March 7: “Three-Quarters Stitched” by Mark Wisniewski

Some good and bad news coming at you today from Spring Break! Week at Story366. The good news is, we finally got into Florida and were on our way to Daytona, just about fifteen hours after we thought. Considering we’d been detained by Tennessee police for most of a day and then had the blown tire yesterday, losing twelve hours wasn’t all that bad. It’s still Monday, and we’ll be either out of money r asked to leave the state before our scheduled Friday departure, anyway. Spring Break!

The bad news, or the latest snag, isn’t so bad, more of an overshoot. Jimmy D let Jimmy Z drive so he could get some sleep, and Vinnie (his balls still sore from the Mad Dog incident) was navigating. They followed the GPS on my iPhone to Three-balls’ uncle’s doublewide in Jupiter, most of the rest of us in some state of sleep. When we pulled into the trailer park, Jimmy Z woke us to tell us we were here. It was 6 a.m. We all got out, stretched, and found the key under the porcupine statue on the porch, just like Three-balls’ uncle said. Only when we got inside, Three-balls’ uncle was sleeping on the couch. When we got inside, he woke up, pulled a handgun out from under the throw pillow, and almost shot Three-balls in the face. He didn’t, though, recognizing his nephew, and we’re all just glad we let Three-balls go in first.

As it turns out, DUI jail gets done at 7 on Sunday night, so Three-balls’ uncle—also called Three-balls (apparently, it’s a genetic thing)—was home after all. No big deal, Uncle TB said, as he had work, anyway, and we were welcome to crash. Since that’s all we wanted to do, crash and have a place to stash Cornhole’s toothbrush, we were good. We asked Uncle TB how close the beach was, if we could just walk and leave the Skylark by his trailer, and Uncle TB asked, “What beach?” “Daytona Beach,” we all answered, and he laughed. “That’s three hours north of here, boys,” he said, and started to put on his uniform for work—Uncle TB gave gator tours in Lake Okeechobee and wore a green Polo with a gator in a fan boat stitched on the pocket.

Apparently, as the rest of us slept, Jimmy Z and Vinnie drove right through Daytona, keeping their eyes on the GPS, and it never dawned on them, as they drove another two hundred miles, that we were overshooting our real destination. We couldn’t give either of them too much shit, seeing how we were asleep, but we were still in Jupiter, nowhere near Daytona, and we would have to backtrack.

“Told you we should have woke them,” Vinnie said.

“Shut the fuck up, Vinnie,” Jimmy Z said, but that was the extent of the discord.

“How about a gator tour before you go, on me?” Uncle TB offered, and we were off.

So, here we are. The ride out to the swamp should give me enough time to compose this post, to make sure I don’t miss yet another important Polish holiday, Casimir Pulaski Day. For those of you not from Chicago or Milwaukee or Toledo or any other Polish-American hub, some cities and regions celebrate the Polish general by giving kids the day off of school and closing its banks, sort of like Polish St. Patrick’s Day or Polish Columbus Day. Missouri State was smart enough to have it off, too (though it’s also Spring Break!), and I wanted to make sure I commemorated it by reading and writing about another Polish-American author. For Pączki Day last month, I covered Stuart Dybek, the Polish-American writer, and today, I read Mark Wisniewski, a pretty good old Polack himself.

“Three-Quarters Stitched” is the lead story in Wisniewski’s collection All Weekend With the Lights On,” out in 2001 from Leaping Dog Press. “Three-Quarters Stitched” is a pretty fantastic story, one that really embodies a Polish-America experience. The protagonist here is Paulie, co-owner of a bakery with his brother, Waju. Two parts of that last sentence are endearing to me, right off the bat. First, my dad was adopted into an old Polish bakery back in the forties and worked there through junior high and high school, so this story kind of smells like an old family story. Also, my mom has a cousin named Waju, short for Walter, as -ju is a Polish diminutive. My dad used to call his brothers Chester and Eddie “Chesju” and “Edju,” respectively, and sometimes me and my brothers will kid and say “Timju” and “Steveju” just the same. Wisniewski seems to have had a similar experience to mine, though he might have just called my mom and listened to her talk for like two minutes, which would have been a goldmine of Old Country dialect and myths.

Anyway, Paulie wants to be engaged to Junie, and has a ring, but he loses it in the bakery, believing it to be inside an egg bread. Only, he doesn’t realize it’s gone until he’s at a doctor’s office, where’s he’s taken Waju and his girlfriend, Sophie, to get her finger sewed back on because Sophie put an egg break in the slicer and forgot to pull back her hand. Paulie leaves the couple, returns to the bakery, to find that the counter girl, Lutz (who loves Paulie), just sold an egg bread to Pinky and Jo-Jo, whose son, Bruno, is also sweet on Junie, and whose daughter, Karen, is missing a pet rabbit, coincidentally (or not) right before a big family banquet. Paulie heads over to Pinky’s house to get the ring, but also to cause chaos, as he can’t keep his mouth shut (another Polish trait, at least in my family), not about the ring, about Bruno, about Toodles, or especially about Pinky and Sophie, whom he recently witnessed doing the deed on the hood of a car, unbeknownst to Waju or Jo-Jo. Got all that?

I loved the Czyzniejewski-Owczarzak family vibe this story gives off, along with the menagerie of of shenanigans I describe above. What really sells Wisniewski’s story, though, is his pace, his style, all of this seemingly coming in one breath, a rat-a-tat-tat-style of a monologue. Wisniewski never lets up, not for a second, making for one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had all year. Sto lat!

As I finish this, I’m sitting on the back of a large tour boat, watching boat docent Uncle TB toss marshmallows into gators’ mouth, nobody even aware its Casimir Pulaski Day. It’s fun to be outside, smelling the clean swamp air, listening as Cornhole and Jimmy Z scheme the possibility of grabbing a gator, putting it in the Skylark trunk, and keeping it in their dorm room, in a kiddie pool. Somehow, they think this will get them girls—and for all I know, it might. As much as I’ll hate to intervene, be the old guy on the trip, I might step in. No room in the trunk for gators, I’ll point out, not if we refill that mother with beer.

Mark Wisniewski

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