On the Ride to Stargard by Tom Earles

Natalia wakes me at 5:30 a.m. for work. She shakes my arm and I take out the earplugs that I’ve started wearing to block out the noise of the upstairs neighbors. They wake up even earlier than we do. Natalia and I both start work at 8 a.m., but she works right here in town, her hometown in Poland, and I need to take the train to the language school all the way in Szczecin.

Natalia rolls out of bed and goes into the kitchen.

I go about my routine of getting dressed for another cold day. The sun is coming out but it won’t warm up until after I’m already at work, and I may have to wait a few minutes on the platform for the train to come.

In the kitchen Natalia busies herself making breakfast. We don’t talk about last night, about her shutting me out when I reached for her, about all the things that are wrong, about all the things that have gotten worse since we came here so she could live close to her family again, our last chance to try and make everything better, all or nothing it seemed. We both know I wasn’t going to be able to help her myself—not when I’m feeling I’ve lost just as much.

She still looks tired despite going to bed early like she does every night. Cooking is her answer to everything, or so she thinks. When I tell her I’m not hungry, she acts surprised, like I’m only saying I’m not hungry to spite her, to undermine her efforts, but I’m waiting for her to stop acting surprised. Each morning, for weeks, I’ve told her I’m not hungry first thing in the morning, that I’ll take something with me to eat on the train.

From the hall, once I have my things together, with my bag slung over my shoulder and my hat and gloves on, I tell her I’m leaving.

She comes to the kitchen doorway and says, “Tell my father not to forget bread on his way home.”

Natalia’s father picks me up at 6:00 a.m. to drive me to Stargard to catch the 6:30 a.m. train. Down the street, I can see his frame nearly filling the entire front of his Renault while he waits with the engine idling.

I put my bag in the back seat and sit beside him. We rub elbows as he puts the car in gear. “Dzien dobre,” I say.

“Dobre, dobre,” he says as the car lurches away from the curb and he speeds down the narrow streets, taking turns too quickly, so that we lean into each other around every corner, our thick winter coats rubbing together.

Today he decides to ask me, “You like it now in Poland?”

For a minute I try to think of something to say, how I can explain it to him in my broken Polish, then I realize I’m not even sure what I’d say if we were fluent in the same language.

“Yes and no. A little,” I say.

He watches me from the corner of his eye and says something about my mother. I think he asks, “Do you miss your mother?”

I repeat what I just said. “Yes and no. A little.” And he turns his head to me now but says nothing.

Sometimes I wonder if he knows how little of what he’s saying I understand. If he does, it usually doesn’t stop him from talking the entire ride. Occasionally, when I get lost in what he’s saying, I’ll speak to him in English, just to break up the ride. I wonder now if he’s been talking to Natalia more about what happened to us, to her, about our not being able to have kids. I’m too tired of its hovering over everything in our lives to even feel sorry right now, for ourselves or for anyone else, including him—this man who loves his daughter and wanted grandchildren.

Instead I try and think about the things I know about him. He went to work when he was fifteen—so did I—he knows that much about me. Natalia told him on our second visit here. But my father didn’t die for several more years after I went to work, so I didn’t have to support my whole family. No one was depending on me.

A few years later Natalia’s father was conscripted into the army. To this day, two years of military service are mandatory for all able-bodied young men in Poland. Before he left, he had to ask a few of his friends, teenagers not much younger than himself, to move in with his mother. If the state got word that a single woman was living in a four room flat alone, they likely would have confiscated it and relocated her. When he’d returned, two years later, he had some trouble getting rid of the friends. Then he married Natalia’s mother, a girl from a farm in a village a few kilometers away. His family origins are shady, to him, other than that his family came from the general vicinity of Warsaw, moving here into the Recovered Territories before he was born. He’s lived in the same house all his life; he knows that much. I learned all this back when we were still having three-way conversations, Natalia translating for the two of us.

Sitting in the car with him now, it occurs to me that no matter how long I stay here, it’s unlikely he or anyone else in Natalia’s family will ever truly know me. That must be why they feel like someone has to do nearly everything for me, not just guiding me, but actually taking me everywhere, planning my day, fixing my meals and my coffee. I must seem like a baby to them. It’s hard to gauge someone’s intelligence or self-reliance when he can barely use the language.

Her father drops me off at the train station, a pre-World War II building, serving trains left over from the 1950s.

Stargard was an important city in the eastern half of what was then Germany, before and during the war, I’ve learned. Only a few miles from where I’m standing now was Stalag 11-D, where allied prisoners of war, mostly Canadian, were interned for years following the disastrous Dieppe raid. A famous Broadway actor was shot and killed while trying to escape. Here he was, an English speaker, marooned across the ocean, for what ended up being a lost cause, taking his last breath of air in Pomerania. Did he sense the finality of it all, and how bad must things have gotten before he decided to make a break for it, all or nothing, and where did he think he would go once he had gotten away?

I get out and take my bag from the back seat. As I’m about to close the door I lean down. “Don’t forget bread.”

“1600 hours,” he says and drives off. He’ll be back here waiting for me at 4 o’clock.

I wait on the platform, shivering, wondering how far the train would take me if I just stayed on it, where I would end up.

The train arrives a few minutes later and I choose a seat facing opposite the direction it’s traveling, so that I’m facing east as the train travels west, but I don’t look out the windows anyway.  Reaching into my bag, I realize I forgot to bring anything to eat from home.

Tom Earles

Tom Earles studied English and creative writing at Richard Stockton College, Rutgers, and the University of Maryland, where he currently teaches. He has received fellowships and scholarships from the University of Maryland MFA program and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Able Muse, and Forklift, Ohio.

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