the first Saturday in August, my friend Lorraine Duggin, a poet
from Omaha, was waiting impatiently in front of my hotel. She
welcomed me warmly when I appeared on the street.
Somewhere close around the corner a band was playing. Following
the music, we weaved through the festive crowd that had come
to Wilber to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Czech culture
in Nebraska. We
walked around the booths, looking for Lorraine’s friends, who
would introduce us to their friends. They in turn would send
us to meet other friends, until we were gradually introduced
to all of Wilber.
felt at home. We were one big family at a long table, feasting
on sausages, dumplings, sauerkraut, and homemade cakes. Everything
was so homey that it reminded me of my mother-in-law's house
in the Czech Republic. She used to bake koláče,
using sixty kilograms of flour for big weddings. But she would
put the filling inside the dough, whereas in Wilber they spread
it across the top, so there will be no surprises.
our family meal, we had plenty of time, so we shuffled slowly
through the streets, peeking behind corners, until we ran
into Anna, a woman covered in Czech garnets. She told us that
her mother had been a midwife in Omaha and had spoken three
languages. I foolishly forgot to ask which languages. Anna
then talked about her father, the baker, who had learned six
languages and had worked in a slaughterhouse with Czechs,
Russians, Croatians, Poles, and Irish.
Lorraine went off to talk to some friend, and I lounged around
for a while with a man named Adolph. I told him about how
my mother would pack plum brandy for me every time I returned
slivovice! Were are you hiding it, then?" he asked.
winters are cold near the Pacific,” I said, winking.
told me that the last time he had visited the Czech Republic,
he had brought along the small box containing his mother's
ashes. When his sister saw the box, she asked, where their
father's ashes were. Adolph hadn't realized that his father
had also wanted to be buried in his hometown. He would have
to bring him home next time, he said somberly.
him if he remembered any Czech songs. His face lit up, and
soon he started singing enthusiastically.
heavens, Adolph! Where did you learn that?"
my mother," he said with a laugh, explaining that sometimes
when his father left home, his mother would take out an accordion
and play and sing. Whenever she got to a really raunchy song,
she would say, "Don't you dare sing this song anywhere,
did sing it, didn't you?"
else could I remember it?" Adolph smiled from ear to
ear and launched into another bawdy tune.
Lorraine returned, we left Adolph to his songs and stopped
in the Sokol gym, where someone named Evelyn was projecting
slides of the Czech lands. She said, "It was difficult
to choose from the four thousand slides I had at home." I
turned my head from side to side in disbelief. As I turned
a little to the right, I saw a young man in a very nice costume,
who looked like a prince from some fairy tale.
did you come from?" I asked.
Domažlice," he answered.
embarrassed that I had forgotten the folk costume from Domažlice. But
Lorraine knew exactly where Domažlice was in the Czech
Republic. She also knew where to find Dačice,
because her grandfather on her mother's side had grown up
there. In fact, she had written a story about her hard-working
grandfather, who had come to Nebraska with her grandmother. All
his life, he had stubbornly refused to speak English, and
when the grandchildren visited, they could barely understand
impressed by her story and asked Lorraine if I could translate
it into Czech. I later published part of the story in my book,
Modrý Kovboj a Žlutá Kráva (A
Blue Cowboy and a Yellow Cow).
some time in the Wilber Czech Museum, where we learned that
the celebrated Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal had spent the night
in the same hotel in Wilber where I was staying. The quest
book had recorded that Hrabal had drunk beer and was in high
spirits. When he gave a reading, his listeners poured water
for themselves from big glass pitchers, and they felt good,
too, Hrabal wrote.
I poured some water from one of those pitchers, and these
words flowed from my mind:
best art is art that mirrors people's souls and can be found
in every culture."
would have been proud of me for making a connection with his
audience and for thinking about the Czech traditions that
the people hold so dear in Wilber.
excited by all this news and now I wanted to see Hrabal’s
room, where they had made up a bed for him with a down comforter
and placed a fresh flower on his pillow. The manager, Frances,
assured me that she had offered the writer the best room in
the hotel, a room with a bathroom and two windows, which was
called Zajíček ("Rabbit"). Frances wasn’t
sure if Hrabal had actually stayed in that room. She would
have to check the guest book from 1989, she said, but she
didn’t have time just then. She gave me a room with
one window, but no bathroom. The room was called Hroch
("Hippopotamus") and the bathroom was nearby. Frances
explained to me that the rooms were not named after animals,
but distinguished citizens who had helped to sponsor the restoration
of the hotel.
