It was that summer when I first read The Millionaire from Goatfield and I was speculating how such a Mister Koschinj would look like in real life or whether such a person existed at all, when I suddenly saw him. It was exactly at the moment when I had already told myself, "Stop looking for him, such a man will never be seen on this earth." And then he suddenly was there, just like that, and I knew immediately that it was him.
It was in the late fifties when I was aboard ship heading for Germany. I come from the other side of the Red River, the area which they call Yantsied; it was among those villages that I walked barefoot the first time and it was this area which will remain the mirror of my soul.
I heard and saw that here aboard ship that there was one from the other side, the other Yantsied from "between Steinbach and Old-Barkfield" so he said and he was in charge of the ship program. A Thiessen, he said he was, but I already knew this because his nose fit his name and because he was a bit abrasive, just like all the Thiessens were in the villages behind me.
"How did you get the job?" I asked him.
"Because they didn't have to ask the ministers first," he said.
Well, now I knew also that any further questions would go against his grain; he was, after all, a Thiessen.
I wandered around the ship a bit and looked at this and at that and again at this and could hardly make myself believe that such a monstrosity could not only float but also move in the water, at least so they said. Also, they said, such a ship could prance and shake about until you were so dizzy in the head that you had to throw up and that so badly that you had to push back your own guts through your nostrils with your thumb.
And so I walked the ship when I suddenly chanced by the first class because there, on the door, it read "Epicurean Room, Salle a Manger: First Class Only." I now really wanted to lay eyes on the inside of that door and particularly so when I saw that the already named Thiessen walked into that realm like there was nothing to it and almost as if he belonged there. After all, he was only from Yantsied and I was wondering myself all the things God in His wisdom permitted to happen on some days.
I think this Thiessen guy wanted to get me a little mad because he stayed behind that hallowed door longer than seemed necessary. When he finally came out, for the two seconds I saw through that door, I noticed that things were much more stately there than here, meaning my side. I wanted to talk to him a bit and already had a few questions waiting in line since I had witnessed glories that exceeded anything that Penner's in Winkler had to offer or Wiebe's Funeral Parlour, for that matter. But Thiessen was all business and upped and awayed as if I hardly existed.
I had a fist in my pocket ready, just in case, when I suddenly saw the afore-mentioned Mister Koschinj standing before the First Class Dining Room. If you don't know what he looked like, this Onkel Koschinj from Goatfield, or if you have forgotten what he was all about, I will tell you what I saw: he was a little shorter than average height and he had a bent and worn cap on his head which could still remember the First World War and which had kept Koschinj company on his head at night for two generations.
Onkel Koschinj had a lot of hair, at least they were long. The last time he had probably seen a barber must have been at Christmas and it was now almost the end of August. Also, Onkel Koschinj's Gillette was on vacation most of the time and his stubble did not really look very kissable. His eyebrows were also more brush than garden.
But what struck me most about his face was the fact that between the tip of his nose and the jut of his jaw the distance was at most one and a half inches, that is if you could have laid a measuring tape across all that brush. He had probably buried all his teeth somewhere in the Interlake, because, as I was to find out, it was from there that he came. His moustache was festooned with bits of chaff and straw, not much, but certainly remnants lurked.
Yes, and then there was his shirt. It had probably been blue at one time and so had his jacket. And both of them were menus in reverse: fish bones, egg yolk, tomato specks, corn remnants and watermelon seeds were all parked here and there on Gospodjien's introductory front. My eyes concentrated on this region because he had tied a red polka-dotted handkerchief around his neck, probably meaning he was dressed as on high Sundays. My eyes were again making their rounds and wanted to scrutinize his belt area. There things looked even more beggarly. Mister Koschinj had threaded a braided binder twine rope through the loops and this belt had the job of keeping his pants up. I sneaked a look at his fly, of course, and it was just as I had thought. Two sturdy safety pins did sentinel duty on the horizontal incline.
His trousers, at least from the outside, had more patches than a barred rock chicken has feathers. I can imagine that if Mr. Koschinj would have bent over, he would have revealed a halo over the arse of his lardy pants.
Yes, and he wore shoes; they were Old-Timers, some eight inches high, an inheritance from Rasputin's time in Siberia, also laced with binder twine. Shoes are generally hesitant in talking but these had their own language and spoke of where they had been: eighteen thousand visits to the stable to muck out and to milk, fourteen thousand walks on the field, nine thousand times to the chicken barn and as many times to the hog pen.
Now they stood before me and told me most everything. What was this Mister Koschinj doing here and why did Thiessen, the programme director, get so much involved with him? There was a constant going and coming, much talk and more whispering and altogether much ado.
All First Class passengers had, upon boarding, immediately been invited to dine, even though there were only thirty-five of them. And this Mister Koschinj, hard to believe, had a ticket, First Class, and he had really dug in in his own way: with his cap on his head, and with hands that had last seen water while fishing earlier in summer and without knife and fork. Onkel Koschinj had ordered two fish "well done" and he had then proceeded to gnaw them down like corn on the cob before spitting the bones under the table and trampling them down into the carpet. He had ordered a double helping of potatoes which he had mashed, covered with gravy and butter and pushed into his mouth with cupped hands. And all the while he had smacked his lips, belched and scratched and rubbed and poked and picked himself wherever he saw fit and necessary.
What was now to be done to prevent all the First Class passengers from jumping overboard and swimming to shore?
There is one thing you have to give that Thiessen from Yantsied credit for. He was busy for a good half hour before he managed to convince Mister Koschinj to follow him. Late that evening, when our ship was miles from shore and lights, he told me the story of Gospodjien Koschinj.
Pavlov Koschinj had migrated as a sixteen-year-old from Krivoi Rog in the Ukraine to Canada and had settled close to Inwood, in the Interlake of Manitoba. He had worked day and night. Summers and winters he fished commercially, while in winter he also trapped fox, mink, wolves, weasels, beaver and muskrats whenever he wasn't looking after his cattle.
In the summertime he broke up land and made hay for his cattle. Now he was seventy-five and home-sick, always more home-sick and finally he had sold all his holdings for twenty thousand dollars in cash to a neighbour. His neighbour also threw a one-way ticket to Ukraine into the deal: first class.
And now Mister Koschinj was here and was happy that things were so comfortable but he did not know that people around here did not have Interlake manners. "These people aren't so advanced yet," he said, "genuine muzhiks are dying out, that's all there's to it," he complained to Thiessen half in Chocholsch, half in English.
What was now to be done to keep the First Class passengers from all taking off?
The chief steward, a German with wall eyes, and the purser from the German State of the Stressed just didn't know what to do; the First Class passengers had stormed their offices in class action and threatened to strike.
Thiessen had promised that he would resolve the matter to everyone's satisfaction. He spoke to Mister Koschinj and told him he deserved a better lot. "You have broken your back all these years and from now on, you will be served in your own state room like it becomes a first class Gospodjien. A steward will serve you right in your own premises and you will get beer and even a bottle of samogon."
"Stjielko?" How much?
"Not one cent. And they will do it right now, just come along, Gospodjien."
Then the two strode right along.
The next evening at dinner time Thiessen took me along to Onkel Koschinj's quarters in the First Class. Thiessen ordered dinner and libations for all of us and things were even more splendid than in the Queen's Hotel in Morden. And as for Mister Koschinj? He sat in his bed with propped up pillows, shoes and cap on and dined, and ate and smacked his lips and belched and smiled and gnawed a few fish into submission, spitting the bones every which way and shoving fistfuls of buttered mashed potatoes into his jowls and drinking beer and scratching himself and even laughing a bit before drinking another bottle of beer to the tune of `Dai Bozhe' and burping till the walls rattled, just happy to be on his way home at last.