Someone for Sabina
Her first client is a former physics professor with gray hair and soft hands who says he’ll take any job, any job. She asks him if he minds working nights because a cleaning company is looking for people to clean offices in the Sears Tower. He looks at the slip and says he has never worked for a cleaning crew and was hoping for something, well, more in line with his background. She says there’s little she can do for him because he doesn’t speak English. He says he understands and says thank you very much.
He says he will be there at 6 p.m. sharp. He kisses her hand and leaves.
Her next client is wearing a brown leather jacket and blue jeans and a Lech Walesa mustache. I was interned by Jaruzelski himself he says when she tells him the only job she has available is on the cleaning crew. You can’t possibly expect me to accept a position like that, he says. Besides, I have meetings to attend, protests to plan. She says that’s the only job she can offer him because he doesn’t speak English. He says he understands but adds that maybe he should have stayed in Austria because there they appreciate the sacrifices he made. Please forgive me for saying this, but you Americans don’t understand, he says. And before she can protest that she’s Polish too and that she fully appreciates the sacrifices he no doubt made, the refugee takes the slip and kisses her hand and leaves.
The third client is an Ethiopian who was a medical student in Wroclaw when martial law was declared and joined the exodus taking the Chopin Express to Vienna. I didn’t get far in my studies, he says while she tries not to stare because she has never seen Polish words come out of a black man’s mouth. But she wears contact lenses that bother her eyes, so she always looks surprised, and he notices and smiles while she blushes. He says it happens all the time and not to be embarrassed. She regains her voice and thanks him and tells him she wishes she could offer him something better, but the only job listing she has is on the cleaning crew. He says he understands and takes the slip and says he will be there at 6 p.m. sharp. He says, thank you very much Pani Sabina. And as he gets up to leave, he hesitates. Then he bends over and kisses her hand. She looks at the spot on her long-stemmed hand where he kissed her and looks up again. But he is already gone.
Pani, she tells herself. I’m not a Pani. I’m not a Mrs. I’m a Panna, a Miss. And my mother is afraid I’ll always be a Panna. A Stara Panna.
As she thinks this, another phony Pani appears in her cubicle and sits on her desk. She dangles a pump from a toe. The ceiling fan flutters her poufy hair. She tilts her head up and lets the breeze tickle her throat and down the front of her tight summer dress. She gives a shiver.
Then she says, in her accented English, I have never seen black man speak Polish.
Sabina has been trying not to look at Pani Violetta, and she says, neither have I and picks up a buff-colored folder. Then she says, before realizing how it will sound, that everybody gets treated the same here, no matter what their skin color.
You’re the boss, Pani Violetta says and gives Sabina a look before departing.
Sabina instantly regrets coming off so pious and then thinks, well, it’s true. Plus, it’s too late to take it back, so she stands up and stretches.
She is tall. So tall that if she stretches she can nearly reach the fan humming above. So tall and yet so spare and with a head full of long, limp hair that she pulls back into a severe ponytail. Her mother always tells her not to slouch. Her mother also tells her she has an interesting face.
She lets her arms drop and surveys her desk. It is covered with more buff-colored files and loose pieces of paper fluttering from the fan. And there’s the report she has to complete for Father Pajak and the board of directors.
She looks up when she hears the commotion coming from the front office and heads out of her cubicle in time to see Pani Violetta berating four sorry-looking men standing behind the counter in sweat-stained shabby suits. They seem to be holding something, so she takes a closer look and sees they are holding their shoes in their hands.
This is America, she hears Pani Violetta say. You must wear shoes.
The men look at one another. They look at her. So she tries again, only louder.
This is America, she says. You must wear shoes.
The men gape at her.
Oh, these Romanians, Pani Violetta says in Polish and jingles the bracelets on her tanned arms as she waves them away from the counter and to the metal chairs. They’re so backward.
But they stay where they are, and the tallest one even leans over the counter to better watch Pani Violetta swivel-hip walk to her file-strewn desk. Sabina knows Pani Violetta knows they are watching her. She sees her sly smile. She sighs and turns and looks at the files on her desk. She picks up the closest one and opens it.
A few minutes later, Pani Violetta walks back into her cubicle and pushes over a stack and perches herself on the desktop again. Then, she says, did you see those guys?
Sabina says yes, also in Polish, and continues to study a file.
I know I shouldn’t be making generalizations about people, Pani Violetta says. But my God, even Polish highlander knows you don’t go barefoot in big city. Those Romanians are backward. Still, that tall one wasn’t bad-looking. I like Gypsy look.
