Stanley had known it was a mistake to accept his uncle Lech’s offer to apartment-sit in Prague—he’d known it was one of Lech’s proposals, a thinly veiled setup for some invasive, potentially dangerous performance art project. But after Stanley’s failed attempt to propose to his girlfriend, T, and after dropping out of grad school, he doesn’t have much to lose. Stanley is sure he can ignore his uncle’s hijinks and resist being drafted into his evolving, darkening script. However, as the operation unfolds it becomes clear there’s more to this performance than he expected; they might know more about Stanley’s state of mind than he knows himself.
In the following excerpt, we meet Stanley’s aunt Abbey and Lech makes his infamous “proposal.” Also, click here to see the aftermath of uncle Lech’s hack of our Twitter account. . .
Stanley Recalls the First Year of Aunt Abbey’s Marriage to Uncle Lech
After a one-month engagement, they married. My dad and my mom and my brother and Busia and I didn’t go—our invitations arrived a week before the wedding. The wedding was in Kraków.
“The man is a thief,” said Busia.
My dad smiled. “What do we do, call the cops?”
“No,” she said. “Sever his hands.”
We were making pierogi at my dad’s. My dad fed the dough through the press, Busia cut the pressed strips into circles, and my brother and I packed, shaped, and sealed the circles into pierogi. We made two kinds, like always: potato with browned butter, and pork with onions and mushrooms and cabbage. Outside, falling snow whirled across the yards of the subdivision. A father and a son one house over rolled up a family of snowmen.
“That’s not enough, Ma,” said my dad. “We’d have to pop out his eyeballs, too.”
“And probably cut off his ears,” I said.
“He doesn’t get to keep his nose, does he?” said my brother.
My dad and my brother and I were laughing. Nobody had really wanted to go to the wedding.
“Man is a beast that laughs,” said Busia.
My dad woofed.
Busia kept cutting circles and slapping them onto the table. “Work,” she said.
My dad growled and snarled.
“Get the muzzle!” said my brother. “Get the leash!”
My dad grabbed my wrist and howled.
I grabbed his—I howled right back.
After the wedding, Aunt Abbey moved out of her Edgewater apartment, where she’d lived for over a decade, to my uncle’s apartment-and-studio in Pilsen. Her spontaneous invites to art events slowed, then stopped. I emailed her about gallery openings in Edgewater and Rogers Park, thinking she might like to pop back to the old neighborhood, and I texted her about festivals in Pilsen and Bridgeport, thinking she might find the South Side more doable, but she responded too late or not at all. I didn’t hold this against her. She was reshuffling.
Nearly a year later, she texted: did I want to do a bike tour of Pilsen murals? I rushed down. We rode around the neighborhood and saw a dozen stunning murals on apartment buildings and abandoned factories, on underpasses and auto repair shops. The guide, an achy old man, provided layers of historical and cultural context, including anecdotes about the artists, almost all of whom he personally knew.
Afterwards my aunt and I grabbed tacos from Carnitas Don Pedro and devoured them in the shady dugout of a baseball field, in a park near her place. Kids at the edge of the outfield jogged through soccer drills. An elotes lady rolled her clanging cart across Eighteenth.
My aunt was more trim and toned than I’d ever seen her, but had a staggered stare, like she’d been socked by a ghost. She wore a loose T-shirt and a pair of paint-speckled shorts, which meant that she’d come straight from painting, but she was loaded up with new jewelry, all of it amber, richly whorled necklaces and bracelets and rings. Every piece looked like an imploded galaxy. We discussed the most spectacular mural we saw, a garage-door work that depicted Aztecs imprisoned in a burning space station. The artist had been up-to-date on archaeology—one of the figures’ faces, modeled on the knifetongued god at the center of the iconic Aztec sun stone, had been painted a super-glossy black. Although the sun stone had long since lost its paint by the time it was discovered, a very recent study had made the case that the god’s face had been black, or perhaps unpainted. He was dying, the archaeologists argued. He was being killed by an eclipse.
Our guide had positioned the mural as a critique of Chicago Public Schools. The artist, he noted with melancholy pride, was his niece.
“His niece has vision,” said my aunt. “If I had just half her vision, I’d be twice the artist.”
