The first thing the old guy does is make me clean his guns. He's got old western draw holsters and belts, silver bullets like the Lone Ranger, a rifle called The Peacemaker. I've never seen so many guns in one place. Mr. Zoubek wasn't keen on girls touching his collection, but he taught me how to pump gunk out of the barrel with a toothbrush soaked in Nitro solvent. Who knew Czechs were mad about the Wild West?
"It's like fairy tales," he says. "You know we got from these cowboys? We got fairy tales about angels and devils."
"How do you tell them apart?" I ask.
"It's never-ending, really. It's this kind of battle, you know, and that's it," Mr. Zoubek says. I get the feeling I'm losing something in the translation.
He says cowboys used to carry spare cash in the empty chamber. Bet he read this in a book. Right now I'm passing myself off as a maid in Mr. Zoubek's tacky hotel. When an ad ran in The Prague Post for a maid at the Boar's Head, I tossed some Fuji film in my purse and trimmed my fingernails. I've got the right credentials-short, stubby hands good for mopping floors and making beds.
Mr. Zoubek jots my duties on a grocery receipt. I know he'll be spying on me. He'll find out I flunked the TOEFL certificate to teach English as a foreign language. I got into cameras and communists. Maybe he'll spot one of my pictures in the free press: the one with a hippie chick handing daisies to a cop.
On the eve of the big protest—Anarchists vs. The New World Order—I shot pictures of the riot police hosing the hippies with water canons. Standing outside a McDonald's with a mass of glass spider webs etched in the windows, I watched streams of armored buses barrel down the cobble-stoned streets. The only undamaged target was the IMF. After knocking off twelve rolls of slides, I found a pub on the edge of the riot zone, oblivious to the tear gas explosions and chanting crowds. As I sipped my Budvar, a British man stumbled in, wearing a green hat decorated with dollar signs. He slapped my back and said, "I eat children for lunch."
Mr. Zoubek's hotel, the Boar's Head, is my new project. It's located in the Lesser Town, across from the American Embassy. Every night, a straggly line of expatriates camp on the sidewalk, snoozing under a star-spangled flag. They'll get soaked by gangs of drunken teenagers who whiz on the wall as a form of protest.
Rumor says the hotel is crawling with Natashas. I figure I'll get some good shots of them working the stretch of highway E55 on northern Bohemia's Czech-German border, known for the girls and garden gnomes lining its streets. If Mr. Zoubek knows anything about this hooker business, he doesn't show it. He just warns me to avoid unmarked taxis.
"Can I borrow one of these rifles for protection?" I ask.
Mr. Zoubek squeezes his eyes at me. He has a thin, sucked-in face and shoulders you could crack eggs on. Not bad in a suit, but he's missing a molar, which I see when he laughs.
"Protection from what?" he says.
I think about the cabs in Wenceslas Square. A lot have rigged their seats with electric wiring, supposedly to discourage robberies. The zap works on customers as well. One irate cabbie locked me in his car because I realized he had doctored the fare-counting machine. He had bolted a big letter "C" to the top of his decomposing Mercedes, which smelled like pea soup. I assumed that crooked drivers were required, as a matter of public safety, to wear this "C," which seemed like a good idea.
I hope Mr. Zoubek will get drunk by lunchtime and nod off watching TV in the lobby, all those badly-dubbed re-runs of 90210 and commercials featuring blonde, ecstatic women in sports cars. Even better if he doesn't show up, which should happen more and more often.
* * *
"There's this place down the street. I hear they restore old guns with a buffing wheel," I tell him.
The solvent fumes remind me of the time I tried to perm my hair. Mr. Zoubek tilts his head a few degrees, giving me the once-over. His blanked-out gaze tunnels through the shadow cast by his cap.
"Some people like to be sheeps in the mass, actually," he says. "Like, everybody buy hamburgers, everybody go vacation on Florida." I watch him roll back the cap shadow from one eye and try not to cringe.
He goes on, saying my laziness is typical for someone who didn't live under communism. Nobody understands. Americans think a few freaky leaders took power and made a dictatorship, which isn't true. The most important thing for them, for most people, is having something to eat, a place to stay, some decent work.
Mr. Zoubek's voice drops to an exhausted croak. His radio, sporting a coat hanger for an antenna, squirts out a few sharp-edged timbres of Abbey Road. The phrase, "juju eyeball," dangles in the air. I think the guns are some kind of test to see if I'll quit. At 12,000 crowns a month, it's practically slave labor. Next, he'll have me peeling potatoes and boiling knedliky.
"Got anything else you need done? I'm pretty good with a needle, if you have any shirts that need mending," I say.
