“Weak Minded” by Jennifer Colatosti

From newspaper articles, I learn the names of my great-great aunt and her husband. Isabella and Theodore Wladych. I realize, skimming the photocopy of the newsprint, that I’d known their names, had heard them before in my mother’s litanies and my grandfather’s stories. I just hadn’t known to connect the names to the titles I’d heard. Ciotka. Aunt. Isabella. Wujek. Uncle. Theodore.

Ciotka’s boarder-turned-lover, the man Wujek killed, is named in the articles as well. John Adams. “That’s a misprint,” Mom says. “Or else he changed it to be more American. Maybe it was Adamski.” She rolls the name around in her mouth the way she sometimes does her family names.

Paproski. Pap-row-tski. Derinski. Derezinski. Dere-ZHIN-ski. Dere-JIN-ski. As if feeling, instinctively, for the correct pronunciation. Trying to get her mouth around the un-American consonants, giving the vowels more force. “Adams,” she says now. “A-DAM-ski. A-dam-SKI. That would be Polish. There might be another syllable.”

We’re in my mother’s living room, in side-by-side recliners. The blinds are drawn so that not much natural light seeps in, the dark wood paneling not yet repainted. The room feels dim, crowded to me in a way that makes me antsy, conflicted. I want to be here with my mother; I want to be outside in the daylight and open air. I shuffle the papers in my hands, lining up the columns that start on one sheet and bleed over into another. There are two separate articles, possibly three.

I am surprised by the photos on the front-page spread announcing the murder: how straight Theodore’s nose is, almost fine in comparison to how I’d pictured him, how the lover looks like a stock photo of an immigrant, perhaps a little forlorn, but not what I would imagine for the victim of a jealous murder. The photo they’ve chosen of Isabella grates on me: her coat that appears to be fur, her hair arranged in fashionable waves; I almost say to my mother, they made her look so indulgent. But there’s also something about the set of her mouth in the photo, the fact that she’s the only one of the principal players shown looking off to the side, that reminds me of my mother and one of my aunts, and perhaps that is what keeps me from saying it out loud. She looks, I can’t help thinking, silenced.

I skim another article from three days later, which reports a hearing. “Adamczyk,” I read out loud to my mother. “Jan Adamczyk was his real name.” According to the article, Adamczyk is more villain than murder victim—he fights, he drinks, he breaks up what could have otherwise been, it is implied, a happy home.

But even he is not nearly as much a villain as it seems Isabella is. A section heading in that same article marks my great-great aunt a Weak-Minded Woman. I read out loud to my mother as the story reports that the judge who presided over the hearing, as he reduced the charge against Wujek, scored Mrs. Wladych, calling her a weak-minded woman for allowing a dirty cur to talk her into divorcing the father of her children, and leaving him in the streets alone 4,000 miles away from his home country.

I can’t tell from her reaction—a hmmm or a how about that—what my mother thinks of these accusations against Ciotka, but I can feel the balled-up energy along my spine, the desire to yell: the temper I have mostly learned to curb. I know that my mother has given me these newspaper articles because I’ve had so many questions in the days since she first told me about the scandal. I know what it means to her that I am finally, truly, interested in seeking out more knowledge about our family history. The articles are an insight, but they don’t hold the kind of answers I want.

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It was dusk when John Adams entered her home, her life. Everyone had been fed and the dinner dishes washed and Isabella was in the middle of cutting up a chicken to boil, accustomed to the slime of the raw muscle and skin as she used a cleaver to separate the legs and wings from the torso and slide them into the stock pot. She cracked the ribcage with her own hands just as a knock sounded on the side door leading into the kitchen. “Bertha,” she called. “Chet.” Neither of her two older children came. Another knock. Isabella dropped the broken chicken torso into the pot and ran her hands under the faucet, wiped them on the cotton apron tied at her waist. She pulled the door open to find a man standing on the short cement slab, unshaven and holding a small suitcase in one hand, a canvas bag slung over the opposite shoulder. He was clearly from the old country. Isabella nodded and waited for him to state his business.

“I heard that you take in boarders,” he said in Polish. He had the stale-sweat smell of a man who’d been traveling for weeks, but he did not duck his head apologetically like most of the new arrivals who showed up on her doorstep. His hair was dark, his chest barreled, the skin of his neck leathery and tanned.

“You are a field worker,” she said. “The farms are outside of town.”

“I hope to find work in a factory,” he said.

