© 2007 Christopher Vened Szwaja
THE KNIFE IN A CURIOSITY SHOP WINDOW
It all went awry since the beginning of the day. I was walking from the dormitory to the school, as usual, a few minutes before eight am. The dormitory and the school were located in the same building, so all I had to do was go around the corner and walk one hundred yards to the main entrance of the school. On the way I met my friends, Gats, Wrobel, and Bogdan. They were standing under the school brick wall and were smiling sort of mischievously while looking at me approaching. I sensed that they were up to something, something bad most likely. “Hi!” I greeted them. “Hi, hi Crystal,” they greeted me back and laughed. “What are you guys up to that you have so much fun this early in the morning, hmm?” I asked them trying to get to their spirit. “Nothing, nothing,” they said, but laughed even harder while exchanging knowing gazes. “What, what is going on with you guys?” I asked but they did not answer. Only when I waived my hand dismissively at them and turned away, saying at the same time, “O.K. I give up on you guys, I am going,” did Wrobel shout after me, “Hey Crystal, the teachers are checking emblems and hair at the entrance, they will not let you in.” “What?” I asked turning back toward them. “Yes, Crystal, yes,” they all confirmed now being more serious. ” I have my emblem,” I said and pulled the school emblem out of my pocket and attached it to the sleeve of my uniform with pins. “Good luck,” Gats said ironically, doubting that I would pass the entrance with the emblem pinned on instead of stitched onto the uniform as was obligatory. “What about you guys, don’t you go to school today?” I asked. “You bet,” Bogdan said somehow firmly. “We are going on a wag.” “Oh,” I responded somehow being or pretending to be impressed. “Do you want to go with us?” Gats asked. “No,” I said, “I haven’t planned that for today,” I excused myself with somewhat of a lie since I had never played hooky before. “But you guys have fun,” I said. “All right,’ one of them responded. “So long, so long” we said and I went on my way to school. But Gats still shouted after me ironically, “see you soon buddy.”
At the school entrance, one of the teachers there stopped me and checked my appearance. He looked at my hair and said, “Your hair is too long.” “My hair is short,” I argued, “It doesn’t even reach my collar.” “Hair is supposed to be cut four fingers above the collar,” the teacher said. Then he checked my emblem, noticed that it was attached on with the pins, pulled it off and said, “Your emblem is falling off.” “It was pinned on,” I said. “It supposed to be stitched onto the uniform,” the teacher said. “What difference does it make whether it is pined or stitched, it appears the same,” I argued. But the teacher didn’t want to argue with me. He said, “Go get yourself a haircut and stitch the emblem onto your uniform properly.” “But,” I tried to protest. “End of discussion!” the teacher cut me off abruptly. So I went away wondering, “Why are the school authorities suddenly so strict about the students’ appearances?” At that time I didn’t know, now I know. It was 1968, and student rioting was already taking place all around the country. The school authorities were imposing strict discipline for precaution, and any young man with long hair was an enemy of the state. For them I, or rather my appearance, was an enemy of the state. As I said, I didn’t know that at that time. However, the fact I was not allowed on the school grounds because of my appearance and the rude manners of the teacher pissed me off. I felt a mixture of anger and embarrassment. I felt offended. I felt I had been let down. Still, I had an option to get into the school through the back door of the basement, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel like sneaking into the building on the sly. My other option was to do as the teacher said: to get myself a haircut and to stitch the emblem onto the sleeve of my uniform. I didn’t even consider that option. It was below the level of my self-esteem. The third option was to go for a wag with my friends and that was what I did. I played hooky that day the first time in my life.
So I went back to my friends and said, “They didn’t let me in.” “Go through the basement,” Gats said. “I know,” I responded somehow frustrated, “I will not go through the basement, fuck them.” It became clear and was assumed without more words that I would go with them for a wag. “Let’s go guys,” Bogdan said. And we went.
First we went to the liquor store to pick up some booze. The liquor store was on Kraszewski St., fifteen – twenty minutes walking distance from the school. But the store opened at nine am. So we had an hour to kill. We walked slowly, shuffling our feet. Gats was amusing himself by spitting on peoples’ coats from behind. Bogdan joined him. They were sort of competing about who could produce more saliva and hits the target better. Wrobel tried to join them, but he gave it up quickly, not being able to produce either enough saliva or to get it well to the target. Obviously he had no heart for it. But Gats and Bogdan were getting into it obsessively, spitting on people with sick pleasure. It was performed as a boyish prank but done with scornful attitude. I did not participate in that game. I was disgusted.
