What sort of a father is Stefan? An all-powerful, legendary hero or a damaging, destructive man? In the first meeting between the father and son – depicted here in a chapter taken from the beautiful novel Bandit, which won its author, Itamar Orlev, the 2015 Sapir Prize – the tension that binds the reader to the story, leaving him unable to put it down, is revealed at once. The son, who had not seen his father in over twenty years, comes to meet him, now old, and tells him that he himself has become a father. But what sort of fatherhood can the young father learn from the old one? What primeval power does the father Stefan hold over his son Tadek, who is forced to grow up by his wife and son though still something of a child himself? In this encounter at a retirement home in Warsaw, which is narrated delicately and with a unique storytelling talent, numerable strings are woven between the old man in the bed and the young man sitting next to it, repeatedly tightening and loosening. The stuffy density of the room, clouded by cigarette smoke and alcohol vapours, further accentuates the tension in the air. “Did you kill many?” the son asks the father, and the little room is filled at once with the mythical overshadow of slaying: Has the son now finally come to kill the father? The readers follow the two as they stage the oldest scene in the world, while this question remains stuck in their throat, skilfully disrupting their enchantment with the writer’s wonderful storytelling.
I’m standing in front of the gate leading into the yard of the retirement home. I was standing there two hours ago but I didn’t go in. I found a café on a nearby street and only after three cups of coffee, a questionable breakfast and too many cigarettes, came back to the entrance gate, hurrying in this time before the excitement got the better of me.
In the entrance hall there was a clerk sitting behind the counter. I introduced myself and he became serious and suddenly seemed quite stern.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“You are late, Sir.”
“I was not aware that I had an appointment,” I smiled.
The clerk didn’t smile.
“Sir promised he would arrive within the hour, and that,” he glanced at his watch, “was almost three hours ago. Mr. Stefan was very excited. We helped him dress and shave because Sir said ‘an hour’. He put on his best clothes, in your honour, Sir. But Sir was late.”
“Where is his room?”
“I’ll take you.”
We walked down a long corridor with doors on both sides until the clerk finally stopped outside one of them and peeked in. “Here you go, Sir,” he whispered with reproach and gave me one more reproving look before clearing off.
I stepped into the room and couldn’t see my father anywhere. There was a small table covered in all kinds of objects and two chairs. A cross was hanging on the wall and beyond the table and chairs was a narrow bed. It took me a moment to detect my father who was lying in it. I went closer. He lay on his back, the woollen blanket tucked all the way up to his chin, his face as grey as the complexion of a sick, old man and his upper lip sporting a small square moustache, like Hitler’s.
I pulled the chair up to the bed and sat down. His mouth was a little open and his breathing so shallow I was afraid he wasn’t breathing at all. His eyes suddenly opened and fixed onto me like the eyes of a vulture, cold, menacing. This was the man I did not want to meet.
“Who is it?” he barked.
The face softened. The eagle eyes drowned in tears. The evil expression became blurred and a different, grateful, loving look that embarrassed me took its place.
He extended his large, thick-fingered hand to my face and stroked it. He touched my left cheek, then the eye whose lid flickered, the forehead, the nose, the lips, the chin, like a blind person. I helped him sit up in bed. He went on looking at me, now from close up, opening his mouth to say something but not uttering a syllable. I was also lost for words. It’s hard to end a silence that has lasted more than twenty years in just one moment. My father grabbed my hand and began kissing it. I wanted to pull it away, because it was not fitting that a father kiss his son’s hand, especially not my father, but I didn’t dare resist. He examined my face again. Then extended his hand to the table and fumbled with his fingers until they came across a pair of thick-lensed glasses. He put them on. His expression changed once more. The lenses made his eyes bigger and they almost filled the frames. Now he looked like a confused, harmless old man and the little moustache seemed more like the one that belonged to Charlie Chaplin. Tears rolled from his eyes and he wiped them with his hand. Then he picked a towel up off the bed and wiped his eyes and his cheeks, blew his nose and looked back at me.
A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on his face.
“Tadziu!” he shouted. “You little shit, look how you’ve grown! And a beard too! I’m sorry I didn’t greet you properly. The goddamn body isn’t what it used to be. Come, help me up.”
I pulled him towards me until he rose to his feet and gave me a big hug. He had the familiar scent of vodka.
