A Beer with Hrabal


During the summer, I would help Amy stir strawberry jam in her kitchen. One time, I asked her why she labeled the jars 1, 2, 3, 4, instead of writing what was inside. She explained that she wanted to know later if any of them were missing.

One day, I had to take Amy to the hospital. Her pant legs swooshed as she walked slowly toward me.

"When I'm sick," she said, feeling her seventy-eight years, "I always think of those women pioneers who came to settle the west. They didn't have time to feel sorry for themselves or seek help from a psychiatrist."

"It's always good to think positively before surgery," I responded. "Now let's go. We're late."

As we walked out through the gate, Amy turned back to the house.

“Oh, would you look at that tree!" she enthused. "Isn’t it gorgeous!”

“Yes,” I agreed, noticing how the long branches were intertwined, as if they were sailing in the sky.

“That’s a Deodora cedar," Amy instructed me. "Once, some Neanderthal working on my yard told me he could cut it into the shape of a pine tree. The branches were too long, and the fallen pine needles were damaging the roof and plugging up the gutters. But I said, 'No way. It’s a cedar, and it’s beautiful just the way it is.' In Italy I saw them everywhere.”

"Okay, Amy.  Let's go. Otherwise, we'll be late."

I gently urged her toward my car. She walked a couple of steps and stopped again.

“Look at this praying mantis on the leaf! I love her! She likes to watch me through the kitchen window. Look at how she tilts her head to the side, as if she were listening. And her legs are bent, as if she's praying.”

“She’s lovely, Amy. But, let’s go.”

“And how well she blends in with her surroundings! She looks like a stick.” Amy clearly wanted to be heard.

Finally, in the car, she started talking about the two Danish ladies down the street who had died recently. One was ninety-five, and her sister was ninety-two. They had had a good life. Both drank a little whisky and ate good food.

Amy turned on the radio, saying that sometimes it helped her to feel better.  Then she would know where the sun was shining in the world and where it was cold.

Thinking that we might need papers at the hospital, I asked if she had any sort of proof of her birth. She answered that she had some pictures of herself.  I told her that pictures were not proof, since they could be falsified. She gave me a strange look and didn't say anything until we got to the hospital.

As we entered the building, a man wearing a sky blue uniform was pushing an open cart with two skeletons on it, covered by a plastic, see-through tarp.  Amy asked in disbelief, “Are those skeletons real?”

“Yes,” the man answered, giving her a fleeting smile. She hopped after the cart, saying again, “Can I ask you to pull back the tarp just for a second? I’ve never seen a real live skeleton before.” The man hesitated for a moment and then with a slight nervous air, uncovered the skeletons.

“Wow?" Amy said. "Were they treated with something?”

“No, just scrubbed and cleaned thoroughly.”

“I didn’t know our bones were so smooth and yellowish, like plastic. If that’s how we really look, we’re attractive skeletons.”  The man gave her a short smile and went about his way.

“That wasn’t smart to see the skeletons before surgery," I said. "Maybe they were the two Danish ladies from your street?”

“I don’t think so,” Amy mumbled, slowing her walk.“What surgery? They’re just going to take a small sample of my skin and send it to the lab.”

“But since it will shed blood, do you think they’ll put you under anesthesia?”

“I’m not a princess. They’ll just give me something local. Everything will go well. You’ll see.”

The young doctor introduced himself as a student in his last year. After sitting Amy down in a chair, he numbed her upper lip with an injection and proceeded to cut a small sample of skin from the left side of her mouth. Amy seemed to be concentrating, as if she were stirring strawberry jam.

To avoid watching the surgery, I stared out the window. Two angels carried me across the river to the land of the dead, where two Danish ladies were pouring whisky.

“Life is good here," they said, turning to me. "And the neighbors are better.  Stay with us.” 

I refused their hospitality.

"I had to take Amy home," I said.

I turned back to the doctor, who was frantically shaking a bloody piece of gauze in the air.

“Did you see that piece of skin that I just cut out?" he asked. "It has to be around here somewhere.”

Amy opened her eyes and answered irritably, “I wasn’t scrutinizing your every move, doctor. My eyes were closed.”

He shook his head and started on the first stitch, mumbling nervously under his breath, “Such a nice sample I had. I did it so well. It has to be around here somewhere.”

“I didn’t swallow it, doctor.”  Amy was annoyed now.

“I don’t understand,” the doctor mumbled on his fourth stitch, by now completely discouraged.

“And who’s supposed to understand? Am I supposed to understand?” Amy replied out of the corner of her bloody mouth.

The doctor completed the fifth and final stitch. Then he got down on his knees, looking worn out. Amy struggled to kneel down next to him. I joined them, too. We all searched in different corners. But there was no sign of the skin.

The doctor, drained of energy, said, “That’s okay, Mrs. Roisen. Go home and rest. We’ll wait two weeks and do it again.”

“Doctor," she said, "don’t forget to bring a video camera next time. And sterilize your shoes when you get home. Maybe my sample is stuck to the bottom.”

Two weeks later, everyone at the hospital greeted us like old friends. The doctor apologized again, “After you left last time, everyone here was looking for that sample. No one found it. It was so strange. That’s not the first time, either. Sometimes they even lose samples in the lab, and we have to do everything over again.”

“My friend here," Amy said, nodding toward me, "wants to write something about this whole fiasco."

 "Just don’t put my name in it," the doctor whispered alarmingly. "I might never graduate."

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Maybe we should go to another hospital next time?”

The doctor turned red and said warmly, “I assure you that Mrs. Roisen won’t pay a thing for these two visits. They will be completely free.”

“Five free stitches," I said playfully. "What a bargain.”




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