Anyone else might have slit her wrists long ago. But Sarah has her faith to fall back on, though she doesn’t follow any formal religion. Outwardly, at least, she seems at peace with herself. I’d like to think it’s acceptance rather than resignation. They’re not quite the same.
I love Sarah. She’s been a dear friend for the past 45 years, ever since I married her daughter Kristina, and she’s always treated me like a son. Of course I’ve sensed all along that Sarah’s life was less than ideal. But I never knew how unhappy she was until now, after her husband Zdenek died.
Kristina had always wondered why she had no siblings. It’s a question children usually ask their parents when they’re young, but Kristina was almost 20. Sarah blurted out the answer before she could catch herself: Just three days after Kristina was born, Zdenek had demanded sex. Sarah was still in pain, and she refused him. “I no touch you again,” he declared in his heavy Czech accent, and he kept his word.
It’s not the sort of thing a mother usually talks about with a daughter, even a grown-up daughter. Sarah immediately begged Kristina to forget her outburst. Kristina kept her mother’s secret all these years, until just now.
Amazingly, these are the only harsh words I’ve ever known Sarah to utter about Zdenek—or about anyone, for that matter. But then, she’s a saint. She’s had to be, to endure that cold, suffocating marriage for nearly seven decades. Kristina admits her father could be “difficult.” I’m not as charitable. In plain language, he was a son-of-a-bitch.
He was also a war hero, a young amateur pilot who had hoped to make a career in the airline industry in its early years. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he fled to England and lied about his age and the extent of his flight training. His natural talent for flying made up for his lack of experience. He flew Hawker Hurricanes in a special Czech RAF squadron, downed two Messerschmitts and a Dornier, and reached the rank of flight lieutenant. I have to give him that.
Meanwhile, Sarah was in London throughout those days of terror when German bombers dropped more than 100 tons of explosives on British cities. Miraculously, her family’s house suffered only slight damage. She doesn’t talk much about that phase of her life.
Kristina told me her parents met at a servicemen’s dance in London soon after the war. Sarah was 19 and Zdenek was 22. They couldn’t have had much to say to each other; he spoke little English, and she spoke no Czech at all, but he pursued her doggedly. I’ve seen snapshots of Sarah when she was young, and she was quite a beauty. In fact, she looked a lot like Kristina at the same age. But more than her appearance, it was probably her soft, compliant nature that attracted Zdenek. He saw in her a guileless young woman-child he could control. But what she saw in him is a mystery. She came from a respectable and educated family, and he was a semiliterate boor, mean and lupine.
Food was still scarce in England in those early postwar years. Zdenek courted Sarah with an endless supply of delicacies—fresh meat, cheese, butter, wine—from the black market, with which he was in some way connected. Even the military jeep he drove when Sarah met him had a murky provenance, and before long it was gone without explanation. “You no ask question,” he would tell her, “I no say lie.” One evening Zdenek plied Sarah with expensive wine, made her pregnant, and “did the right thing” and married her.
He brought Sarah to the States a month before Kristina was born. “We start new life in New World,” Zdenek told her. He opened a butcher shop in Connecticut and, without even telling Sarah, bought a ramshackle Victorian house. She never did find out where the start-up money for the shop or the down payment for the house came from. By then she’d learned not to ask.
His business prospered, but his free-spending ways faded abruptly. His distrust of banks drove him to squirrel away stacks of money throughout the house, in the cellar and attic, even inside walls and under loose floorboards. And as soon as Kristina was old enough for nursery school, he sent Sarah off to a nearby hat factory to stitch sweatbands into fedoras on an assembly line. “We no need go to restaurant or movie,” he would regularly remind Sarah. And Kristina still remembers that he told her, in her last year of high school, “I buy school dress and church dress. I no buy prom dress.” He usually punctuated these comments with “Wallet closed!”
“Poor Zdenek,” Sarah would say, without a trace of sarcasm. “He’s had a hard life. He left home at such an early age—he was no more than a child—and then what he went through in the war . . . .”
