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Controlled Conversations

My most recent novel as of May 2019 is in need of representation. Contact: klagodzki at gmail dot com

CONTROLLED CONVERSATIONS, a work of adult literary fiction, is complete at 77,000 words. I believe it will appeal to the fans of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, as well as Steve Yarbrough’s The Unmade World.

The novel’s events cover the span of two weeks in the summer of 1982 in Soviet-controlled, martial-law Poland, the time and place in which no one knows whom to trust. Ordered to listen to the calls she connects, Emilia, a telephone operator in the small town of Zygmuntowo, overhears a conversation carried out in an apparent code. Meanwhile, outside the seaside city of Elbląg, Antek, a shipyard engineer and a Solidarity treasurer escapes an internment camp and works to recover the Union’s money, a task which in time leads him to Emilia’s town. Unbeknownst to both, in the metropolitan city of Gdańsk, Roman, a secret police officer disillusioned with his marriage and dreaming of spending the rest of his life on a beach in Rio, wants the money for himself. When geopolitical forces and violent men descend upon the little Zygmuntowo, Emilia must face choices she never expected to have to make.

A short excerpt follows.

CHAPTER ONE

Sokołowska

Emilia Sokołowska jammed the plug into a worn hole and drawled into her headpiece, “This conversation is being controlled.” She listened with half an ear. At first, back in December, there would have been little exchanged. A tentative hello, how are you, did you sleep well, oh that’s nice. But now, six months into martial law, she and her ear had grown into the circuitry like just another resistor.

“I miss you,” the doctor said, “I wish you’d never had to leave.” He blew the ether a kiss.

“Oh, Danusia,” Mrs. Brozio giggled in response, “sure I’ll stop by for tea at five.” Then she whispered, “You call too often! He’s still at home.”

Emilia turned off the remaining half ear. Dr. Szukała wasn’t even Emilia’s gynecologist, and she had heard this conversation a dozen times. When she began to learn who was sleeping with whom, she found goosebumps on her arms at the strangest of times. When she met Maria Brozio in a store after the first time she’d listened, the other woman twenty years older and with a homemade perm the size of a small poodle, Emilia smiled. Brozio screwed up her forehead and sniffed. Emilia wondered if she had given anything away in her eyes.

Now, few surprises remained. She would snag a plug and stab a hole next to a blinking light. “This conversation is being controlled,” she would say and pay it no mind. If Mr. Brozio—or any of the other men—ever learned who’d conspired to make him a cuckold, it wouldn’t be from her.

Emilia had started at the telephone station less than three years before, as soon as she’d failed university entrance exams after high school. I’ll try again next year, she’d told herself then. Maybe she still would one day. She continued to read and memorize Baczyński, Miłosz and Hłasko, others, for love rather than credit toward a literature degree.

Back in the fourth year of high school, the old Polish lit teacher Mr. Pietrzak had told her she’d never amount to anything right after giving her a final marginally passing grade. She knew the low grade wasn’t for her writing or literary critique. He’d been doling out punishment for most of the preceding two years.

You’ll never become anyone. Had she begun to believe him? She shivered thinking of Pietrzak’s nicotine-stained hands on her shoulder and his breath in her cheek. He seemed to be with her in the exam hall at the University of Gdańsk when she bombed the analysis of Szymborska’s “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition.” Her mind betrayed her by filling up with Pietrzak’s lewd little backward steps, his ass-cheeks clenched as if in charge of holding a live grenade. That smirk.

It should never have happened.

Now it was June of 1982, and Emilia sat and monitored sin, love and banality.

***

The night shift on December 13th, 1981, ended hours past quitting time. A few minutes after midnight, two uniformed Milicja Obywatelska men, accompanied by a few armed soldiers in fatigues, walked into the telephone station and ordered Emilia and Frania Nowak, the only two women on the shift, off their headpieces and to their feet.

Emilia held Frania’s shoulder, as her shiftmate seemed to have trouble breathing. Pani Frania could have been no more than fifteen years her senior, but as soon as Emilia had met the woman for the first time, she sensed in her a frailty which couldn’t be explained by age. Now, they hobbled to the opposite wall and stood under the searching eyes of the men and the sharp, naked neon light which made Emilia shiver.

One of the militia men prodded a skinny soldier, the only one with a bar of rank on his chicken chest. “Nothing to worry about,” the skinny boy said, stumbling forward. He fixed the AK47 on his shoulder, then fingered the knob of his nose and exhaled. Emilia wondered if the gun’s strap had left a bruise against the bone. Her urge to stare oscillated between the rifle and the nose. She could think of nothing to say.

The boy swallowed, glanced back and remained silent. The militia man took off his hat and scratched the flaking skin on top of his bald pate. He walked up to the console wall and stared at the row of plugs, lights and sockets. With a sigh, he dropped into in a swivel chair and spun to face the room.

“All telephone communication has been suspended. No phone, no telegram, telex, what not. As of,” he glanced at his watch, “fifteen minutes ago, we’re under martial law.”