I wondered if our guide had ever wanted to be an artist. “The way he talked about his niece,” I said.
“I’ve seen it many times before,” said my aunt. “He’s a person who at one point told himself that he wanted to ‘Be an Artist.’ What he was truly telling himself, though, was that he wanted to ‘Be the Idea of an Artist.’”
“I don’t see much of a difference,” I said. “You need the idea. The idea takes you to the thing itself.”
But if you anchor yourself in the idea, you’ve anchored yourself in wanting. Not in the work. Once you’re there, if you’re not careful, the wanting will replace everything.
“But if you anchor yourself in the idea, you’ve anchored yourself in wanting. Not in the work. Once you’re there, if you’re not careful, the wanting will replace everything. You’ll start to want to believe that the idea can replace you—that it can complete you. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, the Idea of an Artist, the Idea of a Partner, the Idea of a Family. You’ll steer yourself into a cloud. You might not notice right away, but when you do, on your own or with someone’s help, it’s over. You fall out of the sky.”
I said I didn’t follow.
“I left Lech,” she said.
She shifted to sit cross-legged on the bench.
I was too surprised to know what to say.
She said that Lech was everything she’d wanted in a partner-in-art-and-in-life, so much so that when she was with him, she was without space, without mystery. “Being without space, being without mystery—for an artist, that is not sustainable. Such conditions cripple the process.”
To me this sounded like the cover page to a more painful truth. But what I said was that I was sorry to hear it. I asked her how she was holding up.
A plane surged overhead, gray and low, descending.
My aunt stared at the ballfield. She seemed to be weighing what it would do to our friendship if she were to tell me more.
I asked her where she was staying.
“I’m moving out at the end of the week,” she said.
I gathered up the taco wrappers. When I stuffed them in the dugout trash can, I accidentally displaced more garbage—two handfuls clabbered out and into the dirt, mostly plastic cups and straws and snack bags. I gathered that up, too.
My aunt said, “Tell me about your girlfriend.”
Ro and I had been together for a month or two. Everything was easy.
“Plenty of space and mystery so far,” I said.
I didn’t mean for it to come out sounding flippant, but it did.
“You don’t believe me,” she said, smiling without smiling. “You don’t believe what I’m saying about art, about love, about me and Lech.”
I said I didn’t know much about them as a couple.
She asked me if I was ready to know.
I said that if she wanted to tell me, I’d listen.
She told me about Lech’s first major project, a logistically complex piece he’d put together ten years ago when he lived in Poland. The title translated to Nothing About Us, Without Us, a phrase associated with a sixteenth-century legal ruling that granted democratic powers to Polish nobles. Over time, however, the phrase had attached itself to something else, the “nothing” and the “without us” coming to signify a particularly Polish frustration with the fact that at certain moments in history the nature of the nation’s existence had been determined by foreign powers. Lech hired a young artist, and with his permission, the artist’s friends, family members, and long-term girlfriend. The project’s intended duration was one month. Lech began to implement “interpersonal partitions”—one by one, the people closest to the artist were phased out of his life, symbolically and concretely, collapsing his “metaphysical borders.” They stopped returning his calls and meeting up with him. Lech covertly removed meaningful objects from the artist’s apartment: framed photos, favorite shirts and mugs, old sketchbooks, gifts and notes from his girlfriend. Week by week, the methods increased in intensity; the important people who had pulled out of his life passed through it again, but on the edges, and without acknowledging him. The project ended three days early with the artist’s death from an overdose.
“He had selected the young man, in part, because of his addiction to pain meds, which he’d developed after complications from a vasectomy,” said my aunt. “Lech felt that these factors could not be more metaphorically apt.”
After Nothing About Us, Without Us, Lech left Poland. Not because of the artist’s death, or the artist’s family’s lawsuits, but because of the national art community’s failure to respond, positively or negatively, to the piece’s exhibition. Poland was not the place for performance art, he decided.
“Am I a human person who can love a human person like that?” said my aunt.
She twisted off one of her two amber rings. It was thick and sleek, the inside inscribed with words I couldn’t read.
Then there was his near-death experience with the blood clot, she said, which, by his own account, had driven him to up the scale and the stakes of every subsequent project, which, she admitted, had led to upsetting moral questions.
