Submit your pitch to our Live Storytelling Event


Old Poles

Tim Erwin

Throughout most of my childhood, my uncle Ludwik lived in the guest room at the back of our house on Danforth Street. I don’t know if he was really my uncle in a literal sense—I come from a large Polish family, and all my life people I’d never met before were being introduced to me as blood relatives—but he had no wife and no children, and he thought it was a sin to live alone, so my mother let him live with us. 

I was uncomfortable around Uncle Ludwik. People told me I looked like him, and I resented the comparison. He had a face that belonged in a Soviet bread line, waxen and expressionless, with skin tags and papules sprouting up from beneath the rough surface. Life had mangled his body into the shape of a question mark, and he walked around leaning on an old blackthorn shillelagh, laughing spitefully under his breath and muttering Polish words that could only have been obscenities. He wore thick-soled orthopedic clodhoppers and trousers with the warp and weft of burlap, which he mended himself with a little pink sewing kit. In actuality, Uncle Ludwik could not have been more than sixty-five years old, but in my mind, he was as ancient as Europe itself, and I was convinced that, despite his many ailments, he would outlive us all. 

My uncle’s life was nothing but spare time, most of which he spent in a Windsor chair in his room rolling homemade cigarettes with a little contraption that looked like an adding machine, listening to mazurkas on a boom box we’d given him one year as a Christmas present. The breathless assault of accordions and euphonium sounded like the Slavic version of a hoedown. Uncle Ludwik was hard of hearing, and in the afternoons, the noise would spread throughout the entire house, until my father would throw up his hands and say, “Just die already!” 

When he said things like this, my mother would smack him with the flat of her palm, then bless herself in a Zorro-like gesture, both for the blasphemy and the assault.

Uncle Ludwik took his meals in his room, heating up cans of baked beans and condensed soups on a hot-plate. When I asked my mother why Ludwik didn’t eat the food she cooked for the rest of the family, she said it was because he could only digest things that came from a can. Uncle Ludwik was a hypochondriac. He said that all American doctors were abortionists and dupeks, and diagnosed himself with various imaginary diseases that had very little basis in medicine. He claimed to suffer from “wet knees” and “fatty kidneys” and “slow blood.” This last term referred to the very real condition of diabetes, to which, in the late summer of 1985, Uncle Ludwik eventually succumbed.  But by that time, his quality of life was so diminished, his pain so constant, that my mother got down on her knees with tears of joy in her eyes and thanked God when his terrible life was finally over.

My life was full of people like Uncle Ludwik, old Poles, immigrants from a time that felt like a thousand years ago. They all possessed the leery bitterness of people who had been cheated in life but didn’t like to talk about it. They were introduced to me as aunts and uncles and cousins, as if all of the Eastern Bloc had been made up of one large and dysfunctional family. We saw them on holidays, at Mass, and in the supermarket. They smelled like steamed cabbage and naphthalene, and handed out dimes and individually wrapped peppermint candies. Our grandmother was one of these people, and whenever I asked her about what Poland was like in the old days, she flew into a rage and said, “It is rude to ask personal questions! Go away! You annoy people!”

Ludwik had come over on the boat with my grandparents and he didn’t like to speak English or even acknowledge that he lived in America. He spoke in his native Podhale dialect to grocers and bank tellers and grew irate when they could not understand him. My mother had it in her head that it would be a good thing for me to learn Polish, so once a week I had to go into Uncle Ludwik’s room for a lesson, which I think was supposed to count as his rent. The room smelled of cigarette butts, Aqua Velva, and canned soup. In lieu of an education, Ludwik enlisted me in slow, silent rounds of canasta, his face pinched up so that his upper lip touched the tip of his nose. After he’d beaten me several times—I did not understand the rules—he would teach me one Polish curse word per session. He taught me to say glupia dupa (dumb ass) and meska kurwa (gigolo) and powalony skurwiel, which had no direct English equivalent but meant something like useless piece of shit. 

I don’t remember how many years my uncle Ludwik lived with us. He is there in nearly every memory of my childhood, tapping on the floor with his shillelagh, creeping along the back rooms of the house muttering threats and grievances. I do remember his funeral. I was ten years old when he died. Barely anyone attended except for my mother, my father, and a smattering of old Poles who came mostly, it seemed, for the buffet. It depressed me that Uncle Ludwik was dead and would evidently be forgotten by even his closest relations—not because of any particular fondness I felt toward him, but because I was afraid the same thing might happen to me someday. He was gone now, and no one cared. The buffet line stretched longer than the line to the casket.

