The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Koscinski brings another excuse today. Always, he brings an excuse. This morning he tells his teacher Lazlow that the dog ate his hearing aid.
“The dog ate your hearing aid?” Lazlow regards him with ironic detachment, a new strategy. “That is why you have not completed the assignment?” Lazlow’s hand is poised above the grade book, where the name “Koscinski, Arthur” is followed by a daisy chain of zeros. “This is what you are asking me to believe?”
Koscinski holds his hat in front of him and nods.
“I see. And do you plan to retrieve this hearing aid?” Lazlow is hopeful Koscinski can be drawn into an exchange, now that most of the class is seated. But Koscinski cups one of his ears and squints. A cagey fellow.
Lazlow tells Koscinski to sit in the front row, but Koscinski takes a seat at the back of the classroom and slashes at the pages of his notebook, nodding to himself, issuing an occasional chuckle. Lazlow lectures about subject-verb agreement. He refuses to be agitated by Koscinski, altogether forgets him until the end of class. The students stand and stretch and fiddle with binders and bags. Koscinski looks up suddenly and waves his hand at Lazlow. “Can you repeats, please?” he says.
Koscinski is from Poland and looks, to an unsettling degree, like Einstein: same snowy explosion of hair, same softly hooked nose, same benign, simian eyes. But Koscinski is not benign. Koscinski is malignant. He refuses to participate in class discussions and is often tardy. He poses absurd and inappropriate questions. Once, he demanded to know why so much of the writing on U.S. currency is in Latin. “This is money for Americans,” he barked, throttling a dollar bill. “I want answers on this!”
In four months of classes, he has completed seven assignments, each arriving on paper so smudged it looks as if he were trying to annihilate the words. Lazlow has taught remedial English long enough to recognize Koscinski. A few of the older Eastern Europeans are like him, the men. Humiliated by their new ignorance, reflexive in their contempt for authority, unable to rise above pride, these are men who don’t know how to be helped. They have enrolled, invariably, to mollify a younger relative.
Still, Lazlow is reluctant to flunk them. They cast blame. They demand refunds. They rage and storm, threatening bodily harm in their throaty languages. Koscinski will be bad in this regard. Beneath the bluster, Lazlow sees a troubled man, needy for affirmation, hinged only loosely to his future. This is why Lazlow invites him in for a conference: to explain, in a gentle and patient manner, why he will receive a failing grade.
At the appointed hour, however, Koscinski is nowhere to be found. Instead a young woman slips into the office and seats herself quietly. Lazlow glances up into a round, perfectly pale face. Her eyes are large and hazel, her hand pink and smooth. Her name is Kasia, she says. She has come on behalf of her father. “He can be a difficult man.”
Lazlow struggles to break free of her gaze. “Not difficult, exactly. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to enjoy studying English.”
“No. You must not lie. He is difficult. He wants only to make portraits. He was famous for this in Warsaw. But I have told him that he cannot earn the same money here; he needs English.” She shakes her head. “He did not want to come.” Lazlow is uncertain whether she means to class, or to America.
“The main problem is the homework,” Lazlow says. He opens his grade book and gestures reluctantly to the zeros, as if someone else had made them a long time ago and he were merely directing her to this unfortunate historical circumstance. Kasia’s lips are slightly parted and, as he rambles, Lazlow ponders their shape. She touches her hair, which is brushed back from her forehead. She smells of apricots.
“He will fail the class, then,” Kasia says heavily.
“Not necessarily. We operate, as you know, on a pass/fail model. No letter grades. The standard we use, generally, is that a student must successfully complete three-quarters of the assignments. But there is always some room for discretion — the instructor’s discretion. In this case . . .”
Kasia looks at the grade book lying open between them on the desk. She runs her slender finger along the line denoting her father’s performance. “He will fail,” she says.
She is right, of course. By all accounts, he should fail. But Lazlow cannot bring himself to concur, knowing she will take on her father’s failure as her own. “If he were able to commit himself to the assignments,” Lazlow says, “there’s still time.” He closes the grade book.