“Am I a committed artist who can admire—and live with, and work with—and see with, and know with—a committed artist like that?”
She plunked the ring into the trash can.
“I used to be sure I wanted to be. I used to be sure I was.”
She popped off one of her two amber bracelets and one of her two amber necklaces.
“His English is perfect,” she said. “The accent is a performance.”
She balled up the bracelet with the necklace and dropped them into the trash can.
“I’m moving out at the end of the week,” she said again.
Two weeks later I texted. No response.
A month later I called. Nothing.
Two months after that she sent out a group invite to a combination birthday/housewarming party at her and Uncle Lech’s new house in Rogers Park. It was the first that any of us had heard about this move.
“I was mistaken,” she said when I arrived.
None of her amber jewelry was in sight.
“You found mystery and space again,” I said.
She smiled: a real smile.
“I gave it up,” she said.
She seemed happy.
I hugged her.
Stanley Recounts Uncle Lech’s Proposal at His Aunt Abbey’s Birthday Party
“I attended T’s show last night,” said my aunt, opening two drawers at once, searching them for a spatula. “T is the single most committed young actor I’ve seen this year. Everything about her is rooted. She is a root. She roots into the soils below the soils, the richest, rarest earth.”
I checked the cabinets under the sink: detergent, rubber gloves, mannequin heads. My aunt was right. I’d never thought about T in those terms, but onstage, it was her stability that stood out. Everything in her expressions, movements, and speech suggested dimensions of depth, even when she spontaneously rehearsed, practicing her lines and blocking in the bedroom or on walks through the neighborhood.
“Outside of the stage, as well,” said my aunt. “A deep ease.”
T had loved talking to my aunt. We’d all gone to lunch a few times, and the two of them had interacted like friends reuniting, not like strangers getting to know each other.
I continued to act like nothing was wrong with my life: I rummaged through a wicker basket piled with cookbooks and obscene finger puppets.
My aunt discovered a spatula in the pocket of a smock.
She flicked it about, as if it were wet.
This was the time to tell her that I had proposed to T, that T had said no and moved out, that T and I were on a break.
“After the show,” she said, gesturing with the spatula, encouraging herself to talk, “T invited me around the corner with the cast. She let me buy her a drink at the bar. We shared a joint in the alley. We discussed a few things.”
The look my aunt gave me wasn’t sympathetic, but it said, Sympathetic.
Then it said, Apologetic.
T might have told her everything.
It hurt. I tried not to show it.
My aunt spatulaed kolaczky off the cookie sheet and onto a rack. A few flipped awry, to the floor. Neither of us made a move to pick them up.
Instead of saying, “What did T tell you,” I said, “I’ll be right back.”
The bathroom was partly open. I knocked and nudged the door, finding the space unoccupied, just the sink and the toilet and the stand packed with foreign-language tour guides to the United States. On the wall was a hand-drawn shadow of a man in a hat and trench coat. He held a purse as if it were a briefcase. When I turned to close the door the doorway was full of Uncle Lech.
He snapped a picture with an old camera, the flash explosive.
I slammed and locked the door. The figure of my uncle stayed in my vision in searing negative.
I slammed and locked the door. The figure of my uncle stayed in my vision in searing negative. Pissing, I felt the echoes of my father’s anger—I saw my father smashing the camera, smashing Uncle Lech, and smashing through the door on the way to his truck, to traffic, to the condo he’d built himself and hated.
I flushed the toilet. My father would never do the things that I imagined.
“Stasiu,” said Uncle Lech as I opened the door.
Instead of the camera he held the bottle of Chopin and two shot glasses. His shirt and tie evoked the 1940s or ’50s. He had a serious, pale, and pitted face, and a sloppy mustache that hid his mouth. He looked like a handsome actor who’d been made up ugly.
His eyes were blue lights on broken ice.
He said, “I offer proposal.”
Every now and again he pitched “proposals” to my dad and brother, and because my dad refused to speak or listen to him, I’d get the scoop from my brother, who always listened, laughing, as Uncle Lech invited him to spend an afternoon wearing a tape recorder while riding the Red Line from Howard to Ninety-Fifth and back, or a day modeling for an inspirational rags-to-riches mural he planned to paint on a train car he’d found knocked over near defunct tracks on the West Side, ora night in an office chair on the roof of the Stock Exchange wearing suits and eating steaks. In the four years we’d known him this was the first he’d asked me. Whatever I’d felt about being photographed in the bathroom hardened inadvisably into pride.
