“Alice” by Krzysztof Mąkosa (short story)

The following is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

To Gosia

 

 

Alice

 

 

1

It happened suddenly, like an accident, in the fall of 1994.

Alice, a young woman he didn’t know, left a short message on his answering machine. She was a fan of Robert Lipkowicz, the Polish poet. She majored in Russian studies somewhere in California. She had his number from Mme. Bonté, Lipkowicz’s literary executor. 

Soon he found out more about her.

She had written, was writing or was going to write a Ph.D. dissertation about Gogol’s influence on Nabokov. She was of Polish-Russian descent and grew up in the US, so she spoke fluent Polish, Russian and English. She had literary ambitions and was on the editorial board of Blank, a magazine dedicated to postmodern American fiction. She dreamed of being a writer and knew almost everybody who counted in the book business.

She said she was translating Lipkowicz’s Fiddlesticks, a collection of, to quote an excerpt from a New York Times review, very atmospheric and compulsively readable poems, in which black humor and bittersweet irony mingle with dreamlike images. He said he was surprised to hear that, even though he wasn’t surprised at all. Four years later he’d tell her the truth: A critic named Karol Dobroczyński had written him several days earlier, mentioning her and her plans. I didn’t do much, to be honest with you, she said dismissively. Just two or three poems, that’s all. And in a bantering tone, she added that she wasn’t a man-eater eager to wheedle her way into his confidence only to use him, abuse him, and lose him. She didn’t have any bad intentions. After all, she’d sent a sample translation of Fiddlesticks to Christiane Racquette, Inc., not to A. Boner & A. Dudd Company which planned to publish his rendering of it. She just wanted to make friends with him, that’s all.

A goal-oriented, no-nonsense student, she was always busy, always doing things. She worked on several projects at a time, hoping to see at least one of them through to the end. Apart from Joseph Brodsky’s and Robert Lipkowicz’s poetry she was translating short stories by Adam Kan, a renowned but mediocre writer, and poems by Nina Drewnowska, an insipid poet she proudly referred to as her mother’s dear friend.

Very soon she sent him her translation of Kan’s short story, asking him to check it for errors. He couldn’t bring himself to refuse. Out of pure kindness, and to show off his dubious literary skills, he reworked it, changing almost every sentence in the process. He seemed helpful and unselfish (he didn’t ask for anything in return), so she suggested they meet in New York right before Christmas. And then she sent the revamped manuscript to Wigh & Wherefor, Inc., one of the publishers interested in his translation of Fiddlesticks.

 

2

Funny as it may seem, the person who munched on Waldorf salad across the table from him (in the Barnes & Noble café on Astor Place, the one with the mural of famous writers) was nothing like the girl he’d spoken to on the phone. The original Alice sounded nice and kind, whereas her New York persona struck him as jaded, aloof and bored with their conversation in general, and with him in particular. There was something peculiar about her full, sensual mouth, whose corners drooped every time she showed her indifference or contempt; her dispassionate face that brightened only when they talked about mundane things; and especially her maroon floppy hat with three fake violets, which he found too flashy and a bit too large. At one point he said she might want to trade her hat for a jaunty little beret. This sent her nostrils quivering with suppressed rage. And when he suggested she become his literary agent, she bristled and gave him a withering look. She can’t take a joke, that’s for sure, he thought with dismay. He also noticed that when she smiled her purplish-blue eyes, which sparkled like two sapphires, were expressionless and cold.

As they talked literary shop Alice removed her hat, swept her dyed brown hair from her face, and said that you couldn’t just walk off the street and get published; that while they might okay his translation they would definitely reject his foreword; that, as she remarked with mock sympathy, raising a derisive eyebrow, the shadowy they loved to bully their victims for fun because they treated criticism as a blood sport; that she knew the right people and had a much better chance to find a publisher; and that they (her and him) should do his translation, which he’d done a few weeks earlier, together.

He was stunned. After a long while he asked her to repeat. Seeing that she was deadly serious, he tried to turn the whole thing into a joke. Alice stiffened and blanched: she seemed ready to leave. But she composed herself quickly. She picked up his doughnut and slowly, with deliberation impaled it on her fork. Then she put it to her eye and studied him through the hole with a strange smile, half mocking, half flirtatious.

Two days later, when they met at his East Village apartment – a studio in a five-story walk-up with a Z-shaped fire escape and a lone streetlamp at the entrance – she gave him an old computer her friend Matt Dohr had lugged from California.

He didn’t accept her gift.

She wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He said he didn’t need it.

She said he must take it.

Finally, for the sake of peace and quiet, he capitulated.

And the next day he put it out on the street.

