Jerry's First Visit

In which Jerry pays a visit on the family
to determine the whereabouts of Engineer Poplar


Jiri Klobouk, whose name would be incorrectly Americanized to Jerry, was a mechanical engineer in Dedi's division who was chosen to inquire after the whereabouts of the Mr. Head Engineer Poplar, my grandfather Dedi. After knocking he heard a commotion behind the door--he imagined that the inhabitants were quickly hiding something, perhaps the luggage they were surreptitiously packing for their imminent escape. The agents from the firm had given him a radio call button to press if something happened but he hoped not to use it. When the door to the flat finally swung open he stood eye to eye with my sister who'd been the source of the noise when she dragged her stool in place. "Babicko!" my sister called to my grandmother, "It's the police!"

Jerry looked like secret police but he was merely an aging underling in my grandfather's division, more draughtsman than engineer although he certainly had ideas of his own, which probably explained why he was passed over for promotions. He'd been chosen for this initial reconnaissance because he said he had claimed to know the family but now no one recognized him.

Babi entered the room carrying a worn but stylish suitcase. "I've been expecting you. I'm ready to go." My sister hadn't invited him in and her stool still blocked the door. "I am Jiri K----. I work with your husband. We met at the company Christmas party two years ago. I remember asking you about the brooch...."

This melted my grandmother's frosty exterior. It was easy to charm her--just admire her jewelry-- and suddenly she thought she remembered the face even if she couldn't quite place the party. "Everyone who meets me remembers this brooch, even many years later," she said as she eased my sister down from her stool and pushed it aside. "Won't you take off your shoes?" she said as she offered him houseslippers as was the custom, in this case a pair belonging to her departed husband. They were a perfect fit. My sister scowled after him and ran into her parents' bedroom where our father was having a bad day. "Tato, tato!" she cried, "We have a spy!"

"A spy?" his feeble voice could be heard down the short hall. "Isn't that nice? Please help me turn this page."

"Ignore her," Babi said. "I don't know where my husband is but I don't expect the police will believe that. None of us know where he went. He was behaving strangely. I suggest you drag the river."

Jerry knew my grandfather wasn't dead. He would have liked to put my grandmother at ease but the time had not yet come for that. "I come here only as a concerned friend..." he began.

Jerry was startled when my mother spoke from the windowsill. "Then where are the flowers? Friends bring flowers." It was true, the Prague custom for any social visit was to bring freshcut flowers; there were kiosks on every corner.

From his surprise my mother could see that he wasn't a spy, or if he was he was very shortsighted. He hadn't noticed her sitting in the window, languid and still as a cat, half-hidden behind a curtain of lace, silhouette backlit by the grey sunset. Now he stood transfixed.

"I was sent by a mutual friend." He spoke again to my grandmother, "We have word from your husband. He is alive and well. That is all I can say now, but if I may return I should have more news."

"Of course you may return," my mother said, "so long as you bring flowers." From across the room she appeared cool and composed but in her fingers her cigarette trembled.

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