The Twisted River

A story by Peter Meinke

What’s black and white and runs away when you call it?” the American asked.

Domanski was squinting at the menu, holding it up to the candle. “I give up.”

“A Polish waiter!” The American barked three or four times at his own joke, and Domanski smiled faintly. He had heard them all and hated them with a fierce passion. As he smiled, he reached out in his imagination and broke the American’s nose by twisting it sharply to the right.

The American’s name was Dan Bradley; he was tall and well built, with wavy hair turned prematurely gray. He was handsome in a weak and romantic way, almost pretty, despite his long, breakable nose. He had deep-set dark eyes with long lashes and a high, intellectual forehead, which was, like much of his appearance, totally misleading. He was a teacher of applied linguistics at a small southern college and, despite his Ph.D., had scarcely read a book in his life. This year he was teaching on a Fulbright at a Polish university, leaving his wife and children at home, and had astounded Domanski not simply by his ignorance, but by his ignorance of his ignorance. In the first ten minutes of their conversation, Domanski had discovered that Bradley had never even heard of either Edward Gierek or Joseph Conrad. How was that possible? What were the Americans trying to do, sabotage the whole program? Americans were notoriously chauvinistic and contemptuous of other cultures, but Bradley seemed to be an extreme case. What on earth could they talk about?

“How is your apartment?” Domanski was the university man in charge of making the way smooth for the American professors.

“It stinks, babes, but that’s not what I want to talk to you about. It’s about Bubin.” Bradley leaned across the table, his hair dangerously close to the candle flame, and paused dramatically. “Did you know he was queer?”

Domanski pretended to study the menu. Polish restaurants tend to be dark, romantically (and economically) candlelit, with a menu typed on a fourth carbon, so you could spend hours trying to make it out. Fortunately they seldom had what was on the menu—If it’s in print, don’t believe it, is a popular saying—and it was best to rely on the judgment of the waiter. Finally Domanski said, “Bubin is one of our best teachers.”

“I bet,” said Bradley, “but he’s queer as a green kielbasa.”

Domanski ordered a double vodka. In his three years of dealing with American professors he had come to like them as a group: they were generally hardworking, open, generous, popular with students. They got drunk easily, and those with shaky marriages tended to run off with the pretty Polish coeds, but this simply made them seem more human to Domanski, who took the long view on moral questions. But Bradley was something else—he didn’t even drink, and sipped a glass of mineral water throughout the dinner.

“Well,” Domanski said after a while, “I don’t know anything about it. But why tell me, it’s none of my business.” Or yours, he wanted to add.

“Because he made a pass at me,” said Bradley, “and I want you to fire the bastard.”

Domanski coughed into his vodka and the candle flame flickered wildly, giving Bradley’s lean face a satanic glow. “I can’t do that, even if I wanted to. He outranks me. Why don’t you just forget about it, and stay away from him? We’re not kids, after all. Where’s the harm?”

“Listen, Tadeusz,” said Bradley. “You can do it. Let’s be frank. I know you’re a member of the Party, and Bubin isn’t. You have pull, and they’ll be glad to get rid of him.” He stood up and threw a 500-zloty note on the table. “If you won’t do it, nice and quietly, I’ll do it myself, very unquietly, and you’ll be a very sorry ex-professor.” He stared at Domanski for a long moment, and then strode out of the restaurant.

For some time, Domanski sat by himself, sipping his vodka. In the shadowy room, with its wide-beamed ceiling and dark wooden furniture, the whisperings of the other diners floated like scented smoke. It smelled like—like secrets, Domanski thought. The man at the next table leaned forward, his hand on the thigh of the young woman across from him. Everyone had secrets, and why not? That was why we wore clothes and had polite conversations. Secrets were the moral equivalent of private property; in this respect, Domanski was a thoroughgoing capitalist. Informers were universally hated because they broke the unwritten moral law of the right to secrets.

And he was an informer himself; he was trapped. The odd English phrase came to him: hoist with one’s own petard.

Domanski went outside and stood breathing in the cold night air. The snow muffled the sounds of the city and he stared at the darkened windows of the huge apartment buildings. Each building was an anthology of secrets, most of them boring; he didn’t want to know them. When the streetcar banged by he got on and went home; his wife was asleep and he lay down gently beside her. She stirred as he settled in, and muttered in her sleep, “Don’t do that, you shouldn’t do that.” Domanski watched her for a while, her full white breasts rising and falling in the darkness. After nine years, she was as appealing to him as when she had been his student, but what did he really know about her, what were her secrets?

