We sat at a long table and didn’t take much notice of them, nor of any of the other people in the well-lit bar.
We were just back to Prague after a weekend camping trip in the Brdy mountains, the four of us, and we decided to go out for a drink. I was the only American at the table, and in fact the only American in the bar. Some days, I felt like the only American in Prague. Times were different then. Marek and his girlfriend, Lucie, sat on one side of the table, and I sat across from them with my girlfriend, Jana. The women were closest to the floor, where people milled about, but no one was dancing.
Perhaps it was fatigue, or just the good company, but none of us noticed as the three men approached us. When the one closest to Jana spoke, he was already standing over her. He was tall, about my height, with a head of wavy hair. Another man stood beside Lucie, and the third stood behind his friends.
The one with the wavy hair spoke to Jana in Czech so quickly that I could not make it out, but both women tensed, and Marek turned in his chair. In English, I asked Jana, “What did he say?”
She didn’t answer, but the man with wavy hair spoke again, more quickly this time; he seemed angry, and I clearly heard him mention “an American.” Jana again said nothing, and sat very still.
When the man with wavy hair spoke once more, he had said perhaps three words before Lucie threw the contents of her drink at him. He began to shout, and Marek and I were on our feet. Perhaps it had been what they were after all along.
The one with wavy hair was mine, but Jana was still seated between us, and the next table was so close it was not easy to get around her. As I worked my way by, I could no longer see Marek, but all three men lined up as if to fight me. Wavy hair was first.
I’d had a fair amount of training and experience, but I also entered every fight cautiously. Size was rarely as important as how angry the other fellow was, and in this case, he was my size, and clearly angry. Just as he pushed my shoulder in that weird, sort-of precursory dance people sometimes do before a fight, Marek appeared from my right, and he was in the air. He tackled the two men behind my wavy-haired opponent, and the three of them landed on the end of the next table, which promptly collapsed, with the arm of the third man beneath it. He howled, and suddenly the fight was two against two.
Still, we were in Prague, not some honky-tonk in San Angelo. As an American, getting picked up by the Czech police for a drunken bar brawl was not especially appealing. What I really wanted was, first, to move the fight farther from Jana and Lucie, and second, to get the four of us out of there.
Pushing with both hands, I moved wavy-hair back two or three steps. As I stepped forward to follow, he did not throw the punch I expected. Instead, he kicked me in the hip with some sort of hiking boot. It didn’t really hurt, and it told me quite a bit about with whom I was fighting.
He came in again, and this time his boot caught me in the ribs. This kick did hurt, but it was so clumsy, and odd. He then threw a punch I easily ducked. At that point, he looked less angry, and maybe concerned. Unfortunately, at that moment, the bartender decided to help.
The overhead fluorescent lights went out. It was pitch black, with not the tiniest scrap of light.
A boot landed again on my ribs. Backing up two steps, I called out to Jana, and in Czech, I said, “Tell him to turn the lights back on!”
In English, she responded, “The bartender thinks they have knives!”
“This won’t help!” I said, and took three quick steps to my left.
The lights came on just then, and I was to wavy hair’s right; he was facing away from me. Stepping forward, I wrapped my arm around his neck, threw both of my feet into the air, and sat on the floor hard, dragging him with me. Holding him with my left arm, I could have punched him in the face with my right as often as I would’ve liked, but I didn’t. Instead, strangely, in a firm voice I demanded, “Rozumiš? Rozumiš?”
I was asking him again and again if he understood, but understood what? That I could have hurt him? That he couldn’t win? I honestly didn’t know. He could’ve punched me in the back, but he really didn’t even struggle. I was confused. Why pick a fight, and then not really fight? I’d suffered as much injury playing pick-up football with friends.
Releasing him, I sprang to my feet. Marek had his guy pinned to the floor, arm twisted behind his back, and then he let his opponent go, too. Looking around, I couldn’t see Jana.
“She went to get the car!” Lucie said.
What happened next was also strange, because I expected that they would have had enough. Instead, the two men, along with perhaps six of their friends, including women, began walking toward us. The three of us backed our way to the door, and out onto a landing. We were three stories up, and the stairwell was an exterior one, made of concrete.
The shoving began again, two against two, but with a crowd behind them, and only Lucie behind us, it was difficult to know if the odds would suddenly change. As we slowly walked down the stairs, Marek shouted to Lucie to run, and go to the car. She promptly did.
There were a couple of pushes, another kick of the boot, but nothing said. Just an eerie quiet, slow motion pursuit down the stairs. There were no punches thrown by anyone until I found myself momentarily cornered on a landing. Given no alternative, I threw a series of quick punches, two to his abdomen and then one half-hearted punch to his face, and he quickly backed off. And still, no one said anything.