“Martial law?” Emilia didn’t know if she asked about what that meant or what exactly happened, but she was glad to get some words past her throat. She wondered how it was that she’d never met the man before—Zygmuntowo was a small enough town that she should have known all of the local cops.

“Let’s go,” the man said.

In short order, the cops and the soldiers herded Emilia and Frania upstairs and into the administrative office. The janitor and the boiler man were already sitting on the floor in the middle of the room under the guard of two uniformed boys with guns. The bald militia man pointed to the floor, and Emilia complied. His gaze fixed her down and moved on to the others. With a nod to the soldiers, he turned and left the room, followed by the other man with experience in his eyes.

The soldier who had tried to comfort them slouched, then sunk to a crouch with his back against the wall, his gun held between the knees. He gestured around and the other boys followed his example. “Let us know if you want any water,” he addressed Emilia and Frania. “We have no food, but if you want some tea, we could make it in the kitchenette.”

“Tea would be nice.” Emilia smiled at the boy. He smiled back. She decided he wasn’t as young as she had thought, now that most of the fear had fled him. Perhaps her age. He sent four of the other men to the kitchenette, and when they returned, they carried enough tea cups to go around.

Emilia sipped her tea, back to back with Frania, next to the janitor and the boiler man, and surrounded by six soldiers with machine guns, each resting against the wall. All she could hear for a time was sipping.

“What’s happening?” Emilia heard Frania say. “I’ve got children at home.” The woman’s first words since the soldiers barged in barely shook. Emilia sought Frania’s hand, squeezed and held.

“Martial law,” the soldier in charge said. “Security and the military have taken over. They put Gierek and others in prison. And a lot of Solidarity people, too. Wałęsa. Thousands. I don’t know how many. We’re under curfew now, until the morning.”

“What’s your name?” Emilia asked.

“Marek.”

“Emilia,” she said. “Behind me, that’s Pani Frania.” She smiled and worked on deciding how much that nose bothered her.

***

Within days, the telephone station got back to business, now militarized. Local and national operator-assisted connections resumed. Being part of the military made Emilia feel no different than she had before. Having to tell people she would eavesdrop on them made her feel sticky at first. But the days turned into weeks and rubbed the muck off until the smooth surface of duty and routine shone unobstructed.

Now, in June, snow had long melted, the birds had come back, and the water in the lakes was warm enough for swimming. Morning shift ended at three, and Emilia had plans. She filled another socket with a plug, and a light stopped blinking. “This conversation is being controlled,” she muttered.

“I have a kilo of smoked eel for sale,” a woman’s voice on one end of a long-distance call said, having waited for no hello. Emilia’s ear perked up. There were few things that made her drool as much as smoked eel.

“I’ll take two kilos, but only if they’re fresh,” a man answered. A Pomorze Region number. Somewhere on the Baltic Sea. Gdańsk? Elbląg? Emilia didn’t know off the bat—she didn’t have Frania’s spooky savant memory for phone numbers.

“As fresh as December,” the woman said. “The holy mass is scheduled for five in the morning on July 6th. In the intention of Antoni’s spirit.”

The connection clicked as both hung up. Emilia returned the plug to its resting spot with a shake of her head and caught the sight of the wall clock. A minute to three. A report would take a good hour to file. The door opened, and her successor walked in. Emilia disconnected her headset. She had a place to be.

Marek waited by the door to the bar and put out his cigarette with the heel of his left boot as soon as he lifted his head and spotted her preparing to cross the street. A few seconds later, Emilia grunted in his skinny but solid hug and gave him a kiss. She screwed up her nose.

“I’ll stop smoking when I get out of the army,” Marek said, as he had so many times before. He inhaled and cleared his throat. “Ready?” He smiled.

The smile was what had gotten her to start with. And the eyes. She was willing to overlook the nose for the kindness in these eyes.

The nose was difficult to overlook.

Marek led her to a table and walked off to get their drinks. Sitting by the open window, Emilia looked out at the trees lining the avenue and at the occasional passersby, many in short sleeves. Cars came across every so often, most of them Fiats, sometimes a Trabant, a Škoda, a Syrena. Trucks smoked worse than Marek, and a majority were civilian. Birds sang with the happiness of the uneducated, drowning out the smaller engines.

Marek placed the beers on the table and hefted his.

“Na zdrowie,” he said.

“Na zdrowie.”

Emilia drew deeply and licked her lips. Beers at a bar. She wondered how much of his soldier’s pay he was spending.

“How was your day?” Marek’s fingers worried over the mug’s handle.

“Something wrong?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Emilia said. She smiled.

“I’m getting transferred to Białystok.”

Emilia’s smile slipped.

“I’ll come visit,” she said. “It’s just two hours on the bus.”

Marek took a drink and stared at his hands. “I know,” he said. He pushed his chair back, and before Emilia could react, Marek was kneeling in front of her with his hand out. A ring rested on the open palm. “Will you marry me?”

That night, Emilia cried a little. Then, as she waited for sleep to cover her, instead of the hurt in Marek’s eyes when she said no, she thought about the man who wanted to buy two kilos of eel.