“You can discuss this with my husband,” she said. She went to the parlor, where Theo sat with his glass of vodka and the Polish newspaper, his two luxuries. “There’s a new man here,” she told him.

She followed her husband back into the kitchen. The man still stood in the open doorway. “Come inside. Our neighbors will say we’re unwelcoming,” she said, and went back to her chopping board.

The man’s name was Jan, but he wished to be called John. His last name was Polish but, he said, it would be easily shortened. He hoped to be American, he said. He spoke some English. Theo told him that their children spoke English well, and that there was plenty of factory and mill work for a man used to sweating in the fields. “Not like my wife and her brother,” he said. “They didn’t know sweat until they came to America.”

Isabella lifted the lid from the stockpot to check the water, slammed it back down.

“I can put in a word for you,” Theo said, and told him the weekly rate.

“Breakfast is at 6:30,” Isabella said.

John thanked them both and moved his possessions into the last empty room.

Isabella barely considered him at first. He was another serving added to the meals, another set of linens to be washed, another small pile of cash to expect in her palm at the end of the week. He did not secure work in the first few days, despite Theo’s having told him that the sorting department he worked in was short a few hands. At supper on John’s third night, Theo said, “New men come into town every day, ready to work.”

“I will go to work when I’m ready. Is this not America?”

Hearing someone, in her own house even, not immediately cow himself to Theo made Isabella feel as if the floorboards beneath her were somehow steadier. “It’s certainly not Kowel,” she said.

“Excuse my wife,” Theo said. “She holds onto old fantasies. She forgets about the Russians. Isn’t that right, duchess?” Isabella didn’t say anything, refused to look at her husband straight on, though she watched him from the side.

“She’s playing deaf now,” he said, pointing his fork at her. “She has nothing to say, of course; she’s never had to work.”

Isabella turned toward her husband, jaw tight. He hadn’t made love to her in years. There was often sex, but it came on without warning and ended abruptly and, afterward, he withdrew quickly and turned away from her, and Isabella waited until he was asleep to pull her nightgown back over her knees. She wanted to say now I’m not afraid to paint you ugly in front of the children, wanted to say what do you know of my work, wanted to say I don’t mind telling this stranger how you begged my father to make me marry you. But she felt the stillness of the room, ripe with the children’s uncertainty and her husband’s fragile claim on her. And this other man. She knew he watched her, could feel it the way she had once felt Theo watching her from the other side of the sitting room of her father’s house in Kowel. But where Theo had watched her like one studies something he wishes to own, this man watches her like she is someone he wants to know. She said nothing and stood to collect the children’s empty plates.

On Adams’s fourth morning in the house, Isabella kissed each of the children on the cheek and sent them out the door to school, and then turned back to the table to find him lingering there. The set of his shoulders made him look expectant, poised for something in a way that made her feel as if she were being pulled to him by the sternum. She drew her body taller and said, “I hope you’re not still hungry. Your board only covers three meals.”

“I’m satisfied for now,” he said. She said nothing, choosing to believe his inflection didn’t imply anything untoward, and moved to clear his plate, glass, and fork from the table. But he stood, picking them up himself and carrying them to the sink. He began to leave the kitchen, stopped in the doorway and turned back to her. He said he would see about the job Theo had mentioned by the end of the next week. “In the meantime,” he said, “if there’s anything you need help with.”

Isabella told him that wasn’t necessary. “I take care of most things myself.” She did not, as she would with the other boarders, gaze over his head or at his chin. She felt as if, were he to reach a hand toward her, it would break whatever force held her to the earth, to this life that never quite fit. “You should go learn the town,” she said. “But if you run out of ways to occupy yourself, I can find plenty for you to do here.”

For the rest of the morning, John stayed out of the house. When Isabella went to straighten his room, she found his bed already made, the ladder-back chair tucked under the desk, the clothes he’d been wearing the day before folded in a neat pile on top of the dresser.

He returned for lunch, as did the children and Theo and the other boarders, all of them streaming through the kitchen and into the dining room, taking their places like workers in an assembly line. If anyone thought about the planning required of her to see to it that bowls were pre-filled with individual servings of stew and the dark bread cascaded in slices on the cutting board, they didn’t say.

“You’ve been out,” Theo said to John. “Finding work?”

“Finding my way around,” John said, not looking up from his bowl.

Theo muttered that Isabella had better not get used to having this boarder, that soon she would be cleaning the room out. “Better we keep it open for a working man who can pay,” he said.

