“Get up, old man.”
“I want you to get up there right now and find out just what the hell is going on.”
“Woman, go back to sleep.”
“Listen, old man—”
“Don’t you tell me to shut up! Its two a.m., and your daughter is still awake and doing God knows what—”
“You know she’s weird.”
“Old man, it’s two a.m., she’s eight years old, and this has been going on for a week. Ever since Kazimir went off to that M.I.T. or whatever it is on that damn scholarship, she’s been sneaking up to his room doing God knows what all night long. Now get up there and make sure she’s not committing some mortal sin.”
“You go. She loves you.”
“You’re the one she likes this week, old man.”
“Well, why did you give away her teddy bear?”
“She gets too attached to things. She needs to learn. Now get up there, goddamn it!”
“Jezus, Maryja, i Święty Józef!”
Someone switched on the light. A teen with pained eyes stood in the doorway.
“What is it, Ma?”
“Ah, Frankie, my good right arm. Your father is too lazy. Go on upstairs and see what your sister is doing.”
Frankie’s tired feet mounted the steps.
He found her in her nightgown, really one of Ma’s old slips, a large dusty book in her lap, seated under a seventy-five-watt bulb. The hundred-watt model was for the rich, the kind Mamma cleaned houses for.
The girl turned and looked, a little frightened.
“Watcha doin’, kid?”
“What?” He sat on Kazimir’s creaky mattress, rubbing his eyes.
“These books.” She motioned to a complete, twelve-year-old set, minus K, of the Encyclopedia Britannica that Father Joseph had presented to Kazimir when he graduated from Saint Dominic’s with honors.
“All of ’em?”
“Cuz, Frankie, I want to know everything.”
“Ah.” She was a weird one. He absentmindedly spun the globe.
“And Frankie,” she said, less frightened, a little excited.
“I want to go everywhere. Everywhere on this globe.” She tried to spin it with her eight-year-old hands. “And meet everyone.”
“Watcha gonna say to everyone when ya meet ’em?”
“I love you.”
He found her simple earnestness, so firm in her frail frame, scary. “C’mere, kid; sit in my lap.”
Frankie was going away soon. She complied.
“Ya know something? Ya don’t get to know everything by reading books like this. Ya gotta read books too, but ya gotta live, like Ma and Pop have.”
“Yeah. And someday you can travel all over the place and go and tell the people ya love ’em, but not tonight. You can start tomorrow. Yeah, you can start with Peggy McNally across the street.”
“But, Frankie, she picks her nose and eats it.”
“Well, how about Charlene Van Dunk, the little colored girl next door?”
“Yeah, Frankie, her.” Now she looked worried, and she was. “Frankie, will there be enough time? Look at Dave.”
Frankie sighed. “Dave is with God, now, kid.”
That’s what they kept telling her. “Dave is with God.” To her it seemed that fifteen-year-old Dave had just run out of time.
“And, Frankie, do ya think I’ll ever run outta space in my head? Do ya think I’ll be able to fit everything up there?”
“Ya sure can, kid. And ya can go everywhere and tell everyone ya love ’em.”
She threw her arms around Frankie’s bull neck for this benediction. Frankie was so special, why did he have to go away? First Dave, who’d gone with God, and then Kazimir, who’d gone with a “scholarship,” and now Frank, who said he wanted to make his own life. Seemed like everyone was going somewhere except her, leaving, and pretty soon she’d be the only one left, all alone.
The world of the hitchhiker is one of the straightest lines in nature. It begins behind her at A, where she came from today. It ends before her at C, where she must get to tonight. She stands between at B, eyes, feet, and pack strung on the highway’s dirt shoulder, ready to spring as the first Good Ride rolls out of the horizon and slows down in front of her. And here it comes, twenty-seven feet of Winnebago.
The hitchhiker is the driver’s adventure. He, steady man on a schedule, planned to drive straight, A to B, no bumps, no detours or experiences. But now, as rare as the green flash, a rash of wonder, of curiosity—the urge to swerve into the uncontained and see, for a moment.
To the hitchhiker the drivers always say, “I’ve never met anyone like you,” “I’ll never forget you,” or “I can’t wait to tell the people back home about you.” The hitchhiker nods and smiles blankly, looks out the window, and breathlessly waits for the one who won’t say any of that.
