assume, he looked up at me and tried to say something, and I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all because, to be honest, I didn’t speak the language so well at that time, but I remember he didn’t have any teeth and that shocked me pretty bad because I saw myself there, toothless and dying. I thought, ‘Well, this could be me.’ It was horrific. It was a moment of clarity for me, actually. In retrospect. Everything clicked.”
Shortly after that, he said, he went back home and enrolled in business school. He paid to fix his tooth with money from a student loan.
“The point being that whatever’s in there,” he said, “whatever’s bothering you, it’s going to come out. So you have to deal with it.”
It was raining. The whole cabin was dark gray, the color of the clouds. Reading lights shone down from the top of the cabin. Someone was snoring. The train was moving so fast that rainwater didn’t seem to stay on it for very long. It seemed, instead, to pass over it without touching it. It hit the window, and was instantly gone.
In Ostrava, I shared an apartment with two other teachers. One of them was Scottish and quite a bit older. He kept to himself. The other was American. We didn’t have anything in common, but we still hung around with each other, I think because we felt we didn’t have a choice.
On the second day we were there, the principal of the school took us out for coffee individually, all of us at different times. I met him first. It was early afternoon, a Tuesday. We hadn’t started teaching yet. We met his assistant once at the school, and the assistant emailed me an address where I was supposed to meet the director the next day. I showed up early, bought a coffee, and waited at a table in the corner by myself. After a while, a pudgy man in a black sweater walked in. He shook my hand, confirmed who I was, and introduced himself. A waiter came by. He ordered a coffee.
He asked me how the journey was and I said it was good, and started to introduce myself, reciting a few of my qualifications and interests and giving a few general reasons for being here. He didn’t seem interested. The principal was a round, bulging man with a mustache. He felt smaller up close than he did from far away. I had looked him up online before we met. The only information I could find was an entry on Wikipedia for a soccer player of the same name. There was a picture embedded in the article, which I assumed had been him, but now that we had met, I wasn’t so sure. I was deciding whether or not to ask him about this later. I finished speaking. There was a brief silence.
“You know,” he said, “whenever I meet someone like you, an American, it’s the only time I feel like a Czech person. I mean, it’s the only time I feel like I have to act like a Czech person. Do you know what I mean?”
I told him that yes, I thought I did. The only time I ever felt like an American, I said, was when I was not in America.
“Yes, exactly,” he said. “And then, it’s very strange, because I am not behaving like myself exactly. I was thinking, for example, of ordering a beer later, and I was thinking I should get a nice Czech beer, since I’m a nice Czech man, but actually that is not what I like to drink most of the time. I like British beer! Ha! Can you believe it?” He paused. “It’s like, I’m playing a part, you know? It’s like I’m not really myself.”
He told me about a time when he was younger when he had gone off to England to play in a soccer tournament. After his team had won a game, he said, they had all joined together at midfield and sang the Czech national anthem.
“It was ridiculous,” he said. “But it felt right at the time. I think everyone does this. We perform. But in my experience, Americans are even different. Americans are worse. Think, for example, of how often you sing your national anthem. Baseball games, football games. I went to Washington, D.C. last year with my wife, and we saw people in USA shirts and USA flags all over the place. It’s like…Americans are always performing their nationality, in a way that other people are not. It’s very strange.”
I told him that I thought he was right, that this was something I had noticed myself, even though this was totally untrue. I had never thought of that before, but he was completely right. I saw that. I felt that I had been found out. Exposed.
After the coffee was gone, we each had a beer and talked over the basics of the school, the curriculum and the expectations with regard to instruction. After this discussion was complete, he ordered another beer and started to talk aimlessly about his life: where he had grown up, gone to school, what he had done before and after his footballing career.
I gathered that he was alone now, regardless of whatever had happened before. And this was how lonely people were, I thought. As soon as they found someone to talk to, they just kept talking and talking, and lost all awareness of themselves. In a way this was pathetic, but, maybe because of the beer, or because I was alone in a foreign country and somewhat lonely myself, I started to feel close to him, and let him continue.
