By Daniel Bissonnett
Marc was baffled by the weather. He endured the single digit cold, tensing his legs to balance in the wind gusts.
The road trip from Houston to Buffalo took three claustrophobic days in the Camry. Nancy had looked dumbfounded when he told her he would rather drive than fly as she would. She wondered how she’d married such a lokshen kop, what her mother had teasingly asked her for the last thirty-three years. He did not explain, and she did not comment.
Just south of the SUNY Fredonia exit, the window defroster died and the light dust of snow turned to a translucent blur from the battering wipers. He stopped for some hot coffee to toss on the window in a badly thought out attempt to melt the ice.
Now he was in front of a CVS pharmacy fumbling with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, trying to turn the plastic cap with his gloves still on. He’d read on the internet that alcohol removed window ice. It worked, more or less, and he threw into the glove compartment the cheap ice scraper that the clerk had recommended for possible future emergencies.
As he started the car he mumbled to himself asking why the CVS guy had seemed amused by his purchases.
As Marc approached south Buffalo, the expected rush hour traffic never materialized. Tiny diamonds fell through mercury vapor light.
He took the long way into Amherst, north to Hertel Avenue, more worn than he remembered from ten years earlier, past two-story retail fronts, a few still with the names of the original Italian and Jewish owners, mixed among two family homes. Mounds of dirty snow on every corner added to the monotony of the diorama. He cut over to Kenmore, where a couple of familiar corporate owned stores anchored his location in a changing suburb.
He could not see the exact outlines of his left turn lane, and nearly veered into oncoming traffic. When the light turned green, he miscalculated the ice's traction, his wheels spun and the engine whined, but he managed to cross into more or less where he should be. He was embarrassed, afraid some local would pull up and yell something about where he’d learned to drive.
He drove slowly through Nancy's old neighborhood with a vicarious nostalgia for where his wife had been born and raised.
He liked the crunch of fresher snow, like driving over needles and cones fallen from dried-out pine trees in his own neighborhood. He parked in the driveway.
The warm orange tungsten light from the windows contrasted with the deep indigo of the house. He opened the trunk, lifted his suitcase, and passed through the door into the garage, never locked. Neither was the door into the foyer. Different world in so many ways, he thought.
Having arrived on her flight two days earlier, Nancy sat relaxed at the kitchen table, reading the Buffalo News, and only glanced up.
“I was worried,” she said.
“I was fine,” he lied.
“On you, we have insurance; on the car, not so much,” she smiled. In this home, she loved imitating the Yiddish syntax and cadence of her grandmother.
Rose was born in tsarist Russia, and had lived off Hertel Avenue, where Nancy's mother Lillian was raised. Marc knew her only briefly, first meeting her as she stood over a pot of chicken soup, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. He later claimed the ashes made her soup the best, but no one found it humorous.
Nancy got up, came to Marc, they hugged, not kissed.
“We have Bocci's pizza and Verners,” she smiled, knowing these were two of Marc's favorite examples of Buffalo's legendary working-class food. Those, and beef on weck and Duffy's wings, which were both good enough to ignore kashrut just once.
“Perfect,” and he meant it.
“He is in the basement,” she said before Marc asked the question, to get it over with.
“Where else?” he asked with a smile.
Jack's cave was literally below the home. Along with the piano that had sat in the living room all through Nancy's childhood, a collection of display booths from the old business, and assorted crap of no obvious importance, between the laundry room and furnace, sat Jack's solid wooden desk. It was piled with receipts and ledgers mixed with more recent Smith Barney statements, a small collection of hand tools, a Dutch Master's box with one cigar left, a small plastic characteur of a golfer with “Greatest Dad” on the base, and a twelve-inch television with a 2-13 channel knob and adjustable rabbit ears.
From it he studied his stock investments, interfered with his son's business, and as far as anyone could guess, just sat. Recently someone had arranged a century of family pictures taped to brown corrugated boards around this desk in a semi-circle.
Jack's and Marc's ten-year estrangement began with an argument. Family members were expected to take sides, and triangulated conversations confused who did what to whom and when and why. This all began to die when Nancy was preparing for her usual winter break trip a few months before, and she casually asked Marc if he would like to go with her.
Mark took off the heavy leather bomber's jacket and orange fluorescent ski gloves, and sat down at the small kitchen table to dig into the veggie pizza.
The crust was more doughy than he recalled, the tomato paste more industrial, but still it was better than the Domino's or Pizza Hut variety from his home town. The Verners was as good as he remembered.
“Lillian is sleeping. She says ‘hi’,” Nancy reported of her mother, who said little these days.
“You said she sleeps all the time now.”
Her forehead creased in the way Marc found strangely attractive. She returned to her paper without a reply.
Marc washed his plate and said, “I'm hitting the hay. I'm exhausted.”
