How to Speak Czech

by Laura Maylene Walter

Milenka wrote in shaking pencil on the backs of used notebook paper everything she planned to make during her granddaughter’s visit. Lentil soup, spiced with pepper. Cabbage noodles. Dumplings stuffed with prune butter. Pairs of sweating sausages. A vat of creamed spinach, steaming green and dotted with bread torn ragged from the loaf.Most of the ingredients she could pick up from the corner market, but her son, Max, made a trip to the grocery store just outside of town. He brought back yellow boxes of dry cereal and a gallon of skim milk. A package of Tastykakes. Three frozen dinners, a case of cola, the jumbo can of coffee. “I know my daughter,” he said. “This is what my little girl eats.”

She was not little anymore, Alema. At thirty-three years old she was still without a husband, though lately she hinted of a beau she refused to bring to Milenka’s house in Carbon County. Milenka placed the cereal and packaged snacks into cabinets and checked the stove. Pancakes with cinnamon for breakfast, a pile of fresh fruit next to the breadbox. Fruit was not something Milenka had grown up with in the Czech village. She was raised on slaw, canned milk, dried prunes. Alema would get fruit every day during her visit. She’d eat white bread soft enough to squish beneath her teeth, noodles buttered until slippery.

“All I’m saying is, don’t kill yourself cooking until she gets here and you see how she eats,” Max said. “If she even gives herself time to eat.”

Milenka clasped her hands and paced the length of her kitchen, the shining whiteness of it. The kitchen was all she had left, these days. Life was long and what did it give her? A husband dead from coal dust, a balding son divorced from his career-driven wife, and a granddaughter with not one, not even two, but three degrees who was driving alone halfway across the country.

And Lida, of course. She still had Lida. Milenka walked to the kitchen window and peered through curtains at her sister’s duplex next door. Lida would be in there right now, cleaning and straightening, waiting for Alema’s arrival so she could swoop in and claim what was never hers.

“I wonder if she’ll make it before dark,” Max said. “You drive across those prairies at night and it’s like you’re about to drop right off the edge of the world.” He went to over to the cabinet and retrieved the box of Tastykakes.

“I’m about to make lunch,” Milenka said.

“Just a little snack.” Max tore into the box and pulled out a spongy puck, which he put to his mouth again and again until his mustache was plastered with crumbs.

###

Lida didn’t cook. Lida baked. Right now a chocolate layer cake piled high with frosting because that had always been Alema’s favorite, as a little girl. Oh, what a girl. Flirty blond hair that flapped around her shoulders and curled even without the puffy pink rollers Lida bought one Christmas. Knees free of scabs, skin so pale she wore long sleeves in the summer and dabs of white on her nose through autumn. Those blue eyes pure like nature: a bunny lost in a field. Bright bathing suit straps crisscrossing her body, nothing like those heavy woolen suits Lida and Milenka wore as youngsters, their hair trapped beneath bathing caps.

Sometimes Lida pretended Alema was hers, that she was a daughter she found curled in a bucket as if by magic instead of being born to Max and that woman he married who couldn’t even last as a wife.

Meringue, too. That was another favorite. Lida made the pie light as a dream for Alema, recreating the same pale color of the girl’s skin. Mermaid-monster, child of the sea. Alema was raised in Harrisburg but Lida always knew she would leave that place first chance, jump ship. Ship. Chip. Chocolate chips, hot and soft right out of the oven: another memory.

These days, Lida kept the memories stacked and waiting in her oven, as obedient as furled cinnamon rolls. Which Alema only liked without nuts. She was funny that way. Funny also with her friends back then, little girls who spoke a type of language, slang Max called it, that Lida didn’t understand. Though she and Milenka were fast learners of English when they came over. It was good, to be young with another language sitting in your throat: get it out easier.

Alema was a smart one. Came home with A’s on her report cards and made dioramas filled with tiny people, pets, furniture. She never showed an interest in boys as a child, and even as a teenager she studied books instead of bringing dates into the parlor or going out to restaurants with white tablecloths, as Lida had done when she was a girl. It was better, for Alema to avoid that for now. To be smart, and to get the things women of this world were now allowed.

Lida picked up a dishtowel and stared at it, deep in thought. Still. To have a man, a spiced scent floating next to you in the dark, the feeling that he would be the one to catch you in his hands and take you, and claim you, and make you something real.

###

On the first day of her drive from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, Alema allotted herself three stops for food, gas, and restroom breaks. She was accustomed to working a long day straight through. She took an early breakfast at a highway donut shop, brunch in a sub shop, and finally stopped at a truck stop for a longer break, where she sat at the counter with a bottomless cup of coffee while truckers gave her sideways looks. They left her alone, as she knew they would, because she wore tailored dress slacks and a sheer patterned tunic, her hair pulled back in a strawberry bun. She imagined they stepped between their rigs after eating to place bets on her occupation. Psychologist, lawyer, accountant. None would guess she was a microbiologist conducting research at the University of Nebraska, currently comparing plant and animal pathogens. Later, she thought, these men would return to their trucks and remember the line of her neck to make the lonely Midwest miles pass a little sweeter.

She stopped over in Chicago to spend the night with her friend Margi before making the last long leg of the trip. Margi served a late dinner of duck with chardonnay on the ninth-floor balcony and asked about her trip. Alema tried to describe her grandmother’s town but came up with nothing but run-down stores, a dying coal industry, and towns spliced with train tracks used only to get to bigger places.

Grandma Milenka was a sweet old woman, Alema thought, but she would be better served to leave that creaky duplex and move in with Max in Harrisburg. Lida would have to go too, of course, the sister everyone called crazy but who at least had the sense to never marry. Not that it could have been easy, Alema allowed, considering that Lida and Milenka had to suffer through a generation that placed the worth of a woman on husbands and children.

“My grandmother wants to teach me how to cook,” Alema told Margi. “She won’t take no for an answer. So this should be interesting.”

Margi looked down at their plates. “It might not be so horrible, to know how to cook,” she said. “Maybe you should try.”

Alema drank more wine, said nothing. She couldn’t explain how heartbreaking it was to watch Milenka spend hours bent over that stove, her hands smothered in oven mitts, while everyone else sat there and let her do all the work. Even Alema’s own father took advantage of Milenka, soaking up the meals without even a thank you. That was why Alema had ferried fast food back to the house during her last visit. In that small way, maybe she could bring her grandmother some relief.

“My mother doesn’t cook,” Alema added. “I must have inherited it from her. She never spent a minute in the kitchen.”

“That sounds like your mother,” Margi agreed. She stood up and began clearing the plates. She dumped all the dishes in the sink and left them to soak in a sprinkling of dish soap, and then she inflated an air mattress in the corner of the small apartment. Alema watched all of this and remembered that Margi once confided that her mother entered bake-offs and published recipes in their local paper. That world of creation and care seemed so far away, especially there in a high-rise apartment building with an attached deli and grab-and-go café case.

When Margi went to bed, Alema lay in the dark living room thinking of her mother. How she visited Carbon County and was confronted with all that cooking and those old-world ideas and responded by running away. At least she saved her identity, Alema thought as she drifted off. At least she remained herself.

In the morning, Alema was up at her normal hour of five a.m. and had a quick cup of coffee on the balcony. She breathed the city air and took in the buildings, the feeling of morning life. When she left Margi’s apartment she obeyed the speed limit and watched the miles tick by one by one. The sun came up in front of her as she drove, looping itself over the highway and pulsing toward the sky. When it was time to make the trip home the following week, she’d be driving into the sunset. Alema looked forward to that already, the sun fainting in front of her while Pennsylvania spread thin and thinner into nothing.

###

Milenka’s kitchen seemed smaller now with this young woman in it. Alema stood tall and thinner than Milenka remembered, with a hint of red in her blond hair that had to be the product of chemicals. She was dressed up and polished like a peach pit, even after that long drive. She stood in the kitchen wearing dress slacks, a rich collared shirt, and silver strands of jewelry dangling down her neck.

Milenka had on a blue print housedress and her green apron because she was going to make dinner. Hamburgers with onion and a side of cabbage noodles: something easy, unthreatening for her granddaughter’s first day. But Alema, it seemed, was already full.

“I ate on the road,” Alema said. When Max handed Alema a can of cola and a Tastykake, she accepted each. Opened the wrapping, pulled back the tab. Sugar, chemicals. Milenka had firm round onions in the drawer, a package of ground beef waiting in the refrigerator.

“Is that Lida?” Alema asked, and Milenka stopped what she was doing to hear the back porch shaking with her sister’s footsteps. Lida threw open the kitchen door, rattling the blinds something awful, and made for Alema. She wore her purple cardigan and the gold cross earrings she put on for special occasions, which up until today usually consisted of church and weekly beauty parlor appointments. She hugged Alema, sending tumbleweeds of perfume through the room.

“I made chocolate cake,” Lida said. “Meringue pie. You should see what I made for you.” She stood holding Alema’s hands and Alema gripped back.

“I’m here,” she said to Lida. “Let’s see what you made me.”

They went out through the door, Alema brushing lint off the back of the purple cardigan.

