Lynn Lipinski (2010 PSP participant, Robert Eversz workshop)
Lynn Lipinski graduated in spring 2018 from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, UCLA Magazine, Trojan Family Magazine, and several small literary presses.
“Surprise” was inspired by my time in the 2010 Prague Summer Program. Like most tourists, I found myself lost in twisting neighborhood streets in Prague, struggling to find unfamiliar street names on a map as I panicked. A few years later, I wrote this story as part of a prompt in a short fiction class, drawing on the emotion and wonder of being lost and then found. I played around with using Czech phrases in the story, using the phrasebook I had bought to help me navigate the city. The story was published in Summer 2015 in Manuscript 50, the literary magazine of Los Angeles Valley College. Link: https://lavc.edu/english/manuscript50/styled-5/index.html
Trena was lost in Prague. She had left the familiar people and language of the conference she was attending in the large hotel near the Vltava River to purchase allergy medicine she should have remembered to bring with her from Los Angeles.
The escape for allergy medicine was in fact a pretext for getting out for a walk. The hotel gift shop sold the medicine, but in small quantities and for too many korunas though the truth was her company would reimburse her for the cost if she chose to put it on her expense report.
She wanted to be alone and drift into her real self. To shut down the part of her that had to smile and network and look for business opportunities. And to do that, she wanted to immerse herself in Prague.
She started the walk bravely, long strides heading confidently through narrow streets lined with sandstone buildings. But after only a few minutes, she felt like an interloper, locked out by hundreds of closed doors, drawn curtains and rushing passers-by, and denied any intimate knowledge of their lives or the city.
Thirty minutes later she was no closer to a pharmacy than when she started, and the time spent wandering had evoked the opposite reaction she’d hoped for. Instead of feeling the pleasures of an adventurer, she felt only loneliness. She was ready to give up and buy the antihistamines at the overpriced hotel boutique, but after all the twists and turns of her afternoon walk, she wasn’t sure what direction to go. Her pace quickening, she turned onto the kind of broad avenue where a taxi might be. Though she’d been told to avoid Prague taxis as they were known to overcharge tourists, Trena was so tired, she didn’t care how much it cost. She just wanted to stop walking.
But her relief evaporated as she saw the trash-strewn asphalt, devoid of traffic though the biting odor of diesel gas lingered in the air. This larger ulice, called Dlouha, seemed to be closed to automobiles, at least temporarily. The faint, fading oom-pah-pah of a marching band and loose groups of spectators deciding on where to go next led her to realize a parade had recently passed through the street.
A mockingbird in a tree taunted her with another bird’s song. She hunched over her map of the city, eyes blurry with tears.
A man brushed by her, a blonde child in a pink dress sitting on his shoulders. The man held hands with a sparrow-like woman, who held hands with a brown-haired boy of about five years old. The boy leaned over to pick up bits of shiny confetti off the sidewalk.
Trena wiped the tears away with the back of her hand, folded the map and took a deep breath. She looked left and right. Was she at the start of the parade route or the end? Anxiety bubbled up in her throat like a gas. No way to know, she thought. Go left.
The little boy began to jump up and down, shouting and pointing. “Prase! Prase!”
Trena followed the boy’s stick-straight arm to the object of his excitement. In the middle of the street stood a huge pig.
Trena blinked twice. There was no reason for a pig to be on a parade route in Prague. But there it was. The pig stood in the street, utterly alone, no handler or owner in sight. Two tourists took photos of it with their smart phones.
The pig must be as lost as she was, Trena thought. But, unlike her, it seemed perfectly comfortable standing in the street. It was enormous, six-feet long and pink, thick flesh pulled over a dense frame, its chin raised proudly, almost defiantly. Its flat snout pointed to the sky as though sniffing for rain.
A circle of spectators formed loosely around the pig, each holding smart phones at eye-level. Why can’t people just experience the unusual firsthand anymore, Trena wondered. She stepped past the family on the sidewalk and into the street to get a closer look.
