Thirsty

An ambitious young man with a streak of laziness tries to make it in America.

 

by K.A. Tate

Courtroom Number Three sat on the left. “Second door down,” the officer looked the shabbily dressed young man over. He was wearing his best clothes, which were not very good. The suit he’d worn over from Poland. The shirt he’d been wearing the last time he walked into the police station to speak to the detectives. Same with his shorts. Only his undershirt was new and that a gift from one of the detectives when they saw he had none. His nice things, his American things, had all been lost and he’d had to make do.


Courtroom Number Three smelled of old wood and wet wool. It was also stuffy and the young man pulled his collar away from his neck. What he wanted to do was take his jacket off but he felt that would be too informal. It may be worn, but it was still a proper jacket. He saw a familiar face at the prosecutor’s table and walked over.

“Artur. Good. You’re on time.” The attorney, Wyatt Henry, was distracted and rifling through a pile of disordered pages on the table in front of him but stopped and looked up, “Listen, kid, don’t be nervous; just tell the truth. Don’t lie. Even if you think it makes our case, or you, look weak. Let me handle that. Just tell the truth, exactly what you told the police, and you’ll be home in Poland before the end of the month. Go wait outside in the hall until they call you.” He went back to his papers. Artur turned and went back to the hallway where he sat near a side entrance on a long wooden bench; hat in hand, elbows on knees, staring at the heavily varnished hardwood planks beneath his feet. He was nervous. And thirsty.


The door near him opened and in walked a well dressed young couple. Artur looked up at the sound of the door and went white. The man glared and put a protective arm around the woman who gave a hurt and betrayed look at Artur as they walked past and into the courtroom. Artur watched them and then walked over to the officer standing by the doors, “Excuse me, where may I find water?” The officer looked him over and pointed down a hallway, “Use the one for colored,” and then watched to make sure Artur did. Artur was insulted, but too thirsty to care he was insulted. He tried to drink as much as possible but felt like he could never get enough and eventually, thirst not slaked, he became too self-conscious to continue. He straightened up, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked back to the bench. He was still thirsty. He sat looking at the floor again, lost in thought until the courtroom door opened and he was called.


He stood and walked to the witness stand still clutching his hat. His heart pounded. His mouth was a desert. He climbed the short steps and took his seat. Artur noticed a pitcher of water and an empty glass on the stand in front of him. He picked up the pitcher gratefully and poured the glass so full some of it spilled down his chin with the first few draughts. Artur had never had water so good. He drained the glass and poured another one before remembering himself and setting the full glass down carefully.

“Better?” the Judge asked. Artur nodded.

Mr. Henry stood in front of the witness stand. A pudgy older woman sat next to the witness stand typing on a funny looking typewriter. Her perfume was overpowering. The sweetness of it felt as if it were coating Artur’s mouth. He lifted the glass and took a drink hoping to rid himself of the taste.

“Could you please state your name for the court?”

“I am Artur Dobrynzcki.”

“Where were you born?”

“In a small village in Poland named Kruszyniany.”

“How old are you?”

“I am eighteen years old.”

“And how long have you been in America, Artur?”

“I came in 1933. Almost two years.”

“How did you come to be in America?”

“My mother, she has a cousin who lives in Chicago, Maja. The cousin and her husband, Syzmon, extended an offer to come here and better my life.” He risked a quick glance at the audience and saw them both staring at him in a hard way. He looked away quickly.

“And did you work for Syzmon and Maja Kowalczek?”

“Yes, I did work.”

“What kind of work?”

“Szymon and Maja own a secondhand furniture business. I helped them collect and repair the furniture so that it may be sold.”

“Did they pay you for this work?”

“Yes. One dollar twenty five cents per week.”

“Artur, do you know that man there,” he pointed behind him at the Defendant, who glared and mouthed you’re a dead man at Artur.

“Yes.” The sunlight was streaming through the tall courtroom windows flooding the room with a bright heat. Artur felt a drop of sweat roll down the back of his neck. He could smell his clothing. The shirt, shorts and suit were not clean. They hadn’t smelled too bad to Artur when he put them on, but here in this steamy courtroom the odor of his unwashed clothing rose up around him in a sour, musty cloud. He pulled at his collar eyeing the glass in front of him but too self conscious to reach for it.

“And who is that man sitting there?”

“Big Eddie.”

“The defendant, Edward Rollins. How did you come to be acquainted with Mr. Rollins?”

“I met him through a man who was paying me to run his errands or so I believed, but he told me Big Eddie was who I was working for and I went to him and that is how we met.” Artur’s words came out in one long sentence, fumbling over his accent.

“Who was the man who introduced you to Mr. Rollins?”

“His name is Teddy. He was the man paying me.”

“How did you meet Teddy?”

“I was talking a walk one day after I’d finished my work. He stopped me and asked if I wanted to make some money.”

