A lost American finds the city of Brno a lively place. But danger lurks underneath the surface.
Brno was a second city. Seems I always get stuck in a second city. Brno was second to Prague. Before I landed in the Czech Republic in 1995 I wandered around San Jose, California, second city to either San Francisco or Oakland depending on whether you lived in San Francisco or Oakland.
I mastered enough of the Czech language to get me in trouble, but the language was hard. Hard as a turtle shell encased in concrete. Hard as a petrified coconut. I learned to pronounce Brno in the impossible right way, though secretly I still thought of it as Burn-O. Seemed fitting for me. Brno was a great place for burnouts. A burnout in the land o’ beer.
When someone asks an expat how they learned Czech, a stereotypical answer is “in bed,” meaning he or she had that special Czech friend or three. The other answer is “in the pub,” and this one served me better. But it seemed like my Czech utterances were babyspeak, and I reminded myself of the kids back in my grade school, arrived straight from Mexico, making their way in a new language.
I slowly learned I didn’t need to keep my guard up in the pubs of Brno. When things got late and things got loud in The Anchor Bar, when everyone was madly drunk, I used to wait for the fight to break out, because a fight always broke out in the places where I drank in California. Once I’d walked to Klara’s flat from The Anchor at some small hour and there was someone behind me, about 50 meters back. I kept turning around and checking him out, wary of a mugger or worse.
It took me a few months to realize how ridiculous I was. Violent street crime was almost nonexistent in Brno. All my healthy alertness and unhealthy paranoia slowly seeped away over the next few months as my first Czech winter made its muddled, insistent approach.
Klara was a hard-drinking woman, even for a Czech; thin, somewhere in her thirties with a curly black mess of hair and she would sit with her friends at The Anchor as late as I did. Full name Klara Klarova, which means her parents must have hated her. But she was as lovely as lager to a thirsty man.
One night she caught my eye like a harpoon gun skewers an eel. That first time was a typical hookup for a Brno bar, where whoever stayed the latest while passably holding their booze got the prize. I watched as a succession of males at her table stood up and went home. I sidled over to Klara and made hardly any small talk at all. There wasn’t much talk that night. She lived about five minutes away. I didn’t notice much about the flat except the bed. There was the usual fumbling of clothes, the usual good time, and I don’t even remember if I spent the night or wandered out later back to my place. One thing I did see on the way out was a pair of men’s boots by the front door.
This happened a few times before things got weird and I got an impromptu language lesson. We’d gone back to Klara’s but she wasn’t having it for some reason. In the lengthy tirade I knew she was saying the equivalent of “what are we doing” and “why why why.” I chocked it up to a bad beer session but the word that stuck out was rozum, sense or reason. We’re not being sensible, it’s unreasonable, it makes no sense. It was the first time I’d seen her angry. It was surprisingly fierce and, for all the inebriation, somehow cunning. Did this have something to do with the men’s boots? I tried to ask, and for a moment it wasn’t weird anymore. It was scary. A micro-expression of rage travelled up her face, first in her mouth and then up to her eyes, like a livid wave. Then it was gone, and she looked to the side and laughed. It wasn’t a happy laugh, but a kind of scoff.
She went back to the rozum argument. Finally I tried to answer the best I could, but even in English it wouldn’t have come off well, and it didn’t: What’s so unreasonable about gratuitous drunken sex? Klara slamming the door behind me carried the same meaning in any language.
I skipped The Anchor for a while and drank at a place called Konecna 5. The name looked like a street address but it wasn’t. I knew “konec” meant “the end” so I thought maybe the bar’s name translated as The End Five. The Fifth End? End Up Five times and you’re done? No one ever explained it to me.
Konecna supplied a younger crowd, rock and rollers still waking up to post-Communist reality. The Anchor was staid in comparison and the cigarette smoke at Konecna made The Anchor seem like a breeze off a meadow. There were bands on the weekends and I saw drunken behaviors that previously I’d only seen in comic books.
Many Czechs then had a kind of respectable posture that they kept up at all times. I attributed it to the careful days of Communism and the need to maintain a certain poise in all public circumstance, but who knows, maybe it went back further. An Austro-Hungarian thing. One night at Konecna a tall young guy with a rockabilly haircut, pickled beyond measure, was engaged in a battle between maintaining his upright attitude and succumbing to the inevitable effects of the many half-liters. He would slowly start to tilt to the side or backwards but his body remained stiff, like his muscles refused to give in. Then he would lift up one leg or arm to counterbalance the tilt, slowly coming vertical again, at which point he’d look around in something like wonder or pride. It went on for quite a while.
That night the regulars were all joking about a murder in town. So bad things do happen in Brno. Apparently a guy had been decapitated in a herna. “Herna” roughly means casino, and herna bars were the absolute lowest form of bar in the post-Soviet landscape. They were cheap and plastic but new, lined with slot machines. Widely assumed to be money-laundering places for the canny folks who’d pilfered millions during the transition from controlled economy to cowboy capitalism, or just for the regular version of the newish mafia. And usually empty but for the most desperate late-night drunks.
Somehow, the Konecna dwellers told me, a guy named Novak was found inside a herna bar the week before, except his head which was found out in the back. The rest was a mystery. There seemed to be many mysteries in those days. Why was the street where prostitutes lined up also the street with the police station? Nobody knew. People shrugged.