"Yes," he says. "But no pay extra."
* * *
In the elevator, Mr. Zoubek rattles off a list of chores. The mounds of laundry that require washing make my joints crackle. Carpets to vacuum, towels to fold, twenty rooms and a handful of suites, a parrot named Gorby who sings Christmas carols and lunges at me through the poop-spattered bars of his cage. Although it's high season, hardly anyone has checked in.
On the way up, the elevator squeaks and clatters. Since it lacks a door, I see pine-paneled walls and buzzing tubes of neon roll past like a slide show on housing behind the Iron Curtain. This creates the illusion that by pressing a button, I have caused the entire building to sink into the ground while we stay still. We land on the top floor with a thunk. Fluorescent bulbs leak a swampy light. As Mr. Zoubek jiggles a key in the lock, I get a whiff of something metallic. Holding my breath, I lug my duffle bag into my new digs. Two pillowless cots are bolted to the floor. Long curls of leaded paint bubble off the walls. A functionless desk slumps in the corner, containing only mineral water and an impressive selection of condoms.
Mr. Zoubek putters around, checking for dust. He crosses the dirt-permeated window and glares at the line of sleeping bags, curled like snails outside the American Embassy. "How stupid are they," he says, "that they believe in this kind of fake world. And if they don't have it by their own, they want to see it on the Hollywood screen." He waves his hands like an orchestra conductor. I wonder if Mr. Zoubek ever had a wife. I picture them meeting through a personals ad. He fell for her because she had nice grammar.
He scrunches his eyebrows. "What about you…?"
"Nico," I remind him.
"You know, your name means something in Czech?"
Mr. Zoubek laughs so hard, I can hear froth in his lungs.
"You have boyfriend?"
"Yeah, back in the States." This is a flat-out lie. My last date was a fellow ex-patriot named Gabriel who spent all his daddy's money in hash bars, pitched a fit when his knapsack got ripped off, and went home. I never heard from him again.
"Well, he can't stay with you. Understand?"
I nod. Whatever.
Hours later, I'm scrubbing guns in the sweltering storage room again. Mr. Zoubek thinks I did a poor job on the blunderbuss rifle. All those damned curlicues. The Silvermate polish gives me a lightheaded, spacesuit feeling. Bright, swimming specks maze the air. My eyes won't stop watering. I wipe them across my sleeve and find an inky, amoeba-shaped stain on my shirt. I could use this stuff to unclog toilets.
I set the gun aside. It looks so harmless, lying on the table like an extravagant candlestick. I can't imagine who would own such a weapon. Just pull the trigger and the resulting explosion could hit a target within a 160-degree range or nothing at all. Mr. Zoubek says it could fire anything from birdseed to pebbles.
Out of habit, I spin the radio dial through a haze of static, finally settling on BBC news. The door bangs open. Out pop a couple of Czech girls, talking loud and illegally smoking. So the Boar's Head actually has a few guests. They don't seem to realize they've made a wrong turn. I take stock of them—contraband jeans hanging off their hips, sharp faces exuding the usual downbeat gusto. The rounder, more wide-eyed girl offers me a drag, but I pass.
"Water closet?" she says in a squeak of a voice.
"Not in here."
The girl glances at the gun, then at me. "You have a spot on your shirt," she says.
* * *
Working at the hotel has its perks. Josef, the cook, has a crush on me. Once I caught him checking me out while I scrubbed the kitchen tiles with vinegar. I don't consider this a complement. He's desperate in that teenage, I-will-screw-anything-in-a-skirt kind of way.
Every evening, I toss and turn, unable to sleep on account of all the noise-odd spasms of conversation and laughter, cars throbbing with amplified bass lines. If I crack my shutters to catch a breeze, a flood of lamplight and street racket keeps me up until the garbage trucks rumble around the curb. I keep reminding myself, it's just a job. I can quit anytime.
On my day off I take the number twenty-two tram to the outskirts of failed utopian socialism: the "panelak." I take pictures of the square, bloated buildings constructed under the previous regime. I might've landed on the moon. People live in concrete blocks so identical that even residents get lost. The rest of Prague is in a slow-motion state of collapse, thanks to "asphalt cancer," a mix of bird dung and smog that has decayed the ancient churches. Only the gray slabs of high-density housing seem immune to it.
