Fiction by Michael Czyzniejewski
Before my grandfather died, he revealed to me that when he was a young man in the 1950s, he led a double life as the masked vigilante known as Żorro—not Zorro, but Żorro, with a hard Z, like in “vision,” “garage,” or “Zsa Zsa Gabor.” When my grandfather revealed this, he was taking a lot of pills, maybe not making a lot of, if any, sense. The more his health declined, the more Grandpa insisted he had fought crime all up and down Milwaukee Avenue, wearing a red-and-white version of Zorro’s black costume, including a vest smattered with red sequins. When I told him he was full of shit—Grandpa was the first adult with whom I could openly swear—he journeyed further into detail, regaling me with tales of the break-ins, pick-pocketings, and purse snatchings he’d halted with his trusty rapier. I’d call bullshit again, and he’d smile and say something like, “What do you know, you kielbasa?” and that would be that. At least until the next day, when he’d start again, more and more adamant that he was Żorro, scourge of the Chicago-Polish underworld.
This was before we had anything like the Internet to verify a sickly old man’s tales. When I wanted to know something, I’d look it up in the World Book encyclopedias in the public library. Because the World Book didn’t have information on local superheroes, I resorted to my last resort: adults. First I asked my mom whether she’d ever seen her dad use a sword, whether he was an accomplished fencer. She didn’t answer until I asked twice, and then she just looked at me as if I’d asked her to toss me a beer. I went to ask my dad in the garage, where he spent his nights listening to hippie music, drinking Old Styles, and flipping through the Playboys he didn’t think I knew about. I went for the more point-blank route with him, asking, “Did Grandpa ever dress up like a Polish Zorro and fight crime?” Dad laughed at this, but when I said I was serious, he closed the garage door, looked around as if someone was listening, and whispered in my ear: “Now you know the truth, son. Your granddad was the Polish Zorro. And I’m the Polish Lone Ranger. Your mom the Polish Wonder Woman. And you, you’re the Polish Sausage!”
I didn’t appreciate being mocked—I was thirteen, so of course—but Dad was right: Grandpa dressing up as a disco superhero and swordfighting crime was as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series, but a gabillion times more ridiculous. Grandpa had retired from Inland Steel, smoked Dutch Masters, and could fart on command, his superpower. It wasn’t in his profile, swashbuckling.
That’s how I spent that summer, going to my grandparents’, wondering if Grandpa would bring up all this Żorro nonsense, which he always did. At 1:20, we’d watch the Cubs. Grandma would cook something with cabbage in it, adding to their house’s permanent cabbage stench. More often than not, the Cubs would get shellacked—this was 1983, the year before that Sandberg team—and at least once a game, Grandpa would lift his leg, let one fly, and say something like, “That one sounded good coming off the bat.” Then he’d nod off, and I’d have to field his stink. Grandma would come into the TV room, wake him with pills every couple of innings, sometimes his insulin. Today, I know my mom sent me there because he was dying, that she wanted me to get to know him, but I don’t think I knew that then. I was there to watch the game and, when it was over, go home.
That didn’t make for a particularly fun summer, watching bad baseball with my sick grandpa and eating gołabki until I, too, smelled like a cabbage and farted like a pack of firecrackers. Summers prior, I had played Little League, but I’d gotten worse and worse every season, a typical two-inning kid, the minimum the coach was mandated to play everybody. In 1983, I was supposed to move on to Babe Ruth, to the full-size field, which I wanted no part of, not with my puss arm and the increasing terror I’d get hit in the face by a pitch. When the sign-up day approached, I prayed my dad would forget, and maybe I prayed hard enough, because he did. I thought this would free me up to spend my hot afternoons at the city pool, staring at high school girls in their bathing suits, jumping off the low dive, and splashing around like an idiot, things at which I genuinely excelled. But then my mom read a story about a kid in Wichita who got polio—in 1982—from swimming at a public pool, losing the use of his legs. I’d had my shots, I explained, told Mom that polio had been cured, but she would have none of it, said this could be a new strain, something Salk hadn’t seen. Unless I wanted to end up like FDR, she declared my swimming days over.
I didn’t have a lot of friends, either, which is what happened when you quit sports and your mom phoned every other mom in your class and told them about the Wichita kid, leading to pool bans for most Holy Trinity eighth graders and gutting my popularity to an all-time low. My grandma and grandpa’s house, complete with cabbage and the Cubs, became my go-to option.
