A Doctor's Lullaby

Joan Menefee

The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn —John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
1. Karel shuffled through a thick pile of photographs, unsuccess-fully trying to take a few well ordered notes about each one. Next to his desk, his colleague, Alois, slammed a metal filing cabinet drawer open and shut, over and over. He was strong enough to move the gun metal gray box on its tracks quite quickly and, for a moment, Karel became afraid that Alois would start a friction fire and run off, leaving him to explain the burning piles of handwritten staff notes and charts to the hospital director and janitors. “What is this, Karel? Eh?” he asked, above the racket, nodding toward the drawer he continued to slam and yank. Karel put down his pen and shrugged, taking the occasion to loosen his shoulders and push away from the cold desk, which was scattered not only with the unfinished notes and accompanying photos, but also medical charts and an uneaten sandwich. He said nothing. “One of our patients caught in an automatic door!” Alois said triumphantly. Alois claimed that since he found their work at the hospital depressing, he needed periodically to lighten things up. Karel noticed that these jokes were always about the children they treated and wondered, not for the first time, why Alois had chosen to become a doctor. The crude jokester banged the door behind him, upsetting half a dozen crutches that Karel had hastily set against the cinder block wall as he rushed home the week before; they crashed to the floor, making a hollow, clumsy music. Karel couldn’t get out of his head the vision of a child caught whirling in a cold maelstrom. Whatever thought about the photos he might have been coaxing five minutes before had departed permanently. As Karel cleaned up the pile of crutches he thought about his fellow doctor. Alois assumed that because they were both “men of science,” they must be alike. He couldn’t see how different Karel was. Alois was born in Prague and drove his car to work each morning. He lived with his wife and daughters. He saw these daughters differently from the girls they treated in the hospital. It was easy for him to make fun of the soapy abstractions he heard his wife cooing as she put his girls to bed. “Angels are beautiful creatures, like you but with wings,” Alois, with some disdain, recounted her saying to them. “They go barefoot outside. They fall through clouds laughing.” In Karel’s heaven, dogs have wings, and little girls get pulled along behind them, red-faced and only a bit fearful. If they run along behind those dogs long enough, the girls eventually end up with wings. There are butterflies the size of men and doorways through which we walk and everything changes colors. He sends these stories to his son who lives with his mother in Berlin, a teeming city in a foreign country. To the boy, the Czech village where Karel grew up and still resides, Tabor, is a fairy place in a language he never quite learned to speak. His mother, Lucka, grudgingly translates the letters into German. “Speak Czech to him,” Karel once implored her. She refused. “Fairy stories in Czech are all right for seven,” she said severely, “but for eight there should be books about trains or computers.” Lucka threatened to stop translating the stories for Vitek. If she did, Karel wondered what could he do for his son then. Last week, Lucka prompted the boy to ask for a book about submarines, but he still couldn’t form the word submarine in Czech and Karel finished it for him in German. He asked him about school, about his playmates, about his shoes, in baby-baby Czech, but Vitek stopped trying to reply and handed the phone back to his mother. “Speak to him so he can understand you,” she said and passed the phone back once more. “I love you, son,” Karel said in German. With that, he hung up the phone, made himself a cup of tea, and turned on the television. His ex-wife no longer blames him for failing to give her the life she wanted. She married a native Berliner, but rarely speaks of him. Once she told Karel that her husband prefers her always to speak German because he doesn’t like the idea that she might speak so he can’t understand her. The presence of a language other than his own unsettles him. Little wonder Vitek speaks no Czech. 2. When I was barely out of high school, before I could imagine being a doctor, I thought I knew what adult life would be like. But I was wrong. Instead of the Sunday suppers and violin recitals on the back lawn, I have documentaries about agriculture in Iowa and the smell of formaldehyde and lye soap on my hands. I hold a morsel of fruit in my mouth that reminds me how dry my mouth is. At the tender age of forty two, I’m discovering the fine points of solitude. I have memorized the materials of life, slipped a gloved hand into a cool, legless corpse and learned to tolerate hospitals to continue the profession I embarked on to support a family. My specialty is bones. Six months ago, I took a job in Prague at this clinic where a new procedure to treat bone-length discrepancies is being tested. Alois is on staff with me here. At first, I got lost every day in the great sprawling hospital compound surrounded by busy streets. Be-fore I took this job, I had only ever been to Prague on school trips. On one such trip, I got separated from my schoolmates en route to an aeronautics museum. Standing on the quay, with trains