We must have really walked slowly because when we got to the liquor store it was already open. We stopped near by and pooled our money together for the booze. We collected one hundred and six sloty, enough for two bottles of vodka. But Bogdan said, “It is not enough. We need three bottles.” Bogdan and I gave our shares. Wrobel had no money at all so we exempted him. Gats had money but he had to pay for the dormitory. So he said, “I can’t spent more, guys, I don’t have any extra except to pay for the dormitory.” “Come on, Gats,” said Bogdan, “you will pay later.” “I can’t,” Gats said,” I’ve already spent my dormitory rent money twice this month.” We believed him. Gats used to spend his rent money for booze each month but his mother always gave him money again, in secret from his father. Yet Bogdan was insisting, “We need three bottles.” “We can’t,” I said, “Two is alright with me.” “It sucks,” Bogdan said, “I thought we were clear on that.” “Shit,” Gats said, “I’ll give you the money, what the heck.” He pulled out a pile of money from his pocket and gave a few bills for his share to Bogdan. “Good, it is set,” Bogdan said. “Who is going to get the booze? Wroble asked. “I will go,” Gats said, “I look the oldest.” “No, you don’t,” Wrobel said. “I will go,” Bogdan said decisively. “Why you?” Gats was protesting. “Because I am the oldest one and I have an id,” Bogdan responded. We didn’t know that at that time. Bogdan was a new comer to our school. He was a disciplinary case transferred from Ziebice for bad behavior. So, we accepted his offer to go and buy the liquor. The rest of us were minors: Gats and Vrobel were seventeen and I was sixteen years old.
While Bogdan went to the liquor store, we waited around the corner so as not to cause any suspicion. He came back shortly carrying three bottles of vodka in his hands. While he was approaching us, he stopped half way and said, “You know what guys, you are minors. You should not drink this hideous stuff, so I am throwing it away.” And in that moment, he threw all three bottles high into the air. We all screamed in despair, “Ooh, no!” But, amazingly, he caught all three bottles one by one into his hands and started juggling with them. We were astonished. He was juggling those bottles with utter skill and confidence as if he were a professional circus juggler. We were impressed, yet he was juggling with our bottles of vodka, so we were also afraid that he would drop the bottles and spill the precious liquor on the ground. So when he stopped juggling, gracefully catching all three bottles, we were relieved, but not for long. Bogdan once again threw the bottles into the air and continued to juggle them. He kept doing that a few times, till, in the moment of his third juggling interval, we jumped on him and took the bottles away, advising him jokingly to juggle with sticks or stones instead. We were not angry with him by any means. He impressed us with his juggling show and we admired him.
We went to drink vodka outside the town on the bank of the Nysa river. We walked along the river on a narrow dirt path a few miles and stopped where there were vast low marshy meadows. It was a deserted area, a good spot for truants. We felt safe there that no one, in particular the police, would bother us. We hung over there the whole day, till evening. Nothing extraordinary was happening. We were just killing time drinking vodka, playing cards, first poker then bridge, and then, when we got drunk, doing macho sporty stunts.
Only after we drunk the last round of vodka, we headed back toward the town. It was already dark. We were getting very hungry. The few sandwiches we had brought with us we had eaten hours ago. We walked quickly almost hurriedly. We were in very good spirits – vodka was well boozing in our heads and our bodies were still excited by the fun games we had played on the bank of the Nysa river. However, the closer we were getting to the town, the less spirited we became. It was probably because we were getting sober and dry, and because our wag was coming to the end, and because we were approaching the town, the place of our dreary school and dorm – the place of restriction. By the time we reached the outskirts of the town, we were gloomy. And the gloominess grew on us the farther to the town we went. It was unbearable, as if we were going back to prison.
And when we were in this gloomy mood, Gats spotted an old woman pushing a cart with vegetables through the small city square. She seemed to be coming back from the market. At one moment, the old woman stopped and bent over her cart arranging something in it. Gats spotted her and said, “Look guys what an enormous ass she has.” Then suddenly he ran toward her as fast as he could and kicked her in the ass with his full force. The poor woman fell into the cart with her face into the vegetables. She was not able to get herself out – her legs were kicking hopelessly and grotesquely into the air. At first she did not scream, probably being flabbergasted or because her face was in the vegetables, but then, a few moments later, she screamed with utter outrage, “Hooligans, hooligans, bandits, oo, Mother Mary, help, help!” and so on.” We cleared out, running away and laughing. We all thought it was hysterically funny. Taken by surprise, as the poor woman was, we were not able to stop laughing.
