by Susan Lynn Zenker

“Filthy vandals,” says my cousin Wanda, sobbing into the phone. “All your efforts ruined, Eddie. The marker, the flowers. You know the tombstone split in two? Cousin Stosh didn’t deserve defacement. You need to fix this, Eddie. You know I can’t.”

“Slow down, Wanda,” I say, flipping through the mail — bills, some junk, and a postcard notification for a writing contest I’ve been expecting. I set it all down on a table beside the door. Though it’s mid-July, a sudden chill tickles my spine.

“Sending pictures if you can stand to look.” The ping of her text is like a hand grabbing at my chest. Stanley (Stosh) Czajka died at 41 though I never knew from what. I do know he was skinny and sickly and he injected himself in his upstairs bedroom–migraines, so he said.

I scroll through her photos. How to pay for a second tombstone on a proofreader’s salary? I know to Wanda, family’s everything. All the Czajkas in Southbridge will be counting on me. Got forty bucks in my debit account. A hundred in savings. Barely enough for flowers.

“You’re the oldest, Eddie. Stosh’s grave can’t be left a disgrace.”

“I’m on it. Geez!” 

I head to a 7-Eleven where I fork over twenty for some lottery tickets. Never know.

Walking usually helps me think, but near an ice cream place I spot a lanky teen pulling at the backpack of a shorter whiny kid, and I lose it. “Knock it off!” I yell. I want to smash the big kid’s face. He reminds me too much of bullies Stosh and I used to endure. And all those taunts of “bird face” and “bird brain,” due to the translation of our Polish last name.

At Benny’s I pawn my watch for sixty-five dollars. The open register reminds me I may have a hundred-dollar bill inside a book. I dash home to yank it off a shelf and swish through its pages. A Polaroid falls out— Stosh, Wanda, and me posing in front of Grandpa’s 1956 Pontiac and making faces while flapping imaginary wings. No bill magically appears, but a whirlwind of nostalgia suddenly churns in my chest. In those times we three were inseparable. Fine, Stosh. I’ll get another tombstone though I don’t have a clue how.

I stomp around my apartment, photo in hand, wondering what else to pawn. No car to sell, no TV. I sort through clothes and grab some sportscoats from a previous life, clothes I’ll never again wear. Tomorrow I’ll jump on a bus and leave them on consignment at Ritsy Rags. And what pals could I hit up for cash? None. I’m already in debt to most.

I stare at my bookshelf in the bedroom. Yard sale? At two bits apiece, it’s hardly worth the effort. My eyes are drawn to an old booklet of Hallmark Valentine poems, and, when I open it, a note slips out. On it is a poem Stosh wrote when I was fifteen working on a school magazine and Stosh was editor. 

He’d say, “I’m the better writer.” 

I’d say, “No, I’m the better one.”

There was no end to that argument. 

Once, when I’d shown Stosh something I’d written, he’d stared and said: “Not bad, but a poem, you know, should rhyme.” 

Next time he saw me he presented me the lame little poem I hold:

I want to share your summer and
Your winter white with snow
I want to hold you close to me
And never let you go
Where spring is filled with flowers and
The autumn is a song
And beauty paints a masterpiece
Of faith and courage strong.

Poetry? The postcard from earlier. I retrieve it from the table. A poetry contest from a national magazine awards a $5,000 prize. Who am I kidding? I haven’t written anything since I was a kid. I’m just a wannabe author. 

After cereal and a shower, I fall into bed. Round and round the thoughts go until I sink into dreamland. Stosh in my dreams doing this, that, and I don’t know what. Enter the contest, enter a rhyming poem.

I awake with a tingle. Though the room is dark except for a red glow from my clock, I feel little bird feet walking on my blanket — the same little feet I felt on my bed the night Stosh died hundreds of miles away in Webster. My pulse speeds up. Looking around the room, I recognize in shadows my familiar furniture but feel someone’s watching me?

There on my bookshelf is the Polaroid of Stosh, Wanda, and me. I recall our camping trip to Maine in the old Pontiac, the hunter’s stew, sleeping under stars, howling at the moon. How Wanda fell off a railroad trellis, then teased everybody with, “What’s your excuse?” I grab my laptop and switch it on. Energy pulses through me–a buzz of electricity. I open a file, and whole stanzas gush from my fingers as if Stosh himself were pouring words into my brain from a watering can in heaven. I open the contest website and submit my entry along with the required fee. 


Days later I’m sitting at my computer at The Pennysaver when my personal e-mail dings:

“Dear Edward Czajka: With pleasure we inform you that your poem entitled ‘Polaroid’ won first place in the category of rhyming poetry.”

 Holy shots! The $5,000 is mine! I grab my phone, call Wanda, then dial “Heavenly Granite Monuments” in Worcester and order that marker. I tell the salesman, “This time give him a proper inscription. Make it ‘Stanislaw Czajka, beloved cousin, friend, and poet, RIP.’” 

Outside my window a single lapwing is poised on a wooden post, its perky pointed head alert and resembling my cousin standing in front of the Pontiac. It takes flight and joins a flock of six black and white feathered friends that pass overhead.

Rhyming it is, Stosh. Rhyming it is.

Image: Vincent van Zalinge via Unsplash