###

To have this girl back in the house again, even if she had turned stern in clothing worn by women lawyers on television. To have this child back again. To have this child. Lida took Alema into her house and through the living room into the kitchen. A small kitchen, not like Milenka’s. Not built for a family. Built for Lida alone.

Alema admired the cake. Alema smiled at the meringue. Alema so grown up, a plant scientist. A woman scientist, yet no white coat. She wore shoes with a little heel, her pants hemmed perfectly. “You have learned to sew after all,” Lida said, but Alema laughed and told her, “I have a tailor.”

So. It was true what they said, about women not cooking or cleaning for themselves. It would be nice, to go through life as a man like that. Still. The smell of cake, the whip of meringue. The pride Lida took in how not a whisper of dust could be found within her house, no matter how hard anybody looked.

Alema picked up the pie, its meringue tips dipping like waves. “We should go back to Milenka’s,” she said. “Shouldn’t we?”

Lida reached for the cake stand. She was right, that girl. Ever since Max was born, it was Lida going next door to join everyone else in the house with the kitchen table that seated six. Things would not change now. Alema would go back to her father and her grandmother, and Lida would be alone.

On the way out the door, Lida pressed her fingers to the girl’s blouse. Silk. Slippery, fine. Alema turned but how could Lida get the words out. How could she say, you were the daughter I waited for. You were the life I waited on, and you never belonged to me at all.

###

A few days passed and still Milenka hadn’t been able to share any of her cooking secrets with her granddaughter. It was even difficult to get the girl to sit down and eat a decent home-cooked meal. Half the time, Alema wanted chicken in buckets and hoagies wrapped in paper. She picked up pizza dripping grease from the chain restaurant two towns over that was built to look like a red hat. She ignored the local market and drove herself to the grocery store, bringing back slender cardboard boxes that she stacked in the freezer. Milenka read these boxes late at night, hovering outside the freezer while everyone else slept. Lean Cuisine, the stiff cardboard read. She peeled back one of the corners and saw that the contents came in narrow plastic dishes and were nothing but mush. It must be so cold, Milenka thought, to be a modern woman.

“We can make lentil soup,” Milenka said, “with a nice chicken broth and a fresh loaf of bread. Hot and filling. It’s easy to make, Alema. You’ll see.”

Alema was on her cell phone, speaking that complex plant code and sighing as if the stress of the world was too much for her to bear. “I have to work,” she said. “And you shouldn’t go through all that trouble. I can just eat some cereal.”

Milenka turned away and stared at her clean stove. She’d noticed that Alema had eaten one of Lida’s scones that morning with her coffee. Milenka had watched them, noticing Lida’s eager hands, and remembered the years she spent raising Max. Lida held him and coddled him, but in the end he always came back to Milenka. In the end, Lida returned home to no husband, no children. Always.

###

During the day Alema consulted with colleagues, standing on the front porch where the calls came through most clearly. She had the view of a sad scrub of front lawn, the tumbling chain link fences, the cracked concrete of a town long gone. At night, she slept in a powder-soft bed in the green guestroom, photographs of her dead grandfather dusting the bureaus. Not a wedding picture of her parents anywhere, she noticed. Grandma Milenka had always resented Alema’s mother, who spoke three languages and was a journalist turned politician. She was still in Harrisburg, busy this week with a campaign, so maybe it was better Alema had come to Carbon County after all.

In the morning, Alema squeaked her way down the staircase and entered the kitchen to find Milenka making pancakes. She set a stack in front of Lida and cranked a snowfall of confectioner’s sugar across the top.

“Pancakes,” Milenka said. “Hot breakfast will be good for you. Good for your work.”

“I don’t know,” Alema said doubtfully. “That seems like kind of a heavy breakfast.” The pancakes smelled like her childhood, of womahood. Lida was already at the table cutting a fork through her stack, the utensil buried in softness. She took a bite and smiled.

“You’ll have pancakes,” Milenka said. “At least come watch me make them. What will happen when your husband wants breakfast? I know you think this is impossible, Alema, but it’s not. Your father tells me you have a beau. Come sit down and tell us about him.”

Alema poured herself a cup of coffee before crossing the kitchen to sit next to Lida. Lida was always alone. Alema wondered if she had a trail of men in her past, maybe even someone like Alema had in Kalim: a man for the nighttime, for the dark. Milenka and Lida didn’t need to know about Kalim. It was best not to speak of him at all, or mention that he viewed marriage just as she did. Provincial, sad. Full of dead dreams.

Alema ran her finger across the oilcloth on the table. “He’s nobody,” she said. “Nobody important.” She decided that Lida must sit over there in her duplex and remember past lovers – their hands on her skin, their breath, their smells. It was the least Alema could do for Lida now, to eat her desserts and to remind her of what she might have had.