She casts her eyes about the tiny office. “You have so many books,” she says at last.
“Yes. I suppose I do.”
She rises unexpectedly to examine them. “Oh! This one is by you.”
“So you — you are an artist, too.”
He forces a laugh. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Like my father.”
“That was written a long time ago.”
“What is it about?”
“Poems. Just poetry.”
“May I see it?”
Lazlow makes a feeble attempt to draw the book out, but the spine is wedged between a pair of thick grammar texts. He feels foolish, a man his age flushed and trembling slightly at such a simple task. He makes a note to tuck the book out of sight, or —better — to bring it home.
Kasia watches him, and then her eyes drop to the desk. For a moment, Lazlow is reminded of his late wife. This is a silly notion, he knows, because this tall, wan beauty looks nothing like his Charlotte. But still there is that expression, the mouth minced around an unspoken disappointment. “Please excuse me,” she says. “It is only that I do not know many men who have written books.”
“No, no. Of course. I took no offense.” Lazlow’s heart is beating rather too quickly. “I am only concerned that your father learn the language.”
“Yes,” she says. “I understand.”
At the next class, Lazlow is eager to see Koscinski again, to evaluate how a man of such coarse features might have produced such a beauty. He appears ten minutes late, his shirt decorated with the meal he apparently finished moments before entering the room. He sits at the back of the room, nodding to himself, and does not speak during class. Afterward, he approaches Lazlow’s desk and thrusts a rumpled paper at him. “The assignment,” he says. “I complete.”
“Wonderful,” Lazlow says. “That’s just great.”
“I want also to apologize my daughter.”
“I give her no permissions to visit you. I was coming myself.”
“It’s no problem.”
“She put medicine in my tea — to make me sleep.”
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Koscinski.”
“No,” he says, “not all right!” He leans forward and wrings his hat. “I will tell her you are angry.”
At home, in his study, Lazlow reads Koscinski’s theme: “How U.S. Is Worse from My Own Country.”
“In Poland,” Koscinski writes, “there could never to be a woman president. Ha! The idea of nonsense! Woman is not for THAT job. For instance, there is her ill time in each months. And also she cries at a big meeting. Ha! But in U.S. this is true. Examine Geraldine Ferraro.”
This inauspicious beginning marks a change. Koscinski becomes, if not a model student, at least a consistent one. He turns in his assignments. His command of the language improves. His provocations cease altogether. And yet, at each class, he appears more morose. His eyes, small and grim under the thick orbital ridge, trace the path of Lazlow’s chalk through letters, words, rules. He pecks at his notebook like a bird.
On the evening before the final class, Lazlow finds Koscinski’s notebook lying on a desk in the empty classroom. Lazlow figures to return it the following evening, at the little party he throws to mark the end of each term. But first, a little guiltily, he opens the notebook.
The initial few pages look routine enough, random notes scribbled in Polish. In the margins of the fourth page, however, there are a few tentative sketches of classmates. Koscinski has captured Ondina in profile, her eyes bulging in good-natured consternation. Po stares out from a corner, through a thatch of black hair.
Lazlow keeps turning pages, and the pictures expand, intensify, gradually pushing aside the notes. Koscinski’s style is broad and picaresque, something like Hogarth, but with a sensibility that seems more playful than sinister. Curiously, he has included traces of each lesson in his works. Floating there in the middle of Imani’s broad forehead are the words “NOMINAL PREDICATE.” Outlining the delicate bow of Judit’s lips is the mandate “Do Not Ever Split Infinitive!” in tiny, carefully formed letters. Even Lazlow is there, stoop shouldered, shiny scalped, a snapping turtle consumed by his cardigan. The bubble from his mouth declares: “Gramar matters!”
It occurs to Lazlow that he should be angry, that anger would be a reasonable reaction for a teacher. But what he feels, looking over Koscinski’s work, is a strange agitation, as if something were circling him, waiting to strike. The final twenty pages or so, recorded during Koscinski’s academic recovery, contain no pictures. The notes, now in broken English with flourishes of orbiting Polish, concern themselves with sentence fragments and conditional tenses. Lazlow flips back to the sketches. He is astounded by Koscinski’s ability to produce such intricate portraiture using only a blue ballpoint pen. He leans close, inspecting the individual strokes, some so faint they appear nothing more than notions.