We sat on stools at the breakfast bar. Aunt Abbey powder-sugared kolaczki at the counter, not looking at us.
Uncle Lech filled the glasses. They were doubles. He chewed on his mustache hairs, clicking them with his teeth. “You suffer unemployment?”
I’d been unable to score a full-time job since dropping out of grad school and everybody knew it.
“You have not yet traveled out of country?”
“You desire to travel out of country, to gain employment?”
I asked him where.
I must’ve gone as red as my aunt.
He raised his glass. “It will not be that you will be in over your head,” he said. He drank. I didn’t. He licked vodka droplets from his mustache, observing me. I wanted him to know that I knew what he was up to, that if I agreed, it’d be because I’d position my own interests before his, at the cost of his. I did my best to press this into how I stared back.
Aunt Abbey set a plate of kolaczki between us: cherry, almond, poppy seed, prune.
“Dziękuję,” he said tenderly, touching her waist.
I couldn’t remember another time I’d seen him thank her.
“Thanks,” I said, wanting her to look at me.
She looked at no one and said nothing and left the kitchen for the backyard. The screen door whapped. My brother hollered something silly. My body clenched: I wanted badly to be outside. Not so much to know what joke had just been made, but to be taken away from myself by it.
Uncle Lech put his hand on my shoulder like my brother had. His fingers were hot. He explained that he’d invested in a Prague apartment near Old Town Square, an expensive venture. He needed someone to apartment-sit and to facilitate the move-in of a tenant. He’d come to trust me.
“You are actual,” he said.
He would pay for my round-trip ticket. For three days I would stay in his apartment, my duties minimal, and on the last day the tenant would move in and I would move out. I could stay abroad as long as I liked—to visit other cities, other countries—and my return flight could be arranged from anywhere. He’d need me there at the end of August. He’d pay five thousand dollars.
I drank my vodka. “T is going to be in Prague then. But you knew that.”
“When I was young man,” he said, “I did not know why I did action. I pretend I did. Make money, make art, make love. Crack a man. Immigrate. Pick up broken garbage and put them where you live. Lie. All because of hiding and pretending! The man in the basement behind the noise door that is locked and eating the one key himself while shouting, No, this is not what I am doing. Now I am not young man: the reason why I do action is that I do not know. I do not know! I love Abbey—I do not know how—I do not say that I know, saying some thing that is made up—I very basically love her. I kiss her on the mouth. We touch. It is observed. This is my development, this is not your development: you understand. You are actual, Stasiu. Today you know why you do action. You go to graduate school, it is not good to you, you leave. Your mother talks, it is not good to you, you leave. What is it that you cannot leave, when you, the actual man, are knowing?”
You are actual, Stasiu. Today you know why you do action.
This was an inventive misinterpretation of my personality.
I asked him what Aunt Abbey thought about the proposal.
“Hand wash hand,” he said. “Leg support leg.”
I gripped his arm, like he’d gripped my shoulder, only harder, and in doing so I elbowed the plate of kolaczki off the table. It broke on the floor with a bang.
I said, “I know what you’re doing. You’re fucking with me. That’s fine, that’s expected. But T has to have nothing to do with this. If you involve her in any way, I’ll lose my shit. Me losing my shit will be bad for you, and your artists, and whatever your fucking project is, and me.”
His face transformed, stage by stage: disarming warmth, distant wisdom, paternal fondness. It was like watching a mask get made.
I asked him if he understood me.
“I do,” he said, but the way it came out, he might as well have said, “I love you.”
His intensity was unnerving.
I leaned over to pick up the shattered pieces of the plate, but he stopped me.
“I will fix it,” he said.
Joseph Scapellato’s debut story collection, Big Lonesome, was published in 2017. He earned his MFA in fiction at New Mexico State University and has been published in Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, Post Road Magazine, PANK, UNSAID, and other literary magazines. His work has been anthologized in Forty Stories, Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Science Flash Fiction, and The Best Innovative Writing. Scapellato is an assistant professor of English in the creative writing program at Bucknell University. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, with his wife, daughter, and dog.