Tadeusz Domanski—Tadek to his friends—was a small, nervous man with light-colored hair and an almost invisible moustache. “It’s an intimate moustache,” he liked to say, his pale, quick eyes squinting when he smiled. He was well organized, absolutely fluent in English, having spent two years at Indiana State, and had published a book on the American projectivist poets. He didn’t understand them very well, but then who did? He took the position that they were the last of the Romantics, and since there was no one qualified to criticize his judgment, he was made an assistant professor on the basis of that book.

Bradley scared him. Domanski was ambitious, and to succeed in Poland, you needed to belong to the Party, or at least get along with it. He was not actually a member—Bradley was wrong there—but in the past, when he had been asked, he had helped them out by reporting on various activities within the university, all very innocuous and harmless: his conscience was fairly clear. That was the catch: just fairly clear. He kept track of the Americans for the Party, what they were doing, where they were going. And of his colleagues: who wanted to go abroad, and why. His recommendation was important, and he used it, as far as possible, to help his department and his friends. But how had Bradley found out about his connection, or was he just bluffing? And what could possibly be done about Bubin?

Tomasz Bubin was one of his best friends, and Domanski had known for a long time that he was homosexual. He knew he should have reported this— in these matters the Party was more prudish and vindictive than the Church—but up to now it had been an easy thing to avoid. Quite simply, Bubin was the most brilliant person in the department, the best teacher, and perhaps the best literary critic in the country; and this had seemed all that was necessary to say about him. Everyone took for granted that Bubin would become chairman next year, upon the retirement of old Professor Nowak, an event eagerly anticipated by the entire staff. A few, like Domanski, knew that Bubin was homosexual, and many others guessed—a successful, unmarried man of forty—and in a way they were proud of it. See, Poland is liberal, flexible, modern; it was like having their own Whitman or Auden or Ginsberg, and they were secretly pleased. But now, suddenly, everything seemed very complicated. In a public discussion, old rumors that Bubin’s mother had been Jewish were likely to resurface. These days, Jewishness was at least as dangerous as homosexuality, and Domanski had carefully not verified the rumors. So it was not only Bubin’s job that hung in the balance, but his own, depending on how he handled the situation.

The next day, he made an appointment to see Bubin at three o’clock, after Bubin’s classes. Domanski was so nervous that he could hardly eat lunch, and became almost tipsy from the beer he drank. He bumped into people on the stairway, tore his sleeve on a door handle, and in general behaved in a way that made people stare at him, causing him to be more jumpy than ever. In class he confused Berryman with Lowell, got angry when a student corrected him, and dismissed the whole class early. They scuttled out, clutching their books and whispering among themselves. In the hallway he heard Bradley’s barking laugh and tried to avoid him, but the American caught up to him and put his long fingers on Domanski’s shoulders.

“Have you done anything yet?”

“No, of course not. What can I do?”

Bradley smiled. Americans had hateful white teeth. “If you don’t, I will, babes.” Why did he call everyone “babes”? “I’ll be in touch.” Domanski stared at Bradley’s nose and then abruptly turned and went upstairs to his own office.

At three o’clock Domanski knocked on Bubin’s door and entered. Bubin was shuffling through some papers on the desk he shared with Dr. Kaminska, who came in only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. None of the offices had books in them, just desks, a blackboard, some chairs, and a cabinet where toilet paper, soap, and chalk were kept. For the first time Domanski saw how much like a cell, or interrogation room, the offices were; that must be how the students saw them.

“Hello, Tadek.” Bubin leaned back, stretching his arms. “What’s up?”

Domanski’s head was spinning; the walls seemed to be breathing in and out, and his stomach had that elevator feeling. “Well, Tomek, something’s come up. It’s about Professor Bradley . . What was he going to say?

“That asshole! Linguists are always weird, but this one is totally incompetent.”Bubin shook his head. He had electric blue eyes, a full beard, and the charisma that certain ugly and highly energetic people possessed. When he entered a room, you felt his presence immediately.

