• Broadkill Review

"Kryztyna's World" by Roger McKnight

A somber drizzle filtered through the fog as Adam Carver headed for home. In a mesh shopping bag, he toted the Havarti his fiancée Kryztyna craved and a novel by Scott Fitzgerald, the one about Dick Diver in France and his wife, who left him for another guy. Adam couldn’t stop dwelling on Dick, jilted and confused, bicycling in the Alps with only himself to depend on. How strange and otherworldly it sounded, like Adam himself trudging alone down a gravel path in northern Minnesota while insistent raindrops clouded his view.


Wiping lenses didn’t help. He held his glasses at arm’s length and saw the world distorted through them. Dull autumn leaves turned a shimmering yellow and the droplets hanging from them strung out, eerily elongated, before they hesitated and fell, each plop like an asterisk of inevitable demise. At last, Adam stuffed the glasses in his coat pocket and decided to consider his fate unobstructed, pretty much the way Dick Diver did in the Alpine air. Nothing’s likely to dispel my doubt, Adam thought, but something might clarify its cause.    


As he hoisted the bag to a shoulder, Fitzgerald’s novel popped into his head yet again, how he’d picked it up at the local newsstand. That was about the time Kryztyna said she was pregnant and her old boyfriend Gilbert Wright wrote he’d duck in on his way back to England. The Englishman had a habit of coming and going in Kryztyna’s life and relighting their flame. Adam didn’t understand why she tolerated that behavior or okayed his return this time and she wasn’t saying.  The sequence created an uncomfortable serendipity. Adam didn’t know which made him happier, news of the baby’s impending arrival or thoughts of Gilbert’s eventual departure.      


In normal circumstances, Adam rolled with the punches at unusual news, but normal times were a while ago, like when he breezed through a college chem major and wandered the university library during his years at med school. He dreamed then of curing dread diseases, not laboring like now at North Home Memorial as a GP for the sick but readily cured and sorting out his own life.     


Adam’s dreams collided most solidly with reality when Kryztyna came on the scene. It wasn’t right to say he was blindsided in meeting up with her because they exchanged greetings and talked. But “me and you,” as she liked to say about them, had a pretty mundane prelude. Adam was hunched with others in a crowded nook at Sovereign Grounds coffee shop one blustery spring evening and still thinking about work when Kryztyna emerged out of nowhere.  She glanced his way and beseeched him to hold her steaming cup while she got comfy. Quickly she turned on high heels and created a seat beside him. Their shoulders brushed as he handed back her cup.     


Then, apropos nothing he discerned, she asked, “You know Zelda?”       


“Who?” he responded, as mystified about the name Zelda as what he was missing by not knowing her.    


“Me. It’s me.” 


“You’re who I’m missing?” he asked realizing she’d mysteriously guessed his thoughts, weird as that felt.    


Missing on Kryztyna wasn’t easy. She was a true blonde, lissome and lovely, able to choose her man. Their meeting at Sovereign Grounds happened during Adam’s hospital internship when sleep was at a premium and only the strongest Yemeni coffee kept him awake. Being drowsy made for lousy conversation, but he slowly got aroused over the energetic lady who spied him out and made her move.    

“Doesn’t matter who I am, you’ll find out,” she said looking him boldly in the eye. “But about Zelda now.”    


After more cups and a few words, Adam found Kryztyna and himself leaning into a stiff breeze peering at two gleaming white Harleys in the Sovereign Grounds parking lot. One was hers. Adam first assumed she showed up on the back seat of another guy’s motorcycle. Its driver was Moe, a tall, gangly local whose rowdy manner marked him as the roustabout he was. He lacked a front tooth and joked crassly about where Kryztyna would spend the night.     


“You don’t figure I date him, that creep, do you?” she asked Adam in a tone of incredulity. “Love his hog but not him.”Well, Adam had wondered and was glad Kryztyna didn’t make him ask.  She pointed at one of the late-model XL Roadsters.    


“Wanna ride?” she wondered.    


“Where to?” Adam asked.     


As it turned out, Kryztyna ended up in her own digs that night, with Adam by her side. Tired of hospital routine and needing a change, he worried little about who seduced who or why, but he remembered their unexpected meeting and bike ride.      