The big, refrigerator-white American ride home, emblazoned with stickers from all the most scenic places in forty-eight states, and a few from Canada too, spit up gravel from its wheels as it ground to a stop. A middle-aged man with glasses and a paunch opened the door and gave the hitchhiker the once-over. He wasn’t impressed. She was one of those women to whom well-meaning men always want to say, “Why don’t you brush your hair, or iron your clothes, or try some make-up, or something?” The remarkable thing about her was that she was wearing the price of the road in the form of blood. Some dribbled from a gash on her forehead; some was caked on both knees.
“I don’t usually stop for hitchhikers.”
She had heard that line so many times, she couldn’t come up with a witty comeback any more. All she said was “Dallas?”
“Dallas? Well, yes, little lady. I guess I might be going through near Dallas on my way back to Houston. Why don’t you just hop right in here—”
She looked him over. Everything about him said nice, white-bread, American. Still, she had to be sure. She walked to the open door of the Winnebago, driver’s side, leaned on the frame, and stared hard. “You ain’t gonna try and mess with me, are ya?”
“Ma’am, I got a fine wife at home. I guess the last ride you got—”
“Tried.” She walked around the front of the vehicle and got in on the passenger side, laboriously wedging her pack behind the seat.
Houston started up the engine. “Who’s in Dallas? A man?”
“I hope he’s worth…that,” he said, motioning to her injuries.
“Honey, if you think this is bad, you should see the other guy.”
Around ten p.m., Houston, after telling her pretty much everything there was to tell about his life, though she’d never asked, left her on the shoulder. And there she was again, the hitchhiker, doing what hitchhikers always do when they’re not moving—awaiting the next good ride. She knew—she hoped!—who’d be giving her this one. She found the nearest phone booth and called. He sounded pissed off, but said he’d come.
He did come, one hour and twenty minutes later. The arrival of Maddy Kovarcik was not the highlight of his day. He didn’t look excited, or happy, or surprised. He just looked. Glared. Maddy glared back at this man whom she hadn’t seen in too many years to explain.
All seventy-six pumped-up inches of him stood between her and the car. She could never figure out why, with a face like his, he felt it necessary to lift weights. Thick, obstinate lips, permanently flared nostrils, so-cold-they-were-hot eyes under a shock of red hair. Nobody would pick a fight with a guy who looked like that, unless they wanted to prove something.
Maddy stood waiting. He liked to control situations. She was on his turf now, so she let him control this one.
Finally he spoke. “What are you doing here?” Not a question, an accusation.
“I came to see you,” she said softly.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because you’re my brother, man.”
Frankie broke his stare, started fiddling with the car keys. “Yeah. Right. Get in.”
“Does Mamma know you’re doing this? Hitchhiking?” His voice sounded angry. Maddy couldn’t remember a time when his voice hadn’t sounded angry.
Well, she was lying. “You know she and I haven’t talked since—”
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
Nobody ever did.
They got to Frank’s place. The ride from the gas station had taken ten minutes. Frank turned off the engine but didn’t get out. “Listen. My wife is in there. Try to—”
“What?” she snapped.
“Now see? That’s exactly what I mean, This is a good Christian home we’ve got here. Try not to act like a Kovarcik.”
You son of a bitch, she thought, and went in.
Elaine had waited up in her nightie, a frilly flannel thing that reached to her ankles and had multiple images of Winnie the Pooh on it. “Sis! Finally I get to meet you!” she cried, holding Maddy’s unwashed body to her breast.
Oh, God, thought Maddy. Maddy was not a hugger.
“Here, Frank, take Maddy’s things and I’ll show her to the shower.”
Aha, thought Maddy. So I am to be purified before I’m allowed to sit down or eat or drink. After hours on the road. But she knew she did smell.
While showing Maddy the shampoo and soap, Elaine suddenly gasped. She ran her finger along the bleeding cut on Maddy’s forehead. “Sis! What happened?”
What was it Frank had said? Try not to be…what? “Some scumbag tried to rape me,” she said matter-of-factly, showing Elaine the knee cuts also.
“Heavens! Did he actually…?”
“No way. I beat him up.”
“But he cut you like this? Did he have a knife?”
“No, Elaine, I’m the one with a knife.” Maddy fondly patted her Buck Deer Skinner, six inches of high-carbon steel in a leather sheath. “He had a gun and a car. After I got out, he hit me with it. Man just can’t stand to lose, you know?”