                                                                                         

3

She told him about her family in Poland.

Her father was a professor of law, her mother had a doctor’s degree in psychiatry. Her well-off, well-connected parents were among the best people in her hometown. Her mother kept open house, organizing artistic soirees, where exuberant ladies and bored gentlemen discussed cultural events, listened to music, poetry, and so on.

Alice came to America at the tender age of seven.

The world was as beautiful as a fairy tale that day, and mysterious as a dream, too.

Let’s plunge into this enchanted garden! The scents, the refreshing, heady scents!

He was struck immediately by her attitude toward her friends. She claimed, for example, that a certain Wallmount, Blank’s founder and editor-in-chief, was a disgusting pig. Staying at her place one night he behaved abominably, never mind the details. What’s more, Wallmount, a thin ruddy-faced man with crooked teeth, told her point-blank that he didn’t discuss serious things such as literature with snooty schoolgirls, period. And with a broad jack-o’-lantern smile, he added: I adore blondes with blue eyes like you. Know what I mean? Furious, Alice persuaded the other editors to oust him but by then Wallmount was so fed up with Blank that he quit himself. If she wasn’t more loyal to his successor, that was mainly because he’d stabbed her in the back. Soon afterward she let slip that this sneaky bastard had made it impossible for her to publish her translation of Joseph Brodsky’s poems.

She also told him about a Polish scholar recently arrived in America. Since the man could be very useful, Alice was quick to help him. A few days later, chuckling with glee, she said: He won’t refuse me anything now. You know what they say: Be good to people, and they will be good to you. Don’t forget that, my dear.

And yet their friendship fell apart, because Alice was bothering him with her translations of Kan’s disheveled prose and Drewnowska’s bland poetry. She even reminded him that he’d received quite an expensive gift from her. You’re out of line, my dear, he thought. This can’t go on. One sultry evening he lost all control of himself and hung up on her.

 

4

Two years had passed, and they renewed their friendship.

Alice was trying to publish her translation of Drewnowska’s poetry, but it so happened that she had a rival in a professor of Slavic languages and literatures, known for his excellent standing in the community and the deadly efficiency with which he eliminated his competitors, real or imagined. Ironically, she’d encroached on the turf of the academic-poet-translator who would several months later block the publication of his rendering of Fiddlesticks, in order for someone to change it (or, to be more exact, dumb it down for the general reader) and publish it as their own work.

One day Alice gave him some practical tips on how to break into print: Make friends in the business, build strong relationships with critics and peers, arrange for glowing reviews of your book, and get a famous author to write the foreword or afterword to it, or whatever. Be proactive, not reactive. Be assertive and think positive. And keep smiling. C’mon, tiger, you can do it! Her road to publication should be shorter and less tortuous than his, it seemed, because Drewnowska’s poems were a huge success with publishers and academics. Still, Alice was afraid that in revenge for her gross insubordination the almighty professor would, as she put it, flatten her like an empty can; and, in a quavering, almost tearful voice, she repeated over and over again: That slimy snake will ruin my future, my career, my whole life.

She collected herself, however, and phoned to congratulate him on his piece about academia, which she found awesome and amazing. In the same breath she said his style was a little unorthodox, sort of quirky or, better yet, mannered; and besides, she added, acclaimed authors didn’t write like that. She offered to find him a suitable publisher on condition that he send her his writings. When he turned her down she lost patience with him – for a while. Didn’t he know she was an honest and reliable person? Hadn’t she read Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina at his request? He had no reason not to trust her. She had never played any dirty trick on him. That was no way to treat friends! He was paranoid, or even worse!

He was deaf to her exclamations.

She decided to infuse their friendship with affection. She began to call him sweetheart. She told him about her suffering after their argument two years earlier. She even used the metaphor of a tunnel with a halo of light looming far in the distance. While she was going down that long tunnel, the light suddenly went out and she was shrouded in pitch darkness.

He was immune to her wiles.

Alice vented her frustration on him. She said he was colder than ice, horribly cruel, barely human, in fact. In her opinion, he took a sadistic delight in torturing decent people – such as herself, for example. She wanted to find out everything about him, meet his parents and befriend his wife who, she believed, was a real angel. She wondered how on earth poor Margot, his wife, could put up with such a monster… such a self-loving, selfish bastard, snob, phony, weirdo, total nut job. Rebel without a cause, angry young man, lone wolf. What a laugh! He called himself a writer? Who the hell did he think he was? But despite his serious and, let’s be frank, undeniable faults, she urged him to settle down in California, where he’d be safe and warm.

California?

He said he wanted to move to Madrid.

She said she loved Madrid.

He said he might go to Macedonia.

