So a Solidarity Icon and a Former Leader of the Free World Walk Into This Bar…

Monika‘s mom is trying to tell a joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton. It’s not going well, because she can’t stop laughing. To contain the giggles, she tries ducking her chin towards her beer, which she has clutched to her sternum. To her left is her sister, whose house in Augustow Monika, her mom, and I are guests in on Mother’s Day in Poland. This sister looks more like a twin than a sibling and probably is genetically compelled to laugh along. To her right is Sabine, this sister’s neighbor, who has the second most contagious laugh I have ever heard. (The first was a lover from college. Alas, the memory of his titter lasted far longer than the fling.) I am next to Sabine and helpless not to laugh when Sabine does. It’s like being tickled. Monika, her cousin, and her cousin’s friend fill out the rest of the table. There is a dampness to us, and a bit of happy hysteria that is half female and half beer.

We women retreated inside a half hour ago when an early summer thunderstorm rolled in purple-green waves above the fields between us and the road to Lithuania. Our backyard barbeque has been officially rained out. Monika’s uncle and Sabine’s husband, by virtue of being grillmaster and male friend, respectively, nevertheless remain outside, the backs of their plastic chairs pressed against the house, periodically squinting up in disappointment at the dripping eaves. They drink Foster-sized cans of Polish beer and poke the grilling meat. Poland is the first predominantly Christian country I’ve visited in nearly four months, and nothing establishes this fact better than the grill. An inventive array of a half-dozen types of pork singe to tasty on the flames. I choose kielbasa and something vaguely baby-hamster shaped. Both are delicious.

Our women’s table is a bit punchy. It could be the beer, thought we haven’t had much to drink. It could be the humidity, but the beer is keeping us cool. Or maybe it’s the joke about Lech Walesa and Bill Clinton, though we haven’t heard much of it yet. Monika’s mom is still snorting and gasping her way through it. Brushing tears from the corners of her eyes, Monika translates the joke so far. It has something to do with Lech Walesa giving a bison to Bill Clinton. Surely, Poles love their meat.

I have understood this much when we are interrupted by Monika’s uncle, who stands damp and sheepish in the doorway to the patio with a look that says he’s rather be inside with the women but can’t for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that we’re a group of women—an impenetrable coven. He holds a tray of getting-soggy pork. The storm has doused the grill flames.

“What should I do with this meat?” he asks his wife. Hearing this, Monika’s mom takes one look at the tray and loses herself in merry shrieks. I guess I can assume the bison in the joke was in cutlet form.

“Maybe he should give the meat to Bill Clinton,” I say. Monika says “HA!” and translates. Her poor mother is nearly apoplectic. Sabine slaps the table and then my shoulder. “You know, I live in New York,” I continue, and Monika passes it on in Polish. “I could give the meat to Bill Clinton.” I rap my knuckles on the table and mime extending a tray to Billary’s front door with an eager flight-attendant smile. Now everyone is half crying and half laughing and clenching their stomachs.

Trying to catch her breath, Monika turns to me and says, “You are doing very well.”

We never do get to the punchline.

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