The Insider's Guide to Žižkov Ahhh... Summer is almost in Prague! The city is your oyster! You can wander about merrily hopping from beer garden to boat ride, giddily romping from pub to pub, across the river and back again. Ahhhhhh... ...

Snowy night in Brno
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My best friend's brother had rented a car to take us to Brno for his bachelor party. In the van we passed around bottles of liquor. I remember shots of Jameson's, Cuervo, Goldschlager and Becherovka. Lots of shots.

I was already drunk when we got to the outskirts of Brno, the grey concrete herna and bar district on the north side of town. We were in a strip bar and I believe I stumbled out with the idea of looking for an old friend who I thought might still work at a bar nearby.

I can't be sure of this though, as this part of the night is a fuzzy memory. 

All of a sudden my faculties came back, like a wave crashing into me. I was alone and on a dark street. There was an ice storm, the wind sending sheets of freezing rain down on me.

I had left my jacket back at the bar and I stood there for a moment, squinting in the driving cold rain, and looked around: A cold, empty urban scene covered in a layer of ice that made the whole place look even more hostile than on another normal dark night. 

I walked around, hugging my own body and shivering. I found myself in a parking lot, maybe drawn to the light of the attendant's booth. He saw me and opened the door and called for me come inside. I could hear the sound of a radio or television in his booth.

"I'm lost".

"Ty vole, its freezing out there".

"No sh*t its cold".

"Hang out with me in here and watch some Platoon".

I stared at the Nova logo on the television and watched people being blown up in a far off jungle. He was silent, evidently very involved in the movie. I was still shivering after a few minutes and he reached in a drawer just below the TV set and pulled out a bottle of Slivovice and passed it to me.

"Have some, it'll warm you up".

He watched as I took a hearty drink and said "I just sit here and get f*cked up all night!" He seemed really proud of this. I took a few more hits and then I wasn't shaking as much. I asked him where a tram stop was that would take me back to the center and he pointed me down that dark, cold and lonely road.

"Good luck", he called out as he closed the door sealing the electronic symphony of machine gun fire and screams in his little booth.

I walked down the road and was nearing a tram stop but I could already see there was no cover provided for waiting passengers. About fifty meters from the bus stop a dark figure materialized out of the swirling frozen rain. A young male Gypsy in a dark navy trenchcoat looked up at me and made his way directly for me. Fear shot through me like a bolt and I was shaking again, the Slivovice expunged from my senses like a vanished ghost. 

""Kam jdeš?" (Where are you going?)

"Tramvaje stanice." (tram station) In my best Prague accent, trying to look brave.

"Where your coat at?"

"I lost it".

He looked at me and looked around and then was silent for a moment. "Here", he said, taking off his coat, "take mine".

"You're giving me your coat?"

"Yeah. You look bad man," he said in his broken English.

My shirt was soaked through, my hair was wet and matted and I was shivering. "I can't take your coat man".

"Just take it. It's OK." And he walked across the street to the stop on that side and started talking to another Gypsy waiting there. There was an overhang shelter on that side with soft white light illuminating it from beneath its opaque glass and they stood there talking as I watched in disbelief.

I stood a moment and then walked over.

"Hey man, I just wanted to thank you again".

"Don't worry about it," he said and then said goodbye to his friend. I went back to my side and then a moment later, as he faded into the end of the black street, I walked over to his friend.

"Promiňte..." (excuse me)

"Jo?" (yes?)

"Do you know that guy's phone number? I'd like to give him a call, to thank him again".

"That guy no have a phone", he said flatly.

"Well, what about his address, I could send him his coat back and maybe something to thank him".

He looked at me severely. He was a tall, heavyset man in his forties. The folds of his wrinkled face told the story of his life. A hard life. 

"That guy don't got an address. He's homeless!" He said this with a kind of fury. All I could do was thank him sheepishly and pull my coat tightly around me and walk across the street. A taxi pulled up and I got on. It was a white Mercedes. The driver was skinny and had greasy looking black hair falling over his face and thick, black-framed glasses. 

"Thank God," I said aloud, hoping that this night was over. Visions of a warm bed in my friend's house swept over me like an intoxicant. I ask the driver "how much to the center?"

"500 crowns, exact change only." 

I told him that all I had was thousand crown note and he said "I can't take this I need exact change".

"I don't got any change. All I got is this."

"Well I can't take that. I gotta have exact change".

"Will you let me get change down the street?"



"I don't have time. You either got exact change or you don't ride in my taxi".

I stood there unbelievingly as his window hummed shut and the huge car took off slowly on the icy road. I leaned against the metal post of other street lamp. I was covered in a sheet of ice. I think I slipped in and out of consciousness a few times. I'm not sure how long I was standing there. A hand shook my shoulder.

"Hele, jak se máš?" (Hey, how are you doing?)

"Huh? Nevím.... jsem studený" (Don't know, I'm cold.) I looked at him for some sign of mercy.

"Máte peníze?" (Got money?)

"Malo." (a little)

He then told me that for 200Kč I could sleep on his floor.

"Díky." (thanks)

We walked down the street to his place and he told me his name was Martin. He was wearing an Atlanta Falcons jacket and he had a long nose and he was constantly, nervously, looking around the street. He talked and said something about his stepsister being a hooker but that it was cool.