Sabina closes the file and sets it on top of the pile and selects another to peruse from the stack. She thinks, so now you’re going to rattle on about the clients and act superior because you’ve been here a bit longer and boy you can tell these rubes a thing or two about life in America. But she says nothing.
Pani Violetta tries again. You know I didn’t mean anything when I said that about the black man speaking Polish. I don’t want you to get wrong impression.
Sabina closes that file and sets it on top of the pile and selects yet another to peruse from the stack. She says, we just have to remember that he’s just a client, like any other.
Pani Violetta rolls her eyes. She hops off the desk. The Girls and I are going over to the Cantina for Mexican food, if you’re interested, she says. I’m having a margarita. I mean, it is Monday.
Then she waits for Sabina to laugh.
Sabina says no thanks and that she has a lot to do. She doesn’t want to hear about what Pani Violetta has planned for the weekend. About the new bikini she’ll wear on the beach in Union Pier. About her sportscar-driving American boyfriend.
She doesn’t want to sit there with The Girls, who aren’t really girls anymore because fat Pani Ula teetering on her heels and Pani Krystyna with her hennaed hair are old enough to be Pani Violetta’s mother, or at least her aunt.
She doesn’t want to feel like an old maid even though she’s only 24, which actually makes her three years younger than Pani Violetta. If she wanted to torture herself, she could stay home and listen to her younger sister prattle on about her Tadziu and their upcoming wedding.
But all she can say is, I brought a salad. Then she points at the clear plastic container with the blue lid on the corner of her desk.
Pani Violetta jingles her bracelets.
I know, Sabina thinks, rabbit food for a stork.
That’s not much, Pani Violetta says.
But Sabina just smiles again and points at the files, so Pani Violetta switches to English. C’mon, she says. Work can wait.
Sabina shakes her head no, and so Pani Violetta shrugs and trots off.
What a bore, she must be thinking, Sabina tells herself. No wonder she can’t land a man.
She listens to Pani Violetta walk off and then hears her giggly voice as she rounds up The Girls, and soon the entire high-heeled herd is moving down the corridor and out into the lobby and out the front door, which ding-dings as it opens and ding-dings when it closes. And when that stops, it is quiet save for the sound of the fan whirling and whirling above her and the flutter of files, files, always more files.
Sabina stands up again and stretches again and suddenly stops when she hears a noise coming from the lobby. She didn’t hear the door ding-ding. She wonders if Pani Ula, the receptionist, has come back early from lunch. She peeks around the corner of her cubicle and sees someone blond, and though that’s all she’s seen of him suddenly she can’t breathe.
She emerges from her hiding place, and he looks up and she can see his red eyes beneath dirty bangs and swollen lips. She wipes the sweat that has suddenly gathered on her upper lip before she can stop herself from doing so. She tries to speak but he’s looking at her, and so she feels for the chair that’s usually behind the counter because now she can barely walk.
What is wrong with me, she thinks, even though she knows exactly what is wrong with her. She felt this way when she first laid eyes on Roman Zaremba at Polish scout camp, when she saw Lukasz Zalewski at Midnight Mass, when her sister brought home the blond lug she’s going to marry.
But she wills herself to the counter, to where he’s standing. And he looks at her and she wishes, as she wishes every night when she looks in the mirror and studies her plain face, that she was beautiful. Especially now, she thinks, because even in his shabby clothes and beneath his unkempt hair she can tell that he is so beautiful. So, so beautiful.
And she places both hands on the counter and leans forward a little so her eyes are even with his, and she tries to speak but no words come out. She tries again.
Please help me, he says in Polish. And she says, Can I help you?
They look at each other, and her face is on fire before his blue eyes that give no sign of noticing her discomfort. And it occurs to her that his voice is too low to come from so sweet a mouth and that she doesn’t care. She clears her throat and tries again.
How, she says, can can I help you.
He looks away from her, and she follows his gaze to the faded poster of the Wawel Castle from LOT Airlines tacked up on one of the dun-colored lobby walls so that when he suddenly looks back at her she is surprised and feels her face redden again.
Hungry, he says, this time in English, pronouncing the word like the country.
She wants to say something, anything. Polish words, English words all jumble in her head. Instead, she turns and walks in her sensible shoes as calmly as she can to her desk and retrieves her container of salad and fights the urge to run back. She watches her hands as they place the container in front of him and then realizes she has forgotten to bring him a fork. But he tears off the top and begins scooping the salad into his mouth with his dirty hands, and as she hovers over him she suddenly wants to cry and touch his hair and cradle his head in her arms all at the same time, but she can’t. She can’t.
And then he’s through and he’s wiping his mouth on the hem of his dirty shirt and she can see how thin he really is. And while she’s thinking this she hears him saying he’s sorry, he’s sorry. But before she can say anything else he’s gone, and the only way she can know for sure that he’s been there is the empty container on the counter and the echo of the doorbell ding-dinging and the pounding, pounding, pounding of her heart.
She stands there for how long she doesn’t know until Pani Violetta comes back in with The Girls, and the sight of them her sets her to gathering up her salad container and straightening the sign-in sheet which she somehow managed to muss.
Pani Violetta arches her eyebrows.
Sabina reads her expression. Eating at the counter? Such devotion.
Will she notice that I am having a hard time snapping the top of the container back on because I’m trembling so? Will she notice that I am even paler than usual?
What’s the matter, Pani Violetta asks, you look like you’ve seen ghost.
So she noticed, Sabina thinks but says nothing and hurries back to her desk and her files, always her files.
That night, as she looks into the mirror and brushes her hair out, she doesn’t wish she was beautiful because all she sees is him. And when she lies down on the severe bed she’s never shared with a man she reaches down and lifts her cotton nightdress like she swore she would never do again and she conjures up the him she knows and the him she can’t imagine and buries her face in her pillow.
The next morning, she realizes she doesn’t know his name.
While her father reads about the strikes in Gdansk in the Dziennik Zwiazkowy, her younger sister bickers with her mother over whether to invite crazy Uncle Stasiu, who is constantly reliving Dachau, to the wedding. Sabina picks at her scrambled eggs and tries out Michal and Roman and decides he can’t be either. He also can’t be a Tadziu.
More strikes, her father says. The Russians aren’t going to stand for this much longer.
Maybe Andrzej, Sabina wonders. He could be an Andrzej. He looks like he could be an Andrzej.
I know he’s my uncle, but I’m afraid he’ll get all worked up and make a scene, her sister says. I just know he will.
Oh, I wish you were the one getting married, her mother says, and rests a well-worn hand on Sabina’s shoulder. You have more sense than your sister.
Yes, but I’m the one getting married, Sabina’s smirking sister says, her blond hair lightened and her fair skin darkened by weekends on the lake in Wisconsin with her intended.
Sabina places her fork beside the platefull of uneaten eggs and smirks back at her sister. She says, Well, maybe I’ll be getting married too one day.
Her father puts the paper down and takes off his reading glasses to get a better look at his older daughter. Her mother takes a step back to better read her face. Her sister scowls.
Sabina looks back at them and says, Why is that so hard to believe?
Her father, who is also lean and long, clears his throat harrumph, harrumph and stutters in his deep bass voice: You, you, you just caught us by surprise. Then, in English, he asks: Is it someone we know?
Yes, her mother says, crossing her arms over her ample chest. Big surprise. Is he Polish?
Her sister sits back and surveys Sabina.
Who is he? she says. Some refugee you met at the social service?
Sabina avoids her sister’s dark dark eyes. It’s none of your business, she says.
Finish your breakfast, her father says. When I was a partisan in the woods I would kill for scrambled eggs.
That morning she dons the black dress she wore to her college graduation, the one her mother says she pulls off because she is so tall. She looks at her face. Then she sneaks into her sister’s room and takes her mascara and blush and a red lipstick. She starts to tie her ponytail and then stops. She looks in the mirror. She lets down her hair.
When she gets to the Polish American Social Service, she finds the sign-in sheet from the day before and tries to fix a name to the face that haunted her all night and left her spent and raw.
Przyluski, Kawalerski, Getaneh â€” he was the Ethiopian, she thinks.
Four X’s follow.
The Romanians, she says to herself.
Then she sees a name printed in childish block letters. It says: Konrad Wolski.
She tries the name out in her head. Konrad Wolski, Konrad Wolski. Then she tries Sabina Wolski, Sabina Wolski.
She stops when Pani Ula walks in and goes back to her desk and her files. But she keeps dreaming of him and as the refugees troop in one after another pleading for a job, any job, she looks for him in every face. Every time the doorbell ding-dings she pokes her long face out of her cubicle looks for him in the lobby. She has packed sandwiches for him in addition to her usual salad. She finds herself smiling and fancies that The Girls are wondering what she’s smiling about.
They are. At lunch, Pani Ula tells Pani Violetta that Sabina was talking to herself and grinning like a fool when she came in to announce her first client. She says, Did you see what she is wearing?
