He Looks Like a Philosopher Broda nie czyni filozofa
The widow’s leg jitters beneath the table, the way it does when she’s using the sewing machine. With every bounce and every quake she’s closer to wearing through the sole of her house shoes. They already have cracks and the cracks have splintered so much that she can feel the unevenness of her wood floors on her exposed heals. She’d yell at her children for stretching their shoes this way, but not today. Today it is perfectly alright to wear through the rubber and glue. Above the table she is a vision of doilies and aprons, a humble fixture of the house. She stirs her coffee without the spoon ever touching the cup. She keeps the shivers from her hands, pushing all of them down to her toes. Her ears are sharp for sounds in the kitchen. Two rooms are not enough to hide her children in, not with Basha, the eldest, locked in the bedroom to sleep off the haze she has herself in. The widow had ushered her three youngest girls into the shoebox of a kitchen, not explicitly telling them to stay there but giving them enough chores that it should have been obvious. She worries about the cabinets full to bursting with decades old cookware and prays Beth has enough sense not to shove another lid in there. It’ll sound like thunder when they all come spilling out and she’ll have no way to excuse that. She’ll wait for a lull, she decides, and she’ll excuse herself to the kitchen where she’ll put the fear of God in the three children she still has control over. Her eyes flit to the back door. The lock is turned and the chain she’d put in herself is in place, but she wonders if that is enough. She knows Henryk’s fits and, much like his late father, he’s more bull than man then. She’ll have no excuse for that either if he comes to the door and finds himself barred from entering. For now, she swallows that fear. He’s only been gone a day, and that’s much too early for him to return. She can feel their eyes on her, studying her with all knowing power, waiting for a confession. Her teeth bite into the inner flesh of her cheek as she pulls her lips up into a meek smile. She takes a sip of her coffee and it scalds her tongue and brings tears to her eyes, but still she smiles. Across the table the two men in robes made of material finer than that of her wedding dress float their eyes lazily around the room. The taller and older man has a rigid back and narrow eyes where the shorter, younger man has a tendency to lean forward and widen his eyes to focus. They don’t say a word of distaste but she can feel how they scold her. Surely they’ve noticed that there is no television and have seen the book propped under the couch to keep it level. Or they have felt some other furniture poking at their backs. The walls are too tight and the room has swallowed more functions than it can handle. The woman’s eyes happen upon a doll with button eyes and yarn hair and she presses her heals into the floor to keep from bursting up. How many times did she tell Kate to clean this room? How many times must she say something before it gets through that girl’s ears? One of the Holy Men clears his throat and her attention is immediately upon him. “Mrs. Koneck -” “Kolek” she mentions softly. “- we appreciate you opening your home to us today.” She flushes with the compliment. “It is a very generous thing to do and the Lord smiles upon his generous children.” “Oh yes” she is quick to agree. “Yes, the Lord is merciful.” “Yes” the older Holy Man drawls. Deep wrinkles seem to be pulling his eyes down but his forehead is as tight and strong as any young man’s. He looks at her and she feels twelve years old again. “We have noticed your strong affinity for the Church and your devotion to our Lord.” Is her cross showing, or has it fallen beneath the collar of her dress once again? She hopes and keeps her shoulders soft. It would be sinful to sit too tall or to take too much pride in herself. “You have children, yes?” She pulls air through her teeth as her feet quiver. “I do” she engages cautiously. “And you have been raising them as good disciples of the Church?” Pangs of bitterness threaten to decimate her quiet composure. She is reminded of her two eldest children who she’d taken to Church every Sunday and had taught to deny sin in their lives and who betrayed her even still. They roam the earth like lepers, leaving sores on every life they touch. The woman sinks into her chair, wishing it would give way and the floor would swallow her whole. She can only imagine the way the ladies at church must talk about her. They must think her a floundering mother, bringing up her brood in a cardboard box house. Their houses would be so crisp and pristine for the Holy Men. They would serve little cakes on a tin tray and tea in painted cups from centuries ago. Their children would wear pressed clothes and be at the door with “Hello sir”s and “Welcome sir”s, and they’d have rosy cheeks like cherubs. She lifts her coffee cup back up to her lips and keeps her gaze on a water stain on the table’s surface. The Holy Men take her silence as an answer and their eyes wander again around the room. Their thin orbs of judgement are drawn to a poorly concealed hole in the wall just beside the front door. Their noses twist, retreating from the sight as if poison billows from the cracks in the drywall. “Yes, well, Mrs. Koneck you should consider yourself blessed. You have quite a lot bestowed upon you.” She nods her head, unable to find her voice. “To have such a… house and children to support you. It is the duty of children to take care of their elders, wouldn’t you agree?” Again, a