Pavel Kovac did not like his father. He did not like his father’s raw laughs, his confident manner, his broad shoulders and how he made everyone around him feel small.
And Pavel was small.
Even in his fourteenth year, his body refused to give away the delicacy of a much younger boy. His fingers possessed that peculiar fragility seen in piano players. When he brushed wisps of his straw-blond hair from his forehead, it looked like it was shot through with rays of sunshine.
Pavel’s mother called him her angel.
When he was only a little boy, Pavel’s clear blue eyes would wander for hours over the delicate watercolors his mother painted in an abandoned room at the end of their house. He would sit quietly next to his mother’s easel and gaze into the colours’ and shades for a long time. Sometimes his mother would paint the tip of his nose crimson red or draw funny shapes on his face and they would both laugh. She was careful to take it all off just before his father came home from his work at the factory. His father was working in a factory where they made guns and tanks. He was a very important man there and a high-ranked Party official.
One day Pavel and his mother had a visitor, one of his mother’s friends from her Art School, and all three of them made lots of silly-looking purple dots and red hearts on Pavel’s face. But they forgot to take it off before Pavel’s father rushed into the house. When the front door slammed open, they all froze on the spot. His father was calling their names in that jovial manner that always meant he has brought one of his comrades with him to discuss some important Party directions over a few drinks and a game of chess. When the door of their room burst open so did the tears in his mother’s eyes. Pavel looked up and for the first time in his life saw the workings of human geometry; when the clearly curved lines of broad laughs changed into slimy shapes of disgust. His father picked him up by the collar and threw him at the kitchen sink to clean ‘this shit from your face’. Pavel could not see the sink for tears.
From that day on Pavel’s mother never used colors on his face. And Pavel learned how to hide.
At school everyone was deliberately kind to him. He was a son of a man whose word held exceptional powers; it could send you to prison or take you out of it. Pavel’s teachers made sure that nobody picked on him or teased him about his delicate disposition. They did not want to answer any difficult questions. And Pavel hated it with as much strength as his trembling heart could muster. He saw some of his classmates hiding sniggering smiles and whispers into the collars of their school uniforms. He caught snippets of whispered jokes about his girlish looks. Pavel wished for his classmates to tease and torment him openly like they did each other. On some days he even wanted them to push him around in that half-play-half-fight manner of growing boys. But they would not. Until Milan Vargas arrived in their class.
Milan was transferred from a different school at the far outskirts of the city. It was his third school in as many years. He was expelled from each one. For fighting with teachers and causing general mayhem.
Milan was tall and even at fourteen started to develop the look that legions of females would come to recognise as devilishly charming. He had jet black hair and dancing eyes. Smile always lingered in the corners of his lips. When he was standing next to you, shuffling from one foot to another, it was hard not to think that he was in a big hurry and really had no time to spare. And Milan was in a hurry. A hurry to grow up and go to America.
Milan’s father had been killed by communists at the end of the war while he was trying to cross the border at Trieste as a stowaway on the ship bound for America. After his mother died of grief and loneliness, Milan lived with his grandfather who had retreated into what was left of his apartment after it was partitioned to accommodate a working class family and surrounded himself with the books and music he still recognised. Milan’s family was one of those with a file. To be monitored. If it wasn’t for his uncle who, as his grandfather explained, was smart enough to join the communists just before the war ended, Milan and his grandfather would have been sent to reformation camps. To learn about the new order. And how to be useful and productive members of the new society. But Milan’s uncle managed to keep them safe, so long as they did not cause any trouble.
Only Milan caused quite a lot of trouble. He once asked a history teacher how she knew workers in America were starving. She sent him to the school principal. He skipped from one foot to another all the way there. The principal did not have the answer either. But he did call his uncle to school.
Pavel was mesmerised by Milan. Every time Pavel glanced into his direction Milan would wink at him. One day Milan just threw his large hand over Pavel’s shoulder and called him ‘a little pal.’ They became friends. Pavel’s first friend.
Milan seemed not to know about the ‘code of deliberate kindness’ that shadowed Pavel. He measured Pavel’s small hands against his and joked about how small they were. One day he even dared Pavel to throw punches and tried to teach him how to fight at the far corner of the school field. It was such a funny spectacle that some other kids forgot about the ‘code’ too and cheered them on. Pavel laughed so much that his face hurt long afterwards.
On the way back home, Milan asked Pavel to come to his house. He wanted to show him something. Pavel knew that it was forbidden. But he really wanted to go. He decided to go and think of some excuse later.