Walking back over the Charles Bridge, I drift through a tide of tourists, Young Americans in Prague, commonly known as "yappies," sipping Absinthe in riverside cafes and quoting Kafka. Half of them are ditched in black turtlenecks or "Czech it out" T-shirts. Others have the sunbaked look of drifters, carrying paper-bagged bottles of beer and playing Rolling Stones covers on their tuneless guitars for loose change. Last time the Stones toured the city, after knocking back a few brewskis with their buddy President Havel, the band donated their entire lighting set to help illuminate Prague castle. Now the structure appears to float in the nighttime air.
I recognize one of the leather-jacketed yappies from the hotel. The stubble-faced backpacker from the second floor hid his weed in a videocassette called Hidden Agencies of the Bible. Room Seventeen hates my guts because I refused to run down to the market and buy a basket of apricots for them. I'm a maid, not a go-fer. I feel like a missing piece in a variety of possible stories. There's nothing solid separating me from them.
* * *
A week later Mr. Zoubek still hasn't paid me. I can't afford to buy more film and my camera batteries keep burning out. In the prints, the panelak looks like an artificial canyon stretching in all directions. I'd like to make larger copies, but Mr. Zoubek has me running around, helping set up for some big-wig convention. Now the lobby resembles an overblown bar mitzvah, with bobbing Mylar balloons and carnivorous-looking fake flowers.
After decorating, I help Josef carry platters of flabby omelets into the dining hall. He's probably just out of school and dreaming about skipping town because I catch him watching travel shows on the lobby TV. He calls me "American girl" but I don't care. I like the way he sings opera into the spatula, pretending it's a microphone. Josef used to live next to the Stavovske Theater. From his box seat in the bathroom window, he got a glimpse of the backstage strip show: all those droopy-chested women strapping themselves into corsets.
"So what do you do for fun?" says Josef.
"Fun? What's that?"
He makes a glass-lifting motion.
"Ah. The national pastime." I trail him back to the kitchen. "What goes with this soup?"
"A bowl." He tosses salt in a pot so big, he could stir it with an oar. The soup's surface ripples underneath by a snarl of cabbage. Josef ladles up the cloudy broth and offers me a taste. Claws of vapor scrape my throat. I spit the pungent roughage into the sink.
"You don't like," he says.
I try to sneak out, but he closes his arms around me. "Are you emancipated?" he asks.
"Emancipated? What's that supposed to mean?"
I feel his skin heating up the air. He has a boy's body, slim and unmuscled, balanced on thin legs. His flat, square chest nudges me against the counter top.
"Come here, pretty," he says. I've heard him say the same to Gorby, the parrot.
Mr. Zoubek finds us laying waste to the kitchen. We've knocked over the soup, which splattered in great, plopping bubbles on the floor. I'm pitching a bottle of Colon dish soap at Josef, who won't let go of me. Mr. Zoubek has put on his professional getup, the tweedy suit and too-long tie. He jabs his finger at me.
"You," he says. "No more games."
Mr. Zoubek herds me through the dining hall. Weak light floats in through the single yellow-paned window. It's one of those non-weather kind of days when only my watch tells the time. Crackles of conversation hover around us. The convention-goers have already arrived, a bunch of lardish men roosting like hens at the bar. The lack of air-conditioning makes my head sizzle.
"See these men?" says Mr. Zoubek. "Some old, very fat guy, in his inside, he really wants to be, I don't know, some nice man walking, dancing, whatever. He wants to be dancer. And of course, he can't...objectively, he can't, but it doesn't mean he can't dream about that here."
He licks his finger and wipes something off my face. Then he slips a dirty apron over me and says, "Go serve."
"I'm not a cocktail waitress," I say.
Clots of dust windmill between us and the door. For a moment I want to follow them out of this hotel.
"It's about communication, about listening," he says. "I was really thinking deeply about these things."
I stare at his stingy, curled-up ears. I can feel my wages evaporating around me.
A few hours pass and I'm hustling among the dark colors in the dining hall, fetching beers from the bartender, who speaks little and pours light. Some of the convention-goers try to chat with me in stunted sentences. I shrug like I'm rude or missing a neural connection or both. They all seem the same: rumpled men in suits, pumped full of drink and hiding from their jobs. I'm stealing sips from their leftovers when I notice another pint-chugging loser with a shelf of bristly hair. He drains his mug and flags me to his table. His large, heavily-veined hands remind me of the gypsies I've seen pick pocketing on the trams.
"American?" he says, pointing at my sneakers.
I say "huh" and hope he leaves me alone. No such luck.
"What are you doing here?" he says. He holds a toothpick steady in the right corner of his mouth and keeps his gaze fixed on the table top.
"I was just wondering the same thing."
He laughs. "My friends say you have a gun. An antique firearm," he says.