“What did he want you to do?”

“I was to deliver a package to a man named Chuckie. It was a small package wrapped in brown paper. For the package Chuckie gave me a coin. I was to bring the coin back to Teddy and then he would pay me.”

“How much did he pay you?”

“Five dollars.”

“Five dollars per week?”

“No. Five dollars every time I did an errand for him.”

“How often did you run errands for him?”

“Two to three times a week.”

“After that first day when you met Teddy how long was it before you met Mr. Rollins?”

“Almost one year.”

“How did you arrange that meeting to take place with Mr. Rollins?”

“I simply asked Teddy.”

“What did Teddy tell you?”

“He said if I wanted to see Big Eddie I would have to bring him something. Not money. Teddy said he had enough of his own money. He told to me that Big Eddie would like to have a score.”

“And what did that mean, ‘a score’?”

“He wanted to know of any wealthy people who had expensive art and jewels.”

“Did you know of such a place?”

“I did.”

“Did you tell Big Eddie about this place you knew of?”

“Yes.”

“And what did he say to you?”

“He thought it sounded like a good idea. He asked me many questions about the house and the people who lived inside. He asked me if I was going to tell the police who did it. I told him no.”

“But you did tell the police?”

“Yes, when I found them at my front door after coming home the day just after the robbery.”

“And what did the police want?”

“They wanted to talk about Syzmon and Maja.”

“Why did they want to talk to you about that?”

“They felt I was involved in their robbery.”

“And were you?”

“Yes.” Artur’s voice was barely a whisper.

“Please speak up.”

“Yes, I was involved.” Louder now with miserable shame clouding his face. The bright courtroom felt unbearably hot to Artur. Sweat had begun to bead up on his forehead and he blotted at this ineffectively with the arm of his smelly wool jacket before reaching again for the glass in front of him and taking several large gulps of water that now seemed too warm and to taste the way his clothing smelled. It did nothing for his thirst.

“How were you involved?”

“I told Teddy and Big Eddie about Syzmon and Maja. That they were wealthy and had the things Big Eddie wanted.” Artur risked a glance to the audience where the couple who had welcomed him into their home, and glared at him as they passed him earlier, sat stiff with anger.

“Were they wealthy?”

“I thought so, but the next day, Teddy, he tells me that I was wrong and Big Eddie wanted me dead for my lies. He tells me to get out of the country because Big Eddie would find me anywhere.”

“Were you afraid of Big Eddie, Artur?”

“Yes. Very much so.”

“Prosecution rests, your honor.”


Edward Rollins sat at the defense table glowering at Artur. Artur tried to ignore his hot stare. He felt as if he’d spoken more in this courtroom than he had in his whole time in America. His mouth was dry again. He picked up the glass and gulped more warm water before putting it back down on the stand a bit too hard making a loud thunk that seemed to reverberate around the silent courtroom endlessly.


He risked another look at Syzmon and Maja. Maja was wiping tears from her eyes. Syzmon’s arm was tightly around her. Artur’s shame was great and his face burned. He hadn’t meant for Maja to get shot. He had just wanted to impress Big Eddie, which now seemed the most foolish thing he’d ever done in his life.


The judge looked at the defense table, “Your witness, counselor.”

“Thank you, your honor.” Big Eddie’s attorney was a large man with a booming voice that Artur had to work not to flinch from. He turned his attention on Artur, “Now, let me make sure I’ve got this right. The Kowalczeks invited you not only to America, but to their home, is that right?”

Artur nodded.

“Yes or no, please.”

“Yes.” Artur’s ‘yes’ felt falsely enthusiastic to him as it came out in an odd tone.

“And they paid you to work for them too?”

“Yes.” Artur was relieved this answer came out sounding correct.

“So the Kowalczeks gave you a place to live and a job? Correct?”

“Yes, I worked for them and they gave me a room of my own and wages.”

“But you weren’t happy with that. So you went out looking to make more money, is that right?”

Artur hesitated. He felt a trap, but wasn’t sure what it was. “Yes,” his answer was hesitant. He did want to make more money, but he hadn’t been walking with that intent. He wasn’t sure how to answer honestly. The bright courtroom seemed to get more unbearable. The sun had slid on to the shiny varnished floor and was now reflecting into Artur’s eyes making his head ache. The portion of the audience sitting in the sun fanned themselves with paper fans and hats and turned slightly away from the bright warm light streaming in.

“So then you found Teddy who offered to pay you the unbelievable sum of five dollars simply for delivering a package a few blocks away. I bet that seemed too good to be true.”

“It was a high wage for a simple job.”

“Uh-huh. And you had no idea what you were doing was illegal? Did you come to America thinking all jobs paid that well?”

Artur sat saying nothing. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to answer both questions or either of them.

“Did you not realize you were working for criminals, Artur? Do you really expect this court to believe that you were naive enough to think this was a legitimate job?”

