A journal of narrative writing.
The Bad Luck of Alexander Mundkowski

Alexander Mundkowski awoke on May 2nd with a metallic slickness on his tongue. He spit blood and probed his mouth with his fingers. There was a small sore but nothing to worry over. Today there were more important things to think about. Today was his son's birthday. Today his Misha would be 22.

Alexander had spent the night in the alley off Milton Avenue in his usual spot. He was very particular about this spot. It was near a grate and under the side awning of a bodega, which meant it was swept periodically with gusts of warm air and protected from the rain. But really what Alexander liked best about the spot was the church: if he positioned himself at a particular angle he could see the steeple.  

On this particular cloudless day, the dawn chill brightened the air so that the steeple seemed to pierce the sky at its apex. Alexander stretched with eagerness. There was much to do.  He pushed his cart into the pedestrian traffic and set off towards his old building on Maujer Street. First, Waldemar, his former roommate, would need to lend him a calling card. His heart jumped as he imagined Misha's voice warm against his ear, deeper and older than last time. Second, he had to call his brother Yurik in Las Vegas to discuss the construction job with Yurik's crew. Finally, his papers required ordering; things had been busy and he hadn't been able to keep up.

He passed PoleMor Liquors, which despite its name did not have Polish salespeople.  The brown skinned girls in the tight shirts who worked the counter would glare and pretend not to understand him, though his English was quite good – certainly better than theirs. He stopped going there because of this.  He did not want to give them the satisfaction.

This morning he could not help but examine the Belvedere vodka and Plum Brandy in the display window.  It reminded him of home, of birthday celebrations and parties, and the hot sharp taste of the drinks that went along.  He and Hanna had treated themselves to a bottle of Ultimat the night they learned he won the greencard lottery. Hanna didn't like to drink, but she was so happy she would have spent her week's paycheck on anything for festivity and extravagance.  Those foolish salesgirls probably hadn't even heard of Ultimat.

Perhaps later he would toast to Misha.  Liquor never affected him greatly; he could take quite a lot and still win a game of chess or pin his brother's hand to the table in arm wrestling. Now, it helped a bit with his headaches and knee pain, and he certainly didn't drink as much as the men in the tunnel. Some of them continued till they blacked out or vomited. Alexander had heard someone once choked to death in this way, asleep on his bundle.  This appalled him. He couldn't understand how men could allow themselves such liberties.  

He straightened his cart and continued towards Maujer Street. The cart was heavy and his breath quickened, and he thought with approval that his muscles were getting a workout. Even his mouth sore seemed to be shriveling with fresh air and exercise. Things were picking up. Life had treated him poorly in recent months -- job after job escaped him and he had been unable to pay rent, until finally Waldemar installed a newly-arrived cousin in Alexander's place.   

When he arrived at the building, he heaved his cart up the stoop, threw his full weight against the entrance door, and arranged his belongings under the stairwell. The air inside was poor and it had been a long walk; his old wrestling injury in his knee was beginning to bother him. He took a moment before mounting the stairs. The building was as he remembered it.  The mailbox doors hung from their hinges and the smell of cloyingly sweet cleaning fluid mingled with the garbage piled in the yard.

When he reached the third floor he pounded the door of his former apartment. "Waldemar!" he called. There was no answer and he relaxed against the wall. The walk had depleted him.  Perhaps he was getting sick, or else his knee was affecting the rest of his body in some new and strange way. He sat on the stairs and held his head in his hands, closing his eyes. For a second he was lying in the tunnel, gazing comfortably at the church steeple.  Suddenly there was rustling. The door cracked open and a sliver of Waldemar appeared.

"Alexander. What are you doing?"  His voice was rough and his bare chest reflected the florescent hallway light.  Alexander stood and stumbled against the stair rail, catching himself before he fell. His face burned with embarrassment. 

"Waldemar…my old friend, today, I am making a plan." Waldemar was silent, so Alexander continued. "When my brother gets back, I am going to help him.  I'm going to work with him, and--"

"Alexander." Waldemar interrupted. "I came home very early this morning and I have to leave again in 2 hours."

"Today is my son's birthday, did you know? I promised him, I promised Misha--"

"We've had this conversation many times, Alexander." The door slammed.

 "Waldemar! Wait!" Alexander pressed the palms of his hands to his forehead and shut his eyes.  He hadn't presented himself well. If he had another chance, he could make it clear in Waldemar's mind.