That was also the summer that the neighborhood started to change, that most of the signs at the stores switched from Polish to English. Iron bars striped a lot of windows, and metal accordion gates barricaded doors. Father Casimir at Holy Trinity died from a stroke, and instead of replacing him with another old Polack from the neighborhood, the archdiocese put in a Filipino guy named Father David, who didn’t speak Polish or even English all that well—at least he was nice to us altar boys, not caring if we wore gym shoes to mass or had hair below our ears. The 9:30 Sunday Polish mass was canceled, too, causing more than one family to transfer to St. Viator’s or St. Ed’s. This opened slots to a lot of non-Polish kids, some of whom weren’t even Catholic, the local CPS so shitty their parents would rather go parochial than trust the city with their children’s futures.
To make it to my grandparents’ for first pitch, I’d get up around ten, eat cereal while watching game shows—Sale of the Century was my thing, and then I’d ride the L two stops to Western and walk five blocks to that cabbage-reeking slab on Shakespeare Avenue. I’d been making that trip alone since I was ten, no thought of it ever being a bad idea for a kid to travel that far through the city himself. My mom trained me to stand on the train so no one would sit next to me. The whole trip took less than ten minutes; if I kept to myself, I’d be fine. I could see Grandma and Grandpa’s roof from the L platform, and then it was a straight shot across the Milwaukee and Armitage intersection to their front door. I never went at night, never on the weekends.
That summer I also started to get harassed, around the Western station and on my walk toward Shakespeare. There was the expected stuff, winos who had usually ignored me but for some reason began asking for change. I was pretty sure the woman always smoking outside the Brown’s Chicken was a prostitute, but she might have been waiting for a bus. Danger lurked, but I survived.
The real problem was the older kids—kids I didn’t recognize from school—kids who started to give me shit. Someone hearing this story might assume these kids were a “gang,” if you could call four or five teenagers on dirt bikes a gang. I’d get off the train, cross the big intersection, and there they’d be, circling like a pack of wolves. Sometimes they’d pop wheelies, sometimes all the way down the street. Other times they’d have a ramp rigged up on the sidewalk, a piece of propped-up plywood that launched them an inch or two off the ground with each jump. Despite the fact that I feared them, these jumps made them godlike, men among boys, kings among men. I wasn’t allowed to do tricks at home, no wheelies, no jumps, not even riding too fast. These kids were like a squadron of James Deans, the coolest kids I’d ever encountered.
My only mistake was having the audacity to stop and watch, knowing these were the same kids who threw garbage at me and used profanity I’d never heard before. Still, I thought their bike stunts were the most awesome thing in the world, and if I melted down to a skeleton by looking at the celestial glories inside the Ark, then so be it. Before long, one of them noticed me watching and asked me who the hell I was. I told them Dzien dobry and explained that my grandparents lived around the corner, that I was on my way to catch the Cubs with my grandpa. I asked if they were Cubs fans, and, when they didn’t say anything, I asked if they were Polish. At that, another kid jumped off his bike, walked up to me, and pushed me backward on my ass, sending a jolt into my tailbone and up my spine. Then he hocked a loogie on my chest, and all the other kids laughed. Suddenly, I had the distinct feeling these guys weren’t going to be my new best friends, let alone give me a turn on their ramp: They were most likely White Sox fans, and not at all of the Polish persuasion.
Because summer was half over and I hadn’t hung out with a single person anywhere near my own age, I stood up and blurted out that I had a new Schwinn Predator and that it was orange and chrome and I thought their ramp was cool. The kid who’d spat on me made a move like he was going to do something worse, but another kid, the tallest of the group, the one with the longest hair and a shadow of a mustache forming on his lip, stopped him and said to me, “Do you think you can take our ramp, tough guy?”
I peeked at the ramp. A stack of three bricks and a piece of pressboard formed a ten-degree angle off the sidewalk, an engineering masterpiece.
“I can take it,” I said, and for some reason added, “I can take it hard.”
All the guys oohed and aahed. The mustachioed leader said, “OK, make it happen.”
It was already after one, and I had to get to my grandparents’ before they called home, wondering where I was. I told the kids that it’d have to be tomorrow, that I didn’t have my bike—which was obvious—and the game would start soon. They all laughed again, one of the other kids calling me a baby. Another yelled, “Cubs suck!” The leader told them to shut up and said I was cool. “He’s cool,” he said, just like that. “He’s going to show us tomorrow. Right, Ace?”
I nodded, said, “Shit, yeah. Tomorrow.”
Then the five of them rode off, leaving the ramp behind, as if they owned that neighborhood, as if they could construct major dirt bike obstacles and leave them wherever they wanted, confident no one would mess with their business. I jogged to my grandparents’ house, making it just in time, but I couldn’t wait until the next day, when I’d show those older boys who they were dealing with, the Polish Ramp-Jumping Prince of Chicago.