Pavel had never seen a house like Milan’s. From the outside it looked old and almost abandoned. Inside, it was arranged as a cross between a workshop and sleeping quarters. There did not seem to be any toilet or running water. Milan’s grandfather was sitting on the small stool working on an odd-looking apparatus, with various parts of it laying around. A couple of others were in the similar state of disrepair scattered around the place. Some looked like old radios with Bakelite knobs.
The grandfather did not seem to notice Pavel and Milan.
Milan carefully guided Pavel through the front room and into an adjoining space just big enough for two people to stand or kneel behind the closed door. He flipped the corner of the dusty floor rug and carefully separated the floor boards. Pavel held his breath. Milan slowly slipped his hands inside the opening and lifted a square shaped object covered with a thick woolen cloth. He winked at Pavel and threw the cloth away; ‘We are going to America’ he said. Pavel did not think so. All he could see was an old radio and some odd-looking wires attached to it.
Milan was excited. He was clearly very familiar with the wires and knobs, turning them this way and that, searching for the signal, he explained. He then checked that the window was shut, and the curtains pulled tightly. Pavel felt tiny drops of sweat forming on top of his upper lip; soon miniscule drops were filling his mouth. He watched Milan’s moving fingers. The way he was squatting left only his fingers and the top of his curly scalp exposed. A puppeteer fiddling with his offerings.
Hissing sounds started to escape from the peculiar-looking apparatus. Pavel leaned over Milan, peering into the radio’s mesh front. A clear female voice surged forward. Pavel jumped back, bumping against the door. As if by reflex, Milan steadied him, his firm hand on Pavel’s arm. It was a dry, strong hand. He turned the volume down low with his other hand.
Milan pulled Pavel next to him. They were both now kneeling in front of the mesh. The young female voice was just audible. Pavel looked imploringly to Milan. He did not know what to do. The air felt warm and dusty, like the inside of his mother’s room at the end of summer. He wanted to ask what it all meant. Milan squeezed his shoulders. ‘It is OK’ he said. ‘I will teach you American.’
Pavel went to Milan’s house every time he could craft an excuse. At school it was easy; nobody would question him when he asked to go home early because he was feeling sick. And nobody would draw any conclusions from the fact that Milan would leave around the same time too. Milan’s absences were customary. As long as he did not cause any trouble – nobody was bothered.
Pavel’s mother left the front rooms of her house around the same time she left the rooms of her marriage. She migrated into the room she chose to call the ‘studio’. Sometimes Pavel rushed by her in a hallway. Later he avoided the hallway as much as he could.
Occasionally Pavel had to explain his absences to his father. Eventually he came up with an idea. Milan thought of it first. Pavel joined the voluntary youth army class. They had real guns to practice on, learning how to defend the people’s country from imperial powers. From America and its imperial allies. The proletariat would be liberated and united. The organiser was an enthusiastic young teacher. He was very glad to have Pavel amongst his flock. Eventually the boy’s father would certainly visit. It would be a great opportunity. He was sure of it.
Pavel made sure to attend the beginning of each class. He displayed keen interest and very quickly learned how to assemble and disassemble guns with great speed. Milan’s grandfather had made sure of it. Once the boys told him their plan, the old man spent hours molding Pavel’s piano fingers around the old gun that he kept hidden in that cave they call home. He also made sure that Pavel’s eyes do not moisten with tears of despair every time he held a weapon with his bare hands. The old man’s eyes danced in the same way Milan’s did. Soon, the routine was established. After displaying his skills at the beginning of each meeting, Pavel would quietly slip out. The teacher did not question him. The teacher waited for the suitable moment to invite his father for a visit.
Pavel would join Milan at the street corner where a newspaper kiosk stood, and they would walk to Milan’s house. Sometimes Milan would arrive on his grandfather’s motorbike. ‘That way we save time’, he would explain. Milan liked that motorbike. It was a German model left from the war. The first time, Pavel was scared to sit behind Milan. He smiled at Milan’s open face and hand which motioned him to jump on. But he did not. Until Milan dismounted and took him by the hand. ‘You will be OK, just hold on to me firmly’. The machine started with a roar that jolted Pavel. He held onto Milan with all his might and pushed his face deeply into the creases of Milan’s woolen jacket. It smelt of sweat and tobacco.
The room with the radio held them for hours. Pavel soon learned that the program was called Voice of America, broadcasted directly from the USA. This was the reason why it had to be listened in secret. It was not allowed.
The old man would sometimes join them, causing a serious shortage of oxygen in the room. On those days Pavel had to squeeze very close to Milan. Their legs would entwine like knobbed branches on spring young trees.