He is in this posture, hunched over the notebook, squinting, when a voice says, “Excuse me.”
Lazlow nearly leaps out of his seat.
The janitor, a squat Guatemalan, cringes backward. “Sorry!” he cries. “Sorry!”
“No, no, my fault,” Lazlow says. “Mi falta.” He snaps the notebook shut and points to his chest.
Only after Lazlow has calmed a bit and is outside in the brisk night air does the idea strike him. Then it seems perfectly obvious. He hurries back into the building.
Lazlow does not consider himself a spontaneous man. Even with Charlotte, he was cautious. Hovering over her body, he would whisper, “Should I?” and she would nod her head and mutter, “Yes, yes!” At the rare party he attends, Lazlow inspects the rim of his wineglass for any food residues he might have left. He checks the odor of his breath constantly, even in private, holding his hand in front of his mouth and sniffing. He has few visitors. (Still, his sitting room exudes preparatory order, a certain stolid hope.) It is true that he exhibited some abandon in his poetry — a sudden ratcheting open of the heart that would leave him winded. But this came to a halt after Charlotte’s death. Without her urging, her patient backing, it seemed safer to trust his instincts. The truth, he tells himself, is that such recklessness never suited him. When he teaches, there is little to dazzle in his lesson plans. He is an adequate instructor of the remedial skills: no more, no less.
And so there is a sense of wonder as his students file into his classroom and catch sight of Koscinski’s caricatures, their own embellished faces staring back at them from the walls, all the quirks they have hidden for years — the bumpy noses and birthmarks and weak chins — so deftly rendered as to seem liberating. Po squeals with girlish delight. The Mexicans laugh and laugh. Imani says, “I don’t understand, Mr. Lazlow: these are yours?”
“No, no,” Lazlow says. “But they were done by someone you know, one of your classmates.” He checks his watch, concerned that Koscinski will not appear at all. He will miss his own art opening.
And then, all at once, he is in the doorway, his daughter behind him, sweetly shoving. He staggers into the room, bumping into desks like a drunkard. When he sees his work on display, Koscinski’s face drains of color. “No,” he says. “No!” He turns to his daughter and begins barking in Polish, his shoulders shaking.
Lazlow hurries over. “I’m terribly sorry. I only meant . . .” What? he thinks. What did I mean?
Po and Imani and the other students move to intervene, patting Koscinski on the back, praising him in fractured English. Koscinski shrugs them off and leaps toward Lazlow. “You,” he says. “You are teacher. This is my notesbook.” His breath hits Lazlow like low tide. His jaw is splotched with white stubble.
We are nearly the same age, Lazlow thinks, and look how he cares for himself.
“Why you did this to me?” Koscinski barks.
Lazlow looks to Kasia for support, but she is busy attempting to soothe her father, murmuring in her somber accent.
“Do this to you?” Lazlow says softly. He recognizes that contrition is the appropriate response, but he feels goaded by some other, long-checked emotion — not anger, exactly, but a variety of vain indignation that feels very much the same. He steps toward Koscinski, feeling a sudden warmth in his chest.
The other students are watching Lazlow now, and he realizes, without wishing to, that he despises them all. Koscinski is shouting, wagging his crooked finger. “Stupid fool teacher! I will make lawsuits against you! You have no rights!”
“No rights?” Lazlow says. “Who are you, Mr. Koscinski, to make such a statement? To me, you are nothing but trouble.”
Koscinski, having never heard this tone from his instructor, falls silent.
Lazlow stammers on; unable to stem his words. “You walk in here with your excuses, your ridiculous excuses, and you mock my class. You think you have nothing to learn, that you can come to this country and be an artist, just like that? Is that what you think? Is that why you make drawings all day long, while I try to teach you the language that will allow you to survive in this country?” He is alarmed to find himself shouting. “Would you like to tell me why you left your precious, private notesbook in class, Mr. Koscinski? Could it be that you wanted me to find it? That you wanted me to show the world your artwork? I am doing you a favor, Mr. Koscinski. And what is your reaction? You act like a little boy. A spoiled little boy. You, Mr. Koscinski, are pathetic.”