We walked down a flight of angry looking concrete steps and he banged on the door. "PAVLINA, IT'S MARTIN. OPEN UP!"

Pavlina opened the door and looked around. She acknowledged and digested my presence and its apparent lack of threat very quickly. Martin went in quickly and pulled me along. Pavlina was tall and thin and her face wasn't ugly, actually quite pretty with slender lips and blue eyes, but she wore cheap makeup of gaudy colors and her face was pale and ravaged. 

There were two rooms and they took me to the back room where there was a mattress on the floor with a dark brown stain at the bottom left corner of it. The floor was damp and there was garbage all over it. I saw a mouse scurry into a crack in the wall. 

"Here, give me your pants and we'll hang them up in the other room to dry".

I gave them to him and lay down on the mattress. I believe I passed out right away. I'm not sure how long I was out for but I awoke to grunting noises coming from the other room. There was no door separating the two rooms and I could see the shadows moving on the far wall from the lone tiny lamp glowing in the other room. It looked like one huge bug devouring another on the wall; some nebulous nightmare vision too horrible to be real.

The grunts sounded only slightly more human. The sound of slapping flesh came through stronger as some pace quickened. I could hear Pavlina's voice, small beneath his viscous grunts and marauding flesh. It sounded like the whimperings of child in the clutches of a bad dream. I had a moment of terror. Then arousal. Disgust. Fear. And finally a feeling of insane power as if I was dreaming all this and these people were the pawns of my darkest fantasy.

I heard him give one final groan and watched the huge  shadow creature on the wall detach and form two separate amorphous shapes. 

Some mumbled words passed below the audible level of my ears and then I heard the man leave. The heavy door closed with final condemnation. Everything was silent for a moment and then Martin banged on the door and Pavlina ran over and let him in.

"How much you get?" I heard Martin ask, speaking very quickly in Czech.

I couldn't make out what Pavlina said as she spoke softly but rapidly. I heard a lighter scratched and brought to life.

New shadows joined the two on the distant wall and black flame danced on its white anonymity. I heard deep inhalation - a drawn out pause - and then blissful exhalation and some coughing. Deep sighs. Silence. Limbs abandoned in flight and thumping dead on corporeal objects left behind. I slipped into sleep again. 

I woke up with Martin shaking me. "Hey! We're going out for a little while. Don't let anyone in. Come here, I'll show you how to lock and unlock the door.

I got up sleepily.

My body felt heavy and for the first few moments Martin was speaking I didn't know who he was and where I was but I wasn't afraid. Pavlina was pacing around the room running her fingers through her thin and ragged hair. She smoked a Start cigarette and didn't look at me. Martin showed me how a piece of tree branch locked down the door and then another was braced against a notch in the floor and pressed against the one on the door for additional support. 

The hinges of the door were shaky and looked they had been broken down before. 

"Don't let anyone in. If Honzo comes around you don't know me. I'm supposed to be living across the street but I crash here sometimes. It's cool. C'mon Pavlina, lets go".

Pavlina stamped out her cigarette on the floor. She looked at me for a moment with disgust. Not disgust for me so much as disgust for everything in the world. Her eyes passed right through me like I was just a shadow on the wall and then passed out the door and the heavy door closed and its closing echoed through the dungeon apartment. 

I went back to the mattress and tried to sleep but at least three times people banged furiously on the door yelling "PUSŤ MĚ DOVNITŘ!" (let me in!).

I tried not to make a sound.

Finally I heard Martin call my name and I opened the door and let them in. I went back to the bed and from there I could hear the lighter and the unmistakable smell of heroin, followed by the deep breaths and the silence - the silence like an oasis in the middle of it all - again.

I woke up thinking about my pants.

They had my wallet in it. I cursed my stupidity.

I walked into the other room and Pavlina was passed out and Martin was sitting on the floor in the corner smoking a cigarette. He was staring and I saw his eyes for a moment, a bombed out look on his face, a look of stunned disbelief, before he registered my presence and became nervous again. He was like a bug disturbed from sleep and anxious not to get squashed under the boot.

I wondered if that was how he slept. 

My pants were in a rumpled pile in the far corner. My wallet was strewn all over it. The only things there were personal: my library card, a picture of a girlfriend, a losing lottery ticket. All my money was gone and my credit card and drivers license as well. 

"Sh*t I told you that those b*stards would do this! Why didn't you watch them better Pavlina!"

Pavlina didn't stir. I could tell it was a show for me. I was numb to it and everything else. I got my pants on and got my trenchcoat around me and went out the door. Martin had a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth as he leaned out the door to let me out and regard the traces of dawn spreading over the city.

His eyes, having looked at me with a kind of hunger previously, now looked at me with a coldness, a finality. We didn't exchange any words as I climbed the icy concrete steps and the tomb door sealed close. 

The city was covered in ice. Everywhere a layer had spread and taken over the urban sprawl. Even the church downtown seemed to be fresh like a new born baby still covered in placenta. The world was new and cold. Shiny and purple in the incipient dawn. 

I found a morning tram and rode back to the real daylight world.

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