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“I just got here,” he said with a bit of irritation.
“Everyone sleeps late here.”
“I will go with the flow, I promise,” he smiled, and she returned it.
He shlepped his belongings to the guest room, the path still familiar.
He lay on the bed in the dark, after having fought the broken window latch that let in a draft, and thought about the trip.
He admitted to himself why he’d chosen to drive up. He wanted to make the whole family wait for him. He wanted them to think about what they had done to him. He wanted someone to take his side. He wanted to feel welcomed back in some grand manner, a virtual parade for the unappreciated hero, returned from his forced exile to a grateful people. He wanted to win.
He hoped he had given up this nonsense around Nashville. Nancy's domestic greeting, the smell of pizza and taste of ginger, was a portal to forgiveness, a chance to lay aside resentments.
The next morning he thought he had gotten up well before everyone else, and went to the kitchen to toast a bagel and make coffee. A minute later Jack was standing in the kitchen doorway.
He favored one leg, the other held at a slightly crooked angle after a freak golfing accident a few years back. He had all of his hair but his face sagged, with a few days of gray beard. He had a crusty food stain on his shirt.
“Good morning, Jack,” Marc offered.
“Hey there!” he replied with a forced enthusiasm, which was pretty much the only kind he could express. Small talk was out of his element. “So what do you have planned for today?” he began his rehearsed conversation.
“We thought we might drive up to Art Park with Lillian, stop for lunch on the way back.” He was already making it up as he went along, “You?”
Jack looked back like he did not understand, neither Marc's answer or the question.
A full minute passed without a word. Jack moved to the table.
Jack looked at Marc and told him he was glad he came. “What took you so long?” he smiled, his eyes brighter. It was a man's apology. Then he stood up, and said, “I want a cigar,” and went to the basement.
So much for the triumphal return. But it would do.
The next afternoon Marc invited Jack to come with him on errands, just something to do, drive around, get out of the house. He was surprised that Jack accepted, with even a bit of genuine interest. Jack liked to navigate.
He wanted to fly bombers when, at twenty-one, he joined the Army Air Corp in 1942. Instead they made him a navigator because, he said, “they thought Jews were good with numbers.” The bridge of his nose was flattened when he smashed it on the navigator's table in his B-24 Liberator, buffeted by German flack.
Jack made The War seem like the high point of his life. He was not the type who silently suffered his trauma, as did so many men of his generation. Even the disturbing stories were told with only vague discomfort, but not the pain one would expect.
His buddies on a pass in Italy laughed in relief while wandering around streets littered with chunks of stone and cement from bombed buildings, when a boy on crutches, his left leg missing below the knee, probably from a falling bomb, begged for money. The tale was told repeatedly, but with no more intense emotion than the pity one might express for the common homeless person.
His squadron had landed after a milk run, a mission without rising fighters or fields of flack, and everyone was laughing and slapping backs, happy to be alive. Then someone noticed the remnants of a white trail of smoke from a flare. It meant there were casualties. How could that be?
An acceptable explanation was given to the officer's at their briefing, and passed on to the crews. Everyone had shook his head in amazement at the incredible odds of a co-pilot catching a stray bullet from a far distant fighter. That a young man put his officer's .45 sidearm to his temple and pulled the trigger was a truth no one voiced.
Most of Jack's stories contained lessons in history, and even humor.
His squadron’s missions had started in North Africa, moved up Italy, and then the countries of southeastern Europe. A favorite family legend concerned Jack's lectures on The War held over a place mat of Italy in an Italian restaurant, with Jack's marks for every place he’d bombed.
Marc drove Jack's forest green Buick Skylark, made in America, on their errands. Jack couldn't smoke in Lillian's Volkswagen Jetta, and besides, he highly disagreed with his wife's choice of a German car, particularly a Volkswagen.
Jack asked to stop at the “Boston Chicken,” using the original name of the Boston Market chain. He still drove, and took himself there nearly every day, but rarely ate the meal he brought home. He was losing his sense of taste and had no appetite.
Marc mostly did not correct Jack when his words come out odd, but he could not help but ask why “chicken.”
Jack told him that when he was a child, his mother had bought a live chicken, put it in a box, and given it to him to carry to the shochet. Along the way he’d opened the box and the chicken looked at him. He felt sorry for the chicken because it knew why it was in the box, and Jack thought it was trying to talk to him. He said its eyes had pleaded to be saved. “That's why I don’t eat chicken,” he concluded.
As they parked, Marc figured there was no point in asking what this Singer-esque story had to do with the name of a restaurant, and they both entered Jack’s second refuge.
Inside they were greeted by young women behind the serving line who made familiar chat with Jack. They prepared his usual: meat loaf and two servings of mashed sweet potatoes.
