"A Beer And Fries at The Goal Post" is a story from the collection, Tytyna Dyyavola: YA vtratyv nebo.
By Joe Petrulionis
All rights to these materials are reserved by the author.
The eastern end of Simon's Blue Hole is comprised of lilly pad and hemlock forest. Limestone walls run the full depth of the small private lake near Irvingsberg, Pennsylvania.
Jonathan describes to Bethany Reichert his recollections of holding Randi for the first time:
---June 10, 2000---
She met us out in front of the cabin after our day’s fishing. Standing in the water with the baby on her hip, Lena’s summer dress was drenched on one side from kneeling to wet the baby’s feet. We watched some of this play from the boat. This was how I finally met her, I had heard about Lena, of course, Irvingsberg was still amazed, charmed, and appalled by her unannounced arrival last November, already late in her pregnancy, the new wife of the small town’s only attorney. Mostly we were amazed and charmed, I guess. I was in the stern of the canoe so I could keep Benjamin pointed in the right direction for casting that day. He hadn’t been fishing in years, so fair is fair.
Elena Roscha, Benji’s new wife, was beautiful in ways not common to Lorraine Township, not common to any township for that matter. Wherever Lena went, people just stopped to watch her and not only men. Everyone recognized that something in Lena was international class, and we were made to feel rural and plain by her presence, a favor that we would never be able to quite repay.
I shook hands, made all of the polite comments I could think of. I even held the damn baby, which had to be a little girl, even. It screamed the whole five or six minutes it took for Benji to take Lena on a fifty yard loop in the canoe. Then I handed off the baby, waved the happy little nuclear family my sweetest “nice to meet you now good-by wave,” went promptly into the house and set about drinking five or six fingers, who am I kidding, I drank half a bottle of scotch while practicing a banjo tune I have been trying to learn for years. Finally, I put away the bottle, cursing myself for how I would feel in the morning and tried to go bed. I couldn’t sleep.
In the meantime, Benji, Lena, and the baby had taken a tour of historical Irvingsberg. I know this because a few days later she knocked on my door, waking me up to ask me what I could tell her about Stencil’s building. We sat on the front porch, she in the swing nursing the baby. My own fault; I had answered something like “sure that would be great” to her request for permission to come back out to Simon’s Blue Hole again. Not being from here, Lena probably did not even suspect that “sure, that would be great,” meant quite the opposite once translated. Still, “sure that would be great” does not ever cover sitting in that particular swing nursing a baby girl. She told me about their walk through the ruins of the bar. I was beginning to see that Lena was smart, more than just clever, she was a survivor.
What I should have explained was that title searches cost money, and the only practicing Juris Doctoris in town would probably give her a pretty hefty discount. But I told her what I knew. It had been a small train station, then a five and dime, next a bar. I didn’t mention then that now it was an informal archive of historical research, housing cardboard boxes full of files and notebooks in what had once been a Kitchen.
Then she told me a story. It was a story that she did not even know herself yet. She was still wrapping the plot around the various characters, but the setting she had seen herself. She told me how Benjamin had been like a small boy again when he found the key and letter in his mother’s lock box at the bank in Williamsburg.
She had watched his face strain into an unnecessary squint, she told me, as if against bright glare or some repugnant memory. “Unnecessary,” she explained, “because there inside the dilapidated building it was dark, save for a burst of harsh sunlight through a broken and painted window and the dancing wall of dust spotlighted by the still open door behind us.”
My God, I thought, she just used the words “repugnant and dilapidated” correctly. It does not seem fair, she gets to go through life looking like this and she gets to be a poet in her second or third language too! Those were her words; I am not kidding, “dancing wall of dust spotlighted by the still open door.” But she already had me when she told me his face “strained into an unnecessary squint.” She went on.
“As Benjamin turned toward me, his face presented a momentary expression of belligerence. But it may have been just a trick of the light.”
She said Benjamin told her that, “Unless you grew up here you’d never understand,” that he gets confused himself, and it was his own father’s building. She told me that Benjamin also had said, “But back then there was even a place for people like Stencil. I bet I haven’t thought about Stencil for fifteen years.”
