We’re at the exile’s restaurant on Broadway, the one with darkened windows in the same building as the ornate cinema, and the owner comes out with his slicked down hair and his crisp suit, and he smiles at my father and at me. I am holding my father’s hand, and the owner ruffles my hair and says hello, and in German he welcomes my father. And we go inside, so that my father can tell me about the place that he can never return to.
It smells like roasting beef, vinegar, cucumber, chicken stock, smoked sausage. I will get the knockwurst, because that’s just like a hotdog. The waitress, stocky and grey-haired, in her aproned uniform, sees us and nods at my father and smiles down at me and she says, Hiya, cutie. And my father is about to start telling me about the place that he can never return to.
The tables are all covered with white linen table cloths, and the china is white and the glasses curved with wider rings around them. And they always bring a cup of consommé with little squares of egg noodles. It is never busy at lunch when my father brings me here after my half-day at school. Night-time is when people come – my parents, my grandparents, their friends. They sit at a big table in back and they drink Liebfraumilch called Schwarzer Katz. There’s always a plastic black cat on elastic around neck of the bottle, and I get to wear it as a bracelet. But lunchtime – that’s when my father tells me about the place he can never return to.
He says: They lived in a house in a little village. They had a sour cherry tree in the backyard. He used to love sour cherry soup. He knows that sounds strange to me, but if I got to try it, I would see. His grandfather delivered things from house to house. He had a wagon and it was pulled by a horse. There were farms everywhere there and dogs and cats and horses and hens. I would have loved it. My father is telling me about the place he can never return to.
Outside the horns honk and the cars screech to a stop. You can’t see this from the restaurant because the windows are dark. You can’t see the graffiti, the soot-darkened apartment blocks, the worn down walk of the workers getting ready to go downtown. You can’t see the bodegas, comidas criollas, La Joyeria with big plastic earrings and St Christopher’s medals, the check cashing store and the fog-windowed luncheonette. And my father is telling me about the place that he can never return to.
When the waitress comes, she puts down my knockwurst and potato salad. And my father asks, “What do you say to her?” And I say, “Danke Schoen.” And she says, “Bitte Schoen.” And the older people nod, look pleased. And my father tells me about the place that he can never return to.
My father picks up the fork, and he says: “Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht — gehören in Kinderhände nicht.“ He translates: “Knife, fork, scissors, fire — children must not handle these things.” He gets me to repeat it in German. He smiles broadly when I repeat it. He teaches me how to count in the language he spoke as a child. And I say: “Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fuenf…” Up to ten. Once, I even read out loud from The Aufbau, the exile newspaper, and he and my mother watch me, beaming. My father is teaching me the language of a place that he can never return to.
Out on the street, everyone is speaking Spanish, asking “Que pasa?” and shouting “Dimelo!” Merengue swift traffic glides down Broadway, is halted at the crosswalks. The parents are trailing up after their kids, exhausted, and the kids are bringing pails and plastic shovels back from the park, complaining about the sand stuck in their trousers from the sandbox. “You wanna know about sand?” someone says in Spanish. “I’ll tell you about sand!” The parents are telling their kids about the place that they can never return to.
My father sits there with me, in that year before the restaurant closes for good, every day at lunch, showing me the kind of food he ate as a child, teaching me the language that he spoke as a child, a language that only old people speak. My childhood is spent eating these things: knockwurst, consommé, apple strudel. “You’re going to like this,” he says – it’s like apple pie. And he leans back, relieved, when I try it and I do like it.
That place – you know what happened to that place? The building got sold. The RKO cinema got turned into Reverend Ike’s church. Reverend Ike who preached prosperity consciousness: Why wait ‘til you die to get pie in the sky? The exile restaurant closed. A place opened up next door – they sold automotive equipment, plastic toys. It always smelled like new cars, like vinyl and rubber.
But Spritzer’s, the exile restaurant, we used to go there every day. That was where my father used to tell me about the place that he could never return to.
About the Contributor
Maus - Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir about his father was the first book I ever read that showed a Holocaust survivor who was complex and flawed. Up until then, survivors I read about were saintly or made entirely of scars; Maus showed humans and Maus did not abide bullshit. Here’s a line from it that refocused my perspective and will stay with me forever: “You think it’s admirable to survive. Does that mean it’s not admirable to not survive?”
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals