Current Occupation: Assistant Professor, Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA
Former Occupation: Professor, English and Humanities, Peirce College, Philadelphia, PA; freelance writer and editor
Contact Information: Graduated Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, M.A. (1976). My work has appeared in North American Review, Nine, Boston Review, Studies in Short Fiction, South Carolina Review, Benzene, Aethlon, and other publications. Author of four books on sports writing as literature, including The Writers' Game: Baseball Writing in America (Twayne's American Authors Series, 1996). Resides in Elkins Park, PA.
As Wvécéw walked down the Bréstovia, he passed under a painter’s lift, from which tiny flecks of enamel (the painter was chipping at a sill with a putty knife) came raining down on him. One jig-saw piece, identical in size and shape to the province of Flvoda on a map, landed squarely on his coat jacket, just over the ridge of his hunched shoulders. Earlier that morning, on his way out of the barber shop— Wvécéw was now headed to the café for breakfast—he grazed the protective cloth of the customer seated next to him (“Damn fool,” the customer said) and collected a clump of curly gray hair, like the tail of a toy poodle, on his elbow.
Lukáš Wvécéw, a stocky character with a slightly receding chin, Franz Josef mustache, and soulful eyes, was always in the habit of collecting bits and pieces of the most extraordinary things on his person. And even more extraordinary was the fact that he remained utterly oblivious to the many things that constantly fell upon him. This peccadillo had been true of him since his childhood days. One day during recess sycamore swirled through the air during the change of season (we children used to make a game of it, trying to catch the little balls of pollen) attacking the little Wvécéw boy in myriad clumps, covering him from his thick black hair (which he no longer has) to his little feet (which he still does) which were clad in sandals which boats brought in every summer from Mykonos. “Look, look, a monster,” children would scream, though everyone, except the very youngest, knew it was Wvécéw. Wvécéw (the odd name was pronounced vayt-say, the extraneous w’s just another bit of debris attached to him) was sent home immediately by the headmaster, who grabbed the boy by an ear, if he could find one, and shoved him in the direction of his little house on the dirt path. Wvécéw walked blindly, his arms extended like the frightening creature we had seen in the picture show. Looking more like a walking bird, he even made cooing sounds, expectorating pieces of seed that had lodged in his throat.
“Oh, Lukáš,” his mother said when she saw the pitiful child. “The things that stick to you!” His father, a loafer and lout, who never worked a day in his life, grumbled loudly as his wife prepared a hot soap bath for Wvécéw to soak in. “If there is a cake that needs an elbow lodged into its icing, that idiot boy will oblige it!”
A day did not go by without Wvécéw attracting things like a magnet. He was discharged from the army because he could not keep his uniform in order. At his mother’s funeral the mourners sniggered when a clump of grass intended for the casket blew on top of his head like a skullcap. "Earth to earth to Wvécéw, ashes to ashes to Wvécéw, dust to dust to Wvécéw," the priest muttered.
None of this would be terribly interesting if Wvécéw had the slightest idea what everyone was laughing at. “Oh, how all kinds of shit stick to that boy,” his father bemoaned, “smelling my house like a zoo…and to him…not a thing! It was no different than farting. ‘What’s all the fuss?’ he would say. ‘What smell?’ And I would go to pinch the damn nose on his face before that wife of mine would stop me.”
If he ever happened to notice a foreign object on his clothing, usually when he was undressing for the night, he’d remark, “Now how did that get there?” He’d pick it off himself without even bothering to see what it was, and drop it into his wastebasket. Many times he would remove six or seven things from his clothes, as if he were lifting items out of a grocery bag and putting them on the shelf. But many times also Wvécéw was not aware at all of what stuck to him, and he carried things with him for weeks, whether it was on his brown suit or blue suit, for he had only two.
Wvécéw was a bachelor, and this was unfortunate because he once met a woman whose sole devotion in life was to pick the debris off strangers. Her name was Šárka, and she would follow gentlemen (only) for blocks, carrying a large handbag with an umbrella slid through the handles. “Stop, stop, young man,” she would call, and the man, whether he was young or not, would stop in his tracks, perhaps thinking he had dropped something which this kind lady was returning, and she would commence to pick a piece of lint or long thread from the gentleman’s suit. “What are you doing, madam?” or “Stop this, please, miss,” most would say to her; others grew quite embarrassed and fumbled for words but let Šárka finish what she was doing, say something like, “Uh, thank you, but, uh, that really wasn’t necessary,” and maybe give her a crown, which she graciously accepted.
