The meatloaf cupcakes strike again! Helblabi made a batch for the first graders on April Fools and graciously invited me to observe. It was hilarious. Some students took huge, unsuspecting bites, then rocketed to the trash can to spit mouthfuls of meatloaf. Some were more cautious. They gingerly peeled back the wrappers, poked, prodded, and wisely abstained. But my favorites were the kids who were clearly grossed out–some licked the mashed potato “frosting” and grimaced–they even watched their classmates gag and sputter, but then apparently thought “what the heck!” and shoved ‘em down the hatch anyway.
So, so trusting.
It was even funnier (in a sadistic way) because I’m pretty sure some of the kids didn’t even know what April Fools Day was. Going to school, minding their own business, and one day their normally nice teacher feeds them meatloaf and laughs maniacally. Just a random act of cruelty.
It’s a cold world.
April Fools always makes me nostalgic about past pranks. I’d like to share a past prank gone awry.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I lived in an apartment on the fourth floor of Chodska 17 in Prague, Czech Republic. I always took the stairs to and from the fourth floor instead of using the elevator because I am German and Germans do not believe in doing things the easy way. One late October morning, while trotting down the stairs past the third floor landing, something seemed out of place. I paused. Yes, something was definitely odd.
It could be nothing other than the six-foot penguin leaning against the wall next to #10.
This penguin was the mother of all penguins. It was three of me. I immediately ran upstairs to fetch FM#2 so we could take funny pictures before our neighbors hauled it away.
But they did not haul it away.
Day after day, I passed the penguin on my way to work and grinned a wide grin.
On the third day, I began to think of the penguin’s pranking potential. I could hide it behind someone’s closet doors. Or prop it in the tub with the shower curtain pulled. Or hoist it on the back seats of tram 22 and send it on a tour of Prague. The possibilities were staggering. What a waste–just sitting there!
Dear reader, I must confess…I began to covet my neighbor’s penguin.
I started to think things like, “They would probably be happy if someone got rid of it for them. I bet it took up their entire living room.“
“Maybe they’re too frail to carry it to the dumpster.“
“Lots of people put give-away stuff in the hallway.“
In fact, people in our building did set things out for give-away, but those things were usually books and vases and were neatly arranged on a windowsill under a sign that read: Zdarma! (free of charge)
They were not giant penguins.
But finally, I could stand it no longer. I telephoned an equally prank-minded friend who had the added qualification of knowing some Czech, and late one mild November evening she, FM#2, and I knocked firmly on #10′s door.
We hemmed. We hawed. Time, I felt, was of the essence. If we did not act quickly, the penguin was certainly on its way to the landfill. Certainly.
We decided to leave a note. (This, of course, is the responsible thing to do before pilfering a penguin.)
A rough translation:“Good evening. We have your penguin. We think you do not want this penguin. But if you want the penguin, mark here: ⊗ YES and we will have it for you. Thank you. We will come tomorrow to check the letter.”
Later, I was struck by its resemblance to a ransom note. We didn’t really intend to sound threatening–in fact, we were downright impressed with our friend’s ability to produce such a comprehensive note.
The realization that we sounded like criminals came too late.
At the moment, we focused on quietly cramming the penguin into our elevator,
unobtrusively carting it five blocks and through a park (“Act natural,” we hissed to each other as passersby raised their collective eyebrows and snorted. [We did not, obviously, have a car.]), and shoving it through the doors and up the stairs of another apartment building–the residence of two lucky colleagues.
We plopped the tučňák squarely in the doorway, knocked, and scurried upstairs to hide in the shadows and wait for their reaction.
At first, they thought someone was inside the penguin, and after much prodding and laughing, they pulled it inside. We snuck downstairs and giggled the whole way home, quite chuffed with ourselves. The nefarious note was far from my mind as I dozed off, imagining my friends figuring out how liquidate their new pet.
The next day, I paused at the third floor to see if the letter had been moved.
To my horror, a very bold, very emphatic X marked the YES box and words in block letters with many exclamation marks were scrawled over the paper. I snatched the note and skidded down the stairs. We were just being polite! I hadn’t imagined they might actually want it back! What was the Czech punishment for petty theft? A fine? Community service? Deportation?
At school, a Czech teacher translated: “I DEFINITELY WANT IT BACK!!! THE PENGUIN WAS A GIFT!”*
Fortunately, the animal in question had ended up at the school–the girls planted it in one of our classrooms. So after school, I dictated a very heartfelt apology to the Czech teacher who wrote it in a card and FM#2 and I purchased a nice wine of restitution. Then we yanked the stolen tučňák through the doors of tram 16 for its final journey back to Chodska.
Shamefacedly, we brushed off the dirt and grass as best we could, noiselessly propped the rogue bird on the third floor landing with the apology gifts nestled in its flippers, and tiptoed up the stairs.
The next day, penguin, wine, and card had vanished.
We never spoke of it again.
Just kidding. We talked about it all the time. But for a while, I took the elevator so as to avoid the third floor altogether. I’m sure they knew we were the penguin-snatchers. No native Czech speaker could have constructed such a note, and to my knowledge, we were the only foreigners in our building.
I often wondered what happened to the penguin. Did they keep it as a conversation piece? Did they ever wish, while vacuuming around it, that they hadn’t asked for it back? Did they try to get us deported?
We’ll never know. But I did learn my lesson. I have never again stolen my neighbor’s penguin.
(I like to keep my life lessons pretty situation-specific.)
* The only thing that kept me from having a coronary was an asterisked sentence at the bottom that said: “Well, maybe I would sell?” A few days later, I responded via sticky note, “How much do you want for the penguin?” She/he responded, “How much do you offer?” I bid a low 200Kc (about $10). This was apparently an insulting price, because that was the last I heard re: penguin.