She looks like an Italian widow, Pani Krystyna says. She’s wearing so much mascara she looks like a raccoon.
Well, the color certainly suits, her, Pani Ula says, and giggles. But she has to do something about that hair.
Pani Violetta takes a sip of her margarita. She says, Maybe she has a date?
The Girls look at one another and then burst out laughing.
Back at the office, Sabina waits for him. The digital clock on Pani Ula’s desk reads 12:05 p.m. When she looks at it again, it reads 12:12 p.m. When she looks at it again, it is 12:30 p.m. Then, when her hopes of seeing him start to flag, a thought occurs to her and she goes back to her desk and begins looking through her files for Konrad Wolski’s file. She decides she will be his savior and find him the perfect job that will lift him out of poverty and deposit him in her arms. She imagines how she’ll surprise him with the news and how he’ll see past her homely face and realize that deep within her beats what her mother calls her beautiful heart. Somehow he’ll know that she’s really a bright girl who could be working at a high-paying job in the Loop, but here she is helping her unfortunate own get their start in America. And he’ll fall deeply in love with her, and at that point she has to stop imagining because she cannot imagine being any happier and is paralyzed by the pleasure.
But Wolski’s file is not in her stack, so she goes to the central file cabinet where the files of every other Polish refugee who has registered with the social service are supposed to be and begins thumbing through the W’s and finds no Wolski there, either.
For a minute she considers walking into Pani Violetta’s or Pani Agata’s or Pani Krystyna’s cubicles to peruse the files on their desk and then looks up at the clock on the wall and realizes they’ll be back soon from lunch. She returns to her cubicle and her files.
There, on top of them, she finds a note from Pani Ula that she somehow managed to miss earlier informing her that Mr. Getaneh didn’t get the job with the Sears Tower cleaning crew. He’s the only one they didn’t hire.
Damn, she says and fishes the Getaneh file out of the stack. He was the one who was studying to be a doctor.
She remembers that the hospital where they took Uncle Stasiu a few times has Polish orderlies, so she calls and finds out they could use a few more. She has one who knows something about medicine. They tell her to send him along.
Funny name, Getaneh, the American administrator on the other end of the line tells Sabina. It doesn’t sound very Polish.
Yes, Sabina replies. It’s very unusual.
The rest of the day she keeps an ear cocked for the ding-dinging of the door bell, and each time it sounds she fights the urge to leap out of her chair and instead composes herself before rising and walking out to see who is there. But each time he’s not there.
At 5 p.m., The Girls march out and Sabina locks up and walks down Laramie Ave. through the still-sweltering heat to Belmont Ave. and the bus for home. She is drenched by the time she reaches the bus stop and searches her purse for something to wipe her sopping wet face with. She finds nothing, so she uses the back of her hand. It comes away streaked with mascara.
In the morning the black dress is still damp, but Sabina finds nothing else she’d rather wear in her closet so she dons it again. Her mother and sister give her a look when she comes down for breakfast but say nothing.
Tadziu is also at the breakfast table, spooning scrambled eggs into his mouth. The muscles on his tan arm flutter as he raises the spoon and lowers the spoon. He looks up when Sabina comes in. His eyes are also very blue.
You look very nice, he says.
Sabina’s sister elbows him in the ribs, and they both giggle.
Pay no attention to them, her father tells Sabina, and in English. You look very nice.
At the social service a single red rose wrapped in paper and lying on a bed of baby’s breath is waiting for her on her desk. As The Girls look on she carefully frees the rose from the paper and looks at it like she’s never seen a rose before.
Pani Violetta asks, Who is it from?
A deliveryman came by with it, Pani Ula says.
Pani Krystyna bustles over and searches through the rose paper. There’s no card, she says.
Pani Sabina has a secret admirer, Pani Violetta says.
Yes, Pani Ula says, a secret admirer.
Yes, Sabina says, her eyes locked on the rose. Yes.
The Girls look at one another and smile. Then they take note of her outfit.
When Sabina disappears into the storage room in the back to fetch a vase, Pani Ula pinches her nose and Pani Krystyna stifles a laugh. At lunch they titter and giggle some more and try to imagine who could have possibly sent Pani Sabina a rose while they quietly wonder what is going on with that girl. Back at the office Sabina leaves the rose briefly to rifle through The Girls’ files. But she does not find what she is looking for.
The Girls return, and Sabina scurries back to her files and her rose and her listening for the ding-dinging of the doorbell so that seconds after the two strangers in stiff suits arrive she has already pegged them as police and dismissed the absurd notion that they are there because somebody saw her going through her colleagues’ files. Then she begins wondering again what they are doing here. And when the smaller one with the sunburnt face hands Pani Ula a photograph over the counter and asks her if she’s seen this man, Sabina’s unease grows.