The pig, with a slow turn of its massive head, trained its onyx eyes on her. One pink ear folded down on itself but the other stood upright, giving it a jaunty air that brought a tiny smile to her lips. A beam of late afternoon sun gilded the fine blond hairs covering its flesh.
“Ke mně, ke mně!” called a thin black man dressed in a tracksuit, squatting on the street. The pig ignored his command to come, and kept watching Trena.
Trena slipped around a stooped, grey-haired couple who spoke to one another in quiet voices, their eyes fixed on the pig. She was close enough to the pig to catch a whiff of its barnyard scent of sweet grasses and manure, which tickled a sneeze out of her already hypersensitive nose, and transported her back to day trips to the county fair as a child. A long piece of yellow grass hung from its snout. Up close, its eyes looked kind, not beady as they had from the distance, with wrinkled skin around them mimicking the expressiveness of eyebrows.
When she was near enough to lay her hand on the pig’s thick neck, it turned its head away from her to gaze at a point down the road. Then, with a lightness and grace she did not expect, the pig began to walk down Dlouhá ulice.
The pig’s thick hooves tick-tacked on the pavement. Several people in the crowd fell in behind the pig, as did Trena.
A woman stood in the doorway of a cell phone repair shop, her oval face framed by a black hijab. Her fingers flew over her smart phone screen while her wary eyes followed the pig’s progress. The smell of cherry vanilla tobacco puffed out of a hookah bar.
Two policisté in crisp light blue shirts with dark epaulets and matching pants did a double-take as the pig and its entourage reached the doorway where they stood talking. The taller one poked a long finger under his blue beret to scratch his head, while the younger one pulled his radio receiver to his mouth and spoke into it. They fell in behind the pig as well.
Trena’s loneliness dissolved into wonder. Where just five minutes ago she’d felt like a latecomer to a celebration, now she found herself at the center of an impromptu parade led by a pig. From the sidewalk, a small girl in a pink tutu waved at her and the pig, and Trena smiled and waved back. A half-eaten cob of corn someone had dropped in the gutter beckoned to the pig, and it dipped its head to investigate briefly before moving on.
They came to an intersection and what Trena supposed must have been the end of the parade, for marching band members in green capes milled about with their instruments still in hand. A tall clown with a tiny yellow hat perched on a green fuzzy wig ran into the street to try to pet the pig.
The tuba player blew oom-pah-pahs in time with the pig’s steps, but this did not go on for too long before the pig stopped in front of a babička wearing a simple cotton housedress and thick-strapped sandals. Tight grey curls framed the old woman’s wrinkled round face; her eyes were dark and piercing like the pig’s.
“Hodný prase,” she said, her hand extended to the pig. “Ke mně.”
The pig lowered its head and walked to her, rubbing its snout against her legs. She scratched the back of its neck. The crowd fell back, but Trena stayed with the pig and the old woman, trying to bring the right words out of the dim ether of her memories of speaking Czech to her grandmother as a child.
“To je vaše prase?” Trena said. Do you own the pig?
“Ano,” the woman said with a curt nod. The rapid fire Czech that followed was a mush of sounds that Trena could only discern a few words. Statek for farm. Nákladni auto for truck.
A weather-beaten man in a grimy yellow coat approached the woman, and pointed back to a livestock trailer affixed behind an old green Soviet-looking truck, parked fifty feet down the side street. The pig and the woman both looked at the truck. The man pivoted sharply on his heel and walked to it, and at nearly the same time, the pig and the babicka followed him.
Behind the truck sat an orange and white taxi. Trena took a deep breath and lifted her hand to wave at the driver, but stopped herself short. The urgency of her loneliness had long passed. She no longer wanted to be locked in the cocoon of her hotel room. Instead, she wanted to be out walking some more, the leader of her own parade through Prague, just like the pig.