He turned to the banister and gazed out the window, across the little side yard and into the hallway of the next building, which looked very much like this one. Waldemar had good luck -- that much was certain -- his two jobs came to him not by skill but by chance. His wife and daughter were scheduled to join him soon; the girl would attend school and they would move to a bigger apartment.  Alexander had more experience in construction and he was stronger, but Waldemar pretended that their lives were of their own making. With each of these thoughts Alexander's frustration grew. He vowed never to knock on Waldemar's door again.

There were still Ludvik the superintendent and old Paulina. Ludvik was a reasonable man, one who understood the fickleness of fortune. Renewed by this thought, Alexander moved quickly down the stairs, cycling one hand over the other on the railing so that his stability was never left up to his legs alone. He knocked on Paulina's door. Soft shuffling steps grew from inside. He could see the peephole opening and closing.

"Yes?" an old voice said.

"Paulina, it's me, it's Alexander." The three locks turned carefully, from top to bottom. A steamy potato smell rolled out of the apartment as she opened the door. Her jowls drooped terribly; Alexander imagined that the skin of her face might hang to her breasts by next year.


"Remember me? I lived upstairs till a few months ago?"

"Yes?"  She remained motionless.

"I'm looking for Ludvik. Is he here?"

"I haven't seen him today."

A wave of panic crested in Alexander's stomach. "He's here today isn't he? He works Wednesdays, no?"

"I don't know. I can't say." Paulina began to shut the door.

"Wait!" Alexander put his foot inside to stop her. "Wait, Paulina..." She stared impassively. "Never mind," he said and stood back as the locks clicked.


Misha was born on May 2nd 1986 in a colorless hospital on the outskirts of Lublin.  He weighted 9lbs, a miracle given that Hanna was a slight woman with wrists so small that Alexander could ring his forefinger and thumb around them without touching her.  When Alexander looked across the nursery, the sea of pods swathed in identical blankets and baby caps filled him with disgust and awe. Hours ago these helpless struggling creatures had barely existed; now they were at the mercy of world. One of them was his.

Misha was a sweet and easy child, so much so that Alexander denied him piano lessons and instead forced him to wrestle at the gym, hoping to cultivate an interest in body building.  But Misha allowed himself to be pinned without resistance and rose from the ground like an awkward bird.  Two more children followed, one after the other, both girls. They were easier: they talked back and fought with their mother, defied curfew and passed their time with boys known for troublemaking. Alexander knew they would survive.


He pulled his cart from under the stairwell, checked that bundle remained fastened, and set out towards Irene's Pub.  Men from the tunnel spent many hours there, especially in the winter and to warm up after fishing.  It was despite this that Alexander returned, for those men resented him.  They didn't like that he lit fires, defended his own space and caught his own fish separate from the group; they said he interfered.  Natasha the bartender, an attractive middle aged woman with a big mouth and clear eyes, understood this. She saw he had knowledge and skills, and that he had fallen upon bad times not of his own choosing. Today when Alexander entered she was talking dully into the phone. 

"Natasha." The sound of his own voice, weak and breathy, startled him.  "Natasha, my dear, do me one favor."  She raised her eyebrows, phone still against her ear, and moved to pour him a beer. He took a draught and relished the tickle in his throat.  She hung up the phone and smiled.

"Hello, Alexander."

Alexander took another pull on his beer. The pain in his knee began to subside.

"Natasha, did you know today is my son's birthday? Today he will be 22."

"Congratulations." Natasha toasted him with her coke.        

"Yes, and I am going to call him, but first I need to call my brother.  You remember Yurik, don't you?" Natasha nodded blankly. She was being polite -- how could she remember him when he had been here only twice and many months ago? Annoyed, he spoke loudly and leaned forward, pressing his forearms into the bar.  "He works in construction, He's in Las Vegas now. But he's got a job waiting for me…Yurik's cell phone--it's local—it's 917."

Natasha studied him. "Okay but I dial." She plucked the phone off its cradle. "The number?"  He moved quickly from his seat and riffled through his cart for the address book.  He didn't remember precisely the last conversation he had with Yurik but it was likely in December. At that time there had been trouble when Alexander took a dented pipe from a hardware store.  It was an absurd situation, they couldn't have sold it anyway, and Alexander had a plan to put it to good use.  But the shopkeeper, a senseless old woman with a headscarf and thick glasses, called the police.  The worst was that he had not been able to explain the full to story to Yurik; his brother only knew there was trouble with the law and that he had been called upon to wire cash. Now the thought of his brother's voice made Alexander tremble.