I ordered another beer. Drank it. Order another. He started to talk about the death of his father and the events that had followed several years ago.
“When he died,” he said, “I was the one to clean out the house. My mother hasn’t seen him since the divorce. My brothers”—he held out both his arms, in exaggerated resignation—“not interested. So it was me.”
But it wasn’t a big job, it turned out, as the house was very clean. He briefly described the process of collecting all the valuables, anything with sentimental or market value, and selling off or gifting whatever he could in order to raise funds for the funeral. But in general, there was very little to do, he said.
“Some people, you know—you have to figure almost everyone—have uncollected junk lying around. You know, something falls under the bed, under the couch. Or, if not junk, then an actual secret. Something you don’t want anyone else to know. But not my father. It was all clean in his house. Incredibly clean. Which had always been the case. There was almost nothing to do except move his things out of the house. It made me slightly proud.”
He paused, took a sip of his beer.
“But then,” he said, “I came to the room in the basement, which was a locked room. Shut with a padlock.”
I watched a waiter take orders from the table next to us, where an older couple was seated. The waiter seemed to mishear them once, and leaned in closer to the old man, so that he was whispering into his ear, as if confessing something. The waiter nodded several times and walked away. I shifted in my chair.
“Did you open it?” I asked.
He shifted his head. “At first, no. I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“I don’t know, to be honest. Nothing specific. But I was afraid. I mean, the rest of the place was so clean, all of it open. But then there was this room, which was closed, and was therefore different. You could imagine that, in fact, this was where everything went. All of the debris, all of the mess that was missing from the rest of the place. You can imagine that all of it lived down there, tucked away. That the locked room, and whatever was inside, somehow created the cleanliness of the house, by keeping everything else hidden.”
“But did you open it eventually?”
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, but only after a few months, when it was time to sell the flat.”
“Lots of stuff,” he said. “Lots. But also, nothing. Nothing of real value, sentimental or otherwise, and in addition, I have to say there was no coherence to any of it, in that there was never very much of one thing. Just clutter. Lots of clutter. Lots of worthless stuff, junk. I drove most of it to the dump the next day.”
He downed the final thimble of beer and looked down at his hands.
“In the end,” he said, “I knew almost nothing about him—how he spent his time, what his dreams were, that kind of thing—and, because of that, a part of me wished I would find something really awful, or unexpected. Something to explain his life. But there was nothing, obviously. Nothing to make sense of, other than what met the eye.”
He trailed off and looked out the window.
It had been raining, but the rain had turned to snow. The courtyard and the stone monument in its center were covered in slush. An old sedan got stuck rounding a corner. The occupants of the car got out and started to push. A soccer game was playing on a small screen in the corner of the room. We watched this for a while and said very little. Around the half, the principal stood up, shook my hand, and walked out into the cold.
I stayed and ordered another beer. I wondered if there was something I could be doing. I decided that there wasn’t and sat and drank some more.
After a while, I paid and walked outside. I took a left onto a side street. I waited at a tram stop for a while, but nothing seemed to be coming, and I was the only one waiting, so I just kept walking in the direction of the apartment. I got there a few minutes later, but the code on the door didn’t work. I kept hitting it but it didn’t go, and then I realized I was at the wrong place. The entrances to all of the apartments were almost indistinguishable from each other, and the snow made it so you couldn’t see very far ahead. I accepted that I was lost. I started to wander.
I heard someone calling out in Czech, but I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. It could have been close by, or very far away. I walked over to a tram stop and waited for something to happen. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know anything. This occurred to me in a very matter of fact way; I didn’t know anything about myself. I stood quite still, slightly drunk. I looked both ways up and down the track, wondering when the next tram was scheduled to arrive, or if it was coming at all.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2022 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the full version of this piece.