Zelda, as he came to learn from this new lady of such stunning directness, was the schizophrenic wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the St. Paul author, who wrote his spouse into his novels, creating various pseudonyms and including a dizzying pastiche of life facts and literary constructs. Kryztyna put Adam onto Tender Is the Night, which she admitted she’d never read. What he later learned from the novel about Fitzgerald’s wife, or guessed at, outdistanced what he found out about his own Kryztyna at the coffee shop on their first night together, though info about her tumbled in quickly thereafter like she predicted.


***    


On that first evening, Adam marveled how deftly Kryztyna, still in heels, maneuvered what she called “my dragon lady” and that she withstood the night wind so lightly dressed.  He held her tight around the waist and lived through the harrowing ride, never mentioning his fear of high speeds and sharp curves.     


At her place, she let her hair down and emerged from the dressing room in a laced thong.  It emphasized the curve of her hips and offered him first-hand assurance her beauty was of the flesh, not artifice.  His fatigue disappeared as quickly as the clothing. In making love, Adam brought his passion to culmination in one heated thrust and released emotions he never knew were so pent-up.  Afterward, they lay together in comfort, she on her stomach, with a leg across his. They remained thus entwined until the earliest sun rays sent a mirror-like glow along her spine.      


This was Adam’s first experience of such sudden sensuality. He had a quiet suburban upbringing in St. Paul’s Southland Park, took proper girls to high school proms, and enjoyed a studious undergraduate career. He knew women’s minds from growing up with two sisters, and his sexual debut, though delayed to his early twenties, was not without follow-ups. Still, before now he’d been looking for success at work more than amorous affairs, or possibly a wife to support him on his careerist path. Kryztyna excited him in a way he hadn’t imagined.  Her ease with her body showed in the way she withstood the outdoor chill and stood disrobed before him.  Now when she relaxed, he studied the texture of her skin as though his gaze might penetrate and enhance its natural luster. While he traced patterns down her back with his fingers, she began her life story in a lugubrious tone, unlike her forward approach at Sovereign Grounds.      


She was born and bred in Vermont, where, she assured Adam, “everything’s Liberal,” including her social proclivities.  “We all need regular friends,” she explained with a sly smile.  Her broad face set off high cheekbones, which reminded him of Poles he’d met in Slavic areas of northeast Minneapolis. She glanced up in a tease but continued talking about the Green Mountain State and herself.  Her father was a District Court judge, who tapped maples on a hobby farm for fun.  Her mother ran a souvenir shop and later managed family affairs by herself after early-onset dementia disabled the father.      


During a few desultory college years in the Midwest, Kryztyna stumbled on stories of Zelda’s bi-polar complaints and decided on a career in Psychology.  She was intrigued how some spaced-out folks could go off on mental walkabouts for a year or two and still come back to what seemed like normal, except they forgot everything that happened before the walkabout.

    

“Psych was fine except I grew weary of it. The talk was how folks in Clinical Psych got nuttier than their patients.”    

“How’d that lead you to the north woods hereabouts?” Adam asked.    


“I tell the locals I have no idea,” she admitted, “but clearly I never became a shrink.  Lucky I graduated at all, but I did, somehow.”    


Adam wrinkled his brow at her outpouring.  His months on duty in hospital wards had exposed him to worse, but he left off caressing her, which caused her to turn his way, puzzled.  “Not that I’m nuts, like some say. I have my story, too,” she said.    


“Like us all.  Which is?” 

   

“Before the Harley, I went for cheap cars with long rentals.  Like Rent-A-Wreck. Was crossing an unmarked railroad track one night, no warning lights. The locomotive came on slow but seemed aflame. It pushed my crate a hundred yards down the line. I hopped out after the first shock. Or maybe a ball of flame’s what I imagined seeing, out of the corner of my eye, dunno.”    


She shrugged and looked more intently at him, not seeking love, he guessed, but understanding, like maybe she’d told this stuff to tons of indifferent docs in treatment or whatever one-horse louts she met in town, who got bowled over by her looks but never understood or cared about her words.    


“You have to experience it yourself,” she continued. “I lost my taste and hearing a couple years, long-term recall disappeared a while, too.”    


Adam searched for any sign Kryztyna was mental.  Except for a mild exhibitionism and a marked absence of shyness, she seemed ordinary enough.     