I follow his gaze to the bar, where two Czech girls are sucking on cigarettes, expelling plumes of smoke. Suddenly I want to be back in the kitchen helping Josef cook goulash.
"No comprende," I say.
He snatches my hand and squeezes so tight, I hear things popping inside it. "I asked you a question."
"I didn't hear."
He clamps harder. "I thought you and me could make a trade."
"Listen. The gun's in bad condition. I doubt it's worth anything."
"Your choice," he says.
When he finally lets go, my fingers won't stop tingling. At the bar, I make out the Czech girls, slim but big-boned, with deep-indented lips. They dangle their stockinged legs over the stools and play cards with another motion-impaired stoner. They're pretty in a way that has nothing to do with fashion magazines. I wedge my way between them.
"Do you have a room at the hotel?" I ask.
"She's seen all the rooms," says the bartender.
The smaller girl watches me, the cigarette glowing between her fingers. "You come to party tonight?"
"Party?" I repeat.
"Yes, party. Tonight. You come?"
"Where should we meet?"
"Bridge," she says.
"The Charles Bridge? Sure."
She keeps quiet. Finally, I ask, "When?"
"Yes, ten," the tall girl mutters. I don't know if she's talking about the cards or the hour. I decide it's the latter. Across the bar, her buddy has blended into the swarm of suits. I think how easily I could slip out with the gun, which Mr. Zoubek left in the storage room for me to finish. It would serve him right if I sold it. I'd take the money and buy a new flash for my camera, the kind that won't dissolve a mob into dots. The girls look at me, their mascara hardened into gluey clumps, and I recognize something in them. Maybe this is what they need and they don't care what happens afterward.
* * *
When I finish my rounds, the nocturnal rumble has begun on the bridge. I stand under the statue of Saint Vitus, the dancer's patron, and watch the pushcart venders pack their marionettes and fake crystal toe-rings. On my back is the blunderbuss rifle, wrapped in towels and crammed in a laundry sack. It bounces against me as I pace, keeping my gaze anchored on the masses. I could almost crowd-surf from one side to the next. A dog yaps as I walk past the Devil Man, who wears horns and hollers until you buy his self-portraits. I search for the girls in their flesh-packed jeans and it's as if they've disappeared.
I start thinking about Mr. Zoubek and begin jogging. By the time I hit the venders again I am running. I circle around to the Stare Mesto side and still no girls. Just as I'm about to head back to the hotel, I catch sight of them lagging behind a bunch of teenagers in Dr. Seuss hats. They are standing under the Old Town tower at the foot of the bridge, their pale hair visible against the dark stones. I plow my way through the battery of tourists and see the girls waving. I can tell they're drunk by the way they wobble. The crowd noise trickles away like I'm floating above it. I close my eyes and when I open them I see the girls talking, their words splitting into choppy waves.
"That's her," the smaller girl says when I reach them. The girls reek of beer and sweat. They grab my arm and drag me down the stone steps leading to Kampa island, where the fluted roofs seem to rise out of the dark, agitated water.
"Where's your friend?" I ask. This makes the tall girl wince.
"He's busy. You come with us, okay?"
I don't know what to say, so I just follow them. It's like that old Czech tale about Lucifer and the country woman named Kate. He came after her soul, but she made so many demands that he eventually begged for mercy. The girls ask a lot questions. They want to know how long I've been here and when I'll return to the States.
"I feel so exciting asking you things," says the tall girl. "You know life here changes from good mood to bad."
"That's one way of putting it."
We reach the John Lennon Wall, with its pacifist graffiti. During the Communist era, when western pop songs were a crime, kids waged war with the police who kept painting over their manifestos. The wall's original plaster was picked off in chunks by souvenir-hunting tourists. Beside a peeling sketch of Lennon, someone scribbled, "People don't die, they turn into flowers."
The girls want me to take out the gun. When I refuse, the tall girl, Tereza, says, "You want money, yes?"
Tereza nods like she knows what I'm talking about. For a moment everything seems wrong. I know she's putting on an act, trying to scam me, and I begin to think about my options again and how summer is ending and all those sleepless nights staring out my window at an American flag.
I drop the sack on the ground. The weakest portions of my lower back are burning. I bend down, unwrap the towels, and brandish the short, heavy barrel. Tereza yanks it away from me. She turns it around, inspecting every angle. She holds the barrel so close, she could lick it.
"Let me see," says the other girl. She strokes the bell-mouthed rifle.
I wait. It's as if the girls have transformed into antique dealers at the Collectable Arms Show. They make a big deal about the maker's name on the lock, W W & I Mason, the deeply chiseled breech, and serpent motif. Tereza aims the muzzle at my chest. Neither of us moves.
