The rattle clack hum swaying of the cold steel train shakes my belly and head as I sweat out a bohemian style hangover. Czech beers are insidious, a tool brewed to pacify the populous. One is never enough, ten is almost enough, by fifteen in you are shoulder to shoulder with a knot of new friends pissing an anti fascist slogan on the wall of an alley. Fifteen in and you’re too drunk to realize the world is passing you by along with sunrise pedestrians on their way to work. Grey bodies off to work, heads down collars up, stepping carelessly on the cracks in the sidewalk, off to work, never noticing your pissing stance in the alley as they suffer through hangovers of their own.
“Czech people are caught in a vicious cycle, “ Peter said last night as we drank mugs of pilsner at a long community table in a dark pub near the cathedral. “The only way to cure the hangover is to drink again. All Czech people do is work and drink, work and drink, work and drink.” He pauses to drink. “And then we die”. He finishes lifting his mug from the table and toasts us “pro zivot zijeme, není zivot jsme chteli”.
We all drink. I take a drag off my cigarette. The ribbon of smoke twists around the ankles of a dummy hanging from the rafters by a noose.
“What does this mean?” asks Féder, a professor from Buenas Aires, now in Prague to guest lecturer on León Ferrari. Not for Ferrari’s work as a conceptual artist but for the articles he wrote for the left-leaning Agrentinian newspaper página . In the two years since the fall of communism the intellectuals at Charles University stopped looking over their shoulder for brown shirts and became obsessed with artists in exile
“To the lives we live, not the lives we wanted.” Peter translates.
Féder nods and drinks. As do I.
“Look at this fucking sheep,” Peter points to a swollen faced guy in a blue blazer standing at the bar, his back turned to us, ordering mugs of pilsner for his crew. The white salt stains on the underarms of his blazer indicate the high water marks of his daily detoxing. The white rings of dry sweat from each armpit bisect across his middle spine like overlapping salt-water ripples. “Three years ago that fuck was a loyal communist now he thinks he’s a goddam American college boy. A sigma-fucking phi getting ankle tattoos and talking about the NBA.”
“Show your tattoo!” Peter shouts at him in English. Turning around he mouths jíst hovno back to Peter.
Peter looks us over running his fingers through his long hair. His eyes are red and tired. He looks like shit for a twenty five year old. “It’s a fucking Mickey Mouse.” He shakes his head. “Right here, fifty years ago, tattoos were a death mark. Now this fuck gets Mickey Mouse tattooed on his skin. Mickey Mouse, the rodent mascot to the grand simulacra. The big-eared symbol of inauthenticity, all the architecture none of the grit. To the new Prague!” Peter lifts his mug and swills. He wipes up a puddle of spilled beer off the table with a napkin, wads it up and throws it at the communist turned frat boy, “Fuck You!”
The wet wad lands like organ meat falling from a butcher’s table with a splat in the middle of the their table. None of the men turn around. They just huddled closer together in a calculating not cowardly way.
I look up from my beer at the dummy hanging from the rafters directly over my head. On the bottom of its bare feet are blisters from cigarette lighters.
“I haven’t spoken in three weeks,” I say. My voice sounds lame.
Peter looks at me. “Say that again.”
I clear my throat, “I haven’t spoken in three weeks,” I repeat a little stronger.
“Illinois?” he asks me.
I look at him blankly.
“Say it one more time,” Peter’s eyes are studying my mouth.
“I haven’t spoken in three weeks,” I say for third time.
I shake my head.
“Mid-West though? Right?”
“Colorado,” now saying the seventh word I’ve said in three weeks.
“C’mon, give it to me. Colorado is pretty much the Mid-West. Not bad for a guy who has never left Prague.”
The train pitches laterally rocking me from my revere of last night’s events. I’m hungry, thirsty and so hung over I can hardly open my eyes. My right hand is sore and my temples throb. The door slides open filling the train with bitter cold air. Sitting across from me a mother, broad shouldered and mannish, restrains a young pre-school aged boy whom is destined to suffer with his flat head and wide-set abuse me eyes. Her hand clamps the sleeve of his mustard yellow nylon jacket. The boy, goat born, bleats and hisses his frustration of being held captive by this ugly woman. The cords of his caprine neck protrude as he pulls desperately to slip through the closing gap of the steel door. To escape. The mother jerks him back as the train lurches forward. The child loses his balance and slams the back of his head hard into the cold corner of the windowsill. His eyes meet mine as he winds up for a howl of pain. The train lurches again slamming his thick head even harder into the window. The child looses consciousness. The mother puts his head on her lap and strokes his coarse black hair. I am grateful for the silence in which to suffer through this hangover.