The room is very still, and for a moment, Lazlow imagines there will be an altercation. He can see himself clinging to Koscinski’s neck, digging for the vital pipes. Although he has never been a violent man, he would welcome the release. Instead, Koscinski turns and circles the room, snatching down his artwork.
Lazlow feels himself snatched down and crumpled up and tossed away, watches the scene from the dark corner of public wrongdoing: the epic distress of Po and the others; Koscinski’s trembling, old man’s hands; Kasia disappearing through the doorway before he can say anything. He despises her for reminding him so much of Charlotte.
At home, to calm his nerves, Lazlow brews tea. He sits at his kitchen table with the small yellow book of poetry, trying to envision the young man who once spent entire days in anguish over a single verb. He wore a cape once, and a rakish hat. He read in cafes and spoke of Rimbaud. But when he reads now what he wrote then, his villanelles cough, his sestinas clunk. He finds nothing in them to soothe his mood. This, he thinks, is how self-pity works.
He remembers Charlotte in the days before she died, how she grew more and more lovely, more tender. Perhaps if she were still here . . . perhaps then.
It occurs to Lazlow that he might still make things right; that he might call the Koscinskis, speak to Kasia in words so beautiful she will have to understand. In winning her over, he will win the old man over, too. A misunderstanding. No harm done. He tells himself he will do this, feels sure this is the case. He’ll need to track down the phone number, of course, and devise a speech of sorts. Perhaps he will wait a week, allow the matter to fade in ardor. He needs some time to gather himself, as well, to avoid doing something rash.
On this evening, Lazlow does nothing more than sip tea and tear pages from the spine that bears his name, letting them settle to the floor like dried leaves, and later sweeping them into the fireplace that will warm him for the hour or so before sleep.
Lazlow is in Foodmaster late at night, searching for chicken parts. The place is immense and viciously bright, and the cool air reeks of coffee beans and Freon. He has been doing his own shopping for nearly twenty years but has never quite adjusted to the dazzling aisles and soporific music. There are moments when he would like to burrow into the soft bags of discount rice and sleep. Though it is not an association he welcomes, the shopping ritual reminds him of writing: a series of small, absurd decisions that seem designed to confound him.
Characteristically, Foodmaster offers a panoply of chicken parts — boned, skinned, soaked in pools of teriyaki, rubbed with cayenne pepper — but not what Lazlow wants: just chicken thighs, a package of six he can set in a pan with a few carrots and some sherry. He paws through the various configurations in their styrofoam cradles, his fingers going slowly numb, and curses the lost era of the butcher.
There’s only one person working at the meat counter this late, a slender fellow in a white smock and baseball cap, whose back is turned. He is trimming rinds of white fat from a porterhouse the size of a car tire. Lazlow rings the customer-service buzzer, and the fellow straightens up and turns around, and there is her face again, broad and pale, those eyes the color of polished maple. Lazlow feels his heart stagger.
“Kasia,” he says.
She smiles immediately, with her lovely overbite, a gesture of such grace that Lazlow is suffused with a deep and somehow delicious shame.
“Mr. Lazlow,” she says. “How are you?”
“I’m . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . .” It has been three months since that terrible night of Koscinski’s opening, and he is stung now by guilt over having failed to convey his intended apology. He stares at her bloody smock, her delicate fingers curled around the handle of a cleaver.
Kasia laughs. “I did this work in Poland. In a shop with my mother. For us, this is the family joke: the women bring meat to the table.”
Lazlow laughs also, hiccupy titters that make him sound like a schoolboy. He wonders suddenly how he looks. He has come directly from class and is wearing one of his cardigans, frayed at the elbows, and a pair of chinos so old that he has a faint recollection of Charlotte taking them in at the waist. A pair of bifocals hang from his neck on an aqua strap. He needs them to read the labels for salt content.