Then the taller, darker detective spots Sabina standing in the wedge of dark between her cubicle and the doorway into the lobby from which she has been watching them. He steps forward and flushes Sabina from her hiding place.
You, he says. Have you seen this man?
Sabina emerges, and even before she sees the grainy black-and-white picture she decides it has to be him because nothing ever works out for her so it has to be him. And this gives her time enough to set her face so as not to betray her surprise if by some miracle the face on the photograph isn’t his.
But it is. It is. And she fights the urge to snatch it from the detective’s hands because even on a passport photo his beauty is only slightly dulled and rendered in black and white and she so desperately wants something of him.
The dark detective asks again, Do you know this man?
Sabina clears her throat. She says, I’ve never seen him before in my life.
The detectives study her. Then they look at each other. Then the smaller one says, My name is Detective Pierce. Can we go somewhere a little more private where we can talk?
She leads them to a small storage room in the back, and as they pass by the cubicles where Pani Violetta and Pani Krystyna work they follow them with suspicious eyes.
The storage room has a small window that looks out on the alley out back, a door leading to the powder room and a cracked linoleum floor yellow with age. One wall is dominated by rows of gray metal file cabinets. A naked light bulb overhead casts a weak glow.
Sabina sits on one of the two folding metal chairs and rests her elbows on the metal table on which she sometimes eats her lonely lunch. Detective Pierce takes the other folding chair while the dark one stands back and somehow seems to take up whatever room there is left in the tiny storage room.
There is no fan and it is very hot in the storage room, and she feels big beads of sweat rolling down her temples but doesn’t dare wipe them. Pierce is also sweating, and she sees dark patches forming in the armpits of his dark suit. He must be roasting in that suit, she thinks.
The dark detective asks again, Do you know this man?
She looks up at him and for a second the light casts weird shadows and transforms his face into a skull and hides his eyes. She doubts they would reveal anything even if the sun were shining down on them and they were standing in the middle of a desert.
She looks at Detective Pierce. She says, What?
Have you seen this man?
She clears her throat. No, she says.
As Pierce shifts in the uncomfortable chair and turns his head to look at his partner, she knows they know she is lying.
Pierce stands up. He says, Would you please wait here?
She says nothing. She fights the urge to wipe the mustache of sweat that has formed on her upper lip.
The detectives go first to Pani Krystyna’s cubicle. After a minute they go to Pani Violetta’s. Sabina hears her bracelets jingle-jingle. Then she hears her laugh.
Sabina decides Pani Violetta is flirting with them. She flirts with everyone. Even cops. As she thinks this, the dark detective returns. He is holding the vase holding the rose. Her rose.
Sabina tries not to look at it.
What’s the matter? he says. You don’t like your rose?
Your rose, he says. This is your rose.
It needs water.
It’s true. There’s no water in the vase. Somehow she forgot to add water. But then, nobody ever gave her a rose before.
The dark detective steps in the powder room. She hears water running. Then he comes out. The vase is filled.
If you don’t give it water, he says, it will die.
As she watches him carry the rose back to her desk she is thrilled by a sudden thought: Maybe he doesn’t suspect? But when he comes back with Pierce she reads their faces and wonders what she was thinking.
Pierce sits down and leans his elbows on the table. Who gave you the rose?
Sabina was expecting the question. Didn’t they tell you?
They said they didn’t know, Pierce says.
I don’t know either, Sabina says. There was no card.
Do you have any idea who might have sent it over?
No, Sabina says and looks at her hands.
The detectives look at each other. Then they look at her again. Pierce pushes the photograph across the table toward her. She wants to touch it.
Look at it again, he says. It’s very important that you tell us if you know this man. His name is Konrad Wolski.
Wolski, Sabina says. You mean Wolski, pronouncing the W like a V.
Wolski, Wolski, Pierce says, pronouncing it both ways. Have you seen him?
Look, Pierce says. He may look like a choirboy, but he’s a card case. There’s things he did in Poland he never bothered telling Immigration.
Sabina avoids the detectives’ eyes. She thinks it can’t be true. Konrad isn’t a hard case. He is not a dark man. She could tell that without having really had a good look at him because she has met dark men before, in the office. They are the ones the other refugees avoid. Even the real political ones shy away from them. There is something about them.