My father said it would be a good thing for me to go up and look at my uncle’s corpse so I could learn what death was. I didn’t want to see that hoary face all embalmed and yellow (as it was in my imagination) and I certainly didn’t want to run the risk of fainting and falling into the casket itself and intermingling with the body in its frilly casing. So I lied and told him that I had already gone up and seen Ludwik’s body, earlier, when no one was watching. 

“Good boy,” said my father, his mouth full of kopytka from the buffet. 

It was a few weeks after Ludwik’s depressing funeral that I started noticing strange things in the house. The first thing I noticed was the smell. After Ludwik died, my parents had emptied out his room. The hot plate and the cigarette machine and the little boom box—everything went to the Salvation Army. They had a cleaning service come in to wet-vac the carpets and strip the wallpaper, a pattern of gold pineapples. Now, the room smelled like paint-stripper, carpet cleaner, and air freshener. But I could smell something else, too. Sometimes, late at night while I was lying in bed, I smelled soup. 

My mother said, “What soup? Are you saying my house stinks?” 

“Don’t make things up,” my father added. “People will think you’re an idiot.”

But I wasn’t making it up. At night, the smell was so strong it was like the hot plate was right next to me on the bedside table. Sometimes I even felt the heat from the coils on the side of my face. 

I thought, okay, maybe the smell had gotten into the curtains or something, and I was sensitive to it. But then other things started to happen. One night I woke up and there was someone sitting on a chair in the corner of my room—a young guy in a tan suit, smoking a cigarette. I knew it was my uncle Ludwik, as a young man, long before I was born. There were no skin tags or sprouts or warts on his face. Actually, he looked a little like me. 

“What are you doing in my room, Uncle Ludwik?” I asked

 He puffed his cigarette and spoke to me in Polish, but I was able to understand him perfectly. “You are mistaken,” he said. “You are the one who is in my room, dupek.” 

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ludwik,” I said, “but your room is the next one over.” 

He calmly apologized, put on a trilby hat and disappeared through the wall

I told my mother about this the next morning while she was peeling cucumbers. She ate so many cucumber sandwiches, and made cucumber soup so often, that she was almost always processing and slicing them.

“Yes,” she said, softly. “I see him everywhere too.”

“But this was really him,” I said. “He was wearing a tan suit and smoking a cigarette. He called me an asshole. He looked just like me.”

You look just like him,” she corrected me. 

I explained my theory that Uncle Ludwik had decided, for reasons as yet unclear, to haunt us. My mother looked at me with the gentle, open-hearted expression that she wore when she talked to my cousin Josef, who had to wear a bike helmet when he rode the school bus. She told me that it was only a dream, that even Uncle Ludwik would not so grossly overstay his welcome, and that I should avoid eating salty foods before bed. Besides, she said, it was good luck to dream about a dead person. It meant you were going to be rich when you grew up. 

After that, I didn’t see Uncle Ludwik in my room anymore, but I knew he was still there, in his old room across the hall. I could feel him whenever I passed by the closed door—a sort of chilly, low-blood-sugar feeling. He sent me little messages no one else could see, flickering the lights during dinner or killing one of my mother’s philodendrons. He liked to turn the heat off, and it would get so cold in the house that my father had to wear mittens while he graded papers. Once, he left a deck of Bicycle playing cards out on the kitchen table, as if challenging me to a game of canasta. Sometimes, I even thought I heard a mazurka.

Over time, I learned to live with it. Every so often, the soup smell would waft across the room, or a book would fall off a shelf. It wasn’t really that different from when he’d been alive. 

Then, my mother got pregnant. The baby was an accident.

“Not an accident,” my mother said. “A surprise.”

“A total surprise,” said my father. 

My mother looked much younger as a pregnant woman. Her cheeks were always red, as if someone had been pinching them, and her skin was luminous and glossy. My father waited on her hand and foot: “Can I get you some apple slices?” “How about a muffin?” Any time she took a deep breath, my father panicked: “Is it happening? Is it now?”

They built the nursery for the baby in Uncle Ludwik’s old room. I began to worry that he might take offense to this and become vengeful. But if anything, he seemed to back off a little. The baby kicked and punched at my mother’s insides. Her stomach grew so huge that I was sure the baby was going to kill her on the way out. Her ankles became swollen, and she would sit on the couch and moan from heartburn and gas.

Eventually, the baby did arrive. My parents went to the hospital, and I went to stay with my grandparents. My grandmother had an oxygen tank that ran into her nostrils through a little tube, and she let me try it on. My grandfather, who did not understand how to be around children, chased me around the house with a garden hose, and together we knocked down a hornet’s nest with a fungo bat and ran from the incensed hive. My parents were gone for two days. The baby was a boy, and they named it Donald. 