Once we reached the parking lot, Jana appeared, driving the getaway Citroën hatchback, with Lucie already in the backseat. Marek and I climbed in, and once the doors closed, the wavy-haired one had an apparent surge of courage. He ran forward and flung himself onto the hood of Jana’s car. Without hesitating, she put the car in reverse, accelerated, and flung our most motivated pursuer from her hood with a sharp turn of her wheel.
As we drove through the streets of Prague, and back to the apartment, there was no laughter, and no celebrating the adventure. We just sat quietly, watching the pavement give way to cobblestones illuminated by the orange light, and back again.
The next morning, lying in bed, I could hear voices.
The bedroom was separated from the kitchen by a light sliding door. I could hear her mother and grandmother as they sat at the table and talked. They sounded close enough to be sitting on the foot of the bed.
It was the grandmother’s flat, and the grandmother’s voice. “Chuligáni.”
I hadn’t known the Czech word for hooligan was chuligán. I mean, although their entire conversation was in Czech, who even says hooligan in English anymore? Still, I recognized it from sound and context. They were using other words too, like gangsteři.
It had taken me a year, studying Czech at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, to acquire the language. At the time, the United States Army needed combat intelligence soldiers like me to learn Czech, because these people had been the enemy. After the Velvet Revolution, when Communism collapsed, I quickly fell in love with one of them, whom I met when she stepped off a tourist bus at a rest stop near Nuremberg, Germany.
Peeking beneath thin sheets that were not nearly as soft as her skin, I could see a bluish-grey patch on my right side, and my ribs hurt. My other arm rested against the small of her back, and she stirred beside me at the cool air I was letting in. Glancing first at the curve of her hip, I lowered the covers.
The grandmother’s storytelling was as colorful as my injuries; she paused briefly to choke on years of smoking. I lay there listening to her explain how Marek and I, in order to defend the honor of our girlfriends, had taken on a hoard of hooligans in a seedy pub.
I could only assume that, after my drunken and bruised body was in bed last night, Jana had spoken to her grandmother about the incident, since the story being spun had, at its core, a kernel that seemed at least somewhat familiar.
There was the sound of an egg hitting a hot pan, and then another.
“Well, he is trained to fight, isn’t he?” her mother asked. She lived north of the city, in the mountains, and had long -wanted to bring the grandmother to live with her, but it was too far from the medical care the older woman needed.
“But so many gangsters,” the grandmother replied.
Sitting up, I extricated myself from the bedding, and went to the window. Across the parking lot, across Cholupická Street, I could see a field of sorts with boys playing football. It seemed the field was covered in ash, with black eruptions at each footfall.
The bedroom, like the entire apartment, was small by American standards, but for an elderly lady in 1990, living in Prague, it was nice enough. Two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen with a table, and a bath was not bad at a time when people waited on a government list for the next apartment to open up.
The sound of the eggs flipping came just before the grandmother asked, “How long will they stay, do you think?” She sounded surprisingly hopeful. It had only been days before when she had lamented the recent withdrawal of Soviet troops, and insisted things had been better before their forces and political system had gone.
Her mother replied with, “I bought him a book. It is in French.”
“Does he speak French?” the grandmother asked.
“I hope he reads French,” the mother said.
“I have not heard him speak French. His Czech is cute,” the grandmother said.
Watching the boys play, I saw a shot fly well over the crossbar of the goal, and the ball fell to earth before the black dust did. In bed behind me, she sighed at waking up.
I walked over as she opened her eyes, blinked, and pushed herself up to one elbow. The sheet fell revealing one small breast. “Your side,” she said, in Czech. She and I spoke a mixture of Czech and English. She could speak Russian as well.
“I am good,” I said.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Your grandmother is making eggs. She is also telling stories of chuligáni, Jana.”
Her legs swung slowly off the bed, and the rest of the sheet fell away. With a slight smile, she said, “She is old and bored.”
“Not this morning, she isn’t,” I said.
She stood, stepped to me, gently kissed my ribs, and then placed her head on my chest. “Are you angry?” she asked.
The story was scarcely about me, why would I be upset? Wrapping my arms around her bare back, I said, “Your mother bought me a book.”
“About guns,” she said.
“In French,” I said.
“Not French guns?” she asked, and I could feel her smile against my chest.
Laughing, I said, “I have no idea.”
The word “gangsteři” drifted through the door once more, and I felt her stiffen.
“Gangsters?” she asked in English.