Šárka was continually after Wvécéw, but she wasn’t aware of him herself; that is, she did not discriminate among men. He could have been five different Wvécéws for all she knew. She seemed to us a more delightfully eccentric character than Wvécéw, but a few of the women got it into their heads to try to arrange a marriage between Wvécéw and Šárka. So when Wvécéw walked under that painter’s lift, you might remember, Šárka appeared out of nowhere to remove a long strand of gray hair (her own as it turned out!), looking like the Sovsk River on that same map on Wvécéw’s back, from another gentleman’s waistcoat. Before the tiny, humble man could even say thank you, Šárka darted quickly after Wvécéw, who walked past store windows, his head bent towards the pavement, where he was engaged in digging his right toe into the spaces between the cobblestones. Immediately, as he approached the café, Wvécéw received a large splattering of mud on his topcoat from a passing automobile (the few of which, we came to believe, existed in our town for the sole purpose of covering Wvécéw with whatever their wheels could project from the street). But Šárka could not do anything about it because women were not permitted in the café until supper.
A light blue feather from a lady’s hat caught on the back of Wvécéw’s leg as he walked through the revolving doors and stayed fixed to his leg as he took a seat. Odpadky, a co-worker of Wvécéw’s, though a lesser employee, joined him at his table. Wvécéw was having black coffee and laugenstrange while Odpadky ate a sugar doughnut and tea. “You fringe employees are always stuffing yourselves with sweets. A man with a sweet tooth will never amount to anything in this world,” Wvécéw said. “A successful man, such as me, begins his day with a healthful breakfast,” he continued, crumbs spewing from his mouth like little bugs onto his long, thin (newly trimmed) sideburns. “After this, before I head to the office, I will have a bowl of stewed prunes.”
“Bah,” said Odpadky. “I like sweet things. Especially the ladies.” He spoke in a booming voice and winked as he said this. “So, Wvécéw, is there a chance you will recommend me for assistant supervisor?” This Odpadky showed no tact. He shadowed Wvécéw constantly, walking into his cubicle and asking for favors of one kind or another, such as pleading to Wvécéw to cover for him while he left the office to do god knows what. He never failed to ask about the “recommendation,” which he said Wvécéw had promised to do, though he had done no such thing. To recommend Odpadky for a better position would be unthinkable. For one thing it would put Odpadky in a position to rise higher than Wvécéw could himself in the department. Wvécéw would not even recommend Odpadky for the file clerk he already was. Odpadky was a dunderhead, fouling things up, which Wvécéw had to rectify. If Odpadky was not simply incompetent, which he certainly was, he was clearly apathetic and lazy. But no one in the department acknowledged this. In fact, Odpadky was liked by everyone; but he was not promoted and would complain to Wvécéw daily: “If I hadn’t already put years into this department, I’d asked to be moved to another, but damn them all to hell, they owe me, and I shall have it!”
Odpadky was also a pig. He ate two more jelly doughnuts and did not bother to wipe the white powdered sugar or red jelly around his mouth until he was good and finished; he might as well as eaten with a circus clown. Wvécéw left the cafe disgusted, his own food unfinished, with traces of Odpadky’s sugar powder on his own coat sleeves. “This Odpadky clings to me like a limpet on a rock. How I wish I could rid myself of him!”
On his way to work, Wvécéw received his daily delivery of bird droppings. It was as if the pigeons waited for him to arrive: “Oh, here comes Vwécwé. Time to relieve ourselves, thank goodness!” In warm weather, when Wvécéw did not wear a hat, the pigeons were no less respectful. Wvécéw had no idea what hit him. Passersby would laugh, and he would look up at the sky and say, “Now I wonder what all this is about?”
Trying to avoid Odpadky, Wvécéw decided to walk down Sromořadí Špína. Šárka must not have forgotten about him because she stopped what she was doing (brushing sawdust from a young boy’s pants) and followed Wvécéw. The way of darkness set in over that foreboding place and the air was as thick as nimbus clouds. We dared not follow them and cannot say what transpired on that quarter mile.
We can say with some assurance that Šárka never caught up with Wvécéw because he was still covered with all the things he had accumulated that morning, as well as fur balls from the stray cats and dust from the coal bins he would have encountered in Sromořadí Špína, and that is how he looked when he arrived at work. But here’s the strange thing: we never saw Šárka again, although a few people claim that they spied her coming in and out of Sromořadí Špína, like a mouse going in and out of a mousehole.