I am a foolish old man, Lazlow thinks.
Kasia stands there, emitting a sly tranquillity.
Lazlow breathes deeply and gathers himself. “Now, listen,” he says. “I’m afraid I’ve been quite negligent. I owe your father an apology. And you as well. I hadn’t any right to do what I did. None at all. Indeed, I’ve been very much troubled by my behavior and, in point of fact, really, I’ve been meaning to apologize. For quite some time. To make an apology. And I hope you will convey this — my apologies, I mean — to your father.”
“Do you like tea?” Kasia asks suddenly.
She pantomimes taking a sip. “To drink.”
“Why, yes,” he says. “Certainly.”
“Perhaps then you will come to take tea with us. Me and also my father.”
Lazlow is taken aback and wonders, briefly, if this is some sort of ambush, the girl extending the invitation, the old man lying in wait behind the front door with a carving knife, or perhaps a vintage rifle. But he can see from her expression, the sweetly nervous biting of her bottom lip, that he is being absurd.
“I don’t think your father would very much like to see me again,” Lazlow says.
“No, this is not true.”
Kasia lies like Charlotte: forcefully, with her eyes fixed on his, as if on behalf of some greater truth.
“He was quite angry the last time he saw me,” Lazlow says.
Kasia shakes her head, smiles a bit ruefully. “Yes, angry. He is one with a temper. But, may I tell you a secret? He was flattered. It’s true. He would never admit, but I know these things. A daughter knows. He speaks about it still. And now, thanks to you, he is speaking English also. He has found a job.”
“Really?” This last fact surprises Lazlow, and he realizes, to his shame, that he had expected Koscinski’s spirit to be broken by their encounter.
“Really,” Kasia says. “Not such a great job, but still.” She nods to herself as if the decision has been made. “You will come. Saturday afternoon. Perfect.”
Lazlow would like to tell her no, that he has other plans, papers to grade, anything. But he can’t impel his mouth to utter the words. Instead, he watches the soft, pale curve of her neck as she writes down her address on a scrap of butcher paper and slips it gently into his hand.
The address Kasia has given him is in the West End, where he and Charlotte lived as a young couple. He remembers the neighborhood as being larger, with rambling Victorians that seemed forever on the verge of collapse. These have been torn down to make room for a series of arid duplexes. The drugstores and quiet pubs are gone, too, replaced by strip malls and used-car lots decked with sun-faded flags. Lazlow can’t be sure, but it seems the roads have been widened.
He has come bearing gifts: snapdragons for Kasia and a book of Goya prints for Koscinski. She comes to the door in jeans and a thin blouse, and Lazlow realizes at once that his tweed blazer is far too formal. But Kasia is already cooing over the snapdragons and pulling him into the flat, which is cozy and smells of onions and floor polish. She leads him into a small parlor with mismatched wing chairs. The view from the window is bleak: a culvert girdled by not one, but two convenience stores.
There is a sudden burst of movement, and into the room stumbles a boy — he cannot be more than four — in overalls and buckle shoes. Lazlow sees Koscinski in miniature: the same dark, darting eyes and end-weighted nose. His wispy blond hair is wet-combed into a pompadour.
“Mikhal,” Kasia says, “have you come to say hello to Mr. Lazlow?”
The boy nods, but then his nerve fails him, and he retreats behind his mother’s legs.
“Hello,” Lazlow says.
Mikhal whispers hello and buries his head in the back of Kasia’s knees. He has just the faintest accent, detectable only in a slight lengthening of his vowels.
“I must put these in water,” Kasia says, waving the flowers. “Sit. Yes? Sit.” She hurries from the room. Mikhal looks momentarily stricken. He gazes at Lazlow, seems to start to smile, then skitters after his mother.
