Grzegorek’s wife was quiet, calm, and inconspicuous. Grzegorek was too, but still there was something about him. When he left for work every morning at five o’clock, he was glowing with self-confidence. Few people saw Grzegorek then, for no one got up at that inhuman hour, but if someone happened to have been out partying in Warsaw until dawn, and was just on the way back, trying to get to his own home, he might admire Grzegorek’s self-confidence and involuntarily regret his own downfall.
Many more people could admire Grzegorek on his way back from work in the afternoon. He walked stiff as a ramrod in his railroad worker’s uniform, which was always clean and neatly pressed, and would solemnly respond to a greeting with a nod. He would solemnly reach his building, solemnly eat the dinner his wife had cooked him, and solemnly go to bed. Once a week—on Tuesday, to be precise—Grzegorek fulfilled his marital obligations, which everyone knew because Mrs. Grzegorek, although hard to notice from day to day, was very enthusiastic when it came to lovemaking, and Grzegorek fulfilled his obligations just as he did everything else in life—slowly, seriously, and with devotion to the cause. When we were twelve or thirteen, we used to walk under the Grzegoreks’ windows on Tuesday nights, and when Mrs. Grzegorek would start singing aria after aria, every boy imagined he was the solemn and conscientious Grzegorek, and every girl, that she was seized with unbridled passion like Mrs. Grzegorek. Then the girls would prudently vanish into the dark, and we would run into the woods and hurriedly masturbate ourselves to climax. The next day we would once again be well-behaved, and the girls would be sweet and innocent.
Despite his solemnity, Grzegorek performed no important function at all for the Polish State Railroads. When he reached the siding at Warsaw East Station, he changed into his work clothes, took his hammer, and spent the whole day roaming the length of the passenger and cargo stock, tapping the wheels. He knew by heart all the noises a train wheel could make when hit with a hammer, and he could immediately tell if everything was all right or not. When necessary, he raised the alarm right away.
Grzegorek was firmly convinced that the functioning of the Polish State Railroads depended on tapping wheels with a hammer. Whenever a train crash took place anywhere in the world, Grzegorek would go to Gębarowski, his next-door neighbor, and explain at length the reason, which was always the same: Someone had tapped incompetently. For there are salutary taps, but there are irresponsible ones too, to say nothing of the criminal ones. Not every hand was suited to a hammer. Not every hammer was suited to tapping, and without the tapping no one could tell which wheel would carry you to your destination and which would not.
Gębarowski would listen to these arguments patiently, because it was his nature always to listen. He never interrupted and wouldn’t boss anyone around, except his miniature pinscher, who never listened to him anyway. Grzegorek would get more and more worked up: He would talk about different ways of tapping, and how much progress had been made under socialism as far as hammers were concerned. He would expound and expound, until noticing all of a sudden that Gębarowski was asleep. At first Grzegorek would be ready to take offense, but in the end he would quietly slip off and go to bed—or, if it was Tuesday, he would summon his wife and fulfill his marital obligations.
Grzegorek the railroad worker’s Tuesday exertions were bound to produce a result eventually. One spring Mrs. Grzegorek filled out promisingly and the whole building began preparing for the arrival of the new resident. But after a couple months, joy gave way to concern. Mrs. Grzegorek, who knew no moderation when it came to the throes of passion, went through pregnancy the same way. Her belly grew twice as fast as other pregnant women’s bellies, becoming enormous and monstrous. Mrs. Grzegorek struggled to lug it around, supporting it with her hands and complaining of back pain, but her belly kept on growing and showed no sign of stopping. The news spread around the neighborhood, and people from Miedzeszyn, and then Falenica and Radoś ć, came to our building in droves to inspect Mrs. Grzegorek, and we were proud we had that enormous belly at hand and didn’t have to go anywhere to see it. Grzegorek was wracked by contradictory feelings. On the one hand, as the instigator, he felt a certain pride. On the other, what was happening was against his nature, for he was an ordinary, modest man, reluctant to concern himself with events on a gigantic scale. He didn’t know what to do with himself, was constantly on edge and sleep-deprived, and he would bash the trains’ wheels with the hammer twice as hard as necessary, until the stationmaster at Warsaw East finally reprimanded him for it.
When Mrs. Grzegorek was in her seventh month (her belly looked as if she were in her twelfth), Grzegorek paid a lot of money for them to go see a professor. The professor thoroughly examined Mrs. Grzegorek and then uttered a word which immediately explained everything: “Twins!”