“Don’t worry about Bradley,”he said. “That’s the last time we’re going to hire an applied linguist. He teaches the students as if they were in kindergarten, and they laugh at him behind his back.”

“I’ve heard that,” said Domanski, stalling for time. “But how did he get a Fulbright? He must know something.”

“How did he get a Ph.D., that’s the big question. Well, he’s a manipulator. He’s got the American Embassy snowed, he brings flowers to the secretaries, he complains, he works one person against another, he tries to charm the ladies, he pressures everyone to write letters of recommendation, he takes people out to dinner . . .”

“Yes, he took me out last night,” Domanski began.

“He’s hard to resist; he makes it very personal,”Bubin continued. “That’s probably how he got his Ph.D. If you fail me, I’ll jump out the window!” Bubin laughed, waving his arms. “He wants to teach here a second year, he’s out of a job in the States, he needs the money, his poor starving children! He can be very persuasive, but I’ve dug in and said No. We have our students to think about. And ourselves,” he added. “You know, I’ve been to his apartment, and there’s not a single book or magazine in it, outside of a few linguistic textbooks. It’s incredible! Nowak of course can’t handle him—he’s too soft-hearted—so he’s left it up to me.”

“Tomek, listen to me. He’s going to accuse you of being homosexual.”

Domanski had been standing, and now sat down heavily and stared at the floor. In the silence that followed, Bubin lit a cigarette. There were no ashtrays, and he dropped the match into an empty wine bottle on the desk.

After a while, Bubin said, “Tell me exactly what he said.” His voice, after its previous exuberance, was soft and low. Domanski could hardly hear him.

“He said you made a pass at him. He wants me to get you fired, or he’ll denounce you himself.”

Bubin blew out a great cloud of smoke. His hands were trembling. He spoke slowly. “What did you say?”

“I said I couldn’t do it. I said I didn’t know anything about it.”

“Thank you, Tadek. But of course you do know. It’s no secret; at least not much of one.” He pulled on his beard. “That bastard.”He put his cigarette into the bottle and lit another. “It’s tough enough to be a fag anywhere, I suppose, but here . . .” Bubin made a slashing motion across his throat. “And the thing is, he’s lying through those big white teeth. Doesn’t he remind you of a horse, Tadek? The idea of making a pass at him makes my stomach turn.”

“But then what proof does he have? We can just ignore him.”

“He doesn’t need proof. Even that wouldn’t be proof. No, Bradley has the mind of a weasel: he finds out what he needs to find out by sniffing in all the corners. He lives on the telephone, that’s his idea of homework.” Bubin let himself smile a little. “He probably knows that Klapocz is an alcoholic and that Pokop sleeps with his students. And, Tadek, he guesses, as most of us have, that you’re connected with the Party. The Americans probably told him—they have their own network. That’s why he went to you.” Bubin stood up and began pacing around the office, a cigarette in one hand and the wine bottle in the other. “There are small secrets everywhere,” he said, echoing Domanski’s thoughts of the previous evening. “Secrets nobody cares about, as long as the work is getting done, and there’s not a big flap about it. They give a human texture to our little community, but at the same time they make it fragile and vulnerable, and people like Bradley can exploit it.”

Domanski chewed at a fingernail. “Tomasz, why don’t we just rehire him for another year? That’s probably all he wants, and then he’ll be gone. Fulbrighters can only stay for two years.”

Bubin paused. “Not always,” he said, “some stay longer. But yes, there are three possibilities. We could take him back for next year. But can we trust him? And think how distasteful that would be. Or I could resign and transfer to the provinces.” He made a face. “Or we could murder him, chop his body up into little pieces and dump him into the Vistula. That’s the one I favor, though it does pose certain difficulties.” He laughed. “These days they’re restricting dumping garbage into the river.”

“All right, my good friend,” he continued. “Let me think about it, and I’ll call you sometime tomorrow.”

“Are you all right?” his wife asked when they were in bed that night. “Your hands are like ice.”

