New Shoes

In which the crowded licing arrangements of Buzz's
parents and grandparents in their Prague flat is discussed

64/02/05_12:00

Before the 1948 Communist coup, my family occupied four floors of a large townhouse next to the National Theater, but when property was nationalized they went from having 12 rooms to 3, four floors to one. Enough room for my grandmother, grandfather, and their young daughter (my mother), but when she grew up and married and her husband moved in things got to be a little tight. It wouldn't have been too bad and was still less crowded than some apartments, but my grandmother valued possessions over people and refused to part with even one painting, piece of furniture, or bit of Meissen porcelain which crowded even my parents' bedroom where my father suffered the indignity of having to exile his books beneath the bed to make room for ceramic ballerinas and fruitbowl portrayals of sylvan scenes which covered every available surface.

Into this crowded environment my sister was born in 1964. In the Soviet scheme of things children usually meant a bigger apartment for the parents, but in this case the officials refused to process the applications until my father acquiesced and joined the Party. He had a name for himself and the Party wished to add it to the roster of writers who had "crossed over."

This drove a wedge between my father and Dedi. Formerly they had shared pipe tobacco and enjoyed afternoonlong games of chess together, but when the bassinet was established in the grandparents' bedrooom (my parents room being too small) Dedi put the chess table with its inlaid marble board and drawers for the handcarved oak pieces into basement storage saying something had to be sacrificed, after which time my father became a pariah in what until then he'd come to consider home.

"Why he is so obstinate I will not understand," Dedi said. "It's simply not logical to deny a better life for your family based on idealogy, the refutation of which is more foolish than the dogma itself." My grandmother took to building high shelves on which she placed her precious heirlooms--most of which she'd purchased herself back in the '30s when there were a lot of good bargains to be had from fleeing Jewish families--well beyond the reach of the curious hands of my toddling sister, which might explain how she first came to using the footstool, which was initially my grandmother's. The shelves were too high for her to see her beloved belongings so she spent her days with her head brushing the ceiling as she dusted. She was balancing thus one afternoon when my grandfather came home unexpectedly shortly after his 70th birthday.

He took off his shoes in the hallway and had to restrain himself from flinging them at Babi, who had to catch herself from falling so startled was she by his rancor. The shoes had been a birthday present, the newest model, with silent light synthetic soles which his daughter Eva, always a fan of innovation, had thought would be a welcome change from the heavy wood-soled shoes held always worn. "I don't want to catch them at their business!" He threw the shoes out the window, a gesture caught on film and puzzled over by the agents stationed across the street.

As head of his department he was subject to constant scutiny by his unseen superiors and he knew it. Any time he did something which was perceived as the least bit suspect the secret police--who everyone could identify from a block away since theirs were the only black Mercedes sedans snarling through the city--would pick him up and drive him to the cemetery, always within sight of a new-dug grave, and show him compromising evidence, always pretending they knew more than they did in an attempt to coax a confession from him. His stock response was that he was a man of science and was neither loyal nor disloyal to the party (of which he was a noncommital member)--he dealt with questions of physics not politics. "Materials, tolerances, trajectories," he said. "My lab has been working on these problems since 1925 uninterrupted even during the Nazi Occupation. Who benefits from my research is meaningless to me. Technology, he claimed, was amoral, thus apolitical.

"Careful, comrade," the agent warned, "I would not be too proud of working for the Nazis. Just last week we arrested a collaborator who thought his neighbors had forgotten."

These new shoes made him uncomfortable, put him too much in the position of the watchers. All morning, as he made his rounds, he'd caught his subordinates goofing off. He'd poke his head into an office and papers would be quickly shifted on desks, objects hurriedly concealed in slamming drawers.

He put on his old brown shoes and clacked in tight circles around the kitchen, satisfied. He made a lot of noise going down the steps and into his street where the clacking of his heels ,echoed on the cobblestone street.

That was the last anyone in Prague saw of him.

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