Lazlow takes a seat, but his curiosity about Koscinski has been pricked now, and he gets up, quietly, to search for clues. The bookcase is filled with matching sets in green and red leather, their spines shiny with Polish letters. On the top shelf, almost hidden from view, there is also a small photo album. With a glance toward the door, Lazlow picks it up. The photographs are of Mikhal mostly, plopped before a birthday cake or clinging to a jungle gym. Just at the back, Lazlow finds what he is looking for: a wedding photo, Kasia in white, next to a studious-looking fellow in a tuxedo. Koscinski stands stiffly beside his wife, who is simply beautiful, though clearly terribly frail. Her smile seems to be biting through pain.
Lazlow understands the situation instantly: Koscinski’s wife is dead, and Kasia’s husband is gone in some fashion — the two of them thus thrown together in this new world of remedial English classes and used-car lots. He hears a throat cleared behind him and spins to find Koscinski himself in a natty bow tie. He has shaved today, and his cheeks are surprisingly pale. Lazlow cannot help but notice that his neck flesh has begun to sag, forming a sort of wattle beneath the chin. Lazlow has the beginning of the same wattle.
Koscinski glances at the album in Lazlow’s hands, and Lazlow quickly shuts the book and places it back on the shelf. His hands are trembling. Once again, he has overstepped his bounds. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I was looking . . . Your grandson is a handsome boy.”
Koscinski nods noncommittally. “Handsome. Yes.” His white hair has been wet-combed, and Lazlow pictures Kasia tending to both father and son, on adjoining stools, both of them fidgeting under her comb.
The two men stand there, frozen, until Kasia appears with a pot of tea. Mikhal tromps behind her, carrying, with the great ceremony of a four-year-old, a tray of pastries. The pastries are beautiful, dusted in cinnamon and stripes of chocolate. Gazing at them, the plaintive huddling of their fragile edges, Lazlow feels quite close to tears.
But then, fortunately, Kasia instructs the men to sit down and pours them tea, and Mikhal climbs onto his grandfather’s lap and begins disemboweling a tiny eclair. For a time, they make small talk, Kasia filling the awkward gaps with the polite inquiries of a hostess. Mikhal is greatly taken up with dinosaurs and spends most of his time ferrying toys from his room and presenting them to Lazlow, introducing them with utmost scientific gravity: Allosaurus. Pterodactyl. Diplodocus.
At last, Kasia announces that nap time has come. Mikhal begins to whine, but his mother whispers a few words in Polish, and Mikhal stems his tears and troops out of the room. “I promised him a story,” she explains.
Once Lazlow and Koscinski are alone again, the seconds start to drag. The contrivance of the situation settles around them like silt. Why am I here? Lazlow wonders. But then, of course, it occurs to him. “The main thing,” he says quickly, “is that I wanted to apologize. For my behavior. What I did with your notebook, it was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Koscinski tosses his hand, as if to brush a fly from his knee. “No, no,” he says. “There is not apology just you. I cannot be easy student. Hard. Hard to learn new things. But you were good teacher. Good. Another, maybe, sends me away.”
“Yes. Still, I hope you will accept my apology, Mr. Koscinski.”
Koscinski is quiet for a moment. He looks at Lazlow and nods. “You may call me Arthur,” he says.
“Yes, of course. And you may call me Wilbur.”
Koscinski cannot conceal his grin. “Vilbur? Your name?”
“I’m afraid so,” Lazlow says, and they both laugh a little.
He feels an inexplicable buoyancy, the clearing of a heavy debt. This release of tension makes him aware of how badly he needs to pee; he has had a lot of tea. Awkwardly, he inquires about the bathroom, and Koscinski says, “End of hall.”
Koscinski’s caricatures line the hall, carefully inked on high-grade paper. Lazlow recognizes a few of the figures: Lech Walesa swinging from a mizzenmast in a swashbuckler’s pose, and poor, beleaguered Gorbachev hiding beneath his hat. Passing Mikhal’s room, Lazlow can see Koscinski’s current passion. The walls are crowded with brightly colored drawings: fantastical dinosaurs with airplane wings and race-car fins, and dozens of portraits of the boy, peering through the windshield of a supersonic jet, galloping into battle with a broadsword, bashing a baseball clear out of Wrigley Field.
On his way back from the bathroom, Lazlow notices the Goya book, which, stupidly, he left on the table in the entryway.