Milenka slammed a plate of pancakes down at Alema’s place. “Tonight,” she said, “I cook. You help.”

Alema opened her mouth but her grandmother was already at the kitchen sink, scrubbing dishes. The tie of her apron sat in a bow at the small of her back, her shoulders shaking from her movements. Wash, rinse, dry. In her motions were decades of practice, of cleaning and creating and giving. Alema sat, silenced. Her grandmother clattered dishes in the sink, as strong-willed and stubborn as Kalim or any number of the men Alema had kept company with.

###

Milenka stood back and surveyed the ingredients she’d piled across her kitchen counters. She had the cabbage chopped and salted, egg noodles ready to boil, prune butter and bread and spinach lined up in a row. She had the clean wooden cutting board, the knives, the gingham dishtowels and the spoons. Bowls. Plates. Pots and pans and butter.

Max sat at the table like a spectator who had bought a ticket. He told Alema, “My money’s on Grandma,” and laughed. Lida was there, too, this time with no dessert. She sat next to Max with her hands folded, as if waiting for the church organ to pound its song into the air.

Alema, who stood cross-armed in the corner, had put on a skirt and heels. She did that on purpose, Milenka thought. She was just the same as a child: wild and fierce-headed, strong. “I don’t cook,” Alema was saying. “I order out. I go to restaurants.” She paused, sly. “People cook for me.”

“Like your boyfriend, I bet,” Max said. “Maybe you’re on to something. Have the man cook.” He stayed at the table, waiting to be served. Her lovely, lovely son. Milenka watched as Lida reached over to pat his arm. She wanted to fly across the table to hold Lida back, to remind her that this was not hers, that she was barren and single. But she did not. She went to the counter instead, picked up a knife and began cutting carrots.

“Alema, come,” she said. “Start putting spinach in the pot. You can brown flour, no?”

Alema walked to the stove, picked up a wooden spoon. A pile of flour sat in a frying pan, waiting. She looked at it.

“Turn it on,” Milenka said, pressing her granddaughter to light a burner under the flour. “Now keep moving it with the spoon. Like this. See?”

Alema moved the pan to stare at the flame as if she did not trust fire in the house. Milenka dabbed prune butter onto dough and dropped cabbage into noodles. Condensed milk for the spinach, celery for the lentils.

Alema fumbled with the pepper and sneezed into her arm. She wiped her hands on the back of her skirt and held them up, empty. Milenka sighed and moved around her granddaughter as if she were no longer there. Lentil soup simmering, dumplings bubbling with prune filling. Spinach hugging the pot with green eagerness, the egg noodles quivering with butter and that homely cabbage scent. Hours of it, this cooking. Through it all Alema stumbled around the stove, dodging dumplings and crying out when steam struck her skin. Her own granddaughter could not follow a recipe, Milenka realized, and certainly could not cook from memory. These meals came to Milenka through her very body, just as they did to her mother, and her mother before that. Alema was more like a bird, hollow-boned and flighty, startled by butter and salt.

When it was over and Max and Lida had full plates before them at the table, Alema busied herself at the sink, fighting a stain on her blouse. Milenka rounded up a spoon. “You try,” she said, and dipped into the lentil soup. She held out the spoon for her granddaughter. At first Alema stood apart from Milenka with reluctance, but then she leaned forward and accepted a bite.

“It’s good,” Alema said, as if surprised. She looked at the spoon, clean now from her own hunger.

“It always was,” Milenka told her.

###

It all started with that one bite. The food was soft on Alema’s tongue, substantial and sticky with home – her grandmother’s home, not her mother’s untouched stainless steel kitchen with the dishwasher camouflaged as a cabinet. Alema took a second, tentative bite, and felt something inside her bloom.

“Go on,” Milenka urged. “Eat.”

So she did. Alema took the spoon from Milenka and moved from dish to dish, eating directly from the pots and pans. It was like the food was undressing her. The lentils peeled off her shirt, the sausages tugged her skirt down to her knees. Prune butter removed her shoes and stockings and spinach pulled her hair down from its bun. She couldn’t stop. She gathered speed and began eating so fast that spittle and bits of food collected at her mouth.

“Honey,” Max said, standing up. “Slow down. You’d think we’ve been starving you this whole time.”

Alema shook her head. This food was a comfort, a memory, a weapon. She finished her spoonful of spinach and turned to the prune dumplings. She grabbed a fork and pierced three in succession. They tasted buttery, warm.