under the bright floral down comforter that matched the flowery
wallpaper and poked at the matching curtain and chair in my
nice room with a window. I tried to fall asleep, but the polka
music outside kept me awake. I got out of bed and looked out
the window, observing with satisfaction how much the younger
generation here liked to polka. I wished that Czech youngsters
could have seen them.
that I might never dance the polka again in my country depressed
me. I closed my reddened eyes and saw all of Hrabal’s darling
pigeons flocking to Wilber, because in Prague they don't like
cold autumn of 1994, I had only a few days to spend in Prague. As
I was waiting for my friend Václav in Wenceslas Square, all
of Hrabal's pigeons flew at me. If my friend hadn't rescued
me, perhaps only a greasy wrapper from my sandwich would have
remained of me.
prepared a surprise for you," Václav said, welcoming
me cordially. We had been friends since high school.
going to visit Mr. Hrabal in Kersko."
could I say? I was delighted.
writer's cottage, hidden in a grove of tall trees, was locked
that dull Saturday afternoon. No one was there except for
the six cats in the yard. Which one was the famous Cassius? And
which one was Orange? Or Buss? I don't think that Hrabal
would have appreciated us walking around his cottage, which
was really a two-story house, complete with a garage and veranda,
all in white and dark green. We peeked through a window into
the garage, which was piled high with milk cans. Well, the
cats would be safe and well fed in winter.
Hrabal might return tomorrow," a neighbor told us. But
he added that he wasn't sure if the writer would be interested
in talking to us. Only last week, he had sent away a bus full
of Hungarian journalists.
an idea. Perhaps this helpful man could tell Mr. Hrabal that
I had flown all the way from San Francisco, where Hrabal had
spent wonderful times with the young American teacher he had
named Dubenka. The man smiled a little and said he'd try,
but couldn't promise anything.
morning, we drove back to Kersko. But once again, the writer’s
cottage was locked. When we knocked on the neighbor's door,
our new acquaintance said brightly, “You're in luck. He's
walked toward us uncertainly. I immediately realized that
he had warm, forget-me-not, eyes. But his words were not as
since you're already here, what can I do for you?” he asked,
don't want to bother you for very long."
led us on the well-trodden path to his cottage, grumbling,
"Someone's always annoying me. My legs are killing me."
him hesitantly, until he disappeared into the house. We waited
helplessly in front of the veranda. A minute later, he peeked
out the door and said with irritation, “Well, where are you? Come
was warmth and simple comfort in the one large room. His bed
in the corner was half-made. There was a typewriter and an
old TV set. Books, clippings from newspapers, and handwritten
pages lay on a table and a long wooden bench.
invited us to sit next to the large electric stove. As he
studied us, I felt as if he were creating new characters in
his head. He never stopped stroking the tail of the wooden
cat next to his seat. I tried to turn the conversation toward
Wilber, but he was more interested in San Francisco and the
Golden Gate Bridge. Jokingly, he asked, "Is it still
quiet moment, I passed him his book Jarmilka, asking,
"Would you be so kind as to sign this for me?" He
flipped through a few pages and asked, "What's your name?" By
chance, I had the same name as the protagonist of this very
book – Jarmilka is a diminutive for Jarmila.
pleased him, and he wrote on the title page:
memory of my meeting with Jarmila
Sincerely, Hrabal, October 16, '94, Kersko.
stood up to leave, he whispered to me, “Tomorrow I'll be in
Prague. Come to the pub u zlatého tygra [The Golden Tiger]
at 2 P.M. But leave your friend at home."
would be delighted," I said, and left my freshly published
book with him, explaining that the pages with the yellow Post-it
notes related to his visit to Wilber. That seemed to arouse
the drive back to Prague, I knew why my friend was so quiet. I
felt sorry for him, but there was no way to change things.
o'clock in the afternoon the next day, I appeared at the famous
u Zlatého tygra pub. After passing through the mouth
into the tiger's entrails, I suddenly found myself with the
poet. He apparently had a permanent seat at a long table in
the crowded pub.
around the table, there were three other men. I was trembling
as I shook their hands and immediately forgot all the names. That
was me, alright: --forgetting anything I didn't immediately
write down. But I couldn't pull out paper and pencil in front
of the men without looking like a spy. They would have wondered
what value their names had to me back in America. One man
said that he was related to the famous Czech poet, Sládek. I
believed him right away, because he had a very poetic voice,
and his flying mutton-chop sideburns merged with his shoulders.
placed five large Pilsner beers with thick heads in front
of us. Mr. Hrabal generously unwrapped a thinly sliced salami
and arranged rolls so that they looked like soldiers going
to battle. A fifth man arrived with more rolls. He said that
they were the best you could get in Prague.
chewed on their rolls, nibbled on the salami, and sipped at
their beers. The conversation went down more slowly than the
food. They tested out a topic; then they tested me. No one
would have understood their humor unless he had sat at the
table with them every week.
another sip of beer, I screwed up my courage and asked, "Mr.