Once she was interviewing a dark man and he caught her staring at the blue-green knife tattooed on his left â€” or what it right? â€” forearm and she knew he’d been a convict because Pani Violetta said only convicts got tattoos in Poland. She felt a sudden urge to get up and get away but the dark man held her gaze and kept her from bolting while he rolled his sleeve down like he was drawing a curtain on a play. Ask a dark man what he did in Poland, and the answer would invariably be the same. I did this and that, he’d say. And it made no difference whether you offered him a gravedigger job or a job operating a nuclear reactor because you can be sure he wouldn’t show. He was there only to collect a job slip for the immigration officials to prove that he was looking for work while he was really doing whatever dark men do.
But Konrad is not like that, she thinks. He is light and sun and beauty. He has no tattoos. The detectives must be mistaken. They’ve got the wrong man.
Pierce gets up and pulls a card from the breast pocket of his suit jacket. He says, Here is my card. If this guy comes in you give me a call. Okay?
She nods and watches him pick up the photograph. Then they are gone.
The Girls rush in with questions. What did they want from you? What did you tell them? They sure spent a lot of time talking to you. Can you believe a nice-looking boy like that could be involved in a crime?
Only Pani Violetta hangs back, and Sabina senses this without looking at her as she tells The Girls she has work to do.
We have clients waiting for us, Sabina says, knowing full well they began to vanish as soon as the detectives stepped into the lobby.
She counts the minutes until it is time to close, and when the girls are finally gone she practically runs up Laramie St. to the bus stop on Belmont Ave., past startled grandmothers who frown at the rangy woman racing by in a most unladylike fashion.
The eastbound bus is pulling up just as she reaches the corner. She bounds on board, pays the fare and grabs the first available seat beside a heavy black man in a sweat-stained Cubs cap who awakens when she sits down and looks her over and then closes his eyes again.
She wants to scream. She wants to cry. She wants to scream and cry.
When she gets home her mother asks her what’s wrong, but she races up the stairs to her room and slams the door shut and curls up on her unforgiving bed and clamps her eyes shut. She hears the worried murmurs of her mother. Then she hears her father. Then she hears her sister chiming in and she pulls the pillow over her head to blot out the noise. And all through the night every awful detail of her awful, awful afternoon unspools in her head over and over again. But by the time she awakens she is sure, oh so sure, that what they said about Konrad must be a mistake. She decides she will somehow find him and she will warn him that the cops are after him. She showers and goes to put on the black dress, but it is gone.
I took it to cleaners, her mother says.
Why did you do that?
Her mother steps back. It needs cleaning, she says.
How dare you take my stuff without my permission?
Her mother takes another step back. Then her father appears.
Don’t raise your voice to mother, he says.
At work she tears through every file in her possession once again to make sure she didn’t overlook him and because she’s not sure what else to do.
She tells Pani Ula not to schedule any appointments and to tell the refugees trickling in that day that she is very busy.
I don’t understand, Pani Ula says and is about to protest when Pani Violetta comes over and whispers something in her ear.
Very well, Pani Ula tells Sabina. Very well.
Sabina pulls out a directory of social services and, cupping her hand over the mouthpiece, she begins calling one after another.
Have you seen a man named Konrad Wolski, she says, thrilled to finally be able to say his name out loud. But there’s no sign of him at Catholic Charities or at the Jewish Vocational Services. The Lutherans on Paulina St. and the soup kitchen on Wood St. have seen no sign of him either, though the cook at the kitchen tells Sabina two detectives were just there asking about the same man.
You know they want him for something, he says. It must be bad for the cops to come out here.
I didn’t know about that, Sabina replies. Then she adds, I was just calling because we found a job for him.
Then she hangs up and retreats to her own troubled thoughts and spends the next hours turning over and over and over his face in her memory.
Before long it’s time to go, and The Girls leave without saying goodbye. Sabina sits and waits and thinks and listens until she realizes the office is quiet, and she peeks out her cubicle and sees that the streetlights are on on Laramie Ave. and realizes it is late.
As she gets up there’s the ding-dinging of the doorbell, and before she can stop herself she runs out into the lobby and straight into the arms of the perspiring Father Pajak.
Panna Sabina, the priest says as the reddening Sabina steps back to let him pass.
I’m very sorry, she says. I was startled.
Yes, the priest says in his high-pitched Polish, I can see that.
Please, she says and clears files from a chair. I have that report ready for you.
Thank you, Panna Sabina, the priest says, and mops the sweat glinting on his balding pate with a sodden handerkerchief. But that is not why I am here.
She sits down. She knows why he’s here. She says, It’s about the man the police are seeking.