Of course, that’s not how it went down. First of all, I wasn’t even allowed to take my bike that far from home and had to wait for my mom to go to the bathroom so I could sneak it out of the garage. I rode up Western under the L tracks, pedaling as fast as I could. I could see the gang of boys from across the intersection, their ramp set up on the other side of the street, but they hadn’t seen me yet. I waited for the light, sped toward them, and without hesitating passed two of the guys in the ramp line, hit the pressboard at full speed, and took off. At most, I got two inches off the ground, landing maybe five inches beyond take-off—I’d been picturing something else, much more lift, E.T. and Elliott crossing the moon. But still, I thought how I’d handled it all—cutting in line, taking off without clearance—was me paying my admission. When I landed, I spun around, skidding my back tire along the sidewalk, facing my new peers.
“And that’s how you do that,” I said.
Without applauding, without cheering, the assholes converged on me, knocking me over, then ripping my Predator out from between my legs, dragging the chain across my calf, tearing both skin and tube sock en route. They considered my bike—for what it’s worth, they seemed impressed—and for a minute, they argued over who would get it. I thought they were discussing who would get the first turn to ride it, and even though my parents forbade sharing I was going to let them: It’s what friends were for. I tried to explain how they could all get a turn, and the loogie kid from the day before put his foot on my chest, keeping me on my back like a manic turtle. When I explained that I really needed my bike, that I needed to get going to my grandparents’ house, Loogie let me up, even pulled me to my feet, and then punched me right in the eye, really, really hard. It was the first time I’d ever been punched in the face, and I did not like it.
At this point, it was clear these guys were stealing my bike, that they’d set me up for it. I thought for sure the leader kid with the faint mustache was going to take it for himself. Instead, they took a pack approach and assessed who had the shittiest ride. It was determined that this shrimpy kid with braces had the worst bike, a white Huffy with a cushioned banana seat covered in duct tape. The leader kid awarded this guy my Predator, and Braces mounted and rode off, the other boys following, all of them giving me the finger as they disappeared. Just like that, my new Predator belonged to him and not me. His crappy old Huffy with the stupid seat was suddenly my bike, lying on the sidewalk like a discarded corpse.
Grandma covered her mouth when she saw me walking up Shakespeare. She took me inside to the bathroom and showed me my face: My eye was yellow and purple and swollen like I had a balloon under my cheek. She took a piece of raw steak out of the refrigerator and made me hold it over my eye, then sat me down in the breakfast nook, torturing me into telling her what’d happened. At first, I told her that I’d fallen on the train and hit my eye on a window, which she didn’t believe. Next I told her I’d fallen while jumping ramps with my bike and slammed my face against a tree root. She asked me where my bike was, and I said that it had happened that morning, before I left home, that my bike was safe in our garage. She said there was no way my mother would have sent me to her house with an eye like that, not on the train, not alone. I told her I didn’t want to tell her what had really happened, so she pinched me on the wrist, which she knew would make me do or say anything. I flat-out squealed, every detail about the gang—yes, gang—the set-up, the punch, the little shit in the braces riding off and leaving me his crappy Huffy. Grandma pinched my wrist twice more for saying “shit” and “crappy” and asked where the kid’s bike was. I told her that I’d left it by the ramp, that it was really crappy—another pinch—but it didn’t matter because my parents were going to kill me. She then patted me on the butt and sent me and my steak into the TV room with Grandpa. Already, the Cubs were losing 1-0 and Grandpa had dozed off in his chair. I sat and watched with the piece of sirloin on my face, but I fell asleep, sucking in the urge to cry, beef blood dripping down my cheek.
I woke some time later to shouting. The score flashed on the TV screen—the Cubs were losing 5-1 in the top of the fifth inning. I thought the shouting was about the score, but I looked over at Grandpa’s chair and it was empty. I got up, the steak falling from my lap to the sculpted carpet, and investigated where the yelling was coming from. In the main hallway, the attic stairs were hanging down, and I tried to spy what was up there—I’d never been—but could only see darkness. As I made my way to the kitchen, I determined it was my grandparents who were screaming at each other, Grandma repeating, louder each time, “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” Grandpa said something about getting out of his way, and Grandma said again, “Absolutely not.”
I entered the kitchen and froze. My grandmother was blocking the back door, blocking it from Żorro.
Goddamn, I thought.
Grandpa’s outfit was exactly like he’d described: white pants, white blousy shirt, and a red sequined vest that threw the light from the ceiling fixture all around the room like a pile of rubies. On his head sat a Zorro-like hat, the flat kind with the huge brim, also covered in red sequins, topping a red headscarf that came down over Grandpa’s eyes, two holes bored out so he could see. On his feet he wore knee-high red leather boots, and dangling from his hip was a sword, shiny silver and as long as me. Hung over one of the chairs at the breakfast table was a cape, bright red with a white Polish eagle emblazoned on the back.