As soon as I met it, I knew something was wrong. I knew—there is no other way to explain it—that Uncle Ludwik was living inside my brother. The resemblance was uncanny. The baby’s face was squished and asymmetrical, the bulging eyes swollen to slits. Dark hair grew in spotty clumps on his shoulders, like little epaulets, covering his back and arms. How was it that no one else noticed? 

“Why’s he so hairy?” I asked.

“It’s good luck,” said my mother. “A hairy baby means he’ll grow up to be a successful businessman.” 

“It’ll fall out,” my father assured everyone.

I knew with absolute certainty that Uncle Ludwik was living in the baby. It’s like how you know something is in a closed drawer—you don’t have to open the drawer and look; you know it’s there. 

My parents noticed, I think, that I wasn’t bonding with the baby.

“He’s your little brother,” my mother said, in the sweet, nursery-rhyme voice she used all the time now that Donald had arrived. “You’re going to have to protect him.”

I decided the best thing to do was to pretend. I could do that. When they asked me if I wanted to hold him, I held him. I tried not to look down into his round, ugly face, with its red ripe berry of a nose. When they said, all lovey-dovey, “What do you think of your baby brother?” I answered, “Pretty great!”

After Donald arrived, Uncle Ludwik stopped haunting the house. There were no longer the flickering lights or the unbearable cold, or the late-night apparitions. All that remained was the soup smell, which you could only pick up, faintly, from the baby’s swaddling, and from the top of its conical head. 

The baby grew. He learned to roll over, then to sit up straight in a little plastic bucket seat, and to crawl, and to stand leaning on a chair. Pretty soon he would start walking. The little scrunched-up newborn face went away, as did the hair on his shoulders and back. Now his face was just a normal kid face. But he still looked like Uncle Ludwik to me. The hooked nose was the same, and so were the eyes. When I looked into those eyes, I felt like I had felt years ago playing canasta and learning Polish curse words in the dark little room that was now a nursery.

Maybe the dead don’t really go anywhere, I thought. Maybe everyone who dies just jumps into the nearest baby and we’re all walking around with a bunch of dead people in our souls. It was like those Matryoshka dolls my grandmother collected. The baby had lived in my mother and now Uncle Ludwik was living inside the baby. I started eating less and had trouble sleeping. I wondered, who was inside of me, taking me for a ride? 

One day, I overheard one of my aunts complaining to my mother that the baby had not been baptized. She kept telling my mother that if something should happen to the baby—God forbid, she kept saying—that he would end up in limbo. I did not know what limbo meant exactly, but I was pretty sure it had something to do with death, and it occurred to me that maybe the reason Uncle Ludwik was able to live inside my brother was because Donald hadn’t been baptized. 

So I decided to do something about it. I had been to my little cousin’s Christening, and knew the basic components: water, prayer, oil. There was a vernal pool that ran along a ditch in the back of our house, and one day, I took my brother out to the ditch. As we walked out, he cooed and babbled at me. Lately, his babbling had begun to sound a little like Polish; once I was sure I’d heard him say glupia dupa, and I knew that it was Uncle Ludwik speaking through the baby, taunting me, calling me a dumbass. 

I took off my shoes and my shirt and carried the baby into the ditch. The water was cold—it was March—and my feet sank into the mud. I looked down at Donald. There was drool coming down the corner of his mouth, but his eyes lit up, like we were playing an interesting new game.

“Uncle Ludwik,” I said, speaking loudly so I knew he would hear me, “I’m baptizing you out of this baby.” Donald looked up at me and smiled. 

I thought I should probably say something religious, so I said, “Jesus Christ…” But I couldn’t think of what should come next. I’d forgotten about the oil, too, but that seemed like a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. I lowered the baby into the cold, brown water of the vernal pool. When his back hit the water, his eyes bugged out and his mouth opened wide. Then the water came over him. I held him under for a second and watched his face blur, resembling nothing and no one. In the background, I heard someone shouting. 

I looked over my shoulder and saw my mother running down the hill. I lifted the baby. As soon as his head emerged from the water, he started crying and wouldn’t stop. He looked up at me, his eyes wide and pooling, and I could not tell if it had worked or not. I couldn’t tell whose eyes I was looking into.

“What are you doing?” my mother shouted, over and over, her face wide open and terrified like I’d never seen.