halting, their doors opening and closing, so quickly it seemed to me then, I fought back tears and strode back and forth with my hands stuck in my jacket pockets. I knew only the name of the station I wanted: Palmovka. At each end of the quay, I peered down the tracks. All four of the tunnel entrances appeared identical to me. All were dark and slightly damp, the sugary smell of axle grease rising from them. A woman with shiny dark hair, eyeglasses, and big white teeth that seemed to make her lips disappear came up beside me. I found myself asking her how to get to Palmovka station. I was so nervous about asking that I didn’t see her face wrinkle up in concentration as I spoke. “Jedu do Palmovky,” she said slowly and solemnly. (“I am going to Palmovka.”) I had never heard an accent like this before. I had understood city people to talk more quickly than us country people. “Mužu jet s vámi?” (“Can I go with you?”) I asked it in a rush of relief, seeing a solution to my predicament. She just stared at me, smiling still. “Nejsem Ceška,” she finally said. “Mluvim jenom trošku česky. Ale mužete se mnou.” (“I am not Czech,” she said. “I only speak a little Czech. But you can travel with me.”) I nodded open-mouthed, never having met a foreigner and amazed at the sound of my language in her mouth. I waited near her for the train to emerge from the darkness. If a fact can make a woman prettier, that is what happened. For she was suddenly all the more rare for having floated up to me through, not only the fright-ening anonymity of this large city, but from the immensity of the whole world. We continued to try to speak, our eyes dancing with the effort. Though she seemed to understand much of what I asked her, she made little reply. I suppose she preferred to speak correctly, but not much, rather than volumes badly. In hindsight, I understand her inclinations very well. Once aboard the train, she sat and I stood; I wanted to be able to see everything outside the windows. I hadn’t yet learned that they would remain dark for most of the ride. I moved my gaze between her hands folded in her lap and my reflection in the train window. The compartment was like a cheerful kitchen on a dark winter afternoon, the rumble and clatter of the aluminum doors like pots and pans rattling on the stove. I wanted to kiss her hand when we parted on the crowded quay at Palmovka. Catching it as she brought it up to wave good-bye, I would seize the soft round of her palm, what I know now as the short thenar muscles, and squeeze the sinew that connects these muscles to the metacarpals. I would brush her knuckles with my lips. But as soon as the train stopped and the doors opened, she grabbed my hand before I knew what was happening and shook it quickly. Holding my arm as if it were asleep, I watched her back disappear among those impatient to board the train. I now know that the best way to avoid getting lost is always to travel along the same routes. For instance, I ride the train in from Tabor early every Tuesday morning and take the subway straight to work. There is a boarding house not far from the hospital where I stay Tuesday and Wednesday nights. And every Thursday evening I take the 5:30 train back to Tabor. I call Vitek right when I get home at seven. Each Thursday I take the same path through the dusky rooms, switching on lights, my chin bracing the phone. After the call, my son’s uncertain voice still lapping in my ears, I walk through my apartment looking at the furniture I inherited from my parents. My father died when I was a child, not long after the Second World War, my mother in her fifties, of cancer, when I was in medical school. Here, the heavy oak armoire and desk I dragged up the narrow cement stairs of the building on my own. There, the cupboard that reaches to the ceiling. One can hardly see the walls of this apartment. 3. Alois advised Karel to move to Prague. “What in the hell could be keeping you in Tabor? Not the money!” he cried, pouring two more shots on a Wednesday evening when Alois should have been at home. Karel had no answer. Except that if he left, there would be no sign that he, or his parents, or his ex-wife, or his son ever lived there. Except that he would drive himself crazy in the tunnels of Prague, in the tiled halls and echo chambers of the subway. He would spend his time looking for the twinkling woman with glasses or the twelve year-old boy with his hands shoved in his jacket pockets racing back and forth between the trains, like a dog crazy for his master to come home. Karel knocked his heels against his old leather briefcase and ate a banana, both sad and anxious to be on his way back to the city Alois thought he should abandon. He thought of Alois’s joke again, feeling somehow their patients would never be free to walk carelessly down a flight of stairs or kick a ball across a field with doctors like himself and Alois treating them. He tried not to look at his faint reflection in the window. He tried not to breathe too deeply the harsh lye or earthy banana he exuded. With any luck, he would fall asleep before the train had finished its first drunken lurch forward. He hadn’t looked at his evening’s companions twice. The car was filled with commuters who lived in the towns scattered on the perimeter of Prague. There was a couple with an infant. The child slept with his head resting on his father’s knees. The mother kept fussing with their bags and packages, as if she were too accustomed