Authors: Carolyn Marsden
Using my knuckles, I tap the pole.
The street sign jiggles.
The guy will be tall, a beanpole like you, Patrik.
Overhead, the Communist banners flap their hammers and sickles in the breeze. The clock in the square says three minutes before noon. Three minutes left.
I look around. But casually. Not like it’s any big deal. Not like I’m waiting for anyone.
The clock hand moves. Two minutes left. Small clouds run across the sky.
The others lean against the wall. Emil, his sandy hair cowlicked along the forehead; Karel, with his little, awkward shape; and Danika, who’s wearing the bell-bottom pants she had to sew herself. Above them, the Czech and Russian flags fly side by side, bright against the gray buildings.
I, the tallest, was chosen.
This could turn bad. A person’s doing a deal and a cop arrives instead. Or the other guy is really a cop. And thirteen-year-olds who make black-market deals? I don’t want to know.
I think of Adam Uherco, just a little older than us. Look at what happened to him. But, surely, buying off the black market isn’t as bad as becoming a full-blown counterrevolutionary.
I hope not, anyway.
A woman wearing a flowery hat passes. Not her. An old man struggles along with a cane. Not him, either. Five soldiers prance by, chatting and laughing. Definitely not them.
Maybe it’s no one. No one is coming.
Emil’s cousin lied.
Then a guy weaves in close. Tall, like Emil’s cousin said. In a black leather jacket and black cap. Zero minutes. Our eyes meet.
He swerves, knocks into my shoulder. Says nothing. I hand him the bills. He thrusts over a thin brown package.
Done. He’s gone. Mingling in. We never met.
I wait by the pole, my hand sweating onto the wrapping paper.
After the clock hand moves twice more, I stroll over to the others.
“Make sure he gave you the right thing,” says Emil. “Make sure you haven’t been duped by a piece of cardboard. Make sure we didn’t give over our allowances for nothing.”
“Not here. We can’t open it here. What if someone sees?”
Danika is leaning down, tugging on her bell-bottoms. As if she had nothing to do with this. As if she doesn’t want this thing just as much as we do.
Karel whistles softly.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say.
Riding back on the bus, Danika refuses to sit with us. She sits up front, close to the driver. She’s right to be freaked. What if a cop gets on? Could we make it out the back door? I will be the main one caught.
I feel through the wrapping paper. I find the hole, large enough for my thumb.
When we get to Emil’s building, I’m not sure Danika will stick with us. But she does, mounting step after step. We’re all a little breathless at the top.
Thankfully, Emil’s parents are off working at their steel-mill jobs, and the place is wide-open free to us. His room smells like dirty laundry mixed with the smoke of the cigarettes he sneaks, but I’ll get used to it.
“Now, give it to me,” says Emil, reaching out. “After all, it was my cousin who arranged this.”
We gather close and he peels off the brown paper. Inside, oh, yes, there’s a record jacket with the Beatles’ faces. Staring at us in black-and-white. And inside that, the shiny black disc.
“Hurray!” says Danika, giving one little clap. “Put it on, Emil. Let’s listen.”
Emil pops a plastic circle into the center hole so the single will fit the spindle. He flips the switch on the record player, and the light glows green. He turns the volume high.
The sound explodes out.
Of course we’ve heard this song before. Mostly on the radio, on the forbidden broadcast of the Voice of America. But now it’s all ours. Here in Emil’s room, we finally have it.
At the end of the song, the needle lifts itself up, moves back, then touches down again.
We lie on Emil’s bed, listening and listening. The music is red and juicy with possibilities. It penetrates me everywhere. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . .
Pretty soon, a
comes from underneath us.
“Damn,” says Emil, lifting the needle. “It’s Mrs. Zeman. She’s beating her ceiling with a broomstick. Warning us to shut up.”
We grow silent.
It’s bad enough for this neighbor to complain about our noise. Much worse if she complains about our forbidden Western music. Black-market music.
“Couldn’t we just listen quietly?” Danika asks.
Emil shakes his head. “Can’t risk it.”
Our fun is over.
Leaning up on one elbow, I page through a comic about Janosik. Janosik the legendary Slovak hero who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.
“You’re way too old to be reading that,” Danika says, lying back, teasing.
“Come on, Danika. How about the way Janosik defended the downtrodden?” Emil asks.
“And we’re the downtrodden,” I chip in. “We had to break the law just to get music.”
“I didn’t say that
was babyish, only the comic.”
“How can you not like this?” I open to a page, hold it up. “Janosik was resistant to arrows because of an herb he carried in his pocket. See — right here, the green flakes. He could move from place to place quicker than anyone else.
And when he pressed his palm against a slab of stone, his hand left an impression.”
“Mmm,” Danika says.
The artist didn’t do a great job of drawing the hand in the stone. In the margin, I sketch my own version.
“Hey!” Emil protests. “Don’t vandalize my stuff!”
“You have to admit mine is better.”
“A little,” he says. Then he stares down at the floor, saying, “Damn Mrs. Zeman. She’s probably phoning up some stupid party member right now. Saying that juvenile delinquents live upstairs from her.”
“Even worse than juvenile delinquents,” says Danika. “Counterrevolutionaries.”
Karel raises a fist. Then he holds up the cover of the single, the Beatles’ four faces staring back at us. “Wish I could at least have a copy of this.”
I take up my East German EXA, which goes with me everywhere, and snap a photo. “I’ll print this shot, and we can all have a copy.”
“Better than nothing,” says Karel.
With that, Emil slaps a whole stack of Janosik comics onto the bed. Each of us picks one, and even Danika starts reading about the adventures of the ancient Slovak hero.
In the shed out back of our apartment building, Danika and I search the shelves with a flashlight. The beam flicks. Here. There. But not on what we want. Old rags, old newspapers, garden tools. “Here we go,” I whisper as the beam lands on a bucket of paintbrushes. I pick one out.
“And here,” Danika says, guiding my wrist, aiming the light on the pots of paint.
I reach for the white.
“Oh, no,” she says. “Green would look much worse.”
“Yes, green. Too bad there’s no pink. . . .” I hold open a paper bag, and Danika plunks in the brush and paint.
We head out of the shed, through the parking lot, lit with its pale, down-focused lights.
I clutch the bag to my chest, to where my heart is drumming. I’m like Janosik steeling himself for a raid. Janosik preparing to steal from the rich for the sake of the downtrodden. And Danika . . . Danika is . . . I can’t think of whom to compare her to. Janosik had a sweetheart. At the thought of that word, my heart’s steady drumming falters.
Danika and I have always been friends. As kids, we played Gypsies with a painted box. Danika wore her mother’s skirts, Gypsy-long on her. We used brooms for horses. When the real Gypsy caravans came into our neighborhood, we spied on them. They threw back their heads and laughed, their gold teeth glinting in the light from their campfires. Their huge hoop earrings glinted.
one of us would whisper, and I shuddered at the thrill. Late into the night, I heard their wild music, music that didn’t care who was in bed wanting to sleep. I knew the Gypsies were dancing, so lost in happiness that they forgot they lived in a gloomy Communist state.
Though Danika and I don’t play Gypsy games anymore, we’re still good friends. Just that. Not sweethearts.
Tonight we walk in and out of pools of light, under the looming trees. There are not a lot of ways we can strike back at all that pens us in. Things like Mrs. Zeman pounding on her ceiling. There’s only little, stupid stuff.