Yes, the priest says. Are you sure he isn’t one of ours?
Sabina wonders if it is a greater sin to lie to a priest. Then she thinks of her Konrad again and decides she doesn’t care.
Yes, she says and formulates her answer. I’ve been through all the files. He’s not one of ours.
Father Pajak studies Sabina. Then he says, You’re sure of this?
I know the impulse to help your fellow Poles is strong within you, but this man is not a lost lamb, the priest says.
Sabina looks the priest in the eyes. They are small and blue and framed by thin wire glasses. She says, I appreciate your kind words, Father, but I’ve been through all our files and he’s really not one of our clients.
Father Pajak studies her some more. Then he stands up to go.
I’m very glad, he says, and takes the report Sabina has been clutching in her hands. He smiles at Sabina and says, It’s not a sin to cooperate with the police in this country.
Yes, Father, Sabina says.
That night she conjures her Konrad up again, and once more she does what she swore she would do no more.
On Friday the temperature hovers near 100 and the hours slog by because no clients will brave this heat even for the best job. The fans in the office provide little relief, and The Girls extend their half-hour lunch to an hour to stay in the air conditioning a little bit longer and Sabina does not say anything when they get back because she is too caught up in thoughts of her Konrad to notice.
She is with him again and warning him about the cops and helping him get away and feeling his arms around her again and again and again and again. That night as she is finishing up her files she is replaying in her head all the words he ever said to her, so she doesn’t at first hear the doorbell ding-dinging. And when she does and peeks out of her cubicle and sees him there, at first she’s not sure it’s him she is really seeing.
But even before she has reassured herself that yes this is in fact him she rushes up to the counter and blurts out, The police are looking for you.
Then as he looks at her she starts crying and crying and crying while he stares at the crazy woman weeping and crying before him.
She stops and looks at him looking at her.
I, she says, I, I’m sorry.
I don’t understand, he says.
And before she can stop herself she reaches out to touch his face and he recoils as if she were molten lead before she can and yells, What are you doing?
But she is frozen in place by the sensation that started with her fingertips and raced like electricity through her body and can’t say a word.
You, he says, you’re crazy.
She moves her mouth and then the words come out. I’m, I’m sorry, she says.
They stand there separated by the counter and separated by what just happened. It is so quiet that she thinks she can hear the clock on the wall tick tick ticking.
Are you hungry?
He nods. And she races back to her cubicle for the ham sandwiches she packed for him that morning, as she had for every morning since she met him, and races back sure that he’ll be gone. But he’s still there, and she hands him the bag.
He takes it and tears it open and rips through one sandwich and then the other. She watches him eat and feels the tears rolling down her face but can’t find the energy to wipe them away. She feels so, so tired.
And then he looks up at her.
Thanks, he says. I was hungry.
She tries to smile. No, she is smiling. Smiling and crying.
He makes a face. He asks, What is the matter with you?
She looks up, blinking.
I don’t know, she says. I don’t know. You’re the one who needs help and I’m the one who is crying.
He stands there and then says, I don’t want the police to find me.
O.K., she says, I won’t tell them.
Can I use the bathroom?
She points to the back, and he steps around the counter and heads to the back. When he is gone she collapses in a chair and sobs silent sobs. After a while she stops and gets up and grabs a tissue from the dispenser on the counter. She daubs her eyes and blows her nose. She looks toward the back of the office. She looks at the clock.
He’s been in there a while, she thinks. Then she says in a voice she thinks will be loud enough to carry, Are you all right?
She waits for an answer and then she waits some more. Then she drops the spent tissue into the waste bin and creeps to the back room. The bathroom door is ajar. She creeps closer and sees the light is on. She can see the mirror but she can’t see his reflection. She raps gently on the door.
Are you all right?
Are you all right?
She waits. She looks at the watch ticking on her right wrist. She studies the door.
Are you all right?
She waits. Then she pushes the door open a little with her left hand. She smells the disinfectant smell. Then she smells his smell. She pushes the door a little more and peers around the door. He is sitting on the toilet fully clothed and leaning against a wall. He is fast asleep.
She studies him and listens to him breathing, breathing. She wants to touch him but doesn’t dare. She leans against the doorpost and wonders, What brought you here?
She hears him mutter something and leans into to hear him.
Marsz, marsz, marsz, he says. Marsz, marsz, marsz.
She says, March, march, march?
But he’s stopped saying anything, though his mouth keeps moving, and sometimes his hand goes up to flick some tormenting thing away.