to worry to lean back and watch the child sleep. There was a young man in the corner wearing a satin baseball jacket. A girl of indeterminate age sat hunched forward in a center seat and inspected her tickets frequently. An older man sat sucking audibly on his dentures by the window opposite Karel. After forty minutes, the train made its first stop and all but Karel and the hunched girl departed. Karel stood up to open the window. Hands on the cool knobs, he turned politely and asked the girl if she minded a little air. She did not respond but instead reached into the bag at her feet. As the train resumed motion, Karel remained standing and the girl, who was not from Tabor or Prague but America, inspected her passport. She smoothed back the thin embossed pages, running her hand along the perforated numbers at the top. Meanwhile Karel looked out the window and at the girl’s reflection through which images of trees and powerlines cut. He imagined her in a dusty train station, watching hours of arrivals and departures register and vanish from the reader board, like the noisy blinking of a hundred square black eyes. With a large bag on her shoulder, perhaps she stared at the tracks beneath the car for a moment before she pulled her weight up the first long step of a westbound train. As the train whistle blew a final warning, she checked her passport, as she might every time she left a city. She then looked at the sign along the brick wall opposite the corridor window, searching for a word more like Prague than any others, before she seated herself in an empty car that darkened as it entered a tunnel. There she sat, Karel thought, the train’s perpetual racket weaving itself tightly with her thoughts. And then Karel’s mind turned once again to work. The envelopes in his briefcase held photographs of adolescents, girls undergoing a new treatment for bone-length discrepancy under his direction. There were over fifty full length portraits of adolescent girls with washed-out fingerprint faces; each wore a long, retractable brace on one leg. The bone treatment consisted of making a series of incisions in the shorter bone and fitting it with this brace; then each day for one to five months the brace was opened a fraction of a centimeter. The natural scar material was supposed to grow and lengthen the short bone. This weekend Karel had to sort through the photos and begin preparing a portfolio of subjects exhibiting exemplary progress. But progress had been slow, slower than Karel’s most conservative projections. And he was not an incautious man. Worse than the disappointment of the hospital board was the disappointment of these girls. Either very scrawny or overweight from never being able to join in sports and games, the girls’ bodies were Karel’s sharpest reproach. He watched them stutter, rub their chapped lips, and push up their glasses. He shrunk from touching their pimply skin, dandruff, hangnails, and rashes. Karel kept this secret: he hated leaning over their shackled legs and turning the long screw to open the brace the next painful distance. Karel closed the window and sat back down. The girl began to flip more erratically through her passport and tickets. She had pulled her bag onto her lap and, when the train slowed a couple of times going through smaller towns, she made like she was going into the corridor. After another half an hour had gone by, she moved over a seat so she was directly across from Karel and started speaking. He understood only the word “English.” He had to shake his head. “I do speak German,” he said in German after a moment’s thought. The girl paused, then asked in labored schoolgirl German, “Isn’t there another stop in Prague?” “We left Prague well over an hour ago,” he said, not quite realizing how distressing this information was. “We won’t stop again until Tabor. This is an express train.” Karel had become so accustomed to the crying of girls that for a moment he just watched her face grow flushed and her eyes small and shiny. Finally, remembering his manners and conditioned by medical training, he pulled out his handkerchief and offered it to her. 4. In German far worse than Karel’s, the girl with whom he shared the train compartment said her name was Amy. She also informed him she was out of money and scheduled to catch a flight from Frankfurt back home to California in a week’s time. He felt a familiar stab of pity, seeing how everything about her—her large bag, foreign accent, and American manners—would attract the attention of thieves and swindlers, who were always thick where tourists could be found. He offered her a place to stay until she could make new travel arrangements. She followed him from the train station visibly uncomfortable. Following me, Karel thought, is a risk she must feel she has to take. If she were his own daughter, he would berate her for going home with a middle-aged male stranger. He kept a careful distance from her to reassure her that he wanted only to help. He didn’t even look at her very long, knowing how painful it is to be studied. His apartment building was on the opposite side of Tabor from the train station, the northern hillside. They mounted the winding road to the cathedral, stretching their legs gratefully on the surprisingly pleasant early spring evening: already dark, but not drearily so. A few old couples walked along too, their hands clasped behind their backs. When they arrived at the narrowest streets and abandoned buildings of