“And hooligans,” I said.
The sliding door suddenly opened, with her grandmother framed in it. We two stood in naked embrace and in full view for a second before her grandmother cried out and slammed the door shut.
“What is it?” her mother asked.
“Sorry, excuse me,” her grandmother called through the door.
“It is no problem,” Jana called back to her grandmother, and we began to chuckle.
Her grandmother next spoke to her mother, and said, “His ribs are bruised. Damn hooligans.”
“He was undressed?” her mother whispered.
Her grandmother shushed her.
Pulling on my jeans from the night before, I watched Jana pick up my t-shirt and pull it over her head, the long honey-and-sienna hair emerging from the collar. Shirtless and sockless, I walked into the kitchen. Her mother gasped at what the gangsters had done to me.
“I made you eggs,” her grandmother announced, without looking directly at me; perhaps she had seen too much already.
“Thank you,” I said, and accepted the plate she handed backward. Smiling at Jana’s mother, I joined her at the table. As I took my first bite, she placed the book in front of me.
“I bought this for you,” she said. Grinning broadly, I swallowed my eggs, and lifted the book. An illustrated volume, written in French, on ancient weapons. It was a lovely gift, and I was honestly pleased. Rising, I kissed her on the cheek, and she placed a hand on my bruised ribs. I flinched.
“I am very sorry,” she said.
“No problem,” I said, smiling again.
“You do read French?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” I said. “I love the book. Thank you.”
Her mother smiled, looking very satisfied. Jana walked into the room in my t-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts I’d never seen her wear. Then, padding in bare feet, she rubbed her head. Hair fell to the middle of her back and covered most of her face. She glanced at the stove where there was no additional breakfast. Walking toward me, she took my fork and stole two bites. She sat in my lap and stole a third bite. Laughing, I took the fork back.
Turning away, her grandmother walked into the bathroom, and shut the door. Her mother hissed at her to get off me; it made me wonder if the grandmother had left the room because Jana had sat in my lap.
Jana didn’t get up, and only looked at her mother, tilting her head.
“Your mother bought me a book,” I said.
“Written in gibberish?” she teased, looking at the cover.
Smiling, I fed her another bite of the eggs. Her mother was staring at my side.
“I am good,” I said.
As I stabbed the last bite, Jana shifted in my lap, and stared at the eggs, pushed out a pouty lip, and then looked at me. Looking back into her eyes, I placed the eggs in my own mouth.
Jana laughed, slapped my bare chest, and said, “Chuligán!” She stood and walked back into the bedroom, fluffing her hair with both hands. I sat with bruised ribs and a pink handprint on my breastbone. Her mother clucked her tongue.
I carried the plate to the sink, and said my thanks for the eggs through the bathroom door. Hearing no response, lifting the book, and touching her mother’s arm as I passed, I returned to the bedroom. Jana was dressing.
“Do you want to go to the island today?” she asked.
I hummed my agreement at the suggestion.
Dressed, I left the book on my bag, and followed Jana into the kitchen. As I passed the bathroom, her grandmother suddenly emerged and surprised me with a warm embrace. I hugged her in return, until she released me.
“We will be back soon,” I said.
The old woman nodded. Jana took my hand and dragged me out of the flat.
* * * *
We stopped into a small shop where we bought champagne and plastic cups, and then caught the next streetcar, carrying these without a bag, to our final stop. With my hand wrapped around the smooth neck of the bottle, she held the cups, and we just grinned as other passengers stared at us.
On foot, we crossed a stone bridge down to a grassy bit of land in the middle of the Vltava River, called Střelecký ostrov, or literally, Shooting Island. It was an idyllic spot, and more romantically known in English as Archers’ Island.
There was a narrow strip of beach around its perimeter and tall trees shaded most of it. We walked the length of the island, found a spot near the water, and sat in the tall grass. It was already getting warm.
“My mother is fond of you,” she said as I opened the bottle. She held the cups.
I said. “It’s not very cold.”
Once we each had one, we clicked the cups together, and looked across the water to orange-plastered buildings rising on the far bank. A boat passed slowly.
“I love Prague,” I said, and the air was thick with what wasn’t being said.
Lying back on one elbow, I took a deep breath. She turned and laid her head on my abdomen. Wincing at my rib pain, I did my best not to flinch. Each day, as my departure grew nearer, it was more and more difficult to talk without discussing my leaving. Two nights before, while making love, we both sobbed at what we were losing.
Her perfume was light; just a touch of a fragrance called Red by Giorgio. It would always be the scent of Jana. Whenever the breeze shifted to the west just a bit, I would catch it.
