The Rubber Penguin
When I think about Da, that late November morning in the park, I see the horizon line bouncing up and down smoothly and seamlessly. Da and that man called Adam huddled together, standing next to a park bench in black overcoats, rising and falling with the horizon… below the horizon… all of it locked and moving together. The two men resembled magpies. Heckle and Jeckle. That’s how I think of Da. My Da. And even though Da was a hard man, especially during that November, I loved him. He was mine. I counted on him for protecting me and helping the two of us through all the strangeness of the autumn and the hard, coming winter.
— Don’t swing too high, Da yelled.
Adam, the man who looked like a subservient whisper of The State, turned and raised his hand at me. He smiled with silver teeth, which seemed to first absorb all the light of the overcast sky and then reflect it maliciously into my eyes.
— Both hands on the chains, Da yelled again, knowing I’d return the friendly gesture.
The horizon rose and fell with my swing, and the two magpies continued to stand together, each one from time to time stomping out the cold humidity from his bones.
I knew even then who Adam was. There were armies of Adams being educated down in the salt mines. We all knew about the salt mines. We all knew what happened when people disappeared into the earth, down into the quarries to cure whatever respiratory problem they suddenly seemed to have developed. Some we never saw again. Others, like Adam, were let out by the Central Committee; bestowed upon us to re-acquaint themselves with us over a small glass of table wine, polenta, and stuffed cabbage leaves; always in the kitchen, and always talking convincingly about The State. The Party. The Beloved Leader. I knew even then (Da had spoken to me outside our flat, in an open-air football stadium) that The State was going to try to bring another woman into our lives. Another wife. Another Ma. To replace the one that had defected; that had committed treason in the eyes of The Party. She’d be younger, this new Ma. I knew all about it.
Up and down they rose and fell. Da yelled something at me but it got lost in the screeching and huffing of pneumatic bus brakes coming from the boulevard that outlined the patch of trees.
I watched Adam, the First Man, take something from his breast, from inside his haggard raincoat, and hand it to Da. It was paper. Its corners were slapped by the wind, and Da tried to keep it from flying off. And he looked at it.
Up and down.
The bus revved up its diesel engine.
And then Da ripped the paper in half, unknowingly timing the action with the bus roar, which made me smile. He kept both pieces tightly in his hand. The whisper lit a cigarette. Da turned and motioned for me to come.
— You’re shooting up like a weed, Adam said and opened up his mouth again, ingurgitating whatever light was left in the day.
I shook his hand. He gripped me like the vise the Central Committee had used to shatter the phalanges in his other mitt.
— Too big to be held up by the neck, Da said and the other magpie cackled.
— Remember that?
— He was three, Da said. — How could he?
— What’s eight times nine?
I told him. Then he had me sing the first stanza of The Internationale.
— Don’t, Da said.
But Adam made me.
— Now that’s a proper Pioneer, the whisper said and with his good hand reached into the side pocket of his trench coat and brought up something.
— Miss your mum?
I told him.
He held out his fist and Da said — Take it.
— It’s all right, Adam said. — Your da said so.
The small, rubber figurine he placed in my hand was clammy and warm, and the white paint was peeling from his distended belly. It was a used toy. It was probably something he had found on the street.
— It’s called an Emperor Penguin, Adam said. — Go ahead. It’s all right with your da.
— Go ahead.
I shook his hand again.
— You know, in hunting, the Emperor Penguin can remain underwater for eighteen minutes, Adam said.
— I can do it for ten, he laughed. — Maybe. I know. Not even close. But your da could probably do it. We could try him.
And he laughed again. And looked at Da.
— What’s eight times seven?
I told him. He placed his hand on my head: — That’s a good Pioneer.
After he left, Da and I sat on the bench. He took out a handful of large, purple grapes from the pocket of his overcoat and we ate the fruit in silence in the wind. He spat out the seeds. Grape seeds upset Da’s stomach.
— We can have schnitzels tonight, he said. — I can get them at Lido’s. With mustard.
— All right.
— You don’t have to keep that thing he gave you, you know.
— All right.
There was a large rubbish bin at the exit gate of the park. When we walked by it, Da threw away the torn paper that Adam had given him earlier. I caught a quick look. It was a black and white photograph of a topless woman, smiling, with a bobbed haircut.