And she wonders again, What brought you here? What brought you here? What brought you to me just when I thought you would never return? Just when I thought I would always be alone?
She retreats to her cubicle and scratches out a note in Polish that she affixes a piece of clear tape to and then tapes it to the bathroom mirror so he’ll see it when he awakens.
It says: Be back soon. Went out for more food. Don’t go anywhere.
She takes another lingering look at him and then heads down the street to the Chinese restaurant where Pani Violetta and The Girls sometimes go and order chicken fried rice, sauteed string beans, pork dumplings and two cans of Coca-Cola. Then it occurs to her he might not like Chinese food. She’s not even sure they have Chinese food in Poland. But as the cashier packs the bag it occurs to her that he might not like chicken fried rice, sauteed sting beans, pork dumplings or Coca-Cola. But she wilts in the face of the stern look from the cashier and pays for the package and walks out. She takes a few steps and breaks into a run through the steamy night.
She bounds back into the office and heads straight to the back and nearly collides with Pani Violetta.
What are you doing here?
Pani Violetta takes a step back. I was going to ask you same question.
I I, she says and tries to peer around Pani Violetta, who is blocking her view of the bathroom door, without Pani Violetta noticing. I’m catching up on some work.
Pani Violetta follows her glance.
I, she says and tries to step around Pani Violetta. If you don’t mind.
Pani Violetta holds up the note. You wrote this?
Pani Violetta looks down at the package full of food. Were you planning to have dinner here?
She clears her throat. No, she says.
And then it occurs to her that if Pani Violetta saw the note then surely she must have seen him unless he managed to find someplace to hide. Another sickening thought crosses her mind: What if she scared him away.
Then she gets another thought that makes her quake with anger: What if she wants him for herself?
Pani Violetta apparently senses her anger because she takes a step back and her words spill out of her lipstick mouth in a jumble.
Konrad Wolski was here, she says.
Sabina shoves Pani Violetta aside and pulls the bathroom door open. He’s gone. She rounds on Pani Violetta. Where is he?
Where is who?
Him, Sabina says. Konrad Wolski.
Konrad Wolski? Pani Violetta asks. He’s dead.
Sabina feels her legs start to buckle, and she reaches for a chair to steady herself. Tears well up in her eyes. Dead, she says.
He was killed this morning, Pani Violetta says.
Sabina looks at her. This morning?
Hit by car on Milwaukee Avenue, Pani Violetta says.
But I just saw him, Sabina says. He was just here.
Yes, I know, Pani Violetta says. His name was on signup sheet. I checked after the police came.
No, Sabina says. He was just here.
That’s impossible, Pani Violetta says. He was killed before any of us even got to work. Detective Pierce called me at home and told me himself.
Sabina places the bag of food down on the card table. She sits down.
The detectives thought you were hiding that you’d seen this Wolski, Pani Violetta says. I assured him you would never do such a thing.
Dead, Sabina tells herself. Dead. I’ll never see him again.
Then she starts to cry.
Don’t take it so hard, Pani Violetta says and takes a tissue from her purse and hands it to Sabina. Here, she says, take this.
Sabina takes the tissue and dabs her eyes. The tissue comes away black with mascara. Pani Violetta hands her another. She says, You can’t save them all.
Sabina crumples the tissue in her hands.
You also can’t possibly eat all this Chinese food by yourself, Pani Violetta says. You’ll ruin your figure.
Sabina stares at the swollen sack. She blinks her eyes hard. She does not know what to say or do.
Well, says Pani Violetta, if you’re thinking I scared off your date, you can rest assured that there was nobody here when I arrived. Besides, isn’t that him over there?
Sabina twists around and sees a tall black man at the counter. It’s Mr. Getaneh. He is holding a single red rose wrapped in paper. He says, I’ve brought you another, to thank you.
He landed that job you found for him, Pani Violetta says and smiles. Isn’t that wonderful.
Yes, Sabina says and stands up.
Well, Pani Violetta says in English, looking at Sabina, then at Getaneh, then back at Sabina. Three is crowd, so I am going.
Sabina stands aside and lets Pani Violetta breeze past, leaving a wake of lemony perfume. Getaneh nods politely at Pani Violetta and goes to Sabina. She looks up at him.
Getaneh smiles at her. Then he leans over and removes from the sack the white cardboard containers of rice, the plastic-covered foil dishes bearing the beans and dumplings. He removes the paper plates and the plastic forks. He puts the duck and soy sauces in a neat pile.
You need to eat, Getaneh says. Food is the best medicine.
Yes, Sabina says, and reaches over to make sure he is really there.