We sipped the champagne. She took a deep breath as if to say something, but then did not. Some distance downstream, a couple giggled, engaged in building their own set of memories, but perhaps not quite so consciously.
“Can you just stay?” Jana suddenly asked.
“Rozkazy. I have orders,” I said softly.
“I could get in a lot of trouble. Perhaps even jail,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said. “They would not come to Prague to put you in jail.”
It was very tempting, to simply stay. Just live at the flat with Jana and let the old woman make me an egg each morning.
“You could work for my cousin, Filip. You could manage large shipping trucks going to and returning from Italy and Switzerland. I spoke to him. You would organize their destinations and loads and …”
“Jana. I cannot,” I said. “Just as you cannot come with me.”
She sat up. “If I do not stay, a sick woman I love will be left alone. If you do not go, they will have one less soldier. Who will be missed more? Stay with us.” Her eyes were pleading. She was breaking the unspoken agreement; already violated, it seemed she would maximize this one transgression, this one attempt. “If you love me, then you must stay.”
Another passing boat headed upstream; its progress in relation to the bank was meager, but it was impressive relative to the water.
“I want to stay,” I said. In the larger scheme of things, the U.S. Army certainly could have spared me, but I was in the intelligence field, trained at great expense, with a Top Secret security clearance. The army could manage without me, but it was not as if my disappearance would go unnoticed. Almost certainly, I’d be charged with desertion, and even if not arrested in Prague, I would never be able to return to the States.
Looking upstream at the larger bridge, one of the many that crossed the river, I could see tourists listening to musicians dressed in 18th century costumes. The breeze carried her scent once more and the leaves made a sound like wings taking flight. The boat’s motor thrummed low as it progressed.
Placing her head once more on my bruised ribs, she took my free hand. We took sips of champagne, and lay there as the grass warmed around us, with the shade slowing the process but not preventing it.
“I am pregnant,” she said suddenly.
“You are not,” I said.
“You do not know if I am or not,” she said. Geese, some white and some not, approached us warily, and then skirted around us, moving on to the next couple.
Looking at my empty cup, I said, “You are not.”
“I might have been,” she replied.
Putting my cup aside, I upended the bottle, drinking the last of the champagne. She frowned.
“I bought you something,” I said, and pulled a small box from my pocket. She sat up, opened it, and pulled out a short necklace with a tiny crucifix. Her eyelids fluttered. She had been raised immersed in Communism; she had never had a crucifix. She had never had a god; I had one in case of emergencies. Handing it to me, she turned her back, and I hung it around her slender neck. She did not thank me, but leaned back and rested on me once more.
“We should go back,” I said, and she nodded.
* * * *
Her grandmother began making sandwiches the moment we stepped into the flat. Jana went to the bathroom and I sat at the small table. The old woman said nothing to me. She wasn’t being rude; she was busy. Jana came out and sat across from me, leaving the head of the table open.
“Where is mama?” Jana asked.
Her grandmother only shrugged. We three stayed quiet until her grandmother brought three sandwiches to the table. Turkey layered with thin apple slices and lettuce. She sat with us, noticed the crucifix, and she reached out and rubbed her thumb across it.
“It is beautiful,” she said.
We each lifted our sandwiches and took a bite. The apple was incredibly sweet. With her mouth full, the grandmother asked, “Do you know any prayers?”
Chewing, I nodded.
She swallowed and then asked, “Do you know this one? ‘Otče náš, jenž jsi na nebesích, posvěť se jméno tvé, přijď království tvé, buď vůle tvá jako v nebi, tak i na zemi.’”
Grinning in spite of myself, I recognized the melody was even the same. So quickly as to be irreverent, I recited the same prayer, speaking the only purely-English sentences I had in some days, “Our Father, who art in Heaven . . . .” By the time I had finished, her grandmother was in tears.
“Why is she crying?” I asked, reverting to Czech.
Jana said softly, “She has never heard someone our age recite that prayer. In any language.”
It seemed to me that Communism had, after all, taken something from the old woman. She put her hand upon one of mine; her tear-streaked smile was broad and she said, “Wonderful. Wonderful.”
Jana stared at me. Her grandmother, still smiling, turned to Jana and said, “It is wonderful that you two have come together. You will have many happy years together. You will make my last years happy.” She patted my hand.
My eyes were locked with Jana’s.
“Very happy,” her grandmother said, and lifted her sandwich for another great bite. Jana looked away, out at the black-ash football field, now vacant. I thought of the French volume on ancient guns.
“We just need to keep you away from the chuligáni,” her grandmother said, her mouth full.