Polish Polka Band

by Adam Reger
America’s Funniest Videos came back from commercial and on the stage a young couple stood beside the host. The boy’s hair was reddish-brown and the girl’s was golden-blond. The boy wore khakis and a green polo shirt and the girl wore a red sundress and dangling gold earrings. She was shorter than Elizabeth and had wider hips and larger breasts and Elizabeth thought she was pretty. There was lead-in music and the studio audience applauded and as their clapping ebbed the host said, “Say hello to our guests, Drake Longley and Bernadette Olshansky. They’re college students from San Diego and they’ve been dating five months.” They were holding hands and as the host told how long they had been together Elizabeth noticed Bernadette’s hand squeeze Drake’s. Drake was skinny and he had a wisp of hair on his chin, so pale it was hardly there at all. The hair reminded Elizabeth of Richard’s beard, which had some thin patches but was much darker and more even than what Drake was growing.

“Jesus,” Richard murmured, his voice rumbling against the side of her head. “Five months?” Elizabeth smiled but did not turn to look at him. Her head was resting on his chest and his fingers were wandering through her dark brown hair.

The host explained the rules of the game Bernadette and Drake were about to play, “Which Video Is Real?” It wasn’t much of a game, Elizabeth thought: the host would read three descriptions and they’d guess which one was of a real video. Then the host would play the real video.

It was seven o’clock on a Sunday evening in May and the light was still strong outside. The window was behind the couch and the blinds were open and on the living room carpet blotches of light were formed and dissolved by the swaying branches of the oak tree in Richard’s front yard. Chad, his roommate, was out of town and they had the place to themselves. Richard grasped the bundle of Elizabeth’s dark hair that was up in a ponytail and pulled gently and she made little approving noises. He was four years older than Elizabeth, who’d graduated college last summer. They’d met last October at a hotel bar downtown. She was on a birthday bar crawl with her friends; Richard was there alone, watching a baseball game after work, sitting at the bar still wearing his navy blue tie. Elizabeth mistook him for a member of the group and started talking to him about baseball. Richard’s arm was over her shoulder, draped loosely. He was a little overweight but had firm shoulders and chest and Elizabeth always liked setting her head there.

Her laundry was nearing the end of its wash cycle. She hoped that when the washer finished and they’d moved the clothes to the dryer, Richard might propose going up to his room for the sixty-some minutes until her clothes were dry. She raised her head and kissed him on the cheek and laid her head back on his shoulder before he could respond or not respond.

It wasn’t that she was particularly eager for sex, Elizabeth thought. Often she seemed more interested in it than Richard did, but that was something about him she had come to appreciate. It was nice to date someone older and more mature. It made her feel sophisticated, sexy. She liked the innocent way it could start, with a stray touch, a kiss, and gradually take them from sitting on the couch to Richard lifting her top over her head, peeling off her underwear. She liked, too, feeling the coarse bundle of Richard’s paunch against her belly and looking into his eyes. She liked laying her head on his chest when they were finished and she could feel the tension wrung out of him. She liked the way he fell asleep easily then, just like it said in the women’s magazines. She liked to feel she was part of that world, to call Richard her boy toy and tell him she’d been reading up on ten ways to please her man. She liked it because it was un-chaste, because it was something other than sitting on the couch watching television.

Richard scratched her shoulder. His t-shirt smelled of deodorant and sweat and coffee. They’d met up the night before at a coffee shop down the street, after Richard had finished some work, and went to the movies and then for a drink before coming back here. They’d gone for breakfast around ten and then Richard had more work to do, and Elizabeth had wanted to go to the gym anyway. She liked that feeling of being on the go, kissing her boyfriend goodbye on his front porch knowing she’d see him several hours later. They were their own people, each with their own lives, but they chose to be together. Elizabeth turned and eyed the shirt discreetly. It was the same olive-green one from the night before. Funny that Richard was the one who had laundry in his place and he was the one who did things like that. Elizabeth was wearing her laundry-day clothes, navy sweatpants and a pink sleeveless exercise top. She liked that about Richard, though, that he didn’t care about trivial things.

“Now you two have been together five months,” the host of America’s Funniest Videos said. Bernadette nodded and Drake smiled embarrassedly. They seemed like a good couple. Elizabeth could half imagine them alone. Drake wouldn’t be so shy then. He’d be funny and sweet, like Richard. She could picture him fetching Bernadette a t-shirt to sleep in when she stayed over his place, picking out the one that was the most comfortable. “Now, five months can be a short time,” the host said, holding his hands inches apart, “or five months can be a loooong time.” He widened the span of his hands. Bernadette and Drake smiled nervously. Outside a breeze moved a branch and a spade-shaped burst of sun glared fleetingly over the television screen.