He sat down on the chair I was sitting on before and I sat opposite him. He was wearing a grey jacket, which he hadn’t bothered to take off before getting into bed, and a plaid shirt; his belt was pulled high up above his abdomen. On the table between us was an alarm clock, a large magnifying glass, an ashtray full of cigarette butts and burnt out matches, a few crumpled pages, an empty cup and a jar filled with purplish liquid.
My father took a cigarette out of the pack with the clumsy motions of a person whose fingers no longer obeyed him. He raised the cigarette to his eyes looking for the filter, then looked back at me and smiled.
“Tadziu, my dear boy, I thought I wouldn’t get to see you again. Look at me now, an old geezer.” He grew silent and checked what side the filter was on again. “You should know that old age is an ugly thing, Tadek, I never imagined how ugly. Wasn’t prepared for that.” He took a match out of the match box, fumbled with it and then lifted it up to his eyes to find the phosphorus head. He lit the match with an extravagant, awkward movement and brought it close to the end of his cigarette with a trembling hand. “Look how long it takes me to light this bitch of a cigarette with a damned match. And now we have to be careful with the matches too.”
“Russian bastards,” I said.
“Bastards!” he shouted and banged his hand down on the table. “They’ve taken all the timber. Oh, Tadziu, I thought I’d never see you again.” Again tears filled his eyes. “My dear son, my sweet boy, my Tadziu,” he reached out for the towel lying on the bed and wiped his eyes again, blew his nose and threw it back on the bed.
“Here,” I said and handed him the lighter, “A present.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve got another one.”
“Of course. Of course you’ve got another one. In America you bastards have everything, and as much as you like.”
“In Israel, Dad, I stayed there.”
“Really?” he was surprised, “When Anka was here a few years ago, she told me she lived in America. And that Ola lived in America too.”
“Canada,” I corrected him.
“And that Robert lived in America and that you lived in America.”
“Israel, ah?” he muttered and stared broodingly. “I was supposed to come to Israel, but she…” he looked back at me. “And your mother?”
“Also in Israel.”
He looked lost in thought again.
“Do me a favour, Tadek, don’t tell anyone here you’re from Israel. Say ‘America’. They’ll end up thinking I’m a Jew.”
He leaned forward, took a bottle of vodka from underneath the bed and poured it into a mug on the table. He filled up two thirds of the mug and then put it back in its place. Then he opened the jar and poured some of the purplish liquid in. He looked at me through his thick glasses and smiled again.
“It’s compote,” he said. “From the canteen. I add a little to the vodka so that they don’t know I drink.” He was suddenly alarmed, “I forgot to ask you if you want some?”
“No. Thank you. Maybe later.”
Dad leaned back, a smile on his lips, which he wetted with his tongue from time to time. He took a big gulp of the vodka, a long drag off the cigarette and kept his eyes fixed on me.
“Tadziu, you little bastard, I’m so happy you finally came to me! I know you come with good intentions too – after all you have much more money in Israel than we have here, so you didn’t come for that. You might be surprised, but I know a lot about Israel. I’ve been following the news all these years, read everything I could find in the newspapers. I’ve read about Tel Aviv, Haifa, I know about all your wars, about the weather. It’s hot in your country, son of a bitch, summer all year round. I’ve got a Jewish friend who married a Pole and they immigrated to your country – the Jews’ country. And those pricks over there, they hate the gentiles almost as much as they hate the kikes here. They gave him hell over her being a gentile. He told me all about it after he got out of there and came back to Poland. His Jewish friends said to him, ‘What do you need this Christian for? Dump her and be done with it.’ So he said to them: ‘If I dump her, who am I gonna screw? You?’ Dad burst out in laughter, threw his head back and immediately started coughing.
“Ah!” he called out and banged the table again. “My Tadziu, my dear son, tell me about yourself? What do you do? Do you have a wife? Children? Look at you, you’re already a man.”
I told him I was married and had a child.
“And what is your wife’s name?”
“Yael,” I answered.
“Yael,” he said, “Strange name.”
“It’s a Hebrew name, Dad, from the Old Testament.”
“Yael,” he said again, “She’s probably a successful, beautiful woman.”
“She also makes a lot of money. Even got a new car from work. Japanese.”
“Japanese, ah? So she is a successful woman. Is she good to you?”
“And how are things in the sack?”
“Fine, Dad, you’ve got nothing to worry about. “
“And your son? What’s his name?”