I’d always wondered what made Zdenek so hard and unbending, but I didn’t think it had much to do with his leaving his home and family and way of life. According to Kristina, he was never close with his parents or relatives in Czechoslovakia. Once he left, he seemed to dismiss them from his mind. As for material things, some people cope with loss by tapping their spiritual or intellectual resources, while others jump from high places. Zdenek simply devoted the rest of his life to hoarding money in preparation for the next “dark hour.”
Nonetheless, he remained a God-fearing man. He ushered Sarah and Kristina to his church each Sunday, and he demanded that Kristina say her prayers every night in Czech as well as English. As she struggled with the rolled r’s and strings of consonants, he would say, “No matter you no understand. God understand.” Not surprisingly, the only Czech words Kristina remembers today are “strč prst skrz krk,” a tongue-twister the Czechs themselves quote to demonstrate the quirkiness of their language. It’s a nonsense phrase that means “stick your finger through your throat.”
Overall, I think, Kristina has survived her childhood relatively undamaged, thanks to Sarah. But she seems to have spent her life trying to placate her father, for the most part without success. Even when our twin sons were born, she was ready to give in to his demand that they be given Czech biblical names, Matej and Marek. Sarah and I discreetly convinced her to anglicize the names to Mathew and Mark on the birth certificates, which we made sure Zdenek never saw.
Kristina was convinced that her father had softened after our sons were born. I saw little change in his disposition, but I didn’t argue the point. Occasionally he did show the boys what passed for affection, probably more than he’d ever shown Kristina. But he remained as tightfisted as ever, even on their birthdays and during holidays. “Spoiled child be hooligan,” he would say.
Zdenek’s shortcomings made me determined to be a better role model for our sons. Years ago, as they were about to marry and start their own families, I gave them each some simple advice: Remind your wife every day in some small way that you treasure her. Speak tender words. Bring an occasional little gift—a book, her favorite cookies, a sunflower—even when it’s not a special occasion. Brush her shoulder or tousle her hair as you walk by, because people need to be touched. These are things that Zdenek never understood.
Physically, he was a tough old coot, compact and wiry. But toward the end his mind was failing. He must have sensed it, because he eventually sold his business to his longtime Ukrainian employee. “I work whole life,” he told Sarah, only after the deal was made. “Now I be resting.” He spent his final years tending his rosebushes and cataloging the pile of lumber and scrap metal he’d been collecting in a corner of his backyard ever since he bought the house. He’d planned to build a chicken coop, but never quite got around to it.
In the hospital during his last days, he became increasingly disoriented and aggressive. He would lean over the side rail of his bed and, with a theatrical flair, spit his medicine on the floor. Once, when a young nurse came to bathe him, he roughly pushed her away. ”Bring old nurse!” he insisted. And he wouldn’t touch the hospital food. His doctor had to allow Sarah to bring Zdenek’s favorite schnitzel and dumplings from home.
Kristina was devastated when he died, just a few days short of his ninety-third birthday. Maybe she had seen in him some obscure quality that merited her love. Or, more likely, she simply realized that any last hope of a closer relationship with him, perhaps through some gesture of affection or regret on his part, was now gone.
I admired Sarah’s grace and composure at the wake. Mathew and Mark and their families were there, but few others—just the Ukrainian employee who had bought Zdenek’s business; a few old customers; and a next-door neighbor, a widow who had befriended Sarah. They straggled in, signed the attendance book, hovered nervously toward the back of the visitation room, and slipped away as quickly as decorum permitted.
During the minister’s one-size-fits-none eulogy—pious parishioner, respected member of the community, devoted family man—I watched Sarah’s face for clues to what she might be thinking. After living with someone for so many years, even someone like Zdenek, she certainly had to be feeling some measure of grief. But I hoped she was also looking ahead to her newfound freedom without guilt.
Sarah’s mind is still sharp, and she’s amazingly spry for her 88 years. She could easily pass for someone 15 years younger, and she’s not taking any medication. What’s more, longevity runs in her family. Both her parents lived well into their nineties. I hoped that, after her lifelong emotional and material deprivation, she would have at least a few good years left to enjoy some simple comforts with whatever part of Zdenek’s hoard could be recovered.