She had asked her husband about this man Stencil.
“Stencil lived upstairs here.” Benjamin had explained while pointing for her, “Down that hallway there, and then up. Not exactly an employee and he never paid any rent, but he lived upstairs.”
“So I asked Benjamin how old he had been when it closed?” Her accent was almost imperceptible. She had been working hard on sounding American, but there was still something slightly too throaty about her pronunciation of the word “how” and she spoke the word “closed” almost as if it rhymed with glossed.
“Benjamin said he had been off in lawyer school when it happened.” She then asked if he was sad to be back in there.
Benjamin assured her that he was not at all sad, he had told her, “No. After Dad died they wanted me to get licenses and bring it up to code. It was going to cost thousands just to re-open. And I knew it never made any money. So I refused to inherit it and the township tried to sell it. I guess they just boarded it up and here it sits.”
She assumed that they had boarded it up because the building was a fire hazard. Benjamin had agreed with her. But I knew that there really was no city government to board up an old building, and that this Township would never intrude itself on something so unimportant as a fire hazard. That it had lost its liquor license due to non payment of taxes and that it had finally been auctioned at sale by the County Sheriff, purchased by some sentimental fool who now has to pay the annual property taxes on a building that does not even have electricity or water service any more.
But, she explained that Benjamin wondered what had happened to Stencil. Then he told her that, “Stencil lived in that big cold attic, but these guys had their beds pulled into a circle around the door. When it was open they had heat. They could come down here to smoke, and the men's room is down there. But most of the time you never saw them.”
“So I asked him about these guys. All Benjamin could tell me was that there were several of them usually. Always Stencil. But others came and went too. Stencil would make them breakfast if they would haul the trash out and hose down the men's room. And I wondered how they could receive green card to come to the United States? Benjamin did not know.”
Neither did I know about these guys, yet.
“By then my eyes were adjusting to the darkness,” she was being a bit dramatic, I thought, “I began to see the layout. On the left was the bar, a semi-circle to surround a bartender inside and stool seats for a few dozen patrons around the outside. Booths, or what used to be booths, lined the far walls leaving a broad open space in the middle, for tables.”
I said, “I know the place much too well, Lena.”
“But Jonathan, did you ever see the floor?”
I did remember there was something special about the floor…
Before I could remember, she did for me, “It’s made of beer bottles, a mosaic of tiny pieces of dark glass, in what had once been a white background. A pattern of spirals within spirals.”
“Benjamin told me he helped make it,” she said. “He told me they busted up bottles in a trash can, back in the alley. Then they put the sharp side down into the…stuff, before it dried. It’s really beautiful, Jonathan.”
Then in a blaze of blue fire, they were some shade between silver and blue, she asked me, “Jonathan, do you know who owns this building with this floor?”
No room to evade that question which had startled me out of a biology problem I had been working on. How long does it take to feed a five month old baby? So I was a bit surprised by her question. “But yes, I just happened to know.” I told her. “ I, myself, had purchased the old place for the cost of the tax lien several years ago, the only bidder at the sheriff’s sale. Now I hoped to leave it to someone else to demolish someday long after I finally sink to the bottom of Simon’s Blue Hole. In the meantime, I had been parking my car out front there during snowstorms and storing a few boxes of my old books and papers in the kitchen there where the roof is still good.”
Elena Recounts A Discussion:
---June 10, 2000---
After the fishing trip, Benjamin had been telling me about this man Stencil. He was saying, “To hear Jonathan Fost tell it, you could hardly believe it was the same person you had known all of those years. But Fost says he had to do the research first then coax the story out. My guess is it came out one beer at a time.”
Benjamin said he had been in the bow of the canoe fishing. But that Jonathan wanted to talk and was not fishing at all. “Jonathan gets that way sometimes, Benjamin usually just lets him paddle and tell his stories."
"Out of nowhere," he said, "Fost was talking about a war. It took Benjamin a few minutes to realize he was hearing about Stencil’s childhood. Fost was saying, "Again, he thought he had heard shots. While he listened for more, several men on horseback--armed and alert, he said--galloped past on the dry mud road. One of them, near the front of the group, looked over, directly at him. The rider glanced at the farmhouse and then back to make eye contact. There was no expression on the bearded face, no threat and no greeting. But after they had disappeared into the woods the teenager must have realized he had been holding his breath. He found himself running across the field, toward his house. As he ran he could see his mother in the doorway, and could see from her expression that she had also seen the patrol.’”