Wvécéw went immediately to his desk and began the paperwork which he had laid out neatly the day before and which would take him the rest of the day to process. “One day we work for a good-hearted Jew named Ŝtěrk, and the next day we are civil servants, then we are working for the military, and now we are in the employment of the party under Trosky,” said a worker named Brak. “You go figure it out,” said Nosítka, the liaison official. “Well, things work out for the best,” said Lenka Nesmysl, the switchboard operator.
Pencil shavings and eraser rubbings found their way onto Wvécéw throughout the early morning, and a whole used typewriter ribbon wound itself around his ankle. Wvécéw’s coworkers kept silent, waiting to see if and when he would ever discover his little ankle bracelet. Klestí, the senior clerk, took up an office pool as to the approximate time of day when Wvécéw would utter his familiar, “Now how in the world did that get there!”
The only thing Wvécéw did discover just before midday lunch break was that Odpadky, that nuisance, was nowhere to be found. Absenteeism was unthinkable at the department, or anywhere else, let alone for someone who wanted to become assistant clerk. Wvécéw knew Odpadky wasn’t ill, unless he’d developed a bellyache from all those lardy doughnuts. Out of curiosity and perhaps a bit of vindictiveness, Wvécéw decided to investigate. Besides keeping Odpadky from annoying him further about a recommendation, this might be a good opportunity to get in good with Trosky by reporting a malingerer. As public information disseminator, he had finished his main task that day: explaining the various changes in job requirements in the department since Trosky replaced General Šmejd. He could not remember what he had even written, but he recalled that it had been rather well put and he was quite pleased with the product.
Trosky was a tall, thin man of about thirty, clean-shaven, with yellow curly hair. He was seated at his desk, talking on the telephone, saying things like, “So, you don’t say” and “Well, really now” and “Of course, that stands to reason.” These phrases belonged to Trosky the way debris belonged to Wvécéw. When Trosky hanged up the phone, he turned to Wvécéw and said, “Well, what’s it going to be then, old man? Have you finished the product?”
“Indeed, sir,” said Wvécéw deferentially, “I was merely wondering what became of Mr. Odpadky. I wish for him to file those backdated releases you asked me about the other day, and, well…sir, I cannot find him anywhere in the office.”
“What? Have you gone mad, Wvécéw? He’s right behind you, can’t you see! Try looking over your shoulder once in awhile.”
Sure enough, when Wvécéw turned his head Odpadky was (literally) on his back, his nose buried in Wvécéw’s collar.
“Don’t look so surprised,” said Odpadky.
“Well, now that you’ve found him,” said Trosky, perturbed, “go on then and put him to work.”
Wvécéw felt completely humiliated. He offered some obsequies towards Trosky and bowed his head, feeling Odpadky’s wet nostrils bob on the nape of his neck. “Ouch, not so hard,” said Odpadky.
Odd how he got there, thought Wvécéw as he returned to his station. When he sat in his chair, a wooden slat-back thing that wobbled on one leg, Odpadky said, “Hey, be careful, will you. I didn’t ask for this, but when I went after you in Sromořadí Špína. I came out in this position I find myself in. Well, no big deal. Things are always getting stuck to you anyway. And here I was, taking a comfortable snooze under your jacket when you had to get up to see that parasite Trosky. Oh, well, now that I’m awake let me have those papers you are so eager to have me file. Come on, come on with you. I can’t file them if you’re sitting here all day.”
“Look here, I have my own work…” Wvécéw began to say, but Odpadky was up dragging him to the file cabinets. He could not understand why Odpadky couldn’t just get up and walk to the file cabinets by himself; but, he thought, so long as he keeps busy, perhaps he will leave me be. Odpadky, however, decided to make several stops along the way: to piss, to chat with Lenka Nesmysl, to place football bets with Blbost, the handyman. And it took him what seemed like forever just to file the several papers Wvécéw wanted him to. “I can’t help it if your filing system is a shambles,” Odpadky snapped. “If I were assistant clerk I’d see the whole damn thing done rightly.”
