The morning’s daylight washed away the images of rats disguised as tin soldiers from my mind. Bright sunlight erased the shadows and removed any fear of hiding places on our little street. It was narrow and long. The buildings appeared to be five stories high and flush with light pastel colors marking the division between each apartment complex. The paint from the buildings were peeling, flaking, and rolling back in random patterns, and everything looked stained with dirty chalk. Nymphs and phantasmal creatures reached out from doorknobs and stoops — they bent over window ledges and doorways. Demonic water drains dry-heaved over mosaic ladies sleeping on doorsteps. There was a time when the colors had been vibrant, but were now faded. Pollution and neglect were abundant. The pot-holed street exposed bits of cobblestone like the slits in a skirt reveal bits of tantalizing skin. The effect was refreshing. I feared perfection. Perfect and polished were not real. If something were too pretty I didn’t trust it. I felt that the buildings and the streets needed to be restored to retain their strength and their dignity, but not to perfection — not to the point of hiding the past. There were no lies here hidden under painted facades. It was spectacular to look up at the manipulated and flowing stones pointing toward town, smiling about the future that lay ahead and the past they preserved deeply within their cracks. It was about finding the balance between light and dark, the ugly in the pretty, and the beautiful in the dirty. I was grateful there was no throat slashing alleyways on the street where we lived. It was littered with dog-poo.
People pushed and shoved their way through and around us to find a space to stand as they waited for the trams at Seifertova. There were multiple trams and bus lines that frequently arrived and departed. Marco informed me that our stop was in the middle of the road and that we would have to run when it arrived. But first he wanted to stop in one of the shops on the main street. We stepped down into what looked like a little bodega. It was the size of a small den, and smelled like a laundry mat. The counter spaces, three aisles, and walls were covered with packaged food with Czech writing.
“Dobry den,” Marco said to the man behind the counter.
“Dobry den,” the man replied.
Macro bought what looked like a small bag with four soft biscuits. Once we ran across the street to our stop he handed me one. “This will keep you till we can get some real food,” he said.
It was soft and spicy like a cinnamon roll, but not as sweet.
“European transportation is the shit,” said Marco in an almost gospel voice. I smiled over at him then looked down the track to watch a tram coming. I knew exactly what he meant. You never needed a car in the cities.
“But this commute is shit. It takes about an hour and forty-five minutes for me to get to school, and I’ve got to switch three times, and take three different forms of transport.”
“Where do you work?” I asked.
“In bumfuckinegypt the edge of Praha 19. Now normally, I don’t pay, but we must pay on this trip because with all the transfers it’s too fuckin risky and I cannot afford a 200 crown fee, and neither can you. So once we get to the metro, pay,” he said.
It hadn’t occurred to me not to pay.
“Muthufucker’s said they we’re going to get me a pass to get to school and I ain’t seen shit.” He mumbled.
We pushed into a crowded tram and stood shoulder to shoulder, rocking against each other as the tram rumbled through the morning streets. Through the barrage of city sounds, the droning engines of cars rushing, the clangor of the tram over steel rails, and all of the reverberation between the adjoining buildings, it seemed quiet. No one spoke on the tram, and the city cacophony blended into white noise.
We got off at Hlavní Nádrazí station then down the steep escalators into the underground levels of the Prague metro. There we bought a ticket and forced our way through the rapidly moving crowds. Marco pointed out the directions with silent nods and signals of his head. We took another escalator to a lower level and then rushed to squeeze onto the train. As it lurched forward, Marco stood swaying in the motion with his eyes closed, and I stared at all the faces of people heading to work, to school, home, or wherever they were going. The train was silent except for its loud hum and buzz as it sped through ancient shale and sandstone. At a stop, Marco tapped me on the shoulder and directed me with a quick nod toward the open doors. Then, pointing over the heads of strangers, he directed me to another escalator packed with people. It was the clichéd image of an escalator ascending into Heaven, just like a manipulated photography print I had seen many times in college dorm rooms. I felt lumpish following him around. I stumbled through the crowed toward the towering escalator, trying to catch up with him as he jumped with swift dexterous movements. I was afraid I was going to knock everyone off the ascending moving ladder and kill us all.
“Now, wait till we get to the top. It is not pretty out here. It’s nothing but old communist buildings all about progress and efficiency.” He made a little robot move with his body. “You know, efficiency is never pretty, and not always efficient.”