the Old Town, Amy moved swiftly to the gray glassless windows. She leaned over the sill of one window and surveyed the rubble inside the room. Even in its disintegration and abandonment, Tabor was beautiful. Its shards and dust settled into symmetrical mosaics. Its open windows promised occupants soon to return. Karel missed the first and last daubs of sunlight on the stocky hillsides as he rushed to catch early trains and trudged home in the evenings, half-dead. But he saw them now. 5. Even before Vitek was born, I felt out of time. My marriage to Lucka was hurried, her pregnancy a shock to us both. Ten years younger than me, she moved into my parents’ apartment, giving over her future and fortunes to my wiser judgment. She shuffled her growing form around my dead mother’s belongings until I told her it was alright to store what she didn’t like in the basement. My debate about whether or not to quit medical school was effectively quelled as I watched her make space first for herself, and then our son. As a doctor, I could be sure to provide well for them both as long as they needed. There was so much stuff that there wasn’t enough room in the basement for everything Lucka wanted to store. My mother had saved my father’s belongings along with those of her parents. Lucka and I saved theirs. I banged my shins on oak chests filled with high- school examinations and compositions, programs from recitals and plays, sheet music, loose photographs, discolored onionskin paper. My biology, chemistry, endocrinology, and anatomy notes were stacked above these. If I needed reminding of all those hours spent in drafty lecture halls with my jacket pulled up around my ears, I had only to peer into these boxes. As I lay in bed, even as I held Lucka, images of cells and skeletons tumbled slowly before my eyes, like leaves letting go of tree branches on a windless night. Distraction, one might call it. Maybe that’s the way Lucka com-plained about it, if she ever complained. I admit I had no clue. I saved my attention for my job where there was always too much to remember. So many things, in fact, that I felt condemned to forget something one day. 6. Amy followed Karel from one room of his apartment to another, his damp handkerchief cool in her hand. Tired of trying to speak German and not getting the impression that she understood much anyway, he gestured silently to sink, toilet, and window latch. When they got to Vitek’s room, Karel went to the linen closet to get a face towel for her. The room was furnished with a bed that seemed high for a boy. A good-sized child would have had to lean his whole chest over the side and hoist his legs up to get onto this proud bed. Amy sat, her feet not quite touching the floor, and looked around. The walls were lined with chests of drawers as if the room were an antique shop rather than the sleeping place of a child. Beyond a shelf of books with brightly colored covers, there was nothing in the room that indicated a child had ever slept there. Karel knew the bedclothes were rough because he hadn’t laundered them much. There was not even a lamp beside the bed. Vitek came briefly to Tabor in the summers, though Lucka had warned Karel last year that this summer might be the last. When Karel returned, he put the towel on the bed and stepped outside the door again. The room was too crowded with furniture for two adults to stand comfortably inside it. “Your son’s room?” Amy asked. On the train, Karel had shown her a photograph of Vitek kneeling by a soccer ball. He nodded. “Hungry?” he asked, miming raising a spoon to his mouth as he said it. Amy shook her head. Karel went to the kitchen anyway. He beckoned Amy into the dining room and set a plate of raw potatoes and a cup of tea before her. He had not learned to cook in the five years since Lucka left him. The raw potatoes were mealy and sweet, the last of his cousin’s late fall harvest. Amy looked as though she had never eaten a raw potato before, but politely followed Karel’s example, and shaved chunks of the pale flesh from the orb with her front teeth. At ten, Karel indicated that he was going to bed. The pair mounted the stairs and closed their doors at the same time. 7. Vitek was born under a sickle moon. I remember looking up at its faint outlines in the still-light early evening, as the nurses held him struggling on the scale. I tried to commit everything about that evening to memory. But all I got was that image of the moon, like a scar where someone had dug his fingers into his own palm. Lucka, perhaps rightly, felt Vitek was the only thing in the world that belonged to her. Sometimes, when I asked her if I could hold the baby, she looked at me like I was crazy. Was it because I was asking to hold my own child, or because I wanted to hold him at all, that she looked at me like that? Work took me away from them; I believed it was natural for a mother to become closer to her child than its father. But the moment I took Vitek from her hands and felt him arch his back in my arms, I began to hate my work more than ever. That might have been the same day Lucka began talking about Germany. She had just finished nursing Vitek and was letting him tug on her braid. “An outing will do us good,” she said, casually. “I have too much work,” I said, “and Vitek’s too small.” I promised to make it up to her somehow. She buttoned up her sweater and took my teacup to the sink. In bed that night, or maybe it was weeks later, she whispered, “I think we should leave here for good.” Vitek slept noiselessly in the crib at the foot of the bed. “What would we do once we left?” I asked her. She surprised me. I had never considered myself oppressed by political or social circumstances in Tabor. I had been born after the war. My father’s death seemed to shield my mother and me from political scrutiny. My mother had complained little, and then not about freedoms or ideals, but about shortages. Lucka, if anything, was better connected than I was. Her father was a small-time party official. “Live,” was all she said. Then she closed her eyes and refused to answer further questions. Whipping tails of paramecia drifted before my eyes. I fell asleep. 