Later on, when we were having Russian pierogi for dinner in the Milk Bar, we asked Gats why he had done that. He said, “I don’t know. I did not intend to. I just saw her ass and could not resist kicking it. I could not help myself.” We all were saying that it was not cool to kick an old woman in the ass, but at the same time we were not able to stop laughing.
This incident jazzed us up. Our good spirits were back. We didn’t feel like going home. We were ready for action. “Let’s go to Ratuszowa,” Gats said. We looked at him and nodded our heads skeptically “Yeah, sure.” Ratuszowa was a nightclub in the market square in the center of town, rather expensive. We had no money left. “What the heck,” Gats said joyously, “I have money, guys. Let’s go and drink it away. Let’s drink up every single penny of my money for the dormitory rent.” And he laughed, and we laughed. “How are you going to pay for the dormitory rent?” Wrobel voiced his concern. “I don’t know,” said Gats and laughed again. “He doesn’t know,” said Bogdan and laughed as well. “Do you know, Wrobel, how Gats is going to pay for the dormitory rent?” I asked and laughed. “I don’t know,” said Wrobel and shrugged his shoulder, “I am just voicing my concern that….” “Shut up, Wrobel,” Bogdan cut him off abruptly. “Shut up, Wrobel,” I said. “Shut your trap! Wrobel,” Gats shouted, “and let’s go!” “Let’s go!” we said. And so we went.
We came to Ratuszowa sometime after eight pm. The restaurant was three fourths filled with people; the bar was packed. The decadent warmth of adult debauchery and lust was oozing in the rooms. We got excited but behaved cool, in our conviction as adults, not letting our immaturity to show. After all, with the exception of Bogdan, we were minors – we didn’t want to cause suspicion, we didn’t want to be found out. But no one cared to check our ids. We got in without any problems, took a table in the dancing room, and ordered drinks. Everything looked as if we were going to have a good time. Our table was set with drinks, our imaginations tempted by the sluttish women hanging around, the prospect to get laid this evening on our minds. But that was as far as it went. Gats went to the bar for a drink with one of the musician whom he knew and spotted Gnidacewicz, a teacher from our school. Gats quickly backed up and returned to our table. He said, “Gnidacewicz is in the bar, we have to flee.” Wrobel jerked in the chair, getting ready to run.” “Cool down Wrobel,” said Bogdan and grabbed Wrobel’s forearm, bringing him to standstill, “Don’t rush, there’s not reason to panic.” Then he turned to Gats and asked him, “Has Gnidacewicz seen you?” “I don’t know,” said Gats, “but I don’t think so.” “Alright,” said Bogdan, “let’s split one by one.” “Crystal will go first,” Bogdan said, “Gats and Wrobel next, and I will go last.” We snuck out of the club, seemingly unnoticed.