“I’m not going to ask if it’s been a short five months,” the host said, hands together, “or a loooong five months.” The audience laughed. Bernadette and Drake looked at each other and didn’t say anything. The host said, “Uh oh,” and the audience laughed again. Bernadette had dark eyes that glittered in the television lights. Drake’s lips moved, muted by the audience laughter. Elizabeth thought that he said, “Short.” She reached up and moved Richard’s hand so it covered her bare shoulder. The warmth of his hand there felt nice. She wondered if the show had put Bernadette and Drake up in a hotel, if they would go there afterwards. Elizabeth pictured Drake kissing Bernadette from behind, running his hands along her hips, Bernadette leaning into him.

“Oh my God,” Richard said. His voice rumbled angrily in his chest.

Elizabeth shifted to look up at him. "What?"

“I’m just embarrassed for them.” Richard was glowering at the television.

“I think it’s cute,” she said, giving Richard’s hand a squeeze. She meant her tone to be playful, light, but worried it was harsh, a little bitchy.

“Five months, though? It’s ridiculous, to parade them up there like that.” Richard gestured toward the TV, shaking his head in contempt. “Five months is nothing. It could be over in a week and then they’d have this record of themselves on national TV. Jesus. My skin is crawling.”

“I think they’re cute.” Elizabeth laid her head back down on his chest.

The game started with the host listing their options. They were a scuba diver coming out of a golf course water hazard, an opera singer swallowing a fly, and a squirrel interrupting a wedding. The host asked Bernadette which answer she chose. “I’m going to have to say the opera singer,” Bernadette said. “That’s the one I want to see, anyway.” She laughed with the host. He asked Drake which of the answers he chose. He said, “Well, we just went to my cousin’s wedding, so I think I’d like to see the squirrel interrupting a wedding.”

“It’s got to be the scuba diver,” Richard said.

“I vote opera singer.”

On the screen a gray-haired golfer in plaid pants lined up a long putt. In the background, ripples appeared on the surface of a small gray-blue pond. A dark-hooded scuba diver emerged, plowing laboriously through the water. The golfer turned, saw the diver, and jumped back, dropping his putter. “Oops,” the host said, “it looks like the answer was A, diver in the water hazard.” Richard pumped his fist, possibly ironically.

“You’re good,” Elizabeth said, and patted Richard’s chest. There was a turbulence in her that she couldn’t yet identify. “You’re real good.”

“It was the most plausible one.”

The choices for the second question were a deer loose in a department store, a Polish polka band falling off a wagon ("Not that kind of wagon," the host said cornily), and a dog that was afraid of a clown. “What’ll it be, folks?” asked the host, rubbing his hands together.

“Hmm,” Bernadette said, tapping her chin. “I’m part Polish, so I think I have to go with the polka band.”

“And I hate polka music,” Drake said with a shy smile, “so I’m hoping it’s the polka band falling off the wagon.”

“Uh. Oh,” the host said, and tugged his collar. “Bernadette’s not going to like that.” The audience made a collective “ooh” sound. Bernadette turned an exaggerated slit-eyed face toward Drake. Richard made a scoffing noise. Drake grinned sheepishly, his face reddening. Elizabeth covered her mouth with the palm of her hand and sighed into it.
“You might not make it another five months, buddy, saying things like that,” said the host.

“Jesus H. Christ,” Richard said. “Give it a rest.”

The host said that he understood Drake and Bernadette had a funny story about how they met, and would they tell it?
“Don’t make them tell how they met, asshole.”

Downstairs the washing machine skidded to a stop.

“I like to go to the beach,” Drake said, “to run, to keep myself healthy.”

“You’re that guy?” Richard said. “I never would’ve guessed, dude.”

“So I was running one morning, and Bernadette was there, and as I was running I kind of tripped over her.” Drake laughed awkwardly.

“Great story, dude.”

It took the host a moment to realize that that was the full story. He recovered and said, “Oh, right, you just happened to trip over the cute blonde. A likely story.” He pantomimed running and scouting the beach. “‘Let’s see, is there a pretty blonde anywhere around here?’” he said, and pretended to stumble, his arms flailing.

“I bet they met on the internet,” Richard said. “Match.com. What do you want to bet, Lizzie? Thousand bucks?” He gripped her shoulder and gave it a gentle shake.