The sky was hazy, as though a gauzy veil hung in the place of clouds. We stood outside an uninspired grey stone station and waited for a bus. The city and the castle seemed suspended in the far distance like ornaments behind frosted glass. Once the bus arrived we waddled with the crowd and staggered toward two available seats near the front.
“I’m glad we got a seat, this is the longest part of the trip, and I’m tired of standing,” he said while he looked out the window for a brief moment then he crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. “Might as well take a nap.”
At the third stop, which felt like ten minutes from the last stop, a rotund elderly lady huffed with the weight and effort of her folding body as she pulled herself up the steps. She heaved a huge audible sigh that blew like a hot wind over everyone and then swayed toward the seats after paying her toll. The people on the bus shifted in their seats and looked away. No one offered her a seat.
“Fuck. That. I can hear her breathin. That fuckin’ lady is gonna come over and stand right where I’m sitting and breathe heavy lookin at me with her old sorry eyes and expect me to give her my seat. Fuck that.” He opened his eyes to peek at her then nodded to himself as if she was exactly as he had expected. He closed his eyes.
“Marco.” I whispered my eyes involuntarily flicked to the reactions of the other passengers, who were not reacting.
“No. I’ve fallen for that shit too many times. You’ll see. She’ll fuckin skip off the bus once she gets to her stop. Fuck that. I’m tired; I ain’t given up my seat. None of these fuckers ever give up their seats and I am always the sucker that ends up standing for the last forty minutes. Let someone else do it. I’m tired.” He kept his eyes closed.
It took her a lifetime to move up the isle, grunting with each step, while holding onto the back of a seat to catch her breath. She didn’t lift her feet but shuffled sliding one in front of the other. The bus rocked over the warbled street, and she waddled, and wiggled, and grunted a snort with each bump. It was excruciating to watch.
“See, I always act like I don’t notice them, look straight ahead like I’m oblivious an’ shit just like everybody else, but does that fuckin stop them? No.” He opened his eyes again to look at her. “Ah shit, see what I mean? Muthufucker’s eyen’ my shit right now.” He glared at me as if I had something to do with her manifestation.
“What?” I balked at his expression.
The woman stopped at Marco’s seat and sighed loud and low. Her presence was heavy and pressing causing a tension in the small of my back. She looked down at Marco with deep sorrowful lines carved into the flesh of her face. The sagging in her cheeks had darkened to light lavender. Marco sat as if he didn’t notice her. She sighed again, and adjusted her large pregnant purse. She could barley lift it up to her shoulder, and every time it slipped I imagined a newborn falling out. Marco stared out the window moving his head around as if he was listening to music. She began to stare at him burrowing down on him trying to bore into him. The whiskers on her chin bristled as she gave out a gurgle and a thick phlegm-soaked cough. I couldn’t believe how right he was; out of every person on that crowded bus she made a direct b-line for Marco. I was watching this war of wills unfold and both were determined to win. It was killing me. The throated phlegm noises were killing me.
“Oh god.” I said out loud. “I can’t stand it any longer.” And I stood up to offer the woman my seat.
The woman smiled at me pulling the lines in her face back, and she whispered something in Czech as she maneuvered her body and her large cumbersome bag to sit. She closed her eyes and sighed in satisfaction.
I stood beside Marco and held onto the rail above his head.
“You a dumb muthufucka. Now you gotta stand for half an hour.” He looked up at me with a scowl. “You tryin’ to make me look bad?”
I snorted out a laugh in his direction and shook my head in mild disbelief.
“It’s an act I tell ya.” He said lookin toward the lady. “I can’t wait till I’m old. I’m gonna be a mean sonofabitch. I’m gonna come onto the bus with my cane an’ shit hittin’ people: ‘Get the fuck outta my way! I’m old!’ I be hittin people over their knees an’ shit. ‘Fuck off, sonny, you fuck.’ Yayyayyyay. I’m gonna be crotchety and mean. Caaaaan’t wait. Steal kids balls an’ shit.” He started to laugh at himself. “I’ll get me a cudgel.”
He was silent a moment then looked up at me with wide excited eyes. “I’ll teach a murder mystery. Yeah. We’ll have a murder game.”