“Returned to Vermont for a spell, but we were Kowalskis in a sea of stodgy New Englanders. I never hit it off, after going back, so my mother called cross country to a friend with a gift shop near Duluth. I came to these parts to work.  Primevil woods seemed the pits, but I made a go of it, selling schmaltzy Finnish doodads and gimracks to sweet ladies with blue hair. That’s when I hit the bar scene. I’m not the first. Or last. Painting small towns red by night. Knowing that crummy crowd’s not for me, but hoping to create some sensation or find a guy with magic. Suspecting I’d never find him.”    


“Him? To do what?”    


“Send me, back to reality. Chasing around was fun, I could taste it, even if not feel the need or anything special deep down, nuts as that sounds. I hoped for more, like that burning flame I glimpsed from the train. But nothing swept me away, until Gilbert, this Brit, who kept coming and going, which only made things worse. Missing him sent me back to therapy. The souvenir store ladies encouraged it. When I got to telling about the railroad crossing, folks tuned out, but this one doc mentioned Fitzgerald and Zelda.  Sadly, he said, she was nuts from birth, and it got worse. All I did was get hit by a train.”    


“Still, you read up on her and Scott?  Both?”    


“Their life sounded like fiction more than fact.  Reading about Zelda’s hospital stays, in Switzerland and other places I’ll never see.  Never in my wildest dreams, thank God, or in Zelda’s either, I bet, a girl like her growing up in Alabama.”    


“Fact and fiction?”    


“I decided they’re connected. Nothing pops up in real life that hasn’t already happened in some work of art.”    


“And the Harley?”    


“Came later. A crazy mess, what preceded it, I mean.”    


With those words, Kryztyna left off remembering.  A timed light came on in her room, and they got up, her rustling some breakfast grub and a sleepless Adam hustling to leave for his hospital. As he dressed, he saw her tempting smile turn to one of longing and hoped-for affection while the fullness of her womanhood infused him with desire.      


He gazed around at a few photos on the dresser top and a wall painting in reproduction, which hung at a whacko angle.  It showed a frail, dark-haired woman, so unlike Kryztyna, sitting in a rolling farm field under an autumn sky.  She supported her weight on one arm while peering toward the horizon and a desolate farmhouse. The scene spoke of a lonely soul desiring much but receiving little. Adam recognized the painting, but the artist’s name escaped him.      


“Grant Wood?” he ventured at last.    


When Kryztyna stood on tiptoe to straighten the frame, she turned so he saw her in half-light. Her long silky hair covered her eyes and the arm she used to straighten the painting hid her torso.      


“Wyeth,” she said and turned to Adam again.     


“What’s it mean?”    

“No clue. Found it somewhere.”  

   

“You never read up on it?” 

   

“She’s somebody searching, I guess. Like me. All I needed to know.”    


“Title?”    


Christina’s World.”  

  

Adam studied the painting a while longer, wondering about the tempting spareness of its landscape and what story it told, real or imagined. “And you mine,” he’d whispered as he left, uncertain why he said such a crazy thing and whether he was asking her for fidelity or proposing, and how smart either approach might be. He suspected he loved her, which was even crazier, he realized, after one night together, and that unplanned.


***    


Continuing his sodden path toward home, Adam followed along the outskirts of Burnham, a growing commercial center and the location on North Home hospital.  He felt the drizzle lessen but fog thicken. The cabin he and Kryztyna rented would soon appear vaguely outlined in the dark, and his thoughts fastened on their long romantic trek together.     


After the morning when she stood in the bedroom and watched him study Wyeth’s painting, the two continued meeting.  Most often at her place, as she abandoned the bar scene.  Moe from Sovereign Grounds beat a retreat, which ended their roadway ventures of past summers.  Kryztyna peddled her Harley and quit the souvenir shop to work at Adam’s hospital.     


Eventually their meals grew more convenient taken together.  Lovemaking became no less intense with daily living, so Kryztyna gave up her separate pad, tucked Christina’s World under her arm, and moved with him to Burnham. They got engaged. Now their first-born was on its way, and Wyeth’s Christina became a fixture on their kitchen wall, still searching for whatever.    


“I met you pretty intentional,” Kryztyna admitted. “I didn’t really need your help in Sovereign Grounds, I mean I coulda held my own cup hot though it was, but I’d seen you before and there you were that day, med student, not half bad looking either. Never intended to be in love with you.”    


Adam caught up on a few seminars about mental health, which helped him focus on Zelda and the woman now on the kitchen wall, to see if Kryztyna’s needs matched the other women’s.  Zelda’s bi-polar problems were hereditary, he surmised.     