Pavel’s insides moved in unison with the throbbing in his chest. Pearls of breath spotted his upper lip.
Milan’s grandfather translated some of the words for them. Before the war he had studied languages in Prague. He told them that the language is called English and is spoken in America. Pavel was not sure to understand why it is not called ‘American’ like Milan first told him. But the old man insisted on teaching them a few words. Milan later explained that they must learn so they can look for work when they are in America. Milan could already speak a few short sentences. It was the first time Pavel learnt that he was going to America with Milan. He dared not to ask when.
This is how they came by books. The old man left them in the room. Some of them were beautiful, old and worn with thin pages and scratched covers. All in English. Pavel smoothed the palm of his hand over the covers. He wondered how often Milan’s hands touched them.
Pavel wanted to learn English. He wanted to understand the words coming from the radio and lyrics of songs. He wanted to know why Milan often become angry when he was trying to explain to him what communist propaganda is and what it means to be kept imprisoned by it.
But Pavel could not concentrate.
He tried his best. Carefully writing down English words and repeating them after Milan. Trying to follow meanings Milan was explaining. Until his lungs become full of Milan’s smell and all he could hear were throbbing’s in the depths of his belly. Insistent and unyielding.
Spring slowly turned into an early summer. The long field behind their school would soon be turned into the podium for the school’s annual celebration. All the teachers and some important district party officials will attend. The end of another school year.
Pavel was worried. About his unfinished school work and about the long summer holidays. He did not have any idea how to continue visiting Milan once school was over. And he was worried that his father would send him to one of those youth summer camps where voluntary physical labor and Marxism teachings are practiced daily.
He was worried about English words Milan assigned him for daily practice. The harder he tried, the less he could remember. All he could remember was the chiseled line of Milan’s jaw and sounds of his voice. Like ripples of water cascading over cobblestones.
On some days, Pavel would hide behind the outer walls of his mother’s studio and cry until his eyes become red and swollen. He wished to lie down on the warm concrete and close his eyes and dissolve into the endless blue sky bathed in sunshine.
In the last weeks of school Milan was ecstatic. His body was in constant motion, rippled with energy. Flood waters bursting through river banks. He was absent from most classes and told Pavel he was finished with school. And with this place. ‘We are as good as gone my little pal’ he would often say.
Milan never explained to Pavel how they were going to reach America. He only spoke about shiny cars and the big houses people have over there. And shops full of stuff you can buy any time you want. Music you can listen any time you fancy it. On those afternoons when Milan’s hands and mouth painted pictures of their new life in America, Pavel forgot all about his inability to memorise English words, his father, and his school. He even forgot about the dreaded school holidays and voluntary youth labor camps. He simply hugged his knees and floated on the current of Milan’s words like a lazy holiday swimmer on the sleepy sea waves of hot summer.
With the end of school fast approaching, it was becoming harder to slip from the army youth meetings. The teacher was insistent on making sure that all of them were well trained for the annual display. And he was keeping an especially keen eye on Pavel. He had already arranged for the letter of invitation to reach Pavel’s father and wanted to make sure that Pavel would perform flawlessly and receive one of the highest rewards. After that it would be easy to start a conversation. With backing from such a man as Pavel’s father he might finally manage to move from the classroom to an officer’s job. It was not his fault that his own brother was adamant not to join the party even though he spent hours trying to make him see sense. To make him see that all he is achieving is ruining his own life and the life of others in the family. But you cannot talk to that man any more. All he would say was: ‘You do not believe in all that crap yourself, all you are after is a cushy job and an easy life!’ It was pointless. But it did bother him. He knew they were holding it against him that he cannot convert even his own brother. Only now with this little boy, a sorry excuse for one to be sure, he just might have a breakthrough if he can make the boy’s father proud. Especially since rumors have it that his wife has locked herself into a room and hardly ever comes out. Sick apparently. And the boy is no better either. All transparent and feminine looking. You almost wish to tie a ribbon to his hair. It was a miracle he learnt to operate weapons so well.
As soon as the class started, the teacher announced they will be having a block lesson and a few more before the big day. Pavel’s heart sunk. Milan will be waiting for him as usual. His hands started to sweat. He carried the first part of instructions with well-practiced movements, only leaving a few wet marks on the shiny black metal of a rifle. He really needed to be on time today, Milan said they need time to talk. He was going to tell him when to sneak out of the house and what to bring for their trip.
When the teacher approached him, Pavel realized that he was carrying a new rifle for him to practice on. He also handed him a roll of ammunition. That meant the teacher will continue to stand close to him and observe. Pavel’s hands started to tremble. Now he will have no chance to sneak out. The teacher was smiling at him and Pavel could see his gum line bared above his teeth. He was saying something Pavel could not decipher. His ears were full of the drumming from his chest.
