The Grand Stabile
By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 1 June 2013
Alexander Calder's grand stabile, its legs hidden by the crowd, rose above the people's heads like a huge flame. It was made of plate steel, thick as a battleship hull, and painted bright red. From its four legs, it swooped and dipped, expressing in its curves a sense of strain, of effort to rise.
The crowds were there for the arts festival, which the city held every year on the first weekend in June. It takes over the whole downtown area with stages where the dance schools and bands perform. There are also ethnic booths where the foods of a couple of dozen cultures are available, along with craft stalls, folk dance classes, poetry readings and string quartets. All of this is in celebration of the stabile itself, the symbol of the city.
Eddie Bialek and his wife walked along Main Street briskly, at the edge of the crowds. They weren't really thick yet; that would come later tonight, when the festival was in full swing. They had two goals; first, they wanted a lamb and rice plate from the Greek booth, and then wanted to volunteer at the Sts. Cyril and Methodius parish booth, where they served perogies, a traditional Polish treat.
They made their way toward the lamb, and had to stand in line. The plaza filled up, with more and more people milling around in front of the city hall and the central bank.
"It looks like a bird today," Eddie told his wife. "A bird of prey. Folding its enormous red wings. Yes. It's just killed something and will now rip it apart with its hooked beak."
He teased Connie this way, making more or less farfetched interpretations of the stabile. He said it reminded him of a woman on her back, knees up, in the final throes of childbearing; or a huge red beast, slowly stretching its enormous bulk. Eddie Bialek was not an abstract thinker. Connie thought her husband's interpretations were mostly goofy.
The couple made their way to the parish booth, where they were supposed to take over for the Dombrowskis, who had been there since noon. As it turned out, the Dombrowskis had been replaced by their own children, and the booth was already nearly staffed. One of the Bialeks was superfluous.
After a quick discussion with Marty Levinski, the team leader, they decided that Connie would stay at the booth and run the cash register, and Eddie would return to the parish kitchen, where another crew was preparing fresh food. When he returned, he could bring the fresh perogies with him, and the couple would leave together. It seemed like a good plan to Eddie, except for one thing: Stanley Pierzchala was in charge of the kitchen back at church, and Stanley drove Eddie crazy.
Stanley was a pillar of the parish, on every committee, work group, or painting party. He was also a relisher, one might even say a connoisseur, of decline. He believed that the American Catholic Church was in decline, that the American man and the American woman were in decline, that the American Baseball League was in decline. He believed that these various declines were connected somehow, with ramifications to the school system, the military, the government and any other institution that comes up in conversation. Which is why the people around him did not encourage his conversation. No one ever contradicted him.
No one, that is, but Eddie. For this Stanley Pierzchala loved him, sought him out, called him pet names (buddy-boy, sport, pal), referred his rhetorical questions to him. Eddie believed that America was advancing toward justice, that strong, independent women were an asset to the country, that the Catholic Church was growing all over the world. About the American League, he agreed with Stanley.
Eddie drove to the church, a five-minute drive through the city's oldest section. Sts. Cyril and Methodius was traditionally a Polish church, where sermons and confessions were in that language when he was a boy, and so they ran the Polish booth. Hence the perogies.
Perogies are little polish dumplings. They are filled with anything a cook can imagine -- pate, any jam or jelly, ground pork, liverwurst. Not in Stanley Pierzchala's kitchen, of course. There, perogies were filled with cheese and potatoes or plum preserves, and nothing else. A liverwurst pierogi is was to him an example of decline comparable to bareheaded women in church, or .170 hitters demanding three million dollars a year. If his grandmother, old Magdalena Pierzchala, didn't use an ingredient, Stanley wasn't going to use it, and anyone who did was a dangerous subversive.
Eddie walked in through the side door, past the little shrines in the transept, and down the side aisle to the basement steps. He didn't notice that Dickens, the parish cat, had slipped in behind him. He entered the kitchen, a large room painted beige and lit with fluorescent lights, which gave to Stanley's face and the faces of his wife and other female relatives a mortuary tinge, green and sickly. Stanley was standing behind an enormous steel bowl, wooden spoon in hand, holding forth to the ladies, who were seated. The room smelled wonderful -- floury, garlicky, warm. Your grandmother's kitchen smelled like that on its best day.
"I am telling you. Don't make a mistake, here. I am telling you. I am not going to allow this. I put up with a lot around here. I am not going to put up with this. I am telling you."
His wife and the other ladies said nothing. Stanley's eye lighted on Eddie. "Edziu," he said. Only Stanley called him Edziu. "Edziu. Our good pastor wants to renovate our church. Do you know what that means?"
"Hello Stanley. Hello Molly. Hi Eloise. Hello Marlena," Eddie said. "Renovate. A verb, from the Latin. Renovare -- to make new. Father Chymurnski wants to fix things up a bit. Recarpet. Paint. I heard about it, Stanley."
"Recarpet. Paint." Stanley said in a high, mincing tone. "Look what happened over at St. Ignatius. Lord. They made a gymnasium out of it. They took every statue out, all the candles, pulled out the old high altar, and would have replaced the stained glass, only the people chained themselves around the door and wouldn't let the workmen in."
"Stanley," Eddie said, "Stanley. Mr. Pierzchala. That was a terrible scandal. I don't want to see anything like that here. Anyway, I am sure Father Chymurnski has no intention of turning our church into a gymnasium. There will be no basketball hoops in here. We will not be slam dunking the baptismal font…"
"Very funny. You know what I mean," said Stanley. "You know exactly what I mean. I mean that this church will be just as cold and bare as a gym. A high school auditorium. A Protestant church."