She said she liked Macedonia.

How about Macondo? he asked.

She didn’t mind Macondo.

Mocassa?

Why not?

There were other strange goings-on, too. Alice, for no apparent reason, wanted to show him her version of Fiddlesticks which, she said, probably wasn’t worse than his. When he refused to see it, she offered to send him a treatise on the art of translation she’d written with a friend of hers. He said he was too busy, of course. And when he asked her to tell him more about that treatise, she dismissed him with a curt Oh, pleeease!

One evening he discovered that Mme. Bonté would not let him publish his translation of Fiddlesticks, after all. Alice had found out about it from Blank’s new editor-in-chief, a well-informed, bowlegged individual with a barrel chest and a pear-shaped head. Anyway, somebody’s doing a new translation, she concluded with a verbal shrug. Everything around him held its breath. Who? he muttered into the phone. She didn’t know; that was a secret. And then she sent him her translation of Drewnowska’s poems, so he would proof it for slips and typos. This reminded him of his nocturnal adventure: He gallops to Grand Central, ties his horse to a lamppost, soars into the air, flies high above the tracks, falls like a missile into a freight train with CALIFORNIA painted on it in huge letters, and after a harrowing journey ends up in Penn Station, about a mile away, where his dream disappears. He braced himself and proofread her translation, but warned her that he would not revise her stuff again. This made her indignant, her pride rebelled. Gee, thanks, she said through clenched teeth. As he learned later, she had many helpers, big and small, to choose from.

Matt Dohr checked her translations for errors of English. Various bilingual Americans, including himself, helped her in various ways but were never mentioned in her acknowledgements. Fyodor D., a stern-faced Russian lecturer with a beard and the high forehead of a thinker, revised her translations of Brodsky’s poems. Karol Dobroczyński introduced her to famous literati, and her academic confreres provided protection for her in the publishing business. She participated in countless conferences, congresses and panel discussions, not to mention social events or business meetings, where she met many well-mannered, sensible, very resourceful and, above all, extremely stimulating people.

Finally, she arrived.

She made her debut in a prestigious magazine.

She was invited to deliver a public lecture on Drewnowska to more than a hundred people.

And with Karol Dobroczyński’s support, she signed a contract with a large publishing firm to translate a novel by Arek Niemowicz, the photographer-turned-writer.

 

5

Alice came to New York again in September of 1997.

They met in Washington Square Park, greeted each other with a great show of cordiality, and went to a Chinese restaurant on St. Mark’s Place. They sat down, examined the menu – he ordered: General Tso’s Chicken for me, and Shrimp and Broccoli Stir-Fry for this nice lady (who clapped her hands and exclaimed: God, I just love to eat! I’m, like, a hedonist.) At dinner Alice ticked off the reasons why she believed they should see more of each other. They both took pride in their creative work. They possessed admirable qualities, extremely rare in their line of business, such as integrity, independence, and self-respect. They were relentless in their pursuit of perfection. He often appeared in her dreams, and she needed a fellow traveler, whatever she meant by that. She thought it would be wonderful if he could teach her some useful things, because she had that extra something, the divine spark, and worked very, very hard. She was confident that she would make all her dreams come true.

Alice explained what she meant by a fellow traveler. Now Matt Dohr, her current fellow traveler or, more precisely, her husband (this she confessed with a hint of disappointment in her voice) was a real angel: here the corners of her mouth drooped. Matt loved and admired her – she wrinkled her delightful upturned nose and curled her carmine-red lips into a sneer – but, to be honest, that wasn’t at all what she wanted. What she really wanted – her slim, narrow hands were kneading an invisible chunk of dough or clay – was a meaningful relationship, preferably with a member of her profession: here she fixed him with her sparkly sapphire-blue eyes. He cleared his throat and took a gulp of ice water. He noticed that the two fellows seated to their right, one of them crop-headed, the other shaggy, were watching them suspiciously.

The conversation shifted to other topics. Alice put down her chopsticks, patted her lips with a napkin, and said quietly, as if to herself, that she was disgusted with her Blank associates. Once or twice she even called them cynical opportunists and, rolling her eyes ceilingward, groaned: What a cesspool! They criticized their friends in the business, of course, especially the most successful of them. It was common knowledge that Mr. A. was practically semiliterate. What would he do without all these editors and proofreaders? Mr. B., who fancied himself a great poet and translator, wanted to translate The Divine Comedy, even though his Italian was limited to pronto and presto. Mr. C. had no clue about the basic rules of rhyme, and so his politico-literary acrobatics would go to waste. What a shame. Poor Ms. D., blah, blah, blah, ha, ha, ha.