8. At eight the following morning, Karel went to Tabor’s local clinic where he also worked part time. Amy had not yet risen when he left, so he slid a short note under her door. A greeting, a telephone number, a map to find the key left on the kitchen table. Standing before her door trying to figure out if there was anything else she needed to know, he remembered that he had forgotten to call Vitek the night before. The morning’s examinations went quickly and Karel telephoned his apartment at lunchtime. Listening to an unaccustomed ring, Karel realized that no one but him had used that phone in five years. Except patients, Karel had touched no one anywhere but the hands. Even the jar of a handshake was rare for him. When he felt the forehead or kneecap of a patient, he recoiled, skin being looser than he imagined it should be. There was no answer. Karel didn’t know if Amy had gone out, or if she was standing beside the phone, listening, like him, to the sound burbling up from the line like water from a deep spring. Finally giving up, he went to the café next door, sat with his spoon in his soup and composed a letter to Vitek. He wondered if it would rain. 9. There are butterflies the size of men and doorways through which we walk and everything changes colors. We close our eyes and before we know it we are climbing the path to Heaven. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a place you only get to when you die. (That’s an ugly rumor, bad news about a place so bursting full of good.) It’s enough to close your eyes when the tall stiff plants surround you. Listen to the cornhusks scrape against leaves. Do you see that cornstalks are birds? They are very, very careful birds. They stay almost still and let the world change around them. Ah, you’re there! The corn birds shuffle and sigh a little, ready to go to sleep. Now we crouch at their feet. The tips of their wings brush our shoulders. We open our eyes and look through their feet at the sunset. Men burn fields to the west and the smoky sky fades to a sumptuous red. Can you see the troop of tired butterflies floating across Farmer Janek’s southwest field? I’ve never seen them so big either. The nectar must be sweet and filling this season. But they’ve flown so boldly today, they can hardly keep their tired wings from dragging. Look at the places their wings have brushed. These delicate wings have left tiny white flowers like snow upon the dark green bushes. 10. Amy stayed the week in Karel’s apartment. Having someone living in his long empty rooms made Karel eager to talk. He waited impatiently for signs of comprehension in Amy’s face when he finished a sentence. She understood little, though, and Karel saw why she had been afraid to answer the telephone her first morning in Tabor. On the third night, Saturday, Karel realized that Amy was only acting as if she understood him. He watched her nod and narrow her eyes when he spoke and marveled at how practiced these gestures were. But instead of asking her why she pretended to understand him, he switched to Czech, since translating his thoughts into German had frustrated him anyway, and began telling her the stories he had been writing for Vitek these last years. On Sunday, they went to church. Karel thought it might be an interesting experience for Amy. In the cavernous gray hall, they listened to the sallow priest in his white surplice hold forth from the altar. Karel watched the smoke of the incense disappear in the dark rafters and translated part of the service for Amy, putting his creaky German into service once again. But he couldn’t help lying. “He’s talking about marriage,” Karel whispered. “He says when a person is alone and he encounters a group of people who all tell him something is true, he is likely to doubt himself, even if every-thing else indicates that thing is false. “But if just one person,” Karel continued, his whisper becoming hoarse and oracular, “if one person sides with him, he won’t give in. He’s saying we must marry because only in sharing can we humans hold truth.” Then he fell silent. They sat rapt in the priest’s voice, Amy with her hand over her mouth, until the last syllable of the sermon bounced off the stone floor. They left the church squinting in the sunlight and walked east, past the churchyard and a few scattered houses with their iron stove-pipes smoking. They ducked under a fence and trod through a field stubbled with the remains of cornstalks. The grass sprung back up from under their footsteps. Karel continued to tell Amy Vitek’s stories, still in Czech. His words hung in the air like dimpled, intricate ornaments. When the pair came to a grove of pines, Amy reached up and touched the needles of the closest branch. Still new and rubbery, the needles bent against her hand and sprung back straight like the grass. The ground below her was covered with last year’s coppery needles. The girl pushed through them like she was skating. Karel walked on ahead, feeling the connection between them, noting the urge to look back and make sure that Amy was all right, realizing that she was keeping track of where he was, too. They walked and walked until they were both hungry. Then they ordered lunch in a pub and ate heartily. 