It just happened to be a period of temporary shortage of goods on the market. This had lasted several long years, but was temporary nevertheless. Buying a baby carriage required extensive contacts and diplomatic skills, and here a wide, double baby carriage was needed. In the countries where the Marshall Plan had been introduced, such baby carriages stood in stores awaiting customers. That plan hadn’t been introduced in our country, so Grzegorek went from store to store, looking the sales clerk mournfully in the eye and asking: “Do you have any baby carriages for twins?”
The beautiful eyes of the women behind the counters would widen in amazement, for they were young people, not very bright, and it hadn’t occurred to them baby carriages for twins existed at all. In desperation, Grzegorek tramped from store to store, and the more he tramped, the more there weren’t any baby carriages. Finally the unhappy father lost his instinct for self-preservation to such a degree that he wrote a letter about the baby carriage problem to the president, Bolesław Bierut. The letter was well grounded in Marxist–Leninist philosophy, but at the same time sternly condemned those responsible for the lack of double baby carriages. “How can we justify the fact,” wrote Grzegorek, “that at a time when baby carriages for twins can be purchased in the Soviet Union on every street corner”—Grzegorek had never been to the Soviet Union—“and when the socialist community is beating the imperialist camp hands down when it comes to the birth rate, in our country there are no baby carriages for twins, triplets or quintuplets either? I need hardly say how much this complicates the lives of their parents, who ought to be called Stakhanovites of population growth! This is sabotage aimed at our socialist procreation by the putrid, wretched pygmies of global colonialism. I implore you, Comrade President, to finish off this Trumanesque rabble, an endeavor to which I too will contribute with all my strength. Antoni Grzegorek, railroad worker from Warsaw East Station.”
After the letter was sent there was silence, but Grzegorek’s protest was not just stuck in some bureaucratic pigeonhole. Deemed “sincere and justified,” it slowly worked its way up the ladder until a few weeks later a black Citroën parked outside our building and a handsome man in a long leather coat got out. Everyone watched him worriedly from behind their lace curtains. First the visitor went to see Witka, the secret policeman, with whom he spent nearly half an hour. Then they both (Witka had put on a leather coat too) went to see the Grzegoreks. Gębarowski, who shared a wall with them, put his ear to it, but he couldn’t hear anything. He went to the kitchen and returned with a pre-war porcelain soup plate and placed it against the wall so the sound would resonate, but that didn’t help either. Gębarowski ran onto the balcony, hoping the Grzegoreks’ balcony door would be open, but someone had carefully closed it. For a while Gębarowski wondered whether to go out into the stairwell and put his ear to the front door, but he looked at the black Citroën parked out front with the bored driver sitting inside and thought better of it.
The unknown man and Witka spent more than an hour at the Grzegoreks’; then the Citroën drove off and for a long while Witka waved after it in farewell. Then he went home, very proud, head held high. As soon as the door shut behind Witka, everyone headed for the Grzegoreks’ apartment, but the neighbors’ curiosity was not to be satisfied. Mrs. Grzegorek had locked herself in the bedroom, and to every question Grzegorek replied: “State secret.”
From that day on, the black Citroën pulled up outside our building many times. Sometimes the familiar man in the leather coat came in it, with the driver as a rule waddling along behind him, carrying a cardboard box with groceries never before seen in our local stores peeking out of the top. Other times the Citroën brought a tall blond with a doctor’s bag, or sometimes some civilian in a poplin coat and hat. First they would knock on Witka’s door and then go up to the Grzegoreks’ apartment with him. Finally, when the due date was approaching, Witka moved in with the Grzegoreks completely. He didn’t go to work; he just sat in an armchair in the entryway and opened the door. From then on no one dropped in at the Grzegoreks’ apartment anymore. People were afraid even to say hello to them when they appeared in the courtyard, which rarely happened anyway. Grzegorek had gotten leave, too—mandatory, no less. He wandered around the apartment with his hammer in his hand, imagining the wheels of countless trains, which he struck with infallible precision.
Finally Mrs. Grzegorek started going into labor. Immediately a brand-new ambulance appeared and took her and Grzegorek (who even in this situation didn’t part with his hammer) to the hospital. Three black Citroëns full of men in leather coats accompanied the ambulance. A few days later Mrs. Grzegorek returned with twins of the male sex. They too were a state secret, and no one other than Witka was allowed to see them. On the way home, the following conversation took place between Witka and Grzegorek:
“Now listen here, Grzegorek, what do you intend to call these boys of yours?” asked Witka.