The previous evening, Kristina and I were discussing how we could help Sarah through the coming weeks and months. Zdenek had never let her make any important decisions, so we were sure she’d need practical, everyday advice as well as emotional support. We decided to invite her to live with us. We thought that someone her age shouldn’t live alone. Besides, we doubted that she had much emotional attachment to Zdenek’s house. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t kept up with maintenance and repairs, so we’d have to consult a realtor about preparing the property for sale.
We also planned to help her shop for a reliable replacement for Zdenek’s ugly little diaper-brown Chevette. Its odometer was broken, probably intentionally, when he bought it many years before. His Polish mechanic had managed to keep it running with junkyard parts and occult incantations, but he couldn’t hold back the rust. Sarah still drives fairly competently, though she wisely limits herself to local daytime errands.
When the wake was over, we brought Sarah back to our home. Kristina sat with her on the settle and clutched her hand with both of hers. “Have you thought about what you’ll do now?” Kristina asked gently, intending to segue into asking her to move in with us.
“Oh, I don’t want to make any long-term plans just now,” Sarah said, her accent still unmistakably and majestically British after so many years. “But I think I should like to visit your Aunt Margie for several weeks. She hasn’t been well, you know.”
Zdenek had never allowed Sarah to telephone her parents or younger sister in London, much less visit them. And he refused to buy a computer so they could correspond by email. “Computer is work of devil,” he would say. Sarah stayed in close touch with her family by conventional mail, but more than 30 years had passed since Margie and her late husband came to the States for a visit. That was when Zdenek flung their luggage down the cellar stairs while they were taking Sarah out to dinner.
“It’s been so long since I’ve been home,” Sarah said. “I’m afraid I shan’t recognize London now, with all the reconstruction after the Blitz. But I do hope that St. James’s Park hasn’t changed. It was always so peaceful. When I was there, I could almost forget the war.”
“You never told me about the park,” Kristina said, but Sarah didn’t seem to notice the interruption. Her voice grew fainter, and we strained to hear.
“It’s all so clear in my mind. The shady tree-lined paths. The tulips each spring at Queen Anne’s Gate. The lake, and the footbridge, with its magnificent view of Buckingham Palace. There were ducks and geese and swans on the lake. And a gift from the Russian czar several centuries ago introduced pelicans to the park. They were such tame creatures. They’d flap up from the lake and perch on the rail of the bridge, within arm’s length of the visitors. I wonder whether they survived the war.” Sarah took a long breath, and her eyes seemed to focus somewhere far away.
“I fell in love there once, when I was 18,” she said, almost nonchalantly. I tried to conceal my surprise, but Kristina was visibly shaken.
“He was an American boy, a soldier. I was on the footbridge, watching the birds, and he stopped and smiled. He was shy and very young, just 20, and quite dashing in his uniform. We were both so young.”
Neither Kristina nor I could think of anything to say.
“We met in the park every day of his four-day leave and just sat on a bench holding hands. He talked about so many things: his tiny home town of Duquesne, Missouri, where the frogs and toads and turtles and lizards could take leisurely strolls across the sleepy main road without much danger of being run over; his parents’ dairy farm; his little sister, who wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be a ballerina or a geologist; his pet calf Juno; the abandoned and flooded zinc mine in the woods that was the local swimming hole. He told me he’d once found a baby rattlesnake in the motel convenience store where he worked after school. He killed it with a broom, and regretted it ever since. His dream was to return to college after the war and become a veterinarian. I felt as if I’d known him all my life.
“And I had so little to say about myself. I hadn’t really thought about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. All I knew was the war, the bloody, endless war, and I didn’t want to talk about that.
“When his leave was up, they sent him to France. He kissed me before he left and promised to come back for me. I sensed that I should never again be as happy as I was at that moment.”
“Whatever happened to him?” Kristina finally asked.
“I never heard from him again. I sent him several letters after the war, and they all came back unopened. Do you suppose that means he was killed?” Her voice was flat, without inflection, as if she’d been considering that question for so long that time had drained all meaning from the words. Neither Kristina nor I knew which answer would be more gentle.
Alex Markovich has been an editor at several national magazines. His stories have appeared in previous issues of Halfway Down the Stairs and in other literary publications.
© 2016, Alex Markovich