Read The Cowards Online

Authors: Josef Skvorecky

The Cowards (3 page)

‘Aw, baby!’ he implored in a frightened whine. He ran up and grabbed her hand.

‘Leave me alone,’ she said.

‘But, honey, where you going?’



‘Because you said a dirty word.’

‘But I didn’t say anything!’

‘Yes, you did. Don’t deny it.’

‘But it wasn’t

‘No. I said you weren’t supposed to use words like that. You know I don’t like it.’

‘Aw, come on, baby!’

‘Leave me alone! Let go of me!’

‘Don’t be mad at me.’


‘Helena, please, don’t be mad at me!’

‘I said let go of me!’

‘Come on, baby! Please! Stay here.’

Helena stopped pulling away. You could see how she led him around by the nose. He had a soft heart, like they say all fat people have. I don’t know whether it’s true in all cases but
Benno anyway sure had one helluva soft heart. Helena looked sulky.

‘Apologize!’ she said.

‘Helena, please excuse me,’ he muttered in a fast whisper. We were all listening, fascinated.

‘Promise you won’t ever say any more dirty words.’

‘I’ll never say any more dirty words again.’

‘Not one!’

‘Not one dirty word.’

‘No, the whole thing!’


‘Say the whole thing.’


‘Uh huh.’

‘But, baby …’


‘But, baby …’

‘Well, are you going to say it or aren’t you?’

‘But, baby, I just said it!’

‘Are you going to say it or aren’t you?’

I couldn’t understand how he could be so dumb. Not dumb in general, just dumb with her.

‘I’ll never say a single dirty word again.’

‘And apologize.’

‘Helena, please excuse me and I’ll never say a single dirty word again,’ he said quickly and softly to get it over with. He was annihilated.

‘All right, now go and play,’ said Helena and sat down. He turned and obediently trudged back to his place. We acted as though nothing had happened. I picked up my sax from the stand and slung the cord around my neck.

‘Let’s go. What’ll it be now?’ I said.

‘Wait a minute,’ said Fonda. ‘What’s the story about taking off those boots?’

‘Yeah. What happened, Benno?’ said Lexa.

Benno picked up his trumpet. ‘Well, I always had to stick out my rear and grab his leg between my knees and he pushed against my rear with his other foot until I pulled off his boot.’

‘I see,’ said Lexa. ‘Yeah, I know what you mean.’

‘Let’s play, gang. Let’s get going,’ I said again.

‘Okay,’ said Fonda. ‘Get out the “Bob Cats”.’

There was a shuffling of paper as the boys hunted for ‘Bob Cats’. I found it right away, and as I shifted around in my chair to get comfortable I noticed the way Lucie was making eyes at Haryk. She had pretty eyes. The green soda pop in front of her still sparkled like emeralds, and behind her the sky outside was blood red and the windows in the castle glittered. A whole row was lit up on the first floor, where the ballroom named after Piccolomini was, and then two or three windows on the second floor. The big shots were probably starting to panic. A little star twinkled right over the turret of the castle. Fonda rapped four times, Brynych started off on a drum solo. We waited till it was over and then we all came in, Venca with a wonderful, gutty glissando sliding up and down the scale and Lexa’s heartbreaking moan. It was good. We hit it just right. I saw a smile spread over Fonda’s face. Then I started thinking about Benno. It was funny, I knew, but this was something I couldn’t and probably never would understand. Allowing yourself to be roped up and led around and humiliated like that, losing control over yourself that way. I’ve never lost control of myself. I could never get so mad at anybody that I’d really blow my top, and love never made me lose my head either. When I had my arms around some girl and was jabbering away, I had to act as though I was talking like that out of sheer ecstasy and excitement and all that kind of thing. I really could have talked pretty sensibly, only that probably would have made her mad, and so I’d always talk a lot of nonsense. I had to act like I was completely gone on her and that she took my breath away and so on, and at the same time I always had an embarrassing feeling that girls could see right through my act and that they were laughing at me. But none of them ever really saw through it. They asked for it. Probably everybody talks that way in such situations, so it doesn’t seem funny to girls. Only it was hard to imagine a guy really meaning what he said. God knows. Certainly none of the girls ever found out. Probably boys really are smarter than girls. All of a sudden it occurred to
me that I ought to be thinking about Irena if I was supposed to be in love with her. So I started thinking about her. At first I couldn’t. I tried to picture her and I couldn’t. So then I remembered how I’d looked down her bosom at the swimming pool recently and then it worked. I thought about how nice it would be to sleep with her and that Zdenek was sleeping with her and I started to be pleasantly jealous and that was fine. Then it was my turn for the tenor solo and I started to gulp away in the middle registers where the tenor sax sounds best and I forgot all about Irena, but she was still there in the back of my mind while I played my big solo from ‘Bob Cats’. My nice big solo and I felt fine. I didn’t even mind that there was probably going to be a revolution and that it wouldn’t be so nice to really get hurt or killed. Instead, it was nice to think about my Last Will and Testament and heroism and things like that. When I finished my solo, I looked up and noticed old Winter sitting behind the tap staring into nowhere with those bloodshot eyes of his. He had dull eyes that wobbled in a watery kind of way and he was daydreaming just like me, except not about Irena but probably about the station restaurant he’d wanted to lease ever since he’d been a kid like us, or about some big hotel with four waiters, or maybe just getting hold of some real good Scotch and selling it to us. He didn’t drink himself, maybe just to be different or something, or maybe he really did have progressive paralysis. His bald head glistened behind the taps and the brass pipes gleamed. Outside the windows the blood-red glow darkened and the stars began to shine. We finished ‘Bob Cats’ by heart, playing it in the dark.