Hrabal, how did you like the beer in Wilber?”
cottage in Kersko was so warm," I said. "I felt
right at home."
one builds a fire, of course it's going to be warm,"
he replied. I wanted to say that he wasn't quite right, because
making a home comfortably warm is an art that not everyone
masters. But I kept quiet and lost myself in the sights and
sounds of the tiger's den.
I finally returned my floating attention to the writer, the
conversation had jumped to some older Russian airplane. I
couldn't put the details into context. Had the poet fallen
apart in the plane, or had the plane fallen apart with him?
were many other things that tied my mind into a knot. How
could I explain to myself why Hrabal showed us a book about
Andy Warhol? He had written long commentaries on each page
and pasted some photos and illustrations in the book. I imagined
him having fun doing this at his cottage in Kersko with his
cat Cassius looking over his shoulder.
got so mixed up in my head that I interjected quickly, "Mr.
Hrabal, Andy would have liked that. And how is your cat Cassius
looked at me, his left eye askance and answered briskly, "He
just retired, and his youngest is starting school."
but persisted, "Wouldn't you like to come to San Francisco
again? I could arrange the trip for you like your American
friend Dubenka did." I asked him this, assuming
that he would like to see original paintings of Andy Warhol
with his own eyes, of which there were several in the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
he said, dismissing my offer, "my feet are always killing
me these days."
with that because my feet were also hurting me after a long
walk through Prague.
had been smiling politely at our conversation, but when I
looked at them now, they dropped their eyes to their beer
again to pick up a broken thread with the poet, "Mr.
Hrabal," I asked, "have you had a chance to read
what I wrote about your visit to Nebraska?"
don't read. My eyes hurt," he answered quickly and pushed
my book, which he had brought with him, back toward me.
unfortunate, Mr. Hrabal," I said, too nervous to even
have my feelings hurt. "You would know that they liked
you in Wilber."
you enjoying your beer?" he asked more softly.
like Pilsner very much. Really."
drink your beer and read your book."
out another one of his books, Obrazy v hlubině času,
and asked, "Would you be so kind and sign one more book
for me?" He looked at me questioningly and asked reluctantly,
"Do you have a pen?"
him my pen, and his slow hand wrote on the title page:
the writer, Jarmila Marie Skalná, --Sincerely, Hrabal, At
The Tiger, October 17, '94.
I saw the word writer, I realized that he
had read my story about him, and probably enjoyed it. So I
quietly pushed my book back to him.
to stay longer, but to be invited again, one's visit should
always be short. I stroked the poet's arm, turned down another
beer, and thanked him for the one I had already finished. I
asked him where I could send him my greetings from California.
of course, at this pub," he answered gallantly, kissing
my hand, which surprised me.
the bar on my way out, I asked a waiter, "By the way,
do you know those gentlemen who are sitting with Mr. Hrabal
around the table?"
hesitating, the waiter replied, "There's Mr. Vodička,
next to Mr. Mazal, and Mr. Honĕk. The one on the right
I don't know. I haven't seen him here before."
pay for their next round." I said, handing him some
a wave of my hand, I bade the pub goodbye.
I never had a chance to go back to see Hrabal again. One cold
February night in 1997, my friend Václav phoned me from Moravia.
are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm sitting at a table, reading Hrabal. I'm reading
his book, Domácí úkoly, and I was just laughing at
the part where Hrabal bought his wife a grave in Hradištko
for her birthday. Did you know that when the book was published,
the government immediately sent it to the recycling center,
and only a few boxes were saved? When I think about him now,
I realize that he wasn't as cranky as I thought."
gave a little cough and announced in a strange voice, "Our
Mr. Hrabal has traveled to Heaven after trying to feed his
beloved pigeons from his window on the fifth floor of the
hospital. He fell out, just like that."