“Modest and Anzelm.”
Witka shook his head with disapproval. “Those are reactionary names,” he said. “One should be Joseph . . .”
“I don’t like it,” said Grzegorek.
Witka raised his eyebrows. “How can you not like it when it’s the name of Comrade Stalin himself?”
Grzegorek went slightly pale. “When you look at it that way,” he said, “I like it a lot.”
“Well then, one will be Joseph,” declared Witka. “And if one is Joseph, the other for sure has to be Bolesław.”
“Seems that way,” Grzegorek agreed, not bothering to remember Comrade President Bierut’s first name. “But maybe we could do their middle names my way.”
Witka mulled it over. “All right,” he said. “But keep it to yourself.”
And so Joseph Anzelm and Bolesław Modest appeared at 41 Patriots Street. Mrs. Grzegorek wanted the boys christened as soon as possible, but Witka was firmly opposed, so the priest came at 2 a.m. (when Witka was asleep in his own apartment), hastily sprinkled water on the twins, and disappeared into thin air. All he left behind was a holy picture, showing a guardian angel leading some children across a bridge over an abyss, which Witka immediately put away for safekeeping, as he called it. Grzegorek was still on leave, wandering around the apartment with his hammer in his hand, and sometimes it occurred to him it would be nice to whack Witka on the head with that hammer, aiming with his usual precision. The desire grew stronger and stronger, and the only thing stopping him from realizing this plan was the knowledge that he would definitely end up in prison, and that while he was stuck there, Witka would be here keeping an eye on his twins. To occupy his mind with something else, Grzegorek started thinking what an idiot he was for having moronic ideas like writing letters to the president.
A week or so later the building’s residents awoke and saw black Citroëns surrounding them from every direction—in the courtyard, behind the coal-holes, and in the lilac bushes nearby—until the place was teeming with men in leather coats. In the courtyard stood a Polish Radio broadcast van, and the best reporter in the country was nervously hanging around in front of it. No one was allowed to go to work or even to the store, so they sat in their apartments, looking out the window, but even that didn’t last long, for around ten o’clock men in coats burst into the apartments and made everyone face the walls. The radio was playing in Gębarowski’s apartment, thanks to which the residents staring blankly at the walls of their own apartments learned that Comrade President Bolesław Bierut himself was coming to their building in person. The reporter’s high, excited voice informed them that Comrade Bierut was just going over the railroad crossing, was turning right, then left, then driving into the courtyard. They heard a ferocious stamping of feet, and the reporter shouting that Comrade President was getting out and going up the steps, and behind him two party dignitaries were carrying a wide baby carriage for twins. The reporter even squeezed his way into the Grzegoreks’ apartment, from where he reported that Bierut was looking at Joseph and Bolesław, shaking hands with Grzegorek (whose hammer had gone into safekeeping that day), and then shaking hands with Witka. Finally, Comrade President’s voice rang out, encouraging Grzegorek to continue his efforts for the good of the nation, and then they all heard Grzegorek’s trembling voice, as though from far away, promising to do his very best.
The residents were somewhat surprised not to hear a word on the subject of Mrs. Grzegorek, but that was entirely to be expected, as by ten o’clock she had already locked herself in the bathroom and was refusing to come out, even though Witka was threatening her with prosecution. Bierut had been given, in the courtyard, advance warning of this situation, and therefore everyone agreed to pretend Mrs. Grzegorek didn’t exist. The reporter went on to say that Comrade President Bierut was leaving the Grzegoreks’ apartment, going down the stairs, getting into his car, driving off, going over the railroad crossing, and not until his car had gone beyond it was everyone allowed to turn away from the walls. Soon after, the broadcast van drove away from the front of the building, and one after another the black Citroëns started to follow it. When the last one had gone, there was the soft clack of a bolt in the Grzegoreks’ apartment. It was Mrs. Grzegorek, coming out of the bathroom to take care of the children.
Bierut was once again distant and inaccessible, but he had left behind the twin baby carriage: Wide and with perfect suspension, it prompted delight in everyone who saw it. Witka asserted the baby carriage was undoubtedly of Soviet production, for only in a country of workers and peasants could they produce such a marvel. Yet one rainy day, when Mrs. Grzegorek decided to clean the muddy baby carriage, she found a strip of cloth on the bottom that said “Made in USA.” She showed it to her husband, who read it, looked around uncertainly, put a finger to his lips and said: “State secret.”
Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye.