Dorota Gorski is Dead

The last time I saw my ciocia Dorota, my 80-year-old Polish aunt, I was 21 and she tried to tell me something about returning to Poland, but she choked on blood and died instead. That was September.

Now it’s October and I’m in the waiting room of Dmitri Kharitonov’s funeral home on North Avenue in Milwaukee. Man, if she knew some Soviet was arranging her burial plans – her a Polaka– she would castrate me on the spot, no joke. But she’s dead, and her will told me to take care of everything, so the Russians down the street are draining her bodily fluids and replacing them with 28 liters of ethanol, 1.2 liters of formalin, 0.8 liters of glycerin, 8 liters of water, and 1.2 liters of phenol. This is known as embalming fluid, also known as formaldehyde.

“Mr. Kharitonov will see you now,” the receptionist says.

I shuffle behind her, my black Converse All-Stars gliding over the brown carpet. I scrunch my nose at the smell of formaldehyde intermingling with her flowery perfume, and my stomach lurches. I swallow the need to regurgitate my lunch on her chubby ankles suffocating in those brown shoes old women wear, even my ciocia Dorota.

On the walls, men’s framed faces blur together as we pass. I assume these are images of the prominent folks the Kharitonov family dehydrated and then re-hydrated before wrapping them neatly in clothing and placing them in a big box, sealed with a steel lock, like a Christmas present.

And for you little Piotr, you get the big box over in the corner of the room behind the black curtain. Surprise! It’s Ciocia Dorota. You know, I always wondered if she’d throw open her eyes and jump out of the coffin during the wake and scream “Hey you Polacks! Stop staring at me and drink some vodka! It’s a party not a funeral!”

Down the dark corridor we walk until finally reaching the office. Mr. Kharitonov is wearing black suit pants, a white shirt, and a black tie with skull polka-dots. I think the skulls glow in the dark. He hasn’t washed or combed his gray bush of hair in a decade, and he smells like lacquer and lemon cough drops.

“Why hello, um –”

“Piotr. I’m Piotr Bochynski, I spoke with you over the phone yesterday,” I say.

“Ah, yes. Now I remember. So you, uh, what was it again?”


“Yes, that’s right. Piotr. You are in need of our services.”


“I beg your pardon.”

“I was in need of your services. If I’m not mistaken, you have already – ”

“Are you trying to suggest the departed has, in fact, not?”

“Nie,” I say.

Kharitonov raises one of those millipede eyebrows, and a few long hairs wiggle through the air like antennae. Noticing my diverted attention, he twists the stray hairs with his left hand while drumming the cluttered desk with the fingers of his right hand.


“Tak, nie. It is my understanding you have already taken care of my ciotka. I am here because you called me. You have information regarding the funeral?” His dark eyes dart across a piece of paper in a manila folder on his desk before jumping back to me.

“Ah yes, you must be PB. Petrov Bulgatov.”

Is this guy serious? And then it is clear. Ciocia Dorota’s idea of a joke. She knew I would come here.

“Nie. It’s Piotr Bochynski.” Kharitonov fumbles through the papers on his desk before jumping to his feet like he poured cockroaches down his pants.

“Oh, yes, yes. Piotr Bochynski.”

He wags a finger at me the same way Dorota would, beckoning me to follow him. We scurry past the wall of dead faces, past the receptionist’s desk, down another hall with more faces until reaching a closet filled with what appears to be thousands of shoe boxes stacked atop each other. Kharitonov flips the light switch and scours the shelves, pointing at each label with a thick finger. The hair on his knuckle must have come from the same commune of caterpillars as his eyebrows.

“Ah-ha! Gorski, Dorota. There you are. You look confused, Piotr.”

Carrying the box home I feel its contents shift with each step. I imagine what I’m going to tell my matka. I hope she won’t be there, but I am disappointed when she is.

I place the blue box, fastened with a sliver of Scotch tape curling at the corners, on the table at Dorota’s usual place and clear my throat.

“What is that?”

“Well, Mom, There was a mix-up. Dorota Gorski became Dunya Gorbatovna, so they burned her.”

“What the hell are we supposed to do with this?”

Three weeks later I watched the American soil fade into the distance from my window seat of Lufthansa flight number 437 with ciocia Dorota resting peacefully in her box on my lap. Poland was more than ten hours away.

Dorota Gorski is Dead


Menomonee Falls, United States

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