Below is an episode that seemed stylistically inconsistent with my novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe, which is more fabulist fiction and satire than slapstick humor. I took the initiative and edited it out before publication. Still, I miss the Chalkboard Cowboy, in fiction and in life.
THE CHALKBOARD COWBOY
The American Hospitality Center, a real estate company and change bureau, like many businesses during those uncertain times, hedged its bets with alcohol. The front portion of their Old Town storefront was furnished with a bar, several white plastic sets of lawn furniture and a large bulletin board upon which travellers posted messages to lost companions, sought or offered jobs, solicited rides to distant places. The bar served the summer’s standards: Pilsner, wine & Cokes, treacly Malibu rum and Black Death Vodka, along with tiny demitasses of bitter, chalky coffee whose taste lingered throughout the day. Mornings, the bartender concocted “American Style” breakfasts from a hotplate; pancakes and bacon, though the bacon was at best Canadian and the pancakes were as thin and porous as doilies, slathered in a watery chocolate sauce instead of syrup. What was precisely American about the café, except for its McDonald’s-like sterility and red, white, and blue paint-job, eluded John Shirting, though that did not stop him from making the bright yet droll place his regular haunt.
The bartender looked apprehensive as Shirting strode in and claimed a choice corner seat. In recent days he had been tutored by the foreigner in proper espresso drink assemblage, endured a quiz on milk-to-coffee ratios, and subjected to numerous suggestions for the café’s improvement. For Shirting’s part, he was greeting the morning with a series of espresso shots, replenishing the well-spring of optimism that caffeine catalysed in his mood.
He found that he was beginning to recognize faces in the crowd as he walked about town: expatriates who stood out with their breezy stride that refused to acquiesce to any sidewalk congestion—cutting through throngs of natives as though by some subversion of physics they existed on a less material plane than the city’s own denizens, or were constructed of looser, less earthbound and worrisome particles, phantasmal in nature. And to where were they rushing? Shirting noticed the same faces in the few cafés that serviced this new class of moneyed roustabouts. These foreigners, perpetually amazed by the purchase power of their dollars, pounds and francs, inured to the apathetic service by the sheer amount of cash they were saving.
Shirting noted that he was indeed being watched by one such man seated in the corner, a cowboy hat resting on the table in front of him.
“English teacher perchance?” the stranger asked, when Shirting gave an abbreviated toast with his demitasse of espresso.
“Germ of the system,” Shirting corrected him.
“What does that mean?”
“Laying groundwork. I can’t really talk about it,” replied Shirting.
“Of course, if you were a teacher you’d know me. Cause I’m the granddaddy of all English teachers,” the man said. Shirting noted he was sipping a tankard of beer at this early hour.
“That so, partner,” Shirting said, unconsciously adopting the Wild West motif set forth by the stranger.
“They call me the Chalkboard Cowboy. From kindergarteners to CEOs I’ve taught them all. You say you need hours? Look, I can get you a couple classes at a masseuse school I know of. The pay sucks but the fringe benefits are great.”
“No. No thanks,” Shirting replied.
“Okay, that’s not your speed. A client of mine happens to be very high up in the government. A certain Minister who likes to have a permanent English tutor on hand. The beauty part is this: you don’t have to teach him a thing. He just likes to show his tutor off in meetings—a status symbol of sorts.”
“Oh. Um…no.” said Shirting, kicking back the rest of his espresso.
“Look, you come work for me, and I’ll treat you real nice. I only set my guys up with good, safe gigs. You don’t like the client, you’re out of there. No questions asked,” the Chalkboard Cowboy said, mimicking Shirting’s gesture with his beer.
“What are you, some sort of language pimp?” said Shirting.
“I’d watch what you say. There might be some time when the, um, germing business recedes, and you’ll have to take up the slack, know what I mean? I’m just the man to help you out in that case. You’re not religious are you? Cause I don’t represent Mormons. Totally undependable. One minute they’re preaching the gospel that next they’re on a train to Istanbul with their favorite sophomore. Not that I don’t discourage the student-slash-teacher angle. It’s a known fact that language, better thought of as a virus than a discipline, spreads quicker in nuptial and prenuptial relationships.”
“The direction this conversation is taking does my mood no favors. I will take my leave and wish you well,” said Shirting.
“Hey, not so fast, baby.”
“Excuse me,” said Shirting.
“I feel compelled to add that I don’t think this town’s big enough for the two of us,” said the Chalkboard Cowboy.
“Like fun it’s not,” said Shirting, getting ready to go.
“Well you should know that you’re talking to the original Chalkboard Cowboy, not some Johnny-come-lately spin-off. But I’ve met people like you before. In my time here I’ve seen all kinds of shticks: back in ’89 there was Pierogi Perry; his thing was smuggling pierogi over the border from Poland. Claimed they lulled the soldiers into such a carbo stupor that they couldn’t get the energy up to repel the revolution. Real dissident. Even now, I sit here waiting for the Perestroika Kid, who would dismantle you like so many satellite states. So save the hot air and angst, there’s nothing new about it, you could practically host a convention.”
Shirting asked for the bill in his stunted Czech and fumbled over the unrecognizable change.
“You make me sick,” the American said as Shirting was getting ready to leave, “capitulating to their language. You can’t fool me. You’ll be back. They all come back.”
Shirting nodded, he felt the familiar need to adjust his dosage.
“I’ve got my eye on you kid. One more false move and-” Shirting did not hear the rest, for he was already out the door and converging with the tourist traffic on Karlova, heading for Old Town Square.