"Boom," she says.
Her friend giggles. I glare at them both.
"Do you have any idea what it's worth?" I ask.
"I have the exact idea," says Tereza.
She gives the gun back to me.
"Are you kidding?"
Funny to think of a two-hundred-year-old shooter—one of the guns used during the Lewis and Clark expedition—as nothing special. The girls turn to leave. I shove the gun in the laundry sack, minus the towels, and take off after them. Tereza scoots backward, tripping on a pile of mummified bouquets, landing in the dirt before regaining her balance and scrambling toward the bridge.
We race through the cramped, twisting streets until I lose them. There are no hippies dozing in the grass or couples out for walks. Just swans dipping in the rain-swollen river. I crash into an elderly woman with a sheet of plastic draped over her head, babushka-style, and ask if she's seen the girls. Fear skates across her eyes. As the old Babi shuffles off, I remember the gun. I glance over my shoulder and see the muzzle sticking up like a salute. I keep running, thinking everything will be okay if I make it to the hotel-that I'll stop trying to pawn my boss's antique gun because he's a jerk and I'm broke and I want to anyway.
When I get back to the Boar's Head, I finish polishing the gun and leave it in the storage room. I think of the girls and see them laughing at me, the American bandit, and I realize that I will have to face Mr. Zoubek and he can't know what I've done.
* * *
The next morning, I mop the lobby and tear down the decorations. I tell myself that I must behave as if nothing has happened. I am the hotel's maid. I will tug dozens of flowered bedsheets into tight hospital corners and Mr. Zoubek will check on me and I won't mind unless I have to talk to him.
On my way to the elevator, Josef steps out of the kitchen. He belts out a few arias from The Magic Flute
and swings me around in a lopsided waltz. He's always in a good mood, which grates my nerves. I tell him it's a wonder he hasn't been fired.
"Who, me?" Josef says. "You are a troublemaker."
"You did it," he says, jabbing a finger at me. "You destroy my kitchen. But next time you will clean it."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Josef grabs my hand and laces his fingers through mine. He gives me a squeeze. That's how I leave him, thinking what a sweet girl I am.
In the elevator, I smooth my hair and put on some lipstick. I get off on the second floor. A little boy is whacking a paper airplane against the wall and making explosive sounds. His mother drags him into their hotel room. She doesn't seem much older than me.
I get to work on the dull-haired carpet. Mr. Zoubek wants it salted with Borax. He refuses to buy regular cleaning products, just the useless home remedies you'd find in a farmer's almanac. Soon he's in the hallway, hovering over me, and I can't stop looking at him, wondering if he knows about the girls tricking at his hotel or the fact that I almost sold them a nineteenth-century rifle.
"Can you make a favor of me?" he asks, coming closer. I can feel sweat popping out of my face. I just nod and look busy.
Mr. Zoubek wants me to photograph his gun collection. I half expect him to tell me about the missing blunderbuss. But he doesn't and his tone sounds cheery and he keeps whistling. I grab my gear. The storage room isn't lit well, so I load some high-speed film into my Nikon and rig it to the tripod with rubber bands.
Before I take the picture, Mr. Zoubek lines up his beauties, almost lovingly arranging them from smallest to largest. He fiddles with the blunderbuss and I'm not sure if he noticed it was missing yesterday.
"There was these guns in Russia," he says, "some really stupid and ugly guns, just unbelievable. So we send them to Cuba where they suffered much abuse. I would not trade ten korunas for it."
I know the gun he just described has nothing to do with the antique rifle and before I can ask him what he knows, he passes it to me. I stand there, pretending like everything is okay and Mr. Zoubek has told me the truth.
"Maybe it belongs to somebody famous in history," I say.
He shrugs. "I'm kind of skeptic even of that. It only means that people years ago hated each other, exactly the same like now."
I watch him remove my camera from the tripod. I can't understand why he would take a picture of me holding an antique rifle in front of a table heaped with guns. He aims the Nikon at me.
"Make sure the light meter is in the middle," I say.
"I know," says Mr. Zoubek.
For a minute I'm not sure if he means the film exposure or my sneaking off with his gun. I'm about to ask what he knows when he drops the camera. It hits the hardwood floor with a clatter I can sense before I hear it. I start thinking of what he's going to tell me. I look at the camera, figuring the lens cover has jammed, the flash control has stopped working and I won't get the roll of film out without breaking the cover. All my shots are ruined and it doesn't matter. I scoop up the broken pieces and wait for Mr. Zoubek to tell me it's an accident, he didn't mean to do it.