As for her new friends, Alice said she reproached herself for having met Arek Niemowicz, the writer-cum-photographer whose novel she’d recently begun to translate. Why? Crumpling the napkin in her hands, she told him a fiendishly complicated story that he couldn’t, for the life of him, understand. Finally, she blurted out that there were photos… of her and Arek… kissing. This was Arek’s handiwork, no question. Who would’ve thought it? Damn shutterbug. Amazing… people have no sense of decency, she said with a resigned sigh. She’d vowed never to see Arek again. She didn’t want him to get the impression that there was something going on between her and Arek. I would never ever do that to Matt, she declared with emphasis. What about flirting? Well, she did like to flirt, especially with literary men or, more broadly, men of artistic temperament. Flirtation, she said in a schoolmarmish tone, frowning and glaring at him, was part and parcel of her sexuality. She drew herself up and with small fussy movements of her hands smoothed her scarlet dress over her knees.

He changed the subject. How was Karol? He wondered if Karol Dobroczyński, a grizzled sixty-year old professor with a gentlemanly manner, would help him publish Fiddlesticks, as he’d promised. Alice said she was disillusioned with Karol, though she’d quite recently extolled him as a man of honor. She even claimed that Dobroczyński had turned into a pathetic hack and, like most critics, was busy churning out you-know-what. But wait, there’s more! she said, her sallow face wreathed in smiles. Good old Karol has a new babe, a black-haired student with the face of an angel. The funny things is, when his wife drowns her sorrows in drink in the kitchen downstairs, Karol cavorts with his luscious lady friend in the master bedroom upstairs.

He blinked a few times, as if waking from a dream, and mumbled something. Alice, meanwhile, had crossed her legs, tilted her head to one side, and pursed her lips. Her eyes half-closed, she was watching him with a playful look. And suddenly she began to rub her slender black-stockinged foot up and down his shin. Great footwork, by God! Delicious languor, blissful nonexistence. Fire in the belly, tingling in the loins. Shouldn’t I have a bit of fun? he asked himself. He was a happily married man, as they say, but so what? What was the harm in a little fling? And if, God forbid, Margot found out about his innocent affair he would just shrug his shoulders and brazenly deny it.  

He gulped hard. His limb throbbed. Their fingers intertwined. Casablanca. Madama Butterfly. Their eyes met.

I love you, she lied.

I love you too, he lied.

I’ll do my best to help you, she lied.

I know, he lied.

Soon after that she stuck her chopstick into a piece of shrimp and, twirling it between finger and thumb, with a coquettish smile she purred: Care for a tasty morsel, kitty cat?

And when he wanted to give her a hug or a kiss – not far from a brownstone in Greenwich Village – Alice recoiled, frightened. Don’t. Somebody may see us, she hissed, stealing glances around. But after a moment she cooed: Maybe next time. She adjusted her hat, wiggled her fingers and, swinging her hips, tip-tapped her way toward Sixth Avenue.

Night. Blurred orange lamplights all around. Townhouses with stoops, looking at each other across the tree-lined street. A yellow van with the sign Trust Us goes past, followed by an eerily white stretch limo. Somebody yells Ouch! somebody else whistles, slightly off-key, It Ain’t Necessarily So. Horn honks. Silence. Mechanically he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a fortune cookie strip saying: A friend will soon bring you a gift.

 

6

They never met again.

A few weeks later somebody persuaded Karol that there was no point in helping some bum off the street. Sweetie, before you go downstairs to bring me a glass of Scotch – let’s discuss this ridiculous New York thing. [She sits down on the edge of the bed, sweeps her dyed black hair from her face, takes out her sapphire-blue contacts, and rolls the stocking down her leg.] Shall we?

Dobroczyński, a respectable and reasonable man if ever there was one, informed him that, unfortunately, and very regrettably, he didn’t know how to help him, honest to God.

When he told her about his conversation with Dobroczyński, Alice said in the cool, matter-of-fact voice he knew so well: Oh, please, what did you expect from that old hack? But when he told her who had poisoned Mme. Bonté’s mind against him, who had done everything to kill his project, and who had plotted with his enemies to put him out of business, she was silent for a while, and then gasped: Have a heart, you know, have a heart.

And when for reasons known only to himself he called her the next day, her husband, a respectable and sensible man if ever there was one, leaped to her defense. Matt snatched the phone from her and told him, voice cracking, that this whole story about Alice was fiction, and nothing but fiction.

Who knows, maybe Matt was right. Perhaps everything was as it should be. Maybe he was insane, and his tale completely invented. Perhaps it was all a dream. 

Who knows?

 

 

 

New York, October 10, 1998

 

 

© Krzysztof Mąkosa

 

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