Of the many women in the pub last night there was only one worth noticing. Selena. Selena, smoking a thin cigarette, slides down closer to our group.
“Why you not speak for three weeks,” asks Féder.
“I have nothing to contribute to the peanut butter vegemite debate.” I say.
“I’ll bite,” Selena says looking at me from behind jet-black windowpane bangs pausing to allow the full effect of the double entendre. “what is the peanut butter vegemite debate?”
Peter and Féder both lean in as if the answer to this question holds some importance. “It’s the hot topic of Australian backpackers. If they find out your are from America they feel the need to argue why vegemite is better than peanut butter.”
“They have to have pride in something,” Selena remarks. Her accent is one in which you would expect her to end every sentence with darling. “Do you like peanut butter very much?” she asks.
“What’s peanut butter?” This my patent response to the dopey Australians who widen their eyes and drop their jaws as they try to wrap their heads around the idea that an American exists having never heard of peanut butter.
Selena blows smoke out of her pursed red lips. “Of course the boy who doesn’t speak for three weeks has never heard of peanut butter.”
“Why speak now?” asks Peter.
“Tell me about the velvet revolution,” I ask him.
Peter reaches for the bag of Drum tobacco sitting in the middle of the table and begins rolling a cigarette. “In 1967 my grandfather was tied naked to a steel bed frame, just the frame.” He pauses to moisten the glue on the rolling paper. “You know Samizdat?” Peter asks. I shake my head no. “Samizdat were pamphlets written by agitators. Samizdat was a clandestine way of passing information about activity in the Soviet bloc. Very fucking dangerous to do. My grandfather was tougher than your cowboys. He wrote, edited, published and distributed anti-communist pamphlets until he got tied to a fucking bed frame by the secret police. They hooked up a car battery to the frame and shocked him until the battery ran out. Again and again and again.”
The wet napkin wad remained untouched in the middle of the frat boy’s table.
“One is born an agitator.” Peter continued. “My grandfather, my father, me, we are all born agitators. Even if we were born in a sprawling estate on your Cape Cod with silver spoons stuffed in our mouths we would organize to shut down the boarding school we were shipped off to. It’s our nature. My grandfather was tied to a steel bed frame and shocked in cycles for 10 days for being caught writing Samizdat, my father disappeared during the Prague Spring, and me?” Peter pulls back his hair reveling a creator in his forehead where a truncheon caved it in “I got this November 17, 1989, the first day of the student protests…”
“The revolution that eventually ousted the Soviets.” Selena finished.
Peter’s dark eyes focus on the full mug of beer in front of him. He stares at the retreating head as the foam bubbles pop. The frat boys, vying for attention from some ladies one table over, laugh and slam hands on the tabletop. More people arrive in the pub shaking off the cold looking for seats in the crowded bar. The frat boy with the Mickey Mouse tattoo turns around. He wears a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt beneath his blazer. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Peter asks shaking his head. “We traded Soviet control for the long hard cock of capitalism and I helped force open the legs.”
“You could not know what lie in wait beyond the Iron Curtain,” says Féder.
“I should have assumed it was shit,” Peter says bitterly before continuing his story. “Artists toppled the oligarchy. Artists and students. After the government attack on protestors on the 17th, as I lay unconscious on my mothers couch, the actor’s went on strike along side the students. Theaters were transformed into gathering places for the disenfranchised. From the stage agitators would speak of revolution to a packed house. Our cry for change was familiar to all attending, except this time we were not whispering our discontent in bars over beers for fear of persecution we screamed them from the stage. Within ten days of the student attacks the entire country went on a two hour strike. Two days after that the constitution was amended to abolish the control of the communist party. The revolution happened while I lay on my mother’s couch with a bandage around my head.”
“This could never happen in your country.” Peter says to me.
I was not in the mood for another peanut butter vegemite debate. Europeans assume all Americans are the spoiled cousin come to visit the salt mines from the country club bringing our cheap first world problems in luxury suitcases bitching about tennis elbow and skin cancer. “No shit,” I say eyes locked on to Peter’s, “agitators are just idealists leading the way to a dead end. Congrats on your successful revolution.” I raise my glass. Selena moves closer to me. Peter gets up to take a piss. The frat boys follow him. Féder taps my shoulder and we rise together readying for a fight. Selena looks up at the dummy. It’s wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt.
“Until soon,” I say bending over to kiss Selena’s cheek.
“Until soon,” she returns.
The rattle clack hum swaying of the cold steel train shakes my belly and head as I sweat out a bohemian style hangover. Czech beers are insidious…