Elizabeth cleared her throat, said, “Yeah,” emitted a fake laugh, and dabbed at the corner of her eye, which now was damp. For some reason she was about to cry. Drake smiled tightly at the host’s antics and Bernadette laughed easily. They had been dating seven months, seven and a half months. They'd slept together sixteen times, by Elizabeth’s count, certainly no more than twenty times. She thought often of telling him that she loved him but was waiting for Richard to say it first. She had almost said it last night, kissing goodnight in Richard’s bed, listening in the dark as his breathing slowed and he began to snore. Tears pulsed over the brinks of her eyes and streamed down Elizabeth’s cheeks and across her lips, and her throat was itchy and tight. Elizabeth pretended to scratch at the corner of her mouth and dabbed at the tears with the back of her hand. A car, antic mariachi music pouring from its windows, streaked along Richard’s street and was gone.

The host was asking Drake and Bernadette if they were ready to find out which video was real. Elizabeth kept her head perfectly still. She’d go down to the basement and move her laundry without turning her head or speaking. If she spoke her voice would be froggy, clotted with mucus. The tears dribbled over her hand onto Richard’s t-shirt. If he noticed she'd tell him the truth, that it was stupid, her crying, she didn't even know what she was crying about. She wondered what he’d say, if he’d want to know why she thought she might be crying. Her nose ran and she jabbed a knuckle at it and sniffled weakly. The host repeated the choices for the audience at home.

"Dog and the clown,” Richard said, “definitely. Tiny chance it’s the deer in the department store. I don’t know how they’d get footage of a Polish polka band."

Elizabeth said nothing. She thought of how she still had to put her clothes in the dryer and start the dryer and wait and then fold the clothes and pile them in her basket and take the basket and drive the few miles home, and then talk for a few minutes with Rachel, her roommate, before she could close the door to her bedroom and flop down on the bed, alone. It would be dark by then. It would be Sunday night and the street outside her window would be empty and still, the streetlamps strung along the hills like hanging lanterns and the crickets beginning to stir. Her neighbors would be watching television and the muffled sound of it would drift up through the floor. She could feel it already, the dread that crept in on a Sunday night, that came as a heaviness in your chest. The air would grow chill outside until she had to close her window: something ending, something else yet to begin. Richard stirred her hair with one finger and she couldn’t tell whether she disliked it or not, if she was angry with him or with herself, if she was allowed to be upset at all. Elizabeth’s head was shaking a little on his chest but she was keeping her sobs quiet.

The host was telling someone to go ahead and roll the tape so they could see—here the audience chimed in—"Which. Video. Is real!"

A horse pulled a large wagon over a cobblestone street. In the wagon stood six or seven men, stout and lean, mostly gray-haired, dressed in white shirts with wide red neckties and thick, complex dark-leather belt-and-suspender rigs crossing their bodies. The tallest of the men, blowing a trumpet stoically, wore a Tyrolean hat with a green feather jutting from its band. As the horse pulled them the men played, their heads bobbing with the motion of the cart over the cobblestones. The sound quality was poor but Elizabeth could hear the wheeze of an accordion, the trill of a clarinet, the deep rumble of a tuba. There were narrow, sharp-angled buildings in the background, with colored tiles on the slanting roofs, and blue and gray mountains standing almost translucent in the distance. Tears were running over her hand now, spilling freely onto Richard's shirt. One of the wagon’s enormous wooden wheels caught on a cobblestone and the coal-colored horse dragging the cart stopped short and whinnied in consternation before going forward resolutely. The wagon was just a big stage on wheels, really, and no one was controlling the horse. The whole wagon shook and a thick-chested old man, an accordion strapped across his chest, staggered and looked from side to side uncertainly.

“I didn’t realize this was Poland’s Funniest Videos,” Richard muttered, stroking her hair. Elizabeth did not venture a laugh. One side of the wagon began to rise off the cobblestones. A lanky old man with hollowed cheeks dropped his instrument, which resembled a tuba but was elongated weirdly, and a moment later tumbled from the wagon, arms outstretched, followed by a fat man beside him, clutching a trumpet, and then the accordion player, the bellows fanning out with a mournful sigh as he landed on his side on the cobblestones. The rest of the band followed, spilling out of the wagon and bracing themselves to meet the road. The horse freed the rear wheel from the cobble and the wagon rolled on, out of the frame. Behind it the band lay scattered over the stones, their elaborately decorated costumes disjointed and peppered with rust-colored dust. They looked dazed and offended as they stood slowly to collect themselves. Elizabeth was shuddering now, the sobs in her chest growing too urgent to be stifled. The video ended and the host said they’d be back after these messages. She could just make out the shapes of the host and Drake and Bernadette in her red dress on the screen. Richard made little curlicues in her hair and patted her head and said, “Lizzie liked that one, didn’t she?” and it occurred to Elizabeth that he must think that she was laughing.
Adam Reger's fiction has appeared in cream city review, New Orleans Review, and Juked, among other places, and he is the author of U.S. Navy Pirate Combat Skills (Lyons Press, 2011), a humor book.

© 2013, Adam Reger