Wvécéw did not like being treated in this manner by a mere file clerk. His coworkers showed him no sympathy for this act of insubordination or for the predicament he was in. They laughed derisively instead, and there wasn’t anything Vwécwé could do about it. Odpadky was stronger and faster on his feet than Vwécwé and very much in control of things. He took Wvécéw all over the department, explaining what had happened to him. “It was only a matter of time something like this would happen to Wvécéw. How unfortunate you had to be the one, Odpadky,” Brak said.
“Perhaps something good of it will come,” Odpadky said. “I suspect it’s only a temporary thing. But maybe now they’ll see how deserving I am to become assistant clerk.”
“I’m surprised the fool even noticed you yet,” someone said.
“Oh, Trosky had to point that out to him.”
Wvécéw was at least fortunate that Odpadky grew tired and took another nap, so Wvécéw, who’d also been deprived of lunch, could finally finish his work and sneak in a snack of raisins, even though Odpadky still had several papers which required Trosky’s signature. When Odpadky awoke well after the lunch hour, he turned to a coworker named Smetí and said, “I’m a bit hungry. Would you be so kind to stamp these papers for me so I can finally eat?”
“Indeed,” said Smetí, and in another moment he found himself next to Odpadky on Wvécéw’s back. Odpadky was eating a salami sandwich from a brown paper bag, and Smetí, in between signing signatures, was nervously biting his fingernails and spitting the remnants in Wvécéw’s face.
“I must eat also,” Wvécéw said, looking for the raisins, which Odpadky had eaten hours ago.
“Oh, you would, would you?” He heard Trosky’s voice. “Can’t you see how your colleagues are busy working? I saw Odpadky filing all afternoon while you just stood around and watched him. He’s deserving of lunch today. Here’s a message that you must attend to,” he said, and threw the slip of paper, which landed on Wvécéw’s right earlobe like an earring.
After Odpadky finished his sandwich (the garlic from the cured meat lingered on Wvécéw the rest of the day), Odpadky said to Smetí, “You can leave now, thank you.”
“But I’m comfortable,” said Smetí. “And besides, I really don’t think I’m able to leave.” The two men quarreled for awhile, during which Wvécéw felt on the verge of collapse from exhaustion. But they agreed finally to share their space, no sense being a hog about it.
“Hey, here’s a message for Wvécéw,” Odpadky said, tugging at Wvécéw’s ear. “Would you look at this? Those releases you had me file this morning require immediate revision. What a waste of a morning’s work!”
So Odpadky, this time with Smetí, again made Wvécéw tour the department. When they finally got to the file cabinets the releases could not be found. “Where did you put them?” Wvécéw pleaded. “Don’t blame me for this,” Odpadky barked. “This is your filing cabinet, not mine. Now we have to go all over the department once again to look for them.” The three men finally ended in Trosky’s office.
“I just want to say how unfair Mr. Wvécéw has been today,” Odpadky said to Trosky. “Mr. Smetí and I have been looking high and low for these releases, going on one wild goose chase after another, and where do we find them. Right here, under the vented suit coat our public information disseminator, where they have been all along!”
“Well, then,” said Trosky. “Perhaps Mr. Wvécéw will stay a few extra hours to see that these releases get completely revised.” He meant to throw a crumpled piece of paper into the waste bin, but it landed on the small tuft of black hair left on Wvécéw’s scalp, which had retained its soreness and redness from a bout of scarlet fever and shone like a radiant sun.
At his desk once more, faint and hungry, Wvécéw could hear Odpadky and Smetí playing hearts. How he’d like to join them. Odpadky undoubtedly had put those papers in Wvécéw’s coat, and now he was forced to work overtime with no pay. Hloupost, the accountant, who was also working late came up to him and asked, “Why didn’t you call me?”
“What are you talking about?” said Wvécéw.
“Don‘t you read your messages, you maggot,” he said. He was fumbling on Wvécéw’s shoulder blades (“Hey,” said Smetí, for Hloupost had accidentally poked his eye. “Sorry,” he said). “Why here it is.” He showed it to Wvécéw, who scratched his head and wondered how in the world it had gotten there. But Hloupost was now involved in the card game with Odpadky and Smetí, and Wvécéw could hope only that Hloupost would not join them on his back.
Fortunately he did not, but Wvécéw would have no way of knowing if he did. The following weeks were a difficult period of adjustment for Wvécéw. He could not sleep because he was forced to lie on his stomach, and sometimes Odpadky brought a whore to bed, and Wvécéw would find himself wrapped in Smetí’s arms like a lover. When he finally did fall asleep, he would be awakened by Smetí’s weak bladder, and Odpadky would then keep both of them up by taking one of his long shits.