I asked Benjamin, “did Jonathan say where this occurred?”
“I think he said it was in some place called Galice, but it does not exist any more. Now it is in Poland or Russia, I think.” So Benjamin continued to relay the story Jonathan had told him. “The Mother asked the kid if the guys on horseback had seen him. And she stood aside to let him enter. The kid nodded but immediately tried to put his mother at ease by saying, ‘but they seem to be in a hurry. It will be alright.’”
“His mother apparently blew a gasket. What if they had seen you? Stanislas, you are …’”
“The kid interrupted her, saying, ‘Old enough to help defend the motherland. I will be sixteen in a few months …’”
“‘Defend the Motherland? Your Motherland? So you are a philosopher now? Defend it from whom? Which side are you on, my young genius? Do you even understand the fighting well enough to say that? What is your homeland? Can you even tell me that? I know where your home is, do you know what your homeland is? No don’t sit down! There is no time. You go find your sister. She is back at the spring. Bring her here now! No, when you find her, give her your hat and shirt, tell her to put them on quickly and meet me in the potatoes. She is going to try to convince someone that he might have seen a girl in the field. You stay in the woods. Stay hidden down there! We will find you when it’s time.’”
I interrupted Benjamin with another question, “Did Jonathan say he said Motherland or Fatherland?”
Benjamin quickly answered, “I think, Fost said Stencil said, “Motherland.” Then Benjamin continued telling it. “Fost says that Stencil could remember that as he was swept out of the cottage, he could feel his mother press a chunk of brown bread into his hand. Much later, he would try to remember her face at that moment, just before he dashed out of her door, forever.”
Of course I had to ask, “did he say if it was dark brown bread or light brown?”
Benjamin replied, “no he didn’t say. But his sister seemed to understand even before he told her about their mother’s instructions. She was two years younger than Stanislaus, named Josephine. Apparently she responded to his description of the riders with no evident emotion. He was not surprised either. Stencil told Fost that life with those two women had convinced him that they communicated in their own channels. Even then, he sensed that he was delivering a pre-arranged signal; the actual message seemed altogether unnecessary. Then Josephine asked him ‘So where is Mother?’ while dropping the water pails to the ground as she ran toward Stanislaus, accepting his long shirt and hat.”
I had to interrupt again, “he said it was a long shirt, maybe something that hung down below the knee?”
“Uh-huh. I think so, maybe. Stencil told Fost that as he was watching his sister run up the hill toward the house he realized that he had not relayed all of their mother’s instructions. But he knew that she understood anyway. In mid dash,she stopped and turned back to face him. She insisted, in the commanding tone of a younger sister, that he remain hidden until she comes back.”
Lena and Benjamin at The Goal Post:
Several weeks later, the couple and the baby were again in State College, a nearby city. They were sharing a large order of fries and a beer, a big night out for them, considering their precarious financial situation.
Again, they sat under the large screen television, where played the Penn State football team's most dramatic game excerpts, on a continuous loop of perhaps eight full hours. Photographs of their beloved coach shaking hands with numerous celebrities hung over each table. Benjamin was reliving for Elena his undergraduate years there, apparently on similarly continuous loop, while Lena was wondering why all American restaurants were so loud. The couple drank their beer extremely slowly, while Benjamin found himself being goaded into telling his wife more about Stencil. "Years later, Stencil would try to explain himself and his past to me. And what Dad could tell me for sure was almost nothing. He told me that Stencil came to town; worked for most of the families who hired out work such as gardening, carpentry, and masonry."
"One day, sometime before dad was born, Stencil moved into the old Five and Dime building and started remodeling it for my Grandfather. By the time dad inherited it from his father, the store had become a bar, the town’s fourth most patronized establishment behind a couple churches and a diner. The sign out front said, ‘Talon's’ but everyone always called it ‘Stencil’s.’”