‘Helena, turn on the lights over there, will you?’ said Fonda when we’d finished. Helena reached up above her head, felt along the wall for a minute, then found the switch. The bulb in the ceiling came on and the way things looked surprised us all. All of a sudden you could see everything clearly. I noticed Lucie’s mouth, how red it was in the electric light, and how dark it had got outside the windows. Haryk started strumming some kind of bouncy, romantic improvisation on the guitar and he grinned over at Lucie. I leafed through the sheet music.

‘I saw Uippelt from Messerschmidt today,’ said Haryk, ‘heading out of town on his bike as fast as he could go.’

‘What about his old lady?’

‘I don’t know. He was all by himself.’

‘Anyway, it’s funny he stuck around here so long since everybody knows him and the kind of bastard he is,’ said Lexa.

‘You should have pushed him off his bike and grabbed it,’ said Fonda.

‘Very clever. And then he pulls out a gun and kills me, right?’

‘Don’t forget, there’s a revolution going on,’ said Lexa.

Benno called out from the back, ‘That’s been postponed until further notice.’

‘You really think anything’s going to happen?’ asked Fonda.

‘Why, sure.’ Lexa spoke with an authoritative tone because the Germans had executed his father. Since then, he always knew more than we did. But as far as this was concerned, I knew more than he did.

‘No,’ said Benno. ‘You don’t think our city fathers can do anything, do you?’

‘Well, wait and see.’

‘I’ll have to wait a long time then. They’re all scared shitless. The revolution’s simply going to be put off indefinitely, that’s all.’

I looked over at Helena, but she didn’t say anything. She was reading the paper.

I said, ‘No, not the city fathers. You’ll see, though. Something’s going to happen.’

‘And Chief of Police Rimbalnik’s going to run the whole show I suppose?’

‘Not him. You just wait.’

‘You talk as if you were mixed up in something,’ said Haryk.

I laughed. I was glad the boys didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t believe me because they weren’t in on anything themselves but they weren’t sure whether maybe I wasn’t. I wasn’t in very deep but at least I knew a little bit. I knew about something, but wasn’t too sure myself what it really
added up to. I’d found out about it from Prema and wasn’t supposed to tell anybody.

‘Oh, come on, kid, don’t act so mysterious,’ said Benno.

I didn’t feel like acting mysterious because that was silly. Even though the others didn’t know anything, they still knew enough to realize that anything I was mixed up with couldn’t be anything very earthshaking. So for a while I just kind of played like I was somebody who’s in on a secret, and then I told what I knew. Prema had told me, and he was in contact with Perlik who’d been arrested by the Gestapo a month ago. He must have known something. It couldn’t have been much, though, because probably nobody knew much. Anyway, the whole thing was just being improvised. But I didn’t care and I was glad to get it off my chest and it made me seem important and if nothing finally came of the whole affair, the boys would forget about it.

‘All I know,’ I said, ‘is that something’s supposed to start when Radio Prague stops broadcasting.’

‘Where’d you hear that?’

I shrugged.

‘I know it.’

‘Come on. Who told you?’

‘Look, I had to promise I wouldn’t tell, but you just wait and see.’

‘Don’t tell me you guys really think something’s going to happen?’ said Fonda.

‘Well, what d’you think?’

‘Nothing’s going to happen. Anyway, the Germans are done for – finished.’