Wvécéw could no longer enjoy his breakfasts at the café in peace. He might just as well have been Odpadky’s napkin, and Smetí could never make up his mind what to order. What’s more, Odpadky had been promoted to assistant clerk, and Trosky put Wvécéw under Odpadky’s purview. Odpadky frequently physically abused Smetí, whose constant moralizing Odpadky (and Wvécéw) could barely tolerate. Wvécéw did not know how much longer he could bear the present situation. He contacted an attorney, but was told he had no legal grounds. The lawyer suggested that the two men might be obliged to pay Wvécéw rent, but they, in turn, could argue that Wvécéw ought to pay them rent. He thought of putting in a transfer, but there were no other positions to be had and he was needed at the department.
One might think that with Odpadky and Smetí on his back, very little stuck to Wvécéw, but that was not the case; indeed, detritus and things continued to find their way on to him with even greater intensity and regularity. “I’ve developed a dust allergy because of you!” Odpadky said, using Wvécéw’s sleeve as his handkerchief. Odpadky’s new job had become a curse to Odpadky in the meantime; he cared little what either Wvécéw or Smetí had to do. Odpadky complained that Wvécéw’s work was below department standards. “Wvécéw thinks only of content and nothing of style.”
“Or perhaps it’s too much of style and nothing of content,” said Trosky. Either way he agreed and gave Wvécéw’s position to Smetí. Wvécéw was demoted to Odpadky’s old job as file clerk.
Odpadky no longer had time for office trivialities. “Send me a memo” became his signature line, and “in due time” he would get to it. The coworkers soon began making a game of “sending Odpadky a memo,” which even Trosky found amusing. The workers would scribble something down on a piece a paper, sometimes gibberish, and toss it at Wvécéw. By the end of the day Wvécéw would be covered in paper, the way kiosks are tacked with bills, advertisements, and announcements in Náměstí Nikam.
Then one day things took a turn for the worst. Although Smetí was a bother to no one and performed Wvécéw’s old job competently, Odpadky, as Wvécéw suspected, was indolent and bungled everything. He could not handle his new responsibilities. Memos, some of them important, continued to pile up all over Wvécéw. “Wvécéw, Wvécéw,” Odpadky complained. “He’s never around when you need him, and my work is suffering! Who can find anything in such a mess he’s made.” “Yes, yes,” Trosky sympathized. “We’ll have to do something about that!” “I am here!” Wvécéw said, but no one could hear him or bothered to.
It was late one evening. Wvécéw could barely see, and he was exhausted and hungry. He was having trouble breathing. He heard a flash of light and was sure he had collapsed, but it might have been Odpadky moving about (or perhaps more memos piling up) or Smetí kneeling at his evening prayers. Wvécéw felt as though he were experiencing his own burial. “How in the world could this have happened?” he muttered.
He heard several voices that he hoped were angels of god. “What shall we do with him,” a voice said. “I don’t know. We’d better get him out of here,” said someone else. “Take him to Sromořadí Špína with the others,” said a voice that sounded like Trosky’s. Wvécéw felt himself being carried away for what seemed a long time. And then all was darkness and peace.
A few writers (Lhář and Hlupák among them), who elsewhere have related this tale, like to tack on a happy ending to the story. In one version (probably Lhář’s) Šárka rescues Wvécéw by lovingly removing all that covered him, as if “she were picking the most beautiful flowers on a roadside hill.” Others (Pitomec especially) turned it into a horror story: Wvécéw resurrects into a monstrous golem that terrorizes the countryside.
The truth, as far as we can tell is this: Odpadky blew his brains out, splattering bloody matter all over poor Wvécéw, who remained as unaware as ever. “Now how did all this stuff get on me,” he whispered, the last words, in fact, we ever heard him say. Smetí seemed to have disappeared entirely (although he might have been busy working while all this was happening). We indeed took whatever you can call the thing we carted off to Sromořadí Špína (I was one of three men who carried it there). The very next day as it turned out, upon instructions of the authorities, bulldozers leveled the alley and soon built upon it a 30-meter brick water reservoir, surrounded by newly planted greenery. During the war, the tower’s basement was used by the Nazi SA for the interrogation and torture of communists and resistance fighters.