John did not indicate that he’d heard. Rather, he asked the children what street they took to school, saying “I must have walked it today.” The children wanted to know where he had gone, what he had seen. He described how he’d started at the house and picked a direction and a number of blocks, a series of left turns to make. As he spoke, he drew a square on the tablecloth with his fingertip. “Then,” he said, “I picked a bigger number and started over.” In this way, he said, his knowledge of their little section of Hamilton had grown incrementally, squares like nesting dolls with their own house at the center. He talked about what he’d seen—store fronts that caught his eye, an old woman gardening, the leafy canopy of a prominent oak on a certain corner. The children helped him fill in the English words he didn’t know. He thanked them for the help, addressed everything he said to them. Isabella imagined herself with him, walking along the sidewalks, waving hello to the neighbors, stopping to peer in the window of a sweets shop.

He stayed home after lunch, and Isabella set him to peeling potatoes while she kneaded and rolled out dough for pierogis. The next afternoon, she sent him on an errand to the butcher. When he returned, he claimed the need for a nap and went up to his room, and she went outside to remove the bedsheets she’d hung out to dry earlier in the day.

Normally, the rhythm of reaching up to release fabric from clothespin, swooping down to catch the other end before it dragged in the grass, bringing the corners together once, twice, three times to fold the sheet into a neat square, and bending carefully to place it into the laundry basket, was unconscious, monotonous, not even something she registered feeling anymore. But today, she felt in the movements a shadow of a past life when she had thought that perhaps she would become a dancer. She felt conscious of the lines her body made, conscious of the man who was not her husband and yet was in her house in the middle of the day.

When John stepped out of his room to meet her as she climbed the stairs with the freshly laundered sheets, it felt like something inevitable. She said his name—his Polish name—like a fact.

“I can take those for you,” he said.

The close staircase did not allow room for either of them to pass without their bodies touching. She declined his help but did not move until he reached to take the sheets from her. She took a step upward and he moved to the side, his body pressed against the wall. His hands covered hers, as if the two of them were in a tug-of-war for the pile of linen.

The skin of his palms was smoother than Isabella had expected. She’d grown so used to Theo’s calloused hands on her body, the roughness of them snagging on her own skin when he bothered to touch her as preamble. And then the linens were on a step and she stood facing this man, holding his right hand, upturned, in her left palm. This was not her husband, she knew, not a father of her children. But the heat of his skin on hers felt like an invitation, or a promise. She ran the index finger of her other hand from the tip of his middle finger to the base of his palm. “I thought you were a farmer,” she said. “In Kowel.”

He said, “I was,” and pointed to the scars on the underside of his forearm, a small collection of faint red lines; she recognized the result of standing too close to another man’s scythe. “Until I was a baker.” He pointed to another scar, a tear drop of puckered white skin near the inner crease of an elbow. Isabella imagined the burn that must have been there, imagined his skin first angry and raw, then blistered. She touched the spot, and he closed his hand around hers as if to hold it in place, drawing the arm in to pull her closer.

The pressure of his hands seemed everywhere at once as she kissed him. On her shoulders, her arms, the sides of her ribs and down her back, pressed against the in-curve of her spine. His fingers flicking open the buttons that held her dress closed over her breasts, spidering toward her waist, her hip. She leaned against his body, braced her knee on the wall behind him as one of his hands ran under her skirt, under her slip, up the back of her thigh. She stopped kissing him, pulled back.

“Not here,” she said. She pushed past him, leading him to his room. He closed the door behind them. “Close the curtain,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and arms out of the dress and letting it drop at her feet.

He did as commanded and then went to her, lifted her slip over her shoulders and head. She let it slide off her arms and pool on the floor as she untucked his shirt from his waistband and unbuttoned his pants. They moved together to the bed, his hands on her waist as warm and certain as she’d expected. It was over quickly.

“Wait,” he said.

Isabella watched him just enough to see his eyes drift closed as he lay next to her. She was sure he was going to sleep, her chest hollow with shame. She would not be another man’s workhorse. She moved to leave, but John placed an arm across her stomach and repeated, “Wait.” They lay together, still, as both of their breathing evened back out.

Their bodies crowded the small bed. Isabella turned her face toward the closed door, where slants of sunlight played against the wood. It was that pattern of yellow on brown on which she focused until John began to move again. The mattress gave under his shifting weight, and then his mouth was on her neck, moving up to her earlobe, out to the corner of her jaw. She turned toward him.

They were not so frantic this time, and Isabella felt the existence of her body, the sensitivity of each inch of skin, in a way she hadn’t felt since the early months of her marriage. When he brought her to climax, she sucked the skin of his neck to keep from yelling out.