“Alema,” Max said. He was standing at her shoulder and she wondered how he’d gotten there so quickly. Her father was weighty and unwieldy, not a sneak. She looked at his thinning hair, the shiny patches on his skin. And the mustache – no one had mustaches anymore. He put his hand on her shoulder and she felt the heat of him, the pulse beneath his palm.

“Let her eat,” Milenka said. She stood at the table, next to Lida’s chair, with her arms crossed. Alema wiped her eyes. She still felt naked, pulled apart by the food, but Milenka stood at attention, prepared to start cooking again if Alema ate every morsel. And if Alema ate the second batch, Milenka would just make more.

It was an unending stream of nourishment, and Alema had allowed herself to go hungry for too long.

###

Milenka turned off the stove. She was sore, wiped out from all the cooking and had cleaning ahead of her yet. She covered the pot of still-simmering spinach and rolled the dumplings into a covered container. Alema had finally eaten her full. At least Milenka had done that much for her.

Milenka sighed, not unhappily, at her messy kitchen. “Such a day,” she said. She spoke in Czech, surprising herself. She and Lida never spoke in Czech anymore. There was no place for it in this world. But once the words came out of Milenka’s mouth, she was glad.

Alema looked up from her place at the table, where she sat in a daze after her binge. “What did you say?”

Milenka knew Alema didn’t understand Czech. It was too bad, she always thought, that her granddaughter had never learned how to speak to them. But now Alema was leaning toward the language as if it could save her.

“I said it’s about time you stopped acting like a little child.”

Lida flinched when she heard Milenka’s words, and even Max, who had in his childhood refused to respond to Czech, made out the meaning and sat up a little straighter. Alema tilted her head and listened to the foreign words with interest.

“You are spiteful,” Lida said to Milenka in Czech. The language sounded natural even after all those years. “This is your only granddaughter,” Lida added. “You should be happy she came all the way to see you.”

“You know nothing about this,” Milenka told her. The Czech flowed from her effortlessly, as if she’d never stopped speaking it.

“So ungrateful. You don’t deserve such a granddaughter.”

“You don’t know what it means to have a grandchild,” Milenka said. “All your life, you’ve tried to take over my family. You put yourself right in with everyone else, as if you belong. But you don’t.”

Alema was watching them closely. “Tell me what you’re saying,” she said.

“Not now,” Milenka told her.

“You never let me have anything,” Lida said. Her voice was quiet. She looked down at the table and didn’t direct her words to anyone in particular, but she spoke in Czech, so she meant them for Milenka. “I had nothing, my whole life, and still you are prepared to take more away from me. And now,” Lida continued, “what you have is a granddaughter whose biggest fear is becoming you.”

“That’s not true,” Max said. “Alema just lives in a different world, that’s all. She’s independent, strong. I’m proud of her.”

Alema closed her eyes. “It’s a strange language. Kind of coarse and frightening, but beautiful. I wish I understood it.” She looked up at Milenka. “I don’t understand one word.”

“No matter,” Lida assured her in English. “You are a good girl.”

“I want to learn,” Alema said.

“Not now,” Milenka said again. She turned back to the sink and picked up a sponge.

“I’ll teach you,” Lida told Alema. “What do you want to say?”

Alema murmured something that Milenka couldn’t make out.

“All right,” Lida said. “That’s easy.”

Milenka glanced back to see Alema lean in toward Lida. She tensed at the sight of them so close together, their heads almost touching across the table.

Finally, Alema pulled away. “Grandmother,” she said in Czech. Milenka froze. Alema rarely called her “Grandmother” even in English. Usually she called her nothing at all.

“Thank you,” Alema went on haltingly. Her attempt was garbled but recognizable, and Lida nodded her on in encouragement. “Thank you.”

Milenka looked down at her hands. “Děkuji,” she said in return. She directed her thanks to no one, the word drifting off somewhere in the middle distance.

Alema smiled. Then she pushed back her chair and walked over to the breadbox, where she produced a pile of spice muffins.

“Lida made these this morning,” Alema said, passing the muffins around the table. When Milenka hesitated, Alema waved one in front of her. “How do you say, ‘this is for you?’”

Milenka took the muffin even though she’d baked a white cake that was sitting on the adjacent counter. No one noticed it, but maybe that didn’t matter.

“This is for you,” Milenka said in Czech. She looked at Lida, who was between Max and Alema but alone nonetheless.

“Say it again,” Alema said. “Slower.”

“This is for you.” Milenka met Lida’s eyes as she brought the soft spice muffin to her lips. She sank into it deep, its powdery texture filling her throat, creating inside her space for all that was generous, and giving, and good.

~~~~~~

Author Bio
Laura Maylene Walter is the 2003 recipient of Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize. More >

 

 

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