“It’s the Hebrew for Michał.”
“Michał,” he called out and became teary again, “My grandson has the name of an angel!” He wiped his eyes once more with the towel and blew his nose. “Guard your marriage, Tadziu, guard it. Because family is the most important thing in life. I also wanted my children to be happy…” he grew silent, sipped from the vodka. “And what about you?” he asked. “What do you do for a living?”
“I write,” I muttered.
“A writer?” he asked suspiciously.
I didn’t know what to say. I think I nodded.
A wide smile stretched across his face and he banged the table forcefully. “A writer!” he cried out. “Who would have believed that my son would become a writer? A successful writer, eh?”
I smiled. I didn’t deny it. I was ashamed of not denying it. I didn’t know what to say but he excused me from answering by deciding to get up. Leaning on the chair with one hand and on the table with the other, he rose to his feet. “You’ll forgive me, my dear, sweet boy, but I have to take a leak.” And he wobbled out, advancing with small steps.
I stayed there alone. I felt pretty pathetic, but decided to let it go. What difference did it make? Let him think I’m a famous writer. I lit another cigarette, got up and walked around the room. A not very large square canvas hung on the wall. A few dark patches were painted on it along with a small red triangle, the number 9501 written above it. In the corner of the room there was a sink with a cupboard underneath, two of its doors were locked with a padlock. The exit to the veranda led onto the home’s garden. I looked out. Beyond the door there were crates of empty bottles – all the bottles of vodka he had mixed with the compote so that the retirement home’s management wouldn’t find out.
His steps approached the room. Not the heavy, large steps that used to echo up the stairwell in Wrocław when he came back home, but tiny, hesitant steps – one leg limping after the other until he finally made it to the door. I was still standing by the painting. He surveyed the room with an ill-tempered gaze, but when he saw me a wide smile stretched across his face again.
“Tadziu, my dear son, God brought you to me after I’d already thought I would croak here all alone. Did you see the painting? I drew it, a long time ago. We had a red triangle like that on our camp uniform in Majdanek, and that, that was my prisoner number.” He sat back down on his chair, pulled another cigarette out of the pack and sighed. “My neighbour from the room next-door, the son of a whore, uses my toilet and pisses on the wall. It stinks,” he chuckled and rolled the cigarette between his fingers before placing it on the table. “I told him that if he didn’t learn how to aim I’d cut his dick off and then they’d diaper him and my problem would be solved. So what did he do? The fucker went and whined about it to the managers. Losers, nothing here but losers…”
“I thought it was a home for war heroes?”
“Heroes my ass. What heroes? Everyone’s balls here are quivering because they know they’re going to end their life here. The real heroes went in the war, sure. A lot of them in the uprising we organized in Warsaw, almost twenty thousand soldiers from the Armia Krajowa died there alone; and those who survived – ended up in prison camps; and those who made it through the camps – they were finished off by the communists. Here there’re only a few bastards who really were heroes. It’s just a matter of having the right connections. Fuckers. What do you think? I’m also here only thanks to my friend the General, without his intervention I wouldn’t have gotten a lousy room here.”
“I thought you were a war hero.”
“It has nothing to do with it. I tell you it’s all a matter of connections, not bravery. So I did a thing or two during the war. But after that they wanted to have me executed. That’s how this goddamn party shows thanks.”
Dad took a match out of the box and started fumbling with it.
“I gave you a lighter, Dad,” I said. I took the cigarette he had placed on the table, stuck it in his mouth and lit it with the lighter. He seemed pleased.
“My dear Tadek, no one has taken such good care of me in years,” and his eyes filled with tears again. “You don’t give a shit your whole life, almost as strong as God himself; you spit on your friends, your relatives, your loved ones without pity. You need no one. To you, the whole world is one big playground and you laugh, laugh in the devil’s face. And then suddenly, one day, you find yourself in a retirement home for fucking war heroes in Warsaw, rotting away along with the rest of them, waiting for your life to end. And you realize that only your life is over, just yours. Because life, that bitch, she goes on without you. She celebrates without you. Everyone drinks, dances, fucks, just like that, as if they were rubbing it in your face. And it doesn’t matter how many lives you’ve finished off, there’ll always be others.”
“Did you kill many?”
“During the war.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t start asking me questions I don’t feel like answering.”
“I won’t, Dad.”
He thought for a moment.
“I killed enough. Stopped counting at one point.”