She splashed into the muddy water, ruining her clothes, and grabbed the baby from me. She had an expression on her face that I had never seen before. She looked at me like I was evil. And then she ran back toward the house, clutching my brother to her chest, while I stood there shivering, up to my waist in the cold brown water, looking at the sky and waiting for some kind of feedback from God, some sign that I was on the right track. But all that happened was the sun dipped behind a cloud, and soon, I was too cold to stand it any longer. I followed the same path my mother had taken up to the house, to receive my punishment. 

When I got up to the house, my mother was upstairs. I could hear the hissing of the hot water in the plumbing, and I knew that she was giving Donald a bath. I waited in my room for a half hour until the bath was over and Donald had been put down for a nap. Then, my mother came in. She sat at the edge of the bed, smelling like cucumbers. She didn’t say anything at first. 

“I think Uncle Ludwik is living inside the baby,” I told her, instantly relieved to say the thing out loud. I expected her to lash out, or at least to lecture me in some way. But the look in her eyes when she had come running down the hill was gone.  

“You’re probably right,” she said. 

This surprised me. Then she explained that there was such a thing as old souls and new souls, and the old ones had been around for a long time, and yes, sometimes they jumped from one person to another. She told me that I was an old soul and that she knew I was because so was she. 

“What about Dad?” I said.

“Young,” she said. “Very young.”

Then she told me that the best thing to do was to leave Uncle Ludwik alone. He had a bad life, she said. He never had any children or grandchildren. He never had anyone to love. He had seen war, pogrom, evil things, and was heartbroken. If he really was living inside my brother, she said, that was probably for the best. 

“Besides,” she said, standing and leaning over to kiss me on the top of my head, as she used to do when I was very young. “It’s none of your business.”

That all happened a long time ago. Since then, I’ve left home and been to cities and schools, and completed my prodigal arc back to the place where I was born. I’ve been married and divorced and married again, to the right person this time. The people from Uncle Ludwik’s generation are all dead, and have been for many years. All the old relatives from his funeral, the ones eating at the buffet, have been buried in family plots with Polish names, and no one remembers them, including me. Bogdan, Ludmilla, Janek, Zenobia—I can’t tell one from another. I don’t remember which was the fat one who liked cabbage rolls, which was the arthritic one who wore too much Gardenia perfume, which was the jaundiced one who handed out cough drops at Halloween instead of candy. 

Our parents are there too. My mother died only a couple years ago, and my memories of her are so vivid that the smell of a cucumber nearly knocks me down. My youngest son, who was born last year, never got to meet her. But the other two, the ones from my last marriage, knew her about as well as a child can know a grandparent, which in the end is not particularly well, but is something at least. 

I don’t see Donald very often. My brother is, as my mother predicted, a “successful businessman.” He lives out west, in Coronado. His house is three times the size of mine. It has an orchard of lemon trees, cathedral ceilings, an ocean view. The wine cellar alone costs more than my whole house. We see each other every couple of years, sometimes less. We’re very different people, but over a few drinks, we become more and more recognizable to one another. 

Donald doesn’t like to talk about the old Poles. Our mother would have said, “He’s a young soul,” and maybe he is. He doesn’t like to talk about what it was like when we were kids, or about the house where we grew up, or even about our parents. The past, he says, is boring. For him, all of America east of Chicago might as well be Poland itself. He wants his life to fling forward into a glorious future. He wants to be forever ascending. 

So far, it’s working out for him. He has a fantastic life. He makes a lot of money and travels all over the world. He has heli-skied in Zermatt, taken ayahuasca at a retreat in the Amazon, bungee-jumped in Kathmandu, and eaten at the floating markets on the Mekong Delta. His life’s ambition is to climb Everest, and I have no doubt that with the right amount of equipment, he will do it.  

But to me, my brother still looks like Uncle Ludwik. He is the same age now that Uncle Ludwik must have been when he came into my room after he died. They could be twins—only my brother dresses in nicer suits. He eats supplements and avoids carbohydrates and runs eight miles a day. But it’s too late; even now, I can already see the red capillaries working toward the surface of his nose, the warped ears and pinched mouth of an old Pole. 

I don’t believe in the things I used to. I don’t believe in old souls or young ones, and I don’t believe in ghosts, at least not in the same way I did then. I know that the dead don’t live inside us. Like most Americans, I am wary of superstition. But sometimes, when I am in a certain frame of mind, I close my eyes and imagine Uncle Ludwik ascending in my brother’s body to the summit of Mount Everest, flanked on all sides by a crew of tired and resentful Sherpas, squinting through his young eyes into the proximate sun, just as sometimes, when I wake up early and go into my son’s room and look down into his round Slavic eyes, I raise my hand and wave good morning to my mother.