There was no other place to go. We just wandered a little bit around the empty streets and then slowly headed toward the dormitory. On the way, while passing through the old town, we stopped in front of a curiosity shop window on Mularska Street. We looked through the window which was poorly lid but bright enough to see the displayed merchandise. Our attention was attracted to a hunter’s knife. Wrobel first noticed the knife and said, “I would like to have that hunter’s knife.” “Where do you see it?” Gats asked intrigued. “Over there, in the right lower corner,” Wrobel answered slightly indicating the knife with his chin. Gats recognized the location of the knife and exclaimed, “Wow!” Bogdan and I too were looking at the knife. It was a very fancy knife with a decorative horned handgrip and an impressively curved serrated blade, displayed next to a dark brown leather sheath. “One hundred twenty seven zlotys!” Wrobel exclaimed while reading the price tag attached to the knife and whistled with amazement. “You can’t have it, Wrobel,” Gats said and added bluntly, “You can’t afford it.” “We can break a window and take the knife,” Bogdan calmly said.” “Sure, we can,” Gats reverberated sardonically, “no one is around here but us.” “Would you break the window?” Wrobel asked Gats teasingly. “Would you?” Gats responded defensively. “I would,” Bogdan said. “Why don’t you then?” Wrobel said. “It’s you who wants the knife,” Bogdan responded. While they kept teasing and instigating each other relentlessly, I was getting pissed off at them. I felt a rage was growing in me. I don’t know exactly why, maybe because they were tempted to steal and were sheepish at the same time. It angered and embarrassed me. “Do you really want the knife, Wrobel?” I asked him willfully. “Sure, I do,” answered Wrobel. “Good,” I said and broke the window by punching at the glass with my bare fist. I didn’t punch at the front but the side glass window, choosing so not to make too much damage to the property. However, the side glass was hard to break. It was very thick glass and very narrow, not much more in breadth then the width of my fist. Therefore, I failed to break the glass with my first punch. It infuriated me even more. So I punched the glass a second time with all the strength I had and broke it. I broke the lower part of the window, just a large enough hole to dive my hand and arm inside. I did so, quickly grabbing and pulling out the knife. When I turned toward my friends, they were already gone. They had already took off and fled away. I followed them and caught up with Gats around the corner. But I lost him soon, I took the short cut through the park and he kept running through the streets. I also lost track of Bogdan and Wrobel. I was escaping alone, running without stopping or slowing down till I reached the dormitory. My colleagues were not there yet. I was waiting for them hidden in the shadow of a brick wall. Bogdan and Wrobel showed up, Gats shortly after them, panting and rasping, both scared and wildly excited.
“Here is you knife,” I said to Wrobel and handed it toward him. “I don’t want this knife,” Wrobel said raising his hands up in a gesture both of refusing and giving up. “What happened to your hand?” Bogdan asked. Only then and there did I notice that my hand was bleeding heavily. “I don’t know,” I said being surprised myself with the bloody picture. “Put that damn knife on the ground,” Bogdan said with a downward waiving hand motion. I put the knife on the ground. My friends gathered around me and looked at my hand. I had badly injured the knuckle of my index finger of my right hand. The skin was cut wide open, the meat shredded, the knuckle bone exposed bare naked, and blood gushed profusely from the wound. “Shit! Crystal,” Gats exclaimed through his teeth and said, “it is really fucked.” “Do you have a handkerchief?” I asked somehow calmly not yet realizing the seriousness of my injury since I did not feel any pain. Gats offered a white handkerchief and I wrapped it around my finger but the handkerchief became red with blood in an instant. “It will not do,” Bogdan said. “Go to the emergency room, Crystal,” Gats said. “Jesus!” Wrobel whizzed impatiently and said nothing. “I can’t go to the emergency room now,” I said refusing, knowing that if I were to go I would be submitted to a police investigation besides of medical treatment. “You have to stop the blood right now,” Gats said with concern. “This wound looks terrible. It looks to me as if you need surgery and a few stitches,” he added. “No, no,” I protested, “its not so bad. Don’t worry about me. It is just a minor injury. Disinfecting with hydrogen peroxide and wrapping it up in bandages will do.” “I don’t think so,” Gats voiced his doubt. But I insisted on not going to the emergency room and said, “I will wait till tomorrow, if the wound worsens, I will go to the doctor.” It seemed the best solution under the circumstance. “That’s a good idea,” Bogdan said. The others accepted it too: Wrobel was nodding his head agreeably, Gats was nodding his head skeptically but he said, “Okay.” Yet at that point my wound was bleeding like hell, dripping blood all over the ground. Gat’s handkerchief was not helping much. So I took off my shirt and wrapped it around my wounded hand. It helped for the time being.
It wasn’t until then that Bogdan picked up the knife from the ground, wiped the blood off it with the sleeve of my shirt that hung loose from my wrapped hand, looked at the knife demonstratively and said, “good piece of work.” Then he slipped the knife into his pocket casually as if it belonged to him and said, “Let’s go guys and no word about this to anyone.”
We went into the dorm on the sly through the window on the second floor. It was our secret entrance that no one suspected because the window was fifteen feet above the ground. We were entering through there on ten feet long board bridged between the fence wall and the windowsill. We climbed the wall, set up the board, and crossed it one by one. Now it seems to be a very dangerous operation, risking falling off the maybe wobbly board suspended fifteen feet above the cement ground. But back then, to pass over that board was a piece of cake for us.