It was Janos that called the teacher from the front of the class. His big fingers jammed the mechanism again and he needed help. Pavel slowly placed the rifle on the bench and wiped his hands on his trousers. He picked his satchel and started moving towards the door. It usually worked. But before Pavel’s hand could quietly turn the door knob, the teacher called his name. Pavel turned around. He squeezed his satchel and looked at the floor. He did not want to cry. The teacher came close to him and put his hand on Pavel’s shoulder. He wanted to know where Pavel was going. All he could whisper was that he was not well and wanted to go home. The teacher lifted his chin. And saw tears rolling down Pavel’s pale cheeks. The teacher no longer smiled. It was the second time in his life Pavel saw rapid changes in geometry of human smiles.
The teacher decided to let Pavel go home and ask Janos to accompany him. Janos made a face to his friend Andrej, before he picked up his own satchel and started walking towards Pavel. Janos was a big boy with a bold head and fat hands. He was also a youth leader in training.
Pavel could feel fear clawing inside his spine. His fingers were ice cold. He could not move. Janos was waiting for him. And Milan was waiting outside the school gate at the corner with the newspaper kiosk.
Pavel followed Janos outside the classroom and towards the school gate. Janos was trying to match his long strides to Pavel’s shuffle, but he ended up leaving Pavel behind. Pavel started to walk even slower. When they approached the school gate, Pavel glanced around. Janos turned towards the corner with the newspaper kiosk. Pavel did not move. He hoped Janos would not turn around.
It was the moment Janos called his name that Pavel saw Milan for the first time. He was running towards Pavel carrying a smile as wide as the summer sky above them. His hands were in the air and he was shouting for Pavel to hurry up since he is so late already. When Milan reached Pavel, he grabbed his shoulders and shook him as he often did saying that it is the only way to wake him up from his daydreaming. With his hands still on Pavel’s shoulders, Milan saw tears flooding Pavel’s face. He saw Janos approaching in the same time.
Janos instantly knew what he needed to do. He ran back to class to find the teacher. And tell him that Milan Vargas is threatening Pavel Kovac. He had seen it with his own eyes.
When the teacher and Janos reached the street’s corner they could not see anybody. Milan had half-carried, half-dragged Pavel into an abandoned basement behind the kiosk. He had spent many school hours reading in there or waiting for Pavel to finish his classes and meet him at their usual place. Milan knew the teacher would try to find them. He wanted to reach home and find his grandfather before they start to search. Milan sank his teeth into his lower lip and tightened his grip on Pavel’s arm.
After searching nearby streets, the teacher decided to return to school and call Pavel’s father. He needed to be the first to raise the alarm.
Running through the back streets Milan reached his home. He locked Pavel in the room with the radio and went to search for his grandfather. Without Pavel to soothe, his hands trembled recklessly. If he could only find his grandfather quickly they would be safe. The old man would know where to go until they could leave for the border. For the first time in his life Milan wanted his grandfather with him. To make sure that Pavel will be safe.
Pavel’s father was wearing a long overcoat when he arrived at Milan’s house. He looked even taller than usual. He pushed the front door open and stepped into the dim light of an early summer evening. The faint smell of oil and burnt food lingered in the room. It was empty.
Pavel’s father called his name in sharp, rapid bursts. Like bullets ricocheting off the pavement. He thought he heard that pitiful whimper the boy sometimes made, coming from behind what seemed like a roughly made door. He tried the door’s knob. Locked. The anger was stretching itself inside him like a long, lazy snake. A sneer flickered in the corner of his mouth.
He booted the door open. It landed on the window ledge forming an empty space below where Pavel buried his face deeper into his knees.
Milan and his grandfather saw a car parked in front of their house. They ran in.
When Pavel’s father turned around they saw a gun in his hand. A Russian Tokarev TT-33. Milan’s grandfather stepped in front of him. Milan cried out.
It was then Pavel launched himself onto his father. The late sun danced in his hair. His face wet with tears, hands grabbing desperately, he screamed at his father that he hates him, hate they house and was going to America with Milan. Forever.
A gun fired. Once only. Pavel’s chest exploded into a crimson red stain. The same colour his mother used to paint the top of his nose with. When he was only a little boy.
It would be 20 years before Milan Vargas reaches America. In a bag he bought the same day he was released from prison, he carried an old school satchel. It was worn and dirty. The name Pavel Kovac written in a childlike scrawl could be just seen in the upper right corner if you looked closely.