One of them complained that she never gets to see him anymore, and asked why he doesn’t come by when she is on duty. He chuckled and immediately replied, “So when do you get off tonight?”, causing a cackle of giggles.
Marc smiled too, and said, “Come on Jack, stop flirting. It’s time to go home.”
“Just a second, you need to see this.” He called Marc back from the exit. They stepped to within sight of the kitchen. “You see that back there?” He pointed to the chicken rotisserie grill against the back wall. He lowered his voice. “I don’t like it.” Marc thought about the chicken story. Jack slowly stuck his unlit cigar stub in his mouth. Marc asked why, and Jack said it reminded him of the Holocaust.
Marc felt suddenly uncomfortable. He looked over at the line of girls, all wearing the same black aprons over red shirts, all with the same look of rehearsed pity.
He studied the vertical grill. Its glass doors appeared to be open, and a harsh light lit the scorched chickens that turned over one at a time and all together rotated in an endless loop. The only thing Marc could think of was that maybe it reminded Jack of the open door of a crematorium. He said, in a volume that was inappropriately loud, “Well, Jack, those are chickens, not Jews. So let’s go.” Jack looked embarrassed but amused; the workers looked mortified.
That night at the Shabbat table Jack remained in his basement.
The next morning Marc went to shul. He got there early, not sure when this minyan started morning blessings. He introduced himself to the rabbi briefly, who was excited to see a few young families entering the sanctuary and excused himself to greet better prospects.
Marc took a place near the back, at the end of a row next to the wall. After finishing the Amida, he stood staring at the brass memoriam, reading the names of people who had once davened here. Esther Kitiev. Hershel Fleischmann. Old- fashioned names in cold brass.
He imagined touching the names and hearing their stories. Who took care of each other’s children? Who met for Shabbat, who gossiped and quarreled and cared? But he was startled back to reality when the chazan began the repetition of the Amida.
Marc walked home. The house was empty. Nancy's was the not the cholent-on-Shabbat-afternoon kind of family. She and her mother were shopping at Wegman's.
Marc pulled whitefish from the fridge and a couple of dried figs from the basket on the counter, and sat down with a stale cup of cold coffee. He studied the shadows in the snow from the low winter sun.
Jack made another one of his sudden appearances in the doorway.
“We should go to the Boston Chicken,” he said.
“We were just there.”
“We should go together,” ignoring the irrelevant reminder. He sat at the table.
Marc looked at him and started to speak, then decided it was better not to.
Jack's jaw was drooped slightly, and he stared at some invisible spot in mid-air. He was solving a puzzle with missing pieces. He asked, “Who was that president?”
“Which president, Jack?”
“The one who made them see what they had done.”
“Yes.” He lit up. “Yes! He made them see what they had done, he made them come, they all wore nice clothes, he wanted to make sure no one could ever say it didn’t happen… That one, tell me his name again… He was sure that someday someone would say it never happened. And something was going around,” he concluded with another disjointed comment.
Jack was rarely so animated.
He had a few historical details confused, but he was mostly right. Eisenhower ordered soldiers to enter the camps. The British liberated Bergen-Belsen and forced Germans in the neighboring town to tour the stacks of bodies and meet the survivors.
As Marc struggled to understand how Jack's questions were related to their Boston Chicken trip,he recalled seeing old black-and-white films of well dressed Germans, the women holding handkerchiefs over their faces, their husbands comforting them gently as they walked, forced to confront the now impossible-to-deny evidence of their moral black hole.
Marc suddenly felt light-headed and slightly nauseated by a revelation. He recalled in those blurry, old films scratchy images of bulldozers pushing stacks of dead Jews into piles, their bodies rolling as more and more were collected into a mountain, an avalanche of limp, flesh-covered skeletons tumbling over each other before the whole mass fell into their collective grave.
Jack was reminded everyday of that image in the rotisserie during visits to his Boston Chicken.
As Shabbat ended, Marc took a walk around the block. Colors had faded from the intensity of the afternoon's slanted sunlight, the air didn’t move, and the sidewalk was clear. This was his havdala.
He felt blessed. Dementia is a loss of cognitive ability, but it is also a time when the fences that guard threatening memories decay, allowing previously avoided connections to be made with people and events in the present and past.
Marc's and Jack's fight had rent the cloth of their family. Time had been wasted with demands that sides be taken, alliances honored, and acknowledgement of rightness and wrongness be stated. Instead of reaching out to each other for forgiveness, Jack and Marc had spread resentments throughout the family.
It was Jack's way to seek mutual forgiveness when he invited Marc into his world where a boy carries a chicken to the shochet, an old warrior struggles with the angel of guilt, friends offer the nourishment of compassion, and all of it is jumbled together into a moving picture of the Shoah in a rotisserie grill.
Marc returned to the house and noticed the light on in the basement, but when he went down Jack was no longer there.