In the dorm, I took care of my wound. Gats was assisting me. He brought bandages and hydrogen peroxide. In the bathroom, I washed and disinfected the wounded knuckle; Gats bandaged my hand. We managed to stop the bleeding. “It doesn’t look so bad anymore,” I said to Gats reassuringly. “No, it doesn’t,” Gats said and smiled at me with a smirk as if to say that we had made it. “O.K. lets go to bed,” he said and quickly grabbed the bottle with hydrogen peroxide and extra bandages, then stuck them into my pocket saying, “Take them for later on.” Then we split and went to bed.
When I lay in bed, my hand begun to hurt, first mildly and then unbearably. I was not able to sleep the entire night out of pain. Yet I withstood both the pain and sleeplessness, and in the morning I got up from bed and got ready for school.
That day I went to school as usual. There was no checkpoint at the main entrance. Anyway, if there were I would get in through the basement. Students from my class were asking what happened to my hand. I told them that I had injured myself in a workshop.
During lounge break, we all four were called to the principal’s office. We went there expecting the worst. I even considered not going and to drop out of school for good. But I gave up that idea since it would not be fair to my friends. I had stolen the knife and decided to take all the blame on myself. While waiting at the door of the principal’s office, I said to my friends, “Don’t worry, guys, I will take the whole blame on me.” Then the door opened and we were called in. In the room was the principal and Gnidacewicz, the teacher we spotted in Ratuszowa the night before. “What have you been doing in Ratuszowa late at night?” the principal asked us. “We stopped over there just for a moment to get sodas since every thing else was already closed,” Gats lied on the spot. “You were drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes,” said Gnidacewicz matter of fact. “Don’t lie fellows, it only makes your situation worse,” the principal said. We admitted drinking and smoking in Ratuszowa. As punishment, we were put on probation for one quarter.
I could not help myself and went to the place of my crime during the same day in the late afternoon. I stood on the front of the curiosity shop window in the same place as the night before. The broken glass was replaced with a piece of plywood. I looked at the spot in the window where the knife had been displayed the previous night. The spot was empty but the knife’s dark brown sheath was still there. “Why didn’t I take the sheath?” slipped through my mind mischievously only to become ashamed for my thoughts a moment later. I suddenly felt like a thief and it felt awful. “I am not a thief,” I was arguing with myself, “I never stole anything before.” “I stole the knife last night,” an involuntary voice was saying contradictorily in my head, “I am a thief.” I started to regret my act. “What the hell did I do it for?” I was beating myself with thoughts, “Just to impress my friends? Or to prove something? To prove what? That I am tough or mad as hell?” And yet when I was committing the crime at night, it seemed like the right thing to do under the circumstance. I was compelled to do it on the spur of the moment and I did it. I did not calculate why and for what I was doing it. Apparently an evil impulse took me over and I did it. Yet, a day later I was tormenting myself with guilt. I wished to undo my crime, but to no avail. What is done is done. I could only lessen the consequences by giving the knife back to the shopkeeper and paying for the broken window.
So conscience stricken I went to Bogdan and asked him to give me the knife back. Bogdan was surprised but in his usual calm voice he said, “I thought that you gave me this knife.” “No Bogdan, I said, “I gave the knife to Wrobel but he didn’t want it so you took it.” “Does he wants the knife now or do you want it for yourself?” Bogdan asked. “No, no, no Bogdan,” I protested, “No such thing, what do you take me for?” “I want to give the knife back to the shop-keeper,” I explained and was flabbergasted with my own words realizing the absurdity of my intendment. Bogdan looked at me firmly and said nothing, waiting for further explanation. “And I am going to pay for the broken window,” I said flounderingly. I felt I was blushing, as if I revealed a shameful secret to him. Bogdan turned his eyes away from me, made a few slow but firm steps, and standing with his back to me said, “I don’t have this knife any more. I have gotten rid of it.” I didn’t ask Bogdan how he got rid of the knife, and he did not bother to explain it on his own. He just was standing there with his back to me in silence, and I was waiting wondering whether he was telling the truth or lying. Whatever, one thing was clear to me that he was not going to give me the knife back, and consequently, I was not going to give this knife back to the shopkeeper. Finally I said breaking the silence, ” that’s alright Bogdan, forget about it,” and I went away. When I was leaving, Bogdan called after me, “Crystal, don’t do anything stupid, alright?” “Alright,” I said and left the room.
I never went to the doctor to take care of my injured knuckle. I took care of the wound myself. It healed up alright. Only a small zigzag like scar remains on my knuckle until this day.