It was a longer walk home from Konecna than from The Anchor, longer still after uncounted glass mugs of would-be ambrosia. No snow, but the cobblestones along the business street were wet from the cold drizzle of late winter. I carefully made way. The ever-present semi-sweet smell of burning coal flowed from the ins and outs of the alleys down the sides. The streets in 1995 were unlit compared to an American city, where stores keep their lights on even when closed. The streetlights were haphazard and infrequent, often just an orange lamp in the middle of an overhead cable that stretched from one side of the street to the other. Here the city nights still knew how to be dark.
The semi-lucid part of my mind turned over the possibilities. Maybe the mafia took his head off for a gambling debt. But that didn’t sit right. Kill the debtor, cancel the debt. Maybe it was a sour love affair, an angry wife. Seemed pretty extreme for a Czech lady. But I had no real basis for such a thought beyond wishful thinking. Or maybe love revenge but not a woman? Could be the hernas doubled as gay hookup places, and the gent’s boyfriend had exploded for whatever reasons.
Or maybe, I thought to myself as I finally reached my street, it was all an honest misunderstanding.
On my right there was an unearthly purple glow. Through the blurriness and drizzle it looked like a violet fire, or a curious death ray beaming out of lost spaceship. I lurched over in its direction, magnetically pulled by thoughtless wonder. I saw a new store, filled only with gaudy wedding dresses, all lit up by giant, well-placed UV blacklights. Inside the otherwise dark store the dresses on the racks all looked like individual light sources and auras of lavender light radiated off the lace and frills and poured out the windows onto the sidewalk. It made my hands look a corpselike gray, pocked with spots and cracks.
When I finally closed my mouth I turned and made the last block home. I was pretty sure it was real and I was real.
I decided to quit Konecna and try The Anchor again. The promise of Spring, hope springs eternal, never hope against hope. Things like that. Nothing, really.
The regulars welcomed me back. The token silly American. Back to the wooden booths on the sides, the hard chairs and the scarred tables that had probably known Brezhnev. The wrought-iron chandelier above, faux medieval, that held eight bulbs but they let them burn out one by one before ever replacing them. It was down to two bulbs now. A civilized half-light made for calm and cordiality, intoxicated version.
After a while I saw her mop head sticking up from a crowded table. Klara, looking the same, looking good. She spotted me at the same time, smiled and raised her glass. All was well in her world. I went over after a while and sat down. It seemed my Czech had improved, I was able to laugh at what she said and even make a few jokes. Or maybe she was just laughing at my horrid Czech skills, but I didn’t care. I found myself on the right side of rozum again.
It seemed like a celebration, but after a while, a hard one. The beer was complemented with more shots of Fernet than usual, even as it was getting really late. The Fernet started stinging my brain like murder hornets. I was the last murder hornet at the table and Klara signaled for me to follow her out. “Jaro je jaro,” she said. Spring is Spring. I didn’t know what she meant but I couldn’t argue.
Her place was the same. The same men’s boots. I avoided looking at them as we took off our shoes. I looked to the other side, to the little shelf where she put her keys and her mail. I saw what looked like bills or government notices addressed to Klarova, Klarova and then one to Novak.
Novak. A common Czech name. Like Smith or Jones. No connection, of course. Still, I was feeling stupid, more than usual, and kind of surly, for no more reason I could tell than the Fernet. Or maybe I just making a joke.
“Novak? Like the dead man?” I said in pretty good Czech. I pointed to the shoes. “His?”
She cascaded into the flat. I thought she was bored with my humor, or ready to stop the talking and start the action. I propelled myself in the same direction, found the bedroom. She wasn’t in there, had gone through it and into the next room off a door I’d only seen closed before.
I went and stood in the doorway. It was a kid’s room. A small empty bed, toys on the floor. Little dresses on hangers in the open clothing cabinet. This was all news to me.
I started to make another joke. I don’t even know what came out of my mouth, but she turned and she was furious. A fury that had been well hid but hard to get rid of, like a honey jar that’s always sticky on the outside no matter how careful you are.
I smiled like an idiot. She stretched out an arm toward me. In her hand was a knife.
I’d never seen such a knife. It was halfway to saw, at least a foot long, or 31 centimeters as I’d been forced to memorize. Funny what goes through your mind. The serrated edge had teeth that weren’t spiky like a wood saw but undulating and looking mighty sharp. Would work wonders on sirloin if you could find a cow the size of a cottage.
She looked back at me, brow scrunched, her eyebrows like two snakes trying to meet in a wavy pond. Her face might’ve shown fight-or-flight, but fright could be added in there.
So I kept at it in my dumbfounded stupor. I managed the brilliant sentence, “The dead guy was your ex. And you have a knife?”
Then I said to myself, out loud in English, “That’s kind of awesome.”
She took a step toward me, reached out and put the knife to my throat. She said in English, “What is awful?”
It was so sharp that just holding it there cut a tiny scratch. I felt a single, small trickle of blood run down my neck, as silent as everything else in the room. I don’t think she did it on purpose. I was in a position to be generous.
“They are two different words,” I said.