Elaine’s little face and regulation blue eyes registered horror. She stood in the bathroom, mouth open, quite unable to move.
“So, anyway, you gonna watch me wash or what?”
Slowly, silently, Elaine backed out of the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
I wonder if we could ever get to be friends, Maddy thought as she stripped off her sweat-soaked clothing.
“Badlands, Tetons, Grand Canyon. Places like that.”
“My. I’ve never been to any of those places.”
Maddy reached for another piece of toast. It wasn’t rye bread, but on this trip she’d learned to eat anything. She and Elaine were having breakfast the next day, after Frankie left for work. “Neither have I, Elaine. And if I go to India, well, I wanted to see my own country first.”
“Did you have to hitchhike?”
“No other way I could do it. Not enough bucks.”
Over the dining-room table hung a map. Maddy, a map fan from way back, thought the colors weren’t quite right. Then she saw the legend at the bottom. Christian countries were colored sky blue. Black stood for Animism, and much of sub-Saharan Africa was black. Green was Islam; purple was Hinduism. Red marked Russia, China, Poland, and others—Communism.
“You’re interested in our map?” Elaine asked.
“It’s weird to color countries by religion,” said Maddy through another piece of toast.
“Well, no. This way our elders can target mission operations in the most needy places.”
“Yeah, but—” A former boyfriend had once said to Maddy that her worst quality was her way of forever saying, “Yeah, but.” She’d dumped him. “Yeah, but shouldn’t you decide who’s neediest by how much they get to eat every day?”
“Man does not live by bread alone,” said Elaine, putting the toast back in the kitchen.
Where had Frankie found this one?
One day, a day Maddy couldn’t even remember, Frank had left home. She well remembered the fights that evolved into his departure.
“You never—” “How dare you!” “You bastard!” And the ever popular “You ruined my life!” Topped off with “I will never forgive you.”
Then Frank, with his constantly working jaw muscles and angry athlete’s body, whose floor was littered with bits of pencils he compulsively broke into pieces, became a memory.
A few letters, wild rumors, and then, ten years later, he came back. He was the same: opinionated, macho. Only this time he was a born-again Christian. Once one of his teachers had joked, “When he left Greystone High, the entire guidance department breathed a sigh of relief.” Now he had found the Lord. He came back to Lenape, New Jersey, whose chemicalized dirt he had sworn would never pollute his shoes again. He spoke the word forgiveness, but with the same cool burn in his eye. He talked of humility in a way that let you know if you crossed him, you’d be sorry.
At dinner that night Frank informed Maddy that she was expected to chip in money to help pay for food. It was the first time on this cross-country odyssey that anyone had asked her for cash. Strangest of all was seeing Frank’s hands, hands that had come down hard on her head often enough in the old days, knot together and ask for God’s blessing.
“Frank, honey, Madeline expressed some interest in our map.”
“My name is not Madeline. My name is Madlena.”
“Oh, is it such a big difference?” Elaine practically sang the words.
“Maddy, I thought I told you to—”
“Excuse me, Frank; your wife asked me a question. My name is Madlena Kovarcik. When our parents—yours and mine, Frank—came through Ellis Island, the WASPs tried to give them different names. I don’t want anybody messing with my name. It’s Madlena, not Madeline. Kovarcik, not Smith.”
“But surely you’re an American now,” hummed Elaine.
“You bet your ass I’m American. Nobody worked harder to be American than immigrants like our parents.”
“More important,” said her brother, “are you a Christian?”
“Frank, I’ll be damned if I’ll let you talk church to me. I don’t know how many hours I’ve knelt there in front of Mary praying that you’d get your shit together someday.”
“Mary is a goddess. You Catholics worship a goddess. That’s paganism, and it’s disgusting.”
“You’re just pissed off that you grew up in a house where Mamma had to hold the family together while Pop was working through his shit. Mr. Macho couldn’t handle having a mother who was more of a man than he was.”
This was getting to be just like a meal back home—all argument, no eating. God, it was refreshing! No toned-down vocabulary, no trying to be nice. Arguing with a Kovarcik was the only time Maddy was guaranteed a satisfying opponent.
Everybody put their heads down and munched on hot dogs and beans for a few minutes, Maddy and Frank mentally mapping out verbal strategies.
“Well. Madlena expressed some interest in our map,” said Elaine, her voice as fluttery as those orange flags men wave on the highway to say, “Don’t go this way. Rough road ahead.”
“She always did have maps hanging on the wall when she was a kid.”
Wow. He remembers that? “Yeah,” Maddy said, “but yours is weird. The world is divided into religions.”
“That’s how our Lord views the world,” pronounced Frank. “There are the saved, and there are the unsaved.”
“Interesting,” said Maddy. “Looks like most of the people God likes are white and the folks he doesn’t like are yellow and black.”
“It’s not a matter of liking or not liking,” said Elaine.
“No? Maybe not. But Heaven sure is going to look like a segregated neighborhood. Look at India. Seven hundred million brown people, all down the tubes.”
Elaine gave up hope of any real meal taking place with these two Kovarciks at her table and started to clear the dishes. Frank sucked in his breath.
Uh oh, thought Maddy, preparing her own offensive.
“Maddy, if you want to go overseas, why not do it for Christ?”
Ah. A surprise attack. She should have anticipated this. “Great. Then we could get that whole map colored in sky blue. Everybody thinking alike. Frank, why does it bother you so much that some people are different from you? I know what you guys have been up to. I’ve seen those Chick tracts you’ve been sending Mamma. She’s Catholic, and you can’t stand the thought of that. These folks are Hindus, and you can’t stand the thought of that either.”
Frank and Elaine looked at each other and laughed.
“Why don’t we all retire to the parlor where we can be more comfy?” he said. “I’ll bring some cookies and tea.”
“No tea for me,” said Maddy.
God, this girl is difficult, thought Elaine.
“So…India,” Frank said, settling into what was evidently his designated chair. The chair of the man of the house.
“Maybe,” Maddy muttered.
“Why maybe?” he asked.
“Because I’m not sure yet.”
Elaine brought in three cups of tea and a trayful of Oreos and Lorna Doones. She handed a cup of tea to Maddy.
“This trip is helping me make up my mind,” said Maddy, taking the cup of tea, going into the kitchen, and pouring it down the drain.
“Why not missionary work?”
“Because going around trying to make people more like me has never been one of my goals.”
“Not like you, dear,” said Elaine. “Saved.”
“Well, thanks, Elaine.”
Frank broke in. “Listen, Maddy, you’re none too sure of this thing, or you wouldn’t be saying ‘maybe.’ You’re obviously looking for something. Something real, fulfilling, lasting. What will satisfy you? All this aimless traveling you do—what’s the point? What are you looking for?”
She wished she had a fast and easy answer for that one. So many people had asked it. She’d never said a word.
“Maddy, what if you go halfway around the world in search of something and you can’t find it? What if you get to India and find out it’s just like home? Then what?”
Maddy spoke softly. “That would be a pretty marvelous discovery, wouldn’t it, Frank? To find out that people living as far away from Lenape as you can get are just like the folks back home?”
Frank snorted. “You always were stubborn, never listened to anybody.”
Now Maddy was furious. “How dare you talk, Frank? You left Lenape and swore you’d never darken our door again. All well and good for you; I know it was impossible for you there. But what about me, man? You still had a sister back home. You could’ve come back occasionally and taken me out to the movies or something. Anything to get me out of that house now and then. But no, man, you just left and let us all go to hell. Nice of you to come back after your miraculous conversion and make us all feel embarrassed.”
“You’re right. I don’t know you very well.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Don’t rub it in.” He ran big, freckled hands across his face. “Let me make up for lost time now.”
“By giving you some free advice, kid. Running doesn’t work. I know ’cause I tried it.”
“Yeah, but, Frankie, everybody tells me I’m doing this to run away—from Mamma, from Lenape. I did that already, years ago. Now it’s time to run to something. The world is a big place. I want to see it.”
“Okay. Do that, kid. Do that. Fill in the spaces on those maps you used to hang on your wall. But when you get back, consider this. Running doesn’t make the world. Staying does. Stay somewhere. Look at us, Maddy. Look at Elaine and me.”
Elaine had, in fact, gone to bed.
“Look at what we’ve got here. Elaine isn’t a terribly exciting woman; I know that. She’s not brilliant either. But she knows how to make a home that a man wants to come home to. She knows how to live every day, and that’s what it takes to make a home—everyday living. Cooking, cleaning, mindless chores every day. She does it. I earn the money. We go to church on Sunday. We have friends who we see every weekend. Not very exciting, but it’s a home.” For a minute he looked a little less like Frankie, a little softer, and happy. “Madlena, this is what I used to dream of when I was a kid. A home, a real home. No fighting, no screaming, but love, stability. Work that means something.”
Maddy looked down at the floor. She had always thought that she was the only one who’d sustained her tenuous existence at 58 Michigan Avenue with dreams.
“I think you’d be happy living this way too, Maddy, for all that I don’t know you.”
“Maybe, Frank. Someday. But for now I’ve got to—”
“What? I know. Get something out of your system.”
“I’ve got promises to keep, Frank. Promises to myself.”
“I know those kinds of promises.” He looked fondly around the room. A bookshelf full of books, a wall crammed with photos. “I’m keeping them to myself right now.” His face, for once, was quiet: no jaw muscles rippling his cheek, no angry fire shooting from the eyes.
He went to bed.
The room Maddy slept in was Frank’s “study.” A tiny, misshapen storeroom in this little Dallas apartment. It was a cared-for room, every square inch planned and worked over by Frank, who was learning carpentry. There were bookshelves, stacked with scholarly biblical works. There was a homemade desk and a swivel chair. Maddy had to admit to herself that Frankie had done it; he’d gotten what he wanted. He, a Kovarcik, had succeeded. It was a liberating thought.
She ran her hands over her brother’s books and wondered if he’d read them all. She examined the paraphernalia on his desk: pens, pencils, notebooks. In the center of the desk was a big calendar, one of those strictly business ones with no cute sayings or little pictures. It was neatly divided into big clean squares, a square for each day. She looked closer and saw that Frank had made this calendar himself—Frank or Elaine—with a ruler and a magic marker. There was writing on it. “Meet with committee men Sunday and plan Saturday’s supper.” “Write out tithe check.” “Play baseball with Billy and see how things are going at his mom’s house.” So it went. A task for every day, and for many days two or three. Often he was doing something for somebody else, and otherwise it was something wholesome for himself or with Elaine.
Maddy put the light out and got into her sleeping bag. Before she slept, she thanked God for answering her prayers. “Frankie’s made it, Lord. He’s gotten his shit together.”
“One cannot hold honey in the mouth without tasting it.” So says Arthashastra, an ancient Sanskrit text. A ruler might employ agents to manage his money, but those agents, in the handling of money, will be tempted to pocket some of it for themselves. Once you experience something sensually, it’s hard to release it.
Honey in the Mouth was my first book-length work, a fictionalized version of my service in The Peace Corps on the Indian subcontinent. Peace Corps volunteers leave their own homes, families, and cultures, and enter new ones. They wear clothing that is, to them, exotic, they speak a different language, they eat different food. Then, as military veterans do, they hop on a plane and return to their previous lives. They are meant to “readjust” to America.
That readjustment is not easy. I lived in a village reachable only by foot, without electricity, running water, telephones, telegraphs, or roads. I never heard a plane overhead. I went to bed when it got dark, and I got up when the sun rose. I cooked the minimal food I could find over a wood fire I made myself. I bathed in a mountain stream, and I supported numerous internal and external parasites. One of my students died of a stomach ache. Another died from a bad tooth. A naked shaman was the closest the village had to a hospital. I contracted a deadly infection and nearly died. I attribute my survival to a miracle.
Returning to the U.S. was not easy. I’ve heard, and told, this story many times: a returning Peace Corps volunteer had a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. I don’t know if the tale is fictional or real, but I understand this character.
I wanted to write a book that would capture the Peace Corps experience, and to do that I wanted to communicate to readers what I had left behind; thus Honey in the Mouth begins in the U.S.
I finished the book in 1985. I couldn’t find a publisher. I had no reason to believe in myself as a writer. I had been born into a poor, immigrant family, and my addiction to writing was clearly interfering with my need to justify my parents’ sacrifice and achieve the American dream. I felt deeply ashamed for having devoted time to writing this book. Honey in the Mouth was stored on floppy disks. I destroyed them, and I thought that was that.
Since then I have managed to publish other books. They have been well-reviewed, although they have not sold many copies. One day I became curious about Honey in the Mouth. I discovered one remaining hard copy, packed in a cardboard box. You are the first to read its introduction.
Danusha V. Goska is a teacher and writer living in New Jersey. Her most recent book is God through Binoculars.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019