“You've been there, we went in it last week, remember the floor? What a mess! But even in its heyday, my grandparents would not even go into the place. Stencil ran it for them. You should see the floor! There is this mosaic of inlaid glass that takes the light from the rear windows and makes the whole place into a glittering prism! Fost said that one day Stencil just left a note and disappeared. We think he went to Baltimore.”
She just listened. This was all a part of Benjamin's past that he had never discussed in Europe. She nodded.
Jonathan Fost's later Explanation to Bethany Reichert:
Benjamin hadn't suspected himself, or maybe he'd already forgotten. Perhaps he had been too young to realize it. But Stanislaus Kestutis was not entirely gone from Irvingsberg. He would be there in gardens, retaining walls, soil stacks, floor drains, concrete walkways, plastered ceilings, and window frames throughout the small town. Few may remember him now at all, no one still living there marked his departure, really. But the history of the town could not be accurately told without him. Still, as the town’s lone historian realized, the history of the town was never accurately told anyway, could not be accurately told. Because history is like poetry and song, not a science. It is a matter of linguistics mostly and only provides examples but never a full explanation.
What no one here realized, was that Stanislaus Kestutis had already made his imprint on History in a much larger way, a hero to his nation, although that nation no longer existed. He was considered a freedom fighter to half of Europe, having been awarded honors for his valor by France, the United States, Poland, and Belgium. But, as Elena would learn, the Central Pennsylvanian, a newspaper, which even years later when she had spent hours searching through its digital searchable format, had not one reference to this man who spent most of his life in Irvingsberg.
What Benjamin could relay to Elena that evening were episodes and character traits, stories, just a few of the external facts, unanswered questions, really. That Stencil would mutter, almost constantly, Benjamin remembered. Stencil tried to explain himself in a barely audible stream of exotic names and European towns, cities, mountains, forests, and beaches. Usually, in a language too cumbersome in its slippery grammars and worthless articles that only Elena might appreciate though she never heard him speak. But Stencil’s explanations never delayed the progress he would have been making on a project, so people would just listen and nod. Was Stencil bragging? Was he attempting to enunciate a solemn confession? As the years flew by, Stencil seemed to realize, slowly, that no one was listening. So his explanation faded into an almost constant mumbling, almost as if he was trying to explain it all to himself.
Jonathan's Aside Into His Own Sleeve:
Of course, many of the answers to such questions had been painstakingly researched and archived over the years by the town’s historian, a fairly competent one too, when he put his mind to it. Neither Elena nor Benjamin could have known this yet, but the assembled history of the life of Stanislaus Kestutis now sat in three large cardboard boxes in what was left of the kitchen of a boarded up tavern, in Irvingsberg, Pennsylvania. It and she had somehow ended up in the same place, and as Elena might have said, herself, "Jonathan, this coincidence can not be without meaning.”
In a practical demonstration of historical prowess, Jonathan Fost recounts a conversation that he did not witness held at a place he had never been, about which neither recording device nor observer ever provided one shred of archival evidence:
Just as Randi began to stir again from the noise of yet another touchdown, Elena leaned over to Benjamin, and she had to speak loudly now to compete with the sounds from the screen over her shoulder, she said, “I know. I wish we had Stencil here now.”
Benjamin, who had been smiling at Randi looked back at his wife to say, “Oh Yea? Why?” Because he really did not yet know what was coming. Not even then did he suspect. Even at that late moment Benji thought they both understood their situation: they were sacrificing and scrimping to start a legal practice and a new life for all of them and they were doing it on a shoestring. In a place that hired few attorneys and needed even fewer, their life in the three habitable rooms in his parent's and grandparents run down home, much of its roof temporarily covered with plastic tarps, "just for now," driving one very old car he'd inherited from his Mother but which hadn’t been started for years when they found it in the garage. Their monthly entertainment budget of six dollars and fifty cents had just purchased their shared beer and fries and would cover the tip and the gasoline home, but nothing for a sitter. Benji had a lot on his mind right then so of course he was blindsided.
Elena, looking straight back into his eyes in that unnerving way she had of convincing any man of any thing, said only, “Because we are going to re-open Stencils.”