The woman in the Wyeth painting, Christina, or whoever she was, appeared as the artist viewed her from behind, photographer-like.  Whatever object of desire she sought in that barren landscape failed to show its face, like the woman herself.      


It appeared to Adam that his Kryztyna and her rambunctious behavior differed from Zelda’s schizoid tendencies or Christina’s undescribed longing. Adam’s fiancée wanted something tangible and within the realm of regular ways, even if she’d fumbled for a sensible way to express what that meant. Togetherness was her goal, Adam guessed, though the man she might realize it with failed to appear or, as had happened with Gilbert, he showed up then flitted in and out of reach. Adam guessed his habits took a toll on her.    


“For me and Kryztyna now, there’s no turning back, however, we got here,” Adam murmured out into the misty evening.  “We’re pregnant now.”    


He stopped in mid-stride, slung the tote bag back over his shoulder, and pulled a slip of paper from his wallet.  Week of pregnancy 12. 30% done. 154 days to go, it read in Kryztyna’s hand. With a smile at her careful reckoning, he turned off the walkway. Thirty years old, next up for us both, the thought crossed his mind.  


Putting his glasses back on helped him spot their kitchen light in the dusk. Farther on he saw a rental car and figured their guest had already arrived. Adam still wondered why.


***    


Gilbert stood up from the kitchen table when Adam entered, and the two exchanged hellos. From a photo of Kryztyna’s, Adam recognized the Englishman’s angular features and ready smile, which he tried not to interpret as a dismissive smirk.       


“Kryztyna’s out back. Here in a sec,” Gilbert said and offered a seat to Adam, who placed his tote bag on the table before removing the cheese and Fitzgerald’s novel.      


Startled he’d just been invited into his own house, Adam searched for words and leafed distractedly through the novel’s now dog-eared pages. Gilbert, Adam reminded himself, had been important to Kryztyna in her early days at the souvenir shop, regaling her and her co-workers with a trove of news about folk music, his stück, and obsession.  Those times when Gilbert stuck around the north woods for longer spells, he taught part-time at a folk school. “Near one of the Minnesota lakes,” according to Kryztyna. Adam guessed she didn’t say which lake because Gilbert never told her. She said he had the habit of suggesting pithy topics without divulging their full content.    


“In England, the Beatles reawakened us to vital social concerns,” Gilbert said after a few minutes. Adam heard the Englishman’s mellifluous tones and wondered that a man of middle-class origins spoke like gentry. “British folk tunes at North Home,” he continued while Adam wondered about the name of the school he taught at and how an educated Brit found his way to these distant climes to begin with.    


“What’s your course called?” Adam asked, only to realize Gilbert’s comment had anticipated his question.  He was attempting to apologize for being so slow on the uptake when Kryztyna whooshed into the room.        


My fiancée, Adam thought studying the other two, his inamorata.  He wondered about the word he’d just made up, or remembered from some long-ago Italian opera, and felt stunned this three-pronged encounter was really happening.    


“Hi, guys,” Kryztyna said spontaneously. She started to introduce the men to each other but stopped in delight when she saw the cheese, which Adam used his pocket knife to cut.  Kryztyna waited for the last slice whereupon she produced an improvised serving of Havarti, cold cuts, and French bread. Adam and Gilbert washed it down with Guinness, which Gilbert had brought along and placed in their fridge.  He removed the twist-off caps for himself and Kryztyna, who said no to hers, and left Adam to unscrew his own. Their hunger temporarily satisfied, the three sat around the kitchen table as the two men nursed second bottles, Adam uncomfortably so.     


“We English had folk tunes from Anglo-Saxon times. They contained social criticism but the peasants shrouded the meaning in bawdy dances, so critiques were lost on the ruling class,” Gilbert expounded.      


Adam imagined the Englishman’s measured speech habits echoing the magistracy of Old-World lords, who wandered their estates lecturing humble farmhands on the great wide world. In this Englishman’s presence, Adam would have felt reduced to peasant status himself, except Kryztyna’s previous descriptions of Gilbert made his life seem more like vagabondage than lordship. How he was employed in the UK remained unclear, likely because Kryztyna didn’t know herself, and temporary teaching jobs at North Home Folk School in the wilds of Minnesota offered little more than life’s essentials.  Still, Gilbert’s glib tongue made him an intriguing addition to this distant outpost. Like a modern-day minstrel, he brought news of exotic worlds.