Stanley said "Protestant Church" as you would say "porno theater." Ecumenism to him was also a decline. "Look at this basement. It's been renovated. It's been renovated within an inch of its life. Everything that made this place beautiful is gone now. The art that was here…" His voice trailed off as though he were sadly contemplating the destruction of Monte Cassino, or an attack on the Pieta. In fact, he was talking about the basement dining room, right outside the kitchen. The extent of iconoclasm in this room had been to throw out some of the traditional beadwork that had decorated the walls, and a few examples of straw braiding in a glass case. Peasant crafts.
"Look, Stanley. We've repainted down here," Eddie said. "There's a nice new floor. We made white and red diamonds on the walls -- the colors of the Polish flag. Very nicely done. Fresh. Modern. You've got problems with this?"
"Oh, that's nice. Red and white, that's very nice. But old Mrs. Ochochinski made such beautiful straw braids, that no one knows how to do any more, and the same with the glass beads that Mr. Jacobs brought from the old country. What are they going to do upstairs, now? What do you suppose they are going to do up there? They are going to take out everything that makes this place beautiful, that's what they are up to. All the windows, all the statues, everything the old people worked so hard to put in…"
"Stanley. This is a church. It is not a museum. Things are different now. We have to move with the times."
"You move with the times. I'm staying right here."
"There is no need to take the Lord's name in vain, Buddy-boy. Remember where you are."
Just then the cat caught his paw on the switch-cord of the fan and turned it on, just as Lena Pierzchala was pouring another bag of flour into Stanley's big stainless bowl. Flour blew everywhere, in Stanley and Lena's faces, across the table, into the faces of his sisters. They laughed uproariously.
Stanley's sister Molly picked Dickens up and gently dropped him out the rear door. "Hard times for you, kitty," she said.
After they cleaned up Stanley could not resist making a metaphor out of the incident, comparing the dry flour to his family and community, which would have been blown around in like manner, were it not for the cohesion provided by the parish church. "Look, Edziu. I put a little water into the flour, mix it up, and it's not going anywhere. You see that? A solid ball of dough." He held up the dough, solid indeed, and for emphasis, slammed it down on the table with a satisfying thud. The Pierzchala perogies were not light fare.
Eddie took his place at the table. As Marlena rolled out the dough and Eloise cut it into squares, he spooned plum preserves onto them and passed the squares to Molly, who covered and crimped them. They worked until the pan was full, and then started on the potato and cheese mixture.
Stanley began one of his diatribes, this time on the subject of modern art. He began by criticizing the Stabile. "The Big Red Thing. This is supposed to be Art. We gather together, the whole town, every summer, to honor this piece of junk -- this two hundred and fifty thousand dollar piece of red junk -- and I still don't know why. Nobody can explain why. The mayor goes on about this symbol of our community ‘til he makes me sick. The stupid thing is on every garbage truck and every street sign and every fire engine, even the traffic tickets. Every time I get the tax notice, there it is, sitting on top of the letter, like an insult, and I get madder and madder because I remember I paid for it --"
"We all paid for it, Stanley. It was a joint project of our city and the federal government. Plus individual donations. Everybody contributed. It was a victory for our city, that we all came together and paid for this thing. That's what we're celebrating, really, that we worked together on this. To get something beautiful. Stanley, it's like, when you see the Eiffel tower, you think Paris, and when you see St. Peter's, you think Rome. You see the stabile, you think…"
"Suckers. A bunch of suckers bought something from a con artist. That's the only kind of artist Calder was. A con artist. It doesn't mean a thing, that piece of junk -- not to the world, and not to me."
Eddie thought there was some justice to Stanley's remark. Paris and Rome were significant cities before the Eiffel tower or St. Peter's ever existed, and the symbols refer to a greatness already on the ground. The Stabile refers to -- what? A dream? It certainly couldn't create greatness on its own. But Eddie knew you couldn't give debating points to Stanley Pierzchala.
Unfortunately, Stanley took silence as, precisely, giving up debating points, and pressed his argument with vigor. "What's it supposed to be, anyway, there, pal? I mean, we're supposed to think something when we look at it, aren't we? What? What a genius that guy was? What do you think?"
Eddie did not think this was the time to expound his theories of the red and recumbent woman, nor the bird of prey. A symbol of aspiration. He settled on that.
Stanley concluded his criticism. "You know what I think? I think it looks like a big red constipated elephant. That's what I think."
Once again Eddie had to give him silent credit. There was a tension in the curves of the stabile, with their swooping rise and abrupt fall, which suggested an abdominal strain as much as it did spiritual effort.
They were finished with the pans of pierogi, and only needed to boil them awhile and get them back to the booth while they were still hot. They spooned them into boiling water and waited for them to simmer, then strained them with a huge colander. Eddie carried the pans through the church to his car.
He passed the great Pentecost window, glowing from the setting sun, and paused before it. The stained glass artist had picked the moment that the Apostles, released from their cowardice, realized that their duty was to spread the joyous news that Christ who was dead had risen. Peter looked resolute, though sad; John ecstatic, Thomas confident, his doubts removed. The other apostles express varying degrees of strength and fear, and the sorrowful Virgin in their midst added the knowledge of their future martyrdom to her sadness. They were ready to speak in their native language, and did not yet know that all the world would be able to understand.
Eddie stood before the window, the pans steaming in his hands. There was no mistaking its meaning, not for him, not for anyone. No one could misinterpret or pervert it.
Eddie looked up at the dove, which held in its beak the tongue of fire that confirmed the apostles in courage. He prayed that the Holy Spirit would give him the strength the apostles had, the courage to take a stand and proclaim the Good News to all, simply and directly.