11. “I am doing this for Vitek,” Lucka had told Karel as she packed a small bag and prepared for a late-night border crossing and life in a foreign land. There were so many things he wanted to say as he watched her move crisply from the wardrobe to the bag already overflowing on the bed that he choked on the effort of putting them into order. He swallowed and stared at Vitek who worked his hand in and out of his mouth. Karel told Amy Vitek’s stories because he wanted to hear them spoken aloud as never before. Whatever had been coiled in him loosened as he spoke. He listened to the house creak, to water complaining in the pipes, to Amy working a sticky drawer shut as if it were an unwieldy orchestra tuning for a concert. He knew that Scheherazade didn’t tell stories only out of fear. She got much from the sound she made, from moving that air up through her lungs, throat, palate, and lips. These were things she needed to say. 12. There are doors through which you enter and everything changes colors. Vitek, you must remember one thing about time travel: There are few friends you can bring with you. But those you leave behind are not lost. At first they hang their heads like sunflowers in September. Their arms flap and twirl around them, useless. Every place on their bodies where they have been touched turns dark. They don’t know what to do without you. But then as they look at the ground, they begin to see the maze of grass poking out of the earth. They see all the tiny puckered mouths closed around the roots. They stoop to the grass and marvel at those slim, yielding green telescopes. They end up sprawled in the field looking at the sky through the telescopes’ sharp lenses. They don’t forget you. They look at the sky. 13. The following week, Karel delivered Amy to the train station with a ticket to Frankfurt and his best wishes. On the quay, they exchanged addresses and wondered aloud what language to correspond in. After some debate, they settled on English for Amy and German for Karel. As they parted, Karel took Amy’s hand in his, clasping it as he dropped his eyes and bowed. Amy bowed too and only pulled away from Karel unwillingly, heeding the final whistle blast. The next day at the clinic on Budovice Street, Karel began spinning tales for his young patients. The braces and turnbuckles he locked to their legs were no longer shackles, but giant pencil compasses. Karel attached a fat crayon to the shoe of a girl named Jirina and laid great sheets of butcher paper on the floor beneath her. Then before he began opening the brace, he pivoted her atop the paper. With her short, stiff leg she made a faint arc. Beside the imprint, he wrote, “You are here.” Jirina stared at the writing, as if she was not quite convinced. But that day she did not cry. Most of these girls come to trust him, to squeeze his hand as the brace first rests cold against their skin. They describe to him the ache they feel as the brace slowly drives the broken bones apart. He often tells them that the scar material growing in the fissure looks like cotton candy. He traces its design on paper: long rows of curlicues. The adolescent girls now weep less frequently, but when they do, Karel immediately stops and comforts them. He tells them he has a daughter about their age and that he cannot let a girl cry while he still has breath in his lungs. “That flirting with them really seems to do the trick,” Alois says, perhaps jealous of the progress Karel’s subjects are making. Karel is glad, however, that Alois makes fun of him, rather than the girls. He sometimes accompanies his colleague home for dinner on a Wednesday. Alois’s daughters like Karel’s stories almost as much as their mother’s. Amy’s ghost follows Karel when he walks, as he does every Thursday, from the Tabor train station to his apartment. She doesn’t speak, but races back and forth between the buildings, considering a ball thrown so far it cannot be seen. As she bounds along, she looks in all the windows along their path. Karel thought he saw her riding away on a northbound train once. He waved hello before he could stop himself. Realizing his mistake, he smiled sheepishly and shuffled down the steps to the exit. He looks forward to a visit from Vitek, with whom he has been exchanging letters in English. It is a compromise that costs them both. But English is a language many have changed in, a language as good as any, and Karel would like to take his son to California one day. He also looks forward to the arrival of another woman he believes will come into his life on or near a train. He eagerly scans the company each time he settles himself in the dusty compartment. He sees no reason why he should not one day fall in love.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro


JOAN MENEFEE teaches children’s literature and writing at University of Wisconson-Stout. She is working toward a PhD at University of Minnesota.

Her story “A Doctor’s Lullaby” received The Greensboro Review’s 2004 Literary Award for short fiction.