“Yes, I just feel stretched tight, I don’t know why. I’m all right.” But he couldn’t sleep. His wife’s round white arm lay across his stomach, and when she began to snore softly, he slid from beneath it and stood for a long time at the window. Across the street the government building with its tall iron gate and innumerable dark windows blocked out the moon. It was not a sympathetic building: who could he talk to there? Poland is the only country with a prejudice against its own citizens, someone had said at a party, and everyone laughed. But where could he turn? If Bubin goes, I go, he thought suddenly, surprising himself. I’ll go to the provinces, too; when the Party calls I won’t answer. All his life he had worked for the secure position he now held, and the thought of throwing it over made him dizzy. He sat down in the ancient armchair that he loved so much and chewed his fingernails until they bled.

The following morning he stayed at home, waiting for Bubin’s telephone call which never came. From outside, the chanting cry of the raglady with her straw basket floated through his window like a mournful ghost. He sat in his armchair, drinking tea, turning the situation this way and that until he came to a resolution.

Bradley seemed like a hard man to talk to, but who knows? Maybe he was just insecure, afraid for his future, like everyone else. The main problem was Bradley’s almost total ignorance of literature: he had no idea of Bubin’s importance, his brilliance and sensitivity. Bubin’s book on the American novel was the best that anyone had ever done. Domanski’s idea was to present Bubin as some sort of national treasure; perhaps Bradley would understand. Maybe he could be talked into a post at another university. There seemed to be, in the light of a new day, various possibilities that they hadn’t considered, and by lunchtime Domanski felt a little better.

At midafternoon he went to the university. The normality of the scene was reassuring: the students hurrying in clusters under the dark branches of the chestnut trees, the dignified old buildings with their Corinthian columns, the cozy corner where the Institute of English was tucked away from the main traffic of the campus. Neither Bubin nor Bradley was in his office. Domanski’s office was a garret on the fourth floor, at the top of a narrow staircase. He sat down at his barren desk and called for his mail, which was brought up in a few minutes by a student assistant. Among the usual announcements and notices was a large manila envelope.

Domanski pulled out a heavy manuscript, a thick collection of poems. On the title page was typed The Twisted River, by B. T. The B. T. was crossed out and beneath it, handwritten in bold letters, was Tomasz Bubin, Domanski’s heart lurched, and he had to steady himself on his desk. The radical poems of B. T.— fierce, powerful, patriotic, anti-Russian—had been appearing in underground magazines for several years, and the identity of the poet had been the center of much controversy. Many people assumed the poems were the work of some dissident safely out of the country, like Miloscz or Krynicki, but that had never made sense to Domanski—they would use their own names, and besides, it was a new voice, singular, unmistakably original. He had been asked by the Party about these poems, but he had known nothing. And all along it had been Bubin, working in the room right below him!

With shaking hands, he pulled out a letter written on yellow paper and tucked into the manuscript. He recognized Bubin’s precise handwriting.

My dear Tadek, the letter began. So, you see, there are secrets inside of secrets. I will try not to be sentimental. This manuscript cannot be mailed, of course, and I am trusting you because I know you are trustworthy, despite your “connections.” Please deliver this manuscript yourself, or through one of your American friends, to the Institut Littéraire in Paris. Give it to Mr. Gleboski, who will see that it is published and distributed. I am counting on you to do this last thing for me.

I have made many mistakes, many that you don’t know about, and I regret them all. One of the worst mistakes was with Bradley: he told you the truth about me, and I lied. I feel an enormous disgust for myself when I think about it, but it is too late now. I will not leave Poland, which I have always loved beyond words. I will not go anywhere. I would like to be buried at Powazkowski, near the other writers, but that is not important.

I have no faith in myself, but I have faith in the voice that has spoken through me, for Poland, our tragic and beloved country, and for all of us who have simply wanted a more meaningful and free existence. That is why the manuscript is so important. Tadek, I am depending on you. I know I can. Peace. Tomasz

Domanski stared at the letter as if hypnotized. He had trouble focusing his eyes. He had trouble breathing. Then he grabbed the phone and dialed Bubin’s number, misdialing twice with his fumbling fingers, until finally he got it to ring. There was no answer.

He carefully placed the manuscript and letter in his desk drawer and locked it. Pulling on his coat, he rushed out of the room and down the stairs. But on the landing outside of the English office he met Bradley, who turned to him with his wide white smile and reached out as if to detain him. Domanski knew that Bradley could tear him apart, so he had to be quick. With all his might he hit Bradley flush on the nose and felt the bone splinter as they both fell down on the floor, rolling over and over like demented lovers. □