She felt the release in his back muscles beneath her palms as he collapsed on top of her. He said her name, spoken low against her neck, then bent his head as if in prayer, his forehead against her sternum, and kissed the space between her breasts. “Isabella,” he said again, his breath warm against her skin.

She ran a forefinger down his spine and back up, conscious of every place where her own skin met his. It would be delicious, she thought, to spend the rest of the day like this. To doze off naked in the sunlight, with his weight on top of her. Perhaps make love again before dinner.

Dinner. She had dinner to prepare. Children. Other boarders. A husband. The linens still on the stairs.

“Jan,” she said. He stirred, rolled to the side. He placed a hand on one breast, worrying the nipple like a button.

She removed his hand and sat up, swung her feet to the floor. “No more.” His hand reached toward her hip, but before he could coax her into lying back down, she stood and pulled her slip and dress over her head, picked her underclothes up from the floor. At the door, she turned to see Jan propped on his elbow, watching her, unashamedly naked. His body was narrower than it had seemed the night he arrived, densely muscled and with a swirl of dark hair down his torso.

“Your husband,” Jan started. “I did not mean for—”

“No more today,” Isabella said, and went to her bedroom to wash. 

Saturday came and Isabella found her house filled with her children, with their running legs and the familiar-foreign sound of them taunting each other in English. She regretted not knowing enough of the language to chide them. “Mama, it’s not what you think,” Bertha, her oldest American daughter, had said often enough that Isabella now pretended not to notice the sharpness in her children’s voices. They had chores to keep busy, of course. Isabella set the three girls to dusting and sweeping and vegetable chopping. Chet she sent outside to check on the garden, to clean the chicken house, to carry a lunch pail to their father at the factory.

The other boarders might have been ghosts, they floated in and out of her home so noiselessly. On weekends, she never expected to see them except at dinner. But her boarder. Jan. He’d left after breakfast, when Theo left for work. She hadn’t yet heard him come back; she was sure she’d know if he’d snuck back into the house. As she oversaw her daughters’ mending, she considered what she might do to get them and their brother out of the house for long enough should Jan come back before Theo was home from work. Make up a reason for them to visit their uncle? Send them into town with a list of items it would take them an hour to gather?

But no. The image of her four children, none of them over the age of ten, walking together into the sunlight of a dusty country road stopped the fantasy. Of course, their road and the ones around it were paved and this wasn’t exactly the country and the children frequently walked to school and back without her. She knew this. She also knew that if she were to send them away so she could make love to a man who wasn’t their father, then surely this day would be the one when their neighborhood became suddenly unsafe.

Sunday morning, Isabella took the children to early mass while Theo slept in. She told herself she should stay in the pew with Eugenia while the other three went up to receive the Eucharist. She had not yet confessed. But when it was time, she rose as she always did, saying, “Don’t move,” a warning her daughter no longer really needed, and filed to the altar. When Father placed the Body of Christ on Isabella’s tongue, it did not burn. The diluted wine didn’t sear her lips. Kneeling in silence afterward, she prayed for the continued safety of her four American children, for the happiness of her mother, for peace to come to the soul of her father. She prayed that she might someday be reunited with her first daughter, born of love but out of wedlock, whose absence from their American lives Theo had successfully negotiated when he convinced Isabella’s father to let him marry her; she prayed that her daughter’s father had found new love but that it would not erase his memories of their months together. She thought of Jan, of his hands on her naked hips, his breath at her neck. She did not ask forgiveness for anything.

After the weekend, Isabella and Jan had a school-week of afternoons together, days Isabella thought of in stripes of yellow and brown beyond the slope of Jan’s shoulder, in the sound of his breath in tandem with her own, in the deep sweat-smell of his skin, in the feel of bed sheets crumpled in her grip as she begged him to kneel behind her. It was always his bedroom, the small bed whose metal frame they had pulled, together, a few inches from the walls after the first day. “I won’t have an explanation for scuffs,” she’d said.

It always started elsewhere—the kitchen, a hallway, the door between the parlor and the dining room—but Isabella was wary of windows. She knew how far a neighbor’s eyes might see, didn’t trust even the faintest sound not to carry over the dusty yards. With the door and window closed, the air in Jan’s bedroom grew stuffy, thick with the smell of their bodies, and Isabella came to associate a lack of fresh air with the way her heartbeat quickened when his hands were against her skin, his fingers working between her legs as he asked, voice vibrating low in his throat, “Ready?”