I laughed. I agreed with him but I had to laugh because it wouldn’t have looked right for me to agree with him now. I was supposed to be mixed up in something and I had to want something to happen. Besides, I didn’t have any objections to it. It opened up all those different possibilities as far as Irena was concerned. Heroism. And Zdenek getting killed maybe. Yes, I realized, he could get killed. That would be better than if I got killed, though there was something to be said for that, too. But I didn’t mean it seriously. Not now, because now I wasn’t daydreaming.
It opened up a whole new perspective that, this way, I could get rid of Zdenek very effectively. If he was killed, I’d be glad to go to visit his grave with Irena. Irena would feel that was very noble of me and I’d be very gentle and understanding so as not to awaken any painful memories in her. I’d go visit his grave with her absolutely unselfishly. With Zdenek out of the picture, I’d be extremely unselfish. So I didn’t have anything against an uprising. But that was the only good reason I could see for fighting for any patriotic or strategic reasons. The Germans had already lost the war anyway, so it didn’t make any sense. It was only because of Irena that I wanted to get into it. To show off. That’s all. So when Fonda said the Germans were already finished, I laughed as if I thought they were anything but.

‘No, listen. I mean, what’s the point?’ Fonda persisted.

‘I’m not saying what the point of it all is. I’m just telling you what I know,’ I said.

‘Well, anyhow, there’ll be a lot of laughs,’ said Haryk and he winked at Lucie again. She sat there with her elbows propped on the table and the straw between her lips, sipping her soda pop. When Haryk grinned at her, she squinted up her eyes. Boy, were they in tune. It got under my skin.

‘It’ll be a laugh, all right, the day Pop closes the store and starts out after the Germans with his squirrel gun,’ said Benno.

‘And when old Cemelik leads the attack on the high school,’ said Haryk.

‘Has your old man had his uniform cleaned already?’ asked Lexa.

‘You bet,’ said Fonda. ‘And the moths had really done a job on it.’


‘On the ass,’ said Lexa.

‘Lexa!’ bleated Haryk so he sounded exactly like Helena.


‘You know you’re not supposed to talk dirty.’

‘But, honey …’

‘All right, boys. That’s enough of that!’ screamed Helena.

‘Apologize!’ continued Haryk.

‘Helena, ple … ple … please forgive me,’ Lexa stuttered and Helena kept yelling, ‘Now you quit that right now or I’m going home!’

‘Aw, honey,’ said Lexa. Helena rose, turned, and opened the door. Then she left without a word. There was a clatter behind me as if somebody had knocked over a music stand and then Benno’s voice.

‘Helena! Wait! Where you going?’ Benno bumped into me from behind as he hurried towards the door with that waddling gait of his. His white shirt glimmered in the dark hallway and then he disappeared after Helena.

‘Well, he’s really in for it now,’ said Lexa and laughed.

‘Jesus, Benno’s dumb,’ said Haryk.

‘I’ll say. And she sure does make the most of it.’

‘If only she was worth it.’

‘She hasn’t got a brain in her head,’ said Lexa.

‘Oh,’ said Fonda, ‘she’s not all that bad.’

‘Jeee-sus,’ said Haryk.

‘Well, she’s got a nice face anyway.’

‘Her ass is better,’ said Haryk.

‘Haryk! Remember, Lucie’s here,’ said Lexa.

I looked over at Lucie.

‘I’m used to it,’ she said.

‘Used to a foulmouth like Haryk? That’s saying a lot, if you ask me,’ said Lexa.

‘Look who’s talking,’ said Haryk.

That was the way they usually talked. They never meant it seriously – just thought that kind of talk was very witty, and maybe it was. In reality, I mean. Books and novels always bubble with wit and sparkling repartee but in real life there’s nothing very witty. Usually all it amounts to is a kind of teasing, the way boys and girls tease each other when they’re together, though boys do it even among themselves. I don’t know whether girls talk that way among themselves, too, but boys do. Because if you can’t at least get each other all worked up by talking, then there really wouldn’t be anything to talk about if nothing special happens to be going on right then – like at a
dance, for instance – or you don’t have anything really urgent to say. There wouldn’t be any point in talking all that junk you talk about at dances if it weren’t for the fun of teasing. Between boys and girls it’s as natural, as the day is long. Talking is probably about the same for them as sniffing is for dogs – and that’s the honest truth, nothing dirty or exaggerated about it. I know it and I think everybody else does too, except not everybody admits it. I do. Boys say all sorts of things and crack all sorts of corny jokes just so finally they can kiss their girls out in the hall. That’s true, at least as far as boys talking with girls is concerned. And it’s certainly true when boys talk among themselves in front of a girl. Maybe it isn’t always like that when they’re by themselves but then boys usually talk about girls when they’re by themselves, so even then it’s true, too. So that’s probably how it is with witty talk in general.

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