Andrew Mengel’s “Lost to This World”
The Sigma Tau Delta International Convention celebrates the various works students in the honor society completed over the year. This celebration recognizes poetry, memoir, fiction, nonfiction, and academic essays. It took place over four days this spring, and it gave English majors around the country an opportunity to challenge, debate, and learn from each other's work.
I read my piece "Lost to this World" with a group of three other students who had similar themes to their essays. It was a great opportunity to share my work and to meet people that care about words as much as I do.—Andrew Mengel
Lost to this World
By Andrew Mengel
It was early New Years Day, sometime after five in the morning. I lay in a bed, wrapped in sheets I hadn’t washed since I moved in four months ago. I was also on my third spell of insomnia since traveling to the Czech Republic. From my window, the sun fell and rose. I lay awake, paralyzed—five hours of sleep in the past three days. The perpetual weight of sleeplessness. A maddening purgatory. I burrowed my chewed fingernails into my cheeks to test whether the two-dollar bottle of wine I guzzled had any effect. Undeniably, it had fallen short of its catatonic guarantee.
During these bouts I did anything to fall asleep. I would get drunk at nine in hopes of passing out by midnight, to no avail. I took Xanax, masturbated and smoked bad weed, which I bought from an old woman with purple hair. I hallucinated her crude face and cracked skin staring at me from the room’s ceiling. She was laughing at me.
To pass the time I studied my four walls. I read existential classics by Kafka, and smutty stories by Bukowski. Spiders snuck through my window and spun webs in the corners of my room, finding refuge from the cold. My ears rang from the deafening silence that echoed in my flat.
That day, the first of January, I decided to break my solitude and go for a walk. I twisted free from my sheets and dressed. I left my single room, and descended the stairwell from the fourth floor. I stepped outside of my apartment complex and onto the stoop. It had snowed for the first time since I’d been in Olomouc. The city was surrounded by mountains that rippled on until Krakow and Bratislava. I’d never seen snow as peaceful as it was that day. It was completely untouched. Lying atop of the cobbled stones, my boot prints would be the first to disturb its bliss.
Since living there, I often took long, slow walks. Normally I walked down the same path that snaked through the park and into the center of the city. Taking a direct left would lead me down that familiar path. However, a right would've sent me down a route I’d never taken before; one that led to a rural, neighboring village. I turned right.
The dirt path was veiled with white. The sunrise was the color of love. The snow burned pink and orange and red. I walked for nearly an hour until I reached a ticky-tacky Czech settlement. All the houses were built with stone slabs, topped with light auburn roofs. They were built in an unsymmetrical maze that wound up and down a hill; the village seemed vacant. I was alone.
As I walked, I heard a monotonous scraping sound, which got louder with each step. The sound in the stagnant air became grating. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I clenched my jaws together. The billowing clouds veiled the risen sun and in the distance I could make out a figure. It was an old, old man, who seemed to struggle to even stand. His hair was as white as the snow he was shoveling. His tapered coat matched the somber setting. He was unkempt and his hair stuck out like it was running away from him. His hands gnarled with arthritis. His pants ragged, barely hung on to his waist.
I approached him and said one of the few Czech words I knew, “Ahoj,” an informal hello. He twisted towards me until we made eye contact. He grimaced and flared his top lip. He smelt like mothballs. It was so pungent my eyes started to water. He never said a word, just stared at me. I counted his teeth. He had eight.
I finally put my hands out, made two fists and put them together. I made a shoveling motion towards the ground. He continued to stare at me, this time unimpressively. He sized me up several times. He started to laugh at me, like he just won something. He gave me the shovel, turned towards his house, and treaded to his door. His boots were at least three sizes too big, and his heels would be the first to drop down, making a steady, mesmerizing beat. Accompanied with the awful noise from my newly acquired tin shovel, we harmonized together.
I wasn’t wearing gloves. When I finished, my hands were numb and it was hard to let go of the shovel. The old man had been watching me the entire time from his window. I imagined him standing behind that window his entire existence. The world and his body, crumbling together. Simultaneously from scooping the last of the powdered snow, he opened the door and motioned for me to come inside. I threw the shovel down.
We walked through his front door, and were standing in his muck room. He hung his jacket on the coatrack, slung his boots in between two boxes filled with potatoes and slid into a pair of slippers that had two holes: one at the point of his right foot, allowing his big toe to protrude just enough to see the fungus spreading under his nail and one at the very top, which seemed to be from a cigarette’s ash. He pointed to my boots, and waved at them like he couldn’t control his wrist. I assumed, untied my shoes and placed them behind his; he nodded and shuffled to the next room.
He led me into the kitchen. The room was small and nothing was out of place. Light beamed from the window he watched me from. Dust suspended in mid air, circulating in the light, trapped and couldn’t escape. There was a stove with cabinets attached, an old-fashioned icebox, which probably only fit a liter of milk and a carton of eggs, and an old clock mounted on the wall. A chestnut-colored counter was built from under the window. Two adjacent chairs slid under the surface, and two adjacent mugs of coffee perched above. Trailing tentacles of vapor rose from the coffee until it blended in with the beam of light.
This was his life—a sack of potatoes, a window and an icebox. I lived a half-mile down the path from him and had everything. Since I was American, the university gave me every luxury they thought I needed—a stove, an oven, a microwave, a kettle, a toaster, a private bathroom. By the look in his eyes, I knew he sensed my privilege. Living in his village, lost to the world. From his window he’d watch his country’s hardship: the ascent, decline and sustained impact of the Soviets, followed by the overwhelming influence of Western societies. He knew who had shoveled his walkway. He resented me; I knew that. He scrapped for every potato in that sack, for every drop of coffee in my mug and for each of the hands that spun around the mounted clock. Unlike me—born into privilege. Born into middle-class America. Born into car-sized refrigerators filled with leftovers and chocolate milk. The old man sensed all of that and celebrated his small victory from behind his window, watching privilege finally bend its back.
We sat at the table, unable to communicate. The sink was dripping but seemingly didn’t make a sound. I looked around his kitchen. He looked through me. Everything was still, except the hands on the clock that ticked, ticked, ticked. I nearly finished my coffee, leaving one last sip. It swayed at the bottom of the mug as I tried to think of a smooth exit—nothing came to mind.
I looked back at the old man. His left eyebrow slightly rose higher than the right. He was still staring at me, this time unsure. I stood up and pushed in the chair. He rose slowly from his seat, awaiting my move. I stuck out my hand. He slid his into my palm, and squeezed faintly. We looked at each other one last time.
I spun around, walked through the kitchen and into the mudroom; slipped my boots back on, and let myself out. My footprints still the only scars in the snow, leading back to my flat. I left him and nothing changed. The old man lost to the world and I bounded by privilege. From his window, he burned a hole through the back of my head, and watched me trek back.