When Jan began work the following week, Isabella told herself his absence would be good. There was so much housekeeping for her to catch up on. Though no one else was likely to have noticed any difference, she knew she’d been lax, less meticulous in her cooking and cleaning and record keeping. And the children’s reappearance at the end of the school day during the week of Jan had almost shocked her; it was as if they hadn’t existed at all in the hours since she’d sent them back after lunch. She tried to make up for it by paying them extra attention after dinner—sitting with Chet as he did his homework, offering to brush and plait the girls’ hair before bed. If they or Theo noticed anything different in her behavior, they gave no indication.

She busied herself with laundry, cooking, cleaning, throwing herself into the work with the energy she’d put into learning Jan’s body the week before. She’d let herself become too preoccupied, she told herself. She’d been selfish, not considering how her children’s lives could be affected if Theo found out. You came here to make things better, she told herself. She had to make their lives worth the sacrifice of her first girl.

But in bed next to her husband at night, she loathed the sound of his breathing beside her. With the window open, the room was cool but the spring air seemed, somehow, unbearably dry. When Theo pushed her nightgown up to her waist, shoved a rough hand between her thighs to push them apart, and hovered above her body, thrusting into her as if plowing a field, she thought of Jan, alone in his narrow bed down the hall. She squeezed her eyes shut and sent out silent apologies for betraying him. “Mule,” she muttered after Theo finished and turned away from her.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said and lay still, listening as his breathing turned into soft snores.

In the morning, Isabella spoke mostly to her husband and children at breakfast. But as she poured coffee, filled glasses with milk, set a bowl of hardboiled eggs and a platter with sliced bread, meat, cheese, and pickles on the table, she noted the movement of bone under the skin of Jan’s wrists as he stacked meat, cheese, and bread into an open-faced sandwich, the set of his shoulders as he leaned back against the chair. She measured the words she spoke to him, neither more nor less, in quantity, than the words she spoke to the other boarders. But they both knew what was underneath when she looked directly at him—a risk she wouldn’t stop herself from taking—and asked “Will Mr. Adams stay on another week?”

“I will.” Jan glanced at her before turning to her husband to say, “I’ll have cash for you this evening.”

“You can leave it with Isabella,” Theo said, brushing his hands against his slacks and standing. “I may be late.”

“I’d rather pay the man.”

Theo made a hmph sound in his throat. “Smart,” he said.

Alone in the house after everyone left, Isabella said out loud the words she’d wanted to say to her husband. “Pig. Louse.” And again: “Mule.” She stacked dishes and silverware, cups, heaped the cloth napkins in the center of the table. “If you only knew how smart,” she said.

In the afternoon, Isabella stood at the clothesline, an empty basket at her feet, the assortment of laundry snapping in the breeze like a syncopated dance. It hadn’t rained in several days, but the grass was still soft under her feet. She moved from left to right down the line, removing a clothespin, catching the corner of a shirt or pair of pants or a pillowcase, and then stepping sideways to remove the next.

She felt Jan in the yard before she could see or hear him. She did not break her rhythm or turn around, but she knew when he stood a few feet directly behind her, the air between them like an extension of their skin.

“I got ill at work,” he said. Then, low enough that only she would hear, “We have an hour.”

She continued moving down the line. After removing the last piece of clothing and dropping it into the basket, she said, “We should go in.”

They hadn’t touched each other in almost a week. Once inside the house, Isabella removed her clothes and lay down, naked and without ceremony, on the kitchen floor. John stripped his clothes away, knelt over her, and kissed her. She kissed him back, hard, her hand on the back of his neck, as if she could possibly pull him closer.

Their movements were urgent but not rough. Isabella listened for John’s breathing to quicken, muffled her own urge to yell out in order to hear the gasp as he climaxed.

After their breathing had calmed, John got up and began pulling on his undershorts. He handed Isabella her slip and said, “I think we left the laundry in the yard.”

She closed her eyes and pictured it, the basket set in the grass at the foot of the clothesline pole like punctuation. “You’re right,” she said. She stood and gathered their clothes together, held them in a bundle against her stomach. “But just one more time,” she said and walked toward the stairs leading up to his room. She didn’t need to look behind her to know that he followed.

Jennifer Colatosti returned to the Atlanta area to teach English at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College after many years studying literature and creative writing in the Midwest. Her fiction and nonfiction have previously appeared in The MacGuffin, Midwestern Gothic, Southeast Review, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, among others.