My grandfather, Żorro, insisted my grandmother move, claiming there was great injustice that needed justifying. He would duck one way and she’d counter, then parry the other and she’d do the same. Grandpa, it seemed, couldn’t even outmaneuver his surprisingly spry wife, let alone right any wrongs.
“Wally needs his bike back,” Grandpa said. “And you know and I know who this is a job for.”
I stood in disbelief as the two danced, still in shock over the fact that Żorro existed. Perhaps just as unbelievable, the costume still fit—even in his prime, Grandpa must have been pudgy and kind of hunched over. Nevertheless, he looked dashing, a sense of justice mingling in the air with a hint of sauerkraut.
At least until Grandpa drew his sword. That’s when things got really messy. Grandma lunged forward, grabbing at Grandpa’s arm, and Grandpa—what he was thinking, I don’t know—sidestepped her, pulling the sword back so she couldn’t grab it. First the curtains fell, the sword slashing them from the rod, sending an aura of light into the room, across the plentitude of sequins, bathing the room in red. Then the sword’s tip, glistening in the new light, stabbed me square in the palm of my right hand (I probably blocked it from hitting my face), leaving a dot of red, a dot that quickly grew to a steady flow. When Grandpa realized what he’d done, he dropped the sword, pulled off his hat and mask, and helped Grandma pull me to the sink. Grandma rinsed the wound under the faucet, blood mixing the water to pink as it circled the drain. Grandpa fetched the Bactine and some cotton balls from the bathroom and stood ready, his face telling me he’d never regretted anything more his whole life. When Grandma was convinced the blood had stopped, she doused me with the Bactine—burning like a thousand hells—and bandaged me up.
I ate a bowl of walnut ice cream as Grandma helped Grandpa out of his Żorro uniform and back into his slacks and flannel shirt. Grandpa was still shaken, if not shaking, and kept apologizing with each piece of his bad-ass costume peeled from his pruney, pale skin. I was still stunned, both from the reality of Żorro and the fact I’d just been stabbed, yet I didn’t feel any pain, let alone anger. I felt terrible for doubting him and told him so, but he said it was OK, said we were even for him stabbing me—then he winked. Blood covered everything, and Grandma sopped it up with a sponge and bucket. Then she put the Żorro get-up back in its dry cleaner bag, replacing it and the sword in the attic. Grandpa and I spent the rest of the day watching the end of the Cubs game—they came back and won 7-6—and I asked him to tell me all the stories of Żorro again, but to go slowly, to not skip any details.
In the meantime, Grandma said she had to run out for more sponges and bandages, but when she came back, she had my Predator. The short kid with the braces had just moved to the end of their block, and his mother was volunteering with my grandma at the Holy Trinity rectory. Grandma went to their house and explained what had happened, and the mother immediately returned my plundered bike.
“She really let that little shit have it as I was leaving,” Grandma said.
“Good,” I said.
“Good,” Grandpa said.
I ate dinner at their house that night, pork chops in sour cream, giving the wound on my hand time to close. Grandma took off the bandages, sprayed it again with Bactine, and covered it with two Band-Aids, which I would explain away with a weeding injury, something my mom would buy because Grandma was always sending me out to the yard. Grandma told me to never bring my bike to her house again, to ride it only where I was allowed. I also swore to stay off ramps and away from strange boys and to pray to the Lady of Czestochowa every night. Grandma called ahead to my parents, concocted a story about the attic stairs falling down, the corner catching me in the eye, that they should press more beef into it as soon as I walked in the door.
“Dziękuję, Busia,” I said. I called her my hero.
“Kocham cie, Waltek.”
I rode home, by myself, in the loud, endless darkness, unable to pedal fast enough.
My grandpa died soon after that, over the All-Star break, and my time at the house on Shakespeare turned into helping pack and clean, Grandma moving in with us, into the spare room next to mine. Most of the boys who had stolen my bike, including Braces and Mustache, showed up at Holy Trinity for eighth grade—Braces and I were best friends by Christmas—though nobody ever brought up the Predator incident. The next summer, the Cubs would win the East, Mom would let me get a pool pass again, and I’d be prepping for high school at Quigley South. There was a new box up in my closet, one that was big and long and taped tight and had “Baseball Cards for Wally” written on the side in magic marker. I couldn’t open it, Grandma said, not until I was older, and never in front of my mom or dad. It would be a while, I knew, but I felt comfort in its presence, knowing it was all real, justice on hold until I was worthy of donning everything inside.