“I-,” Artur paused, unsure how to answer, “I thought only of how fast I could get money. I did not think of from where the money came.”

“You’re from Poland, right?”

“Yes.”

“Did you speak English before you came to this country?”

“Only some. I have learned more here.”

“So you came to a country where you didn’t speak the language to engage in criminal activity. That about right?”

“I-”

“Let’s move on. Artur, who did you tell first about the Kowalczeks?”

“I spoke first to Teddy.”

“What did Teddy say when you told him?”

“He said that Big Eddie would want to hear about them. He told me to tell Big Eddie it was his idea.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. I told Big Eddie that Teddy had sent me.”

“So this was Teddy’s idea? Not yours or Mr. Rollins’?”

“I think so,” his answer was again hesitant. Artur wasn’t sure who to credit for the idea.

“You think so? You don’t remember who came up with the idea?”

“I am not sure anyone came up with the idea.”

“Well someone had to have it in order for it to be planned, right?”

“Yes.”

“So who was it?”

“I am not sure. Teddy and Big Eddie both seemed to already know what to do.”

“When you saw Teddy the day after the robbery what did he tell you?”

“He told me that I had been wrong. There wasn’t anything valuable in the house. All the art, it was just reproductions, and there were no furs or jewels in the house. He told me one of Big Eddie’s men got arrested and that Maja had been shot. He told me to leave the country.”

“What did you do after you spoke to Teddy?”

“I went home. I was going to pack and leave, but there were two police officers waiting for me at my door when I got there. They took me to the station and asked me some questions.”

“Were you worried when you saw the police? Did you think you were in trouble?”

“Yes.”

“Did the police offer you anything in exchange for answering their questions?”

“No, they did not pay me to answer.”

“I’m not talking about payment. I’m talking about anything. A ticket home, perhaps.”

“Yes, they told me they would send me back to Poland if I testified.”

“Ok, I just want to make sure I’ve got the story straight here. You were invited over to this country by the Kowalczeks, who gave you a room and a steady job. To repay their kindness you sought out a street tough to go their house to rob and shoot them so you could get a cut of what they stole. When that didn’t work you fed some crazy story to the cops about my client’s involvement in order to get a free ticket back to Poland. Sound about right?”

“W-, no I-”

“No further questions, your honor. Defense rests.”


Artur looked at the judge desperately. That was not what had happened and he wanted to clear his name, “Your Honor, please-”

“You may step down, son. You’re done here and can go home.” The judge steamrolled Artur’s hesitant words with his certitude.


He left the witness box with a face of crumpled misery. That man had made it sound as if he had purposely come to America just to rob Syzmon and Maja and then lied to get out of it and that wasn’t true. He wanted to clear his name. He wanted to make everyone understand, but especially he wanted Syzmon and Maja to know that it wasn’t true. He stopped in the aisle next to them on his way out. He wanted to say something, to tell them all those things weren’t true, but when he looked at them they both turned their backs to him and looked out the window as if the most interesting thing in the world was happening out there. Artur, his heart heavy with dejection and shame, walked away.


He was still thirsty. He had almost two dollars. He went into a pub on the corner. He told the bartender, “I want a whiskey and water.” He’d never had liquor before, only beer, and not much as he didn’t care for the taste. He had been to a picture where the hero asked for a whiskey and water once and ever since Artur had wondered what it was like. The bartender slid his glass across the bar, “Here ya go, pal,” and went back to cleaning glasses.


Artur took a sip. It was warm and spicy. He felt that warmth spread all through him and as it did he could feel all bad feelings start to melt away. He drained his glass and ordered another, sipping it while thinking of Maja and Syzmon. He had ruined his chance with his actions. He had betrayed good people who only tried to help him. He had done it for money. That thought led to his money. He had come home in the evening from the police station after being questioned that first day to find his apartment in disarray. Drawers pulled and upended, cabinets swept of their things, clothes ripped from his closet. But what had dismayed him the most was his mattress lain askew on the box spring. He had run to it with a wordless cry and flipped the mattress over only to find what he’d dreaded; all his money, almost three hundred dollars, gone. Artur had plans for that money. It was going to buy him a new start somewhere. Now he had almost nothing. He walked out of the courtroom with it all: a dollar ninety three cents; all the money he had to feed himself until he got back home to Poland, the clothes on his back, a ticket to Poland leaving the next day (this he kept pulling out and holding tightly to reassure himself he still had it). His thoughts of home brought him thoughts of his mother. He would see her again and she would be disappointed in him. His friends would laugh at his failure. His mood dark, he ordered a third drink. Then a fourth. The more drank the better he felt. By the time Artur staggered out into the night he could claim ownership of twenty three cents, the clothes on his back, a crumpled ticket to Poland, and the puddle of vomit under the barstool where he’d sat.