When Lazlow presents the gift, Koscinski’s cheeks flush. “You are guest,” he murmurs. “You should not bring gift.” But it’s clear that Koscinski is utterly enraptured by Goya’s dark, elongated renderings of hell. He gazes at The Third of May for a full minute, his eyes tearing up a bit, while Lazlow pretends to be busy deciding on another pastry. It is the same, Lazlow realizes, when he reads Keats, or Gerard Manley Hopkins — this dangerous communion with the soul.
“You like that one?” Lazlow says finally.
Koscinski nods. “You see how he leads eye through painting.” He draws his fingertip down the dark diagonal slope of the mountain in the background to the guns of the Mamluk soldiers in the foreground, and then down the barrels of these guns to the figure at the center of the painting, a man in a white shirt, his arms thrown wide, his face a splash of abject fear. “I studied,” Koscinski says quietly. “Long before. In school.”
Lazlow has a mischievous urge to ask if he was a good student back then. But there is little doubt of that. The figure sitting across from him, in his crooked bow tie and thrift-store sweater, was a learned man in his own country, an artist.
Koscinski rises a little shakily to his feet and bows. “Thank you,” he says. “For book. Beautiful book.”
“You’re welcome,” Lazlow says. He wishes Koscinski had not bowed. The gesture strikes him as tragic. “Your daughter tells me you have a job now.”
Koscinski sits again and winces a little. “I clean offices,” he mutters. “Peasant work.” There is a brief moment of prideful tension. But then Koscinski’s face softens. He smiles at his own condescension. “Beggars, I guess, cannot also be choosing,” he says.
“Perhaps you can find a gallery for your work,” Lazlow says.
“No, no,” Koscinski says. “These are, what is word . . . ‘characters’?”
“Yes. Correct. This style you see on the beach; men there are charging five dollars to tourist. It is not art. My true painting, much darker. Like Goya. I have not done here.”
“But why not?”
“Too much work. Not enough times. Kasia and Mikhal.” Koscinski shrugs. “Life in U.S. tells me a different story.”
There is another lingering pause. Lazlow wonders where Kasia has gone. He had come hoping to spend more time with her. But he can see now what her purpose was: to set him up on a date with Koscinski. The two men are seated before the window, and the late-afternoon sun, pouring in, has varnished them a shade close to russet. We belong in a museum, Lazlow thinks. The Museum of Failed Artists.
And then the aroma of chicken and pepper drifts in from the kitchen, and Mikhal is up from his nap, calling out for his mother.
“I should go,” Lazlow says. He rises from his chair. But suddenly Kasia is in the doorway, as if she has been listening the whole time.
“Where are you going?” she says.
“I was just going to thank you. This has been lovely.”
Mikhal slips past his mother and climbs onto his grandfather’s lap. He has brought a sheet of construction paper and an orange pen. “Picture!” he says. “Picture, picture!”
Koscinski takes up the pen and begins to draw a rocket ship. His strokes are quick and deft, intuitions traced onto the rough paper. Mikhal watches with studious attention.
“Won’t you stay for dinner?” Kasia says.
Lazlow glances at his watch. “I wish I could. Really. But it’s quite late already. I should be on my way.”
Without looking up, without so much as removing his pen from the paper, Koscinski speaks. “Never too late,” he says. “You must not say. The night is not yet.”
“Yes,” Kasia says. “There is a place for you already at the table.”
Lazlow watches the drawing come to life under the artist’s hand. Now there is a turtle seated at the controls of the rocket. Mikhal requests more flames, and his grandfather complies, while beautiful Kasia with her wooden spoon takes a step closer and smiles. Lazlow thinks about his apartment, the glum fixings of a salad that await him. He finds himself, once again, on the brink of tears.
He waits for his voice to settle a bit. “I wouldn’t want to be any trouble.”
“Nonsense,” Koscinski says. “It is decided.” His wild strokes continue, and the turtle is soon affixed with spectacles and a fedora. “We do not speak of late in this house,” he explains softly. “We say only that we are lucky to be here still, making pictures.”