mute nod is given by the widow. The other Holy Man continues. “The Church has not been as fortunate as your family, we are afraid. The economy being the muddled mess it is doesn’t have much to offer a humble establishment. We fear hard times will come to our door soon and we call upon the children of our church for their help.” The sip of coffee the woman had held behind her teeth hits her stomach like a stone. “Yes. Of course” she whispers. There comes such a sudden crash from the kitchen that the widow jumps from her seat. All her muscles become rigid, her teeth grind together, and her lips tremble. The Holy Man with the pinched eyes sets his hands on the table, fingers interlocked as if in prayer. “The Lord never forgets what you do in this life” he says. “The charitable deeds and the faults.” “Will you excuse me for a moment.” She rushes up without making eye contact through the arch separating kitchen from living space. There, her three youngest stand shell-shocked around a clatter of silverware spilled on the tile. “What in God’s name are you doing?” she hisses. Through the thin wall and cabinets she can feel the Holy Men’s eyes on her. “It was Kate” Beth declares, pointing a chubby finger at her sister. “Why was she doing the dishes?” The woman turns her fury on Hanna, the one who should have had the common sense not to put a five year old in charge of loud silverware. Hanna ducks her head down and fiddles with her sleeve. Something ugly bubbles up in the woman’s chest: a demon that viciously tempts her to gather all the silverware in her arms and hurl it at the wall. But the presence of the Holy Men is seared in her consciousness. “Never mind” she says quickly. She’s left the Holy Men alone too long now, long enough for them to think more on the state of her home. “Is the bread done?” Hanna nods and eagerly turns her back on the scene to pull it out of the oven. The little pan makes the widow want to cry. It’s too small; she should have made more. The tiny loaf will be dwarfed even more by the serving plate. “Get it on a plate” she instructs. “A dinner plate. And Beth get me some clean forks and plates.” She brushes past her girls to the pantry. On her knees, she digs through the bottom shelf to find her breadbox now used as a safe kept hidden from her eldest children. The girls know what’s kept in the breadbox but after a second of hesitation they turn back to their chores. Kate, however, cannot seem to tear her eyes from the little box of wonder. Beneath its lid sits the coins and paper bills she’s seen her mom collecting that were promised to her to buy the cherry red wagon she’d seen at the corner store. Kate’s eyes are glued to each bill as they slip one after the other into the pocket of her mom’s dress. “What are you doing?” The widow ignores her daughter and hurries to check on the bread. Her left foot dodges the mess on the tile but her right is attacked by an outlying enemy fork. The four well placed prongs wedge into a crack in the sole of the shoe and bite the unprotected skin. Like a startled alley cat the woman shakes the fork free mid leap and clamps her teeth on her tongue to kill a shout. Her foot throbs but she charges on. It’s been too much time. “What are you doing?” Kate repeats a bit more frantically. “That’s for my wagon.” “No it’s not. Hush” she scolds. “But – but that’s mine. That’s for my wagon. You promised!” The wail of the little girl is piercing – enough to scratch her mom’s nerves and for the Holy Men in the other room to hear. She sucks in inflating breaths, her lungs preparing to pop in a monstrous cry, and the woman whips around, her palm meeting the little girl’s cheek like a viper’s sting. “Enough” she growls. The little girl’s eyes widen to glassy marbles and two pearly tears trail down the five pointed mark. No one breathes. The woman turns away, snatches the bread and utensils form the counter, and hurries back to the two men waiting on the other side of the wall. They calculate her every movement like lions as she sets the bread down and places the crumpled bills on the table. “I hope this will help.” Her voice trembles despite her best effort to keep it reigned in. “The Church very much appreciates your donation” the wide-eyed Holy Man says. He slips the bills from the table into his own pocket and the widow watches in a world of her own. “We are afraid we must be going” the other says. “No” she gasps. “No, won’t you stay?” she clarifies in a more dignified manner. “The bread’s only just come out of the oven. Won’t you have a piece?” They each smile with tight lips. “Thank you for your generosity and for opening your home to us.” The widow stumbles after them with the notion of abandonment circling round and round in her head so fast that the entire apparatus of her mind is viable to break apart. Cogs and gears are already spinning off into oblivion, leaving her clinging to the doorframe. “Don’t leave me here” she begs as they step into a white Cadillac with polished rims. She doesn’t know if the words ever left her lips but the Holy Men are disappearing fast in the pools of streetlight. Minutes or maybe centuries pass. Either way, the widow pulls herself up and slips back into the house, locking the door behind her in case her son decides to come home.
-- Kaileen Beckman is a third year student at Lewis University exploring her passions in literature and computer forensics. As a Chicago suburbanite, she is eager to break away from white picket fences and discover the rest of the world (despite her student loans). She hopes to become a more experienced writer and publish her first novel before graduation.