Alexander located the book sandwiched between his clothes, and flipped the pages frantically. He could not remember if he had stored the information under first or last names, and some addresses were not identified. Finally he came across a 917 number that seemed correct.  Natasha dialed and passed him the phone.  His hand shook as he raised it to his ear; there was a silence and then a staticky ring. He poked his tongue against the sore and waited.  There was a second ring and a third, and then a three tone sequence burst against his eardrum. An automated message informed him the number was no longer in service.  He mumbled angrily.  At least he could say he tried.

"No one was there." He handed the phone back to Natasha. 

"Sorry." She shrugged and returned to her paper.  Alexander swirled the last sip of beer in his glass and stared blankly at the wall.  Another customer came in, used the bathroom and left. He rested his head in his hands and watched the pedestrians through the window.

"Cheer up, your brother will be there tomorrow." Natasha poured him another beer.  He thought again of Misha.  Hanna would've made something special for dinner and forced Misha's sisters to join them. Alexander wondered if he had a girlfriend and a job and if the girlfriend was sharing dinner with them. The last time they spoke was years ago, when he was working at the World Trade Center site.  When Misha had asked about the work, he described only the crews moving enormous beams and driving tractors, making way for the rebuilding.

"It must be very hard," said Misha.

"It has to be done." Alexander responded.

He described Mayor Giuliani's heroic speech to Hanna, how the Mayor had said that all the relief workers were Americans, and that all Americans were New Yorkers.  Hanna cried quietly at the other end, with pride and exhaustion.

"You should come home, when this is finished," she said.

"We'll see," he said, but he had not yet earned enough for the French vacations or new appliances that they had toasted to the night he won the lottery.  Now his luck was worsening. He thought of Waldemar and a wave of determination overtook him.

He finished his beer and let the glass clatter on the counter.  His knee had loosened and his mind was clear.  The sun was beginning to dip in the sky -- he would call Misha tomorrow; today he would find enough cash to buy a calling card and prepare for what was to come.  He eased off the stool, patted the bar to signal goodbye to Natasha, and steered his cart into the sun.

He headed towards the river, towards the old warehouse complex with the discarded copper wire. Reselling a few wire bundles would earn him enough to buy supplies for the coming days in addition to calling Misha. It was a chore to prepare but Alexander was used to it. The insulation had to be burned off before it could be sold it at full value. This required skill and the smoke reeked toxically.

Alexander arranged his bundle in the corner of the warehouse's defunct generator room and rested his head. There was only one other man there from the tunnel, the quiet fellow with the Krakow accent, and Alexander could tell he was sleeping from the snores.  Alexander interlaced his fingers over his chest.  If he focused long enough on the ceiling, the beams undulated as if he were in a fun house. The day felt endless and blurry and he imagined himself talking to old Paulina and Natasha in PoleMor Liquors but somehow PoleMor had been relocated into his apartment on Maujer Street.

When he woke up, it was nearly dark.  He had slept for a long time and his knee was throbbing. He propped himself up on his elbows, checking to make sure his cart was in place.  The man who had been snoring was now squatting in his corner, arranging wire.

            "Hey," Alexander called, "I know where you can get more, plus tires." The man shrugged and continued to stack the bundles. Alexander began to rise, kneeling and then placing one foot flat on the ground. Then, with his palm pressed to the wall, he straightened to standing.  This was not the sting of sports injuries. This pain ricocheted from his heels to his hips and installed itself in his body like a creature of great will. Alexander fought it back. "Don't you understand what I'm telling you? It won't burn hot enough to remove the covering. You need tires, for the heat."

The man looked up at him. "What do you want." It was a statement, not a question.

Alexander shook his head and scoffed. He retrieved his cart and maneuvered over the rocks and weeds to the adjacent warehouse.   At least he would get one thing accomplished today.  There he gathered several tires and laid them like donuts so their edges touched. He flattened several cardboard boxes -- he hadn't seen them last week; someone must've brought them and forgotten about them -- and placed them on top as a platform.  As he made the final arrangements, footsteps approached.  It was the man, reeling under the weight of the wire.